Authors: Brian Panowich
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Copyright © 2015 by Brian Panowich
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Bull Mountain / Brian Panowich.
1. Sheriffs—Fiction. 2. Outlaws—Fiction. 3. Mountain people—Fiction. 4. Drug traffic—Fiction. 5. Alcoholic beverage law violations—Fiction. 6. Georgia—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day.
When the swords flash, let no idea of love, piety, or even the face
of your fathers move you.
“Family,” the old man said to no one.
The word hung in a puff of frozen breath before dissipating into the early-morning fog. Riley Burroughs
used that word the same way a master carpenter used a hammer. Sometimes he just gave it a gentle tap to nudge one of his kin toward his way of thinking, but sometimes he used it with all the subtlety of a nine-pound sledge.
The old man sat in a wooden rocker, slowly squeaking it back and forth on the worn and buckled pine slats of the cabin’s front porch. The cabin was one of several hunting
shelters his family had built all over Bull Mountain throughout the years. Rye’s grandfather, Johnson Burroughs, built this one. Rye imagined the elder statesman of the Burroughs clan sitting in this very spot fifty years earlier and wondered if his brow ever got this heavy. He was sure it did.
Rye pulled a pouch of dried tobacco from his coat and rolled a smoke in his lap. Ever since he was
a boy, he’d come out here to watch Johnson’s Gap come to life. This early, the sky was a purple bruise. The churning chorus of frogs and crickets was beginning to transition into the scurry of vermin and birdsong—a woodland changing of the guard. On frigid mornings like this one, the fog banked low over the veins of kudzu like a cotton blanket, so thick you couldn’t see your feet to walk through
it. It always made Rye smile to know that the clouds everyone else looked up to see, he looked down on from the other side. He reckoned that must be how God felt.
The sun had already begun to rise behind him, but this gap was always the last place to see it. The shadow cast down from the Western Ridge kept this section of the mountain almost a full ten degrees cooler than the rest of it. It
would be well into the afternoon before the sun could dry up all the dew that made the forest shimmer. Only thin beams of light broke through the heavy canopy of oak trees and Scotch pine. As a kid, Rye used to believe those rays of light warming his skin were the fingers of God, reaching down through the trees to bless this place—to look out for his home. But as a man, he’d grown to know better.
The children running underfoot and the womenfolk might have some use for that superstitious nonsense, but Riley reckoned if there was some Sunday-school God looking out for the people on this mountain, then the job wouldn’t always fall on him.
The old man sat and smoked.
The sound of tires crunching gravel soured the morning. Rye tamped out his smoke and watched his younger brother’s
old Ford flatbed pull up the drive. Cooper Burroughs climbed out and snatched his rifle from the mount on the back window. Cooper was Riley’s half brother, born nearly sixteen years after him, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them side by side. They both had the chiseled features of their shared father, Thomas Burroughs, but carried the weight of life on Bull Mountain heavy in the jowls,
making both men appear much older than they were. Cooper pulled his hat down over his shaggy red hair and grabbed a backpack from the front seat. Rye watched as Cooper’s nine-year-old son, Gareth, appeared from the passenger side and walked around the truck to join his father. Rye shook his head and breathed out the last of the cold smoke in his lungs.
It’s just like Cooper to bring a buffer
when there is a chance of tempers getting flared. He knows I wouldn’t put an ass-whuppin’ on him in front of his boy. Too bad he can’t use them smarts when it matters.
Rye stepped off the porch and opened his arms.
“Good morning, brother . . . and nephew.”
Cooper didn’t answer right away, or bother to hide his disdain. He curled up his lip and spit a slick string of brown tobacco juice
at Rye’s feet.
“Save it, Rye, we’ll get to it soon enough. I got to get some food in me before I can stomach listening to your bullshit.”
Cooper wiped the sticky trail of spit from his beard. Rye dug his heels into the gravel and balled his fists. The boy standing there be damned, he was ready to get this thing done. Gareth stepped between the two men in an attempt to ease the tension.
“Hey, Uncle Rye.”
Another few more seconds of stink-eye, then Rye broke his brother’s stare and squatted down to acknowledge his nephew. “Hey, there, young man.” Rye reached out to hug the boy, but Cooper shuffled his son past him and up the front steps of the cabin. Rye stood, dropped his arms, and tucked his hands into his coat. He took another solemn look out at the sawtooth oaks and
clusters of maple, and thought again on his grandfather. Picturing him standing there, doing the same thing Rye was doing now. Looking at the same trees. Feeling the same ache in his bones. It was going to be a long morning.
“You got to keep stirrin’ those eggs,” Cooper said, taking the wooden spoon from his son. He carved off a chunk of butter and dropped it into the bubbling yellow
mixture. “You keep stirrin’ it ’til it ain’t wet no more. Like this. See?”
“Yessir.” Gareth took the spoon back and did as he was shown.
Cooper fried some fatback and bacon in a cast-iron skillet and then served it up to his son and brother as if that pissing contest outside hadn’t just happened. That’s the way brothers do things. Gareth was the first to speak.
“Deddy said you killed
a grizzly out by this ridge back in the day.”
“He said that, did he?” Rye looked at his brother, who sat shoveling eggs and fried meat into his mouth.
“Well, your deddy ain’t right. It wasn’t no grizzly. It was a brown bear.”
“Deddy said you killed it with one shot. He said nobody else could’a done that.”
