Hanging On: Twenty Five

Sam raised an arm and pointed a finger, “There it is. There’s the place.” Mark thought the little shack looked harmless enough. Sam went on, “It’s not supposed to be locked. He didn’t leave anything of value behind, except wood,” he added, “dry wood. I hope he remembered right about leaving a few pieces in there. They’ll be worth a lot to us.” “No doubt about it,” Mark confirmed. “There’s a barn around back,” Sam continued, “we can leave the horses in there overnight. Maybe we can find them something to nibble on. I’m sure they’re hungry.” Mark replied, “Yeah, I bet they are, so am I. Say, do you have any more of that jerky?” “Sure do, Kid.” Sam caught his own self in the act of downgrading, so he quickly reiterated with a congenial smile, “I mean Mark! Sorry, about that. I’ve got some flatbread left over, too. We’ll have to make do.” Mark easily forgave his forgetful boss for the minor gaffe. “Sounds good, Sam. I’m starving.”

The two men went on to get their horses into the barn. Luckily for the horses, just inside the doors they found a smallish pile of stale hay, and Mark divided it between the two famished beasts. Sam grabbed the remaining grub from his bag, and untied his bedroll from the saddle. Proudly showing it to Mark, he said, “I put a big candle and few matches in here, so we’ll have some light to start with. Of course, you know, we’ll have to sleep on the floor.” “I figured as much. No big deal,” Mark said. “I’ll need to let this blanket of mine dry out first, anyway.” With dire necessities in hand, they exited the barn, and barred the doors behind them. The drizzly freezing mix that had bedeviled the men all night finally ceased. Nothing but snow now fell from the sky, and the winds had calmed considerably. Crunching the crispy blades of dormant grass beneath their boots, Sam and Mark carefully stepped their way to the door in the back. As good fortune would have it, the door hadn’t been locked. With a sigh of relief, Sam raised his eyebrows at Mark and smiled, “Alright! We’re in luck.” Mark feigned a smile, and nodded silently. He wasn’t quite ready to declare that all was well. Not yet, anyway. Before he could even begin to feel lucky, he’d first have to see that the place was actually empty. That is to say, he wished to be positively certain of the fact that it was absolutely devoid of any and all mysterious  objects, or any activity whatsoever that could be deemed suspicious.

Seeking refuge from the storm, the cold, wet, miserable men carried their belongings across the threshold, and made their way on into the dark but dry shelter. Sam knelt down, and laid his goods on the floor. Whereupon he immediately took to the task of finding a match. “Here they are, safe and sound.” Mark braced himself for the worst possible scenario. Preparing to scan the area, he stood still with eyes wide open. Sam struck the match on the floor, and sparks went flying. A glorious flame burst forth from the end of the wooden stick. Sam cupped his hand around it, and allowed the flame to take hold of the ingenious device that worked like magic. Appearing to Mark from out of the dark, came Sam’s glowing face. He was wearing a big grin, and baring his teeth. “Ah-ha!” Sam exclaimed. “Here we go!” Sam picked up the candle, and brought the wick to the flickering flame. A brighter light began to emerge, and it soon lit up the room ever so slightly. “Now we’re in business,” stated Sam. Nervously standing nearby at the ready, and on his alert for any signs of danger, Mark looked to the left and back to the right, as his darting eyes started to make a thorough investigation. Much to his relief, there wasn’t a soul in sight. Nothing was revealed that was out of the ordinary. A couple of crummy old chairs were tucked away in a corner, and a stove occupied the center of the room. A few valuable pieces of wood lay beside it. Other than that, the house was barren, just as Mark had hoped. No longer having a reason to be afraid, he let down his guard, and permitted himself to relax. Reflexively, he took a deep breathe, and fully exhaled a sigh.

Still shielding the flame with his hand, Sam stood up, and walked over to the stove. When his eyes caught sight of the logs on the floor, he was practically thrilled, and to a great extent his distress was alleviated. “Well, I’ll be. How about that? He did leave us some wood. Good for him.” Sam bent down, and opened the door. Then he brought the candle to the hole, and peeked inside. It was fairly free of ashes, and some half-burnt chunks of wood lay on the grill. “Well, okey-dokey then, we’re gonna have ourselves a fire!” He turned to look at Mark, and kindly gave him an order, saying, “C’mon over here, and hold this candle for me, while I get this thing to going.” Mark jumped at the chance to be of help, and quickly followed the order to the letter. Straightaway, Sam went to work, and in no time at all, the logs were catching fire. As soon as the flames began to leap out the stove, Sam reached for the latch on the door, and shut it tight. Then Sam did something that all men do, he took a few steps back, and proudly admired his work. “There we go,” he said, assuring Mark that everything was under control. Moving nearer once again, Sam held up his hands, and felt the warmth penetrate the skin of his palms. “Ah, nice and toasty! How you like that?” Mark blew out the candle, and set it down. After raising his own hands close to the stove, he answered the question. “Man, oh, man, Sam, that feels great! Really great! Way to go! I can’t wait to get dried off a bit. I need to find a place to hang my hat.” Mark scanned the room again, “Hey, we can use those chairs over there.”

