The Hanging Tree

 

Dorothy Johnson’s The Hanging Tree

The Hanging Tree is an impressive novelette; the prose is spare and economical yet Johnson stuns with incisive psychological portraits that are both convincing and surprising.

Joe Frail is an ace gunman who has lost the ability to shoot when it counts. He shot a man once and afterwards his widow placed a curse on him that incapacitates his shooting arm. So, in a way, Joe is just bluffing when he stares everyone down. Johnson writes that Joe challenges everyone a look that warns most men away seems to ask, “Do you amount to anything?”

The boy Rune, who is indebted to him, alternately admires and despises him. Rune wants his reputation and gun skills but he hates him for making him a “slave” or his indentured servant.

He begins to rebel after he becomes the lost lady’s friend.
“He straightened up and blurted out a question: ‘How much time do I still owe you?”

Doc’s position is slipping, “Time? That old nonsense. You don’t owe me anything. I just wanted to cut you down to size.”

Rune rejoins with, “Maybe somebody will cut you down to size some time.”
Then, there’s an elaborate “joke” that Frenchy plays on Doc, something that would not have happened when Doc’s reputation was intact.

Everything changes the minute someone’s fortune changes: “At the end of single week, the fragility of the Skull Creek gold camp was plain. The town was collapsing, moving to the new strike…”

In a stunning reversal near the end, Rune overshadows his master.

Doc always expected to hang because of the curse that was put upon him. He does not die (only his reputation does) and that allows something new and completely different to happen.

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