|Living Where athe Rabbits Dance By J.R. Collins|
The family settled and I was raised in a most beautiful place; a valley so wonderful folks said the Great Creator Himself would come to visit on occasion. I believed that. The settlers called it Choestoe. The Cherokee said it as Cho-E-Sto-E. There was lots â€˜a Cherokee in the mountains when I growâ€™d up. Wish they was still there.
Iâ€™m an adopted Cherokee, too. My Native family lived on the east side â€˜a Slaughter Mountain, close to the gap. My father was Dancing Bear. My Mother went by her Indian name, A-Ga-Li-Ha, which means Sunshine in the English. Their son, Wolf, was my Blood Brother and best friend from since I can remember. All are across The Great River waitinâ€™ on me to come. I reckon Iâ€™ll get around to it â€˜fore long.
My folks farmed a good-sized piece â€˜a land my granddad gave our family after heâ€™d gotten feeble. Had to move to flat ground around the bottoms of the river Notla. He worked a sawmill in what settlement they was in Choestoe. Employed by a cantankerous, old Irish gentleman.
Theyâ€™d both come to America as boys. Spoke true Irish speak I could hardly make out. Couldnâ€™t understand a word lessinâ€™ they was meaninâ€™ to speak the English.
Me and my friend Wolf was hardly ever apart once weâ€™d got old enough to go stay in the woods by ourselves. We happened into all kinds a doinâ€™s durinâ€™ our time together on this side â€˜a The Great River. We never did no real wrong, though. Always put our faith in the Great Spirit and His son Jesus. Never stole or lied or killed no person what didnâ€™t deserve killinâ€™. We hunted, scouted, fought, and went on walks lastinâ€™ days, even attacked enemy soldiers when life or family depended on it. We was always respectful of our elders, women folk, and kids, and made sure the old ones never went hungry. We kept up with what was happeninâ€™ all around; didnâ€™t wanna miss nothinâ€™. Oh, and I worked a lot. Dad owned a mule tradinâ€™ business, which meant tendinâ€™ to mule needs constant. We had to farm and hunt all we ate, or weâ€™d not eat. Our home was heated with firewood. A good-sized cabin with big fireplaces required many loads â€˜a wood to keep it warm. Cain, Dad, and me spent a lot â€˜a time cuttinâ€™ and splittinâ€™ firewood â€˜fore Cain got hitched to Wolfâ€™s sister, Rose, and moved on. My momma liked beinâ€™ warm. Dad made sure she had plenty â€˜a wood to keep her that way. He loved my momma. I loved my momma.
Me and Wolf savored our lives of freedom in the mountains, knowinâ€™ it could end any time. Our folks let us walk our own trail as long as we followed the rules. We had many adventures durinâ€™ our time, with Wolf the cause â€˜a most of â€˜em, him and his curious nature. Brave with much courage, he led us many places.
Let me tell you about a time we had on one certain hunt that come to teach us a lot about the depth of our souls. What Iâ€™m fixinâ€™ to tell you changed my life forever. I praise Jesus for seeinâ€™ me through it all alive. Really, I do.
It was late winter, gettinâ€™ close to early spring, a while fore some trouble we had with the government and gold miners fired off. Wolf and meâ€™d turned twelve recent. I was just full-healed from bein' jumped by a bobcat a couple years prior. Hurt bad! That thing tore me up but good. Healin' was a long time comin', but Iâ€™d healed complete. Praise God! My sister, Anne, who was learninâ€™ the healin' way from the old Cherokee medicine woman who tended to me, Owl the Wise One, stayed with me constant; seen to my healinâ€™. Anne called her â€œOld Motherâ€ out â€˜a respect. Momma never left me the whole time I was down, neither.
Iâ€™d finally worked my way back to trailinâ€™ the mountains with Wolf. Weâ€™d growâ€™d enough to hunt together, takinâ€™ game without nobody havinâ€™ to go with us. Our folks had taught us the way. The only thing they worried over was us leavinâ€™ Choestoe. â€œStay together when travilinâ€™ or huntinâ€™ or on a walk and stay clear â€˜a strangers and U.S. Government soldiers.â€ We did what we was toldâ€¦ most â€˜a the time.
Wolf and me was camped on a big ridge east of the Level Lands hog huntinâ€™. We was lookin' to get us another that morning to meet the two we had hanginâ€™. Winter went long in Appalachia and meat was important. Our folks know'd we was huntin' high up and knowâ€™d when weâ€™d be back. They'd be worried over us, but not a lot. The woods had become our home; comfortable. We'd got good at stayinâ€™ safe and bringin' back meat.
Weâ€™d crossed a fresh hog trail just â€˜fore daylight and stayed on it till we slipped up on â€˜em rootinâ€™ around in their chosen feedinâ€™ ground. We was watchin' the lead boar as heâ€™d wandered off from the rest. He was big. Easinâ€™ through a small stand â€˜a white oaks tryinâ€™ to fill his big olâ€™ gut with some late season rotted acorns. One of us was gonna put an arrow through that critter. Then it, and the others hanginâ€™ in camp, was gonna feed our clan for the next few moons. My mouth was waterin' just thinkin' on it. Baked, boiled, smoked, or fried, Momma cooked it all perfect. I was ready to taste it. Wouldnâ€™t be long now till we was back home in her cook room.
The pig was only twenty paces away, makinâ€™ it toward Wolf. The frozen leaves and sticks of the forest floor crunching as it walked. The cold air, such a dark gray in that time of darkness just before dawn, makes it hard to tell just what-is-what.
The big boar moved slowly, searchinâ€™ for the slightest scent of a grub or left-over acorn or chestnut waitinâ€™ on him there in the rotting mast of the forest floor. Payinâ€™ no mind to the danger it was in. Trustinâ€™ what gentle morning breeze was movinâ€™ to carry the warning he would need to stay safe â€¦ that warning had just been carried.
The pig stopped its searchinâ€™ quick. Jerked its head up to the side lookinâ€™ right at me. A sudden shift in what gentle breeze was stirrinâ€™ had filled his snout with my scent makinâ€™ him turn toward where I was squatted; his huge, curled tusk now showinâ€™ white in the morning darkness. I knowâ€™d he werenâ€™t seeinâ€™ me good â€˜cause it was still dusky dark. Hogs donâ€™t have the best eyes in the woods no how. I couldnâ€™t move. It wouldnâ€™t do for him to find me. He was lookinâ€™ dead at me as he chomped the last mouthful â€˜a whatever rotten stuff heâ€™d scoured. Foamy slobber drippinâ€™ off the bottom jaw of his mast-covered face.
He raised his nose to the breeze. Scented. Then blowâ€™d out a big olâ€™ snort sendinâ€™ nose makinâ€™s flyinâ€™ out like bats leavinâ€™ a dark cave. Hateful mad at the nasty now locked in his nostrils. He followed the scent in my direction while liftinâ€™ his ugly olâ€™ head even more tryinâ€™ to locate exactly where the foul smell was cominâ€™ from. That quarterinâ€™ move opened up a killinâ€™ shot for Wolf. I knowâ€™d my friend would not miss, beinâ€™ he was so close and all.
It was a sight to see when the arrow shaft pushed a big, sharp, black flint point out from behind the boarâ€™s left shoulder. Plumb covered in dark blood, drippinâ€™, its turkey feather fletching stickinâ€™ out behind the right shoulder. Perfect killinâ€™ shot. Didnâ€™t even spook him. The boar simply stood for a second â€˜fore the pain hit, then let out a holler to beat all. A pigâ€™s squeal is ear piercinâ€™ if youâ€™re close by. I was. My ears rang so it took me a second to recognize the thud of its feet hittinâ€™ the ground as it charged right at me, blood blowinâ€™ from its snout every time the front hooves landed solid on Mother Earth.
I was in a bad way as it commenced its charge. If I moved too soon, the pig would move with me; open me up where he could rip my leg with them sharp tusks from behind. My only hope was knowinâ€™ what all mountain folk knowâ€™d: a pig canâ€™t cut left or right quick when charginâ€™. I was gonna have to wait till he was near on me to move. That was gonna be dangerous in what little light there was.
One thing was sure, I werenâ€™t gonna have to wait long to jump â€˜cause he was cominâ€™. Werenâ€™t no stoppinâ€™ him. I let it charge to withinâ€™ a couple paces of me â€˜fore I made my move. Throwinâ€™ myself hard to the left side of his charge, I hit the ground with a thump. The pig stopped spot on. Dead still. Right where Iâ€™d been squatted. He turned slowly to his left, movinâ€™ closer while tryinâ€™ to find me, his head held high. The lung blood from its snout was now coverinâ€™ my foot-skin boots like a soft rain on a dry garden. Without warning, he blowâ€™d out hard. I watched as the sides of his rib cage kept risinâ€™ and fallinâ€™ with each desperate struggle for air. It made Wolfâ€™s arrow do a kinda killinâ€™ dance as it stuck out both sides â€˜a the hogâ€™s front quarter. He could not â€˜a put that arrow through no better; took out both lungs while slicinâ€™ through the top â€˜a the heart. It was just a tough olâ€™ mountain pig, fightinâ€™ death with all it had.
I dared not move. One rip from those tusks could jerk a main blood line open, and we was a couple miles from the nearest help, Slaughter Mountain, where Wolf and his folks lived, so I tried to stay hid. I could not figure how that hog could â€˜a stopped so quick, but he did. He was standinâ€™ near on me. He was a big hog.
A slight wobble to the right, then back left. His spirit was startinâ€™ to slip. He was fadinâ€™. I knowâ€™d the danger was passinâ€™ as the eyes went dull. He stumbled again. Left, then right. A last lunge â€˜a mad fell him right at my feet snout first. He never made another sound, â€˜cept for a dyinâ€™ grunt as the last drawâ€™d air left his lungs.
We had our meat. Wolf had another story to tell around the Cherokee fires that spring. Course, he had a good laugh at the pig nearly gettinâ€™ me every time he told it. I didnâ€™t cotton to it. I donâ€™t see the funny when a wounded hog is tryinâ€™ to kill a body. The Cherokee warriors did. Not one I ever knowâ€™d feared death.
Indians had their own way â€˜a lookinâ€™ at things. You just had to respect that. No figurinâ€™ â€˜em sometimes. They was family to me. I was with Wolf most â€˜a the time, that is if I werenâ€™t needed on the farm. It never give out, neither. Weâ€™d be at my home at the base of Benâ€™s Knob Mountain, with him and his family on Slaughter, or on a trail somewhere in the mountains. We was all tight.
They was a lot â€˜a Cherokee in the mountains when I was beinâ€™ raised. I lived as much like one â€˜a their kind as I did a farmer or mule trader like my dad and granddad. They was true mountain men, both of â€˜em, born and raised.
Dad made his gold coin tradinâ€™ mules with folks. Theyâ€™d come from all over to buy his stock. Youâ€™d hear it told in stories that Granddad even sent some across the great water back to the Mother Land. I didnâ€™t know if I took to all that or not. Still, folks told it gospel.
Dad tended over forty head, includinâ€™ his Jacks and the Draft horse mares he bred â€˜em to. Each year heâ€™d raise to sell at least a dozen good mules. The Jacks was Mammoth Jacks from the stock â€˜a General George Washingtonâ€™s own rake. Most believe he was the first mule breeder in America. They say his stock was brought across the great water, too, in boats. Can you believe that? It was always hard for me to swaller all that; mules crossinâ€™ the great water on boats. I figured Iâ€™d have to see that â€˜fore Iâ€™d tell it. To me, that was like a body walkinâ€™ on the moon. Just werenâ€™t never gonna happen.
