It was supposed to be a four, maybe six month foray into the Wilderness to collect some skins, maybe process some salt from the rich lands of Kain-tuck-ee and then home. That was it. No dilly-dallying, no beating around the bush. All of them had family, all of them had homes they longed to return to, richer than when they had departed.
They hadn’t counted on the keen eyes of Shawnee scouts nor their subsequent cruelty once they got captured. Of the five that set out, only three remained. It had now been a year and a half since the survivors had last seen their families. Roger got his skull split open when the warriors first attacked their camp, and Phillip died when a Shawnee musket ball found his back as he tried to escape the attack.
The trio had planned for a long time on how to escape their Shawnee captors, steal their weapons, clothes, and enough food to survive the journey. They waited until the night a half-breed trader came into the village and brought whiskey. The warriors became roaring drunk and even beat their pale-faced captives a bit before the alcohol really set in and they collapsed en masse around the fire.
The three hunters took their good fortune in hand and stole into the temporary lodges of the roving Shawnee warriors, and retrieved their hunting shirts, leggings and gear: their powder and shot, trail food, knives, tomahawks and most importantly, their rifles. Each man also stole a pistol or fowling piece from the comatose Shawnee. What they couldn’t steal they destroyed by tossing whatever they could into the fire or the deep, cold river flowing by the camp. There were no horses to be found, but they had little choice but to take their chances running into the woods, traveling zig-zag, doing their best to erase their tracks as they fled.
They had been running north for two weeks now and were weak from hunger and the exertions of their flight. The trio were Charlie, the youngest; Joe, the most familiar with the area; and Bryce, the de-facto leader on account of his being the eldest and having been an Indian fighter in the last war. It was nearing dusk and the three were some distance apart, looking for a place to camp when Charlie whistled the agreed-upon bird call signal to regroup. The three ragged longhunters came together under a huge, black gnarled oak that dominated the forest-scape.
“Y’all look over there!” Charlie pointed to the clearing, with one dirty brown finger.
“What about it? It’s a damn clearing, no cover a’tall. Are you going batty, Charlie?” Bryce raspingly remarked.
“No,” drawled Bryce, the thick accent of Tennessee heavy in his deep voice. “I reckon I see what little Charlie is trying to say. There’s dwellings there, hidden atop the hill. White man’s work, judging from the way they lay together like that. Ain’t that what yer tryin’ to savvy us, Charlie?”
“It is, fellas. Them cabins might surely make a better lodge than a tree holler and some leaves,” Charlie replied, the enthusiasm of youth still present in his voice despite the recent hardships. Bryce scratched his ragged beard, pondering their predicament.
“Boys, I don’t know. I’ve an ill feeling for this place. I ain’t want to be superstitious, but something just…don’t set right,” Bryce sighed. Uncertainty had crept into his voice and its complete unfamiliarity was off-putting to his two companions. Nervously, Charlie and Joe glanced at each other. It was Joe who spoke first.
“I agree it’s a bit unexpected, and I feel a bit o’ worry in my gut too, but them cabins look mighty inviting to me, ‘specially since there’s a storm a’ coming.”
As if to punctuate Joe’s words, a roll of thunder boomed from the east and gave menace to the darkening clouds. Bryce sighed, overruled by his comrades and equally concerned about the imminent inclemency of the weather. “Alright,” he huskily addressed them, “let’s check ‘em out at least.”
That the squarely constructed log and mortar structures might be inhabited hadn’t even occurred to them. A farm compound such as this would have smoke billowing out of its rough-chinked chimney or the universal bark of a farm dog warning of their arrival. Instead, there was no sound at all, just the eerie whistling of the rising wind through the desiccated, neglected fences and the chilly hush of human absence.
The three patrolled the barn and outbuildings first, finding only dried and ancient bull-chips and rotted piles of hay in the dilapidated barn. Not a living thing did they encounter -- not a barn cat, farm dog, nor even a mangy rat. The haunted feel of the place was oppressive and uncanny; all three men shivered as strange shudders ran down their collective spines.
“We should leave here. This place...don’t feel right,” Joe said, the big man’s normally deep voice shrill with barely suppressed fear.
“Joe, I ain’t disagreeing with ya,” Bryce said. “This place is strange chilly, like a graveyard at midnight. But a big storm IS a’coming and we won’t do ourselves no favors getting caught in it. I’m sure the even the Shawnee can stop chasing us for a night if’n just to avoid the lighting. You know what superstitious creatures they are.”
Bryce spoke casually, as if trying to make a joke, but it fell flat and heavy as an anvil. His eyes darted around the barn, his loaded Pennsylvania rifle following every move. Like his companions, he had strapped a stolen Indian musket, a simple fowling piece, to his back. It never hurt to be too cautious when being pursued by murderous Shawnee hell bent on a warpath of vengeance and destruction.
Charlie piped up, “We haven’t checked the main house. There might beds or even food there. Whoever abandoned this place must’ve been in a hurry. Maybe they left behind something useful.”
Joe nodded, “The boy’s got a point. We gotta at least take a look afore it gets too dark.” He looked anxiously at the swiftly darkening sun which was settling into its nightly western abode, taking its comforting light with it. Bryce scratched his bearded chin and nodded. The three plodded over to the farmhouse, rifles ready, the wind whipping the long leather fringes of their hunting shirts.
