My sole visit to the Morrison home after the events of last week proved heartbreaking. Catharine sat rigid in a rocking chair next to a feather bed, her gentle hands knotted and working feverishly. Her brown eyes, once so vibrant and alive, were glassy and vacant; fixed on some point beyond the log wall with its mud mortar and tufts of straw. But that was not the worst of it. What tightened my throat was the thin line of drool trickling down the corner of her mouth to pool on her lap.
That constant discharge unnerved me, and I dabbed at it repeatedly while engaging her in conversation, discussing aimlessly about the weather and the latest goods at Rousseau’s general store. But, despite my best efforts, she never acknowledged me. I do not believe she was aware of my presence.
Frustrated and grief-stricken, I took my leave, though not before exchanging words with Mrs. Morrison about Catharine’s condition, imploring the woman to alert me over any change.
My farewells said, I strode the long dirt path to the town street where I briefly acknowledged sombre greetings from concerned well-wishers. I set out west for the long walk to the garrison at York and the bottle of rum I knew waited. Alone with my thoughts, I reflected on the events from those grisly days, events that would haunt me to my death.
“Eliot. Corporal Matthew Eliot.”
The pronunciation of my name with that Scottish lilt brought a smile of anticipation to my lips. Planting my shovel into ground churned by last night’s thunderstorm, I straightened and wiped at the sweat on my forehead. I was more than eager for a break in the tedious task of road repair.
Catharine Crane stood not a dozen paces from me, smiling her greeting. I could not help but notice the long brown hair that cascaded from under a green bonnet to curl about her shoulders, framing a heart-shaped face with its slightly upturned nose and full lips. Even her dress, at one time immaculate, but now well-worn and tattered from the hard life of farming, distracted little from her beauty.
The men in my unit paused in their labors and offered polite greeting. Rough veterans of the American Colonial wars, they were perfect gentlemen when Catharine appeared along the old Indian trail that led from her parent’s farm to York.
Walking was an accepted way of life in these parts. Horse and wagon were luxuries few possessed in a town barely three years old and boasting a meager four hundred souls. The lack of transport forced most farmers to make the long trek by foot to trade for supplies. In turn, these were delivered by a few entrepreneurs who could afford such teams. Of course, there was always a charge for the service.
Catharine’s farm was a few miles beyond the garrison at York, which was itself a mile and a half west of town. She was seven when her parents had ventured north in 1780 during the American rebellion to purchase property along the north coast of Lake Ontario.
The original owners were a large family, original settlers, who spent years hacking out acres of pine, oak and birch trees, clearing land for crops and livestock. But continued war between Loyalists and Patriots had cost them their sons, leaving the grieving and heart-broken parents land they could no longer tend. Eventually the farm went for sale and was purchased by the Cranes. This was where Catharine grew up.
Never married, she was the perennial object of suiting, and with no lack of contenders. Well dressed gentlemen, rough garbed laymen and soldiers of the Queen’s York Rangers at one time or another vied for her hand. She politely declined all. It was a chance meeting at Hanlon’s wharf, and an offered escort to her farm that evening which ignited our friendship, a friendship that soon evolved into love.
On those days when my duties required no service at the garrison, or working the Indian trail from York to Burlington, I devoted much of my free time laboring on the Crane farm, clearing extra land for crops or hunting game for the table. Any chore that kept me near Catharine.
The storm the previous night had been particularly violent. Trees had toppled, their ancient roots exposed to the elements, many of the thick trunks snapped like twigs, others shattered and blackened by ferocious lightning strikes chased by the deep explosion of rolling thunder. The storm passed at dawn’s approach, replaced by a dense, energy-sapping humidity.
I wiped my forehead a second time watching Catharine approach, her youthful face wrinkled with concentration while negotiating scattered puddles, broken branches and cords of randomly bundled planks.
Hesitating at one particularly wide stretch of muddy water, she frowned and cast me a despairing look. I chuckled and hurried over, offering my hand. Smiling, she took it, her grasp cool in the stifling heat. Gingerly she leapt over the stagnant pool.
