Chapter Fifteen

As the river bound posse made headway through the darkened foggy mist, Sam was calculating the odds of catching up to the foreigner. The “WANTED!” man they were searching for had about a twenty-hour head start on them. Once they reached the cave, all he expected to find was material evidence. Certain of his assumptions, he needed proofs, not guesswork. Sam needed to prove that the murderer holed up in this very hideaway, or else he might look foolish. If indeed Sam’s hunch was correct, they could pick up the fugitive’s tracks and be certain of the direction he went. If they found no evidence whatsoever, Sam planned to call off the chase and head back home. With the temperature dropping fast as it was, he figured they’d end up riding back to Bedlam in an ice storm. Sam wasn’t looking forward to that, but if they were to find absolutely nothing at the cave, calling the chase off wouldn’t have bothered him one bit. His men felt the same way. It’s not so difficult to feel courageous when you’re comfortable, but they were definitely far from that. The thrill they felt at the start of the chase was long gone. Even though they bundled up sufficiently to ward off the rain and cold, they weren’t ready to withstand it. They were already fed up. On top of it all, they were starving! Then again, they wanted the promised bonus. They assumed they’d get it, too, whether they caught the murderer, or not. Sam could see and tell the way they felt, but he was still determined to go as far as the cave. He, too, was almost hoping his hunch was wrong, but he wasn’t quite ready to admit it. In another five minutes they’d reach the river. Then they could take a break. They’d reached the peak of their uphill climb and headed down to the valley. The horses carefully stepped their way between half-hidden rocks submerged in tacky clay.

The ancient road was well-traveled. Hundreds of hungry hunters frequented the river valley in the fall. It was then regarded as a fairly safe journey. Two years earlier, in 1867, the Arapaho Tribe signed a peace treaty and surrendered away their rights, so Sam and his posse didn’t have to worry about Indian attacks. Their main concerns centered around life-threatening weather conditions and some slippery slopes not easily traversed. The path that led to the cave was too narrow for the horses, but Sam reassured the men that it wasn’t too awful steep, and in dry conditions, not too dangerous. That’s why it was a popular hangout. Two paths led to the cave’s entrance; one from above and one from below. Since they were heading in from the river-side, they’d use the trail at the base of the cliff.

As they came upon the river, the sight of low waters moving slowly was cause for sighs of relief all-around. It was as Sam expected after a Summer of drought. The men dismounted and walked their horses to the edge for a drink. They were thirsty, but still in good shape from the ride. Sam opened up his saddlebag wherein he kept the provisions, and brought out a handful of deer jerky strips. He gave each man a few pieces, whereupon they did partake of it. They were mighty hungry, and didn’t care what it was. Food was food to them right then. Sam also got out one of the loaves of flatbread from his bag, then securely tied it back up. He broke off a fair piece for each man, and one-by-one handed it to them, before leaving himself at the last with the biggest chunk of the bunch. In silence, this fellowship of men gathered together side by side on the bank of the river, setting their gazes toward the cliffs on the other side. As afternoon turned to evening, the wind died down considerably, but the cold mist began turning into freezing sprinkles. This quiet group of miserably anxious cowboys scarfed down their rations quickly. A canteen of clean water went back and forth between them. With their stomachs finally quieted and their thirst thoroughly quenched, Sam cleared his throat and broke the silence. “It’s time we get to moving, boys. We best be saddling up. Let’s go!”

Without asking any questions or expressing any concerns, the men grabbed their horses and climbed on. Sam took the lead and led his posse across the cold, but shallow waters of the river. They were all lost in thought wondering what they might find once they reached the destination. After they made it safely to the other side, they headed west and followed the riverbank for the rest of their five-mile journey. Sam kept on the lookout for fresh tracks along the way, but his efforts were in vain. Half an hour later, they arrived at the place where the river takes a southern turn. Thanks to his keen bank of memories, Sam knew this was the place to look for the trail they needed to take. The small path was quickly spotted. Sam surprised even himself by how well he remembered the surrounding scenery. He looked back to the men, “Let’s try to get those lanterns started. Find some cover if you need to, but we have to get them lit. If someone were in the cave tending a fire this very minute, we could see the light coming off it, so I doubt if there’s anyone up there. Nevertheless, I want us moving along quietly. And one more thing — I don’t want any of you boys getting trigger happy. I don’t want to get shot in the back. Ya hear me? Okay, then. If there’s gonna be a first shot, it’s gonna be me who takes it.”

