Jake untied his bundle of furs while the other trappers looked on. Big Frank bit his lip, nearly drawing blood. Percy rubbed his hands repeatedly down the front of his filthy black coat and stared all wide-eyed at the stack of furs with his good eye, while the lazy one ogled at some obscure item on the ceiling. Captain Woody leaned forward, a bead of sweat running down his face and into his mustache. Each of the men was both excited and afraid at what might lie in that tall stack of fur. They gave a collective sigh of relief when the burlap was laid open. Jake had brought a fine collection of prime mink, otter, and beaver pelts, but nothing in the stack gleamed white. The Captain gave a little nod to the others and sidled in behind the counter.

“Any sign of the G-Ghost Otter, Jake?” asked Percy. Big Frank shot the little man an angry look for bringing up the wrong topic.

“Ghost Otter’s a myth,” Jake muttered.

“The Ghost Otter ain’t a myth,” said Frank. “I done seen the toes Old Man Cleary pulled from his trap. Those three claws came from the biggest otter you’d ever see, and they were white claws.”

“Old Man Cleary was a fool,” replied Jake. “Any man that goes and sets undersized steel for otter is a fool. You can’t catch otter in a little coon trap, boys. You’re bound to end up with an educated animal that mayn’t ever get caught again, and a couple of toes which is all Cleary got. Besides, who among us can’t bleach a scrap of fur with peroxide and call it white?”

“I believe in the Ghost Otter,” said Percy. But not like you fellas think. I think it’s a real g-ghost. Folks say they’s mystreous things goin’ on it them woods, and I believe ‘em. There’s a b-black shadow over the Saginaw valley and it stretches its f-feelers way up here to the Au Sable. They’s real spooks in them cedar swamps downriver. The d-devil’s wolves lay claim on them woods. You can tell em’ by they ain’t got no fur. And they’s wampus cats there, near as big as bears. They got human eyes and long clawed paws that look just like a woman’s hands with long nails but with fur on the fingers.”

Big Frank scoffed, but let the walleyed little man continue.

“Just ask any of those Chippewa folks. They banish their own there for b-bad deeds. They make ‘em go live with the spooks and demons for a while. Most of ‘em never come back and the ones that do ain’t n-no g-good for n-n-nothin b-but b-b-babbling g-g-gibberish. Folks is sayin’ Ah Khi rules those woods. But it ain’t Ah Khi.”

“Well, then … who the he-l runs the forest if it ain’t Mother Earth?” growled Big Frank.

Percy tip-toed over to peek behind the counter. He scurried over to the window to peer outside, then returned to the group of men, who were staring at him quizzically. After one more glance about the cabin, Percy pulled his top hat down tighter on his head, as if to ward off evil spirits.

He whispered cautiously, “It’s the Wendigo. Ask any g-gypsy in that camp downriver. Ask my old grandmum, she’ll tell you. ‘Cause she’s seen ‘im. Seen his eyes in the night. Twelve foot tall, he is. And only shows hisself at night. Shows hisself when the moon is out. You’ll known him by his eyes. Them eyes’ll stare down at you from twelve foot up, high all a-glow. Orange as a lit jack-o-lantern, they is. Them eyes glow bright under a bright moon, they sure does. Orange as a ripe pumpkin. But you’ll never see him. Only his black shadow. It ain’t Ah Khi that rules those spooky swamps. It’s the Wendigo.”

“Percy, if there’s Wendigos and wampus cats downriver, I’ll eat my d-mn hat,” said Cappy.

“And I’ll eat your d-mn wooden leg, Cappy,” growled Big Frank.

“They’s plenty of wampus cats …” Percy said this dejectedly, quietly, almost to himself. “But there’s only one Wendigo …”

“Say, Jake,” Cappy said, aiming to get the order of business back on track. “Me and the boys wanted to say how sorry we are about your wife’s untimely passing. She was a fine Chippewa squa–eh–woman, that is. H-ll, what I mean to say is, she was a fine woman of any breed… Anyhow, we know how close you were to her and all, and we’d like you to know how sorry we are, collectively, for your loss.”

Jake spat. “I appreciate that, boys. I know it comes from the very depths—might I say the very shallows—of your souls,” said Jake.

An uncomfortable silence followed as Jake sorted his fur for Cappy’s inspection. Frank let out a long whistle of admiration as he took envious note of Jakes catch. “You leave any out there for the rest of us?” he asked.

“Not up the North Branch,” Jake shot back with a laugh. “Not a soul. Leastwise nothin’ with a pelt to speak of.”

“There ain’t no one else trapping downriver that I know of,” said Cappy. “No one wants to paddle back upriver after a week out on the line.”

“Lazy’s easy when you’re lugging around all those heavy traps with their chains,” Jake said. “You fellas rely so much on steel these days, you forgot how to catch critters the old way. Now don’t go off thinking I’m giving out any free secrets here, ‘cause I know you three are just as lazy as the rest. And Cappy, you ain’t goin’ too far with that broomstick for a leg anyhow. But fellas, you’ve gotta travel light to hit the rare spots. By rare, I’m makin’ reference to the North Branch, which I’ve plum cleaned out, and parts east of there, in the direction of the Great Huron Lake. That’s where I aim to spend the next four weeks or so. I’ll be needing supplies for that, Cap.”

