Archive for tombstones

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: 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.

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