The following is based on actual events and may not be suitable for all age ranges. If you are easily scared or frightened please refrain from reading this true Oklahoma tale.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the annual divorce rate for the United States stood at ten percent which was higher than any other place in the world. As if to justify this astonishing number the purported undocumented claims of spousal abuse stood at fifty percent.
Of course, all of this mattered little to a fear-stricken woman who, on July 7th, 1905, found herself sitting in the third car of a train in Custer City bound for Weatherford Oklahoma. From there she would board another train heading east to Ripley where she would stay with her aunt and uncle until word was sent that it was safe to return. In her arms was her fourteen-month-old baby girl. The only thing important to her at that moment was leaving before her husband could find them. By now he would have been served the divorce papers and would undoubtedly be searching for her. Outside her window, she could see the weather-beaten face of the only man who ever really loved her. Her father stood like a protective statue, watching her with a pained look decorating his face and for a moment she considered if what she was doing was right. What if something were to happen to him? She cocked her head a little to the left and felt explosive pain shoot down her spine; she had her answer, it had been provided by the backhand she had received four days before by her husband Martin.
Katie James Dewitt had made a mistake in marrying him and she knew it. She wasn’t stupid, she was a teacher, after all, and owned property, which was something that she was sure Martin wanted to keep. And why wouldn’t he? He was a farmhand who had, until meeting her, been without land and she was a woman nearing thirty who had begun to hear the clock ticking away.But it wasn’t just the beatings, a lot of women she knew suffered through those, it was the coldness that seemed to surround Martin James whenever she was near him; a coldness that radiated from him, driving her away. His only link to passion (both good and bad) was provided by cheap whiskey.
A sudden shriek of the final boarding whistle split through the early afternoon air, causing her to jump in her seat. Lulu Belle let out a low moan but continued to sleep. From outside the scenery began to move in slow motion. Katie looked out of the window and returned a wave towards her father unaware that she would never see him again.
The train would make a quick stop in Clinton, a town that sat only fifteen miles away from Custer. For Katie each mile that passed by felt like a stone being lifted. It wasn’t long until another shriek blasted through the hot July air causing Lulu Belle’s eyes to shoot open. Outside, paint depleted walls took the place of Black Oak and Cottonwood as the squealing brakes brought the steam engine to a shuddering stop. Katie considered getting off and stretching her legs but decided against it. What if Martin was here? A wave of panic washed over her. She gazed out onto the stations landing. There were only a few people waiting and she didn’t recognize any of them. The door opened near the front of the car and she watched as a man wearing overalls and carrying an old grain sack entered and then quickly sat down.
Behind him was a woman. She wore a Victorian Tartan dress that looked as though it had been mended more times than it deserved. Her dark hair was done up in Edwardian style that showcased a pair of startling emerald eyes. Katie watched her out of the corner of her eye as the woman moved passed, and caught a whiff of Sephora and sweat. It was then that the baby began to cry. She would have to be fed soon but the thought of exposing herself with this man and woman sitting so close sent a shade of red across her face. Weatherford was only fifteen minutes away and she would have a twenty-minute layover until they continued on. Lulu Belle would just have to wait. Katie reached down in her bag and pulled out a pacifier. The baby took it hungrily and became quiet. Katie watched out the window as the wooden walls again turned into Black Oak and Cottonwood.
“That’s a well-tempered baby,” said a raspy voice behind her. Katie tilted her head around and looked at the woman.
“Thank you,” said Katie. “She’s hungry.”
“Well, don’t starve her out on my account,” said the woman. “I got three of my own.”
“I was going to wait until we get to Weatherford.”
“You do what you think is best,” said the woman. “You have family there?”
“No,” said Katie. “I’m headed to Ripley to visit my aunt and uncle.”
“Ripley?” said the woman. “Never been there.”
“Me neither,” said Katie.
“My name’s Fannie Norton,” said the woman.
“Nice to meet you,” said Fannie. “Are you from Clinton?”
“No, I’m from Lenora.”
“Lenora?” said Fannie. “That’s north of Custer aways, ain’t it”
“It is, we have a farm up there.”
Suddenly Fannie’s brow furrowed as if she was struggling to remember something. She then snapped her fingers and said, “Say, you ain’t running from someone, are you?” Katie felt an electric jolt race through her body and forced herself to take in a deep breath before she answered.
