Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended. Thanks and credit to Stephenie Meyer her creativity and storytelling!
"Hope is a word like snow-drift -- this is the great knowing, this is the awakening, this is the voidness - so shut up, live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry."
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Bear attacks happen as fast as lightening. At least, that's what my brother Jack had always told me.
When I stopped at the stream to fill my canteen, my thoughts had been on formulating a strategy of how to hunt the biggest deer. The track crew had gotten into a rowdy argument about who was the best hunter on the team, and I, always up for competition, was the first one to slam my money on the table and declare that I could bring back the biggest buck they'd ever seen. The bet was on, Jack loaned me his rifle, and I began hiking into the hills, looking for our supper.
Little did I realize that deer were scarce in East Tennessee due to the abundance of eager hunters, unlike my hometown mountains in North Carolina where whitetails were easy to be found, and I had been patiently scouting with little success.
Taking off my hat, I wiped my brow and took a long drink of water. It was well past noon and I was deep in the forest and knew I needed to start heading back to camp before the sun set. Unwilling to admit defeat, I stood up to continue hunting when “lightening” struck.
I was being attacked by a bear.
Adventure was all I had ever known. I didn't shy from it, I welcomed it. Born in Asheville, North Carolina in 1915, into a large Irish family, I was forced to accept life's changes when, a year later, my parents died in the floods during the summer of 1916. Being the youngest with seven older brothers, I did not lack for family and was dearly loved. But, being raised by brothers was an untraditional way of life and certainly had an impact. Not that I analyzed it all that much. It was what it was.
From as early as I can remember, I was always up for a challenge. And my older brothers got a kick out of what I was willing to do, no matter how dangerous. When I was five years old, my brother Walter dared me to eat a poison ivy leaf (yeah, I almost died from that). At the age of ten, I hopped on a railroad car and traveled all the way to South Carolina because my brother Randall wanted to skip school. Even though being raised by older brothers didn't have the restraint of rules and regulations usually placed upon by parents, when we returned several days later Randall got severely punished for taking his ten year old brother across state lines, with no idea where we were.
My life had been full of adventure. As a child I had chased water moccasins, explored bat caves, climbed tall trees. As a teenager I raced cars, jumped off cliffs, and had gotten into several fist fights (and won). Every morning when I woke up, I was ready for the next challenge, the next adventure.
“Wake up, Emmett. Time to get going,” I heard a rough voice warn me. Jack. My oldest brother. Patriarch and protector of the family McCarty.
For the last four years I had worked with my brothers at the Little River Railroad Company in East Tennessee. Jack had served under Col. Townsend during the Great War and upon returning home joined his work of logging and building railroads in the remote terrain of the Smoky Mountains. Some of my brothers decided to get married and settle down in Asheville, but I felt the call to explore. The industry was booming and by the time I was sixteen, I had joined Jack, Walter, and Randall in the work.
I remained in my tent, wanting to get as many moments of sleep as I could. Lately I hadn't been jumping out of bed every morning asking the universe what was next. I knew what to expect – another day of back breaking manual labor.
“Little brother, if you don't get up, I'm gonna whoop your butt,” threatened Randall. It was a challenge, I knew, but too early in the morning for me to bother to respond.
Suddenly I heard the slosh of water coming out of a bucket, and a second later felt the water from the slop bucket drench me completely. I bounded up, not angry, but accepting the challenge, chasing the second youngest member of our family through the camp site.
When Randall yelled over his shoulder, “Catch me if you can” this only gave me more incentive for payback. Catching him quickly, I wrestled him to the ground, holding his face in the dirt. “Now tell me you're sorry,” I laughed. I was strong and I knew that I could easily hurt him if I wanted to, but beating each other up was the way our family showed affection. We were physical men.
Jack only had to clear his throat to get us to stop, though. We straightened up from the ground, wiped the dust off our overalls, and went back to our tents, slapping each other on the way to get our shoes and work tools. Jack was also the head foreman. And we knew when it was time to get serious.
It wasn't that I didn't like the work. I was strong and it came more easily for me than the other men on the crew. I could lay more track than three men, and chop lumber faster than six men. But, after four years, the challenge had disappeared. It was the Depression era and people were starving across the country. I had steady work and food, and I should've been thankful for that, but I was starting to yearn for more. The thing that had kept me working with the railroad was my brothers. I was loyal to them and couldn't imagine leaving them on their own. Family stuck together. I was happy and enjoyed the days, but I still felt the tension between loyalty and the need deep inside me for adventure growing more and more each passing day.
Our crew of fourteen men were a mix of young and old, single and married. I had given them all nicknames and probably because of my massive 6'5” frame they hadn't disagreed. In addition to my brothers Jack, Randall, and Walter, there was Shorty, Banjo, Junior, Boss, Muddy, Bull, Pop, Bubba, Pilgrim, and Rocky Top. Building the railroad up the East Prong gorge employed some of the latest steam-powered equipment, but much of the construction had to be done with our hands. There was a work crew that cleared the area cutting down trees, and a track crew that laid the rail. From dawn 'til dusk we worked in a quiet rhythm, only the sounds of shovel and ax pick to be heard. In the Smokies a single giant chestnut tree could produce 18,000 planks of wood and it was very time consuming, labor intensive work. It was remote as well. Gatlinburg was the nearest town, but we worked deep in the Smoky Mountains. We worked weeks at a time without seeing another soul except for those on our crew. And women? Forget about it. Women were a sight for sore eyes. We had to wait to go into town to have that luxury.
