The Hanging Tree Of Bedlam: Second Coming

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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.

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The Hanging Tree Of Bedlam

20091229211135_hangingtree*

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.

Continue reading

Chapter Thirteen

Sam couldn’t help but stop and reminisce once they’d reached the hanging tree. It had been seven or eight years since the last time he’d been party to a posse. He had his first brush with death towards the end of that ordeal. A bullet had gone clean through his hat, missing his scalp by a mere two inches. It was one of those memories that are impossible to forget. The kind that often come to mind at the most inopportune of moments. Of course, he’d heard the stories going the rounds, but he didn’t believe them for a minute. Sam was too down-to-earth to entertain any ideas about ghosts. “A bunch of malarkey,” according to him. He rather viewed the big oak as a landmark. It was the only one of its kind in the area and stuck out like a sore thumb. When he dropped Luke’s rope down beside it, he explained to the men, “Its weight is slowing me down. We may be in for a long ride.” That’s all he said. His men had to be wondering about that excuse, and we can imagine they thought he really did mean to hang the fugitive if they caught him, but they kept their mouths shut.

They’d all heard the reason he gave Luke for needing the rope. They thought Sam had a change of mind since he’d first questioned Deputy McCoy. Perhaps, he’d come to his senses, they thought. None of his men really wanted to participate in a murder and risk going to jail, or worse. They didn’t know what to think about Sam’s latest action. They didn’t know if they could take him at his word, although they wished to. Their job was their life, and it was in his hands. The men kept their reservations to themselves. Second-guessing Sam was never a good idea. It didn’t matter now anyway, Sam was already second-guessing himself. The winds of change were making themselves known.

Let me tell you about Sam. To begin with, he was a large man. He stood over six feet tall, and weighed somewhere around two hundred and fifty pounds. A good decade past his prime, he’d turn fifty years of age that coming December. He’d not married, although he claimed to have once been in love. He wanted to go West and she didn’t. End of story. When he was in the mood for romance, which wasn’t all that often, he’d visit a woman friend who kept a room on the saloon’s second floor. Sam never knew his father. He abandoned his mother when he was a wee tot. Sam regretted the way it all went down when he left his mother back in St. Louis. He was thirty years old at the time. It wasn’t a good parting. She died of tuberculosis before he gained the means to make his first return back home.

Renowned as a rambunctious self-made man, Sam also knew the value of saving money. He was finally able to buy that dream ranch of his, and did so during the year of 1864. Sam was reliable, trustworthy, and loyal. He demanded those traits from his hired-hands. And, for the most part, he received it. He wasn’t afraid to act on a hunch, either. Sam thought he knew where he might find the murderer, or at least pick up his trail, and that’s where they were headed. His was an educated guess. In the past, bank robbers, horse thieves, and other hardened criminal types were known to have hid themselves out in a small cave not too far on past the river. The way Sam figured it, if the stranger wasn’t there, and they saw no sign of his tracks, then he was probably headed to Mexico, and that would be the end of the chase. “We did the best we could,” he imagined himself saying. Nothing more would need to be said in the way of a justification.

Of course, everyone has fears, and Sam was no exception. He had his own private insecurities, but he never spoke of them, and would never have admitted them out loud. More than death itself, Sam feared losing the powers of his two-armed beast. One of those arms represented his place in society. Sam loved his hard-earned success. He loved what he’d made of himself, and his ranch gave him the means to do good business. He hoped to make a fortune from the land, and he was well on his way to doing just that. Sam loved his money more than he loved speedy justice. Oh, yes! He wanted to hang that sonuvabitch, but Sam had a business deal scheduled for Tuesday. He only had two days to play with, and then he’d have to be back. He didn’t want to miss that meeting for anything. Oh sure, he thought catching the bad guy was a good idea, but it wasn’t paramount. Not in his book, anyway. And his book was the one of financial security. Sam was somewhat content, but he thought he could handle more. He was sorely afraid of becoming poor and destitute somewhere down the road.

The other arm of this fearful beast was the arm of physical prowess. He’d made a habit out of playing the tough guy. Men feared his very presence, and that bought him a peculiar type of respect. He could push people around without laying one finger on them. That’s the way he liked it, and that’s the way he wanted it. It provided him with an odd sort of happiness. Sam wasn’t ready to give up that respect. He wanted to retain his reputation as a bad ass. This characterization gave him a heightened sense of self-esteem and made him feel important. Intellectually, he knew it couldn’t last forever. His power of strength would slowly fade away someday, and he was beginning to realize the nearness of that stage.

