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.”

 

 

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Chapter Nineteen

Back about the time when Sam and his posse were in the cave, Matthew was 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 young son already went to bed without him.  To stay awake and keep warm, he kept himself busy tending the fire in their stove. It was blazing away at full strength, adding heat and plenty of light to their living room. This enabled Matt to take to the task of cleaning his rifle. He planned on going hunting the next morning, but the storm caused him to reconsider. 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 kept busy peering out his windows on and off all evening. 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 a distance. He thought he’d like to have a close-up view someday, just so he could brag about such a rare 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 its history. In that respect, he was a voyeuristic storyteller. He didn’t see himself as a fear monger. He told his tales for the express purpose of entertaining others, not because he wished to scare people away.

By the time that Matt finished readying his rifle, the stove had cooled off, and its 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 again looked out his window toward the graveyard. 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 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 wished to see one someday. 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. The storm was much worse than he previously forecast. He was expecting snow, and not rain in these freezing conditions. Earlier in the afternoon, he covered his stack of logs with a large piece of cowhide 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 recovering the pile. As he began his return back to the cozy comforts of home, he looked around at the few remaining occupied houses. He didn’t see one hint of light coming through any of the windows. 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 desperately wanted to move to the new town because that’s where good things happened, 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.

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 its fear, and it was coming from 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. “Surely, it’s Sam and his men. 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 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. Instantly, 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, 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 drizzle 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 met tombstone, and continued to carry its master through the foreboding graveyard.

Their indistinct shapes were beginning to take form as they neared the hanging tree. The old oak seemed cloaked in gloom. Once they were under the furthermost reaches of the hanging tree’s branches, the horse abruptly halted.  It reared up off the ground, and voiced another nay. Upon landing, it shook its head and mane, and snorted loudly in a show of disgust. Small clouds of hot, steamy breath came rolling out of its 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, and he was wearing a wide-brimmed hat, which reminded him of the description Luke gave of the 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, hitherto unknown to him. Never before had he felt so terrified. Never before had he literally been scared stiff, and it took his breath away.