Living in Hamilton, Texas, Catherine is an art teacher working out of her home studio, teaching adults to paint. She is a certified judge for the Visual Arts Scholastic Events and has mentored high school aged artists in the Central Texas area.
Her paintings and photographs have won awards, and one of Catherine’s paintings was published in the Rotarian Magazine in 2013.
In the 1990’s, she completed three novels, but did not pursue publication. An opportunity to work in grassroots politics came along, and Catherine devoted her time to local elections and events. Having retired from that endeavor in 2014, she began writing again. To date, Catherine has created a substantial portfolio of short stories, and she has written two new novels and a novella.
Participating in a writers’ group challenge, Catherine entered an on-line journal contest and won second place. The story, Dead of Winter, was published by Toasted Cheese, in 2017. She has recently had two other stories accepted for publication—one in Bewildering Stories, and another in Corner Bar Magazine.
Catherine participates in two writers’ groups, and recently joined The Writers’ League of Texas.
St. Francis del Arroyo
Littleberry Harper watched as the fort burned. One of two blockhouses was in flames, and fire was spreading to the surrounding woods.
Flickering orange and scarlet reflections danced across the surface of Limestone Lake. He was still too close to the fort to feel safe. There had been no wind for hours; not even a random breeze rippled the water's surface. He prayed for torrential rain, begging God to conjure a fury of sound and motion to camouflage his escape.
It had been a stellar day, with not a cloud in sight. But now, as Littleberry's prayers rose to the heavens, the weather began taking a noticeable turn. He prayed all the harder, until at last his prayers were answered. There was chaos in the sky miles away. He saw lightning and listened for distant rumblings of thunder rolling across the Texas plains.
“Praise God,” Littleberry whispered. The calm, sometime during the night, would give way to that glorious chaos, and that's when Littleberry Harper, if he lived so long, could swim out across the water.
Clouds blew across the sky, and moonlight came and went. He cleaved to his lifelines with equal tenacity, a floating log and his belief in the Lord. The cedar log had been a throwaway, discarded during repairs on the fort. The fact that it had been tossed into the lake must have been an act of pure providence, as ordinarily the log would have been reduced to kindling.
With nothing to do but wait and pray, he allowed himself to mourn the dead. He choked on his sobs. He had survived the day through acts of cowardice. By nature, he was not a coward. He'd been a soldier, who fought for his country. But that was over two decades ago, and he had become a man of peace since then, killing only to fill the stew pot.
It was the Comanches who broke the peace this day when, just before noon, a war party attacked Fort Parker. Braves approached on horseback, waving a white flag of truce. They came often to the fort, for one reason or another. Today, they asked for food.
Since the construction of Fort Parker, there had been peace. The settlers felt at ease, especially with Texas Rangers living among them. It became customary to leave the south gates of the fort open.
Benjamin Parker drove a wagon of meat and dry goods to the Comanches. As he approached the open gates, he was surrounded by riders and run through with lances. More Comanche warriors seemed to materialize out of thin air, and within seconds the breech was swarmed, and the fort was overrun.
Littleberry had been watching through the window of his cabin. Terrible things were happening outside his door. A pregnant woman leveled a rifle at a warrior. She was slain, then scalped. The Elder John Parker was beaten senseless and taken prisoner; two of his kin lay bloodied in the dirt. A young boy used a pitchfork to impale a warrior on horseback. The warrior had the boy's unconscious mother thrown across his horse.
Hiding would be suicide, Littleberry reasoned. The cabins would be looted, and he would be found. He must escape. Armed with his hunting rifle and a knife, he opened the door slowly. He could hear fighting as close as a few yards away. He crept toward the north end of the fort, ducking behind stacks of firewood and wagons. As he approached a narrow gate, he heard gunfire and the pounding of hooves beyond the barricade, but there was nowhere else to go. The south entrance, and this gate were the only exits from the fort.
“Better to die fighting than to be taken prisoner,” he told himself. He had every intention of joining the battle.
Shots rang out all around him, and smoke from black powder assaulted his lungs. Littleberry ran away. Overwhelmed and desperate, he hid himself among the bodies of the dead. Three men who had been slaughtered and scalped lay side by side, partially hidden by sacks of feed. He repeatedly dipped his hands in their blood and painted his face, smeared his bald head with gore and streaked the front of his shirt. He had not expected his ruse to work. Every time the sound of footsteps came near, he waited to have a knife plunged into his chest, or to have his throat slit.
He had not felt like a coward at the time, nor did he suffer pangs of guilt, until he remained motionless while an old woman had her frail body run through with a lance; she was then scalped before death had taken her. Shrieks of agony broke his spirit, destroying any urge to fight he might have had. His rifle lay close at hand, and he had thought about it. God forgive him, at least he had done that much.
He could see little from his hiding place. The south gates were blocked from his view, but he could see the battle for the north gate. He bore witness to bravery and savagery. A woman gave her life, attacking a warrior with only a pair of sewing scissors, to protect her daughter's virtue. She had not been successful.
James Parker fought valiantly, with a father's insane desperation, then he led a group of children, two of them his own, through the northern gateway. Littleberry wanted to jump up and go with them, but they were being pursued by no less than ten Comanche warriors. Texas Rangers, true to their fierce reputation, matched the bravery of the Comanche blow for blow. They were killed, but they had not been defeated. They had beaten back the enemy long enough to allow James Parker to lead the children to safety.
An elderly man, shoving his wife out the gate, blocked it for as long as his strength held out. He attempted to fight hand to hand, but he was overpowered by youth. He was beaten to death with a wicked looking club, then scalped. Littleberry could watch no more. He closed his eyes.
The slow passage of time was agony. The hot Texas sun baked Littleberry's body. He was sunburned to the point of pain, but he dared not move. At last, most of the battle was over; Comanche women and children were all around him and his dead companions, collecting the spoils of war. His knife was taken, as was his rifle. A squaw tugged at his boots, but they were old, and the bottoms were splitting; seeing their deterioration, she moved on.
