For your pre-Halloween enjoyment, I present:
The Hunting Party
"There are few sounds in this world more terrifying than a sudden silence in the deep woods."
Arnold watched the last trace of civilization disappear in the rearview mirror as the forest swallowed the road. The dirt trail saw less and less use as the years went on, and it seemed that each return trip grew bumpier. The five men sat in Arnold's worn pickup: A rust-colored Ford with a new engine and old shocks. Stuffing poked through the upholstery and cigarette stains marred the ceiling. The radio never seemed to work quite right, always just missing the station. Arnold could fiddle for hours with the ancient dial, but no matter how delicate his fingers, the music would always jump between bible-thumping preachers and old Indian chants.
Native American, he scolded himself. It was a bad habit, and one he aimed to quit just as soon as he could. Meredith would always turn beet red whenever she heard him slip up and use his father's slurs. "Is that how you want to raise our daughter? Is that the kind of person you want her to become?" Funny, he thought, how it was always "our daughter" whenever he was doing something foolish, but "your daughter" whenever she needed help with homework or being driven to a swim meet at some ungodly hour.
An old silver necklace dangled from the rearview mirror, bouncing left and right along with the truck. The chain was new, and likely made of some cheaper metal. The molded metal talon was as old as the truck itself; a remnant of the former owner. Arnold caught the crescent shaped jewelry, running his thumb along the edge. Still surprisingly sharp after all these years.
The dirt road gave way to a rough trail and Arnold eased off the gas even more. It was a snail's pace, but blowing the axle out here would put a swift end to their trip. Arnold had asked Jason or Marcus to drive, to put their brand new trucks to the test in the harsh woods, but they deflected with cries of "tradition" and "you've got the most cab space." It was sort of true, which was the way of the Talbot brothers. They'd begun this annual holiday back when Arnold first inherited his brother's truck, when the five men had been in high school. As for space, the Ford was cramped as a coffin inside, but could hold twice as much beer in the back. That made all the difference.
Aside from Arnold and the brothers, there was Old Bart and Wally Simpson. Walton was a miner, which his friends found simply hilarious. He had been an outstanding athlete in high school, and should have gone on to bigger and better things than following in his father's steps down the old Lexington Shaft. Wally sat shotgun, and Arnold could just make out the twisted lines of scar tissue that stopped just below the miner's elbows. The sad irony of that fateful night was that, had Wally not been blackout drunk, he would have never been able to escape the burning car. In any case, a single poor decision had lopped off one potential future and led down the road toward another. Wally never spoke ill of his place of employment, but he would take to drinking shortly after every shift ended.
Old Bart was the oldest friend in the group. They'd actually known him least of all, but he was undisputedly the eldest. He'd been the older brother of a family friend when Arnold was still in school. When Arnold's brother Lawrence first took ill, Bart had been the one to keep the young boy's spirits up. They'd bonded over fishing trips, underage drinking, and eventually a spontaneous journey to the deep woods for some hunting. Bart had been there the day Lawrence finally surrendered to his body, and he'd slipped into the role of surrogate rather easily. Nowadays, Bart was just an old fart who complained about the cold and couldn't walk as fast. He was only in his early fifties, but that seemed ancient to the young men in the prime of their lives.
To them, here was a man practically at Death's door, while they were all lingering in the invincibility of youth.
The Mahona Pass stretched through the deep woods of Colorado near the Gunnison National Forest. Towering pine trees clustered together in thick clutches all along the mountainous terrain. By late Fall, the snows from the nearby ridges hadn't yet crept down to the hunting trails, but the frostbitten winds howled freely across the open ground. Mornings were shrouded in a thick and pungent mist, while evenings were as crisp and clear as the freshwater lakes nearby. The timing of the trip was important. Too early in the season the hills would be crawling with other hunters. Too late and there would be no elk left. The predators would also be preparing for the long winter, and catching them at a desperate moment could be deadly.
Arnold stopped the truck but kept the engine idling. He glanced around the small clearing with less certainty than he preferred. Was this the normal parking space? Hadn't there been a large boulder near an elder tree that they used as a marker?
The truth was, their annual trip had devolved greatly in the past few years. The first time was innocent enough: Wally had been promoted to shift supervisor and wasn't about to take off in time for the trip. Rather than leave without him, the others agreed to wait until next year. Then Meredith had taken ill, so they skipped a second time. The following year there was a torrential downpour that flooded the entire pass. Then a fire. Then Meredith got pregnant. In what seemed like an instant, ten years had separated the men from the woods. Arnold hesitantly shut off the engine and stepped out into the biting cold of late October.
"Jesus," he muttered. "Was it always this bad?" Arnold looked to his companions and saw each of them suffer through the same series of actions. They pulled their coats close, turning up the collars and tucking in their scarves. The Talbots seemed the worse off, having dressed for the warmer woods of Southern California rather than the frozen forests of Colorado.
Jason pulled a wool blanket from his backpack and wrapped it around his narrow shoulders. Marcus, the eldest, pretended he didn't mind the icy gale to the belief of no one. The Talbots were—as a family—tall and handsome. More than once, the two boys were confused for twins, despite the fact that Marcus had two inches and four years on his little brother. Each possessed a long, tan face and jet-black hair. They looked perpetually in need of a shave, no matter how recently a razor had passed across their flawless jawlines.
Old Bart had dressed well enough, with a down jacket and thick black gloves. His skin—what little showed—was thin and pale and bunched into wrinkles. In the right light, he looked like boiled leather, a gift from decades of smoking and drinking. His hair was still uniformly brown, but interlopers of silver and gray invaded at the temples. Bart had grown a scraggly beard for the trip, but it had come in patchy around his thin lips.
Arnold felt a sudden and strange pull toward Old Bart. He realized, with some shame, that he felt comfortable around the older man because he figured he looked better in comparison. The Talbots had their looks, and Wally had his quick wit. Arnold thought that age had come early to rob him of his youth. His hair had gone at twenty, receding into a dirty blonde horseshoe that added years to his pudgy face. The entire drive up from Alamosa, he'd been unable to shake the sense that he just didn't belong with this group of friends anymore. Jason and Marcus managed corporate accounts on the West Coast, earning piles of money for themselves and others. Old Bart had his Army pension. Even Wally, for all he complained, was earning a decent living with a respected trade.
"Are you coming?" Jason asked.
Arnold realized he'd been standing stock still, staring out into the wall of trees a few dozen yards ahead. His friends were already unloaded from the truck and ready to march. He mumbled a quick apology and grabbed his pack and rifle bag. Both were hand-me-downs. The backpack was his father's old hunting kit, and it smelled of well-worked leather. His rifle was a relic of a different sort. It had been his brother's a lifetime ago; a remnant of a better time for the family. The Mauser 98 was worn but clean, with a brown leather strap and padding around the butt.
Before he started off, Arnold locked the car three times, checking the handle after every click. The Talbots snickered. Let them, he thought. We all have our rituals. He reached into the driver-side wheel well and felt for a familiar lump. The magnetic hide-a-key remained in place.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Jason elbowed his brother, pointing. “He still has the spare.”
“Jesus, Arnie,” Marcus chimed in.
Arnold smiled. “Keep laughing. You two can hitch home when this is done.”
The five men walked two-by-two, with Old Bart leading the pack. He knew the trail better than anyone else; he'd been a Park Ranger in another part of his life. Jason and Marcus bickered animatedly, their identical Winchester .308's bobbing with each step. The Talbots favored polymers and blued-steel rather than the wooden stocks on Wally and Bart's weapons. Walton carried a gorgeous Winchester 760, the oak gleaming. Old Bart toted a Remington 721. The old man carried a pistol as well on a hip holster: A Colt Single-Action Army.
"Was it always this tight?" Jason gestured to thick pines all around them. The trees seemed to close in, embracing the group with sweet smelling needles and sticky sap. Dry twigs snapped underfoot, adding to the general rustling and crackling of the forest. A few songbirds danced somewhere overhead, lost in the canopy.
Old Bart chuckled. "Maybe you got fatter."
"Bullshit. I'm jacked like a motherfucker." Jason made a show of flexing his arms and nearly dropped his rifle. He scrambled to maintain his balance. "I thought it would be thinner after the fire."
"Burnt away all the brush and kindling. Made room for the trees to grow." Bart pulled the bark off a nearby tree at eye-level. The pale flesh underneath was marred by a black ring. "You can see where the flames touched her before moving on. Pine's don't burn as quickly as the dryer twigs and leaves on the ground. Probably lost fewer than a thousand trees."
"Where the hell do you come up with this?" Marcus asked.
Bart shrugged. "I just know, is all."
Arnold barely heard the exchange. He struggled to keep his rifle from banging against the trees and branches. Every few steps, the stock would collide with something solid and ring out a loud CRACK. His friends would giggle but never stop to turn around. They just kept on going, moving forward, leaving him behind.
