FISH BAIT

The Lore:

Crazy Woman Camp, Why, AZ

In the far reaches of southern Arizona, just north of Organ Pipe National Monument, lies the tiny hamlet of Why. Little more than a wide spot in the road, the town’s main attraction is a rustic market and gift shop –  aptly named “The Why Not Store”. One can purchase fuel, snacks and Mexican insurance before traveling across the border. Some partake of homemade biscuits and gravy at the restaurant next door, and many of those folks are winter visitors who populate the nearby RV parks and BLM land in campers and RVs.

Gunsight Wash is a favorite of those “dry campers” – people with self-contained rigs who prefer solitude to a crowded RV park.

The local Border Patrol division maintains a strong presence in the area, monitoring the adjacent Tohono O’odham tribal land providing campers with a sense of security. Well traveled routes are used by illegal immigrants and Mexican drug cartels. Unfortunately, many illegals venturing into the U.S. with a backpack of canned tuna, a change of clothes and dreams of wealth face harsh conditions in the desert. Hikers and OHV riders often stumble upon shallow graves or sun bleached skeletons.

On a day hike near Gunsight Wash, I discovered a primitive but elaborate campsite with an odd history. It was located in the middle of nowhere, next to a dry wash, which made the find even more astounding. How could anyone survive out there for any length of time?

At first glance, it was obvious the occupant exerted great effort to make the area “homey”, circling bushes and trees with carefully placed stones.

A four-foot tall rock oven with metal grates had been built beneath a sprawling Ironwood tree. Positioned on top of the fireplace was an empty liquor bottle bearing a hand-written card – “Crazy Woman Camp”. Upon closer inspection, I found a note inside which read:

“The way the story goes is this – A woman and her son lived in town where the son got into drugs and such. Determined to free her son of his demons, she set camp on this spot. Days filled with desert solitude, loneliness & hard living, the son was forced to give up his sinful ways. Living in a tent, they built the stonework you see & buried their horse in a grave just to the west of here. Locals called her Crazy Woman but far from crazy, I think she was a loving mother who was willing to suffer along with son to bring him to a better life.”

After wandering around the area, I discovered two graves a short distance away which may or may not have been the final resting places of Crazy Woman and her son. Closer to the camp was a large mound where their horse allegedly was buried. Scratched into the surface of a flat stone read the words, “A Man’s Best Pal”.

I often wonder what happened to Crazy Woman. The desert and isolation can magnify irrational thought. Perhaps she could no longer function in society and found peace with her own reality in the harsh elements. Regardless, I feel there is more to her legacy than what was written inside that empty liquor bottle.

The Story:

Fish Bait

by Debra S. Sanders

Jack Brody eased back on the accelerator, bringing his ATV to a halt near a barren patch of desert next to an Ironwood tree. Removing his helmet, he glanced around the primitive campsite before shutting off the engine and disembarking.

She’s not here.

Walking to the back of his vehicle, he removed a case of water strapped to the rack and placed it next to the tree. A tiny puff of smoke emanated from a rock fireplace a few feet away, suggesting Crazy Woman might be hiding. He grinned. She was a feisty old gal.

“Hey, Nana . . . where you at?”

Jack sauntered to the edge of a wide wash and slid down the four-foot embankment to soft sand and gravel. It was hot and dry this time of year. Even the rattlesnakes stayed underground during the day. His brows drew together as he searched the dusty landscape. What if Nana was sick? Heatstroke  wasn’t uncommon during the summer months in southern Arizona, especially for the elderly. Why the hell an eighty-year-old woman would want to live out here was beyond his comprehension. Maybe she didn’t have any money or family – at least none who cared.

Jack scratched the back of his head, eyes running up and down the wash. One of his buddies said she moved to the desert with her son ten years ago. The teenager fell into dangerous habits involving drugs and she thought the isolation would cure him of his “demons. If that were true, the kid must have hauled ass a long time ago. And ho would blame him if he did? This place was as close to Hell as anyone could get without dying.

He crawled up the embankment and headed for the shade, still worried but needing a cooler place to think. Nana was tough but not that tough.

After discovering the withered old woman during his first week working at the local Border Patrol division, Jack took it upon himself to bring her care packages on a regular basis, keeping his off-duty activities a secret until another agent saw him in the desert.

“She’s loco,” he warned Jack. “We stay away from Crazy Woman’s camp. You best do the same.”

Jack refused to heed his co-worker’s advice, continuing to make weekly visits to the woman he nicknamed “Nana” and establishing an uneasy trust similar to feeding a feral animal.

As he brushed dirt from his jeans, a low, husky voice crept over Jack’s shoulder like a slithering serpent.

“Jaaaack . . .”

He whirled around, smiling at the hunched figure eyeing him from a few feet away. White hair stuck out in tufts from under a sweat-stained cowboy hat. Coppery wrinkles lined her face, the result of too much time under an unforgiving sun.

“I brought you a case of water.”

“I see. You good boy, Jack.”

He wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “It’s gonna be real hot for the next few days. Why don’t I take you to Ajo? One of the churches opened a shelter for people with nowhere to go.”

“I got a place. This my home.”

“It’s a tent, Nana, not a home.”

She jutted her chin and looked away. “Home.”

“When was the last time you ate?”

“Yesterday. Maybe longer. But today, Jack, I eat good. Let me cook for you.”

He arched a brow. “What you got to cook?”

The old woman flashed a broad smile. Most of her front teeth were missing, evidenced by a gaping hole. “Big surprise. You stay, Jack. I cook.”

His mouth twisted to one side, contemplating the invitation. He was off work until Thursday. It wasn’t as if anyone was waiting at home. Why the hell not? “Okay, Nana. I’ll stay but I want to work for my supper. What can I do to help?”

“Rocks. I need more rocks for my garden.”

Jack bit his tongue to keep from laughing. No wonder all the agents called her Crazy Woman. She’d gathered stones from the desert and boxed in every bush and tree around her camp. Some of the edgings were shaped in hearts, others a linear border. Further away, small bits of white quartz formed a maze. Or walk. Or some kind of odd shape she’d dreamed up in her head. Not that it mattered because in Nana’s mind it was pretty.

Pulling a backpack from his ATV, Jack wandered a short distance into the desert and began filling the bag with baseball sized rocks. Damn, it was hot. How did the old gal keep from getting heat stroke?

He looked up just as she removed something from inside a ragged piece of old canvas. What the heck was she up to now?

Jack dumped his bag of rocks near the Ironwood tree and grabbed one of the waters from the case. He drained half the contents while watching her place a slab of pink meat on the grill. “What ’cha got there?”

“Fish.”

His brows shot up. “Fish? Where’d you get fish, Nana? There ain’t no water around here.”

“I know where to go but not as many fish as there used to be. Harder to catch.” She stoked the coals without looking up. Smoke curled around her hunched figure, hiding her face.

He shook his head and walked back to the ATV. That wasn’t fish. Maybe rabbit. Jack stopped and looked back. Aw, hell . . . it was probably coyote.

“Jack, come here. Eat.”

His first instinct was to leave but he didn’t want to hurt the old woman’s feelings. Wiping his hands on a faded rag, Jack turned and made his way back to the masonry fireplace.  “Smells good.”

She shot him a toothless grin. “I smoked this piece just for you. It real tender. Sit on that rock.”

