Credit: Thinkstock/Olga Olejnikova
Quite purposely, it seemed to the doctor, the stranger stood in the late night shadows outside, his hat pulled low, his face obscured. In a hollow voice, he said that the emergency was south, below the new homes down Flores and Presa Streets.
That he was about to embark on a house call that he would never forget, and to venture into a yet-unexplained mystery, did not occur to the young San Antonio physician. His was the new century of the 1900s, a promising practice in this growing little city of fifty thousand souls, and a pretty young wife—altogether a good life.
And a fine night, this one—soft with a lowering moon and the green scent of spring. Certainly it was late, but let his wife join him—he’d hitch the buggy.
He turned to reassure the stranger who had come knocking at their door, but the man had retreated into the dark at the hitching post and was already saddled. Silent, he waited there, then led away down South Presa, where only a few lamplit windows still watched the night.
“What’s wrong with him?” The doctor’s wife seemed uneasy. “He’s so withdrawn.”
“His friend’s hurt; he’s worried. You could tell it in his voice. With night calls, they’re always worried.”
“But the way he was dressed? So. . . well, old fashioned.”
The physician flicked his reins to keep up; the horseman was indistinct in the night ahead of them. “I didn’t notice; he stayed in the shadows.”
They had come farther than the doctor had expected. The fine two-story houses had thinned to scattered frame bungalows; then the cobbled paving stopped, and off to the east, the dark line of river timber crept closer. Now the shadowy rider took a narrow side road leading into those trees.
It was dark beneath—clouds had scudded across the moon. They scarcely saw the man dismount, for suddenly the house loomed. Deep in the trees it stood—some square columns, a broad front gallery, some gabled windows—all of it vaguely brooding.
As though part of their surrounding shadows, the man stood motionless within a near grove of oaks; without speaking, he pointed toward one dimly-lighted window. The physician, with deliberate effort, put down an uneasiness that was growing; he spoke quietly to his wife. She should stay in the buggy.
He mounted the steps to the porch and found the front door ajar. The lighted room was just off the entrance hall, so dark he could distinguish nothing within it. Bag in hand, he entered the dim room.
He was not prepared for what awaited him. Blood, in gouts and spatters, seemed everywhere; a chair, its leg broken off, sagged in the corner. To the doorway where he stood, a bloody trail led from a bed across the room; a table beside it had been overturned.
On the bed, a young woman lay still, watching him. Under her right kneecap was a smear of blood. She was naked.
Even with the woman before him and his thoughts racing, the mind of a physician prevailed—someone had just died here. Death was violent—the feel of it seeping in from the dark hall all about. . . a violence yet impending.
The women was wounded; he must treat her. She was naked; someone should be with him—his wife? He turned toward the window, and a voice challenged him from the darkness beyond: “Leave her out here!”
He opened his bag and bent over the woman on the bed.
The wound was slight; he treated and bandaged it, working rapidly. Silent, the woman’s eyes remained on him. He felt them, though he could not even hear her breathe.
“It’s not too bad,” he said without looking up; a bullet had grazed her. Feeling the hair crawl along his neck, he hurried to finish, from the corner of his eye, he had glimpsed a face at the window—momentarily there, then gone.
As he later remembered, he told the woman to come to his office in the morning; he would re-dress the wound. Without speaking, she had nodded. It was only when he turned at the door that he realized how extraordinarily pretty she was. Then the deadliness of the room and the sense of imminent violence beset him again, and he plunged into the dark hall and safely through it.
He forced himself not to run for his buggy. Then he was in it, almost unaware that from somewhere in the shadows, money had been thrust into his hand. He reined around, feeling his wife trembling, and he looked back only once as he whipped the horse.
Night had swallowed the house—the light at that solitary window, extinguished.
His wife had been desperately afraid; a man had watched him from the window. Not the one who had come to their home; he had stayed in the trees, watching the buggy. She thought the man at the window had a gun.
He told her what he had seen. Someone had been murdered and dragged out.
Then he must go to the police. His wife spoke more calmly; they were back within the city’s lamplight.
Two days passed while he told himself he was waiting for the young woman to come for an examination. She would never come. His wife was right; he went to the police.
There was nothing at that address, a deputy told him—just an old house that hadn’t been occupied in years. It was not old, the doctor insisted; he had been there.
Anyway, it was not the house, it was that room! He would show them.
In the end, two officers went with him. There was no mistaking the lonely road nor the house, almost as shadowy by day as he remembered it.
But that was all that he had remembered rightly. It was a sagging wreck of abandonment.
The room! The bed was there, and the chair and bedside table. A coverlet lay on the bed, unstained. Everywhere, dust spread an undisturbed mantle. The doctor rubbed his eyes—this had been the slaughterhouse room!
There were stains on the flooring that had been scrubbed many times. . .and long ago. The gallery sagged as they came out, for the deputy there had called to them. He hurried over, shaking his head in disbelief.
All at once, in that closest grove of trees, a man had been watching him. There was blood all over his face, and his shirt was soaked with it. As the deputy had started for him, the man had disappeared.
“Not twenty feet from me, plain as day,” the deputy said. “Then he vanished!”
They prowled all through the trees toward the river; nothing was there.
Returning to town, the doctor put his question hesitantly—did they believe what he had told them? To himself he admitted that he was no longer sure of what he had seen.
The officers remained noncommittal. They would come again tomorrow and look around more closely.The deputy knew what he had seen—a dead man still on his feet.
The doctor did not return; the officers did, and shortly thereafter, closed their investigation. There was talk—secondhand, as is the way with such talk—that all three of them came back, and all saw the bloody figure waiting in the grove once more. Among themselves, they agreed it best to leave that part unmentioned.
As to the house, what else but to report it still as empty as it had been for so many years?
And so the case remained closed, for in short months, a flood took the ruin away. Where its foundations had stood, some said that a grave-sized hole remained. Others thought the grave was nearer the trees by the house. . . but floodwaters do strange things to bottom land.
Some say, even today, that the doctor’s descendants still possess three silver dollars—payment for a late night house call.
However, who can be sure? Doctors have a rule—they must never talk about the patients they have seen.
***This story has been reprinted with permission from the book Ghost Stories of Texas by Ed Syers, originally published by Texian Press. Interested readers can purchase the book here.