Last Halloween on a dreary and overcast afternoon, I was out at the Hazen Bridge. Falling leaves blew in the wind, landed on the dark surface of the Sangamon and like mini schooners, floated gracefully downriver.
I gazed up at the superstructure of the bridge, and I thought how this time of year rusty old things have a particular appeal: autumn-colored things in the autumn of their lives.
And it occurred to me that this old bridge surely must have a ghost story or two to tell.
But alas, I’d never heard anyone tell of one.
So I leaned against the rails and silently pondered the old rusting structure among the falling leaves…
Just then I heard someone approach, and I looked over. It was a man with a well trimmed beard, wearing a bowler, a topcoat, a red ascot and carrying a cane.
And as he approached, he said, “So that means you haven’t heard the story then?”
“What story?” I asked.
“Why of the three hoboes and the wildcat, of course.”
And then he went on to tell me one of the most harrowing tales I believe I’ve ever heard in these parts.
It seems that back around the turn of the century (the 19th, that is), not long after the Hazen Bridge was built, three hoboes were traveling the area.
It was a cool and overcast late October afternoon, a little like this one, and it looked like rain might settle in. So they took shelter under the long west end of the bridge and built a small fire.
They’d heard tales of a wildcat that roamed these parts. But this was no normal wildcat. This was a saber-toothed wildcat the likes of which hadn’t been seen in this area for 11,000 years.
The kind of cat that could take down a mastodon (also common to these parts then) solo with his razor-sharp claws and teeth.
Said to have been bitten by a vampire and granted immortality, the cat was believed to survive on human blood. However, being a saber-tooth wildcat, biting the neck of its victims also had the unfortunate side effect of severing off their heads. So rather than being granted immortality like their attacker, the cat’s victims ended up quite dead.
Legend had it that the cat was afraid of fire. So as darkness settled in the three hoboes stored up their wood and pledged to keep their fire burning the whole night through.
As night wore on, sleep wore on. So they decided to sleep in shifts, with one staying awake to tend the fire. The first two shifts went well, with the third hobo awakened for his late night shift from a deep and tumultuous dream.
Having awoken with a start, he was too frightened to sleep again and diligently kept the fire burning bright. But as he sat staring into the mesmerizing flames, the heaviness of sleep returned to his eyes.
And before he knew it, his eyes had slid shut.
He was startled awake by the shrill screech of a wildcat and the disturbing realization that the fire was now little more than a small bed of barely glowing embers. Then he heard the unmistakable near-silent footfalls of a cat.
Perhaps if he lay perfectly still, the cat wouldn’t notice him.
Not hardly. The cat extended its mighty claws and slashed the hobo’s jugular leaving him bleeding on the ground, still alive but thoroughly unable to make a sound.
And he watched while the saber-tooth wildcat bit the neck of his still sleeping buddy, severing his head clean off. Then the cat turned to the other hobo and sliced off his head, too.
The cat raised the severed heads, drank the blood as it gushed from them and flung them to smash against the old bridge. Then he finished off the third hobo, with a terrified and wild-eyed look in his eyes, finished his blood and flung his head against the bridge and stalked off, thoroughly satisfied, into the dark night.
“It is said,” the stranger with the bowler hat finished suggestively, “that if you’re out camping in these parts late on Halloween night and let your fire burn down, you can hear the screech of the wildcat and glimpse the faces of the fated three, glowing as if in dim firelight off in the woods.”
A likely story I thought, but the stranger swore it to be true.
I gazed out at the river, fall leaves floating downstream, thinking about the fate of the hoboes and of a prehistoric vampire cat still roaming along the banks of the Sangamon. On this evening, it did seem strangely believable.
I turned to ask the stranger if the bodies were ever found and how anyone actually knew of the hoboes’ story, but when I looked back he was gone, without so much as a goodbye. I hadn’t even heard him leave.
Perhaps he had been nothing more than a dream on an eerie Autumn evening.
I sat there, back against the bridge, disbelieving. But then and there, I decided to come out to the Hazen Bridge that Halloween night and do my own little overnight trip.
So I went home, grabbed a blanket, a canteen and a pack of matches and set back out for the bridge.
It was a cool but pleasant night to be in the woods. And I thought perhaps I’d just enjoy my fire on this fall evening, if nothing else.
But as the night grew on, I started to grow cold. I stoked up the fire and moved in closer. The flames were mesmerizing and my eyelids grew heavy. Yes, they were so mesmerizing …mesmerizing …mesmerizzzz…
I was suddenly awakened by the unmistakable and terrifying screech of a wildcat! And then I looked around and saw three terrified glowing faces in the woods, and they seemed to be hurtling straight toward my little camp under the bridge!
I didn’t wait around to see what happened next. I turned and ran from that bridge as fast as I could, covering the four miles back to my house in record time. I ran into the house, slammed the door behind me, never looking back even once. I believe I set a personal best 5K time that night.
Jumping into bed, I pulled up the covers but didn’t sleep a wink.
At daybreak curiosity got the better of me, so I headed back out to the Hazen Bridge.
And there, smashed up against the bridge were the remains of three Halloween pumpkins.
And as I stood there in the early morning light, laughing to myself at how I’d been fooled by the Halloween prank, I heard it.
Far off in the distance, the unmistakable screech of a wildcat.
Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, Nov. 17, 2013, by Scott Hays