“I can only guess,” answered the doctor wearily. “Either he stumbled into their camp or someone found him and brought him there. He was probably lost, separated from Larose—the man admitted as much in his letter to Muriel—and it nearly got the better of him.”
“It will, if you don’t know what you’re about,” agreed Hawk. His eyes cut toward the doctor. “Muriel . . . is that the missus?”
The sergeant glanced my way. “Nothing,” he said.
“Clearly it was not.”
“Just clearing my throat.”
“You did not clear your throat. You said, ‘hmm,’ like that. I would like to know what you meant.”
“I didn’t mean anything. Hmm. That’s all it was, Doctor. Just hmm.”
Warthrop snorted. He threw the dregs of his tea into the shadows and ducked into the tent to be with his patient. Hawk looked at me again, a crooked smile playing on his lips.
“J’ai fait une mâtresse y a pas longtemps,” he sang softly.
“And cease that infernal singing!” the doctor shouted.
The sergeant complied with Warthrop’s brusque request, and would not sing again for the remainder of our flight back to civilization. I call it ‘flight,’ for that is what it was, torturously slow though it proved to be. We were fleeing something—and we were bringing what we fled with us.
We woke on the next morning beneath an ominous gray sky. By noon a light snow had begun to fall, carpeting the trail with dusty powder that quickly grew slick; more than once the doctor nearly went down with his precious cargo. The sergeant would offer to spell him, each time rebuffed by Warthrop. The doctor seemed jealous of his burden.
It was cold and still; not a breath of wind stirred; and the snow, like the fog, deadened sound. We marched through vaulted chambers of brown and white, down desolate halls devoid of color, bereft of life. The nights fell with crushing suddenness. The daylight seemed not so much to fade as to vanish. Darkness was the true face of the desolation, its elemental substance.
More than the monotonous scenery or the miles of rough trail that crawled underfoot, that dark weighed upon us. It numbed our souls to senselessness as the cold numbed our fingertips and toes, a pitch-black tactile dark that mocked our feeble attempts to drive it away, a darkness that pressed down with suffocating force. I began to envy John Chanler and the feverish oblivion in which he dwelled.
And I worried about the doctor. Even on his worst days back at Harrington Lane, when he retreated to his bed and remained there for hours, refusing all sleep and sustenance, lost in a melancholy so profound all he could do was breathe, even those days seemed as bright as springtime compared to what he endured now. And he endured it for someone other than himself, a stunning revelation for me, who up to that point had thought him the most self-absorbed man on the continent. His face grew gaunt, his eyes receded into their sockets, his duster hung upon him like an empty garment upon a hanger. He was coming to resemble the man he was carrying.
I urged him to eat and rest, scolding him like a parent and reminding him he was no good to his friend if he succumbed to the same fate. He endured my chiding and rarely lost his temper, except on one memorable occasion when he dressed me down for more than a quarter of an hour. It might have gone on longer, but Hawk informed him that if he didn’t shut up, the sergeant was going to put a bullet through the back of his head.
After the last morsel of hardtack and cured bacon had been consumed, the sergeant shouldered his rifle and tramped into the woods, disappearing for the rest of the afternoon. We made no progress that day. Near dusk Hawk returned, empty-handed. He dropped the weapon to the ground and collapsed before the fire, muttering under his breath, swiping his mouth with the back of his hand incessantly and wetting his lips.
“Nothing,” he murmured. “Nothing. I’ve never seen anything like it. Nothing for miles.”
He lifted his eyes to the sky. “Not even a bird. Nothing. Nothing.”
“Well, we still have each other,” said the doctor consolingly, trying to lift his spirits. “You know, the Donner Party option.”
Hawk stared at him without expression, his mouth hanging open, and I thought the doctor, who knew so well his own limitations, must have been really out of sorts to even attempt humor. It was ludicrous, like a man trying to fly by flapping his arms.
Hunger became the newest member of our company, far stronger and far more resilient than the rest of us, and we were the dried bones upon which it chewed. There was no real resting when we stopped. Hawk and I would push our way into the bush, plucking berries, digging up edible roots such as Indian potatoes and toothwort, pinching the heads from puffball mushrooms, stripping bark from hickory trees, which we boiled, to soften it. (This “bark stew” was also beneficial for the digestion, the sergeant informed me, and was a native treatment for diarrhea and venereal disease.) We also gathered wolf’s claw, an evergreen moss that grew in abundance on the forest floor, with dense needlelike leaves that Hawk boiled to make a kind of herbal tea. The taste was pungent and bitter—the doctor spat out his first sip—yet Hawk kept harvesting it. The spores were highly flammable, and he delighted in tossing them into the fire and watching the subsequent flash of hot white light.
