Whatever Happened to Ledford Jonson?
The strongest, bravest man in the Hills meets a monster out of Cherokee Mythology.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO LEDFORD JONSON
by Gina Douglas
The story about "Whatever Happened to Ledford Jonson" has been passed down in my family for generations. Though it was always told as a "true story," I never believed it as a child. I believe it now, but I never believed it then.
One side of my family comes from the coal-mining mountains of Kentucky. That's right, hillbillies - and proud of it. Now, the mountains of KIN-tucky, as we call it - because all our kin are there and we ain't - are different than most mountains in that they're older and worn down to little more than hills. But hills piled on hills in such a way that you can go up and down several hills, while all the while climbing up a single mountain. Covered in thick forests of fast-growing trees, brambles, pricklers and poison ivy.
This hilliness resists roads, and other civilizing factors such as big buildings, churches and Revenuers. A Revenuer is the man who works for the Internal Revenue Service, whose job it is to get deep in the hills and find your moonshine still and bust it up. Though the Revenuers are featured abundantly in the folklore of the Hills, there are no Revenuers in this tale. This story is about something even scarier than a Revenuer. It's about a scary monster out of Cherokee mythology and the biggest, strongest, bravest man in the hills, a man name of Ledford Jonson.
Besides the hills, there is alot of rain, and fast-growing plants, so that anything that's abandoned goes wild again real fast - be it a town, a road, or a set of railroad tracks. In the time that this story takes place, which was probably not long after the Civil War, there was basically three kind of people living in the Hills: coal-miners and runaways. That sounds like only two kind of people, but that's because there was two kind of runaways.
One kind of runaways was runaway-slaves, and the other kind was runaway-Cherokees. The slaves, we know what they was running from. Even after they weren't slaves anymore, lots of African-Americans still ran away to the Hills to be truly free. The Cherokees scattered throughout the hills had run away from The Trail of Tears.
Unlike other Indians, the Cherokees had tried living like white-people, with towns, churches, schools and farms. But as often happened, gold was discovered in their territory and white- people decided to take it from them. The State of Georgia passed a law that took away all the Cherokee land and sent them off to live in the desert of Oklahoma. Now, the Cherokee didn't just have pastors and teachers, they had lawyers too, and they sued the State of Georgia. And they won. The United States Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee could keep their land. Unfortunately for the Cherokee, the President of the United States didn't give a rotten pear what the Supreme Court said - and he sent in the United States Army and the United States Navy, down to Georgia. They shipped the Cherokee off to Oklahoma on riverboats and walking on foot. Over three thousand Cherokees died on the way.
But a number of Cherokees ran away from the Army, to hide on the mountains. Over time, when the government had forgotten they were there, some of the Cherokees worked the coal-mines and some lived off the land. My family is partially descended from runaway Cherokees. So was Ledford Jonson.
But Ledford Jonson was descended from both kind of runaways. He was part Cherokee and part African-American, with the mixed features of both kinds. He was big and strong and muscle-bound, like his ancestors must have been to survive slavery. Ledford Jonson's skin was dark, darker than the average black man. Though Cherokees are said to be red, they only get that way if they been in the sun alot, otherwise, their skin is as pale as a white person. But Ledford Jonson was darker than the average black man, as if the black side of his family didn't have no white in it at all.
See, Ledford Jonson didn't have mixed features from his mixed heritage, but had unmatched features from one side or the other. His hair was long and straight and shiny-raven-black like an Indian Princess, not at all kinky or curly or wavy or wooly. And his nose was the narrow, hooked, eagle-beak nose of a Cherokee, flanked by fine, high cheekbones and a bit of a slant to his brown eyes. But unlike a Cherokee, Ledford Jonson had coffee-brown skin, full lips and big, knobby hands.
Ledford Jonson was like a mutt-dog, which live longer, healthier lives than purebred dogs. He had hybrid-vigor, which is the scientific name for this mutt-dog effect. Ledford Jonson was already a legend in that section of the Hills, when the events of this story occurred.
The way that people lived, in that time and place was off of a train. Every day, this train went, from somewhere at the edge of civilization, to somewhere up deep in the mountains, where there was a coal mine. In the morning it chugged up the hills to the mine, where it was loaded with coal all day, and then it chugged back down. People would ride the train up and down the mountain to go to work and back, because the train didn't go very fast, and they could hop on and hop off.
There weren't any actual towns up in the Hills. People lived in small groups of houses called a holler, because you could holler to anyone in town and they could hear you. A holler would usually be a single dirt road, starting at the railroad track and dead-ending where the woods got too thick, never more than a mile from the tracks, with a dozen or so houses on both sides of the road, and a few more set back farther in the woods.
There wasn't any flat-ground anywhere, so all the houses were built on stilts. You put smaller stilts in front and higher stilts in back, to get a level floor on unlevel ground. Also, because of rain and flash- floods, the houses were higher on the stilts than they would need to be, just to get a level floor. Houses with ten or even twenty foot stilts are not uncommon. It was in one of these tall-stilt houses, that people started asking "Whatever happened to Ledford Jonson?"
