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.

The Hanging Tree Of Bedlam

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On the southern edge of Bedlam, back in 1869, stood a tall old oak tree. It’s fame and glory stemmed from the fact that it had been host to a multitude of hangings. Conveniently located, it lived and grew beside the road that ran to the river. This highly prominent tree was used with regularity by enforcers of the law who wished to see justice carried out to its fullest measure. The town’s large graveyard lay just beyond the tree, which only helped increase the oak’s popularity. Having a cemetery nearby quickened the entire procedure, for little time need be wasted between the drop and the burial.

In the year in which our story took place, the mighty oak was about 75-80 years old. Its height was estimated at 70 feet. As seen from afar, the crown appeared irregular in shape. In its asymmetrical pose, it leaned to the east, enabling itself to hang a few branches over and across the dirt road. These wickedly crafted branches shot forth from the tree’s most distinguishing feature, its lowest limb. This skinny, but sturdy limb jutted straight out from the trunk, whereas the rest of the limbs above it reached for the sky. Perpendicular to the trunk, it gave the tree a peculiar look. It reminded the folks of a flagpole in the way that it thrust itself out from the main. Being only 10 feet above the ground, it provided a means for the simple task of tying a rope. Positioned 8 feet from the trunk, two side by side branches shot up from the limb forming a V-shape. In the middle of these two branches lay a well-worn ring where the bark had been rubbed away, the scars of its labor having been caused by the frequency of its usage.

All throughout it’s long and storied history, this grand and stately tree had been fortunate in the fact that it had never succumbed to disease, nor had it ever been home to pesky insect infestations. Luckily for the tree, lightning strikes had let it be, whilst they struck and mangled many an other in its general vicinity. Natural disasters had left it alone. In their season of cranky moods, the fierce and usually unrelenting tornadoes had steered clear of its steadfast location every time they appeared in the area. Because of its good fortune, the tree had stayed intact. Except for the leaves that it dropped in the fall, along with a few small twigs that it lost here and there, now and then, the tree had retained all the parts it had grown up with. Perfect, whole, and complete, the oak had remained immaculate in its formation, having lived out its entire life in multi-dimensional tranquility.

We can hardly blame that old tree for its bad reputation. It had done nothing to deserve it. It wasn’t able to understand man and his ways. Absolutely, it had always acted as it should, in an appropriate manner, natural and common to its kind. Except for those times when men would come to swing on its limb, people shied away from it, especially at night, whilst all the rest of God’s creatures treated it with dignity and respect. Folks said the big oak was haunted. “Home to a hundred killer’s souls, or more…”, but the tree didn’t kill them. Quite to the contrary, it took and accepted those men’s souls unto itself. The tree didn’t know how, or why it did that type of thing, it just did. It thought all the trees around there were able to do it, and would act in the same way under similar circumstances, if given the opportunity. As far as the old oak was concerned, that’s what trees were for, that was their reason for living. From its very beginnings, this big, humble tree had maintained a neutral stance of equanimity, thus placing itself in the highest degree of servitude for the sake of mankind. It lived an amoral life. It could not judge between right and wrong. It had no such knowledge. It made no distinctions between the two. Time and time again, the souls of the innocent and the guilty alike were welcomed into its inner sanctum.

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Chapter Seventeen

Stunned into a state of shock and mired in mixed emotions, the men turned around and headed for fresh air. Each man had their own set of questions. They could only guess at the meaning behind each symbol. The purpose each served alluded their reasoning faculties. The sorcerer’s intentions were completely beyond comprehension.

All but one of theses men perceived the otherworldly ceremony as a sick gross joke. The bastard had lost his mind and gone berserk — simple as that. Nothing more needed be said. He was a menace to society and beyond help. It was their job to catch the murderer. He must pay for his crimes, and he would pay with his life. The penalty was death. There could be no compromise. Sure, they had misgivings, but that bloody crazy act did not increase their fears of going after this man and carrying out their duty. Curses and spells belong in fairy tales. They have no place in the minds of grown men.

Only 18, Mark was the youngest of the bunch. He was the one brought up to believe differently, although he wished he’d soon grow out of it. Raised the old-fashioned way, he had yet to shake off the aftereffects of his upbringing, which included all that mumbo jumbo in The Bible. He used to believe wholeheartedly, and admitted as much to himself, but, for the most part, he denied the fact he still retained a part of the imaginative belief system contained in that old-time religion. Yes, even though he knew it wasn’t his fault, nor was it something he willfully chose to put his faith in, he nevertheless berated and condemned himself for having believed it in the first place, as a child. In regard to these matters, Mark wasn’t about to fess up to his brethren. No, not hardly.

