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Hill Country

Hill Country

by Janice Woods Windle

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When Laura Hoge Woods died in 1966, at the age of ninety-six, she left her granddaughter a cardboard box labeled "For my Janice when I'm gone." In the box were her thin gold wedding ring, her old blue Olivetti portable typewriter, and all of her fading notes for the Hill Country manuscript.

Using her grandmother's exquisite notes, Windle creates a remarkable


When Laura Hoge Woods died in 1966, at the age of ninety-six, she left her granddaughter a cardboard box labeled "For my Janice when I'm gone." In the box were her thin gold wedding ring, her old blue Olivetti portable typewriter, and all of her fading notes for the Hill Country manuscript.

Using her grandmother's exquisite notes, Windle creates a remarkable portrait of 100 years of life in Central Texas, home of the Texas bluebonnet, swamp rabbits, Yellow Dog Democrats, and terrifying renegade Apaches and Comanches. At the heart of Hill Country are two courageous, impassioned, and ambitious women: Laura and her close friend, Rebekah Baines Johnson, mother of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Capturing the passions of a woman's heart and the universal struggle of women seeking to make a difference in a man's world, Windle transforms historical fact-including little known stories about the Johnson family -- into page-turning fiction.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Texas history, and its larger-than-life personalitiesþincluding a substantial appearance by that quintessential Texan, Lyndon Baines Johnsonþturns a fictionalized story of the author's grandmother into a scattershot dash through time. Windle, whose first novel, True Women (paperback), became a 1996 CBS miniseries, now takes the incomplete autobiography of her paternal grandmother, Laura Woods, and converts it into a novel that is as much a celebration of a person as a place. The story begins in 1877, when Laura's family is farming in the Texas Hill Country and Apache brigands roam the land. While her father is away, seven-year-old Laura, bathing in the river with her siblings, catches sight of an Apache band heading their way. The children warn their mother, who wounds the leader and forces his cohorts to flee. But Laura can't forget one of the band, handsome Herman, a white boy who was stolen and raised by the Apache. Later, Laura meets up again with Herman and falls in love, but he can't give up his outlaw life, so instead she marries Peter Woods, a local horse breeder. Her life continues to be full of incident as she tries to outwit Mexican Revolutionaries while entraining horses to Galveston, and as she watches Peter behead a man who ran down his cattle. Laura, though, harbors political ambitions. Her mother had once met Lincoln, and Laura continues the tradition as she encounters Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and, of course, Lyndon Johnson, whose mother Rebekah is her best friend. She longs for Peter to be elected governor but has to settle for appointive positions in Texas politics. In her 90s, she is still remembered by LBJ, who calls her every Christmas. Laura isbrave, indeed, but her chilling self-regard makes her hard to like or admire. Still, a lively if uncritical reprise of recent Texas history.(First printing of 100,000; $250,000 ad/promo; author tour)

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Chapter One: The Story Begins One June evening, just as the falling sun was beginning to paint the Texas Hill Country with lavender halflight, Tom and Eliza Felps, having put their children to bed, were fishing for the fat little smallmouth bass that feed in the pools of Cypress Creek. Lightning bugs were beginning to scatter their minimal fire into the shadows. The night settled down like an old familiar comforter. Time lingered. A small wind breathed high in the cypress boughs. There must have been a moment of warning, a suspension of the cicada's song, a feeling of dread, an awareness beyond horror, for in a moment brief as a thought, Carnoviste, the rogue Comanche chief, came with his knife, and Tom and Eliza were disemboweled, their children taken away. A few miles to the north, Katherine Metzger was coming home from confirmation class when Apaches sent an arrow through her breast, then took her long yellow hair and her tongue. At Kickapoo Springs, while picking berries, Willie Stone and his little sister were captured by Apaches, thrown into the air again and again until they died, their bodies trampled and mangled by the horses. Then they were hung in a tree for the vultures. In Gillespie County, Henry Kensing and his pregnant wife, Johanne, were dragged from their home. He was killed and Johanne was tortured, the unborn baby ripped from her womb. In Sisterdale, Herman Rungie was scalped and mutilated by Apache raiders. Thirteen-year-old Anna Baumann was captured by Kiowa on the Pedernales River, her older sister tortured and killed. Within a day's ride from the Pedernales, Comanches came upon a group of Tonkawa preparing to eat the roasted legof a captive. The Comanches, including Herman Lehmann, a white boy who had bee n captured and enslaved by the Indians eight years before, killed the Tonkawa, cut off their arms and legs and then burned all the body parts, including those of the living, in a bonfire.

