“Demon!” Donna shrieked, flailing against us. “Demon! The Lord is angry with me!” Then she started babbling too fast to make any sense and began to collapse to the ground. Tim and Jake lowered her gently, and once her head was back against the snow, she promptly passed out.
“Please don’t let her die,” I said out loud, though I wasn’t sure to whom. I liked Donna a lot and she would not have been here in this situation if it wasn’t for me.
Jake felt along her neck and gave me a nod that looked exceedingly grim considering his face was streaked with her blood. “Pulse is weak, but it’s there.” He looked to his coat I was holding around the stump, how the blood kept pooling out underneath. “We need to stop the bleeding right now or she will die.” He looked to Avery. “Avery, I need you to go get the first aid supplies from the mule’s pack. Bring everything we didn’t use on Merv.”
Avery nodded, happy to be useful, and took off back toward Meeks and the mule. Only the crunch of his footsteps stopped right away.
I looked over my shoulder to see Avery standing still in his tracks. Further down was Meeks on top of his horse. Both of them were staring at something that was crawling slowly out of the forest, heading right for them.
While the man who attacked Donna had been partially clothed with disheveled white hair, this man was naked and ice blue. He looked just like the one who had taken Meek’s pinky.
Now he was pulling himself forward on his hands and knees as he came out of the snowbank, struggling to get up. I couldn’t help wondering if he was hurt or dying, even though there was no blood on him. Was this some sort of ruse that these creatures put on, pretending to be wounded or dead to gain sympathy? Surely they had to be smart enough to know it wouldn’t work a second time.
“Meeks, get out of there!” Jake yelled at him. But Meeks seemed too scared to even get his horse to move. Avery reached behind him for his knife, not taking his eyes off the creature who was still crawling forward toward Meeks.
I looked to Jake. “Throw Avery your gun!” I said frantically.
His eyes widened. “I don’t reckon a gun will do the trick.”
“Jesus Murphy, that just can’t be,” Tim swore and brought out his revolver. “This will at least scare the horses away.” He fired a shot at the creature and hit it in the shoulder, the snow around it quickly growing red with blood.
It didn’t stop him but it did scare the horses, so much that Meek’s palomino reared up, and with Meek’s useless hand, he was unable told on. He went flying off the back of the horse, landing in a puff of snow just a few feet away from the creature.
We all held our breath as the creature raised its head to look at Meeks. Then with one last burst of energy, the creature lunged and landed right on top of him.
Meeks screamed, trying to fight him off while Avery started sprinting toward them, his knife out.
But it was too late. Meeks was too injured, too fat, too slow. The creature buried his head into Meeks’ chest and with wet snarls, started feasting on him right there and then. Meeks screamed and screamed and then suddenly stopped. His heart was dangling from the creature’s bloody mouth.
I fought the urge to vomit while Jake was up on his feet and running toward Ali the mule, who was still trotting off in the distance in fright from the gunshot and the screaming. I had no idea what he was doing, and now Avery was at the creature, his knife raised in the air.
The creature cried out as Avery drove his knife into its back, again and again, until it swiped at Avery, knocking him a few feet back.
“Avery!” I yelled, and got to my feet, trying to get to him before the creature did. However weak it was before, it was now growing stronger by the minute.
The creature leaped at him, tackling him into the snow, while Avery tried to hold him back, keeping his snapping jaws just inches away from his face. Blood poured into Avery’s eyes and he was being overpowered with every second that passed.
I wasn’t going to make it to him in time. I wasn’t even sure what I was going to do to help him without getting myself killed, but I had to do something.
And apparently, Jake thought he had to do something too.
“Don’t move!” Jake yelled as he came running toward Avery, an axe held high above his head. I didn’t know if he was talking to me or Avery—probably both. I froze and Avery quickly turned his head to the side, closing his eyes tightly.
Jake swung the axe down like some kind of mythical god, his large muscles straining through his thin shirt as he let out a war cry, and the blade met with the back of the creature’s neck.
