The Hanging Tree Of Bedlam: Second Coming


On the southern edge of Bedlam, back in 1869, stood a tall old oak tree. Its fame and glory stemmed from the fact that it had been host to a multitude of hangings. Conveniently located, it lived and grew beside the road that ran to the river. This highly prominent tree was used with regularity by enforcers of the law who wished to see justice carried out to its fullest measure. The town’s large graveyard lay just beyond the tree, which only helped increase the oak’s popularity. Having a cemetery nearby quickened the entire procedure, for little time need be wasted between the drop and the burial.

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The Hanging Tree Of Bedlam – 23

Once in a very great while, out of the devil-ridden chaos that dominates our mundane world, order presents itself in the form of seemingly meaningful coincidences. Through the ripped veil of the universal fabric, singularly particular events occur that may cause a person to question the ironclad laws of causality.


Although the northern winds had subsided, a light freezing rain continued to fall as Mark grabbed the ivory-handled dagger. He had no qualms about tampering with the evidence. That idea never crossed his mind. Easily and quickly, Mark pulled the murder weapon from the chosen burial spot. An instant later, they heard a quavering creak, and a tremulous crack. Then resonating through the air came the ripping sound of splintering wood. All eyes were on the lowest limb, as little by little, it began to give way. The feet of the stone-cold stiff touched the ground, and the teetering corpse leaned forward, swaying to the left, and to the right, back and forth. That was more than the limb could bear. With a loud hissing noise, it tore itself away from the trunk, and dropped to the ground. The recently departed man fell flat on his face. With a thump and a bounce, his hands were loosed from their bind, and laid themselves at his sides. Those strange hissing noises quickly became gusty winds. But now they were from the west, as if they were coming from the tree itself. Sam’s hat was blown clean off his head. He ducked and backed away. The horses were spooked by the brush of the branch, and reared back on their hinds, nearly throwing their riders onto the road. Fiercely and frightfully, the steeds pedaled their hooves to fend off the invisible foes around them. From the far side of the graveyard came the scream of the mighty stallion.

The audible release of pressurized air whipping through the icy branches provided the men with the oddest of impressions. Resembling auditory hallucinations, the winds rushed past their ears creating a vast array of timorous wails and reverberating howls. They’d been jolted into hearing a unique choral arrangement of discordant tones and low-pitched moans, as a cacophony of a hundred voices cried aloud in anguish. Heard, but unseen, the ghastly parade of drifters floated by, one after the other, or so it seemed, for about ten seconds. The sounds were dying down as the winds eventually slowed, and came to an utterly silent standstill. After a moment or two, the cold wind picked up once again, but lightly this time, and from a northerly direction. The men’s horses settled down, but the murderer’s black stallion had mysteriously disappeared.

Standing by the tree, shocked and amazed, knife in hand, was a dumbfounded Mark, now dizzier than ever. He was being spellbound by a constant barrage of inarticulate words and jumbled phrases, whilst his inner mind was receiving dim and distorted images of face after tormented face. Flashing before him were the portraits of unknown men, each with a noose around their neck, each hopelessly gasping for one last breath. With a faraway look in his eyes, he fixedly stared at the broken limb. It had straddled the legs of the man when it fell to the ground. Mark was finally shaken from his stupor by the familiar voice of Sam verbalizing his own sense of wonder.

“What in tarnation was that?” asked the boss. No replies came forth, so he answered his own good question. “It was nothing but the wind,” he paused for a moment, searching for more plausible explanations, “and all that added weight from this damn ice storm. That’s all it took. That’s all it was.” Sam looked over at Mark. The young man had turned the lightest shade of pale. “Hey, Kid! Are you alright?” Quickly changing his pained expression, Mark raised his eyes to meet Sam’s, and forced himself to give the boss a rather tentative response. “Yeah! I’m okay! I’m okay!” Sam doubted that straightforward answer. It was fairly obvious to him that Mark wasn’t okay. He let it slide for the time being and firmly said, “Good! Now, give me that knife before you hurt yourself.” Mark commanded his legs to move, and keeping an eye on the face-down corpse, he walked over to Sam and gave him the dagger. Curious as to what their next move might be, he asked, “What are we going to do with him now?” Since Sam had luckily ran into that excuse he was searching for, he didn’t need to hesitate. “Nothing. Leave him be. He can stay right there. I’ll take care of it later. Come on over here. I’ve got something to tell you guys.” Sam headed towards the road, and Mark stayed close behind him. The posse, most of whom were still trying to get their act together, pulled themselves back to the present moment. A little dazed and a bit confused, they cleared the cobwebs from their minds, and gave Sam their somewhat divided attention.