“Thank you, sir,” she said. Looking down, she tutted as one hand brushed at the twigs and burrs clustered about the lower half of her dress. Her other hand remained firmly in mine. Pursing her lips, she said, “Serves me right for wearing my best today. Ruined it, I did.”
I shared her joke. “I suppose you could ask your mother to sew another.” After a pause I grinned slyly. “Or perhaps you could try that deer-hide outfit Chief Wabakinine of the Mississaugas presented you a month back.”
Catharine playfully slapped my hand with her free one. “And stir your blood? I think not.” She glanced at the men standing nearby, men who by all accounts should have returned to work. Lowering her voice, she said, “Why do they stare, Matthew? Have they never seen a woman before?”
I sighed. Catharine was anything but naive, and she was not above fishing for a compliment. “They stare because you are a jewel in a chest of tarnished copper.” I shrugged. It was a poor line, but I was hot, sweaty and distracted by her touch. It was true, though. In a town where single young women were scarce, the woman holding my hand was indeed a treasure.
Catharine wrinkled her nose. “A chest of tarnished copper? Perhaps I should indulge one of these fine gentlemen to purchase me a new dress. I know of a seamstress in town who makes wonderful clothes. Tarnished copper indeed.”
I glanced at the sky. The sun struggled to burn through a thin layer of clouds. “It is past noon, Catharine. Would you accept my offer to escort you to this seamstress?”
Catharine nodded. “I would be most appreciative of your company, copper and all.” After the moment of whimsy she frowned. “Sadly, my journey does not involve a new dress, but to find the doctor.”
My grip on her hand tightened. “Macauley? Are you ill?”
“Of course I am not ill.” Facing the direction of her farm she said, “A French ship ran aground last night during the storm. At least, that is what the survivor muttered in broken English before collapsing on our porch.”
“A survivor?” A touch of urgency crept into my tone. “What survivor? What ship?”
“I do not know the name of the ship, but he gave his name as Fournier before falling unconscious.”
“And you are sure he was a sailor, not trader or trapper?”
Catharine narrowed her eyes. “Yes, Matthew Eliot. He is no trader, or trapper.”
“My apologies,” I murmured. A French ship in these waters was not unheard of, but strained relations between the Crown and a recently formed United States with ties to France was cause for concern. I motioned toward the fort, its squat, wooden-walls lying south of us. “You are in luck, then. Doctor Macauley arrived at the garrison this morning. You may see him while I inform my commanding officer of this ship and survivor. I believe your story warrants investigation.”
Catharine smiled her thanks. I took comfort in the fact she had not released my hand.
Upon reporting Catharine’s story to Captain McGill I was assigned to question the survivor and locate the ship. Depending on its damage, I was to determine its potential seaworthiness. Though flattered to receive this command, being a lowly corporal in rank, the truth was the majority of officers and sergeants were elsewhere on other duties. Our garrison of less than two hundred men was often spread thin.
A short time later I was at the head of a half-dozen men trailing Doctor Macauley on his horse and wagon with Catharine Crane seated beside him.
We reached the Crane property around mid-afternoon. The farm house was set well off the Indian trail, accessible by a rutted path flanked with fields of wheat. Barely wide enough to accommodate horse and wagon, the path was bumpy and seemingly endless.
The house was a squat log building with thatched roof and wooden porch. Two crude chairs sat next to a white pine door. Before the chairs lay a collection of farmer’s tools, washboard and butter churn. Fifty paces to the right a barn nestled against the tall, thick trees of the ancient oak forest. Resembling a low stockade, it served as storage for goods, as well as home for a clutch of hens busy announcing our arrival.
Doctor Macauley brought the horse to a stop. Catharine climbed off and called out, “Mama, Papa, the doctor is here. Mama? Papa?”
