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.

 

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.

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.

Hanging On: Twenty Two

Hanging on to hope, but fearing the worst, dreadfully suspended o’er the abysmal expanse that separates truth from doubt, Sam was desperately searching for a clue that would provide him with the means to positively identify the silhouetted dangling man. Through a perilous atmosphere thickened with doom, one trembling moment passed on to the next, grimly determined to breach the day that lay beyond the midnight hour. The old oak tree loomed large in the background of that frightfully picturesque scene. It towered over the graveyard like unto a shepherd guarding his flock. Burdened by the weight of their ice-coated skins, the tips of every branch submissively bowed to the earth.

In the midst of the scattered tombstones stood the hanged man’s loyal horse. Now wary of the ongoing situation, it stared down the suspicious invaders, and let out a deep snort of warning to any and all who would dare to encroach upon its territory. Sam’s horse took the lead, and immediately squealed a reply of dissent. The rest of the men’s horses were alarmed by the call. Stirred into action, they readied themselves for a charge. Realizing it was outnumbered, the faithful steed relented. It turned away and walked to the far side of the graveyard. Once it had reached the outer edge, it stopped and turned back around, refusing to displace itself completely from the haven of deep rest. Sam knew then and there that it was the foreigner’s black stallion.

“Well, I’ll be damned!” Sam exclaimed to his men. “It is that sonuvabitch, and somebody else got to him first.” Sam’s men, with one exception, were relieved to hear him say those words. With obvious disappointment, Mark asked,”Are you sure that’s his horse?” Sam answered him matter-of-factly, “No doubt about it, Kid!” Someone had stolen the show, and Mark wondered who the culprit might be. “Then who do you think got him?” Sam didn’t care who. He was genuinely delighted to see the killer hanging there, dead as a doornail. “I don’t know, Kid. It’s hard to say. Let’s go take a closer look.” From Mark’s perspective, after that horridly artistic seen in the cave, he couldn’t believe the man had been caught and hanged before they’d had a chance to catch up with him. The murderer they had chased was despicably evil, or so he surmised. He had to have been possessed by demons to pull off a stunt like that. At the very least, he must have had invisible, magical, and violent accomplices. Perhaps he’d been supplied with superhuman strength. Maybe he’d attained some type of unknown devilish power. No way did he think the manhunt would end up as simple as that. It was all too easy. Mark didn’t believe the night was over. That the big, old ominous oak was haunted, now that he could believe. If the story be true, then the tree had just accepted another ungodly soul into its outrageous inventory. But something else was going on too, or so it seemed. Everything was up in the air, as far as Mark was concerned. It wasn’t yet time to relax and unwind, nor was he ready to call it a day. “He is dead, isn’t he?”

Sam didn’t bother to answer Mark’s question, he jerked the reins instead, and headed towards the graveyard. Sam’s highly strung horse was acting jumpy, and hesitant. When they’d come to the edge of the burial grounds, his horse stopped for good, neighing out its refusal to go in there. The rest of the horses felt the same way. Not a one of those men could get their ride to take the shortcut. “To hell with it!” yelled Sam. “We’ll go around.” So back to the sloppy road they went. Once they’d gotten passed the last standing slab of stone, they got back off the road, and made way for the hanging tree. The wind picked up its speed for a second, and blew the hanged man’s cloak away from his dead body, exposing his hands. They were tied behind his back with the same rope that was around his neck. The end of the extra long rope lay on the ground beside his boots, which were barely off the ground, and slightly swaying in the wind. The length of rope from the knot on the limb to the noose appeared to have been measured perfectly, just long enough to strangle the man to death.

They hadn’t gotten far from the road, when the horses reneged a second time. They wanted nothing to do with that tree, either. “Damn!” said Sam. “What’s your problem, big boy?” Sam let out a huff, and then dismounted. Mark did the same, imitating his hero. The rest of the posse stayed by the road. They’d already seen enough. Mark was going to make himself take a look. He’d never encountered the freshly dead, and he wanted to be perceived as a brave and courageous man in the eyes of his reticent comrades. As Sam and the nervous Kid closed in on the swinging corpse, Mark focused his attention on the killer, the rope, and the limb. “This guy better be dead,” was his only thought. Sam was eying the tracks on the ground. His curiosity caused him to wonder, “How many of them were there?” But as he peered down and around on the ground, all he could see were prints in the mud, and they all looked alike. Mark’s will was stronger than his fear, and the first thing he did was to walk right up to the fancy dressed man, and poke him real hard on the arm. That set him to swinging pretty good, but the deceased didn’t open his eyes, as Mark had nervously anticipated.

