Born in North Carolina, Danny Thomas grew up in Tennessee, went to college in Alabama, and taught high school English before graduate school at the University of North Carolina where he earned a Doctorate. After 35 years in Human Resources he retired in 2006, then started writing. Find his website at www.dannythomasauthor.com, or tweet him @DannyThomasAuth.
by Danny Thomas
High in the Carolina mountains Zebadiah Gallant’s just now found the rogues with the woman they kidnapped three days ago. It’s mid-1854, May 3rd.
A small, bearded woodsman, wiry and cautious, Zebadiah’s moving quietly through thickets of rhododendron, laurel, and holly, trailing the kidnappers on foot while the outlaws and the woman have been on horseback. Finding them is something of a surprise because Zeb was told the Coakley brothers are too fast for anybody to catch. His plan was not stop to sleep or eat or rest as he pursued them, and that’s paid off. His pulse has been quickened all through the chase because this task is the first and only one he’s accomplished without someone else telling him what to do and when to do it. There’s a reward for finding the woman, too, but he’s after something more substantial. He wants to do something important for once. To help somebody worse off than him.
He needs rest, but he’s wishing he could tell somebody she’s been found. She’s not dead. He’s not real sure how he managed to find her, but here she is along with her two captors.
Zeb smelled the men before he heard them. Heard them before he caught a glimpse of them. These outlaws, two Coakley brothers named Ralph and Leon, have one outstanding trait that gives Zeb advantage. Strong drink keeps them loud and reckless. The first person he sees clearly is the barefoot woman, her skirt torn high so one thigh is exposed with every step she takes. From the looks of it, she has been used by both men, and they’re just lounging around the fire. They’ve got her gathering kindling as they pass a jug back and forth.
Obviously drunk, the Coakleys are laughing and yelling at her, grabbing at her when she ventures close enough, too lazy to get up after her. Zeb can smell their tobacco and body odor, rank from sweat-dried shirts, mud-dried leggings, and a complete lack of washing. He smells corn liquor and horses, too, but the horses aren’t in sight.
After nursing the fire, the woman sits with her back to a large boulder so she can watch both men. She runs her hands through her dark, silken hair, nearly exhausted. She’s a beauty, slender and delicate. He’d prefer to watch for a while to learn as much as possible. He doesn’t aim to confront, but to deceive, and just now he’s got no idea how to go about it. The biggest Coakley brother hogs the jug, and the other scrambles over when it gets set down and takes a long pull from it. Big Un snatches back the jug from his brother’s mouth with a harsh and spiteful laugh. The woman is watching, her legs tucked under her. Big Un pulls out two more jugs, taking a long pull, his thirst so greedy that some of the liquid washes down his front. Little Un beckons for a taste without success. If looks can kill, Big Un’ll soon be a corpse.
Darkness is coming on fast as once again Zeb improves his vantage point by crawling on his stomach. At times he rests his eyes, but each time he returns his gaze to the woman she’s alert, watching the men. A gentle rain begins, and he runs both his hands into his poke to keep warm, retracing his steps to the shelter of a dead fir wide enough to keep him nearly dry. He’s been awake nearly two days searching for this woman, and his stomach’s cramping for something to eat. He’ll try something in the dark, if he can, but isn’t sure when that might be. Many have been sent out to search for her, but Zeb’s the only one that’s got her in sight. This is his chance to shine. He’s been called simpleton and stupid many a time, but he’s not stupid if he’s found her, is he? He rests his eyes to think.
Eventually, he jerks awake, unsure how long he’s slept, but soon discovers it’s almost dawn, gray and foggy. He’s ashamed to have slept so long, but that can’t be helped. His bones ache some as he stretches out his kinks, returning to a watchful position. Both Coakleys are stretched out on the ground, most likely passed out. The woman’s lying down, too, under a rock ledge.
His plan’s simple. Go silently to the woman, touch her foot if she’s not awake, hold his hat in his hand, a finger to his lips, and beckon her to follow so they can get away. Use a dead pine log to creep across a deep, rocky chasm, a log bridge connecting one jagged cliff to another. That would be the way to go.
The woman’s eyes are closed, for which he’s glad. She’ll need her rest. He moves through the drizzle, watching the Little Un who’s found his own space under another ledge, and there’s the legs of the Big Un splayed out on the wet ground. Zeb stands stock still. By and by he’s gotten close enough to the woman. One more step, and he can bend down to touch her foot. As he starts bending over, his knee joint pops audibly, and she opens both eyes, startled and says, “Oh.” Zeb doffs his slouch hat, finger to his lips, studying her face, her eyes especially, hoping she will divine his kind intentions. He smiles, gesturing to her, trying to show her that, We need to be a-going quiet as we can. She stares and nods as the both of them turn to look at Little Un who’s but ten feet away, sleeping peacefully. Zeb holds out his hand, and it’s then he notices the rope attached to both her ankles. She can shuffle, but not run, a gentle deerlike creature, hobbled by thongs at her feet. His hand’s colder than hers.
