Hanging On: Twenty Six

After each of the men had finished their portions of daily bread and dried meat, they felt the need to relieve themselves, so they both went out into the cold, wintry night. Whilst the men had been inside, the freshly fallen snow had thoroughly blanketed the ground, covering the sheets of ice in a thin layer of crystallized manna. Sam walked around to the south side to get out of the wind. As he turned the corner, his poor eyesight presented to him a blurred version of the hanging tree’s white-washed crown. Sam felt sorry for the big old oak. It had taken quite a hit from the storm. As Sam moseyed up to the house, he reformed a visual image of the scene they’d left behind, and shook his head in pity. Modest Mark, who’d always been bashful, had decided in the meantime that he’d go to the north side, wherefore he turned his back to the breeze, and took a whiz real quick. As usual, Sam was being a slow starter, so Mark beat him back to the door.

Mark walked into the house, and found himself alone. Right away he felt uncomfortable. Although nothing had changed, and no one else was in there, it seemed more frightful to him not having Sam’s fatherly presence nearby. Mark was still in the process of conquering a rushing current of troublesome fears. On and off in a random arrangement of sporadic sequences, and ever since they’d left the morbid grave situation, Mark had been getting flashes of those tormented faces he’d seen earlier. Mark was only alone for a minute, but in that short spell of time he came to a very welcome realization. It suddenly occurred to him that the faces he kept seeing were coming from his store of memories, and not from out of the blue. They were no longer being forced on him like they were before. Whereas previously, it had been a live production, a show over which he had no degree of control whatsoever, now he could recall a few of the faces at will. He could also put a stop to them by willfully thinking of something more pleasant. Mark was somewhat soothed by this newfound knowledge. For certain, he was glad to see that the curtains had closed on that terrifying stage. He’d actually been an eye witness to the whole rigmarole, and that he could hardly believe.

After Sam had finished his business, he went back into the house, and promptly made his presence known by stumbling over the door sill. “Whoa!” said Sam in embarrassment of his clumsiness. He turned around and gave the inanimate object a dirty look. “Damn thing.” He then turned and looked at Mark, who was sporting a really big grin. The Kid couldn’t help himself from asking, “Are you alright?” “Oh, yeah,” Sam said, as he tried to laugh it off. But he felt the need to explain himself further, so he said, “I caught my heel on the stupid door!” Sam had to place the blame where it belonged. Managing to be extra careful, Sam attentively walked to the stove. There were four logs left, so he put two of them in, and said, “There’s only two more pieces here. We’ll save them ’till morning.” Mark nodded his comprehension of the plan. Sam continued, “That’ll do it for me. I’m gonna lay down, before I fall down.” Mark smiled, and mimicked Sam, “Well, okey-dokey then. See you in the morning. Good night!” A thoroughly tired Sam replied, “Good night, Mark! Try to get yourself some sleep, okay?” “Yeah, I will,” said Mark, a little unsure of himself. “My blanket ought to be dry here shortly.”

Sam laid down, and curled into the fetal position with his arms crossed, and his hands in his armpits. In no time at all, Sam was out cold, snoring wildly. Finding himself alone again, Mark opened the gates that led to his inquisitive waking consciousness, and let his thoughts run rampant. A hodgepodge of questions and answers tumbled around in his mind. Racking his brains with their disorganized romp, the unstoppable display of various opinions continued to plead their cases, one after another. But the jury was still out, as far as Mark was concerned, so the judge was unable to conclude the whole affair. His inability to close the case kept him awake for a spell. During that period of time when consciousness begins to wane, and drowsiness settles in, Mark paced the floor, and fiddled with the fire. Every once in awhile, he’d walk to each and every window, and peer through the panes. Each and every gaze further assured him of his security, for never did he catch a glimpse of anything spectacular. Nothing out there appeared to be strange. Nothing out yonder ways seemed to be extraordinary. The only thing to be seen was the soothing fall of fluttering snowflakes softly landing on the ground.

When the flames from the fire in the stove began to die, the lovely light faded away, and the glow grew dim. Although he didn’t know the hour, Mark knew that it was late. He decided that it was time to lay on the floor, and count sheep. That would help him keep his mind off of other things, or so he figured. Mark looked down at a far-gone Sam who was all curled up on the floor. His blanket had fallen off, so Mark gingerly picked it up, and drew it over him, like any good nursemaid would do. Mark surveyed the room once again for good measure, and saw that everything was fine. He reached for his own blanket, and felt it to be satisfactorily dry, much to his pleasure. After a long hard day, and quite the outrageous night, Mark’s heavy, drooping eyelids clued him in to the fact that he was naturally tired. He spread his blanket on the floor between Sam and the stove, and laid himself upon it. Putting his worries behind him, and counting the sheep in front, he closed his eyes in hope of receiving a safe, and blissful rest in peace. But all Mark could do at this point was to hope for the best, and that was simply because he couldn’t read the future. Mark had no way of knowing what was in store for him during the next few hours, nor did he know that he would gain admission into the visionary realm of the unconscious. Mark was destined to be a lone witness. He was about to watch an ethereal event unfold, an event that was formed in the womb of a dream, in a dream he would not soon forget.

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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.