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Red Eyes in the Fire

A Tale of the East Tennessee highlands.

by Michael H. Thomson
January 11, 2004

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The wind blowing from the north had the smell of autumn, the man thought, as he trekked along the ridgeline of Black Oak Knob. John Anderson rarely visited the eastern edge of his two thousand acres of farmland located in the Tennessee Valley. The knob - or small mountain - wasn't very good for farming. Squirrel hunting, logging, and what John was doing today - rambling - were the greatest enjoyments derived from the steep, wooded ridge that skirted the Chilhowee Range of the Great Smoky Mountains.

While gazing at the vast expanse of the Tennessee Valley to the west of him, John saw a flicker of movement. He remained still. As if by magic a red fox appeared and stood beneath a large walnut tree not more than four feet away. The cast of the light, the beauty of the fox, and the stillness to John's way of thinking, were a blessing. Something rarely seen, a gift, and reminder to John that God witnessed to man in subtle mysterious ways.

The fox lingered a few seconds and then disappeared into a rhododendron thicket. John wondered to himself why he had ever hunted such a beautiful creature. Things were as they were, he thought continuing his trek... Another sound on the eastern side of the ridge caught his attention.

Below him about a hundred feet away, he heard the rhythmic crunching of leaves as someone walked slowly in the forest. John's property line was along the top of the ridge and the property where he heard the sound belonged to his neighbor, Thomas Emmert. John peered through the trees to see if by chance his friend was enjoying the autumn day the same as he.

The man he saw bore no resemblance to Thomas. The stranger was tall, wore a dark hat and what looked like a tattered Confederate greatcoat. John could not get a clear view of the man's face. For a moment John thought about calling out to the stranger, but something held him back. As he gazed through the foliage, the man turned and looked through the trees directly at John-or so it seemed. Was it the light? John wondered. Even at a hundred feet, the pupils of the man's eyes looked red... The stranger made a quick turn and was gone as suddenly as he appeared...

In 1901, John and his family were thirty-six years from the Great Civil War, but have no doubt, every man, woman, and child in the Tennessee Valley were aware of it as if it were yesterday. John was born in 1870, five years after the conclusion of the war. John's father, Enoch, a Confederate sympathizer, had lost five thousand acres of a ten thousand acre Revolutionary War land grant to his father at the conclusion of that conflict. The Anderson's, particularly John, were still bitter over the loss of such a large amount of property.

Most of the Tennessee Valley had been divided during the war. Mountain farmers did not see the logic of supporting southern planters in their defense of the institution of slavery. John Anderson's family, who once owned slaves, saw the conflict as the incursion of the North on the property rights of the South.

Nevertheless, John, a Missionary Baptist, counted his blessings. He and his wife, Mary, ran one of the richest farms in the valley. Since inheriting the property from his father, John had never experienced a bad crop. His prosperity had made him generous. He tithed his full ten percent at the Piney Knob Baptist Church and fully anticipated even more blessings for his stewardship.

Life was good for John and Mary. Mary had survived cholera, diphtheria, typhoid, and the birth of five children with no observable disfigurement and very few scars. At thirty years old she could marshal the resources of her children and neighbors and feed thirty farmhands - three times a day - to help bring a crop in. She was the right mate for John Anderson. It hadn't always been easy, however.

John Anderson was the most handsome man that Mary Clemens had ever seen. She had been seventeen and playing with her younger sisters when she heard prancing hooves come up the trail to her house. John Anderson had brought two small kegs, the distilled product of excess meal, from his uncle's gristmill to her father who used the liquor moderately for medicinal purposes. Baptists were forbidden by ordinance to drink alcohol; however corn liquor mixed with rock candy and the rare lemon was one the best remedies concocted for treatment of a bad cold or the flu. After delivering the kegs to Mary's father, John turned his horse and rode up to Mary. Without a word, John looked directly into her eyes, tipped his hat with great flourish, and then rode quickly away.

After a few years of courting, John and Mary were married on Mary's twenty-second birthday. There was a small celebratory gathering after the wedding. There was no honeymoon. Mountain farmers, even well to do mountain farmers, could not afford that luxury. The day after their wedding Mary learned first hand of the arrogance of John Anderson... and John Anderson learned of the stubbornness of Mary Clemens.

As a young girl, Mary had been trained that feeding her man was one of her most important duties when she became a wife. Her mother and older sister had shaped her into a better than average cook. The morning after their wedding, Mary carefully prepared a meal of eggs, huge biscuits, homemade blackberry jam, cured ham, fried apples, and coffee. John entering the kitchen gave Mary a disdainful look. John was grumpy and guilty from over indulgence of the forbidden beverage he had imbibed the night before - and sat down at the table silently looking at his food for about five minutes. Suddenly with a swoop of his hand, he sent all the food on the table crashing to the floor while saying,

"I'm not going to eat this slop!" He then walked out the door to the fields.

