A noise in the darkness brought Billy Wilson and Homer Grey to full alert. Billy jumped up, unholstered his gun, and pointed it toward the sound. Homer rolled to his knees and put his hand on his weapon. A branch broke under the weight of a person or animal. At the sound, Homer was on his feet in a flash; both men stood at the ready.
"Wh-Who goes there?" yelled Billy. His hand was shaking, and his heart was pounding so hard it was about to leap out of his chest.
"Don't be messing with us. T-There's two guns pointed in yer direction," said Homer with a quivering voice. He struggle to keep his weapon on an even keel. And now he had to pee . . . Real bad too. Excitement always affected him this way.
A stringy voice called back. "Lower your weapons, partners. Just a weary traveler seeking rest and something to drink and eat if'n ya can spare it."
"Come into the light of the campfire wheres we can see ya good," said Billy.
"Okay but don't shoot."
The stranger staggered into the campsite and stood by the fire.
In the light, Billy could see that he was tall and broad shouldered but looked as if he hadn't been eating square meals that often; he had long scraggly blonde hair and a beard; his clothes were tattered and soiled; and he needed a bath.
"Where ya come from, mister?" asked Billy.
"Been hiding out there in the Sonoran for some time—lost track of how long—living on whatever I could catch to eat, and whatever I could find to drink."
"Who you been hiding from?" Homer asked.
"That's a long story. But first, that there coffee smells mighty good."
"I hate to be unsociable, mister, but you need a bath, inna a bad way. So could you avail yourself of that there stream whiles we get something ready for you to eat and drink. We don't mean no offence."
"No offence taken."
The stranger went to the stream and began rubbing off weeks of sweat and grime. He rinsed out his clothing the best he could and returned to camp. Finding a comfortable spot, he sat, and Billy handed him a plate of hot beans and cold dried beef and a cup of hot coffee. The stranger wolfed down the meal as if he hadn't eaten for a while and savored the coffee as if were the finest Kentucky whiskey.
"How about yer story?" asked Billy.
The stranger held his cup in both hands and looked skyward. His face reflected the warm glow of the campfire and went blank. Every muscle in his face relaxed, and his eyes glassed over. After a big gulp of coffee, he began his story.
* * *
My name is Percival "Husk" Gentry. From my youth, I've had a husky build, so I got the nickname of "Husky," shortened to "Husk" when I aged. I came west at sixteen and took odd jobs wherever I could find one and bounced around from place to place, not setting roots down anywheres in particular.
Anyways, I was riding to Phoenix looking for work when I crossed a small stream and decided to follow it up a ways—don't know why, but I did to my regret. Around a bend, I encountered a fort-like structure made of adobe with watchtowers at the four corners and a wooden gate. Surrounding the fort were fields of wheat, corn, and vegetables. In a corral were several milk cows, couple of steers, a bull, and three horses.
When I reached a bridge, I rode up the embankment and onto its boards. A lead slug hit the bridge's planking just as the sound of a rifle-shot reached my ears. I pulled on the reigns, and my horse stopped dead in his tracks.
Then a female voice yelled, "What you want, mister?"
Right off, I couldn't see who was yelling. The watchtowers were unoccupied, no one was on the wall facing me, and the gate looked clear. But I answered anyways. "I need water for my horse and . . . "
The voice cut me off. "It can drink from the stream, mister, so move along."
"And he needs feed."
No one answered.
"And I could use drink and food too."
"And a roof over my head for the night."
'Twas the longest five minutes. I didn't know if I should turn and high-tail it out of there or stand my ground. Looking back, I should've turned and run, but like a young fool full of adventure, I didn't. 'Twere stupid, I was.
"Come up closer where we can see you better."
I dug my heels into my horse's flanks, but he didn't move. He reared up and resisted. Thinking back, he had the better sense of the two of us, and I should have took heed. I nudged him again, but he wouldn't budge. Dismounting, I cussed him up one side and down the other. Then I yanked him by the reigns across the bridge onto the dusty trail leading toward the gate.
