Blackwoods

 

He was being hunted and he had no idea where he was.

These were the only two constants in Joseph Samuel’s life. He leaned back and gazed upwards at the stars but they meant nothing to him. He had carved out a life as God intended, rough hewn and living off the land, providing for his family to the best of his abilities. He took pride in being a master tracker and trapper and could read any animals tracks. But the stars were a different story. They were an enigma as was his current situation. And so, with a frustrated huff, he turned back to the fire. It blazed forth in the darkness illuminating his bloodshot, weary eyes. Every sound gave him a start and he knew what he was about to do was a bad idea. But Joseph needed something to occupy his mind. He rummaged alongside his belt and took inventory of his meager possessions. Aside from the clothes and pelts on his back, his current worldly stock included a worn hunting knife, a piece of flint rock, a weathered, stubby pencil and a beaten leather book. He held out his calloused hands over the warm flame and then opened the book. He began to write, turning his back to the frozen labyrinthine forest and the danger that he knew lurked within.

 

 

December 21, 1899

I am no fool, for I know my situation is dire. As I write this by firelight, I know that each crunching footstep in the snow, each broken twig brings my impending death ever closer. He looms just outside the light, lurking and watching me. Why he has not struck me down is a mystery, for I am at the height of my vulnerability at this very God-given moment. Perhaps he wishes to further torment me, in which I invite him to sit by me so that I might shake his hand for a job well done before he cuts me down.

I am no fool, but I am a damn good hunter and I find myself flummoxed for having been led so far off course. The other men in my party, God rest their souls, would bring blame upon young Jonathan Pierce, but I take the blame unto myself. For that, I must apologize.

I apologize to my dear wife, first and foremost. Although I suspect her eyes will not fall upon these words, know Elizabeth, that I am truly sorry. I am sorry for assuring you my return would be swift and without incident. I am sorry for the life I have bestowed upon you and our son, for having lain with you and bringing forth one more impoverished soul into our meager settlement.

I suppose I would rescind my last statement but I have no way to take back what is already upon paper. I have no regrets in expressing my love to you. I only wish I could be back with you and our child and, by God’s grace, I will somehow return to you even if not in this plane of existence.

I apologize also to the widows and children of my fallen brothers. It is a drive of revenge driven near madness that allows me to press on. That and my family are but the two sole reasons that I continue to seek the creekbed that will lead me back home. For now, I await with bated breath, the wolf that knocks at my door. I await with this blade and hatred in my heart to bring swift justice upon his damnable head.

 

Emboldened by his own profession of perseverance, Joseph Samuels set out the next day in search of food. His goal was to locate the creek that he knew lie in this region and in doing so, would follow it back to his home settlement of Reka. He and his people had settled upon this region due to its proximity to fresh water and abundant wildlife. They had begun a pilgrimage across the frozen Yukon territory in an effort to reach the largest outpost of the Hudson Bay Trading Company. All Joseph wanted was a better life for his family and, his trapper expertise coupled with the frequent gold strike, could bring prosperity and comfort to those he loved the most… provided he could return to them. The series of traps that he and the party had constructed were likely far out of his range by now and he no longer had his rifle. So had improvised and, with an abundance of patience and fortitude, he managed to craft a simple snare trap and earn himself a small snowshoe hare meal. Kill in tow, Joseph returned to cook the meat. He planned to break camp after and set off in a North-Easterly direction. He figured the closer he got to Hudson herself, the greater chances of his stumbling upon a community. Perhaps they would accept his collected pelts in return for assistance in locating his town. These were the scraps of hope he held fast. He had carved small notches in the trees as they had traveled to orientate their direction, but he hadn’t seen one in a while. As he often stated to himself, Joseph Samuels was no fool and he knew his plan was deeply flawed. But any attempt to locate a settlement or the creek was better than shambling about aimlessly through the snow. Upon returning to his camp, Joseph was met with a startling sight. The campfire was destroyed, bits of rock and tinder tossed hitherto and there. Surrounding the ruined site were a hodgepodge collection of human footprints, disorganized into a near random shamble, the gait of a man whom had partaken in too much whiskey. Joseph, however, knew it was the unhinged stumble of a madman and his fears were confirmed in the sight that each footprint was tinged in red. He crouched low to the ground and inspected the indentations. The tracks were, of course, fresh. The snow was still fresh and Joseph had only been gone for about an hour. The blood welling in the tracks filled each step akin to a hellish foot shaped chalice. He dare not touch the blood for fear of contracting whatever had set upon poor Carlysle. Joseph stood back up and clipped the rabbit to his belt. He sighed and reflected upon his lost friend and the carnage that had befallen over the past couple of days. He would write about it soon. Joseph surveyed the tracks and noticed they broke their random pattern to set off in the direction from which he had just returned. With a slight chill (surely not brought upon by the cold), he realized that they had most likely crossed paths and yet he had seen no sign of the madman. With no choice but to continue in his chosen direction, Joseph held his knife at the ready and set off following the blood ragged footprints, doing his best to ignore the rumbling emanating from his stomach.

