Tuesday, August 30, 2016

ADVENTURES IN RETREATING!!! (and no, this isn't about the French Army in WW2)

This year at Greenville Christian School we decided to start the year with a 2 day secondary retreat.  A good friend of mine asked me what that was like, and I wrote this account as a lengthy Email . . . and I liked it enough that I thought I would share it with you (with a few edits here and there).

OK, since you were curious, and since I had a marvelous time while I was there, I thought I would write down for you everything that happened at our Secondary Retreat.  The original idea was that, after the first day, "Hi, I'm your teacher here's your schedule have a syllabus" song and dance was done, that we would take all of the secondary kids - 5th through 12th grade - off campus for a couple of days of class bonding, spiritual emphasis, and a healthy dose of fun and games before we settled into the business of the school year.   I was a total curmudgeon about the whole thing - "Two whole class days?  Do you know how much teaching I can get done in two class days??" - but I decided to get over myself and give it a chance with a good attitude.  I'm glad I did.


      So at 8 AM Thursday morning the buses were loaded up, and I got an overflow bonus of four sophomore guys to ride with me in my XTerra, heading out to Sabine Creek Ranch, a nearby camp and retreat complex.  I left the school last of all because one of my boys was stuck waiting for his parent to show up with a signed permission form/waiver.  We finally got it in hand, and off we headed - about ten minutes after last of the buses had left GCS. 


   Here we hit the first snag - I'd never been to this place, so I simply programmed the address into Google Maps on my phone.  Problem was, Google Maps lost its signal and got all turned around somewhere on FM 276, sending us on a cloverleaf overpass that didn't exist, and then on a fifteen minute detour through the countryside along some very remote county roads with potholes that could have swallowed a schoolbus whole and denizens so sketchy I could have sworn I heard banjos playing the theme from "Deliverance" as we went by!  But then the navigator brought us back out onto 276 about a mile behind where we turned off of it, got its bearings, and took us straight to our destination - and despite our delay, we pulled into the parking lot before the last of the buses had come to a complete stop!


   At that point the Secondary Retreat finally began.  I got chosen to lead a team of Middle Schoolers ("Team Yellowjackets!  We fly, we sting, and trouble we bring!") and we did a series of competitive games against the other teams until lunch time.  I'll admit, while I'm generally OK with 7th and 8th grade, I'm not used to 5th graders! It's not that there is more drama with 5th grade than with high school; it's just a very different kind of drama than I am used to!   But we all made the best of it, and after lunch (which was 'camp food' - not terrible tasting, but VERY small portions for a big guy like me!) was swim time.  The main attraction was the "Fat Boy," which the kids called "The Blob."  It's basically a giant floating balloon shaped like a number 8 on its side, and one kid gets out on the far end while another jumps onto the end nearest the pier, launching the first delighted adolescent high into the air and landing him in the pond.  I didn't get to try this, since they require a weight differential of no greater than 50 pounds, and there are no 200 pound middle schoolers!  I did try the zip line once and only once - I traveled along the rope about 3 feet before losing my grip and landing butt-first in the water from about 12 feet up (AKA a "pond-water enema")!  But I did do the basic jump off of the high end of the pier - about 15 feet above the water - not once but around 8 times, and loved it every time!


   After swimming we did some indoor games, and then came back to the chapel where a praise band was all set up and ready to go.  They absolutely ROCKED THE HOUSE! (I have already asked them to come and perform at my church in a few weeks!)  They played for about an hour as we all rocked out and sang along, and when they finished our guest speaker, Dr. Joe Parris got up and gave a wonderful message on what it means to be "Set Apart" as a follower of Christ.  After he finished, we all went to supper together, and then the Middle Schoolers loaded up on the bus and headed home around 7 PM while grades 9-12 prepared to spend the night at the Retreat Center. 


   Once the munchkins were gone, I was relieved to be with my beloved high schoolers for the rest of the evening.  We had another great message from Dr. Joe - I was so impressed with him I gave him a free copy of THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE, a treat I normally reserve for family members and a few close friends.  For the next couple of hours we had some small group time, feedback sessions, and free time with the kids.  I got called on to capture and then liberate a baby water snake that had found its way into the chapel and scared the bejabbers out of one of my fellow teachers, and also discovered something I did not know about one of my long-time co-workers, Sandra Fields: this woman gets absolutely punchy after 9 PM.  I was rattling off a long series of my Bible pun jokes  ("Who was the best female investor in the Bible - Pharaoh's daughter; she went down to the river and drew out a little prophet!") and she was laughing harder and harder at each one, no matter how dumb they were, and the kids were cracking up at her cracking up!


  At ten we withdrew to our cabins.  I was sharing Cabin A with all of the Junior and Senior guys.  I brought a devotion on Psalm 103, then showered and we began to get ready for bed.  I told them that, in order to go to sleep, I liked it dark, quiet, and cold. The lights went off at 10:30, I put on my CPAP and tried to doze off, but they absolutely would not SHUT UP!  At one point I took the mask off and said "What part of DARK AND QUIET do you not understand??" but it was to no avail.  Then I got an idea.


   I rolled on my side and was very quiet for a few minutes, then started to talk "in my sleep".  They got all excited - "Is he really asleep?"  - "What did he just say?" - "We need to write all this down!"  So as they listened raptly,  I led them through an imaginary P-51 air mission over occupied France in World War 2, complete with epic fighter battles, aerial victories, the tragic loss of a squadron mate named Jenkins, and a hair-raising wheels-up landing at the end.  However, as I talked about this magnificent dogfight, my voice got softer and softer, and I spaced my comments further and further apart.  By the time I climbed out of the smoking wreckage of my Mustang and reported to the Briefing Room, the bunkroom was dead quiet.  I waited a few minutes, and no one made a sound.  I yelled out at considerable volume:  "Zombies at 12 o'clock!" (confusing genres there a bit) and no one  made a peep. 


     "That's better," I thought, and rolled over and slept all night.


     Got up the next morning and rejoined my Middle School group at the school (after a quick stop at a convenience store for a Dr. Pepper and Snickers breakfast!).  We had chapel, spent some time in small groups, then went out on the playground and played Ultimate Frisbee and Blindfold Kickball for an hour or so.  After that we had lunch with our "Partner class" (each upper grade is paired with one lower grade, and they occasionally eat lunch and do activities together).  It was fun to watch my 8th graders interact with the little 1st graders.  Once that was done, we did recess with the wee ones on the playground for a half hour, then went to the gym for some more games - "Ships and Sailors," "Sharks and Minnows," and "Human Pac-Man" (which, despite its name, does NOT involve students eating each other!).  By 2 o'clock, the kids were worn out, so we went to one of the empty classrooms and sat them all down in the AC, and we had "Story Time with Uncle Indy," starring yours truly (I told them 'The Story of Little Johnny', a longtime favorite of my high school classes).  Afterwards, we split up by grade, did a roundtable discussion of what we liked and didn't like about the retreat, and I shared with them some of my own thoughts on what it means to be faithful in our following of Christ.  Finally, the bell rang, and we all headed home - bedraggled, enlightened, and exhausted, but ready to come to school and LEARN on Monday!


So, to answer your question, THAT is what goes on at a Christian School  retreat.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

THE NIGHT BEFORE SCHOOL . . . (An original poem)

Today was the last day of our five days of in-service training, and tonight was our annual secondary "meet the parent" night.  While waiting around this afternoon between getting my room finished and waiting for the assembly to begin, I noted how quiet the school building was - and yet there was some aura of expectation hanging over it at the same time.  So I sat and wrote this poem, the first time I have ever posted any of my original poetry on this blog.     Let me know what you think!