“Why would you ask that?” “Some man was in the station talking to the guy selling the tickets. He was looking for a woman traveling with a baby.”
“What did he tell him?” said Katie, her eyes wide.
“I couldn’t hear them too well but I think he told the man to check Weatherford.”
Katie felt her heart leap in her chest. The traveling car suddenly seemed to be closing in and she felt her breath coming in shallow heaves. Lula Belle seemed to sense that something was wrong and clutched at Katie’s shaking thumb.
“Are you alright?” said Fannie.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” said Katie.
“So, I guess that man was looking for you?” Katie could only nod.
“Yes,” said Katie. “But I left him.”
“Well, I’m on my second one myself. What did he do, cheat on you?”
“Nothing like that,” said Katie. She then shifted the baby over to her left arm and lifted her hair exposing a purplish mark that ran along the base of her neck.
“Ah,” said Fannie. “One of them.”
Katie let her hair fall back and felt her shoulders begin to shake. It was like a flood crashing over her and she was helpless to stop the tears from pouring down her face. Suddenly the woman was sitting beside her, her hand resting on Katie’s lap.
“Don’t you worry girl,” she said. “I know what he looks like. When we pull into town you just sit here and let me go have a look around.”
Katie sat rocking Lulu Belle, trying to keep her quiet. Fannie had been gone less than ten minutes but to her, it seemed as though the world had suddenly stopped. Perhaps it would be better to just go back and recant the divorce. Her father seemed to think that once the papers had been signed Martin would have no choice but to leave. But Katie remembered the absent cold look that so often occupied her husband’s eyes and had her doubts. Martin, she was sure, wouldn’t just vanish quietly into the night.
The door opened and Fannie came in, her Edwardian hair disheveled and her eyes wide. “He’s here,” she said.
All of the stones that had been stripped away returned with a crushing force.
“He’s going to take me back,” she managed to whisper.
“Not if I can help it. Come with me,” said Fannie, reaching out her hand. Katie took it and allowed the woman to help her up. “I’ve sent for my brother in law, we just have to stay hid until he gets here.”
Together they crept out of the boxcar and made their way to the rear of the train. The station was a few hundred feet away by the time they crossed the tracks and circled their way back down an alleyway. The sound of laughter and an out of tune piano echoed off of the wooden walls and every so often Fannie would motion for Katie to stop while she checked to see if it was safe to continue on. Eventually, they arrived at the eastern end of town where a man was waiting in a single horse hitched wagon.
“This here’s my brother-in-law Willie Morton,” said Fannie. The man got off of the seat and helped Katie and the baby up.
“No bags?” he said.
“No time,” said Fannie.
After they were settled Willie jumped back up and gave the reigns a rippling whip and they were off. The sun was lowering at their backs by the time they pulled up to the two-bedroom shack that Willie called home. Katie couldn’t help but look behind them, expecting to see the oncoming dust cloud of her husband racing them down, but there was nothing. Maybe they had lost him.
Willie helped them off of the buggy and went and opened the door. Katie again looked back down the road.
“He ain’t coming,” said Fannie.
“But I can’t stay here,” said Katie.
“You can stay tonight and in the morning I’ll take you back to the station. By then he should be long gone.”
It was what she would do, she had no choice and at least now she could finally feed Lulu Belle.
Katie began to offer her thanks but was cut off by a wave of Fannie’s hand.
“You just feed that baby so we can sleep,” she said, “That’ll be thanks enough.” She then turned and made her way inside.
The sun broke over the eastern horizon and found Willie already hitching the wagon. To the west, a low rumble of an oncoming storm beat its way across the fields. Inside the shack, Katie had just finished feeding Lulu Belle while Fannie stood over the stove flipping the last of the wheat flour flapjacks. For Katie, the anxiety from the day before still lingered. She had found it hard to sleep in a strange house and when she did finally manage to drop off it was for only minutes at a time. The baby had slept the entire night, which was rare, and for that Katie was grateful. Not that she thought Fannie or her brother in law would actually do anything it was just that the silence was comforting and it allowed her to think. Martin was looking for them and if he caught them there was no telling what he might do. And if he found them with Fannie it might even be worse.
The best thing for all of them was for her to get on that train and get to Ripley and hope that Martin never found out about the woman who had helped her.
