A man came alone one fall morning to pan the river under the shadow of the mountain.
Showed up with his shareholder’s deed weeks back and introduced himself to the three other men who worked the plot. Wore fine wool then, boots, a beaver-pelt hat. Carried a fine haversack and a slim journal with him to write down his thoughts and observations. Knew in a deep place that the words to fill the slim journal were the real reason he’d left the modern world to seek the wild. Panning was just a lucrative excuse, one in fashion.
He’d felt a call to the looming mountain ever since he saw a photograph of it displayed in a gallery back home. A broad plate hung on the salon’s gaily papered wall, tucked into a gilded frame and lit with unshakeable electric light. Something about its profile gripped him. Its stark horn, hooked ever so slightly, backlit by the rising sun. A beckoning finger.
A great expedition, then. A sojourn to be had. Maybe some watercolors to be done, gold and a poem to be took from the land. He would see. And he would see the mountain. Take a rock from its flank.
First pilgrimage out from the cradle of industry and iron to wild western land. Hard days in saddle across plains in amber and sage. Wagon-bound through forest and wood. A time spent pacing the deck of a riverboat, white hand gone white-knuckled on gunwales in rapids and deep, moonless raid-nights. Months gone by in the getting here. A story for a different day.
And here he stood on a fog-breath morning, picture of the mountain folded into his breast pocket, fingers cool to the bone around the metal of his pan. He swirled the clear water and searched for glitter in the silt, his back to the mountain. All the way out here in land virgin to the stink of coal and still he hunted for money. He ignored the mountain best he could, easy when his belly rumbled and the broker man asked for two grams of goldflake to pay for a pound of good meat. Robbery, commerce. The man grit his teeth. He needed to eat, so he needed to pan.
This river flowed down from the mountain. Its snow, meltwater now, slid and gurgled around his ankles. He plucked goldflake from the grit of its shattered boulders. He bathed in it and drank from it. Whole time he could feel it at his back. Its hooked peak and long shadow, the whip of snow that curled from away from it.
The man worked under this looming sentinel for months as fall fell into winter and his fine wool became worn wool and his shining boots became rotting boots and his beaver-pelt hat became beaver-pelt gloves and then scraps stitched to patch the holes in his ragged wool.
“Sir,” Slouch plucks fat from his teeth with a black iron nail. “Sir, how’s the panning today?” He calls from the frostcrust bank, his feet wrapped in oiled rags. The Man looks up from his work at Slouch. The Man tries to keep an eye on the other men working the claim with him, for he’s heard stories on his way out to the frontier and Slouch has the eyes to back them up, small and bright and deep under heavy brows and his fingers are long and calloused and they twitch when he sleeps. The Man’s seen this because he can’t sleep and firelight draws only the dangerous creatures.
“Panning’s panning.” The Man says. He never turns his back on Slouch. He goes back to panning.
“Sir,” Slouch clutches his own pan. Carries his own iron at his hip, tied to his wrist with a length of line. He holds his toothpick nail like a knife, plucking at his teeth as he talks. “Heard you talking in your sleep again, Sir. You sounded cold, Sir. I’m going to the women, won’t you come with me? Mend fences.” He gestured to the white string just before him, strung between two stakes. The boundary line of The Man’s plot. It stretched across the little river, secured on the far bank by a similar set of stakes, making a perfect rectangular box.
The Man stands, swirling his pan. It’s morning still. Slouch stands on the riverbank and his breath makes no steam. The Man’s drifts out of him, snatched by the wind. It drifts off of his shoulders and the crown of his head. Seen in profile, the mountain stands between them, pale blue in the morning light.
Clarion and susurrus from the river, the rising sun, the natural world around them.
The Man wanted nothing to do with Slouch. Beast. “Stay off of my plot, Slouch.” The Man said. He waved Slouch away. “I’m working.”
Slouch nodded. He stopped plucking his teeth and put away his nail. “See you tonight, Sir.” He left, slipping up the riverbank.
The Man watched him go, watched Slouch’s iron slap his hip as he scrambled away. Watched others come to the river as the morning grew to midmorning. Panner and Brow arrived to the plots at upstream and downstream of his, greeting him with a nod and a frown. His deedmates, the other shareholders on his plot. Other nameless men to plots further up and down the river. Industry, nascent, stinking, came to fill the river with sweat and toil. The Man bent his back and worked alongside them all.
Fall went. Full winter followed. The river iced over save for a strip of black water no wider than a stride. Was deep there in the center and no man wanted to wade into that for to pan. So they turned back to their huts they’d built in the Fall and burrowed deep, lighting fires to fill the still-days and nights under mounting drifts of snow. Only call now was to live it out, wait for the true sun to return. Eat and sleep. Live. Hunch over the bare spaces in his journal, clutch the pen and scratch the words he heard at night instead of wind.
