The culprits rode three horses, one with a distinct, odd shoe leaving sign Riddle’s been following for five days. They’re brothers—Leon, Ralph, and Otho, him that has but three fingers on his left hand. The Coakley brothers, each hunched behind a small figure in the saddle. It’s Riddle’s sister, Jettie, and her little girls, aged six and eight. Sue Alma and Malinda.
Riddle, a big fellow with a strong back, has a habit pulling his ruddy brown hair out of his eyes, shoved under his slouch hat. He doesn’t dwell too long on his baby sister, Jettie, and her daughters. If he considers what the Coakleys have likely done with them, he’ll fill up rapidly with feelings beyond control. The Coakley rogues have used up other unfortunate mountain females. They’ve robbed. They’ve burnt folks out of their homes. Back in 1854, two years ago, they got arrested a few times, yet never found guilty. Once the constable turns them loose, they’re bent on revenge, moving so fast they surprise unsuspecting folks time and again. Coakleys just spit in the face of the law.
When Riddle got to Shelton Laurel asking about horsemen who might have come through, Katy Gallant was the first one he spoke to. He noticed how heavy she was in the chest. Barefoot, too, her face, coarse and weathered. She blows smoke from her corncob pipe, suggesting Riddle punish the Coakleys before sending them to hell. She says, “They’s Satan’s bastards.” She could spit ten penny nails, she’s so worked up. She says, “You orta piss down their throats, if you can, and put their burning hearts out for good.”
He’s tempted to take up that fierce mantle she’s tossed on him. So now he’s gone from Shelton Laurel heading for the Coakley place. They might just be arrogant enough to be there. His thoughts skeltering back and forth as he struggles not to think about Katy’s little sister, Lucy, the one who’s caught his eye so unexpectedly. Lucy resembles her sister, though she’s more slender, a tomboy with her pale, smooth face, her light chestnut hair. With eyelashes so light as to be near invisible she has a bright-eyed aspect, drawing him like moth to flame. Yet he’s ashamed to think of her, ashamed he’s not got Jettie back. He wishes he knew the proper way to do what needs to be done.
He’s never had any luck with females, giving up a long time ago believing he’d ever get himself a girl. He’s learned to live without hope of romance nor marriage nor family of his own, convinced he’ll remain part of little sister’s family, especially since her husband, Teddy’s such a no count. Jettie always says, “You’ll find somebody, Brother. I know you will.” He harkens to her words, missing her very much, yet still hoping Lucy’s the one she’s encouraged him to find.
He checks the Lemats pistol, making sure each cylinder has a cartridge, especially the center barrel which is set with birdshot, so he’s got nine shots, eight solids and one scatter load. He’s traveling toward Foxtown Mountain where the Coakley place is, ten miles outside Hot Springs. High country, to be sure, it’s a gloomy promontory that sets him to thinking, Some outright praying gets done in the saddle.
At one point the mule takes him down to bottom land with a little rocky brook rushing through it, and he estimates he’s got maybe two more miles to the mountain, if that fool, Zeb Gallant, is any judge of distance. Zeb Gallant, older brother to Katy and Lucy, is bewhiskered, unkempt, spry, and gnarly, like one of those leprechauns.
Riddle rides all through that day. By and by he notes smoke drifting above the ridge, curling up through the orange-and-yellow sunset. Might be that’s the Coakley’s place, he tells himself. But I got to be sartin. Talk first instead of shooting. He tries to commit to righteous plans, knowing he might forget in the flurry when he runs into the scoundrels.
The mountain backroad narrows to a rocky path cut into the ridge, climbing steeper, switching back on itself as necessary. Up into darkening shadows among cedars, balsam, rhododendron and brambles, there’s a whole world of shadows and uncertainty. Riddle rests the mule a couple times, listening to sounds of this high dusk as a breeze rustles the trees. Barred owls are answering back and forth as he catches glimpses of sleek swallows and nightjars darting and swooping silently overhead, feasting on the fly.
