Living Where athe Rabbits Dance By J.R. Collins

I was born in 1815 to Thompson and Celia Collins whose folks come from the Mother Land, Ireland. I had a brother, Cain, and a sister named Anne. Cain weren’t scared ‘a nothin’ I ever know’d of. He’d proved that over and over; tough like a boar hog. Anne was special. Had a gift for healin’ she’d learned from an old Cherokee medicine woman.
Living Where athe Rabbits Dance
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 ‘a Cherokee in the mountains when I grow’d up. Wish they was still there.

I’m an adopted Cherokee, too. My Native family lived on the east side ‘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 waitin’ on me to come. I reckon I’ll get around to it ‘fore long.

My folks farmed a good-sized piece ‘a land my granddad gave our family after he’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.

They’d both come to America as boys. Spoke true Irish speak I could hardly make out. Couldn’t understand a word lessin’ they was meanin’ to speak the English.

Me and my friend Wolf was hardly ever apart once we’d got old enough to go stay in the woods by ourselves. We happened into all kinds a doin’s durin’ our time together on this side ‘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 didn’t deserve killin’. We hunted, scouted, fought, and went on walks lastin’ 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 happenin’ all around; didn’t wanna miss nothin’. Oh, and I worked a lot. Dad owned a mule tradin’ business, which meant tendin’ to mule needs constant. We had to farm and hunt all we ate, or we’d not eat. Our home was heated with firewood. A good-sized cabin with big fireplaces required many loads ‘a wood to keep it warm. Cain, Dad, and me spent a lot ‘a time cuttin’ and splittin’ firewood ‘fore Cain got hitched to Wolf’s sister, Rose, and moved on. My momma liked bein’ warm. Dad made sure she had plenty ‘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, knowin’ it could end any time. Our folks let us walk our own trail as long as we followed the rules. We had many adventures durin’ our time, with Wolf the cause ‘a most of ‘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 I’m fixin’ to tell you changed my life forever. I praise Jesus for seein’ me through it all alive. Really, I do.

It was late winter, gettin’ close to early spring, a while fore some trouble we had with the government and gold miners fired off. Wolf and me’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 I’d healed complete. Praise God! My sister, Anne, who was learnin’ the healin' way from the old Cherokee medicine woman who tended to me, Owl the Wise One, stayed with me constant; seen to my healin’. Anne called her “Old Mother” out ‘a respect. Momma never left me the whole time I was down, neither.

I’d finally worked my way back to trailin’ the mountains with Wolf. We’d grow’d enough to hunt together, takin’ game without nobody havin’ to go with us. Our folks had taught us the way. The only thing they worried over was us leavin’ Choestoe. “Stay together when travilin’ or huntin’ or on a walk and stay clear ‘a strangers and U.S. Government soldiers.” We did what we was told… most ‘a the time.

Wolf and me was camped on a big ridge east of the Level Lands hog huntin’. We was lookin' to get us another that morning to meet the two we had hangin’. Winter went long in Appalachia and meat was important. Our folks know'd we was huntin' high up and know’d when we’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 stayin’ safe and bringin' back meat.

We’d crossed a fresh hog trail just ‘fore daylight and stayed on it till we slipped up on ‘em rootin’ around in their chosen feedin’ ground. We was watchin' the lead boar as he’d wandered off from the rest. He was big. Easin’ through a small stand ‘a white oaks tryin’ to fill his big ol’ gut with some late season rotted acorns. One of us was gonna put an arrow through that critter. Then it, and the others hangin’ 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. Wouldn’t be long now till we was back home in her cook room.

The pig was only twenty paces away, makin’ 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, searchin’ for the slightest scent of a grub or left-over acorn or chestnut waitin’ on him there in the rotting mast of the forest floor. Payin’ no mind to the danger it was in. Trustin’ what gentle morning breeze was movin’ to carry the warning he would need to stay safe … that warning had just been carried.

The pig stopped its searchin’ quick. Jerked its head up to the side lookin’ right at me. A sudden shift in what gentle breeze was stirrin’ had filled his snout with my scent makin’ him turn toward where I was squatted; his huge, curled tusk now showin’ white in the morning darkness. I know’d he weren’t seein’ me good ‘cause it was still dusky dark. Hogs don’t have the best eyes in the woods no how. I couldn’t move. It wouldn’t do for him to find me. He was lookin’ dead at me as he chomped the last mouthful ‘a whatever rotten stuff he’d scoured. Foamy slobber drippin’ off the bottom jaw of his mast-covered face.

He raised his nose to the breeze. Scented. Then blow’d out a big ol’ snort sendin’ nose makin’s flyin’ out like bats leavin’ a dark cave. Hateful mad at the nasty now locked in his nostrils. He followed the scent in my direction while liftin’ his ugly ol’ head even more tryin’ to locate exactly where the foul smell was comin’ from. That quarterin’ move opened up a killin’ shot for Wolf. I know’d my friend would not miss, bein’ 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 boar’s left shoulder. Plumb covered in dark blood, drippin’, its turkey feather fletching stickin’ out behind the right shoulder. Perfect killin’ shot. Didn’t even spook him. The boar simply stood for a second ‘fore the pain hit, then let out a holler to beat all. A pig’s squeal is ear piercin’ if you’re close by. I was. My ears rang so it took me a second to recognize the thud of its feet hittin’ the ground as it charged right at me, blood blowin’ 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 knowin’ what all mountain folk know’d: a pig can’t cut left or right quick when chargin’. 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 weren’t gonna have to wait long to jump ‘cause he was comin’. Weren’t no stoppin’ him. I let it charge to within’ a couple paces of me ‘fore I made my move. Throwin’ 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 I’d been squatted. He turned slowly to his left, movin’ closer while tryin’ to find me, his head held high. The lung blood from its snout was now coverin’ my foot-skin boots like a soft rain on a dry garden. Without warning, he blow’d out hard. I watched as the sides of his rib cage kept risin’ and fallin’ with each desperate struggle for air. It made Wolf’s arrow do a kinda killin’ dance as it stuck out both sides ‘a the hog’s front quarter. He could not ‘a put that arrow through no better; took out both lungs while slicin’ through the top ‘a the heart. It was just a tough ol’ mountain pig, fightin’ 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 ‘a stopped so quick, but he did. He was standin’ near on me. He was a big hog.

A slight wobble to the right, then back left. His spirit was startin’ to slip. He was fadin’. I know’d the danger was passin’ as the eyes went dull. He stumbled again. Left, then right. A last lunge ‘a mad fell him right at my feet snout first. He never made another sound, ‘cept for a dyin’ grunt as the last draw’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 gettin’ me every time he told it. I didn’t cotton to it. I don’t see the funny when a wounded hog is tryin’ to kill a body. The Cherokee warriors did. Not one I ever know’d feared death.

Indians had their own way ‘a lookin’ at things. You just had to respect that. No figurin’ ‘em sometimes. They was family to me. I was with Wolf most ‘a the time, that is if I weren’t needed on the farm. It never give out, neither. We’d be at my home at the base of Ben’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 ‘a Cherokee in the mountains when I was bein’ raised. I lived as much like one ‘a their kind as I did a farmer or mule trader like my dad and granddad. They was true mountain men, both of ‘em, born and raised.

Dad made his gold coin tradin’ mules with folks. They’d come from all over to buy his stock. You’d hear it told in stories that Granddad even sent some across the great water back to the Mother Land. I didn’t know if I took to all that or not. Still, folks told it gospel.

Dad tended over forty head, includin’ his Jacks and the Draft horse mares he bred ‘em to. Each year he’d raise to sell at least a dozen good mules. The Jacks was Mammoth Jacks from the stock ‘a General George Washington’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 crossin’ the great water on boats. I figured I’d have to see that ‘fore I’d tell it. To me, that was like a body walkin’ on the moon. Just weren’t never gonna happen.

Them Jacks was big, and when they mixed with them big Draft mares ‘a Dad’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 mule’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 runnin’ together, too, kinda like Wolf and me.