Sam never necessarily intended on breaking the law. He couldn’t afford to. This excursion and his role in it as the leader of the pack was his game. That was his hype. He was putting on a show, and Sam was a well-polished actor. Daily, he practiced perfecting his “Don’t mess with me!” persona. Sam could act genuinely outraged, when in all actuality, he wasn’t mad in the least. He put on a display and assumed the posture of authority, which in turn acted as a deterrent, and an efficient one at that. Now that Sam and his men were decidedly on the side of the law, their choices as to what they could do were limited. If indeed they did end up catching the murderer, they’d have to bring him back alive, or kill him in self-defense. That was their only other choice, but it would work all the same. It was a plausible possibility. Most importantly, it could be carried out in complete compliance with the law of the land. Sam had enough witnesses to back up his story, if that’s how it all came down. He was ready and able to do just that, and prepared himself accordingly.

Chapter Seven

Luke spent most of the morning pacing the floor and torturing himself over a certain secret and the type of confession he’d deliver to the deputy in the form of a testimonial. He liked to think of himself as an honest man. His parents brought him up to believe that honesty was the best policy. But was it? In every case? He was beginning to believe otherwise. The talking to he gave himself went something like this: “What harm is there in withholding this kind of information? Besides, if I answer truthfully with a full disclosure, it will only exacerbate the future consequences that shall stem from this particular crime. It wouldn’t diminish the hardships that are sure to follow for all those concerned, namely those two kids. Quite to the contrary, telling the truth would surely increase their emotional pain for many years to come. Those kids have been through enough. Haven’t they? Why make matters worse? And what about our town? We want folks to move here. We wish to be a thriving community. We’re just getting started. We simply can’t afford to let this kind of news get out and damage our town’s reputation. It’s not worth it. Case closed. I will not tell all. No way.”

Around 10 o’clock that morning, Luke headed out and made his way to the deputy’s office. Building a jailhouse was on the town’s agenda, but not yet in the works, and they were still awaiting their duly appointed County Sheriff. Deputy McCoy did his best to play the part of a lawful, but temporary keeper of the peace. He was a meek and timid man who’d had an easy go of it so far. The town was nearly crime-free before he arrived, and was still free from violent crimes since he’d taken on the job. The horrible goings-on of the night before were unlike any he’d ever seen, and he was beside himself as to what he should do next, and how he would go about carrying out the law given what he had to work with, which wasn’t much. He was expecting Luke that morning, but not the group of men who showed up a few minutes before Luke’s appearance. It was Luke’s new boss accompanied by a half-dozen hired-hands. The deputy knew Sam as the most powerful man in town, and thus showed him due respect.

While in the general store, Sam and his men heard the news. Their sadness quickly turned to anger, and now they’d come to see what was being done about it. Sam wasn’t too happy when he saw the deputy sitting there doing nothing, although he was impressed to hear that his most recent hire was the new hero in town. Sam, by the way, was not averse to killing. He’d lived through a couple of gunfights. The result was death for both opponents. Being a rich landowner, when it came to taking the law into one’s own hands, he knew the ropes, so to speak. A killer was on the loose, and he intended on doing whatever was necessary to apprehend the criminal. Then he’d mete out justice according to the unspoken rules of the West.

Luke knew going in what he’d say, and how he’d say it. He knew that if he told them he saw the foreigner leaving town just as the fire started, and that he was the only one in the vicinity at the time, then obviously they’d have to assume that the stranger was the guilty party. Instinctively, Luke had his doubts about that assumption, but he also looked at the big picture, and by that I mean the future. This was his town, too, and he wanted the best for his family. Someone was going to pay for this and they only had one suspect. He had to tell them who he’d seen. Whatever happened after that was beyond his control. That he knew. Furthermore, there’d be no more blood on his hands, not if he could help it.

Luke walked in and received a warm reception. Everyone wanted to shake his hand and brand him a hero. Luke had no way of knowing his new employer would be there. It threw him for a loop, and knocked him somewhat off balance. Sam was proud of him, no doubt, and told him as much in no uncertain terms. Luke was flattered, but also embarrassed from all the attention. Sam proceeded to take over the whole affair from there, and the deputy shrank back into the corner. “Have a seat, Luke, and tell us what happened. No need to spare the details. We’re all men here.”