Base camp had always been a clearing just south of the river. The woods pinched together for a spell, closing in so tight they had to walk single-file. Then, suddenly, the trees simply melted away, revealing an open shoreline and a crystal-clear lake. All at once, the group's mood improved. Up until then, the woods had seemed so different from what they had remembered. It felt like walking into a stranger's home. Now they found comfort in the familiar surroundings.
The brothers pulled out their tents and started hammering down stakes. They pretended they could still find the holes in the ground from their last trip out. Jason bet Marcus he would have his tent up first and they raced to pull out their poles. Arnold took his time, finding his usual spot near the water. His tent was new, a gift from his wife, and popped open with barely any effort. In a few minutes he had the lines secured and weighted. He dropped his bag inside and stretched, enjoying the cool air against his sweaty face. Arnold watched Wally and Bart fuss with their old-fashioned kits. Bart wouldn't stand for a pop-tent and spent the next hour fighting his stiff posts and worn canvas. Wally had purchased a cheap roll from a local store and was saddened to learn it was only half-complete. The stink of mildew and unwashed Mylar wafted through the clearing.
“Are you kidding me, son.” Old Bart stood by his musky tent, staring pointedly at Wally. The miner grinned madly, shaking a metal can at his friend. “I swear, you get lazier every year.”
“I’m not fussing with the fire this time, Bart. I’ll take modern convenience over your folksy bullshit any day.” He showed off his quart of lighter fluid to the camp, waving it like a prize. Old Bart muttered something under his breath and ducked into his hooch.
Arnold walked to the edge of the water and dipped his hands into the cold lake. He splashed his face and gasped from the cold. It was a good kind of shock, waking him up after the long hike. He glanced around the clearing, feeling refreshed. The thick wall of trees kept the larger animals away, and the squirrels and raccoons that made it through weren't much of a bother this time of year. Arnold made it to the edge of the woods and was about to turn when a sound made him pause. Following the noise, Arnold found a strange sight hidden among the high grass and water plants near the lake's edge.
An old rowboat sat beached on the shore. The hull was old and rotting, but surprisingly intact. The wood had faded to the color of stone, stained by years of exposure. Something caught the fading sunlight and blinded him. He shielded his eyes and stepped closer. There, inside the decrepit boat, was a pair of reading glasses. The frame was bent, and the left lens was cracked and caked in dust. Arnold knelt down and lifted the glasses from the soft sand. He ran his thumb along the fracture in the lens and felt the pieces shift in place.
"What are you doing here?" he wondered aloud.
"Arnold!" Jason popped his head out from around a tree. "Wally needs some help with the fire. Grab some rocks and get back up here."
"Sure thing," Arnold replied. He left the glasses in the boat and stood back up, brushing dirt and sand off his knees. The voice of forest rose with him, deafening and melodious and ominous all at once. Birds sang mournful tunes as the leaves fell and winter approached. A distance cry from a female elk went unanswered and left a haunting silence in its wake. This was followed by the solitary howl of a wolf. Arnold imagined what the young scout would be doing, foraging ahead for his pack. The wolves didn't bother with humans, but it would be best to avoid heading into their hunting ground. The wolf howled again.
As he turned to leave, a final cry sounded in the early evening. It was piercing, shocking, and froze Arnold to his core. So powerful was the sound that the wolf, caught mid-bray, grew instantly silent. It took a minute before Arnold realized he was holding his breath. Whatever had just awoken in the deep woods, it sounded large, and fearsome.
* * * * *
Arnold awoke in the night with a start. He sat up in his cot, his chest heaving, his undershirt matted down with sweat. He smelled vaguely sweet and musty, the result of two days hiking and hunting. Meredith had insisted he bring a few packs of baby wipes, but they remained unused in the top compartment of his kit. He fumbled in the darkness, feeling around for the end of his camelback. The inside of the tent was slick with dew and stank vaguely of moss. Arnold shifted in his sleeping bag and heard a thin crack. Ice had grown over the gortex material in the night.
Wind howled outside, shaking the walls of the tent and rustling the branches of the surrounding trees. It was strong enough to whip up the normally placid lake into a frenzy. Arnold heard the waves slap against the fist-sized rocks a few dozen yards away. This wasn't normal. The Mahona Pass sat at the low end of a wide hillside, pouring into the lake below. The winds usually passed right on by, spreading seed throughout the adjacent valley. Arnold couldn't remember a single trip with weather this violent. He lay back down, but his mind refused to rest. He stared at the rattling zipper until sunlight peaked through the crack at the bottom. The whimpering wind spoke to him, pleaded with him. In the darkest, coldest moments of the night, he swore he heard its voice.
Come outside, Arnold. Come outside to us. Come outside and be free.
The next morning arrived with a bitter wind blowing in across the lake. Thick droplets of icy water clung to the men's tents, raining down on their necks as they emerged into the red and orange light. Arnold hadn't thought to pack long underwear, and he regretted it sorely now. His bones protested every movement, cracking and popping like dried twigs. He dressed with numb fingers, fumbling with his laces again and again until he finally managed to secure his boots. Arnold rubbed his hands together furiously, but his clammy skin refused to warm.
"This'll pass soon," Bart hollered to the younger men. "A Nor'Easter like this'll be moving on by quick like. Betcha tomorrow we sweat the whole day through." His words sounded forced.
Jason spat. "Fucking freezing my ass off here." He held himself and shivered. "Arnold was supposed to read the weather report."
"I did," Arnold pleaded. "They said highs in the eighties all week."
"It's forty if anything," Marcus griped. His teeth chattered. "Feels like my dick's about to fall off."
Old Bart laughed. "Damn pussies, the lot of you."
"We didn't all bring wool coats," Jason said.
"Stuff some leaves inside your fancy clothes, then. It'll warm ya better'n duck feathers." Bart demonstrated with a handful of soggy leaves, cramming the fistful into his jacket.
The brothers started packing their shirts with the driest foliage they could find, complaining the whole time. When Arnold finally had breakfast ready to go, they were stuffed to a man with leaves and twigs. The hunting group swallowed down a hasty meal of potatoes and bacon, tidied up camp, and started on their first run.
Arnold took point with Old Bart, keeping his rifle in his numb hands. The brothers both slung their fancy new weapons, but the elder man refused to be so casual. "That's an easy way to lose a buck," he would grumble. Arnold didn't want to earn a withering look, so he mimicked the more experienced hunter. The wooden stock of his Mauser thumped against his chest with each cautious step. Every few moments someone would step a little too loudly, or snap a twig, and Old Bart would curse.
"You're scaring away all the good game."
It seemed he was right. Hours passed without spotting so much as a rabbit. Jason pestered Bart endlessly. "This is a good spot to set up. That was a prime location. We should be setting up feeders, not humping through this goddamn brush." Every time, Old Bart would dismiss the young man with a wave of his leathery hand and continue forward.
The sun had just peaked when Wally took a spill. The game trail wove through thickets of pine and climbed up and down the rough hills. Wally had just muttered something about stopping for lunch we he slipped on a patch of wet pine needles and rolled down a steep incline. Arnold shouted after him, but the man disappeared in a flurry of flying leaves and curses. The group gave chase, hollering for their friend. The sound of a body tumbling ended with a sickening thud.
* * * * *
Arnold was the first to find Wally, and he nearly cried out. Wally lay against a thick stump of a tree, his rifle tossed a few feet to the side. His clothing was filthy with dirt and twigs and needles. Worse yet was his right arm. When Arnold first walked up, he thought Wally had torn it clean off. Then he walked around and saw the limb bent awkwardly behind the man's head. Walton came to at that moment and started to scream.
"Jesus, Wally." Arnold knelt by his friend, his heart pounded. "Jesus, shit, Jesus."
"Calm that foul tongue, boy." Old Bart shoved Arnold aside and set his rifle down carefully. "Walton, I need you to shut it, now. Give me a moment to suss you out."
"Fuck me," Wally groaned. "My arm. Fuck, my fucking arm."
Bart felt along Wally's shoulder with his thick, callused fingers. The younger man gritted his teeth and grunted in pain. Tears streaked dirt down his chubby cheeks. The examination lasted only a few seconds, but Arnold and the brothers held their breath the entire time.
"Dislocated," Bart announced. "Gonna need to set a sling and get him to camp." He looked up at the rest of the group. "Hunts done for the day, boys. Help me get him standing."
The march back took hours. Every few minutes Wally pleaded for them to stop, tears in his eyes. His fingers turned an angry shade of purple. Arnold couldn’t stop staring at the flopping arm. It seemed boneless, disconnected from his friend’s body.
“What the fuck?” Jason pointed through the thick trees, his face scrunched up in maddening confusion.
Their camp was wrecked. Tent poles lay about the ground, canvas fluttered in the wind, and the remains of their food scattered about. Some animal had found their food supply and gone on a violent search for more.
