1875 - The Woods
The sound of our horses' hooves is dampened by a layer of dewy leaves as they tread with a cautious gait. About twenty paces in front and to my right, Red Beauchamp sits astride a mottled Dun Appaloosa, a Spencer .56 Repeater rifle cradled in his arms. He's been an employee of the Cartwright family since Garrett was just a sprout, and the best tracker in the county. Beauchamp signals me with two soft clicks of his tongue. His fingers lead my eyes to a swath of blood on the nearby foliage. The splatters have diminished in size as we ride further into the oaks and pines.
I bring my paint to a canter, catching up with the grizzled huntsman. He leans close and speaks quietly. "En you say dey done took a sheep? No hens or goats?"
"Ayuh," I assent. "Too big for a coyote. Wolves maybe. What do you think, Boo-shemp?" Ever since childhood, my drawl has disallowed the proper French-Cajun pronunciation of the man's last name. I'd call him Red, but he prefers the surname, and it would not feel right to disregard that.
"Wolves don' come aroun' here normal. But stranger things have happen'd. You bring yuh sidearm? If'n it wolves, you gone need more shots 'en dat musket give yuh. Ain't gone have all day ta reload. But I put my money on a mountain lion. And dis here," he pats the rifle lovingly, "It put down a mountain lion jus' fine."
We have to follow the blood trail, since the carpet of leaf detritus is too thick for making out prints. Here and there can be found occasional drag marks, from where the burden of the livestock corpse became too heavy to carry aloft. About two miles into the forest, we find the missing sheep's carcass under an outcrop of rocks. The scene is grim, with its body rent in two, as if torn apart in a frenzy.
"You ever seen a mountain lion act so ravenous?" I ask.
Beauchamp's eyes are full of fear when he answers, his voice inflected with a tremble. "I was wrong, Joshua. Dey carry it here in pieces."
I trace his dread stare back to the source. Trampled among the bisected ewe's entrails are the signs of our doom. Tracks. Too small to be a mountain lion, and worse, more than a single set. I can't make out the exact number, my sight keeps shooting wildly to the brush. The horses nicker and turn in tight circles as we reign them in. They are alert to the impending danger, attuned in ways of nature that man has not been privy to for generations.
There, in the shrubs behind Beauchamp, I glimpse a pair of gray wolves. Slowly, I raise my musket in his direction, hoping the old man can reckon my intent. Mayhap not, as he raises his rifle to meet mine. I can't help the look of questioning that overcomes me as he draws his iron sight level with my head. But he keeps on aiming upward, and it dawns on me that we've been outwitted.
The crack of Beauchamp's rifle echoes off the rock and wood. A wolf falls from the outcrop above me, and lands dead with a thud at the feet of my horse. The spooked paint rears back, throwing off my balance as I pull my trigger. Red's horse goes down, with him caught underneath it, felled by my errant musket ball. Comprehending the moment of weakness, one wolf sets on the trapped man. The other breaks away, covering the distance before I have time to reload. It springs and knocks me clean from my steed.
My only thought is a flash of survival instinct. I lift my hand to protect my throat. Sharp teeth pierce my palm as I scream in pain. The wolf shakes its head back and forth in quick, jerky motions, trying to get an opening to my jugular. I can feel my fingers separating from the rest of my hand. I push the mangled digits farther into the wolf's mouth, and with my remaining hand, I find the Colt .36 Navy revolver strapped to my side. The hammer clicks as I thumb it back, and the gun thunders when a round is loosed into the wolf's belly. It takes two more bullets before the beast slumps over, dead.
I shove the furry body off of me and clamber over towards Beauchamp, whose feet kick out desperately. The lone wolf's muzzle is buried in the huntsman's neck, snapping and slavering. It doesn't even regard me as I empty the rest of the chambers into it. I drop beside Red's mauled body.
"Boo-shemp! Boo-shemp! Look at me, alright? Don't sleep, you look at me, hear?"
Blood pumps in gouts from his ruined neck. Beauchamp coughs, sending spatters of it across my face. He tries to say something, but all that comes out is a ragged wheeze.
