The Curse of the Wendigo
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“Look!” I said, raising my voice in excitement. “There they are again—over there!”
And gone again in the time it took Sergeant Hawk to whip the barrel round. He kept the stock against his shoulder and swung the weapon slowly back and forth.
“A bear?” wondered the doctor.
“A bear, could be,” breathed Hawk. “If he’s strolling about on his hind legs. Those eyes were near ten feet off the ground, Doctor.”
The seconds spun out, turned to minutes. A strange gurgling sound commenced behind us, and the sergeant whirled around to face the tent. Warthrop pushed down the barrel of the rifle and snapped, “It’s Chanler,” and rushed through the opening. “Will Henry!” he called. “Bring me some light!”
Within, the doctor was leaning over his patient, while the man’s mouth opened and closed spasmodically, like a landed fish’s, with burbling deep in his throat. Warthrop rolled him onto his side and lightly patted him in the small of the back. The body convulsed, and greenish-yellow bile erupted from his open mouth, soaking the doctor’s shirt and trousers and filling the tent with an unearthly noxious odor. I pinched shut my nose and fought the urge to vomit. Warthrop wiped Chanler’s mouth with his filthy handkerchief, and then looked up at me.
“Some water, Will Henry.”
Chanler moaned, and Warthrop reacted as if he had sat up and said his name. The doctor’s face fairly glowed with elation.
“Is he waking up?” I asked.
“John!” Warthrop shouted. “John Chanler! Can you hear me?”
If he could, he gave no reply. He went limp. We waited, but he had left again. Wherever he had been, he had gone back.
We did not see the yellow eyes for several nights thereafter, but their absence did little to relieve our unease. Hawk in particular seemed affected. He often lagged behind even the doctor, who was not walking so much as sliding, shuffling mechanically along the trail slick with the damp, dead leaves of autumn. Hawk would stop and turn around, rifle at the ready, and stare down the boreal tunnel in which we marched, every muscle tense, every sinew and nerve stretched, his head cocked to one side, listening. Listening to what, I cannot say, for neither the doctor nor I heard anything but our own ragged breath and the scratch-scratch of our boots along the ground. When we rested, the sergeant roamed the woods in all directions, and his angry muttering carried in the thin air like shards of conversations from splintered memory, bereft of meaning.
He grew sullen and taciturn, obsessively wiping his raw lips, sleeping for only a few minutes at a time and then starting awake with a growl, throwing more wood onto the fire or cursing when there was none left to throw. The fire could never be big enough for him. I think he would have burnt the entire forest if he could have. This man who had spent his entire life in these woods now seemed wholly at odds with them, distrusting and hating them with all the fury of a lover betrayed. What he loved did not love him. Indeed, it seemed bent on killing him.
Distracted though the doctor was by the condition of his patient, our guide’s condition did not go unnoticed. The monstrumologist drew me aside and said, “I’m concerned about the sergeant, Will Henry. God help us if my concern is well founded! Here, take this; put it in your pocket.” He pressed the revolver into my hand.
He must have noticed the question contained in my stunned expression.
“It can break a man’s mind in half,” he said. He did not define “it.” I do not think he felt it was necessary. “I have seen it.”
The sergeant broke the next day. We had stopped to rest, and no sooner had we eased our aching bodies down than he was up again and traipsing through the brush; I could see his hat, shimmering with dew, darting between the glistening ebony bodies of the trees.
“All right, damn you, all right!” he bellowed. “I hear you over there! You might as well come out where I can see you!”
I started to get up, and the doctor waved me back down. He picked up his rifle.
“I’ll shoot you. Do you want that?” yelled Hawk toward the vacant trees. “I’ll drop you like the miserable dog you are. Do you hear me?”
I jerked reflexively as the gunshot reverberated throughout the forest. Again I began to get up and the doctor pushed me gently down.
At that moment Hawk let loose with a banshee scream and raced away, crashing pell-mell through the undergrowth, firing wildly as he ran, his screams more like the high-pitched yelps of a wounded animal than those of a man.
“Stay with Chanler, Will Henry!”
With that the monstrumologist raced into the bush after him. I scooted closer to John Chanler, clutching the revolver in both hands, unsure what I should be more afraid of—the thing that might be following us or our deranged guide. Presently the snap and pop of the pursuit, the explosions of gunfire, and the hysterical screams faded. The quiet of the primeval forest returned, a preternatural stillness that was, if possible, even more unnerving than the noise.
I felt something stir beside me. I heard something moan. I smelled the breath of something foul. Then I looked down and saw that something looking back at me.