Them Jacks was big, and when they mixed with them big Draft mares â€˜a Dadâ€™s, you had a solid-bred mule you could count on in the mountains. Dad give me my own as he did my brother, Cain, and his wife, Rose. My muleâ€™s name was Peter. We went all over together. He could ride, plow, pull, and log. He was real smart, just as savvy as our main lead mule, Big Jim. Me and Jim had a history. I was on his back when the bobcat jumped us. Got him good, too. Took nearly a year for him to heal. He was a great mule! Black where Peter was gray with black. They both was huge and liked runninâ€™ together, too, kinda like Wolf and me.
Wolf didnâ€™t have no mule of his own, but heâ€™d been ridinâ€™ a certain young mule â€˜a Dadâ€™s. Him and it was bondinâ€™. My dad was watchinâ€™.
Yeah, Cain and Rose got hitched. Became one. Tied the knot. Moved in together. Jumped the broom. Made their covenant with God. It werenâ€™t long after the trouble from the Yonah clan was done with, that terrible winter of all the killinâ€™.
Dancing Bear and A-Ga-Li-Ha throwâ€™d a big cominâ€™ together at our place for their doinâ€™s. It was a sight. They was brought together at sunrise. Standinâ€™ on a small rise facinâ€™ east â€˜bout a half mile up the trail above our farm in late spring. It was real special. Most everybody in the valley come. The Cherokee brought their families. Iâ€™d not seen so many females in one place, ever, young and old. I never knowâ€™d Choestoe had so many women.
I saw the wiâ€™der England from up on Wolf Creek makinâ€™ camp near our barn. My insides got tight as I remembered the blue-eyed, chestnut-haired girl Iâ€™d seen when me and Dad first trailed to Slaughter Mountain. I got a knot in my throat that tasted like salt. The center of my beinâ€™ was jumpinâ€™. What in the world? I thought.
The women all cried at the vow takinâ€™, them knowinâ€™ whatâ€™n all the young couple had gone through gettinâ€™ to that day. Once they was done marryinâ€™, my brother was made a full warrior of the Choestoe clan. He and Rose lived mostly like Cherokee anyway, â€˜cept Cain helped Dad farm. He loved beinâ€™ Cherokee. He loved Dad, too. Farminâ€™ was how he was raised. â€™Sides, the food was needed. He had two families dependinâ€™ on him to provide. Heâ€™d swore it to Rose.
Their marriage ceremony was a story in itself with many more stories what come from it. Dad beinâ€™ who he was, Cain beinâ€™ who he was, and Rose beinâ€™ who she was, you could figure the cominâ€™ together of Cain and dear, wonderful, sweet Rose, was gonna be a time to remember. Every settler in the mountains knowâ€™d what Cain had gone through. Theyâ€™d all be there. His name was smoked over â€˜round many fires.
Rose was the daughter of Dancing Bear. Every young buck I ever met wanted her for their wife. Theyâ€™d all be there. Good or bad she chose a white settler. But, as they all had learned, not just any white settler. She chose Cain, a most respected warrior. They was to be wed. The marriage would demand honor. Many didnâ€™t cotton with it, but respect it they would. Cain didnâ€™t care. Heâ€™d already put his life before hers more than once. He knowâ€™d Holy Spirit protected them. She knowâ€™d heâ€™d always be there for her. His devotion made her love him beyond any feelings she could put to words. Divine. Right. From deep down inside. And when you met â€˜em together, you could feel it was right. They made the time you spent with â€˜em seem proper.
The word was sent out from Slaughter Mountain by runner about Rose marryinâ€™ Cain. Folks come to our place in bunches several days â€˜fore the preacher was supposed to be there. The Cherokee would light a sacred fire that required seven full days to burn; seven full days â€˜a growâ€™d folks havinâ€™ fun, settlers and Indians mixinâ€™, a special time. The smoke from the fire would cleanse the ground, along with the folks, both family and visitor. Prayers was offered up, makinâ€™ everything havinâ€™ to do with what was goinâ€™ on acceptable to Holy Spirit. They was so many folks come they ended up coverinâ€™ most all our pasture. The families from each clan was allowed the cleared spots along the edge of our woods. They got those spots out â€˜a respect; closer to the creek for water. But Cherokee families was all over. Most camped deeper in the woods. They took folks joininâ€™ real serious, same as settlers.
Both sets â€˜a people brought their music. Dancinâ€™ for Indians and settlers was a big part â€˜a marryinâ€™, some lastinâ€™ all night. They came to celebrate and enjoy time from the hard work of providinâ€™. They passed the jug, smoked, gambled, passed the jug, slept, hunted, ate, passed the jug, and danced â€¦ Oh, the Cherokee was amazinâ€™ when they danced! They just had themselves a big olâ€™ time, and Dad was right in the middle as usual. It was such a goinâ€™ on!
Me and Wolf didnâ€™t see Cain for three days after his kind arrived. His friends was wild. All traininâ€™ to be warriors. Cain was way ahead of â€˜em on that for sure. Rose was everywhere. I spent a lot of time with her. I loved her as much as any did, â€˜cept maybe Cain.
Dancing Bear had come with his whole family. Heâ€™d brought George Black Oak, the biggest Cherokee Indian to have ever lived, I was sure. My true friend. They lit the ceremonial fire, which had to burn constant for seven days. Thatâ€™s why guests was there early. Nobody wanted to miss out on such a happening.
Me and Wolf had been wrestlinâ€™. Weâ€™d whupped most all the boys our age, then got to movinâ€™ on up on the older ones. They stopped us. My nose was bleedinâ€™ and Iâ€™m sure Wolf had a shoulder out for a bit. One â€˜a the warriors watchinâ€™ us wrestle seen what happened and grabbed Wolf under the arm without askinâ€™, then lifted up with a quick pull, settinâ€™ the joint back right. I heard it pop. Wolf went to his knees in pain. His face turned white. He never made a sound.
We werenâ€™t lookinâ€™ too good when all the women folk got to stirrinâ€™ around us that evening. Weâ€™d been wrestlinâ€™ all afternoon. Covered head to foot in Mother Earthâ€™s finest dirt, blood, and bruises, we was plumb ugly. It would just have to be the time when the little chestnut-haired girl showed herself. I couldnâ€™t believe it. I looked like a pig. But she was, oh, such a sight. She made my legs weak and my vision go foggy. I hadnâ€™t seen her for a long time. Iâ€™d thought about the time at her place a little, more lately than normal for some reason. She had on the most perfect dress I could â€˜a ever imagined, homespun sure.
Sheâ€™d come from a small pond of females millinâ€™ about like young doe trailinâ€™ by the base of a huge mountain white oak in heavy fog, floatinâ€™ as it were. Her chestnut-colored hair tied back with a single-beaded hawk feather laced just behind her right ear, callinâ€™ to me like a soft voice. She laughed. I died. She walked straight to me. I looked for a hole to crawl into. I didnâ€™t know the feeling, but it had to be what beinâ€™ shot with an arrow felt like â€” burninâ€™, no air, hot, sweatinâ€™. I wished sheâ€™d walk away. No! Donâ€™t! Stay! I couldnâ€™t think straight. Wolf was hidinâ€™ his laughinâ€™. I had to look a sight.
She stopped dead in front â€˜a me. Spoke the first words I ever remember hearinâ€™ her say, â€œMy name is Elizabeth, Jeb Collins, and you will dance with me tomorrow night,â€ she then turned and left. The pull on my heart took my breath as her scent filled my lungs. I had to stink. She acted like it werenâ€™t nothinâ€™ to her. I didnâ€™t see her again till the day of the doinâ€™s. Without knowinâ€™ it, Iâ€™d done planned a trail for her.
God could not have given Cain and Rose a better morning for their vow takinâ€™. They werenâ€™t married all Cherokee, nor was they married all Christian. They had some â€˜a both to show respect to all folks attendinâ€™.
The holy man for the Nation had come and blessed the intended and their families with the smoke from the sacred fire. Now that the ceremony was commencinâ€™, he blessed the visitinâ€™ folks whoâ€™d come, too. He turned his attention to Cain who was holdinâ€™ part of a fresh venison ham rolled up in a deer skin, a sign to show heâ€™d forever provide for his wife and their offspring. She returned the favor by placinâ€™ a small pouch of dried corn in the holy manâ€™s palm. It proved sheâ€™d always be there to take care of their family. He then took the victuals, prayed over â€˜em, and sanctified the couple.
The path the families walked to the top of the rise for the Christian part â€˜a the ceremony was lined with women folk â€” Indians on the brideâ€™s side, settlers on Cainâ€™s side. The Cherokee girls werenâ€™t wearinâ€™ nothinâ€™ above their middles but flowers wove together. Their hair was full â€˜a fresh dogwood and azalea blooms. They wore full beads all over. Some wore gold bands around their brown-skinned arms. Others had gold around their necks. It was a most beautiful sight.
The settler women was lined up wearinâ€™ their best homespun. The chestnut-haired girl was one of â€˜em, standinâ€™ with her friends along the side of the wedding path. My throat went dry when I seen her. I had to walk right by her, beinâ€™ that I was part of the diâ€™rect family. I was in my finest homespun. My hair was combed. I was wearinâ€™ boots. I didnâ€™t like â€˜em. They hurt. You couldnâ€™t feel the ground good. I was clean this time when I saw her. I liked what she was wearinâ€™, a mix â€˜a homespun and Indian. The same dress Iâ€™d seen her in the day before, but sheâ€™d added beads all through her beautiful hair, hanginâ€™ â€˜round her neck and wrapped around her wrist. She was like honey to a bear for me. I had to get closer to her; smell her scent one more time.
I stopped. I didnâ€™t think. I just did it. Right in front of her, I stopped. I couldnâ€™t help it. I had no control. No doubt in my mind, she was a witch throwinâ€™ a spell on me. I liked it. I turned, walked over to her real close like, and looked down into her eyes. She werenâ€™t laughinâ€™ then. I never said nothinâ€™. I just kinda stared. She stared back with those piercinâ€™ blue eyes. I smiled. She smiled. We both smiled. I near feinted when Wolf dragged me away â€˜cause Iâ€™d forgot to breathe. It took me a minute to realize whatâ€™d happened. I looked back. Gone. Nowhere in sight. She made me feel funny. I couldnâ€™t figure if I liked it or not. It did somethinâ€™ to me I was gonna have to study on, smoke over.
The preacher took over once the Cherokee Holy Man had covered the shoulders of the two with a white blanket. He said some stuff I didnâ€™t understand â€˜cause my mind was twisted. Then he quoted scripture for the Christian part â€˜a their marryinâ€™. Women was cryinâ€™. Men was standinâ€™ around nervous wishinâ€™ they was somewhere else, anywhere else. It was gettinâ€™ hot. Old Man Sun was wakinâ€™ to bless Cain and Rose for their eternal bond, a bond held by oaths, a gold circle made for both by my dad for commitment.
â€œRose,â€ Cain near-whispered as he turned to look into her eyes for the vowinâ€™ part. â€œMy life is yours. I wish I could tell you all will be fine. I cannot. I have seen sufferinâ€™ as have you. But I can tell you sure, I will stand with you in everything we face. I will provide for our family. In times of happiness, we will smile. When you are sad, we will hold each other close. When you are mad, you can hit me and feel better. I will love you until I can breathe no more. My strength will be yours if you find yourself scared, lonely, or threatened. Call for me. Know I will be there. Trust me, I will never let you down. I am now â€¦ and forever â€¦ your husband.â€
Rose held tears when she answered him back, â€œCain, I am your wife. There is no other for me. My heart has surrendered the fullness of its ability to love you. I devote myself to you. I will care for you. I will carry our children. You will be their Father. I will be their Mother. I will be there for you, our family, till my eyes close on this world. If I go to the Promised Land before you, I will wait. If you go before me, you must wait. I will be at your side for the good and the bad. We will be one.â€
With that done, every Cherokee in the place shouted loud as they could and ran down the hill to commence dancinâ€™ around the sacred fire again, singinâ€™ and chantinâ€™ holy songs all the while. Girls danced with boys. Boys danced with girls. In the Cherokee tradition, the celebration lasted all night. Music played. Jugs was passed. Rose and Cain disappeared. I danced with Elizabeth. Most everybody there stayed up near two days feastinâ€™ and dancinâ€™.
