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What Rough Beast ... Session One Part 4 - Funeral for a Friend




* * *




Billy had ridden his bike around town in search of Morris Vanzant. Vanzant was a vagrant almost as old as Doc Underwood who did odd jobs around the town to by. He allegedly lived in one of the buildings in Old Sanguis, the tiny town of six shacks some 500 yards up Tallapoosa road. Old Sanguis was the original settlement until the railroad had come through 30 years before and everyone had pulled up stakes and resettled the town near the tracks. That was why there was a train station in the village. The townsfolk had built it in hopes of becoming a regular stop. It hadn’t worked and the station was now abandoned.


Billy found Vanzant pulling weeds at one of the houses in town.


“Hi Mr. Vanzant,†Billy squealed when he saw him.


The man looked hard at him.


“Well, hello there Billy,†he said.


Vanzant called all of the children in town “Billy.â€


“Me and my friends are wondering if you ever go near that plantation,†Billy said.


The old man stared at him.


“The Bennett Farm?†he finally said.


“Yeah,†Billy said.


“Hell no! That’s probably haunted. Huh-uh. No. There’s … there’s ghosts out there. I don’t like spooks.â€


“So whatever happened over there?â€


“Uh … I don’t know. When I was a kid, they was wanting me to go out there and look … but I wouldn’t. Who went out there? Somebody … Jesse Underwood. He went … I should take a break.â€


He sat down.


“Jesse Underwood went out there,†he said, pulling a nasty-looking flask out of his jacket. “Don’t tell anybody I’m not working.â€


He took a swig and coughed violently after it was down. Billy smelled moonshine.


“Woo,†he said, getting back up. “Yep, yep, yep. I think that he went out there as a child. I think.â€


“Thank you Mr. Vanzant,†Billy said.


“You’re welcome, Billy,†Vanzant said. “You be a good boy.â€


He patted Billy on the head.


“You be good in fifth grade,†he said. “And you study. Don’t wanna end up like ol’ Morris Vanzant.â€


He went back to work and Billy went home.



* * *




The funeral was at 2 p.m. that afternoon. All of the children were there, uncomfortable in their Sunday best. When people arrived, the grave had already been dug but the pine coffin sat on the ground next to it. It was opened once everyone arrived in order to allow people to pay their respects and the Baptist preacher from nearby Muscadine had come to conduct the ceremony.


Mrs. Hill and Marjorie cried the entire time. Mr. Hill looked on stoically, thanking people for coming though his chin sometimes quivered.


Teddy noticed the sun was hitting the corpse of Tommy Hill. The coffin was so small. Tommy had obviously been cleaned and prepared by the family as his hair was brushed and he wore his Sunday best, his hands crossed over his chest.


Teddy had brought a little tin cup filled with water, keeping it in his lap. He sought out the Baptist minister before the ceremony began.


“Father, can you bless this?†he asked.


“Boy, I ain’t no Catholic,†the minister said.


“Just do it.â€


“We don’t believe in that kind a thing. Ain’t no blessing water.â€


“Just pretend. What would you say if you was Catholic?â€


“Why don’t you sit down?â€


“Can you just pretend you’re Catholic?â€


The man put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and then his head.


“Good Lord, please bless this feeble-minded and crippled child,†the minister said.


Teddy held the water up near the man’s hand.


“And the water,†he said.


He rolled over to Tommy’s open coffin and carefully poured a little on him. Nothing happened.


“Just like when we was at the watering hole, bud,†he said.


His father came over and grabbed the back of the wheelchair with a grumble, moving it away from the coffin with speed.


“What’re you doing?†he muttered to Teddy once he got him a little ways away. “You don’t be pouring no water on no dead body! What’s the matter with you?â€


“He loved the watering hole,†Teddy said.


His father grumbled and mumbled at him, angry but not wanting to make more of a scene.



* * *




Someone poked Ella-Marie in the back. She turned around to find Jill Spearman there.


