Sunday, December 4, 2022

A Sneak Peek at My New Novel, WITH MALICE TOWARDS NONE! Lincoln, Hamilton, and Roosevelt - Oh my!

    I always enjoy trying to link my various novels together with little cross-references or homages.  My current work in progress, WITH MALICE TOWARDS NONE, is the second foray into alternative history I've done, the first being PRESIDENT HAMILTON.  But among my unpublished works, there is the full libretto to a two-act musical about Theodore Roosevelt, another one of my favorite American leaders.  So, in Chapter Sixteen of my Lincoln story, set in the late fall of 1865, I decided to tip my hat to both of these past writing projects.  Let me know what you think:

Before leaving New York, Lincoln was invited to be the guest of honor at a dinner hosted by some of the city’s leading attorneys.   He delivered a few brief remarks, thanking them for the invitation, and then took his seat at the head table.  Across from him was a man who looked vaguely familiar, a white-haired septuagenarian with a prominent Roman nose and high forehead.  Lincoln was trying to figure out where he knew him from when the gentleman saw the President looking at him and smiled.

“Thank you for your remarks, Mister President,” he said, offering his hand.  “I am John C. Hamilton.  My son Alexander speaks very highly of you.”

“Of course!” Lincoln said.  “I think we met briefly at the Willard two years ago.  Your son Alex is an excellent staff officer and did a fine job delivering my daily military briefings.”

“He’s named after my father, of course, and I can’t help thinking that Papa would be proud of his service in this regrettable conflict,” Hamilton said.

“Your father was a great man,” Lincoln said.  “His grasp of economics, and of the relationship between labor and capital, was ahead of his time.  Education, especially education of the working class, is central to the general welfare of the nation, and he recognized that truth and championed it.  Jefferson wrote some memorable phrases about human liberty, but Alexander Hamilton understood the importance of economic liberty.  National prosperity does not lie in the concentration of wealth at the very top of society, but on prosperity that is shared by every level.”

“Exactly right!” John Hamilton said.  “Jefferson condemned my father as a monarchist for wanting the federal government to be stronger than that of the states, but Papa knew that people can only be free when the government is strong enough to protect their freedoms, and fairly administered enough so that every man has a chance to rise as high as his abilities will take him!”

“That is the dream of America,” Lincoln said, “and I am living proof of it.  No one will ever be able to say that I came from a life of privilege, and yet by the grace of God and no little sweat and effort on my own part, I’ve risen to lead this great land.”

“And you have led it very well!” Hamilton said.  “My father would appreciate your strong stand for our glorious union, and your implacable hostility to slavery, for he shared your views on both those issues.  You know, he wanted to arm Negroes to fight in the Revolution, but his proposal was voted down.”

“I thank you for your kind words, Mister Hamilton,” Lincoln said.  “Your father was a man I wish I could have known, and I will say that I read your biographical series about him with great interest. I like to think that in some ways I have fulfilled his vision for our nation.”

Hamilton leaned across the table and lowered his voice.

“Mister President,” he said, “I don’t speak of this very often.  I was nearly twelve when Papa took part in that dreadful duel with Aaron Burr.  Even as my father was dying, in the agonies of his mortal wound, his thoughts were of the future of our country.  After bidding farewell to my mother and younger brothers, he looked at me and the others at his bedside and said: ‘If they break this Union, they will break my heart.’  I must say, sir, that when the rebels fired on Fort Sumter, I thought that my father’s worst nightmare had finally come true.  And it might have, had it not been for you. You stood up to them, Mister President.  You led our nation through a long, dark night of disunion and rebellion, and into the glorious dawn of liberty and unity!  Thank you, Mister Lincoln, for saving the Union my father struggled and died for.  If he is looking down on this vale of tears from the hereafter, I know that he would approve of your decency, your courage, and your passion for freedom.”

“That is high praise indeed, Mister Hamilton,” said Lincoln, deeply moved. “Those words mean more to me than I can say.”

“They are heartfelt,” Hamilton replied.  “In some ways, Mister President, I feel you have completed the work my father and Washington began, by saving the Union from dissolution.”

Lincoln rose and bowed deeply, and then found himself accosted by Governor Fenton, who had ousted Horatio Seymour the previous fall.  By the time he was done speaking with the governor, the President saw that Hamilton had gone home for the evening. They did not meet again for several years thereafter, but the conversation he had with Alexander Hamilton’s son remained with Lincoln for the rest of his life.

As he was leaving the dinner, Lincoln was accosted by a familiar figure.  Theodore Roosevelt had been an active member of the Union League, and during the war he had championed the allotment system that allowed Union soldiers to send a monthly portion of their pay to their families at home.  The President had been very impressed with the idea and had appointed Roosevelt to be the allotment commissioner for all of New York.

“My dear Mr. Roosevelt,” Lincoln said, “it is good to see you again!”

“I am delighted to see you as well, Mister President,” said the sturdy, bearded figure.  Roosevelt had done much to support the Union armies but had chosen not to serve in the military himself – partly because, Lincoln suspected, Roosevelt’s wife had been an active supporter of the Confederacy and her two brothers had donned the grey to fight for the South.  Since some of his own wife’s family had also fought on the opposite side, Lincoln felt a certain empathy for a man caught in the middle.

“What can I do for a man who did so much to help our boys in blue?” Lincoln said after exchanging a few pleasantries.

“I have a son who would very much like to meet you, Mister President,” the New Yorker said.  “He’s waiting in my carriage – he’s been very sick, but he absolutely begged me to let him see you.”

“I’d be delighted,” Lincoln said.  “I know how much my Taddie enjoys meeting the people he’s looked up to.”

Trailed by his ubiquitous military guards, Lincoln followed Roosevelt to a richly appointed carriage that was waiting at the curb.

“Teedie?” the elder Roosevelt said.  “I’ve brought him to meet you!”

There was a rustle of blankets, and a pale young face sporting an enormous pair of spectacles looked out the window at the President.

“President Lincoln!” the lad exclaimed.  Even in the pale light from the nearby streetlamp, Lincoln could tell that the boy was not well.  He was very thin for his size, his face was pale, and there were dark hollows under his eyes. Moved with compassion, the President reached his long arms through the window of the carriage and lifted the child out, cradling him so the boy could look him in the eye.

“And who might you be, my lad?” he said.

“I’m Theodore Roosevelt Junior!” the child replied with evident pride in his family name. “My papa is the best man I know, and he says that you are the best man in the whole world!”

Lincoln laughed and the elder Roosevelt flushed slightly.

“Well, the good opinion of men like your daddy means the world to me,” he said.  “Your father did noble service to our great Union during the war, and I am very grateful to him.”

“I wanted the war to last longer so I could go fight!” the lad said, but then his small body spasmed as he was racked with coughs.

“What ails the lad?” Lincoln said softly as he patted the child on the back.

“The doctors call it asthma,” Roosevelt replied.  “He will be all right for several weeks, but then it will kick in again, and he wheezes and turns blue and frightens us dreadfully.”

“It’s not that bad, Papa,” the boy said as he got his breath back.  “I always get better!”

“And I have hopes that one day you will outgrow it, as many men do,” his father said, ruffling the boy’s brown hair.

“I am very glad that the war did not last another dozen years,” Lincoln said to the younger Roosevelt, “but as brave as you are, I will bet the rebels are equally glad they didn’t have to fight you!”

The boy’s eyes sparkled, and he threw his arms around the President’s neck.

“I think you are as good a man as papa says,” he told Lincoln.

“You’re quite the young politician,” the President told him.  “You mind your schooling and develop that young mind of yours, and one day you might get to live in the White House, too!”

“I’d rather be a great general,” Theodore Junior said, “but being President wouldn’t be bad either.  Could I do both?”

Lincoln laughed out loud at the boy’s ambitions and said: “It wouldn’t surprise me if you did, my lad!  Now I need to go back to my hotel – I have to leave early in the morning.  It was a delight to meet you, Theodore.”

“You can call me Teedie,” the boy said. “Everybody does!”

“Do they now?” Lincoln mused.  “Well, then, good night, Teedie, and thank you, Mr. Roosevelt, for introducing me to your remarkable son!”

And don't forget, if you'd like to get your own copy of PRESIDENT HAMILTON: A NOVEL OF ALTERNATIVE HISTORY, all you have to do is click the link below:

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Another New Horror Story for Halloween - WHAT WAS IT??

       This story, which I finished up this morning and edited tonight, combines two of my favorite things in the world - hunting Indian relics, and a good old-fashioned creature feature involving some Lovecraftian nightmare lurking in West Texas.   So if you like finding pointy rocks and encountering horrid monstrosities while on the search, read on!!!

                           WHAT WAS IT?

                                                                 An Original Horror Story


                                                                       Lewis B. Smith



          “What was it, Dan??”

          Those were the last words my best friend Roger ever spoke to me.  His vital signs crashing, blood streaming from multiple wounds, one hand gone, eyes bulging, his face twisted by fear and shock, he grabbed my arm as the paramedics lifted the stretcher into the ambulance and rasped those words out with a desperate intensity.  By the time they got him to the hospital, he was dead.

