The clap had come from the North. Not a loud penetrating sound, though. A faint, barely audible pop that seemed more ghost like than real. Something that was carried on the wind. It was like a whisper that was more discerned in one's own mind rather than actually heard. Perhaps the man would not have even noticed it at all if he hadn't already been facing that direction studying the thin stream of smoke as it ascended upward from the valley below only to mingle with the low hanging clouds.
It had been raining on and off all morning and the sky was a dim grey even now, making it more difficult to see the wispy trail as it fingered its way up, seemingly reaching for something it needed before disappearing like blood dissolving in a fast moving stream. He shuddered as the brisk autumn wind cut beneath the neck of his duster. It seemed to be making circles around him, coming from everywhere all at once.
Nunley Mountain was a beautiful place in the Fall. To Ethanim Cobb it was the most beautiful place on Earth, second only to his home back in Tellico. It wasn't really a mountain. Not like the ones back home that stood high and proud standing above the clouds. These were plateaus. A chain of formations that protruded from the valley floor but never made peaks. They were higher than hills but lacked the altitude of the mountain ranges of home back in North Carolina. To the locals, however, these were mountains.
If you didn't believe that, then all one had to do is tell a local it wasn't. The wiry tough boys that lived in these hills could convince you pretty quick that they were. Fighters lived here. Survivors lived here. This was their final stand and they would hold it. They were all men who had nowhere else to run. Men just like him.
As Cobb sat on the shelf that extended from the side of the plateau, he considered the situation. The smoke looked more than normally produced from a fireplace and most folks around here didn't usually start a fire till December. If he was guessing right, someone's cabin or barn was burning. He kind of hesitated because folks around here tended to their own problems. It'd do a man good to tend to his own business. You go snooping around the wrong person's cabin, at the wrong time, and see the wrong things then you could get put on the wrong side of the grass pretty quick; right or wrong.
None the less, Cobb was quite sure that the cabin was that of young Colton Nunnaly and the thought of something happening to the kid caused his stomach to churn unpleasantly. Of course, the moniker 'kid' didn't quite seem right coming from him. Ethanim was only two years older than the younger man he'd been raised with, yet he had seen a lot more in his time than Cousin Colt ever had.
"Well," he said to the horse more than himself, "I've got to make sure he's ok. He may need help; I can't ignore it."
Turning the dun down the mountain, the horse bounded like he was born for these rugged hills and made the descent seem effortless. Within minutes the horse and rider were on the bottom and on a direct path to whatever lay ahead.
Covering two miles over the next fifteen minutes, Cobb was approaching the place where Colton's small cabin had been built. A pretty little place next to the stream that flowed out of the gulf between the mountains which provided all the water necessary for the young man and his animals. Colton was only fourteen when Cobb came from the East to stay with Uncle Tom up on the mountain. Over the past couple of years, they had seen each other at the school that Aunt Elizabeth had forced him to attend and the family dances occasionally. They had become good friends yet they hadn't made time to go hunting together or anything. The only reason Cobb knew this was probably Cole's place is because Cole had described his plans in detail while he was building it and told him how to get there. He constantly asked Cobb to come visit but somehow he just never quite made it.
Cobb felt a distinct prickling feeling on his scalp and the back of his neck. A second sense seemed to be warning him of some unknown danger. Peering through the trees, his suspicions were confirmed. Cole's cabin was burnt to the foundation and he didn't see any sign of the boy. Two horses were tied to a rail just in front of the little barn that he had never seen before. Strange, Cobb thought, he knew about everyone's horses that lived in this cove and the surrounding hills.
Careful to keep quiet, Cobb, slid silently out of the saddle tying the ends of the reins and drooping them loosely across the saddle horn before removing his duster and tying it across the back of the saddle. "Stay put, Breeze," he said to the horse, stroking the sides of his neck, "I may need you in a hurry so listen sharp." The horse bobbed its head as if he understood what his master was saying.
Crouching low, he kept to the trees and bushes circling to the right. Being half Cherokee and raised as part of the land itself, silent movement was second nature to him. Many times over the last couple years he had snuck into ol' man Anderson's whiskey still and fetched himself a quart of Tennessee's finest while Anderson lay asleep mere feet away. He never knew that Ethanim was ever there. At least that's what he told himself. Anyway, he was good.