Without too much trouble, the men lit their lanterns. “Give me one of those things!” Sam commanded. “Okay, follow me. Single file, and keep your voices down.” They left the riverbank and made way for the target. One hundred zigzagging yards or so later, they reached the bottom of the cliff. Sam looked around on the ground once again, but still didn’t see any signs of fresh tracks. They got off their horses and tied them up to some of the smaller boulders that were laying in heaps all around them. A few of the horses were acting restless and jumpy, but the men didn’t think too much of it.

Lightly, but steadily, the freezing rain continued to pelt their hats as they went the rest of the way on foot. “Watch your step men,” Sam reminded them. “It’s a forty-foot drop to the ground.” The trail narrowed and gradually grew steeper and steeper as it reached the ledge. The ledge itself was about three-fourths of the way up the face of the cliff. It was four to five feet wide and nearly fifty yards in length. Situated in the middle of this ledge, sat the mouth of the cave. At the far side of the shelf they could vaguely see the another trail, which ran steeply on up to the top of the cliff.

They made it up to the ledge without any missteps. Turning their backs to the face of the cliff, they began to shuffle across, one by one. Sam was still in the lead, of course, and as soon as he hit the ledge he pulled out his pistol. The men couldn’t help but notice. If any one of those cowboys hadn’t been awake before, they sure were after Sam did that. Their hands continued to hug the wall as they shimmered along the limestone. Slowly and carefully they closed in on the entrance. Sam was within ten yards of the mouth of the cave when he caught a whiff of stale smoke creeping out of it. With a hand signal, he stopped the men in their tracks. Another foul scent mixed and mingled with the smell of burning wood, but this odor was sickening, putrid, and stank horribly. It reminded Sam of the stench put off by old rotten eggs. “Someone or something is in there, or was recently,” Sam thought. “Maybe a dead something.” Sam put the lantern in his leading hand and held his pistol in the other as he crept on closer still. The cowboys followed after him, more nervous now than ever. Within a foot of the opening, Sam carefully turned himself around and faced the wall. Then he lifted the lantern high and reached out into the opening, just enough to shine some light in there. Hearing nothing stir, Sam took off his hat and bent over to the side to take a peek. Seeing nothing, he stuck his whole head out to look. He saw no signs of life right away, so he turned back to his men. “It looks like the coast is clear. Not a soul in there.” Sam nonchalantly walked on in and the men, now relieved, followed him in. Sam lifted his lantern head-high. The ceiling stood some four feet above his head, and steadily lowered as the cave tunneled in. He thought he could see where the smoke was coming from. Sam raised his arm and pointed his finger, “There it is,” he whispered. “About fifty feet ahead.” The smell was so nauseating that all the men kept their handkerchiefs over their noses. They continued their slow walk into the cave with their eyes constantly surveying their whereabouts. All of a sudden, Sam came to a halt. He was looking down at footprints in the dirt; footprints made by someone in bare feet.

These men were about to walk up to a bewildering scene beyond compare; a visual that would forever be imprinted in their minds. This unsightly vision of evil would strike and pain them to the very depths of their souls.

Chapter Thirteen

Sam couldn’t help but stop and reminisce once they’d reached the hanging tree. It had been seven or eight years since the last time he’d been party to a posse. He had his first brush with death towards the end of that ordeal. A bullet had gone clean through his hat, missing his scalp by a mere two inches. It was one of those memories that are impossible to forget. The kind that often come to mind at the most inopportune of moments. Of course, he’d heard the stories going the rounds, but he didn’t believe them for a minute. Sam was too down-to-earth to entertain any ideas about ghosts. “A bunch of malarkey,” according to him. He rather viewed the big oak as a landmark. It was the only one of its kind in the area and stuck out like a sore thumb. When he dropped Luke’s rope down beside it, he explained to the men, “Its weight is slowing me down. We may be in for a long ride.” That’s all he said. His men had to be wondering about that excuse, and we can imagine they thought he really did mean to hang the fugitive if they caught him, but they kept their mouths shut.

They’d all heard the reason he gave Luke for needing the rope. They thought Sam had a change of mind since he’d first questioned Deputy McCoy. Perhaps, he’d come to his senses, they thought. None of his men really wanted to participate in a murder and risk going to jail, or worse. They didn’t know what to think about Sam’s latest action. They didn’t know if they could take him at his word, although they wished to. Their job was their life, and it was in his hands. The men kept their reservations to themselves. Second-guessing Sam was never a good idea. It didn’t matter now anyway, Sam was already second-guessing himself. The winds of change were making themselves known.

