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.

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Chapter Sixteen

As if in slow motion, Sam and his men made their way further into the cave. The yellowish glow of light from the loosely held lanterns swung up and down as it reflected off the tan sandstone walls. Long shadows of men in hats lengthened and shortened, and shakily moved to and fro as they cast themselves over jagged cracks and deep inlaid crevices. Flashing glimpses of crudely shaped figures carved into the wall could be seen here and there. The flickering flames from the lanterns were playing tricks on the eyes of these men. The rank stench remained debilitating, but they were so intensely focused, they plumb forgot about it.

Sam continued to lead the team in single file. Seeing no signs of danger, he finally put his pistol back in its holster. Why the place stunk so bad, he could not figure out. There were no dead bodies in there, animal or human, as far as Sam could tell. He stopped and turned back to the men. “Hold your horses a minute! This could be a trap.” Sam suspiciously moved forward, keeping an eye out for a wire close to the floor. The ceiling was closing in on him, and he had to crouch down lower and lower as he went. He was within ten feet of the small pile of ashes when he spied something written on the wall in red. Sam’s first thought was “Paint,” because it was definitely brushed on. His second thought was, “Paint? Nobody carries red paint around with them. What the hell?” Without looking back, he waved his men toward him. “C’mon and take a look.” Sam was close enough by then to tell that what he was looking at wasn’t just a little fire some somebody made just to say warm. This somebody had drawn a picture around the fire by digging out grooves in the dirt. The men gathered into a half circle around the scene. Questioning looks were on the face of every man. Dumbfounded and awestruck, they stood there in silence, eyes wide open. They didn’t dare gasp for air.

Four blood-colored symbols on the wall commanded their attention — a circle, a square, a triangle, and a five-pointed star. Red drips ran down the wall under each one. Otherwise, the shapes appeared perfectly neat. A little too perfect for comfort, as were the drawings of symbols and foreign-looking letters pressed into the dirt around the smallish fire. They were impossibly perfect; too well done. No doubt, this was the work of a professional. It was not the remains of some Indian ceremony, nor was this artist any ordinary outlaw. Their assumptions pointed directly to the foreign stranger — that ruthless murderer. They were sure of it. All in all, it beat the likes of anything any one of them had ever seen. But then again, the whole thing eerily reminded them of something. Every one of these men had an inkling that they’d seen something like this before, but not a one of them could remember when or where they’d seen it. That’s what made this all the more stupefying. Murmured words mumbled forth from their lips, words such as “witchcraft” and “black magic”.  As Sam was standing there perplexed, he happened to think of Luke. “I wonder if he told us everything back at the Deputy’s office. There is something I don’t know here. But why would he withhold information in the first place? I didn’t at all expect this. Good Lord! What kind of man are we after anyway? And where did he get all this blood?”

A few of Sam’s men tried to describe this scene for Matt a few days after they returned to Bedlam. This is what they came up with: A perfectly round circle enclosed the entire delicately positioned diagram. It was nearly three-foot in diameter. The groove carved to dig out this circle was one inch wide and one inch deep. A small amount of blood was carefully poured into the groove all the way around. It had since soaked into the sandy dirt at the bottom of the groove. Inside this circle was an exacting square. It was two and a half feet across. Outside the square and above every corner was a symbol pressed into the dirt with some sort of tool. They were exquisitely well-formed. At the North point stood a sun with thin pointed rays. On the left side lay a triangle with an eye across the center of it. At the bottom were two quarter moons facing each other; almost touching. Outside of the right corner was a circle with a diamond inside. A vertical line cut through the center of these two overlaid symbols.

Just under the lines inside the square were descriptive symbols that imperceptibly changed form as they rounded the corners. The forms consisted of four unrecognizable alphabets. They could have been sentences, or elaborate equations, or possibly some type of formula. Whatever they meant, the man was a master calligrapher. The skillfully crafted intricate inscriptions that flowed from their creator’s intimations revealed a diabolical intelligence masked in artistic talent.

Underneath these lines and centered in the square were two overlaid triangles; one pointing up and one pointing down. The triangle pointing down was smaller, so even though it still represented a five-pointed star, it wasn’t your average symmetrical star. The remains of the little fire lay in the middle of this star, acting as the center-point of the geometric design. But there was something else rather odd about it. The ashes in the middle of the pile were black and grey, whereas the ashes on the outer edges were white as snow. Taken all together, the whole structure had an otherworldly feel to it. It was obviously a finely honed ritual that implied knowledge of dark-cultured mores.

After a few minutes of serene bewilderment, Sam stooped down and put his hand over the embers. Sensing no danger, he carefully pushed his finger down into the pile. “It’s still warm, men. Out for an hour or so, at the most. That no-good devil took his sweet time going to all this trouble.” Sam paused and quickly glanced all around one last time. “One more thing — in case we have to testify at a later date, remember what you saw here today. Okay?” Sam eyed each man, and each nodded in turn. “Now let’s get the hell out of this God-forsaken sanctuary. We’ll check the other path that goes up to the top. I bet he came in and left that way, and we’ll probably be able to tell which direction he headed off to. He can’t hide all his tracks. I hope you boys are up to this. Looks like we done got ourselves an outlaw to chase. Man, oh, man. I need some air. Let’s go!”