THE CHESTNUT TREE
Barbara A. Andrews
The dark afternoon sky exploded like a splintered mirror. A battle ground raging in the heavens forced jagged lines of sharp lightning to spread vertically and horizontally from the east horizon to the west. With howling wind whipping the woods into a frenzy, Winnie Kilgore, alone with her younger children, huddled under a leaf-filled tick fearing the loosely chinked cabin would shake apart from the vibrations of wind and thunder.
An overwhelming omen, one of great danger, fell upon her shoulders. The men of the families living clustered in the dense woods of Pound Gap, Robert Kilgore, Charles Kilgore, James Green, and young McKinney had left before dawn bounding out in the thick tracking the elusive deer, buffalo, bear—any beast, large or small, that would fill their empty larders.
A sharp crack pierced the sky flashing an eerie light throughout the cabin, its thunder and gusty wind separating the outside door from its leather lash. As if a bombardment of cannon fired its ordinance, a thrust of a distant fire consumed Winnie’s view from the fallen door. The lone chestnut tree, a sentry in the clearing beyond the trees, where young Kilgore boys climbed daily to watch for raiding Indians, exploded with flames, its dragon tentacles grappling with a spurious appetite toward the sky.
Late snows in tandem with early March torrential rains were unexpected though not entirely rare. Once when a child, Winnie experienced lightning and thunder in a snow storm, but today was a mistake. Nature had brought the March lion’s roar of wind, January’s winter snow, and May’s warm balm together, each alien to the season of the other, and forgetting that until this morning winter hadn’t ended.
Earlier, without a hint weather was moving in, Robert Kilgore rose from his roped-bed mattress, stepped to the door as he did each morning, itching to check the prospects for the day. He and his younger brother, Charles, a story teller of Irish folk lore and a family favorite with his down-home humor, had planned the hunt for months. They would take with them James Green, son of their sister, Esther, and neighbor Elder McKinney’s fifteen-year-old boy, who with no other known name answered to “McKinney.”
“Hell, we’ve packed, unpacked, and packed again every day for three weeks,” Robert complained to Winnie. “Didn’t think the damn blizzards would ever end.”
To his pleasure, this morning was warm as if earth’s furnace erupted with a heavy plume baking the air. The sky’s emerging light promised a cloudless azure blue, and a ring of chestnut trees swayed lazily with green buds peeking through husky tips of branches spread upward. Unaware by day’s end the weather would do a complete turn about, he whooped an excited “Yahoo” to the other two men and young McKinney emerging from their cabins.
“Get your gear. Let’s go.”
The Big Hunt was on! An army of four—wild, red-haired Scots Irish. The men, dubbed over-the-mountain men from their youthful service at Kings Mountain, were seasoned and committed sharp-shooters. In spite of his considerable talents, McKinney was judged a greenhorn whom Robert allowed to come along as a favor to his father, a crippled widower who could offer no amusement for his son.
The annual hunt was the fulfillment of stored-up dreams. For all the difficulties and setbacks expected, each man, except for McKinney, had tasted its intoxicating pleasure. The lure of the wilderness followed the legacy of their ancient uncle, Thomas Kilgore, famous for the Longhunters’ Great Hunt that took six men as far as Tennessee a generation ago.
Whenever Winnie teased Robert he was too old for the rigorous hunt, he had his comeback. “Old Thomas was one hundred and one when he died. Guess I can make it a few years longer.”
His serious, dour nature belied him this morning. He was excited. This trek was to be one of the best times ever. Didn’t matter what or who he fought, Tories, Indians, or big game, he felt destined for victory.
Or the unspoken. If Providence willed, death.
In the gray haze before the sun rose, the men, heavily weighed down with packs, guns, and ammunition, trudged the short distance to Pound River. With the first true light of day, a bright sun rewarded them, sending shafts of light shimmering through snow laden trees. In high spirits, but cautiously watching their footing along the river which wound its way to the mountains, the men found banks of heavy snow melting into slippery slush, the porous spongy white disappearing into the ground. To their regret, Pound River was impossible to navigate, clogged with downed logs, and broken branches hiding wicked twisted currents and swirling eddies. They watched from the rock strewn shore the melting ice forcing the water to rise by the minute.
