The Wild

Page 14


The dogs turned away. Jack felt a momentary pang of regret at their departure, and he almost called them back. But whatever part they were playing this night was over, and he was keen to see what was to come. Something’s happening, he thought. He assured himself again that he was not asleep; the vibrancy of his senses convinced him of that. His skull hurt, and his neck, and his limbs and ribs from where the slavers had beaten him. But the pain seemed fresh and vital, as startling as the burn of returning sensation after almost freezing to death.

He looked beyond the camp, because he knew that whatever happened next would come from there. And then he saw the wolf.

It stood below a line of trees a hundred feet from the camp, up a steep slope that led out of the creek and to the hillsides higher up. It stood in just the right place for the newly revealed moon to touch it, and its mottled gray pelt seemed to shine.

“There you are,” Jack whispered, and at the sound of his voice the wolf began to walk. It was making for the camp. No! he thought. No, they’ll see you, they’ll shoot you! He looked frantically for the trail dogs, but they had already melted away into the camp, returning to their hidden places like shadows beneath the sun.

Jack could see only the wolf’s head and the tip of its tail for a while as it came closer, its step confident, no hesitation at all in its approach.

“They’ll see you,” he whispered, glancing around desperately for the sentries. But they were still absent. Nothing stirred among the tents; nothing moved around the fire.

The wolf disappeared behind one of the tents and then emerged close to the closed flap. It sniffed at the tent, then started across toward Jack. It was beautiful. As the creature moved gracefully, its fur caught the moonlight in rolling lines, shadows dancing across its coat like breaths of smoke. Its eyes were alight, brighter than the meager campfire, and they never moved from Jack’s face.

“You’re here,” Jack said as the wolf stopped ten paces from him. He sniffed, and he could smell the animal scents; he closed his eyes, and he could hear the wolf breathing.

It came closer and pressed its muzzle against Jack’s throat.

He snapped his eyes open, and he was staring into the wolf’s face. It opened its jaws, slowly, and closed them on the collar of Jack’s coat. Then it pulled.

It wants me to leave, he thought. “But…”

The wolf growled, so softly, and then it darted to Jack’s feet. In seconds it had bitten through the ropes binding his legs together, and in another few heartbeats it had gnawed the rope staking him to the ground. It turned its head and looked past Jack, back at the forest from which it had emerged. It growled again, slightly louder.

“Merritt,” Jack whispered. “If I go and he stays behind, they’ll kill him.”

The wolf grabbed his hand in its jaws, a lightning-fast movement. He felt its wet tongue, the heat of its insides, and the incredibly hot points where its teeth pressed into his skin. It’s going to drag me! he thought, panicked, and there was no way he’d be able to fight such an action. But it bit once, then let go and walked a few steps back the way it had come.

Jack crouched, wincing as circulation returned to his legs. He should have been seen by now, and so should the wolf, but he was being offered an opportunity here, the chance to get away and seek help. Hal had said that the mounted police patrolled these vast northern areas, and if he could get away and find them, bring them back, then maybe…

The wolf’s hackles rose as it looked back and forth between Jack and the forest. It trotted back toward the tents…then gripped the flap of one in its teeth and pulled.

“No!” Jack said, louder than he’d intended. Nobody stirred, and the wolf let go of the flap and stared back at him. I can go, he thought. I can follow it out of the camp as easily as I watched it walk in, and once I’m away, I can do my best for these men. I can fetch help. Right then, weighing the chance of that against the possibility of ever overcoming William’s men—however much he knew about them, however good his knowledge—there was no real alternative.

Besides, this was not the first time the wolf had saved his life.

I’ll leave the camp and it will be gone, he thought. Vanished back to wherever it comes from. He went, moving quickly but carefully, and as he passed between two tents, he could hear men snoring inside. The wolf stood before him, resplendent in its coat of starlight. He followed, and as he crossed the grasses and entered into the forest, he expected the crack of a rifle at any moment, and the impact of a bullet between his shoulder blades. But none came.

The wolf did not pause. It led him up the slope, heading out of the creek bed and toward whatever wilderness lay beyond, but Jack’s flush of freedom did not last for long.

