by Rune Cutter
A tale of frontier horror, set in Texas' Piney woods in the early 1800s
| It’s dark in the Piney Woods and darker still near the small ponds and bayous on Poison Creek. The Caddo Indians never camped in those bottoms. White people didn’t know any better; they only saw land for the taking.
Dutch Sweaney settled on Poison Creek, with his wife Marta, Jake the oldest, beautiful Stepanie and little Walter.
Dutch did well, harvesting sulfur from the springs that gave the creek its name.
Little Walter fell into a pond one afternoon and took sick. He died of an ailment of the lungs; coughing corruption and fighting for air. The family was hurt, but children died on the frontier, it was as sure as the sun rising.
There were no animals on Poison Creek, so Dutch took Jake to hunt away from the homestead. Sometimes they’d take the mules with a load of sulfur to trading camp. You couldn’t preserve apples or make gunpowder without it.
It took a week to make the trip and back. On the return, Jake got bit by a diamondback. It was one thing they had plenty of; rattlesnakes. Dutch wrapped a belt around the leg, a week later it was black and rotten. He cut the boys leg off while his mother wailed. Jake took it well, but whiskey didn’t help much with the pain. Dutch carved him a crutch from a cypress branch and the boy learned to walk all over again. It hurt Dutch to hear the thump of the stick in rhythm with the boy's tread. They buried the leg by Walter and carved a cedar cross to mark it.
One day a party of three Caddo Indians came to the farm. Dutch met them with musket and pistol. The party put down their guns, the youngest walked to the door of the cabin and said, “I am here with my father and grandfather. We would like to trade you for water from the creek.”
Jeremy Whitehorn was taught English at a church near Nacadoshish. He considered the white family; they were all pale even for whites. Jeremy felt easier when the man set his musket aside, but the pistol was tucked into his belt.
Grandfather spoke, and Jeremy translated, “Grandfather says, he’s surprised to see you here; this is a bad place. Before the Caddo came here, there was a great war between the gods. The evil one was killed, he sank into the swamp there, that’s why the water boils with his rot.”
Dutch spoke, “You mean the sulfur springs? That’s just minerals acting together.”
Jeremy translated to his grandfather, but his father was the one to answer, “That’s the way it is with these people, look at them; they are dying. There are graves over there, and still, they will not listen. Tell him, that he may be right and ask if we can take some water.”
“Father says that you may be right, but asks if we can take a jar of water.”
“Water is free, but if you like; I have other things to trade.”
Joseph Whitehorn said, “We don’t need any poison except the water, give him the venison so he will leave us alone.” Jeremy translated, “Father says, we travel light, but we’ll give you food for your gift.”
“Why do you need the water; if it’s bad?”
Jeremy answered, “Sometimes to frighten bad things you need something that is worse.” Grandfather filled the jar with a clay ladle, careful to not spill a drop. He broke the ladle and threw it with three beads into the black water.
“Grandfather says, ‘Thank you’ and that you should move, there is good land towards the setting sun.”
“Tell him thanks, but we’re doing fine.”
Jeremy spoke Caddo to his father, “You are right, they cannot hear.” He gave their food to Dutch, and they left.
When the party was gone, Jake said, “Pa, did you see those beads? They were glass and gold! We could trade them with the Comanche out West for horses.”
Dutch nodded and studied the bayou; there was something about the way its surface heaved that made him feel uneasy now. “Think you can find them?”
“Yeah, they fell by that old stump.”
“Go get ‘em boy.”
Jake couldn’t walk well, but he swam like an otter. He stripped off his clothes and hobbled in, then sank beneath the pitch black water. The boy never came back up. Dutch yelled his name and dove in deep, but he never found the bottom and nearly drowned before thrashing back to the surface.
Marta waded out to him, screaming, “Find him Dutch, find him!”
“I can’t see down there, and there’s no bottom.” Dutch moaned.
Marta threw herself down by the water’s edge and wailed out Jake’s name over and over. Dutch sat with her there until dark and then gathered her into their bed. She took a chill and didn’t get up for a week. It was the smell of stew that brought her to the table. Dutch looked up happily, Steph hugged her and sat her down. They had just served her a bowl when the door rattled. The room grew cold, and the fire died back to coals. No one moved.
“Let me in. I found the beads, and I found Lil’ Walter. We’re cold Pa! I had to swim a long way.”
Dutch threw the heavy beam across the door, but Marta fought him, “It’s Jake and Walter! Let them in!”
Dutch didn’t see the heavy iron poker in her hand until the whole world flashed white. The blow left him too weak to even crawl. He heard Steph’s cries of alarm as the door opened and her tiny footsteps running up to the loft. As his sight came back, he could see Marta embracing two hunched and black shapes. She left the cabin door with them; one walked, and the bigger one hopped.
A gurgling voice that wasn’t Jake’s said, “Don’t worry Pa, we’ll be back for you and Steph.”