George pulled the black bowler from his head and wiped his forehead with his handkerchief, already damp from use. He pulled his watch, the one fine thing he still owned, from his pocket, realizing that dinnertime had long since passed. He looked at Elder Ingersol, a heavy-set man who was struggling even more than he was in the Georgia heat.
“Elder, I think we’d better find a place to stay for the night,” George said.
Ingersol only nodded, too exhausted to form a response. It was 1927, and George Brinkerhoff was far from his home in Huntington, Utah, though Ingersol was even farther from his home in Sacramento, California. Sometimes he wondered why the missionaries were supposed to take the Savior’s words in the Bible literally, traveling without “purse or scrip.” It took quite a bit to fill Ingersol up, and George would have liked to know where he’d be staying each night.
But George couldn’t have picked a better place to stay for the night than the tall, white plantation house looming ahead. He nudged Ingersol, who was focused solely on putting one foot in front of the other, and walked a bit faster. He could almost taste the moist, yellow cornbread and tender meat of the fried chicken they might have for dinner.
George was not disappointed. “Hey, Hal, it’s them Mormon missionaries again!” hollered a bony woman with red hair as she ushered them onto the porch.
A tall man slowly made his way through the wide front door, rubbing the five o’clock shadow along his jaw. He took one look at George, holding his hat in his hands, and Ingersol’s sweat-soaked shirt and face and grinned.
“Walcome tuh Georgia, boys,” Hal Potter quipped.
An hour later, George and Ingersol were stuffed full of chicken and freshly-baked blueberry pie and ready to retire.
“I have the finest room prepared,” the redheaded woman, Bonnie, said. She led the two upstairs to a clean room with double beds. Old black and white photos of the Potters’ Civil War ancestors covered the walls, and she chattered about uncle this and uncle that as she turned the covers up and plumped the pillows a bit. George was too tired to pay much attention to the conversation, but he couldn’t shake an uneasy feeling settling in his stomach. He glanced at Ingersol, but Ingersol had already removed his shoes and necktie. He clearly had no qualms about the arrangement.
Finally, Bonnie decided the room was satisfactory and left the two alone, promising a hearty breakfast at seven the next morning. George said his prayers and climbed gratefully under the covers. Ingersol was already snoring loudly. He tried to ignore the sick feeling in his stomach, attributing it to the three pieces of blueberry pie Bonnie had heaped on his plate. Sleep came quickly and easily.
Suddenly, George was in the middle of a battle, and apparently he had traveled back in time as well, because it was hardly 1927 Georgia. He seemed rooted to his bed as two Civil War soldiers, a Confederate and a Union, pulled out their swords. So close he could feel the thick air sliced by their weapons, George gripped the covers, still unable to move or to speak.
As he watched with horror, the Confederate soldier quickly beheaded the Union soldier, the head bouncing across the floor next to George’s bed and down a flight of stairs. Thud, thud, thud – each sound jarred George’s ears as the head finally rested at the bottom of the staircase.
He woke abruptly, shivering despite the sticky heat of the room. Frantically, he looked around the room and stuck his foot on the floor, feeling for the blood that had pooled near his bed in the nightmare. Relieved, he lay back down and tried to get back to sleep.
The next morning, George tried to put the nightmare aside as he and Ingersol talked with Hal and Bonnie and determined where to continue their proselyting. Though the Potters did not belong to the Church, they had often provided missionaries with food and shelter, and insisted that Elders Brinkerhoff and Ingersol stay with them for the remainder of the week.
At the Potters’ urging, George and Ingersol met with many Georgians in the neighborhood that week. Though most of them claimed they already had religion (We go to the Baptist church ‘most every Sunday, yes sir), each one had a story to tell about their Civil War ancestors, and pictures like the ones framing Bonnie’s walls. The Great War had taken place only 60 years previously, and many of these people had grown up listening to their parents and grandparents talk about the battles and life before war had divided the South forever.
Although George had always liked learning about Civil War history and was fascinated by their stories, they made his nightmare seem more vivid than ever.
And every night when they returned to the Potters’ home for dinner and a place to rest, George woke up sweating from the same horrible nightmare. It was becoming more real by the moment.
Finally, the week ended, and George and Ingersol were making their final goodbyes to the generous Potter family. Despite their protests that they didn’t need another book to gather dust around the house, George had left them with a Book of Mormon and challenged them to read it. Though he and Ingersol wanted to get on their way before the heat made tracting nearly impossible, George couldn’t shake the nightmare that had haunted him for six days. He cleared his throat.
“Bonnie, I have to ask. Have any of your other houseguests had bad dreams while staying in that room?”
Bonnie looked up from the bacon she was frying, but her eyes didn’t quite meet George’s. “I don’t know what you’re talkin’ ‘bout,” she muttered, turning back to the stove.
But Hal’s hand, sticky with honey from the biscuit he was eating, covered his mouth. “What did you dream about?” he finally whispered, focusing on licking each drop from his fingers.
George plunged into the dream, describing the tattered appearance of the soldiers, the hatred he could see in their eyes, the varnished sword that eventually killed the Union soldier. He told them about the sickening sound the head made as it bounced down the polished staircase and landed at the bottom, and the pool of blood just inches from the bed where he was sleeping.
When he finished, Ingersol (the only one who had continued to devour his breakfast) was gaping at him, crumbs and honey forming a ring around his mouth. In contrast, Bonnie’s mouth had pressed into a firm line.
“My grandparents built this house and owned it during the Civil War,” she finally said. “During the War, they housed a few Confederate soldiers for a time, but the Union soldiers came in the middle of the night and attacked the house. I can still remember my grandmother’s eyes as she told us kids about opening the door and finding a human head, covered in blood, then a corpse in the bedroom she had tried to keep so fine for the Confederates.” Bonnie was sitting at the table now, her hand clutching Hal’s tightly.
“The stairs were always stained with blood after that,” Bonnie continued, “so when I inherited the house thirty years ago, we completely remodeled it and took out that staircase. Each time I walked down those stairs, I could almost see the soldier’s head resting at the bottom.” She grasped George’s fingers with her free hand. “I think there’s someone who wants revenge,” she whispered, her nails clawing into his palm.
And as they sat around the kitchen table in tense silence, George could almost hear the shouts, the cannons, and, most of all, the dull thud, thud, thud, as the head of the Union soldier rolled down the staircase that no longer stood and came to a stop at the foot of the kitchen door.