          That agonized question played over and over in my head as I answered the sheriff’s questions that night, and later on, as I made the heartbreaking phone call to Amanda, his beautiful wife – widow, I mean!  What an ocean of suffering that simple transition of nouns conceals! – I could still hear them echoing in my head.  Even as I helped carry his coffin to the grave that had been dug in the small cemetery near the church he and his family attended, that question played in my mind over and over again, those frantic eyes seared into my memory, his voice mustering up the last of his dying body’s energy to demand an answer from me.

          The truth is, I didn’t know.  I still don’t.  Even though I was only ten feet from him when he sustained the injuries that ended his life, I cannot say with any certainty what the creature was – if indeed, it was a living thing. The fleeting glimpses I caught in the moments leading up to the final horror were of a being that had no place in a rational world, and the memory of them still haunts my dreams, waking me in the middle of the night screaming out the same question that my friend asked me before he perished. Because I have no idea what it was, and even now, I’m not sure I want to know.

          This all sounds confusing to me, staring at what I’ve just written, and I’m sure it must be even more so to you, whoever you are, as you try to figure out what on earth I am talking about.  I guess I should start at the beginning and do my best to explain what happened.  Maybe writing it down will help me make sense of it all – if such a word can even be applied to what we experienced!

          It started as a routine trip to South Texas. Roger had gotten permission for us to go digging for arrowheads on a large ranch near Bandera.  Such permission had been easy to get years before, when he and I started collecting Indian relics as a hobby in the 1990’s.  In the decades since, however, ranchers had discovered that collectors would pay fifty bucks a pop to hand dig on a good camp for a day, and upwards of two hundred dollars a day each for a “screen dig” – where a large table with an iron mesh top was set up, and a small bulldozer would scoop out a load of undug soil and dump it on each screen table for the hunters to sift by hand.  Two hunters per table, six to eight tables per camp, until the whole site was destroyed, and all the artifacts went home with the customers.  A large campsite, rich with points, could mean tens of thousands of dollars to the property owner.  With that kind of money to be made, few ranchers were willing to let people come dig for free anymore.

          So when Roger told me his Dad’s cousin Jimmy had a big ranch near Bandera – prime artifact country! – that had never been dug, and that he was willing to let us come down and spend a weekend exploring and digging all we wanted, I was excited at the prospect. I talked to my wife Priscilla and asked her if she’d made any plans for us that weekend, and when she said we were free, I bribed her with a day spa pass at her favorite beauty spa (not that she needed it; I know that’s what a husband is supposed to say, but in my case it’s the plain truth.  I married about six floors above my level and I know it!).  Roger’s wife was ten years younger than him and had always been happy to let him sneak off for a weekend with me; she and Pris were close friends and often hung out together when he and I were out digging.  She occasionally joined us, though – she liked artifacts and wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty or break a nail.  I thank God she stayed home that weekend – it was hard enough seeing my best friend ripped up before my eyes; I can’t imagine seeing the love of my life die like that.

          Friday afternoon at two, Roger and I met up after leaving work early.  Since he’d secured the spot, I provided the vehicle and gas.  It was about six hours from our neighborhood in Lancaster, on the south side of Dallas, to the small town of Bandera, west of San Antonio, and that was if Austin traffic wasn’t hopelessly congested (as it usually was).  We debated swinging west and going through a series of small towns instead of taking the interstate, but the latter part of our drive would be in the dark, and even with cell phone navigation (assuming we had a clear signal), the odds of a wrong turn seemed rather high.  So onward we hammered down I-35, getting through Waco ahead of the afternoon rush, and then sat and sweltered for the better part of an hour as the stop-and-start traffic of the state capital rendered my truck’s AC useless. We finally got free of Austin by about half past six in the evening, and the last hour and a half or so were cross-country, free of the interstate, watching the sun set about an hour before we finally arrived at the small town of Bandera around 9 PM.

          We didn’t want to bother our host so late in the evening, so after a quick text to let Jimmy know we were nearby, we checked into the smallest of Bandera’s three hotels, and managed to grab some fast food at Sonic – the steak house where we’d hoped to dine was already closed – and then turned in for the night. Neither of us slept well, of course – we were too excited at the prospect of the next day’s dig!  (For those outside our hobby, northeast Texas, where we lived and normally hunted artifacts, is a flint-poor region, and most points we find are small and made of rough quartzite or petrified wood.  Southwest Texas is loaded with slick, glossy Edwards plateau chert, which comes out of the limestone in huge tabs and could be made into large, beautiful points, much nicer than what we normally found at home.)

          By 7 AM we were both wide awake, and we had a hearty breakfast at the town’s diner before heading out along the farm-to-market road that led to Jimmy’s ranch.  Our host was waiting for us – a crusty, seventy-five-year-old West Texas rancher who could have stepped straight out of a 1960’s Western.  Greeting us both with a handshake that could have crushed concrete, he told us a little bit about the place we’d be searching.

          “I never was that fascinated by Indian rocks,” he said, “but as a kid I found a bunch of them on that slope below the cliffs yonder.  They’d wash down from the overhangs into the crick, and after the spring rains they’d be scattered down the slope.  If you go north, round the shoulder of that bluff, there’s a spring comes out of the rocks and trickles down into the creek.  There was always a bunch of them there, too.  You fellers can dig all you want, all I ask is fill in your holes and don’t destroy any of my trees – except the cedars.  You can take out all of those nuisances you want.”

          “Thanks, Jimmy,” Roger said.  “This really means a lot to us – not many folks are willing to let us come dig any more in these parts.”

          “Too many folks got dollar signs in their eyes,” he said.  “I don’t want them dang dirt rapers coming on my place!  I saw what was left of the Holloway’s ranch when they were done, and it was pitiful.  I mean, they filled in their holes, but they also destroyed everything that made that place so beautiful.  I don’t mind friends and family coming here and digging up a few arryheads, and as long as I’m careful about who I let in, and how many, there’ll be Indian rocks to be found by my grandkids’ grandkids!”

          “It’s a huge place,” I said.  “I imagine we’ll find enough to go home happy and leave plenty for those who come after us.”

          The old man laughed and clapped me on the shoulder.

          “That’s exactly what I thought, when Roger asked me if y’all could come,” he said.  “He also vouched for you, or I wouldn’t let you near the place.  No offense, I just don’t know you yet.”

          “Understandable,” I said.  “Well, my students have rated me ‘mostly harmless,’ my Dad has conceded that I’m not a disappointment, and my Mom is happy that I married what she called ‘a nice girl.’  Anything else you want to know?”

          “You a Cowboys fan?” he asked.

          “I bleed silver and blue,” I replied.

          “Reckon you’ll do, then,” he said.  “Now, there’s an old foreman’s cabin out back; I put fresh linens on the bed so you fellers don’t have to worry about a hotel.  Shower in the cabin is busted, but you’re welcome to come up to the house and use the guest shower there.  Supper’s at six; I got some rib eyes on sale at the meat market yesterday – if you’re late, I may finish all three of them myself!”

          “I imagine by six we’ll be ready for them,” Roger said.  “Digging’s hungry work; we packed sandwiches and drinks for lunch, but by supper I imagine they will have worn off.”

          “One other thing,” the old rancher said.  “I’ve had some cows come up missing lately, so if you find a carcass or some sign of predators, let me know.  I want to find out what’s killing them, or if I have a thief to contend with.”

          “Sure thing,’ Roger said.  “I think we’re both ready to get out and start searching!  Anything else we should know?”

          “Nothing I can think of. Watch out for rattlesnakes; they’re not as active now as they will be in a few months, but they still come out to sun on warm days. They’ll avoid you if you give them a chance.”

          “I don’t kill snakes unless it’s unavoidable,” I said.  “Plenty of room out here for us and them.”

          “Yup,” Jimmy said.  “As long as they stay out of my house and yard, I leave them alone.”

          With that, we bid each other good day, and Roger and I headed to the base of the big hill he’d pointed out.  Sure enough, the slope between the bluff and the creek was littered with flint, and we found several broken points and two nice whole ones within the first hour as we slowly worked our way towards the spring Jimmy had mentioned to us.  We talked about many things that fine morning, but one of the first things I said after we got out of earshot regarded Jimmy’s missing cows.

          “Do you really think there are cattle rustlers out here?  I mean, this is the 2020’s, not the 1890’s!” I asked.

          “Not a chance,” he said.  “More likely a pack of coyotes, or maybe a mountain lion.”

          Of course, it turned out to be neither of those things, nor cattle rustlers either.  In retrospect, I think I would rather have faced all of them at once instead of the thing we found – or, I suppose it would be more accurate to say, the thing that found us!  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I’m trying to explain this whole thing in order, and the horror didn’t really begin till the next day – although there was a sign that first day that I wish we hadn’t ignored.

          It had taken us all morning to search the slope between the bluff and the creek from the place behind the ranch house where we started until we came to the curve of the hill where the clear, fresh spring flowed from a cleft in the rock.  Just as Jimmy said, the signs of ancient occupation grew thicker and thicker close to the spring, and we were each avidly searching the ground, flipping over every exposed bit of worked flint we saw, and crying out when we found a complete point or tool.

          Then the breeze shifted, and I caught the unmistakable smell of rotting flesh nearby.  I swiveled my head, trying to locate the source, and saw a large spatter of dried, blackened blood on the ground next to a post oak tree.  There was a trail of drops on the tree’s trunk as well, and as my eyes followed it upward, I found the source.

