Time for another Short Story in my ongoing series. You can read more tales here. Or learn about additional myth and lore from my travels in Road Tales – Myth, Lore and Curiosities from America’s Back Roads.
Old Mortimer Cemetery, Mortimer, NC
Mortimer, North Carolina was a thriving logging town in the early 1900’s. Over 800 families settled there to work at the Ritter Sawmill but over-harvesting of trees followed by a 20” rainfall in one day created the perfect conditions for a flood that wiped out the community. It was touted as one of the worst in Caldwell County history. The Ritter Company decided not to rebuild and left.
United Mills Company opened a cotton mill in 1922, which briefly resurrected the town’s former prosperity. Soon, the Civilian Conservation Corps opened Camp F-5 at Mortimer during the Great Depression, and by 1933, the hard working crews had repaired and rebuilt most of the damaged buildings from the 1916 flood.
On August 13, 1940, however, Wilson Creek once again emerged from its banks as a result of a coastal hurricane. The creek quickly rose to a flood stage of 94 feet and decimated the town. Oddly, one of the only structures left standing was the CCC building. Two major floods in a 24 year span was enough to drive remaining families from the area.
Today, much of the mountain property in the northwestern part of Caldwell County is public land held by the U.S. Forest Service.
Thorpe’s Creek Falls is a short hike from the Mortimer Campground which sits adjacent to the CCC building and deteriorating hillside cemetery. There are
allegedly 20 unmarked graves, and many more rounded stone markers with no inscription. Many grave sites date back to the 1800’s.
The memorial stone at the top of Thorpe’s Falls remains a mystery. No one is certain of who put it there or why. Upon personal inspection, it appeared more modern, perhaps from a poured concrete mold. A camper who frequents the area mentioned the purple Iris and violets growing across the creek from the marker. It’s the only place within miles where these flowers can be found growing wild.
by Debra S. Sanders
It was a brisk afternoon in late March – when the air was still cold enough to form vapor clouds with each breath. Lucy Bennet buried her chin beneath the knitted scarf circling her neck and hopped across strategically placed stones in the middle of Thorpe’s Creek. After landing on the opposite side of the sloping bank, she paused to soak up the scene. It reminded her of an English countryside – not that she’d ever visited such a place – but the photos she from tourism books at Morganton library looked just like this.
Lucy liked to read about far-off, exotic locations. They fueled daydreams of an adventurous life filled with travel and friends of a more “elevated” societal standing. Sometimes, she imagined herself a personal assistant to a famous movie star. Or a wealthy tycoon’s secretary. On rare occasions, when she dared to dream big, Lucy closed her eyes and pretended to be the wife of an international diplomat.
On this particular day, however, Lucy was immersed in a different sort of daydream. Something more suited to her lot in life. She and fiancé, James Marmott, planned to elope.
James was a good man, older than her twenty-two years, and a skilled mechanic. He earned a decent wage at the garage in Colletsville, and marriage would allow her to relocate from the small, rural community where she’d lived all her life.
At one time Mortimer, North Carolina was a bustling logging town but over-harvesting of the trees, devastating forest fires and two particularly nasty floods all but destroyed the area. The town’s residents were too discouraged to start over so they fled down the mountain in search a better life. Mortimer became a ghost town almost overnight.
After a few years, people began to venture back along the eight miles of dusty, dirt road but only to frequent a small National Forest campground or frolic and fish in Wilson Creek. Seasonal visitors. It was too isolated for most folk which left only a handful of hardy souls who managed to carve out a life on the mountain and call themselves locals.
The remote area offered few options for a young woman of marrying age so Lucy considered herself darned lucky when James came courting. They dated off and on for over a year. Her pappy wasn’t too keen on the young man at first and Lucy knew why. Pappy didn’t want to lose his cook and housekeeper. After her mother died when Lucy was twelve, she took over caring for her father and two younger brothers.
Lucy didn’t mind so much at first. She liked feeling all “growed up”. But when she told Pappy about her plans to attend the community college in Morganton, he was quick to remind her that her first duty was to God and second to family. Even though she was crushed, Lucy dutifully obeyed and stayed at home, working summers at the small market near Wilson Creek Visitor Center to help pay for her younger brother’s school supplies and clothes.