Wolf didn’t have no mule of his own, but he’d been ridin’ a certain young mule ‘a Dad’s. Him and it was bondin’. My dad was watchin’.

***

Yeah, Cain and Rose got hitched. Became one. Tied the knot. Moved in together. Jumped the broom. Made their covenant with God. It weren’t long after the trouble from the Yonah clan was done with, that terrible winter of all the killin’.

Dancing Bear and A-Ga-Li-Ha throw’d a big comin’ together at our place for their doin’s. It was a sight. They was brought together at sunrise. Standin’ on a small rise facin’ east ‘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. I’d not seen so many females in one place, ever, young and old. I never know’d Choestoe had so many women.

I saw the wi’der England from up on Wolf Creek makin’ camp near our barn. My insides got tight as I remembered the blue-eyed, chestnut-haired girl I’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 bein’ was jumpin’. What in the world? I thought.

The women all cried at the vow takin’, them knowin’ what’n all the young couple had gone through gettin’ to that day. Once they was done marryin’, my brother was made a full warrior of the Choestoe clan. He and Rose lived mostly like Cherokee anyway, ‘cept Cain helped Dad farm. He loved bein’ Cherokee. He loved Dad, too. Farmin’ was how he was raised. ’Sides, the food was needed. He had two families dependin’ on him to provide. He’d swore it to Rose.

Their marriage ceremony was a story in itself with many more stories what come from it. Dad bein’ who he was, Cain bein’ who he was, and Rose bein’ who she was, you could figure the comin’ together of Cain and dear, wonderful, sweet Rose, was gonna be a time to remember. Every settler in the mountains know’d what Cain had gone through. They’d all be there. His name was smoked over ‘round many fires.

Rose was the daughter of Dancing Bear. Every young buck I ever met wanted her for their wife. They’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 didn’t cotton with it, but respect it they would. Cain didn’t care. He’d already put his life before hers more than once. He know’d Holy Spirit protected them. She know’d he’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 ‘em together, you could feel it was right. They made the time you spent with ‘em seem proper.

The word was sent out from Slaughter Mountain by runner about Rose marryin’ Cain. Folks come to our place in bunches several days ‘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 ‘a grow’d folks havin’ fun, settlers and Indians mixin’, a special time. The smoke from the fire would cleanse the ground, along with the folks, both family and visitor. Prayers was offered up, makin’ everything havin’ to do with what was goin’ on acceptable to Holy Spirit. They was so many folks come they ended up coverin’ 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 ‘a respect; closer to the creek for water. But Cherokee families was all over. Most camped deeper in the woods. They took folks joinin’ real serious, same as settlers.

Both sets ‘a people brought their music. Dancin’ for Indians and settlers was a big part ‘a marryin’, some lastin’ all night. They came to celebrate and enjoy time from the hard work of providin’. They passed the jug, smoked, gambled, passed the jug, slept, hunted, ate, passed the jug, and danced … Oh, the Cherokee was amazin’ when they danced! They just had themselves a big ol’ time, and Dad was right in the middle as usual. It was such a goin’ on!

Me and Wolf didn’t see Cain for three days after his kind arrived. His friends was wild. All trainin’ to be warriors. Cain was way ahead of ‘em on that for sure. Rose was everywhere. I spent a lot of time with her. I loved her as much as any did, ‘cept maybe Cain.

Dancing Bear had come with his whole family. He’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. That’s why guests was there early. Nobody wanted to miss out on such a happening.

Me and Wolf had been wrestlin’. We’d whupped most all the boys our age, then got to movin’ on up on the older ones. They stopped us. My nose was bleedin’ and I’m sure Wolf had a shoulder out for a bit. One ‘a the warriors watchin’ us wrestle seen what happened and grabbed Wolf under the arm without askin’, then lifted up with a quick pull, settin’ 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 weren’t lookin’ too good when all the women folk got to stirrin’ around us that evening. We’d been wrestlin’ all afternoon. Covered head to foot in Mother Earth’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 couldn’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 hadn’t seen her for a long time. I’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 ‘a ever imagined, homespun sure.

She’d come from a small pond of females millin’ about like young doe trailin’ by the base of a huge mountain white oak in heavy fog, floatin’ as it were. Her chestnut-colored hair tied back with a single-beaded hawk feather laced just behind her right ear, callin’ to me like a soft voice. She laughed. I died. She walked straight to me. I looked for a hole to crawl into. I didn’t know the feeling, but it had to be what bein’ shot with an arrow felt like — burnin’, no air, hot, sweatin’. I wished she’d walk away. No! Don’t! Stay! I couldn’t think straight. Wolf was hidin’ his laughin’. I had to look a sight.

She stopped dead in front ‘a me. Spoke the first words I ever remember hearin’ her say, “My name is Elizabeth, Jeb Collins, and you will dance with me tomorrow night,” 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 weren’t nothin’ to her. I didn’t see her again till the day of the doin’s. Without knowin’ it, I’d done planned a trail for her.

***

God could not have given Cain and Rose a better morning for their vow takin’. They weren’t married all Cherokee, nor was they married all Christian. They had some ‘a both to show respect to all folks attendin’.

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 commencin’, he blessed the visitin’ folks who’d come, too. He turned his attention to Cain who was holdin’ part of a fresh venison ham rolled up in a deer skin, a sign to show he’d forever provide for his wife and their offspring. She returned the favor by placin’ a small pouch of dried corn in the holy man’s palm. It proved she’d always be there to take care of their family. He then took the victuals, prayed over ‘em, and sanctified the couple.

The path the families walked to the top of the rise for the Christian part ‘a the ceremony was lined with women folk — Indians on the bride’s side, settlers on Cain’s side. The Cherokee girls weren’t wearin’ nothin’ above their middles but flowers wove together. Their hair was full ‘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 wearin’ their best homespun. The chestnut-haired girl was one of ‘em, standin’ 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, bein’ that I was part of the di’rect family. I was in my finest homespun. My hair was combed. I was wearin’ boots. I didn’t like ‘em. They hurt. You couldn’t feel the ground good. I was clean this time when I saw her. I liked what she was wearin’, a mix ‘a homespun and Indian. The same dress I’d seen her in the day before, but she’d added beads all through her beautiful hair, hangin’ ‘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 didn’t think. I just did it. Right in front of her, I stopped. I couldn’t help it. I had no control. No doubt in my mind, she was a witch throwin’ a spell on me. I liked it. I turned, walked over to her real close like, and looked down into her eyes. She weren’t laughin’ then. I never said nothin’. I just kinda stared. She stared back with those piercin’ blue eyes. I smiled. She smiled. We both smiled. I near feinted when Wolf dragged me away ‘cause I’d forgot to breathe. It took me a minute to realize what’d happened. I looked back. Gone. Nowhere in sight. She made me feel funny. I couldn’t figure if I liked it or not. It did somethin’ 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 didn’t understand ‘cause my mind was twisted. Then he quoted scripture for the Christian part ‘a their marryin’. Women was cryin’. Men was standin’ around nervous wishin’ they was somewhere else, anywhere else. It was gettin’ hot. Old Man Sun was wakin’ 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.

“Rose,” Cain near-whispered as he turned to look into her eyes for the vowin’ part. “My life is yours. I wish I could tell you all will be fine. I cannot. I have seen sufferin’ 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 … and forever … your husband.”

Rose held tears when she answered him back, “Cain, 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.”

They kissed.

With that done, every Cherokee in the place shouted loud as they could and ran down the hill to commence dancin’ around the sacred fire again, singin’ and chantin’ 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 feastin’ and dancin’.

When the morning light come on the third sun from the union, not a Cherokee could be found.

