Hanging On: Thirty

According to Matthew, he slept in the chair under the window all night long and, amazingly enough, the rifle hadn’t fallen from his lap. Prior to his sudden awakening, he’d been having a dream in which he was employed by the railroad as a cook on a passenger train. He was only able to recall the very tail end of this dream experience, but since it’s occurrence was so coincidently timed, he thought he ought to add it into the story as a pertinent matter of course. Here then is his dream as it was handed down to me. In Matt’s own words:

I was working alone as a cook in the back of the caboose. The sun was just beginning to rise, and the train seemed to be moving down the tracks at top speed. I was wearing a long white apron over my clothes, and I was standing over a hot stove with a spatula in my hand. I appeared to be making a whole bunch of breakfast. A large skillet of scrambled eggs lay before me, and there was a tall pile of fried bacon off to the side. I remember hearing the muffled scream of a woman, and I raised my head to look towards the front. There was a window in the door, and through it I could see the car ahead of me. It also had a window in the door, and from what I could tell, all the seats were taken. I mean, the car was full. There were even people standing in the aisle.

Next thing I know, here comes some man in a gray business suit pushing his way through the crowd. He seemed to be in a hurry. Once he got to the back door, he opened it towards him, and as soon as he’d made it to the step outside, he quickly shut it behind him. Then he lowered his head a bit to look back through the window. I figured he was being chased. He didn’t look for long, and then he turned around and started to make his way carefully between the cars. About two seconds later, he stepped up to my door and rushed in, but he spun around and slammed the door so fast that I didn’t get a good look at his face. The sharply dressed man bent down again to look through the window before he turned around. I was pleasantly relieved to see that it was only Luke, but I also remember being concerned for he was certainly in a panic. I’d never seen him look so scared. Funny thing was, he didn’t seem at all surprised to find me standing there.

“He’s after me!” he yelled as he continued in haste towards the back door. “Who’s after you?” I asked. “The murderer!” he cried. “Oh, crap!” I remember saying, and then I looked through the windows again, but I didn’t see anyone coming. Luke opened the door to go out, but then then he stopped and hesitated, as if he wasn’t sure about the action he had planned. “Do you have a gun?” he asked. Well, I didn’t know. I checked my side for a pistol. “No, I guess not,” I said as I scanned the room for a rifle. “Where’re you going?” I asked him. He looked at me in all sincerity, and with a very serious tone to his voice, he replied, “I’m jumping off this train, and if you don’t want to be killed you better come with me!” I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding.” Luke wasn’t waiting around for me to make a decisive move. He swung the door open and stepped out onto the platform.

I looked back towards the front and through the windows. The aisle had been cleared, and everyone was sitting quite still in their seats. Not one head was turned, they were all looking forward, and then the door to the passenger car slowly opened all by itself. No one was there, and the door stayed open. Nobody looked, and no one got up to shut it. When my front door began to open, I remember thinking, “Run for it!” but my feet wouldn’t oblige. My attention remained frozen to the scene straight ahead of me. I watched the door swing open, but there still wasn’t a soul to be seen. I tried to move my legs again, but they were unresponsive. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the empty entryway. The next thing that happened was so downright impossible that I’ll never be able to forget it. I still have a hard time explaining it to myself.

As I looked towards the open door, my view through the space inside the frame began to blur. All else in the room remained clear and stayed in focus. It was just the air right there in the doorway that was being distorted. A split second later, that fuzzy bit of space began to swirl within itself. Gradually, but quickly, a form began to take shape. Shortly thereafter, I could see a vague outline of a tall human figure wearing a wide-brimmed hat. It only took another second or so for the figure to finish materializing, and then I was able to tell for sure who it was. It was the murderer alright, and he was dressed all in black, just like I’d seen him the night before.

After the killer had completely appeared out of the thin dreamy air, I was finally able to see his handsomely featured face, which didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of his menacing look. Oddly enough, even though his whole body was standing there in the doorway, he wasn’t all there yet, so to speak. I mean, he didn’t come to life right away. He just stood there stiff as could be, and stared straight ahead without moving a muscle. It was only then that I noticed he was holding something in his hand, but this something didn’t materialize in time with the rest of his figure. It took a little bit longer to put itself together, but soon I could tell exactly what the thing was. It was a knife! But it wasn’t just any old knife, this was a white-handled dagger with a long double-edged blade.