Even though Luke had just been through hell, he was none the worse for wear. He enabled himself to remain calm, and gave an overall coherent account of what he’d seen, and what he’d done. Here and there he’d feel the need to explain himself. Naturally, he got emotional, and a few tears escaped their entrapment. When it was time to purposely skip over the unbelievable part of the story, his heart began to race. He stammered a bit, but kept it to himself as planned. The secret was his, and his alone. He already felt its weight.

Sam thanked Luke for the pertinent information. It was enough and all he needed. There was a suspect and they had sufficient cause to go after him. The evidence was circumstantial. No motive could be comprehended. That didn’t matter to Sam, he could overlook those things. What they needed was justice and someone to blame. They already had the latter, and he’d take care of the former.

Proceeding to put forth his plan, Sam glared at the deputy, “If my men will help form a posse, will you swear us in?” The deputy immediately consented. Raising one eyebrow and wearing a smirk, Sam asks, “Will it be legal? Officially, that is?” The deputy replied, “I think so. At least, I’m pretty sure it would be, sir. I know the words. All you’ll have to do is raise your right hands, and repeat after me.” Sam was content with his answer. The law would be on their side. He offered his men a substantial bonus, and asked them if they’d agree to join him in this exceedingly dangerous endeavor. All the men nodded in agreement. “Good!” Sam continued, “As you know, we have no way to keep this man jailed and locked away. I say we swap the speedy trial for a speedier delivery of the penalty. It might be months before we could get a court and judge to convene. We haven’t the time nor the patience to wait around for who knows how long? That foreigner is guilty. Who else could it be? We have a witness.” Sam turns to Luke and smiles. “He is trustworthy, and comes highly recommended.” Luke remained silent, and kept a straight face.

“Now, Deputy McCoy, answer me this,” says Sam with an imploring tone. “If we catch this vicious wanted murderer…can we hang him high tonight? Yes, or no, Deputy. Answer me at once!”

Chapter Six

Fortunately for Luke, his second cry for help was heard. A couple of men he knew from the neighborhood heeded his call and came running. They soon realized they’d arrived too late. The men found the children kneeling between their dear mother and older brother. “Oh, my! What happened?” asked the elder of the two men. The ladies shortly filled them in. The more nervous of the two women said, “Luke went around the back. No more than two minutes ago or so. Hurry on and go help the poor man! Will ya?” Then the little girl spoke out earnestly, “Daddy’s in there, too!” By now she was thoroughly shaking and trembling in her fright. The pastor’s youngest son sat in shock and disbelief, fighting back tears and trying to act like a big boy.

The men dashed on and away to the rear of the church. They could tell the fire had reached its peak, and weren’t sure if they’d go in there or not for any reason. It was a death trap. That much was for certain. No one in there could be alive. Luckily for them, they were too late, and didn’t have to make the choice. They found an unconscious Luke lying on his belly, far too close to danger. The full moon was bright up above them that night, and they could plainly see the blood on the palms of both his hands and on his pants from the knees on down. By the looks of him they could tell he’d just come out from inside the place. Seeing him there like that scared the living daylights out of the two of them, and they feared the worst. “Luke! Luke! Wake up!” Each of the men grabbed an arm. They lifted him halfway off the ground, and started dragging him away to safety.

Next thing Luke knows, two men are pulling him along on the ground. He started coughing and gagging again. “It’s alright, Luke! We got you,” said the young man fervently. “Are you alright?” Groggy and delirious Luke replied in a rough and barely audible voice, “Preacher man…in there…gotta get ‘m out.” The older man firmly spoke, “It’s no use, Luke. It’s too late. You’re lucky you made it out alive. No one’s going in there now. I won’t allow it. It’s over. You did all you could. Those two kids out front are alive because of you. Thank God for that!” Turning to his younger companion, he proceeded to bark out an order.”This man needs a drink. Go get him some water. Pronto!”

