Discovery in the Churchyard

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic


When a mysterious body washes up in a small 19th Century Kentucky town, two local villagers - a secular-minded lawyer and a man of the cloth - unravel a decades-spanning tale of war, hope, despair,
and boundless devotion.

Submitted: July 31, 2018

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Submitted: July 31, 2018

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Discovery in the Churchyard

It was the children who found it. Ten-year-old Billy Walker and little Tommy Jenkins, or “Billy‘s Shadow,” as the neighbors playfully called him, came running out from the churchyard. Their clothes were dirty, as usual, but in this case the pair bore on their bare feet and trouser cuffs the unmistakable wet mud stains that one could only have acquired on the banks of the Old Creek that flowed softly through the town. The boys were often discovered making mischief and exploring places they had been told were off limits, and to see the two of them run was far from a seldom spectacle. What was rare in this case were the high pitched squeals emitting from their mouths and their wide-eyed, tear-lined faces.

“One of the skel’tons in the churchyard!” cried Billy. “One of ‘em’s come up! One of ‘em’s come up!”

Billy’s mother, a more devout Christian than most, had scolded her only son dozens of times for playing in the cemetery behind the church. She warned him against running about on hallowed ground, lest he be struck down by the good Lord for his trespass. She hid none of her disapproval about what she deemed a sinful act, and made the boy promise each time to keep to the fields behind their home. He swore obedience constantly, though not once in earnest.

Billy, the only boy among five children, was naturally adventurous. Lacking brothers, he was forced to be outgoing in order to develop friendships with the other boys. He had developed his moxie into an aura that his playmates found irresistible, and he was seen as the courageous leader of his troop. Light hair, sharp blue eyes and a rosy, athletic complexion foreshadowed the striking gentleman into which this handsome lad would grow. Publicly, he was well-spoken and polite, and he was wildly popular with both his peers and their mothers.

Tommy Jenkins, on the other hand, was born to be a lackey. He was the youngest of six, and the fifth son born to his parents, and endured many of the typical pangs and distresses that are universal among last-borns. He spent the early part of his life either maligned by his siblings or coddled by his mother. She, too, had preached against playing in the churchyard, saying that Tommy ought not gambol about above the heads of the departed, lest one of them become annoyed and drag him below the ground. The lesson of showing respect for the dead was the same as Mrs. Walker’s, though the teaching method a bit more garish.

The child’s social role had evolved into something similar to his home life. By chance, there happened to be a plethora of nine and ten-year-old boys in town, followed by a gap, and then Tommy, who was seven. His closest brother had reached fourteen, old enough to be apprenticed, and this left Tommy with little else to do but follow Billy Walker and his crew, to be either teased or protected given the boys‘ fancy on any given day.

The smallish youngster with the unkempt black hair idolized the tribe’s ringleader, and Billy, having been denied a younger brother of his own, took a shine to the tag-along. Billy relished his role as hero, and treated Tommy as much a brother and student as he did a sidekick. He would bring Tommy with him on what he referred to as his “most dangerous ‘scursions,“ seeking to simultaneously toughen and impress his pupil.

Therefore, for Jonas Howard to see the two of them together running toward him on that balmy summer afternoon was hardly a surprise. It was strictly their shouts and terrified appearance that drew his consternation.

“We seen one’a the bodies down at the Old Creek,” panted Billy Walker, arriving at the place where Mr. Howard was standing. “It come up and tried to snatch us. It musta not liked that we was playin’ down there.”

Mr. Howard, an attorney, was momentarily at a loss for words. He searched the panic stricken face of the young boy, then looked at Tommy, who only whimpered as he looked at the ground through shut eyelids. Regaining his poise, Mr. Howard addressed the older child. “Young man, you know the churchyard is no place for you to be causing trouble-”

“But mister, honest, come look,” pleaded the normally-composed explorer.

“In fact,” Mr. Howard continued, raising his voice above Billy’s protest, “I myself have been present many times when your mother told you the very same thing. And I’m sure she will not be pleased to hear that you’ve disobeyed her again.