That was four years ago. The boys were now in high school with part time jobs of their own. Jeb would graduate this year and Bruce the year after – which gave Lucy a sense of purpose. It was time to shed the familial shackles. Time to live her own life . . . past time.
She followed Thorpe’s Creek through Mortimer Campground to where a trail cut through the dense foliage. The camp sites were still closed for the winter so she didn’t have to share the path with summer visitors. It was a popular hike for campers and tourists in the spring and early summer. Rhododendron lined the well-worn trail leading to Thorpe’s Falls where the water spilled in gentle layers over a solid rock face. A shallow pool gathered at the base, offering cool respite from the heat of the day before tumbling over scattered stones and mossy slopes as it frolicked through the campground.
By the time Lucy reached the falls, her heart pounded with excitement. She picked her way over the wet, slippery stones and took a narrow path to the left of the falling water. Once she reached the top of the hill, she turned right, scampering over a fallen log and following the trail to the creek. James was already there, a big smile on his face.
“Hi, honey! C’mon over here.”
He held out a hand, helping her down a short drop. Lucy immediately fell into his embrace, warmed by circle of his arms. “I can’t believe we’re getting married tonight. I’m so happy.”
His arms tightened as James kissed the top of her head. “Me, too, but there’s been a slight change in plans.”
“What?” Lucy pulled back just enough so she could tip her head and meet his gaze.
“I have to work for George tonight. I promised to cover his shift a few weeks ago and plumb forgot until he mentioned it today.” When James saw the disappointment on Lucy’s face, he rushed to add, “It’s just one day. We’ll drive to Charlotte tomorrow and get married. I promise. Besides, the extra money I earn tonight means we can rent a motel room for the weekend. Won’t that be fun?”
She nodded, trying not to cry.
James pulled her down beside him on a moss covered log and slipped an arm around her shoulders. “I love you, Lucy. Nothing will ever change that.”
“I love you, too.” It was true. She did love James but the fact he promised to take her away from Mortimer added a sort of desperation to her feelings. She glanced forlornly at the tiny clearing next to the creek, then back at James, trying not to let her emotions get away from her. “It’s so pretty here. It just needs a little English Ivy and violets.”
“There you go again,” James grinned, “daydreaming about England. I’ll take you there someday. I surely will.”
She nestled her head against his shoulder. “That would be wonderful.”
“There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you, darlin’. I wouldn’t want to go on livin’ if anything happened to you.”
“Aw, you’re just saying that.”
His hands cupped her face as his gaze pinned her with an earnest expression. “I mean it, Lucy. You’re my whole world. I will never love another woman the way I love you.”
Lucy sighed and submitted to his passionate kiss. James would take care of her. Love and cherish her. Her dreams would finally come true.
A half-hour later, Lucy bid James farewell. He offered to walk her to the road but she told him to go ahead. She wanted to sit and enjoy the quiet serenity of the falls for a little longer.
After he left, Lucy meandered to a narrow, leaf strewn ledge overlooking the waterfall. She’d waited eight years to escape what felt like indentured servitude to her family. I suppose one more day won’t kill me. She inhaled deeply of the crisp mountain air and straightened her shoulders, slipping back into her role of homemaker. If she left now, there’d be enough time to bake a pan of cornbread for supper. Pappy always liked hot cornbread with his ham and beans.
Lucy strode purposefully down the trail and across the deserted camp sites. She’d just reached the white Forest Service building when a faint glow emanated from the wooded hill behind it. That’s odd, she frowned. Are the woods on fire?
The only thing up there was an old cemetery. Everyone said it was haunted. Last year, a group of paranormal investigators filmed an episode for a television show about the alleged spirits from unmarked graves that frequented the rundown, forgotten burial ground. It had created quite a stir in the small community.
Lucy’s eyes brightened. Perhaps they were back. The glow was probably from the lights used by the camera crew. They could be filming right now!
She darted up the overgrown road running parallel to the wooden building. Maybe they’ll hire me as an extra. Thoughts of a budding acting career quickened her pace. By the time Lucy reached the top of the rutted dirt lane and darted into the clearing of trees, she was out of breath.