The blade began to glow, and the man opened his eyes. The glow grew hotter and brighter, and as it changed from red to white, the killer stirred to life. He looked at me in jest, and put a mischievous grin on his face. Then he raised his arm and pointed the knife at my head, and blinded my eyes with a bright shaft of light. Instantly, I felt a surge of energy course through my body, and shoot on out from the ends of my fingers and toes. How long he held me there in suspense, I don’t rightly remember, but eventually he removed the light from my eyes, and right away I could see fine again. First, I looked at his sinister smile, and then I looked him straight in the eyes. He tilted back his head and let out a laugh, a terrifying laugh. It was more like a roar actually, a roar so loud that it drowned out the sound of the train as it rolled down the tracks.

To tell you the truth, that scared the crap out of me, and that was all it took to set me free, apparently, for without my command, my hand dropped the spatula. Then all of their own accord, my legs decided to move, and my feet took off for the door. I could hear his steps as he closed in fast behind me. I ran out to the platform, and there was Luke hiding off to the side. “Are you ready now?” he asked me. I quickly nodded my head in agreement. He says, “I’ll go first to show you how this is done. Hit and roll! Do you hear me? Hit and roll! Now, watch.” Luke jumped off and away from the train, and when he hit the ground, he rolled about a dozen times. Then he got up on his feet, and waved for me to come on. I hesitated ever so slightly, and then I felt that hot surge of light piercing into my back. I took the leap right then and there, and when I did, I jumped up and out of my chair. My rifle went flying through the air, but before it had a chance to land, I heard my wife screaming my name at the top of her lungs.

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Hanging On: Twenty Nine

After slowly looking through several pages, the old woman seemed to grow impatient, and started turning over leaf after leaf at a frightfully rapid pace. Not a word, not a one did she find. Unable to see what she wanted to see, she stamped her foot in disgust, and turned to the very last page. She moved in closer and leaned over, putting her face within inches of the book, as if she’d finally found something to read. Following those invisible sentences as they went across the page, she turned her head from the left to the right four times. Right away, she stood up and stepped back into the rose bed. In shock and disbelief, the trembling began and she covered her eyes with both hands. But the little old lady’s grief was quickly discarded in exchange for an earnest fit of anger. She moved forwards again, and reached out to grab the back cover of the book. A slight hesitation ensued, and then she slammed it shut. The closed book stood still for a second before falling over backwards onto the grass. After the ledger had been laid to rest, she raised her arm, and pointed her finger at it. Shaking the bony digit up and down, she appeared to be speaking her mind. Perhaps, she had to make sure that she’d be the one getting in the last word. Once she had her say, she put her hands on her hips, and looked at the chief, but before she had a chance to open her mouth, something else caught her attention. When the spiteful old hag turned to look down the road, those eyes of Mark’s did the same.

The targeted object was found about a block out of town in the middle of the road. The eyes then set their sight, and Mark beheld the tall black stallion majestically prancing its way towards Bedlam. The saddle was still empty, but there was one major difference now which added to the horse’s overall appearance. A wreath of white flowers had been handsomely draped around its thick, black neck. Aided by the pure light of day, Mark was then truly able to see the horse’s beastly beautiful nature. Mark’s uncontrollable view stayed glued to the visiting stud as it made its way north for town. As the stallion pranced along, it began to nod it’s big, long head with a show of friendly gestures, which seemed to be intended for the fast-approaching preacher and his band of marching drummers. With a spring to his lively steps, the dark horse high-tailed it past the graveyard, and paid no heed whatsoever to the ongoing nag, nor to her quietly sitting side-kick chief. By the time the steed had reached the road directly in front of Mark, all of the attendees of the festival had gotten up, and aligned themselves up and down the other side of the parade’s chosen route. Musicians, dancers, and picnickers alike, all stood and clapped their hands as the proud and distinguished guest passed them by.

Soon thereafter, the angle of the view was such that Mark could see it all coming together. The pastor clothed in white, and the fine black stallion were about to meet each other on the southernmost edge of Bedlam. The gap was quickly closing, and once they were within twenty feet of each other, both man and horse stopped their steps. The minister spun himself around in place to face the marching band, and raised his silver flute to the sky. Altogether, the drummers caught the signal, stopped their march, and ceased their beats.  The leader of the band then turned back around to welcome the mighty guest with loving open arms. Standing tall and firmly in place, the stallion returned the greeting with one swift swish of its black bushy tail. Bending his neck forward, he put his chin to his chest, and bowed his head for a short half-second.  Then he raised himself back up, and stuck his nose high in the air. Slowly and carefully, the preacher walked up to the splendid steed with arms held wide. Seemingly unsure about the whole situation, the horse kept his ground. He allowed the pastor to come to him, and graciously accepted a few affectionate strokes on his nose and several pats on his neck. The minister took hold of the flowery wreath, and brought it close to his face. Cautiously, he then moved alongside, and reached up to grab the horn with his left hand. The stallion stood still, and permitted his new friend to saddle up.

