Hanging On: Twenty Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hanging On: Chapter Twenty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Fourteen

The men in Sam’s posse considered themselves cowboys, although they rarely used the word. Three of these men were new hires. They’d only worked under Sam’s categorically strong leadership for two weeks. Their ages ranged from 20 to 25, so they were still pliable and easily influenced. The other three men, aged 25 to 35, had been with Sam for a little over a year. They knew Sam’s antics fairly well. These cowboys were brave and adventurous. Otherwise, Sam wouldn’t have hired them. These cowboys thought of themselves as free and independent when they first moved West, but they learned real quick just how much they depended on Sam’s generosity, especially when it came to daily bread and “Drinks on the house!” They were willing and able to give up a large percentage of their freedom in exchange for Sam’s patriarchal pony show at the ranch, where it’s “All you can eat!” for dinner every night.

Earlier that morning, when they gathered together back at the Deputy’s office, Sam wanted Luke, his men, and Deputy McCoy, to learn and understand that he meant business; he stood firm in his resolve, and he was a force to be reckoned with. Sam’s whole charade found its perfect setting when he took to the stage in the name of The Law. Sam needed to know exactly what these men were made of, and if he could count on them. If so, he would install the fear of Sam deep in their souls.

Unbeknownst to Sam was the fact that everyone involved already had the instinctive notion that he might kill anyone who fiercely dared to oppose him. That made Sam somewhat unpredictable in their eyes, but he wanted these cowboys to perceive him as such. Sam fascinated himself over his ability to manipulate others from a distance. He had these men right where he wanted them. They were like putty in the hands of a master potter. The way Sam looked at it, he was doing them a favor. These boys didn’t know what was good for them.

Sam didn’t want them to think that joining a posse was an easy game. He wanted them to think they might witness and take part in a hanging that very night. That’s why he dropped the rope under the Oak’s lowest limb. He wanted to keep them guessing. Sam thought his action entirely reasonable, and he told them why — it was the most logical place to leave it. So, not only were these men afraid of Sam, but now they were afraid of the unknown and the immediate future. This was Sam’s power trip. If it were to be his last, he wanted to make the most of it. He desperately needed this final conquest to confirm his own fleeting manhood.

Thus were the moods that oozed their way into all these men as they departed Bedlam. The wind at their backs from the North had increased in intensity, and the mercury was steadily plummeting. A very fine mist followed the posse southwards. The sun had already set in the West, and soon they’d be riding through eerie darkness. The full moon rose early that night. It could faintly be seen once in a while through the grey overcast skies. The wild exciting adventures Sam envisioned for these high-spirited men were dampened by an early winter cold front. The river they needed to cross on the way to the robber’s cave was 7 or 8 miles further down the dirt road. The cave was another 5 miles off to the West from there. Because of the foul weather, Sam decided to step things up a bit. He picked up his pace and the men followed suit, as misery drew ever closer. Sam had many things on his mind, and he allowed those thoughts to command his attention.

You see, Sam did not daydream. To him that was a frivolous activity. To be exact, Sam was immersing himself in the act of contemplating the practical; what they could do, and how, and when, and why they could do it. Simultaneously, Sam’s aching bones and sore muscles distracted him. He was out of shape compared to these young men. They were in great physical condition. Sam was just…well, out of practice you might say. They were barely into the ride when he was forced to face his own miserable thoughts. “Dammit! I’m getting too old for this.” He’d never been a quitter, and he wasn’t about to start now.

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.”