          Ten feet off the ground, leaning against the bole of the tree where a sturdy branch emerged from the trunk, was the head of a cow.  It had been dead for several days, and flies were buzzing around it.

          “Something reeks!” Roger said at that moment.

          “Look up there,” I told him, pointing.

          “How in the Sam Hill did a cow’s head get way up there?” he said.

          “I think we can rule out coyotes,” I replied.  “Only predator I can think of that climbs trees would be a mountain lion.”

          “I want a closer look,” he said.  “Can you reach it with your walking stick?”

          I had to stand on a rock, but I managed to poke the thing hard enough to knock it loose.  It hit the ground with a sickening, wet thud and the smell of rot wafted up so strong I nearly gagged.  Roger held his nose and bent over the severed head, grabbing one of its horns to turn it over.

          “This is odd,” he said.

          “Oddly disgusting!” I replied.

          “Well, duh,” he said.  “It’s pretty ripe, but look here, at where it was severed.  This wasn’t a wild animal.  That’s a clean cut, not a bite or claw mark!”

          I had stepped upwind to get a breath of clean air, but I circled back and saw that he was correct.  The head had been cleanly cut off about six inches down from the ears, and even the vertebrae were cleanly sliced, with no jagged edges protruding.  Interested despite the stench, I looked closer and noticed something else.

          “Roger, both his eyes are gone,” I said.

          “Don’t birds always go for the eyes first?” he said.

          “Have you seen a bird out here all morning?” I replied, for I had noticed how silent the woods had been around us for some time.

          “Come to think of it, I haven’t,” he said.  “And normally a chunk of carrion this big would have a dozen buzzards fighting over it!”

          “I’m all in for a mystery,” I said, “but this thing really stinks.  Let’s snap a couple of pictures for Jimmy and move on!”

          We photographed the head from several angles, turning it over with our walking sticks, and then resumed our search.  Still, I found the grisly image floating in my thoughts – who would neatly decapitate a fully grown cow and leave its head up in a tree?  And where was the rest of the beast?

          By the end of the day, we had each found a half dozen or more whole points, including a beautifully worked corner tang knife that I flipped out of the dirt after only seeing one corner of the base exposed.  We’d also picked a spot to dig the next day, an ancient midden just on the other side of the spring that looked very promising.  We made it back to the ranch house a few minutes before dinner, and the smell of grilled steaks drove the day’s odd discovery out of our heads for the half hour it took us to devour them.

          “Looks like you boys had a fine day hunting rocks,” Jimmy said.  “Did you see any sign of my missing cows?”

          “Dang, that reminds me,” said Roger.  “We found the weirdest thing.  There was a severed cow’s head in the fork of a tree near the spring, about ten feet up!  We knocked it down and took some pictures.  Crazy thing, the head wasn’t bitten or torn off, it was cut clean as a whistle!”

          The old rancher paled, and then silently took Roger’s proffered phone, scrolling through the pictures of our grisly find.  He handed the phone back, his face set in a grim line, and the room grew deathly quiet – until Jimmy slammed his hand down on the table so loudly we both jumped.

          “Damn it all, it’s come back!”  he snarled, and then let loose with a string of profanity that my old Navy buddies would have been proud of.  He finally wound down after a couple of minutes, and then let out a long sigh.

          “I was hoping it was gone for good, or at least, that it wouldn’t come back in my lifetime,” he said softly.

          “What is ‘it’?” Dan asked, unconsciously foreshadowing the final question he would rasp out to me in about twenty-four hours.

          “No one rightly knows,” Jimmy said.  “Only a few people ever caught a glimpse of it, and none of them in broad daylight.  Last time it came around was in the nineties, around the time they impeached Slick Willie.   Before that, it was when Reagan was President.  Once during Vietnam, and before that, not long after Pearl Harbor.  There’s stories going back further still, to the days of the Indian Wars, but I can’t vouch for them.”

          “Stories about what?” I asked.  I was incredulous but still fascinated – I’ve always loved a good real-life mystery, from the Bermuda Triangle to Oak Island.

          “It always starts with cattle,” he said.  “They go missing, and then parts are found – always neatly severed, never torn up.  Scavengers won’t touch them.  Some say that, if found soon enough, they’re covered with some sticky green, snot-like fluid, but it melts away when the sun hits it.  It goes on for a few weeks, and there’s stories – I don’t know if they’re true or not, but my Pop swore at least one of them was – of people being taken too.  During the war they found a boy’s head in a tree over in Johnson County right after a string of cattle were found cut up, and both his eyes gone neat as you please.  Then, for whatever reason, it stops.  Cattle quit disappearing, people quit seeing strange things, and we persuade ourselves that it’s gone for good this time.  But it always comes back.”

          He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, and then stared at Roger.

          “Look,” he said.  “I gave you two permission to come out here, and I don’t mean to be ungracious.   But if you wanted to go home and come back in a month or two, when this is all over, it’d ease my mind a bit.  If something happened to you out here, it’d weigh on my mighty heavy.”

          How I wish we’d packed our gear and headed home that night!  But Roger shook his head slowly.

          “We won’t have another chance to come down for a couple months,” he said, “and by then it’ll be a hundred ten in the shade, and the ground will be like concrete.  We found a sweet-looking midden across from the spring, and I’d really like to get in just one day of digging.  Tell you what – if it’s OK, we’ll cut out at sunset tomorrow; we’d be back in Bandera by dark and drive home Sunday morning early.  But I’d really like to get in one more day of hunting, since we drove all this way.”

          Jimmy nodded slowly, and then stood up, gathering our plates.

          “I reckon as long as you’re out by dark, it’ll be all right,” he said.  “But stay in your cabin tonight!  And take this with you tomorrow, just in case.”

          He reached into a nearby cabinet and pulled out a huge, gleaming silver pistol, a .44 hogleg that looked like something out of a war movie.

          “I don’t expect you’ll need it, but I’d feel better if you had it,” he said.

          “Thanks, Jim,” said Roger.  “We’ll be careful.”

          After we retired to our cabin, I looked at my friend closely.

          “Do you believe any of that tall tale?” I said.

          “I remember seeing something about cattle mutilations in the news back in the 90’s,” he said, “and I remember my Dad talking about finding a huge bull sliced clean in half on their ranch, one county over, when he was a boy.  I always thought he was spinning one, kind of like you thought Jimmy was tonight. But – I tell you, west Texas ranchers don’t scare easy, and that old man looked scared to me.  I don’t know if this whole thing is real or not, but I’ll guarantee you HE thinks it's real.  As for me, I’m going to take a long shower, climb into that bed, and not think about it till tomorrow.”

          I nodded, and as he trudged back to the ranch house for a shower, I looked out the window at the dark bulk of the limestone hill rising behind us.  As majestic as it had looked under the warm springtime sun, by the faint light of the waning crescent moon it took on a more sinister aspect, like some enormous beast buried deep in slumber, dreaming of its prey. Then I noticed a small but very bright red star gleaming just above the tree line.  It shone brighter than Mars or Venus, and as I watched, it seemed to split into two for just a moment – and then it winked out. Must have been an airplane or a drone, I thought.

I got my own shower when Roger came back, and as I padded back to the cabin in my shorts and t-shirt, I thought I heard the screaming bellow of a wounded cow far off in the distance.  I shivered involuntarily, but then reminded myself it was calving season, and decided all I’d heard was a new calf being born. With that rather positive image in my mind, I quickly faded off to sleep.

          The next day, as soon as we’d wolfed down breakfast, Roger and I headed straight to the midden we’d found the day before and started digging.  The rich black soil was full of snail shells and charcoal, and within a half hour Roger pulled out a nice Pedernales spearpoint nearly four inches long.  A few minutes after that I found a Marshall point with flared, delicate barbs, and from that point on we forgot about mutilated cattle, missing children, and mysterious disappearances.  I will say this about that day – it was the best dig Roger and I ever had together. Between the two of us, we found fifteen points that day, several of them large and perfect examples, nearly all of types that rarely, if ever, were to be found in North Texas.

          We hung the .44 in its holster from the limb of a tree that overhung our dig, but neither of us ever really thought about it after that.  The sun was shining, the soil was soft and damp, and the artifacts abundant and beautiful.  We talked about our friends in the hobby, some still around and others long gone, and about how much fun we’d have showing off our finds at the big show in Temple, TX in a couple months’ time.  The sun seemed to fairly leap across the spring sky that day, and long before we tired of digging the shadows started to lengthen.  

          We filled our holes back in and gathered our things, rescued the .44 from its perch, and headed back down to the ranch house as we’d promised. Jimmy seemed relieved to see us and told us to go ahead and take a quick shower while he grilled us some cheeseburgers as a parting meal.  We’d barely stopped digging to eat our sandwiches at lunchtime, and those burgers were delicious. Our bellies full and our flint craving satisfied, we thanked Jimmy many times over for his hospitality and climbed into my truck to head to town just as the sun dipped over the horizon.

          It was a bumpy mile down a rock and gravel road to the nearest pavement, and as we neared the farm to market road, I noticed that the wheel was thumping a lot harder than it should have, rough road notwithstanding.

          “Well crap,” I commented to Roger.  “I think we have a flat!”

          “Here’s a level spot,” he said.  “Pull over and let’s get her changed before it’s full dark.”

