Archive for death by hanging

Hanging On: Chapter Nineteen

Posted in short stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2009 by Uncle Tree

Back about the time when Sam and his posse had been in the cave, Matthew had been back in Bedlam defying the urge to sleep. Since it was a Saturday night, he’d allowed himself to stay up a bit later than usual. His wife and his boy had gone on to bed without him.  To stay awake and keep warm, he’d kept himself busy by tending to the fire in their stove. It was blazing away at full strength, and it lit up the room fairly well. This enabled Matt to take to the task of cleaning his rifle. He’d planned on going hunting the next morning, but the storm had caused him to reconsider that idea. He dearly wished it would move on.

There was also something else rummaging about in the back of Matt’s mind, and that was Sam and his posse. In his estimation, he didn’t think they’d be back that night, but he couldn’t be resolutely sure. That made him a shade anxious, and he’d been peering out his windows on and off all evening long. It was simply a nervous reaction. For sure, he was hoping they would catch the murderer eventually. If there was to be another hanging in Bedlam, he didn’t want to miss it for anything. He’d only seen one since they’d lived there, but that was from afar. He thought he’d like to have a close-up view someday, just so he could brag about having had the experience. All the better, too, if the hanging involved this particular killer. Someday the man would be famous, for it was such a vicious crime. The story would be told for years to come. Matt certainly wished to be a party to it’s history. In that respect, he was a voyeuristic storyteller. He didn’t see himself as a fearmonger. He told his tales for the express purpose of entertaining others, not because he wished to scare people away.

By the time that Matt had finished the readying of his rifle, the stove had cooled off, and it’s light had grown dim. He decided to get the fire going one last time, and then he’d hit the hay. On the way to his back door, he once again looked out his window in the direction of the graveyard, but he couldn’t see very well because of the rain. Matt owned the last house on the left as you made your way south out of Bedlam. The hanging tree stood on the other side of the street. It was a block or so further on down the road from his place. Matt didn’t believe the tree was haunted, nor did he believe in ghosts. Nevertheless, he kept an eye out for them, especially at night. In this regard, he was like most people. If there were such a thing as ghosts, then for sure he’d like to have seen one. Not up close, mind you, but a ways away, a very safe distance away.

Matt bundled up in his coat, put on his hat, and grabbed his gloves before going out the back door. Much worse was this storm from what he had previously forecast. He’d been expecting snow, rather than rain under those freezing conditions. Earlier that afternoon he’d covered his stack of logs with a large piece of cowhide, in order to keep the wood good and dry. By this time, a thin sheet of ice lay atop the cover. Matt pulled up a corner, and grabbed as much as he could hold before covering it back up. As he began his return back to the cozy comforts of home, he looked around at the few remaining occupied houses. They were emitting no light. He thought, “This town is dead.” Matt was longing for the good old days when Saturday nights used to bring a change of pace, and a little excitement. He badly wanted to move to the new town because that’s where good things were happening, except for last night, of course, but he figured that was a once in a lifetime event, and everything would soon be back to normal up there.

Matt was halfway to the door when he heard his old hound dog howling inside the house. “Damn dog!” he thought. “He’s going to wake everyone up.” As if the dog could hear him, he spoke out loud, “There’s no one out here but me, ya stupid dog.” Matt was wrong, for just as soon as he’d finished speaking, the silent night brought him a surprise. It was a sound so startling that he dropped his armload of firewood to the ground, and froze in his steps. This unmistakable sound was the high-pitched whinny of a horse expressing it’s fear, and it was coming from the direction of the graveyard. Matt shuddered in his tracks, and felt his heart begin to race. “Who’s that?” he thought quietly to himself. Then he broke his own rule for a change, and let his curiosity get the best of him. Instead of picking up the firewood, he left it there to lay in the rain, and crept his way towards the back of house. “It must be Sam and his men,” he thought. “At least…oh, God, I hope it is,” he said to himself after considering the alternatives. “But, why the heck are they back so soon? They couldn’t have caught him already. Could they?”

In order for Matt to be able to see the graveyard, he had to look around the corner on the east side of his house. With his left hand gripping the edge, and his right palm against the wall, he braced himself, and leaned his head out to take a look. As soon as he had a complete view of the tree and the graveyard, he stopped moving, and held his ground. As far as he could tell, no one was there. He was sure of what he’d heard, so he paused and waited. He didn’t have to wait long. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, and coming from the far-side of the graveyard, Matt caught sight of a mysteriously slow moving object. It was a vague, sinister-looking shadowy figure on a tall, dark horse. Matt waited in alarm for another figure or two, to appear from behind, but none were forthcoming. There was only one single rider. That dreadful fact alone had Matt quaking in his boots, and it gave him the willies just to think about who it might be. The freezing rain continued to fall from the blackened sky, and the cold wind was causing shivers to run up and down his spine. He stood spellbound in disbelief as the horse coursed around each encountered tombstone, and continued to carry it’s master through the foreboding graveyard.