Now endowed with one of Nature’s finest creations, the musically ministering man raised the flute for all to see, and begged the horse to spin around. The stallion offered up his full cooperation by turning himself and his rider in the opposite direction. The pastor promptly proceeded to restart the march. He lowered his arm, and pointed the conjuring instrument straightaway down the road. The preacher then leaned over, and whispered into the stallion’s right ear. Having revealed the master plan, he gently tapped the flute two times on top of the horse’s head. Now ready to strike up the band, he brought the silver pipe to his lips, and began to play anew. The magical tune may have remained the same, but the pace of the beat had slowed considerably. In an easygoing manner, the steed started walking down the middle of the road. Hearing the delightful song that they seemed to know by heart, the tuxedoed drummers resumed their march as before, keeping the rhythm smoothly perfect with a beat between each step.

The highly interested spectators in town were enchanted by the glorious sound. They each fell in line as the last row passed. Rejoicing for reasons unknown, they happily followed the parade out-of-town. The awaiting festive crowd continued their cheerful applause, but the minstrel and the stallion ignored them completely, as if they weren’t even there. The leader carried on with his morale-boosting tune until they’d made it as far as the hanging tree. At that point, he once again brought the performance to a halt. When he gave the band the signal, he pulled back on the reins with his free hand simultaneously, and the stallion stopped in his tracks. Preacher man looked over at the base of the tree, and faintly smiled. Wanting the horse to go that way, he tugged the reins to the right, but the steed refused to budge. Understanding as he was, the pastor forgave him for his obvious aversion to trespassing. He placed the flute behind the cantle of the saddle, and climbed down.

Back on his own two feet, he walked around front until he was face to face with the stallion. The pastor put his left hand under the horse’s whiskery chin, and tenderly stroked the bridge of his nose with his right. After the preacher spoke a few comforting words, the stallion lowered his head, and allowed him to remove the flowery wreath from his neck. The pastor took the wreath, and hung it around his own neck, and then he began to make his way under the branches of the hanging tree. Mark’s eyes stayed focused on the flower-bearing fellow as he walked towards the mighty oak, and he finally got to see what lay below him on the ground. Two wide rings of freshly bloomed flowers encircled the base of the tree. Bright red tulips made up the inside ring, and yellow daffodils composed themselves in the border. Not far from the trunk on the north side of the tree stood a three-foot high wooden cross. The loose dirt around it was barren of life, as if it had only recently been planted. It appeared to be standing in the exact place where the murderer had buried his treasure.

Over to that old rugged cross, the pastor carefully tread. With great caution, he stepped between the flowers of yellow and red, and placed himself in front of the sacred memorial. He then removed the garland from around his neck, and draped it o’er the emblematic sign. As he did thus, the jovial expression on his face was replaced by a reverently toned look of sadness. The pastor closed his eyes, and placed the palms of his hands together. After he’d said his silent prayer, he opened his eyes, and raised them to the heavens, but instead of seeing God, he saw Mark up in the tree. When those eyes of Mark’s met up with the preacher’s, the pastor motioned him down with his hand, and mouthed these words that the Kid clearly heard, “Mark! Mark! C’mon, let’s go!” Mark awoke with a start, and raised himself from the floor to see Sam yelling at him. “C’mon now, Kid. We’ve got to get a move on. Someone’s up there messing around by the hanging tree.”

 

 

Hanging On: Twenty Eight

Mark’s Dream: Part Two

*

Captivated by the ongoing scene in front of him, and imprisoned behind the dreamy eyes that were free to fly to and fro as they wished, Mark’s choiceless awareness floated along in flight, and made a beeline for the dancers. In the short amount of time that it takes to blink your eye, Mark recognized the men. Sure enough, it was Sam and the guys, the guys who had formed the posse. They were dressed exactly as they were when last he’d seen them, except for now they weren’t all wet, and their miserable expressions had disappeared completely. The men were quick on their feet as they took their steps in time. They were wearing joyful smiles, and looking happier than hell. The six ladies in the circle seemed vaguely familiar. (He didn’t know why at the time, but he would come to find out later on. The reason he thought he’d seen them somewhere before was because they were the girls he knew from the saloon.) The women were traditionally dressed in style for the dance, wearing full-bloomed skirts and fancy petticoats. Cheerful in their merriment, they certainly seemed to be enjoying the occasion.

