I decided to give you guys a treat. A novella.
Yes, a whole freaking novella. Almost 20,000 words. How foolish of me to give my fans- all seven of you- something for free. Oh, wait. You an read most of my fiction for free; I mostly sell to free e-zines. OK, then. Maybe if you read this novella you'll like it enough to seek out my other stuff. I thought of serializing it, but figured it would be a pain in the ass for new readers to scroll way down to read it in chunks and have to keep clicking stuff. So here it is, every word.
Warning: it's horror, and it's nasty. There is racism, misogyny, bad language, and an evil monster...though maybe it's not the one you think. My main character is an asshole, and it's set in a dark, bleak time.
It's called "Abandoned".
Not tall enough, Bourdain thought. That pathetic collection of tree trunks, leaning inward, leaning outward, some trying to escape from the forest, other seeking to return. He'd be safer on his own, in the silent, shrouded places he knew...behind him the forest exhaled the faintest breath. Bourdain shuddered at the dead smell, rotting sickly-sweet carrion flesh.
He stepped out of the trees. Crossing the open space to the station made him feel naked, helpless as a baby. In the snow-shrouded landscape the crunching of his boots sounded painfully loud and he found himself looking over his shoulder at the trees, scanning for any movement.
Someone heard his footsteps or had seen the darkness of his coat against the snow. Bourdain heard the clunk of a bar being lifted, and the rickety gate moaned open a crack. Bourdain refused to hesitate. He marched to the open gate and slipped inside.
It looked the same as any other Company station. Scattered buildings penned in by the decrepit wall- the tall, blank warehouse, dormitories for the employees and visiting trappers, outhouses. In the yard were the Indians' huts, hide stretched tight over wooden frames, door flaps weighed down by rocks. Pitiful ropes of smoke meandered upwards to vanish in the clouds.
Five huts, room in the dorm for thirty but probably not more than eight or ten here in the winter. Not enough. Not nearly enough to hold off that thing, and most of them women and children...
“There now, d'you speak English? I said what in hell are you doing out here in the winter?”
Bourdain yanked his scattered thoughts around to the man who had let him in. “I speak English.” His tongue felt dry and too large for his mouth.
“That's a start. You're French?” The man was young, not more than twenty-five, but his thick beard and watery eyes gave the impression of age. He sounded like he was choking on oatmeal. Irish. Bourdain scowled, then remembered his position. His cracked lips twitched in an attempt at a smile. “Bourdain.”
“Murphy. Where do you come from, Mr. Bourdain? And what is holy hell are you doing in his God-forsaken wilderness in the middle of winter?”
Bourdain glared at the pale young-old man. He hated this Irishman, hated his nervous gaze and twitching fingers. But he needed this place. “Long story, My. Murphy. Can we talk inside? My balls are near frozen off.”
“Sure and why not? You must forgive me, Mr. Bourdain. We get so few visitors here.”
As they trudged across the unbroken snow of the yard Bourdain's gaze was snagged by a movement. The door flap on one of the huts swung slightly, as if behind it a silent watcher had drawn away.
Bourdain concentrated on lifting his numb feet. “Are you the factor here, Mr. Murphy?”
Murphy loosed a sarcastic laugh. “Heavens no, Mr. Bourdain. That's Mr. Francis. I'm just the Company accountant.”
“Perhaps I should speak to Mr. Francis.”
Murphy paused, his mittened hand on the latch. “Impossible, right now. Mr. Francis is ill. Terribly ill. He won't see anyone but myself and Judith; she's one of the half-breed women here, she nurses him. Very ill, Mr. Francis is.”
The air inside the dorm was nearly as icy as the air outside. Murphy spat swirling smoke-breath as he rambled. “You can have this room- you can have any room, I suppose. It's just me and Mr. Francis, the only white men here. The Indians live in the wigwams in the yard. Here's young Gordon's room, he shan't be needing it. You settle in, Mr. Bourdain. I'll send Judith along with some tea and hot water. She can bring you to supper.”
Gordon's room was tiny and as cold as the corridor. A narrow bed filled one corner, the sheets tucked soldier-tight. On the table lay a bible; above the table, tacked to a wall, was a dried, pressed rose. As Bourdain dumped his pack on the table his bulky coat brushed the flower. Petals dropped to the ground, rattling faintly. It seemed young Gordon wasn't alive to care. Two white men in the station. Bourdain plucked the rose from the wall and crushed it in his gloved hand. A fine reddish-brown filtered through his fingers.
He took the flint from the bag around his neck and lit the lamp. The grimy window looked over the yard, but nothing stirred outside. He sat on the bed, gripped his gloves in his teeth, and pulled them off.Pain blossomed in his fingers. The skin was gray; no doubt his feet were the same. He would have the wench Judith help him with his boots.
Bourdain disliked Indian women. He didn't trust their broad, blank faces, the hooded eyes that always seemed to mock him, the mouths that never smiled and their slow, deliberate speech. Judith was no different, heavy-lidded eyes over a flat nose, streaks of gray at her temples. She opened the door without knocking, placed a steaming cup of tea on the desk and a bowl of water on the floor. Bourdain glared at her.
"Boots." He grunted. The woman knelt silently and tugged them from his feet. She didn't flinch at the rancid smell of his stockings. She stood up and gazed silently at him.
"Out." Bourdain growled.
Judith took a wash cloth from her pocket and lay it near the bowl. At the door she paused. "Where is your companion?"
"What?" A chill shivered along Bourdain's spine, as if a tree limb had shifted and dumped a load of snow down his collar.
"You did not travel alone."
A fist clenched tight in Bourdain's chest. He picked up his boot and threw it at the woman. She dodged easily and closed the door behind her.
Bourdain flexed his pain-stiffened fingers and reached for the bowl. The water was already cold.
Judith did not return to lead him to supper. Bourdain was relieved. He didn't need some woman leading him about anyway.
He wandered the empty corridors until he saw a faint line of light beneath one of the doors. He knocked, and the door opened on Murphy's wan face, flushed a florid red. He stank of wine. “Mr. Bourdain. Or Mon-syur Bourdain? Step inside, come in. Where's Judith?”
“She never came.”
Murphy sighed. “Damned females. If ever a woman deserved a beating...never mind, Mr. Bourdain. I'll speak to her. Let's be talking about pleasant things while we dine, eh?”
Bourdain looked around as they sat down to dinner. They were in a parlor, at an old table before a crackling fire. A bearskin lay under their feet. One wall was covered in shelves that sagged beneath the weight of books. Bourdain knew his letters, but reading was beyond him. “This is Mr. Francis' parlor?”
“Yes, yes. He's given me permission to use it for guests, while he is ill.”
“He's well enough to speak?”
“Ah, he is sometimes well enough. It's quite impossible for him to see strangers just now.”
Dinner was tough rabbit and mushy potatoes, served by a young half-breed woman with long hair plaited down her back. She was prettier than most of them, more like a white woman with dusky skin than an Indian woman with white blood. Murphy saw how Bourdain's gaze clung to her. He made an ugly snickering noise. “That's Mary, pretty lass. For a half-breed, that is. She's a widow now with a baby, poor thing.”
“I don't like Indian women.”
“Aye, I can't blame you there. Devils in female form, they are.”
They spoke little over dinner. The parlor was windowless, and Bourdain found the food turning tasteless in his mouth as he imagined the sun setting, sinking into the trees and the snow, leaving darkness to reign over the frozen world. Night was when the thing came closest. The pathetic station wall haunted his sight.
They left the dirty plates piled on the table and sat before the fire, smoking. Murphy leaned toward him, eyes glinting. “Now, Mr. Bourdain, seeing as I've brought you into my station and treated you as a guest, why don't you tell me why you're out in this hellish place in midwinter?”
“Don't you mean Mr. Francis' station?” Bourdain drank in the Irishman's sudden discomfiture. “Is Mr. Francis not the factor here?”
“Of course!” Murphy's eyes bulged like slugs trying to escape. “But as he is ill I am the acting factor, and therefore it is my station, temporarily.”
When he said nothing more Murphy protested. “Mr. Bourdain-”
“Yes, yes, Mr Murphy. It's a rather embarrassing story, you see.” Bourdain managed what he hoped was a sheepish grin. “I keep a cabin down near the coast, by a town called Chesterton. Do you know it?”
“No, but it hardly matters, does it? Go on.”
“The Company lawyer there is a man named MacCready. He never liked me much. Settled people never like trappers, as you must know, Mr. Murphy. MacCready went to Boston and came back with a bride, when I chanced to be between trips.”
Murphy's face twisted into a sly grin. “A pretty lass, this Mrs. MacCready?”
“Beautiful.” Bourdain hoped Murphy wouldn't ask what she looked like. He hadn't thought that far. “All husbands are jealous, Mr. Murphy, as perhaps you know. But MacCready...when we were discovered, he locked his wife in the cellar. He hired some Indian trackers to kill me. Her maid carried the warning to me.”
“And you didn't try to rescue the lady.” Murphy exhaled a cloud of smoke. “These killers followed you all this way?”
“They are paid well, and are rumored to be the best hunters in Canada.” Bourdain hesitated. “Tell me, Mr. Murphy, if these men have followed me here, will you hand me over to them?”
Murphy's mouth twitched. Bourdain knew what he thought; this French trapper was a coward and a rogue, dangerous to women's reputations and men playing cards. Which was exactly what he needed Murphy to think.
“I admit it would ease my mind to have another white man here. I will be frank, Mr. Bourdain. Mr. Francis is ill, and many of the station employees and Indians died in an accident some weeks ago.”
Murphy's eyes reflected the flickering fire. “You may stay until spring, when we will be able to send a message to the Company about our situation. If your...thugs reach this far, we will close the gate against them.”
Bourdain clenched his fist beneath the table. He forced his tone to be calm as he replied, “Thank you. That's very kind. What sort of accident was it, Mr. Murphy?”
“That's a long story, Mr. Bourdain.” Murphy's eyes slid toward the wine bottle, half-empty on the table. “I think I'll be turning in now. I suggest you do the same. We have all winter to tell stories, don't we?”
Suddenly Bourdain couldn't bear another moment in that room. He downed the last of his wine and left the parlor.
In the corridor he passed Mary. She held a tightly-wrapped bundle to her chest. The bundle whined thinly. Mary was murmuring to it in her heathen language, but when she saw Bourdain her face closed up and she pressed herself against the wall.
Bourdain stopped. “What happened to the white men?”
Her eyes were wide. The baby coughed and fell silent.
“Damn you, I know you understand me! What happened here?”
Mary's voice was flat, though she clutched the baby tighter. “Accident. Mr. Francis led a hunting party. They crossed a lake, fell through the ice. Only two survived.”
“Francis and who else?”
Her eyes slid to the side, toward the door or Bourdain's borrowed room, then fastened tight to the baby. Bourdain smirked. “Jacob.”
“How many Indians are there?”
If she thought his questions strange, her expression betrayed nothing. “Seventeen. All women and children but Jacob and old Henry.” Her eyes flashed. “They will be no use to you.”
Bourdain raised his hand. What kept him from hitting her, he did not know. It would be a shame to bloody her fine features, that was all. Without another word he went to Gordon's room, ignoring her trailing gaze.
He scraped frost off the window and peered outside. The clouds had cleared as the sun sank. Moonlight glared off the snow, a patchwork of silver and dark. Bourdain glared across the courtyard, at the pathetic wall. After a few minutes he saw what he'd expected; a sickly yellow light wavering into the yard. Mary, a lantern in one hand, the baby in the other, making her way back to her hut of leather. Sharp teeth of jealousy sank into Bourdain's heart. Bloody savages they might be, but their homes of sticks and skin were far warmer than the white man's stone and wood.
Mary's light shivered, then stopped. Surprised, Bourdain strained his eyes. Its light showed him Mary crouched in front of a pile of rags. She awkwardly fumbled another rag on top of the heap. Bourdain stared as she resumed her slow walk across the yard. The lantern flame vanished into a hut. Only the ghostly moonlight remained.
Bourdain waited a long time, counting to ten over and over. When he thought enough time had passed he pulled on his damp overcoat and his gloves, which were still frozen into stiff hand-shapes. He wrapped his muffler over his head and took the candle. He eased out of young Gordon's room, pulling the door carefully shut behind him.