She stood at the entrance to the decaying cemetery, gasping for air as she surveyed the rusted, broken fence around two older graves. One gate was missing. The other barely attached by a single hinge. Her gaze swept to the left, focusing on a scattering of broken granite stones. Some still retained the familiar rectangular shape of a headstone while others were not much more than a medium sized river rock. Inscriptions had long since disappeared beneath the ravages of wind and rain.
Lucy frowned. There were no camera crews so what had created the strange light?
Glancing around, a bewildered expression crinkling her brow, Lucy picked her way between the unkempt headstones. A mist formed along the tree line at the back of the clearing, next to the oldest section of the cemetery. Lucy eased closer to a row of broken, falling down markers, surprised to find an old woman kneeling next to one, head bowed.
Grey hair peeked from beneath a black veil covering her face and shoulders. It matched the long dress covering most of her legs and booted feet.
“Ma’am? Are you alright?” Lucy hated to disturb the grieving woman but thought it odd someone her age would be in the cemetery alone.
The bent figure stiffened. After a few seconds, her head nodded but she kept her gaze downward. “I’m fine, dear. Just saying goodbye to an old friend.”
Lucy took a step closer, a twinge of compassion shooting through her. It must be awful to reach an age where you’ve outlived acquaintances and family. “I know how hard it is to lose someone. My mama died eight years ago. She’s not here, though. Pappy buried over by Edgemont.”
This time the elderly woman looked up. Lucy was surprised by the twinkle in the bright blue eyes as she smiled and struggled to her feet. “Are you from Mortimer?”
“Yes, ma’am. Lived here all my life. Pappy owns a farm just down from Betsey’s Ole Country Store. My name is Lucy Bennet.”
“Bennet? I don’t recall any Bennets in Mortimer. You must be new to the area.”
“Goodness, no. Grandpappy bought land by the old railroad trestle back when he worked at Ritter Sawmill. Of course, that was before the flood. My family has lived on that same plot for almost a hundred years.”
“Hmmm, that makes you third generation.” A strange expression came over her wrinkled features. “Are you planning on staying here? Raising your family in Mortimer?”
Lucy shook her head. “No way. I got two younger brothers. I’m sure one of them will keep the farm going. They ain’t got as much ambition as me. I’m moving to Colletsville as soon as I get married tomorrow,” she boasted proudly.
“That’s a shame. Mortimer keeps losing its residents. Soon there won’t be anybody left.”
“No offense, ma’am, but there ain’t many left now.”
“I know – that’s why we have to keep people here. My daddy was one of the founding families. He was probably the one who hired your grandfather at the lumber mill.”
Lucy’s mouth curved upward. “That was a long time ago.” She glanced up at the sky, surprised to see the translucent glow growing brighter. It was larger now, too, forming a dome over the cemetery. “I do declare, that is the oddest sight I’ve ever seen.”
“The sky. It’s strange. Kinda like the Northern Lights.”
The woman turned her wrinkled face upward. For the first time, Lucy noticed the grey pallor to her skin. The flesh crinkled like dry newspaper. A large, gaping wound covered one side of her cheek, and next to the blackened edge, Lucy thought she saw something move under the skin.
A shiver ran down her back. “It’s . . . gettin’ late. I gotta go.” Apprehension tightened around her chest, making it hard to breathe as she swiveled on her heel and prepared to run.
Bony fingers clamped around her arm with a strength that belied the feeble woman’s age. “Not so fast, my dear. We still have things to discuss.”
Lucy’s eyes riveted to the skeletal hand, shocked to find thick, deformed nails biting into her flesh – so deeply, a tiny rivulet of blood trailed past her wrist. “Let . . . let me go.”
The woman ignored her plea. She pulled Lucy to a small mound next to the decaying fence. “Do you know what this is?” she said, pointing with her other hand to the barren earth.
“N. . . no.”