Because of Mark’s long-held beliefs, and thanks to what he just experienced in the flesh, he was inclined to view the murderer as an evil villain, not as someone who was insane. He saw him as a purpose-driven man who knew exactly what he was doing. Mark’s question as he exited the cave came down to this: Was it really possible for a man to be possessed by evil spirits? He’d never come into contact with, nor personally confronted a man labeled as such, so he didn’t really know if he believed it or not. He couldn’t rule it out, and this troubled him greatly. Mark left the question open, but since he did, he alone out of the group was leery of the pursuit. Mark thought himself a man, and he planned on toughing it out. He kept his fears tucked away, hidden from his cohorts. Sam truly impressed Mark, who admired the way Sam took charge. In the past, when he tried to talk tough, no one took him seriously, so he doubted his own meritorious valor. Some young men believe they have to prove themselves. Mark had more to prove than all the others, so as soon as they were out of that hell hole, Mark volunteered himself to be the man who would make his way to the top. “Okay, kid.” Sam relented. “Just be careful. Here, take this lantern, but don’t drop it. It’s breakable.” Mark was more than thrilled, and he took the slippery slope to task.

In a silent procession, Sam led the rest of his men back down to planet Earth. The rain on the ground had now turned to slush. The footing was pretty slick, and it was still sprinkling, but they managed alright, as did Mark. By the time they reached their horses, Mark had already found the murderer’s muddy tracks. He crept towards the precipice and shouted, “He was here! He headed east!” Sam yelled back, “Okay! Now get on down here!” It was going on about ten o’clock by that time. Sam walked to his horse, and opened up the saddlebag once again, pulling out more deer jerky. It would give him strength, or so he concluded. He passed it around to his men, and put some aside for Mark. Then he went back to his saddle, and broke out a bottle of whiskey. “Something to calm my nerves would be good right now.” That was one of his reasons for bringing it. Those men were part and parcel for his other reason. “A little courage in a bottle won’t do them any harm, and it’ll help them get up the gumption for the chase.” Sam took a couple of swigs and passed it around. About that time, Mark showed up happier than hell to have accomplished his daring feat, and Sam said nothing. Sam already knew Mark didn’t drink the stuff, so he went back and grabbed his canteen of water. He handed it to Mark, along with his share of jerky, and took the lantern from his hand. Then Sam addressed the  gang, “What do you say boys? Are you ready for this?” Cries rang out all at once. “Hell, yes!” “You bet we are!” “Damn right!” Mark swallowed real quick and joined in late, “Let’s go get that sonuvabitch!”

That’s exactly what Sam wanted to hear. Adding some volume to his voice, he shouted the order. “Mount up, men! If I remember correctly, just around the bend of the river there’s a place where we can get up to the top of the cliff, so follow me, and let’s ride!” Now hanging from their saddles, and from their horse’s manes were icicles just beginning to find their form. The horses also seemed ready to vacate the place, and happily obliged the call to “Giddy-up!” and go.

Sam’s memory served them well, and they did find their way to higher ground. With the help of their trusty lanterns, they found the murderer’s embedded prints, and followed his muddy tracks along the trail less traveled. Sam felt like death warmed over, even though he was “colder than a witch’s tit in a brass bra”. After a short jaunt, he slowed their pace. Sam wasn’t in that big of a hurry, because he was still of a mind to call off the chase once they’d reached the road that would take them back to the river and on to Bedlam. “That man has surely headed off to Mexico, if he has any sense left at all,” Sam figured. He was not ready nor willing to pursue the murderer to God knows where. He didn’t believe these cowboys would mind. Sam thought they were mostly in it for the money, and mostly he was correct in that assumption. I say mostly because — Mark still had something to prove. He was more than willing and ready to go to the ends of the earth, if only Sam were to ask that of him.

One totally miserable half-hour later, the posse arrived at the main road and found themselves in the grips of indecision. The murderer’s tracks not only went South, but they were going to North as well. It looked as if that vicious killer couldn’t make up his mind, either. The men had never actually seen Sam confused up until that moment. He loudly threw his question up for grabs, “Why in the hell did he hesitate?” Without waiting for an answer, Sam dismounted and grabbed his lantern, then he followed the deep fresh hoof-prints heading South. He didn’t have to go far.”They stop right here.” Mark turned his horse and walked North for about twenty yards, then stopped and climbed down. “They stop here, too. Hold on a second!” Mark grabbed his lantern, and walked to the side of the road. “He got off the trail here and went that way,” he said as he pointed in an easterly direction. “Let me see how far these go.” Mark followed the tracks for just a short ways, then turned to his left. He went another twenty yards before seeing, and then realizing, the man’s directed intentions. “Oh, my God! Sam! He’s headed North, back toward town!”

