Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Wolf Girl of Texas

Back in the mid-1830's when the land was still wild and the people mostly were too, John Dent and Will Marlo, became fur trapping partners in the backwoods of Georgia along the Chickamauga River. Wild game was plentiful and for several years things went smoothly. Then, in the spring of 1840, an argument broke out over the division of their winter catch. Like a lot of arguments between men, it was mostly because of a woman. And when this one was over, one man would find eternal rest 6 feet under the dirt in Boot Hill and the other would flee to Texas. And that's when, according to the legend, fact indeed proved stranger than fiction.

While trapping near the cabin of a mountain man, John fell in love with the man's beautiful young daughter, Mollie. Fortunately for John, Mollie had fallen in love with him too, and the two became engaged to be married. When John and Will began their partnership, they made a pact to jointly sell the pelts they trapped and divide the money equally. But with marriage on the horizon, John wanted to take half the pelts and sell them himself since he was sure he could get more selling them separately.

After a bitter and loud quarrel, Will relented and did things John's way. Soon after though, Will began telling everyone in town that he had been cheated. This continued for a few weeks until a kill-or-be-killed fight occurred and John stabbed to death his old partner.  Because of the stories Will had been telling, public opinion was against him and one day when he discovered the sheriff was coming to arrest him for murder, a hanging offense, there was nothing for John to do but flee the country. Before leaving, however, he managed to see his love and tell her he was going to find a place where they could be together and that he would return to take her away.

A full year passed and people lost interest in the matter. During all this time though, every morning and every evening, Mollie could be seen up on the mountain outside her father's cabin, silently looking off into the distance. Not once, as far as anyone knew, did she hear from her murderer lover. Then, a little after sundown on April 13, 1841, as she did every day, the mountain girl went to the barn to milk the cow. After she had been gone an unusually long time, her father decided to investigate. He found the cow not milked and in the empty pail, a Bowie knife with dried blood around the hilt. The distinctive deer antler handle made it easy to identify as the knife with which John Dent had killed Will Marlo.

In the dark, Mollie's father searched and called for her, but he found no trace. The next morning, after summoning a number of surrounding mountaineers and a few towns people, the search began again. They found the tracks of a man and a woman leading to the Chickamauga River. On the bank, under the overhang of a leaning tree, they found a freshly driven stob to which, evidently, a small canoe had been recently tied. Mollie was gone without a word of explanation and without a moment's preparation. All she took with her were the clothes on her back.

Six months later, a letter arrived at the mountain man's lonely cabin. It was postmarked Galveston, Texas and read: "The Devil has a river in Texas that is all his own and it is made only for those who are grown. Yours with love, Mollie." 

Devil's River
The people of Georgia were not familiar with the rivers of Texas. The mountain man and his neighbors merely considered that somewhere in Texas, John Dent had to himself a river on which to trap. Even in Texas itself, few folks knew anything about Devil's River, far to the west of San Antonio. Along it's banks was the small colony of Dolores, sparsely populated with mostly Mexicans. It was the last outpost of the settlements.

John and his bride settled by Dolores, but like the lone wolf he was, he built a small log cabin miles away from the town. Within a year, the colony had been abandoned. Indians killed most of the settlers, some went back to Mexico. All the rest, 14 adults and 3 children, headed east one day for more civilized territory in San Antonio. They stopped to camp for the night next to an unnamed lake near what is now Carrizo Springs. Before retiring, one woman went down to the water's edge to wash some clothes. Soon after she left the camp, the others were startled by her screams of "Por Dios!" (My God!). Though her fellow travelers rushed immediately toward the water's edge, they arrived only to see the swishing tail of a huge alligator disappearing beneath the lake's dark surface. Unable to recover the woman's body, the other settlers erected a cross at the site in her memory. 

Shocked and upset, the group finally bedded down. Several times during that long, black night though, they were awakened by the same scream ringing out again and again, "Por Dios!" There was no mistaking her voice. Before the sun rose the next morning, the group got up, packed and hurriedly left. The small party was doomed, however, for just after sunrise, a roving band of Comanches attacked and killed all of them except for 2 of the children, whom they took away as captive slaves, and one old woman who had managed to hide herself behind a fallen log. It was she who managed to get to a small settlement a few miles away and told the sad, ghastly tale. Ever after, the lake has been known as Espantosa, ("horrible" or "wretched") and even today is considered haunted.  

