The sturdy woman with the watering can shook her head in dismay
as she looked down at her patch of wilted garden. Storm clouds
were gathering overhead, but they were too late for the delicate
irises and daffodils Martha had tried to keep alive. One iris
stalk was bent and crooked, the faded blossom drooping.
"Just can't nurse them enough," she muttered. "Have to spend my
time on the important things, like growing food."
She straightened up, putting her hand on the small of her back.
Had she felt a pain – a prelude of what was to come?
Probably; she had already borne six children, five living.
When a second pain followed, she thought it would be a good idea
to get supper ready early. After ringing the bell to summon
Benjamin and the children, she set out plates, spooning refried
beans and molasses onto them, and added large pieces of black
bread. Just as she finished, her water broke.
Benjamin was obliged to deliver the baby; the midwife was five
miles away and the south Texas storm was in full force. His
expression was somber as he cleaned the infant, but then,
Benjamin's expression was always somber. "Another girl," he
announced. Martha held out her arms. Nice rounded head, good
lungs – about eight pounds – then Martha's eyes fell
on the lower limbs. She gasped. One of the infant's legs was two
inches shorter than the other, the foot turned inward.
"Well," Martha said, trying to force back tears, "this one'll be
of little use for work. "Only one boy among'em all. I know you're
"Might as well give her a name."
"I just don't know. She's sorry as those flowers out there. Sorry
as that broken-down Iris – let's call her Iris."
Iris turned out to have more spunk than her parents anticipated.
Behind in every stage of physical development, she made up for
her handicap in determination. She crawled dragging the short
leg; she pulled up on the good leg, letting the other swing
beside it. She created her own hobbling walk, but walk she did.
She was pretty, with Martha's dark brown hair and blue eyes. A
good-natured child, Iris blithely ignored the constant reminders
that she would never marry because no one would want her. These
comments came mostly from the twins, Liza and Maggie, jealous of
Iris' coloring and luxurious braids. All Iris' sisters had lank
blonde hair and nondescript eyes, which along with Benjamin's
morose features made Iris stand out like a – well, like an
iris in the midst of weeds.
"That's mean, you two," Ellie would blaze in defense of
her little sister. "Maybe you won't get married either. You're no
"I don't mind, Ellie," Iris said. "I'll just try to help Mama as
much as I can."
"Better do that so's you can live with Mama and Daddy for the
rest of your life," retorted Liza.
Martha was amazed at the dexterity with which Iris handled
household chores. She seemed to be able to compensate for being
eternally off-balance. When she carried water, she never spilled
a drop. She just didn't fill the bucket all the way. She put a
brick under one foot to work at the stove or to wash dishes or to
She was closest to Ellie and their big brother Matt, both willing
to teach Iris whatever she wanted to learn. Matt was the eldest
child; Ellie the youngest next to Iris. The other girls, Maggie
and Liza and Nora, paid little attention to Iris, which was a
mistake. Iris had not only twice the looks but also twice the
character of her sisters, with the exception of the kind-hearted
Ellie. If Iris had been born 150 years later she would not have
been destined for a life of spinsterhood. But in the 1830's
Texian men sought out strong, whole women.
By the time Iris was eight, she was skilled at riding sidesaddle
or bareback. By the time she was ten, she could hit a moving
target with a pistol from a horse.
Iris was even more coordinated than her brother. She adored him;
he tolerated her presence in times and places where he would not
put up with anyone else. As a result Iris' skills advanced. Matt
taught her expertise with every weapon available on the Texas
frontier, and laughed when she bested him.
Iris' time with Matt was sandwiched in between helping in the
house; she was often taken advantage of by Liza and Maggie, who
had a tendency to slack off whenever possible. The eldest girl,
Nora, spent her leisure playing with her hair and clothes; she
was sixteen and more interested in the opposite sex than in her
family. Matt and Iris said little about what they did when they
wandered about outdoors, out of sight of their parents and
siblings. Benjamin didn't realize Iris could shoot; Martha didn't
know Iris rode the most spirited horses bareback.
"I saw Iris straddlin' Buck, without her shoes on and her dress
hiked over her knees," Maggie told Martha. "Mind your own
affairs," was the only response Maggie got from her distracted
mother. Nor did Liza get anywhere with her tales of Iris handling
guns. Most adult frontier women knew how to use a rifle, but
Iris, at twelve and small for her age, was far from being an
Matt would leap to Iris' defense and deny the truth of anything
Liza and Maggie said. He was believed because he was the one in a
position to know and because he was favored by
Benjamin, being his only son. Matt was nearly eighteen and doing
the work of a full grown man.
"You need to learn how to use this too, Iris," Matt had said
softly behind the barn two years before.
"It's so big, Matt," Iris breathed, running her finger along the
bright silver blade.
"And sharp. Feel its weight. It's for close-up fighting. Daddy's
rifles are all flintlocks, but this one over here is a
percussion. You need to know how to use both, and how to reload
them. And – here – stand up. I want to see how this
fits. We can enlarge it later."
Matt put the quiver of arrows around Iris' neck and balanced it.
"See if you can reach an arrow with your left hand – over
your shoulder. Like this. Now we'll try it on a horse –
we'll use the east pasture. It's out of sight of the house.
Always use the east pasture to practice – Daddy doesn't go
there in the afternoon."
"What about this?" Iris asked.
"Can you hit anything with it?"
"Uh huh. I'll show you."
