Hanging On: Twenty Eight

Mark’s Dream: Part Two

*

Captivated by the ongoing scene in front of him, and imprisoned behind the dreamy eyes that were free to fly to and fro as they wished, Mark’s choiceless awareness floated along in flight, and made a beeline for the dancers. In the short amount of time that it takes to blink your eye, Mark recognized the men. Sure enough, it was Sam and the guys, the guys who had formed the posse. They were dressed exactly as they were when last he’d seen them, except for now they weren’t all wet, and their miserable expressions had disappeared completely. The men were quick on their feet as they took their steps in time. They were wearing joyful smiles, and looking happier than hell. The six ladies in the circle seemed vaguely familiar. (He didn’t know why at the time, but he would come to find out later on. The reason he thought he’d seen them somewhere before was because they were the girls he knew from the saloon.) The women were traditionally dressed in style for the dance, wearing full-bloomed skirts and fancy petticoats. Cheerful in their merriment, they certainly seemed to be enjoying the occasion.

Through perfect eyes that never once blinked, Mark watched as the view receded from the dancing scene. Once the musicians were in sight, his movable lookout station smoothly came to a stop, and turned just enough to put the group front and center. Twelve elegantly dressed, beautiful ladies made up the band. (Mark was not familiar in the least with any one of them.) These dozen women wore long white gowns, delicately trimmed in lace. Their chairs were arranged in a semi-circle that curved away from the crowd. Two harps were being masterly strummed at the ends of the line. Over on the left, four violinists were swiftly drawing their bows. Across from them were four speedy cellists adding harmony to the tune. And lastly, in the middle, sat two banjo pickers dueling it out with graceful gusto.

Once those eyes of his had had their fill of that fun scene, Mark was sucked clear back to his original position in the tree. Immediately after that his focus turned left, and set it’s gaze on the little town of Bedlam. It was no longer as small as he remembered it to be. The town was overflowing with spectators, Mark could tell that much from the tree. But the eyes wanted to see more, so off they went, flying as the crow flies. (The distance between Mark and the ground always remained the same, 20 feet up in the air, or so he said.) When they’d made it as far as the first house on his left, the eyes eased their speed until they came to a halt. Teams of happy folk crowded both sides of the road. Some of younger adults were waving colorful banners on a pole, and a couple of old men were hoisting America’s flag way up high. The celebration was being enhanced by some kind of marching band. They were traipsing up the road in Mark’s direction. Waiting patiently to see what the fuss was all about, the eyes hovered in place.

The leader of the band was dressed in white from head to toe. All the men behind him were dressed much the same way, but their formal attire was entirely black. The contrast was staggering, but the keen eyes kept their focus. The frontman played a silver flute that glittered in the sun. His white polished shoes were brilliantly spotless. He wore a long tailcoat, and a little white bow sat tied over his throat. High-stepping his way down the middle of the road, he looked to be quite jolly nodding his head from shoulder to shoulder as he piped his tune into the air. The eyes wished to see this figurehead up close, so they took off once again, and hovered in front of him, keeping a distance of ten feet between themselves and the man by slowly backing away. In remembrance of the past, Mark found himself to be in the act of recognition. The leader was none other than the cruelly murdered preacher man. He appeared to be having the time of his life. Alive and well, and still in his prime, the pastor was hitting his stride to perfection. Satisfactorily pleased by Mark’s acknowledgment of the familiar character, the eyes began to scan the clan beyond him.

Marching behind their leader in a strict formation was a percussion band of a hundred men in ten rows of ten. Each hatless man had a wood-sided drum strapped around his neck that hung waist high. Seemingly oblivious to the folks cheering them on, they stared straight ahead with a stern look on their faces. Holding a drumstick in each hand, they alternated the beat with one strike between each of their steps. They were identically dressed in black tuxedos and black, shiny boots. But they weren’t entirely clothed in black as they had first appeared to Mark. Now that he was up close he could see that their bow ties were made out of thin cords of rope. The observant eyes paused for a moment, and waited for him to put two and two together. He didn’t get the picture right away, so the eyes allowed the witness to further examine the faces of the men in the first two rows. Mark thought they all looked vaguely familiar, but he didn’t know the reason why quite yet, so those eyes pulled him back to his hangout spot in the tree. Without the slightest hesitation, the eyes started pivoting to his right. From Bedlam to the picnic gathering, the gaze continued to move southward on across the fertile land. It didn’t stop and set it’s sight until Mark was able to grasp a complete view of the graveyard scene. Dwelling in the unfathomable depths of a dream as he was, Mark wasn’t about to be easily startled from sleep by this ongoing stretch of his active imagination.

Mark told Matt that his first impression of the scene was picturesquely magnificent. The haven of the dead had been transformed into a garden grandeur of life. The graves had been replaced by a hundred beds of blooming red roses neatly arranged in ten spacious rows. The drab slabs of engraved stone that previously marked the graves were gone. Standing in their stead at the head of each bed were open books. Their lily-white pages were flapping back and forth in the breeze. These books were all about four feet tall, and the pages were purely empty. Here and there and in between, little white bunnies could be seen hopping over and around the living beds. There were also a lot of red robins bopping about. Taking low short flights in a willy-nilly manner, they searched the surrounding lawns, and pecked at the ground in hunger for worms.

A tall totem pole stood erect in the midst of the rose beds. Skillfully adorned with a traditional variety of carvings, it ran straight as a rail from the ground on up for the first twenty feet. From that point on to the top, which was another ten feet beyond the last carved face, the narrowing pole was noticeably bent, and the bark was still intact. According to Mark, there was one thing especially odd about this pole. Several newly-formed sprigs shot forth from the very tip, as if somehow or another, it was still alive and growing. Having seen that unlikely combination, Mark’s memory drew from it’s store of resources, and offered him a clue as to the pole’s origin. Once Mark became conscious of the freely given clue, he automatically thought, “This pole was made from the lowest limb of the hanging tree.” That was all the eyes needed to hear. The focus point then fell from the very tip top on down to the bottom.

Sitting cross-legged on the ground at the base of the pole was an Indian chief. He was typically dressed in leather clothing strewn with beads, and a long eagle-feathered warbonnet sat on his head. The decorated elder had a small hand drum on his lap, but he wasn’t beating on it at the time. Mark could tell by the solemn expression on his face that he was either meditating on something highly important, or patiently waiting for the rest of the party to arrive. A little ways away from the chief, and standing directly in front of one of the books was a frail old lady flipping through the blank pages. She had her back to Mark, so he never did see her face. She wore a tattered grey dress and a pair of brown, laced boots.

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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.