West : September 2nd 1868
Arrived in Cheyenne in the new Wyoming Territory early this morning on the new Union Pacific line. Has been three years since I rode the locomotive. Did not realize it would remind me so strongly of Atlanta. Spent the last day of the journey with the phantom smell of blood and iron in my nostrils, and the bile rising at the back of my throat, but it is over. God willing, I will never have to ride the train again. Cheyenne is new born and mewling like a babe. Immigrants from the east and across the seas teem here, filling the streets with a babel of tongues and the raucous laughter of drunken listless youths. The hound I purchased before leaving tugs at his leash with delight at the sights and sound.
The plot of land is still two days ride across the border and to the Southwest, but true to his word, the man from the bank has hired a guide to take me there. Sent a last letter to my wife and boys with instructions to meet me here in the spring, and have purchased a wagon and the supplies for construction. The guide, a half Indian fellow, I’d wager by appearance, but civilized in tongue, has helped me hire two young men: a Irishman with a sullen chinless face, and a German, watery eyed and stinking of bourbon. Both despicable wretches, but they have agreed to work for a pittance, and both claim to have experience in homesteading.
They may intend to kill me, seeing an easy mark in a naive settler, but I do not fear these drunken children. I’ve seen a generation of these boys spilled open, and I know what they are made of.
September 8th 1868
Have crossed into the Free Territory of Colorado, after a day of the level prairie of warm wind of Wyoming, into the Front Range. This land is wild, in some… strange way, and like nothing I’ve ever seen. We are following a river through the shadow of two jagged peaks, and camp tonight just a few miles from the parcel of land. I requested remote, and by God, the bank man did not fail me. The Kraut and the Irishman grow demure and quiet without spirits, and I see no possibility of violence in them now, lest they suspect me of hoarding whisky. They will do fine quick labor, and return to Cheyenne to drink and fuck the profits.
These are men of dust, and serve only this purpose. To think, good men like me fought and died to protect these jackals from the reach of Lincoln’s tyranny, God grind his bones. I will be free of that monster soon, and if it should spread it’s federal borders this far, then I will burn my new home to the ground and move west yet again. Sons of bitches will have to push me into the sea before I swear fealty.
Found a skull just off the deer trail, when I went to make water; it was bleached white and divorced from jawbone and neck. I try not view this a portent.
Tomorrow, we should reach the plot, and begin.
September 9th 1868
The bank man has lied to me, the foul stuffed pig. The plot of land, clearly identified by compass and map, is not the idyllic grove his words painted, but a swamp. A sodden hollow filled with mud and grass, ringed with broken and dying pines. I would flay my guide alive if I thought his wretch of a employer might feel a sting.
Am determined to homestead here, however. This may not be the land I desired, but it is mine, by God. The Irishman and the German fell trees for me, and I have found the highest place, where the earth is damp the least. I will tame this land.
The hound does not like it here. He growls at the horizon and pads in small tight circles, looking always behind him.
September 10th 1868
Guide has vanished in the night. He was to spend the next few days properly mapping the borders of my land, but he has fled. Worse still the Irishman and the Kraut have grown skittish at his departure, the German tells a tale of hearing screaming in the woods last night. But in morning light, the guide’s tent and belongings were packed away and gone.
It shames me to admit, but my first night was filled with unease. There is something about this land, unlike any in the East. It seems to breathe and pulse around me, like it watches me with a cold intelligence. The trees sing softly in the breeze and in the smallest hours, when sleep had fled into the dark, I fancied I heard whispering voices in the breeze. I will share none of this with the laborers; they are weak and callow enough as it is. If superstition infects them, I will be left alone here while they flee.
My hands bleed at the end of each day. I drive the boys hard, but myself harder. The skeleton of the cabin is complete now, but there is much more work to do. I do not think they have the stomach for real work, these dogs. They slow, now that they see the rough outline, believing their work is at an end. I suppose a pig may recognize a barn by sight, but we would hope too much to think they understand a crossbeam and a proper roof.