Sam contrived to put a smile on his face, and vocalized a forced laugh, “He-he-he! That wind was something else, eh?” Sam didn’t give them time to answer. “How you men doing? Are you alright?” After a short second of silence, the men sucked it up, and then they all spoke at once. “Oh, yeah!” was heard, and, “Sure we are!” and “Of course!” came along with, “You bet!” They were nothing but white lies, and Sam knew it. Those minor fibs caused him to wear a natural smile, and he replied ingenuously with, “Glad to hear it!” Not wanting to waste a moment, Sam laid down his newfound plan. “Listen up, boys! As you can all see, our mission has been completed.” He paused, and smirked, “Well, almost, that is. There are a couple of other matters to settle, but I’ll take care of those. Lookie here now, this is the end of the line for me tonight. I’ve already made prior arrangements to stay in a vacated house right here in Bedlam. It’s just down the road a ways. A friend of mine used to live there. About this…,” Sam turns his head and looks back at the crime scene, “about this dead guy here, and whatever he buried in that hole, we’ll find out what’s what in the morning. He’s not going anywhere, and I doubt if anyone around here is going to bother him.”

Sam cut to the chase, and summed it all up by laying down the bottom line. “The truth is…we didn’t hang the bastard. We cannot, and will not be accused of having done so, nor will we take credit for the deed. We will not be held accountable, either way. I want you men to go on back to town, and out to the ranch. Go take care of yourselves. We’ve been through Hell tonight! You men did a fine job of sticking with it. I expected nothing less from the lot of you. You’ll get your bonus in cash as soon as I make it back. Hopefully, it’ll be around noon. Now, when you get into town, I want you to stop in at the Deputy’s office. I happen to know he’s been spending his nights there lately. Bang on his door, and wake him up. I don’t care how you do it. Quickly explain the situation, and then tell him to get his sorry ass out here first thing in the morning. Tell him I’m expecting him, and that he better be here, if he knows what’s good for him. I’ll be waiting.” Those relieved and enlightened cowboys could easily see that Sam was dead serious. “Alrighty then. You got that?” Sam asked. The eldest of the bunch took the lead, and speedily replied, “Yeah! Sure, boss. No problem. We’ll get ‘er done!”

Sam opened his saddlebag, and hid the knife away in a safe place. “Okay. Now get on out of here! I’ll deal with the rest of this mess, and…” Mark interrupted Sam in mid speech with a heartfelt plea. ” Hey, Sam! I don’t feel so hot. Would you mind if I stayed here with you?” Sam relented with good reason. He didn’t want to be alone. He couldn’t admit it, nor would he have dared to ask one of those men to keep him company. Mark had been treating him as if he were his own father, and Sam kind of liked that. “Sure, Kid. I don’t feel all that great, either.” We can’t say that Sam was totally unfazed by what he described as ‘nothing but the wind’. Understandably, he didn’t see, nor did he hear what Mark saw and heard. Sam’s experience of ‘the wind’ wasn’t the same as Mark’s experience. All we can say is – when Sam was crouched over, covering his head with his arms, he wasn’t thinking about his safety. He didn’t imagine he was in any real trouble, because he’d forgotten where he was altogether. Sam was having a vivid daydream, and it seemed all too real to him at the time. The only person he was seeing in his mind during those 10 long seconds was his dearly departed mother. The visuals were perfectly clear, as she stood at the door of their old house begging him not to go. “Sam! Sam! Don’t leave! Don’t leave me here alone like this! Sam! Sam! Sam?” He wished he’d never looked back.