Through perfect eyes that never once blinked, Mark watched as the view receded from the dancing scene. Once the musicians were in sight, his movable lookout station smoothly came to a stop, and turned just enough to put the group front and center. Twelve elegantly dressed, beautiful ladies made up the band. (Mark was not familiar in the least with any one of them.) These dozen women wore long white gowns, delicately trimmed in lace. Their chairs were arranged in a semi-circle that curved away from the crowd. Two harps were being masterly strummed at the ends of the line. Over on the left, four violinists were swiftly drawing their bows. Across from them were four speedy cellists adding harmony to the tune. And lastly, in the middle, sat two banjo pickers dueling it out with graceful gusto.

Once those eyes of his had had their fill of that fun scene, Mark was sucked clear back to his original position in the tree. Immediately after that his focus turned left, and set it’s gaze on the little town of Bedlam. It was no longer as small as he remembered it to be. The town was overflowing with spectators, Mark could tell that much from the tree. But the eyes wanted to see more, so off they went, flying as the crow flies. (The distance between Mark and the ground always remained the same, 20 feet up in the air, or so he said.) When they’d made it as far as the first house on his left, the eyes eased their speed until they came to a halt. Teams of happy folk crowded both sides of the road. Some of younger adults were waving colorful banners on a pole, and a couple of old men were hoisting America’s flag way up high. The celebration was being enhanced by some kind of marching band. They were traipsing up the road in Mark’s direction. Waiting patiently to see what the fuss was all about, the eyes hovered in place.

The leader of the band was dressed in white from head to toe. All the men behind him were dressed much the same way, but their formal attire was entirely black. The contrast was staggering, but the keen eyes kept their focus. The frontman played a silver flute that glittered in the sun. His white polished shoes were brilliantly spotless. He wore a long tailcoat, and a little white bow sat tied over his throat. High-stepping his way down the middle of the road, he looked to be quite jolly nodding his head from shoulder to shoulder as he piped his tune into the air. The eyes wished to see this figurehead up close, so they took off once again, and hovered in front of him, keeping a distance of ten feet between themselves and the man by slowly backing away. In remembrance of the past, Mark found himself to be in the act of recognition. The leader was none other than the cruelly murdered preacher man. He appeared to be having the time of his life. Alive and well, and still in his prime, the pastor was hitting his stride to perfection. Satisfactorily pleased by Mark’s acknowledgment of the familiar character, the eyes began to scan the clan beyond him.

Marching behind their leader in a strict formation was a percussion band of a hundred men in ten rows of ten. Each hatless man had a wood-sided drum strapped around his neck that hung waist high. Seemingly oblivious to the folks cheering them on, they stared straight ahead with a stern look on their faces. Holding a drumstick in each hand, they alternated the beat with one strike between each of their steps. They were identically dressed in black tuxedos and black, shiny boots. But they weren’t entirely clothed in black as they had first appeared to Mark. Now that he was up close he could see that their bow ties were made out of thin cords of rope. The observant eyes paused for a moment, and waited for him to put two and two together. He didn’t get the picture right away, so the eyes allowed the witness to further examine the faces of the men in the first two rows. Mark thought they all looked vaguely familiar, but he didn’t know the reason why quite yet, so those eyes pulled him back to his hangout spot in the tree. Without the slightest hesitation, the eyes started pivoting to his right. From Bedlam to the picnic gathering, the gaze continued to move southward on across the fertile land. It didn’t stop and set it’s sight until Mark was able to grasp a complete view of the graveyard scene. Dwelling in the unfathomable depths of a dream as he was, Mark wasn’t about to be easily startled from sleep by this ongoing stretch of his active imagination.

Mark told Matt that his first impression of the scene was picturesquely magnificent. The haven of the dead had been transformed into a garden grandeur of life. The graves had been replaced by a hundred beds of blooming red roses neatly arranged in ten spacious rows. The drab slabs of engraved stone that previously marked the graves were gone. Standing in their stead at the head of each bed were open books. Their lily-white pages were flapping back and forth in the breeze. These books were all about four feet tall, and the pages were purely empty. Here and there and in between, little white bunnies could be seen hopping over and around the living beds. There were also a lot of red robins bopping about. Taking low short flights in a willy-nilly manner, they searched the surrounding lawns, and pecked at the ground in hunger for worms.

