Nobody came to Bethlehem Colorado unless they were lost. It was a turn-off from a deserted one lane highway that dead ended in a derelict cemetery. Most cars that came in stopped at the gas station, asked for directions, and left before the dust from their arrival had settled back down. So every eye in town was fixed on Opal’s clunker as it rattled into town and drove right past the gas station.
“I don’t like this town.” Bart said.
“Why? Cause of the Jesus-y name?”
“No, the people here are weird.” He said, eyes darting around the landscape as they passed.
“Not like these people. You know I got chased out of here the last time I came here.”
“No you didn’t”
“Yes. I did.” He affirmed.
She gave him a critical look.
“I mean they weren’t like…waving guns and stuff but dude rode my bumper all the way to the onramp for the freeway.”
“I think you’re a little paranoid.”
She kept driving paying Bart little attention. The houses around the main road started thinning until she could make out the cemetery on the horizon, a bleak grey line. Most cemeteries at least tried to hide the fact that they were full of the dead, with pretty trees and lush green grass. This cemetery seemed to be proud of its legacy, proudly displaying that it was capable of sucking the life from even the vegetation.
Opal had been investigating a local urban legend that led her to the cemetery and she had called and cleared it with the caretakers to come on site and “poke around”. She had made all assurances that they would not make any noticeable disruptions to the ground.
The entry gate was massive wrought iron, rusted in the joints, and there was a big padlock connecting the ends of a thick chain that held the gate closed. Bart got out to inspect it but found that it was only dummy locked.
“Just for show I guess.” He shrugged.
He cleared the chain from the gate and opened it up to let Opal drive in. She stopped short inside the entry and Bart went to the trunk. A little wiggle tap and he tricked the trunk open. He pulled out an old shovel and then…
A police siren chirped behind him, causing Bart to jump. He turned slowly with shovel in hand.
“Heh. This is not what it looks like.”
All he could see was a big tan cowboy hat with a pair of mirror shades under them.
“Opal, honey would you mind getting out here and explaining to this officer what we’re doing.”
She popped out casual as you please and walked over to the officer like he wasn’t couldn’t shoot them both for trespassing or grave robbing or just being weirdos.
All he could hear was murmurs as they talked back and forth. All the while Bart kept forcing a smile while squinting and trying to read anything from the dark inside of the cop car.
After a quick chat, Opal came back from the cop car.
“Well what?” she asked.
“What did he say?”
“He asked what we were doing and I told him.”
“Uh-huh and he just took that answer.”
“What, like he wasn’t?”
“You need to check your damn privilege.”
“What? He’s a civic employee. Sure he’s got a gun but I don’t give a shit. I got permits and I got rights. And he can suck on both of them.”
She pushed past him pushing a small garden trowel into her back pocket and made her way towards the first row of graves. She fished a small notebook out of her pocket and looked it over. In the notebook was a folded up printout of the cemetery layout. She looked back and forth from the paper to her surroundings trying to gain her bearings.
“I’m thinking the place we need to go is there along that east fence.”
They weaved among the headstones and burial plots on their way to the east fence. The further back they went the older and more deteriorated the plot stones got. 1890. 1860. 1820. They were walking by generations of people. People who had been dead long enough for the bones to mold down to dirt yet they still made sure to not step on anybody.
The area along the east fence was vacant for the most part. This warranted a look from Bart.
“What?” Opal said defensively “I said we’d have to dig.”
“Just kinda punch the ground with the shovel every six feet or so and see if you hit something.”
“Something?” he said, his eyebrow raised.
“We’re not diggin up bodies Igor, take it easy. Word is that some older stones have been knocked over and covered over and I’m just trying to find and clear off the stone enough to read them.”
“Uh heh” he said suspiciously
But he loved her so he started stabbing the ground with the shovel. She followed behind him stepping down any divot that Bart made that was too big. About ten yards from their starting point he hit something. He looked at Opal and she was looking at him.
She got down and pulled the garden trowel from her hip pocket. She dug a bit and pulled out a big rock.
“Not a grave.” She said.
“Unless they had a really shitty headstone.” Bart said.
She sighed heavily, “Come on let’s keep going.”
About six feet from the hope crushing rock they hit again. She got down and started digging around. Then her eyes lit up.
“Ooh this is a stone. A headstone.”