A day's ride west of the site of Dolores, three Mexican families, who, like John, had an agreement with the Indians, raised goats in the Pecos Canyon. One night in late August, 1842, during a thunderous rain storm, a man on a horse rode up to one of the ranches. He told the Mexican rancher and his wife that he was camped on Devil's River not far from Lake Espantosa. He said his wife was giving birth to a baby and they desperately needed help. Knowing the stories of Espantosa, the rancher was reluctant to go there, especially at night. The man kept pleading until the wife agreed they would go and told her husband to saddle up their burrows. The little party of 3, with the anxious man leading the way, had not gone far when a bolt of lightning struck from the sky killing the poor man instantly. At this, the Mexican refused to go onward in the storm and especially in the dark. From the description of his camp site given by the man, the rancher found the location the next day. There, under a large oak tree, lay the woman dead. Indications pointed to the fact that she had died giving birth to a child, but no baby was found. Tracks around the tree made the rancher suspect wolves had devoured the infant.

In the pocket of the dead woman's dress the helpful Mexicans found a letter. After burying the poor woman, they took the letter with them to show the first person they might encounter who could read English. A few months later, a white man did come along and read the letter. It was written a few weeks before her death by Mollie Dent and addressed to her father. It served to identify her and her husband, John Dent.

Ten years had passed when a young boy living at San Felipe Springs told of seeing a pack of wolves attacking a herd of goats and with them was a creature, long hair half covering its features, that looked like a naked girl. Some cowboys passing through the settlement heard the story and quizzed the boy, but they seemed more interested in getting his description of what a naked girl looked like than in getting information about the strange creature he reported. The boy was accused of making up the crazy tale, but the story spread among the surrounding settlers.

A little over a year later, a Mexican woman at San Felipe declared she had seen two big wolves and a naked girl eating a freshly killed goat. She said as soon as they saw her, all three ran. The naked girl ran on all-fours at first, but then rose up and ran on two feet, keeping up with the wolves. The Indians also reported seeing barefoot human tracks mixed among wolf tracks in the sandy places along the river.

The few people in the Devil's River country began to keep a sharp lookout for the girl. They remembered the disappearance of poor Mollie Dent's infant amid wolf tracks. The men told of how female wolves carry their young by the scruff of the neck without injuring them. Perhaps, they said, some female wolf had lost her own young and had carried the new-born to her den and raised it. Being confronted with unmistakable evidence of a human being reared by and running wild with wolves, a hunt was soon organized to capture the Wolf Girl, as she had now come to be called. 

On the third day of the hunt, two riders found the girl in a side canyon. She was with a big, black wolf and both of them ran at the sight of the men. The wolf and the girl became separated when she dodged into a crevice in the rocks. Here, the men cornered her. She cowered at first, but as the men reached for her, she spat and hissed like a wildcat and began to fight, biting and clawing. While the men were tying her, she began to emit pitiful, frightful, unearthly sounds described as resembling both the scream of a woman and the howl of a wolf, but being neither. As she was howling this awful scream, the big wolf whom she had been separated from suddenly appeared, rushing at her captors. The men's lives were saved when one of them saw it before it could get close enough to use it's powerful jaws. He managed to shoot it with his pistol, but though the animal had been shot, it continued trying to get to the men, dragging itself forward, snarling and snapping its jaws. It took 2 more bullets into the body and another in the head before the light of life left its coal black eyes. When she saw her companion lying dead in the dirt, the girl fell into a silent faint.

After she was securely tied, the men closely examined the creature. She had a full head of long, tangled, dirty hair which had obviously never seen scissors, and very hairy arms and legs. Her hands and arms were muscled in an extraordinary manner, but not ill proportioned. Other features showed she was a normally formed human female.

In the area where the settler's cabin with the
potato bin stood
The Wolf Girl was taken to the nearest ranch and placed, unbound, in a sturdy room used to store potatoes. After she revived, the rancher's wife offered her clothes, food, and water, but the girl would only cower in the corner, hissing and howling in such a threatening manner that no one dared come near her. Finally, the door was tightly fastened and she was left alone for the night.

Shortly after darkness fell, the girl began howling her unearthly screams. The sounds traveled through the logs and far into the surrounding brush. They were quickly answered by the deep howls of wolves. The wolves seemed to answer from all sides, near and far. The ranchers, who had heard wolf howls all their lives, had never heard anything like this. It seemed to them that every wolf in the world was gathering around. It was easy to tell the wolves were getting nearer and nearer, their doom-like howling getting louder and ever closer. The wolves then began to howl in unison, a chorus of ferocity and darkness and lost hopes such as no man had ever heard. Then they would be silent as if waiting for an answer, and the wild, captured creature would let forth with her unearthly scream, a voice neither of woman or beast.

