The Hanging Tree Of Bedlam – 23

Once in a very great while, out of the devil-ridden chaos that dominates our mundane world, order presents itself in the form of seemingly meaningful coincidences. Through the ripped veil of the universal fabric, singularly particular events occur that may cause a person to question the ironclad laws of causality.

*

Although the northern winds had subsided, a light freezing rain continued to fall as Mark grabbed the ivory-handled dagger. He had no qualms about tampering with the evidence. That idea never crossed his mind. Easily and quickly, Mark pulled the murder weapon from the chosen burial spot. An instant later, they heard a quavering creak, and a tremulous crack. Then resonating through the air came the ripping sound of splintering wood. All eyes were on the lowest limb, as little by little, it began to give way. The feet of the stone-cold stiff touched the ground, and the teetering corpse leaned forward, swaying to the left, and to the right, back and forth. That was more than the limb could bear. With a loud hissing noise, it tore itself away from the trunk, and dropped to the ground. The recently departed man fell flat on his face. With a thump and a bounce, his hands were loosed from their bind, and laid themselves at his sides. Those strange hissing noises quickly became gusty winds. But now they were from the west, as if they were coming from the tree itself. Sam’s hat was blown clean off his head. He ducked and backed away. The horses were spooked by the brush of the branch, and reared back on their hinds, nearly throwing their riders onto the road. Fiercely and frightfully, the steeds pedaled their hooves to fend off the invisible foes around them. From the far side of the graveyard came the scream of the mighty stallion.

The audible release of pressurized air whipping through the icy branches provided the men with the oddest of impressions. Resembling auditory hallucinations, the winds rushed past their ears creating a vast array of timorous wails and reverberating howls. They’d been jolted into hearing a unique choral arrangement of discordant tones and low-pitched moans, as a cacophony of a hundred voices cried aloud in anguish. Heard, but unseen, the ghastly parade of drifters floated by, one after the other, or so it seemed, for about ten seconds. The sounds were dying down as the winds eventually slowed, and came to an utterly silent standstill. After a moment or two, the cold wind picked up once again, but lightly this time, and from a northerly direction. The men’s horses settled down, but the murderer’s black stallion had mysteriously disappeared.

Standing by the tree, shocked and amazed, knife in hand, was a dumbfounded Mark, now dizzier than ever. He was being spellbound by a constant barrage of inarticulate words and jumbled phrases, whilst his inner mind was receiving dim and distorted images of face after tormented face. Flashing before him were the portraits of unknown men, each with a noose around their neck, each hopelessly gasping for one last breath. With a faraway look in his eyes, he fixedly stared at the broken limb. It had straddled the legs of the man when it fell to the ground. Mark was finally shaken from his stupor by the familiar voice of Sam verbalizing his own sense of wonder.

“What in tarnation was that?” asked the boss. No replies came forth, so he answered his own good question. “It was nothing but the wind,” he paused for a moment, searching for more plausible explanations, “and all that added weight from this damn ice storm. That’s all it took. That’s all it was.” Sam looked over at Mark. The young man had turned the lightest shade of pale. “Hey, Kid! Are you alright?” Quickly changing his pained expression, Mark raised his eyes to meet Sam’s, and forced himself to give the boss a rather tentative response. “Yeah! I’m okay! I’m okay!” Sam doubted that straightforward answer. It was fairly obvious to him that Mark wasn’t okay. He let it slide for the time being and firmly said, “Good! Now, give me that knife before you hurt yourself.” Mark commanded his legs to move, and keeping an eye on the face-down corpse, he walked over to Sam and gave him the dagger. Curious as to what their next move might be, he asked, “What are we going to do with him now?” Since Sam had luckily ran into that excuse he was searching for, he didn’t need to hesitate. “Nothing. Leave him be. He can stay right there. I’ll take care of it later. Come on over here. I’ve got something to tell you guys.” Sam headed towards the road, and Mark stayed close behind him. The posse, most of whom were still trying to get their act together, pulled themselves back to the present moment. A little dazed and a bit confused, they cleared the cobwebs from their minds, and gave Sam their somewhat divided attention.

