Warwoman’s Choice

Christmas 1992

By Fred Brown

Unega, a young warrior, fiercely painted, peered from the forest. His dark eyes focused on the man and woman who were talking in front of the log cabin. It was mid-afternoon and the sun cast long shadows, making the man and woman appear larger than they were.

The young Cherokee warrior moved quietly along a parallel line with the man and woman. His eyes never left them, but there was no sound from his movements as he slipped through the evergreens and large hardwood trees, some of which were as large around as some of the boulders in the mountains above.

“I won’t be too long at the meeting,” the man said, squinting up at the sun, and holding a hand to shade his eyes.

“Afterall this is Christmas. Get the children together and we will celebrate tonight at my return.”

Naomi, the woman, smiled at her husband.

“The last time you men met, it was two days before we saw you again. Please, John, you men deal quickly with whatever it is you must and get home soon. The children are excited about Christmas.”

John Gant, a rawboned Scotsman, looked at Naomi and shook his head.

“You know these meetings are important, woman. We are having a gracious plenty of trouble from the Indians, and we must ever be on the alert.”

Naomi nodded. She knew, all too well. Several cabins in the Cove had been burned recently by the troubles, which never seemed to cease, despite great efforts to have peace with the Indians.

“Yes, John, I know. But it ’tis Christmas. The children are eager for it. Return home as soon as you can.”

John Gant leaned down to kiss Naomi. At six feet, four inches, he was taller than anyone in the Cove. His height and natural abilities made him a Cove leader. He was always sought out when members of Tuckaleechee Cove, the place the Indians called Tikwalisti, met to discuss civil matters, or courses of defense.

The year was 1778. Very few families had ventured into this part of North Carolina, this lower end near the Old Fields where the Cherokee thrived. Between the war with the British and the Indians, it seemed that the whole countryside was on fire.

And, the Indians were becoming bolder and much more savage. John Gant, who was well-known and trusted by the Cherokee since he had spent many years in the South Carolina trades with them, was unable to quench their thirst for savagery. John understood the Indian frustration at the ever encroaching of the white man. He knew well that more and more people moving into the flush country on the frontier also meant more trouble for not only those who were already here, but also those on their way.

As he moved to shoulder his flintlock, Naomi caught his arm.

“John. Don’t let them talk you into treating with the Indians again. It is someone else’s turn. And, it is too dangerous now. And, remember, it is Christmas Eve.”

John Gant, his bright blue eyes glistening in the afternoon sun, cradled his longrifle in his arms and grabbed

Naomi around her slim waist. He looked squarely into her green eyes and, with that familiar Scottish brogue that rang with the genes of his Highland clan, chuckled.

“Naomi. Don’t worry. I’ll be returning forthrightly. I promise ye. It is not a long meeting they are a-wanting. I have already spoken to my friend, Jesse Adair. He says we have only a few things to discuss before our next long hunt, but it is an urgent meeting.

“Now, I must be off, or I won’t be back in time for some of your applecakes.”

John Gant cradled the musket and began the easy, long strides that had also given rise to his reputation of a man who could walk down a pack animal. He was almost into the woodline before Naomi waved a last goodbye.

Turning toward the cabin, she took a few steps and then looked over her shoulder.

John Gant had already melted into the forest and was gone, as if he had never been there. For a moment, Naomi Gant listened to the quiet around her. Her breath pushed smoked in front of her. It was only then that she noticed the cold.

But, it wasn’t the blue cold winter day that made her shiver. It was a feeling that she couldn’t shake from her shoulders that caused her to quiver until she entered the cabin and felt the warmth of the large hearth fire wash over her. John and Gabriel were playing in front of the fire. The sweet smells of deer stew bubbling in the large black iron pot over the fire caught her full as she moved toward the fireplace to check on the meal that would make up their entire Christmas feast tomorrow.

*****

John Gant let the big musket drop to his right hand, catching it in the middle of the stock. From this position, he could quickly throw it to his shoulder and fire and reload in no more than 10 seconds, a feat he had practiced over and over again.

The large knife at his belt, the one he had made from hammered steel with its buffalo bone handle, felt comforting nudging against his side. The knife was well-known in the Cove and among the Indians because of its size.

It wasn’t quite as large as an old cutlass, but it was bigger than most blades on the frontier. John Gant, who had fought with his clansmen in Scotland before being exiled to South Carolina, was an expert fighter. He was a marksmen about whom everyone bragged and his use of the big knife had already reached legendary proportion.

Because of his dexterity in military affairs, he had been named to head the local militia, the home guard, and given the responsibility of forming the men to protect the Cove families while many others were away fighting the British.

John Gant had wanted to be among those going against the British to uphold the honor of his Highlandclan, but John Sevier, the most respected man on the frontier and the one everyone looked to as its leader, asked him personally to stay back and to make sure the Cove was adequately protected during the struggle with the British.

“The Cherokee have thrown in with the Crown. We will be fighting on two fronts. What you do here at home is just as important as what we do on the front line,” he had told John before leaving to lead the fight at Kings Mountain, South Carolina, where the men from the East Tennessee hills had gone to do what they could for the struggle against England’s treacherous policies toward the colonies.

It was a bitter thought, but John Gant came to realize over time that the homeguards were just as much in need as were the men battling the Redcoats. The Cherokee had been in a riotous mood now for some months. They were killing and burning with impunity. Just last week they has killed the Collins family and burned the cabin to the ground.

Two days before, the McAllisters had been scalped and left for dead. Their women had been taken off. Unfortunately, they were found later. It was not a pretty sight, since the Cherokee had killed in their tradition, no matter whether it was man, woman or child. It was still quite brutal.

As his thoughts turned to the meeting at Randolph’s Tavern, the hair on the back of his neck prickled. He, like most men on the frontier, had a sixth sense that were with them when they were awake as well as when they slept. Those who possessed the sense had the uncanny ability to tell when something wasn’t right, when a scene was out of place, or a sound that wasn’t natural.

John Gant pulled the hammer back on the flintlock, the one he called “Claymore,” and continued his sure-footed long strides up the animal trail. Soon, he would be to the creek and he knew that if he were to be ambushed, it would be before he came to the place the Cove people had begun calling Battle Creek, a place where the women did their washing with their battle sticks.

Once he crossed the creek, he would be in the safety of nearby cabins: the Johnsons, Carricks, Adams, and Campbells were within shouting distance of Battle Creek.

Just as he began to near the ridge top, the last rise before reaching the creek, he heard the unmistakable sound of a twig being broken. He knew that if it were an Indian, it was a signal to stop, otherwise, he never would have heard a thing. The Cherokee were quieter than animals in the forests. This he knew.

John Gant turned and staring him in the face was Unega. The stripes of warpaint streaking down his gaunt face struck a cold blow inside of John Gant. He knew this young warrior by reputation. He understood at once the meaning of the war stripes.

The two men stared at each other only briefly before John Gant spoke, making no move to his musket or the big knife at his side.

“Unega. I have heard of you. You are of the Blue People. I am honored to have known your chief many days past,” John Gant said in the language of the Indian he had learned from so many seasons on the trading trails with the tribes.

“Yes. I have heard of you as well. They call you Nunndihi, Pathkiller. I know you, Pathkiller.”

The young brave’s breath passed across John Gant’s cheek. It was cold. Not warm. He had been waiting for some time on the white man. Only a Cherokee, who from birth was thrown into the stream in the dead of winter, could endure the cold winters and be not bothered by it.

“Our elders say you are a white man we can trust. Our elders must see you.” Unega said.

John Gant eyed the Cherokee, whose name meant “White Man Killer.” He had an uneasy feeling about the Indian. It wasn’t that he couldn’t trust his word, for he had been sent to fetch him by the settlement’s elders, and he would not harm the white man until told to do so by the tribe’s old heads.

“You will come.”

It wasn’t a question, John Gant noticed.

****

John Gant nodded, indicating he would go with Unega to the Old Fields where he would meet with Hangingmaw and Doublehead, two of the most fearsome of Cherokee chieftains. Both were at war on the frontier with the white man and John Gant knew that this meeting had been called to discuss the future of pioneer settlements. The future of both the white man and the Cherokee.

Unega moved with the quietness of an owl. He made no noise as he walked. John Gant had no trouble in keeping up with the young brave, but he was still surprised at the stealth with which the Indian walked. Now he better understood why they were so successful at surprising the pioneers, many of whom were veteran Indian fighters. There was nothing to match this kind of familiarity with nature, for Unega moved in the twigs, brush and branches as if he were nature.

The two men ate up the ground, leaving the friendliness of Tuckaleechee Cove behind. John knew that he would be safe going in and leaving the Old Fields, but he would barely have time to return to signal a warning if his meeting failed to produce good results.

He wondered why now. Why had the chiefs decided to sit in council and smoke pipes now? They had been at war for the past two years with the pioneer families, burning, killing, scalping. It had been a bloody time on the frontier, despite treaties and despite John’s efforts to help the Cherokee and the fledgling government keep immigrants from moving into the lower part of North Carolina near Tanasi, the hunting fields held sacred by the Cherokee.