A tall totem pole stood erect in the midst of the rose beds. Skillfully adorned with a traditional variety of carvings, it ran straight as a rail from the ground on up for the first twenty feet. From that point on to the top, which was another ten feet beyond the last carved face, the narrowing pole was noticeably bent, and the bark was still intact. According to Mark, there was one thing especially odd about this pole. Several newly-formed sprigs shot forth from the very tip, as if somehow or another, it was still alive and growing. Having seen that unlikely combination, Mark’s memory drew from it’s store of resources, and offered him a clue as to the pole’s origin. Once Mark became conscious of the freely given clue, he automatically thought, “This pole was made from the lowest limb of the hanging tree.” That was all the eyes needed to hear. The focus point then fell from the very tip top on down to the bottom.

Sitting cross-legged on the ground at the base of the pole was an Indian chief. He was typically dressed in leather clothing strewn with beads, and a long eagle-feathered warbonnet sat on his head. The decorated elder had a small hand drum on his lap, but he wasn’t beating on it at the time. Mark could tell by the solemn expression on his face that he was either meditating on something highly important, or patiently waiting for the rest of the party to arrive. A little ways away from the chief, and standing directly in front of one of the books was a frail old lady flipping through the blank pages. She had her back to Mark, so he never did see her face. She wore a tattered grey dress and a pair of brown, laced boots.

Hanging On: Twenty Seven

The following is a presentation of the dream world Mark encountered in the wee morning hours of November 1st, 1869. The information contained herein is a re-creation of the testimony given to Matthew by Mark himself. In other words, it came straight from the horse’s mouth. For you see, if I may be allowed to get ahead of myself here, Matthew and Mark were destined to be friends a little further on down the road. There came a day when they were discussing the chain of events that led up to that terrible night in Bedlam. Mark happened to mention the fact that when he’d been awakened by Sam the next morning, he was smack-dab in the middle of an extremely strange, and mystifying dream. When Matt heard that his ears perked up. He wanted to hear all about it. Mark was reluctant at first. He didn’t really want to tell him, but Matt was well-versed in the art of persuasion, and thus was he able to weasel it out of him.

Matthew was amazed that Mark could still remember the dream as well as he did, months after the fact of it’s occurrence. Mark recollected it all in bits and pieces, and then he went on to give Matt a wild and crazy, but nonetheless vivid account filled with exquisitely interesting details. Matt listened curiously as Mark described the scene in a disorderly manner. Mark’s memories would run backwards for awhile, as if he were jogging his brain in reverse, and then he’d jump forward, and go the other way until he reached a point where he had to go back again, and pick up where’d he’d left off. This was all very puzzling to Matt at the time, but due to the fact that he was a storyteller, he was able to pick up the pieces, and put it all back together again. Although he never could make sense of it, Matt felt that it was a necessary addition to the story. Therefore, it is in that same vein that I include it here.

In the dream I’m about to describe, Mark was nothing but a casual, unemotional observer, invisible to others right on up to the very end, at which point he did suddenly find himself to be an active participant, but only for a moment, the moment before Sam brought him back to the real world. Throughout this dream he maintained a conscious sense of self, although he was bodiless, and could not see his hands, nor his feet.  Mark’s sense of sight remained, but he had no control over the direction of the view. The view itself was crystal clear, but limited to one hundred and eighty degrees. He was shown the scene that lay to his left, and also the one off to his right. He caught a glimpse of the blue sky above him, and was given a view of what lay below, but never did he see what was behind him. It was as if his eyes had a mind of their own, and like a bird they could swoop down to take a closer look, then they’d fly back to his fixed position without ever having turned around. He could not hear any sounds. He could neither smell, nor taste, and he altogether lacked the feeling sense of touch.

*

Part I

In the dim fading light of that cold weary night, Mark closed his tired eyes, and started counting. He didn’t recall having to toss or turn for any length of time, so he figured he fell asleep fairly quick. Mark told Matt that he didn’t usually remember his dreams. As far as he knew, he’d never had a dream that fit the common description of a nightmare. He didn’t know what it was like to wake up in a state of fright with a racing heart, and a sweaty forehead. On the rare occasions when he did awaken with a pleasant dream fresh on his mind, the memories of the scenes, and the actions in the dreams were short-lived, never were they lastingly retained, except for once. Mark could remember one dream, and one dream only. It had something to do with his father. He wouldn’t go into detail, and Matt didn’t pursue the matter. For the sake of comparisons, Mark did relay this much to Matt. He said that this particular dream was very different in aspect from the one concerning his father. In the one with his father, the two of them were alone, no one else was in the picture. There were no other attention-grabbing distractions in the background. He seemed to be his normal self, and was able to carry on a conversation in which feelings and emotions were included.

