Day Trips

Captain Day Trips scares us with spooky stories of Texas.

Remnants of Helena
Remnants of Helena (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

Ghosts stories in Texas are as plentiful as creaking gates and moonless nights. With all of the inconsistencies of frontier justice there are bound to be a few mistreated souls who have hung around to torment future generations.

About all that is left in Helena are the ghosts. Once the seat of Karnes County and a thriving stagecoach stop, the town sported more drinking houses than houses of worship. In fact, the wild cowboys of Helena were known to rough up a Polish sodbuster or two until a pistol packing priest from Panna Maria put a stop to the depredations.

The two-story courthouse still stands in Helena just off U.S. 80 on FM 81 about nine miles north of Karnes City. The story goes that when the son of a wealthy rancher was killed in a drunken brawl, the old man came looking for vengeance. When no one would identify the killer, the bereaved father swore that he would kill the town that killed his son. He gave the railroad the land for a more southerly route and Helena soon died out.

The old courthouse stands as a reminder of dashed dreams and as a museum of frontier life. Nobody is sure which is the tree where many an outlaw and maybe a few innocent men attended their last necktie party.

Nothing is spookier than the old jail in the corner of the courthouse lawn. The black cage of thick metal straps woven into a tight box is barely tall enough for a man to stand. Even on a bright afternoon, it's dark as a judge's robes inside. The ghosts of prisoners past wander the shaded grounds that look ideal for a picnic. Beware, you might have uninvited guests.

Down near the coast in Brazoria County, the hounds of Orozimbo Plantation prevented Santa Anna's escape. After the battle at San Jacinto, Sam Houston's army captured the Mexican general dressed as a common soldier. He was held at various plantations south of the city of Houston while the Texas government decided what to do with their prisoner.

Stories abound about attempts to assassinate or free El Presidente. He spent his last five months in Texas at Orozimbo Plantation, on the Brazos River about 11 miles north of West Columbia.

The thick jungle along the river was dark and quiet when a raiding party lead by a Mexican officer sneaked up to the farmhouse. The constant beating of rain on the roof helped conceal any sound the marauders might have made.

Suddenly, as the invaders were about to overwhelm the guards, a chorus of braying hounds let loose with a noise that made the skin crawl. When the soldiers ran from the house to investigate they caught the would be intruders.

One of Austin's original 300 colonists, Dr. James Phelps didn't keep dogs at his remote plantation. The phantom guard dogs were never found. Some say the hounds wander the Texas Coast looking for their lost master who went off to war and never returned.

Sometimes on a moonless night, driving the back roads covered with a canopy of trees draped with Spanish moss north of Lake Jackson, if you stop the car and listen very carefully into the night you can hear the lost dogs howling in the distance for their master.

The dogs never did stir in a story that J. Frank Dobie included in his 1928 book, Tales of Old-Time Texas. The story of "The Wild Woman of the Navidad-- has been retold in many different variations.

The settlers on the lower Navidad River around present-day Edna reported seeing barefoot tracks, but never the person who made them. About the time the footprints were seen the homesteaders would discover food missing from their cupboards. Whoever was taking the food from the houses would only take half; carefully dividing the butter, bread, or milk. On the night someone stole food from his pantry, a carpenter also reported the saw missing from his toolbox. A few days later he found it returned; polished to a luster.

The folks of the area brought in hunting hounds and hid in the darkness to try to catch the mysterious figure, but never could. Several hunters reported seeing the creature and described her as small, with short brown fur covering her otherwise naked body, and dark hair on her head that would reach the ground if she stood still.

But the Wild Woman was never seen motionless. She was fleet of foot as a frightened deer and more cunning than a fox. At one ranch she was said to have returned a missing logging chain. The heavy chain was cleaned better than new and perfectly coiled next to a sleeping guard dog that failed to notice someone taking half a loaf of bread.

Eventually, the local men captured a small African man and declared him to be the Wild Woman of the Navidad. Not everyone believed the explanation. Some believe that she just moved to another part of the state. That is why, whenever you go camping from the Gulf Coast to the Big Bend country (and mysterious bare footprints have been seen in every corner of the state), you should always leave some food accessible so that the Wild Woman doesn't have to come into your tent looking for a bite to eat.

542nd in a series. Day Trips, Vol.2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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