Judas Cain listened to the night owl outside his window. His overbearing, longsuffering mother had long since gone to bed, leaving her only child to revel in a few short hours to call his own. He’d thought about going out to his work shed and completing work on his new doll, but he’d have only a candle for light, since the farm had no electricity, and his weak eyes couldn’t see well in the dark. The doll would have to wait for daylight.
Lying on his straw and ticking mattress, Judas Cain replayed scenes of his childhood. He’d laughed often back then, before the accidents. Before God had taken away the only friends he had in the world. His father had been a strapping man with giant, gnarled hands and a booming laugh to match. Caleb Cain had stood nearly seven feet tall, towering over all other men in the mining camp. He’d never known a stranger, and his reputation for good works outshone many a Quaker’s. As a boy, Judas had spent many a memorable evening sitting at his father’s knee, listening to the stories of the mines and of the ghosts that haunted the coalfields while his mother grumbled in the kitchen.
Judas’ brother had been alive then, too. Elijah Cain also stood tall and straight, for he had inherited his father’s muscular body, and Elijah had taken work in the mines as soon as he turned fourteen. Born ten years after his elder brother, the first living birth in five failed pregnancies, Judas had come out backwards, feet first, nearly costing his mother her life. In the painful process of making his entrance into a harsh world, Judas’ arms had been broken, and his back had suffered as an unintended consequence of a panicked and inexperienced physician, leaving his spine twisted like a rattler’s. Fragile and misshapen, Judas lost all chance to stand tall as his brother and father did. The serpentine curve of his hideous shape had forever determined that he would remain a single, derided, and lonely man.
His father and brother had loved him, though, and Elijah Cain formed a living hedge around his weak brother’s life. His mother, however, openly despised and derided the hideous boy, proclaiming herself accursed by God. Gentle-souled Elijah however loved his baby brother, and Judas delighted in shadowing Elijah across their farmyard each morning like a faithful hound.
All this changed on October 31st, 1945. All Hallows Eve had dawned as a dismal rainy morning that shivered with a cold that ran through a man like an ice ghost. Caleb and Elijah had left for the coal mines at six, carrying apples, thermoses of buttermilk, and paper-wrapped pones of stale cornbread in their dinner buckets. Their brows were crowned by leather rings sporting metal-mounted candles to help them see in the depths of the pitch-black tunnels. They dressed in permanently sooty overalls and equally blackened caps, and their callused feet marched along the icy lanes in oiled, leather boots. Neither could afford goggles, but each wore a mended red kerchief around his sun-creased neck for added warmth and for wiping away the inevitable sweat that would pour from their bodies as they toiled inside the stifling mines.
Ten-year-old Judas had waved goodbye to his father and brother as they disappeared over the dirt ridge that led into town. The walk would take them the better part of an hour, but they sang and laughed as they traveled, making plans for the pay that awaited them at the end of day. Caleb had plans to buy a new pair of winter socks and a box of candles; and he would finish paying off the dress he’d put in layaway for Naomi’s birthday present. Elijah had recently proposed to Irene Holcomb after a three-year courtship, so he’d promised her a pearl necklace and a bottle of Evening in Paris perfume. Both men considered themselves blessed as they bid their friends good morning and entered the newest tunnel, climbing into one of several empty coal cars, borne on newly-laid iron tracks, slowly rattling into the mouth of the dark dragon.
The morning passed as most did, backbreaking toil punctuated by small talk and comradery. At 11:00 am, the autumn sun had finally broken through the icy gray clouds, so the miners had a chance to eat their meager meals in the warming sunshine. Their fifteen-minute break soon ended, and they were quickly hustled back to their assigned stations, many coughing up blood now and then in the thick air of the mine. Since opening, black lung had increasingly culled the war-ravaged work force, but men eager to find work—any work—preferred taking the health risk to having no food on the table.