As he approached the back of the place where the house stood smoldering in the cloud dampened evening, he surveyed the surroundings. Disheveled skeletons of charred furniture and tables lay as jeweled heaps of glowing embers in the midst of the ashes, but he saw nothing to suggest his friend was in the rubble. Listening closely, he could hear laughter coming from the barn. Did they have Cole in there? What were they doing to him?
As he looked around, he realized that he had a bit of a problem. From the house to the barn was a distance of about 50 yards. There were no trees, no grass, no ways to hide himself while he closed that gap. The only thing that he had going for him was that it was a cloudy day, otherwise, the sun would silhouette him and he'd be completely exposed. He would be anyway he thought dryly.
He darted back behind the rock that he had crouched behind on his approach as the barn door suddenly flew open knocking over a pitchfork that stood leaning against the wall just seconds before. Watching and listening, he saw a man exit. A tall man. He walked clumsily but with deliberation towards the bay mare which stood at the hitching rail. Reaching out to the saddle bag, the man pulled out a bottle, uncorked it with yellow teeth and splashed the contents down his greasy brown matted up beard before taking a couple long pulls. The bottle shook like he had a palsy in his left hand that Cobb noted as the man swallowed. The tremor continued as he wiped his sleeve on the back of his hand against his chin, coughed a little, stoppered the bottle, and returned it to its hiding place.
Cobb's heart froze as the man gazed directly at him across the saddle. Those eyes. Good God, those eyes were the evilest things that he had ever seen. They were the eyes of the damned. They peered at him commanding him to run yet Cobb stood stock still, refusing to give even a hint from the only cover he had. His breath suddenly started increasing.
Dang it, not now. Not now! He thought to himself as sweat began to bead up on his forehead. He hated when this happened. His breath always started getting out of control when he was playing hide and seek with his friends. It always got him caught. He had to control it. It would get him killed today. Those eyes kept boring into the shadows and squinting. The pale blue of those eyes could be seen even from this distance.
Breathe slow, he told himself, in and out through your nose. Softly, quietly, slowly. Get it under control. Those shards of impenetrable blue pierced everything. Cobb almost felt completely naked from the intensity of the gaze, but then they moved slightly. First to the left, then back towards him, past him, and then right. Suddenly, Cobb realized that he had not really been spotted. The man just sensed his presence, yet he had not located him. Not yet.
"Where you at, Tobe?" a reedy voice from inside the barn yelled. "I need that rope!"
"I saw sumpim'!" he said, "Leastways, I thought I saw sumpim'."
"Don't get all jumpy-like on me, Tobe." Said the voice from the barn," Ain't nobody that knows we're here. Bring me that rope."
The man called Tobe took a couple more passes with his demonic gaze, turned and snatched a rope from the saddle horn of the bay and disappeared back into the barn. Just as the door slammed, Cobb leaped to a crouching position and covered the distance as fast as he could, coming to a stop near the closest wall. He then laid down and rolled beneath the building. It only took a matter of seconds to complete the dash and Cobb did it without as much as breaking a single twig. Right at that same moment, the door of the barn flew back open and Tobe jumped out. Bringing a double barreled shotgun to his shoulder, he fired both barrels. Cobb could not believe how fast this action had been. It was like Tobe had materialized like the demon he was and the rock that he had been crouching behind exploded sending sand rock shrapnel every direction.
"Well, did you get it then?" said the crackling voice in the barn. "Was it Wyatt Earp? Ahhahaha"
Tobe just stared at the bare spot on the ground. The evil blue eyes giving over to unbelieving surprise. "There's nothin' there Kale." He said, "I know I saw somebody. I know I did."
Kale had come out now looking at the rock dust and debris. "Well then, looks like that shotgun just plumb blowed him into thousands of tiny lil' pieces and there's nothing left. Ahahahh" Kale wheezed, laughing at the steely eyed man, "You're drunk, Tobe. Now get back in here and help me with this mutt. I think he's got the phobi. Might need to be put down." And once more he lapsed into raspy laughter.
Cobb knew things were about to go from bad to worse and he was going to have to go into this barn and it wasn't going to be pretty. He'd never been afraid of a fight, no matter how unfair it was going to be. He had come from a whole line of tough people and Ethanim himself was no exception.
