“Couple years ago I brought one out, and he went home without a face. A big grizzly hooked him in the eye sockets, punched out both his eyes with his claws, and ripped his whole face off. Just tore it completely off, the stupid blind bastard. I hiked back to Rat Portage with his God damn face in my pocket! How’s that for your trophy, you rich, stupid, blind, faceless bastard!”
He laughed again, spat again. Glimmering specks of blood and spittle clung to his whiskers. He threw his wide shoulders back and flexed his powerful chest toward the doctor.
“I’ll get you out, Dr. Monstrumologist. One way or the other—even if it means I point the way with my cold, dead finger—I’ll get you out.”
Later I joined the doctor inside the tent, balancing my elbow on my upraised knee to elevate my hand; the wound throbbed horribly. We could see Hawk’s hunkered silhouette through the open flap.
“Are we lost?” I whispered. My uninjured hand slowly caressed my aching belly. Hunger had become a knotted, twisting fist buried deep in my core.
The doctor did not answer at first.
“If we lose him, we are,” he said. He meant “lose” in every sense of the word.
His hand reached out in the darkness. I felt his warmth against my cheek. I flinched: I was not used to the doctor touching me.
“No fever,” he said quickly, removing his hand. “Good.”
Exhausted, I fell into a doze. I awakened to find him curled against me, Chanler against him, and Pellinore Warthrop’s hand was wrapped around my arm. He had reached for me in his sleep—me the buoy to keep him afloat, or he the weight to keep me from flying away.
When I opened my eyes, his were looking back at me—not the doctor’s, Chanler’s—and those eyes were a curious polished yellow, like marbles, splintered by arterial red fissures, as if some great force had squeezed them until they cracked. I lay close enough to see my reflection in the sightless pupils. For an instant I was certain he had passed away during the night. Then I heard his breath rattling, deep in his narrow chest, and I let out my own breath in relief. What a terrible thing it would have been, to have traveled so far and endured so much, only to have him die so close to deliverance! Remembering the last time our eyes had met, I scooted backward to place some distance between us, and when I did, the eyes did not follow but remained fixed upon the spot I had occupied. The cadaverous mouth moved; no sound emerged. Perhaps he was beyond breath for words.
I rolled out of the tent and stood blinking stupidly, for my mind rebelled against the sight. The camp was deserted. The smoke of the expired campfire lingered lazily in the cold morning air. That was the only movement I saw. Gone were the doctor and Hawk, and gone were their rifles.
Softly I called their names. My voice sounded small and muffled, like the cry of a wounded forest animal, and so I called out in a loud voice, “Dr. Warthrop! Sergeant Hawk! Hello! Hello!” My calls seemed to travel no farther than a foot from my mouth, slapped down by the malicious hand of the brooding trees, the syllables smashed to bits by the oppressive atmosphere. I shut my mouth, heart rocketing in my chest, abashed, thinking, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, for I had offended something; my cries were an affront to the malignant animus of the wilderness.
I heard someone speak directly behind me. I turned. Guttural and gurgling with phlegm, Chanler’s voice floated in the frigid air, as ephemeral as the smoke rising from the smoldering brands. Not words belonging to any human tongue, nor mindless blather, more like the gibbering of a toddler mimicking speech, struggling to make concrete the abstract, the thoughts we think before we have words to think them.
I poked my head into the tent opening. The man had not moved. He lay curled upon his side, hands drawn to his chest, lips shining with spittle, the thick, yellowish tongue wrestling with words he knew but could not enunciate.
“Gudsnuth nesht! Gebgung grojpech chrishunct. Cankah!”
I flopped onto the ground with my back to the tent, fighting the mindless terror that now threatened to overwhelm me. Where had they gone? And why had they left without telling me? Surely the doctor at least would have awakened me before he left.
Unless he couldn’t. Unless something had snatched him in the night, seized both him and Hawk. Unless . . . I recalled the hysterical laughter of our distressed guide, the red flush of his unshaven cheek, the blood flying from his lips. . . . What if his mind had finally given way and he had done something to the doctor, and was now disposing of his body, in this gray land that never gives up its secrets?
I patted my pockets, unable to remember if I had returned the doctor’s revolver. Evidently I had.
What should I do? Should I go looking for my missing companions? What if they were not missing at all but had decided to investigate something one had seen or heard—or had merely gone out to hunt for game, to return at any moment? And what would the doctor say if and when I ever stumbled back into camp—what measure of wrath would come down upon my foolish head for wandering off alone into the bush, abandoning the sole reason we had come here? So I wondered, trying to arrange the deck chairs of my pitching and yawing faculties, buffeted by the maddening nonsense inside the tent and the panic bubbling up inside me.
He could be hurt, I thought. Lying out there, unable to call for help. I might be able to save him, but who will save me?
