Beast of Argento

A horrible mining accident unleashes an unthinkable monster on a small town.


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There’s a creature outside, pacing the length of the porch. Winter’s run long and the beasts are lean and deranged for want of food. It scratches and chuffs at the door. Every year about this time I wonder why we came here at all, took the train from balmy, salty Galveston, clear across Texas to the crumbling mesas and scrubby plains of New Mexico. Silver is why. Conrad had heard you could make a fine living selling goods to the miners without all the bloodshed of the gold trade. Silver was a good commodity, but they weren’t going to slit your throat over a nugget.

In time, I grew fond of this place. The long, juicy sunsets and sage and piñon-scented winds. The dry summer sun that warms the bones, and clouds that look like whipped dairy. We had many happy years here, and for those I am grateful, but with Conrad gone, and our daughter, too, I’m struggling to see the point in holding out. This winter will be my last.


Hannah was her name, a desert flower, lovelier than most. Her face was circled in celestial curls that made their own light and cast it about her temples and cheeks and forehead.

Hannah. The sighs of her name spoken aloud, Hah-nah. The perfect symmetry of it written. She’d stuff her pockets with wildflowers and sew them into her curls, scatter them across the table for meals. She sang, just off-key, but sweetly as a prairie warbler.

The year she turned fifteen, someone took her away. A miner, barrel-chested and stout who went by the name of Lockhart. Hannah was with us that day helping Conrad keep the books. We sold sundries, dry goods, lumber, tools, and tonics, anything that wouldn’t spoil, we had it. She was singing as she worked, a sad little tune about a missing woman. I watched as Lockhart strolled past the open door and then stopped, wheeled around and came in.

He took off his hat and said, “Who is the owner of that stirring voice?”

Hanna didn’t blush like most girls or cast her eyes away. She looked him straight and said, “That was I, sir. Do you want to sing with me?”

I hustled right around that corner and put myself between them.

“Good day, sir, may I show you something in the store?”

He took my meaning and did me the courtesy of browsing our leather goods. He purchased a coin purse without haggling and went on his way. Conrad observed in his measured way and would later share his impressions that evening after Hannah went to bed.

That night Conrad lit a pipe and loosened his collar and beckoned me to the fire. He told me we should prepare for suitors, and that this man seemed as fit as any. He appeared healthy and polite and had shown a thoughtful nature. It had been her song, and not her face, that had drawn him in. I disagreed and stewed and practically sulked for fear of losing our girl so young. I wanted more blithe summers in the garden together, more nights singing her to sleep. I couldn’t bear the thought of her loving someone other than us.

“You were fifteen when we married,” he scolded. “You mustn’t be selfish. Hannah must be free to find her happiness.”

The next day, Lockhart was back with that purse and inside it a silver ring all laced with filigree. He presented it to us and asked for our blessing in marrying Hannah. I turned my back and cried into my hands. Conrad calmly asked of his family, his beginnings, while I sulked. He had come here from El Paso, one of seven, to make money to send home to his siblings. His father was a minister and mother helped at the church.

“Do you mean to stay here, in Argento?” Conrad asked. I held my breath and prayed.

“If you wish me to, I will,” said Lockhart. At this I finally turned around.

Conrad said if Hannah was willing, then our blessing was granted. I could never utter my own endorsement but neither would I speak against my husband.

Hannah married Lockhart in the dress I wore to my own wedding. She shone with the love she felt for Lockhart, and I decided then to set her free. Conrad helped them raise the house along with a few other men from the mines. Hannah and I furnished and trimmed it with curtains and pretty sheets. Hannah’s joy was infectious and I let go even further the comforts of my grief. She was happy, so too must I be.

The love grew and soon a boy, Emmet, was born. Dark like his daddy and curly like Hannah. And plump! Little hands you could eat. Hannah loved him as we had loved her. The thought of seeing him toddle after his mama through high grasses is enough to warm me on a night as cold as this.


