When The Dead Bury The Dead

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Hanging On: Thirty

According to Matthew, he slept in the chair under the window all night long and, amazingly enough, the rifle hadn’t fallen from his lap. Prior to his sudden awakening, he’d been having a dream in which he was employed by the railroad as a cook on a passenger train. He was only able to recall the very tail end of this dream experience, but since it’s occurrence was so coincidently timed, he thought he ought to add it into the story as a pertinent matter of course. Here then is his dream as it was handed down to me. In Matt’s own words:

I was working alone as a cook in the back of the caboose. The sun was just beginning to rise, and the train seemed to be moving down the tracks at top speed. I was wearing a long white apron over my clothes, and I was standing over a hot stove with a spatula in my hand. I appeared to be making a whole bunch of breakfast. A large skillet of scrambled eggs lay before me, and there was a tall pile of fried bacon off to the side. I remember hearing the muffled scream of a woman, and I raised my head to look towards the front. There was a window in the door, and through it I could see the car ahead of me. It also had a window in the door, and from what I could tell, all the seats were taken. I mean, the car was full. There were even people standing in the aisle.

Next thing I know, here comes some man in a gray business suit pushing his way through the crowd. He seemed to be in a hurry. Once he got to the back door, he opened it towards him, and as soon as he’d made it to the step outside, he quickly shut it behind him. Then he lowered his head a bit to look back through the window. I figured he was being chased. He didn’t look for long, and then he turned around and started to make his way carefully between the cars. About two seconds later, he stepped up to my door and rushed in, but he spun around and slammed the door so fast that I didn’t get a good look at his face. The sharply dressed man bent down again to look through the window before he turned around. I was pleasantly relieved to see that it was only Luke, but I also remember being concerned for he was certainly in a panic. I’d never seen him look so scared. Funny thing was, he didn’t seem at all surprised to find me standing there.

“He’s after me!” he yelled as he continued in haste towards the back door. “Who’s after you?” I asked. “The murderer!” he cried. “Oh, crap!” I remember saying, and then I looked through the windows again, but I didn’t see anyone coming. Luke opened the door to go out, but then then he stopped and hesitated, as if he wasn’t sure about the action he had planned. “Do you have a gun?” he asked. Well, I didn’t know. I checked my side for a pistol. “No, I guess not,” I said as I scanned the room for a rifle. “Where’re you going?” I asked him. He looked at me in all sincerity, and with a very serious tone to his voice, he replied, “I’m jumping off this train, and if you don’t want to be killed you better come with me!” I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding.” Luke wasn’t waiting around for me to make a decisive move. He swung the door open and stepped out onto the platform.

I looked back towards the front and through the windows. The aisle had been cleared, and everyone was sitting quite still in their seats. Not one head was turned, they were all looking forward, and then the door to the passenger car slowly opened all by itself. No one was there, and the door stayed open. Nobody looked, and no one got up to shut it. When my front door began to open, I remember thinking, “Run for it!” but my feet wouldn’t oblige. My attention remained frozen to the scene straight ahead of me. I watched the door swing open, but there still wasn’t a soul to be seen. I tried to move my legs again, but they were unresponsive. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the empty entryway. The next thing that happened was so downright impossible that I’ll never be able to forget it. I still have a hard time explaining it to myself.

As I looked towards the open door, my view through the space inside the frame began to blur. All else in the room remained clear and stayed in focus. It was just the air right there in the doorway that was being distorted. A split second later, that fuzzy bit of space began to swirl within itself. Gradually, but quickly, a form began to take shape. Shortly thereafter, I could see a vague outline of a tall human figure wearing a wide-brimmed hat. It only took another second or so for the figure to finish materializing, and then I was able to tell for sure who it was. It was the murderer alright, and he was dressed all in black, just like I’d seen him the night before.

After the killer had completely appeared out of the thin dreamy air, I was finally able to see his handsomely featured face, which didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of his menacing look. Oddly enough, even though his whole body was standing there in the doorway, he wasn’t all there yet, so to speak. I mean, he didn’t come to life right away. He just stood there stiff as could be, and stared straight ahead without moving a muscle. It was only then that I noticed he was holding something in his hand, but this something didn’t materialize in time with the rest of his figure. It took a little bit longer to put itself together, but soon I could tell exactly what the thing was. It was a knife! But it wasn’t just any old knife, this was a white-handled dagger with a long double-edged blade.