Jill Spearman was a 12-year-old towheaded girl who had been one of Tommy’s friends in the village because they were the only ones of their age in the town. She had been at the swimming hole the day before.


“Oh,†Ella-Marie said. “Hi Jill.â€


“Did you know about Tommy’s treasure?†Jill said without preamble.


“Tommy’s treasure?â€


“Yes, he accumulated treasure from the railroad tracks. He’d been doing that for … two years.â€


“Oh … yeah.â€


“He’s been collecting things and … no, four years. Since he was six years old. And his parents don’t know about it so they probably ain’t looked but I seen a little bit of it, including the golden handles that he found in May and I was there when he found ‘em and he didn’t even share. So, I think somebody needs to get me them golden handles ‘cause those are mine. I have rights to half that because I was there when he found ‘em but he didn’t share at all.â€


“Wait! Slow down. Golden handles?â€


“It was a handle. It was like a handle. It was a little rod with little hooks on it. It was a golden handle. He found it down by the railroad tracks amongst all that broken up wood and stuff. And junk. So, I think you should help get ‘em. You should help get me my handles back. There were two of them and I think I should have half.â€


“I … I’ll look in that.â€


“Okay, I’ll ask you about it … tomorrow.â€




“Well thank you very much. I thank you.â€


“All right.â€



* * *




Billy had found time to put his flattened pennies into the coffin.



* * *




When the ceremony started and they had closed the casket, Ella-Marie turned to her brother.


“Mike!†she hissed.


He looked at her.


“Jill just told me something strange,†she whispered. “You know those flattened pennies?â€


“Yeah,†Michael said.


“She said he had … handles. Gold handles that he found down by the railroad tracks.â€




“Gold handles.â€


“Well, the handle we found was brass.â€


“Still, did you see how many coffins were there? They were all different.â€


Their mother shushed them.


“Show a little respect!†she said to Michael.


The rest of the ceremony passed without any other incident and several of the men from town lowered the tiny coffin into the ground. A temporary wooden marker had been set at the top of the grave and Morris Vanzant was there with a shovel, having obviously been paid to fill in the grave.


Jebidiah had paid especially close attention to the coffin, which was a cheap pine box with rope handles and leather hinges. The Hills were pretty poor and it was probably all they could afford, especially at short notice. When he had paid his respects to Tommy, he had noticed the interior was lined with simple cloth. He thought sure if he ever saw the coffin again, he’d recognize it.


Richard looked around to see if anyone looked any younger than he remembered, but everyone looked normal to him. He remembered Teddy had told him about Dracula getting younger when he drank blood.


The children all got together after the funeral as Morris Vanzant shoveled dirt into the grave.


“I talked to Vanzant and Vanzant says Doc Underwood’s only person he knows who ever went to that place,†Billy told the others.


“The Doc?†Michael said.


“Billy, that may be a clue, but also Vanzant calls all of us ‘Billy’ so I don’t know,†Teddy said.


“I don’t see a problem with it,†Billy squeaked. “He’s always right for me.â€


“It’s because your name is Billy,†Teddy said. “He calls you Billy.â€


“Well, the least we can do is go talk to the Doc,†Michael said.


Ella-Marie told them what Jill had told her about Tommy’s treasure.


“Well, if it’s not likely any of us will be in any trouble, do we want to have a handle team and a doc team?†Jebidiah said. “I know the Doc probably better than anyone around here.â€


“You probably do,†Ella-Marie said.


“I’d love to go speak to him at any time that’s not for sickness,†Jebidiah said.


“I go where Jebidiah goes,†Teddy said. “He’s good at carrying me.â€


“I’ll go with them,†Billy squeaked. “I’m suspicious of this Doc.â€


They saw Doc Underwood at the funeral, talking to some of their parents and others.


Richard said he could probably try to sneak into the Hill house to find the handles. They all knew the windows would all be open, like they were at all their houses, and the front door probably wasn’t even locked. No one locked their doors or windows.