 

 

December 22, 1899

I pause in my tracking to reflect upon all that has happened. I acknowledge that Carlysle, mad as he may be, maintains some degree of humanity. For he has managed to out fox me and thus I can recline with no inclination of having lost my quarry and write these thoughts.

My party had consisted of myself and four able bodied men: my neighbor Joseph Jackson, Lawrence Fessler (the closest we have to an apothecary, he joined us in an attempt to locate and catalog any new herbs or plantlife in the region), young Jonathan Pierce and my dear poor Rutherford Carlysle. Carlysle and I had crafted a trapline in the area and were eager to set out into the forest to see what bounty we had yielded. Any furs would be a Godsend and I planned to keep at least one to swaddle my infant child with. Thus we set off on a small, one day excursion with our hired hands along to perhaps procure more wild game in the process.

Jon Pierce, in his inexperience, managed to wound a caribou and in a demonstration of youthful exuberance, pursued the animal into the brush. We followed after our youthful comrade only to encounter an unforeseen high wind that swept the snow and pierced our flesh. After catching the boy, we had the good fortune to locate an outcropping and huddle beneath it to wait out the storm. Upon discovery that our trail had been obliterated by the winds, tension quickly set it. Fessler naturally pointed accusation at Pierce, a statement that Jackson was all to ready to support to my surprise. I recall at this time, Carlysle remained uncharacteristically quiet, preferring to watch the squabble from afar. He exhibited no opinion in either way and I realize this might have been my first inclination that something was wrong, as the man had always been a rather outspoken individual.

With darkness falling, we resigned ourselves to building a fire and accept the fact that we would not return home until perhaps the next day. The others ceased their quarrel and Pierce attempted to gain a measure of redemption by offering to help us hunt for more game. He reasoned it would give us strength to proceed back and would provide a good bonding opportunity. I agreed with the lad but Carlysle protested. With venom in his voice and unnaturally wild eyes, he stated that such an action would be futile and more drastic actions would have to be taken if we were to keep our stomachs full. I couldn’t grasp the intentions of his words at the time and resigned to keeping a careful eye on him as we bedded down upon the rock for what would be a night of discomfort and concern.

 

 

Joseph wrapped his journal in a rabbit pelt and stood back up, his tired joints popping in protest. He had collected several pelts and used them to wrap his body and head to shield against the cold. He thanked God silently for holding the winds at bay and continued on his way, following the red trail into the white frontier. He continued to walk for most of the day, pausing to rest here and there. He kept his journal out of sight, knowing that he would likely have to make camp again and would refrain until that time to record his thoughts. Joseph had resigned to consuming a few bites of his recent kill raw in order to abate his growing hunger. He would cook the rest later, but for now he was hungry and needed something – anything – in his stomach. These thoughts haunted him and he wondered if it was the path that had led Carlysle towards his reprehensible actions. Joseph paused as the bloody tracks came to a sudden and abrupt halt. They ended at the base of a tree and he gazed upwards, bracing for an attack. Instead, he found the evidence of just such an assault. A body was suspended from the lowest branch, lifeless hands pointing downwards to the frozen ground. Blood still dripped from the kill and Joseph noticed with a start that the body was but a hollow skin. All of the innards had been removed and were nowhere in sight save for a splash of red at the base of the tree. He bowed his head in silent respect as he gazed at the blood. The face was mangled but the lack of facial hair confirmed that he had located the remains of the boy, Jon Pierce. A crunching footstep caused him to wheel around, knife at the ready. He caught the fleetest glimpse of something scurrying away, low to the ground like an animal. It was comprised of a mottled collection of red, pink and brown and moved with inhuman speed. The creature leaped with a sudden swiftness and clambered up into a nearby tree. Joseph watched it, powerless, as the beast leapt to the next tree and continued on its vertical path, cracking branches and sending squirrels scurrying. Joseph watched in awe and sick wonder at the feat of agility and was driven out of his upward gaze by a wetness striking his cheek. He wiped away a gobbet of flesh from the slain boy and scowled in disgust and hatred. It was at that moment that he knew Rutherford Carlysle was gone and that the inhuman beast that had slain his friends would feel the blade of his knife by journey’s end. Joseph Samuels had a new mission and he would see through it to the end.