“Mr. Howard, it tried to grab us!” Billy cried. His lip was now quivering and it was clear he was about to cry.

“Furthermore, son, it isn’t right that you scare poor Tommy with brutish stories like this,” the lawyer continued unruffled. “Why, he’s just a child, and you don’t realize that what comes from your overactive imagination seems almost real to him.”

Billy gathered himself, staving off tears and catching his breath. He spoke slower and more confidently this time. “Mr. Howard, there really is some‘un there. Come ‘n’ see fer yourself! We was just ‘splorin’ the creek, lookin’ to see if we could spot any fish or catch us a toad, and then there is was. It came floatin’ toward us and crawled out onto the shore. I ain’t lyin’, Mr. Howard. Come ‘n’ see fer yourself!”

Jonas Howard straightened up and brushed his graying mustache with his forefinger. A notion had come to him, and the possible reality of the situation began to emerge. Billy Walker was one for extraordinary tales and mischievous behavior, but there didn’t seem to be any hidden deceit in what he was saying. A body rising from the grave and attempting to steal away two children? Preposterous. But a logical examination of the story Billy had just told might just mean…

“Boys, you run straight home,” Mr. Howard commanded. “I’ll see the reverend and get this figured out.” And just as soon as they had appeared from the churchyard, the boys were off again in the opposite direction. Mr. Howard watched as they turned off the main road toward their homes, then reverted his attention back to the tall, white church in front of him.

The powerful light of the July sun echoed off the brilliant walls of the church, forcing Mr. Howard to squint slightly whenever he looked at the building. Though it was past noon, the sun was still near its pinnacle and beat down on the hefty Mr. Howard as he ambled toward Reverend Whitmore’s house. The main road forked at the church, so that the Lord’s and reverend’s respective houses faced perpendicular directions. As Mr. Howard walked toward them, he viewed the minister’s front door, and the side of the church behind it. Hidden by the house of worship was the churchyard on the other side with its little cemetery, and beyond that the Old Creek. The litigator removed his hat and wiped the beads of sweat from his brow with his handkerchief before unlatching the small white fence in front of the property. He stepped off the dirt road and onto a quaint brick path that led to Reverend Whitmore’s front porch. Mr. Howard lumbered up two steps and onto the porch, then wiped his forehead once more. The red front door gently opened just as Mr. Howard raised his hand to knock.

“Good afternoon, Jonas,” said the smiling minister. “You’ll forgive my clairvoyance, but I heard the commotion outside, and came to my window just in time to see you arriving at the gate. What can I do for you?”

The reverend was a young man, barely in his thirties. He looked even younger than his years, and he was pale save for a hint of flush in his cheeks. Tall and very thin, he gave the impression of someone who had been frail and ill as a child, but had recovered. He was both attractive and awkward, and as stately and charming as he was quiet and solitary. The oversized greens of his eyes revealed both youth and the inner wisdom which is bestowed upon the clergy by grace. Reverend Whitmore had come to Haverton only a few years before, following the death of the previous minister. He had not married, instead relying on members of his congregation to pay him occasional visits to help whittle away the hours between Sundays.

“Good afternoon, Reverend,” Mr. Howard politely began. “I’m afraid I haven’t come simply to visit. It seems Billy Walker and his young playmate were idling in your churchyard by the creek.”

“Oh, is that all it was?” replied Reverend Whitmore, his voice forceful yet barely above a whisper. “Well I’m sure Mrs. Walker will provide a harsher sermon than I ever could,” he added with a chuckle. “Please, please, come in and sit for a while out of the heat.”

“Reverend, I think we should take a look at the churchyard. The children came running up to me yelling their heads off about someone trying to attack them. Thought it was ghoul or something of that nature. Naturally, I tried to set them straight, but…” Mr. Howard’s voice trailed off.

The painted smile on the minister’s face drifted away. He looked inquisitively at his guest. “But what, Jonas?” he asked.

“Well, Reverend, the boys said that whatever it was came in from the water, out of the creek. I think we ought have a look.”

“Certainly,” concluded Reverend Whitmore. “Come.” And with that, the preacher shut the door behind him and led Mr. Howard off the porch and around the back of the church toward the lawn.