As they topped a ridge overlooking the Indian towns, John was struck by the number of roundhouses. There were hundreds. Many people had gathered here. Something was brewing for certain.

Unega stopped, holding out an arm in front of John.

“Before we go further, you must know that I did not agree with our elders to bring you in alive. But, you are known here and they wanted to talk. I am through talking with the white man.

“I will leave you now, John Gant. You can find your way into the settlement. When you finish with our elders, they will signal me. It will be that signal that determines whether you live or die.”

John Gant’s blue eyes flashed. He was not a man to scare easily. He looked straight into the Indians’ dark eyes, shaded and shrouded by the paint of war and the promise of death.

“I hope for your sake, Unega, that the signal is one of peace, for I will have no mercy on your soul should your elders fool me when I have come here under peaceful terms. I will reap a harsh vengeance upon you and your people should you or any of your clan take up arms against the people of the Cove.”

Unega smiled and turned without a word. He disappeared as if he were woods sprite.

****

John Gant waited a moment longer, thinking again about the Indian’s ability to use his environment, to squeeze every ounce out of it. He turned and walked quickly now over the ridge, down into Old Fields where the settlement was alive with warriors, women, children, dogs,cattle and, of course, the chieftains.

As he entered the settlement a young warrior, painted wildly, ran up to him shouting and raising a tomahawk in a menacing manner. Without flinching, John Gant raised his left hand in a friendly gesture and spoke in the Indian’s language.

“I have been called for by your chiefs and I come under peace. You are to take me to the council chambers.”

The young Indian, no more than 20 years old stopped.He had never heard a white man speak his own tongue before.

“I am Nunndihi.”

That stopped the brave. He had heard of Nunndihi. He quickly noted the large knife at Nunndihi’s side. This was the one he had heard of. He nodded and turned, motioning for John Gant to follow.

By this time, a large crowd of painted warriors had come up. Some were in various states of anger, others were curious, poking their tomahawks at John Gant, who only looked straight ahead as he walked down a gauntlet of fierce men on a fierce mission of destruction. John Gant realized now that Tuckaleechee Cove was in imminent danger of being attacked.

As he entered the council chamber, he turned to the young brave who had escorted him and made a sign with his hands that told the Indian that he was a man of honor and did his people proud. He turned and walked inside the large structure, a combination of logs, mud and hides.

Inside, as his eyes adjusted to the dark and smoke, he saw that this was not a council of peace, but a council of war. And, he was also stunned to see so many of the Cherokee Nation’s chiefs.

And, there was another true surprise. His old friend, Old Tassel was sitting in the circle. He had not seen Old Tassel, a legendary chieftain, for many years and thought him to be dead.

John Gant nodded to the circled chiefs. All of their eyes were on him as he took a position in the circle, after Hangingmaw motioned for the white man to sit. John also noticed that only Dragging Canoe, one of the most feared Cherokees on the frontier, was wearing the colors of war.

Chief Doublehead held up the pipe, waiting for the council medicine man to fill it with that special weed the Indians smoked in chambers.

As it was being filled, John Gant took the moment to take in the chief’s faces, studying them. He could tell that this was no ordinary meeting of the tribal chieftains, that he must succeed here or the people of the Cove would be destroyed, and his family with them.

As the pipe came to him, John Gant lifted and puffed. He had done this  many times in the past and always dreaded it for the weed was strong and bitter and almost made him sick to his stomach. Naomi would always laugh at the recounting of these tales, for she said John Gant’s stomach was able to hold anything and she didn’t understand why smoking could make him ill. But, it did, always, momentarily.

He passed the long pipe and waited for it to return to Doublehead.

“We are glad to see you, Nunndihi. We must speak to you about serious matters,” Doublehead began.

John Gant knew that he could not interrupt and would have to wait until all of the chiefs had had their say before he would be allowed to speak.

To break in, would be an affront, and he knew that Dragging Canoe was looking for an excuse to walk out of the council and begin again his war against the whites. He had been responsible for so many deaths already, his name had become the most dreaded on the frontier. John Gant had never encountered Dragging Canoe before and he well understood the reason now why he was so disliked. His look was as menacing as the crisp buzzing of a rattlesnake.

Dragging Canoe was larger than the other chiefs. His face had a broad scar down the left side. It is said that when he was just a baby, he began dragging a canoe toward the river, exhibiting early the qualities of a brave warrior. He was always ready to take up the bow against any intruder and his courage was never questioned.

“We have asked you here to tell us why you white people do not honor your own law,” Hangingmaw began.

“We treated with your governor Blount. He wrote it out on paper, saying that our lands south of Watauga would be free of more white people. But, as you know, that is not what is happening. The white skins are coming into the southern lands, disturbing our hunting grounds and our places of burial.

“We have asked you here, Nunndihi, to tell us why we should not set fire to your villages?”

Dragging Canoe had not spoken up to this point, but John Gant could see that he was about to hear from the warrior chief.

“I am tired of this talk,” Dragging Canoe said. “I say we take this white man and burn him before we destroy his kind and take our land back.”

John Gant waited and noted that Old Tassel had winced when Dragging Canoe began his speech. Old Tassel was the elder statesman of the Cherokees and his word would be law. He had not spoken yet and John felt that he would have help in the old chief, since they had been friends so long during his trading days for the South Carolina governor.

“We should hear what our friend, Nunndihi, has to tell us about his people’s intentions before we begin talk of war,” Old Tassel said, nodding to John.

John took a deep breath. It was clear now that what he said here was a matter of survival, his and the people of the Cove. He briefly thought of Naomi and the children.

They would be cooking and preparing for a feast and getting ready to enjoy the gathering of everyone to sing and to eat together and to listen to the new preacher who had just come to the Cove.

“I thank my old friend, Old Tassel, for the honor of coming before this council. I also am indebted to the council of chiefs for this honor. As you know, I was at the signing of the Treaty of the Holston when Gov. Blount made it law that no white man would be allowed to intrude further than the Watauga Settlement.

“I know as well as you that there have been many cases of people ignoring the law. For this, I am sorry. I have tried to warn these new settlers about the dangers of not heeding the treaty.

“To tell you honestly, I believe the treaty has been broken for good.”

The chiefs looked first at John Gant and then at each other. Dragging Canoe’s face twisted into a flame of hatred. All of them began to speak at once. Dragging Canoe was shouting above the den of voices.

Old Tassel held up his hand for quiet.

“You say, Nunndihi, unafraid, that your people have ignored their own law. You are strange people, are you not, Nunndihi.”

“Yes, Old Tassel, we are. But, the treaty was made in good faith by our governor, who has tried, through force even, to stop the settlers. There are too many and I’m afraid that more will be on the way.

“It is good that we meet now to talk about this problem. I have spent many years among you. I have lived in your villages and come to know many of your chiefs. I know your ways and that is why I have come to this council, unafraid, as you mentioned.

“But, we do have a problem to solve and it is time to solve that problem. There will be more white people than you will be able to kill off. They are coming in waves, I fear. It is my hope that we can live side by side in peace. And I know that this will mean more sacrifice on the part of the Cherokee, but to my way of seeing it, we either learn to live together, or we will die together.”

Dragging Canoe stood. He was as tall as John Gant, but much thicker. His anger filled the council chamber.

“I am leaving these chambers to return to my people. We will not have our lands taken by more white men.”

John Gant looked up into Dragging Canoe’s face. He knew that unless he spoke the right words now, even he would be in danger of not seeing another moment of light.

“When you sent Unega to bring me here, I was on my way to a war council of our own in the Cove. We know that you are in a war state. You have burned our cabins and killed our people with vengeance. There are many of our people who want to set fire to your settlements and to do it with cannon, the fire guns, that bring so much destruction.

“But I don’t want it to come to that. Not for you and your people or mine. You have called me here to council. I will stay here until we can come to a reasonable solution for both of our people. To war is to destroy us all.

“I will tell you that if it is war that we must make, then I will be your fierce enemy and I will do all I can to hurry your destruction. I will help to send whole armies into your settlements and treat your women and children in a way that ours have been treated.

“I know that you do not wish this and neither do I. We have a choice as I see it. We can come together as friend and learn to survive together, or your ways will fade from the earth.

“Why? Because there are too many of us for you to kill, no matter what you might think or how many brave chiefs you have such as Dragging Canoe.

“Our soldiers will come and they will surely destroy you. If not this year, then the next. If not the next, then the next.”

The chiefs seemed stunned at such boldness. But those who knew John Gant realized that he was a man of his word and that he spoke nothing but the truth.

Hangingmaw was the first to speak.

“We must resist,” he said slowly.

“I say that we declare war now and kill this white man and be away,” said Dragging Canoe, who had taken to his feet again. He was breathing hard now.

“This is sad news,” said Doublehead, a man known for his wisdom. He had met with governors and even King George in England and was highly revered among his people.

“I was hoping, Nunndihi, that you would tell us that your people would retreat to the Watauga Settlement,leaving our precious land to us. I am afraid that this locks us up as mortal enemies.”