 

 

December 22, 1899

Seeing that poor boy strung up in the trees like so much salted meat… it makes me think of my boy, home alone with his mother. Would such a fate befall my family? I proclaim here, in written word and sound mind, that my journey will not end until the beast that ravaged my party lies dead in the snow.

I recall an old story, a legend told by the savages that dwelt in this area. My father would tell it to me, in an effort to keep me from straying too far from the path on our hunts. He told me of a hellish creature called “The Windeegah” or perhaps it was “Windigu”. I cannot recall the true name but from my best recollection it was an angry and evil spirit that had to power to possess man and turn them into a ravenous beast. Any man was susceptible, but the beast often preyed on those had succumbed to harsh conditions and contemplated the taboo act of consuming another human being.

I am a man of God and I believe that devils and vile imps walk among us… but to think that such a thing would occur to a man that I beheld as a brother. It is unthinkable and yet I can find no other explanation for his rapid descent. It was but two days in our small alcove and myself and Jackson had managed to secure a fresh caribou kill. We had decided to leave Jonathan under Fessler’s care, for want of another incident that lead to our predicament in the first place. Upon returning to our camp, we were met with a terrifying sight…

The chemist and the boy huddled in the corner, racked with fear at the decrepit condition of poor Rutherford. In but two days time, he had become as gaunt as a beggar, his bones pressed against what was left of his paper flesh. His eyes were sunken and yellowed as parchment and rolled wildly in their sockets. This was not the man I knew and I instantly contemplated putting my rifle to his head to end his misery. The conclusion I had drawn was that he had been injured and the wound had quickly festered, affecting both mind and body.

Carlysle made no movements towards us, rather he huddled in his own corner, gnashing his teeth like a hellspawn devil. Jackson kept his firearm trained on my sickened friend while I skinned and cooked the meat. We offered it to him but he rejected the meal rather violently. The poor bastard lunged forth and bit into Jackson’s arm. I swiftly administered the stock of my rifle and that was truly the last I saw of my former friend. Despite the other men’s demands that I finish him then and there, I could not bring myself to do so. Instead, we bound him tight with my own jacket. Surely Fessler could have developed some sort of medicine for him?

I never got the chance to find out. We were awakened from our fitful slumber by a hellish squealing. I imagined that perhaps the boy had surprised us and brought back fresh game… perhaps a bit too fresh. My next thought was that a predator, a wolf perhaps, had stumbled into our makeshift den for a horrific sight was mine to bear. A furry, unkempt creature was rending apart unfortunate Fessler. The agonized squeals came from my partner’s throat as the creature savaged the poor man’s body. I reached for my rifle as the others rose but found my gun in shambles.

And, to whomever reads this, know that I can now say I have gazed into the eyes of Lucifer himself. For that savage beast turned towards me and as God is my witness, I find myself staring into the wild eyes of my longtime friend, Rutherford Carlysle. The image of Fessler’s blood and gristle dripping from his wild maw will stay with me until the grave (which I fear is not far off). Carlysle looked almost apologetic as he turned to me. I believed, for the briefest of moments, that he was unaware of what he was doing. I’ll always remember that he actually spoke to me and his words were these:

My feet hurt so badly. They’re on fire, my feet are on fire and yet I must feed. I must feed and run.