They get to where a decision must be made: head back for Hot Springs road or cross the other way over the chasm. The idea of getting back to the others who’re hunting for her tempts Zeb. His pulse quickens in a panic at the thought of running like hell to get away. He considers the woman who looks ready to run, too, but she’s trembling at her right forearm. The muscle quivers and twitches now and then. She’s shaky. So is he. It’s either run or hide, and hiding is something Zeb has always done well. It’ll work if she’ll trust and follow him. If they can get across the log bridge, the rogues might not know to follow across the chasm. As he’s contemplating these notions, she has untied her ankles. He looks back the way they’ve come. If the rain continues, it will drown out their trail in little freshets. All that’s needed is more rain, more time.
He whispers, “Step exactly where I step.” He blinks after saying this, a little surprised the words come so smoothly out of his mouth. It seems he doesn’t have to work at it now like he always has before.
“Hold it right there!”
Little Un is right there, a few yards behind them, his long rifle aimed at Zeb.
But Zeb tugs the woman to their left, which puts a large holly bush between them and this Coakley. Four more quick steps, and they’re standing at the pine log bridge, but no further from danger because Little Un’s taken the same number of steps around the holly, just as close now as he was before, maybe fifteen feet away. His eyes squinted, jaw set firm, the man snarls, revealing several lost teeth. Zeb glances quickly at the pine log where it glistens and where it doesn’t and where the moss adorns it. He pulls the woman one more step, placing his foot where there’s no glistening, nodding at her in hopes she’ll do likewise.
“Not one more step!” Little Un growls. As he does so, he cocks the rifle, moving the barrel toward the woman.
“Who’re you?” she asks Zeb, surprising him how calm she is, ignoring the Little Un.
“I’m Zebadiah Gallant,” he answers. “Your brother sent me. Your gals is with him now.” Her face lights up like a lantern.
Little Un steps closer. “Shut up! This ain’t no tea party. You…” he jabs with the barrel at the woman… “Come off that log!” He grins his surly, tooth-wanting grin. “Get back over here!”
Watching Little Un, she tells Zeb, “I’m Jettie Davis.” She clasps Zeb’s hand with both of hers, and he sees how she’s even prettier close up like this. They take two more steps on the log, moving away from the big man. The log is nearly ten feet long with plenty of air beneath it, sharp crags like upright spears twenty feet below. Jettie matches Zeb’s steps so they’re most of the way across now.
Little Un aims back at Zeb. The trigger clicks. He recocks, tries again as Zeb and Jettie avoid one last slick spot on the log, and they’re across to solid ground.
Little Un hisses, “Damn it to hell!”
“Powder’s too wet,” Zeb tells her as the man draws out a large knife from the sheath at his waist.
“Yup, it is,” Little Un answers. “But I still got this.” He waves the blade back and forth. “What you got, little man?”
Zeb’s wondering why the man doesn’t just go tell Big Un and work it out together. They must not trust one another. They tear things down together, but don’t build anything up. Abruptly, the man sheaths his knife, starting across the log bridge. With his first tentative step there’s a corresponding, ever so slight twisting motion of the log. Just an inch or two with the big man balancing on it, arms waving a little bit as he steps on a glistening spot on the log. Zeb turns his head to see if Jettie’s noticed the log shift. Her eyebrows go up as he hears someone say, “Huh,” like a fellow’s got the wind knocked out of him. Turning back, he’s lost sight of Little Un, but there’s another grunt, “Huh!” from down below. He looks down into the rocks, and there’s Little Un, crumpled twenty feet below amidst the jagged, spearlike rocks, staring first at his right leg, which shows the ankle angled off keewidey crooked, broken all to hell. The bone below the left knee is piercing through his trousers, amazingly white, beginning to ooze blood. Little Un looks up at them, opens his mouth to speak, and blood emerges from one nostril and his opposite ear, twin crimson trickles.
Jettie says, “This here’s Ralph Coakley.” Studying the big man caught there in the rocks, she asks, “Do you think he’ll yell for brother?”
“Is he even able?”
They watch Ralph wave his arms some, but he doesn’t move his legs at all and finally quits, just staring back at them, blood spreading past his mouth and chin and onto his neck, slumping over a bit to one side. After a moment Zeb sits down, as does Jettie, whose eyes are heavy-lidded. She reclines herself against a rock as Zeb tells her, “Get some rest.” And before his last word, her eyes are closed, and her breathing has become regular and deep. Maybe they should have run already. But maybe not. He’s not sure either one of them has legs for a good, long run, but he might not be thinking straight.
A while later when she finally wakes up, Zeb says, “Now we got to get around his brother. You up for that?”
Jettie shudders, pulling her skirt close around her knees. Her face pinched.
“What is it?” he asks.