Glancing about quickly, he saw prisoners being led away. He saw Cynthia Ann Parker, barely nine years old, being lifted onto a painted Indian pony. She was as limp as a rag doll, but her eyes were wide open. An infant was stolen from its mother's arms and murdered. The screaming woman's hands were tied with a rope and she was dragged behind a brave on horseback.
The sound of footfalls in the dirt made Littleberry close his eyes again, but the image of the mangled infant returned to haunt him time and time again. He kept seeing the babe, the bloodied knife, and the mother's pitiful face.
Why kill a babe still at its mother's breast? Comanches adopt children, even adults, into their families. So why murder a helpless infant?
The question tormented him. It made no sense, at first. Then it did.
It's the devil, he reasoned.
“These heathens belong to the devil,” he muttered, unable to suppress his rage. “They're bad seeds, the lot of them. Damn their black hearts!”
If true, then what does that mean for me? he suddenly wondered, as rage turned to fear, and the significance of his epiphany filled him with dread. He had done things in battle that kept him awake during the darkest nights, when the faces of the innocent dead plagued his conscience.
“Am I doomed?” he asked with a gasp.
Littleberry had nearly given himself away. A warrior, having heard a voice, took a few steps toward him, causing him to dampen the ground. Then the warrior bolted in another direction and screams began anew. A short while later, most of the Comanche had gathered at the south end of the fort. Littleberry could not see what they were doing, but he knew that this was his chance, maybe his only chance. He must move now. He left the dead, without a backward glance, and ran for his life.
He dashed through the north gate as fast as he could and headed toward the river. He lost his footing at the top of an embankment, falling down a steep slope and landing badly on one knee in the rocky riverbed. Pain shot down his leg. Suppressing a scream as he got up, he followed the current. It led him to a boat ramp. The boat was gone. He thought of James Parker and the children. Perhaps they took it. He ducked beneath the ramp to catch his breath.
Limestone Lake, fed by the Navasota River, wasn't far from where he rested. He needed to get to the opposite bank as fast as he could to warn the settlers. He slid in among tall grasses.
As he crawled through numerous patches of star thistle and cat's claw, Littleberry never uttered a sound as thorns penetrated his clothes, jabbed his knees, ripped his hands, and tore at his face. He saw his blood leaving a trail. He remained silent when he came face to face with a rattlesnake. He held his breath and became as stone. The snake didn't seem to notice him, or maybe it simply didn't feel threatened. After a couple of flicks of the tongue, it slid off, unconcerned.
Soil finally gave way to rocks and mud; he was at the lake. He pushed in among the reeds, then waded out into the water. Looking back at the fort, he saw a brave on the rampart. He ducked down beneath the water and headed back toward the reeds where he could not be easily seen. It was safer there, except for water moccasins. They swim in the lake and hide in the reeds, as he was doing now. But he feared the Comanche more than any venomous serpent. One strike and his death would be unpleasant but swift. Not so with the Comanche.
As he waited among the cattails, something bumped him. He whirled around, startled, to find a log floating in the water. A frog was on it, croaking, sizing him up. He waved a hand at it and the frog jumped into the lake.
“Sorry, fella. I need this helluva lot more than you do.”
He had never been a strong swimmer. The floating log would buoy him up. He took the sudden appearance of the log as a sign. God wanted him to cross the lake. There was still important work for him to do here, on this earthly plain.
Littleberry could barely see the fort through the glare of the sun. There was movement on the ramparts; braves had stationed themselves along the barricades. He reasoned that if he could see them, then sharper eyes, trained to scan the plains for buffalo, could see him. Seeing movement on the water, they would come, bringing hell with them. He had to wait.
He sat waist deep in water, watching the sunset. He embraced the log with one arm, unwilling to risk having it float away. He washed his face and head. Rivulets of bloody water flowed down his neck and shoulders. The coppery smell of gore filled his nostrils.
White herons took wing, at first circling, then gliding to the other end of the lake. Fish preferred the far end. There were more trees, which made the water cooler and the droppings in the water richer. He had camped under those trees a time or two, after a satisfying fish dinner. He wouldn't mind some catfish now. He was starving.
When the crimson reflections of the setting sun passed, a full moon took its place. Moonlight and fire lit the night, and still the Comanche walked the ramparts.
“Make them leave, dear God, so I can cross,” Littleberry prayed.
One of the blockhouses was burning, and with fire came horror. A wall of sound so terrible, it felt like a tangible thing. Littleberry put up a hand, as if to protect himself; it was a feeble attempt to push against that wall, but he could not. He clasped one hand over his mouth to keep from crying out.
He knew what was happening, and who was being tormented. Those were John Parker's screams, filling up the night. Reverend John Parker, who would be following his family into death, but not before he suffered unspeakable torture.
Littleberry prayed for the world to come to an end. That would be just fine with him.
“Cleanse this wicked world, oh Lord. Now would be a good time. Send a flood. Send a twister across the plains. Rake your fingernails through the earth and plow us into the ground. Please do something.”
The screaming continued amidst the whoops of the Comanche. Littleberry's despair was overwhelming; he prayed relentlessly, begging for mercy. Begging God to take Parker's soul quickly. But it was impossible for him to concentrate on his prayers. The screaming was that pitiful.
Littleberry babbled words and phrases that made no sense, speaking in tongues to keep some form of supplication streaming toward the heavens. He began to gasp out prayers, rocking back and forth, unaware that he was doing so. The screams continued, and he grunted from the pit of his stomach, fast and urgent, as loud as he dared. It became a macabre competition of sorts between the heathens and the Christian to see who could fill the night with the most fury. Blood pounded in his ears, or were those drums? He was beyond rationality. His voice took on the resonance of a Gregorian chant, but to no avail. He could still hear those horrible screams.
“GOD, MAKE THAT POOR BASTARD SHUT UP!” he cried.
And there was silence.
What have I done? he thought. My God, what have I done? Panic swelled, much like the rain clouds hanging low overhead.
