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Archive for October, 2010

Rabbie and the Dead Man

Happy Halloween, my pretties!!! Bwahahahahahaha–

When I began choosing stories for this year’s 31 Days of Halloween, I wanted to save the scariest for the very last one, and I think I have succeeded. This story, told for true by Ian Fellowes-Gordon in John Cannings’ 50 Strange Stories of the Supernatural (1974), reads more like a Scots folktale than a ghost story–but it about scared the pee out of me!

It begins in the seaside town of St. Andrews, better known now as the home of the world’s most venerable golf course, in the early part of the eighteenth century, with a shoemaker named Rabbie (a Scots diminutive for Robert) Henspeckle. He’s a small man, who says, without bragging, that he’s the finest cobbler in Scotland, and yet isn’t a tenth the equal of his father who taught him. He’s working at his cobbler’s bench, putting the last stitches into the finest piece of shoe leather he’s ever sewn, when a man walks in off the street–

and things go downhill from there.

Rabbie Henspeckle had been working since six o’clock that morning, and he was putting the last stitches around the fine silver buckle on the first of a pair of shoes when a shadow fell over his work. It was still barely dawn, and he wouldn’t be opening the shop for custom for another hour.

He looked up at the strangest man he’d ever seen: remarkably tall, skeletally thin, wearing an oversized and dusty black coat and the ugliest, most weatherbeaten pair of shoes Rabbie had ever laid eyes on.

The stranger made polite conversation for a few minutes before he got down to business: “Is that shoe you’re making now–is it already sold?”

“Nae,” Rabbie said cautiously. He was sure that something about this man was “no’ canny”, as the Scots say, although he couldn’t have said, then, what made him sure. “It’s only the first o’ the pair, and when the twin’s done, the pair will be put in the window for sale.”

“I want to buy the pair. I’ll pay you now, take this shoe with me, and come back for the other when it’s done. That will be–”

“Tomorrow. Four o’clock, say. But you haven’t even–”

“Oh, they’ll fit. I know they will.” To demonstrate, he took the just-finished shoe from Rabbie’s hand and, kicking off one of his old brown shoes, worn and filthy, put it on. “See? A perfect fit.”

So, after a few more expostulations and protests on Rabbie’s part, the stranger paid for the pair–eight shillings, the most Rabbie had ever charged for a pair of shoes–and left, promising to return the next afternoon for the other shoe. He walked out, stuffing the one old shoe into a pocket of his capacious coat and wearing the new one. Rabbie heard him on the cobblestones outside, with a strange limping clop. . .clop. . . to his gait, for the new shoe’s sole was thicker than the old brown one on his other foot.

Curiosity got the better of the little shoemaker; he wanted to see where the man went, with that shoe–over which Rabbie was already mentally kicking himself; he probably wouldn’t be back tomorrow to collect the other, and Rabbie would be left with half a fine pair of shoes and no leather to make another mate.

So he grabbed his coat and his green and black cap–for the wind in off the sea was very cold that morning–and followed the man.

He led Rabbie–

to the kirkyard.

And there, the stranger walked over to an open grave, jumped in, and began to rake the dirt in over himself. Rabbie saw the whole thing from behind a tombstone.

Rabbie was positive there was deviltry abroad. His instinct, that the stranger was “no’ canny”, had been dead on. And also, he had a totally unworthy and greedy idea. He wanted that shoe back, since the idea now possessed him that the stranger–being a dead man–would not be back for the other.

He summoned friends to come with him to the kirkyard, telling them to bring shovels. They were forced to believe the otherwise mad story he told them, that the dead man in that grave had buried himself; he was sitting half-upright, uncoffined, and he was wearing one old scuffed filthy shoe and one fine new one.

Rabbie told the men the stranger had stolen that shoe from him, and he wanted it back.

And so, he removed the new shoe from the dead foot; the grave was refilled; and Rabbie went home with the new shoe. He told his wife that he’d made a good sale to explain the fancy supper and fine ale he treated her to that night.

He was up fresh as a daisy and at work by six in the morning, as always, while his wife, a little hung over, stayed in bed until midday.

