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.

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Hanging On: Twenty One

With the bitter wind directly in their faces, Sam and his posse continued their long journey northwards. The freezing rain had finally let up, but a mist remained, and stuck all the same. The horses manes were thinly glazed in ice. Their hooves plodded along in the slush muddied road, as if they hadn’t a care in the world. Signs of damage from the storm could be seen underneath the trees that were nearby the road. Ice laden twigs, and small branches lay scattered about on the ground. Overcast skies would not allow the full moon to shed it’s light for the sake of these men. Nevertheless, the gravity of the situation was clearly understood. Heavy with discontent, the night refused to go quickly.

Sam was in a thoroughly bad mood, thanks to the latest turn of events. The chase was officially on, but not in the normal, speedy sense of the word. More to the point, Sam was following the criminal, slowly, but surely, and his men were following him. Not a one of those cowboys would have dared to run on ahead without him, no matter how much they wished they could. Sam was the boss, and what the boss says goes, but there was one thing the boss wouldn’t tell them. Sam was a miserable wreck. He was aching inside, and out. The shivers were attacking him, and he feared the onset of fever. He was afraid he was catching the death of a cold, and where would that leave him? Sam had a ranch to run, and business matters to attend to. He couldn’t afford to be laid up with pneumonia.

Mark’s bad mood could be attributed to the god-awful pace Sam had set. Mark was under the weather, same as everyone else, but to his young mind that made the task all that much tougher, and the tougher, the better, for he wanted to gain a memorable experience from the whole affair. Mark wanted to be party to a big deal, and that entailed capturing the murderer. The rest of the men in the posse were simply tagging along. From the sounds of it, and according to Sam, they would be too late to stop the criminal from furthering his tour of disaster. They’d been keeping their minds off the pitiful weather by pondering various ways of spending the bonus they’d eventually obtain.

They weren’t far from Bedlam when Sam made up his mind, and arrived at a decision. He decided that he’d had quite enough for one night, although he didn’t go ahead and tell the men of his plan. Sam had to find a good excuse first, one that had nothing to do with the way he was feeling. There was a vacated house in Bedlam, recently lived in by an acquaintance of his. The man told Sam he could stay in the place, if need be. He’d even left firewood in the house, so as not to have to haul it away. Sam decided to take advantage of the offer. Some place warm, and dry is what he needed. He absolutely knew he couldn’t ride another hour. Most importantly, Sam wanted to live to see the day break.

Mark had been first in line behind Sam ever since they’d crossed the river. With his young, healthy eyes aiding him, he was the first to notice a recognizable sight. Off in the distance, Mark could see the vague outline of the big, old oak. “Hey, Sam!” Mark pulled on up beside him. “I can see the hanging tree up there. We’re almost to Bedlam.” Sam strained, and squinted his eyes, and there it was. He turned to face Mark, “Yep! Sure enough, Kid.” That grand and stately landmark reassured Sam that yes, indeed, they were on the home stretch. Mark gave Sam a looking over in a questioning sort of way. “What else is it?” Sam asked. Politely, and sympathetically, Mark put forth a simple question. “Are you alright?” Sam curtly replied,”Yes, Kid, I’m fine.” After a moment of silence, Mark speaks his mind. “I can’t wait to get back to town to see what all’s happened. I guess we won’t be needing Luke’s rope after all.” Sam changed his tone, and kindly said, “Thanks for reminding me. I’ll grab it when we get there.” Sam hastily began to search for that good excuse to spend the night in Bedlam, but he wasn’t having any luck. For better, or for worse, his luck was about to change.

The posse moseyed on forward. Less than a minute after sighting the tree, Mark’s keen vision is alerted to a new, and startling fact. He stops his horse, “Whoa! Sam, stop! Somebody’s standing up there, under the tree. Can you see him?” Sam comes to a halt, and takes a good, hard look. “You’re right!” He turns his head, and looks back, “Hold on, men. Somebody’s up there.” Mark concentrates his focus, and sees something else. “Hey, Sam. There’s a horse up there, too. It’s standing in the graveyard.” Sam could feel his poor, weary heart speeding up as he stared down the road. He quickly glanced to his left and to his right, looking to see if there was anybody else close by. “Keep on the lookout, men! There’s something fishy going on here. This could be a trap, and I don’t want to get ambushed. Keep your eyes peeled for movement of any sort.”

Cautiously slow, they advanced. The dark horse in the misty graveyard looked like a statue. It hadn’t moved an inch. No movement from the shadowy figure, either. It was just standing there, still as can be, as they made their approach. Sam reached for his holster, and pulled out his pistol. “Be on your guard, men. I don’t like the looks of this.” All the men heeded this call to duty, and grabbed their guns. Mark continued to feed Sam information, even though he was as nervous as could be. He was in new territory, and it was fraught with danger. He’d never shot at a man before, but he would if he had to, or so he thought. Through his heightened sense of excitement, Mark lowered his shaky voice, and went on. “He’s standing under the lowest limb…at least, it looks like it. Do you think it’s him? The killer?” “I don’t know,” answered Sam truthfully. “None of us have seen him. We only know what Luke told us. But it could be him. I can’t imagine why he’d stop here…unless he’s waiting for us.” “That’d be awful stupid. There’s seven of us,” said Mark. “He hasn’t moved,” stated Sam. Mark was searching his mind for a motive. “Why’s he standing there? What’s he waiting for?”

They were within a hundred yards of the wet and dreary graveyard when the dark, tall horse finally moved. It lowered it head, and shook the water out of its mane, letting out a quick squeal of denial. Sam and his men walked on undeterred, looking all around, left and right, waiting for something to happen. Mark was staring down the road at the hatless, motionless, unknown man when he saw something else. That something else was a rope. Mark yelled, “Whoa! Oh, my God! Sam! He’s not standing there, he’s hanging there!”

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.