When the morning light come on the third sun from the union, not a Cherokee could be found.
The families got together after the weddinâ€™ and built the young couple a small cabin on the land Dancing Bear owned near Slaughter Mountain. A bit lower down in the valley, it werenâ€™t far from Wolf Creek, the biggest creek in the Choestoe Valley. Me and Wolf would stay there with â€˜em when we was out on a hunt or a walk; for sure on cold nights. It was warm and cozy with a main room in the front, a huge fireplace for warminâ€™, a loft for guests, and a sleepinâ€™ room in the back for Cain and Rose, which had a fireplace, too. Dad and Momma give â€˜em a cook stove for a wedding gift. It was in Roseâ€™s cook room. She learned how to use it after a time.
Me and Wolf loved it there. They liked for us to stay, too. Weâ€™d help Cain get in firewood most all year so theyâ€™d be plenty for â€˜em durinâ€™ the cold time, then theyâ€™d be enough for us when we come to visit.
As life in the mountains went, it werenâ€™t required that folks make it known they was cominâ€™ to visit. Nobody thought no different of it. It was always expected that some poor soul may wander in needinâ€™ food or shelter or water or healinâ€™. Folks in the mountains was always ready for most anything. Even cooked extra when makinâ€™ meals. We had somebody in for a meal at our place at least once a week, almost always Indian. Many would come, eat, and leave, never sayinâ€™ a word. Then again, some would stay to smoke with Dad or Cain, stay the night or leave out in the dark. I learned most of the ones who didnâ€™t speak was the ones who hadnâ€™t learned English words. But then without knowinâ€™ whoâ€™d done it, youâ€™d find a fresh pile â€˜a venison on the back porch wrapped up in a skin or a gift like new foot skins or beaded necklaces and bracelets or a pipe or knife. That was some Indiansâ€™ way â€˜a sayinâ€™ thanks without callinâ€™ notice to himself.
I loved the Cherokee for how they was. I once caught a very small, old Cherokee elder leavinâ€™ Dad a flint knife blade wrapped in an old piece â€˜a rabbit hide. Heâ€™d most likely made that blade or heâ€™d not be lettinâ€™ go of it. I remembered him, alright. Heâ€™d come early one morning and had breakfast with us. Heâ€™d eat a lot, too, to be so small. Never said a word when heâ€™d cleaned his plate, neither. Just got up from the table, nodded a little toward Momma, then left.
Everybody knowâ€™d Cain. He got lots â€˜a visitors, mostly Indian. I met a bait â€˜a warriors when we stayed there through the years. Heard many stories. I really liked stayinâ€™ with â€˜em. A boy could be all the Indian he wanted to be. Didnâ€™t bother Momma one bit. She liked us livinâ€™ mostly like normal folk.
Me and Cain got to be more Cherokee as time went on; really got that way after learninâ€™ how government folks could be. Gold miners and Federal men, liars, all of â€˜em far as the Cherokee in me was ever concerned. I didnâ€™t hardly trust none of â€˜em. I trusted the miners more than any government folk, though, and that werenâ€™t much. But you could smell the evil in them government men. They smelled like where ratsâ€™d been livinâ€™ in the corn crib. I reckon some â€˜a them â€œpolick-tisiansâ€, as Dad called â€˜em, was good the way he saw it. I trailed away from â€˜em when they come for visits. Terrible, as time went on, they come a lot.
Me and Wolf met our first government man early in the fall â€˜fore Killinâ€™ Time commenced. He was ridinâ€™ an old horse and had all kinds of truck with him; carried it strapped on a couple â€˜a wore out lookinâ€™ mules with â€œUSâ€ burnt on their rumps. Me and Wolf figured the U.S. Government must not have much coin if that was the best they could do for their man; two skinny olâ€™ things like he was near-pullinâ€™. Them two put together wouldnâ€™t â€˜a made one â€˜a Jim or Peter.
I didnâ€™t like him much. I got to know him some as he traveled in and out â€˜a Choestoe near two years. It got too dangerous for him to be near the Cherokee, some settler folk, too. He was what folks called an â€œA-gent.â€ He didnâ€™t look no different than regular folk. Beinâ€™ government meant he was an outsider, an enemy to the Cherokee. Outsiders had to be watched â€˜cause they werenâ€™t trusted. That man never knowâ€™d it, but he was near killed by some concerned Cherokee when he first come into the valley. They watched him constant. They could feel the federal government wantinâ€™ to come to Choestoe. Me and Wolf knowâ€™d him showinâ€™ up meant trouble for all.
The way of the Cherokee would change. Of this, I was sure. Freedom, the Spirit Bear, had told me in my dream the Cherokee was facinâ€™ changes. And cause â€˜a all the governmentâ€™s greed, lies, and evil, Choestoe would change, too. It werenâ€™t right for a bunch to take a manâ€™s home just cause they was better armed than the weaker party. In this case, that was the Cherokee. Most of â€˜em was forced to give up everything theyâ€™d worked for so the government could give it to some other folks what was gonna move in. They ought to â€˜a left â€˜em alone, let â€˜em be. The mountains would be a sight better if the Cherokee still lived in â€˜em.
It was on toward mid-day when me and Wolf near slid down the east side â€˜a the ridge toward our camp. The hog we was dragginâ€™ was heavy in meat. It werenâ€™t no struggle, though. The ground was steep and the mast, wet from the morning thaw, helped with the pullinâ€™. It was cold, beinâ€™ late winter like it was. Still, the days would warm some with spring close. We had to watch for flies blowinâ€™ our hanginâ€™ meat. Weâ€™d already had to scrape a place or two with our knives.
Old Man Sun liked to hide early that time â€˜a season, makinâ€™ for short days. We decided to hang the fresh kill with the other two. Weâ€™d stay over one more night, â€˜stead â€˜a travelinâ€™ in the dark. Break camp at daylight; load the mules with our meat and campinâ€™ truck, and be on our way back. That would give us the most travelinâ€™ light for our trip to Benâ€™s Knob. It was a good plan. We was both comfortable with it. But as weâ€™d learn time and again, even the best thought-out trails can take some curious turns. Our visitors durinâ€™ the night would prove that.
At least the fire was warm, the coffee was hot, our tobacco was dry, and we had fresh meat; werenâ€™t havinâ€™ to chew jerked. We was planninâ€™ on havinâ€™ us a restful night after huntinâ€™ hard for several days, at least most of it was.
Samson and Toad
The fire was down some, the coals circlinâ€™ the dyinâ€™ flames turninâ€™ from orange to gray. Me and Wolf settled back against a big log weâ€™d camp by and took out our tobacco pouches. We both packed our pipe bowls full â€˜a air-dried, homegrown Burley, then fetched a flame from the fire. The taste of the sweet smoke after a good supper was a gift from Heaven for true mountain folk. Weâ€™d eat enough roasted hog to fill two more folks and my full belly was makinâ€™ me lazy. Our hunt beat us up good. We was both tired; wore down a right smart. But the meat we had hanginâ€™ made the effort respectable. Dad would salt cure at least four of the hams, most of the tenderloin, and near all the bacon, then smoke the rest for sausage or stew meat. A body never eat a better breakfast than when Momma fried ham and eggs, baked some cathead-sized buttermilk biscuits to partner a full skillet â€˜a sausage gravy. Meat chunks laid all through it.
They was only one way to eat a mess like that proper. First, youâ€™d lay a thick slab â€˜a skillet-fried, salt-cured ham on a long plate, then slice a big cathead biscuit in half across the middle. Lay it inside-up flat across the top â€˜a the ham with the two halves layinâ€™ side-by-side. Cover both sides with a fried egg for each, yokes hot and runny. Lay on a generous coverinâ€™ of meaty sausage gravy then add a chunk â€˜a honey comb dropped square on top filled with rich, dark, sourwood honey what melts over the whole pile. This plate full â€˜a the best tastinâ€™ breakfast a body could stand was what local folks called the â€œChoestoe Blessing.â€ It was hard for me to eat a whole plate full. Dad, Dancing Bear, Cain, and our Cherokee friend, George Black Oak, could eat the whole put-together. Sometimes two. Youâ€™d not believe they could till you saw â€˜em actual. I watched Black Oak eat nearly three one morning when he come slippinâ€™ up on our back porch just after daylight. He was cominâ€™ back from scoutinâ€™ new huntinâ€™ grounds. Heâ€™d been days without solid food; only water with a bit of jerked meat to fill his big olâ€™ gut.
Hog meat was cured for breakfast; jerked near-dry for the cold time. Weâ€™d use the whole of it when we killed one, â€˜cept for most of the bones or such as that. I liked the best cuts for eatinâ€™, favorinâ€™ the ham, tenderloin, shoulders, and bacon best. I never held a taste for what Iâ€™d seen some folks eat: boiled or smoked ears, fried boar balls, snout meat, pies made from bone marrow mixed with fresh blood then fire baked inside tied-up intestines, eggs scrambled in brains seasoned with hot dried pepper then laid over biscuits with a heavy layinâ€™ on â€˜a red eye gravy, guts baked into cornbread called chitlins, and pickled feet. Now, the sun-dried hide scraped clean â€˜a stiff hog hair, then fried in a skillet, I kinda liked that. The older folks liked them fixinâ€™s mostly. I knowâ€™d a few common folks who favored them flavors as well. I never brought myself up to eat them makinâ€™s. I werenâ€™t never that hungry, really. Praise God!
The night was dark as dark gets â€˜cause they werenâ€™t no moon showinâ€™ none. We couldnâ€™t see much â€˜cept by what light was shed by our little fire. Peter was tied close and actinâ€™ edgy, kinda restless. I didnâ€™t think nothinâ€™ of it. I knowâ€™d he was ready for home. I should â€˜a thought more on it.
I never cared for mean Indians. Still donâ€™t. The mountains had their share, fortunately, only a few. Dancing Bear taught Wolf and me to always watch for â€˜em when we was out on a trail. They could come on a body at any time. Youâ€™d not know it, neither, till they was right there in person. The one whoâ€™d just walked into our camp was mean. You could tell by lookinâ€™ at him. His friends was mean, too. They was what mountain folk called rogue Indians. Youâ€™d cross trails with â€˜em if you didnâ€™t watch.
We was tired. Weâ€™d growâ€™d lazy from the long, hard hunt mixed with a big supper of fresh-kilt, skillet-fried hog meat. We werenâ€™t watchinâ€™, now here we was, eye-to-eye. They smelled bad, too.
Most times foul Indians like the ones payinâ€™ us a visit set out for what they could find or take, but I could feel they was somethinâ€™ different â€˜bout what they was interested in. All had a look to â€˜em like they was on the hunt for somethinâ€™ they meant to find. I remember thinkinâ€™, They must be good â€˜bout slippinâ€™ around â€˜cause we never knowâ€™d they was in the world till they come in on us. Peter tried to warn us. He was cominâ€™ to be a really good mule to have around.