“Knew it would be like this,” groused Robert bending forward, his bulging belly, entirely out of trim, a momentary hindrance. He kicked snow from his boots, and rubbed his winter-bound cramps from his thick legs with oversized hands powered by heavily muscled arms. “River out there’s a beaver’s paradise.”
“Yeah, Old Man, your tail looks like a beaver’s ass,” his brother taunted. “You been sittin in the cabin too long puttin away Winnie’s biscuits and honey.”
“You should talk,” Robert responded, happily patting his abundant trophy. “Happens when we’re stuck in a damn cabin. Thought I’d go crazy waiting for the bloody weather to break.” He stretched, flexed his legs, and started off in a half run with James and McKinney behind him. Charles, short of breath and his old Kings Mountain wound throbbing in his groin, lagged behind.
Robert halted and called, “What’s the matter? Can’t keep up with us boys, is it?”
“You call yourself, Boy? Humpff. You’re the Old Man. Don’t have to wait on me, I’ll be along. Won’t have to walk so much after we get to our canoes tomorrow.”
“And who last December thought to tether canoes up stream where Pound widens? At least we won’t fight rapids and tree litter.”
“What you say, James? Aint I right? Ain’t I saved our asses?”
“I say, shut up, and keep moving. Tired of you uncles arguing. Way you go at each other, Providence only knows if either of you will be alive by the time we return.”
“Providence is on my side,” Robert boasted. “He gave me six sons, and him a hay wagon of girls—five of them. Now that’s all right if we’re squaring up to jig a dance, but for posterity, I’ll take sons anytime.”
Charles laughed at his exaggeration, as he always did when Robert ribbed him that he and Martha had more girls than boys. “We haven’t given up evening the score, still working on more sons. If you’re so proud of your boys, Brother, when Charlie and Robin get through working your place, send 'em over to mine. Ain’t too proud to take free help.”
“Free? Nothing’s free. Half your corn seems about right.”
“Corn? We ain’t agreed to nothin yet.”
“Time you both button up. You practically live together. Shit, can’t tell where one family starts and the other leaves off,” James said. “Don’t expect there’s a night when everyone sleeps in his own bed.”
“Well, I ain’t sleeping with Martha. I can tell you that,” Robert countered.
“Martha would throw you out if you tried.”
Robert grinned. “I knowed she would if Winnie didn’t cold-cut me with a fire iron first.”
To a man, not one was willing to commit, in mind or to his wife, a specific time for his return. Only when the ammunition was gone and canvasses full of salted game, would any of them retrace their steps home. Each man knew this was the life of the wilderness, one men loved and wives feared.
A frontier veteran at age forty-five, Robert knew the sky and what a sunset foretold, by the scent of the air if it was to rain, and the time and direction by the stars. He knew what plants treated wounds. Most of all, he knew, as if extensions of himself, his rifle, hunting and skinning knives, the tomahawk—weapons of the hunt and the kill.
He was akin to the habits of animals and able to distinguish their true call from an Indian’s imitation. In spite of his brother’s teasing, he considered it an honor to be the Old Man. It had its privileges—he was boss. Although Winnie complained, he never doubted that she with their oldest sons, Charlie Jr. and Robin, would be able to keep the place going tending four cows, six hogs, and a galore of chickens. He saw few limitations. None she hadn’t handled before.
The Kilgore, Green, and Porter clans had their roots in Orange County, Virginia. After a stint at Blackmore Fort during an extended Indian uprising, they settled next to each other near Pound Gap, a hair’s breadth from Pine Mountain, its far side in Kentucky. Bonded together for survival, they built cabins and raised a common barn between them. Robert and his brother, over a keg of home-brewed ale, made an agreement trading his boar’s services for opportune visits from Charles’ bull. Hopefully, if bobcats and wolves didn’t get to their stock, they’d come home to baby calves and litters of pigs. Maybe Charles would find Martha expecting a baby boy.
