Hanging On: Chapter Twenty

Once Matthew had identified the deceptive stealth invader, he immediately took a defensive posture, and pulled his head back out of sight. The stark and threatening realization of imminent danger forced Matt into an instinctual, but heretofore unexplored realm. Every cell in his body was instantly exposed to an uncontrollable rush of adrenalin. His heart had taken on a maddening pace, and his breathes were short and quick. Fear had gotten a hold of him, and Matt reflexively clenched his fists in response. With gloved, but empty hands, he tightly gripped the thin air, as if he were hanging on for dear life.

Matt’s natural impulses were busily hurrying forth his initial move. Eager muscles twitched whilst they waited for him to make a critical decision. His first course of action was to take no action at all. Momentarily fixed and stone-like, he stood still, as every moving part of his body longed to flee. His will to move had been compromised. Captured and imprisoned in the immobility of a dream stage, his suspended sense of purpose struggled to breakthrough the front lines of inertial forces. Matt stared down the backside of his house. His gaze was set on the door. Dim rays glowed out of the window nearby. A second or two later, it finally dawned on him. He saw the light, and thought, “Oh, crap! The light…the only light in town.” The safety of his family was now his first and foremost concern. Matt’s feet listened and obeyed his command. They quietly carried him onto the thresholds of security. “I wonder if he noticed.” Matt paused for a second to await a logical answer. “Well, yes, he probably saw it. Better get the rifle loaded before I put out the fire.”

Without making a sound, Matt opened the door and went inside his walled-in fortress. “Ah, good thing it’s already warm in here,” he whispered to himself, “and dry, too. Damn that weather!” He could see that he was all wet, but he didn’t bother to take off his coat, nor did he remove his muddy boots. Straightaway, he crouched down low, and made a bee-line for his cartridges. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his hound dog come out of the bedroom. Matt put his index finger over his lips, and told him,”Hush.” The old dog lifted up it’s snout, and looked at Matt as if to say, “Told you so.” Then it turned, and went back to lay at the foot of his bed. Matt made short work of his task, and in no time at all his single-shot rifle was loaded. As he went for the stove, he glanced around the room to see if there might be something he’d forgotten. “The doors. Bar the doors!” Having successfully accomplished that, he went back to the stove, shut the vents, and grabbed his rifle on his way to the window on the front-side.

Matt sneaked a peek out of his slowly darkening hiding place in the hope of spotting the shadowy figure where he’d last been seen, but the only thing out there was the man’s tall horse. It had moved back into the grim atmosphere of the graveyard, and appeared to be staring at the big old oak. Matt’s eyes were on the lookout, and he scanned the entire area, but the killer on the loose had disappeared from sight. “Dammit! Dammit! Where’d he go? Where’d he go?” Matt ducked down beneath the window, and tried to think. “He has to be out there somewhere. Try the other window.” The fire in the stove had gone completely out, so Matt felt his way to the window on the south side, and looked out once again. “Nothing. Damn it all, anyway!” The dark horse hadn’t moved from its spot. Now at a loss, Matt looked higher up into the tree. “Nah, he wouldn’t climb up there, not on a night like this. Surely not. No way, way too slick. It’s already iced over.” So Matt let his eyes follow the trunk all the way down to the ground, and ‘bingo’, there he was at the base of the tree. “There he is. Good, good!” Spying the evil man had given Matt a minute measure of relief. He was somehow glad to see that the killer was still where he was supposed to be, as opposed to some other horrible place, like outside of his front door.

The man in black appeared to be on his knees, facing the tree. “What the hell’s he doing?” Matt watched the colorless, rounded figure for a few seconds. The murderer seemed to be hunched over something on the ground. His movements seemed to indicate that he was digging a hole. “What’s he need a hole for?” Matt searched his mind for an answer, but couldn’t come up with any good reason right off-hand. “No, he can’t hardly be uprooting the tree by himself.” He tried the question again, and shortly thereafter he received a simple answer. “He’s gonna bury something, maybe. But what? It’s a terrible hiding place. How stupid. Is it some kind of trap? To catch what?” Matt decided to stay put, and wait it out.

A few moments later, three words and a picture from the past came to his mind. “The Grim Reaper himself, eh?” Matt shook his head, and reassured himself. “No, no, no! Even though, his looks do fit the bill.” Matt was then promptly reminded, “I don’t believe in that stuff, anyway,” but it didn’t help to calm his nerves. They were necessarily cocked, ready, and set to fire, if called upon. After some five minutes of digging in the mud, the man reached over to one side, and grabbed what looked to be a small, wrapped bundle. “There’s his treasure. It must not be worth anything. What in Hell is it then?” Next thing Matt knew, the man appeared to be filling the hole with the chunks of muddied dirt clods he’d previously dug out. “How strange. I can’t even imagine what!” The man then stood up, patted the spot a couple of times with his foot, and brought something out from the inside of his cloak. He knelt down on one knee, facing the tree, and leaned towards it. It looked as if he were placing something on top of the little grave. He then got up again, and walked underneath the lowest limb. He looked up at it for a second or two, then he stooped down, and picked up the rope.