When I reached the gate, a tall dark-haired beauty of a woman stepped out of the shadows. "That's far enough, mister," she said. "Drop your gun belt and weapon."
Without resisting, I unbuckled and let them fall to the ground, since my jaw was already dropping to the ground, anyways—she was about the prettiest woman I'd ever seen. I began thinking that I was out of the frypan and into the fire for sure. Then three other beauties stepped out of the shadows: a freckled red-head and tall, shapely, twin blondes. "Follow us, mister," said the dark-haired one. "Don't try nothing funny 'cause we got ya covered."
I couldn't make out what the twins were saying behind my back, but they giggled all the way to the huge living-like room where eight women gathered: an old woman and an assortment of younger women ranging from early twenties to early thirties; I guessed their ages at the time. I was to find out their exact ages later.
"How'd ya find us?" asked the old woman.
I was scared and was standing neck-high in pig poo with no way out. In the calmest voice I could muster, I said, "Followed the stream."
Looking at the faces of the women, I saw mistrust and disbelief written across every one of them. I wet my dry lips and cleared my throat. "L-Looking for food for my horse."
The old woman nearly came out of her chair at me. "I don't believe you, mister. Who sent you?"
I stepped backwards, not expecting the old gal could move that fast. "I'm not lying, ma'am. And nobody sent me for nuthin'. I'm just passing through to Phoenix looking for work."
At my last answer, she settled back in her chair. "You got any kin 'round heres?"
I nervously shifted my weight from foot to foot. "Nope. Was orphaned at sixteen, so I came west and been on my own since then."
Her tone of voice changed. 'Twas no longer angry nor suspicious, almost motherly. "How old are you, son?"
I relaxed a bit when she called me son, but I remained on my guard. "Twenty-five. Why you ask?"
When I told my age, the old woman glanced at the others and nodded. Those I could see directly, nodded back. Then coyly she said, "No reason, son. No reason."
One of the twins said, "He might do, Mama."
The old woman raised her hand to cut off any further outbursts. "Hush up, children. We'll discuss this private-like."
The twin bowed her head and looked at the floor.
The old woman turned her attention back to me. "What's yer name, son?"
"Husk?" A look of puzzlement crossed her face. Several of the woman whispered among themselves, but I couldn't make out what they were saying.
"Hush up, everyone."
The power the old woman had over the others amazed me. I could've heard a pin drop. I waited a few moments and then spoke. "It's a long story. Short for 'Husky,' which I was as a youngin."
"Okay, Husk. Bessie and Annie will show you to the kitchen. Clara, make sure his horse has feed and water."
"Okay, Mama," said Clara, and she rushed out of the room.
Bessie and Annie grabbed an arm each and escorted me to the kitchen.
* * *
After a most delicious meal, the girls ushered me back to the large room, where the old woman was sitting in a large chair with a semicircle of chairs on either side. Each girl—starting with oldest to the youngest, I guessed—sat on either side of her. I stood in the center of the semicircle.
"Son, Husk, we have a family issue that you may help us with," said the old woman, on the edge of her plush chair.
I heard the words, kindly in tone, but nonetheless, I felt as if I were on trial. "What issue would that be?"
"You see before you a family of eight women—a mother and seven daughters—and no men."
I spoke without giving my words much thought. Clearly, they could have looked for husbands before my suggestion but something or reason had prevented it. Had I thought before I spoke, I wouldn't have incurred the old woman's ire, but I blurted out. "Couldn't the women just go to Phoenix and find husbands?"
I tell you straight . . . The fire in that old woman's eyes . . .
"That won't due, son. Not at all. It ain't husbands we want. Few tried marriage, but they failed miserably."
I stepped back. "Then, what do you want of me?"
She settled back in her chair and paused. For the longest time, I waited for an answer. And then she said, "Offspring."
"What?" I couldn't believe what I was hearing; they wanted me for stud services.