Mary stood in shocked silence for a few moments wondering what she had done wrong. After a few moments more, her shock converted to what her mother-who was from Amsterdam - referred to as Dutch rage. For several days after the incident at the breakfast table, John Anderson did not receive a prepared meal from his wife Mary. Neither did he receive affection, clean clothes, or a neat house.

John raged, stewed, and tried his hand at cooking - which was a disaster. He, by principle, wouldn't hit Mary. Having done so would bring the wrath of her seven brothers, anyway. John was arrogant, but he wasn't stupid. After two weeks of misery for both of them, understanding broke out like daybreak over the mountains. John and Mary's relationship developed into a bond of respect and love. In other matters, however, John's arrogance still remained.

Coming down off the knob, John wondered briefly about the stranger he had seen. He would tell Thomas Emmert about seeing the man later that night at prayer meeting. He had business with Thomas anyway. Tonight would be a good time to conclude it.

Thomas Emmert was an Irishman and former Yankee soldier from New York. He was twenty-five years older than John. He had come to Knoxville with the occupying Union Army in 1865. During the confusion of the first months of Reconstruction he had seen opportunity and borrowed money from his father in Yonkers to purchase five hundred acres on the other side of the ridge from the Andersons. Ironically, the land he bought was part of the land taken away from John's father by the Reconstruction government for his failure to pay the punitive tax imposed on large landowners.

Holding no animosity towards his former enemies, Thomas became a good farmer and a good neighbor. After some initial harassment, Thomas eventually won the hearts and minds of the small community of Chilhowee Gap. He converted from Roman Catholicism and became an upstanding member of Piney Knob Baptist Church. John's father told everyone that Thomas had made a great decision in buying the five hundred acres and that in reversed circumstances he would have done the same himself. That settled it. In small mountain communities such acceptance was nearly the same as kinship... nearly, but not quite.

Over the years Thomas Emmert had become like an uncle to John. Sometimes when he was visiting at Thomas's house, John would look at the lush fields and whimsically think that in different circumstances those would have been his. Those thoughts didn't last long especially after he had wolfed down a couple of bowls of "Aunt" Lizzy Emmert's scrumptious peach cobbler.

Arriving at the clearing where his home stood, John made the decision he had been struggling with most of the day. He would forgive the majority of a debt owed him by Thomas Emmert and liberalize the terms on the balance. Given the help Thomas Emmert had given John and Mary over the years, it was only fair. He knew in his heart that Thomas would do the same for him if it ever became necessary.

Two years before, Thomas had been thrown from a horse and severely injured. For a few weeks it was doubtful if he would survive the accident. Through determination and great discipline, Thomas healed himself, but at a price. His farm suffered, his cattle ran off, and he found himself not having enough money or trade goods to buy seed, fix broken equipment, or mend fences. The only person he could turn to was John Anderson.

John was more than eager to help Thomas. When Thomas asked about terms, John laughingly told him that if he couldn't pay up that he would take 250 acres of the rich bottom land between Black Oak Knob and Chilhowee Mountain as collateral on the debt. Thomas laughingly said that would be fine. No papers were signed. In 1901 business between neighbors in the mountains was generally conducted without benefit of pen or parchment.

As he washed his hands and face on the long open porch of the farmhouse, John felt relieved at his decision and looked forward to telling Thomas about it that evening at church. It was at that moment he smelled something burning...

It was one of the worst fires to attack the area in years. Sections of Chilhowee Mountain were in flames as well as most of Black Oak Knob. Embers caught in the dry wind ignited John's fields. Neighbors and kin from miles away responded to the emergency. Mule and ox teams pulling wagons laden with plows, shovels, and rakes rushed to post themselves at positions where fire breaks could be dug. It was a furious battle. To lose it would mean more destruction for poor mountain people who couldn't afford to lose their homes and fields.

John and a group of ten men stood their ground in a meadow below the western slope of Black Oak Knob. The heat was overwhelming. Each would take turns jumping into the meandering stream known as Crooked Creek, fully clothed, to get respite from the heat generated by fire's flames. All of the men did this except for John and a tall man wearing a Confederate great coat and a black hat with a wide drooping brim. This was the same man John had seen earlier that day on the ridge above them. The smoke was so thick that even standing besides the man, John couldn't catch a clear look at his face.

Finally John eased away from the fire line and doused himself in the creek as the rest of the firefighters had done. When he came out of the water the stranger was standing above him on the bank. Even through the smoke John noticed the stranger's eyes - they were red. Or maybe it's just the reflection of the flames, John thought. The man looked to be in thirties like John. I wonder why he's wearing that old Confederate coat. Maybe it was his father's. John mused to himself.

"Didn't I see you on Thomas Emmert's ridge this afternoon?" John asked. "What were you doing up there?" John asked.