The next break whistle blew at three, and most of the men relaxed at their stations while others strolled to the nearest platform for a quick smoke. At 3:02, thirteen miners remained behind in the new section, laughing as they walked toward the platform, spinning stories recalling dreams and family and better times. By 3:03, the unlucky thirteen had been buried alive. A newly blasted hole had opened a small seam into a pocket of methane gas, and Briar Whitman’s candle had ignited the unseen ghost’s deadly breath. Fire and smoke blasted through the mine like a volcano, hurling black rocks and flaming timber onto the shocked faces of the unlucky thirteen.
That had been ten years ago. Judas knew almost to the day, how long he had been alone with an embittered mother and a body that God had forgotten. Only his hand-carved dolls kept him company now. And dreams kept him sane. Dreams of running with a straight back, of dancing with the pretty girls at the barn dances, of being loved, liked, and respected. Dreams of being a real man.
John Thundercloud listened to Wash Collins’ tale with an open mind. Some might find such story fantastic, even unbelievable. But John had seen many things since his boyhood days, and he knew there were many more beings that were unseen than those who could be seen.
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 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 a reputation.”
Millard whistled. “Boy did she! Nearly every boy in the county claims to-.”
“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 pipe again and went on. “Let’s just say Jessie had an eye for the boys. That night, she finally put her sights on a young feller name o’ 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 ain’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’ in the band, and he didn’t like seein’ her meet up with anyone, least of all a 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 killed, and that’s the kind part. 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 gulped the last of his cider. “What a horrifying sight for the father! So, did Leonard do it—did he murder her?”
“We sure figured he did, but no one’s found him. Sheriff Bailey figures Leonard up and took off after his crime, 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. They say he’s dead, too, but we just ain’t found him yet.”
Thundercloud thought of the grocer. “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 a fact? Well, if you’re sure, we could use the help. Welcome aboard, then, John. Get a good night’s sleep, and we’ll take the truck into Hindman after mornin’ chores. You can milk a cow, right?”
Thundercloud laughed. “If not, I guess I’ll learn!”
Hindman, Kentucky had been established long before Angel Falls, stretching back to settlers in the late 18th century. Planted on the forks of Troublesome Creek, the county seat boasted the modern convenience of paved streets, an array of merchants, two doctors, a blacksmith, three churches, and a post office. The bustling population had grown to a sizeable 623, more than double Angel Falls’ last census count, and its prime location provided fertile ground for the area farmers.
Wash Collins’ old but operable 1931 Model-A truck puttered into the outer limits of the city just as the steeple bell of the only Catholic Church in Knott County began to sound the hour of ten. “I wonder if you couldn’t pick up that starter for your pick-up while we’re here,” Wash said to Thundercloud as they pulled to a stop in front of Cornett’s Feed Mill. “I’m gonna buy some chicken feed and see the banker. I’ll meet you at the sheriff’s office in about half an hour. The jail’s just over that way, inside the Court House, right next to Fugate’s Five n’ Dime. They got a real good soda fountain, if you’re hungry.”
Thundercloud laughed. “Oh, no thanks! Your wife’s biscuits and gravy are happily singing in my stomach. I’ll be fine until noon. Meet you in a little while.”
The two men waved goodbye, and Thundercloud headed east toward the County Jail. He was surprised to find several Indians sitting on wooden benches in front of the Court House.
“You Choctaw?” asked one of the men as Thundercloud walked by.
John stopped, happy to see Native faces again. “Nope. Winnebago. From out west. You Cherokee?”
The man nodded. “Half. My mother was white. Mavis Collins. I’m Roger Collins. Most folks call me Peaches, ‘cause I used to steal peaches when I was a kid. Don’t do that now. This here’s Little Tree Goble and Standing Bear. He’s full blood. What you doin’ this far east, Winnebago?”
John sat for a moment, enjoying the easy manner of the local men. “I got off track a long time ago,” he confessed. “Left my tribe when I was only six. Went to live with a white family. I was orphaned, so they took me in. They taught me a lot about how to live. Taught me about God. Then I was drafted for the big war.”