What if they heard? They will find me now. Tears coursed down his face, so hot and rapid, that it took a few seconds for him to realize that rain had begun to fall.
The winds came, blowing out of the south, driving rain clouds northward with a forlorn howl. The moonlight was gone, and the darkness of the storm prevailed. He held onto his log with one arm and paddled with the other, shoving past reeds and cattails, staying near the edge of the lake for concealment. Emboldened by confidence in the continuing darkness, he left the reeds and swam out into deeper water, paddling across the lake. He had a long way to go to get to the other side.
Before the sun rose, Littleberry Harper awoke and found himself on the opposite bank of the lake, laying in the grass. He sat up and scanned the water as far as he could see. His log was nowhere in sight. The fact that the log was gone frightened him, though he wasn't sure why. He had no intention of going back across the lake. He would never return to the fort, not even to kneel once more at his dear wife's grave.
Littleberry struggled to his feet. His knee was swollen, and the pain was terrible. It threatened to buckle as he tried to walk. He had been sunburned while hiding among the dead for so long. The skin on his face and neck felt puffy beneath his fingertips. His lips were cracked and bleeding, and it was painful to open his mouth. His legs itched; no doubt he had crawled through more than one patch of poison oak.
He limped toward a stand of trees, doubting he could make it that far. Luckily, tree limbs had been scattered about, debris from the storm. He found a branch, nearly as tall as he was, and ripped off twigs and leaves. He tried it as a crutch.
“Beats nothing, I guess,” he said as he limped a few paces.
He stayed on the road, knowing how exposed he was, but he had no choice. With his ruined knee, it was impossible for him to hobble across rough terrain. If the Comanche were watching, he was a dead man anyway, and there was nothing he could do about it.
“Don't look back,” he said, limping forward. “Just keep on moving.”
Suddenly, a man as pale as milk and streaked from scalp to shoulders in blood, appeared before his eyes. Coming toward him, the man passed through Littleberry’s body. His passing made Littleberry feel sick inside. The phantom vanished, but Littleberry was left with lingering chills. Goosebumps covered his arms.
“God save me!” he shouted, turning to look in all directions. There was no one in sight. His head ached horribly, and his heart was pounding in his chest. The sick feeling grew worse, until he vomited bile into the dirt at his feet. Frightened, he hobbled onward as fast as he could manage. The chills slowly passed, but his terror did not. He looked up at the morning sun, wondering if he was hallucinating, or had he really been touched by a ghost.
Walking became more difficult. He was unable to ignore the agony in his knee. Images of the massacre flashed before his eyes, as did the bloody phantom's face. That familiar face. I know that face, he thought. Who haunts me?
All the horror he had witnessed flooded his consciousness, as did the sound of John Parker's final screams. They seemed to be reverberating still, filling the atmosphere around him with ghostly echoes.
Littleberry felt his strength failing. Weakness overtook him, and he collapsed in the dirt. He managed to drag himself out of the road and into the shade of a cypress tree. He felt himself drifting off, leaving his body. He thought he was dying, and that was okay with him.
Suddenly, he found himself walking again, down that same road. There was no pain in his knee, nor did his face burn. He was feeling remarkably well. Even hopeful. But the good feelings diminished as he walked, until an insurmountable weight seemed to be rooting him to the earth. The air changed, becoming heavy and damp. It was hard to breathe. The sunlight dimmed, so much that he could barely see. The wind came up hard and fast, slowing his walk to a crawl. He leaned into the wind, but it beat him back, stopping him from going any farther.
Littleberry felt his body aging; he realized that a film had covered both eyes. He was nearly blind. His hands became spotted and gnarled, his back hunched and his legs bowed. He felt small, and old, as though he had been present at the birth of the world. He held up a hand to shield his face from the wind, and suddenly, he caught sight of a faint outline. Someone was walking toward him.
“Who are you?” he asked in an old man's voice, weak and broken. “I can't see you.” The man was silent. He came closer to Littleberry. The way the man walked, the tilt of his head, the lines in his face, he was so familiar.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
“You owe me a debt,” the man said as he approached. He was taller than Littleberry, towering nearly a head above him. He reached out and gripped Littleberry's arm, as if to keep him from running away. The man's touch was like ice.
Looking into the man's face through the haze, he saw a dead man's face. Sickly pale, like a gutted trout. The eyes were dull and sunken. Littleberry gasped and stepped back, trying to run. But he was so old and the man's grip on his arm was firm; he could not.
“It's too late,” he heard himself say. “I'm too far gone to pay any debts. I have nothing left to give.” He shed a few tears of regret, and needing to weep more, he tried, but the husk that was his body had little moisture to spare. “Sorrow gnaws at my guts like a starving rodent.”
“You owe me a debt,” the man said again.
“Yes, I remember,” Littleberry whispered. “I dipped my hands into your blood. I covered my scalp and face, and pretended to be one of three dead, and I escaped. I owe you all. Take my life, if you want it. I won't fight you.”
“It's not what's left of your pitiful life I need. You have spent it all, and it is no good to anyone now.”
“What of the other two?” Littleberry asked. “I'm in their debt as well. Yes?”
“Yes, but there is nothing you can do for them anymore,” the dead man said. “But I am another case, and you owe me.”
“Yes,” he replied. “I owe you.”
The dead man leaned down and whispered in Littleberry's ear, and as he slowly awoke from his dream, he could still feel the dead man's cold breath on his face, and the chill where the dead man had gripped his arm.
Fully awake at last, he sat up and looked around. The shade from the cypress tree now fell across the road.
“Oh hell, what have I done,” he said. “I've got to get moving.”
It was not easy for him to get up off the ground. The pain in his knee was terrible. Leaning on the make-shift crutch, he hobbled down the road as fast as he could manage. But soon, he came to a stop.
“This doesn't feel right, damn it. It's all so goddamn wrong,” he said, looking around. “Which way do I go? There's something I'm supposed to do. What the hell is it?”