October 31st, 1869

Luke woke up in bed the next morning after a restless night’s sleep. Every move he’d made during his rescue mission kept flashing through his mind in off-sequence bits and pieces. He began to ponder over the stranger. “What was his motive for committing such a horrendously bloody murder?” Then it occurred to Luke that he didn’t have to tell everyone about everything he’d seen. He thought, “Wasn’t it enough that the pastor’s throat had been slit? Why put their kids through all that senseless rigmarole? What difference does it make anyway?” He knew he’d have to visit the deputy that day. Luke’s conscience notified him that he was now considering keeping this terrible secret to himself. Then a quiet voice reminded him that withholding information is seldom a good idea, and it might be something he’d often remember for the rest of his life. Luke shook off these pestering thoughts as he got up and out of bed. Somewhere deep down in his soul, he just knew he’d make the right choice when the moment of decision presented itself.

Chapter Five

Luke wasn’t about to rush into the fire ill-prepared. He knew he needed to preserve his strength, but there was something above and beyond that, and that something was his life. He wasn’t ready to make that kind of sacrifice for another. He couldn’t afford to lose his neck over this. He had to be cautious. He had a wife and kids at home who needed him…who loved him. As he trotted slowly towards the rear of the now defunct church, Luke knew he had to make it back out alive. He simply had to. That was his first priority. “The pastor might not be in there anyway.”

A few steps later, the magnificent sight of the ongoing blaze challenged his reasoning. He thought, “I have to be stupid to be doing this.” At that exact moment, his memory brought up a good point. It allowed him to remember the last time he’d used that word. It was when he’d called the stranger ‘”stupid” for leaving town that very night. “Oh, my God! Did he start this? Why would he do such a thing? He wasn’t even running away.” But he’d made it around to the back by now, and he hadn’t the time to question himself further. As Luke stood right there in front of the door, his fears came to the surface once again.

He hesitantly paused to listen to his conscience. Luke figured he ought to put forth an earnest plea to God Almighty, even though he was more than a little upset with Him and His Will. He sighed, and shook a bowed head, “It’s all stupid.” But Luke was a man of habit, so he stuck to his guns and prayed out loud, “Lord, have mercy on me.” Then silently he added, “After all…this is your house!”

Not wishing to waste any more precious seconds, Luke kicked the door with the bottom of his boot smack-dab beside the handle. It flew open. He ducked and covered his head with his arms as the smoke and heat rushed out. Two seconds later he opened his eyes, and peered into the building. In the forbidding sight, he light from the flames could dimly be seen flickering here and there. He couldn’t make anything out, except for the floor at his feet. He got down on his hands and knees and crawled through the doorway. “Hello? Hello? Anybody in there?” But no answer came forth. He wasn’t surprised. Luke visualized the last time he’d been in the church. He remembered that there was a low platform not far from where he was right then. A piano and a pulpit were the only things on it. He’d seen and heard the pastor rehearsing his first sermon in there a couple of days before. Luke aimed himself for center stage.

The wooden floors had begun to absorb the heat, and felt warm on his hands. Creeping along quickly, Luke soon reached the platform. He got himself up on it and continued on anxiously. Barreling ahead, he suddenly ran his shoulder into the piano. “Almost there.” He slowed down to get a better view, but the dark grey smoke was thickening fast. Using both hands, he reached and searched around on the floor as he moved along. Just a little further on he touched something hard. “Ah, here it is.” Luke stuck his right arm out in front of him, and waved it back and forth, afraid of what he might touch next. He was hectically zigzagging here and there when his left hand felt a cool wetness. He looked down at a puddle of blood. Instantly Luke became dizzy and felt even more nauseous. His right hand reflexively covered his mouth, as he stared aghast at the other hand and gagged. In a fit of determination, he willed himself to move and follow the dark red trail. A second later he found what he was looking for, but it was worse than he expected. He blinked and squinted to get a better view, hoping his eyes had deceived him. No such luck. The pastor’s throat had been slit. He lay there on his back with both arms straight out to the sides. His shirt was ripped open, and there was a large gash at the bottom of his rib cage on the left side. It was a deep, wide, gory open wound. It appeared to Luke as if someone had taken a knife and cut out his heart. But he couldn’t make himself believe it. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever do such a thing, and he made himself ignore the very thought of it. The pastor’s silver cross was still around his neck, hanging off to the side. Blood continued to flow from his throat, and on down the chain. Drip after drip, it dropped from the cross and onto the killing floor. Stunned and stupefied, Luke’s heart skipped a beat. The terrifying cruelty behind this horrid scene became too much for Luke to bear. Tears of grief streamed down his cheeks from his burning, inflamed eyes, blurring his vision. Luke convulsively shivered and shook from his head down to his toes. He turned his head to the side and vomited, adding the contents of his stomach to the gross pool of blood. He felt the nearness of death in his own person, and he knew he had to act quickly.