In 1840 the state of Tennessee was only forty-four years old. Many things had taken place since the turn of the century for the young state which included the forced removal of the five civilized nations from their homelands in the Southeast to the newly established reservations in the Oklahoma Territory. Most of whom were Cobb's family.
The Cobbs were a Cherokee family from Tellico and many had moved to Oklahoma willingly before the forced removal only to send messengers back to warn the family not to come and informing them that the conditions promised were not the reality. Ethanim's parents had held their ground till the last when the officers finally herded them up like cattle and forced them to march over 800-miles along the Northern Trail of the Trail of Tears to the unpromised land. His father had left him in the care of the Thomas and Elizabeth Nunnally who had once resided near the Yadkin River in what is now North Carolina.
In 1809 the Nunnally's had sold their land and traveled to what is now known as Nunley Mountain in Warren County, Tennessee. A month before the removal, James Cobb had gotten his ol' mule packed up with provisions and sent his son to Tennessee with directions and a tearful goodbye. His mother giving him her only copy of a Bible had said, "I never could read it, but it's still been a comfort for me anytime that I could find someone else who could read it to me. Give Elizabeth a big hug for me when you get there." At the age of 16 Cobb had set out to Tennessee not knowing if he'd ever see his parents again.
The Nunnally's, Nunley's and Nunnerley's were all kinfolk and were wonderful people to boot. They were mixed bloods themselves which allowed them to pass as Americans or Black Dutch and keep their homes secure. Not without their own fights and struggles, however. Needless to say, Tennessee was just as wild, dangerous, and untamed of a place during these years as anywhere else on the continent. The California Gold Rush was still nearly a decade away so the thousands of riffraff, outlaws, and just plain reprobates that would eventually head to the Golden State were still spreading their mischief through the Southeastern states looking for unsuspecting gullible settlers to prey on.
Cobb lay beneath the barn floor trying to collect his thoughts. What to do now? Sounds of scraping footsteps and boisterous laughter came from above. He often had to clench his teeth as a lone cockroach or cave cricket slipped beneath his collar or between the buttons of his shirt, tickling him in sensitive places. Sometimes he heard cries from overhead. He had never heard a cry of pain from Cole's voice, but with a little imagination he could recognize Cole-like qualities in the sounds that he was now hearing. Rage threatened to overcome his own logic as he considered it. They weren't cries of fear, as a child would cry after having a nightmare. No, they were cries of pain followed by waves of maniacal laughter from Kale that seemed to never stop.
Kale was pacing back and forth, chuckling to himself under his breath in a worryingly unhinged manner. Cobb had to do something, and soon. Otherwise, Cole may be dead and these hounds of Hell would be on another trail, sniffing out the innocent, and bellowing out the deep growls that can only originate from the dark crevices of the damned. The sharp intakes of breath from Cole had now grown ragged and the cries had gone eerily quiet.
Noticing the diminishing cadence of his friend's breathing, Cobb finally pulled himself out of the downward spiral toward hyperventilation. Focusing himself and setting his jaw at the task before him, he was now coiling like a pit viper preparing to strike.
The progress beneath the floor seemed painstakingly slow, but he crept on in spite of the bugs and spiders. He needed a plan. He needed a gun! Suddenly, he saw a slight beam of light. It wasn't much. Perhaps a knot hole in the floor but just maybe he could risk a glance into the barn to sum up the situation. He could hear the men's voices, now barely audible, taunting and laughing.
"How you holdin' up runt?" Kale sneered curling his lip like something stank, "Where's your tribe saveege? Ain't you got no friends you filthy lil cur?" As he was laughing Cobb heard the voice of Tobe cackle and he made out the faint shuffle of his drunken feet as he walked across the floor of the small barn. "Would you be the friend of a saveege, Kale? Saveeges ain't got no friends. Saveeges are too filthy for even the buzzards."
Cobb silently slid closer to the knot hole. Nervous sweat beading up on his forehead. Propping up on his elbow, he peered in trying to focus on the scene before him. Kale was leaning against the door of the barn with a bottle in his hand. His head hung stupidly and he giggled incessantly. Not at anything in particular it seemed. Just laughing for the sake of laughing. Tobe was now standing within inches of Cole who was a pitiful sight. Ethanim might not have recognized the younger man if he had not seen the moccasins that Cole wore. He'd helped Cole make those shoes the summer before. The boy was always hunting and moccasins are the finest footwear for silent stalking ever made. Cole was sure proud of his. He had since added a few chevron beads to the ties, a personal touch.