The door swung open and a woman stepped onto the porch. She was lean from years of hard work. Her thin face was lined and weathered, her premature gray hair drawn into a severe bun. Rubbing bony hands on a worn smock, she approached Macauley. “Thank you for coming, sir. You must be tired from your trip. Could I fix you something? Food? Coffee?”
“Ma’am,” the doctor replied, touching the brim of his felt hat. “Thank you for the offer, but I would see the patient.” Retrieving a sturdy bag from the wagon, he waited expectantly.
The woman nodded. “Of course.” She smiled thinly at me. “Good day Corporal Eliot. I see you brought men.”
I removed my cap. “Good day, Mrs. Crane. I am here to investigate the ship.”
“My husband should return soon. He will take you to it.”
“Thank you, Ma’am. Is the survivor conscious?”
“He was not when I last checked.”
I tucked the leather hat in the crook of my arm. A stiff breeze swept off the lake, cooling my forehead. “With your permission I would see this Frenchman before I visit the ship.”
Mrs. Crane nodded again.
I told my men to wait while I entered the house, trailing Catharine, Mrs. Crane, and Doctor Macauley.
The interior was dimly lit. Two small windows, one by the front door and another to my left, above the kitchen counter, provided the sole source of external light. On the counter lay a mound of sliced carrots and several fresh onions beside a cutting board. Next to the kitchen was a stone hearth. Suspended over its crackling flames a blackened pot was filled near to brim with a boiling broth. Its aroma tugged at my empty stomach.
Two bedrooms were located at the rear of the home, while to my right stood a pine dinner table and four chairs. Beyond the table, against the far wall, the Frenchman lay on a bed of blankets.
Macauley went straight to the patient. Catharine followed, grabbing a squat wood stool which the doctor accepted, mumbling thanks. He sat and opened his bag. I joined him, flashing Catharine a quick smile as we passed one another, and stood off to one side.
The Frenchman was perhaps forty with a face deeply tanned from years at sea. His long black hair was drawn in a ponytail. Gray flecked his beard.
Macauley peeled back the heavy blanket. The sailor was naked from the waist up, his bruised torso black and purple. Gently the doctor touched the ribs, eliciting a groan from the unconscious man.
Macauley looked over his shoulder. “Did he cough blood at any time?”
Mrs. Crane paused while slicing an onion. “None we saw, nor was there blood on his shirt.”
The doctor returned to the patient.
I had seen enough. Turning to leave, my boot brushed a canvas sack that lay near my feet. It shifted, leaving a damp imprint on the wood floor. “Does this belong to your guest?” I asked, toeing the sack.
“Yes,” Mrs. Crane said.
I dropped to one knee and worked at the tightly wound cord that sealed it. “Perhaps it holds a clue to our mysterious Monsieur Fournier,” I mumbled. Cord removed, I opened the sack and peered in. It held few items, mainly personal effects, as well as a book. “This could have our answers.” I said, removing the volume and resting it on my knee.
It appeared old. Very old. The size of a journal, the texture of its leather cover felt oddly disturbing as I ran my finger across the smooth, tanned surface. I opened it. The top half of the front page was scribed in a text that was neither French, English nor any language utilizing our alphabet. Below the text was an etching. One look and I shivered involuntarily. A clatter startled me.
Mrs. Crane faced us, body rigid, arms crossed tightly about her chest, her face pinched and pale. A metal plate lay at her feet. “Put it away, Corporal Eliot. That thing is evil.” Her breath misted as she spoke.
I returned to the etching, wondering what disturbed mind could commit such an atrocity to parchment. Another shiver wracked me and I snapped the book shut.
“I’m cold, Mother,” Catharine said with a touch of fear in her voice.
Macauley cleared his throat. He had paused in his inspection of Fournier to fix me with a glare that flitted from book and back. “Do as Mrs. Crane says, Corporal.”
I nodded wordlessly and slipped the book deep into the sack, closing it off with the cord and setting it aside. Standing slowly, embarrassed, I moved to the door. “My apologies, Mrs. Crane, Catharine.”
I found the men lazing about the wagon. They straightened as I approached. A moment later their eyes shifted to a point beyond me.