His first thought was to grab the still warm corpse by the feet and drag it out. He could leave it behind the church, so the children wouldn’t have to see this gruesome sight; a sight they’d surely remember for the rest of their lives. With an abrupt realization, Luke felt that his heart was beating at too rapid of a pace, and he found himself gasping for air right then and there. All the symptoms of asphyxiation were settling into his system. He had to get out, and get out now before he fainted. That much he knew. He looked around at the flames of destruction to size up the situation — to see if he could buy himself a little more time. In his current state of confusion, he concluded he did. He’d leave the pastor’s body there for now, and come back for it as soon as he’d recovered a bit. Begrudgingly, he turned himself around and began crawling towards the exit. Luke was fast losing his strength. It took everything he had to close the distance between himself and the door.

He’d barely made it through the door when his strength gave way. He collapsed to the ground, and lay there on his stomach. His head was throbbing in pain. His clothes — soaked in sweat. “I’ll go back in a minute…need a few seconds…need to rest.” His thoughts dropped away and he shut his eyes. He fell unconscious an instant later.

Chapter Four

Luke was shaken to the core by the little girl’s question, but it was all the inspiration he needed to do what must be done. Determined to carry out her wish to the fullest measure, Luke vanquished any and all misgivings he had about going back in there. He didn’t hesitate for a moment, even though he was putting his own life on the line in doing so. The little cozy home had turned into a fiery furnace, and he hastened to make his way through the harsh smoke. It had worsened. Thick and all-encompassing, the dark gray fumes escaped through every nook and cranny. Smoke was enveloping the entire house, and Luke was doing his best to remain calm and collected.

Once at the entrance, he could vaguely tell the furniture had also begun to go up in flames. To the smell of burning wood, the upholstery added another dimension. The foul stench and stinking scents forced Luke to take short, quick breaths and he remained close to the floor as he coursed through and around the dangerous obstacles in his path. Once safely into the bedroom, he found the bed and attempted to awaken the mother one last time, even though he knew it’d be useless. Luke’s instincts informed him that he needed to get out of there immediately! He got down on his knees and pulled her onto and over his shoulder. She was a heavy load, but he would bear the burden. He slowly stood up and found his balance, then lugged her out the bedroom door. He was feeling the weight, and physical exhaustion was settling in from exertion and lack of oxygen. Finally, they reached the front door and stepped out. Just in the nick of time! They were only a few feet out into the yard when he heard the crash of the roof caving in right behind them.

Luke spotted the children on the grass, and continued walking directly at them to bring them their most precious possession. “These kids have lost their mother, their brother, and possibly their father, too! How on earth do I tell them? What’ll I say now?” he pondered. The little girl and boy were now huddled around their big brother. He sees two older ladies coming quickly towards them in bedclothes and house robes. “It’s about time someone showed up,” he thought with a sense of relief. But they had already been bewitched by the magic of the huge healthy fire, and its hypnotic effects were clear. Luke could see it in their eyes. “Not much help,” he mumbled to himself in his frustration.

Feeling his strength draining away, Luke reaches the children and goes down on one knee, gently laying their mother beside their brother. “Mommy? Mommy? What’s wrong?” the kids ask, rushing over to surround her. Their sobs increased tremendously, because now they knew something was wrong. Very wrong! Luke backed away indecisive. Looking at the two children…blackened from the smoke, but alive and basically unscathed…seeing them there in a panic, confused by the concept of death…all together now…the whole scene for Luke was bewildering. Coming out of this perplexed state of mind got easier for him when the neighbor ladies arrived. They seemed to understand what happened without even asking. Luke had been wrong about those two not being able to help, and he felt sorry for having assumed as much.

