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From

The Night Show, Vol. 4:

In the Parlance of Our Crimes

 

 

"Natives"

 

Rocky Mountains, Colorado Territory, 1849

 

Larson made it to the eastern perimeter of camp before his legs decided they'd overextended their abilities enough in his favor for one day. With blurry vision he collapsed, face first, into the snow bank, and everything went from white to black. If not for the fact that it was Sunday morning, Eli Garret's boys wouldn't have been on their way to weekly services, and Virgil Larson would have likely been frozen solid by nightfall. He was barely conscious enough to realize he was already halfway there.

            If they hadn't seen him fall, Eli Garret's boys might have still found his location from the trail of blood leading to the three foot drift into which Larson had collapsed, but this was unlikely. His wound wasn't critical, but it was enough to mark in blood a proverbial dotted-line path out of the woods, and within minutes Garret's boys had him out of the drift, lying on his back. Larson could hear their words to each other, but the conversation was broken up like the trail of his lifeblood leading back to the river, where the rest of the party were most likely a lot worse off than he.

            "Wolves," Larson whispered.

            "Lean down, Trevor, he’s sayin' somethin'."

            Trevor Garret was a good kid; Eli's youngest. When they’d come here from Independence last year, it was Trevor who navigated Larson's third wagon into these mountains. Only fifteen then, but already courting hopes of being a scout for others heading back east next year. "What's that, Mr. Larson? You say wolves?"

            God, it was almost as hard to talk as it was to hear. With great effort, Larson said, "We were attacked…," but could go no further into explanation as he began to feel his body turn warm, the opposite of what it should have been outdoors in the dead of November, and Eli Garret's boys wasted no further time waiting for him to say more. On the wind, Larson felt himself begin the journey into camp, but he was not conscious for the end.

            When he came back from darkness, he was aware (with admirable swiftness) of his surroundings. The lamplight, the cot he was laying on, the dingy tent walls, held up on posts that were splintered from the nick of stretchers banking off their sides. The tent was fourteen by fourteen. Larson, himself, had helped set it up last year, and had carried more than one injured body in here for the doc to bring back from the edge of their Great Reward.

            The doc himself was nowhere in sight. Tina Harthwaite, the doctor’s daughter, appeared, instead, from somewhere north of his head and out of his blind spot. Ugly as a mule's hindquarters, but a woman gifted with an inviting personality. Most everyone in the company loved her.

            "T-Tina … water?"

            She fixed him a cup forthwith, and helped him lift his head to drink it.

            "Pa says no talkin' until you can eat."

            "But we ain't safe, Tina. None of us in this valley. They've been watching us."

            "Who's been watchin' who, Virgil?"

            "They killed us all, Tina, 'cept me. I hid in the snow 'till I was half-froze. We shot at 'em, but it didn't seem to do nothin'. Where's … where's your pa now, Tina? Where's the doc?"

            Tina looked at him, and Virgil Larson knew the answer by the scared look in her eyes.

            "Eli's boys?"

            "They went with him, and twelve others, Virgil. They went lookin' for the rest of your huntin' party."

            Larson's eyes could focus enough to see the sun going down over the mountains through the flaps in doc's tent. "How long ago did they leave?"

            She told him two hours. He could never catch up to them in time, and wasn't sure he owned the courage to do it even if his body had been capable of going back into those woods. "Did Irish go with 'em?"

            "Virgil Larson, you tell me what happened out there!"

            "Damn it, Tina, there ain't time!"

            "Irish is locked up. You know that."

            "Well, spring 'im, damnit, and hurry, woman! On your way back, bring the preacher, too."

 

 

            The majority of the company knew him as "Irish," but the real name was Colin Rourke, and he’d joined the train in (location just west of Independence). It was suspected that he might be some kind of fugitive, and a wide variety of rumors had circulated as to what his crimes might have been. Because of such rumors, he was blamed for stealing two of the Henderson's donkeys and selling them to some (Cherokee) in the area after the rest of the folks in camp had retired for the night. It was said he was from Texas, but nobody really knew for sure.

            Irish was waiting for trial when Larson and a group of six other men left camp to find meat in the surrounding hills. They were enjoying a few days without snowfall, and the men had voted to make the most of it. Irish could wait for their return, stewing in the jailhouse—the term barely applicable, unless you were trying to be polite around those who'd built it. Really it was little more than a shanty, but nobody except Irish had committed any offenses serious enough to be locked up for, so the size of the place worked out fine. Their peacekeeper was Bill Tarkin, a lawman back in Kentucky. Larson and others liked to wonder if this was really true, but it wasn’t easy to verify things and no one had bothered to question the claim, anyway. Tarkin was as good a candidate as any. Just as Larson suspected, their resident sheriff was less than thrilled to release Irish from his tiny cell just on the say-so of a man made delirious from the elements. Every time Larson tried to sit up, his vision clouded. He had little choice but to hope Tina used every power of persuasion she could muster, to somehow get Tarkin to listen. When he arrived to the tent shortly thereafter, with Irish in a shackle which connected each man at the wrist, Tina following behind, Larson started to breathe a little easier since first awakening.

"Larkin, I hope you have yourself a good reason for this nonsense."

            "Take Irish. Take the preacher. Go after them. You don't have any time to lose, Bill."

            "See here, Larson…"

            "There ain't time. Don't join 'em. Bring 'em back. Hurry up!"

            Tarkin regarded him soberly, a condition few of the men in camp were truly used to, and said, "You gotta give me some idea."