He’d hear knocking at his door but he kept it barred, never went to open it when the sun was down.
“Please sir, it’s cold, I can’t feel my fingers none.”
The Man set his ink and page down and clutched his musket close, his thick wool blankets tight around himself. Said nothing. Listened as boots crunched away in the snow. No wind in this place, it seemed, just the silence of falling snow and deep winter. Manhunters came knocking in the winter, whispers said.
Sometimes he’d hear gunshots at night or just the sound of tree branches snapping under the weight of ice. Never could tell but knew enough not to follow his curiosity. Only go out during the grey halfday, carry your musket, aim true and harvest quick.
The moon-howl of wolves, distant distant. A shape, tall and shaggy in the fog, moves through the pale birch at a slow crouch, hesitant, stalking. Its back is lumpen and sticks, limbs, jut out from it. It stops at every tree, reaches out a hand to touch it. The Man drops to a knee in the snow and aims, his cheek numb against the cloth-wrapped stock of his musket.
The shape resolves. Another man like him, hungry, dressed in thick furs and carrying a bundle of wood. No wolf or manhunter or something worse.
“Afternoon,” he nods at The Man, carries on dragging his bundle of wood off through the trees, looking for more. His axe is double-headed, blade polished by countless trunk and branch. No fuss about the gun. It’s smart to be safe. Later, he hears the cracks of trees splitting.
More knocking, always at night and earlier now that winter carried on trimming the days down.
“Sir, I have brandy for you. Warm you up. Sir?”
“Get on out of here, Slouch,” The Man called. “I want nothing from you.”
Silence of a winter night, and the sound of boots on dry snow.
Some did go out to pan, call of the flake was just too strong. The Man found the first body one winter morning around Christmas time. The youth’s head stuck out the water like an exposed boulder.
He relieved himself a little ways downstream, took in the sight as he did. The boy was skeleton-thin. Must have gave in to the bitecold of the water, collapsed to his knees where he froze solid. He had a white beard of frost, delicate ice around his eyelashes. His lips, pursed.
The Man thought to check him for coin, jerky, sundries or supplies, but when he tried to haul the body out of the water he found it stuck. He gave up, panting already from just one try.
And the wolves moved closer, moaning. And still he wrote by blacksmoke oil-light. Had a word in him that needed to get out and left him drooling, shaking if it couldn’t. His head felt tight and split at the same time. He’d wake to the page stuck to his face, washed black from his sweat mingling with the ink. Word lost forever but new ones coming. Always sketching the hooked peak of the mountain.
Around the new year The Man woke to knocking. Grown in the city, he knew it as the knock of a fire burning in your building, of the police come to raid.
“Sir, hunters! Hunters, sir! Please, let me in!”
The Man sprang to his feet the best the cold would allow. He slept in his furs and boots, hadn’t taken them off for what felt like months. His musket he kept loaded and in the coal-light dark aimed towards the sound of knocking.
There was never any wind. His door rattled in its frame, splintering the plank he’d laid across it. A few more hits and then silence. Soft silence the rest of the night, not even wolves made their calls. The Man didn’t sleep much.
Snow had covered up the drag marks by the next morning. The rest of winter passed quiet, cold, slow. No one knocked on his door. He took pen to page and wrote.
Then come the spring. Little thaw, but sun now, and days warm enough you could sweat in your layers.
“Can’t let you skip claim on us.” First words Panner told the man when he tried to leave. Panner spoke around spit. Had a hole in his jaw he plugged with chew. Thin white hair he hid under a dull green forage cap.
One other stood with and a little behind Panner. Brow. He looked out from under the brim of his hat, chewing. Laid eyes on the man’s boots, his gloves, his blade. Clothes he wore weren’t half as fine as rags, so the rags the man wore looked as fine as kingly robes.
“I don’t want to work it anymore,” the man tried to push past Panner but that was a mistake. Panner grabbed the man around the wrist and twisted, holding him fast. The man cried out. Didn’t feel no fear on account of knowing that real fear was cutting on himself and not seeing any light but sure felt pain and pain.
“Not how it works kid,” Panner said. He twisted the man’s arm behind his back and pressed. The socket bulged and the man could hear his shoulder shipwood creak and groan. Panner started to walk him down to the water. A dunking would clear the boy’s head. Not gonna do any worse than that. Damnfool’s still drunk.
“Take all of it, I don’t care,” the man gasped. He dug his heels into the riverbank mud.
“And you can’t come crawlin’ back.” Panner stopped walking the boy, let his arm go. “Court’ll side with me,” Panner said. He spat a rope of chew between them.
“I ain’t comin’ back. My share’s all yours.”
Panner flinched and pulled the man close. They were far enough away from the other two that there was a chance they didn’t hear him. “Where’s your deed?”
“Give it here then.”