I werenâ€™t scared none, Wolf, neither. I looked to where heâ€™d stood once the visit commenced. He done had his knife drawâ€™d, right hand low, blade up. My senses come to me when I realized I was standinâ€™ beside him. My right hand laid across the hard bone handle of the knife Black Oak give me on my first ever camp with Dad. I had no memory of even movinâ€™. Wolf said later what we done was spiritual, Cherokee learned.
The lead Indian, the ugliest one â€˜a the bunch, moved in closer and squatted across from us in front of our fire, palms up, facinâ€™ forward. He looked over at us and started talkinâ€™, â€œI am Blood Moon. I am a warrior of the Cherokee from over to the west. Many call our clan â€œThe Lost.â€ I mean you no harm as we are in search of an evil one. A woman who can kill with the knife. She took the life of my brother. Have you seen such on your hunt? Tell me true as I will know your words young ones.â€
The Lost, they was a bad bunch. We knowâ€™d it true. Believed they was attached to mother earth by spiritual roots like you find under a tree. The stories told how many Choestoe folk throughout the early years had fallen to their thirst for blood. I thanked God those days was mostly in the past now. Theyâ€™d let folks be for many years; lived across the main ridges to the west while mostly keepinâ€™ to themselves. Folks didnâ€™t speak on â€˜em much anymore, â€˜cept in a few stories Iâ€™d heard around smoke fires. Theyâ€™d never crossed the main ridges into Choestoe that me or Wolf ever knowâ€™d of, but here they was. Iâ€™d heard of â€˜em, but never met one. Wished I werenâ€™t meetinâ€™ one then.
What few stories weâ€™d heard told around the fires spoke of how the old ones of The Lost would eat their enemy if the spirit provoked â€˜em. The thought made my gut sick as I looked across the fire at the ones whoâ€™d come in on us. That kinda eatinâ€™ just werenâ€™t right. I saw no sign of it. But lookinâ€™ at â€˜em, I did not doubt it could be so. Made me wonder what folk meat would taste like. My mouth turned sour. I near-wretched at the thought of meat like that cookinâ€™.
They was plain nasty, not clean like the Cherokee I run with. Their home spun shirts was dirty, blood stained. Their legginâ€™s and foot skins was covered in what looked like bear grease or dried lard. Heads shavd on both sides. They had story marks on their faces, which told us they was battle tested. I still werenâ€™t scared. I couldnâ€™t figure why not. I should â€˜a been.
Everything they had on was near wore out. Nothinâ€™ fancy at all. Had no beads wove into their long, stringy hair; none hanginâ€™ from their necks or skins. They carried few weapons. Most likely had some back in the woods out â€˜a sight since they was lookinâ€™ to talk on what we knowâ€™d. Only one of â€˜em had a bow. They all had pouches and a knife sheathed to a leather belt. A couple had two. The youngest of the bunch wore his hair braided. Couldnâ€™t figure that.
Wolf was first to speak, â€˜tween me and him, â€œWhy would you come to this ridge to look for this killer? Has she trailed this way? Did you think we would know of her?â€
It werenâ€™t real nice the way heâ€™d said it. I think Wolf was feeling a little nasty his own self since they just kinda walked in on us without welcome. Weâ€™d been camped where we was for a few days. Hadnâ€™t seen hide nor sign of a single soul. Now here walked in four stinkinâ€™, dirty Indians with brother warriors likely watchinâ€™ off in the dark. We was ill â€˜cause theyâ€™d messed up our smoke. Wolf seemed mad.
They sensed Wolfâ€™s anger, started actinâ€™ like they was gettinâ€™ on the edge â€˜a mad. I was concerned, watchinâ€™ close. Wolfâ€™s words had kinda made the whole come together a little uncomfortable. He didnâ€™t seem to care.
â€œWe have not seen another living soul in many days,â€ Wolf kept on. â€œWe have been after the grunting one. You see the Great Spirit has blessed us with some late winter meat. You are welcome to take some as you go.â€
Blood Moon suddenly wore a more hateful look as Wolf stood his ground. Heâ€™d just invited them to leave.
â€œWhat might your name be young one?â€ asked Blood Moon.
â€œI am Wolf,â€ he replied as he put his knife away, layinâ€™ his right forearm across the top of his chest. â€œSon of Dancing Bear, council member for all Cherokee.â€
â€œI have heard of your father. Among my people, he is an honored man. I wish to go and visit him if my time here will see it. It is a good fire to meet his son â€¦ and his white skinned friend,â€ he said as he turned to look at me with a strange want on his face.
I felt like he was sizinâ€™ me up, maybe thinkinâ€™ on what kinda seasoninâ€™ heâ€™d cover my hams with while I roasted hog-tied over his fire. I pulled my hand from the handle of my knife and squatted down close to the bed of hot coals. I laid on a couple of small sticks to make more light. I wanted to see these folk better if things turned against us of a sudden.
Wolf still didnâ€™t act like he was gonna be real gracious, even though this stranger said he knowâ€™d Dancing Bear. Truth was, Wolf had never heard word of this strange-lookinâ€™ Indian before. Could be he was tellinâ€™ the truth, could be he werenâ€™t. Wolf was gonna be careful till he knowâ€™d one from the other. I figured him for the truth. He didnâ€™t sound fetchinâ€™ to me.
I turned on my heels, lookinâ€™ over at him with wonder about the woman they was chasinâ€™. I spoke as I squatted more comfortable, takinâ€™ a draw from my pipe, â€œI am sorry for your loss. I will ask the Great Creator to give your brother peace across the river. Where do you figure this killer is yaâ€™ll are lookinâ€™ for? Weâ€™ve hunted this ridge and the two east of here for several days. Weâ€™ve seen no sign of any human. Did she move close by? Did we not see her?â€
â€œShe did move close by. She was in your camp just today when Old Man Sun was resting up high. She took only meat from your kill then went on. She is mountain-born, purebred Cherokee. I will cut out her heart when I find her, roast it over my fire. Eat it for peace and wisdom. Then leave the rest of her to fill the bellies of the wild ones. My brotherâ€™s spirit cries to me from the other side each night she lives. I cannot sleep.â€
He did look tired. No doubt, he meant what he said. There was no question in my mind he intended to do just what he figured right. I reckon most folks would â€˜a been doinâ€™ no different when family was concerned. I only knowâ€™d one soul in my family that Iâ€™d not take an arrow for: a cousin on Dadâ€™s side. He was so aggravatinâ€™ you could hardly stand to be near him. Heâ€™d make you so mad on purpose. Didnâ€™t like folks, neither.
His name was Toad, or at least thatâ€™s what me and Cain called him. Dadâ€™s sister, Aunt Sophie, married a Cherokee man who never cared for us much, so heâ€™d not come to visit. My aunt would come stay with us some. We was never invited to their place. Her and Momma was close. She loved spendinâ€™ time with my sister, Anne, too. Sheâ€™d teach Aunt Sophie about the plants and share the healinâ€™ Owl the Wise One had taught her. Toad always come when she visited.
He was short for his age and had a big face, wide like a frog. Kept a strange look all the time. Nasty in his ways; mean if he wanted to be. You couldnâ€™t trust him no more than you could a rattle maker or a copper-backed snake. He didnâ€™t like folks and very few cared to be around him. He thought he was the sweetest corn in the field. But true to callinâ€™, all folks like that get found out. It werenâ€™t gonna be no different for him.
He acted like he werenâ€™t scared â€˜a nothinâ€™, yet had a secret he thought no one knowâ€™d. Aunt Sophie had told us without his knowinâ€™. She wanted us to keep an eye on him about it. It worried her a right smart, made her fear for him. He was really scared â€˜a critters, bears mostly.
He was the kinda person thatâ€™d say really hateful things to weaker folk. Make fun â€˜a things they said or did or how they looked. He figured himself better than they was and had no respect for nothinâ€™, includinâ€™ himself.
Cain got riled up at him one time and had to settle with him on account. Toad saw a part â€˜a Cain that day what didnâ€™t show itself around family much.
Aunt Sophie had come to visit. I werenâ€™t but six year old at the time. Toad was some behind Cain in age. Me and Cain always liked seeinâ€™ her. Gettinâ€™ to spend time with her when sheâ€™d come to visit. Neither one of us liked that snake son â€˜a hers, though.
One â€˜a Cainâ€™s favorite knives went missinâ€™ after one of their visits. Dad had give it to him, makinâ€™ it even more special. We knowâ€™d Toad had it. Anne seen him handlinâ€™ it â€˜fore they left for home. Cain decided he was gonna get it back from him the very next time they come for a visit. Him travelinâ€™ would mean he was probâ€™ly carryinâ€™ it.
Dad had taken us all down to the river to wash a bunch â€˜a mule shoes him and Cain had made that winter. He liked to rub â€˜em with the river sand from off the bottom of a deep hole to make â€˜em worn some, that made â€˜em easier on the mules feet once they got nailed on. I learned later in life new mule shoes was kinda like store-bought clothes unless they was rubbed with river sand, stiff and uncomfortable till you wore â€˜em a season or two. Theyâ€™d made a poke of nails, too. We was gonna wash them along with the shoes â€˜fore we was done.
Soon as we got there, Dad told us to go about fetchinâ€™ some dry wood to build a fire with. Then strike flint to steel and get it burninâ€™ good while he finished goinâ€™ about collectinâ€™ the things weâ€™d need to do the mule-shoe rubbinâ€™ job. Proper sand was very important. We needed a place to warm ourselves, too. It was sure enough cold that day.
Cain, me, and Toad followinâ€™, took off into the woods to get the makinâ€™s for a fire. Weâ€™d only been gone a few minutes when Cain turned, givinâ€™ me one â€˜a them little grins heâ€™ll give you for he gets up to mischief.
Toad was on a trail to be had. He didnâ€™t have a notion for it, neither.
I wanted Cain to get his knife back, but Toad was spiteful, so he might not. Weâ€™d soon see â€˜cause Cain had just turned complete around, walked right by me after weâ€™d made it into the woods good. Went straight toward our back trail stoppinâ€™ dead in front of olâ€™ Toad. Cain did not look as mad as I knowâ€™d he was.
Toad nearly run into Cain as he stopped and looked up askinâ€™, â€œWhat you doinâ€™, Cain? Why you stopped?â€
â€œBear,â€ was all Cain said as he leaned in close starinâ€™ down into Toadâ€™s dark eyes.
â€œWhat? Bears?â€ Toad said kinda nervous-like, lookinâ€™ around. â€œWe should go from here â€˜n look in another place for fire makinâ€™s, Cain. Huh? Donâ€™t you think? I think we should.â€
â€œWe canâ€™t,â€ said Cain, cool as winterâ€™s breath, showinâ€™ no fear.
â€œWhat? We canâ€™t? Why not? All we got to do is walk to some other place. We can get wood there. Now, I mean, letâ€™s go,â€ Toad replied as he started to walk off.
â€œGo ahead. Suit yourself. You know more than most folks I reckon,â€ scolded Cain. â€œTake your trail. Just be on the sly â€˜cause this bear is mean. I know the track. We call him Samson. He is strong. Been known to kill. We must be very careful.â€
â€œKill?â€ asked Toad turninâ€™ back toward Cain, near shakinâ€™ he was so scared.
â€œYep. Kill, Toad,â€ replied Cain in a calm, hushed voice. Lookinâ€™ around like he was tryinâ€™ to spot olâ€™ Samson for real. â€œHe likes folk blood; the fresher the better. Likes to crush their skulls and lick the brains right out. There are stories told around the smoke fires about this bear; â€˜bout the youngsters heâ€™s killed and eat. But listen! We must not be scared. If you show fear, he can smell it. Thatâ€™s how he knows an easy meal is about. Then heâ€™ll come fetchinâ€™, tryinâ€™ to eat what he smelled. Stay calm, Toad. I do not want to die today. I sure donâ€™t want to be eat by no killer bear whenever my time does come!â€
â€œEat us! Whatâ€¦? Cain, what do we do? We canâ€™t just let him eat us. We got to do somethinâ€™. Tell me what to do. Iâ€™ll do anything. Tell me now!â€ he near hollered he was so scared.