After a short time, the great pack rushed the ranch, attacking goats, cows, and horses. The noises brought the men out into the night, yelling and shooting at the dark shadows. A few minutes later, the men heard the girl emit her scream once more, and the wolves vanished into the darkness.

After gathering themselves, the thoroughly shaken men went to the little potato bin. Somehow, the Wolf Girl had managed to wrench off the cross board which held the door closed and made her escape. It was supposed she rejoined the wolves since no howls were heard the rest of the night. The next day, no tracks of the girl could be found except for a few leading away from the potato bin and for a long time afterwards, the sight of a wolf in that area was exceedingly rare.

For six years, nothing more was heard of the Wolf Girl of Devil's River. Then, in the spring of 1859, a trio of men passing through on their way to the gold fields of California, told of seeing a long-haired naked girl on the banks of the Rio Grande River, far above the mouth of Devil's River. She seemed to be playing with two wolf pups, but before the men could get close enough to get a good look, the girl jumped up and with a pup under each arm, ran into the dense brush faster than any horse could follow. Their story was met with stares and silence, but the residents knew it could have been no other than the wild Wolf Girl. 

As far as is known, the girl was never seen by man again. For a number of years, the Indians told of occasionally still seeing human footprints mixed with wolves' far out in the wilds. The newcomers passed it off as just stupid tales told by the Indians and the few surviving old-timers never said anything different. But they knew.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Place Called Dismal

Being the lover of odd and strange along the highways and byways of America, I couldn't resist checking out a place named Devil Swamp in Louisiana's Terrebonne Parish west of New Orleans. While driving down a dirt road running beside Devil Swamp, I came upon an old lady slowly walking with the help of a crooked stick she was using as a cane. I stopped beside her and found she was going to the wake of an old friend. I offered her a ride and she gratefully accepted.

As we began to talk, she told me she was a voodoo priestess who had lived deep in the swamp her whole life. I asked her if she knew any stories of the swamp. I figured with a name like Devil Swamp, there had to be some interesting ones and surely she would know them. She told me swamp stories should stay in the swamp, but because I had showed kindness to her, she would tell me of a place in the middle of Devil Swamp called Dismal, a place where even the locals don't go.  It's not on any map and now, so many years later, even most of the Devil Swamp dwellers don't know the story of Dismal; they just know it's a place of strange sounds and strange sightings, not a place to be when the sun goes down. But she knows the story of Dismal because her grandfather, who had been a noted voodoo priest, had told her. This is the story she told me.

In  yesterday years, long ago when voodoo magic was still very much a  recognized religion and practiced openly rather than in secret locations down dark alleyways and deep in the swamps like it is now, a young man by the name of Remy lived on the outer edge of Devil Swamp. Like all the other "swamp rats," Remy had no money, but he was a good hard-working boy from a good family. Remy had fallen in love with Bethany, the youngest daughter of nearby neighbors. Bethany had been flattered by the attention Remy paid her and soon, his affections were returned. They were deeply in love and planned to be married in the spring.

A few weeks before the wedding though, Bethany fell ill. No matter what herbs, chants and spells the local voodoo priest administered, Bethany became weaker by the day, wasting away right before her family and Remy's eyes. In desperation, her family emptied every penny they had saved in the cookie jar and sent for a doctor from New Orleans to save her. In spite of his every effort, Bethany continued her downward spiral and eventually the good doctor determined there was nothing left to do. He prescribed morphine to lessen the pain until the end came.

Hearing the news, Remy refused to leave her side, knowing she could go at any moment. He slept in a chair in her room, his arm extended to lay his fingers on her arm. He sat on the side of her bed holding her hand through the long days, hoping against hope she would get better. The morphine deadened the pain alright, but she was so drugged she didn't recognize Remy even as he stroked her forehead and caressed her hair. 

On the very day they had planned to wed, Bethany awoke, still ill and very weak, but her eyes clear and her mind sharp. Remy took her in his arms and held her close as they talked about the life they would have together someday. He continued to hold her even after she had closed her eyes and taken her last breath. She was buried in a small cemetery on a plot of high ground surrounded by swamp lilies in the middle of Devil Swamp. 

Remy was beside himself with sorrow and would no longer even eat or drink unless begged by his mother. He stayed in his room in the back of their little tin shack for several weeks, day after day, grieving away. Then one bright, cloudless morning, Remy came out of his room and sat down at the kitchen table just as happy as he had ever been. At first his parents were elated, grateful to have their son back, but it slowly became apparent he no longer had a good grasp on reality. He believed his dear Bethany was still alive, having only gone away for a short time to visit relatives. He was going to find her, he said, and then she would come home with him and they would be married. His parents tried to talk to him, to get him to understand Bethany had gotten ill and was no longer alive, but Remy wouldn't have any of that kind of talk. In his mind, Bethany was simply away for a short time and he was going to find her and bring her home. 

