In front of Henry stood a huge limestone hill that was covered in scrub brush, cactus, bur oak, bald cypress, red alder, poison ivy, and rattlesnakes. Between where he stood and the hill, the Guadalupe River flowed by at a languid pace; however, several hundred feet upriver, he could see a shallows. Due to the low amounts of rain in the past few months, the water was almost down to the riverbed.
Henry was a wiry, swarthy man, of medium build that had a vicious, jagged scar running from the middle of his jawbone on the left side of face down to his collar bone. Nobody who met him could say how he got it, but it was rumored to be a memento from a Mississippi gambling boat shark the Henry had tried to con. Otherwise, he had pleasant features and a well formed face that might have been called handsome if it were not for the frightful intensity of his eyes, which had coal black irises and reminded people of holes.
He wore scarred leather boots with rundown heels, dirty, brown corduroy pants that had been ripped in several places, a bleached muslin shirt, and a confederate slouch hat. In one hand he had a Spencer Rifle and on his right hip, a Colt Peacemaker rested in a scarred and worn holster. Over both shoulders were new saddle bags that bulged and jingled when he walked. Each of the bags had dried blood on them.
Henry left the horse to die and began moving as fast as he could to the shallows. He was not sure if the Texas Ranger he had been shooting at had survived or not, but his horse, Henry was sure, was dead and had fallen on him. That combined with the fire he had started which was currently eating its way through the underbrush should be enough to ensure his escape, but rangers were stubborn pricks who somehow always seemed to manage to survive.
Reaching the shallows, Henry stopped and ran across and set his rifle down. He then ran back into the river with the saddle bags and put them in the water and began to scrub at the dried blood until it washed off. Once this was done, he took his hat off and soaked it in the river. Then, putting his hat back on his head, he picked up the bags and set out for the hill; although he failed to notice that one of the gold $10 Liberty Head coins had fallen into the river.
An hour later Henry found himself at the entrance to a cave. The mouth of the cave was about halfway up the hill, and sat into the yellow and gray limestone behind a boulder that shielded it from view. The hole was so small and the boulder so large that the only real way to see it was if you were standing on the boulder. Henry only knew about its existence out of sheer luck. He’d camped down by the river over a year ago and had seen bats fly from behind the huge rock, causing him to investigate. It was then that he’d found what he now thought of as his most important secret.
As he entered the cave the light quickly faded into total darkness. This forced Henry to proceed by touch. Using his left hand, Henry felt along the cave wall until eventually his hand bumped into a kerosene lamp. Stopping, he squatted down and felt along the floor until his hand brushed a box of matches. Standing back up with the matches, he soon had the lamp going, and its light bounced off several mirrors that Henry had hung on the walls of the cave, amplifying its effect.
The cavern itself was just tall enough to stand up in and about ten feet across. On the right side, the wall was recessed a little, and Henry had put down straw and blankets to create a makeshift bed. Near this was a pile of dry wood that he’d collected. To the left and back of the cave from where he stood was what made this place so much more valuable than any other of his previous hideouts: the rock arched on that side leading into a vertical shaft. The shaft was about four and a half feet in diameter and housed a rope ladder. The ladder, in turn, was nailed into the base of a Texas Madrone on top of the hill, and was the perfect backdoor. Henry loved the tree because it had bark the color of blood that you could peel away in great chunks and expose the grayish wood underneath, which, with just the barest expenditure of imagination, Henry would picture as mortal wounds that showed the bones of his enemies.
That first night, before the posse arrived, Henry pulled back a small rock in the wall near his bed. Behind it was a space about five feet deep and two feet wide that he had mined over the proceeding few months. Inside the hole was a small Wells Fargo strong box with a broken lock and $850 dollars cash in it, a blackjack, and a small velvet bag that contained the badges to two sheriffs, one Texas Ranger, and no less than four Pinkerton badges. Henry wished he could have gotten the star off the ranger he had just shot it out with, but then again it was better to sacrifice a trophy and have your hide than to get shot for your troubles. And with that thought, he took out the blackjack and put the saddle bags into the space, but before he replaced the rock, he took thirty of the gold Liberty Head coins from one of the bags. He knew he should take the greenbacks. Knew the rangers would be on the lookout for the gold coins, but gold felt like money and always would, whereas the greenbacks could become toilet paper if the government went bankrupt.