On his own initiative, Mark went to the corner, and grabbed the wobbly chairs. “We can hang our coats on these, too.” He set one down by Sam, and said, “Here you go. Be careful about sitting on it though. They’re pretty shaky.” Sam appreciated the gesture, and looked the Kid in the eye. “Thanks, Mark! I think I’ll just hang my stuff on it for now. I’m gonna roll my blanket out, and hit the floor as soon as I get a bite to eat. Mark frowned, and with a sad voice he said, “My blanket’s all wet. It’s gonna have to dry for a little while. I don’t know if I can get to sleep now, anyway. Maybe, after I eat.” Mark took off his coat, and hung it on the chair, along with his hat. Sam did the same, and then grabbed the remaining grub. He tore the loaf of bread in half, and gave Mark his share. “That ought to help fill you up, and here, take as much jerky as you want. It gives me heartburn.” “Thanks, Sam!” Mark replied gratuitously. “Don’t mind if I do. My canteen here still has water in it, so help yourself to a drink whenever you need it.” “That’s good,” said Sam, “I’ll need it to wash this down. The bread is getting a little too dry, and the jerky is chewier than all get out.”

As the men ate in silence, the fire crackled away, and the room continued to warm. The ambiance allowed the two to lose themselves in thought. Among other things, Sam was wondering if the Deputy would show up in the morning, for his mind mostly concerned itself with business matters left undone, and how he would deal with it all come sunrise. Mark was living more in the present. His mind was on a wide variety of terrible things that might occur if he laid down, shut his eyes, and fell fast asleep. Mark knew better than to tell Sam what he was thinking. Not that anything strange was bound to happen. He didn’t want to believe in that sort of outcome, anyway. But having to deny it made him feel foolish. Nevertheless, he kept quiet, and they both finished their food without saying another word.

The Hanging Tree Of Bedlam – 24

With one remaining task to fulfill, the posse headed home, and rode away into the wind, leaving Sam and Mark behind in the process. Down through the darkness that contained the freezing mist, freshly formed flakes of snow began to fall upon the scene. Making sacrificial gestures with their short-lived appearances, they humbly melted together the very instant they touched down. Now back into their initial state of grand unification, they immediately began to solidify themselves en masse for their next temporal phase. A period of cold, hard existence lay in store for these closely related particles, who were but a few minutes before, created to be the beatific crystallized structures of separation. How befitting it is then, that the same intricate latticework of laws govern over every manner of delicacy?

*

Fighting to regain a sense of equilibrium, Mark’s destabilized self did its best to get him to his horse, and back in the saddle. With sore aching bones, and a red runny nose, Sam did likewise. Mark’s slumbering mind was slowly coming to, and thus it reminded him of his oh-so curious nature. Knowing he wouldn’t get a straight answer, Mark still went ahead and asked Sam a question. “Hey, Sam! What do you think he buried in that hole?” Sam answered quickly, as if the question had been pestering his mind, too. “Oh, hell, Kid, I don’t know! There ain’t no use in worrying about it now. We’ll dig up…whatever it is in the morning. Let’s go get warmed up. My friend supposedly left some wood. A blazing fire sounds pretty good right now.” Quietly, and practically under his breathe, the Kid said, “The name’s Mark, sir.” But Sam was being dense, and hard of hearing. “Say what, boy? Speak up!” A little louder, and a little bolder, the Kid asked again, “Would you mind calling me Mark, sir? That is my name, you know.” Sam paused for a moment, and then gave the Kid a wry smile. “Okay, Kid. Mark it is. And quit calling me sir! Now let’s get out of this godforsaken place.” Sam took off and Mark studiously followed him, keeping his next few thoughts to himself.