The man did, and Panner let him go with just the things he could stuff into his haversack. Just watched him disappear into the dusklight. He thought about shooting the man in the back as he went, inking the contract in a mortal final way. Save face as well, not that he wanted to but that’s how bad business was settled out here in the raw lands.
Panner drew a bead on the man, right there where his head met his neck, right where he was sure his lead would spray the man’s thin face across the tallgrass.
But the river, shallow and wide, was too clear to take on a man’s blood. Carried a sweet taste that lingered in Panner’s clothes when he washed them, filled his nose when he tossed out his bedroll on the banks at night. No sewer-stink to it, no froth or skein from the riverside mills and factories that metastasized across the banks of the rivers back East. And the wild onion was in bloom, tiny pink flowers spread like quilts up from the banks. The savory in the air made Panner’s belly rumble. Whiteflies and buzzers whorled over all, their choir calling down the sun into dusk. No place for the bark of a killing gun. And anyways he’d rather spend bullets on the manhunters if they decided to wander this far afield.
Panner lowered his piece, holstered it. Turned and walked back to camp. Died two days later, shot through the neck by heavy lead cast by Brow as he relieved himself a little ways off the plot. Last thing Panner saw was that mountain peak lit by the setting sun and he swore it was like it was looking right at him to the point where he had to think hard on making water and then his whole face spread out and sprayed out, mist and teeth and boneshard wetting the tallgrass.
On the road the man wrote. Made his passage bearable. Made it a little more quiet. Whole heart didn’t want to head up that mountain. Feet ached, stomach twisted. Got blisters which he’d never had before; he came from sturdy stock even though he was grown in a city.
Come up and see, mortal thing. Come up ye shall know my wisdom. My glory. That on and on, liturgical bark and drum beat, a marching tempo.
He walked at night and wrote during the day and this carried on until he reached the foothills.
Life’s got a whole span to it shot through with all stamp of vacancies. We need to find something to fill us up. Broke his pencil led there and in the time it took him to sharp it again he thought all about how you could stand tall and eternal as the mountain, could burst with life like the woods. How to go down to the river to pray and be healed. Be saved. To know and to know being the goal and salvation being a happy byproduct.
He made camp and wrote all that down until The Word woke him from his trance with the squeal and groan of boars and a shaking that gripped the forest around him, felling some of the older trees, splintering their wide trunks along old wounds. A boar staggered into the remains of his camp, snorting and shaking its head. Flies swarmed it, a black cloud crown, and it died there, a good thing as the man had no weapons or knowledge to kill the beast if it had challenged him. He skinned the boar and made jerky from its meat, took its fur for heat — snow still capped the mountain and he’d need the layers. After, he broke camp
He wrote as he walked now. Felt like a condemned man on the march to the gallows but no guards held his shoulders only a terrible hand at the small of his back and that voice tugging at his heart and the feel that walking up was as easy as falling down.
He clawed up the mountain’s flanks to the line where trees didn’t dare grow nor the boars of the foothills and woods follow. Stood alone on the banks of alpine rills. Burnt himself on the boreal wind. Oft times he’d scream back, most though he just fell hollow-silent. Didn’t speak much in high places. Instead he wrote. Whole time a sort of gravity nudged him back, tried to pull and pull him back off the skirt of the mountain but all it managed was to stand the short hairs on the back of his neck straight up and roil his belly even though there wasn’t much in it but snow and bile.
He scratched his sermons on the clothsoft pages of his journal. Sat in the snow-shadow of a boulder or a fallen log, hunched over a stub of pencil, his fingers stiff. Couldn’t cry much or leak spittle on account of it freezing before it fell, so he made a sick mewling noise, a growl done by a creature that knows it should but don’t know how. Bestial.
Up the mountain that journal become him. He forgot his name, just knew himself as Hungry. Tired. Thirsty and Thing.
He wore furs and hides and leathers and a beard and rocked back and forth as he wrote, firelight or daylight or nolight. The Word was in him then in those most high places, gripped him round the throat and the gut and the cock and shook him.
Don’t miss none of this mortal thing. That’s right. Be my mirror. Thing.
He had to write it all down. Only a man. Couldn’t do it. No thing can stand against cold like that.
He woke half-buried in a snowbank. Saw no warm light. A bull moose knelt before him, lifeheat bleeding off it, powder snow spilling from the scallops in its wide plate antlers. He stared a long while, not daring to move, sipping at the thin air. The moose didn’t breathe, didn’t move. Crust-ice blood froze copper around its nose, at the corners of its mouth, out from the hollows of its ears. Its eyes were black, each the size of a man’s fist. No light in ‘em.
The man reached out and embraced the beast, realizing now that it’d saved him. Had no other way to thank the poor creature. He looked up at the antlers that gave him shelter, each as broad across as dinner tables. He scooted forward and buried his face in the shaggy fur of this ancient beast, breathed in its musk, warmed himself with the last of its heat.