Old Tassle’s eyes seemed cloudy. He looked tired and for the first time, John Gant thought of his friend as an old, old man.

“I believe that what Nunndihi has told us here to be the truth. The white man is coming in great numbers. Our way is threatened, as it has been in the past,” said Old Tassel.

“There has been much waste of life, ours and theirs. We have had too many war councils, and now our people are fighting against the white man on other fronts while we intend to make war at home.

“This means we are fighting at two places at once. We are a divided nation, and I believe that the white man understands this better than we do. We can burn his cabins, but he will build more. We can kill his people, but more will come in his place.”

Dragging Canoe had tired of the talk. He grabbed his bow and quiver and started for the front of the council door.

“This I propose, then,” said Old Tassel. The words stopped Dragging Canoe at the council entrance.

“We are discussing good and evil, life and death, night and day,” the old chieftain said.

“Darkness is coming on our land. We have had enough of killing. This is what I say. We send Nunndihi back with this thought. He is to pick one person among his people and we will pick the finest of our braves.

“These two will then commence to do battle in any manner that they choose. Whoever wins then that will be the way of a new treaty among our people. It will be the signal we need that either our way will prevail, or that of the white man will become law of this land.”

John Gant had never heard his old friend in this way. He seemed to be not of this council chambers, but somewhere else.

Dragging Canoe snarled and turned to leave.

“I will have no more of this. This is for the weak among you. I am returning to my people in the mountains and we will deal with the white man as he comes to his own death.

With those words, Dragging Canoe left the council chambers. The whoops of his warriors could be heard as they mounted their ponies and began riding away toward the tall hills near the Watauga Settlement.

Dragging Canoe was fearsome and an enemy too close to the settlement for anyone’s comfort. He would have to be dealt with later, John Gant thought.

But his mind focused on Old Tassel’s words.

“How would this work, Old Tassel?” John asked.

“Two men representing their nations. They do war in any manner they so choose. It is a righteous way.”

“How would we have assurances that this would be so, that you would abide by the outcome.”

Old Tassel smiled.

“We have you here, Nunndihi. We will allow you to leave, to return to your people and to inform them of this challenge.”

John Gant’s anger flashed like floodwater.

“I came here under terms of peace. Are you telling me, Old Tassel, that it was a shroud. That you intended to kill me, though I was under the sign of peace?”

“These are difficult times, Nunndihi. Your people have caused much heartache on my people. You have broken too many of your own laws with us as we have tried to uphold our side of a bargain. But words from your people and from your governor are like the wind. They blow away, meaning nothing.

“Yes. We had discussed your death. That if this council did not come up with a satisfactory answer to our problem of dealing with the white man, then we were going to kill you and attack your settlements immediately.”

Then, John Gant thought, he had no choice but to accept Old Tassel’s challenge. To do otherwise would seal his own fate at that moment.

The other chiefs must have known and agreed with Old Tassel, otherwise he would have never made the offer. John Gant rubbed his hands and then folded his arms across his chest.

“We will accept this challenge, Old Tassel. I will take it up. You will send your warrior against Nunndihi, a man whom you know and can trust.

“Before we begin, I will ask but one concession. This is our time of the year when we celebrate together. We feast and sing, much as you do for special ceremonies.

“I ask for a treaty until I can spend two days with my family and friends in Tuckaleechee Cove, celebrating in the way we do.”

Old Tassel smiled. He had seen this white man’s celebration. Strange. He cut down trees and brought them into his cabin. Why not go outside the cabin where the trees were?

“It is a curious celebration, Nunndihi, that you perform. We have seen it many times and tried many times to understand it, but do not. Why should we wait for this celebration of yours. These are urgent matters.”

John Gant leaned forward and spoke with the kind of finality that resounded in his highland heritage.

“Because, Old Tassel, if you do not permit my freedom under this term of peace of which I came freely, I will make war upon you this day, here and now, and the killing will begin.

“But, I have come as a friend and want to leave as a friend. If it is to be, it is to be.”

The bold Nunndihi put his hand to the big knife and waited for his answer.

“You are a brave man, Nunndihi,” Old Tassel said.

“I and the others will agree to let you have your celebration.”

John leaned back, relaxing the grip upon the big knife. He was aware that he and the people of the Cove had been given a rare Christmas present, a few days of peace, before the real quest for peace began.

“You will signal Unega then, that I am to return to my people in peace, under the terms of this agreement.”

Old Tassel and the others spoke in their tongue. John heard them say that it would be difficult now to get Unega to agree to this, since he had already made war preparations. And, then, there was Dragging Canoe, who departed the chambers in a state of rage.

“I will come with you, Nunndihi, to ensure that you have a safe return to your cabin. But you will have only two days and no more,” said Old Tassel.

This was a big sacrifice on the part of the old chief. He was much too old for such a trip. John wondered why he would take such a risk, to leave the Old Fields, near his burying ground.

“Old Tassel. You are my old friend. I am afraid that such a trip in this winter is not a good idea. Send one of the younger chiefs in your stead. It will be better.”

The old chieftain smiled. He looked far off. It was if he heard voices, or drums beating to the rhythm of an ancient tune.

“But that is the point, Nunndihi. Peace is worth whatever it is we have to give to make it work. By going with you, I hope to encourage Unega to allow your safety. Of this, I am not at all certain. He may kill you despite my presence. He has performed the mountain top ceremony and I am afraid he is of one mind now.

“Dragging Canoe is not to be trusted. He has broken our ancient law and we were going to deal with him after you left. But, as you can see, he is another problem.

“Therefore, I will go with you and we will cross the big mountain to your village. I will rest with you for those two days and nights and then make my return while you then begin to uphold your end of our treaty.”

John Gant smiled. Old Tassel had once again outsmarted everyone in the council chambers.

He alone knew that while he was with the white man, there would be a measure of safety for not only his people, but also the white man and his people.

It was a rare gift, he thought.

Peace before war, and perhaps peace forever.

In there, John Gant knew he would be able to find himself and the courage to uncover a plan for coexistence between the two nations. He had to, for without it, not only would his way of life change, but so also would the way of this gentle old man, who had decided to yield his own life in an effort to bring about a new understanding.

“And what if we fail to reach the place we call Tuckaleechee Cove, Old Tassel?”

“Then, Nunndihi, we will have tried and your people will write one day that two men of the wilderness were able to triumph over the spirit and the heart, but not of man’s mind. It will be a sad tale. I hope we succeed, Nunndihi.”

The two men, Old Tassel, and John Gant, stood and walked from the council chambers into the cold, snowy afternoon.

Old Tassel’s war horse was waiting and a horse had been brought up for John Gant. It was held by two women, one on either side of the spirited bay colored horse.

“This is Warwoman and her youngest daughter, Katalsta. It means Potterwoman,” said Old Tassel.

“Warwoman is a beloved woman of our tribe. She has told us of your coming and of your going. She is the wisdom keeper of our nation. She has seen in the morning and the nights, the sunrise and the sunsets, of our future.

“She has said that I must try this one last thing, and you, Nunndihi, were chosen for this last challenge. We knew that you would not allow anyone but yourself to take up the challenge. And that is good.

“Warwoman has told us that you will win. I don’t believe her. I can’t believe her, but she has said it has been written already, that our time and your time will become one and that you will learn from us and we will learn nothing from you.

“You will come to know our cooking and our pottery for holding water and our oak baskets for holding food and flowers. You will come to know how to make teas from the plants and the leaves you can and cannot eat. We will teach you, but first, Nunndihi, there will be this trial by fire.

“Warwoman has spoken to us. She has said that through her daughter, Katalsta, your women will come to know the earth and how to shape it.

The women are of the earth and know it best. We warriors live on top of the earth and understand it little. Women are the sculptors, we are the sculpted.

“We will go now. And when it is over, Nunndihi, I hope you will return to this land and leave lessons for your descendants, the lessons that are about to be shaped in these mountains.

“Peace is not good enough, Nunndihi, because that is frail and of man. We must learn like Warwoman and her children, that we are all potters and poets and sculptors and those things are more important than an individual or even a single celebration you call Christmas.

“We must become poets of the land, Nunndihi.”

The two men rode to the top of the ridge while Warwoman and Katalsta watched them disappear over the edge into a new world.

Posted in Christmas Stories | Leave a comment

Ghost Cabin

Walking along the roadside, now hard from last night’s freeze, the old home at first seemed like a wave of heated air off in the distance. It didn’t register in my consciousness in the beginning. It looked to be just another clump of bushes down there in the valley, the valley of my spiritual home, the place I visited when I needed respite or rejuvenation. But, the more I walked, the more the shape took form, either in my imagination, or in some sort of illusion. It was an old, very old, Homeplace, a cabin in shape and outline. I wondered who had lived there and how many years ago. Nobody had dwelt in this valley for more than 75 years since the National Park Service had run off all the old families and purchased the land for a fraction of its real, market worth.