They had stripped him bare from the waist up, leaving the boy dressed in nothing but his moccasins and a pair of newfangled denim trousers. They were the kind the coal miners wore in the mountains all around. Cobb noted that their indigo was still dark and they were turned up at the cuff, he'd not had a chance to alter them yet. Cobb remembered how happy Cole had been to get them on his trip to Moffit Station about a month earlier. They were now discolored by dark streaks of dried blood that came from nasty wounds across Cole's chest and torso. The blood had streamed down bare skin, wicked into the waist band to the point of oversaturation and then streaked down both legs in sick crooked uneven fingers.
Without any warning, Tobe rolled his shoulder into a massive back hand that seemed to lift Cole completely off the floor. He would have collapsed to the ground had it not been for the rope that was tied around both wrists and thrown around the rafter. It had sufficient tension to hold Cole just high enough that his toes only touched the ground with his shoulders and wrists holding the bulk of his bodyweight.
Another roar of laughter poured from Kale, who swayed under the heavy burden of liquor. His wheezy voice was slurred to the point Cobb had to listen carefully to understand as he spoke. "Look at him twitch, like a poppin' bug. His lip bobs like a baby robbin's butt. Whatchu say we scalp him, Tobe?" More laughter crackled out across the barn that had been transformed into a makeshift torture chamber.
"Soon, Kale," Tobe said with a contemptuous smile, "Soon but first, I want to see the fear in his eyes. I want him to tremble and squirm like the rotting carcass he is. He's been tough, but I'm going to break him. He's going to look at me pleading for mercy. Begging me to kill him so the pain will stop. I want him to look into my eyes and see his damnation. I need him to scream and beg before he dies. I want him to 'pologize to me for being born a filthy breed." Inching up real close to Cole, he gazed at him through those depraved eyes, "You hearin' me ain't ya?", he asked, "I'm goin' ta' have fun with you."
The only reply he received from Cole was a huge flying wad of blood and spit that clouded his vision and stung the eyes that seconds before had radiated so much evil. Surprised by such a reaction, he raised the hand clutching the bottle and brought it down on Cole's head with a blow that sent whiskey and glass ricocheting away into the dark recesses of the barn. Cobb cussed under his breath as he himself flinched from the ferocity and brutality of the attack. He was out of time. He had to do something.
Dang, he felt stupid. Why didn't he have a gun? There was fighting and killing all over the country but he had gotten so used to the security of Nunley Mountain and the tight knit family. He had let his guard down. As he mentally chastised himself, his mind began forming a plan from the resources he had. Slowly and quietly, he slithered along the ground beneath the barn.
Cobb was tired but he was a long way from spent. His muscles had been toned and hardened from the hours spent off stacking at the lumber mill and throwing hay on the farm. Occasionally he broke horses for miscellaneous people and that built a man's lungs as well as coaxed out hard muscles that lay at his mid-section in two neat rows. He was young, and while he was inexperienced, he was smart enough to know that he could be killed. He needed a miracle. Suddenly his leg brushed something. Looking down he saw a small wooden box. Reaching in, he withdrew his hands excitedly. Cole, you little devil, he thought to himself. Dynamite.
Tobe still stood in front of the bloody body of Colton Nunnaly which swung gently as if stirred by a summer breeze. He stared at the boy with wide eyed hate, Cole not even giving him the satisfaction of flinching at his glare. He took a sinister step toward the kid.
"You know what is coming to ya don't ya?" he started, "I'm gonna kill you but it's gonna be the hardest thing you ever did and when I get through with you, you'll just be lost fer ever and ever cause God hates injuns and he hates them heathen gods that injuns worship, and dem' injun gods hates white folk and you're even hated by them cause of your whorin' ma was half white. Nobody wants you in this world or the next. Hell boy, I know Satan and even he is beggin' me to spare you. Seems they don't even want your kind in Hell. You kyarny Mangy mongrel. The way I see it, Me and Kole is doin the world a service. Makin' room for folks who deserve to be here. This land has been cursed by the presence of your kind long enough."
Tobe caught and steadied himself on the tail of the rope dangling from the rafters, as he staggered. The sudden change caused Colton to lift slightly farther off the ground, straining his terribly aching shoulders and arms even more.
