HATCHET JACK AND ZEBULON RODE NORTH ACROSS THE high desert towards the Spanish Peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Two days later they reached the cabin, a hard little stand at the end of a steep valley, quilted halfway to the roof with drifting snow.
Nothing much had changed. The cabin's roof still had most of its shakes blown off, the makeshift corral hosted three starving mules, and a curl of smoke drifted up from the chimney like a lonely question mark. After they walked their horses over the ice-covered river that snaked in front of the cabin, Zebulon hollered a long "Hallooo." When there was no answer, they secured their horses inside the sagging corral and pushed through the stiff door of buffalo hide.
An ancient stern-faced woman sat behind a three-plank table in patched red long johns, pointing a shotgun straight at them. In front of her a torn deck of cards was spread across the table for a game of solitaire. Brown streaks of tobacco juice ran down her chin, and a thin curtain of gray hair fell over one side of her ravaged face.
"I thought it was your Pa come back," she said to Zebulon. "I was lookin' forward to smokin' the old grizzle-heel straight to hell."
She looked him over top to bottom. "A bit off your graze, ain't you, son? Last I heard you was hangin' out with flatlanders and gold-suckin' Argonauts."
"I was, Ma," Zebulon said. "No more."
"You sure are a sorry piece of used up sod," she went on. "You look like a damn ghost. Beat-up and thinner'n a snake on stilts."
"I'm comin' around," he reassured her.
"You might be comin', but you ain't yet around."
"Howdy, Ma," Hatchet Jack interrupted.
"Howdy yourself," she replied, spitting a thick stream of tobacco juice in the general direction of a copper spittoon. "And don't Ma me. Use my Christian name or put your scrawny half-breed ass back on the trail."
"All right, Annie May." Hatchet Jack picked up a bottle of whiskey from the table and took a long pull, then handed the bottle to Zebulon.
"You got some big fat cojones comin' back here," Annie May continued. "Last I heard you was down on the Brazos rollin' steers and makin' mischief."
"No future in steers these days," Hatchet Jack said.
"I'll vouch for that," Zebulon said, pulling off his bloody shirt and dropping it on the dirt floor.
"I'll just bet," Annie May said, shooting him a weary glance. "Vouchin' bein' a particular specialty of yours. That and poochin' stray women."
She turned her head towards Hatchet Jack. "What brings you here?"
"I need to get square with Pa," Hatchet Jack said. "I mean, Elijah. Finish my account with him."
"You gone to Jesus, or just loco?" the old woman asked.
"He's become a healer," Zebulon explained.
Annie May cackled, slapping her arthritic knees with her palms. "Well don't the sun just shine. You're too late, Mister Healer-Dealer. He took his sorry ass to Californie. Who knows where? Now you got me to deal with.
"It ain't the same."
"The hell it ain't. The horse and traps you stole were mine the same as his. By rights I should plug you for thievery and be done with you."
Hatchet Jack shrugged. "That's up to you. I still got a horse to give back, even if I lost the traps."
"We'll eat," she said firmly. "Then speculate."
She sighed, shifting her gaze to Zebulon, who was slicing up a pair of his Pa's pants with his bowie knife.
"To think you're all I spawned," she said. "All that I care to recollect anyways."
She picked up the bottle of whiskey, studying his bloody chest. "What happened to your pump?"
"I guess I been shot."
"You guess?" She hobbled over to him and poured the rest of the whiskey on his chest, an act that made him howl more from witnessing the last of the bottle than from the acute pain. He shuddered as she carefully wrapped a strip of pant leg around his chest.
"How come there ain't no bullet hole?" she asked.
"I wondered about that," he said.
"Might be the slug passed through you. Who done it?"
"Most likely a pecker-head sneakin' a card off the bottom." He nodded at Hatchet Jack. "That's what he says, anyway."
"You was there?" she asked Hatchet Jack.
"I come in after the show was over," Hatchet Jack said.
Satisfied with her nursing skills, Annie May stood up. "Don't neither of you burden me with your sad stories," she cautioned. "Or what you done or ain't done or what you're goin' to do. I'm too old for that bullshit."
She took down a tin of biscuits and a slab of jerky from a sagging shelf. After she dropped the food on the table, she sat down, lit up a curved ivory pipe, and watched Hatchet Jack and Zebulon eat.
"Raise many pelts this winter?" Hatchet Jack asked, chewing hard on the jerky.
Annie May shrugged, then let loose another streak of tobacco juice, missing the spittoon by a foot. "I floated my share of sticks, but the haul was damn thin. Not much beaver, a few muskrats and otter, the odd fox. Hardly worth the trouble. Far as I'm concerned, the mountains be finished. Leastways for this old sow."
