Sampson paused at the elbow of a switchback to wait for scudding clouds to pass overhead and release the moon. The drowsy horse behind him bumbled against his shoulder. The old man was in discussion with himself, and with the horse, and with the unseen trees around them, the subject being how old they both were, and how he was too old to be a father to this orphaned boy, or an uncle to him, or whatever stupid thing he was trying to do here. But what other choice did he have if the kid refused to live with him? Preferred instead to stay in his old cabin, to live alone with a ghost? Thirteen was too young to be a hermit.
The horse hung its head over Sampson’s shoulder and he warmed his hands in its breath. Ice shook from the trees above and the crumbs pattered on his hat. Finally the cloud passed and they went on again, descending the mountain, moving in their slow, heavy gait, the horse saddleless and Sampson’s capacious backpack stuffed to the flap with food for the kid.
He heard the sound of running water before he saw it. They splashed through a shallow gravelled stream of runoff making its kinked way downhill from the summit and across the switchbacks, the water passing sometimes under delicate panes of ice and swirling there. When they reached lower ground they both walked more easily, the old man nattering away as they entered the first meadow, flushing things out as they went. The whir of wings above. A young affronted fox exploded from a thicket and loped away through snow, wheeled round to take their gauge, then turned and slalomed through the bushes until it was gone. They waded through grass after it.
When they got to the perimeter of the meadow, the old man stopped as usual and turned to face his horse.
“Willow,” he said, “it’s all right.” And as usual, the horse scanned the area ahead. Then he took the hackamore and they left the green meadow and entered an area of burnt timber, lifeless poles all askew, the bark silvery as wasp paper. The horse’s gait was tight now, uneven.
Ten years previously, when the boy was still a baby and his parents still around, and they and Sampson were the only people for fifty miles, in the waning weeks of a summer of unabated heat and drought, a passing train had thrown a cinder into the parched weeds here. Or at least that was the theory everyone formed after it was all over. Flames crawled along the weeds and moved in smouldering fingers into the nearby meadow. From there, dead grass began to smoke and burn. When it reached the trees, they too went up. Sampson had awoken from an afternoon nap, lying on his bed alone, without a wife, and heard the unaccountable sound of Willow losing her mind in the corral. And then he smelled the smoke.
He had burst from his sweltering cabin into the sweltering air and saw an enormous red S inscribed on the meadow below. It was beautiful and appalling and already too big to do anything about. But it was moving away from him. So he had cornered his maddened horse, bridled it, and dragged it jerking and dancing and chewing the bit away from the cabin, going the long way round the far side of the mountain to arrive back-wise at Bill’s place, until Sampson was standing there in nothing but his boots and long johns, the horse sore in its mouth and tonguing the bit. Bill’s wife was already in a frantic effort to pack up everything useful, and the baby was trailing her like a gosling and getting underfoot.
By 8 p.m., they were packed up, both horses were loaded and standing more or less calmly together in the visibly smoky air. Mary had paced the ground outside the cabin with the baby asleep in her arms, a kerchief covering his face. The fire’s progress had slowed, so they watched it, delaying that moment when they would necessarily have to abandon their home, Mary reluctant to even close the cabin door, saying “It’s all right, it’s all right” to the sleeping boy’s ear, to herself, to the soil beneath her black boots. Far down by the river, the figure of the park warden arrived on an exhausted horse and proceeded to pace the riverbank with his hands on his hips. Ten minutes later, four volunteer firemen from town slid up the rail lines on a handcar, trailed on the dirt road by several motorcars full of excited tourists who’d followed the smoke. The warden had sent the tourists packing with as much tact as he would kicking dogs off a veranda. Then he and the firemen sped off northwest to start cutting a firebreak.
Sampson remembered the gentle suck of convecting air, live embers floating in it like infernal fairies. Here and there stood a Thomson or lodgepole pine, its canopy hissing with flame, cones popping in the heat and blowing seeds into the smoldering grass. Sometimes there would be a crack like a rifle shot as a tree split, boiling in its own greenness.
But before dusk the wind changed direction, then changed again, and a cool breeze came up in the west, pushing against the fire just enough to woo it back across its own charred path, across barren ground. By dark the fire was mostly extinguished and the wind had died.
Sampson and Bill had walked the periphery, with kerchiefs tied across their faces like outlaws, stamping at stubborn ground flares, their leather boot soles smoking. They climbed above the burn area and sat all night together watching, what for they knew not, but vigilance seemed to be in order, and anyway, sleep was impossible. So they sat together, and Bill told jokes Sampson failed to find funny, which, in itself, amused them both. All that night the ground was spangled with embers. They watched the weird illumination of the forest and looked up at a blank night sky, stars erased by smoke. Now and then came a crackling and a long whoosh as a ruined tree swooned against its neighbours and hit the ground, blowing fireworks into the air.