Both Mr. Howard and the reverend saw the man just as soon as they came upon the churchyard. Both jogged toward the figure, which was dressed in a fine shirt and slacks and lying face down in the grass. Wisps of white hair covered the back of the head, and deep creases on his hands betrayed the man’s advanced age. The sun had begun to dry him, but the body was still entirely drenched. There was no doubt even from a distance that the man was dead. It appeared he had perished some time ago at that, and had been adrift nearly as long. The color had completely left his skin, leaving the visible parts of the carcass a ghastly shade of white.

As the men arrived at the spot where the corpse had come ashore, Mr. Howard stared down with both wonder and disgust, and his lip curled at the sight of the poor wretch at his feet. Reverend Whitmore put his hand to the large gold cross he wore around his neck, shut his eyes, and bowed his head.

The two men stood over the body for a moment, overwhelmed by the stark portrait of mortality before them. Jonas Howard was the first to clear his throat and speak, though he did so softly.

“Drowning,” he said, “is how I’ve most feared death since I was a little boy.”

The reverend did not respond to the lawyer’s morbid commentary, but instead suggested they turn over the body to try and identify it.

“You don’t suppose it’s someone from here in town, do you?” gasped Mr. Howard.

“No,” said Reverend Whitmore solemnly, “I don’t believe it’s anyone we know. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Mr. Howard conceded that from behind, the body bore no obvious resemblance to anyone in their small Kentucky town.

“Never the less,” continued the reverend, “perhaps we or someone will recognize his face. He’ll have to be put to rest here unless someone comes forward to claim the remains.”

The two men carefully overturned the corpse, and both gasped at the horrific features staring up at them. The skin was like chalk, and the fixed eyes blossomed from their sockets. The face was twisted, and the mouth was opened as though eternally frozen on that instant in time where a desperate plea for air went unrequited. And while both men had encountered the dead before, there was something unnatural about this man’s case. Mr. Howard’s skin quivered as his primal fear of the water overcame him, and he reenacted those final moments; what it must be like to feel the panic of being on the brink of death, and to experience the sudden realization that the final moment of terrestrial life had at last arrived. Shaking off this macabre daydream, a quick meeting of the eyes confirmed for both the lawyer and the parson that the corpse was that of a stranger. 

Reverend Whitmore expressed a few words of sympathy for the drowned man, but Mr. Howard‘s attention had now turned back to the headstone nearest to where the body had come ashore. He had noted the name upon the grave, that of Martha Johnson, and it was one which flooded his mind with memories and images from his younger days. As he had bent down to turn over the body, Mr. Howard had turned his head to the side in an effort to avoid meeting the grotesque sight eye-to-eye. It was at this point whilst doubled over that he had scanned the fading inscription on the dull gray stone.

It was hard to fathom that Martha Johnson had been in that grave for some twenty years. Her life - fairly extraordinary by the standards of sleepy Haverton society - was rendered only more profound by the obscurity she had gained nearly two decades after death. The Johnson name was still common and synonymous with the town, but Martha had been so scarcely mentioned that an entire generation had past knowing nothing about her, and even Mr. Howard admitted to himself that he had not given the sad woman even a passing thought in many years.

In the lawyer’s earliest memories, Mrs. Johnson had been a radiant figure, energetic and strong. Her maiden family and that of her husband had been two of the earliest clans to settle the area in the last century, and had built prominence and reputation upon the solid foundation of their homestead. Nathaniel Johnson, who had inherited a modest but still sizeable estate, married his bride in the Spring following Jefferson’s election. The wedding had come following a lengthy and passionate courtship which continued past the ceremony, though as Mr. Howard would hear it in later years, complications with Martha’s health had tragically prevented them from having a child.

When the war came a few years later, there seemed no inclination on the part of Nathaniel to participate. After all, he had now passed his fortieth year, and although he loved his country as much as any other man, news of the conflict seemed distant and surreal against the serene backdrop of the small and secluded community. But as news from the battlefields came in, patriotic sentiments began to swirl throughout the community, and in no time the town was enveloped in the fervor. Filled with a sense of responsibility and duty, most of the town‘s men, including Nathaniel and Mr. Howard’s father, set off to join the American effort.