They passed around a second bottle of whiskey. When the bottle was empty, Hatchet Jack and Zebulon lay down on a pile of pelts, too tired to pay attention to the rats sniffing across the floor for crumbs.
Annie May closed her eyes and continued to smoke, enjoying the smell and presence of two snoring men. When the memories of a newborn son and a mountain lover who wouldn't quit threatened to overwhelm her, she stumbled off to her own bunk in an add-to behind the stove.
~ ~ ~
The next morning Zebulon cleaned out a weasel nest underneath a rafter while Annie May sat by the window, watching Hatchet Jack sort out her meager display of pelts, then cinch and slap them over the backs of two emaciated mules.
"Never thought I'd see both of you at the same trough again," she said. "Not after what Hatchet pulled with your Pa. Not to mention your Pa with him."
"He's askin' forgiveness, Ma. That ain't easy."
"Forgiveness ain't in my possibles bag. If your Pa was here, he'd give him a taste of forgiveness upside the head."
Zebulon opened the door and threw out the weasel nest, looking at Hatchet Jack who was kneeling on the ground, carefully shoeing one of the mules.
"Hatchet's pulled me out of a few scraps and shoot-outs," he said. "I owe him for that."
Annie May shrugged. "You always were a sucker for idiot kindness. Truth is, your heart slammed shut when Pa brought Hatchet back and he tried to drown you in the river. I had to pull you out by your hair. Ever since then, you'll take any bone thrown to you."
She sighed, not remembering how much Zebulon had been told about Hatchet Jack.
"I'll tell you some things Hatchet picked up from your Pa," she said. "Dealin' off the bottom of the deck. Settin' someone up and draggin' him to hell and then tellin' him he done the opposite. For spite and pleasure."
"He's slick all right," Zebulon acknowledged. "I'll give him that."
"Never mind," she went on, as if she was having second thoughts. "He's still kin. I raised him almost the same as you, a fact that calls for some measurement, if not in the eyes of the Lord, then from you and me. Poor lost-and-found half-breed bastard."
She took a deep breath before she finally said what was really on her mind: "Tell you one last thing, son. After I sell my pelts, that's it for me. I ain't about to wait for my last days stretched out in a low-rent room over some dumb flatlander's store."
"Maybe I should pack you down to old Mex," Zebulon suggested. "Let the sun warm your bones. Fix you up in some little hacienda with a front porch and a cantina down the street. There are worse ways."
"What the hell would I do in old Mex? Chew my sorry cud with all them bean and chili-eaters? Nossir. When I take my carcass to the misty beyond, the sky will be my blanket and I'll have a mountain to lean against and a jug to pull on. That'll be enough."
He had grown up hearing this statement, or at least variations of it, and depending on her mood he always gave the same reply:
"You brought me into the world, Ma. I'll see you out."
This time she interrupted him: "I didn't raise you for false sentiments, son. You do what's in front of you and I'll do the same."
THE FOLLOWING MORNING THEY ALL RODE OFF INTO A SOFT spring rain. They took their time, as Annie May was in no hurry to be shut of the only place she had known for thirty years, a place she was beginning to realize she would never see again.
That night they camped among the crumbling ruins of an abandoned pueblo, the wind howling around their fire like a chorus of grieving widows. Halfway through a meal of Annie May's remaining biscuits and dried jerky, Hatchet Jack stood up, his head swiveling back and forth.
An ancient Mexican stood in the shadows, his nearly toothless face marked by an empty eye socket. His skeletal frame was wrapped in torn leggings and a long white cotton shirt.
"You leave a trail like a wounded buffalo," the Mexican said with a soft Spanish accent.
"Plaxico!" Hatchet Jack exclaimed. "How did you find me?"
"I didn't find you. You found me."
"Your problem is that you think too much. And not enough."
Without another word, he turned and disappeared.
Spooked by the old Mexican's ghostly appearance, Annie May paced back and forth, raising her arms against the elements: "Hurrah fer mountain doin's and all the old warriors in all the times! My boys and I, we come in peace and we'll leave in peace and we'd be grateful if all you dead and dyin' red niggers and bean-eaters put the stopper on your salutes. One day soon I'll pitch my tent inside the big circle. But not now. Not this night."
Zebulon and Hatchet Jack joined her, shuffling their feet around the fire, faster and faster as they hollered their mountain yells: "Waaaaaaaaagh...! Waaaaaaaaagh...! Waaaaaaaaagh!"
Collapsing on their backs, they finished the last of the whiskey as they sang an old family song:
Old Long Hatcher gone under on the north Platte,
Found him a bar but the bar laid him flat.