          We were within sight of the paved road that led back to Bandera, and there was perhaps a half hours’ worth of twilight left.  I jacked the truck up quickly, and Roger got the spare out from under the bed of the truck, where it was held in place by a cable and winch.  I was just loosening the lug nuts when I first heard the sound that still haunts my dreams.  First there was a whistling, whooshing sound from somewhere overhead, not too close, but not far either.  And the sound that followed – God, I have taught English for nearly thirty years, and I have two master’s degrees, but I’m not sure our language has any words that convey the horror of that awful noise!  It seemed to combine the worst elements of mechanical sound – the screeching of an engine on the brink of shredding itself – with the most haunting ululations a predatory animal can make. Screeching, warbling, roaring, and whistling all at the same time, and still I can’t convey the horrible other-ness of it.  It was a sound that had no place on this world, or on any other world created by a sane God.

          “What the hell was that?” Roger gasped, straightening up, and then a dark shadow came between us and the fading light in the western sky. I looked up too late to catch more than a glimpse of something huge swooping above us. Its wings were somewhere between those of a bat, a giant insect, and a biplane. Three long, forked tails twisted and curled in its wake, and as it banked and swooped back towards us, I saw the same red lights I’d glimpsed in the distance the night before blazing through the dark in our direction.

          “Get back in the truck!” I shrieked at Roger, even as I dove for the door myself.  He was right behind me when two whiplike appendages came lashing out from an unseen orifice beneath those blazing red – eyes?  headlights? portholes? – and wrapped around his waist and neck.

          I didn’t have a gun of my own with me, but I had packed along a razor-sharp machete to help clear the stubborn mesquite roots and branches while digging. I reached into the bed of the truck and grabbed it as Roger was dragged helplessly along the ground behind that winged monstrosity. 

          “Hold on, buddy!” I cried, and then managed to catch up with him after a short sprint.  I swung with all my strength, and the cord or tentacle or whip around his neck was cleanly severed.  The monster retracted the damaged appendage quickly, and as it shot past my face some greenish fluid struck my cheek and burned on contact.  A second time that horrific sound assaulted my ears, much closer and more discordant than ever.  Aware of nothing except my desperate need to make it stop, I hurled the machete at the giant shadow that filled the sky over our heads.  One of the glowing red orbs suddenly winked out, and the horrible screeching doubled in volume, so loud that I fell backward with my hands over my ears trying to blot it out.  But I’d injured whatever it was, and the cord around Roger’s waist released him as the shadow retreated upwards, the awful shriek falling silent for a moment.  I crawled to my friend and helped him to his feet, staggering back to the truck while trying to keep him upright.

          But whatever it was, it had not given up.  Just a few feet short of the open door, we were struck in the back and knocked flat as the thing swooped even lower than before.  I felt a sharp pain across my shoulder blades, and later that evening the doctor at the local hospital would stitch up six parallel gashes, about an inch apart, that had cut clean through my tough denim jacket and flannel shirt.

          For some reason, the flying entity was focused on Roger.  The huge bulk settled to the ground on top of him, and I saw multiple legs and tentacles and some sort of tubular proboscis that was neither descending upon his body.  He jerked and shrieked as they penetrated his flesh.

          The closest thing to a weapon I had at hand was the long, curved “wiggle pick” I’d used to dig for points earlier in the day.  I staggered to my feet and grabbed it, lurching forward towards the nightmare shape that was trying to devour my friend.  I swung as hard as I could and buried the pick in one of its limbs, which was covered with prickly black fur but jointed, like a spider’s.  A second limb swatted at me and knocked me flat, and then the nightmare creature dropped Roger and advanced towards me.  I scrambled away, unable to get to my feet.  In the gathering darkness, I saw the winged shape lift its four front legs off the ground as it prepared to spring.

          A flash of blinding light and a report like a thunderclap sounded from behind the creature, and I felt droplets of that burning liquid strike my face and hands.  The monster shrieked again, and I detected a note of pain and anger in its roar this time.

          “Get off them boys, you bastid!!” Jimmy’s voice came roaring out of the darkness.  “Get back to whatever hell you came from!”

          Three more deafening shots were fired, and by the muzzle flash I could see Jimmy standing there, legs apart, the .44 leveled at the creature that had been trying to kill us.   I heard that awful cry for the last time, and then the thing launched itself into the air, hurling itself at the sturdy West Texas rancher as he squeezed the trigger for the last time.  The thing angled upwards, passing a few feet over his head, but as it did, a narrow, whiplike appendage lashed out, wrapping around Jimmy’s neck.  The old man barely had time to let out a choking scream before the creature tightened its grip and his head was severed from his body, dropping to the ground between his feet.  Jimmy’s headless corpse remained on its feet for what seemed like an impossibly long time before slowly toppling backwards, the gun still gripped in his hands. Then, with no more sound save the rush of air over its four wings, the creature flew back towards the dark mountain in the distance.

          I struggled to sit up and pull my phone out of my pocket.  My skin was burning in a dozen places where the creature’s blood – or was it oil? – there was something in the way the thing moved that was more mechanical than biological – had spattered on me.  I dialed 911 and then crawled over to Roger.  He was bleeding profusely, and one of his hands was neatly severed just above the wrist where the thing had wrapped one of its appendages around him.  Of the missing hand there was no sign, and I shuddered as I thought of whatever foul gullet was now digesting it.

          The paramedics were there in less than a half hour; an impressive response time considering how remote the old man’s ranch was.  I sat there, holding Roger, trying to stem the flow of blood, as we waited.  He barely spoke, whimpering in pain as the life drained from him, but after they arrived and placed him on the stretcher, he reached out to me with his remaining hand, grabbed my sleeve and pulled me close.

          “What was it, Dan?” he rasped out.

          God help me, I still don’t know.

Saturday, October 8, 2022

A New Short Story for October - THE HORROR OF HEMPSTEAD HOUSE

     The first genre of literature/film I ever fell in love with was horror.  From the time I was a child, watching Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney from behind steepled fingers on my Aunt Willie's couch, to discovering H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King in high school, I've been drawn to scary stories.  While my novel-length works have all gone in other directions (so far), I've been writing short horror stories since I was a teen.  Every year, for Halloween, I try to write something new in this genre.  This year's entree is one I am particularly proud of - composed over the last week, I think it's one of the most macabre stories I have ever written.  So be warned - if you don't like monsters and ghouls and things that go bump in the night, READ NO FURTHER!!!!!!

Still with me?  Good.  Turn down the lights, put on some creepy music, and enjoy:


                                  A Short Story


                                 Lewis B. Smith


          Folks near Bonham, Texas don’t talk about what happened at Hempstead House, even though its ruined foundations still stand, largely free of undergrowth, on the tall hill overlooking Bois D’arc Creek.  Nearly nine decades have passed since the awful events of May 1935, and those who witnessed the bizarre occurrence have long since passed on.  Their children heard their parents talk about that dreadful night in whispers, but very few of that generation chose to pass the story to their own offspring, and to teenagers growing up in the small Texas town today, the ruins of Hempstead House are nothing but a rumor, a vague legend whose details are unknown, but whose aura hovers over the wreckage of that once-stately antebellum home, creating enough dread that even the boldest among them rarely venture near it.

          I first heard the rumors when visiting a friend in Bonham fifteen years ago.  As we drove down towards the creek to go fossil hunting, the windswept hilltop caught my eye.  The tall Johnson grass that surrounds most unkempt old houses in North Texas was nowhere in evidence, and the few plants that dared grow near the crumbling foundation were twisted and misshapen, seeming to lean away from the crumbling stones in revulsion.  A vague sense of wrongness hung over the place, even though the ruins themselves looked as mundane any other derelict foundation on which a house once stood.  Stone steps that had presumably led up to the front entryway were flanked by two faded, cracked stone lions, both with traces of colorful paint flaking off of them, and one missing its head.

          When I asked what had once stood there, my friend Travis shrugged.

          “Some crazy old Civil War vet lived there once,” he said.  “Bad stuff happened there during the Depression – I think maybe someone died? - and the house burned.  I think maybe the locals set it on fire, but I don’t really know.  No one talks about it.”

          I nodded and we drove on down the hill towards the creek to look for shark’s teeth washed out from the ancient inland seabed that once covered North Texas.  But those brief words, and the story they hinted at, hung up in my head and wouldn’t let go.  A few days later I drove past that bare hill again, and on a whim, I pulled over and slipped through the decrepit barbed wire fence that separated the property from the road, hiking up the hill to the site.   As I got closer, I saw there was more bare ground exposed near the old foundation, littered with bits of glass and stone and fragments of ancient, burned wood, so brittle it fell apart at a touch.  I mounted the steps between the two leonine sentries and stood there quietly for a moment a few paces beyond them, perhaps where the front hallway of the house had been. 

          I’ve always loved old places, and I’m not particularly superstitious about them.  I enjoy walking through old cemeteries around sunset, reading the headstones and thinking about the lives they represent, and I’ve puttered around in old houses – old for North Texas, anyway, which was largely unsettled until the 1840’s. I’ve never once seen a ghost, an apparition, or even felt the slightest frisson of fear that some malevolent spirit might be flitting unseen around me.

          But what I felt on this sunny fall afternoon was something different.  There was a cold hostility radiating from this ancient pile of stone, as if the foundation itself resented my footsteps upon it.   The sunshine lost its potency, a cold chill seemed to well up around me, and I could imagine a voice just low enough to be inaudible to the human ear whispering at me to get out, go away, leave this place and never return.