Even before the three had arrived at the low, single story log cabin, a sense of dread and foreboding had already settled upon them. Shaking and quivering, not just from the cold, the trio forced the plank door open with a resounding creak. The last of the daylight, and a flash of lightning illuminated the interior of the one roomed structure. There on the floor lay four small children, positioned side to side as though sleeping. Towards the middle of the room, next to the children, a woman’s form was stretched out. It was clear that they were all dead and likely had been for some time. The children had had their throats cut, the raw wounds miniature canyons of horror. The woman appeared to shot herself through the heart with a long rifle that lay nearby, adjacent to a bloody knife.
As if it could any more terrible or strange, the woman’s eyes, or what once were her eyes, seemed burnt and blackened, some terrible injury separate from her self-inflicted wound. The children too seemed to have had their eyes burned out. There was no rhyme or reason to it. Joe choked and got sick -- he had four wee ones at home. The sound of his vomiting as he turned out the creaking wooden door echoed throughout the cabin. The sound of life in this desperate, terrible place seemed to multiply the ghastliness of the scene.
“Wha..what happened here?” Charlie stammered fearfully, his voice barely above a whisper. Bryce swallowed hard before responding.
“It, uh, it happens sometimes on the frontier,” Bryce attempted to explain, “that a lonely woman loses her mind after her menfolk have gone off for a spell. Fear of sustaining them, fear of losing them to disease, fear of Indians, it does things to the mind. The fear takes hold, gives directions. Directions become orders and she feels the best thing is to aim for Heaven before some earthly evil takes them all. I seen it before, a few years back. I heard of it often enough.”
“But...,” his voice choked, “I ain’t never seen anything like this, son. Never.” His breath came in shudders. “Lord ‘ave mercy,” he croaked.
Despite the horror of the sight, Charlie felt drawn to stare at it, his searching eyes taking in the whole macabre scene. Bookshelves swelling with various volumes lined the walls, an extremely rare extravagance on the frontier. Charlie was baffled; he was one of the few men he knew that could read, but for a homestead so deep in the Wilderness to have more books than a library was unprecedented.
His gaze moved to the floor next to the dead woman. Her simple blue homespun dress, blonde hair and bare feet were in startling contrast to her burnt-out eyes and sunken, lifeless flesh. He noticed a large book bound in ancient black leather next to her hand, with strange unfamiliar symbols gracing the cover. Something about them made his skin crawl, yet were also exciting and electric at the same time. He leaned over to pick it up, scarcely noticing the congealed blood on its corner.
“Leave that!” He heard Bryce gruffly shout. “Find some candles or lanterns, anything jarred or pickled we can eat. Any powder and shot would do nicely too.”
Charlie hastened to carry out the reasonable order, yet shoved the heavy book into his possibles bag, his curiosity becoming a compulsion. Joe, having recovered from his vomiting, joined them in ransacking the simple cabin for anything of use. They found a few candles, some tinderboxes, a single lamp and some oil, a small supply of black powder and shot, as well as a few flints.
“I’d not spend the night in this sad and damnable place,” Bryce intoned, “Let’s bring this gear to the barn and spend the night away from here. This house reeks of death and haunts, and I’ll not spend a minute longer than necessary in that hellish company,” jerking his chin at the bodies on the floor.
Bryce led the way outside and Charlie followed. It was but a few moments before Bryce remarked, “Now, where the hell is Joe?” He turned back, Charlie following at his heels like an obedient puppy. They found Joe with a small sack next to his thigh grunting as he tried his best to wrench the wedding ring from the dead woman.
Charlie shouted, “Joe! What the hell are you about?”
Joe turned on them, his eyes wolfish and large from the dim light of the dying sun and the pulsing brightness of the lighting outside.
“Dammit! Can’t you see? We came out here to make some wealth and that wealth was stolen by those red heathens! There is gold here! I found some jewelry in a box and this here ring is gold too! It will more than make up for the loss of a few stinking buckskins!”
Bryce spoke slowly, deliberately, and surely: “Joe, the pelts we lost were honest work. We ain’t to blame for that. But stealing jewelry from a dead woman ain’t honest work. It’s wrong, Joe. Leave it be. Let them be at peace.” For a moment Joe seemed struck and honest remorse flashed across his tanned broad face. Then, in an instant, it vanished.
“Damn you Bryce! Damn you both! I will see to have mine when I can take it!” Joe screamed, his voice abnormally vicious and almost inhuman.
Before either of the pair could react, Joe turned back to his ghastly task, pulling and twisting at the dead woman’s ring that obstinately refused to come off. In desperation, Joe bent down and bit down hard on the offending digit. The crack of torn flesh and crushed bone echoed awfully in the close confines of the log cabin. The rotted digit was severed, and Joe gleefully pulled the ring free and tossed into the small sack at his thigh. He stood up and face his comrades, who stared at him with a mix of wonder and revulsion. He pushed past them through the door and stepped into the darkened yard as the rain began to come down lightly.
Bryce strode after him and stood in front of him, a living wall to cease Joe’s stride. He spoke softly, the menace implicit in his tone. “Joe, you best put that back where it belongs. You know you done wrong by taking it. Save yourself and perhaps your soul. Put. It. Back.” Joe’s chest puffed up to the challenge, his dignity offended in his greed-driven madness.