Mark’s objective lookout point was recognizably situated amongst the lower branches of the hanging tree. Mark estimated himself to be about twenty feet up in the air. He faced the bright yellow sun that had risen in the east a few hours earlier. To his right lay the graveyard. It had changed severely since the last time he’d seen it. To the left was the town of Bedlam. It was bustling as never before with people lining the street to watch a parade of some sort. The time of day appeared to be mid to late morning; he guessed the season to be early spring. The twigs on the ends of the leafless limbs were just beginning to bud. Below him on the ground, light green blades of grass could be seen bursting through a mat of brown. Floating way up high across the beautiful sky, and drifting in slowly from the north to the south were an endless line of puffy, white cumulus clouds that closely resembled the sheep that he’d been counting.

Straight across from him, and over the dirt road a little ways, Mark said he saw what must have been an audience of a hundred people or more, consisting of men, women, and children, all dressed in their Sunday best. They were sitting on pretty blankets that had been spread on the ground, and white wicker baskets full of food were aplenty. They were watching, and presumably listening to a small group of musicians who were sitting on chairs that had been placed between them and the road. Some of the members in the audience were clapping their hands in time to the beat. There were also six fun-loving couples who’d separated themselves from the crowd. These folks were square dancing in a circle, and they had to change partners as they moved along the circular line. This caught the attention of the eyes Mark had been seeing through. All of their own accord, those eyes decided to zoom on in to take a real good look at the faces on the dancers.

 

Hanging On: Twenty Six

After each of the men had finished their portions of daily bread and dried meat, they felt the need to relieve themselves, so they both went out into the cold, wintry night. Whilst the men had been inside, the freshly fallen snow had thoroughly blanketed the ground, covering the sheets of ice in a thin layer of crystallized manna. Sam walked around to the south side to get out of the wind. As he turned the corner, his poor eyesight presented to him a blurred version of the hanging tree’s white-washed crown. Sam felt sorry for the big old oak. It had taken quite a hit from the storm. As Sam moseyed up to the house, he reformed a visual image of the scene they’d left behind, and shook his head in pity. Modest Mark, who’d always been bashful, had decided in the meantime that he’d go to the north side, wherefore he turned his back to the breeze, and took a whiz real quick. As usual, Sam was being a slow starter, so Mark beat him back to the door.

Mark walked into the house, and found himself alone. Right away he felt uncomfortable. Although nothing had changed, and no one else was in there, it seemed more frightful to him not having Sam’s fatherly presence nearby. Mark was still in the process of conquering a rushing current of troublesome fears. On and off in a random arrangement of sporadic sequences, and ever since they’d left the morbid grave situation, Mark had been getting flashes of those tormented faces he’d seen earlier. Mark was only alone for a minute, but in that short spell of time he came to a very welcome realization. It suddenly occurred to him that the faces he kept seeing were coming from his store of memories, and not from out of the blue. They were no longer being forced on him like they were before. Whereas previously, it had been a live production, a show over which he had no degree of control whatsoever, now he could recall a few of the faces at will. He could also put a stop to them by willfully thinking of something more pleasant. Mark was somewhat soothed by this newfound knowledge. For certain, he was glad to see that the curtains had closed on that terrifying stage. He’d actually been an eye witness to the whole rigmarole, and that he could hardly believe.

After Sam had finished his business, he went back into the house, and promptly made his presence known by stumbling over the door sill. “Whoa!” said Sam in embarrassment of his clumsiness. He turned around and gave the inanimate object a dirty look. “Damn thing.” He then turned and looked at Mark, who was sporting a really big grin. The Kid couldn’t help himself from asking, “Are you alright?” “Oh, yeah,” Sam said, as he tried to laugh it off. But he felt the need to explain himself further, so he said, “I caught my heel on the stupid door!” Sam had to place the blame where it belonged. Managing to be extra careful, Sam attentively walked to the stove. There were four logs left, so he put two of them in, and said, “There’s only two more pieces here. We’ll save them ’till morning.” Mark nodded his comprehension of the plan. Sam continued, “That’ll do it for me. I’m gonna lay down, before I fall down.” Mark smiled, and mimicked Sam, “Well, okey-dokey then. See you in the morning. Good night!” A thoroughly tired Sam replied, “Good night, Mark! Try to get yourself some sleep, okay?” “Yeah, I will,” said Mark, a little unsure of himself. “My blanket ought to be dry here shortly.”

