I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights...
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
-- The Edda

Men and women clutching hastily-grabbed pails and flashlights worked themselves into a ragged bucket brigade, snaking up the ridge toward the growing flames. More and  more came running from the lower shacks to help. Hippies frantically passed water, drawn somewhere below, hand to hand in a futile effort to douse the fire. But it was an inferno now, roaring higher by the second.

The dancing circle of light spread, finally, to the spot where Milo lay stunned.   

Azalia Dawn spotted him first. “There he is! Get him!!”

“Not again,” Milo thought. He tried unsteadily to winch himself to his feet, and managed a few steps before hard hands grabbed him and threw him back down.

“You goddamned pyro!” Azalia Dawn screamed  at the top of her lungs. She kicked him viciously. “The instruments! My guitar's in there!”

She was weeping great tearing sobs. Then her face contorted even further and she screamed, “String him up!”.

Her voice was husky, the veins in her neck stood out like unearthed tree roots, her eyes wide with wrath.

Odd thoughts enter the minds of the condemned. Azalia Dawn suddenly seemed alluring to Milo.

Several men dragged him to a nearby arbutus tree, rabbit-punching him as he writhed, trying to break their hold on him. The gentle faded patchwork colors of  their hand-me-down, hand-embroidered threads contrasted sharply with cold, dark murderous faces. 

They began chanting:  “String him up...!  String him up...!

“Yo-you don't understand!” Milo gasped through blood-laced snot and spittle. “I didn't mean to...”

“Too late, brother! You gonna pay!” a single venomous voice rose above the rest.

Then the mob fell silent with anticipation.

The only sound was the roar and crackle of the blazing ruins behind them. Somebody threw a worn hemp rope over a heavy branch.  Anonymous eager hands fought with each other to tighten a crude, hasty loop around Milo's neck.

Suddenly, Rory materialized, flying, like an angel, chest heaving with the effort of running up the hill. The flames painted her face and her disarrayed halo of hair bright as she waded fearlessly into the mob.

She raised both hands in either benediction or protest, and opened her mouth, gasping, struggling to speak. She held the mindless mob briefly, silently still, willing it to draw it back from the tipping point, to grant life instead of death.

She'd been just too late. The pent-up frenzy she'd held back crashed around her like storm waves, engulfing everybody around and sweeping her back to the mob's edges.

“Say your fucking prayers, freak!” Azalia Dawn shouted, darkly triumphant

The rope went taut.

“No! No! NO!”  Wheeler bellowed, striding with authority from somewhere in the darkness below. 

He pushed to the front of the mob, where Milo spun half-hoisted on precarious tiptoes, eyes tight shut, jaw clenched, bracing himself for the final snap of the rope.The mindless rabble recomposed itself, became sentient again, realized Wheeler was there, still in charge.

Bill whiffed a  strong, uncharacteristic rank smell, and concluded, correctly, that Milo had shit his pants. Instinctively, to stop himself gagging, he turned back  to face the crowd, gulped unfouled air, and swallowed hard.

Milo relaxed one eyelid to a bare slit when he felt the rope slacken, but could see only exploding stars on a field of pulsing red. He gasped raggedly for breath, felt the air pound in to his starved lungs, and strained to listen.

“This is Ahimsa!"  Wheeler was saying, almost quietly. "If you do this, everything we stand for -- everything I have worked so hard to build here -- dies too!”

The fire crackled agreement. The only other sound was Milo's quiet, sobbing breathing.  Fearfully, as the red explosions cleared from his vision, he tried to make out his tormentors.

His focus pulled out past Wheeler's near, half-lit outline, picking through the tiny rabble's shamed faces, until he could make out the half-darkness beyond. His head snapped forward as far as the rope would allow, when he saw.

“Thank the gods!  Just this once...!" He mumbled mushily through his broken, swelling mouth.

“You don't hafta vorry about him no more,” shouted Furlonger. 

Surprised, the unraveling  mob spun backward, from where a giant of a woman and a vile-looking, shrivelled old man came. Behind them, stretching far into the darkness and flickering like a Super 8 home movie flashed on pale wind-blown curtains, was a long ectoplasmic chain which might have been fleeting, transparent forms of tens of thousands of past lives. All seemed to wear the uncomfortable slumped posture of a certain M. Pavlov.

Suddenly, there on the ridge at Ahimsa, it seemed as if all of the world's air had been sucked noiselessly away. There was a cosmic pause. An involuntary, protracted hesitation.  A collective, universal blink in space/time. Then air rushed back into the inexplicable void.

“Where'd he go?” someone yelled. 

As one, the disoriented hippies turned back toward Wheeler. He stood, dramatic under the arbutus tree, the empty noose swinging gently behind him.  The crowd swivelled their faces back out again, but there was no trace of ectoplasm left on the crisp air of the late winter mountain evening. There was nothing to see now but their own flickering shadows, falling downslope from the fire light.

What had they seen?  Stunned silence gripped them all again.  Many more long seconds passed.

Azalia Dawn's radiant anger was gone, deflated.  Furtive shadows of shame had darkened her to something quite ugly.

Rory wouldn't look at her. She hugged her own chest and stared out over the darkened valley at something unseeable.  Her mouth twitched wordlessly as silent, fire-brightened tears cascaded down her face.

Wheeler drew a rasping breath.

“And if you ever come back,"  he said, quietly, nearly conversationally, "I'll kill you with my own bare hands,”  He sounded oddly humble. Perhaps even contrite. Almost as if he was giving a benediction.

The group fell silent again.

They watched as, far below them, dozens of dim cones of yellow incandescence that flashed and bobbed almost randomly, raking through rolling dust clouds thrown up by turning wheels on the gravel road. They neared the base of the ridge, and the cones resolved into tiny automobile headlights weaving a winding pattern that converged on the commune's gate.

Members of any isolated rural community knew too well what flames of that size boded, and were heading to offer what help they could. Hippies, the residents of Ahimsa may have been. Viewed with ambivalence, certainly. But they were also neighbors in need, and the code of such places in such times was unbending, even when those who would offer their help knew they were already too late.