“To Hell with you, Bryce!” Joe shouted. “This is my compensation for a hunt gone wrong!”
Bryce stood his ground, not even blinking as the flecks of spittle from Joe’s curses sprayed his face.
“Joe, how would Hannah, your wife, like to know her new dress came about because her beloved husband chewed a dead woman’s finger off to pawn off her wedding ring?” Bryce intoned quietly. “How about your children knowing that big box o’ sweets you like to buy them came from their father robbing a corpse like a ghoul? What about you mother…” Bryce’s words were sharply cut off as Joe, red-faced and murder-angry swung a meaty fist a Bryce’s calm visage.
Smooth as a boxer, Bryce turned to the side and the ham-fisted compliment to his talk of reason went harmlessly past. Bryce grabbed the offending arm and whirled himself around and, using the momentum of Joe’s clumsy but powerful strike, threw him to the ground with a resounding thump that made Charlie wince with unconscious sympathy. Joe moaned with shock and pain, the breath knocked out of him, while Bryce picked up the small satchel of jewelry and tossed it forcefully into the cursed farmhouse. The rain began to patter down harder as the wind increased.
“Enough of this foolishness!” Bryce yelled. “Let us get to the barn and get a move on afore our powder is a wet as our skins!” Charlie helped Joe up, who reluctantly rose and brushed himself off. After wistfully looking at the farmhouse, he turned and joined the other two on their way to gain shelter from the growing storm.
Once inside the barn, the men hunted for anything they might use for bedding and a makeshift tent to block the lamplight from the outside. They found some hay and a few horse blankets that weren’t much rat-gnawed and threadbare, and crafted them expertly into mattresses, with skills born of their combined years in the wilderness. They supped on a dinner of pickled vegetables and parched corn, washed down with tepid water from a canteen stolen during their flight from the Shawnees. The storm crashed around them and a steady drizzle of frigid rain and biting wind made its way effortlessly through the many chinks and cracks in walls and roof of the dilapidated barn. It smelled of musty hay and ancient manure, but it was better than being caught out in the swelling tempest. Bryce was the first to speak.
“Fellas, if the Shawnee are about and decide to attack, it will likely be at dawn, if the storm breaks. We should sleep in shifts just in case some of the braves get a might plucky during the night. Who wants first watch?”
Charlie piped up. “I’ll take it. I’m not much tired anyways.”
Bryce nodded. “Alright then. Joe, you want next watch or the one after?”
Joe seemed busy sulking but replied after a moment. “I reckon I’ll take second watch then.”
“Well then, it’s settled. Let’s rest while we can. This place gives me an eerie feeling. Make sure all the guns are primed and your blades sharp,” Bryce said with a grin at the last part; they were all wilderness experts and cleaned their guns and sharpened their blades daily as part of a routine that ensured their survival. He knew full well every weapon was already in fine working order.
Joe and Bryce huddled up under their respective horse blankets and Charlie was left to his own devices. To stay awake, he decided to inspect the strange tome he had found in the farmhouse. The book was oddly heavy to the hand and brandished a strange and eldritch symbol upon its black leather cover. Charlie noticed that even the binding was strange; a type of skin that originated from no animal he could place. It was neither bovine, sheep, pig nor deer. His rumination on the mystery was interrupted by his inspection of the weird symbol on the cover. It seemed to both draw and repel him simultaneously. A sickly green glow seemed to emanate from the strange glyph, but perhaps, he thought, it was merely his imagination. The text was composed of the familiar alphabet, although in a style that seemed long antiquated, but the words were unfamiliar and seemed to be Latin perhaps or something similar.
A faint sense of menace emanated from the book, but Charlie ignored it, blaming it on nerves frayed by the day’s events. As Charlie thumbed through the tome he discovered it was bookmarked by several pages of yellowed parchment that seemed to have been torn from a diary. Though no dates were present, it was clearly written at different times. The parchments read:
William has been gone for far too long. At first, when he left, I prayed for his journey’s success. After months had passed, I prayed for his safety. After a year, I prayed for his soul and began my mourning. It was impossible to tell the children, so I gave them hope their father would return someday. It was wrong, perhaps, to lie to them so, but it seemed necessary at the time.
The farm languishes, as the boys and I have not the strength to perform all the duties required of such an endeavour. My grief has not abated these last few months. It seems to have increased even as the struggle for our survival grows in intensity each passing day. I am at a loss of how to quiet my mind, which rages unchecked, even unto my soul. Oh, how I miss him!
William always emphatically forbade me from reading his books from the Black Shelf. He said it was for the best, that they contained dangerous knowledge. I thought he meant to keep me, a mere woman, from education, yet he always encouraged me to pore over his books of science and philosophy, maths and history, so that could not have been his reason. I wonder now what the Black Shelf truly contains. I must not betray his demand. I will not unlock the Black Shelf. William must have had his reasons.
The next part was in darker ink, which seemed to imply a more recent addition. Charlie read on, fascinated.
The farm has failed. The few livestock that have not ran off through our unrepaired corrals we have slaughtered and salted. I can only hope we can last the winter. When the weather is fairer, I shall take us all north to the village. Dear God, but it is so far away. Little Jonathon has a cough and I fear Colton is catching it as well. Merciful God, help us survive the winter so that we may abdicate this place.
