The wind pushed steadily against the palmetto trees, their stiff fronds rustling in the midnight barrier island breeze.
Gathered around the fire, far from the abandoned plantation house, were a dozen shadows. Their voices rose and fell on the wind, and the smell of salt air mingled and danced with that of pluff mud and smoke from burning live oak and cypress logs.
All Saints Eve was not celebrated until the 1890’s but that didn’t stop share croppers during the days of reconstruction from telling stories filled with macabre and horror as the South Carolina autumn began to give way to the chilled nights of a southern winter.
The civil war had not so much ended, but rather faded away. Tales of battles and bravery were common way to pass the early evening hours in the years after the great war.
On this night out of earshot of women folk the men shared drink, tobacco and tales.
The young boys came along soon after their chores were done and their sisters and younger brothers were tucked in for the night. The place was hard to find, a single path led across the salt marshes and through the groves of 100 year old live oak, and it was surrounded by yellow jasmine and thorny brambles.
The oldest of the men was Samuel Wright. When he spoke his corn cob pipe wavered back and forth in his mouth, unless he was packing it with the tobacco he had cured himself and still the pipe never left his mouth.
“Tell us a story Pappy” the young boys pleaded. Samuel ignored the youngsters and continued to silently pack his pipe. “Come on just one story….” The boys begged again.
“I’ll tell you about the three little nigger boys who wouldn’t never keep quiet” Samuel scolded.
“Ahhhh we didn’t mean nothing” they said together. Samuel put a flame up to his pipe and took a deep draw. Then he slowly exhaled and puffed a ring that paused in mid air for a moment and then rushed off like a ghost into the moon lit night.
“They were divining up souls” he said softly in his deep voice.
“Who was dividing up souls?” the boys asked intently.
Samuel Wright leaned toward the boys “God and the DEVIL” he said wide eyed and with emphasis on the devil.
The young boys jumped back but remained silent. “What was that fella’s name?” Samuel inquired out loud to no one in particular.
“Wilson I recall, Everett Wilson”. Offered another man.
The young boys leaned in towards Samuel and moved closer to the fire.
“Yes sir that was his name he was a trouble maker and inherently mean, so it was no surprise when Everett Wilson met his end that the story of his death would be told over and over again.” Announced Samuel Wright to the young faces before him.
“How mean was he?” Asked the youngest boy.
Another man spoke up out of the darkness and joined in the tall tale. “He was so mean that he once cut off a dog’s ears because the dog wouldn’t come when he was called.”
The boys spoke quietly among themselves, the youngest tugging on both his ears trying to imagine how he'd hear without his ears.
The truth is that Everett Wilson was pretty damn mean, and he was a thief. He would steal just about anything he could get his hands on, and of all the things he stole he loved to steal whiskey.
But the only place Everett could drink the liquor was to hide out in the swamp at night. He didn’t mind the all the snakes, and the bugs in the swamp, but he couldn’t swim and was deathly afraid of the water.
During the early days of the Civil War the Devil made his was way south looking for souls. The word among those who lived and worked the rice fields south of Charleston was that the Devil and God made a pact. They would simply divide up the souls of those killed in battle evenly as long as the war raged across the low country. There were just too many dead to sort out the good from the evil souls so the pact was agreed to.
One day Everett Wilson stole a bottle of whiskey from the town doctor and just after dark he made his way to his secret place in the high marsh on a dry spot encircled with sea island grass. Wilson was a towering man, he wasn’t a free man but he did just whatever he pleased.
No one wanted his work because he had such a mean streak. But as mean as he was he was no match for the drink and soon passed out with his lantern and bottle by his side.
The night wore on and well after dark, Wilson awoke from his drunkenness to the sound of voices. He lay there staring at the full moon overhead and listened as the voices broke out in song, songs he didn’t recognize.
"Them’s must be Yankee songs", Wilson thought to himself.
The wind blew gently across the moonlit marsh as Wilson dared to look above the sea oats and grass across the low lying levee he could see a fire and shadows moving about. "Yes sir them's Yankee troops and many of them as well", Wilson said out loud but in a hushed voice.