Hatchet Jack reached into his pocket and removed a paper bag full of penny candies. Popping half of them into his mouth, he threw the bag to Zebulon, who took a fistful and passed the bag to Annie May, who gobbled up the rest.
"We're markin' the bush on sacred ground," Hatchet Jack said. "Plaxico might make us pay for that."
Annie May sighed. "You seen one old buzzard around these hide-outs, you seen 'em all. The hell with him. I'll settle for a healing. What about it, Mister Healer-Dealer? Can you strut your healin' stuff? Got me a bad knee, shoulder ain't right, arrowhead been stuck in my leg for ten years, teeth gone or rotten, sluice line to my gut plugged up. Not only that, but I'm spiteful with bad notions."
"I can handle that," Hatchet Jack said, showing no confidence at all.
"Check out Zeb while you're at it," Annie May suggested. "He's tough to figure, shot up with no bullet in his pump. Like he don't know if he's here or down under."
Hatchet Jack shook his head, not wanting to go ahead with any of it. "I never done two straight up. I always been the helper."
"Yoke us up anyway," Zebulon said. "Never mind the windy complaints."
Hatchet Jack poked their shoulders and cheeks with his forefinger, blowing tobacco smoke over their heads and shoulders and into their faces. Then he stood up and opened his arms to include the night sky and the black clouds drifting beneath a quarter-moon like a procession of giant bones.
"Old Father," he cried out, "don't contrary me now!"
Arching his neck and head, he shut his eyes and sank to his knees, pounding his fists on the earth.
The wind stopped as if turned off by a spigot.
Annie May shook her head in wonder. "I'll be stripped naked and fried in goose grease. Maybe the boy ain't such a lyin' shuck after all."
As the wind rose again, Hatchet Jack disappeared into the darkness. Just when they thought he had run out on them, he returned.
"Plaxico says it's all right to join him."
They followed Hatchet Jack down a steep path, descending a series of narrow, winding steps that led to a stone platform lit by a fire and a single torch set into a cliff. Beyond the platform, a deep canyon separated two mountains shaped like pendulous breasts.
Plaxico sat cross-legged on one side of a large circle made from white flour mixed with corn shuckings and colored stone beads. Above him on the crumbling walls, mounted warriors threw lances at running mountain lions and antelopes.
Hatchet Jack motioned for Zebulon and Annie May to sit opposite Plaxico, then took a position at the lower end of the circle, behind an altar of flat stones. On one side of the altar, a statue of the Virgin Mary had been placed next to an eagle feather and a brightly colored Kachina doll. On the darker side, the skeleton of a rattlesnake circled a human skull. A dozen tomahawks, as well as swords and hunting knives, were stuck in the ground in front of the altar.
Hatchet Jack stood up. "This medicine is from old Mex. It raises the dead and then some. It has the power to cozy up to the underworld of the snake, the middle world of the mountain lion, and the higher world of the eagle. I never tried it, but that's what I been told. So here goes."
Plaxico sat behind the altar pounding a flat drum and chanting an incomprehensible prayer. He broke off a few times to yell instructions in Spanish to Hatchet Jack, who motioned for Annie May and Zebulon to stand at the top of the circle. Then he approached them holding a hollowed-out gourd in both hands.
Hatchet Jack drank, then offered the gourd to Zebulon, who drank and passed it to Annie May. After she drank, she handed the gourd to Hatchet Jack, who handed it to Plaxico, who finished what was left. After a consultation with Plaxico, Hatchet Jack pulled a long curved sword out of the earth and rushed straight at mother and son, yelling and dancing around them as he slashed the sword above their heads.
Annie May and Zebulon stood as if their feet had been nailed to the ground as Hatchet Jack replaced the sword in front of the altar and collapsed by the fire. Behind him, Plaxico swayed from side to side, shuffling around the circle, moaning and shaking his rattle.
The medicine roared through their bodies in noxious waves until they sank down on all fours, vomiting and heaving until nothing was left inside them. They stayed that way until the first light of dawn shuddered over the horizon. As the mountains grew bolder and more defined, Annie May cried out at a long parade of skywalkers moving towards them over the snowy peaks. Some were conquistadors and mountain men, others Hopis, Navajos, Zunis, and Apaches. All of them were raising their arms to greet the rising sun. Behind them, bringing up the rear was Annie May's long-dead brother. He was followed by her mother and father and then the preacher of her youth, who used to terrify her with fiery sermons on sin and repentance, and who now seemed, as he looked over the valley, sad and confused. The sky shifted and the parade dissolved as she saw an image of herself as a young girl standing in the middle of a field of tall, wavy grass, a bonnet pulled over her head, her bare feet planted on the black earth, crying out in fear as an eagle glided towards her in slowly decreasing circles. Her mother watched from the door of their homestead as the eagle gently lifted her up in its talons and flew her across the grassy plains into the foothills and mountains beyond. Fragments of her life appeared one after the other: her first shoes; her marriage bed; the long white beard of her father as he stood behind the mule on the last furrow of a plowed field; her husband, Elijah, whirling her around a dance floor, then carrying her on his shoulders through the door of the cabin he had built for her; and there was baby Zebulon crawling over the dirt floor. She wept and wept, haunted by the memories and the approaching shadow of her own death.
