To read the Prologue (Published last month) click here
John Thundercloud’s 1939 GMC truck sputtered to a halt. Despite miles of babying, the engine had finally decayed beyond the bubble gum and spit maintenance the Winnebago had been using to keep the old truck going.
Thundercloud reached into the glove box and removed the Kentucky map he’d purchased at the last filling station. He stared at the web of lines that crossed over creeks and counties, finally deciding he must be in Knott County. Grabbing a deep blue wool coat, a souvenir from his 4-year stint in Naval Intelligence during World War II, Thundercloud locked up the truck and headed toward the nearest town shown on the map, a former coal mining camp called Angel Falls.
The seven-mile walk took him down into a U-shaped valley, nestled between two scarred mountains, gutted now of their ancient coal. Majestic pine trees clothed the weeping mountains, making them look like great, green pyramids. Thundercloud remembered his own trip to Egypt, just after the war ended. The lifeless plain of Giza had nothing on this princely range of natural-born, God-made skyline.
As he walked, Thundercloud’s long, lean legs took him past rolling farms and pastures carved into the terraced hillsides. Weathered gray barns and corn cribs stood sentinel over herds of fat milk cows and crowded pens of jostling, spotted pigs. Black, white, and red chickens scratched the dry earth for bugs and stones, and nearer town, a mule glared thoughtfully from behind a split-wood corral, his long ears alert, his tail swatting at a squadron of green bottle flies.
At the edge of the town, the country lane widened slightly, leading into a broad dirt and gravel street called Black Rock Road. The townsfolk had begun to stir, and John’s passing piqued the curiosity of the milk wagon driver and two lean bearded men carrying a wooden box between them on foot. Far ahead, at the end of town, Thundercloud could see the tall steeple of a beautiful little white church that appeared to be watching over the sleepy congregation of merchant buildings and clapboard houses, nestled into neat squares, angled upon stilted porches to keep out the cracked mud and the rising creek water during the rainy seasons. Here and there, a newer, freshly painted building stood out: a hardware store, a bank, a doctor’s office, a barber shop, and a filling station, this last bearing a metal sign proclaiming that the best mechanic in Knott County worked there.
Foot traffic picked up as Thundercloud neared the station, and two boys with fishing poles waved a hello. Thundercloud waved back, motioning the boys over. The smaller of the two cautiously approached, leaving the precious willow pole and tackle box in his companion’s care.
“Hey, Mister. You’re an Indian, ain’t you?” the lad asked, his dirty face turned up high to examine Thundercloud’s dark features.
“You have good eyes,” the stranger replied with a genuine smile. “Ever hear of the Winnebago tribe?”
The boy shook his head. “Nope. You ain’t a Cherokee?”
“Nope. My ancestors came from Nebraska. And before that, well it’s hard to tell. How about your ancestors?”
“They come from over ‘crost Miller’s Crick. Ain’t none of ‘em Indians, though. My Aunt Sadie can read fortunes. Reckon that’s sort o’ Indian-like.”
Thundercloud laughed. “I’ll bet she’s got Indian blood somewhere. My truck broke down about five miles back. Do you think there’s someone here could help me?”
The boy brightened. “My pa could! He runs this here gas station. He’s real good with motors and such. He once fixed an old Model A that some city feller left for scrap. That thing still runs. My cousin Floyd uses it to drive into Hindman ever’ Sunday.”
“That sounds pretty good. You think your pa would help me?”
“Aw, sure. Come on! I’ll take you to ‘im.” The boy grabbed Thundercloud’s callused hand and led him into Angel Falls.
JUDAS CAIN needed new spectacles. The thick lenses of the pair he’d purchased three years before no longer corrected his severe astigmatism and hyperopia, but money that had been plentiful before his father’s death had dried up to barely enough to buy food much less new spectacles. Feeble-sighted Cain needed his eyes to ply his trade—a trade that meant working up close where his vision was weakest. But income being what it was, he’d have to wait another season to improve his vision. The weak lenses would have to suffice for now.