By and by, he’s smelling cookfire smoke. There are neither fences nor any sign of farm work anywhere, and it’s darkening as he’s hunting hard for the marker Zeb had told him to look for. A boulder tall as a man that’s scorched by lightning. He blunders right upon it, dismounts the mule, leading it off the trail behind a thick stand of laurel, tethering to a sumac, touching his hand to the big knife, holding the Lemats by his leg.
He’s come right up on a rundown gray, low-roofed shed that has two small front windows with shutters open, lantern glowing on the chimney side. Male voices inside. He’s ready to creep up close when there’s movement off to his left. A figure emerges from the privy half obscured by rhododendrons not ten yards away, a fellow tugging at his trousers, adjusting his privates, oblivious to the fact he’s coming straight on toward Riddle, who’s got the Lemats ready.
This huge fellow with an unruly, yellow beard is a head taller than Riddle, plus a good forty pounds heavier, his hair cut blunt across his shoulders. A man wearing a stained, greasy slouch hat, square-faced with a nose like a turnip, and a stolid expression. The fellow scratches his jaw, and Riddle sees just three fingers on that hand. And Riddle forgets caution, quickly stepping out onto the path. The big fellow halts, eyebrows raised in puzzlement. He grins, revealing gapped misshapen teeth, “Who’re you?”
Riddle quickly closes the distance between them, bringing the big knife blade under chin so the fellow flinches, eyes agog.
Riddle whispers, “I’ll slice you open, buddy.”
They stand like this a moment. This fellow who must be Otho Coakley whispers “Mister, why you here?”
“Looking fer family,” Riddle answers, pushing up against him, his voice hissing,“Who’s in the house?”
“We ain’t got no gals in there.”
“Gals, you say?”
Big Un’s face blanches. “You said family. I just figgered…We ain’t got em, mister. Ain’t got nobody.”
“Liar!” hisses Riddle, propelling the fellow toward the house, prodding him with the long barrel so that they bust through the door into a smoke-filled room where another big lug’s lying on the floor with a flask to his lips, spilling down his front. The Drinker has stringy brown hair to his shoulders, and Riddle watches cogs turning in the man’s brain.
Riddle hears somebody busting helter skelter around back. Agile as a catamount, Drinker scrambles out that same back way. Riddle’s got time to get a clear shot, but somehow holds off recalling what he wanted to do. Using the Lemats as a club, he flails on Otho’s skull, crumbling him to the planked floor. Drinker’s entering the barn out back about twenty yards away. Hogs get disturbed, grunting and squealing. There is other movement beyond the barn shielded by undergrowth. That other man is which? Riddle doesn’t know which is Ralph, which is Leon. Watching all this, he turns to see Otho up now, clambering out the window. All this happening too fast.
Riddle strides toward the barn considering all the sharpened axes, mattocks, and picks that might be in there, which could be used against him. Then a horse nickers and stamps, banging around so the whole structure shudders, clouds of dust puffing through the spaces between the wall planks. Riddle steps inside, bold and foolish as the dark tumult envelops him. He takes one step, a horse slams into him, and bright light explodes inside his skull as he descends into darkness beyond mere barndark.
Sometime later he recognizes the need to stand, the mingled scent of sour hay and manure ripe and close. Dark as it is, he senses a presence nearby, a startled hog huffing indignantly, careening away from him, but not far, its hoarse sweet and sour breathing as it’s shuffling around. A horse whuffs, shuttling sideways up against Riddle, booming hard into a wall as the structure shudders again. Putting his hand to a tender spot on his head, Riddle brings it back wet and sticky. Is it blood?
He’s learning quickly not to move his head too rapidly. It throbs. He’s dizzy a while, wanting to know more about where he is, dim shadows all around. The cracks in the wall he’s facing grow bright with crackling, hissing noises right there. Horses and pigs scream like shrieking, terrified women. He gets the meaning.
A small, horned apparition slides into view, calmly studying him, backlit by the flames like a four-legged Satan out for a stroll. When Riddle blinks, the creature vanishes in the darkness. A goat? Dizzily, he gropes away from the flames. Two large black and white hogs carom off him against the wall, knocking him off balance. He’s on one knee, and there’s a rising crescendo of the roaring fire he can see and feel through the walls. Groping to regain his feet, he uses his hand to touch an apparatus, a latch. He becomes more than anxious to escape, turning and pushing it to no avail. He turns it the opposite way, still pushing. No good. He turns and pulls, and the door swings open. He moves out with hogs, a horse, and a young steer, the creatures rushing past him into the night.
