Creating a Scene: Brit Bailey's Ghost
May 23, 2012
A writer can find great scenes, situations, and characters in every town and on every street corner. All you have to do is stop a while, look around you, and listen in to every scrap of conversation going on.
The man was discombobulated. That’s what the deputy figured. Odd night. Strange circumstances. And his partner needed help. His partner was a straight arrow, took his job seriously, didn’t drink much and never while on duty. Still his voice didn’t sound quite right. Odd, the deputy thought. Strange, he decided. Discombobulated. The deputy sighed and glanced at his watch. Midnight. That figured. That was all he needed. A radio full of static and a discombobulated cry for help in the dark.
The highway stretched out straight before him, white lines and asphalt patches that tore out madly toward Brit Bailey’s prairie, and old man Brit was on the loose again. At least that’s what it sounded like when his partner made that frantic call. The night was even darker than before. The deputy had heard a lot about Brit Bailey but had never come face to face with the cranky, Tabasco-tempered old prowler before, and he liked it that way. The deputy decided he wasn’t frightened, just troubled. After all, what do you say to a man who walks the prairie, tramping around above the grave that has held his mortal remains for the past hundred and fifty years.
James Britton Bailey had loved to fight. On street corners. In back alleys. In saloons. Anywhere he might tear into either friends or strangers. It didn’t matter to Brit Bailey. He was crazy, some whispered. Then they found out how much money he had and simply referred to him as eccentric, going out of their way to be polite when he walked down the village streets of Brazoria.
Brit Bailey bought a lot of whiskey and drank even more, and a lot of people danced away Saturday night to the music of his gunfire and of his bullets ricocheting off the hardwood floor at their feet.
Most feared him. But to death, he was just another wayward soul whose time finally ran out. On the morning of December 6, 1832, a fever struck him down, and Brit Bailey had taken his last drink and fought his last fight.
When the eccentric’s will was read, it was discovered that he had requested to have his body buried erect and facing toward the West. Some of the gossips in town only believed he wanted to be interred standing up so he could get a running start on judgment day.
And old Brit wasn’t planning to go to the grave alone or empty-handed. According to his will, depending on which rumor happened to be making the latest rounds, he had demanded that his favorite hunting dog, gun powder horn, matched pistols, a pouch with a hundred and fifty bullet, lantern, and a jug of whiskey all be jammed inside the coffin with him.
That was too much for his poor widow. She grew angry, then pious, and finally religious. She had no idea where he was heading in the hereafter, but she was adamant that Brit Bailey make the journey sober. She threw the jug of whiskey out the window.
They buried James Britton Bailey in a hole eight-feet deep and about as big around as an old-fashioned wash tub. And they left him standing up. They prayed, or at least bowed their heads, and shrugged, and some snickered, and they went back to their fields and did their best to forget about Brit Bailey. He did not forget about them.
Two years later, another family purchased the old Bailey place and mowed in. Ann Raney Thomas was sitting by herself the night she looked up and watched as a figure, draped in the ragged edges of a shadow, quietly walked into the room. It was a man, she said, and he had witnessed the wonders or the horrors of whatever was beyond the great beyond. Ann Raney Thomas could see it in the hollow of his eyes. And he was searching for that which he would never find again.
What do you want, she asked.
My whiskey, he said.
And still he searches, wandering an empty stretch of Bailey’s Prairie, down between Angleton and West Columbia, trailing after the beam of his lantern that glows big and bright and orange in the night. Hundreds have seen the light. And most were Bible-believing, God-fearing, Sunday-morning church folks, too afraid to lie about what they had observed or even admit they had experienced the haint of Brit Bailey.
A colonel saw the light through the drizzle of an autumn night’s rain, and he said it looked like fire in the sky. To one woman, the light hung there like the full moon when it first comes up at dusk. And another swore she watched it climb across a barbed wire fence before crossing the road. Back in the 1930s, Robert and Joe Munson watched as the light moved through the trees. “It was so still,” Robert recalled, “that all I could hear was Joe’s heart beating.”
A car rounded the bend, and the driver, in fright, suddenly spun the old automobile around and raced away into the night.
“He was doin’ ninety miles an hour,” Joe told his sister.
“A car won’t go that fast,” she answered.
“Maybe the driver got out and pushed,” he said.
The deputy remembered and grinned. All he knew was that he had been standing beside the dispatcher when his partner’s nervous voice came over the radio, reporting: “There’s a big red light coming over the prairie toward me. I want somebody else out here, and I want ‘em out here in a hurry.”
Ahead of him, the deputy spotted the patrol car in a ditch. He looked quickly around, and there was no light, red or otherwise, and no sign of his partner at all. He parked and ran to the patrol car, poking his head through an open window. He coughed. The air was thick ad pungent with the smell of gunpowder, and a revolver lay on the seat. In the floorboard, his partner sprawled motionless as though dead. His partner opened one eye, then the other.
“What’s the matter?” the deputy asked.
“This red light kept comin’ at me, and nobody came to help me. When it came through my window, I shot it three times.”
“Did you kill it?”
His partner gazed for a moment out across Bailey’s Prairie, swallowed up by the darkness, then slowly shook his head. “
His eyes were discombobulated.
His voice was discombobulated.
It was already dead,” he said.