He never saw his mother again after that night.
He never saw his father, either, except for news photos of the trial.
The sheriff assumed his father dumped her body in the river, and though deputies spent weeks dredging and searching, they never found it.
His father never said what he did with her corpse, and eventually the hangman sealed his lips forever.
Unsurprisingly, the boy grew up sad and alone.
Older cousins took him in, and while they treated him kindly and saw to it he never wanted for anything, they couldn’t fill the void the crime left.
In school other kids would talk about him, whisper about him, and while most weren’t overtly cruel, neither were they compassionate.
He started taking long walks in the woods, then hikes, then weekends camping.
Being in the wilderness soothed him, and as his senses absorbed the sharp pine smell, the calls of birds, the chatter of squirrels, the brisk cold of fall and the drowsy warmth of spring, he could forget about people, forget about his pain.
Small wonder he gravitated towards working in the great outdoors.
He inherited his mother’s calm and forbearance, but from his father a burly body and exceptional strength.
Logging proved the perfect trade for him: He could work outdoors and vent his feelings by swinging a great ax against a mighty tree, until finally his pain and sorrow brought it down.
A dozen trees, a hundred, then a thousand.
For him, as good a life as possible.
Call him Hank, an apt name for any logger, especially a faller, and a perfect name for him.
Hank felled the trees after the high climbers topped them by removing their crowns and branches.
Swinging a double bit ax, he hacked away at both sides of the selected trees, first cutting a notch about a third of the way into the trunk on the side he wanted it to fall, then a second notch, deeper and higher up, on the opposite side.
Eventually gravity came to his aid, and the trees majestically toppled over, crashing to the ground where buckers would cut them into more manageable lengths, then setters would wrap choker chains around the limbless trunks to drag them down the skid road to the river where the knot bumpers would brand them for their trip to market.
After their lunch break, Hank and Witte, a wiry high climber, went up the hill to the tallest spruce, one marked for them to fell that afternoon.
Hank wanted to plot the angle of the fall; if he fell the tree right, it would slide halfway down the hill on its own, making the setters’ job easier.
As Witte strapped on his climbing spikes, Hank, ax resting on his shoulder, casually placed his palm against the bark of the tree.
He didn’t hear it, he didn’t feel it, but he suddenly knew it:
His mother lay buried under the tree.
He staggered back, blinking and working his open mouth like a mountain perch hooked out of the stream.
“You okay?” Witte asked. Hank never took a sick day, and while quiet and stand offish, never acted peculiar, either.
Hank blinked some more, getting reoriented. He nodded, and Witte took out his climbing belt to top the tree.
Hank stopped him. “No.”
Witte looked up at the tree then back at Hank. “Why?”
Hank swallowed drily. How could he articulate what he knew — how he knew it? A tribal native logger might claim to hear spirit voices, but Hank heard nothing.
All he knew was…he knew.
“We just can’t,” he said.
Witte looked at him for a moment, then shrugged and started looping his climbing belt around the tree.
Hank slapped the belt away.
Witte looked at him impassively. Other than the occasional arm wrestling match, nobody at the camp ever knew Hank to be physical, much less confrontational.
But while Hank didn’t threaten him, Witte could tell the bigger man wouldn’t let him climb the tree.
“The siderod ain’t gonna like this,” Witte said, referring to the camp’s second in command.
Hank shrugged, standing like a baseball player in the batter’s box, waiting his turn at the plate. “Can’t help that,” he said. “But we aren’t chopping this tree down.”
Tyree, the siderod, looked like a rat bastard.
That’s to say he resembled the short, thin metal file of that name, skinny and colorless, with hard rough edges.
It took him less than ten minutes to confront Hank and Witte. “Why aren’t you jackasses working? You got blanket fever?”
“Ask him,” Witte said, glad to excuse himself from the conversation.
“We can’t cut down this tree,” Hank said.
“The blazes we can’t!” Tyree said. He stood on the downhill slope, allowing Hank to tower over him even more than normal, but he never felt intimidated by the larger men working for him. “Quit screwing around! Get that tree topped and down pronto.”
“I can’t let you do that,” said Hank.
Tyree scowled at him. “Okay, you’re fired.”
Hank shrugged: So be it.
Tyree realized that despite being fired, Hank wouldn’t move. “Go down to the ink slinger, draw your pay, and hit the pike!”
Tyree leaned back now, not in fear, but in careful consideration of how to proceed.
He dealt with drunks and timber beasts before, but Hank seemed different.
“Clear outta my camp,” Tyree repeated, but he could tell Hank wouldn’t move.
Hank shook his head.
“Bah!” Tyree turned on his heel, marched down the hill, found five big buckers working on a felled tree, and sent them up to deal with Hank.
The five all knew Hank, of course. Bunking months with the same crew made them pretty much family.
