Portage

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It was still back there.

James spot­ted it as soon as he squat­ted at the top of the ridge. The men below him grunt­ed, sweat­ing with the effort of lift­ing their canoe over a pile of rocks. His own group had already reached the top and paused for a moment of rest before they began the equal­ly ardu­ous task of care­ful­ly low­er­ing the boat down the oth­er side.

“Still there?” asked Samuel, tak­ing a seat on a rock near­by. James nod­ded. Samuel took a piece of salt pork out of his pack and held it between his teeth, suck­ing on it loud­ly and smack­ing his lips in a way that made James want to push him off the ridge. James clenched his fists, the nails bit­ing into his palms. They were two months into their voy­age, and the days were wear­ing on him hard.

“Should we tell ‘em?” asked Samuel. James watched as the salt pork was maneu­vered expert­ly, firm­ly tucked into one cheek like a piece of chaw.

“How are we sup­posed to do that?” said Lewis, who wan­dered over to join them.

“Shout or somethin’?”

“They won’t be able to under­stand you,” said James. “They’ll notice it soon enough.”

“You thinkin’ it’s an Indi­an?” Samuel switched the pork from one side of his mouth to the oth­er, irri­tat­ing James again. He want­ed to take the man and shake him, shout swal­low it already into his face, but James held back. Only a few more days and they’d be back on the Macken­zie Riv­er, and not long after that they’d get to Fort McPher­son, where Han­nah was wait­ing for him.

“I don’t think so. Gwich’n often work with the Com­pa­ny, I don’t think they’d be sneak­ing up behind them like that,” James said.

The fig­ure had appeared seem­ing­ly out of nowhere, first a half mile or so behind the group, then creep­ing ever clos­er to the man at the back. It was John Thorn­ton from the looks of it. Dif­fi­cult to tell one per­son from the next at this dis­tance, but John tow­ered over most men and was eas­i­er to pick out of the group.

Where it came from, James couldn’t say. Not many peo­ple lived up here in the Yukon. The ones that did stuck close to the forts and trad­ing posts in the area, lest they dis­ap­pear qui­et­ly into the dark­ness that wait­ed at the edge of their doorstep. The Yukon wasn’t like what all those folks on the Trail were fac­ing out west, no sir. This land was fer­al. It took its pick of any­one who strayed too far from the path.

“What do you think he wants?” Lewis asked.

“Don’t know. Maybe food.” But even as James said it, he knew it wasn’t right. The shape moved too quick­ly to be some­one starv­ing. Even from here, the steps looked con­fi­dent. The fig­ure had exag­ger­at­ed strides that eas­i­ly cleared the sedge and chunky rocks that lit­tered the ter­rain below.

“Maybe he got his­self lost,” said Samuel.

“Maybe,” said James, doubt­ful. The men watched in silence as the shape grew clos­er to John. The young man was like­ly focused on where to place his feet, dis­tract­ed by the effort it took to car­ry the canoe over uneven ground. James had lost count of how many times they had to portage this trip, each occur­rence eat­ing up pre­cious time and ener­gy on their way from Hudson’s Bay to the Peel Riv­er. If there was an eas­i­er route between the two areas, it had yet to be dis­cov­ered in 1848. Not by John Bell, not by Alexan­der Mur­ray, not by any of the oth­er explor­ers on the pur­suit of hunt­ing grounds or the North­west Pas­sage. There was just no way around months of hard work. This was James’ fourth trip, and each time he prayed a lit­tle hard­er that it was the last.

An eagle screamed above. James watched it fly in the sun­light. It was June, but it wouldn’t be long before the day­light was gone for good and the cold blan­ket of win­ter was upon them. Han­nah hat­ed the win­ters here, had ever since they mar­ried and she came to the Yukon two years ago. By the time win­ter broke and the sun began to light­en the hori­zon for a few hours each day, she was prac­ti­cal­ly climb­ing the walls to get away from it. Han­nah said she wasn’t ter­ri­fied of the dark itself, but the dan­gers that could hide with­in it. James didn’t real­ly under­stand the difference.

“Look!” Samuel point­ed. The men below had paused and low­ered the canoe onto a bit of flat ground. John was wip­ing his brow and sur­vey­ing the land behind him when he spot­ted the fig­ure. James and the oth­er men could hear him call out as he point­ed fran­ti­cal­ly. It was only ten or so feet behind the group, strut­ting up behind them.