The men - most of the men - returned home after a period that at the time seemed endless, but in hindsight was hardly any time at all. Not long after, young Jonas, just growing into earliest manhood, began noticing subtle changes in his father’s behavior. He no longer lifted Jonas up or told him stories of the Revolution by the fire. He was quiet, almost reclusive, and at times stared straight ahead into the transparent world of memory for lengthy stretches. Jonas had always feared his father’s hand, but now a different sort of uneasiness set in. In time, Jonas began to loathe finding himself in the same room with his father, feelings that confused him and for which he silently scolded himself.

Nathaniel Johnson returned a changed man, too. Formerly a brash, bright and charismatic figure, Mr. Johnson had devolved into a thin and nervous creature with a twitch in his right eye. Through a series of unwise investments and hasty business decisions, the once financially careful Mr. Johnson squandered his fortune within a few short years. The aura surrounding him was now one of shame, and the whispers which had always followed him on the road through town were now ones he would not have liked to hear.

One afternoon when Jonas was fifteen, Mr. Johnson rode past on horseback. It was the last time he or anyone in Haverton ever saw the ruined gentleman. It was said with no small measure of derision that Nathaniel Johnson had gone to the city to find stable employment, and only later in life did Mr. Howard appreciate the pun. These smarmy jokes were made among private circles, and always well beyond the earshot of poor Martha. Mrs. Johnson had remained behind, and while she wore the toll of those lean years on her face, her pride was incorrigible. Her devotion to her husband was unwavering, and his promise to return to her one day gave her validation to speak of him as highly as anyone had in the years before the war. But as the subsequent seasons turned into years and no word of Mr. Johnson’s whereabouts ever came, that dedication dissolved into desperation and delusion. Over time, Mrs. Johnson no longer spoke of her husband triumphantly returning as the man he once was, but merely of returning at all. Talk of rediscovered fortune ceased, but Mrs. Johnson held fast to the vow her husband had made to her on that day he passed Jonas in the street. She became a shut-in, and for the rest of her life waited for that day when her love would come back.

The last time young Mr. Howard saw Martha Johnson was during the summer before he went away to the university. He had glimpsed Mrs. Johnson, who now sent out for everything she required, only a few times that season. She was no longer the proud, matriarchal woman she had once been. She now stood hunched over, and her flesh had paled, dried and wrinkled. Her once pampered brown hair now hung gray and thinning about her shoulders, and the strong eyes lacked the intense gleam that mischievous schoolchildren had learned to fear. Mrs. Johnson died a couple of years later, while Jonas was at school, and was buried in the small cemetery in the churchyard just down the road. It was hard to believe Martha Johnson had been dead for twenty years.

“We’ll prepare a spot, and lay him to rest here,” said Reverend Whitmore, drawing Mr. Howard back into the present.

“Yes, yes,” was all Mr. Howard could say in reply, unsure whether he had heard all that the reverend had said, or whether his attention had only returned him in time to hear the tail end of it.

And so it was not long after that Mr. Howard returned home, his presumption being that the excitement of the day’s events had run its course. His wife had prepared a supper, as usual, and following the meal, he retired to the adjoining room to read and enjoy his evening brandy. When the words had satisfactorily fatigued his eyes, Mr. Howard placed his mark in the book and went to bed.

 

Jonas Howard’s sleep that night was plagued by nightmarish visions and sensations of drowning. He found himself engulfed by freezing dark water, only the faintest hint of sunlight overhead. Yet despite his kicks for the surface, he sank only deeper into the pool, the light above taunting him with its promise of safety and life. He felt his lungs burning to take a breath, but knew there was no relief to be had. He fought the almost reflexive urge to open his mouth and swallow the air he knew was absent. He felt his heart racing, his eyes desperately searching for an escape, but finding only water in every direction. The light had disappeared. Everything slowed down. Mr. Howard opened his mouth, and felt the rush of cold, merciless water pour into his body.

