The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Legend of Caleb Hawkins, a Ghost Story

By Hobert Wise © 1996

Issue: Spring, 1996

Hemlock Hill was not a hill at all. In fact it is a valley deep in the West Virginia mountains. It was a little village of a couple dozen houses scattered around one small dry-goods store. There might have been forty or fifty people in the community. It got its name from the little Baptist church at the top of a hill only a few hundred yards from the store. All this is gone now, the way small mountain villages go after the coal runs out. Only the little cemetery that was behind the church remains with its leaning and toppled stones. One other thing remains and that is the reason for this story. That is the legend of Caleb Hawkins.

Now the Civil War had ended and Hemlock Hills' only two veterans had returned to the village. Caleb being one, and Bush Dalton the other. They left together and they returned together. Now Caleb had a peg leg, since his right leg had been splintered by a minnie ball. Bush showed no physical disability, but some said he came back a "little tetched in the head," because he often told of Caleb killing two Yankee soldiers after the war had ended, just to steal their money. No one believed it because Caleb was known as a good Christian church goer, and he read his Bible every day. Nevertheless, the two of them paled around together. Caleb answered those charges with "Oh! he's a liar and crazy besides." The people said they must both be crazy, because they were the only two to give their names to the 1860 census takers. That's why they were called to serve in the army.

On returning home Caleb Hawkins took Miss Bessie for a wife and built a little cabin up behind the store. Miss Bessie said Caleb was the best man in the valley, even with his one leg. She loved him and promised to always do his bidding. Caleb was tough, real tough! He feared neither man or beast. It was said with some authority that he once wrestled a full grown she-bear and came away with only a few scratches. Yet it was well known that he had one great fear, that was the fear of being put in the ground after his death. Miss Bessie promised she would never bury him even if she had to tuck him in her bed "till kingdom come."

Bush Dalton never married. He lived in a one room shack down on the "crick." He just wanted to hunt and fish for the rest of his life. He spent much of his time with Caleb on the nearby mountains hunting deer and small game. He liked to sit on the store porch and play checkers with the men. The men had not seen him for sometime and began to wonder and ask questions of his whereabouts. Since no one had seen him for several days, a group of them headed toward Caleb Hawkins cottage to see if he knew anything about him. Caleb informed them that indeed Bush had come by a few days ago on his way to Demond's Knob squirrel hunting. He had not seen him since. He seemed worried himself about Bush.

The group headed to Demond's Knob with Caleb guiding since he knew about where they might find him. They were afraid he may be sick or injured, so haste was of the utmost importance. It took most of the morning to reach the Knob, and then the search began. Now the underbrush was thick and the search was long and tiresome. They came upon his body before they expected to. Caleb proved to be a very efficient guide. His body was lying face down on the moss. A knife was under his body, and a deep wound in his abdomen. He had probably been dead for several days. Upon close inspection of the knife, they found the name C. Hawkins engraved on the handle. Before anyone could comment on it, Caleb remarked, "That's my knife, I have been hunting for it several days."

Now this information called for more thought. They noticed Bush's rifle leaning against a tree. It was still loaded. They also found a narrow stick about four feet long that had been recently cut. Now the hunters often used just such a stick to twist a squirrel out of a hollow tree. There was a tree nearby with a hole in it that looked as if it was used by squirrels, It had scratches around it as if some rodent had been going inside.

They sat down and discussed the situation at length. Caleb told them, "Bush had come by my house to get me to go with him. We sat by my woodpile whittling and just talking. After I told him I would not be able to go that day, Bush bided me good-by and picked up his rifle and started toward the forest." Caleb told them that he had missed his knife a day or two later, and thought he had lost it.

The men seemed to accept his story, and came to the conclusion that Bush had been using Caleb's knife and put it in his pocket by mistake. He must have had it open after cutting the long stick. He must have fallen on the knife and received the severe wound.

They cut some poles and made a stretcher from Bush's long coat which he wore most of the time. They lifted the body onto the stretcher and headed down the mountain. The going was tough and slow and it was getting dark, so they built a fire and sat around till daylight. They started out again at daylight and came to Bush's hut before noon. The whole family turned out for the funeral the next day, and Bush Dalton was laid to rest in the little church cemetery. His grave can be found there today.

