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From At the Grass Roots, Comprising “The Christmas of 1883,” and Other Vagrant Sketches, by Elmer House (Dodd Gaston), with Cover Design and Frontispiece by Albert T. Reid, Topeka: Monotyped by Crane & Company, 1905; pp. 65-71.

Black and white sketch by Albert T. Reid, of Elmer House, sitting smoking a cigar at his desk.



If I have any pride in myself, it is because of the belief that I am of a practical turn of mind. I do not follow the crazy pendulum of public sentiment, I do not chase fool fads. I do not allow my opinion to be warped by every four-flusher who chances to get the attention of the public. I try always to be fair, sane and practical. I fail often and do fool things, but I try to square everything by the rule of common-sense. Theoretically, I do not believe in ghosts or apparitions from the spirit world. Applied commonsense rebels at the idea of such things and casts them out. But I once saw a ghostly visitor which I have never been able to explain away.

Scott’s churchyard lay along the slope of a long clay hill. The highway ran 66  alongside. The church stood at the top of the hill, on the highest point in the country round about. At the bottom of the hill, a quarter of a mile from the lower side of the churchyard, lay a swamp partially redeemed to agriculture, but still the abiding-place of frogs and other scaly things.

One summer evening Press Hobbs, returning home at dusk from a day’s work in a neighbor’s field, started to climb the hill past the churchyard. He a a practical-minded man, then nearing fifty, stolid and unimaginative by nature. Hobbs encountered something on the hillside which caused him to take to his heels and flee as if from the wrath to come. He brought up at a neighboring farmhouse panting, exhausted, and in a condition of mind bordering on hysterics. He never gave a lucid explanation of what he saw, but the story circulated through the neighborhood and brought out other stories of queer things encountered 67  along the roadside leading by the churchyard.

In the course of a week the neighborhood was in a ferment about it, and little else was talked of. Frank Halpin, Will McDannold and I were boon companions, and among the boys, the adventurous spirits of the neighborhood. Nearly all of the neighborhood crime and misdemeanor was charged to us, and the bookkeeping was, in the main, correct. Halpin was about 17. McDannold and I were a couple of years younger. We talked the Hobbs ghost over between ourselves for a week or two, and finally agreed to spend a night in and about the churchyard in the rôle of an investigating committee. We kept our intentions secret, and although the story afterwards leaked out, it was years before our experience became the common property of the people of the community.

Halpin, McDannold and I met by appointment 68  at the cross-roads a mile north of the church one evening just after sunset. We reached the bridge across the swamp just as the dusk began to gather, and started leisurely up the hill. It was a perfect summer evening. The whirr and clatter of a harvester in a near-by wheat-field had just ceased. The frogs in the swamp were taking the first bars of the “Te Deum.” We poked along up the hill without taking much heed of our mission. Every event of the evening is clearly stamped on my memory to this day, and I remember that I was telling the other boys about Lewis Wetzel, a celebrated Indian-fighter of whom I had just been reading, and we wee speculating as to whether it were possible for a man to load his rifle while running at full speed. Wetzel’s biographer had claimed this as one of Wetzel’s accomplishments.

I was still babbling away, and we had passed the lower corner of the churchyard. 69  Suddenly Halpin, who was leading, stopped, and McDannold grabbed me by the arm. Straight ahead of us, in the center of the road, was the gigantic figure of a man standing motionless and at ease. I make due allowances for the tense condition of my nerves and my youthful imagination, but it has always seemed to me that the figure was at least ten feet high and proportionately broad.

Halpin had nerve that was as fine as chilled steel, and the plugging determination and obstinacy of a mule. He was afterwards a celebrated peace officer in the far West, and died with his boots on, his six-shooter barking to his last breath. After the first start of surprise he pushed forward straight toward the figure, McDannold and I following. We seemed to be approaching it, but when we reached the spot where it had appeared to be, it suddenly vanished into the air of the dusky summer evening.

We stopped instinctively, and I 70  glanced nervously behind me. The figure was leaning against the fence at the lower corner of the churchyard, more than fifty yards away. Halpin hesitated not a second, and again led the way toward it. When we reached the lower corner of the churchyard there was nothing there, but we could see the figure dimly outlined at the top of the hill fifty yards or more beyond where we first encountered it. It vanished again as we approached and reappeared almost immediately in the churchyard.

McDannold’s nerve oozed away at this juncture, and mine followed. We climbed the fence into the field opposite and streaked across it panic-stricken. Halpin following, blowing like a porpoise. He was the last to give way, but it had been too much even for him. We ran most of the way home, and the researches of the investigating committee were never carried any further. We made a compact to keep it secret, and 71  it was not until years afterward that I, then a man grown, revisited the neighborhood and told the story.

I do not believe in ghosts or apparitions from the spirit world. But what was it Halpin, McDannold and I saw on that dusky summer evening, now many years to the windward, in the road alongside Scott’s churchyard?

Cover Design by Albert T. Reid, Green with Black Title and Illustration of Trees, Clouds and a Distant Old One-Story Farmhouse, with a Chimney. It has been cropped for the online text as a tailpiece for each page.

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