The hallways are silent, shining lockers stand row on row,
The doors are festooned with signs, all some variant of "hello."
Bulletin boards are plastered with pictures, heroes and kittens and historic scenes,
And students shudder as thoughts of homework invade their final summer dreams.
Teachers lie awake, worrying whether or not everything got done.
All of them dreading the shrilling alarm, and the coming of the late August sun.
But for now, the school is quiet - just mice and crickets go a-roaming.
Summer lasts for one more night, as the twilight enters gloaming.
Memories made, good times shared, ball games, beach, and tans,
All these run through students' minds, remembering their friends.
Teachers think of trips they took, books they read, projects done, lawns mown.
But most of all blissfully remember no alarm to sound before the dawn.
Tomorrow the bustle will commence, quiet halls will echo loudly.
Students will chatter between their classes, school colors displayed proudly.
All the rituals, both fun and solemn, of American education,
will be acted out once more, with willing or grudging participation.
Romances will kindle, epic games be played, tests studied for and passed;
Rabbit trails will be pursued, and deep philosophical questions asked.
But for one more night, the school is silent, a tomb of steel and stone,
And if this building were allowed to speak, it might give a chuckle or a moan.
For these halls have seen it all before - the drama, the romance, and the humor.
It's heard the cheers, the laughs, the shouts, and knows the truth behind every rumor.
For this last night, the schoolhouse sleeps, its hallways deaf and its ceilings dumb.
Tomorrow the cycle begins again, when the doors are unlocked and the students come.
Lewis B. Smith
August 2016

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

My One Hundredth Blog Post!!!! (So What Am I Going to Write Next??)

    You know, I look at this little blog that I started almost two years ago, and find it hard to believe that so much time has passed, and that so many of you have taken the time to read these (more or less) weekly musings of mine. I mean, right at 7400 page views - that equals about 75 per post, right? (We'll see how many views this week's entry gets!)  Sometimes I open this page and I know exactly what I am going to put here, other times I sit here and stare at this glowing screen and think: What on earth do I have to say that anyone would want to read right now?  What to write next is a constant dilemma for authors, I guess, on the large scale and the small.  And that is the very question that is vexing me right now.

     It's two years to the day since I did my first book signing for THE TESTIMONIUM (and thanks to a host of family and friends, I had a banner day - selling 47 books at Hastings and another dozen or so at GCS that night!).  At the time that first novel was published, I had already finished THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE and sent it to my publisher.  It came out in May of 2015, nine months after my first book, and has done very well.  And, by the time it hit the shelves (virtual shelves, mostly, since brick and mortar stores seem to be dropping like flies of late!), I had already finished my next book, MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH.  It was published in December of 2015 - so, in 18 months, I had three novels in print!

     That was when I hit the wall my publisher warned me about.  I was told that having multiple titles in print would actually be a drag on sales rather than a boost.  I didn't really see that with THE TESTIMONIUM and REDEMPTION - for one thing, the cover my publisher and I came up with for the second book is so stinkin' awesome that REDEMPTION has equaled if not surpassed THE TESTIMONIUM in sales since both books became available.  But poor MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH - my third book has sold a handful of copies by comparison since being issued last December.  Not for lack of quality - it's earned nothing but five star reviews on Amazon - but people find out that it's the second book of a trilogy and nine times out of ten want to get the first book instead of buying this one.

     So Jesse and Chris, my publishers, told me that it would probably be a good idea to wait a long time before publishing my fourth book, LOVER OF GOD.  So it is scheduled to release in April of 2017 - sixteen months after MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH and eight months from right now.  The idea is that, through LOTS AND LOTS of personal appearances and social media hype, I will "build my brand" so that people will know my name and want to get my next book the minute it is available.  So I have spent a good part of this summer when I could have been hunting arrowheads hustling my buns off selling books at bookstores, civic groups, church engagements, and so on.

     But writing is an addiction.  I have already completed the final (?) volume in THE TESTIMONIUM trilogy (again, ?), THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY, and I sent it to my publishers last week.  But I can guarantee it won't be released until early 2018 at the soonest.  Do I really want to start another novel right now, when I know it won't be published until 2019, most likely?  That is the question that is really bugging me.  I have several ideas in my head, but the one I actually mentioned in the back of MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH (where I actually got to include a letter to my fans, ironic since that book has the least sales) is a third story set in ancient Rome during the formative years of the Christian Church.  This one is going to be called THE EMPEROR AND THE APOSTLE, and it will juxtapose the final years of the Apostle John with the cruel reign of that warped Emperor, Domitian, who many said was actually Nero reborn.
     It's going to be a good story - I love writing about the Roman Empire and the early church - but I have other ideas, too.  Alternative history is a field I have always enjoyed, and I have a great idea for a novel about the second Abraham Lincoln administration, after his narrow escape from death at Ford's Theater.  And this summer, I also went back and transcribed some horror stories that I wrote when I was in my twenties (hello, October blog posts! If you like spooky tales, stand by!), and I wrote several original stories of various genres - from a classic-style Sherlock Holmes story to a short vignette visiting the Capri Team about a year after the ending of THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY. Science fiction, horror, historical novels - there are so many genres, so many things I want to write,  I don't know what to start next!

     But a new school year is about to begin, and this fall is going to be very busy.  So I think THE EMPEROR AND THE APOSTLE may have to wait until Christmas break, and in the meantime, perhaps another short story or two is in the offing.  Who knows?  I might even have enough for an anthology one of these days.  At any rate, whatever I write, I hope that you, my faithful readers, will come along for the ride, checking out my weekly musings here, buying my books when you can, and offering me encouragement and support as I work towards my long-term goal of becoming a financially successful writer.

      And, if you'd like to help with that in the short term, how about throwing a little love to MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH, my red-headed stepchild of a novel?  It's really a nifty little Biblical archeology thriller, with many twists and turns from its innocuous beginnings to its thrilling climax in Israel's Negev desert!  Check it out, buy a copy, and pull my Amazon sales rank out of the cellar!


Tuesday, August 9, 2016


(Here is the exciting conclusion of the Sherlock Holmes story I wrote a couple of weeks ago.  WARNING:  If you did not read last week's blog post, scroll down and read it FIRST to get the beginning of the story.  We pick up right after the discovery of little Emily's mangled body in Mickledon Marsh.)

       Mickledon village did not have a coroner, and the undertaker was a mousy little man who was so horrified at the sight of the child’s mangled body that he nearly fainted.  So it fell upon me to conduct a post-mortem, as Holmes and the local constable dragged the shallows by lamplight.  Within an hour they had located one of her legs and her head; at which point the distant bellows were growing nearer and Holmes decided that they had done all they could until daylight. 

          I finished my examination around one o’clock, and despite my experiences in Afghanistan and Egypt, sewing up mangled soldiers and seeing the bodies of the dead, I was emotionally drained.  Emily Jones’ poor little face was unharmed, and the expression of sheer terror that she died with was unnerving.  I did my best to smooth her little features, and after examining her thoroughly, I lovingly stitched her back together and covered her with a sheet.

          I walked across the street from the undertaker’s office to the tavern where we were staying.  The tap room was empty save for my friend, who sat before the fire, sipping a glass of brandy. There was a decanter and a second glass on the table. I joined him, and without a word, he poured me a glass and said nothing until I had drained it.

          “Grim work, Watson?” he said.

          My voice caught as I spoke.  “She was so little, Holmes,” I finally said.  “So fragile, and so callously destroyed.”

