by Mark Yoshimoto Nemcoff
It was the year of the Lord sixteen hundred and ninety-two, on the ninth of August, when the brig Majestyk docked in the town of Duxbury, Massachusetts, having made the crossing from Portsmouth, England just over a fortnight past due. Those who had made the journey had learned the hard way that coming to the new world would be more difficult than anyone could imagine. The crossing had been marked with hard work, spoilt food, and seas which had nary a want for human passing.
All passing except death.
Of the fifty-one men, women and, children making the voyage, only forty-three would leave the boat—the other eight had their bodies committed to the sea once the mortal coil had left behind nothing but their husks.
Two had been brothers—elderly gentlemen of great wealth who had attempted the trip, neglecting the protests of friends and loved ones who warned both that they were too frail for such an undertaking. After the younger brother’s passing during the initial month at sea, the second, older brother fell violently ill. Some supposed it was out of grief for his fallen sibling. He never recovered, lasting only a scant few days before himself succumbing to the Christian Lord’s call home. It was during this time that young master Miles Lawton, age ten—on board the Majestyk with his parents, his older brother, Thomas, and baby sister, Alyson—realized there was only one thing he feared above dying.
While his mother, Corrine, volunteered to bring water below to the moribund elderly man, it was Miles who followed her into the hold where the man lay breathing his last. Back in Portsmouth, Corrine Lawton had been a nurse before her children were born. Aside from the Majestyk’s captain, whose idea of treating an open wound included a sharp rub of gunpowder, Corinne Lawton was the only qualified caregiver on board. Though in this case, as with most life-threatening afflictions while crossing the open ocean for weeks at a time, treatment consisted of little more than offering comfort, blankets, and muted prayer.
The other deaths—a mix of men and women, and a girl of three years—deaths had not been so simple to explain.
Before disembarking from the Majestyk, Miles’s father, William Lawton, donned his familiar frock, silk cap, and kid gloves, while his mother and sister both wore dresses they had carefully kept in storage during the voyage. They ventured from the lower harbor into the town of Duxbury to seek a hot meal on land. As the children sat for their supper, they all bowed their heads in silent prayer—for on the morrow, they and the other travelers of the Majestyk would head north towards the land they were to settle. To the promise of new lives!
In the dark that night, as Miles and Thomas shared a bed in the inn above the city’s finest tavern, the elder brother recounted the screaming death of the old man on the ship. It was enough to cause Miles a sleepless night of gazing at the ceiling through the dark; he could not even relish a bed that did not pitch from side to side all night long.
The proceeding week was as difficult as any of the worst days at sea. From Duxbury, fourteen covered wagons filled with supplies and passengers ventured away from civilization into territories yet uncharted by European man. It was William Lawton who had led this group, for he had negotiated the land purchase based upon a map brought back to England by some trappers who had made their own fortune in this new world. The parcel they were headed toward had not yet been settled by anyone and, given its location near a lake and what had been described to him as “virgin soil fertile ‘nough to grow trees into the heavens,” there could not be a better spot to begin a town based upon freedom from the religious persecution they had suffered back home.
Or so they believed.
That night, Thomas came to Miles as the young boy was gathering twigs and sticks for kindling. Thomas had something he wanted to tell, but the younger brother had been so excited that he ejaculated a secret of his own.
According to Miles, the local guide—who passed his days on his horse riding ahead of the party and his nights by himself sleeping near a campfire with his rifle close at hand—had a deformity. It was Miles who once recoiled from the guide’s stare—for the man had one eye, which normally was hidden under a leather patch, but at this moment the hole was in plain sight. In the eyeball’s stead was an empty socket, the flesh around it was gnarled and scarred. Miles quickly turned away, too frightened to even speak. It was two full days before he could even muster the courage to mention it to his brother.
“Mayhap it was an Indian that done it?” was Thomas’s reply. It then became Thomas’s sole mission to himself see this injury. The next day, during a brief respite for the sake of the horses, Thomas saw the guide nearby drinking from a canteen. Desiring a clandestine look, he carefully approached from the supposed blind side, but the guide lowered his canteen and turned away. Thomas once again approached slowly, taking but one step before the guide turned toward him—his patch lowered over the eye in question—and stared singularly back at Thomas.
“Best keep near the wagons, boy,” barked the guide. “There are things in these woods that ye might not want to meet face to face.” The guide released a harsh laugh, one that Thomas did not find amusing at all. He decided seeing the guide’s deformity was not worth being close to that man anymore than needed.
On the second week of the trip, the party stopped for a night in a verdant valley. Two of the men, ardent hunters, were able to catch and slaughter deer for a stew. It was this evening that William and another pair of men went to the guide during which a heated argument broke out. It was Corrine who kept her children back, far enough away as to not be able to clearly hear what was being said—but not before Miles was able to understand the gist of his father’s concern.
The guide had taken them away from their intended route, and far away from their destination. And though he told no one, William Lawton was going to dragoon the guide to return the group to where they needed to go regardless of what he had to do to make that happen.
The voices of the men rose higher as tempers flared. William Lawton was accusing the guide of misdirecting the party; according to his map, they were several days off course.
“Ye don’t know these lands,” intoned the guide. Such was his rationale for the detour: something for which the men had no patience. Their journey, which had been prolonged at nearly every juncture, would not be delayed any further. The path on which the guide was taking them went suspiciously around a wooded valley instead of through it—a valley that, as far as anyone could figure, would provide easy crossing, fair shelter, and abundant natural resources and game.