My dread in the nights has deepened to a level I scarcely am willing to accept. In the ebon black of the night, I am an immigrant from a dead land into one that lives yet; each creak of the trees seems to come from my own shuddering spine. While I hear no birds or beast during the day, a fact that only now seems to have pertinence, the night is alive with the rustle in the bush. Occasionally, I hear the crashing stomp of one of the drunkards slogging to the tree line to void his bladder.
The boys have indeed brought out a stash of bottles, and they have taken to drinking themselves into a stupor each night, rationing the stuff to fend of the night. I won’t speak of it to the likes of them, but I know they share my unease. Their eyes are hollow each morning and I catch them whipping around to look wide eyed into the trees as if they’d seen their deaths coming on padded feet.
I’ve taken to leashing the hound at the edge of the clearing. He whimpers and shudders throughout the night, and when he wakes, he howls and barks at the sky. If he cannot make himself useful when the need to hunt arises, I will put a bullet in his noisy skull.
The German is gone. I suspected at first that he had turned his tail up, back to Cheyenne. I was wise not to pay him up front. His companion, sick with fear and delusion, entered the cabin shook me awake to tell me that he had been carried off in the night, same as our guide. I boxed his ears and dragged him to their camp, whereas I suspected, his belongings were gone, but the wretch refused to work until we’d looked for his partner.
Combed the woods all day with no sign of the German. Some of the night’s alien gloom lingers in the woods throughout the day, and I must confess leaping at the smallest noises. The hound, finding his purpose again, tracked the German’s trail, only to find that it looped around the grove several times, spiraling outward from the cabin. The trail soon vanished, and the hound began to strain at the leash, pleading for me to return him to the safety of our clearing.
With the cabin in sight, at the edge of the trees I made an unsettling discovery. At twice the level of a man’s height, a canvas rucksack hung from the dead branches of a massive gray and rotting pine. More unsettling, when I opened the satchel, I found the clothes of a much shorter man than I had expected. This was our guide’s bag.
I will not tell the poor fear-crazed Irishman when he returns. To credit his bravery, he still remains in the woods as night falls. I hear him shouting his companions name as he follows the spiraling trail with no end. He is a fool, but braver than I believed.
The dark has swept over the land like the sackcloth of revelations, and there is ice in my blood. I can no longer hear the Irishman now, the sounds of the night, the still unfamiliar tapestry of living bodies and the creak of the towering pines drown out his cries.
I feel a foolish, but I fear for his safety.
Woke in the moonless night to the sounds of screaming, far in the distance. A whimpering, tearing shriek that stilled even the noises of the dark. I laid, unable to move in the bedroll on the wooden floor, unsure for a time if I had ever actually left the battlefield hospital of Atlanta and waiting for cannon and musket fire. But it was only the one lone boy, screaming in the dark, and I was helpless to save him. I clutched the rifle close, and the hound lay shivering at my side. The boy screamed, his voice coming from every direction over the course of several hours before it dissipated into a soft whimper.
We could do little but wait for daybreak.
In the light of day, I forced the hound back into the maw of the woods. I feel like wilting and crying each time I contemplate leaving the swampy ring of trees, but even an Irishman deserves a cursory search.
I found him near dusk. After following a now familiar spiraling trail, I reached the unnatural giant tree that once held the guide’s belongings. It was fresh marked with jagged irregular cuts that exposed the rotting heartwood beneath. The cuts went high up into the boughs, and I had to strain my eyes to see, but what I finally made out made me suddenly ill.
The boy lay cradled in two high branches, with his limbs dangling and cracked in a dozen false joints. His head was twisted, like he sought to imitate an owl, completely behind him. One glassy eye stretched wide next to an empty socket, and his tongue lolled from his frozen jaw.
He is owed a Christian burial, even a papist such as him, but I will need to fell the tree to fetch his body. I wish I had the strength and will to do it now, but the night of lost rest before and the day’s gruesome business robs me of the desire for much besides sleep.
