Jubal hiked with abandon through the mountainous forest, cradling the Colt slide-action rifle in his slender arms, proud his father had seen fit to allow him use of the small-bore .22. Not quite eighteen, he was just under six feet, nearly as tall as his father, and did his best to dress like him: whipcord pants tucked neatly into calf-high boots. Two rabbits he’d shot that morning hung from a leather-tooled belt around his waist, a gift from pa. He thought of cleaning them himself but decided he would let ma take care of that little chore. He imagined her proud face when he returned home with them. Rabbit stew would be a welcome change from the tough buffalo meat cured in the family smokehouse.
He thought of his sister Prudence, pouting earlier today when ma had told her to stay home, shuck peas, and tend the fire.
“Jube gets to have all the fun!” she’d said.
“Miss Prudence,” ma had replied, “you’re only fourteen, and it’s best you tend your chores.” Strict but fair.
Jubal didn’t mind the company of his sister, though, as they had much in common. Much to Mother Young’s concern, Pru often ventured alone into the forest to hunt berries and wildflowers.
The boy topped Morning Peak, seeing Colorado stretching out to the northern end of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A late afternoon sun warmed his chapped hands while he marveled at the painted landscape, aspens shimmering as their new spring leaves caught the sun. To the west he could just barely see his family’s cabin, nestled into a meadow lined with fir and limber pine. A gray smoky haze from the log structure filled the small valley, and he knew Pru had been doing her job with the fire.
The wind changed, and Jubal’s eyes widened. There was too much smoke. He noticed unusual movement around the house and heard eerie sounds of strange, jubilant voices floating up through the dense valley.
His reaction was immediate. Gripping the rifle in front of him to clear the way, Jubal broke into a dead run and began to close the hefty distance to the cabin. He tore through thickets down the canyon, sharp branches ripping at his leather coat as he plowed through the brush.
Minutes later, he stopped within shouting distance of the compound, his legs on fire with exertion, his lungs needing air.
A pile of bright gingham fabric lay on the earthen courtyard. Like a body. The clothing looked to be his mother’s, her dress cloth flapping with the breeze. Pru’s horse, Butternut, lay near the well, her legs thrashing as a rush of blood flowed from her neck.
Jubal counted five men riding on horseback in the courtyard, with several more stirring around the outbuildings and barn. They all seemed determined to celebrate, shouting as if they had achieved a great victory.
Trying to control his breathing, the boy slumped behind a massive pine. He wanted this day to start over, wanted to forget the body in the yard, wanted only to run, but Pa would skin him if he didn’t stand as a man.
Where was pa?
Jubal took several more deep breaths. He moved to his stomach and started to crawl. He’d gone only a few feet when he rolled onto his back, fighting panic, his nose stung by the sharp and disagreeable scent of burnt flesh and manure.
He had to keep moving. Rising, he darted between a stand of scrub oak, then bellied down and once again crawled, hiding behind the scattered chamisa.
Laughing and drunk, the men staggered around the toolshed and outhouse. One dark-skinned fellow looked different, wearing a feathered, flat-brim leather hat with a bright yellow braided string running under his chin. He carried a bow across his back and a quiver with arrows attached to his belt. He looked familiar, the way he carried himself. The whole raft of them seemed related.
Jubal’s thoughts drifted to more pleasant times. The family together, Pru laughing at his jokes, his parents sharing secrets. When was that? A lifetime ago. He forced himself back to the present. He had work to do.
He looked down at the rifle. He’d killed animals for food, but could he kill a man? He shifted on the rough ground. Maybe it didn’t matter.
A wail came from the barn, growing louder as Jubal crept closer through the thicket. He caught a glimpse of the two-story structure’s exterior.
And then he saw his father.
Jubal, Sr., hung from a pulley outside the hayloft, arms stretched high above his head, legs dangling above the wicked flames of a fire. Charred remnants of his clothing and strips of skin swung from his chest. A chunk of red cloth, which Jubal recognized as his father’s bandanna, had been stuffed into his mouth. A man with a filthy poncho wrapped around his shoulders tossed hay from the loft onto the torturous blaze.
Jubal’s pa was near to death, his bare legs burned. Blood matted his neck, arms, and chest.
Then the wailing stopped, the body swaying like a pendulum. Jubal stared, looking for recognition. His father’s lips were moving. With each group of words, a nod, then he would begin again. He gazed at Jubal. Did he speak? Did he call out, “Save yourself”? His eyes rolled toward the smoked sky, once again the same litany, but this time the head drooped, the shoulders and legs relaxed. The body settled into its trusses.
Jubal chambered a round in the .22, raised it, and took a long, dreadful moment to pray. His head pressed hard against the rifle’s breech. He wiped the moisture from his eyes, adjusted the rear sight, and shot his father in the head.