The closer I walked, the more the house became visible. It was a stunning old cabin, made the old way with front porch facing the small, wriggling creek, blue now from the freezing days and nights. Snow had not yet fallen, but the skies held that gray look they get when they fill with hue reserves of snow. I love this time of year. It is so quiet in the forests you can hear your thoughts as they pound against the inside of your head and then punch out into your reality.

The cabin’s porch was framed with a railing made from a crooked limb, round and long. The front steps were river stone. The broad front porch where all manner of old dried herbs hung from the open rafters, led to a wooden front door with lift latch. I could see most of this as I stood up on a hill, looking down into the broad, brown valley, its grasses dead now from the harsh breath of winter. It was a two-story, log house construction with one large room downstairs and one large room upstairs. It was very old in design. The kitchen would have been at the very back of the house.

Just as I was about to walk down through the valley to investigate the cabin further, a soft voice broke the silence around me.

It’s not there,” she said.

I quickly turned to see a smallish woman looking at me. Her eyes were as deep and dark as any I had ever seen. She looked to be maybe 70 years old, give or take a year or two in either direction. Her husband was beside her, smiling. He was about the same age as his wife. Both were small and slightly bent in the shoulders.

What do you mean it’s not there?” I asked, trying not to appear too startled. “I can see it plainly.”

I know, but it is a Ghost Cabin.”It’s not really there at all. You are just seeing its past energy. That cabin would be more than 150-200 years old,” she said.

Well, at first, you can understand my skepticism. I mean I knew what I saw. And a cabin that old in this valley was preposterous. If anyone was here then, it was wild with claw and hoof. I turned to look at the cabin again. It could not have been more than a mile away, across the broad, beautiful valley going dormant now for winter.

Of course it is there,” I said, turning to look at the cabin again. “I see it.”

You are seeing the outline of history, that cabin from its past life,” she said, not budging from her story. “You are seeing only its shadows from where it once stood.” She smiled sweetly and then began to walk with her husband toward the cabin. As I watched the two of them begin to disappear, it became obvious that if I wanted to know more, I would have to follow along. I hurried to catch up.

Talking to them as we walked across the valley, grass crunching beneath our boots, she told me her name was Ila Walden and her husband was Luke. She had been a Walker before marrying Luke, 55 years ago, when they were children growing up in Walker Valley, two valleys over from where we were now. That meant that there were two unbroken chains of mountains between us and their childhood homes. It seemed so close as they talked of their old home, and yet, the realization of two ridges between us seemed daunting to me, but not to them. They had walked those ridges as children and they knew them as friendly, warm places of youth. In that time, they said, people thought little of walking miles and miles in a day. Walking over a mountain was not something you thought about. It was something you did.

Walking through the white, crystalline grass, I was absorbed in the story they told me of their childhood. It was something from a book about the mountains from the early part of the 20th century. They lived on a mountain farm, down in a valley, much like this one we were walking across. It was an idyllic life, Ila said. Luke said each morning began with hard work, and the day ended with hard work. But, it was fun, he said. You were around the old ones who told stories of how the mountains used to be when they were children. They told stories they had heard from their grandparents and great-grandparents, some of the first people to come into these ridges, valleys and long finger slopes. It was like listening to someone recall a lost treasure as they talked of their youth. It was a green, lush life, unlike today’s rush of existence.

I recall my grannie singing them old songs,” said Ila. “Real old. Maybe 600 years old. Older even. She taught them to me. I can’t sing them like she did though. She put a little up rise on the end of a phrase to give it that ancient sound,” she said.

My pap played the fiddle,” said Luke. “He loved playing that cherry wood fiddle. He said cherry wood set the music on fire. It wasn’t the tunes you hear today. He said they came from over yonder. He meant across the ocean. England. Scotland, Wales, Ireland, I suppose. They push move back the furniture in the house and Pap would begin. They’d dance and sing and play all night on the weekends. I’d sit up in the attic, looking down as they sang and danced. Dust from their dancing kicked up in the light like a storm. It was wonderful fun and I couldn’t wait until the day I could join them,” Luke said.

But, before Luke could join his parents and grandparents, the federal government purchased hundreds of thousands of acres of these mountains and valleys and told the people who had farmed the land for lifetimes and generations would have to leave. They no longer owned the land they had purchased with blood, money and hard labor.

Our family was given an amount of money. I’m not sure how much,” said Luke. I looked at him for the first time as he spoke. He was a man in his mid-70s, large hands, a face full of wrinkles. He was bald now and a little stooped in the shoulders. But he was as friendly as a sunrise. He seemed to be good through and through.

My pap tried to buy another farm out of the valley. But the land was no good. It just wasn’t the same. It was worn out land. Wouldn’t grow anything. We quit farming, and pap and most of the boys went to work in sawmills, cutting down the forest around the national park. It changed things around here, that’s for sure. It changed a way of life that you’ll never, ever see again. The national park ruined these mountains. They said they were preserving them. They preserved them for tourist to ruin. We took care of the land, because we knew how important it was to us. If you own something, you know its worth and importance to your existence. If you just use something, you don’t much care how you treat it, and that’s why the park now is killing the land we used to work. It is no longer good land, because it hasn’t been worked in more than 60, near 70 years. The National Park Service just let it grow up, without tilling the land each winter, getting ready for spring planting. A land has to be worked to be good. It has to be tilled.”

Luke was beginning to breathe hard. His face had reddened. Ila patted his arm, and looked at him. He glanced up to see her dark eyes staring at him. And he quit talking.

Ila reached out for Luke’s arm as we neared a stream. We were still quite a long way from the old cabin.

We lived not too far from each other,” said Ila. “Just over the next ridge. We didn’t think anything of walking the trails to see somebody, or to go check on our neighbors, who lived in the hollows miles away. Nothing at all. You walked back then, because there were no cars in here. Oh, there might have been one or two somewhere, maybe Doc Tilsey had one to make house calls, but most of us traveled by foot, horseback, mule and wagon. Mostly on foot, though, to save the horses and mules for work around the farm.

Our entire existence, our days and nights, centered around planting and harvesting,” she said. “We made our own clothes and medicines. My mother was the one who would go into the forests and come home with a basket full of herbs that she would make up into medicines. You had to pick the right herbs, because some of them look just alike. You pick the wrong one, and it will kill you dead as Lazarus. My mother had been taught by her mother, who had been taught by her mother, who had been taught by her mother, who had been taught by a Cherokee Indian. It went back that far in these mountains,” said Ila.

If something broke, we had to fix it,” said Luke. “There were no stores or shopping malls. No credit cards. No phones. No convenience stores. If you wanted milk to drink, you milked a cow. We killed our own hogs, and put them in a smokehouse to cure out in winter. We butchered our own cattle, hunted the woods for wild game, and fished the streams for mountain trout, the best eating fish there is anywhere.”

I looked up to see where we were. A small creek was just in front of us. But there was no cabin.

Well,” said Ila, “where is it?” She laughed and looked knowingly at Luke, who was chuckling to himself.

Do you see it?” she asked.

Ila was right. The cabin wasn’t there.

I know what I saw,” I said in arrogant stubbornness to both of them. They just looked at each other and smiled.

Oh, it was there,” said Ila. “I told you that it was in the energy of the old log cabin, that you were seeing the outlines of that energy from off in the distance. Luke and I know it is there, too. But, we had to let you see for yourself.”

That’s when they told me of their years of exploring these valleys with their “wires.” Well, that’s what they called them. Some people know them as water witches, or divining rods. Ila and Luke just said they were their dousing wires, made from a cut and shaped piece of wire coat hanger. They were bent in the form of a thin L. The short end of the L was the handle.

With those rods, they said they could find old homes, roads, cemeteries, anything that once had human energy. The reason is that the past gives off an electronic field, a magnetic field, Ila said. They showed me how. Luke passed his wires over a rock and they did not move. They would cross each other if there was some sort of energy field there, he said.

Now, pick up the rock and put it back down.”

I did and then Luke passed the wires over the rock again. They crossed in his hands.

See, we all leave behind an electric field. It is here forever. That’s how we find old places in these hills.”

I learned that they had documented hundreds, if not thousands of old home places, found early or lost cemeteries, farms, cabins stuck off in the back of beyond. And now, even the Park Service, that had once shunned them as cooks or meddlesome, had discovered how right Ila and Luke were and had even put their documentation in a book with maps, showing the homesteads from another era in the park, that their historians and anthropologists didn’t know existed.

Over time, they showed me hundreds of farms, homes, cabins, fence rows, planted fields, graves, cemeteries, and rock cairns made in pre-history by early Indian tribes. They showed me burial mounds and even a strange place with a circle and broad lanes running from it, like the spokes in a wheel. From up on a ridge above the wheel, you could plainly see that it was put there on purpose. But for what purpose? Luke said he believed it was some sort of Indian ceremonial ground dating back thousands of years. This generation would say it looked like aliens had landed and left behind a strange and unknown design in the land. Luke said it was Indians, and I believed him.

With them, I discovered ancient cabins, made of puncheon floors, or just the slab of wood split from oak and locust. Luke with his wires could walk the outline of a cabin, showing the doors, windows, porch, steps. He could find the many outbuildings, the family burial plots and water wells. He was amazing.