The families got together after the weddin’ 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 weren’t far from Wolf Creek, the biggest creek in the Choestoe Valley. Me and Wolf would stay there with ‘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 warmin’, a loft for guests, and a sleepin’ room in the back for Cain and Rose, which had a fireplace, too. Dad and Momma give ‘em a cook stove for a wedding gift. It was in Rose’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. We’d help Cain get in firewood most all year so they’d be plenty for ‘em durin’ the cold time, then they’d be enough for us when we come to visit.





***

As life in the mountains went, it weren’t required that folks make it known they was comin’ to visit. Nobody thought no different of it. It was always expected that some poor soul may wander in needin’ food or shelter or water or healin’. Folks in the mountains was always ready for most anything. Even cooked extra when makin’ 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 sayin’ 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 didn’t speak was the ones who hadn’t learned English words. But then without knowin’ who’d done it, you’d find a fresh pile ‘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 Indians’ way ‘a sayin’ thanks without callin’ notice to himself.

I loved the Cherokee for how they was. I once caught a very small, old Cherokee elder leavin’ Dad a flint knife blade wrapped in an old piece ‘a rabbit hide. He’d most likely made that blade or he’d not be lettin’ go of it. I remembered him, alright. He’d come early one morning and had breakfast with us. He’d eat a lot, too, to be so small. Never said a word when he’d cleaned his plate, neither. Just got up from the table, nodded a little toward Momma, then left.

***

Everybody know’d Cain. He got lots ‘a visitors, mostly Indian. I met a bait ‘a warriors when we stayed there through the years. Heard many stories. I really liked stayin’ with ‘em. A boy could be all the Indian he wanted to be. Didn’t bother Momma one bit. She liked us livin’ mostly like normal folk.

Me and Cain got to be more Cherokee as time went on; really got that way after learnin’ how government folks could be. Gold miners and Federal men, liars, all of ‘em far as the Cherokee in me was ever concerned. I didn’t hardly trust none of ‘em. I trusted the miners more than any government folk, though, and that weren’t much. But you could smell the evil in them government men. They smelled like where rats’d been livin’ in the corn crib. I reckon some ‘a them “polick-tisians”, as Dad called ‘em, was good the way he saw it. I trailed away from ‘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 ‘fore Killin’ Time commenced. He was ridin’ an old horse and had all kinds of truck with him; carried it strapped on a couple ‘a wore out lookin’ mules with “US” 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 ol’ things like he was near-pullin’. Them two put together wouldn’t ‘a made one ‘a Jim or Peter.

I didn’t like him much. I got to know him some as he traveled in and out ‘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 “A-gent.” He didn’t look no different than regular folk. Bein’ government meant he was an outsider, an enemy to the Cherokee. Outsiders had to be watched ‘cause they weren’t trusted. That man never know’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 wantin’ to come to Choestoe. Me and Wolf know’d him showin’ 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 facin’ changes. And cause ‘a all the government’s greed, lies, and evil, Choestoe would change, too. It weren’t right for a bunch to take a man’s home just cause they was better armed than the weaker party. In this case, that was the Cherokee. Most of ‘em was forced to give up everything they’d worked for so the government could give it to some other folks what was gonna move in. They ought to ‘a left ‘em alone, let ‘em be. The mountains would be a sight better if the Cherokee still lived in ‘em.





***

It was on toward mid-day when me and Wolf near slid down the east side ‘a the ridge toward our camp. The hog we was draggin’ was heavy in meat. It weren’t no struggle, though. The ground was steep and the mast, wet from the morning thaw, helped with the pullin’. It was cold, bein’ late winter like it was. Still, the days would warm some with spring close. We had to watch for flies blowin’ our hangin’ meat. We’d already had to scrape a place or two with our knives.

Old Man Sun liked to hide early that time ‘a season, makin’ for short days. We decided to hang the fresh kill with the other two. We’d stay over one more night, ‘stead ‘a travelin’ in the dark. Break camp at daylight; load the mules with our meat and campin’ truck, and be on our way back. That would give us the most travelin’ light for our trip to Ben’s Knob. It was a good plan. We was both comfortable with it. But as we’d learn time and again, even the best thought-out trails can take some curious turns. Our visitors durin’ the night would prove that.

At least the fire was warm, the coffee was hot, our tobacco was dry, and we had fresh meat; weren’t havin’ to chew jerked. We was plannin’ on havin’ us a restful night after huntin’ hard for several days, at least most of it was.





Chapter Two





Samson and Toad





The fire was down some, the coals circlin’ the dyin’ flames turnin’ from orange to gray. Me and Wolf settled back against a big log we’d camp by and took out our tobacco pouches. We both packed our pipe bowls full ‘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. We’d eat enough roasted hog to fill two more folks and my full belly was makin’ me lazy. Our hunt beat us up good. We was both tired; wore down a right smart. But the meat we had hangin’ 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 ‘a sausage gravy. Meat chunks laid all through it.

They was only one way to eat a mess like that proper. First, you’d lay a thick slab ‘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 ‘a the ham with the two halves layin’ side-by-side. Cover both sides with a fried egg for each, yokes hot and runny. Lay on a generous coverin’ of meaty sausage gravy then add a chunk ‘a honey comb dropped square on top filled with rich, dark, sourwood honey what melts over the whole pile. This plate full ‘a the best tastin’ breakfast a body could stand was what local folks called the “Choestoe Blessing.” 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. You’d not believe they could till you saw ‘em actual. I watched Black Oak eat nearly three one morning when he come slippin’ up on our back porch just after daylight. He was comin’ back from scoutin’ new huntin’ grounds. He’d been days without solid food; only water with a bit of jerked meat to fill his big ol’ gut.

Hog meat was cured for breakfast; jerked near-dry for the cold time. We’d use the whole of it when we killed one, ‘cept for most of the bones or such as that. I liked the best cuts for eatin’, favorin’ the ham, tenderloin, shoulders, and bacon best. I never held a taste for what I’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 layin’ on ‘a red eye gravy, guts baked into cornbread called chitlins, and pickled feet. Now, the sun-dried hide scraped clean ‘a stiff hog hair, then fried in a skillet, I kinda liked that. The older folks liked them fixin’s mostly. I know’d a few common folks who favored them flavors as well. I never brought myself up to eat them makin’s. I weren’t never that hungry, really. Praise God!

The night was dark as dark gets ‘cause they weren’t no moon showin’ none. We couldn’t see much ‘cept by what light was shed by our little fire. Peter was tied close and actin’ edgy, kinda restless. I didn’t think nothin’ of it. I know’d he was ready for home. I should ‘a thought more on it.

I never cared for mean Indians. Still don’t. The mountains had their share, fortunately, only a few. Dancing Bear taught Wolf and me to always watch for ‘em when we was out on a trail. They could come on a body at any time. You’d not know it, neither, till they was right there in person. The one who’d just walked into our camp was mean. You could tell by lookin’ at him. His friends was mean, too. They was what mountain folk called rogue Indians. You’d cross trails with ‘em if you didn’t watch.

We was tired. We’d grow’d lazy from the long, hard hunt mixed with a big supper of fresh-kilt, skillet-fried hog meat. We weren’t watchin’, now here we was, eye-to-eye. They smelled bad, too.

Most times foul Indians like the ones payin’ us a visit set out for what they could find or take, but I could feel they was somethin’ different ‘bout what they was interested in. All had a look to ‘em like they was on the hunt for somethin’ they meant to find. I remember thinkin’, They must be good ‘bout slippin’ around ‘cause we never know’d they was in the world till they come in on us. Peter tried to warn us. He was comin’ to be a really good mule to have around.

I weren’t scared none, Wolf, neither. I looked to where he’d stood once the visit commenced. He done had his knife draw’d, right hand low, blade up. My senses come to me when I realized I was standin’ 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 movin’. Wolf said later what we done was spiritual, Cherokee learned.

The lead Indian, the ugliest one ‘a the bunch, moved in closer and squatted across from us in front of our fire, palms up, facin’ forward. He looked over at us and started talkin’, “I am Blood Moon. I am a warrior of the Cherokee from over to the west. Many call our clan “The Lost.” 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.”