For the next month, Henry lived in the cave and only came out at night. He hunted at night, and between the wild animals, the river, and the supplies that he collected before his last escapade, he managed to stay well fed. As for the rangers, they had come during that first week and found his dead horse. They were sturdy men with hard, sunburned faces and grim looks, which suggested they were not in the mood to take him alive. They fanned out from where he’d abandoned his mount, but between the solid limestone rock shore and his river crossing, they quickly lost his trail; although on the second day of their search one ranger had almost walked right up to the entrance of the cave, and it was only blind luck that he did not find it. Then halfway through the next day, they had ridden off towards the town of Hunt.
By the time Henry was ready to leave at the end of the month he had grown a full salt and pepper beard and mustache. He scrambled down the hill and began to follow the river, which he knew was a bit of a gamble, but in the heat and without a horse, he did not feel like trying to hike overland to San Antonio. Three days later he arrived in Kerville, and after buying new boots and clothing, ammunition for his guns, and a bath and hotel, Henry had $272.42 left over, most of which was still in the gold coins. This he intended to use for a new horse. He knew it was a bad idea, but he still needed a fast mount and saddle. The saddle irked him more than the horse. It would have been a dead giveaway that he was in the area to salvage his old saddle to start, and the rangers had taken it when they left after their search.
A quick look in town told him that none of the mounts available would meet his needs, but as the railroad ran though the town, he hopped the next train to San Antonio. There he found a frisky, painted mustang and a quality saddle that he parted with thirteen of the golden coins to purchase. By the next morning, the rumor was the rangers were looking for a man with a salt and pepper beard who was paying for things with the gold coins. By then, however, Henry had managed to get rid of the rest of the coins and now only carried greenbacks. Still, it felt wrong to press his luck, and besides he had business in Fredericksburg, which was only seventy miles to the northwest. So after a shave, Henry mounted his new horse, which he had decided to call Aces Over, and headed out.
It took two and a half days of easy riding to reach the town, where Henry took a hotel on the main street overlooking the bank. He spent the next two days riding around, finding all the exits from both the bank and town, as well as getting to know who opened the bank and when. He also bought the supplies he thought he would need for his next stint in the cave.
Henry should have known as soon as he woke up that the robbery was a bad idea. It was Friday the 13th, and the first thing he did as he woke up was to stub his toe on the bed. Cursing, he hopped about until the pain subsided, but then had to rush to get ready. In addition to this, the first teller arrived at the bank early and there were already two customers inside: a woman that Henry recognized as one of the assistants at the general store, who had raven black hair and the posture of a ramrod and a brute of a man with the golden locks and blue eyes of a German noble who wore the apron of a blacksmith. Henry had no problem shooting a law-dog or Pinki, but he made a point not to shoot the citizenry. It just made the locals more blood thirsty and made the reward posters show up with larger numbers at the bottom.
Henry burst into the bank, his Colt in his left hand and the blackjack in his right. Before the blacksmith could do anything he had clubbed him over the head, sending him crashing to the floor, unconscious but alive. “Everyone, hands up!” Henry snarled as the adrenaline hit him in a euphoric wave and time slowed down to a crawl. The woman screamed and without thought Henry turn on her and cocked his Colt.
“Shut up or I’ll blow your head off!”
The woman clapped her hands over mouth, while her eyes bugged out of her head, and then Henry turned and vaulted over the counter. As soon as he was over he pointed his gun at the teller and said, “I want everything in your safe and in your drawer, or I shoot her. Now, you don’t have to say a thing, just snap to it.” For a second the teller, who was a thin man with wire-rim spectacles and scars left from bad acne, did nothing, but then he quickly opened his drawer and began to take out the money.
The teller emptied the drawer and had just opened the safe when out of the corner of his eye Henry saw the bank door open. Flying back over the counter, his face fell. The Texas Ranger stood over six feet tall and had the build of a prizefighter, and this impression was made stronger by the nose which had been flattened from being broken several times. He had blue-grey eyes, like ice that had melted and refrozen several times, a bald head, and a red beard. His hand immediately dropped to his side, where a gun almost identical to Henry’s was holstered.
Putting as much menace in his voice as Henry could shouted, “Give me a reason law-dog.”