Cain had him worked up so he was near to wettinâ€™ his skins. I was just waitinâ€™ on him to let it go. Cain had him shook so bad, I figured for it soon. No way he was gonna come out from this with dry britches. His fear â€˜a bears was worse than some town-raised girl. Samson, Cain had told him. I nearly laughed out loud thinkinâ€™ on it.
â€œOkay, here is what weâ€™re gonna do,â€ Cain whispered real quiet-like while lookinâ€™ around, puttin on an act like he was watchinâ€™ for olâ€™ Samson to come bustinâ€™ through the brush at any minute. â€œToad, youâ€™re gonna stay right here. Remember, donâ€™t show scared or that bear will smell you and have you for supper. Me and Jeb are gonna move out to see if we can find where he went. Right where we are is the safest place around right now so donâ€™t move till we come back for you. You hear, Toad?â€
â€œYeah. Stay here. Donâ€™t leave. Try to not be scared. I got it. Is that it? Just stay here? Wait?â€
â€œYep. Just stay here. Donâ€™t move unless you have to. If you hear bear gruntinâ€™, then pull your knife and hold it like this,â€ Cain said as he pulled another of his knives showinâ€™ him how to hold it. â€œYou got a knife with you, donâ€™t you, Toad?â€
â€œYeah, I got a knife. Sure, I do. Itâ€™s in my pouch.â€
â€œWell, take it out. Let me see you hold it where you can fight a hungry-folk-eatinâ€™ bear.â€
â€œNo. I donâ€™t want to take it out unless I have to. I might need to haul off runninâ€™. Iâ€™m scared I might trip and fall and poke myself. Iâ€™ll only pull it if that thing comes â€˜round.â€
â€œNo!â€ Cain whisper yelled as he grabbed him by the shoulders to let olâ€™ Toad know he was dead serious. â€œHas no one ever told you not to run from bears? They are lightning fast andâ€™ll tear your head clean off if they have to chase you. Havinâ€™ to run down their meat makes â€˜em mad. Steady yourself right here. We will go and find this bear and talk with him.â€ With that, we both turned and left, not givinâ€™ him a chance to follow.
I walked behind Cain as we took a small deer trail out from where Toad was standinâ€™, shakinâ€™ like a scared youngâ€™un headed for the wood shed. I knowâ€™d Cainâ€™s plan. He didnâ€™t need to tell me. We was gonna scare that knife right out â€˜a his pouch. Cain would have it back. He needed it to cool his vengeance. I figured it was gonna be painful to watch.
It werenâ€™t long till weâ€™d made a big circle out around olâ€™ Toad; come right back to where weâ€™d been not a half hour before. He was still standinâ€™ there, lookinâ€™, but no knifeâ€¦ yet. It was cominâ€™, though. I knowâ€™d it.
I wish folks could â€˜a seen Cain the way he done. He got down on all fours, just like an old bear. Had his head down gruntinâ€™, gettinâ€™ his mind in the bear spirit. He turned his head to looked up at me, near whisperinâ€™, â€œWatch olâ€™ Toad yonder, Jeb. Tell me what he does when I get to carryinâ€™ on. If he pulls out my knife, let me know. Weâ€™ll go in on him and take it away. Watch close now.â€
Cain lowered his head some, breathed in deep, raised up on his back legs till his hands was off the ground â€˜bout knee high, then with a smooth jerk, he slammed his hands and front half back down to the ground, landinâ€™ square on both his palms while lettinâ€™ out the nastiest soundinâ€™ grunt youâ€™d ever hear. It sure enough sounded just like a big olâ€™ bear done wallered in close. I looked up to study Toad. It near made me laugh out he was carryinâ€™ on so, spinninâ€™ around like one of my toy tops Dad made for us to play with, bouncinâ€™ from behind one tree to the next, searchinâ€™. His eyes was wide like when the moon is full. He was shakinâ€™ hard. His arms was straight out from his front, both hands squeezinâ€™ tight to the hickory handle of Cainâ€™s knife. I seen right off it was Cainâ€™s. It was the one Dad give him for Christmas a few years prior. It was Cainâ€™s for sure. This was gonna be ugly.
I kept my eye on Toad while tellinâ€™ Cain what was goinâ€™ on, â€œIt worked, Cain. Youâ€™ve near scared him to death. Heâ€™s got your knife held tight in both hands. Heâ€™s spinninâ€™ around like a dog chasinâ€™ its tail. I ainâ€™t never seen such. What a sister he is.â€
Thatâ€™s what Cain was waitinâ€™ to hear. He jumped up from the ground. Commenced to runninâ€™ from the woods toward Toad with a loud growl and a snarl, soundinâ€™ just like a big olâ€™ mad bear. Cain made it seem so real, Toad allowed it was Samson cominâ€™ hard to get him. He peed his pants right there â€” I promise you he did â€” but that never stopped Cain. He run right up to his face and grabbed Toadâ€™s wrist with his left hand while givinâ€™ it a hard twist. I heard a sickening meat tearinâ€™ noise as Cain snatched back his knife with his right hand, then let go â€˜a Toadâ€™s wrist while switchinâ€™ the handle back to his left hand, bringinâ€™ his right arm up hard to backhand Toad plumb flat to the ground. He squatted down over him, puttinâ€™ a knee square in his chest and took the sharp point of his knife close to Toads eye. With a simple flip of his wrist, Cain sliced the left side â€˜a Toadâ€™s face nose to ear, makinâ€™ him let out a scream. The blood flowed from just below his eye while followinâ€™ the slice down the side of his head, drippinâ€™ off his ear. Cain wanted folks to know when they saw the scar that Toad werenâ€™t no good.
â€œYou better never let me hear of you stealinâ€™ from folks again,â€ Cain hollered in his face. â€œWe are family. That kinda behavior goes against our reputation as a family. I wonâ€™t have it, hear?â€
Toad started to cry. I worried what Cain might do next.
Cain got up to leave still holdinâ€™ his knife, the tip covered in blood, Toadâ€™s blood. He wiped it on the leg of Toadâ€™s skins to clean it. We simply left him there cryinâ€™ and bleedinâ€™.
Dad never asked us nothinâ€™.
Toad wandered home a little while later. The blood had been cleaned from his face. The scar fresh, swollen red. As far as we knowâ€™d he never said a word to nobody â€˜bout what Cain had done. We werenâ€™t never scolded for it. He just went on like nothinâ€™ happened. I donâ€™t think he ever really cared he got found out over stealinâ€™ Cainâ€™s knife.
A year later, he got caught takinâ€™ from his neighbors. My uncle got so full of him he sent him off from home on his own. He was too sorry to fend for himself and got caught stealinâ€™ valuables from different home places. We heard he near got himself tarred over that. Then he robbed a family; murdered their man in cold blood. Claimed he was fightinâ€™ for his life when he was the one doinâ€™ the stealinâ€™. They sent him off to prison that time. They should â€˜a hung his sorry carcass then for murder plain and simple. He left that manâ€™s family there without him. A woman with five young â€˜unâ€™s. He just werenâ€™t no good.
They kept him in prison to the ripe old age of eighty-nine. He lived his life behind those walls for over seventy years. Finally, dyinâ€™ â€˜a old age. They burned him when he died. He werenâ€™t worth the trouble it took to bury a body.
Luckily, that widâ€™r woman heâ€™d made married a proper fella a few months after the killinâ€™. He raised them kids like they was his own. All good folks far as I ever knowâ€™d. Shame they lost their natural man to the likes â€˜a Toad. No sir, forgive me Father, I would not have taken an arrow for that sorry varmint, ever.
We Knowâ€™d to Help Folks â€˜Cause Itâ€™s Right
The ground was hard where she found herself wakinâ€™. Cold. The limbs of the huge oaks hung like dark spirits watchinâ€™ her sufferinâ€™, waitinâ€™. The wore-out, old homespun covered what it could of her body, but werenâ€™t keepinâ€™ the sting â€˜a cold time out. She shivered constant. The pain was near too much. She had no food and no sleepinâ€™ truck. She was powerful hungry. What little raw hog meat sheâ€™d stole earlier in the day werenâ€™t enough to fill a week old empty belly. Her life-savinâ€™ run from The Lost had been exhausting. She was thirsty, dry. The hole in her side was threateninâ€™, leakinâ€™ what she needed. Sheâ€™d left a small blood trail since the top of the ridge as she headed down into the Choestoe valley. The cool waters sheâ€™d found down low were a comfort, but she couldnâ€™t seem to drink enough to kill the burninâ€™ thirst what suffered inside her.
Her weak mind remembered havinâ€™ family what lived in the valley. She was hopinâ€™ to find some of â€˜em. Beg for help if she had to. Werenâ€™t her fault she was there. Sheâ€™d been captured in a raid. Made slave to the women folk of The Lost for more than a year. She hated their very souls; a way down deep inside kinda hate. Who could blame her? Theyâ€™d treated her just like a dog. Kept her tied no different. Same food. Same water bowl. Same sleepinâ€™ place. Sheâ€™d been stole from her home clan when the men folk of The Lost made a slave run south â€˜a Choestoe over a year back. The heathens killed her husband and parents . . . stole her one-year-old son. Sold him to some passing Choctaw two moons after their capture.
It was common among Indians to have slaves. Most time they was tribal enemies what was captured. Sometimes they was bought. She hoped one day sheâ€™d see her son again. Prayed to the Great Spirit that she would. Hoped she would. Feared she would not. She missed her husband.
Sheâ€™d turned different after beinâ€™ a slave for so long, stronger. Most likely they kept her â€˜cause â€˜a that strength. She was right for child carryinâ€™, but was never raised higher than a slave for a reason only The Lost could know. May â€˜a been she was too ornâ€™ry; needed taminâ€™ down some â€˜fore becominâ€™ part â€˜a the men folks doinâ€™s. Then again, could â€˜a been she werenâ€™t there long enough; hadnâ€™t had time to break her spirit. Indians do things in their own understandinâ€™. There are things they do you cannot figure. You just settle on it beinâ€™ their way â€˜a thinkinâ€™. Go on from there. Whatever the reason, she was off limits to the men folk till she werenâ€™t a womenâ€™s slave no more. The chief werenâ€™t allowed to get at her till the women give her to him, which kept her safe, without child. She was pretty. There was no fat layinâ€™ on her at all. Her muscles was hard from all the long hours of slave work theyâ€™d put her to; cut through her skin when she moved; showed like the muscles on a muleâ€™s shoulders when it was pullinâ€™ hard.
She could smell the blood so strong it left a taste in her mouth; knowâ€™d it was hers. It was layinâ€™ thick where itâ€™d run down her side from under what was left of her wore-out homespun top. The flow stained her legginâ€™s, if you could even call â€˜em that, down near to the top of her knee. She felt the fear rise up again as she remembered runninâ€™ for her life. How the arrow sounded as it flew toward her back. Sheâ€™d turned away from the cuttinâ€™ sound only quick enough for the deadly flint point to miss hittinâ€™ vitals. It simply punched a hole down low in her right side from the back. Its path headed away from her center, stoppinâ€™ just shy â€˜a breakinâ€™ through the front part of her right-side middle. It would â€˜a been best for her had the arrow hit hard enough to poke all the way through. Way it was, it left a sharp chipped stone in the hole, slicinâ€™ meat and muscle with every step she took since leavinâ€™ the valley of The Lost. Sheâ€™d broke the poplar shaft in a fall after she was hit. A short piece was pokinâ€™ out from the hole, keepinâ€™ the blood goinâ€™. It hurt like nothinâ€™ sheâ€™d ever experienced, â€˜cept child birthinâ€™. Her thoughts turned to her son.