It was a gruesome and grotesque sight to behold. Hanging from the lowest limb in black formal attire was a once handsome man who’d turned blue in the face. He was dressed for a funeral alright, and ready to hit the coffin, except…he was all of a mess. Mud had been smeared from the knees on his pants, all the way down to the toes of his well-polished boots, as if someone had dragged him by the arms to that very spot. Little balls of ice were clinging to his hair, and an icicle had begun to form off the tip of his nose. Even though he’d been cleansed by the freezing rain, he still reeked of that awful, rotten smell back in the cave. Mark was grossed out, and after a few seconds, he had to turn his eyes away. Stunned and awed, he gazed at the tree. Just then he noticed an item laying on the ground next to the trunk. “Hey, Sam! Here’s that guy’s funny looking hat.” Mark went over to pick it up, but as soon as he got close to the tree and bent over, he got light-headed and dizzy. He put one hand on the trunk for stability, and knelt down to grab the hat. It was resting on and surrounded by loosened chunks of wet soil. “Hey, look! Someone dug a hole here!” Mark picked up the hat, and found himself staring at an ivory-handled dagger that’d been stuck in the mud, and purposely hidden underneath the wide-brimmed hat. As soon as he reached down to pull it out of the ground, Sam yelled, “Wait! Don’t touch that!” But Sam’s command had missed the deadline of 12 o’clock sharp. As the hands struck midnight, Mark simultaneously removed the long-bladed knife from the saturated earth. A split second later, the result of his action could be seen and heard. Mayhem in Bedlam was destined to ensue shortly thereafter.

Hanging On: Twenty One

With the bitter wind directly in their faces, Sam and his posse continued their long journey northwards. The freezing rain had finally let up, but a mist remained, and stuck all the same. The horses manes were thinly glazed in ice. Their hooves plodded along in the slush muddied road, as if they hadn’t a care in the world. Signs of damage from the storm could be seen underneath the trees that were nearby the road. Ice laden twigs, and small branches lay scattered about on the ground. Overcast skies would not allow the full moon to shed it’s light for the sake of these men. Nevertheless, the gravity of the situation was clearly understood. Heavy with discontent, the night refused to go quickly.

Sam was in a thoroughly bad mood, thanks to the latest turn of events. The chase was officially on, but not in the normal, speedy sense of the word. More to the point, Sam was following the criminal, slowly, but surely, and his men were following him. Not a one of those cowboys would have dared to run on ahead without him, no matter how much they wished they could. Sam was the boss, and what the boss says goes, but there was one thing the boss wouldn’t tell them. Sam was a miserable wreck. He was aching inside, and out. The shivers were attacking him, and he feared the onset of fever. He was afraid he was catching the death of a cold, and where would that leave him? Sam had a ranch to run, and business matters to attend to. He couldn’t afford to be laid up with pneumonia.

Mark’s bad mood could be attributed to the god-awful pace Sam had set. Mark was under the weather, same as everyone else, but to his young mind that made the task all that much tougher, and the tougher, the better, for he wanted to gain a memorable experience from the whole affair. Mark wanted to be party to a big deal, and that entailed capturing the murderer. The rest of the men in the posse were simply tagging along. From the sounds of it, and according to Sam, they would be too late to stop the criminal from furthering his tour of disaster. They’d been keeping their minds off the pitiful weather by pondering various ways of spending the bonus they’d eventually obtain.

They weren’t far from Bedlam when Sam made up his mind, and arrived at a decision. He decided that he’d had quite enough for one night, although he didn’t go ahead and tell the men of his plan. Sam had to find a good excuse first, one that had nothing to do with the way he was feeling. There was a vacated house in Bedlam, recently lived in by an acquaintance of his. The man told Sam he could stay in the place, if need be. He’d even left firewood in the house, so as not to have to haul it away. Sam decided to take advantage of the offer. Some place warm, and dry is what he needed. He absolutely knew he couldn’t ride another hour. Most importantly, Sam wanted to live to see the day break.