Their indistinct shapes were beginning to take form as they neared the hanging tree. The old oak seemed to be cloaked in gloom on that night, or so it appeared to Matt. Once they were under the furthermost reaches of it’s branches, the horse brought it’s rider to an abrupt halt. It reared up off the ground, and voiced another neigh. Upon landing, it shook it’s head and mane, and snorted loudly in a show of disgust. Small clouds of hot, steamy breathe came rolling out of it’s nostrils. The wisps of warmed air rose up into the cold night sky, and quickly vanished. Matt couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It bore an awfully close resemblance to the ominous scene he’d pictured the day before on his ride back home. The man got off his horse, and led it by the reins until they were under the lowest limb. A moment later, Matt remembered that Sam had dropped a rope on the ground at that very spot. From the looks of it, the man was dressed in black from head to toe. By then, Matt was able to see the man was wearing a wide-brimmed hat, and it reminded him of the description Luke gave of the dangerous, wanted murderer. That memory was enough to arouse his worst fears. It was more than enough to frighten Matt into a mode of panic, an excruciating emotion, which to him had hitherto been unknown. Never before had he felt so terrified. Never before had he been scared stiff, and it took his breathe away.

Hanging On: Chapter Seventeen

Posted in short stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2009 by Uncle Tree

Stunned into a state of shock such as they’d never before experienced, the men turned around and headed for fresh, clean air. With puzzled faces and mixed emotions, the posse proceeded to clear the area. Each and every man had their own set of questions. These questions pertained to meaning, intent, and purpose. Most of the men perceived the whole otherworldly ceremony as a sick, gross joke. The bastard had lost his mind and gone berserk. Simple as that. Nothing more needed to be said. He was a menace to society, and beyond help. It was their job to catch the murderer. He must pay for his crimes, and he would pay with his life. The penalty was death. There could be no compromise. Sure they had misgivings, but that bloody crazy act did not increase their fears of going after this man and carrying out their duty. Curses and spells and such belonged in fairy tales. They had no place in the minds of grown men.

Mark, the youngest of the bunch, was raised to believe differently from these men, although he wished he would soon ‘grow out of it’. He was old-fashioned. He had yet to shake off the aftereffects of his upbringing, which included all that ‘mumbo jumbo’ in The Bible that he used to believe wholeheartedly. For the most part, he denied the fact that he still retained a part of that imaginative belief system. Yes, even though he knew it wasn’t his fault, nor was it something he willfully chose to put his faith in, nevertheless, he berated and condemned himself for ever having believed it in the first place. Concerning these matters, Mark wasn’t about to fess up to his brethren. No, not hardly.

Because of Mark’s long-held beliefs, and because of what he had just seen back there, he was inclined to view the murderer as an evil villain, not as someone who was insane. He saw him as a purpose-driven man who knew exactly what he was doing. Mark’s question as he exited the cave came down to this: Was it really possible for a man to be possessed by evil spirits? He’d never before come into contact, or personally confronted a man who’d been labeled as such, so he didn’t really know if he believed it or not. He couldn’t rule it out, and this troubled him greatly. Mark left the question open, and since he had done that, he alone out of the group was leery of the pursuit. Mark thought himself a man, and he was ‘toughing it out’. He kept his fears tucked away, and hidden from his cohorts. Mark admired the way Sam took charge. In the past, when he had tried to ‘talk tough’, no one took him seriously, so he doubted his own meritorious valor. Some young men believe they have to prove themselves. Mark had more to prove than all the others, so as soon as they were out of that hell hole, Mark volunteered himself to be the man who would make his way to the top. “Okay, kid.” Sam relented. “Just be careful. Here, take this lantern, but don’t drop it. It’s breakable.” Mark was more than thrilled, and he took the slippery slope to task.

In a silent procession, Sam led the rest of his men back down to planet Earth. The rain on the ground had now turned to slush. The footing was pretty slick, and it was still sprinkling a bit, but they managed alright, as did Mark. By the time they’d reached their horses, Mark had already found the murderer’s muddy tracks. He crept towards the precipice and shouted, “He was here! He headed east!” Sam yelled back, “Okay! Now get on down here!” It was going on about ten o’clock by that time. Sam walked to his horse, and opened up the saddlebag once again, pulling out more deer jerky. It would give him strength, or so he concluded. He passed it around to his men, and put some aside for Mark. Then he went back to his saddle, and broke out a bottle of whiskey. “Something to calm my nerves would be good right now.” That was one of his reasons for bringing it. Those men were part and parcel for his other reason. “A little ‘courage in a bottle’ won’t do them any harm, and it’ll help them get up the gumption for the chase.” Sam had himself a couple of swigs and passed it around. About that time, Mark showed up happier than hell to have accomplished his daring feat, and Sam said nothing. Sam already knew Mark didn’t drink the stuff, so he went back and grabbed his canteen of water. He handed it to Mark, along with his share of jerky, and took the lantern from his hand. Then Sam addressed the whole gang, “What do you say boys? Are you ready for this?” Cries rang out all at once. “Hell, yes!” “You bet we are!” “Damn right!” Mark swallowed real quick and joined in late, “Let’s go get that sonuvabitch!” That’s exactly what Sam wanted to hear.

“Mount up, men! If I remember correctly, just around the bend of the river there’s a place where we can get up to the top of the cliff, so follow me, and let’s ride!” Now hanging from their saddles, and from their horse’s manes were icicles just beginning to find their form. The horses also seemed ready to vacate the place, and happily obliged the call to giddy-up and go.