Emmet grew stout and strong like his father, with a sensitivity that was all Hannah’s. When he was nine, he became interested in mining and wanted to learn what his father knew. He asked day after day to accompany Lockhart to the mines, but Hannah would not consent. “It’s no place for a boy,” she’d say, and I’d agreed. The dust, the cursing, the loose rock. Then she’d wrap him up in her skirts and whisk him away to help her in the kitchen.

One morning, I awoke to Hannah standing over me, breathless and wild. “They’re gone,” she said. “I think Lock took Emmet with him to the mines. I will skin him for this.” She hopped on my mare bareback and was off. I caught and saddled the roan gelding fast as I could and caught up to her in fifteen minutes’ time outside the mines, which were only a couple miles away.

Lockhart was part of a team working at La Niña, a new project south of La Madre, which was the now waning source of all the silver in Argento. They had broken ground about six months ago and had so far built a great shaft into the side of a low mountain. Having tapped a nice vein of silver lode, they were digging a rathole in hopes it would lead to much, much more. The shaft was built out with square-set timbers of old-growth fir that smelled of the hills. There was a narrow set of rails leading into the mouth of the mine. Men with picks and sledgehammers would work at the rock, gnawing away at the insides, and send back carts full of rubble on those rails. It was in one of those carts we found Emmet with soot on his cheeks and the brightest smile I’ve ever seen. I sat with my grandson while Hannah had words with Lockhart.

“I got to load a cart with rubble, Gran!” he said, breathless. “And it was mighty heavy, but I did it. All on my own!” I fingered the curls at his nape and told him he’d done well and I was proud. Hannah came round the hill aflush and stern. Reading her displeasure, Emmet offered a son’s consolation. “I didn’t go inside the mine, Mama. Daddy said no, so I stayed here and worked. I won’t go in, Mama, but, please, will you let me stay?” As he gazed at her I remembered how deftly Hannah could sway me, no matter how displeased. As a mother, she was sterner than I had ever been, something which I admired, but which also compelled me to cater to the little boy’s every whim. Hannah did not let down her disapproval, but she wiped the soot from his cheeks with the hem of her apron. “I’ll run home and make some biscuits and bacon and fetch some milk from Gran’s for your lunch,” she said and took the boys shoulders firmly in her hands. “But you must promise me, do not go in that mine. I forbid you.”

“I promise,” he said solemnly and threw his arms around her skirts. We rode home together in silence. I recognized the pain she was having. The pain of letting go.

I was working at the store when we felt the ground shake. It was different than the blast of dynamite we’d grown accustomed to hearing. It was deeper, muffled, and had the pitch of something gone terribly wrong. Conrad took my hand and led me out the door. We closed the shop and went directly to the mine, hearts lodged in our throats. As we approached, we saw a drifting plume of dust risen and swept to the side of the great silver mine and heard the siren of a woman keening. Men crawled at the collapsed entrance to the mine, lugging away the rocks they could manage. Some wedged away larger rocks with sticks and shovel handles. The keening, rhythmic now, deepened and seemed to fill the air around us, and we finally saw our Hannah upon her knees and rocking, hands clasped in broken prayer. We rushed to her side, but she could not see us, would not be moved. When we took her arms and tried to lift her away, she fought us viciously and scrambled back to her post. Finally, we two joined the men in lifting rocks away, one by one. The miners fell into sober cooperation, speaking in calm tones, some in Spanish, some Navajo, as if they had done this before. I myself did not think there was a chance in recovering my grandson, but I hoped it would help my daughter feel less alone.

I can’t be sure who heard it first, but in my memory it was Hannah. She shrieked at everyone to stop and be silent. The men ceased to dig and stood still and watchful as crows. We held our breaths and strained to know what she had heard. After many long seconds, a clanging sound, three forceful raps coming from a set of iron rails at the blocked entrance. She threw herself upon the tracks and listened again. The rapping came, this time in a pattern that was almost musical. It went on for nearly a minute. I knelt at Hannah’s side and she was weeping.