Ila didn’t do much of the dousing because she always found something that disturbed her—a baby’s grave, or a wife who died too young. She mostly let Luke do the dousing and she took notes, or drew off the cabin and its grounds. Her notebooks were filled with hundreds of photos that she took, and her sketches of homesteads. Those notebooks eventually became a book that the National Park Service now sold at its headquarters bookshop.

With Luke and Ila, I learned how to recognize a Woodland Indian grave from an early settler grave. The Woodland Indians buried their dead sitting straight up, facing east, looking into the sunrise. Early settlers buried their dead lying flat, north and south. We even found settlers buried on top of Woodland Indians, in a layering of the generations, one on top of the other, just like the land itself.

I once took a stone from a Woodland Indian burial ground and lived to regret it. Ila had warned me to never take a stone or anything from those burial grounds. “It is more than bad luck,” she said. “It rouses the spirits, and you will be punished severely.”

The day we found an unexpected Woodland site, I uncovered a small stone, shaped like a tombstone. It was unmistakably the headstone for a baby, a Woodland Indian baby. I slipped the stone into my shoulder bag, and said nothing as we left that day.

Within hours, I was feeling ill. I dismissed the illness as nothing but flu, a cold or a virus. The next day, I was sick in bed. My family had become ill as well. We got a phone call that my wife’s father had died of a heart attack and her mother was not well at all. My wife had been so distraught that in going to the store for medicine, she had a wreck in the family car.

As troubles piled on top of troubles, I decided that I would return that stone to its place. I called Ila and told her what I had done, and all of the serious misfortune that we had experienced. She was silent, and then said, “I told you not to ever remove anything from those burials grounds. You take that stone back today.”

I did, but the strangeness was not over. I thought I knew precisely where we had found the ancient fields of the dead, but somehow it had all changed on that bright morning that I decided to return the stone. Nothing seemed familiar. When I had arrived, the day was bright, the sky a brilliant blue with high, puffy clouds. But just as I entered the forest, a darkness closed over the canopy of trees. It became very scary as I walked. The wind picked up and began blowing as darkness descended over me.

The wind, though, wasn’t ordinary wind, blowing across a wide path. It blew in a narrow corridor and followed me as I walked. If I moved, the wind moved. If I stopped, the wind stopped, as if we were attached one to the other. And it only blew up a fuss off to my right. To my left, the scene was far different. Nothing was happening. Nothing at all. It was calm, but dark as a grave.

Normally, I’m not afraid in the forests. As a boy, I wandered alone in woods, climbed trees to look out over the land, a captain of a big ship of land, sailing the green, landlocked oceans of my imagination. I loved being in the forest, lying beneath a tree, smelling the evergreens or feeling the warmth of a large hardwood. I felt safe even. Once I found a large hole beneath the broad limbs of a very large hemlock, and I crawled beneath the branches. It was as if I had entered another existence. I looked out between the branches and could see the world around me, but nothing could see me. I came to this tree often in my youth, crawled under the broad, droopy green, protective limbs and lay on my back to imagine a new world, a new adventure. It was an evergreen cave, leading to my imaginary world.

Time now seemed altered. It wasn’t free and easy, but it appeared forced and jagged. The world was painted dark, and that wind just blew off to my right as I continued to walk toward the place where I thought Ila, Luke and I had been that day in the primeval Indian burial ground. The closer I came, the louder the wind blew.

Hurriedly, I dug out at the base of a tree with my bare hands. This is where I was sure I had found the small tombstone. The ground was not soft, though, as it had been. It was hard as stone. I dug, but could make no headway. The wind became intense and the sky over me was darker now, like the inside of a cave. I knew that I was in a very bad place, and must leave immediately, or the wind and the blackness would closes around me, sweep me away forever.

I sat the stone at the base of the tree on top of the knobby roots and turned to run. As limbs and branches smacked me in the face and about my body, I noticed the wind. It was no longer on my right or left. There was no wind. And the closer I got to returning to the edge of the forest, the darkness began to fall away, until I burst into the bright, blue day from whence I came. My heart was pounding so loudly in my head. It sounded like an Indian drumbeat. But I knew that it was just fright and my emotional state.

Told you not to take anything from these woods,” Ila said to me after I told her my story.

You got to learn that these places are sacred. I know people think I am crazy, or weird, but I’m not,” she said. “I’m a God-fearing, church-going woman. So is Luke. We believe in our church. Been going, both of us, since we were little ‘uns. But, I am here to tell you that what goes on in these woods has been going on for thousands of years. We don’t really know or understand all there is to know about these woods and their many spirits,” Ila said.

Luke nodded and smiled. “The old timers used to tell us that there are all kinds of spirits in the forests. Especially where there have been homes and burial grounds. You have to be careful there. Remember that energy we told you about? It’s still there.”

A few days later, the three of us returned to the Ghost Cabin, as Ila had called it. Ila told me she had been doing a little research on the cabins of the valley, as well as the valley itself.

The land was so fertile, she said, that many families had lived in the valley. Soil from the millennia had washed off of the high mountains above the valley and filled it with a fertile robustness for life, capable of reproducing in great abundance. This cabin, she said, had been one of the very first ones, and belonged to the John Cable family. Not far away was the Caleb Campbell farm. The two families had never gotten along well because of land and cattle disputes. In that time, land was marked by boundaries in word only, and cattle carried the mark of its owner in notches in both ears.

Neither family trusted the other, Ila said, and over time many disagreements were settled by the gun.

But the Cables were a well-respected family. The Campbells had not been in the valley that long. Well, long back then meant a couple of generations. The Cables had discovered the valley and all of its riches, taking it from the Indians. So there was bad blood between them from the beginning. But, the Campbells were like any other early settler. They took what they saw, or bought it and laid claim to a certain amount by boundaries. I often heard my grannie say that our Walker boundary ran from this big tree at the mouth of Kettle Creek to the south of the old Henry Henderson place and the big walnut tree to the top of Hard Run Ridge and then west to the Big Fork River. It was hard to know what was what, but the old ones knew precisely what they were talking about because they had walked every inch of the land. That’s also another reason why this land’s got spirits.

Big John Cable had a mill near his cabin where he ground cornmeal. It was on the head of Panther Creek. The story that has been handed down from the valley is a real puzzle, and I think that is why you can see the cabin at times, but when you get up close, it disappears,” said Ila.

A mystery?” I asked.

It has to do with the day Big John Cable and Caleb Campbell met to settle their land and cattle differences. It was close to Christmas and both men wanted to put their quarrel aside. It had been going on for a long, long time, and both had become weary of the squabbling and all the misery it had caused both families over the years. They decided they would meet on the flat summit of Bald Top Mountain and come to a conclusion. Both men took their guns that day.”

Luke brought in a couple cups of steaming coffee and some of Ila’s sweet shortbread and sat it on the kitchen table where we were gathered.

It was just a few days before Christmas,” said Ila. “Along about Dec. 23, or maybe it was even Christmas Eve. In that time, there were real snows. Not like now when we can no longer kill hogs in November, or December. It just doesn’t get cold enough now, and we have lost another of our old traditions.

But back then, it usually snowed beginning around Thanksgiving. It was called hog killing time. Big John Cable and Caleb Campbell walked out their cabin doors that morning, telling their families nothing of the meeting that was planned. They were going to settle this between them. On top of the mountain.

John Cable arrived first. He found a downed hemlock and cleared a way to sit. He laid his hog rifle across his lap and packed his pipe to smoke. And waited.

He expected old Caleb to come up the mountain by a different path, but he hadn’t counted on the one that only Caleb knew. It was an old animal trail, that had once also been an Indian trail up the backside of Bald Top Mountain. Very few people even knew it existed any longer. But Caleb was an excellent hunter and tracker and he had followed game up the trail many days. From his days in the woods, Caleb was also as quiet as his shadow as he moved up the trail toward the sitting John Cable.”

Ila paused to saucer her coffee and eat one of her sweetbreads. Luke sipped a saucer and watched the steam rise from it.

They were two mountain men,” said Luke. “Like you don’t ever see any more. That breed of people is long gone. Their word was their bond in those days. Once of those mountain men told you something, you could count on it. It had to do with honor and dignity.”

Ila nodded.

They would rather die than break their word to you. So, when they spoke, they meant what they said.” She sipped at the saucered coffee and looked out the window, now frosting from a cold blast of wind from off the mountains near her home.

It’s not like today where your word doesn’t last long enough to make an echo. They were proud people, even if some of them were meaner than a devil dog. Caleb Campbell was no one to fool with, so the legends go. He was fearless and ferocious. They say he was as big as a cabin door and had to turn sideways to get into his cabin.”

Ila paused once more to sip her coffee and Luke picked up the story.

Both of these men were experts of the mountain ways. So it was natural that they would meet on top of the mountain on a cold, snowy day. Most other people wouldn’t dare go out in that kind of weather, with snows falling and it getting heavy on top of the mountain. But John and Caleb had come to a place they knew they could be alone.”