She was fortunate in a simple way. The Indian what shot her used a bird huntinâ€™ arrow instead â€˜a one made for killinâ€™ deer or bear. Those was made from hickory. Wouldâ€™nt â€˜a broke durinâ€™ her fall. Instead, it would â€˜a ripped that point right through her body as she ran, tearinâ€™ up her insides. The death spirit would â€˜a been on her already had that â€˜a happened. Painful as it was, she was mighty lucky.
She was weak. Too weak. As she woke, she come to a sense this might be as far as she was gonna go. If so, it would be a relief when the brother finally found her. Plunged his knife deep into her chest, takinâ€™ out her heart. A calm come on her knowinâ€™ the evil one sheâ€™d killed would never hurt nobody again.
She thought to fight the notion of death while sittinâ€™ up some, facinâ€™ the morning light. In her wakinâ€™, she felt the cramping knot of hunger and the burninâ€™ thirst of blood loss, as much as the pain from the hollered out wound in her side. She felt the pull to stay where she was, to rest a spell, even though she knowâ€™d warriors was followinâ€™. Her strength gone, bled out, she allowed again this might be her last morning on Mother Earth as she laid back flat on the cold ground. She stared up at Old Man Sunâ€™s early morning light as it breached the tree tops above her. She closed her eyes---rememberinâ€™ her death song. It werenâ€™t much more than a whisper, but sing it she did. It give comfort knowinâ€™ sheâ€™d be seeinâ€™ her husband soon in the land across The Great River. The thought made her smile what little a smile she could do. Her world growâ€™d dark as she finished the final words of her prayer song. She wondered what death had waitinâ€™ for her. All she could do was done. She was goinâ€™ to see Jesus.
Them Indians believed us when we told â€˜em weâ€™d not seen hide nor hair of the woman they was trailinâ€™. They knowâ€™d we ainâ€™t when they come in on us at camp. Wolf allowed they was after some easy meat while lookinâ€™ to find out what we knowâ€™d. I was just glad theyâ€™d gone and left us be. They was four of â€˜em what come in on us. I figured they was more hidinâ€™ in the dark. Theyâ€™d found us by trackinâ€™ the woman. How she found us left me wonderinâ€™. Most likely, luck. Fate. Could â€˜a been guided. Holy Spirit has His reasons, too. What little fight me and Wolf could â€˜a put up would â€˜a been nothinâ€™ compared to their fightinâ€™ ways had they been sour. Dad, Cain, Dancing Bear, or George Black Oak would â€˜a had no problem with â€˜em, but me and Wolf would â€˜a, if theyâ€™d been lookinâ€™ for trouble. It was the revenge on their minds what kept us safe. Thatâ€™s a hard trail to leave till it grows cold. Still, weâ€™d have to pay mind now on our way home. Watch for â€˜em to settle back in their thievinâ€™, killinâ€™ ways and maybe come on us. We was over a dayâ€™s travel from Benâ€™s Knob and the trail back would need to be guarded. This bunch could turn on a body like a mad dog over nothinâ€™ more than a change â€˜a heart. I would learn they could get plumb mean in their doinâ€™s if their thinkinâ€™ got troubled.
The trail home werenâ€™t really no trail at all since we was followinâ€™ the tops of the smaller ridges layinâ€™ down in the valley as much as possible. Slippinâ€™ through the giant chestnut and oak tryinâ€™ to find the best trail possible soâ€™s not to be seen, watchinâ€™ constant. Peter and the pack mule was loaded heavy with hog meat and all our campinâ€™ truck. The weather was easy with Old Man Sun shininâ€™ high overhead. Hardly no wind. It was some warmer durinâ€™ the day. We both had our lambâ€™s wool homespun on under our winter skins with the hair turned in. We was comfortable. It was cold outside â€˜a mid-day, though, as winter held strong late.
We stayed to the ridge tops for as long as we could â€˜fore havinâ€™ to drop down for water. They werenâ€™t none where weâ€™d been huntinâ€™ and our water skins was near empty. The mules started gettinâ€™ white around their lips, which meant theyâ€™d be needinâ€™ a heavy drink soon.
We turned east, trailinâ€™ down a long ridge toward the valley floor. Weâ€™d only carried enough water for a couple days huntinâ€™ and stretched our store by stayinâ€™ an extra day. We just had to keep after them hogs while we was there. The weather was perfect, the time was good, and we knowâ€™d where they was usinâ€™. We stayed â€˜cause our folks and neighbors needed the meat. We was just proud for the water to start the day. Now that dark would be cominâ€™ on, the day was drawinâ€™ long. We needed to be findinâ€™ us a drink. It werenâ€™t no chore to find water. You just had to get down off the ridges and trail lower where spring heads was more common. Thatâ€™s where we was headinâ€™.
It was a fair-sized branch that satisfied our need a good ways from the main tops, but still a fair piece from the Keowee Path; the very trail weâ€™d use to make home next morning. It was good light. We had in mind to empty the loads off the mules, take off their lead ropes, and leave â€˜em in their halters to roam while we commenced to settinâ€™ up camp. Theyâ€™d fetch a drink and smell around some. When theyâ€™d figure it was time to eat, theyâ€™d wander over to get their feed sacks strapped on.Weâ€™d fix a good place to tie â€˜em off while they took their oats. It would â€˜a been a proper plan, too, â€˜cept for things ainâ€™t always proper when Wolf and the ways of his life are figured in; no different that evening, neither.
Me and Wolf was movinâ€™ to untie the campinâ€™ truck when we both saw it, a streak of wet black movinâ€™ across a small top just above us, kinda off to the south, back toward the way weâ€™d come and a long way from where weâ€™d camped for our hunt. Nothinâ€™ was said between us. We both knowâ€™d what it was. The only question was why was she there? It was Spirit, a Black Panther, or â€œpainter catâ€ as mountain folks called â€˜em. Sheâ€™d takinâ€™ on as Wolfâ€™s spirit kin, his kinda totem mate. We found her mother dead at the Rock Ridge a few seasons back durinâ€™ Killinâ€™ Time. Now, she was payinâ€™ us a visit. Wolf didnâ€™t see her as much of late as he did durinâ€™ the time after we first learned of her. Sheâ€™d followed him home. Heâ€™d still see her time and again. Iâ€™d see her, too, if I was with him when she showâ€™d herself. Sometimes sheâ€™d come in close, but never close enough to touch if a body was fool enough to wanna touch a full-growâ€™d Panther. Wolf did, beinâ€™ Cherokee. Not me. She made the back of my neck cold when she come anywhere near close up. Weâ€™d not seen her on this trip till sheâ€™d made herself known that afternoon. Sheâ€™d follow us on some huntinâ€™ trips, some she didnâ€™t. There werenâ€™t no figurinâ€™ it â€˜cause she was full-growâ€™d now, had to pay mind to her natural callinâ€™. Would be matinâ€™ come spring. Like as not, weâ€™d never see her again once she got with her own bunch. I know Wolf hoped we would. I guess I did, too. She was the deadliest killer in the mountains outside â€˜a folks or maybe bears. That held weight with me. Wolf never cared. Me and him didnâ€™t always see square on things. Havinâ€™ a full growâ€™d panther for a friend was one of â€˜em.
She was actinâ€™ strange by showinâ€™ herself full, then turninâ€™ to run away, then cominâ€™ back, almost like she was wantinâ€™ us to go with her. Wolf noticed her goinâ€™ on and studied it.
â€œI believe she is askinâ€™ us to come, follow her, Jeb. Letâ€™s go up. See what it is she is wanting. The packs can wait,â€ he said without much thought.
â€œNo, Wolf. Iâ€™m tired. I donâ€™t want to. Letâ€™s make camp. She will come to us. My two legs feel lazy. I donâ€™t want to climb back up to where she has chosen to play on her four legs. She can come down here if she wants. I ainâ€™t goinâ€™ up there. I want some coffee. I want to eat, then smoke and rest. Now, câ€™mon. Letâ€™s get to it,â€ I grumbled as I turned to head back to the mules.
â€œYes, Jeb,â€ he replied as he took off up toward where she was standinâ€™. â€œThat sounds like a good plan. I will lead.â€
What? Where was he goinâ€™? I donâ€™t know what he heard me say, but it werenâ€™t what I said. Somehow, what I said made him think I was ready to see to it â€˜cause he took off straight away, makinâ€™ a bee line for her trail. What was I gonna do? He werenâ€™t gonna listen. They werenâ€™t no stoppinâ€™ him. Dark would be cominâ€™ on in a while. It only made sense we get to settinâ€™ up camp while we could still see good. No, foolish me. Why would I think reasonable? Nope, we was goinâ€™ back up a trail weâ€™d just come off to try and play with a full-growâ€™d mountain cat. I put the leads back on the mules and tied â€˜em to a young Dogwood. It werenâ€™t what I wanted. Her goinâ€™ on had Wolf so concerned heâ€™d not even heard the words Iâ€™d said proper. I silently prayed a little prayer and started up the ridge followinâ€™ Wolf like normal.
When I got to the place where weâ€™d first saw Spirit, Wolf was there, but she was gone, nowhere in sight. I looked over at him, standinâ€™ there still as a stone with his eyes closed, his face raised to Old Man Sun and his arms out to the side â€˜bout hip level. He had his palms turned up and his nose raised to the air like he was tryinâ€™ to scent that cat or somethinâ€™, which worried on me â€˜cause I hadnâ€™t learned whatever it was he was doinâ€™. I was curious.
â€œWhat is it you are scenting my friend? Do Painter Cats have a scent I ainâ€™t learned to smell yet? Or are there other things you are searchinâ€™ for in the air above?â€
He never opened his eyes or lowered his head as he answered, â€œIt is very hard to learn what it is that I am doing. My family is teaching me. I have learned well. Listen close and understand. You must be able to sense from what you smell that which you will see before you ever actually hear it, to know where it might be going some time before it ever gets there. I cannot explain it any better. That is all I can say about what it is I am doing. Cherokee learn this as we grow. I am without words to make you feel it. One day you might be able to do as I am. Until then, you will need to understand the ways of Mother Earth more clear. I will guide you as much as one can, but this is a spiritual gift you will need to lay claim to. I can never share the blessing. You must walk with it and learn as you grow. Only then will you be able to understand what you do not know about the unseen. The things Cherokee know.â€
I just stared at him. What in the whole put-together had he just said? That had to be the biggest mess â€˜a Indian mumblinâ€™ Iâ€™d ever heard. Yet, it kinda made sense later on when I thought it through. He was sayinâ€™ you wouldnâ€™t know what it was you was gettinâ€™ ready to see if you couldnâ€™t figure out what it was â€˜fore you ever sensed it, so you could then figure where it might be goinâ€™ once you was sure of what it was you was gonna see before you saw it. I understood that clear as spring water. It was just learninâ€™ how to do all of it that would take the effort. I would smoke on it later and try to figure it proper.
Wolf lowered his chin and opened his eyes while turninâ€™ his head in my direction, sayinâ€™, â€œWe will find her back to the west of this place. She has moved toward the base of the ridge toward Old Man Sun from where we camped on our hunt. Come, let us hurry. She is nearing the place while we stand here talking like girls.â€
You donâ€™t ask no questions when a Cherokee as spiritual as Wolf and his bunch tell you real knowinâ€™ like what to do in times like we was in. Us not knowinâ€™ which way Spirit had gone so we could follow was a problem. But Wolf sorted it out in his own way. Got us goinâ€™ on the right trail. It must run in the family. Owl, his grandmother, had the gift. I was just glad he was my friend.