In the days afterward, the two men had laboured to cut a path from one cabin to the other through the fallen timber. Sampson swinging the axe and Bill going after smaller limbs with the saw. They looked about them at the devastation, their faces sooted and owlish as coal miners. Without apparent irony, Bill had sighed out, “This is scenic.”
They’d both been younger then. Mary was still alive.
First, news of this war, then everything else seemed to fall apart too. Even hermits who only entered town to get supplies knew about the war. They’d all watched the rapid disappearance of young men from the area. Newspaper photographs pasted face out in shop windows. The uniforms, the black arm bands, and soon the almost total lack of men of any age in town. Sampson adjudged himself to be over fifty, Bill was likely the same. Both of them born in the woods, so age was largely a matter of opinion.
Immigrants from newly enemy countries were rounded up and interned. Sampson had seen them at a distance, a gaggle of dun-coloured figures press-ganged into expanding the grand hotel’s golf course, always under guard, or struggling to upgrade the trestle bridge in town. Even here, in the lonely stretch between two distant towns, he’d seen them grading a new highway, following the old road straight through the trackless forest toward the far town of Laggan. The train stopping where no train should, only to disgorge hell onto the rail side. Work gangs. Horses clattering down the gangplank, and crates of tools, and a wagon, and guards with rifles, and dozens of convicts whose job it was to cut an incision through the trees, their work rimmed by smoke and fire and noise. In town there were fewer tourists, fewer guiding jobs for men like Sampson and Bill, so they took to shooting animals they would never have bothered with before, foxes and martin and mink, and they set up looms in their yards and cured the pelts and hides, their hands stinging from the lye in the ash mixture, a stink on the wind even smudge fires could not carry away.
And then last year Bill’s wife and child had become sick. Some unknown fever. Sampson had pieced it together later based on the simple fact that the horse could not carry three. So Bill had mounted with their dying son in his arms and ridden the four hours into town first, left the boy at the hospital, and headed back for his wife. But Mary had died alone before he could get to her. Bill had buried her, who knew where, and then he, too, had vanished, headed out into the world to do . . . what? Blow the doors off telegraph offices and steal cash. Use dynamite to raise havoc in mining towns all up and down the Rockies, from Montana to British Columbia. That’s what the papers said anyway.
It had taken Sampson some weeks to apprehend that his only neighbours were gone. He was alone on the mountain. He had stood outside their abandoned cabin, calling through the open door, telling the ghost within that he was there to remove some things for safekeeping. The house was silent. He could see nearby where a kitchen shelf had fallen to the floor and animals had skirmished over the abandoned food.
“Miyéč,” he told her ghost. It’s me.
There was utter silence. A blackened pot lay on the floor. A scattering of dry leaves had wandered the floorboards and faded into the lightless hollow of the cabin. He’d felt something in his throat, a flutter of dread.
It had taken him four tries to step inside, and as he did, Sampson braced himself for her presence, her anger or sorrow, something that might blow over him and cling like sand in his hair. Instead, very clearly, he’d felt nothing. Nothing. He’d pondered this for a moment, lifting a pot from the floor and placing it gently on the stovetop. Had she gone somewhere else? Was she there in the room with him, watching? He’d tidied what he could, collected up anything that might rust or attract animals or that needed fixing, and then he’d left the cabin, looking back once into the sad debris of other people’s lives, and closed the door.
To Sampson’s mind, it had all seemed like an awful message, a stage play put on for him to witness, proof that the world was grinding toward its own end. He was old, and he often thought about the end.
Sampson realized now that he was standing still, his voice and his progress having faltered. Most mornings he woke without the slightest idea what else to do with his life except visit the boy, check on the boy, feed the boy. Jack ultimately had refused his new life in town, snuck out at night, loaded his horse up, and lit out. Their son had come back. A resourceful kid with his mother’s stubborn will, but he was still only thirteen, and for the first time in his life Jack was alone. Which was why, too often, Sampson found himself passing through this burn area, falling helplessly again into a remembrance of fire and the smell of fire, remembering Bill, as he always did when he made the mistake of coming this way. He wondered how long it would be before he could walk through the grey mess of dead timber and feel nothing. How long before it was just an old forest fire like any other.
Despite what he’d told the boy, he wondered if these awful stories about Bill were true. After all, Bill had worked in mines and in logging camps, and he knew perfectly well how to use dynamite. But none of it made sense in terms of the man himself. Taking money? Doing harm to people? He was still out there, spooking into towns and camps and ranger stations at night to steal things, living exactly the way he used to live, in the days before a family. It made no sense at all. Could a man change that much? But perhaps the kid knew something Sampson didn’t; his open, trusting face closed down after any mention of his father.
Sampson took off his hat, turned his face up to the moon, and closed his eyes like a man sunbathing. Perhaps, he thought, we are toughest when we are young and life wears us down; we become increasingly tender with age. Certainly, it felt so to him.
