Halloween Fiction: 'The Thing in the Western Woods'

An encounter with the celebrated Beast of Middlebrook Pike: Based on a true story

Pleasant McCampbell had heard the first stories across the scarred oaken bar in Red Mike's saloon, among the other farmers, salesmen, and clerks who spent time there after work, cooling their tempers with a cigar and a pint and a few swapped yarns.

From Market Square to the Bowery, the stories tumbled through the saloons faster than the mundane rumors of corruption in high places and the real cause of the current panic, the worst recession since Reconstruction. From the fine-brandy saloons of Gay Street to the cocaine counters of South Central, the story was never told the same way twice. They all agreed about one particular, that there was something peculiar afoot out in the country, beyond West End, beyond the Ninth Ward.

It started out as a singular sort of theft. The heads of slaughtered cows vanished from the stockyards. They had little value; it was the strangeness of it that prompted the worry. As always, some first suspected the usual poltergeists: adolescent boys, blowing off some steam, perhaps delinquent from the little university over on the Hill. Others might think of the desperate poor, in this recession, looking for a scrap to gnaw, if only the scant flesh of a cow's head.

At first, the country folks assumed it was the work of a particularly bashful and undiscriminating panther. Curious farmers ventured into the woods, with guns. Some of them, seasoned hunters, came tearing back out of the woods, fearing for their lives, and telling stories that in the daytime were too weird to be believable.

They spoke of something they'd never seen before, a large white creature prowling beyond the pastures, at the edge of the dark woods, moving strangely, sometimes flying toward them with astonishing velocity, then disappearing.

Some said it was a strange bear, pale in color, almost white. Some thought it an enormous panther, perhaps a remnant of prehistoric days. Some thought it a gigantic white dog. Others described it as if it were some manner of reptile. But it was always large and white and fast and unlike anything ever seen.

Even Red Mike, the burly Irishman himself, a learned cynic and dependable debunker of the many rumors of anarchists and hoodoos and petrified men that made the rounds at his bar over the last 20 years. Last year, he had exposed the spiritualist who'd been conducting sham seances in the apartment across the way, and still joked about an illusionist's paid-admission show. It involved a hopping femur and a tambourine that seemed to shake itself. "What a sham," he said. "That amateur charlatan, he couldn't have fooled my blind dog."

This latest story was one Mike could not discredit. He shook his head when he spoke of it.

"Not a place I'd care to be, at midnight, the west side," Mike said, as he polished his bar, maybe a little more vigorously than was his standard. "I'll be staying right here. On Market Square, where a charlatan's a charlatan, a pickpocket's a pickpocket, a hoodlum's a hoodlum."

Pleasant, surprised at the famous skeptic's credulity, said nothing. It had indeed been a weird summer all around. A "peculiar haze" lay over the valley, reminding some of the never-explained Dark Days the older folks once talked about.

Knoxville was a modern city, anyone could see that in the vaudeville theaters that sometimes welcomed European opera, the all-night restaurants, the union organizers' rallies, the new French ways of painting and eating and dressing, the electric streetcar system, electric lights rapidly replacing gaslights. You could get anything you wanted in Knoxville, whether it was good for you or not.

But the city had maybe grown too fast. Now five or six times the size it had been during the War, Knoxville had never paused to build parks or architectural monuments or marble statues. War monuments could have caused trouble anyway. Knoxville was run by graying Confederate and Union veterans who had learned to work together, and in conversation to avoid some subjects.

Most of the city's citizens were from somewhere else, anyway: Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ireland, Switzerland, Bavaria. Knoxville was unfamiliar territory to most of its citizens, who were still trying to figure out what passed for normal here.

It was a constant study. People who had just moved here recently thought Knoxville a dramatic place. The bizarre fatal accident on the cable car across the river, sabotage alleged but never proven. In the papers, reported as news, were fantastic stories of witchcraft in the area, and witch doctors who summoned demons in the mysterious mountains to the South. Strange lights from the planet Mars, images like Egyptian hieroglyphics. In the Northern skies at night, a luminescent red cloud that many remarked was exactly the same color as human blood.

***

Pleasant McCampbell had grown up hearing stories of Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga. By the 1890s the Civil War grew more glorious with each retelling. The long, stunned era seemed to be over, the time when most of those who'd been involved in it just wanted to forget about it. By 1894, the war was re-emerging as something finer than it had seemed in the days when men too young to have fought were hired to fill in the trenches, smoothing out the scarred landscape, trying hard to make it look like it had never happened. It was a different era, and now veterans and sons of veterans were erecting heroic statues.

