An Arctic Monster Dies

Here’s a free short story for you. It’s only about 25 hundred words so you can read it here easily enough, but feel free to print it off or send it to your favorite ereader.

 

Guy Marceau was having trouble with his dog team.  For the fifth time in an hour Guy called to the lead dog and halted the sled.  He cursed under his breath and fought his way through the drifting snow to the third lead dog, tangled in its bridle.

They were savage, half wild dogs made worse by Guy’s frequent use of the whip.  He slashed at the hopelessly struggling sled dog and screamed a torrent of French and Indian swear words at the trapped animal.

“Tabernac,” he said into the bitter wind sweeping across the wide frozen MacKenzie River.  “These goddamn dogs had better smarten up or they don’t get fed tonight.”  They were restless, far worse than normal, when they’d lunge for a hand if they weren’t whipped down constantly.

The dogs had their heads turned into the wind and they were barking wildly.  Guy could see nothing against the blowing snow.

“What the hell’s the matter with them?”  Guy muttered and turned to scan the wide river.

The answer called thinly and weirdly over the MacKenzie, the cries of another dog team, driven hard from the south.

He looked down at the excited dogs, “Bien eh?  We’ll have company for supper tonight, dat’s good.”

The other sled was not yet visible but Guy knew they could only be coming from Fort Liard and probably en route to a trapping line or Fort Norman on the shores of Great Bear Lake to the north.  Guy wondered who might be driving them.  Whoever it was there was a good chance he would know the man.  There were very few white-men north of Edmonton and in the five years Marceau had spent in the far north he had come to know the few men living in the scattered settlements or running trap lines. He had come a long way since the defeat of the NorthWest Mounted Police at Duck Lake in 1885.

The other team was now visible on the other side of the river.  Guy carefully unslung the Sharps from the sled and cleared the action.  Although the code of hospitality in the north said that men meeting on the trail must meet in friendship and share the fire, Guy knew that a little caution was always needed.

The Sharps wouldn’t leave his hands until he knew the other as friend.  The metal was so cold against his leathered hands it felt like fire.  He tightened his grip as the other sled swung across the ice towards Guy.  The man raised his hand in salute and Guy unconsciously replied.

The stranger stopped his team several feet from Guy.  The dogs still strained their harnesses to get to one another but the barking and lunging was easier to put up with than the work it would take to unsnarl two teams and the harnesses if they ever got at each other.

  The man was tall, more than six feet, he towered over the Metis.  An Eskimo parka from the shores of the Arctic Ocean didn’t hide the shoulders built during long days of sledding.

From a buffalo fur cap metal flashed in the light.  The badge made Guy lower his rifle.

Marceau had never seen the policeman before but had heard from others that this was the new Mountie sent north from Edmonton to maintain order between Forts, Norman, Providence and Liard, a beat of several hundred miles requiring months to cover.

“Bonjour m’sieu. I am Guy Marceau. Are you coming from Fort Liard?”

“Bonjour,” the man replied nodding to Guy’s question. “It’s good to meet someone else on this godforsaken river.  I almost made camp an hour ago but decided to push on instead, that was lucky wasn’t it.” The Mountie grinned.

“Good to have someone to share the fire.”  Guy said it cheerfully, but he felt this Mountie was no friend.  He’d seen him before although the where eluded him.

“I’m Constable McNern, Northwest Mounted, from Liard,” he jerked his thumb to the south as if there could be any doubt where Liard was, the only place on the river for days of traveling any direction.

The name brought the memory back for Guy.  It went back those five years to Duck Lake when Marceau, under another name, and another cause, was Riel’s adjutant general.

Marceau had led the Indians and other Metis on the massacre.  They killed the wounded and all who surrendered.  A few escaped and told the tale to others.  McNern among the few who had got away.

The Mounties had a permanent interest in tracking down Marceau.  The constable would be sure to recognize him once he started looking past the beard and name.

It was though McNern was reading Guy’s thoughts.  “Don’t I know you m’sieu?  I’m sure we have met somewhere.”

The cold vanished from Guy’s body with the tension. He stared at the man.  The moment seemed to hang solid, then it eased when the constable shrugged away the effort to remember. McNern turned slightly to his sled.  “We should head in to the trees there and make camp.”

Guy breathed out and nodded, “Oui, the sun is going quickly.”

It didn’t matter at all about the sun. They could have traveled on under the light from the moon and the stars the way most winter travel was done in the Arctic but it seemed as good a time as any to make camp.  They would be up hours before the dawn and running north along the river anyway and the sun would find them twenty miles and more further down river.

Guy followed behind the Mountie’s sled toward the shore, giving thanks to the cruel arctic winters that forced a man to grow a thick beard to hide his face from the razor winds.

The two of them shared the fire and the rations in silence for long cold minutes, but the need for human contact between the two men started conversation.  They talked of the weather and the amazing series of cloudless days and clear nights that had lasted since Xmas.  They talked of the fur season and how a man could get rich if he could just stay out in the bush long enough without freezing or starving to death.  They sat around the fire with their sleds turned on side to stop the runners freezing to the snow and to act as wind-breaks for their backs.

The wind was as permanent as the cold and the loneliness.

Both knew they were the only humans for a hundred miles on the frozen river and they felt it.  Guy talked of a few women, most of them other Metis, but a few Indians as well, and he talked of his mother in Trois Rivieres.  He hadn’t seen her for almost twenty years, not since the day he killed his first man and left Quebec for safety in the west.  And of course he didn’t tell McNern about the brawl that started his love for killing.

It was McNern who did most of the talking.  The cap badge winking and flashing in the firelight and managing to catch GuyΓÇÖs eyes full on from time to time as though it was trying to burn a hole in his head. At times it flared in size and seemed to take on a life of its own.