He saw himself from the outside, and looked upon a face frozen in a terrified final plea for air. It was his face, but it was not his. It bore the features of the man who had washed up in the churchyard earlier that afternoon. But in this torment, the body was Mr. Howard’s, and he was now doomed to experience this poor soul’s final moment, and it was as he realized he was destined to die that Mr. Howard sprang upright in his bed, his bedclothes as soaked with perspiration as though he actually had been underwater.

Unable to fall immediately back to sleep, the dream had shaken him so, he returned to his chair and his book. But his reading was non-comprehensive, and the words on the pages meaningless. All that focused in Mr. Howard’s mind was the nightmare, his longstanding fear of drowning combining with the afternoon’s discovery to disturb his slumber and haunt his waking moments. Only now, in the safe haven of reality, Mr. Howard’s thoughts weren’t concerned with his own fears, but rather the horrible imaginings of the man in the churchyard’s fate. What had been frightful in a dream must have been an unbearable experience. For a man to live his entire life, likely marry, have children and grow old suddenly have life end in such a horrible and unexpected manner was a concept that forced Mr. Howard to examine his own views on mortality, down to his very conviction in the omnipotence of the Almighty. Why would the Lord allow a man to experience such a brutal fate, lest he had committed some unforgivable sin? What is the point to living for years, even decades, if the ultimate culmination of that life is served by those final few moments of unspeakable torture and fear? Was every day simply another small step toward a fate unbefitting of even the worst of men?

One day, Mr. Howard knew, he would die. The thought frightened him, and became more tangible as he sat alone in a silent room in the bosom of night. Moreover, his wife would also die, and Mr. Howard began to argue with himself over whom he would rather pass first. On one hand, if he were to die before her, he would never be faced with the sadness and hopelessness of having lost the person in this world he loved the most. But his love for his wife argued quite strongly against him, countering that it would be better for her to die first, thus sparing her the same inconsolable grief. He thought of his parents and his younger brother, Stephen, who had taken ill and perished during childhood. They were all gone already, all buried in the churchyard. Everyone he knew - himself, his wife, Revered Whitmore, surely the entire congregation of Haverton - would be there someday as well. And although such a fate was inevitable, there was not one among them who could say when he would join the ranks of the departed, nor a one who could predict how.

Mr. Howard returned to bed, having abandoned his attempts at reading. As he pulled back the sheets, his eyes fixed on his wife, and he made note of her breathing. Its rhythm had a peaceful ignorance to it, as though it planned to go on forever, and did not care to acknowledge the fact that it would not. Mr. Howard took solace in the fact that for now both he and his bride were healthy and would wake up tomorrow with the world very much the way they had left it the day before. It was enough to shake from his mind the thoughts which plagued him, and within a few minutes he drifted into a sleep which lasted throughout the night.

 

The rest of the week passed by quickly, and a stiflingly humid Sunday soon embraced Haverton. Mr. Howard sang and perspired his way through that morning’s church services, and while he remained haunted by the sight of the drowned man, he had all but shaken the memory of his nightmare. From the pulpit, Revered Whitmore delivered a sermon on the power of love between a husband and wife, employing his reticently passionate manner of speaking to infuse his message within the hearts of the those in the congregation.

Mr. Howard had caught eyes with the minister early in the service, and he guessed that Reverend Whitmore had sought him out amongst the crowd after the excitement of the other day. Mr. Howard found himself looking away as he caught the hazel stare of the pastor, and felt an unease, as if the brief connection had suddenly transported him back to the ghastly scene on the bank of the creek. Still, his frazzle subsided as the service continued, and Mr. Howard found meaning in the homily delivered with such eloquent spirit by Reverend Whitmore. He felt at peace sitting next to his wife in the house of the Lord, and looked forward to spending the day at home following church.