Go east, a voice in his head told him. “I'll go east,” he said. “I don't know what in hell I'm going east for, but I'm by-god going east.” Littleberry turned back toward the lake and took a fork in the road that went east.
“I have no idea what will happen, or what I'm gonna find by going east,” he muttered. “But something's telling me to go that way, so I'm going. I'll probably walk into a pack of goddamn Comanches. They've probably been watching me this whole time, laughing, saying 'we're gonna let that stupid white man walk into our camp, then we'll have ourselves a grand old time.'
“Sharpen your knives, you bastards, ‘cause here I come.”
Littleberry was on the brink of insanity. His shattered nerves continued to play tricks on him. He felt as though he was being watched by someone in the bushes. The swaying of chaparral, by animal or air, filled him with dread of seeing ghosts, visible only from the corner of his eye.
He'd had a strange dream during the night and he tried to remember, but beyond frustrating glimpses, he could remember nothing. He awakened chilled to the bone. Thinking about it now, he figured he must have suffered a fever, probably from spending most of the night in Limestone Lake. As he usually did, when afraid or ill, Littleberry turned to prayer. But praying did not come easily this time.
“Lord, please...help...” His troubled mind went blank. “Dear Father in heaven, please…”
Littleberry stuttered and stammered, unable to pray. “What's wrong with me?” He stopped in the road, puzzled, arguing with himself like a crazy man. “The words feel sinful,” he said. “Prideful. Ungrateful. I’m still alive, the Lord has already helped me survive a massacre. He has blessed me. Is it wrong to ask for more?”
“What a stupid notion, Littleberry,” he argued, balling up his fists in anger. “You're supposed to ask, as often as it takes. That's what prayer is for.”
He tried again. “Please, dear Lord… guide me… help… please don't let the savages get me,” he prayed, whining like a child.
“No, no, no!” he shouted, angrily. “I've lost what little dingle-berry of dignity I once had. If I was God, I wouldn't listen to a cowardly asshole like me.”
The words of his sergeant in the Militia came back to him. Get mad at those savages. Pretend they're scalping your mother. Are you willing to do your duty now? Do it like a man, Corporal Harper, or don't do it at all.
Pray your anger away, Littleberry, the voice of his gentle wife said. God can heal your anger, even if you're angry at God.
Littleberry realized then that he was, indeed, angry with God. God had let the massacre happen, when with the twitch of His little finger, He could have stopped it.
“Lord, you have dragged me through hell's darkest shit hole and back out into the sunlight,” he said, spitting words as bitter as gall from his mouth. “How could you let all those good people die like that?” he asked hotly, shaking one fist up at the heavens. Tears fell from his eyes. “Brave souls, everyone of them. More honorable than I have ever been. Why would you save a bastard like me, who hid beneath their blood and bones?”
He started hobbling along again. “I'm not smart enough to understand it, Lord. But surely a loving God must have a good reason for allowing a man like Reverend Parker to die such a horrible death.”
“You are quite right,” a voice answered from somewhere behind him.
“Who's there?” Littleberry shouted, spinning around. He held the broken tree limb like a weapon.
A man walked out from behind a stand of trees. He was a monk. An elderly monk in a brown hooded robe. His face was wrinkled from age and the elements, and he was slightly hunched over. He carried a tall, gnarled walking stick, which he leaned on heavily. His tonsured hair was as white as the clouds overhead. His dark eyes were as deep as wells, but when he smiled, they sparkled nonetheless.
Littleberry was relieved to see a friendly face. When the monk smiled, he felt his fears subside.
“To answer your question, God does have his reasons for everything He does,” the monk said. “However, He is under no obligation to share those reasons with us.”
“You are right, of course,” Littleberry agreed.
“I'm sorry to interrupt your prayers. I hope I didn't startle you.”
“I thought I was dreaming again. I did that earlier and it left me kinda jittery. Where did you come from?”
“Oh, many places, my friend. But most lately, from the mission.”
“What mission?” Littleberry asked. He had never heard talk of a mission in this part of Texas. For a moment, he had the foolish notion that the monk might be another ghost. He was tempted to hit him with his crutch to see if the monk was made of mist.
“I belong to a Franciscan order. Or what’s left of it.” He joined Littleberry in the road and extended a hand, as if he knew Littleberry doubted his mortality. Their handshake was firm and warm.
“I'm Littleberry Harper. I lived at the fort until yesterday. The Comanche have taken it over. If you were thinking of going there, don't. Everyone is dead.”
“No. I wasn't going there. I'm Brother Leslie. Where are you bound?”
“It seems like I'm going east. I'd like to get to one of the homesteads and spread the word about the Comanche. But I'm moving so slowly, by the time I get where I'm going, everyone will be either dead or gone.”
“Let's hope not,” the monk said. “I'll travel with you, if you don't mind. It's nice to have a companion on the road.”
“Where is this mission?”
“Well, I misspoke really,” the monk replied as they walked down the road together. “Delusions of grandeur, I suppose. It's a church, and a small monastery. But it has an interesting history.
“It started out as the Mission San Jose de los Nazonis, built in the 1600's by the Franciscan order. They hoped to convert the Indians to Christianity. But the time wasn't right, somehow. They had little success.
“Or maybe they expected too much.” He rambled as he spoke, as old folks will. “When the French came, they moved the mission, and brought in some sisters as teachers. They didn't do much better. Too many bandits, you see. They had an unfortunate tendency to rape the nuns.”
“That is unfortunate,” Littleberry said.
Then the Mexicans moved the mission south to San Fernando de Villa de Bexar and renamed it San Juan Capistrano.
“Most of our order abandoned this area, but a few of us asked permission to stay. We didn’t want to desert our converts.”
“What converts?” Littleberry asked. “Before Fort Parker, there was nothing here but Indians. Who was here to convert?”
“By European standards, Indians may seem uncivilized, Mr. Harper,” Brother Leslie replied. “But they can be quite sophisticated. Many welcomed the teachings of our church. Over the course of the last two hundred years, Saint Francis del Arroyo has converted many Indians to the true faith.