“Breakfast is done,” said Fannie. Katie picked the baby up and made her way into the small dining area. The room was as under kept as the rest of the house with trim boards hanging loosely off of plaster chipped walls. The dining table was a circular oak top with one leg propped up by some old book.
“Better eat it while it’s hot,” said Fannie with a fork in her hand. Katie sat down and heard the chair creak beneath her. She reached for her own fork and sliced off a small piece of flapjack. The last thing she felt like doing at this moment was eating but to refuse would be rude. Katie gave Fannie a weak smile and put the piece in her mouth. The taste was bland and instantly dried out her mouth.
“Here,” said Fannie, pushing over a small plate of butter. “You can’t eat flapjacks dry.”
Katie grabbed the small knife and went through the motions, took a bite and gave Fannie another weak smile.
“Better?” said Fannie.
“Much. Thank you,” said Katie. “So when do you think we should leave?”
Fannie looked over at an ancient pendulum clock hanging above the sink, it read 6:45. “The first trains don’t leave out until nine,” said Fannie. “At least that’s how it always was when I had to go back and forth from Clinton. So if we leave here in thirty minutes or so we should be fine.”
Katie gave her a nod and continued to pretend that she was enjoying her breakfast. Fannie stood up and looked down at the baby that was sleeping in Katie’s cradled arm and said, “That really is a well-tempered baby, I can see why your husband is doing what he’s doing.”
Katie waited until Fannie had left the room then took what was left of the flapjacks and threw them into the trash. She then walked over to the only bag that she had managed to bring with her and counted out ten clean diapers and three outfits. Would it be enough? Before they had been forced into a detour it would have been more than enough but now they would be cutting it close. Well, if she was forced to clean them while she was traveling so be it. By tomorrow she would be in Ripley and able to go to whatever store she could find.
By the time her counting was done and the blankets folded it was time to leave. She and Fanny walked out of the front door just as Willie was bringing the wagon around from the back of the house. He again got down and helped Katie up, making sure that she was settled. Fannie didn’t wait but jumped into the seat and took the reigns.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he said.
“Why wouldn’t I?” said Fannie.
“It’s all handled. You just do your chores and let me worry about mine.”
Willie reached up and rubbed the top of his head just as Fannie slapped the reigns. They made their way down the winding path with Fannie driving the old horse on. Katie turned back and saw that Willie was still standing where they had left him and felt appreciation wash over her. The man was concerned and she hoped that Fannie was right and that he wouldn’t be needed but ahead of them was a storm and somewhere within it, she was sure, hid Martin.
The dirt road was riddled with potholes and from them sprung tall blades of Bermuda and Fescues, the perfect camouflage for hiding their true depth. The horse did the best that it could but was still unable to miss everyone. The wagon suddenly rocked forward a foot or more as the wheel struggled to work its way out of particularly large crevice causing Lulu Belle’s eyes to shoot open. Katie placed her against her shoulder and began to pat her back.
“Damn this road,” said Fannie. “Lost many a wheel on this thing.”
“I don’t remember it being like this last night,” said Katie.
“That’s because we took a different way last night. A longer way. This way’s shorter by half a mile but it’s rougher. I only take the other way if it’s getting late.”
The sky in front of them was dark as if immune to the rising sun. Flashes of light spread across its base and Katie could hear the faraway rumbling of thunder. The storm was still far away but it was coming and she hoped to be well on her way towards Ripley before it finally hit. The horse was struggling up a steep hill and Fannie began to lash out with the reigns.
“Come on,” she said. “You’re almost there, you mule.”
The wagon had decreased to a crawl by the time the poor beast was able to finally reach the top. “Whoa,” said Fannie. Twenty feet ahead of them sat a wagon, its rear axle planted firmly in the dirt road. Two men stood near a wheel that had been tossed into a ravine. The men suddenly looked up at the women and one gave a wave. Fannie clicked the horse forward. The men made it back to the road just as Fannie brought the wagon to a stop.
“Well, Henry,” said Fannie. “Looks like it got another one.”
“Sure enough did,” said Henry and Katie could see that the man’s denim shirt was covered in sweat stains, untucked and hanging almost to the knees of his dirty jeans. His middle-aged face held the rambling scruff of someone who hadn’t shaved in weeks. The man next to him was much younger, barely out of his teens, judging by the rash of acne scars that speckled his wrinkle-free face.
