We rode back to the site of the Harrison massacre and I picked up the trail that led into the thick woods. It was easy to follow and whoever it was we were following had made no move to cover their tracks. In places the snow was almost touching the belly of my pony as she stepped through. I wondered what kind of man had managed to drag a girl through the drifts of snow. Why hadn’t he done what he wanted and then fled on his own?
“Isn’t Old Curly Taylor’s cabin down this way?”
Curly Taylor had passed over more than five years back and I had to think to remember where the old bastard’s cabin had been.
The deeper into the forest we went the darker it became; the sun was dipping further in the sky and the branches above us had knitted together to form a roof of pine needles. I had dismounted to look for sign and was leading my pony when we sighted the cabin, a wagon outside. Light showed around the frames of the door and shuttered windows. Dan dropped down into the snow and drew his long rifle. He tied the lead rope of his pony to a bush and fanned off to the right of the cabin. Captain Grieg pulled one of the long pistols from his belt and cut away to the left remaining in the saddle. That left me in the centre. I tied up my horse and took both rifles with me as I moved towards the cabin. I stayed low and moved forward fast, expecting a rifle shot to sound with each pace.
The cabin had changed some since it had been Curly Taylor’s; the log walls had been battered by the weather, the roof needed fixing and when I got closer I saw that strange symbols and letters had been hacked and scored into the walls. Dan moved to cover the rear of the cabin and I kept my Hawken trained on the front door. Captain Grieg had dismounted and appeared at my side, his sword now drawn. I nodded to him and then kicked at the front door. It burst inwards and we rushed into the cabin. A fire burned in a pit in the centre of the room, a five pointed star had been scratched in the dirt around the burning logs. Three young women huddled in the corner, naked and smeared in blood, covered in dozens of cuts, they were linked together by a length of cord tied around their necks. The man turned as we entered and grabbed for a rifle which lay across a filthy cot. I shot him in the thigh. Captain Grieg stepped past me and stood on Elkin’s throat, the tip of his sword blade less than an inch from the man’s eyeball.
“Mr Elkin. I’d advise you stay as still as possible else you’ll have one less eye to read those books of yours.”
I looked around the cabin and saw books and papers piled on almost every surface. I picked one of the heavy leather-bound books up and stared at the letters on the page. Dan had now come into the cabin and looked over my shoulder as he approached the women.
“Anything there, Val?”
“Reckon it’d make about as much sense to you as it does to me, Dan.”
“Hell, you know I can’t read.”
“Exactly. This ain’t no language I can read either.”
The man on the floor giggled and the Captain pressed his foot down until the sound died in Elkin’s throat. Dan whispered in Shoshone to the two maidens and held his hands out to show he meant no harm. The women retreated from him and pressed themselves against the rough wood of the walls.
“Get those women covered up, Dan” I looked down at Elkin “got some folks who are looking forward to meeting you.”
“And I have a friend you’ll meet very soon!”
A sick light shone out from the man’s eyes.
“He got anyone else with him?”
“No, there was just him.”
“Then get his hands tied, Captain.”
The woman managed to get some clothes on, those that weren’t cut to shreds, and we handed them our blankets to use as cloaks. I looked out the door and saw that night had fallen.
The two Shoshone girls shared Dan’s pony and the Harrison girl took mine. We tied Elkin to the saddle of Grieg’s pony much to the protestations of the Captain.
“We should make him walk barefoot back to the camp!”
“That’d take too long,” I replied “besides I think I broke his leg when I shot ‘im.”
We pushed on into the woods.
“Not long to wait now, my lads!” Elkin’s eyes seemed to shine in the darkness at me.
“Anymore and we’ll gag you.”
Captain Grieg had brought a lantern and he walked ahead leading my pony. Dan was in the middle of the group close by his own pony and I stayed with Elkin in case he gave us any trouble. I caught a glimpse of movement in the trees off to the left and turned towards it. In the dark of the shadows I could make nothing out but I was sure something or someone had swiftly moved through the trees. I let out the lead rope of the Captain’s horse and moved towards Dan.
“Might be we need to keep one eye on those trees to the left.”