Private James, one of the younger members of the Queen’s York Rangers, said, “Here comes Mr. Crane, sir.”
Elias Crane appeared from behind the house and muttered a greeting. He was thin, his body hard from years of toil, his face tanned and lined. Deep set eyes swept the men of the garrison before setting on me. “This way,” he said in a gruff voice.
I put on my hat. “Let’s go,” I said. The men took up their gear and followed the farmer. Private James tossed me my Brown Bess musket. Shouldering the weapon, I hurried along the worn path to join Crane, falling into step beside him.
After all this time he remained an enigma. Where Mrs. Crane was polite during my visits, Mr. Crane remained aloof and stern, seldom engaging in conversation. When he did, it usually involved inquiries over what supply ships put into port or how road construction progressed. Catharine assured me it was his way, and not to read any disapproval on his part, but truth told, the man intimidated me, more than my commanding officer Captain McGill ever did.
“You have seen the ship, Mr. Crane?” I asked tentatively. We were far enough from my men they couldn’t hear the hesitancy in my voice.
“From a distance, Corporal Eliot.”
“What did it look like?”
Crane snorted. “A ship.”
My neck burned. “I mean, what kind of shape was it in?”
Crane glanced at me with his dark eyes. “It is grounded near shore. At least two masts are down. I reckon it received the brunt of last nights’ storm.”
“Did you see any survivors? Beyond the Frenchman, that is.”
“I kept my distance. The ship didn’t feel right.” He picked up the pace.
Minutes later we reached the back fields of the Crane farm. Here the ground was only partially clear of trees. Beyond the scattering of oak and white pines stirred the cold blue waters of Lake Ontario. The temperature cooled noticeably from lake effect as the air thickened with the pungent odor of decaying fish. Hungry gulls circled overhead, protesting our appearance.
Crane stopped abruptly and pointed to his right. “There.”
I grunted acknowledgment. A sloop, canted several degrees to starboard, lay about a hundred feet distant.
I nodded at Mr. Crane as my men joined us. “We will take it from here, sir.”
Crane’s mouth stretched thin. “Be careful, son.”
I prayed he missed the surprise in my eyes. “We will, sir.” Producing my musket, I checked the load and attached my bayonet, ordering the men to do the same. No telling who we would find in the close confines of the sloop. When ready I said, “Follow me.”
The ship was beached in several feet of water. Debris lay scattered along the pebbled shore or bobbed in the shallow surf, pushing against land with each gentle wave. Two broken masts lay at a forty-five degree angle, crushing the rail and ground into the sand, its torn rigging coiled haphazardly in thick coils across wooden beams and tangled with the torn remnants of sail cloth.
As Mr. Crane alluded, something felt odd. I pointed to James and another pair of men: Pierce and Johnson. “Scout the far side of the ship. Look for survivors.”
Private Dillon, oldest in my command, sensed my unease. “What is it, sir?” he asked as the trio set off.
“No bodies. Lots of wreckage and debris, but no bodies.”
“Abandoned ship, perhaps?”
I shrugged. “Perhaps.” I was unconvinced.
A shout from James had us running. We passed the bow of the looming ship, its lion figurehead staring ominously ahead. I noted the sun setting behind the forest. Dusk was near. We had little time remaining to investigate.
With the starboard side being canted in the water, the port side was raised clear, revealing a gaping hole in the hull several feet high and the same wide. It was jagged; the wood splintered as if punched repeatedly against sharp rocks.
I stood speechless, wondering what could cause such damage. There were no obstacles capable of it in lake in this vicinity. I glanced at the men. From their nervous shifting and the way they avoided the sloop, I sensed most wished to be elsewhere. The feeling of unease affected them too. I had to show calm.
Clearing my throat, I said, “I need to look inside. There may be survivors. I want two volunteers to wait for me at the entrance.” Dillon and James slowly stepped forward. I nodded. “The rest of you scout the area for anything interesting. I will not be long.”