            "Wolves … but more than that. It's some kind of thing I ain't never seen, Bill, and it killed all the men I went out there with before any of ‘em could so much as think of shootin’ back. We're gonna have to adjust our way of livin', maybe leave this place altogether."

            They'd all heard the tales told among Indians and braggarts alike, of every kind of strange mountain beast from (name) to the Windigo, the latter of which was Larson's favorite. The Windigo was nothing … a feeling of something following you in the woods, gone when you turned to look back, before you could catch it following you. They each called on those very stories to control their own children, warning them of the (name) that would get them if they weren't within sight by sundown. Larson was careful not to say too much for fear of raising Tarkin's suspicion that he was truly possessed of nothing more than fatigue, given to seeing phantoms. Lord help those men out there tonight if Tarkin didn't believe him now.

            "Why Irish? There's other men in camp."

            "You might need someone out there who plays dirty. Just bring 'em back, I'm tellin' ya. Don't go on with them, whatever you do."

            Tarkin stood there fuming for a minute. It was similar to the way he looked when the cards hadn't gone his way through every last cent he owned at one of their Friday night games. Finally, he turned to Irish and said, "You try anything and I'll blow your brains out, Irish—'Scuse my language, Tina."

            When they were gone, Larson shared with Tina the details of his nightmare by the river, lacking the time to tell the men he’d just sent back out there, who could have used the information most.

 

*                  *                *

           

 

            It was beavers who'd saved him, if you can believe such a thing. Not beavers directly, but their dam. He’d lain in the water, concealed by the handiwork of an animal he'd eaten for many-a-dinner up here in the high country. It was still called (Colorado Territory), holding the majority of the Rocky Mountains, the gateway to the Great American Desert. Their company—Cutler and Sons out of Independence, MO—had failed to cross the mountains before the winter snows of '41, and were thus forced to make camp in the low hills on the eastern side of the range, with plans to crossover in the spring. That had been two years ago, and the company was still here, having voted to stay and make money off those who’d be traveling past them in the years to come, heading out west to either Oregon or California. It was anticipated there would be many emigrants in the years to come, especially with rumors of gold out west already beginning to surface in campfire storytelling all the way from here to the Missouri River.

            Larson was soon numb through several layers of clothing, the water running under him like a kind of cold hellfire. His Smith was wet and probably useless, but he did his best to keep the barrel and chambers above water, even as his teeth threatened to chatter themselves into a fine-grain powder. All around him, he could hear the others screaming, the sounds of violent death; doubtfully any of it coming from whatever had jumped them on the trail. Not just the men were victims—the horses, too. He closed his eyes against the sounds, and held his wet gun as though it were a totem of the Almighty, Himself, to whom Larson had never been a big believer, but might, after today, begin giving further consideration. Assuming he survived.

            Laying still was next to impossible. Soon his hands were shaking so bad, it became a futile endeavor trying to keep the gun above water. Pointless, anyway, he thought. Throughout whatever was going on out there, not a single shot by any of the other men was fired. In a condition still not called "hypothermia," Larson held little confidence in his ability to aim with any accuracy, even if he was the fastest shot in the hunting party—which he wasn’t. Nothing would keep him alive but the good favor of a spirit he’d never seen face-to-face and a whole lot of good luck.

            After the last man was dead (Gooding, Larson thought, a true son of a bitch), the woods fell into an awful silence, broken only by the sound of the stream rushing through his very bones. The attackers were still close, perhaps watching him even now. It was almost dark. If he didn't get out of this water in the next minute or so, Larson knew, he’d probably die of heart failure. "I'm sorry for whatever I done." His lips mouthed these words which he didn't even dare whisper. "I promise I'll quit drinkin'. I swear I'll never let a curse leave my lips." Hesitating, he then threw in, "No more whores, neither."

            He could see nothing outside of the dam. Desperately, he fought the urge to inch forward and move a bit of the mud patch aside. Hell, they're just Indians, thought Larson. It ain't like they can see everything.

             Some quiet voice told him to reconsider such logic. They'd dealt with hostiles before. Why hadn't he heard a single gunshot? No hostiles in the world were so fast that several good shooters could be put down without a fight. Damned if he was going to step outside just yet and discover the reason why. On the other hand, if he waited until full darkness fell, his chances were even slimmer of making it back to camp. He’d have to spend the night out here, and not in some by-God beaver damn, neither.

            He tried to hear the sounds of his surroundings over the water, without success, and in the end, made his move on little more than gut instinct. Whoever had hit the party wouldn’t wait for him to show himself, if they knew he was still breathing. They’d have fallen on him at once. He fought the urge to spin around in the effort to see every direction at once, setting his eyes to the task instead with quick, furtive movements. His legs, in their current state of numbness, would hardly be counted on for agility if he lost his footing on the smooth stones of the riverbed. If he turned too fast, he would fall, and if he fell, they would hear it.

            No arrow pierced him. No shot was fired. Larson took to the riverbank like a drunk relieved of his drink a spell too long, shaking, his teeth now moved to play a chattering symphony of their own that he could scarcely hope to deter. There was no one here. The shadows in the woods and the rising glen were a reflective, snowy white, reflecting moonlight with no aberration in this clearing except for the dark stains beneath the bodies of his fellow men. Bodies he was gratefully unable to see with any clarity. His rifle had fallen somewhere in the midst of the ambush. His sidearm was soaked, but he held it up as best he could, barrel pointed out before him, his muscles barely possessing the strength to aim it all. His arm was shaking so badly he feared he might fire the weapon accidentally. His vision, too, was practically an adversary in its hopelessly blurred state of focus.

Go, he thought. Run for your God-lovin’ life.

