Archive for murder mysteries

The Hanging Tree Of Bedlam – 24

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

With one remaining task to fulfill, the posse headed home, and rode away into the wind, leaving Sam and Mark behind in the process. Down through the darkness that contained the freezing mist, freshly formed flakes of snow began to fall upon the scene. Making sacrificial gestures with their short-lived appearances, they humbly melted together the very instant they touched down. Now back into their initial state of grand unification, they immediately began to solidify themselves en masse for their next temporal phase. A period of cold, hard existence lay in store for these closely related particles, who were but a few minutes before, created to be the beatific crystallized structures of separation. How befitting it is then, that the same intricate latticework of laws govern over every manner of delicacy?

*

Fighting to regain a sense of equilibrium, Mark’s destabilized self did its best to get him to his horse, and back in the saddle. With sore aching bones, and a red runny nose, Sam did likewise. Mark’s slumbering mind was slowly coming to, and thus it reminded him of his oh-so curious nature. Knowing he wouldn’t get a straight answer, Mark still went ahead and asked Sam a question. “Hey, Sam! What do you think he buried in that hole?” Sam answered quickly, as if the question had been pestering his mind, too. “Oh, hell, Kid, I don’t know! There ain’t no use in worrying about it now. We’ll dig up…whatever it is in the morning. Let’s go get warmed up. My friend supposedly left some wood. A blazing fire sounds pretty good right now.” Quietly, and practically under his breathe, the Kid said, “The name’s Mark, sir.” But Sam was being dense, and hard of hearing. “Say what, boy? Speak up!” A little louder, and a little bolder, the Kid asked again, “Would you mind calling me Mark, sir? That is my name, you know.” Sam paused for a moment, and then gave the Kid a wry smile. “Okay, Kid. Mark it is. And quit calling me sir! Now let’s get out of this godforsaken place.” Sam took off and Mark studiously followed him, keeping his next few thoughts to himself.

Mark was wishing he knew what exactly happened to him when he knelt beside that scary old hanging tree. He was feeling fine up until that time, and he thought he’d been a help, not a hindrance. Mark hardly ever took sick, and it bothered him to think that he might be getting an ear infection, or a cold, or something of the sort. He was a bit better now, but there for awhile, it felt as if he’d been spinning in circles, as he used to do as a boy. Making one’s self dizzy was fun back in those days. He thought that he must have outgrown that type of enjoyment, because he was no longer having fun. Something had gotten into him, that’s all he knew. He was quite beside himself as to how to make it go away. Mark had a hunch that some how or other the haunted tree was to blame. Not that he believed it was haunted, but he wondered, “What if it was?” Mark was torn between two disparate ideas. “Trees can’t make the wind blow. What an absurd notion! Unless…the broken limb…an escape route? Let the ghosts out?” Mark’s heart began to race after that last thought arrived. He chuckled to himself in an attempt to laugh it off. “That’s ridiculous. Isn’t it? So, what else…what was it then? What caused me to hear all those ghostly sounds? And see all those faces, as if I’d been there to watch each one of them be hanged? I bet that killer…that murderer…that evil man had something to do with it. Did his soul go into the tree, too? Oh, no! No, no, no. That would mean he got out like the others. And he’s on the loose? No, no, no…but his horse is gone. Where’d he go? Why, he should have gone straight to Hell! If there is such a place…and if there ain’t one, there ought to be, specifically designed for men like that…for eternity…for the longest of times.” When Mark fell to pondering the concept of infinity, his mind reached out in a furious attempt to grasp a thread of understanding, but it was all for naught. Finding nothing substantial to cling to, it simply mirrored the void and went blank.

After an unknown quantity of empty moments passed by, Mark’s newly cleansed mind willed it’s way back into his head, and thus it thrust itself into the tension of life’s confounding present. A short term later, it regained it’s store of memories. Twas then that Sam’s sidekick began to have second thoughts about staying the night in Bedlam. He questioned himself as to whether or not he should have rode away with the rest of the men. Sam had proclaimed that his friend’s old house was vacated. Mark dearly hoped Sam was correct in making that assumption.

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.

