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.

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Chapter Thirteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Four

Luke was shaken to the core by the little girl’s question, but it was all the inspiration he needed to do what must be done. Determined to carry out her wish to the fullest measure, Luke vanquished any and all misgivings he had about going back in there. He didn’t hesitate for a moment, even though he was putting his own life on the line in doing so. The little cozy home had turned into a fiery furnace, and he hastened to make his way through the harsh smoke. It had worsened. Thick and all-encompassing, the dark gray fumes escaped through every nook and cranny. Smoke was enveloping the entire house, and Luke was doing his best to remain calm and collected.

Once at the entrance, he could vaguely tell the furniture had also begun to go up in flames. To the smell of burning wood, the upholstery added another dimension. The foul stench and stinking scents forced Luke to take short, quick breaths and he remained close to the floor as he coursed through and around the dangerous obstacles in his path. Once safely into the bedroom, he found the bed and attempted to awaken the mother one last time, even though he knew it’d be useless. Luke’s instincts informed him that he needed to get out of there immediately! He got down on his knees and pulled her onto and over his shoulder. She was a heavy load, but he would bear the burden. He slowly stood up and found his balance, then lugged her out the bedroom door. He was feeling the weight, and physical exhaustion was settling in from exertion and lack of oxygen. Finally, they reached the front door and stepped out. Just in the nick of time! They were only a few feet out into the yard when he heard the crash of the roof caving in right behind them.

Luke spotted the children on the grass, and continued walking directly at them to bring them their most precious possession. “These kids have lost their mother, their brother, and possibly their father, too! How on earth do I tell them? What’ll I say now?” he pondered. The little girl and boy were now huddled around their big brother. He sees two older ladies coming quickly towards them in bedclothes and house robes. “It’s about time someone showed up,” he thought with a sense of relief. But they had already been bewitched by the magic of the huge healthy fire, and its hypnotic effects were clear. Luke could see it in their eyes. “Not much help,” he mumbled to himself in his frustration.

Feeling his strength draining away, Luke reaches the children and goes down on one knee, gently laying their mother beside their brother. “Mommy? Mommy? What’s wrong?” the kids ask, rushing over to surround her. Their sobs increased tremendously, because now they knew something was wrong. Very wrong! Luke backed away indecisive. Looking at the two children…blackened from the smoke, but alive and basically unscathed…seeing them there in a panic, confused by the concept of death…all together now…the whole scene for Luke was bewildering. Coming out of this perplexed state of mind got easier for him when the neighbor ladies arrived. They seemed to understand what happened without even asking. Luke had been wrong about those two not being able to help, and he felt sorry for having assumed as much.

Luke stared in amazement at what was once a home, and realized how lucky he was to make it out of there. His gaze turns to the church, then it strikes him. “I have to go in there?” He looks back at the kids, “Is that where your father is?” The two worried little ones nod in the affirmative. Luke knew he must steady himself, although he had no time to waste. He concentrated on gathering up his strength and courage by taking a deep breath, but as soon as he tried, he activated a coughing fit. Beads of perspiration instantly formed on his forehead. An invigorating cool breeze caught him by surprise, and sent chills up and down his spine. He shivered and shook for a moment or two. “Take little breaths,” he told himself, and he found that this he could do. This small amount of brisk air sprung him back to life somewhat, and alerted him to his current predicament. Now having the will to go on, he clearly saw the task set before him. “I must go get their father,” was the only thought he had. The strength behind this thought banished any and all fears from his person.

Until, that is, he took his first foreboding step towards the inflamed building. Doubt has a way of getting around the strongest of wills, and Luke was no exception to this rule. He knew he had a fight on his hands, and that it was going to take place inside him. The front half of the church was getting the worst of it, so he headed on around to the back door where fear would meet hope head on.