Mark had been first in line behind Sam ever since they’d crossed the river. With his young, healthy eyes aiding him, he was the first to notice a recognizable sight. Off in the distance, Mark could see the vague outline of the big, old oak. “Hey, Sam!” Mark pulled on up beside him. “I can see the hanging tree up there. We’re almost to Bedlam.” Sam strained, and squinted his eyes, and there it was. He turned to face Mark, “Yep! Sure enough, Kid.” That grand and stately landmark reassured Sam that yes, indeed, they were on the home stretch. Mark gave Sam a looking over in a questioning sort of way. “What else is it?” Sam asked. Politely, and sympathetically, Mark put forth a simple question. “Are you alright?” Sam curtly replied,”Yes, Kid, I’m fine.” After a moment of silence, Mark speaks his mind. “I can’t wait to get back to town to see what all’s happened. I guess we won’t be needing Luke’s rope after all.” Sam changed his tone, and kindly said, “Thanks for reminding me. I’ll grab it when we get there.” Sam hastily began to search for that good excuse to spend the night in Bedlam, but he wasn’t having any luck. For better, or for worse, his luck was about to change.

The posse moseyed on forward. Less than a minute after sighting the tree, Mark’s keen vision is alerted to a new, and startling fact. He stops his horse, “Whoa! Sam, stop! Somebody’s standing up there, under the tree. Can you see him?” Sam comes to a halt, and takes a good, hard look. “You’re right!” He turns his head, and looks back, “Hold on, men. Somebody’s up there.” Mark concentrates his focus, and sees something else. “Hey, Sam. There’s a horse up there, too. It’s standing in the graveyard.” Sam could feel his poor, weary heart speeding up as he stared down the road. He quickly glanced to his left and to his right, looking to see if there was anybody else close by. “Keep on the lookout, men! There’s something fishy going on here. This could be a trap, and I don’t want to get ambushed. Keep your eyes peeled for movement of any sort.”

Cautiously slow, they advanced. The dark horse in the misty graveyard looked like a statue. It hadn’t moved an inch. No movement from the shadowy figure, either. It was just standing there, still as can be, as they made their approach. Sam reached for his holster, and pulled out his pistol. “Be on your guard, men. I don’t like the looks of this.” All the men heeded this call to duty, and grabbed their guns. Mark continued to feed Sam information, even though he was as nervous as could be. He was in new territory, and it was fraught with danger. He’d never shot at a man before, but he would if he had to, or so he thought. Through his heightened sense of excitement, Mark lowered his shaky voice, and went on. “He’s standing under the lowest limb…at least, it looks like it. Do you think it’s him? The killer?” “I don’t know,” answered Sam truthfully. “None of us have seen him. We only know what Luke told us. But it could be him. I can’t imagine why he’d stop here…unless he’s waiting for us.” “That’d be awful stupid. There’s seven of us,” said Mark. “He hasn’t moved,” stated Sam. Mark was searching his mind for a motive. “Why’s he standing there? What’s he waiting for?”

They were within a hundred yards of the wet and dreary graveyard when the dark, tall horse finally moved. It lowered it head, and shook the water out of its mane, letting out a quick squeal of denial. Sam and his men walked on undeterred, looking all around, left and right, waiting for something to happen. Mark was staring down the road at the hatless, motionless, unknown man when he saw something else. That something else was a rope. Mark yelled, “Whoa! Oh, my God! Sam! He’s not standing there, he’s hanging there!”

Hanging On: Chapter Twenty

Once Matthew had identified the deceptive stealth invader, he immediately took a defensive posture, and pulled his head back out of sight. The stark and threatening realization of imminent danger forced Matt into an instinctual, but heretofore unexplored realm. Every cell in his body was instantly exposed to an uncontrollable rush of adrenalin. His heart had taken on a maddening pace, and his breathes were short and quick. Fear had gotten a hold of him, and Matt reflexively clenched his fists in response. With gloved, but empty hands, he tightly gripped the thin air, as if he were hanging on for dear life.

Matt’s natural impulses were busily hurrying forth his initial move. Eager muscles twitched whilst they waited for him to make a critical decision. His first course of action was to take no action at all. Momentarily fixed and stone-like, he stood still, as every moving part of his body longed to flee. His will to move had been compromised. Captured and imprisoned in the immobility of a dream stage, his suspended sense of purpose struggled to breakthrough the front lines of inertial forces. Matt stared down the backside of his house. His gaze was set on the door. Dim rays glowed out of the window nearby. A second or two later, it finally dawned on him. He saw the light, and thought, “Oh, crap! The light…the only light in town.” The safety of his family was now his first and foremost concern. Matt’s feet listened and obeyed his command. They quietly carried him onto the thresholds of security. “I wonder if he noticed.” Matt paused for a second to await a logical answer. “Well, yes, he probably saw it. Better get the rifle loaded before I put out the fire.”