The hunters trudged west enjoying a glorious day unaware of ominous clouds building like black foaming mountains on the distant eastern horizon.
“At least, rain kept us from burning,” Charlie said. “If the strike had hit the middle of the woods, the wind would have whipped it from here to kingdom come and we’d be charred like the old tree.”
“Charlie and I are going to the barn and then James’ place,” Robin said as he pulled on his boots. “We’ll be a couple of hours. Jane alone without James, and his baby in her belly, may need help. Couldn’t see a foot in front of us yesterday. Barely got cows milked. Hay’s wet, though. Barn roof’s a sieve, no tighter than our cabin.”
“Don’t complain to me,” Winnie said with her usual aggravated response for things Robert didn’t finish. “Tell your father when he gets home.” She softened her voice. “Coffee’ll be ready when you finish. Set the milk buckets by the door, so I can get to them for fixin breakfast.”
Charlie and Robin left for the barn with Winnie calling after them, “and bring more wood from the shed.”
Half an hour later, Robin stomped back to the kitchen. “Ma, did Pa have his moccasins on and go to the barn before he left with Uncle Charles?”
“Not that I know of. Why?”
“Footprints scattered everywhere. A dozen or so. Charlie found tracks leading to James’ smoke house. He’s making sure their place wasn’t raided.”
“Indians? This weather?” The omen of a disaster she’d felt earlier returned. Her stomach knotted, her palms turned cold. A surprise Indian raid when the men were gone was her worst fear. She stammered, “Must have . . . must have been after the storm set in. I didn’t hear anything, did you?”
“Ma, we wouldn’t have seen or heard anything from the barn with the rain and wind blowing like hell. Gates broke like they tried to steal cows, but from what I can tell, none’s missing. Shawnee spies undoubtedly saw Pa, Uncle Charles, James, and McKinney leave. Get our muskets and load them quick. Bastards may be in the woods watching us.”
“Don’t want to load and unload again,” Robert said. “Charles, keep closer to shore and watch for these damn sandbars. James, you and McKinney hang to the middle and listen for rapids. River’s shifted and changed since last year.”
Charles gave his brother a cocky salute and steered around a cluster of immense granite rocks, the equivalent of small hills. “Bejesus, if sandbars don’t get us, rocks will.”
“Wheeeeeee,” James waved his paddle in the air, white water showering him from both sides of his canoe. “Current’s damn swift. Wind’s to our back. We’re in for a ride.”
Charles yelled to his brother, “Who’s got an eye out for Injuns?”
“I do,” Robert called, his low sonorous voice echoing. “If not flooded, there’s a grassy point a couple of hours upstream. We’ll pull camp there if red bastards haven’t beat us to it.”
At dusk, they tied their canoes to trees in the backwater and set up camp on the Point. McKinney made a fire and James distributed portions of dried corn and jerky. Settling in, they watched a full moon rise. In the shadows creeping upon them, Robert pointed to dark layering clouds mimicking each other forming in the distance below the moon. “Black as a bear’s ass over there. Those clouds are moving . . . fast. Damn fast. Folks at home are getting a hell of a storm.”
“James, stop pacing. You’re like my old hound dog, Jesse, chasin his tail. What you frettin about?” Charles asked in his usual drawl. “Cain’t do nothin ‘bout weather, now can you?”
“Worried for Jane,” James said, his enthusiasm normally indefatigable, turned to alarm. “She’s alone. Begged me not to go this time, but dammit new baby coming or not, we have to eat.”
“If it’s much of a storm, they’ll huddle together in one cabin.” Robert added, “My boys’ll watch our livestock.”
“Won’t be their first storm, nor their last,” Charles shrugged. He continued to wipe the barrel of his rifle and dig into his ammunition pouch. “James, if you have to worry, think ‘bout Indians, not a little spring rain.” He turned to Robert, “You sleep, Old Man, I’ll pull first watch.”