The Hanging Tree Of Bedlam


On the southern edge of Bedlam, back in 1869, stood a tall old oak tree. It’s fame and glory stemmed from the fact that it had been host to a multitude of hangings. Conveniently located, it lived and grew beside the road that ran to the river. This highly prominent tree was used with regularity by enforcers of the law who wished to see justice carried out to its fullest measure. The town’s large graveyard lay just beyond the tree, which only helped increase the oak’s popularity. Having a cemetery nearby quickened the entire procedure, for little time need be wasted between the drop and the burial.

In the year in which our story took place, the mighty oak was about 75-80 years old. Its height was estimated at 70 feet. As seen from afar, the crown appeared irregular in shape. In its asymmetrical pose, it leaned to the east, enabling itself to hang a few branches over and across the dirt road. These wickedly crafted branches shot forth from the tree’s most distinguishing feature, its lowest limb. This skinny, but sturdy limb jutted straight out from the trunk, whereas the rest of the limbs above it reached for the sky. Perpendicular to the trunk, it gave the tree a peculiar look. It reminded the folks of a flagpole in the way that it thrust itself out from the main. Being only 10 feet above the ground, it provided a means for the simple task of tying a rope. Positioned 8 feet from the trunk, two side by side branches shot up from the limb forming a V-shape. In the middle of these two branches lay a well-worn ring where the bark had been rubbed away, the scars of its labor having been caused by the frequency of its usage.

All throughout it’s long and storied history, this grand and stately tree had been fortunate in the fact that it had never succumbed to disease, nor had it ever been home to pesky insect infestations. Luckily for the tree, lightning strikes had let it be, whilst they struck and mangled many an other in its general vicinity. Natural disasters had left it alone. In their season of cranky moods, the fierce and usually unrelenting tornadoes had steered clear of its steadfast location every time they appeared in the area. Because of its good fortune, the tree had stayed intact. Except for the leaves that it dropped in the fall, along with a few small twigs that it lost here and there, now and then, the tree had retained all the parts it had grown up with. Perfect, whole, and complete, the oak had remained immaculate in its formation, having lived out its entire life in multi-dimensional tranquility.

We can hardly blame that old tree for its bad reputation. It had done nothing to deserve it. It wasn’t able to understand man and his ways. Absolutely, it had always acted as it should, in an appropriate manner, natural and common to its kind. Except for those times when men would come to swing on its limb, people shied away from it, especially at night, whilst all the rest of God’s creatures treated it with dignity and respect. Folks said the big oak was haunted. “Home to a hundred killer’s souls, or more…”, but the tree didn’t kill them. Quite to the contrary, it took and accepted those men’s souls unto itself. The tree didn’t know how, or why it did that type of thing, it just did. It thought all the trees around there were able to do it, and would act in the same way under similar circumstances, if given the opportunity. As far as the old oak was concerned, that’s what trees were for, that was their reason for living. From its very beginnings, this big, humble tree had maintained a neutral stance of equanimity, thus placing itself in the highest degree of servitude for the sake of mankind. It lived an amoral life. It could not judge between right and wrong. It had no such knowledge. It made no distinctions between the two. Time and time again, the souls of the innocent and the guilty alike were welcomed into its inner sanctum.

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Chapter Seventeen

Stunned into a state of shock and mired in mixed emotions, the men turned around and headed for fresh air. Each man had their own set of questions. They could only guess at the meaning behind each symbol. The purpose each served alluded their reasoning faculties. The sorcerer’s intentions were completely beyond comprehension.

All but one of theses men perceived the otherworldly ceremony as a sick gross joke. The bastard had lost his mind and gone berserk — simple as that. Nothing more needed 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 belong in fairy tales. They have no place in the minds of grown men.