Chapter Three

Luke was flat-out flying towards the fire! Then suddenly a thought crossed his mind. He dug in his heels and stopped in his tracks. After turning around to face the town, he cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “Help! Help!”, as loud as he could. Then Luke took off again at a mad speed, deciding on the way he should go to the pastor’s home first. They were probably all in bed with no clue as to what was happening. He arrived at their front door in less than a minute and reached for the handle. Luckily, before he touched it, it occurred to him that the handle might be hot. He also remembered to expect a lot of smoke. Then he pounded a closed fist on the door thrice.  He reached both hands behind his neck, untied the knot on his bandanna and used that on the door handle. In a flash, he swung open the door, jumped back and over to the side letting the smoke billow out. After a few seconds, Luke could see in through the doorway pretty well. Before he entered, he stopped and tied the bandanna over his nose and mouth.

Luke knew the whereabouts of the two bedrooms. He instantly decided to head toward the larger bedroom to awaken the pastor and his wife. The flames and smoke were obviously coming from the kitchen area. He might have thought its cause accidental, if not for the fact that the church went up in flames simultaneously. Luke absolutely knew he had no time to investigate, and continued his march towards the bedroom. The door was open. He entered and looked at the bed, seeing only the mother laying there immobile, flat on her back. Luke was sorely afraid that preacher man was over at the church. “Get up! Get up!” he yelled as he ran to her. He took hold of her shoulders and shook her, “Wake up! Wake up!”, but there was no response forthcoming. “The children, the children,” he thought, and let her be. As he was leaving the room he noticed the wad of sheets ruffled up at the end of the bed. Two blankets and one of the pillows lay innocently on the floor. The air was becoming more noxious by the minute. As he hurried through the doorway, he remembered hearing these words that once came from the voice of his father, “Stay calm. Stay calm.”

As he made his way to the children’s room, he distinctly heard the little girl cry out, “Mommy? Mommy?” He rushed in,”C’mon! C’mon! Get up! We gotta get outta here!” The girl was fine, but extremely frightened. She recognized Luke, even though he was wearing the bandanna, and allowed him to wrap her up in the quilt, and pick her up in his arms. He spun around to look in the boy’s direction, and the youngest was already coming towards him, coughing and carrying his blanket. Luke moved the girl to hold her in one arm, grabbed the boy’s hand, and began to walk them out, stooping down a ways into cleaner air as he went. He turned his head back towards the other boy who also lay there still as could be.  Luke let out a another quick,”Wake up! Wake up!”, but the boy wasn’t moving, so off he went, pulling the little one behind him. “Thank God, these two are okay, at least!” Luke thought to himself, instead of thanking the Lord directly.

The kitchen was all ablaze by this time. Crackling and loud popping sounds could be heard as the group exited through the front door, and on out into the fresh chilled air of the night. Luke didn’t see anyone else out there, and began to wonder if he was going to get any help at all from the neighbors. Ten seconds later, they were a safe distance away from the nasty smoke and scorching flames. As he sat the girl on the slightly wet grass, he bade the two sit down. “Stay here! I’ll be right back.” Shooting a glance over at the church, it looked to him like the entire front half of the structure was aflame. “Holy smokes is right!” came to his mind for the very first time in the truest sense.

Smoke was rolling out of the door by now, so he crouched down low to make his way back to the bedroom for the eldest. The boy still hadn’t moved. Luke grabbed his thigh and shook him, but gathered no response. “Damn, Lord! He was a good kid!” Luke pulled him off the bed, and slung him over his shoulder, staying low as he trudged his way back out. He’d never carried a dead child before, and it felt horrible. Simply horrible! He finally reached the other two and lay the boy beside them. Pleadingly, the girl asks, “Where’s Mommy?” Luke’s heart sunk to his stomach. Their mother had already given up the ghost. He was sure she’d taken her last breath some time ago. “I’m going to get her now, dear. Let your older brother be. He needs rest.” Luke had no qualms about telling this lie.