“Didn’t see tracks here on the Point, but take one more look around before we lose the light,” Robert cautioned. “Got one more day on the water, and then we’ll be ready to climb the foothills.”
Except for coyotes’ howling breaking the night silence, all was still. Robert, James, and McKinney slept on cold bare ground pulling worn buffalo robes across their shoulders. Charles sat cross-legged before the fire, flask in hand, enjoying the warm pleasure of its contents. His loaded rifle lay in his lap.
Beyond their view in the darkness of the night, four canoes suddenly drifted free from their backwater mooring and caught the current going east away from the encampment on the Point. Black shadows moved stealthily into the trees.
An owl hooted. Its mate answered from the other side of the river.
Charles stirred and emitted a slurred, “What? What’s happenin?”
“That’s what I want to know. Where’s McKinney?”
“Dunno. He asked if I was okay, then told me to sleep. Moon was up above, so guess it was after midnight.”
Robert stood and surveyed their surroundings. Behind him was the huge granite face of Pine Mountain, to the front, Indian Creek swollen as wide as a river, and to the right, a body running back to camp. Figuring it couldn’t be anyone but McKinney, he “hallooed.”
Robert’s greeting jarred James who jumped up to his feet, grabbed his rifle, and stood next to Robert fanning it’s long barrel left to right, ready to shoot.
Robert shoved his gun away. “It’s McKinney.”
McKinney arrived out of breath, his clothes dripping wet. “They’re gone.”
“What’s gone?” Robert and James echoed in unison.
“Canoes. All but one’s disappeared. Saw Robert’s snagged in floating brush about fifty yards from shore. Swam and pulled it in. Need help to get it here before anything else happens.”
“Ropes cut? Footprints?”
McKinney pulled a small bone neck plate from his pocket. “No cuts, canoes pulled clean. Lots of footprints and found this horn piece behind a rock.”
Robert took the plate and examined the front and back. Carved from a buffalo horn, the symbol of fire and a charge of lightning were scraped by flint into its surface. “Blasted Mingoes! Knew we were near Shawnees but didn’t expect Mingoes. Ain’t any worse murderous renegades. Amazed they didn’t attack. They knowed we weren’t in any shape to outrun them.”
James raised his arms to shade his brow and scoured the glaring eastern face of Pine Mountain—its solid granite wall unscalable in straight vertical tiers.
“Another day on the water would ‘ve taken care of the damn ridge.” Robert bitterly shook his head, “Walking’ll cost us at least another two or three days to cross over to the Old Fields grounds.“
No one noticed Charles struggling to get to his feet. Bent over in agony, he lost his balance and stumbled backwards. “Son of a bitch,” he yelled. “Give me a hand. Old wound’s kicked up. Without canoes, I won’t make it.” He pointed to his flask, “Got this far because whiskey was killin the pain.”
“Why didn’t you say so before we started?” Robert’s voice was more angry than sorry for his brother. “You’ve put us in a hell of a fix.”
“Thought they’d go away. Already waited too long for the weather to clear. Wasn’t going to be left behind like a damn invalid. Know I could of made it in a canoe.”
James faced Robert and proposed, “Maybe we should all go back. We’ve come but twenty miles. Don’t know what’s happened to Jane in the storm, and if McKinney’s right, place is rife with Mingoes.”
“Never have and ain’t now going back empty-handed.” Robert jutted his granite jaw in defiance to James’ suggestion. He glared at his brother as if the Mingoes were his fault. “If the damn murderers wanted to kill us, they’d of done it last night. Probably one or two stray renegades up to mischief. Shawnee won’t bother since Chief Black Hoof surrendered, and what’s left of the Cherokees are south of here at Cumberland Pass. Far as I’m concerned, nothing’s changed except for the canoes.”
Charles stuck his rifle in the ground bracing to pull himself up, his excruciating pain evident. “Old Man’s right—no need for you to call it off. I’ll float down Indian Creek at least to where we first had canoes, and all the way to the Pound if water’s slackened. Probably won’t have to exert myself much a’tall. Just give me my rifle, ammo, and three days’ grub.”