Sam’s memory served them well, and they did find their way to higher ground. The murderer’s embedded prints were found, and they followed his muddy tracks along the trail less traveled. Sam felt like death warmed over, even though he was colder than hell. After a short jaunt, he took to an easier pace. He wasn’t in that big of a hurry, because he was still of a mind to call off the chase once they’d reached the road that would take them back to the river, and from there to Bedlam and beyond. “That man has surely headed off to Mexico, if he has any sense left at all,” Sam figured, and he wasn’t ready, willing, nor able to pursue the criminal to God knows where. He didn’t believe these cowboys would mind, nor would they scoff at his preordained decision. Sam thought they were mostly in it for the money, and mostly he was correct in that assumption. I say mostly because…Mark still had something to prove. He was more than willing and ready to go to the ends of the earth, if only Sam were to ask that of him.

One totally miserable half-hour later, the posse arrived at the main road, and found themselves in the grips of indecision. The murderer’s tracks not only went south, but they were going to the north as well. It looked as if that vicious killer couldn’t make up his mind, either. The men had never actually seen Sam confused up until that moment. He loudly threw his question up for grabs, “Why in the hell did he hesitate?” Without waiting for an answer, he rode south a little ways. “They stop right here.” Mark turned his horse and walked to the north for about 20 yards. “They stop here, too. Hold on a second!” Mark took a closer look, and walked to the side of the road. “He got off here and went that way,” he said as he pointed in an easterly direction. “Let me see how far these go.” Mark followed the tracks for just a short ways, turned to the left and went another 20 yards before seeing, and thus realizing, the man’s directed intentions. “Oh, my God! Sam! He’s headed north, back towards town!”

Hanging On: Chapter Sixteen

Posted in short stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2009 by Uncle Tree

As if in slow motion, Sam and his men made their way to the back of the cave. The yellowish glow of light from the loosely held lanterns swung up and down as it reflected off the tan sandstone walls. Long shadows of men in hats lengthened and shortened, and shakily moved to and fro as they cast themselves over jagged cracks, and deep, inlaid crevices. Flashing glimpses of crudely shaped figures carved into the wall could be seen here and there, now and then. The flickering flames from the lanterns were playing tricks on the eyes of these men. The rank stench remained debilitating, but because they were so intensely focused, they plumb forgot about it.

Sam continued to lead the team in single file. Having seen no signs of danger, he finally put his pistol back in it’s holster. Why the place stunk so bad, he could’t figure out. There were no dead bodies in there, animal or human, as far as Sam could tell. He stopped and turned back to the men. “I think I can see where they had their little fire. Hold your horses for a minute! This could be a trap.” Sam suspiciously moved on forward, keeping an eye out for a wire close to the floor. The ceiling was closing in on him, and he had to crouch down lower and lower as he went. He was within ten feet of the small pile of ashes when he eyed something written on the wall right beside it. It was written in red. Sam’s first thought was ‘paint’, because it looked to have been done with a brush. His second thought was, “Paint? Nobody carries red paint around with them. What the hell?” Without looking back, Sam waved his men towards him and says, “C’mon, and take a look at this.” “Weird,” he thought to himself. He was close enough by then to tell that what he was looking at wasn’t just a little fire some somebody had made just to say warm. This somebody had drawn some kind of picture around the fire by digging out grooves in the dirt. The men gathered into a half circle around the scene. Questioning looks could be seen on the face of every man. Dumbfounded and awestruck, they stood there in silence with their eyes wide open. They didn’t dare gasp for air.

There were four blood-colored symbols painted on the wall — a circle, a square, a triangle, and a five-pointed star. Red drips had ran down the wall under each one of them. Otherwise, the shapes looked perfect. A little too perfect for comfort, as it were. It was the same with the drawings of the symbols and the foreign-looking letters pressed into the dirt around the smallish fire. They were impossibly perfect, and too well done. No doubt, this had been the work of a professional. It was not the remains of some Indian ceremony, nor could it have been done by any ordinary outlaw. Their assumptions pointed directly to the foreign stranger they were chasing. That ruthless murderer had been there! They were sure of it. All in all, it beat the likes of anything any one of them had ever seen. But then again…the whole thing eerily reminded them of something. Every one of these men had an inkling that they had seen something like this before, but not a one of them could remember when, or where they’d seen it. That’s what made this all the more stupefying. Murmured words mumbled forth from their lips, words such as “witchcraft”, and “black magic”.  As Sam was standing there, he happened to think of Luke. “I wonder if he told us everything back at the Deputy’s office. There seems to be something I don’t know. But why would he have withheld information in the first place? I didn’t at all expect this. Good Lord! What kind of man are we after anyway? And where did he get all this blood?”

Later on, a few of Sam’s men tried to describe this scene for Matt. All in all, this is what they came up with: A perfectly round circle, about three feet in diameter, enclosed the entire delicately positioned diagram. The groove that made up this circle was one inch wide and one inch deep. A small amount of blood had been carefully poured into the groove all the way around. It had since soaked into the sandy dirt at the bottom of the groove. Inside this circle there was a square. Again, it looked to be perfectly proportioned. It was two and a half feet wide. It was aligned as such so that the corners were pointing exactly north, south, east, and west. Outside of the square, and above every corner was a symbol. These seem to have been pressed into the dirt with some sort of tool, and he must have used a template. They were exquisitely well-formed. At the north point stood a sun with thin, pointed rays. On the east side lay a triangle with an eye across the center of it. At the bottom, or south corner, there were two quarter moons facing each other, almost touching. Outside of the west corner there was a circle with a diamond inside of it. The diamond pointed north and south. It had a line going through it, also pointing north and south. This very straight line extended to and punctured through the circle.