“Dang it!” the middle-aged man with the watery eyes shouted as he accidentally sliced his thumb with a small jack-knife. Cain had worked as a tanner for ten years, but lately he’d taken up a new occupation that pleased him much more. Cain’s nimble fingers and love for art combined in the shaping and crafting of folk art figurines. The tourist trade in Hindman provided a constant market, and Cain had soon discovered he could earn a dollar profit for each one his little dolls. In another month, he’d have enough saved to pay off the bank loan and maybe another fifteen for the glasses he so desperately needed.
“Jude!” came a shrill voice from their small cabin, a four-room log and chink building that had served as home and hearth to six generations of Cains.
The thirty-seven year-old licked his thin lips. His mother must want him to help with the laundry.
“Judas Hezekiah Cain!” the owlish voice screeched again, and Jude shivered. Soon it would be dusk, and the old crone and he would endure another lifeless evening by a cheerless fire. Another evening filled with hatred leavened with cloying need.
Cain licked at the wound on his thumb then jammed the carving knife into a block of cedar. Sighing heavily, he trudged slowly toward the cabin and his mother’s voice.
“MY NAME’S Clint Smith. I reckon you met my son Rowdy, Mister.”
Thundercloud shook the stout man’s hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Smith. Name’s John Thundercloud. My truck broke down a few miles back, and I was wondering you might give me a tow.”
Smith spit into a coffee can and wiped his round face. “Sure. I got a tow truck behind the garage. It’s a dollar for the tow, though.”
Thundercloud reached into the pocket of his steel gray work pants and withdrew a hand-tooled wallet. Taking out two singles, he handed them to Smith. “Here’s the one, plus another for your trouble,” he said cheerfully.
Smith brightened, spitting again. “You’re a right good neighbor, Mr. Thundercloud. Can I get your keys?”
The Indian tossed a set of two on a simple brass ring to the mechanic.
Smith pocketed the set. “’Fraid I got a load o’ tractor parts on my passenger seat. You mind waitin’ here while I fetch your truck? I promise to take good care of it.”
Thundercloud smiled. “That’s very neighborly of you, Mr. Smith. Do you have a soda pop machine? Walking’s thirsty work on a dry day. I could use something to drink.”
“In the back o’ the shop. The boy’ll show ya’. All I have is R.C. Cola. Hope that’s okay.”
“Sounds perfect,” he answered, and Smith left John to the mercy of Rowdy’s hosting skills.
“Dope’s in the back,” Rowdy said, leading John through the greasy shop to a washroom. “Each bottle’s a nickel. You got three?”
Thundercloud fished in his pockets. “Three? How’d you come up with that?”
“You, me, and my friend Alvin. He’s still outside, but he’s powerful thirsty. Ain’t that fair?”
Thundercloud bent down and showed a closed fist. “I don’t know. Let’s see,” he said with a broad smile, and he opened the sunburned fist to reveal three Buffalo head nickels. “Your lucky day, son,” he whispered. “Must be that part Indian aunt of yours.”
Straightening up, Thundercloud inserted the nickels, one at a time, into the worn coin slot, rewarded by a succession of chilled Royal Crown Cola bottles, filled with fizzy soda pop. “So this is dope, huh?” he asked.
“Sure. Dope. Don’t Winnebagos call it that? My ma says that dope and a moon pie is the best meal there is, exceptin’ maybe fried chicken!”
“She sounds like a wise woman,” he answered, sitting. “Here’s yours, and you can take this to your friend.”
Rowdy grabbed the colas and dashed toward the sunny street. Within the shadowed interior, Thundercloud sipped the stinging, cold beverage and examined his surroundings.
He’d learned to tell much about a man based on the way he arranged his workspace. Smith kept a tidy garage. In addition to belts and hoses, his walls were decorated with mule collars and tack including a fine set of leather fly netting. It was an in-between time for the Appalachians. Many still preferred the sure-footed mule to a sputtering machine. Clint Smith’s well-ordered shop spoke of an ordered mind. Thundercloud liked that.
“That you Clint?” called a man from the garage’s open door.
Thundercloud could see a silhouette, a tall, thin man wearing a light coat and hat.
“He’s gone to tow my truck. Can I help you?” John asked, standing and walking toward the newcomer.
“Who are you?” the shadow asked, the voice turning suspicious.
“Name’s Thundercloud. John Thundercloud. I was just passing through, and my truck conked out on me. Smith should be back in a few minutes. He didn’t have to go too far—about seven miles.”