Robert shook his head. In spite of his annoyance, the bullet Charles took in the groin two years ago at Kings Mountain was no small thing. He’d led the charge and come through without a scratch. He believed from his Pa’s preaching that good fortune demanded a pay back. James had been right—there would be no Kilgores without both he and Charles together as brothers. Obeying his conscience, he reluctantly changed his mind, disappointment heavy on his face. “Trip’s jinxed. Guess we’d better go back and try later. You’ll never make it home alone.”
McKinney stood off to the side. Small in stature and timid, he’d proven himself unusually resourceful for a boy his age. He had a way about himself that was different, yet appealing. For someone with little wilderness experience, his unexpected diligence was exceptional. He spoke up, saying his words slowly as if still forming his thoughts. “If you and James go ahead north on foot with packs, you’ll have heavy brush and marshes. It’ll be slow. May take longer than three days.”
He motioned to Charles, “I’ll take him in the canoe and see he gets to where we merged with Pound, and then return. Alone, I’ll travel faster and will be back before you get to the caves and the Old Field grounds.”
“How will you find us?” James asked astounded at McKinney’s stark bravery. “You ain’t never been here before. You know, we can’t stay here waiting for you to return.”
“Won’t be hard if you follow the shore and mark a trail as you go. I ain’t no greenhorn. You forget Pa and I walked from Staunton with Pa limping and no guide.”
Robert scowled. To listen to a fifteen year old with his plan was unthinkable. He started his denial, but before he could say anything, Charles interrupted. “I’ll be proud to put my life in the hands of the boy. Providence will see me home and he back safe to you.”
Ahead was no man’s land where even Indians seldom ventured. With little hope of seeing McKinney any time soon, they trudged north.
Robert and James made a silent agreement—they neither complained nor blamed the other when they backtracked to move forward. They couldn’t help but look out to the wide expanse of Indian Creek and see a river perfect for canoeing, and not feel they had experienced the worst possible luck when the Mingoes turned loose their canoes. At night, they both wished for a lanternshine to banish the gloom.
Robert hadn’t yet thought how to manage the game they intended to kill. If McKinney was lucky enough to bring back the canoe, it still wouldn’t be enough for their combined provisions. Best he could hope for was to find a salt lick for curing, wrap the raw meat in dried hides or leaves, and bury their kill. He chagrined at the thought of having to come back later. Ringing in his ears was his pa’s harping to him when he was McKinney’s age, “Don’t matter what you want. It is what it is.”
On the morning of the fourth day with still another day to go, they heard three rifle shots.
“Coming from down river,” James said. “Wouldn’t think they’d be hunters.“
“Nor Mingoes,” Robert agreed, his deep voice sized to the rest of him. “They do their dirty work with bows, spears, and tomahawks.” Since the incident with the canoes, he hadn’t cleared his mind as to what the Mingoes at the Point were up to. It didn’t make sense they hadn’t attacked. Of course, without canoes, they were stranded from quickly returning downstream. He didn’t want to think they planned a raid on an unprotected Pound Gap. He shuddered. Without adequate warning of an attack, Winnie wouldn’t know to flee to Blackmore’s Fort.
A half hour later, another three shots resounded in succession—this time from a much closer range.
“Someone’s moving up river,” James said. “Think it’s McKinney?”
Before Robert responded, they heard a loud shout, “Halloo, Halloo,” and then three more shots.
James fired one answering volley. A quick return reverberated through the trees.
Robert cleared branches to view the river. “By God, it’s him. And he’s pulling another canoe.”
James cupped his hands and yelled, “Halloo. Over here. We’re over here!”
Within minutes, McKinney threw a rope to Robert and James, already wading in the river. Hand over hand pulling together on the rope, they brought McKinney’s heavy load to shore.
“Where’s Charles? You couldn’t have got home and back so soon.”
McKinney grinned. “He’s home. Met Charlie and Robin three miles up stream from the Pound clearing limbs and logs wide enough for a canoe. They took Charles in Robin's canoe and Charlie gave me his.”