Without making a sound, Matt opened the door and went inside his walled-in fortress. “Ah, good thing it’s already warm in here,” he whispered to himself, “and dry, too. Damn that weather!” He could see that he was all wet, but he didn’t bother to take off his coat, nor did he remove his muddy boots. Straightaway, he crouched down low, and made a bee-line for his cartridges. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his hound dog come out of the bedroom. Matt put his index finger over his lips, and told him,”Hush.” The old dog lifted up it’s snout, and looked at Matt as if to say, “Told you so.” Then it turned, and went back to lay at the foot of his bed. Matt made short work of his task, and in no time at all his single-shot rifle was loaded. As he went for the stove, he glanced around the room to see if there might be something he’d forgotten. “The doors. Bar the doors!” Having successfully accomplished that, he went back to the stove, shut the vents, and grabbed his rifle on his way to the window on the front-side.

Matt sneaked a peek out of his slowly darkening hiding place in the hope of spotting the shadowy figure where he’d last been seen, but the only thing out there was the man’s tall horse. It had moved back into the grim atmosphere of the graveyard, and appeared to be staring at the big old oak. Matt’s eyes were on the lookout, and he scanned the entire area, but the killer on the loose had disappeared from sight. “Dammit! Dammit! Where’d he go? Where’d he go?” Matt ducked down beneath the window, and tried to think. “He has to be out there somewhere. Try the other window.” The fire in the stove had gone completely out, so Matt felt his way to the window on the south side, and looked out once again. “Nothing. Damn it all, anyway!” The dark horse hadn’t moved from its spot. Now at a loss, Matt looked higher up into the tree. “Nah, he wouldn’t climb up there, not on a night like this. Surely not. No way, way too slick. It’s already iced over.” So Matt let his eyes follow the trunk all the way down to the ground, and ‘bingo’, there he was at the base of the tree. “There he is. Good, good!” Spying the evil man had given Matt a minute measure of relief. He was somehow glad to see that the killer was still where he was supposed to be, as opposed to some other horrible place, like outside of his front door.

The man in black appeared to be on his knees, facing the tree. “What the hell’s he doing?” Matt watched the colorless, rounded figure for a few seconds. The murderer seemed to be hunched over something on the ground. His movements seemed to indicate that he was digging a hole. “What’s he need a hole for?” Matt searched his mind for an answer, but couldn’t come up with any good reason right off-hand. “No, he can’t hardly be uprooting the tree by himself.” He tried the question again, and shortly thereafter he received a simple answer. “He’s gonna bury something, maybe. But what? It’s a terrible hiding place. How stupid. Is it some kind of trap? To catch what?” Matt decided to stay put, and wait it out.

A few moments later, three words and a picture from the past came to his mind. “The Grim Reaper himself, eh?” Matt shook his head, and reassured himself. “No, no, no! Even though, his looks do fit the bill.” Matt was then promptly reminded, “I don’t believe in that stuff, anyway,” but it didn’t help to calm his nerves. They were necessarily cocked, ready, and set to fire, if called upon. After some five minutes of digging in the mud, the man reached over to one side, and grabbed what looked to be a small, wrapped bundle. “There’s his treasure. It must not be worth anything. What in Hell is it then?” Next thing Matt knew, the man appeared to be filling the hole with the chunks of muddied dirt clods he’d previously dug out. “How strange. I can’t even imagine what!” The man then stood up, patted the spot a couple of times with his foot, and brought something out from the inside of his cloak. He knelt down on one knee, facing the tree, and leaned towards it. It looked as if he were placing something on top of the little grave. He then got up again, and walked underneath the lowest limb. He looked up at it for a second or two, then he stooped down, and picked up the rope.