Percy just couldn’t hold it in anymore: “Frank’s got s-s-something else he wants to ask you, Jake.”

“G-dammit Percy, shut yer yap!” hollered Frank.

Jake glared from Frank to Percy and back again. “You got something to ask me, then go ahead and ask it, Frank.”

The big man looked down at the floor, steamed as h-ll at Percy. He rubbed his beard as he carefully chose his words. “Well, it’s like this … You see, me and the boys here, we’d heard some things–rumors you know–about your dear wife’s passing …” Frank paused to clear his throat. “We was wonderin’ if… if it’s true what Doc Branson and other folks are sayin’.”

“What is it folks are sayin’?” Jake’s right hand had drifted down to his belt and his fingers were tapping out an impatient tune on his tomahawk.

Frank swallowed hard, glanced at the other two men, glanced at Jake’s tomahawk, cleared his throat, and continued in a thinner voice.

“We heard from folks that heard from the Doc, that your dear squaw … eh, wife … lay sadly—truly sadly—for we all grieved terribly—sadly deceased for goin’ on fifteen minutes, when she suddenly woke and sat up on the bed all in one solitary instance.”

“That’s as true as you’re standing there, quivering in your boots, Frank. So what’s eatin’ at you?”

“Aw, h-ll, Jake; what I mean to say is, we’re a God-fearing community. Nearly everyone around here is, anyway. And folks are naturally always wonderin’ what’s on the other side, you know, when a body dies and passes on into the spirit world.”

“J-sus C-rist, Frank, I get the feeling there’s something you’re trying to get at here and you’re taking an awful long time doing it so why don’t you quit being a g-d-mn chicken sh-t and just come out with it?”

“Alright, alright, Jake … Alright … I’ll come right out and say it simply ... There’s talk all around town that your dear wife was deceased goin’ on fifteen minutes when she sat straight up out of bed all wide-eyed and issued some words of spiritual knowledge in her native tongue, and that she said it directly at you. And no one else knows exactly what she said—exceptin’ maybe that Injun midwife Sally—and Sally ain’t talking. Anyhow, you was closest, and what she said was Chippewa-speak, and the other folks there, meaning the doc and the pastor, they didn’t grasp what she said. But we’re all dyin’ to know. Aw, h-ll .. maybe dyin’ ain’t the right word… But we’re all darn curious to know what it was that dear squaw said. And with you knowin’ the Chippewa tongue and all, we thought…”

“That’s right,” said Percy. He had scuttled around behind Frank and peered at Jake over the big man’s shoulders. “P-people are saying she said something mighty p-profound about the hereafter, and it came from the s-spirit world, and all three of us was wonderin’ if you’d be inclined to t-t-tell us what it was she said.”

After a long pause, Jake said, “Which of you gave one lick about the afterlife before you were born?”

The three men looked at one other, shrugged, and turned back to Jake.

“Seems to me,” Jake continued, “that if it weren’t nothing to worry on then, it ain’t nothing to worry on now.” He dug the tobacco out from his lip and dropped it in the spittoon. “You fellas think bein’ born was some kinda prize? There ain’t no prize in livin’ boys. And this sh-t is all you’re gonna get. Take that Bible story, ‘bout the garden of Eden. Adam had his troubles back then, and we got ours now which ain’t all that different. This life we’re forced to suffer is like a big ol’ bear trap under an apple tree. Just try and reach up for that ripe red apple. Go ahead and reach up for that reward and see what it gets you.

“We’re all condemned to live out our lives and take whatever sh-t we get dished and there ain’t a g-dd-mn thing we can do about it. So go ahead and reach for your shiny red apple. Just try to enjoy a taste of that sweet pie you call life and see where you land. If there is some grand omnipotent deity, He’s sittin’ up there on his throne, just awaitin’ on us to get ahold of something nice, and laughing all the while knowin’ he can jerk it away from us whenever he d-mn well pleases. He’s up there grinnin’ and chuckling over the eventual death we all owed to Him. If any one of us had the guts we’d cheat that sonuvab-tch outta His timing. H-ll, I’ve tried. Held that barrel tight up against my head.” The trapper gestured at his forehead. “Didn’t have the guts to pull the trigger. ‘Guess we’re all cowards inside.”

Jake spat at the floor.

“Now listen up to what I’m telling you and listen real good. There is no afterlife. That wonderful woman’s last words were nothing but gibberish. Pure Ojibwe gibberish.” Jake drew the hatchet from his belt and sunk it deep into the pine countertop with a force that shook the little cabin and sent a wall-mount of deer antlers crashing to the floor. I’m gonna need a new edge put on this here tommy-hawk Cappy.”

The men stared silently at the hatchet. There was nothing left to say.