In the Twinkling of an Eye
Now I know you guys ain’t gonna believe this one, but I’ve got to tell it just the same. This all happened in 1984, long before the Internet, cell phones, and Lady Gaga. And please, when you’ve finished reading it, no emails, no phone calls, and no damn letters telling me I’m nuts. Because I already know it and what I’m about to tell ya just goes to prove the point.
My friend Rick and I were traveling through the mountains of Pennsylvania when it happened. We were heading to Colorado; he’s got his law practice out there. Me? I was just along for the ride. The day before, Rick had called and asked me to go with him. Help out with the driving and that kind of stuff. Or as he put it, “What else you got to do? Tag along. I’ll put the top down and the wind will blow the stink off ya.” I mean, how could anyone turn down an invitation like that?
So here’s the scene. We had left the Interstate and were on a small county road. We were looking for some place to grab a bit of food. It was about—no, it was exactly—a quarter to four in the morning. I remember because I looked over at the clock.
We’re in some kind of valley because there are mountains on both sides of the road. And there’s a fog appearing. Appearing from where? I don’t know, but this fog wasn’t descending like a good, decent fog should. No, this fog was coming up from the ground. It was weird. But now that I think about it, I believe it came from hell itself. However, at the time I was oblivious, as was Rick.
Just when the fog appeared, we hit a ghost town. Yeah … I know, ghost towns are supposed to be out in the West. Well, excuse me … this ghost town was somewhere (and don’t ask me where) in Pennsylvania.
I’m sitting in the passenger seat, looking at the buildings as they passed by. Man, were they spooky. Oh, I forgot to mention, it was a full moon, or damn near close to it. Anyway, with nothing else to do (Rick isn’t the best conversationalist in the world), I’m looking out the window at this town. All the buildings seem to have been constructed of wood, most of which had rotted away. I could see right through them to the moonlight and trees on the far side. It went on like that for mile after mile. Actually, the buildings looked as though they had sustained a fire, but I figured it was just a trick of my imagination, considering the fog and moonlight. After a while, I couldn’t see anything but the goddamn fog. When it really closed in, Rick slowed down, turned to me and said, “Where the hell are we?”
And I shot back, “You’re drivin’, pal. If you don’t know, then we’re lost.”
Rick may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s hell-on-wheels when it comes to a quick comeback. His retort: “Screw you!”
It was just about then he saw it. I didn’t see it, but thank God he did, or you would not be reading these words. Right there in the middle of the road was a large, very large, pine tree. I mean really! What the hell is a pine tree, or any kind of tree for that matter, doing in the middle of a road that good, God-fearin’ people have to traverse? I’m not sayin’ Rick and I were God-fearin’, but you know what I mean.
As I’ve said, it was a good thing ol’ Rick was at the wheel because if I had been, we would have plowed into the damn thing. So Rick stops in time and we look at each other. And before either one of us can utter a word, a voice rings out, “WELCOME TO PERDITION!” When I say a voice rang out, well … boomed out might be closer to the truth.
Turning to Rick, I shouted, “Let’s get the hell outta here!” I didn’t have to tell him twice. Before the reverberation of the sound of my voice dissipated into the mist, Rick slammed the car into reverse and was burning rubber backwards. We were both looking out the rear window. Rick because he had to see where he was driving. And me? Because what else was I going to do?
We were moving at a fairly good clip considering we were going backwards, and in a fog. The backup lights didn’t illuminate much. So intent were we on peering into the white darkness that we didn’t see the obstacle in the road. It was another damn tree, though this one was a bit smaller, and we were on it before we knew it. I mean we were literally on it. The two back wheels bumped over it, but the front wheels didn’t make it. So there we were, the car’s chassis resting on the trunk of a pine tree, in the early morning hours, in the mountains of Pennsylvania, with a sinister fog closing in.
If that wasn’t bad enough, then the shapes appeared. They were dark and they oozed out of the mist. They had the shape of men, but because of the fog, we could not make out any discernible features, like eyes and noses, you know, that kind thing.