Now about a year later, one fall morning Caleb Hawkins took to his bed with what was called at that time "consumption." Miss Bessie waited on him hand and foot. She promised to always stand by him no matter what! His health continued to deteriorate for some months. He pleaded with her and any friends that called to "Please don't let me die. I can't stand the thoughts of being put in the ground." This went on until Miss Bessie promised faithfully that she would never let him be buried. Now this was a strange promise when one thinks of the consequences of such a promise.

He died one night, and his last words were "Please don't let them bury me, I can't stand the thoughts of being put in the ground." Well all the neighbors gathered at their home as was the custom in those days. Miss Bessie was true to her word. She sent to the county seat twenty miles away for the morticians to come and prepare the body. She had a little room quickly built onto their sitting room (as the living room was called). She placed a bed in it and the morticians did what ever they do to a body to keep it from deteriorating. The body was laid out for the friends to come by and pay their respects. The funeral was held without the body in the little church. The pastor told the congregation that Caleb was now at rest and his last wishes had been carried out to the letter by his faithful and loving wife.

Now not long after Caleb's funeral some of the people began reporting having seen strange shadows and images moving about in the area of the house, the Church and the cemetery. Some thought it was ghosts, and others put it off as imaginations and superstitions. There were those that thought it was the ghost of Bush Dalton, trying to get to Caleb. While others thought it was Caleb's ghost trying to get to Bush. When the neighbors came by to see Miss Bessie they would always take a peek in the room at Caleb's corpse. Now as the weeks and months went by the corpse began to change. As a matter of fact it became quiet offensive, what with the cheeks slowly sinking in and the lips swiveling up and pulling away from the gums and teeth. This of course left a snarling expression on his face. Now the women begged Miss Bessie to bury that "thing." They had long since quit referring to the corpse as Caleb. Miss Bessie kept to her word for sometime, but she began leaning toward being convinced that was the only solution to her problem. It was after that some of the women swore that they had heard a voice coming from the room where Caleb lay. The voice seemed to say "Don't bury my body Bessie." Of course this was a frightening thing and it brought on more visitors. Others said they heard the same voice begging Bessie to never bury the body. Bessie never admitted hearing it and refused to believe it. One man swore that when he peeked in the room a fly had lit on Caleb's nose and the nose had twitched causing the fly to fly off. With all this going on the neighbors made their visits few and far between, and finally quit coming at all.

Now after a few weeks none of the neighbors had heard from Miss Bessie. They also had noticed that her washing had not been hung out for a couple of weeks. Some of the men decided that they should go to see about her, but none of the women would go. Just before coming into the yard they found a fresh mound of clay that they knew was a grave. One of the men remarked "well she buried him after all." They walked up on the porch and knocked at the door. Being unable to get her to come to the door after several knocks, they pushed on the door and it swung open. They called to her as they entered. Everything seemed in order. Going into the little room they found that Caleb's body was gone and the bed neatly made.

Miss Bessie was nowhere about so they went back to the grave. Looking all about. One of the men called the others over to an area somewhat removed from the grave. There he showed them something that was very strange indeed. In a spot where there was no grass was footprints much too large to be that of a woman. Also there was only prints of the left foot. Where the right foot would have made a print, there was a hole about two inches wide. For every left foot print there was a hole to match it. There was no doubt, the prints were made by a pegleg man. They waited around the house for the rest of the day to see if Miss Bessie came back to explain it. She did not arrive at all. It was decided that the men would go home and come back the next day. If Miss Bessie had not come home they would have to open the new grave. maybe that would give them the answers to this mystery.

The next day the men returned followed by several women. They had brought shovels and other digging tools, for they did not expect to find Miss Bessie at home, they opened the grave and found a neat coffin with a bouquet of "laurels" carved neatly in the walnut lid. When they opened the coffin, "gasps" sounded all around. Inside dressed in a beautiful gown was the lovely Miss Bessie.

The men retreated to the shade while the women examined the body for wounds or any apparent cause of death. No wounds or other marks were on the body. It would be impossible for these people to determine the cause of death.

They re-buried Miss Bessie in the open grave, and the reverend preached a funeral for her the next day at the Church just as he had for Caleb.

Now the story must end here and anything further would be pure speculation.