“Keep digging!” I screamed. The men resumed their work with new vigor. Someone was alive in there.

Hannah whispered to me, “Mother, it’s them.”

“My darling,” I said, beset with a need to protect her. “It is a blessing that someone remains, and I pray we may reach them in time, and should it be Lock and Emmet, then we will have known a great miracle. But there were hundreds of men in there. How can you believe your boys survived?”

Hannah turned away from me and began tapping on the rail. The pattern sounded much like the one we had heard coming from the trapped miner, clusters of taps that were close together, separated by brief pauses. She was so absorbed in this that she did not answer me. I waited, watching. She was wet with perspiration, around her face and down her back.

“Hannah,” I said, hoping to rouse her from the trance of tapping. She whipped her head around like a startled snake and bit me, not with her teeth, but with her eyes. I did not recognize this version of her. It frightened me. After a moment, the venom drained away and she was Hannah again.

“It’s the song I was singing when I met Lock,” she said, twirling that ring of silver filigree. “There’s no mistake, mother. They’re alive and I’m getting them out of there.” With this she took up a pick and wedged a rock from the rail, rolled it several feet away, and returned for another one. Dazed, I went to her side and pried a hunk of limestone from the vast wall of fallen stone. Perhaps she was right, and the tapping was a signal from Lock. Perhaps he was in there digging, mere feet from rescue. Conrad joined me and for hours we chipped at the sealed opening to the mine.

Hannah moved back and forth, tirelessly heaving rocks and small boulders from the entrance, clearing a path. Every hour or so she would stop and lay her ear upon the rail and tap. Every time, someone tapped back at her, but by the time the sun touched the horizon, it was weaker than a sigh until finally there was nothing. I can remember her that afternoon as the sun hung behind her, lighting her up in orange, then pink, then the saddest shade of purple.

There was just enough light to ride by when, suddenly, the hill began to shiver and slide. Someone blew a shrill whistle. The men retreated and Irwin Buford, who was the foreman of La Niña, emerged from the crowd. He took Conrad aside. A very tall man, he was stooped from working the mines, his eyes forever shot through with red. I pulled my bonnet to the side and listened to them. There could be an explosion, he said. Gasses building up, a spark from equipment trapped inside could ignite it. He had lost enough men today, he would not venture to lose any more. Hannah could stay at her own peril, but the mine was condemned.

The news made me fearful, for I knew from the look on her face that Hannah would not back down easy. The half-circle of surviving miners waited, silent and grim. Carry on or retreat? Surely they, too, were conflicted about abandoning the living.

The foreman went back to his men and directed them to leave.

“Where are they going?” Hannah cried, as the men gathered what equipment they could and loaded the wagons to leave. She turned to me, desperate. “They must keep digging! If we all dig, we can save them!”

I looked at Conrad, pleading. Wouldn’t he throw her over his shoulder like he used to, force her to come home? We were her parents after all, weren’t we? He must know we couldn’t let her stay here. He buffed the sweat and the dirt from his forehead and met Hannah by the entrance.

“Dear,” he said to Hannah, on the surface as steady as ever, but I could see the terror in his eyes. “It isn’t safe to stay. Let us take you home now.” I joined his side to show her we were united in our opinion. Hannah paused only briefly, but did not meet his gaze, and continued moving rock away from the rails.

Finally, we entreated two miners, Silas and Tom, who had been friendly with Lockhart, to help us coax Hannah back home. They were strong enough to take her by force if needed.

“It isn’t safe,” I said, summoning the mother in me. “You have to leave. You’re no good to Lock if you’re dead.” She tightened her grip on the pick she was holding and turned to face them.