          His voice held an uncharacteristic sympathy.  “I did not know you would be called upon to perform this service, Watson,” he said.  “Drink another glass and go to bed.  You can relate your findings in the morning.  You have done enough for one day.”

          I drained another glass, slowly headed upstairs, and knew nothing until the sun’s rays hit my face six hours later.

          “Come, Watson, it’s after seven AM, and the game is afoot,” Holmes said.  “I let you rest as long as I could.  There is tea, and the scones are most excellent, worthy of Mrs. Hudson’s table.”

          I washed my face and shaved and donned clean clothes, then tucked my trusty old Webley into my pocket.  Then I joined Holmes, Lestrade, and Clinton in the common room.  A number of locals were there, and the chatter was all about the little girl’s death and the return of the “Monster.”

          “I have two men dragging the Marsh a bit further out,” Clinton said.  “I am hoping they can retrieve the rest of the body before the family lays her to rest.”

          “Watson, would you be so kind as to relate your findings for the Inspectors, and myself, after you have breakfasted?” Holmes asked.

          I took another sip of tea and finished off my second scone (they were indeed excellent), and then stood. 

          “Of course, but not in this crowded venue.  If you gentlemen would be so kind as to accompany me to the undertaker’s office?” I asked.

I led them out and across the street.  In front of the undertaker’s office stood Donovan Jones.  Clinging to his arm was a pale, black-haired woman of uncommon beauty and distraught expression, and beside them was a blond-haired young woman who was holding a chubby infant that I took to be the Jones’ son. As soon as he saw me, Mister Jones approached.

“Doctor Watson, can we see my daughter?” he pleaded.

“Sir, I understand the desire, but let me say this as delicately as I can: she died very violently.  I did the best I could to return her to her natural state, but she is not . . . complete.  I can let you look upon her face, but I will pull the sheet down no further.  Can you be content with that?” I asked with some force, for if he tried to reveal the rest of her in the presence of her mother, I could not fathom the damage the poor woman’s emotions might suffer.

“I just want to see her sweet face,” he said.  “I don’t want to see – I can’t stand to see the rest.”

“Then come with me,” I said.

I waited until the entire party was in the room, and then rolled the sheet down to little Emily’s chin.  Her mother burst into sobs, and her husband hugged her close for a moment.  Then Mrs. Jones pulled free and bent forward to kiss the tiny cold brow.

“My baby girl,” she sobbed.  “My sweet baby girl.”

“Come away,” her friend said.  “You’ve seen her, don’t linger and compound your grief.”

“You’re good to me, Evelyn,” she said, and leaning on the other woman, they left.  Donovan Jones lingered a moment, studying the outline of the form under the sheet.

“How much of her is – is gone, Doctor?” he finally said.

“We are still searching for her right arm and left leg,” I told him.

“What could do this?” he asked after a long pause.

“A fiendishly strong killer,” I told him, “or else a large and powerful animal.”

“Whatever it is, you and Mister Holmes find it – or him!  Please, sir, for my daughter’s sake,” he pleaded.

“We will do everything in our power,” I said.

After he left, Holmes, Lestrade, and Clinton came in.

“Well, Doctor Watson, tell us what you were able to determine,” Holmes said.

I made sure the door was closed behind them and lifted the sheet, unveiling the damage to the child’s body.  Inspector Clinton winced at the sight, and I could not blame him.

“The girl suffered two ghastly sets of wounds,” I said.  “Notice that her torso is unmarked, as well as her left arm.  Something seized her with enormous force, and her head and right arm appear to have been sheared off – I think that arm was stretched out above her, and whatever force came clamping down was sufficient to drive through the bone and sever it cleanly.  The fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae were simply forced apart, and the tissue of the neck that was not severed simply tore loose as her body was shaken about.  Both legs suffered very similar injuries – the bones snapped clean in half and the tissue either severed in the initial assault or simply torn loose.  It’s as if an enormous steel trap snapped shut on her, its jaws crossing her body at neck and just below the torso. Or -”  I hesitated.

“Go on, Watson,” Holmes said.  “I value your theories, as always.”

“Or that she was caught in a very large creature’s mouth, bitten down hard upon, and then shaken so ferociously that she flew apart like a rag doll being worried by a dog,” I said.

“That is the question, isn’t it, my friend?” Holmes asked rhetorically. “Are we dealing with a human killer, or with a beast stepped straight out of the pages of legend and into the modern age.  You know, Inspector, it is one of my axioms that, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.  A monster is, biologically speaking , an impossibility in this day and age.  Are we to believe some monstrous saurian from ancient days was somehow resurrected to prey on the residents of this district? Or are we dealing with a human killer of incredible strength and cleverness, determined to drive people away from the Marsh by resurrecting this old legend?”

“I favor the human explanation as well, Mister Holmes,” Lestrade said, “although how he managed all of this is beyond me.”

“I have some ideas on that count,” said Holmes, “but I will not speak of them until I have had the chance to do some more investigation near the Marsh, and discuss things with the locals.  In fact, Inspector Clinton, may I trouble you for a moment?”

“Of course, Mister Holmes,” the man said.  “And let me say, I am sorry I was sharp with you last night.  That little girl – she was always so friendly to me! I was, in my own way, as heartbroken as her family.”

“Think nothing of it, my good man,” Holmes said.  “Now, what I wanted to know was this – has anything out of the ordinary happened in Mickledon or its environs in the last month or so?”

“Well, there was a train derailment about a fortnight ago, but that was quite a ways north of here,” the detective said.  “That’s the most significant thing I remember.  Now, there was a rather curious, if trivial event, a few days after that.”

“Let me be the judge of what is trivial,” Holmes said. “Sometimes the details which seem insignificant may have a very large bearing on things.”

“Well, a few miles north of the marsh, one of the farmers was complaining that his haystacks were destroyed.  Torn apart, scattered, and most of the hay just plain gone.”

“Most odd!” I said.

“Odd indeed,” said Holmes.  “Perhaps there is some connection, perhaps not.  At any rate, Watson, I need to investigate the edges of the Marsh.  Will you accompany me?”

“Of course,” I said.  “But don’t you think it’s rather dangerous?”

“Very much so,” he said.  “That’s why you shall accompany me, along with Colonel Garland’s legendary weapon.  I hope that, by the end of the day, we will have brought this case to a successful conclusion, and a brutal killer will be on his way to the gallows.”

We stepped outside the undertaker’s office, and crossed the street to the inn, where I retrieved my Webley and the massive rifle my friend had brought.  I have always been a fair marksman, and hoped that, if I did have to use this massive weapon, that my aim would be true.

As we emerged from the inn, I heard a sharp voice haranguing Inspector Clinton.

“I’m not saying ye shouldn’t be trying to find the girls’ killer,” a wrinkled, stooped old man was telling him.  “But two wagonloads of peat destroyed – that’s me bread and butter, gone!”

“What has happened?” Holmes asked.

“I had two loads of peat that had been curing for several days, and I was ready to haul them to market today,” he said.  “But when I came outside, my wagons were smashed, the blocks of peat were all torn up and over half gone.”

Holmes’ brow furrowed sharply. 

“Blocks of peat?” he mused. “First hay, now this.  Curious indeed!  Well, sir, I cannot return what has been lost, but perhaps we can find out the responsible party.”

As the coach and four jogged us north of town, towards the Jones cottage and the Marsh, Holmes and I conferred quietly.

“I may have been wrong, Watson, but I cannot be sure.  I have been focusing my thoughts on a human killer, but now I begin to think that there may indeed be a vast beast loose in this Marsh.  In either case, what I propose to do is fraught with danger – primarily to myself , but also to you, old friend.  Are you still game?”

