On the southern edge of Bedlam, back in 1869, stood a tall old oak tree. Its 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 its 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 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 again, the souls of the innocent and the guilty alike were welcomed into its inner sanctum.
In regard to the exact amount of men who’d come to their death by hanging from this tree, we have no accurate account. No official records had ever been kept. The tree was used for that purpose long before folks moved into the surrounding area. There was this one old widow who said she’d lived around those parts her whole life. She claimed to know of at least one hundred hangings, but she’d been prone to exaggerate so often in the past, that people took everything she said with a grain of salt. Her then deceased husband had been party to 50 hangings himself, or so she said. Furthermore, her father once told her that he had participated in, or witnessed a hanging on this very tree 30 to 40 different times. Some of these hangings were done legally, the job having been performed and carried out to its conclusion by men of the law doing their duty. Some of these hangings were accomplished on the sly. People turned their heads and looked away at such times, not in a state of disgust, or what have you, but they’d learned that it was better not to impose themselves on those types of men, because that was just asking for trouble.
This is how the legend began. The rumors caught a ride on the word of one man. The rumor spread as rumors do, and shortly thereafter the story was true. This man, named John, had had a very nasty and hateful trick pulled on him. It all happened one night about five years before the events of our story. Some rowdy drunk cowboys thought they’d teach their sissy friend a lesson. They were out to avenge themselves of the monies he’d taken from them in a fair and square game of poker. They’d been playing in the home of one of these here cowboys. After the game was over, they accused John of cheating. “We oughta hang your ass for that!” said the leader of the gang, as he winked in jest to his comrades. All in a ruckus, they grabbed him up and forcefully led him out the door. They all put on a good act, and their overly sensitive friend was truly frightened. The man of the house grabbed a rope and off they went, walking John towards the hanging tree. The man’s face was racked with terror. He stumbled along as he wept, but as they reached their destination, the men were witness to a great transformation, and a truly unnerving conversion experience took place right before their very eyes. John’s complexion had completely changed. He’d gone from terrified to peaceful, and from the pale-face look of imminent death, to the beaming reflection of a magnified life in just a matter of minutes. These cowboys thought the man on the brink of disaster, and called off the joke immediately. “We were just kidding around,” was their excuse. The man was never the same from that day forward. He later claimed to have seen his entire life flash before his eyes, but that’s not all. John also claimed to have seen the lives of a hundred other men who’d made that same walk in days gone by. He hung all the responsibility for what he had seen, and for what he had felt on the hanging tree. The oak tree had kindly fed him this information in such a way that it made him feel as if he were about to enter into its midst. This man had gotten the idea into his head that the souls of those men whose lives he’d seen were somehow inside the tree, and that’s how it came to be perceived as haunted. The legend continued to spread its growth, as did the tree, year after year. It has been my pleasure to spread it around a little bit more as I’ve done today.