This story is by Teresa Marie Black and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Proud of its Wild West past, The Indian Territory Café displayed framed photos of outlaws, lawmen and stories about them on its pale green concrete walls. Jem, my older brother, and I devoured those tales when we moved to live on our grandparents’ farm nearby.
Even in the 21st century, rural eastern Oklahoma seemed closer to ghosts and legends than to computers and cell phones. Anyway, not much else going on.
“There’s those city kids who’re hunting Belle Starr’s gold.” The grumpiest career coffee drinker in the cafe was loud enough for everyone to hear. “Maybe they’ll run into her ghost.”
Grumpo loved to needle newcomers.
Busted! Who saw us snooping around the old Starr homestead? Jem was the risk-taker. I, Jessica, the well-behaved kid, felt like an outlaw after snooping around strange property.
Jem calmly paid for the bread Grams sent us for. I’m bad at hiding feelings, so I studied a framed photo of the poem on Belle Starr’s tombstone.
“Shed not for her the bitter tear…”
Nor give the heart to vain regret.”
“Leave the kids alone,” a friendly coffee drinker said, lowering his newspaper. “Maybe they’ll be the ones who find her gold.”
Straightening gold-rimmed glasses, he nodded to the walls.
“You gotta follow the legend.”
“I don’t believe in legends or ghosts,” Jem shrugged.
“Sure ‘nough?” Grumpo scoffed. “I seen you two reading the walls.”
“Is gold really out there?” Jem asked.
“Belle and her friends stole gold bars from a train headed for the Denver Mint in the 1880’s, and $30,000 in gold from Watt Grayson, a Creek Indian. Her cabin was a refuge for robbers. She went to federal prison as a horse thief.
“State lawmen couldn’t go after her here because this was the Cherokee Nation.”
“This IS the Cherokee Nation,” the waitress corrected.
“What’s important is, she died near here,” Mr. Nice Guy said. “But you gotta go there at night.”
“Night?” I asked. Treasure hunting was shrinking in charm.
“Belle sensed that someone was after her. The Cherokee Lighthorse Police were watching her place. One by one, her outlaw buddies were killed off or sent to prison. If she couldn’t return for the gold, she could tell someone how to bring it to her. Shortly before her death, she buried her gold where light first touches the woods when the full moon rises over her cabin. But you need to see the moon rise at the time of year when she buried her gold.”
“She died February 3rd, 1889,” I read from a news story on the wall. Belle Starr knew Jesse James, the Cole Younger gang, Blue Duck, and other outlaws.
“That’s today,” Jem said. “How did she die?”
“Shot in the back, murdered as she rode to her home near the Canadian River. Belle’s horse came home with a bloody saddle and her daughter Pearl found her mother’s body. Pearl buried her mother near their cabin in her black velvet riding attire with her big pearl-handled Colt 45’s. She erected a headstone with an engraved bell, a star, a horse, and a poem. Thieves dug her guns up long ago.”
“Grave robbing,” Jem said, his face contorted. “Gross.”
“Did you see where she lived?” He took another drink of coffee.
“We drove by a fence, but we couldn’t find a way in,” Jem admitted.
“The gate looks like a rusty bedstead. Get around it then follow the path into the woods. Her cabin burned in the 1930’s, but you’ll know the place because her tombstone is near.”
“Here’s a photo of her tombstone.” I pointed to a frame. The Bandit Queen, the National Police Gazette dubbed her.
“Better go soon,” the waitress said. “Belle’s tombstone is being removed by the family that owns the land because vandals are chipping off souvenirs.”
“A word of warning.” He folded his newspaper. “Strange things happened after Belle was buried. At night, her horse whinnied and pawed the earth on her grave. Neighbors heard gunfire popping out of the dirt. Belle loved her horse. That’s Venus carved on her tombstone.”
The waitress refilled his coffee.
“They say Belle’s ghost wandered the Canadian River on moonlit nights,” he said. “Then Belle’s horse was shot by a posse chasing her husband. After that, she was seen riding Venus down the mountain towards the Canadian River. A guy disappeared who she supposedly shot and sank in the river.”