Sam laid down, and curled into the fetal position with his arms crossed, and his hands in his armpits. In no time at all, Sam was out cold, snoring wildly. Finding himself alone again, Mark opened the gates that led to his inquisitive waking consciousness, and let his thoughts run rampant. A hodgepodge of questions and answers tumbled around in his mind. Racking his brains with their disorganized romp, the unstoppable display of various opinions continued to plead their cases, one after another. But the jury was still out, as far as Mark was concerned, so the judge was unable to conclude the whole affair. His inability to close the case kept him awake for a spell. During that period of time when consciousness begins to wane, and drowsiness settles in, Mark paced the floor, and fiddled with the fire. Every once in awhile, he’d walk to each and every window, and peer through the panes. Each and every gaze further assured him of his security, for never did he catch a glimpse of anything spectacular. Nothing out there appeared to be strange. Nothing out yonder ways seemed to be extraordinary. The only thing to be seen was the soothing fall of fluttering snowflakes softly landing on the ground.

When the flames from the fire in the stove began to die, the lovely light faded away, and the glow grew dim. Although he didn’t know the hour, Mark knew that it was late. He decided that it was time to lay on the floor, and count sheep. That would help him keep his mind off of other things, or so he figured. Mark looked down at a far-gone Sam who was all curled up on the floor. His blanket had fallen off, so Mark gingerly picked it up, and drew it over him, like any good nursemaid would do. Mark surveyed the room once again for good measure, and saw that everything was fine. He reached for his own blanket, and felt it to be satisfactorily dry, much to his pleasure. After a long hard day, and quite the outrageous night, Mark’s heavy, drooping eyelids clued him in to the fact that he was naturally tired. He spread his blanket on the floor between Sam and the stove, and laid himself upon it. Putting his worries behind him, and counting the sheep in front, he closed his eyes in hope of receiving a safe, and blissful rest in peace. But all Mark could do at this point was to hope for the best, and that was simply because he couldn’t read the future. Mark had no way of knowing what was in store for him during the next few hours, nor did he know that he would gain admission into the visionary realm of the unconscious. Mark was destined to be a lone witness. He was about to watch an ethereal event unfold, an event that was formed in the womb of a dream, in a dream he would not soon forget.

Hanging On: Twenty Five

Sam raised an arm and pointed a finger, “There it is. There’s the place.” Mark thought the little shack looked harmless enough. Sam went on, “It’s not supposed to be locked. He didn’t leave anything of value behind, except wood,” he added, “dry wood. I hope he remembered right about leaving a few pieces in there. They’ll be worth a lot to us.” “No doubt about it,” Mark confirmed. “There’s a barn around back,” Sam continued, “we can leave the horses in there overnight. Maybe we can find them something to nibble on. I’m sure they’re hungry.” Mark replied, “Yeah, I bet they are, so am I. Say, do you have any more of that jerky?” “Sure do, Kid.” Sam caught his own self in the act of downgrading, so he quickly reiterated with a congenial smile, “I mean Mark! Sorry, about that. I’ve got some flatbread left over, too. We’ll have to make do.” Mark easily forgave his forgetful boss for the minor gaffe. “Sounds good, Sam. I’m starving.”

The two men went on to get their horses into the barn. Luckily for the horses, just inside the doors they found a smallish pile of stale hay, and Mark divided it between the two famished beasts. Sam grabbed the remaining grub from his bag, and untied his bedroll from the saddle. Proudly showing it to Mark, he said, “I put a big candle and few matches in here, so we’ll have some light to start with. Of course, you know, we’ll have to sleep on the floor.” “I figured as much. No big deal,” Mark said. “I’ll need to let this blanket of mine dry out first, anyway.” With dire necessities in hand, they exited the barn, and barred the doors behind them. The drizzly freezing mix that had bedeviled the men all night finally ceased. Nothing but snow now fell from the sky, and the winds had calmed considerably. Crunching the crispy blades of dormant grass beneath their boots, Sam and Mark carefully stepped their way to the door in the back. As good fortune would have it, the door hadn’t been locked. With a sigh of relief, Sam raised his eyebrows at Mark and smiled, “Alright! We’re in luck.” Mark feigned a smile, and nodded silently. He wasn’t quite ready to declare that all was well. Not yet, anyway. Before he could even begin to feel lucky, he’d first have to see that the place was actually empty. That is to say, he wished to be positively certain of the fact that it was absolutely devoid of any and all mysterious  objects, or any activity whatsoever that could be deemed suspicious.