The sound, though muffled by the crackling fire, still startled the fire-tending Mexican. He turned toward the noise as Jubal stood and pumped another round into the Colt. Trembling, he fired, his bullet catching the man in the lower stomach. The man dug his hands under his heavy leather belt, searching, then doubled over as if looking for something on the ground.
Jubal’s second shot pierced his head just above the cheekbone, dropping the man like a rock from a high place.
The boy slumped to the ground, watching the remains of his father swinging from the barn. “Help me, Pa. What have I done?”
Fifty yards off to his left, two men, their hair pulled tautly into braids on the sides of their heads, dragged tied bundles of his mother’s and father’s clothing. They soaked the pile of garments in lamp oil and lit it. Trailing the fiery bundle behind a crazed horseman, they made great circles around the house and barn, setting fire to the dry grasses.
“Be the man I taught you to be,” his pa had once said to him. He eased to the ground, too frightened to move and yet strangely not seeming to care. Jubal looked down at the two paltry rabbits still hanging from his belt.
The men by the house stopped their whooping to look at the area of the barn, the structure now fully taken by rising flames. The cracking and popping of the dried timbers had partially covered the sound of the small-caliber .22, and Jubal was still safely unknown to them.
He watched as they cavorted in his family’s vegetable garden. Others circled the lifeless form of his mother on the ground, making coarse gestures and poking their rifles at the body.
Pru. He hadn’t seen her anywhere. Where is she?
Jubal started to pick himself up. He was sick with fear and remorse, but he’d do his damnedest.
Crouching low, he sprinted to the edge of his mother’s root cellar. There he remained unseen behind the canted door, thinking how easy it would be to slither out of the clearing and into the welcoming shelter of the spruces and whitebark pines that surrounded the homestead—then run for his pitiful life.
A high-pitched scream came from the edge of the woods, beyond the burning barn. Pru was running into the clearing where their mother lay, her bonnet streaming behind her, tangled in her long blond hair. Wildflowers fell from a basket on her arm. She ran like a frightened animal, shouting to her mother.
A horseman spotted her and pursued her across the open field.
Ignoring the other men, Jubal took quick aim with his rifle and pulled the trigger. The shot went awry. The horseman scooped Prudence up in one swift powerful move, gripping her waist and swinging her up beside him. She protested loudly, beating her fists against the man’s head and chest.
Jubal had very little chance for a shot now, he was afraid of hitting her. The other men honed in on Jubal’s position and fired at him, bullets dancing past his head. He collapsed onto the ground and crept to where he could use the burning farmhouse as cover.
Pru was taken into the tree line from where she had just emerged. He moved along the ground. Once he was at the other side of the farmhouse, he ran into the nearby woods. All of his instincts told him to keep his head down and pursue cautiously, but he couldn’t ignore his need to chase the horseman. He had lost his parents. He couldn’t lose his sister.
Once in the woods, he could hear Pru’s voice coming from several directions, all of her cries amplified by the reverberating valley walls. For some time he searched for her, scrambling from one tree to the next. When he was finally resigned to the idea that the horseman had moved out of the valley, he heard hoofbeats coming from the east. He ran in that direction, only to see a lone rider bolting at a gallop between the trees a hundred yards in front of him.
The man had left Pru in the woods.
Jubal quickened his pace and backtracked from where he had last seen the rider. After a lengthy search, he found her… her face bloody from a deep forehead wound, clothing twisted about her body. There was so much, too much blood. On his knees, he pleaded with her to speak to him. He cradled her in his arms and rocked her, trying to coax a spark of life.
The wildflower basket was still looped around her arm. Jubal gently pulled out the leaves and twigs caught in her hair. He combed her soft tresses with his fingers, then used his neckerchief to clean her face of dirt and blood.
“Jube?” She opened her eyes, trying to focus. “Tell pa a man tried to… hurt me.”
Jubal moved her gently, thankful she was alive. “Shush, now, Pru. I’m here. You’ll be all right. Try and rest.”
Pru seemed to fall into a heavy sleep, a spot of blood leaked from the side of her mouth. Jubal swung his rifle over his shoulder and lifted her into his arms. They needed shelter, and so he started up the long slope toward Morning Peak.
Nearly half a mile from the house stood a group of rocks the two of them had explored in the past. Boulders as tall as their barn had split off from the cliffs above, and wagon-sized stones had fallen away to the base of these rocks, forming the makings of a cave. Jubal tried to awaken Pru while he scaled the steep terrain.
“Remember the ‘Sultan’s Castle’?”
“You mean the Emperor of Youngdom?” she answered slowly. “His castle?”
His eyes misted. “Yep, the very same. We’re almost there.”