The huge man froze, half in and half out of the bank, grip tight on his weapon. Then slowly, he opened his hand and took it off the butt of gun and moved slowly inside the bank. Henry nodded in satisfaction and once the ranger was inside said, “Good. Now slowly take your gun out and then slide it over to me.”
The ranger slowly reached back down and took out his gun, using only three fingers to grab the end of it, and then slowly he set it onto the ground and, as instructed, he slid it over to Henry, who snatched it off the floor. He noted with more than a little distain that the gun had a pearl handle and the star of the Texas Rangers inlaid into it with gold.
Moving back to the counter, Henry took the money bag, and then keeping as much distance between the ranger and himself, he edged around the room to the door. He could have left then, and maybe things would have been different. Yet, if someone asked him why he did it--an opportunity he most definitively was not given-- he could not have explained himself.
The ranger was looking at Henry with his hard blue eyes, hands over his head, and as soon as he saw Henry stop, he growled out, “You’re a dead man if you do, and only most likely a dead man if you don’t. Be smart.” But Henry had already taken the pearl handled gun from his belt, aimed it, cocked the hammer, and pulled the trigger.
Inside the close confines of the bank and hopped up on his adrenaline buzz, the bark of the Colt sounded like a cannon and rattled Henry’s frame like a salvo of Grant’s artillery at Vicksburg. The bullet struck the ranger between his upper lip and his flattened nose, tearing though his head leaving teeth, brains, and blood littering the floor. But Henry didn’t have time to worry about the noise. Darting forward, he snatched the badge of the dead man, and barreled through the doors, where he was confronted by the first of the townspeople who’d heard the ruckus.
Henry fired blindly into the air, scattering the few people who’d come to investigate. Then quick as a jackrabbit, he barreled up the alleyway, emerging on the next street over from the bank where Aces Over was tied up and waiting for him. Henry quickly untied the horse, who was prancing nervously and seemed to be able to smell the gunpowder on him. Then he was up and with a quick touch of his spurs he was off. Behind him he heard the scream of people shouting out, but luckily he did not hear the tell-tale whine of bullets as he exited the town into the rising sun.
He let Aces Over run for the first six miles or so, but knowing he needed to preserve his mount, he slowed to a walk. It was only 8:30 in the morning, and only about 45 minutes since he shot the Ranger, but already the buzz was wearing off, and in its place a skull splitting headache took up residence behind his left eye. But that was the least of his worries, he knew. Fredericksburg had its own Western Union office, and that meant that if the rangers in Austin had not already been contacted they soon would be. He had no way of knowing how many of them were in his area, nor how fast they would learn of the death of their compadre; however, he did not it was foolish to hang around and learn the hard way.
With no choice except to hope for the best, he began to do his best to lose any pursuit he might already have. First Henry found a small rocky creek, which he rode up as far as he could before he began to double back towards Fredericksburg. The city appeared on the horizon about two in the afternoon, and even though it was hot, and he wanted nothing more than to stop, he continued to ride around the town, going west now. Again he found a stream, and again he took it northward, despite this being the opposite direction from his cave. He continued on in this manner for the rest of the day, stopping only as sun’s dying rays fell.
He picketed Aces Over on a line strung between two trees in a small grove that he found, and then he walked about a half mile off and slept on his new saddle. He was up before dawn and quickly resaddled his mount, but instead of riding, he led the drowsy horse by his lead rope for a few hours. Eventually though Henry mounted, and standing as tall as he could in his stirrups, he surveyed the horizon. Grinning at the empty land around him, he turned Aces Over so he was at last heading southwesterly and began an easy walk towards the cave. He knew he was too far away to make the cave that night, but as he settled in for his second night of sleep without a campfire, he reflected that it seemed that fortune had rewarded his rash actions.
The first stars of the night were popping into view and twinkling in a brilliant panorama over the Guadalupe River, their radiance unsullied by the light pollution of any city. A new Ford Mustang rumbled onto the rocky beach next to the Guadalupe River. Pop music was blaring out of an open window that also had a shapely, tan leg hanging out of it. The car stopped next to an old beat-up 47 Chevy truck that looked to be held together by rust and bailing wire. The music died and the leg retreated back inside the vehicle, while the beams of the headlights cut through the dusk to illuminate two large tents and a campfire burning a little further upstream next to a section of rapids.