McNern was still new to the far north and hadn’t learned all that is needed to keep loneliness away.  His wife and child were still in Edmonton and he wouldn’t see them for another two years until his tour was over.  He felt the separation badly.  For the first time in a very long life of misadventure and depravity Marceau felt a stirring of conscience.  It would pass.  He would make it pass. It had to for his safety.

* * *

The three hundred foot high sand bluffs of the east bank hid the first hints of the dawn as he built up the fire.  The sun was making its skittering climb across the horizon but it would take its time and daylight was a good three hours away.  The dogs ate frozen whitefish and left no waste.  It was their only meal of the day.  Guy soaked dried meat in tea before trying to gnaw it.

The team drove north quickly.

Guy traveled alone and fast.

He was happy.

It was a good day. The wind was blowing to the west and sweeping the light snow from the river ice.  The dogs had just enough snow dust under their paws to stop from slipping and they pulled and ran like possessed beasts.

When Garneau at last swung in to the bank for an early camp in the mid afternoon the sun was slipping back down from the sky. It was the best day’s run ever, more than double any other and he didn’t feel guilty about stopping earlier than normal.  He was tired from lack of sleep and slept hard within minutes of making camp.

He didn’t hear the dogs at first.

Their moaning took awhile to penetrate the twisted dreams charging through his sleep.  At first he thought the dogs were only hungry because he hadn’t bothered to feed them after the long run.  He struggled out of the sleeping furs and stumbled along the bank to the snowdrift where the dogs had burrowed to sleep and to keep warm.  Only as the sleep cleared from his brain did he recognize their moaning was terror, and it puzzled him because the dogs were only a scattering of generations from wolf stock and rarely showed fear of any kind.

The noise set the hairs on the back of his head on end.  His unease made him more savage than usual and he kicked harder than necessary to drive the dogs from their burrows.

He kicked them all but King, the lead dog, and the second lead.

The moon showed the two dogs at the bottoms of their holes, throats cut and the blood turning the snow black.

No animal, Guy knew, could have done the damage. No person either. The snow only showed the wind blurred prints of dogs.

Guy shuddered. The frozen trees looming above the riverbank menaced.  The creak of snow and ice on the branches were footsteps in the silence.  Against his back the wind pushed and rushed against him daring him to turn around.

The horrible dread grew. No power in the world could have made him turn. His mind filled the river bank behind him with all the evil malignant wilderness spirits his blood half believed in.

His mind screamed at him not to turn for that would unleash the fiendish horror of the wood spirits.  Safety was in not turning to look.

He stood frozen with terror, his knees vibrating with tension, his eyes not seeing and all the time the cold eating at his bare fingers and uncovered ears.  The savage pain of freezing skin finally triggered muscles.  In panic he harnessed the remaining dogs, never looking up the riverbank and never lifting his eyes to the tops of the trees. The furs and the food he left behind.

The dogs screamed from the lash and screamed more as he pushed down the river.  Malignancy bounced and leaped after him and he wouldn’t turn even in mid river.  The chase would go on to the end.

The sharp crack of the whip was constant with the keening of the runners on ice and the howling of the dogs.  He heard none because everything was directed behind him to hear the approach of demons.

One by one the dogs dropped with exhaustion as day turned into arctic night.  Kicks couldn’t get them up and the sled stops became longer and longer until he too started to drop. A small treeless peninsula became camp.

Without furs he slept badly and all night his ears were tuned for the slightest whimper of a dog, or, the creak of a spruce bough. Each time there was sound, a snow-muffled dog cough, a crack of ice in riverbank tree or the rapid hiss of ice bouncing across the snow crust the adrenaline shot through his body.

Three times he nerved himself to rise and creep along the peninsula to the trees in search of wood for the fire.  Each time that he returned into the brightness of the moonlight he was bathed in sweat and his eyes glazed.  The dark was peopled with things that hated man, and he was man.

Long before first light the terror became too much.  He shook the frozen harnesses from the snow and headed for the dogs, determined he was going to flee this wilderness for the safety and warmth of Fort Norman.

He uncovered the dogs, first one, then a second, then in a frenzy all.

The blood was black against the snow.

Without food, gun, knife, extra clothing, he staggered out into the middle of the Mackenzie and started for safety, seventy miles away through the cruelest climate on earth.

All day he ran, walked, ran some more, stumbled and shambled and ran but he didn’t stop.

Through the brief sunlight, into the starlight, then the moon, and back into the sun.  He never looked behind.

His breath came in hurting shuddering gasps.  His fingers were black from the poison of dead flesh, killed by the cold.  He hadn’t felt his toes for twenty miles. White patches grew over his cheeks and forehead. Blood flecked his lips. He could go no further. He dropped unconscious to the ice.

He lay insensible, his body heat leaking away into the six feet of river ice below.  His limbs began to freeze and by all the laws he should never have awakened again.  But a different cold seized his heart and squeezed.

Ice claws gripped him around the throat. Ice hands.  Guy opened his eyes and looked through the pain that blurred everything red.

Dimly, then sharply as the horror gripped him, Guy Marceau saw the face leaning over him.

It had been mangled out of all recognition by wolves feeding on the corpse Marceau had buried in the snow.  Tatters of flesh stuck out from the bone, stiff with freezing.  The slashed throat gaped deep.

Guy had cut through to the vertebrae.  Black frozen blood smeared across the ripped and mangled face, half hiding the left eye, splashed across the front of the beaver fur hat.

Guy’s eyes rolled up as he died and stopped forever on the sun-glinted badge metal with its engraved command that had lived on past the death of its owner, Maintiens le Droit, Maintain the right, or maintain the law, its power unleashed by the foulness of Guy Marceau’s crime.

It flashed with the fires of hell as it sent him down to them.

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