The blade began to glow, and the man opened his eyes. The glow grew hotter and brighter, and as it changed from red to white, the killer stirred to life. He looked at me in jest, and put a mischievous grin on his face. Then he raised his arm and pointed the knife at my head, and blinded my eyes with a bright shaft of light. Instantly, I felt a surge of energy course through my body, and shoot on out from the ends of my fingers and toes. How long he held me there in suspense, I don’t rightly remember, but eventually he removed the light from my eyes, and right away I could see fine again. First, I looked at his sinister smile, and then I looked him straight in the eyes. He tilted back his head and let out a laugh, a terrifying laugh. It was more like a roar actually, a roar so loud that it drowned out the sound of the train as it rolled down the tracks.

To tell you the truth, that scared the crap out of me, and that was all it took to set me free, apparently, for without my command, my hand dropped the spatula. Then all of their own accord, my legs decided to move, and my feet took off for the door. I could hear his steps as he closed in fast behind me. I ran out to the platform, and there was Luke hiding off to the side. “Are you ready now?” he asked me. I quickly nodded my head in agreement. He says, “I’ll go first to show you how this is done. Hit and roll! Do you hear me? Hit and roll! Now, watch.” Luke jumped off and away from the train, and when he hit the ground, he rolled about a dozen times. Then he got up on his feet, and waved for me to come on. I hesitated ever so slightly, and then I felt that hot surge of light piercing into my back. I took the leap right then and there, and when I did, I jumped up and out of my chair. My rifle went flying through the air, but before it had a chance to land, I heard my wife screaming my name at the top of her lungs.

Hanging On: Twenty Eight

Mark’s Dream: Part Two

*

Captivated by the ongoing scene in front of him, and imprisoned behind the dreamy eyes that were free to fly to and fro as they wished, Mark’s choiceless awareness floated along in flight, and made a beeline for the dancers. In the short amount of time that it takes to blink your eye, Mark recognized the men. Sure enough, it was Sam and the guys, the guys who had formed the posse. They were dressed exactly as they were when last he’d seen them, except for now they weren’t all wet, and their miserable expressions had disappeared completely. The men were quick on their feet as they took their steps in time. They were wearing joyful smiles, and looking happier than hell. The six ladies in the circle seemed vaguely familiar. (He didn’t know why at the time, but he would come to find out later on. The reason he thought he’d seen them somewhere before was because they were the girls he knew from the saloon.) The women were traditionally dressed in style for the dance, wearing full-bloomed skirts and fancy petticoats. Cheerful in their merriment, they certainly seemed to be enjoying the occasion.

Through perfect eyes that never once blinked, Mark watched as the view receded from the dancing scene. Once the musicians were in sight, his movable lookout station smoothly came to a stop, and turned just enough to put the group front and center. Twelve elegantly dressed, beautiful ladies made up the band. (Mark was not familiar in the least with any one of them.) These dozen women wore long white gowns, delicately trimmed in lace. Their chairs were arranged in a semi-circle that curved away from the crowd. Two harps were being masterly strummed at the ends of the line. Over on the left, four violinists were swiftly drawing their bows. Across from them were four speedy cellists adding harmony to the tune. And lastly, in the middle, sat two banjo pickers dueling it out with graceful gusto.

Once those eyes of his had had their fill of that fun scene, Mark was sucked clear back to his original position in the tree. Immediately after that his focus turned left, and set it’s gaze on the little town of Bedlam. It was no longer as small as he remembered it to be. The town was overflowing with spectators, Mark could tell that much from the tree. But the eyes wanted to see more, so off they went, flying as the crow flies. (The distance between Mark and the ground always remained the same, 20 feet up in the air, or so he said.) When they’d made it as far as the first house on his left, the eyes eased their speed until they came to a halt. Teams of happy folk crowded both sides of the road. Some of younger adults were waving colorful banners on a pole, and a couple of old men were hoisting America’s flag way up high. The celebration was being enhanced by some kind of marching band. They were traipsing up the road in Mark’s direction. Waiting patiently to see what the fuss was all about, the eyes hovered in place.