“You want to do a handle team and a doc team, but I think there’s a third team that we’re going to need for tonight,†Teddy said. “Someone should watch over Tommy’s grave and see if anyone digs it up or he … arises.â€


“But he would only do that at night,†Richard said.


“Exactly,†Teddy said.


“So we don’t need to worry about that until sundown,†Richard said.


“Could we try to regroup before then and try to have a look at that together?†Jebidiah said.


“It’d probably be easiest for me to do it, I guess,†Billy squeaked.


“Fine!†Ella-Marie said. “You’re always going off alone anyway!â€


“I ain’t scared,†Billy squeaked.


He looked away because he was afraid there was a terrified look on his face.



* * *




Richard and Michael went to the Hill’s house after they had changed out of their Sunday best and figured the Hills were back that afternoon.


“You go through the window,†Michael told the other boy. “I’ll distract them at the door.â€


Michael went to the front door and knocked. Mr. Hill answered it.


“Uh, hello Mr. Hill,†Michael said.


“Hello Michael, how are you doing?†Mr. Hill said.


“I’m doing … I’m doing fine. I’m doing fine. Very sorry about your loss.â€


“Yes, we all our. What do you need?â€


“Jill, Tommy’s little friend, was talking to us earlier at the funeral.â€




“And she said something about him having some kind of treasure around the house, maybe, or somewhere he would maybe hide it?â€


“I … I don’t know about his ‘treasure.’â€


“Okay, well, according to her, she said something about him wanting her to have it. I didn’t know if you had any idea where it could be?â€


“Well, let’s go look in his room.â€



* * *




Richard climbed into Tommy’s window and looked around the room. There was a bed, small wardrobe, desk, and chest of drawers. He looked under the bed and spotted an old hatbox with the word “Tresur†written on it in ink. He pulled it out and found it filled with various items and mixed junk. On top of it all were two brass handles. They looked like the one they’d found in the house. He took them out of the hatbox and put the hatbox back. He pocketed the handles and then climbed out of the window.


Just as he got outside the window, he heard the door opening. He dropped to the ground.



* * *




“So, where do you think this treasure is, Michael?†Mr. Hill said as they entered Tommy’s room.


The two of them searched the room and soon found the hatbox under the bed and opened it up.


“What does she want out of this?†Mr. Hill said.


They went through the box and Michael picked up the two crushed pennies in it.


“These,†he said. “These are what she was asking for.â€


“Yeah, she can have ‘em,†Mr. Hill said. “If it’ll make her happy.â€


“Thank you,†Michael said.


Mr. Hill closed up the hatbox and shoved it back underneath the bed. Then he saw Michael out.


Michael left the house and saw Richard on his porch across the road. The two went inside and to Richard’s room. He showed Michael the handles and the boy recognized them as the same as the one he had gotten from the house.


“Okay then,†Michael said.


“So, these are gold?†Richard said.


“No … maybe,†Michael said.


Both boys doubted they were gold.



* * *




Ella-Marie, Billy, Jebidiah, and Teddy went up the hill to Doc Underwood’s house. It was a little larger than the other houses in town, being two stories high and built into the side of the hill. It was a bit of a push getting Teddy and his wheelchair up the hill, but they made it, getting Teddy onto the front porch.


Doc Underwood answered the door and invited the children in. He had some candy for them and poured glasses of lemonade. They all sat in his parlor, the open window looking down over the little town.


“Doc, I need some advice from you that’s not of a medical nature,†Jebidiah said.


“Shouldn’t you be talking to your parents?†Doc Underwood said.