With his cloak flapping away in the wind, the murderer turned, and took a sinister approach to the graveyard. When he’d made it to his horse, he climbed up, and got on with the rope still in hand. Matt thought, “Good! He’s leaving.” The man kicked his horse in the ribs with both heels, and forced it towards the tree. “Well, crap! He’s not leaving. What’s he up to now?” The horse hesitantly walked halfway, stopped, and snorted out its refusal to go any further. The man kicked him again, twice this time, and with ever more force before the horse relinquished its will, and surrendered to its master. They slowly made their way towards the tree until they were both underneath the lowest limb, and there they stopped. The man let loose one end of the rope, and slung it over the limb. Matt was dazed and amazed, and spoke aloud, “What the hell?” after realizing the villain’s vengeful intentions. The man finished tying a knot in no time, and pulled down hard on the rope. He then began to work on the noose, using the horse’s back as a table. In less than a minute, the man had tied his loop. “Damn! That was awfully fast. He must have done this before, more than a few times.” This seemingly practiced executioner dropped the rest of the rope to the ground, and eyed his magnificent work, which was now hanging from the limb. He’d tied the noose short, about 4 feet below the limb. “So! He thinks he’s gonna hang somebody, does he? Well, not if I can help it!” Matt bravely spoke to himself.

The man in black whipped his dark horse around, and headed back towards the graveyard. “Just go ahead and leave, mister,” Matt wished once again, but when they’d reached the nearest tombstone, the man got down, and tied the reins around the old grey slab. Once he’d done that, he walked back to the tree, and sat on the ground beside his buried treasure. “What? In this rain? He’ll freeze his ass off! Who’s he waiting for anyway?” Matt paused, and waited for a reasonable explanation. “Sam? He’s waiting for Sam? But he’s got a whole posse of men. He won’t stand a chance! You’ve got to be kidding me. What?” No more answers came forth, so Matt continued to stare him down. Ten minutes passed on, and the man still sat there with his head bowed. His hands were clasped, and his arms were around his pulled up knees. Matt felt a weariness settling into his legs, so he found and pulled over a chair, placing it underneath the window. Then he sat down to rest, and think. He kept his rifle in his lap. Addressing only himself, he thought, “Good Lord, it’s really late! How long will I have to wait?” And there sat Matt trying to predict the near future. It didn’t look good, no matter which way he looked at it.

At the first, Matt had gotten himself up to glance out the window every minute or two. That went on for another ten minutes or so, and each time he looked, the murderer was still there. According to Matt’s later testimony, during the next twenty minutes, he only got up twice. He swore that he stayed awake for at least another half of an hour, looking once every ten minutes, but that’s all he remembered of the rest of that evening. Matt ended up telling everyone that he’d awakened the next morning before the sun had risen, only to find himself still sitting in that chair. Of the events that had transpired over the course of that night, he knew nothing. “Honest to God! Nothing at all,” or so, he claimed.

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.

Chapter Seventeen

Stunned into a state of shock and mired in mixed emotions, the men turned around and headed for fresh air. Each man had their own set of questions. They could only guess at the meaning behind each symbol. The purpose each served alluded their reasoning faculties. The sorcerer’s intentions were completely beyond comprehension.

All but one of theses men perceived the otherworldly ceremony as a sick gross joke. The bastard had lost his mind and gone berserk — simple as that. Nothing more needed be said. He was a menace to society and beyond help. It was their job to catch the murderer. He must pay for his crimes, and he would pay with his life. The penalty was death. There could be no compromise. Sure, they had misgivings, but that bloody crazy act did not increase their fears of going after this man and carrying out their duty. Curses and spells belong in fairy tales. They have no place in the minds of grown men.

Only 18, Mark was the youngest of the bunch. He was the one brought up to believe differently, although he wished he’d soon grow out of it. Raised the old-fashioned way, he had yet to shake off the aftereffects of his upbringing, which included all that mumbo jumbo in The Bible. He used to believe wholeheartedly, and admitted as much to himself, but, for the most part, he denied the fact he still retained a part of the imaginative belief system contained in that old-time religion. Yes, even though he knew it wasn’t his fault, nor was it something he willfully chose to put his faith in, he nevertheless berated and condemned himself for having believed it in the first place, as a child. In regard to these matters, Mark wasn’t about to fess up to his brethren. No, not hardly.