When the final note was sung, Mr. Howard mopped another layer of sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief, and went about the business of conversing with his neighbors. Exchanges were brief, as the forceful sun rose higher in the sky, pouring heat and discomfort into the tightly packed chapel. Before long, the townspeople filed into the aisle and headed for the door, where the reverend waited to greet them and wish them a pleasant week. Mr. Howard began to feel a slight twinge of awkwardness as he approached the extended right hand of the pastor. What could he possibly say after what had happened only a few days before? Certainly there would be another meeting of the eyes, another knowing gaze, and with that notion came a wave of distress upon Mr. Howard that was as irritating and uncomfortable as the thick midday air.

Mr. Howard fully expected his meeting with Reverend Whitmore to be a quick one. In fact, he thought, the minister is likely as anxious as I am. Surely, what had transpired would be written on both of their faces, but then the reverend would wish well Mr. Howard’s wife and then Mr. Howard himself. In the few seconds leading up to the inevitable encounter, the lawyer convinced himself that it would be less painful than he had initially thought.

A warm yet pleasant breeze greeted him as he exited the church, and with it came relief for more than just his beaded brow. It was thus all the more surprising and flabbergasting when Reverend Whitmore shook Mr. Howard’s hand and said, “Jonas, good morning. I wonder if I might have a private word with you.”

Partly because he was an accommodating man, and largely because he was caught so off guard there was no time to rally with an excuse, Mr. Howard responded that he would speak with the reverend. Promising his wife that he wouldn’t be long, he saw her off for home in the company of a few friends. Following a few more handshakes and blessings, Mr. Howard and Reverend Whitmore found themselves alone on the steps of the church. Unable to withstand the bloated heat, the two absently began to walk for the churchyard, with its promise of shade beneath one of the trees by the creek.

“Have you been well, my friend?” asked the minister, making predictable small talk.

“I have,” answered Mr. Howard truthfully. “A bit of restlessness at night, but I suppose that’s to be expected after coming across such a revolting scene on Wednesday.”

“I have not slept well either these past few nights,” replied Revered Whitmore.

“A ghastly sight,” the lawyer murmured, almost to himself.

“Oh, in my calling I have witnessed death many times over,” continued the cleric, “and many times more frightful than this. But it’s what occurred after you left that has been the cause of my disturbance.

Mr. Howard now turned to face his companion, and noticed the flush had left his cheeks, leaving the reverend’s face a pale and unhealthy-looking slate. Without returning Mr. Howard’s look, Revered Whitmore continued.

“You see, after you helped me carry that poor soul into the church, I prepared the body for burial. Although he was a stranger to us, I naturally followed all the proper Christian procedures, and summoned for Dr. Mitchell. He returned with me at once and began his examination. It was routine. The man had obviously drowned, and Dr. Mitchell could find no indication that he had met with any other foul or unnatural fate before drowning would have taken place. Toward the end of the postmortem, the doctor paused. He seemed to be in study, closely examining the dead man’s hand. What aberration he had found I could not tell.”

Mr. Howard and Reverend Whitmore, engaged in their conversation but eager to hide from the sun, stopped under a tree about thirty yards from where they had discovered the body. Mr. Howard had noticed the fresh mound of piled dirt as he had been walking. Now, as they paused, Reverend Whitmore seemed fixated on the newly covered grave, no doubt the final resting place of the drowned wretch.

“The deceased’s name was Nathaniel Johnson,” said the clergyman. “You knew of him, I presume. I believe he would have wanted to be buried there, next to his wife.”

Mr. Howard was unaware just how much his mouth and eyes had widened. He felt the blood drain from his face, and something like a dizziness overtake and wrack his entire body. His legs were suddenly like goldenrods in the wind, and it was a wonder he remained standing at all. Trying to regain control of his senses, Mr. Howard followed the reverend’s stare. He had noticed earlier the raised patch of earth, but had not realized that it was adjacent to the twenty-year-old grave of Martha Johnson.

“I - I never would have recognized him,” stammered Mr. Howard. “The years aged him so. It’s been - why it’s been twenty-five years at least. H - How did you know?”

“Dr. Mitchell,” Reverend Whitmore answered, a calm melancholy in his tone. “He stared at that hand for what seemed like hours. Then he looked up at me with eyes as wide as yours are now.