Wilson lit his lantern that he had carefully wrapped in a wet burlap sack to hide the light. If needed he could remove the cover should someone approach. But he wasn’t about to announce his presence unless he had to, for fear that they might steal his liquor.
A dozen miles away the members of the 14th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry McCalla Rifles walked quietly in the darkness. There were no songs and no idle talk as they walked single file along the sandy road in silence. Though the night was still damp with the afternoon’s heat there was a definite chill in the air. A chill that meant winter would soon settle over the coastal islands of South Carolina. It was the 31st of October 1862.
Close to midnight the men slowed their pace, the smell of smoke in the air was enough to let them know Yankees were no more than a little piece away. They moved ahead on lighter heels and soon discovered that indeed the Yankees were camped just the other side of the levee that held back the brackish waters of the Edisto River and allowed the rice to thrive.
The plan of attack was simple, outnumbered the volunteers would strike fast and hard hopefully killing a few Yankees and then retreat into the woods and then to a rally point 2 miles away.
Everett Wilson had drank more of his whiskey and dozed off to sleep again when he rolled over to find the tide on a full moon, had pushed the waters of the Edisto River up to his high spot in the marsh. Abruptly he sobered up realizing that he was surrounded by water. Wilson was afraid that the tide wouldn’t begin to recede and he might drown, but a much worst fate was about to seize upon the man.
Suddenly gunfire ripped through the night, smoke could be seen coming from the far tree line near the road. The full moon shined brightly only to be outdone by brilliant flashes from the muskets of the rebel infantry.
As the Yankees sounded the alarm, there were also screams of pain as the rebel bullets found their mark. But the bullets were also hitting the marsh around Wilson.
Expectedly return gun fire erupted from the Yankee camp. Before he could react a Yankee bullet whistled by Wilson’s head and knocked his hat into the water.
Shots were coming from both sides now and Everett Wilson was square in the middle of the crossfire. Wilson tried to run, but in each direction was water, deep cold water. In the confusion and his drunkenness Everett Wilson pulled the burlap cover off his lamp and raised it so that the soldiers would stop shooting.
For reasons only known to Everett Wilson he stood up and waved the lantern in a mindless move that was met with bullets from both sides. In all eighteen musket balls ripped into Wilson’s body most before he fell to his knees. Nine bullets from the Union side nine from the Rebel’s.
At the midnight hour on October 31st 1861 as Everett Wilson lay dying the Rebel attackers retreated. The Yankees had also run to safer ground leaving their dead behind. Between midnight and when dawn’s first light rose to meet the stars, Everett saw God and the Devil in the tall marsh grass and thick fog coastal fog.
They were dividing up the souls. “One fer me, One fer you, One fer me, One fer you” the Devil was saying. In total 11 Union soldiers were dead and when the Devil took the last soldier Wilson figured God would get him and he would go straight to heaven.
Having divided up all the dead the soldiers God and the Devil looked at Wilson. Wilson’s soul pleaded for God to take him but God said it was the Devil’s turn. But the Devil wanted no part of Everett Wilson saying “Hell has enough trouble makers and thieves”.
And with that the God and the Devil vanished into the darkness.
To this day among the marsh grass and the pluff mud just before dawn you can hear him calling out for God or the Devil.
Some say they’ve seen Everett Wilson rise up from the water waving a lantern with one hand and holding a bottle of stolen liquor in the other.
A man so mean he was wanted neither by God or the Devil, he wanders the banks of the Edisto River each night calling out for his soul to be taken.
“You best listen for him because if he calls your name and you don’t answer he’ll cut off your ears and steal your soul.” Samuel Wright told the young boys who were all silently nodding up and down with their mouths agape. With that two of the men who had snuck off unknown to the young boys reached out from the darkness behind them and grabbed the boys by their ears.
The old men laughed as the boys ran for their lives and screamed out in horror of having their ears hacked off by the ghost of Everett Wilson.
Soon the men were passing the bottle again, and the boys recovered and caught their breath.
Then in the silence they all saw it, across the fog shrouded salt marsh the light of a lone lantern appeared and then vanished into the night.
And no one said a word.