Because of Mark’s long-held beliefs, and thanks to what he just experienced in the flesh, he was inclined to view the murderer as an evil villain, not as someone who was insane. He saw him as a purpose-driven man who knew exactly what he was doing. Mark’s question as he exited the cave came down to this: Was it really possible for a man to be possessed by evil spirits? He’d never come into contact with, nor personally confronted a man labeled as such, so he didn’t really know if he believed it or not. He couldn’t rule it out, and this troubled him greatly. Mark left the question open, but since he did, he alone out of the group was leery of the pursuit. Mark thought himself a man, and he planned on toughing it out. He kept his fears tucked away, hidden from his cohorts. Sam truly impressed Mark, who admired the way Sam took charge. In the past, when he tried to talk tough, no one took him seriously, so he doubted his own meritorious valor. Some young men believe they have to prove themselves. Mark had more to prove than all the others, so as soon as they were out of that hell hole, Mark volunteered himself to be the man who would make his way to the top. “Okay, kid.” Sam relented. “Just be careful. Here, take this lantern, but don’t drop it. It’s breakable.” Mark was more than thrilled, and he took the slippery slope to task.

In a silent procession, Sam led the rest of his men back down to planet Earth. The rain on the ground had now turned to slush. The footing was pretty slick, and it was still sprinkling, but they managed alright, as did Mark. By the time they reached their horses, Mark had already found the murderer’s muddy tracks. He crept towards the precipice and shouted, “He was here! He headed east!” Sam yelled back, “Okay! Now get on down here!” It was going on about ten o’clock by that time. Sam walked to his horse, and opened up the saddlebag once again, pulling out more deer jerky. It would give him strength, or so he concluded. He passed it around to his men, and put some aside for Mark. Then he went back to his saddle, and broke out a bottle of whiskey. “Something to calm my nerves would be good right now.” That was one of his reasons for bringing it. Those men were part and parcel for his other reason. “A little courage in a bottle won’t do them any harm, and it’ll help them get up the gumption for the chase.” Sam took a couple of swigs and passed it around. About that time, Mark showed up happier than hell to have accomplished his daring feat, and Sam said nothing. Sam already knew Mark didn’t drink the stuff, so he went back and grabbed his canteen of water. He handed it to Mark, along with his share of jerky, and took the lantern from his hand. Then Sam addressed the  gang, “What do you say boys? Are you ready for this?” Cries rang out all at once. “Hell, yes!” “You bet we are!” “Damn right!” Mark swallowed real quick and joined in late, “Let’s go get that sonuvabitch!”

That’s exactly what Sam wanted to hear. Adding some volume to his voice, he shouted the order. “Mount up, men! If I remember correctly, just around the bend of the river there’s a place where we can get up to the top of the cliff, so follow me, and let’s ride!” Now hanging from their saddles, and from their horse’s manes were icicles just beginning to find their form. The horses also seemed ready to vacate the place, and happily obliged the call to “Giddy-up!” and go.

Sam’s memory served them well, and they did find their way to higher ground. With the help of their trusty lanterns, they found the murderer’s embedded prints, and followed his muddy tracks along the trail less traveled. Sam felt like death warmed over, even though he was “colder than a witch’s tit in a brass bra”. After a short jaunt, he slowed their pace. Sam wasn’t in that big of a hurry, because he was still of a mind to call off the chase once they’d reached the road that would take them back to the river and on to Bedlam. “That man has surely headed off to Mexico, if he has any sense left at all,” Sam figured. He was not ready nor willing to pursue the murderer to God knows where. He didn’t believe these cowboys would mind. Sam thought they were mostly in it for the money, and mostly he was correct in that assumption. I say mostly because — Mark still had something to prove. He was more than willing and ready to go to the ends of the earth, if only Sam were to ask that of him.

One totally miserable half-hour later, the posse arrived at the main road and found themselves in the grips of indecision. The murderer’s tracks not only went South, but they were going to North as well. It looked as if that vicious killer couldn’t make up his mind, either. The men had never actually seen Sam confused up until that moment. He loudly threw his question up for grabs, “Why in the hell did he hesitate?” Without waiting for an answer, Sam dismounted and grabbed his lantern, then he followed the deep fresh hoof-prints heading South. He didn’t have to go far.”They stop right here.” Mark turned his horse and walked North for about twenty yards, then stopped and climbed down. “They stop here, too. Hold on a second!” Mark grabbed his lantern, and walked to the side of the road. “He got off the trail here and went that way,” he said as he pointed in an easterly direction. “Let me see how far these go.” Mark followed the tracks for just a short ways, then turned to his left. He went another twenty yards before seeing, and then realizing, the man’s directed intentions. “Oh, my God! Sam! He’s headed North, back toward town!”

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!”