Thursday, June 19, 2014

Lady in Black

One evening not so long ago, a passing truck driver south of Refugio, Texas saw a woman standing all alone at the end of a dusty dirt road where it intersected with the highway he was traveling on. She was young, very beautiful, and wore an old-fashioned black dress. She looked to be in some kind of distress so the kind-hearted driver pulled over to offer her a ride. As she approached his truck, he moved quickly to the passenger door and held out his hand to help her up the steep steps into the cab.

"There's a gas station in the next town," he said. "If you need to make a phone call, you can make it there." Softly, she replied "Thank you, sir" and stared straight ahead.

They drove down the road in silence until reaching a small gas station on the outskirts of a sleepy little community. The trucker eased his eighteen-wheeler into the station next to the one diesel pump to refuel. He walked around and opened the passenger door to help the lady out of the truck, but when he opened the door, she was gone.

For a long moment, he looked at the empty seat in confusion. When he turned, the owner of the station, an elderly gentleman, was slowly making his way toward him. "Did you see the lady that was with me?"

"No," the owner replied, "I saw you drive in, but you were by yourself."

"No, there was a lady in a black dress. I picked her up a few miles south of here."

The owner's eyes grew wide as a look of terror crossed his face. "A lady in black?"

"Yes," said the trucker.

The owner made the sign of the cross, moved quickly back into the little station, turned out the lights, locked the door and hurried off into the darkness.

The truck driver stood speechless for a long while, not knowing what to do. Then a very old man came limping from behind the building. He was so old his face looked like it had worn out two bodies. He walked with the aid of a hand-carved cane and wore a simple white shirt, cotton pants and sandals. "Mister!" he said. "You had the Lady with you?"

"Yes, a young lady in a black dress."

"Ah," the old man said. "The Lady in Black. Sit down on the curb here and I will tell you about her." The old man eased himself down and began his story.

"Many years ago when Texas was still a part of Mexico, a huge ranch covered this whole region. A very fine old couple owned the ranch. When they died they left everything to their handsome son. He was a fine young man and a catch for any senorita, handsome, rich, and not married. Everybody thought this young, handsome ranchero would go into the nearby village and find a wife."

"Instead, he journeyed into Mexico and married a poor woman. She became the woman boss, La Doña and governed the large ranch with her husband. The women in the village were very jealous, especially one woman who thought it would be she who married the ranchero. She began spreading lies about La Doña.

About 6 months after the young couple had been married, the young husband had to travel to Spain to settle a land dispute. He left La Doña in charge of all matters. She proved to be very kind to the servants and fair with their pay for she was a woman with a good heart. A few days after her husband had left, La Doña discovered she was going to have a baby.

Months later, as the time of birth neared, she prayed for her husband to return. Her prayers were answered and one night he returned to the ranch. He had won the battle in the courts and all the land was legally theirs. As he dismounted from his horse and ran to hug his wife, he saw the life inside her.

The ranchero was delighted and eagerly awaited the arrival of a son or daughter. But that mean woman in the village had spread the rumor that the baby was not the young husbands and when he went into town one day, he heard the evil rumor, the ugly lie. Sadly, he believed the lie and was filled with jealousy. He no longer trusted his wife and when he returned home, he accused her of being unfaithful to him.

La Doña fell to her knees and cried, 'I am your wife. I would not be unfaithful to you. Never! Believe me!'

But he did not. A fury possessed him. He called two of his servants and ordered, 'Hitch horses to the wagon. You two and my wife will ride one full day to the north. Find a strong tree and hang my unfaithful wife from its branches. I will ride one full day to the south. That way, even if I become softhearted, I will be too far away to prevent the hanging.'

Now, there was an old man who always sat on the front porch of the ranch house. The old man had faithfully served many years for the young ranchero's parents and this was his reward, a job with pay for the rest of his life, to sit in the shade on the porch of the ranch house and see all the comings and goings. Nothing took place on the ranch that this old man did not know.

The ranchero said, 'Saddle me up my favorite horse, and saddle up a burro too. The old man will go with me.' And so for the first time in a very long time, that old man left the ranch and his well-worn chair on the porch. He rode one full day south with his patron as the two servants and La Doña rode a full day north on a dusty little used wagon trail. 