He put on his hat and went on again, the hackamore swinging loose between them, and the old man’s face once again in shadow. He was obliged to work his way around the crowds of infant trees that now grew in profusion and came to his shoulder, those blown seeds come to life, an impassible green fuzz congregating in the hollows, and the whole area still streaked with fireweed. The old man began to talk again, about the wisdom of going the long way around next time, his voice droning away to the horse behind him.
Of course, the boy was not awake when they arrived. Even the man’s ceaseless rambling had failed to rouse him. Sampson put Willow in the corral, still talking. Willow made her way to the kid’s horse, a furry Morgan with a pretty face. Sampson was telling the two horses that the child had surely gotten very weary down there, in town, where everyone was depressed and run ragged, but this sleeping-in thing was no good, and a time came in every boy’s life to stop lounging around, to wake up and get busy. It was irrelevant to him that it was before 5 a.m. and the sun was still many hours from rising.
He made his way to a chair by the icy fire ring and lowered himself groaning into it. After a moment he rose again and scrounged for dry wood under the eaves. The scrape of logs against the cabin’s wall. The sound of kindling snapping under Sampson’s boot, the ching of his metal lighter, nothing roused the kid. When the fire was crackling merrily and the rocks around it were steaming, he rooted through the rucksack and withdrew smoked venison, oats, ground coffee and sugar, a loaf of hard bread, and a pot to heat water in. The horses smelled dry oats and crowded the fence. They hung their heads over the rungs and blinked at the firelight. It was quiet, and the stars were fading.
Finally Sampson took out his handkerchief and blew his nose in three enormous gooselike honks, and with that, the boy stirred.
Sampson had predicted the weather would change, and it did. The mercury withered in the glass overnight and their side of the mountain went white with ice.
When Jack woke that morning it was to the thin whistle of the dog snoring. The boy lay in a fetal ball, the blanket over his head and hands over his ears against the noise. It was God Almighty cold and he was wretched with the need to piss. Sampson had been right.
Jack counted to three and flung back the blanket and immediately felt the tingle of snowflakes settling on his skin. He put his hand to his cheek: wetness on his fingers. The blanket had glazed during the night with frozen breath, human and animal, with wet wood and the lingering damp of everything inside an old cabin. He shivered his way off the bed. The dog raised its head but otherwise didn’t move. The animal was long and leggy and pale, it lay there on the bed inside its thick wolf’s coat and nothing moved but its eyes. Jack huffed into his cupped hands, knuckles red with cold. On the table was a lantern and he struck a match and turned the wick until he heard the hiss of the flame, wincing from foot to foot, laying his right toes over his left like Christ, then reversing. Lantern light fell across the tabletop and heeled up the cabin’s log wall.
In times past, one of his parents would have risen in the middle of the night to stoke the stove; that was just part of life in a cabin. But Jack himself had never done so, and now he’d woken to a frigid morning. The stove’s metal was icy to the touch. In the vain hope of finding some coals he slid the cover aside and poked at the contents—they simply collapsed, and a half-charred log bonged against the metal hull. Dawn showed through the frosted window in a kind of diamond sparkle. The dog was wandering the cabin now, pacing over the muddy boot prints Jack had tracked inside the previous night, before he’d realized his mistake, turned back around, and left those boots outside by the stoop.
Dressing involved a sweater and another sweater and a coat before he stiff-legged his way outside, heading for the crapper. The clearing was bathed in cool morning light and pocked with muddy boot prints and dog tracks, now hardened artifacts.
His chin jabbered, but he’d seen worse cold.
The boots were standing by the front stoop and he snatched at them and stood up. The boots were still on the ground. He reached down again and pulled at them, but they stayed where they were. Last night there had been a kind of lagoon of mud next to the stoop, now both boots were frozen to the ground. No matter what he did, they would not come loose. He twisted them side to side, hammered at them with his fist, put his feet in and tried to walk them out, laced them up and leaned forward like a ski jumper, but they held fast.
“Goddamn,” he said, standing like an idiot in the stocks of his own boots. Never before had be been more tempted to piss in his own yard.
Instead, in socks, he hobbled and winced his way across the jagged ground all the way to the outhouse. It was on his way back—shivering and marvelling at how hot urine seemed on a cold day, and how getting rid of it made you feel less chilled—that his gaze fell upon the Morgan. It was entirely white, standing motionless in the ruined corral, head sagging, eyes half closed. It was a ghost horse, furry with frost.
His first thought was to walk the horse around the wide corral to warm it. But how to do that in socks?
In the shed, he seized everything on the floor and flung it out the door like a fire brigadier throwing buckets. Skeins of wire, shovels and a pick, a roll of tarpaper that unfurled and unfurled and ran away downhill until it bumped up against a tree.