The children are all sick. Thanks be to God that myself, their Mother, their nurse, their caretaker, has not succumbed to whatever fever the Devil has brought us. I am weary but hale. But for how long? My children are dying, what must I do?
I have found the key to the Black Shelf. Perhaps it contains books of medicine? I fear I will break my promise, if only to save my children and possibly myself as I too have been taken by the coughing sickness.
Dear God, what was it that my sweet William was? I have opened the Black Shelf, I have read thereof. Thankfully my Latin has not much deteriorated since my days in England. They are books of Magic. Dark Magic, some of them. This was his secret, his greatest mystery. My sweet, intelligent, loving, bookish William seems to have been some kind of sorcerer, some magician or at least a dabbler in these, the darkest of arts. These books speak of Old Gods and possibly Beings Demonic! There are many references to creatures not of this world that can be summoned using the Spells therein. God, what have I done? William was right. These books were never meant for the eyes of the uninitiated, or perhaps any eyes at all. They contain secrets mankind need not know! Spells of destruction and power! I am afraid. I fear that just by reading them I have unleashed something beyond my power to control.
Our last hand, Joseph, has left us. He was the only Man we had left. I trusted him, but he left in the night after trying to steal what little jewelry and money I had. I put up a fight though and shot him with my husband’s rifle. I think the ball struck him in the upper left arm but the smoke was so thick, I cannot be sure. I shake as I write these words. The things he said he would do to me would make any Christian blanch. My shot seemed to have ran him off, but my God, what if he returns? He was the only adult male left here. I pray for our safety.
Josiah, being the only one of us as yet untouched by the Coughing Sickness has charged himself with finding food. He is a good boy and has brought in many a squirrel and rabbit. Today he says he found signs of Indians in the area. This terrifies me as we are so alone and defenseless. I have loaded the guns and have kept vigilant, though my sickness makes it so very difficult. I will not sacrifice my children or myself to savagery, no matter the cost.
The savages prowl at night. I can hear them through the walls. I comfort my children, steady the rifle and do my best to stifle my cough. I have little else to do as we wait for the inevitable, so I read my husband’s books. They are terrible things. Yet I have learned how to read a spell or two. If the Savages come to close and cannot be warded off with bullets and tenacity, I may attempt to contact one of these beings to assist me against our enemies. Though I risk my very soul, I would gladly trade it for the wellbeing of my children. God help me, I can hear them in the woods, so close. I will write again if I can.
They lurk outside. I hear them howl and screech, the noise is inhuman. They approached the cabin last night. They were not the Savages I expected. Though I may be mad from grief and loneliness, I swear upon the Good Book what I will presently describe is the truth as my own eyes bore witness. They came after midnight, just when the moon had become obscured by the clouds of deepest night. At first I thought I was dreaming, there were only three of them, savages surely; they were dressed in but loincloths and buckskin leggings. They carried war clubs and bows with quivers of arrows, a typical armament of reckless heathens, I thought. I steadied my husband’s rifle, a long Pennsylvania, accurate and powerful. Though he had drilled myself and my oldest sons constantly in its use, it had been a long while since I had fired the long gun. Still, I remembered well the lessons he had taught and I doubted not my marksmanship. As they closer, approaching through darkened woods, I set my sights and waited until I could be sure of my shot. I breathed once, twice, held the third breath halfway in as William had taught me, preparing my shot. Then I let my breath out against my will as the moon broke free of the obscuring clouds and gazed full on at the approaching enemy. Howls and noises no human could produce still emanated from the depths of the forest. Nothing my ears obtained could shock me as much as what my eyes witnessed. The three savage figures, illuminated by the moonlight, were perhaps once human things; flesh and blood and heart, though I do not know if the heathens possess a soul, they were no longer denizens of the realm of mankind. Their skin, once dark, was now pale and nigh blue; twas not the flesh of any living thing. Mottled and stiff, the muscles beneath moved artificially as if some agency outside of nature animated and propelled them. Their faces were wan and sunken; the visage of a corpse instead of living man. I was frightened then, near frozen in fear. I should have fired the rifle but instead I heard myself shout, ‘Why have you come to this place? We have naught for you dead things but fire and resistance. Go back from whence you came, abominations! Lest I shall shoot you down!”
The blue-gray corpse-warriors ceased their inexorable advance for a moment. The moment stretched and I again sighted the rifle with the full intention of shooting the next demon that took a step forward. Then one of them spoke. It was in no language I knew, but somehow I understood every word. Its voice was cold like the air from a sealed crypt. It said, ‘Oh Mother, wielder of the ancient words, it was you that summoned us. You took heed of the ancient spells, through your eyes and your spirit. You were unworthy of such things. Such knowledge is reserved for those that know! The balance has been distorted. We have come to rid you from this earth and feast upon the sweet flesh hidden in your box made of trees.” I shuddered then, but kept my aim. I pulled the trigger and the head of one of them exploded in a horrible splash of ichor and decayed flesh and the abominable being fell to the ground, vanquished.
