This story is paired with “The Skillful Huntsman” from Children’s and Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
The shadows were growing long when Columbus Clabough forsook the game trail and ascended the nearest ridge, where he knew the air would be warmer. He had been on the lookout for rock outcroppings in the hopes of discovering an overhang or cave. He had seen none, but he had discovered a bed of early ramp shoots near the game trail where a spring faintly welled up—one of those small natural pockets in the Smokies where the ground keeps moist and warm year round. The ramps he could eat, though they would intensify his odor.
In a stand of towering hemlocks he ignited his fire with rock, dried leaves, and brittle pine needles. The rising smoke, meager as it was, was thinned by the thick heavy boughs above. He had been fortunate to come across a roughly bowl-shaped rock and this he had filled with water where the ramps grew. When the flames were strong enough he sat the rock atop them and waited for the ramp leaves to soften, setting his boots and socks near the fire and scooting forward so that his feet and lower legs were closest to the heat.
A meal solely consisting of ramps most often would be deemed wanting, but after weeks of the terrible cavern soup, they seemed to melt in his mouth and revive him with their powerful freshness and warmth.
He had lost track of the seasons inside the mountain, where the darkness and constant temperature afforded one the eerie feeling of timelessness. However the forest informed him it was late winter, perhaps February. The night would be cold, but he knew his fire and a heaped bed of leaves about his body would prove sufficient provided it did not rain or snow. He would need heavier clothing than the overalls he had worn inside the mountain, but there would be opportunities.
His stomach gorged on the pungent ramps, Columbus strategically set a few wet sticks on the fire so that it would burn all night. Then he maneuvered around the flames to find the best ground with the least roots. There he heaped leaves about his body, beginning with his feet and working his way up. When he laid back, warm, belly fully, hemlock boughs above him, he fell into a light comfortable doze. True enough, he was miles away from the house of his parents, yet in his heart he felt himself strangely at home.
* * *
When the Cherokee heard Corbett’s story, their faces retained their conventional stoic demeanor, but Corbett had been around them enough to know they were laughing at him. He ignored it, choking back his pride, and discussed the bounty. They haggled, wanting more, and eventually settled on a price.
The tracker among them, Kanati, would receive far more than the others and on this point there was no argument. Unlike his companions, Kanati never drank, nor caroused. Moreover, he carried with him the fragmented knowledge of the fathers—that which had not been lost through death and dispersal. He had never failed to pick up a trail.
Kanati respected Corbett for his toughness and thoroughness—even, to a degree, his cruelty—though he had his doubts about other aspects of the man. Yet he shared the amusement of his peers in the West Virginian’s failure to know the whereabouts of the mountaineer. Two of their number already had been dispatched on horseback to investigate the man’s homeplace. Upon returning, they reported seeing nothing save the old parents and their animals. Yet Corbett had sent one of them back to keep watch over it, which Kanati allowed was a prudent enough measure.
As Corbett fidgeted, paced, and occasionally cursed, Kanati took his time, patiently asking questions about the mountaineer through Savanukah, the one among his kind who could speak English. He needed to understand what manner of man he sought and what was known of his actions up until the time of his escape. What he pieced together sounded more like the behavior of an Indian than a white man: the mountaineer had been silent and watchful, disclosing almost nothing. He had been stoic and patient, but savage and quick when resorting to action.
When Kanati and the others came to the creek that flowed out of the mountain, the tracker found the faded footprints where the man had gone ashore, but failed to discover any others leading away from the water in his slow, looping sweep of the area. He went back to the water and thought for a while. Then, crouching, he inspected the faint tracks again. They were deeper than those a man the size of the mountaineer would have made. Then he smiled in approval. The man had used the same tracks to back into the river.
“What? What is it?” asked Corbett, noting the Indian’s rare smile.
But Kanati did not waste a glance on the West Virginian. Instead he motioned downstream and while two pair of Cherokee took up respective sides of the creek, walking in the water while watching the banks for prints, Kanati stayed in the middle, eyes sweeping both sides and occasionally the ridges above. Behind followed Corbett, clueless and squinting in the glare of light off the water that seemed so unnatural to him.
* * *
The Cherokee missed the place where Columbus had exited the creek. They traveled two miles beyond it before Kanati had them turn around. He had no evidence or sign to guide him, only a feeling, but he had learned long ago to trust such notions. The slab of rock Columbus had used to depart the creek seemed to protrude out into the water more prominently as they returned from downstream. It beckoned to Kanati and he followed. He found the game trail a confusion of tracks: deer, bear, even the light tread marks of a panther. After a few moments of peering about he discovered part of a boot track that had been trampled by deer hooves in two places. Nevertheless, it was the mountaineer.