He spoke this to me in a hushed whisper, his voice surely mottled by the portions of poor Fessler. He then whispered the word “Run” in a long chant, a man surely possessed by something not of this Earth. The bone thin figure of my best friend rose, clad in the very deer skin we had produced earlier that evening. He wore no other clothing and I perversely noticed his blood caked manhood in the dim firelight. God help me… Carlysle dropped to all fours as an animal and ran off into the cold night.

Jackson and Pierce had not seen the whole ordeal and I hastily concocted the story of a wolf having consumed Fessler and ran off Carlylse. I knew they would not believe what I had seen and they would think me mad. Jackson had already wanted to put down Carlylse, what if I showed the smallest hint of insanity?

Thus the three of us pledged to find the creek, follow it back to our home and to keep our eyes open. For ravenous wolves or… whatever else the night might bring.

 

 

Joseph awoke from a nightmare infused doze, resting upon a pile of furs to keep his body from contact with the frost and snow. He groaned as he painfully pried his fingers from the grip of his knife, so tightly held throughout the night that the frost had fused flesh and leather together. The trapper had not expected to make it through the night and the lack of proper rest was beginning to affect him. He rubbed his bloodshot eyes, stroked his ragged beard and stood up. The night before, he had constructed a primitive spit from a bundle of twigs and had taken light comfort in a meal of roast rabbit meat. He knew the meager meal would not satiate him from long and would have to act fast to either find more meat or slay his tormentor. But he had promised himself by the grace of God, the two acts would not become one. With renewed vigor, he picked up where the bloody footprints had left off and began to run headlong along the trail. His pursuit was a blind fury and he took no heed in expending what little energy he possessed in his quest to take down the beast. As before, the footprints suddenly ceased and Joseph instinctively glanced upwards, fearing another ravaged body. Instead, he was greeted with the sight of a furred figure gazing straight at him. He lunged forward with a roar of rage and plunged his knife deep into the skin. A solid thunk greeted his efforts, but the expected burst of blood and howl of pain did not ring forth. Rather, Joseph found himself staring at the shed deerskin, hung carefully from the tree and now impaled by his own knife. Joseph growled in rage but was struck bodily from behind before he could react further. Inhuman howling and snarling assaulted him as a naked, gore slathered Carlysle pounced upon him, rending and tearing at his flesh with grimy, broken fingernails. Joseph bellowed in equal inhuman fashion and thrust himself backwards into the tree. The hilt of the stuck knife caught Carlysle across the back of the head and knocked him away. Joseph charged forward and gripped Carlysle, slinging him over his own hips and allowing the momentum to carry his ravaged assailant down an embankment. The feral hunter tumbled down the hill, screeching in irritation, leaving a trail of red behind. Joseph took several deep breaths as Carlysle disappeared from sight. He groaned in pain and quickly packed fresh snow into the slash marks that adorned his upper body. Joseph staggered back to the tree and withdrew his knife. He collected the bloody deerskin and came into contact with a rectangular object protruding from a man-made pocket inside the fleshy lining. Joseph Samuels briefly forgot his battle as he pulled out a worn book, holding an eerie similarity to his own journal. He opened the gore caked tome and found himself mesmerised. With a grunt of effort, he fell back against the tree and began to read..

 

 

Daily Log of Rutherford Carlysle

I havn’t bothered to keep up this running account as there has not been much of note occurring in my life. As of late, I simply rise in the morn and go about my day, living each passing day on the verge of non existence. I fear we are but a single fruitless hunt away from starvation, even if the others will not accept this fact. They call me pesimistic and tell me that I must have faith in myself, in the community, in God.

But I have no faith. I have embarked on this small trap run with a few companions simply out of sheer bordom. I pity not exuding the enthusiasm expressed by our self appointed leader, Joseph Samuels. Joseph is a good man, and has long been a good friend to me. He has been a loyal companion in a time when I find myself most alone.

He has been stedfast in his atempt to claw us out of this predicament. Joseph is perhaps the only one of my current cohorts with the fortatude to lead us back. The medicine man Fessler is useless. Sure, he has spun some entertaining yarns and tall tales but now is not the time for stories. Now is the time for action and I fear he is too spineless to contribute. The damnable and lesser Joseph-surname-Jackson also contributes nothing. I admit I know nothing about him having seen him around the village but never paying any heed. And then theres the Boy. A young child for whom my contempt prohibits me from bothering to learn his name. It is his inexperience and compulsion that has lead us into our dire straits, stranded here with no food. What I would give to settle the score, impose my own misery upon his useless hide.