She leaned on one arm of her big chair and nonchalantly said, "The girls and I have decided that with your looks and physique, you should make good babies. So we want your seed, plain and simple. In exchange, we'll keep you, feed you, and tend to your every need. And after each has given birth, you'll be free to go on your way."
Sweat beaded on my upper lip, and my knees felt weak. "And if I don't want to participate."
With a wave of her hand and with no more compassion than you'd have for a stray dog, she said, "Then we'll have no choice but to put you down as if you were a prized animal that's no longer of any use to us."
For several moments, I stood, stunned at what I'd heard. Service her daughters or be killed, some choice. I thought there's gotta be a way to escape but until then . . .
The old woman was growing impatient. "The choice is yours, Husk. What'll be?"
I forced a smile. "Since you put it that way, I'd like to meet your daughters."
"I thought you'd see it our way." She stood. "Come here, Husk, I'd like to introduce you to my eldest, Bessie. She's thirty-one."
"Hi, Bessie." I extended my hand but she didn't extend hers in return. Bessie was tall, dark-haired, shapely, and never cracked a smile during the introductions. She was the one who held the rifle on me at the gate.
"This is Annie. She's twenty-nine."
"Hi, Annie." Annie was bubbly, black hair, plump, and grinned from ear to ear. She shook my hand robustly.
"This is Grace, twenty-eight."
"How do you do, Grace." Grace turned away, shyly. She had reddish hair, freckles, and a flat-chest yet quite beautiful. She was at the gate, as well.
"And this is Ella, twenty-six."
Ella, was short, medium build, busty, and jovial. She giggled when I extended my hand.
"This is Laura and Maura, the twins, twenty-four."
"Hi, Laura and Maura."
They were tall, shapely, and giddy. They giggled when I extended my hand. The twins held their rifles on me at the gate.
"Last but not least, Cora, twenty-one."
Cora was medium build and a cold fish. She didn't show any emotion when I shook her limp hand.
The old woman turned to her daughters with me by her side. "Well, what do you think of my little band of women?"
"Excellent. Quite lovely." I had my reservations, however. I wondered at the time how many were willing participants, and how many were coerced by the old woman, wanting grandbabies. My situation was tenuous: if I didn't produce, what would my fate be. When I got past the thought of a harem at my beckon call, the anxiety and pressure mounted. Sheepishly I asked, "When do we start?"
"Tonight, of course," said the old woman. She looked at me and grinned. I forced a smile in return, but I certainly wasn't in a smiley mood.
"Is there a schedule?"
I must've sounded like a schoolboy on his first day wanting to know what classes were when, because her face turned sour like an old-maid schoolmarm who hated snotty-nose children asking too many questions. "You don't have to worry about that. Just answer the knock at your door."
"Yes, ma'am." I was so apprehensive my knees were knocking, but I asked, "Where's my bedroom?"
"Cora will show you."
"This way, Mr. Husk," said Cora in a sweet little voice. She led me to a moderately sized room with several furniture pieces, a large down-filled bed, washbasin, and a south-facing window.
"Rest well", she said and closed the door.
I washed up and put on a nightshirt that someone had laid out for me. Once I opened the window, I reclined on the bed.
The moon slowly climbed in the night sky, and a cool breeze blew through the window. I'd just drifted off when a knock on the door awoke me. I hopped up, dashed to the door, and slowly cracked it open. It was Bessie.
I opened the door wide. Bessie was wearing a full-length grown and stood in the doorway without emotion, looking at me. Then she pushed past me and went over to the large chair alongside of the bed.
"Close the door, and let's get this over with." Her voice was cold, and with that pronouncement, she hiked up her gown and braced herself on the arms of the chair. "Do your duty."
I closed the door and stood looking at her for moment or two. She'd caught me so off my guard I couldn't react. I felt as if I were a stallion facing the business-end of a mare in-heat I was about to stud, devoid of emotion or feelings. I tried but couldn't deposit my seed.
