I saw something back in 1990 that has haunted me ever since.
We were a boy scout troop of sixteen boys between the ages of 13 and 17, going on a two-day hike along a trail that ran sixty miles from Richmond to Marion in Indiana. Three adults supervised us the entire way. They gathered us up on the north side of town one Friday after school in late September, checked our supplies and gear, then off we marched.
Most of the journey that evening followed an old, abandoned railroad track through farmers’ fields. We managed to reach a small bit of forested area just before it got dark, and we pitched tents there, gathered wood for a fire and had our meals. After we ate, the grown-ups got out a couple bags of marshmallows to roast and we all sat around the fire where people had a chance to tell ghost stories.
Many of the tales were the classic urban legends like one about a woman who stopped at a gas station and found out she had a serial killer hiding in her back seat, and one about two kids who parked somewhere late at night and only just barely escaped a mental patient with a hook for a hand.
But for his third and final story, the troop leader told us all to get up and follow him. We left the safety of the fire and hiked up the ridge to where the railroad tracks were. He pointed down the line a ways and we all saw something white in the distance. It was a cross set in the ground just to the side of the track.
“See that cross?” he said, “That marks the spot where Jack Hobbs died.”
“Who was Jack Hobbs?” Someone asked.
“This line used to connect Cincinnati to Chicago. But legend has it that back in 1909, an eastbound train from Chicago missed a switch point and ended up running head-on into a westbound train up near Muncie. Twelve people died, dozens were injured.”
“For years after that, farmers all up and down the line started complaining of hearing a train’s whistle blowing in the middle of the night, but there were never any trains supposed to be going through at the times they claimed they heard them.
“Pretty soon,rumor spread that what they were hearing was a ghost train, carrying the souls of those twelve dead people, never getting to their destination… damned forever to ride the rails until the end of time.”
He paused and we all stood silently, listening for the sound of a train. Being a skeptic, I expected one of the other adults to sneak up behind us with something, but there was nothing but crickets and wind.
After about a minute of unnerving silence, he continued. “People started trekking out here from all over the place to try to catch a glimpse of the ghost train. One of those people was a guy by the name of Jack Hobbs. He was some sort of paranormal expert out of New York. He followed the tracks kind of like we’re doing.”
“So as the story goes, Jack Hobbs was following the track, carrying all manner of ghost-catching equipment, when all of a sudden, he saw a light come out of nowhere ahead of him on the track. And he heard a train’s whistle in the air. The ghost train! he thought, I’ve actually seen the ghost train!”
“He stood there in awe as the light grew brighter and the train’s whistle grew louder. Just as he heard the screech of metal as the brakes were hit, he realized too late that he was standing in the path of a very real, very powerful locomotive.”
The troop leader went quiet again, and almost exactly when he did, a loud train whistle screamed directly behind us, causing us all to jump. As I had expected earlier, one of the other grownups had sneaked up behind us to finish the story with a good scare.
After we had settled down, we went back to the campsite and got ready to go to sleep. I was partnered with a kid named Sant who turned out to be a heavy sleeper as well as a loud snorer. I wasn’t used to having to share space with someone else, and the story of the ghost train had left me somewhat unnerved, so I found it hard to fall asleep. Then the adults went to bed, putting out the fire, and everything was pitch black and the air was filled with animal noises and there was no way I was going to get any z’s.
I was lying there in my sleeping bag, listening to Sant snore, looking out toward the slope up to the track, when all the hooting owls and chirping crickets and chittering squirrels suddenly went dead quiet. Sant snorted once, rolled over and stopped snoring. Everything was absolutely silent, and when everything goes silent all of a sudden, my ears try to make up for the lack of sensory input by introducing this never-ending, high-pitched sound. Even putting my hands over my ears couldn’t drown it out because it was inside my head.
When I gave up and uncovered my ears, I heard something else. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first. It was very faint, and was coming from somewhere south down the tracks. Shhh, clop, clop. Something was moving I realized. Something shifting rocks and leaves as it slowly crept along. I tried to make out where it was coming from, but it was too dark to see anything.
An unexplainable cold crept into my sleeping bag, and I started shivering despite several layers of clothing and an added blanket for warmth. I realized that the cold wasn’t really there, it was just my body trying to explain why I was shaking so fiercely. The truth was, I was scared out of my mind and this was what fear felt like.
The moon came out from behind the clouds, and the area up by the train tracks got bathed in its blue light. I stared, straining to make out what was making the sound, but there was nothing visible. Just the slow, methodical sound: shhhh, clop, clop… shhh, clop, clop. I lay there in my bag and prayed someone else would wake up.
A few seconds later, over the ridge I saw something move. It seemed to raise up a couple inches with each repetition of the sound– shhh, clop, clop– and then back down. It was moving along the train tracks, coming down the line toward the camp, shambling slowly. As it approached, the moonlight made it easier to see.
I could distinctly make out someone’s head and shoulders. He was marching slowly, eerily along. I thought he must have been walking alongside the rails on the other side of the slope, but after a minute of his steady gait, he came alongside our camp and I saw with grim horror what it really was.
It was a torso. Just the upper half of a man. God as my witness, it was half a person, pulling itself along on its elbows, dragging itself down the railroad track in the direction of that cross we had been shown. It was barely ten yards away from me, and the light wasn’t that good, but I could make out its ragged, mangled features. Its head was badly mutilated: hair was missing in clumps, the ear that should have been visible on the side facing me was gone, and there was a deformity to its skull that made it look like a cracked egg.
