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Empty Grave
by the Old Oak Tree

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

By the time someone noticed the empty grave near the old oak tree, most folks in that part of Hill County had forgotten what had happened there so many years before.

A few old timers well-remembered who had been buried there, but no one could figure why anyone would want to dig up his remains. Not until the early 1950s did the mystery of the grave robbery get solved.

The story began one night in 1879, when 12-year-old Uberto Desaix Ezell awakened to hear his stepfather getting dressed. Seeing him go out on their front porch, the boy slipped to a window to take a peek.

"He walked to the west end of the porch and stood gazing intently at a sharp hill in the distance," Ezell said of his stepfather. "Soon a horseman rode into view in a clearing near the top of the hill, then he disappeared. Three times he rode his horse into view in the moonlight, then disappeared into the cedar brush."

Ezell took this as a signal of some sort, and indeed, his father soon walked to their barn, saddled his horse and rode off. Somewhat curious but more sleepy, Ezell went back to bed.

"I did not know when he returned home that night," he continued, "but the next morning I found old Harry, our best saddle horse, covered with dry sweat, and it took a bit of currying and rubbing to keep him from getting stiff in the joints."

Not until the following day did Ezell learn that a man had been lynched on the N.J. Smith ranch, on the edge of the Cross Timbers, just east of the small community of Blanton.

"This man," Ezell explained, "was known to be a cattle rustler, and had been for years. In those days cattle rustling was one of the worst crimes a man could commit, and it brought upon the culprit the same swift and sure punishment as was administered to a murderer."

Clearly, his stepfather had been a member of the local "vigilance committee" that had taken it upon themselves to adjudicate a known felon without causing undue strain on local law enforcement or the court system. It would not be the committee's only work.

As a young man Ezell left home to attend medical school at Tulane University in New Orleans. He returned to begin a long practice in his home county before retiring to spend the last years of his life in Cleburne.

There, in the early 1950s, a former school teacher named Ray McDearmon came to interview the by then feeble 84-year-old man. His body was about to play out, but his mind remained sharp, especially the area of his brain holding memories of days long gone.

The doctor told McDearmon about the lynching of the cattle thief that his father had participated in. But the retired physician had an even clearer memory of a second instance of mob justice in Hill County.

One morning when it had been too wet to plow, Ezell's stepfather sent him to gather their work mules and drive them back to their corral. Riding his horse along a cow trail, young Ezell saw something dangling from a large oak in the distance. Hurrying toward it, he soon realized it was a man's body, the tip of one of his boots just touching the ground. The clinical description the doctor offered of the corpse is best left to the imagination.

Ezell galloped away to report the discovery and soon a large crowd had gathered around the tree. The dead man was recognized as the suspect in a killing that had occurred a few days before in the Bosque County community of Kimball, long since a ghost town. Free on bail, the alleged murderer had been escorted by the vigilance committee to neighboring Hill County and summarily hanged. Now that Ezell had accidentally discovered the lynching, someone cut the rope and buried the presumed guilty party in a shallow grave sans prayer, song or marker.

In telling this story decades after the fact -- having saved many a life and presided over the last moments of many another -- the doctor realized his time was nearing and made a confession.

During Ezell's practice at some point in the early 1900s, a young doctor who had been interning under him had taken the senior physician's skeleton, then a piece of medical equipment considered essential in any medical practitioner's office. Remembering the lynching of the Bosque County rowdy, the doctor and two trusted friends went to his family land one night and exhumed the man's skeleton.

"In our haste," the doctor said, "we must have overlooked a small leg bone, and left it in the rotted right boot. At any rate, the skeleton I used for years afterward, lacked one small bone being complete."

Clearly, as the old saying goes, everyone has at least a little good in him. Even if it's only his skeleton.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" June 1, 2017 column

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