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.

Advertisements

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.

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 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 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.

Chapter Ten

Luke could tell right away what sort of mood these men were in. It was a solemn gathering of somber faces. Grave and thoughtful looks were thrown in Luke’s direction. Restrained and quiet greetings were exchanged with subdued handshakes. They were still in a state of shock. Their postures betrayed the show of feelings they willfully withheld, and revealed a composed distress. None of the men were displaying the signs of anger. Some of the men had good reason to be remorseful. They’d refrained from helping to build the church, and it was too late to mend things. A silence fell over the group. They were all gazing at Luke. No one knew what to say or how to start. Matthew, from Bedlam, wasn’t taking this as hard as the rest of the men. He was the man out of place at the moment, even though he was fairly well acquainted with Luke. Matthew had the nerve to take the lead and break the ice. “It’s good to know you’re okay, Luke, after all that you’ve been through. We are all deeply saddened by the news. ” Luke kept his peace and let him talk. ” Could you do us a favor? We’ve so many questions. If you could spare the time, would you tell us what happened last night? We’ve only heard bits and pieces regarding your escapades so far, and it’s just hearsay. We’d like to hear the story straight from the horses mouth, so to speak. We don’t wish to detain you, if you have to be somewhere soon. Do tell us, if you would. We’re dying to hear you speak. Are you busy?”

*

Thus it was that Luke began the second telling of his story. After all was said and done, Matthew was the one who picked up this story and set it on its legs. Much of the information contained in the remainder of our story was supplied by Matt, as we shall call him from here on out. He’d known Luke for a year or so, and they were both 28 years of age. Good friends they would become one day, a little further on down the road. Matt was the kind of man who couldn’t help but to stretch the factual truth whenever the opportunity presented itself. We may say in all likelihood, that he did so in this instance as well. He was a socialite and a gossip, and no doubt the story grew exponentially each and every time he spoke of it. After he relayed this to my great-grandfather, we may assume this growth continued and took on mythical aspects as it came on down from Gramps, who handed it over to me, Uncle Tree. As we are well aware, legends have a tendency to take on a life of their own, and life in its turn tends to unwind the real.

*

Luke goes on to tell the men a shortened version of his adventurous night, minus his terrible secret. He was tired and hungry, and wanted to get on home. They quizzed him here and there, in order to confirm or reject certain aspects of the story that they’d already heard from unreliable sources. Word gets around fast in small towns, and some of the information they’d received was therefore skewed and exaggerated, as are all rumors. They also wanted to know about the meeting from which he’d just left. They’d seen Sam and his men ride into town, and wondered what they were up to over at the deputy’s office. Luke refrained from telling them the whole truth. He said, “They are thinking about forming a posse and going after that foreigner.” They tried to get him to expand on that quick statement, but Luke replied, “That’s all I know. Nothing was settled when I left.” Luke turned to Matt, “That stranger is our only suspect. He took off to the south and headed for Bedlam. Was there any trouble there last night, or did you happen to notice anything strange?”

Matt replied, “Not that I’m aware of, Luke. I’m ready to head back now. I’ll get out and ask around, just in case. You know, there’s only a few of us left down there. It won’t take long. I’ll definitely keep an eye out. A posse, eh? Well, someone needs to go after him. It’s a good thing your new boss has the time for such things. Maybe, I’ll see them ride through later today. I’m sure glad you’re not joining them, whatever the case. You’ve done enough, if you ask me. You did more than anyone could have asked of you. Those two kids owe you their life! Thank God, you were able to save them! You should be grateful for that.”

Once Luke had recaptured the whole bloody scene for Matt and the group, he was once again able to free himself from the grips of all those painful memories. Everyone thoughtfully parted, and Luke went on home to eat. He was starving for some grub, and didn’t really care what his wife put on the table, as long as it was people food. As it turned out, they had leftovers consisting of cold fried chicken and rehashed grits. Luke told her of his thoughts concerning an adoption. She said it was a high-minded gesture on his part. Puzzled by the arrogance of such a thought, he gave her a questioning look. She immediately changed her tune and said it was a good idea. She agreed wholeheartedly, or so it seemed to Luke. After lunch with the two boys, they all sat down and talked it out. The boys were a bit taken back by the proposal, but that’s the way kids are, always wanting to be the center of attention. They soon warmed up to the idea, but frowned at the arrangements. Shortly after their little discussion, both Luke and his wife heard the distinct sound of horses galloping towards their place. Sam and his men pulled up, and stopped the stampede right in their backyard. Luke and his wife were both startled at first, and then Luke said, “It’s probably Sam and his men. Don’t worry. I promise you, I will not go along with them. Let me go see what they want. Stay here.”

In the meanwhile, Matt got on his horse and headed back to Bedlam. He fell to daydreaming on the slow ride home. His memory and imagination together conspired to show him a scene in his mind. He saw that old hanging tree back home with the graveyard close behind. But that’s not all he visualized. He also saw a black stallion grazing around the rustic tombstones. No one was in the saddle. That woke Matt right up. He yelled at his horse, “Giddy-up! Giddy-up! C’mon! Let’s go!”