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Men IN THE LandTIMES PAST
By J. P. LUCAS
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2012 J. P. Lucas
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe man on the big bay horse thought of the beauty of this place as he passed along the road. The huge leaf covered limbs of the trees formed a natural, overarching, canopy covered, avenue.
The host of flowering plants, fresh water and the wonderful oxygen saturated mountain air, along this near wilderness track, created an incredibly, wonderful incense that richly filled the senses and charged the heart of the forest rider.
Along the creek, the sounds of the water flowing there, in the tumbling deep blue stream, were multitude. Some were the mere tinkling sounds of tiny wind chimes. Others bubbling, some booming, more, crashing cymbals in the back of the orchestra, countered by deep kettle drum thumping's and boistrous gurglings. The slight kerplip, of drippings, blended into the constant, urgent, got to get on, rushing of the powerful water, the wonderful performance of a beautiful, backwoods symphony.
This year, as spring had come into full hot summer, he had seen catfish brought out of the creek that wound head to tail around the inside of a wooden wash tub.
Hunk, with his home made three pronged gig, had already been gigging in the creek for frogs. A few times, so far, this summer, he had brought Sarah brimming buckets full of the most tender, delicious frog legs in the world.
She was the consummate back woods chef, and the result of Hunks gig trips and Sarah's expertise with a cast iron skillet, lard and salt, always resulted in a repast fit for a king.
He thought of how well a man and his family could live in this country. Only the lazy need go hungry, even now when times were hard.
All summer long the berries came on: blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, huckleberries, gooseberries, tiny wild strawberries. Then the apples! Some so sweet they tasted like they were pumped plumb full of brown sugar juice. Some so sour they'd make a pig squeal. Wild crabapples to mix in with the jams and jellies to set the jell. This was God's good country.
Pawpaw fruit, hickory nuts, black walnuts, white walnuts or butternuts some called them. The most delicious chestnuts in the world, beechnuts and hazelnuts. Not a few of them, but tons upon tons of them. An overabundance of God given bounty.
Ahh, and then the harvest! Squirrels, made fat on the bounty of the forest.
Huge, red, fox squirrels, sleek grey squirrels. Floured or rolled in eggs and cornmeal and fried, either kind made the best breakfast gravy in the world.
Fresh venison. Deer with that strip of tenderloin along the backbone stripped out and sliced into sections then split into butterfly tenderloin steaks. Sarah dipped them in brown flour and fried them in a skillet with a little lard and a just right amount of salt. Browned! Lush, succulent tawny brown they came out, cooked to a delicious tan clean through and so tender they came apart with your fingers. Or she would bake the whole tenderloin smothered in onions and great big quarters of cabbage lain on top.
Bear meat! She'd clean the fat off for rendering and bake the meat with wild onions and whole potatoes, served up, with fresh hot cornbread and butter. A feast that satisfied a man's appetite, forged strong bones, layered them in sinew, and filled his blood with super fuel to power the machinery.
Then there was fried rabbit with mashed potatoes and greens. Poke greens, dandelion greens, turnip greens, you name it!
Onions, about black walnut size, boiled and smothered in homemade butter, served up with fresh pork. Fat hog meat, sweetened by the thousands of pounds of sweet chestnuts, hickory nuts, beech nuts and acorns they fed on as they ran free in the woods. Meat, that melted in your mouth, and served with shoestring beans, cornbread and more delicious sweet cooked or raw onions and more potatoes. What king could want more?
Sometimes, the big man wondered, if the eating was the best part of all this, or was it the smelling? The aroma of Sarah's cooking, as it wafted along the side of the mountain, was enough to make a man want to quit plowing or cutting timber, way too early of an evening. Ah, but he waited, then, in the end, the eating sure made the waiting worthwhile. The sights, sounds and smells of the country were enough to make one's heart swell.
Then, there were the intangibles. The know how to preserve all that bounty for winter. Drying, smoking, salting, pickling, jarring and jelling. Primitive frontier knowledge passed down from mom and dad, grandpa and grandma. From one generation to another.
There were things here, totally unique. Things that bound a man to the land. Something about the mountains that got hold of his heart, his very soul. Also, there was a sustaining something that lent a great deal of security to one who had loved ones planted beneath the shelter of the giant protecting arms of the forest within a stone's throw of him. Something that gave him deeper roots than the newcomers in the land.
As the horse picked out the trail in the oncoming twilight, he thought to himself, he had much to be thankful for. When his grandpa had come here, in the last century, he had had to slip around the country with both eyes and ears open just to keep his hair. In fact, some of his kin hadn't slipped around quite well enough. Some were buried here, in hallowed ground. Others had simply not come home. No one ever found where they had fallen. Finally the fight between the red and white man had ended.
