Hanging On: Twenty Six

After each of the men had finished their portions of daily bread and dried meat, they felt the need to relieve themselves, so they both went out into the cold, wintry night. Whilst the men had been inside, the freshly fallen snow had thoroughly blanketed the ground, covering the sheets of ice in a thin layer of crystallized manna. Sam walked around to the south side to get out of the wind. As he turned the corner, his poor eyesight presented to him a blurred version of the hanging tree’s white-washed crown. Sam felt sorry for the big old oak. It had taken quite a hit from the storm. As Sam moseyed up to the house, he reformed a visual image of the scene they’d left behind, and shook his head in pity. Modest Mark, who’d always been bashful, had decided in the meantime that he’d go to the north side, wherefore he turned his back to the breeze, and took a whiz real quick. As usual, Sam was being a slow starter, so Mark beat him back to the door.

Mark walked into the house, and found himself alone. Right away he felt uncomfortable. Although nothing had changed, and no one else was in there, it seemed more frightful to him not having Sam’s fatherly presence nearby. Mark was still in the process of conquering a rushing current of troublesome fears. On and off in a random arrangement of sporadic sequences, and ever since they’d left the morbid grave situation, Mark had been getting flashes of those tormented faces he’d seen earlier. Mark was only alone for a minute, but in that short spell of time he came to a very welcome realization. It suddenly occurred to him that the faces he kept seeing were coming from his store of memories, and not from out of the blue. They were no longer being forced on him like they were before. Whereas previously, it had been a live production, a show over which he had no degree of control whatsoever, now he could recall a few of the faces at will. He could also put a stop to them by willfully thinking of something more pleasant. Mark was somewhat soothed by this newfound knowledge. For certain, he was glad to see that the curtains had closed on that terrifying stage. He’d actually been an eye witness to the whole rigmarole, and that he could hardly believe.

After Sam had finished his business, he went back into the house, and promptly made his presence known by stumbling over the door sill. “Whoa!” said Sam in embarrassment of his clumsiness. He turned around and gave the inanimate object a dirty look. “Damn thing.” He then turned and looked at Mark, who was sporting a really big grin. The Kid couldn’t help himself from asking, “Are you alright?” “Oh, yeah,” Sam said, as he tried to laugh it off. But he felt the need to explain himself further, so he said, “I caught my heel on the stupid door!” Sam had to place the blame where it belonged. Managing to be extra careful, Sam attentively walked to the stove. There were four logs left, so he put two of them in, and said, “There’s only two more pieces here. We’ll save them ’till morning.” Mark nodded his comprehension of the plan. Sam continued, “That’ll do it for me. I’m gonna lay down, before I fall down.” Mark smiled, and mimicked Sam, “Well, okey-dokey then. See you in the morning. Good night!” A thoroughly tired Sam replied, “Good night, Mark! Try to get yourself some sleep, okay?” “Yeah, I will,” said Mark, a little unsure of himself. “My blanket ought to be dry here shortly.”

Sam laid down, and curled into the fetal position with his arms crossed, and his hands in his armpits. In no time at all, Sam was out cold, snoring wildly. Finding himself alone again, Mark opened the gates that led to his inquisitive waking consciousness, and let his thoughts run rampant. A hodgepodge of questions and answers tumbled around in his mind. Racking his brains with their disorganized romp, the unstoppable display of various opinions continued to plead their cases, one after another. But the jury was still out, as far as Mark was concerned, so the judge was unable to conclude the whole affair. His inability to close the case kept him awake for a spell. During that period of time when consciousness begins to wane, and drowsiness settles in, Mark paced the floor, and fiddled with the fire. Every once in awhile, he’d walk to each and every window, and peer through the panes. Each and every gaze further assured him of his security, for never did he catch a glimpse of anything spectacular. Nothing out there appeared to be strange. Nothing out yonder ways seemed to be extraordinary. The only thing to be seen was the soothing fall of fluttering snowflakes softly landing on the ground.

When the flames from the fire in the stove began to die, the lovely light faded away, and the glow grew dim. Although he didn’t know the hour, Mark knew that it was late. He decided that it was time to lay on the floor, and count sheep. That would help him keep his mind off of other things, or so he figured. Mark looked down at a far-gone Sam who was all curled up on the floor. His blanket had fallen off, so Mark gingerly picked it up, and drew it over him, like any good nursemaid would do. Mark surveyed the room once again for good measure, and saw that everything was fine. He reached for his own blanket, and felt it to be satisfactorily dry, much to his pleasure. After a long hard day, and quite the outrageous night, Mark’s heavy, drooping eyelids clued him in to the fact that he was naturally tired. He spread his blanket on the floor between Sam and the stove, and laid himself upon it. Putting his worries behind him, and counting the sheep in front, he closed his eyes in hope of receiving a safe, and blissful rest in peace. But all Mark could do at this point was to hope for the best, and that was simply because he couldn’t read the future. Mark had no way of knowing what was in store for him during the next few hours, nor did he know that he would gain admission into the visionary realm of the unconscious. Mark was destined to be a lone witness. He was about to watch an ethereal event unfold, an event that was formed in the womb of a dream, in a dream he would not soon forget.

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Chapter Nineteen

Back about the time when Sam and his posse were in the cave, Matthew was back in Bedlam defying the urge to sleep. Since it was a Saturday night, he’d allowed himself to stay up a bit later than usual. His wife and young son already went to bed without him.  To stay awake and keep warm, he kept himself busy tending the fire in their stove. It was blazing away at full strength, adding heat and plenty of light to their living room. This enabled Matt to take to the task of cleaning his rifle. He planned on going hunting the next morning, but the storm caused him to reconsider. He dearly wished it would move on.