“Hank,” said Oleson, the eldest of the five, “Tyree say you gotta clear out.”
Hank shook his head. He backed up against the tree so they couldn’t get behind him. “You can take any other tree you want,” Hank said, “but not this one.”
The five advanced on him. When they were still two ax handles away, Hank swung his double-headed ax in a wide lazy arc at chest level.
A warning, a caution: Stay back.
“Why this tree?” Oleson asked. “It don’t seem any different from all the rest.”
Hank opened his mouth to explain, found he couldn’t, and just shrugged. “Leave it alone,” he said. “Take all the others. I’ll even help you, just leave this — “
While Tyree sent five buckers up the hill to confront Hank, he sent two more the long way around, to sneak up on Hank from behind.
The thick trunk of the spruce hid them from view, the thick carpet of pine needles muffled their footsteps, the crashing of timber and the chopping of axes and the distance chugging of the steam donkey engine masked their approach.
They jumped him and grabbed his ax, keeping him from swinging. Hank almost fought the two of them off, but Oleson and the other buckers rushed in as well, and in a few moments they disarmed him and pinned him down.
Tyree came back up the hill to check out the situation. “He cooled off?” he asked Oleson. The siderod was a hard man but fair; all he wanted was Hank gone, not roughed up.
“You okay, Hank?” Oleson asked. Hank didn’t move or say anything for a moment, then nodded.
“Okay, we’re gonna let you up,” said Oleson. “You don’t swing at nobody, okay?”
Hank nodded again.
They let him up. As he brushed the pine needles off his shirt and jeans, Tyree said, “Go see the ink slinger and draw your pay. Witte!”
“Start topping that tree.”
Witte glanced anxiously at Hank but Hank didn’t look in his direction.
As the topper got his rigging ready, the buckers escorted Hank down to the camp clerk.
Oleson explained the situation to the clerk. The ink slinger couldn’t have cared less: Men got fired all the time for all sorts of reasons.
He drew out Hank’s pay and handed it to him.
Outside the office, Oleson asked: “You gonna be okay?”
“Yeah. I’ll go to my bunk, get my stuff. I’ll catch the mail boat back.”
Oleson eyed him carefully, then stuck out his big, calloused hand. “You watch out for yourself, Hank.”
They shook hands, and Oleson went back up the hill with the other buckers while Hank headed towards the bunk tents.
Only Hank didn’t go to the bunk tents.
Hank went to the tool shed and got five axes. He carried them up the hill, taking the long way around so Oleson and Witte and Tyree wouldn’t see him.
By the time he reached the spruce, Witte already topped the branches. Curly, another tree faller, chopped away at the second notch on the spruce’s trunk, the first one already cut deep enough to topple the tree when Curly finished on the opposite side.
Hank threw an axe at Curly. It sank into the bark with a meaty thump about two feet above Curly’s bald head.
“Holy humpin’ Hannah!” Curly yelled, then saw Hank approaching with an ax in each hand.
“Git!” Hank yelled, and Curly got.
As Curly’s cry “All hands and the whiskey-jacks!” echoed through the hills, Hank set his two axes against the trunk of the tree then picked up the two he dropped while throwing the first.
Along with that one and the ax Curly abandoned when he scrambled down the hill, Hank now possessed six bladed weapons.
It didn’t take Curly long to return with Tyree and Oleson and Witte and the rest of the camp.
Every logger broke off their work when they heard Curly shout the logger distress call.
They followed Tyree up the hill to see what Crazy Hank — his new name stuck instantly — would do next.
“There he is!” Curly said. “He tried to brain me with an ax!”
Tyree marched forward, jaw grimly set. Hank hurled two axes at him, each passing about a foot on either side of him.
“Are you crazy? Are you trying to kill somebody?” the siderod roared.
“He isn’t crazy,” Oleson yelled. “We all seen Hank at ax throwing contests. He was warning you.”
Witte nodded. “If he wanted, he’d ‘a split your forehead down the middle.”
Tyree, albeit a tough boss, knew not to press his luck.
Hank didn’t have any real friends in the camp, but then again, he made no enemies either. Forcing a confrontation now might get somebody hurt and could stir up dissent in the camp.
And with the low wages the company paid, Tyree needed no further dissent among the loggers.
“Witte! Go down to the mail boat. Take it to town, fetch the sheriff, bring him here with a couple of deputies.”
“They probably can’t get here until morning,” Witte said.
“They won’t get here any sooner if you don’t quit jawing so move!”
Witte hurried down the hill to the mail boat.
“Oleson, you and your boys ring this tree tonight,” Tyree said. “Don’t get too close to him, but don’t let him sneak off without warning us.”
“Okay, boss,” said Oleson.
Tyree looked at the rapidly fading light. “The rest of you, back to work! You still got a good half hour of sunlight left.”
The rest of the loggers returned their tools to the sheds then hit the mess hall.
