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  Texas : Features : Humor : Column - "A Balloon In Cactus"

Great Aunt Jane's Pair of Scares

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand
Way 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:

Aunt 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 the intruder.

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.

Aunt 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.

Stories 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.

Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
June 12, 2008 column

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