THE BLUE MOUNTAINS
by David Abrams
The day the kind man rode over the hill with the others from the ranch, the cattle moaned, thinking of the long walk ahead. It was the same day the kind man woke the boy early for breakfast, shaking him under the wool blanket; the same day the boy dressed in the early cold, heart pounding so he could hardly breathe; the same day the kind man held his shoulders and said with slow lips, "Remember to do it exactly as I told you, watch the hay and you won't have any trouble"; and the same day the boy stood in the middle of the yard for the longest time, watching the dust from the hooves hang over the top of the hill.
He looked at the ranch, the empty corral, the screen door at the kitchen slapping in the wind, the November sunlight running shadows through the sagebrush. He looked back at the hill. The dust was gone now.
His horse whinnied long and loud from the barn.
There was no answer.
The sun was high in the sky, but he was not warm. The hard cold ground came up through his boots. It was that time of year again in the valley. The cattle were off the mountains.
He turned, went into the ranch house. He sat on a chair and looked at the room, the cold stove, the stores of food, the brands burned into the wall. He looked at the rifle perched on its pegs. He waited for the deep chimes of the clock then went back out to the barn and checked the hay.
His horse called out again. He watched its belly move in and out, the skin running back and forth over the ribs.
The pitchfork was in the hayloft, up a ladder and next to the chute. The kind man had brought him up here yesterday and showed him with his hands. He was as tall as the kind man now and their hands were the same size. The boy put that much on the pitchfork and sent it down the chute, then again and once more until his horse stopped calling out and put its head down.
He burrowed into the loose hay until everything was covered except his nose, mouth and eyes. When the itching stopped, he closed his eyes.
His sister's hair was the color of this hay. When he put his head in her lap and looked up at her, both of them humming and smiling, her hair did not scratch his face but moved across his skin like water. She smelled like the purple flowers he picked around the ranch house. Late at night in his bed, he rubbed the petals between his hands, brought his fingers to his nose and she was with him again.
He was hot under the hay.
His sister was taken away by the man with pink hands, the one who brought him maple sugar candy and, later down by the creek, put his hand in his sister's hair and kissed her for a long, long time. His hands went other places. The man held his sister's gloved hand the day they left on the train. She fluttered a handkerchief at the boy standing on the platform and the last thing he saw of her was the bonnet that trapped all her yellow hair up inside.
Then he was put on a train, too, but it wasn't the same train. It took him across the land as fast as the wind. He put his face through the window and he was the wind. His eyes and nose ran across his cheeks and he laughed as he saw the mountains, blue and distant, coming closer. Then when he stopped, there was a tall man in black who reached out and took him by the arm, pinching him until he cried out. The man said, "I'm Packard" and put him in the back of a wagon. He had black hair that curled all over his face like licorice candy.
The boy's teeth snapped down on his tongue as the wagon jolted through the sagebrush. He'd never seen sagebrush before. When the wagon stopped in front of a house, a woman the color of sagebrush stood next to the door. She said she was Mrs. Packard and her head reached the roof of the house. The house was made of dirt and wood, but mostly dirt.
Mr. Packard beat him every night until his cheeks puffed up purple and black. They cracked and bled when they weren't fixed until finally Mrs. Packard said she couldn't stand it no longer and, when Mr. Packard sent her to town one day for provisions, took him to a doctor who rubbed grease all over his face. Then the two of them made a secret against Mr. Packard, the doctor looking at him with winking smiling eyes through his glasses, and sent him out here to the kind man who said he figured he could put him to work.
The boy slept for a long time in the hay, then woke sneezing. He brushed off the hay and stood at the top of the chute.
He looked at the long hair flowing between the horse's ears. It, too, was the color of hay. Then the inside of his nostrils tingled and he cried until it was dark outside the barn. He missed his sister so much.
* * *
The next day he cooked breakfast, slopping some of the oatmeal onto the floor, but he scooped it up with his bare hands and stirred it all back into the pot.