The forest at early evening lay quiet and still enough for Oleson and his team to hear the others laugh and talk way down in the camp.
Tyree sent a crumb boss up with some lunch buckets of grub for Oleson and the others as well as blankets for the night.
They didn’t offer Hank any, of course.
Hank sat at the base of the spruce, back against the rough bark, wondering what to do.
The spruce couldn’t be saved, not now.
While the notches Curly chopped weren’t deep enough to fell the tree, they effectively girdled it, destroying the bark system that carried water and nutrients up the trunk.
Witte topping the tree also threatened it, but the girdling did the more immediate harm.
Hank wondered if he could save the tree by shoving some of the hunks of wood Curly chopped loose back in the notches then try putting pieces of bark over that.
He sighed, recognizing it was useless.
While he hadn’t cried since he was a child, he felt his eyes burn and water.
To find the tree where his mother lay buried, and then to lose it…
“I can’t help you,” he murmured to the tree, his voice hot and constricted. “I can’t, I can’t…”
He felt light fingers running through his hair as if to comfort him.
They weren’t fingers or anything supernatural.
The breeze started picking up, no storm brewing, but promising a rough and windy night. It ruffled his hair and plucked at his clothes.
Hank instantly worried about the tree. The trunk’s structural integrity, badly compromised by Curly’s notches, might not withstand a strong wind.
“I’m sorry,” Hank told the tree, “but I can’t do anything except sit here and say goodbye.”
Again, he didn’t hear it, he didn’t feel it, he just knew that his mother understood, and knowing that rolled a big, heavy weight off his heart.
He didn’t feel happy, of course, but he did feel a sense of…well, not exactly peace, but more like fulfillment; a sense that he’d done everything he possibly could do.
The wind picked up during the night, and as Hank feared, it brought the tree down.
Curly’s notches didn’t cut deep enough for the tree to topple quickly, but as the wind pressed against it, it slowly began leaning downhill.
A fast falling tree would break clean at the notches, leaving a stump.
But the damaged spruce didn’t fall fast; it bent in the wind, gradually leaning over, and as it leaned relentlessly putting greater and greater pressure on its wide but shallow root system.
Hank felt the ground rising beneath him, and realized what was happening.
“Oleson, look out!” he yelled, but Oleson and his crew already scrambled to get out of the way of the huge tree.
As the tree uprooted itself, it flung Hank over backwards, rolling him down the hill.
Before he could get up, Oleson and his men jumped him, pinning him down.
This time they took no chances and tied him tightly with ropes.
The sheriff arrived soon after dawn in the mail boat, and Tyree led him up the hill to where Oleson and the others kept Hank.
“Sorry to drag you up here,” Tyree said. “But the fight’s gone outta him. We could have taken care of him ourselves.”
“Well, I’m here, I’ll take him in,” said the sheriff. He nudged Hank with his boot. “Whatcha got to say for yourself, young fella?”
Hank shrugged. “I’ll go quietly.”
“Un-huh,” said the sheriff. “Maybe you will, and maybe you won’t. What say we just put you in cuffs until the judge can — “
“Tyree! Sheriff! Look!” yelled Curly.
On the other side of the tree, Curly pointed to a skeleton entangled in the now exposed roots. “So that’s why he didn’t want anybody chopping down this tree,” Curly said. “He was afraid somebody would find the person he murdered.”
“Who is that?” the sheriff asked Hank.
“My mother,” said Hank.
Hank drew in a deep breath. Somehow it felt easier to tell the story now.
He explained about his mother and his father, and about how he just knew she lay beneath this tree.
“That’s the biggest hunk of hooey I ever heard,” said Curly.
“Oh?” said the sheriff. “Why would he come back here?”
“I thought criminals always returned to the scene of the crime…” Curly said, slowly realizing how dumb his accusation sounded.
“If they did, my job would be a lot easier,” said the sheriff. “He’d have been a million miles away if he killed her. No reason to hang around and get caught.”
He looked at Hank, and said, “What’s your full name?
And Hank told him and the sheriff nodded. “Yup, that’s right. I worked on that case back when I first became a deputy. His old man never did say what he did with her.
“Must’ve dragged her up here, give her a burial under a tree, maybe to hide her body, maybe give her a place to rest in peace after what he done.”
The sheriff nodded to Oleson. “You can untie him, now. I’ll take him back with me, but I figure he ain’t gonna give us any more trouble, right, fella?”
“No trouble,” said Hank.
Before they left, he gathered up some pine cones that fell from the tree when Witte topped it.
Logging didn’t pay much, but Hank spent little of what he earned; most of it sat in a bank, drawing interest for the day he needed it.
He needed it now.
He didn’t know what exactly he would do next, but he knew he had enough to buy himself a small plot of land, maybe a couple of acres, where he could live out his days.
Live out his days, and grow spruce trees.