Chapter Sixteen

As if in slow motion, Sam and his men made their way further into the cave. The yellowish glow of light from the loosely held lanterns swung up and down as it reflected off the tan sandstone walls. Long shadows of men in hats lengthened and shortened, and shakily moved to and fro as they cast themselves over jagged cracks and deep inlaid crevices. Flashing glimpses of crudely shaped figures carved into the wall could be seen here and there. The flickering flames from the lanterns were playing tricks on the eyes of these men. The rank stench remained debilitating, but they were so intensely focused, they plumb forgot about it.

Sam continued to lead the team in single file. Seeing no signs of danger, he finally put his pistol back in its holster. Why the place stunk so bad, he could not figure out. There were no dead bodies in there, animal or human, as far as Sam could tell. He stopped and turned back to the men. “Hold your horses a minute! This could be a trap.” Sam suspiciously moved forward, keeping an eye out for a wire close to the floor. The ceiling was closing in on him, and he had to crouch down lower and lower as he went. He was within ten feet of the small pile of ashes when he spied something written on the wall in red. Sam’s first thought was “Paint,” because it was definitely brushed on. His second thought was, “Paint? Nobody carries red paint around with them. What the hell?” Without looking back, he waved his men toward him. “C’mon and take a look.” Sam was close enough by then to tell that what he was looking at wasn’t just a little fire some somebody made just to say warm. This somebody had drawn a picture around the fire by digging out grooves in the dirt. The men gathered into a half circle around the scene. Questioning looks were on the face of every man. Dumbfounded and awestruck, they stood there in silence, eyes wide open. They didn’t dare gasp for air.

Four blood-colored symbols on the wall commanded their attention — a circle, a square, a triangle, and a five-pointed star. Red drips ran down the wall under each one. Otherwise, the shapes appeared perfectly neat. A little too perfect for comfort, as were the drawings of symbols and foreign-looking letters pressed into the dirt around the smallish fire. They were impossibly perfect; too well done. No doubt, this was the work of a professional. It was not the remains of some Indian ceremony, nor was this artist any ordinary outlaw. Their assumptions pointed directly to the foreign stranger — that ruthless murderer. They were sure of it. All in all, it beat the likes of anything any one of them had ever seen. But then again, the whole thing eerily reminded them of something. Every one of these men had an inkling that they’d seen something like this before, but not a one of them could remember when or where they’d seen it. That’s what made this all the more stupefying. Murmured words mumbled forth from their lips, words such as “witchcraft” and “black magic”.  As Sam was standing there perplexed, he happened to think of Luke. “I wonder if he told us everything back at the Deputy’s office. There is something I don’t know here. But why would he withhold information in the first place? I didn’t at all expect this. Good Lord! What kind of man are we after anyway? And where did he get all this blood?”

A few of Sam’s men tried to describe this scene for Matt a few days after they returned to Bedlam. This is what they came up with: A perfectly round circle enclosed the entire delicately positioned diagram. It was nearly three-foot in diameter. The groove carved to dig out this circle was one inch wide and one inch deep. A small amount of blood was carefully poured into the groove all the way around. It had since soaked into the sandy dirt at the bottom of the groove. Inside this circle was an exacting square. It was two and a half feet across. Outside the square and above every corner was a symbol pressed into the dirt with some sort of tool. They were exquisitely well-formed. At the North point stood a sun with thin pointed rays. On the left side lay a triangle with an eye across the center of it. At the bottom were two quarter moons facing each other; almost touching. Outside of the right corner was a circle with a diamond inside. A vertical line cut through the center of these two overlaid symbols.

Just under the lines inside the square were descriptive symbols that imperceptibly changed form as they rounded the corners. The forms consisted of four unrecognizable alphabets. They could have been sentences, or elaborate equations, or possibly some type of formula. Whatever they meant, the man was a master calligrapher. The skillfully crafted intricate inscriptions that flowed from their creator’s intimations revealed a diabolical intelligence masked in artistic talent.

Underneath these lines and centered in the square were two overlaid triangles; one pointing up and one pointing down. The triangle pointing down was smaller, so even though it still represented a five-pointed star, it wasn’t your average symmetrical star. The remains of the little fire lay in the middle of this star, acting as the center-point of the geometric design. But there was something else rather odd about it. The ashes in the middle of the pile were black and grey, whereas the ashes on the outer edges were white as snow. Taken all together, the whole structure had an otherworldly feel to it. It was obviously a finely honed ritual that implied knowledge of dark-cultured mores.