The Kiowa, Arapaho, Apache, Comanche, the once great nations of the Great Plains were entering their final, dreadful hours. What had been a valiant defense of their land had become desperate banditry. Great chiefs, like Quanah Parker of the Comanche, who wanted an honorable peace, and Geronimo of the Apache, who sought a martyr's death, still maintained some influence over their people. But the bitter fury of the younger leaders, often rogues of uncommon brutality, held sway. The heart, the soul, of the tribes was splintered and the prodigal remnants of the nations fell on the families of the Texas Hill Country with all the terrible rage of the hopelessly lost.

In 1877, at Hoge Hollow, a few acres of rocky ranchland on a bend of the Blanco River, seven-year-old Laura Matilda Hoge and her brothers Charles and John Carlton Hoge were bathing in the shallow rock pools of the river near their home. Laura's big brother was twelve years old and very strong. She knew he would protect her should the Indians come. Even though her father had gone south for several days to hunt wild turkey so he could replenish the meat in the smokehouse, there was really nothing to fear: John Carlton was a match for the Indians and Laura's mother, Little Mattie Hoge, was just out of sight in the summer kitchen, baking a crab-apple pie.

Besides, Laura was not really sure there were such things as Indians. She had never actually seen one. But then, she had never seen God either, and when she told her father she did not believe there was a God, he switched her until she bled. So, on the subject of Indians, she kept her own counsel. Rarely did a day go by when she was not warned of Indians by her parents. Indians would carry her away, she was told, like they did poor little Herman Lehmann and Lewis Staeth and Emma Ahrens and Adolph Korn and some fifty or more other children from Hill Country families. In time, she began to see the Indians as the hand God might use to punish her for such mortal sins as sassing or whining or neglecting her chores. But since it was difficult for her to believe in God, it was also difficult to believe in His avenging angels. Indians became, in her mind, somehow blended with other tales of horror children were told, of witches in dark forests who tried to cook and eat children and wolves who masqueraded as grandmas and trolls who lived beneath bridges and would eat you if you crossed. The Tonkawa certainly had no monopoly on the eating of children.

And so it was not surprising that Laura was unafraid when she saw Carnoviste, Black Cato, and Herman Lehmann come riding, like characters out of a myth, from the brush on the other side of the river.

It was apparent the Indians had not expected to find children in their way as they approached the Hoge place in search of horses. They paused, looked at each other, then back to where the children stood, frozen in a motionless tableau cut away from the flow of time, an interval of images alive with a clarity that would be etched in Laura's mind for the rest of her long, long life.

The man she would later know as Carnoviste was tall and powerfully built, his face painted with red, yellow, and black designs. He wore nothing above his waist and his skin glowed like a copper kettle. His hair, crowned by a fan of eagle feathers, was very black, his nose thin and fine, and Laura was surprised to see that he had no eyebrows above his calm and expressionless eyes. Carnoviste carried a bullhide shield painted with bright stars and a crescent moon, and across his shoulder he carried a short bow. The second of the riders was Black Cato. Later she would learn he was a former slave who had joined the Apache to fight his white masters. He, too, was a very large man. He wore a soldier's blue waistcoat pinned and stitched with a voluminous collection of medals and medallions. An army bugle hung from a lanyard around his neck.

The third rider, Herman Lehmann, was one of the most beautiful people Laura had ever seen. He reminded her of the pictures in her mother's Bible of David playing the harp for King Saul. His hair was golden and long and, in contrast to his two companions, his body seemed carved from ivory. Instead of a harp or a sling, he carried a shield, a rifle, and a bandolier of cartridges strapped across his back. As Laura watched the three strange riders, she was not afraid. Surely no harm could come from a boy so beautiful, even if his companions looked as fierce as any troll or witch in her brothers' fearsome stories.