As the guide lowered his voice to a hush, he again explained what William Lawton refused to believe.
This was not land one wanted to cross—not at any time, day or night. True, it was a valley abundant with lush green, but his years of trapping and hunting these parts taught him to stay clear of the areas that the Indians themselves avoided. As he explained, these were people of the earth; they communed with its spirits and lived in concert with the animals that roamed the land. If an Indian refused to go somewhere because he or she believed it to be bad ground, it was best to do the same. The guide did not know why these natives circumvented this valley; he did not need an explanation.
But William Lawton did. He insisted they be taken through the valley. Summer was nearly over and there were still many preparations that would have to be made before the chill set in: houses to be built; larders to be filled with game. Time was not a luxury they could afford to waste anymore. Again, the guide refused.
“I ain’t gon’ do it,” he said.
In the morning, the party woke to find the guide gone. William Lawton was forced to tell the others the man, “obviously a charlatan,” had absconded in the dead of night. By the guide’s normal campfire was the satchel containing the silver pieces which Lawton himself had paid him back in Duxbury.
“We shall continue on our own,” William told the others. He’d reasoned the map he’d carried since England proved accurate so far, thus there was no reason to believe their destination did not lay just on the other side of the valley.
That morning they descended below the rim. William told the others he thought the “guide the fool.” Another man was convinced the supposedly one-eyed guide had been a drunkard, though no one recalled ever seeing him take a single drop of spirits. That first day they made a fair amount of distance from their previous night’s camp. Come evening, as the wagon train came to a halt, two of the men who had spotted ruffed grouse a few meters back separated from the group with their guns to hunt for supper. One kissed his wife and promised her fresh fowl for dinner.
By nightfall, neither of the two men had returned.
Their families grew concerned as the hours passed. Several others volunteered to go searching for the missing pair.
“No,” William told them. “A night with no moon was not one to go on a search party. We can’t afford to have more go lost.”
He reassured the others the hunters had just gotten misdirected. With the sun missing from the sky, it would be difficult to see into what you were heading. Lawton said he knew these men—they were smart enough to stay in one place until sunrise, when they would be able to find their way back to camp where a good ribbing by all awaited.
The disappearance of these two men was the talk, albeit hushed, of the entire camp. It was Corrine who forbade her boys to speak of it at all, which is precisely why Thomas quietly turned to Miles in the night as the two boys pretended to sleep.
“I never told you what I saw back on the ship.” His voice trembled as he whispered into Miles’s ear. “But I must because, though I try to remember, it is like this memory seeks to evaporate from my brain like morning dew drops. If I don’t tell you, I fear I may forget entirely.”
Several nights after the elder of the two old men died on board the Majestyk, Thomas had awoken in the middle of the night with an urgent need to relieve himself. From his berth he crawled out and carefully felt a path toward the gangway to the upper deck. It was not uncommon the men on ship to urinate overboard, although always taking care to be both on the leeward side away from the wind and out of view of female folk. Thomas relished this as being the only good thing about life aboard a ship: the ability to pee freely into the sea. As Thomas settled at the stern rail, hidden behind several casks of fresh water, he froze in mid-act. Several yards away was his father, pushing a young woman over the starboard side rail. The woman appeared relenting—not even protesting—and fell like a lifeless doll into the darkness of the water below. Struck with fear, Thomas crouched behind the large barrel and watched as his father looked around and descended back below deck, wiping his hands on his coat, as if dirty.
Thomas’s voice hitched. His body was shaking. With both hands he clutched Miles’s arm, digging his nails into his brother’s skin. “I think father killed her.”
Miles froze as if dumbstruck, and then began battering Thomas with blows from his tiny fists.
“Take that back!”
Thomas grabbed the younger boy’s wrists. “Hush!” he hissed quickly.
“Why would I lie? Have I ever lied to you?”
It was a question Miles had only one response to: “No.” His brother had always been truthful with him. Not once had he ever told even a fib to Miles. His brother had always been a very serious boy, a fact not lost on anyone in the family. Now, with something as grave as two men missing, their families worried—everyone had become serious. And with the deaths of several passengers aboard the Majestyk, this was not the time to think Thomas had softened his ways.
“How do you know it was father?” Miles asked, growing more scared. “It could have been one of the ruffian sailors who pushed that woman overboard.”
Thomas shook his head. Everyone on board was quite familiar with the attire of the ship’s crew: loose duck trousers, checked shirts and tarpaulin hats. Their father, with his frock coat, would have borne a completely different silhouette than your average jack-tar.
“For what reason would he have to cause her harm?” Miles asked, his voice raising too much, causing Thomas to react as if struck.
“Boys!” A voice growled. It was their father. “Get to sleep.” William had been only a few feet away, cradling a gun in the crook of his arm, much like the guide used to. He waited until Thomas had lain back down and closed his eyes before turning away. A closer look would have revealed Thomas’ body trembling in fear, wondering just how much his father had heard.
By daybreak the two missing men had not yet returned to camp; thus William organized a search party consisting of himself and three other men. Taking four of their best horses, they set out back through the valley in the direction the others had vanished. William promised they would find the missing men.
They didn’t have to look very long.