Hanging On: Twenty Two

Posted in short stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2009 by Keith Alan Watson

Hanging on to hope, but fearing the worst, dreadfully suspended o’er the abysmal expanse that separates truth from doubt, Sam was desperately searching for a clue that would provide him with the means to positively identify the silhouetted dangling man. Through a perilous atmosphere thickened with doom, one trembling moment passed on to the next, grimly determined to breach the day that lay beyond the midnight hour. The old oak tree loomed large in the background of that frightfully picturesque scene. It towered over the graveyard like unto a shepherd guarding his flock. Burdened by the weight of their ice-coated skins, the tips of every branch submissively bowed to the earth.

In the midst of the scattered tombstones stood the hanged man’s loyal horse. Now wary of the ongoing situation, it stared down the suspicious invaders, and let out a deep snort of warning to any and all who would dare to encroach upon its territory. Sam’s horse took the lead, and immediately squealed a reply of dissent. The rest of the men’s horses were alarmed by the call. Stirred into action, they readied themselves for a charge. Realizing it was outnumbered, the faithful steed relented. It turned away and walked to the far side of the graveyard. Once it had reached the outer edge, it stopped and turned back around, refusing to displace itself completely from the haven of deep rest. Sam knew then and there that it was the foreigner’s black stallion.

“Well, I’ll be damned!” Sam exclaimed to his men. “It is that sonuvabitch, and somebody else got to him first.” Sam’s men, with one exception, were relieved to hear him say those words. With obvious disappointment, Mark asked,”Are you sure that’s his horse?” Sam answered him matter-of-factly, “No doubt about it, Kid!” Someone had stolen the show, and Mark wondered who the culprit might be. “Then who do you think got him?” Sam didn’t care who. He was genuinely delighted to see the killer hanging there, dead as a doornail. “I don’t know, Kid. It’s hard to say. Let’s go take a closer look.” From Mark’s perspective, after that horridly artistic seen in the cave, he couldn’t believe the man had been caught and hanged before they’d had a chance to catch up with him. The murderer they had chased was despicably evil, or so he surmised. He had to have been possessed by demons to pull off a stunt like that. At the very least, he must have had invisible, magical, and violent accomplices. Perhaps he’d been supplied with superhuman strength. Maybe he’d attained some type of unknown devilish power. No way did he think the manhunt would end up as simple as that. It was all too easy. Mark didn’t believe the night was over. That the big, old ominous oak was haunted, now that he could believe. If the story be true, then the tree had just accepted another ungodly soul into its outrageous inventory. But something else was going on too, or so it seemed. Everything was up in the air, as far as Mark was concerned. It wasn’t yet time to relax and unwind, nor was he ready to call it a day. “He is dead, isn’t he?”

Sam didn’t bother to answer Mark’s question, he jerked the reins instead, and headed towards the graveyard. Sam’s highly strung horse was acting jumpy, and hesitant. When they’d come to the edge of the burial grounds, his horse stopped for good, neighing out its refusal to go in there. The rest of the horses felt the same way. Not a one of those men could get their ride to take the shortcut. “To hell with it!” yelled Sam. “We’ll go around.” So back to the sloppy road they went. Once they’d gotten passed the last standing slab of stone, they got back off the road, and made way for the hanging tree. The wind picked up its speed for a second, and blew the hanged man’s cloak away from his dead body, exposing his hands. They were tied behind his back with the same rope that was around his neck. The end of the extra long rope lay on the ground beside his boots, which were barely off the ground, and slightly swaying in the wind. The length of rope from the knot on the limb to the noose appeared to have been measured perfectly, just long enough to strangle the man to death.

They hadn’t gotten far from the road, when the horses reneged a second time. They wanted nothing to do with that tree, either. “Damn!” said Sam. “What’s your problem, big boy?” Sam let out a huff, and then dismounted. Mark did the same, imitating his hero. The rest of the posse stayed by the road. They’d already seen enough. Mark was going to make himself take a look. He’d never encountered the freshly dead, and he wanted to be perceived as a brave and courageous man in the eyes of his reticent comrades. As Sam and the nervous Kid closed in on the swinging corpse, Mark focused his attention on the killer, the rope, and the limb. “This guy better be dead,” was his only thought. Sam was eying the tracks on the ground. His curiosity caused him to wonder, “How many of them were there?” But as he peered down and around on the ground, all he could see were prints in the mud, and they all looked alike. Mark’s will was stronger than his fear, and the first thing he did was to walk right up to the fancy dressed man, and poke him real hard on the arm. That set him to swinging pretty good, but the deceased didn’t open his eyes, as Mark had nervously anticipated.