The leader of the band was dressed in white from head to toe. All the men behind him were dressed much the same way, but their formal attire was entirely black. The contrast was staggering, but the keen eyes kept their focus. The frontman played a silver flute that glittered in the sun. His white polished shoes were brilliantly spotless. He wore a long tailcoat, and a little white bow sat tied over his throat. High-stepping his way down the middle of the road, he looked to be quite jolly nodding his head from shoulder to shoulder as he piped his tune into the air. The eyes wished to see this figurehead up close, so they took off once again, and hovered in front of him, keeping a distance of ten feet between themselves and the man by slowly backing away. In remembrance of the past, Mark found himself to be in the act of recognition. The leader was none other than the cruelly murdered preacher man. He appeared to be having the time of his life. Alive and well, and still in his prime, the pastor was hitting his stride to perfection. Satisfactorily pleased by Mark’s acknowledgment of the familiar character, the eyes began to scan the clan beyond him.

Marching behind their leader in a strict formation was a percussion band of a hundred men in ten rows of ten. Each hatless man had a wood-sided drum strapped around his neck that hung waist high. Seemingly oblivious to the folks cheering them on, they stared straight ahead with a stern look on their faces. Holding a drumstick in each hand, they alternated the beat with one strike between each of their steps. They were identically dressed in black tuxedos and black, shiny boots. But they weren’t entirely clothed in black as they had first appeared to Mark. Now that he was up close he could see that their bow ties were made out of thin cords of rope. The observant eyes paused for a moment, and waited for him to put two and two together. He didn’t get the picture right away, so the eyes allowed the witness to further examine the faces of the men in the first two rows. Mark thought they all looked vaguely familiar, but he didn’t know the reason why quite yet, so those eyes pulled him back to his hangout spot in the tree. Without the slightest hesitation, the eyes started pivoting to his right. From Bedlam to the picnic gathering, the gaze continued to move southward on across the fertile land. It didn’t stop and set it’s sight until Mark was able to grasp a complete view of the graveyard scene. Dwelling in the unfathomable depths of a dream as he was, Mark wasn’t about to be easily startled from sleep by this ongoing stretch of his active imagination.

Mark told Matt that his first impression of the scene was picturesquely magnificent. The haven of the dead had been transformed into a garden grandeur of life. The graves had been replaced by a hundred beds of blooming red roses neatly arranged in ten spacious rows. The drab slabs of engraved stone that previously marked the graves were gone. Standing in their stead at the head of each bed were open books. Their lily-white pages were flapping back and forth in the breeze. These books were all about four feet tall, and the pages were purely empty. Here and there and in between, little white bunnies could be seen hopping over and around the living beds. There were also a lot of red robins bopping about. Taking low short flights in a willy-nilly manner, they searched the surrounding lawns, and pecked at the ground in hunger for worms.

A tall totem pole stood erect in the midst of the rose beds. Skillfully adorned with a traditional variety of carvings, it ran straight as a rail from the ground on up for the first twenty feet. From that point on to the top, which was another ten feet beyond the last carved face, the narrowing pole was noticeably bent, and the bark was still intact. According to Mark, there was one thing especially odd about this pole. Several newly-formed sprigs shot forth from the very tip, as if somehow or another, it was still alive and growing. Having seen that unlikely combination, Mark’s memory drew from it’s store of resources, and offered him a clue as to the pole’s origin. Once Mark became conscious of the freely given clue, he automatically thought, “This pole was made from the lowest limb of the hanging tree.” That was all the eyes needed to hear. The focus point then fell from the very tip top on down to the bottom.

Sitting cross-legged on the ground at the base of the pole was an Indian chief. He was typically dressed in leather clothing strewn with beads, and a long eagle-feathered warbonnet sat on his head. The decorated elder had a small hand drum on his lap, but he wasn’t beating on it at the time. Mark could tell by the solemn expression on his face that he was either meditating on something highly important, or patiently waiting for the rest of the party to arrive. A little ways away from the chief, and standing directly in front of one of the books was a frail old lady flipping through the blank pages. She had her back to Mark, so he never did see her face. She wore a tattered grey dress and a pair of brown, laced boots.

Hanging On: Twenty Seven

The following is a presentation of the dream world Mark encountered in the wee morning hours of November 1st, 1869. The information contained herein is a re-creation of the testimony given to Matthew by Mark himself. In other words, it came straight from the horse’s mouth. For you see, if I may be allowed to get ahead of myself here, Matthew and Mark were destined to be friends a little further on down the road. There came a day when they were discussing the chain of events that led up to that terrible night in Bedlam. Mark happened to mention the fact that when he’d been awakened by Sam the next morning, he was smack-dab in the middle of an extremely strange, and mystifying dream. When Matt heard that his ears perked up. He wanted to hear all about it. Mark was reluctant at first. He didn’t really want to tell him, but Matt was well-versed in the art of persuasion, and thus was he able to weasel it out of him.

