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.