After a few minutes of serene bewilderment, Sam stooped down and put his hand over the embers. Sensing no danger, he carefully pushed his finger down into the pile. “It’s still warm, men. Out for an hour or so, at the most. That no-good devil took his sweet time going to all this trouble.” Sam paused and quickly glanced all around one last time. “One more thing — in case we have to testify at a later date, remember what you saw here today. Okay?” Sam eyed each man, and each nodded in turn. “Now let’s get the hell out of this God-forsaken sanctuary. We’ll check the other path that goes up to the top. I bet he came in and left that way, and we’ll probably be able to tell which direction he headed off to. He can’t hide all his tracks. I hope you boys are up to this. Looks like we done got ourselves an outlaw to chase. Man, oh, man. I need some air. Let’s go!”

Chapter Fifteen

As the river bound posse made headway through the darkened foggy mist, Sam was calculating the odds of catching up to the foreigner. The “WANTED!” man they were searching for had about a twenty-hour head start on them. Once they reached the cave, all he expected to find was material evidence. Certain of his assumptions, he needed proofs, not guesswork. Sam needed to prove that the murderer holed up in this very hideaway, or else he might look foolish. If indeed Sam’s hunch was correct, they could pick up the fugitive’s tracks and be certain of the direction he went. If they found no evidence whatsoever, Sam planned to call off the chase and head back home. With the temperature dropping fast as it was, he figured they’d end up riding back to Bedlam in an ice storm. Sam wasn’t looking forward to that, but if they were to find absolutely nothing at the cave, calling the chase off wouldn’t have bothered him one bit. His men felt the same way. It’s not so difficult to feel courageous when you’re comfortable, but they were definitely far from that. The thrill they felt at the start of the chase was long gone. Even though they bundled up sufficiently to ward off the rain and cold, they weren’t ready to withstand it. They were already fed up. On top of it all, they were starving! Then again, they wanted the promised bonus. They assumed they’d get it, too, whether they caught the murderer, or not. Sam could see and tell the way they felt, but he was still determined to go as far as the cave. He, too, was almost hoping his hunch was wrong, but he wasn’t quite ready to admit it. In another five minutes they’d reach the river. Then they could take a break. They’d reached the peak of their uphill climb and headed down to the valley. The horses carefully stepped their way between half-hidden rocks submerged in tacky clay.

The ancient road was well-traveled. Hundreds of hungry hunters frequented the river valley in the fall. It was then regarded as a fairly safe journey. Two years earlier, in 1867, the Arapaho Tribe signed a peace treaty and surrendered away their rights, so Sam and his posse didn’t have to worry about Indian attacks. Their main concerns centered around life-threatening weather conditions and some slippery slopes not easily traversed. The path that led to the cave was too narrow for the horses, but Sam reassured the men that it wasn’t too awful steep, and in dry conditions, not too dangerous. That’s why it was a popular hangout. Two paths led to the cave’s entrance; one from above and one from below. Since they were heading in from the river-side, they’d use the trail at the base of the cliff.

As they came upon the river, the sight of low waters moving slowly was cause for sighs of relief all-around. It was as Sam expected after a Summer of drought. The men dismounted and walked their horses to the edge for a drink. They were thirsty, but still in good shape from the ride. Sam opened up his saddlebag wherein he kept the provisions, and brought out a handful of deer jerky strips. He gave each man a few pieces, whereupon they did partake of it. They were mighty hungry, and didn’t care what it was. Food was food to them right then. Sam also got out one of the loaves of flatbread from his bag, then securely tied it back up. He broke off a fair piece for each man, and one-by-one handed it to them, before leaving himself at the last with the biggest chunk of the bunch. In silence, this fellowship of men gathered together side by side on the bank of the river, setting their gazes toward the cliffs on the other side. As afternoon turned to evening, the wind died down considerably, but the cold mist began turning into freezing sprinkles. This quiet group of miserably anxious cowboys scarfed down their rations quickly. A canteen of clean water went back and forth between them. With their stomachs finally quieted and their thirst thoroughly quenched, Sam cleared his throat and broke the silence. “It’s time we get to moving, boys. We best be saddling up. Let’s go!”

