The Prodigal Queen of a Ghostly Town
August 4, 2014
FRENCHY STUMBLED UP the buffalo grass slope to the top of the hill where the winds of November blew gently through her hair and sang away the sadness of the night. The wind was her only companion, the only neighbor who had not moved away from Tascosa and left her to face the icy chill of winter alone.
Mack did not want to desert her, but he had no choice, and she had expected to see him long before the winds of November had led her again through the buffalo grass to the hillside where no one walked much anymore.
Frenchy had gone to sleep many nights, hoping to be at his side when she awoke the next morning. But Mack was never there, and she had not felt his touch for almost twenty-seven years, and she knew just how dreadful those winters could be without his arms to keep her warm. She smiled as she whispered his name, and Frenchy knelt among the buffalo grass as the wind sang across the hilltop and upon his barren grave.
She had ridden into the Texas Panhandle back when it was wilder and a good deal louder, and a woman could earn herself a good living if she knew how to shuffle cards at the gaming tables of Mobeetie, and Frenchy did. To Mack McCormick, she was his good luck charm, and he never seemed to lose when she stood and kept her eyes upon the hands that he was dealt.
Frenchy was tall, and some swore she was a beauty, and the trunks in her bedroom were packed with satin shoes and colorful plumes that decorated the fancy dancing dresses she never wore anymore. No one knew her past. No one knew her name. Mack simply called her Frenchy, though he had no idea what bloodlines ran through her veins, and she vowed within the sanctity of a saloon one night that “no one will ever find out who I am.”
Her daddy had caught her dancing on the frayed stage of a burlesque theater, some whispered. Maybe. And he pulled her off and beat her, and she left on the next stagecoach out of town. That’s what they said anyway. Frenchy only smiled.
She ran off with a no-good man, which could have been any man west of no-man’s land, and he abandoned her, others swore. They said she was just too ashamed to ever go back home and face her grieving family again. Thus, she had to become a dance hall girl to keep from starving to death in a hard land where few cared if she starved to death, no matter how pretty she was or wasn’t. Talk was cheap. Some thought that she was, too.
But Frenchy didn’t really mind. She had what she needed most. She had a man, and Mack McCormick – gambler, hunter, and freight hauler – gave her the last and most important possession he had – himself – for better or worse, and Frenchy was used to having the worse that life offered. The lovers had ambled down to the saloon in Tascosa one night, and Scotty Wilson, the justice of the peace when he wasn’t pouring whiskey and tending bar, made an honest woman out of Frenchy and a husband out of Mack.
McCormick promptly built his wife a two-room home out of adobe down close to his livery stable, and Frenchy found it plenty big enough to hang the marriage license on the wall. It gave her honor. It gave her self respect. She could hold her head high with dignity when she walked down the mud streets of Tascosa, dubbed by the cowboys who drank its whiskey and dealt its crooked cards as the “Prodigal Queen of the Panhandle.” Many of them figured that the title could just as easily be applied to Frenchy as well. Perhaps.
But as she once told a friend, “Mack and I talked over the fact that we had both lived on the somewhat seamy side of life. But he took my hands in his, and we vowed to stick to each other and to Tascosa. And that’s what I aim to do.”
It was on a chilled October day in 1912 that Mack left her. He had been planning to ride away on a hunting trip. But death took him instead. And Frenchy buried her man amidst the buffalo grass on top of a little, wind-bothered hill.
No one else came to mourn his passing, and Frenchy trudged slowly back to a town that was choking on barbed wire and in the final throes of death itself. By 1920, the population of Tascosa had dwindled down to one. Only Frenchy McCormick remained. She had her milk cow and her garden, and from the doorway of her adobe home, she could see the white stone marker rising up out of the buffalo grass, and she knew she had a promise to keep.
The years treated her unkindly, and time began to erode the ruins of Tascosa. Buildings crumbled around her. Weeds erased the old streets where she and Mack had walked in the moonlight. Dust storms swept over the Llano Estacado like a plague. Blizzards ranted and raved, and weeks, then months, would pass before Frenchy saw another living soul. No one ever came to stay for very long in Tascosa. Drifters were either lost or just passing through. Sometimes they only came to gaze with sadness or curiosity upon the crazy lady who had stayed behind in a world that had gone from ashes to ashes, from dust to dust.
Her milk cow died. The drought robbed her vegetable garden. A rattlesnake bite poisoned her dog. County workers brought her coal for the stove and kerosene for her lamp. They worried that one day the adobe shack would simply give out and fall down around her.
“You should leave,” they told her.
Frenchy did not answer. She only smiled and looked up toward the hill and the white stone marker. There was no reason for her to go. There was no place for her to go. Frenchy was where she belonged, with the town that gave her a husband and near the man who had given her love and respect, and provided her all that she had, which wasn’t much, but more than she had ever had before. He was waiting for her. He had been waiting for so long.
“Do you have a family we can get in touch with? the county workers asked.
Maybe. Maybe not.
“No one knows who I am,” was all Frenchy would ever say. “And I’ll never tell.”
She had her secrets, and she kept them as profoundly as she kept her vows. A passer-by did drive her to church one morning in Channing, but Frenchy, her head bowed, unable to pray and unable to remember why she had any reason to pray, adamantly refused to enter such a holy place.
“It might be out of place for me to go into the Lord’s home,” she whispered softly.
“He knows who you are.”
“Then he’s the only one.”
“He doesn’t hold grudges.”
“I been told he don’t forget either.”
During his sermon, the minister glanced toward the window, and he saw an old lady’s wrinkled face pressed tightly against the glass. He raised his Bible and gently motioned for her to come inside, but the face faded away, and he never saw it again.
At last, on a bitter January day in 1941, Frenchy McCormick didn’t keep Mack waiting any longer. The kerosene of her lamp had finally burned out for good. A Catholic priest said that her love and devotion to her husband surely atoned for any unrepented sins that might have trailed Frenchy to her grave, and strangers buried her beside Mack, beneath the buffalo grass where the wind in the shadows sang away the sadness of a town that was no more and the last resident it would ever have.