It was known as the Land of the Waxhaws, a region of North and South Carolina ranging from Waxhaw, NC to Lancaster, SC & Buford, SC. There is much history there, dating all the way back to the Revolutionary War and the Buford Massacre. Today, there still stands a grave and historic site, memorializing the location and event where over 100 American soldiers were brutally massacred in a skirmish during the Revolutionary War. The soldiers were buried at this site around Buford, SC in mass graves. Not very far from that location, in Lancaster, SC, is where my mom grew up on a farm. I grew up visiting that old farm place many times as a child. All such places, with such history, contain such stories…some vaguely close to the truth, but most, not so much. Yet, all contain points of learning. Such is the case with this story.
The deep woods and back farmlands of this region held home to many former soldiers, coming off barbarous war, and attempting to carve out a living by farming the land. The living was hard labor, and the times could be very difficult and trying on a family, particularly one whose patriarch was managing the past terrors of war, along with the current stresses of trying to provide for family. Old man Hollis was one such figure. Everyone called him “Lieutenant.”
Due to the stresses of past and present, and their current course of collision, Hollis spent his days working and sweating, while his nights were spent in drunken stupor and raging anger. Unfortunately, he had little interaction or relationship with his wife Bessie and their two daughters. The town folk say Hollis could be heard screaming a mile away in the dark of night. Doors would be locked, windows shut tightly, and prayers for his wife and two daughters would become the norm for the town folk after the sun went down. The tragedy that would fall on one dark, ominous night, would linger forever and become mythical legend.
The story was told that while in a raving and drunken state, the man known as “Lieutenant” tragically beat his wife Bessie to death out in the barn. In a desperate attempt to save their mother, his two little daughters shot their father with a shotgun. To no avail, in the moments that followed, the last breaths slowly drifted out of their mother’s lungs, while the two little girls stood by her side. In absolute fear and trepidation, the two little girls ran out of the barn, through the woods, and were never seen again. It was a tragic and sad scene. The town folk said they could hear feet running through the old dead leaves of the forest, under full moon, in the thick of night. They said their tearful cries rose above the trees for all to hear.
Since that time, on nights where the moon was full, the folks in the region would say that they could still hear the cries of old “Lieutenant” and the quick steps of little girls crunching in the leaves, and crying out loud as they ran. “Best not be caught out in them woods after dark,” would be the suggestion for all unfamiliar to the territory.
How could it be then that I would ever find myself afoot in these woods after the sun had gone down, and under the watchful eye of the full moon. But such was the case. These events were beyond my control. “Best not be caught out in them woods after dark” was ringing through my head as I quickened my pace and as the moon became more intense. I knew my way, I knew the path out, but it seemed ever longer and longer the closer I got. We were supposed to be long-gone by now. Such was not the case.
The wind howled through the cold, dry leaves remaining on the trees of the forest. The full moon cast shadows that looked like unnerving figures lurking in the fields just beyond the forest. There were no summer sounds to grant peace to the heightened state of my soul. There was only the harsh, chilly brush of the deep fall night. Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, it did.
In the direction I was headed, I began to hear the screams and the howls. I had heard the howling of dogs and coyotes before. This was not that. It was almost unearthly. I had never heard anything like it. It was blood curling. High-pitched and filled with terror and pain is the best way I know to describe it. It was incessant. I stopped, my heart began to beat through my chest. I almost wanted to cry, “Lieutenant?” I remained silent. Could I move forward back to the house and the farm? That was supposed to be the safe place, but it was also the place where the screams were coming from. I was paralyzed by fear.
The screams continued, as they shot through my eardrums like bullets. But what made it worse was that now there was an additional voice screaming out, “Come on Bess, come Bessie, Oh now Bess!” Thump, thump, patter, patter, patter…my heart was racing. My breathing became stunted. The terror began to magnify as I began to hear feet running through the leaves and pounding the ground. It sounded almost as if the feet were digging into the ground. The wind blew hard and cold across my face.
The unearthly screams intensified, the feet pounded louder and louder, faster and faster. The moon intensified. “Oh Bess, Bessie, come on now Bessie!” Over and over it came. Competing voices and screams, pounding feet, digging into the ground. I can’t breathe, I can’t move. “Best not be caught out in them woods after dark.” Was this really happening to me? This only happens in the movies…right!? Louder, faster, intensely…screaming, feet running, “Bess, Bessie!” In my frozen paralysis of fear, it felt as though I was knee-deep in concrete, unable to move.
All of a sudden, breaking into the abomination in which I found myself, “BOOM!” A gunshot rang out. Abruptly, the cold night went completely still. In that moment, the silence seemed much louder than the shrills of horror which had driven me to my fearful state of immobilization. Breaking the silence was the faint, yet consistent sound of what sounded like young children crying. I could no longer take it. I began to run. Sticks breaking under my feet, leaves a whirl all around me, and branches breaking as my elbows cleared a path through the dark woods. My running was too heavy to hear anything else that the dreadful night would give me.
Out of breath, I reached the edge of the woods. I saw lights on in the barn up ahead. I made my way toward the barn with all my might. As I did, I could see blood spread about on the hay just on the outskirts of the barn. Dare I enter into the fray of what may lie in front of me. What dreadful scene would I behold? I had no choice. I walked through the door frame.
The first person I saw was my uncle. Several of his sisters surrounded him. Each of their faces were long and saddened. There on the ground in front of them, was one of his beloved cows. She had just given birth to a young calf. But in the process of the birth, the mother was compromised. It was a messy and loud affair. The calf would survive, but the mother would have to be put down. The gun my uncle held was still warm from his agonizing decision. The young calf, being tended to by my aunts, was whimpering, making sounds that sounded as if children were crying.
My uncle was visibly distraught. He tried to save the mother cow. He had named her Bessie. He held her and called her by name as she agonized in labor pain. “Bess! Come on Bess! Oh now Bessie!” he cried, as he tried to coach her through. She was in horrible pain. They say that cows in horrible pain can make unearthly screams that can sometimes be heard a mile away. Just in front of Bessie the cow, there seemed to several small ditches on the dirt floor of the barn. The force of her hoofs pounding on the dusty floor, digging in, while writhing in pain, had created trench-like reminders of the laborious pain she had just experienced. My aunts said it gave off the sound of people running through the woods.
I stepped back out of the barn and breathed in the cool night air. The moon seemed much more peaceful now and the night calm. In the distance I saw the woods. The current state seemed to strip them of their intimidating legend.
Fear has a way of pronouncing its intimidating legend. Fear makes great claims and great boasts. It is the very injection that Satan will use to make you live life less fully. But Jesus said, “I come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” That means that while we may have fear and death written all over our bodies, the truth is that Scripture says that eternity has been written in our hearts (Eccl 3:11). Fear and death are only part of the process that lead us to ultimate victory. We may suffer loss, but we never lose. We begin to find ourselves grateful for the things left in the wake of suffering, because we know they are leading us to something eternal, and much greater.
As a result, fear can also serve as your greatest platform for mobility. It can be the very thing that forces you to move. And before long, you’ll find your running toward the fray. On the other side of every spooky forest is the reality that Jesus wins, and the fear that once paralyzed you was never as bad as it seemed, and can be defeated. Breathe, run, live, break through the forest, conquer the legend that was, look back and see that the faithfulness of the God who brought you through, even when you thought you wouldn’t be able to take another step.