“Fuck this,” Jason spat. “What the fuck, man. Who was supposed to hide the food?
Arnold looked at Marcus but said nothing.
The younger Talbot spun about. “Seriously, guys. I’m not playing around. Who fucked up? We just lost our goddamn supplies two days into this stupid trip.”
“At ease,” Old Bart warned.
“Goddamnit, Bart, just shut it with that shit. I’m tired. I’m cold. I’m hungry. And all my shit is ripped up and wet. That’s an expensive goddamn tent laying in the fucking mud.”
“And you yelling at us ain’t fixing it back up.” The old man glared. “Might be best you spend that fire getting our camp back in order, ‘staid of ripping us up.” Old Bart pointed a bony finger at Marcus. “Help your brother. Get these tents managed and gather what food we have left. Arnold, I need your help setting this poor fool’s arm.”
Arnold joined the old man by the fire, setting his rifle and kit down by a thick log. Old Bart ran his hands along Wally’s shoulder and limb, pressing at points and muttering to himself. Poor Walton bit his lip and hid his cries as best he could.
“Okay, now for the bad part. Walton, this is going to hurt. It’s going to hurt like a sonofabitch. Afterward, I won’t mind if you curse or call me something foul. But I need you to try not to move.”
Wally’s eyes rolled in his head. “Just fucking do it.”
Old Bart motioned for Arnold to come closer. “Hold his shoulders.” Once Arnold was in place, Old Bart took Wally’s arm out of the sling and gripped at the wrist and elbow. He counted in his head, locking eyes with his patient, then gave a sudden jerk. The crack sounded like a gunshot in the silent camp. Jason and Marcus jerked upright, sure their friend has just been killed.
Wally waited a beat, swaying like a drunk, then hollered as loud as he ever had. He cried bitterly, relief and pain mixing together. Old Bart quickly returned the arm to the sling, taking Wally’s head in his weathered hands.
“You’re a brave man, Walton. Braver than any of us here.” He sighed. “I’m gonna have to do that one more time.”
Old Bart gave Arnold a tired look. “You can tend to your area now. He’ll be fine.”
Jason and Marcus worked on their side of camp, leaving Arnold alone with his tent. Whatever had come through had at least been gentle with the support poles. Nothing broken or bent, just knocked apart. Some of the canvas had been torn, which would leave one side of the shelter unsupported, but he could use a nearby tree to prevent a blowout. What really got to him was the smell. It was unlike anything he'd ever encountered before. Arnold asked the twins if they noticed it as well.
"Probably just some bull elk marking its turf," Jason said. "Wouldn't worry too much about it."
But Arnold couldn't shake the uneasy feeling he got every time a whiff of the acrid, ammonia-like aroma. There was something wholly unsettling and alien about the stench. It filled his head, tickling his throat and stirring up his meager breakfast. He snuck away from the camp, saying he needed to take a piss. Once out of sight, Arnold knelt by the water and splashed his face many times. The shocking cold reset his brain and let him focus. He glanced up and nearly shouted in alarm.
There, across the lake, was a tall and thin man watching from woods. Arnold felt a scream rise in his throat, but caught himself. How foolish, to be scared by a man a world away. He waved to the distant figure. The sun was in his eyes, setting now behind the trees, but he thought he saw a spindly arm raise in a return. For a brief moment, the red light blinded him completely, and when it left the man was already gone.
When Arnold returned to camp, he found he couldn't talk about the other hunter. Whether he was ashamed of his sudden fear, or just didn't think it mattered, he kept to himself and went to check on Wally. Old Bart had removed Wally's flannel shirt and turned it into a makeshift sling. The miner was sweating bullets, biting down on a cluster of twigs wrapped in a sock. Bart had Wally's loose arm in a tight grip with both hands, and the twins held their friend in place. Just as Arnold arrived, Old Bart gave a quick count to three and jerked the arm hard.
Wally growled and tears streamed down his face. His scream quickly turned into a sob, and only worsened as Bart set the arm and tied the sling around the miner's neck. The twins were ready with blankets and a cup of hot cider. Marcus held out a palm full of colorful pills.
"Vicodin. It's my girl's. She's got a bad back."
Wally snatched up a couple and swallowed them with his cider. Bart frowned but said nothing. He wandered back to his untouched shelter and started to repair the damage done by the animals. Arnold slipped back to his tent and ducked inside. He pulled in his pack and fiddled around until he found his cell phone. It took a moment for the device to power on, and then longer while it searched for a signal.
I'll just say I'm calling to talk to Cat. She likes to hear from her daddy. He scratched idly at his stubble while the antennae searched for a signal. The tiny hourglass in the corner of the screen tumbled end over end. Arnold imagined he could feel the machinery working in the palm of his hand. The heat from the cell was real at the very least. After a minute, the hourglass disappeared entirely, replaced by two small white words: No signal.
"Shit." Arnold shut off the phone and stuffed it into his pocket. We really are in God's country now.
"No use trying."
Arnold jumped at the voice, then blushed fiercely when he saw Old Bart standing behind him. "Jesus, Bart. You scared me half to death."
"Just Old Bart, Arnie. No need to fret." The elder man pulled a tin of tobacco from his shirt pocket and idly flicked it to the side. He popped the lid and pinched a large wad of the stinky brown leaf, tucking it carefully into his lower lip. His tongue pushed the mound further down toward his gums. "Walton'll be fine."
Arnold nodded. "Glad to hear it. Should we get him to a hospital?"
"Nah." Old Bart spat juice onto the ground. "He'll need to manage the pain for a few days, but it won't injure him none to wait. Muscle wasn't torn, just strained."
That made Arnold shudder. He imagined the individual fibers under his flesh bruised and ravaged from the fall. "I was just trying to call Cat," he blurted out.
"I was. But there's no signal."
"Don't expect you'll find one. We're in the valley now. Ain't a tower for miles and miles. Best wait until we're back at the truck in a few days." Bart motioned for Arnold to follow and started back toward camp. "Let's get warmed up. Dinner's going to be light, but we can at least set by the fire."
They had just broken into the circle of orange light when Old Bart began to murmur.
"Feet of fire. My burning feet of fire."
"What's that?" Jason called at them. He was seated on a flat rock next to his brother. They'd emptied out a bag of trail mix and were sharing the morsels with Wally. The broken man seemed to be in another world.
Old Bart took a perch closer to the flames, warming his old bones. "Legend of the woods. The Spirit of the Forest."
Marcus laughed, shaking his head. "Man, I get about half of what you say when you speak. What the hell are you getting on about?"
"You boys never heard of the Wendigo?" Old Bart spat between his legs. "Old Algonquin tales of men going wild in the woods?" He laughed at the group's blank stares. "Might be time you fellers cracked a book or two. Explore the world beyond the world, ye kin?"
Marcus traded a look with his brother and broke into a fit of giggles. "I just don't get it."
"Algonquin's were on the East Coast, old timer." Jason snickered. "Pretty sure that's a ways off from this valley."
"How can you be so thick? Out here, surrounded by God's creations, you still think so small." Bart pulled the wad of tobacco from his mouth and tossed it into the fire. "There was a tale a while back, bout a group jus' like ours hiking these here woods. They were after a buck or two, same as us, only they brung a real-life Injun along with 'em."
Arnold winced but said nothing. Old Bart wasn't about to learn new words this late in his life.
"One of them fellers went off one night. Started hollering about the 'Wendigo.' He ran off into dark, screeching and crying, 'My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire!' When they found him, hours later, he barely looked human. More like a man wearing skin as a coat. Or a creature wearing a man's flesh. Hiding underneath, like a wolf in sheep's clothing."
Jason and Marcus weren't laughing anymore. Any other time, any other place, the story would have fallen on deaf ears. But out here, in "God's country," anything felt possible.
"That's the old story, but that ain't what the Injuns thought." Bart picked at a strand of tobacco in his teeth with a yellow nail. "Y'see, that old tale wasn't just about getting wood-wild, the way the Algonquin thought it. The Ute, our local red men, believed whole heartedly in the spirit of the woods. The Wendigo wasn't just a state of mind; it was a state of being."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Arnold asked.
Bart smiled with stained teeth. "When the tribes owned this valley, the wood was already an ancient place. Full of dark spirits and old gods. Sometimes, people would simply disappear into the forest and never be seen from again. They were the lucky ones. They'd gone to join their ancestors in the green lands. Others, though." He shuddered. "There's a story about a hunting party heading into the valley. The previous summer had been long and harsh, and stores were running low. Fires had driven out most of the game, and the Ute weren't bound to survive if they didn't get some good luck. Lotta hungry men joined that party with the hope of finding anything.