His footsteps creaked in the empty corridors. He opened every door in his wing. Rooms like Gordon's, spare and dusty, each holding a few pathetic remnants of their drowned owners. None of the rooms contained Mr. Francis.
He tried the other wing. The kitchen breathed a faint hint of warmth, but the oven was a silent, dark hulk. The store rooms were unusually full this far into the winter. The gun room was well-stocked, racks of rifles standing straight against the walls. Several guns were missing. Bourdain took a handful of bullets from an ammo box and dropped them into his coat pocket. The rifle he lifted down from the wall felt comfortably heavy in his hand.
None of the rooms contained Francis. Perhaps he was in one of the Indians' huts, where it was warmer. If Francis was an old Company man he would know the huts were more comfortable.
He went back to the parlor. There was no sound, though firelight flickered in the crack below the door. Bourdain crouched and squinted through the keyhole. An armchair, something slumped in it. Light glinting on glass, a bottle on the floor. Murphy, dead-drunk. Bourdain broke the rifle over his arm and went into the courtyard.
The outside air struck him like a hammer blow, the cold drying his eyes, snatching the breath from his lungs. But Bourdain had been a trapper for nearly as long as he could remember. He blinked, drew the muffler over his mouth, and began to walk the wall. It was twice the height of a man, made of smooth logs whittled at the top to sharp points. They were lashed together and sealed with mud, but the wall had been grossly neglected. Some of the logs had been replaced with shorter ones from which the bark hadn't even been scraped. The lashing was loose in places, and the logs leaned slightly in or out.
On the other side of the wall, something breathed.
Bourdain yanked his hand away from the wood. He hadn't heard the thing inhale so much as felt it. For weeks he'd stumbled through the frozen trees, the thing stalking, following, playing with him. He'd come to know its every sound, how it moved. The paltry hours of sleep he managed were fractured by the creature skulking through his dreams. Tendrils of its power stretched forward to caress him with a clammy touch. But he'd never seen the damned beast. It remained always just beyond the corner of his sight, taunting him.
Bourdain stepped away from the wall. The creature gathered itself, waiting. He backed away another step, snapped the barrel of the rifle into place, remembered it wasn't loaded and groped for the shells. It would do no good. He felt it in his bones, every beat of his heart repeating It will do no good. Yet his shaking hands moved of their own will, chambered the bullets- one, two never enough. In an instant it would spring over the wall...
He tensed, trembling.
From the other side rose a rasping, crackling noise, as if a baker were rubbing flour-coated hands together. It took Bourdain a moment to recognize the new sound.
The thing was laughing at him. Fear abruptly gave way to a spike of anger. Bourdain moved forward, then stopped, frozen in his tracks. The smell hit him like a wave, crashed over and surrounded him. He retched; his numb fingers nearly dropped the gun. It was the stench of death, of an animal carcass still fresh, of wilted leaves and decaying meat. Bourdain raised his hand to his mouth in a futile attempt to block out the smell. Terror made him stagger, and he nearly fell over something that caught his knees as he backed away further from the wall. He dug his heel into the obstacle. It yielded beneath his kick. The rag pile, he realized. The one where Mary had paused not an hour before.
In frustration he gave the heap another kick. The rag pile made a soft mewling sound. Bourdain turned cautiously, keeping the wall in his sight. The pile did not move. He prodded it with his foot, and it shuddered. Bourdain crouched, rifle at the ready, and examined the pile.
What he'd taken for a heap of rags was a man so wrapped in tattered blankets that he couldn't immediately be recognized as human. The stink of whiskey cut through the death-stench. Bourdain shoved aside some of the blankets to reveal a weathered face, skin the color of hazelnuts, a swollen nose webbed with red veins, a tangle of black hair and eyes that leaked tears. Bourdain saw the neck of a bottle clutched in his fingers. So Mary had not been discarding a rag at all.
“Jacob?” He barked, then remembered the thing. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Jacob?”
The man didn't answer, but Bourdain already knew this creature was the only survivor of Francis'' accident.
Bourdain sneered in disgust. Jacob gave a high-pitched whine and twitched like a hound having a bad dream. Bourdain looked at the wall. There was no sound from the other side, but the smell was as choking as ever. He darted his gaze around the yard. No movement from the Indians' huts. The windows of the dormitory were dark, dead.
The first blow froze his bowels. Bourdain gaped as the compound wall shuddered under the force of a second blow. The sound was that of a giant fist punching a tree; a sharp crack cut off abruptly as the snow absorbed the noise. The wall shook as the thing struck it again. This time the blow was further down. The next one was even further. Closer to the gate.
Bourdain felt each impact shiver through his body like a slow, crashing heartbeat. It was impossible to tear his eyes from the thing's steady progress. The noise attracted no attention from the Indians, and he knew the banging would never wake Murphy.
The gate quivered under another blow. A whine of animal panic struggled to emerge from Bourdain's throat. Another crash,. The great metal hinges squealed. Just as the cry tore itself loose from his mouth, Jacob rolled over, pressing his weight into Bourdain's shins.
Jacob's movement spurred a plan in Bourdain's mind. He grabbed the drunk Indian by the collar and dragged him forward. Jacob was heavy, but Bourdain's fear lent him strength. He hauled the unresisting man toward the gate, shedding rags and foul-smelling blankets like snakeskin. With every foot Jacob grew lighter. As they came upon the gate Bourdain held Jacob under his arm like a sack of grain.
Bourdain hesitated as he reached for the bar that held the gate closed. The pounding had stopped. On the other side of the gate the thing held its breath, waiting. The silence was heavy as a quilt. Bourdain wondered if he'd gone deaf, if the snow or the thing had sucked all sound from his ears. He lay the rifle on the ground. It was useless, he'd known that since he'd lifted it from its rack in the gun room, but leaving it on the ground made him feel exposed. He shoved Jacob against the gate, between himself and the thing. He put both hands under the bar.
“Bourdain.” Jacob said.
He heaved the bar up and stopped, staring. The Indian's eyes were half-open, his muscles slack. Drool had frozen to his chin. It hadn't been his name, just some unconscious muttering in Jacob's savage language.
Jacob coughed. “Win-di-go.”
Some Indian nonsense. A cry to whatever heathen god he worshiped. Or he was asking for more whiskey.
The thing exhaled its abattoir breath.
Bourdain dug his fingers into the edge of the heavy gate until they hurt. He inched the gate open with shaking arms, until he saw a bare sliver of the world outside. The cleared space around the station, snow churned up by his feet, the dark woods beyond. The thing wasn't there.
No, there was something. Back in the forest, between the trees. Something man-shaped, something the pale grayish-blue color of a day-old corpse. Bourdain would have missed it if fear hadn't honed his vision sharp.
He nearly slammed the gate shut. A moan from the broken creature at his feet reminded him of his purpose. Bourdain bent down, hauled Jacob to his knees. He glanced down at the Indian to be sure his numb grip was firm. When he looked up again the thing had moved closer.
Bourdain put his foot on Jacob's back and shoved him outside the gate. The Indian fell face-down in the snow and lay there, insensible. The thing was definitely moving toward him now. Bourdain slammed the gate shut. He pulled the bar down and leaned against it, trembling, listening.
Jacob gave a thin cry, just one. Bourdain closed his eyes, waiting, but that was all. The stillness of the night descended as if there had been no scream. Slowly the carrion stench began to abate. Bourdain had grown used to it, and he gagged as fresher air forced its way into his lungs. When the smell had disappeared he relaxed. The thing was satisfied. He'd won.
For how long?
He picked up the gun and started back toward the dormitory. Someone stood by the nearest Indian hut. Bourdain stopped, staring at the figure. Short, stocky, female. Judith, he thought. He waited for her scream.
Slowly she turned and ducked back inside the hut's door flap. Bourdain released a breath he hadn't known he was holding. A sharp pain in his hand drew his attention away. His glove had torn during his struggle with the gate. His bare finger touched the metal of the rifle barrel. Bourdain yanked his hand away, leaving an inch-long strip of flesh frozen to the metal.
His hand on fire with pain, he went back to the dormitory.
Bourdain woke with panic squeezing his lungs in a cold fist. He jerked upright, banging his shoulder into the wall. The shock of pain drove the fear away. He was shaking, sweat running in icy streams down his back, soaking into his shirt. It was the same dream that had attacked him every time he managed a few minutes' sleep in his blind rush through the forest- the swollen purple stain across the girl's face, the old man's withered hands, blood melting the snow into a red puddle. The crunch of the thing's feet- Paws? Hooves?- in the snow.
Win-di-go. An Indian's drunken babbling.
His hand hurt damnably. He'd wrapped it up in a strip of cloth last night, but as the flesh thawed it began to bleed, and the makeshift bandage was stiff with brown blood. He rose slowly, pausing often to let the pain break over him. It was too cold to undress, so he had only to pull on his overcoat and boots.
As he awkwardly laced the boots he stared out the frost-rimed windows. A woman was chopping wood at the far end of the yard, but she was so bundled he couldn't tell who it was Another woman ferried arm loads of split logs to the Indians' huts. Two light-skinned children played in the yard, throwing snow at each other, their cheeks chapped red with cold.
Bourdain reached the kitchen as Murphy was leaving it.
“Oh, Mr. Bourdain.” Murphy's eyes were red and watery. “We're having a bit of a bad morning here, y'see. One of the men has gone missing.”
“Missing?” Bourdain's tightly-wound nerves relaxed a little. Judith had not told Murphy what she'd seen. “That is unfortunate. What happened?”
“We don't know. Mary saw him last night in the yard, but sure and he's nowhere to be found this morning.”
“Are there any clues?”
“Not a one. It snowed last night so there are no footprints to follow.”
Bourdain thought of the trail of rags he'd left strewn across the yard. He'd not thought to pick them up and hide them. Had someone else? More likely Murphy was too ashamed to admit he'd allowed a drunkard to sleep in the open. “Have you sent out a search party?”
Murphy shook his head mournfully. “We're a station of women and children, Mr. Bourdain, with no...” Some clarity returned to his clouded eyes. “Unless sir, you are volunteering to search?”
Bourdain's thoughts raced. Maybe Murphy did know about the previous night, and he was sending Bourdain out to be devoured by the thing. But Murphy looked genuinely pleased that Bourdain might shoulder the responsibility of looking for Jacob.
“Of course,” Murphy added in a wheedling tone. “I wouldn't presume to ask you to go alone. You can take Will. He's the eldest of the children, Jacob's son. He's thirteen years old, but already a good tracker and a fine shot.”
The thing had never come near during the day. Maybe it was even content with Jacob and had gone. Bourdain looked past Murphy, into the kitchen. Mary stood at the big iron stove meant to feed thirty men. She had turned to watch them as they talked, her eyes narrowed, lips pinched tight. When Bourdain raised his eyes she turned quickly away.
“All right, Mr. Murphy.” Bourdain managed a smile. “I will go.”
Will was small for his age, his bones sharp under his clothes. His eyes were small and sullen. He carried a bag over his shoulder with some food and a flint, and he held his rifle easily.
It disturbed Bourdain to have the boy walk behind him, so he herded Will out of the station before him. Murphy and one of the women heaved the gate closed as soon as they were out in the snow. The daylight was gray and murky. Bourdain scanned the field of unbroken snow. If there had been a struggle, the signs had been erased in the night. He squinted, but the light was too dim for him to see inside the tree line.
“Any footprints were covered when it snowed.” Bourdain growled at the silent boy.
They set off into the trees. Will walked before him, or sometimes beside him. He seemed to stare straight ahead, but Bourdain saw his eyes move anxiously back and forth, searching for some sign of his father.
They walked until just before noon, then stopped to eat. Will crouched in the snow, his rifle over his knees. He wolfed down a piece of acorn bread and a strip of tough meat. Bourdain's lunch was the same but with an added flask of whiskey.
He watched Will as the boy ate. He looked like any underfed Indian half-breed, but there was something about his face that made Bourdain uneasy, something familiar in the curve of his ear, the dark smears under his eyes. He looked like Jacob, that was all. But when Bourdain tried to recall the drunkard's face he couldn't.
Will glanced up, as if he'd felt Bourdain's scrutiny. His eyes narrowed. Bourdain held out the flask. After a moment Will reached out and snatched it He sniffed at the top and took a long swig before handing it back.
