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“Will Henry!” the doctor called.
No more than two seconds passed before I saw what I was seeing, and immediately I begged a match from the old man. With shaking hand I lit the torch and trotted back to the doctor, his lecture on panic and fear brought fully home to me: Losing my wits had blinded me to the obvious.
He took the torch from my shaking hand, saying, “Who is our enemy, Will Henry?”
He did not wait for an answer, but turned upon his heel abruptly and repeated his circuit around the grave site.
“The stakes, Will Henry!” he called. “And stay close!”
With the bundle of stakes in hand, I followed him. As he walked, the doctor held low the torch to cast the light upon the ground. He would stop, call for a stake, reaching behind him with outstretched hand, into which I would press a piece of wood. He stabbed it into the earth and then continued, until five were thus planted, one on either side of the headstone and three more in places all roughly two feet from the freshly-turned earth of the grave. I could not tell why he was marking these spots; the ground left unmarked looked identical to that which received a stake. After two more circuits, each several paces farther from the grave, he stopped, holding the torch high and surveying his handiwork.
“Most curious,” he muttered. “Will Henry, go and press the stakes.”
“Press the stakes, sir?”
“Try to push them deeper into the ground.”
I could push none more than half an inch farther into the rocky soil. When I rejoined him, he was shaking his head in consternation.
“Mr. Gray!” he called.
The old man shuffled over, rifle resting in the crook of his arm. The doctor turned to him, holding the torch high. The light danced upon the codger’s weathered features, casting deep shadows into the crevices cutting his cheeks and brow.
“How did you find the grave?” the doctor asked.
“Oh, I knew where the Bunton plot was, all right, Doctor,” replied the grave-robber.
“No. I mean, was it disturbed at all? Did you note any evidence of digging?”
Erasmus shook his head. “Wouldn’t have bothered with it in that case, Doctor.”
“And why is that?”
“I would take it to mean somebody had beaten me to the prize.”
Something had beaten him to the “prize,” of course, which was the whole point of the doctor’s inquiry.
“So you noted nothing out of the ordinary last night?”
“Only when I opened up the casket,” the old man said dryly.
“No holes or mounds of dirt nearby?”
Erasmus shook his head. “No, sir. Nothing like that.”
“No unusual odors?”
“Did you smell anything odd, similar to rotten fruit?”
“Only when I popped open the casket. But the smell of death is not so odd to me, Doctor Warthrop.”
“Did you hear anything out of the ordinary? A snorting or hissing sound?”
The doctor forced air through his closed teeth. “Like that.”
Erasmus shook his head again. “It was a normal operation in every way, Doctor, until I opened the casket.” He shuddered at the memory.
“And you noted nothing unusual until that point?”
The grave-robber replied that he had not. The doctor turned away to contemplate the grave, the family plot, the grounds beyond, and the line of trees to his right that bordered the lane beside the stone wall, hidden now behind the dense brush.
“Most curious,” he muttered a second time.
He shook himself from his reverie, his tone abruptly changing from contemplative to crisp. “The mystery deepens, but doesn’t bear upon our errand tonight. Dig it up, Mr. Gray. And you dig with him, Will Henry. We’ll return at daybreak and pray our fortunes rise with the sun. Perhaps the light of day will illuminate what evidence the night’s shadow conceals! Snap to, Will Henry, and make short work of it.”
He abandoned us then, hurrying toward the trees, torch held low, stooping over as he went, swinging the fire left and right and all the while muttering to himself.
“I wouldn’t go into those trees if I was him,” Erasmus Gray said dourly. “But I’m not the monster hunter, am I?” He clapped a calloused hand upon my shoulder. “Let’s snap to it, as your master says, William Henry! Many hands make light work!”
Twenty minutes later, my lower back and shoulders aching and the tender flesh of my palms burning, at only three feet closer to our goal, I thought I could take issue with his proverb, for four hands did not seem that many in this circumstance, and the work proved anything but light. The soil of New Jerusalem, like most of New England, is rocky and unyielding, and despite having been turned the night before by Erasmus Gray in his quest for macabre riches, the soil of Eliza Bunton’s grave gave itself up stubbornly to our spades. As I labored, I thought of the enormous male Anthropophagus, who, with no tool but his steel-hard claws, had somehow managed to tunnel his way through the hard ground to reach his prey. Like the doctor, I found it most curious that we found no evidence of his invasion and that Erasmus claimed to have found none the night before. Could the old man have missed it in the dark? Had he simply failed to notice it in his lust for booty, and obliterated the evidence in his haste to retreat with his monstrous find?
We could hear Dr. Warthrop in the trees fifty yards away, stomping through the underbrush and the detritus of fallen leaves from the previous autumn, the sound punctuated now and then by soft, incoherent cries of consternation, the first of which caused Erasmus Gray to raise his head in alarm, thinking, no doubt, that the doctor had found-or had been found by-a living specimen of the species hanging in our basement. But they were not cries of panic or fear, I assured the old man; they were the ejaculations of a miner, his pan coming up empty yet again.