Then, suddenly, time seemed to take her by the hand and mind and whirl her forward, the moments passing so quickly that one merged into the next in a constant and violent stream of sensation. She saw Charles thrashing through the water toward shore and felt John Carlton pulling her by the arm. The Indians' horses cast jeweled spray into the sunlight as they came flying through the shallows. Then when the horses reached the hole where the great-grandfather catfish lurked and where the flow was deep even in summer, the riders were slowed, holding high on the necks of their swimming mounts. Laura ran frantically, half carried along by her brothers, gaining distance from the Indians, flying across the bottomland, and she knew for an instant how the wolves must feel when pursued by her father and the hounds. She saw the contorted faces of her brothers and could taste the sharp, acrid, burning pain of their fear, now her own, a taste like blood in her throat. She heard the sound of an arrow whispering by and the howls of the Indians and the raucous ringing bleat of Black Cato's bugle. She felt the wind in her face and the sting of branches, like switches, the tall grass grasping at her ankles. They dodged through the apple trees, running, flying, screaming for their mother. Finally, she felt the inexpressible deliverance when they reached the yard, scattering chickens to the four directions, and then the blessed coolness of the house when they passed through the door with their lungs on fire. And she heard the thunder of Old Boomer, the ancient, ten-gauge, double-barreled, shotgun her mother kept loaded with number four lead shot to use when her father was away, and the howl of surprise and pain from the Indians who then retreated noisily to the safety of the edge of the yard.

Little Mattie Hoge bolted the doors, hurriedly closed and locked the shutters. While John Carlton reloaded Old Boomer, Little Mattie pushed apple barrels up against the doors. Laura's sister Baby Lucy, in spite of the noise, slept soundly in her cradle by the hearth. Laura felt betrayed by the golden-haired boy, by the world, and by the sunlit day that had given birth to evil and danger so quickly and unexpectedly. As she listened to the crisp, staccato talk between her mother and brothers, she decided she could never fully trust again.

"Only the three?"

"All we saw."

"It's Black Cato," Little Mattie said, rising by the window to her full height of four and a half feet. She watched the riders through a crack in the shutters. "And there's Carnoviste. Other one must be little Herman Lehmann all grown."

"Where are they?" John Carlton asked.

"By the well. Brazen as you please. Thinkin' things over. Tryin' to figure what kind of fight we'll make," Little Mattie said.

John Carlton handed Old Boomer back to Little Mattie, who was not much larger than the shotgun.

"Get the Colt, Charles," Little Mattie said, turning back to the window. Charles moved quickly to the pine cabinet that J. C. Hoge laughingly called the armory. When Laura's father was home, the Winchester was kept there, along with Old Boomer and the Army Colt he had used against the Yankees in the war. But now, with the Winchester gone, they had only what they called the poor folks' weapons. Charles loaded the Colt and moved next to his mother. Laura watched wide-eyed, her heart still pumping hard from the run and the fear she had seen in her brothers' eyes.

"They must know your papa's gone," Little Mattie said. "Musta seen him passin' on the trail. Wouldn't come around otherwise."

John Carlton called out. "One's leaving!"

"Which?" his mother asked.

"The white one."

"Herman Lehmann?"

"He's just riding on."

Laura moved to the window and looked through a crack in the shutters. Herman Lehmann was silhouetted against the misty distance, his hair flowing behind him like a golden cloak. The others called out words she could not understand, but Herman Lehmann rode on, never turning, until he disappeared from sight.

"Do you think they're all leaving?"

"I don't know," Little Mattie said. "I don't think so."

John Carlton asked, "What we gonna do?"

"Depends. Long as they're in sight, nothin'. Time to worry is when night comes. Likely they'll stay put 'til then."

"Then what'll we do?" It was John Carlton again. Laura was glad he was asking her questions.

"What we have to do," Little Mattie said. "Bring me that stool, John Carlton. Might as well be comfortable. It's a long spell before dark."