The axe didn’t go all the way through, just enough so the creature’s head was half off and Avery was able to roll out of harm’s way. Jake pulled the axe out and brought it right back down, this time severing the creature’s head. It rolled across the snow until it settled face up, those glazed blue eyes looking blankly at the sky.
Jake stuck out his hand and helped Avery to his feet. “Are you all right, boy?”
Avery nodded quickly, but I could tell he wasn’t all right, not mentally anyway. None of us were. Meeks was lying in the snow in a pool of his own blood, his heart having been ripped out and eaten by the same creature, man, monster that Jake just decapitated, while Donna was unconscious in Tim’s arms having lost her whole damn hand to another one of the monstrosities.
Jake looked around, his hand flexing on the handle of the axe. “I’ll go gather up the horses, while you guys get the first aid kit and fix her up best you can. We need to keep moving if we want to save Donna, and I reckon we’re much closer to Donner Lake than we are to the our last camp.”
“You reckon?” I repeated. “You don’t know?”
He shook his head and gave me a leveling look. “Isaac and Hank are gone, and we can’t wait around for them to come back. Isaac has the map. If we lose the trail, I’m afraid you’ll have to lead us there. And you’ll have to hurry. We may have killed one but there’s at least one still out there.”
With that in mind, Avery and I quickly got the kit from Ali and tended to Donna the best we could. In fact, all we could really do is apply the same treatment to her that she did to Meeks.
Poor Meeks. I kept looking behind me at his mangled, lifeless body that was constantly being shadowed by scavenger birds overhead. Jake quickly shot one before it had a chance to feast on him, saying it would make a good roast. He then picked off a few more birds that tried to peck at Meeks. I watched him carefully and knew from the pained look on his face that he was trying to be good to Meeks, even in death. It hit me even harder to see emotion on someone as stoic as Jake McGraw.
As soon as Donna was bandaged up and laid across the front of Jake’s saddle, we were on our way, heading back through the woods with her horse in tow behind Ali. We traveled for about an hour, all four of us looking to the forest with trepidation, certain that one of the monsters would come back for us. Every thump of melting snow, every crackle of a tree branch made us jump in our saddles.
I was trying my best to keep my senses on high alert, paying attention to any peculiar smells or noises, but after a while, we lost the trail just as Jake feared and it was up for me to find our way to Donner Lake. I could only hope that the lake truly was closer to us because we should have been heading back toward civilization. As far as I was concerned, no amount of money was worth any of our lives and yet Meeks had already paid that debt.
Truthfully, it was hard trying to find the trail. Many times I led everyone to a cliff face or an impassable river before we had to double back and find the way again. I knew they were getting impatient with me but I was trying my very best. The rapidly melting snow made it harder, messing up what could have been a scent trail and obscuring signs of passage. With the clock ticking away and all our lives on the line, not just Donna’s, I started to panic.
Then, when the path seemed to narrow again and it became nearly impossible to move forward, I spotted a piece of cloth hanging from a tree branch. It was dark green and blended in, and had no real smell to it except pine, but it was there and a sign we were in fact on the right path.
Soon the sky started to spread out above us as the trees became sparse. We turned a corner and came across a wide open space with snow-capped peaks in the distance. Donner Lake was frozen over, and on the other side were two log cabins, as if they’d been waiting for us.
We were too tired, our nerves too shot, to even smile at the sight. We could only coax our horses to go a bit faster until we were riding up to the front door.
The first cabin looked about as well-made as the previous camp. It had no glass in the narrow windows, only rotten shutters, but the building was bigger and looked strong enough. To the side and nestled in the trees was another cabin, this one missing the entire front wall. The inside was pretty much empty with the floorboards mostly ripped up leaving dirt in some places. There was no stable or shanty for the horses, so I suggested keeping them in there in case another storm blew through.
“Are you sure?” Tim asked me. He was staring down at me as I dismounted as if I was doing something wrong. “Seems the better idea would be to just let them roam free. I don’t think they’re going anywhere.”