“Can you fix it?” said Fannie.
“I ain’t got the tools or time,” said Henry. “I gotta get Sam to town for his suit fitting. He’s marrying Sarah Graves in six months.”
“That’s right, I heard about that,” said Fannie. “Well, congratulations Sam.” The young man gave her a quick nod and then turned away.
“This here is Katie James and her baby girl Lulu Belle,” said Fannie. “ I’m giving them a ride into town. You can jump up if you need a lift.”
“We’d appreciate that,” said Henry. “Come on Sam.”
The young man hesitated for a moment as if unsure of what he should do and Katie thought that he might not be all their in the head. Finally, he made his way to the back of the wagon and leaped up.
The road began to smooth off and the four of them sat in relative comfort with Fannie humming lightly to herself. Katie could feel Lulu Belle beginning to stir in her arms. She would have to be fed soon and would need to have her diaper changed.
“How much farther?” she said.
“Not much,” said Fannie. “Less than an hour.”
“Are you late for something?” said Henry. Katie turned to see that he was smiling at her, his teeth stained from years of chew. His face seemed friendly enough, weather-beaten but not unkind, but it was his eyes that suddenly had sweat breaking out on her brow. They were blue, and not the warm blue that was her favorite color but faded, like an old ice-covered trap. An image of Martin flashed in her mind.
“No,” she said. “I’m catching a train.”
“Ah,” he said. “Only been on one of those. Took it to the city to buy a used wagon. Didn’t care much for it, too confining.”
“Yes, well it’s a lot faster than a horse,” she said.
“That is true, missy and they don’t have to rest.” With that, he let out a deep laugh and slapped Sam on the back. Sam only sat there gazing off into the fields. Yes, Katie thought to herself. Definitely not all there.
Katie turned back to the front and noticed that the lane was beginning to narrow. She thought she could hear a distant rippling sound mixed with the early summer breeze. A row of oaks and willows ran across the field, staggering their way up to each side of the road. It was then that they rounded a turn and she saw the splintered rails of a wooden bridge. She could see parts of the knotted planks rising up and noticed that portions of the side rail were broken leaving gaps wide enough to fall through.
She hugged Lulu Belle closer to her breast and said, “We’re going over that?”
“We have to,” said Fannie. “It’s the only way.” Katie flinched from Henry’s hand suddenly touching her shoulder.
“Don’t worry,” he said “We go over all the time. Ain’t that right, boy?
Sam remained quiet and continued to gaze off into nothing.
The wagon was only twenty feet away from the bridge and Katie could hear the rolling water. The July air was warming up fast but it couldn’t stop the shiver from racing through her body. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Henry reach over and tap Fannie on the back. “The boys got to take care of some business,” he said. Katie looked over at Sam who hadn’t appeared to have moved at all.
“I’ll stop at the bridge,” she said. “He can go in the trees.”
Fannie brought the horse to a stop just before the dirt had changed to wood. Katie sat there watching the water flow under the bridge. Further down she could see a herring wading though the current hoping for a catch.
“Hurry up boy,” said Henry. “This lady’s got a train to catch.”
Sam sat there for a moment and Katie noticed the young man’s face. It was drawn and he looked…what? Scared?
Henry leaned towards him and said in a low voice, “You best get to it before it’s too late.” Sam gazed at the man for a moment, his lips quivering. He then gave Katie a quick look and jumped down off of the wagon and made his way into the trees.
“That boy is all sorts of problems,” said Henry. “But I believe he means well.”
“He better,” said Fannie.
Katie shifted the baby over to her other shoulder. Fannie looked at Lulu Belle with a grin splitting her face.
“That is a well-tempered baby,” she said. “Do you think I could hold her? My kids left this age a long time ago and now I can barely get them to talk to me much less trouble them for a hug.”
Katie looked over at the woman and felt a rush of fear. No one besides her family had ever held her baby and that did seem strange. Perhaps she was overly protective, and why not? Her child was still an infant and couldn’t yet crawl not to mention her father was a very violent man. “For a second,” she said, gently handing Lulu Belle over.
“She is lovely,” said Fannie, taking the child. “And I’m sure her father misses her.”
