Lonely Enough For Two

unsplash coffee

It was one of those days where everywhere one looks, one sees twos. Everyone but me had someone else, or so it seemed. Embarrassment is tiring, and I didn’t feel like feeling it on that particular afternoon, when busy-ness was running rampant along the sidewalk, as per usual. So, I did what I’ve done before: bought two coffees and paced the floor. Anxiously disgruntled, it must have been obvious to any and all onlookers — here was a man awaiting his date. Impatience ain’t so hard to feign. You know? I sat back down and stared at my phone. Finishing off the last dregs of the first cup, I slid it away and grabbed the second, shaking my head in a miserable fashion. Two cups after lunch is the norm for me anyway. Ha! I knew I had them fooled. But little did I know what was to happen next. She came through the door alone, looking tired and worn-out. I pretended not to see her, and continued to fidget with my cell in a nonchalant manner. Slowly, she walked up to the counter and placed her order. A short conversation ensued, then she turned and glanced at me, as she made her way to a table at the other end of the shop. Shortly thereafter, the waitress brought her two cups of coffee…

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The Hanging Tree Of Bedlam – 23

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.

Chapter Nine

Luke was a man of two minds as he walked away. After the questionable interrogation, he could tell there were two disparate emotions vying for his attention. He was happy, and he felt more free that morning. He’d been released, and loosened up a bit. Luke could feel it in his stride. His job was still intact, although he’d already begun to have second thoughts concerning his new boss. He’d come to a conclusion that was as obvious as the nose on his face. For the most part, Sam was a domineering character. He could be overwhelmingly forceful in dealing with his subordinates. That he could plainly see. Thank goodness, he hadn’t treated him like that. Not yet anyway. But Luke knew there’d come a time, if he worked there long enough. He figured he’d better not act like he had at his last job. He was prone to fart around and engage in horseplay. He enjoyed goofing off when the cat was away. His own behavior had gotten out of hand sometimes, and he’d certainly have to watch his step around Sam and carefully scrutinize his offhand remarks before blurting them out. It didn’t take much to make Sam irate. If someone pissed him off, he’d immediately become obnoxious and bite their heads off. But Sam was also fair and paid his workers good wages. Luke needed the money, for sure. So in that respect, Luke was happy for himself and family. He felt fortunate. The state of gratitude lingered very close by, but he couldn’t absorb it in its entirety. There were too many other thoughts of a different nature holding him back from total bliss.

Luke almost felt guilty for being happy after others had been so hurt. “Those two poor children…,” were on Luke’s mind as he continued his walk home. Much had happened, and most of it was sad. He’d been so busy during the last twelve hours, that he’d yet to find the time to mourn. Grieved by the loss, and troubled by the whole situation, Luke began to think. He wondered if there were anything he could do to help. It broke his heart to think about them. “They’ve done nothing to deserve this. And now…what are they facing? An orphanage someplace far far away most likely.” Then , as if from out of nowhere, an idea popped him upside the head. Luke continued to talk and question himself. “Hey! Wait a minute! Why can’t we adopt them? Won’t I be able to afford to do something like that now? It wouldn’t be that much trouble…would it? I’ll ask the sweet loving mother of my children as soon as I get home. She already likes them, and all the kids get along when they’re together, so why not?” After the birth of their last son, his wife could no longer bear children. At that time, the doctor’s news had made Luke depressed, for he had hoped to have a little girl someday. “I think we can do this. The boy will come around given enough time. That girl though…man, she is simply adorable.”

Luke wouldn’t do this sort of thing to gain favor with the Lord. It never would have crossed his mind. He liked to feel good about himself and his accomplishments, as do most people. He did good for goodness’ sake, not for God’s sake. He didn’t believe there was some kind of divine scoring system, no. He acted according to the dictates of his own conscience. He knew that he was the only one who had to sleep with the man in the mirror, the man he saw every morning upon waking. That’s who he had to please to be at peace within himself. The very thought of adopting those two kids eased his mind and lightened his step. But he was far from feeling totally at ease. You see, there were these other thoughts that kept bugging him. Those other thoughts centered around that stranger…that murderer…that fiend.