"What's taking so long?" she asked in an angry, impatient tone. Then she commanded. "Hurry up."
With that last bit of encouragement, she took the 'toot' out of my whistle, and I gave up. "Done," I said and dropped my nightshirt to cover me.
"About time." She stood, adjusted her gown, and opened the door to leave. Before she closed the door behind her, she lobbed a departing shot. "You're the most incompetent lover I've ever encountered."
I was so glad for her to go as much for her attitude as for my ego. I knew she would discover I'd failed, and she'd probably return with a vengeance. But for now, I had to recover from the encounter: physically and emotionally. This wasn't at all what I'd expected or the paradise I'd envisioned.
It was about an hour when another knock came to my door. This time, Annie stood in in the doorway, wearing a similar nightgown. She was friendly and seemed delighted for the proceeding to commence; in fact, she helped. It was odd though, she too went directly for the chair. I wondered if the old woman had dictated the rules of engagement.
The next night brought a third knock: Grace. I had barely cracked the door when she pushed it open and went for the chair. Without uttering a word between us, I lifted her gown and did my duty. She stood and rushed out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Soon afterward, Ella knocked. When I opened the door, she beamed and came into the room. Before we began, she cast off her gown and stood in the moonlight, waiting for me. I threw my nightshirt on the bed and moved toward her. She reached out and touched me, tittering, and then she went right for the chair and giggled the whole time. When we were finished, she put on her gown and left.
I laid on the bed, thinking the evening was over when a gentle knock on my door caught my attention. Cracking the door open, I was startled to see Bessie. "Bessie?"
"I want to apologize for our last meeting. I was so angry at that old nanny goat, I could've killed her. And I took it out on you, Husk."
"Come in. Give me a moment to put on my nightshirt."
Bessie closed the door and sat on the edge of the bed. I sat next to her. "Tell me why you were so upset."
"Ma sat us all down and told us exactly how we were gonna interact with you and about the chair. She didn't want anyone of us becoming attached to you when the time came to put you down."
"What? She said if I fathered seven children, she'd let me go."
"Why you telling me this?"
"I want to leave too but first, you've got to your duty by me. When I went back to my room, I discovered you hadn't accomplished anything. I don't blame you with the way I was badgering you, but I was wondering if you still could manage . . . the old fashion way . . . in bed, I mean."
"I'll try." I leaned over and kissed her; she kissed me back.
Well . . . I don't have to paint a complete picture for you . . . Just let's say, 'I did manage,' with Bessie's help. After that, we developed quite a friendship and enjoyed many a night together.
The next evening, the twins arrived together. Seems they never did anything apart from the other, so one watched while the other went for the chair and vice versa. And then there was Cora, the cold fish. But when the bedroom door closed, she crawled all over me. She kissed me, hugged me, and grabbed me. After pushing me to the bed, she . . . I'm sure you can picture what happened next. When we finished, she was a cold fish again and left. I laid on the bed, in a daze.
So ended my first go-round with the sisters. After three day's rest, the first knock came to my door. It was Annie. The order of sisters changed a bit, but I serviced each of them throughout the weeks ahead. By month's end, the sisters and I had settled into a routine without the chair, no giggling, no cold fish, and no shyness, just business with plenty of hugging and kissing, to boot. And good to her word, the old woman had her daughters tend to my every need. I guess that's why I never tried to escape. After all, it was paradise of every man's dreams.
* * *
It wasn't long before things took a bad turn, and my paradise started to show cracks in an otherwise perfect picture.
"Mama, I'm in a family way," yelled Cora. "I've missed two woman-day cycles, so I must have a baby growing in me."
All the women came running to hear the good news. The old woman lined them up and asked, "Is anyone else late for their woman days?"
"I am, Mama," said Ella but only three weeks.
"Me, too," said Grace. "Four weeks."
The other women shook their heads. "Husk, my son, good work so far, but you can't let up now. We'll cut yer rest days to just two, since ya have less to service. Grace, Ela, and Cora, you'll be out of rotation till we know for sure."