Let me tell you about Sam. To begin with, he was a large man. He stood over six feet tall, and weighed somewhere around two hundred and fifty pounds. A good decade past his prime, he’d turn fifty years of age that coming December. He’d not married, although he claimed to have once been in love. He wanted to go West and she didn’t. End of story. When he was in the mood for romance, which wasn’t all that often, he’d visit a woman friend who kept a room on the saloon’s second floor. Sam never knew his father. He abandoned his mother when he was a wee tot. Sam regretted the way it all went down when he left his mother back in St. Louis. He was thirty years old at the time. It wasn’t a good parting. She died of tuberculosis before he gained the means to make his first return back home.

Renowned as a rambunctious self-made man, Sam also knew the value of saving money. He was finally able to buy that dream ranch of his, and did so during the year of 1864. Sam was reliable, trustworthy, and loyal. He demanded those traits from his hired-hands. And, for the most part, he received it. He wasn’t afraid to act on a hunch, either. Sam thought he knew where he might find the murderer, or at least pick up his trail, and that’s where they were headed. His was an educated guess. In the past, bank robbers, horse thieves, and other hardened criminal types were known to have hid themselves out in a small cave not too far on past the river. The way Sam figured it, if the stranger wasn’t there, and they saw no sign of his tracks, then he was probably headed to Mexico, and that would be the end of the chase. “We did the best we could,” he imagined himself saying. Nothing more would need to be said in the way of a justification.

Of course, everyone has fears, and Sam was no exception. He had his own private insecurities, but he never spoke of them, and would never have admitted them out loud. More than death itself, Sam feared losing the powers of his two-armed beast. One of those arms represented his place in society. Sam loved his hard-earned success. He loved what he’d made of himself, and his ranch gave him the means to do good business. He hoped to make a fortune from the land, and he was well on his way to doing just that. Sam loved his money more than he loved speedy justice. Oh, yes! He wanted to hang that sonuvabitch, but Sam had a business deal scheduled for Tuesday. He only had two days to play with, and then he’d have to be back. He didn’t want to miss that meeting for anything. Oh sure, he thought catching the bad guy was a good idea, but it wasn’t paramount. Not in his book, anyway. And his book was the one of financial security. Sam was somewhat content, but he thought he could handle more. He was sorely afraid of becoming poor and destitute somewhere down the road.

The other arm of this fearful beast was the arm of physical prowess. He’d made a habit out of playing the tough guy. Men feared his very presence, and that bought him a peculiar type of respect. He could push people around without laying one finger on them. That’s the way he liked it, and that’s the way he wanted it. It provided him with an odd sort of happiness. Sam wasn’t ready to give up that respect. He wanted to retain his reputation as a bad ass. This characterization gave him a heightened sense of self-esteem and made him feel important. Intellectually, he knew it couldn’t last forever. His power of strength would slowly fade away someday, and he was beginning to realize the nearness of that stage.

Sam never necessarily intended on breaking the law. He couldn’t afford to. This excursion and his role in it as the leader of the pack was his game. That was his hype. He was putting on a show, and Sam was a well-polished actor. Daily, he practiced perfecting his “Don’t mess with me!” persona. Sam could act genuinely outraged, when in all actuality, he wasn’t mad in the least. He put on a display and assumed the posture of authority, which in turn acted as a deterrent, and an efficient one at that. Now that Sam and his men were decidedly on the side of the law, their choices as to what they could do were limited. If indeed they did end up catching the murderer, they’d have to bring him back alive, or kill him in self-defense. That was their only other choice, but it would work all the same. It was a plausible possibility. Most importantly, it could be carried out in complete compliance with the law of the land. Sam had enough witnesses to back up his story, if that’s how it all came down. He was ready and able to do just that, and prepared himself accordingly.

Chapter Twelve

Matt was in a hurry to get back to Bedlam, but his old mare was already giving him her best. It wasn’t long until she fell back to her normally slow pace. They arrived 10 minutes earlier than usual. The old girl was happier to be home than he was, and started prancing as soon as she caught eye of the place. Matt was looking down the road, setting his focus on the legendary oak tree with the graveyard close behind. He was glad to see it hadn’t changed a bit since he’d left. No one was standing around there, and no black stallion stood in the shadows. The skies were clear, and the weather was warm for the sun was shining brightly. In the mid-afternoon of that day, the scene showed no signs of the menacing features for which it was famous, such as being haunted.