Taking the lead, I waded into the hip deep water until the black tear reared before me. It was more than wide enough to allow entry. Shouldering my rifle, I gripped the cracked wood, one hand on each side, and hauled myself into the sloop.
A faint patchwork of light from an overhead open hatch illuminated the immediate interior. Moving cautiously past a wooden brace, I stepped into a narrow corridor, pausing while my eyes adjusted to the near Stygian darkness. The ship was deathly quiet, save for the sporadic groan of shifting timbers and the gentle scrape of rocking barrels.
The hairs on my neck stood as the sharp smell of blood entered my nostrils. No bodies lay within sight, though. I retrieved my musket as the faint details of the interior cleared to the point where I could safely explore the ship’s darker recesses without stumbling about.
Slowly I worked my way toward the bow, conscious of my footfalls, moving past damaged crates, scattered bolts of cloth, coils of rope and broken casks. An alternate source of waning light revealed itself up ahead. As I edged closer I determined it to be a similar breach. Water lapped gently over the lip of the broken wood and flowed inches deep along the planking.
A strange gibbering sent a chill up my spine. I stopped. It had come from behind a sundry stack of goods. Presenting my musket, I stepped carefully, quietly, and rounded the cargo.
I gasped. Several bodies lay on the sodden wood, their flesh torn and limbs twisted. Pink blood tinted the water. A flicker of movement alerted me. I raised my musket. A figure squatted over a body, its bulky shape obscured by shadow.
“Show yourself,” I said, motioning with my musket.
The figure leaned forward, and my blood froze with dread. Nothing in my worst nightmares could conjure the horror that revealed itself. The thing had a stunted body, its skin mottled and pale in the dimming light. Two snake-like arms ended in long fleshy fingers, one set clutching a slippery length of intestine. Its face was a nightmare of waving tendrils and a short, thick trunk in place of a mouth. Four black orbs along its wide forehead resembled shark’s eyes. We faced each other for an indecisive moment until it lifted its trunk, revealing a circle of jagged bloody teeth. The sound it produced was unnerving, a high-pitched chitter. Then it lunged.
My musket went off with a deafening roar, its discharge filling my nostrils with the smell of rotten eggs. Blinded by the flash and choking on the wafting smoke, I braced my weapon on the chance I had missed or wounded the creature. But the attack never came.
The smoke cleared and my eyes readjusted. The creature lay sprawled over the body it had fed on, a gaping hole in its mottled chest, black blood pooling around the wound.
No Catholic, I nearly crossed myself.
A shout echoed from the opposite end of the ship. Dillon.
My response was interrupted by a heavy splash. I stared hard at the breach before stepping back, fear welling inside me. Two sinuous arms curled over the broken wood of the second breach, followed by a grotesque head. Its inky orbs quickly found me. Violent splashing continued behind it. How many were there?
I ran. Light was scarce as I stumbled through the ship toward the stern. The chittering and gibbering receded, though in my imagination they were close behind, their fleshy arms reaching for my neck.
Dillon waited at the opening, his face a mask of curiosity. I ignored him, stopped and spun about, musket leveled.
“What is it, sir?” Dillon asked anxiously, peering into the dark beyond me.
I heard clattering, like nails on wood. Closing. I pushed Dillon. “Out. Now.”
Dillon backed away, reacting to the urgency in my voice. He continued to look past me at the gaping hole and asked again, “What is it?”
Taking his arm, I half-dragged him sloshing through the calf-deep water to shore, where an anxious James waited. “Target that entrance,” I blurted, and hurried through the automatic process of reloading my musket.
A scream erupted from the opposite side of the ship, followed by the crack of two discharging weapons.
“What in God’s name–,” James began.
Punching home a bullet and patch into the muzzle with my ramrod, I shouted, “Follow me.”
We hurried past the ship’s bow, our boots kicking up sand and pebbles with our passage. In the distance three figures stood in the failing light. One presented his musket toward the lake while two more reloaded. A fourth man was missing.