A deep chill wriggled in him. A feeling like the cords of his body being pulled out his hands, the heat of him dying like a candle choked out under its own wax. His hands burned, his palms against the beast seeping steam that stank of smoldering hair.
The moose twitched. No more life than what it took to convulse a slab of muscle along its shaggy flank. The man cried out and threw himself back from the thing, his hands steaming, numb to the cold and the snow that curled and melted away from where he braced on the ground. He shivered violently, hard enough that he was sure he would crack bone and teeth with his trembling and chattering.
The moose shuddered again, muscles rippling under its hide, shaking free the drifts of snow that had piled up on its back, its great antlers. It moved as if to stand, eyes fluttering and rolling, pink froth flecking from its mouth and nose, but every part working without reason or design. All it managed was to scoot closer to the man as he crawled away. It collapsed a second time, sagging, dead.
The man stood after a little while and ducked out from under the antlers, shook the snow from his shoulders, fished through the soft drifts to find his satchel and haversack. Kept a wary eye on the moose. Covered his hands with gloves as soon as he could. Said some holy words to keep himself from thinking about what he thought he’d just done.
The light all round was grey and the storm lingered, but only a brush. Most of the clouds had moved higher, circling the tall horn of the mountain, torn around it by the driving wind. Up there the man thought he could see a light but it could’ve been lightning or nothing at all.
“This what you want me to see?” The man’s voice cracked up the mountain. Never was going to reach the peak but he might as well try. He raised his hands to the peak, a single long finger stabbing the air. “How long he walk in your woods? How long?”
No answer this time. Course the moose was the answer, sent before he could even ken up the question. The man hunched against its flank and scratched out this story in his journal, then stood and got to cutting on the moose. The Word gave him a gift with this beast, one of the ancients of this alpine forest. No sense in letting it go to waste.
Two days later most all the moose was gone or froze and he tried to go back down the mountain and lost himself again. Saw a great bear standing on its hind legs, shaggy and black, middle of the path he needed to head down. The creature could’ve got him easy, closed the gap between them in the space of moments and torn him apart. Only it just stood and watched and breathed great gouts of steamhot air out from its maw. The man only had his blade no sixgun so he turned and went back up the mountain, thinking that the great bear and The Word might have some terrible bond.
More snow the day after he’d seen the great bear. Night fell double fast and he could hear the storm holler and plead on the high wind and he ran, ran bent low, stepping his knees high as he could out of snow banks as he pushed for some kind of cover. Leapt a little creek, tumbled through a dell. Saw a frail cabin tucked under the skirt of a boulder across an alpine plain and made for it, eyes fixed on the thin line of smoke seeping from its chimney.
Didn’t make it. Stepped in a jaw trap and passed out from the pain and thought too much blood got free from him this time to see any light on the other side of this dark.
Other side of the dark he was trussed up and tied to a post, naked to the night and the firelight that danced in it. Trees all around stood stark, shattered trunks rising tall and straight with no end until night sky. No snow fell.
Leg hurt something fierce but it looked mostly healed.
He shook and shivered, never seemed to stop since he’d come up the mountain. Trees looked on without care, birch and pine and others he couldn’t name. A man dressed in rough stitch leather and pelt moved on the other side of the fire. Poacher. A dog, shaggy with grey fur, whined on a length of chain, pacing just outside the little cast of light. In and out it moved, a black shape, a grey tangle. Eyes lit from within, watching the two men through pale green light.
“Why’d you do this?” The man asked Poacher.
“Meat’s scarce in winter.” Poacher had a softer voice than the man would’ve liked. “Didn’t think we’d see anyone up here, but here you are.”
“I’m thin,” the man said. He rolled back his shoulders and Poacher could see the length of the man’s collarbone. Could see ribs, crests of hipblades and the sunken hollow of his belly.
“Still enough meat.” Poacher shrugged, ran a whetstone across his sharp.
“I can’t die,” the man said. He hung his head. “Word got a use for me.”
“Your journal?” Poacher moved towards the man blade-first. He wore skin not leather, a chain of ears around his neck, better to hear lord god that way. “I read it. Fairy-tales.”
“Where is it?”
“Gave it to my girl.” He grabbed the man around the neck, twisted his head side to side. He appraised.
“Won’t work,” the man’s voice came through high and strained. “I tried.”
Laid his knife across the man’s neck and dragged a little. Skin split like ripe fruit and blood welled out, shallow red seep.
The man nodded.
Poacher didn’t grin even though the man thought he should. Should’ve cut a smile out from the night and shown his tombstone teeth, lick the blade, cackle. Poacher just looked tired and cold. Stuck the knife into the man’s neck and sawed across easy not even a grunt, tipped him to the side and then grabbed his ankles and hung him upside-down all in one easy move.