Matt never did believe in ghosts, not even as a child, nor did he ever believe that line about the hanging tree, “Home to a hundred killer’s souls, or more.” He thought all that stuff was a bunch of baloney, even though he was the one who’d repeated the story more often than anyone else in town. Matt liked to tell scary stories to people who believed in that nonsense. Although he knew many a fairy tale, he didn’t believe in miracles that could come to pass all of their own accord. He imagined that if miracles ever happened at all, they came into being through action. To him, they were not make-believe stories, they were made-to-happen historical events. According to Matt’s wife, Martha, he was a dreamer who often succumbed to flights of fancy. “He forever has his head in the clouds,” was her claim, but she loved him nonetheless, and looked up to him in many respects. For his part, Matt saw himself as one of those types of men who would think things through before taking action. He’d didn’t enjoy delayed regrets. On his way home that day, he made up his mind in a rational way. He decided on the question he would ask his neighbors about the night before. This is what he came up with. “Did you see, or hear, anything strange last night after you went to bed?” Matt liked questions that were short and to the point.

In her frustrated impatience, Martha waited outside the house for him with her arms crossed. His hound dog lay at her feet and didn’t bother to get up. As usual, Matt was late in coming back with the groceries. He rode up on his happy dancing horse, pulled back on the reins, and began to dismount before coming to a halt, then almost fell off. “Sorry it took so long. I have an excuse. Hear me out first.” His wife looked at the dog and shook her head. “Here we go again,” she thought to herself. She unfolded her arms and put her hands on her hips. “For pity’s sake! What is it now?”

Matt goes on to tell her the entire story, but he tried to tone it down a bit. He didn’t want it to sound too awfully bad, because then she’d be afraid to move. Matt applied for a job with the railroad, and they’d have to leave Bedlam if he were able to get himself hired on. Martha took the news rather hard, to say the least, but she took everything personally, so Matt was not too surprised by her hysterical reaction. He calmed her down best he could. Shortly afterwards, he proceeded to go out and make his way around to each neighbor. Matt repeated his well-rehearsed question to all, but no one had seen anything unusual, nor had they heard any strange noises. Their closest neighbor was an elderly widow. She had a complaint waiting for Matt. She madly claimed to have heard his hound dog late the night before. He was “…barking and howling away for the hell of it!” as she put it. She awakened two hours after she’d gone to bed, and in her anger, she’d gotten up and looked out the window. Upon seeing this “nothing”, she opened it up and yelled, “Just what in the hell are you barking at, ya damn dog?!!” Matt told her he was sorry, and that he was home and in bed the same time as she, and he never heard the dog. “Are you calling me a liar?” she yelled at him. “No, ma’am, no,” he replied as he walked away. He did have to wonder if his dog heard or smelled something, but thought no more of it. Having received no surefire confirmations, he went on back home feeling a little relieved.

That vision he had of the riderless horse in the graveyard? As far as Matt could tell, it was a product of his imagination and nothing else. He had no foresight, and had never had what some folks call a premonition. He didn’t believe in prophecy. Matt didn’t go and investigate the graveyard to see if he could find any evidence confirming his sleepy suspicions. He didn’t go look for trampled down grass near the tombstones. As a matter of fact, Matt had never set foot in that graveyard. Not once since he’d lived there. He’d never read the names, nor the dates engraved on the pocketed mossy faces. He didn’t feel the need to get a close-up view of the famous hanging tree. He’d never seen the rings worn into and around its lowest limb. He never let his curiosity get the best of him. If one were to ask him why he’d never visited the dead, he would have said, “I didn’t know any of those people, so I’ve never had a good reason to go there.” At this stage of his life, Matt thought that youth could conquer all, so he had nothing to fear, which is another way of saying he wasn’t experienced.

Later that afternoon, Martha sent him out to get wood for the stove. She was sickened by the news her husband brought home. She wished to forget the whole thing, and would do so by starting dinner and fixing her mind on her work. Not wanting his dearest beloved to have another tizzy fit, Matt immediately set his will on the task set before him, and went out to the back to fetch a few logs. The first thing he noticed was a change in the wind, which was now from the north and much colder. The skies were getting hazy, and he knew he should expect there’d be rain or snow by morning. His ability to forecast the weather, now that he believed in. He was a hunter, so he knew these things. He wasn’t guessing. As he began to choose between the logs, he fell to daydreaming again. This time around it was about building a new house in the new city. For no good reason, he raised his head and broadly cast his gaze up the road. A half a mile or so away, he could see a cloud of dust rising up and circling about in the wind. Quicker than he could say “horses”, he thought he knew who it might be. Matt ran around to the other side of the stack, ducked down, and took off his hat. He didn’t know why and didn’t question his motive. “I bet it’s Sam and his men,” he whispered to himself. The rolling sound of thunder headed his way. They rode up fast and went right past, then he popped up his head to look. The big man at the head of the posse was Sam alright, and they seemed to be in a hurry. But as they reached the edge of town, they all pulled up right fast. Matt watched in suspense as Sam walked his horse over to the hanging tree, stopped, looked up, and just stared at it for a minute…a long minute. He unhooked a long winding rope from his saddle, and dropped it to the ground. Then just as fast as they’d stopped, Sam yanked at the reins and took off with a start. His men followed him south down the road. The cloud of dust was reborn and was closing in on their heels. The northern winds were fast behind, pushing them away from Bedlam.