Only 18, Mark was the youngest of the bunch. He was the one brought up to believe differently, although he wished he’d soon grow out of it. Raised the old-fashioned way, he had yet to shake off the aftereffects of his upbringing, which included all that mumbo jumbo in The Bible. He used to believe wholeheartedly, and admitted as much to himself, but, for the most part, he denied the fact he still retained a part of the imaginative belief system contained in that old-time religion. Yes, even though he knew it wasn’t his fault, nor was it something he willfully chose to put his faith in, he nevertheless berated and condemned himself for having believed it in the first place, as a child. In regard to these matters, Mark wasn’t about to fess up to his brethren. No, not hardly.

Because of Mark’s long-held beliefs, and thanks to what he just experienced in the flesh, 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 come into contact with, nor personally confronted a man 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, but since he did, he alone out of the group was leery of the pursuit. Mark thought himself a man, and he planned on toughing it out. He kept his fears tucked away, hidden from his cohorts. Sam truly impressed Mark, who admired the way Sam took charge. In the past, when he 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, but they managed alright, as did Mark. By the time they 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 took 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  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. Adding some volume to his voice, he shouted the order. “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. With the help of their trusty lanterns, they found the murderer’s embedded prints, and followed his muddy tracks along the trail less traveled. Sam felt like death warmed over, even though he was “colder than a witch’s tit in a brass bra”. After a short jaunt, he slowed their pace. Sam 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 on to Bedlam. “That man has surely headed off to Mexico, if he has any sense left at all,” Sam figured. He was not ready nor willing to pursue the murderer to God knows where. He didn’t believe these cowboys would mind. 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 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, Sam dismounted and grabbed his lantern, then he followed the deep fresh hoof-prints heading South. He didn’t have to go far.”They stop right here.” Mark turned his horse and walked North for about twenty yards, then stopped and climbed down. “They stop here, too. Hold on a second!” Mark grabbed his lantern, and walked to the side of the road. “He got off the trail 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, then turned to his left. He went another twenty yards before seeing, and then realizing, the man’s directed intentions. “Oh, my God! Sam! He’s headed North, back toward town!”

Chapter Sixteen

As if in slow motion, Sam and his men made their way further into 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. The flickering flames from the lanterns were playing tricks on the eyes of these men. The rank stench remained debilitating, but they were so intensely focused, they plumb forgot about it.

Sam continued to lead the team in single file. Seeing no signs of danger, he finally put his pistol back in its holster. Why the place stunk so bad, he could not 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. “Hold your horses a minute! This could be a trap.” Sam suspiciously moved 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 spied something written on the wall in red. Sam’s first thought was “Paint,” because it was definitely brushed on. His second thought was, “Paint? Nobody carries red paint around with them. What the hell?” Without looking back, he waved his men toward him. “C’mon and take a look.” Sam was close enough by then to tell that what he was looking at wasn’t just a little fire some somebody made just to say warm. This somebody had drawn a picture around the fire by digging out grooves in the dirt. The men gathered into a half circle around the scene. Questioning looks were on the face of every man. Dumbfounded and awestruck, they stood there in silence, eyes wide open. They didn’t dare gasp for air.

Four blood-colored symbols on the wall commanded their attention — a circle, a square, a triangle, and a five-pointed star. Red drips ran down the wall under each one. Otherwise, the shapes appeared perfectly neat. A little too perfect for comfort, as were the drawings of symbols and foreign-looking letters pressed into the dirt around the smallish fire. They were impossibly perfect; too well done. No doubt, this was the work of a professional. It was not the remains of some Indian ceremony, nor was this artist any ordinary outlaw. Their assumptions pointed directly to the foreign stranger — that ruthless murderer. 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’d 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 perplexed, he happened to think of Luke. “I wonder if he told us everything back at the Deputy’s office. There is something I don’t know here. But why would he withhold 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?”

A few of Sam’s men tried to describe this scene for Matt a few days after they returned to Bedlam. This is what they came up with: A perfectly round circle enclosed the entire delicately positioned diagram. It was nearly three-foot in diameter. The groove carved to dig out this circle was one inch wide and one inch deep. A small amount of blood was 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 was an exacting square. It was two and a half feet across. Outside the square and above every corner was a symbol pressed into the dirt with some sort of tool. They were exquisitely well-formed. At the North point stood a sun with thin pointed rays. On the left side lay a triangle with an eye across the center of it. At the bottom were two quarter moons facing each other; almost touching. Outside of the right corner was a circle with a diamond inside. A vertical line cut through the center of these two overlaid symbols.

