MURFREESBORO — As a little girl, Rebecca Dickerson tried and failed to heed this warning from her mother: Stay out of Wises Graveyard.
It lay hidden in thick woods, out past a stream she wasnt allowed to cross, surrounded by an iron fence with witchs hats on all four corners powerful temptation to any thrill-seeking 10-year-old.
But one peculiarity made a mothers words impossible to obey: the grave of William Wise, 19th-century oddball and aspiring devil-slayer.
When he died in 1860, the old storekeeper had himself buried with his horse, his dog and his sword. Every child in Murfreesboro knew why.
If he went to Hades, said Dickerson, he was going to find Satan, chase him down and kill him.
At age 83, Dickerson offered to lead me through this strange burial patch for installment three of my October ghoul series a follow-up to last weeks encounter with the Beaufort girl entombed in a rum barrel.
After a century and a half, no one knows whether old man Wise managed to skewer Lucifer on the end of his sword. If he had, youd expect his ghost to burst back through the Hertford County earth waving the devils horny head, a swatch of Old Scratchs trousers in his hound dogs teeth.
Instead, only about a half-dozen people in town remember this duel in the afterlife. A leafy subdivision has replaced the woods of Dickersons youth, the witch-hat fence is torn down, and Wises grave is sandwiched between a pair of brick houses. To walk it is to cover oneself in hitchhiker weeds.
No wonder my mother didnt want me coming out here, Dickerson said, brushing off her ankles.
A swordsmans epitaph
From a distance, the demon-fighters grave looks like an old pile of bricks, waiting to be useful. You wouldnt bother with William Wise unless your basketball rolled into the weeds, tossed wide of the backboard in somebodys driveway.
But once you stand over the slab, the ranch houses and minivans disappear. You can almost hear Old Man Wise, screeching the epitaph chiseled on his stone, wild-eyed and white-bearded, sword raised in fury:
Hark, heard you not footsteps dread, that shook the Earth with thundering tread? It was Death; eternity!
Wises grave is quite possibly the only tombstone in North Carolina with a semicolon, not to mention an approximated death date: 1860 or thereabout.
Its also one of a few stones thats cracked in half and patched together with a pair of rusty bolts the scars left over from an attempted grave robbery. Somebody wanted Wises terrible swift sword.
His horse and hound
Only six graves poke out of the ground Dickerson walked as a misbehaving child, and none of them belong to a horse. Theres not even any telling if Old Man Wises hell-steed died at the same time, of natural causes.
Probably not, Dickerson said. They probably just knocked him on the head.
We circled the grounds, visiting Wises son, a Confederate major who reportedly raised 17 children of his own. You would see them rolling into town together, clinging to the outside of the family car.
But theres nothing about modern Murfreesboro, even its colonial house scarred by cannonballs, that would send anyone into eternity hell-bent on the devils demise. Theres no thundering tread in 2012, no footsteps dread.
We left Wise to his hunt, hoofbeats pounding under him, dog galloping at his side, sword jabbing at the devils tail on a ride through the fiery dungeons.
Our mothers would approve.
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