Chapter Eleven

Sam knew Luke had a swing in his backyard. Everyone in town knew it. They were used to seeing children playing back there. It was sort of like the town’s park. Luke also crudely fashioned a seesaw for them using a short-legged saw-horse and a long wooden plank. The neighborhood kids seemed to enjoy this simple toy, but on this day not a one was seen. Parents worried about their safety after all that had gone on the night before. They kept their children in-house for good reason. Until the killer was caught, there’d be no playing outside.

Luke went on out the back to see what it was they wanted. His frazzled nerves made him feel anxious again, easily and quickly. As soon as Sam saw him open the door, he began to speak. “Hey, Luke! I was hoping you’d do me a favor.” Luke held his breath and raised his eyebrows, then responded nervously,”What do you need, boss?” Sam noticed the worried look on Luke’s face and put his mind to ease at once. “No, it’s not that. We don’t need you to go along with us.” Luke sighed in relief. “Here’s the deal,” Sam began. “Our Deputy Marshall just swore us in. It is now official. We have lawful orders to carry out. We will assist the deputy in this manhunt. We are to bring our stranger back alive, if possible. From what we gather, the murderer doesn’t even carry a gun, which is hard to believe. Of course, we know he carries a knife, and it’s likely to be the murder weapon. That’s not a problem. He’ll be no match against us. We did ask around. Nobody saw him wearing a pistol. No one saw a rifle in his saddle. He bought no ammunition while he was here. The man must be crazy. That’s plain stupid. Anyway, he’ll be an easy catch, if we can find him. I think I know where he’s off to. Deputy McCoy is staying here to keep watch over the town. He’ll send word out to the nearest Marshall on the next train that comes through. It’s due tomorrow.”

“Here’s the problem, Luke. It’s nothing much. We need a long strong rope, like that one over there, the one you’re using for a swing,” Sam continued. Luke jumped all over that admission, and sarcastically replied, “I thought you said alive…that you’d bring him back alive.” Sam wasted no time, “No. It’s not that. We don’t need it to hang him. Heaven’s to Betsy, no. We have some smaller rope to tie his hands behind his back. But I hear he has a mighty fine horse, and I want to get it back here. If I can work things out, I hope to keep it. I need a rope like yours, so we can pull it along behind us. I don’t want it getting away. So, what do you say? I’ll bring the rope back to you as soon as I can. If anything happens to it, I’ll buy you another. We don’t have time to mess around right now. The man has a pretty good head start on us as it is, and we need to take off here shortly, or as soon as we can. I’m sure you understand.” Sam had kept a serious look on his face during the whole explanation, and his eyes never left their target. That didn’t matter to Luke. He thought it was a lame excuse for wanting the rope. “He’s a hankerin’ for a hangin’, if anything,” he silently spoke to himself.

“Well, since you put it that way, I suppose so.” Luke paused for another round of second thoughts before continuing.”No problem, Sam. No problem at all. The kids won’t miss it for a day or two. Besides, most of them will be stuck in their house for a while. I’ll climb right on up and untie the knots. It’ll only take a few.” But before he could take two steps, Sam stopped him. “That’s alright, Luke. Don’t bother. We’ll get it down, no problem. Thanks a lot! You’ve saved us some time. It may take us a day or two. I want you showing up at the ranch Monday, no matter what. My help will be expecting you. They’ll show you around, and you can see what’s what. I know you’re a self-starter, so I’m sure you can find some work to do. We’ll be back as soon as we can, by Tuesday at least, with or without him. Don’t you worry about us now. I’ve been through this before. We’ll get ‘er done. Okay?” Sam appeared self-assured, as usual. Luke wasn’t at all happy after he heard the idea, but he remained agreeable. Many fond memories were tied up in that rope, and he didn’t want to lose them altogether in one shot. Luke knew it was silly to think about it like that, but he did it anyway, and quite naturally, in fact.

“Sure, Sam, sure,” answered Luke, thinking as he spoke. “Oh, yes. I’ll be there Monday, you can count on it. Sounds great!” Luke thought of some questions while Sam was speaking, and he finally remembered them. “Can I ask you something? I was wondering. You know, that foreigner doesn’t speak English. How will he know why he’s being tied up and made prisoner? I mean, how would he even confess? Do you hope to find the pastor’s blood on his knife, or what? Won’t you need some kind of evidence?”