The man stepped into the garage, his face illuminated by the overhead lights. “You an Injun?”
The question was more accusation than inquiry. “Yes. Does that matter?”
The stranger chewed on a toothpick, his light eyes narrowing. “Reckon not. It’s just we’ve had some trouble ‘round here. Might not be a good time for you to visit, if you get my meaning.”
Thundercloud didn’t even blink. He’d grown accustomed to prejudice. He’d learned to roll with the punches. And he’d learned to provide a punch or two of his own, as two scars on his pockmarked face attested.
“I’m sorry for your trouble, friend, but I’m just passing through. Once Mr. Smith repairs my truck, I’ll be on my way. Thanks for the warning though.”
The man’s eyes softened slightly. “Gee, I’m sorry, Mr. Thundercloud. I reckon we’re all sort o’ spooked ‘round here. Name’s Ed. Ed Stockton. I run a grocery store up by the church there. Used to belong to the Company, but now it’s mine. You need anything, you stop in there. Just tell Clint his order o’ Falstaff come in. I’ll keep it in the back ‘til he comes to fetch it. Pleasure to meet ya’, Mr. Thundercloud. Don’t pay no ‘ttention to my manners. I didn’t mean nothin’.”
The Indian waved and offered a conciliatory smile. “No offense taken, Mr. Stockton.”
The grocer walked back into the sunshine, returning to his silhouette shape, then disappeared into the sunlight. Outside, Thundercloud saw the two boys laughing and enjoying their dope from the comfort of an old velour couch that someone had left in front of one of the stilted shacks. Angel Falls seemed half ghost town, half growing enterprise. Like most of America, it had yet to find its post-war identity.
Six hours and lunchtime passed, and the sun began to sink behind the two sleepy mountains that caressed Angel Falls. Smith had worked on the old GMC truck continuously, stopping only for a boloney and cheese sandwich and apples which he shared with his customer, but the worn out starter refused to ignite. Finally, the seasoned mechanic gave up and declared the need for a new one.
“I tried rebuilding your old one, but it’s no good. I can send to Hindman for a new one, but it’ll be tomorrow if they got one in stock, and could be as long as a week if they don’t. Reckon you’re stuck in our little town for a while, Mister.”
“That’s what I get for missing so many oil changes, I guess,” the Winnebago replied as Smith wiped his hands on an oily rag near the blackened sink. “Don’t suppose there’s a hotel in town?”
Clint Smith tossed the rag into a torn cardboard box and shook his head. “Hell no – I mean, well, sorry. I promised my wife I’d quit swearin’. Angel Falls is not much more than a grease spot on the map, if you get my meaning. Hindman’s got a nice little hotel, but you’d need a mule or a sure-footed horse to make it over the mountain, and I don’t recommend neither one after dark. Which reminds me, I’ll need twenty dollars to order that part for you.”
“A reasonable price.” Thundercloud paid Smith for his work so far and asked where he might find lodging for the night in Angel Falls. Smith recommended a farm owned by Wash Collins, head of one of the settlement’s oldest families. Wash had built a big farmhouse near the base of White Mountain and had a spare room he sometimes rented out. If Wash liked him, Thundercloud could put up there.
The Winnebago thanked Smith once more, and headed into the twilight to find the Collins farm on a lonesome road called Two Horse Creek.
HAZADORE COMBS wiped his hands on a hankie, glad to be done with the milking. Normally, his wife Annie would have supper waiting for him, but Combs knew he’d face another night in a cold, dark kitchen and an unkempt, cheerless house. Annie rarely spoke much less cooked or cleaned any more, not since the night of the Wilman barn dance.
Not that it mattered much. Combs had little appetite most days. Usually, he satisfied his mild hunger pangs with a few apples and some beef jerky. One night in desperation, he’d made some corn bread, but it had burned, so he’d decided to avoid the wood stove from now on.
Three weeks had passed, one miserable morning running into another black night, and then into yet another comfortless morning. Life lacked purpose now, and only the twice daily milking gave Combs any sense of the passage of time. Three weeks. He knew that because he’d glanced at the seed company calendar this morning. Annie had been marking off the days, as if some new era had begun with the passing of their only child. Their darling Jessica had been gone now, twenty-one days and counting.