He did as requested, easing his large frame onto a flat topped boulder. A few minutes later, gnarled fingers handed him a six-inch strip of meat on a mat woven from grass. A gooey sauce lathered its surface topped with what he guessed were dried herbs.

Jack stared at the charred meat for a full minute before tearing off a sliver and sliding it into his mouth. He rolled it over his tongue before swallowing, surprised by the flavor. Not gamey at all. And tender, just like she said.

“This is good, Nana. I really like the sauce.”

The old woman cackled. “See. I tell you.”

He needed no encouragement to finish the meal. “It was nice of you to share your food. I know you don’t have a lot to eat.”

She shrugged. “It been slow fishing with all this heat but I got good bait. I know how to catch ’em.”

“Well, you’ll have to tell me your secret. The last time I went fishing, I didn’t even get a bite.”

Blue eyes twinkled beneath the brim of her hat. “Used to be easier. You soldier men chase the fish away.”

A thick line formed between his brows. Was she talking about the Border Patrol agents? “How did we chase the fish away?”

Nana didn’t answer, her pinpointed gaze tracking his movements as Jack reached for his water bottle..

“Man, you must have coated that meat in red pepper. It sure is spicy.” The back of his hand swiped across his forehead. “I’m sweating even in the shade. How do you stand this heat?”

“I like it hot. Good for jerky. Dries the meat real fast.”

Jack handed her the grass mat before struggling to his feet. “Whoa, I’m feeling a little dizzy. Mind if I stay for a bit? Just until it cools down.”

“No, no . . . you sit. Feel better soon.”

His knees buckled as he tried to sit, causing him to miss the boulder and land in the dirt. Something was wrong. The fish must have been tainted. “I . . . I think I got food poisoning. I don’t feel so good.”

“Not poison. That ruin meat. Just herbs to make you sleep.”

Jack blinked several times as his vision blurred. His tongue felt thick, swollen. Opening his mouth, he gasped for air. Words gurgled in his throat but never made it past his lips. Pushing to his feet, Jack took one step before collapsing.

“He asleep?” A man with long hair and a scraggly beard emerged from a deep hole covered with brush.

The woman nodded. “Get the rope, boy.”

She tied it to Jack’s feet. The man threw the other end over a sturdy limb and hoisted the unconscious body into the air. He walked away, returning a few minutes later dragging an empty metal drum which he centered under Jack’s body.

Nana grabbed Jack’s hair and pulled his head back, revealing a wide expanse of neck. “I stick him. He bleed out quick. You get rid of motor car.”

“Can’t I keep it, Mama?”

“No, no, not good. Someone might see it.”

“But I want it. None of the other fish ever have anything we can use.”

“You get rid of it like I say!” The old woman whirled around, pointing a bony finger at her son. “I’ll sharpen the knife. We get lots of jerky outta this one.” She tugged on Jack’s arm, examining the muscular tone of his shoulder. “This white meat. Not like those dark ones we catch in the desert. I feed you good, boy.”

“Do ya want me to bury the bones in the same place as the others?”

She nodded. “Now you know why I say dig that hole wide and deep. Gotta cover up these fish guts afore they start stinkin’!”

Unmarked Graves

The Lore

Old Mortimer Cemetery, Mortimer, NC

Mortimer, North Carolina was a thriving logging town in the early 1900’s. Close to 800 families settled there to work at the Ritter Sawmill but  over-harvesting of trees followed by a 20” rainfall in one day created the perfect conditions for a flood that wiped out the community. It was touted as one of the worst in Caldwell County history. The Ritter Company decided not to rebuild and left.

United Mills Company opened a cotton mill in 1922, which briefly resurrected the town’s former prosperity. The Civilian Conservation Corps built Camp F-5 at Mortimer during the Great Depression, and by 1933, the hard working crews had repaired and rebuilt most of the damaged buildings from the 1916 flood.

On August 13, 1940, however, Wilson Creek once again emerged from its banks as a result of a coastal hurricane. The creek quickly rose to a flood stage of 94 feet and decimated the town. Oddly, one of the only structures left standing was the CCC building. Two major floods in a 24 year span was enough to drive remaining families from the area.

Today, much of the mountain property in the northwestern part of Caldwell County is public land held by the U.S. Forest Service.

Thorpe’s Creek Falls is a short hike from the Mortimer Campground which sits adjacent to the CCC building and deteriorating hillside cemetery. There are allegedly 20 unmarked graves, and many more rounded stone markers with no inscription. Grave sites date back to the 1800’s.

The memorial stone at the top of Thorpe’s Falls remains a mystery. No one is certain of who put it there or why. Upon personal inspection, it appeared more modern, perhaps from a poured concrete mold. A camper who frequents the area mentioned the purple Iris and violets growing across the creek from the marker. He cites that this is the only place within miles where the flowers can be found growing wild.

The Story

Unmarked Graves

by Debra S. Sanders

It was a brisk afternoon in late March – a day when the air was still cold enough to form vapor clouds with each breath. Lucy Bennet buried her chin beneath the knitted scarf circling her neck and hopped across strategically placed stones in the middle of Thorpe’s Creek. After landing on the opposite side of the sloping bank, she paused to soak up the scene. It reminded her of an English countryside – not that she’d ever visited such a place – but the photos from tourism books at Morganton library looked just like this.

Lucy liked to read about far-off, exotic locations. They fueled daydreams of an adventurous life filled with travel and friends of a more “elevated” societal standing. Sometimes, she imagined herself a personal assistant to a famous movie star. Or a wealthy tycoon’s secretary. On rare occasions, when she dared to dream big, Lucy closed her eyes and pretended to be the wife of an international diplomat.

On this particular day, however, Lucy was immersed in a different sort of daydream. Something more suited to her lot in life. She and fiancé, James Marmott, planned to elope.

James was a good man, older than her twenty-two years, and a skilled mechanic. He earned a decent wage at the garage in Colletsville, and marriage would allow her to relocate from the small, rural community where she’d lived all her life.

At one time Mortimer, North Carolina had been a bustling logging town but over-harvesting of the trees, devastating forest fires and two particularly nasty floods destroyed the area. The town’s residents were too discouraged to start over so they fled down the mountain in search a better life. Mortimer became a ghost town overnight.

After a few years, people began to venture back along the eight miles of dusty, dirt road but only to frequent a small National Forest campground or frolic and fish in Wilson Creek. They were seasonal visitors. It was too isolated for most folk to live there full time. The hardy souls who remained managed to carve out a life on the mountain and call themselves locals.

The remote area offered few options for a young woman of marrying age so Lucy considered herself darned lucky when James came courting. They dated off and on for over a year. Her pappy wasn’t too keen on the young man at first and Lucy knew why. Pappy didn’t want to lose his cook and housekeeper. After her mother died when Lucy was twelve, she took over caring for her father and two younger brothers.

Lucy didn’t mind so much at first. She liked feeling all “growed up”. But when she told Pappy about her plans to attend the community college in Morganton, he was quick to remind her that her first duty was to God and second to family. Even though she was crushed, Lucy dutifully obeyed and stayed at home, working summers at the small market near Wilson Creek Visitor Center to help pay for her younger brother’s school supplies and clothes.

