"We should not go out there." Wolf-And-Hawk's tone is grim. He's only grim when he's afraid. And he's rarely afraid.
"Why not?" Caleb Greene has known Wolf-And-Hawk for years and, out of the four other men and one woman present, is the only one who recognizes Wolf-And-Hawk's fear. They are all, however, aware that the horses refuse to move closer to the trees.
"Your devil lives out there."
Caleb stares into the Boreal Forest. He's only been to Canada once before - without Wolf-And-Hawk - and wonders how his friend would know that. Wolf-And-Hawk is Otoe and, outside of traveling with Caleb, doesn't have much of a reputation for being a wanderer. Then again, Caleb's never known why he's called Wolf-And-Hawk. He'd heard a Lipan Apache once refer to Wolf-And-Hawk as a dreamwalker, but his friend refused to elaborate when Caleb asked about it later.
"You don't believe in our devil."
"Sometimes, Greene, that does not matter."
It is hard for Caleb to imagine a tone of voice more grim.
The party awakens with a start. Wolf-And-Hawk's demeanor convinced everyone to camp outside of the woods one final night, ostensibly in preparation for the trek. The deception fooled no one, even those willing and wanting to be fooled.
The screaming is inhuman. But they all recognize the voice. Caleb checks his pocket watch. Jesse Hawthorne should be on sentry. He's nowhere to be found. And it's his voice.
Wolf-And-Hawk and Nathaniel Belcher, the negro, are the first to shooting positions. Their identical Winchester rifles point steadfastly at the trees. At nothing in particular. Both men keep both eyes wide open, fearful of missing something. Caleb joins them, quickly followed by Allison Ware and the last man, their mystery companion known only as Mort. Caleb levers his own rifle and hands Mort his revolver, but Mort waves him off. No one's ever seen Mort handle a firearm - he objects to even touching one - but Caleb thought this moment might produce an exception. Instead, Allison grabs the gun. Caleb returns his attention to the wood-line, noting that Mort is the only one standing.
She whispers. "He sounds like... like he's being torn apart."
Nathaniel puts his hand to his mouth in preparation to call out, but Wolf-And-Hawk grabs him. "Do not," the Otoe says, his grimness as evident as earlier.
Caleb, not really sure what to make of it all, replies to Allison. "No man can survive being torn apart for that long." It's a cold, objective statement, he's well aware. It's all he could muster. He takes an improvised measurement, determining the distance to the trees. It's over 100 yards. Caleb didn't know Jesse well, but he couldn't figure why he'd go into the trees alone.
Mort offers the second theory. "Something came out."
The thought sends a shiver down Caleb's spine, though even he doesn't believe that's what happened. Mort's smile sends another shiver.
Caleb was groggy when the knocking started. Another night of too much drinking. Not that he was a drunk or an alcoholic, but that everyone seemed to have a reason to celebrate as of late. It was a deputy's birthday the night before and given that the sheriff had let Caleb off on discharging his pistol in town limits, Caleb felt obliged to attend. It never occurred to him not to drink, though Wolf-And-Hawk certainly mentioned it enough.
"Hang on, dammit," Caleb bemoaned as he pulled his trousers on. He didn't remember undressing, but he woke up naked. Probably explained Wolf-And-Hawk's absence, since they usually shared rooms. Caleb trundled to the door and cracked it open. That was the first time he'd seen Mort.
"Caleb Greene." There was no questioning in Mort's tone. And enough forwardness to it that Caleb resisted the typical 'who's asking' response.
"Job for you."
"Doing what?" Caleb was always being hired as a gun and he secretly hated it. Tracking was his specialty and his favorite activity. It allowed him to roam, to range. Still, even that usually involved killing someone. Just once, he'd like a job that actually helped somebody without hurting anybody else.
"Finding missing women and kids."
Caleb opened the door, let Mort in, and started gathering his things. They'd pick up Wolf-And-Hawk later.
Allison is the first to fire. Nathaniel's body lurches upwards and nerve impulses react with a convulsive flailing that convinces Wolf-And-Hawk that the negro is possessed. The torrent of blood that begins to rain on the three survivors - Mort had disappeared the first day in the forest - freezes each of them in place.
Caleb stays calm, forcing himself to compare the sight to that of canister shot ripping apart his former soldiers. He thinks he sees a mass of long, black locks of hair and fires into it. When the flash from his barrel subsides, he blinks. There's nothing. What he thought might have been hands clearly nothing but gnarled ends of tree limbs. But there's no question something grabbed Nathaniel. Then threw what's left of him onto the ground. Caleb turns, slowly.
"She's moving in the trees."
Allison blinks, her pale face completely covered in Nathaniel's blood. She had been the closest to him when they heard the disgusting tear that couldn't have been anything other than skin and muscle ripping apart.
"No," Wolf-And-Hawk interjects, "she is the trees."
*Continued in The Blood Wood, Part II