As they reached the bouldered cave entrance, Jubal turned sideways with his precious cargo in order to slide through the narrow gap. Once safely inside the rock-sided enclosure, he took off his coat and wrapped his sister in fleece-lined warmth. Just enough light peeked from a V-shaped opening for Jubal to see Pru’s ghostly pale complexion. Dry leaves spotted the cave floor and lay in drifts against the wall. A rag doll with a clownlike smile sat on the parched vegetation. It belonged to his sister.
Jubal laid Pru on the bed of leaves and moved the doll to a pile of carefully placed rocks.
“I smell Cotton, Jube.”
“Cotton, my rag doll I used to play with. I smell her. I dabbed some of ma’s lilac water on her ‘cause the old stuffing got kind of dank.”
Jubal took the cheery doll and passed it under his nose before he laid it next to his sister. Indeed, it smelled slightly of perfume. It had been years since he and his sister had used this stone structure as a playhouse.
“Don’t tell ma.” Her body heaved a long sigh of pain. “Sorry. Don’t tell that I spent time here. Ma would skin me.”
Jubal ran his hand softly across her face. “Are you in a lot of pain, sis?”
She nodded and held her hand to her mouth. “Jube… I’m not seeing too well.” She cried, not like a child, but deep and steady. “My side hurts, just here. I’m bleeding something awful.” She tried to touch her rib cage. “Maybe ma’s pain potion, under the washbasin. The small purple bottle.”
Their mother kept codeine elixir for severe pain, on a shelf in the kitchen. Jubal wondered if he could get to it or if it had even survived the fire. The men must have left the farm by now. There was still daylight, and he could be down to the farm and back in twenty minutes. “Pru, I’m going to try to get you that medicine. Will you be all right for a bit?”
“Ma,” she called. “Ma, I don’t feel well. I’ve got deep pain there. A man was with me. Make it go away.”
Jubal dropped to his knees.
“Can you get me the man in the moon? He’s frowning.”
She was delirious. Maybe it would be a good time to get back to the cabin for medicine. She moaned, knees drawn up tight toward her chest, hands dug between her legs. Her forehead was dampened with sweat, her face flushed red. But he was afraid to leave her in such pain.
“Jubal Young, a man-child.” She rolled to her side and reached a hand out toward him. “I wrote a poem for you, Jube.”
“I’d like to hear it.”
She tried to smile. “I don’t think I can remember it all. It’s about the land, the animals.… I gave the poem to ma to keep for your birthday. She put it away somewhere. I really need ma to help me. It’s a lady’s kind of thing. Please.”
Jubal made up his mind. “Listen to me, Pru. I’m gonna scoot down to the house and I’ll be right back. You’ll be fine for a few minutes, won’t you?”
She nodded, trying to smile.
Rifle in hand, Jubal ran back toward the homestead. The image of his sister lying huddled in misery, her pale face distorted, blurred him to anger. He would kill them all. He felt anguish, dizzy with it. I will track them to the ends of the earth.
The men had not left but were spread around the clearing, apparently looking for him. Jubal skirted the tree line and started once again to crawl. He realized the farther he went, the more he would be cut off from his sister. Never mind, he would deal with that later. First, these men.
The setting sun turned the raging fires that were once his home into a fiery pink mist. He took a last glance at the sad bundle that was his mother and continued to the root cellar. With the slide-action Colt steady on the door, he let out his breath and squeezed the trigger softly.
A man with a battered straw hat caught a round in the neck. He dropped his rifle and sat on the ground, both hands swatting at his neck as if shooing a pesky bee.
Gripping his throat, he tried to squelch the bleeding. Jubal slid another bullet into the chamber, aimed, and fired it squarely into the center of his forehead. The man’s sweat-stained hat spiraled backward. Arms outstretched in surrender, the renegade seemed to melt into the earth.
The other men scurried down behind his father’s overturned hay wagon, several with antiquated, single-shot weapons. Jubal hit the ground as the balled rounds ripped at the earth around him. Forcing himself to be calm, he once again reloaded.
The men called out to Jubal, denouncing him, describing in detail what they would do to him. All the while bullets plowed into the ground close to Jubal.
They continued to fire, one of the younger men skipping over a pile of clothing to charge toward the root cellar. As the man drew a long-barreled .44 from his holster, Jubal’s bullet caught him in the chest. Stumbling, he tried to reach Jubal, pounding his pistol at the soft earth. Moving within twenty feet, he slipped to his knees and then slowly eased to his side, as if preparing for a nap.
Several rounds splintered the root cellar’s plank door, a long thin piece of wood catching Jubal in the side of the head, opening a wound. For an instant he couldn’t see. He wrapped his bandanna around his forehead to stop the bleeding and fired several more shots into the distant hay wagon.