The faces greeting me were ghostly white. Reeves, Johnson and Caldwell. “Where’s Burns?” I asked, suspecting the answer.
“Gone. Taken.” Reeves replied in a high-pitched, cracking voice. “They came from the water and took him.”
Dillon and James exchanged looks. Dillon barked, “What took him?”
“Something from hell,” I replied. “Pray you never see one.” I spoke too soon. The lake water churned and several ghastly heads broke surface.
“Dear God.” James whispered.
“Back to the house,” I shouted.
We ran, and soon the squat silhouette of the Crane farmhouse rose before us. I turned, searching for signs of pursuit as the men continued past and rounded the corner to the porch. I heard the front door open and voices blurt questions.
It was night now. The moon sat low on the horizon, casting its pale, silvery light across the tall fields of gently swaying wheat. Something moved, and my stomach tightened. A dozen misshapen figures scrambled along the path, their eerie chittering sharp in the damp air. At thirty paces I sighted my musket, locating the nearest shape, and fired. The weapon kicked. With a primal sense of satisfaction I saw the thing collapse. But if I had expected it to deter the remainder, I was sadly mistaken. The creatures ignored their fallen comrade and, seemingly stirred by its death, charged, their awkward gait not unlike a mountain gorilla storming its rival.
I raced around the corner for the door and found it open, Catharine waiting expectantly. She slammed it shut as I entered, dropping a bar into place. Smiling weakly, I said, “Stay with your mother and father.” Her answer was lost as musket fire erupted from the rear bedrooms.
Scanning the interior, I saw Doctor Macauley beside a now conscious Fournier, who cowered in the makeshift bed clutching the canvas sack against his chest. He was mumbling in French, an incoherent babble. The one word I understood sounded like dragon. Mr. Crane stood with Catharine by the table, comforting his wife with one arm while holding an old musket in his free hand. Mrs. Crane clasped a bible to her breast, mouthing silent words. Catharine watched me with fearful eyes.
The bedroom doors were open, my men at the windows cursing and firing at the hell-born creatures. A quick glance at the windows over the kitchen and by the door found them shuttered and barred. I set to reloading my musket.
The sound of claws on wood caught my attention. A creature had reached the porch. The sound stopped at the window by the door. Through a seam in the shutters I saw it. Orb-like eyes stared back. A snake-like arm slid along the wood, testing the barrier. The shutter flexed, but held. The clatter of nails continued. It approached the door, and stopped again. I had followed its progress, mechanically sliding the ramrod into a slot beneath the barrel, my musket reloaded.
Silence dragged. Catharine screamed. I glanced over. She pointed, eyes wide with horror. Looking back and down, I shivered involuntarily as slender, fleshy fingers slipped through the gap between floor and door, as if probing for a way in. Reversing my musket, I slammed the butt down, crushing those fingers hard against the wood. Beyond the door the creature wailed, an unearthly shriek, and threw its weight repeatedly against the solid pine. The sound boomed throughout the small house. Several pans fell from their wall hangings to clatter on the floor.
Over Catharine’s screams Mrs. Crane’s voice rose, spitting quotes from the Bible and cursing all Hell’s creatures. Mr. Crane waited stoically, musket grasped in two firm hands.
A strangled shout erupted from the far bedroom. Private James stumbled through the door, a creature attached to him like a parasite, clutching the boy with boneless arms, its clawed feet tearing bloody gashes across belly and thighs, its fleshy trunk ripping ribbons of flesh from the exposed throat. Blood jetted across the walls and splashed the floor as both creature and boy crashed heavily to the ground.
Tearing its trunk free from the ruined throat, the thing fixed its black eyes on Fournier. The Frenchman whimpered and tossed the sack, striking the creature, his voice breaking as he cried, “Ici! Allez! Allez!”
The creature plucked at it before one arm slid around the worn canvas. A moment later its head exploded in a shower of black blood and matter.
“Back to Hell where you belong,” Mr. Crane commanded in his deep, gruff voice. Slowly he lowered his smoking musket.