Just under the lines inside the square were descriptive symbolizations that imperceptibly changed form as they rounded the corners. The form was one of four different languages, and four unrecognizable alphabets. They could have been numbers, for all the men knew. They could have been sentences or elaborate equations, or possibly, some type of formula. Whatever they meant, the man had to be a master calligrapher. These, too, were skillfully pressed into the dirt. These intricate inscriptions that flowed from their creator’s intimations revealed connotations of a diabolical intelligence graced with unearthly beauty.

Underneath these lines, and centered in the square were two overlaid triangles, one pointing up and one pointing down. The triangle pointing down was smaller than the other one, so that although it still represented a five-pointed star, it wasn’t your average, normal symmetrical star. What remained of the very small fire lay in the middle of the star, and acted as the center-point of the whole geometric design. The man had used six to eight inch sticks to build his little pile. These sticks hadn’t been completely burnt down. They appeared to have had barely enough time to go up in flames before they were smothered out. There was something else rather odd about it. The ashes on the outer edges were white as snow, and it looked as if they had been crystallized.

Taken all together,  the whole structure had an otherworldly feel to it. It was obviously a finely-honed ritual that implied a knowledge of dark, cultish mores. What ever it was…there’d been a definite and exacting method inherent in his madness. After a few minutes of serene bewilderment, Sam stooped down and put his hand over the blackened embers. Then he carefully pushed his finger down into the pile. “It’s still warm, men. Couldn’t have been out for more than a couple of hours. That devil of a man must have taken his sweet time going to all this trouble. Let’s get the hell out of this God forsaken sanctuary. We’ll check the other path that goes up to the top. He had to have come in that way, and we’ll probably be able to tell which direction he’s headed. I hope you boys are up to it. It looks like we done got ourselves an outlaw to chase. Man, I need some air. Let’s go!”

Hanging On: Chapter Fifteen

Posted in short stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 15, 2009 by Uncle Tree

As the river bound posse made headway through the darkened, foggy mist, Sam was calculating the odds that seemed to be against them. The ‘Wanted Man’ they were searching for had about a 2o-hour head start on them. Once they reached the cave, all he expected to possibly find was evidence of some nature that the murderer had been there. If Sam’s hunch was in fact correct, they could pick up the fugitive’s tracks, and be certain of the direction he had taken from there. If they found no evidence whatsoever, Sam had planned to call off the chase and head back towards home. With the temperature dropping the way it was, he figured they’d end up riding back to Bedlam in an ice storm. Sam wasn’t looking forward to that, and if they were to find absolutely nothing at the cave, it wouldn’t have bothered him one bit. His men were so inclined to feel the same way about it. It’s not so hard to feel courageous when you’re comfortable, and they were definitely far from that. The thrill that they’d felt at the start of the chase was now gone. Even though they’d bundled themselves up sufficiently to ward off the rain and the cold, they weren’t ready to withstand it. They were already fed up with the whole thing. On top of that, they were hungry. Then again, they wanted the bonus promised to them. They assumed they’d get it, too, whether or not they caught the murderer. Sam could tell the way they felt, but he was still determined to go at least as far as the cave. He, too, was almost hoping his hunch was wrong, but wasn’t quite ready to admit that to himself. In another five minutes they’d reach the river, and then they could take a break. They’d reached the peak of their uphill climb, and were headed down to the valley. The horses carefully stepped their way between half-hidden rocks submerged in muddied clay.

The road they were on was well traveled, with many a track going in both directions. Hunters a plenty frequented the river valley in the fall. It was known to be a fairly safe journey. Two years earlier, in 1867, the Arapaho tribes had signed a peace treaty, and surrendered away their rights. They were corralled, and then driven down to a reservation in Oklahoma. Our posse didn’t have to worry about Indian attacks, unlike in the old days. Their only worries had to do with the weather, and traversing the slippery slopes. The path that led to the cave had to be taken on foot, but Sam reassured the men that it wasn’t all that steep, nor was it dangerous under normal, dry conditions. That’s why it was a popular hangout. Two paths led to the cave’s entrance, one from above and one from below. Since they were to go in from the river side of the cliff, they’d use the one from below.

As they came upon the river, Sam was gladdened by the sight of low, and slow moving waters. It was as he expected for there’d been no rain as of late. They dismounted and led their horses to the edge for a drink. They were thirsty, but still in good shape from the ride. (Every one of these horses were part of Sam’s stock. They were well-trained 3 to 5 year olds from a fine breed, for Sam could afford the best.) He opened up his saddlebag wherein he kept the provisions, and brought out a handful of deer jerky strips. He gave each man a few pieces, whereupon they did partake of it. They were mighty hungry, and didn’t care what it was. Food was food to them right then. Sam also got out one of the loaves of flatbread from his bag, and then securely tied it back up. He walked up to each man, broke off a piece and handed it to them, before leaving himself at the last with the biggest chunk of the bunch. In silence, this fellowship of men gathered together side by side on the bank of the river, and set their gazes towards the cliffs on the other side. The wind had died down, but the cold mist was beginning to turn into freezing sprinkles. The rations were scarfed down quickly, and a canteen of water was passed back and forth between the men. With their stomachs quieted, and their thirst now quenched, Sam decided he’d better speak on out. “It’s time we get to movin’, boys. We best be saddlin’ up. Let’s go!”