La Doña was brokenhearted. She cried and cried for her unborn baby and for her husband, not even thinking about herself. At sunset, the obedient servants stood La Doña up on the wagon and put a rope around her neck. Staring at the men as they tied the end of the rope around a sturdy branch, she declared, 'You and all of your descendants will know that I am a faithful wife. For many generations you will see me. I will wear this same black dress and I will never stop telling what you have done.'

The men jumped down off the wagon and one of them swatted the horse. The wagon rolled away leaving  La Doña swinging back and forth until her neck broke and she mercifully died. The servants were deeply ashamed of what they had done and they quickly cut her down and buried her in a shallow grave. No one has ever found that grave.

At the same time La Doña was giving voice to her curse, the old man was pouring a cup of coffee for the young ranchero. They had stopped for the evening in a clearing beneath a hill one day's ride from the ranch house.

'I have done the right thing,' the young man said. 'She was unfaithful.' The old man said nothing. He thought for a second and then he remembered. That old man sat by the ranch house door all day and slept on the porch all night. "Old man!' the ranchero shouted, 'speak to me!' Still, the old man said nothing. 'Old man, you know who is the father of that baby, don't you?" The old man nodded. 'Tell me!' cried the ranchero. The old man remained silent.

The ranchero pulled his pistol, cocked it and placed the muzzle next to the old man's head. 'You better speak, old man. I swear to you, either the child's father dies or you will die."

The old man looked up, his eyes rimmed red with tears. 'Mi patron,' he said. 'The father of the child is you.'

When he heard that, the young man put the pistol to his own head and pulled the trigger. The old man buried the ranchero by the campfire in an unmarked grave. No one has ever found that grave.

A year passed and on the anniversary of her hanging, the Lady in Black kept her promise. She stood by the dirt road near her unmarked grave. A family stopped their wagon to help her, thinking she had been involved in an accident. They helped her onto the wagon and she told them the story as if it had happened to someone else. When they pulled into the little village, they turned to speak to her, but she was gone. They then realized they had seen La Doña herself.

This went on for years and years. They say it still goes on to this day. La Doña will never rest. The old ones who live in Refugio, the closest big town, all know of and talk about the Lady in Black. The people know she was innocent.

And with that, the ancient story-teller fell silent. As he thought of the story for a few moments, the truck driver closed his eyes. "Whatever happened to the old man, the man who lived on the porch of the ranch house?" he finally asked. He heard no reply and when he looked, the old man was nowhere to be found.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Bell Witch

Betsy was just 6 years old and living with her family in Tennessee when it happened the first time all those years ago. As her mamma stood at the large kitchen table rolling out biscuit dough for supper, she heard Betsy who was right behind her call out, "Mamma! Help me, Mamma! It's got me!"

When Betsy's mom turned to look, she saw her youngest daughter being held up by her long, brown hair, floating 2 feet above the dirt floor of the kitchen. She was a small child, but still, lifted as she was, her face was pulled taught by the weight. She should have been screaming in pain, but she didn't appear to be hurting. Frightened, yes, but not hurting.

As soon as Betsy's mom got her wits about her, she grabbed her little girl around the waist and pulled her down to the floor out of the grasp of those invisible hands. As they lay there crying, Betsy's father, Will, came rushing in to see what the commotion was about. He was afraid an Indian had snuck into the house and was trying to make off with his family. "Oh Will," his wife cried, "something evil got ahold of Betsy! We couldn't see it, but it was evil indeed!" Just then, the heavy wooden table lifted up on one side and as they watched in astonishment, it lifted higher and higher until the flour, the rolling pin and even the sticky biscuit dough slid to the floor. The table then gently and slowly eased back down.

The Bell family, Will, his wife, their three sons and the baby of the family, little Betsy, had moved to Tennessee from Illinois a few months previously. Nobody knows for sure whether the evil followed them from Illinois, but most agree it was either an old Indian graveyard Will had unknowingly disturbed when he built their home on top of it, or it could have been the spirit of the woman the Bells bought their land from - an evil, spiteful widow woman who claimed Will had cheated her on the deal. When she died just a few weeks after the Bell's moved into their newly built home, the woman passed away while cursing the Bell family from her death bed. 