Just under the lines inside the square were descriptive symbols that imperceptibly changed form as they rounded the corners. The forms consisted of four unrecognizable alphabets. They could have been sentences, or elaborate equations, or possibly some type of formula. Whatever they meant, the man was a master calligrapher. The skillfully crafted intricate inscriptions that flowed from their creator’s intimations revealed a diabolical intelligence masked in artistic talent.

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, so even though it still represented a five-pointed star, it wasn’t your average symmetrical star. The remains of the little fire lay in the middle of this star, acting as the center-point of the geometric design. But there was something else rather odd about it. The ashes in the middle of the pile were black and grey, whereas the ashes on the outer edges were white as snow. Taken all together, the whole structure had an otherworldly feel to it. It was obviously a finely honed ritual that implied knowledge of dark-cultured mores.

After a few minutes of serene bewilderment, Sam stooped down and put his hand over the embers. Sensing no danger, he carefully pushed his finger down into the pile. “It’s still warm, men. Out for an hour or so, at the most. That no-good devil took his sweet time going to all this trouble.” Sam paused and quickly glanced all around one last time. “One more thing — in case we have to testify at a later date, remember what you saw here today. Okay?” Sam eyed each man, and each nodded in turn. “Now let’s get the hell out of this God-forsaken sanctuary. We’ll check the other path that goes up to the top. I bet he came in and left that way, and we’ll probably be able to tell which direction he headed off to. He can’t hide all his tracks. I hope you boys are up to this. Looks like we done got ourselves an outlaw to chase. Man, oh, man. I need some air. Let’s go!”

Chapter Fifteen

As the river bound posse made headway through the darkened foggy mist, Sam was calculating the odds of catching up to the foreigner. The “WANTED!” man they were searching for had about a twenty-hour head start on them. Once they reached the cave, all he expected to find was material evidence. Certain of his assumptions, he needed proofs, not guesswork. Sam needed to prove that the murderer holed up in this very hideaway, or else he might look foolish. If indeed Sam’s hunch was correct, they could pick up the fugitive’s tracks and be certain of the direction he went. If they found no evidence whatsoever, Sam planned to call off the chase and head back home. With the temperature dropping fast as it was, he figured they’d end up riding back to Bedlam in an ice storm. Sam wasn’t looking forward to that, but if they were to find absolutely nothing at the cave, calling the chase off wouldn’t have bothered him one bit. His men felt the same way. It’s not so difficult to feel courageous when you’re comfortable, but they were definitely far from that. The thrill they felt at the start of the chase was long gone. Even though they bundled up sufficiently to ward off the rain and cold, they weren’t ready to withstand it. They were already fed up. On top of it all, they were starving! Then again, they wanted the promised bonus. They assumed they’d get it, too, whether they caught the murderer, or not. Sam could see and tell the way they felt, but he was still determined to go as far as the cave. He, too, was almost hoping his hunch was wrong, but he wasn’t quite ready to admit it. In another five minutes they’d reach the river. Then they could take a break. They’d reached the peak of their uphill climb and headed down to the valley. The horses carefully stepped their way between half-hidden rocks submerged in tacky clay.

The ancient road was well-traveled. Hundreds of hungry hunters frequented the river valley in the fall. It was then regarded as a fairly safe journey. Two years earlier, in 1867, the Arapaho Tribe signed a peace treaty and surrendered away their rights, so Sam and his posse didn’t have to worry about Indian attacks. Their main concerns centered around life-threatening weather conditions and some slippery slopes not easily traversed. The path that led to the cave was too narrow for the horses, but Sam reassured the men that it wasn’t too awful steep, and in dry conditions, not too dangerous. 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 heading in from the river-side, they’d use the trail at the base of the cliff.