I must admit I was scared shitless. But at that moment, Rick brought me back to my senses, at least for a minute. He said, “Fuck this!” He got out of the car and played a wonderful bluff. He stood by his opened door and said, in a loud voice, “I am an officer of the court. You are interfering in official business and there will be repercussions if you do not remove the blockage of a state highway and allow us to proceed on our way.” As I said, it was a good bluff and it fortified me … for a moment. But when two of the dark forms enveloped him, and he disappeared before my eyes, well … I went right back to being scared shitless. Then I felt a sharp pain at the back of my head; a blackness overcame me and I lost consciousness.
I came out of my stupor slowly, and as I became more cognizant, I perceived my surroundings. I was lying on a hard earthen floor in what looked like a log cabin. There were no windows, but moonlight was seeping in from the spaces between the logs. There was a table against the far wall. On another wall, three chairs hung from hooks, and on still another wall was Rick … also hanging from a hook. His hands and feet were tied—he was trussed up like a Christmas turkey.
I was still a little slow on the uptake and I asked him if he was all right. His answer was a muffled “Mmm … ummm … umm!” That’s when I noticed the rag, balled up and stuffed into his mouth. I went and started to pull the gag out while Rick shook his head back and forth. Ignoring him, I removed the gag so that we could converse like normal people. And that just goes to show you, some people can be downright unappreciative. Instead of saying, “Thank you,” I was met with, “You idiot! Why do you think I was shaking my head? Screw the gag, get me down. My arms are killing me.”
Grasping him around the waist, I lifted him a few inches so that he could slide his tied hands off the hook, which he did. When I had him back on terra firma, I let go, and he toppled to the ground. I heard an exasperated sigh, followed by the words, “Will you please untie me so that if I feel so inclined, I can stand up without falling over!”
“Sorry, pal, I didn’t realize.” I got down on my knees and fumbled with the ropes in the dim moonlight until I had my friend freed. Well, freed may not be the right word. We were still in the cabin.
As Rick massaged his wrists, I asked him what had happened.
“You want to know what happened? Well, you’re asking the wrong guy. This is all I know. I was standing there one minute and the next minute I have a hand over my mouth and two brutes were half carrying and half dragging me into the fog. They were both massive and when they got me into this cabin, one of them hit me and the next thing I knew, I was hanging up like a side of beef and you were on the floor grabbin’ forty winks. And that’s about all I know. What’s your story?”
“I was knocked out at the car and came to in this here cabin. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. But why are we still here? Let’s get the hell outta here before they come back.”
“Go ahead and try the door. I don’t think you’ll be able to open it.”
I saw no lock, so I stood and pulled on the handle. Nothing. So I gave it a good yank. Still nothing. As I was gearing up for a third try, Rick interjected, “It opens outward. Before they muscled me into this damn place, I saw one of them remove what looked like a 4” x 4” sitting in slots across the door. Go ahead and try to push the door open and see what happens.” I did as asked and nothing happened.
“You see,” said Rick, “this is a jail cell and I don’t think we are the first to inhabit it.”
About then, the moonlight was changing to daylight, and it wasn’t long before we heard someone at the door. We both got to our feet and waited for whoever it was to make their entrance. We did not have long to wait.
The door creaked outward, and the small space within the cabin was flooded with sunlight. Both Rick and I were momentarily blinded, and then the shapes appeared again. However, now we could see them for what they were. At first there was only one; he entered the cabin and stood to the right of the door. Then other one came in and took a position to the left.
They were only men, albeit, big men—very big men. They each stood about six feet, six inches tall. They were well muscled, no fat on either one of them. I figured they weighed two fifty if they weighed an ounce. They wore black suits, but not the kind your friendly neighborhood undertaker would wear. No, these looked to be right out of the late 19th century. Kind of what a preacher would have worn back in those days.