He nodded to a sleeping dog.
“I hunt, but my hound Rascal won’t go near there. Some believe the ghost of Belle Starr protects her gold. Others say Belle is out for revenge on her killer. If you see her, get off the Starr property. Go back to that gate and get over the fence. Her horse’s ghost returns to her grave.”
“Come on, Jess,” Jem said.
An early winter evening darkened the road as we rode home on the four-wheeler.
“We’re both going to die,” I said, breathing fast, “if Gramps finds out.”
I couldn’t believe what I was doing. Why was I drawn to a dead outlaw’s gold?
“You steer, I’ll push,” Jem said. Not quite a licensed driver, my brother forced the old farm truck down the hill before starting the engine. Eyes wide with excitement, he drove east from town then followed a two-lane blacktop to a dirt road that crumpled away into close woods.
“A gate that looks like an old bedstead.” Jem nodded at the rusty hardware as he pulled over. He turned on a camp lantern.
“How old are the batteries?” I asked, pushing down fear.
“Jess, you don’t have to come.”
“Me? Stay here by myself?” No way my brother would see me acting the sissy. I was going to hunt for Belle Starr’s gold.
I picked up a shovel and hopped out. Climbing over the fence, I cut my leg on a wire then landed up to my ankles in sticker vines and rocks.
“Hope the rattlers are hibernating,” I whispered.
Jem placed his finger to his lips for silence. I don’t know why. Don’t alert the ghosts?
Using his shovel, Jem swished weeds aside as we walked along the path. It felt like miles. My heart pounded harder. Were we really on haunted land?
Jem stopped so suddenly that I nearly ran into him.
Ahead the clearing was dark, but the moon peeked over trees. Slowly, Jem walked until lantern light touched Belle Starr’s gravestone enclosed in a wire fence.
“A bell, a star, a horse and a poem carved on it,” Jem murmured.
I quietly read the poem’s last dim lines in stone.
“’Tis but the casket that lies here,
The gem that filled it sparkles yet.”
“If Belle still sparkles, I don’t want to see her,” I said. The rising moon’s light touched the grave of Belle Starr and woods nearby.
“Let’s dig and get outa here,” Jem said.
Giving the tombstone a last look, I followed him towards the woods.
A horse whinnied on a rise nearby as Jem’s shovel broke ground. We looked up as a figure profiled in black reared her horse before a huge blood moon.
“Jess,” Jem gasped. “Run.”
Terrified, I ran. I never ran so fast in my life.
“Get over the gate,” Jem shouted. As his lantern shattered, I lost sight of my brother.
Running on, I wondered how long I could last. Was I alone? My lungs were bursting, my heart pounding. I stumbled, fell to my knees, and pushed myself up.
Hoofbeats shook the ground close behind me.
I don’t remember how I flew over the fence. Grabbing the truck door with shaking hands, I dove in and slammed down the lock-button.
Where was Jem?
A hoof smacked the truck. Could a phantom horse beat down my door?
Through the windshield, I saw Jem burst out of the dark heading this way. The huge, black beast rounded the front of the truck.
Shoving the driver’s door open, I jumped back as Jem fell in. He slammed the door, pounded his hand on the lock then collapsed over the wheel, gasping for breath.
I buried my head in my lap, shaking and near tears.
When Jem tried to start the truck, the engine whined and died.
I sat up and looked at my brother.
Jem looked at me.
The ghost of Belle Starr sat between us.
Her eyes were on fire with hate, her cheeks dark and shrunken, wild gray hair streaming down around dirt on her black velvet suit.
The last thing I recall as I dove out was Jem’s horrified face.
We ran nonstop to the blacktop road, then collapsed.
Next morning, Jem confessed to our grandparents why he’d left their farm truck out on a dirt road.
We were grounded forever.
Gram drove Gramps to collect the truck. When they returned, they talked in the yard, looked at the truck, then looked towards the house and us.
A deep hoof-shaped print dented the truck’s passenger door.