Then another war had come and gone. Next, came the recent war like none before, in this part of the world. A war among neighbors. A war that should never have happened. A war that pitted the country against itself. Now, that war had been over for quite a while and the country, at least in some places, was beginning to heal.
For the most part, folks could travel around the country on their business without fear. There were a few outlaws in the country but, they mostly didn't interfere with much, generally fighting among themselves. Mostly robbing and killing each other. When they stepped out of line, and got out of their little circles, the law was harsh. So harsh, in fact, that a lot of felons didn't spend much time in jail, if they got that far. Other than the scoundrels combing the country to try and steal, by scandalous purchase, what a man had rightfully come by, it was a fair peaceful place to live.
The big man had only stopped for a couple of minutes at Hawks, with it getting on to evening and now, from somewhere behind the high walls of the forest an early ranging owl inquiringly whooed into the coming darkness and a friend, or maybe a relative, whooed back.
Late for getting home, sparrows and finches flitted about like small windblown leaves, almost invisible now against the deep darkening of forest. More heard than seen, they sought the inner branches of the evergreens and rhododendron for a safe hideout for the night. Somewhere behind him a whip-poor-will sounded into the twilight. Off toward the hollow to his left a rain crow with its beautiful long cooo called for his mate, heavenly music on such a beautiful night.
Ahead, just at the end of sight, in the branched over, tunnel road that he followed, appeared a small dark spot in one of the snaking tracks of the wagon road. Mr. Rabbit stood on his hind legs, looking like a coffee pot with long upright ears, from this distance, turning his head and sniffing the air, trying to make up his mind. Should he go up the creek, or down tonight? Which offered the best option for fine, tender young green sprouts, or clover. Seeing the horse and rider coming toward him from down the creek he decided the best possible pickings tonight would, to be on the safe side, probably be somewhere up the creek.
Just before the rider came to the log and plank bridge, a fish jumped in the creek, fell back with a slap on the water and settled back into the depths, another satisfying morsel in his gullet as he finished his hunt for the last of today's skimmers that skated across the water in the slow spots and backwaters.
Now time was on the rider's side. Another hour or a little more and he would be unloading his horse and the mule. He was so close to home now that he could, at least he thought he could, smell, almost taste, Sarah's, out of this world, cooking. He marveled at the way she always fixed him a special supper when he had been away from home even for just a short time.
He wondered, actually tried to guess, what she would have fixed this time and thought if she hadn't done anything, it would be enough just to see her, just to hold her another night. Sarah, his precious Sarah. Where had she come from? She was so different.
He had often heard her as she prayed. How she thanked God for him and for him to hear her pray that way was worth more than all the wealth of the world. Yet, he had never been able to find the words to express his gratitude for her, simply because what he felt for her went beyond his vocabulary. He had never learned how to say what he had no words for. He just knew his heart was tied to Sarah's and God in heaven understood his gratefulness.
Then, like horsemen everywhere, his attention came back to the road he traveled as his horse pricked up his ears and cocked his head higher, looking up and down the creek as they crossed the bridge. The laden mule had held back momentarily, at the first hollow clompings of the horse's feet upon the planks of the bridge, and then stepped up his pace to hurry across, close behind the horse.
Chapter TwoThey came from under the trees, out of the brush and weeds, by the side of the road in the late evening twilight, as quickly and unexpectedly as copperheads, their movements masked by the increased darkness of the overhanging trees and the sound of rushing water in the creek. Armed with pistols and knives, one grabbed the reins of the frightened saddle horse, as the two other men fastened hold on the rider.
The horse was fighting a sudden ghost who had materialized out of the near darkness. Rearing in his fright and striking out with his forefeet to rid himself of the half seen demon in the flapping black coat that was trying to drag him back to the ground by the reins of his bridle.
The rider was struggling with two other groping, grasping imps attempting to drag him from the saddle. Suddenly, loosening a foot from his stirrup he kicked at the head of one of the men, striking his attacker in the eye with the hob nailed heel of his boot. Ab Hawkins, screamed and grabbed his face momentarily then, anger overcoming his pain, he, becoming furious, returned to the fight, with a knife in his hand.
Delmer Cowley had managed to stop the fighting horse in its attempt to flee, Enoch, the third man, still unwounded, and pulling on the horseman, had managed to partially unbalance and almost drag the rider from his saddle.
Ab Hawkins, with the wounded eye, was now attempting to leap onto the horse behind the saddle and keep from entangling himself in the lead rope that was attached to a frightened, kicking, rearing, pack mule, meanwhile trying to stab the rider in the back with his knife. His first attempt, resulted in a painful, and dangerous wound to the riders back. In his effort to evade the man behind him with the knife, the rider jumped from his horse, wrapping his arms around Bryant, the man pulling on him from the ground, struggling to unhorse him.
