"You telling me, that Johnny told you, that you killed a fellow last night. That what you telling me Asa?" asked Judge Wright. Judge Wright had been a judge in Alabama but he wasn't one here in Texas. Texas was under Spanish rule. Nevertheless the Americans here looked to Judge Wright, not the Spanish authorities, whenever justice needed to be administered.
"Yes Judge. We was drinking and playing cards, Johnny, me, and this fellow from Ohio and I got drunk and Johnny said that I accused the fella of cheating, got mad at him and killed him. Said he was going to bury the body for me under that big live oak with the Spanish moss hanging all the way to the ground. You know, the one Fatima does her voodoo under. Said no one would find him there â€˜cause everyone's scared to go around that tree. Said he wouldn't tell anyone 'cause we're friends and told me to light out for the Arkansas territory."
Asa Aubert, who was not all that bright, lived in the Neutral Ground, the land just across the Sabine River, not under the law of either Spain or the United States, and thus inhabited by scoundrels, thieves, cutthroats and other assorted criminals and characters.
"And you believe Johnny, that conniving little weasel?
"Well ya. I was drunk. I couldn't remember anything. But Johnny showed me the body this morning, so I must've killed him."
"So why didn't you just take off Asa like Johnny told you to?"
"Well I started to Judge but I couldn't. I've done some terrible things in my life but I ain't never killed no man before. This man was down here to buy land. Said he was going to bring his wife and kids here. Ain't right me leaving his wife a widow, his young uns fatherless. Ain't right me getting away with murder, not paying for my crime."
Asa paused, closed his eyes, and shivered. "It's been eating at me all day Judge, tearing me up inside. I had to do something so I went to see Padre Pedro â€˜fore I come here. Confessed my sin. Made it right with the Lord. Now I got to make it right with you the law."
The judge noticed that Asa was trembling.
"Didn't know you was religious Asa?"
"I ain't really but my French Creole mother raised me Catholic when I was a kid back in New Orleans. Not that it made any difference anyway."
"Well I think it did Asa or you wouldn't be here. I don't believe you killed that man. Don't believe you got it in ya to do that. Johnny on the other hand, well I think he probably killed that fella for his land purchasing money. Then he got you to believe you did it, buries the body where no one will ever find it, and tells you to make a run for it. Johnny set you up Asa."
Johnny Devlin was a sneaky, conniving little weasel of Irishman who lived in a falling down cabin on the Texas side of the Sabine. He lived there with a mulatto woman known as Fatima who everyone believed was a voodoo priestess. She and Johnny were partners in God knows what illegal activities including the southern crime of miscegenation.
"Asa I'm going to get some men together and then we're all going ride out to Johnny's and get to the bottom of all this and you're coming with us."
An hour or so later the judge, a posse, Asa and Padre Pedro left for Johnny's. The judge told the men that he brought the priest along to administer the last rights to Johnny before they hung him. But really he brought him along because he knew that some of the men feared Fatima and he hoped the presence of a priest would allay those fears.
As they came to Johnny's cabin there stood the heavy set Fatima in the doorway with a knife in one hand and a meat mallet in the other. She gave the judge the evil eye and glared at him.
"Can't talk now. Got supper cooking. Got to get back to it."
"And a howdy do to you too Fatima. Now where the hell's Johnny?"
Her eyes glanced furtively at the large live oak fifty or so yards away, then she answered, "He's way on business."
"And I bet I know what business that is," said Judge Wright as he and the men spurred their horses and rode over to live oak or the tree of voodoo evil as some called it.
There they dismounted, went over to and gingerly parted the hanging moss. Timidly they entered, fearful of what they might find under that tree since they had heard so many stories about what Fatima did there. There before them now was a candle lit shrine and a small butcher's block covered with dried blood on which Fatima obviously prepared her animal sacrifices. And there over on the far side, a mound of fresh dirt, one dead body and one Johnny Devlin crawling out of a just dug grave.
Padre Pedro crossed himself and whispered, "I feel the presence of evil here." And when he said so a chill went down the spine of every man there, except for Judge Wright that is.
"Well hello there Judge. Hello Asa. Hello fellas," said Johnny with a false cheerfulness, forcing a smile, trying to act nonchalantly as he could, as all five foot five and a hundred thirty pounds of him climbed out and stood up. His shoulder twitched while his eyes scanned the room assessing his situation.
"Tell us what happened here last night Johnny. Asa says you told him he killed this man you're burying here."
"Well Judge that's true. He done kilt him alright and he done admitted to it. Just ask him."