“I cannot believe that you would think I would send you to face grave danger alone, Holmes, after all these years!” I said.

“Good old Watson!” he replied.  “Just make sure your aim is true when the moment comes.”

Lestrade had been listening to this interchange with some interest.

“What is it you propose to do, Mister Holmes?” he finally asked.

“I think I may need you to accompany us, Lestrade, so I will explain,” he said.  “Whatever it is in the Marsh, that killed poor little Emily, seems determined to keep people away from the water.  So I am going to explore the water’s edge – primarily hoping to find evidence of where this creature, or person, is entering and exiting.  I want you and Watson to flank me, weapons at the ready, but further back from the water’s edge so as not to draw its notice.  If it takes the bait, I shall run for all I am worth, leading our quarry towards you – and you shall fill it with as much lead as is necessary to ensure its demise, assuming this is a creature we are dealing with.”

We arrived at the cottage to find it deserted – the Jones family was still in town.  We walked behind the house to see the Marsh stretching off to the north, a light haze rising off the water, undisturbed except for the occasional ripple of a fish striking the surface.

“I thought there was a boat dragging the marsh for the rest of the girls’ remains,” I told Lestrade.

“There should be,” he said.  “Their instructions were not to come in until they’d searched everything on this end.”

Then Holmes gave a sharp hiss and pointed.  There were multiple objects floating in the edge of the water, near where poor Emily Jones had met her sad fate.  We approached cautiously.

The small punt had been so thoroughly destroyed that it took me a moment to realize that was what we were seeing.  The planks were broken and shattered, very few of them remaining connected to each other.  The handle of an oar floated among the wreckage, as well as something else, sodden and wrapped in fabric.  Lestrade poked at it with one of the planks and it slowly rolled over in the water.  It was a human arm, ripped off below the shoulder, clothing and all.

“Good God!” Lestrade exclaimed.  “Do you think both men are gone, then, Mister Holmes?”

“I would be surprised if it were otherwise,” my friend said gravely.

Then that bellowing roar came echoing across the Marsh, not too close, but not too far either.  It seemed to come from the western shoreline, perhaps a mile or less to our North.

“Gentlemen, it is time to bring this case to a conclusion,” Holmes said. “Follow me!”

He drew his revolver, and Lestrade and I trailed him, moving on a parallel course, following the shoreline of Mickledon Marsh (which, after this wet winter, was almost a lake).  Holmes moved slowly, studying the surface of the water ahead of him for any disturbance, and then studying the clay and peat that made up the Marsh’s edge.  Occasionally he would pause, kneel, and study the ground with his magnifying glass.  Lestrade and I anxiously scanned the water on those occasions, realizing just how vulnerable my friend was.

The day had started off sunny, but now it was clouding over and a mist was rising off of the greenish-brown waters of the Marsh.  We only heard the bellow once more, closer this time, and terrifying in its volume and intensity.  But no ripple disturbed the surface, and nothing untoward happened.  Finally, as the clock was closing in on noon, Holmes came to an area where the bank of the lake had been trampled clear of all vegetation.  He studied the ground for a moment, and then looked out across the water.

“Well, Watson, I think I have found our friend’s regular point of egress,” he said.

What happened next was so quick that the entire sequence of events was over in the time it takes me to write this paragraph.  As Holmes stared out at the water, there was a roiling disturbance a few yards out from the shore, and a huge head rose into view, reddish eyes glaring at my friend, and a cavernous maw, studded with massive, eight inch fangs,  opened wide.

Holmes turned white as a sheet and began running towards us as fast as he could. 

“Monster, Watson!” he shrieked in the most panicked tone I have ever heard from him.  “The Monster is real!”

With nightmarish speed, the behemoth charged up out of the water, its bulk heaving onto the bank after my friend, its gaping mouth slamming shut less than a yard from his trailing foot.  It roared in frustration and continued its pursuit.  Even in his panic, Holmes remembered his plan, and led the beast in front of us.  Lestrade began firing one round after another into the speeding monster, but it would take more than a police revolver to bring this beast down.

I shouldered the elephant gun and chambered a round, taking careful aim as the creature passed before us.  My first shot struck just behind its shoulder, ripping through the heart and lungs.  I ejected the shell and chambered another round.  The beast was still pursuing Holmes, but more slowly.  I put another round into it, just in front of its hind leg, and the .60 round ripped through its viscera.  With another ghastly roar, the monster turned towards the source of its torment.  Lestrade had fired every round in his revolver and was frantically trying to reload.  The beast looked at me and charged again, but the elephant gun had taken its toll.  It moved more and more slowly as it approached, and perhaps twenty feet in front of me it stopped and opened its huge maw again, letting out that terrifying roar one last time.

My final round tore through the roof of its mouth and into its tiny brain, leaving a hole five inches across on top of the beast’s head where the bullet exited. The monster abruptly closed its mouth, gave a couple of loud gasps, blood drooling down its jowls, and then slowly toppled onto its side.

“By Jove, Doctor Watson, that was a neat bit of shooting!” Lestrade said.

“Indeed,” Holmes replied, slowly approaching the fallen monster.  “It appears you were right after all, Watson.  This does appear to be a hippopotamus.”

“But what is wrong with its feet?” Lestrade mused, looking at the beast’s massive paws.

I took the water bottle I had brought along, and a rag bandage from my emergency kit, and washed off one of the front feet.  It was like that of no hippo I had ever seen – almost triangular in shape, with deep spacing between the three claws.  But as I looked closer, I saw the masses of scar tissue in between the claws and down one side of the foot.  Examining the other limbs, I saw the same mutilation had been performed on each of them.

“This animal’s feet have been drastically altered to make them look reptilian,” I said.  “I can’t imagine why anyone would do such a thing, as it must have been incredibly painful for the creature to walk on these.”

“That would account for its extreme aggression,” Holmes said.

“That and the fact that the beast appears to be starving,” I said.  “Hippos feed on grass, and it takes vast quantities of it to keep them full.  That would explain the destroyed haystacks and overturned peat wagons.  The animal was trying to find some means of sustaining itself.”

“And it might explain why it took to eating people in the end,” Lestrade said.

“When I was in Egypt, the locals did say that in lean years, the hippopotami would resort to eating dogs, ibex, and even small children that got too close to the Nile,” I said.

Holmes’ normal color had returned, but there were still spots of color in each cheek that bespoke his earlier excitement.  It was the only time, in our long association, that I had ever seen him give way to fear.

By evening, the massive beast had been hauled away, and many photographic plates had been taken, and the local newspapers were having a field day with it.  Holmes, as usual, tried to give Lestrade most of the credit for solving the case, but for once, the Inspector would have none of it.  But it was not Holmes he lionized for tracking down the great beast, it was me and my marksmanship.

“Here was this vast monster bearing down on us,” he pontificated for the press, “and Watson, cool as a cucumber, letting off one round after another, until he dropped it in its tracks only a few yards in front of him!”

Rather than deal with the notoriety, I joined Holmes on the first train back to London, where we settled back into our digs at Baker Street.  Over the next few weeks, a final detail of the case was uncovered due to my friend’s inquiries.

The train that had overturned was a circus train, Howard and Hester’s Traveling Show of Shows, a small circus that had been making the rounds in Wales for a decade or so.  Their prime attraction, as it turned out, was the “Hipposaurus,” billed as half hippopotamus and half iguanodon, a “living throwback to the Mesozoic Era.”  The creature’s keeper and the circus owner had been killed in the derailment, and none of the other employees thought to report that their monstrous attraction had gone missing.

