Fiction · 06/15/2016

Jerusalem

Abraham Haglin came out west to save the Indians and the mountain men. He was a tall man, stooped, with a weak chin, and a nose wedged between his small eyes as hooked as a furrier’s knife. Munro hadn’t minded him so much. Not like some of the others. Not like Jimmy Jock Bird, who hated all those goddam missionaries. Bird used to translate for the poor fool. He told the Indians all kinds of crazy stories about Haglin. He told them the preacher had been chased away from the cities and the towns because he kept trying copulate with the pigs. He said the man was possessed by unclean spirits. He wanted to steal their children, and take them back east. Bird said rich folk in New York would pay bags of gold to feast on their tender meat. When Haglin finally found out how and started hollering about it, Bird hit him in the teeth with the back of an ax, staked him to the ground and pissed in his mouth. It was Munro that risked a knifing to cut the preacher loose.

And it was Munro that found the fellow his first wife; a fifteen year old Kootenay the mountain men called Little Frog for her bulging eyes. The girl was visibly pregnant when Haglin was introduced to her, but he didn’t care. He was in the business of saving souls, he told Munro, and babies got souls just like the rest of us. It turned out he loved the whelp and named it Isaac. But it also turned out he loved to fuck. And so he got himself another wife, and another.

When the Methodist Society in New York sent someone out to check on the mission, Haglin hid the extra women with his in-laws. After the agent moved on Haglin traded the fresh supplies the fellow left him for two more young girls. Then he vanished into the mountains, where he built himself a little log cabin kingdom in a quiet valley. His women hunted for him, and grew potato and corn, and produced a squalling brood of bastards that he named after the Old Testament saints.

Munro occasionally visited Haglin in his Jerusalem but didn’t much care for it. The last time he had stopped by to see the preacher they spent a night huddled together over an unsteady table in the patriarch’s leaky cabin. They listened to the rain batter the walls and the thunder shatter against the stony spine of the Cascades. They measured out the gargantuan explosions with sloppy shots of rum, bottle after bottle, and tried to ignore Isaac, who sat in an unlit corner staring at them, barely visible except when he took a long, snapping, popping pull on his hemp cigarette, and his black eyes sparkled like rubies.

“I was up at the top of Desolation a few weeks ago,” Haglin was shouting over the storm. “Praying. Way up high, close to God. Like Moses.”

“Sure,” said Munro.

“Something spoke to me,” Haglin shouted. “Something I couldn’t see or feel. Something alive in the cold air. Even before it spoke I knew it was there. You couldn’t have shown it to anyone. Couldn’t have proved it. But it was there. Like smallpox on a blanket.”

And in the corner the hemp cigarette crackled to life. Haglin just sat there.

“Was it God, father?” the boy eventually asked.

“No,” said Haglin. “It was something else. Maybe holy. Maybe not.”

“Maybe it was just you, father,” said Isaac. “Maybe that thin air couldn’t feed your brain.”

“It was not me!” roared Haglin and half stood out of his chair, his bony hands gripping the sides of the table. He hung contorted over the them: a twisted, towering column of smoke, eyes burning, sides heaving with rage, glaring at the shadows where his stepson sat.

“It was a spirit,” he finally said and subsided back into his chair. “It was a power, a principality. It spoke to me.”

“What did it say?” asked Munro.

Haglin’s head drooped, his weak chin fell against his chest.

“Tell him, father,” said Isaac. “Tell him what the powers and principalities of the air said to you. Tell him what heaven requires. Is it a sacrifice? A great sacrifice? To show how much you love your God?”

Haglin looked up — his eyes straining against the dim light and the smoke, a haze of black and white stubble on his loose jowls, old scabs on his long forehead.

“Take another wife, the voice told me,” he said, and when he grinned Munro could see the gaping hole Jimmy Jock Bird had left between his yellow teeth. “A young one; from the Cheyenne. Extend your dominion to the plains and the foothills.”

+

Little Frog came to talk to Munro the next morning. The sun was just creeping above the broken back of the mountains into the washed out blue of the sky. Haglin was still inside, snoring at the table where he had collapsed into a shivering sleep, Isaac was splitting cords of wood behind the cabin and the steady crack-crack-crack matched the pulsing in Munro’s head as he strapped his packs to his mule.

“Take Isaac with you,” Little Frog said.

“No,” said Munro.

“There’ll be murder if you don’t,” said Little Frog.

Munro straightened out.

“Fathers and sons,” said Munro, “same the world over.”