The intense pain from his gashed head gave him some welcome courage. His family had suffered, and this pain seemed to make him one with them. He thought of Pru, her bloody dress, and pa, Jubal Thaddeus Young, Sr., a man striving to make a life for his kinfolk, killed now by his own son’s hand. Jubal had a moment when he thought maybe his father would forgive him his death and be proud of him.
Be the man…, he would have said. Jubal prayed that it be so.
Jubal rose and heard what he thought was a hornet, then a high whistling sound and a shocking pain in his left hip. An arrow protruded from his body. It had not penetrated the skin of his back but stopped somewhere inside his lower waist. Jubal dropped back down on the native grasses to crawl below a small rise in the earth beyond view.
Scuttling along on his right side, he was careful so the arrow did not catch in the heavy foliage. With all the weapons in play, rifle and pistol rounds eating up the earth around him, Jubal thought it odd he would be hit by, of all things, an arrow.
His mission was too dangerous, and from the looks of the house it would be a miracle if anything survived the fire. He would have to go back empty-handed up the steep trail leading to Morning Peak and Sultan’s Castle. But Jubal didn’t know what else he could do for his sis.
If these men could track, and he knew at least the man with the bow could, then they would trail after him, but he knew the rocky path so well he was confident they couldn’t get around him. He glanced at the farmhouse, it continued to burn.
They would follow.
He wanted them to follow.
Hours had passed since Jubal had first come upon the attack. He deemed himself safe for now, having barely made it out of the bloody grounds of the homestead, inching along on his good hip. Grasping the embedded arrow with his left hand, he clawed and elbowed with his right. The ghostlike image of a tall gray-haired man kept him going. Jubal knew him. He felt as if he were missing something, a reason. It eluded him. The figures darting about his family’s property were mere phantoms without motive. His lack of memory, the why of this kept him strangely alert.
Jubal limped across an open meadow. Looking down at the protruding arrow, he thought it must have glanced off his hipbone. The length of it jutted out from his bleeding upper leg like an errant tree branch.
A stand of ponderosa pine lay ahead. He pushed on, glancing back often to see if he was followed. Not yet.
At a cliff overlooking what his sister referred to as “Young’s Valley,” once again he found his sister’s retreat, the small opening where two large rocks formed an inverted V.
The light started to fade as Jubal eased himself into the cave, where he was greeted by the sound of his sister’s soft, forced breathing. A strand of light from a gap at the top of the boulders illuminated her pale face.
He felt remorse. His search for the medicine had not only been worthless, but he had also been rewarded with a deep wound.
He watched his sister, wondering what to do next. How to deal with his own fierce pain of the arrow was beyond him.
Prudence stirred. “What would pa say?” she asked. It was almost as if she had read his mind. “Pa once said to me, ‘Prudence, when all else fails, simply smile.’ It’s a little harder done than said. Wouldn’t you say, Jube?”
“Pa was full of sayings.”
“Was?” she asked.
Jubal was happy to hear his sister once again speaking clearly, but she’d caught him off guard. He tried to cover his mistake. “Oh, I just mean he’s always saying these… platitudes. I think that’s the word. Anyhow, he’s funny sometimes, right?”
Quiet for a long time, Pru worried Jubal when she finally spoke. “I’d been picking flowers.” Her voice softened. “I think I was running and calling out to ma. Then, a smell like somebody’s sweat. Is Butternut okay?”
Jubal didn’t answer. He sat at her side, the arrow jutting out of his left hip, the blood flow fortunately stanched.
“A man was mean. He did hurtful things.” Her voice began to fade. “I want ma. Please get her.”
He wished he could.
Pru raised her clenched fists and made feeble striking movements into the air. She cried out.
Jubal once again stroked her forehead. “Try to relax if you can. It will be better soon.” He pushed his arm under her neck and brought her head close to his own. He kissed her softly on the cheek. Her eyes opened wide.
“I love my brother Jubal. He’s funny and kind.…”
Then she was gone.
© 2011 Gene Hackman
Payback at Morning Peak
Now, as Jubal rides west into New Mexico, he remembers his family’s laughter and love, his pa’s wisdom, ma’s thick books, and everything that was defiled by a band of drunken renegades towed along by one man’s murderous grudge. A reprobate lawman won’t believe his story. A soft-hearted mountain man won’t survive Jubal’s one-man war. And a judge and his beautiful daughter cannot stop Jubal from climbing a peak of blood and madness: for justice, or payback, or something he can live for—or die for—redeeming.
An American film icon delivers a great American novel with Payback at Morning Peak. Gene Hackman, whose fiction is “rousing” (Publishers Weekly) and “robust” (Winston-Salem Journal), takes readers on a powerful and historically dead-on western odyssey in the tradition of Louis L’Amour.