The doors opened and out stepped two women. The driver had bronze skin, dirty blond hair, and a left eye that was blue and right eye that was green. She was wearing a University of Texas Woman's Volleyball shirt, cutoff shorts, and had a small backpack. The passenger was also an attractive and tanned woman, but with the body of a pixie, to include ears that seem to come to a point near the top. She had brown eyes and black hair, and while not quite as runway-model-slinky as her friend, she moved with the grace of a dancer. She had on khaki booty shorts and a loose, short-sleeve shirt that showed off her midriff.
A bass voice called out of the gathering darkness, "Hey Cynthia, did you get it?"
The taller of the two shouted back, "Yeah!"
"Hey, Ryder, you got supper ready?" The shorter of the girls called out.
The sound of someone walking through the water reached their ears, quickly followed by the form of a man, who stood over six feet tall, had a nose that had been flatten out and was slightly crooked from being broken, and a face that sported a goatee the exact same color as the bright strawberry-blonde hair on top of his head. Dressed in board shorts and a white t-shirt he had the look of a linebacker and projected an almost palpable aura of charm.
" Comm'on Emma! You know I'm always ready,” the huge man said while flashing a grin at Cynthia. “We've got hunter-stew cooking as we speak, and I got a dutch oven that I borrowed from my gramps ready to go. So get ready. We’re having some out-of-this-world peach cobbler for dessert, and on top of all that, I've got enough beer and booze to start my own bar."
The shorter woman snorted slightly and turned to her friend, "Cobbler. He makes you cobbler?"
"I told you he could cook, didn't I,” Cynthia said with only a hint of a smirk on her face.
"You did," Emma said, as she looked around at the rocky beach, across from which stood a huge limestone hill. It was hard to make out much else as the light was fading fast, but just as Emma was about to start walking to the fire she noticed a gnarled tree on the top of the hill and stopped. The tree look wrong: almost as if it was dead and just didn’t know it, and perched as it was on the top of hill it reminded Emma of a grotesque watchman. It had bark the color of blood, and even from a distance she could make out the whitish flesh of the tree underneath it that gazed out back at her like a skull.
"Yo, Emma! You coming or what?" Ryder shouted.
"Huh? Oh, yeah. Sorry, I just was looking at that tree." Emma said, and noticed that both Ryder and Cynthia had reached the fire.
"What tree?" Cynthia yelled back.
"Big red thing that gives you the creeps to look at," Ryder said, and Emma noticed that he did not look at the hill.
"Yeah, that's it. How did you know?" Emma asked as she reached her friends.
"Because everyone notices the Bloody Hangman when they see it." Ryder said casually.
Cynthia arched the eyebrow over her green eye as if to say, 'the what?'
Ryder saw the two women looking at him and shrugged but added "Don't worry about it. I'll tell you the story, because what's a camping trip without a ghost story. But first things first! What'd you get?"
“See for yourself," Cynthia said with a smile, and tossed Ryder the backpack. He opened it and took out a two ounce bag of pot, which he sniffed.
"Smells different. Did you get a different brand?"
"That was my idea," Emma said. "I heard about this from one of the girls in my sorority. It's supposed to be a madman."
"What's it called?" Ryder asked.
"Aces Over," Emma said.
"Oh, please tell me they gave you a pack of cards with this then," Ryder said teasingly.
"Don't start," Cynthia said. "I've heard about it too, and it's supposed to have a serious kick.”
Ryder just put his massive hands up and said, "I'm not starting anything. And now, how about some food?" The women agreed, and soon three balls of tin-foil that had turned a deep gold color were carefully extracted from the glowing coals of the fire. It took a little bit of time to open the foil, but inside Emma and Cynthia found that Ryder had pack a fist-full of hamburger meat, onion, potato, and carrots with some butter, salt and pepper, and fresh sage and cilantro leaves. They began to eat with gusto, and as they dug in Ryder passed several beers to his friends.
"What is this?" Emma asked as she got a plain brown bottle with no label.
"It's my grandpa's beer. He makes it himself. Just be careful not to drink out of the very bottom of the bottle. There always a little sediment on the bottom." Ryder said. "Oh, and remember, this is not the piss-in-the-can stuff like they have at the parties in Austin. This stuff has balls."
"How many of these have you had?” Cynthia asked mockingly.