We took off for her trail soon as he finished sayinâ€™ the words â€˜bout where sheâ€™d gone. He was sure she was headed there. He did not have one doubt. Me? Now I werenâ€™t so sure â€˜bout all this. I had to follow if I wanted to know the truth, so I kept up. It werenâ€™t long till we seen her, â€˜cept sheâ€™d never made it to the base of the ridge.
She was standinâ€™ in what looked like an old trail, most likely used back durinâ€™ the war times. It was growâ€™d up with small saplinâ€™s and sprouts of ivy. She stood lookinâ€™ right at us not thirty of Dadâ€™s paces away. She was swishinâ€™ that long, beautiful tail of hers. She liked doinâ€™ that. I hadnâ€™t seen her this close in some time. Sheâ€™d growâ€™d considerable. Her magnificent tail was now very long. You could tell she was proud of it. She raised up some on her back feet, then turned off the trail to the south out â€˜a sight. Wolf and me nearly ran to where sheâ€™d been standinâ€™ so as not to lose her again. She was gone, nowhere in sight.
â€œShe is like a spirit, this one. I have named her well,â€ Wolf said as his eyes searched the woods for her black, wet shine. â€œShe is leading us, Jeb. We must find her to see what it is drawinâ€™ her near. I believe this to be true.â€
I werenâ€™t gonna doubt nothinâ€™ he said. If he believed it, then I would as well. She was headinâ€™ toward somethinâ€™, thatâ€™s what he believed. I knowâ€™d it to be the truth, too, if we saw her again. Sightinâ€™ her that many times on the same trail would mean Wolf was right, had to be. Wild critters didnâ€™t like beinâ€™ seen, and even though she knowâ€™d us, she was still a wild mountain cat, a full-on, adult black panther. If, or when, we ever saw her out in the mountains, it was only for a short time, then sheâ€™d go. Seeinâ€™ her for another time as we made our way up the mountain followinâ€™ would surely mean she had a place in mind for us, and she did. Wolfâ€™s thoughts showâ€™d true.
We saw her again after a bit. Wolf had found her trail; led us to where she was. Weâ€™d gone a ways back south when we finally seen her. She was sittinâ€™ this time. Her tail had grown quiet. She had her head up, her ears turned straight at us. Her nose twitchinâ€™ while scentinâ€™ us, drawinâ€™ closer. She was not movinâ€™ away, which surprised me and Wolf. We must be where Wolf believed she wanted us to be â€˜cause she let us get close enough to see the greenish-yellow of her eyes. The black shine of her nose glistened like creek water sparklinâ€™ late in the evening as she continued to taste our scent. That was close a plenty for me. After all, this was a full-growâ€™d mountain cat. Sheâ€™d lost the innocent look of her youth I remembered from the last time Iâ€™d seen her that close. Sheâ€™d replaced it with the eyes of a hunter. Keen and narrow with thick whiskers to help catch the slightest warm-blooded scent. Her feet was huge, the claws visible, makinâ€™ her a sight; death on four legs with a taste for blood no critter in the mountains could match. She was plumb scary lookinâ€™. I would go no closer.
Course, Wolf didnâ€™t see it the same. He kept on slippinâ€™ toward her till he got to withinâ€™ a few paces of where she was sittinâ€™.
Why did she not run off again? I realized, as I watched, even now that she was older, her and Wolf still knowâ€™d each other.
In my life, I donâ€™t think I ever really understood that bond, even though I saw it on many occasions in our growinâ€™-up time. She stayed close to Wolf for many years. Then one day, she never returned. Wolf saw her in a vision late in life, not long â€˜fore he died. She was sittinâ€™, waitinâ€™ on him on the other side. She was with Jesus. He was rubbinâ€™ her on top of the head, right between the ears, smilinâ€™.
She didnâ€™t care if Wolf got close, but would not let him get too close. She stood on all fours as he moved to within a few feet of where she was sittinâ€™, then walked off slowly to the north. The sight we saw when she eased out â€˜a the way made the air go right from my lungs.
Spirit knowâ€™d exactly what she was doinâ€™ when she led us to this spot. It was a feint deer trail leadinâ€™ through a stand â€˜a Yellow Locust. Tall and dark they stood, kinda like the Chestnut, but not as big. The inside â€˜a them trees was pure yellow; long in the grain, not hard to split â€˜cept for knots. Folks made posts and rails out of â€˜em â€˜cause they took a long time to rot in the outside weather.
The way Spirit had been sittinâ€™ you couldnâ€™t see the trail . . . or the womanâ€™s body layinâ€™ a ways on down. We was sure it was the woman Blood Moon had been lookinâ€™ for. Me and Wolf could tell. It was the slave clothes she was wearinâ€™ what led us to figure it. Spiteful owners always made slaves wear the worst thing they had so folks would know they was property. She looked dead. But if sheâ€™d made it this far, there was a good chance she could still be alive. We ran to her at once and bent close to her face to feel for her air. We found life was still in her, but only by a little. We both knowâ€™d it would run short if we didnâ€™t get her to a warm place. Her life had near leaked out from a wound we found down low on her side.
Wolf stood and began to look around real worried like. He even walked a circle around where she was â€˜fore lookinâ€™ back to me. The look on his face givinâ€™ voice to the wonder I had in my mind, too. We was both thinkinâ€™ the same thing. This woman was trouble for us. If she was here, and she was, Blood Moon with his warriors would not be far behind. Revenge keepinâ€™ the fire burninâ€™ in their hearts; a need for killinâ€™ fillinâ€™ their very souls.
After lookinâ€™ to her, Wolf spoke his mind, â€œIf we take this woman to either of our homes, she will die before we get there. She has gone as far as she can on her own. Death is near. The trail is long to both our places. If we stay here, the warriors from the The Lost will find us and kill us all. We must move. Take her with us if we mean to save her. There is only one place close I know we might be safe. By good fortune it is near since we dropped off the ridge tops where we did. We can make it before Old Man Sun returns to his home at dark if we go now. We must take her to Panther Cave. It is our best hope if we care to save this woman. The hole in her side will not kill her. The blood she has lost and the poison that is moving inside her will. We need to get her warm so the blood will come back. Once we get her settled, you will go get Anne and bring her to Panther Cave. There she can work her healing. This is the only way I see we can save her, if saving her is what we choose. Speak if you think this is right, Jeb, or if you know a better way.â€
I had nothinâ€™ to say. Heâ€™d thought this through. I agreed with everything he was thinkinâ€™. Itâ€™d come to mind takinâ€™ her on would be dangerous. Wolf and me could end up as an enemy of Blood Moon, his family, and the whole rest of his clan. That was a bother to me, for sure. We talked about it later. Strangely, both of us had the thought to leave her where weâ€™d first seen her â€” not take on all the trouble tendinâ€™ to her would bring â€” just turn and go on our way, â€˜cept, that just werenâ€™t the way mountain folk saw what was now laid out on our plates, Cherokee, neither. She needed help. We knowâ€™d to help folks â€˜cause it was right. If she was guilty of killinâ€™, itâ€™d be showâ€™d true under oath. But until she was found to be guilty, we was obliged to help her. Thatâ€™s what weâ€™d both settled on in our hearts â€˜fore Wolf ever spoke. It was the proper thing to do for as long as we could. â€™Sides, I believed Holy Spirit had guided our trail to her. My first real trip to Panther Cave was gonna be very interestinâ€™, dangerous but interestinâ€™. At least we had plenty â€˜a meat.
My First Time in Panther Cave
She was alive when we got her back to the mules. It werenâ€™t by much, but she was alive. Bloody, dirty, her thin clothes barely hanginâ€™ on her, and she smelled bad. Reminded me of an old hog waller used fresh. She was drawinâ€™ breath, only barely. She was near froze, beinâ€™ it was the dead side â€˜a winter, her only wearinâ€™ one layer â€˜a homespun, and them laid full â€˜a holes. Providinâ€™ little to no protection against the cold mountain air. Her foot skins was in fair shape. I figured sheâ€™d stole those â€˜cause they werenâ€™t wore out like the rest she was wearinâ€™. She must not â€˜a had time to get somethinâ€™ warm to cover herself in. I fetched one of our quilts from the pack mule and we wrapped her head to toe tight as we could in it. The wound hole in her side had to wait for any tendinâ€™. She grunted in pain as I lifted her by the shoulders, Wolf totinâ€™ her by the legs. We laid her across Peterâ€™s back long ways, head to tail, comfortable-like across the top of our campinâ€™ truck. She fit just fine.
We took for the cave once loaded and our water pouches filled. It was gonna take most â€˜a what light Old Man Sun allowed us to reach high on the Blood. Thatâ€™s where Panther Cave was. I got to watchinâ€™ while makinâ€™ that climb, knowinâ€™ killers was trailinâ€™ her. It made a body think on things a little different.
Movinâ€™ through the mountains as lights fadinâ€™ or growinâ€™ is near spiritual. Makes for a different world when travelinâ€™ the woods at dusk or dawn. Things ainâ€™t as they are. They are what your eyes see, makinâ€™ for a real soulful time if you donâ€™t pay mind.
As the light grows dim, you get your back up for danger. Your heart beats so hard it thumps inside your chest. Your straininâ€™ to hear so hard your ears move. You can feel â€˜em when they do that, like haints pullinâ€™ the tops of your ears up on both sides of your head.
All you see comes to life. Saplings move as silent hunters stalkinâ€™ game for meat. Rotting logs appear as deer or hogs tyrinâ€™ to slip by soâ€™s not to become a hunterâ€™s meat. Itâ€™s a gift from God how they can see in the dark the way they do. Old stumps seem to move like black bear and dark trees are giant warrior spirits makinâ€™ their way through the mountains, just watchinâ€™. Half-light gets a body lookinâ€™ close for trouble. Half-light in the mountains of Appalachia makes things different. Youâ€™d have to trail it to feel what Iâ€™m sayinâ€™. But trust me, it gets spooky trailinâ€™ in the near dark. For sure, when folks are followinâ€™.
We made it through, though. Never seen no other Indians. We felt hurried, skittish. I knowâ€™d actinâ€™ that way raised the hair on back of Old Man Trouble; made him lay for you, try and make you get careless. Hurryinâ€™ on a trail brought danger in close. Thankfully, the Great Spirit watched over us. Knowinâ€™ He was near give a body courage.
It was my first-ever real sight of the cave. I was took. It was a beautiful place. The view back north let you know just how big the valley was. I could feel right off why the Indians called beinâ€™ there spiritual.
The front werenâ€™t much. Nothinâ€™ more than a slit in a sheer rock face, opened up a little higher than what my dad was tall. You had to be movinâ€™ in from the west or youâ€™d not see it. If you trailed in from the east, youâ€™d walk right by never knowinâ€™ the cave was there. The openinâ€™ looked like God Almighty Hisâ€™self sunk his pole axe in the bottom of the rock face. Sharp side first. It werenâ€™t no trouble to walk through â€˜cause it was wider than two growâ€™d men standinâ€™ side-by-side. It laid in what seemed like a forever-high rock cliff growâ€™d full â€˜a ivy, dogwoods, grapevines, and ferns, lots â€˜a ferns all over. Made you look straight up to try and see the top. Lookinâ€™ around on the ground give me shivers up my back. Felt like it could rain boulders down at any time from way up high above. They was spirits near, too. You could feel â€˜em. Made the cold even colder. I liked beinâ€™ there.