I express these venemous thoughts under the guise that I am a heartless bastard. I know, however, I am a good man as is Samuels. But these others are simply extra mouths to feed when we have no food to feed even ourselves. I speak these thots purely from a state of self preservation and for that of my comrade. If God is there he will help us. Perhaps I’ll have reason to believe yet.

I have been without food for less than a day and yet the nawing in my gut is stronger than any pain I have dealt with. I have grapled with a wolf and been ensnared with a bear trap and the pain endured then pales in comparison to what I currently endure.

And yet, I find solace with my new friend. He will not tell me his name, but he speaks to me. He speaks to me in a voice so quiet, I can scarcely hear it. The other memebrs of my party cannot hear it, I know this for a fact. He told me so. He tells me that all wil be well. He tells me the way we can survive this. He tells me that my comrades will provide the sustenance and energy I need to make the trek back to the village. He tells me if I am to conquer the wild, I must embrace it. He tells me to shed my manly trappings and run wild and free until my feet crumble to dust. He tells me not to be afraid of the pain in my stomach, in the burning in my feet. he tells me the flesh of those worthless wastes will soothe one pain whilst running through the wilds will soothe the other.

I trust him. I did not pray for help and yet he came. I have heard the voice of God and he sounds like the wind coursing through the ice and snow. He snarls and snaps in my ear and tells me what I must do. I trust him because I was told that God created us in his own image. And so if the Lord must snarl as an unruly beast, then perhaps I must too.

My feet hurt so much, why do they burn? I was told that it would be better if I did what I did. I must run now, run forever and never stop. The wastes were good for something, I had faith and they were good. The medicine man tasted better than I thought, the other Joseph went down easily and the young boy was easy to flay. Theyre skins keep me warm but I need no shoes for my feet are burning feet of fire and I think they will be forevermore. My dear friend is out there and I know he doesnt understand. God has not come to me and so my friend must be the devil. And I must obey my God and do what he tells me to do. I hear him coming now.

 

Eat eat eat my feet my feet burning feet of fire flesh and blood goes down so good feel so full and free and yet I hunger still

 

whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day.

 

This is what he tells me and I trust him and now I must eat

 

 

