Archive for haunted trees

The Hanging Tree Of Bedlam: Second Coming

Posted in short stories with tags , , , , , on October 28, 2010 by Keith Alan Watson

*

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.

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 its 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 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 again, the souls of the innocent and the guilty alike were welcomed into its inner sanctum.

In regard to the exact amount of men who’d come to their death by hanging from this tree, we have no accurate account. No official records had ever been kept. The tree was used for that purpose long before folks moved into the surrounding area. There was this one old widow who said she’d lived around those parts her whole life. She claimed to know of at least one hundred hangings, but she’d been prone to exaggerate so often in the past, that people took everything she said with a grain of salt.  Her then deceased husband had been party to 50 hangings himself, or so she said. Furthermore, her father once told her that he had participated in, or witnessed a hanging on this very tree 30 to 40 different times. Some of these hangings were done legally, the job having been performed and carried out to its conclusion by men of the law doing their duty. Some of these hangings were accomplished on the sly. People turned their heads and looked away at such times, not in a state of disgust, or what have you, but they’d learned that it was better not to impose themselves on those types of men, because that was just asking for trouble.

This is how the legend began. The rumors caught a ride on the word of one man. The rumor spread as rumors do, and shortly thereafter the story was true. This man, named John, had had a very nasty and hateful trick pulled on him. It all happened one night about five years before the events of our story. Some rowdy drunk cowboys thought they’d teach their sissy friend a lesson. They were out to avenge themselves of the monies he’d taken from them in a fair and square game of poker. They’d been playing in the home of one of these here cowboys. After the game was over, they accused John of cheating. “We oughta hang your ass for that!” said the leader of the gang, as he winked in jest to his comrades. All in a ruckus, they grabbed him up and forcefully led him out the door. They all put on a good act, and their overly sensitive friend was truly frightened. The man of the house grabbed a rope and off they went, walking John towards the hanging tree. The man’s face was racked with terror. He stumbled along as he wept, but as they reached their destination, the men were witness to a great transformation, and a truly unnerving conversion experience took place right before their very eyes. John’s complexion had completely changed. He’d gone from terrified to peaceful, and from the pale-face look of imminent death, to the beaming reflection of a magnified life in just a matter of minutes. These cowboys thought the man on the brink of disaster, and called off the joke immediately. “We were just kidding around,” was their excuse. The man was never the same from that day forward. He later claimed to have seen his entire life flash before his eyes, but that’s not all. John also claimed to have seen the lives of a hundred other men who’d made that same walk in days gone by. He hung all the responsibility for what he had seen, and for what he had felt on the hanging tree. The oak tree had kindly fed him this information in such a way that it made him feel as if he were about to enter into its midst. This man had gotten the idea into his head that the souls of those men whose lives he’d seen were somehow inside the tree, and that’s how it came to be perceived as haunted. The legend continued to spread its growth, as did the tree, year after year. It has been my pleasure to spread it around a little bit more as I’ve done today.

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The Hanging Tree Of Bedlam – 23

Posted in short stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2009 by Keith Alan Watson

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

Posted in short stories with tags , , , , , , , on November 22, 2009 by Keith Alan Watson

*

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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Hanging On: Chapter Seventeen

Posted in short stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2009 by Keith Alan Watson

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 Keith Alan Watson

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 Keith Alan Watson

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.

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