The old man told me a monster lived in the forest. “Stands ’bout eight feet high at the shoulder,” he said, spitting tobacco around his words, “and has these big red eyes. Whole body covered in fur, and it’s got claws sharp as daggers, and fangs that could rip through cowhide. Old Injun beast is what it is, one of their medicine men spent too much time in the woods, became something else. Something not human, if you get my drift.”
When I relayed the story to Wilcox, I detected movement behind his thick beard. He may have smirked.
The sheriff, before paying us and sending us on our way, laughed. He walked us out of the building and looked toward where the old man still sat in his rocker outside the grocery.
“Hank Ferguson,” the sheriff said. He wiped a hand across his mouth. “Old Hank’ll believe anything said with a word. Horse kicked him a few years back. You’d never tell it to look at him, of course, but listen to him speak long enough, and he starts to slur a little. He was a decent man before all that.”
“He ain’t decent no more?” Wilcox said.
The sheriff gave Wilcox a look, but in the past couple days of working alongside us, he’d learned not to question Wilcox too far about anything. It was like poking a bear with a dull stick — eventually, the animal got tired of it and poked back.
We rode north out of town, into the heart of the forest. It was a calm summer morning, and sunlight filtered through the breaks in the trees. Wilcox and I didn’t speak much. We never really did. I could remember almost every conversation I’d had with him, and not a single one ran longer than a few minutes. I never rode beside him, either, but usually out front and to the side. Wilcox got restless whenever he had someone at his back.
I listened to the sounds of the forest. The first time I’d been injured in the war, they put me on a cot alongside an older man who’d explored this area. When he realized I wasn’t going to die, he told me about the northwestern forests and the people there. “The woods are like a symphony,” he’d said, “made up of a thousand different instruments, all playing at once. You either love it or you hate it.” I hadn’t had to ask him which way he’d felt.
I hated it. Too much noise. A man in my profession, with as many enemies as I’d made, likes to have things quiet. Noise makes it easier for someone to sneak up on you. And the forest, while not as dense as some I’d been in, was full of shadows.
We’d been riding for over an hour, with nothing of any significance happening, when Wilcox said, “Horace.”
I stopped and turned. He nodded off to his right.
A boy stood a few yards away, completely naked. Bronzed skin, but I couldn’t tell if he was a Native or not. His features were bland, not even youthful—his face was merely blank, as though all he’d ever need in life were eyes, ears, a mouth, and a nose, but nothing so human as an expression. His scalp had been shaved clean. He was covered in dirt, but appeared uninjured. As we studied him, he didn’t move, didn’t flinch, didn’t in any way seem to acknowledge our presence, except for the fact that he stared back at us with those vacant eyes.
Wilcox dismounted before I did; he overcame surprises more quickly than me. I followed suit, noticing my horse shift a little as I got off of it. Nervousness? Wilcox’s horse seemed a little uncomfortable as well. Perhaps they hadn’t gotten enough rest; maybe we’d been riding for longer than I thought.
I turned my attention back to the boy. His gaze was on me, his face inscrutable. His chest rose with each breath. Other than that, he stood completely still.
“Son,” I said, tipping my hat. “Fine morning.”
My words drifted past him.
“You injured?” I asked, taking a couple steps closer. “Someone hurt?”
His eyes went from me to Wilcox.
“You speak English?” I asked.
“He understands,” Wilcox told me, which wasn’t quite saying the same thing.
I glanced at him. He was tense; he’d pulled his shoulders back, and his hand had drifted closer to the revolver on his hip. I frowned and looked back at the boy. What could Wilcox see that I couldn’t? Or did he just have a thing against kids? He’d never been easy around them; and I had to admit, at times he’d had good reason. But this kid was unarmed and vulnerable, standing there in the middle of the forest, no one else around. How the hell had he gotten there?
“Son,” I said, and took another step. “If you need help, just say so. That’s what we do. We help people.”
From this distance, I could at last make out the color of his eyes. Deep, dark brown — so brown they were almost black. I’d gazed into the eyes of hardened killers — men even more violent than Wilcox, which is saying something — but I’d never seen eyes as empty as this boy’s.
I glanced past the kid, into the woods. “Someone hurt back there? Someone after you?”
The boy moved quicker than I’d thought possible. One moment he was the there; the next, he wasn’t. He didn’t go for me first—he knew I wasn’t the primary threat. Instead, he charged Wilcox. At some point, he bent down and grabbed a stick. He had to’ve—the stick couldn’t just appear in his hands. He thrust it at Wilcox, who managed to get mostly out of the way in time. The stick tore through clothing and skin, and Wilcox grunted as he pulled his gun and drew a bead.
I yelled for him to stop, but he didn’t listen. The gun fired. But again, the boy wasn’t there. Instead, he darted to the side, coming at Wilcox again. A second shot, then a third as the boy danced back into the trees. Wilcox emptied his revolver into the woods, then drew a second gun I hadn’t even known he kept on him. By this point, I had mine out as well. But the boy was gone.
I walked over. Wilcox bled from two places, neither critical.
“What the hell was that?” I asked.
Wilcox swore and didn’t answer me. Instead, he stared at where the kid had vanished.
I went back to where the boy had stood, and looked around. Footprints, but nothing else. Then I noticed the nearest tree. Several feet up — higher than I could reach — the tree had been marked. Clawed.
“Bear,” I said.
Wilcox stood behind me. “Five scratches,” he said.
I squinted. Yes, if you looked at it from a certain angle, there appeared to be five individual lines. Could’ve been an optical illusion, though, given the roughness of the tree bark.
When we reached the next town that evening, I left Wilcox to get patched up and headed for the saloon. I was the only customer sitting at the bar. After a couple of drinks, I related the event to the bartender, leaving out the marks on the tree. I asked if he knew the boy.
“Ain’t many boys around here,” he told me.
“The story sound familiar? You heard it before? Local legends or anything?”
He gave it some thought, then shook his head. “Never heard a story about a boy.” Then he grinned and leaned closer. “There is something about an Indian beast, though.”
I let him tell it to me, grinning at all the right parts. When the story was over, I went outside and stared at the town, the woods beyond. I thought back to the old man in the war. He could keep his damn forest, I thought. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, but I couldn’t wait to get the hell out.
Daniel Davis hails from Central Illinois. His work has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Necessary Fiction, Ellipsis, Intellectual Refuge, and elsewhere. Currently, he is the nonfiction editor for The Prompt Literary Magazine. You can find him at www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com or on Facebook.