Combs reached the dark house, entering through the mud porch’s screen door so he could change his shoes. Wearily, the farmer slumped into an armless ladder-back chair and worked at the buckles. As he removed the scuffed leather work boots, thickly caked with pig manure, he doubted Annie would even notice if he strode right into the courting parlor, boots and all.
The screen door slapped open as a gust caught it, sending shivers down Combs’ aching spine. He’d have to put on storm windows soon. October with its long nights had crept into Angel Falls, and soon winter’s cold, hoary breath would begin to bear down upon them.
By Christmas, their home would be covered in a silent burial shroud of white.
WASHINGTON COLLINS offered his guest a cigarette. “Rolled ‘em myself. They come from the tobacco I grow out past the creek. I’ll show you the farm tomorrow mornin’, once it’s light. You ever milk a cow, Mr. Thundercloud?”
“John. I’d appreciate if you’d just call me John. And, yeah. I’ve milked one or two in my day.”
“Good. And you can call me Wash. Most folks do.”
Melinda Collins brought in fried apple pies and four glasses of home-brewed cider. Only their youngest son, Millard, lived with them now. Their six other children had married and moved into their own places, most of them adjoining their father’s land. Millard, who had just turned sixteen, eagerly accepted the pie and spiced cider.
“Thanks, Ma! I’ll bet Mr. Thundercloud ain’t never tasted anythin’ like your fried fruit pies. Have you, Mr. Thundercloud?”
The Indian bit into the warm dessert and nodded, wiping golden apple and bits of crisp crust from his lips. “Oh, this is heaven! Thank you, Mrs. Collins. I’m a bit of a cook myself. Maybe you can show me how to make these.”
Melinda beamed as she wiped her small hands on a neatly pressed, rooster print apron. “It’s pretty easy, Mr. Thundercloud. I kin show you tomorrow. I’m supposed to fry up a batch o’ the pies for a dance we’re havin’ in our barn. This time o’ year we have a big hoedown every Saturday. Except it’s been a little different this year.”
Wash tapped a corncob pipe on his heel. “I doubt John wants to hear that awful story,” he said.
Millard jumped up. “I kin tell it!”
“Let yer pa tell it,” Melinda chided. “I’m gonna clear up the supper dishes. I got no need to hear that awful tale again.”
Wash Collins leaned back in his rocking chair, the buttery glow of the crackling fire highlighting his high cheekbones. John figured the man to be somewhere around sixty, but the snow white hair made it difficult to guess. Heavy creases tracked the farmer’s sunburned face, and his large, gnarled hands showed the beginnings of arthritis. Dark eyes told of a lifetime of hard work and constant struggle, but they remained sharp, as did Collins’ mind.
“This wasn’t that long ago. Just three weeks tonight, in fact. And it doesn’t speak well for our town, I don’t believe. But I’ll tell it true, just as a man should. We had a full moon, that I know because it was the reason for the dance bein’ that night. For six years we been havin’ a celebration dance on the first full moon o’ September. It goes back to that bein’ the first big bumper crop year. John, you prob’ly know by now that Angel Falls used to be a coal camp, but that the Company took off, leavin’ us high and dry. Most of us had been farmers before we took up with coal minin’, so we just went back to it, but the farms were pretty poor. It’s sort o’ funny about 1948. That year everything changed, all of a sudden-like. Since then, we’ve had way more’n we ever dreamed. And we’ve had the Skin Walker.”
Thundercloud sat forward. “Skin Walker? I know that name. My own people have a legend of such a being. But what does that have to do with your harvest?”
Wash relit his pipe and shook his white head. “Don’t know. How’s that cigarette?”
“Very good. Nice and mellow. But how do you know of a Skin Walker? To my people, the Winnebago, and to many other tribes, the Skin Walker is a magical woman who wears the skin of an animal to steal its power, and she sometimes kills others in her walks. Are you telling me you have some old woman who’s hurting people ‘round here?”
Wash sucked on his corncob, enjoying the flavor of his home-cured tobacco. “Yeah, I heard somethin’ ‘bout an old witch woman, too, but that ain’t what we got. Granny Amburgey, she’s the one called it a Skin Walker, but she said this one was different. You’d have to talk to her yourself. Reckon you’d do better ‘n most, as she’s part Choctaw. Got some Melungeon in her, too, I reckon. Least most folks say so. She lives over on the next mountain in a little cabin, all by herself. A lot of people say she’s a witch, but I know better. She’s a Christian, and cain’t no Christian be a witch.”