I am leaving this place. I lose all that I own, but if I leave in a few hours with the safety of the dawn, I leave with my life. I will see my wife and boys again. Woke this morning to a flinty gray dawn that never turned blue, but only drizzled a thin vapor of rain. The idea that I ever could have dreamed of living here sickens me now. I sat all day on the porch of the house, the very ground of the meadow looking threatening. The jagged teeth of the trees against the gray sky, and the lapping of the puddled water in the wind gave me the uncanny feeling of being inside a gargantuan maw that has been closing down on me since the moment I arrived. I was still determined then, to reclaim this land. To fill the bog and fell the trees, and make the fertile black soil work under my plow. How foolish, now.
With the fall of night came a whipping wind, buffeting me with heavy damp air. When the last thread of light had been cut, the hound stood to his feet and strained against the leash, hair on end and teeth bared. He strained on the leather leash that held him and began to growl, a low menacing sound. I looked to where he struggled to lunge, but could see nothing in, no horizon between ground and forest, or forest and sky. Just blackness.
When the leash broke, it made a popping sound, like a firecracker, and the hound bolted into the black. I heard the angry rhythm of his barking as he was absorbed into the dark. Then, it ceased, and I heard a sharp squeal. Then silence. The crowding throng of life that I had felt each night before was utterly silent, the only sound the dry rustle of the pine.
I shouldered the rifle and fired once into the dark, and my skin rippled as my insides froze. In the bright flash of the rifle, I saw a phantom impression of the world inside the gloom, pale trees and wet earth. And I saw, clearly, the corpse of the hound, wet and glistening. Beside it, was the shape of some… foul thing. Crouched on crooked legs, like the limbs of some beast, it held some dark portion of the dog in it’s splayed fingers. It was upright, and looking straight at me. All I saw of it’s face was the bright diamond glint of two eyes, and… teeth. So many teeth.
The gunshot rolled down the valley in darkness, and I heard no movement from the blackness beyond. With all the speed I could muster I fled for the cabin and barricaded the door with every crate and unused hearthstone I could find. Gripping the rifle tight, I did my best to lay perfectly silently, and swore to leave at first light.
When sleep finally came, it was fitful, and I awoke only a few hours later to a strange pinprick burning on my neck. I came awake to find the head of the dog, perched like a trophy at the top of the barricade, which yet lay intact and undisturbed. Around me were the hellish tracks of some beast, wet mud shapes that defied identifications.
I put my hand to my throat and felt a line of small drops across it. Blood welling up from a delicate scratch that ran from ear to ear.
The room was empty, and still fortified from within.
But it had been here with me, moments before. It had marked me, toyed with me, and left.
And so, at first light, I will leave.
I am 10 miles from the cabin, and I curse myself for a fool. With the morning sun the meadow steamed and felt somehow, safer, but still I packed my lightest valuable tools and left the cabin. Five miles down the road, doubt set in. I have stopped to eat on this small bluff looking out at the glory of God’s creation, and I have made up my mind.
Reading yesterday’s entry flushes me with shame, what a coward was! Whatever that thing is, it’s a beast, and I am a soldier. I will hunt it, trap it, and kill it. What God and Grant could not grind out of me, I will not relinquish to some wild animal. I will not leave my wife and sons paupers, I will be a man. I will return.
June 29th, 1869
Mrs. Augustine Shelby
Dear Mrs. Shelby
We recently received the enclosed from a pair of hunters who discovered it in forests of the Front Range in Colorado Territory. Having been made privy to the issue of your missing husband, we felt it was best to inform you directly, and pass on his journal and a few other possessions.
The hunters describe the area in which they found the items in a way that agrees exactly with your husband’s description in the journal, but there was no cabin, nor foundation, or any other signs of habitation.
We are deeply sorry that we could not be of more assistance to you, and I pray that your husband will eventually be found.
Colonel Benjamin Williams