Pleasant was born four years after Appomattox. Like most young men, he lived with fantasies of glory and guns on the wall, loaded and ready. His Winchester '76 lever-action rifle, the one his father gave him, hung above his bed in his second-floor room in a boarding house on Crooked Street. He rarely lifted it down except in pursuit of a rabbit. He did have some natural skill. At the Fourth of July target competition up in Fountain City, he'd won second prize, a good briar pipe. He did not smoke, but he was trying to learn.

He worked behind a counter at the Knoxville Hosiery Mills, in his shirtsleeves and suspenders; such informality was allowed in hot weather. Supervisors were kind about that; as long as you kept your bow tie in place, you could remove your jacket. In a recession, it was good to have any sort of a job. His supervisor hinted that if he played his cards right, he might be the next Stock Manager.

It was not something he daydreamed about, but the thought did not displease him. This age was about success, earning money, building ever bigger and more elaborate houses, and starting a family. Pleasant had no immediate prospects in that regard, but he could always count his blessings. He and his friends had much more than their parents' generation had. It was a different world of electricity, bicycles, and tall, domed buildings, like the Vendome or the Palace Hotel.

Their modern lives lacked nothing but an enemy. An opponent to strive against, like the Apaches out west. There'd been a time when Pleasant had been tempted to join the cavalry. "A true American needs an enemy," he had pronounced, his hand in a fist, perhaps after one too many porters at Red Mike's. "An ennobling enemy. How else can he prove what's he's made of?"

And now, after the rumors of a creature in the woods, came news stories in Captain Rule's Journal and Tribune that made it sound credible.

Because no one had a more precise term for it, reporters called the apparition the "ghost." It appeared just beyond the lights of the city, near "Middlebrook," the home of Thomas S. Webb. Known always in his adoptive city as "Major Webb," he was the mustachioed Confederate cavalryman of Shiloh who told tales of when he was captured, and his men, having recovered his hat and his horse, reported him dead, resulting in a premature memorial stone at his alma mater, Chapel Hill. He was a successful lawyer, but proudest of his 300-acre estate on the west side.

Older folks recalled stories of a treasure buried on the hill east of Major Webb's house, and by some accounts it was the same wooded hill where the ghost materialized most often. It often appeared near the root of a large oak tree, but upon examination in daylight, no beast-sized apertures could be found.

How witnesses described it varied. One man claimed he had seen it up close, and gave it "the body of a large mastiff dog" but with the head of a sea serpent, the large eyes of a horse—and long, disorderly whiskers. Specifically, he said, the creature's whiskers resembled those of populist Kansas Senator William A. Peffer.

It struck others as an enormous white dog, or a white bear, though several also described its movement as snaky, or eel-like. It moved rapidly, horizontally, with no galloping motion, seeming not to touch the ground.

Some said it was silent, but others detected a moan and rumble, like the sound of a heavy-laden wagon rolling over a rocky road. As many as 200 men prowled the forests and fields. Among them were Knoxville's prominent citizens, including Republican Congressman Henry Gibson, the Union veteran, loaded for bear, or whatever else it might be.

They called it a ghost, but as far as anyone knew it was a ghost that could be felled like a bobcat. As a talkative fellow at Red Mike's had remarked, it had never been scientifically proven that you could not shoot and kill a ghost.

The alarum seemed to be reaching a new peak when two men appeared on Union Avenue downtown, declaring, "We've caught it, we've caught it."

Pleasant encountered them when they were talking to reporters. It was, they said with jeering confidence, a young white steer, loose in the woods. They herded it into a pen.

But that night, as if to prove something, the apparition appeared again. Two young men had seen it in a copse of trees. It was nothing like a cow, they said, more like a dragon. They had fired their shotguns at it. It did not flinch, but suddenly turned on them. They ran back to the encampment feeling, they thought, its breath on the backs of their necks.

Some men and teenagers who'd gone out on a lark, loaded for ghost, returned to town in a strangely serious mood.