It seemed that a baby girl had been stillborn, which means she was dead already when she was born, and there was a funeral in this tall house in the holler where the family lived. This was a terrible tragedy. Not because a child died, which was no big deal because children dropped dead from all kind of diseases back then, but because this child had died WITHOUT being baptized. Out of respect, and because there wasn't much else to do, people had come from miles around to sit around the baby's coffin and pray for the salvation of her tiny soul.
The name of this holler was Something Walks, because there was rumors of strange occurrences taking place in the area. Every once in a while an unnatural quiet would fall over the holler. Cats would disappear and dogs would cower under the houses and not bark. Songbirds would stop singing and the wind would fall still and not rustle the treetops. You could feel the silence, like sometimes you can feel the humidity before a rainstorm, and people spoke in whispered tones amongst themselves. People said “Something walks." Because it felt like something big was out in the woods, and the animals could smell it or hear it, but we couldn't, and it made them cowed and quiet, so as not to attract notice to themselves.
Every once in a while, after one of these quiet periods, when it felt like something walks, people would find a trail of broken branches and smashed brambles, as if something big had walked there. Even rarely somebody would find some coarse fur, like steel wool, gray or reddish-gray, stuck on a branch or bramble, as if the branch had snagged a lock of fur off some beast as it passed. But a beast with fur that was coarse and bristly like no animal anyone had ever seen in the Hills.
So it was, on the day of prayers for the stillborn girl, that one of these quiet times fell over the holler. Alotta people didn't pay it no mind at all. They said that sometimes birds sing and sometimes they don't, sometimes dogs bark and othertimes they don't, sometimes the wind blows and othertimes it don't - that it's nothing but coincidence that sometimes no birds would sing at the same time that no dogs were barking and the wind not blowing. But others were convinced that something walked.
When the people who lived in Something Walks (who were something of a butt of jokes amongst the less-superstitious and more civilized hollers), when they started to notice this quiet pall was falling over the area, and the congregation of mourners – they started looking at each other kinda sideways. They saw that other people were noticing it too, even Ledford Jonson, who started looking around kinda curious, like he was thinking of investigating this mystery. The humid summer air was pregnant with potential, with silence, and with fear. Everybody knew, if there was one man in the Hills, who wasn't afraid of anything, it was Ledford Jonson.
Just as people were looking at each other sideways, wondering if something might be about to happen, there was a cat screech underneath the house. One of those spitting, snarly, "GRRREEEYYOWWWWWWWW!" screeches that cats do to try and scare something scary. Then again, "GRRREEEYYOWWWWWWWW!" and the cat was up on the open window sill at the back of the house, at least twenty feet off the ground. The cat was poised on the window sill, looking out. A mangy tomcat with his back all hunched up, standing on his toes, hissing and snarling, like as at something just beneath that window, at the back of the house.
Then, with another "GRRREEEYYOWWWWWWWW!", the cat leapt backwards, in from the window, and turned in midair, spreading it's limbs spreadeagle, as cats do in freefall, heading straight for the open coffin with the dead baby girl, which had been placed near the window.
Faster than you can snap your fingers, Ledford Jonson bolted out of his chair and caught that cat in midair, before it could land on the dead baby. His big right hand snatched that cat by the neck, and spun it over his head like a lasso, breaking the cat's neck with a crunching of bones like ice cracking. In one smooth motion, like he did it every day, Ledford Jonson gave the cat a second whirl and tossed it, like a sack of walnuts, right out the window whence it came. Then he sat back down in his chair.
Still, the dead silence hung over the holler, and people prayed for the baby's soul in silence. Or they looked admiringly on Ledford Jonson, for what he had done, so brave, and with the speed of lightning. When the birds started singing again, as if enough time had passed for proper respect to be shown, Ledford Jonson got out of his chair, and went over to the back window of the house, more than twenty feet off the ground, where he had thrown the lifeless corpse of the tomcat, and looked out, and down, and all around. Then he said, "I don't see that cat." He turned back around to face the people in the house, and said, "I wonder what could scare a cat so bad as to make him jump twenty feet up, and then to jump into the house, as if twenty feet up wasn't high enough? I'm going to go out and have a look. Who's coming with me?"
But all the men were suddenly consumed with the fervency of their prayers, or distracted by the clenching grip of their wife's hand on their thighs, to stay them from going. No one said a word. So Ledford Jonson went out by himself, and presently they could hear him under the house and behind it. He said, "There's no sign of that cat, and no tracks, but it looks like there's a fresh trail tromped through the brambles and out into the woods from here. I've got my shotgun and I'm gonna see where it leads." This time, Ledford Jonson didn't even ask if anyone was going with him.
After an hour or so, the prayer-meeting had broken up, and people had gone outside to hang around and see if Ledford Jonson was coming back. After two hours, people started whispering in hushed tones, and after three hours it was decided that a group of men with shotguns, dogs and lanterns oughtta go out and see if they could find out whatever happened to Ledford Jonson.