As he ate he looked again at the note the cow puncher had written. The cow puncher had angry eyebrows and was young, younger than the kind man but older than the boy. He didn't like to open his mouth and when he did he smelled like the bottles the men kept under the floorboards of the bunkhouse. He'd written the note hunched over the kitchen table. The tip of his tongue poked out of his lips like a worm and the boy laughed until the kind man gave him a look and he stopped.
The boy picked up the note as he ate the oatmeal and turned it on all four sides then set it back in the middle of the table under the rock.
Later, he heard the clock and went to the barn. He stabbed the pitchfork into the huge slope of hay and shook some off until it was just enough to fit between the kind man's hands.
His horse nickered and he answered from high above in the hayloft. He went down the ladder and patted the flat wide back as the animal ate.
"It's good, isn't it? It's good hay."
The horse did not lift its head. He put the side of his face against the horse's smooth warm belly and listened. He smiled and wrapped his arms around the long neck.
It snowed that night and he slept in the barn with the horse.
* * *
In the evenings he rode the horse to the edge of the plateau above the river and stared at the blue mountains. They were dusty silver in the setting sun, especially the one in the middle, the tall one shaped like a thumb. He'd heard the men at the ranch call it "the grand." When he heard the word "grand," the taste of sweet pancakes filled his mouth because once he'd heard the kind man say to Hops, the cook, "These sure is grand," and ever since, the boy always said "grand" to Hops whenever he had the chance at breakfast.
The men at the ranch called the valley a "hole" and he also liked to say this word over and over. He said it now, sitting on his horse in front of the evening-dark mountains.
A hole was a big black circle you dropped something into and it never came back. That suited him just fine because he'd been dropped in this valley and never wanted to come out again. He loved it here and thought of his sister joining him and the two of them living together with the smell of sage and horse and pine needles, the elk singing them to sleep at night and the trout darting from their hands in the morning.
Once a week, on Saturday nights and especially after he and all the men at the ranch had been given their money, he danced for them in the bunkhouse. One man with a moustache that grew down over both lips played the harmonica as the boy moved his bare feet across the floorboards. Each time, his toes tingled until he quit, collapsing in laughter, the men clapping and laughing with him.
He turned his horse and made it gallop back to the ranch. The snow sprayed up from the hooves and he laughed and wiped his face the entire distance.
* * *
The corral gate banged in the wind. It made the sound of a slap. The boy thought of Mr. Packard and his skin tightened.
He put on his jacket and went outside to close the gate, remembering to loop the rope this time. Then he leaned his arms on the wooden rail and stared at the empty corral. His horse nickered from its stall inside the barn.
He'd left the gate open once before and the men spent the next two days getting their horses out of the hills. When they came back with dust all over their faces, they glared at him standing next to Hops. He could see the darkness they had for him under the dust on their skin. Even the kind man gave him a black look and for days he was afraid of all the men and animals of the ranch and hid in the willow bushes by the river, sneaking up to take the food Hops left for the dogs on the back porch. He heard them call for him but he didn't answer.
Then the kind man was there, breaking through the bushes to the little nest he'd made from sticks and an old wool blanket. He pulled him out and set him down on the big, smooth stones on the bank of the water. They both stared at the big trout swimming slowly against the current, waving their fins. Then the man said, "We were worried about you."
"The horses --"
"Don't worry about the horses. They're caught. What's done is done."
"The gate --"
"It was an accident. We can forget an accident."
An elk started to sing, far away in the trees because it was late in the year and the sun was going down. They threw stones in the water and the boy moved closer to the man, trying to drop his stones in the man's water rings. Then the man stopped throwing rocks and looked at him. "About that fella you lived with before you came here --"
"Mr. Packard," the boy said.
"What he did wasn't --"
"He made my eyes swell up. And my mouth."
"I know. I know what he did." The kind man looked away from him. On the other side of the valley, the sun lit the tops of the blue mountains. They looked like candles. "What he did wasn't right, you understand? You don't just hit somebody like that."