"Firs' thing I'm going to do is cut yer eyelids off." He said with more laughter bubbling out from the drunken Kale, still leaning against the barn door. "That way you can't close em. You'll have to watch me while I scalp ye." Tobe continued.
"You'll have to see me smilin' the whole time. That way you'll know how much I'm enjoyin' myself. I wouldn't want you to think that you were goin' through all this for nothin'. Then I'm gonna break all your fingers and your legs and I'm gonna start pulling your teeth out. Not all at once. I wouldn't do you that way. Naw, I'm gonna pull them slowly one at a time." Stabbing a knife into the pole just over Cole's head as punctuation, Tobe grinned wickedly, his icy eyes themselves glittering like freshly sharpened daggers. "Now, I'm just gonna let yer imagination dwell on what I'm gonna do with this when I'm ready for it."
"Tarnation, Tobe" said Kale with an uneasy, wheezing chuckle, propping his elbows on the inner crossbar of the barn door and leaning back to make himself more comfortable. "I'd sure hate to be on your bad side."
"I'm easy to get along with, Kale" said Tobe, "All you got to do is be is something other than an injun' or some other abomination. Now, why don't you loan me your skinning knife? I figure it'd be ideal for eyelids."
There was pause. Tobe's face flushing with a sudden wave of anger at his partner's stupor, spun to face the scarecrow of a man who had stopped laughing. "Don't just stand there, I said let me see yer..." He noticed something didn't look right. The laughter had not only fallen silent but the inebriated man had an expression on his face that was out of place. Kind of a mixture of shock and fear but motionless. "What's wrong with you, Kale?" There was no answer, the man just stared blankly past his shoulder.
Tobe glanced around to see what could shock Kale dumb and mute. When he could discern nothing, he walked across the floor and grabbed Kale by the shoulders, shaking the man violently, clenching his teeth, angrier than ever. They were hard men. This was unacceptable.
Kale didn't resist the provoking of Tobe. Instead he fell forward. Tobe stumbled back from his drunken friend only to discover that Kale was never going to laugh again. His eyes widened as Kale's lifeless body slumped to the floor. Tobe could see the bloody prongs of a pitch fork shoved vertically through the crack between the boards in the barn door. Just a second before, they had been buried inches deep into the back of Kale who now lay dead at Tobe's feet. At the same instant the barn doors flew open, banging against the walls and the figure of Ethanim Cobb stood silhouetted in the opening holding a stick of dynamite in his outstretched hand. It was lit.
"You got a short time to make an eternal decision, Mister" yelled Cobb, "I suggest you get that boy cut down and mighty fast. Otherwise, we are all going to face our judgment. I got a feeling that you ain't ready. Knowing where you're headed."
Tobe's demonic blue eyes squinted. The fear quickly fading leaving nothing but hate. "Just who in blazes are you?" He roared, spit flying through clinched teeth.
"Absolutely none of your business. You gonna stand there and talk or are we gonna jes' sit here and wait til' God shows up? Looks like we got bout thirty seconds." Cobb actually estimated that it would be more like 2 minutes. He hoped he was right.
Cussing under his breath, Tobe ran to the back, yanked the knife from the pole, and cut the rope. Cole's body fell like a sack of potatoes to the floor. Tobe almost descended on Cole with his knife but abstained himself. At least twenty seconds had passed and he still needed to get out of the barn. Cole bounded up with speed that Cobb wouldn't have even thought possible considering the beating the boy had taken and the loss of blood. He clawed at the knife still clutched in the outlaw's hands, slicing through his bonds like a razor blade. Throwing off the ropes, he ran past Cobb, jerked the reins of both horses from the hitching rail, and leaped into the saddle of the bay. At the last possible moment, Cobb threw the dynamite into the barn, slammed the door jamming it with a shovel that was propped up next to the place where the pitch fork had once stood. Swiftly he leaped into the saddle of the grey and shouted, "INENA!" as he dug his heels into the sides of the horse and both men stormed off. The raging screams of the outlaw could be heard over the hoof beats.
They were barely 60 yards away in a dead run when the barn boomed with one explosion followed by another in rapid succession. The second blast being larger as the stash beneath the floor ignited. The horses ran in blind panic, now. Like the Devil himself was on their heels. The Devil, Cobb thought, just went to Hell in a barn. The dun's head jerked as it heard a shrill whistle coming from the direction of the escaping horses. Without a moment's hesitation, he darted in a dead run. Closing the distance between him and the two boys with remarkable speed. They let the outlaw horses carry them into the gathering darkness of twilight. Hell bent for safety.
