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TOWNSEL Oak Combs was eighty-seven that August, four months and three days older than the century, as he was fond of telling his students, since the century started with the year zero, and for more than fifty of those years, he had been a teacher in the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky.
"Fifty years plowing the rain," he said, wryly appraising his chosen profession as he came out onto the top of the sandstone steps at the front of the Freewill Baptist Church on Elkins Branch--although, truth be told, teaching had, on more than one occasion, been just a sight more like plowing a tornado.
Townsel was a weathered, wrinkled man with skin the color of sun-bleached parchment, eyes the faded blue of "cavalry whites," eyebrows as black as a brown bear's, and hair--what remained of it--a washed-out auburn red, lying around a liver-spotted crown.
Moments earlier, inside the shaded confines of the ancient church, he had congratulated his students on the progress they had made, awarded each of them a hand-written "certificate of completion," added a hug or a solemn handshake, whichever he deemed the more appropriate, and sent them on their way home, the subscription-school ended.
He paused atop the steps and looked east toward the road, expecting to see his students strung out there, the girls holding hands and singing, while the boys skipped rocks and wrestled, but the road was empty. Lawton and Adrian and another running of the Foxes and the Hounds? Townsel swiveled his head around toward the little meadow above the road where the Baptist Association held its monthly mule ring and confirmed his suspicions. Lawton and Adrian were there, lining up their fellow students for another running of the chase and capture game, the Foxes and the Hounds, which was, not surprisingly, a favorite among the children of the Cumberlands, and had over the course of the five-week subscription school, become the center of a heated and prolonged competition between his two oldest boys--Lawton Samuel Herald and Adrian Caldwell Calhoun Gault. The Foxes and the Hounds, he mused, remembering a description he had read in a Compendium of Games in the Outside: "A chase of uncertain duration, involving captures and unexpected reversals of allegiance, with Foxes becoming Hounds until the last Fox is captured."
After the first week, by mutual consent, Adrian had become the permanent leader of the Foxes and Lawton of the Hounds. Townsel thought their choices might have something to do with growing up and the emergence of basic natures. The trouble was, Townsel thought, that since the basic choices had hardened, Lawton, who with his Hounds had made short work of the other Foxes, had been unable to catch Adrian.
It was no disgrace, Townsel thought, for Lawton not to catch Adrian.
Adrian was a year older and a particularly strong and wily adversary who knew the hills around Elkins Branch and Blue Lick like the back of his hand. But Lawton wouldn't see it that way and he would want the one last chance, which the ever-confident Adrian would gladly afford him; and it was, after all, the last contest that would be the most remembered. The sides were chosen. Lawton began drawing a line in the dust for his hounds to stand behind while Adrian made his way across the road and down into the churchyard, where he stood at the foot of the steps looking up at Townsel Oak. He was a powerfully-built young man with a long torso and short bowed legs. "Will you count for us, Professor Oak?"
"I expect so," Townsel replied. He unhooked his Illinois Railroad watch from his belt and checked the time. The watch had a racing locomotive on the back. There was ample time for a running. "A ten count?"
Called by one reviewer, "The Tony Hillerman of the Kentucky Mountains," Southeastern Kentucky native and novelist Dr. Jack Justin Turner commands perhaps the most authentic voice in generations to emerge from this literary-rich area. Dr. Turner passed away in December 2011, but not before finishing two trilogies and a non-fiction classic.
Although the first two novels in The Foxes and the Hounds trilogy, Big Medicine River Days and Bluegrass Days are works of fiction, both reveal historical events as they actually happened, and not in the often stereotypical manner of past portrayals of early Appalachia. The author, through decades of fastidious research and fortuitous family connections, was allowed access to certain sealed records thought unattainable for decades. The third book in the trilogy, Colorado Days, is scheduled for publication.
Dr. Turner received his B.A. Degree from Berea College (where he once simultaneously appeared on the college disciplinary list and academic excellence list,) his Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky, and was honored as Professor Emeritus at Middle Tennessee State University.
Keywords: Appalachia, Kentucky, Feuds, Steamboats, Gunfights, Fiction, History, Coal, Murder, Action,