Minutes after entering the forest, he sensed that he was being followed.

And moments after that, he knew that whatever stalked the darkness was nowhere near human.

He could smell it: rotten meat, rank flesh, insides turned out. It pursued him, and he turned around to see its face. But however quickly he turned, the thing was always behind him. It made no noise, but it was always there. Jack ran. The wolf led the way, and whenever he feared it would leave him behind, it slowed down, giving him time to catch up. Not for a moment did he believe the thing following him was one of William’s men. If he had believed that, he would have turned to fight. This thing kept its face hidden from him, buzzing around him like his own echo. And Jack ran.

The slope was steep, but he dug his hands and feet into the soft ground and pulled himself up. The wolf was close in front of him, so close that he could smell it again, and when he glanced back and saw fleeting movement from the corner of his eye, the wolf loosed a low, mournful howl as if Jack were already dead.

Low down in the creek behind him he saw the glow of the firelight.

The slope leveled a little, and Jack was able to move faster. If the wolf had not been with him, he believed he would have screamed, so close was his pursuer. He could smell the stench of it, almost feel it reaching for him with each tree he passed and each shadow that merged with his own. He glanced back again, and once more the thing coming after him flitted from his line of sight. He paused for a moment and turned left and right, looking up through the branches at the stars and down at the mud between his feet. Still his pursuer eluded his view.

I was safe back there! he thought. People around me and the fire, and I was safe!

This thing, whatever it might be, was playing with him. It could have closed in on him at any moment, and if it had meant to kill him, it could have done just that.

Jack shouted. His voice, a wordless scream of rage and frustration and fear, echoed across the creek. What nightmares will I seed in those sleeping men’s heads? he thought, and then his own nightmare appeared before him.

At first, he knew that he must be asleep and dreaming. This was the most realistic dream ever, but he would wake up aching from the beating and shivering in fright from his nightmare, and then he would go back to the creek and start panning for gold again. The idea held a sort of comfort for him, because at least then the danger was something he was used to and could face: the brutality of man. Here, standing before him in these dark woods and staring back with eyes that he recognized all too well, the danger was far from known.

He stared at himself. Haggard, emaciated, weak, his skin so thin it was almost translucent, teeth missing from bloody gums, hair fallen out in clumps from a loosened scalp, neck and jowls hanging low and empty, and Jack London’s eyes—for his they were—were older, and darker than he had ever believed possible. This was the face of a man who had seen the pit of hell and returned with its madness imprinted upon him.

Wendigo, Jack thought, amazed and terrified, and the wolf bit into his ankle. He screamed and fell, and when he looked up again, the thing had gone. He caught sight of a shadow some distance away, and as it moved downhill toward the camp, it grew, expanding into the physical and finding its true, huge, monstrous form. Undergrowth rustled at its passing. Tree trunks cracked.

And Jack knew what it would do. Everyone in the camp, including—

“No,” he said. “Merritt, no!”

Jack ran, and this time he went downhill. He had no inkling of what he could do when he reached the camp again, and there was no real logic to his actions, but he could not leave Merritt there alone. Not with this…not with…

Why didn’t the Wendigo eat me? he thought.

The wolf howled again behind him. Jack heard the sounds of pursuit, and this time he knew what came. It had saved his life, taken him away from the camp where he would surely die…but he had not known just how close that death might be.

“No!” he said, voice shaking. “Not Merritt!” In the forest only barely lit by the moonlight, he ran headlong down the slope. At any moment he could hit a rock and break his leg, or run into a tree and smash open his skull. But the wolf was behind him, his spirit guide watching; though he had turned away from it for a moment, he still trusted its influence.

The monster moved through the trees before him, but it was far away now, much farther down the slope. Between blinks it disappeared, and the next moment he felt a great weight crash against his back, knocking him to the ground. The wolf rolled with him, pinning him down. Jack thrashed against it, and somehow he was up and running again, aiming for the last line of trees before the grass plain that led to the camp.

The first of the screams rose up. Panicked, terrified, cut off by a terribly wet, ripping sound.

“No!” Jack shouted.