At this point, Rick and I looked at one another and Rick cocked an eyebrow in my direction as if to ask, “What the hell?” And speaking of preachers, that’s exactly what turned up next. After the two behemoths were positioned on either side of the door, the star of the show appeared. He, in contrast to his minions, was a scrawny little guy. He was also dressed in the same archaic manner. He was about sixty years old and stood about five and a half feet tall. Rail thin with a few days’ growth of gray beard stubble, grizzled hair that looked greasy and was unkempt and which hung down almost to his shoulders. Unlike the other two, he wore a hat. It had a wide, circular brim just like the preachers of old wore. He did not come in, but stood framed in the doorway.
Without preamble, without introductions all the way around, without even a by-your-leave, he started right in. In a loud voice that would have been better suited to the two brutes standing on either side of the door he boomed, “REPENT YE SINNERS! REPENT WHILST YE STILL MAY DO SO. FOR THE JUDGEMENT OF THE LORD IS AT HAND!” He then raised his right hand over his head, and in it was a Bible. At least it looked like a Bible, and any thinking man would assume it to be a Bible. But I digress.
So, there we all stood … the monsters, the preacher, Rick, and I. No one said a word, no one said a thing. At length, I turned to Rick and said, “I want to hire you to act as my lawyer and I want you to sue that son-of-a-bitch for everything he’s worth. Which probably isn’t much more than the clothes he’s standing in. But that’s a cool hat.”
Replied Rick: “I’ll take the case. And when we win, I get his hat as my fee.”
However, The Preacher—as Rick and I took to calling him—forestalled any further attorney-client consultation by loudly intoning, “AT THE FULL OF THE MOON THE SACRIFICIAL LAMBS WILL BE OFFERED UP TO JEHOVAH. THEIR BLOOD WILL WASH AWAY THEIR SINS AND ALLOW THEM TO ENTER THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.”
Now, my first thought upon hearing the above was, “I wish he’d turn it down a notch. I’m getting a headache.” Then, all of a sudden, it hit me. “Did he say ‘sacrificial’ and ‘blood’?” And I think it hit Rick about the same time because he looked over to me and his smirk was completely gone, as I’m sure mine was. Up till then, we thought it was just some yahoo trying to save our eternal souls. However, after hearing his plans for us and looking at the non-smiling apes, we got the picture.
Before I could think of anything to say, like, Who the hell do you think you are? or something to that effect, Rick said, “You gotta be kidding me. Come on, Billy, let’s book,” and took a step toward the door. That’s when ape number one moved to block Rick’s egress. Rick tried to push pass him, but to no avail. Then The Preacher put in his two cents worth. “MY SONS ISAAC AND AARON WILL BRING YOU TO THE ALTAR OF PURIFICATION AT THE APPOINTED HOUR. TILL THEN, MAKE YOUR PEACE WITH YOUR MAKER.” And abruptly he was gone. I mean in a flash he was gone. I didn’t even see him move a muscle. It was as though he went up in a puff of smoke. Then the apes left, but in a more conventional manner; they walked out, shutting the door behind them.
Rick and I were left standing there like the two idiots we were. We should have tried to get out while the getting was good despite the apes. But we didn’t, so now we were locked in a small log cabin waiting for the moon to rise so that we could be killed by three psychos.
Finally, Rick said, “Well, if that doesn’t beat all!”
“It sure as hell does, pal. But I think there’s something weird about that little guy.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“No. I mean, I was standing right in front of him. He had the sun to his back and I could swear that at times he was transparent. But when he talked, he filled in. I know it doesn’t make any sense, but that’s what I saw.”
Rick walked over to me and gently said, “It’s been a rough night for both of us. We’re tired and I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry as hell. So don’t worry about it. Let’s just figure a way out of here.”
He was right, so I asked him, “You got any ideas?”
Rick, for all his high-sounding lawyer talk, had no ready answer. Then I suggested we might dig under the logs and squirm our way out.