Less than a league from camp, they came across the first man. He initially appeared to be standing in a hole up to his chest, slumped over onto the dirt, fast asleep. It wasn’t until the search party got closer that one of the men on horseback realized there had been no hole. The missing man, a young carpenter who had come over to the new world with his young wife, had been severed in twain, his body shredded at mid-chest. Trailing behind what was left of the man’s body were viscera and blood—a dreadful quantity of blood.
“Looks as if he was dragged,” one of the men posited. Indeed it did, and all eyes followed the line of ground-soaked blood toward the bramble where it disappeared.
“We must look for the other man—” William cut himself off in mid sentence. A crackling sound had come from the thicket. It was a sound a hunter would never mistake for anything else than what it was: a footstep.
Quickly, the men of the search party dismounted. William drew a musket pistol from his belt and put a finger to his lips. An older man to his left cocked his head to the side and sniffed the air. It was even in the breeze—something bad, coming from the bramble ahead. At his feet, William could see the line blood would lead them to whatever was hiding in the thicket. With a slight movement of his hand, William gestured for them to proceed quietly. As he stepped closer he could hear it—growling, feral, and unafraid. The gun, which had been loaded and primed back at camp, came up to his shoulder as William thumbed back the hammer.
The older man to his left nodded. He would flush whatever it was out of hiding. “Yah! Yah!” he yelled, waving his arms.
From the bramble it came, baring teeth, the throaty growl blaring from its mouth making no mistake of its intention. The older man recoiled but it was no use. The beast’s bloodshot eyes locked upon its prey as it launched from its rear haunches into the air.
Time stood still with the blast—the shot from the musket found its mark in the skull of the beast and it dropped like a stone onto the dirt, its shattered head lolling backwards.
The older man turned, his face ashen. “Good Lord!” His hands shook furiously as he turned, stumbled against a tree, and purged his breakfast onto the ground.
One of the other men approached the prone lump of black fur on the ground. The great beast was no bigger than a large dog.
“Don’t touch it!” William commanded. He approached slowly and poked it with the barrel of his musket.
“Nice shot, William,” the young man said to him.
The fourth man in the party looked at the dead beast. “What is it?”
“Wolf,” William said. “We must have surprised it.”
“William!” The older man was calling to them. The others rushed to the sound of his voice. He pointed. In a pile next to his sickness was unmistakable: “It’s— it’s a leg.”
It was obvious to all—the leg belonged to the dead man they had found on the path. Upon further inspection, it was also obvious the wolf had been chewing on what was left of it. Talk turned to the one man still missing. The consensus was that wolves may have gotten the first man, but that left the question of what had happened to the second. Even the horses were gone without sign.
“I am no expert,” the older man said, pointing to the upper half of the dead man’s torso still on the path, “but I have never heard of wolves doing that.”
They knew back at camp that the mood would be somber. It was agreed by the men of the search party that William would inform the wife of the halved man, but not of their suspicions of how he had died. “Best not to alarm the women and children,” he said. The others knew he was right. The second man, William would say, was still missing and he hoped all would pray for his safe return. He knew different though: the second man was not coming back either and the longer they stayed, the more chance there was that whatever was out there might decide to visit again.
That night, Miles slept poorly, thinking of the dead man in the woods covered in darkness. At one point, the exhaustion overcame him and his eyes finally closed, only to be jarred out of slumber by the feeling of something hovering over him.
Breathless, he opened his eyes, his heart pounding. Before he could make a sound, a hand clamped over his mouth. Leaning over him was his father, who brought his mouth to Miles’s ear and whispered:
“Listen to every word I tell you and don’t make a sound, or you will perish tonight like the others.”
Miles was so struck with fear that he couldn’t even blink; he just stared into the night.
The boy nodded as his father continued to whisper. What he said seemed impossible—but this was his father speaking. Miles glanced over toward his brother, but Thomas was fast asleep. As far as he could tell, his mother and baby sister, Alyson, were inside the wagon as usual and in perfect slumber. There was nobody watching them. Miles considered what Thomas had told him—the story of his father tossing the woman overboard. He refused to believe it at the time but the things his father was now telling him—well, they amounted to murder.
His own father: a killer.
“Please, Miles, you must trust me,” William said. “There are lives in great peril. You must get dressed now. I will explain more as we walk.”
Miles wanted to scream—to warn the others. His father had become—at what point he wasn’t sure—a complete and raving lunatic, subject to the influence of the moon. It was his father’s hand on his shoulder, the hand of a disciplinarian, which prevented him from doing so. If he screamed he was sure his father would kill him as well. In the dark, he slipped on his clothes, hoping, praying that his brother would wake up and see him—but Thomas lay still.
“We must go. Hurry!” his father whispered.
And under the cloak of night, with only the sounds of the valley and woods around them, Miles and William Lawton crept off into the darkness. At the edge of camp, Miles turned to look back at his brother. It would be the last time he would see Thomas as he remembered him.
Miles decided that once in the woods he would flee from his father under the cover of night; but as they ventured further down the trail, he became aware of sounds coming from the surrounding woods and brush. Scurrying. Breathing. Footsteps lighting just outside the illumination of his father’s torch. The journey the past couple of weeks and sleeping outside had rendered his ears accustomed to the noises of the outdoors, especially those after sundown—crickets; owls; the occasional bump in the night—but this was different. With every step the noises grew louder, a cacophony of movement unseen, until the sound grew so great Miles thought he would surely go mad.
In the darkness ahead, Miles would see small glints of light appearing briefly, then disappearing.