Joseph Samuels closed the book and fell back against the tree, aghast. Tears flowed freely mingling with the blood caked upon his haggard face. Conflict raged within his mind. He knew the man he had trusted like a brother was gone, replaced with this feral nightmare, a ravenous beast. And yet he feared that Carlysle was but a victim of something sinister, something far beyond his own comprehension. His comrades were gone (thanks to the diary, he now knew what had become of Jackson). He felt alone and scared and he knelt down and prayed. With a deep breath, Joseph composed himself and grabbed the deerskin. He wrapped it up into a ball and carefully made his way down the embankment, following the blood trail as he descended. He carefully made his way across the frozen ground until it leveled out and found himself gazing at a frozen creek. A brief bloom of hope blossomed as he realized he had located the source that would lead him back to Reka and to his family. A darkened realization replaced his optimism as he realized that the creature (he no longer thought of it as Rutherford Carlysle) would have encountered the stream and would be on his way towards the village. Joseph shuddered at the thought of what the beast could wrought upon his beloved kin. He draped the skin over his shoulders and made his way along the frozen waterway, keeping low to the ground so as to coerce any predators in the vicinity. His goal was to lure the new apex predator, that wild eyed beast, out into the open under the guise of a prey animal. His ploy worked better than he could have hoped. Not but a quarter of a mile into his journey, Joseph was greeted by a low growl. He slowly stood up, his tired back creaking under the pressure of a hunched posture. The deerskin sloughed off him as he glared forward into the direction of the growl. His adversary stood there on the tree line, staring back at him from beneath a newly fashioned hood of human skin. Joseph immediately noticed that somehow, the beast had increased in size but not mass. It stood taller, now breaching near seven feet and yet its frame was a hideous gaunt mess of wretched flesh, stretched taut over near exposed bones. Its arms dangled at its side, jagged talons sprouting from what had formerly been merely ragged human fingernails. The creature’s sallow, sunken eyes darted back and forth with wild intensity, unfocused and yet fully aware. And yet it still held the vaguest resemblance to his fallen friend, a fact that nearly drove Joseph into the black pit of insanity. Joseph licked his dry lips and stepped forward. He screamed as loud as his weakened throat would allow. He screamed again, a wordless screech. The beast flinched the tiniest of motions of took a single step back. Encouraged and undaunted, Joseph stepped forward again, screaming as he unsheathed his knife. The beast growled again and took another step away from his enemy. Keeping a locked gaze on Joseph Samuels, it moved tentatively along the trees and begin to walk away in the direction of the creek. With a snarl, Joseph began to walk quickly. He caught up the the beast’s loping strides and reached upwards. His shoulder popped as he strained for a target zone between the shoulder region of the loose, flapping skin cape. The fiend screeched an unearthly howl and lashed backwards, reaching for its attacker. Joseph was unable to elude the creature’s long reach and found himself ensnared in the sickly talons. The beast lifted him upwards just as Joseph swung wildly with his blade. Claws and blade flashed in the midday sun as the dueling pair stumbled backwards, tumbling over the uneven terrain and crashing into the frozen creek. The skin cape instantly ballooned upwards, wrapping around the beast’s wild lashes. Ice and debris stung his fresh cuts as Joseph shoved his beastly foe into the frozen depths. They both gasped aloud at the shock of the cold and the water turned red with blood from both combatants. Despite the creature’s augmented height and power, Joseph could feel him starting to wane. With animalistic ferocity, he gripped what little hair remained on the gnashing skull and dunked it beneath the water. Joseph growled and seethed as he stared down at his quarry. In a moment, as he held the beast below the water, he could see a glimpse of his former friend. Rutherford Carlysle stared back at Joseph Samuels. Joseph slackened his grip the smallest amount, giving Carlysle an opportunity to rear back and slash at his comrade. Two of Joseph’s fingers tumbled away onto the rapidly cracking ice and the injured man plunged downwards with his blade again and again with adrenaline laced ferocity, blossoming the water red. His own gore dripped into the melange of bile, sweat, tears and viscera as Carlysle faded away before him. As the ice continued to crack, Samuels relinquished his hold on the beast and allowed the withered body to begin drifting away below the ice. The cold continued to seep deep into his bones as Joseph crawled his way out of the stream. He knelt beside a tree, breathing heavily. He cut off a strip of clothing and tied it tight around the bleeding stumps of his two former fingers. He gazed out at the rushing creek as the body drifted slowly away leaving a very familiar trail of red embedded against the crystalline ice.

His vision slowly darkened and he slept.

He lie there, against the tree in the cold as he awoke. Daylight gleamed forth, the light of a new day and yet he felt no cold. Rather, he felt curiously warm. A grumbling from his stomach rumbled forth and he chuckled aloud in spite of his pain. He gazed back at the red trail slowly continuing to stain the ice, as it had done so throughout the night. He pulled out his own journal. The soggy pages tore in his grip and he pressed the pencil down upon the pages to no effect.

And still, he wrote, wordlessly and soundlessly.

December 23, 1899

A happy Christmas to all.

My wounds are many and I hunger, yet my battle is over.

I will walk as far as I can and hopefully return to my home and my wife. I fear I will face the gallows upon my return as my account of what has transpired out here will prove too fantastical to explain my party’s demise. And yet, perhaps these written accounts will prove some form of vindication. I can only hope.

I feel warm and my hands do not hurt despite the loss of my fingers. It is a curious feeling. I look forward down the stream and I can see the smoke wafting from the village’s chimneys. Have I really been so close, all this time?

They must be cooking. I can smell it from here. It smells delicious and I am so very hungry. I found two small, thin gobbets of meat on the ice and consumed them. They were delicious and I wonder where I can find more?

I must stand now and continue my journey. I am almost home and I’ll need a warm bed and a warm meal.

I hope I will be able to make it. I know I can. It is so close… and yet, my feet do hurt. They burn, my feet. Perhaps I can make it if I run… And yet I’m still so hungry…

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