The three Indians nodded. “Little Tree went,” said Peaches. “Lost his right eye. This one’s glass. It looks good, don’t it?”
“Sure does,” John replied. “I was luckier. I served on a special Navy ship. We had some classified work to do; it’s a long story I might tell you some time—at least as much as I’m allowed to tell. I saw a lot of the world, but it never made sense. Couldn’t figure out why God would let such a war happen. So, I started out on my own when I got back. Been wandering ever since. And I’ve seen a lot.”
“You figure out why God sends wars?” asked Little Tree.
“Well, I’ve figured out that wars happen all the time. As men, we can’t see them all.”
All three nodded. “The spirit world. White man’s world teach you that, Winnebago?”
“Nope,” he said rising. “God’s word did, though. And experience. You know the sheriff here?”
“Maybe. You in trouble, Winnebago?” Standing Bear asked.
“No. Just want to know about some trouble over in Angel Falls. I was told he could fill me in.”
Standing Bear spit. “You keep away from the white man’s trouble, John Thundercloud.”
John started to answer, but then realized he’d not yet mentioned his name. “How do you know me, Standing Bear?”
The older Indian pointed upward. “He told me. Great sky father. Angel Falls trouble is bad. Real bad. You get involved with it, you may just die, John Thundercloud.”
The Winnebago’s eyes narrowed as he assessed the older man’s face. He thanked them and entered the Court House. After he’d left, Standing Bear turned to Little Tree and Peaches. “How far is it to Angels Falls?”
Little Tree counted on his hands. “Not more than three hours’ walk. Why?”
Standing Bear looked toward the door to the Court House. “Because Winnebago will need all the help he can get. Great Sky Father tell me so. There’s gonna be a war. Let’s go see Granny Amburgey. She’ll put us up.”
The other two nodded, and they all rose to prepare for their journey.
Sheriff Tom Bailey looked like a man who loved pie. About 5’ 10” with a melon-shaped head, the fifty-two-year-old lawman wore a handlebar mustache and bifocals. His uniform, a rather recent addition to the position, was made of dark green wool with tan stripes down the pants and sleeves. He wore a six-pointed star of gold-plated tin and carried a Smith and Wesson 1952 .38 Special Airweight as a sidearm. Although he’d only discharged the weapon once, Tom Bailey had no fear of using it.
“Good morning, Sheriff,” Thundercloud began as he passed through the open door of the jail. “My name is John Thundercloud, and Washington Collins from Angel Falls suggested I speak with you about the Jessica Combs case.”
Bailey gave Thundercloud a long look. “You an interested party, uh, Mr. Thundercloud?” he asked, removing his jacket and easing into an old Sikes swivel seat made of oak.
John continued to stand. “I hope to be of help, Sheriff. It’s true, I’m a stranger here, but I am staying in Angel Falls for a few days while my truck is repaired. But I am being honest when I say I am interested. If you check my record, you’ll find I worked with Special Operations in the Navy during WWII, and then I spent four years working in a special skills unit for the FBI. If you check with Washington, they’ll vouch for me.”
“I’ll just do that, Mr. Thundercloud. If that’s true, then you won’t mind if I take your fingerprints.”
John shook his head. He still wore his black hair in military fashion, cut short to keep his life simple. “I don’t mind. I’ll also leave an address so you can reach me, if you need to. You’ll have to call the garage in Angel Falls and leave a message if it’s urgent, but I’m staying with Wash Collins. Everyone there knows him—in fact, here he comes..”
Just as Bailey was about to answer, the front door to the jail opened, and a tall, thin farmer with a thick stand of white hair and lively dark eyes came in. “Mornin’, Tom. I see you and John met. How much have you told him?”
Bailey blinked. “Well, uh. Nothing yet. Wash, how much do you know about this man?”
