When Vin was three, he saw his first dead body. It was Uncle Virgil, left to hang for six days from the Lynching Tree outside town, and the only way he knew who the scary man used to be was by his shiny steel buckle. He'd run straight home to fetch his daddy, once he knew it was Uncle Virgil up there, and not some crook the law done killed. Fact that it was kin made him shake – kin weren't supposed to die like that. Kin died with a bullet, not a rope. He watched his daddy and grandpappy cut Uncle Virgil down, the body dancing a grotesque jig as it moved in time with the motions of Daddy's saw, and that's when Vin saw that Uncle Virgil didn't have no eyes no more, just black and bloody holes where his eyes used to be. He started to scream them, and buried his face in his mama's skirts, 'cause he saw himself up there on that tree. If it could happen to Uncle Virgil, it could happen to him, and he didn't like that idea at all. She picked him up and carried him back into town, while Daddy and Grandpappy cussed the crows and Coopers alike, and as they passed him, Joe Cooper spat on the ground and said to Mr. Smith, "You ask me, the whole damn family oughta be hung."
"You watch your mouth, Joe Cooper," his mama said, tart and fast. "Y'all ain't nothin' but a bunch of lazy horse thieves and cattle rustlers. Least my man knows how to put in an honest day's work."
"Least my boy wasn't born to hang!" Agnes Cooper shouted at them, and Vin clung tighter to his mama's neck.
"Don't wanna hang," he told her, sobbing and afraid, "don't want no more hanged."
Mama patted his back and said, "Ain't never gonna happen."
That night, he hid under his daddy's cot and listened to Daddy and Grandpappy and Uncle James talk about killing the no good son of a bitch that done hung Uncle Virgil. He could smell gun oil and metal and booze, and he wanted to go with Daddy 'cause he'd really loved Uncle Virgil. But Daddy said he had to stay behind 'cause he weren't big enough yet, and to watch over Mama. So he sat up all night, holding on tight to the big Colt Dragoon Daddy left him, and it kept the bad dreams of Uncle Virgil slipping the noose 'round his neck far, far away.
When Daddy came back the next morning, he and Uncle James were bleeding and Grandpappy was dead, and Joe Cooper's blood was staining Uncle James's shirt.
"Isaac," his mama pleaded, "let's just go. The law ain't gonna let you get away with killin' Joe. I reckon my ma and pa can find a place for us back on the farm."
"Tanners don't run from a fight," Daddy said, and Mama sighed and went back to fixin' his arm. Under the cot, Vin kept real good hold of that Colt he'd been given 'cause he was a Tanner, and Grandpappy proved that not all Tanners died hangin' from a tree; no matter what the lying Coopers said, it weren't the fate of every Tanner to hang.
But maybe Joe Cooper had been right, 'cause when he was ten the state of Texas strung up his daddy for killing Hiram Cooper, after Hiram killed Uncle James. It weren't a nice death at all, 'cause his daddy's neck didn't break, and he ended up choking and clawing at the noose, face going blue then purple and eyes bulging out like some kinda frog's. He looked desperate and afraid, and that made Vin even more afraid, 'cause his daddy weren't afraid of nothing. Not the law, not the Coopers, not even the putrid fever that took Mama. And even though Daddy didn't look at all like Uncle Virgil, Vin couldn't help but see him as the man in the tree that had haunted his nights – the man with the rotting flesh and the empty eyes. And he couldn't help but wonder if maybe Daddy should've run away. Weren't like there was a real fight here, or a fair one. Vin reckoned man can't stand up and fight the law when the law don't understand what's important; didn't understand that a man's gotta look out for his kin and it ain't murder to kill a Cooper. Not when a Cooper had killed your kin.
Course the law saw it different. Didn't matter to the law if it what Daddy did was retribution, was justified 'cause of what Hiram and his cousin did. Law said Daddy was to hang for murder, and maybe this was the fate of a Tanner man, to die hangin' from a tree for killing the man that killed his kin. But how was that right at all?
Still, Vin didn't scream, like he had with Uncle Virgil, 'cause he was a Tanner. He was old enough now to fight the Coopers himself, not just clutch his mama's skirts; 'sides, his mama's skirts were buried with her body, and had been these five years past. Instead, he just watched his daddy die and didn't blink or look away once, 'cause he figured that'd make his daddy proud. Reckoned watching his daddy hang was like another fight, 'cept with himself, and Tanners didn't run from fights, even when they wasn't fair. Even when they scared him spitless. And he woulda killed the son of a bitch judge that ordered his daddy hung, 'cept he reckoned it weren't really the judge's fault. Weren't nobody's fault 'cept for the Coopers, and the only Coopers left to kill were either the blind old man or his granddaughter, and it just didn't feel right to kill the old and the women. That weren't a fight, not really. So Vin reckoned it didn't count as running away when he sold his old Colt and left town; 'sides, he stole two of old blind Cooper's best horses, and that had to count as something.
But just 'cause the old man were blind didn't mean the girl was too, and they chased him out of town. Chased him 'til his horse died under him and he had to run faster than the wind, run through the short grass and hide down in the ditches while the Coopers chased. Run, until he ran the shoe leather right off his feet, and he felt ashamed each time he ran. Tanners didn't run, but they also didn't kill the old and the womenfolk, even when the old and the womenfolk hired a big damn posse to chase him. Besides, he was too afraid he'd end up like Daddy and Uncle Virgil, hung on a tree for all the world to stare at, only there'd be nobody to cut him down. Being brave was hard on his own, harder than he'd reckoned it would be.
When the rope settled over his shoulders and yanked him off his feet, he swore he was dead, swore he could feel the rope tightening 'round his neck and his eyes bulging out like a squashed frog's. He looked up at the man who carried the rope and nearly wept when he saw it were just a Comanche warrior.
He might still die – but at least it wouldn't be by hanging.