"Are we dead?" she cried. "Or does it just seem that way?"
Zebulon cradled her frail, broken body in his arms as Hatchet Jack, seized with his own visions and oblivious to her racking sobs and sudden peals of laughter, smacked the earth with his palms. "Who are my real Ma and Pa," he howled, "and why have they forsaken me?"
The only answer was the howling wind.
"Can you see the truth of it, boys?" Annie May shouted. "Life and death. The eagle and the washing up and the outhouse. The stove and the snow. The horse and the mountains and the 'baca juice. No doubt about it. The whole stew is only a passing, you and me and all the rest. The goddamn joke is on us, boys!"
Zebulon made his way to the edge of the platform. In front of him the mountains were undulating like three copulating snakes. He wept at the energies threatening to consume him, motherly and loving, violent and terrifying, a warm hissing breeze that flowed through the strangled knots of his being. He knew what he had always known and had always forgotten: that he was composed of the same elements as the plants and animals and the rain, which was now spreading in thick sheets across the deep valley, followed by the sun and then a rumble of earthshaking thunder that suddenly transformed into the roar of a mountain lion. He was part of it all, a drop of water in the ocean, a crushed wild flower under the heel of an outlaw's boot, a sun-baked skeleton in the desert.
When Hatchet Jack loomed up in front of him, the vision dissolved into a vaporous fog.
For the rest of the night, mother and son slept in each other's arms, each comforted by the other's breathing. When they woke they were alone and the sun was shining directly above them as if through a huge prism.
Behind them, the altar was gone and the circle erased, as if none of it had ever existed.
Empty of thought or any emotion, they climbed up through the ruins until they found Hatchet Jack packing his horse. Plaxico sat against a crumbling wall, rolling a cigarette.
"I'm pullin' out." Hatchet Jack's hands shook as he swung into the saddle. "Some of the medicine worked and some went south." He looked at Plaxico, then at Annie May. "The spirits told me it wouldn't be a good idea to give you the horse."
"Who cares about any of it?" Annie May said softly. "It's all the same, horse or no horse."
They watched Hatchet Jack gallop off without a wave or a look back, as if pursued by a confusion of unknown mysteries.
"He talked to some of the spirits all right," Plaxico said. "But he choked on the rest. Too big a meal for a beginner."
And then he, too, was gone, disappearing back inside the pueblo.
ANNIE MAY AND ZEBULON SMELLED BROKEN ELBOW BEFORE they saw it. What had been a trading post and a few shacks only a year ago was now a long, rutted street dominated by pandemonium and open sewage. Drunken miners shouted back and forth in a dozen languages, a naked Chinaman crawled past them into an alleyway pursued by a screaming whore, half-dead oxen pulled overloaded supply wagons through mud and melting snow, past signs advertising wares at outrageous prices: Boots $30, Flour $35, Blankets $30, Washing $20. Every square foot of ground that was not lived on was cluttered with mining equipment, dead dogs, pigs rooting in piles of stinking garbage, wagon beds, spare wheels, barrels, and stacks of lumber, as well as makeshift corrals where mules and horses stood knee-deep in muck. Further away, on the banks of a swiftly moving river, hundreds of high-booted men -- most of them Indians, Mexicans, and Chinese -- squatted beside cradle-like gold washers and sluice boxes while others worked up a canyon in steep pits, hacking at the soil with picks and shovels.
At the end of the street, they reined up in front of a two-story trading post.
Inside the cavernous room, clerks ran back and forth filling orders in Spanish, French, and English for rifles, canned goods, farming equipment, wagon beds, and sacks of feed. A few of the older clerks waved to Annie May as she approached a plump young man perched at a high-top desk, adding up small sums inside a huge ledger.
Annie May pulled herself up to her full height, which was barely up to the level of the desk.
"I'm Annie May Shook, and I'm here to sell my pelts."
The clerk nodded, not looking up as he took off his glasses and rubbed his strained red-rimmed eyes.