Collins sat and motioned for Thundercloud to join him. “Got any coffee, Tom? I could sure use a cup, and I’ll wager John here could, too.”
Bailey called for his deputy, Morris Adams, to bring the pot and some coffee cups. “Wash, I sure hope you know what you’re getting’ yourself into—this man may be all he claims, but then again he could be a suspect.”
Collins drew his corncob from his coat pocket. “I think you know me pretty well, Tom Bailey. Ain’t I the one taught you how to shoot? Do you think I’d bring a dangerous man to stay with my wife and boy? John’s all right. It’s in his eyes. A man can always tell. And he milks a fine cow, too.”
The sheriff cleared his throat, and apologized. “Sorry, Mr. Thundercloud, but I hope you appreciate my need to be cautious.”
“I do. Call me John.”
“Thanks, but I still need those prints, if you don’t mind. I’d be shirkin’ my job, if I didn’t check you out.”
“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t, Sheriff. After I offer my prints, would you tell me what you know about Jessie’s murder?”
Two miles from Coward’s Branch, just north of Angel Falls, two boys played near a pile of dead trees. The later morning sun shone in their clean hair, and their hands busied themselves finding fishbait and mushrooms. “Here’s a big old snail!” Rowdy called to his best friend and first cousin, Robert. “Phew! It sure stinks though!”
Robert Smith ran over, his hands digging into the pile of wood and brush. “Any more in there? Dang, Rowdy! Did you cut one?”
“Heck, no. It’s somethin’ in here that stinks, Bob. Cain’t see what though.”
The two boys dug deeper, removing old leaves, brush, and a wide maple branch. The smell grew stronger—more powerful.
Robert scraped something soft, and he jumped back suddenly. “Oh, blessed Jesus!” he shouted, falling backward. “Rowdy, that – I think that’s Leonard Collins!”
No sooner had Wash and John returned from Hindman, than they heard the news about Leonard’s decaying body being found by the Smith boys. A makeshift medical examiner’s room was formed out of the back room of Doc Brown’s office, and the body, or what remained of it, was transferred there to await the arrival of Sheriff Bailey. Doc Brown, who had performed the grisly autopsy on Jessica Combs, saw no need to rush an examination on a body that had been lying in the woods for three weeks.
Most of the town’s men folk, having heard the news, had gathered around the doctor’s office and sat in knots of two and three, whittling and smoking, as they waited for Bailey. The sheriff made it just after four that afternoon, arriving with two deputies and one of the doctors from Hindman, a man named Jeremiah Walker.
“Sorry, Doctor Brown,” he explained to the Angel Falls physician. “Walker here is the county coroner, so I have to let him perform the autopsy this time. He was out of town when Jessie was killed, God rest her soul. I’m sure he’d be glad for the help, though.”
Brown agreed to assist, and Bailey left the two medical men to do their work. One of the deputies witnessed the procedure, while the other joined the Sheriff in an investigation of the burial site. Once they’d all arrived at the brush pile, Bailey began to assess the scene.
“What do you think, John?” he asked the Winnebago Indian who’d agreed to serve as another set of eyes. “I heard back from Washington by telephone. You should have said you are FBI. Your supervisor said that you have some special psychic gift for solving crimes.”
Thundercloud gazed into the thick pile of brush. “You might call it that. I tend to say it’s an insight into things unseen.”
Bailey shrugged. “Call it what you want, but I’m told your work for the Navy included something called remote viewing. That you located mines for them.”
“Among other things,” he said, his eyes taking on a misty, faraway look. “I’d rather not think about those days, Sheriff.”
Bailey directed the deputy to take samples of the earth and photograph the area. “I understand that. I was at Dunkirk. Lost nearly all my friends. Seems like a lifetime ago,” he continued with Thundercloud. “You solved some pretty nasty crimes for the boys in Washington, I’m told. Several that defied all efforts to make sense of. You want to tell me how your insights managed that?”