They moved in a wide circle around the station. Will's shoulders sagged lower with every step. When they stopped to rest a moment Bourdain dug his worn boot heels into the frozen ground. “He was your papa, yes?”
The boy nodded, jerking his chin down and sharply up again. He didn't look at Bourdain.
“Who is your mother?”
Will chewed his lower lip. “Her name's Judith.”
Bourdain started. He pressed his boot into the snow until pain lanced through his frozen toes. She'd told the boy. That was why Will had jerked away when Bourdain offered him whiskey. But there was no wicked gleam in Will's eyes. He only gazed sightlessly at his feet.
Bourdain lifted the rifle to his chest. He held his gloved hand casually near the trigger and let go of the stock long enough to pat Will's thin shoulder. “Don't worry, boy, we will find some-”
His empty consolation was slashed by Will's anguished cry. The boy shrank away, yanking his own gun up. Bourdain found himself staring at the yawning mouth of the rifle's barrel. Will panted. The gun shivered convulsively in his hands.
Boudain swallowed. For a fleeting instant he realized how ridiculous it must look; a trapper in the winter woods, rifle raised in a standoff with a child. Then fear drowned the thought. He opened his mouth, but his voice died in his throat. He took a numbing breath of the icy air and tried again.
“What are you doing?” His voice quivered only a little. “I am helping you find your papa, boy.”
The wildness receded from Will's eyes at the sound of human speech. But he didn't lower the rifle. “Mother said if you tried to touch me I should shoot you.”
“Ah.” Bourdain tried to fashion a reply. “But I have a rifle too, boy. You pull the trigger, I pull the trigger, we are both dead. Or maybe only you. I am very fast. That would make your mama sad.”
Will's expression wavered. “You were going to touch me.”
Bourdain frowned. “Your mama, she thinks...she thinks I like little boys?”
Will's lips pressed tight.
“Like Mr. Francis.” He whispered.
“Francis?” This station became more insane every hour.
The boy nodded. Bourdain hazarded a quick judgment. He lowered his rifle.
“Will,” He said slowly, as if speaking to a much younger child. “I am not Mr. Francis. He is ill now and cannot...touch you. I have come here to escape my own troubles. For now, all I do is help you to find your papa.”
The boy's arm sagged. His gun pointed to the ground. “I haven't seen Mr. Francis in a long time. Since the accident, when Father started drinking.”
“He's ill, yes?”
Bourdain straightened up. “Come, keep looking.”
This time he allowed the boy to trudge along behind him, and he pretended not to see when Will scrubbed at his eyes with his sleeve.
The afternoon wore on. Bourdain was considering going back to the station when Will's voice halted him. “Look!”
Cold dread shivered through Bourdain's body. Very slowly he turned, his gaze following the boy's pointing finger.
A tree. A stately oak, its shorn branches stretching up to the clouded sky. Its roots vanished into the snow. Its grayish bark had been gouged in ten claw-strips, so deep that splinters of raw wood hung out, brilliant reddish-brown against the colorless day. It was somehow obscene, like a naked corpse.
“Was it a bear?” Will examined the claw marks with interest. He broke off a piece of oak and peered at it, his misery momentarily pushed aside by curiosity.
Bourdain had seen bears, had run from them, had even trapped them. They were powerful animals. But no bear could dig this deeply into a tree. And he'd never heard of a bear with ten toes that could reach three times the height of a man.
“Yes.” He nodded. “A bear. Let's go back before it turns dark.”
They started back toward the station. Will turned the oak fragment over in his fingers as they walked. Bourdain resisted the impulse to look over his shoulder at the ruined tree.
They arrived at the station just before the light failed . Meager trickles of smoke showed the Indians were cooking dinner. Bourdain wanted to walk around the wall, to see what damage the beast had done. Will followed him dutifully. The scrap of wood had disappeared into some inner pocket.
The outside of the wall looked as shabby as the inside did, but otherwise it was untouched, not a sign of tooth or claw. Bourdain's relief struggled with hot, bewildered resentment. What animal gutted a sturdy tree with a few strokes, yet pounded a barricade of logs for an hours and left no trace? His mind whispered the answer, though he tried to ignore it. No animal of this world.
“I don't hear any birds.” Will said suddenly.
“Too cold for birds.”
“But there's always birds, even in dead winter.” Will's forehead collapsed into a mass of wrinkles. “They sing at sunset and at sunrise, but I didn't hear them this morning either.”
They rounded the corner. Will, lost in thought, nearly fell when Bourdain held out his arm to stop him.
Something crouched in front of the gate, something pale that had not been there before.
“What is it?” Will started forward. Bourdain let the boy go first and followed cautiously. He raised his rifle to fire over Will's head. They crept forward together.
Will stopped. “It's bones.”
“What?” Bourdain stepped around him. Was this some trick, planned in advance by Judith and her son? But Will was already kneeling beside their macabre discovery. Bourdain approached more slowly.
The bones had been arranged in a neat pile, leaning against each other so the fragile structure resembled a four-legged animal. There were long leg bones and shorter, split arm bones, smaller ones piled around where they were sunk into the snow. A narrow ribcage was balanced on them. Place carefully atop the knobbed spine, like an offering to a god, was a human skull. The bones were gleaming white, not the mellow brownish-gold of age.
Bourdain put his hand over his mouth to hold back a sudden urge to vomit. Will stared at him. “Are these human?”
“But who...” The boy trailed off. He reached into the snow beneath the gruesome structure and brought up a small leather bag on a broken thong. He stared at it for a long time as Bourdain fought his nausea.
“I was born with a caul.” Will whispered. “And he carried it with him all the time.”
“Boy-” Bourdain began to crouch down beside him, but was brought up short by an abrupt, tearful wail.
“It's a cold woman who won't cry for her dead husband.” Bourdain swigged another drink from the wine bottle.
“Aye. You said it yourself, Mr. Bourdain. They're not women, they're devils.”
“What will they do with the bones?”
“Can't say as I know. Nor that I wish to learn.”
After Will had sunk sobbing into the snow, Bourdain had pounded on the gate until it finally swung inward beneath his fists. It seemed his commotion had roused everyone in the station. The gate opened to reveal Murphy, his coat half-off his shoulders. Ranged behind him were the women, some with children clutching their skirts. Mary and her baby stood near the back, half-hidden by a stout woman holding a pan of dried corn. They all stared impassively at Bourdain, at the pile of bones, at Will hunched on the ground.
“Mr. Bourdain,” Murphy had said, his voice pitched desperately high. “What in hell-”
“It is Jacob. It was here when we returned.”
One of the women broke away from the group and started across the courtyard. Bourdain tried to watch her, but Murphy was in front of him, babbling questions. “But the bones...they're arranged...”
“I don't know, Mr. Murphy.” Bourdain snapped. He looked past the crowd inside the gate, but the woman was already hurrying back, holding Judith by the arm. Bourdain thought they'd come from the direction of the warehouse, but he couldn't be sure.
The other women stepped aside for Judith, pulling their children out of the way. She strode past them, not looking at anyone. Murphy opened his mouth to stammer something, but Judith passed him as if he wasn't there. Bourdain took an involuntary step back as she stalked by, and immediately hated himself for it. Judith's expression was stony, but when she reached Will she crouched and put her arms around him without hesitation. Will held up the leather bag, tears streaming down his cheeks. She nodded. The boy buried his face in her arm and she began to rock him gently. Her features softened, but her eyes remained tethered to the pile of bones.
Bourdain picked up Will's rifle. Murphy made no protest as Bourdain pushed past him into the station. As he walked to the dormitory he passed yet another women, this one carrying a blanket. To gather up what little was left of Jacob, Bourdain thought.
“The bones were so clean.” Murphy slurred, breaking open Bourdain's thoughts. “You're a trapper, man. Could anyone get bones so clean overnight?”
Bourdain considered how to reply. “By boiling them, maybe, If he was taken by wolves...truly, Mr. Murphy, I wonder if someone is tricking us. If Jacob was eaten by an animal there would be teeth marks...perhaps the bones weren't his?”
“But the boy indent...he identified Jacob's amulet. Who else could it be?”
“The forest has swallowed hundreds of men.”
Murphy muttered something about damned Indians. Bourdain frowned. “What did you say?”
The Irishman swung the bottle around. Reflected firelight twitched in his eyes. “One of those damned wild tribes. There's still a few around here. They hate the half-breeds, y'know. I wager one of them found Jacob wandering around drunk, poor soul, and killed him. An' left the bones for us to find. Sick bastards.”
Bourdain sat up. He put his bottle on the floor and stared at Murphy. “They eat each other?”
Murphy had slumped down into his chair. His eyes hung halfway closed. “Sure and they do. Win-di-go madness, Mr. Francis calls it. Pure heathen craziness is what I calls it.”
Bourdain lurched to his feet as if he'd been stung. Win-di-go! The word was a blade plunged into his chest. Murphy gazed at him in bleary astonishment. “Mr. Bourdain?”
Bourdain leaned against the mantle. He cleared his throat. “I've not heard that word. Win-” He couldn't say it. “What does it mean?”
“Some monster the Indians believe in. Mr. Francis has read about it. He says when the tribes run out of food they turn cannibal, start eating each other. The Indians say these people, the cannibals, turn into win-di-gos. Some kind of beast. I don't know. Has a heart of ice. It's a warning, y'see- eat your wife, become a monster. Damn pagans.”
Bourdain snorted. The Irish ate their own children, he'd heard. In bad year when the potato crops failed and the land withered. Bourdain straightened up and took a last swallow of wine. “How is Mr. Francis?”
“What?” Murphy roused himself long enough to answer. “Ill. Can't see no one. Me and Ju...Judith.” He sank deeper into his chair.
Bourdain left his bottle and closed the door behind him. He went back to Gordon's room and dressed to go outside. He was going to speak to Francis tonight. That afternoon Judith had come from the direction of the warehouse where the furs were stored. She had no business there, not at the this time of year. Unless Francis was in the warehouse, sick with something they feared. Bourdain didn't care. He was less afraid of fever or cholera than he was of the thing, and he needed to know whatever Francis knew about windigos.
The yard was deserted. Bourdain hefted his rifle and surveyed the collection of Indian huts. No movement, not even a dog tied to a stake in the snow. He sighed and started toward the ramshackle bulk of the warehouse.
Bourdain froze and looked around. The voice was high, but not feminine.
“I'm here.” A figure melted out of the shadows by the woodpile, as if the darkness was taking human form. Bourdain squinted. The figure was small and thin.
“Will.” He said.
“I'm sorry if I scared you.” The boy looked gaunt, the dark streaks beneath his eyes even deeper than they'd been that morning.
“You didn't scare me.” Will's remark stirred annoyance to anger. “Why are you out in the dark?”
The boy scuffed the snow with the toe of his boot. “I couldn't stay inside with Mother anymore.”
“Your mother didn't cry when she saw...your papa.”
“No.” Will's eyes seemed to recede further back into his skull. “She was angry after he started drinking. He never drank before...”
Bourdain didn't ask. It had occurred to him that the boy might be useful, and he sensed asking would drive Will away. The boy shook his head like a dog flinging off water. “Why are you outside at night?”
The trapper weighed his words carefully. “I'm looking for something.”
“In the dark?”
“I just realized I need to find it.”
“I can help you look.”
Bourdain forced his numb muscles to move, pushed his mouth into a bared-teeth smile. “Where is Mr. Francis?”
Will's expression became fixed. “He's ill.”
Bourdain swallowed a growl of frustration. “I know he's ill. But I must talk to him. Do you know where he's staying?”
“No, I don't know. Why do you want to talk to him?”
“I want to speak with him about...about what he did to you.” Bourdain hoped he sounded protective.
Will stiffened. “Father talked to him. When the men went hunting. That's when Mr. Francis became ill and Father started drinking. And the men didn't come back, not even Mr. Gordon.”
Gordon, the father of Mary's baby? He couldn't see a white man taking the side of Indians, even against a pederast. Bourdain itched to grab Will and shake the story out of him. But he had to be patient. Pushing the boy would only press his lips tighter.
“Will, you need not come with me,” He said. “Tell me where he is. He can hardly hurt you when he's ill, can he?”
The boy chewed his lower lip. “Are you...are you going to kill him?”
“Do you want me to kill him?”