That was four years ago. The boys were now in high school with part time jobs of their own. Jeb would graduate this year and Bruce the year after – which gave Lucy a sense of purpose. It was time to shed the familial shackles. Time to live her own life . . . past time.

She followed Thorpe’s Creek through Mortimer Campground to where a trail cut through the dense foliage. The camp sites were still closed for the winter so she didn’t have to share the path with summer visitors. It was a popular hike for campers and tourists in the spring and early summer. Rhododendron lined the well-worn trail leading to Thorpe’s Falls where the water spilled in gentle layers over a solid rock face. A shallow pool gathered at the base, offering cool respite from the heat of the day before tumbling over scattered stones and mossy slopes as it frolicked through the campground.

By the time Lucy reached the falls, her heart pounded with excitement. She picked her way over the wet, slippery stones and took a narrow path to the left of the falling water. Once she reached the top of the hill, she turned right, scampering over a fallen log and following the trail to the creek. James was already there, a big smile on his face.

“Hi, honey! C’mon over here.”

He held out a hand, helping her down a short drop. Lucy immediately fell into his embrace, warmed by the circle of his arms. “I can’t believe we’re getting married tonight. I’m so happy.”

His embrace tightened as James kissed the top of her head. “Me, too, but there’s been a slight change in plans.”

“What?” Lucy pulled back just enough so she could tip her head and meet his gaze.

“I have to work for George tonight. I promised to cover his shift a few weeks ago and plumb forgot until he mentioned it today.” When James saw the disappointment on Lucy’s face, he rushed to add, “It’s just one day. We’ll drive to Charlotte tomorrow and get married. I promise. Besides, the extra money means we can rent a motel room for the weekend. Won’t that be fun?”

She nodded, trying not to cry.

James pulled her down beside him on a moss covered log and slipped an arm around her shoulders. “I love you, Lucy. Nothing will ever change that.”

“I love you, too.” It was true. She did love James but the fact he promised to take her away from Mortimer added a sort of desperation to her feelings. She glanced forlornly at the tiny clearing next to the creek, then back at James, trying not to let her emotions get away from her. “It’s so pretty here. It just needs a little English Ivy and violets.”

“There you go again,” James grinned, “daydreaming about England. I’ll take you there someday. I surely will.”

She nestled her head against his shoulder. “That would be wonderful.”

“There’s nothing I won’t do for you, darlin’. I wouldn’t want to go on livin’ if anything happened to you.”

“Aw, you’re just saying that.”

His hands cupped her face as his gaze pinned her with an earnest expression. “I mean it, Lucy. You’re my whole world. I will never love another woman the way I love you.”

Lucy sighed and submitted to his passionate kiss. James would take care of her. Love and cherish her. Her dreams would finally come true.

A half-hour later, Lucy bid James farewell. He offered to walk her to the road but she told him to go ahead. She wanted to sit and enjoy the quiet serenity of the falls for a little longer.

After he left, Lucy meandered to a narrow, leaf strewn ledge overlooking the waterfall. She’d waited eight years to escape what felt like indentured servitude to her family. I suppose one more day won’t kill me. She inhaled deeply of the crisp mountain air and straightened her shoulders, slipping back into her role of homemaker. If she left now, there’d be enough time to bake a pan of cornbread for supper. Pappy always liked hot cornbread with his ham and beans.

Lucy strode purposefully down the trail and across the deserted camp sites. She’d just reached the white Forest Service building when a faint glow emanated from the wooded hill behind it. That’s odd, she frowned. Are the woods on fire?

The only thing up there was an old cemetery. Everyone said it was haunted. Last year, a group of paranormal investigators filmed an episode for a television show about the alleged spirits from unmarked graves that frequented the rundown, forgotten burial ground. It had created quite a stir in the small community.

Lucy’s eyes brightened.  Perhaps they were back. The glow was probably from the lights used by the camera crew. They could be filming right now!

She darted up the overgrown road running parallel to the wooden building. Maybe they’ll hire me as an extra. Thoughts of a budding acting career quickened her pace. By the time Lucy reached the top of the rutted dirt lane and darted into the clearing of trees, she was out of breath.

She stood at the entrance to the decaying cemetery, gasping for air as she surveyed the rusted, broken fence around two older graves. One gate was missing. The other barely attached by a single hinge. Her gaze swept to the left, focusing on a scattering of broken granite stones. Some still retained the familiar rectangular shape of a headstone while others were not much more than a medium sized river rock. Inscriptions had long since disappeared beneath the ravages of wind and rain.

Lucy frowned. There were no camera crews so what had created the strange light?

Glancing around, a bewildered expression crinkling her brow, Lucy picked her way between the unkempt headstones. A mist formed along the tree line at the back of the clearing, next to the oldest section of the cemetery. Lucy eased closer to a row of broken, falling down markers, surprised to find an old woman kneeling next to one, head bowed.

Grey hair peeked from beneath a black veil covering her face and shoulders. It matched the long dress covering most of her legs and booted feet.

“Ma’am? Are you alright?” Lucy hated to disturb the grieving woman but thought it odd someone her age would be in the cemetery alone.

The bent figure stiffened. After a few seconds, her head nodded but she kept her gaze downward. “I’m fine, dear. Just saying goodbye to an old friend.”

Lucy took a step closer, a twinge of compassion shooting through her. It must be awful to reach the age where you outlived acquaintances and family. “I know how hard it is to lose someone. My mama died eight years ago. She’s not here, though. Pappy buried over by Edgemont.”

This time the elderly woman looked up. Lucy was surprised by the twinkle in the bright blue eyes as she smiled and struggled to her feet. “Are you from Mortimer?”

“Yes, ma’am. Lived here all my life. Pappy owns a farm just down from Betsey’s Ole Country Store. My name is Lucy Bennet.”

“Bennet? I don’t recall any Bennets in Mortimer. You must be new to the area.”

“Goodness, no. Grandpappy bought land by the old railroad trestle back when he worked at Ritter Sawmill. Of course, that was before the flood. My family has lived on that same plot for almost a hundred years.”

“Hmmm, that makes you third generation.” A strange expression came over her wrinkled features. “Are you planning on staying here? Raising your family in Mortimer?”

Lucy shook her head. “No way. I got two younger brothers. I’m sure one of them will keep the farm going. They ain’t got as much ambition as me. I’m moving to Colletsville as soon as I get married tomorrow,” she boasted proudly.

“That’s a shame. Mortimer keeps losing its residents. Soon there won’t be anybody left.”

“No offense, ma’am, but there ain’t many left now.”

“I know – that’s why we have to keep people here. My daddy was one of the founding families. He was probably the one who hired your grandfather at the lumber mill.”

Lucy’s mouth curved upward. “That was a long time ago.” She glanced up at the sky, surprised to see the translucent glow growing brighter. It was larger now, too, forming a dome over the cemetery. “I do declare, that is the oddest sight I’ve ever seen.”

“What, dear?”

“The sky. It’s strange. Kinda like the Northern Lights.”

The woman turned her wrinkled face upward. For the first time, Lucy noticed the grey pallor to her skin. The flesh crinkled like dry newspaper. A large, gaping wound covered one side of her cheek, and next to the blackened edge, Lucy thought she saw something move under the skin.

A shiver ran down her back. “It’s . . . gettin’ late. I gotta go.” Apprehension tightened around her chest, making it hard to breathe as she swiveled on her heel and prepared to run.