By now, the girls had given up all pretense of following the old woman's instructions and were hell-bent on being next. Bessie was coming to my room every evening after her sisters left and on my rest days too and spending the entire night. It wasn't long before Bessie and Annie were in a family way as well. Only the twins were barren.
I thought part of the problem was one always watched, and it impeded my performance. I had to separate them. When they arrived for their next servicing, I told them flat out: one must stand outside the room and be quiet. Reluctantly, they agreed. It worked; within six weeks, both were in a family way.
* * *
My paradise finally became a true hell when I confronted the old woman about my release. "Okay, Mama. I've kept my side of the bargain, and all your daughters are with child. When can I leave?"
"Well . . . The babes ain't been born yet. If anything goes wrong, we'll need your services again. So, I can't let you go just yet."
"That wasn't part of the bargain. You're reneging."
"I don't see it thatta way, son. And what I see is what goes 'round here."
"Then, I'll take my horse and just up and leave."
"Can't. We done et your horse a few weeks ago."
"Yep. Figured you weren't needing him, so we et him. Tasty too."
"You're a crazy old bat!"
"Annie, Laura, Maura train yer rifles on him. Seems Husk's gettin' a bit roughty. Take him to the cellar and put him in chains."
"This ain't right, Ma," said Bessie.
"I know you've been sleeping with him since he arrived. So you can't be trusted when it comes to him."
"Still . . . This ain't right. You said he could leave if he impregnated all of us and he did."
"Hush up, daughter. You don't know nuthin' about nuthin'. I'm keeping him around as long as I think I'll need him. After that, we'll put him down."
"That was the plan all along. We ain't gonna deviate now."
* * *
After several weeks locked up in that dingy cellar with poor food and sanitation, I was getting sickly. Then I heard one of the twins got real sick and miscarried. It was Laura. So they hauled me out of that cellar, cleaned me up, and readied me for stud service again as soon as she had recovered.
Well . . . I made up my mind I wasn't going back to that dungeon . . . No way, no how. So I planned my escape. I figured that with all the babies being born, and the excitement of Laura's impending motherhood—when it happened—the fracas should allow me to escape. My only concern was Bessie, but I discovered the old woman had shipped her off to Phoenix to keep her away until they disposed of me. At lease, she had escaped the old woman's clutches, and our child would be safe.
I worked double-time, and it wasn't long before Laura thought she was in a family way, again. Soon after she was sure, and the occasion seemed right, I climbed down from the window and made good my escape. As fast as my legs could carry me, I made a bee-line for the open desert, figuring they'd never imagine I'd go that way. I was wrong. At sunup, Cora and Grace were near the watering hole, checking for footprints. I doubted they'd stay long, having recently given birth and their youngins wanting fed, but it was nearly an hour before they gave up and rode off.
After that encounter, I spent the next several weeks dodging search parties and living off the land best I could, until I saw your campfire.
* * *
Husk stared into the burning embers. "Well . . . That's my story, the long and the short of it."
Homer tilted his hat back on his head. "That was the most fantastic story I've ever heard, Husk."
"It sure was." Billy glanced toward Homer and then to Husk. "More coffee, Husk?"
Husk shook his head. "Thanks, but I gotta be on my way. Those women most likely saw your campfire, too, and they'll come here, looking for me. That's for damn sure."
"So yer not staying the night?" asked Homer.
Husk was getting to his feet. "No, gotta keep on the move. Them girls will never give up until they bring me back."
"Before you go, I've got a question for you," said Billy.
"Why do you suppose her daughters stayed cooped up with that old woman all those years? What power did she have over them?"
"I could never figure that out other than she'd brainwashed them and made them afraid of the outside world and of men."
"Maybe so. The old woman was crazy, wasn't she?"
"Yep. I always thought she was. Now, I gotta go."
"Suit yourself," said Homer.