“Jane, do you know if she’s . . ..” James stammered, concern furling deep in his brow.
“Robin says she’s fine, baby hasn’t arrived.” He handed his end of the rope to Robert. “She’s with your wife at your cabin. That storm we saw lasted for two days and it was bad, hard winds and pouring rain. Lightning got your sentry tree and the bull is missing.”
Up till now, the trip had seemed an ill-fated journey. More sarcastic than he usually allowed himself to be, Robert muttered, “One more chink Providence is throwing at us. Ain’t we tormented enough?” A disgusted Robert rubbed his chin. He’d relied on calves this spring. One step forward, two steps back.
He glanced at the second canoe and McKinney smiling at his achievement. “Aw hell,” he told himself. “Stop the pity. Boys will find the bull.”
He pointed to McKinney’s load of pick axes, hacking knives, buffalo robes, and two food packs. “Where did all that come from?”
“Robin gave me their provisions. As soon as they fixed up Charles, I headed back. Didn’t stop at the Point. Took a chance on finding you somewhere along the shoreline. If I missed you, thought I could always backtrack and find your trail.”
With heavy branches scraping against his face and twisted snow-covered vines tripping him underfoot, McKinney joined James with a pick axe to begin clearing a place to unload the canoes. “I expected you to be further along.” He gripped his strained back, shifted his load on his shoulders, and gazed into the maze of trees. “Looks nasty.”
“It’s hell,” Robert responded. “Don’t bother unloading. Shift the heavy gear so James and I can get in. We ain't staying in this damn hole.”
Back on the river, by evening they traveled almost as far as they’d walked in three days. The heavily loaded canoes rode low in the water, but no rapids or eddies raised havoc. Beyond the shore, conifer trees thinned and the majestic Pine Mountain ridge that had kept them prisoner all the way from the Point formed foothills sloping downward to the river.
Searching across the panoramic view, Robert discovered between two higher ridges, the narrow break he’d been looking for. He called to McKinney who was sitting on one of the packs in the rear of the canoe switching his paddle from one side to the other to keep their progress steady. “Beach us here near that ravine. Ain’t far from Shawnee camps. It’s their deserted Old Fields, but they still hunt here. No fires. Don’t want Indians busting in on us. Cold camp tonight and climb up through there in the morning. Should be less than five miles.”
McKinney raised a questioning eye to where Robert pointed. “What’s over there?”
“Kentucky, Boy. Kentucky.”
McKinney eyes grew wide, a broad grin of anticipation stretching to both sides of his mouth.
Feeling the burden of the heavy pack on his back and the strain of the strenuous climb, Robert was relieved his brother had the good sense to go home. They passed several caves thinking if needed, they’d camp until morning in one of the caves and be relatively comfortable. As they talked about the cave possibility, James elected McKinney to investigate any cave they chose to make sure they’d be the only inhabitants. McKinney enjoyed the ribbing—he no longer was treated like a greenhorn.
Except for wide-winged ospreys with their white crowns soaring from the river and winter-furred chipmunks scampering between rocks and rustling through pine cones, they were alone. Frightfully alone in what seemed an endless empty universe. They investigated the wider ledges they came upon but found no evidence Indians had camped or left remains of cold campfires.
“Don’t expect to see Shawnee,” Robert said as he paused to catch his breath. “They have horses and wouldn’t climb on foot. Anyway, doubt they’ve broken winter camp.”
“You seen Old Field grounds before at Staunton?” James asked McKinney, pounding his gloved hands together for warmth, his breath a white cloud.
“No, but Pa says it’s lucky when you find one. Saves a lot of work when it’s Indians who do the clearing.”
"Indians call us squatters," James said with a disdainful sarcasm.
"They ain't got deeds. If they have, I ain't seen any," Robert said. “Fields were never large—just patches near a creek, enough to plant corn, beans, and sun flowers.” Robert grabbed his back, shifted his rifle from his sore left shoulder, and stooped to pick up a thick sapling to help him climb. “Deer flock to them and woods are full of turkeys, bears, and cats. Never seen an Old Field yet where there wasn’t something to shoot.”