Catching what breath he could as he headed back in, he found himself angry from the turmoil, but all the while he felt his heart being broke in two. “Here we go again, Lord. Stay with me. What will I tell the children this time out?” But Luke didn’t have time to wait for an answer. He wondered, “Where is everybody? I wish my wife was here.” Again he blasted out to the town, “Help! Help!”

Chapter Two

Luke was a God-fearing man, although he didn’t see himself as overly religious. He took The Bible at its Word, and understood the basics, but over and above all that he placed his trust in his instincts. They’d never failed him before in his whole life, as far back as he could remember, so he thought he’d earned the right to see himself as a man of faith. Like most people from rural areas who prize a mule for its stubbornness, he superstitiously maintained his loyalty to family traditions and other meaningless rituals taught to him by his parents. Never before in his life had he taken any kind of quick action perceived by others as something heroic. It wasn’t because he lacked brazen courage, because he had proven himself brave enough by making the move and bringing his family out West. By trade he was a blacksmith, and able to find work wherever he went. He’d gone to the saloon that night to meet up with Sam Hill, one of the wealthier landowners from those parts. This very prosperous man owned a horse ranch; the largest in the territory. He concluded the meeting with Luke by offering him a full-time job. Luke immediately accepted. Thus he was in a state of joy and excitement, feeling fairly secure as he made his way on through the swinging doors into the moonlit street.

At 10 p.m. that Saturday night, Luke hit the road elated. It looked deserted, not a soul in sight, and thus it was eerily quiet. Until, not being able to help himself, he kicked up some dirt with the heel of his boot, clenched his fists, and let out a big old “Yeehaw!” so loud that anyone within listening distance could have easily heard him. Immediately, he felt a smidgen embarrassed for having done such a thing, then walked on with his head hanging low for a ways in a feeble attempt to make himself invisible to anyone who might have gotten up to look out their window to see what’s the matter.

Soon back to his old confident self, Luke carried on at a quicker pace, discretely restraining the merriment on his face, while he continued his walk with head held high. He couldn’t wait to tell his wife the great news, and the grand realized hope of new beginnings. Unfortunately, as things do not always turn out as planned, Luke was destined to play a part in the tragedy that was about to unfold. Needless to say, he didn’t get to do what he was most anxiously waiting and wanting to do right then, even though he was very nearly home.

His attention was soon drawn to the church up ahead. He fell to thinking about the pastor, and how he had volunteered himself more than a few times, and had helped him build his little house. It made Luke to feel somewhat settled in his heart, knowing he had done something intrinsically good, something worthy of his time, for his time he valued highly.

He liked this preacher man. He was very friendly and sociable, as was his young wife, and their kids were well-behaved for their ages. They had a cute little girl of four years, and two boys, aged six and ten. Luke knew them pretty well. Almost every day they’d come over to play in the backyard with his own kids, and they would have happily swung on the swing all day, if allowed. Luke had made the swing himself. It was only a rope that wound through a board. He’d hung it from a low, strong branch that belonged to the large elm tree standing on his property. The swing was sturdy enough that he could enjoy it for himself from time to time.

These and similar type thoughts were going through his mind as he closed in on the threshold of his homey existence. It was at this point that Luke eyed the shadowy figure on horseback who was lazily moseying his way out-of-town. Deciding right then and there it wasn’t really any of his business, he dropped the matter from his mind. The stranger was free to go, and he wasn’t going to run after him. The man certainly wasn’t about to heed his or anyone else’s advice, come what may. Just as Luke was about to reach for the door, he caught a whiff of smoke. As he turned his head to look back at the church, he spied all the signs of a fire. The first few flames had just begun to flicker under and out from the overhang of the roof. Luke involuntarily dropped his jaw and stared in shock and amazement at the scene taking place right before his very eyes. For a moment he just stood there, scared stiff and frozen in place. What aroused him back to his senses was another attention grabber. The pastor’s house was also beginning to catch fire. Luke gathered his wits about him, then took to running in that direction as fast as his legs would allow him to go.