The afternoon passed slowly. That was fine with Laura. She wished she could slow it down more, maybe hold it by the coattails and drag it to a stop. As long as there was daylight, she felt relatively safe in the good, strong house her father had built of live oak and cypress and fine heart pine. And what really bad could happen with her mother there? Light from the window played in Little Mattie's dark hair. Laura was reminded that she had only recently come to the conclusion that her mother was not the most beautiful woman in the world. It had come as a shock, bringing a troublesome, uneasy guilt. She had compared Little Mattie to their neighbor, Mrs. Catherton, and Laura decided she would rather look like Mrs. Catherton when she grew up than like her mother. Little Mattie seemed dumpy next to their tall, graceful neighbor. But her mother was surely stronger, a better shot, and could tell wonderful stories. She had schooling and had a whole roomful of books, while Mrs. Catherton could not even read.

Occasionally, Little Mattie would notice that one of the Indians had moved from her line of sight. "John Carlton, look out back. Charles, Laura, get to the windows, peep out, but keep out of sight. We need to know where those rascals are."

The Indians stayed out of Old Boomer's range. They prowled out back, into the toolshed, the corn crib, and the henhouse. "What you reckon they want?" Charles asked. "There's not a thing out there worth much, even to an Indian. 'Cept the horses, and Papa took the best one."

"What they want is in here," Little Mattie said. For a moment Laura wondered what she meant. Little Mattie glanced at her daughter and then, seeming to reconsider, added: "Or maybe they're lookin' for a piece of that old crab-apple pie."

They waited. It was quiet outside. Baby Lucy awoke, fretting. Laura lifted her into her arms to pat her back to sleep. Little Mattie sighed and shifted her position at the window. "Did I ever tell you," she asked, "about the time I met President Abraham Lincoln?" A half smile creased Little Mattie's face, yet her dark eyes never left the crack in the shutter. "Might as well pass the time with some talk."

Laura loved to hear the oft-told tale, though she was not sure she could concentrate this time with the Indians outside. But when her mother's words began to flow and the image of the great, homely, sad face of President Lincoln came to her mind, she realized again her very own mother had known him. She embraced the story, projecting herself into Little Mattie's role and became the heroine of the tale, the good friend of Abraham Lincoln.

"You watch hard now, John Carlton," Little Mattie said, then began: "Well, I was about Laura's age. My daddy was a doctor and we were living way up there in Illinois, up where it snows in winter sometimes as deep as a child is tall. And old Abe Lincoln was running for the United States Senate. He was running against a man named Douglas. Stephen A. Douglas. And they saw opposite sides of just about every question of the day. If Mr. Lincoln said a thing was yellow, Mr. Douglas would say it was blue. If Mr. Douglas said a thing was big, Mr. Lincoln would say it would fit in a hat box. Well, the biggest thing those two disagreed about was slavery. And they traveled all around Illinois debating the right and wrong of the issue of slavery. One of their debates was in the town where we lived. And my daddy took me to hear. We got right up front. I could almost reach up and touch Mr. Lincoln's coattails."

Outside, a footstep?

Little Mattie tilted her head like dogs sometimes do listening. The sound did not repeat.

"Mr. Lincoln thought slavery was wrong. That a country couldn't be half slave, half free. Mr. Douglas disagreed and took the other side of the question. One would talk and then the other and what they said would change the world. It was like they were talking to me and I was a part of it, a witness to what was really important in the country.

"One night, after the debate, Mr. Lincoln came to our house. He knew my daddy because my daddy was trying to help Negroes go back home to Africa. And Lincoln wanted to know about his ideas and how the plan was working. So they talked long into the night and I listened to every word about what would be the right thing to do about slavery."

"And what did you ask him?" It was a question Laura always asked at this point in the story.

"I asked him if a girl could be president."

"And what'd he say?" This was the part Laura loved best.

"Well, he thought about it for a long time. Looked right at me and smiled. He wasn't the handsomest man I've seen, but his eyes were filled with a light that just kind of jumped out at you and made you feel warm and good."

"But what'd he say? About a girl being president?"

"He said she could."

The day faded. Baby Lucy awakened and began to cry. The sound was very loud and seemed to pierce the afternoon with all the volume of Black Cato's bugle. "Tend to Baby Lucy, Laura," Little Mattie said, her forehead creased with concern. "See that she's clean and dry." Little Mattie looked back toward the well and she could see Black Cato watching the house, the day's last sunlight flashing on his bugle. "Now," she said, "it's time to move. We're all gonna go down in the cellar. We're gonna hide down there and we're all gonna be quiet as mice. Not a breath. Not a peep."