The shot spurred me to action, and I raced to the far bedroom. Another creature hunched over Private Dillon, feeding. It looked up as I plunged my bayonet into its thick throat, ignoring the splatter of blood as I thrust again and again. A gibbering outside the window announced yet another. I shot it point blank as it made to gain entry, closed the shutter and secured the bar. Entering the second bedroom, I found Reeves, Johnson and Caldwell by the window.
Reeves looked at me, his face black with gunpowder residue. He swallowed, his throat parched. “I think they’ve given up, sir. There’s but a few left. They bolted into the wheat field moments ago.”
I nodded. “If they return in numbers, bar the window. James and Dillon are dead. I cannot afford to lose you three.”
The men exchanged looks. Reeves said, “Dead? Both?”
I frowned, swallowing a lump in my throat. Entering the main room, I went to the hearth, stroking my chin as I pondered our next move.
Macauley kicked the creature off James and placed a blanket over the boy’s body before looking at me, as if waiting for direction.
Loudly, I said, “We shall wait a while. If they do not return, Doctor Macauley and I will take the bodies to the garrison. I will return with reinforcements as quickly as possible. Dawn at the latest.”
Reeves called from the bedroom. “You mean to leave us here?”
“You must protect the Cranes.”
Reeves’ dejection was obvious. “Yes sir. Dawn it is, sir.”
A thought struck me. Striding to the dead creature, I retrieved the sack and tossed it back at the Frenchman. “Is this what these things want? The book?” I stepped closer, lowered my bayonet inches from his chest.
Macauley opened his mouth to protest, but a look from me silenced him. I had lost three men to these abominations and I wanted answers.
Fournier, eyes set on the long blade, slumped. “Oui. I believe so.” He paused before continuing slowly in English. “We discovered the book while exploring ruins on an island beyond le fleuve Saint-Laurent. Some of us wanted to leave it, but an historian on our crew thought it a miraculous discovery. We took it. The evil began shortly after we set sail. One by one we disappeared. The historian was first. Soon but a handful of us remained. That is when the storm came and le démon géant rose from the waters to tear the ship apart. Last I remember is collapsing outside this farmhouse.”
I lowered the blade, not entirely sure I believed him. Scowling my mistrust, I reached out and snatched the sack from his grasp. He didn’t resist.
Catharine reacted as I moved to the door. “Don’t,” she said.
I smiled thinly. “I think it time I removed the cursed thing from this house. If it is the book they want, perhaps they will leave us alone.”
“Be careful then, Matthew.”
Elias Crane joined me, his reloaded musket leveled at the entrance. Quietly he said, “Aye, lad. Be careful.”
I nodded and raised the wooden bar, setting it down against the wall. Cracking open the door, I peered into the night, listening. Silence. With a final glance at Mr. Crane and Catharine, I stepped onto the porch and eased my way to the edge where I stole a look around the corner, carefully checking the wheat fields and path for movement. Nothing. Taking a deep breath, I stepped off the porch, strode several paces, and hurled the canvas sack with all my strength. It landed a dozen yards away. After several heart pounding moments of waiting, all remained still.
Mildly disappointed, I returned to the house. I would go for reinforcements.
Doctor Macauley and I rushed as fast as humanly possible along the rutted path in our race to the garrison. Waking my commanding officer, Captain McGill listened intently to our account and promptly assigned another half-dozen men to accompany me. I promptly departed, using the doctor’s wagon for transport and leaving the captain to rouse all available men to follow on foot.
It was an hour from dawn as I neared the Crane farm. The road was bumpy, the wagon jumping and swaying with each hole and furrow it crossed. The soldiers held onto the rails, cursing relentlessly. The horse suddenly shied, neighing and squealing in protest, forcing the wagon to a lurching stop. I tugged on the reins, fighting to regain control, when a deep bellow split the cool air, a sound so thunderous the ground shook and my ears lanced with pain. The bellow echoed for some time, gradually fading in strength until all returned to silence.