It was a gruesome and grotesque sight to behold. Hanging from the lowest limb in black formal attire was a once handsome man who’d turned blue in the face. He was dressed for a funeral alright, and ready to hit the coffin, except…he was all of a mess. Mud had been smeared from the knees on his pants, all the way down to the toes of his well-polished boots, as if someone had dragged him by the arms to that very spot. Little balls of ice were clinging to his hair, and an icicle had begun to form off the tip of his nose. Even though he’d been cleansed by the freezing rain, he still reeked of that awful, rotten smell back in the cave. Mark was grossed out, and after a few seconds, he had to turn his eyes away. Stunned and awed, he gazed at the tree. Just then he noticed an item laying on the ground next to the trunk. “Hey, Sam! Here’s that guy’s funny looking hat.” Mark went over to pick it up, but as soon as he got close to the tree and bent over, he got light-headed and dizzy. He put one hand on the trunk for stability, and knelt down to grab the hat. It was resting on and surrounded by loosened chunks of wet soil. “Hey, look! Someone dug a hole here!” Mark picked up the hat, and found himself staring at an ivory-handled dagger that’d been stuck in the mud, and purposely hidden underneath the wide-brimmed hat. As soon as he reached down to pull it out of the ground, Sam yelled, “Wait! Don’t touch that!” But Sam’s command had missed the deadline of 12 o’clock sharp. As the hands struck midnight, Mark simultaneously removed the long-bladed knife from the saturated earth. A split second later, the result of his action could be seen and heard. Mayhem in Bedlam was destined to ensue shortly thereafter.

Hanging On: Twenty One

Posted in short stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2009 by Keith Alan Watson

With the bitter wind directly in their faces, Sam and his posse continued their long journey northwards. The freezing rain had finally let up, but a mist remained, and stuck all the same. The horses manes were thinly glazed in ice. Their hooves plodded along in the slush muddied road, as if they hadn’t a care in the world. Signs of damage from the storm could be seen underneath the trees that were nearby the road. Ice laden twigs, and small branches lay scattered about on the ground. Overcast skies would not allow the full moon to shed it’s light for the sake of these men. Nevertheless, the gravity of the situation was clearly understood. Heavy with discontent, the night refused to go quickly.

Sam was in a thoroughly bad mood, thanks to the latest turn of events. The chase was officially on, but not in the normal, speedy sense of the word. More to the point, Sam was following the criminal, slowly, but surely, and his men were following him. Not a one of those cowboys would have dared to run on ahead without him, no matter how much they wished they could. Sam was the boss, and what the boss says goes, but there was one thing the boss wouldn’t tell them. Sam was a miserable wreck. He was aching inside, and out. The shivers were attacking him, and he feared the onset of fever. He was afraid he was catching the death of a cold, and where would that leave him? Sam had a ranch to run, and business matters to attend to. He couldn’t afford to be laid up with pneumonia.

Mark’s bad mood could be attributed to the god-awful pace Sam had set. Mark was under the weather, same as everyone else, but to his young mind that made the task all that much tougher, and the tougher, the better, for he wanted to gain a memorable experience from the whole affair. Mark wanted to be party to a big deal, and that entailed capturing the murderer. The rest of the men in the posse were simply tagging along. From the sounds of it, and according to Sam, they would be too late to stop the criminal from furthering his tour of disaster. They’d been keeping their minds off the pitiful weather by pondering various ways of spending the bonus they’d eventually obtain.

They weren’t far from Bedlam when Sam made up his mind, and arrived at a decision. He decided that he’d had quite enough for one night, although he didn’t go ahead and tell the men of his plan. Sam had to find a good excuse first, one that had nothing to do with the way he was feeling. There was a vacated house in Bedlam, recently lived in by an acquaintance of his. The man told Sam he could stay in the place, if need be. He’d even left firewood in the house, so as not to have to haul it away. Sam decided to take advantage of the offer. Some place warm, and dry is what he needed. He absolutely knew he couldn’t ride another hour. Most importantly, Sam wanted to live to see the day break.