She worked fast, flinging dirty with her little trowel, until she had cleared enough away to show the full face of the stone. Some of the words were clodded up so she took her pinky finger to clear the grooves. And brushed it clean with her hands until they could read the full stone.
She pulled her notebook out and wrote the minimal details the stone gave. When she was finished she stood up and put the book back in her pocket.
“Alright. Onto the next one.”
“Next one? How many are there?” He asked.
“Seven at least possibly as much as ten.”
“Okay what the hell is all this?”
“Local folklore.” She turned to him and he could see the storyteller in her was reveling in it. “Word is that something happened in the early 1800s when Bethlehem was first being settled. A buncha people died on the same day. Nothing’s written about it and the town’s never been big enough for anybody to really care beyond telling ghost stories about it.”
“So what’s the predominant theory?”
“Boring. Some weird batch of flu or measles or some infectious disease knocking everyone in the family out in one day.”
“Most off the wall theory?”
“Yea they say the people got turned inside out and the western mindset couldn’t handle it so they did a quick burial and never talked about it again.”
He didn’t think it over for long before he kept going along and knocking the dirt.
Three feet away. The same scene played out with Opal squatting down to unearth the long lost grave. It was flat against the ground like the other.
b. April 3 1783 d. September 23 1803
“Ha! We have an exact date.”
“That’s very important.”
“Meh, as long as you’re happy. So do we keep going?”
“Yes I wanna see if we find one that tells me what happened.”
“I mean not a lot of gravestones have the cause of death.”
“The old ones did sometimes. So and so mauled by a bear. Or so and so laid low by a no good scoundrel.”
“You’ve been watching too many movies.”
Her face scrunched up in anger. “I’ve seen it.”
“Mmhmm” Bart wasn’t buying it.
“On the internet.”
“And the internet never lies.”
Opal had enough “Shut up and dig.”
About the same distance away he struck another hard spot and a short time later they revealed another headstone.
Born 9 January 1790 Died September 23 1803
Devoted Member of Sacred Temple
“Sacred Temple.” She said as she finished writing in her notebook. “Is that a church?”
“Why are you asking me?”
“Shut up I’m thinking out loud.” She popped back
“There’s not a Sacred Temple anything in Bethlehem is there?” She asked.
“Hold on,” Bart said as he pulled out his phone. He frowned, “Shit I don’t have any service out here.”
She checked hers, “Yea me neither. Maybe if we head back to the car.”
They started heading back and she heard a chirp from her pocket meaning her phone had gotten at least a little bit of connectivity. She pulled her phone out and did a quick search. No Sacred Temple. Only one church in town, the First Holy Baptist.
“There’s only one church in town.”
“Okay…” He was curious as to where she was going.
“Maybe it changed names or something.”
He shoulders dropped as he realized what she was meaning “We’re going to the church aren’t we.”
“Yeah,” she said mockingly enthusiastic “It’ll be fun!”
He sighed as he walked to the car and threw the shovel in the backseat. Not willing to fight with the trunk. Opal got in the driver’s seat and they backed out of the narrow drive past the gates.
“Should we lock it?” She asked as they rolled back.
“Should we lock it,” he mocked her question “Yes we should lock it. Don’t want any grave robbers getting in or ghosts getting out.”
She sighed as she stopped the car and watched Bart get out and rechain the gate and dummy lock the massive padlock.
He got back in the car and asked “So where’s this church.”
She spun the wheel until the car was facing the right way. She was switching between looking at her phone and the road as the car began moving forward.
“It’s not a very big town so I think…we need to…yeah”
She said nothing else as she made her way back to the small town’s epicenter. As they were nearing Bethlehem proper she kept looking at her phone and then the road. Then did a quick right turn down a side road that sent her and Bart careening into each other as they were slammed left.
“Sorry I think this is the way”
They kept driving past more tiny homes occasionally getting a set of eyes watching them from a pair of blinds or a person peeking through a door. Near the end of the road they saw a big square brick building.
“Bet that’s the church.”
“You’re probably right.”
As they got closer their guesses were confirmed with a big wooden sign that read “First Holy Baptist Church of Bethlehem”.
“Look for the founding rock.”
“The founding rock?”
“You know that thing they put down telling when the building was built.”
“You mean the cornerstone?”
“Shut up Andrew Lloyd Webber.”
“You mean Frank Lloyd Wright?! You idiot! Jesus do you know anything?”