She was up, although still feeling far from well, and about at four PM, when she heard a horrible scream from Rabbie’s workshop downstairs.

She stumbled downstairs and found Rabbie was gone, and the fine shoe he’d been working on with him.

It took awhile for the frightened woman to find any of Rabbie’s friends, who told her the story of the grave they’d dug up the day before and the shoe Rabbie had sworn was stolen by the dead man, the shoe the man had been wearing. She hysterically insisted that they go to the kirkyard immediately, to see if they could find any trace of Rabbie there.

They did.

They dug up the grave again; it was covered as if it had never been open at all.

There in the grave lay the stranger, dead and cold and stiff. In his hands they found the only trace they ever found of Rabbie Henspeckle: his green and black cap.

And on the dead man’s feet were both the fine shoes Rabbie Henspeckle had made.

The finest pair, he would have said, he had ever made.

And so ends Fair’s 3rd Annual 31 Days of Halloween.

Sweet dreams, my pretties– 😉

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Today, just past noon, the Vols take on South Carolina at Columbia. Please do not get me started, save to say a miracle is called for.

Having said which, in the midst of fulminations the last few days over what story to tell today (and wondering how to work in a reference to South Carolina’s mascot, the gamecock–a rooster who crowed merrily throughout games past and to whom I facetiously refer as “Spurrier’s familiar”), I remembered this one.

As I’ve mentioned before, we have few stories in the South that go back as far as the Revolutionary War era, and such as we do come from the states that were part of the thirteen original colonies–Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. This one, about a hapless British sentry’s ghost, offers blood, a Tory plantation owner, his patriot daughter, and the legendary Swamp Fox, General Francis Marion himself.

The Revolution, it’s been said, was a three-front war for the hearts and minds of Americans: some were solidly behind the Declaration of Independence and the war effort, others supported the king back in England, and still others just wanted to be let the hell alone. And, as in the Civil War that broke out some ninety years later, loyalties were divided even in families.

It was certainly so at Wedgefield Plantation, near Georgetown, South Carolina. The contemporary owner, William Wragg, was a staunch Tory, who offered the use of his plantation as a prison for captured Continentals.

He had a daughter who was an equally staunch patriot. And the daughter had a secret: she was a spy for the dashing General Francis Marion, who led his men on commando-style raids on British and Tory installations, then faded back into the swamps, where the British dared not follow. Thus had the crafty Marion earned his nickname “the Swamp Fox”.

The Wragg girl had managed to get information of planned British raids–often planned in her father’s house–by leaving messages in a cracked tombstone in the Prince George Churchyard, near Wedgefield. Her father was furious when Marion was able to foil the British, but had no idea that his own daughter was Marion’s informant.

In 1781, Marion received word that the father of one of his soldiers was being held prisoner of the British–possibly in retaliation for his son’s known Continental sympathies–at Wedgefield, one of two men and four women arrested in a Tory raid. Marion wasted no time; he got in touch with Wragg’s daughter, who confirmed that the old man was there.

She also told Marion that, at the end of the week, the entire family at Wedgefield would be attending a party at another plantation held by a Tory landowner, and that those attending from Wedgefield would include all but one of the British sentries assigned to guard the prisoners.

So Marion planned a rescue.

On a Thursday evening, just at twilight, with the Wraggs and sentries all gone to Mansfield Plantation, Marion and his men rode up to Wedgefield. The lone British sentry, in the semi-dark and anticipating no problems–possibly mistaking the riders for Brits–, came out to greet them.

Bad mistake. Some sources say that he was beheaded by the swinging saber of one of Marion’s cavalrymen; others, that it was Marion himself who killed the sentry. In any case, he fell headless–and yes, flopping like the proverbial “chicken with its head cut off”, cold though that may sound–and Marion and his men rushed into the plantation house and rescued all the prisoners.

Some weeks later, Wragg’s daughter was wakened deep in the night by the sound of hoofbeats. She leaped out of bed and ran to the window. Curiously, no horses appeared, but in the moonlight she saw something horrifying: the headless figure of a man in a British uniform, staggering up the steps to the veranda, where he vanished.

She was only the first to see the sentry’s spirit. He appeared at infrequent intervals as far up as the 1930s, when the old house was torn down and replaced with a new one.