"Don't know. Six. Maybe seven so far."
"Which is why he knows it has balls." Emma said, and then before Ryder could retort she changed the subject. "So your family owns all this land?" Emma asked, waving her hand around at the landscape.
Ryder took a long sip of beer and then nodded. "Yeah. We used to own a lot more of it around here, but it was just too expensive to keep over the years."
"How much more did your family have?" Emma asked.
"Lots. My great-great-grandfather bought it back in like the mid-1880s, but we had to sell a lot of the original ranch off during the Great Depression, and since then we've sold a little bit here and there, so now we only have about a quarter of the original property, which today is about fifteen square miles.”
"And was that tree always there?" Emma asked.
"Why are you so interested in that ?" Ryder asked and this time there was a hint of irritation coloring his voice.
"Not trying to make you mad. It's just creepy, and I thought you were going to tell us about it."
"Nothing to tell. It's a creepy tree."
Emma was about to say something but stopped short when Cynthia shot her a warning look.
They made small talk for a while after that. Several more bottles of beer were consumed, and then they attacked the cobbler. Once that was done, Ryder walked to the old truck and came back with a bottle of bourbon. He began to drink this while feeding the fire from a pile of wood that he'd collected earlier in the day until the flames were several feet high. He passed the bourbon to the girls and retrieved the bag of Aces Over and the backpack it had come in. In no time Ryder rolled out three huge spliffs. He passed one to each of the girls and then lit his off the campfire.
As they passed the time drinking and smoking, the stars came out in full force, creating a glittering panorama overhead, and in addition to the stars a waxing moon appeared, bathing the pale limestone rocks both on the beach and that made up the hill in a stark, white light. Then Emma told a ghost story that fell flat.
"Hell that's not scary,” Ryder said. “You want to hear something, which I swear to Christ, if I tell you will make it almost impossible to sleep tonight."
"Oh, come on. You gonna tell me about that stupid tree now. What'd you call it? The Bloody Hangman?" Emma said mockingly.
"The Hangman is no damn joke," Ryder said, and all his charm and good humor vanished. "That tree is evil."
The girls stopped laughing and looked at one another.
"Listen baby," Cynthia began, "If you don't want to tell the story..."
But Ryder waved her off. "No. I'll tell it. But don’t blame me if it messes with your head," and as he spoke the flickering light from the fire caught his eyes, which did not seem red or clouded over in a drug and alcohol haze; instead, he had an intense, hard look that was filled with some long burning hatred.
"You see," Ryder began, "before the civil war, this whole area was mostly Germans, and this is about the only place in Texas that voted not to side with the confederacy, which people never forgot. So after the South lost the war there were a lot of people around here who were harboring grudges against anyone that voted to stay in the Union. Most of the ranchers that were here went belly up after the war because people would steal their cattle and horses, wreck their fences, and if they could find someone to work for them, it was only because they would rake those ranchers over the coals. In fact, we bought our land at a foreclosure auction. It had been in receivership for a long time, but nobody could make it out here back then, and the family that owned it abandoned it.”
"Well during that time there were lots of robbers, outlaws, and gunfighters running around, and this area was a kind of cross roads. It was close enough to San Antonio and Austin that they could get there easy, but far enough out that they could hide in the hills or just keep going out west into the desert. One of the guys that found a place to hide out right here, was called Bloody Henry Holland."
"Why bloody?" Emma blurted out.
"Because he killed at least eight people that they can prove, and they think he killed a lot more.” Ryder said. "But the name Bloody didn't stick to him till until the end. You see he robbed this bank in Fredericksburg and got like twenty or thirty thousand dollars. But in the middle of it a Texas Ranger came into the bank."
"Did he shoot the robber?" Cynthia asked.
"No. The ranger came in and Bloody Henry got the drop on him. The story is that he disarmed him and finished robbing the bank, but for some reason, he shot the guy on the way out. And," Ryder said, while holding up a finger to forestall any questions, "he'd already killed a few other rangers. One of them only about a mile from where we’re sitting. You see, he found a cave on that hill over there that he used as his hideout, but what he didn't know is that the rangers knew he'd found someplace to hide around here. They just didn't know where exactly, so they posted men here and waited. The rangers even told the sheriff in Fredericksburg not to chase him because they knew he was coming here.”
