Chapter Sixteen

As if in slow motion, Sam and his men made their way further into the cave. The yellowish glow of light from the loosely held lanterns swung up and down as it reflected off the tan sandstone walls. Long shadows of men in hats lengthened and shortened, and shakily moved to and fro as they cast themselves over jagged cracks and deep inlaid crevices. Flashing glimpses of crudely shaped figures carved into the wall could be seen here and there. The flickering flames from the lanterns were playing tricks on the eyes of these men. The rank stench remained debilitating, but they were so intensely focused, they plumb forgot about it.

Sam continued to lead the team in single file. Seeing no signs of danger, he finally put his pistol back in its holster. Why the place stunk so bad, he could not figure out. There were no dead bodies in there, animal or human, as far as Sam could tell. He stopped and turned back to the men. “Hold your horses a minute! This could be a trap.” Sam suspiciously moved forward, keeping an eye out for a wire close to the floor. The ceiling was closing in on him, and he had to crouch down lower and lower as he went. He was within ten feet of the small pile of ashes when he spied something written on the wall in red. Sam’s first thought was “Paint,” because it was definitely brushed on. His second thought was, “Paint? Nobody carries red paint around with them. What the hell?” Without looking back, he waved his men toward him. “C’mon and take a look.” Sam was close enough by then to tell that what he was looking at wasn’t just a little fire some somebody made just to say warm. This somebody had drawn a picture around the fire by digging out grooves in the dirt. The men gathered into a half circle around the scene. Questioning looks were on the face of every man. Dumbfounded and awestruck, they stood there in silence, eyes wide open. They didn’t dare gasp for air.

Four blood-colored symbols on the wall commanded their attention — a circle, a square, a triangle, and a five-pointed star. Red drips ran down the wall under each one. Otherwise, the shapes appeared perfectly neat. A little too perfect for comfort, as were the drawings of symbols and foreign-looking letters pressed into the dirt around the smallish fire. They were impossibly perfect; too well done. No doubt, this was the work of a professional. It was not the remains of some Indian ceremony, nor was this artist any ordinary outlaw. Their assumptions pointed directly to the foreign stranger — that ruthless murderer. They were sure of it. All in all, it beat the likes of anything any one of them had ever seen. But then again, the whole thing eerily reminded them of something. Every one of these men had an inkling that they’d seen something like this before, but not a one of them could remember when or where they’d seen it. That’s what made this all the more stupefying. Murmured words mumbled forth from their lips, words such as “witchcraft” and “black magic”.  As Sam was standing there perplexed, he happened to think of Luke. “I wonder if he told us everything back at the Deputy’s office. There is something I don’t know here. But why would he withhold information in the first place? I didn’t at all expect this. Good Lord! What kind of man are we after anyway? And where did he get all this blood?”

A few of Sam’s men tried to describe this scene for Matt a few days after they returned to Bedlam. This is what they came up with: A perfectly round circle enclosed the entire delicately positioned diagram. It was nearly three-foot in diameter. The groove carved to dig out this circle was one inch wide and one inch deep. A small amount of blood was carefully poured into the groove all the way around. It had since soaked into the sandy dirt at the bottom of the groove. Inside this circle was an exacting square. It was two and a half feet across. Outside the square and above every corner was a symbol pressed into the dirt with some sort of tool. They were exquisitely well-formed. At the North point stood a sun with thin pointed rays. On the left side lay a triangle with an eye across the center of it. At the bottom were two quarter moons facing each other; almost touching. Outside of the right corner was a circle with a diamond inside. A vertical line cut through the center of these two overlaid symbols.

Just under the lines inside the square were descriptive symbols that imperceptibly changed form as they rounded the corners. The forms consisted of four unrecognizable alphabets. They could have been sentences, or elaborate equations, or possibly some type of formula. Whatever they meant, the man was a master calligrapher. The skillfully crafted intricate inscriptions that flowed from their creator’s intimations revealed a diabolical intelligence masked in artistic talent.

Underneath these lines and centered in the square were two overlaid triangles; one pointing up and one pointing down. The triangle pointing down was smaller, so even though it still represented a five-pointed star, it wasn’t your average symmetrical star. The remains of the little fire lay in the middle of this star, acting as the center-point of the geometric design. But there was something else rather odd about it. The ashes in the middle of the pile were black and grey, whereas the ashes on the outer edges were white as snow. Taken all together, the whole structure had an otherworldly feel to it. It was obviously a finely honed ritual that implied knowledge of dark-cultured mores.

After a few minutes of serene bewilderment, Sam stooped down and put his hand over the embers. Sensing no danger, he carefully pushed his finger down into the pile. “It’s still warm, men. Out for an hour or so, at the most. That no-good devil took his sweet time going to all this trouble.” Sam paused and quickly glanced all around one last time. “One more thing — in case we have to testify at a later date, remember what you saw here today. Okay?” Sam eyed each man, and each nodded in turn. “Now let’s get the hell out of this God-forsaken sanctuary. We’ll check the other path that goes up to the top. I bet he came in and left that way, and we’ll probably be able to tell which direction he headed off to. He can’t hide all his tracks. I hope you boys are up to this. Looks like we done got ourselves an outlaw to chase. Man, oh, man. I need some air. Let’s go!”

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Chapter Fifteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.