“It’s an unmarked grave.” She met Lucy’s gaze with an icy stare. The prominent twinkle from earlier was gone, replaced by an unmistakable glitter of malice. “There’s more over there.” Her head bobbed to the right. “Forgotten souls, some too poor for a proper burial. No one cared about anything other than that damned old sawmill. Not even my daddy. He was too cheap to pitch in for a headstone so he just dumped me here, like insignificant trash.”
“I’m real sorry, ma’am. I’m sure that wouldn’t happen today.” Lucy struggled to free herself from the vice-like grip.
“You think not?” The wind picked up, howling through the tall pines surrounding the cemetery , and evoking a dust devil next to the old woman’s feet as leaves and dirt rose in a plume. “Ever wonder why the CCC building and this hillside were the only things to survive the flood? We weren’t about to let those bastards get away so easy. The 800 . . . that’s what we call ‘em . . . the original families who formed this town . . . cast us aside. Every once in a while, one comes back – and we keep them here. Make ‘em pay for what they did.”
Lucy gave a final tug and freed herself from the bony grasp. “You’re crazy. I’m getting out of here.”
She could barely hear her own words above the roar of the wind. Except now, it seemed to be blowing against her with gale force strength. Each step met a growing resistance until finally she could not move at all. And then she heard them. Voices. They were all around her. Inside her. Evil, vicious words ripping through her head.
One glance over her shoulder confirmed Lucy’s worst fear. The old woman laughed. A mad, horrible sound that spewed past yellowed teeth and a gaping mouth. Tendrils of dust wrapped around Lucy’s ankles, tugging at her until she was prone on the ground. Her fingers clawed in the dirt as an unseen force dragged her backward.
It was impossible to stand as rocks and brush dug into her soft flesh. Horror filled her insides as Lucy’s unwilling body moved closer to the old woman’s outstretched arms. Blue eyes glowed like burning embers . . . emitting tiny sparks that embedded into Lucy’s skin, scorching the delicate surface. She screamed in agony. Screamed in fear. And continued screaming long past the point she could hear anything but the gush of her own blood.
James Marmott sniffed as he placed a bouquet of violets and dark green ivy at the base of the marker. It read:
No farewell words were spoken.
No time to say goodbye.
You were gone before we knew it.
And only God knows why.
He’d left the small engraved stone at the top of Thorpe’s Falls almost two years ago, planting wild Iris bulbs, violets and English Ivy along the banks of the meandering creek. The ivy didn’t survive the winter but the flowers did and sprang to life each spring, a reminder of the love he’d shared with Lucy Bennet. He liked to think her spirit still lingered at their final meeting place, which was why he attempted to create an English garden for her to gaze upon.
“I miss you, Lucy, darlin’. I surely do.” James wiped a tear at the corner of his eye. “I don’t know where you went but I reckon you wouldn’t have left me of your own free will.” He sat down next to the marker and wrapped long arms around his knees, staring at the carpet of purple blooms across the stream. “I tried to make this pretty for you – like that English countryside you always talked about. I hope you like it.”
James sat there for a long time, recalling how he and Lucy planned their future at this very spot. Guilt riddled his thoughts. He’d never been able to shed the “what-ifs” – what if he’d not agreed to work for George that night? What if Lucy had accompanied him to the shop, and waited in his car until his shift ended. What if they’d driven to Charlotte that night and got married the next morning? What if he’d just said, “. . . to Hell with responsibility . . .” and claimed her as his own – six months before he felt financially stable enough to propose?
The last haunting option spurred him to ask Sadie Ritter to be his wife after only a few months of courtship. She was much younger, only eighteen on her recent birthday in February, but they’d “clicked” immediately. A fiery, passionate click that rivaled the feelings he shared with Lucy. The petite redhead was nothing like his first love. She hailed from Mortimer’s W. M. Ritter family who built the sawmill. It was her ancestors who created the once bustling community.
Sadie embraced her heritage with pride. No escaping to Colletsville for this one. She insisted they settle in Mortimer and work toward restoring the area to its former glory.
“I wish you were here, Lucy, but you’re not. I’m lonely . . . and Sadie, well, she’s a heckuva woman. I think you’d like her.” He paused a moment before rising to his feet. “I still love you, darlin’. Reckon I always will but life goes on. I need a son to carry on my name.” James cleared his throat. “I hope you understand. I surely do.”