After a few hours of concentrating on work, I was itching for a competition. “Hey, Junior. You up for a contest?” I asked as we loaded lumber on a truck.
Junior shifted uneasily. “With you, Big Em?”
The kid looked up at me and I realized he wasn't keen on competing with me physically. I couldn't blame him and changed my plan.
“Sure. How many National League teams can you name?” Baseball. Easy. America's favorite sport.
A grin spread across Junior's face. “Philies, Pirates, Reds...Yankees...”
“Wrong! Yankees are the in American League,” my brother Walter corrected, joining the conversation. “Emmett, can you name all the American League teams?”
A challenge! I perked up, although it wasn't much one. “Yankees, Tigers, Indians, Red Sox, White Sox, Senators, Browns and Athletics.”
Walter nodded, but was not impressed.
“Okay, but can you name the entire starting line up for the Yankees?” Junior challenged, eyebrows raised in doubt.
Most men liked sports, especially in my family, and we especially liked the Yankees, so I didn't see how this was much of a challenge either. But, most men also thought that because of my easy going personality and bulging muscles, my brain was pea-sized.
Walter chuckled. He realized I was being underestimated, too.
“I'll name the entire roster, son. Allen, Broaca, Brown, DeShong, Gomez, Malone, Murphy, Ruffing, Tamulis, Van Atta, Dickey, Gleen, Jorgens, Crosetti, Heffner, Lazzeri, Richardson, Rolfe, Ryan, Saltzgaver, Champan, Combs, Hill, Hoag, Selkirk, Walter and.....Gehriiiiig!” I swung my long arms like I was hitting a baseball.
“Homerun...” Walter muttered under his breath.
Junior stood staring at me with his mouth open. “Well, alright!” he finally replied with a grin on his face.
I grinned back at him.
“Lunch time, men!” Jack yelled out, checking his pocket watch. “Thirty minutes.”
The crew gathered in groups to eat their lunch, but I took a seat on a stump in the shade to stretch out my legs. Even though I was already twenty years old, I sometimes felt like I was still experiencing growing pains, if that was even possible.
A few minutes later Jack approached me. “Sandwich?” he offered, holding out a PB & J.
“Thanks,” I replied, unwrapping it and taking a big bite. Jack was always taking care of me, making sure I woke up on time, that I had enough to eat. I punched him in the arm in appreciation.
We sat in comfortable silence for awhile until Jack finally spoke.
“When I was making a lumber delivery in Gatlinburg last month, I read a notice about the WPA hiring people to work out West. Interviews are next week. They need experienced men.” His words were suggestive and I made a joke to cover my uneasiness. I had heard about it as well, and had considered it, but I didn't want him to know that.
Shrugging, I replied, “Aww, I heard the WPA is made up of a bunch of lazy good for nothings....”
“Work is hard to come by these days and if you're looking to move on, it's something.”
“I'm not moving on, I ....”
He interupted, “Hell, Emmett. You're smart, you're strong, you've got your whole life ahead of you. I know you don't want to spend the next few years of your life stuck in the mountains with this crew... .” He waved his hand towards the men who had begun arguing about the biggest deer they had ever shot while hunting.
Jack paused and then continued. “I know you're itching for a challenge, for adventure. I know you, little brother.” He looked at me in the eyes, suddenly more serious than before. “I'm just saying that if I wake up one morning and you're not here, I'd understand. I wouldn't hold it against ya.”
An unfamiliar feeling came over me. His words felt....prophetic? Yes, I was feeling restless, but I hadn't thought too much about leaving, and here Jack was giving me permission to move on. In fact, he looked almost like he had tears in his eyes. Strange.
We stared at each other for longer than we were both comfortable with and I made a joke to diffuse the tension.
“Brother, you need a woman so you can stop worrying about me! Seriously! A blonde with really big...” I started to communicate with my hands the kind of woman my brother needed and he laughed.
The argument with the other men in the crew was getting more heated and a shoving match was commencing. I rolled my eyes and stood up, nodding at Jack. The boss didn't need to break this up, it wasn't that serious, but harmony needed to be preserved since we had to work so closely together day in and out. I walked over to the crew.
“I've got money that says I can catch the biggest buck y'all have ever seen...and before dinner tonight, too.” Waving a dollar in the air, I smiled. The crew all started hooting and hollering. I slammed the crinkled bill on the table. “Anyone care to make a wager?”
With a loaf of bread costing 8 cents, a dollar was a decent amount of money. I didn't do it often, but I loved to gamble and liked the thrill of exhilaration wondering whether I'd win or lose.
Randall called me on it. “Okay hot shot, I'm in. I'll see you a dollar and raise you this – loser has to dig out and clean the outhouse for the next month.” There wasn't any indoor plumbing out here in the mountains and this was a dirty and disgusting job that no one wanted to do.
I grinned. “Deal.” I was confident that I was going to win. “Hey boss, is it okay if I go now?” I asked Jack, who I knew had been listening to every word.
The men all voiced their agreement that this was a good idea and Jack tipped his hat in approval. “My rifle is in the truck. Good luck!” He was laughing and shaking his head as the rest of the crew cheered. We needed fresh meat anyway and making a game out of a chore like hunting broke up the monotony of our daily lifestyle. I was glad to have his support. And to get to do something different for a change.
I grabbed Jack's rifle and my canteen and headed out into the woods. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Jack staring at me. That same unfamiliar feeling came over me again. I waved and he waved back.
It was the last time I would ever see him again, and for some reason, I think he knew it.