Without asking any questions, or expressing any of their concerns, the men grabbed their horses and climbed aboard. Sam took the lead and led his posse across the cold, shallow waters of the river. They were all lost in thought, wondering what they were going to find once they reached the chosen destination. After they had made it safely to the other side, they headed west and followed the riverbank for the remainder of their five-mile journey. Sam kept looking for fresh tracks all along the way. There were none to be found. A half an hour later, they arrived at the place where the river bends back towards the south. Sam knew then that it was time to look for the trail they needed to take. The trail that would eventually lead them to the cliff was quickly spotted. Sam was a little surprised by how well he remembered the surrounding scenery. He looked back to the men, “Let’s try and get those lanterns started. Find some cover if you need to, but we have to get them lit. If someone were in the cave right now tending a fire, we’d have been able to see the light coming off of it from here. I doubt if there’s anyone up there. Nevertheless, let’s try to keep it quiet anyway. And one more thing, I don’t want any of you boys getting trigger happy once we get up there. I don’t want to get shot in the back. Ya hear me? Okay, then. If there’s going to be a first shot, I plan on being the one who takes it.”

The lantern’s were lit, and they were set to go. “Give me one of those things!” Sam commanded. “Now, follow me. Single file, and keep it down.” The cowboys hadn’t been talking to each other at all, so there was little need for him to say that. They left the riverbank and made way for the target. One hundred zig-zagging yards or so later, they reached the bottom of the cliff. Sam looked around on the ground once again, but still didn’t see any signs of fresh tracks. They got off their horses and tied them up to some of the smaller boulders that were laying in heaps all around them. A few of the horses were acting restless and jumpy, but the men didn’t think anything of it. A light, freezing rain continued to pelt their hats as they continued the rest of the way on foot. “Watch your step men,” Sam reminded them. “It may be slick up there, and it’s a 40 foot drop to the ground.” The trail narrowed, and gradually steepened until it reached the leveled ledge. The ledge itself was about three-fourths of the way up the face of the cliff. It was 4 to 5 feet wide, and nearly 50 yards in length. The mouth of the cave was situated in the middle of this ledge. At the far side of the shelf could be found the second path. It ran steeply on up to the top from there.

They made it up to the ledge without encountering any missteps, and with their backs against the wall began to shuffle across, one by one. Sam was still in the lead, of course, and as soon as he hit the ledge he pulled out his pistol. The men couldn’t help but to notice. If any one of those cowboys hadn’t been awake before, they sure were after Sam did that. Their hands continued to hug the wall as they shimmied on along the rock. Their pistols remained in their holsters, like Sam said. Slowly and carefully they closed in on the entrance. Sam was within 10 yards of the mouth of the cave when he caught a whiff of stale smoke creeping out of it. He stopped his men in their tracks. Another foul scent seemed to be mixed in with the smell of burning wood. But this odor was sickening, putrid, and stank horribly. All the men noticed it, and all the men squirmed up their faces. It reminded Sam of the stench put off by old, rotten eggs. “Someone or something must be in there, or they were just recently,” Sam thought. “Maybe something’s dead.” Sam put the lantern in his leading hand, and held his pistol in the other as he crept on closer still. The cowboys followed after him, more nervous now than ever. Within a foot of the opening Sam stopped and looked back at his men, signaling them to stop. Then he turned himself around and faced the wall.

The arm that held the lantern was lifted and he reached it out into the opening, just enough to shine some light in there. Nothing seemed to stir, so he took off his hat and bent over to the side to take a peek. Seeing nothing, he stuck his whole head out there to look. He saw no signs of life right away, so he turned back to his men. “It looks like the coast is clear. There doesn’t seem to be anyone in there.” Sam nonchalantly walked right on in, and the men, now relieved, followed after him. They were glad enough just to have gotten inside, out of that damn freezing rain. Sam lifted his lantern high. The ceiling stood some 4 feet above his head, and steadily dropped to about 3 feet high just another 50 foot deeper on down into the horizontal hole. Once Sam had gotten the lantern over his head, he thought he could see where that smoke had been coming from. The smell was so nauseating in there, that most of the men held a hand over their nose. They continued their slow walk into the cave with their eyes surveying their whereabouts the whole time. Suddenly Sam stopped. He was looking down at footprints in the dirt, footprints that had been made by someone in their bare feet.

Sam and his men were about to walk up to a bewildering scene beyond compare. It would form for them a picture that would forever be imprinted in their minds. It was to be a sight that would strike and pain them, all the way down to the core; all the way down to the very depths of their souls.

Hanging On: Chapter Thirteen

Posted in short stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2009 by Uncle Tree

Sam couldn’t help but to stop and reminisce once they’d reached the hanging tree. It had been seven or eight years since the last time he’d been party to a posse. He’d had his first brush with death towards the end of that ordeal. A bullet had gone clean through his hat, missing his scalp by a mere two inches. It was one of those memories that are impossible to forget.  The kind that often come to mind at the most inopportune of moments. Of course, he’d heard the stories going the rounds, but he didn’t believe them for a minute. Sam was too ‘down to earth’ to entertain ideas that pertained to ghosts, or hauntings. “A bunch of malarkey,” according to him. He rather viewed the big oak as a landmark. It was the only one of its kind in the area, and stuck out like a sore thumb. When he dropped Luke’s rope down beside it, he explained to the men, “It’s weight is slowing me down. We may be in for a long ride.” That’s all he said. His men had to be wondering about that excuse, and we can imagine they thought he really did mean to hang the fugitive if they caught him, but they kept their mouths shut.