            He stood, faltered, stood again, and hobbled away on feet he couldn’t feel. By the time the Garret boys found him outside of camp the following morning, the rest of his body had followed the example.

            “So you never saw no one? Not another livin’ soul of any kind?”

            “I was bein’ watched, Tina. I know that plain as that nose on yer face. But, no, I didn’t see so much as a gopher. I could barely see the trail!”

            “And you didn’t look at the bodies, neither—”

            “If I’d taken that much time, you’d be sittin’ here with no information of any kind, I assure ya.”

            “So you think it was Injuns?”

            “Well, who the hell else would it be? They must’ve been wearin’ some kind of thick wolf-skins. Bandits wouldn’t have been able to get us without a shot bein’ fired.”

            “Neither would Injuns.”

            “I ain’t one of the kids, hon. Save yer stories for the age that prefers them.”

            “But you must have seen somethin’ before you …”

            “What? Before I hid, right? Is that what you were gonna say, Tina? Well, maybe I did. It was either that or check out with the rest of them.”

            Tina handed him the bottle after that, and Larson fell to the task of getting well acquainted with it. Speaking of stories, she was known to be particularly effective at spinning yarn for certain children in her care, to the desired effect of guiding their young minds toward following in the footsteps of what was right and true. Even an adult or two was known to sit in for one of her sessions after the children, while out on the trail, gathered together to sleep under the stars, between the fire and the circle of wagons guarding the camp’s perimeter. Since one or two of her young charges were given to shouting out the ending of her tales before she could reach them herself, to the great admonition of their peers, she could frequently change the ending she’d had in mind, if it coincided with theirs. Tina looked at it as an enjoyable challenge for herself. In much the same fashion as the little ones in her charge, she knew the ending of Virgil Lawson’s tale, and it was not exactly what he had confessed.

            “You ain’t tellin’ me somethin’, Virgil.”

            “Damn it, Tina, don’t work yer hocus-pocus around me, now. I’ve had more than my fill.”

            “You know I can’t help it. You’re lyin’ to me, Virgil. You know I see that in folks.”

            “It wasn’t nothin’, damnit! One man, a shaman, I think. Wore furs and some kind of head-dress … that’s all I saw. We all saw him, a few hours before we were ambushed.”

            “What did he say to you, Virgil?”

            Sullenly, Virgil Larson looked into that gleam of amazement in her eye which kept him now, as it kept most folks, from getting too angry whenever Tina did this. “Damn, woman. If you don’t mind my sayin’, you’re talents strike one as a mite spooky, sometimes.”

 

 

            Larson was the town drunk in a company full of hard drinkers. He owed something to almost every man or family. He was loutish; known for stretching his depiction of an event in ways that shed a better light on his own participation in whichever event was being discussed than was actually true. On top of that, he wasn’t even a Christian. If Larson had been conscious when the second party set out to find the first, they’d have listened to his tale about the so-called “medicine man,” nodded thoughtfully, and discounted its validity by the time they were out of the sight of camp.

Staring at this being, now, without the benefit of hearing Larson’s full account of the ambush in this place where six of the company’s men had died, Bill Harthwaite simply thought he was seeing an apparition.

            Night would be upon them soon, within minutes. Tricks of the light were to be expected as sure as darkness follows dusk. With much difficulty, he looked at the eleven other men who’d accompanied him out here, saw that they were seeing the same thing, and thus he doubted his own eyes no more. Several of them were already aiming rifles.

            He called out to the shaman-like man (if it even was a man), and took a few steps forward, hearing no request from his party to refrain. Between he and the one across the clearing were a series of strange shapes marking what all of them had recognized as evidence of the massacre. Bill set to crossing this distance with all the reservation of a man stepping forward to identify the bodies of his own kin.

            Halfway, he stopped, and took in the visage with eyes squinting to accommodate the shadows. “Do you know what happened here?”

            Up the side of the glen, a tall figure, over six feet tall, was covered from head to foot in beaver and elk, but this garb in itself wasn’t evidence of origins from some hostile native tribe—although no reply implied no understanding of Bill’s words, which gave him the impression of a heathen’s upbringing. Bill kept his final verdict at bay but his rifle was primed nonetheless, held protectively across his chest. Hippocrates had no place in these wild lands.

            Never speaking, the shaman-looking mountain man turned his back on Bill and left his view, disappearing over a rise preceding the next glen. Bill held his hand up for the men behind him to wait, and hoped they could see him clear enough in this gloaming darkness. He scaled the side of the glen and reached the place from which the shaman had disappeared. Down the other side was the river, bridged by a large beaver dam that Bill could easily see from here, a stretch of a hundred or more feet away. A bit before its banks began the clearing, besotted by rock formations of some kind in the snow. At least, that’s what they looked like to Bill Harthwaite.

            The shaman had already crossed the water upstream of the dam, and begun to crest the opposite bank. Bypassing the clearing, Bill rushed as best he could through ankle-deep snow to follow the progress of the unidentified savage. Traversing a rise along the bank of his side of the stream, Bill made it to a place from which he saw the man again, and paused to watch him stop once again at the top of the hill on the other side, and knew the shaman would turn around to look at him even before it actually happened.

He wants me to follow and bring the others with me, he thought. Looking back, Bill saw the other men of his party making their way slowly through the area of the clearing near the stream bank where the island-like rock formations jutted out of the earth like low mounds.

            The shaman wasn’t waiting. When Bill Harthwaite’s eyes returned to their quarry (if that’s what he was), Bill could barely make out the man’s disappearance from view this time. The sudden stillness of the night was unnerving as he struggled to hear the sound of branches breaking ahead, beyond the stream, over the progress of his men behind. There was a choice to be made, here, and Bill Harthwaite decided to save the lives of those not dead over finding out how those who were had become that way.