Mark had been first in line behind Sam ever since they’d crossed the river. With his young, healthy eyes aiding him, he was the first to notice a recognizable sight. Off in the distance, Mark could see the vague outline of the big, old oak. “Hey, Sam!” Mark pulled on up beside him. “I can see the hanging tree up there. We’re almost to Bedlam.” Sam strained, and squinted his eyes, and there it was. He turned to face Mark, “Yep! Sure enough, Kid.” That grand and stately landmark reassured Sam that yes, indeed, they were on the home stretch. Mark gave Sam a looking over in a questioning sort of way. “What else is it?” Sam asked. Politely, and sympathetically, Mark put forth a simple question. “Are you alright?” Sam curtly replied,”Yes, Kid, I’m fine.” After a moment of silence, Mark speaks his mind. “I can’t wait to get back to town to see what all’s happened. I guess we won’t be needing Luke’s rope after all.” Sam changed his tone, and kindly said, “Thanks for reminding me. I’ll grab it when we get there.” Sam hastily began to search for that good excuse to spend the night in Bedlam, but he wasn’t having any luck. For better, or for worse, his luck was about to change.

The posse moseyed on forward. Less than a minute after sighting the tree, Mark’s keen vision is alerted to a new, and startling fact. He stops his horse, “Whoa! Sam, stop! Somebody’s standing up there, under the tree. Can you see him?” Sam comes to a halt, and takes a good, hard look. “You’re right!” He turns his head, and looks back, “Hold on, men. Somebody’s up there.” Mark concentrates his focus, and sees something else. “Hey, Sam. There’s a horse up there, too. It’s standing in the graveyard.” Sam could feel his poor, weary heart speeding up as he stared down the road. He quickly glanced to his left and to his right, looking to see if there was anybody else close by. “Keep on the lookout, men! There’s something fishy going on here. This could be a trap, and I don’t want to get ambushed. Keep your eyes peeled for movement of any sort.”

Cautiously slow, they advanced. The dark horse in the misty graveyard looked like a statue. It hadn’t moved an inch. No movement from the shadowy figure, either. It was just standing there, still as can be, as they made their approach. Sam reached for his holster, and pulled out his pistol. “Be on your guard, men. I don’t like the looks of this.” All the men heeded this call to duty, and grabbed their guns. Mark continued to feed Sam information, even though he was as nervous as could be. He was in new territory, and it was fraught with danger. He’d never shot at a man before, but he would if he had to, or so he thought. Through his heightened sense of excitement, Mark lowered his shaky voice, and went on. “He’s standing under the lowest limb…at least, it looks like it. Do you think it’s him? The killer?” “I don’t know,” answered Sam truthfully. “None of us have seen him. We only know what Luke told us. But it could be him. I can’t imagine why he’d stop here…unless he’s waiting for us.” “That’d be awful stupid. There’s seven of us,” said Mark. “He hasn’t moved,” stated Sam. Mark was searching his mind for a motive. “Why’s he standing there? What’s he waiting for?”

They were within a hundred yards of the wet and dreary graveyard when the dark, tall horse finally moved. It lowered it head, and shook the water out of its mane, letting out a quick squeal of denial. Sam and his men walked on undeterred, looking all around, left and right, waiting for something to happen. Mark was staring down the road at the hatless, motionless, unknown man when he saw something else. That something else was a rope. Mark yelled, “Whoa! Oh, my God! Sam! He’s not standing there, he’s hanging there!”

Hanging On: Chapter Twenty

Posted in short stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2009 by Keith Alan Watson

Once Matthew had identified the deceptive stealth invader, he immediately took a defensive posture, and pulled his head back out of sight. The stark and threatening realization of imminent danger forced Matt into an instinctual, but heretofore unexplored realm. Every cell in his body was instantly exposed to an uncontrollable rush of adrenalin. His heart had taken on a maddening pace, and his breathes were short and quick. Fear had gotten a hold of him, and Matt reflexively clenched his fists in response. With gloved, but empty hands, he tightly gripped the thin air, as if he were hanging on for dear life.