“Well, I think … you’re the only one that has experience with this.â€


“All right.â€


“Uh … Billy, last night saw light on coming out near the old plantation. The night we found Tommy. And we went to look at it today and we saw some … disturbing things. I wanted to know … I’ve heard you’ve been there before and that you know about it. I wanted to know what you know.â€


“Well, when I was young …â€




“Wait, what disturbing things did you see?â€


“Well, we saw lots of coffins. There was boards that had been trapped and some people thought they saw things that … didn’t stick around.â€


“But regardless,†Ella-Marie said. “What do you know?â€


“Now, my grandmother told my mother this story,†Doc Underwood said. “She told me I was too young to remember it. She had lived in Sanguis before it moved down here towards the tracks in the 1890, thirty years ago. Well, forty now. She was living in a farm near here when the original Sanguis was established in the 1870s. She was old even by then and had lived her whole life in the mountains here.


“She told my mother that Bennett Farm had been established well before Sanguis, in 1832, when the Creek Indian Land here was opened to settlers. You see, plantations never really grew up in the hills around here because there wasn’t any place to really grow the kind of crops that slave labor was used for: that’s cotton, tobacco, and that kind of thing. But E. Charles Bennett, that was his name, he thought differently. He came with his family and a handful of Negros and set up south of the river. He built a good-sized house. There was a few outbuildings and places for the slaves. Started clearing land. He brought his wife, his family, his three daughters.


“It didn’t go well.


“See, the land hereabouts isn’t good for those kinds of crops in great amounts, like I said, and the isolation didn’t seem to suit any of them, white folk or slaves. Strange stories began to circulate in the nearest towns, that was probably Carrollton in Georgia, 20 miles away.


“So, it’s no surprise that when things went bad there, nobody found out for quite a while.


“I think it was the summer of 1835 when they came to look in on the Bennetts. There’d been no word from them in some weeks. The men who came to investigate found the farm empty and quiet. Doors had been left open and there was a terrible smell about the house.


“They found E. Charles Bennett hanging in one of the rooms upstairs by a crude noose. There was no sign of whatever the man had stood on to hang himself, or what had been pulled out from under him when he hung. They found no trace of his wife or young daughters.


“The slave shacks were empty. Everyone was gone. Same with the animals. All gone. Everything was gone.


“There was no sign of any kind of struggle or attack. Some blamed the Creek Indians, most of whom had emigrated out west by that time. Others wondered if the slaves had murdered everyone and then fled north.


“They couldn’t explain some things though.


“In the kitchen, they found a mortar and pestle had been used to grind up a good deal of glass, the work left was at the table. And across each doorway and window, a line of salt had been placed, though much of it had blown away by then.


“That’s what my grandma told me.


“Now, when I was your age, we all knew about the place. Haunted Bennett Plantation. The other kids claimed the house was haunted by the ghost of E. Paul Bennett, who was said to roam the place looking for something, usually they said it was his lost treasure. There was also tales of lights in some of the upper windows at night and strange sounds that came out of part of the woods: cries sometimes, or voices. I never heard any of them myself but some of my friends claimed they had.


“I went there once. I was probably 12 or 13 years old and went on a bet my cousin made me about the place. He claimed I wouldn’t go upstairs and find something to bring back to prove it. It was an old bet. Lots of kids had done it.


“A few of us went out to the farm. It was a bad place. The woods had grown back up in the 40 years or so since the place had been abandoned though they all had a sickly look to them. Nothing ever seemed to grow quite right out there.


“They waited near the house while I went in the front door and up the narrow staircase to the second floor. There was a bang or a bump in the house somewhere and I tried to reassure myself it was just a raccoon or opossum. As I reached the top of the stairs, a door slammed somewhere but I told myself it was the wind.


“The door at the end of the hall on the left was the only one closed so I figured that must have been the one. I walked slowly up to it and opened it, looking for some trinket from the house to prove I’d been up there.


“And hanging from a rafter in the center of the room, believe it or not, I know you’re probably thinking I’m just telling a story, was a man.â€


Jebidiah looked at Ella-Marie who was staring at Doc Underwood in horror.