They followed the game trail the same way they had the creek: a man scrutinizing each side for an indication of where the mountaineer departed. Once again Kanati walked in the middle and so, he discovered, had the man. Kanati nodded: the mountaineer had known there would be more animal traffic in the center of the trail to cover his tracks.
They were forced to move slowly. It had been a few days since the mountaineer had passed this way. Alternately, Kanati would lose all indication the man had come this way, then find a random track.
At last they came to the ramps and Kanati noted the broken stalks. He looked up the ridge and began ascending it quickly. Ducking beneath some hemlock boughs, he spotted the remnants of the fire. It had been a small fire, giving off little smoke or light, but the place would have been warm. He found the spot where the mountaineer had slept, the leaves arranged just a little unnaturally. Other leaf fragments had been sprinkled over the spot to obscure it further.
Corbett was chattering excitedly and gesturing at the fire. Kanati could tell he wanted them to move on—to hurry after the man. But Kanati ignored him and instead took his time. He was learning something about this mountaineer and that was important since men, like animals, have habits. This one was cautious—as much so as a hunted Overhill Cherokee would be.
Kanati grunted. He was pleased with the mountaineer and more than a little surprised. The man used his head and instincts as one. Kanati knew there was magic in that. Therein lay the secret of distinction in any endeavor.
Kanati searched until he found how the man had left. The path was not straight away but curved back on itself, which made the few prints more difficult to interpret. He remembered the man’s backtracking into the creek where they had begun following him.
Kanati planned to build a store of knowledge of the mountaineer, as he would for an intelligent creature he hunted: how the man built his fires and moved—the kinds of places he preferred.
Corbett’s chattering had grown louder and his actions more animated. Kanati knew he could become violent and spoke quickly to Savanukah, who explained the state of matters to Corbett. He quieted down but eyed the route of departure Savanukah had pointed out to him.
Kanati muttered something else to Savanukah and the other Cherokee, and then carefully began following the mountaineer’s trail.
“What is it?” Corbett asked. “What’d he say?”
“He say stay behind him,” said Savanukah, “and keep awake. We might see man.”
“But it’s been days since he left this place.”
“Kanati say we no guess. He say the man dangerous.”
“But he’s only one man.”
Savanukah regarded Corbett coldly. “I speak Kanati’s words. Already one man dead and your hiding place no good. One old woman dead and other we leave sick. Your juice is stuck. You no good way to move it. One man do all this. So Kanati say keep awake or maybe we dead too.”
Savanukah turned to follow the master tracker, even as Corbett, face red, bit his lip. He had no rejoinder to the Indian’s words—the words of Kanati.
* * *
Kanati thought as he followed the mountaineer, who he could tell was a tall man with a fairly long stride. If Kanati found one track he looked for where the next foot naturally would have fallen. Yet the going remained slow. The man did not often choose the easiest way and the periodic doubling back was a nuisance, especially to Corbett, who would beat his fist against a thigh or into his open palm when they found themselves turning back again. The mountaineer also stepped on rocks when he could so as to leave no track. He did this without breaking stride, which informed Kanati he did not need to consciously think about it. It was simply in his nature to use the stones and whatever else the forest gave him. He did not have to attempt to be careful; he simply was.
The mountaineer could have reached his home by now, but Kanati knew it was watched and that their party had left marks for the other Cherokee to come find them if the man appeared there. Of course, Kanati knew now the man was skilled enough to sneak past that particular Cherokee, especially since the fellow was the least skilled in their outfit. But even if the mountaineer went there for food or warmer clothing, where else did he have to go where he would not be detected by the mountain men who knew of Corbett’s bounty? There were many such men who lurked along the roads and streams, driven deep into the mountains for the harsh crimes that had banished them.
Hence Kanati took his time, since he was learning that this mountaineer was a man of the woods—that he preferred them to roads and cabins. He lamented there were so few of his own kind now who shared such a preference. He had tracked down many Cherokee and mountaineers in his life, and though his own people generally possessed superior woodcraft, they steadily were losing their skills. They wanted the clothes and the money of the white people—and the liquor. Only a few of the old fathers understood the forest anymore.