For two weeks, Remy went out every day. From before sunrise to after sunset he walked the lonely roads, the walking trails, the game trails, calling out her name, over and over. He became convinced she was living somewhere in the swamp in one of the many abandoned fishing shacks. "I think she is sick, Mamma, very sick and very tired. She thinks she's going to die and she's so afraid, Mamma, and I've got to find her and bring her back. Death is coming for her and I have to find her so I can hide her from Death." With that said, Remy, his eyes filled with the insanity which gripped him, turned away from his desperate parents and ran straight into Devil Swamp.

For several weeks, his family and people in the community hunted the swamp for him, but other than a few fleeting glimpses through the trees and tall grass, he wasn't seen again. He was heard, however, plaintively calling out the name of his beloved Bethany, over and over and over. One could not imagine a more sorrowful, dismal sound.

Even after everyone else had given up, Remy's father would not stop trying to find him. He simply couldn't quit, not when people still reported hearing his son calling out. One evening at dusk, he was in his flat-bottomed skiff in the middle of Devil Swamp very near the little cemetery where Bethany lay in eternal sleep. Just before turning for home at the end of another long, frustrating day, he noticed  hundreds of firefly's blinking their lights while flying just over the dark waters. And then, across the wide pond, he saw his son stumble out of the cypress tree's in waist-deep water. "Bethany!" he exclaimed, "My love, I see your life light!" Perhaps in his maddened mind, he saw Bethany's spirit flickering like a hundred candles. Perhaps he imagined she was extending her hand, beckoning him to her. "Yes, Bethany, I'm coming my beloved!" he shouted.

His father cried out to him, but Remy was beyond hearing anyone or anything of this earth and as his father frantically paddled toward him, Remy rapidly waded toward the firefly's over the deep waters. The pond was wide and his father simply couldn't get to him before the brown waters covered Remy's head.

With help from other men in the little village along the edge of Devil Swamp, Remy's father found the lifeless body of his insane child the next day. They buried him next to Bethany.

Occasionally, people around Devil Swamp still claim to hear strange sounds coming from the middle part of the swamp; a sad, sorrowful sound like someone calling out a name they can't quiet make out. And a few very brave souls who remain in the middle of the swamp after the sun sets claim they sometimes see the phantoms of a young man and woman, reunited in death, floating across the dark waters surrounding the small cemetery now known as Dismal.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Practice Makes Perfect

 There was a man whose name was Frank. The last few years of his life he lived in a place called Serenity Acres. It was a nice place really, with soft white walls and soothing music playing 12 hours each and every day and the little pink pill the nurse gave Frank every evening let him sleep the other 12 hours. Sometimes he didn't even have the nightmare more than 3 or 4 times while he slept. This is the story of how he came to be a resident at Serenity Acres.

Dah-dah-dum-dah-plink. Dah-dah-dum-dah-plink. Frank was getting so tired of his wife hitting the wrong key on the piano. All day and late into the night his wife kept practicing the same song and kept hitting the wrong key at the exact same place. Over and over and over.

Frank and his wife Jean made their home on a tiny speck of an island just off the coast of Florida. He was the lighthouse keeper and he took his job very seriously. Without his continual cleaning and maintenance and repair work to keep the light shining, a ship would surely sail into the rocks submerged just off the end of the island. That wasn't going to happen, not while Frank was the keeper. They lived in the lighthouse and Jean kept the rooms clean and cooked Frank's meals and helped him walk the beach to keep it clean of debris.

Frank and Jean had been married for 13 years now. The first 10 years they had been happy except for the 2 miscarriages Jean had suffered. They had both wanted children, but after the second miscarriage, the doctor had advised them it would be best if Jean did not get pregnant again. And so Jean had begun to turn down Frank's advances. He wasn't happy about this, but he understood and he spent even more time working to keep the lighthouse in tip-top condition. 

About a year later, Jean decided she wanted to learn to play the piano. Frank supposed it was her way of filling in the time she now had since he was so devoted to his work. He had argued against it, knowing she didn't have a musical bone in her body, plus they couldn't really afford one, but Jean was adamant. Eventually, Frank gave up arguing about it and before he changed his mind, Jean bought a cheap, used model and had it brought to the lighthouse in a boat. The thing weighed a ton and even though the 2 strong men who brought it over lent a hand, Frank thought he was going to have a heart attack before getting it through the lighthouse door and into the living room. 