The Lost, they was a bad bunch. We know’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. They’d let folks be for many years; lived across the main ridges to the west while mostly keepin’ to themselves. Folks didn’t speak on ‘em much anymore, ‘cept in a few stories I’d heard around smoke fires. They’d never crossed the main ridges into Choestoe that me or Wolf ever know’d of, but here they was. I’d heard of ‘em, but never met one. Wished I weren’t meetin’ one then.

What few stories we’d heard told around the fires spoke of how the old ones of The Lost would eat their enemy if the spirit provoked ‘em. The thought made my gut sick as I looked across the fire at the ones who’d come in on us. That kinda eatin’ just weren’t right. I saw no sign of it. But lookin’ at ‘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 cookin’.

They was plain nasty, not clean like the Cherokee I run with. Their home spun shirts was dirty, blood stained. Their leggin’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 weren’t scared. I couldn’t figure why not. I should ‘a been.

Everything they had on was near wore out. Nothin’ fancy at all. Had no beads wove into their long, stringy hair; none hangin’ from their necks or skins. They carried few weapons. Most likely had some back in the woods out ‘a sight since they was lookin’ to talk on what we know’d. Only one of ‘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. Couldn’t figure that.

Wolf was first to speak, ‘tween me and him, “Why would you come to this ridge to look for this killer? Has she trailed this way? Did you think we would know of her?”

It weren’t real nice the way he’d said it. I think Wolf was feeling a little nasty his own self since they just kinda walked in on us without welcome. We’d been camped where we was for a few days. Hadn’t seen hide nor sign of a single soul. Now here walked in four stinkin’, dirty Indians with brother warriors likely watchin’ off in the dark. We was ill ‘cause they’d messed up our smoke. Wolf seemed mad.

They sensed Wolf’s anger, started actin’ like they was gettin’ on the edge ‘a mad. I was concerned, watchin’ close. Wolf’s words had kinda made the whole come together a little uncomfortable. He didn’t seem to care.

“We have not seen another living soul in many days,” Wolf kept on. “We 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.”

Blood Moon suddenly wore a more hateful look as Wolf stood his ground. He’d just invited them to leave.

“What might your name be young one?” asked Blood Moon.

“I am Wolf,” he replied as he put his knife away, layin’ his right forearm across the top of his chest. “Son of Dancing Bear, council member for all Cherokee.”

“I 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 … and his white skinned friend,” he said as he turned to look at me with a strange want on his face.

I felt like he was sizin’ me up, maybe thinkin’ on what kinda seasonin’ he’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 didn’t act like he was gonna be real gracious, even though this stranger said he know’d Dancing Bear. Truth was, Wolf had never heard word of this strange-lookin’ Indian before. Could be he was tellin’ the truth, could be he weren’t. Wolf was gonna be careful till he know’d one from the other. I figured him for the truth. He didn’t sound fetchin’ to me.

I turned on my heels, lookin’ over at him with wonder about the woman they was chasin’. I spoke as I squatted more comfortable, takin’ a draw from my pipe, “I 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 ya’ll are lookin’ for? We’ve hunted this ridge and the two east of here for several days. We’ve seen no sign of any human. Did she move close by? Did we not see her?”

“She 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 brother’s spirit cries to me from the other side each night she lives. I cannot sleep.”

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 ‘a been doin’ no different when family was concerned. I only know’d one soul in my family that I’d not take an arrow for: a cousin on Dad’s side. He was so aggravatin’ you could hardly stand to be near him. He’d make you so mad on purpose. Didn’t like folks, neither.

His name was Toad, or at least that’s what me and Cain called him. Dad’s sister, Aunt Sophie, married a Cherokee man who never cared for us much, so he’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 spendin’ time with my sister, Anne, too. She’d teach Aunt Sophie about the plants and share the healin’ 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 couldn’t trust him no more than you could a rattle maker or a copper-backed snake. He didn’t like folks and very few cared to be around him. He thought he was the sweetest corn in the field. But true to callin’, all folks like that get found out. It weren’t gonna be no different for him.

He acted like he weren’t scared ‘a nothin’, yet had a secret he thought no one know’d. Aunt Sophie had told us without his knowin’. 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 ‘a critters, bears mostly.

He was the kinda person that’d say really hateful things to weaker folk. Make fun ‘a things they said or did or how they looked. He figured himself better than they was and had no respect for nothin’, includin’ himself.

Cain got riled up at him one time and had to settle with him on account. Toad saw a part ‘a Cain that day what didn’t show itself around family much.

Aunt Sophie had come to visit. I weren’t but six year old at the time. Toad was some behind Cain in age. Me and Cain always liked seein’ her. Gettin’ to spend time with her when she’d come to visit. Neither one of us liked that snake son ‘a hers, though.

One ‘a Cain’s favorite knives went missin’ after one of their visits. Dad had give it to him, makin’ it even more special. We know’d Toad had it. Anne seen him handlin’ it ‘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 travelin’ would mean he was prob’ly carryin’ it.

Dad had taken us all down to the river to wash a bunch ‘a mule shoes him and Cain had made that winter. He liked to rub ‘em with the river sand from off the bottom of a deep hole to make ‘em worn some, that made ‘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 ‘em a season or two. They’d made a poke of nails, too. We was gonna wash them along with the shoes ‘fore we was done.

Soon as we got there, Dad told us to go about fetchin’ some dry wood to build a fire with. Then strike flint to steel and get it burnin’ good while he finished goin’ about collectin’ the things we’d need to do the mule-shoe rubbin’ 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 followin’, took off into the woods to get the makin’s for a fire. We’d only been gone a few minutes when Cain turned, givin’ me one ‘a them little grins he’ll give you for he gets up to mischief.

Toad was on a trail to be had. He didn’t have a notion for it, neither.

I wanted Cain to get his knife back, but Toad was spiteful, so he might not. We’d soon see ‘cause Cain had just turned complete around, walked right by me after we’d made it into the woods good. Went straight toward our back trail stoppin’ dead in front of ol’ Toad. Cain did not look as mad as I know’d he was.

Toad nearly run into Cain as he stopped and looked up askin’, “What you doin’, Cain? Why you stopped?”

“Bear,” was all Cain said as he leaned in close starin’ down into Toad’s dark eyes.

“What? Bears?” Toad said kinda nervous-like, lookin’ around. “We should go from here ‘n look in another place for fire makin’s, Cain. Huh? Don’t you think? I think we should.”

“We can’t,” said Cain, cool as winter’s breath, showin’ no fear.

“What? We can’t? Why not? All we got to do is walk to some other place. We can get wood there. Now, I mean, let’s go,” Toad replied as he started to walk off.

“Go ahead. Suit yourself. You know more than most folks I reckon,” scolded Cain. “Take your trail. Just be on the sly ‘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.”

“Kill?” asked Toad turnin’ back toward Cain, near shakin’ he was so scared.

“Yep. Kill, Toad,” replied Cain in a calm, hushed voice. Lookin’ around like he was tryin’ to spot ol’ Samson for real. “He 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; ‘bout the youngsters he’s killed and eat. But listen! We must not be scared. If you show fear, he can smell it. That’s how he knows an easy meal is about. Then he’ll come fetchin’, tryin’ to eat what he smelled. Stay calm, Toad. I do not want to die today. I sure don’t want to be eat by no killer bear whenever my time does come!”

“Eat us! What…? Cain, what do we do? We can’t just let him eat us. We got to do somethin’. Tell me what to do. I’ll do anything. Tell me now!” he near hollered he was so scared.

Cain had him worked up so he was near to wettin’ his skins. I was just waitin’ 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 ‘a bears was worse than some town-raised girl. Samson, Cain had told him. I nearly laughed out loud thinkin’ on it.

“Okay, here is what we’re gonna do,” Cain whispered real quiet-like while lookin’ around, puttin on an act like he was watchin’ for ol’ Samson to come bustin’ through the brush at any minute. “Toad, you’re gonna stay right here. Remember, don’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 don’t move till we come back for you. You hear, Toad?”