Without asking any questions or expressing any concerns, the men grabbed their horses and climbed on. Sam took the lead and led his posse across the cold, but shallow waters of the river. They were all lost in thought wondering what they might find once they reached the destination. After they made it safely to the other side, they headed west and followed the riverbank for the rest of their five-mile journey. Sam kept on the lookout for fresh tracks along the way, but his efforts were in vain. Half an hour later, they arrived at the place where the river takes a southern turn. Thanks to his keen bank of memories, Sam knew this was the place to look for the trail they needed to take. The small path was quickly spotted. Sam surprised even himself by how well he remembered the surrounding scenery. He looked back to the men, “Let’s try to get those lanterns started. Find some cover if you need to, but we have to get them lit. If someone were in the cave tending a fire this very minute, we could see the light coming off it, so I doubt if there’s anyone up there. Nevertheless, I want us moving along quietly. And one more thing — I don’t want any of you boys getting trigger happy. I don’t want to get shot in the back. Ya hear me? Okay, then. If there’s gonna be a first shot, it’s gonna be me who takes it.”

Without too much trouble, the men lit their lanterns. “Give me one of those things!” Sam commanded. “Okay, follow me. Single file, and keep your voices down.” They left the riverbank and made way for the target. One hundred zigzagging yards or so later, they reached the bottom of the cliff. Sam looked around on the ground once again, but still didn’t see any signs of fresh tracks. They got off their horses and tied them up to some of the smaller boulders that were laying in heaps all around them. A few of the horses were acting restless and jumpy, but the men didn’t think too much of it.

Lightly, but steadily, the freezing rain continued to pelt their hats as they went the rest of the way on foot. “Watch your step men,” Sam reminded them. “It’s a forty-foot drop to the ground.” The trail narrowed and gradually grew steeper and steeper as it reached the ledge. The ledge itself was about three-fourths of the way up the face of the cliff. It was four to five feet wide and nearly fifty yards in length. Situated in the middle of this ledge, sat the mouth of the cave. At the far side of the shelf they could vaguely see the another trail, which ran steeply on up to the top of the cliff.

They made it up to the ledge without any missteps. Turning their backs to the face of the cliff, they began to shuffle across, one by one. Sam was still in the lead, of course, and as soon as he hit the ledge he pulled out his pistol. The men couldn’t help but notice. If any one of those cowboys hadn’t been awake before, they sure were after Sam did that. Their hands continued to hug the wall as they shimmered along the limestone. Slowly and carefully they closed in on the entrance. Sam was within ten yards of the mouth of the cave when he caught a whiff of stale smoke creeping out of it. With a hand signal, he stopped the men in their tracks. Another foul scent mixed and mingled with the smell of burning wood, but this odor was sickening, putrid, and stank horribly. It reminded Sam of the stench put off by old rotten eggs. “Someone or something is in there, or was recently,” Sam thought. “Maybe a dead something.” Sam put the lantern in his leading hand and held his pistol in the other as he crept on closer still. The cowboys followed after him, more nervous now than ever. Within a foot of the opening, Sam carefully turned himself around and faced the wall. Then he lifted the lantern high and reached out into the opening, just enough to shine some light in there. Hearing nothing stir, Sam took off his hat and bent over to the side to take a peek. Seeing nothing, he stuck his whole head out to look. He saw no signs of life right away, so he turned back to his men. “It looks like the coast is clear. Not a soul in there.” Sam nonchalantly walked on in and the men, now relieved, followed him in. Sam lifted his lantern head-high. The ceiling stood some four feet above his head, and steadily lowered as the cave tunneled in. He thought he could see where the smoke was coming from. Sam raised his arm and pointed his finger, “There it is,” he whispered. “About fifty feet ahead.” The smell was so nauseating that all the men kept their handkerchiefs over their noses. They continued their slow walk into the cave with their eyes constantly surveying their whereabouts. All of a sudden, Sam came to a halt. He was looking down at footprints in the dirt; footprints made by someone in bare feet.

These men were about to walk up to a bewildering scene beyond compare; a visual that would forever be imprinted in their minds. This unsightly vision of evil would strike and pain them to the very depths of their souls.

Chapter Fourteen

The men in Sam’s posse considered themselves cowboys, although they rarely used the word. Three of these men were new hires. They’d only worked under Sam’s categorically strong leadership for two weeks. Their ages ranged from 20 to 25, so they were still pliable and easily influenced. The other three men, aged 25 to 35, had been with Sam for a little over a year. They knew Sam’s antics fairly well. These cowboys were brave and adventurous. Otherwise, Sam wouldn’t have hired them. These cowboys thought of themselves as free and independent when they first moved West, but they learned real quick just how much they depended on Sam’s generosity, especially when it came to daily bread and “Drinks on the house!” They were willing and able to give up a large percentage of their freedom in exchange for Sam’s patriarchal pony show at the ranch, where it’s “All you can eat!” for dinner every night.