Bony fingers clamped around her arm with a strength that belied the feeble woman’s age. “Not so fast, my dear. We still have things to discuss.”

Lucy’s eyes riveted to the skeletal hand, shocked to find thick, deformed nails biting into her flesh – so deeply, a tiny rivulet of blood trailed past her wrist. “Let . . . let me go.”

The woman ignored her plea. She pulled Lucy to a small mound next to the decaying fence. “Do you know what this is?” she said, pointing with her other hand to the barren earth.

“N. . . no.”

“It’s an unmarked grave.” She met Lucy’s gaze with an icy stare. The prominent twinkle from earlier was gone, replaced by an unmistakable glitter of malice. “There’s more over there.” Her head bobbed to the right. “Forgotten souls, some too poor for a proper burial. No one cared about anything but that damned old sawmill back in the day. Not even my daddy. He was too cheap to pitch in for a headstone so he just dumped me here, like insignificant trash.”

“I’m real sorry, ma’am. I’m sure that wouldn’t happen today.” Lucy struggled to free herself from the vice-like grip.

“You think not?” The wind picked up, howling through the tall pines surrounding the cemetery , and evoking a dust devil next to the old woman’s feet as leaves and dirt rose in a plume. “Ever wonder why the CCC building and this hillside were the only things to survive the flood? We weren’t about to let those bastards get away so easy. The 800 . . . that’s what we call ‘em . . . the original families who formed this town . . . cast us aside. Every once in a while, one comes back – and we keep them here. Make ‘em pay for what they did.”

Lucy gave a final tug and freed herself from the bony grasp. “You’re crazy. I’m getting out of here.”

She could barely hear her own words above the roar of the wind. Except now, it seemed to be blowing against her with gale force strength. Each step met a growing resistance until finally she could not move at all. And then she heard them. Voices. They were all around her. Inside her. Evil, vicious words ripping through her head.

One glance over her shoulder confirmed Lucy’s worst fear. The old woman laughed. A mad, horrible sound that spewed past yellowed teeth and a gaping mouth. Tendrils of dust wrapped around Lucy’s ankles, tugging at her until she was prone on the ground. Her fingers clawed in the dirt as an unseen force dragged her backward.

It was impossible to stand; rocks and brush dug into her soft flesh. As Lucy’s unwilling body moved closer to the old woman’s outstretched arms, her insides tightened. Blue eyes glowed like burning embers . . . emitting tiny sparks that embedded into Lucy’s skin, scorching the delicate surface. She screamed in agony. Screamed in fear. And continued screaming long past the point she could hear anything but the gush of her own blood.

***

James Marmott placed a bouquet of violets and dark green ivy at the base of the marker, then read the words again out loud.

No farewell words were spoken.

No time to say goodbye.

You were gone before we knew it.

And only God knows why.

He’d left the small engraved stone at the top of Thorpe’s Falls almost two years ago, planting wild Iris bulbs, violets and English Ivy along the banks of the meandering creek. The ivy didn’t survive the winter but the flowers did and sprang to life each spring, a reminder of the love he’d shared with Lucy Bennet. He liked to think her spirit still lingered at their final meeting place, which was why he attempted to create an English garden for her to gaze upon.

“I miss you, Lucy, darlin’. I surely do.” James wiped a tear at the corner of his eye. “I don’t know where you went but I reckon you wouldn’t have left me of your own free will.” He sat down next to the marker and wrapped long arms around his knees, staring at the carpet of purple blooms across the stream. “I tried to make this pretty for you – like that English countryside you always talked about. I hope you like it.”

James sat there for a long time, recalling how he and Lucy planned their future at this very spot. Guilt riddled his thoughts. He’d never been able to shed the “what-ifs” – what if he’d not agreed to work for George that night? What if Lucy had accompanied him to the shop, and waited in his car until his shift ended. What if they’d driven to Charlotte and got married the next morning? What if he’d just said, “. . . to Hell with responsibility . . .” and claimed her as his own – six months before he felt financially stable enough to propose?

The last haunting option spurred him to ask Sadie Ritter to be his wife after only a few months of courtship. She was much younger, only eighteen on her recent birthday in February, but they’d “clicked” immediately. A fiery, passionate click that rivaled the feelings he shared with Lucy. The petite redhead was nothing like his first love. She hailed from Mortimer’s W. M. Ritter family who built the sawmill. It was her ancestors who created the once bustling community.

Sadie embraced her heritage with pride. No escaping to Colletsville for this one. She insisted they settle in Mortimer and work toward restoring the area to its former glory.

“I wish you were here, Lucy, but you’re not. I’m lonely . . . and Sadie, well, she’s a heckuva woman. I think you’d like her.” He paused a moment before rising to his feet. “I still love you, darlin’. Reckon I always will but life goes on. I need a son to carry on my name.” James cleared his throat. “I hope you understand. I surely do.”

The chill of an early April wind chased James down the path as he made a hasty retreat, slipping past the falls and half running, half walking to the trailhead. It was not until he emerged into the deserted campground that his uneasiness subsided.

It was just the aftermath of saying goodbye, he told himself as narrowed eyes searched the horizon. A storm brewed over the mountains, one that would bring a good amount of rainfall before morning. He quickened his pace. As he reached the entrance to the campground, James noticed an odd glow over the hill behind the Forest Service building.

That’s strange. I wonder if someone left a campfire unattended.

He walked along the road, then for some inexplicable reason, turned back toward the overgrown trail that led past the trees to the old cemetery.

James didn’t know what made him approach the road or why his pace quickened as he neared the small, forested hillside. All he knew was that he had to go. When he finally breached the clearing that opened into the rundown graveyard, he understood.

Standing there, in a faint mist, was his beloved Lucy, motioning him to join her at the back of the cemetery. At first, he couldn’t believe his eyes. His pulse raced. He began walking, then running to greet her. It was as if no time had passed. She looked exactly as she had the last time he saw her.

“Lucy! Is that really you . . .?” James paused to catch his breath, still blinking at her smiling face. “I don’t understand.”

“I know, my love. It’s crazy, isn’t it?” Her face beamed with an inner glow that rivaled the strange light above their heads. “I’ve waited so long for you to find me.”

Forgotten love, spurred by memories of passionate nights, drew him closer until at last his arms wrapped around her trembling body. “Lucy . . . darlin’ . . . I can’t believe you’re here. I’ve missed you so much.”

“I’ve missed you, too, James.”

“Where have you been?” He pulled back, a line forming between his brows. “I . . . thought you were . . . why did you leave me?”

“I didn’t want to go away. It was necessary.”

“Why?” Each time he dismissed a question, two more formed in his head.

“I needed to learn why it was wrong for me to move to Colletsville. My place is in Mortimer. You’ll stay with me, won’t you, James?”

He bit his lip as arm dropped to his sides. “It’s been a long time since you and I . . . since we planned to get married.”

“I know. The flowers are lovely. Thank you for planting them.”

“You . . . you saw them?”

“Of course. I know everything you do.”

He scratched the back of his head. “So, I reckon you know about Sadie Ritter?”

“Yes. I admit I was disappointed when you proposed to her. After all, you did say you would love me forever.”

“I do love you. I always will . . . but I didn’t think you were coming back. I . . .”

“It’s alright, James. I understand. Truly, I do.”