The story of the Headless Brit of Wedgefield comes from two sources: Nancy Rhyne’s Coastal Ghosts (1985) and Alan Brown’s Haunted Places in the American South (2002). Wedgefield, which is now a residential resort community, is also mentioned in the 1994 edition of Dennis William Hauck’s The National Directory of Haunted Places.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that today is the birthday of my favorite Eagle, Timothy B. Schmit.

I’ve posted this before, and I still think it needs twin fiddles, but hey, it’s gorgeous. Happy birthday, Timothy! 🙂

And with that said, there’s only this left to say:

GO VOLS!!!!

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Samaritan in Red Flannel

Okay, I gave myself a serious case of chills yesterday with that Irish tale of greed, murder and spectral revenge. So today, I’ve decided to go about as far opposite as I can go–with a story of a Good Samaritan ghost, who helps others escape his sad fate. This story comes from Debra D. Munn’s 1989 book Ghosts on the Range: Eerie Tales of Wyoming

My dad was drafted into the army around 1958 and was in the service until the spring of 1960. He used to say that, in the course of his deployments, he met somebody from every state in the Union and every territorial possession except Wyoming.

It’s still a sparsely populated place, with some of the most magnificent back country in the entire U.S., especially in the Bighorn Mountains, where our story begins, with a seventeen-year-old elk hunter lost in fog.

He was camping with his father and a small party of other hunters, and they’d had a good hunt; each of them had bagged an elk by mid-afternoon. The boy’s father tossed him the keys of their pickup and told him to go back to camp and bring the truck back so they could haul back their field-dressed and tagged game.

He got into trouble within a very short time. The boy knew the area where they were hunting like the back of his hand; he’d been there many times before with his father. But even familiar country becomes different when fog obscures everything around you. The boy considered stopping and making a fire and staying put until the fog lifted; he knew, for safety’s sake, that’s what he should do, but for some reason he kept stubbornly going on in what he thought was the direction of the camp.

He stepped out of the fog, momentarily, into the clear. Then he saw the other boy; younger and smaller than him, dressed in a vividly red flannel shirt.

The boy in red flannel never said a word, although the hunter called out to him; he simply pointed, in the opposite direction from which the lost hunter was heading. Then the fog moved in, and he was completely hidden by it

The young hunter never knew why he did so, exactly; he simply went in the direction the boy pointed, and within a few minutes came to a road that led him directly into the camp.

He waited until morning, when the fog had lifted, to go back. He was bothered the whole night, though, with thoughts: where had the boy in red flannel come from? Why hadn’t he spoken to him when he hailed him? And how had he known which direction to send him in to find the camp?

His father and the others had passed a good night; they had built a fire and eaten some provisions they’d carried with them. He asked, as they were packing up, if any of them had seen a boy in a red shirt anytime; they all said no.

He was so bothered by that information that the next day, instead of accompanying his father and the others on the hunt, he went to a nearby hunting camp and asked if any of its members had been lost in the fog two days before. It turned out one of them had; he had been stopped in his wanderings by the sudden appearance of a boy in a red shirt, who had motioned him to stay where he was. The man, startled by the boy’s sudden appearance, and in any case completely disoriented in the fog, had built a fire there and spent the night. In the morning, when the fog had lifted, he found that, had the boy not stopped him, he would have walked over the edge of a very high and steep ledge and been lost forever.

He, too, was still bothered by the sight. There was, he said, something just not right about the boy’s sudden appearance and equally sudden disappearance as the fog thickened and hid him.

Over the next thirty-five years, the boy grew up and returned to that area many times. And he asked a few casual questions around, finally finding a third man who admitted to having seen the boy in the red flannel shirt. That man was a Basque sheepherder, but he hadn’t been lost or anything when he saw the boy in 1950. The shepherd said that the boy wasn’t living though; he was the ghost of a boy who had been lost on Trapper Creek years before; he had died before search parties could locate him.

It’s been nearly sixty years since the young hunter was pointed in the right direction by a ghost in a red flannel shirt. During his lifetime, the hunter never heard of anyone other than himself, the hunter who was saved from a fatal plunge off a ledge, and the old sheepherder who saw the boy in the red flannel shirt.

