Abraham lincoln vampire.., p.5
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       Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, p.5

           Seth Grahame-Smith
 

  It had the earnest, pitch-perfect voice of a young man. An unmistakable English accent.

  When griping grief the heart doth wound,

  And doleful dumps the mind oppress—

  Then music, with her silver sound,

  With speedy help doth lend redress. *

  That such a sound could come from something so hideous—that its white face could wear such a warm smile—it was all a cruel joke. Its song concluded, the demon gave a long, low bow and ran into the woods. “Ran off till I couldn’t see a trace of white between the trees no more.” Eight-year-old Thomas knelt over his father’s crooked, empty corpse. Every inch of him shook.

  “I knew I had to lie. I knew I could never tell a soul what I’d seen, lest they think me a fool, or a liar or worse. What had I seen, anyway? I might have dreamed it for all I knew. When Mordecai came running with the flintlock—when he demanded to know what happened—I broke down crying and told him the only thing I could. The only thing he’d have believed—that it was a Shawnee war party that killed our daddy. I couldn’t tell him the truth. I couldn’t tell him it was a vampire.”

  Abe couldn’t speak. He sat across from his drunken father, letting the occasional cracks of burning wood fill the void.

  I had listened to hundreds of his stories, some collected from the lives of others, some recounted from his own. But I had never known him to invent one, even in his present state. Frankly I did not think his mind capable. Nor could I think of a sensible reason to lie about such a thing. That left only one unsettling possibility.

  “You think I’ve gone round the bend,” said Thomas.

  It was precisely what I thought, but I gave no answer. I had learned to keep my mouth closed on such occasions, rather than risk the angry misinterpretation of some innocent remark. I resolved to sit in silence until he sent me away or fell asleep.

  “Hell, you’ve got every reason to.”

  He took a swallow of last week’s work * and looked at me with a softness I had never seen in him before. Putting everything else aside for the moment and seeing the two of us, not as we were, but as we might have been in some better life. Father and son. That his eyes presently filled with tears both astonished and frightened me. I felt him pleading with me to believe. Yet I could not believe something so foolish. He was a drunk telling a story. That was all.

  “I’m telling you because you ought to know. Because you… deserve the truth. I’m telling you that I’ve seen two vampires in my life. The first was in that field. The second…”

  Thomas looked away, fighting back tears again.

  “The second was named Jack Barts… and I saw him just before your mama died….”

  Father had spent the summer of 1817 committing the sin of envy. He’d grown tired of watching his neighbors reap kingly profits by planting wheat and corn on their land. He’d grown tired of breaking his back to build the barns they used to get rich, while sharing in none of the spoils. He felt, for the first time in his life, something like ambition. What he lacked was capital.

  Jack Barts was a squat, one-armed man with a taste for expensive clothes and a thriving shipping business in Louisville. He was also one of the few Kentuckians in the business of giving private loans. Thomas had done some work for him as a young man, loading and unloading flatboats on the Ohio River for twenty cents a day. Barts had always treated him kindly and paid him promptly, and when they’d parted company, it had been with a handshake and an open invitation to return. More than twenty years later, in the spring of 1818, Thomas Lincoln took him up on that offer. With his hat in his hands and his head hung low, Thomas sat in Jack Barts’s office and asked for a loan of $75—precisely the amount he needed to buy a plow, a draft horse, seeds, and “everything else one needed to grow wheat, short of sunshine and rain.”

  Barts, who looked “hale and hearty as ever in his one-sleeved violet coat,” agreed at once. His conditions were simple: Thomas would return with $90 (the principal plus 20 percent interest) no later than September 1st. Any profits earned above that were his to keep. Twenty percent was more than twice what any respectable bank would’ve charged. But seeing as Thomas didn’t technically own anything (having merely helped himself to his plot at Little Pigeon Creek), he had no collateral—and nowhere else to turn.

  Father accepted the terms and went to work felling trees, pulling stumps, plowing sod, and broadcasting seeds. It was grueling labor. In all, he planted seven acres of wheat by hand. If he yielded thirty bushels an acre (a reasonable estimate), he would have enough to pay Barts back, plus a little to get us through winter. Next year he would plant more. The year after that, he would hire a hand to share the work. In five years’ time, we would own the largest farm in the county. In ten years, the state. His last seed sown, father rested and waited for his future to spring from the earth.

  But the summer of 1818 proved the hottest and driest in anyone’s memory. When July arrived, there was nary a healthy stalk to be harvested anywhere in Indiana.

  Thomas was ruined.

  He had no choice but to sell the plow and horse for what little money he could. With no crops to harvest, they weren’t worth much. Too ashamed to face Barts in person, Thomas sent him $28, along with a letter dated September 1st (which he’d dictated to Nancy) promising to send the rest as soon as he could. It was the best he could do. It wasn’t good enough for Jack Barts.

  Two weeks later, Thomas Lincoln found himself pleading in whispers, each one visible in the biting night air. He’d been roused from sleep only minutes before. Roused by something brushing against his cheek. The sleeve of a blue silk coat. A handful of bank-notes, $28 in all. The shape of Jack Barts standing over his bed.

