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New American Western
Saddlebag Dispatches




Western Short Story
The Espantosa
Mark Mellon


Western Short Story

The travelers drew near the lake before sundown. Suggs and Mendoya rode ahead to scout a camp. The leaders of the Anglo and Tejano factions, they resembled a frontier Don Quixote and Sancho: Suggs, lean and wiry in a frock coat and plug hat, long rifle slung over one shoulder, and the dour, rotund Mendoya in his black sombrero, saddle adorned with silver conchos.

"Enrique," Suggs said, "how come your folks look so glum?"

"Que?" the Tejano barked. "They look like always."

"That is exactly my point. Look at 'em, miserable as ever. Ain't they pleased we come to water?"

"Oh," Enrique said.

He gracefully swiveled on his horse to look at the motley train behind: Anglos in buggies and buckboards and Tejanos in two-wheeled jinetas.

"They scared of the lago, the Espantosa."

"Scared, huh? Eye God, that's rare!" laughed Suggs. "What’re they scared of, the water gyppy or what?"

"There are ghosts," replied Enrique.

"Spirits? What do you mean? Haints and such?"

Enrique said no more.
Surrounded by a thick, almost impenetrable fringe of mesquite and live oaks, dense creeping cactus, and sticker vines that teemed with vicious stinging insects, rattlesnakes, and scorpions, the Espantosa was a misery that man or animal in right mind would avoid but for the overriding need for her dark waters. 
Suggs and Mendoya found a break in the scrub that gave access to the lake. The party camped there, except for Dent and his wife. Suggs noticed when he went around to ensure everyone arrived safely. Undoubtedly jealous of Hermione, a woman in a brown poke bonnet as homely as her face told him they turned off about a half-mile back. It wasn’t Suggs's business if Dent camped alone. There was danger though, rumors of Indian raids too persuasive to dismiss. Despite the trouble he caused, Suggs had to warn Dent.

"Reckon I'll see Dent," he announced to Mendoya. "Care to come along?"

"Si. Is no easy, talk to a man like Dent!"

"Pleased to have you," Suggs replied. 

Dent had set up camp in a live oak grove. The thick, low branches hid them well. Experienced frontiersmen, Mendoya and Suggs would have ridden past them if a horse hadn't snorted. They halted and dismounted. 

"Who's there?" Dent yelled.

"Suggs and Mendoya," Suggs said. "Thought we'd see how you and Mrs. Dent are keeping."

"We're fine, but you're welcome to sit company."

They led their horses into the grove. The new buggy with the padded leather seat stood with its traces empty. The unharnessed matched grays grazed nearby, loose-hobbled. Hermione gathered wood for a fire, grimacing as she bent over, the loose folds of her dress spread wide by her distended belly. Despite her pregnancy, she was still that rare thing on the frontier: a pretty, delicate woman. Suggs was pained to see her used so.

Dent sat on a stump, cutting a plug of tobacco. He wore long Spanish boots with tucked pantaloons, a white shirt, a long black broadcloth coat a neighbor's wife had sewed for him, and a broad brimmed hat. A pistol jutted prominently from a pocket. 

He stood up, flashed strong teeth flecked with tobacco, and said, "Well, what can I do for you gentlemen besides thank y'all for bringing me and the missus here in one piece?"

Suggs had learned along the trail how easy it was to ignite Dent’s red-faced anger. He squatted on his haunches and smiled like he'd come to make small talk.

"Mr. Dent, I know you value your privacy. I don't mean to intrude, but Mendoya and me, we don't reckon you should camp away from the rest." 

"Well, hell," Dent sneered, "what are y'so all fired worried about? Wasn't Santy Anny defeated three years ago? And furtheymore, ain't no Indians within miles of here."

"That ain't the way I hear tell of it."

"Be careful, Señor Dent," said Mendoya, "The Comanches, they are angry and want blood."

"Mendoya, you old pepper-gut, I don't believe a damn word you say."

Suggs said, "Mr. Dent, the Comanches are out raiding. They look for folks like you, out by yourselves. I know about Mrs. Dent's condition, but seems like all the more reason-"

"To let me and Mrs. Dent alone?" Dent chimed in.