But it’s comforting to know that, just perhaps, he could still be out there, waiting to guide the lost to the safety he never found.

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Four Terrors

Greed is, for good reason, one of the more hateful of the Seven Deadly Sins. As a cause for murder and mayhem, it may claim the top spot. This story of how greed inspired a man to kill family members comes from fifteenth century Ireland, and led to a ghastly revenge from beyond the grave. It’s not as theatrical, perhaps, as the story of Oscar Carlson, who died for another man’s greed, but there is something infinitely menacing in its promise four will kill you.

An Irish lord called Donard Grantley married, in 1410 or thereabout, an heiress named Aultain Corbally. Aultain, of higher birth and greater wealth in her own right than her husband, bore him a son they named Gaynor, in the first year of their marriage. She did not bear more for several years, then came four more in quick succession: Morlan, Duirmuid, Ronan, and Conn.

The younger Grantley brothers were as close by temperament as by age. Gaynor, the eldest, was as unlike them as night is unlike day. He harbored an unworthy ambition in his heart; rather than inheriting his fair share of both his mother’s and father’s great wealth, he wanted to bag the whole lot. To that end, he came up with a dreadful plot to kill all his younger brothers.

And so it was, as they returned from escorting a visiting friend to his next stop, that Gaynor led his brothers and their uncle, Roan, into a deep, dank bog. Uncle Roan died when Gaynor forced him and his horse into the bog, where they were sucked down by the black mess. Then he turned on his brothers, overwhelming Morlan and Duirmuid in a savage attack that left them both dead before they could defend themselves. Conn, the youngest, mounted on a fast horse, rode away as Gaynor attempted to take down Ronan.

It was Ronan, dying in a welter of his own blood, who laid a curse on Gaynor Grantley. He managed to pull his dagger as he was sinking into the bog, and he cut four horrible gashes across Gaynor’s angry face, counting them off as he did so: “One. . .two. . .three. . .four. . .”

As Ronan sank into the bog, he held up four fingers and choked out words that would haunt the Grantleys for centuries to come: Four you killed; four will kill you.

Gaynor Grantley returned to the family home, hideously wounded, to find that Conn had arrived there in a state of shock and hysteria that never left him; he died mad and mute, some years later. Gaynor’s story, that they had been attacked by renegade mercenaries of some other family, was accepted. He did indeed inherit all the family wealth, and eventually, in spite of his scarred face, married and fathered ten children.

Strange things were already happening at the castle, though. Gaynor, like most Irishmen, loved a fine horse, and had a great stable of them. One morning, four of his stallions were found dead in their stalls, their throats slashed. Of the guards he posted at the doors of stable and castle thereafter, one was found one morning in a state of shock reminiscent of the late Conn Grantley’s. This guard eventually regained his speech, and told a strange story; he had been walking the castle battlements in the night when he heard a sound like clanking, groaning, rusty armor, and then found himself surrounded by four men: four men in armor who stank of bog water and the unmistakable smell of death. He collapsed.

That guard was the first of four who were found in that condition. All, when they were able to speak again, told the same story, of being surrounded by four men in rusty armor, who reeked of death and stagnant water.

If Gaynor thought of Ronan’s final words, he didn’t say so.

On his eighteenth birthday, Gaynor’s eldest son was found dead, with four gashes cut across his face–exactly like those that had so scarred his father. Three more of Gaynor’s sons would eventually be found dead in mysterious circumstances, their faces marked with the same gashes.

Gaynor Grantley was found hacked to pieces shortly after he turned sixty; his arms and legs had been cut off.

Four you killed. . .four will kill you. . .

More often than not, though, those unfortunate enough to see the apparitions that were fast becoming known as the Four Terrors of the Grantleys were not killed; they were left in a state of shock and vocal paralysis. Some recovered; others, like Conn Grantley before them, did not.

The last time the curse of the Four Terrors resulted in death was in 1892, when the contemporary Grantley heir was found dead in the drawing room of the new family home, built in 1740, some distance from the old medieval castle where so many had died. He had, so the story goes, received four unsigned letters warning him not to return to the house.