“Imagine, Watson,” Holmes said after reading the newspaper article on the accident.  “Injured, dazed, bewildered, its mangled feet causing it constant agony, the creature went searching for water, where it could relieve its pain by taking the bulk of its weight off of them.  The haystacks provided it sustenance for a day or two, but there was no ready source of food adequate to the needs of a beast that size.  It found the Marsh and made that its new home, but the bitter reeds of Wales could not slake its appetite.  As it grew hungrier, it grew more aggressive – and then poor little Emily took a walk by the water.”

“One thing, Holmes,” I said.  “I hesitate to mention it, but when you fled from the creature’s approach, I saw stark terror in your eyes – something I never thought to see there.  Why were you so horrified?”

Holmes chuckled.  “Oh, Watson,” he finally said.  “Some things cannot be explained rationally.  I don’t know why, but in the moment that I saw that beast open its mouth and begin to charge – well, Watson, I don’t know how to say this, but – I didn’t see a giant, half-starved hippopotamus.  I saw a dragon.”

“Remarkable!”  I said.

“Perhaps you might consider not presenting this case to the public?” he asked me softly.

“Not unless you consent for me to do so,” I replied.

Not long after that, another inquiry gave us cause us to visit Mycroft at the Diogenes Club.  After we had discussed the events that brought us there – a case whose international import was so grave and delicate that even now, in the year of our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Twenty, I cannot present its details to the public – Mycroft brought up the incident at Mickledon Marsh.

“I say, Sherlock,” he said, “When I read that the beast you and Watson finally cornered was, in fact, a hippopotamus, I was expecting to also read that you had soiled yourself!”

Only Holmes’ brother could ever have teased him in such a manner, but my friend’s response was genuine puzzlement.

“Leaving aside the crudity, why on earth would you think that, Mycroft?” he asked.

“By Jove, Sherlock, don’t tell me you don’t remember?” his brother asked incredulously, but seeing my friend’s blank expression, he shook his massive jowls in surprise.  “Well, you were rather small.  It was several years before Mama died when she took us to the zoo.  You could have been no more than three, I would think.  There was a huge bull hippopotamus there, and it was facing towards us when it opened its mouth in a huge bellow.  The beast meant no harm, but that mouth was big enough to have held the both of us with ease, Watson, and Sherlock began screaming like a banshee.  He became so hysterical that our mother had to take us home, in fact. For weeks thereafter, the mention of the word ‘hippo,’ or worse yet, a picture of one, was enough to make him cry.  I’ll admit, I did exploit the situation for my amusement – I had a book of African animals with many illustrations, and I chased him around the house with the hippo picture so often that Father spanked me and took the book away.”

Holmes gave his brother a sour look.  “You were a bit of a bully at times when we were young, Mycroft,” he said.

Mycroft shrugged his massive shoulders, as porcine as his brother’s were lean.  “It’s what big brothers do,” he said.

“Well,” I said, “I can tell you no such thing as you proposed happened.  Holmes led that beast directly under my gun, just as we had planned, as calm as if he were strolling through Hyde Park.”

When we left, my friend paused on the steps of the Diogenes Club and took my hand.

“Thank you for that, Watson,” he said.

“And here I thought the only thing you were afraid of was oysters,” I said, and we headed back to Baker Street.



Tuesday, August 2, 2016

THE MONSTER IN THE MARSH - Part I (An all-new short story)

There is no greater challenge for a writer than to try and recreate the style of another, especially someone whose style and characters are universally known and loved.  But recently, while sidelined with a fever, I decided that I would write my very own, original Sherlock Holmes story in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  It's a bit long, so here is the first half of the tale.  Please, comment and tell me what you think!  Part II to follow next week.



Dr. John H. Watson, MD

(transcribed by Lewis B. Smith)


          My friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes scoffed at the thought of the supernatural.  This is not to say that he was an atheist; in fact, he once told a vicar, after helping locate the man’s missing daughter, that pure logic led him to believe our world was simply too orderly and structured to be a product of chaos.  That being said, however, Holmes turned up his nose at the thought of witches, vampires, demons, werewolves, ghouls, and giant ghostly hounds.  Such things, he believed, were the products of a fevered imagination – or else clever ruses created by evil men to mask their dark deeds with an aura of fear and dread.

          Now that both of us have retired from active life, however – he to his beloved Sussex Downs and me to my comfortable cottage in Hampshire – I can relate the particulars of one case I recall which, for just a moment, made Holmes question his skepticism.  I asked his permission over the telephone before taking up my pen, and he granted it with a chuckle.

          “Indeed, Watson, you have so often portrayed me as a genius far above my actual humble abilities, your readers may not be happy to see how thoroughly flummoxed I was in this instance!” he said.

          “I was equally misled, as you may recall,” I told him.

          “My dear Watson, at the risk of sounding a bit uncharitable, you were frequently guilty of, shall we say, barking up the wrong tree?” he teased me.

          “Indeed I was,” I said, “which is why your ability to find the right one always impressed me so. But, in all honesty, Holmes, you often set me barking up one tree in order to distract your quarry while you climbed another!”

          “Bravo, Watson!” he said.  “And you always played along beautifully.  Do me a favor, old friend, and do not shortchange yourself in this narrative.  You do that far too often in your writings, and in this case you did guess the truth before I did.”

          With that, we said our farewells and I sat down to write this account.



          It was a wet spring day in the fiftieth year of our beloved Queen’s reign when I returned to Baker Street after a morning excursion, feeling quite pleased with myself.  I bounded up the steps to 221B and set my package down by the fireplace, hanging my hat and cloak on the coat rack and warming my hands before the fire.  Holmes was seated in his overstuffed chair, facing a rather distressed-looking young man whose soggy state told me that he had not preceded me by much.

          “Good morning, Watson!  I am glad your wager on Barleycorn paid off so well,” he said.

          I stopped dead in my tracks.  I suppose I should have been used to it after all these years, but confound it, how could the man have known?

          “Come, come, dear Watson,” he said.  “You left the racing form on the table with the name of a certain dark horse underscored thrice.  I see by the white clay adhering to your left heel that you walked past the construction at the old Cathedral just this side of Whitechapel.  Its hue is quite unique.  What place is there in that neighborhood that a respectable widower like yourself would frequent during the daylight hours?  Only your favorite bookmaker’s establishment.  The races at Sussex would have ended almost two hours ago, and the results would have been cabled in almost immediately.  I can see the claim stub for your winnings peeking out of your vest pocket, and that large bag bearing the stamp of Hastings Booksellers tells me that the ten-volume, Corinthian leather-bound collection of Cicero’s works that you have been eyeballing for the last month or so has now found a home in your library.  Really, old chum, it was a very simple bit of reasoning.”

          “You always make it sound so when you explain it, Holmes!  But your powers of observation are indeed uncanny,” I said.  I could have sworn I had stuck the stub deep enough into my vest pocket so as to be invisible, but sure enough, a tiny corner of it was visible, due to my shifting around to remove my cloak.  Still, it could have been any piece of paper.  How did he always know?

          “Your bookmaker uses a particularly cheap grade of paper that yellows quickly and distinctly,” Holmes said.  I didn’t even ask; he’d obviously seen me glance at my pocket.

          “I begin to think I have indeed made the right decision coming here,” the young man said.

          “I certainly hope that is true,” said Holmes.  “Now, sir, you had barely begun your narrative.  As I’m sure you know, Doctor Watson is my indispensable colleague and foil.  Would you be so kind as to begin again, for his benefit?”