Mark was wishing he knew what exactly happened to him when he knelt beside that scary old hanging tree. He was feeling fine up until that time, and he thought he’d been a help, not a hindrance. Mark hardly ever took sick, and it bothered him to think that he might be getting an ear infection, or a cold, or something of the sort. He was a bit better now, but there for awhile, it felt as if he’d been spinning in circles, as he used to do as a boy. Making one’s self dizzy was fun back in those days. He thought that he must have outgrown that type of enjoyment, because he was no longer having fun. Something had gotten into him, that’s all he knew. He was quite beside himself as to how to make it go away. Mark had a hunch that some how or other the haunted tree was to blame. Not that he believed it was haunted, but he wondered, “What if it was?” Mark was torn between two disparate ideas. “Trees can’t make the wind blow. What an absurd notion! Unless…the broken limb…an escape route? Let the ghosts out?” Mark’s heart began to race after that last thought arrived. He chuckled to himself in an attempt to laugh it off. “That’s ridiculous. Isn’t it? So, what else…what was it then? What caused me to hear all those ghostly sounds? And see all those faces, as if I’d been there to watch each one of them be hanged? I bet that killer…that murderer…that evil man had something to do with it. Did his soul go into the tree, too? Oh, no! No, no, no. That would mean he got out like the others. And he’s on the loose? No, no, no…but his horse is gone. Where’d he go? Why, he should have gone straight to Hell! If there is such a place…and if there ain’t one, there ought to be, specifically designed for men like that…for eternity…for the longest of times.” When Mark fell to pondering the concept of infinity, his mind reached out in a furious attempt to grasp a thread of understanding, but it was all for naught. Finding nothing substantial to cling to, it simply mirrored the void and went blank.

After an unknown quantity of empty moments passed by, Mark’s newly cleansed mind willed it’s way back into his head, and thus it thrust itself into the tension of life’s confounding present. A short term later, it regained it’s store of memories. Twas then that Sam’s sidekick began to have second thoughts about staying the night in Bedlam. He questioned himself as to whether or not he should have rode away with the rest of the men. Sam had proclaimed that his friend’s old house was vacated. Mark dearly hoped Sam was correct in making that assumption.

The Hanging Tree Of Bedlam – 23

Once in a very great while, out of the devil-ridden chaos that dominates our mundane world, order presents itself in the form of seemingly meaningful coincidences. Through the ripped veil of the universal fabric, singularly particular events occur that may cause a person to question the ironclad laws of causality.

*

Although the northern winds had subsided, a light freezing rain continued to fall as Mark grabbed the ivory-handled dagger. He had no qualms about tampering with the evidence. That idea never crossed his mind. Easily and quickly, Mark pulled the murder weapon from the chosen burial spot. An instant later, they heard a quavering creak, and a tremulous crack. Then resonating through the air came the ripping sound of splintering wood. All eyes were on the lowest limb, as little by little, it began to give way. The feet of the stone-cold stiff touched the ground, and the teetering corpse leaned forward, swaying to the left, and to the right, back and forth. That was more than the limb could bear. With a loud hissing noise, it tore itself away from the trunk, and dropped to the ground. The recently departed man fell flat on his face. With a thump and a bounce, his hands were loosed from their bind, and laid themselves at his sides. Those strange hissing noises quickly became gusty winds. But now they were from the west, as if they were coming from the tree itself. Sam’s hat was blown clean off his head. He ducked and backed away. The horses were spooked by the brush of the branch, and reared back on their hinds, nearly throwing their riders onto the road. Fiercely and frightfully, the steeds pedaled their hooves to fend off the invisible foes around them. From the far side of the graveyard came the scream of the mighty stallion.

The audible release of pressurized air whipping through the icy branches provided the men with the oddest of impressions. Resembling auditory hallucinations, the winds rushed past their ears creating a vast array of timorous wails and reverberating howls. They’d been jolted into hearing a unique choral arrangement of discordant tones and low-pitched moans, as a cacophony of a hundred voices cried aloud in anguish. Heard, but unseen, the ghastly parade of drifters floated by, one after the other, or so it seemed, for about ten seconds. The sounds were dying down as the winds eventually slowed, and came to an utterly silent standstill. After a moment or two, the cold wind picked up once again, but lightly this time, and from a northerly direction. The men’s horses settled down, but the murderer’s black stallion had mysteriously disappeared.

Standing by the tree, shocked and amazed, knife in hand, was a dumbfounded Mark, now dizzier than ever. He was being spellbound by a constant barrage of inarticulate words and jumbled phrases, whilst his inner mind was receiving dim and distorted images of face after tormented face. Flashing before him were the portraits of unknown men, each with a noose around their neck, each hopelessly gasping for one last breath. With a faraway look in his eyes, he fixedly stared at the broken limb. It had straddled the legs of the man when it fell to the ground. Mark was finally shaken from his stupor by the familiar voice of Sam verbalizing his own sense of wonder.

