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Published on Monday, November 29, 2010

Trial in Coldwater

By Daniel W. Davis


I expected them to hang him, but Coldwater was a military town, and so they set DuPaige up against an old hitching post and formed a firing squad. The seven hastily-gathered soldiers all appeared nervous, but I reckon not a one of them was having second thoughts abut killing the man before them.


I'd seen a few such executions during the War, and I'd even participated in one. Knew the guy, too; he'd been a deserter, trying to hide out in the hills of Georgia as Sherman made his way through. The General himself hadn't had a thing to do with it, of course, but the one time I'd gotten to shake his hand, I hadn't looked him in the eye. A man shouldn't be shot for making up his mind a little too late.

DuPaige was a raggedy fellow, scrawny as hell, with wispy blond hair and a beard to match. He was thirty or so, younger than me, but his eyes were the same as mine; when they passed over me, I saw in them an intelligence that no man should possess at that young an age.

The Major stepped forward. He nodded at his men, all of whom kept their rifles by their sides. As the Major approached DuPaige, Wilcox snickered beside me.

"Hope one of 'em blows out the back of that bastard's head."

I glanced at my friend. He was watching the Major, his eyes narrowed. Wilcox's beard was getting lighter, on its way to gray, and there were lines in his cheeks I didn't remember seeing before. He was shifting slightly, probably curling up his toes as he was wont to do whenever he was without his Winchester. We'd had to check our weapons at the hotel. No guns in Coldwater, at least none that weren't carried by military men.

The Major was about my and Wilcox's age, but he looked like he'd never seen a rough day in his life. That was deceptive, of course; there was a rigidness in his stance that suggested a man of action, and he was old enough to have served in the War, and had the proper rank too. He was dressed in cold blue, as were his men; but where their clothes were ragged from being stationed out here at the ass-end of nowhere, the Major's uniform was pressed and cleaned. I figured he was the kind of man who had a couple more uniforms stashed away, in case one wore down or got too dingy to wash.

He was clean-shaven, too, which made him something of an outsider in Coldwater; even I had sprouted a half-assed beard in my three days there. Just dumb luck, too, that we'd arrived when we had; if we hadn't gotten delayed down south by a snakebite, we would've reached Coldwater a couple days earlier and passed right on through. But we'd gotten here just as the trial started, and when we heard about it, we couldn't leave until it was all said and done.

The Major walked to within a few feet of DuPaige; then he turned to face the audi-ence.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, his voice loud and precise. "You are here for the execution of Martin Oliver DuPaige, for the crime of murder."

Wilcox nudged me. "He left out the rest of it."

I wasn't surprised. The crimes DuPaige was accused of--and which in all likelihood he hadn't done--weren't the kind of things you said aloud when women were around. The judge had even ordered the women to leave the courtroom when the list of accusations was read. I'd felt like leaving myself; Wilcox was probably the only man in the room who had seen--and probably done--worse.

"Mr. DuPaige," the Major continued, "has been tried and convicted in a court of law. His execution, as ordered by His Honor Judge Henry James Carmichael III, is to be car-ried out this afternoon at two o'clock p.m." The Major pulled out his pocket watch and checked it. "Five minutes from now."

He turned to the prisoner. "Mr. DuPaige. You have one last chance to confess your crimes, and be spared your life. Do you confess?"

DuPaige's eyes turned from the crowd to the Major. "No," he said.

The crowd sighed. They'd been expecting something bigger. In court, DuPaige had waxed eloquent for almost an hour; he had a smooth voice, one untroubled by whiskey (the accusation that he was a drunkard had been dropped on the first day of the trial) or cigarettes. He spoke like a city man, hadn't even been in town more than a month. He'd worked at the hotel where Wilcox and I were staying, manning the desk when the owner was liver-deep in the bottle. From what I'd gathered listening to the chatter around town, he'd been a likeable enough fellow, neither holding nor accruing grudges. A man who just blended in, in other words; a man who just faded into the walls.

The Major was nodding at DuPaige's answer, as if he'd known what to expect; probably he had. "In that case, Mr. DuPaige, in four minute's time, you will be shot until dead. If you have any last words, son, say them now."

DuPaige cleared his throat. The crowd leaned forward.

"I ain't guilty of anything," he said. He shrugged his shoulders, probably working at a cramp. The hitching post had to be splintering, too.

"I've liked living here," he continued. "Gotten to know a few of you just fine. Like you, Henrietta Potts; I know how that horse of yours been limpin' this past week. And you, Jackson Fremont, I know which brand of whiskey you like and how much you like to drink it."

The crowd chuckled; a chill went through me, and I saw the Major scowl.


"Point bein', I got nothin' against you folks. Don't see why you got anything against me."