They’d all heard the reason he gave Luke for needing the rope. They thought that Sam had had a change of mind and plans from when he’d first questioned the Deputy. Perhaps, he’d come to his senses, they thought. None of his men really wanted to participate in a murder, and risk going to jail, or worse. They didn’t know what to think about Sam’s latest action. They didn’t know if they could take him at his word, although they wished to. Their job was their life, and it was in his hands. The men kept their reservations to themselves. Second-guessing Sam was never a good idea. It didn’t matter now anyway, Sam was already second-guessing himself. The winds of change were making themselves known.

Let me tell you about Sam. To begin with, he was a large man. He stood over six feet tall, and weighed somewheres around two hundred and fifty pounds. A good decade past his prime, he was to turn fifty years of age that coming December. He’d never been married, although he claimed to have once been ‘in love’. He wanted to go West, and she didn’t. End of story. When he was ‘in the mood’ for romance, which wasn’t all that often, he’d visit a lady friend who kept a room on the saloon’s second floor. Sam had never known his father. He’d abandoned his mother when he was but a wee tot. Sam regretted the way it had all gone down when he left his mother back in St. Louis. He was thirty years old at the time. It wasn’t a good parting. He gave her one of those, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” kind of things. She died of consumption before he’d procured the means to make his first return trip back home.

Sam was known to have been a rambunctious self-made man. He also knew the value of saving money. He was finally able to buy that dream ranch of his, and did so during the year of 1864. Sam was reliable, trustworthy, and loyal. He demanded those traits from his hired-hands, and for the most part, he received it. He wasn’t afraid to act on a hunch. Sam thought he knew where he might find the murderer, or at least pick up his trail, and that’s where they were headed. His was an educated guess. In the past, bank robbers, horse thieves, and other hardened criminal types were known to have hid themselves out in a small cave not too far on past the river. Sam had been there before on his previous posse mission. The way Sam figured it, if the stranger wasn’t there, and they saw no sign of his tracks, then he was probably headed to Mexico, and that’d be the end of the chase. “We did the best we could.” He imagined himself saying that to everyone. Nothing more would need to be said in the way of a justification.

Of course, everyone has fears, and Sam was no exception. He had his own private insecurities, but he never spoke of them, and would never have admitted them out loud. More than death itself, Sam feared losing the powers of his two-armed beast. One of those arms represented his position in society. Sam loved his hard earned success. He loved what he’d made of himself, and his ranch gave him the means to do good business. He had hoped to make a fortune from the land, and he was well on his way to doing just that. So, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear — Sam loved his money more than he loved speedy justice. Oh, he wanted to hang that sonuvabitch! Please, don’t get me wrong. The thing was…Sam had a business deal scheduled for Tuesday. He only had two days to play with, and then he’d have to be back. He didn’t want to miss that meeting for anything. Oh sure, he thought catching the bad guy was a ‘good idea’, but it wasn’t paramount. Not in his book, anyway. And his book was the one of financial security. Sam was somewhat content, but he thought he could handle more. He was sorely afraid of becoming poor and destitute somewheres on down the road.

The other arm of this fearful beast was the arm of physical prowess. Sam had been big and strong since he’d turned 18. He’d made a habit out of playing the ‘tough guy’. Men feared his very presence, and that bought him a peculiar type of respect. He could push people around without laying one finger on them. That’s the way he liked it, and that’s the way he wanted it. It provided him with an odd sort of happiness. Sam wasn’t ready to give up that respect. He wanted to retain his reputation. He was still a ‘bad ass’. This characterization gave him a heightened sense of self-esteem, and made him feel important. Intellectually, he knew it couldn’t last forever. His power of strength would slowly fade away someday, and he was just beginning to realize the nearness of that stage.

Sam had never necessarily intended on breaking the law. He couldn’t afford to. This excursion, and his role in it as the ‘leader of the pack’? That was his game. That was his hype. He was putting on a show, and Sam was a well-polished actor. He’d had lots of practice perfecting his — ‘Don’t mess with me!’ — persona. Sam could act genuinely outraged, and angrier than hell, when in all actuality, he wasn’t mad in the least. He put on a display, and assumed the posture of authority, which in turn acted as a deterrent, and an efficient one at that. Now that Sam and his men had been put on the side of the law, their choices as to what they could do were limited. If indeed they did end up catching the murderer, they’d have to bring him back alive, or kill him in self-defense. That was their only other choice, but it would work all the same. It was a plausible possibility. Most importantly, it could be carried out in complete compliance with the law of the land. Sam had enough witnesses to back up his story, if that’s how it all came down. He was ready and able to do just that, and prepared himself accordingly.

Hanging On: Chapter Twelve

Posted in short stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2009 by Uncle Tree

Matt was in a hurry to get back to Bedlam, but his old mare was already giving him her best. It wasn’t long until she fell back to her normally slow pace. They arrived 10 minutes earlier than usual. The old girl was happier to be home than he was, and started prancing as soon as she caught eye of the place. Matt was looking down the road, setting his focus on the legendary oak tree with the graveyard close behind. He was glad to see it hadn’t changed a bit since he’d left. No one was standing around there, and no black stallion was seen nearby. The skies were clear, and the weather was warm for the sun was shining brightly. In the mid-afternoon of that day, the scene showed no signs of the menacing features for which it was famous, such as being haunted.