“Well, not many, really,” the monk looked a bit contrite. “I am prone to exaggeration. Not lying, mind you. But wishful thinking gets the better of me from time to time.”
“Where is this place?”
“Down this very road about two days ride. Less, if you're in a hurry. I tend to travel slowly. I come here often to tend to the faithful. Baptizing, bless the dying, marrying couples who did not have the benefit of a priest.”
“Can a monk do that?”
“We are not clergy, but we do the Lord's work when there is no one else to do it,” he replied. “God understands about things of that nature.”
“Does He?” Littleberry asked, thinking that the old monk was a bit addled.
“Oh, yes,” Brother Leslie replied without hesitation. “The Lord has a keen understanding of his children. That's why he's so generous with His forgiveness.”
“There's some of that wishful thinking again, padre,” Littleberry said.
“Yes, there it is,” Brother Leslie admitted, chuckling.
“What are you doing wandering around out here on foot?” Littleberry asked. He took another bite of the stringy venison jerky. It had a slightly sweet flavor. It was the best jerky he had ever tasted. The monk carried provisions in a leather pouch slung across his shoulders. He passed Littleberry a silver flask filled with red wine.
“I lost my horse, I'm afraid,” Brother Leslie replied in his rambling manner, “just as the storm hit. Something spooked him, and he threw me. I hope he turns up soon. There are some things in my saddlebags...”
“What kind of things?” Littleberry was limping badly. He had a hard time keeping up with the old monk, who was remarkably spry for a man of his years.
“Oh, the usual things we carry to use during the liturgy. A crucifix, a small challis, rosaries to give as gifts, sacramental wine.”
“Is that what we've been drinking?”
“Yes, Mr. Harper,” the monk replied with a chuckle. “We've been drinking the good stuff.”
“Is that allowed?”
“Of course. God does not begrudge his children a bit of wine, not when they are in need. He understands about things like that.”
The monk took notice of Harper's worsening limp. “Let's sit for a moment,” he said. “You need to get off that leg.”
There were a couple of boulders beneath a spreading oak near the side of the road. There was even a spring where they could get fresh water. Shade beckoned, and the monk's suggestion was too good to resist.
As the two men sat side by side, chewing jerky and sipping wine, Littleberry was transported to a day some twenty-seven years ago.
“I got married beneath an oak tree, much like this one,” he said thoughtfully. “That was the best day of my life.”
“That's a nice memory. I've got some good memories, but not one like that. No women in my life, you see, except for my mother. Where is Mrs. Harper?”
“Standing right here next to me,” Littleberry replied. “When she was dying, she said she would wait for me before going on to heaven, and she has been true to her word.”
“I'm sure she has. Have you seen her visitations?” the monk asked. His brown eyes were fixed on Littleberry's face.
“I've felt her. She sits with me on our porch in the evenings. I can smell that soap she used to wash her hair with. She had a soft laugh, and I hear it sometimes when I've made a jackass of myself. She lays beside me in bed. The blanket will shift for no reason, and I know it's her.”
“That's lovely, Mr. Harper. How did she die?”
“Malaria. She got it when we were living in Illinois. It broke her down a bit at a time over the years. She died in '34. I buried her behind Fort Parker, beneath a Mulberry tree. She loved the way that tree smelled when the berries were ripe. She said it reminded her of her childhood.”
“What was her name?”
“Her name was Beth,” Littleberry answered, and he began to weep. The monk was silent, waiting patiently.
When Littleberry's tears were spent, the monk broke the silence.
“What's troubling you, Mr. Harper? You seem very burdened. I sensed it when I overheard you praying earlier. Rather salty language for prayer, if you don't mind my saying. I usually keep my prayers simple and to the point. And polite. No rebuke intended.”
“I witnessed men, women, and babies being massacred by the Comanche,” he replied. His voice quivered with emotion. “The pastor of my church was tortured for most of the night. I listened to him scream for hours and could do nothing to help him.”
“Yes, that would be a terrible burden to bear.”
“I'm angry with God.”
“I see. Well don't dwell on it, Mr. Harper. God understands about times like these. We've all suffered moments of doubt.”
Littleberry left his rock and hobbled back toward the road. The monk followed.
“That walking stick is doing you no good at all, Mr. Harper. Take mine for a while. It is quite sturdy.”
“I won't take your walking stick...”
“Nonsense. You need it more than I do right now,” the monk said as he took Littleberry's branch and shoved the tall walking stick at him. The dark wood stick was heavy. Littleberry was able to put much of his weight on it and the pain in his knee lessened immediately.
“What kind of wood is this?” Littleberry asked.
“Olive, I was told,” the monk replied. “It is said to be a piece of the true cross.”
“You're kidding,” Littleberry said, looking astonished.
“Yes. I am kidding,” the old monk replied and laughed. “That was a good one, wasn't it?”
“You had me going,” Littleberry said. “I seem to be feeling better.”
They walked along in silence, making good time.
“Do you mind if I ask what church you belong to, Mr. Harper? I'd like some conversation. Makes traveling more pleasant.”
“No harm in that. I'll trade you some jawing for another piece of jerky, if you can spare it.”
“Oh, a bribe,” the monk said with a chuckle. “Yes, I have plenty.”
He passed a piece of jerky to Littleberry, along with the flask. Or perhaps it was a second flask. It felt full.
“Maybe some wine will loosen your tongue.”
“Don't mind if I do,” Littleberry said as he took a good-sized swallow. He found the wine invigorating. “You make this yourself?”
“Yes. My own concoction.”
“I'm not much of a wine drinker, but that is good. What do you put in it?”
“The usual stuff,” the monk said evasively. “Sometimes I put the fruit of your good wife's favorite tree in as well.”
“Has this got mulberries in it?”
“You can taste it, can't you?” the monk replied with a grin. “Mulberry wine.”