Rick told me that if I looked around the cabin, I’d see shallow depressions around the edges that looked like others had tried to dig their way out. And he was right. But that didn’t stop us from giving it the good old college try.
We found that the damn place had been built on a slab of granite, and a few inches under the dirt was solid rock. So, there was no getting out that way. And after an hour of going around the cabin looking for a weak spot that we could use to our advantage, we discovered nothing. Hence Rick, being the practical one, said that we should take two of the chairs down from the wall and hold a council of war. I agreed, and we did so.
I’ll spare you the details of all the stupid ideas we came up with. I think we discussed everything except having Buck Rogers descend in his spaceship to rescue us. However, in the end, we came to the conclusion that the only avenue of escape open to us was to run like hell when given the chance.
So this is what we came up with. When they came back for us and we heard them outside, we’d get ready. And when the door was cracked an inch, we’d both push with all our might (as feeble as that might be), rush past the giants, and haul ass down the mountainside.
Because he was conscious when brought to our place of incarceration, Rick knew that we were about two thousand yards above the road we had been taken from. We figured that all we had to do was run like hell and the man-mountains wouldn’t be able to catch us. After all, it would be downhill all the way. It was a simple plan formed by simple minds. They say that the simple plans are the best. Well, I’m here to you tell that is not necessarily so.
We sat in that damn cabin all day and watched the sunlight that came in through the cracks move slowly across the floor. Then the light got dim and then things got downright black outside—and inside—we couldn’t see a thing. While we sat there in the dark, we spoke of food. We talked of charred steaks smothered in onions—of grilled hamburgers with melted cheese and side orders of French fries. Surprisingly enough, salads did not enter into the conversation, but hell, we were macho guys. No sissy food for us.
After what seemed like a lifetime, the moon made its appearance. Its light slowly seeped into the cabin and we prepared ourselves. Rick and I, standing shoulder to shoulder, placed our hands flat on the door. The minute we heard the wooden bar being lifted, we were going to push for all we were worth.
And that is just what we did, and we did it with such force that the goons, Isaac and Aaron, were caught off guard. Rick and I were through the door and starting our sprint for freedom before they knew what was happening. Rick was a few feet in front of me because we had decided that he would lead the way, seeing as how he had a better sense of where we were in relation to the road. We were maybe a hundred feet out of the cabin and the goons still hadn’t moved. Things were looking up. That is, until a line from a Robert Burns poem came into play. “The best-laid schemes o’ mice and men often go awry.”
I took a step and tripped over a root or something, and fell flat on my face. Rick heard me take the tumble and started back. But we didn’t have time for any heroics. I couldn’t see them, but I could feel the gruesome twins bearing down on us. So I did the only thing I could. I yelled at Rick, “Get your ass outta here!” And with a quick nod, he did just that.
I don’t want you folks to think I was being a hero or anything like that. No, I was just being smart. I knew if Rick slowed down for me, the Bobbsey Twins would have us both. At least this way he could come back with some help.
Rick was gone and I was picked up by my arms—one goon on each arm. Then Daddy appeared out of nowhere. He didn’t seem concerned that Rick was no longer with us. He instructed the boys to tie me tight with a rope and then bring me to the “Altar of Purification.”
One of the monsters, it may have been Isaac, I couldn’t tell the sons-of-bitches apart, held me while the other went to get a rope. When he returned, they wrapped the rope around me and tied it so that my arms were pinned to my side.
After that, it was my turn to be treated like a slab of beef. One of the guys hefted me as though I were a sack of potatoes and slung me over his shoulder. As we made our way to wherever the damn altar was, I had a good view of the ground, seeing as how the top half of me was hanging down Aaron’s back—or it might have been Isaac’s back. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, that is when I noticed the fog coming up from the ground. It was the same kind of white mist we’d seen the night before. By the time we got to where we were going, it was well over the head of whoever was carrying me. Speaking about where we were going … it was a rock ledge, almost perfectly flat, about four feet off the ground and a few hundred yards from the cabin. I was unceremoniously dumped upon said ledge, also known as the Altar of Purification.