“Get the fuck out of the car and go look.” She said slapping him on the arm
“FINE! FINE! I’ll go look for the CORNERSTONE.” He managed to get the last word out as he closed the door behind him.
He approached the building when the side door opened and an old man started walking towards him.
“Can I help you son?”
“Yes I was wondering when this Church was built.”
The man seemed confused but answered. “Construction was started in 1923 and finished in 1925”
“Was there any other church in town before then?”
The old man’s face flashed with recognition and then got stern. “I’m not sure but the groundskeeper is about to mow so I need you to leave.”
“I’m sorry is there a time I can come back or someplace where I can check on it. Like a hall of records.”
“Son, I’m asking you nicely to leave. Do not force me.” The old man spoke tersely.
Bart raised his hands in defeat and walked back to the car.
As soon as he got in a wide eyed Opal questioned him.
“What did he say?”
“We need to leave.” Bart said while looking at the old man. “Now.”
She heard the seriousness in his tone and figured the other questions she had could wait.
They drove a little faster as they were leaving. They passed a road and the same cop car from before pulled onto the road after they passed. Opal looked at her speedometer. She was over by five. But he didn’t cut on his lights.
She kept looking in the rearview as the cop car stayed close behind her. She sped up and he would speed up, keeping the same distance as though they were tethered.
“What the hell is going on? Is he toying with us?”
“Shit if I know.” Bart said as he looked in the passenger’s side mirror.
Once they got to the city limit the cop car slowed off and eventually turned around.
“What the fuck was all that? What did the pastor say?”
“I don’t know if he was a pastor but I asked him about the church and he said it was built in the twenties and when I asked about there being any church in town before that he just clammed up and started getting defensive.”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing he just said you need to leave”
“Damn that means it’s something. And it’s something that the whole town seems to be in on.”
Bart couldn’t argue with the circumstances.
When they got back to their house they were still wound up from the trip and everything that had happened. Opal needed answers but didn’t where to get them.
“So there’s nothing online about whatever happened in that town?” Bart asked.
“Not really. There was a national rodeo champion from Bethlehem so that pretty much dominates any search you start down. Plus you know the ACTUAL Bethlehem sort of weighs down any search you do.”
“Yea.” He said “So is there anybody old enough to know anything?”
She thought for a moment, “Maybe my Nanama”
“She IS old.”
“Older than shit. And she loves spilling the tea.”
She pulled out her phone and called her Nanama, a great grandmother on her father’s side. She was just approximately 100 years old. Approximately because she wasn’t born in a hospital and had no formal birth certificate. They just assumed she was near century old.
She called Nanama and after seven rings she finally picked up.
“Hi Nanama, it’s Opal”
“Oh hello baby girl how are you?”
“I’m good Nana” she wanted a quick answer “hey Nana I was wondering do you know anything about the Bethlehem Cemetery Legend.”
“Oh lemme see…did you say Bethlehem?”
“Yea Nana you know how people talk about the cemetery.”
“Oh the cult murders.” She said casually.
Opal nearly fell out “Did you say CULT MURDERS.”
“Mmhmm yea there was real doozy of a preacher back then. One those old fire and brimstone fellas. Well he got it into his head that the cotton crops weren’t gonna come in unless they made a sacrifice to God. He convinced some of the congregation to offer up their children.”
“Are you serious?!”
“Well that’s what my grandmother told me. She said she was alive back then and people got madder than a wet hen and went after him. But before they could do anything a fire broke out and burned the whole damn church to the ground.”
“Wow!” Opal said
“The devil came to collect.” Nanama said almost as a benediction.
“I guess so.”
“I reckon all the older folks know the story but don’t tell nobody. Gotta keep them old secrets hid up.”
There was silence on the line.
“Did you need anything else sweetie?”
“No nana that was it.”
“Well I’m glad you called. You need to come by sometime, I’ll make some homemade biscuits if somebody remembers to buy BUTTERMILK” she was yelling at her daughter, Opal’s grandmother.
Opal said goodbye but the line was already dead.
“Well…” Bart was waiting.
“Really?” he asked doubtfully
“Yea, apparently some holier than thou preacher convinced people to kill their kids to make the cotton grow or something like that and then the whole church burned to the ground.”
“Yea that’s what I said.”
“You think it’s true?” He asked.
“I mean Nanama SAID that’s what happened.”
“Then it must be true.” He concluded.