They were waiting for him. Every night as he emerged drunk and sentimental from the smoky bar, there they were. Like a pack of cold-eyed wolves. They all wore leather boots and black jackets emblazoned with the words, 'The Centurions.' Six of the young men circled him, making kissing sounds and jabbing at his chest.
[quoteright]"Hey, old man, wanna come to a hanging?" The words spit at him like acid. The leader of the pack, a thin sour-faced youth, stepped in front of him.
"No. Don't want to see no hanging. Seen too much...." The old man felt a familiar gush of tears. "I remember. I've seen...death, death that makes you sick and hollow inside."
"Well, old man, you're gonna see it again." The leader grabbed him by the arms, swung him around, then propelled him down the alley next to the bar. He went. To protest was just to incite more pain. The old man remembered a dignity he once had and tried to swell out his chest and step forward by his own volition, instead of being pushed and shoved from behind.
The alley was dim and reeking of garbage. The full moon, like an icy cataract, gave little light. Sagging boxes, crates and sodden cartons of refuse, head-high, bulged in the narrow passageway. The old man stumbling forward heard an inhuman whine and the hairs prickled on the back of his neck. Something alive. Something breathing was hidden in the back of the alley.
The youths surrounded him again. One of them, pale and snickering, drew from behind his back a twisted circle of dried branches. A single brown leaf fell as the leader grabbed the circlet and with mock formality mashed the crown onto the old man's head.
"For our king," he hissed. With a flourish he struck his palms together as the boys began imitating a drumroll. "Four our soused king we present a simple pleasure. All kneel before our king!" The boys, in false piety, sank to their knees. A cloud of yellow street light fell over their bowed heads.
"Now, to honor our redeemer, the guardian of truth and wisdom, we offer a sacrifice." The leader smiled as the boys rose, one of them drawing a rope from a trash-filled box. The whining grew louder as the leader turned again to face the old man.
"Present the humble offering to our king."
There was a heightened sense of excitement as a fat and sullen length of bone yanked a dark shape from behind a crate. The old dog slid on its bony backside, trying to dig into the pavement with scrambling claws. As it was dragged forward and kicked into place before the old man, it met and held the derelict's gaze. Its breath puffed in tinny gasps.
"Bless the sacrifice, give a benediction to the offering made in your name." The leader grabbed the old man's right hand and forced it down upon the dog's head.
"No ...no...I have nothing to do with this. There has been too much lost ...too much...." The old man looked the leader of the gang in the eyes. This boy wanted something from him, but he didn't know what and he had nothing to give him. Nothing.
A voice shot towards him. "Play the game, you worthless sonofabitch. Do as you're told or you'll swing along with this shit-eating mutt."
"It has life...." the old man protested. "Look at it. It is alive and must not be ...you can't kill a live thing."
"It would be kind of stupid to kill something already dead, wouldn't it old man?" The leader's voice chilled the old derelict to his marrow. His hand shook against the fragile skull as the dog groaned and lowered itself onto the old man's shoes. He could feel its body quivering across his feet.
"Isn't it time for the hanging? Shit, I ain't got all night to spend playing with this fool and some rabid-assed dog. Let's do it!" a voice growled.
The leader jerked the dog up by the scruff of its neck and knotted the rope around it. He dragged the dog to a tower of boxes leaning against a wall. Quickly he climbed the crates and looped the loose end of the rope around a bent pipe jutting out from the building. He jumped back down, carrying the loose end, past the cowering dog and jammed the end of the rope into the old man's hand, winding it firmly around the derelict's wrist.
"Take your positions, the real fun is about to begin!"
As the pack of boys moved behind the old man he felt tight arms circle his waist then jerk him roughly back. The dog yelped as it was swept backwards with the force of the reverse conga line. Slowly as each boy, encircling a forward boy's waist, pulled, the dog lifted, its feet scraping and clawing uselessly.
The old man could not breathe. He could no longer see the frantic jerking, nor hear the gasps. But he could see something. He focused harder. Something small quivering in the tall grass. He could smell blood-scented air swirling around him. It was deep sunnier. He was a young boy kneeling in hip-high weeds watching the dying, arrow-struck rabbit on the ground before him. He could feel the soft tiny puffs of its breath upon his cheek, taste the brine of his tears, sense the warm stickiness of blood on his fingers as he tried in vain to pull his arrow out of the rabbit's chest. He felt again the ribcrush of grief, bile rising in his throat, then the surprising spray that jetted from his mouth. Then the air turned black and everything dove into darkness, complete and absolute.
The conga line collapsed as the old man swayed, then pitched to the ground. There was a crash of bodies and an explosion of curses and confusion. One of the boys, jumping up, asked, "Well, is the old fart dead or what?"
The dog, released from the terrible tension that had swung it upward, dropped back on its feet to the ground. It spun around, bared yellow teeth, then dragging the rope behind it crashed down the alley past the boys huddled over the old man.
There was a sudden gush of bowel and bladder. The old man's face sagged, his eyes turned to unseeing stones.
Quickly, one of the gang rifled the old man's pockets.
"Shit! Not a damn cent!"
With furtive looks at one another the boys drifted back, except for the leader who remained kneeling over the body. They took off down the alley and were out of sight.
The leader crouched over the dead man, he gagged on the putrid odor but was mesmerized by the subtle convulsing of the old man's fingers. He nudged the body and the branch crown slid to the ground. The leader's faced paled as he slowly stood, moving backwards until he felt a cold wall behind him. He jerked his head as sour bile shot from his mouth, splattering his jacket and black leather boots.
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