The shape, which was human in nature, looked as if it fold­ed in half sud­den­ly, the tor­so leaned for­ward and reach­ing. It stretched impos­si­bly long arms out ahead and bar­reled toward John, the tall man trip­ping over his own feet as he scram­bled back. The shape was on him in a moment. His stran­gled screams car­ried eas­i­ly along the chilly wind that nev­er seemed to cease out here.

“What the hell!” said Lewis. He and Samuel start­ed down the slope to help, but James hung back a moment, too hor­ri­fied to move.

Was it a bear? A cat? No, he was sure it had walked upright, its cadence even and arms swing­ing like a man. But the way it col­lapsed and stretched towards John made James unsure. He hur­ried after the oth­ers, dash­ing toward where the screams were esca­lat­ing. It was a fran­tic noise that sound­ed like the slaugh­ter of pigs.

I wish I was home, thought James. A vision of Han­nah in her plaid skirt, a bas­ket of wild­flow­ers hang­ing off one arm came to him. Hap­py and healthy in the sun, the lake behind their house glinting. 

A small dip in the path put the oth­er group tem­porar­i­ly out of sight. James climbed up out of it and bumped into the back of Samuel, motion­less at the top. The whole group was frozen at the scene laid below.

The canoe, care­ful­ly borne and pad­dled over thou­sands of miles, lay tipped on its side. Bod­ies were strewn around it, limbs tossed, throats torn, bel­lies opened to deposit steam­ing piles of gray entrails on the dirt. The ground drank up the blood, the unnat­u­ral­ly dry sum­mer leav­ing the land thirsty for every bit of mois­ture it could find.

Beads of sweat at the edge of James’ scalp unit­ed and ran down his face and neck. He could hear Samuel suck­ing on that god­damn salt pork again, but when he turned to look, Samuel’s face was still and his cheek was emp­ty. The sound was com­ing from some­where beyond the group, and when James looked towards it, he saw the thing crouched and suck­ling on the end of a leg, lick­ing and nib­bling del­i­cate­ly at the bro­ken femur it gripped in its hand. 

Swal­low it already, thought James. For goddsakes.

The foot flopped lame­ly about on the end and James noticed the shoe had a hole in the toe, the prod­uct of all the miles the men had trav­eled so far. The crea­ture set the leg care­ful­ly on the ground and tilt­ed its head up to the sky, shrieking.

It was human, in a way that sug­gest­ed the cre­ator had only seen peo­ple from afar and was a lit­tle unclear on the details. The arms and legs were too long, the head tiny. The tor­so began as a nar­row waist and expand­ed into a knob­by ribcage, points of bone stretch­ing the skin beneath almost to the point of rip­ping. James spied small, point­ed teeth, the rest of the face and head an amal­ga­ma­tion of ridges and shiny skin. He had once seen a draw­ing of a dev­il in a book, shaped much like this. But while that dev­il was red, this thing was deep green and brown, the col­or of a rot­ting log hid­den deep in the woods.

The crea­ture looked up with bright white eyes too big for the face. It scam­pered toward them on all fours, quick­er than any­thing James had ever seen.

Samuel ran. Lewis stood his ground but threw his arms up in defense, fore­arms cov­er­ing his face. The oth­er men set to scrab­bling like fright­ened dogs on a slick floor, trip­ping and pulling each oth­er down in an attempt to get away. There was gun­fire off James’ left shoul­der, a flur­ry of shots that dropped a man caught in the path. James backed up. When the crea­ture turned to him, he dove for the canoe and pulled it down, the boat set­tling to the ground around him with a com­fort­ing thump.

Out­side there were muf­fled grunts and thuds. Twice a shot rang out and then there was a yelp, fol­lowed by ear-split­ting screams that end­ed abrupt­ly. Too quick­ly, there was silence, heavy in the air as an autumn fog. 

The air under the canoe grew sti­fling; It was warmed by James’ breath and humid from his sweat. He could feel the ground under­neath him was mud­died and slick, made worse when he pissed him­self as the men died around him. There was lit­tle room for any­thing and he began to feel pan­icked as he lay on his bel­ly in the small space; his mus­cles cramped and his feet tin­gled and he shift­ed qui­et­ly in the mud try­ing to relieve the pres­sure and told him­self over and over it wasn’t a cof­fin although it real­ly did feel like one. Every time he moved bast­ed him­self in Yukon soil. The earthy smell seeped into his pores and the coarse dirt pen­e­trat­ed into every crevice and nook of him.

James felt dirty and he loathed the sen­sa­tion. He longed for the lake and its cool waters, to slip into it bare like he and Han­nah did some­times in the moonlight.