“It’s all so incredible…I can’t understand it…What kind of maniac could commit such a barbaric act?…A savage, maybe…or, so I’ve been told. But a civilized man? No way…That stranger…every indication…his appearance, especially…reminds me of a rich man from a big city…Everything about him…sophisticated, and well-bred. How bizarre! Why in the world would he want a useless human heart? What’s he going to do with it?…Oh, God, no. He wouldn’t eat it. That’s disgusting! What then?…I have no idea…It’s unthinkable! Dastardly…and definitely evil…definitely. It’s…it’s…insane…it’s madness…and demented. This was the work of the devil’s brood. There’s no other explanation…might it have something to do with witchcraft?…The occult?…I’ve heard stories…weird…what does it matter now, anyway?…It’s done, and over with…Appearances can be deceiving. I know that…but, if it was that foreigner, Sam and his men could be in for more trouble than they expect…What if they don’t find him?…Sam’s pretty smart…they probably will…if that’s the case, they’re headed for a dangerous rendezvous…and they don’t know it…I didn’t tell them about that…was that a mistake?…Should I run back and tell them?…Ah, those kids…I can’t do that to them…No way in hell!…even if it ruins the town. I can’t.”

This was Luke’s presentiment. He had a vague, uneasy feeling in his gut. “Maybe, I’m just hungry. I haven’t eaten all day. Lunch sounds good about now. I wonder what she’s cooking up…I could eat a horse.” As Luke neared the grocery store, he noticed a group of men gathered together in front of the place. They were all looking in his direction. Luke turned around to see if there was someone behind him. No, there wasn’t. They were looking at him, and waving him over. “This is what Sam was talking about. He was right.” As he closed in on the group, he recognized all their familiar faces. “Matt’s here, too. I’ll have to ask him if there was any trouble in Bedlam last night. The stranger headed in that direction. Maybe, he didn’t stop. Maybe, he went right on through that old town. I sure hope so.”

Chapter Eight

Luke cringed in his chair after hearing Sam mention a hanging. He wasn’t sure if Sam meant for him to join this posse or not. He’d never in his life committed a crime, as far as he knew. White lies don’t count, and that one time he borrowed a tool, he returned it, so there was really no harm done on his account. Luke didn’t see himself as being particularly capable of helping Sam carry out a plan such as that, and more than likely, it was showing on his face. He thought, “Sam doesn’t know me all that well. I should speak up.”

After hearing Sam’s pointed question, the deputy’s pulse quickened. His first response was physical. Fear and anxiety made him straighten up in his chair. His first thought was, “Sam’s going to ring my neck, if I say no.” So he hesitated, and silence permeated the air. Now everyone was nervously on edge. All except for Sam that is. He was always sure of himself, and he thought he knew beforehand exactly what the deputy was going to say. Deputy McCoy knew Sam was waiting to hear, “Yes. It’s okay. Go ahead. It’s fine with me. Do what you want, sir.” But our fine officer also had a future to consider. He wished to be a sheriff some day, Lord willing, so he didn’t want to get his hands dirty. He wanted no part of this, even though it was sort of his job to enforce the law and catch the bad guys. To calm himself, the deputy decided to give Sam what he felt was a reasonable answer, one that was in line with his badge. “Sam…sir, I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you say that.”

Sam raised his voice for the deaf man, and repeated himself, “Can we? Can we hang the murderer if we catch him? Yes or no.” Sam paused ever so slightly, then grinning he shouted, “Wait! You’re right. After we catch that sonuvabitch, we’ll bring him to you, Deputy. We’ll bring him back safe and sound and you can lock him up in your bedroom and teach him some manners. Is that what you want?” Sam didn’t give the deputy time to answer. Instead, he turned to Luke, who was sitting close by. Sam changed his angry facial expression to one of a more sympathetic nature. The tone of his authoritative voice transformed into one of a more consolatory fashion. “Listen, son, I can see your troubled by this. I never said I was going to hang anyone. As you heard, I was only asking the deputy a question.” Sam turned and glared once again at Deputy McCoy, “Hold your tongue for a minute and think about it!” But Sam was the one who needed a minute. He figured Luke had heard enough of this conversation. Perhaps, too much. It was time to send him on his way.

