We reached that goal finally—not touching the bank but slamming into it with enough force to send me flying backward over the edge of the canoe and into the shallow water. Warthrop yanked me to my feet and hurled my sopping wet carcass onto the muddy shore. Coughing and spitting, I sat up in time to see Hawk and the doctor pulling our unconscious cargo from the boat’s belly. They carried him several feet into the trees before easing him to the ground and returning for our gear. At that moment three canoes bearing six armed men emerged from the fog, the men’s black eyes glittering dangerously under their dark brows. Warthrop raised his hand, and Hawk raised his rifle.
“Tell them we intend no harm,” the doctor instructed him.
Hawk barked a little laugh. “I’m more worried about their intent, Doctor!” Then he said something in their tongue. The tallest of the six, a young man close to Hawk’s age, spoke quietly and without inflection, and pointed at Warthrop.
“He wants you to return what you’ve taken,” Hawk said.
“Tell him I am merely recovering what they have taken.”
Their leader spoke again, his manner one of utter earnestness laced with a touch of condescension; clearly Warthrop did not understand the consequences of his actions.
“Well?” the doctor snapped. “What does he say?”
“He says if you insist on taking him, you must kill him. The Outiko is with him.”
“Or in him, it means the same thing.”
“If he wants him dead, he’ll have to kill me,” Warthrop said, his eyes flashing dangerously. “All of us. The boy, too. Is he willing to do that? Ask him!”
Hardly were the words out of Hawk’s mouth when six rifles rose as one. Instinctively I brought up the revolver. Warthrop, however, made no move with his weapon.
“No need to translate, Hawk,” the doctor said.
“He is Outiko’s now,” the brave said in English. “We take him.”
“Dear God, how much of this superstitious folderol must I bear?” Warthrop cried. He flung his rifle to the ground, grabbed the gun from my hand, and slung it toward the trees. Then, before Hawk could react, Warthrop ripped his rifle away and threw that down too. He opened his long arms wide and thrust out his chest, offering himself to their bullets.
“Go on and do it, then, damn you! Shoot us all in cold blood and take your precious Outiko!”
For an agonized moment I believed they would do just that. Their rifles remained unwaveringly upon us. I heard Hawk mutter, “Warthrop, I would have liked to have been included in this decision.” Otherwise, all was quiet—that awful pregnant stillness before the clang and clatter of battle.
Their leader spoke, and his men slowly lowered their weapons. He said something to Warthrop.
“Well?” the doctor asked Hawk.
“He said, ‘You are a fool.’” The sergeant took a deep breath. “And I think I agree with him.”
Hawk’s opinion mattered to the doctor as much as anyone else’s—that is, hardly at all. He waited until our pursuers had turned their boats around and the mist had swallowed them up, before he hurried to the side of his fallen friend, snapping his fingers at me to grab his rucksack and join him. The sergeant lingered between the line of trees and the shore, standing watch in case the Iyiniwok changed their minds.
Warthrop knelt beside the unconscious victim and pulled back his eyelids to examine his eyes. They were bloodshot and slightly yellow, restless in their sockets, the pupils contracting and expanding in a pulsating rhythm, like tiny black hearts. In the gray forest light his face seemed devoid of all pigmentation, as white as paper and just as thin, stretched taut over his cheeks and forehead, the bones of his jaw protruding like large knuckles pushing insistently against the flesh. The lips were swollen and bright red, an obscenely comical juxtaposition against his pale skin, and they were laced with hairline cracks that oozed milky yellow pus.
The doctor ran his fingers through the thick sandy-blond hair. Fluffy tufts of it pulled free at his touch. The breeze caught some errant strands and sent them twirling like dandelion seeds into the deep forest gloom.
Grunting with effort, the monstrumologist freed the man from the cocoon of the old blanket. He had been stripped to his underclothes; they hung limply about his emaciated frame, but I could clearly see the ribs poking into the material. Warthrop lifted one bony arm and pressed his fingers against the wrist. The impressions from the pressure remained after the doctor removed his fingers, like footprints in wet sand.
“Severe dehydration,” he observed quietly. “Fetch the canteen—but first I’ll take the stethoscope.”
He pushed the thin undershirt to the man’s chin and listened for several minutes to the heartbeat. I could actually see its exhilarated pumping beneath the attenuated skin. When I returned with the water, the doctor was running his hands up and down the man’s bony-kneed stork-thin legs, and then up to the torso, where he pressed gently. Everywhere he touched, his fingers left indentations in the pale skin.
He pressed the mouth of the canteen to the bloated lips, and rivulets of that life-giving liquid rolled out from either side of the gurgling mouth. Warthrop heaved the man’s head onto his lap and bent low, cradling him like a child, one hand cupping his chin while he poured a thin stream through the half-opened lips. His oversize Adam’s apple jerked as each swallow was forced down. The doctor breathed a sigh, and said softly, “John. John.”