Realizing that they could indeed be defeated, I rushed to gather the fowling piece and musket I had loaded earlier. I fired again through our window, really just a cut slit in the wooden siding made quite specifically for defending the house against any threat. My marksmanship again proved true and the buck-and-ball I had loaded cut deeply into the next monster’s neck, face and head. The blue-gray walking corpse tumbled backward and did not rise again. I reached for the musket, my last piece of ready weaponry and found it absent. My heart fluttered and I nearly went into a panic when I turned round and saw my beautiful, sick, strong-hearted son Josiah aiming the old musket through the notch. His skin was so waxen and pale, his nightgown damp with the sweat. He turned to me and said, “Mama, this one’s mine. Load the guns, Ma, they’ll not leave us till they’re vanquished.” I could have cried, so great was my relief, so proud I was of my boy. I did as he bade, loading our guns and fast and surely as I could.
We would never surrender to these demons without a fight. I heard the boom of the musket and the faint cry of victory Josiah made. The recoil of the heavy musket had thrown him down but I went to him, glancing through the window as I did so. All three of the restless dead savages had been dispatched. Josiah asked me from the floor where he lay gasping, “Did I get it, Ma? Did I?” I smoothed his sweaty hair and matched the triumphant smile he beamed up at me. ‘Yes, my son. Yes you did.” He smiled wider then coughed and soon went to sleep. I stayed up through the night wondering what next to do.
Charlie’s reading of the parchments was interrupted by a grunt and shuffling from Joe. The big man sat up and rubbed his eyes. Without quite knowing why, Charlie hid the book and its attendant diary pages in the old hay behind him, out of Joe’s sight. “Is it my shift, Charlie?” he grunted in a sleep-gruff voice.
“No, Joe. I still got an hour or so left,” Charlie informed him, keeping the hour by means of a large candle gleaned from the farmhouse, created for just such a purpose.
“Oh, well then,” Joe grunted as he rose to his knees, “I’ll just answer the call of nature then.”
Charlie narrowed his eyes, suspicious in way he could not define. “Why don’t you just piss in the corner like the rest of us? Ain’t like there’s someone to take offence in the morning.”
Joe grinned, “Well, to be perfectly honest, making water ain’t what I need to do. I figure I’ll just go under the feed shack roof next to us and do my business.”
Charlie couldn’t find an argument to be suspicious of his friend’s bowels, especially after all they’d been through and their poor diet. “Alright then, Joe. Be careful. might be some savages out there even on this godawful night.”
Joe nodded and crept out the door. Charlie settled in and read some more of the poor woman’s story.
The day dawned and we were alive, though not whole and hale. All the boys are feverish and sick, and I fear for their lives. I must do something. I opened the Black Shelf again, in search of I know not what. I took every book out, lifted the shelves even; something inside of me told me there was something there that could help me. Only when my patience was squandered and my frustration at a breaking point did I make a discovery. The day had gone and nightfall was rapidly approaching and I feared this place without the sun. My children were still ill, our last loyal hand Joseph Bannon had long since abandoned us to our fate, instead of seeing us to safety as a loyal friend should. In a wrathful anger, surely reeking of sin, I took up the Black Shelf and smashed it into the floor.
Amidst the shattered planks and broken joints I saw something unexpected, a small velvet bag, covered in dust, that must have been hidden deep within some secret recess of those cursed shelves. I gathered it up and unwound the drawstrings, which had been strangely tied in an odd, almost ritualistic knot. Inside was a ring. It seemed plain enough, though crafted of what seemed like gold. I recognized the symbol on the face of the ring as the same as that which graced one of the most terrible of the Black Shelf’s tomes. I recognized the significance immediately and took to reading the book. Therein I found a spell for removing one’s enemies. It mentioned, quite clearly, the necessity of possessing a ring and described exactly the very one I had discovered, in order to cast the spell. However, the ring’s possessor must remove the enchanted object before the second part of the spell is performed lest the vengeful spirit being summoned attack the summoner. It all seems mad to me and evil and diabolical. God help me, I will learn this Hex if it means I can save the souls of myself and my boys. May the Lord forgive me!
They have come again tonight. Living dead devils in their multitudes advance and surround us, too many to shoot. I am prepared. I have read the words that speak of magic and my spirit knows what to do. I have released the souls of my children to the abyss so that never be tortured by this deathly menace. I will speak the spell. I will curse mine enemies. I will cleanse my soul.
The manuscript ended there, the final leaf bloodstained and torn. Unbidden, a shiver made its way up Charlie’s spine.
Joe returned sometime after and Charlie couldn’t help but notice a slight smugness in his demeanor.
“Everything alright, Joe?” Charlie asked.
“Oh, I’m fine. Just a bit of indigestion. Think I’ll lie down for a bit.” Charlie only nodded and watched the shadows play upon the horse-blanket walls of the shelter, something niggling at his mind he could not quite place.
When it was time, he woke Joe for his watch and curled into his rough blanket more suited for a saddle than a human’s comfort. Still, it was preferable to the blankets of dead leaves or even dirt that the escape had made them all endure. He awoke several times throughout the night, disturbed by his readings and the day’s events. Each time he opened his eyes, though mostly asleep, he swore he saw Joe crouched in the corner, contemplating a piece of something yellow and shiny in his hand.
Joe was already asleep and Bryce was working the last watch, the faint light of dawn filtering through the chinks in the rough boards of the barn wall, when Charlie woke with a start. With a loud gasp he sat up quickly, his heart pounding and his mind racing. Bryce turned to him, his rifle nestled in his arm and a quizzical look on his weathered face.
“Jayzus, son, what ails you?” Bryce intoned, his voice the calm melodic drawl of a man who was used to surprises. Charlie looked over at Joe’s sleeping form, wide eyed and took up his pistol.