Matt’s natural impulses were busily hurrying forth his initial move. Eager muscles twitched whilst they waited for him to make a critical decision. His first course of action was to take no action at all. Momentarily fixed and stone-like, he stood still, as every moving part of his body longed to flee. His will to move had been compromised. Captured and imprisoned in the immobility of a dream stage, his suspended sense of purpose struggled to breakthrough the front lines of inertial forces. Matt stared down the backside of his house. His gaze was set on the door. Dim rays glowed out of the window nearby. A second or two later, it finally dawned on him. He saw the light, and thought, “Oh, crap! The light…the only light in town.” The safety of his family was now his first and foremost concern. Matt’s feet listened and obeyed his command. They quietly carried him onto the thresholds of security. “I wonder if he noticed.” Matt paused for a second to await a logical answer. “Well, yes, he probably saw it. Better get the rifle loaded before I put out the fire.”

Without making a sound, Matt opened the door and went inside his walled-in fortress. “Ah, good thing it’s already warm in here,” he whispered to himself, “and dry, too. Damn that weather!” He could see that he was all wet, but he didn’t bother to take off his coat, nor did he remove his muddy boots. Straightaway, he crouched down low, and made a bee-line for his cartridges. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his hound dog come out of the bedroom. Matt put his index finger over his lips, and told him,”Hush.” The old dog lifted up it’s snout, and looked at Matt as if to say, “Told you so.” Then it turned, and went back to lay at the foot of his bed. Matt made short work of his task, and in no time at all his single-shot rifle was loaded. As he went for the stove, he glanced around the room to see if there might be something he’d forgotten. “The doors. Bar the doors!” Having successfully accomplished that, he went back to the stove, shut the vents, and grabbed his rifle on his way to the window on the front-side.

Matt sneaked a peek out of his slowly darkening hiding place in the hope of spotting the shadowy figure where he’d last been seen, but the only thing out there was the man’s tall horse. It had moved back into the grim atmosphere of the graveyard, and appeared to be staring at the big old oak. Matt’s eyes were on the lookout, and he scanned the entire area, but the killer on the loose had disappeared from sight. “Dammit! Dammit! Where’d he go? Where’d he go?” Matt ducked down beneath the window, and tried to think. “He has to be out there somewhere. Try the other window.” The fire in the stove had gone completely out, so Matt felt his way to the window on the south side, and looked out once again. “Nothing. Damn it all, anyway!” The dark horse hadn’t moved from its spot. Now at a loss, Matt looked higher up into the tree. “Nah, he wouldn’t climb up there, not on a night like this. Surely not. No way, way too slick. It’s already iced over.” So Matt let his eyes follow the trunk all the way down to the ground, and ‘bingo’, there he was at the base of the tree. “There he is. Good, good!” Spying the evil man had given Matt a minute measure of relief. He was somehow glad to see that the killer was still where he was supposed to be, as opposed to some other horrible place, like outside of his front door.

The man in black appeared to be on his knees, facing the tree. “What the hell’s he doing?” Matt watched the colorless, rounded figure for a few seconds. The murderer seemed to be hunched over something on the ground. His movements seemed to indicate that he was digging a hole. “What’s he need a hole for?” Matt searched his mind for an answer, but couldn’t come up with any good reason right off-hand. “No, he can’t hardly be uprooting the tree by himself.” He tried the question again, and shortly thereafter he received a simple answer. “He’s gonna bury something, maybe. But what? It’s a terrible hiding place. How stupid. Is it some kind of trap? To catch what?” Matt decided to stay put, and wait it out.

A few moments later, three words and a picture from the past came to his mind. “The Grim Reaper himself, eh?” Matt shook his head, and reassured himself. “No, no, no! Even though, his looks do fit the bill.” Matt was then promptly reminded, “I don’t believe in that stuff, anyway,” but it didn’t help to calm his nerves. They were necessarily cocked, ready, and set to fire, if called upon. After some five minutes of digging in the mud, the man reached over to one side, and grabbed what looked to be a small, wrapped bundle. “There’s his treasure. It must not be worth anything. What in Hell is it then?” Next thing Matt knew, the man appeared to be filling the hole with the chunks of muddied dirt clods he’d previously dug out. “How strange. I can’t even imagine what!” The man then stood up, patted the spot a couple of times with his foot, and brought something out from the inside of his cloak. He knelt down on one knee, facing the tree, and leaned towards it. It looked as if he were placing something on top of the little grave. He then got up again, and walked underneath the lowest limb. He looked up at it for a second or two, then he stooped down, and picked up the rope.