“That can’t be right,” Emma said. “I mean why wouldn’t they chase him? Nobody would come back here if they thought they were going to get caught.
“True,” Ryder said "But this is how I heard it. Anyway, Henry must have thought he was kissed by lady luck and dodged the law because even though six rangers rode straight to this spot and staked out the hill, Henry came back here too.”
“So they grabbed him and hung him from the tree.” Cynthia said.
But Ryder shook his head no again. “Not just yet. You see the rangers don't know where his hideout was, so they watched him." Then, for the first time since starting his story, he looked in the direction of both the hill and tree and pointed. "It's kinda hard to see in the dark, but do you see that big boulder in the middle of the cliff?"
Both Emma and Cynthia looked, and even though it took a few moments they both founded it and said so.
"Well behind that boulder is the entrance to the cave. It’s a tiny hole."
"Did you ever go in there?" Emma asked.
Ryder shook his head no, but added, "No. But when it was all over the rangers did. You see they were trying to recover the money Bloody Henry stole. Supposedly before that last robbery, he held up a stage coach and stole these gold coins the government used to make.”
“Did the rangers find the money?” Emma asked.
"And you never went in to look?"
Ryder looked at his joint, which had gone out, and then he leaned back over the fire and re-lit his spliff and took a deep drag. Then he shook his head. "If you ever go look at that hole, you’ll never want to go in it either. And the fact that the rangers never found anything probably has more to do with how they forced the Bloody Henry to come out."
"Do I want to know this?" Emma asked.
Ryder ignored this and continued, "You see, Henry may have been lots of things, but he wasn't dumb. He found a cave with a back door. In this case, it was this shaft that went through the hill and come out on the top right under that tree. The story goes Henry had even rigged up a rope ladder so he could make his escape."
"Then how'd they catch him?" Cynthia asked, a nervous note in her voice.
"Luck really. Like I said, they had guys all over these mountains, and once Henry went in the cave they thought they had him. The rangers yelled for him to come out, but he didn't, and rather than go in and get shot up, they just firebombed the cave. I don’t know what they used to do that, but whatever it was must have smoked pretty bad because about a minute or two later the rangers saw the smoke coming out of the top of the hill. It must have been one hell of a ride to get up there as fast as they did, or Henry was one slow climber. Either way, they manage to get to the top hill, and found Henry halfway out of the hole. They yelled for him to surrender but he shot one of them and then climbed back into the cave."
"So they shot him after that?" Emma said.
Again Ryder shook his head no. "Worse. They left two guys near the cave entrance and then just threw more firebombs down the shaft. They burned the rope so Henry couldn't get out that way, and it must have been pretty bad inside, because Henry crawled out at the bottom of the cave. They say he was almost dead by the time he got out, and if you believe the story, his skin was peeling away and had split from the heat."
"Then why is it called the hanging tree?" Emma asked.
"Because, like I said, he was almost dead,” Ryder said as he finished his joint and threw it in the fire. "The rangers carried him up to the top of the hill. Then they hung him off the tree by his ankles so that the vultures would get him. Supposedly he bleed all over the tree, and it has been cursed ever since. And the way my granddad tells it, the vultures left claw marks in the bark of the tree while they were tearing into him, and you know, knocking off bits of the bark. So if you go up there and try and peel any of the bark off, you’re supposed to be jinxed.”
“Why hasn’t anyone just chopped it down then?” Emma asked, her voice a little squeaky.
Ryder opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment a crash came from the direction of the hill as a rock clattered down the side and landed with a boom in the shallows about thirty feet off to the girls’ left. Both Emma and Cynthia jumped liked sprinters at the sound of a start pistol towards Ryder while shrieking like wounded banshees.
The girls collided with Ryder, who fell backwards, landing painfully on his back, while both girls fell on top of him, driving the wind out of his body. Then everything stopped for a moment, leaving only the echo of the screams and clattering rocks bouncing back and forth in a hellish decrescendo. As the noise faded, Ryder wheezed, “Get off of me.”
The girls scrambled up, and then Ryder gingerly sat up. “Is anyone hurt?” Cynthia asked. “I keep a first aid kit in the car.”
Eventually, everyone determined they were fine. But aside from checking themselves for cuts and scrapes nobody said anything until Ryder looked at Emma and said, “That’s why people don’t even go near that tree. Bad things happen to anyone who messes with it.”