Flames assault the barn’s far side, sparks, smoke, and ash flying toward heaven. Shrieking animal voices fill the night with a chorus of terror. He rushes around the barn to come upon a sight he’ll see again and again for many a year.
Otho Coakley is slumped against an oak tree, impaled through one hand and his neck by two tines of a pitchfork, blood running down him at his hand, neck, and chest. He’d used that hand trying to ward off the pitchfork that pinned his hand to his neck, and the tines continued clear through. His shirt is sodden dark crimson with his life’s blood that streamed down to his waist. His eyes surprised, staring and unseeing in death.
Somebody rushes by, leading an agitated gelding, a dark, high-spirited horse, a blanket thrown over its head, moving quickly away from flames into the woods. The person leading the animal isn’t big enough to be a Coakley. A second little figure follows in like manner blanketing the head of a gray mare. It’s Lucy Gallant who’s good with the horse, urging her brother Zeb to bring the spooked horses farther into the dark. The ringing in Riddle’s ears has nearly subsided, so he can make out Lucy’s words,“Keep her head covered, Zeb.”
Zeb’s mare continues stepping nervously, skittish, circling round the little man with the gray beard. The girl and her brother are oblivious to the corpse pinioned to the tree even though the corpse has let go bowels and bladder both. Lucy tethers the gelding to a sweetgum and yells to Zeb, “I’ll get that other horse out,” vanishing into thick smoke and glowing, rising ash.
Suddenly, Riddle feels himself sway a bit, lightheaded and woozy. He sits down as all becomes mercifully quiet and still. Later, he wakes lying face up near a campfire, someone pressing his throbbing temple so hard it has woke him up. He wants to turn to get a better look, but is firmly restrained. It’s Lucy, her touch, her demanding nature and dutiful hands controlling him.
“Stop,”Lucy growls.“You ain’t had enough time for the poultice to take.”
He wants rid of it, standing unsteadily, stumbling away, grabbing one of the burning firesticks as makeshift torch, heading into smoldering, ashen ruins.
She fusses, “Slow down! What’s got into you?”
He locates his knife and pistol, wiping ash and mud from each, red coals showing among hissing, popping pilings, smoke blustering in a swirling breeze. Hogs, goats, and two horses are nearby, the horses tethered, smaller animals content to clutch in a group with them. Clouds have covered up moon and stars, but he can see a few things. Curiously, a white porcelain pitcher stands shining unscathed on a little wooden table amidst smoking rubble. There’s the body of the third horse, a burnt black mound, sickening him such that he backs away.
She says, “I couldn’t get that un’s head covered.”
Riddle asks, “What’s happened?”
“Tell you later,” she says. “Everything makes more sense in daylight.”
Stifling a yawn, he says, “They’s other Coakleys out there. Two of em.”
“I don’t reckon the others are coming back,” she says, studying his face. “Even so, I’ll do first watch. Zeb, the second. Get your sleep.”
“Did you see any sign of gals?” he asks.
“No, we didn’t. Now go to bed.”
She sounds so high and mighty he wants to laugh out loud, but he’s unable to decide what to say, getting off track, yawning again. Returning to the house, he comes on a pallet and falls upon it, gone to oblivion in an instant. When he wakes, it’s past dawn, so he ventures outside to find the simpleton, Zeb, fiddling with a croaker sack under a big cedar, intently watching a pair of bluejays foraging in the leaves. Lucy’s nowhere around. Riddle questions the little fellow about Otho Coakley.
“Tell how he died,” he says.
“Got stobbed in his neck, didn’t he?” Zeb asks.
Zeb shrugs, reaching into his sack. “Looky,” he says, pulling out a dark, glistening lump. A slender black-and-green newt wrapped in a dry and crinkly black oak leaf. “It’s sleeping,” he says. From his tote Zeb produces a narrow wooden flute, three little sky blue robins’ eggs, and a clump of deer moss.