Luke stared in amazement at what was once a home, and realized how lucky he was to make it out of there. His gaze turns to the church, then it strikes him. “I have to go in there?” He looks back at the kids, “Is that where your father is?” The two worried little ones nod in the affirmative. Luke knew he must steady himself, although he had no time to waste. He concentrated on gathering up his strength and courage by taking a deep breath, but as soon as he tried, he activated a coughing fit. Beads of perspiration instantly formed on his forehead. An invigorating cool breeze caught him by surprise, and sent chills up and down his spine. He shivered and shook for a moment or two. “Take little breaths,” he told himself, and he found that this he could do. This small amount of brisk air sprung him back to life somewhat, and alerted him to his current predicament. Now having the will to go on, he clearly saw the task set before him. “I must go get their father,” was the only thought he had. The strength behind this thought banished any and all fears from his person.

Until, that is, he took his first foreboding step towards the inflamed building. Doubt has a way of getting around the strongest of wills, and Luke was no exception to this rule. He knew he had a fight on his hands, and that it was going to take place inside him. The front half of the church was getting the worst of it, so he headed on around to the back door where fear would meet hope head on.

Chapter Three

Luke was flat-out flying towards the fire! Then suddenly a thought crossed his mind. He dug in his heels and stopped in his tracks. After turning around to face the town, he cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “Help! Help!”, as loud as he could. Then Luke took off again at a mad speed, deciding on the way he should go to the pastor’s home first. They were probably all in bed with no clue as to what was happening. He arrived at their front door in less than a minute and reached for the handle. Luckily, before he touched it, it occurred to him that the handle might be hot. He also remembered to expect a lot of smoke. Then he pounded a closed fist on the door thrice.  He reached both hands behind his neck, untied the knot on his bandanna and used that on the door handle. In a flash, he swung open the door, jumped back and over to the side letting the smoke billow out. After a few seconds, Luke could see in through the doorway pretty well. Before he entered, he stopped and tied the bandanna over his nose and mouth.

Luke knew the whereabouts of the two bedrooms. He instantly decided to head toward the larger bedroom to awaken the pastor and his wife. The flames and smoke were obviously coming from the kitchen area. He might have thought its cause accidental, if not for the fact that the church went up in flames simultaneously. Luke absolutely knew he had no time to investigate, and continued his march towards the bedroom. The door was open. He entered and looked at the bed, seeing only the mother laying there immobile, flat on her back. Luke was sorely afraid that preacher man was over at the church. “Get up! Get up!” he yelled as he ran to her. He took hold of her shoulders and shook her, “Wake up! Wake up!”, but there was no response forthcoming. “The children, the children,” he thought, and let her be. As he was leaving the room he noticed the wad of sheets ruffled up at the end of the bed. Two blankets and one of the pillows lay innocently on the floor. The air was becoming more noxious by the minute. As he hurried through the doorway, he remembered hearing these words that once came from the voice of his father, “Stay calm. Stay calm.”

As he made his way to the children’s room, he distinctly heard the little girl cry out, “Mommy? Mommy?” He rushed in,”C’mon! C’mon! Get up! We gotta get outta here!” The girl was fine, but extremely frightened. She recognized Luke, even though he was wearing the bandanna, and allowed him to wrap her up in the quilt, and pick her up in his arms. He spun around to look in the boy’s direction, and the youngest was already coming towards him, coughing and carrying his blanket. Luke moved the girl to hold her in one arm, grabbed the boy’s hand, and began to walk them out, stooping down a ways into cleaner air as he went. He turned his head back towards the other boy who also lay there still as could be.  Luke let out a another quick,”Wake up! Wake up!”, but the boy wasn’t moving, so off he went, pulling the little one behind him. “Thank God, these two are okay, at least!” Luke thought to himself, instead of thanking the Lord directly.

The kitchen was all ablaze by this time. Crackling and loud popping sounds could be heard as the group exited through the front door, and on out into the fresh chilled air of the night. Luke didn’t see anyone else out there, and began to wonder if he was going to get any help at all from the neighbors. Ten seconds later, they were a safe distance away from the nasty smoke and scorching flames. As he sat the girl on the slightly wet grass, he bade the two sit down. “Stay here! I’ll be right back.” Shooting a glance over at the church, it looked to him like the entire front half of the structure was aflame. “Holy smokes is right!” came to his mind for the very first time in the truest sense.