"One night, two of them sneak off to hit the game trail. It ain't safe, hunting in these woods past dark. The predators own the wood at that time. Well, these two boys get chased into a cave, end up lost inside. After a few hours, they get hungrier. And hungrier. By nightfall, they're downright raving. The next day, the hunting party finds the cave and went inside, following the trail the two boys made. They spot the dead one first. He's mostly ate by now, just bones and blood. Then they see the second one. He ain't right neither.
"Y'see, eating on a man's flesh...that changes a person. That's the spirit of the woods. That's the Wendigo. It gets inside your head, makes it so you can't think 'cept for the hunger. Makes you ache down to your bones. Hurt so much you'd eat another human being. And that's when it has you. Once you've tasted that, the spirit changes you. Makes you...less than a human, but more than an animal. Makes you a Wendigo."
The group sat on the edge of their seats, leaning in as the story continued. Even Wally, his eyes glazed from the pain meds, was focused in.
"So these Ute found their dead, found this delirious boy. They made their way back by next morning, and that wounded boy started hollering. He was starving, raving, and half-dead already. Took a bit before they could even suss out what he was saying. Then they got a good look at his body. Boy had bite marks from head to toe; chunks taken out of his legs and arms. He said one word, one final word, and then he feinted." Old Bart leaned forward until the fire cast haunting shadows on his face. "Wendigo."
The hunting camp remained silent as a grave, save the crackling of the fire. Clouds covered the sky, hiding the millions of sparkling stars. Only the light from the burning wood lit the faces of the tired men. Old Bart stared each one in the eye, making sure his words were heard proper.
"About a week passes when another tribe comes down for a trade. The Apache owned the north of the state back then, and they demanded tribute from anyone sharing a border. Twenty came down to the Ute to collect, but they arrived too late. When they approached the camp, the huts were afire and bodies littered the earth. Blood and shit turned the dirt into mud. There'd been a massacre.
"One Apache brave went to each house and called inside, but there wasn't a soul left. At least, that's what they thought at first. When they were all getting ready to leave, the leader heard a noise coming from the Chief's hut. The Apache opened the tent and looked inside. There, squatting center of the room, was the young lost boy from the cave. His skin had gone gray and had a sickly sheen. His limbs were stretching, growing unnaturally. Thick, black nails curled from his fingers and toes. His hair was falling out, covering the floor in sticky clumps. One of the Apaches must'a made a sound, cause the boy looked up from his meal. He held the Chief's leg in both hands, with a chunk of it in his mouth.
"Them Apaches weren't hunters. Them was a war party, sent village to village to collect from their neighbors. They were surprised, no doubt, but they were capable fighters. That Wendigo, though." Old Bart shook his head. "He ripped those poor men to pieces. All but one. That warrior managed to escape with his life. He went back north, leaving a trail of blood, and collapsed at the feet of his leaders back in Apache land. He died with a singer word on his lips, a name that still haunts this here valley." Bart leaned in real close and spoke in the gravest of tones. "Wendigo."
The old man settled back on his seat and pulled out a worn cobb pipe. In seconds, his practiced fingers had packed and tamped down a thumb full of dry tobacco. He lit the pipe and puffed tenderly.
"Christ, Bart." Jason slapped his brother's knee and Marcus nearly leapt off his rock. "That's a fucking pisser right there. Shit. Remind me to never let you babysit." The brothers laughed, forcing the bad vibe away from the fire for a brief moment. In the following silence, however, the unease returned.
Wally whistled and stood up on wobbling legs. "I think that's about enough fun for me. I'm headed to my tent."
The Talbot brothers rubbed their faces with mirroring gestures and rose at the same time. "Best we get some rest," Jason said. "We'll need to catch our breakfast tomorrow."
"Ain't the season," Old Bart muttered.
Jason rolled his eyes. "I doubt the game warden's patrolling the valley right now. And it's not like we're doing it without reason. Unless you've got some food hidden in that ratty old coat."
Bart smiled and shook his head. "Wish I did. A few hungry hours won't kill ya. Get some rest. We'll find our food tomorrow."
After the brothers had gone, Arnold finally took a seat on a pointy rock near his old friend. He rested his chin in his hands and gnawed on his thumbnail. Finally, he turned to Old Bart. "Should we go home?"
"I said should we go home? Just leave? Whatever came through the camp ate all of our loose supplies. We haven't seen so much as a track from anything worth hunting."
Old Bart eased forward, massaging his aging muscles. "The wood provides, Arnie. We've got water a plenty, and a forest filled with animals to eat."
"I just don't want us to be stuck out here."
Bart nodded. "I'll tell you what. We'll give it another day. If we don't find anything to eat by tomorrow night, we'll pack it in the next morning. A few days without grub won't kill us, although Jason might get a bit irritable."
Arnold smirked. "That's an understatement." He glanced away from the fire, blinking away the colorful spots in his vision. The lake was muted shades of gray and blue fading into shadow. There was just enough light on the horizon to make out the ragged edge of the forest on the distant shore. Arnold squinted at a sudden movement, but he couldn't be sure he hadn't just imagined it.
"I guess I'll be bedding down too." Bart stood, his knees popping with the movement. He put a hand on Arnold's shoulder. "You should do the same. Tomorrow may end up being a long one." Without waiting for reply, Bart shuffled over to his smelly tent and disappeared inside.
Arnold turned his attention back to the far shoreline. Black shapes flowed into other, vaguer black shapes until his eyes watered. He stared intently, trying to pull details from the mire. After a minute or so he gave up. He squeezed his eyes shut. They ached from the strain. Arnold threw another few logs onto the fire, checking to make sure the rock enclosure was secure, and turned toward his own shelter. His heart stopped.
The thin man stood at the edge of the wood. He was tall, easily over seven feet, and thin as a rail. His skin was the color of rotted meat and had the appearance of boiled leather. Strands of wispy black hair clung to a sunken skull, draping down to bony shoulders. Two thorny antlers grew out from the man's temples. His eyes, though. Arnold couldn't stop looking at his eyes. Milky white orbs that seemed to glow from within. Arnold opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out. He stepped back.
Arnold saw sparks dance in front of his eyes and realized he was in the fire. With a shout, he rolled off the burning logs and frantically swatted at his arms and legs. Amazingly, the flames hadn't caught onto him. He jumped to his feet, breathing hard, and searched for the thin man. The wood line was clear and dark. Nothing but the tightly clustered trees stared back.
Jesus Christ. Arnold heard crackling and spun around. His fall had knocked burning logs outside of the protective ring of rocks. He scrambled, picking up a long wet stick nearby, and pushed the glowing wood back into to fire. In a minute, all was peaceful again in the camp. Arnold's chest continued to pound, his heart thumping like a drum against his ribcage.
"Arnie?" Marcus' tired voice rose from his tent. "You okay?"
Arnold swallowed down bile and composed himself. It wasn't real. There wasn't anything there. You were just spooked. "I'm fine," he called out.
"Then shut up, please."
In minutes, Arnold found himself cinched into his sleeping back, the zipper drawn fully on his tent. He stared at the dancing shadows inside his fragile shelter, and knew he wouldn't be getting any sleep tonight.
The morning started with cursing. Arnold crawled from his sleeping bag over frozen dirt, his hands shaking from the abysmal cold. Everything ached, starting from a hot spot on his neck and radiating down to his toes. He sat inside his tent, blissfully unaware of the goings on outside. When he shifted to grab his pants, his back cried out in protest. Arnold gingerly touched the skin beneath his hair and gasped. The flesh was slightly puffy and inflamed. The fire had grabbed hold more than he'd realized.
Getting dressed took longer than normal, thanks to numb fingers and tender joints. His jeans fought against him, stiff from the cold and wet air. His shirt stung the injured flesh on his back and shoulders. Everything inside the tent stank of unwashed skin, dirt, and the sweet pine that lingered all around.
When Arnold finally emerged from his shelter, the world outside was chaos. Jason and Marcus stood by the smoldering ruins of the fire, shouting at the top of their lungs. Wally sat on a stump and rocked back and forth, his lips moving wordlessly. His eyes had the same glazed look as the previous night. Old Bart stared out over the lake, smoking his pipe. Arnold joined his friends, slinging his rifle slowly and carefully over his tender shoulder.
"What's going on?" Arnold asked innocently.
Jason wheeled around, red in the face. "Were you fucking around last night?"
Arnold shook his head. "What are you talking about?"
"Someone jumped on my tent last night. The poles are broken, the canvas is all tore up. It's fucked."
Marcus, still only half-dressed in his camouflage pants and shirt, snickered. "Probably just some buck snooping around the camp. They smelled your bitch spray and took a liking."
Jason shoved his brother hard, knocking him back a few feet. Marcus didn't lose his balance or his smile.
"Hey, easy fellas." Arnold stepped between the siblings and held up his hands. Marcus backed away, but Jason pressed into Arnold's palm, lathering at the mouth.