The dun was a fine animal. It had been a product of an accidental cross up in Kentucky. The Kentuckians loved horse races and were always trying to breed the fastest animals. Thomas Mason was making a name for himself as having the finest race horses in North America and had gotten himself obsessed with the sport.
A few years ago, Mason had acquired a mustang from out west somewhere which proved wilder than a bar tramp in Ross's Landing. He was used to tease the mares only. Mason wouldn't allow such a horse to actually breed his prize mares, but the animal was useful. The mustang was used to encourage the brood stock to cycle faster preparing them for breeding and it kept the prize stallions from getting kicked or lamed in the process. If the savage horse was lamed, it could be put down with only a minimal loss. However, the wily ol' stallion done a little bit more than teasing.
During the night, while the hands were asleep, the mustang had simply butted his chest against the barbed wire fence and walked through it. The strands making kind of a high pitched tone as they stretched and snapped under the tension. Mason was furious. By the end of the night his best mare was bred and the mustang never seen again.
Four years later, Cobb had showed up in town with a couple other guys from Tennessee. They had come up looking to purchase a lumber mill and Mason had begged him to take this demon horse and even paid him five dollars to promise that he'd never reveal where the animal came from. That had been a year ago and the training process was anything but gentle on them both, but now they made an unstoppable team of man and horseflesh, inseparable, with deep respect for each other.
The moon shone brightly off of Sarah's dark hair as she made her way up towards the house from the barn. She loved spending time there on a quiet evening like this one. The cool of the night air mingled with the crisp smell of leaves and the warm scent of horses as she walked. Her bare feet soaked in the newly fallen dew as she crossed the lawn, wiggling her toes in the grass.
There were always chores to do on her parent's homestead and sometimes the work was hard. Even at this hour of the night there were things to be tended to. She had been checking on a mare that was due to foal any day now. Being as this was her first foal and the time was getting so near, Sarah had taken to walking down and checking every couple hours. It added to her normal duties but she reveled in it.
Just like her brothers before her, Sarah had her daily chores. She did everything from cleaning the stalls, spreading sawdust, keeping straw in the nesting boxes, collecting eggs, and the like to hauling water from the well, washing the clothes and tending to the garden. She liked it though. It was good work and it felt good to feel the sun on her face and the sweat on her brow. There was something calming about it, comforting in its own way. Sometimes she liked just curling up in the hay loft to read a book or write in her journal, sometimes she would even fall asleep propped up against the sturdy timbers.
She loved being around the animals. Her Pa had even let her pick out her own hen and it was the most beautiful hen in the whole lot. He had traded for ten of the fat speckled birds on his trip to Moffit Station with two of her brothers last month. Joseph had picked him a glossy black fighting cock and Colton had gotten one just like it along with a couple of pullets of the same breed.
They claimed that these black birds had somehow come from a man's private stock. Some man by the name of James Shy had been developing the breed in Lexington, Ky. Her brothers were always fighting roosters around the mountain with their friends. When they got home, they bragged about winning every match they could enter and vowed to raise this breed of feathered warriors for the rest of their lives, and they were the only folk in Tennessee that had them.
As she crunched up the leafy path headed towards the house, enjoying the sound of freshly fallen leaves underfoot, she heard another sound. She turned to listen more carefully as she identified the sound of running horses approaching. Who would be running so fast in the dark and, more importantly, who would come to visit at this hour?
Standing still in the yard, facing the direction of the rapidly oncoming riders, Sarah squinted into the darkness trying to see. Suddenly the familiar figures of Colton and Ethanim materialize from the inky night. They were riding unknown horses, followed closely by Ethanim's dun. Ethanim had a hand on Cole's shoulder as if he were trying to prevent him from falling. Her eyes widened and her heart skipped when she realized that her brother was covered with blood and from all appearances, dang near dead.
"Pa! Pa!" she screamed as she hurried up to the riders that were now slowing as they reached the front of the house.
John Nunnaly came running out on the porch with nothing on but his trousers. Galluses dangling down the sides of his massive legs and around his back. He was average in height but strong built. Even for a middle aged man, the muscles in his arms were chiseled with years of hard labor, supported by massive shoulders, and a stump of a neck. His face was lean and hard.