"Hush now, save your strength. I need you to calm down. I gotta fix you, okay?"
I raise my hand to staunch the blood flow. The ring and index fingers hang past my wrist, attached only by thin strands of tendon. I put it back down out of sight and ready the other hand. After choking down a wave of nausea, my good fingers probe his slick neck for the open jugular. Beauchamp grabs me by the shoulders with crushing intent as I shove my thumb into the vein. An old trick Doc Pallin taught me from his days in the Rebel army.
"Let it be Boo-shemp, just let it be." I caress the side of his face like a mother would a child, as he feebly tries to fight me. "We gotta stand up together, alright? Up on your feet, old man." I pull him up in stages, each movement unleashing agonizing moans through the hunter's clenched teeth.
My Paint is nowhere to be found. I never even saw him cut and run. Beauchamp's Appaloosa kicks and whinnies from its side on the ground, a dark stain forming underneath it.
"Sorry, girl." My voice cracks with remorse. She should be put out of her misery, but I can't remove my hand from Beauchamp's neck, and the other is so destroyed that my aim would only make things worse. Instead, I turn around and shuffle-step back towards the farm, my arms wrapped around my friend in an awkward bear hug.
We're about halfway home and the midday sun is almost directly overhead. Shafts of light peek through the tree canopy, the sound of birds and the breeze mixing with my sharp grunts. It's all background noise. I'm still hearing the horse's cries, haunting me from a mile away. With each step, my rent fingers bounce against Beauchamp's unmoving chest, causing me to whimper like a babe. I stopped feeling his pulse against my thumb about fifteen minutes ago, but I don't want to let go. I no longer have the strength to keep us both upright. Together we tumble to the forest floor.
Once my breath returns, I roll away from the dead man and reach down to my boot for my Bowie knife. Placing it on the grass next to me, I try to focus on Beauchamp as I pick pieces of soggy leaves from my injured hand.
He looks at peace, like he's just napping in the middle of the clearing. Thank god he had the decency to shut his eyes before passing on, I don't have the time for ritual. If I make it back, I'll make sure to send men to retrieve the body. Beauchamp deserves a right Christian burial.
The knife's soft leather sheath goes in between my lips. I bite down gently, readying myself mentally for the gruesome task. Kneeling now, I place the useless fingers under my boot and pull them taut, causing pain to blaze up my arm and threaten me with unconsciousness. The leather is chewy under my teeth, as sweat and involuntary tears mix with hide. The strung tendons quiver with my shaking, gleaming pearl-white where they aren't stained with gore and dirt. I want to do this in as few cuts as possible.
Birds fly from the tree tops, chased away by my screams of agony. Memories of Beauchamp and Doc Pallin flicker through my mind, holding Peter down on that old maple dinner table, a makeshift sacrificial altar. Peter with a belt between his teeth, appearing prophetic in this instant. My vision flares white, then blurs black at the edges, until the final sawing motion sets my hand free.
The next moments fade in and out. Trees that outline the familiar hunting path. Sunlight, exposing the disrepair of the manor, with its shabby gables and boarded-up windows. The fence I constructed with my eldest son, not two years ago. The bloody handprint I smear onto the door jamb of the farmhouse.
I feel the soft linen sheets beneath me, telling me that I'm in Peter's guestroom and not my own house. Peter's voice gains volume and clarity as my hearing becomes more focused, a hushed reading of something in French. Dumas, probably. His favorite writer. The narration comes to a close and he gingerly places his hand in the good one I have left.
"I should have run off with a merchant vessel, Joshua. Made a passage to France. A swashbuckler's life for me, huh? Surely it would be better than paying for the sins of the fathers. It wasn't supposed to be like this. You were never meant to understand what it is to not be whole."
The crack in his voice becomes a quiet sob, the tremors of his body coursing their way into mine. I do not open my eyes, lest he be embarrassed by this moment of weakness. Instead, I let these seconds of familial intimacy usher me back to sleep, where I no longer ponder whether my brother's tears were for me, or for himself.