***

Just after work on Thursday, Pleasant McCampbell lifted his Winchester down, filled his flask with brandy, and placed two of his landlady's biscuits in his leather pouch. On Asylum Avenue, near Market Square, he boarded the streetcar and gave the man an Indian penny. It did seem strange to him to board a streetcar carrying a rifle. He'd never done it before, but the carman said nothing. He attracted a few curious looks from the other riders, but most seemed to know what he was doing. For the only time that night, he smiled. Maybe this is the future of hunting, he thought, in this modern era, to go hunting on an electric streetcar. The car squealed past the familiar sites: the iron foundry, the brewery, the ball park, the thousand lighted windows of Mechanicsville, where he often heard singing.

Much of the city was brightly lit at night. There were still gaslights, but electric lights were becoming more and more common. As the Asylum Avenue streetcar neared the end of its line, rather suddenly, it grew darker. If you saw a light past Mechanicsville, it was a candle or lantern.

By the time the streetcar stopped to shift the seats for its return trip, it was pure dark. He emerged with the car's two last passengers, an older country couple.

The streetcar paused at the end of the line for only a moment before groaning back, as if backwards, toward the glow of town. Its sound was just fading when Pleasant heard the popping, like firecrackers at Christmas or the Fourth of July. One over here, hardly subsiding before you heard another one, over there.

Pleasant walked away from the city, as they said in the saloon, down the rocky road. Above were stars and a crescent moon, like a Mohammedan's saber. Over to his left, he thought he could make out the dark ruins of the paper mill, wrecked a few years ago in a flood. Over the ridge to the right was Third Creek Pike, and the new cemetery, the one they were calling New Gray. Around him he saw mainly stars, clearer than he could see them downtown, but still dimmed in the haze. He hadn't been walking for more than 10 minutes before he saw stars on the ground, that grew rapidly larger as he approached, becoming flames: campfires, half a dozen of them scattered on the dark landscape, several delineating the silhouettes of men. They looked like soldiers. As he got closer still, he heard full-throated laughter, and then scraps of conversation. "That Irishman can swing a bat!" Laughter. "It took four mules to pull him out!" Laughter. "You'll find no women here!" More laughter. Closer, he saw their variety: some wore broad-brimmed hats, like farmers or cattlemen, some wore bowlers, like his own, like that of any clerk on Gay Street. Some held bottles, and passed them, laughing.

Pleasant stood clear, in the outer glow. He probably knew some of the men, but wasn't interested in greetings tonight. He gripped his rifle and looked to the northern skies. Despite the haze, he saw Cygnus, the Swan. Off in the distance—it looked farther than the stars, but surely that was an illusion—he saw a crimson shimmer. He was not sure it was real.

He walked away from the campfires to adjust his eyes to the real dark. The grass was dry and clicked against his boots. Encountering an old rail fence, he clambered over it and hiked farther, hoping finally to get beyond the glow of the campfires and lanterns to better distinguish any elusive pale beast.

Few houses were visible among the dark, rolling hills. These were, after all, mostly cow pastures, with intermittent groves of trees, in places too steep or rocky to plow. There were candles in the window of the Webb House, the melancholy wood-frame antebellum they called Middlebrook. Pleasant had been there once, as a boy, back in the '70s, for some tedious and solemn event. Pleasant had heard that Major Webb's wife was gravely ill. He hoped she wasn't bothered by the gunfire.

He walked and walked over the grass, crossing a dirt road unknown to him, and a few hundreds yards beyond, a wet-weather creek. He was just emerging from it when something sharp seemed to attack him piercing his clothes. He thought at first he'd encountered a hornets' nest, but he made it out in the moonlight: two metal strands, attached to posts. "Damn," he said, his annoyance leavened by curiosity. He had read about barbed wire, but it was his first intimate encounter with the invention that was taming the West more surely than the Colt .45. Holding it gingerly, he pushed it down and stepped over it, careful not to snag again.

He walked across a pasture until he could no longer see the campfires, until he was not altogether certain where he was, or which direction he was walking. He walked up a hill toward a grove of trees, hoping in part just to get a better view of the land. As he approached the blackness of the grove, he squinted.

He took off his glasses and wiped them with a scrap of clean flannel he kept in his vest pocket. He was never quite able to know what to trust. He didn't trust his friends. He didn't trust his own thoughts. Why should he trust his eyes?

He looked away. Then he looked back.

With and without his glasses, the white mass was still there, had seemed to shift, left to right, right to left, in manner that struck him as reptilian, maybe like a giant snake. Then it appeared to be approaching him, in an odd hopping motion.

With a chill in his spine, he shouldered his Remington and peered at it down the gunsight. It was surely very strange. No cow, certainly, no horse, no big dog.

