Beneath the Cabin by John McLennon

Anxious to pass without being noticed, the boy quickened his step along the dusty road as he approached the girl’s cabin. Herman was eight years old, barefoot, and shirtless. A rope looped over his left shoulder held his pants up, and an old, broad-brimmed hat, too big for his head, bent his ears down.

If Evangeline stood on the porch, she would wave and holler to him, “Hey! Boy Who Talks.” She knew his name was Herman Clayfoot but never called him that. Evangeline grew up among the Comanches who believed it impolite to use a person’s real name—doing so tapped into an individual’s medicine and disturbed his peace. To avoid that intrusion, she had invented a name for him that wasn’t his name.

Evangeline was seventeen. Herman thought she could be pretty, but the girl was crazy and didn’t take care of herself. Although she lived with her doting parents, Evangeline looked like a beggar. Thin as a fallen leaf. She had dirty knotted hair and clothes ragged as an old seed bag. When people stood near her, she’d fidget and dither like a child about to wet her pants. At the first opportunity, she’d slip away and hide.

Luck ran against Herman that day: Evangeline sat on the front porch and spotted him right off. She leaped from her chair. Waving, she called. “Hello, Boy Who Talks.”

He cringed and waved, “Howdy.” He kept walking.

Evangeline watched him, hesitating before calling again. “I got bacon!”

That stopped Herman sudden as a bullet, and he called, “What-cha say?”

“I got bacon,” she said.

Herman lusted after bacon.

When he approached the porch, Evangeline said, “Do you want some bacon?”

“Yes’m,” he said, drawing nearer.

She reached into her apron and took out a clean cloth, exposing some crispy bacon. It was a little broken, but just the way Herman loved it.

He took a chunk and began to munch. Evangeline stood silent, watching with her big, googly eyes and her crazy smile.

Herman finished the bacon. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said and ran off.

* * * *

As a child on the Texas frontier, Herman’s greatest fear was of the Indians. They were not the fantastical bogeymen adults used to intimidate children but the real McCoy who came in the night to commit atrocities of unimaginable proportions. In Herman’s mind, they were demons that came naked and painted during the full moon to steal horses and children.

Herman knew boys and girls who had disappeared after the Indians murdered their parents. Some of these children were found a few miles out of town, dead and mutilated. Others were never seen again.

Evangeline was the only one who came back.

When she was seven years old, a Comanche warrior named Woman’s Boy snatched Evangeline off her daddy’s front porch while her momma washed clothes in the back of the house. Woman’s Boy could have killed Mrs. Beaner and then stolen what he wanted at his leisure—but any fool could do that. The warrior’s son, Runs Too Fast, and another young man, Little Hat, watched from a distance, and Woman’s Boy wanted to impress them with his cleverness and daring.

Because that day was hot, all the windows were open, making it easy for Woman’s Boy to climb into the cabin unnoticed. Evangeline, sitting out on the porch, never saw him coming because he attacked her from behind, from inside the cabin. He clamped his hand over her mouth before she could cry out. Woman’s Boy wanted to get away without being noticed, leaving Mrs. Beaner mystified as to what had happened to her little girl. Nonetheless, in his haste, he knocked over a rocking chair, and Mrs. Beaner heard the noise. When she came to investigate, she saw the three Comanche ride off with her baby.

Mr. Beaner and some of the men—Herman’s daddy, included—tracked the Indians for three days before they lost the trail after the braves fell in with a herd of buffalo. The Beaners’ loss tore the family up pretty badly. For a while, people thought Evangeline’s momma had lost her mind.

Comanche braves made Evangeline a slave and used her in a despicable manner. They traded her from one band to another as her owners lost her gambling, sold her for horses, or traded her for some other thing. But they also swapped her out because they believed she possessed magical powers that she used against them.

Her blond hair and blue eyes made Evangeline quite a spectacle in the Indian community. In the arms of her loving parents, she was a beautiful child, but among the Comanche, her blue eyes, pale skin, and flaxen hair presented a bleached and frightening visage. They thought Evangeline might be a witch or a ghost child. It was hard for a white man to understand how a little girl with blue eyes and blond hair could scare the b’Jesus out of a pack of blooded warriors, but she did, especially when they got drunk and started having visions. Whenever a brave’s horse went lame or a squaw’s child died from the pox, they suspected Evangeline. She lived under the threat of death and suffered more abuse than any of God’s creatures deserved.

After she had grown into a young woman, Texas Rangers saw her in an Indian village and bought her in exchange for a couple of horses. Evangeline feared those white men more than she feared the Comanche. To be truthful, Evangeline feared just about every damned thing.