Matthew was amazed that Mark could still remember the dream as well as he did, months after the fact of it’s occurrence. Mark recollected it all in bits and pieces, and then he went on to give Matt a wild and crazy, but nonetheless vivid account filled with exquisitely interesting details. Matt listened curiously as Mark described the scene in a disorderly manner. Mark’s memories would run backwards for awhile, as if he were jogging his brain in reverse, and then he’d jump forward, and go the other way until he reached a point where he had to go back again, and pick up where’d he’d left off. This was all very puzzling to Matt at the time, but due to the fact that he was a storyteller, he was able to pick up the pieces, and put it all back together again. Although he never could make sense of it, Matt felt that it was a necessary addition to the story. Therefore, it is in that same vein that I include it here.

In the dream I’m about to describe, Mark was nothing but a casual, unemotional observer, invisible to others right on up to the very end, at which point he did suddenly find himself to be an active participant, but only for a moment, the moment before Sam brought him back to the real world. Throughout this dream he maintained a conscious sense of self, although he was bodiless, and could not see his hands, nor his feet.  Mark’s sense of sight remained, but he had no control over the direction of the view. The view itself was crystal clear, but limited to one hundred and eighty degrees. He was shown the scene that lay to his left, and also the one off to his right. He caught a glimpse of the blue sky above him, and was given a view of what lay below, but never did he see what was behind him. It was as if his eyes had a mind of their own, and like a bird they could swoop down to take a closer look, then they’d fly back to his fixed position without ever having turned around. He could not hear any sounds. He could neither smell, nor taste, and he altogether lacked the feeling sense of touch.

*

Part I

In the dim fading light of that cold weary night, Mark closed his tired eyes, and started counting. He didn’t recall having to toss or turn for any length of time, so he figured he fell asleep fairly quick. Mark told Matt that he didn’t usually remember his dreams. As far as he knew, he’d never had a dream that fit the common description of a nightmare. He didn’t know what it was like to wake up in a state of fright with a racing heart, and a sweaty forehead. On the rare occasions when he did awaken with a pleasant dream fresh on his mind, the memories of the scenes, and the actions in the dreams were short-lived, never were they lastingly retained, except for once. Mark could remember one dream, and one dream only. It had something to do with his father. He wouldn’t go into detail, and Matt didn’t pursue the matter. For the sake of comparisons, Mark did relay this much to Matt. He said that this particular dream was very different in aspect from the one concerning his father. In the one with his father, the two of them were alone, no one else was in the picture. There were no other attention-grabbing distractions in the background. He seemed to be his normal self, and was able to carry on a conversation in which feelings and emotions were included.

Mark’s objective lookout point was recognizably situated amongst the lower branches of the hanging tree. Mark estimated himself to be about twenty feet up in the air. He faced the bright yellow sun that had risen in the east a few hours earlier. To his right lay the graveyard. It had changed severely since the last time he’d seen it. To the left was the town of Bedlam. It was bustling as never before with people lining the street to watch a parade of some sort. The time of day appeared to be mid to late morning; he guessed the season to be early spring. The twigs on the ends of the leafless limbs were just beginning to bud. Below him on the ground, light green blades of grass could be seen bursting through a mat of brown. Floating way up high across the beautiful sky, and drifting in slowly from the north to the south were an endless line of puffy, white cumulus clouds that closely resembled the sheep that he’d been counting.

Straight across from him, and over the dirt road a little ways, Mark said he saw what must have been an audience of a hundred people or more, consisting of men, women, and children, all dressed in their Sunday best. They were sitting on pretty blankets that had been spread on the ground, and white wicker baskets full of food were aplenty. They were watching, and presumably listening to a small group of musicians who were sitting on chairs that had been placed between them and the road. Some of the members in the audience were clapping their hands in time to the beat. There were also six fun-loving couples who’d separated themselves from the crowd. These folks were square dancing in a circle, and they had to change partners as they moved along the circular line. This caught the attention of the eyes Mark had been seeing through. All of their own accord, those eyes decided to zoom on in to take a real good look at the faces on the dancers.

 

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.

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.

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.