“It… it’s Joe!” he whispered.
“Easy now, son,” Bryce soothed. “Now just what the hell are you going on about?”
Charlie glanced furtively at Joe who was snoring powerfully away in the corner. The younger man asked, “Bryce, can you read?”
“Well, to be honest, I ain’t got much book learnin’,” Bryce said, with a bit of shyness, “but I can read somewhat, just not very quick-like.” Charlie sighed, glanced again at Joe and pulled the heavy book from his possibles bag.
“What the hell, Charlie! I thought I said not to haul along that thing!” Bryce nearly shouted. Joe’s snoring stopped for a moment and Charlie, his eyes wide with concern, pressed his finger to his lips in the universal sign for ‘Shut the hell up!’ Bryce got the hint and repeated the gesture in acknowledgment. Joe’s snoring returned.
“Look, I found these pages in this book. It seems like a diary of some sort. It describes what that lady and her children went through before…whatever it is they went through.” Charlie finished weakly. Bryce nodded.
“Alright, friend. Since I’m a slow reader, why don’t you read it off to me?” Charlie nodded, but kept glancing back fearfully at Joe. Bryce picked up on the boy’s reticence and motioned him the corner, far enough away from Joe that the big man would not hear their voices, asleep or awake. In a low voice the younger man read off the pages he had found, occasionally stopping to let Bryce see the actual words or clarify a point. When he had finished Bryce’s hazel eyes were wide with wonder and something that might have been fear if found in a lesser man.
“Charlie,” Bryce whispered, “This is all a bit much, but what does this have to do with Joe?”
Charlie took a deep breath. “Joe went outside last night. To relieve his bowels, he said. He came back a long time later and I didn’t think much of it except…” he paused, gathering his thoughts. “Except I didn’t see him take no hay or cornhusks or anything to wipe himself with.” Bryce scratched his chin.
“Well, son, that don’t mean nothing but that he’s a nasty man. It’s a foul habit but don’t make him a monster like you’re looking at him.”
“That’s not the whole of it,” Charlie said desperately, “I’m pretty sure that when he came back he was fooling with something gold in his hand. He had a kind of self-satisfied look on his face. I couldn’t quite get to sleep and I saw him! I think he went back to that damn farmhouse and got his bag of loot.”
“Charlie, I know your concern, but you’ve been up reading fairy tales and I’ve known Joe for…” Charlie interrupted Bryce, conviction in his voice.
“Dammit, Bryce! What is ‘Joe’ short for? Joseph! What if he’s the ‘Joseph’ what abandoned these people to die? Do we even know his last name?”
Bryce admitted he did not and looked at the young man for a long time before speaking. “You realize what a hurt it will put on this company if you are wrong?”
Charlie held his chin up. “I do,” he said gravely.
Bryce scratched his chin. “Alright,” he sighed, “Let us find out the truth.”
The rain had nearly ceased and thin shafts of watery light crept through the chinks of the barn. “Joe!” Bryce sharply rasped, “Get up. I got a question for you.” Joe’s yawned and rubbed his eyes, a glint of gold could be seen on one filthy, meaty finger.
“What is it boss? Did I oversleep our exit?” he drawled lazily. Bryce’s eyes narrowed to match his suddenly furrowed brow. In a low, deceptively calm voice he asked, “Joe, where in the hell did you get that damn ring?”
Joe grinned, an arc of menace appearing across his craggy face.
“What’s it to you? I found it.” His cruel smile spread, making him look like a stalking cat.
“You found it on a dead woman’s finger is what. After I told you to leave it be.” Bryce could barely control the rage that threatened to creep into his voice.
“That’s my business! Spoils of the wild frontier, you savvy?” Joe heaved his bulk off the ground and stood toe-to-toe with the older frontiersman, the intimation of intimidation heavy in his stance.
Bryce didn’t so much as blink. In the same low tone, heavy with purpose, he spoke: “What’s your surname, Joe?”
Joe started. “Why the hell you want to know that for?” he replied testily.
“What. Is. Your. Surname?” Bryce repeated.
“I don’t see how that matters at all, Chief.” Joe stepped forward, nose to nose with the older man. Charlie nervously fingered the antler hilt of his knife, the tension in the air making him anxious and twitchy.
“Answer the damn question,” Bryce said with authority.
“It don’t matter no ways. I don’t have to do a blamed thing for you.” Joe glared for a moment, hostility glowing like fresh coals from his furious gaze. Bryce met his eyes unblinkingly, meeting challenge for challenge. Suddenly, without a word, Joe spun around and made to gather up his kit, showing his back to Bryce in a clear display of disdain.
“Bannon. His name is Joseph Bannon.” Charlie was surprised at the strength of his own voice. “And he has known this place before.” His certainty having trumped his temerity, he was shocked at his own bravado. Joe’s back straightened up and he spun around like a twister and rounded on Charlie.
“Now how in the hell do you know that, you whoreson?” he shouted furiously. Charlie swallowed, intimidated by the bigger man, but refused to back down. His voice grew louder.
“Your name is Joseph Bannon, you used to work for the family that lived here. The same family that lies dead and cold in the farmhouse yonder. You abandoned them after they caught you trying to steal jewelry. You left them, knowing they couldn’t survive without help.”