The wolf drove him down again, its weight too much for him this time. It sat astride him, and Jack had to watch as the slaughter began. The trees obscured some of his vision, and for that he was thankful.

The moon retreated behind clouds again, and the campfire was soon snuffed out, kicked apart by something stampeding through the camp. Sparks and flames danced through the night for a moment, and some specks caught on the breeze and wafted across to the stream.

The shadow darted back and forth across the camp, moving quickly for something so large.

Gunshots rang out, single reports at first, and then a series of rapid cracks from all around. Each muzzle blast cast the shadow in a different view, a different aspect, and several of them together revealed a blink of an ambiguous shape rolling around the camp. Huge and white furred, black mawed and bloody, claws like the curved daggers of the Orient.

Beneath the gunshots, and filling the spaces between them, came the screams of dying men. Some cried out only briefly before their voices were cut off. Others screamed on and on, their cries interspersed with the sounds of crunching bone and tearing flesh.

The shape moved here and there…and still it grew in size. With every meal it ate, it became larger.

More gunshots, and then Jack saw two shapes running his way.

“Here!” he cried, not caring whether they were slavers or slaves. One of them fell and was stomped by something indefinable, his shout ground down into the soil. The other got farther, but not much. His arms and legs flashed out as he was hauled backward, and just as he disappeared from view—his demise obscured by something huge—Jack saw his head twisted around on his torso.

With every meal it ate, it became larger.

He looked for Merritt, but it was too dark and confused to make out individual faces.

The chaos went on for several minutes. One of the tents was lifted high, flapping and drifting down in the breeze and coming to rest across the remains of the fire. The fabric smoldered and smoked but did not burst into flames. Someone started praying, and his prayer continued for some time. Maybe because this man was not trying to escape, the monster left him alone for a while, slaughtering those who did run. Eventually the prayer stopped, dwindling to a halt rather than being snuffed out. Moments later, something crunched.

Another shape made for the trees. Jack thought it was one man to begin with, but then he saw that it was two very close together. Merritt! he thought, desperate to see his friend’s face. But as they drew nearer, he identified them: Archie from his lumbering run, and William from the way he clung to the big man’s shoulders.

It was a most ridiculous sight, but Jack could not even muster a smile. Maybe William had injured his legs. Or perhaps in the height of his panic, Archie had picked up his boss and run with him, the ultimate devotion in the face of such insanity.

The wolf still pinned Jack to the ground, and it growled at the two men drawing closer.

“This way!” Jack called, and the wolf growled again.

Archie stumbled and fell, spilling William into the long grass. Between the trees, its true bulk obscured by the canopy, Jack saw the looming shape of the monster drawing close.

Archie reached out a hand for help. William stood, pulled a gun, and shot him, then turned and ran directly for the line of trees from which Jack and the wolf watched. There was nothing wrong with his legs, it seemed, but as he drew closer, he paused, staggering to a halt.

Does he see me? Jack wondered. Surely not; it was too dark. But William’s eyes were wide, his hand lifting as if to point, as the shape grabbed him up in two gigantic hands and tore him apart.

Jack buried his face in his hands. The wolf lay down on him, as if to shield him from view. But he could still hear. The screams had ended, the attack was over, but this long night would not end for some time.

The feast, after all, had only just begun.

CHAPTER NINE

UNTO THE HANDS OF BEAUTY

WHEN HE COULD NO LONGER LISTEN—when the tearing and gnawing sounds made by the Wendigo at its supper became too much to bear—Jack got up and ran. The wolf allowed him to slip free. The whole world seemed to tilt beneath his feet and to blur around him, and it felt as though he had somehow slid out of waking and into a dreadful nightmare without ever realizing it, stepping into the realm of dreams. His mind could not reconcile the horrors he had witnessed with the weight of his own flesh and bones.

How could this be real?

He careened across rough ground, fleeing not only for his life but for his sanity. Half starved and badly beaten, ribs bruised, legs numb, chest burning with exertion and body trembling with exhaustion, Jack London ran for survival, and the wolf ran with him. Sometimes the beast raced at his side, other times it loped effortlessly ahead, flicking a glance back his way to urge him on.

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