“Yeah. Stay here. Don’t leave. Try to not be scared. I got it. Is that it? Just stay here? Wait?”

“Yep. Just stay here. Don’t move unless you have to. If you hear bear gruntin’, then pull your knife and hold it like this,” Cain said as he pulled another of his knives showin’ him how to hold it. “You got a knife with you, don’t you, Toad?”

“Yeah, I got a knife. Sure, I do. It’s in my pouch.”

“Well, take it out. Let me see you hold it where you can fight a hungry-folk-eatin’ bear.”

“No. I don’t want to take it out unless I have to. I might need to haul off runnin’. I’m scared I might trip and fall and poke myself. I’ll only pull it if that thing comes ‘round.”

“No!” Cain whisper yelled as he grabbed him by the shoulders to let ol’ Toad know he was dead serious. “Has no one ever told you not to run from bears? They are lightning fast and’ll tear your head clean off if they have to chase you. Havin’ to run down their meat makes ‘em mad. Steady yourself right here. We will go and find this bear and talk with him.” With that, we both turned and left, not givin’ him a chance to follow.

I walked behind Cain as we took a small deer trail out from where Toad was standin’, shakin’ like a scared young’un headed for the wood shed. I know’d Cain’s plan. He didn’t need to tell me. We was gonna scare that knife right out ‘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 weren’t long till we’d made a big circle out around ol’ Toad; come right back to where we’d been not a half hour before. He was still standin’ there, lookin’, but no knife… yet. It was comin’, though. I know’d it.

I wish folks could ‘a seen Cain the way he done. He got down on all fours, just like an old bear. Had his head down gruntin’, gettin’ his mind in the bear spirit. He turned his head to looked up at me, near whisperin’, “Watch ol’ Toad yonder, Jeb. Tell me what he does when I get to carryin’ on. If he pulls out my knife, let me know. We’ll go in on him and take it away. Watch close now.”

Cain lowered his head some, breathed in deep, raised up on his back legs till his hands was off the ground ‘bout knee high, then with a smooth jerk, he slammed his hands and front half back down to the ground, landin’ square on both his palms while lettin’ out the nastiest soundin’ grunt you’d ever hear. It sure enough sounded just like a big ol’ bear done wallered in close. I looked up to study Toad. It near made me laugh out he was carryin’ on so, spinnin’ around like one of my toy tops Dad made for us to play with, bouncin’ from behind one tree to the next, searchin’. His eyes was wide like when the moon is full. He was shakin’ hard. His arms was straight out from his front, both hands squeezin’ tight to the hickory handle of Cain’s knife. I seen right off it was Cain’s. It was the one Dad give him for Christmas a few years prior. It was Cain’s for sure. This was gonna be ugly.

I kept my eye on Toad while tellin’ Cain what was goin’ on, “It worked, Cain. You’ve near scared him to death. He’s got your knife held tight in both hands. He’s spinnin’ around like a dog chasin’ its tail. I ain’t never seen such. What a sister he is.”

That’s what Cain was waitin’ to hear. He jumped up from the ground. Commenced to runnin’ from the woods toward Toad with a loud growl and a snarl, soundin’ just like a big ol’ mad bear. Cain made it seem so real, Toad allowed it was Samson comin’ hard to get him. He peed his pants right there — I promise you he did — but that never stopped Cain. He run right up to his face and grabbed Toad’s wrist with his left hand while givin’ it a hard twist. I heard a sickening meat tearin’ noise as Cain snatched back his knife with his right hand, then let go ‘a Toad’s wrist while switchin’ the handle back to his left hand, bringin’ his right arm up hard to backhand Toad plumb flat to the ground. He squatted down over him, puttin’ 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 ‘a Toad’s face nose to ear, makin’ him let out a scream. The blood flowed from just below his eye while followin’ the slice down the side of his head, drippin’ off his ear. Cain wanted folks to know when they saw the scar that Toad weren’t no good.

“You better never let me hear of you stealin’ from folks again,” Cain hollered in his face. “We are family. That kinda behavior goes against our reputation as a family. I won’t have it, hear?”

Toad started to cry. I worried what Cain might do next.

Nothin’.

Cain got up to leave still holdin’ his knife, the tip covered in blood, Toad’s blood. He wiped it on the leg of Toad’s skins to clean it. We simply left him there cryin’ and bleedin’.

Dad never asked us nothin’.

Toad wandered home a little while later. The blood had been cleaned from his face. The scar fresh, swollen red. As far as we know’d he never said a word to nobody ‘bout what Cain had done. We weren’t never scolded for it. He just went on like nothin’ happened. I don’t think he ever really cared he got found out over stealin’ Cain’s knife.

A year later, he got caught takin’ 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 stealin’ 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 fightin’ for his life when he was the one doin’ the stealin’. They sent him off to prison that time. They should ‘a hung his sorry carcass then for murder plain and simple. He left that man’s family there without him. A woman with five young ‘un’s. He just weren’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, dyin’ ‘a old age. They burned him when he died. He weren’t worth the trouble it took to bury a body.

Luckily, that wid’r woman he’d made married a proper fella a few months after the killin’. He raised them kids like they was his own. All good folks far as I ever know’d. Shame they lost their natural man to the likes ‘a Toad. No sir, forgive me Father, I would not have taken an arrow for that sorry varmint, ever.





Chapter Three





We Know’d to Help Folks ‘Cause It’s Right





The ground was hard where she found herself wakin’. Cold. The limbs of the huge oaks hung like dark spirits watchin’ her sufferin’, waitin’. The wore-out, old homespun covered what it could of her body, but weren’t keepin’ the sting ‘a cold time out. She shivered constant. The pain was near too much. She had no food and no sleepin’ truck. She was powerful hungry. What little raw hog meat she’d stole earlier in the day weren’t enough to fill a week old empty belly. Her life-savin’ run from The Lost had been exhausting. She was thirsty, dry. The hole in her side was threatenin’, leakin’ what she needed. She’d left a small blood trail since the top of the ridge as she headed down into the Choestoe valley. The cool waters she’d found down low were a comfort, but she couldn’t seem to drink enough to kill the burnin’ thirst what suffered inside her.

Her weak mind remembered havin’ family what lived in the valley. She was hopin’ to find some of ‘em. Beg for help if she had to. Weren’t her fault she was there. She’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? They’d treated her just like a dog. Kept her tied no different. Same food. Same water bowl. Same sleepin’ place. She’d been stole from her home clan when the men folk of The Lost made a slave run south ‘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 she’d see her son again. Prayed to the Great Spirit that she would. Hoped she would. Feared she would not. She missed her husband.

She’d turned different after bein’ a slave for so long, stronger. Most likely they kept her ‘cause ‘a that strength. She was right for child carryin’, but was never raised higher than a slave for a reason only The Lost could know. May ‘a been she was too orn’ry; needed tamin’ down some ‘fore becomin’ part ‘a the men folks doin’s. Then again, could ‘a been she weren’t there long enough; hadn’t had time to break her spirit. Indians do things in their own understandin’. There are things they do you cannot figure. You just settle on it bein’ their way ‘a thinkin’. Go on from there. Whatever the reason, she was off limits to the men folk till she weren’t a women’s slave no more. The chief weren’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 layin’ on her at all. Her muscles was hard from all the long hours of slave work they’d put her to; cut through her skin when she moved; showed like the muscles on a mule’s shoulders when it was pullin’ hard.