Han­nah, he thought. Sud­den­ly he under­stood. The dark of the canoe didn’t fright­en him, but what the thing out­side could do inside of the dark­ness, that gripped his heart so tight it ached every time it thumped against his chest.

An hour went by, maybe two after the nois­es had ceased. It was dif­fi­cult to get a sense of time as he lay curled up in the dark. His stom­ach began to growl and his legs ached in earnest. He could not live under that canoe for­ev­er, so he put his back up against it and tilt­ed it as slow­ly and care­ful­ly as one raised a sleep­ing babe.

This far north, the sun would only bounce against the hori­zon before ris­ing into the sky again. James could see it was just begin­ning its climb back up. He wished for the dark. It was light enough to see the destruc­tion around him, the way the ground had been torn up, bush­es snapped and the grass crushed as the men fought back. His heart dropped as the pink light showed Samuel’s face. It was heavy-lid­ded and sur­prised at its own dis­lo­ca­tion from the body lying ten feet away. Lewis was face­down thank­ful­ly. James could tell it was him from the buf­fa­lo hide jack­et. Lewis’ shoul­ders were both ragged stumps where gris­tle and fat and clean white bone showed through the chaos.

A click­ing noise came from the small stand of trees to his left and James’ head snapped to it. The crea­ture eased itself out of the shad­ows. James looked about but was too far to make it back to the canoe, not with how fast it moved. It chit­tered as it slunk clos­er to him and he felt his bow­els loosen as it reached one gan­g­ly limb out. He dropped his eyes to the ground and fought the urge to run as the oth­er men had.

A ragged claw touched his cheek. It was a thick­ened, sick­ly fin­ger­nail, ridged and bumpy, end­ing in a point that scratched at him and flaked off a bit of the mud that had col­lect­ed there. James felt it scrape his cheek under­neath the dirt. The skin was raw and burned where it touched.

The crea­ture backed up and popped its jaw like a bear. The noise was a deep click that res­onat­ed inside his chest. James cow­ered, too scared to do any­thing but stand there and hold his breath. Two feet, elon­gat­ed and with curled toes, stepped toward him. The thing bent and sniffed his head and whoofed, the hot breath damp on his already sweaty neck. In a moment, he knew that mouth would close around his head, those tiny point­ed teeth pierc­ing his tem­ples as it crushed his skull in its jaw.

There was a noise from the woods, a quick rus­tle of branch­es fol­lowed by a high-pitched shriek. The crea­ture beside him answered and James flinched. It clicked once more and then was gone, leav­ing the scent of rot­ted meat and decom­pos­ing leaves in its wake.

James col­lapsed, curl­ing into a safe lit­tle ball, rocked for­ward on his heels and shiv­er­ing. He stayed down until his legs began to scream and a nighthawk called out over him. What­ev­er the thing was, it was gone. Every­one was gone. He stood slow­ly. The wind caressed him, the sen­sa­tion dulled by the lay­er of mud that cov­ered his skin. He moved for­ward, step­ping over the bod­ies of the men he had sweat­ed next to for the last few months. It smelled ancient around him, like an old bat­tle­field in a for­est. Even now he could see the scav­engers lying in wait, the shiny crows with cocked heads and a lit­tle gray fox, prowl­ing around the edges of this tragedy.

James moved slow­ly back up the ridge, lum­ber­ing heavy on wood­en legs. He was so tired all of a sud­den, exhaust­ed and dirty and numb. His whole body was heavy and his mind strug­gled through a thick fog that seemed to seep out from his ears and run down his face. He could smell it and taste it at the edges of his mouth, salty and foul on his tongue and run­ning down the back of his throat. He gagged and then stood up, his vision swim­ming. He didn’t want to be here any­more. He want­ed the thick straw mat­tress and the rosy-cheeked woman whose name he couldn’t quite recall, expect­ing him just a few days’ jour­ney away.Home, he thought, as he itched at his face with a dirty nail. That’s what I want. He felt a burst of vig­or at the idea of it, sud­den­ly fever­ish with his want. James strode for­ward. He climbed the ridge and descend­ed into the dark woods, push­ing past branch­es and ignor­ing the click­ing that echoed against the mossy trees around him. He was head­ed west, to a cool lake and a field of sweet wild­flow­ers, to where Han­nah wait­ed in the house alone.

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Con­tribut­ing Author // thewriterannewoods@gmail.com // Author Web­page // Oth­er Sto­ries

Anne Woods (she/her) loves all things spooky. When she is not writ­ing hor­ror or falling in love with a new book, she can be found tend­ing her gar­den and hav­ing loud argu­ments with her orange tab­by cat, Franklin.

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