With his cloak flapping away in the wind, the murderer turned, and took a sinister approach to the graveyard. When he’d made it to his horse, he climbed up, and got on with the rope still in hand. Matt thought, “Good! He’s leaving.” The man kicked his horse in the ribs with both heels, and forced it towards the tree. “Well, crap! He’s not leaving. What’s he up to now?” The horse hesitantly walked halfway, stopped, and snorted out its refusal to go any further. The man kicked him again, twice this time, and with ever more force before the horse relinquished its will, and surrendered to its master. They slowly made their way towards the tree until they were both underneath the lowest limb, and there they stopped. The man let loose one end of the rope, and slung it over the limb. Matt was dazed and amazed, and spoke aloud, “What the hell?” after realizing the villain’s vengeful intentions. The man finished tying a knot in no time, and pulled down hard on the rope. He then began to work on the noose, using the horse’s back as a table. In less than a minute, the man had tied his loop. “Damn! That was awfully fast. He must have done this before, more than a few times.” This seemingly practiced executioner dropped the rest of the rope to the ground, and eyed his magnificent work, which was now hanging from the limb. He’d tied the noose short, about 4 feet below the limb. “So! He thinks he’s gonna hang somebody, does he? Well, not if I can help it!” Matt bravely spoke to himself.

The man in black whipped his dark horse around, and headed back towards the graveyard. “Just go ahead and leave, mister,” Matt wished once again, but when they’d reached the nearest tombstone, the man got down, and tied the reins around the old grey slab. Once he’d done that, he walked back to the tree, and sat on the ground beside his buried treasure. “What? In this rain? He’ll freeze his ass off! Who’s he waiting for anyway?” Matt paused, and waited for a reasonable explanation. “Sam? He’s waiting for Sam? But he’s got a whole posse of men. He won’t stand a chance! You’ve got to be kidding me. What?” No more answers came forth, so Matt continued to stare him down. Ten minutes passed on, and the man still sat there with his head bowed. His hands were clasped, and his arms were around his pulled up knees. Matt felt a weariness settling into his legs, so he found and pulled over a chair, placing it underneath the window. Then he sat down to rest, and think. He kept his rifle in his lap. Addressing only himself, he thought, “Good Lord, it’s really late! How long will I have to wait?” And there sat Matt trying to predict the near future. It didn’t look good, no matter which way he looked at it.

At the first, Matt had gotten himself up to glance out the window every minute or two. That went on for another ten minutes or so, and each time he looked, the murderer was still there. According to Matt’s later testimony, during the next twenty minutes, he only got up twice. He swore that he stayed awake for at least another half of an hour, looking once every ten minutes, but that’s all he remembered of the rest of that evening. Matt ended up telling everyone that he’d awakened the next morning before the sun had risen, only to find himself still sitting in that chair. Of the events that had transpired over the course of that night, he knew nothing. “Honest to God! Nothing at all,” or so, he claimed.

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Chapter Nineteen

Back about the time when Sam and his posse were in the cave, Matthew was back in Bedlam defying the urge to sleep. Since it was a Saturday night, he’d allowed himself to stay up a bit later than usual. His wife and young son already went to bed without him.  To stay awake and keep warm, he kept himself busy tending the fire in their stove. It was blazing away at full strength, adding heat and plenty of light to their living room. This enabled Matt to take to the task of cleaning his rifle. He planned on going hunting the next morning, but the storm caused him to reconsider. He dearly wished it would move on.

There was also something else rummaging about in the back of Matt’s mind, and that was Sam and his posse. In his estimation, he didn’t think they’d be back that night, but he couldn’t be resolutely sure. That made him a shade anxious, and he kept busy peering out his windows on and off all evening. It was simply a nervous reaction. For sure, he was hoping they would catch the murderer eventually. If there was to be another hanging in Bedlam, he didn’t want to miss it for anything. He’d only seen one since they’d lived there, but that was from a distance. He thought he’d like to have a close-up view someday, just so he could brag about such a rare experience. All the better, too, if the hanging involved this particular killer. Someday the man would be famous, for it was such a vicious crime. The story would be told for years to come. Matt certainly wished to be a party to its history. In that respect, he was a voyeuristic storyteller. He didn’t see himself as a fear monger. He told his tales for the express purpose of entertaining others, not because he wished to scare people away.