So there I was, flat on my back and helpless. Then out of the mist came The Preacher. In one hand he held his Bible, and in the other, the biggest goddamn damn knife I’ve ever seen. The blade was a foot long, the handle six inches. It looked more like a sword than a knife, at least to me, lying in my precarious position.
He stood looking down at me with his sons, one on either side of him. Next, he raised his hands over his head, the Bible in one, the knife in the other, and started to pray. Well, I don’t mind telling you I said a few prayers of my own right about then. And in between praying, I was grateful for the fact that Rick had gotten away because I knew with certainty that it wasn’t going to be too long before that knife made a swift descent and was imbedded in Yours Truly.
Then time slowed down, it almost came to a halt. It seemed to me that we were all frozen in some weird tableau. My eyes were fixated on the knife and it became the only thing in the world to me. I prayed for the nightmare to be over and that I’d awake in the car seated next to Rick with us barreling down the highway.
All the while the mist continued to rise, enveloping us in its whiteness as it swirled higher and higher.
About then, I decided it would probably be better to close my eyes and wait for the inevitable. But before I could wrench my gaze from the knife, two things happened simultaneously. The knife flew out of The Preacher’s hand and I heard a gunshot.
As soon as the knife left The Preacher’s hand, I closed my eyes and rolled to my left. I just knew the damn thing was going to get me. But it clattered harmlessly onto the rock, barely missing my head. And when I opened my eyes, the three creeps were gone and Rick was standing over me, looking concerned.
Breathing hard, as though he was out of breath, he asked, “Are you all right?”
“I am now. But where the hell did you come from, and is that a gun in your hand?” Before he could say anything, I added, “Untie me; get these goddamn ropes off me!” As he untied the rope, the mist lightened and seemed to be seeping into the ground.
When I was free, Rick said it would behoove us to get out of there before our “friends” came back. I had to agree; following Rick, we made our way down the mountain. It wasn’t too hard because the mist was almost gone by then and we had a full moon.
We made the road in no time flat. Rick turned left and I followed. I was about to start peppering him with questions when up ahead I saw his car. It was sitting on the side of the road just as pretty as you please. And there was no sign of the tree it was sitting on the last time I saw it. It was then that I hit him with a thousand questions.
Rick said he’d tell me what he could, but first we had to go back to the last town that we had passed and report our little mishap to the local law. Him being a lawyer, he would suggest that. Personally, I was for hightailing it out of that country and the sooner the better, but I said nothing.
I’ll save you the back and forth of our conversation and just tell you what I learned.
When I had fallen and told him to keep going, Rick did so only because he knew he’d need some fire power against the two giants if he was to effect my rescue. It turned out that he kept a gun—a pistol—in the trunk of his car. When he got to the highway, he was as amazed as I had been to see his car off the tree and on the shoulder of the road. His only concern was about the keys. If they were gone, he didn’t know how he’d get into the trunk. But they were right where they were supposed to be, in the ignition.
The rest was pretty straightforward. He went back up the mountain, found the cabin, and was led to where I was by The Preacher’s loud voice as he prayed over me. When he saw the knife, he took a bead and knocked it out of The Preacher’s hand. I told him that that was pretty good shooting. That’s when he informed me that he was aiming for the son-of-a-bitch’s heart, but the gun recoiled and he hit the knife instead.
There was one thing that we didn’t understand. Well, there were a lot of things we didn’t understand, but one thing in particular baffled us. Where had the bad guys gone? If you remember, I had my eyes closed when they vamoosed; I thought they had just run away. But Rick had been only twenty or so yards from the action and he told me it looked to him as though they had vanished into thin air. But we didn’t dwell on it.
The closest town was about eight miles from the scene of the crime. But it did us no good. Initially that is. The place was a one-horse town if I’ve ever seen a one-horse town, and I have. The sheriff’s office was closed up tight, so we made our way to an all-night diner. There we were informed that the sheriff or his deputy would be in about eight o’clock in the morning and there was nothing we could do until then. Rick asked the counterman who had supplied us with the info what the town folks did if there was an emergency in the middle of the night.