Then he brought the Morgan into the shed and impelled it as far inside as it could go. He brought in two oil lanterns, which he lit, then he dragged the reluctant dog inside, too. The boy lay two blankets over the horse and wrapped a third around himself and finally shut the rickety door, the idea being that three living creatures and two lanterns might warm the small space enough. The dog leapt up onto a side shelf and stood regarding the whole enterprise dubiously. There was room for the boy to stand, but he too hopped up onto the shelf beside the dog and thumped its side.
“There,” he said with satisfaction. Jack fished in his jacket pocket and took out a chunk of chocolate the size of a bar of soap and began to gnaw. The cold had whitened it so the surface looked leprous, but it still was a pretty good breakfast. The horse craned round to beg for some but he pushed its snout away. He drew his knees up to his chest and sighed. Next to him the storm lantern churned heat into the room. He cupped his hands over the chimney until they stung, then pressed his palms to his face. His cheeks felt like cold steaks. Jack could feel wind coming in at the cracks and chinks at his back, and through the ratty shingle roof he saw the colourless glow of the sky. Grains of snow fell down through that roof onto his face. He watched hoarfrost refuse to melt on the Morgan’s coat.
Eventually the dog shook itself, hopped down, and scratched at the door.
“Get back here,” said the boy from his awkward perch on the shelving. “Come on. This’ll work.”
The dog stood like a statue, waiting.
“Stop it, dingus,” he said.
It gave him one flat glare and went back to staring a hole in the door.
“Get up here,” he slapped the shelf beside him, for he was getting chilly without the dog’s fur against him. It sat there inside its warm coat and didn’t move.
After forty minutes the boy’s teeth were chattering, his stockinged feet had stopped screaming but were now numb, and his breath was visible. What was worse, the horse looked dangerously sleepy. At that moment Jack was feeling the absence of his parents keenly, for he didn’t really know how much cold a horse could take and there was no one to ask. Sampson was forty minutes away on horseback, and Jack didn’t have any boots. He was alone with the problem. Perhaps the Morgan was perfectly fine, warm enough and falling again into a drowse. But what if, instead, it was freezing to death? He ran his hand over the furry rump and swept away a granular palmful of snow. It ran off like sand. The air wasn’t getting any warmer inside the shed, and Jack himself was beginning to suffer. By that time, the dog had already leapt onto the shelving four times to register its grievance by trampling all over the boy before jumping back down to stare at the door. The whole plan was ridiculous.
“All right fine!” said the boy, and he heeled the door open. The dog shot out and soon was a pale blur among the trees. Jack sighed, and then hammered his own thighs and shrieked out in fury, “Fuck fuck!”
At that, the Morgan’s head jerked up out of what had been a pleasant dream. It blinked. For it was a tough, hairy animal and perfectly suited to this weather, and it had been sleeping peacefully. Like the boy, the horse had seen worse cold.
Inside the cabin, Jack paced and stamped his stinging, thawing feet. The air was muggy with the smell of damp horse. The stove was at the front of the cabin at full heat. The Morgan now stood by the back wall tethered to the ladder that led to the loft, its hooves punishing the floorboards. Jack had removed the blankets from the horse’s back and shaken them out in the clearing; he’d blown out the two lanterns and stoked the stove, and now the place was warm and the animal’s coat was glistening with meltwater. He whistled a little tune to himself and paced the cabin, icy fingers shoved into his armpits. He was rather proud of his solution to the problem. He wondered what Sampson would think of it.
The thought arrested him mid-step, mid-whistle. Sampson surely would not like it.
Jack wasn’t sure what he should have done but he had a sickened intuition that this was exactly the wrong thing. He raked his memory in vain for any time he had seen a horse inside a house. The Morgan stood there with its tail draped over a cedar trunk, its filthy hooves on a rag rug. The sight was preposterous.
“Oh hell,” thought the boy. “What harm can it do for a few hours?”
As if in answer, the horse began to shuffle step forward and take on the unmistakable posture of a creature about to take a piss.
“Don’t,” said the boy. “Don’t you dare.” He cast about frantically for something to catch it in, a bucket, a tub, a blanket that might soak up the liquid, anything to keep what he knew would be a river of urine from pouring across his floor. “Wait!” he called to the horse, who was definitely not going to wait. Finally, he fixed on his mother’s precious stockpot, which he snatched up by its handles and slid under the descending penis just in time. A harsh rattle as urine drilled off the side.
The boy sank down onto the blanket box and pressed his knuckles to his mouth, tried not to giggle. Then began the alarming process of watching the pot begin to fill. Already it was several inches deep, the liquid stirring in a gentle circular motion, and the Morgan was showing no signs of letting up.
Jack began to look around the room again. He remembered Sampson, packed and ready to leave the other day, having fed the kid his breakfast, leading Willow away, then turning and saying, “Don’t do anything stupid.”