The four men stood solemn and erect in front of the whitewashed podium. Their faces reflected each other’s countenance as they looked towards their judge-in-black. They perspired, not because of nerves, but because of the stifling heat they now felt. They wore neatly tailored uniforms; formal attire for a waring time. Attentively they awaited the judge to continue their verdict.
One of the men — the youngest — began to fidget under his clothes. “But what of me?” he thought. “I did no wrong. I held no knife, no gun. I took no lives. I but waited at the crossway for the others to return. Surely my hands are clean of guilt, my conscience of burden. My sentence shall not be compounded by association. The judge will see this. He must! for I have done no wrong but what was expected of me.”
The judge-in-black eyed the four defendants with a piercing gaze. The jury’s verdict of ‘guilty’ still rang through the halls of the mighty court. The young man attempted to loosen his collar as the heat wafted through the room.
“Guilty!” rang the verdict through the young man’s head. “Guilty?” he thought. “Right they are with the other three. Guilty on all accounts. Samson bragged on the way to the village about how many he would kill. Right they are with their verdict of Samson. Damnable lot, the whole of them. But me? Me? Surely not. The judge shall see this and pardon me on all accounts… Or at the very least hand me a lesser penalty. I but held the carriage for the others, is that so harsh a crime? A wooden post could have done the work. Would they sentence that to death?”
“Guilty!” rang the verdict, echoing into the chamber.
“But I was following the lieutenant’s orders!” cried the young man. “What verdict sees me in the same light as these three?” He was shaking and his mouth quivered. The sweat poured from his pores. Without warning, a fire burst from beneath his feet. His hands were quickly bound with hardened leather and his uniform torn asunder to expose his bare flesh. An ethereal hand acted against his purpose.
“Guilty!” rang the chorus of jurors.
The young man looked around and his comrades were similarly disposed. Fire licked at their feet and a terrible anguish marked their faces. The young man knelt before the judge-in-black and pleaded with insensible words. He cried out for mercy, tears drying upon his face. He looked for comfort in his companions but saw in their faces the sight of wickedness. He hid his eyes and bowed his head before the glorious whitewashed podium.
The judge-in-black rose from his dais and stretched his arms towards the four men. The fire ate at him, quenching itself with blood and plasm. His robe turned from twilight to opulence and he bellowed, filling the great hall with the sound of thunder, one last verdict.
And all was gone.
A quarter of a mile outside of a quaint hovel, three men were rushing up a hill. They were jovial — whooping and hollering like men possessed. In their arms, collectively, they carried the fruits of their night time labors. They skipped along the pathway that lead to an intersection of two roads. They talked happily of the night’s adventures and paid little notice of what lay ahead.
As they breached the summit and went around a bend, they stopped and gaped at the sight in front of them. One of these men — the eldest — dropped his loot and stumbled forward to the sight that captured all of their attentions. He stopped short, save ten feet, for the inferno in front of them cascaded it’s heat onto all. The old man looked around, dumbfounded, but saw not a soul nor sliver of anything else atop that hill. All that remained on that cold starry night were three stout men. And a carriage consumed in fire.