For whatever strange reason, the spirit seemed to focus most of its evilness upon poor, innocent Betsy. It seemed to follow her wherever she went, pulling her hair and tripping her as she walked around the yard. When she went to bed at night, she couldn't sleep as the spirit pinched her, poked her, and made horrible noises in her ears whenever her poor eyes grew so weary they began to droop in spite of her determination to stay awake. Then the spirit seemed to leave, giving welcome respite to Betsy and the other members of her family. But just about the time their hopes were raised that the evilness had finally left them in peace, it would start up again. Several times Betsy's screams in the middle of the night would wake her parents who slept in the room next to hers. They would rush in to find Betsy lying in bed, drenched in cold well water and an empty wet pail laying on the floor across the room.

Betsy never knew when she ate her food whether the witch had strongly salted or peppered it or even poisoned it. Though she ate the same food from the same bowl as everyone else, she learned to take small test bites. Several times she became violently ill and almost died after eating. She was naturally thin, but she soon looked like death itself.

Every morning before dressing, she had to carefully shake out her clothes before putting them on. Not every day, but on most, her clothing would be concealing scorpions or ants or even small snakes.

When Betsy walked by animals, they seemed to sense the evilness that surrounded her - pigs snorted and ran to the other side of the pen, cows wouldn't let her milk them, horses spooked, dogs growled, cats raised their backs and hissed at her.

The family tried a number of times to move away, but a calamity always struck which prevented it. Their wagon broke an axle as they left once. Another time one of the horses that was pulling their wagon dropped dead just 1 mile from the house. The next time they tried to leave, a sudden rainstorm hit and turned the road into a bed of mud so deep nothing could travel on it for weeks. The Bells grew resigned to their sad plight.

Twelve long years passed in the same horrible fashion with Betsy barely clinging to life on many occasions, but she endured and grew to be a pretty and engaging young woman. While attending church, as the family did every Sunday, she caught the eye of a young man, the son of a neighbor. Soon they were betrothed and set a date for their wedding. The young man knew all about what had become known as the Bell Witch, but he loved Betsy and swore to do whatever it took to keep her safe.

The day of the wedding arrived and even though the knife which was used to cut the cake flew through the air by itself to stick in the front door of the church and the table holding the punch bowl tilted up spilling the liquid all over several people, the pair were married. Betsy's father gave them the gift of a brand-new wagon and 2 strong horses to pull it. The couple took the hint and hit the road with the intention of making their life together far away in Texas.

The land in Texas where, according to some
people, the Bell Witch lives.
Strangely, as they entered Texas, the witch that had been deviling them all along on their journey began to settle down. Several days into their travel across the state, it wasn't playing tricks as much and it felt like the meanness wasn't as evident. Texas was a mean country in those days and only the hardy and tough could survive in such a place. Perhaps the witch was getting tired of competing with all the meanness of the country they were traveling in. By the time the young lovers made it to the Big Bend area where they homesteaded a parcel of land, the spirit was no longer with them. Betsy and her husband lived to have a hard, but good life, raising 5 out of 7 children to adulthood and enjoying many grandchildren in their later years. They never experienced the Bell Witch again.

The old ones say the witch found a home here
with the cactus and rattlesnakes.
They didn't experience the witch again, you see, because that horrible spirit had found a spot in central Texas which didn't yet have a full compliment of evil. It stopped right there and made a home for itself. It's there still in the part of Texas where everything either bites, stings, or sticks. In that rocky hill country when horses spook for no reason, when snakes appear in flour bins, when babies scream at night, the old wise ones know the Bell Witch is the cause, still playing mean tricks and bullying the weak.

So when you come upon a sweet innocent child like little Betsy, a child with fear and hunger in her eyes, give all you can. A smile, a touch, a friendly nod. And say a prayer for those like little Betsy, that the evil witches of the world will let them be.