Sam contrived to put a smile on his face, and vocalized a forced laugh, “He-he-he! That wind was something else, eh?” Sam didn’t give them time to answer. “How you men doing? Are you alright?” After a short second of silence, the men sucked it up, and then they all spoke at once. “Oh, yeah!” was heard, and, “Sure we are!” and “Of course!” came along with, “You bet!” They were nothing but white lies, and Sam knew it. Those minor fibs caused him to wear a natural smile, and he replied ingenuously with, “Glad to hear it!” Not wanting to waste a moment, Sam laid down his newfound plan. “Listen up, boys! As you can all see, our mission has been completed.” He paused, and smirked, “Well, almost, that is. There are a couple of other matters to settle, but I’ll take care of those. Lookie here now, this is the end of the line for me tonight. I’ve already made prior arrangements to stay in a vacated house right here in Bedlam. It’s just down the road a ways. A friend of mine used to live there. About this…,” Sam turns his head and looks back at the crime scene, “about this dead guy here, and whatever he buried in that hole, we’ll find out what’s what in the morning. He’s not going anywhere, and I doubt if anyone around here is going to bother him.”

Sam cut to the chase, and summed it all up by laying down the bottom line. “The truth is…we didn’t hang the bastard. We cannot, and will not be accused of having done so, nor will we take credit for the deed. We will not be held accountable, either way. I want you men to go on back to town, and out to the ranch. Go take care of yourselves. We’ve been through Hell tonight! You men did a fine job of sticking with it. I expected nothing less from the lot of you. You’ll get your bonus in cash as soon as I make it back. Hopefully, it’ll be around noon. Now, when you get into town, I want you to stop in at the Deputy’s office. I happen to know he’s been spending his nights there lately. Bang on his door, and wake him up. I don’t care how you do it. Quickly explain the situation, and then tell him to get his sorry ass out here first thing in the morning. Tell him I’m expecting him, and that he better be here, if he knows what’s good for him. I’ll be waiting.” Those relieved and enlightened cowboys could easily see that Sam was dead serious. “Alrighty then. You got that?” Sam asked. The eldest of the bunch took the lead, and speedily replied, “Yeah! Sure, boss. No problem. We’ll get ‘er done!”

Sam opened his saddlebag, and hid the knife away in a safe place. “Okay. Now get on out of here! I’ll deal with the rest of this mess, and…” Mark interrupted Sam in mid speech with a heartfelt plea. ” Hey, Sam! I don’t feel so hot. Would you mind if I stayed here with you?” Sam relented with good reason. He didn’t want to be alone. He couldn’t admit it, nor would he have dared to ask one of those men to keep him company. Mark had been treating him as if he were his own father, and Sam kind of liked that. “Sure, Kid. I don’t feel all that great, either.” We can’t say that Sam was totally unfazed by what he described as ‘nothing but the wind’. Understandably, he didn’t see, nor did he hear what Mark saw and heard. Sam’s experience of ‘the wind’ wasn’t the same as Mark’s experience. All we can say is – when Sam was crouched over, covering his head with his arms, he wasn’t thinking about his safety. He didn’t imagine he was in any real trouble, because he’d forgotten where he was altogether. Sam was having a vivid daydream, and it seemed all too real to him at the time. The only person he was seeing in his mind during those 10 long seconds was his dearly departed mother. The visuals were perfectly clear, as she stood at the door of their old house begging him not to go. “Sam! Sam! Don’t leave! Don’t leave me here alone like this! Sam! Sam! Sam?” He wished he’d never looked back.

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Chapter Eighteen

After Mark made his big,  but terrifying discovery, Sam grudgingly walked his horse over to him and took a look for himself. Sam was tired, confused, and somewhat disappointed. The first half of his hunch was correct, but it looked like the second half of it was dead wrong. Sam wasn’t expecting this new development. He wasn’t ready for it. He hadn’t prepared for it and that made him mad. Whereas, before he had feigned anger and enthusiasm, his anger had now become tentative, and he was truly concerned. He was mad at that murderer, because it seemed as if he’d changed his mind, and now Sam would have to change his plans. He’d been thoroughly ready to go on home, get warm, and go to bed. On the other hand, Mark was just beginning to find himself. He was coming into his own. He’d accomplished two feats, one daring, and one investigative. Mark’s confidence was revived, and he was raring to go. Now that he had the guts he  lacked awhile back, he was able to get up the nerve to ask Sam a pointed question.