Concern and horror filled his warm brown eyes and sweat instantly popped out in the balding area that stood out of his raven black hair like an island. The sides neatly trimmed and slicked back. His wife followed closely behind, clutching a shawl around her shoulders. Her silver hair glittered under the lantern light and her face seemed to age twenty years as her eyes took in her son's wounds.
"What happened?" His voice thrummed with deep baritones that seemed to vibrate the structure of the porch and the very fibers of Ethanim's body. The Nunnalys gathered around their fallen son and began to clean his wounds. Ethanim started to recount the events of the evening beginning with his observation of the smoke and the sound of the shot. Suddenly, he started. The shot! He had completely forgotten that he had heard the shot. Had they shot Cole?
With all the cuts, marks, and dried blood, it was no easy task to find the wound. The bullet had entered Cole's lower right side making a nasty exit just to the right of his naval.
"Filthy cowards, they shot him in the back!" Ethanim exclaimed. His hands shaking from anger and emotion, the tears welling up in his eyes and threatening to overflow. "I bet they shot him while he was running to the barn for cover. Lord, he's bled a lot Uncle John. I killed em. I killed em both for what they did. Hang on Cole, we're gonna to get you patched up. Hold on, you tough ol' rascal"
Sarah noticed that Ethanim was getting borderline hysterical, his breathing coming in little shallow gasps, and gently laid her hand on Ethanim's arm. His heart was pounding and she could feel it through the young man's hard muscles as if he had a ten-pound hammer working away in his chest. He must have seen some and been part of some terrible things.
She squeezed his arm gently with her delicate fingers. "Ethanim, let me and Ma work. You've done all you can do. Thank you for bringing my brother home." She said softly. As Sarah looked up at the young man through her dark eyelashes, her own tears threatened to overwhelm her.
"She's right, son." Said Uncle John. "I have to go fetch the doctor. Come on in the house and get cleaned up and calmed down some. You've been through hell by the looks of it."
"No!" shouted Ethanim, springing to his feet. "I'll go get Doc Adams."
John looked at Ethanim with shock. "Boy, you're worn out. Doc's place is three miles from here."
"Don't matter," he said, climbing into the saddle of the dun, "I got the fastest horse in the state of Tennessee and he sees better at night than an owl. I can be there and back before you can even get half way there after dressing yourself and saddling your own horse. I'll be back as fast as I can. I'm riding on The Breeze." With that he thumped the dun's sides and both rider and horse evaporated into the night like a ghostly apparition, leaving nothing behind other than the sounds of fading hooves. The thunder of Cobb's retreat gave way to the groans of Cole laying on the porch in pain and the whispers of the praying and crying of a heart broke sister and a desperate mother trying to save her boy's life.
John Nunnaly sat on his porch three days later, smoking his pipe, and listening attentively to what Sheriff Carson had to say. Immediately after learning about the events in the cove, the sheriff had formed a group of men and high tailed it down the mountain to the place, led by Cobb. In spite of the warm autumn day, Carson shuddered as he recalled the scene upon their arrival.
The cabin had been a complete loss along with the barn. The acrid smell of wet ashes and burnt powder still mingled in the valley in spite of the rain that had continued through the night before. The remains of Kale had been quickly located and identified, they were laying on the ground ten yards from where the barn had sat the previous day. Evidently the blast from beneath the floor had just thrown the body and it was pretty much intact with a few singed places here and there.
Planks from the barn had shattered throwing a rain of splinters around the scene with a 70-yard radius. There were even broken planks buried in the sides of trees growing up the hillside behind the barn and many simply driven into the hillside itself. The destruction had been swift and complete.
"John," said Sheriff Carson, "We searched the entire perimeter. We started little circles and continued 'till we were half a mile from the place every direction. The second body was never found."
Carson was a hard man. He'd had to deal with a lot of hard cases in Kentucky and West Virginia. The less inhabited parts of these mountains had some fine folks but there were some that were as lawless as they come. He and his friend Ephraim Hatfield had sure blazed those West Virginia hills. A few horse thieves and one rapist died at his hand, but one man had been sent to prison. Carson shuttered. He had never met a man who had radiated more evil in his life. Just being close to him turned one's stomach. He hoped that he'd never have to see Nester Williams again. If that was his real name. Those Hatfields were sure enough the type of people that this country needed, though, if it was going to grow.