Earlier that morning, when they gathered together back at the Deputy’s office, Sam wanted Luke, his men, and Deputy McCoy, to learn and understand that he meant business; he stood firm in his resolve, and he was a force to be reckoned with. Sam’s whole charade found its perfect setting when he took to the stage in the name of The Law. Sam needed to know exactly what these men were made of, and if he could count on them. If so, he would install the fear of Sam deep in their souls.

Unbeknownst to Sam was the fact that everyone involved already had the instinctive notion that he might kill anyone who fiercely dared to oppose him. That made Sam somewhat unpredictable in their eyes, but he wanted these cowboys to perceive him as such. Sam fascinated himself over his ability to manipulate others from a distance. He had these men right where he wanted them. They were like putty in the hands of a master potter. The way Sam looked at it, he was doing them a favor. These boys didn’t know what was good for them.

Sam didn’t want them to think that joining a posse was an easy game. He wanted them to think they might witness and take part in a hanging that very night. That’s why he dropped the rope under the Oak’s lowest limb. He wanted to keep them guessing. Sam thought his action entirely reasonable, and he told them why — it was the most logical place to leave it. So, not only were these men afraid of Sam, but now they were afraid of the unknown and the immediate future. This was Sam’s power trip. If it were to be his last, he wanted to make the most of it. He desperately needed this final conquest to confirm his own fleeting manhood.

Thus were the moods that oozed their way into all these men as they departed Bedlam. The wind at their backs from the North had increased in intensity, and the mercury was steadily plummeting. A very fine mist followed the posse southwards. The sun had already set in the West, and soon they’d be riding through eerie darkness. The full moon rose early that night. It could faintly be seen once in a while through the grey overcast skies. The wild exciting adventures Sam envisioned for these high-spirited men were dampened by an early winter cold front. The river they needed to cross on the way to the robber’s cave was 7 or 8 miles further down the dirt road. The cave was another 5 miles off to the West from there. Because of the foul weather, Sam decided to step things up a bit. He picked up his pace and the men followed suit, as misery drew ever closer. Sam had many things on his mind, and he allowed those thoughts to command his attention.

You see, Sam did not daydream. To him that was a frivolous activity. To be exact, Sam was immersing himself in the act of contemplating the practical; what they could do, and how, and when, and why they could do it. Simultaneously, Sam’s aching bones and sore muscles distracted him. He was out of shape compared to these young men. They were in great physical condition. Sam was just…well, out of practice you might say. They were barely into the ride when he was forced to face his own miserable thoughts. “Dammit! I’m getting too old for this.” He’d never been a quitter, and he wasn’t about to start now.

Chapter Twelve

Matt was in a hurry to get back to Bedlam, but his old mare was already giving him her best. It wasn’t long until she fell back to her normally slow pace. They arrived 10 minutes earlier than usual. The old girl was happier to be home than he was, and started prancing as soon as she caught eye of the place. Matt was looking down the road, setting his focus on the legendary oak tree with the graveyard close behind. He was glad to see it hadn’t changed a bit since he’d left. No one was standing around there, and no black stallion stood in the shadows. The skies were clear, and the weather was warm for the sun was shining brightly. In the mid-afternoon of that day, the scene showed no signs of the menacing features for which it was famous, such as being haunted.

Matt never did believe in ghosts, not even as a child, nor did he ever believe that line about the hanging tree, “Home to a hundred killer’s souls, or more.” He thought all that stuff was a bunch of baloney, even though he was the one who’d repeated the story more often than anyone else in town. Matt liked to tell scary stories to people who believed in that nonsense. Although he knew many a fairy tale, he didn’t believe in miracles that could come to pass all of their own accord. He imagined that if miracles ever happened at all, they came into being through action. To him, they were not make-believe stories, they were made-to-happen historical events. According to Matt’s wife, Martha, he was a dreamer who often succumbed to flights of fancy. “He forever has his head in the clouds,” was her claim, but she loved him nonetheless, and looked up to him in many respects. For his part, Matt saw himself as one of those types of men who would think things through before taking action. He’d didn’t enjoy delayed regrets. On his way home that day, he made up his mind in a rational way. He decided on the question he would ask his neighbors about the night before. This is what he came up with. “Did you see, or hear, anything strange last night after you went to bed?” Matt liked questions that were short and to the point.

In her frustrated impatience, Martha waited outside the house for him with her arms crossed. His hound dog lay at her feet and didn’t bother to get up. As usual, Matt was late in coming back with the groceries. He rode up on his happy dancing horse, pulled back on the reins, and began to dismount before coming to a halt, then almost fell off. “Sorry it took so long. I have an excuse. Hear me out first.” His wife looked at the dog and shook her head. “Here we go again,” she thought to herself. She unfolded her arms and put her hands on her hips. “For pity’s sake! What is it now?”