            He hurried down the side of the hill to intercept Casey, who was leading the rest toward the rock formations. “It’s a trap!” he called out in a loud rasp. “He’s leadin’ us into something!”

            They took a minute to discuss the matter in hushed whispers before Casey, the unofficial leader, informed the rest that he would follow the shaman from here, with another of the men following him cautiously to report back should anything dire prove to be the consequence. He was gone before any of the men could protest, not that too many of them would have done so. Casey’s nephew, a sharp teenager with the name of Bryce, assumed it his responsibility to follow his uncle, and none of the men objected to that, either. Bill watched the young man strike off after Casey a minute or so after Casey had left. With no ability to say why, he was unable to shake off the suspicion that he wouldn’t see either man alive again.

            Right then, he missed the benefits of the questionable blessing the Good God Almighty had chosen to bestow on his daughter, Tina, and even wished he had a little bit of it for himself.

            They didn’t light a fire that night. Each man kept watch for an hour in turn, but nothing threatened their shivering, uneven rest. Casey and his nephew never returned, and Bill tried to consider alternatives to letting them stay gone. One nagging thought pervaded all others: It felt like they were being dragged in. If Casey and the boy didn’t return by dawn, they would have to consider sending another party forward. He trained his eyes on the area where Casey had disappeared from sight, willing the man to return with his nephew in tow, with information of some kind—although that was asking for a lot. He wanted them to return alive. If they didn’t, he would be one of those to go forward. He was the company’s only doctor, but if they weren’t serious enough to send him, no other man could expect much for his own chances of success.

            More ahead of the situation than was probably necessary, Bill was also starting to consider a proposition to go back to camp, pack up, and move the whole company farther into the mountains, or maybe backtrack a little, make another shot in the spring. He was not sure these men could hope to win a battle against an unseen enemy; an enemy so severe it had already bested six of their men. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, Bill knew the situation hadn’t yet reached the point at which he could hope to sell such a proposition with the necessary conviction. So far, his estimate of the danger amounted to a band of murderous bandits, probably Injuns.

            At dawn, three men appeared from the shadows in the direction of camp, and it was Bill who happened to be awake when they arrived. He recognized Tarkin, the appointed Sheriff of the Cutler Company, and that charlatan preacher, Montgomery. The third man required some squinting to recognize, and at first, Bill didn’t trust his own eyes. It was that fleecing bastard, Irish, and he appeared to be holding hands with Tarkin.

            The rest of the men with Bill were starting to stir; one, named Lester French, seeking out kindling to start a morning fire. Bill left his post, and went to meet the new men.

            “Larson woke up,” Tarkin informed him. “He says they were ambushed. Are those … the bodies?”

            Before turning in, some of the men had gathered the six dead (not, as it happened, “rock formations”) and lined them together; the parts remaining, anyway, lying uncovered due to the cold night and necessity for the men to use their blankets to keep themselves warm.

            “Larson says pack it up. At first I thought he was ranting. Then I didn’t. He’s too spooked to be lyin’. He says him and the party were sacked and none of ‘em got off a single shot. Some kind of wolves.”

            “There’s a man out here, too. We all seen ‘im. Tall fella in skins. We couldn’t see his face. Casey and his nephew, Bryce, followed after. The rest of us hung back in case it was a trap. They didn’t come back last night.”

            “Well, you sure as hell ain’t goin’ after, Doc. You’re the only one we got.”

            “If they’re hurt, they’ll need me—”

            “And if they’re dead, you’ll join ‘em.”

            Both men looked at Irish, and Irish looked back at them with the twinkle of one who knows opportunity when he sees it. The preacher—tall, gaunt Edward Montgomery—said nothing. He seemed to be missing the bottle more than a little.

            “We could make it a payin’ proposition, Irish. I think we can collect fifty per family, though I ain’t promisin’. We take up a collection, you’ll see a dime or two and I think you know it.”

            “What’s to say he won’t dick around out there, come back empty-handed?”

            Tarkin directed Bill’s answer toward Irish. “You’ll get more if you bring ‘em back alive, simple as that, Irish. If they’re dead, you bring evidence, or you don’t get nothin’.”

            Irish never said a word. Once Tarkin set him loose and handed over his pistols, Irish was gone, across the stream and over the hill in the direction Casey had traveled. Watching him go, Tarkin said, “Speakin’ of this man you saw, you think it could have been Quincey?”

             Quincey was the preacher before Montgomery took his place. They’d had little choice, once Quincey supposedly lost his mind and disappeared into the wilderness. ‘Supposedly’ because no one actually knew what had become of Leonard Quincey. After his wife and daughter had vanished, he’d spent more and more time out in the wilderness looking for them, until one day he simply didn’t return. Such occurrences weren’t nothing more than a day in the life. God knew a man’s women-folk were worth more than a few horses, ‘specially the pretty ones, and Leonard Quincey had lost two. If it hadn’t been savages, it was mountain lions. If it wasn’t savages or mountain lions, it was bandits. If you asked the natives, they would probably add evil spirits to the list, but Bill didn’t consider himself a superstitious man. Despite his daughter Tina’s … talent for guesswork.

            Harthwaite was distracted from pondering Tarkin’s suggestion by the distant sound of a rifle’s shot, then another, then small arms’ fire. Before the echo of the first of had died away, most of the men who hadn’t wakened yet now did so, sitting up as though finding garter snakes spooning beside them in the freezing confines of their blankets. Collectively, they looked to the direction of the sound, not surprisingly the hill over which Casey had gone to follow the shaman. Most of them were unaware that Irish had ever been among them and Tarkin decided to let the few who knew tell the rest. One way or other, he believed, they would soon have the truth behind this crisis.