The chill of an early April wind chased James down the path as he made a hasty retreat, slipping past the falls and half running, half walking to the trailhead. It was not until he emerged into the deserted campground that his uneasiness subsided.
It was just the aftermath of saying goodbye, he told himself as narrowed eyes searched the horizon. A storm brewed over the mountains, one that would bring a good amount of rainfall before morning. He quickened his pace. As he reached the entrance to the campground, James noticed an odd glow over the hill behind the Forest Service building.
That’s strange. I wonder if someone left a campfire unattended.
He walked along the road, then, for some inexplicable reason, turned back toward the overgrown trail that led into the trees and to the old cemetery.
James didn’t know what made him approach the road or why his pace quickened as he approached the small, forested hillside. All he knew was that he had to go. When he finally breached the clearing that opened into the rundown graveyard, he understood.
Standing there, in a faint mist, was his beloved Lucy, motioning him to join her at the back of the cemetery. At first, he couldn’t believe his eyes. His pulse raced. He began walking, then running to greet her. It was as if no time had passed. She looked exactly as she had the last time he saw her.
“Lucy! Is that really you . . .?” James paused to catch his breath, still blinking at her smiling face. “I don’t understand.”
“I know, my love. It’s crazy, isn’t it?” Her face beamed with an inner glow that rivaled the strange light above their heads. “I’ve waited so long for you to find me.”
Forgotten love, spurred by memories of passionate nights, drew him closer until at last his arms wrapped around her trembling body. “Lucy . . . darlin’ . . . I can’t believe you’re here. I’ve missed you so much.”
“I’ve missed you, too, James.”
“Where have you been?” He pulled back, a line forming between his brows. “I . . . thought you were . . . why did you leave me?”
“I didn’t want to go away. It was necessary.”
“Why?” Each time he dismissed a question, two more formed in his head.
“I needed to learn why it was wrong for me to move to Colletsville. My place is in Mortimer. You’ll stay with me, won’t you, James?”
He bit his lip as his arms fell away. “It’s been a long time since you and I . . . since we planned to get married.”
“I know. The flowers are lovely. Thank you for planting them.”
“You . . . you saw them?”
“Of course. I know everything you do.”
He scratched the back of his head. “So, I reckon you know about Sadie Ritter?”
“Yes. I admit I was disappointed when you proposed to her. After all, you did say you would love me forever.”
“I do love you. I always will . . . but I didn’t think you were coming back. I . . .”
“It’s alright, James. I understand. Truly, I do.”
His eyes sought Lucy’s face, softened by her forgiveness. “You’re one of a kind, darlin’.” He kissed her cheek, surprised by the coolness of her skin. “Shall I give you a ride to your Pappy’s house?”
“That’s not necessary. I live here now.”
“Where?” James glanced around, anxiety settling in his belly like a lead weight. As his gaze circled to Lucy, he tried to hide his uneasiness. “Well, then, I best be headin’ home. It was real good seeing you.”
“Wait.” Lucy took his hand, pulling him closer. “I want to show you something. See this mound?” She pointed at a bare spot on the ground. “It’s an unmarked grave.”
“O . . . okay . . .”
James licked his dry lips. There was something not right about Lucy. Her skin looked grey. Her eyes . . . He attempted to pry her fingers from his hand but her grip was too strong. “Let me go!”
“I can’t do that.” The words seemed to swirl around him as the wind picked up, howling through the pine trees. “You and I were meant to be together. It’s destiny.”
“Noooo. . .” James planted his feet in the hard soil but it was no use. His body slid forward, toward the gaping hole opening up in the ground.
“Don’t feel bad. We’re just the means to an end. It’s not us they want – it’s Sadie Ritter. And you’re going to bring her here. We’ll get them all eventually . . . one by one.”
James opened his mouth to scream but nothing came out. It was as if the old woman standing behind Lucy had snatched the sound right from his throat. And then he heard them . . . the voices. . .
They say there are twenty unmarked graves in the Old Mortimer Cemetery. But the number of bodies occupying those graves is anybody’s guess.