Matt goes on to tell her the entire story, but he tried to tone it down a bit. He didn’t want it to sound too awfully bad, because then she’d be afraid to move. Matt applied for a job with the railroad, and they’d have to leave Bedlam if he were able to get himself hired on. Martha took the news rather hard, to say the least, but she took everything personally, so Matt was not too surprised by her hysterical reaction. He calmed her down best he could. Shortly afterwards, he proceeded to go out and make his way around to each neighbor. Matt repeated his well-rehearsed question to all, but no one had seen anything unusual, nor had they heard any strange noises. Their closest neighbor was an elderly widow. She had a complaint waiting for Matt. She madly claimed to have heard his hound dog late the night before. He was “…barking and howling away for the hell of it!” as she put it. She awakened two hours after she’d gone to bed, and in her anger, she’d gotten up and looked out the window. Upon seeing this “nothing”, she opened it up and yelled, “Just what in the hell are you barking at, ya damn dog?!!” Matt told her he was sorry, and that he was home and in bed the same time as she, and he never heard the dog. “Are you calling me a liar?” she yelled at him. “No, ma’am, no,” he replied as he walked away. He did have to wonder if his dog heard or smelled something, but thought no more of it. Having received no surefire confirmations, he went on back home feeling a little relieved.

That vision he had of the riderless horse in the graveyard? As far as Matt could tell, it was a product of his imagination and nothing else. He had no foresight, and had never had what some folks call a premonition. He didn’t believe in prophecy. Matt didn’t go and investigate the graveyard to see if he could find any evidence confirming his sleepy suspicions. He didn’t go look for trampled down grass near the tombstones. As a matter of fact, Matt had never set foot in that graveyard. Not once since he’d lived there. He’d never read the names, nor the dates engraved on the pocketed mossy faces. He didn’t feel the need to get a close-up view of the famous hanging tree. He’d never seen the rings worn into and around its lowest limb. He never let his curiosity get the best of him. If one were to ask him why he’d never visited the dead, he would have said, “I didn’t know any of those people, so I’ve never had a good reason to go there.” At this stage of his life, Matt thought that youth could conquer all, so he had nothing to fear, which is another way of saying he wasn’t experienced.

Later that afternoon, Martha sent him out to get wood for the stove. She was sickened by the news her husband brought home. She wished to forget the whole thing, and would do so by starting dinner and fixing her mind on her work. Not wanting his dearest beloved to have another tizzy fit, Matt immediately set his will on the task set before him, and went out to the back to fetch a few logs. The first thing he noticed was a change in the wind, which was now from the north and much colder. The skies were getting hazy, and he knew he should expect there’d be rain or snow by morning. His ability to forecast the weather, now that he believed in. He was a hunter, so he knew these things. He wasn’t guessing. As he began to choose between the logs, he fell to daydreaming again. This time around it was about building a new house in the new city. For no good reason, he raised his head and broadly cast his gaze up the road. A half a mile or so away, he could see a cloud of dust rising up and circling about in the wind. Quicker than he could say “horses”, he thought he knew who it might be. Matt ran around to the other side of the stack, ducked down, and took off his hat. He didn’t know why and didn’t question his motive. “I bet it’s Sam and his men,” he whispered to himself. The rolling sound of thunder headed his way. They rode up fast and went right past, then he popped up his head to look. The big man at the head of the posse was Sam alright, and they seemed to be in a hurry. But as they reached the edge of town, they all pulled up right fast. Matt watched in suspense as Sam walked his horse over to the hanging tree, stopped, looked up, and just stared at it for a minute…a long minute. He unhooked a long winding rope from his saddle, and dropped it to the ground. Then just as fast as they’d stopped, Sam yanked at the reins and took off with a start. His men followed him south down the road. The cloud of dust was reborn and was closing in on their heels. The northern winds were fast behind, pushing them away from Bedlam.

Chapter Eleven

Sam knew Luke had a swing in his backyard. Everyone in town knew it. They were used to seeing children playing back there. It was sort of like the town’s park. Luke also crudely fashioned a seesaw for them using a short-legged saw-horse and a long wooden plank. The neighborhood kids seemed to enjoy this simple toy, but on this day not a one was seen. Parents worried about their safety after all that had gone on the night before. They kept their children in-house for good reason. Until the killer was caught, there’d be no playing outside.