Smoke was rolling out of the door by now, so he crouched down low to make his way back to the bedroom for the eldest. The boy still hadn’t moved. Luke grabbed his thigh and shook him, but gathered no response. “Damn, Lord! He was a good kid!” Luke pulled him off the bed, and slung him over his shoulder, staying low as he trudged his way back out. He’d never carried a dead child before, and it felt horrible. Simply horrible! He finally reached the other two and lay the boy beside them. Pleadingly, the girl asks, “Where’s Mommy?” Luke’s heart sunk to his stomach. Their mother had already given up the ghost. He was sure she’d taken her last breath some time ago. “I’m going to get her now, dear. Let your older brother be. He needs rest.” Luke had no qualms about telling this lie.

Catching what breath he could as he headed back in, he found himself angry from the turmoil, but all the while he felt his heart being broke in two. “Here we go again, Lord. Stay with me. What will I tell the children this time out?” But Luke didn’t have time to wait for an answer. He wondered, “Where is everybody? I wish my wife was here.” Again he blasted out to the town, “Help! Help!”

Chapter Two

Luke was a God-fearing man, although he didn’t see himself as overly religious. He took The Bible at its Word, and understood the basics, but over and above all that he placed his trust in his instincts. They’d never failed him before in his whole life, as far back as he could remember, so he thought he’d earned the right to see himself as a man of faith. Like most people from rural areas who prize a mule for its stubbornness, he superstitiously maintained his loyalty to family traditions and other meaningless rituals taught to him by his parents. Never before in his life had he taken any kind of quick action perceived by others as something heroic. It wasn’t because he lacked brazen courage, because he had proven himself brave enough by making the move and bringing his family out West. By trade he was a blacksmith, and able to find work wherever he went. He’d gone to the saloon that night to meet up with Sam Hill, one of the wealthier landowners from those parts. This very prosperous man owned a horse ranch; the largest in the territory. He concluded the meeting with Luke by offering him a full-time job. Luke immediately accepted. Thus he was in a state of joy and excitement, feeling fairly secure as he made his way on through the swinging doors into the moonlit street.

At 10 p.m. that Saturday night, Luke hit the road elated. It looked deserted, not a soul in sight, and thus it was eerily quiet. Until, not being able to help himself, he kicked up some dirt with the heel of his boot, clenched his fists, and let out a big old “Yeehaw!” so loud that anyone within listening distance could have easily heard him. Immediately, he felt a smidgen embarrassed for having done such a thing, then walked on with his head hanging low for a ways in a feeble attempt to make himself invisible to anyone who might have gotten up to look out their window to see what’s the matter.

Soon back to his old confident self, Luke carried on at a quicker pace, discretely restraining the merriment on his face, while he continued his walk with head held high. He couldn’t wait to tell his wife the great news, and the grand realized hope of new beginnings. Unfortunately, as things do not always turn out as planned, Luke was destined to play a part in the tragedy that was about to unfold. Needless to say, he didn’t get to do what he was most anxiously waiting and wanting to do right then, even though he was very nearly home.

His attention was soon drawn to the church up ahead. He fell to thinking about the pastor, and how he had volunteered himself more than a few times, and had helped him build his little house. It made Luke to feel somewhat settled in his heart, knowing he had done something intrinsically good, something worthy of his time, for his time he valued highly.

He liked this preacher man. He was very friendly and sociable, as was his young wife, and their kids were well-behaved for their ages. They had a cute little girl of four years, and two boys, aged six and ten. Luke knew them pretty well. Almost every day they’d come over to play in the backyard with his own kids, and they would have happily swung on the swing all day, if allowed. Luke had made the swing himself. It was only a rope that wound through a board. He’d hung it from a low, strong branch that belonged to the large elm tree standing on his property. The swing was sturdy enough that he could enjoy it for himself from time to time.

These and similar type thoughts were going through his mind as he closed in on the threshold of his homey existence. It was at this point that Luke eyed the shadowy figure on horseback who was lazily moseying his way out-of-town. Deciding right then and there it wasn’t really any of his business, he dropped the matter from his mind. The stranger was free to go, and he wasn’t going to run after him. The man certainly wasn’t about to heed his or anyone else’s advice, come what may. Just as Luke was about to reach for the door, he caught a whiff of smoke. As he turned his head to look back at the church, he spied all the signs of a fire. The first few flames had just begun to flicker under and out from the overhang of the roof. Luke involuntarily dropped his jaw and stared in shock and amazement at the scene taking place right before his very eyes. For a moment he just stood there, scared stiff and frozen in place. What aroused him back to his senses was another attention grabber. The pastor’s house was also beginning to catch fire. Luke gathered his wits about him, then took to running in that direction as fast as his legs would allow him to go.