Nothing but fireflies, he thought. But part of him knew better. The glints in the darkness always appeared in horizontal pairs.
They were eyes.
Eyes staring back at him.
Sizing him up from ahead in the dark.
Run! his brain commanded him, finally breaking through to consciousness. He pulled away from his father, about to flee when the old man’s hand wrapped around the back of his neck—his father’s rough skin feeling hot as a flame against his soft, bare flesh.
“Do not pull away from me,” his father hissed. “You do not want what is beyond this path.”
Miles’s eyes fell upon the pistol secured in his father’s belt. William then took his hand off the boy’s neck and put it back on the butt of the gun, as if ready to draw.
Miles fell back into step; he dared not disobey. If there was a chance to escape the clutches of his murderous father, this was not it—especially not with the gun at his old man’s side. He would wait and when the time came he would run as if being chased by lightning.
They walked down the path for what seemed like ages until coming to another clearing. Up ahead in the rim of dim light from his father’s torch, Miles could see something on the ground. It looked like—
A hand. A disembodied hand.
“Do not look,” his father said, though it was impossible. Given the choice of looking around at the eyeballs glinting in the darkness or ahead on the path, Miles decided on the latter.
As they got closer, Miles gasped.
William attempted to shield him but there was no keeping the boy from seeing the man torn in half—the same man William himself had found earlier. William clamped his hand over the boy’s mouth.
“Do not scream,” he whispered. “If you must look, do not scream.”
The man, whom Miles had remembered from the months they had all spent on the Majestyk in close quarters, did not resemble a human being anymore—for his body had been mostly stripped of skin and flesh. From the man’s face came the grimace of bone and teeth.
“Carrion,” William said. “For animals,” preempting Miles’s obvious question. “By the morrow there will hardly be anything left of him.”
“D-d-d-did we come to bury him?” Miles blurted out.
“No,” his father said, and from the inside of his frock coat drew a dagger.
Miles’s breath caught in his throat. He saw the blade and froze, expecting the next moment to be his last.
He’s going to kill me, Miles thought. But instead of turning the blade on his son, William crouched next to the dead man and cut a small lock of hair from what was left on his head.
“Hold this and follow me,” William commanded, handing Miles the torch. Carefully, he followed his father to the bramble a few feet away—and that’s where he saw it.
Another man, naked, curled up on the ground and, judging from the fact that half his head was missing, very dead.
“Animals didn’t do this,” Miles whispered.
“No,” William responded, crouching down next to the body of the naked man. “I did.”
A chill ran down Miles’s spine.
“This man attacked us earlier,” William said. “I had no choice.”
Miles looked down.
“He was one of us.”
“Was. Not any longer. He had turned. I’m positive he killed the other man.”
“I— I— I don’t believe you.” Miles was stunned. That he’d just said this to his father shocked even himself.
“Please, Miles. I don’t expect you to understand quite yet.” His father cut a lock from the body of the naked man as well. “Bring the torch over here.”
Miles did as told. He dared not disobey as long as his father still had his pistol.
As his eyes adjusted to the dim firelight, William paced a circle twice, drawing it in the dirt with his dagger the second time through. From there he drew several lines crossing and connecting. Miles had seen this before back home, but was always told by his mother he was too young to know of such things.
“It’s a pentagram,” William said, wiping the sweat from his brow. “Back home we were persecuted for our beliefs. Shunned, ridiculed, even murdered. This is why we came to the new world, Miles. To find a better place where we are free to practice our religion as we see fit.”
William positioned Miles in the middle of the pentagram.
“Be still,” he told the boy. “And watch.”
His father began by circling the pentagram.
“Some dare call us Pagans. Heretics. Worshippers of Darkness. Let them. From whence we came, it is the self-proclaimed duty of the self-righteous to judge us based upon the fact that our beliefs do not accord with theirs. We have chosen the master we wish to worship and it is He who has delivered us to this place—a place of our destiny. But it is obvious that before we are to claim that which is ours, we will be tested first. Tested by the obstacles others choose to put in our path to challenge our faith. Tested by people who dare stand in our way. Like that one-eyed hoodlum who wanted to hold us up for more money and tried to scare us with tales of spooks and spirits. It was I, however, who had the last laugh on him. He will not be extorting monies from gullible travelers anymore. I made sure of that.”
Miles swallowed hard. He thought of the woman going overboard. He thought of the man lying dead with half his skull blown off, brains for offal.
“For years, I have had visions of this place. Visions of what we will find here and, before my very eyes, these visions have been true. Every last one of them.”
A sound started in William’s throat, beginning first as a low whisper then turning into a low growl—the chant coming from his mouth melting into words and phrases in a language Miles had never heard before. A language so guttural and primitive, yet at the same time mentally hypnotizing. William’s arms drew back and forth in a way reminiscent of the conductor of a small orchestra Miles had seen back in Portsmouth. Back then the conductor had been summoning music from the musicians; here his father was summoning, but what was anybody’s guess.
As the chanting grew louder and more intense, Miles looked up and saw that in place of his father’s eyes were now shocks of white. Miles couldn’t scream; he couldn’t even move. It felt as if bands of iron had wrapped around his body. The terror inside him was swelling to the point where he felt as if his sanity were being torn asunder from his body.