"Just tell me what happened here last night Johnny. I know what Asa said. I want to hear what you got to say."
"Well Judge there was this fella stopped here last night on his way to buy land. Told him he could stay the night here. Well we got to playing cards, gambling and drinking and Asa here gets rip roaring drunk and accuses the fella of cheating. Next thing I know he just up and kilt him in a drunken rage."
"How'd he kill him Johnny?"
"Hit him on the head and stabbed him. Look at the body Judge if you don't believe.You'll see."
Judge Wright went over and examined the body. Obviously the man had been killed by a blow to the back of the head and a knife in the back.
"Well looks like Johnny's telling the truth for once boys," Judge Wright announced.
"Like I said the fella was sitting there playing cards and Asa just come up behind him, struck him, and stabbed him," Johnny added, confident now that the Judge believed him.
"That so huh Johnny? That how he just up and killed him in a drunken rage? Come up behind him like that. I don't think that's Asa's style even if he's drunk."
Johnny had been called out. He noticeably squirmed, mopped his brow and glanced here and there around the moss draped room contemplating where to make a break for it.
And he was just about to bolt when suddenly a blast of cold air gushed in and there was Fatima, fancily clad in her voodoo outfit. Long red rooster tail feathers adorned her hair. Earrings of shiny purple mottled sea shells dangled from her elongated earlobes. A necklace of sharp animal claws hung from her neck and her long black robe undulated in the breeze. She began chanting some gibberish and then suddenly, her eyes rolled back in her head and she went into a spasmodic, trance like dance.
Padre Pedro crossed himself and began reciting the Lord's prayer. Some of the men did the same. Fatima's satanic presence had unnerved them all, all but Judge Wright again that is.
"Any papers on this man Johnny?" he continued ignoring Fatima. "Anything to tell us where he was from, any letters, banknotes, identification?
"Well yes there was Judge but neither Fatima or me can read so we used them to light the fire this morning. It was powerful cold here this morning."
"That proves him guilty Judge, burning evidence," hollered a posse member.
"Hang him Judge," hollered another. "He did it."
"Where's the money Johnny? This man had money on him didn't he? He was here to buy land."
"No money Judge. I swear."
"I don't believe you Johnny."
"Honest no money. Didn't find any money. All I found was a letter of credit from some Ohio bank," And then Johnny realized that he had just signed his own death warrant. He bolted. He never had a chance.
Someone threw a rope over a branch. Someone else got the butcher's block. Johnny was lifted up on it, a noose put around his neck, and tightened.
"Wait," shrieked Fatima as she ran up to Johnny, mumbled an incantation in an African language and sprinkled some glittering gold dust on him. The men stood there entranced, slack jawed, not moving, too spellbound to do anything.
"The magic of my ancestors will save my Johnny," she eerily cackled. "This tree will not hang an innocent man."
"The hell it won't," said one of the braver men as he kicked out the butcher's block from under Johnny.
Padre Pedro never got a chance to administer Johnny his last rites. But it wasn't necessary. For to everyone's surprise, the branch drooped and lowered Johnny to the ground, unhurt and unhung.
"Fatima's magic worked," someone in the back whispered. Others nodded their heads in hushed agreement,
Then Fatima went over and took the noose off Johnny and announced. "We're leaving now."
"No you're not Fatima," said Judge Wright. "Maybe the tree won't hang an innocent man but let's see if it will hang a guilty woman. Shouldn't have had that meat mallet and knife with you when you so warmly greeted us Fatima. You made it too easy for me. Grab her boys."
Fatima did not go quietly into that good night. She fought furiously with her captors, kicking, screaming, biting, and gouging them as they bound her hands and feet, gagged her mouth and hung her from the branch that they tried to hang Johnny on. Only this time the branch didn't droop. It held firm and hung the heavy set woman.
They buried her in the grave Johnny had dug.
Per the priest's advice the men burned Johnny's cabin to the ground to rid it of the evil residing therein.
And the men on their own, tarred and feathered Johnny before banishing him to the other side of the Sabine on the penalty of death should he ever return.
As to the dead man from Ohio, Asa saw to it that he got a proper burial at his expense.
And based on Johnny telling the Judge, as a condition of his exile, what bank the letter of credit was from, the Judge wrote the bank and told them what had happened.
Finally as to that live oak, the tree of the voodoo evil, well lightning hit it that very night and burned it to the ground. Whether it was an act of God destroying the evil residing therein or the act of the Devil releasing its evil spirits into the world was a discussion of some considerable debate in East Texas for some years to come. A final consensus of which was never reached.