"Whoever the fuck it was, I'm gonna fuck you up if I find out." He pushed off of Arnold and paced around the camp, swearing to himself. "Too far, you fuckers. It was too far."
"It was just some dumb animal man," Marcus called out. "Stop being a baby and I'll help you clean up. We've got to hit the trail if we're gonna catch anything."
Arnold's stomach rumbled at the thought of bagging a meal. It had only been a half day since he'd finished off his trail mix, but it felt like longer. "Jason, come on."
"Fuck you, Arnold." He kicked at a pile of leaves and twigs. "It was too far. A prank's a prank, I get it. But that was too far, guys."
Old Bart perked up, his attention pulled from the serene lake. He tapped his pipe against a stump and ground the embers away with the heel of his boot. The lingering aroma of tobacco clung to him like a blanket. "What are you going on about, Jason?"
The younger Talbot stopped his frantic walk and for the first time Arnold got a look at his face. Jason had aged a decade since the previous night. Dark circles hung under his eyes, and his cheeks were gaunt and pale. His stubble-covered chin shook in the early morning chill, and his eyes were wide and wild. He looked more animal than man.
"They sat on me, Arnie. Knocked over my tent and sat on me. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't move. And they started hitting me." He beat his chest with a tightly balled fist. Tears fell from his eyes. No one was laughing anymore. "And they...bit me."
Old Bart was next to him now, gripping the boy's shoulders with two meaty hands. "Show me, son."
Jason whimpered and pulled at his collar. He drew his shirt down to his left shoulder, revealing the tan flesh beneath. There, just above the collarbone, was a raw and red mark: A bite. Old Bart returned the shirt into place and smiled warmly. "That's just an old coon got ahold of you, Jason. Ain't nothing to be worried about."
"Are you sure?" The macho man from a few days before had disappeared in the woods. Jason wiped his face with his dirty palms, sniffling.
"No one here would bite you, that's for darn sure. We ain't that hungry yet." Old Bart squeezed Jason's arm. "You'll need to get checked out when we're back in civilization. Might be the critter's rabid. But that's the worst of it."
Arnold could see the relief spread from Jason to Marcus. Old Bart handed off one brother to the other and pulled out his pipe for another round. The elder shuffled toward the shoreline, tamping down a pinch of tobacco with his thumb. Wally, unmoved the entire time, gazed emptily at the Talbots. Jason's shoulders heaved with silent sobs, and he buried his face into his brother's shirt. Arnold felt his rifle slipping and pulled the strap tight. He winced as the thick leather connected with his scorched skin.
"Arnie, can I have a word?" Old Bart's eyes remained fixed on the lake, but he beckoned with a hand.
"What is it?" Arnold asked. He walked over closer to keep the conversation private.
Old Bart looked up at Arnold. His confident grin was gone, replaced with a pained mask of worry. "We have a problem."
"Is the bite infected? Do we need to head back to the car?" Arnold's heart beat a little faster. His hope disappeared when he read the look on Bart's face.
"That was just a test, last night." Old Bart took a drag of his pipe. "It was checking out our camp, seeing how defensive we would be." The elder let smoke drift from his nostrils. "We're being hunted."
Christ! Arnold felt bile rise in his throat. He fought it down. "Wolves? What do we do?"
Old Bart shook his head. "Wolves would be a blessing. You can fight a wolf. This...we have to get moving. This camp isn't safe anymore."
"So we head back to the car."
"We'll never make it before dark." He puffed on the pipe. "By the time we get the gear packed, it's past ten. Then we're heading back through the wood, but now we're tired and cranky. Slower going. It'd be night before we reach the lot."
Arnold shrugged. "So? We've got flashlights and rifles. We'll be fine."
"No," Old Bart said, his voice strained. "We won't."
There was something new in his friend's eyes, something Arnold had never seen before. It chilled him to the bone, beyond any rational thought. Behind the manic, bloodshot orbs was a fear more primal than anything he'd ever seen before. It was infectious, leaping from every shadow and from every sudden sound. Arnold's spine tingled, and his knees threaten to buckle.
"What is it?" Arnold managed to whisper.
Old Bart leaned in close, his breath reeking of tobacco. "The Wendigo."
* * * * *
The day came and went without so much as a mouse breaking through the underbrush. Arnold started to take the lack of any animal presence as a personal affront. Fate was playing a cruel game, and hadn't bothered to tell any of them the rules.
After some arguing, Old Bart agreed to try for the truck. Wally was in no condition to argue, and the brothers were just as pleased to call it quits. They packed their shattered tents in silence, tying the bent poles to their kits and readying to move out. Marcus made a makeshift flag out of broken canvas and pipe and set it in the center of camp.
“To commemorate the worst trip we’ve ever had.” The others didn’t laugh.
Old Bart led the way, his eyes always wide and wary, darting toward every sound. Marcus and Jason took up the middle. Only Marcus carried his rifle out and at the ready. Jason was beyond the hunting trip. He rubbed his wounded neck aimlessly, but had at least stopped whimpering. A decade ago, Arnold and the others would have ribbed him mercilessly for his display, but now they were empathetic. There was a horror at the thought of lowering down on the food chain, and having an animal grab a taste from so vulnerable a place triggered those thoughts.
Arnold took the rear and pushed Wally along. He had come down from the worst of his high and now floated somewhere between irritable sobriety and apathetic inebriation. Despite Old Bart's protest, they'd let Wally carry a flask of the last reserves of cider. It was too risky to let him down more Vicodin, and they couldn't very well leave him now that they'd cleared the camp site. Arnold prayed he wouldn't take another stumble.
The hunting party walked in silence, save the breaking of brambles and leaves. Arnold tried to start up a conversation only once, but withered under the scathing looks of his companions. He hadn't brought up the warning from Old Bart with the others. For one, he still wasn't convinced that his friend hadn't just lost his mind. Monsters from the ancient wood? Ridiculous. On the other hand, Arnold felt a striking certainty that giving voice to his fears would manifest them, like some sort of mystic spell that can only be real with the proper incantation.
It was close to sunset when they came to a sudden halt. Old Bart held up a hand as though he were leading a rifle squad through the bush. Arnold scrambled up from the rear, breathing hard already.
"What is it?"
Old Bart knelt down and touched the damp earth. His jaw clicked and unclicked with each shallow breath. His eyes never stopped moving. "The trail's gone."
"To the truck?"
Bart nodded. "It's only been a few days. Should still be fresh enough to track. But it's gone. Like we never came through here." He glanced about expectantly, his finger caressing the trigger guard on his rifle. Despite the icy wind, sweat dripped down his wrinkled, leathery face. "We have to keep moving."
"If we've lost the trail, let's double back and find it again." Marcus shouldered his rifle and spat. "I don't get the problem."
"Ain't no trail to find," Bart said. "The wood's against us now."
Arnold pinched the bridge of his nose, failing to control a pressure headache. A persistent ringing drowned out his thoughts and muted the sounds of the wood. He glared at Old Bart with bloodshot eyes. "This is ridiculous, Bart. We're hungry, we're cold, and we're tired. You must have taken a wrong turn off the trail somewhere. Let's retrace our steps and find the truck so we can all go home."
"The wendigo is out there—"
"Fucking CHRIST, Bart!" Arnold stood, his voice echoing through the thin trees around them. "There's no fucking monster hunting us. There's just an old, superstitious man who got lost. Wally and Jason are hurt, Marcus and I are hungry and fucking DONE with this trip. Now stop screwing around and let's find our truck." No one spoke. Arnold half expected a wolf to howl in the distance, offering an ironic punctuation to his rant. The wood offered no sound save the rustling of leaves and the cry of the wind through the pines.
Old Bart grew beet red, his thin lips curling into a sneer, and then just as quickly deflated. He fell back against a nearby tree, his features drooping down. Faint gray light filtered down through the overcast sky and the heavy canopy. It cast unsettling shadows; patches of darkness that had no business existing this early in the afternoon.
The rest of the group waited nervously, shuffling their feet. Wally's pain medication was ebbing, and his face took on an easily recognizable snarl of pain. Marcus shook his head at the whole situation and paced the small patch of cleared brush between the trees. Jason stood statue still next to an old gray oak. The withered branches scratched at his shivering shoulders, and each panicky breath billowed out in a cloud of steam.
Arnold realized all eyes were on him. They'd been waiting in tense silence for nearly a minute. "Look, we're all a little on edge. This was a bad idea, us coming out here. Let's just go home."
The men murmured their agreement and collected their belongings. Arnold tightened the straps on his pack and checked the safety on his rifle. Everything was harder with the thick gloves, but he felt energized. The decision to quit the trip felt right, and having a plan—even a vague one—put his mind at ease. He glanced up as Jason made a sudden, strangled squeak. All four men turned toward their friend.