Littleberry nodded. He took another drink before passing the flask back to the monk. This had to be another flask. There had been no mulberry taste or scent in the first one.
“The Pilgrim Predestination Baptist Church,” Littleberry said.
“My church. You wanted to know.”
“I've never heard of that one.”
“Started by Elder John Parker.”
“What is the doctrine of this church?”
“Same as any other, I suppose. Except for the two seeds. That's a bit controversial.”
“The two seeds?”
“Elder Parker said that our souls belong to either God or the devil. If a man is of God, he's a good seed. If he's of the devil, he's a bad seed.”
“How extraordinary,” the monk replied. “Where did he get an idea like that?”
“I never asked. He said that if a man is a bad seed he's damned and nothing can change his fate. Good works won't change it, living a good life won't change it.”
“That seems rather grim. Do you believe that?”
“I don't know what to believe,” Littleberry said. “When Elder Parker preached from the pulpit, it made sense. He said that the world is a wasteland of sin, made that way for some reason known only to God. To test us, perhaps. Man was a victim of predestination. If he was bad, it wasn't his fault, but he would still be damned. If he was good, he got none of the credit.”
“That's a cruel doctrine.”
“I joined the church to please my wife. Parker was a good man, but he seemed to change over the past few years. Toward the end, I don't believe he was thinking straight.”
“No?” the monk asked, passing the flask of wine to Littleberry again.
“Colonel Houston sent orders for everyone to leave the fort. He had a notion that the Comanche might attack. He sent warnings, but John ignored them. Some people did go, but Parker wouldn't budge. The Rangers stayed, of course. If the Comanche were coming, then that's where they wanted to be.”
“Why didn't you leave, Mr. Harper?”
Littleberry stopped in the road, leaning on the walking stick. He looked grief stricken. The monk thought he might need to get the flask out again.
“I should have. I thought about it,” he replied, “but I just couldn't leave her there all alone.”
“Of course, Mr. Harper. You had a good reason to stay. A husband's reason.”
“Do you think she's still there? Was she be able to come with me?”
“Of course,” the monk replied cheerfully. “You said it yourself earlier. You felt her standing next to you, didn't you?”
“What if I'm wrong?” Littleberry asked. “What if I'm just a crazy old coot?”
“Have faith, Mr. Harper. Ask God to let her come with you, and He will. He understands about things like that.”
As they rounded the bend, the Taliaferro farm was visible up ahead.
“That's a good sign,” Littleberry said optimistically. “No smoke.”
“The house hasn't been burned. The Comanche haven't been here yet.”
“Oh, yes. Of course.” The monk chuckled, seeming to be amused. “We're spreading the word, as you said earlier.”
The Monk's flippant tone disturbed Littleberry, causing his temper to flare. He stopped walking and glared at the monk.
“Are you mocking me?”
“No, not at all,” the monk said, coming to a stop. “Well, yes. Maybe just a little.”
“I'm trying to save people from being massacred and you think to mock me?”
“Mocking is not completely accurate. I'm amused by irony. It's my Scot's sense of humor. My mother was a Spaniard, but my father's people were Highlanders. Well, not Highlanders exactly, our village was on the border...”
“I don't give a damn about your village. What is so ironic?”
The monk put his hand on Littleberry's shoulder and looked him in the eyes. Anger melted away like ice on hot sand.
“You are a man whose belief in God comes from fear, not love,” Brother Leslie told him. “That keeps you from understanding the true nature of faith. You vacillate from being a true believer one minute and a doubting Thomas the next.
“You escaped the massacre, and now you are looking for a higher purpose for your survival beyond the blessing given to you. That's because you don't believe yourself worthy. You think of yourself as a bad seed. We must work on that.”
The monk left Littleberry standing in the road, astonished. The old monk had unraveled the twisted knot of anguish in Littleberry's heart, then lay it bare for him to see.
“Crazy old coot!” Littleberry muttered, as he followed behind the monk. “You're pretty good at your job, though.”
“Crazy like a fox, isn't that right, Mr. Harper,” the monk said, then laughed heartily.
Littleberry noticed that his knee felt better.
“You can have your walking stick back. I don't seem to need it anymore.”
The news was not good at the Taliaferro homestead. The oldest son came out on the porch and Littleberry asked to see his father. The boy told him that his father had gone to the fort yesterday morning.
Lou was at the fort. That means he's dead, Littleberry realized. He became entranced momentarily, remembering the three dead men. I dipped my hands into their blood...then I left them laying there, without so much as a backward glance. Lou must have been among them. His blood is still in my hair, staining my shirt. Yes, I owe you.
Littleberry asked to speak to the boy's mother. She died two months ago in childbirth, along with the baby. Lou's two sons, barely in their teens, were alone in the world. When Littleberry told them that their father was dead, they took it like men.
“We've gotta leave,” Littleberry told them. “The Comanche could be here at any time. They're in a dangerous frame of mind right now. Best to be gone if they come.”
How many times have these children been through this, he wondered. They seem to know exactly what to do. The boys gathered food, water, clothing, readied bed rolls and camping gear. They worked as a team.
“You fellas have done this before,” Littleberry remarked. “You know what you're doing.”
“We do,” Jason, the oldest, answered. “We've been in Texas a long time. Seems like we're always running from Indians.”
“Ma wanted to go back to Louisiana,” the youngest, Corey, said. “Pa said it would be a waste of energy.”
“How so?” Littleberry asked.
“No matter where you go, there's always someone spoiling for a fight, he used to say. There's nothing for it.” Corey replied. He began to tear up.
“Costs more in bullets to stay in one place, but less wear and tear on the feet,” Jason added, “Pa didn't want us to have to run no more. Corey, start packing up the horses. We can do our mourning later.
“Your duds look like hell, Mr. Harper. Take what you need. Pa wouldn't mind.”
That's how Littleberry came to be wearing Lou Taliaferro's clothes. He even found boots to replace his shabby pair with the separating souls and rundown heels. Lou's tan hat was a good fit, so he took that as well.