The man’s eyes rolled back up in his head and he shook until he stilled and the snow melted into a red slurry underneath him.
He woke to more grey light, a cough and raw feeling abut his throat. He moved his hand to his neck and massaged the bruise there.
No wound or nothing more than the stippled, pinched skin of a new scar. Blood all around, blood down the front of his chest and over his shoulders and face, cooled now in the refrozen slush around him. He steamed in the morning cold. Exsanguination, the word came to him. A bloodletting.
He coughed and twisted up so he sat crosslegged, back of his head against the post. He folded his hands in his lap, covering his nudity. He’d broken his bindings sometime in the night, leaving only loose loops of greasy cord wrapped around his wrists and ankles.
Poacher sat across the corpse of the fire on a stump or rock, wide-eyed. A rifle rested on his lap, long bayonet fixed. His face still looked too kind. Too plain for a man who wore manskin, whose coat had old, faded tattoos stippled in around the breast pocket. Whose ears were pierced by lengths of filed bone. Poacher had these blue eyes that burst from their pits. King’s eyes in a peasant face.
“Morning,” the man croaked.
Poacher shouldered the rifle and shot and then all went black again for the man.
The man woke up groaning at grey sky. The ragged splinter of the post dug into the meat of his back, cutting a little on the soft skin there. He shifted and sloughed off, landing with a thump on the crimson snow. One shaking hand up to his head came away with tacky blood, a flake of something like bone. He probed, unsure. Just a pit scar no worse than the pox scars that buckshot across his face.
“Told you it won’t work,” he coughed. “Word’s got a use for me.” He rolled over and Poacher slammed his bayonet into his stomach, screaming, shouting at him to die why won’t he die oh Christ please just die grinding the needle point of his old service bayonet through the trunk of the man and into the snow and hoarfrost beneath.
The man grunted, surprised, pain incredible but fear and anger stronger, red raw anger the like makes your eyes roll back in your head and ignore the twist of gut and popping muscle and organ and grab the rifle when the bayonet point slips in again and wrench it free, throw Poacher to the ground and then you’re on top of him, straddling his chest and the blood and sweat and bile is pouring off and out of you onto this man who’s screaming and praying and wearing clothing cut from human bodies and you’re just two creatures dressed in skin the only difference is how many layers and his kingly eyes disappear under thumbs with dirty nails and then you find out just how long it takes and how tiring it is and how easy it is to break a man’s head open on rock and you drink in all that heat all that heat all that heat.
The man came to, again, face pressed into the lover’s hollow above the collarbone, just next to the neck. He pushed himself to his knees, the mess covering his naked chest and stomach sucking on Poacher’s skinclothes as he peeled away.
He did a little something between a laugh and a sob. More new scars stippled his belly, puckered his chest. Nothing else he saw as he smeared the mess around. Poacher though didn’t have much of a head left, just a neck that came to an end and then a great blossoming carnation in the snow. Going gone under the hush of falling snow. Light fading again, must be near night but hard to tell under all the clouds.
The dog whined behind him. Tugged at its chain. The man turned and saw the beast’s mouth was open, slavering, dripping. Tongue long, worm.
He went and freed the dog. It shied a little away from him when he approached, but he’d always had a way with beasts and after a shushing and a patting it warmed to him, stopped whining, let him get near enough to undo the loop around its neck. It trotted off into the wall of falling snow.
He got a fire going and dug through Poacher’s sledge and found pack full of salt beef and jerky. Found clothing woven from tincloth and wool, waxed for the wet. Boots too, and a union suit, a forage cap that made him think of Jim but it was a different color. Must’ve been Poacher’s city clothes.
He dressed and ate the beef and threw the jerky as far as he could; the dried meat was pale white. Could’ve been pork, could’ve been man.
Found him a sort of ledger book stuffed into the poacher’s saddle bag. Tore out the poacher’s pages and let ‘em burn for heat. Nothing worth knowing there, just figures and accounts. Harvest tables.
Got words to write. He started in on the blank pages.
The dog padded out from the night to where the man sat and curled up at his feet, closer to the fire. Steam rose from the bloodslick on its muzzle. It sniffed at the man’s boots, rested its head on them, and went to sleep.
“Got words to write,” the man said. Thought his voice sounded better around pipesmoke but ragged like this it had a bite to it that sounded right. “You eat your fill, you eat.” The man muttered to the dog, scratching out the truth. He couldn’t keep up. His blood high and hot like he were he couldn’t keep up with the spirit and even as he muttered to the dog he started to moan and gibber and sob but the dog just sighed and slept and that calmed him enough that he could paw at the snot and the tears and breathe a little. Could stop the crack in his ribs and the moan and the gibber and the sob and focus on gettin’ down what he needed to get down.
The night was cold and clear and if only he looked up he could’ve seen all the stars.