Arnold stared at Jason, trying to comprehend a number of images flashing into his mind all at once. Jason's eyes were as wide as saucers, the whites visible even from this distance. It wasn't freezing, but the Talbot brother's lips were blue and quivering. Branches draped down from the dead oak over his shoulders, making him appear small and frail.
Slowly, ponderously, the gray sticks enclosed around Jason's torso. Branches came into focus as long, spindly fingers. The bark revealed itself as decayed, flaking flesh. The tree knelt down until a large, antlered head appeared at eye level. Arnold's breath caught in his throat.
White, empty orbs that glowed from within. Its gaze passed over the men, not in fear or concern, but in selection.
Long black needles protruded from its fingers and jutted from its bared mouth. It hissed—or its breath came out as a long, cruel hiss. The claws pressed into Jason's chest with unnatural ease, pushing through his flannel shirt and into his chest. Blood seeped from the pricks and oozed into the frozen air.
Jason. Jesus Christ, what is thing? God in heaven, help us!
Marcus found his voice and cried out. "JASON!"
The Wendigo's head snapped toward the sound. It brayed in a haunting voice. Arnold felt the vibrations of the cry in his loins, followed by a sudden warmth. The creature buried one hand into Jason's chest to the knuckles, reaching up high with the other hand. It rose to a full height of nearly eight feet, standing on thin but powerful legs. It screeched again at the assembled hunters.
That face! In the dying light, the features were still clear enough to sear into Arnold's brain. The head was like a man's, but sunken and vacant of life. The nose had decayed and shrunken in. Its flesh pressed tight against bone and muscle, and the skin around its mouth had torn into a ghastly grin, revealing a nightmare of teeth and rotted tissue.
With a final grunt, the Wendigo leapt into the trees, dragging Jason along. It disappeared in a shower of broken branches and dead leaves. In seconds, the only sounds in the wood were the howling wind, the falling twigs, and the lasting cry of Jason Talbot.
Arnold's chest ached, pinched inward by a thousand icy needles. His legs screamed in protest as they pushed off the slippery, leaf-covered ground. Sharp branches scraped his face and neck, drawing thin lines of blood. The strap on his rifle caught on the reaching arms of the surrounding trees, slowing his chase. All around him, the screams of his friends echoed endlessly.
"Jason!" Marcus hollered. He paused long enough to loose another two rounds from his rifle. BOOM! BOOM! Then he took off again, leading the pack by fifty paces. He disappeared and reappeared behind the clusters of pine and oak, always returning to view further away than before. It was as though the forest wanted to separate them one-by-one. "Jason, we're coming!"
Another gopher hole nearly swallowed Arnold's foot. He pulled back just in time, his ankle crying from the abuse. Adrenaline surged through his body, dulling the rising pains that he knew would be waiting later on. Not that he cared for his own safety. All that mattered was moving forward, faster, and finding a trail for their friend.
Jason's voice was long gone, dissolved in the white noise of the forest. There were no animals drowning the night in howls and brays, but neither was there empty silence. A dull drone emanated throughout the wood, vibrating in the hunters' heads and guts and loins.
And then all was silent.
They raced through the wood. Branches clawed at their faces, scratching at their eyes and lips. Blood ran in thin lines across their cheeks. Sweat soaked their hair and clothing. They ran without a thought for the aching pain in their limbs or chests. They ran without fear of what lay ahead. They ran without knowing what they would do if they caught up.
Jason's screams had already faded with the wind. Now, Arnold led the group based on instinct alone. He'd seen the creature--the Wendigo--claw up toward the treetops and turn east. That was a good enough place to start.
The path dissolved into a river of broken twigs and dead leaves, swallowing the ground and destroying any sense of direction. Arnold's ankles caught on hidden roots, jerking him to a halt and nearly sending him into jagged tree stumps to his left and right. He slammed into a sapling and heard a loud crack, and wasn't sure which of them had broken. Every second drained his hope of catching the monster in time.
They finally reached a small clearing, breaking through thorny bramble into a patch of tamped-down grass and soggy hollows. Arnold collapsed to his knees, gasping for air. The others piled around him, equally winded. They knelt in a ragged circled and collected their breath. Wind whipped fistfuls of water off the nearby lake and threw it in their faces.
"Jason!" Marcus wheeled around, facing every direction. "Jason, can you hear me?" He screamed until his throat was raw and his voice dissolved into croaks. He beat his fists against the thick, unforgiving tree trunks. Finally, he crumpled to the wet earth and wept.
Old Bart sucked on the end of his pipe. It wasn't lit. He hadn't even packed anything inside yet. The wood surrounded them, eerily quiet save the soft wet sound of Old Bart's mouth on the carved pipe.
"Fucking stop," Marcus snapped.
"Sorry." Old Bart tucked the pipe back into his coat, patting his pocket to confirm its safe arrival. "It's going to be dark soon."
"So?" Marcus checked his ammo pouches, moving the shells around to better positions. He fussed with his rifle, his eyes wild as they darted about the higher branches.
“The Wendigo can see better at night. If we keep up this hunt, it’ll pick us off one at a time.”
Marcus paced in a tight circled, a growl rising in his throat. Finally he screamed, primal and vicious, and fired a blast into the trees above. Shattered branches and leaves drifted down.
Arnold placed a gentle hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Let’s get somewhere safe, and we can figure out our next move. This isn’t a good place to stop.”
Either the calm voice or soft touch worked, and Marcus bobbed his head in agreement. Together, the four men pushed on in search of a new camp site. By the time they crashed through the woodline, the sun had fully set beyond the valley.
Even in the pitch dark, with the moon hiding behind a thick ceiling of threatening clouds, they recognized the clearing. It was impossible. They’d run in every direction, followed new paths and unclaimed trails. They should have arrived anywhere but here. Yet the makeshift flag Marcus had made fluttered in the center of the camp, and the crystal clear lake beckoned.
“Motherfucker,” Wally whispered.
Old Bart set to the fire at once, whipping out his flint and steel. Showers of sparks danced over a hastily assembled log pile until finally taking off. The flames hissed and crackled, working through the wet bark before biting into the wood.
As soon as the fire took, Marcus leapt to his feet, pointing. “There! In the water!” He brought his rifle to his shoulder, took sight, and fired off a shot. BOOM! The report was deafening.
Arnold’s ears rang and his head pounded with an instant headache. He followed Marcus’ gaze and felt a familiar tightening in his loins.
In the water, halfway between their shore and the far side, was the Wendigo. The gangly creature waded through the shimmering lake, carrying something large and unmoving over its antlered head. It moaned, low and mournful, the sound echoing throughout the valley.
Marcus lined up another shot, but Old Bart caught him in time.
“Lord help you, boy. You’ll hit your brother!”
They fought over the weapon, baring their teeth and spitting, until the younger man won out. He shoulder his rifle again, but the Wendigo was too far into the shadows.
“I had him!” Marcus shouldered past Old Bart, storming down to the shoreline. The waves lapped at his mud-covered boots. “Jason! Jason, I’m coming for you!” He dropped his kit on the ground and walked out into the water.
Arnold leapt after him. “Marcus!” He sprinted, boots digging into the soft sand of the shore. His first step into the water nearly stopped his heart. Fucking CHRIST it’s cold. He powered through, even as the icy liquid rose over his thighs, his groin. He finally caught a fistful of Marcus’ shirt and dragged him back. “You’re going to drown.”
“Let me go. I’m going after him!”
“And what are you going to do when you get him?” Arnold’s eyes bore into Marcus. “You can’t swim him back here. There’s a boat by the camp. Let’s do this right.”
The older Talbot relented. They stood there, up to their waists in freezing water, watching the trees sway on the far side of the lake. Their quarry awaited, watching from the shadows.
* * * * *
Despite its age, the boat held together. Even with four grown men, it floated upright for the ten-minute journey across the lake. Arnold and Marcus used makeshift oars of tent poles and canvas. They were dripping with sweat by the time they made shore. Arnold’s heart pounded so hard he thought it was a cardiac arrest.
The wood on the far side of the lake grew wild and thick. Even if the moon could break through the clouds, it wouldn’t stand a chance against the relentless skeletal canopy. Arnold and Marcus hooked flashlights to their hunting vests, while Old Bart donned a headlamp with a powerful red beam. They nodded to one another, silently preparing for the task ahead. Arnold looked back at the boat, surprised to see Wally still seated.
“Wally, it’s time to go.”
The miner spoke softly, muted. “I’m fine here.”
Arnold shivered, still not recovered from his dip in the lake. “Wally, it’s not safe to be alone. We’re going to get Jason together, then we’re getting the hell out of here.”
Wally turned his head, and his expression was clear. This wasn’t a discussion or negotiation. He wasn’t moving from his spot. “I’ll guard the boat, Arnie. Make sure it’s here when you get back.”
“Let’s go!” Marcus hissed.
