Friday, December 12, 2014

The Last Witch in Texas

The Last Witch in Texas
Bobby Derie

"I might also point out that no one has ever been hanged in Texas for a witch," I read aloud. The room was quiet and the light was good, so for the past week I had taken to working on my latest project - an anthology of sorts built around snippets of stories that Robert E. Howard had woven throughout his collected letters, tales of bloodshed, war, and frontier life where lawman and outlaw alike were treated with somber respect for their grisly skills. For the last four nights I had been hard at it, between the occasional bock beer, and had built up a goodly collection of quotations, which I had the habit of reading aloud to myself - as I just had.

"Never? Don't be absurd."

The voice surprised me and I looked up to see the only other man in this part of the club, an older gentleman who affected a thin mustache long gone to grey, a string tie with a brass clip of Indian design, and was dressed in a dark lightweight suit that could have been purchased yesterday or a hundred years ago; the illusion was heightened by the fact that while his right hand held a tall McGinty glass, his left held a Stetson Boss-of-the-Plains of an ancient and rugged make. Yet for all his grey hairs his hand did not shake when he held his drink, and he paused a moment for me to nod before joining me at the table.

"It was one of the more curious byblows of the massacre at Fort Parker," he began without preamble. "Her name, as I recall, was Frost, the wife of Samuel Frost, who was killed when the Comanche took the fort. No one alive today knows her people, or where she came from, though it is not unlikely she fled some unpleasantness back east, as was true for many of the pioneers. Her skills, too, are a matter of some debate among those few that listened to the old men and women, and they often having heard it whispered from their parents. They say she had a familiar in the form of a black cat, who would come up to newborns as they slept and steal their breath to bring back to her; others say she herself could become a black hill-panther, and stalked the night, bringing back scalps for her husband to claim the reward. But those came later. At the time the Comanche struck, she was known in a small way for being handy with an herb when the need called for it, and to always know the right spot for digging a well, and doctoring sick cattle. Well enough for a woman at that time to be called wise."

He took a sip. A slice of lime surfaced in the dark rum and sank again.

"Now when the Comanche came, there was one of their own miracle-workers with them, and they say he came upon her with a quickness, and though she fought like a cat and scratched and howled, he bound her with a rope of charms woven from the hair of his grandfathers, who were both medicine men in their own right, and dragged her out of there cursing a fit. No white man or woman saw her alive for six years after that, and she was given up for dead - the Parker and Plummer narratives don't mention a word of her, nor was any ransom ever asked for - but of course she wasn't dead. We here today, sitting at this warm table, probably cannot imagine what went on between that white witch and red witch-man; possibly he wanted to learn her magic, or to have another wife, or maybe he just wished to neutralize her before the full Comanche assault. We will never know. But there are stories - aren't there always? In the Starland mountains, they say, they would see a red man lead a black catamount around on a hair rope, and children disappeared from frontier houses where they slept in their parents' arms without either waking, and graves were disturbed."

"Now one day, six years after the massacre, a band of Comanche came to the missions in San Antonio - they had converted to Christianity, and claimed they had a witch. Well, it was Frost, of course. Most of the missions turned them away, and even threatened to call on the authorities, but the native converts were persistent, and at last a small trial was conducted witness by a Father Cortes. What proofs were offered, no one knows; but Cortes was a middle-aged man at the time, with a head of greying black hair, and when the scared Comanche had finished showing and telling him all they had, it fell out in a day, so all that was left was white."

He took another sip, and seemed lost in thought for a moment.

"There were records. One of the Comanche said as much, that Cortes wrote everything down, and sealed it away somewhere. You can't stop the Church from doing that kind of thing. But I've never seen or heard of a copy of it. I'd like if there was a transcript of what was said. You can imagine, I think, what horrors a Franciscan monk might relate to find himself face-to-face with a real witch, a horror straight from the Old Testament, a bit of Salem madness in the heart of frontier Texas! Yet also one that had lived rough for six years among the Comanche, and you can imagine the demands a white woman, and a slave at that, might have in that society. Some say she was even pregnant with a bastard child. Well, it wouldn't be the first in Texas. There was nothing to it but that she hang. It's what they did with witches. And they did - with the same rope that medicine-man had bound her with six years ago."

"The tree is gone now; it was a live-oak some fifteen miles outside of Antonio, where no-one was like to disturb a quiet execution," he smiled at that, showing silver among his teeth, "gone now, of course. Not even a stump. Her legend grew after that, of course. There's a stretch of road outside San Antonio with a peculiar twist on the myth of La Llorona - a white woman with a rope tied about her neck, trailing behind her. Whatever charms were bound in it, she can't escape it, even in death. And that is all there is to tell of the last witch in Texas, and how she was hanged."


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