          Then the noise of a passing vehicle reminded me that I had cut through a fence onto private property, ignoring a battered old “No Trespassing” sign in the process. I quickly returned to my car, and the odd feeling faded the minute I stepped away from that crumbling pile.  But as I slid back into the driver’s seat and headed back to Greenville, I made up my mind that I would not rest until I knew what had happened at that barren and forsaken place.

          Much of the basic history of the property was easily uncovered by a quick visit to the Fannin County Historical Society Museum in Bonham. Property records, old newspaper clippings, and letters were all available there, having recently been digitized courtesy of a grant from the American Historical Association.  A few afternoons of searching these sources left me more curious than ever, because so many of the articles and entries concealed more than they revealed.

          The house had been built in 1850 by one Noah Hempstead, who had received a large grant of land – over twelve hundred acres – for his combined service in the Texas Revolution and in the Mexican War.  He had taken part in the Battle of San Jacinto, where Thomas J. Rusk had written about his “conspicuous heroism and gallantry” in a letter to the Texas Congress, and in the Mexican War, where he had taken part in the bloody assault on Chapultepec.  Once the fighting in Mexico was over, Major Hempstead had spent a year or two in the newly discovered goldfields of California.  But the rough and raw life in California was no place for a man to raise a family, and with his son Andrew nearing six years of age and another baby on the way, Hempstead and his wife Melissa had returned to Fannin County, where he filed the claim for his grant, and construction began on his ranch house the following year.  Stone foundations were rare in Northeast Texas during the antebellum era, but California gold paid for the limestone blocks to be hauled north from the Hill Country west of Austin, and by the fall of 1850, the family moved in just in time for the birth of Hempstead’s second son, Aaron.

          Aaron Hempstead did not live to see adulthood – he died of a “pleural fever,” according to the local paper, at ten years of age.  But the firstborn, Andrew, grew up in Bonham and was attending college in Arkansas when the Civil War broke out in 1861.  He abandoned his education to serve the Confederacy and, despite his youth, rose to the rank of Major by the fall of 1864.  He was reported as missing in action during the Battle of the Crater outside Petersburg, but nearly a week later he was dug out of a collapsed Confederate trench, exhausted and frail but still alive, and sent home on recuperative leave.

          It was at this point that the ordinary narrative of the Hempstead clan and their rambling, two-story plantation house began to take a turn for the macabre.  Although the newspaper accounts were brief and hesitant, it was obvious that the young man who returned from the war was not the joyful young soul that had departed for Arkansas in 1860.   A letter from one of Andrew’s fellow officers dropped the only hint as to the cause, when it described his rescue by Confederate soldiers from the wreckage of the collapsed trench:


          Them Georgia boys couldn’t get him back to our unit fast enough once they saw that he was alive.   Andy shore was a sight when they brough him to us on a stretcher – his face was covered with dried blood and his uniform was fair soaked in it, although the surgeon found only a few minor injuries when he stripped the filthy clothes from him in the medical tent.  It was a wonderment to me that any man could survive being buried alive for a week, and I asked the corporal who’d led the burial detail that discovered him how Andy could have lived.  The man turned right pale and shook his head.  “I hate to speak ill of an officer,” he told me, “So I’d rather you asked him yourself.  Some timbers had just enough space beneath left them to make a large air pocket, but he was pinned beneath another half buried one and couldn’t dig his way to safety.  There were two other fellers on either side of him, both look to have been killed in the blast or in the collapse of the trench.  As to how he stayed alive – hell, I guess a man will eat anything if he’s hungry enough.  That blood he’s covered in ain’t his!” 

          Needless to say, I did not want to hear such a slander against my friend, and I gave the corporal a sharp dressing down before sending him back to his unit.  Once Andrew was cleaned up, I visited him in the medical tent, but his ordeal had left him weak and barely responsive, so I spoke to Col. Chaffin, who agreed that he should be transported home as quickly as our disrupted rail networks will allow; hopefully a few weeks of domestic bliss will return him to himself. 

Respectfully yours,

Major Elijah Wheeler
Second Texas Infantry


          For the first year or so after the war, I found few mentions of Major Hempstead except for a few references to his “convalescence” at the family home, which caused his father to withdraw from local society.  In 1867 local news reported the murder of two young girls, who had been found dead and partially devoured by wild animals in the bottoms along Bois D’Arc Creek.  A former slave was accused by the girls’ father and lynched by a vengeful mob before the sheriff could even interrogate him.  But in the days after the grisly crime, the Bonham paper mentioned that the Hempsteads, father and son, had attended a dinner party together.  The anonymous article added: “this is the first time Major Hempstead has been able to appear in public since his sad ordeal during the recent war with the Yankees, and he appears to be fully recovered from his wounds and privations.”

          Over the next decade, amidst the articles railing against carpetbaggers, scallywags, and “Negro agitators,” there were scattered references to Col. Hempstead’s election as county judge, and his son’s courtship of a local belle named Caroline Sullivan. The wedding was scheduled for May of 1868 and was set to be the social event of the season.  A week before the blessed event, another murder popped up in the newspaper – this time a Union soldier’s body was found, gnawed to the bone, in the creek bottoms less than two miles from Hempstead House.  The coroner’s report said the body was so damaged that the cause of death would have been impossible to determine if not for the bullet hole through the man’s skull. Given that the wars of Reconstruction were raging through North Texas at the time, the death of a single bluecoat meant little to the locals except for the attention it drew from General Sheridan, who sent a special squad of soldiers and an army surgeon to investigate the corporal’s death.  They met with a chilly reception and were unable to solve the crime, but the presence of the hated Yankees cast a pall over Andrew Hempstead’s wedding.

          In 1870, another local girl named Dolly Smithwick went missing in the woods near Hempstead House.  Her body was not found for three weeks, by which time little more than bones remained, and her cause of death was never determined. However, the same day her body was found, another event rocked the north Texas district – Colonel Noah Hempstead, the county judge, hero of San Jacinto, and pillar of the community, was found dead in his study, his Colt .44 still clasped in his hand, and his blood and brains spattered on the walls of his home.  His wife had died of consumption during the war, and the long ordeal of restoring his son back to health had taken its toll on the old man.  A coroner’s inquest mentioned that he had “gone very melancholy” after the latest disappearance; one friend commented that the judge had gone on a bender at a local tavern and had to be taken home in a carriage because he was too drunk to mount his horse.  As the witness helped him up the steps, Judge Hempstead said something that struck his friend as odd – “This is all my fault.  I should have put him down when I found out.”  When asked to clarify, Hempstead laughed out loud and muttered something about a vicious dog he owned, and then he assured the witness the matter would be dealt with soon.

          The Judge’s body was found by his son Andrew, and the coroner noted that there was no suicide note.  When he asked the young veteran if he had seen one, he noted that Hempstead seemed “evasive,” but he attributed it to the young man’s shock and grief.  The official ruling was death by suicide, and for the next few years there was no mention of the Hempsteads in the local papers, except for a birth notice in 1873, and another in 1874, noting that Major Hempstead was now the proud father of two sons.  

          It was during this time that the Bonham Courier mentioned an odd superstition among the area’s Negro population.  In the midst of a summary description of Klan activities around the state, the article noted “the white-robed knights have found little to occupy their attention in Fannin County of late, for the darkie community has been quite docile and submissive, many of them afraid to even venture out of their cabins after dark for fear of something they call the ‘white ghoulman,’  whom they claim will take unattended children or unwary travelers on dark nights.”

          Major Hempstead followed in his father’s footsteps in 1878, being elected as county judge, but the newspaper articles never showed him the fawning admiration that had filled the stories about his father.  They were rarely disrespectful or critical of the younger Hempstead, but instead seemed dispassionate and even (on occasion) a bit fearful.  An 1882 article noted “a well-known knife fighter and desperado stood before the docket in Judge Hempstead’s court today, snarling his defiance as the sheriff began to testify against him.  The judge fixed him with a deadly glare and ordered him to be silent, and the fiend suddenly turned pale and sank back into his chair, meekly answering questions for the rest of the day.”

          Caroline Hempstead, although she had been a colorful and vivacious belle before her marriage, became more and more reclusive afterwards, rarely leaving the Hempstead Plantation.  When she did appear at social events with her husband, witnesses noted her pale beauty and tendency to wear long-sleeved gowns even in the warmest weather, but I never found a single record of her speaking or dancing at any of these gatherings.  Perhaps she was being domestically abused, I mused as I read the articles.

          The judge’s boys, on the other hand, were mentioned often. Both seemed to be athletic, intelligent, and popular, riding in local equestrian events and being sent off to boarding school when they got older. Eventually both went south to Austin to study at the University of Texas after their matriculation; Jonathan, the oldest, settled near Waco, while the younger boy, Allan, returned to Bonham and bought a small house in town, marrying a local girl named Eleanor Collins the next year.

          Getting older seemed to have eluded Major Hempstead, however.  An 1885 photograph in the newspaper showed a grim but youthful-looking man, in appearance about 25 years of age despite having turned 41 two months previously. By the 1890’s newspaper articles began commenting on the Judge’s unusual vigor for his years.