Any action at all is better than paralyzed dread, so I forced myself up with a Snap to, Will Henry! and quickly surveyed the ground, looking for footprints or any other sign that might shed light on what had happened. I detected no scuff marks or wounded soil, nothing to indicate a struggle. I did not know whether to be relieved or further perturbed. While I was thus employed, I heard something coming toward me, the crunch and snap of undergrowth announcing its approach. I turned on my heel and raced back to camp, to what real purpose I cannot say, for I was just as vulnerable there as here, with no means of defending myself, except the steaming broken branch I plucked from the ashes of the fire and swung before me as I backed toward the tent.
“Watch out!” I cried. “I have a weapon!”
“Will Henry, what the devil are you doing?”
He stepped into the clearing, the rifle resting in the crook of his arm, his clothes speckled with moisture, his dark eyes ringed in black and sunk deep in his pale whiskered face. I dropped my “weapon” and ran to him, overcome with relief. My first instinct was to throw my arms around his waist in thanksgiving, but something in his expression stopped me. With the acute intuition possessed by all children, I knew what that expression meant.
“Where’s Sergeant Hawk?” I asked.
“That is indeed the pertinent question, Will Henry, but what is that sound?”
“It’s Dr. Chanler, sir. He—”
He brushed me aside and hurried into the tent. I heard Warthrop call his friend’s name, only to be answered by the same incoherent babble. The doctor came out again after a few minutes, dug into his duster pocket, said “Here,” and dropped the revolver into my hands.
“Where is Sergeant Hawk?” I asked again.
“I was in a deep sleep,” the doctor began, “when something woke me around dawn. I don’t know what it was, but when I stepped outside, the sergeant was gone. I’ve been bumping about in those blasted woods for more than an hour and can find neither hide nor hair of the fool. Where he went and why he went, without a word to anyone, I do not know.” He tapped with the tip of his boot the stick I had dropped. “What were you going to do with this, Will Henry?”
“Hit you with it, sir.”
“I didn’t have the gun.”
“So if you’d had the gun, you would have shot me?”
“Yes, sir. No, sir! I would never shoot you, sir. Not on purpose anyway.”
“Perhaps you should give it back to me. Your answer—or answers—have not served to put me entirely at ease, Will Henry.”
He looked past me, into the abysmal shadows ringing the little clearing.
“A troubling development, given the apparent flimsiness of the sergeant’s mental condition,” he mused dispassionately, as if we were sitting comfortably in his study discussing the latest Jules Verne novel. “No sign of a struggle, no cry in the night to wake either of us, no note or explanation given.”
He looked down at me. “How long has John been awake?”
“I don’t know. He was staring . . . looking at me when I woke up, and the talking—or whatever it is—began a few minutes ago.”
“I don’t think he was looking at you, Will Henry—or at anything else. He is still . . . not wholly with us.”
He fell silent for a moment, deep in thought, and then nodded his head curtly.
“We shall cling to hope. Pointless to break camp on our own and wander about the woods looking for a way out. Equally fruitless to search for him. Only by dumb luck would we find him, and we haven’t had too much of that—dumb or any other kind! The rest will also do John some good—us, too, Will Henry. We will wait.”
It was a decision that feigned as action, but the alternatives were unthinkable to us both. I scavenged about the immediate vicinity for more kindling and anything the miserly forest might offer up by way of victuals, while the doctor crouched in the tent with Chanler, trying to coax from him something a bit more intelligible than gebgung grojpech and cankah!
Dr. Warthrop gave up after an hour and joined me by the resurrected fire, where we spoke little and kept our eyes forward and our hands on our weapons, starting at every crack of a twig or stir of a dry leaf, while low-hanging clouds scudded across the sky, diluting the light to an exhausted gray, the cover pushed along by a high wind that shunned the sullen earth.
The air about us was motionless, an acrid shroud of rotting vegetation laced with the faintest tincture of death, the palpable tartness of decay. The stench of rot, the smell of putrefying filth! Hawk had called it. It suffused the campsite. I smelled it rising from my clothes. We have gone far in our public places to push death aside, to consign it to a dusty corner, but in the wilderness it is ever present. It is the lover who makes life. The sensuous, entwined limbs of predator and prey, the orgasmic death cry, the final spasmodic rush of blood, and even the soundless insemination of the earth by the fallen tree and crumbling leaf; these are the caresses of life’s beloved, the indispensable other.
Dusk crept over the land, and still there was no sign of the missing sergeant. Warthrop wore a path between the tent and the fire, fetching water and bits of forage for John Chanler. The water he managed to get into him, but the food Chanler refused, letting the morsels fall from his mouth with a gagging cry of revulsion. The eyes remained open, fixed, incognizant.
My uneasiness grew as the light faded. The likelihood of there being an innocent explanation for the sergeant’s absence diminished with each passing hour. If he had gone ahead to scout the trail or had ventured into the bush for some much-needed animal protein, he would have returned by now. The viable explanations remaining were not pleasant to contemplate—especially for a twelve-year-old boy who up to that voyage had not journeyed more than twenty miles from his front doorstep. Forgetting for a moment with whom he kept company, that boy turned to the sole source of comfort available to him. Unfortunately for him, that happened to be Dr. Pellinore Warthrop.