“Thank you kindly,” Littleberry said, feeling sure that Lou was watching. “We're gonna do right by your boys. Don't you worry. I owe you a debt, and I'm paying it.”
By the time Littleberry stepped out the cabin door, the boys had their horses ready. Jason was saddling a bay mare for Littleberry to ride, and coming down the road at a trot was the monk, riding a black stallion. It was an Andalusian, one of the finest, most sought after horses in the world.
“Where the hell did you get him?” Littleberry asked in awe. He approached the horse cautiously, knowing the breeds reputation for skittishness, then soothingly stroked its neck.
“This is Freddy,” the monk answered. “He found me, as usual.”
“Freddy? You named the finest piece of horse flesh anyone in this state has seen for nearly a century Freddie?”
“Well, yes. Short for Fredrick. I liked the name, and he seems to like it.”
“He found you?”
“I have a habit of getting lost, you see. He takes advantage and wanders for a while, to run in the wilderness and visit the ladies. Then he finds me.”
“Does this happen often?”
“Often enough,” the monk replied. “I had to sell him once to buy medicine for one of the sick brothers. He stayed away long enough to help his new owner breed several mares. Then he came home. I felt a bit guilty about that.”
“But God understood. Right?”
“Yes, he did. Your gaining a new understand, Mr. Harper,” the monk said cheerfully. “Good for you.”
They traveled until nearly sundown, passing homesteads. Two houses were empty, looking as though they had been abandoned for months. The third house, including outbuildings, had been burned to the ground. Smoke still smoldered, fouling the air. There was no sign of the settlers.
Corey spotted a single Indian atop a plateau, so far away that it was impossible to know what tribe he belonged to. They brought their horses to a stop.
“What's he doing out there all by himself?” Corey asked.
“He's not alone, son,” Littleberry replied. “You can bet he's got friends nearby.”
“You seem to be correct, Mr. Harper,” the monk said as the single Indian turned into two, then five, then six. All on horseback. “Don't you just hate that?
“We need to reevaluate the situation. This is a good time to pray for guidance. Let's all bow our heads.”
“Can we do that later, please?” Littleberry asked sharply. “We need to keep moving.”
“It would be better for God to tell us what we should do before we make an error in judgment. If we pray later, it might be too late. Then if things go badly, we blame God. Does that seem fair?”
The monk closed his eyes and bowed his head. He mumbled a prayer that only he could hear.
“Is he getting messages from God?” Jason asked. “Has he done that before?”
“You have no idea,” Littleberry replied.
“It's alright, Mr. Harper,” the monk said calmly. “They are not going to attack us. They're only observing.”
“Did God tell you that?” Littleberry asked.
“Trust me. I've had quite a bit of experience with the indigenous population. I wouldn't call myself an expert, but I know a thing or two.”
They continued their journey down the road, traveling at a swifter pace, but not running. It would be dark soon, and they would need to make camp. The Comanche, having deserted the plateau, were no longer in sight. That made Littleberry nervous. They found remnants of an old campsite beside some rocks and trees. There was plenty of kindling laying around. When Jason asked if it was safe to make a fire, the monk replied,
“Yes, let's make a good one. The Indians know where we are. So why not?”
The monk shared his provisions.
“I have venison jerky,” he said. “Mr. Harper knows how tasty it is, don't you, Mr. Harper? Help yourself, boys.”
He had a full flask, which he also passed around.
“I'm afraid Mr. Harper and I drank all the mulberry wine. This is communion wine. Not as sweet, but nourishing.”
Later that night, Littleberry and the monk sprawled on the ground, leaning against a boulder. The boys were in their bedrolls. Corey cried himself to sleep. Jason never shed a tear.
“It's hard to be a kid out here,” Littleberry said. He sipped wine, then passed the flask back to the monk. “I think you got me drunk, padre.”
“Not the first time today, aye?” the monk said. “Life is always difficult for children, for one reason or another. Growing up in Scotland was hard. I don't remember much of it, but I do remember being hungry all the time. Spain was not much better, until I joined the order. We grew our own food, so we had more to eat, depending on the season.”
“How many of those flasks do you have in your saddlebags?”
“As many as I can carry. People need something to break down barriers. Once they relax, it's easier to admit mistakes and ask forgiveness without feeling self-conscious. They are then open to receive the Lord's greatest gift.”
“What is that?”
“Whatever is needed most at the time. Not all of us need the same thing, you see.”
“I get the feeling that you are waiting for me to confess my sins,” Littleberry said, and the monk passed him the flask once again.
“Drink it down, Mr. Harper,” the monk said. “The flask is nearly empty.”
Littleberry drained it dry.
“Now tell me,” the monk said. “What terror haunts you in the night?”
Littleberry's stared into the campfire, then pointing toward it, he finally replied. “The fires of hell, of course.”
“You fear being a bad seed, and eternal damnation.”
“I truly do,” Littleberry said, and he was racked by a single sob. “How could I not be? I have done things that no man should ever do, Brother Leslie. And I was not alone. Many other men did those things right alongside me, not that I'm trying to excuse myself from blame.
“I was in the militia when the Red Sticks attacked Fort Mims, killing nearly everyone. Over four hundred people. They took scalps, made off with women and kids, killed babies and old folks–not unlike what happened here yesterday. The president turned Andy Jackson loose on them with orders to do whatever it took to stop the raids.
“When we went into Horseshoe Bend, we outnumbered the Red Sticks two to one. Jackson ordered us to charge over their barricades. Then General Coffee's company joined our forces and we had them surrounded. He ordered no quarter given. Kill 'em all.
“We killed some eight hundred Red Sticks that day. The lucky ones just got shot to death. Others were not so lucky. Terrible things were done…by us. We became the savages.
“Some of the worst of us, even me, dear Lord have mercy,” Littleberry cried, still not taking his eyes from the flames. “We collected skins. Can you imagine that, padre? Flaying the skin off a human being, like taking the hide off a bear. Belts and bridles were made from human skin to keep as souvenirs.