His answer: “There hasn’t been one so far.”
So, seeing that there was nothing we could do until the appointed time, and as we were hungry as hell, we ordered just about everything on the menu (which wasn’t much) and killed time until the local constabulary deigned to make an appearance.
When eight o’clock rolled around, we finished the last of our coffee and went to the counter to pay our bill. As we were collecting our change, the big man himself walked in. His name, we were to learn, was John Brown, Sheriff John Brown. He was thin with gray hair and I figured him for about sixty years old. We approached him, and Rick started to tell him our tale of woe. But after a few words, the sheriff held up a hand and said, “Unless there is imminent danger of grievous bodily harm or someone is lying dying somewhere, then let’s adjourn to my office. I’m just no good in the morning until I’ve had my first cup of joe.”
What else could we do? We waited for him to get his Styrofoam cup of coffee, and then the three of us walked to his office. Once he was comfortably seated behind his desk and contently slurping his coffee and we were seated in the two chairs before the desk, Rick laid out our story.
When Rick had concluded his account of the previous night’s adventures, Sheriff Brown didn’t say a word. He swiveled in his chair and hit the switch to the two-way radio on the stand next to the desk. Speaking into the mic, he said, “You there, Abe?” When an affirmative answer came forth, he went on, “I have to take a run out on the county road and I need you to hold down the fort. If I need you, I’ll call.” Having taken care of business, he flipped the switch to the off position and said, “Let’s go.”
With Rick in the front seat of the sheriff’s car and me in the back, we headed out. On the way, Sheriff Brown asked a few pertinent questions which we answered. One of the questions was what happened to the knife? When we heard that, Rick and I just looked at one another and felt stupid. We had been in such a hurry to get away that we didn’t think to take the knife. The last time I saw it, it was lying where it had fallen when it was shot out of The Preacher’s hand. Then the sheriff asked where exactly along the road did we encounter the pine trees. Rick hesitated, but then he said things looked different in the daylight and he wasn’t quite sure where we encountered the trees.
Feeling brilliant, I said, “We came upon the first tree right after the ghost town.”
Said the sheriff: “What ghost town?”
Said I: “You know … the one along here somewhere, on the north side of the road.”
Said the sheriff: “There ain’t no ghost town in this neck of the woods.”
Said I: “Yes, there is. I saw it last night. It runs on for a couple of miles.”
Hoping to get confirmation, I asked Rick, “You saw it, right?”
Rick wasn’t much help. He informed me that with the fog coming up, he kept his eyes on the road. Or to put it in his words, “I didn’t have time for sightseeing.”
To no one in particular I stuttered, “But … but I know what I saw.”
The sheriff said. “This is my county, boy, and if there was a ghost town in these parts, I’d know about it. Now, if you boys can point out to me where the alleged abductions took place, I can start my investigation.”
“Alleged abductions!” Rick and I said in unison.
Well, to make a long, sad story short, we never did find the place where we hit the trees. In fact there were no cut trees, pine or otherwise, along the road. So, no trees, no ghost town, no nothing! We just couldn’t pinpoint where all the shit took place. And if we couldn’t do that, then there was no way we’d ever find the cabin.
On the way back to town, the sheriff made what for me was a startling statement. “You know, all this talk of a ghost town kinda reminded me of Jasper.”
Rick beat me to the punch. “Jasper? Who the hell is Jasper?”
“Jasper,” said the sheriff, “isn’t a who, it’s a what. And what Jasper is, or was, is a town that was burnt down about a hundred years ago. Some crazy preacher took a torch to it. When I was growing up, us kids told spook stories about it. And it was always claimed that the spirit of the preacher was seen on the nights of the full moon, roaming the hills over there.” As he said that, he pointed to the north.