He alone was not found with his face gashed. Whoever killed him hacked off the four fingers of his right hand. The fingers were never found.

The story of the Four Terrors of the Grantleys comes from James Reynolds’s 1947 book Ghosts in Irish Houses. As with all Reynolds’s work, this one’s truth is suspect; I’ve never run across the legend in any other source.

But I have to say–it does make for one terrifying story. (^_^)

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Oscar Carlson’s Revenge

Most ghosts aren’t big–theater buffs, shall we say. They float past, startling the crap out of us, and, should they be one of those rarities who are aware of us, are likewise startled.

Every once in awhile, though, you run across one who has a decided flair for the dramatic. Such a one was a Swedish immigrant named Oscar Carlson, murdered for his property in 1919 Signal Mountain, Tennessee. His story is told in Georgiana C. Kotarski’s Ghosts of the Southern Tennessee Valley (2006).

Oscar Carlson began telling his neighbors sometime in the spring of 1919 that somebody–unfortunately, he didn’t name names–was trying to kill him. They thought he was losing his mind. He was a quiet farmer working a nice little spread on Walden’s Ridge (the land on which the Chattanooga suburb of Signal Mountain stands), well-liked by his neighbors–and they couldn’t understand why he thought someone wanted him to die.

Until he turned up dead.

He had complained that people had tried to kill him by pumping gas into his house, and by dumping arsenic in his well. He’d gotten so worried that he no longer slept in the house at all; he bedded down now in his locked garage, on a pallet next to his Model T Ford.

It was in that garage, sometime in late July of 1919, that he was murdered. His body was found three days later, already rotting in the humid high July temperatures, on a shelf partway down a bluff off the W Road. His killers had screwed up; he should have fallen five hundred feet into a ravine below, but they didn’t toss his body off clear of the bluff. He was identified by two missing fingers and a single shoe–the twin of one that lay in his garage, a ways away. At autopsy it was determined that he had been shot three times–none fatal–and finally died of a fractured skull, apparently hit between the eyes with a two-by-four.

His beloved Model T and his watch were nowhere to be found.

Oscar’s farm had already been taken over, to the surprise of his neighbors, by an unsavory lout name of Simons. His family had moved in without him; he had been arrested almost immediately when he came forward insisting that Oscar Carlson had, the year before his murder, deeded Simons the farm “for love and affection”. Everyone in the community doubted that; Simons was universally despised as a shifty character, not least by the late Oscar Carlson.

Simons presented what looked to be the proper paperwork, and in the absence of other evidence of his guilt, was set free.

The police concluded that Carlson had been the victim of a robbery gone wrong.

On the ethereal plane, Oscar Carlson was having none of it.

While Simons was briefly held in jail and his large and feckless family was moving into Oscar’s two-story house, Oscar launched a production Broadway would envy.

At first, it was just noises. The Simons family was awakened, their first night in the house, by footsteps in the upstairs. They searched the house, but found no intruders.

This went on for a night or two. Then the footsteps were succeeded by the sounds of the windows in the upstairs opening. Still, the Simonses found nobody upstairs, so they closed the windows and huddled together downstairs.

One evening, when the family was all in or around the garage, Oscar Carlson materialized, looking as he had in life. He walked in through a closed door, which was bad enough–but then, through sounds, he put on a reenactment of his murder.

There were sounds of a struggle, followed by three gunshots. The gunshots gave way to a horrible noise between a crack and a squelch. Then there were sounds as if three men–three separate sets of footsteps–were carrying something out to the driveway, as an unseen Model T Ford’s engine was cranked to sputtering life and driven outside. It stopped for a minute, and voices–male, but otherwise indistinguishable–were heard panting as if the unseen killers were loading something heavy into the car. Then the unseen car drove off, with headlamps lighting up as it hooked a right at the end of the road where Oscar’s house stood and headed for the bluff.

For a grand finale, Oscar turned milky white, rose four feet in the air, hung there for a few seconds like a phantom Nijinsky, and then vanished as the car sounds faded away.