William reached out and grabbed Miles’s wrist with one hand, raising the dagger in the other. With one quick stroke he sliced clean across the boy’s palm. Then, clutching it inside his own, balled both hands into a fist and squeezed. Miles felt as if the bones in his hand would shatter—his hand being crushed inside his father’s hand—but instead blood poured out onto the ground as if he were letting a calf. The blood, which pooled at Miles’ feet, quickly disappeared into the ground as if being sucked down by a vampiric earth. And as quickly as it started, William dropped Miles’ hand and it was over. The invisible bands holding Miles in place were gone and the youth, drained physically from the ritual, fell to the ground at his father’s feet.
“You are ready,” William said, catching his own breath, “to do that which needs to be done.”
In silence, they waited for sunrise to come. William mouthed some kind of unholy prayer to himself. Miles had become too scared to even move, feeling as if something were sitting next to him, but anytime he’d look, there was nothing. It was a presence he could feel—but not see. To Miles, it was something oddly comforting; he no longer knew whom his father was, though this presence next to him felt familiar. At some point during the night exhaustion overwhelmed Miles and sleep enveloped him.
It was his father who shook him awake.
“Time to go,” William said. He didn’t even wait for Miles to get up before starting off down the path back towards camp.
Miles started to his feet, his limbs stiff from inactivity. He glanced down at his hands, looking for the deep cut his father had put there but it was nowhere to be seen. His eyes darted from one hand to the other. Nothing. So certain he had been of the gash, his father squeezing his closed fist like…
“Miles, please hurry!” his father called out. Miles tried to remember what had indeed happened last night—but his memory seemed foggy. He vaguely recalled what Thomas had said about how the things he’d seen on the boat evaporating from his mind like morning dew. Miles turned back to the spot where they camped—and that’s when he saw it. In the woods, through the bramble and thicket, were eyes. Hundreds upon hundreds of eyes, staring back at him from hiding.
And those eyes seemed hungry.
“It isn’t possible,” Miles whispered to himself; but when he turned back the stares were still there. Watching him.
Miles picked up the pace of his feet until he had caught up with his father, grasping William’s hand for comfort.
As they approached camp, Miles could see the clearing up ahead through the trees. The wagons were still circled in the same way to which Miles was accustomed. He wanted to run toward them—to his mother, brother, and baby sister.
“Wait,” his father said. “One thing I must tell you before we go back.”
Miles waited in anticipation. The evening had been long enough; he just wanted to be back at camp.
“You could say part of my vision for this new land and our future was drawn in blood.”
Miles’s heart beat faster; he didn’t like where this was heading.
“We live in a time of great peril,” William continued. “War; pestilence; greed. We are at the verge of a great reckoning. Just because we walk on this ground now does not mean we always shall—I have foreseen this with mine own mind’s eye. The evil of man—persecution; genocide—has pushed this world to the brink of Armageddon. It is, undeniably, upon us.”
Miles began shaking. His father had long ago abandoned the pulpit in the church of which he’d been a pastor. Miles had been three years old at the time and had barely a recollection of it—though at night, in secret, Thomas would talk about it on occasion. William explained he had “lost his faith,” claiming he had seen the “truth” about his beliefs. Miles was beginning to think his father’s visions were this “truth.” He was aware of the strange rituals he would sometimes hear his mother and father secretly performing late in the evening, but chose to believe they were just things he was too young to understand. He thought of the secret moans and sounds coming nightly from his parents’ room that he would often cover his ears not to hear.
“I did this for us, Miles,” his father said. “I brought us here to be with Him, to serve at His right hand when the day of reckoning arrives—for this is the place from where He will emerge to reclaim the throne He was denied.”
Miles closed his eyes. In his mind was an image from an old church primer from years ago, a book that had been long banished from their house. The image, a horned beast trapped in a pit of flame, seemed to burn itself into Miles’s mind.
“I brought Him the sacrifice he wanted, Miles. I brought it to Him all the way out here.”
His father turned his head and gestured toward the clearing—toward the camp.
Pulling away from his father, Miles bolted down the path.
“Miles, come back here!” William shouted. “You’re not going to like what you find there.”
Miles ran as fast as his legs would carry him, his feet pumping against the hard dirt. His lungs burned but he kept running, finally breaking free into the clearing.
His heart felt like it was going to explode but he kept moving toward the wagons.
“Thomas!” he called out, gasping for breath. “Thomas! Mother!”
It was then that he saw the bodies.
Two of them laid on the ground, their limbs sprawled at unnatural angles. Miles approached, slowly, his whole body shaking. Some thing had dismembered the man and woman on the ground, their bodies apparently thrown to the ground as if they were playthings. Her clothing had been ripped apart, her skirt mercilessly dragged up over her face. The man next to her did not even have a face to speak of—for the flesh had been torn off, his exposed jaw hanging open in a never-ending silent scream.
Miles turned. “Thomas!” he yelled. “Mother!”
No sound greeted him in return. He turned past the first wagon and looked inside. The flies had begun to already light on the dead woman, landing on the bloody gash along her neck. In her arms she clutched a bundle wrapped in a blanket. Miles remembered—this was the woman who had given birth in Portsmouth just two months before they boarded the Majestyk.
Miles ran to the next wagon. Dripping from between the wooden slats of the undercarriage was blood. He need not look inside to know what had happened. He took two steps and found another man, laying face down, his legs severed above the knee, exposing denuded bone. Miles knew without question: those legs had been chewed off.
And then behind him he heard a sound.