Will's reply was swallowed by a thump that jarred Bourdain's teeth. His heart stilled in his chest. He swiveled his head around, looking for the source of the noise. The air quivered as it came again, and a high, animal whine escaped Bourdain's lips. The sound came from everywhere, from all around them. Somehow the thing had managed to surround the station, cutting off every chance of escape…
“What was that?” Will's voice was tiny. Bourdain looked at him. The boy had edged closer. He was unarmed, and his hands hover by his sides, uncertain.
“I don't...” Bourdain's voice was lost to another crash.
“Mother!” Will turned toward a shabby hut. He managed a single step before Bourdain's hand snaked out and closed around his arm.
“What are you doing?” The boy tried to yank his wrist from Bourdain's grasp, until a movement in the darkness froze them both.
Something reared up above the wall. It hung in the air for an impossibly long moment, then fell forward. It collapsed over the wall and partway into the courtyard, scattering snow where it landed. Bourdain's clutching fingers went limp. Will stopped struggling. They stared.
It was a hand. A hand with five fingers attached to a wrist. A human hand, but giant, one finger as long as Bourdain's leg. The hand was ancient, the skin calloused and splotchy yellow-gray. The joints were swollen and red, the skin bulging over ropy purple veins. The fingernails weren't fingernails but rather talons, curved and broken, yellowed like the nails of a corpse. The fingers bent and stretched, scrabbling at the ground.
Beside him Will sucked in a breath as if he wanted to scream. But the sudden stench of rotting meat must have choked him, because he coughed instead. Bourdain seized the moment to clamp one gloved hand over the boy's mouth. The cough turned into a gasp. Will grasped Bourdain's arm with both hands. But Bourdain possessed strength fed by terror. With his other hand he caught the boy by his collar. Will twisted and fought like a cat, tried to bite Bourdain's hand. The leather was thick and Bourdain felt nothing but a dull pinch.
The hand still searched, the nails digging into the snow. Bourdain hauled Will toward the wall. The boy's boots dragged deep furrows into the snow. Bourdain's arms ached. The noises Will made sounded like a dog being smothered. His shaggy hair had fallen over his eyes.
Bourdain forced his gaze to the giant hand. Closer, it looked like a gnarled dead tree clutching at the scent of life. The smell of decay grew stronger.
Bourdain didn't want to go near the limb. The stench slithered over them, working into the folds of their clothes. Bourdain stopped just short of the hand's reach. It paused, hovering over the ground as if it sensed him. Bourdain held his breath and shoved Will as hard as he could toward the wall.
The boy stumbled forward, his eyes bulging with fear. He turned his head wildly, but his eyes were unfocused. He never looked at Bourdain. He stood, his arms at his sides, trembling and awkward as a new fawn. It lasted only a moment. The hand's owner sensed Will, smelled his confusion and terror. With a speed that belied its size it closed its long fingers around Will's head and shoulders. Bourdain saw the boy's open mouth, a black O, before a swollen knuckle covered his face. The hand raised him, his legs dangling. Then it yanked him swiftly away, over the wall. Bourdain imagined Will's mouth open in a silent scream as the thing carried him off. The jaw of his skull would hang open long after the thing had sucked his bones clean.
A harsh scuffling noise rose over the wall. Then silence.
Bourdain stayed where he was until his chest stopped heaving. He glanced over his shoulder, but the huts remained dark. Once again no one had heard the struggle.
When he could breathe he walked around the yard, trampling down the snow the thing's questing fingers had scattered. He stamped flat the ridges thrown up by Will's dragging heels. Bourdain felt a lump under his foot. He peered at it. The splinter of wood Will had collected from the tree. He pressed it into the ground with his foot. The carrion smell faded as quickly as it had arrived. In the morning this area would look like the rest of the yard, dirty with footprints.
The thing had returned after only one day. Was it hungry again so soon? Or did it take time for the thing to realize its victim wasn't the man it sought?
Fifteen Indians now. And Murphy. Not enough to hold the thing off for long, but maybe enough to keep it fed while Bourdain found Francis and learned what he knew. Surely Francis would know how to stop the thing.
Bourdain stamped down the last of the disturbed snow and leaned against the wall. He was pleased with his plan.
Bourdain woke late in the morning. The clouds still glowered low over the station, but the light cutting through the window was midday-harsh. He lay on his back, gazing wearily at the ceiling. His shoulders ached, and there was a purple bruise ringed his thumb where Will had bitten him.
He was nearly enfolded in sleep again when the door slammed into the wall. He started up, throwing off the blankets. He had a dazed impression of a human figure, a swath of dull blue, a shriek of fury. He'd only managed to put his feet on the floor when the figure leaped at him, striking him in the chest. Bourdain snarled in pain as his head hit the wall. He reached out blindly to push away his attacker, but it clung to him with startling strength. Bourdain opened his eyes. A shock of white light. His focus returned. A brown face. Rolling black eyes. The smell of dirty wool.
Bourdain tried to shout, but her thumbs crushed his windpipe so he could only manage was a hoarse moan. Her weight pinned his arms between them. Bourdain twisted his head and sank his teeth into the heel of her hand. Judith jerked away reflexively. It gave Bourdain the moment he needed to free one arm. He grabbed her breast and twisted as hard as he could. The woman howled in pain and raised her other hand from his throat. Bourdain shoved her off the bed.
“Murphy!” He roared. “Murphy!”
The woman had given up fighting him. She lay in a heap on the floor, her blue dress bunched around her hips. She rocked back and forth, her stringy hair hiding her face. A soft, high-pitched keening issued from her lips. Bourdain let go her arms but took the loaded rifle from Gordon's desk and trained it on her bent shoulders.
Murphy appeared in the doorway, brandishing a pistol. He wore one boot and his coat was half-buttoned. He looked from Bourdain to Judith and back again. “Mr. Bourdain, what in hell-”
“She's mad! The bitch tried to kill me!”
“Judith? Why?” Murphy's jaw dropped.
Judith said nothing.
“How should I know? She's insane! She...” Bourdain trailed off as he recalled the previous night. Will. The hand. She knew.
Murphy didn't seem to notice Bourdain's sudden reticence. The Irishman crouched down by the Indian woman. “Judith? Did you try to kill Mr. Bourdain?”
“Of course she did!” Bourdain shouted.
“Are you sure she didn't come in to wake you and startled you out of your sleep, then?”
“Do you think I'm lying?” Bourdain's face flushed hot. “This demon-”
But Murphy was no longer listening. He leaned toward Judith. “What did you say?”
She raised her head and fixed Bourdain with eyes hard as glass. He felt her hatred like a hot wafting breeze. He clenched his fists and tried to glare back.
“You murdered my son.” Her eyes were dry. “You killed Will.”
“That's madness! Why would Mr. Bourdain want to hurt your son?”
“He's gone.” The last word was a moan.
“Gone?” Murphy frowned. “Gone?”
“Set out to look for his father's killer, most like.” Bourdain growled. Why had he ever feared her? She was only a woman.
Murphy shot him a grateful glance. “Yes, that's what happened. Sure and he'll be back when he gets hungry.”
Bourdain's throat ached. “You forget this bitch tried to kill me, Mr. Murphy.”
Murphy's reply was sliced short by a shriek, a sound like a pig's scream of pain and the squeal of train brakes together. Judith tore free of Murphy's hand and flew at Bourdain. Her nails opened bloody rifts in his face before he grabbed her wrists. Murphy caught her around the waist. Together they held her while she writhed like a weasel in a trap, wailing gibberish in her pagan language. Then abruptly she stopped struggling and went limp.
Bourdain glared at Murphy. “I want her locked up.”
“Now, Mr. Murphy.”
The Irishman's mouth folded downward. “There's...there's a cell built onto the warehouse. I suppose we can keep her there until young Will returns and this is straightened out.”
Judith remained limp as they dragged her outside and across the yard. A single ragged child toting a water bucket paused to stare at the white men and their prisoner.
The cell was nothing more than a lean-to tacked onto the rear wall of the warehouse. But there were no windows, and the door was held by a sturdy lock. Bourdain supported Judith's weight while Murphy fumbled for his key ring in his coat pocket.
The room held no furniture but a bench and a chamber pot. The men set Judith on the bench. She leaned against the wall, her eyes closed. Murphy hesitated in the doorway. “I'll send Mary to make you a fire, Judith.”
“Let the creature freeze.” Bourdain started back toward the dormitory. Murphy hurried to catch up.
“Do you think this is really necessary, Mr. Bourdain? She's exhausted, her husband just died. I'm sure Will only left the station for a while. When he comes back-”
“The woman is mad. Would the Company want to hear you allowed a madwoman to go around loose after she tried to murder me? Would Mr. Francis allow that?”
“Aye.” Murphy sighed. “I will go tell Mr. Francis the situation and ask his advice...good God, Mr. Bourdain, your face! I'll call one of the women-”
“I will see to it myself.” Bourdain crossed his arms over his chest. He'd not stopped to put on a coat and the air chilled his marrow. The scratches on his face stung like fire. But he'd seen where the door into the warehouse lay, and he'd seen the coat pocket where Murphy kept his keys.
Dinner was a tense affair. Several times Murphy opened his mouth as if to speak, but at a glare from Bourdain he snapped it shut. Mary served them without looking at them, and she twice spilled the soup. When Murphy was sprawled before the fire, insensible and stinking of wine, Bourdain eased the key ring from his coat pocket.
The clouds had melted, revealing a moon so bright he didn't need the lantern he'd brought. Bourdain paused outside the door of Judith's prison, but there was no sound from within and no smoke from the hole in the roof. Perhaps she was asleep. Perhaps she was dead.
The warehouse door's lock was as big as his fist. Rust flaked off as he lifted it. The key stuck, but a little jostling produced the click he listened for. He pulled the door shut behind him and crouched down to light the lantern. When he'd coaxed the flame to burn steady he rose and looked around.
The warehouse was not as large as the ones Bourdain had seen at less remote stations. Bundles of furs wrapped in paper and tied with string were stacked to the ceiling. The room smelled of dust and dryness, with the faintest hint of long-ago blood. Bourdain's breath congealed in the air.
There were far too many furs here, stacked on the racks that held them up off the dirt floor. They should have been shipped south before winter sank its claws into the land. No doubt the Company bosses were wild with frustration. They couldn't send a party to investigate until the thaw. Only a madman would tramp around the North Canada woods in winter. Bourdain snorted and spat onto the floor. Fox, raccoon, otter, one package marked 'bear'; typical skins, though more than he'd seen in a while. Animals were becoming scarce in the settled southern regions.
The lantern flame glinted off something tucked under one of the raised racks. Something metal or glass. Bourdain picked it up. A bottle of whiskey. Bourdain tucked the bottle into his coat. There was something else under the rack. He knelt and swung the lantern into the dark space.
The thing under the rack was so bundled in blankets that at first he took it for a package of furs that had fallen. Bourdain tilted the lantern slightly and started. The feeble light played upon a human face. Bourdain drew back, curling his lip in disgust. But in an instant curiosity drove his hand to reach forward, grasp the edge of a blanket and pull the bundle from its hiding place.
It was a corpse, its skin weathered and wrinkled like dried meat, clinging tight to the bones of the face. A beard shot through with gray couldn't quite hide dessicated lips like black worms. The eyes were closed and sunken. Bourdain folded back a corner of the blanket. The man's arms were stiff at his sides. He wore a clean white shirt and breeches. There were no wounds he could see. Bourdain sat back on his heels.
“Mr. Francis.” He said. The name froze into clouds.
Dead. Why did Murphy lie and say he was alive? Why did Judith play along with the farce? It didn't matter. Francis was dead and no use to him. Likely Francis had been dead for months, his decay held in check by the freezing weather.
He shoved the corpse under the rack, upsetting a plate of food that had been shrouded in darkness. The strips of stringy meat and colorless beans were frozen to the porcelain and didn't fall until Bourdain picked up the plate and threw it against the wall. It shattered into pieces that rained down on a bundle of furs.
Bourdain blew out the lantern. He kicked open the warehouse door and stormed into the night. He went directly to Francis' parlor, intending to slide the keys into Murphy's pocket and return to his room. But the parlor door opened to reveal Mary bent over Murphy's chair. The Irishman slumbered drunkenly, oblivious to the way she jumped up like a frightened deer, her eyes wild with panic, her body poised to flee. Bourdain stood in the door, blocking her only means of escape. “What are you doing, Mary?”