Once again, Rick and I looked at one another. We didn’t have to speak. The thought was there. ‘Crazy preacher’! But before we could say anything, the sheriff said, “Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, and I don’t want to hear about no ghost preacher snatching you out of your car! Are you boys foolin’ with the law? Because if you are, I won’t take kindly to it.”
Rick slouched in his seat, folded his arms and put on his lawyer face. I did the opposite. I leaned forward and said to the sheriff, “Everything we told you is the truth. And we don’t believe in ghosts. Maybe it was some local nut who knows the story of the crazed preacher and gets his jollies kidnapping and murdering people in that vein.” Then, as an afterthought, I added, “You ever have a missing person report where the person was last seen along this stretch of road?”
After thinking for a moment, he answered. “No, we haven’t. Well, at least not recently. But when I took over as sheriff, I was handed a file by my predecessor. He told me it was the only unsolved case of his career; it goes back to 1934. There was a car found abandoned somewhere out here. It belonged to an out-of-state gent, like you fellas. He was never found. But it could not have anything to do with your boy. That was fifty years ago.”
“I think I speak for my friend as well as myself when I say that we’re getting out of this state just as fast as we can. But before we go, I’d like to know a little something about the firebug preacher. Is there any place in town that might have some more information on him and the town of Jasper?”
“You’ll be wanting to speak with Miss Wells. She’s our town librarian and the town’s unofficial historian. I can drop you off there and then I’ve got to attack a stack of paperwork back at my office that’s been staring at me for a week.”
So, we drove on in silence. Rick hadn’t said a word since the sheriff accused us of making up the whole sordid tale. Then just before we hit the outskirts of town, a thought entered my cranium. I asked the sheriff if he knew what date the car was found in 1934. He said that he didn’t, but that when he got back to his office, he’d check the file and call us at the library. I think he was feeling a little guilty for not being able to help us.
Sheriff Brown brought us to the library and introduced us to Miss Wells. She was in her fifties and wasn’t a bad looker. I wondered why it was Miss Wells. Rick, well, he was still sulking and mumbled in my ear, “Let’s blow this pop stand. I’ve got a law practice waiting for me in Denver.” I informed him that it was his idea to go to Johnny Law, and now all I wanted was to get a few salient facts about the original preacher. Just something to comfort me in my dotage when I think back about what we had gone through. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Lay on, McDuff.”
I told Miss Wells we were looking for any information on the fire that destroyed Jasper and of the perpetrator that started said fire.
She gave me a dazzling smile (again I wondered why it Miss Wells) and told me that, off the top of her head, she knew that the preacher’s name was Jeremiah Stone, that he was a fire (no pun intended) and brimstone type. But she said that was par for the course in that day and age. Then she blew me away when she said, “You can read an account of the fire that was printed in the local paper on the one year anniversary. And I believe there is a picture of Parson Stone.”
I told her that I would indeed like to read anything she had on the subject.
Walking to a file cabinet, she opened the top drawer and withdrew a small box about three inches by three inches. She led us to a viewing machine while telling us that the relevant newspaper story was on film. “The Clarion Dispatch,” she said, “was our local paper. It went out of business years ago; however, we have all their editions on microfiche.”
When we got to the machine, she inserted the reel and started fast forwarding the tape, stopping every once in a while to peruse the date. Finally she came to April 23, 1885. And there he was, The Preacher, staring out at us from the past. It was an old-time photograph; they used to call them “family portraits.” Seated on a small couch, next to a woman, sat our tormentor, hat in hand. And standing on either side of the two were the boys, Isaac and Aaron.
Miss Wells missed the look that passed between me and Rick. She simply said, “This is the article. When you are finished, leave the tape in the machine. I’ll rewind it.” Then she left us to our own devices.
The first thing I said to Rick after the lovely Miss Wells had departed was, “Look at the date.”
You know, I never put much stock in lawyers, and Rick just reinforced that image when he said, “Yeah, I see it. So what?”