“Well, I don’t reckon that’s true. You could’a took it down just the same.”
“How come you don’t got the head hanging up in here? That would sure be something to see.”
Rye waited for Cooper to answer that, but he didn’t look up from his food.
“Gareth, listen to me real good. That bear? I didn’t want to kill it. I didn’t do it to have
something to see
, or a story to tell. I killed it so we could make it through the winter. If you kill something on this mountain,
you better have a damn good reason. We hunt for necessity up here. Fools hunt for sport. That bear kept us warm and fed us for months. I owed it that much. You understand what I mean by ‘I owed it’?”
“I think so.”
“I mean that I would have dishonored the life it led if I killed it just to have a trophy on that wall. That ain’t our way. We used every bit of it.”
“Even the head?”
“Even the head.”
Cooper piped up. “You hearing what your uncle is telling you, boy?”
Gareth nodded at his pa. “Yessir.”
“Good, ’cause that’s a lesson worth learnin’. Now, enough talking. Eat your breakfast so we can get on with it.”
They finished the rest of the meal in silence. As they ate, Rye studied Gareth’s face. It was perfectly round, with cheeks that stayed rosy no matter
the weather, peppered with freckles. His eyes were set deep and narrow like his father’s. He’d have to open them real wide just for someone to tell the color. They were Cooper’s eyes. It was Cooper’s face, without the calico beard, or the grit . . . or the anger. Rye remembered when his brother looked like that. It felt like a hundred years ago.
When their bellies were full, the two older
men grabbed their rifles and stretched cold-morning muscles. Cooper leaned down and adjusted the wool cap on his son’s head to cover the boy’s ears.
“You stay warm, and you stay close,” he said. “You get sick on me, your mama will have my ass in a sling.”
The boy nodded, but his excitement was setting in and his eyes were fixed on the long guns. His father had let him practice with the
.22, to get used to the recoil and feel of the scope, but he wanted to carry a man’s gun.
“Do I get to carry a rifle, Deddy?” he said, scratching at the wool cap where his father had pulled at it.
“Well, I don’t reckon you can shoot anything without one,” Cooper said, and lifted a .30-30 rifle down from the stone mantel. The gun wasn’t new, but it was heavy and solid. Gareth took the weapon
and inspected it like his father had taught him. He made a show of it to prove the lessons had stuck.
“Let’s go,” he said, and the three of them took to the woods.
Cold dirt. That’s what morning smelled like on the mountain. The air was so thick with the smell of wet earth, it clogged Gareth’s nose. He tried breathing through his mouth, but within minutes he was licking grit off
“Here,” Cooper said, and handed his son a blue bandana. “Tie this around your face, and breathe through it.”
Gareth took it and did as he was told, and they walked.
“I’m not gonna let you do it, Rye,” Cooper said, shifting gears from Gareth to his brother. “And before you start carrying on, don’t try to give me your normal line of shit about it being what’s best for the
family. Mama or some of these young punks around here might buy into that nonsense, but you’re not about to convince me what you’re wanting to do here is right. It’s not. It’s the goddamn opposite of right.”
Gareth listened but played deaf.
Rye was prepared and well rehearsed; he’d practiced this sparring session all morning to an audience of trees from that squeaky rocking chair.
“Anything that takes the worry out of having to put food on the table is the right thing to do, Coop. It’s in our best interest to—”
“Oh, stop that shit, right now,” Cooper said. “You best have something better than that. We eat just fine around here. There ain’t nobody on this mountain starving. You sure as hell ain’t.” Cooper motioned to Rye’s belly.
Gareth let out a small chuckle and
his father gave him a sharp smack to the back of the head. “You mind your business, boy.” Gareth went back to acting deaf and Cooper returned his attention to Rye. “The trees on this mountain have done right by our family for fifty years.
, Rye. I would think respecting that—protecting that—is what’s in our best interest. The idea that you done lost sight of that pains me deeply. You
actually think selling off timber rights to land you were born on, to a bunch of goddamn bankers, is good for us? Well, that breaks my heart, Riley. What the hell happened to you? I don’t even recognize you anymore.”
“The money is more than we will ever see in a lifetime,” Rye said.
“And there it is.”
“Damn it, Cooper, listen to me for a minute. Stop being so damn self-righteous and
“It will give our children, and our children’s children, something to build on: a future. You don’t seriously think we’re going to survive for the next fifty years runnin’ corn whiskey into the Carolinas?”
“We’ve done okay so far.”
“You’re not seeing the big picture, Coop. We should be doing better than
We should be working smarter, not harder.
The stills ain’t bringing in what they used to. Drinking ain’t illegal no more. We can’t survive off the back-door bars and pool halls. The money’s drying up. I know you know this. It’s not the same business it used to be. The rest of the world is getting smarter, and we’re staying the same. The odds are against us. This deal with Puckett is going to be triple what we’d make in ten years of runnin’
shine. It’s a chance for our children to—”
“Hold up a second. You keep saying ‘children’ as if you got a dog in this race. The last time I checked, that boy right there was the only child on this mountain named Burroughs. You’re telling me you want to have a bunch of machines come in here and rape
have a better future?”
“Somebody has to look out for him.”
“Deddy,” Gareth said, and tugged at his father’s sleeve. “Deddy, look.”
Cooper looked down to where his son was pointing, then bent over to pick up a small clump of black mud. He held it to his nose, and then held it to his son’s nose.