They were unafraid,” said Ila. “Of anything and each other. Now, you also need to know that one of John’s sons had married one of Caleb’s daughters, over the objection of both men. But the two young people decided to go against their fathers’ wishes and marry anyway. Even after asking for their blessings, which they didn’t receive. The two were shunned and sent to another part of the valley to live. They had been cast out of their respective families,” Ila said. She looked sadder as she told the story.

Well, you recall me telling you that there is spirits on the land. Those spirits were unsettled with this marriage and before long, the Campbell girl grew sick. They said she got the valley fever, whatever that was. And she died. The Cable boy died soon thereafter, they said, of a broken heart. Both families were distraught over the loss of the two youngsters, and that is what got Big John and Caleb Campbell to the top of the mountain on this Christmas time. They didn’t want to see any more strife, so they were going to settle the family dispute the only way they knew how: only one of them would come down off of the that mountain.”

Ila got up from the table and walked to her kitchen window. It was as if the story had settled in her bones. I could almost see her sag. Luke was no longer smiling. He was looking at his hands. She crossed her arms standing at her sink, looking out through the half-frozen pane into the brown light of a winter’s day. She continued, but it was as if she were lifting something heavy from the floor as she spoke.

Caleb Campbell came up behind John Cable that morning, so quiet that not even the animals heard him. He was as silent as his thoughts. He looked at the back of John Cable and softly lifted his hog rifle. He aimed and was about to pull the trigger when old John spoke.

I know you are back there Caleb. So, you just go ahead and shoot your best shot. You make it good and true, or I’ll kill you dead. But before you pull that trigger, I just want to tell you that before my boy died he told me he wanted me to know something.

Caleb looked up from the gun barrel sights. The sun glinted off the hard, cold metal of the long, ancient rifle, which had seen many a battle against Indian, British, and game.

My boy Jacob told me that he truly loved your daughter Sarah. He said they had often talked about the hopes they had that their marriage would stop the family feud, that through their love something new would grow.”

John Cable paused. He halfway expected to feel a lead ball split his shoulder blades. But Caleb Campbell was listening instead of aiming.

I just listened as my boy Jacob talked. He seemed so sick then. It broke my heart that he was dying. I could hardly stand it. He said he had buried his Sarah only a few days before, and that I had to promise him something. He asked me to not kill you.”

Caleb put his finger back on the big gun’s trigger. He had heard enough, for he was a hard mountain man. There was no softness to him.

Make your peace John Cable, Caleb said. I aim to kill you here and leave you for the animals.

John Cable made not a single move to defend himself. As the shot rang out, it rattled down through the mountains like a thunderclap. It startled deer nosing through the snow to nibble twigs. Squirrels looked up in their tree nests and birds fluttered in the bushes, scattering snow dust.

Caleb Campbell didn’t bother to look at John Cable. He turned quickly and walked back down the mountain trail he had come up that morning. He didn’t tell anyone what had happened that day, and as far as the valley people knew, John Cable simply disappeared hunting.

With John Cable gone, and his son Jacob being the last of his children to survive, Caleb Campbell quickly moved to claim the old Cable cabin and the land. No one protested because Caleb was a hard man.”

Ila turned to look at me and Luke.

The spirits moved then,” she said. “This is why me and Luke know that they are always with us.

Caleb Campbell went crazy, they say. He would wake up screaming in the night, asking John Cable not to shoot him. It was said that he saw John Cable everywhere he went until he went, until he could stand it no more. He went back up the Bald Top Mountain one day, and never returned.

The land around the cabin seemed to dry up. None of Caleb’s children could make it grow anything at all. It was like a sickness had infected the land, and soon, Caleb’s children just moved away, leaving only Caleb’s wife Hattie Campbell to live out her life alone.

After Hattie died, some years before the Civil War, everyone else was afraid to move into the old Cable cabin, and it seemed to fall into a solitude. Some people in the valley said they thought they saw lights in the cabin at night. Others said they had seen someone walking about the place. But no one was willing to go there, for fear of finding the ghost of Caleb Campbell lurking about, or being tormented for the killing of John Cable. Or, maybe even both of the ghosts were there, people said.

That’s when the valley discovered there had been a child in the union of Jacob Cable and Sarah Campbell. She had been named Rose of Sharon. Jacob and Sarah had written in their bible, that she was the lily of the fields.

She had lived with Caleb and Hattie and that was the promise Jacob had asked his father, not to kill Caleb Campbell so that his daughter could live with the hard mountain man and to become a reminder of the good that can be born from something black and callous. He asked that John Cable not interfere with the life of his granddaughter and let her be a Rose of Sharon to the Campbells. She was the last of the children in the old cabin and when Hattie died, Rose of Sharon, remained in the old Homeplace.

Jacob’s Promise is what this story became known as,” Ila said. She seemed to sink lower into her shoes as she talked.

When the Civil War made its way to the valley, Rose of Sharon was living alone. Federal soldiers from an Indiana Cavalry rode up one day and began taking foodstuffs from the farm. They searched the house and found Rose of Sharon, sitting in a rocker, looking out the front door toward Kettle Creek.

You live here? One of the soldiers asked.

Rose of Sharon said she did.

Well, you best be leaving. We are going to burn the place down and set fire to the valley. We are tired of Johnny Reb hiding and getting foodstuffs from you valley people, the soldier said to Rose of Sharon. She didn’t seem to hear what the young officer was saying. She just stared out toward the towering peak of Bald Top Mountain, where her two grandfathers had been that day long ago.

Oh, said Rose of Sharon, this place has been dead a long, long time, I reckon. You can burn anything you want, and it won’t kill it. You can’t kill what is already dead.

The soldiers looked at this strange little woman, her head in a tight, gray bun on top of her head. She didn’t look to be old enough to be gray. She wasn’t wrinkled in the face at all. She was right pretty, matter of fact. She was slender, and her nose was small to match her hands, which rested in her lap. She had rosy lips and her cheeks glowed with good health. This was no old woman rocking in her chair before the soldiers in blue.

Ma’m, you will need to go afore my boys put the torch to the fields. We don’t mean you no harm, but your fields are helping Johnny Reb in these hills, and we got to stop that.”

Ila returned slowly back to the kitchen table. Luke was still looking at his hands. They seemed to feel something heavy on their shoulders, the two of them.

Rose of Sharon left the farm that day, never looking back. She came to Walker

Valley and married my grandfather.” Ila stopped to take in a deep breath. Luke got up and left the table, as if something had pushed him from the room.

Luke and I are cousins,” Ila said. “His father was my mother’s brother. We sprouted from Rose of Sharon and Leb Walker. They had something like ten children and me and Luke was related back there somewhere in all of that gaggle of people.”

Luke returned holding a large family bible. In it was a list of names, going all the way back to John Cable and Caleb Campbell. The names sprang forward to Ila and Luke, where it stopped.

We feel these spirits because we are part of them,” Ila said.

We found John Cable’s old bible and that’s how we figured out we were related way back there,” Luke said as he thumbed the bible’s worn pages.

And, we found Jacob’s Promise. It was in a letter. Only, John Cable never did tell all of the story. Jacob wrote in the letter to his father that not only was he to let little Rose of Sharon stay with Caleb Campbell and Hattie Campbell, but he said his ghost would haunt Caleb Campbell if he refused to take care of Rose of Sharon, and his succeeding generations. He said that Sarah had also made the same vow for her family.”

Ila resettled herself in her kitchen chair.

Over time, no one ever thought about the promise,” Ila said. “It was forgotten, just like a lot of things in a family. Forgotten or just ignored. Anyway, when Luke and I found John Cable’s bible we wondered about Jacob’s Promise and how he thought he would carry it out. And then it dawned on us.

Old John Cable went to the mountain that morning knowing precisely what he was doing. He wasn’t going to die, but he meant to have Caleb Campbell shoot him, so he could join his son in the promise. They would both look over little Rose of Sharon in the spiritual world. You see, John Cable had no wife left. He had no children left. He had forced his only son out of his life, and now he was re-joining him in the spiritual world. Together, they would keep Jacob’s Promise.”

Then Ila looked at Luke and smiled.

We named our first girl child Rose. The first day we took her to the valley is the first day we saw the old Cable cabin. It was as if it reappeared in some way to remind us of Jacob’s Promise and the Rose of Sharon, the lily of the valley.”

But why had I been able to see the cabin, I asked.

If you will read your bible, you’ll find the answer,” Ila said.

That afternoon, I rushed home to find the bible and the passage about Rose of Sharon. It is in the Song of Songs. But that didn’t answer anything for me. That is verses of love from Solomon, and nothing to do with cabins or valleys. But it is about how love lives on, despite the realities of life.

Then, I discovered something in the book of Joel. Mostly this is about bad things happening to you if you don’t repent and do the right thing. That didn’t provide an answer, either. Neither John Cable nor Caleb Campbell were particularly sin-free, I was certain. And, God knows I wasn’t.