His eyes sought Lucy’s face, softened by her forgiveness. “You’re one of a kind, darlin’.” He kissed her cheek, surprised by the coolness of her skin. “Shall I give you a ride to your Pappy’s house?”

“That’s not necessary. I live here now.”

“Where?” James glanced around, anxiety settling in his belly like a lead weight. As his gaze circled to Lucy, he tried to hide his uneasiness. “Well, then, I best be headin’ home. It was real good seeing you.”

“Wait.” Lucy took his hand, pulling him closer. “I want to show you something. See this mound?” She pointed at a bare spot on the ground. “It’s an unmarked grave.”

“O . . . okay . . .”

James licked his dry lips. There was something not right about Lucy. Her skin looked grey. Her eyes . . . He attempted to pry her fingers from his hand but her grip was too strong. “Let me go!”

“I can’t do that.” The words seemed to swirl around him as the wind picked up, howling through the pine trees. “You and I were meant to be together. It’s destiny.”

“Noooo. . .” James planted his feet in the hard soil but it was no use. His body slid forward, toward the gaping hole opening up in the ground.

“Don’t feel bad. We’re just the means to an end. It’s not us they want – it’s Sadie Ritter. And you’re going to bring her here. We’ll get them all eventually . . . one by one.”

James opened his mouth to scream but nothing came out. It was as if the old woman standing behind Lucy had snatched the sound right from his throat. And then he heard them . . . the voices. . .

***

They say there are twenty unmarked graves in the Old Mortimer Cemetery. But the number of bodies occupying those graves is anybody’s guess.

What does KY Warming Gel, Preparation H and Cowboy Hats have in Common?

Each product was part of an interesting conversation at the high traffic tourist stop where I work near Bryce Canyon. Hubs and I decided to “workamp” this summer. For those not familiar with the term it describes seasonal or temporary workers who live in their RV. In exchange for hours worked, we receive a wage, great perks, a nice campsite for a pittance of what we would normally pay which includes full hook-ups, wifi, and cable. We also have plenty of days off to explore the beauty of southern Utah and northern Arizona. Not a bad arrangement.

Hubs works light maintenance at one of the hotels. I work a variety of positions in the retail store.

About eighty percent of our customers are European, Asian or Australian . . . and many speak limited or NO English. I’ve become adept at hand signals/charades, choosing the right coins from paying customer’s outstretched hands, and learning common words in various languages. It’s fun but can sometimes present challenging situations.

For instance – I had a German gentleman with very limited English skills purchase a western hat. He was part of a group who clearly found his hat amusing. I cut off the tag so he could wear it immediately, telling him he looked like a cowboy and now he just needed a horse. He didn’t understand the word “horse” so I pretended to ride an imaginary equine, using my hands to imitate holding the reins. “Ride horse,” I said. His friend must have understood because he translated in German. The man laughed and pointed at his wife. “I have her.”

Oooookay.

A young couple came to my register with KY Warming Gel. They’d just returned from hiking. He asked if the contents would help his sore ankle. ???? I said no. He then asked in broken English what it was for. My face was red. I pointed to his girlfriend and replied, “For her.” Both looked at me funny. “It’s used to enhance intimacy.” At that, they both laughed. He returned later with a tube of Icy Hot..

An Asian man brought a tube of Preparation H to my associate, a young male in his late teens. The customer asked if it was face or hand cream, once again in broken English. The boy turned to me and said, “She can help you.” Really? I told the man it was used to ease hemorrhoids which thankfully he seemed to understand. I then instructed him to a different area of the store for hand cream.

After these encounters . . . and more . . . it makes me wonder what non-English speaking countries think of Americans when we try to communicate during travels and vacations. I’m not sure I want to know. Hopefully, no one blogged about me during my last trip across the border.

Picher Perfect

The Lore:

Northeastern Oklahoma is often called “Green Country” due to the abundance of man made lakes and heavily treed, rolling hills. Tucked a few miles from the Kansas border lies Picher, a modern day ghost town described by one local news source as “The biggest environmental disaster you’ve never heard of”.

Picher is surrounded by huge piles of “chat” – white, chalky tailings – the aftermath of lead extraction from nearby mines. The small rock byproduct was used by local residents to fill their driveways. Children rode bicycles over the mounds. Picnics and family reunions were held there. The chat symbolized the town’s major employer and folks paid dutiful homage. They had no idea the towering mountains of rock concealed toxic hazards.

Nearly a hundred years of unrestricted subsurface excavation eventually destroyed Picher and left many adults and children with physical and developmental disabilities.

It all started in 1913 when zinc and lead were discovered in the area. The town sprang up overnight and was named after O. S. Picher, owner of the Picher Lead Company. By the 1920’s, the population neared 15,000 – with more workers commuting from other communities to labor in the mine or for service-related businesses. Lead and zinc mining consumed the tri-state corner consisting of Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas – and Picher was the crown jewel, producing more than $20 billion in ore over a thirty-year span. Fifty percent of the bullets used by the U.S. military during World War I came from the Picher mine. Production surged again during World War II.

The mine waste, or chat mounds – some as high as 150 feet tall, were piled all over Picher. They shadowed residential neighborhoods, schools, churches, and businesses. Fine, toxic dust blew over the town – and residents breathed it on a daily basis.

Water runoff from rain polluted the area’s creeks and water supplies. When mining finally ceased around 1970, underground tunnels were no longer pumped out. They eventually filled with even more toxic wastewater, infiltrating trees and soil.

Perhaps the worst consequence of the mine operations was the subsurface excavations. The huge caverns were tunneled so close to the surface; tree roots were later discovered in the roof of some of the shafts. Parts of Picher began to collapse into deep sinkholes. The Army Corps of Engineers determined 86 percent of the town’s structures were in danger of caving in.

Creeks where residents had gathered for swimming and fishing were contaminated by cadmium and arsenic. The people didn’t know. They attributed their chaffed, red skin to sunburn, not realizing it was actually chemical burn. Cancer in residents skyrocketed.

The EPA finally labeled Picher as a Superfund site – which means it was too toxic to clean up. Federal buyouts began with the government paying people to relocate. Even then, a handful of residents refused to leave.

It wasn’t until a destructive tornado hit the area in 2009 that the town ceased municipal operations.

Today, Picher is a modern ghost town. Tar Creek continues to run red from metal contamination. Chat piles, though not as tall, still dot the landscape. The clean-up and reclamation project is moving at a snail’s pace. It could be twenty or thirty years before the area is habitable again.

Read more about Picher and other strange tales in ROAD TALES, Myth, Lore and Curiosities from America’s Back Roads. 

Amazon – eBook and Print

The Story:

Picher Perfect

by Debra S. Sanders

“Oh, lawdy, I’m a dyin’ and ain’t nobody can save me.”

Dolly Mae Jarvis rocked back and forth, wrapping her arms across her stomach. The pain in her belly grew more intense with each breath, exacerbated by a thick, fetid salvia forming in her mouth. Her legs crumbled beneath her, sending her withering body to the floor.

It was the eighth attack in three months and the worse by far.

The first time, she thought premenstrual cramps had brought on the pain but it came at the wrong time of the month. A week later, it happened again – only this time it was so severe she spent the day in bed with a heating pad.