“’This is Nathaniel Johnson,’ he said to me. ‘He used to live here, all the way at the other end of town. Still got kin here. All the Johnsons, Walkers, Martins. All his kin. Went off, never came back. Left a wife. No one ever heard from him again. But I’ll be damned, here he is, sure enough. I’ll be damned.’

“I asked him how he was so sure of the man’s identity. Even if it were true, even if Dr. Mitchell did know him, no one had seen him in twenty-five years, as you said.

“He showed me the hand he had been looking at, which was the left hand. ‘This ring,’ he said, indicating a large, rather elaborate piece of jewelry that for some reason I had not noticed or at least not found out of place. ‘This ring belonged to the Johnson family. It was an heirloom of sorts, handed down through the years as a wedding ring. It made for quite a conversation piece when Nathaniel and Martha were married. He loved her so. Even later when times got tough, and Nathaniel sold off just near everything he had, he held onto this ring.’

“’You’re positive?,’ I asked him. And he showed me the family emblem on the ring. I had seen it before, of course, up by the Johnson homestead. But in my few years here I had never heard of this man, and I was so shocked by what Dr. Mitchell told me that I walked that night all the way to the homestead to see the crest once again. And naturally, there it was, as I knew it would be.

“There’s no doubt in Dr. Mitchell’s mind, and none in my mind for that matter, that the man you helped me carry inside was Nathaniel Johnson. I thought you should know, since I was certain you would remember him.

“I haven’t told anyone else, and I don’t plan to, either. As I walked back down the road toward the church, where I knew I was to attend to the body, terror gripped me as it never has before. I am a newcomer to this town, but most of the families in my congregation have lived here their whole lives, and I’m sure the majority of them either knew or would remember Mr. Johnson. Imagine the reaction of all those people. I would think the look on your face when I said his name would be the one shared by most.”

Mr. Howard allowed the minister’s story to penetrate him. “Astounding!” he finally rasped in a hushed yelp. He shook his head is disbelief. “Twenty-five years, and here he is, drowned and washed up mere feet from where his wife lay buried.”

“Exactly, Mr. Howard,” said Reverend Whitmore, his voice still low, though more authoritative. “And perhaps now you can truly empathize with my own restlessness. What are our brethren to infer from such a fantastic tale where coincidence seems further-fetched than the spectacular? That’s why I handled this incident and the burial quietly. I have asked Dr. Mitchell and will now ask you, Jonas, to do the same.”

“A fair point, reverend,” agreed Mr. Howard. “You have my word.”

“Thank you,” was the simple reply.

Mr. Howard noted that Reverend Whitmore had not taken his eyes from Nathaniel Johnson’s grave since they had stopped walking. It was as though the vicar was looking for comprehension in the motionless heap of ground. As Mr. Howard stood silent in thought next to the reverend, he too found himself mesmerized by the whole of the events. Nathaniel Johnson, stripped in life of all but his honor and a wedding ring, had kept his word.

“Where has he been all these years?” Mr. Howard asked rhetorically, vocalizing just one of the thousands of questions swimming through his consciousness.

Surprisingly enough, Reverend Whitmore had an answer. “The Centinel arrived from Lexington on Friday. A very brief article caught my eye about a steamer near Lawrenceburg. An elderly gentleman had gone overboard and fallen into the river. There was a search, which turned up nothing, and the man was presumed drowned. He was unknown to the other passengers aboard, a vagabond, and the only feature witnesses could clearly describe was a prominent ring worn on the left hand.”

For another moment, neither the lawyer nor the clergyman spoke. A bird trilled somewhere above their heads, and the only other noise was a gentle rush of wind through the leaves.

“Ah!” exclaimed Mr. Howard in one final moment of revelation. He looked upon the water of the Old Creek, and then to the spot where Nathaniel Johnson had come ashore. In the hot July air, in the audience of that fearsome sun, Mr. Howard felt a sudden chill in the breeze.

“I’m beginning to see the true inspiration behind your sermon today, reverend,” he said. “Lawrenceburg would be - what would you say - about fifty miles downriver? Now how do you suppose he could have come all that way against the current?”


© Copyright 2018 M.S. Thomas. All rights reserved.

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