"Yep, Suggs, I reckon you're right on that point. Like I said, y'all welcome to visit, even you, Mendoya, welcome to eat what little possibles we got. But don't tell me where to plant stakes, Suggs."

"Reckoned ye'd see it that way," Suggs said. He slowly put on his plug hat and stood. "Want a girl sent out to help Mrs. Dent?"

"Don't worry. Hermione holds up her end. Ain't that no doubt, little girl?" he shouted.

She looked up from the bacon she was slicing and smiled.

"Any more questions, gentlemen?" Dent demanded.

They made strained farewells. Mendoya and Suggs led their horses from the grove. Out of earshot, Mendoya remarked, “Tomorrow, we find them dead.” 

"Mendoya, there ain't a blessed thing we can do."

They rode into the gathering twilight.

Hermione tried to light a fire, but Dent ordered, "No, woman. Don't do every chore backwards! Fetch water for coffee."

Hermione had hoped to put off that chore. She dreaded the lake's steep banks. Weighed down and awkward, she didn't think she could make her way, but had no choice. Dent needed coffee. That was that, even if she had to crush the beans in a skillet with a rock. Hermione took Dent's canteen and walked toward the lake.

"Fill the waterskin too!"

She added the oxhide waterskin to her burdens. Hermione walked along the mesquite scrub until she found a deep notch hollowed by a creek in the undergrowth. It was an easy walk along the creek to the lakeshore. She uncorked the waterskin and canteen and submerged them. 

The water was so black, Hermione couldn't see her hands even though they were just beneath the surface. Bare dead trunks of trees clutched like wizened claws from the water. She heard no wildlife, not even a bird's cry. Hermione felt like the only person in the world. Dark waters shifted from sepia to indigo to pitchblende. Swirling, dusky variations drew her in. Gleaming yellow eyes emerged from the black water, alive with hunger and malice; slavering jaws bared long, razor-sharp white teeth; she stared at her own doom, imminent and foretold-

Hermione screamed and ran, chill despite the day's remaining heat, canteen and waterskin forgotten, up the creek to the grove. Dent caught her roughly.

"Lord, woman! You see a rattler?"

"The water, Charles," Hermione gasped, fighting to catch her breath.

"Yep, that's the stuff I sent you to fetch."

"I saw a wolf's face in the water. Oh, how it scared me!"

"You been hearing them beaner tales about ghosts in the lake? Pish and tosh! Didn't Doc Sartoris in Refugio say what sets us apart from Meskins is we ain't ignorant and superstitious? Next thing I know, Moiney, you'll wrap your head in a rebozo and squat in the dirt, patting out tortillas."

"Please do not tease me now, Charles."

Her tone of urgent entreaty, the previously unheard stern demand, startled Dent. His open, red face showed hurt like a child. Despite her anger, Hermione was drawn to him, wanted to comfort him. Her guilt only grew when he said, "Reckon I ain't being thoughty. Tell you what, whyn't you start that fire? I'll fetch those old water bags myself." 

Hermione pushed aside a stray lock of the blond hair that Dent loved, almost white as straw. She smiled. Dent said, "That's my little girl!" and left.

He returned complaining bitterly about the trouble he'd endured. A grateful Hermione cooked up bacon. They ate it with tortillas. She and Dent sat on a stump by the fire.

"Come two days, we'll be out of this. Just think, soaking in a tub at the Menger Hotel, drinking ice tea. It'll come, sure as morning!"

Hermione donned a veiled bonnet to keep off mosquitoes. 

"Yes, Charles, I am quite looking forward to it," she said, with real enthusiasm for once.
Dent lifted up her veil. He looked into Hermione's pale icy blue eyes and saw overflowing love and admiration, enough even for a man like him.

"Well, I kept my promise. No baby on the farm, least not the first one anyways, with just ol' Mammy midwifing. They got a real white doctor in San Antonio, an educated man from Massachusetts. Yes, sir, you kept your promise and I keep mine. That's what I set store by, keeping promises and settling scores!"

Dent poured out the coffee and stamped out the fire.
"Ain't saying I believe them two old cobs, but might’s well keep cold camp. We'll light a small fire in the morning for more coffee."