“In My Rising, I Fell”
The skeletal hand grabbed my arm. The bulbous head lifted a few inches from the carpet of pine needles, the eyes wide open and swimming in a noisome yellow soup, the lips crimson with fresh blood framing the yawning mouth from which issued the foul stench of corruption and decay, and John Chanler spoke to me in a guttural gibberish, words I did not understand. With a viselike grip he pulled with surprising strength upon my arm. I think I screamed the doctor’s name; I cannot remember. I saw the thick scum-covered tongue push angrily against the front teeth, and I watched those teeth slip loose of their moorings and fall straight back into the stygian blackness of his throat. He gagged; his body heaved. Without thinking, I dropped the gun into my lap and rammed my fingers into his mouth to dislodge the broken teeth. Instantly his mouth snapped shut and he bit down hard. The pain was explosive. I am sure I screamed then, though I have no clear memory of it. My mind was overcome by the pain and the horrible, vacant look in those yellow eyes, the animal panic replaced by cool, detached alertness, at once bestial and human, when his tongue was kissed by my blood.
I slammed my free hand into his hollow chest and yanked my other hand with all my might, stripping off the skin from my knuckles down to my nails. My hand popped free, coated in gore and yellow sputum. I could hear my blood bubbling in his throat, and then he swallowed, his grotesquely large Adam’s apple jerking madly.
He reached for me. I scrambled away, my wounded hand tucked under my arm, the other clutching the doctor’s revolver, though even in my panic I could not bring myself to point it at him.
He fell back; his back arched; he lifted his cadaverous face to the indifferent heavens. His bony hands clawed impotently at the air.
“Will Henry?” I heard behind me.
The doctor rushed past and threw himself beside Chanler. He cupped the man’s face in his hands, called loudly his name, but the eyes had fluttered closed again, the sound had died on his suppurating lips. I turned and saw Hawk standing a few feet away, his face flushed, bits of twig and moss hanging from his hair.
“Are you all right?” he asked me.
I nodded. “What was it?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “Nothing.”
He did not sound relieved.
There wasn’t anything, it seemed, that could bring Hawk relief. To ward off the dark he built a roaring fire, feeding its rapacious gut with branch after branch until the heat scorched his face and singed the hair of his beard. The fire was against the cold, but he shivered nevertheless. It was against the faceless thing following us, though that thing already gripped him.
He could not turn to his remedy of choice. The doctor had used the last bit of the sergeant’s whiskey to wash my wounds—a necessitous act, Warthrop tried to reassure him, to no avail. Hawk exploded into a tantrum worthy of the most infuriated two-year-old, stomping about the littered detritus of rotting leaves and dry crumbs of the earth’s ancient bones, boxing the air with red-knuckled fists, spittle flying from his chapped lips.
“You had no right!” he shouted in the doctor’s face, waving the empty flask. “This is mine! Mine! A man has a right to what belongs to him!”
“I had no choice, Sergeant,” said Warthrop in the tone of a parent to a child. “I will buy you a whole case of it once we reach civilization.”
“Civilization? Civilization!” Hawk laughed hysterically. “What is that?”
The forest returned his words in a mocking echo: Civilization . . . What is that?
“Can you show it to me, Warthrop? Can you point it out for me, because I’m having some trouble seeing it! There is nothing left—nothing, nothing, nothing.”
“I can’t show it to you,” replied the monstrumologist calmly. “I am not the guide.”
“What does that mean? What are you saying? Are you suggesting something, Warthrop?”
“I’m merely pointing out a fact, Sergeant.”
“That I’ve gotten us lost in these damnable woods.”
“I never said that, Jonathan. I wasn’t even suggesting it.”
“It isn’t my fault. That isn’t my fault.” He gestured wildly at the still form of John Chanler inside the tent. “That was your doing, and this is where it’s brought us!”
The doctor was nodding thoughtfully; I’d seen the expression a hundred times before, the same look of intense concentration as when he was studying some singular specimen of his bizarre discipline.
“How far is it to Rat Portage?” he asked quietly. “How many more days, Jonathan?”
“Do you think I’m going to fall for that? You must think I’m a complete idiot, Warthrop. I know what you’re up to. I know what this is. I am doing the best I can. None of this is my fault!”
He kicked a burning stick, launching it into the undergrowth. Flame licked and spat in the dry tinder, and I raced to the spot to stamp it out. Behind me Sergeant Hawk laughed derisively.
“Let it burn, Will! Let the whole thing burn, and then let’s see where it hides! Can’t hide from me then, can you, you son of a bitch!”
“Sergeant,” Warthrop said, “there is nothing hiding—”
“What are you, dead? I hear it every hour of the day and smell it every hour of the night. I smell it now—the stench of rot, the smell of putrefying filth! It’s all over us; it’s soaked into our clothes; we’ve bathed in it till it’s in our skin; it comes out when we breathe.”
He pointed a crooked finger toward the tent.
“You think any of this is new to me? I’ve been a hundred times in the bush after a lost tenderfoot looking for a trophy, some rich bastard without the good sense God gave him to not go where he don’t belong! I know, I know . . .” He gave his mouth a hard swipe with the back of his hand, and his bottom lip split open. He turned his head and spat blood into the fire.