Emma, who was very white and shaking visibly took a moment to respond, but eventually she said, “That can’t be right. This weed is making you paranoid.”
Cynthia hissed like at angry snake at Emma for this comment, but Ryder waved it off, “Trust me, it isn’t the weed making me say that.”
“Really?” Emma said, as she walked around the fire back to her place, and both Ryder and Cynthia could clearly see that while she was not cut, several of the smaller rocks on the ground had left indentations in her skin.
“Really.” Ryder said back, with a forced kindness. “The first time I ever had my nose broken was the day after I broke off just a tiny twig from that tree. It couldn’t have been any longer than this,” and Ryder held up his pinky and indicated only the portion of finger above his last joint. “And my grandpa, he actually took a chunk of bark off the tree when he was kid. The next day his horse spooked while he was walking behind her. She broke four of his ribs and made his spleen swell up so bad the doctors had to take it out.”
“Those could be just coincidences. What about your father?” Emma asked.
This time Cynthia actually got in between the two in order to stop the conversation, but the damage had been done. Ryder’s expression hardened and for a moment he looked like he was going to throw Emma in the fire, and then, without a word, he turned and stormed off, leaving an uncomfortable silence in his wake.
As soon as he was out of earshot Cynthia rounded on her friend. “Why couldn’t you just drop it?”
“What did I do?” Emma shot back just as hot. “All I did was I asked about his dad.”
“And it never occurred to you that he every time he talked about his family, he skipped over his father? That didn’t sink in!”
Emma looked confused and hurt, but she didn’t yield. “So what if he didn’t mention his dad. Half the girls in our sorority hate their dad and never say a thing about them unless it’s to talk about how horrid they are, and how they treat their mothers like trash. Why does he have to be different?”
“Because I loved my dad,” Ryder said softly from behind the girls, causing them both to jump.
Emma whirled about and saw Ryder standing just outside the firelight, but clearly visible in the moonlight only a few feet away. He was not looking at the girls though. He was looking right at the tree, which at their angle almost appeared to be backlit by the moon, making it appear, if anything, more sinister then it had before. “You asked me about people trying to cut down the tree.” Ryder said, although if he was talking to Emma or himself was impossible to figure out. “Well the truth is, my dad did try to cut it down, but only after he went into the cave and came back empty handed. He figured there must have been some kind of other little hole or something where Bloody Henry stashed his loot. Of course he didn’t find anything in the cave, but for some reason he figured that was only because it was hidden beneath that tree somewhere. With no ladder to climb, he figured the fastest way to figure it out was to chop the tree down.”
Ryder took a breath, and right when Emma was about to say something, he continued, “So he has got this chainsaw, which he had used a million times before, and starts sawing into that tree. And then for some reason the chainsaw just died. My dad didn’t know why. Everything seemed to be working correctly when he checked it, so he restarts the saw and starts cutting again, this time on the opposite side of the tree. Both times he gets about an inch into the wood and the motor dies. According to my grandpa that spooks my dad a little. He knew the tree’s reputation. Knew it was bad luck to mess with it. So rather than having his head taken off by this saw, he decides to be safe rather than sorry and took it into town to get checked.”
“He makes it to town with no problems, and the guys at the hardware store look everything over, and can’t figure out what’s going on. They tell my dad it’s fine. But my old man, you know. He’s nervous. Told them to keep the saw, and replace everything on it. Said he would come back for it and started driving home.”
Cynthia moved over to Ryder and tried to take his hand in hers, but he pulled away, still looking up at the tree. By now his deep voice had begun to sound hollow and dead, and Emma despite herself began to swear that she could smell the exhaust of the small motor and meat. But it was not the juicy smell of the hamburger she’d had earlier. It was a rotting or charred smell. Emma could not tell which, nor could she detect which direction it was coming from.
At the same time that Ryder was talking Emma could hear the water, and sensing how close she was to it, she invectively began moving towards the river, unsure of why at first. Unfortunately the sound and the distance were not enough to close her ears to the end of the story, and seemingly against her will, Emma heard Ryder telling about how his father was slashed up when he was tossed through the windshield of the car. The image of that alone was almost enough to make Emma sick, and combined with the smell in her nose she felt as if she was going to throw up, which in turn drove her towards the water faster.