“His face was dark purple, like a bruise, and his tongue swollen and hanging out of his mouth,†Doc Underwood went on. “He wore rough, homespun clothing and swayed slowly back and forth, the rope creaking in the silence of the house.


“Then his eyes opened, bulging out of his head, and he looked right at me.â€


“That’s what I saw!†Ella-Marie said.


Doc Underwood looked at the girl in silence.


“I saw him,†she said.


“You saw … you children should not be going up to that house,†Doc Underwood said.


He seemed a little shaken by the revelation.


“Did-did you find something?†Jebidiah asked. “To prove you were up there?â€


“I don’t remember much after I saw him,†Doc Underwood said. “The other boys told me they heard me scream from upstairs somewhere and then I came running out of the house, shrieking. I collapsed near them in a faint and they had to carry me back home, a pretty good ways. You know how far it is. They weren’t happy about that.


“I … I don’t think they believed me when I told them what I saw. You see, they went back, in a group of course, and told me there was no rope or man of any kind in any of the rooms upstairs. My footprints were pretty visible in the dirt and dust of the place, however. It looked like I’d gone to the room at the end of the hall but they swore there were no footprints leading back.â€


“When we were there, things just disappeared before our eyes,†Ella-Marie said.


“You shouldn’t … that’s … you children should not be going out to that place. It’s a bad place. I wouldn’t normally tell anyone this story. People … are doubtful. What’s this about coffins?â€


“What are we supposed to do? We don’t know what happened to Tommy and that was our only lead.â€


“What did you say about coffins?â€


“Well, there were coffins in all the rooms,†Jebidiah said. “Almost all the rooms.â€


“Well, nobody lives there. Well, I don’t think.â€


“Well, the coffins are locked.â€


“With new locks too,†Billy squeaked.


“Looked like somebody’d been up in one of those rooms,†Jebidiah said.


“Well, I tell you what, I can go into Heflin, I can ride into Heflin tomorrow and I can go check at the county seat and see if anybody’s … if anybody owns the place,†Doc Underwood said. “Maybe it’s been sold by the state.â€


“Why would you have coffins in your new house?†Teddy said.


“That is really very strange.â€


“Why don’t you come out there with us?â€


Doc Underwood went pale but then took a drink of his lemonade and composed himself.


“Well, I’ll tell you what Teddy, I have not been out to that house since I saw what I saw and I don’t want to see it again,†he said. “Ella-Marie says she saw things that - she saw things that disappeared? I don’t think any of you or me or anybody should be going to that house. Hopefully that place will fall down.â€


“You telling me you won’t go someplace a cripple’s been?†Teddy said.


“Maybe I’m smarter than a cripple,†he said to Teddy with a wink.


Teddy smiled back at the joke.


“I’ll tell. you what, tomorrow is Thursday,†Doc Underwood said. “I’ll ride down to Heflin tomorrow. I’ll go down to the courthouse and I’ll see if anybody owns the house. If not, was there anything else there? Just a bunch of old coffins?â€


“We think there’s vampires in ‘em,†Teddy mumbled.


“Well some of ‘em looked new,†Billy squealed.


“Don’t listen to him,†Teddy mumbled. “We think there’s vampires in ‘em.â€


“Have these coffins been there for … are they covered with dust and dirt and grime?†Doc Underwood said.


“Some,†Teddy said.


“Some but not all,†Billy said.


“All right, I will go into town tomorrow,†Doc Underwood said again. “I’ll go into Heflin and I’ll check at the county seat and, if the house has not been sold, I will go get the sheriff and he and some deputies can go in there. Obviously somebody must be squattin’ there which is against the law. And if they got some coffins …â€


“Digging up graves?†Jebidiah said.


“They might be digging up graves and stealing jewelry and valuables from people’s dead bodies,†Doc Underwood said. “And we will … and then … we will take care of it.â€


He looked over the children.


“Is that all right?†he asked. “Will that put y’alls minds at ease?â€


“I don’t know it’s gonna be fast enough,†Teddy said.


