The Stetson

What to buy for the grandpa who’s seen everything, including an outlaw’s execution?


After we played a warm-up hand of Coon Can, Burton and Bess wanted a story from Granddad. It was always the same one: the hanging of the train robber, Black Jack Ketchum. Granddad had been an eyewitness to the big event. We knew the story, but we always asked for another telling, because Granddad would add a little something each time.

As usual, he wasn’t too talkative, so Bess had to pump him. “I forgot, Granddad,” she said, “Didn’t you say they sold little Black Jack dolls at the hanging?”


“Did you buy one?”


Bess said, “I wish you had, ’cause then you could’ve saved it all these years and given it to me.”

Granddad picked up a card from the discard pile and worked it into his hand. I asked him, “What were his last words?” I knew what Black Jack said. I just wanted to get him going.

Granddad wiped his mouth with his handkerchief. “All’s he said was ‘Good bye. Please dig my grave very deep.’ And then, ‘all right, now, hurry up.’”

Burton said, “How close were you to the hanging?”

“Close enough that I don’t ever want to see one again. Whose turn is it?”

“Mine.” Burton picked a card from the pile. “Tell us what you saw, Granddad.”

After some begging from Bess, Granddad adjusted his glasses and said, “I don’t want to give you children nightmares. Your mother would be mad at me.”

Burton and Bess swore they wouldn’t tell Mom. Granddad smiled. He looked over our heads, looked back into the old days. Burton and Bess scooted closer to hear him better. “Well,” he said, “Understand that nobody in Clayton had ever hanged a man before. And they miscalculated. The rope was too long.”

“What happened?” Bess asked.

“Black Jack was decapitated when he dropped through the trap door.” Granddad went on neatly arranging his cards.

We kids stopped playing while we absorbed this gruesome information. Burton asked, “What’s it mean?”

“It means his head popped off,” I said.

Burton was impressed. “Wow! Did you see the head?” he asked Granddad.

“No, I didn’t,” Granddad said. “I understand the doctor sewed it back onto his body.”

“Why?” Bess asked. “He was already dead.”

“Because it was the right thing to do.” Granddad sat back in his chair. “All right, now, that’s enough of Black Jack Ketchum. Whose turn is it?”

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