The following short story was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event–Whiskey Saloon. Please enjoy.
Phil and I were getting water from the creek and sore about having to do it. We had a well in the yard. But Ma had this real strange fear about the well drying up so we had to trek all the way to Tees Creek to fetch the water for the animals. The well water, she insisted, was for people only.
That’s where we found the girl.
She stood in the middle of Tees Creek in ankle deep water. The hem of her tattered dress rippled in the current. Filthy, but sopping wet, she was scratched and bruised up good. Her hair was tangled and matted with mud. She shivered in the Indian summer heat and didn’t pay us no mind at all.
Hey, I called to her, but she didn’t budge. She just stared down at a little eddy swirling at her feet.
Now, I am a Christian girl. And Christ compels you to help those in need no matter how devilish they look and I ain’t ever seen no one needing Christian charity as much as that girl. So, I went to her as Jesus would and touched her arm and spoke to her real calm like. She fainted dead away. “Whoa, gal,” Phil said when he caught her and again when he set her on dry grass. “Whoa, gal.”
I patted her cheek to try and bring her round and Phil runned off to get Pa and Pa brought the wagon. We settled her on my bed and Ma cleaned her up and tended to her wounds with some ointment. Phil took our fastest horse Giblet to town and to get Doc Taylor.
News of that girl traveled far and fast and soon we had a house bustling people wondering and praying about her.
“I’m tellin’ ya she wandered off from her camp and got lost. She looks like a Swedish girl. They been passin’ this way of late …”
“Nah. I heard she got bite marks on her. Indian attack, I’ll bet. Them Arapahoe savages been gettin’ riled up lately if you go beyond Deacon’s Pass….”
“Could be she’s one of them Morman gals that runned off. She looks about marryin’ age…”
Doc Taylor cleared our cabin even of me, Ma, Pa and Phil so he could examine the girl in peace and quiet. I remember the big wad of moist chaw Pa offered Doc Taylor when they stood by well to talk about her when he was done looking her over.
“I am hoping when she wakes up from the laudanum she will tell us who she is and where she’s from,” Doc Taylor told Pa. He always had this matter of fact tone like nothing riled him.
“What ya think happen to her, Doc? She looks like she’s been through hell and back.”
“WelI… found strands of long black hair all over her dress and some kind of green substance under her nails…”
“Injun hair and warpaint!” Pa said with anger. Then he spat.
“The Arapahoe wear blue and red. Black sometimes. Never green.”
Pa’s face got redder. “You think a new tribe has drifted into these parts?”
Doc Taylor shrugged it off. “Collum, I advise you keep this under your hat till she wakes and tells us for sure. We don’t need gossip spreading.”
Pa nodded and I could see him simmer down. Doc Taylor had this way of easing him when he got his Irish up.
The girl did wake up sometime that night. Thirst had stirred me from my sleep. As I was dipping a drink of water from the pail by my bed, I saw her standing by the window and looking out into the darkness.
“Hey,” I said softly. “Good to see you up and around. I’m called Eileen. What’s your name?”
“Peg Powler,” she cried. “Peg Powler.”
“Your name is Peg, alrighty then…”
But her shook her head hard. “Peg Powler!” she shouted at me and then looked back out the window toward the well. She cried awful and then slumped down on the floor. “Peg Powler,” she whimpered.
We had Doc Taylor back in the morning. We told him her name was Peg Powler and maybe he should telegraph that around to the papers. But Doc Taylor just laughed. “Peg Powler? Why, that’s just an old story my grandmother use to tell when we were small.”
Peg Powler is a water witch, he explained. She lives in ponds and lakes and such. She’s a legend grown ups made up for little ones to make them afraid of water so they would stay away from it and not be apt to drown.
“She’s an ugly creature. Green flesh. Wild black hair. Sharp teeth. Claws. If you go too close to the water’s edge, Peg Powler will grab your ankles and drag you under.” Doc Taylor lunged forward grabbing the air and violently yanking his hands down. He stopped when he saw Phil and I didn’t think him amusing. I reminded Doc Taylor right there and then about what he told Pa. About something green under her fingernails. And the black strands of hair on her person.
“Philip. Eileen. Come here.” We gathered to him and he looked back and forth serious like to me and then Phil and then back to me again. “This young lady has been through a lot. She’s probably just dredging up every scary thought in her head. Even stories from when she was knee high.”
Every night I woke up thirsty. And every night I saw her staring out the window. She would be there when I went to sleep and was there when I woke up in the morning.
Life went on like that for weeks. We did as Christ expected and kept her and fed her and sheltered her. She remained silent and afraid and vigilant. The only words out of her were “Peg Powler” and we did our best as a family to pray that gone. Ma took to calling her Ophelia on account we found her in water and she seemed to like it alright. Ophelia helped Ma in the kitchen and with the sewing and laundry she took in from some of the bachelor farmers. She helped me and Phil with feeding the animals. But she wouldn’t go to the creek. Or Sutter’s Pond. Or even the well. So we didn’t press.
Then we had the big snow storm. The kind you get in early fall. A sneak one with wet, fat flakes that curve roofs and snap branches. It froze the buds off the trees and caught the gophers off guard. They scurried all angry like across the field trying to find the holes that just up and disappeared on them. The snow started dropping in late noon. By 10 pm it had stopped and we all were glad it was done.
“T’weren’t a bad one,” Pa said before shuffling off to bed. “Early’s all. The Lord kept us sound.”
When I had my dip sip that night I saw Ophelia in her usual place. Her face was lit up by the moon’s reflection off the snow. And she was crying. “It’s gonna be alright, Ophelia,” I said and laid back down. But she didn’t act like she heard me.
When I woke up the next morning Ophelia wasn’t by the window. She wasn’t sitting in the chair where she did her sewing. And she wasn’t at the wash basin where she did her scrubbing.
Pa open the door to find undisturbed snow in the yard. Seeing that we check the house again. Under the beds. In the cupboards. Even me and Phil’s toy chest. Neither hide nor hair of her was found in our house.
“But Collum,” Ma said. “There are no footprints outside.”
I remember Pa taking a long time to answer. I remember him tugging at his beard. He always did when he thought hard. “Well, it must have come down again after she left s’all.”
That’s when Phil clapped the girl’s boots together. The ones the Pastor James had gave us for her the Sunday after we found her. “She went barefoot and her wrap is right there,” he said nodded at the thick wool blanket she used as a coat still on it’s hook.
“She’s gonna catch her death,” was all I could say.
We moved quick after that. Pa took Giblet to town, Ma put on coffee for the men she knew would be coming. And me and Phil got dressed and searched the barn and privy and the hen house. Nothing.
The search party went for days on end. All over the prairie. Into the hills to the East and even a couple of miles beyond Deacon’s Pass. But we didn’t find her until that long winter passed for good. Not until Spring thaw. Not until the snow got too low to gather up and too dirty for drinking.
Phil and I were helping Ma get supper together. I was rifling through the pickling jars looking for beets and Phil was out in the yard drawing water to boil up a chicken for stew. It was when I was straining to twist a lid off a mason jar I noticed Phil standing the doorway. He had the water bucket tucked under his arm and a blank expression on his face.
“Ma,” he said softly. “There’s somethin’ down the well.”