With his cloak flapping away in the wind, the murderer turned, and took a sinister approach to the graveyard. When he’d made it to his horse, he climbed up, and got on with the rope still in hand. Matt thought, “Good! He’s leaving.” The man kicked his horse in the ribs with both heels, and forced it towards the tree. “Well, crap! He’s not leaving. What’s he up to now?” The horse hesitantly walked halfway, stopped, and snorted out its refusal to go any further. The man kicked him again, twice this time, and with ever more force before the horse relinquished its will, and surrendered to its master. They slowly made their way towards the tree until they were both underneath the lowest limb, and there they stopped. The man let loose one end of the rope, and slung it over the limb. Matt was dazed and amazed, and spoke aloud, “What the hell?” after realizing the villain’s vengeful intentions. The man finished tying a knot in no time, and pulled down hard on the rope. He then began to work on the noose, using the horse’s back as a table. In less than a minute, the man had tied his loop. “Damn! That was awfully fast. He must have done this before, more than a few times.” This seemingly practiced executioner dropped the rest of the rope to the ground, and eyed his magnificent work, which was now hanging from the limb. He’d tied the noose short, about 4 feet below the limb. “So! He thinks he’s gonna hang somebody, does he? Well, not if I can help it!” Matt bravely spoke to himself.

The man in black whipped his dark horse around, and headed back towards the graveyard. “Just go ahead and leave, mister,” Matt wished once again, but when they’d reached the nearest tombstone, the man got down, and tied the reins around the old grey slab. Once he’d done that, he walked back to the tree, and sat on the ground beside his buried treasure. “What? In this rain? He’ll freeze his ass off! Who’s he waiting for anyway?” Matt paused, and waited for a reasonable explanation. “Sam? He’s waiting for Sam? But he’s got a whole posse of men. He won’t stand a chance! You’ve got to be kidding me. What?” No more answers came forth, so Matt continued to stare him down. Ten minutes passed on, and the man still sat there with his head bowed. His hands were clasped, and his arms were around his pulled up knees. Matt felt a weariness settling into his legs, so he found and pulled over a chair, placing it underneath the window. Then he sat down to rest, and think. He kept his rifle in his lap. Addressing only himself, he thought, “Good Lord, it’s really late! How long will I have to wait?” And there sat Matt trying to predict the near future. It didn’t look good, no matter which way he looked at it.

At the first, Matt had gotten himself up to glance out the window every minute or two. That went on for another ten minutes or so, and each time he looked, the murderer was still there. According to Matt’s later testimony, during the next twenty minutes, he only got up twice. He swore that he stayed awake for at least another half of an hour, looking once every ten minutes, but that’s all he remembered of the rest of that evening. Matt ended up telling everyone that he’d awakened the next morning before the sun had risen, only to find himself still sitting in that chair. Of the events that had transpired over the course of that night, he knew nothing. “Honest to God! Nothing at all,” or so, he claimed.

Hanging On: Chapter Nineteen

Posted in short stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2009 by Keith Alan Watson

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 Eighteen

Posted in short stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2009 by Keith Alan Watson

After Mark had made his big discovery, Sam grudgingly walked his horse over to him, and took a look for himself. Sam was tired, confused, and somewhat disappointed. The first half of his hunch had been correct, but it looked like the second half of it was dead wrong. Sam wasn’t expecting this new development. He wasn’t ready for it. He hadn’t prepared for it, and that made him mad. Whereas, before he had feigned anger and enthusiasm, his anger had now become tentative, and he was truly concerned. He was mad at that murderer, because it seemed as if he’d changed his mind, and now Sam would have to change his plans. He’d been thoroughly ready to go on home, get warm, and go to bed. On the other hand, Mark was just beginning to find himself. He was coming into his own. He’d accomplished two feats, one daring, and one investigative. Mark’s confidence had been revived, and he was raring to go. Now that he had the guts that he’d been lacking, he was able to get up the nerve to ask Sam a question.