Last year, Ephraim's wife had given birth to a little boy. He sure was a pretty little feller. They named the boy William, after him. Carson had sure hoped the boy had a better shot in life than he had.
Soon after the boy was born, like many others, Carson packed up and moved out for some new scenery. He wasn't drawn the same direction, however. He wasn't after the same thing. As tough men pushed into new frontiers, many headed South to Georgia. It seemed that a prospector named Jesse Hogan had struck pay dirt in Ward's Creek near Dahlonega. It was also rumored that Frank Logan struck gold in Duke's Creek, White County.
Either way, the Eastern gold rush created problems all over the Southern states. People were having to move from their homes, being pushed out by greed. To stay and fight only meant you would be murdered by it. Tennessee was now a clustered mix of immorality and lawlessness, and William Carson hoped that he could do his part in bringing protection and order to innocent folk.
John Nunnaly was now looking at Carson through squinted eyes.
"So you're sayin' the other man didn't die in the blast?" Shaking his fist at the Sheriff's face vigorously he said, "You tellin' me the man that shot my boy, this Tobe somebody, survived a blast like that and remains a threat to my family?"
"No, John." Carson replied smoothly. "I can't confirm that he was killed is what I'm telling you."
"What's the difference?" John's voice boomed.
"A lot," said Carson leaning forward and placing a caring hand on John's knee. "He could very well be dead. There may have been nothing left to find if the dynamite went off directly beneath him and the rain washed whatever was left off, or someone found the body and buried it somewhere without discovering Kale. Heck, all I'm saying is that we cannot just assume he's dead."
"If he is alive, Sheriff, I'll kill him a lot slower than he was going to kill Colton." John's eyes narrowed, "I'll make him pay."
The sheriff leaned back and peered at John. "I know how you feel. I'm fighting strong emotions myself, John, but vigilante justice has never been right or lawful. You'll be no different if you do that. If he's alive, he needs to go before a judge."
John stood up and stared across the pasture then turned slowly. "Cole, has laid in there slipping in and out of consciousness for four days now. Doc Adams says it's only by the grace of the almighty God and sheer grit that he's still alive. If I find the man that did this, I am the judge." With that, John Nunnaly stood up and walked slowly back into the house.
William Carson sat on the porch looking across the beautiful home place that John had built with his own hands. These men were not to be reckoned with and Carson knew it well. They were God fearing men who loved their families with everything in them. Standing up, he looked at the door and said loudly. "Just don't let me know anything about it. I have a job to do." With that he stepped of the porch. The leather creaked as he put his foot in the stirrup and climbed on his horse. Turning down the path, he slowly rode away.
The rain had subsided mostly. Half way up the mountain side, a rock protruded out several feet creating a cavernous space underneath. A light fog had settled along the ground and twilight created a blue haze that added to the serenity of the scene. From time to time a small bird flew past chirping and a squirrel could be seen tapping tree limbs above. It was really cold this time of morning.
The roof of the overhang had been blackened from years of campfires from Cherokees that not so many years ago had dwelt in these rock houses and the intervening years of sojourners spending occasional nights as they passed through. It was just above a winding trail through the mountains and made a perfect place to get out of the rain for travelers like the figure who lay huddled there now.
His body shivered uncontrollably at the chill and the man was dangerously near hypothermia. Raising up clumsily and with much effort he drug himself painfully closer to the small fire that was burning. Adding another damp stick to the already struggling fire, he sat staring and trying to wrap his mind around all that had happened.
Anger filled his veins like the blood pulsing through them. His hatred pulling him down deeper now than he had ever been before. He had never in his life needed something so badly as the rage and his lust for revenge consumed him. He had been beaten. He had been made to panic. He had tasted fear. Hate flashed across his face as the flames flickered, reflecting in his irises adding to the pure unadulterated evil on every feature.
A light rain began to fall again as he sat brooding, he pulled the wide brim of his hat low, obscuring his features in shadow. It wasn't over. He felt the charred hole in his sleeve and flexed his stiffly bandaged hand. No, it was far from over. The fire sizzled as the raindrops fell but there was nothing but the purest fire of wrath from those icy blue eyes. Despite the fact that he was sure he had at least one ear drum ruptured, he heard or maybe felt the rolling of distant thunder.