Oscar did not stop with that single performance. The Simonses were tough nuts to crack under normal circumstances, but by the third night their nerves gave way. They spent that night at a neighbor’s house.

On the fourth night, they went back, hoping that they’d seen Oscar’s last performance. But no; he repeated the whole thing a fourth time. He was settling in for a long run.

The Simonses decided he wasn’t going to have them for an audience; they packed up and fled before morning, and moved some distance away.

Nobody else tried to live in the house after that, and all leads to Oscar Carlson’s killers petered out, until, some seven years after his death, two pages that had been missing from the county property registrar’s ledger of land transfers surfaced. These pages proved conclusively that Simons had forged the paperwork showing that Carlson had deeded the land to him.

Unfortunately, that was not enough to convince a Hamilton County jury that Simons and three other men were guilty. Simons and two white men were acquitted of all charges. The fourth man, who happened to be black, was convicted and sentenced to death because he was found to have Oscar Carlson’s Model T and watch in his possession. The contemporary governor mercifully commuted the sentence, believing he had been nothing more than the wheelman and had received the car and watch for services rendered, while Simons, the ringleader, and two others got off scotfree for murder.

Simons did not get the farm in the end, though, which seemed to have been all Oscar Carlson wanted. The farm went to his rightful heir, a sister back in Sweden, who promptly sold it.

Still, strange things happened to the family who actually bought the Carlson farm. They lost three sons to violent and mysterious deaths, and finally, the two-story house, long abandoned, burnt to the ground.

Now, it’s said, the site where the house and garage stood is a pasture for horses.

I can’t help but wonder, though–

Did Oscar take his final revenge on three men he didn’t even know, because the law failed to punish Simons and the two white men who actually killed him for the sake of his land?

Not a very comforting thought.

In any case, Oscar Carlson hasn’t been around anymore. And I doubt, somehow, he’d answer that question.

Hey, y’all–I’ve finally had a bit of time to make rounds of friends who also love a good ghost story! Check out their sites:

Scratch (he writes original, and very spooky, stories.

Sherry, like me a cat person, who has some great cat stories to tell.

and Bella. Miss B has one on Oct. 16 that’s both sad and terrifying–and beautifully told.

Check ’em out!

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The Button

The old lady lived in a little old house in the pines, up a hill and near the railroad tracks, all alone. She never had much to do with any of her neighbors or the like: only her customers. She was a bootlegger, selling unbonded whiskey in Mason jars, or, if the drinker could afford it, demijohns with corncob stoppers. She made a moderately good living that way; and, since she seldom left home, was rumored to have money hidden away, somewhere there in the house.

One day, not long before Christmas, her neighbors noticed that there had been no smoke coming from her chimney in a couple of days, and at last went to check on her. They found her dead, beaten beyond recognition, the house tossed like a tornado had come through and a few odds and ends gone. They found a few empty Prince Albert tobacco tins; since as best they knew the old lady didn’t smoke, they figured her money had been hidden there. It was gone.

They sent for the sheriff, who sent a deputy to investigate.

********************************************************

The deputy was a local boy, and he knew the old lady right well; he had been sent to arrest her for her bootleggin’ a few times, but the charges never stuck, somehow. Still, he was both sad and angry to see her like this.

He knelt beside the body, looking first at that pitifully broken face that no longer looked human, then over the rest of the body. She must have fought hard for her life; there was blood and skin under her fingernails that didn’t seem to be hers.

Clutched in one of those old hands, though, was something tangible of her killer: a fancy coat button.

He managed to pry that button from her hand, and as he held it in his open palm, he felt a cold breeze at his back. The door to the house was open, and it was a chilly day in mid-December, but when he had come in, there had been no wind.

Now, though, there was one, icy and moaning in the pines outside. He thought for a moment he was losing his mind when the moaning formed words.

I got this for you. Find the man who’s missing a button. Find him! He’ll be the one.

Just for a second, as he looked toward the door, trying to find some source, other than the wind, he saw her, standing on the porch, beaten and bloodied. He could feel the anger coming off her.

Find the button. Find the button. Find th–

Then she was gone, and the wind died as she vanished.

“I will,” he said aloud. “I’ll find him, Miss Lucy. As God is my witness.”