One seldom set out for a journey across this enormous country in the first place, a country full of dangers both known and imagined, without having a great capacity for hope and faith that anything was possible. So far, the only thing he found worthy of betting on was the good chance that the Irishman would come back with evidence of what was going on out there. That was faith. Tarkin was reserving his hope that it was only Injuns who’d killed six of the company’s men.

           

               

            Casey stopped after half an hour of fruitless searching for the shaman’s trail, from the time he’d lost it. This was in the still hours, as in 'still long before dawn'. Tarkin, Irish and the preacher were just leaving camp in search of the search party.

            He’d lost his quarry, and it was beginning to sink in that there would be no finding the trail in this cursed darkness. Occasionally, he heard Bryce make some noise as he attempted to follow his uncle, but it wasn’t enough to distract completely from the noises he could hear in front of him, if there were any noises to hear. He was at the point of giving up, knowing to go on was to gamble with ever finding his way back. His breath was blowing out in great, heaving gusts, crystalline against the sharp mountain air. He sought to isolate and identify different night sounds, ruling out the rush of a rabbit or the distant bird taking flight from the trees. It was difficult to hear anything at all over the voice of his own chastising conscience—for god’s sake, you’re a trained scout! He was an acolyte of the great Jim Bridger himself, accompanying the pioneer on his famous journey (cite specific), where (significant obstacle) had almost bested their party in the (location). One shifty medicine man shouldn’t have been more than a mild challenge to track, yet Casey could see how this was going to end: with him returning to the men empty-handed, humiliated, a failure. To another man, this might have been an acceptable conclusion, but Casey was a man who understood the value of appearances. He was fully aware that one of his talents in life was gaining the confidence of others, and a goodly portion of the company sought his word on various matters. Whether or not he knew the answers, they believed what he told them. It had been a staple of his life ever since the Missouri days, and, at twenty-eight, Casey had discovered how this particular truth of his personality could be manipulated into gaining him some remuneration for his twilight years. Like mayor, for instance, or governor of the future county, as soon as it progressed past twenty or so families and into a town with a street or two, maybe a hotel.

            Failures like this would be remembered. So would positive results.

            He decided to drop his pack and take a nip from his fading bottle of Old Granddad, to consider the situation in which he found himself. He was tipping the bottle when a rush of birds taking flight to his right nearly made him jump clear out of his skin. Bottle in his right hand, he drew his left gun and listened, already weighing the pros and cons of felling the shaman before they had a chance to question him. Six men had been massacred, and Casey would have bet his whole future political career that their mystery friend knew something about how they’d gotten that way.

            For the time being, he slipped the bottle into his vacated holster and headed to his right, toward the sound, praying he wouldn’t find the source of the disturbance to be some startled squirrel. There was no trail out here, merely a thinner forest in places where the Injuns frequently traveled, and Casey was grateful for it. Tracks were easier to find in the snow, especially lit under such a bold wash of moonlight as the night’s clouds intermittently chose to provide. Also easier to be seen—

            He was falling before he realized the soft spot in the snow his boot had found was actually a hole without bottom, and Casey tumbled straight out of his own thoughts, into the ground itself. He realized he’d fallen into a pit half a second too late to throw out his arms to the sides, and grab the edges before the hole swallowed him alive. When his feet didn’t hit ground for three full seconds more, it became obvious the drop precipitated a man-made trap. With the impact of his ass against a bed of sharp stones, his vision flickered, and then went out.

When it cleared again, Casey was looking up into dawn sky—what little of it was visible from the bottom of a twenty-foot hole in the ground. Casey didn’t realize he was hurt until he tried to move his left leg and discovered that it was pinned underneath him. He started to scream but squelched it halfway out of his mouth. The leg felt broken at first, but this turned out to be untrue. He touched the area gingerly and held up fingertips turned red and sticky with his own blood.

Casey’s vision started to waver once again, but this time he held onto it. To pass out for even a few more minutes might be fatal, likewise calling out for assistance. Whoever had dug this hole would likely check its spoils before too long. He had until then to get himself out of here.

The darkness down here prevented finding anything useful toward this endeavor, and he knew it would have been fruitless to expect to find something even if he could see. If not for his pack, he might have broken his spine, barring movement of any kind. To look at the bright side was necessary. Looking in the other direction would only lead to panic, and his eventual undoing.

            As it turned out, he didn’t have long enough to come up with the barest turn of an idea that would save his life.

His captor had heard his initial cry of pain, and Casey heard brush hurriedly disturbed by someone at the lip of the hole, directly above his head. A shower of snow cascaded down on his face, causing him to sputter, spitting it out of his mouth. The face looking down at him was, he thought at first, that of an animal; a wolf, maybe, but he couldn’t be sure. Its ears were longer than he would have supposed; the hair of its head more bristle-like, as well. Its eyes were larger, wilder, and more red then Casey could remember ever seeing in the head of an animal before, and he had hunted many. The teeth were bared, more pronounced than anything Casey had ever seen outside of nightmares. Realizing its dinner was awake, those eyes flared as though they harbored flames fanned by all the furnaces of a hell in which Casey had never really believed before this moment.

Hell is real, he could see now.

This is it.   