“Leon’s the othern, the worst of ’em,” she says, her hands clutched around her middle. “He took me first. Did things I never…” She shakes her skirt as if a spider’s crawled up on it, looking Zeb in the eye. “I had to keep them off my little gals. Ralph helt me down. They…it was….” She chokes, stricken wordless.
“Don’t say no more. I got no right to hear this,” he explains.
“Yes, you do!” she answers fiercely. “You’re everything!”
He’s glad he didn’t show up when the things she can’t tell about were happening. She has touched him with the telling this small part of her ordeal. He feels for her, but knows not what to say. They cross carefully back over the log, making their way back to see about Leon, who’s still deep asleep. So they can see about him now without leaving it to chance.
Scattered around Leon are five empty jugs. The sun has come out bright and hot, drying things quickly. Zeb whispers, “I’m going to take any gun or knife he’s got on him before he wakes. He’s drunk almost to death, so we got advantage. But Coakleys are known to be fast and mean, so if he gets the best of me, head east, and you’ll come on Hot Springs road.”
Suddenly, she hugs him, tears sliding down her pretty face. Leon’s splayed out asleep in the sand and pea gravel as if he’s a rag doll thrown down by some giant child, one hand under a little pine, the trunk maybe six inches in diameter. His other hand is touching a cedar about ten inches thick. His legs run close to a large jagged rock half buried in the sand, a rock that has a narrow groove running across it. And as Zeb walks around the big man, who commences snoring, he gets an idea about how to punish him just right. There’s no doubt what he deserves. Actually, Zeb gets two ideas about how to get justice like the Trojans got against that mighty Greek warrior.
He sits down ten feet from Leon, opens his poke, and pulls out a truncated blade, broken off, but still sharp as any razor though angled off blunt, more punch than slice. He also brings out six leather cords three feet long, testing them as to how much stress they can withstand, which he deems sufficient. Finally, he goes to find a fallen pine branch as thick as the big man’s leg and maybe five feet long. It’s just right for what he’s got in mind.
He goes about poking and testing the big man to see if he’s going to come out of his sleep, but the man is deep into his dreams. Zeb begins using his cords to truss Leon up so one wrist is secured to the pine trunk good and tight. The other to the cedar, just as snug. Both legs get fastened to the pine branch so the cords are taut into the groove in the rock, anchoring the big man down. Facing the sun and clouds, Leon’s spread eagle, fixed tight, unconscious on the ground. Jettie’s there, taking it all in, and Zeb asks her, “Tell me is he tied down good enough.”
She wrinkles her brow. “Huh?”
Zeb sees he needs to some explaining, so he says, “They was a Greek warrior in the olden days named Achilles who fit the Trojan War. Unbeatable in battle, mean as a snake, but too proud to lead his own men.”
Jettie frowns. “You think Leon’s some great warrior?” That doesn’t set well with her.
“Nope. I think Achilles got arrow shot in his heel where he had his great and only weakness. That’s the first thing. Second thing is, I been thinking we don’t need Leon dead, just hamstrung. Slowed down. Give him a weakness.” Gingerly fingering the sharpened blade, he shows it to her, adding, “This little sarpent’s going to bite old Leon right where Achilles got bit.”
“I don’t get you.”
He pats her shoulder. “Come watch how it’s done.”
Zeb finds a wide rock flat enough for his purpose, carrying it back to the snoring man, leaning it inside Leon’s left leg, bracing it with his own knee. Then he leans over the man’s ankle, sights where he means to work, and rams the keen edged tool into the heel tendon, slicing neatly through it, the blade thwarted not by flesh but stone, blood spilling onto the sand.
Leon jerks and moans when struck. His left leg spasms, but his eyes remain shut. Surely, this great lout of a man will wake as he’s being carved on. But, no. He’s agitated for sure, roiling around with some grotesque succubus that’s turned on him, chewing on his ankle.
“This cut will slow him down,” Zeb says to Jettie. “Take him a year or more to recover.”
She cocks her head, ready to ask another question. “So he’ll get over what you done just now?”
“The flesh could weave together eventually where this sarpent’s bit him. Years from now.”
He reads her eyes, understanding what he finds there, understanding that she’s going to reach for the blade, still bloody to the hilt. She’s studying the big man’s ankle, raising her eyes to the heavens, whispering, “Give me strength, Lord,” but Zeb can see what she’s got in mind and how she’s got all the strength she needs. More, in fact.
Once again Zeb braces the flat rock against Leon’s ankle, and moments later a sizable chunk of flesh, perhaps two inches thick, falls from the leg, leaving a gap that can never grow back. Jettie tosses it into the chasm below as Leon has awakened to pain. He’s helpless as he jerks and bucks and lurches against his bonds, yowling and keening like a wounded animal that’s lost a limb to a steel trap. Zeb staunches the wound with a rag.
“So,” she says, moving away from her victim, “what do you think?”
Considering the wound and her that inflicted it, Zeb admits, “This outlaw’s life is ruint.”
“Good,” she says, wiping blood from the blade, handing it back.
Copyright 2021 by Danny Thomas