“There will be murder,” said Little Frog.

“I don’t like him,” said Munro and spat. “I don’t like neither of them.”

Little Frog just stared up at him. Her braided hair was touched by grey, and her thin lips pulled down at the corners, but her big bug eyes were still bright with life. He remembered another cool morning, many years before, when Haglin had lifted her up and plopped her down on the back of a mule. She had been laughing then, as he led the mule out of Munro’s camp and up the trail towards his mission house, and he had been singing, Haglin had, but not the usual dreary hymn, it had been some ballad from across the sea.

“She plucked a cherry as red as blood,” Haglin had sung and Munro had felt an unexpected twitch of desire. “Then Mary went home with her heavy load.”

“Oh eat your cherries, Mary,” Haglin had sung but Munro had not known what the song meant. “Eat your cherries, Mary, that grow upon the bough.”

Munro spat on the ground again.

“Go get the little prick then,” he said. “But hurry up ‘cause I ain’t waiting.”

+

Munro kept Isaac with him over the next winter to teach him the business, but the boy was useless for anything but reading the Bible, getting drunk, and staring into the fire. In the spring the trader sent Isaac to the school for priests in St. Louis. Munro went north after saying goodbye, across the Columbia and into British territory, and he forgot about them all for seven or eight years, forgot about Isaac and Little Frog and Haglin’s pious redoubt in the mountains.

When he came south again he bumped into Jimmy Jock Bird at the Green River rendezvous, and Bird told him what all had happened in the country since he’d been gone. He told Munro about the Donner Party playing cards for flesh at Truckee Lake, about pioneers eating up the land, about waves of disease rolling across the plains and crashing on the mountains, about poor Narcissa Whitman beaten to death at Walla Walla and so many more dead beside, about hauntings on the barren peaks and mad laughter echoing through the canyons and the valleys, about sulfurous clouds and blasts of steam and nitroglycerine, about disturbing times all around.

So, when a few months later a mule skinner handed Munro a letter from a monastery in San Francisco he wasn’t too surprised by its contents. Isaac had written to ask Munro to check up on things at Haglin’s settlement, to see if the rumors he’d heard were true, to go see if the old man had finally gone entirely mad and was actually stringing corpses up at the mouth of the valley.

Munro went, despite the absurd quiver of fear he felt at the thought of the place and he found no gruesome decorations waiting for him in the trees. But he did find Little Frog at the door of Haglin’s cabin with a Northwest Trade rifle in her hands.

“I’ve been hearing stories, Little Frog,” said Munro, “of terrible goings on up here, and Isaac’s worried.”

“Don’t call me Little Frog,” she said.

“What?” said Munro. “What should I call you then?”

“My mother named me Mary,” she said.

“Bullshit, Little Frog” said Munro. “That squaw didn’t know no Christian names.”

Mary raised the rifle.

“What the hell’s going on?” Munro shouted but he raised his empty hands up.

Mary just stared down the barrel at him.

“OK, Mary, OK,” said Munro. “Where’s Haglin?”

“He’s gone,” said Mary. “We’d had enough.”

“You up here all alone?” said Munro. “All you women and kids? Must be thirty of you.”

Mary said nothing.

“It ain’t safe,” said Munro. “Without a man.”

“It’s safer than it’s ever been,” said Mary. “Now git.”

“But, Mary,” began Munro and she cut him off.

“I said ‘git,‘” she said and the rifle twitched.

“What should I tell Isaac?” he asked, and the rifle twitched again.

Munro backed away from the cabin, grabbed his mule’s lead and strode off until he was up on the ridge. There he stopped to look back. The valley had only a few fir stands in it, and the grass and the wild flowers lay pretty thinly on the soil, but it was well sheltered and a stream came rushing through it. Half a dozen log cabins were scattered about, one for each wife and then Haglin’s own. All of them had a vegetable patch and some corn growing nearby. Most had smoke rising out of their chimneys and coiling into the pale sky. The mountains towered over the place, bare faces cracked and weathered. The wind that came whispering and rustling down from those naked peaks, and through the valley, was cold and hungry, it felt nice enough in your hair, but Munro knew it would pick your bones clean and leave them shining in the sun. He listened to it. He listened for voices; for a message. He listened for Haglin, but he heard nothing, because there was nothing to hear.

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William Squirrell’s work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Blue Monday Review, and other venues. He is a Canadian writer living in western Pennsylvania. More information can be found at blindsquirrell.blogspot.com