          Scattered throughout the decades of the 80’s and 90’s, occasional disappearances continued, as did occasional references to the “white ghoulman” so feared and dreaded by the local black community.  Then in 1905, a young brother and sister, who had played hooky from school to go fishing in the creek, were found by a horrified trapper, their faces gnawed off and their bodies disemboweled. The bereft parents issued a public plea for justice, and for the first time the stories of the “white ghoulman” were printed without mockery of the superstitious freedmen who had coined the term.  Bloodhounds were sent out, and they lost the scent in the river bottoms just below Hempstead House.  The Judge himself offered a $5000 reward for any information leading to the apprehension of the killer, and several promising leads were mentioned in the paper, but in the end, the killer evaded justice – although a bloodthirsty lynch mob killed two black youths found wandering near the creek, apparently more in pure frustration than in any serious belief in their guilt.

          In 1910, Judge Hempstead retired from the bench after thirty-two years of service to justice.  At a ball held in his honor, the Courier mentioned that “the judge was joined on this special occasion by his reclusive wife Caroline, whose delicate health has rendered her an invalid for the last few years.  Those who could remember her vivacious youth commented sadly on her pale, wasted condition and wan, detached gaze.  Although the family has been reticent about the nature of her illness, there are whispers of some skin condition which seem confirmed by the bandages on her arms that could be glimpsed beneath the long sleeves of her formal gown.”

          The retirement ball was her last public appearance, because the following year her obituary appeared in the paper, although the cause of death was simply listed as a “long, wasting illness.” Her funeral was attended by most of the town, and the Courier noted that “the Judge, although bowed with grief at her departure, seems as untouched by the ravages of time as ever, only a frosting of grey at his temples and a few lines of care beneath his eyes giving hint that he is nearing seventy years of age.”

          About two years later, a rash of disappearances and murders struck Fannin County.  Three young boys, returning from fishing in the creek, were found floating near the Sanders Crossing bridge, their bodies bearing the mark of savage claws and teeth. A salesman from Kansas checked into the hotel on the town square and went out drinking on a Friday night and never returned.  A young domestic, walking home after a busy day’s work was abducted, and skeletal remains found the next summer were assumed to be hers by virtue of a necklace that matched hers, still affixed around the cervical vertebrae.

          As the manhunt for the “white ghoulman” intensified, the Courier mentioned in its “Local Doings” column that “Allan Hempstead, the son of retired Judge Hempstead, is selling his house in town and moving to his father’s farmhouse, to help the Judge manage the farm in his old age.”

          The disappearances stopped that week, and although speculation as to who or what the killer was continued to appear in the paper off and on for several years, he was never apprehended or identified.  Young Hempstead was mentioned only rarely over the next few years, usually in stories dealing with local land speculation and farm foreclosures.  The Hempsteads did well selling corn and wheat to the Army during the World War, and Allan’s daughters were sent to boarding school in Virginia shortly after they turned ten.  Both girls married men from out of state and never returned to Bonham, except for their father’s funeral in 1934.

          Allan Hempstead was gunned down in July of that year in a botched bank robbery by the notorious George “Baby-face” Nelson; Hempstead was an innocent victim of the crossfire between the desperado and a local sheriff’s deputy.  Having just gotten his hair cut at the local barber shop, he was walking out the door with a newspaper tucked under his arm when a bullet struck him through the head, killing him instantly.  The community grieved this man who had become one of its more respected citizens, although the obituary commented that his work on the farm had precluded him from having an active social life ever since he moved to “the Judge’s old place.” One odd thing I noted, however, was that neither The Courier nor any other local paper had ever printed a death notice for Judge Hempstead, although his son’s obituary spoke of him in the past tense.  I spent a whole day scanning newspapers from 1915 through 1934, just in case I had missed it, but it was as if the old judge had simply disappeared.  The funeral of his son was front page news in Bonham, but no mention of his father’s passing ever appeared in any newspaper that I have been able to find.

          But the final crisis, that ended in the fiery destruction of Hempstead House, came not long after the death of Allan.  His lovely widow Eleanor had been devastated by her husband’s passing, lamenting at his graveside that she feared she could not keep the family legacy secure without him. But after the funeral in July, her name did not appear in the local press again until her own grisly demise that December.

          It was a cold, wet week, and torrential rains had caused the Bois D’Arc creek to overflow its banks, flooding the bottom lands around it.  No one knew why Eleanor Hempstead chose that miserable December 6 to come to town, but her body was found the next morning in the middle of the dirt road leading from Hempstead House and the Bois D’Arc bottoms towards Bonham. Her throat was torn out and her back flayed open to expose her ribs, and her face was frozen in a scream of horror.  The autopsy photographs were preserved in a copy of True Crimes of Texas published in 1955, and although they were grainy and partially censored, it was obvious that some of the wounds on her back were bite marks – human bites, from the look of them.

          The tragic death of the young widow marked the beginning of an absolute reign of terror that persisted for the next fifty days. During the course of those nightmare weeks, eleven people were murdered in and around Bonham, Texas, their grotesque injuries described in increasingly stark detail as the spree continued.  A young farm girl cutting across a hay field, a sheriff’s deputy searching the woods for her killer, two elderly locals gutted and chewed to shreds in their small farmhouse, a pair of little boys on their way to school – the sad faces stared at me from the grainy pages of 75-year-old newspaper clippings, pulled up on the glowing screen of the Historical Society’s computer.

          Then came the glaring headline on January 26, 1935, up half the first page of The Bonham Courier:








A sheriff’s posse, attempting to track the person or persons responsible for the terrible rash of killings that has plagued our community over the last few weeks, pursued a suspect to the abandoned home of former Judge Andrew Hempstead outside of town last night.  As the fugitive fled to the house’s attic, a deputy inadvertently knocked over a coal-oil lamp and set the curtains of the front parlor afire. The flames spread before the sheriff and his men could extinguish them, and the lawmen abandoned the house to the flames, surrounding it so they could apprehend the suspected killer if he tried to flee.  Justice seems to have overtaken the man who terrorized our community off and on for these last years, for no one escaped from the conflagration, and the coroner reported finding skeletal remains in the ashes of the house this morning.  We can only pray that the “white ghoulman,” or the debauched killer who inspired that local legend, is truly gone from our midst.  Sheriff Henderson seemed confident that the man his posse was pursuing was indeed the killer who has claimed a dozen victims, starting with the widow Hempstead, since last December. However, none of the members of the posse have related where they found the suspect, or why they are so sure he was the one responsible for the killings.


          Amazingly, that was the last mention of the Hempstead House fire, or the “ghoulman” killings, in the Bonham Courier – or in any other Texas newspaper.  A curtain of silence descended over the rural community, as if the locals feared mentioning the killer might bring him back from the dead.  I scanned newspaper after newspaper, court record after court record, for some bit of evidence or testimony, to no avail. After several days of staring at the screen and thumbing through old books of local history, I threw up my hands and gave a snort of disgust.

          “What a shame that every witness of those events is dead!” I snapped to Ben Walker, the archivist who maintained the county’s records.  “It’s like a curtain of silence descended over the case after the old house burned down.  I have so many questions, if only there was someone to answer them.”

          “Don’t be mad,” Ben said, “because I didn’t think of this sooner.  But there’s a fellow out at the nursing home who was alive at the time.  He born in 1925, so he was just a kid then, but his Dad was a deputy sheriff and may have even been part of that posse.  His name’s Jeb Martin, and he’s at the Legend Healthcare facility in Greenville.”

          “Does he still have his wits about him?” I asked.

          “He’s sharp as a tack,” Ben said.  “Broke his hip a few weeks back and has been in rehab there, but I’ve had many a long talk with him down at the Gilded Horseshoe. The man is a walking library of local history.”

          “Thanks, bud!” I said.  “Ever since I saw the foundations of that old house, this case has haunted me.  There must be more to the story than what the newspapers hinted at.”

          “Want my advice?” Ben said.  I nodded, and he continued. 

“Jeb’s right fond of a sip of Wild Turkey now and then.  He’ll be more likely to talk to you if you can slip him a flask,” the archivist told me.

For the sake of time, I’ll spare this narrative the details of the six visits to the nursing facility (and six flasks of whiskey!) it took me to win Jeb’s trust.  At first, he denied all knowledge of the horrors of Hempstead House, and after I proved to him that was a practical impossibility, he told me that his father had sworn him to a lifelong vow of secrecy regarding the events of that night.  Finally, on the final visit, the old man looked at me and smiled.

“You won’t thank me when I’m done, you know,” he said.  “That’s what my Pap told me when I finally badgered the full story out of him, after I got back from the war.  And he was right.  I was already messed up enough by the things I saw and did on Okinawa, but when he told me about what he and the others witnessed that night before they set that accursed farmhouse ablaze, I didn’t sleep for three days.  My Daddy never published anything, but he used to write stories for us kids when we were little, and he could describe things in such a way to make you feel you were really there.  I can tell you every detail of what he and the members of that posse saw, despite the fact that I’ve been trying to forget the story for sixty-five years now.  Maybe it’ll do me some good to finally share it with someone, but just remember what I said – you won’t thank me when I’m done.  Let’s go outside, at least.  This is a story for bright sunlight, not these damned fluorescent soul-suckers!”

By this point he was far enough along in his recovery that he could hobble on a cane, and he led me out to a shaded porch where the westering sun’s rays illuminated our surroundings without beating down on us.