The trail wasn't that hard to follow, and at one point, somebody reached up with their shotgun to knock a piece of that coarse, red-gray steelwool fur off a high branch that he couldn't reach with his arm. The men passed it around, and sniffed it and tried to give the scent to the dogs, who shied from the fur when it was handed down to them to smell.
It was maybe an hour into the woods when they came upon Ledford Jonson. He was just standing there in the middle of the trail with his arms hanging limply at his sides, unmoving. They knew it was Ledford Jonson, even from behind, by his size and his bearing, though his raven hair had turned stone white. They called to him, but he didn't answer, because he was in shock, and his shotgun was nowhere to be seen, though some men thought they could smell gunpowder in the air, as if the gun had been fired, though no one had heard anything, and it seemed they would have been close enough to hear a shot.
Ledford Jonson just stood there, in the middle of the trail, with his arms hanging limply at his sides, unmoving. as the men clustered around him. His upper arms were all bruised and both arms were clean broke, between the shoulder and the elbow. That's why his arms just hung at his sides, limp, like that. Other than his broken arms and his white hair, Ledford Jonson was seemingly unharmed. Some of the men took him back to the holler to be tended to, and the rest set off to follow the trail some more.
Eventually, they came to an abandoned coal mine, like a cave, rancid and foul-smelling, with bones strewn about, some of the bones, snapped up so the marrow could be sucked out of their middles. They dynamited the mouth of the mine-cave, sealing it up, so whatever it was that might be hiding in there would hopefully be trapped and walk no more.
Ledford Jonson would recover, to some extent, but he would never, ever talk about what happened that day of the stillborn girl's service. His hair always remained white thereafter. Some people said that Ledford Jonson, he just didn't remember what happened that day. Some said that he remembered, but just wouldn't tell. In any event, that's why, to this day, people still wonder, "Whatever happened to Ledford Jonson?"
Some people say that Ledford Jonson musta met a bear, and that the bear reared up on his hind legs and swung on Ledford Jonson, like bears are known to do, with their forepaws, once and twice, hitting Ledford Jonson on the arms, and breaking the bones. But the wise, old Cherokees in the hills had a different explanation. They said that Ledford Jonson had met the Tee-wee-wanna-hey, from Cherokee mythology. Tee-wee-wanna-hey means "hairy stone-skins," and the legend is as follows.
It seems that back in the time when men and animals could still speak with each other, the Cherokee had fought a war with the Tee-wee-wanna-hey, who walked on two legs like men. At first, the Tee-wee- wanna-hey were winning, because the Cherokee arrows and spears glanced off the thick, steely fur and tough skin of the Tee-wee-wanna-hey. But then the Cherokee discovered that they could kill the Tee- wee-wanna-hey with stone clubs, breaking their knees and making the Tee-wee-wanna-hey fall down, and then smashing their skulls. Then the Cherokee were winning the war, and the Tee-wee-wanna-hey asked for peace. The chiefs and leaders made a pact with the Tee-wee-wanna-hey, that the two peoples would never kill each other again.
The wisemen said that Ledford Jonson must have met one of the Tee-wee-wanna-hey in the forest that day. They said that the Tee-wee-wanna-hey was confused by Ledford Jonson's appearance, that the Tee-wee-wanna-hey was not sure if the man was Cherokee or not. They said that the Tee-wee- wanna-hey must have picked up Ledford Jonson by his biceps and lifted him up so that the Tee-wee- wanna-hey could look Ledford Jonson deep in his eyes, and into his soul.
Then, seeing that Ledford Jonson was indeed a Cherokee, the Tee-wee-wanna-hey set him back down, unharmed.
As I said, I never believed this story as a child. But then I met the Tee-wee-wanna-hey, in New York City, of all places. It was at the Museum of Natural History, where they have the world's most famous dinosaur exhibit. I had gone into a place called The Hall of Extinct Mammals, where they had life-size models of Saber-tooth Tigers and Great Wooly Mammoths. And there he was, big as life, the Tee-wee-wanna-hey. A stuffed-model, standing twenty feet tall, covered in coarse red-grey fur, with long arms outstretched, as if to grasp someone. Long fingers with great curved claws. The plaque said that the beast was known as a Giant Ground Sloth. The plaque said that it's thick leathery skin and dense coat was like a coat of armor that protected the beast, so that it had no natural enemies, and was thought to be a docile creature that ate carrion rather than hunting for prey. The plaque also said that the first Giant Ground Sloth skeletons had been found in tar pits, in eastern Kentucky, back when Thomas Jefferson was President.
I realized that it was possible that Ledford Jonson had encountered the last living Giant Ground Sloth, in Kentucky, a little more than a century ago. And that the bones of that beast may lie, even now, in a forgotten, abandoned, dynamite-closed coal mine, somewhere in the Hills, where our family comes from.