            Casey’s scream, as long and loud as he could make it, was amazing for how little it sounded like he would have expected. His throat, too dry, barely produced a squawk loud enough to make the animal blink. Feeling for his right hip gun, he miscalculated and hit the trigger before ever clearing the holster, and the report it made in these confines made him scream again. This time his ears were ringing so bad he never heard it.

The pain that followed was like all the previous times he’d been shot, and no easier. Raising his head, Casey saw that he’d fired a bullet directly down the length of his right leg. Looking at it, his vision began to swim but he refused to pass out again. If he did, he’d awaken in the belly of this freakish monster looking down at him. There was little mental energy available after that to devise a way out of here.

Seconds rolled by like minutes as he fought to hold onto consciousness, and he felt it was going to be a losing battle as more snow swept down from above, covering him; the beast above repositioning its claws for better purchase. Casey let out a stream of profanities, gasping for oxygen between utterances. The distant sound of a rifle shot would’ve been missed altogether if he hadn’t been in the midst of trying to restore his air for another attempt to scare away his captor.

He saw the beast’s head pull back from the edge as though looking over its shoulder to some disturbance behind. Another rifle shot followed, and this time a fine red spray coated Casey. Through his own agony, he realized the thing watching him from above had been shot.

Now, a voice in his head screamed. Hit it when it leans forward!

            He drew his right hand gun and aimed upward, waiting, cocking the hammer. The beast never showed itself.

            He heard a third shot, (this, he guessed, from a Smith six-shooter) followed by a howl of pain that must have come from an animal, yet further away from this location. He saw a flash of light above his head, something crossing the mouth of the hole he lay at the bottom of, leaping the gap with less effort than it would’ve taken Casey to mount his saddle. This was not a wolf; it was more the size of two or three wolves standing on top of each other’s backs. Immense, it was a vivid black shape, its claws like a wild, mountain creature of the type only described in Tina’s tall tales to the company’s children. Forever, its passing above his head would be remembered, drawn up on his death bed from the bottom-most wells of his dementia, many winters in the future. It would be something his children (whom he would never tell of this day) would query him in vain to explain, and ultimately presume was nothing more than mere raving.

            Dropped with the beast’s passage was a rock, or so Casey thought at first. Quickly, he rolled to his left in order to avoid catching it square in the privates, but the move initiated a hateful pain up his right leg, instead. While the rock was still in mid-air, Casey realized it wasn’t what it looked like.

            Rocks didn’t have eyes which looked lifelessly into his own, or sport hair trailing the descent of the head which those eyes had once served. He could not look at it when it landed, but he did manage to find enough energy to move as far away from it as possible, dragging his useless leg behind him despite the blinding pain. There wasn’t more than a foot or so he could put between himself and it. Looking was unnecessary to knowing who the head had once belonged to.

            Above, the daylight was abruptly blocked out, and Casey raised his muzzle to the sky once again. The silhouette was obvious. It was the shaman who’d led him out here, into the trap he’d forgotten to anticipate for one unfortunate moment. Casey didn’t expect to recognize the face he saw, as the figure crouched down at the mouth of the hole.

            “Quincey? Is that you, preacher?”

            “Not anymore, Mr. Casey. Care to be pulled out of there now?”

            “I’m leg-shot. Did it myself while trying to shoot that wolf. My other leg feels sprained, but both my arms are both rarin’ to go!”

            Quincey threw down a rope, and Casey held fast with both hands as he was delivered from the grave. Once out, he lay in the snow panting in grateful bursts, at the same time knowing he’d left part of one of his own relatives down there. Bryce was a good boy, and anybody deserved better.

            “Go back,” said Quincey, but Casey realized the words weren’t aimed at him. Curiously, he raised himself on his elbows to look at whom Quincey was talking to.

The boy was alive. Plain as day, running up to meet them, but Quincey was telling him to go back. Bryce was not about to do so without sharing words with his uncle.

“Get help for him,” said Quincey. “I’ll follow these creatures. Can you remember the way?”

            “Yes,” the boy answered.

            Casey asked whose head had kept him company down in the hole.

            “That was Irish,” Bryce told him. “He caught up to me, said Tarkin brought him out here to lend assistance. This was just after you disappeared, and we been looking for you all night. They came at us as we entered this valley. Irish thought he could take one in hand-to-hand.”

            Quincey didn’t stay for the explanation, heading off into the dawn-lit forest. Casey watched him go as though he were seeing the departure of a ghost. When Quincey walked into camp near nightfall the day after next, most of the folks who saw him would feel the same way.

Besides Casey, Bryce, and the recently-departed Irish, no one had seen the ex-preacher since he’d left to search in vain for his abducted wife and child, nearly three years ago to the very day he returned.

 

 

            Casey wasn’t aware of the trip back to camp, but awoke in doc’s tent that night. His first request was for Bryce; his second was for a drink of water. Tina was fast with the second, slow with the first.

            “Tell me, Tina! Who’s got your tongue, woman?”

            “I’m supposed to get my pa—”

            “You can get the doc after you tell me where my nephew is!”

            Tina’s reluctance offered the answer her lips couldn’t seem to utter. “We were going to ask you as soon as you woke up,” she said finally.

            “He left me out there while he came to get the rest of the boys to come get me … you mean they never saw him?”

            Tina shook her head no, perhaps grateful no words were necessary. “I’ll go get my pa, Casey. You lay still now.”

            He waited until she was gone before abandoning her advice, and swung his legs slowly off the cot. Woozy, he made his way outside without his boots. One of the men would be nearby, and they would by-God answer him if he had to throw ‘em over a barrel first.