Saw Word the great bear again the next morning. Went off down the slope for a piss away from the fire and Dog started barking and growling. The man looked up from his natural business and saw the old god loom-shape of Word the great bear, shaggy and tall, broad across as three men and high as four, standing on hind legs between the trees. Bigger than it was before, more terrible. Thick ropes of saliva dripped from its jaws, streaming off of its lolling tongue.
He finished up, shaking and bouncing, and ran back up for Poacher’s rifle. Totemic thing. Maybe he could scare the great bear off with the sound of a shot. Couldn’t kill it no sir, not unless he had a deck gun or an infantry company to fire by rank until lead overwhelmed its meat. Dog leapt to his side, low, hackles up and lips pulled so far back all it was were teeth in rows and rows.
Word the great bear roared and here’s what it said to the man, from it’s heart to his.
Go on up now. Back up the mountain mortal thing. You ain’t leavin’ ‘till you die for good. ‘Till you learn.
The man lowered the rifle and stumbled back to camp, slipping on rocks and branches hidden under undulating rolls of powder snow. Dog slavered and snarled, twisting backwards around the man’s legs, never letting the bear out of its sight. Loyal beast.
Word dropped to all fours and the ground shook enough that snow slipped from branch tips and needle eaves, filling the world with more white than the man could see and by the time the haze cleared the great bear was gone.
The man was gone as well, him and the dog. Packed up.
He remembered the little cabin and the thin smoke seeping up out from its chimney. It was upslope, a place with no trees, huddled under the belly of a boulder. Chances were that the cabin was Poacher’s hunting lodge, could be empty now or it could be filled with more of his kind. Could be where the man’s slim journal was and as soon as the hope of finding it again filled his heart he knew his mind was made up.
The man kept the rifle close, spare pouch of cartridges bouncing off his thigh. Other things in this forest than the great bear. Food and hunters alike. He walked alone but for Dog. Couldn’t see Word following behind through the whiteout, lurching on all fours, shivering in the cold near as bad as the Man was.
Saw the cabin in the greylight. Saw it good this time. Small thing, one window boarded up against the snow lapping at its sill, framed by firewood stacked around it. Couldn’t have more than two rooms inside. Stack of wood to last months on the broad side of the cabin. Metal chimney, smoke drifting up into the sky, scent of cooking meat. Massive boulder, sheer face and slight overhang, rising up behind the cabin, dwarfing it. Woods right up against one short side, door on the other, closed.
Place could’ve been dead but for the smoke.
The man crouched at the tree line, rifle tight across his chest, one handful of Dog’s scruff to hold it back. Dog was still, not even panting. Ears straight up, head turned to look behind them. He sniffed. Rumbled a low growl.
“Hush,” the man said.
Dog just growled softer. Good enough for the man. He looked out over the clearing, could see a depression in the snow where he’d first tried to cross, a shallow trench now mostly filled and softened. Another path, well cut and marked by thin guidepoles, showed how Poacher got to and from the cabin.
He picked up and loped ahead, following Poacher’s path, long strides pushing through the fresh snow, disturbing the unbroken powder. No trap this time. No crack of rifle fire.
He shouldered through the door and led with bayonet, lurching to a stop.
What a wild sight he was. Eyes wide to see it all. Beard a mad spray of coarse black hair crusted with frost. His whole face red from the cold and twisted around a rictus, burying itself under lines, puckering at the eyes. He rattled and jangled, salvaged pots and blades and gear dangling from his haversack and his satchel. All eyes went right to the long of his rifle, the cloth-wrapped barrel and stock, the bayonet half-again as long as a man’s forearm.
Kid sat in a chair against the rockside wall, the man’s slim journal held open on her lap. She wore a cold suit stitched from delicate white furs and hide. She looked up at him, mouth a perfect O, fingers frozen in the act of turning a page.
Two men played cards at the cabin’s table. One stripped to his dungarees and the top of his red union suit, boots off drying by the fire. Other wearing his gear, axe propped next to him, beard and hair wet from snowmelt, chips of split wood stuck to his thighs and stomach and arms. Coat had a look like human about it. Way the leather looked. Curly-haired scalps woven on the shoulders as epaulettes. Beaded spray embroidered about the collar was bright red and white and made from stitched and painted teeth.
Whole world silent enough to hear snow on the roof. Fire snapping in the fat belly of the iron stove. A pot boiled in the coals and something sweet and rich in fat popped and spat in the thick pan above the flames.
The man pivoted and fired from the hip, catching the bearded manhunter as he rose axe in hand, bellowing. Dog leapt past him, all teeth again and claw too.
Smoke gout from the rifle washed over the bearded manhunter as he fell, stinking of sulphur and charcoal. Union suit, cursing, drew his iron from the belt around the back of his chair and shot Dog mid-leap then the man drove his bayonet into him, brought him down. Flipped the rifle around and beat him with the brass-capped butt until he died.
