The only time he remembered being truly and uncontrollably scared had been some twelve years before at Gettysburg. It was the night of the second day of the battle, and the roar of cannon and crackle of muskets had given way to the moans and sobs of the wounded. The Prussian veterans of his unit not on watch or other duty were sound asleep, but he couldn’t close his eyes.
He lay on Cemetery Ridge, behind an embankment, listening to the cries, prayers and pleas that carried up and echoed. After two days of intense fighting, including seeing three of his friends dead, several others wounded and after killing a Rebel with his bare hands, what he heard elicited no sense of pity or charity from him. He stared up at the moon and just listened and tried to pinpoint when yet another Rebel gave up his ghost. Then someone on that field of dead and dying at the bottom of the hill began to sing.
And it was the most beautiful voice he’d ever heard. The words weren’t English… French, maybe. Cajun. A pure tenor, and it was as if all the other sounds faded away as the voice sang and resonated in his soul. He was completely transported and wanted the man to sing forever.
He wasn’t sure how long the man sang. However long it was later he became aware of the silence. He waited for the man to continue, but there was nothing.
He rolled over onto his side and shouted down the hill, “Another song!”
“Another song, if you please, sir!”
“He’s dead,” came a response that floated up from the battlefield. “He’ll never sing again.”
That was when he knew true fear and began shivering uncontrollably…
If God could allow a voice like that to perish in an ocean of blood, what hope did a sinner like himself have?
He looks up at the almost full moon. Ever since the war, he hadn’t been able to sleep well whenever there was a full moon, at least if he wasn’t blind drunk.
His eyes shift to the cemetery that dots the hill overlooking the little dusty way station town. And it was drink that ultimately did him in as he wandered aimlessly ever west from New York after he was mustered out in 1865, unable to accept that he had survived four years of hell without so much as a scratch.
He knows that just below the cemetery are the gallows where in the morning he’ll draw his last breath in the seconds before his neck is snapped. His gaze instead lingers on the cemetery where he’ll be buried. In the days he spent in the jail waiting for the circuit judge he sobered up and accepted that for whatever drunken logic made sense to him at the time — a woman, maybe — he in a premeditated fashion took a man’s life. He had to pay.
In accepting his guilt, he knew he had to accept his punishment. Right?
His gaze lingers on the cemetery on the hill. He closes his eyes and tries to envision what it will be like lying there. It looks like there’s a pretty good panoramic view, he thinks to himself. But the words don’t sound convincing.
The moon lingers just over the cemetery on the hill even though the sun is up. The crowd of townsfolk had heckled him on his way from the jail, but now they’re quiet. The sheriff reads the execution order, and then asks if he has any last words. He just shakes his head.
The executioner moves behind him, black hood in hand. There’s a priest on the podium saying some kind of prayer, but sounds a million miles away. The last thing he sees before the black hood is slipped over his head is the moon and cemetery almost touching one another.
The noose is put around his neck.
And then he hears it: That anonymous pure tenor voice. It surrounds him and calms him. He’d been waiting twelve years to hear that singing again. He knows he’ll finally sleep well when it’s a full moon.
No one sees him smiling as the trapdoor falls away under his feet.