"I dropped things. He used to say faster, faster." He thought of the dark face coming at him from the shadows. There was candlelight behind Mr. Packard. He had a black beard and the darkness moved back and forth across the skin above his beard. The boy shut his eyes.
The kind man gripped his shoulders, but his fingers didn't hurt. "Listen to me," he said.
"It's not like that here. We run a decent operation and nothing like that will ever happen to you here."
"They put something on my face to make the swelling go away. I'm all better now."
"Listen," the kind man said.
"You just can't go around hurting people like that."
"Someone always ends up dead," said the kind man. "Besides, it's the law of the land. Do you know what I'm saying?"
The boy nodded. "I like this land. It's pretty."
The man released his shoulders and leaned back, his fingers sunk in the bank of the river.
The boy watched the man's face, then said, "Do you want to throw some more rocks?"
"Not right now," he said in a quiet voice. He looked at the tops of the mountains. "What he did wasn't right," he said.
* * *
The boy was in the barn, in the hayloft, when he heard another horse outside. His horse answered.
He climbed down the ladder and went to the door of the barn.
Mr. Packard sat on a tall gray horse in the middle of the yard. The reins coiled in his hands resting on the saddle horn. The reins looked like dead rattlesnakes. When Mr. Packard saw him in the doorway, his face grew long and dark. "Come here," he said.
The boy came. He stared up at Mr. Packard. His heart beat hard enough to choke him. His throat was too small for his breath.
"Take my horse while I see who's around." Mr. Packard threw the coiled reins at him. He flinched and the gray horse rose up on its hind legs. Mr. Packard tumbled backwards, sliding off the horse. He landed on his back, snow flying up around him like feathers. The boy grabbed wildly for the reins to keep the horse from kicking Mr. Packard in the head. The horse stopped and the boy held the big head still.
Mr. Packard rose up from the snow, his face as dark as his beard. He came to the boy, taking long steps through the snow. "I owe you," he said and his arm shot out.
The boy's ears cracked and he heard something deep inside his head, but he couldn't hear Mr. Packard.
When he'd gotten to his feet again, the boy looked at the corral, the bunkhouse, and the steep hill behind the ranch, but he didn't see Mrs. Packard. The deep noise stopped and then he could hear Mr. Packard again.
"I said, where the hell's everyone?" His arm was raised again.
"Gone," he said quickly.
The boy looked at him. Mr. Packard's face got hard and black again, but the boy had already forgotten the question. "Nice horse," he said, patting the long gray neck.
Mr. Packard struck him again, then called out, "Johnson! Johnson, you here?"
He lay on the ground until Mr. Packard picked him up by the collar and half-dragged him into the ranch house. His boots left deep trails in the snow.
"Start me a fire," he said. "Then feed my horse."
Mr. Packard's boots were loud when he walked on the floorboards of the ranch house. He stopped at the table and picked up the note. He read it, then took off his hat. He smiled at the paper the cow puncher had wrestled with. "Cheyenne's a long ways off, isn't it, boy? Who knows what kind of storm they could get caught in. You're lucky I was passing through this valley. You're real lucky."
Blood stung his eyes and he tried to look at Mr. Packard through it.
"I always wondered when I'd catch up with you again. I'll bet you wondered, too. Didn't you, boy?"
He panted. "Yes, sir," he said. He watched the ice drip off the toe of Mr. Packard's boot.
"You caused me a lot of problems, boy. Lots of people asking lots of damn-fool questions. I told them it was all your fault. I told them you couldn't walk straight, always tripping and busting open your head. Isn't that right, boy?"
"Yes, sir," he said, blinking away the blood. "I trip on things."
Then Mr. Packard laughed. It was like the sound of the water pump in the morning. "I'm still cold, boy. Where's my fire?"
He fumbled the matches and Mr. Packard kicked him.
When the fire was licking high in the grate, he backed away and let Mr. Packard stand in front of the flames. He stamped his feet and rubbed his hands. "Been riding for days, boy. Do you hear me? Days. I'm hungry and my horse is hungry. Go feed my horse."
"I can't," he said.
Mr. Packard stopped rubbing and stamping.