As the warm water of the Guadalupe kissed her ankles it took all of Emma’s willpower not to throw herself face first into the water. The moon shone down, which in the rushing water of the shallows caused its light to dance and sparkle and made Emma feel as if she was walking on the Milky Way itself. At any other time it would be wondrous, but now it was an irritation that didn’t distract her attention away from the pungent miasma in her nose. Reaching down with cupped hands, Emma splashed her face, and when it failed to relieve her the first time, she drove her hand deeper into the river bed, pulling up rock, and water, and a $10 Liberty Head coin.
As soon as her flesh touched the coin it felt like centipedes began crawling down her spine, while simultaneously, from above her came a sound like a cat meowing. Only the sound was bleached out and elongated. Looking up, she spotted the source of the noise: vultures were circling the Bloody Hangman, and just for an instant, she swore she could see the body of a man hanging from the tree. She could not make out much detail from where she was, but there looked to be some kind of line, running from his jawbone down his throat and into his shirt. The eyes were empty and black, nevertheless they bored into her soul with a cutting malice.
Emma heard the click of what sounded like a pistol being cocked behind her. Then a voice that seemed to come from all sides, like the smell, said “that’s mine” and was followed by the bark of a revolver being fired. It was so loud that she dropped the gold coin back into the waters of the Guadalupe and for a moment the world stopped.
The world snapped back into its normal place, almost as if it were some kind of rubber band which had stretch and pulled itself almost to the point of breaking and then contracted back to its normal shape. A lightning bug lit up near Emma’s eyes, making her blink for a few seconds, and once her vision had cleared, she looked up at the Bloody Hangman, which for the first time since she had arrived only appeared to be a tree.
“Hey Emma,” Ryder’s voice called out, “you out there?”
“Yeah. I’m here.” she called back, breathing deeply and giddy at the discovery that the world smelled as it should. Turning, she looked at the water, and was relieved when she didn’t find a trace of anything that smacked of the gold coin which she was sure had just been in her hands.
Emma found Ryder and Cynthia by the fire. They were raiding the dutch oven for any leftover peach cobbler. “Can I get a bit of that?” Emma asked weakly.
“Sure.” Ryder said in his normal voice, but to Emma he still looked distant and she could see that only a smidgen of his usual charm had returned.
The three ate in silence. Emma, for her part had no desire to relate what she’d seen in the river, and as far as she could tell Cynthia and Ryder were simply trying to avoid talking about the tree. After the cobbler, conversation died down, and the three friends each watched the dying coals, lost in their own thoughts.
“Well. Goodnight then,” Ryder said, standing up suddenly and heading towards a tent.
“I think I’ll follow him.” Cynthia said, standing as well.
“Goodnight,” Emma called after their retreating backs, and then almost without realizing it added, “and Ryder. Thanks for telling me about your dad.”
Ryder stopped and looked at her for a moment--the dying light from the weak fire giving his face a shadowy appearance. “Don’t mention it,” he said. “I hate that tree, but you’re right. It could have all just been coincidence. I’ll never know.”
“No. I guess we can’t know.” Emma said.
Ryder turned to follow Cynthia into their tent but Emma stopped him by saying, “Your dad. What did he do?”
Ryder looked at at Emma for a moment. “He was a social worker. He helped kids that had been in juvenile hall get back into the school. That kind of thing. Why?”
For the briefest of moments Emma glanced towards the tree and for the second time she could make out the man hanging by his ankles off the Bloody Hangman, a rictus grin stretching the scar she noticed earlier. “No reason,” she said trying to keep her voice steady. “I guess I was just spooked a little and thought he might have been a cop of some kind,” Emma said.
“No. He wasn’t a cop. He knew lots of them though. One of them even gave him this old revolver that had been in his family a while. It had this pearl handle with a golden star set into the handle.”
Emma nodded, and said, “Cool. See you in the morning?”
“Yeah. See you then,” Ryder said went into his tent.
A breeze picked up, and shivering slightly, Emma got into her tent as well. She turned to zip up the flap she caught one last glimpse of the tree. There was nothing hanging from it when she looked, but she quickly closed the tent and tried to sleep. Instead she lay wide awake waiting for the sun to rise and a chance to escape the twisted vigil of the bloody tree on the hill.