The date of Bitterbuck’s execution arrives. Paul explains that while everyone calls him The Chief, he is not, in fact, a chief, but first elder of his tribe and a member of the Cherokee Council. He was convicted for drunkenly killing a man over a pair of boots by crushing his head with a cement block.
The triviality of the circumstances under which Bitterbuck killed a man highlights the ease with which death can strike in human life, as well as the fact that, despite being seemingly free of sadistic motives, Bitterbuck is subject to the same punishment as evil criminals who harm others for pleasure—which can arguably be seen as a relatively rigid application of justice.
While The Chief receives the visit of his second wife and a few of his children, Paul and the guards rehearse his execution. Paul puts Percy in the switch room with Van Hay and Percy doesn’t complain, eager to witness someone’s execution, even if it is from an angle behind the chair. In the execution room, Paul explains that there is a telephone from which the governor can call to cancel the execution, but that this has never happened once in his career. He believes the phone ringing is more the stuff of fiction than of reality, where innocence and salvation are infinitely more difficult to achieve.
Percy’s eagerness to join the execution contrasts starkly with Paul’s professional approach, in which he tries to treat the inmates with respect. Paul’s lack of trust in the possibility that the phone might ring suggests that the justice system rarely pardons the people it has condemned. His vision of the inevitability of the prisoners’ death mirrors his belief in hell, both views seemingly confirming that there is no salvation—from the wrath of God or from human society—for people who have committed evil deeds.
In all execution rehearsals, Toot-Toot plays the part of the condemned. While most men find Old Toot funny, Paul sees him as a weaker version of Percy Wetmore, inclined to take pleasure in violence and meanness. Brutal is in charge of placing the cap and ordering the “roll on two” when the time comes. If anything goes wrong, Brutus and Paul will be blamed, which they accept as part of their job.
Paul dismisses the idea that violence and cruelty are only found in criminals’ actions. Rather, he suggests that one’s general attitude—even one’s words and one’s jokes—can differentiate a cruel person from a compassionate one, whether they find themselves locked up behind bars or, like Toot-Toot and Percy, free men on the other side.
In Bitterbuck’s room, where they are rehearsing the execution, Paul gives a short legal speech, Dean examines Toot-Toot’s head in order to make sure that he is well shaved and that the electric current will easily pass, and the men walk Toot toward the chair. Toot-Toot, meanwhile, loudly states and repeats the actions he is performing, saying: “I’m steppin forward, I’m steppin forward, I’m steppin forward” or “I’m walkin down the corridor, I’m walkin down the corridor, I’m walkin down the corridor.”
While the guards make sure to follow the procedure so that Bitterbuck’s execution might be as painless as possible, Toot-Toot revels in the idea of a man’s death. He enjoys turning the serious procedure into a farce, making jokes about what is happening in a way that implicitly humiliates the inmates, mocking their fear and their inevitable walk toward death. This lack of respect toward death is shown to be particularly cruel.
Escorted closely by Paul, Dean, and Harry, Toot enters Paul’s office, where he immediately kneels down to pray. He is still loudly stating what he is doing and Dean tells him to shut up. When Harry asks if The Chief has asked for “some Cherokee medicine man,” Paul explains that Bitterbuck is a Christian and has accepted the Baptist man who came for the previous execution.
Toot-Toot mocks even the moment of prayer, which is meant to connect the inmates with a greater spiritual power and bring them comfort, highlighting once again Toot’s utter lack of compassion. Harry’s question demonstrates his ignorance about Bitterbuck’s culture and identity, revealing the prevalence of such cultural prejudices at the time.
The guards walk Toot to the chair after ducking through the little door that leads to it. Percy asks what he is supposed to do and Paul curtly replies that he should simply observe and learn. When Toot sits on the chair, Dean and Paul kneel to attach the man’s ankles to the chair, crouching in a position to minimize the damage that the condemned man could make if he attacked them with his legs, which has happened a few times. After Brutal has secured Toot’s wrists, he calls out: “Roll on one!” On the night of the execution, this would lead Van Hay to charge the prison generator.
The series of mechanical actions that Paul and the guards perform turn the execution into a kind of reassuring ceremony, meant to guarantee the inmate’s and the guards’ security. The routineness of these acts, honed over the years to achieve a high level of efficiency, contrasts heavily with the existential enormity of what these men are preparing for: ending a man’s life.
Brutal gives Toot a short legal speech and asks him if he has anything to say. Toot makes vulgar jokes about what he wants to eat and to do and, however serious the idea of an execution might be, the men cannot keep from bursting out laughing. Even Paul finds the joke funny, but he cannot afford to risk seeing the men laugh during the actual execution, and he angrily tells them to stop.
The irruption of humor into such a serious scene is unsettling. From the outside, it suggests indifference—the fact that the guards have become immune to the grave importance of what they are performing. At the same time, it also demonstrates the human power to turn frightening situations into comical ones and, therefore, to cope with evil or horror as best they can.
Once the laughing fit has passed, Brutal places the mask on Toot’s face and the wet sponge and steel cap on his head. He calls out: “Roll on two!” and Toot pretends to be shaken side to side, energetically crying out that he is frying like a turkey. Harry and Dean, though, have their backs to the chair and are not watching. They are looking at the mouse, which has just appeared in the doorway and seems to be watching the rehearsal.
Toot-Toot’s joke about the inmate frying like turkey serves as a reminder that, in addition to being endowed with intelligence and emotion, human beings are, at their core, a body that can easily be destroyed—just like a turkey.