Presently the doctor returned and flopped down next to our deepening hole in utter dejection, stabbing the end of the torch into the mound of dirt beside it. He drew his knees to his chest and wrapped his long arms around them, staring glumly at our upraised sweat-streaked faces with the expression of a man who has suffered some irreplaceable loss.
“Well? Did ye find anything, Doctor?” asked Erasmus Gray.
“Nothing!” snapped the doctor.
Erasmus Gray was obviously relieved, and the doctor, just as obviously, was not.
“It defies all logic,” the doctor said to no one in particular. “It flies in the face of reason. They are not phantoms or shape-shifters. They cannot float above the ground like pixies or astral project themselves from one spot to another. He must have found her by use of his acute sense of smell, and that is employed by crawling over the terrain, yet there is no evidence of his passing anywhere.” A stake lay within his grasp. He reached over and tugged it from the earth, turning it over and over with his dexterous, delicate fingers. “He would have left a breathing hole, yet there is no breathing hole. He would have left a trail, yet there is not so much as one bent blade of grass.”
His eyes fell upon our upturned faces. He stared down at us; we stared up at him; and no one spoke for a moment.
“Well, what in God’s name are you doing? Dig. Dig!”
He rose and, in his frustration, hurled the stake toward the line of trees, where the deep shadows swallowed it with a muted rattling hiccup of broken branch and fallen leaves.
From the small rutted path behind us came a huffing and a snorting, and all heads swiveled to follow the sound. The old horse, with flaring nostril and rolling eye, stamped its forelegs and gave a low-pitched whinny.
“What is it, ol’ Bess?” Erasmus Gray called softly. “What’s the matter, girl?”
The beast dropped its head, stretched forth its thin neck, and pawed at the hard ground. The ancient cart creaked and the rickety wheels rasped. I glanced up at the doctor, who was staring at the horse, arms hanging loosely at his sides, his entire being focused on the animal’s distress.
“Something’s spooked her,” said Erasmus Gray.
“Quiet!” breathed the doctor. He slowly pivoted on his heel, scanning the grounds and the path that snaked through the headstones, glimmering sentinels in the starlight, until he stopped, his back to us, peering against the darkness toward the trees. For a long, awful moment there was no sound at all, save for ol’ Bess’s soft protests and the stamping of her hooves upon the path. The doctor raised his left hand, fingers curling and uncurling, his shoulders drawn back with tension, and a terrible sense of foreboding overcame me. A few more seconds dragged by, during which the animal’s agitation grew, corresponding with my own.
And then, on the heels of that ghastly silence, from the trees came the hissing.
Low-pitched. Rhythmical. Faint. Not from one particular spot, but from many. Were they echoes-or replies? Not continuous, but sporadic: hiss… pause… hiss… pause… hissssss…
The doctor turned his head, looking over his shoulder at me. “Will Henry,” he whispered. “Did you remember to fill the flash pots with gunpowder?”
“Yes, sir,” I whispered back.
“Fetch them at once. Quietly, Will Henry,” he calmly cautioned as I heaved myself out of the hole. He dropped his hand into the pocket of his coat where he had dropped the revolver.
“I left my rifle in the cart,” Erasmus said. “I’ll get the pots. The boy should-”
“No! Stay where you are! Go, Will Henry. Bring as many as you can carry.”
“And my rifle if you can manage it, Will!” quavered Erasmus. I heard him whispering urgently to the doctor, “We shouldn’t stay, any of us! We’ll come back when it’s light to return her. “’Tis madness in the devil’s own dark to-”
The doctor curtly cut short his plea. I could not make out the words, but I was certain of the gist of his reply. In light of subsequent events, his stubborn refusal to obey the command of our most basic of instincts, which he characterized as “the enemy,” exacted a terrible price. There are times when fear is not our enemy. There are times when fear is our truest, sometimes only, friend.
I dumped the contents of the sack into the bed of the cart and then packed the pots-four tin cylinders roughly the size of coffee cans filled with gunpowder-back into the sack. Bess turned her head in my direction and gave a loud whinny, a pitiful cry of entreaty, the equine equivalent of her master’s plea, We shouldn’t stay, any of us! Urgent though my errand was, I paused to give her slick neck a quick consoling pat. Then back to the grave site, burlap sack in one hand, Erasmus’s rifle in the other. How long did seem that return journey to the half-dug hole! Yet upon my arrival it was as if no time had passed. Erasmus still crouched within the hole; the doctor still stood his ground beside it, the torch flickering in its makeshift stand a foot to his left, its light painting his long, lanky shadow across the field. Erasmus grabbed the barrel of the rifle, pulling it from my hand and lowering himself like a soldier in a trench so only the top of his head protruded over the hole’s lip.
The hissing had stopped. Now there was silence broken only by the old horse’s snorts of fear. If she bolted, what would be our recourse? If they attacked, if we had fewer bullets than beasts, how could we outrun a monster that could leap forty feet in a single bound?