But there was this. Joel, the prophet, told the story of great problems for those who fail to atone for their past. There was all this stuff about locusts and armies and floods and fires.

The mystery was solved though when I figured out that Joel said he was the son of Pethuel, his father. Joel named his earthly father to who how the generations are connected to overcome evil, and they are expected to hand that down, from father to son to daughter. This is the only place in the bible you will find a prophet naming his earthly father, to bring the generations together down through the eons to beat back the darkness of evil.

The son Jacob made the promise and through the father, John Cable, it was kept.

And when Ila and Luke married, it brought together the two families again, answering Jacob’s Promise of bringing peace and love to the valley.

Finally, I understood why I had seen the cabin. It is revealed to those who want to see it, who are searching for peace and tranquility in their lives. The cabin says that all you have to do is believe, and it will be there, It was promised a long, long time ago.

Posted in Christmas Stories | Leave a comment

Cleansing Fires

Christmas, 1994 By Fred Brown

Fergus McGregor rocked in his chair, pulling the woolen blanket up over his knees. He stared intently into the fire, feeling its warmth. Light from the flames flicked orange scenes across his thin chest and gaunt face. Fergus, an old man now, knew that his days were about over and lately he had taken to long spells when he refused to talk to his family. It was hard for them to understand his pain and concern. He remembered the old days and thought of the time when he had to protect the fire.

Fergus McGregor had not always lived on top of Fire Mountain. He once was down with the city folks, as he called them, working in a cotton mill plant. In that time, he had lived out, though, away from town. He lived on a farm near a lake that was run by the government and the day the government men came to tell Fergus that he would have to move because the government was taking more of his land for floodwaters, he said something that stopped the entire federal government in its tracks. Just stopped it dead, like it had been pole axed.

“If I leave here, you’ll have to take me and my house. I can’t leave my fire.”

Well, I don’t have to tell you that at first, them government fellows thought my grandfather Fergus was touched in the head. After they stopped laughing, they said they would be back in a month and for Fergus to be ready to go. The government men said they would pay grandfather a fair amount for his land and his house and he could just move to more land.

The day they returned, they found Fergus McGregor sitting on his front porch. Rocking in his rocking chair.

“You all packed, Fergus,” one of the government men asked, winking at the others.

“Nope,” my grandfather said.

“Don’t intend on packing. Not until you tell me were it is you are going to move me, my house and my fire.”

Those government fellows, all of them skinny and dark-eyed, didn’t quite know what to do with that bit of information.

“Well, we told you to be ready to go when we come back. What is the matter with you.”

That’s when everyone learned that Fergus McGregor considered himself one of the rare and privileged people in this world. He was the keeper of the flame, he told them government fellows, and he wasn’t about to let the fire go out in his house for them, for anyone. He would as soon die right there protecting the flames as he would anything else on this earth.

That’s also when I first heard about the tradition that had been left to my family, the keepers of the flame.

Well, what happened next was downright funny. Those government boys returned. Only this time they came with a large flatbed moving truck. They spent several days jacking grandfather’s house up on these high-pressure jacks and then another several days backing that big flatbed truck underneath his house.

When the day came that they were to move him, Fergus was sitting on the front porch, just as pretty as you please. He was in his favorite rocking chair. When the pulled out, taking my grandfather’s house, he was still sitting on his front porch, rocking. The fire, inside in the hearth, was cracking and popping, just like always.

The moved Fergus atop a high mountain, where he bought some land. Said he might as well retire there now since they done moved his house. So, he quit the mill and took his pension and moved to a place called Raven’s Den Mountain. He bought the top of the mountain because he said the air was purer up there and he didn’t want to be bothered ever again by government men who wanted to disturb his life and his fire.

It is on the top of Raven’s Den that my memory of my grandfather comes into focus. He had moved there long before I was born. I went there with my folks some when I was young and then when I got to be old enough to go on my own, I would just take off walking and hike up the side of that tall, rocky mountain to see my grandfather.

The thing that always struck me about his home was that he always, I mean always, had a fire going. Didn’t matter if it was the hottest July or August on record, Fergus McGregor had a fire in the fireplace.

I asked him about it once and he just looked at me with those far away eyes of his and that’s when he told me about the keeper of the flames. The real story.             In his youth, Fergus had worked for the railroads coming into the mountains to transport coal to distant refining plants in West Virginia and Virginia. As a young man, Fergus was lean and strong and hard‑working. He had fathered many and had had but one wife. When she died, Fergus said there would never be another Naomi, and he wouldn’t bother looking. And, he didn’t.

Fergus spent his retirement in perfecting his love for trout fishing with a fly in mountain streams, streams small enough to pass for creeks rather than rivers. He called them “cricks,” in the old language. He delighted in telling his grandchildren stories that were passed down to him from his father and grandmother, who had gotten them from their parents and grandparents as well.

One day as he was sitting in front of his fire, I jumped into his lap. Being his favorite grandchild,Fergus didn’t mind, but it did surprise him a bit.             “Wha, child, you gave me a start.”

Fergus’s white and bold mustache looked like a paintbrush underneath his nose. I loved to see it wiggle when he talked.

“Tell me a story, grandpa.”

“Just any ol’ story will do.”

Fergus smiled, shuffled his legs and asked me to take a seat beside him.

“My legs get too cold these days. Can’t hold you in my lap like I used to when you were a baby.”

He caressed my head with a large, rough hand that had picked cotton, dug for coal and gold, worked in yarn mills, held the reins of bucking horses in Virginia rodeos, and even shot at other men in war.

His eyes, once ocean blue, had faded over time. They were light and growing dimmer. Fergus’s cheeks were not as ruddy as they once had been. He seemed breakable now. In his youth, Fergus McGregor had been a strong, fearless man. He was still fearless, but his strength was ebbing and now it took wool blankets and thick shirts to keep him warm. In his green growing days, Fergus McGregor had his tradition to keep him warm in the coldest of weather.             “Tell me the story about fire, grandpa.”

Old Fergus stared intently into the flames. It was as though he had disappeared into them.

“Fire,” he said. The very word warmed in his mouth, and left his lips like a flame.

“The old people said that fire was sacred. I remember once my grandfather telling me about Cloonie McGregor of Scotland . He was a clan chieftain before the clans were broken apart. That must have been in the 1600s.

“My grandfather, who was the great-great-great-great grandson of Cloonie McGregor, said that I must always take care of the fire we had in our home. He called it the cleansing fire.”             I inched closer to grandfather, looking up into his heavy eyes.

“What is a cleansing fire, grandpa?”

Fergus studied the flames. For a long time he said nothing. He was barely breathing.

“This goes far back into time,” Fergus began. He drifted, as if in a black cloud. I watched Fergus and noted the distinct smell of flowers. It wasn’t the usual house metallic smells of wood and old books. It was like being inside a shop full of chrysanthemums and roses and other petals that smelled like the colors of green, red, purple and orange.

Fergus slowly closed his eyes and leaned back in the aging rocker, the one that had been on the front porch the day when the government men came. I thought he was going to sleep. His eyes jumped and rolled in a kind of rapid eye movement sleep, but he wasn’t asleep at all.

Fergus McGregor had slipped into that stream of space where fact leaves off and fantasy begins, where wizards reside and muses make magic. The hearth fire crackled, as if it had a life of its own. Sparks flew as a log fell through its dying embers, joining the growing ashes, glowing and glimmering.

“Once in the gloaming of an afternoon,” Fergus began. I skidded closer to Fergus’s chair, using my heels to drag forward.             `

`Cloonie McGregor was called into the clan chieftain bog house. There, he was given the secrets of the cleansing fires and told when he must burn them. From that day on, Cloonie McGregor was looked upon as the next great chieftain of the McGregor clan. He had been awarded one of the highest honors in the clan, charge of the cleansing fires.”

Years later, Fergus went on, when Cloonie was in his seventh decade, he could be seen on top of a high overlook near where it was said the Clan McGregor had its beginnings. Using a black, oil soaked torch of some kind, Cloonie set a bundle of bushes, broad beams and logs ablaze. Winds on the precipice whipped the fire into a red roar.

When everyone looked again, Cloonie McGregor was gone. He had vanished in the flames, went up with the smoke. Standing behind him was Fergus’s great-grandfather, Robert McGregor. If he knew what happened to his father, Robert McGregor never said. He merely picked up the torch and carried it home, the flames leaping about his face.

“I am descended from Robert McGregor, just as you are descended from me,” Fergus said to me, my face now rosy with the fires that seemed to grow in intensity.

“Just like my father and his father and his father before him, I am going to tell you about the cleansing fires and its secret,” he said.

Fergus chuckled in his chest when he saw my eyes grow wide enough for the blaze in the hearth to be reflected in the dark center of my pupils.

“You see, this fire in front of you, is that very same fire that Cloonie McGregor used so many years ago.”

Fergus paused and leaned back in his chair. He rocked for a while, saying nothing. His breathing appeared slower, shallower. The fire in the hearth flickered and spit.