Annie May rapped on the desk with the barrel of her shotgun. "I want both ears when I'm talkin', Mister. Where be the major?"
The clerk took his time placing his glasses over his nose. "Major Poultry sold out last winter. You'll deal with me now."
"Always was partial to the major," Annie May said. "Dealt with mountain folk straight up."
"Business is business," the clerk said with measured patience. "Whoever be the buyer or seller."
Annie May scratched her head, took out her pipe, began to light it, then shoved it back inside her buffalo robe. "All right, then. What be the price of pelts?"
The clerk looked down at Annie May as if her presence was an annoying fly. "The bottom has fallen out of the fur market. It will never come back. That said, I'll give you fifty cents a pelt. Take it or leave it."
She stared up at him, unable to comprehend. "The hell you say."
"The numbers come down from St. Louis, Ma'am. Trade or cash."
Her voice rose to a shout. "Two dollars a pelt, Mister St. Louis. And my usual loan on 'baca, cartridges, and flour. That's the way it's been for these thirty years, and that's the way it'll be. Nothing more, nothing less."
The clerk shut the ledger with a loud snap. "I'm afraid that's impossible."
"Well then, Mister St. Louis, let an old mountain sage hen show you her possible bag."
Annie May waved her shotgun at the clerk, then at a window, then at a row of pickle jars.
The terrified clerk backed away, bumping into Zebulon who shoved him against a shelf of canned goods, sending him and the cans crashing to the floor.
This was more like it, Zebulon thought, looking around the room. This was what the old Spirit Doc ordered when he needed to stir things up. He reached behind the counter for a jug of liquor, uncorked it and took a long pull, then tossed it to Annie May, who caught it in one hand. As the clerk staggered up from the floor, she smashed the jug over his head.
"Hurrah fer mountain doin's!" she shouted.
Hauling herself onto a table, she fired her shotgun into the air. The pellets struck an overhead gas lamp that exploded when it hit the floor, sending a rush of flames roaring towards the ceiling.
"Hurrah fer mountain doin's!" Zebulon shouted.
He yanked off a large gold nugget that hung from a string around the clerk's neck.
"For settlement," he said.
Then he picked up an ax handle and knocked over a shelf of air-tights and smashed a window as customers grabbed whatever goods were close to hand and started for the door.
Zebulon found Annie May slumped underneath the table, a bullet through her chest. As he gently gathered her into his arms, a barrel of kerosene exploded behind them, collapsing the ceiling, blowing out windows, killing two miners, and setting the building on fire.
Zebulon carried Annie May outside and laid her on the sagging wooden sidewalk. Around them, a line of men were hand-rushing buckets of water to pour on the flames.
Annie May's voice faded to a whisper. "Deer is deer... elk is elk and this mountain oyster is a gone coon.... I done you wrong a time or two, son, as you did me... but that's family." She raised herself up, trying to see him as her eyes clouded over. "Always figured I'd go out the old way. Straight up and on my own breath.... But we caused a commotion in this town, did we not, son?"
"So we did, Ma," he answered.
"Did I ever tell how Hatchet come to be with us?"
"You never did," he replied, even though she had told him endless times.
"Pa won him from a Mex at a rendezvous down on the Purgatory.... Everything was in the pot, everything the Mex had - his traps, horses, pelts, and even little Hatchet as a throw in. No more than a stump, he was. When Pa palmed the last card, he got caught, which bothered him enough to carve the Mex up for callin' him out. Pa took Hatchet back with him out of guilt, and maybe because he thought he could use another hand. He was always one for slaves, your Pa...."
Her voice stopped and he thought she was gone, until he heard her again.
"Are you with me, son?"
"I'm here, Ma."
"All right, then. Hatchet was a weird boy. Always tryin' to drown you in the river. And then you tried to do the same to him, just to get even.... When you find your Pa... tell him.... Hell, don't tell him nothin'. He never did a damn thing for us except bring misery. And now he's trotted off to the gold fields. The old cocksucker."
She looked up, her eyes pleading with his not to ever let her go, and then she died.
He sat holding her as the lines of water buckets were passed back and forth. When the fire was out, the sheriff and the owner of the trading post, along with several clerks, surrounded him with drawn pistols. One of the clerks carried a rope with a noose tied at the end.
As Zebulon was pulled to his feet, Hatchet Jack galloped through the crowd, pulling a saddled horse behind him.
Shots were fired, but before anyone could mount up to follow, Zebulon and Hatchet Jack had disappeared down the street.
Ten miles outside of town they parted company, Zebulon for old Mex, Hatchet Jack for California, where he figured to make peace with Elijah.