The wildness in her eyes receded. It wasn't him she feared. The thought made him want to hit her. “I am looking for Mr. Murphy's keys.”
“It is time to take Mr. Francis his dinner. It was Judith's duty. Now it is mine.”
Bourdain took the key ring from his coat and dangled it from his index finger. “Mr. Francis is dead.”
She flinched a little, as if he'd struck at her and missed. “Yes.”
“Then why in hell are you pretending he's alive? Is this entire station mad?”
Mary's laughter was bitter and unsettling. “Yes. We are all mad.”
Murphy snorted in his sleep. Mary turned to look at him. Bourdain grabbed her arm. He dropped the keys on the table- Murphy was too drunk to remember where he'd left them anyway- and tried to pull her toward the door. She struggled. “My baby!”
He hadn't noticed the child lying on the rug, swathed in blankets so it resembled Francis' body. He scooped it up without looking at it and thrust it at her. Then he propelled her out of the parlor, down the corridor to Gordon's room. She held back at the door, but only a moment.
Bourdain pushed her down on the bed and closed the door. Mary sat on the edge of the bed and rocked the baby, which had begun to whine thinly. Her eyes darted around the room. This was the room where Gordon had wooed her. She'd opened her legs to him on this very bed. Bourdain smirked at her discomfort.
Again he stood in front of the door, arms crossed over his chest. “You will not leave this room until you tell me what happened at this cursed place.”
Mary stroked the baby's face. “We are all going to die.” She said softly. “Even before you came with...the creature, I knew it. None of us will see the spring.”
“It began with Mr. Francis. He went mad. It was like an illness. Now we are all mad.”
“Is that why you're not afraid of me?” It wasn't what he'd meant to ask.
“I should be afraid.” Mary whispered. “I know you killed two men, probably more. I cannot bring myself to fear you. But the creature...those who are eaten by a win-di-go will roam the forest devouring others. I'd rather starve here.”
“If you're so damn certain you won't live, why don't you just kill yourself?”
Mary's lips tightened into a prim line. “I am a Christian. It's a sin to kill yourself. Only...only I wish my son didn't have to die. They told me to kill him when he was born. They said he was a bad omen. But I didn't want to kill him. Even now...”
“Who? Who told you to kill it?”
“The women. They said he was bad luck, but Gordon made them keep quiet. He said there are places in the south...cities, where doctors could fix him, make him like everyone else. Gordon said...” A tear rolled down her face and into the baby's swaddling. “I want to leave now.”
“Sit down!” Bourdain raised his hand to slap her. She sat. The woman's misformed whelp was no concern of his. “What happened to the white men?”
Mary sighed.“It was late in the season. In the summer there was an illness, and most of the white men died. Some of the children too. In the fall there was only Gordon, Mr. Francis, Mr. Murphy and Ross. Gordon was going to lead a party south with the furs.” She trailed off, sniffling. Bourdain growled and stepped forward, and she hurriedly went on. “ He was going to take me, and leave me in his mother's house so doctors could fix the baby...but then, Jacob found Mr. Francis with...with Will. Jacob took a rifle and went to find Mr. Francis, but the other white men caught him and locked him up. Gordon let him out. When Mr. Francis saw Jacob was gone he was so angry...he made all the men go with him to find Jacob in the forest.”
“Except Mr. Murphy.”
“He said Mr. Murphy was...acting factor. They all went into the forest...Gordon told me it was over, don't worry.
“In the forest they came across a bear and her cub. Jacob said Mr. Francis knew they would kill him and he called the bear, but he was a white man…he knew much about Indians, so maybe he learned to call animal spirits. The bear attacked Ross. The others tried to drive her away, but Mr. Francis…” Mary paused. “He…shot Gordon. Ross was dead. Francis ran out onto the ice of Raven Lake. Jacob had hidden in the trees, but then he came out. There were four men left. They were mad, too. They must have been, to go out on the ice when it wasn’t cold enough…only Mr. Francis escaped. He ran to the shore. He was on the shore laughing when Jacob crawled out of the water. One of the men had dropped his gun. Jacob picked it up and shot Mr. Francis.”
“Jacob told you this? You believe a drunkard?”
“Jacob came back the next day. He only talked in his sleep. What I told you, most of it is my own ideas. That is when Mr. Murphy went mad. He took some of the women to Raven Lake. They found nothing. Gordon and Ross were gone. Only Mr. Francis was there. Mr. Murphy made them bring him back. He put Mr. Francis in the warehouse and told us he wasn’t dead, only sick. He made Judith change his clothes and bring him food. She told me Mr. Murphy goes to the warehouse to talk to Mr. Francis. He is afraid to be in charge. He asks Mr. Francis what he should do.”
Bourdain’s head felt clogged and sluggish. Everyone in this damned station was mad, every single person. Even Mary, who watched him with hooded eyes. The candlelight lent a red sheen to her hair. “Jacob’s a weakling, if he couldn’t bear seeing a few men killed.”
“Jacob was not weak. When he returned his clothes were torn. There were wounds on his ankle. Claw marks. Your creature came here ahead of you, I think Jacob escaped it. That is why he lost his reason.”
Bourdain wanted to hit something. He turned and drove his fist into the door. The stinging pain cleared his senses. “Why would it come here first? What does the thing want?”
Mary shifted the baby in her arms. It whimpered. “He’s hungry.”
“So feed it. You think I never saw a tit before?”
Mary unbuttoned. “It has food here. It will wait for you as long as it must. It cannot die.”
“Who else knows?”
“Judith knows. The other women suspect.”
The baby made muddy sucking sounds as it fed. The noise rubbed Bourdain’s nerves raw. “If you want the brat to live, shut it up!”
Mary detached the child from her breast and covered herself. The baby didn’t protest the interruption. But as he watched Bourdain had an idea. “Mary, you want your baby to live? A while longer, anyway?”
She nodded warily. “If it is God’s will.”
“To hell with God. If you help me, the whelp will live a few more days.”
“We have to keep the creature fed.”
Her mouth slackened in horror. “Murder is a sin!”
“That’s what the women wanted you to do to the baby.”
She looked away. “I want to leave now.”
“I am not finished with you.” Bourdain’s mind worked feverishly. “You love the child, yes? It is Gordon’s child. Would it not be a sin to let it die? You can make it live, if only a few more days. Is that not the correct thing for a mother to do?”
Mary’s brow wrinkled.
“They told you to kill the baby. They care nothing for you.”
It was the breath of wind that bent the reed. Mary turned to face him. “What must I do?”
“Help me deceive them. Show me the weakest and the strongest. That is all.”
Mary was silent for a long time. Finally she rose. “Let me leave now.”
Bourdain stepped aside. As she brushed past him he thought of something. “Why is the creature following me? It's a cannibal spirit. Why me?”
She paused in the corridor. “It must be the spirit of someone you abandoned.”
Bourdain’s fist clenched so hard he felt his broken nails bite into his palm. He slammed Gordon’s door shut, leaving Mary in the freezing darkness.
When he opened his eyes to the forest, he knew he was dreaming.
The snow-weighted branches were still. No rustle of life marred the silence. The dream always began this way, void of sound, as if the winter was a quilt through which no noise could penetrate. Bourdain knew what he would see if he turned a quarter-way to the right. Still he made the movement, forced by some hand he couldn't see. His limbs were paralyzed, unable to resist.
The shelter was a pile of fir branches. A torn blanket covered the low entrance. The blackened remains of a fire were fast disappearing under an assault of falling snow. They created a moving curtain that hid the sky. He could still see the old man and the girl. The old man crouched over the ashes, weakly striking flints together. The girl was dismantling the shelter. She folded the blanket into a pack, then caught sight of the old man. She burst into a stream of Indian language, her tone leaving no doubt that she was scolding him. The old man surrendered the flint and sat down with his back to a tree. The girl brought a handful of dry wood out of the remains of the shelter. She knelt over the dead fire and began working with the flint.
The old man raised his head. His eyes were unfocused and milky. Bourdain was always surprised by that, though the dream had come every night for weeks. The old man muttered to the girl and she rose, abandoning the fire. Her lank, greasy hair swung away from her face. She was full-blooded, with the dark skin and flat features only hinted at in Mary's face. Even worse, one side of the girl's face was disfigured by a raised mark, a rich purple stain that stretched from her hairline to her jaw. It covered one ear, which was lumpy like melted wax. She stood on the balls of her feet, listening.
The man that emerged from the trees was a mountain of leather and fur. Grizzled brown hair streaked with gray fell over his collar. A beard hid most of his face. Only a pair of red-rimmed, watery eyes were visible. As always, it took Bourdain several seconds to recognize himself.
The other Bourdain stopped and stared at the Indians, blinking in dull surprise. Why was he here, in the winter forest? What was he running from? Every night Bourdain tried to recall, and failed.
The girl with her grotesque face. The old man's unseeing eyes. Their ragged clothes and gaunt cheeks. They were outcast from their tribe. Indians didn't like freaks any more than white men did.
The girl took a step toward Bourdain Her mouth moved in silence, but somewhere in his head Bourdain heard the faintest echo of ugly, grunting speech. She was angry. The purple mark grew redder as she shouted, waving her arms. Despite her ferocity her chapped hands trembled.
Bourdain stared at her with dazed eyes, dull with the monotony of endless snow. The girl plucked a charred stick of wood from the remains of the fire. She swung it with both hands. It struck Bourdain squarely on the side of the head. The watching Bourdain felt a sharp twinge, remnants of the pain his dream-self felt. His vision took on a reddish sheen. The girl dropped the half-burnt log, staring in horror at the bloody scrape on his face. Bourdain staggered but kept his feet. He turned slowly. The girl watched him, quivering like a scared rabbit. Bourdain looked at her, his eyes unfocused, as blind as the old man's.
Bourdain lashed out, quick as a snake. His closed fist caught the girl on the chin. Her mouth flew open, but the dream-silence held. She crumpled into the snow. The old man got to his feet, shouting without sound. Bourdain threw his arm wide and knocked him aside. He sprawled on the ground and did not get up. His gray hair looked like ashes scattered across the snow.
Bourdain grabbed the girl's arm and twisted it. With his free hand he tore at the loose hide trousers she wore. She wiggled like an otter, spitting in his face. Tears rushed down her ugly cheeks and froze into the cracks of her face. She threw back her head and howled in eerie silence as the soft, warm parts of her were exposed to the icy air. Bourdain clutched her wrist until he heard the bones grind together. He opened his own trousers, awkward with only one hand.
But the cold rushed in, and his excitement shriveled and went flaccid. The freezing air gripped him like a clawed hand. The girl's face twisted- was she laughing at him? Bourdain grabbed her neck. Her eyes bulged as his fingers tightened. He let go her arm and grasped her throat with both hands. Her tongue lolled over her lips like a fat pink slug. Bourdain swung his leg over, straddling the girl. After a long time her eyes rolled backwards and she was still. Blood wetted her lips, then trickled down her jaw, staining the snow.
Bourdain straightened up and buttoned his trousers. The fog had cleared from his eyes. He looked at the dead girl a while. The old man lay face-down. His bony back rose and fell in shallow bursts. His crabbed fingers moved a little. Bourdain stepped around the man and headed out of the clearing. He did not glance back.
Bourdain woke into a tangle of sweat-damp sheets. The same dream, every night. He knew it by rote, but he remembered none of it. The thing out there. Cannibal spirits. Win-di-go. Snow landing on the dead girl's open eyes. The old man must have woken after he left. Someone he abandoned. Bourdain stared at the ceiling without seeing it.
What had the old man done to survive a little longer?
Winter deepened. The birds in the forest remained silent. Bourdain felt that they were all under water, sinking deeper and deeper every hour.
The station's population was shrinking. The first to disappear was old Henry, a toothless, ancient man who barely fluttered his eyelids when Bourdain wrenched the blanket off his body. Mary distracted the woman who shared his hut- granddaughter, niece, Bourdain didn't care- while the trapper hauled the man to one of the empty dormitory rooms. Later, as he drank with Murphy in Francis' parlor, they heard a burst of shouting from the kitchen, women's voices raised in guttural Indian language. The argument lasted several minutes. Neither man moved to investigate or stop it. The voices died abruptly as if a knife had slashed them silent. Murphy laughed and slurred, “W...women's quarrels.” When he lay insensible, Bourdain cornered Mary in the kitchen as she washed dishes.