Hanging On Tree’s Every Word: Chapter One

The day had started out quite beautiful and rather warm for that time of year. It was the morning after those damnable occurrences, after the devil-ridden chaos which transpired during that most terrible night in Bedlam. Autumn’s weather had been lovely to begin with, and it remained unusually wonderful on up to October 30th, 1869, when our story begins.

The mighty oak, famous in these parts for the many hangings that took place on its lowest limb over the last 20 years, stood on the outskirts of a small town that had seen its better days. Although the town didn’t officially have a name, the folks from around there called it Bedlam. Lying a few miles off the Oregon Trail, it had been witness to the mass migration of folks who had dropped everything to rush for the gold discovered in California in 1849 and  for many years afterwards. The new transcontinental railroad was not a boon for this little settlement. The track was laid 10 miles northward. Almost all the residents of Bedlam packed up their belongings, and made their way toward the mostly unoccupied lands surrounding the recently built train station. They knew there would be a growing city of significant size there someday. The few poorer families remaining behind planned to do the same once they could afford the costs.

Matthew, a family man, had returned to Bedlam from his future homestead that morning with supplies and the latest news. More than tragic and disturbing were these facts from the night before. A mass murder occurred involving a young pastor, his wife, and the oldest of three children. This most innocent of families lived in a little shack beside the newly built church. The novice preacher only needed to put a few more finishing touches on his place of worship before he could begin holding services. He constructed the two on the southern edge of the city, apart from the rest of the homes and far away from the only saloon for miles around. There was a witness of sorts; a man who stepped out of the saloon a few hours after sunset. His name was Luke. Although he took heroic measures, his valiant efforts were partly in vain. Only the two youngest children survived. The next morning, Luke relayed his story to Matthew and a few other men who gathered together outside the general store.

Luke testified that he went to the saloon the night before because he had a job interview. For good reason, he only allowed himself two glasses of whiskey, and was in no way tipsy when he excused himself from the meeting to go home. As Luke neared his house, he could easily see the church which was just a little ways on down the dirt road. The skies were crystal clear on that cool crisp night with a very nearly Full Moon’s light. All of a sudden, just a ways beyond the pastor’s property, Luke eyed a shadowy figure on horseback casually making his way out-of-town.

The rider appeared to be dressed all in black. He was wearing a cape that floated and flapped in the wind, which was blowing head on and straightaway into his and Luke’s face. This dark and mysterious man rode a shiny black stallion and wore a wide-brimmed hat. Although, from the shape of it, he could tell it wasn’t a cowboy hat at all. It reminded him of the one that stranger had on; the stranger who showed up alone in town that very morning to stock up on supplies. Luke presumed it was the same man. The fact he was leaving town so late seemed more than odd. “That’s plain stupid!” Luke remembered thinking, “and dangerous, too.”  Concluding his account, Luke exclaimed, “No one in their right mind would take that kind of risk, if they had any sense. Ain’t nothing but miles and miles of rugged terrain out there. We all know that. Nothing but a lawless countryside once he rides on out of Bedlam.”

About this suspicious character, Luke knew very little. He saw him leaving the store that morning and, letting his curiosity get the best of him, Luke took the time out of his busy schedule to go inside and ask about the tall handsome stranger in a tailored suit and cloak. This is what he gathered from the clerk. Apparently, the man spoke no English whatsoever, or if he did, he didn’t let on about it. After the clerk had added up the cost of all he brought to the counter, this obvious foreigner pulled a leather string-drawn pouch from his coat pocket. The stranger wanted to settle the deal by way of gold. The clerk didn’t have a problem with that. It was fairly customary in this part of the country. He got out the scale and proceeded to give the man a fair transaction. The sharply dressed man smiled his gesture of satisfaction, and gave the clerk a small nugget as a tip, which made the clerk nervously rejoice, for no one had ever done such a thing in his store before. The man was polite and courteous, so much so that one might think him an aristocrat, or a prince even, one from somewhere far away in another land across the sea.