Riddle persists, “Who kilt this fellow?”
Riddle discovers he’s stepped in pig shit so pungent he is obliged to scrape his soles vigorously, yet some odor persists. After the sun shows itself through the trees, Lucy’s there handing out hardtack and crackers.
Riddle asks her, “Why’d you follow me?”
“Zeb followed you,” she says. “I followed Zeb.”
Zeb pipes up, “She knows which herbs can heal, which can kill. She’s got strong herb magic in her fingers.”
Lucy mutters, “Nobody’s got magic in their own self. That’s blasphemy.”
“But you do, Lucy. Sometimes you tell the truth before it happens.”
She blanches, admitting, “I get a creeping premonition now and again. The rest is pure coincidence.”
Zeb leans close to Riddle, grinning, “Onliest person she cain’t see their future is herself.”
Well, that flies all over her. A little chip of flint comes into her eye. Standing abruptly, she’s brushing pine needles and bark from her skirt, a little fluttering show of temper. She’s a fierce little thing, which plucks at his heart strings. He yearns to tell Jettie about Lucy Gallant, but Jettie’s still lost. And his heart quakes for her and his nieces.
Subsequent to this, she requires that Otho Coakley get buried. Zeb and Riddle are throwing loose dirt over the body, ready to move out, but Lucy allows as she won’t be a party to a funeral that isn’t Christian. Feet set firm, chin thrust high, she says, “Proper words must be spoke.”
Riddle knows none and doubts she does. Her demeanor strikes him as odd, yet not self-righteous. He’s struck by the thought that maybe she killed Otho Coakley. For sure it couldn’t be the little man. She’s talking about a proper burial, arms crossed, declaring,“We ain’t leaving him this way.”
He says, “Come on, Missy. I’ll take you two back home before I set out again. We need to be going.” Finding Jettie’s by far the highest purpose ever in his life, and Lucy appears to be the highest minded person he’s ever known so he’s determined she’ll agree with what he says.
Zeb removes his hat, announcing, “The night has been unruly…lamenting in the air. Billy Shakespeare writ that,” he says. “About that Caesar fellow.”
Lucy smiles kindly. “You got anything else like that, Zeb?”
He goes into the house, coming right back with a ladle of water, which he drips reverently on the grave. “In this cup I bury all unkindness.”
Riddle says, “Huh?”
Lucy explains, “Such talk comes bubbling out of Zeb sometimes. From books he’s read.”
“Zeb can read?”
“Sure,” she answers back. “Zeb’s taught all us to read. Some bettern others. Cain’t you read?”
“Some,” he says, not knowing what else to add. He can write, too. His name and Jettie’s. Knowing this probably won’t impress Lucy.
Turning to survey the grave, she says, “We need us a marker for this man.”
Riddle erects a plank at the head of the grave, setting it up firm, and not wanting to seem like a heathen he says, “Miz Gallant, I can carve the words into this here board, and it’ll last a darn sight longer than coal scratching.” He brandishes his blade as she judges its edge.
She looks askance at him. “Mr. Riddle, this could just be your first good idee.”
The marker gets writ like this:
Buried here’s the thieving scoundrel Otho Coakley,
lying no-good Bastard,
him that Rode these mountains
with his brothers who
Participated long with him.
On this spot his Justice hurried up
and caught him. …
L. Gallant—May, 1856
Down below is added:
Coakleys stole from us so we take only
such as we’s deprived of.
She reads silently through the words a while, turns to look at the men, and says,“We can go now.”
Danny Thomas’s Southern connection has lasted seven decades in three states. He was born in North Carolina, grew up in Tennessee, and went to college in Alabama. He taught high school English before attending graduate school at the University of North Carolina and subsequently spent thirty years working in Human Resources in various public school districts.
He’s had stories recognized by writing contests (the Write On! Story Contest out of San Francisco, the Hackney Literary Award out of Birmingham, and by Deep South Magazine); and he’s published three books, Clinch River Pearls (2013) and Pellissippi Ghosts (2016) plus a memoir Forever (2016). His Twitter handle is @DannyThomasAuth, and on Facebook he can be found at www.facebook.com/danielthomasauthor.