"Murder might have something to do with it," the Major said. It was an unprofes-sional slip, and I could see him taking it back immediately--but I could also see he wasn't too concerned about it.

DuPaige nodded. "Yuh. Murder has plenty to do with it, don't it, Major? Murder has everything to do with it. Only problem is, I ain't the one who done it."

"Court found otherwise, son."

"The judge found otherwise. You found otherwise. Weren't no court there. Weren't no jury, no lawyers. Just you, a judge, and the hangman."

The Major shrugged, as if to say, That's how we do it 'round these parts.

"Wish I had my Winchester," Wilcox mumbled. "Blow that bastard's balls out his ass crack."

DuPaige turned back to the rest of us. "I ain't done nothin'. A woman died I ain't never met. The closest I come to knowin' her was hearin' her scream when she died."

"As you stabbed her," the Major said. "Stabbed her and... everything else."

He believed it, too. I could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice--he believed, with all his heart, that DuPaige was guilty. Just as the judge had.

"You have no evidence," DuPaige said. He'd gone through this during his trial; it hadn't worked then and it wasn't going to work now.

"You were there." The Major stepped forward, a little closer than he should've. "You were there, and you, by your own admittance, felt nothing for her death."

"I didn't know her!" DuPaige's voice dipped; for just a second, I caught a glimpse of the man who'd been hiding beneath, the man who thought we could all go to hell, the man who truly didn't care who Rosalita Sanchez had been, much less that she'd been mur-dered. She'd been a prostitute, Coldwater's most popular working girl. None of which had been mentioned during the trial, of course; I'd picked it up at the hotel and the tav-erns, where everyone was free to talk about DuPaige without the military listening in.

"A woman was brutally murdered, and you felt nothing." The Major pressed his finger against DuPaige's chest. "You are a soulless beast." He gestured to the priest, who'd been hiding behind the firing squad. "Even he can't save a heartless wretch like you."

"You expect me to care about someone I never met."

"I expect you to burn in hell," the Major said. He turned away.

DuPaige stared hard at the retreating Major. "Someone's getting away with murder, all because you care more for sentiment than justice. "

The Major reached the line of soldiers and stopped. He checked his pocket watch. "Two o'clock, Mr. DuPaige. God's will be done."

"There is no God."

The Major shook his head and turned to his men. "Soldiers! Ready!"

DuPaige straightened against the post. "Think about what you're doing," he began. "You're executing--"

"Take aim!"

"--an innocent man--"

"On my mark!"

"--for just being--"


DuPaige shouted something at the end, but the word was lost in the volley of gun-fire. His body jerked once as the bullet found its mark, then he slumped against his bonds. The old woman standing next to me, a creature so bent I couldn't even see her from the corner of my eye, gasped and sobbed.

"Shit," Wilcox said. "Amateurs."

I nodded. Even from this distance, I could see the blood bubbling out of DuPaige's nose. His lips twitched as he tried to speak, but his mouth never came open more than what was required to draw in a breath. The soldiers had lowered their rifles, and were looking at the Major, who stared at DuPaige for a moment, then sighed and walked out towards him. He pulled his pistol from its holster, a polished, elegant thing that was more for show than anything else. I eyed it with contempt, perhaps more for what it was than what it was about to be used for.

"God's will be done," the Major said, and put a final bullet into DuPaige's heart. DuPaige jerked again, then went limp, head dropping forward onto his chest.

The Major holstered his pistol and turned to the audience. "Disperse," he said. "Show's over."

Wilcox and I went with the crowd; neither of us spoke, Wilcox lost in thought, my-self listening to the mumblings around us. Everyone spoke quietly--not because they felt respect for the dead, but because they didn't want to risk the Major overhearing them.

We went back to the hotel. I sat down in the wooden chair, kicking my boots off and just sitting there. Wilcox paced for a bit. "Need my gun," he said, and I just grunted a reply 'cause he wasn't really talking to me.

After a while, he stopped pacing and looked at me. There was a look in his eyes I hadn't seen before, not even when he'd gotten snake-bit the previous week and almost died.

"Odd, a man not feeling guilty about such a crime," he said. "I mean, if he was in-nocent and all, which I take it we're assumin' he was, shouldn't he have felt some-thing?"

I shrugged. "You feel guilty 'bout most of the things you done?"

Wilcox thought for a moment. "No, I reckon I don't."

"If a man who does such things don't feel guilty, then why should a man who doesn't do them?"

Wilcox had no answer, and he went outside to find a whore. I watched him leave, listening to my stomach rumbling, wondering how I could be hungry so soon after what I'd just seen, and if that was a shooting offense around there. I figured if it was, then there were gonna be a lot of people breaking the law in Coldwater that night.



Daniel W. Davis is a graduate student at Eastern Illinois University. His work has appeared in various online print journals. You can follow his work and musings at


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