Its arms were bare. The shirt it wore was ragged and torn from what looked like years of dragging itself on its elbows. Every now and then, it hefted itself up onto its hands with a low groan: shhh… –and I could see sickening bits of its insides hanging out the ripped lower half of its abdomen– clop, clop it dropped back down onto its elbows.
This… thing… this unfathomable wreck of a person, didn’t seem to notice our camp, and I lay there shivering in my sleeping bag, praying each second that it would not look my way. Please, God, wake me up. Please, God almighty, make it go away. It had to be a dream, I thought. This can’t exist.
Then I heard it speak.
“Where… are… they…” it was mumbling to itself. “Where… are… they…” It just said that over and over as it dragged on down the track and behind some trees, out of my sight. I wanted to breathe a sigh of relief, but my heart was still racing and the air seemed trapped in my chest.
I wish I could say that that was the end of it. I wish I could say that I passed out, woke up the next morning, and told everybody my story and they all laughed at me and to this day I’ll never know if what I saw was real.
But Sant woke up.
He awoke with a loud snort, rolled over and, not seeing me, fumbled out of his sleeping bag and got up.
“Sant.” I whispered, “Sant!”
But Sant groggily walked past the line of tents and started up the hill to the railroad tracks.
I lay there watching him go, wondering if maybe I had been dreaming after all and only now was waking up. Or maybe had this thing… this ghost only showed itself to me, to mock my fear? To wave my disbelief in my face? See? We do exist.
Sant went past the tracks and down the other side to the point all I could see was his shoulders and head. From there, he looked much like the shambling thing had looked when I first saw it, and again I was stricken with doubt. I could hear him sigh and the sound of piss hitting the ground.
And then what I heard… shhh, clop, clop, clop, clop clopclopclopclop
Before I could even scream, I saw it. The thing, the half a man, moving at a frightening speed on its hands, its destroyed lower half roughly flying across the ground as it moved. It made the distance from the edge of the trees to where Sant stood in a matter of seconds, and just as it got there, it screamed.
Sant never made a noise. It reached him before he could even look, and the piddling of his urination disappeared in the same instant he did. There was a sound I cannot even begin to describe, then another like someone was tearing open a burlap sack of potatoes… finally a wet splash followed by something heavy hitting the ground and tumbling down the hill.
By then, I didn’t need to scream. The moment the thing yelled, several people woke up. Nobody seemed to see where the noise had come from, but they shouted in surprise, and their shouting woke up others, and in less than a minute the whole troop was awake and trying to find their flashlights.
Finally, I unfroze and I started screaming, “Sant! Sant! IT GOT SANT!” and thrashing around in my sleeping bag, trying to get my hands free in order to point.
“Everybody stay here! Get a fire going!” the troop leader yelled. He and one of the other adults ran up the hill to the tracks and started searching around with their flashlights.
Other kids were asking me, “What was it? What got Sant?” and I realized I didn’t know what to tell them. Half a man? A ghost? What the hell was I supposed to tell them I saw?
So I just did what any 13 year old would do. “Jack Hobbs! It was Jack Hobbs! He was cut in half by the train and crawling on his elbows!”
That went over well with everybody, of course.
We heard the other guy that had gone up the rise with the troop leader suddenly shout, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” and there was a mad scramble as everybody tried to run up to the tracks to see what had happened. The troop leader caught us before the top, red faced and bulging eyes, and started yelling.
“Everybody get back! Everybody stay back! Get back to the fire! There might be a bear nearby!”
“A bear?” somebody asked.
“Gather up your gear!” the third grown-up ordered.
The second adult returned, wiping at his forehead and looking paler than I’d ever seen anyone look before. They three of them held a little meeting together away from the rest of us while we all huddled around a newly-made fire and I was bombarded with questions about what I had seen. I tried to describe it, but it seemed so surreal that it was almost like waking from a dream, where bits and pieces of memory fade before you can describe them. I realized that the more I spent trying to describe it, the more insane I sounded.
It was decided that the troop leader and the third grown-up would stay put while we kids were marched to the nearest farm to find a phone and call the police and our parents. Fifteen boys, between the ages of 13 and 17, numb with fear and horror, guided by a single adult through the dark night, along the abandoned railroad tracks until we hit a corn field and marched nervously and cautiously through tall stalks of corn, trying to keep tabs on each other.
The rest of that night was a blur. I barely remember the details of the farmhouse we waited at, the folks who let us come in and use their phone. I don’t remember most of Saturday either. I remember my parents picked me up before the sun was up, and I remember talking to a police officer in a uniform about my version of events… I remember drinking a glass of milk and feeling like my stomach was churning. But the timeline of what happened when is jumbled.
The official conclusion was that Sant had been mauled by a bear, literally torn in half by it. I didn’t get the gritty details, but I’ve never really wanted them. Honestly, I barely knew him, having only first met him at a troop meeting three weeks prior to the hike.
I quickly refused to talk about what I had seen. I told too many kids that night that I ended up going to school with. Before I even had a chance to really make any friends, I had become known as the weird kid who saw the bear that killed Sant and thought it was a ghost. One guy even accused me of being directly responsible for his death. He might have been right.
I know what I saw though. It was no bear.
I don’t like to go camping anymore, for obvious reasons. I’ve tried it, but the few times I’ve managed to handle it long enough to fall asleep, I hear that sound in my dreams: shhh, clop, clop… and I inevitably wake up screaming.