"What about Baby Lucy?" Hunger had brought new and noisy complaints from the infant.

"Get that whiskey your papa bought for medicine," Little Mattie told Charles. When J. C. Hoge had bought the gallon of whiskey from a peddler, Little Mattie had laughed and said it was enough to get half of Texas three sheets to the wind. But it was a good price for medicinal whiskey that would probably last at least forever. Now their very lives depended on it. "Laura, take half a teaspoon of that whiskey and pour it into some of that honey over there. Mix it with a cup of water. When she gets fussy, feed her a sip. Maybe that whiskey'll keep Baby Lucy quiet." Little Mattie looked back through the shutters, then back at the children. "Then I want everybody in the cellar, except me and John Carlton. Take some blankets and make a nest 'cause you might be there a long time. And, Laura, you start feedin' that honey-whiskey to Baby Lucy."

"Where will you be?"

"Up here for a spell," Little Mattie answered. "Old Boomer and John Carlton with the Colt are gonna raise a terrible commotion. When it begins to get dark, we're gonna shoot from all the windows like we had an army in here. Then we'll come down into the cellar. Maybe those Indians will change their mind and go away. Maybe they won't. If they come in the house, well, let's just pray they don't. That's all we can do except hide and be as quiet as we can." Little Mattie looked back through the shutters, sighed, and said to her younger children: "Now come kiss your mama and then we'll see what's gonna happen."

When J. C. Hoge had built the house he had dug the cellar because of Little Mattie's fear of the tornadoes that so frequently thundered through her Illinois childhood. He had also provisioned the cellar as a place to hide in the event of an Indian attack, a much greater threat, he felt, than storm. He had cut the trapdoor to the storm cellar so precisely that the passageway was difficult to detect, and he had mounted the family bed on rollers so it could be rolled away from the wall for access to the trapdoor. The bed could be rolled back in place by pulling a rope from below. The trapdoor was hidden by deerskins and the many quilts that draped down from the bed.

Although Laura's brothers often played at hiding from Indians in the storm cellar, Laura had been there only once and had vowed she would never go there again. She was sure snakes and spiders lurked in the dark recesses, especially great, moving, shimmering, hairy, creeping, alien mounds of daddy longlegs, like those hideous writhing masses on the back wall of the toolshed. To Laura the threat of daddy longlegs was more horrible than the thought of Indians.

Charles opened the trapdoor and a stale, cold breath of air was released from below. Laura shuddered as she watched her brother climb down the ladder, his lantern punching holes in the darkness. He set the lantern down and held out his arms for Baby Lucy. To avoid breathing the foul cellar air for as long as possible, Laura took a deep breath and held it all the way down the ladder. The lantern flame revealed clean-cut dirt walls, rough-hewn timbers overhead, a clapboard floor, and dark shadows harboring unthinkable menace. Laura willed her eyes not to penetrate into the awful gloom beyond the lanternlight. John Carlton dropped quilts down from above and, holding her squirming little sister under one arm, Laura spread the quilts into a pallet with her free hand. Baby Lucy was delighted with the shift in routine and was eager to explore. She sang out her sonorous unintelligible vocabulary of vowels while Laura struggled to hold her on the pallet. As she raised a spoonful of the whiskey mixture to her sister's lips, she wondered what she would do if Baby Lucy refused to taste, then decided she would hold her nose and pour it down, a thing her mother did when fighting children's fevers. But Baby Lucy loved her honeyed liquor and lapped it up in great, noisy, eager swallows.