She could smell the blood so strong it left a taste in her mouth; know’d it was hers. It was layin’ thick where it’d run down her side from under what was left of her wore-out homespun top. The flow stained her leggin’s, if you could even call ‘em that, down near to the top of her knee. She felt the fear rise up again as she remembered runnin’ for her life. How the arrow sounded as it flew toward her back. She’d turned away from the cuttin’ sound only quick enough for the deadly flint point to miss hittin’ vitals. It simply punched a hole down low in her right side from the back. Its path headed away from her center, stoppin’ just shy ‘a breakin’ through the front part of her right-side middle. It would ‘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, slicin’ meat and muscle with every step she took since leavin’ the valley of The Lost. She’d broke the poplar shaft in a fall after she was hit. A short piece was pokin’ out from the hole, keepin’ the blood goin’. It hurt like nothin’ she’d ever experienced, ‘cept child birthin’. Her thoughts turned to her son.

She was fortunate in a simple way. The Indian what shot her used a bird huntin’ arrow instead ‘a one made for killin’ deer or bear. Those was made from hickory. Would’nt ‘a broke durin’ her fall. Instead, it would ‘a ripped that point right through her body as she ran, tearin’ up her insides. The death spirit would ‘a been on her already had that ‘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, takin’ out her heart. A calm come on her knowin’ the evil one she’d killed would never hurt nobody again.

She thought to fight the notion of death while sittin’ up some, facin’ the morning light. In her wakin’, she felt the cramping knot of hunger and the burnin’ 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 know’d warriors was followin’. 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 Sun’s early morning light as it breached the tree tops above her. She closed her eyes---rememberin’ her death song. It weren’t much more than a whisper, but sing it she did. It give comfort knowin’ she’d be seein’ her husband soon in the land across The Great River. The thought made her smile what little a smile she could do. Her world grow’d dark as she finished the final words of her prayer song. She wondered what death had waitin’ for her. All she could do was done. She was goin’ to see Jesus.





***

Them Indians believed us when we told ‘em we’d not seen hide nor hair of the woman they was trailin’. They know’d we ain’t when they come in on us at camp. Wolf allowed they was after some easy meat while lookin’ to find out what we know’d. I was just glad they’d gone and left us be. They was four of ‘em what come in on us. I figured they was more hidin’ in the dark. They’d found us by trackin’ the woman. How she found us left me wonderin’. Most likely, luck. Fate. Could ‘a been guided. Holy Spirit has His reasons, too. What little fight me and Wolf could ‘a put up would ‘a been nothin’ compared to their fightin’ ways had they been sour. Dad, Cain, Dancing Bear, or George Black Oak would ‘a had no problem with ‘em, but me and Wolf would ‘a, if they’d been lookin’ for trouble. It was the revenge on their minds what kept us safe. That’s a hard trail to leave till it grows cold. Still, we’d have to pay mind now on our way home. Watch for ‘em to settle back in their thievin’, killin’ ways and maybe come on us. We was over a day’s travel from Ben’s Knob and the trail back would need to be guarded. This bunch could turn on a body like a mad dog over nothin’ more than a change ‘a heart. I would learn they could get plumb mean in their doin’s if their thinkin’ got troubled.

The trail home weren’t really no trail at all since we was followin’ the tops of the smaller ridges layin’ down in the valley as much as possible. Slippin’ through the giant chestnut and oak tryin’ to find the best trail possible so’s not to be seen, watchin’ constant. Peter and the pack mule was loaded heavy with hog meat and all our campin’ truck. The weather was easy with Old Man Sun shinin’ high overhead. Hardly no wind. It was some warmer durin’ the day. We both had our lamb’s wool homespun on under our winter skins with the hair turned in. We was comfortable. It was cold outside ‘a mid-day, though, as winter held strong late.

We stayed to the ridge tops for as long as we could ‘fore havin’ to drop down for water. They weren’t none where we’d been huntin’ and our water skins was near empty. The mules started gettin’ white around their lips, which meant they’d be needin’ a heavy drink soon.

We turned east, trailin’ down a long ridge toward the valley floor. We’d only carried enough water for a couple days huntin’ and stretched our store by stayin’ 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 know’d where they was usin’. We stayed ‘cause our folks and neighbors needed the meat. We was just proud for the water to start the day. Now that dark would be comin’ on, the day was drawin’ long. We needed to be findin’ us a drink. It weren’t no chore to find water. You just had to get down off the ridges and trail lower where spring heads was more common. That’s where we was headin’.

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 we’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 ‘em in their halters to roam while we commenced to settin’ up camp. They’d fetch a drink and smell around some. When they’d figure it was time to eat, they’d wander over to get their feed sacks strapped on.We’d fix a good place to tie ‘em off while they took their oats. It would ‘a been a proper plan, too, ‘cept for things ain’t always proper when Wolf and the ways of his life are figured in; no different that evening, neither.

Me and Wolf was movin’ to untie the campin’ truck when we both saw it, a streak of wet black movin’ across a small top just above us, kinda off to the south, back toward the way we’d come and a long way from where we’d camped for our hunt. Nothin’ was said between us. We both know’d what it was. The only question was why was she there? It was Spirit, a Black Panther, or “painter cat” as mountain folks called ‘em. She’d takin’ on as Wolf’s spirit kin, his kinda totem mate. We found her mother dead at the Rock Ridge a few seasons back durin’ Killin’ Time. Now, she was payin’ us a visit. Wolf didn’t see her as much of late as he did durin’ the time after we first learned of her. She’d followed him home. He’d still see her time and again. I’d see her, too, if I was with him when she show’d herself. Sometimes she’d come in close, but never close enough to touch if a body was fool enough to wanna touch a full-grow’d Panther. Wolf did, bein’ Cherokee. Not me. She made the back of my neck cold when she come anywhere near close up. We’d not seen her on this trip till she’d made herself known that afternoon. She’d follow us on some huntin’ trips, some she didn’t. There weren’t no figurin’ it ‘cause she was full-grow’d now, had to pay mind to her natural callin’. Would be matin’ come spring. Like as not, we’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 ‘a folks or maybe bears. That held weight with me. Wolf never cared. Me and him didn’t always see square on things. Havin’ a full grow’d panther for a friend was one of ‘em.

She was actin’ strange by showin’ herself full, then turnin’ to run away, then comin’ back, almost like she was wantin’ us to go with her. Wolf noticed her goin’ on and studied it.

“I believe she is askin’ us to come, follow her, Jeb. Let’s go up. See what it is she is wanting. The packs can wait,” he said without much thought.

“No, Wolf. I’m tired. I don’t want to. Let’s make camp. She will come to us. My two legs feel lazy. I don’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 ain’t goin’ up there. I want some coffee. I want to eat, then smoke and rest. Now, c’mon. Let’s get to it,” I grumbled as I turned to head back to the mules.

“Yes, Jeb,” he replied as he took off up toward where she was standin’. “That sounds like a good plan. I will lead.”

What? Where was he goin’? I don’t know what he heard me say, but it weren’t what I said. Somehow, what I said made him think I was ready to see to it ‘cause he took off straight away, makin’ a bee line for her trail. What was I gonna do? He weren’t gonna listen. They weren’t no stoppin’ him. Dark would be comin’ on in a while. It only made sense we get to settin’ up camp while we could still see good. No, foolish me. Why would I think reasonable? Nope, we was goin’ back up a trail we’d just come off to try and play with a full-grow’d mountain cat. I put the leads back on the mules and tied ‘em to a young Dogwood. It weren’t what I wanted. Her goin’ on had Wolf so concerned he’d not even heard the words I’d said proper. I silently prayed a little prayer and started up the ridge followin’ Wolf like normal.

When I got to the place where we’d first saw Spirit, Wolf was there, but she was gone, nowhere in sight. I looked over at him, standin’ there still as a stone with his eyes closed, his face raised to Old Man Sun and his arms out to the side ‘bout hip level. He had his palms turned up and his nose raised to the air like he was tryin’ to scent that cat or somethin’, which worried on me ‘cause I hadn’t learned whatever it was he was doin’. I was curious.

“What is it you are scenting my friend? Do Painter Cats have a scent I ain’t learned to smell yet? Or are there other things you are searchin’ for in the air above?”

He never opened his eyes or lowered his head as he answered, “It 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.”