Dent unrolled a bedroll for his wife. She settled down as best she could. He pulled off his boots, rolled up in a blanket, and snored. Hermione got little rest that night. She was still frightened from the vision at the lake. The ground crawled with midges that got into the bedroll and onto her. A whippoorwill's insistent cry disturbed her. Even her fetus, mysteriously agitated, thrashed and churned. Shortly before dawn she lapsed into troubled half-sleep, a vertiginous fall down a black pit without escape into open jaws. The wolf's head welled up at her, inescapable-

She started awake in the gray early dawn. It took time to realize she was awake, safe from the nightmare's clutch. Hermione got up and put on her bonnet. Dent was already up. He'd removed the horses' hobbles, bridled them, and was currying them. Dent saw her and was about to roar, "How do!" when the distinctive crack of Suggs's rifle silenced him.

Dent and Hermione stood motionless some distance from each other, rooted to the ground. Screams curdled their blood, Comanche war whoops, followed by a brief outburst of gunfire. A horrid din erupted, the voices of those they'd traveled with, rendered into hideous shrieks of the maimed and mortally wounded. One horse took fright and bolted. The other tried to follow. Dent grabbed it by the reins. He pulled the horse's head down to his chest, blew in its ear, and whispered soothing nonsense. The big gray settled down. 

The screaming subsided to moans and intermittent wails. Then silence. Dent led the horse back to the buggy. He pulled a shirt from his warbag and tied it around the gray's ears to muffle sound. A bait of oats further pacified the animal. He hauled his saddle from the buggy's boot and put it on the horse, kneeing him in the gut before he tightened the cinch. Dent tethered the gray to the buggy.

The screams started again. Staked out on the ground, the survivors were slowly cut to pieces. Distraught, Hermione clumsily ran to Dent. She took his hands in hers.

"Charles! I can't stand to hear their suffering. We must help them. They're in agony!"

"Little girl, I hate to say it,” Dent whispered, “but there ain't a blessed thing I can do. Best hope they don't suffer too long and the Comanch don't find us. Goddamn that spooky horse anyhow! It'll play hell if he heads toward the camp. Any luck though, he'll run away from the noise."

The calvary lasted the day. Intent on himself and his own, Dent ignored it, but it was the most hateful experience in Hermione's life, every second unbearable. Even on the farm, she couldn't watch livestock be slaughtered, running from the barnyard to Dent’s laughter. Cries of pain, familiar voices distorted by agony, pleas for mercy met by savage mirth, tears and whimpering burned her ears like acid.
Near midday, the victims' agony ebbed to moans. They died out altogether. There was the rumble of hooves as the Comanches galloped off with their booty. Dent stood, cocked rifle cradled in his arms. Sweat poured down his florid face. Their luck held, however. The Indians rode away from them. 

"Are they gone now, Charles?"

"Reckon we dodged that polecat," Dent said.

"They're probably headed south to steal more horses and murder some Meskins; curse their black hearts."

"Let's go and see if we can help someone."

"No! You got a good heart, Moiney, but don’t even think of going out there. They ain't anyone left to help; that's a fact. We'll hole up here until nightfall. Then I'll hitch the horse to the buggy and we'll skedaddle for San Antonio."

Satisfied with his plan, Dent pulled out a thick chunk of jerky from his saddlebag and cut off several slices. He offered some to Hermione. Dent was puzzled when she refused until he remembered how far along she was. Heartsick and unable to think straight, Hermione laid down on the bedroll. The day passed slowly. Dent kept the horse saddled but loosened the cinch. He crept to the edge of the grove a few times. 

Near twilight, Hermione's loins contracted. She tried to shrug it off as mere stomach pain, but the tug came again. Dread realization sank in. The long desired and anticipated birth of her first child had arrived, at the worst time and place. A rhythmic internal pulse rapidly gained in frequency and urgency. At last, Hermione couldn't bear the pain anymore. She fell to the ground and gasped, "Charles. The baby won't wait. I-"

"You're having it now? Moiney, you can't do that, we gotta get to San Antonio!"

"It's too late! Charles, you have to help me."

Self-confidence, the smug certainty that Charles P. Dent could handle anything, leaked away like water from a cracked clay pot, leaving only white-faced terror. He looked wildly around until he saw the horse.
"I know, Moiney! I'll get some help."