Sam never intended on taking Luke along with him. After the interview of the night before, Sam could tell Luke was an honest young man; the type of man who attempted to stay true to his faith, and act accordingly. Sam desperately needed someone he could trust back at the ranch. He saw no reason to try to teach him otherwise. But there were several factors weighing in on his decision. On the one hand, Luke was the lone witness, and they couldn’t afford to let anything bad happen to him. On the other hand, Luke wasn’t cut out for such a thing as aggressive enforcement of the law. And frankly, it appeared to Sam that Luke was still in recovery. His face was pale, his eyes were watery, and his gestures slow-moving. Lastly, and possibly the most important reason of all was that Sam hated being upstaged, especially by someone like him.

Facing Luke once again, Sam prepared to give him a good send off. It was high time for Luke to begin a daylong sentimental journey. “I wasn’t planning to take you along, so relax. You had a very rough night, and probably didn’t get much sleep. You may take your leave now. Go on home. Enjoy your wife. Enjoy your kids. I bet everyone in town wishes to talk to you. Go bask in your glory for a day, if you know what I mean.” Sam winks at Luke. “You’re a hero because of what you did last night. No need to take on another challenge so soon. These here men, along with me of course, we can and will take care of this. Don’t you worry about it. I want you healthy and in tip-top shape come Monday when you report for your first day of work. Now, go and take care of yourself and your family. They’re probably worried about you. Go and comfort them.” As a code of honor and a sign of their agreement, Sam walked up to Luke for the fellowship contained in a handshake.

Luke was perfectly relieved by the news. He stood up smiling and grabbed Sam’s hand with a strong grip and lifted it up and down. Luke tried to conceal his current state of exaltation. “Well, okay, sir. If you don’t need me right now, I’ll do as you say. I am pretty tired. Goodbye, and good luck with whatever it is you decide to do!” Luke nodded to his future co-workers with a look of optimism on his face. Then he turned back to Deputy McCoy. Luke put on a face of acceptable resignation, and silently waved to him as if to say, “Oh, well.” Opening the exit door, he turned back to the rest of the men in the room and waved, “See y’all later!”

Sam would have one more tiny favor to ask of Luke that day. As soon as Luke shut the door, Sam turned back to the deputy and calmly said, “Your turn.”

Chapter Seven

Luke spent most of the morning pacing the floor and torturing himself over a certain secret and the type of confession he’d deliver to the deputy in the form of a testimonial. He liked to think of himself as an honest man. His parents brought him up to believe that honesty was the best policy. But was it? In every case? He was beginning to believe otherwise. The talking to he gave himself went something like this: “What harm is there in withholding this kind of information? Besides, if I answer truthfully with a full disclosure, it will only exacerbate the future consequences that shall stem from this particular crime. It wouldn’t diminish the hardships that are sure to follow for all those concerned, namely those two kids. Quite to the contrary, telling the truth would surely increase their emotional pain for many years to come. Those kids have been through enough. Haven’t they? Why make matters worse? And what about our town? We want folks to move here. We wish to be a thriving community. We’re just getting started. We simply can’t afford to let this kind of news get out and damage our town’s reputation. It’s not worth it. Case closed. I will not tell all. No way.”

