I’m attending the wedding of my 84-year old grandfather this weekend, so here’s a piece I cobbled together hurriedly on Friday. I hope you enjoy:

Firing Squad

If Kirkcaldy had been the one in charge of his execution he would have made it a hanging. He’d always thought that a good Christian hanging was the only proper course for killing traitors. If he was honest with himself he had to admit that he’d been rather looking forward to it. With a hanging, there was the agonising period of waiting beforehand. The convict had ample opportunity to dwell upon their fate, staring out through the bars of their stockade with doleful lamentation as they watched the scaffold being hammered together in the square. Hangings had a grim ceremony to them. In his own case he’d modestly imagined being led out in the blazing midday sun, the road to the scaffold lined by a whole regiment of redcoats, struggling to hold back the multitude of women – and men of his own habits – who would be understandably distraught at the notion of his demise. The colonel and the governor would be sitting on their horses in the shade to mark the gravity of the occasion. A magistrate would stand, sweating beneath his wig and trying to ignore the flies. Kirkcaldy could imagine his charges being read.

Robert Kirkcaldy, the magistrate would say, with all the solemn gravity that a petty colonial official could muster on such a hot day, having been tried and convicted in a court of law and found to have wilfully acted in defiance of the laws of man and God, is found guilty of treason, conspiracy to commit treason, five instances of murder, multiple instances of theft, unnatural acts involving a goat…and so on…and had been sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead, in this place, at this hour, and may God have mercy upon his soul”. And then came the drop. Kirkcaldy had been in the crowd at more than a few hangings, had laughed with the same fascinated disgust as everyone else when that day’s villain swung from the gibbet and croaked his last breath, his head turning the colour of beetroot. That was the only decent way to execute a traitor such as himself.

Kirkcaldy was thus quite disappointed when he was turfed out of his cell without warning one dark evening and delivered into the hands of an unconversational file of marines, who marched him through the night to a yard behind the governor’s residency. It was the yard where the governor’s house slaves threw slops and rind from the kitchens, and the ground was slick, and the marines got their boots dirty while they were tying Kirkcaldy’s hands to a post that was probably unused to having white hands bound to it.

The marines – a mere five of them – formed their line opposite him, with their backs to the residency, below a dark balcony. A slave woman emerged from a door behind the marines, wiping her hands with a cloth. She took one look at the marines, and seemed to roll her eyes, before going back into the kitchen and bolting the door behind her. Kirkcaldy decided that he liked the slave woman, and he wished her well.

He didn’t think he liked the lieutenant of the marines. He looked a little like a horse, and he spoke in a plummy falsetto that Kirkcaldy found absurdly annoying.

“Make ready,” was the very first thing that the lieutenant said. It didn’t sound the way that an order to make ready should have sounded. Kirkcaldy had been on more than his fair share of battlefields and he had heard the same words bellowed in tones that sent shivers of suspense from his neck to his boots. This lieutenant sounded like a bank clerk beseeching his men to sign their names on promissory notes. But the marines followed their instructions, turning neatly and easing back the hammers on their muskets.

“Present”, said the bank-clerk lieutenant.

“Fire!” Kirkcaldy barked, stealing the word straight from the lieutenant’s open mouth. He was pleased with the strength of his imitation, doubly pleased with the outraged look on the lieutenant’s face, and pleased even more when the marines actually fired. There was a harsh patter of five flintlock ignitions, a rolling sound not unlike a black-powder pigeon taking wing, which reminded Kirkcaldy fondly of battles from his youth. The file of marines disappeared behind a wall of their own white gunsmoke, but not before the bullets tore into him.

He felt his sternum shatter. That was possibly quite bad. Parts of it lodged themselves into nearby organs, which seized horribly and drove an involuntarily cry from his lips, distracting him briefly from the sting in his arm and the shredding pains in his gut. He was overcome by an intense feeling of wrongness, of things being in places that they weren’t supposed to be, of the pressure being wrong in his bowels, and then a thick tide of blood welled up in his mouth and fell to the floor in a viscous string. His vision went blue.

He pitched forward, head lolling, hanging forward from his wrists. He felt very far away. But he could hear himself chuckling faintly, through the blood. That gave him some hope.

The marines, by now, had realised their mistake. They had fired before giving their lieutenant the chance to give them the order, thus coming dangerously close to exposing his redundancy. They were now more directly concerned with their lieutenant’s wrath than they were about the fact that the prisoner they’d just shot was still laughing. He would probably stop laughing as soon as he ran out of blood. The lieutenant might cut their rum ration, or worse…

The lieutenant, though, was more concerned with the prisoner. He drew his pistol from his cross-belt and stepped across the yard, his horse-features wary of some kind of trick. By the time he’d reached the prisoner, the laughing had stopped. He laid his pistol gingerly under Kirkcaldy’s chin and pushed his head upwards, so that he could stare the treasonous Scot straight in his dead eyes.

But Kirkcaldy’s eyes weren’t dead. He pursed his lips as if he was about to spit out more blood, but in fact a bullet rolled out from between his teeth. It struck the lieutenant’s gun and fell away. The lieutenant staggered backwards, not sure what to do with his pistol, and watched in horror as Kirkcaldy coughed up three more musket balls, rolling them between his teeth and spitting them out on the floor.

The marines, and their lieutenant, stood in silent dismay. The more attentive of them, who weren’t terrified out of their wits, might have realised that there were five of them in the firing line, but Kirkcaldy had so far only regurgitated four bullets.

Kirkcaldy gritted his teeth as though exerting himself, and then sighed in relief.

The fifth and final bullet emerged from the leg of his trousers, plinked to the ground, and then rolled indecorously away into a bush.

“Marvellous,” said the governor, from his balcony. “Quite marvellous…”


2 thoughts on “An Ignominious Execution

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