“You runt! You skinny, pimple-faced mockery of a man! I did what I had to do! Things are tough out here and only the strong survive. And it is the right of the mighty to take what they please to survive!” Joe’s words sprayed spittle and his eyes were alight with the fiery venom of his anger.
Charlie’s hand tightened around the knife hilt and he knew Joe was an instant away from drawing his own. There was no way the smaller, inexperienced man could possibly hope to prevail against the hulking, raging hunter. Bryce quelled the moment as he spoke from behind them.
“Survival? Hell, Joe, even an ignorant backwoods thief like you should know you can’t eat gold.”
Joe growled and whipped around, drawing his blade as he did so. Bryce had already produced his pistol while Joe was occupied with Charlie. In but a few heartbeats, one of the two would surely be dead at the other’s hand. The two men stared at each other, their eyes daring the other to twitch, a duel of wills. Joe was the first to move, lunging towards Bryce. The older man raised his pistol, its heavy barrel aimed to blast the brains from Joe’s massive head.
It was at that moment the Shawnees who had tracked them through the storm attacked.
The unearthly banshee howl that was the Shawnee war-cry issued from a dozen savage throats, a tremulous warbling nightmare of noise from just outside the barn. Their recent enmity suddenly forgotten, the three men immediately turned their attention to the Indian attack. The crack of musket balls punching through old dry planks filled the space and the howls that could curdle a demon’s blood continued without.
Bryce was the first to respond, firing his pistol through a gaping hall in the barn wall at a painted savage armed with a long, wicked knife and a menacing ball-headed warclub running headlong towards their position. The shot was a good one and the shirtless leather-legging clad Shawnee pitched forward, the ball embedded in his chest. More Shawnees rushed toward the barn even as their companions continued to rain musket fire through the barn’s thin wooden slats. Joe took a knee and sighted his rifle through one of the growing number of gaping holes in the wall, taking advantage of the newly created rifle loops. The lock of his Pennsylvania cracked and hissed as the charge ignited with a boom and felled another Shawnee. The space was fast filling with the acrid tang and blinding blue smoke of spent gunpowder.
Charlie took aim with his rifle and fired off a ball at the approaching enemy. Blinded by the smoke of his own rifle, he couldn’t tell if his shot had been effective. Snatching up his stolen fowling piece he rolled to another location and tried again. This time, he could see a painted warrior drop to the steaming earth, crimson gushing from his ruptured throat.
“Quickly now!” ryce called over the din of battle. “Fire everything you’ve got and try to drive them back to the trees! Don’t aim overlong, just let them think our numbers are greater than they expected!”
Joe and Charlie grabbed up their pistols and spare fowlers and rushed to the increasingly perforated walls. Charlie thought it a miracle none of them was yet touched by the but deadly hail of Shawnee lead. Taking their leader’s advice to heart, the pair fired hastily at the approaching warriors, even as Bryce put a bullet through the eye of one unlucky savage. Smoke billowed from the treeline and met the sulfurous cloud issuing from the barn, creating a thick blanket that roiled and hovered above the cold wet ground. The three besieged longhunters quickly reloaded their weapons even as they watched the shadowy forms of the Shawnees retreating back to the woods.
“It worked!” Charlie cried out, elated and relieved.
“Don’t get too cocky, lad.” Bryce replied, ramming a ball down his rifle barrel. “They’re sure to be back soon enough.” And with that, the howling ululation returned with a greater fervor, made doubly eerie by the sound-distorting fog outside.
“They’re regrouping,” Joe said matter-of-factly, as he wetted his hands from a canteen and attempted to wipe some of the greasy black gunpowder residue from his thick face. The others, having finished reloading, did the same. The stinging smoke had reddened their eyes but they vigilantly kept watch upon the treeline where their enemies surely lurked and plotted.
Minutes passed, then hours, or so it seemed to the three. They waited, weapons in hand for the second wave of the attack, but the Shawnees had gone silent. A kind of dread settled on the three men. The waiting was surely the worst part.
Charlie glanced over at his companions. Joe was steadfastly watching for enemies through a broken slat, his bulky formed hunched and coiled, ready for renewed action. Bryce was over on the further side and seemed listless yet vigilant. Charlie noticed he seemed a bit pale and withdrawn. He stood up and joined him at his posted position.
“You alright, Bryce?” he gently inquired. Bryce nodded once and shifted his position on a bale of old hay he had repositioned to recline upon. Up close, Charlie could see that the older man’s brow was beaded with sweat and his jaw clenched alarmingly. His paleness was also no trick of the light. Glancing down, the young hunter noticed some clumps of hay strewn strangely across the dirt floor. He picked one of them up and found it covered in blood.
“You’ve been hit!” he exclaimed. Bryce shifted away.
“I’m fine. Just a graze.” Charlie reached for Bryce’s hunting coat and pulled it open, oblivious to Bryce’s feeble attempts to ward him off. A slash of raw red flesh on Bryce’s side greeted him. The old hunter grinned as Charlie’s inexperienced eyes widened with shock at the gory spectacle.
“I’ll be alright, kid. I’ve had worse,” Bryce coughed.
“You need some stitches, looks like,” Charlie offered. Bryce nodded.
“I’m sure I do, but we’re not exactly in any circumstance to play doctor.” Charlie could only nod helplessly, at a loss for what to say or do.