“Why is he going back, do you think?” This, too, caught Sam off-guard, as he was currently probing his mind for his next hunch — for another possibility — for the one that wasn’t quite as obvious. Sam returned the favor by saying this to Mark. “I don’t rightly know, Kid. I’m thinking the worst. I’m thinking there’s something he didn’t finish doing last night. I’m thinking, perhaps, he didn’t complete his mission. Maybe, he had intended on murdering the pastor’s entire family. I’ll be damned, but I’m afraid he’s going back for those two kids, if he isn’t going after Luke, who’s the only one who saw him leaving the place.”

“Oh, my God, Sam! Surely not. I was wondering if maybe he forgot something else; something he needed really, really bad to make his trip. Like a map, or something. Money, maybe.” Sam shot back, “I highly doubt it, Kid. That sonuvabitch is a maniac! It’s hard to guess what he’s up to. Those kind of people don’t just blatantly disregard the law, they rule it out altogether, and then they do whatever it is that suits their purpose. He’s at least two hours ahead of us. He could already be back in town doing whatever it is he planned on doing, and we may be too late to do anything about it.” Just then, Sam’s second hunch finally came to him, giving him new hope that his first hunch might still be the correct one. But the high-strung kid was excited and quickly returned fire. “We better high-tail it outta here then, huh?” “Yeah, Kid,” Sam said distractedly.

Sam turned to the rest of his posse to fill them in. “Hey, you guys, listen up! Our murderer might be headed to the river to take a different route south. He knows someone’s on to him, or else he’d be riding over yonder on the road. If he does know we’re after him — well, that’s what I would do. He can walk his horse up the river for a ways and lose us if he knows what he’s doing. We’ll head on up to the river. If he’s going back to town, his tracks will be straight across the other side. This weather’s gonna slow him down same as us.” Sam reached back into his bag and grabbed the bottle of whiskey. It was practically empty. He tipped it up real quick and killed it off, which instantly set him off into a bout of coughing, gagging, and gasping for air. After Sam came back to his senses, Mark gave him a funny look. “It’s okay, Kid. Don’t you worry about me. I know what I’m doing. That stink back in the cave left me with a bad taste in my mouth.” Sam tossed the bottle off into the brush. Mark felt himself compelled to ask one more question before they took off, so he continued to put up a fuss. “What about all that stuff back in the cave? You don’t think…you don’t believe…I mean, what was that all about?” Sam looked Mark right in the eyes, “I ain’t worried about that idiot’s hocus-pocus! He can cast spells all he wants. The world doesn’t work that way. Wishing doesn’t get things done — action does. Don’t you know that?” Sam reared his horse around,”Okay, men. Let’s ride!” The Kid was beginning to get on his nerve, and it ticked him off.

The manhunt was once again underway in miserable weather. Mark fell in line and behaved himself, as a good soldier should. Sam caused him to think the worst, but he was hoping Sam was right, and if that man had cast a spell on them, it wouldn’t work. Mark really did want to believe that, but his old self and his old ways wouldn’t let him. The Kid wished he could make his old self magically disappear, but like Sam said, the world doesn’t work that way. Mark was shivering and feeling pretty darn miserable himself. He took it out on Sam by wondering why the boss was going so slow, and cursed him under his breath.

With no well-worn trail to follow, the ride through the brush was naturally rough-n-tough. Sam was having a difficult time seeing the killer’s tracks. Right then and there, he promised himself he’d go and get those damn spectacles his doctor recommended. Nevertheless, he kept his wits about him and followed the tracks all the way to the river. On the bank, Sam got off his horse and led him to water. His men took the cue and followed suit. After a few minutes of stretching their legs, they crossed over, and shortly afterwards picked up the murderer’s tracks. He was still headed north. This frustrated Sam to no end. They hadn’t gone far before the tracks headed back west. After the reached the main road, the tracks continued northward. The light drizzle coming down was sticking and freezing to every single thing it touched. It was a half-hour ride from there to Bedlam, and another hour from Bedlam to their town. Sam already had a headache, and the impending doom wasn’t helping matters at all.

Chapter Fifteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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