I just stared at him. What in the whole put-together had he just said? That had to be the biggest mess ‘a Indian mumblin’ I’d ever heard. Yet, it kinda made sense later on when I thought it through. He was sayin’ you wouldn’t know what it was you was gettin’ ready to see if you couldn’t figure out what it was ‘fore you ever sensed it, so you could then figure where it might be goin’ 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 learnin’ 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 turnin’ his head in my direction, sayin’, “We 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.”

You don’t ask no questions when a Cherokee as spiritual as Wolf and his bunch tell you real knowin’ like what to do in times like we was in. Us not knowin’ which way Spirit had gone so we could follow was a problem. But Wolf sorted it out in his own way. Got us goin’ 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 sayin’ the words ‘bout where she’d gone. He was sure she was headed there. He did not have one doubt. Me? Now I weren’t so sure ‘bout all this. I had to follow if I wanted to know the truth, so I kept up. It weren’t long till we seen her, ‘cept she’d never made it to the base of the ridge.

She was standin’ in what looked like an old trail, most likely used back durin’ the war times. It was grow’d up with small saplin’s and sprouts of ivy. She stood lookin’ right at us not thirty of Dad’s paces away. She was swishin’ that long, beautiful tail of hers. She liked doin’ that. I hadn’t seen her this close in some time. She’d grow’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 ‘a sight. Wolf and me nearly ran to where she’d been standin’ so as not to lose her again. She was gone, nowhere in sight.

“She is like a spirit, this one. I have named her well,” Wolf said as his eyes searched the woods for her black, wet shine. “She is leading us, Jeb. We must find her to see what it is drawin’ her near. I believe this to be true.”

I weren’t gonna doubt nothin’ he said. If he believed it, then I would as well. She was headin’ toward somethin’, that’s what he believed. I know’d it to be the truth, too, if we saw her again. Sightin’ her that many times on the same trail would mean Wolf was right, had to be. Wild critters didn’t like bein’ seen, and even though she know’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 she’d go. Seein’ her for another time as we made our way up the mountain followin’ would surely mean she had a place in mind for us, and she did. Wolf’s thoughts show’d true.

We saw her again after a bit. Wolf had found her trail; led us to where she was. We’d gone a ways back south when we finally seen her. She was sittin’ this time. Her tail had grown quiet. She had her head up, her ears turned straight at us. Her nose twitchin’ while scentin’ us, drawin’ closer. She was not movin’ away, which surprised me and Wolf. We must be where Wolf believed she wanted us to be ‘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 sparklin’ late in the evening as she continued to taste our scent. That was close a plenty for me. After all, this was a full-grow’d mountain cat. She’d lost the innocent look of her youth I remembered from the last time I’d seen her that close. She’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, makin’ her a sight; death on four legs with a taste for blood no critter in the mountains could match. She was plumb scary lookin’. I would go no closer.

Course, Wolf didn’t see it the same. He kept on slippin’ toward her till he got to within’ a few paces of where she was sittin’.

Why did she not run off again? I realized, as I watched, even now that she was older, her and Wolf still know’d each other.

In my life, I don’t think I ever really understood that bond, even though I saw it on many occasions in our growin’-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 ‘fore he died. She was sittin’, waitin’ on him on the other side. She was with Jesus. He was rubbin’ her on top of the head, right between the ears, smilin’.

She didn’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 sittin’, then walked off slowly to the north. The sight we saw when she eased out ‘a the way made the air go right from my lungs.

Spirit know’d exactly what she was doin’ when she led us to this spot. It was a feint deer trail leadin’ through a stand ‘a Yellow Locust. Tall and dark they stood, kinda like the Chestnut, but not as big. The inside ‘a them trees was pure yellow; long in the grain, not hard to split ‘cept for knots. Folks made posts and rails out of ‘em ‘cause they took a long time to rot in the outside weather.

The way Spirit had been sittin’ you couldn’t see the trail . . . or the woman’s body layin’ a ways on down. We was sure it was the woman Blood Moon had been lookin’ for. Me and Wolf could tell. It was the slave clothes she was wearin’ 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 she’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 know’d it would run short if we didn’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 ‘fore lookin’ back to me. The look on his face givin’ voice to the wonder I had in my mind, too. We was both thinkin’ 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 keepin’ the fire burnin’ in their hearts; a need for killin’ fillin’ their very souls.

After lookin’ to her, Wolf spoke his mind, “If 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.”

I had nothin’ to say. He’d thought this through. I agreed with everything he was thinkin’. It’d come to mind takin’ 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 we’d first seen her — not take on all the trouble tendin’ to her would bring — just turn and go on our way, ‘cept, that just weren’t the way mountain folk saw what was now laid out on our plates, Cherokee, neither. She needed help. We know’d to help folks ‘cause it was right. If she was guilty of killin’, it’d be show’d true under oath. But until she was found to be guilty, we was obliged to help her. That’s what we’d both settled on in our hearts ‘fore Wolf ever spoke. It was the proper thing to do for as long as we could. ’Sides, I believed Holy Spirit had guided our trail to her. My first real trip to Panther Cave was gonna be very interestin’, dangerous but interestin’. At least we had plenty ‘a meat.





Chapter Four





My First Time in Panther Cave





She was alive when we got her back to the mules. It weren’t by much, but she was alive. Bloody, dirty, her thin clothes barely hangin’ on her, and she smelled bad. Reminded me of an old hog waller used fresh. She was drawin’ breath, only barely. She was near froze, bein’ it was the dead side ‘a winter, her only wearin’ one layer ‘a homespun, and them laid full ‘a holes. Providin’ little to no protection against the cold mountain air. Her foot skins was in fair shape. I figured she’d stole those ‘cause they weren’t wore out like the rest she was wearin’. She must not ‘a had time to get somethin’ 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 tendin’. She grunted in pain as I lifted her by the shoulders, Wolf totin’ her by the legs. We laid her across Peter’s back long ways, head to tail, comfortable-like across the top of our campin’ truck. She fit just fine.

We took for the cave once loaded and our water pouches filled. It was gonna take most ‘a what light Old Man Sun allowed us to reach high on the Blood. That’s where Panther Cave was. I got to watchin’ while makin’ that climb, knowin’ killers was trailin’ her. It made a body think on things a little different.

Movin’ through the mountains as lights fadin’ or growin’ is near spiritual. Makes for a different world when travelin’ the woods at dusk or dawn. Things ain’t as they are. They are what your eyes see, makin’ for a real soulful time if you don’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 strainin’ to hear so hard your ears move. You can feel ‘em when they do that, like haints pullin’ the tops of your ears up on both sides of your head.

All you see comes to life. Saplings move as silent hunters stalkin’ game for meat. Rotting logs appear as deer or hogs tyrin’ to slip by so’s not to become a hunter’s meat. It’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 makin’ their way through the mountains, just watchin’. Half-light gets a body lookin’ close for trouble. Half-light in the mountains of Appalachia makes things different. You’d have to trail it to feel what I’m sayin’. But trust me, it gets spooky trailin’ in the near dark. For sure, when folks are followin’.

We made it through, though. Never seen no other Indians. We felt hurried, skittish. I know’d actin’ that way raised the hair on back of Old Man Trouble; made him lay for you, try and make you get careless. Hurryin’ on a trail brought danger in close. Thankfully, the Great Spirit watched over us. Knowin’ 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 bein’ there spiritual.

The front weren’t much. Nothin’ more than a slit in a sheer rock face, opened up a little higher than what my dad was tall. You had to be movin’ in from the west or you’d not see it. If you trailed in from the east, you’d walk right by never knowin’ the cave was there. The openin’ looked like God Almighty His’self sunk his pole axe in the bottom of the rock face. Sharp side first. It weren’t no trouble to walk through ‘cause it was wider than two grow’d men standin’ side-by-side. It laid in what seemed like a forever-high rock cliff grow’d full ‘a ivy, dogwoods, grapevines, and ferns, lots ‘a ferns all over. Made you look straight up to try and see the top. Lookin’ 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 ‘em. Made the cold even colder. I liked bein’ there.