In silent misery they continued their climb.
“Next cave, we camp,” Robert ordered as he leaned his rifle against a tree, took off his stiff, frozen gloves, and rubbed frosty ice from his brow. He pointed to the top of the ridge. “Won’t be long now. Tomorrow will be the last climb before we see Kentucky.”
“Hear that, McKinney. Old Man says we camp.” There was a distinct relief in James’ voice.
McKinney matched James’ enthusiasm. “Fire tonight? We didn’t see signs of Indians.”
Turning their backs to brace against a sudden gust of howling wind, neither James nor Robert answered.
McKinney with his head down, shivered from the stinging cold and stumbled against James, raising his voice to a yell. “Won’t we need a fire to keep wolves away?”
James heard McKinney’s plea, and agreed. “And anything else that might be on the prowl.”
Robert reached them and all three struggled to the lee side of a boulder. “As long as we’re on this side of the mountain, a fire should be safe. Valley won’t see our smoke. Don’t think I’d be able to move tomorrow if we stayed out in this damn cold all night. Which of you is taking first watch?”
“I am.” McKinney knew he’d be sitting next to the hottest fire he could build and would personally see it didn’t burn out and leave him freezing.
The next morning’s sun was as bright as their exhilarated spirits. After a shorter, uneventful climb, the summit of the ridge was less than fifty yards away. A narrow path led upward.
“You go first, McKinney. You ain’t yet seen Kentucky from here,” Robert urged, motioning James to step aside.
“View is splendid. Enough to make you believe in the Creator,” James said, letting McKinney pass. “I feel the presence of Providence every time I see it.”
When Robert and James reached McKinney, he was suspiciously silent, the color lost in his eyes. He peered cautiously from behind a boulder to the valley below.
"See Old Fields to the right?” Robert asked, his enthusiasm undaunted.
McKinney motioned for Robert to be quiet. “It ain’t Old Fields I’m looking at,” he ventured. “You’d better come take a look.”
Below to the right spilling away from the Old Fields were at least six hundred teepees. Three large bonfires raged with black painted warriors circling, wailing war chants in cadence with fast beating drums. The lead Indian raised his spear topped with a black skin flag showing fire and jagged lightning in red. More Indians flocked the trails snaking down from opposite hills.
“Mingoes,” James body shook with a silent scream. “Bastard Mingoes.”
“Ain’t the half of it,” Robert said, his voice barely audible. “Look far to your left. Over there towards Cumberland Gap. More teepees.”
“What the hell? Who?” James was livid, his breath sucked from of him.
“Can’t see nothing but teepees and horses from here on the ridge,” McKinney answered.
“Horses? Must be Shawnee,” Robert said.
McKinney pointed to the valley below midway between the two camps of Indians. By a solitary swamp willow near the meandering creek an animated Indian chief from the south shook his spear in an excited exchange with one of the painted warriors from the north. They crossed spears and separated with a blood curdling cry, the Shawnee on a horse and the Mingo on foot returning to their tribes.
“They’ve sealed an ambush. We’re in for a fight,” Robert shuddered feeling death inevitable for anyone in their path. The faces of Winnie, Robin, Charlie, the boys--all of his dear kin flashed before him. With Shawnee south and Mingoes north, they were trapped. A sense of urgency, like he'd never felt before, rifled through his body. Regardless of the Indians below, he yelled, "Drop everything but rifles and ammo. If we don’t get home, everyone will be slaughtered.”
Robert groaned, overpowered with fear. McKinney had told him the chestnut tree burned.” A cold sweat broke out on his face. “Boys’ll have no lookout, no chance at all to get guns and escape to the woods. Even if they get away, they’ll head to Blackmore’s Fort, their customary safe haven. That’s the last place to go this time. Shawnee coming from Cumberland will overrun the fort. No way in hell will any of them know east to Moore’s Fort is the only way to save themselves.