How much time elapsed before the sound of gunfire filled the cellar, Laura couldn't tell. Baby Lucy was having difficulty keeping her eyes open. Even the roar of Old Boomer and the sharp and rapid report of the Colt couldn't stay her long, easy glide into slumber. The sound was deafening, seemingly amplified by the hollow space of the cellar, and trembles sent swirls of dust down from the ceiling and even clods of dirt from the walls. The sound became a solid thing, a fist pounding the air and shaking the ground. Then there was silence. Footsteps. The trapdoor swung open, Old Boomer was handed down, Little Mattie and John Carlton descended, the family was together and the trapdoor was closed. Little Mattie pulled the rope that moved the bed back into position, hiding the trapdoor. John Carlton and Little Mattie reloaded the shotgun and the revolver. Laura held her sleeping baby sister. Little Mattie kissed each child again before blowing out the lantern. In the darkness, she began to pray. Her voice was a whisper, but Laura felt that whisper fill all the corners of her mind. "Dear Heavenly Father," Little Mattie prayed. "If it's your will, please look down on this family and keep us safe. In Jesus' name, Amen." Laura was sure she could see the words of the prayer rising through the darkness, through the floor and up toward heaven. Now that she had actually seen an Indian she decided she believed in God and told Him so. Then there was no sound at all in the cellar, or in the house or from the yard, and it was very, very dark.

First came the sound of windows shattering and the ring of flying glass. There was rifle fire and the pandemonium of lead striking kitchen pots and pans and shattering whatever lay behind the windows. Laura could tell what the bullets destroyed by the sound of the impact. For a long time, the firing continued. Then abruptly, it stopped and the night was again still as a graveyard.

Carnoviste and Black Cato came. It wasn't a sound they made, but a change in the air, a perception of the presence of evil. Laura could hear the sound of her blood flowing. She felt an uneasy, almost painful sensitivity in her skin, something like a cat's hair rubbed wrong. And there was an odor, like wet hounds on a hot day, or unbathed brothers. A sound. At the back, maybe the window. Clink. Then a clatter. For a few seconds a breathless silence, then suddenly a deafening explosion. "It's the front door," Little Mattie whispered, and Laura felt herself enfolded in her mother's arms. John Carlton and Charles moved closer. "They shot open the door," Charles mumbled.

Now the Indians were in the house. Laura could hear their footsteps as they searched the rooms. She could tell they wore moccasins. They moved stealthily, at first. As it became apparent the house was empty, their footsteps grew more bold and the sound of their deep voices, sounding not unlike Rev. Andrew Jackson Potter speaking in tongues, began to bound around the house. There was a shattering sound and a crash and Laura knew someone had kicked a chair, then a torrent of language that could only have been an oath. Chairs scraped on the floor, cabinets were forced open, drawers pulled out onto the floor. All this, Laura could see in her mind's eye as the Indians searched the house her father had built from cypress, stout live oak, and fine heart pine.

Silence, then a raucous explosion of laughter, another oath, a grunt and more laughter, the froglike bellow of a belch. More laughter, then what seemed a kind of chant from the deep voice, a song devoid of melody, then more laughter and several soft whispery sounds like liquid pouring. "They've found the whiskey," Little Mattie whispered in Laura's ear. Then Laura and her family listened to Carnoviste and Black Cato get cockeyed drunk. As the night wore on, the intruders argued, shouted, sang, pounded the table, and once the rhythmic pounding of dancing boots shook dust down onto the pallet. Suddenly, one of the voices broke into phrases of English mixed with Indian language. Laura recognized the words "land of cotton" and was sure Black Cato was singing an Apache version of "Dixie." A deep voice cursed, there was a scuffling, and then silence. For a long time, the intruders were quiet. Laura imagined they were eating the crab-apple pie. Soft footsteps inches above their heads and then the heavy creaking of ropes, a groaning sigh, a torrent of low mumbling, and Laura knew the terrible Carnoviste was lying on the bed just over their heads above the trapdoor. She sensed her mother repositioning the great shotgun, the butt on the floor, the two massive barrels aimed at the now sleeping Apache.

The sound Laura next heard would haunt her dreams until the hour of her death. Rising from the silence was a clear, pure, sonorous wail, a sweet-flowing melody that filled the night. She felt tears in her eyes as the mellow sound moved like a sorrow through the house. Black Cato was playing taps on his army bugle. Laura thought it was a kind of prayer and wondered if even Black Cato had a soul and if the sorrow she heard dwelled in the Negro or in the horn. Then she began to feel the daddy longlegs moving on the pallet.

Even as the scream began to build, she knew she was killing her family. In one awful instant she realized the scream would give them away and they would die. But the spiders were moving up her leg, below her dress, and in her mind she saw them heaving and vibrating, crawling mindlessly over her body until she was buried and consumed. She fought against the emerging scream and began to tremble and slap at her legs, sobbing and making a low growling sound in her throat. Then she felt the footsteps of the spiders on her face and her eyes and a scream erupted like a death knell from the chambers of her gut.