He heard the wood sizzle, he heard the snow hiss along the walls, he heard the breath whistle in Mr. Packard's throat. The boy tried to think of the kind man's face, but he couldn't make it appear Something disappeared in his mind. It was a train and a handkerchief. His sister took her hair away, but the barn was filled with it now.
Mr. Packard looked at him long and slow. Then he said, "What?"
The clock chimed and the boy started to cry. His horse called to him from behind the sound of the wind outside.
"I can't. He said only this much," he held out his hands, "this much for my horse when I hear the clock. The rest is laid by for the winter. Laid by."
"Lissen to me-"
"You're a damn fool. There's enough for three whole valleys in there. Now go feed my horse."
The chimes died away and his face trembled. "I can't," he said. "He said it was laid by."
Mr. Packard's teeth appeared in the black curls of his face. "I'll show you laid by," he said. He shaped his fist like a rock and drove it into the boy's face.
It was dark and silent for a long time. It was like a cave.
Then at last he could open his eyes, more blood stinging them now. Something pulled his face tight.
He lay sprawled against the cold stove. Mr. Packard didn't see him. Mr. Packard put on his hat, his leather gloves, his coat and went out the door without seeing him, so he got up and put his face to the crack in the door. His face was tight and it hurt, but he felt he could stand up without falling over. No more tripping and dropping things.
Mr. Packard walked through the snow to his gray horse, took the reins in his gloves and led it toward the barn.
The boy looked around the room for something to use. He'd seen the ranch men stop coyotes at the corral and remembered how. He took the rifle down from the pegs and started for the door. He stopped first-checked it like the men always did, blood dripping on the metal when he bent his head-then went out.
Mr. Packard was almost to the barn with his horse when the boy shouted over the wind, "Get away from there, you varmint!" Then he added a warning "Hi-ya!" like the men did for the coyotes.
Mr. Packard did not turn, did not even stop.
He lifted the rifle and he could only see Mr. Packard's hat over it.
He tried again. "Get away! Get away!"
There was a red, smoking burst at the back of Mr. Packard's coat and he fell straight to the snow.
Both horses screamed. The tall gray horse reared, snapped the reins from Mr. Packard's fingers and ran over the hill toward the blue mountains.
* * *
The day they rode back over the ridge-the same day the sun sparkled in the sagebrush and in the air, the same day they stopped their horses at the sight of the frozen body half-chewed by the coyotes-he stood on the porch looking at them, smiling at them brighter than the snow, brighter even than his sister's hair. His face didn't feel tight anymore. It was smooth and there was nothing left from Mr. Packard.
"He didn't get the hay," he said. "He didn't get it."
The men sat on their horses, looking at the stiff parts sticking up from the snow. Then they looked at each other until the cow puncher swung off his horse and walked over to the body. He scraped off some snow with his boot. He looked at the others on their horses. "Shot in the back," he said. "There'll be hell to pay in town for this."
The man with the long moustache leaned forward in his saddle and cursed. "Who they gonna think did it? Tell me that. Who's gonna believe us?"
"Shuddup," another man said.
The boy put his hands in his pockets because they were red. He called to them across the snow. "I've got a fire now. I've got it ready for you." Then he said, "He tried to get the hay, but I didn't let him." He pointed. "That's Mr. Packard. I know him. I know that man." Then he said, "I've got a fire for you now."
The men rode their horses into the barn without looking at him. He couldn't see the kind man's face until he came inside. It was dark, not as dark as Mr. Packard's, but dark. His breath came in little puffs from his nose and mouth. He took off his coat and put it on a peg by the door. He picked up the rifle and put it on the other pegs. Then he stood at the fireplace and his face was bright again.
The kind man stood at the fireplace and put his hands out. The boy stood beside him and put his hands out. They weren't red anymore but yellow with shadows like his sister's hair.
Hops came in and made noise in the kitchen. The other men came in and stood at the fire with them. Nobody spoke.
* * *
He felt breath on his face. He opened his eyes and saw the kind man looking at him. It was light outside but the man's face was still dark.