Her neighbor, a kindly old widow named Maude, tended to her with homemade soup and herbal tea. When that did little to ease her discomfort, Dolly went to the local clinic. Seventy-five dollars and a sympathetic smile later, she was told, “It’s stomach flu. Everybody’s got it. Just let it run its course.”

Dolly Mae went back to the clinic between attacks four and five. After extracting a vial of blood for tests, it was determined she was anemic. The doctor administered a B12 injection and sent her home.

During the seventh attack, the pain rendered Dolly unconscious. Maude called her mother, a woman devoid of parental instincts, and demanded she take the twins while Dolly Mae recuperated. It was a full week before the poor girl regained her strength, primarily due to Maude’s nurturing and home cooked meals.

But now she was back to square one, rolling from side to side, racked with pain and guilt. I’m dying. What will happen to my babies? They were only three. They needed her. She couldn’t die. Not yet. If anything happened to her, the state would surely send her children to foster care. Her mother wouldn’t take them and their daddy ran off a month after they were born. There was no one else but her to give them the love they deserved.

A tear trickled down her cheek.

“Dolly Mae! Oh dear, are you sick again?” Maude was at her side, smoothing the hair from her face. “C’mon, honey, let’s get you in bed.”

“Mama’s bringing the kids home tomorrow. How can I take care of them like this?” she sobbed.

“Tsk, tsk. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about those children. I’ll help you.”

“Who will raise them when I’m dead, Miss Maude?” The woman’s laughter irritated Dolly to the point that she rolled away in disgust.

“Look at me.” The sharp tone commanded obedience. Dolly rolled over, timidly meeting the woman’s stern expression. “You’re not going to die. Do you hear me?”

“The pain is awful. I can’t take much more.”

Maude’s face softened. “Do you want to get well? I can help but you must promise to follow my instructions without question.”

Dolly nodded. “I’ll do whatever you say.”

Maude placed her hands over Dolly’s stomach and closed her eyes. She began to hum a low, indistinct tune under her breath as she rotated the palms over her pelvic region then up to her sternum.

An intense heat flowed from the old woman’s hands even though they hovered a good four inches above the afflicted area. To Dolly’s amazement, the pain began to ebb. Minutes later, she sat up, feeling much better.

“Why ain’t you done that before?”

“You weren’t ready. This is only a temporary fix. You’re not healed yet. I need to get you on your feet for the next part. Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

“Yes, Miss Maude,” Dolly exclaimed enthusiastically. “Just tell me what to do.”

“Very well. I’ll have you in perfect health by tomorrow but you must do exactly what I say and not tell anyone about our plan. Do you promise?” The girl nodded. “I need a photograph from when you felt good. A time when you were smiling and happy. Then tonight, meet me at nine o’clock by the chat pile where the creek runs under the bridge. Bring a change of clothes. Something pretty.”

Dolly frowned. “I don’t understand. Why the chat pile? And why after dark?”

Maude tilted her head, shaking her finger. “No questions, remember?”

“Okay, sorry. I’ll be there and bring everything you said.”

“Good!” The older woman leaned in and kissed her cheek. “Not a word to anyone, dear.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Dolly waited until her neighbor was gone before getting out of bed. None of the woman’s instructions made sense but it didn’t matter. Maude had made the pain go away. Dolly had heard stories of people laying hands on diseased folks. She reckoned Maude must be one of those gifted healers.

Fishing a shoebox from her closet, Dolly sorted through a stack of old photos until she found the one she wanted. She barely recognized the happy, smiling face. The picture was taken right after she met Ben . . . right before she became pregnant. At eighteen, she was the prettiest girl in Picher, Oklahoma and the photograph proved it. Black hair cascaded across slim shoulders, framing almond eyes and full lips.

Dolly always wondered if her dark, good looks was the reason for her mother’s hatred. She bore no resemblance to the blonde haired, blue eyed woman who gave her life, only to the man who drank himself to death and left his wife in a mountain of debt.

But on this day she basked in the glow of new love. Ben had just asked her to marry him and happiness shone in her face. It was exactly the kind of picture Maude wanted.

A few hours later, Dolly closed the small overnight bag on her bed and headed for the door. She’d carefully folded a pink floral dress and placed it inside. It was the only dress she owned but at least it was pretty.

At eight forty-five, she began the ten minute walk to the chat pile, using a flashlight to illuminate the darkened street. Half the residents of the small mining town had already moved away. More were planning to do the same because they believed the lies from a bunch of nosy environmentalists.

They said mining sludge had contaminated the water and ground. Ridiculous, Dolly sniffed, picking up her pace. It was because of them the mine closed down. People lost jobs. Those meddling no-gooders ruined the whole town.

She glanced at the glistening mountains to her right – mountains of tailing. They were a reminder what life had been like before the do-gooders showed up. Children played on those hills. Families gathered for picnics on Sunday afternoons. If taking a dip in the swimming hole at the end of a hot summer day was bad for folks, why hadn’t anyone complained before now?

Dolly arrived at the low bridge and turned right, following the uneven ground to the chat pile rimming the creek. She shone her flashlight near the pool of dark water and spied Maude standing at the edge.

“Hello, dear. You’re right on time.”

Dolly picked her way down the sloping bank. “I brought everything you asked. Here’s the picture.” She pulled the photograph from her pocket and handed it to the older woman.

Maude glanced at the glossy image and smiled. “It’s perfect!”

“So what now?”

She returned the photo. “Chew this up and swallow it.”

Dolly’s eyes widened. “I ain’t eating that.”

Maude arched a brow. “We discussed this, young lady. You promised to do exactly what I say. Don’t you want to feel better for your babies?”

Dolly nodded. Her shoulders rose and fell before tearing up the photograph and stuffing the remnants into her mouth. After a few minutes of vigorous chewing, she managed to swallow.

“Good girl. Now take off your clothes and step into the water. You can leave your underwear on.”

Dolly took a step back. “It’s cold! And I didn’t bring no towel.”

“You won’t need one. Trust me.”

After a moment of hesitation, Dolly began to undress. She’d come too far to stop now. The thought of those awful stomach pains spurred her into action. She dropped her jeans and sweater on the ground and stepped into the slow moving stream. “Brrrr, it’s freezing.”

An effervescent laugh trailed over the water. “Just wade in past your knees. That should be enough.”

Dolly did as the woman asked, moving her bare feet through the soft silt until the water lapped at her thighs. She wrapped her arms around a shivering torso, struggling to stay warm. Suddenly, something touched her ankle, slithering across her calf. Dolly squealed and twisted from side to side, searching the ripples. It had felt like a snake but Cottonmouths wouldn’t attack like that. She tried to step back. It was as if her feet had settled into quick sand.

“Miss Maude, help me! Something’s out here and I can’t move.”

“No worries, child. You’ll be fine.”

Her breath came in short spurts as she struggled to free herself. That thing was crawling up her leg, circling itself around her like a boa constrictor. Dolly thrashed her hands against the water, twisting violently until she lost balance and fell backwards. She went under. When she emerged, her feet came out of the water. They were covered in a black sludge.

Sputtering through a mouthful of water, she called out again. “Miss Maude . . . help me!”

“It’ll be over in a minute, dear. Try to stay calm.”

