Serenity

Haresburrow, Nevada, 1889

One more day left. One more day of prison. One more day of life. What an odd feeling to know that tomorrow I would be free from prison but only because I would be dead. But as odd as this was, the really strange thing was that I didn't mind the latter part. Much to the contrary, I looked forward to shedding the worldly cares that had been with me since the day I was born. I had come to know a serenity that even my own imminent death could not shake. For I knew that tomorrow was not the last day of my life, just the last day of my time on Earth. Tomorrow I would meet my Savior face-to-face; tomorrow I would enter into eternity.

But I also felt anxious of one last concern. I had a task I needed to do, and I knew that tonight was my last night to do it. So as the sky darkened, I got ready to do what I needed to do. I got out the sewing needle that I had once found in my cell, not knowing how it got there or that someday I would have a use for it. I had just picked it up, somehow not even thinking that I could conceivably pick the lock of my cell with it, and put it in my pocket. That was before I had met my friend, Jacob Folkstrong, the Negro man who had taught me of the serenity that I now felt about facing the gallows the following day. The one who had given me the old, old Bible that was now just about the only thing I had to my name the night before he was executed. I gathered up this Bible as I prepared to do what I intended to do that night. As I ran my hand over the cracked leather binding and the yellowed pages one last time, I thought of the friend who had given me this precious tome.

I had met Jacob years previous when he was thrown into the same cell as me. He was imprisoned for the rape and murder of a white woman. Like me, he was sentenced to death by hanging. But unlike me, he was not guilty of the crime of which he had been accused.

I knew this happened often to black men. The police officers were often unable to determine the real culprit, and the public, needing someone to be punished, often demanded that they "hang the nigger." I had always thought this to be a dumb thing to do; by this system, the innocent were punished and the guilty were allowed to roam free. I had never cared, though. I wasn't one of them, why should I? And if I, being a bandit, could benefit from the authorities punishing the wrong man, then so much the better for me.

At least, that was how I had felt at one point. But when I met this man, this well-groomed, well-educated, moral man who had been torn from his wife and children by this injustice, well, feelings I'd never known I had were stirred in me. Sympathy. Moral outrage. A yearning for justice.

But the strange thing was that Jacob himself wasn't nearly as angered by it as I was. "It will all work out in the end, Joseph," he told me, "The Lord is never thwarted." And he really believed that.

It was this serenity that put me on the road that led to my salvation. I saw that Jacob had a calm demeanor to him and I wanted whatever it was that he had. I asked him where he got his serenity and he would only tell me one thing, "All things work out for the good of those who obey the Lord, and I obey the Lord."

"Jacob, they'll kill you," I told him.

"They can kill this body of mine, but my soul will never die," he always countered.

"But your wife, your son and daughter…"

"If they have faith, they will be provided for. Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you."

I saw then that I would make no headway with him. Perhaps he was only calm because he was insane and didn't realize the gravity of the situation. That's what I told myself.

Finally, Jacob's final day came. He gave me his Bible. As he put it in my hand, he said to me, "Joseph, you always ask where my serenity comes from. Everything you need to know about where it comes from is in this book. Read it, and do as it says, and you will be serene as I am. I'll see you in eternity."

I had wanted to argue with that last sentence, but now was not the time. I saw my friend go to the gallows and I expected that, in the final moments, he would let out the anger, fear, and panic that surely must have welled up inside him. But no. He went to the gallows as he had gone to prison: smiling. Even though I believed him to be false, it was hard not to be moved by a dying man who is okay with dying.

More to honor my friend's memory than anything else, I read the Bible he gave me. I started not believing a word, but that soon changed. According to this book, there was forgiveness for all sins. All sins. Even the worst ones. I couldn't help but be moved by that, being as I was a murderer and a thief.

But I still didn't believe it. In the back of my mind I figured that this was written without horrible men like me in mind. Then I read the story of the thief on the cross beside Jesus. "You will be with me in Paradise," Jesus had told him. A man being executed for his crimes. That was me in this story. Right then, I realized that even I could be forgiven. Trembling, coming closer to tears than I had since I was a boy, I accepted the forgiveness that had been offered to me. That day, I gained the same serenity for which I had always admired my friend.

And now, much later, I prepared to do one last illicit act. This one, though, was done for a good cause. "Don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing," I muttered to myself, waiting for the guard to fall asleep. When his head slumped and I was finally confident that he had fallen asleep, I took the enigmatic sewing needle, gathered up the word of God, and deftly picked the lock. In the dead of night, I snuck out of the prison. I traveled through the woods at night, half lost half of the time, until I found the cave: the cave where I had hidden my loot.

I picked up the heavy chest marked JOSEPH ERICSON and dragged it out of the cave. I went back in and found also my stash of guns and ammunition. This box was filled with revolvers, shotguns, and rifles but I sought out one gun in particular: a .38 caliber single shot pistol. I broke open the barrel, slid one cartridge into the one chamber, and swung the barrel shut. I then set the box in which the guns had been stored ablaze. I didn't want the instruments of my evil deeds to exist anymore.

Heaving the chest the whole way, I made my way through town to one house in particular: here lived the widow of the man I'd been arrested for murdering. I knocked on the door. The woman who opened it beheld me with an understandable loathing. "Get the hell off my porch, you murdering bastard, or I swear I'll kill you with my bare hands," she said and meant.

I swallowed hard, not really sure what to say next. Somehow I had thought of everything except that. "No words can convey the degree to which I am sorry for what I have done," I began, "and this chest, containing everything I gained as an outlaw, is now yours as a gift to convey my apology."

She seemed to soften a little. Still, she hated me for what I'd done, but now she was at least willing to speak civilly. "No amount of money can make up for the loss of Bill."

"Of course," I said gently, "I realize this. So here is also the one material possession of mine that has far exceeded money in value." I gave her the Bible Jacob had given me.

The next part I had rehearsed repeatedly, all the while honestly not knowing how it would turn out. I then drew the gun from its concealment and, careful not to point the barrel at her, cocked the hammer. I grabbed her hand and closed her fingers around the handle. I then pushed the muzzle against my own face and said to her, "If you want me dead, there's nothing stopping you: proceed to blow my damn brains out."

At first she seemed determined to do it. Then she hesitated, probably remembering what the book I'd given her said about hate.

"I can't do it," she finally told me, pulling her hand out of mine and dropping the gun. "Just get out of my sight.

I did. With the sun's first light beginning to peak over the horizon, I broke into my cell. There was no guard there. Apparently they'd realized I was gone. I sat on my cot and acted like I'd been there all night.

Finally the guard walked in. "Ericson?" he looked confused. "Where the…what…um, how'd you get here?"

"This is my cell, is it not," I replied, pretending not to understand.

"You ran away," he said, "You sprung yourself out."

"Really?" I said. "Well, I must've sprung myself back in."

He let that go. "Whatever. It's your time."

"I know."

As I walked to the gallows, I was at peace. The rope tightened around my neck. I smiled and let my mortal life come to an end.