Chapter Nineteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Fourteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Twelve

Matt was in a hurry to get back to Bedlam, but his old mare was already giving him her best. It wasn’t long until she fell back to her normally slow pace. They arrived 10 minutes earlier than usual. The old girl was happier to be home than he was, and started prancing as soon as she caught eye of the place. Matt was looking down the road, setting his focus on the legendary oak tree with the graveyard close behind. He was glad to see it hadn’t changed a bit since he’d left. No one was standing around there, and no black stallion stood in the shadows. The skies were clear, and the weather was warm for the sun was shining brightly. In the mid-afternoon of that day, the scene showed no signs of the menacing features for which it was famous, such as being haunted.

Matt never did believe in ghosts, not even as a child, nor did he ever believe that line about the hanging tree, “Home to a hundred killer’s souls, or more.” He thought all that stuff was a bunch of baloney, even though he was the one who’d repeated the story more often than anyone else in town. Matt liked to tell scary stories to people who believed in that nonsense. Although he knew many a fairy tale, he didn’t believe in miracles that could come to pass all of their own accord. He imagined that if miracles ever happened at all, they came into being through action. To him, they were not make-believe stories, they were made-to-happen historical events. According to Matt’s wife, Martha, he was a dreamer who often succumbed to flights of fancy. “He forever has his head in the clouds,” was her claim, but she loved him nonetheless, and looked up to him in many respects. For his part, Matt saw himself as one of those types of men who would think things through before taking action. He’d didn’t enjoy delayed regrets. On his way home that day, he made up his mind in a rational way. He decided on the question he would ask his neighbors about the night before. This is what he came up with. “Did you see, or hear, anything strange last night after you went to bed?” Matt liked questions that were short and to the point.

In her frustrated impatience, Martha waited outside the house for him with her arms crossed. His hound dog lay at her feet and didn’t bother to get up. As usual, Matt was late in coming back with the groceries. He rode up on his happy dancing horse, pulled back on the reins, and began to dismount before coming to a halt, then almost fell off. “Sorry it took so long. I have an excuse. Hear me out first.” His wife looked at the dog and shook her head. “Here we go again,” she thought to herself. She unfolded her arms and put her hands on her hips. “For pity’s sake! What is it now?”

Matt goes on to tell her the entire story, but he tried to tone it down a bit. He didn’t want it to sound too awfully bad, because then she’d be afraid to move. Matt applied for a job with the railroad, and they’d have to leave Bedlam if he were able to get himself hired on. Martha took the news rather hard, to say the least, but she took everything personally, so Matt was not too surprised by her hysterical reaction. He calmed her down best he could. Shortly afterwards, he proceeded to go out and make his way around to each neighbor. Matt repeated his well-rehearsed question to all, but no one had seen anything unusual, nor had they heard any strange noises. Their closest neighbor was an elderly widow. She had a complaint waiting for Matt. She madly claimed to have heard his hound dog late the night before. He was “…barking and howling away for the hell of it!” as she put it. She awakened two hours after she’d gone to bed, and in her anger, she’d gotten up and looked out the window. Upon seeing this “nothing”, she opened it up and yelled, “Just what in the hell are you barking at, ya damn dog?!!” Matt told her he was sorry, and that he was home and in bed the same time as she, and he never heard the dog. “Are you calling me a liar?” she yelled at him. “No, ma’am, no,” he replied as he walked away. He did have to wonder if his dog heard or smelled something, but thought no more of it. Having received no surefire confirmations, he went on back home feeling a little relieved.

That vision he had of the riderless horse in the graveyard? As far as Matt could tell, it was a product of his imagination and nothing else. He had no foresight, and had never had what some folks call a premonition. He didn’t believe in prophecy. Matt didn’t go and investigate the graveyard to see if he could find any evidence confirming his sleepy suspicions. He didn’t go look for trampled down grass near the tombstones. As a matter of fact, Matt had never set foot in that graveyard. Not once since he’d lived there. He’d never read the names, nor the dates engraved on the pocketed mossy faces. He didn’t feel the need to get a close-up view of the famous hanging tree. He’d never seen the rings worn into and around its lowest limb. He never let his curiosity get the best of him. If one were to ask him why he’d never visited the dead, he would have said, “I didn’t know any of those people, so I’ve never had a good reason to go there.” At this stage of his life, Matt thought that youth could conquer all, so he had nothing to fear, which is another way of saying he wasn’t experienced.

Later that afternoon, Martha sent him out to get wood for the stove. She was sickened by the news her husband brought home. She wished to forget the whole thing, and would do so by starting dinner and fixing her mind on her work. Not wanting his dearest beloved to have another tizzy fit, Matt immediately set his will on the task set before him, and went out to the back to fetch a few logs. The first thing he noticed was a change in the wind, which was now from the north and much colder. The skies were getting hazy, and he knew he should expect there’d be rain or snow by morning. His ability to forecast the weather, now that he believed in. He was a hunter, so he knew these things. He wasn’t guessing. As he began to choose between the logs, he fell to daydreaming again. This time around it was about building a new house in the new city. For no good reason, he raised his head and broadly cast his gaze up the road. A half a mile or so away, he could see a cloud of dust rising up and circling about in the wind. Quicker than he could say “horses”, he thought he knew who it might be. Matt ran around to the other side of the stack, ducked down, and took off his hat. He didn’t know why and didn’t question his motive. “I bet it’s Sam and his men,” he whispered to himself. The rolling sound of thunder headed his way. They rode up fast and went right past, then he popped up his head to look. The big man at the head of the posse was Sam alright, and they seemed to be in a hurry. But as they reached the edge of town, they all pulled up right fast. Matt watched in suspense as Sam walked his horse over to the hanging tree, stopped, looked up, and just stared at it for a minute…a long minute. He unhooked a long winding rope from his saddle, and dropped it to the ground. Then just as fast as they’d stopped, Sam yanked at the reins and took off with a start. His men followed him south down the road. The cloud of dust was reborn and was closing in on their heels. The northern winds were fast behind, pushing them away from Bedlam.

From The Lowest Limb

*

I shuffled down the dirt road at a snail’s pace

trying to prolong my existence,

in a feeble attempt to postpone the inevitable,

my back to a howling wind that pushed me along.

The whistling in my ears muted the sneers

from a multitude of dust devils.

High noon was fast approaching,

bringing to light a tortuous certainty.

I stared down at the loosely hanging shackles

that bound me to the filth of poetic injustice.

Muttered a curse to the sentence pronounced.

Swore to the gods through the pangs of retribution.

I knew where I was headed,

and followed the footsteps of many a man most assuredly

WANTED!

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