“People were afraid of old Judge Hempstead, you know,” he began. “From the day he came back from Petersburg, pale as a sheet and barely able to talk, there was something not quite right about him. How any man could be buried in a collapsed trench for nearly a week and then be pulled out of the ground still alive was a mystery to everyone in the town.  There were whispers that he’d had to do horrible things in order to survive, but no one seemed to know what.  But people whispered that his health didn’t come back to normal until after those two girls were killed down in the creek bottom.  Then, in a week, he went from being a gaunt invalid to a normal young man again.  My Daddy was born not long after that, and he told me that folks noticed that every few years, Judge Hempstead would start looking poorly and gaunt, and then some poor Negro or traveler would go missing, and suddenly the judge would look ten years younger again.  Of course, no one spoke these things out loud – being a county judge back in them days meant that you were just a couple of rungs below God in the order of things.  Some folks said that old Colonel Hempstead blew his brains out when that poor little girl Dolly was found, because he’d discovered what his son really was.  My granddad was convinced that the Colonel hadn’t killed himself at all, but that Andrew Hempstead had done the deed himself, when the old man threatened to turn him in to the sheriff.”

“You think the judge was behind all those murders?” I asked.

“I don’t think so, I know so,” Jeb replied.  “He needed to kill, in order to survive.  That was why he aged so slowly, and then would suddenly look ten years younger whenever someone disappeared. My granddad was also friends with Doctor Kuykendall, the town medic.  One night, he told my pa, the doctor came into the saloon and knocked down three whiskeys in a row.  See, the judge’s wife, Caroline, had come to a banquet that evening because the election was nigh.  Everyone noted how pale and peaked she looked, and while the Judge was off politicking with a couple of State Senators, she fainted and Doc took her into a cloakroom to see what was wrong.  She had passed out, so he slipped her out of her sleeves to try and measure her pulse and blood pressure.  What he saw frightened him so badly he pulled her sleeves back down over her arms and used smelling salts to bring her around – then he returned her to her husband and just about ran down to the bar.  ‘She’s been bitten!” he said to my grandpap. ‘All up and down her arms and back, nasty bites, deep bites, some old, some freshly bandaged.  In a few places there were divots, where actual chunks of flesh had been bitten off of her and healed back over.  I swear, that man is trying to eat her alive!”

“It was many years after that when she finally died, of course,” he said.  “A long, wasting illness, the Courier said.  My Pa talked to the coroner who went out to Hempstead House to recover her body, and the man told him privately that, while she had indeed been sick for a long time, and that her body was covered with scars and bite marks, some fresh and some long healed, the real cause of death was that she’d hanged herself, and the judge – or someone - cut her down and laid her in their bed before calling the law. The noose was gone, but there was still a red ring around her neck – and the coroner said he saw a cut rope still looped around one of the beams in the bedroom ceiling, although it was gone when the sheriff came by the next day.”

“Why didn’t they do something?” I said.  “It seems to me there was plenty of proof that she’d been abused for years, never mind all the other rumors about her husband!”

“I told you, folks were afraid of him!” Jeb replied.  “The man could stare down a cold-blooded killer in the courtroom and about make’em piss themselves. And there really was not much in the way of proof – just a bunch of whispered rumors and speculation.  I think that, whatever it was that was driving him, he was able to control it when he was around people.  Whatever his poor wife suffered at his hands – his teeth, more like! – while she was alive he managed to rein in his sick appetites, and only preyed on the helpless, the unwanted, and the poor.  But then, a couple years after she died, there was a horrible spree.  Six people that we know of, maybe more – the sheriff in those days didn’t keep too careful a track of disappearances and killings in the colored community.   Allan Hempstead had moved back to town, and I remember Pa telling me that with every killing, that young man looked more and more desolate.  Then he sold his house in town, and he and his wife moved out to the farm – all of a sudden, not telling anyone of their intent until the wagon was loaded up with their things.  Pa rode out there to deliver a jury summons the next week, and he heard the Judge and Allan shouting at each other something fierce – so much so that he decided to deliver the summons another day.  When he saw Allan come in to get his mail the next week, he handed over the summons and mentioned what he’d heard.  He said the look Hempstead gave him was so full of despair it made his blood run cold.  ‘Daddy’s not quite right anymore,’ Allan said.  ‘He’s been getting worse and worse since Ma died, and he won’t recognize it. So Ellie and I have pulled up our roots in town and moved in to the farm, because it’s not safe for him to be out there alone anymore.  For him or anyone else.’

No one in town ever saw the judge again after that, although folks driving by Hempstead House said that sometimes they’d see his face, looking old and gaunt, watching them from the gable window in the attic.  One of my schoolmates, coming back from fishing down at the crick, said the old man howled at him as he walked by on the road – just threw back his head like he was a coyote and let loose this blood-curdling cry that set my friend running to town as fast as his legs would carry him.”

At this point Jeb took a long pull from the flask I’d snuck in for him, and then looked at me with a haunted expression.

“I don’t know how many people would still be alive if poor Allan hadn’t stopped a bullet outside the barber shop that day,” he said.  “Baby-face Nelson killed more people than he knew that afternoon.  At that point, it had been nearly twenty years since the last round of killings.  We all though the Judge was either dead or a bed-ridden derelict by then, and Allan always played coy when people asked about his daddy.  He and Eleanor didn’t have guests out at the farm if they could help it, and those who did drop by were usually greeted out on the porch or invited in to sit at the kitchen table for a very brief visit.  The new pastor in town swung by back in 1930 or so to invite them to attend the Methodist Church’s upcoming revival, and he told my pa that the whole time he was talking to Allan he kept hearing a weak, quavering voice from upstairs crying out for food.   He said Hempstead tried to pass it off on his father’s senility – “He just had a big breakfast an hour ago, but his memory is so far gone he doesn’t even remember!” was what he told the preacher.   But when the pastor asked if he could go and pay his respects to the old Judge, Allan and his wife hustled him out the door right quick.  Like I said, if Allan hadn’t been gunned down by that two-bit bank robber, the final horror might never have happened.  Whatever it was that had kept Andrew Hempstead youthful and vigorous all those years was starving to death by then. Maybe – or maybe it was just pretending to grow weaker, biding its time until it could make one last desperate effort to regain its freedom.  Pop told me that Eleanor turned to him at the funeral and whispered: “I have to try, I have to try for Allan’s sake – but I’m not sure how long I can hold it back!”

Of course, he didn’t know what she meant – the poor woman was half mad with grief at her husband’s sudden passing.  She returned to that accursed farmhouse and shunned all attempts by her well-meaning neighbors to get her to leave.  Everyone just chalked it up to grief and anxiety, and after a while folks quit dropping by. But when they found her a few months later, face down in the middle of that nasty, rutted dirt road with her back chewed to pieces and her throat torn out, with that horrible look of stark terror frozen onto her face, everyone knew that the “ghoul-man” was back.”

The sun was westering, and its slanted rays etched the deep lines of Jeb’s face into a map of remembered fear.

“I was ten years old, but I will never forget those next few weeks.  Pop drove me to the schoolhouse in his police car, and then he’d pick me and my friends up at the end of the day and take us home.  As more and more victims were found, the rumors swirled around the town like a Kansas tornado. People came to town in groups, and huddled in little clumps, casting suspicious glances at everyone who passed by.  Folks whispered that they’d seen him late at night, skulking along the country roads and haunting the local cemetery, this pale figure that neither walked upright nor went on all fours, but loped along in some gait that was both and neither at the same time.  My Pop and the sheriff drove around every night as best they could – there were few paved roads in Fannin County then, and that winter was a frightfully wet one.  Whatever was murdering and mangling our citizens seemed to have an uncanny knack for striking when the police were elsewhere – until that final night; that night that nearly drove my poor father insane.  He never touched a drop before January of 1934; but in the years after, he rarely went to bed without taking a double shot of whiskey first – and sometimes a triple!”

“What happened?” I asked when his pause had stretched out for over a full minute.  “What did they find when they went to Hempstead House?”

“I’m trying to work up the guts to tell you!” Jeb snapped.  “I’ve bottled this horror up inside me for sixty years now, and now that I’m finally ready to let it out it doesn’t want to come.”

He shook his head and closed his eyes for a moment, his ancient face fraught with anxiety.  Finally, he opened his watery blue eyes and stared straight at me.

“I’ll tell it to you exactly the way my Pap told it to me in 1946,” he said.  “Word for word, as best I can recall.  Please don’t question me or interrupt me again, or I’ll lose it.  If that recorder thing of yours is working, turn it on, because I never want to speak of this again.  Here’s what Pop told me after a half a bottle of Jim Beam, when I asked him about it for the hundredth time.”

He straightened up in his chair, and suddenly the lines in his face smoothed a bit, and his voice took on a different accent and timbre, as if someone else were speaking through him.  The effect was so eerie that a cold chill ran down my spine, despite the heat of the afternoon.  I still have the recording of old Jeb’s monologue, but so deeply is it graven in my memory that I don’t even have to play it to recall every word, even now, with Jeb nearly ten years in his grave.

“Fine, boy!  You aren’t going to give up, and some secrets are too dark to take into the darkness of the grave with you, so listen close! I was at the Sheriff’s office, talking to Andy about how on earth we could catch this ghoulman, when the phone began ringing, loud and insistently.  Nell, our dispatcher, had gone home before dark, so I picked it up, and the voice I heard on the other end was screaming with more sorrow and hurt than I thought a human tongue could ever express.

