Before Kane could answer, there was a flash of burning gunpowder on the hillside across the creek and a bullet hit the doorpost only inches from Gray’s head, the report ringing out an instant later.
Instantly, the light inside went out as Kane took the few quick steps to the corner of the cabin. Standing quietly, leaning against the stone wall, he quickly estimated the shooter to be approximately one hundred-ten yards away, across the creek in the darkness of the timber covered hillside. Having seen the muzzle flash, he already had his Winchester up, so he levered five quick shots, scattered across the area where he’d seen that flash.
SOUTH OF TABLE MOUNTAIN
Steve Ritchie Westerns: Sample Text page 2.
Within only a few seconds of his last shot, he could hear the faint rapid hoofbeats of a horse racing south through the timber, tree limbs popping loudly as they were broken off by the fleeing horse and rider. He quickly shoved four fresh cartridges into the loading gate and raised the rifle again, leading the sound he was hearing, and fired four more times.
After he let go with his last shot, Gray asked, “Think ya got him?”
Kane chuckled in the darkness. “Nope, but I sent him on his way with somethin’ right serious to think about,” at which Gray laughed aloud.
...folks were heard weeping through the nights and during the long days as they were prodded along. Thus the march became known among the Cherokees as Nunna daul Tsuny - “The Trail Where They Cried,” or as I’ve heard it called nowadays, The Trail of Tears.
Crow’s mother and father were among those who survived the trip. When Crow’s father, Joseph, was a very old man, he told me his story.
* * * * *
“The winter had left the mountains and the dogwoods and redbuds were in bloom...spring had come. We were playin’ among the trees, when the white soldiers came. From the house my mother calls and I can tell she is troubled. The soldiers tell us we are to go with them, but they do not give us enough time to gather our things. They bring my father in from the field, pushin’ him with the point of a bayonet.
“My father is angry. My mother is afraid. I am afraid. My family and my friends’ families are driven away from our homes. We are herded into stockades like animals. I do not understand what goes on.
“The ground is wet and muddy, and it sticks to our clothes. We are always dirty and are forced to live like pigs in a pen.
“The nights in the mountains are cold, but we have few blankets; my mother holds me close to her to keep me warm. Every day, for many days, others of our people are brought to the stockade, where they too are forced to live like pigs in a muddy wallow.
“The elders are troubled, and I sit and watch them and the soldiers who guard us. I am hungry.
“We are in the stockade for several months. Now the leaves change colors and fall from the trees. In the mornings there is frost on everything and I cry b’cause I am cold. Word comes to us that white men have moved onto our farms and are workin’ our lands. Now, where are we to live? What are we to do? One mornin’ I awake and someone tells me my father is dead.
“Then one day we are told to follow the soldiers, so we walk. My mother wants me to stay close to her. We walk for many weeks. We are told we walk to the new “Western” land of the Cherokee.
“Soon it is Winter and now we walk on frozen ground. I hurt from the cold and wish to have a heavy blanket to keep me warm...but there is no blanket. I think of our home, where we had a fire and many blankets to keep us warm, and I wonder if I will I ever be warm again? We walk for many weeks. Every night, someone dies and, like those who have died before them, they are buried in shallow graves at the side of the road.
“As we pass their towns and homes, the white people stand along the road to watch us pass by. They do not speak to me...they only stare. Even when the bitter wind blows the snow, they are there. I hate them for it.
“When we begin our march, my mother is young, beautiful and strong. But now she looks much older and haggard. She coughs constantly and burns with fever. I sleep beside her at night. I shiver from the cold, so she pulls me close to her and covers us with her ragged, thin blanket, the fever in her body warmin’ me. She coughs violently, but somehow I sleep.
“Then one morning, I awake and her body is cold. I call to her, but she does not answer. I hear my aunt and other women of my clan weepin’, and I realize my mother is dead. What will happen to me?
“My mother is buried along the side of the road; a shallow, unmarked grave of stones is her final restin’ place. The soldiers prod us to walk on, while my aunt tries to comfort me. Now, I am alone.
“You talk of hate – I know what it is to hate. I hate the whites who forced us from our homes. I hate those who forced us to march through the blowing snow and to cross the icy rivers and streams. I hate the white government that sent them and I hate the whites who killed my parents.