Hanging On Tree’s Every Word: Chapter One

The day had started out quite beautiful and rather warm for that time of year. It was the morning after those damnable occurrences, after the devil-ridden chaos which transpired during that most terrible night in Bedlam. Autumn’s weather had been lovely to begin with, and it remained unusually wonderful on up to October 30th, 1869, when our story begins.

The mighty oak, famous in these parts for the many hangings that took place on its lowest limb over the last 20 years, stood on the outskirts of a small town that had seen its better days. Although the town didn’t officially have a name, the folks from around there called it Bedlam. Lying a few miles off the Oregon Trail, it had been witness to the mass migration of folks who had dropped everything to rush for the gold discovered in California in 1849 and  for many years afterwards. The new transcontinental railroad was not a boon for this little settlement. The track was laid 10 miles northward. Almost all the residents of Bedlam packed up their belongings, and made their way toward the mostly unoccupied lands surrounding the recently built train station. They knew there would be a growing city of significant size there someday. The few poorer families remaining behind planned to do the same once they could afford the costs.

Matthew, a family man, had returned to Bedlam from his future homestead that morning with supplies and the latest news. More than tragic and disturbing were these facts from the night before. A mass murder occurred involving a young pastor, his wife, and the oldest of three children. This most innocent of families lived in a little shack beside the newly built church. The novice preacher only needed to put a few more finishing touches on his place of worship before he could begin holding services. He constructed the two on the southern edge of the city, apart from the rest of the homes and far away from the only saloon for miles around. There was a witness of sorts; a man who stepped out of the saloon a few hours after sunset. His name was Luke. Although he took heroic measures, his valiant efforts were partly in vain. Only the two youngest children survived. The next morning, Luke relayed his story to Matthew and a few other men who gathered together outside the general store.

Luke testified that he went to the saloon the night before because he had a job interview. For good reason, he only allowed himself two glasses of whiskey, and was in no way tipsy when he excused himself from the meeting to go home. As Luke neared his house, he could easily see the church which was just a little ways on down the dirt road. The skies were crystal clear on that cool crisp night with a very nearly Full Moon’s light. All of a sudden, just a ways beyond the pastor’s property, Luke eyed a shadowy figure on horseback casually making his way out-of-town.

The rider appeared to be dressed all in black. He was wearing a cape that floated and flapped in the wind, which was blowing head on and straightaway into his and Luke’s face. This dark and mysterious man rode a shiny black stallion and wore a wide-brimmed hat. Although, from the shape of it, he could tell it wasn’t a cowboy hat at all. It reminded him of the one that stranger had on; the stranger who showed up alone in town that very morning to stock up on supplies. Luke presumed it was the same man. The fact he was leaving town so late seemed more than odd. “That’s plain stupid!” Luke remembered thinking, “and dangerous, too.”  Concluding his account, Luke exclaimed, “No one in their right mind would take that kind of risk, if they had any sense. Ain’t nothing but miles and miles of rugged terrain out there. We all know that. Nothing but a lawless countryside once he rides on out of Bedlam.”

About this suspicious character, Luke knew very little. He saw him leaving the store that morning and, letting his curiosity get the best of him, Luke took the time out of his busy schedule to go inside and ask about the tall handsome stranger in a tailored suit and cloak. This is what he gathered from the clerk. Apparently, the man spoke no English whatsoever, or if he did, he didn’t let on about it. After the clerk had added up the cost of all he brought to the counter, this obvious foreigner pulled a leather string-drawn pouch from his coat pocket. The stranger wanted to settle the deal by way of gold. The clerk didn’t have a problem with that. It was fairly customary in this part of the country. He got out the scale and proceeded to give the man a fair transaction. The sharply dressed man smiled his gesture of satisfaction, and gave the clerk a small nugget as a tip, which made the clerk nervously rejoice, for no one had ever done such a thing in his store before. The man was polite and courteous, so much so that one might think him an aristocrat, or a prince even, one from somewhere far away in another land across the sea.