  Barts hadn’t come all this way to argue, merely to warn. He liked father. He had always liked him. Therefore, he would give him three more days to find the rest of his money. It was business, you see. If word got around that Jack Barts granted special favors to delinquent borrowers, then others might think twice about paying him on time. And where would that leave him? In the poorhouse? No, no. There was nothing remotely personal about it. It was merely a matter of solvency.

  They stood by the outhouse, lest their whispers wake anyone in the cabin. Barts asked him one more time: “Can you have my money in three days?” Thomas hung his head again. “I cannot.” Barts smiled and looked away. “Then…”

  He turned back. His face was gone—a demon’s in its place. A window into hell. Black eyes and white skin and teeth as long and sharp as a wolf’s God strike me down if I lie.

  “… I’ll take it in other ways.”

  Abe stared at his father through the fire.

  Dread. Dread filled my stomach. My arms and legs. I was faint. Sick. I wished to hear no more of this. Not tonight. Not ever. But father could not stop. Not when he was so close to the end. The one that I had already guessed, but dared not believe.

  “It was a vampire that took my daddy from me…”

  “Stop…”

  “Who took the Sparr—”

  “Enough!”

  “And it was a vampire who took your—”

  “Go to hell!”

  Thomas wept.

  The very sight of him awakened some heretofore unknown hatred. Hatred of my father. Of all things. He revolted me. I ran into the night for fear of what I might say; what I might do if I were in his presence a moment longer. My anger kept me away for three days and nights. I slept in the barns and outbuildings of neighbors. Stole eggs and ears of corn. Walked until my legs shook from exhaustion. Wept at the thought of my mother. They had taken her from me. Father and Jack Barts. I hated myself for being too small to protect her. I hated my father for telling me such impossible, unspeakable things. And yet I knew they were the truth. I cannot explain how I knew with such certainty, but I did. The way my father had hushed us when we spun vampire yarns. The screams that had carried on the wind at night. My mother’s fevered whispers about “looking the devil in the eyes.” Father was a drunk. An indolent, lo
veless drunk. But he was no liar. During those three days of anger and grief, I gave into madness and admitted something to myself: I believed in vampires. I believed in them, and I hated them to the last.

  When he finally came home (to a frightened stepmother and silent father), Abe didn’t say a word. He made straight for his journal and wrote down a single sentence. One that would radically alter the course of his life, and bring a fledgling nation to the brink of collapse.

  I hereby resolve to kill every vampire in America.

  III

  Sarah had hoped Abe would read to them after supper. It was getting late, but there was a good fire going, and more than enough time for a few pages of Jonah’s adventures or Joseph’s coat of many colors. She loved the way Abe read them. Such life. Such expression and clarity. He had a wisdom well beyond his years. Manners and sweetness seldom found in a child. He was, as she would tell William Herndon after her stepson’s assassination, “the best boy I ever saw or ever hope to see.”

  But her Bible was nowhere to be found. Had she lent it to a neighbor and forgotten? Had she left it at Mr. Gregson’s? She looked everywhere. She looked in vain. Sarah would never see her Bible again.

  Abe had burned it.

  It was the rash act of an angry child, one that he would live to regret (though never enough, it seems, to tell his stepmother the truth). Years later he would attempt to explain himself:

  How could I worship a God who would permit [vampires] to exist? A God that had allowed my mother to fall prey to their evil? * Either He was powerless to stop it, or He was complicit in it. In either case, He was undeserving of my praise. In either case, He was my enemy. Such is the mind of an angry eleven-year-old boy. One that sees the world as a choice between two disparate certainties. One that believes a thing “must” be this way or that. I am ashamed that it happened, yes. But I would not compound that shame by pretending that it did not.

  With his faith in ruins, eleven-year-old Abe took his resolution a step further in this undated manifesto (c. August 1820):

  Henceforth my life shall be one of rigerous [sic] study and devotion. I shall become learned in all things. I shall become a greater warrior then [sic] Alexander. My life shall have but one purpose. That purpose is to kill * as many vampires as I can. This journal shall be where I write about killing vampires. No one other then [sic] me shall read it.

  His interest in books, which to date had merely been ravenous, became obsessive. He walked more than an hour to the home of Aaron Stibel, a shoemaker who boasted a personal library of some 150 volumes, twice a week to return an armful of books and borrow another armful. He accompanied his stepmother to Elizabethtown whenever she visited a relative, sequestering himself in the Village Street home of Samuel Haycraft Sr., one of the town’s founders, and the proud owner of nearly five hundred books. Abe read about the occult; found mentions of vampires in European folklore. He compiled a list of their rumored weaknesses, markings, and habits. It became common for stepmother Sarah to find him asleep at the table in the morning, his head resting on an open page.

