Jane's Pair of Scares
by Maggie Van Ostrand
back before "modern inventions" like the telephone, the daily newspaper
and the automobile, and long before television, computers and the
iPod, people used to talk. And people used to listen.
They actually had conversations with one another. They told and re-told
family history through the generations until story became legend.
And they used their imaginations to whisper scary stories in the night.
In other words, they entertained each other very well at hearth and
home using only what humans value most: memories and imagination.
Such recollections can make us yearn for that kind of conversation
today, as the world whirls faster and faster. So rapidly do things
change nowadays that we can hardly keep up. So we must here thank
Miss Ruth Dodson of Mathis
who, in 1944, reminisced to the Frontier Times about her great-Aunt
Jane and great-Uncle Doc. Picture this: It's 1944 and supper is finished,
dishes washed, and anticipation high, for we are all sitting on the
floor in front of a carefully stoked fire waiting for the evening's
storytelling to begin. Miss Ruth Dodson of Mathis is about to relay
the two scariest things that happened to her great Aunt, as they had
been relayed to her. It might go something like this:
Jane and Uncle Doc were married right after the Civil War and "lived
in a little house near the Escondido creek in Karnes county." Great
Aunt Jane's uncle, Bill Butler, lived on the other side of the creek,
down aways about a mile. Most days, the men were gone, working cattle,
so late each afternoon, the oldest Butler boy rode his horse over
to pick up Aunt Jane and take her back to spend the night with them.
That is, until rain caused the creek to rise so high, the boy was
unable to get to her and she had to spend the night all alone with
only her dog.
It turned out to be a hot night and Aunt Jane was unable to sleep.
She decided to sit by the doorway which was covered only by a curtain,
and the dog lay quietly on the other side of the doorway to protect
her. Suddenly, the dog arose and, snarling, charged at something,
something Aunt Jane could not see. After a brief struggle with the
unseen thing, the dog went silent and Aunt Jane knew she would have
to defend herself from whatever was out there. She picked up a pistol
in which only two cartridges remained. That was all she had. She cocked
the pistol and heard someone running.
She jerked the curtain aside and shot in the direction of the running
sound and toward a corner of the wooden fence that surrounded her
house. At that corner stood two posts that had enough space between
them to let a person pass through.
Aunt Jane spent the rest of the night totally and fearfully awake,
with the pistol in her hand until, at daylight, her Uncle Bill, back
from working the cattle, came to see how she was and found her dog
with it's throat cut. Search parties were formed, but they never found
Aunt Jane later said she did not know if she could have shot the man
who was found dead shortly thereafter in the creek bottom. Uncle Doc
discouraged that idea, believing that his wife was not that good a
shot. One can only wonder if he seriously underestimated the deadly
aim of a terrified woman with only two bullets left.
Jane's second scare happened when they lived near the Rio Grande,
in LaSalle county, on the border of Texas and Mexico, and where depredations
were occasionally made. People on ranches there, especially women
and children left alone when the men were out working cattle, had
to remain on alert. Aunt Jane was by herself with their several small
children, the oldest being John, a boy of 12.
Late one afternoon, she saw her neighbor and another woman, both riding
fast toward her, the other woman "riding a big, raw-boned horse, on
a man's saddle. They were facing a strong wind, and her sunbonnet
had blown off and was hanging down her back. She was riding astride,
and her long full skirt billowed out and all but enveloped the horse."
Aunt Jane ran to the gate to greet them, but they only stopped long
enough to warn of a report that a band of raiders was headed toward
her place and she should hide. Aunt Jane and Uncle Doc's house sat
high on a hill and was easily seen from a distance. The two women
then rode away to carry their message to others.
Aunt Jane was smart and had a hiding place already in mind in case
of emergency. "It was a clearing in the middle of thick brush a mile
and a half away." She called to young John to hitch the horses to
the wagon immediately, and sent another child to turn the milk calves
out. She "and the rest of the children gathered up bedding, groceries
and cooking outfit and put them in the wagon as quickly as possible.
When they had everything ready, the children scrambled into the back
of the wagon. Aunt Jane climbed over one wheel and John over the other
and sat on the seat. Aunt Jane said that when she picked up the lines,
her hands were trembling so much that she could hardly hold them."
The horses sensed her fear and went off at a swift trot but that wasn't
fast enough for Aunt Jane, so she grabbed the whip and lashed first
one horse and then the other. When she whipped the second one, he
just stopped, refusing to move on. Aunt Jane "had forgotten that this
horse balked if as much as touched with a whip. John jumped out over
the wheel, took the horse by the bridle and started him. He then ran
along, holding to the bridle, until he had the horse in a trot, then
he dropped back and climbed in the back of the wagon, crawled to the
front and took his seat by the side of his mother."
Aunt Jane, frenzied for the horses to go faster, again forgot about
the balky horse, and lashed both horses. Of course, the balky one
again stopped in his tracks, whereupon John again leapt out and did
the same as he had successfully done before and again, it worked.
When he got back in the wagon again, he cautioned his mother to remember
not to use the whip on that horse. But she was so scared, she kept
doing he same thing and John had to keep jumping out of and back in
the wagon after getting the horse to trot. They traveled the mile
and a half in that way, and spent an uneasy night in the brush listening
for anything that sounded remotely like a band of raiders coming their
way. Not a sound did they hear.
Next morning, Aunt Jane, somewhat more relaxed, made a fire and was
cooking breakfast when Uncle Doc rode up. "He stopped when he saw
them, took off his hat and rubbed his hand over his head, gazing at
them, bewildered. He had come home and found the place deserted and
the calves turned out, which indicated trouble. He saw the wagon tracks
and followed them as quickly as possible, wondering uneasily what
it all meant."
Aunt Jane explained the prior day's events and confided that they
were hiding from bandits. "Bandits?" said Uncle Doc. "Yes," replied
Aunt Jane, and told him that Mrs. So and So had come to warn them
that bandits were expected to make a raid through the county, so she
thought she had better hide. Aunt Jane said that Uncle Doc laughed
and laughed until she thought he'd fall off his horse. Even worse
than that, he would not tell her what was so funny.
He got down from his horse and breakfasted with them, after which
they packed up and returned to the ranch. The troublesome horse did
not balk even once this time, because Aunt Jane felt secure with Uncle
Doc riding along with them and never took out the whip. Sounds like
Aunt Jane cried "Uncle" and there he was.
about outlaws, bawdy houses, and marauding Indians with hatchets slaughtering
innocent ranchers in their sleep may make for exciting remembrances,
but it's more likely that Aunt Jane and Uncle Doc's stories with little
or no exaggeration are closer to what normal frontier families went
through. These are the stories told down through the ages until they
become family legend.
Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus" June
12, 2008 column