All Stories, General Fiction, Short Fiction

Cornwallis Surrenders by A. Elizabeth Herting

It was amazing to him that at a time like this, he should feel so completely and utterly alive.

Every sensation was heightened almost to the point of lunacy. The buzzing of flies around a pile of manure, the nicker of a random horse and low, menacing voices all ricocheted around the inside of his head like cannon shot.

The rope was rough and scratchy, causing a maddening tickle in the back of his throat. When he tried to clear it, a sound not unlike the bellow of a dying cow emanated from his painfully dry mouth, causing the assembly of wretched onlookers to shiver in anticipation.

These bastards just couldn’t wait to see him swing.

He was to be this afternoon’s entertainment, sandwiched in between the day’s many bouts of drink and games of chance. Not a single one of them was any better or any worse than he was, they were simply more fortunate in the timing of their transgressions.

Of that, he was absolutely certain.


Percival Lancelot Cornwallis had, thus far, failed to live up to his illustrious name. His mother had suffered from the twin delusions of Arthurian and military glory when it came to her only child, perhaps due to the shameful circumstance of his birth. Nothing, but the resplendence of a great name, would help to erase the taint of a lowly circus performer’s fatherless son.

He grew up under the big tent in every dusty, windswept stop along the circuit, crisscrossing the rugged roads of the western plains in every conceivable direction. There were many times, under the loving eye of Miranda, that young Percy would bless his existence as he watched her fly gracefully above his head like a gossamer angel.

Miranda was a magical creature. Dancing and twirling in heavenly abandon as he waited below, the whoosh of the trapeze and breathless sighs of the crowd teaching young Percy all he needed to know about human nature; the incredible high of a crowd’s admiration interspersed with a haughty disdain for their profession.

Percy learned very early how to play all of it to his advantage–he was a natural. Up until the day he saw his mother’s tiny body, broken and laid out upon the dirt like a fallen sparrow. A simple miss of a grasp had sent her careening to the earth, a final swan dive into eternity.

On that day Percy decided he would no longer be a victim of his circumstances. A fat lot of good that had apparently done him, with the noose wound tightly around his neck, but the point remained the same.

Of that, he was absolutely certain.


She hadn’t told him she was married. Honestly, the subject had never been broached.

Percy had inherited his mother’s fine countenance, with eyes the color of emeralds and a thick head of blue-black hair. Not many of the fairer sex could resist his charms, he was seldom without female company.

On this particular occasion, however, he regretfully considered that maybe he should have let this one pass. Not understanding, until way too late, that his latest paramour was the wife of the town’s deputy sheriff. He might still have escaped this particular form of frontier justice if the gentleman hadn’t caught him red-handed, fleeing her boudoir with a pair of golden ear bobs in his hastily pulled-on trousers.

A man had to eat, after all. As Percy well knew, a life on the road was one of immense freedom, but very little recompense.

Of that, he was absolutely certain.


He teetered precariously on the back of the wagon. The tree they had chosen for his demise was a sturdy old oak, immense and thick. It also held the distinction of being the only one of its kind around for a mile in each direction.

The perfect hanging tree.

The men stood around in groups, a bedraggled, surly assembly if ever he saw one. A short, rotund man in a filthy overcoat stood at the ready in front of an old nag hitched to the wagon, bridle held in anticipation of Percy’s ignoble end. The hastily convened jury passed a bottle back and forth between them, taking turns spitting great black gobs into the dirt.

Looking aggrieved, the deputy sheriff glowered at Percy as the leader of the kangaroo court read aloud his sentence.

“To be hanged by the neck until dead!”

As if he wasn’t painfully aware of that already. The words hanging heavily in the air, Percy swallowed deeply and gave himself up to fate.


Percy is five years old, giggling with delight as his mother glides through the air, upside down, and lifts him way up into the sky. They are flying together, higher and higher, before she flips off of the bar. Down they go in a joyful tumble, bouncing into the net below and Percy thinks that he is the luckiest boy in the whole wide world to have such a beautiful momma.

She brushes back a stray lock of his hair and kisses his brow. He is going to be just like her someday, the very best trapeze artist west of the Mississippi and he will buy her a pony. She leans over to him, smiles brightly and says…

“Percival Lancelot Cornwallis! Do you have any last words, you vile bastard!”

The deputy sheriff bellowed with impatience. Seeing no reaction from Percy, he ordered the man to lead the nag away. Percy had only precious seconds left.

The excess rope began to tighten as Percy turned his body toward the tree and began to run. His years of training had served him well, for his leg muscles were toned and powerful.

The man who fashioned his bonds had been rather the worse for drink, allowing Percy to easily free his hands from behind his back, grabbing onto the rope directly above the noose to relieve the pressure. He threw himself off of the wagon with abandon, adrenaline pulsating through his body like a second heartbeat. The reprobate holding the other end of the rope jumped back in alarm, dropping it to the ground as Percy launched.

He hit the trunk full on with both feet as the wagon disappeared underneath him, grabbing the nearest branch with both hands. He kicked off of the tree backward, swinging himself around three times and rocketed high into the sky above the crowd. The frayed old rope wildly lassoed through the air before snapping off midway in a most dramatic fashion.

Visions of his mother floated across his mind as he came down, somersaulting gracefully through the air as he descended. He could almost hear the adoring crowd cheering him on in the sudden pandemonium that broke out below.

This was to be the biggest performance of his life and bystanders would later swear they saw Percy smiling as he landed backwards onto the back of the deputy’s mount, galloping away with the remainder of the rope trailing him in the dust.

Being the consummate performer, truly his mother’s son in every regard, Percy gave them all a final, jaunty wave as he disappeared over the horizon and into legend.


She was a delectable creature.

Pink and soft with the scent of wildflowers clinging to her long, auburn hair. Percy stretched out languidly in the downy bed, being careful not to disturb her as she slept.

The scar around his neck was still angry and raw, all the more so once he remembered that he hadn’t yet gotten around to inquiring about her marital status. Not that it would matter. It would only hasten the speed of his departure.

He’d traveled many miles since his final spectacular performance. Far enough that he could actually hear the calming sounds of the Pacific Ocean drifting through her open window. Percy may have been temporarily forced into retirement, but the show, as they say, must go on.

It was fortunate, indeed, that he was a man of many passions. Passions just waiting to be discovered and revisited, such as the lovely example that now slumbered peacefully at his side.

Fortunate, that is, if he could avoid getting caught. It was definitely time to move on.

He’d just managed to retrieve his shirt from the floor when he felt her warm body stir beside him. She reached out, gently raking his back with her long fingernails and Percy knew it was too late.

Just as his distinguished namesake before him had done, Cornwallis had no choice but to surrender. And he knew, without a doubt, that he would be surrendering again. And again.

Of that, he was absolutely certain.


A. Elizabeth Herting

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