“I’m not leaving my boys,” she said, her voice vicious like a growl. Tom stepped forward with his hands out, like he was approaching a green colt. Hannah poised the pick as if to strike. Silas came around the side and swiped at the pick, catching its handle and wrenching it out of her hands. She screamed at him, spittle on her lips. The primal nature of that sound disturbed me. She clambered up the rocky hill, the men stumbling behind her. I wanted them to stop, but I didn’t say so. Conrad’s arms were around me and he was shushing me to stop my crying. Silas caught up to Hannah and slapped his hand around her mouth. She bit him, so hard I thought I could hear his bone crack. He hollered and loosened his grip, then she snatched up a rock, small enough to hold in one hand but just barely. That rock came down and struck him right over the nose and burst open and bled into his eyes. He let her loose and slid down, collapsing at the base of the hill.

I do not know if it was the heat or the excitement, but that was the last thing I remembered seeing before I woke up in bed, acutely ill. I vomited through the night, a fever searing its way through me. Conrad tended to me. I begged him to go to Hannah. “But she is our baby,” I cried. He sat in the rocker across from me and dipped a rag in a basin of water on the nightstand. He twirled it and squeezed and dabbed me around the neck and temples.

His interminable pauses, how I despised them. Holding me in wait.

“She is as grown as you or I. How can we say we know better? If she chooses death, then we must respect her reasons.” Had I the strength I might have struck him.

The next morning, I awoke to find my fever had broken. Weak, but able, I left Conrad in bed and packed a portion of soda bread and a jar of jam and my spare bonnet in a gunnysack. Then I galloped to Hannah, the thin morning sun at my side, hoping with all my heart that Lockhart and Emmet were dead. The sooner Hannah could understand this, the sooner she could begin to mourn.

When I came around the bend I heard the crack, grunt, and roll of Hannah moving rock, and then I saw her. She had tied up her hair, dulled by sweat and dust, with her apron string and removed her clothes down to her underthings. The miners had gone home, yet still I was seized with an urge to protect her modesty. I hastened to her, hoping to cover her legs. I lay a hand on her shoulder and it was as if it belonged to someone else. I remembered the feel of that little shoulder in her puffed sleeves, riding the train from Galveston to Argento, soft, almost boneless. Today it was hard, a bare knob. She pushed me off with the easy strength of a man, sending me backward onto my rear.

“Hannah,” I said, at first outraged. The tone I had used when she was small, a tone intended to chasten her into obedience. Instead, it was I who sat stunned, ashamed. The pretty Calico bonnet I had brought for her, still hanging from my neck, seemed to glare up at me. How vain I was, fretting that she would tan in the open sun, while her husband and boy lay dying of thirst if not dead already. I admit I was focused only on Hannah, on coercing her to safety. It is easier to think of trivial things in times like these. I could not bear, then, to think of Emmet crushed beneath a timber, the taste of dirt and copper on his tongue, calling out for his ma.

The pile of rocks she had removed from the mouth of the mine stood about four feet high and just as deep and as wide as two men lying head to heel. It was impressive when taken alone, but next to hill of rocks between her and the trapped miners, hope was a foolish thing indeed. There must have been enough to fill three good-sized houses. Some of the boulders were as great as the belly of a horse.

Hannah lay down flush with the rail, caressing it. “Here, listen,” she said, moving aside, and like before I held my ear to the rail. This time, there was only the sound of Hannah breathing next to me, the call of a hawk overhead. Hannah could not hear they had stopped.

I wanted to knock her unconscious and drag her home, tie her down until the grief soared through her. Protect her from the worst of it. Then, a rumbling beneath our feet and the jittering of rocks falling down the hill. I took her by the wrist and tried to run away from the mine, but she threw her weight against me. Her fingers slipped from my grasp, and she scrambled up the hill. I screamed out her name. I begged her to come with me. She looked at me, only briefly. Then she turned and her hair flew up behind her and she was gone. That was the last time I saw my daughter.