We rose each day a little weaker than the day before, and halted each night a little hungrier. Our eyes took on the haunted, vacant look of slow starvation, and our voices were lean in the breathless air. We stumbled clumsily down trail and through dead meadow, and crossed the desolate miles of brûlé, the trackless snowbound desert, with the gray dome of the sky upheld by the blackened pillars of branchless trees. It was here that we spied the first sign of life since our escape from Sandy Lake. I tugged on Hawk’s coat and pointed to them, lazily circling overhead on immobile wings, riding the high wind directly above us. He nodded and quickly looked away.
“Buteos,” he said. “Buzzards.”
The doctor’s toe caught on a fallen branch. He pitched forward, twisting around just before he landed, to avoid crushing his precious cargo beneath him.
“I’m all right; I’m fine,” he snarled at Hawk, who had reached down to help him up. He slapped away the offered hand.
“Let me carry him awhile, Doc,” said the sergeant reasonably. “You look all done for.”
“Do not touch him. Do you understand? I’ll shoot you if you touch him. No one touches him but me!”
“I meant no offense,” replied Hawk. “Just trying to help.”
“This is mine,” the doctor gasped. “Mine!” He slipped his arms beneath Chanler’s body and struggled to his feet, where he stood swaying for an awful moment before falling again, landing this time with a muffled thump upon his backside. His friend’s head lolled against his chest.
“God damn you to hell,” the doctor whimpered to Chanler, the words smashed to nothing by the emptiness that engulfed him. “Why did you come here? What did you think you would find? You idiot . . . you imbecilic fool . . . What did you think you would find?”
He stroked the soft feathery hair. He pressed his cheek against the top of John Chanler’s head.
“Ah, come on now, Doc,” Hawk urged him. “It’s not as bad as all that.” He stepped toward him, and the doctor leveled his revolver at Hawk’s forehead.
“You could have prevented this!” he cried. “You were here a month ago. He was a stone’s throw from you and you left him. You left him!”
“Now, Doc, I told you what Fiddler said. . . .”
“The same thing he said to me, and did I listen? Did I take him at his word? Did I allow him to take me for a fool?”
“Well,” answered Hawk tensely, “maybe you’re just smarter than I am.”
“That is no compliment.”
With those words all passion drained from the doctor; his eyes glazed over; the hand holding the gun dropped to his side. His listlessness returned, the same curious apathy that had infected Hawk and me as well. Desolation’s progeny—the lifeless living, every word pointless, every gesture useless, every hope vain.
I cannot say what day it was—it may have been the tenth or eleventh since our escape from the Sucker camp—when Hawk pulled my master aside, telling me, “Stay with Chanler, Will. I need a word with your boss.” They walked several yards up the path, and I followed—which is completely understandable, I’m sure. I eased up behind them to eavesdrop on their hurried and anxious conversation.
“Are you certain?” the doctor was saying. He sounded worried but dubious.
Hawk nodded, wetting his lips. “At first I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. It happens in the bush. So I didn’t say anything, but there’s no mistaking it, Doctor. I’m sure of it.”
“Since . . . ?”
“First heard it yesterday morning. Nothing on the watch last night, then off and on today.”
Hawk shrugged. He wet his lips. “Something. I suppose it could be a wolf, though not a bear, nothing that big. It’s . . . strange.”
“If Fiddler’s men were responsible for Larose . . . ,” Warthrop began.
“Then it could be whoever filleted him,” Hawk finished, nodding. Again, his tongue swiped across his chapped lips. “Thought you should know.”
“Thank you, Sergeant,” the doctor said. “Perhaps we should force a confrontation?”
Hawk shook his head. “Just two of us—and God knows how many of them. Plus, there’s Chanler and Will to think about.”
I returned to Chanler, my mind racing. Beneath the blackened lids Chanler’s eyes roamed the darkness. Encompassing us, the mute forest brooded, shrouded in winter white.
The gray land was deceptively still. It kept its secrets.
Something was following us.
That night I saw the yellow eyes for the first time. I attributed it to my fevered imagination, overheated by the conversation earlier in the day—a trick of the firelight, I thought. Perhaps the reflection off a moth’s wing or some shiny bit of fungus. The trees were festooned with all types of it. No sooner had I noticed them than they were gone. A moment later they returned, deep in the woods and this time farther to my left, hovering several feet above the ground, almond-shaped, glowing like twin beacons.
I grabbed Sergeant Hawk’s forearm—the doctor had already crawled into the tent to lie with Chanler—and pointed. By the time he turned to look, the eyes had vanished again.
“What is it, Will?” he whispered.
“Eyes,” I whispered back. “Over there.”
For an eternity we waited, barely drawing breath, scanning the dark, but they did not reappear.
The eyes returned the following night. Warthrop saw them first, and rose silently to his feet, staring into the bush with a look of almost comical astonishment.
“Did you see that?” he asked us. “My eyes are probably playing tricks on me, but—”