“What in tarnation was that?” asked the boss. No replies came forth, so he answered his own good question. “It was nothing but the wind,” he paused for a moment, searching for more plausible explanations, “and all that added weight from this damn ice storm. That’s all it took. That’s all it was.” Sam looked over at Mark. The young man had turned the lightest shade of pale. “Hey, Kid! Are you alright?” Quickly changing his pained expression, Mark raised his eyes to meet Sam’s, and forced himself to give the boss a rather tentative response. “Yeah! I’m okay! I’m okay!” Sam doubted that straightforward answer. It was fairly obvious to him that Mark wasn’t okay. He let it slide for the time being and firmly said, “Good! Now, give me that knife before you hurt yourself.” Mark commanded his legs to move, and keeping an eye on the face-down corpse, he walked over to Sam and gave him the dagger. Curious as to what their next move might be, he asked, “What are we going to do with him now?” Since Sam had luckily ran into that excuse he was searching for, he didn’t need to hesitate. “Nothing. Leave him be. He can stay right there. I’ll take care of it later. Come on over here. I’ve got something to tell you guys.” Sam headed towards the road, and Mark stayed close behind him. The posse, most of whom were still trying to get their act together, pulled themselves back to the present moment. A little dazed and a bit confused, they cleared the cobwebs from their minds, and gave Sam their somewhat divided attention.

Sam contrived to put a smile on his face, and vocalized a forced laugh, “He-he-he! That wind was something else, eh?” Sam didn’t give them time to answer. “How you men doing? Are you alright?” After a short second of silence, the men sucked it up, and then they all spoke at once. “Oh, yeah!” was heard, and, “Sure we are!” and “Of course!” came along with, “You bet!” They were nothing but white lies, and Sam knew it. Those minor fibs caused him to wear a natural smile, and he replied ingenuously with, “Glad to hear it!” Not wanting to waste a moment, Sam laid down his newfound plan. “Listen up, boys! As you can all see, our mission has been completed.” He paused, and smirked, “Well, almost, that is. There are a couple of other matters to settle, but I’ll take care of those. Lookie here now, this is the end of the line for me tonight. I’ve already made prior arrangements to stay in a vacated house right here in Bedlam. It’s just down the road a ways. A friend of mine used to live there. About this…,” Sam turns his head and looks back at the crime scene, “about this dead guy here, and whatever he buried in that hole, we’ll find out what’s what in the morning. He’s not going anywhere, and I doubt if anyone around here is going to bother him.”

Sam cut to the chase, and summed it all up by laying down the bottom line. “The truth is…we didn’t hang the bastard. We cannot, and will not be accused of having done so, nor will we take credit for the deed. We will not be held accountable, either way. I want you men to go on back to town, and out to the ranch. Go take care of yourselves. We’ve been through Hell tonight! You men did a fine job of sticking with it. I expected nothing less from the lot of you. You’ll get your bonus in cash as soon as I make it back. Hopefully, it’ll be around noon. Now, when you get into town, I want you to stop in at the Deputy’s office. I happen to know he’s been spending his nights there lately. Bang on his door, and wake him up. I don’t care how you do it. Quickly explain the situation, and then tell him to get his sorry ass out here first thing in the morning. Tell him I’m expecting him, and that he better be here, if he knows what’s good for him. I’ll be waiting.” Those relieved and enlightened cowboys could easily see that Sam was dead serious. “Alrighty then. You got that?” Sam asked. The eldest of the bunch took the lead, and speedily replied, “Yeah! Sure, boss. No problem. We’ll get ‘er done!”

Sam opened his saddlebag, and hid the knife away in a safe place. “Okay. Now get on out of here! I’ll deal with the rest of this mess, and…” Mark interrupted Sam in mid speech with a heartfelt plea. ” Hey, Sam! I don’t feel so hot. Would you mind if I stayed here with you?” Sam relented with good reason. He didn’t want to be alone. He couldn’t admit it, nor would he have dared to ask one of those men to keep him company. Mark had been treating him as if he were his own father, and Sam kind of liked that. “Sure, Kid. I don’t feel all that great, either.” We can’t say that Sam was totally unfazed by what he described as ‘nothing but the wind’. Understandably, he didn’t see, nor did he hear what Mark saw and heard. Sam’s experience of ‘the wind’ wasn’t the same as Mark’s experience. All we can say is – when Sam was crouched over, covering his head with his arms, he wasn’t thinking about his safety. He didn’t imagine he was in any real trouble, because he’d forgotten where he was altogether. Sam was having a vivid daydream, and it seemed all too real to him at the time. The only person he was seeing in his mind during those 10 long seconds was his dearly departed mother. The visuals were perfectly clear, as she stood at the door of their old house begging him not to go. “Sam! Sam! Don’t leave! Don’t leave me here alone like this! Sam! Sam! Sam?” He wished he’d never looked back.

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!”