Kanati was not much given to introspection, but he was aware enough to know his knowledge of the old ways made him something of an anachronism among the Cherokee. Some of his people, the important ones, venerated him, though more—especially the youngest—made fun of him behind his back or simply did not account for him at all. He came from a line that had fought white soldiers and settlers for two hundred years and gradually been pushed further into the mountains, or forced to depart them altogether. Yet he bore the white people no general ill-will. He would take their money when they needed his skills if it pleased him to do so. When he was young he had heard the fathers speak of other clans that had dwelled in the mountains ages ago, long before the Cherokee, and he sometimes wondered about them.
Perhaps the time of the old ways was over for the Cherokee at last, but Kanati knew he would not change. He observed the white mountaineers changing as well, with their cutting of the trees and their many new machines. Yet, like himself, the man he followed had not changed with them. It was part of what made tracking him pleasurable. Kanati recognized that though he and the mountaineer descended through different fathers and spoke different tongues, they saw the mountains as through the same eyes. If possible, he would have words with this man through Savanukah before Corbett killed him.
* * *
When they came upon a burned-over ridge, a several-thousand-acre, grey-black casualty of a lightning fire, it suddenly seemed to Kanati as though he were following a different man. Every track was now obvious in the ash, as though the mountaineer had given up and realized he could not conceal his trail across such barren terrain. There were no animals and it was colder on account of all the dead trees, which creaked whenever the breeze swept about them.
As the party weaved its way around the charred limbless stumps the man’s trail grew strange. First it strayed west, then east, then back north again, before heading east a second time. Even Kanati began to grow irritated as, behind him, Corbett muttered what could only be a steady stream of curses.
On a knob Kanati paused and looked back, considering the erratic trail. Then, suddenly, he smiled. The mountaineer had traversed the most difficult stretch of terrain he could find. Every few feet, they had been forced to duck under or step over—even climb over—mighty fallen trunks. He appraised the men about him and read the weariness on their ash-smudged faces.
It was when they began moving again—tired and cold—that it happened. Seeing what looked like an easier way around one of the great trees the man’s trail led across, one of the Cherokee elected to walk around its broken-off trunk. As he did so, he stumbled and then let out a choking cry as he hit the ground. In alarm Savanukah and another Cherokee rushed to his aid even as Kanati yelled at them to stop. Yet on they went and as they neared their fallen comrade, the other Cherokee tripped and fell. He sat up moaning, a hand pressed to his neck, blood welling through his fingers. Savanukah froze where he was, examining the ground around him.
Instructing the translator not to move again, Kanati slowly made his way to him as the moaning of the second fallen Cherokee became fainter. By the time they reached him he was dead, as was—they soon discovered—the first man to fall.
Kanati read the signs and this time he did not smile. The first man had tripped over a singed root which had been wound about the base of the broken-off tree trunk. When he fell his chest struck a spear-like shard of chestnut limb protruding from the ground. The man’s weight and the force of his fall had driven it clear through him.
Guessing the first trap might attract others, the mountaineer had arranged a similar root across the easiest stretch of terrain between his footprints and the initial snare, only when the second man tripped, he fell short and the nature-crafted stake pierced his neck rather than his chest.
Kanati was disgusted. In a matter of moments their party had been reduced from six men to four. It could have been worse, he realized. If Savanukah had fallen Kanati would have been deprived of the means to communicate well with Corbett. And yet it was bad enough.
Corbett himself remained uncharacteristically quiet. Ignoring Savanukah, his gaze moved wide-eyed between the places where the two men had fallen.
* * *
They moved on, leaving the dead men behind them. They were of no use and Kanati could tell the trail had grown fresher. They were gaining on the mountaineer; such traps cost him time.
The trail slowly had looped about and the party found themselves nearing the Little Pigeon River, which roughly paralleled the eroded wagon trail between Gatlinburg and Sevierville. Kanati halted—irritated, confused. Why had the man, who had returned to his careful—nearly trackless—way of moving through the woods, veered from his general northward course and chosen to approach the most well-traveled thoroughfare in the section?
No immediate answer came and Kanati knew all there was to do was follow, though he did so slowly, cautiously.
They pursued the trail to a deep section of the Little Pigeon, still frozen over but made deeper still by the unusually wet winter. As he surveyed the river and the opposite bank, Corbett lifted a heavy rock and hefted it out onto the ice, where it struck and slid across.
“Safe enough,” muttered the ever-impatient West Virginian, moving around the tracker and proceeding across the river.