Dolly didn’t understand why the old woman just sat there. She managed to regain her footing and stood up. The sludge slid past her waist, climbing up her torso and arms . . . like it was alive. The pain in her stomach was back, ten times worse than it had ever been before. It was as if her insides were being shoved into her throat.

Dolly tried to scream but it was too late. The black substance covered her mouth, her nose, her eyes . . .

Maude hummed a little tune as she watched the sun rise above the chat pile. Another beautiful day. She glanced at the black cocoon near her feet. Oh, good. It’s almost ready.

A few minutes later the pod began to wiggle, much like an egg in the process of hatching.

This one went better than any of the others, she smiled brightly, running a hand over the top of the murky water. The oily black substance crawled up her arm to the elbow.

“Yes, yes. She’s almost ready. We’ll bring the twins to you soon. It will be the start of a new generation.” Maude giggled as the sludge rolled off and disappeared beneath the surface.

The mine unwittingly awakened the entity from a centuries old sleep. It was now her lord and master. Maude had been serving it for nearly three decades. Those silly government bureaucrats thought they could close down the town and make it go away but they were wrong.

She’d been transitioning hybrids into society for years. They were positioned in local politics where talk of reclamation and rebuilding the town were going surprisingly well. It was only a matter of time until they went national. And international. It would be a global transformation. A perfect world built from a perfect host.

The cocoon shuddered. A large piece fell into the water. Then another. And another . . . until Dolly Mae emerged looking exactly like her photograph. Young, flawless, happy.

Maude handed her the overnight bag. “Get dressed, dear. We have much to do.”

A few minutes later, Dolly twirled around, smiling at her benefactor. “Does this body look okay?”

Maude nodded as her eyes turned completely black. “It looks picture perfect.”

War Pony

The Lore:

Ghost Horses of Palo Duro Canyon, TX

Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, Texas exhibits breathtaking views of colorful rock formations, deep sloping walls and an abundance of native trees and grasses. It’s the second largest canyon in the United States, right behind the Grand Canyon. Much of the gorge encompasses a 29,000-acre state park which offers a variety of activities for visitors, as well as a seasonal outdoor musical.

Amidst all the grandeur, one might overlook the historical significance of the area. This is where the turning point in the Red River Indian Wars took place over one hundred and forty years ago. Sadly, that final skirmish resulted in the massacre of 1,400 Comanche horses.

In September, 1874, several Native tribes – Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Comanche – gathered in the canyon’s vast lands to hunt buffalo and stockpile supplies for the upcoming winter. The Comanche were great equestrians, perhaps the best of all American Indian tribes. They were fearless when mounted atop their horses and considered the animals to be an extension of their own spirit.

Col. Ranald McKenzie of the 4th U.S. Calvary was determined to track down the renegade Indians and relocate them to contained reservations. Using Tonkawa scouts, he located the Native camps on the canyon floor. From his high vantage point at the rim, he plotted an attack. His position, however, also created a disadvantage. There was no way to reach the bottom of the canyon without being seen. Finally, one of the scouts discovered a narrow path leading through cracks and crevices which ended at the canyon floor.

As McKenzie’s troops carefully maneuvered the steep trail, a Comanche night watch spotted the soldiers and fired a warning shot. The Indians rushed from their camps, surprised and ill-prepared for battle. Hopelessness of their situation led to a frenzied reaction. Many escaped up the canyon walls, saving their lives but forfeiting their supplies. McKenzie and his men confiscated the Native’s food, as well as two thousand horses.

Col. McKenzie feared the Comanche would regroup and steal back their horses, thereby eluding his troops again. After giving some of the horses to the Tonkawa scouts in payment for their help, he ordered his men to shoot and kill the herd. Blood flowed freely as the ponies lay dead or dying in the brutal massacre.

The army left the carcasses where they fell. After the meat was consumed by predators and vultures, the sun bleached bones littered the canyon for years . . . but the spirits of the horses live on.

Today, many campers have reported hearing the thunderous echo of stampeding horses late at night – a ghostly herd destined to run for eternity.

The Story:

War Pony

by Debra S. Sanders

Nocoma stuck close to his father’s side as the Comanche men prepared for the season’s final hunt. He was sure Big Elk would include him this time. After all, he was ten years old – almost a man. But then his mother gently pulled him away, signaling it was not to be. He turned his back when Big Elk rode by, refusing to say goodbye.

Nocoma was a stubborn, willful child who often challenged authority. Big Elk knew how badly his son wanted to join the hunt but the boy was small for his age and had yet to master the horsemanship skills for which Comanche were known. He could barely straddle a mount, much less control it.

Or so Big Elk thought.

Nocoma had secretly prepared for weeks, determined to win his father’s respect. While searching the herd for a suitable mount, he spied a small black and white pony barely visible through the mass of larger animals. Even though the horse was shorter than the rest, Nocoma liked the way he tossed his head, refusing to let his size contain his spirit.

The pony’s head shot up as Nocoma weaved a path to his side. A long swath of black mane draped over his forehead, covering half the white face. He snorted and dug at the earth, as if throwing down a challenge. Nocoma smiled. This would be his mount. He showed courage. The horse was too small for most Comanche which gave them something in common – they were both outcasts. And both underestimated.

Each morning, Nocoma led the pony to a remote box canyon away from his village. It was dangerous to stray so far from camp since the white soldiers frequented the area in search of “renegade” Plains Indians. If caught, he’d be sent to a reservation or worse, the white man’s school, never to see his family again.

The prospects were dire but proving to his father that he was a skilled horseman was worth the risk.

Nocoma spent the first few days wooing the pony with grass and berries, gradually reaching the point where he could slide across its back. Even though the animal delighted in unseating the boy, he never ran away after Nocoma picked himself up from the dirt.

Over the next two weeks, Nocoma earned the horse’s trust. They spent hours riding through the canyon. The boy marveled at the pony’s speed and agility as well as a fearlessness that matched his own. He named the horse Spirit.

Nocoma kept his newly learned skills to himself even though he was sure his insides would burst from excitement. His plan was to display his riding abilities on the day before the hunt. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the chance. Big Elk and the warriors left two days early at daybreak, taking extra horses with them. He pleaded with his father but the man was too busy gathering weapons to hear the boy’s words.

After the men left, Nocoma waited until his mother was busy then grabbed his bow and arrows and took off on foot, tracking the riders as they made their way deeper into the canyon. If nothing else, he would claim Spirit as his own and ride back to their village.

It came as little surprise when Big Elk noticed Nocoma huddled near the horses. He told the other warriors and older youth to ignore his son, hoping it would convince the boy to return to camp. It didn’t.

That night, when it became apparent he would not be fed with the rest of the hunters, Nocoma fashioned a snare and caught a rabbit. He then roasted it on a spit. Big Elk smiled, secretly proud of his son’s resourcefulness yet still worried the boy could not keep up during for the rigorous hunt.

He stood in the shadows watching Nocoma make a bed from dried leaves and twigs, placing it behind a boulder near the horses. After Nocoma fell asleep, Big Elk crept to his son’s side and covered him with a blanket. A soft whinny echoed from the darkness. Big Elk glanced up and saw the pony.

“You know this boy?” The horse snorted. “I see. Well, he needs a brave horse to protect him. A wise horse who knows what to do when his inexperience gets him in trouble. Is that you?”

Another whinny. The animal inched forward, nuzzling Nocoma’s hand with a velvet nose.