Kid was screaming, curled into a ball in the corner, screaming and screaming this strange moaning scream like her voice didn’t quite work.
The bearded manhunter’s body had little fires on it now where scraps of wadding from the man’s rifle had settled and smoldered and caught.
Door was open and wind blew in drifts of snow until the man stalked over and slammed it shut. Dog lay still, small. The man’s whole heart fell.
“Hush,” the man shouted, turning to the child. “Hush now, you’re safe.”
Word spoke in the man’s head and heart. Hard enough to send him crashing to his knees, to clap his hands over his ears and howl in pain for all the good it’d do him. The child was screaming again, terror upon terror now as if she could hear Word as well.
The man crashed through the cabin, snatched up his slim journal and pressed it to his forehead, shouting what he could remember from the days of writing, from the days of sobbing and gnashing and mewling and always the pencil or charcoal scratching and the voice the great bear Word still raged and raged and hated him and called him mortal thing and gnashed and bucked and railed and wailed and then it was only his voice his poor mortal voice but it was clean and it was strong and nothing challenged it. Talked about the rivers and the trees and the oceans of life and the endless lines and lines of people all gone and yet still behind and pushing you on and how the most terrible mountain was a small thing when stacked up against all that and it felt right and good and just and not quite what he wanted to say with his poor mortal tongue and his frail little lungs and his trembling broken voice but it worked for now and it worked for now and that was enough.
Steam rolled and bled from his shoulders. “You okay, Kid?” He asked, hoarse.
Kid crawled out from behind her chair, eyes wide and staring at her hands as they slapped the slat-wood floor of the cabin. She was probably twelve or thirteen, but she crawled like a newborn, shaking and goggling, moving like a marionette on strings a little too long, too lose.
The man asked again, tapping the floor this time and Kid looked over to him, her eyes dilated overlarge but focusing quick when they found his mouth. She pointed to her ear, flapped her hand like a mouth talking, and shook her head.
“Let me find you something to write on then.”
Roar outside came and was the great bear. Shook the earth and the cabin and souls alike. The man dove to the ground and found himself sheltering the Kid who was back to screaming. The Word weren’t much of a kindness now. Sound of a broken reed pipe the man heard once on the march. Sound of corruption in a wound. Stink like burst bowels.
“Stay here.” He stood and loaded up Poacher’s rifle. Grabbed him the axe as well. Stuffed his journal into the cartridge box at his hip.
Outside the great bear still roared and inside The Word sang its leper song but it wasn’t so bad no more. The man had an inkling of the reason why he’d been called on. Had a thought.
His journal. His Good Book. His words in there. An axis for the world to turn about. If he could silence the great bear with words, if he could be cut and shot and die and be reborn, what couldn’t he do?
He pulled the door open and marched out into the snow, light from the cabin’s fire spilling out in a wash behind him. Word waited just across the clearing, looming up on its hind legs. Snow dappled its shoulders, brought out the pitdark of its fur. Firelight only just reached it, hid most of its size in the night beyond.
No wind. Sound of his boots crunching on the snow as he crossed the clearing. Sound of the great bear’s breath. That was all.
“Well I came and saw,” the man cried out. He stopped half across the plane. Threw down his rifle, his axe in full view of Word. Totemic things. Mortal things. “Came up the mountain and saw all your glory. What now? You see me quake?”
The great bear’s shoulders rose and fell with every breath. Eyes that had greenlight in their hollows, shining like beacons in the dark. The man could see now the holes in Word’s mouth, ragged things through which he could see teeth cracked and missing. Could see whole swaths of mangy fur and hotspots all over the great bear’s body. It hadn’t been like this when he first came up the mountain, had been a titan-thing with lustrous fur and proud height. Now he could see ribs under and through skin. Could hear a phlegmatic rattle in its breath. Saw the bend in its back and how it shook to hold itself up.
“See I don’t think you can do anything to me,” the man said. “I think you fear me, thing.” He strode forward through the snow, dipped a hand into his satchel. Good Book warmed like a fire at night. Felt like a clear stream in the summer. Felt like the first sip of water that’d slake a deep thirst. He pulled it from the bag and held it aloft, held it out towards the great bear. “I been dead three four times now, all by your will I suspect. Always woke up. Been shot, been stabbed, been cut, been cold.” He reached the bear, a righteous fire steadying his arm, his voice. Never been so clear, never been so pure. “Whatever you are, you can’t do nothin’ to me. Bet you’ve never come across something like me before.” All the wilds and all the forests and oceans and all the blood stretching back to paradise rolled on behind him and about him and clad him in armor no thing above or below could shatter. “So why call on me,” the man cried. “Why bring me up here?”