“She asked what we'd done to Henry.” Mary stared at the gray water. Pools of grease merged and parted on the water's surface. “I told her to keep quiet or you would do the same to her as you did Henry.”
“Good girl. Keep your whelp safe.” Bourdain was a little drunk, and he reached out to pat her arm. Mary jerked away so violently that water sloshed from the tub and down the front of her dress.
That night Bourdain took Henry from the empty room. The old man breathed shallowly, and the stink told Bourdain he'd soiled himself. The thing didn't care. It groped over the wall with its gnarled hand and snatched Henry without hesitation. Bourdain thought perhaps the hand was bigger than when it had taken Will, but the moon was hidden and he was drunk. He couldn't be sure.
After that was a childless woman with a cough, and an orphan girl whose father had died on Raven Lake. Mary offered the woman some tea, filled with an herb to make her sleep. The child was simpler. No one in particular looked after her; she ate her meals and slept with whomever would allow her in their hut. No one objected when Mary shouldered her care for the day. She sat quietly in Bourdain's lap, tangling her fingers in his beard, until the thing came for her.
The next day there were no children in the courtyard. Mary served Murphy and Bourdain breakfast with a purple, swollen eye. Murphy was bleary-eyed and shaking, too hung-over to notice. But Bourdain wasn't stupid. He knew the women wouldn't stand back and allow him to slaughter their friends and children without protest. He wasn't surprised when he heard shouting from the courtyard around the front of the dormitory. He picked up his rifle and went outside.
It was mid-morning, but the sky was dark and heavy as lead. The station's remaining Indians were there, four women and five children. The women were armed, two with pistols, one with a rifle, the last with one of the stone axes the Indian used. Their faces were set and grim, like a man Bourdain had once seen on the scaffold. The children clustered behind them. The oldest was about ten, the smallest a baby that tottered on its legs. Bourdain nearly laughed. They feared him so much they'd brought their brats along on a rebellion.
Mary was already outside, standing with her back against the dormitory's weathered wall. She clutched her swaddled baby to her chest. She raised her chin to the women, but her eyes were wide. The women with the rifle was shouting when Bourdain opened the door.
“...a traitor twice-over, you bitch! You kept that cursed child and doom us, now you open your legs to this devil...” She brandished the rifle at Bourdain. She held the gun with familiarity, her finger dangerously near the trigger. “You're disgusting! A scandalous whore!”
Mary's reply sounded weak and frayed. “Gordon said the doctors-”
The women brayed laughter. “Yes, and he was going to marry you too, and put you in a house in the city! So proud of his half-breed wife!” The rifle woman leered at Mary, who cowered against the wall as if she could sink through it. “Your man's dead the same as ours! And you bargained with a demon that brought a monster to us!”
Mary looked to him as if he would defend her, but Bourdain was silent. Let the woman rave; she spoke truth. The other women looked none too steady with their weapons. If he could bring his own rifle to bear while the woman ranted...
But the bitch snapped her gun up before he could sight on her, and Bourdain stared down the barrel of her rifle. “Put your gun down, trapper!”
Bourdain bit his tongue until he tasted blood. He shrugged as if it didn't concern him and propped the gun against his leg. It was still within reach, but the women were screaming again and didn't notice.
“Fetch Mr. Murphy!” The woman with the ax yelled.
“He's drunk.” Mary said sullenly.
“Wake him up, whore! He's still acting factor here.”
Mary cast a pleading, futile glance at Bourdain and went inside. Bourdain was left facing the four women alone. He trembled, but he forced his tone to be scornful. “What do you plan to say to Murphy, you fools? If he's sober enough to listen.”
The women relaxed a little as if they'd already won their victory. Only the rifle-woman remained alert. He cursed to himself. That one wasn't as stupid as the others.
“You're a murderer!” One of the pistol-women shouted. “When you came you brought the monster. You killed and killed to feed it. Murphy is going to let Judith out and lock you up!”
“Or we'll kill him!” Added the ax-woman.
The pistol-women began to argue over whether Mary should be locked up as well, and the baby left in the forest to die. “Nothing but bad luck since it came,” Said one. “The men dying, and now the win-di-go.”
“She was always a fool.” The other agreed. “Wanting to keep that cursed child, and before- do you remember?- trying to let in that old shaman and the disfigured girl. Fool!”
Bourdain stiffened.“What old man? Did the girl have a purple mark?”
The women stared. Finally one barked, “What do you care?”
He'd already read the answer in their slack jaws. The laughter rushed up into his throat and spilled out in harsh streams. “You stupid whores! It herded me here! It chose the place! You brought it here yourselves!”
One of the pistol-women stepped forward. “Bastard! What do you-”
Her cry was broken by the door crashing open. Murphy staggered out, wincing in the sunlight. He threw an arm over his eyes to shield them. In his other hand he held a gun.
“Murphy!” He spoke before any of the women could. “Your Indians have gone mad!”
The Irishman stared. “Abigail? Eve? What in hell are you doing, waving those things around?”
“You don't see what's going on under your nose!” The rifle-woman, Abigail, cried. “Your-”
Bourdain raised his voice to cover hers. “I heard shouting, and when I came out here-”
“Mr. Murphy, you must listen-”
“These Indians were pointing guns at me-”
“You have to set Judith free-”
“Making mad accusations-”
Murphy's entire body shook wildly; his eyes rolled like a startled horse's. “Stop!” He gasped. “Damn you all, what's happening?”
“Mr. Bourdain speaks the truth.” Mary's small voice drifted out from the doorway. “He is a guest here, but they threaten him with guns. They are mad.”
The women's faces twisted with hate. The woman with the ax shrieked wordlessly. She raised the ax to throw it. There was a crack as a bullet was fired, overlapped by another. Bourdain hitched up his rifle. He yanked the hammer back and let go. The gun gave a jerk and the air smelled suddenly of gunpowder.
Mary's baby began to cry, a thin, reedy wail. Bourdain moved his arms and legs- he didn't seem to be shot- and turned his head to tell Mary to shut the brat up. But she'd ducked inside. The door rocked on its hinges. A great gash had been torn in the frame by a shotgun blast. He'd given the bitch too much credit; women were poor shots, all of them.
A whine snagged his attention. Bourdain looked at Murphy. The man stood with his legs apart, as if he'd been struck a blow but managed to keep his feet. The pistol hung heavy in his hand, his fingers clenched tight around the butt. His mouth was open. A thin stream of smoke leaked from the gun barrel.
Bourdain turned to the women. Their line had broken; only three were standing now. Abigail lay on her back. Blood melted the snow around her body. The rifle lay some distance away, for she'd flung her arm out as she fell. Bourdain smiled wryly. He was a better shot than any woman.
One of the pistol-women bent over her, but the other two knelt by something on the ground nearby. The four children huddled in a paralyzed knot. Bourdain frowned, counted again, and realized that the thing on the ground was the fifth child. Everything was quiet, but for Murphy's ragged breathing. Mary's baby had gone silent.
One of the women bent over the child threw back her head and began to wail. The other women followed, then the children. In a moment the yard overflowed with shrieks of horror and grief. Bourdain and their revolution had been forgotten, all over the death of one useless brat. Bourdain grabbed Murphy's shoulder and pulled the unresisting Irishman through the door. He kicked it shut behind them. Murphy stared at him with the eyes of a beast whose leg was caught in a trap's jaws. Bourdain saw he still had the gun and reached out to take it. He had to prise Murphy's fingers apart, but as soon as Bourdain had it Murphy seemed to wake up. He grabbed Bourdain's arm so tightly that even through his thick coat the trapper felt the pressure of Murphy's fingers. Bourdain tried to shake him off, but Murphy held on with surprising strength.
“A baby.” He moaned. Flecks of spittle flew from his open mouth. “I killed a child...little Matthew.” He choked.
“Not your fault.” Bourdain said gruffly. “Shot went wide. You were aiming at the woman.”
Murphy clutched him tighter. “Wanted them to listen to me...for once. No one listens, y'know. They listen to Mr. Francis. Killed a wee boy, I did. I wanted them make them shut up!”
“It worked.” Bourdain pulled his arm away. Murphy stumbled back against the wall. He was crying, his mustache shiny with snot. Disgusted, Bourdain turned away and left him in the corridor, sniveling to himself.
Damn. Murphy had killed the boy. A meal the creature wouldn't get; a night Bourdain wouldn't be safe. Eight more days. No, ten. There was Judith, if she lived, and Mary. Would the thing accept Mary's baby as a whole meal? It was so scrawny.
He searched the dormitory for Mary but the bitch had vanished. While Bourdain looked for the woman Murphy had dragged his worthless carcass to the wine storeroom. Bourdain found him sprawled on the floor with an empty bottle, feathers of ice in his beard. He didn't rouse even when Bourdain rolled him over to get at his key ring.
The yard was empty when he stepped outside. Only the splintered door frame and the two spots of frozen blood showed that anything had happened here. But he kept his rifle at the ready as he crossed the yard to the warehouse cell.
He opened the door a crack and peered inside. It was murky, but a few dust motes floated in the watery light that slanted through the boards. The remains of a fire smoldered on the floor. A dim figure slumped on the bench opposite the door. He pushed the door open a little further. No movement. He went inside.
Judith gave a rasping cackle. It was too dark to see well, but he could make out the oval of her face, a lighter shade against the darkness. Mary must have brought her blankets, for the rest of her was swathed into a shapeless mass. Bourdain kept his back to the door, his gun raised between them.
“Tell me.” He said. “Tell me about the win-di-go.”
The word hung in the air like his frozen breath. Win-di-go. She did nothing to shatter it, no movement, no sound. Maybe Judith was dead and he'd only imagined she laughed. But finally she spoke. “Why should I tell you anything, white man?”
“Because I will kill you if you refuse.”
“Then kill me. You're master here now.”
“How do I kill it?”
No answer. Bourdain cocked his rifle but the shrouded figure didn't flinch. He pressed the trigger, just a little. Fine, he'd kill the woman if that's what she wanted.
But that was what she wanted.
He lowered the gun. “I won't kill you. I'll wait and feed you to the win-di-go to see your man and your boy.”
The shadow quivered with laughter. “I'll be dead before then. Win-di-go don't eat the dead. And you don't kill a win-di-go, white man. Only a shaman can kill one. And you know nothing. The heart is ice, the heart is ice. It cares for no one. Like you. Send me that whore Mary and I'll strangle her, and the baby...” Her speech trailed off into nonsense. Bourdain left her.
He went to the woodpile to bring an armload of kindling for Francis' parlor. As he hefted a bundle of twigs onto his shoulder a scream tore through the courtyard. He swung around, dropping the wood and raising the gun, but it was Mary who ran to him, the baby held tight to her bosom, her long hair trailing behind. She'd come from the direction of the Indian huts.
He lowered the gun. She was crying, babbling in a mixture of English and Indian. Bourdain grabbed her shoulder and shook her. “Stop whining, woman!”
Mary pointed toward the huts. Bourdain let her go. “You know better than to lie to me.”
She nodded. Bourdain hoisted his gun and went to the huts. The flap of leather that covered the door of the nearest was torn away. It lay like a dead thing in the snow. Bourdain bent double, ducked into the doorway and hesitated, one leg inside and one out. He cursed furiously.
Of course. He'd seen no smoke from the huts when he visited Judith, had noticed it without understanding. The inside of the hut was cold, the air rank with the stink of piss and unwashed flesh. The only light was a single thin pillar that descended through the smoke hole. There were blankets strewn about the floor and vague paintings on the hide walls. On the blankets lay the rest of the station's Indians, three women and four children. They were like sticks that had fallen in a game, their eyes frozen wide, mouths wrenched open. There limbs were splayed and contorted. Froth had frozen around their mouths and noses. Along the wall lay the bodies of Abigail and Matthew. Their hands had been folded over their breasts. Black blood stained their clothes.
Five wooden bowls lay scattered among the dead. The little ones must have shared. Bourdain leaned inside. He could just touch one with his fingertips. He rolled it toward him, then snatched it up and ducked back into the leaden light. The bowl was still wet. Bits of something wrinkled and black in the bottom, chopped fine. He carried the bowl to Mary, who had remained by the wood pile. She turned away, shuddering, but Bourdain grabbed her chin and thrust the bowl under hr nose. “What is is?”