By the time that Matt finished readying his rifle, the stove had cooled off, and its light had grown dim. He decided to get the fire going one last time, and then he’d hit the hay. On the way to his back door, he again looked out his window toward the graveyard. Matt owned the last house on the left as you made your way south out of Bedlam. The hanging tree stood on the other side of the street a block or so further on down the road from his place. Matt didn’t believe the tree was haunted, nor did he believe in ghosts. Nevertheless, he kept an eye out for them, especially at night. In this regard, he was like most people. If there were such a thing as ghosts, then for sure he wished to see one someday. Not up close, mind you, but a ways away — a very safe distance away.

Matt bundled up in his coat, put on his hat, and grabbed his gloves before going out the back door. The storm was much worse than he previously forecast. He was expecting snow, and not rain in these freezing conditions. Earlier in the afternoon, he covered his stack of logs with a large piece of cowhide to keep the wood good and dry. By this time, a thin sheet of ice lay atop the cover. Matt pulled up a corner and grabbed as much as he could hold before recovering the pile. As he began his return back to the cozy comforts of home, he looked around at the few remaining occupied houses. He didn’t see one hint of light coming through any of the windows. He thought, “This town is dead.” Matt was longing for the good old days when Saturday nights used to bring a change of pace and a little excitement. He desperately wanted to move to the new town because that’s where good things happened, except for last night, of course, but he figured that was a once in a lifetime event, and everything would soon be back to normal.

Matt was halfway to the door when he heard his old hound dog howling inside the house. “Damn dog!” he thought. “He’s going to wake everyone up.” As if the dog could hear him, he spoke out loud, “There’s no one out here but me, ya stupid dog.” Matt was wrong, for just as soon as he’d finished speaking, the silent night brought him a surprise. It was a sound so startling that he dropped his armload of firewood to the ground, and froze in his steps. This unmistakable sound was the high-pitched whinny of a horse expressing its fear, and it was coming from the graveyard. Matt shuddered in his tracks and felt his heart begin to race. “Who’s that?” he thought quietly to himself. Then he broke his own rule for a change, and let his curiosity get the best of him. Instead of picking up the firewood, he left it there to lay in the rain, and crept his way towards the back of house. “Surely, it’s Sam and his men. At least…oh, God. I hope it is,” he said to himself after considering the alternatives. “But, why the heck are they back so soon? They couldn’t have caught him already. Could they?”

In order for Matt to see the graveyard, he had to look around the corner on the east side of his house. With his left hand gripping the edge, and his right palm against the wall, he braced himself and leaned his head out to take a look. As soon as he had a complete view of the tree and the graveyard, he stopped moving and held his ground. As far as he could tell, no one was there. He was sure of what he’d heard, so he paused and waited. He didn’t have to wait long. Instantly, as if out of nowhere, and coming from the far-side of the graveyard, Matt caught sight of a mysteriously slow-moving object. It was a vague, sinister-looking shadowy figure on a tall dark horse. Matt waited in alarm for another figure or two to appear, but none were forthcoming. There was only one single rider. That dreadful fact alone had Matt quaking in his boots, and it gave him the willies just to think about who it might be. The freezing drizzle continued to fall from the blackened sky, and the cold wind was causing shivers to run up and down his spine. He stood spellbound in disbelief as the horse coursed around each met tombstone, and continued to carry its master through the foreboding graveyard.

Their indistinct shapes were beginning to take form as they neared the hanging tree. The old oak seemed cloaked in gloom. Once they were under the furthermost reaches of the hanging tree’s branches, the horse abruptly halted.  It reared up off the ground, and voiced another nay. Upon landing, it shook its head and mane, and snorted loudly in a show of disgust. Small clouds of hot, steamy breath came rolling out of its nostrils. The wisps of warmed air rose up into the cold night sky, and quickly vanished. Matt couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It bore an awfully close resemblance to the ominous scene he’d pictured the day before on his ride back home. The man got off his horse, and led it by the reins until they were under the lowest limb. A moment later, Matt remembered that Sam had dropped a rope on the ground at that very spot. From the looks of it, the man was dressed in black from head to toe, and he was wearing a wide-brimmed hat, which reminded him of the description Luke gave of the murderer. That memory was enough to arouse his worst fears. It was more than enough to frighten Matt into a mode of panic, an excruciating emotion, hitherto unknown to him. Never before had he felt so terrified. Never before had he literally been scared stiff, and it took his breath away.