He spun to find three coyotes gnawing the flesh of another dead body just under the next wagon. The scavengers were oblivious to Miles as he approached, but when one of the coyotes looked up, exposing its victim, is when Miles saw it.
Or, more accurately, what was left of it.
“No!” Miles screamed. “No!” He ran toward the coyotes shrieking and waving his arms like a wild man to shoo them away. The beasts scattered, disappearing into the woods at full stride. Miles fell to his knees next to his dead brother.
“Thomas! Thomas!” He grabbed his brother’s limp arm, his shirt torn and soaked with blood. At the end was a gnarled stump where Thomas’s hand had been chewed away.
The tears exploded from Miles as he clutched Thomas’s body to his, crying into the sky, sobbing to the point of silence—just deep, hitching breaths.
“I’m sorry, Miles. Here is the sacrifice we must make,” William’s voice came from behind him. Miles squeezed his eyes shut and held his brother’s lifeless body closer.
William reached out to him but Miles pulled away, leaping to his feet, dropping Thomas’s body.
Miles backed away from his father’s reach. He bumped into a wagon. Behind him, he heard a thud and a hand fell upon his shoulder. His head shot around to find the outstretched arm of his mother, her visage barely recognizable with her lower jaw torn away, the rest of her face frozen in a grimace of agony. Still clutched to his mother’s breast was baby Alyson, a cry bursting from her tiny lungs.
“She’s alive,” Miles said, relief washing over him. “She’s alive.” He reached for her but his father grabbed him from behind and spun him around.
“Please understand, Miles.”
“You did this!” Miles sobbed. “You killed them all!”
“No. It was not my hand.”
“But you knew. You brought us here to be slaughtered!”
Baby Alyson’s cries cut through the air. Miles wanted to grab her and run but his father’s hands clutched his shoulders.
Miles could hear someone else sobbing from an adjacent wagon—a girl’s cry, but he could not place whom.
“There are others still alive; we must help them,” Miles pleaded.
“In this world we are the persecuted, in the next we will be one with His power. His time is coming, Miles. And when that day is upon us, it will change everything. We will rule by His side.”
William stepped back from Miles. “I have known for a very long time of our family’s legacy and have tried to deny it, even trying to find refuge in God. But the truth cannot be hidden any longer. What God created is not worthy. Their time has passed. It’s time for the darkness to return to this world.”
William raised the gun. Miles wanted to run, but couldn’t.
“Close your eyes, Miles.”
“Then keep them open.”
His father thumbed back the hammer on the pistol.
Miles’s voice trembled. “Y-y-you’re the Coyote.”
“No, my boy,” William said, a serene smile crossing his face. And that’s when Miles could feel the pain in his hand. He looked down at the gash his father had sliced with his dagger, which had split open once again and began to bleed. And as the blood poured from the wound Miles could see a light inside, growing from a point into a glowing ball. The vision came to Miles, endless images flashing by his eyes as if time were rocketing past him while he was standing still. There was flame and smoke. An earth scorched. The sky opening. A battle of darkness and light.
“I’m not the Coyote,” William said as he pressed the barrel to his own temple. “You are. And you will be victorious.”
And with a steady hand, he pulled the trigger.
Spirits of the Dead
by Edgar Allan Poe
Thy soul shall find itself alone
‘Mid dark thoughts of the grey tomb-stone
Not one, of all the crowd, to pry
Into thine hour of secrecy.
Be silent in that solitude
Which is not loneliness—for then
The spirits of the dead, who stood
In life before thee, are again
In death around thee, and their will
Shall overshadow thee; be still.
The night, though clear, shall frown,
And the stars shall not look down
From their high thrones in the Heaven,
With light like hope to mortals given,
But their red orbs, without beam,
To thy weariness shall seem
As a burning and a fever
Which would cling to thee for ever.
Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish,
Now are visions ne’er to vanish;
From thy spirit shall they pass
No more, like dew-drop from the grass.
The breeze, the breath of God, is still,
And the mist upon the hill
Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token.
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!
June 22, 1850
It was easy to watch them burn. To watch their bodies roast as the flames first licked, then consumed them whole.
He stood his ground as man and woman, adult and child perished in the fire, dying in unspeakable agony. From his vantage point, the Stranger could see and smell everything. Those who had not succumbed to the thick, acrid smoke begged for help, for a mercy that would not be forthcoming, their cries muffled only by death itself. He wasn’t sure if some screamed willfully or because their lungs sought to release the pressure caused by the super-heated air; they were expanding, inevitably to burst. These victims drowned in their own blood, which simmered in their bodies.
His feet were unmoving, no matter how hard he tried. Night after night he could not escape this macabre nightmare as those around him, trapped in the charnel house of his mind, pounded on the locked doors of the church that was to become their tomb. Even on the rare morrow that he would awake not drowning in night sweats, he could still feel the presence of the horrific vision in his mind, seared into his brain as if branded with a red-hot iron.
The sun had barely risen, though the Texas heat was already unbearable. At least inside his cell, the Stranger was directly in the shadow of the gallows being erected for his hanging the following day. Truth was the Stranger wasn’t sleeping, but had taken to closing his eyes and pretending he was. During the moments he was noticed to be awake, he was subjected to non-stop barrages of verbal and physical harassment by the jail’s proprietor, who used the Stanger’s sentencing to justify his cruelty—insisting that the prisoner deserved no better. After all, he was to be the town’s guest of honor in what would serve to be the only real entertainment in weeks.