Big Elk raised a brow, eyeing the black and white pony with a disbelieving scowl. “You are both too small. I doubt either of you could stop a strong gust of wind.” His voice softened. “But perhaps together, your valor will surpass us all. I hope that is the case.”

The next morning, Nocoma mounted Spirit and rode along side the hunting party. He ignored the snickers and snide remarks from the men, determined to prove them wrong. That afternoon, they located a herd of buffalo grazing in a wide open field. Craggy rock walls towered on either side as the men argued over who would start a stampede to drive the bison into the box canyon. It was a treacherous task. A rider could easily fall from his mount and become trampled by the massive beasts.

While the warriors engaged in debate, Nocoma jumped onto Spirit’s back. Leaning forward, he whispered in the pony’s ear. “The buffalo are not as fast and sure-footed as you, my friend. We can do this. It will bring great honor to us both.”

Digging his heels into the horse’s side, Nocoma held on as Spirit galloped toward the herd. Pounding hooves drowned out the cries from Big Elk as the boy and his horse circled the grazing buffalo, startling them into action. The enormous animals charged toward the back of the canyon, engulfing Nocoma and Spirit in a thick, brown cloud.

Trembling fingers grabbed a handful of the pony’s mane as he fought to hold on. “We must reach the canyon wall, Spirit. They’re going to trample us.” Fear echoed in Nocoma’s voice but it was directed more toward the brave animal than himself.

Spirit ran alongside the stampeding buffalo, gradually easing his way to the outside. Spying a niche between two boulders, the boy guided his horse toward it. They both gasped for air as the bison rumbled by.

Before the dust settled, Nocoma heard gunfire and knew the hunting party had followed them. It was short lived glory. Looking up, he saw Big Elk riding toward him, an angry scowl on his face. Certain he would be sent home in disgrace, Nocoma slid to the ground and hugged the pony’s neck for what he assumed would be the last time.

“You were brave today, Spirit. As brave as any horse I’ve ever seen. I’ll never forget you.”

Big Elk dismounted and approached his son before stopping a few inches in front of him. Nocoma bowed his head, ready to take his punishment. To his surprise, his father pulled him into a tight embrace. “You rode like a Comanche today. I don’t know who taught you such skills but you learned well.”

“It . . . it wasn’t me. Spirit did it all.”

Big Elk looked down at his son and smiled. “If that is the case, your pony risked his life for you. This horse will never belong to another warrior. He shares your heart. Your soul. He will always be yours.” The older Comanche ruffled his son’s hair. “Now, come. We must prepare the buffalo meat to take back to the village.”

There was great celebration when the Comanche returned to camp. Nocoma joined the men around the campfire, welcomed as an equal. They had no way of knowing what lurked in the darkness.

Colonel Ranald MacKenzie of the U.S. Calvary pointed to a narrow trail descending into the canyon. This was the break he’d been waiting for – a chance to finally gather up the remaining Plains Indians and relocate them to Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

“We’ll follow this path and surprise them. Our scouts have already sighted the Comanche’s camp.”

During the pre-dawn hours, soldiers surrounded the vast village and opened fire.

Big Elk jumped to his feet, ordering his wife and son to climb the upper walls of the canyon. He and the rest of the men fought off the attacking army to allow their families a chance to escape.

When it became obvious they were surrounded, the Comanche along with Kiowa and Cheyenne, scurried up the cliffs. It would give them a better vantage point to launch a gun and arrow assault on the soldiers.

Nocoma found his father a short time later loading his rifle behind a large boulder. “I’ll stay and help fight the white eyes.”

Big Elk shook his head. “There are too many.”

“We have to do something! We can’t just let them destroy our village.” He peeked around the edge of the boulder, lips thinning as the soldiers and Tonkawa scouts tore down teepees and set them ablaze.

Big Elk’s body sagged against the rock. “The white demons have taken everything. Our food and shelter, our horses, our land . . .”

“We’ll fight them, father. We’ll get it back.”

Big Elk stared at the rifle in his hands. “We are Comanche. Without our horses, we are nothing.”

A shot rang out. Nocoma eased around the boulder for a better view. He couldn’t believe his eyes. The soldiers were killing the horses. Frantically scanning the herd, he spied Spirit. The small black and white pony stomped the ground, whinnying as another horse fell next to him.

“They’re shooting them! Father . . . we have to stop this!”

Big Elk swallowed and looked away. “How? We must go to their reservation. There is nothing we can do but live out our days under the white man’s rule.”

“No! I hate the white man! I won’t go . . .and I won’t let them shoot Spirit.”

Nocoma darted away before his father could stop him. He scampered down the canyon wall then slipped into a grove of trees. For once, his small size was an asset. No one noticed the boy crouched in the thick undergrowth. He stayed there for a few minutes, cringing each time a rifle shot rang out.

Horses cried out in fear and pain. He blinked away the tears and crawled to the edge of the clearing. Comanche ponies littered the ground, some withering as they took their last breath but most already dead. The rest were wide eyed, panicked as the soldiers sat on wagons, laughing and taking aim.

Nocoma spotted Spirit toward the back. He was shorter so the larger animals shielded him from bullets – for now. The soldiers were shooting the horses in front and not paying attention to the outer perimeter. Taking a deep breath, Nocoma belly crawled into the herd, stealthily moving between the horses until he reached Spirit.

“I won’t let them shoot you,” he whispered, wrapping his arms around the pony’s neck.

Spirit nuzzled him and whinnied but it was low, as if defeated. The horse knew. He sensed death around him and realized his fate was sealed.

Nocoma wiped a tear from his cheek. “We don’t have to die like this. We can meet the great spirit as warriors.” He glanced at the soldiers lined up on the other side of the herd. “Are you ready for one last ride, War Pony?”

Spirit tossed his head and reared up, snorting and pawing the ground. Nocoma spit onto the dirt, then wiped large stripes of red earth across his face. He repeated the marking down Spirit’s nose. It wasn’t black paint like most Comanche wore in battle but it would have to do.

Swinging himself onto the pony’s back, Nocoma let out a loud whoop and gripped Spirit’s mane. They took off in a gallop. He heard yelling and gunfire but didn’t care. Closing his eyes, Nocoma thrust his arms into the air and threw back his head. He matched his breathing to the rise and fall of Spirit’s pace. They were one.  One heart. One soul.

Nocoma and Spirit raced toward the soldiers. Oddly, the herd of horses ran next to them in a line on either side, as if guarding the boy and his mount from the barrage of bullets. As they neared the wagons. a sharp pain pierced Nocoma’s chest.

He leaned forward, resting his head on Spirit’s neck. “I love you. We’ll always be together.” Spirit took a final leap into the air.

*****

Some say, late at night, you can hear the thundering hooves of ghost horses racing through the Palo Duro Canyon, snorting and whinnying as though running from the devil himself. A few who have witnessed this phenomenon swear they’ve seen a proud Comanche boy astride a small black and white pony, leading the herd.

At least, that’s what they say.

Who’s Your Favorite Leading Lady?

Author Beverley Bateman is talking about heroines during the month of May at her blog. I was honored to be interviewed about this voluminous topic even though we barely scratched the surface. Please join me as I discuss my favorite heroines! I’d love to hear about your favorites . . . and why you think these ladies are top notch!.C’mon over and leave a comment!

http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/