My paternal grandfather was a World War I veteran. Many times I’ve heard the story of how, when he was twenty-two years old, in early 1918, he and a cousin were lollygaggin’ in a little mountain town not far from his home place in the knobs. They spotted a recruiting poster–yep, one of the famous UNCLE SAM WANTS YOU! ones, painted in 1916 by John M. Flagg and used in the next two years in particular for recruitment purposes–and decided it would be a great lark to join the Army and see if the world was really bigger than the knobs and mountains. They caught a train that very afternoon and rode to the nearest big town, about thirty miles away, and signed up. They were first sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, if I remember right, and then on to Belgium. Cousin Jim, a little sawed-off wart of a man, ended up in the cooks’ corps, and Papaw, a strapping six-footer who could shoot a hickory nut out of a squirrel’s mouth at three hundred yards, ended up as an infantry sharpshooter. He found out the world WAS bigger than he’d ever dreamed, captured thirty Germans singlehanded but turned them in to the wrong unit so he wasn’t credited with the capture, and busted an ankle stepping in a shell hole–and, ornery mountain boy that he was, was unimpressed with the fabled AEF general “Black Jack” Pershing.
I expect that was how a mountain boy named Charlie Smith ended up in Europe in the waning days of 1917. Charlie’s story was a bit different, though; Papaw was pretty much footloose and fancy free, while Charlie had a steady girl, Ruthie Jones. When Charlie told Ruthie he had joined the army, she cried, of course; but he promised her that he would write to her every chance he got, and when he came home they would be married and live happily ever after. So Ruthie let him go.
For awhile his letters came regular as clockwork; then they tapered off and then stopped altogether. Ruthie was afraid something had happened to Charlie, especially when her own increasingly frantic letters got no answers. But then, Ruthie didn’t know about the machinations of Charlie’s older brother, Sam. Sam had a vested interest in Ruthie, one might say; he was in love with her too, but she loved Charlie. Sam took to destroying Charlie’s letters and telling Ruthie that Charlie had probably taken up with some French hussy and had forgotten all about her. Sam played on her fears so well, and made her so angry with Charlie, that she agreed to marry Sam from sheer spite. They were married in October. And still, never a word from Charlie.
So things stood on Christmas Eve 1917. There was a snowstorm that day; by the evening the snow was a foot deep. Ruthie was cooking supper when she heard a knock at the front door. Sam called that he would answer it; when he opened it, he let out a startled cry. “CHARLIE?”
There was a sound as if Charlie had pushed his way past Sam into the front room, and he spoke one sentence: “I know what you have done to Ruthie and me, and I have come to kill you as you deserve.”
And then there was a single gunshot that echoed through the entire house. Ruthie rushed in from the kitchen to find Sam lying dead on the floor, a look of surprise on his face–and the front door standing open. She also caught a glimpse of a man in an AEF uniform going out onto the front porch, but she was in too deep a state of shock to follow.
Nobody, least of all Ruthie, ever knew how long she knelt there beside Sam, in a spreading pool of his blood, with the door standing open and the house full of snow and wind. The next thing she knew there was another knock on the door facing and a youthful nervous voice saying, “Ma’am?”
The voice at the door belonged to a Western Union telegraph delivery boy. It was not until he had delivered his message, and rushed back out to summon the sheriff, that Ruthie, still in shock, read these words in cold lifeless black letters, on a black-edged sheet of paper: “Regret to inform you that Private Charles Smith died in action in France on the 21st of December, 1917.”
It was proven that Sam Smith owned no gun; and no murder weapon was ever found. It was equally proven that there were no footprints in the foot-deep snow other than those of the Western Union boy.
Ruthie insisted until her dying day that Charlie had come home from the dead to avenge his brother’s lies. And the sheriff, in the absence of all other evidence, had no choice but to concur.
This story is told in at least two versions that differ mostly in small details; one, from Morgan County, Kentucky, is retold from his own family’s recollections by the late Michael Paul Henson in MORE KENTUCKY GHOST STORIES (1996); the other, from Logan County, West Virginia, is told by Lonnie E. Legge in VISIONS OF GHOST ARMIES: FROM THE FILES OF FATE MAGAZINE (2003). I’ve pretty much collated the two versions and changed the names, but it’s told for true in both those collections.