********************************************************
That fancy button looked to be off a man’s heavy coat. He took it to the ladies up in the local clothing store, who agreed, that was exactly what it looked like; they even showed him a man’s winter coat with very similar buttons. But it was the Christmas season, and they had been very busy. They couldn’t remember if they’d sold a coat like that lately.

To beat it all, the weather, always fickle in the knobs, turned off warm again, and men went about their business in shirt sleeves in those days leading up to Christmas.

And worse yet, ever once in awhile he’d see Miss Lucy, peering through a window or around a corner or, as he drove home at night, in the pines along the side of the road. She was so angry. And above the car’s engine noise he could hear the wind moan: Find the button! Dammit, FIND THE BUTTON!

********************************************************

And then, two days after Christmas, he got lucky, for the weather turned cold enough again, with snow threatening, for men to put on heavy coats.

He was walking on the main drag through town when he happened up on young Harry Ashe. He’d always known Harry for a harum scarum type, with a bit of a mean streak that could, if encouraged, make him into a downright danger.

“Howdy, Harry,” he said.

“Howdy,” the boy replied. He seemed nervous. “Hope y’all had a merry Christmas, sir.”

“We did,” the deputy said. “And yourself?”

“Oh, yes, sir. A right nice ‘un.”

He raised his head then, and the deputy got a good look at his face. Harry Ashe was a mess of healing and slightly inflamed scratches.

“Good Lord, Harry–” he began.

And just beyond Harry’s shoulder, he saw Miss Lucy pop her head around the corner of the drugstore.

This time, the wind didn’t roar: the words did, as if she were standing right beside his ear, bellowing in irritation.

Never mind the scratches! LOOK AT HIS COAT!

He looked down at Harry’s coat. It was, as he had thought, a heavy winter coat, and new, and it had four fancy wooden buttons down the front.

He amended that in a heartbeat: there were buttonholes for four buttons–but only three buttons remained on the coat. The second was missing. There was a small hole in the material where it had been.

“Harry, looks like you’ve lost a button,” he said deliberately.

Harry didn’t answer. He just turned white as a sheet.

********************************************************
He told the sheriff and the deputy he hadn’t meant to kill the old lady; he’d only meant to rob her. He didn’t necessarily even need the money; he just wanted it, and he knew she was rumored to have it stashed back, because she never went to the bank.

But she fought him, and he panicked. He beat her to death with a chunk of firewood. He was lucky; the coat was dark-colored enough that it didn’t show blood.

But he didn’t realize until a couple of days later that Miss Lucy had torn that button off his coat. By then, it was too late to go back and retrieve it. He hoped they had somehow missed it.

********************************************************

Harry Ashe went on trial a couple of months later, and drew a thirty year sentence in the pen at Nashville.

On the day Harry was shipped out, the deputy went up to Miss Lucy’s house. He walked into that front room and he stood there for a minute, with his hat off, and then he said, “I kept my promise, Miss Lucy. I got ‘im.”

And that cold wind rose up out of nowhere, and he heard, in its moaning, Your work is done, Deputy. Me, I still got a little work to do. Godspeed.

********************************************************
A few months later, the deputy got a call from an old friend who was now a guard at the Nashville pen. After they exchanged news and views and talked a little shop, the guard said, “What I really called to tell you was–you remember Harry Ashe?”

“Couldn’t fergit. How’s he makin’ it?”

“He ain’t. He’s dead. Damnedest thang–he was in the barber’s chair for a shave and a haircut and the barber just yanked his head back and cut his throat from ear to ear.”

“Whatever’d he do that fer?”

“He says he didn’t. He says he had just lathered Harry up and was about to start shavin’ ‘im when it felt like somethin’ or somebody took holt of his hands and the next thang he knows, there’s blood splashin’ on the far wall and Harry’s in a convulsion, and by the time he managed to get help, Harry was dead.”

“Lord have mercy. Who’s the barber?”

“Aw, you know ‘im. One of them Smith boys that was so rough and rowdy. He’s in here for armed robbery.”

“Reckon he’s lookin’ at the chair now.”