“I think she’s a witch,” Millard interrupted. “Billy John says she caused him to go blind for a whole day once!”
“Don’t you go repeatin’ that, Millard Collins. Billy John Ison is a liar and a thief, and I’m not the only one says so. If Granny Amburgey got mad at him, it’s likely he done something to get her that way. Now hush,” the patriarch chided and then returned to his story. “So, like I was sayin’, John, this here woman, Granny A., she told us all ‘bout a type of Skin Walker that–well, she claims comes from the sky. I know, it’s a might bit crazy, but there’s folks around here that believe in such stuff. These type of Skin Walkers–well, this kind they don’t use animal skins to get their power. They use human skins.”
“Human skins? I’ve never heard anything like that!”
“Sure enough, and here’s why she said that,” Wash continued. “Like I said, it was at the Wilman Barn Dance. We had the usual music and dancing, and many of the young people laughed and talked and got to know one another like young folks do—like they should, but with proper chaperonin’. There was one girl, though, who had other ideas. Jessie Combs, her name was. A right sparklin’ girl with hair that must have been dyed, ‘cause it sure did go yellow overnight. Her pa keeps a nice farm, and he does real well. So, Jessie, bein’ an only child, got spoiled, if you know my meanin’. Hazadore Combs denied her nothin’. Except he was mighty particular about her likin’ boys so much. She had—well, she had a reputation.”
Millard whistled. “Boy did she! Nearly every boy in the county claims that she….”
“Millard!” his father scolded. “None o’ that! You speak well o’ the dead, boy!”
Millard hung his head and sat back down. “Yes, sir.”
Wash tapped his corncob again and went on. “Well, let’s just say Jessie had an eye for the boys. That night, she fixed put her sights on a young feller named Leonard Collins. I think he’s a distant cousin on his daddy’s side. We don’t pay much attention to that branch o’ the Collins family, cause of a disagreement back a long time ago, ‘twixt our granddaddies. Anyways, Leonard isn’t too bright, but he’s a looker, and Jessie must’ve convinced him to join her in the clearing out in Dotson’s Woods.
“Her daddy was playin’ fiddle in the band, and he didn’t like seein’ her meet up with anyone, least of all a young man without a brain in his head, so he followed them. Well, sir, when he got there, Leonard wasn’t anywhere, but he did find Jessie. She’d been murdered, and that’s not the worst of it. Cause the killer also skinned her – right down to the muscle. Clean as a wink. All her clothes had been removed, exceptin’ her pretty little shoes.”
Thundercloud gazed at the fire, his dark eyes troubled. “I can only imagine what her father must have felt, finding her like that. What a horrifying sight for the father! So, what about Leonard?”
“We sure figured he’d killed her or been killed his self, but no one’s found him. Sheriff Bailey figures Leonard did it, and up and took off for West Virginia, and he ain’t comin’ back. Just the same, some folks ‘round here are a might spooky about strangers. There’s some, you see, who say Len didn’t do it. Like Granny Amburgey. She says it’s a Skin Walker that done it. She says Leonard’s likely dead, too, but we just ain’t found him yet.”
Thundercloud thought of the grocer’s reaction to him earlier that day. “I’ve seen that suspicious side already. This sheriff, Bailey you say? Is he in Hindman?”
Wash nodded. “Yep. If you’re interested, I can take you. But you might not want to get involved, John. It’s our problem. You get yer truck back to workin’, then you go on with yer life. We can take care of our own.”
Thundercloud finished his cigarette, tossing the butt in the fire. “I appreciate the advice, Wash, but I’ve had some experience with crimes such as this. You might say I’m a detective of sorts. So I’d be very interested in helping, if you’re willing to let me.”
“That’d be much appreciated! Welcome aboard, then, John. Get a good night’s sleep, and we’ll drive into Hindman after mornin’ chores. You said you can milk a cow, right?”
Thundercloud laughed. “If not, then I guess I’ll learn!”
Next month, Chapters 4-6