Sam had already asked himself these questions, so he already knew the answers. “Yes, Luke, evidence would help, if it comes to that. Blood on his hands, especially. I think he’ll know why he’s being arrested, though. Do you think he didn’t turn around once and look at the fire? Even if he didn’t start it, I surely think he’d of noticed, or heard your cry for help and looked back. As far as the confession goes, a simple nod either way will suffice. We’ll just stand that bastard in front of the burnt down church. Excuse my language. I think he’ll get the picture, if he hadn’t figured it out by then.” Luke was regularly struck by Sam’s unending show of confidence. Yesterday’s hero had a small sliver of doubt in his mind regarding the stranger’s guilt. It acted like a thorn stuck in his side, painfully and constantly pricking away.

Chapter Ten

Luke could tell right away what sort of mood these men were in. It was a solemn gathering of somber faces. Grave and thoughtful looks were thrown in Luke’s direction. Restrained and quiet greetings were exchanged with subdued handshakes. They were still in a state of shock. Their postures betrayed the show of feelings they willfully withheld, and revealed a composed distress. None of the men were displaying the signs of anger. Some of the men had good reason to be remorseful. They’d refrained from helping to build the church, and it was too late to mend things. A silence fell over the group. They were all gazing at Luke. No one knew what to say or how to start. Matthew, from Bedlam, wasn’t taking this as hard as the rest of the men. He was the man out of place at the moment, even though he was fairly well acquainted with Luke. Matthew had the nerve to take the lead and break the ice. “It’s good to know you’re okay, Luke, after all that you’ve been through. We are all deeply saddened by the news. ” Luke kept his peace and let him talk. ” Could you do us a favor? We’ve so many questions. If you could spare the time, would you tell us what happened last night? We’ve only heard bits and pieces regarding your escapades so far, and it’s just hearsay. We’d like to hear the story straight from the horses mouth, so to speak. We don’t wish to detain you, if you have to be somewhere soon. Do tell us, if you would. We’re dying to hear you speak. Are you busy?”

*

Thus it was that Luke began the second telling of his story. After all was said and done, Matthew was the one who picked up this story and set it on its legs. Much of the information contained in the remainder of our story was supplied by Matt, as we shall call him from here on out. He’d known Luke for a year or so, and they were both 28 years of age. Good friends they would become one day, a little further on down the road. Matt was the kind of man who couldn’t help but to stretch the factual truth whenever the opportunity presented itself. We may say in all likelihood, that he did so in this instance as well. He was a socialite and a gossip, and no doubt the story grew exponentially each and every time he spoke of it. After he relayed this to my great-grandfather, we may assume this growth continued and took on mythical aspects as it came on down from Gramps, who handed it over to me, Uncle Tree. As we are well aware, legends have a tendency to take on a life of their own, and life in its turn tends to unwind the real.

*

Luke goes on to tell the men a shortened version of his adventurous night, minus his terrible secret. He was tired and hungry, and wanted to get on home. They quizzed him here and there, in order to confirm or reject certain aspects of the story that they’d already heard from unreliable sources. Word gets around fast in small towns, and some of the information they’d received was therefore skewed and exaggerated, as are all rumors. They also wanted to know about the meeting from which he’d just left. They’d seen Sam and his men ride into town, and wondered what they were up to over at the deputy’s office. Luke refrained from telling them the whole truth. He said, “They are thinking about forming a posse and going after that foreigner.” They tried to get him to expand on that quick statement, but Luke replied, “That’s all I know. Nothing was settled when I left.” Luke turned to Matt, “That stranger is our only suspect. He took off to the south and headed for Bedlam. Was there any trouble there last night, or did you happen to notice anything strange?”

Matt replied, “Not that I’m aware of, Luke. I’m ready to head back now. I’ll get out and ask around, just in case. You know, there’s only a few of us left down there. It won’t take long. I’ll definitely keep an eye out. A posse, eh? Well, someone needs to go after him. It’s a good thing your new boss has the time for such things. Maybe, I’ll see them ride through later today. I’m sure glad you’re not joining them, whatever the case. You’ve done enough, if you ask me. You did more than anyone could have asked of you. Those two kids owe you their life! Thank God, you were able to save them! You should be grateful for that.”