Around 10 o’clock that morning, Luke headed out and made his way to the deputy’s office. Building a jailhouse was on the town’s agenda, but not yet in the works, and they were still awaiting their duly appointed County Sheriff. Deputy McCoy did his best to play the part of a lawful, but temporary keeper of the peace. He was a meek and timid man who’d had an easy go of it so far. The town was nearly crime-free before he arrived, and was still free from violent crimes since he’d taken on the job. The horrible goings-on of the night before were unlike any he’d ever seen, and he was beside himself as to what he should do next, and how he would go about carrying out the law given what he had to work with, which wasn’t much. He was expecting Luke that morning, but not the group of men who showed up a few minutes before Luke’s appearance. It was Luke’s new boss accompanied by a half-dozen hired-hands. The deputy knew Sam as the most powerful man in town, and thus showed him due respect.

While in the general store, Sam and his men heard the news. Their sadness quickly turned to anger, and now they’d come to see what was being done about it. Sam wasn’t too happy when he saw the deputy sitting there doing nothing, although he was impressed to hear that his most recent hire was the new hero in town. Sam, by the way, was not averse to killing. He’d lived through a couple of gunfights. The result was death for both opponents. Being a rich landowner, when it came to taking the law into one’s own hands, he knew the ropes, so to speak. A killer was on the loose, and he intended on doing whatever was necessary to apprehend the criminal. Then he’d mete out justice according to the unspoken rules of the West.

Luke knew going in what he’d say, and how he’d say it. He knew that if he told them he saw the foreigner leaving town just as the fire started, and that he was the only one in the vicinity at the time, then obviously they’d have to assume that the stranger was the guilty party. Instinctively, Luke had his doubts about that assumption, but he also looked at the big picture, and by that I mean the future. This was his town, too, and he wanted the best for his family. Someone was going to pay for this and they only had one suspect. He had to tell them who he’d seen. Whatever happened after that was beyond his control. That he knew. Furthermore, there’d be no more blood on his hands, not if he could help it.

Luke walked in and received a warm reception. Everyone wanted to shake his hand and brand him a hero. Luke had no way of knowing his new employer would be there. It threw him for a loop, and knocked him somewhat off balance. Sam was proud of him, no doubt, and told him as much in no uncertain terms. Luke was flattered, but also embarrassed from all the attention. Sam proceeded to take over the whole affair from there, and the deputy shrank back into the corner. “Have a seat, Luke, and tell us what happened. No need to spare the details. We’re all men here.”

Even though Luke had just been through hell, he was none the worse for wear. He enabled himself to remain calm, and gave an overall coherent account of what he’d seen, and what he’d done. Here and there he’d feel the need to explain himself. Naturally, he got emotional, and a few tears escaped their entrapment. When it was time to purposely skip over the unbelievable part of the story, his heart began to race. He stammered a bit, but kept it to himself as planned. The secret was his, and his alone. He already felt its weight.

Sam thanked Luke for the pertinent information. It was enough and all he needed. There was a suspect and they had sufficient cause to go after him. The evidence was circumstantial. No motive could be comprehended. That didn’t matter to Sam, he could overlook those things. What they needed was justice and someone to blame. They already had the latter, and he’d take care of the former.

Proceeding to put forth his plan, Sam glared at the deputy, “If my men will help form a posse, will you swear us in?” The deputy immediately consented. Raising one eyebrow and wearing a smirk, Sam asks, “Will it be legal? Officially, that is?” The deputy replied, “I think so. At least, I’m pretty sure it would be, sir. I know the words. All you’ll have to do is raise your right hands, and repeat after me.” Sam was content with his answer. The law would be on their side. He offered his men a substantial bonus, and asked them if they’d agree to join him in this exceedingly dangerous endeavor. All the men nodded in agreement. “Good!” Sam continued, “As you know, we have no way to keep this man jailed and locked away. I say we swap the speedy trial for a speedier delivery of the penalty. It might be months before we could get a court and judge to convene. We haven’t the time nor the patience to wait around for who knows how long? That foreigner is guilty. Who else could it be? We have a witness.” Sam turns to Luke and smiles. “He is trustworthy, and comes highly recommended.” Luke remained silent, and kept a straight face.

“Now, Deputy McCoy, answer me this,” says Sam with an imploring tone. “If we catch this vicious wanted murderer…can we hang him high tonight? Yes, or no, Deputy. Answer me at once!”