Excerpt from The Bear Hunter

Note: I’ve been thinking about, and tinkering with, a novel about my paternal 5th great-grandfather, Richard “Fightin’ Dick” Colley, who was well-known around my birthplace. It is claimed he was the first white (non Indian) settler in what is now Dickenson County, Virginia. He was a hot-tempered Irishman (or Welsh?), who reportedly fought a bear on a bet — and won.

During my research, and much to my surprise, I found that the story of his son, James Colley, intrigued me more. Mainly because he had my 3rd great-grandfather out of wedlock with a woman named Delilah Ramey. He married someone else, yet continue a relationship with Delilah over many years and had at least two children with her. I often wondered why he hadn’t just married the woman! Some local genealogists claim he had the affair with her sister, Anis Ramey, but my research shows the sister would have been far too young (even though they married young back then), and my 3rd great-grandfather listed Delilah as his mother on his own marriage license. The following excerpt features Jim soon after being shot in the shoulder by a rival of his father’s over fence posts.

Also note that I’ve applied a style of writing where quotation marks are not used for dialogue. This is something I’m tinkering with as well, as it is a style I enjoy reading. As well as many others, Cormac McCarthy used it when writing The Road. And while I am no McCarthy — by a long shot — I guess it’s okay to follow his lead.

***

Jim Is Shot

He heard the rasping, the keening of women, smelled the sharp tang of fresh-cut pine that jolted him to consciousness. He’d been dreaming: Lila, down by the river, black hair glistening, cotton dress clinging to her breasts as she rose from the water

—Tell them to stop that sawing! Get a bucket. Remove those bindings and have that arm hang over the side. Let the wound bleed out for a while.
—But he’s lost so much already, Pastor Smith…I can barely feel his breath.
—I seen this work before, Crissa. Would I tell you wrong? If that putrid blood travels to his heart, he’ll be dead sooner rather than later. Trust in me, sayeth the Lord. But, in the meantime, do as I say…and make some more of that yellow dock tea. Get him to drink it when he’s able. And water. Have him drink that good spring water of your’n. And tell them boys to stop that infernal racket! He ain’t dead yet.

A year ago, Lila had come by wagon, east over the Pine Mountains from Kentucky. Her father at the reins, her mother nowhere and never talked of. Her sister, just as beautiful as Lila, but not Lila. He’d seen them dancing by the campfire, their father playing the fiddle. Lithe figures caught between the dark and the light. There was talk they were gypsies. Ramey, but maybe Romanians. Magic and mystery and spells. Their wagon full of potions and things wrapped in tight packets.

He moved. His arm constricted in pain, lips grimaced in a soundless moan.

He’d gone down to the beet patch. Someone had moved the fence posts again and Pa had told him to go move them back. Rustling. Movement at the tree line. He stood tall, honed his eyes. Jon Harding, musket to shoulder. Felt the ball thud into muscle and crack bone. Pa had been fightin’ mad when he’d found him, but Ma’s anger would be cold as mountain ice.

Hands on him now, moving, jostling. Pain, red and hot. Blood traveled down his arm in a rivulet, like a river on an old map, tickling the hairs on his forearm, plink plink plink-ing on the bottom of the wooden bucket. Buzz of deer flies like the roar of a waterfall.

His eyes opened a sliver, gazing out the window toward the rise, past his brothers squatting by the unfinished coffin, a saw dangling between bent knees. Deep inside the canopy of trees, a white dress glowed like a soft candle flame. He watched as it moved up the mountain, beckoning him.

He had stalked her for a month, but it was she who spoke first.

—You been watching me.

Her voice exotic. Not an accent, but something like it. She was looking out at the river, her back to him.

He walked out from behind the tree.

—I have.

—Then why don’t you say something? She turned her head. —Cat got your tongue?

He thumbed the loops in his britches. —Wouldn’t rightly know what to say.

—Same as you’d say to anybody else. ‘Hello, how do you do,’ might work.

She turned to face him, fully.

His heart like a leaping frog, but he grinned and bowed low. —Hello. How do you do this fine afternoon?

They’d spent the afternoon talking and swimming. It became their place. Just beyond a bend in the river, where the water ran slow and deep.

He closed his eyes.

Dreams and reality merged. The only certainty, pain.

How many days?

Sunlight came up behind the mountain. It filtered through the trees. Long shafts of yellow haze. He looked for the white dress, but if Lila was there, she was trapped behind bars of gold.

He was in his parents’ bed, close to the fireplace and the window that let in cool breezes in the heat of summer. A curtain on a pole suspended from the rafters separated the small space from the rest of the house. Around the edge, he watched his mother stoke the fire. She stood and turned.

—You’re better, she said.

—How long? His throat was dry.

—A week, yesterday.

A week? It could have been a night, or a year, for all he could remember.

—Where’s Pa?

Her mouth firm. —With his dogs. Where else?

He turned to look out the window. A rough board rested on top of the graying coffin. His brothers had done a fine job, but he wouldn’t be needing it any time soon.

 

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