"Thanks for your hospitality," said Husk as he disappeared into the shadows.
Billy turned to Homer. "What'd ya think 'bout Husk?"
"Odd sort of a fella. A might bit titched in the head if you ask me. "
"You believe his story?"
"Naw." Homer shook his head. "A story about a young buck finding a harem of seven young wanton women—sounded more like a dream than reality." Homer looked skyward and thought a bit more. "Naw, I don't believe it, but it's a great bedtime story. You believe him?"
"Can't say that I do. His story's every man's fantasy, so it can't be true." Billy stopped to ponder. "No. It can't be true . . . It just can't be . . . No . . . Can't . . . "
"Couple things don't make sense to me, though," said Homer.
"What's that?" asked Billy.
"Husk says he's been wandering in the wilderness for quite a while, so why hasn't he tried to get to Phoenix? Could've been there by now. And it seemed as though he could've escaped from them women's clutches sooner but didn't."
"Like you said: titched in the head."
"More like bats in the belfry if you ask me," said Homer. "I'm calling it a night."
* * *
The first rays of sunlight peeked over the distant hills and fell on the campsite. The evening chill gave way to the warmth of morning. Billy was the first to stir, and he stood and stretched. Hooves against hard ground and stones brought Homer straight to a standing position with a hand on his revolver. Billy was ready for action, as well.
"Easy with those weapons, fellas," a shrill voice said.
Billy and Homer retreated to the backside of the campsite, weapons shaking in their hands. "Come closer and be recognized," yelled Billy.
Slowly, three horses picked their way through loose stones and clopped into sight. Three young women on horseback greeted them.
"Howdy, I'm Annie Purdue and these are my sisters, Grace and Cora." Grace and Cora nodded.
Homer and Billy lowered their weapons and tipped their hats. "How do, Miss Purdue? You gave us quite a start so early in the morning."
Annie shifted positions in her saddle and waved her hand in a westwardly direction. "We saw your campfire from afar and have been riding a while to get here before you rode on."
"What can we do for you?" asked Billy.
"We're looking for a man, an escaped man from the asylum a couple day's ride thatta ways." Annie pointed westward, again. "Calls himself Husk Gentry. Ever see or hear of him?"
Billy looked at Homer, and Homer looked back. "That name familiar to you, Homer?"
Homer cleared his throat. "N-No . . . Don't reckon I've ever heard a name like that before. I'd remember it, it being so strange."
Billy shook his head. "No, Miss Purdue, Husk Gentry is a stranger to us. Sorry we couldn't help."
Annie leaned forward in her saddle. "You seen anybody at all during your travels 'round these parts?"
Billy shook his head, again. "Nope. It's just been Homer and me and the horses."
Annie pulled on the reins.
"Before you go, Miss Purdue, do you have any more sisters?" asked Billy.
"Why you askin', mister?"
"Ain't never seen a prettier bunch than you three. Just wondering."
"If ya must know, I got six sisters," said Annie as she dug her heels in the flanks of her horse. "Sorry to disturb yer sleep. Come on, girls, let's keep searchin'."
When they rode out of sight, Homer took off his hat and wiped the sweat off his brow. "Why'd you ask her 'bout her sisters? I thought I was gonna pee my pants!"
"I had to know, that's all. You believe her story about an escaped man from an asylum?"
Homer spit on the ground. "Not in a pig's eye. I'm beginning to believe Husk's story, though. How about you?"
"Didn't believe a word of her story. But Husk's story's gaining credence by the minute. Three sisters of his story just paid us a visit, and there's four more just like them. How many youngins did he sire?"
"Seven," said Homer. "One to each sister. Not counting the miscarriage."
"The Seven Bastards of Husk Gentry. That's quite a title for a story. Think anyone would believe us if we retold it?"
"Naw, I don't think they would." Homer shook his head. "I barely believe it myself."
"Guess yer right on that one, Homer. Let's mount up and ride outta here. This place is giving me the creepy-crawlies."