The big man grunted and cocked his rifle. I did likewise with the Hawken and then dropped back. Elkin began to giggle. I sidestepped and cuffed him once around the ear, not taking my eyes off the trees for an instant.
“Next time it’ll be the stock of my rifle.”
When it came it was so fast that my brain could hardly follow my eyes; there was a sound like that of a bird when you’re real close to it and it begins to beat its wings, then something exploded from the dark kicking up snow so that the body of it was obscured in a white haze.
“Hold your shot!” screamed Dan and then he triggered his own rifle at whatever it was that rushed towards us. His shot seemed to have no effect and the thing continued towards Captain Grieg who turned, drew one of his pistols and fired. He dropped the pistol drew the second and fired. It was almost upon when he drew his sword. The light from his lantern gave me a glimpse of it; something old, tight drawn skin, black holes for eyes, terrible wings like those from some huge rotted crow. I brought the Hawken up to my shoulder, blocked out the gibberings of Elkin and fired at the things head. Grieg’s lantern had been knocked away into the darkness but he drew back his sword and stabbed out at the creature. The beast shrieked before hurling the Captain down into the snow. It leapt from the snowbound ground and hurled itself up into the dark with its dreadful wings. The women were sobbing quietly and Elkin continued to giggle and chatter.
Dan had reloaded and sent another shot after the creature as it flitted across the moon. I watched as the creature swooped down amongst the treetops and out of sight. I drew my Bowie knife and held it against the flesh of Elkin’s throat.
“What does it want?”
He stopped laughing.
“Want? Why it wants to see us all dead. I thought I could hold it but it slipped away into the wilderness. I was trying to bring it back when you brutes arrived! You’ve killed us all. All it wants is to watch the world burn.”
We pulled the horses together and checked on the women. They looked as before, locked inside worlds of their own. Dan picked up Captain Grieg. The Captain’s topcoat was torn open and the flesh of his chest was ripped by three clean cuts, as though they had been made by blades as sharp as my Bowie.
“You hit it, Val?”
“Think I got it through the head but I can’t be sure.”
The Captain began nodding.
“Your shot struck it in the temple. There was no blood, just dust.”
He shook himself free of Dan’s hands and bent to retrieve his hat.
“Seems to me that we need to push on, gentlemen. There are ten more men with rifles back at my wagon and if that…fiend returns I would like to have those guns with me.”
“You can’t stop it!” cackled Elkin. I turned and rapped him over the side of the head with the butt of my Hawken.
“Captain it might be best if you rode up on my pony.”
The Captain had retrieved his weapons from the snow and was reloading his pistols while Dan tried to relight the lantern.
“I’ll remain on foot, Mr Pettigrew.”
“As you wish,” I replied.
I retrieved the old Baker rifle from my pony and passed it to the Captain with a powder horn and bag of shot.
“Might be that’ll do more than your pistols.”
“You reckon it’ll come again?” asked Dan.
“If I could take a Hawken fifty in the head and still be moving I’d come back.”
We made slow progress after that. It seemed that the creature lurked in every pool of shadow and shaft of darkness, of which there were many as we threaded back through the trees. The screams carried up the mountain and musket fire sounded like the start of rain on the roof of a cabin.
“My God, the women!” shouted Grieg. He dropped the lead rope to my pony and tried to push himself on through the snow. He fell, climbed to his feet and ran pumping his knees high and clear of the snow. He fell again and cried out in frustration. Dan and I plodded along. Easing ourselves and the ponies forward – we’d been around snow too long to try and run anywhere.
“It’s maybe fifteen minutes away, Captain. No way you can make it any faster than that.”
We pushed on and came back out of the trees near the Harrison wagon. The girl grabbed the Captain’s shoulder and twisted the fabric of his coat for a moment. He patted her hand and we pushed on. As we grew closer to where Grieg’s wagon lay Dan began to speak to the two Shoshone girls in their own language. Dan pulled the pony to a stop by a small copse of trees.
“Gonna need your pistols, Captain.”
“Yep and Miss Harrison can look after my shotgun for me. We leave the ponies here.”