For over a year I made a picnic lunch tied up in a clean rag and left it out for Hannah next to the pipe. I wrapped up fried cornbread from breakfast and a mason jar of pinto beans and salt pork. I would leave a jug of cold well water so she wouldn’t be thirsty. When I returned each day, the food was gone and the water, too. I knew it was her, and not an animal, because of how the rag was untied, not ripped open, and the jug was left upright. Every day there were more rocks dug away from the opening and I could see her blood, drops and smudges of it. I never knew when she came and would sit there, hoping to catch sight of her, but there was only that great collapse.

One day, I walked to a nearby grove of pines and found her dress, shredded and made into a bed, lined with the strands of her curly blond hair. I was so moved I admit I lay down and curled myself into a ball, smelled the raw stink of her. Though it was strong, I knew it to be Hannah’s. I waited for her into the night, but she never came. And when I returned to the spot the next day, the nest was gone.

Hannah took my heart with her. I moved through every day in a twilight, relying on habit to know what to do. Every morning while Conrad milked our one dairy cow, I’d grind and boil and strain the coffee. I’d make some bacon and fry the cornbread batter in its fat and we’d eat it in a bowl with the warm, fresh cream and it tasted like wet sand. With Conrad I was sullen-tempered and took neither pleasure nor comfort in his company. Our bed grew cold. Perhaps a lady should not mention such private matters, but after all I have known, I am not abashed to speak things as they are. This, at least, I have learned.

People began to talk. I’d overhear them outside the store. Sightings of a nude woman who moved like a predator. Stalking the edge of town. Her matted yellow hair was white at the roots. Her skin scorched by the sun. Chickens disappeared from their hutches, people found their cold cellars breached and raided, weeks of provisions dashed.

Then came the killings. First one to go was the foreman. He hadn’t any wife or family, so by the time he was found a couple days later the animals had made good food of him. It seemed he had been killed by a mountain lion. But after he had a chance to look at the body more closely, how the skull buckled inward, the doctor said he’d been brained. Something large and heavy dropped from above. Then came Silas and Tom, one after the other, bludgeoned to death in front of their homes by a carefully dropped rock. Rumors turned to legend and they gave the beast a name.

One day like any other, we were up at dawn, me in the kitchen boiling the coffee, he in the barn feeding the animals and pulling cream for the day. Then, the ominous, inevitable sound of a boulder rolling down the roof of our house. A pause, a smack, and the soft thump of his body landing on the dirt. Conrad mewed into the dust. He was calling out for me. Or her. I wanted to go to him, but she’d be waiting. I never imagined that she would come for us, too.


For a month now, I have remained inside this house. Conrad is buried under snow. There’s little to eat, I’ve only the last of my larder, pickled onions, I think. Nothing to live on.

From a part in the curtains, I see the creature lurking outside my door. Hair a shocking white, hide tanned and scarred, shoulder blades sharp as wings. Lips, once small ripe fruits now drawn in around broken teeth. Two fingers on her right hand are gone, like they were bitten off. On her left, the silver ring remains. I wonder, is that the human link to my Hannah? Or is it the seed of her madness, the first step of the long walk away from me.

I cannot say why it has taken me so long, but I think I needed the time to say goodbye. She could have come in by now. Broken a window, jimmied the lock. Am I a fool to hope some memory of me has given her cause to doubt?

She paces and groans, her nails clicking on the floorboards. My heart quickens and I am ashamed for the fright that takes over me. There’s a rifle on the mantle. I could use it, snuff out her misery, or mine. But I believe I have not earned the right to end this story. I should never have stopped digging. I should have let her know I’d risk my life to find her kin, even if they were long gone. If we had died together that day, crushed by the mine, it would have been better than this. I can’t shake the feeling there’s a touch of human in her yet. And if I could speak to her, maybe I could soothe the monster and my little girl would come home.

I go to the door and whisper into its seam.

“I know, Hannah,” I say. Can she hear me? “Life isn’t worth living without your baby.”

She scratches at the door. My heart.

I open it.

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  1. You have the rare gift of storytelling, and doing so very well. I have not yet caught my breath.


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