The sudden hiss and thunk of arrows striking the barn removed him from his reverie. Bryce pulled his leather shirt closed and sat up. “What the hell?” he grunted.
“Fire arrows!” Joe responded, a strange fear in his voice.
“Fire arrows? Damn!” Bryce stood up with a pained grunt, leaning on his rifle for support. “I reckon they mean to smoke us out or burn us down trying!”
“But with all the rain and the cold, surely they can’t be all that effective!” Charlie exclaimed.
“Wet or not, this old dry place will burn eventually if they put enough flame on it,” Joe remarked sullenly. At that moment the war-cry broke out again, this time from all sides of their dilapidated wooden refuge.
“They’ve got us surrounded, boys. There’s no way out,” Bryce sighed. “Guess we’ll just have to go down fighting. We had a good run.”
Flaming arrows continued to rain down even as the howling of the enraged Shawnees continued from outside. The acrid stench of scorching wood became increasingly pungent. An idea sprung into Charlie’s mind, born of fear and the human instinct for survival at all costs.
“Wait!” He cried out, “There is another way!”
His companions looked at him skeptically. “What the hell you talking about, pup?” Joe growled, his eyes drawn to the smoke issuing from the roof. “We’re going to die here, burnt up, unless we fight and die like men!”
Charlie swallowed, terrified of his own sudden innovation. “Joe, I need that ring.”
“What? How in Hell is that going to help us?” Joe drawled incredulously.
“Please, Joe, “ Charlie begged, “just trust me. You got any ideas on how to get us out of here?”
Reluctance played over the big man’s face, but as a rafter from the roof came down in a shower of sparks, nearly knocking him in the head, Joe nodded and tossed the ring over.
Charlie shoved it onto his finger and was surprised at how cold the metal felt against his skin though Joe had worn it all morning. He dug out the black book and turned to the page marked by the diary parchment. Bryce immediately discerned what he was doing and shouted, “No, Charlie! It’s not worth it!”
Smoke billowed within the barn and the heat was palpable. The Shawnees outside clamored with joy as their victory became imminent. The hellish revelry served to cement Charlie’s resolution, and he began to read.
The words were unfamiliar, but the alphabet was not. He read the strange sentences with a feeling of dread and a premonition of hellfire. As he spoke the strange syllables a great wind rose from seemingly nowhere and rain and hailstones pelted down, extinguishing the fire and drawing screams of anguish from the blood-hungry warriors outside. Even as the paragraph Charlie read drew to a close, he could hear another sound outside: that of men screaming in abject terror and some unearthly primal animal-like noise that seemed to surround the barn on all sides. The walls of the barn itself seemed to quake and shiver and without warning the whole structure exploded outward as if pulled apart by hundreds of unseen hands.
Charlie was nearly struck motionless with fear, as were his companions who now stood helplessly exposed to both elements and enemies. Strange shadows flitted about in the sudden darkness, clawing and plucking at the screaming Shawnee horde. Belatedly, almost too late, Charlie remembered he was supposed to remove the ring before speaking the final portion of the hellish spell. It was hot upon his finger like a live coal as he pulled it off and flung it to the ground. Strange winds that whispered words he could not comprehend whirled and whipped about him. It took all his strength to hold the dark tome of magic and speak the final words of the spell. Howls of fear and pain erupted from his enemies and as he glanced up he saw the ghastly crooked forms of the dead family marching inexorably towards them, even as the Shawnee were being torn to bloody shreds by unseen forces. The young man was stared, his mouth agape, completely mesmerized by the sight and sound and atmospheric texture of the magic he had summoned.
It was Bryce who shook him out of his spellbound fascination. “Come on! We have to go now!” he screamed against the magical wind.
Charlie shook himself out of his stupor and nodded. He took his rifle and yelled, barely hearing his own voice above the howling din, “Joe! Come on! We can’t stay here any longer … we have got to go!”
Joe, however, was scrambling to recover the discarded ring.
“No!” Charlie screamed into the wailing tempest. “Joe, it will kill you!”
“It’s mine, dammit!” Joe cried out, his eyes alight with greed. “It’s mine!”
Before Bryce or Charlie could do or say anything further, Joe slipped the ring on his meaty finger and smiled. “See? It’s mine now! Mine! Now we can …”
Anything he said further was drowned by the roar of fire emanating from a point in front of him. A huge dark being, seemingly formed of some hellish whorl of shadow, burning embers, and smoke, appeared in front of him. The demonic being made a sound that could have been a laugh, lifting the big man as if he were a rag doll, flinging him into the horde of shadowy forms advancing upon the three men, led by the dead mother and her children who made a beeline toward Joe.
The last thing Bryce and Charlie saw before they ran for their lives to escape into the forest was the screaming form of their former companion being ripped limb from limb by the hungry undead creatures that were once the very people he had sworn to protect. Shawnee warriors were also being flung through the air like bloody rag dolls and the diabolical laughter of the thing Charlie had summoned rang in their minds for miles and miles after their ears had lost the sound.
When they had reached what they considered a safe distance, Charlie buried the black book deeply in a thicket, never to be recovered. He and Bryce never spoke of the incident again. What happened that day remained a secret they kept to their dying day. Neither ever found out or even sought to discover whatever became of the fabled “William,” nor would they ever learn the name of the dead woman who saved their lives…