Thundercloud knelt, and he felt the soil. “Sheriff, Leonard didn’t die here.”
Wash, Bailey, and Deputy Adams turned to look at the Indian. “How can you tell that, John?” the farmer asked.
Touching the earth, the Indian closed his eyes and saw a vision inside his mind, almost like an old film reel with pieces missing, but in garish color….
Darkness, a shack, or the inside of a barn. Leonard’s eyes are covered, and he tastes blood. He struggles with the square knots that hold the twine around his wrists and ankles. Owls. He hears owls. Then something larger, footsteps of something heavy but graceful. He hears a cat. Then – then bright light! Claws, blood, something taller than Leonard, very tall, covered in hair. Something not human. With the eyes of a human.
John stood, his feet nearly betraying him, as he swayed slightly. What had he seen?
“You okay, John?” asked Wash.
Thundercloud leaned on the older man for a moment, catching his breath. “Leonard Collins saw Jessie’s killer. Right before it killed him, and ate his heart.”
Judas Cain hadn’t eaten all day. Up since dawn to milk their only cow, then into the woods to cut enough to last for another week, the hunchback felt faint. His mother had remained in bed this morning, sick again with her bad headaches. Judas dreaded it, but he’d have to go down the mountain into Angel Falls to buy some headache powders.
Wearily, he pushed open the back door, once a well-kept proud door of native pine, now a worm-ridden eyesore that barely kept out the cold. The house smelled stale and old, like his mother. The larder held apples and a wheel of cheese, so Judas dipped a cup of water from the bucket on the counter and gathered up the simple makings of a meal.
Doc Brown finished washing his hands with soap and a bit of alcohol, then dried them thoroughly before putting his coat back on. “Doctor Walker is finishing up, so it’ll just be a few minutes. Len’s body was pretty far-gone, but he did manage to find some evidence. He’ll tell you all about it himself,” he announced to the growing crowd.
“Okay,” Bailey answered, sipping from the enamelware coffee cup Mrs. Brown had brought him. “Doc, can we clear this place out? I’d rather these findings not be public.”
The doctor nodded his understanding, and held up his hands to the crowd of locals. “Listen, men. We all want to know about Len, but the sheriff wants to do this up right. The results of the autopsy have to remain his business for now. So, you all, go on home now. You’ve done your job, you’ve kept vigil. Now, do the right thing and let the law do its job.”
The crowd dispersed amidst mild grumblings, and soon the small office had cleared, leaving only Wash, John, Dr. Brown, Sheriff Bailey and Deputy Adams.
In a moment, Dr. Walker emerged, his long face white with fatigue and anger. “That boy – that boy in there was mauled to death, Sheriff. Mauled, no—God help me, he was shredded. The claw marks go right to the bone! I’ve seen wounds from bears, mountain lions, mules, horses, eagles, you name it. This beats them all. It’s like the animal had razors for claws. And the teeth! It’s not natural, Sheriff. And then there’s his heart.”
“His heart?” the Sheriff asked, his eyes carefully watching Thundercloud.
The doctor took a deep breath. “Gone. I examined the aorta and the vena cava, and God help me, they look like they’ve been chewed on. I think this thing took a big bite to extract it, and then ate Leonard Collins’ heart.”
Evening had set in on the Collins’ farm, where a sober gathering of Collins kith and kin passed the evening telling stories and listening to the radio. Wash and his dear wife played host to the clan, for even though Leonard had been but a shirttail relative, he was still a relative. And blood mattered.
Melinda headed up a hive of women in the warm kitchen, baking, cooking, and sewing. A dozen pies, both fruit and cream lured hungry men to the bountiful table, along with chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, ham gravy and mashed potatoes, biscuits of all shapes and sizes, green beans, pinto beans, and a half dozen casseroles. A few of the women had gathered in a remote corner near the garden window, intent on their sewing project: Leonard’s shroud. Leonard’s mother had brought her old muslin wedding veil and offered it up as material so that her only son might feel her love and prayers around him as he stood before God.