Once Luke had recaptured the whole bloody scene for Matt and the group, he was once again able to free himself from the grips of all those painful memories. Everyone thoughtfully parted, and Luke went on home to eat. He was starving for some grub, and didn’t really care what his wife put on the table, as long as it was people food. As it turned out, they had leftovers consisting of cold fried chicken and rehashed grits. Luke told her of his thoughts concerning an adoption. She said it was a high-minded gesture on his part. Puzzled by the arrogance of such a thought, he gave her a questioning look. She immediately changed her tune and said it was a good idea. She agreed wholeheartedly, or so it seemed to Luke. After lunch with the two boys, they all sat down and talked it out. The boys were a bit taken back by the proposal, but that’s the way kids are, always wanting to be the center of attention. They soon warmed up to the idea, but frowned at the arrangements. Shortly after their little discussion, both Luke and his wife heard the distinct sound of horses galloping towards their place. Sam and his men pulled up, and stopped the stampede right in their backyard. Luke and his wife were both startled at first, and then Luke said, “It’s probably Sam and his men. Don’t worry. I promise you, I will not go along with them. Let me go see what they want. Stay here.”

In the meanwhile, Matt got on his horse and headed back to Bedlam. He fell to daydreaming on the slow ride home. His memory and imagination together conspired to show him a scene in his mind. He saw that old hanging tree back home with the graveyard close behind. But that’s not all he visualized. He also saw a black stallion grazing around the rustic tombstones. No one was in the saddle. That woke Matt right up. He yelled at his horse, “Giddy-up! Giddy-up! C’mon! Let’s go!”

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!”

Chapter Six

Fortunately for Luke, his second cry for help was heard. A couple of men he knew from the neighborhood heeded his call and came running. They soon realized they’d arrived too late. The men found the children kneeling between their dear mother and older brother. “Oh, my! What happened?” asked the elder of the two men. The ladies shortly filled them in. The more nervous of the two women said, “Luke went around the back. No more than two minutes ago or so. Hurry on and go help the poor man! Will ya?” Then the little girl spoke out earnestly, “Daddy’s in there, too!” By now she was thoroughly shaking and trembling in her fright. The pastor’s youngest son sat in shock and disbelief, fighting back tears and trying to act like a big boy.

The men dashed on and away to the rear of the church. They could tell the fire had reached its peak, and weren’t sure if they’d go in there or not for any reason. It was a death trap. That much was for certain. No one in there could be alive. Luckily for them, they were too late, and didn’t have to make the choice. They found an unconscious Luke lying on his belly, far too close to danger. The full moon was bright up above them that night, and they could plainly see the blood on the palms of both his hands and on his pants from the knees on down. By the looks of him they could tell he’d just come out from inside the place. Seeing him there like that scared the living daylights out of the two of them, and they feared the worst. “Luke! Luke! Wake up!” Each of the men grabbed an arm. They lifted him halfway off the ground, and started dragging him away to safety.

Next thing Luke knows, two men are pulling him along on the ground. He started coughing and gagging again. “It’s alright, Luke! We got you,” said the young man fervently. “Are you alright?” Groggy and delirious Luke replied in a rough and barely audible voice, “Preacher man…in there…gotta get ‘m out.” The older man firmly spoke, “It’s no use, Luke. It’s too late. You’re lucky you made it out alive. No one’s going in there now. I won’t allow it. It’s over. You did all you could. Those two kids out front are alive because of you. Thank God for that!” Turning to his younger companion, he proceeded to bark out an order.”This man needs a drink. Go get him some water. Pronto!”

October 31st, 1869

Luke woke up in bed the next morning after a restless night’s sleep. Every move he’d made during his rescue mission kept flashing through his mind in off-sequence bits and pieces. He began to ponder over the stranger. “What was his motive for committing such a horrendously bloody murder?” Then it occurred to Luke that he didn’t have to tell everyone about everything he’d seen. He thought, “Wasn’t it enough that the pastor’s throat had been slit? Why put their kids through all that senseless rigmarole? What difference does it make anyway?” He knew he’d have to visit the deputy that day. Luke’s conscience notified him that he was now considering keeping this terrible secret to himself. Then a quiet voice reminded him that withholding information is seldom a good idea, and it might be something he’d often remember for the rest of his life. Luke shook off these pestering thoughts as he got up and out of bed. Somewhere deep down in his soul, he just knew he’d make the right choice when the moment of decision presented itself.

Chapter Five

Luke wasn’t about to rush into the fire ill-prepared. He knew he needed to preserve his strength, but there was something above and beyond that, and that something was his life. He wasn’t ready to make that kind of sacrifice for another. He couldn’t afford to lose his neck over this. He had to be cautious. He had a wife and kids at home who needed him…who loved him. As he trotted slowly towards the rear of the now defunct church, Luke knew he had to make it back out alive. He simply had to. That was his first priority. “The pastor might not be in there anyway.”