“A...a mushroom. We use it for medicine, but too much can kill.” She heaved a sob. “We must bury them.”
Bourdain flung the bowl away. “What?”
“They were Christians. We all are. All the women. They...they should have a Christian burial.”
“Why? They won't rot in this cold. The ground's too hard to dig anyhow.”
“And isn't killing yourself a sin? You said so.”
Mary bowed her head. “The priest said it was, the who came to my village when I was a girl...but now, I wonder.”
Bourdain slapped her. He was too bundled up to strike her as hard as he would have liked, but his stiff glove left a scratch under her eye. The baby whimpered into her chest.
“All they did is shorten your brat's life!” He roared.
Mary said nothing. She turned and walked back toward the dormitory.
Mary. Murphy. The baby. Judith. Four left. Bourdain looked at the sky, but the gray clouds gave no sign that the sun had ever risen in this place. He thought it was a little after noon.
Night was coming.
Bourdain sat on the edge of Francis' chair, staring fixedly into the fire. One hand held a whiskey bottle, untouched for an hour. The other clutched the arm of the chair in a death grip. Across from him Murphy snored noisily in another chair. He reeked of wine and vomit. Mary perched on the ratty bearskin rug before the fireplace, listlessly rocking the baby. Bourdain struggled to keep his eyes open, but weeks of interrupted sleep and constant tension weighed on him, and his head kept falling forward. He jerked it up with sharp, desperate movements.
“I should wash the dinner dishes.” Mary made a half-hearted attempt to rise. It was the third or fourth time she'd done so in the past hour. Bourdain, yanked from a helf-doze, gave the same reply. “Sit down and shut up!”
Another hour passed, then another. Bourdain had just risen to throw more wood on the fire when it happened. The building shuddered faintly. Pieces of caked soot broke loose from the chimney bricks and fell hissing into the fire. Mary staggered to her feet. Fear raced over her features in streams. Murphy moaned and opened his eyes.
“Earthquake?” He muttered. “I must ask Mr. Francis what to do.”
Bourdain's limbs felt numb. He had to concentrate on releasing the bottle and picking up his rifle. Mary watched him warily, her body arched like a cat's. She'd backed closer to the fire as if she could slip past the flames and escape out the chimney.
Bourdain caught Murphy's wrist and hauled the Irishman into a sitting position. Murphy blinked at him. “Mr. Bourdain, was there an earthquake?”
The shock came again, a massive thump that rattled together two bowls on the table. Bourdain glared at Mary. “Help me get him outside.”
Her voice was a sob. “Are...are you...”
“Yes, you stupid whore!”
She laid the baby on the tattered bearskin. She lit a lantern from the fire and came to help Bourdain. Murphy rose shakily when Bourdain and Mary took his arms. “Earthquake. Must get...outside.”
“Yes.” Mary told him. “We're going to see Mr. Francis.”
Murphy perked up a bit. He managed to stagger forward, but only their hands on his arms kept him from sprawling on his face. The dormitory trembled again and again as they maneuvered Murphy out of the parlor, into the corridor, and finally to the door. Did the door swell inward with each blow to the outside wall? Did the air pulse like the breath of a giant beast? Bourdain shuddered. If he didn't get Murphy outside quickly, the thing might claw the entire station apart. He kicked open the door and shoved Murphy into the courtyard.
The moon was nearly full, its scarred face huge in the night sky. They didn't need the lantern, but Mary clutched the wavering flame as if it was somehow comforting. The station lay frozen, waiting. Even the corpses held their breath. Bourdain banished the thought with a silent curse. Mary shivered convulsively. She had no coat- none of them did.
“This way.” Bourdain pulled Murphy's sleeve. Mary saw where he meant to go and gave Murphy a gentle push.
“This way, Mr. Murphy.” She murmured. “To the warehouse.”
They moved unevenly across the yard like a wounded six-legged animal. The cold air had a sobering effect on Murphy, who raised his head. “Good God man, what's that noise?”
Mary jumped in with a lie. Her face went a shade paler every time the thing struck the wall, but her voice was soothing. “Someone chopping wood, Mr. Murphy.”
They came to the warehouse door. The blows upon the wall were deafening, and Bourdain could see the logs shaking. A trickle of sweat ran into his beard and froze there.
Murphy saw the warehouse and raised his head. “Mr. Francis! Mr. Francis!”
Mary began to shush him, but Bourdain shook his head. “Let him scream. The thing will find him faster.”
Murphy stumbled forward and leaned against the door. He rammed one hand in his pocket, rummaging for the key ring. Mary wrapped her arms around her shoulders. Bourdain grabbed her wrist and pulled her away from the warehouse door. He wanted to be nowhere near when the thing reached for Murphy. He was facing away, toward the other side of the station and safety, when the hiss of Mary's indrawn breath yanked his attention around.
The thing- the win-di-go- was rising about the station wall. The full moon glared white and Bourdain wished the night had been cloudy after all.
It was an old man in form, but an old man so twisted and horrible that only its shape could be called human. It was naked, emaciated beyond the point of death; the ribs hung like tree branches above the wrinkled cave of a stomach. The penis was shriveled and flaccid as a dead sea creature. Vertebrae stuck up painfully from its back, stretching the clinging skin so tightly that it had torn in spots, revealing ragged gashes of yellowed bone. Bourdain wrenched his eyes away from the head. It was a human head, utterly hairless, flesh sucked tight to the skull. Instead of a nose, wind whistled through a gaping hole. The mouth was a gash across the face, lipless and obscene. Teeth that belonged to no human protruded at odd angles from the mouth. The eyes were sunken into the skull, white and unseeing.
The win-di-go rose higher and higher on its dessicated legs, towering over the wall until its head blocked part of the moon. Bourdain gaped at the thing. He'd seen it only five days ago, and the creature had been no larger than a man. It was growing.
The thing opened its mouth and moaned. It was the dying bellow of a hundred cattle in a slaughterhouse, the cry of pain of a weasel in a trap. Carrion stink poured over the yard. Bourdain gagged. Murphy had managed to fit the key into the warehouse lock, at the cry he looked up. He squinted at Mary and Bourdain, who had backed some distance away. He opened his mouth to call to them, but the smell of days-old death killed the words. Murphy's eyes bulged.
The win-di-go stepped over the wall, the bony knobs of its knees stretching the skin, parting it bloodlessly. Murphy turned as its huge gnarled feet thumped onto the ground behind him. Sober for the first time in days, Bourdain thought as Murphy's body stiffened, his spine going rigid in terror. He began to scream, a wordless animal sound. The thing's mouth stretched, teeth bristling in a hungry grin. Its hand descended toward Murphy.
Mary was pulling at his arm, shouting something, but Bourdain was deaf to her pleas. He stared at the hand, the same hand that had taken Will and Henry and the girl. The hand moved toward Murphy, slowly, so slowly...
Bourdain felt a rush of cold and realized Mary had left him. He tore his gaze from Murphy and the horror. Mary stumbled toward the Indian huts, her legs tangling in her skirts. Bourdain followed. Behind him Murphy's screams were abruptly silenced. Bourdain glanced back as he ran. Murphy was gone, only the trampled snow at the warehouse door proving he had ever been there. The win-di-go's mouth leered open, spewing the iron smell of fresh blood. Its stomach bulged. Its throat constricted as it swallowed.
Mary's skirts were a hindrance, and Bourdain soon caught up to her. She twisted away, hissing like a cat, but he forced her to her knees behind one of the huts. She was still carrying the lantern. She pushed her hair out of her face, glaring at Bourdain. She raised the lantern as if to smash it and extinguish the light, but Bourdain yanked it from her hands. “Doesn't matter.” He grunted. “It's blind.” His brain was beginning to thaw. Something like a plan unfolded itself slowly. He would need the lantern.
Mary stared at him as if her English had deserted her. She buried her face in her hands and began to weep noisily.
“Shut up!” Bourdain pushed her down until her face was half-buried in the snow. “It can hear!” But Mary was deaf; she cried like a child who'd been unfairly punished, shrill and without understanding.
Bourdain risked a look over the hut's roof. The win-di-go swung its head around, listening. Its stomach sagged like a pregnant woman's. The milky eyes fixed on Bourdain's hiding-place. Just as Bourdain was about to duck down, convinced it could see him after all, the thing turned away, to the warehouse. It cocked its head like a puzzled bird.
Judith! Judith was still in the cell, forgotten by everyone. The thing must hear her, crying or screaming inside those narrow walls. The win-di-go lifted its gnarled arms and brought them down onto the roof of the warehouse. The walls shuddered but held, Bourdain tangled his fist in Mary's hair and pulled her head up. “Stop whining!”
Mary's sobbing rose in pitch. Bourdain slapped her face, leaving his glove streaked with tears and snot. Mary's cries rose to an ear-splitting wail. Bourdain dropped her back into the snow. Let her stay and be prey to the thing. He grabbed the lantern and sank back on his haunches, watching the win-di-go root through the wreckage of the warehouse. Would it find Francis' corpse? Bourdain didn't care to find out. As soon as the thing turned its bony back on them he ran, bending low, one hand holding the lantern, the other balancing his rifle awkwardly against his shoulder. Left behind, Mary sprawled in the snow, sniveling.
The win-di-go abandoned its search just as Bourdain reached the hut where the suicides lay. It coked its head, listening. Mary had fallen silent, but Bourdain fancied he could hear her ragged breathing. One step brought the win-di-go halfway across the yard, to the hut where Mary hid. The win-di-go snuffled and bent over, tearing strips of skin from its hips. Its distended belly didn't hinder it as it reached long arms down, behind the hut. Mary made no sound.
Bourdain couldn't suppress a shudder as the thing rose, jaws working convulsively. The bulge that was Murphy had begun to recede. The win-di-go stretched its neck upward. Its limbs blurred, and it grew before Bourdain's eyes. The bony legs were suddenly longer, the hands larger. Bourdain nearly laughed aloud. Damn it, that was the trick! He'd been feeding it, making it huge on the flesh of the station's residents.
He forced his body to be still as his mind raced ahead. He could escape into the forest, he would escape- but he wouldn't live long without supplies. He had to get to the dormitory, find his coat, stuff his pockets with food and ammunition. He could toss Mary's brat outside to distract the win-di-go. But right now the win-di-go stood between Bourdain and the dormitory. Any noise he made would draw the creature to him.
The lantern hissed faintly. Bourdain looked up in alarm, but the win-di-go hadn't heard. Its head was tilted back to the sky, moaning softly to itself as Mary's body swelled its stomach again. Bourdain held his breath against the stench of blood. He lifted the lantern and ran, not toward the dormitory but to the hut where the suicides lay. The thing might have been human once, but now it was no more than a beast. And all beasts were afraid of fire.
Bourdain reached the hut. He opened the lantern, blew out the flame, and emptied the oil over the sides and top of the hut's leather covering. The oil would burn quickly, and the bodies inside would flare up hot and fast. The trapper took the fire pouch from around his neck and ducked into the hut.
One body lay very near the entrance; from its size he guessed it was one of the children. He found dry wood in the fire pit and struck his flint until a spark leaped into the kindling. It took an eternity but finally one twig caught, then another. Bourdain took each stick and tossed it to a body, watching the flames curl around hair, around clothing. The last twig was sturdy, and he carried it outside with him. The hut was full of the smell of cooking meat.
He pushed the flap shut behind him and rose to his knees, then his feet. He turned to see the win-di-go's position and found himself gazing into the thing's face.
It was crouched on the other side of the hut. The thing's blind eyes rolled. Its mouth twisted into the parody of a grin. Bourdain was suddenly jolted into dizziness, his stomach threatening to turn inside out...no! There was life outside the station's walls. He wasn't going to die like Murphy, swallowed by that Indian monster. Bourdain flung the flaming stick onto a wet patch on the hut's covering.
Fire roared to life between them. The trapper staggered back, too late throwing up his arm to shield his eyes. For a moment he stood still, his eyes swelling and scorching in their sockets. Then the tears came, spilling down his cheeks into his beard. He had to keep moving! Bourdain slowly opened his eyes. Blurred shapes, colors, movement...the win-di-go was moving. It jerked and shook as if it were having fits. Bourdain blinked, and things came into focus. The monster raised its hands to its face and moaned. Strips of blackened skin peeled like bark from its bald head, its arms, its sunken chest. The air smelled of charred leather. The peeling skin had exposed two ribs, yellow-white with blackness between. The win-di-go was mad with pain, paying him no attention. Bourdain saw his makeshift torch, one end unburned and balanced at the edge of the flaming skin roof. He snatched it and ran.