"I think that's bein' my business - not your'n," the stranger said.

"It is my business. Thomas Emmert and I watch out for each other."

"I wouldn't be admitting to watchin' out for a Yankee." The stranger turned his eyes towards the fire.

"That old war's over and done with. We lost and that's that." John hated to talk about the war; so many, including this stranger, couldn't seem to put it out of their minds.

"You wouldn't talk like that if you were at Sharpsburg," the stranger said.

"Sharpsburg! How would you know anything about Sharpsburg? I doubt you were even born yet. You look to be about the same age as..." John's words trailed off as a gust of wind pushed a huge plume of smoke between himself and the stranger. What he saw next sent a paralyzing chill down his spine.

When the smoke cleared the stranger was still there but he had changed. Instead of a young man, an older grizzled man-in the same clothing-stood at the same place on the bank of the creek. With lightning fast movement, the old man reached down the bank and snatched John by the arm!

For a moment, John felt like he was blinded, then he was overcome by dizziness. He had a sensation of flying. What was happening to him? His mind raced. Suddenly he felt like his body was being lowered from great height. He opened his eyes. Everything had changed... except the smoke. But it was a different kind of smoke.

The noise was deafening. It suddenly dawned upon John that he was hearing musket and cannon fire. Where was he at, he wondered? Had he arrived in Hell? He turned and the younger version of the red eyed stranger again stood next to him. John dodged as a soldier raced through him like he was invisible. John wanted to run away, but whatever force possessed him had placed him on a spot of ground that was definitely a battlefield.

"Watch!" The stranger commanded.

A column of Confederates with battle flags waving determinedly marched across a field of clover separating them from a line of Union forces positioned on a slight rise. John was close enough to see their faces. A captain, with saber in hand, led the column toward the Yankees. There was a remarkable similarity between the captain and the stranger standing beside him. John's mind was too baffled to sort things out-so he didn't try.

Suddenly cannon fire erupted. John watched helplessly as the Confederate column was torn asunder by cannon balls that flew low into their ranks. Then a triple volley of musket fire came from the ranks of the Yankees. There were no men left standing in the Confederate column. The screams and moans of the wounded filled the air. He wanted to turn his head. The stranger held his arm, not allowing him to turn.


Into the dead and wounded Confederates marched a column of Yankees with fixed bayonets. In a few moments there were no screams or moans. Everyone was dead.


John felt dizziness and his position shifted once again. He now found himself standing among the wounded and the dead of the doomed column. Time had stopped. Mouths were open screaming, but no sound could be heard. Then the stranger pointed to two wounded men holding tightly to each other.

"These men are Isaac and Absolom Anderson. Have you ever heard of them?" The stranger asked.

John immediately recognized the names. They were his uncles who had been killed in the war before he was born. John's father had not gone to the war with his brothers because of a slight deformity in his foot that made marching almost impossible. Instead he stayed home and tended the farms of Isaac and Absolom.


The scene of the bayonet massacre repeated itself. One soldier more enthusiastic than the rest killed several helpless Confederates and then began walking towards John's uncles. The soldier's face was furious as he began thrusting his bayonet into the helpless, clinging bodies of Isaac and Absolom Anderson. John recognized the soldier... it was Thomas Emmert! John suddenly felt dizzy again. His sight failed him. He was surrounded by blackness.

"John! John! Are you all right?" John felt hands shaking his shoulders.

When he looked around he was lying on the ground beside the creek. His clothes were burnt and his eyebrows were singed from the fire. The men who had been fighting the fire with him were standing above him. The stranger with the red eyes was gone.

"Where's the fellow who was wearing the Confederate coat?" John asked.

"Who are you talking about? There ain't been nobody here lookin' like that!" responded Johnny Ogle, one of the firefighters.

"We got lucky." Johnny continued. "After you passed out, the wind shifted and blew the fire back on itself. It's almost burn't out now. I believe we can go home in a few hours." Suddenly the sound of thunder was heard. Distracted by the smoke and flames the men had failed to see the approaching storm rolling through the valley. Soon they were doused by rain.

Remembering the strange looks from the men, John didn't bring up the subject of the stranger again. Worn out from fighting the fire and his unusual experience, John walked to his home. As he walked, his rage built upon what he had seen in his "vision". He had no other reasonable explanation for the occurrence.

By the time he reached home he was in a fury. He had already made the decision to take the bottom land that Thomas Emmert had jokingly put up as collateral on his debt. He then reached another decision. Forget collateral, he thought. He was going to settle a debt owed to his family... When he entered the house the first thing he did was pull his rifle off the rack above the fireplace.

Mary Anderson, who was exhausted from feeding the shifts of neighbors and friends who had come to fight the fire, had never seen John act like this. As he headed out the door with his gun she stopped him.

"Leave me be, woman, I've got business to attend to. Killing business!"