I added another log, fearing that Fergus was cold and had gone to sleep. But, Fergus was in that special place where fire starters and keepers of the flame of the McGregor clan had always gone: they called it  Fire Mountain.

Fergus shook in the shoulders.

“Now then, you must never let this fire go out. You have charge of it now, fire that began so long ago that no one, not even Cloonie knew of its origins.

“It is said that this fire first began in a Pict bog hut on the Scottish coast. Not much more is known, but embers of this fire were used to begin the first cleansing fires in Scotland. That much is known to this day.”

My eyes narrowed.

“Cleansing fires, grandpa? What are they?”

“Just as I told you. A cleansing fire was always started on the highest mountain that could be found. The fire was allowed to grow until all the countryside could see. And when the winds came, large tongues of flames leaped from that fire, out into the night.

“I remember seeing those fires as a boy. They looked like great bolts of lightning as they flashed into space, and out over the North Atlantic, into the mists.

“Oh, it was a sight, those big cleansing fires. The old people believed that the larger the fire, the bigger the flames, the more those flames would be flung into the night.

“The stronger the flame, the farther it could travel, and it is said that Cloonie McGregor’s fires could be seen for hundreds of miles around. Those flames fanned out over the countryside, burning and cleaning, bringing new life and the promise of a good future.

“It is said that Cloonie McGregor’s fires burned a hole in the night and turned darkness into light.”

Fergus was breathing hard. He put a hand to his heaving chest and felt his heart beating rapidly, almost too fast. He peered down at me.

“The cleansing fires let you walk in the light,” Fergus said. Again he paused.

“My father brought this fire with him from Scotland. It is the flames of Cloonie, from his Fire Mountain. Now, you are the one who must carry this on, giving fire to life.”

Fergus sighed deeply in his chest.

I grabbed grandfather’s hand. It felt cold, despite the fire that was billowing red hot now in the hearth.

I looked deeply into the flames and thought I saw a mountain and a man standing there, holding his arms aloft, his head high.

“Grandpa, look.”

Fergus McGregor was as still as stone.

Then he began talking again, with his eyes closed.

“It wasn’t that Cloonie wanted to go up in flames. He had to. He knew that the time for the end of the clans had come and that there would be no one to carry on the tradition of the cleansing fires.

“So, he left with the flames that night. Flew up into the nighttime like a spark, an orange, fiery tongue, leaping into the darkness.”

He patted my head and continued.

“You see, Cloonie was an old man, much like me now. He knew that he must sacrifice himself for a greater thing for his people. Cloonie knew that the clans would be scattered and that the people of the bogs would no longer be able to count on the chieftains for aide and comfort.             “So he decided that at his age, he would give himself to the fire, joining the flames of eternity.”

Fergus rested a moment. I peered into the rosy hue of his face and drank in the wisdom I found there. Fergus’s face was a web of wrinkles, but they were soft and not hard. They enhanced his face rather than take something away.

“By becoming the ashes, Cloonie took with him the secret of the cleansing fires,” Fergus said. When he spoke, I thought I heard the faint sounds of distant bagpipes.

“And now, that is the secret of the cleansing fires, lit so long ago, joined in body and soul by Cloonie Fergus, the last man to keep the ancient fires burning. With him went the old ways, but here is the true secret of the fire.

“It is that each succeeding generation must be better than the one before it. You must achieve and work hard and strive to be better than your mother and father, who went beyond anything I could have accomplished.”

I looked into the flames biting and licking the logs in a familiar way.

“That is why Cloonie joined the ancients that night. He took with him the last of the clan secrets, the secrets of the old fires, and gave them to the rest of us. And that is his message, that we must leave the coming generations better off than we were, to carry on the dream, to continue burning for the future.”             The blue in the flames intensified. I thought I saw Fergus’s face staring back inside the flames. For a the briefest of moments, Fergus thought he saw Cloonie McGregor standing on his fire mountain, building his bonfire for the Christmas season, to cleanse the air, to refresh the night, to send the message out that for any of us to do better, we all have to do better, and that we must concentrate on our children. The clan chieftains understood this, perhaps, best of all. Without the next generation, the clans were no more, and that is the how and the why they eventually disappeared, one by one, when the children no longer cared or obeyed the chiefs.

“Listen to the fire,” Fergus said, leaning down to his granddaughters face.

“Listen to the words of Cloonie McGregor and know that you have been handed this great gift, keeper of the flames that the fire that must reside in you, that lights your way, and gives you the energy to go on when it seems there are no more paths to take.

“The cleansing fires will make you strong, because they burn across time,” Fergus McGregor said, holding my hand as they stared into the hot flames.

After leaving my grandfather’s home that day on the top of Raven’s Den Mountain, I felt that something had changed. In me. I wasn’t the same.

The day Fergus died, I rushed to his home to make sure the fire was still burning and I did what my grandfather told me. I took a piece of the flame with me and set my own fire ablaze.

And it has burned inside of me since.

I looked up just in time to see one of my grandchildren, Melinda. She was the most adventuresome of all my grandkids.

“Tell me a story, grandpa,” she said.

I looked for a long time at the fire, burning brightly.

“Let me tell you about the keeper of the flames, Melinda.”

Posted in Christmas Stories | Leave a comment

Moons Made for You

When I was a boy with a smile, the darkness came
Overtaking me for years and years
It was not easy escaping the blackness, a hole in life
It was not easy moving to the light

But you are light
And I have become a moth to your glow
In the warmth of the shine, I know there is safety
You have locked away the shadows that once held me

I am amazed by this act of pure love
Love is hard for me, as you know
Love for me is like a piece of string
You can wrap it or tie it or just lay it out in a straight line

The full moon moved across me last night
Its brightness, a silver light hanging like a wide curtain
Illuminated my thoughts for a moment
And I was lost in the light

I believe moons were meant for you
There are more than one, you know. There are hundreds out there
Flying in ancient rhythms, orbiting this world and the unfathomed
I think God made the moons for you.
To fly in glimmering freedom

The darkness seems so far away now. Once it was close
I know it will never be out of my life, a fact I accepted long ago
It has a pointed tail snaking out from under the door
But your God moons give it a sheen and shadow

Locked in a helix of light
We fly together, out over the winds, the waves and down the valleys
Into the face of a spiral
And we hear music of re-birth saying this is forever and thank goodness

Posted in Poems | Leave a comment

W is Gone

George W. Bush has left the White House

Gone is the terror

Gone is the torture

Gone are the abuses and excuses

The neocons ruined a nation and a world

W was a neocon with no insight as to what that meant

Gone is the arrogance

Gone is tyranny to the middle class

Gone is the inability to think, to say I’m sorry

Gone  is the absences of habeas corpus, that came with the U.S. Constitution

Donald Rumsfeld shot before he tried to think

Dick Cheney fired at anything that moved, including friends

Gone is the disregard for the environment

Gone is superficial, the slipshod, the confused

Gone is W, fiend of the super wealthy, foe of the working class

Gone is a man who is less than an idiot

What is left?

A hull, a burned out case, a people and world in shambles

Posted in Essays | Leave a comment

Presidential Reading List…

Today, the New York Times published a list of books that either have been read recently by President-Elect Barack Obama or ones he is currently reading.

As for me, I have read the Bible, “Self-Reliance,” by Emerson, I have “Team of Rivals,” but have not read it yet, “Moby Dick,” some Niebuhr and all of Shakespeare’s Tragedies.

How many of these  have you read?

  • The Bible

  • Parting the Waters,” Taylor Branch

  • Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • Gandhi’s autobiography

  • Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin

  • The Golden Notebook,” Doris Lessing

  • Lincoln’s collected writings

  • Moby-Dick,” Herman Melville

  • Song of Solomon,” Toni Morrison

  • Works of Reinhold Niebuhr

  • Gilead,” Marilynne Robinson

  • Shakespeare’s tragedies

Posted in Essays | Leave a comment

Plucked!

Maybe it is just me, but I am beginning to get an uneasy feeling about Obama. I know he has a full plate, maybe several full plates, but I am looking for him to keep his word.

Unlike politicians we’ve had recently, in which their word was worthless, Obama was elected to stop all that. Now we are beginning to hear that it will take time to close down the infamous Gitmo Prison, that the economy is worse than at first expected, etc., etc.

Right. I get that. Gitmo can’t be shut down overnight. It might take a couple. You let those people go who have never been charged. Fit ’em with ankle bracelets if you must, but if this nation has not charged them with crimes of any nature, war or criminal, they should be returned to their countries of origin.

As for the economy, I was never for giving the bankers, the car dealers, the real estate moguls, the Wall Street firms access to my tax money. Why should we as a nation bail out those who put us in this fix? If you are going to use my tax money as my meager retirement dwindles to toothpick size, then let’s make sure we give it to the people who will get us out of the fix, and not take our money as a bonus pay just because they feel as if they need a bonus check.

I haven’t had a bonus check since I was a young reporter in Pensacola, Fla. The publisher gave us a turkey at Christmas time. That was nice, of course. You felt beholden, and like a plucked bird.

I still feel as if I’ve been plucked.

Posted in Essays | Leave a comment