"Charles, we're in the wilderness," Hermione moaned. "There's no one out there but Indians. You can't leave me here!"

Dent had already run to the horse. He put his rifle in the scabbard, tightened the cinch, undid the reins, and mounted the gray.

"Don't you worry, little girl. I'll be back. That's a promise, Moiney!"

"No, Charles, no!" Hermione screamed.

The horse trotted out of the grove with Dent bent low to dodge the branches. 
She was alone. The pain and urgency of her contractions grew worse as darkness closed in. Hermione hiked up her dress and prayed for her baby. In her agony, intent upon her child, she didn't see the yellow slanted eyes all around her.
The wolf pack slowly closed...

Dent rode heedlessly. He drove the horse hard, careless of gopher holes. The gray would soon founder. Though Comanches might still be near, in his panic he bellowed for help. Well after dark, he came upon goat herders, bedded down for the night in a draw by the trail, huddled around a small fire with their pitiful flock. The men wore sombreros, serapes, white shirts and trousers, the women long dresses and rebozos. He rode up suddenly. Afraid he was a bandit, the men brandished primitive shotguns and shouted, "Alto!"

Dent was dismayed they were Mexicans.

"Any you greaser sumbitches speak American?" 

Hostile silence.
"Look, I need help. My wife, mujer, you know? She's back there, pregnant. Come help her with the baby."
He pointed toward the Espantosa with one hand and mimed a woman's pregnant belly with the other. Gradual comprehension dawned on the herders' faces.

"Your woman is with child?" a man said. 

"Yeah, si, you got it. One of y'all mount up and we'll ride back, the rest can follow."

The man said, "No, señor."

"What? What do you mean?" Dent said.

"Too bad your woman is sick. We don’t go to the lake. There are demons!"

"But y'all gotta help. It's my wife," Dent cried, begging now, weeping before other men, things he'd sworn never to do.

"Calmate, hombre," an old woman said. "I’m old. Soon I’ll be with God. I have no fear. Vamonos!"
Two herders helped the old woman up behind Dent. Wiry arms circled his waist. He laid into the gray with his quirt. The horse gave what he had left. A blue norther struck a few miles from the camp, a sudden onslaught of wind, rain, and freezing temperature from the Great Plains. Dent held onto his hat and rode on through the driving rain. Split-second streaks of lightning lit his path in a ghastly dead white light. Wolves howled in the distance.

The norther passed. They reached the grove. Dent reined the gray to a halt, jumped off, and helped the old woman down. The horse blew gently; his mouth spewed white foam. Dent didn't tether or hobble him. He led the woman inside the grove. It was dark and dead still. Dent made out the buggy and another, smaller form beside it. He walked up and said, "Moinie, that you? I found a woman to help with the birthing. She's Mex, but I reckon she'll do. You all right?"

There was a deafening clap of thunder, loud as the last trump. A bolt of lightning struck a nearby live oak. The impact was so violent, it knocked Dent and the old woman flat. The struck oak caught fire. Dent struggled to his feet. By the flickering light of the torched tree he saw his wife full. Bloody afterbirth lay next to her hiked up dress. Head thrown back, a savage wound gaped in her throat. Her eyes were open. Dent looked into the pale blue orbs, the life and fun that once flashed there blown out forever. 

Fifteen years passed. Dent sold his farm and took out a new headright, 4,400 acres near Bastrop. He arranged another marriage by mail with a childless young widow from Trumbull, Alabama. When she stepped off the steamboat at Brazoria, Dent grimaced, accepted that she was no beauty like Hermione with fair grace for him, married Letitia, and set about breeding. She gave him three sons and two daughters. Winifred died at age two from the ague; Claude, the oldest, was kicked by a mule at age ten and forever simple afterwards. The rest came along all right, the boys Lamar and Vernon, and Eugenie, named at her mother's insistence after the Empress of France.