To a certain extent, the Stranger didn’t believe he deserved any better than the promised hanging, either. His had been a life of unrepentant sin fueled by anger, jealousy, greed, and every extreme of emotion felt by a man with no direction or boundaries. He had stolen, murdered, robbed, raped, and taken the Lord’s name in vain—sometimes all while even in service of his own country. He often used spirits to self-medicate and flee the world around him—although this liquid escape only lubricated the wheels that perpetuated his path of destruction.
His past—what he could slowly remember of it—had been soaked in the blood of the innocent and not-so innocent alike. After two sobering weeks in a stifling cell, barred from whiskey as the heat soaked up the remaining drops left in him, his past quickly filled up with regret.
Regret of a life wasted; of loves never found; of promises left unfulfilled.
But even the regret, he reckoned, would be temporary, given his date with the gallows in less than twenty-four hours.
With a creak, the Stranger could hear the front door of the sheriff’s office open. Someone was coming in. He kept his eyes shut and his back to the cell door, hoping that continuing to feign sleep would keep whomever it was from bothering him during what few hours he had left. Along with the sound of boots on the rotted wooden floor came misplaced giggles, which were unmistakably female.
“Thar h’is,” spoke the bug-eyed, rail-thin deputy, the one who the Stranger discovered everyone called “Kentuck” for no better reason than that’s where he’d claimed his kin had migrated from. Along with Kentuck was a nearly toothless whore who, though only in her twenties, looked two decades older from the years on her back and a five year habit involving laudanum.
“Git up!” Kentuck yelled through the bars. When the Stranger didn’t move, Kentuck sucked a wad of tobacco-stained saliva into his cheek and spit onto the Stranger’s vulnerable back. “I says, ‘Git up!’” he repeated.
His incarceration here in Sagebrush, Texas, this small border town just north of the Rio Grande, had been marked with similar and regular abuse. The night he had been arrested, Kentuck and the sheriff, a stocky and cantankerous man named Overton, beat the Stranger into unconsciousness in this very cell while the Stranger’s hands were still cuffed behind his back. The charge had been stealing a horse—of which he was definitely guilty—and killing the man who owned the now stolen horse. The latter was a debatable charge at best, since the Stranger claimed he’d just been firing a warning shot, and the “hapless geezer in question had impeded the passage of said bullet with his foolhardy head.”
After the Stranger had been caught, instead of calling in a marshal or a judge, Sheriff Overton deemed the situation one that was to be handled without the “meddlin’ of outsiders,” as he liked to put it. Besides, he reckoned, given the chance, a proper hanging would be a spectacle that would be good for morale, especially if the condemned danced that agonizing mid-air jig for several minutes at the end of a rope that he enjoyed so much instead of dying quickly from a neck snap. That would be right entertaining, it would, he thought, and would go a long ways to help him get reelected sheriff come fall.
“Git t’yer feet!” Kentuck yelled at the Stranger. He repeated it, and with his mouth wet with chaw it came out more like “Gitcherfeet!”
The Stranger obliged, if only to prevent provoking the young into any shows of bravado in front of his female guest. The Stranger also had one other reason to stand: to get a glance of what may be the last woman he would ever see up close. Not that Cherokee Sue—as the locals called her on account of her mixed blood—was any real specimen of beauty. There’d been a tale the Stranger overheard shortly after his arrest about Cherokee Sue giving birth to a child to which no less than a half-dozen men claimed paternity. What the Stranger wanted to know—and had the sense to keep to himself—was how many men in town had denied being the father? The child had passed in its third day and, given the conditions of the town and the prospects of its upbringing by Cherokee Sue, this was likely a merciful fate.
“He don’t look orn’ry,” Cherokee Sue hooted. She spat onto the wooden floor between her and the cage.
“He ain’t,” Kentuck hooted in return, almost in one syllable.
“Not after we got through w’him,” he finished. Kentuck made it crystal clear that he was proud of the beating he’d put on the restrained man.
“You wanna see one las’ cunny before ya die?” Cherokee Sue was grinning, already raising her dress above her knees. “I’ll show it t’ya.”
She took a step forward, standing right in front of the cell. As the hem of her filthy dress rose to her dirty and blood-stained thigh, the Stranger leaned closer, enough to smell the booze and grime soaked into her body. One lesson he’d learned early on was you had to take whatever little you could get, no matter what it was.
Just as the tattered hem of Cherokee Sue’s dress came just above mid-thigh, she leaned back and spat right into the Stranger’s face, cackling her toothless laugh at him as the liquid trickled from his eye to his mouth.
“D’ya see that?” she laughed at Kentuck. “He was so mezm’rized, I coulda walked up and put a blade in his eye.” She dropped her dress back down to cover herself, flattening the front with one hand, as if restoring an air of respectability to her appearance.
“Can’t wait t’see you dance,” the whore cackled again as she and Kentuck left arm in arm. “Bett’r make it a good one.”
The Stranger sat back down on the bunk when something caught his eye as the door closed: the face of a man, one he hadn’t seen since…
It was burned in his mind. An August day, 1847, three years prior. A battlefield shrouded in smoke. It was the last day the Stranger had worn that uniform, one decidedly not too different from the one worn by the man whose face he just imagined.
Another ghost from the past come to torment me in my final hours, the Stranger thought to himself.
It was obvious that what little time he had left on this earth would certainly not be spent in peace.