"I have to talk to you," he said.
The boy sat up in his bunk. They were alone. He heard the cow puncher and Hops and the others outside. There were other sounds, too. Sliding sounds and metal sounds. He heard a horse.
"This isn't going to be easy," he said.
"I did what you said," the boy said. "It was easy."
"That's the problem," the kind man said. "You did more than I said."
He held out his hands just right. "You said this much. That's all I gave when I heard the clock. Just this much, that's all."
"Listen." He put a hand on his shoulder.
"You can't shoot a man in the back."
"That's Mr. Packard. He was going into the barn to get the hay, but I told him not to get it. I know Mr. Packard."
"I said listen."
The man looked at him. His hand was still on his shoulder. His mouth moved but no words came out. Then the darkness went away and his eyes changed and the boy knew the kind man had a sister somewhere, too. The man turned away. "Hell," he said. "It's too hard."
The boy heard several horses outside now, stamping and blowing.
The man turned around and his eyes were back to normal. "Get dressed," he said.
The boy came out of the bunkhouse with the kind man. The other ranch men stood in a circle. He hoped they weren't waiting for him to dance. The snow was too cold for his feet. Everyone looked at him but nobody spoke.
A man he'd never seen before stood beside a strange horse. The man had a beard, but it was not the same color as Mr. Packard's. There was ice on this man's beard.
The boy looked around. Mr. Packard's body was gone.
"Where's Mr. Packard?" he said.
"He ready?" said the man with the beard.
The kind man nodded and nudged him forward.
Now the man with the icy beard had a rope in his hands and he said, "Hold out your hands."
Behind him, the kind man said, "There's no need for that."
"There's always a need."
"I'm telling you he won't run," the kind man said.
"And I'm telling you, you never know." The stranger took his hands and tied them together with the rope. Then, his fingers throbbing, he was lifted onto the strange horse and the man mounted another strange horse.
There was a sled tied to the saddle of the boy's horse. There was a shape all covered in canvas on the sled tied to the horse. The boy remembered how Mr. Packard had looked under the snow. Then he knew.
"That's Mr. Packard," he said.
The men of the ranch looked at each other.
"You'll see he's looked after?" the kind man asked.
The bearded man nodded and said, "We'll let you know." He clicked his mouth and both horses started up.
He had too many fingers now -- all in the same place -- and they were fat and hot inside his gloves. He couldn't touch the horse's mane. He didn't know this horse.
He looked over his shoulder and saw the kind man staring after him. Finally, the kind man reached up, took off his hat and slapped it once, hard, against his leg. Just as slowly, he turned and went back inside the bunkhouse, shaking his head. The other ranch men followed, one by one, like cattle trailing the lead animal.
He looked over his shoulder. His neck ached from the bobbing walk of the strange horse. The two horses moved up the draw, the ranch buildings shrinking behind them. The boy's heart pounded up into his head until there was nothing but the deep sound of blood in his ears. It was the wind and train whistles and Mr. Packard's voice all rolled into one long, loud sound. The boy stared straight ahead because Mr. Packard was behind him.
The boy's horse was slower and the sled hissed when they moved. Mr. Packard laughed behind him. Mr. Packard was moving again and he was reaching for the horse's tail so he could pull himself up and sit in the saddle with him.
The boy wondered why Mr. Packard was moving again. Then he remembered the coyotes the men shot at the corral and how they'd taken off the skin with a knife. He hadn't taken off Mr. Packard's skin and now he was moving and hissing. He wished he'd been smart enough to take off Mr. Packard's skin and nail it to the side of the barn.
His fingers and his heart pounded like hammers. The man on the other horse said nothing. His mouth was frozen by the ice on his beard.
"Where am I going?" he asked. The other man couldn't hear him because Mr. Packard made the sled hiss.
Then the man with the icy beard turned the horses in a new direction and the boy saw the ranch and finally the blue mountains fold out of sight around a bend in the ridge.
"Where am I going?" the boy said again, raising his voice over the sound of what was behind him.