"Can you carry enough rocks – along with all the other
"Sure can. See? The pouch fits right under my bad knee."
"Come on then. I've already got targets set up. You pick your own
horse. I'm riding Dandy."
On a Saturday in October, Benjamin and Matt took a wagon into San
Marcos for supplies. A slight breeze stirred in the hills and
whispered through the pecan trees, the weather so mild Martha and
her daughters congregated on the front porch. Ellie played with a
jump rope; her older sisters disdained such childish activity,
declining to get their spring cottons dirty. Iris strode toward
the stables, clad in musty lavender, her long hair in a single
braid down her back.
"Iris, where are you off to?" demanded her mother.
"To check on those two ditches on the east pasture. We keep
losing calves there."
"River backs up whenever it rains," Martha muttered. "Shouldn't
you change your dress?"
"Not gonna be that long, Mama."
"She's gonna rip that pretty dress up," Maggie said. "Don't make
her another. She goes through too many dresses."
"Oh hush, Maggie," Ellie panted, still working the jump rope.
"You did too when you were twelve."
"And I suppose you know everything, Ellie – Miss Thirteen.
Your dress doesn't look too tidy either."
Iris had no intention of checking the ditches. She had a stash of
weapons hidden in the barn; she was going to practice out of
sight of her mother. The east pasture, with its inclines and
ravines, would do, in any event.
Chico was part Indian, part Texian. With only one good
eye, he managed the San Marcos general store like a chieftain
over some Nacogdoches village. Normally jovial, today he greeted
Matt and Benjamin with a grave manner.
"I'd not take too much time picking up your supplies today,
"Word is there's several groups of Mexican marauders between here
and San Antonio – undisciplined lot – deserters. You
might want to get home so your women won't be unprotected. One
farm's already been burnt."
Matt paled. "Papa, we're a couple of hours from our place."
"Thanks, Chico. Let's get loaded, Matt, and be on our way. I
guess Texian independence comes with a price."
Their wagon rumbled over the narrow path that doubled as a road,
winding through the wooded hills characteristic of south central
Texas. Matt and Benjamin couldn't see ahead; the country was
unlike the open plains of the west. Benjamin's long face became
even more somber.
Matt kept silent, wondering if the whole family was together and
if they were outdoors or inside where Benjamin kept most of his
Iris heard two shots and a scream from her position at the far
end of the east pasture. More screams followed as she mounted her
mare Godiva and wheeled her about.
Kicking the horse into a full gallop Iris headed toward the
house. In minutes it was in view, and so was the horrific scene
there. At least a dozen armed men had her family corralled in the
front yard. Martha grabbed at one of the men's sleeves; he
laughed and shoved her away. He had a piece of Nora's torn dress
in his other hand; finished with Martha, he pushed Nora to the
ground. Several men surrounded Maggie and Liza, shaking them and
flinging them back and forth. Ellie was held tight by her jump
rope around her neck.
The marauders probably thought they were in the midst of an
Indian raid when the arrows started flying. Before Iris was
spotted, she had hit six of the men.
The remainder then caught sight of her, but Iris was so quick in
maneuvering her horse, she was a difficult target. The marauders
couldn't get a fix on the slight figure in lavender driving the
horse forward and backward in dizzy circles. Not once did Iris'
aim fail; not once did her ordnance ever come close to her mother
and sisters. Arrows depleted, she used first one rifle then the
other – now the count of the downed men was eight.
Then she took out her cloth sling, reached under her knee, and
got two more marauders in the head with rocks. By this time she
was only a few feet away; she killed one man with her pistol. The
last of the unfortunate men reached her and pulled her off
Godiva, but unaware of the knife Iris kept under her bodice, met
the point of it with his chest. And Iris didn't hesitate to drive
Benjamin and Matt finally arrived to find a yard littered with
bodies and a bevy of sobbing women.
"Oh, Benjamin," Martha quavered. "They were trying to rape the
girls. But Iris saved us. She saved us!"
"You should have seen her, Papa," Ellie exclaimed. "She shot down
a dozen men by herself!"
"I'm afraid they would have killed you and burned our buildings,
too," Benjamin said. "Girl," he continued, turning to Iris, "I'm
right proud of you. We're in your debt."
Matt and Ellie hugged their little sister. "I knew you were
fast," Matt conceded, "but even I didn't know you were that
Iris laughed. "I still have five bullets left in my pistol and
four rocks in my pouch," she said. "Oh, my Lord, would you look
at that! Did I do all that? Matt, will you clean my knife and
arrows for me? I feel a little shaky now."
She took care of Martha and Benjamin in their old age and the
community took care of Iris in hers. She never married, of
course, but she was a happy woman, growing a few crops and
keeping a small herd of livestock. She was known to the Indians
as Crippled Blossom and by the children – Mexican,
Indian, and Texian – as Grandmother. Some
swore she was at the Battle of San Jacinto dressed as a man, but
she was still awfully young then, so that was likely just a
After her parents' demise, outlaws and raiders stayed clear of
her property. If the notion of mischief occurred to anyone,
second thoughts were quick to follow. Iris remained serene and
undisturbed even during the Mexican and Civil Wars.
The remarkable story of how Iris saved her family all by herself
that October day in the 1830's was retold for generations.
by Mary Brunini McArdle
... who is a freelance writer of fiction, nonfiction, poems, and
plays, with numerous awards and extensive publication credits;
she has also taught poetry and military strategy at the
University of Alabama in Huntsville.