Finding himself atop Bryant when they hit the ground, the rider, wounded, now in desperation, drove his oaken fists into the face of the man with all his might, hoping to take one man out of the fight. Bryant stopped moving, but the man with the knife, in the meantime, had leaped from his half seated position on the horse and managed to stab him in the back once more.
Hawkins' attempt to kill the man from the horse resulted in the rider falling forward on top of the motionless Bryant. Hawkins stabbed him in the back again.
The rider now lay motionless.
Cowley, who had been holding the horse, had released it in a general effort to help his companions and both animals had immediately fled, packs and stirrups flapping, up the road in the direction they were traveling before the attack.
For some moments Cowley and Hawkins stood, shocked, almost unbelieving, at the ferocity with which the rider had instantly defended himself and the damage he had been able to inflict in such a few seconds.
Hawkins, with the wounded eye, knew he had lost the eye and suffered a broken bone in his eye socket, possibly more. He thought his head was going to burst. He wondered how he had ever been caught by the man's boot-heel so perfectly that it smashed his eyeball. He was screaming, mad, holding his face, half seeing, kicking at the man, his former adversary, in horrendous fury and agony. Bryant, the man beneath the rider was still motionless, his facial bones crushed by the hammer blows of the rider.
They had been warned. This man would be no easy target, but how tough could a hick farmer be? Then, they were not amateurs either. They were professional killers. Hired to do what should have been a simple and quick job.
They had not used their guns for fear of being heard and now two were badly wounded.
Cowley, the horse holder, the only one unhurt, rolled the body of the man they had attacked, whom they assumed to be dead, off his partner.
Having no choice, he forced Hawkins, despite his agony, to put aside his pain and rage and help him drag the rider into the creek and into a place that would at least keep the body from being found immediately, which should give them some time to get away.
They, in coming to the spot they had chosen for the attack, had left their horses about a half mile down the creek, in a seldom traveled hollow where they were unlikely to be seen or heard by anyone. Now, two of them were badly wounded and Bryant hurt so badly in fact that they were unable to revive him.
They decided they would drag their compatriot into the brush and then Cowley would help Hawkins, with his wounded eye, to his horse and come back with his own horse and another for the unconscious man. Cowley could then get his two frightfully wounded friends to a safe place and go for help.
It, in the end, was a wasted trip back for Bryant. The old convict no longer needed help, he needed what he had never shown anyone else: mercy; God's mercy, in fact, for he was dead.
Cursing their luck and loading him on his horse Cowley hauled Bryant about halfway back to where Hawkins waited, wading the horses in the creek, to cover his trail. Removing Bryant's body from the horse, he carried him up the creek bank, and dropped him behind a rotting log on the side of the hill.
Kicking dirt and leaves over the body, Cowley slid down the creek bank to his horse, mounted his horse, and leading Bryant's, went quickly on down the creek. He rode up the now pitch black hollow where the pain crazed Hawkins waited, tied Bryant's horse behind that of Hawkins, took the reins of Hawkins horse and led him away, uphill and into the dark and dripping mist of the forest.
They were several miles away from the scene of the fight when Cowley, tired to the bone, from his exertions and nursing Hawkins, finally stopped to tie him on his horse to keep him in the saddle. Then while listening to his incessant moaning, he realized that they had not completed their job and now, even their pay was at risk. They were supposed to steal the man's money and equipment. This was supposed to have looked like a robbery.
Chapter ThreeSitting in the office wing of his mansion on a hill in Pittsburg watching the sun go down, Ross Connelly waited for news from West Virginia. This part of the country was in a boom time. The steel mills in the east were feeding off the land hunger of the immigrants in the west. Western Indian tribes that had held millions of acres of land, whole sections of the country, were being decimated or were already eliminated.
Railroads were vying with each other, like any other school of sharks, for right of ways into new territory. Millions of tons of steel were being turned into rails, engines, rail cars and cranes for the western expansion. Steel was now replacing wood as the major component of ship building.
Riveted steel bridges by the thousands were being built. Steel was gold, in cold gray form. Coal was essential to the making of steel. Good coal, excellent coal, was worth a fortune. Pennsylvania coal miners, as miners everywhere, were eeking out an existence creating millionaires.
West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia had some of the, best of the best, developing coal. The southern businessman had been hopelessly crippled by the war. There was little or no competition from them. They had been financially destroyed. The land now, and all it held, belonged to the Yankee businessman, who knew how to acquire and develop it.
Excerpted from Men IN THE Land by J. P. LUCAS Copyright © 2012 by J. P. Lucas. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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