“It’s gonna be what?â€


“Fast enough.â€


“We could …we …†Jebidiah said. “We could keep watch over it tonight and make sure that nothing is up there.â€


“Keep watch over the house!?!†Doc Underwood said.




“You children should not be going out there at night. Jesus Christ! Do not … do not go out to that house at night!â€


“You said there was … it was just stories and stuff.â€


“Didn’t you just hear the story I just told you about what I saw? I’m a believer in science but … I don’t know what I saw when I was … maybe I was hysterical, but it was … hm … it looked real to me and I still believe that something awful’s in that house. Don’t be going out to that house at night.â€


“Well, still, we can keep an eye on it from town, is what I was meaning. Seeing if anything comes up tomorrow.â€


“How can you keep an eye on it from town?â€


“We saw the light on in the window from out on the train tracks.â€


“Somebody could’ve bought that house and be trying to live out there. Some … fool. So, we gotta find out if somebody owns it first and I’ll find out for you. I’ll let y’all know by dinnertime tomorrow night. It’s 10 miles, it’s going to take me a few hours to get there.â€


“Can you at least tell the sheriff that’s what you’re gonna do?†Teddy said. “Just in case you … go missing.â€


“What do you mean tell the sheriff?†Doc Underwood said. “You mean go to his office tomorrow?â€


“I’m just covering our tracks,†Teddy said.


“If I find nobody owns that house, I’ll go straight to the sheriff’s office in Heflin and I will tell them what y’all have told me,†Doc Underwood said.


Doc Underwood asked Ella-Marie what she’d seen and she gave him as much information as she could, telling him about the man she’d seen hanging and the negro Michael had seen in the washtub. She talked about the coffins and the trap on the stairs. That perplexed him and he told her he remembered those stairs as he’d walked up them decades before.


Jebidiah described the inhabited room they had found and that seemed to make Doc Underwood want to find out the information from the county seat even more. He believed the children and wanted to figure out what was going on out that plantation.



* * *




Richard went to the Spearman house and talked to Jill.


“I heard, Jill, that Tommy found some handles,†he asked.


“Yes, I was there,†Jill said. “I was there when he found them handles and I deserve half.â€


“Where did he find it?â€


“It was up … it was up the rail line a little ways.â€


“Where would that be relative to where we are?â€


“Up the rail line a little ways.â€


He took out the handles and showed them to her.


“Can you be more specific?†he asked.


“Those are mine!†she said.


“Yes, but I’ll give them to you if you tell me where it was.â€


“One of them. All right. Fine. I’ll show you.â€


He gave her the handles.


“C’mon,†she said. “You boys think you know everything.â€


She led him up the track and, Richard and Michael thought, a little ways past where they had found Tommy’s body. They could see the plantation house from the spot and, a search of the area found some old wood and cloth. Everything was rotten and had been out in the weather for a few months.


When they looked around, Michael found a brass hinge and another handle. He tucked both of them away. The handle looked identical to the one they had found in the house. He wondered if they were gold.


“Yeah, there’s all these pieces of wood and there’s all this old rotten cloth,†she said. “And then he found the handles. He found two of ‘em. And one of ‘em is mine but he wouldn’t give it up. And I forgave him ‘cause I’m a good Baptist. But, he shouldn’t have done that.â€


“Did he find anything else?†Richard asked. “Back then?â€


“Not anything he told me.â€


“When did you find it?†Michael said.


“This was a couple months ago,†Jill said.


Richard picked up a piece of wood.


“How good a condition was this in originally?†he asked.


“Well, it was better ‘en that,†she said.


He frowned and tossed the piece of wood away.


“They were new when we found ‘em,†she said. “Is that all you need from me?â€


“Yeah, you can head back,†Richard said.


“I will,†she said.


She walked back to town. The boys looked around the spot a little longer before they went back to town and found the others.


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