“Twelve miles for the Shawnee, shorter for Mingoes. They’ll be there first,” James calculated, his face a contortion of hopelessness. "Jane . . . ."
“Not if we can help it. James, hurry, don’t stop. Get to the canoes.”
Robert didn’t have to look twice to see McKinney already sliding down the trail bouncing from rock to rock, stopping for nothing. Robert and James were not far behind, but couldn’t match McKinney’s youthful speed and determination. In a few minutes, McKinney had advanced beyond their sight, the newly laid snow marking his hazardous slide.
Reaching last night’s camp, Robert and James grabbed hidden ammunition and canteens, and without stopping, continued their hell-bent race downward with only moonlight to guide them.
Hours later, at the bottom of the foothills, Robert and James stopped where they’d pulled McKinney ashore. One canoe lay uncovered from its hiding place among the reeds, sloshing back and forth ready to go. The other was gone, and McKinney, too.
“Fool boy’s risking his life to warn the settlement,” Robert remarked with admiration. “Only with Providence in his feet did he get this far without falling and killing himself.”
James peered down river. “But he can’t be much further ahead of us.”
Paddling themselves into the strong, downriver current, Robert and James alternated, each conserving his strength for his turn. The warmth of the ground level temperature energized them. No where on the shore was a sign of Mingoes. At dusk with no sleep for thirty-six hours, neither wanted to stop for nightfall. They maintained hope McKinney was safely ahead.
Past the ill-fated Point where they’d lost their canoes to the Mingoes, the current quickened and both men paddled in tandem advancing their speed.
At dawn, they saw at a distance the spread of the river where McKinney had told them Charlie and Robin cleared a channel. McKinney had slipped through the opened waterway, paddling furiously.
Within sight of their settlement, Robert’s worst horror hit him like lightning. Mingoes swarmed from the ridge on the other side of the river. They had but to cross.
He saw McKinney beach his canoe.
Robert called, “McKinney, run for your life. Run!”
He heard McKinney yell “Moore’s Fort” to the frightened men and women gathered in a panic outside Kilgore cabins, some already running south.
McKinney screamed a second call, spurting to catch up with them. "Moore's Fort. Moore's Fort." The flood of men and women changed direction and fled east into the woods, Charlie and Robin leading the way.
Robert and James, their rifles blaring against a barrage of arrows, turned to the river to protect their families fleeing into the woods. A whirr of an arrow narrowly missed Robert, but he saw James, firing his rifle from a few steps behind, fall. He rushed back to pull James’ limp body forward.
Ambushing from behind, a body of muscle pummeled him. He felt a tomahawk split his ribs and a knife's edge at his brow. Warm blood streamed from his face.
He didn’t hear the whoop or see the triumphant face of the Mingo.
None of the forty settlers crowded in the fort slept. Winnie, Robin, and Charlie huddled together with Jane fearing the worst. Winnie, remembering her awakening this morning by the omen's specter of death, didn’t suspect, but knew Robert was dead. She sobbed for the husband he'd no longer be.
At dawn, the captain sent a cadre of volunteers to search for Robert and James. Within hours, searching through smoldering ruins, they came upon James with an arrow penetrating the socket of his eye and Robert scalped. Expecting the imminent onslaught from the advancing Shawnee, they hurriedly buried Robert and James to live through eternity in the hollow trunk of the charred chestnut tree.
"The Chestnut Tree" is a fictional dramatization of a frontier episode where Robert Kilgore, Jr. and James Green were killed near Pound Gap, Virginia, by a Mingo ambush and buried in the hollow trunk of a nearby chestnut tree. Winnie Kilgore lived with her surviving children until she passed in 1817. Robin Kilgore married James’ widow, Jane Porter Green, built Kilgore Fort (still standing in Nickelsville, Virginia), reared eight children in addition to James Green, Jr., and became a noted Baptist preacher. Robert’s son, Charlie Kilgore, married Avarilla Simpson and moved to Indiana. McKinney survived to tell his story.