Others brought flowers, picked from the mountainside or herbs from home gardens, and one brought buckeyes for luck. Doc Brown had helped Leonard’s father, Bill Collins, to wash and wrap his son’s body so that none had to see what his killer had done to the poor boy. The mummy-like form lay in a cedar box that rested upon two large sawhorses from Wash’s tool shed. The temperatures had turned mild; so many of the men lingered on the front porch, pipes and cigarettes dangling from their mouths. Johnny Ray Goble produced a fiddle, and within moments, mouth harps, jugs, a washtub, and spoons joined the ad hoc band. Inside, mourners passed by the coffin, weeping and whispering softly about the dearly departed. A few swore revenge, and most spoke of the nameless monster that now haunted Dotson’s Woods.
“Second funeral in less than a month!” Abe Waters spoke up, as he reached for a second helping of Widow Shelton’s fried chicken. “What sort o’ man would do this?”
Clovis Moore, who served as pastor of a new congregation called The Temple, spread a dollop of freshly churned butter on a biscuit. “Not sure it’s a man, Abe. Cain’t say what it is, but Doc Brown’s description of Leonard don’t sound like no man did it. And Poor little Jessie! That child had been skinned!”
“Ssh! You two don’t know when to shut up!” Ethel Goble said, knocking Abe’s foot with the tip of her cane. “Land’s sake, cain’t you keep civil? Maybelle’s sufferin’ enough, as is poor Bill. And you ain’t helpin’ Jessie’s folks none neither. So push some pie in that mouth o’ yorn, Abe Waters, afore I shut it for ya’!”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Waters said and headed out to the porch.
Clovis finished his biscuit then pointed toward a tall, bronze-skinned stranger near the kitchen. “Who’s that?” he asked Ethel.
The stern-faced matron followed Moore’s finger, squinting to clear her failing vision. “Cain’t say I know him. Indian by the looks of ‘im. Ask Wash. He ought to know, and iffin he don’t, then he’ll be glad you told him.”
Moore nodded, grabbed one more biscuit, and headed toward Washington Collins, who had just joined the band on the porch.
Once outside, the preacher tapped the tall farmer on the shoulder. “Evenin’, Wash. It’s a fine thing you’re doin’, takin’ in the Collins family for Leonard. Bill’s place is too small, and they been hit pretty hard. First the town thinkin’ Len done it to Jess, now this. Say, you noticed that Indian fella in the kitchen? He a friend o’ yorn?”
“He is. Name’s John Thundercloud. Used to work for the government. FBI. He’s helpin’ Sheriff Bailey find the killer.”
Moore looked in through the window, trying to take another look at Thundercloud. “FBI, huh? Didn’t know they took in Indians. Well, the world’s changin’.”
Collins gave Moore a stern look. “An’ folks need to change with it, Clovis. You bein’ a preacher, you ought to know that. Love one another as God loves us. Which puts me to mind about yer church, Clovis. Just what kind o’ church is it?—I never heard of a denomination called The Temple.”
“Come to one of our meetings, brother, and find out. We meet every Saturday night, rain or shine. Seven o’clock, in a big new building behind my trailer. We’d love to have you come.” Moore popped the purloined biscuit into his wide mouth and touched his hand to his heart. “It’ll open your eyes, brother Wash.”
The preacher walked away, and Wash followed him as he re-entered the house and headed back to the table. Something about this so-called man of the cloth didn’t settle with Wash Collins. And he intended to find out why.
Thanks for reading these opening six chapters to Skin Walkers (A John Thundercloud thriller, which is a sort of prequel to Winds of Evil). Additional chapters will be posted over the next few months at my website, www.sharonkgilbert.com Part IV can be found by clicking here. Thanks! — Sharon K. Gilbert