The door to the cave was guarded by big boulders you kinda had to walk through. You could tell they’d fell straight down from somewhere above ‘cause they was sunk in, plugged right where they was layin’. That got me to thinkin’ ‘bout how they come to be there. I’d ‘a liked to ‘a been there to see ‘em fallin’ then hittin’ the ground, watchin’ off at a distance, of course. Not Wolf. He’d ‘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 thinkin’ got off from mine on occasion, bein’ full-on Cherokee like he was. Put me into all kinds ‘a doin’s as we was growin’ 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 turnin’ toward me real serious like. I got nervous when I saw them looks he’d get. I felt better after rememberin’ this place was like home to him. He was born here.

“We must build a fire. Find the black smoke pine and cut some torch knot limbs; get them burnin’ 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.”

Wolf’s thinkin’ near froze my blood sometimes. Sharin’ winter sleepin’ quarters with bears? Stand by as boulders rained down from above? Trackin’ down hurt panthers? The Cherokee way took some doin’ to get comfortable with. I don’t think I ever come full circle with it in all my days runnin’ with ‘em. Wolf called their way spiritual. I called it dangerous. Either way, it made for some excitin’ times throughout my life. I’d trade it for nothin’, ‘cept salvation as paid for by Jesus’s sufferin’. That’s how big it come to me.

The woman was comfortable stretched across Peter’s back. She actually ‘rous’d up a little when we started gettin’ 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 keepin’ the one she was wrapped in around her. Wolf put a rolled sleepin’ skin under her head for a pillow. She looked comfortable as could be but was in bad need of food and drink, shelter and cleanin’. We had to get her warm soon, and cleaned up. She stunk somethin’ awful from all the blood dried on her. We needed to get her in the cave next to a big fire.

God, don’t let there be any bears in there, I prayed silently.

“Jeb, 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 makin’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.”

“Share with us, Wolf?” I finally asked. “They’d never stand for it. She’s smellin’ strong ‘a blood, bein’ it’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 hearin’ rat scratchin’.”

“My 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.”

He weren’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. He’d led me inside, showed me the secret room and the rock coverin’ 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 know’d of the secret room. I reasoned he didn’t or they’d been no call for Freedom comin’ to me. I thought to show Wolf ‘fore we got out ‘a there for good on this trip. It might be time.

I’d not made mention of my dream to Wolf or his family, yet. I’d tried. I couldn’t. Somethin’ about it was troublin’, like when you feel haints movin’ about or catch one blowin’ out a candle. I was takin’ my time tellin’ it, hopin’ the vision was wrong. This would be a good time to make it known, seein’ how they was more strangers than normal bein’ seen in the mountains. I prayed for the time to be right; for Holy Spirit to show me when that time was proper out ‘a respect for that knowledge. What was comin’, meant killin’. I would pack me a pipe later. Smoke it over. Pray. Then wait for the right sittin’.

The dream would be took real serious by Wolf’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 know’d as “Young Spirit Filled One.” I’d be in for it then. Elders would start comin’ ‘round our place once they heard, lookin’ me over for truth. They’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 couple’d get real close and look deep into my eyes. Wolf allowed they was hopin’ to see the spirit what guided my tellin’. I’d smell the woods on ‘em. They’d run the tips of their forefinger over my teeth makin’ sure I weren’t no real bear. That near made me sick. I don’t think they ever found no spirit talkers, but it never stopped ‘em from pesterin’ me all them years. Indian ways didn’t set well with me at every doin’. Purely aggravatin’, I didn’t care to be touched by folks. I never said nothin’ to ‘em. I didn’t figure to show no disrespect to a folk that deserved respect when it was to be show’d.

The fire makin’s was dry. It weren’t no time till we had us a roarin’ little fire jumpin’ and poppin’ and puttin’ out precious heat. We piled on ‘bout a third of the wood we’d got. Propped two pine limb torches over the new flame to get ‘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 ‘a questions ‘bout what we was doin’. I know’d to wait and ask at a better time. Livin’ with Indians like I did, a body learned sometimes it’s best to stay quiet, watch, and learn. It was time to go in. The pine torches was burnin’ hot.

Wolf grabbed the torches. Raised ‘em up high while keepin’ ‘em out in front of his person. Small licks ‘a lit pine tar was fallin’ off, splatterin’ the ground like a big raindrop on dry dirt. You didn’t want them gettin’ on your skin. Burned like hell’s fire if it did. I could hear the roar from the flames and smell the pine burnin’ bright, lightin’ up our little camp, the hurt woman, the mules, and all our truck. Dark had rolled in by the time we’d got the torches goin’. It was cold. I don’t think the hurt one felt it.

“I will take the light and go in. Look to see if the cave has visitors,” Wolf told me. “You 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.”

He turned and left without sayin’ nothin’ else; the light from the torches hidin’ from sight as he breached the openin’ to the cave.

I went over to sit by the injured lady, watchin’ and listenin’ as I waited. The flames from the outside fire kept her face lit so I could see if she moved any parts. My hearin’ turned to what might be out stirrin’ on such a cold night. I could just hear a wolf singin’ ‘way off down in the valley, somewhere on Wolf Creek. It was a lonely song ‘cause they weren’t many left in the mountains. Folks had killed lots of ‘em. Deer, too, so they weren’t near as plentiful. Many had moved on, followin’ 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 know’d them devils was most dangerous. I’d seen what they’d leave.

I laid on a couple big sticks to the fire. They’d last a while, then do for back sticks when startin’ the fire inside. I’m sure whatever bear was in there would favor a good warm glow… right after it ate us.

I weren’t troubled by the fire keepin’. I sat and looked close at the woman, saw her pain. Her face show’d it in the fire light as the big sticks caught. She was a handsome woman, not pretty like Momma or Wolf’s folks, but she was easy on the eyes all the same.

I started uncoverin’ 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 lookin’ at me with slightly opened eyes — lips dried, cracked, and bleedin’ — no real thought showin’. I laid the top quilt to both sides leavin’ her lower half covered. It was clear she’d lost a lot ‘a blood. That loss was gonna need seein’ to. Anne always said, “It takes time, rest, and broth for a body to make more blood.” I figured this woman would be in Panther Cave for a while.

***

Dad was up late worryin’. He know’d the weather was right. It was thinkable we might stay another day if we’d found hogs. But only one day, no more. His rules was simple. Tell him where you’ll be, for sure what day, and the time you’d be back. You’d get one day’s time after that day to get home. If not, he comes to find you. Because of that rule, Dad know’d somethin’ weren’t right. We’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 know’d it.

His pipe was near done. He’d paced back-and-forth on the back porch of our log home till he’d finished a full bowl of Weaver tobacco. He was studyin’ 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 lamb’s wool socks. Momma would fuss at him for that; him wearin’ socks bare, out on the wood porch boards full ‘a splinters and nail heads all over to snap the wool and tear it enough to need mendin’, just like it tore my knee meat when Dad poured me out on ‘em at my birthin’.

His blood was warm from bein’ inside. He’d just come out for a smoke and to see if maybe we was walkin’ in since dark had just settled. His mind told him we should be back. We would ‘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 shinin’ bright, it bein’ a dark night with no moon. He silently hoped we weren’t havin’ to travel since Old Man Moon was sleepin’. He hated tellin’ Momma ‘bout things that caused her worry. Us bein’ uncommon late would truly do that.

He went back inside to where she was rockin’ by the fire readin’. 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, “All of ‘em say the same thing on the inside so one was all we needed.” Believe you me, ours was big enough to service everybody in the family, guests, too, when they come.

“Celia,” Dad said, as much to the fire as to Momma, takin’ a seat on the hearth in front of her. She was rockin’.

“We must talk, Celia. Jeb and Wolf should ‘a been home by now.”

She looked at him over her book, “Yes, 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?”





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