“When I came home to my wife, and she asked me where I got the new bridle, I couldn't tell her. I didn't want her to know the evil things I had done. I saw that wicked thing in her gentle hands, and I became sick. I burned it that very day.
“The fact that I was capable of such evil leaves me fearing for my soul. I'm not afraid of dying, Brother Leslie, but I am afraid of hell. God has no reason to grant a sinner like me mercy.”
There was a long silence, then the monk spoke.
“You are not a bad seed, Mr. Harper. There is no such thing as a good or bad seed. We are all merely people, capable of remarkable kindness, and the darkest of horrors. You are a man who did terrible things, that is true. In war, men always do terrible things. That is the nature of war and men have been warring since the beginning of time.
“Never underestimate the Lord's capacity for forgiveness. God understands the nagging torment of genuine regret. He really does.”
As Littleberry listened to the monks soothing words, his eyes closed, and his chin sunk to his chest. He slept a deep restful sleep till daybreak.
Littleberry was awakened by the aroma of coffee. He opened his eyes to the sight of six painted warriors seated around the campfire with tin cups in their hands. He jumped up and grabbed his rifle. The monk walked by and calmly took it from him.
“Have a cup of coffee, Mr. Harper,” the monk said, handing him a tin cup full of hot black liquid.
“Where did you get coffee?” he asked, staring at the Comanches, who completely ignored him.
“My saddlebag, of course,” the monk said. “Drink up.”
Littleberry gulped the coffee down quickly. It had a familiar flavor.
“Is there brandy in this?”
“What a silly notion, Mr. Harper. Where would I get brandy?”
“Same place you get everything. Those magic saddlebags of yours.”
The monk smiled.
Littleberry looked around for the boys. Their bedrolls were empty, and their horses were gone.
“Where are they?” he asked.
“They are away, searching for wild onions and fiddle-head ferns,” the monk replied. “They'll make a hearty breakfast, don't you think.”
“But they don't grow out here,” Littleberry said, confused.
He noticed that the Comanches seemed to be in some sort of trance. They sipped coffee but remained still and silent. All wore warpaint, each with their own unique design. Black around the eyes. White hand prints on the face. Crimson on the neck and chest. Even their ponies, grazing a few feet away, had been painted. There was no doubt that they had been with the war party that attacked Fort Parker. And now they were here, drinking the monk's coffee.
“Perhaps you should go find our young companions and help them. If you went west, you might have a bit of luck.”
“What about you?”
“Don't concern yourself about me, Mr. Harper,” he replied. “I'll stay and entertain our guests. We'll have a fine time, I assure you. It's all about knowing what they appreciate. Good food and drink, and fine tobacco, and I just happen to have all three at hand. How fortuitous.”
“I don't think…”
“There is no time for discussion, Mr. Harper. It would be better if the boys did not come back empty handed, if you get my meaning. Get on your horse and go find them.”
Harper saw that his horse was already saddled.
“What about you?”
“I'm going to make more coffee, and join our friends in a smoke,” the monk replied, holding up a tobacco pouch. “They won't leave until everything is gone. When we're finished, I'll be on my way.”
“This feels all wrong.”
“You gave your word to Mr. Taliaferro, did you not, that you would do right by his boys? You owe him a debt.”
Hearing those words coming out of the monk's mouth startled him, but there was no time for discussion.
“Take this road to Tayovaya, about two days ride, Mr. Harper. Less, if you are in a hurry. You'll find the church I told you about. St. Francis del Arroyo. The stonework is so white, the church sparkles in the sun. You can’t miss it.”
“You'll be joining us?”
“Of course, Mr. Harper,” the monk said cheerfully. “Where else would I go? That is my home.”
Brother Leslie gave the bay mare a slap on the rump. She bolted toward the road.
“Let's have a smoke, gentlemen,” the monk's voice carried on the breeze. “How about another cup of coffee?”
Holding his hat in his hands, Littleberry gazed in wonder at what was left of St. Francis del Arroyo.
It was a ruin, a relic of what must have been a magnificent structure at one time. Weeds had taken over the grounds; vines wound around an ancient metal gate; the fence had long ago collapsed and was covered by grasses. Stones that had once been the church were now so covered by moss that they could no longer sparkle in the sunlight, but he had no doubt that long ago, this mission had been beautiful to behold.
He walked beside ruins that had been the monastery; rotting wood melded with the earth. He pictured monks, in brown hooded robes, busily going about their business. He could almost see Brother Leslie puttering about in the vineyard, preparing to make his magical wine.
Littleberry found the cemetery. Headstones, exposed to the elements for well over a century, sat askew. Many were broken, slowly crumbling to dust. Moss and lichen had grown prolifically over the years making the headstones hard to read. Dates on the stones were astounding. On one, the date of death was 1690.
“He must have come over with the Spaniards. This must be the oldest graveyard in all of Texas.”
“St. Francis del Arroyo,” he said. “Arroyo…creek. There must be fresh water nearby.”
He looked around and saw a path leading away from the cemetery. He followed it, crossing a grassy meadow filled with wildflowers. Bluebonnets, buttercups, verbena and Indian paintbrush were scattered here and there. Following the sound of flowing water, he found the creek. He bent down, cupping his hands, and drank. Then, as he washed his face, he felt reborn, as though he had been newly baptized.
As Littleberry gazed across the landscape, a single tree in the distance caught his eye.
“Well, look at that!”
He ran back across the meadow, past the wildflowers and the headstones. He followed a heavily traveled path, etched into the earth by many feet, over many centuries, to a solitary mulberry tree. Gnarled and ancient, yet it was healthy enough to be covered with ripe berries; their familiar aroma evoked memories of the happiest times in his life. He closed his eyes, and breathed deeply, allowing the fragrance to permeate his senses. It filled him up, and he felt joy. He plucked a berry from a low hanging branch and ate it.
“That was some mighty fine wine, Brother Leslie,” he said with a smile. Then he bowed his head and prayed.