“Why is he going back, do you think?” He’d caught Sam off-guard. Sam had been probing his own mind for his next hunch, for some other possibility, for the one that wasn’t quite so obvious. Sam returned the favor by saying this to Mark. “I don’t rightly know, Kid. I’m thinking the worst. I’m thinking there’s something he didn’t finish doing last night. I’m thinking, perhaps, he didn’t complete his mission. Maybe, he had intended on murdering the pastor’s entire family. I’ll be damned, but I’m afraid he’s going back for those two kids, if he isn’t going after Luke. He’s the only one who saw him leaving the place.”

“Oh, my God, Sam! I sure hope not. I was wondering, if maybe he hadn’t forgot something else. Something he needed really, really bad to make his trip. Like a map, or something. Money, maybe.” Sam quickly shot back, “I highly doubt it, Kid. That sonuvabitch is a maniac! It’s hard to guess what he’s up to. Those kind of people don’t just blatantly disregard the law, they rule it out altogether, and then they do whatever it is that suits their purpose. He’s at least two hours ahead of us. He could already be back in town doing whatever it is that he’d planned on doing, and we may be too late to do anything about it.” Just then, Sam’s second hunch finally came to him, giving him new hope that his first hunch might still be the correct one. But the high-strung kid had gotten excited, and blurted out, “We better high-tail it outta here then, huh?” “Yeah, Kid,” Sam said, ignoring his words.

Sam turned to the rest of his posse, and filled them in. “Hey, you guys, listen up! Our murderer might be headed to the river to take a different route south. He knows someone’s on to him, or else he’d be riding over yonder on the road. If he does know we’re after him…well, that’s what I would do. He can walk his horse up the river for a ways and lose us. We wouldn’t have a chance. We’ll head on up to the river. If he’s going back to town, his tracks will be straight across on the other side. This weather’s gonna slow him down same as us.” Then Sam reached back into his bag, and grabbed the bottle of whiskey. It was practically empty. He tipped it up real quick, and killed it off, which instantly set him off into a bout of coughing, and gasping for air. After Sam had come back to his senses, Mark gave him a funny look. “It’s okay, Kid. Don’t you worry about me. I know what I’m doing. That stink back in the cave left me with a bad taste in my mouth.” Sam tossed the bottle off into the brush. Mark felt himself compelled to ask one more question, before they took off, so he continued to put up a fuss. “What about all that stuff back in the cave? You don’t think…you don’t believe…I mean, what was that all about?” Sam looked Mark right in the eyes, “I ain’t worried about that idiot’s hocus-pocus! He can cast spells all he wants. The world doesn’t work that way. Wishing will you only get you so far. Don’t you know that?” Sam reared his horse around,”Okay, men. Let’s ride!” The Kid was beginning to get on his nerve, and it ticked him off.

The manhunt was once again underway in that miserably cold rainy weather. Mark fell in line and behaved himself, as a good soldier should. Sam had gotten him to thinking the worst, too, but he was hoping Sam was right, and if that man had cast a spell on them, it wouldn’t work. Mark really did want to believe that, but his old self and his old ways wouldn’t let him. The Kid wished he could make his old self magically disappear, but like Sam said, the world doesn’t work that way. Mark was shivering, and feeling pretty darn miserable himself. He took it out on Sam by wondering why he was going so slow, and cursed him under his breath. There was no trail to follow, so the ride was naturally rough-n-tough. Sam was having a difficult time seeing and following the man’s tracks. Right then and there, he promised himself he’d go and get those damn spectacles his doctor had been recommending. But he was able to follow the tracks, all the way to the river. Before they crossed, Sam got off his horse, and led him to water. His men took the cue, and mimicking Sam, followed suit. After a few minutes of stretching their legs, they crossed on over, and picked up the murderer’s tracks. He was still headed north. This frustrated Sam to no end. They hadn’t gone far before the tracks headed back west. After they’d reached the road, the tracks continued northward. By that time the rain was sticking, and freezing to every single thing it touched. It was a half-hour ride from there to Bedlam, and another hour from Bedlam to their town. Sam already had a headache, and the impending doom wasn’t helping matters at all.