The bugle fell silent. The earth stopped short on its journeys through the heavens. Every living thing held its breath. There was a creaking of ropes, a shout shattering the stillness, a guttural oath, booted footsteps overhead, dust wafting down, fear biting like hounds at their hearts. The air was filled with a profound and thunderous orchestra of sound, a great, bull-throated roar as Little Mattie let go one of Old Boomer's barrels, then the other, straight up through the floor. The trapdoor flew away like an injured vulture, the air filled with cordite and splinters, and Carnoviste's drunken cries of pain and surprise. Confused shouts, bootfalls, the sound of horses flying away, the bleating call of Black Cato's bugle, then blessed silence and a ringing in the ears as welcome as church bells. Carefully, quietly, the family climbed up from the cellar. The house was in shambles. It looked as if the tornadoes Little Mattie feared had come at last. The shotgun had blown two ragged holes in the floor and Little Mattie's bed was soaked with blood from Carnoviste's body. Laura's mother fell to her knees amid the devastation and motioned her family to kneel in prayer. As she thanked God for their deliverance, Little Mattie reloaded Old Boomer with number four shot just in case their prayers were premature.

Laura could not stop crying. When the pearl and silver mists of morning came, she was still trembling and feeling so bad she wished she had never been born.

"What's the matter, Sweet Thing? It's all over now." Little Mattie sat on the edge of Laura's bed and with a moist rag washed away the stains of tears and black gunpowder from below Laura's eyes.

"I'm ashamed."

"You shouldn't be."

"I could have killed us. Even Baby Lucy behaved better than me."

"Baby Lucy was tipsy."

Laura smiled, then sobbed. Her stomach ached from her crying. "I couldn't help it. I just couldn't."

"I think you should be proud, Big Sister. Wouldn't surprise me if you saved our lives. There we were, hiding like cowards. You forced us to do somethin'. Gave us the gumption to fight back. And that's what we did. Old Carnoviste will be pickin' lead out of his backside for months."

Laura felt some better, especially thinking about Carnoviste's injury, but she knew, in spite of her mother's words, that she could have caused their deaths. She was fighting the possibility that her fear had apparently been greater than her love.

"Why are they so mean?" Laura asked. "Why would they want to kill us?"

"For the horses, for guns. Maybe something to eat."

"But they wouldn't have to kill us! I don't understand. What did we ever do to them?"

Little Mattie looked around at the destruction in the house and the trail of Carnoviste's blood leading out the front door. "Well, different things. They say buffalo hunters killed Carnoviste's wife and his children. Settlers took his land. He had a second family and they were killed when Rangers destroyed his village. I think that might make a man mean. And that meanness just goes round and round."

"Tell me about the white Indian that went away."

"Your papa says he's the worst one of them all. The Apache took him away when he was just a little boy. Over by Fredericksburg. Your papa says the only children that survive with the Indians are the meanest ones. That's how hard life is."

"But he's not an Indian."

"I suppose he is now. I guess we are what we do."

"Why did he leave?"

"I don't know, Sweet Thing. Maybe he's not as mean as your papa thinks."

"And the Negro? Did you hear him play that horn?"

"That was somethin'. Like bells. They say he was a bugler for the Yankees."

"But he's not an Indian. He's a Negro."

"We're all just people, Sweet One. We do what we have to. And we are what we do."

"Would you have killed them?" Laura asked.

"I meant to," Little Mattie said. Laura looked up at her mother's face and decided maybe she had been wrong about Mrs. Catherton being more beautiful. She felt so proud of her mother and what she had done. A woman less than five feet tall had chased away a band of murderous Indians, surely something more amazing than being president.

After all, how hard can that be?

Copyright © 1998 by Janice Woods Windle

What People are Saying About This

Chris Bohjalian
Janice Woods Windle writes with a heart as big as Texas, and the result is a grand, sprawling stew of a book -- spirited, moving, and rich with surprise -- and I loved every single word.
— (Chris Bohjalian, author of Midwives, Water Witches, and The Law of Similars)

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