Arnold winced, shaking his head. “Damn it. Wally, if you see anything, if something comes out of these woods and it ain’t us, I want you to head into the water. Get away. Get safe. If we need you, we’ll holler.”
“I’m not worried,” Wally replied. He patted his backpack. “I’m prepared.”
The three men set off, weapons at the ready, into the dark and foreboding forest. Every footfall brought a staccato of crackling branches and leaves and the crunch of pebbles. They sounded like an army trundling through the brush. Every hundred yards, Old Bart held up a fist and made them stop and listen.
Silence. Arnold shivered. He remembered his father’s old saying: There are few sounds in this world more terrifying than a sudden silence in the deep woods. It was as though every creature, every insect in the surrounding miles knew better than to make a sound, lest they be found out. Even the wind held back.
Arnold shared a wide-eyed glance with Old Bart. The elder hunter gripped his rifle close. Their chase through the wood earlier left him with dozens of scratches across his leathery skin. Pinpricks of blood dried in droplets, given the impression of measles on his face.
The old man hissed. Quiet, his eyes demanded.
Arnold pressed on, speaking as softly as he could. “How do you kill a Wendigo?”
The three men took ginger steps, knowing that every noise they made sounded off like a gunshot in the still forest. Marcus took point, holding his weapon in one hand and using the other to carefully push away branches.
Old Bart leaned in as close as he could. His breath stank of tobacco and fear. “When they’re young, they can be killed by iron or fire. Hell, a freshly turned creature could be killed just by losing its head. But once they mature, there’s only one thing: Silver.
“The Ute hunted Wendigo with silver spears and axes. The Wendigo can take a 12-guage to the chest and just keep coming. You could lop off a limb, and it’ll be regrown by the next week. But silver is pure. Now you can stun it, if’n you get something sharp and natural through its heart. Wooden spear would do it. After that, though, you need silver to finish it off.”
“How?” Arnold asked.
“Cut out the heart, chop it into four pieces. Take those chunks and stick them in a silver box, then bury the box in a church graveyard.” Old Bart smiled wistfully. “Anything less, that damn Wendigo can put itself back together again. And then he’ll be coming for you. One dark night, you’ll hear a scratch at the window, and there he’ll be. You won’t die for days, but you’ll wish for it.”
Had Arnold not already voided his bladder, it would have drenched him now. The image of those thorny fingers punching into Jason’s chest played over and over in his mind. He heard the screams in his head, pleas for help.
The pleas continued, soft, distant.
“Help. Help me.”
Marcus’ eyes bulged from his head. “Jason!” He waited for a response, then took off into the wood.
Old Bart growled. “No, Marcus, wait!”
It was no use. The older Talbot sprinted ahead, crashing through the dry branches and bramble in search of his brother. He called out to Jason, screaming at the top of his lungs. Arnold and Old Bart struggled to keep pace. Marcus ran with abandon, filled with the manic energy of a scared sibling.
“Marcus? Marcus is that you? Help me! Why did you leave me?”
“I’m coming, Jason. Hold on, I’m coming!”
Arnold urged his tired limbs onward. Every cell in his body screamed to stop, to rest, to hide. He wished more than anything to just be home again, snuggled on the couch with Meredith, arguing over what channel to watch on television.
Suddenly they emerged into a circle of trees. The branches had been stripped, leaving only the monolithic trunks towering over them. Arnold marveled at the perfect circle, easily thirty paces wide. He tracked his flashlight over the gnarled wood. The ancient cedars loomed like gargoyles, glaring down with shadowy knots.
Marcus stood stone still in the center of the crop, his light angled straight ahead at a body leaning against a far tree. Arnold walked up to his friend carefully, his rifle held tight in his hand. When he followed the trail of the light, his heart stopped.
Jason stood at the edge of the circle, hunched over, barely moving. Blood drenched his shirt and pants. He held his hands over his face, weeping. His shoulders shuddered with each sob and groan.
Marcus’s eyes welled with tears. “Jason?”
The younger Talbot didn’t respond. Marcus crept closer, his light never swaying. He slung his rifle, reaching out with a free hand toward his brother. When he was only a few feet away, he stopped short. Confusion replaced the relief on his face. Then revulsion. Then fear.
The younger man looked up, and for the first time Arnold caught sight of Jason’s face. He hadn’t been crying. His hands weren’t cradling his face. They were holding prey: a ragged chunk of meat. Blood dripped down his chin and neck, mixed with sticky saliva and dirt. His eyes were wild and seemed larger than before, as though they had grown. His nose was smaller too, withering into his face. The hair on his scalp revealed sickly skin underneath. But it was his smile that turned Arnold’s stomach. His lips had melted into his head, leaving only a gaping maw that stretched nearly to each ear, packed with needle-like teeth.
Jason leered at Marcus with beady eyes, a terrible rattle emanating from his throat.
Marcus’ whole body shook. He blubbered, taking in the image of his mangled brother. “Jason.”
The attacked happened almost too fast to see. One moment Jason stood in place, clenching the hunk of dripping meat. The next he lashed out with a clawed hand, slicing through the air like a scythe. Marcus jerked back, stunned, and then fell to his knees. Arnold let out a low moan as Marcus’ head slid off his shoulders, rolling a few feet before coming to a stop. The elder Talbot’s eyes stared straight ahead, but his mouth opened and closed, like a fish out of water.
“Run,” Old Bart growled. He grabbed Arnold by the shoulder and screamed. “Run, you fool.”
Jason shrieked, and that broke the spell. Arnold leveled his rifle and fired, taking a chunk out of Jason’s arm. The creature leapt forward, tackling Arnold to the ground. Hot fire raked across his flesh around his chest and thighs. Arnold howled in pain. Old Bart swung his rifle like a bat, send Jason rolling off to the side. The two hunters fled through the thick wood, holding one arm up to shield their faces from the clawing branches. Jason pursued. His howls grew louder until they were nearly deafening. Arnold felt hot breath on his neck. He imagined those razor-sharp claws were at his own throat, ready to lop his head from his body.
Then they were clear, breaking free from the treeline and onto the quiet shore. The moon barely peaked through the clouds, casting an eerie blue glow on the scene. Arnold still heard Jason rushing through the woods, gaining on them. The boat remained in place, just off the water. Wally was nowhere to be seen.
“Wally!” Arnold cried out. “Wally, where are you?”
A groan pulled their attention to a low stump a few feet away from the water’s edge. Arnold saw deep cuts in the sand, as though someone dragged themselves toward the trees. Then came boots, muddied trousers, and finally Wally. The miner leaned against the broken tree cradling his stomach. Coils of glistening intestines spooled around his waist, covered in grains of sand and dirt. Blood stained the ground black in the dim light.
Arnold rushed over, dropping his rifle to the side. He landed on his knees, cradling his dying friend close.
“Wally! What happened?”
The miner smiled, drunken and distant. “Hey there, Arnie.”
“It’s going to be okay. We’ll get you out of here.” Arnold turned toward Old Bart, like a child, pleading with his eyes for help. The old hunter stared back, crestfallen. He seemed so ancient then, as though his true age had waited until this very moment to arrive. Arnold squeezed Wally’s hand. “Don’t worry. Let’s get to the boat, we’ll get you back home. Get you fixed up.”
Wally’s head lolled left and right. “I’ll be fine, Arnie. I’m just glad we had this trip. I’m glad you didn’t forget me.” His hand fumbled in the blood and dirt, grabbing a dull metal can off the ground. “That’s always my fear, Arnie. Being forgotten.” He pressed the can into Arnold’s stomach. Their eyes locked. Then Wally’s head dipped into his chest, and the light went out from within.
Arnold knelt by his friend, shaking. “No. Nonononono. Wally.” His friend was gone. He glanced back toward the wood. Marcus. Jason. Now Wally. Something moved at the edge of the trees and Old Bart jumped.
With painful patience, Jason emerged from behind the tightly packed forest. His arms were longer now, ending in hideous claws. Most of the hair on his head was gone, and his ears were shrinking down to nubs. Worst were his eyes. The pupils were gone, leaving only glowing white orbs. He growled as he approached, ready for the attack.
Arnold glanced down at the object in his hands. Wally had given him a parting gift, something to even the odds. The small cylinder had long ago lost any distinguishing markings, but Arnold knew it well. Wally only ever bought one brand of lighter fluid.
Jason circled the two hunters, waiting for the right angle. Drool and blood dripped from his chin, splattering onto the dried leaves and brush. His shirt had torn open, revealing a mutated torso and pronounced ribcage. His transformation was almost complete. Arnold rose, gripping the can in one hand and his rifle in the other.
“I’m sorry, Jason.”
He hurled the can with all his might, sending it spiraling into Jason’s gaping maw. The young Wendigo howled and spat out a shattered tooth. It glanced down at the can, as though realizing too late what it was. The creature let out a whimper that turned into a terrifying shriek.