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 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.

Hanging On: Chapter Fourteen

Posted in short stories with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 14, 2009 by Keith Alan Watson

The men in Sam’s posse considered themselves ‘cowboys’, although they rarely used the word. Three of these men were new hires. They’d worked under Sam’s categorically strong leadership for the prior two weeks. Their ages ranged from somewheres around 20 to 25, so they were still pliable, and easily influenced. The other three men, aged 25 to 30, had been with Sam for a little over a year. They knew him, and Sam’s antics fairly well. Every one of these ‘cowboys’ were brave and adventurous, or so Sam thought of them. Elsewise, he wouldn’t have hired them in the first place. For the men’s part, they had thought of themselves as being free and independent when they first moved westwards, but they learned real quick just how much they depended upon Sam’s generosity, especially when it came to daily bread, and “Drinks on the house!” They were willing and able to give up a large percentage of their freedom in exchange for Sam’s patriarchal pony show, where it’s ‘all you can eat’ each and every night supper is served.

That morning, when they had all gathered together back at the Deputy’s office, Sam had wanted Luke, his men, and the Deputy to learn and understand that he meant business; that he stood firm in his resolve; that he was a force to be reckoned with. Seriously, folks, Sam’s whole charade had found it’s perfect setting when he took to the stage in the house of law. Sam needed to know exactly what these men were made of. He wished to know if he could count on them. He longed to know if he could use them, or if any single one of them needed to be discarded. He had wanted to install ‘the fear of Sam’ into these ‘new boys’, as he was wont to call them. Luke was also a ‘new boy’, the newest. Everyone involved had gotten this idea into their heads — Sam could, would, and just might kill anyone who fiercely dared to oppose him. That made Sam somewhat unpredictable in their eyes. Sam wanted these cowboys to perceive him as such. Sam fascinated himself over his ability to manipulate others from a distance. He had these men right where he wanted them. They were like unto putty in the hands of a master potter. The way Sam looked at it, he was doing them a favor. These boys didn’t know what was good for them. Sam was teaching them a lesson…the hard way.

Sam didn’t want them to think that joining a posse was an easy game, for he knew better. He wanted them to think they’d witness and participate in a hanging, and possibly that very night. That’s why Sam dropped the rope under the oak tree’s lowest limb. He wanted to keep them guessing. As far as Sam was concerned, his action was entirely reasonable, and he gave them his why. That was where the rope belonged. That’s where it was supposed to go. To Sam, it was practically the most logical place to leave it. So, not only were these men afraid of Sam, but now they were also afraid of the unknown — the immediate future. This was Sam’s power trip. If it were to be his last, he wanted to make the most of it. He desperately needed this final conquest to validate his own fleeting manhood.

Thus were the moods that had oozed their way into all these men as they departed Bedlam. The wind at their backs from the north had been increasing in intensity, and the mercury was steadily plummeting. A very fine mist was following the posse southwards. The sun had already set in the west, and soon they’d be riding through the darkness. The full moon rose early that night. It could still faintly be seen once in awhile through the grey and overcast skies. The wild, exciting adventures Sam had envisioned for these men, along with their high spirits, were to be dampened by a seasonable cold front. The river they had to cross on the way to the robber’s cave was 7 or 8 miles further on down the dustless dirt road. The cave was another 5 miles off to the west after that. Because of the ‘shitty weather’, Sam decided to step things up a bit. He picked up his pace and the men followed suit, as misery drew ever closer. Sam had many things on his mind, and he allowed those thoughts to enter his constitution.

You see, Sam did not daydream. To him that was a frivolous activity. To be exact, Sam was immersing himself in the act of contemplating the practical. As in…what they could do, and how, and when, and why they could do it. That sort of thing. Simultaneously, Sam was being distracted by aching bones and sore muscles. Sam was out of shape compared to these young men. They were in great physical condition. Sam was just…well, out of practice, you might say. They hadn’t departed more than 5 minutes earlier when Sam was forced to face his own miserable thoughts. “Damn! I’m getting too old for this.” I never said Sam was an original thinker. He was just being honest with himself for a change. He’d never been a quitter, and he wasn’t about to start now.

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