The dormitory looked very far away. Bourdain concentrated on it, refusing to look behind him. First he would go to Gordon's room and collect his gear. Then the weapons room for ammunition, maybe another gun. To the kitchen if he had time, but he might not, for wasn't that sound behind him the win-di-go shaking off its agony, rising to its feet...? No matter, the building was close now, a few steps more and his hand would close around the the door knob...
Pain exploded in his shoulder as a sudden weight caught him, threw him off balance. The torch fell from his slack fingers into the snow. Bourdain staggered but kept his feet. He looked down. A knife handle protruded from his left shoulder, one of the knives he'd seen Mary use in the kitchen. A red stain spread over his shirt, the knife handle its center.
Bourdain began to laugh. It was absurd- the bodies scattered all around, the creature just behind him slavering for his blood, and now this knife that had suddenly appeared in his flesh. It was madness, all of it. He threw back his head and roared laughter at whatever devil was playing this trick on him. The movement jolted pain across his back and down to his fingers. It blunted the edge of Bourdain's hysteria. Damn it! Knives didn't magically appear. He saw Judith then, her eyes wild, her hair tangled and falling over her filthy dress. His eyes saw her as clearly as if she stood before him- no, she did stand before him, leaning forward, her breath foul in his face.
“Monster.” She hissed. Something she held flared orange for an instant, reflecting the light of the blazing hut. Another knife. Bourdain flung his rifle before his face, gripping the stock with his uninjured arm. Maybe he could block her thrust...
The ground shuddered. Bourdain turned his head. The win-di-go loomed over them. Bourdain stared at the gaping darkness between the thing's ribs. A strip of blackened skin swayed from the cords of its neck.
The knife fell from Judith's fingers. The win-di-go's bloated belly shifted and rolled as it leaned down, opening its mouth. For the first time Bourdain saw its tongue, a bloody strip of flesh that slithered around and over its yellow fangs. A rope of drool hung from its jaws.
Judith gazed at the win-di-go. Bourdain was forgotten. She threw out her arms, her face suddenly open as a child's. She looked like a picture of Jesus Christ that a missionary had shown Bourdain once. He wanted to spit in disgust, but his mouth was dry. Waves of agony broke over his torso, but his injured arm hung numb and useless. He felt the rifle fall from his hand. That bitch. His legs would no longer hold him. So close. He dropped to one knee in the snow.
“Will!” Judith's cry was wild with anguish, with ecstasy. There came a rush of air as the thing's hand swept past. It closed around Judith, cutting off her shout. In the sudden quiet Bourdain heard the crackling of the burning hut, the snap of breaking bones as the win-di-go's grip tightened. He stared, paralyzed in horror. The thing's mouth opened, teeth spreading wide, bloody tongue flopping to one side. The mouth was a pool of blackness, blackness with no end, deep as the night sky, a blackness that sent drops of sweat shivering into Bourdain's collar.
The thing shoved Judith's limp body into its mouth. As her foot disappeared past the curving fangs a stocking fluttered down. It landed in the snow and lay there, sodden and still.
Bourdain reached up to touch the handle of the knife buried in his shoulder. His arm hung like a dead thing, but at the pressure of his fingers spikes of agony shot down to his fingers. Tears rose in his eyes, freezing to his cheeks as the twisted hand descended. He threw his good arm over his face as the grotesquely long fingers closed around his torso.
The breath shot from his lungs in a stream of white mist. The win-di-go squeezed until Bourdain expected to hear the crack of his bones breaking. But there was nothing but the rush of the thing's breath, in and out like a bellows. He no longer smelled the foul stench of rotten flesh, as if he'd been in a slaughterhouse for hours and his nose had stopped working. Bourdain watched as the ground fell dizzily away beneath him. The win-di-go shook him a little, and Bourdain turned his dazed attention to the creature. Its breath whistled through its noseless face. This close, Bourdain could see the veins running just under the thin skin, a black tracery as dead as the rest of the thing's body. He noted all this with little interest. The win-di-go's grip had numbed the rest of him, and his head felt light, as if it might detach from his neck any moment.
The win-di-go opened wide its lipless mouth. Bourdain's gaze was drawn to the black maw. Some of the jagged teeth had broken off into yellow stubs, but there were more than enough left. Bits of torn flesh clung between the fangs. The tongue quivered madly. Bourdain thought of a strip of raw meat, freshly cut from a carcass.
At the sight of that blackness something woke in him, something put to sleep by terror and pain. The trapper's half-open eyes flew wide. His injured arm was crushed tight against his side, but the other was free. Bourdain reached for the knife in his shoulder. He bit back a moan of pain as he touched it. His fingers scrabbled for purchase, finally found a grip. The pain made his vision blur, but the knife moved- slowly, slowly, then faster until its tip whipped free of his flesh and he almost dropped it. The thing held him close, as if he were a baby. It was relatively simple to ram the knife into the win-di-go's chest.
It threw back its head and howled in pain and surprise. Bourdain pushed the blade deeper, as deep as he could. The handle disappeared into the dessicated skin. Bourdain yelped a curse as the creature's fingers wrapped tighter. A bone snapped in his wounded arm. Bourdain felt the breaking, but there was no pain.
Bourdain gaped as the thing's thin skin shriveled, drawing away from the knife's steel blade. The knife fell as the flesh withered and curled like burning paper. The gash Bourdain had cut widened, exposing an empty ribcage. No organs, no blood, just the same infinite blackness that infested the win-di-go's throat. The thing howled on, its voice unearthly yet animal.
Something glimmered in the win-di-go's ribcage, tiny and bright in the darkness. On an impulse Bourdain plunged his hand into the win-di-go and grabbed it. Immediately his hand vanished, swallowed up in the darkness that closed around his arm like mist. Panic swelled his throat closed, but before Bourdain could yank his hand free his fingertips brushed something small and hard. His fingers closed around it.
The win-di-go screamed. Dimly Bourdain felt it jerk him away from its body, his arm suddenly free of the dark mist and aching to the bone. It flung him away, like a child tossing away a kitten that had scratched it. Bourdain landed heavily in the dirty snow. He coughed furiously, drew in a thin breath, then coughed again. He blinked. Above him the win-di-go had stopped screaming. It swung its bald head back and forth, white eyes unblinking. It had lost him. Bourdain tried to sit up, but every bone in his body felt shattered. He'd fallen with his good arm flung straight out beside him. Painfully he turned his head, to seethe thing he'd taken from the win-di-go. It was a chunk of ice- no, not a chunk; its strange, precise angles were nothing less than sculpted. It lay glittering in his palm, cold but not melting.
Heart of ice. He'd assumed Judith was talking about him in her rambling madness. Instead she had meant the win-di-go. The win-di-go's heart shone in the light from the fire that consumed the suicides' hut.
Get up, Bourdain thought suddenly. Get up, or lie here until the thing trips over you. He'd given it a fight already; he could at least make it wait a little longer. He ached all over, but his legs felt whole; nothing seemed broken but his arm. Bourdain took a deep, racking breath. The thing uttered a high-pitched whine of frustration.
Bourdain surged to his feet in one movement. His useless arm threw him off-balance, and he stumbled to one side. The win-di-go heard and shrieked in triumph. The ground trembled as one enormous foot slammed down next to Bourdain. The trapper refused to look. He clutched the heart in his fist and ran, awkward and shuffling, toward the burning hut.
The thing ran behind him, loomed over him, reached for him, but Bourdain paid it no mind. He concentrated on the burning in his lungs, the heaviness of his dead arm, the hiss and pop of the fire as it came closer...
The hand wrapped around his legs when he was still some distance from the hut.
Bourdain, falling, flung the win-di-go's frozen heart toward the fire with a curse.
The sculpted ice flew through the air, glowing orange with the reflected fire, and disappeared into the flames.
Bourdain's chin struck the ground, and he tasted blood. The win-di-go's fingers were tight around his ankles.
And then suddenly the pressure was gone. The win-di-go screamed.
Bourdain rolled over, blinking, clapping his good hand over one ear. This cry was hideous, bloody with pain and fury and despair. The win-di-go staggered back, crushing a hut under its heel. The creature didn't notice. It began to tear at itself, clawing yellow talons into its own skin, leaving ragged claw marks in their wake. It bit furiously at its shoulders, grabbed one hand in the other and struggled until the joints popped and the hand separated, the skin drying even further, crumbling to dust. The bones fell into the snow and exploded into powder as they hit the ground. As the win-di-go tore apart its own body, black mist leaked from the wounds and vanished into the night sky.
Bourdain did not move from where he lay on the ground. The thing's self-destruction repulsed him, but his gaze was riveted to the thrashing beast. It sank the fingers of the surviving hand into its eyes, which deflated under the touch, leaking darkness down the shriveled cheeks. The win-di-go ripped off one foot before collapsing into the snow. It had pulled out its tongue minutes before and lay silent, side heaving, until the rest of it disintegrated.
The fire that had swallowed the win-di-go's heart abruptly went out, as if someone had dashed water over it. Black smoke curled toward the stars. The remains of its body lay like gray ash atop the snow.
For a long time Bourdain stayed where he was, staring at the trampled, dirty snow where the thing had fallen. After a while he came to himself enough to realize he would freeze to death if he remained still. Slowly he heaved his broken body to its feet. Blood had frozen into his beard. His arm was useless. The win-di-go's heart had burned a hole in his glove, and the flesh beneath was turning gray with unnatural frostbite. But he lived. He made his painful way past the steaming hut, the ruins of the warehouse. He came to the door of the dormitory. It hung on its hinges, sagging with the same weariness he felt. He looked for the knife he'd used to gut the thing, but it was nowhere to be seen.
The corridor of the dormitory was dark as pitch. He shuffled toward the parlor. There were candles there, and perhaps the fire still smoldered. He could make a sling for his arm, gather some clothes and weapons. A winter's night spent in the forest was a cold, dangerous prospect. But he was a trapper. And he wouldn't spend one unnecessary minute in this cursed station.
He saw the dim glow of fire under the parlor door. The board at the threshold creaked under his weight, and a thin wail broke the silence of the empty dormitory.
Damn. He'd forgotten Mary's baby.
The mite lay where she'd left it, minutes or hours or days before. It was wrapped tight in blankets, lying on the ratty bearskin before the dying fire. Bourdain went to the fireplace and stood, gazing at the swaddled figure. After a moment he sank slowly on his haunches and drew back the corner of blanket that shielded the baby's face.
Unfocused black eyes stared at him. The baby had a shock of black hair, and wrinkles all over its face. Its upper lip was twisted, receding into the nose. Its gum and pink tongue were visible through the cleft.
Bourdain laughed, rasping and bitter. “This is nothing.” He told the baby. “I've seen worse on beggars in the streets of Marseilles. They wanted you dead for this?”
The baby fell silent, staring solemnly. Bourdain stood up.
“Better for you if I drop you outside, in a snow bank. But I can barely carry my own gear.” He took a candle off the table and lit it from the weakening fire. He limped out of the parlor, heading for Gordon's room and his supplies, and closed the door behind him. As he tied a strip of cloth one-handed around his neck, something occurred to him. Bloody hell! He couldn't live through that again.
He gathered the things he needed, food and weapons and clothes, and laid them on Gordon's bed. His wounds made it slow work. By the time he had packed everything the reluctant dawn was breaking outside the window. Bourdain slung the pack over his good shoulder.
The baby lay where he'd left it. It had fallen asleep.
“I can't leave you.” Bourdain told it. “You starve to death, maybe you come after me, yes?”
The baby didn't open its eyes.
“So you come with me. Maybe I'll find homesteaders to drop you with. At least if we die, we die together, so you can't haunt me.” Awkwardly Bourdain crouched and picked up the baby. It was lighter than he'd expected. It might die yet. But at least it couldn't claim to have been abandoned.
Carrying the baby in the crook of his good arm, Bourdain crossed the courtyard. Far away a bird chirped. Bourdain smiled. “You hear that? I did that. I brought the birds back.”
He had to lay the infant down in the snow so he could open the gate, but only a few minutes later they were outside the station, heading out into the weak light of dawn.