Luke went on out the back to see what it was they wanted. His frazzled nerves made him feel anxious again, easily and quickly. As soon as Sam saw him open the door, he began to speak. “Hey, Luke! I was hoping you’d do me a favor.” Luke held his breath and raised his eyebrows, then responded nervously,”What do you need, boss?” Sam noticed the worried look on Luke’s face and put his mind to ease at once. “No, it’s not that. We don’t need you to go along with us.” Luke sighed in relief. “Here’s the deal,” Sam began. “Our Deputy Marshall just swore us in. It is now official. We have lawful orders to carry out. We will assist the deputy in this manhunt. We are to bring our stranger back alive, if possible. From what we gather, the murderer doesn’t even carry a gun, which is hard to believe. Of course, we know he carries a knife, and it’s likely to be the murder weapon. That’s not a problem. He’ll be no match against us. We did ask around. Nobody saw him wearing a pistol. No one saw a rifle in his saddle. He bought no ammunition while he was here. The man must be crazy. That’s plain stupid. Anyway, he’ll be an easy catch, if we can find him. I think I know where he’s off to. Deputy McCoy is staying here to keep watch over the town. He’ll send word out to the nearest Marshall on the next train that comes through. It’s due tomorrow.”

“Here’s the problem, Luke. It’s nothing much. We need a long strong rope, like that one over there, the one you’re using for a swing,” Sam continued. Luke jumped all over that admission, and sarcastically replied, “I thought you said alive…that you’d bring him back alive.” Sam wasted no time, “No. It’s not that. We don’t need it to hang him. Heaven’s to Betsy, no. We have some smaller rope to tie his hands behind his back. But I hear he has a mighty fine horse, and I want to get it back here. If I can work things out, I hope to keep it. I need a rope like yours, so we can pull it along behind us. I don’t want it getting away. So, what do you say? I’ll bring the rope back to you as soon as I can. If anything happens to it, I’ll buy you another. We don’t have time to mess around right now. The man has a pretty good head start on us as it is, and we need to take off here shortly, or as soon as we can. I’m sure you understand.” Sam had kept a serious look on his face during the whole explanation, and his eyes never left their target. That didn’t matter to Luke. He thought it was a lame excuse for wanting the rope. “He’s a hankerin’ for a hangin’, if anything,” he silently spoke to himself.

“Well, since you put it that way, I suppose so.” Luke paused for another round of second thoughts before continuing.”No problem, Sam. No problem at all. The kids won’t miss it for a day or two. Besides, most of them will be stuck in their house for a while. I’ll climb right on up and untie the knots. It’ll only take a few.” But before he could take two steps, Sam stopped him. “That’s alright, Luke. Don’t bother. We’ll get it down, no problem. Thanks a lot! You’ve saved us some time. It may take us a day or two. I want you showing up at the ranch Monday, no matter what. My help will be expecting you. They’ll show you around, and you can see what’s what. I know you’re a self-starter, so I’m sure you can find some work to do. We’ll be back as soon as we can, by Tuesday at least, with or without him. Don’t you worry about us now. I’ve been through this before. We’ll get ‘er done. Okay?” Sam appeared self-assured, as usual. Luke wasn’t at all happy after he heard the idea, but he remained agreeable. Many fond memories were tied up in that rope, and he didn’t want to lose them altogether in one shot. Luke knew it was silly to think about it like that, but he did it anyway, and quite naturally, in fact.

“Sure, Sam, sure,” answered Luke, thinking as he spoke. “Oh, yes. I’ll be there Monday, you can count on it. Sounds great!” Luke thought of some questions while Sam was speaking, and he finally remembered them. “Can I ask you something? I was wondering. You know, that foreigner doesn’t speak English. How will he know why he’s being tied up and made prisoner? I mean, how would he even confess? Do you hope to find the pastor’s blood on his knife, or what? Won’t you need some kind of evidence?”

Sam had already asked himself these questions, so he already knew the answers. “Yes, Luke, evidence would help, if it comes to that. Blood on his hands, especially. I think he’ll know why he’s being arrested, though. Do you think he didn’t turn around once and look at the fire? Even if he didn’t start it, I surely think he’d of noticed, or heard your cry for help and looked back. As far as the confession goes, a simple nod either way will suffice. We’ll just stand that bastard in front of the burnt down church. Excuse my language. I think he’ll get the picture, if he hadn’t figured it out by then.” Luke was regularly struck by Sam’s unending show of confidence. Yesterday’s hero had a small sliver of doubt in his mind regarding the stranger’s guilt. It acted like a thorn stuck in his side, painfully and constantly pricking away.