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!”

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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.