          The young man stood and moved closer to the fire.  His clothes were quite sodden, and it was a chilly afternoon.  I took advantage of his proximity to study him, trying to employ some of my friend’s methods of observation and deduction. Our visitor was tall and thin, with broad shoulders slightly stooped and calloused hands. His hair was thick and black and unruly, although he had obviously made some effort to comb it into order.  His shoes were soaked and muddy, with heavy brown clay clinging to the instep. He was pale, his eyes red, and he was obviously under a great deal of stress.  He had the look of a Welshman, and when he spoke, his accent confirmed my observation.

          “I hardly know how to begin,” he said.  “It only happened this morning, at first light, and I hopped on the first train to London, having heard of your reputation and hoping there was something that you could do.  But I’ve barely got it all sorted out in my head, even now, sir.”

          “Start with the beginning,” Holmes said calmly, “and, having proceeded through until the conclusion, finish.”

          The young man ran his fingers through his hair and sighed.

          “All right, all right,” he said.  “I know I’m babblin’ like a right lunatic.  I am just eaten up with fear, Mr. Holmes, at the thought that she is out there somewhere, alone and hurt!”

          “The sooner I know who she is and what has happened, the sooner I can be of assistance,” Holmes said.  “Watson, please pour our guest a glass of brandy, if you would be so kind.”

          I took the snifter and poured three glasses, handing one to our guest, one to Holmes, and taking the last for myself.  Afterward, I positioned myself by the fire and waited to hear the tale.

          “My name is Donovan, sir, Donovan Jones of Westchester, originally.  My wife and I moved out to Mickledon five years ago because there was money to be made peat farming in the old marsh there.  We did well, at first, and our little girl Emily – oh, poor Emily!” he sobbed, and I handed him my handkerchief.  He blew his nose, composed himself, and went on.

          “As I was saying, Emily grew up on the edge of Mickledon Marsh, and she loved it there - knew all the old paths and rabbit runs and tumbledown stone dwellings.  She would catch newts and minnows with her bare hands, set live traps for rabbits and try to keep them as pets, even though they always ran off.  I worried for her at first, but she understood the dangers of the Marsh as well as any native, and knew how to avoid them.  That’s why this is so hard, sir.”

          He looked as if he might start to weep again, but took a deep breath and continued.

          “For the last few nights, sir, there’s been strange noises coming from the marsh.  Enormous, loud bellows like nothing anyone near has ever heard before.  Two men on the north end told me three days ago that they saw something monstrous in the water, twice the size of their fishing boat, and when it moved towards shore they ran straight off. They were all saying that the Monster of the Marsh had returned after all these years, but of course that’s right nonsense.  Still, there was something big and dangerous out there.” 

“So I told Emily – by God, sir! I warned her straight up! – not to play near the water any more.  And, for the last day or so, she had obeyed.  But this morning, the storms had moved through and it was nice and clear – I’d say we sent them your way, because the train took me straight back into the downpour – and she woke up ahead of me and her mother.  I’d had a brutal hard day the day before, loading up peat wagons, and was deeply asleep, and my wife Alice was up and down all night with our baby son, Jacob.  So when we began to stir, it was an hour or more after first light.  I didn’t notice at first that Emily was gone, but when I did, I ran straight out the back door.  I could see her tracks in the soggy grass, headed straight down to the water.  I ran after them, but saw no sign of her, until -” 

          He stopped his tale once more, overcome with emotion.  He blew his nose again, and without asking, poured himself another glass of brandy and drank it down in two swallows.

          “Just a few yards from the water’s edge, sir, the grass and mud was all torn up.  There was this huge smear of blood, and I found one of little Emily’s shoes flung a fair distance away.  I was holding it in my hand, still in absolute shock, when I spotted something floating in the water a few feet out.  I waded out – it was past my knees, and the bottom is hard clay there – and pulled it up.  It was her dress, sir.  Most of it, anyway.  It was ripped up something awful, and not even the water had managed to wash all the blood out of it.  Oh, Mister Holmes, I am most fearful that my darling daughter is dead!”

          Holmes had been sitting in perfect silence, his fingers templed below his chin, only his furrowed brow betraying how troubled he was by this tale.  He folded his hands in his lap and spoke.

          “That isn’t all, is it?” he said.

          “Not quite, sir,” Jones continued.  “I waded back to the shore, holding her dress in one hand and that poor little shoe in the other.  I looked down in the clay, and next to the water I saw a pair of enormous footprints.  They were over a foot across, Mister Homes, with massive claws that had dug deep into the clay as it lunged out of the water.  As I stared at them, I heard it again, closer than I ever had before – a monstrous bellowing.  For a moment I almost believed that the old tales were true, and that the monster really had come back! So I ran back towards the cottage as fast as I could.  But I couldn’t help myself, I had to look back.  A haze was rising from the water as the sun hit all the rain from the night before, but I saw them anyway, sir, plain as I can look out your window and see yonder gas light.”

          “What did you see, man?” Holmes demanded sharply.

          “Eyes, sir, staring up out of the water. The biggest eyes I have ever seen – and they were nearly a yard apart, sir.  Nothing in England has eyes that far apart! They were watching me, glowing slightly red in the hazy sunlight.  Then they blinked once, and slid back beneath the water, and I saw the tumult created as something huge swam off into the deeps of the Marsh,” he concluded.  “I came and told my wife, and she was quite devastated.  I sent up the road for her friend, Evelyn, and then ran straight to the train station and caught the first train to London.  Timed it perfect – I waited only a few minutes for it to pull into the station, and it was an express.”

          “Fascinating,” Homes said.  “Indeed, not since the case of Lord Baskerville have I run into an enigma of such magnitude.  I shall gladly take your case, Mister Jones, and if we leave now, we can catch the four o’clock train and be back in Mickledon before eight o’clock.  Watson, are you available?”

          “My intern, Mister Nicholson, can cover my practice for a day or two,” I said.  To be honest, since my dear Mary’s death, I had stopped taking new patients and my practice had dwindled to about thirty old friends whom I could not bear to send away. Oh, how I miss that poor girl to this day!

          “You’ll need your service revolver, of course,” he said, “and I think I shall bring something that packs a bit more firepower, considering our friend’s story.”

          He vanished into his bedchamber and returned with an enormous rifle that I had never seen before.

          “Good heavens, Holmes, where did you come by that?” I asked.

          “Sir Walter Garland, the noted elephant hunter, gave it to me when I recovered his wife’s emerald necklace from Buckingham Burglar,” he said.  “It was one of his most prized hunting rifles.  This weapon has felled over a hundred bull elephants.”   He patted the barrel confidently and stuffed the rifle into his game bag.  “Well, Mister Jones, let’s head to the train station.  I imagine that Inspector Lestrade will be eager to accompany us.”

          I had barely heard the footfalls on the steps leading to our door, but Holmes knew the Scotland Yard detective’s distinct gait by heart – no surprise, considering how often the Inspector came to visit.  Before the first knock had sounded, Holmes called out to him.

          “Spare the paneling, for once, Lestrade, and come on in,” he said.

          Lestrade, red-faced, heavy-set, and sour dispositioned as ever, stepped across the threshold and glared at my friend.

          “For your information, Mister Holmes, I was going to ring the bell this time,” he said.

          Holmes smiled cheerfully, less because it amused him than because it irritated the Scotland Yard official so much.   “Then we can say we spared the poor bell rope,” he said, “for you seem to be in a mood to yank on or beat on something today.  Seldom has your step on the stair been quite so forceful!”