The Captain gave up his pistols and the girls looked eagerly at the semi-concious Elkin. Dan spoke again his Shoshone better than mine. As we left the women to hide amongst the trees I asked him what he had said.
“Just told ‘em it was best to skin that bastard in front of the men who would be their husbands.”
I laughed at that and then we moved towards where the Captain’s wagon lay. It was chaos. Bodies lay here and there, torn and bloodied. A man ran to the Captain, blood running from a deep gash above his eye.
“Cap’n! We thought surely you were dead. A thing came, a damned monster from the very pits of Hell. It…” the man seemed to lose his words and he held out his hand at the devastation that lay around him.
The man was silent.
Again there was no response and the Captain sat down in the snow.
“We tried, Cap’n but there was nothing we could do! Lars swears he shot the thing through the heart but it kept coming.”
Grieg dismissed the man with a wave of his hand.
Altogether eight of the settlers were dead and a half-dozen were injured. The men loaded up what weapons they could and built walls from the snow around the Captain’s wagon. We brought the Harrison girl in and then Dan and I set off down the trail towards the Shoshone.
Pocatello and the old man met us.
“You are true to your word,” said Pocatello as he took charge of the two young women “that is the one who took them?” he gestured at Elkin.
“He did that and worse and he is yours.”
The old man eyed me from beneath the bear robe.
“Old man, you know me or something?”
He grinned at me again.
“Just good to see you still alive. I would never wish harm to one who is my brother in the bear.”
“You know anything about what that is that’s loose up on the mountain?”
The old man shrugged.
“White man’s magic, evil.”
“But can you help me?”
He spoke to Pocatello and the chief nodded before raising his rifle to the braves below. Three warriors split from the rest and rode up the track.
“It’ll be fine, Dan just stand firm.”
The big man grunted and I saw his thumb cock his long rifle. The old man saw it to but he didn’t say a word. The braves leapt from their ponies and cut the bonds that held Elkin. The old man spoke quickly and Pocatello turned away taking the two maidens back down the trail. The braves pinned Elkin down in the churned up snow of the trail and cut away his clothes – one held each of his arms while the third knelt on his legs. The old man slipped out of his bearskin and stood before us in a vest of bones and a loin cloth.
“Your knife, brother of the bear.”
I drew my Bowie and handed it to him, handle first. The old man straddled Elkin and slapped him awake. Elkin came to spitting like a rattler.
“Maker of evil, bringer of death to the mountains from which springs life.”
The old man held my knife up the rising sun and caught its first rays on the blade. Elkin made to speak but the knife bit into his chest and the old man cut through his breast. The old shaman reached inside until his hand closed around the white man’s heart. He tore the heart out and held it up to the sun. Then he passed it to me. The old man spun himself around and cut at Elkin’s leg until he retrieved the bullet I had fired into the man earlier.
“Bait and one shot.”
I took the proffered bullet, gore and all.
“I need no thanks. But know this – one day the bear will call and you must answer.”
I nodded, uncomprehending.
Elkin’s heart lay on the stump of a rotten tree, an offering. I waited. I lay in the snow atop my buffalo robe the Hawken next to me. I thought about the things the old man had said to me and how much the bear had seemed a part of me since I had entered the mountains so many years ago. That terrible flapping of huge wings pulled me out of my thoughts. I cocked the rifle and waited.
The thing descended from the sky and it crunched down in the snow on bony feet. It looked like the shrunken body of a man with tattered wings erupting from its back – like a dreadful angel that had slept for a long time in a dark, dry place. It picked up the heart and dropped it as a whole into its mouth. The thing swallowed once and I saw the lump of the heart outlined in the creature’s throat. I aimed where the heart should have been and fired. The shot was true and the thing fell back into the snow. Dan stood from his position twenty feet to my right and fired his long rifle at the prone creature. Dust burst from the wound. We recharged our rifles and approached together.
“Like my bullet didn’t do a thing,” Dan muttered pointing to the small tear in the creatures withered hide.
I pointed to where my shot had hit and we saw the black blood draining out of the creature.
“Jesus!” muttered Dan “Merry Christmas, Val.”
“Merry Christmas, Dan.”