“Unless you didn’t call me up.” The man advanced, close enough now to reach out and touch the great bear. “Unless something else did and you couldn’t say nothing to stop it. Couldn’t do nothing but play along. That all you’re doing? Just playing along?”
The great bear moved so very slow. So slow. Like a mountain fall. The man saw it all coming and couldn’t move because he was only playing along as well, so he couldn’t stop speaking for to duck, to turn, to avoid the claws that rumbled towards him and hit and he thought of the trains he’d rode when he was in the world and how they only stopped to the sound of screeching and screaming and then he didn’t think of much at all but worried about Dog and the kid and wondered if he’d wake up again this time or
Didn’t think he was dead but all the same. Didn’t know how he woke up where he did. Last he remembered was the great bear and the good book. Dog and Kid. Then he woke in ashen wreckage, short no limbs, no life. Crawled out from under an overturned cart nekked and stood to see an aftermath, see the long slow moments after a fall. Death even moved on from this place. Arrows, tall as he, crowded the ground in thick stands, like trees shorn of their branches. A few rifles scattered and burnt scraps of wadding, a black patch where tallgrass had burned and snuffed out. No bodies but those of beasts, whole teams of sturdy oxen short through with heavy arrows lay dead where they’d been ambushed. No flies just yet.
The man wrapped himself in some of the canvas he was able to tear from the wagon with his bare hands and an arrowhead, tied off the makeshift robe with yet more strips. He shivered a little, but the wind over the tall prairie grass picked up and was warm. Carried a scent on it. Pregnant with wet and rain and the storm about to come.
He sat atop the wagon’s husk and looked out over the vast and rolling grassland. No mountain in sight, clouds over all horizons, pink orange ball of sunset in the West cast gold light the like you think you could just reach out and pluck bullion from if it didn’t burn you away first.
Maybe not perdition. A low place at least. Purgatory, then? No one else around as far as he could see, just the ruined wagon and two others burnt behind, metal ribs scraping up out of cinders and ash. More mystery, presented to him without comment or context.
Acceptance, then, of the mystery of his transport from the mountain to the plains. Of his call to that boreal mount in the first place. Of his part in something else’s grand plan.
He felt a bit of drizzle falling on his upturned face, warm and soft, closed his eyes and smiled. Happiness, he realized, he felt happy for the first time in a long time, since well before he left the city what felt like a lifetime ago. In a way, he mused, it was four or five lifetimes ago, if you determined the length of a life by the space between deaths.
The little flurry of rain stopped and he opened his eyes to see an ox alive a little ways off, wandering free, grazing, its tail flicking back and forth. It seemed calm, and in turn the man was calm.
The road was rutted and well defined and ran East to West and back again. Many had traveled this path before him, many more would come. Only which way to go?
East. Who knows how far away. Back to home, back to Mother and Sweetheart and the pastor under his low alter. Could head that way, bring all that he knew back to them, less now without his slim journal, his good book. Change something there all the same.
West. Beasts over there. Wilds. More like to be changed, more apt to be killed than die.
A call from on high, a split fiddle screech like a violin’s string raked along its length. The man looked up towards that azure-and-heather sky and saw a raptor of a kind, perhaps an eagle, with great wheatgold wings, a shape like a dagger and wind. A bolt of fear, but only for a moment. Not his Word anymore. Whose, then?
He had to think a spell. He walked towards the grazing ox, hopping off the path to stride through the grass, whistling for the beast. He saw it wore a harness, trailed a little bit of frayed line he could use as a lead. Must’ve split away from its team during the attack.
“Come on now,” the man said soft, reaching for the ox’s harness.
He stopped short. Felt his gut drop and throat close, woulda fell but the wind on his back kept him upright.
The ox wandered off to graze in peace, grunting and chuffing.
Kid lay twisted in the grass, surrounded by the contents of her haversack that had spilled out in a fan when she'd fallen. Tall arrows protruded from her back, straight through her pack. Their feather fletchings twitched in the wind. Thin ribbons stretched from their nocks, trailing out and away, rolling calm.
The kid held the good book in one of her delicate hands. The man reached over her and picked it up. Flipped it open. Gave it a read to see what it said.
“So it was you,” he said.
The wind gusted and tousled the kid’s hair. What’s a man to do when he asks a question and the wind answers?
He nodded. Wished Dog was here with him. Saw how much of the good book was left to fill and saw how far Kid had already gotten. Set the book down next to her. Pulled the arrows out one by one, tossed them aside. Coughed. Crouched next to her, shook out his arms, placed his hands soft on both sides of her head. Felt how cold she was. Felt a great heat and then not much else.
A time later the Ox wandered back over and grazed, nuzzled Kid for support as she coughed and cried over the man’s body and wondered why she woke up and why she heard a voice calling her west even though she couldn’t hear nothing at all of the world not even music but she held the book and knew at her core what she needed to do was go and fill it.