A sudden roar overpowered the rolling water as the .45 exploded in Henry’s hand. The bullet blasted through the back of Katie’s skull tossing her over the front of the wagon. The horse bolted forward and Fannie struggled to bring it to a halt with Lulu Belle now screaming in her ear.
Sam stepped out of the tree line and saw the shattered remains of Katie’s face lying just under the front of the wagon and began to wretch, his speckled cheeks going from red to a sickly green.
“Cut that out and get over here,” said Fannie. Sam stood up and wiped his mouth then staggered his way over to where Henry was now leaning over the body of Katie James. Another heave gripped his body.
“Don’t you go getting sick on me,” said Henry. “You wanted in on this and then you wanted out, Sam. And there’s no backing out. Not after taking the upfront cash.”
“Let’s just throw her in and get out of here,” Sam moaned. Lulu Belle was now screaming, her body rocking back and forth as Fannie struggled to keep ahold of her.
“Can’t you shut that baby up?” said Sam.
“She’ll quiet down in a few,” said Fannie. “It’s you I’m worried about.”
Sam felt a sudden chill seize him and for a moment forgot about the corpse bleeding at his feet. “What are you talking about?” he said.
“You know too much and your heart ain’t in it,” said Fannie. “And I ain’t planning on going to the chair just because of no yellow boy.”
“I ain’t yellow,” said Sam, “and I ain’t going to talk.”
“That’s enough,” said Henry. “There’s been enough killing today.”
“What if he talks?” said Fannie.
“He won’t,” said Henry, reaching under his shirt and pulling out a nine-inch Bowie knife. Sam felt his stomach tighten and stepped back. Henry brought the pistol up that he was holding in his other hand.
“You have two choices,” he said. “One choice is to be shot down where you stand. The other choice ain’t much better but at least we’ll let you live.”
“What do you want me to do?” said Sam.
“Take this knife,” said Henry, he then pointed to the side of the bridge. “I want her body to go off there.” He then pointed to the other side of the bridge. “And I want her head to go off there and if you ever say a word we’ll both make sure that the law knows just what you done to this poor murdered mother. The choice is yours.”
His knees were now shaking and he could feel his heart hammering away in his chest. Sam had been a fool for most of his short life and a follower, traipsing after the likes of these two because they offered more than back-breaking work that had paid so little that it seemed pointless to even try. But now he had learned a lesson. Only he wasn’t sure he would live long enough to follow his new epiphany. He looked up at the woman holding the motherless child and saw only murder in those flashing green eyes. If it had been her holding the gun and not Henry Sam was sure that he would already be dead. He turned and looked back at Henry.
The blade glittered like a beacon in the July sun. A heated flash rushing through a nightmare. And that was what scared him the most. His dreams, not the ones from the past but the ones he would be cursed with in the future. A life sentence of sleepless nights and horrific nightmares when he dared to sleep. Maybe death would be better but then again what if Hell was waiting? That would come eventually but he wasn’t quite ready yet. Sam reached out a shaky hand and took the knife.
The small porcelain vile sat on the table next to a copy of The Daily Oklahoman. Fannie Norton’s gaze went from the headline to the vile and back again.
Body of Mrs. James Found and handwritten across the top was They know. A month had passed, long enough for her to collect what was owed and leave town. The baby had been returned to the father unharmed, thanks to the farmer she had left her with after they had finished with Katie. Of course, that had been a mistake. One of many she now realized that she had made. The damn father was partly to blame for that; he should have met her himself. Why bring more people into this?
Even here in Shawnee, a hundred miles away from where the body had been found, Fannie knew that she hadn’t gone far enough. Charles White was a good man and was once one of her best customers back when her living was made on a bed in Clinton. He had been more than happy to let her stay with him especially if he could get for free what he used to pay for. But that kind of trade would only go so far.
A sudden knock jolted her out of her thoughts. She sat there, her heart pounding in her chest. “Mrs. Norton?”
Fannie stood up, crept over and peeked around the doorway. Even from this distance, she could see the golden glare of the lawman’s badge shining through the glass panel.
“I know you’re here,” the man said. “Mr. White told me.”
Of course, he would. They all would. A sudden thought crossed her mind, a revelation that summed up her life and promoted her next decision; There had to be a better place.
She gazed over at the vile that was still sitting next to the newspaper. The pain would last for only a moment but she was used to pain. Fannie walked over and picked up the vile, drinking its contents just as the door burst open.