Matt had never believed in ghosts, not even as a child, nor did he ever believe that line about the hanging tree, “Home to a hundred killer’s souls, or more…” He thought all that stuff was a bunch of baloney, even though he was the one who’d repeated the story more often than anyone else in town. He stood by the line that says, “Seeing is believing.” He never completely ruled out the unlikely, and fairly thought himself open-minded. Matt liked to tell scary stories to people who believed in that nonsense. Though he knew many a fairy tale, he didn’t believe in miracles that could come into being all of their own accord. He imagined that if miracles ever existed at all, they came into being through action. To him, they were not make believe stories, they were made to happen historical events. According to Matt’s wife, he was a dreamer who often succumbed to flights of fancy. “He forever has his head up in the clouds,” was her claim, but she loved him nonetheless, and looked up to him in many respects. For his part, Matt saw himself as one of those types of men who would think things out before taking action. He’d didn’t enjoy delayed regrets. On his way home that day, he made up his mind in a rational way. He decided on the question he would ask his neighbors concerning the night before. This is what he came up with. “Did you see, or hear, anything strange last night after you went to bed?” Matt liked questions that were short and to the point. He liked to give short answers that were meaningless even more, because he enjoyed confounding his audience.

In her frustrated impatience, Matt’s wife had been waiting outside the house for him with her arms crossed. His hound dog lay at her feet, and didn’t bother to get up. He was late in coming back with the groceries once again. He rode up on his happy dancing horse, pulled back on the reins, and began to dismount before coming to a halt, and almost fell off. “Sorry it took so long. I have an excuse. Hear me out first.” His wife looked at the dog and shook her head. “Here we go again,” she said in a thought to herself. She unfolded her arms and put her hands on her hips. “For pity’s sake! What is it now?” She kept the next few words to herself. We can assume she thought, “This is getting to be old hat.”

Matt goes on to tell her the whole story, but he tried to tone it down a bit. He didn’t want it to sound too awfully bad, because then she’d be afraid to move there. Matt had applied for a job with the railroad, and they’d have to leave Bedlam if he were able to get himself hired on as he had hoped. She took the news rather hard, to say the least, but she took everything personally, so Matt was not too surprised by her hysterical reaction. He calmed her down best he could. Shortly thereafter, he proceeded to go out and make his way around to each and every neighbor. Matt repeated his well-rehearsed question to all, but no one had seen anything unusual, nor had they heard any strange noises. Their closest neighbor was an elderly widow. She had a complaint waiting for Matt. She madly claimed to have heard his hound dog late the night before. He was “…barking and howling away for the hell of it!” as she put it. She was awakened two hours after she’d gone to bed, and in her anger, she’d gotten up and looked out the window. Upon seeing this ‘nothing’, she opened it up and yelled, “Just what in the hell are you barking at, ya damn dog?!!” Matt told her he was sorry, and that he was home and in bed the same time as she, and he never heard the dog. “Are you calling me a liar?” she yelled at him. “No, ma’am, no,” he replied as he walked away. He did have to wonder if his dog heard, or smelled something, but thought no more of it. Having received no surefire confirmations, he went on back home feeling a little relieved.

That vision he had of the riderless horse in the graveyard? As far as Matt was concerned, it was a product of his imagination, and nothing else. He had no foresight, and had never had what one might call a premonition. He didn’t believe in prophecy. Matt didn’t go and investigate the graveyard to see if he could find any evidence confirming his sleepy suspicions. He didn’t go look for trampled down grass near the tombstones. As a matter of fact, Matt had never set foot in that graveyard. Not once since he’d lived there. He’d never read the names, nor the dates engraved on the pocketed, mossy faces. He didn’t feel the need to get a close-up view of the legendary hanging tree. He’d never seen the rings worn into and around it’s lowest limb. He never let his curiosity get the best of him. If one were to ask him why he’d never visited the dead, he would have said, “I didn’t know any of those people, so I’ve never had a good reason to go there.” At this stage of his life, Matt thought that youth could conquer all, so he had nothing to fear…which is another way of saying, he wasn’t experienced.

Later that afternoon, Matt’s wife sent him out to get wood for the stove. She was sickened by the news her husband had brought home. She wished to forget the whole thing, and would do so by starting dinner, and fixing her mind on her work. Not wanting his dearest beloved to have another tizzy fit, Matt took to the task set before him right away, and went out to the back to fetch a few logs. The first thing he noticed was a change in the wind, which was now from the north, and much cooler. The skies were beginning to look hazy, and he knew he should expect there’d be rain or snow by morning. His forecasts he believed in. He was a hunter, so he knew these things. He wasn’t guessing. As he began to choose between the logs, he fell to daydreaming again. This time around it was about building a new house in the new city. For no good reason, he raised his head and broadly cast his gaze up the road. A half a mile or so away, he could see a cloud of dust being raised and blown about in the wind. Quicker than he could say ‘horses’, he thought he knew who it might be. Matt ran around to the other side of the stack, ducked down, and took off his hat. He didn’t know why, and didn’t question his motive. “I bet it’s Sam and his men,” he whispered to himself. The rolling sound of thunder was headed his way. They rode up fast and went right past, then he popped up his head to look. The big man at the head of the posse was Sam alright, and they seemed to be in a hurry. But as they reached the edge of town, they all pulled up right fast. Matt watched in suspense as Sam walked his horse over to the tree, stopped, looked up, and just stared at it for a minute…a long minute. He unhooked a long, winding rope from his saddle , and dropped it to the ground. Then just as fast as they’d stopped, Sam yanked at the reins, took off with a start and his men followed him south down the road. The cloud of dust was reborn, and was closing in on their heels. The northern winds were right behind, pushing them away from Bedlam.