“So what! I’ll tell you ‘so what’! Today is April the 23rd. That article said the fire was set “yesterday,” which would mean April the 22nd. Don’t you get it? That crazy son of a bitch burned down his town exactly one hundred years ago to the day that he grabbed us. Look at that picture. You know it’s the same asshole.”
Rick’s reply: “I don’t believe in ghosts.”
My response: “Neither did I until two minutes ago.”
Rather than continue arguing with my pal, I started to read the article. I was seated in a chair and Rick read over my shoulder. This is the gist of the story.
Jeremiah Stone had been the pastor of Jasper for a number of years and was well liked by the town folk. He was married with two sons. The sons were “touched” or “pixilated,” or—as we would say today—mildly retarded. Then, in the autumn of 1883, his wife died and Stone went into seclusion with his sons. When he emerged a month later, he was a different man. His sermons were of redemption by purification; he started talking of blood sacrifices to appease an angry God, and of fire as a means of purification.
In the early morning hours of April 22nd, 1884, fire broke out in the town of Jasper. It seemed to be jumping from house to house, from building to building. The town’s people gathered on the main street, the men forming a bucket brigade, the woman and children huddled together.
The fire was too well advanced to put out, and it was while the people stood in the street watching their homes and businesses burn, that three men ran up and said they had witnessed Pastor Stone and his sons, at the other end of town, setting fire to the few remaining houses not already engulfed in flames. Everyone ran to that section of town and arrived just as Stone and his sons were entering the church—the only building in town not on fire.
Two men, town leaders, said that they’d go in and speak with the preacher and see what it was all about. But when they started for the church, the crowd followed. They had a stake in the catastrophe and wanted answers. So, instead of the two going into the church, the town’s people stood outside and yelled for the preacher to show himself, which presently he did.
Holding his Bible over his head (as I’d seen him do), he told his flock that they were now purified and ready for the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s when the first torch was thrown. It landed at the preacher’s feet, then another and another. The preacher retreated into the church. Then someone ran to the front door and poured lantern oil onto the small flames of the torches. The fire quickly spread and soon the church was ablaze. As the roof fell in, the people heard, over the roar of the fire and in a loud clear voice, these words, “I AND MINE ARE CLEANSED! TODAY WE SHALL BE WITH YOU IN HEAVEN.”
The people stayed until the church was no more. Then they slowly filed away to search the ruins of their homes for anything left of value. The town was abandoned and never rebuilt.
As we finished reading the article, Miss Wells walked up and said she had a message for us from the sheriff. “He said to tell you that he checked the file and the car was found on April 23nd, 1934.”
We thanked Miss Wells for her help and left the library. While walking back to Rick’s car, I said, “That crazy son-of-a-bitch took someone on the fiftieth anniversary of the fire and then he tried to do the same to us on the hundredth.”
Rick only said, “You know, we haven’t slept in forty-eight hours and I’m not one bit tired. I think I’ll drive straight through to Denver. Let’s get out of this goddamn part of the country.”
I could only agree and wholeheartedly concur with my friend.
From that moment on, Rick was a changed man. He didn’t mind some nut job trying to kill us. He could handle that. But when it came to the supernatural that was something else altogether.
We didn’t speak much during the rest of the trip. Rick refused to discuss The Preacher or anything concerned with what we had gone through. He seemed somehow embarrassed about something. When we got to Denver, I caught a plane back to New York. It has now been more than thirty years since that night, and Rick and I have not spoken since. I tried contacting him, but he would not return my phone calls or answer my letters. I believe he thinks I would only remind him of something that he does not want to face—something outside his learning.
As Will Shakespeare so aptly put it: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
I didn’t lose my life that night, but I think I lost something much more dear to me than my miserable life. In the twinkling of an eye, I lost a good friend.
DAMN YOU TO HELL, PREACHER STONE!
If anyone feels so inclined, I’d appreciate it if you’d like my Facebook page. You can click on the button on the right side of the page. Thank you.