“And if it snows?” I asked. “If they run onto the lake and fall through?”
“Tim,” Jake spoke up. “If Eve wants to put the horses away in there, let her. There’s no harm in it, and besides, she’s right.” He looked up to the sky. “Just because it’s warmer and it’s stopped snowing, doesn’t mean it’s over. Winter is still on its way.”
He dismounted, and together he and Avery lifted Donna’s deadweight off of Trouble. Jake shot me a quick look. “We’ll need your help first, though.”
I nodded. “Of course.” I grabbed the first aid pack off of Ali and followed the men into the cabin. It was dark and musty inside, and smelled absolutely horrible. I was surprised I hadn’t noticed it earlier. It wasn’t the same rotting scent of the creatures but it was revolting all the same. I put my hand over my nose as Tim quickly pushed open the shutters, flooding the cabin with stark rays of light and letting more air in.
With the darkness cleared, our eyes were now free to feast on the terror that lay before us. The entire cabin was in disarray: chairs and beds were turned over, straw strewn everywhere, even a child’s doll was torn in half. But none of that could hold a candle to what lay in and around the fire pit at the side of the cabin.
Piles of burnt bones—human bones—were stacked, spilling out onto the floorboards. In front of the fire lay two large pots, both of them crammed full of what looked to be children’s severed limbs.
There were no words.
But somehow Tim found them.
“Just what the hell happened to these people?” he exclaimed softly.
We all looked at Donna, limp in Jake’s strong arms. Piece by tragic piece, we were starting to have an idea. The snow storms weren’t the only danger the Donner party had faced. Not by a long shot.
While Tim and Jake cleared out the scene of carnage from the cabin, I helped Avery tend to Donna. She was still unconscious, though Avery had found a small packet of opium buried deep within the first aid pack, a remedy better than moonshine should she wake up.
When we’d done what we could for her, I threw on my thick shawl and started for the door.
“Where are you going?” Avery asked, wiping his hands dry on the last clean cloth we had. If we wanted to keep Donna’s wounds clean someone was going to have to start doing laundry soon and I had a feeling it would be me.
I looked over at Tim and Jake, who had gotten a fire started in the cleaned-out pit and were boiling water to make tea and coffee. They both eyed me in such a way that it made me feel on edge.
“I’m putting the horses away,” I said to Avery without taking my eyes off of them.
“I’m going with you,” he said. He grabbed his coat and shrugged it on. “I’m not letting you out there alone with those crazed people.”
Jake let out a dry laugh at the word “people” but didn’t say anything else.
“Sure,” I said. “I can use the help.”
We headed out into the dusk. There was little light left so Avery grabbed the kerosene lantern that was hanging by the door and we walked over to the horses that had already gathered inside the cabin anyway. Though the day had been mild, the dripping sound of melting snow had stopped and my breath was clouding around me. The night would be cold but as long as we all made it through alive, that was enough for me. I had a hard time complaining about trivial things when someone like Meeks had lost their life in such a brutal way.
The empty cabin had hard-packed dirt which was perfect for the horses, and they were all huddled together with their gear still on. Though it was cold, the missing wall was south-facing and only a little bit of snow had drifted through the roof. Avery and I quickly started getting them untacked, and once he had only his own horse to do, I went around with the lamp and tried to make the cabin a safer place. There was a section of broken and loose floorboards near the middle that could cause a problem if one of the horses stepped on it.
I started prying them off the ground and putting them off to the side when my hands went through the dirt beside one of the boards. Curious, I pushed it aside and looked down. There was a square hole cut into the ground, not too deep and about two feet wide and long. In the middle of the square was a leather satchel. And in the satchel was a gleam of gold.
I blinked, feeling stuck in place, and tried to make sense of what I was looking at. I bent over and brought the lamp closer. Now the gold danced with the light, sending off a beautiful glow like a million summer sundowns. I was transfixed. With one hand I reached into the bag and carefully pulled out a heavy bar of gold, its surface chilled and shiny smooth.