“It took my baby!” the woman screamed. “It reached through my window and snatched my poor baby!  Please, you have to help me!  It has my child!”

It took me nearly five minutes to calm her down enough to get her name – it was Sally MacMahon, who lived with her husband about a mile outside of town on a forty-acre corn farm.  As soon as we figured out where they were, Sheriff Anderson began ringing the town siren, summoning all able-bodied men to the courthouse.  As soon as a dozen or so men were gathered, we loaded into trucks and headed towards the farm.  It had snowed the day before, and there was a blanket of white covering the road and the hills – fortunately, we’d all put chains on our trucks that afternoon, or our manhunt might have ended in a pile-up.  We drove out of town to the MacMahon place, and Jimmy met us at the door.  We could hear his poor wife desperately wailing inside, holding on to their other child, a four-year-old boy, and keening for the missing baby. Jimmy was furious, but he was a level-headed soul, and he led us to the side of the house, where we saw a clear set of footprints approaching the window, and then loping off towards the road that led to Bois D’Arc Creek.

“Pile in, boys,” Sheriff Henderson said, and we loaded up in those trucks and started following those footprints.  Jimmy insisted on coming along, and the sheriff saw there was no sense in saying no.  I guess two months of glutting itself had rendered the thing careless, because those tracks led straight towards the dark, looming hulk of Hempstead House.  As we got further from the poor child’s home, we saw splashes of blood in the snow.  Sheriff Hempstead told poor Sally we never found her baby, but that was a half-truth.  We never found all of her baby, but bits of it were scattered along that trail of half-human footprints that wound through the snow towards the hill were Hempstead House stood.  Sheriff Henderson was white with rage as they neared the deserted farmhouse, and the posse grew silent as they realized that they were hot on the trail of the monster that had held our county in fear for the last fifty years or more.

Andy and I led the way through the front door, and we saw that the wet footprints were outlined on the carpet heading towards the stairs.  The old house was two stories tall, with a gabled attic room above the second floor, reached by a narrow staircase just beyond what had once been the judge’s bedroom.  Although the tracks were growing faint as the monster’s feet dried off, we could still tell that whatever it was had made straight for the attic.  Henderson turned and looked at the townsmen, who were pale with fear but determined to end this horror once and for all.

“Deputy Martin, myself, and Jimmy will go up and end this,” he said, “or die trying.  I want you men to surround this house, and if anything comes out that isn’t one of us, I want you to fill it full of lead and then set it on fire! One way or another, these killings will end tonight. We’ll give you a moment – now get out that front door and be sure to cover all four sides of the house!”

There were a few protests, but not many.  No one wanted to take a chance on whatever it was that had killed so many of our citizens escaping justice.  The three of us looked at one another, our weapons drawn, and our kerosene lamps held high, and after what seemed like an eternity had passed, the Sheriff nodded. 

“Up we go, boys!” he said, and we went up those stairs single file.  There was a short hallway through the attic, where old boxes and furniture littered the floor on either side.  But we could hear the sound of chewing and slavering coming from the gable room at the end, and we knew where our quarry was.

“Lamps high!” Henderson whispered.  “Maybe we can blind it for a moment!”

With that he strode the last few paces and threw the door of that accursed room open, and all of us moved forward to block the doorway lest our quarry try to escape. What we saw on the other side – dear God, son, how I wish I could forget! But I still see it every time I close my eyes and try to sleep.  Some things are too horrible for this world, Jeb, so horrible they simply ought not be.

Bones were scattered all across the floor – most of them were from various animals, but scattered atop the goat and pig bones, fresh and bloody, were the gnawed remains of human arms and legs.  A shattered skull with tatters of flesh clinging to it lay upside down in one corner.  There was a bunk bed, and sturdy chains coming out of the wall next to it, but the manacles at the end of the chain were twisted and broken.  Our eyes took all of this in after the fact, for at the first moment, they were locked on the hideous being that knelt on the floor, tearing the flesh off of a tiny leg. Its skin was leprous and mottled, its belly grossly swollen and distended, but its arms and legs were wiry and strong.  Its face was streaked with the unwashed gore of its victims, its beard matted and tangled, its hair hanging in long, scraggly locks around its face.  But despite the squalor and gore and filth, we still recognized the owner of those savage features.  It was Judge Hempstead!  Yet he was not a frail old relic of ninety years’ age, but rather a plump, young man whose features, filthy as they were, were those of someone still in his prime. When he saw us there, he stood upright and dropped his bloody meal. His eyes reflected the light of our kerosene lamps so intensely that it seemed as if the flames of hell were dancing inside his head.

“I figured you’d eventually track me back here,” he said in a clear strong voice.  “Brave Texans! Bold Texans!  You think to slay me, and end my harvest of flesh from among you?  Fools!   I cannot be killed!  The voice promised me, the voice that first came to me when I was trapped underground in that awful trench, my comrades rotting on either side of me. ‘Worship me,’ it said, ‘and take of my forbidden fruit, and I will grant you a life span many times that of mortals, and make you impervious to all metal weapons, and you will never die, as long as you feast on the forbidden flesh in my name!’  And so I did, I ate and ate in the dark until my belly was full, and the next day those foolish Georgians dug me out of that earthen tomb.  Oh, I was ashamed of what I had done at first, and I swore I would never devour human flesh again – but then I grew steadily weaker and more frail. Finally, in desperation, I attacked the nurse my father had hired to care for me, and bit deep into her arm.  That tiny taste gave me back enough strength to go out and feed for the first time, and soon I was young and strong and virile again!  How I’ve laughed at you all, you witless frontier buffoons, for I have feasted on your loved ones, dead and living, for nearly seventy years now, and you none the wiser!  Did you think the ‘ghoulman’ was gone, or starving himself, when no one was taken for years at a time? Dig up your mothers’ graves if you want to see how I fed myself - the freshly buried are almost as tasty as the living! Only my faithless son figured out how to stop me, by chaining me up here and feeding me the flesh of beasts instead of men, letting me wither away year after year without the sustenance I required.  But when that bank robber took his life, poor dear Eleanor wasn’t as careful as he was.  I pretended to grow weaker and weaker, biding my time, until she was foolish enough to try and spoon feed me, thinking me too weak to lift my food to my mouth. How she shrieked when I bit a chunk out of her arm!  Oh, she pulled away and fled, but that sweet taste of human flesh gave me the strength I needed to burst my bonds and chase her down!  How delectable she was!”

The roaring blast of a shotgun cut the monstrous Judge’s monologue short, and the impact of the buckshot knocked the ghoul across the room.  Henderson and I turned and looked, and Jimmy MacMahon stared back at us across the smoking barrel of his twelve-gauge.

“That was for my baby, you bastard!” he muttered.

“Your child was delicious!” the evil voice rasped, and as we watched in horror, Judge Hempstead slowly pulled himself erect.  The gaping hole in his chest was already knitting itself shut.

“Fools!” he snorted. “Your metal cannot hurt me!”

All three of us opened up on him, but as our bullets tore through his body, he continued to lurch forward, claw-like hands grasping for us. Then, in desperation, I hurled my kerosene lamp at his feet, and a gout of flame leaped upward, igniting his ragged clothes.  An unearthly shriek filled the air as the thing that had once been a young Confederate soldier felt its flesh begin to char.  He turned towards the window, but the sheriff threw his lamp over the monster’s head and it shattered on the wall just above the lintel, dropping a curtain of flame across his only exit.  The shrieks grew even louder, and the flaming ghoul turned upon us, shrieking words that I hear in my sleep even today:

“Father!  Father! Azagog, help me!”

That was when Jimmy MacMahon hurled his own lamp, striking the thing square in the chest.  The shrieks became incoherent, and we backed away from the door as the figure lurched forward, reaching its blackening hands out for us, then staggered, and finally fell face first on the floor. A gurgling whisper more horrible than any scream barely pierced the crackle of the flames: “You promised me . . . immortality!”  Then the blazing form gave one last heaving lurch and lay still, and was swallowed by the crackling flames that spread quickly through the attic.  The three of us fled out the front door as the fire consumed the old farmhouse, and we joined the posse and waited outside until dawn, making sure that nothing emerged from that pile of blazing wood and ashes. As the day finally dawned, Sheriff Henderson removed his hat and spoke.

“And fire descended from heaven, and consumed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the smoke of their burning ascended to the heavens, and the sins of the wicked were purged from the land in the cleansing fire of God.”

After that, he made each of us swear that we would never speak a word to any man about what transpired that night.  We’ve been trying to forget it ever since, but some memories are too powerful to be forgotten, son, and some terrors are too dark to stay buried.

Jeb was silent for a long time, and the lines of his face gradually returned to normal. When he spoke again, it was the plaintive voice of an old man.

“Before you take me in, could I please have one more shot of that whiskey?” he asked.

I complied, and by the time I helped him into his bed, the old man was already half asleep.  But I did not sleep a wink that night, and precious little in the days that followed.  To this day, when my business takes me up to Bonham, I take the western highway and avoid the barren hill that overlooks Bois D’Arc Creek, where the ruined foundations of Hempstead House guard their unholy secret.