A man swore. Another said, “Who is that?”
I looked up, the reins slipping from my hands. Out of the shadows came Catharine, shuffling slowly along the road. My stomach knotted. Something was wrong. Leaping from the wagon, I rushed over and took her in my arms. She didn’t resist, but she didn’t react. She looked past me, her eyes fixed on some point far distant.
Holding her at shoulder length, I peered into her face. Her expression was blank, unresponsive. Fearfully I shook her. “Catharine. What is it? What happened? Tell me. Please.” My voice rose with each word.
I grew conscious of the men gathering around me, offering advice and asking questions. I ignored them and swept Catharine into my arms, taking her to the wagon where I set her down, spending long moments holding her, stroking her disheveled hair and clearing damp strands from her grime-crusted forehead. Her head lolled. A touch of spittle appeared at the corner of her mouth. Tears of frustration came unbidden to my eyes. I stepped back, my hand tracing her arm until I held her limp hand. Reluctantly I released it and faced the men. I picked out the youngest. “You. Grimes, right?”
The Ranger, like James before him, was little more than a boy. He said, “Yes, sir.”
“The horse will go no further. Take the wagon and escort Miss Crane to the garrison. You may encounter Captain McGill along the way. Tell him what happened. Tell him we are proceeding on foot.”
The boy could barely conceal his relief. “Yes sir.”
I watched Grimes mount the cart and maneuver it about. My last image of the receding wagon was of Catharine seated in the back, staring emotionlessly into the forest.
With great effort I swallowed the lump in my throat and snapped, “To the farm. Quick march.”
Mercifully the men remained silent as we neared the homestead. The air grew thick and stale. Oppressive. The men sensed it too, and grumbled quietly.
At the farm road I called a halt. Here the feeling of oppression was overwhelming, and my voice cracked as I ensured everyone had their muskets loaded and bayonets fixed. Searching each face in the waning darkness, I determined they were ready. I offered no words of encouragement. I had none to say. The men had been briefed on the events of the night, and that had to suffice.
Silently I led them down the narrow, rutted road, conscious of our footfalls on the hard earth and the slapping of gear against our green uniforms. At road’s end I slowed, my jaw dropping in surprise. The men stumbled to a halt behind me.
The farmhouse was gone. Splintered wood, snapped timbers and scattered thatching was all that remained, as if a giant foot had obliterated its existence.
“My God,” a soldier mumbled.
The deep bellow sounded again, the ground shaking in its wake. It came from the direction of the lake.
I cannot say if it was shock at the destruction, the events of the night, the loss of Catharine, or everything together, but my fear had subsided. Calmly I said, “Search the ruins for survivors. The Cranes, Burns, Johnson, Reeves. The Frenchman. Anyone.” The men muttered acknowledgement.
I set off for the lake, pausing at the spot where the sack and its cursed book had landed. It was gone. Oddly enough, I wasn’t surprised. Looking ahead, I continued down the path, more out of sheer will than anger or curiosity.
Something shifted in the distance. It was huge, a giant shadow etched against the dawning light. I stopped in wonder as it receded toward the lake, its footfalls like heavy thunder. Its vast bulk dwarfed the French ship as it entered the water. The thing paused and tilted a massive head. I saw hints of thick tentacles waving ponderously around a hideous face. It bellowed. The air vibrated and the ground shook. Was it a cry of triumph? Or a warning? And then it moved on, churning the dark water as the lake swallowed its bulk until nothing remained but the gulls circling overhead.
I thought back to the Frenchman, and the word he had mumbled, the word that had sounded like dragon.
While born in Toronto, Ontario, Bruce Durham has lived most of his life in neighboring Mississauga. He spent over 30 of those years in the CATV industry in a variety of capacities, most recently as a consultant. Though he has been described as ‘older than dirt’, the reality is that he’s 56 and has been happily married for 27 years. His award-winning short story, The Marsh God, has been adapted into a graphic novel — view the Youtube video trailer here.
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