As they came upon the river, the sight of low waters moving slowly was cause for sighs of relief all-around. It was as Sam expected after a Summer of drought. The men dismounted and walked their horses to the edge for a drink. They were thirsty, but still in good shape from the ride. Sam 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, then securely tied it back up. He broke off a fair piece for each man, and one-by-one 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, setting their gazes toward the cliffs on the other side. As afternoon turned to evening, the wind died down considerably, but the cold mist began turning into freezing sprinkles. This quiet group of miserably anxious cowboys scarfed down their rations quickly. A canteen of clean water went back and forth between them. With their stomachs finally quieted and their thirst thoroughly quenched, Sam cleared his throat and broke the silence. “It’s time we get to moving, boys. We best be saddling up. Let’s go!”

Without asking any questions or expressing any concerns, the men grabbed their horses and climbed on. Sam took the lead and led his posse across the cold, but shallow waters of the river. They were all lost in thought wondering what they might find once they reached the destination. After they made it safely to the other side, they headed west and followed the riverbank for the rest of their five-mile journey. Sam kept on the lookout for fresh tracks along the way, but his efforts were in vain. Half an hour later, they arrived at the place where the river takes a southern turn. Thanks to his keen bank of memories, Sam knew this was the place to look for the trail they needed to take. The small path was quickly spotted. Sam surprised even himself by how well he remembered the surrounding scenery. He looked back to the men, “Let’s try to get those lanterns started. Find some cover if you need to, but we have to get them lit. If someone were in the cave tending a fire this very minute, we could see the light coming off it, so I doubt if there’s anyone up there. Nevertheless, I want us moving along quietly. And one more thing — I don’t want any of you boys getting trigger happy. I don’t want to get shot in the back. Ya hear me? Okay, then. If there’s gonna be a first shot, it’s gonna be me who takes it.”

Without too much trouble, the men lit their lanterns. “Give me one of those things!” Sam commanded. “Okay, follow me. Single file, and keep your voices down.” They left the riverbank and made way for the target. One hundred zigzagging 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 too much of it.

Lightly, but steadily, the freezing rain continued to pelt their hats as they went the rest of the way on foot. “Watch your step men,” Sam reminded them. “It’s a forty-foot drop to the ground.” The trail narrowed and gradually grew steeper and steeper as it reached the ledge. The ledge itself was about three-fourths of the way up the face of the cliff. It was four to five feet wide and nearly fifty yards in length. Situated in the middle of this ledge, sat the mouth of the cave. At the far side of the shelf they could vaguely see the another trail, which ran steeply on up to the top of the cliff.

They made it up to the ledge without any missteps. Turning their backs to the face of the cliff, they 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 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 shimmered along the limestone. Slowly and carefully they closed in on the entrance. Sam was within ten yards of the mouth of the cave when he caught a whiff of stale smoke creeping out of it. With a hand signal, he stopped the men in their tracks. Another foul scent mixed and mingled with the smell of burning wood, but this odor was sickening, putrid, and stank horribly. It reminded Sam of the stench put off by old rotten eggs. “Someone or something is in there, or was recently,” Sam thought. “Maybe a dead something.” 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 carefully turned himself around and faced the wall. Then he lifted the lantern high and reached out into the opening, just enough to shine some light in there. Hearing nothing stir, Sam took off his hat and bent over to the side to take a peek. Seeing nothing, he stuck his whole head out to look. He saw no signs of life right away, so he turned back to his men. “It looks like the coast is clear. Not a soul in there.” Sam nonchalantly walked on in and the men, now relieved, followed him in. Sam lifted his lantern head-high. The ceiling stood some four feet above his head, and steadily lowered as the cave tunneled in. He thought he could see where the smoke was coming from. Sam raised his arm and pointed his finger, “There it is,” he whispered. “About fifty feet ahead.” The smell was so nauseating that all the men kept their handkerchiefs over their noses. They continued their slow walk into the cave with their eyes constantly surveying their whereabouts. All of a sudden, Sam came to a halt. He was looking down at footprints in the dirt; footprints made by someone in bare feet.

These men were about to walk up to a bewildering scene beyond compare; a visual that would forever be imprinted in their minds. This unsightly vision of evil would strike and pain them to the very depths of their souls.