He fired, and he heard a noise he didn't expect.

It made a brief noise, a nasal soprano, a high cry like an angry bird.

Had he hit it? He stood, uncertain of what to do next. It might charge. He approached the darkness where it had been. There was still a white mass there, but it looked different. As he got closer he could hardly see it better. Finding a match in his vest, he scratched it, and cupped the flame, spilling the light toward the ground. At his feet was a calico cat, part of its head gone.

Pleasant felt dizzy. The stars were just as they were, offering no comment, no suggestion.

He vomited, and vomited again.

He thought of the men, back at their campfires, with their whiskey. What would he report? That he killed a cat in the woods?

They were no worse than him, he thought. Maybe better. He knew them. They were the people he sold socks to. They had no pretenses. They cared about baseball and politics and getting telephone service. They cared about those things exactly, precisely, without apology or further need for philosophy.

He spotted two of their fires from here, so far away they looked like lightning bugs.

He looked opposite them, toward the Northern skies, where maybe there was still a crimson hue. Below, deeper in the black grove, something moved with a deft crunch, like that of someone hiding. Perhaps he had disturbed something with his shot. He reloaded. He could almost believe he saw something there, too. He gripped his rifle and ran toward it, first at a trot, then harder. It felt urgent now, this need to justify his vain night out beyond the Ninth Ward.

His lungs hurt. He had not run this fast and this far since the 4th of July picnic footraces.

The ghost was there. He was pretty sure. He shot, and reloaded, and shot again. One time he hit something solid, like a tree. But as his eyes adjusted to the dark, the ghost was not there. But then, maybe it was. He ran through the woods, emerging into an unknown field, until he could no longer see the fires. He kept trudging, holding the rifle his father had given him so long ago, wandered until suddenly he fell forward into water. Third Creek. He had gone fishing here as a boy. It had been years, though, and now it smelled of sewage. Feeling the wind in his hair, he knew he had lost his bowler hat. He thought he could see it sailing down the creek. His rifle was wet.

He followed the bank downstream, no longer looking for apparitions. Ma Murphy's biscuits were wet. He thought of the boarding house, and the clean sheets on his bed. He could only guess what time it was. He made his way down the bank, the only sure way to get back to town. Twice he tripped on roots and rocks. He stumbled more as he ran faster.

When a pale shape sailed past him, he kept his eyes straight ahead. Yes, it was a supernatural beast, as far as he knew. But he thought of the dead cat and his wet rifle, and was mainly just tired of the night, and of the dirty creek, of this creature that had brought him out into it. The thing seemed to circle back, and Pleasant studied it out of the corner of his eye, without looking directly at it. He could see what they meant when they said it had the large, black, unblinking eyes of a horse, but also a twisty sidewinding neck like a reptile. Its whiskers, he decided, had been exaggerated.

It appeared to keep pace with him as he ran along the bank. He could hear it breathing, but pretended not to see it. He ignored it as he had learned to ignore the periodic discomfort in his bowels. He was looking only for the city lights. He expected that at length it would go away, and sure enough it did.

***

Pleasant could see the fires again. This time he was not trying to avoid them. They at least directed him back to the pike. When he was close enough, he heard the conversation.

"Son of a bitch done killed a cow," one man slurred.

"Was it a good cow?"

"Hell," another said, "maybe I killed it."

"Where is it? I'm right hungry."

Pleasant was grateful to see ordinary human beings, but did not join them.

It was too late for the streetcar. He walked back home via Asylum Avenue. When he spotted a policeman at a distance, under a lamp near the brewery, he slipped the Remington barrel up his right sleeve, hoping it would be less noticeable from a distance. He did not care to explain.

***

Pleasant no longer scanned the papers for the day's accounts of the beast, no longer enjoyed the elevation in his pulse that came when he pictured himself as its conqueror. But he was at Red Mike's two afternoons later when he picked up a copy of the Tribune and saw the headline: "The Ghost is Gone." Word was that the farmers of the west had gotten together and, in a rare, perhaps unprecedented gesture of cooperation, agreed to say nothing more about it. Five cattle were deceased, shot to death. Eleven others had been wounded, with shotgun pellets, .30 Remington bullets, even a Confederate Minie ball, but were expected to survive with some disabilities. Cattlemen were demanding restitution.

Asked about it later, they tended to change the subject. It was expeditious, they agreed, to speak of it no more.