          “Child murder angers me, Mister Holmes,” he said.  “Is this Donovan Jones?”

          “Yes, that’s me,” the Welshman said.  “I am glad to see you, sir!  Can you help us find my daughter?”

          “Glad to see me indeed!” Lestrade snorted.  “Jones, you are under arrest for the murder of your daughter Emily!”

          “Me?” he said in shock.  “Sir, this is preposterous!  I came straight to London to get Mister Holmes to help me find her.   And – and – she’s not dead!  We don’t know that she is dead yet!!”

          “After you left, your wife called our local man, Inspector George Clinton.  Good man, George, he knows how to ask the right questions!” Lestrade pulled out a pair of shackles and advanced on the terrified Welshman.  “Isn’t it true, Mister Jones, that just last week you purchased a life insurance policy on your little girl?  What kind of man buys a life insurance policy for a seven year old?”

          Anger replaced fear on Jones’ face.  His fists balled up, and I braced myself to step between the two if necessary.

          “Gentlemen, please,” Holmes said.  “I prefer there not to be any fisticuffs in my flat unless I am a participant.  Now, Lestrade, please restrain yourself for just a moment.  Watson, pour the Inspector a brandy – it is rather beastly out!  Mister Jones, would you care to answer the detective’s question?”

          Jones still looked angry, but he took a deep breath.

          “I bought policies for all of us,” he said.  “They are simple burial policies – they cover the cost of the burial plot, the casket, and the gravediggers and parson’s services, with a pittance left over.  We’re not so bad off now, but times can change.  One of our friends lost her wee boy last year, and she didn’t have enough money to bury him.  We took up a collection to cover the cost.  I didn’t ever want meself or me family to be in such a spot, so I talked it over with Alice, and we decided to cover all of us, even the baby.  One less thing to worry about when the time comes is all, Inspector.”

          Lestrade listened to this explanation, and his expression softened a bit.

          “Perhaps your man Clinton asked the right question, but didn’t wait for a complete answer,” Holmes suggested.

          “I suppose that is possible,” the Inspector said.  “I’ll hold off arresting you until I can verify your story, Mister Jones.  But I won’t let you out of my sight.”

          “Then you must accompany us to Mickledon,” Holmes said.  “This unnecessary drama has cost us time, and the train leaves in half an hour.”

          “Oh, I’ll be glad to accompany you, Holmes,” Lestrade says.  “I can’t have you buggering up Clinton’s case with your wild theories.  And as for you, Mister Jones, if you are indeed innocent of any crime, I apologize.  But for heaven sakes, sir, when you need help, come to Scotland Yard first next time.  Mister Holmes is an amateur – and admittedly talented, one, but still an amateur.  Investigating a murder is a job for professionals!”

          “But we don’t know that she’s dead!” Jones wailed again as we walked out the door and down the stairs.




          “Now, Mister Jones, if you would, tell me about this legendary monster of Mickledon Marsh,” Holmes said, lighting his Meerschaum pipe as the train left the station.  We had barely made it in time for the express, but now the slums of London were flashing by as we headed north and west.

          “Well, there’s a carving of it on the walls of the old church,” Jones said.  “Got knocked about a bit during the dissolution of the monasteries back in King Henry’s day, but since it was plain stone and not marble or gold, they just left it there and abandoned the church not long after.  But the church’s library was moved over to the new rectory, and Parson Ralson read me the story one afternoon last week from the old chronicles, when the noises started up and I heard others talking about it.”

          “What does the carving look like?” I asked, my curiosity piqued.

          “A huge scaly beast with bulging eyes and enormous teeth,” he said.  “A bit like St. George’s dragon, but without any wings or anything.  Long, serrated, wicked looking tail it had, too!  Couldn’t tell much about its legs – they were closest to the floor and the mobs had banged them up with hammers long ago.”

          “Give us the Parson’s story, please,” Holmes said, shooting me a cross glance.  I must confess, to my shame, that I rolled my eyes at him.

          “Well, sirs, according to the Parson, it was during the days of Alfred of Wessex that a great dragon emerged from the marsh,” Jones began.

          “A dragon!” Lestrade snorted.  “What medieval balderdash!”

          “Primitive people resort to the supernatural to explain what they cannot understand,” Holmes said calmly.  “Pray continue, my good man.”

          Lestrade closed his eyes and slowly dozed off, but I listened intently – such tales have always fascinated me, and this was no exception.

          “Well, this beast lived in the water but could roam far on land,” said Jones.  “It killed nearly threescore people in a period of a year.  It was hot that year; a tremendous drought was going on. The Marsh held the only drinking water for miles, and it seemed no matter how many people banded together, the beast always managed to lunge out where least expected and grab whoever it could.  At night it would emerge and hunt, even tearing down peasant huts and barns.  Men, women, children, cattle, and sheep – it consumed them all greedily. Finally, King Alfred sent three of his mightiest knights, and they hunted the beast for a week.  Eventually they caught it out of the water, and after a mighty battle, Sir Percival of Lufkin ran it through the heart with his blade, and as it wallowed in its death throes, Sir Malcolm of Donderry drove his sword through its mighty neck.  Sir Geoffrey of Leicester was slain in the fight.  For years after a statue of him stood in the town square, but they say the Roundheads knocked it down during the Civil War.”

          “Was there any more to the story?” Holmes asked.

          Jones furrowed his brow.  “Let’s see, Mister Holmes, there was a bit more, I think.  The head was sent to London and displayed in King Alfred’s court for the rest of his reign.  The Chronicle said that the beast was over four fathoms in length and its body was a yard and a half wide at the widest.  It also said the Monster of Mickledon Marsh was the last known dragon slain in England.”

          “An entertaining tale, to be sure,” Holmes said calmly.

          “It sounds like the ‘Monster’ may have been an enormous crocodile,” I said.  “I know of some that have been shot in Egypt that have approached that size, although the longest one I saw myself was less than twenty feet.  But the feeding habits are those of a crocodile, to be sure.”

          “Leaving aside the bothersome question of how a crocodile of that size could possibly have gotten to England,” Holmes said, “that is not a bad explanation for those events long ago, Watson.  But I fear it is utterly inadequate for our current dilemma.”

          “Why is that?” I asked defensively, and Holmes gave a languorous gesture towards the window.

          “Look at the weather, Watson!” he said.  “Crocodiles are cold-blooded, tropical creatures, and the glass has only nudged above freezing these last few weeks.  A crocodile, dropped into the swamp in this weather, would burrow into the mud in a desperate attempt to stay alive, and then freeze there.”

          “But you said the Monster -” I sputtered.

          “Oh, Watson, did you not listen to the story?  England was in the grip of a terrible heat during that summer of Alfred’s reign.  There were two winters during that era in which there was no snow at all south of Hadrian’s Wall, according to the Domesday Book,” Holmes explained.  I hung my head, crestfallen at having let such an important detail slip my mind.

          “Perhaps it could be some other African beast,” I suggested.
          “Do you think there might be an elephant hiding under the waters of the swamp, Watson?” Holmes asked sardonically.  “Or maybe a rhinoceros?”

          “Well,” I said angrily, “perhaps a hippopotamus -”

          “My dear Watson,” my friend said testily, “how many times must I emphasize how destructive it is to theorize in advance of the facts? Pray let me consider the facts of the case without interruption till we arrive at our destination.”

          With that, he closed his eyes and folded his hands under his chin, and spoke not a word until we arrived at Mickledon.