Dent raised cotton and cattle profitably. He owned twenty-seven slaves. They built Dent an eight room, two-story house out of stone quarried from his land. He grew gray and somewhat stooped, drank a good bit, and argued for secession, cursing Houston and other vile turncoats. Despite it all, he knew no peace. The Espantosa never left him. The open, fixed, lifeless eyes of Hermione silently accused him of failure.
One day he saddled the second-best horse and took a week’s possibles. He embraced Letitia and kissed Eugenie. Dent shook Lamar and Vernon’s hands and informed them, at ages 11 and 9 respectively, that they were now the men of the house. He told them to look after their mother, sister, simple brother, the stock and the slaves and rode off without word as to his destination or when he'd return. The family presumed he'd abandoned them.

He rode for two days down the old Camino Real and crossed the Guadalupe before he reached San Antonio, then rode for two days more, into the no-man's land between hostile Texas and Mexico. Dent kept a cold camp for fear of drawing Indians or Mexicans. On the fifth day, Dent awoke surrounded by a wet fog, the herald of a drought-busting rain. Indifferent to the weather, he ate some biscuits, saddled his horse, and rode on.

In the early morning, myriad water droplets glistened on dwarf pines. Live oaks loomed before him, wildly contorted branches heavily festooned with spiky ball moss. Every now and then a lightning-scarred oak trunk waved charred and blackened limbs. Thick clumps of razor sharp lechuguilla lanced at his chaps. New life budded on stubby green nopal cactus in response to the fog's wet kiss, each fresh bud topped with a tiny purple flower. No animal's cry or birdsong interrupted the silence in that thick, heavy mist. It was as if Dent and the horse were the only creatures alive. 

He came to the Espantosa, her surface impenetrable beneath the fog, where the party had camped and died. Dent tethered his horse. He sat by the Espantosa and wept for memory of Hermione. Dent thought of the Colt’s revolver in his saddlebag. 

Mocking laughter erupted behind him. He turned to face four Comanche braves astride war ponies. They had caught Dent in his grief. The chief wore a horned bison skull helmet, another a feathered war bonnet, a third a long gingham dress covered in blood. Each had a shield and sixteen-foot lance. Black war paint made them look more like creatures from the pit than humans. They considered a weeping man hilarious.
"Are you a woman, teibo?" the chief demanded, "to cry so?"

"Show you some tears, ya Injun sumbitch," Dent retorted.

He ran for his horse. Two braves rode him down before he made ten paces. They leaped off their horses and overpowered Dent. The chief dismounted, knelt by Dent, and pulled Dent's knife from its sheath.
"Ay, good knife, teibo!" he said with a flash of white teeth, shaking greasy black locks. "I give you a reason to cry. Like this..."

He slowly pushed the knife into Dent's bearded chin, until the slightest pressure would rip the skin. Dent reined in his fear and pain. He glared impassively at the chief. The Comanche grinned and dug the knife in further.

Howls rent the fog, animal screams of blood lust. The Comanches ceased their torture and looked around, trying to determine what lurked nearby in the dense brush.

"Who's scared now, ya savages?" Dent jeered.

Heavy, clawed feet padded rapidly through the undergrowth. Black wolves burst from the brush snarling, long teeth bared. They mauled the Indians, ripped flesh and tendons from the Comanches' arms and legs. The braves fought as best they could, but the wolves circled and attacked again. Fully blooded, victors in countless raids and battles, each brave broke free and ran screaming without shame. The Comanches jumped on their ponies and rode for their lives, clutching their spirit amulets. 

Dent watched the Comanches flee. The wolves trotted past, coldly ignoring him. Awe-stricken, Dent didn't know what to think. He caught a flash of dirty white amid the wolves. A dense mat of black hair covered her head and sloped off her shoulders, but didn't conceal bony flanks and long, thin limbs. She scampered nimbly on all fours with the pack. 

The naked girl slowed, lingered as the pack drew near the brush, still enmeshed in fog and dew. She paused and turned. Dent was transfixed by empty, ice-blue eyes. There was no recognition, no more knowing or awareness in those eyes than could be found in any beast of the field. In that feral gaze all Dent saw was pointed affirmation of the debt he’d incurred when he did wrong that day fifteen years ago, a crushing obligation that could never be acknowledged, explained, nor repaid, but instead had to be lived with until the end of his days.

The wolf-girl went into the brush to join her pack, never to be seen by Dent again.