Corbett had not stepped in the mountaineer’s tracks but the nearness of his footprints to them drew Kanati’s attention to the longer tread of the mountaineer. The trail seemed to proceed out onto the ice, where the tracker spotted several smudges. But then he knelt and peered more closely at the impressions on the river bank. They were deeper than normal and the prints of the boots did not line up precisely. Kanati recognized the pattern. The mountaineer had not crossed but backtracked.
He looked up to spy a Cherokee crossing slightly downstream, The man was nearing a large patch of old drifted snow on the ice.
Kanati’s eyes grew wide.
“Stop!” he yelled.
The Cherokee looked up from the river at the sound of the tracker’s voice but kept walking, for he had seen Corbett hurl the big rock onto the ice and knew it to be firm.
Kanati began running along the bank, yelling. This Cherokee had not been around frozen rivers enough to know that snow atop ice works as a blanket, warming and weakening it, until the moving waters beneath eat the ice away.
The Cherokee stopped again to look at Kanati, but now he stood atop the snow drift.
“Get off! Come back!” yelled the tracker.
Yet the Cherokee did not understand Kanati’s urgency. Shrugging, he took a step back the way he had come and, as he did so, his foot splashed through the snow and spongy ice beneath. As he was not prepared for the river’s betrayal, the man fell forward, his entire body crashing into the frigid water.
They watched him thrashing about amid the broken shards of ice, gasping at the cold. He could not swim and the current beneath the ice was swift. He reached out in panic, breaking off more ice wherever his hands fell.
Kanati looked on helplessly, knowing that if someone approached him, he too would break through the ice. Savanukah took a step toward the river but Kanati pushed him back. Corbett, having crossed successfully, watched from the opposite bank, square jaw slack.
The Cherokee’s struggles slowed as the cold worked into him. His own panic had sapped his strength so as to make him weaker than the current.
They all watched as his body sank beneath the ice and began drifting downstream, a stray hint of struggle in its limbs as they lost sight of it.
Corbett shouted something across the river and Kanati spoke quickly to Savanukah, still watching the place where the Cherokee had disappeared.
The translator yelled across the river. “Kanati say this was trap. Man did not cross, but hope we spread out and cross.”
“But I crossed!” hollered Corbett. “I followed his tracks!”
“Kanati say they not tracks. He use long limb maybe to make marks on ice. Kanati say snow on ice no good. Man knew but Cherokee did not.”
A rare expression formed on Corbett’s face: one of helplessness.
Savanukah continued. “Kanati say man know what he doing. He hope to kill one us or more, like other time.”
At last Kanati looked up from the place where the Cherokee had disappeared and glanced over at Corbett, before speaking quickly to Savanukah again, his shoulders drooping slightly.
Savanukah’s face grew concerned and he asked a question before translating.
“Kanati say he follow tracks good but know man too late. He say man very bad man to track. Sometime he move like white man, sometime Indian, sometime animal. He say sometime he no move and watch us pass. Then he move ahead or back and cover his trail with water, brush, rock. The weathers favor him or he wait for them to. Kanati say he know now what man try. He no wish to escape. He no wish to go home.”
Savanukah paused again to ask Kanati a question, but the tracker merely shook his head.
“What? What is it? What’s the bastard doing then?” yelled Corbett.
Savanukah stared across the river at Corbett, face subdued, more stoic. At last he answered.
“Kanati say man hunt us while we hunt him. Now he hunt harder.”
“You mean he’s hunted us all this time? Corbett yelled. “Even when we was following him? Even when there was six of us?”
Savanukah ignored the question.
“Kanati say no longer need track. Now man track us. He try to kill us now.”
As if to punctuate this sentence a large tree crashed down somewhere in the forest close by. The three men—the three survivors—looked all about them, but all that ensued was silence. Was there someone else close by to hear the tree fall in the woods? They shivered in the river-bottom cold. Then it began to snow.
Casey Clabough is the author of the travel memoir The Warrior’s Path: Reflections Along an Ancient Route, the memoir SCHOOLED: Life Lessons of a College Professor, the novel Confederado, a collection of women’s Civil War writing, a biography of southern writer George Garrett, six scholarly books on southern and Appalachian writers, and the latest Idiot’s Guide to Creative Writing. Clabough serves as editor of the literature section of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’ Encyclopedia Virginia and as general editor of the literary journal James Dickey Review. His work has appeared in over seventy anthologies and magazines, including Creative Nonfiction, the Sewanee Review, and the Virginia Quarterly Review.