He stared at the door for what seemed to be hours, waiting for it to open once more; to see if that face, one no less chilling than that of Beelzebub himself, was still there waiting for him. The door remained closed. The jail there in Sagebrush was no hub of activity, especially given Sheriff Overton’s proclivity of holing up daily in one of the town’s three saloons.
At midday, Overton finally entered carrying a yellowed plate topped with a grayish stew and a hardened biscuit, which he wordlessly gave to the Stranger. No sooner had Overton sat at his desk before a bearded man unknown to the Stranger walked into the jail. He was nattily attired in a black suit, contrasting sharply with the skin of his face, which had the color and look of an apples’ fleshy interior.
“Stand up,” Overton told the Stranger before opening the cell door. Putting down his plate of rotten food, the Stranger obliged—but as the bearded gentleman in the black suit proceeded to remove a measuring string from his pocket, it became clear the purpose he served here.
“Just about six feet tall,” the hangman said, reading the markings of his string dangled from the crown of the Stranger’s head to his feet. He examined the Stranger up close, eyeing the prisoner’s build. He grabbed the Stranger’s shoulders and squeezed.
“Solid, I’d say about two hundred pounds, give or take.” The bearded hangman made some notes on a small pad of paper.
The Stranger thought the number sounded low and would have argued the point if he’d known his actual weight. What he did know was that if the Hangman’s eyeball calculation was too light and the rope too short, he’d drop from the gallows floor and bounce up and down like a yo-yo, indeed slowly strangling to death.
“Coffin?” the hangman asked. “For an extra five bucks?”
Overton shook his head without taking a moment’s hesitation. “I say we leave ‘im strung up for the birds as a warnin’ to any others comin’ into my town fixin’ to be horse thieves and murd’rers.”
Great, the Stranger thought. Overton was sparing no effort to make an example of him. Of all the towns to steal a horse, he had to pick this one.
The hangman charged Overton a dollar for the rope, which the Sheriff gladly paid, given it was an investment toward his re-election. When the hangman’s grim business was over, he left with a touch of his hat brim in Overton’s direction—but barely a glance toward the Stranger, the man whose body he just examined. As the Stranger sat back on his bunk, feeling a rancid stew churn in his belly, he stared out at the dry Texas sky through the bars of his window; it had been a sky he’d carelessly stared into many times as a free man. Today he cherished every last moment of daylight he could see, marveling the shades of blue he’d never taken the time to notice before.
As the sun disappeared below the horizon, the Stranger could hear the unmistakable sounds of nightly revelry drifting down the street from the town’s saloons. He figured he was the topic of conversation while Overton was in there buying drinks, slapping backs, and reminding everyone to show up bright and early to get a good view of the gallows.
The Stranger even imagined Kentuck would be cashing in Cherokee Sue’s toothless gratitude that night for her chance to spit in the face of a murderer.
If they only knew, the Stranger mused. If they only knew.
Inasmuch as he fought it—not wanting to cede one precious moment of consciousness—the Stranger fell asleep, his body finally surrendering to the exhaustion. His eyes closed, bringing with them a fractured sense of peace.
On his wooden slat bunk he tossed and turned once more, his bothered sleep tormented again by spirits of darkness that had returned with a concussive thump in the night. Of all the nightmares that had come in the last few years that leeched into his subconscious mind, this one was different.
“Brother Thomas, please do something!” the woman shrieked at him, her eyes boring into his as the firelight danced across her frail features. Her mouth had curled in agonizing panic. The Stranger recoiled from her hands, pawing at his coat. The sounds—screams for mercy, screams of unbridled fear—rose around him as they pounded against the locked door and the fire licked greedily at their heels.
There was no mistaking the crucifix on the wall, even as fire reclaimed it as ash. This was a church all right, but not the burning house of God from his previous nightmares. That one—a recollection of a memory seared into his mind—he had seen with his own eyes. This new vision, a similarly twisted tableau, was somehow keenly different: all about him was the agonizing helplessness embedded in the thick smoke of charred flesh and bone. Though as he himself became helplessly paralyzed with panic—his mind exploding to find his own escape from this flaming incarceration—he spun to find the face of a man whose grinning mouth stretched below blackened eyes, reminiscent of a abysmal well.
“Yes, Brother Thomas,” this grin laughed at him. “Please do something!” The bellow coming from this mouth chilled the Stranger to the bone while the flames rose all around them to consume them back into the earth.
As the sun broke through the bars of the cell and fell upon his face, the Stranger stirred, then awoke.
Damnit, he thought. It was morning and he began cursing himself for his lost night—what he figured would be his last. Any moment he expected Overton and that rat-faced sidekick deputy, Kentuck, to come in, cuff his hands, and lead him to the gallows. The Stranger sat with his feet planted firmly on the floor and his eyes shut as he tried to remember any kind of prayer from his past. When they came for him, he would neither beg nor cry; he would take every last step with whatever dignity he had left.
Minutes passed, then what seemed like hours. His stomach grumbled from hunger. Finally the Stranger got to his feet and peered out the window of his cell. The gallows were still in plain view, a brand new ten-strand hemp noose awaiting his neck.
But there was nobody there.
No men. No women and children perched upon buckboards awaiting the spectacle of his slow execution.
And that’s when he noticed it:
The door to his cell was unlocked and slightly ajar.
ENJOYED THIS SAMPLE OF BADLANDS?
GET BADLANDS for the KINDLE or the NOOK