Hanging On: Chapter Eleven

Posted in short stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2009 by Uncle Tree

Sam knew Luke had a swing in his backyard. Everyone in town knew of it. They were used to seeing children playing back there. It was sort of like the town’s park. Luke had also crudely fashioned a seesaw for them to play on, using a short-legged sawhorse and a long, wooden plank. Plans were underway to build a treehouse up in the same elm that held the swing. He’d already finished the ladder, and had hoped to begin the rest of the work next spring. They had yet to see any kids come over on this day. Parents were worried over their safety, after all that had gone on the night before, and had kept their children in-house for good reason. Until the killer was caught, there’d be no playing outside.

Luke went on out the back to see what it was that they wanted. He was working up the gall to say ‘no’, just in case. His frazzled nerves made him feel anxious again, easily and quickly. As soon as Sam saw him open the door, he began to speak. “Hey, Luke! I was hoping you’d do me a favor.” Luke held his breathe, and raised his eyebrows, then responded nervously,”What do you need, Sam?” Sam noticed the worried look on Luke’s face, and put his mind to ease at once. “No, it’s not that. We don’t need you to go along with us.” Luke sighed in relief. “Here’s the deal,” Sam began. “Our Deputy Marshall has just sworn us in. It is now official. We have lawful orders to carry out. We will assist the Deputy in this manhunt. We are to bring our stranger back alive, if at all possible. From what we’ve heard, the murderer doesn’t even carry a gun, which is hard to believe. Of course, we know he carries a knife, and it’s likely to be the murder weapon. That’s not a problem, he’ll be no match against us. We did ask around. Nobody saw him wearing a pistol. No one saw a rifle in his saddle. He bought no ammunition while he was here. The man must be crazy. That’s plain stupid. Anyway, he’ll be an easy catch, if we can find him, that is. I think I know where he’s off to. The Deputy is staying here to keep watch over the town. He’ll send word out to his boss, the nearest Marshall, on the next train that comes through. It’s due tomorrow.”

“Here’s the problem, Luke. It’s nothing much. We need a long, strong rope, like that one over there, the one you’re using for a swing,” Sam continued. Luke jumped all over that admission, and sarcastically replied, “I thought you said ‘alive’…that you’d bring him back alive.” Sam wasted no time, “No. It’s not that. We don’t need it to hang him. Heaven’s to Betsy, no. We have some smaller rope to tie his hands behind his back. But I hear he has a mighty fine horse, and I want to get it back here. If I can work things out, I hope to keep it. I need a rope like yours, so we can pull it along behind us. I don’t want it getting away. So, what do you say? I’ll bring it back to you just as soon as I can. If anything happens to it, I’ll buy you another. We don’t have time to mess around right now. The man has a pretty good head start on us as it is, and we need to take off here shortly, or just as soon as we can. I’m sure you understand.” Sam had kept a serious look on his face during the whole explanation, and his eyes never left their target. That didn’t matter to Luke. He thought it was a lame excuse for wanting the rope. “He’s a hankerin’ for a hangin’, if anything,” he silently spoke to himself.

“Well, since you put it that way, I suppose so.” Luke was doing his best to act enthused over the whole deal. “No problem, Sam. No problem at all. The kids won’t miss it for a day or two. Besides, most of them will be stuck in their houses for awhile. I’ll climb right on up and untie the knots. It’ll only take a few. Hang on a minute, and I’ll go get it.” But before he could take two steps, Sam stopped him. “That’s alright, Luke. Don’t bother. We’ll get it down, no problem. Thanks a lot! You’ve saved us some time. It may take us a day or two. I want you showing up at the ranch Monday, no matter what. My help will be expecting you. They’ll show you around, and you can see what’s what. I know your a self-starter, so I’m sure you can find some work to do. We’ll be back as soon as we can, by Tuesday at least, with or without him. Don’t you worry about us now. I’ve been through this before. We’ll get ‘er done. Okay?” Sam appeared self-assured, as usual. Luke wasn’t at all happy after he heard the idea, but he continued to be agreeable. He had many fond memories tied up in that rope, and he didn’t want to lose them altogether in one shot. Luke knew it was silly to think about it like that, but he did it anyway, and quite naturally, in fact.

“Sure, Sam, sure,” answered Luke, thinking as he spoke. “Oh, yes. I’ll be there Monday, you can count on it. Sounds great!” Luke had thought of some questions while Sam was speaking, and he finally remembered what they were. “Can I ask you something? I was wondering. You know, that foreigner doesn’t speak English. How will he know why he’s being tied up and made prisoner? I mean, how would he even confess? Do you hope to find the pastor’s blood on his knife, or what? Won’t you need some kind of evidence?”

Sam had already asked himself these questions, so he already knew the answers. “Yes, Luke, evidence would help, if it comes to that. Blood on his hands, especially. I think he’ll know the why’s, though. Do you think he didn’t turn around once and look at the fire? Even if he didn’t start it, I surely think he’d of noticed, or heard your cry for help and looked back. As far as the confession goes, a simple nod either way will suffice. We’ll just stand that bastard in front of the burnt down church. Excuse my language. I think he’ll get the picture, if he hadn’t figured it out by then.” Luke was regularly struck by Sam’s unending show of confidence. Yesterday’s hero had a small sliver of doubt in his mind, concerning the stranger’s guilt. It was acting like a thorn stuck in his side, painfully and constantly pricking away. He’d yet to get beyond the shadow.

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