A few steps later, the magnificent sight of the ongoing blaze challenged his reasoning. He thought, “I have to be stupid to be doing this.” At that exact moment, his memory brought up a good point. It allowed him to remember the last time he’d used that word. It was when he’d called the stranger ‘”stupid” for leaving town that very night. “Oh, my God! Did he start this? Why would he do such a thing? He wasn’t even running away.” But he’d made it around to the back by now, and he hadn’t the time to question himself further. As Luke stood right there in front of the door, his fears came to the surface once again.

He hesitantly paused to listen to his conscience. Luke figured he ought to put forth an earnest plea to God Almighty, even though he was more than a little upset with Him and His Will. He sighed, and shook a bowed head, “It’s all stupid.” But Luke was a man of habit, so he stuck to his guns and prayed out loud, “Lord, have mercy on me.” Then silently he added, “After all…this is your house!”

Not wishing to waste any more precious seconds, Luke kicked the door with the bottom of his boot smack-dab beside the handle. It flew open. He ducked and covered his head with his arms as the smoke and heat rushed out. Two seconds later he opened his eyes, and peered into the building. In the forbidding sight, he light from the flames could dimly be seen flickering here and there. He couldn’t make anything out, except for the floor at his feet. He got down on his hands and knees and crawled through the doorway. “Hello? Hello? Anybody in there?” But no answer came forth. He wasn’t surprised. Luke visualized the last time he’d been in the church. He remembered that there was a low platform not far from where he was right then. A piano and a pulpit were the only things on it. He’d seen and heard the pastor rehearsing his first sermon in there a couple of days before. Luke aimed himself for center stage.

The wooden floors had begun to absorb the heat, and felt warm on his hands. Creeping along quickly, Luke soon reached the platform. He got himself up on it and continued on anxiously. Barreling ahead, he suddenly ran his shoulder into the piano. “Almost there.” He slowed down to get a better view, but the dark grey smoke was thickening fast. Using both hands, he reached and searched around on the floor as he moved along. Just a little further on he touched something hard. “Ah, here it is.” Luke stuck his right arm out in front of him, and waved it back and forth, afraid of what he might touch next. He was hectically zigzagging here and there when his left hand felt a cool wetness. He looked down at a puddle of blood. Instantly Luke became dizzy and felt even more nauseous. His right hand reflexively covered his mouth, as he stared aghast at the other hand and gagged. In a fit of determination, he willed himself to move and follow the dark red trail. A second later he found what he was looking for, but it was worse than he expected. He blinked and squinted to get a better view, hoping his eyes had deceived him. No such luck. The pastor’s throat had been slit. He lay there on his back with both arms straight out to the sides. His shirt was ripped open, and there was a large gash at the bottom of his rib cage on the left side. It was a deep, wide, gory open wound. It appeared to Luke as if someone had taken a knife and cut out his heart. But he couldn’t make himself believe it. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever do such a thing, and he made himself ignore the very thought of it. The pastor’s silver cross was still around his neck, hanging off to the side. Blood continued to flow from his throat, and on down the chain. Drip after drip, it dropped from the cross and onto the killing floor. Stunned and stupefied, Luke’s heart skipped a beat. The terrifying cruelty behind this horrid scene became too much for Luke to bear. Tears of grief streamed down his cheeks from his burning, inflamed eyes, blurring his vision. Luke convulsively shivered and shook from his head down to his toes. He turned his head to the side and vomited, adding the contents of his stomach to the gross pool of blood. He felt the nearness of death in his own person, and he knew he had to act quickly.

His first thought was to grab the still warm corpse by the feet and drag it out. He could leave it behind the church, so the children wouldn’t have to see this gruesome sight; a sight they’d surely remember for the rest of their lives. With an abrupt realization, Luke felt that his heart was beating at too rapid of a pace, and he found himself gasping for air right then and there. All the symptoms of asphyxiation were settling into his system. He had to get out, and get out now before he fainted. That much he knew. He looked around at the flames of destruction to size up the situation — to see if he could buy himself a little more time. In his current state of confusion, he concluded he did. He’d leave the pastor’s body there for now, and come back for it as soon as he’d recovered a bit. Begrudgingly, he turned himself around and began crawling towards the exit. Luke was fast losing his strength. It took everything he had to close the distance between himself and the door.

He’d barely made it through the door when his strength gave way. He collapsed to the ground, and lay there on his stomach. His head was throbbing in pain. His clothes — soaked in sweat. “I’ll go back in a minute…need a few seconds…need to rest.” His thoughts dropped away and he shut his eyes. He fell unconscious an instant later.