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Ballad of Mr. Dutcher and the Last Lynching in Gupton

(octosyllabics)

He must have been just as old in
days when young as later, his face
as gray and his eyes not gray but
that color you didn’t even
have a name for—the same as when,
years later, he’d walk down the street,
and I, a boy, would then see him
in his worn-out gray coat going
twice a day to the depot, where
he’d handle what express came, then
twice a day going back home, the
first time to eat, the last to shut
the door of his small gray house, and
not be seen till tomorrow, and
if ever you said hello, he
might say whatever it was that
you never quite caught, but always
his face had a sort of gray smile
turned more inside than out, as though
there was something he knew but knew
that you’d never know what it was he knew.

He had a small wife whose face was
as gray as the gingham she wore,
or the gray coat that for Sunday
she wore to church, and nobody
could ever imagine what, in
that small gray house, those gray faces
might ever say to each other,
or think, as they lay side by side
while his eyes of that color you
couldn’t ever name stared up where the
dark hid the ceiling. But we knew
how he’d smile in the dark who knew
that he knew what we’d never know he knew.

But time brings all things to light, so
long after the gray-faced wife was
dead, and the hump of her grave sunk
down to a trench, and the one gray-
faced son dead to boot, having died
one cold winter night in jail, where
the town constable had put him
to sober up—well, long after,
being left all alone with his
knowledge of what we’d never know he knew,

he, in the fullness of time, and
in glory, brought it forth. One hot
afternoon in Hoptown, some fool
nigger, wall-eyed drunk and with a
four-hit hand-gun, tried to stick up
a liquor store, shot the clerk, and,
still broke, grabbed a freight, and was high-
tailing for Gupton, in happy
ignorance that the telephone
had ever been invented. So
when they flagged down the freight, the fool
nigger made one more mistake, up
and drilled one of the posse. That
was that, and in five minutes he
was on his way to the county
seat, the constable driving, but
mighty damn slow, while back yonder
in Gupton, in the hardware store,
a large business transaction con-
cerning rope was in process. It
was the small gray-faced man who, to
general astonishment though
in a low, gray voice, said: “Gimme
that rope.” Quick as a wink, six turns
around the leader, the end snubbed,
and there was that neat cylinder
which the line could slide through easy
as a greased piston, or the dose
of salts through the widow-woman,
and that was what he, all the years,
had known, and nobody’d known that he knew.

The constable, it sort of seemed,
had car trouble, and there he was
by the road, in the cooling shade
of a big white oak, with his head
stuck under the hood and a wrench
in his hand. They grabbed him before
he even got his head out. What
happened was not Mister Dutcher’s
fault, nor the rope’s, it was only
that that fool nigger just would not
cooperate, for when the big
bread truck they had him standing on
drew out, he hung on with both feet
as long as possible, then just
keeled over, slow and head-down, in-
to the rope, spilling his yell out
like five gallons of fresh water
in one big, bright, out-busting slosh
in the sunshine, if you, of a
sudden, heave over the crock. So,
that fool nigger managed never
to get a good, clean drop, which was,
you might say, his last mistake. One
man started vomiting, but one
put six .44’s in, and that
quieted down the main performer.
Well, that was how we came to know
what Mister Dutcher’d thought we’d never know.

But isn’t a man entitled
to something he can call truly
his own—even to his pride in
that one talent kept, against the
advice of Jesus, wrapped in a
napkin, and death to hide? Any-
way, what does it matter now, for
Mister Dutcher is not there to
walk the same old round like a blind
mule hitched to a sorghum mill, is,
in fact, in some nook, niche, crack, or
cubby of eternity, stowed
snug as a bug, and safe from all
contumely, wrath, hurt ego, and
biologic despair, with no
drop of his blood to persist in
that howling orthodoxy of
darkness that, like wind-hurled rain on
glass, streams past us, and is Time. At
all events, I’m the one man left
who has any reason at all
to remember his name, and I
haven’t much, but some time, going
back home, I might take time to prowl
the cemetery to locate
the stone the Dutcher name would be
on, if grass and ragweed aren’t too high.
it’s on, if grass and ragweed aren’t too high.

I might even try to locate
where that black man got buried, though
that would, of course, be somewhat difficult.

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