  When he wasn’t improving his mind, Abe was hard at work improving his body. He doubled his daily wood chopping. He built long, winding stone walls. He practiced throwing his ax into a tree. First from ten yards. Then twenty. When stepbrother John invited him to play at war, he jumped at the chance, and fought with a new intensity that left more than one neighbor boy’s lip bloodied. Based on the information he’d gathered in books, Abe whittled a dozen stakes and made a quiver to carry them in. He fashioned a small crucifix (although he had declared God his “enemy,” it appears that Abe wasn’t opposed to his help). He took to carrying small pouches of garlic and mustard seed. He sharpened his ax until the blade “blinded all who looked upon it.” At night, he dreamed of death. Of hunting down his enemies and driving stakes through their hearts. Of taking their heads. Of glorious battle. Years later, as the clouds of Civil War loomed on the horizon, Abe looked back at his youthful bloodlust.

  There are but two types of men who desire war: those who haven’t the slightest intention of fighting it themselves, and those who haven’t the slightest idea what it is. Of my youth I can decidedly say that the latter was true. I ached for this “war” with vampires, knowing nothing of its consequences. Knowing nothing of holding a dying friend in my arms or burying a child. Any man who has seen the face of death knows better than to seek him out a second time.

  But in the summer of 1821, these lessons were still years off. Abe wanted his war with vampires, and after months of vigorous study and exercise, he was ready to launch the opening salvo.

  He wrote a letter.

  IV

  Abe was uncommonly tall for a boy of twelve. He already stood shoulder to shoulder with his father, who was himself considered tall at five-foot nine. Like his ill-fated grandfather, good genes and years of toil had made him exceptionally strong.

  It was a Monday, “the kind of summer day one finds only in Kentucky—shining and verdant; the breeze carrying warmth and dandelion seeds.” Abe and Thomas sat atop one of their smaller outbuildings, making repairs to its winter-beaten roof. They worked in silence. Though Abe’s hatred had cooled, he still found it difficult to be in his father’s presence. A journal entry dated December 2nd, 1843 (not long after the birth of Abe’s own son, Robert), sheds some light on the nature of his contempt.

  Age has made me temperate in many things, but on this point I remain steadfast. His weakness! His ineptness! He failed to protect his family. Thought only of his own needs, and left others to their cost. Had he simply gathered us and fled to some far-off territory. Had he merely asked our neighbors for some small advance against future work. But he did nothing. Nothing but sit idly. Silently. Secretly hoping that somehow, by some miracle, his troubles would simply disappear. No, it needs no further elaboration than this: had he been any other man, she would be with me still. This I cannot forgive.

  Thomas, to his credit, seemed to understand and accept his condemnation. He hadn’t mentioned the word “vampire” since that night. Nor had he pressed Abe to talk.

  Sarah had taken the girls to help her clean Mr. Gregson’s house that Monday afternoon, and John was off fighting some imaginary war. The two Lincolns were at work on the roof when a horse approached carrying a child on its back. A plump child in a green coat. Either that or a very short man. A short man with dark glasses and… one arm.

  It was Jack Barts.

  Thomas put his hammer down, his heart just about thumping a hole in his chest at the thought of what Barts could want now. By the time he climbed down and began walking to meet their unexpected guest, Abe was already halfway to the cabin. Barts handed Thomas his reins and dismounted with some difficulty, hanging on to the saddle horn with one arm while his stout legs struggled to find the ground. Having done so, he found the fan in his coat pocket and put it to use, cooling his face. Thomas couldn’t help but notice that there wasn’t a bead of sweat on him.

  “Simply dreadful… dreadfully, miserably hot.”

  “Mr. Barts, I—”

  “I must admit, your letter surprised me, Mr. Lincoln. A happy surprise, to be certain. But a surprise nonetheless.”

  “My letter, Mr. Ba—?”

  “Had you written it earlier, perhaps the unpleasantness which transpired between us might have been avoided. Terrible… terrible thing…”

  Thomas was too confounded to notice Abe walking toward them with a long wooden object in his arms.

  “You’ll forgive my haste,” said Barts, “but I should like to be off at once. I have business in Louisville which must be attended to this evening.”

  Thomas couldn’t think of a thing to say. Not a damned thing.

  “Well? Do you have it, Mr. Lincoln?”

  Abe joined them, cradling a long, hand-carved chest with a hinged lid. A tiny coffin for a slender corpse. He stood beside his father, facing Barts. Towering over him. Leering at him.

  “Strange,” said Abe, breaking the silence
. “I hadn’t expected you during the day.”

  Now it was Barts who found his brain tied in knots.

  “Who is this child?”

  “My son,” said Thomas, petrified.

  “It’s here,” said Abe, raising the chest. “All of it. All one hundred dollars, just like the letter said.”

  Thomas was sure he’d misheard. Sure this was a dream. Barts looked at Abe, suspicious. Bewildered. A smile spread over his face.

  “My God!” said Barts. “For a moment I thought us all mad!”

  Barts began to laugh. Abe opened the lid—just enough to slip his hand inside.

  “Good boy,” said Barts, laughing heartily now. “Let us have it then.”

  He reached his hand up and ran his thick fingers through my hair. I could think of nothing but the way my mother had done the same when she read to me. I could think of nothing but her sweet face. I glared down at this man. This creature. I joined him in laughter as my father stood helpless—a fire spreading through my chest. I felt the wooden stake in my fingers. I could do anything. I was a god.

 
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