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Not all ghosts are dead

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

The old man in the dirty linen duster walked slowly down the dirt road from his dilapidated two-story house on the hill toward the abandoned Presbyterian church. Inside, he made his way up the aisle toward the worn front pew.

As he had done so many times before, he sat with his gaze fixed on the area of replaced wooden flooring in front of the pulpit. Beneath that spot lay his dear mother's grave. Sitting there, he reflected on his soon-to-be-concluded life and wondered how it might have turned out differently if certain things had not happened.

Not all ghosts are dead. In his peculiar way, Davis Hendricks haunted old Hickory Hill, the predecessor of the Cass County community of Avinger. But memories of the past haunted him.

A male version of an old maid school teacher, since leaving the classroom for good he spent most of his time shut up in the old home place, a once impressive house. Now, chickens roosted on the ornate staircase, and goats stunk up the hall. Penetrable only by a network of narrow trails, in every room, stacks of old newspapers, empty bottles, rags, worn out furniture and the assorted accumulations of decades stood man-high.

No one feared him, but seeing him as he made his periodic walks to the empty church to visit his mother's grave made people uncomfortable. Still, children and their parents knew him only as an eccentric local character. But the old-timers knew his story.

His well-regarded parents had been among the area's earliest settlers. They had raised two boys, George C. Hendricks and Davis. A Civil War veteran, George had eventually moved to Hunt County, where he died at 66 in 1900. Now only Davis, never married, survived.

Years before, when his mother died, that part of East Texas had been in the midst of a particularly rainy spring. The ground was saturated, way too wet for the digging of a grave in the cemetery adjacent to the church. In the days before embalming, the only solution anyone could think of was to pull up some of the flooring and bury her under the sanctuary. It may have been considered a temporary measure, but there her remains had stayed.

Whether Davis had fought for the Confederacy has not been determined, but while serving as Hickory Hill's postmaster he got caught up in the turmoil of Reconstruction. Federal troops had occupied Texas shortly after the war, and antipathy continued between both sides. Those strong feelings led to further bloodshed.

Hearing that several Yankee soldiers stationed at Jefferson had mistreated some women in Mount Pleasant, a group of ex-Confederates went on their trail. Finding three of the suspects in the process of burying a comrade at the Hickory Hill Cemetery, the unreconstructed rebels opened fire. One bluecoat dropped dead, the other escaped on horseback and the third, feigning death, toppled into the open grave on top of the soldier about to be buried. Wanting to make sure he was really dead, the Confederates closed in and shot and wounded him. Again, he pretended to be dead and this time the self-appointed avengers fell for the ruse and galloped off.

Four Hickory Hill men had been assisting in the burial but Hendricks was under the mistaken impression they had taken part in the shooting. While the men placed the other dead soldier on top of his friend and closed the grave, Hendricks hurried to Jefferson to report the incident to federal officials. Soldiers rushed to Hickory Hill and arrested the four well-liked locals. Taken back to the Marion County riverboat town and thrown into the wooden stockade the military used for a jail, the innocent men faced a speedy trial and likely hanging.

At that proceeding, at least according to local legend, the wounded soldier -- his conscience overriding his difference to rank and military protocol -- burst into the courtroom and said he had something to say. Allowed to testify, he said that the defendants had actually been in the process of a kind deed, not a felony.

The military court acquitted the four, but the good people of Hickory Hill did not like that Hendricks had taken it upon himself to become an informant for the feds. Branding him a "meddlesome scalawag," they armed themselves with shotguns and set out to pay him a visit. Hearing of their intent, he had tried to hide, but the vigilante's dogs tracked him down. With due respect to his family's standing in the community, the men merely peppered him with birdshot and told him, in essence, to go and sin no more.

Whether Hendricks had acted out of moral conviction, or merely had a tattletale nature is unknowable today. His life had been spared, but his reputation had suffered irreparably. While Hendricks may have been ready to move on with his life, the damage had been done.

Another incident -- it is not clear if it happened before or after the cemetery shooting -- is what kept him a life-long bachelor. He had been sweet on a local girl and asked her to marry him, but her family did not want Hendricks a part of theirs. Still, he pressed his courtship.

Finally, the girl said yes. She suggested a remote nighttime meeting place, and from there they would elope. But it was a set up. When Hendricks showed up in his buggy, his beloved turned out to be one of the girl's brothers wearing one of her dresses. When Hendricks figured that out, the other brothers and various co-conspirators started shouting and shooting. That, as intended, scared Hendricks' horses and they ran off in wild fear until the buggy overturned. Hendricks suffered only cuts and bruises, but he was through with women.

When Hendricks died, the remnants of a once sizable estate were sold for back taxes. By the 1940s, the ante bellum house had collapsed and only the stone chimney remained. The church, too, had long since been razed, the grave of his mother never marked.

As for Hendricks, he lies in the old Hickory Hill Cemetery with his mother, the two dead Yankees and others, finally at peace in death.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" September 15, 2016 column

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