Seeking refuge from the storm, the cold, wet, miserable men carried their belongings across the threshold, and made their way on into the dark but dry shelter. Sam knelt down, and laid his goods on the floor. Whereupon he immediately took to the task of finding a match. “Here they are, safe and sound.” Mark braced himself for the worst possible scenario. Preparing to scan the area, he stood still with eyes wide open. Sam struck the match on the floor, and sparks went flying. A glorious flame burst forth from the end of the wooden stick. Sam cupped his hand around it, and allowed the flame to take hold of the ingenious device that worked like magic. Appearing to Mark from out of the dark, came Sam’s glowing face. He was wearing a big grin, and baring his teeth. “Ah-ha!” Sam exclaimed. “Here we go!” Sam picked up the candle, and brought the wick to the flickering flame. A brighter light began to emerge, and it soon lit up the room ever so slightly. “Now we’re in business,” stated Sam. Nervously standing nearby at the ready, and on his alert for any signs of danger, Mark looked to the left and back to the right, as his darting eyes started to make a thorough investigation. Much to his relief, there wasn’t a soul in sight. Nothing was revealed that was out of the ordinary. A couple of crummy old chairs were tucked away in a corner, and a stove occupied the center of the room. A few valuable pieces of wood lay beside it. Other than that, the house was barren, just as Mark had hoped. No longer having a reason to be afraid, he let down his guard, and permitted himself to relax. Reflexively, he took a deep breathe, and fully exhaled a sigh.

Still shielding the flame with his hand, Sam stood up, and walked over to the stove. When his eyes caught sight of the logs on the floor, he was practically thrilled, and to a great extent his distress was alleviated. “Well, I’ll be. How about that? He did leave us some wood. Good for him.” Sam bent down, and opened the door. Then he brought the candle to the hole, and peeked inside. It was fairly free of ashes, and some half-burnt chunks of wood lay on the grill. “Well, okey-dokey then, we’re gonna have ourselves a fire!” He turned to look at Mark, and kindly gave him an order, saying, “C’mon over here, and hold this candle for me, while I get this thing to going.” Mark jumped at the chance to be of help, and quickly followed the order to the letter. Straightaway, Sam went to work, and in no time at all, the logs were catching fire. As soon as the flames began to leap out the stove, Sam reached for the latch on the door, and shut it tight. Then Sam did something that all men do, he took a few steps back, and proudly admired his work. “There we go,” he said, assuring Mark that everything was under control. Moving nearer once again, Sam held up his hands, and felt the warmth penetrate the skin of his palms. “Ah, nice and toasty! How you like that?” Mark blew out the candle, and set it down. After raising his own hands close to the stove, he answered the question. “Man, oh, man, Sam, that feels great! Really great! Way to go! I can’t wait to get dried off a bit. I need to find a place to hang my hat.” Mark scanned the room again, “Hey, we can use those chairs over there.”

On his own initiative, Mark went to the corner, and grabbed the wobbly chairs. “We can hang our coats on these, too.” He set one down by Sam, and said, “Here you go. Be careful about sitting on it though. They’re pretty shaky.” Sam appreciated the gesture, and looked the Kid in the eye. “Thanks, Mark! I think I’ll just hang my stuff on it for now. I’m gonna roll my blanket out, and hit the floor as soon as I get a bite to eat. Mark frowned, and with a sad voice he said, “My blanket’s all wet. It’s gonna have to dry for a little while. I don’t know if I can get to sleep now, anyway. Maybe, after I eat.” Mark took off his coat, and hung it on the chair, along with his hat. Sam did the same, and then grabbed the remaining grub. He tore the loaf of bread in half, and gave Mark his share. “That ought to help fill you up, and here, take as much jerky as you want. It gives me heartburn.” “Thanks, Sam!” Mark replied gratuitously. “Don’t mind if I do. My canteen here still has water in it, so help yourself to a drink whenever you need it.” “That’s good,” said Sam, “I’ll need it to wash this down. The bread is getting a little too dry, and the jerky is chewier than all get out.”

As the men ate in silence, the fire crackled away, and the room continued to warm. The ambiance allowed the two to lose themselves in thought. Among other things, Sam was wondering if the Deputy would show up in the morning, for his mind mostly concerned itself with business matters left undone, and how he would deal with it all come sunrise. Mark was living more in the present. His mind was on a wide variety of terrible things that might occur if he laid down, shut his eyes, and fell fast asleep. Mark knew better than to tell Sam what he was thinking. Not that anything strange was bound to happen. He didn’t want to believe in that sort of outcome, anyway. But having to deny it made him feel foolish. Nevertheless, he kept quiet, and they both finished their food without saying another word.

The Hanging Tree Of Bedlam – 24

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.