And then louder, his voice ringing in the trees, “John! John Chanler! Can you hear me?”
Sergeant Hawk appeared, his rifle resting in the crook of his arm. He regarded this tableau for a moment, and said, “So, this is Chanler?”
“No, Sergeant, this is Grover Cleveland,” the doctor answered sardonically. With uncharacteristic gentleness the monstrumologist pulled the blanket back over Chanler.
“He’s severely dehydrated and malnourished,” Warthrop told Hawk. “And jaundiced; his liver may be shutting down. I can’t find any external injuries beyond bedsores, which is to be expected, and internally there are no abnormalities or injuries, though it’s difficult under these conditions to tell for certain. He has a mild fever but doesn’t seem to be suffering from dysentery or anything else that might kill him before we can get him back.”
Hawk glanced nervously around us, stroking the rifle’s trigger, as if he expected marauders to burst from the bush at any second.
“Well, I’m all for that now that we’ve got him!”
“Me too, Sergeant. We’ve only to wait until he’s ambulatory—”
“What do you mean ‘ambulatory’? You mean wait till he can walk?” He squinted down at the comatose man at his feet. “How long?”
“Hard to say. His muscles are atrophied, his vigor sapped by the ordeal. It could be as long as a week or two.”
“A week or two! No. No.” Hawk was shaking his head violently. “That won’t do, Doctor. We can’t spend two weeks in the bush. There’s our supplies, and then there’s the weather. We’ll get the first real snow of the season before two weeks are out.”
“I am open to suggestions, Sergeant. You have eyes as well as I. You can observe the poor man’s condition for yourself.”
“We’ll carry him out. Good God, he can’t weigh more than Will here.”
“To do so over this terrain could prove fatal.”
“Walking across the street on a Sunday afternoon could prove fatal, Warthrop. If Will can take my rifle and rucksack, I could carry him.”
He bent to scoop Chanler from the forest floor and was stopped by Warthrop’s hand against his chest.
“I am willing to risk the elements, Sergeant,” the doctor said stiffly.
“Well, guess what? I’m not. I don’t know what it is about you and this monstrumology business, but it’s like bear shit on your boots—follows you every step and is as hard as hell to get rid of.”
He jabbed a finger into my master’s chest.
“I’m getting the hell out of here, Doc. You’re welcome to come with me, or you can try your luck finding the way out yourself.”
For a moment neither man moved, locked in a test of wills—a test that Warthrop failed. He ran a hand through his thick hair and sighed loudly. He looked at Chanler; he looked at me. He considered the sliver of gray sky sliced off by the canopy.
“Very well,” he said, “but it is my burden.”
He slid his arms beneath the fragile form, and rose unsteadily with the wasted body. Chanler’s forehead pressed against the base of Warthrop’s neck.
“I shall carry him,” the doctor said.
“It Can Break a Man’s Mind in Half”
Our flight to Rat Portage was painfully slow. Warthrop called for many halts to check Chanler’s vital signs and to attempt getting more water into him. Slowing the pace too was Sergeant Hawk—or rather Sergeant Hawk’s finding his bearings in the fog. It thickened as the day wore on, a colorless miasma that obscured the trail and peopled the forest with looming shadows and flitting apparitions upon which the imagination seized and ascribed portents of doom. In this gray land of muffled sound and borrowed light, our very breath was snatched from our mouths and trammeled underfoot.
By four o’clock the light had all but vanished. We made camp for the night no more than seven miles from the shores of Sandy Lake and still several miles from the grave of Pierre Larose. The doctor eased his load onto the ground and collapsed against a tree. His respite lasted only a minute or two; soon he was up again fussing over Chanler, wiping his brow, raising his head to force a bit more water down his throat, calling to him in a loud voice—but Chanler would not be roused. I gathered wood for our fire before the last of the light was snuffed out. Hawk inventoried our meager supplies, reckoning we had enough to last another five days. After that, we would have to live off the land.
“I’d planned on resupplying at Sandy Lake,” he said defensively when the doctor raised an eyebrow at this bit of bad news. “You didn’t tell me there’d be a kidnapping.”
The sergeant did not seem himself. His eyes would not stay still; they shifted right and left and back again restlessly, and he could not seem to stop wetting his lips.
“How did you manage to find him?” he asked.
“Fiddler. I thought if John was alive, Fiddler might check on him, and the odds were he would not risk it while we were awake. And my guess was right. At a little after two he came out of his wigwam, and I followed him. They had put John in a wigwam on the northern edge of the village, far removed from the others, as one might expect. It is common practice among indigenous peoples to construct a ‘sick house’ to isolate infectious members from the rest of the tribe.
“After that, it was only a matter of time and preparation. No guard was posted. I merely had to wait for Fiddler to go to bed.”
“What happened, do you think?” Hawk was staring at the opening of the tent wherein Chanler lay, the white of the blanket barely visible in the firelight.