            He saw Rex Wilkins splitting logs across the snow-covered path that was one of camp’s three main thoroughfares, and Casey tried to call out to him but his words were barely above a whisper. Irritated, he rallied himself to push out a yell regardless of what his dry vocal cords felt like permitting.

            “Uncle.”

            Casey stopped, and looked behind him. Near the back of the doctor’s tent, he heard the word whispered again, more softly than the first time … coming from behind the tent, likely just around the corner.

            “Bryce?”

            “Uncle. Stay where you are. Do not come back here.”

            Casey turned, squinting, breathing heavily from the exertion his body had spent just getting to his feet. He stared at the back corner of Doc’s tent, feeling relief mixed with a nagging certainty that it was somehow premature.

            “I don’t want you to see me like this, Uncle. You must listen to me, ‘cause I can’t stay long.”

            “Bryce … what’s happened to you, son?”

            “It doesn’t matter now. All that matters is what I’m about to tell you. Leave camp. Make as many people go with you as you can. Make up any story that suits you except the truth about what you seen. Just make them believe you.”

            “I don’t kn—”

            “Don’t delay, Uncle! If you stay here in this valley, you will all die. They’ve been watching you since the company first set up camp. They know your strengths and weaknesses, and they know they can take you whenever they choose. You’ve got to leave.”

            “Leave? These people ain’t gonna leave just cause I tell ‘em to. Now come out here and talk to me, quit lollygagging back there!”

            “Don’t, Uncle Casey! There’s a rifle aimed at your head right now and it’ll go off if I’m seen. They didn’t want to let me do this much.”

            “Bryce, what have those savages done to you? What do you mean, you can’t stay long? If you were found by Injuns and got this far, you’re home free.”

            For a few seconds there was no answer. He fought the urge to step forward despite the warning, to look around the corner of the tent and lay eyes on his nephew.

            “You’re right about ‘em bein’ savages, but they sure as hell ain’t Injuns.”

            “Confound this nonsense, Bryce. Now, you see here, kid, whatever they’ve done to you—”

            Someone called out to him from behind and Casey turned long enough to see that it was Doc, hurrying down the thoroughfare with Tina close behind him.

            “Tell ‘em the folks out in the hills are cannibals, Uncle Casey. Man-eaters. That’s as close to the truth as I can tell you.” 

There was no more hesitation when Casey turned back to face the back corner of the tent. He advanced, preparing himself for whatever shape in which he might find his nephew, but Bryce was no longer there to be seen, and Casey’s head was most definitely not removed from his body, by rifle nor any other means.

                     

*********

             Quincey was one of the few who stayed, although he never returned to his former duties of tending to the spiritual needs of the camp, nor the welfare of their eternal souls. Several families remained in the valley for the rest of their lives, with few disruptions of the kind experienced in that winter of ’41. Besides the residents, the valley was visited by vast numbers of covered wagons which would were migrating west, as long predicted. There were so many, in fact, that the few that went missing were hardly missed at all.

            Casey also stayed, albeit without family, and it was he and Quincey who built the valley’s first drinking establishment, expanding by necessity in later years into a motel. People would continue to disappear every now and then, usually from a passing caravan of emigrants, and search parties would be sent forth (weather permitting), combing the woods in a fruitless effort that usually went on for days and, each time, only resulted in those same caravans pressing on, short however many members had gone missing.

            In the days between Casey’s last conversation with his nephew and Quincey’s return to the camp after an absence of almost three years to the day, Casey considered the implications of what he’d seen; questioning it, turning it around in his head. He drank heavily during those two days, considering the situation no matter how desperately he secretly wished to forget all about it. Folks left him alone to get his wits back after his ordeal, but his resolution to handle things correctly was ultimately self-imposed. It was resolution, he felt, which should be characteristic to anyone with an inherent desire to politicize on a professional basis. It was important that folks believe he was really as capable as he purported to be. He had seen something out there that he’d never seen before, that was true. After that fact alone, how could he be expected to make anyone else understand its intentions, or desires? The first step to finding out, if he knew nothing else, was to face the question in his own mind. Somehow, the drink was helpful in this endeavor.

            Funerals were held for the six men who’d not made it back from that initial hunting trip, and a pall took over the camp’s disposition that was all-encompassing. Casey had ventured out of his tent on the night Quincey staggered into camp, looking half-dead in ways that would’ve put both Casey’s and Larson’s earlier conditions to shame. He overheard Quincey talking to one of the Everett boys as they carried him to Doc’s tent, saving Casey the trouble of passing along Bryce’s strong suggestion to the rest of the company, which he’d been struggling to find an effective way to share. It wasn’t until later that night that Casey found out Quincey had been found by those he was tracking and would have been eaten alive if he’d not been able to escape when the two savages fell asleep.

“Cannibals,” said Rory Delacroix, after his third tip of the bottle. “Ol’ Preacher Quincey said the place was crawling with some kind of man-eatin’ savages and we’d be smart to pull up stakes, head back down the mountain till spring, then make another run. I know Quincey likely lost a few of his—”

“You don’t know that he lost nothin’! I say we let the man talk soon as he’s able.”

“I was just gonna say, somebody worked him over, but it weren’t done like no Injuns. I think there might be something to what he’s sayin’ and we should hear him out.”

What Quincey told the camp later on was an expanded version of the cannibal story. It was soon after that Casey found the proper opportunity to talk to Quincey away from the rest of the camp, and ask him what had really happened to him out there.

“You seen ‘em. It ain’t important what really happened to me, only what we choose to do about controlling the problem.”

“I don’t know what I saw!”

“You do as well as I do. They ain’t people, least-ways not all the time. They can change back and forth into some kind of … walking wolf.”