“I hate the white people, who stood along the roads and stared at me as I was forced to walk past them. No one comes to say ‘I am sorry you suffer.’ They do not care about me or my people. They only hate us for the color of our skin. I hate them all.
“That’s a lotta bull, Red,” the second man scoffed. “Ain’t nobody faster’n John Wesley. But I shore hope we get this deal up here done in a hurry. I hate this dang cold weather. It gits cold, down in Texas, but I ain’t never saw snow on the ground this early in the dang year. Reckon I wouldn’t mind havin’ me another big ole bonfire, like the one we had up yonder at them cabins, to warm-up my chilled bones.”
With that being said, they put out their butts and walked through the door of the barn, stopping just inside to allow their eyes time to adjust to the lesser light.
Caleb, although peeking through the slats separating the stalls, was still concealed by the post at the end. Earlier, he had simply been in a surly mood, but after hearing what he had just heard, that old feeling of bloodlust overwhelmed him. He softly, coolly made his presence known.
“Howdy, Johnny,” he greeted pleasantly. “Like I told Dieter and the Bauer Boys, you fellas are a far piece off your range.” Then he stepped nonchalantly out into the open driveway, feet apart, hands near the walnut grips of his pistols.
To say the least, they were astonished to see him standing there - literally shocked. Suddenly faced by the man he had just proclaimed would be killed by any one of their outfit, Johnny Cathcart, a tall, lean, handsome young man, froze, unable to move a finger. Red Gibson, his lanky, long-haired companion, was no different. Suddenly faced to face with this trim package of certain death, Red wanted to be anywhere but where he now stood...but he could not move his feet.
“So y’all want another bonfire like the one ya had when ya burned my folks out, huh Red?”
“Look, Kid,” Red stammered, “I didn’t say that. Johnny...”
“Shut up, Red,” Johnny ordered.
“One of ya tell me about that fire,” Caleb demanded. “I wanta know who was there and who sent ya to burn the place. I wanta know if my parents were shot, or if they died in the fire, and likewise for the Urbanias.”
Neither man spoke. “One of ya better talk up and fast! My patience is wore plumb thin...and I’m just itchin’ to kill somebody.”
“Kid, you better light a shuck fer parts unknown,” Cathcart recommended. “They’s a price on yore head - thousan’ dollars, gold.”
“A thousand dollars, huh? You reckon to collect that bounty, Johnny? Well, I wouldn’t go spendin’ it quite yet. You ain’t gotta ghost of a chance to collect it...not even with help.
“Red, you look like the smart one in this group. Why don’t ya answer my question for me? Tell me what I wanta know, and I’ll let ya ride outta here. Who was there, Red?”
Red Gibson swallowed hard. Suddenly there was a lump in his throat the size of a grapefruit. “Kid, I...I ain’t shore I oughta. Simon would skin me alive, Kid.”
He finished his brushing and led the horse to the trough, broke the thin layer of ice with the axe that leaned near the pump, and let the animal drink his fill. He was once again tying the paint in his stall, when he heard voices.
Two men were carrying on a serious conversation as they approached the barn. Suddenly, a word caught Caleb’s ear and he strained to hear more as they spoke.
“Simon ain’t gonna like The Kid bein’ ‘round,” one man stated. “Said that last note he got from the boss read mighty mean.”
“Won’t make no difference, ‘fore long,” the other responded. “One of us’ll run across him d’rectly an’ that’ll be the end of it.”
They stopped short of the door to finish their smokes, before entering the barn. Caleb remained quiet and undetected, listening to the continued conversation as he poked his new gloves behind the buckle of this gunbelt. Then he slipped the thongs from the hammer of both Colts.
“I ain’t shore any one of us can take that kid,” the first man insisted. “Him an’ them other two played hob with our bunch over Zaragoza’s cows that time, then he done fer Toby and Jake, later on in Eagle Pass...an’ Toby Meacham were a shore ‘nough daisy.
“And Rowdy told Lee that the old man, who seen that shootin’ down at Sumner, said he’d never saw nobody move as fast as The Kid. Ole man said he seen Harden pull oncest, down to Texarkana, an’ The Kid were faster’n him...g’arnteed it, he did.”