Arnold took aim and fired. The round punched into the can of lighter fluid, sparking off the metal. A fireball erupted off the ground, swallowing Jason and the surrounding trees before rising into the night sky. Flames took hold of the dry wood, spreading rapidly. Jason screamed in agony, sounding like a dozen voices crying out at once. Arnold could hear his friend somewhere in the cacophony, drowning under the weight of the demon within.
Old Bart woke from his stupor. He chambered a round and shot Jason through the throat. The Wendigo stumbled back, gurgling through a shattered jaw. It limped back into the burning woods, spreading the fire further. It disappeared amidst the smoke and chaos, leaving the two hunters alone on the shore with their dead friend.
* * * * *
The journey over the water went in silence, both men watching the growing fire rage across the far shore. Jason’s screams died off, leaving the night unnaturally calm. They beached the vessel near their old camp, dragging it just enough to keep the tide from claiming it later. Arnold thought they should say a few words, but chose instead to remain quiet. There would be time to mourn later.
They marched through the wood, ignoring the aches in their bodies, the agony in their tired and torn limbs. Old Bart looked a hundred years older than when they’d arrived. Thick bags hung under his eyes, and sharp whiskers sprouted from his cheeks and neck. He didn’t look back once as they made their way over the sparse trail.
Daylight crept down through the canopy, bringing muted colors back to the world. A few birds chirped a morning greeting and began their search for breakfast. Smaller creatures appeared, poking out from burrows and nests. Arnold felt as though emerging from a deep slumber. Tendrils of the nightmare clung to him, along with the stink of smoke and burnt flesh.
The truck was just as they’d left it, though with a few inches of leaves coating the top. Arnold broke into tears at the sight of it. He dropped to his knees, overwhelmed by the events of the last few days. He thought of his friends, dead in the miles behind him. Killed by some monster from the darkest fantasies. His chest heaved with each sob. Old Bart said nothing, but took a few steps toward the truck.
Arnold patted his pockets and a panic seized him. The worn denim had torn around his hips and thighs, shredded by Jason’s claws. He dug around, but his pockets were gone. “Oh shit.”
“What?” Old Bart readied his rifle.
“I lost the keys. They must have fallen out during the fight.”
The old man relaxed. “Jesus, son. You gave me a heart attack. You’ve got a spare, right?”
Arnold nodded dumbly. How could I forget? He heard the Talbots poking fun at his stupid hide-a-key. Rising to his feet, he stumbled over to the driver’s side and reached under the wheel well. Old Bart went to the passenger side to wait for him. A cool wind picked up, and the trees rocked back and forth, moving hypnotically.
Something cold and rectangular found Arnold’s hand and he gave a tug. The case opened easily, revealing the spare key to the truck. Arnold held it triumphantly, just as something warm splashed into his face.
Fuck! Did a bird just shit on me? He quickly wiped his eyes and glanced down. Deep red stains grew on his shirt. Arnold’s chest trembled. His gaze rose up to meet Old Bart and he cried out.
The old hunter stood in shock, his expression locked in a horrific gasp. A hand of sickly claws poked straight through Old Bart’s chest from the back, spraying blood across the hood of the truck. The Wendigo loomed over them, its glowing eyes full of fury. In the light of day, Arnold saw the scorch marks splashed across its chest and arm. They’d wounded it the night before. Or it had gone into the fires to save its new kin.
The Wendigo leaned down and swallowed Old Bart’s head in his mouth. There was a sickly crunch, and everything above the shoulders disappeared. The monster dropped the rest of the body and rose to its full height, towering at nearly ten feet. The Wendigo spread its spindly arms and roared. The nightmarish call echoed throughout the wood and reverberated deep inside Arnold’s chest. Then it turned its gaze toward the sole survivor.
Arnold slammed the key into the door, scratching the paint until it finally slid into place. He jerked the door open and leapt inside as the Wendigo circled. It crouched on all fours, watching the human fumble with the ignition. The creature cocked its massive head to the side, antlers scratching at the branches overhead.
The engine sputtered, coughed, and turned over with a growl. Arnold glared through the windshield at the Wendigo. He squeezed the wheel, screamed, and slammed his foot on the gas. The truck leapt forward, smashing into the monster’s shoulder as it sped past. With a howl, the Wendigo joined the pursuit.
Branches slammed into the truck on the side and roof, leaving massive dents. The trail wound through the wood, but Arnold didn’t have time to slow down. He bounced off rocks and trees, bouncing like a bumper car. His brother’s necklace danced on the rearview mirror, barely holding on.
Suddenly a hand crashed through the side window, spraying Arnold with cubes of safety glass. The Wendigo had leapt onto the bed of the truck. It screamed, its head cracked again and again by passing tree limbs. Its left hand clawed at Arnold’s chest, tearing into his shirt and skin.
Arnold fought the monster, but it was too strong. It locked its bony fingers around his chest and squeezed. He gasped for air, feeling his ribs popping like tinder. A glint of light caught his eye. His brother’s necklace dangled in front of his face, the sharp point of the talon inches away. The necklace. The silver necklace! Arnold grabbed the talon, ripping it free from the mirror. He drove the edge into the creature’s arm and it howled in sudden agony. The grip relaxed and he could breathe again.
The hunter glanced up, seeing a rotted cedar dead ahead. He floored it, launching the truck into the dead tree with a sickening crash.
Arnold came to a moment later, his ears ringing endlessly. He screamed when he saw the Wendigo’s arm sitting on his lap. He quickly threw it out the broken window. Sticky blood spilled down his forehead and into his eyes. He wiped it away and searched for his foe.
The Wendigo slowly rose from the ground, growling with a low rumble. Its left arm ended after the shoulder in a dripping stump. The monster staggered, taking a few steps forward. The broken cedar lay at its back, toppled onto the side from the impact. Jagged roots poked up from the ground, dry and sharp. The creature roared.
Arnold gripped his brother’s necklace tight in his hand. He locked eyes with the Wendigo, set his jaw, and accelerated. The truck raced straight for the creature, and it waited eagerly. They collided with a sickening crack. The truck drove the Wendigo backward, pinning it between the smoking hood and the dead tree. Dirt and shattered wood sprayed into the air, raining down on the wreckage. The engine sputtered and died, belching a cloud of steam from underneath the warped metal.
Nothing moved in the wood, save the drifting leaves from the canopy. Then a stirring. Arnold opened his eyes. Everything hurt at once. His broken ribs cried out in pain, then his legs, then his arms and hands. He shouted them all down. With a grunt, he kicked open the door and fell from the truck.
The Wendigo lay against the cedar trunk spilling gallons of black blood. A gnarled root pushed through its chest, splitting it open. Arnold waited a few minutes, watching ichor drip onto the forest floor. Satisfied, he climbed up onto the hood of his truck and crawled over to the monster. Its head turned to look at him.
Arnold worked quickly, digging his fingers into the rotted flesh. He pulled at the sinew and bones, ripping a whole through the monster’s chest cavity until he found the sickly heart. Using the talon, he cut away the ventricles and tendons. Each snip caused a shudder and groan from the Wendigo. Its white eyes went from furious to fearful, pleading with him to stop. He pressed of, wrapping his fingers around the dripping organ and ripping it free. Gore sprayed his chest and face, stinking of dead leaves and putrid flesh.
He set the heart on the hood of the truck and careful cut it into pieces with the silver talon, setting each piece away from the other. He tucked each into a different pocket, making sure they stayed in place. With the task done, he collapsed onto the ground. The Wendigo lay still, silent, the eerie light gone from its eyes. Arnold too rested on his back, watching the world slowly fade to a point of light in the distance. The sound of the forest dimmed until all that remained was a sudden silence.
* * * * *
They found Arnold wandering Highway 50 about 74 miles from Poncha Springs. He stared straight ahead, legs shuffling forward as though of their own accord, covered in dried blood and filth. A motorist called the police, and soon he was riding in the back of an ambulance bound for Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center. The EMTs gave him a mild sedative to calm his nerves, then went through his pockets.
Inside his ragged clothes, Arnold only carried a few things: a soggy wallet, a ruined cell phone, rounds for a .308 rifle, and 4 misshapen stones.
After hours of checkups, plenty of liquids, and a few rounds of antibiotics, Arnold was in fine health again—but he wasn’t back. The doctors couldn’t explain it. His wife tried to break the spell, pleading with his stoic husk. His daughter tried, crying on his lap for hours. Arnold may have walked out of the woods, but a part of him never left. He didn’t respond to questions, to any stimulus.
He wasn’t silent, though. For anything asked of him, or really any interaction around him, Arnold gave a singular response. The staff at Rockies Regional couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but they marked the word down in his file nonetheless.
If anyone spoke near the patient, he would stare up at them with vacant eyes, and in a pleading voice whisper:
Artwork by Cathal O' Hanlon (Hades-Pixels)