Before Frank had paid the 2 men and they had departed, Jean was already sitting at the piano practicing. She practiced and she practiced and she practiced. Always the same tune because, she said, she wanted to perfect that song before moving on to something else. At first, every note Jean played sounded off, but Frank ignored the awful sounds, hoping and sometimes even praying that with time and practice, she would get better.

It took months, but finally Frank was able to make out a melody - at least in most parts of the song she had been butchering for so long. But there was always that one passage she just couldn't get - dah-dah-dum-dah-plink. Every time, over and over, hour after hour - Dah-dah-dum-dah-plink. He begged her to start playing a different song, but Jean refused. "I'm going to practice until I get this one perfect," she said. "Remember, practice makes perfect!" Dah-dah-dum-dah-plink, dah-dah-dum-dah-plink.

Frank's job kept him in the lighthouse most of the time of course, and Frank felt trapped; no way to escape that infernal sour note! He tried putting wax in his ears, but he could still hear it. He went walking on the beach, but the island was so small he could still hear it even at the farthest end of land. Every night Jean stayed up into the wee hours practicing and she awoke early in the mornings to practice more. Frank went to bed hearing dah-dah-dum-dah-plink, dah-dah-dum-dah-plink. He woke up hearing dah-dah-dum-dah-plink, dah-dah-dum-dah-plink. He dreamed dah-dah-dum-dah-plink, dah-dah-dum-dah-plink. Hour after interminable hour, dah-dah-dum-dah-plink, dah-dah-dum-dah-plink.

One day a storm was coming in. The sky was dark, the wind began to blow and the waves began to grow. Frank asked Jean to stop playing until the storm passed as he had to concentrate to ensure the light was lit and bright so no ships would be in danger from the rocks. Jean said she couldn't stop now as she felt in her bones that she would soon get it right if she just kept practicing. She sat back down and started playing again. That's when Frank lost it.

A while later, Frank was sorry he had chopped up the piano with his ax. He could have sold it and gotten at least most of his money back for it. He wasn't sorry at all about Jean though. As soon as the storm had abated, Frank put on his rubber rain gear and dug a big hole behind the tool shed. He buried the pieces of Jean with the pieces of the piano because he figured that's what she would have wanted. After filling in the grave and stacking fireplace logs on top, Frank went to bed and had the best sleep he'd had in months. When he woke in the morning, he was refreshed and had so much energy! He spent most of the day cleaning away the blood from the floor and walls. When the water in his bucket turned red, he ambled down to the ocean where he exchanged it for another bucket of clean salt water. He whistled while he worked and he even took several breaks to leisurely walk the beach and listen to nothing but the waves washing ashore and the seagulls chattering as they rode the wind overhead. The seagulls didn't have a care in the world, and neither did Frank. 

When he finished the cleaning chore, he made a note in the lighthouse log book about the tragedy that had befallen Jean. Poor, poor Jean had been swept out to sea by a huge wave during the storm while she bravely walked on the beach with a lantern to ensure no ships came to harm. It was a terrible tragedy.

He then made himself a supper of lamb stew, his favorite meal and afterwards, he enjoyed a glass of brandy while smoking a fat brown cigar. He went to bed very contented, thoroughly enjoying the silence. 

In the middle of the dark night though, Frank was awakened by an all too familiar sound - dah-dah-dum-dah-plink, dah-dah-dum-dah-plink. I must be dreaming Frank thought, because hearing that particular sound is now impossible. She's buried behind the tool shed! He jumped out of bed reaching for his ax. Damn! He must have left it in the tool shed yesterday. He grabbed a stick of firewood and slowly, carefully, crept into the living room.

He staggered when he saw the odd glowing green piano which stood again in it's old place. His mind began to crack when he noticed he could see through the piano to the table and chair directly behind it. The phantom piano was playing all by itself - dah-dah-dum-dah-plink, dah-dah-dum-dah-plink. Over and over it played. Suddenly, above that god-awful sound, Frank heard the strong, clear, unmistakable voice of Jean behind him. "Frank, I told you," it said, "I'm not going to quit until I've mastered this one. You should have listened to me."

Frightened though he was, Frank turned around and there on the stairs he saw the translucent white figure of his dead wife. And in her hands, she held his ax.

He began to scream as he ran out of the lighthouse. He ran to the pier and jumped in the island's boat and made it to the mainland, screaming all the way. The early morning beach walkers found him sitting there, facing toward the light house, unblinking eyes wide open, mouth grotesquely twisted in fear. And as the nice men in white coats led him into the back of the Serenity Acres van, he screamed and screamed.