When Herman first saw Evangeline, she was seventeen and had just been rescued from captivity. At the time Herman thought Evangeline might truly be a witch. She was the skinniest, filthiest, scraggly-haired thing he had ever seen. Herman found her eyes especially disturbing. They were wide open all the time as though she was in a perpetual state of surprise, and they had a sad, frightened quality even when she smiled.

At first, people thought Evangeline didn’t know how to speak English because she rarely said a word except in Comanche. Herman was amazed. Everybody speaks English, he thought. But then, Evangeline didn’t say much even when she spoke Comanche. She didn’t like the company of people and stayed away from them as much as she could.

In those early days on the frontier, women were a scarce commodity. It didn’t matter if they were ugly as the backside of a mule; plenty of men would have crawled naked over a cactus patch to get at them. But nobody wanted Evangeline. She was just a little too peculiar.

Herman’s mother was a good friend of Mrs. Beaner. She wanted to do something to help Evangeline readjust to white society, so she insisted that Herman be kindly to the girl and take the trouble to talk to her. Herman tried several times, but everything has its limit. Evangeline was older than Herman. She wasn’t someone that he would normally want to talk to; then too, she wasn’t a regular person.

When Herman talked to Evangeline, she put on a painful smile. He didn’t know if she listened to or understood what he said because her eyes never focused on him or anything else for long. They just rolled around in her head as though they had nowhere to go. Watching her made Herman dizzy. He tried to talk to her about mules, rattlesnakes, and his little sister, but nothing hooked Evangeline into a conversation. As soon as he thought it was polite, he got the hell out of there and never went back until that day when Evangeline offered him bacon.

* * * *

The next time Herman passed her cabin, Evangeline offered him bacon a second time. While he was munching away, she said, “Would you like to talk?”

“Sure. What do ya wanna talk about?”

Evangeline smiled and said nothing. As she had been so kind to Herman with the bacon, he felt obliged to say something. The boy searched his brain. Then he said, “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?”

Evangeline did not respond.

“Sometimes it rains, but not today.”

Nothing.

“You sure know how to cook bacon, Miss Evangeline.”

Nothing but a big old smile.

At that point, Herman ran out of things to talk about. “Well, I gotta go,” he said and high-tailed it out of there.

Several times after that, the same thing happened. Evangeline offered Herman bacon and asked if he wanted to talk. Herman tried to get a conversation going, but she did not respond. In frustration, he said, “Listen, Miss Evangeline, if we are going to have a conversation, you have to say something. I can’t do all the talking.”

Evangeline smiled.

Herman waited. Then he said, “Well, bye,” and ran off.

The next time Herman stopped for bacon, Evangeline said, “Do you want to talk?”

“It’s a nice day,” he said.

“Did you hear about Mr. Jayrack’s calf?” she said.

That nearly knocked Herman off his feet. He had never heard Evangeline speak so many words in one breath.

“No, Miss Evangeline, what about Mr. Jayrack’s calf?”

The girl looked this way and that, as though to see if anyone was watching and then ran to the back of her daddy’s log cabin. She stopped a moment to wave and call, “Come… come, come.”

Herman followed her to the rear of the house. She seemed delighted that he had come. Evangeline jumped up and down like a little girl with a new doll and then leaned her face into his and looked Herman square in the eye. He thought she was about to say something important when she dropped on her belly and slithered under the cabin that was braced with stones a foot off the ground.

Herman was amazed. He had never seen a lady do that. When he looked under the cabin, Evangeline sat like a prairie dog in a hole she had dug to give herself space under the floorboards.

Herman wasn’t sure what to do.

“I have bacon,” she said.

That was more than Herman could reasonably resist, an he crawled in after her.

Evangeline had made a regular nest in there with buffalo hides laid out on the ground hair side up. The two of them happily munched on bacon for a while until Herman asked, “So what’s this about Mr. Jayrack’s calf?”

Evangeline hesitated a moment then whispered, “It was born with a human head.”

Herman dropped his bacon.

“Its face looks like its father,” she said.

“What?” Herman’s mind was reeling.

“It looks like Mr. Jayrack.”

This was entirely too strange for Herman. Evangeline’s big eyes and weird smile took on an ominous character that scared him nearly to death. Herman scrambled out from under that house as fast as he could and never went back.

From then on, he went out of his way to avoid that girl. On a few occasions, Evangeline took him by surprise and called, “Hello, Boy Who Talks,” but Herman always put his head down, pretended he didn’t hear, and quickly walked away.

Evangeline tried the bacon thing. When that didn’t work, she took the hint and stopped calling. Sometimes she would raise her hand a little and wave, but that was it.

 

——

After retiring from the US Army, John McLennon earned a BA in English Literature and a teacher’s certificate from the University of Texas at San Antonio. He currently teaches English to high school students and is a member of the San Antonio Writer’s Guild.