Hearing John speak those words, Mary became very frightened. She knew his temper. Mary, having survived many afflictions, had an inner strength that conquered her fear. A decision was quickly made. She jumped in front of John and wrestled with the gun he carried. The barrel was dangerously close to her head as she pulled on it.

"Dammit woman! What are you doing? Do you want to be killed?" Mary tenaciously held to the gun barrel.

"John you're scaring me, but I ain't letting go of this gun. You don't need to be killing anybody no matter what the reason and if you plan on it, you need to be lettin' me know what it's about. I ain't no scrub woman - I'm your wife. You've got to tell me what's so bad that you want to put somebody into their grave." Mary felt John ease his hold on the gun.

John set the gun down and told Mary the story of his encounter with the stranger. As he told the story it became unreal to him. He started having doubts as to whether or not he had ever met the stranger at all. The fire and the smoke had addled his brain, he thought. A low roar of rage towards Thomas Emmert still echoed through his mind. Suddenly John felt very tired.

Already frightened, Mary, upon hearing John's story became terrified. This was worst than losing a crop to a fire. This was in the province of evil. This was a wounded soul. A soul in danger...

Having tended sick babies, sick livestock, and ailing neighbors, Mary was very experienced in the healing business; however John's affliction was beyond her experience. Courage pushed the small lady on.

"John, come with me. I've got to tend to you." Mary guided John into their bedroom and had him lay on the big feather stuffed mattress. She pulled off his boots and smoke saturated clothing. She covered him with a quilt. He slept. Holding one of his large hands in hers, she knelt by the bed and began praying. She opened the family Bible and began reciting verses that she thought would apply to the situation. She was at John's side for three hours praying and reading before she fell to the floor exhausted.

John was having a dream. In his dream the stranger - the young captain - with the red eyes was chiding him for not settling the score with Thomas Emmert. John was arguing with him, telling him that it was not his place or the stranger's to settle this score. The stranger persisted and John, borrowing some of Mary's stubbornness resisted. The stranger, uttering a curse, pushed John very hard. The dream ended and John slept peacefully.

The next morning Mary awoke groggy and stiff from sleeping on the hard floor all evening. The room was silent. She looked in the bed. John wasn't there. Fear raced through her. She stood up and prepared to race across the knob to find John if it wasn't too late. Suddenly she heard a moan. The direction of the sound was odd. She looked up and had the shock of her life! John Anderson was suspended in the air just below the ceiling! Nothing held him there; he was just hovering in the air with his face and body turned upwards.

"John, John! Get down from there!" Mary heard John mumble something, and then suddenly his body fell to the bed. He shook his head from side to side and then focused his eyes on Mary who stood shaking with fear beside the bed.

John climbed out of the bed and stood by Mary tightening his arms around her. He felt strong and confident again. He was also a peace with himself. A battle for his soul had been fought and intuitively he knew that Mary was somehow responsible for the victorious outcome.

"You must have done some strong praying; I think everything's going to be all right now. Where's my breakfast?? He grumbled and then playfully smacked Mary across the seat of her dress. Both knew a crisis of spiritual and supernatural proportion had passed.

While eating breakfast they had another surprise. A neighbor of Thomas Emmert's knocked on the door. His news was not good.

"Mr. Tom Emmerts dead. He and his wife Lizzy died last night when their house burned down. More than likely it was caused by a smoldering ember landing on their roof." The visitor said. John and Mary sat in shocked silence.

One month later...

The Blount County Sheriff, George Goddard, rode up to John and Mary's house on a pale mare. After he got off the horse he pulled a bundle of papers out of his saddle bag. John and Mary stood silently as he approached.

"I need some taxes." he said.

"We've already paid our taxes Sheriff. What's this all about?? John asked.

The Sheriff handed the papers to John. As John began to read, the Sheriff interrupted and disclosed the contents.

"Tom Emmert left you his place. He had the will filed at the clerk's office in the event of his and Lizzy's death. I was just kidding about the taxes. You can pay them next year at the regular time." The Union sympathizing Goddards had little use for the Confederate sympathizing Andersons, so after giving John the papers, the Sheriff rode off.

Attached to the legal documents was a note in Tom Emmert's hand. It read:

John and Mary, I hope you never read this cause if you do it means that Lizzy and I are dead. Since we never had any children or any other heirs, you and Mary made great substitutes. Personally, your love and acceptance over the years helped me a lot. I never talked about the war and the things it did to me. My peaceful valley and the good neighbors and friends at the church have given me back my soul. I've got a lot to be thankful for, because of you and Mary's love. I hope you never read this, but if you do, that bottom land is sure good for planting corn...

John took Mary's hand and they silently walked back into the farmhouse. They both knew it was time for a long prayer.

In memory of one of God's great servants

Visit Mike Thomson's website ThomsonTalks

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