          We were greeted at the station by a tall, lanky young officer who introduced himself as Inspector George Clinton.  He was a bit shamefaced as he spoke to Lestrade, since, as Holmes had deduced, he had run to the telegraph office the minute he heard the words “life insurance” without hearing the rest of the story.  Darkness was perhaps an hour away, but Jones assured us that we could be at the site of his daughter’s disappearance before the light was gone.  A coach and four was waiting, and we went bumping down the muddy road from town to the edges of the Marsh at a teeth-jarring pace.  But Jones spoke true, and the sun was still several degrees above the horizon when we pulled up in front of his small cottage.

          A member of the local constabulary stood in the back yard to keep curious onlookers away from the scene, although none were on hand at the moment.  Holmes held up his hand for the rest of us to wait, and then he moved to the back door of the cottage and flung himself on all fours. Oblivious to the damp ground, he slowly crawled back and forth, using his magnifying glass to study every detail of the path from the door down towards the water.  When he arrived at the churned-up area near the water’s edge, he slowed down drastically.  As the light faded, he bent closer and closer to the ground.  Finally, he waved his hand and asked for a lamp.  I brought it to him, careful to only step on ground he had already examined, and he took it without a word.

          Clinton was looking on with fascination, while Lestrade, who had watched Holmes at work many times, simply huffed impatiently.  But he did not interrupt; despite his outward scorn, he knew that many of his most celebrated arrests were due to Holmes’ assistance.  Only Jones spoke up, after three quarters of an hour had passed.

          “What is he doing, Doctor Watson?” he finally hissed.  “Shouldn’t we be out looking for my girl?”

          “I have worked with Holmes for nigh on a decade now,” I said.  “His methods are eccentric, but they do indeed work.  Let him finish examining the ground, and you will be surprised what he will be able to tell us.”

          “Eccentric indeed,” Lestrade said. “It’s getting bloody cold out here!”

          “Language, Inspector!” Jones said.

          Before Lestrade could retort, Holmes stood upright and made his way back towards us.

          “Inspector Clinton, my congratulations.  You have managed to keep the intrusions on the scene of the crime to a minimum,” he said.  “I have a pretty clear picture of what happened here.  Mister Jones, I am very sorry to inform you that your daughter is most likely dead.”

          “No!  How can you tell that from crawling on all fours like an animal? I don’t believe it,” the father insisted.

          “The volume of blood on the ground was enormous,” Holmes said.  “The grass concealed much of it from you, but such blood loss is not survivable. The violence of the assault was intense, sir.  I feel compelled to warn you – we may not find all of your daughter.”

          Jones blanched.  This last blow was too much for the man, he wheeled and ran into the house.

          “Clinton, you know this man better than any of us,” Holmes said.  “Go inside, comfort him and his wife, make sure he does nothing rash.”

          “Very good, sir.  But -” he started to say something, and then caught himself short.

          “What is it, inspector?” Holmes asked.

          “Couldn’t you hold out some hope for the poor man?” he said.

          “I saw none to offer,” Holmes replied.
          “You’re a cold one, Mister Holmes!” the Inspector snapped, and followed Jones inside.

          About this time an unearthly roar came bellowing across the marshes, loud, ferocious, and hungry-sounding.  It was also vaguely familiar to me – it seemed as if I had heard it once before, long ago, much fainter.  But where?  I racked my brain, and could not come up with the answer.  To this day I regret that my memory was not better.

          Holmes reacted to the sound in a way I had never seen him react to anything before.  He paled visibly, and a brief expression of fright crossed his face – something I had never seen in the bravest man I have ever known.  Then his normal, calm demeanor replaced the expression so quickly that I could not even be sure of that other look.

          “That was at least five miles away,” Holmes said.  “On the other side of the Marsh, if I remember my map correctly.  So we should be safe to approach the water.  Let me walk you through what happened, gentlemen.”

          He stood by the door of the cottage and faced the marsh.

          “The little girl came running out this door some fifteen hours ago,” he said, “perhaps around seven in the morning.  She skipped the first few paces, turned aside here to pick a flower -” He showed us a tiny severed stem by the light of the lantern, and then he continued.  “She turned off her course here, starting to run for a moment, the slowly returned to her original path.  I think she started to chase a rabbit and it was too quick for her; you can see its scat there.”

          He approached the ripped-up earth and grass near the water and shook his head sadly.  “Her original trail was almost destroyed in the violence of the assault,” he said, “but I found a few traces.  She did not quite reach the water’s edge – she paused here -” he pointed at a barely noticeable heel mark in the torn-up clay – “and stood a moment.  I think she saw something.  Whatever it was, it made her turn and run.  You can see her toe marks in three places, very widely spaced. I think, perhaps, in another half second, she might have gotten far enough to stand a chance. But she was overtaken and seized here – her last step has a forward slide, as her flight was brought up short.  She was jerked upwards and back with enormous force, which caused her shoe to go flying off her foot and then land ten feet away, over there.  You can see Mister Jones’ footprints as he walked over to retrieve it.”

          He stepped to the center of the trampled zone.  His face was very grim and pale, and his voice dropped slightly.

          “This is where she died,” he said.  “I cannot be certain, but from the volume of blood spilled, I think she must have been ripped open or decapitated.  A seven year old does not have an enormous supply of blood, Watson, and I think nearly half of hers is on the ground here.”

          “This is horrible, Holmes!” I said, paling.  I have never been terribly fond of children, but I hold nothing but contempt for those human monsters who derive pleasure from hurting and killing them.        

          “It is indeed, Watson,” he said. 

          “So who or what did this?” Lestrade asked, his usual bluster gone. The deadly atmosphere of this place had killed all our spirits.

          “We are meant to believe that this is the work of some hideous monster of enormous size,” Holmes said.  “But such creatures do not exist in Welsh marshes in the nineteenth century.  We are dealing with a diabolically clever killer, a sadistic man of enormous strength, who is very comfortable in the water.  He has some mechanism for creating these tracks and simulating the appearance of a dragon or some other fabulous beast. Look at these two clear tracks!” 

          He pointed next to the water’s edge, where two enormous, misshapen footprints were punched deep into the clay.  Each was oval, but uneven along its edges, and there was blood pooled in the bottom of both of them.  Three massive but blunt claw marks, slightly splayed, showed which side was the front.

          “Watson, you are more of a sportsman than I.  Is there any creature living on earth that might leave such tracks?” Holmes asked me.

          “None that I am aware of,” I said.  “All the great beasts of Africa have more than three claws, and crocodile tracks are smaller, and more enlongated.”

          “Exactly what I was thinking,” Holmes said.  “We are being fed the illusion of a monster by someone who wants to keep people far from this swamp.”

          He stood on the edge of the water, far closer than I would have been comfortable doing, and stared out into the night.  That distant roar echoed across the Marsh again.  All of us but Holmes blanched at the sound, and even his face grew pale for a moment.

          “If we do not find this man, he will kill again,” he said calmly.  “So I would suggest – oh my!  Lestrade, did anyone bring grappling poles?”

          “The constable has some in the wagon,” he said.  “They were going to drag the water tomorrow.”

          “Bring me one,” he said, pointing.  A small pale mass was barely visible in the shallow water, but the beams of the lamp could not penetrate the murk enough to show us what it was. Lestrade came moments later with a ten-foot long gaff, and Holmes reached out into the water and hooked the object, drawing it to the surface.

          “Dear God!” Lestrade gasped.

          It was the torso of a small girl, with one arm dangling from it limply.  It looked for all the world like some poor child’s doll, ripped apart by a neighborhood bully.  Holmes reverently laid it on the grass.

          “Call the constable,” he said.  “Bring a stretcher and a blanket.  No one needs to see this.”