The door to the cave was guarded by big boulders you kinda had to walk through. You could tell theyâ€™d fell straight down from somewhere above â€˜cause they was sunk in, plugged right where they was layinâ€™. That got me to thinkinâ€™ â€˜bout how they come to be there. Iâ€™d â€˜a liked to â€˜a been there to see â€˜em fallinâ€™ then hittinâ€™ the ground, watchinâ€™ off at a distance, of course. Not Wolf. Heâ€™d â€˜a wanted to be in close for that, to feel the spirits of them rocks go into Mother Earth as they made their beds. His thinkinâ€™ got off from mine on occasion, beinâ€™ full-on Cherokee like he was. Put me into all kinds â€˜a doinâ€™s as we was growinâ€™ up, too. I liked it all, though, good and bad!
Wolf led us to the front of the cave, then pulled the mules up short while turninâ€™ toward me real serious like. I got nervous when I saw them looks heâ€™d get. I felt better after rememberinâ€™ this place was like home to him. He was born here.
â€œWe must build a fire. Find the black smoke pine and cut some torch knot limbs; get them burninâ€™ for light. The bear likes to make camp in the high-up caves during cold time. Sometimes they will bed down here in Panther Cave when the Great Spirit leads them to the Blood Mountain. We will need to share this winter home if one is sleeping here. Take care to not wake it while we tend to the hurt one. If the Spirit is with us, they are sleeping some other place during this cold time.â€
Wolfâ€™s thinkinâ€™ near froze my blood sometimes. Sharinâ€™ winter sleepinâ€™ quarters with bears? Stand by as boulders rained down from above? Trackinâ€™ down hurt panthers? The Cherokee way took some doinâ€™ to get comfortable with. I donâ€™t think I ever come full circle with it in all my days runninâ€™ with â€˜em. Wolf called their way spiritual. I called it dangerous. Either way, it made for some excitinâ€™ times throughout my life. Iâ€™d trade it for nothinâ€™, â€˜cept salvation as paid for by Jesusâ€™s sufferinâ€™. Thatâ€™s how big it come to me.
The woman was comfortable stretched across Peterâ€™s back. She actually â€˜rousâ€™d up a little when we started gettinâ€™ her down; no more than to open her eyes some and moan. We eased her down slow and laid her on top of a separate folded quilt while keepinâ€™ the one she was wrapped in around her. Wolf put a rolled sleepinâ€™ skin under her head for a pillow. She looked comfortable as could be but was in bad need of food and drink, shelter and cleaninâ€™. We had to get her warm soon, and cleaned up. She stunk somethinâ€™ awful from all the blood dried on her. We needed to get her in the cave next to a big fire.
God, donâ€™t let there be any bears in there, I prayed silently.
â€œJeb, you should go and find more water before the dark comes on us. What we carry will not last long after we wash her. I will get the makinâ€™s needed for the fire. Search the black smoke pine for torches. If a bear has settled here, I hope he will share his lodge with us without a fight.â€
â€œShare with us, Wolf?â€ I finally asked. â€œTheyâ€™d never stand for it. Sheâ€™s smellinâ€™ strong â€˜a blood, beinâ€™ itâ€™s mostly all over the side of her body. The scent will go with us and draw whatever bear might be in there like a cat hearinâ€™ rat scratchinâ€™.â€
â€œMy friend, you must remember, you have never seen the inside of this cave. We will have the torches lit soon. You will understand my words.â€
He werenâ€™t exactly right on that as I remembered. I had seen the inside when the Spirit Bear, Freedom, visited me in a dream. It was the night after Old Man Bobcat tore Jim and me up but good. Heâ€™d led me inside, showed me the secret room and the rock coverinâ€™ the front of it. I heard his words again. He told me it would save Wolf and his family when the time comes. I wondered then if Wolf knowâ€™d of the secret room. I reasoned he didnâ€™t or theyâ€™d been no call for Freedom cominâ€™ to me. I thought to show Wolf â€˜fore we got out â€˜a there for good on this trip. It might be time.
Iâ€™d not made mention of my dream to Wolf or his family, yet. Iâ€™d tried. I couldnâ€™t. Somethinâ€™ about it was troublinâ€™, like when you feel haints movinâ€™ about or catch one blowinâ€™ out a candle. I was takinâ€™ my time tellinâ€™ it, hopinâ€™ the vision was wrong. This would be a good time to make it known, seeinâ€™ how they was more strangers than normal beinâ€™ seen in the mountains. I prayed for the time to be right; for Holy Spirit to show me when that time was proper out â€˜a respect for that knowledge. What was cominâ€™, meant killinâ€™. I would pack me a pipe later. Smoke it over. Pray. Then wait for the right sittinâ€™.
The dream would be took real serious by Wolfâ€™s clan when repeated by Dancing Bear at the story fires. It would be truth to the Cherokee brought to mind by me. The one they knowâ€™d as â€œYoung Spirit Filled One.â€ Iâ€™d be in for it then. Elders would start cominâ€™ â€˜round our place once they heard, lookinâ€™ me over for truth. Theyâ€™d rub their leathery old hands over the top of my head, under my chin, down my arms, and pinch my fingers from tip-to-palm. That always hurt. I never did figure why they did that. A coupleâ€™d get real close and look deep into my eyes. Wolf allowed they was hopinâ€™ to see the spirit what guided my tellinâ€™. Iâ€™d smell the woods on â€˜em. Theyâ€™d run the tips of their forefinger over my teeth makinâ€™ sure I werenâ€™t no real bear. That near made me sick. I donâ€™t think they ever found no spirit talkers, but it never stopped â€˜em from pesterinâ€™ me all them years. Indian ways didnâ€™t set well with me at every doinâ€™. Purely aggravatinâ€™, I didnâ€™t care to be touched by folks. I never said nothinâ€™ to â€˜em. I didnâ€™t figure to show no disrespect to a folk that deserved respect when it was to be showâ€™d.
The fire makinâ€™s was dry. It werenâ€™t no time till we had us a roarinâ€™ little fire jumpinâ€™ and poppinâ€™ and puttinâ€™ out precious heat. We piled on â€˜bout a third of the wood weâ€™d got. Propped two pine limb torches over the new flame to get â€˜em caught up. The knots on the end of the limbs would burn for a good while, bright, too. Their flames would light up the cave plenty good enough to see once we went in.
I had a lot â€˜a questions â€˜bout what we was doinâ€™. I knowâ€™d to wait and ask at a better time. Livinâ€™ with Indians like I did, a body learned sometimes itâ€™s best to stay quiet, watch, and learn. It was time to go in. The pine torches was burninâ€™ hot.
Wolf grabbed the torches. Raised â€˜em up high while keepinâ€™ â€˜em out in front of his person. Small licks â€˜a lit pine tar was fallinâ€™ off, splatterinâ€™ the ground like a big raindrop on dry dirt. You didnâ€™t want them gettinâ€™ on your skin. Burned like hellâ€™s fire if it did. I could hear the roar from the flames and smell the pine burninâ€™ bright, lightinâ€™ up our little camp, the hurt woman, the mules, and all our truck. Dark had rolled in by the time weâ€™d got the torches goinâ€™. It was cold. I donâ€™t think the hurt one felt it.
â€œI will take the light and go in. Look to see if the cave has visitors,â€ Wolf told me. â€œYou stay with the woman. Keep this fire up. We will need the hot coals to start a fire inside. I will hurry back with word.â€
He turned and left without sayinâ€™ nothinâ€™ else; the light from the torches hidinâ€™ from sight as he breached the openinâ€™ to the cave.
I went over to sit by the injured lady, watchinâ€™ and listeninâ€™ as I waited. The flames from the outside fire kept her face lit so I could see if she moved any parts. My hearinâ€™ turned to what might be out stirrinâ€™ on such a cold night. I could just hear a wolf singinâ€™ â€˜way off down in the valley, somewhere on Wolf Creek. It was a lonely song â€˜cause they werenâ€™t many left in the mountains. Folks had killed lots of â€˜em. Deer, too, so they werenâ€™t near as plentiful. Many had moved on, followinâ€™ their need to find a place with less folks and a heap more food critters. I figured it would be but a short while till their songs was gone from Choestoe for good, that made me sad in a strange kinda way. I knowâ€™d them devils was most dangerous. Iâ€™d seen what theyâ€™d leave.
I laid on a couple big sticks to the fire. Theyâ€™d last a while, then do for back sticks when startinâ€™ the fire inside. Iâ€™m sure whatever bear was in there would favor a good warm glowâ€¦ right after it ate us.
I werenâ€™t troubled by the fire keepinâ€™. I sat and looked close at the woman, saw her pain. Her face showâ€™d it in the fire light as the big sticks caught. She was a handsome woman, not pretty like Momma or Wolfâ€™s folks, but she was easy on the eyes all the same.
I started uncoverinâ€™ her. I wanted to find out just how bad it all was. I could see her clear when I pulled the quilt back. I looked back at her face. She was lookinâ€™ at me with slightly opened eyes â€” lips dried, cracked, and bleedinâ€™ â€” no real thought showinâ€™. I laid the top quilt to both sides leavinâ€™ her lower half covered. It was clear sheâ€™d lost a lot â€˜a blood. That loss was gonna need seeinâ€™ to. Anne always said, â€œIt takes time, rest, and broth for a body to make more blood.â€ I figured this woman would be in Panther Cave for a while.
Dad was up late worryinâ€™. He knowâ€™d the weather was right. It was thinkable we might stay another day if weâ€™d found hogs. But only one day, no more. His rules was simple. Tell him where youâ€™ll be, for sure what day, and the time youâ€™d be back. Youâ€™d get one dayâ€™s time after that day to get home. If not, he comes to find you. Because of that rule, Dad knowâ€™d somethinâ€™ werenâ€™t right. Weâ€™d be home if possible. It was dark. We was now more than a day late. A dangerous time to be out for tired young folk. He knowâ€™d it.
His pipe was near done. Heâ€™d paced back-and-forth on the back porch of our log home till heâ€™d finished a full bowl of Weaver tobacco. He was studyinâ€™ on the conversation he and Momma was gonna have when he went back inside to the warmth of our home. It was cold. He only had on his homespun shirt and britches and lambâ€™s wool socks. Momma would fuss at him for that; him wearinâ€™ socks bare, out on the wood porch boards full â€˜a splinters and nail heads all over to snap the wool and tear it enough to need mendinâ€™, just like it tore my knee meat when Dad poured me out on â€˜em at my birthinâ€™.
His blood was warm from beinâ€™ inside. Heâ€™d just come out for a smoke and to see if maybe we was walkinâ€™ in since dark had just settled. His mind told him we should be back. We would â€˜a, too, had Spirit not shown us the woman. He looked up to the heavens. Breathed a short prayer on the burnt tobacco smoke. The stars was shininâ€™ bright, it beinâ€™ a dark night with no moon. He silently hoped we werenâ€™t havinâ€™ to travel since Old Man Moon was sleepinâ€™. He hated tellinâ€™ Momma â€˜bout things that caused her worry. Us beinâ€™ uncommon late would truly do that.
He went back inside to where she was rockinâ€™ by the fire readinâ€™. She liked to read. Dad would always bring her a book or two from the market when we went south to Gaines town every spring to trade mules. He never brought her back no Bible, though. He allowed, â€œAll of â€˜em say the same thing on the inside so one was all we needed.â€ Believe you me, ours was big enough to service everybody in the family, guests, too, when they come.
â€œCelia,â€ Dad said, as much to the fire as to Momma, takinâ€™ a seat on the hearth in front of her. She was rockinâ€™.
â€œWe must talk, Celia. Jeb and Wolf should â€˜a been home by now.â€
She looked at him over her book, â€œYes, I could see your thoughts. The boys should be home, I know. What is it we should do, Thompie? What is it I can do?â€
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