“How long have you known they was out there, Preacher?”

“I never knew for sure; least-ways I sure never saw no camp until they chose to take me to it. Over the past year or so, I’ve found the bodies of animals, remnants of campsites, signs of movement if the brush was particularly dense. Otherwise, you don’t find them. They find you. You don’t see them unless they want to be seen. I guess they just decided it was time, and I was the unlucky son of a bitch who happened to be foolish enough to be out looking for them.”

“Well, the good news is I doubt anybody’s planning to go back out there just yet.”

“Now, or ever,” Quincey told him. “It’s a suicide mission for anybody who does. We stay here, they’ll take us sometime in the middle of the night. Could be in days, could be years. Doubt we’ll ever even hear ‘em coming.”

Casey wanted to tell Quincey about talking to his nephew, but couldn’t. He wasn’t sure why.

“You propose we leave the area.”

“We can’t beat ‘em, Casey, and we sure as hell don’t want to join ‘em, neither.”

“Some of the men may change their tune after a few days go by, though, if nothing happens.”

“People have been lost,” said Quincey. “If we’re not careful, the whole company will be put in peril.”

Casey believed this was true, also, and chose to take his leave of the preacher’s company with both men being in agreement, despite feeling a strange intuition that the preacher’s concern seemed to also encompass the welfare of those beyond the camp. Were this true, it meant the preacher was of a mind to preserve the welfare of the enemy, as though he felt connected to them. God knew a man could become desperate for home when he’d been set adrift as long as Quincey and the only home Quincey had ever known were the wife and daughter who went missing in these mountains. Like most in the company, Casey long believed them to have perished in the jaws of some wild animal in the wilderness, or shanghaied by slave-trading savages, which was hardly any improvement.

If he’d known the truth, Casey would’ve understood completely the preacher’s steadfast determination to avoid conflict at all costs with those who also lived here.

Casey found out some years later, long after the company had moved on to settle in California, and the Quincey Hotel was doing a booming business in the services it provided to emigrating Americans. The rooms were steadily booked and the home-cooking had long garnered a good reputation among travelers up and down the mountain. The place was owned by Leonard Quincey and James Casey, but operated mostly by the Tobias sisters (one a cook, the other an administrator), who saw to the day-to-day business, freeing up Casey and Quincey to foster other pursuits. Upon the evening of enlightenment, Casey happened to be returning from a card game held weekly at the Doc’s house, walking under a bright, winter moon. Within sight of the warm lights of the “ballroom” (which he’d voted to call the place, but been vetoed), he saw his business partner, Leonard Quincey, appear from the shadows behind the hotel and hurry to the edge of the woodpile a hundred yards yonder.

Casey didn’t alter his step simply from the sight of this; it took seeing what emerged from the tree line at the far end of the hotel’s lot to do that.

Upon recognition of it, he was instantly returned to that trap he’d once fallen into out in this very wilderness, left for dead were it not for Leonard Quincey, a one-time preacher, one-time mountain eccentric, and now full-time hotel owner. The shape of the creature Casey saw now was similar to that beast which had looked down at him from the mouth of a pit clearly dug for the trapping of prey.

Tonight, for the first time, he observed the body of the beast with more clarity than he had while laying in the pit and the sight was paralyzing. The two were the same creature, and here was Quincey, about to seek its company. Under the coverage of the huge conifer marking the edge of the wood pile, Casey lost sight of the beast. It never reappeared, but instead, a woman stepped from the far edge of the woodpile, hurrying to meet Quincey in what ended up a warm embrace. She accompanied him to the back of the hotel, to Quincey’s private entrance, which both entered and disappeared from Casey’s view.

He stood, unsettled, in the middle of the quiet night street for a moment or two, digesting the unassailable notion that one of those monsters was currently reclining inside his very own place of business. Contemplating this, his breath expelled white clouds through his gritted teeth and only vaguely—but rather suddenly, nonetheless—did Casey become aware that he was, in truth, not alone in the street. He turned, catching sight of a young girl leaning against the signpost outside the livery stable. She approached him and Casey found his legs unable to choose between staying rooted to the spot and fleeing her path.

“I remember you,” she said. “Our people thank you, hence your further existence and continuing livelihood.” 

“I’m glad to see you alive,” Casey told her, even though it was only half true, considering those she’d been living among in order to survive this long.

“I’ll visit my father later on, after they’ve had some time alone,” she explained. “Until then, I take the night air.”

“It’s a clear one tonight,” he responded, despite the fact she was walking away, heading up the thoroughfare with her breath preceding her path in cold, steady gusts. Casey waited until she’d turned the corner ahead and left his sight before hurrying on toward the after hours glow of his co-owned drinking establishment, upon which entering hardly made him feel any safer.

Of course, he was no stranger to dealing with those who lived beyond the borders of this rustic setting; he simply wasn’t used to recognizing them by face, even aged as it had been and beaten by hard living in the wilderness among savages. Usually, all visitors were merely customers and that was as far as it went. He could sleep under the same roof as one, he supposed, yet it might require a few more stiff belts of the good Kentucky booze than he usually imbibed. After all, Quincey wasn’t the only one with relatives living among the enemy.

He could accept them all and he could by-God surely keep a secret—until his death if necessary—to avoid stirring up warfare with the locals. Only one thing had kept them in business out here in the middle of nowhere this long, and so it would remain that the Quincey Hotel refused no boarder—local or otherwise. All the same, from that night onward, Casey made sure the help had instructions to keep his lamp glowing low even after he’d passed into unconsciousness.

He also made damn sure both of his Colts were loaded and well within reach.

 

 

 

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