There was also something else rummaging about in the back of Matt’s mind, and that was Sam and his posse. In his estimation, he didn’t think they’d be back that night, but he couldn’t be resolutely sure. That made him a shade anxious, and he kept busy peering out his windows on and off all evening. It was simply a nervous reaction. For sure, he was hoping they would catch the murderer eventually. If there was to be another hanging in Bedlam, he didn’t want to miss it for anything. He’d only seen one since they’d lived there, but that was from a distance. He thought he’d like to have a close-up view someday, just so he could brag about such a rare experience. All the better, too, if the hanging involved this particular killer. Someday the man would be famous, for it was such a vicious crime. The story would be told for years to come. Matt certainly wished to be a party to its history. In that respect, he was a voyeuristic storyteller. He didn’t see himself as a fear monger. He told his tales for the express purpose of entertaining others, not because he wished to scare people away.

By the time that Matt finished readying his rifle, the stove had cooled off, and its light had grown dim. He decided to get the fire going one last time, and then he’d hit the hay. On the way to his back door, he again looked out his window toward the graveyard. Matt owned the last house on the left as you made your way south out of Bedlam. The hanging tree stood on the other side of the street a block or so further on down the road from his place. Matt didn’t believe the tree was haunted, nor did he believe in ghosts. Nevertheless, he kept an eye out for them, especially at night. In this regard, he was like most people. If there were such a thing as ghosts, then for sure he wished to see one someday. Not up close, mind you, but a ways away — a very safe distance away.

Matt bundled up in his coat, put on his hat, and grabbed his gloves before going out the back door. The storm was much worse than he previously forecast. He was expecting snow, and not rain in these freezing conditions. Earlier in the afternoon, he covered his stack of logs with a large piece of cowhide to keep the wood good and dry. By this time, a thin sheet of ice lay atop the cover. Matt pulled up a corner and grabbed as much as he could hold before recovering the pile. As he began his return back to the cozy comforts of home, he looked around at the few remaining occupied houses. He didn’t see one hint of light coming through any of the windows. He thought, “This town is dead.” Matt was longing for the good old days when Saturday nights used to bring a change of pace and a little excitement. He desperately wanted to move to the new town because that’s where good things happened, except for last night, of course, but he figured that was a once in a lifetime event, and everything would soon be back to normal.

Matt was halfway to the door when he heard his old hound dog howling inside the house. “Damn dog!” he thought. “He’s going to wake everyone up.” As if the dog could hear him, he spoke out loud, “There’s no one out here but me, ya stupid dog.” Matt was wrong, for just as soon as he’d finished speaking, the silent night brought him a surprise. It was a sound so startling that he dropped his armload of firewood to the ground, and froze in his steps. This unmistakable sound was the high-pitched whinny of a horse expressing its fear, and it was coming from the graveyard. Matt shuddered in his tracks and felt his heart begin to race. “Who’s that?” he thought quietly to himself. Then he broke his own rule for a change, and let his curiosity get the best of him. Instead of picking up the firewood, he left it there to lay in the rain, and crept his way towards the back of house. “Surely, it’s Sam and his men. At least…oh, God. I hope it is,” he said to himself after considering the alternatives. “But, why the heck are they back so soon? They couldn’t have caught him already. Could they?”

In order for Matt to see the graveyard, he had to look around the corner on the east side of his house. With his left hand gripping the edge, and his right palm against the wall, he braced himself and leaned his head out to take a look. As soon as he had a complete view of the tree and the graveyard, he stopped moving and held his ground. As far as he could tell, no one was there. He was sure of what he’d heard, so he paused and waited. He didn’t have to wait long. Instantly, as if out of nowhere, and coming from the far-side of the graveyard, Matt caught sight of a mysteriously slow-moving object. It was a vague, sinister-looking shadowy figure on a tall dark horse. Matt waited in alarm for another figure or two to appear, but none were forthcoming. There was only one single rider. That dreadful fact alone had Matt quaking in his boots, and it gave him the willies just to think about who it might be. The freezing drizzle continued to fall from the blackened sky, and the cold wind was causing shivers to run up and down his spine. He stood spellbound in disbelief as the horse coursed around each met tombstone, and continued to carry its master through the foreboding graveyard.

Their indistinct shapes were beginning to take form as they neared the hanging tree. The old oak seemed cloaked in gloom. Once they were under the furthermost reaches of the hanging tree’s branches, the horse abruptly halted.  It reared up off the ground, and voiced another nay. Upon landing, it shook its head and mane, and snorted loudly in a show of disgust. Small clouds of hot, steamy breath came rolling out of its nostrils. The wisps of warmed air rose up into the cold night sky, and quickly vanished. Matt couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It bore an awfully close resemblance to the ominous scene he’d pictured the day before on his ride back home. The man got off his horse, and led it by the reins until they were under the lowest limb. A moment later, Matt remembered that Sam had dropped a rope on the ground at that very spot. From the looks of it, the man was dressed in black from head to toe, and he was wearing a wide-brimmed hat, which reminded him of the description Luke gave of the murderer. That memory was enough to arouse his worst fears. It was more than enough to frighten Matt into a mode of panic, an excruciating emotion, hitherto unknown to him. Never before had he felt so terrified. Never before had he literally been scared stiff, and it took his breath away.