“Well–” The guard cleared his throat. “No. We got this new warden over here, y’see, one of them ever’thang gotta be by the book types–and he had the razor handle fingerprinted.”

“And?”

“Them fingerprints on th’ handle wasn’t Smith’s. We don’t know who they belong to. Craziest thing–some of the guys say they look like a woman’s.”

********************************************************
This story is based on one my daddy used to tell me about a murder case worked by his uncle, a county deputy who died in the line of duty many years ago.

Daddy would recognize the basic outline of the story. The rest of it, he wouldn’t recognize atall. 😉

Copyright 2010 by Faire Lewis.

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The Roving Gambler

Seen ‘im deal from the bottom of the deck
And he shot the gambler down
Shot the gambler down
Shot the gambler down. . .

Or so a gambler and ne’er-do-well named Brown thought, the night he ran into a stranger named Pierce.

The Roving Gambler is famed in both folklore and folk song. This particular tale of a roving gambler comes from MaryJoy Martin’s book Twilight Dwellers: Ghosts, Ghouls and Goblins of Colorado. It makes you wonder, exactly where all does a gambler rove to–and if somehow, once in awhile, he cheats Death itself to get to play one more game.

Round about 1869, at a Union Pacific Railroad stop called Julesburg in Colorado, a man who called himself Brown set himself up in business. He called it a “general store”, but much of his merchandise bore the unmistakable stamp Property of U. S. Army somewhere on it. He was, somehow, stealing from the army (there was a frontier base not too far away) and selling his ill-gotten goods at great profit.

When business fell off at the store, he would convert his tent (yes; even the shelter for his store bore that U. S. Army brand) into a gambling hell. And it was there, while gambling with some friends one stormy night in August, that Brown met–with unforgettable results–a stranger who went by the name Pierce.

Pierce walked in out of the rain sometime getting on for midnight. He wore a gambler’s boxback coat and derby hat. He also had, spectators would later recall, a broad and sneering grin that made every man in the shelter of the tent, gamblers and onlookers, want to punch it off his face.

He asked if he could sit in on the game, and Brown told him he could, although he didn’t like the grin, the box-back coat, or anything about the man–especially when Pierce won the first hand he was dealt.

And the second.

And the third.

Pierce won every hand, from the moment he sat down, until somebody finally, in exasperation, went through the deck and discovered that, somehow or other, there were more than four aces in the deck–and danged if Pierce wasn’t drawing at least three of them in every hand–including his present one, a full house consisting of three aces and two kings.

At that point Brown, who was losing heavily to Pierce and who had been drinking steadily throughout the evening, drew a revolver and shot the man, dead center in the front of that boxback coat, blowing his heart out.

Pierce stood bolt upright, clutching his chest, still with that unpleasant broad grin on his face. He reached out toward Brown, blood dripping off his fingers, and began to fall forward onto the table.

He never landed.

All at once, he was gone. He left behind nothing to show he’d even been there save a pile of bloodstained cards on the tabletop.

Just then, the wind came rushing in from outside, blowing those bloody cards into Brown’s face. The wind didn’t sound like wind, though; it sounded like a man’s mocking laughter.

Brown, understandably shaken, rushed out into the night and vanished. He was never seen in Julesburg again. One is tempted to hope that the murder of Pierce, and its peculiar aftermath, scared him into respectability, but the odds on that are so long no gambler would take them.

Which brings us back around to Pierce himself. The story of how he was caught cheating, shot dead, and then disappeared leaving only his blood and that eerie laugh carried on a storm wind made the rounds for years.

It has a sequel.

Somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century, a man walked into a Denver gambling hell and sat in to play poker. He said his name was Pierce, and he had a remarkably unpleasant grin, said witnesses.

He won every hand he played, beginning with the one he was dealt when he first sat down.

Eventually, he was called out for cheating, and in the ensuing brawl, he was shot.

He vanished just as he was about to collapse across the table, leaving behind nothing to show he’d been there save a bloodstained full house–three aces and two kings.

This story reminds me, in a way, of another about a “dead man’s hand”–two aces, two eights, and a face card that Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was shot in the back at a table in Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876. Have to say, though, Wild Bill never came back to gamble again. 😉

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