John turned at looked at the body again. Jagged bones jutted through the skin in multiple places. There were obvious signs of predation, although not much had been eaten, and no scavengers had settled in for a feast. It was as if the body had been arranged so it would be found—a message of some kind.
All at once, the woods around them went silent, as if some large predator were stalking the area.
“Gatgon,” whispered Donehogawa.
“What is all that gibberish about?” groused Wiggin.
“Donehogawa is upset by this. He says it wasn’t a bear, a wolf, a coyote, or a cougar.”
Wiggin sighed. “Is this heathen a coward?” he demanded.
“No!” said John and Mad Jack at the same time. Mad Jack, angry and indignant, motioned for John to explain.
“Donehogawa is a very brave warrior. He is known throughout the Onondowaga Nation—indeed throughout much of the Iroquois League. His name means ‘He Who Guards the Gate of Sunset;’ a name he was given after leading a small group of braves in defense of Ganundasaga during the last war with the Cherokee and the Choctaw.”
Wiggin harumphed and spat.
“The main war party was elsewhere, and despite being outnumbered five to one, Donehogawa’s party fought so bravely and so hard that the Cherokee war chief broke off his attack. To honor their courage. Don’t you dare call him a coward.” John’s voice had risen to a near shout, and his eyes blazed at Captain Wiggin.
Mad Jack clapped Donehogawa on the shoulder, but the Indian didn’t notice. The brave was staring into the woods on the far side of the clearing, his eyes darting from one shadowed hedge to the next like the wings of a hummingbird. Donehogawa raised a shaking hand and pointed. “Wendigo,” he said in a voice that was barely audible.
“What is that word?” demanded Wiggin.
“It means ‘evil that devours.’ Another translation might be ‘evil that eats.’”
“And what, exactly, does that mean—with either translation?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” said John. “As best I can tell from the legends I know, it is some kind of demon that preys on human flesh.”
“Bah,” said Wiggin, but his voice lacked conviction, and he all but ran back toward the group of horses.
“John! We must leave. Now!” said Donehogawa. His eyes were fixed on a particular hedge across the clearing with an intensity that scared John.
John turned to follow Donehogawa’s gaze. As he did, the brave strode to the center of the clearing and pushed John toward the horses.
“These men fall under my protection!” called Donehogawa in his native tongue, his voice booming and echoing around them like thunder. “I am Donehogawa of the Onondowaga. Hear me!”
With a majestic grace, Donehogawa turned his back on the hedge and, shoulders back, head held high, returned to his horse and mounted. The others followed suit, each one acting brave, pretending not to hear the soft laughter coming from the woods across the clearing.
“Still think he’s a coward?” sniped Mad Jack.
Wiggin just grunted into his beard.
No one said a word as they rode back toward the village. Donehogawa never stopped scouring the woods around them as they rode. Even Wiggin kept his thoughts to himself, despite several fits of glaring at the Indian and muttering into his long, white beard. Mad Jack seemed to be lost in a reverie of some sort, eyes down on the neck of his mount, holding the reins in a lackadaisical manner and letting the horse walk where it would.
John rode beside Donehogawa in silence. He had never seen his friend as ill at ease in the forest as he was that afternoon. Every cracking branch, every shifting leaf, every noise that would, on any other day, be considered normal and beneath his notice, seemed to garner the brave’s perfect focus.
“What is it, my friend?” breathed John as soon as the village was within earshot.
“Be silent,” whispered Donehogawa. “Listen.”
John strained his ears but couldn’t hear anything but normal forest sounds.
“Meet us at the ordinary, Black. The usual rules apply to the heathen,” said Wiggin, voice blaring.
Donehogawa glared at the fat older man.
The “usual rules” dictated that no tribesman could enter the village of Geneva on the shores of Lake Seneca armed. Because of John’s association with the tribe and the location of his cabin on the edge of the village, the Onondowaga usually left their weapons and horses in John’s corral. While the others rode straight into town, John and Donehogawa stopped at John’s house. They put up their horses, and Donehogawa disarmed. Then they walked into the village.
Standing in front of the ordinary, tapping his foot with impatience, Captain Wiggin gave Donehogawa his customary look of disdain and then opened the door and walked inside. It was too early for there to be much custom at the ordinary, so they had the main public room to themselves. Wiggin took a seat at a table near the long bar and looked at Edward, eyebrows raised.
With a wry grin at John, Edward donned his apron. “I expect you’d like a whiskey, Captain?”
“For us all, I think,” said John.
They all sat at the table Wiggin had chosen and sipped the strong alcohol. Wiggin glared at Donehogawa, who returned his gaze, his face impassive, a disinterested look in his eyes. It was a look that John hoped Wiggin couldn’t interpret—a look that said Wiggin was beneath the brave’s notice.
“To business,” said Captain Wiggin. “I believe I know the cause of Bryce’s death.”
“But Donehogawa said—” started Jack.
“Come now, Mad Jack! We are learned men in this village. There is no such thing as what this heathen described.”
“Captain, the Bible describes demons on several occasions. If demons exist in the biblical lands they can exist everywhere—even here. Do you not agree?” said the barman.
“Edward, you should know better. Demons don’t manifest as physical beings! They are forces that influence the world by the temptation of men. And that leads me to what I believed happened to Bryce—if, that is, I might be allowed to continue speaking…” Wiggin glared at each man in turn—except for Donehogawa, whose emotionless eyes he avoided. “As I was saying, I have reasoned out the cause of Bryce’s demise, and I don’t need to fall back on superstitions to explain it. Nathan Bryce was killed by the heathens—or at least one heathen.”
The three village men gaped at Captain Wiggin in astonishment. Donehogawa’s face flushed and his eyes blazed with anger.
“Come now, Captain, the Onondowaga—”
“Your pet heathens are not the only red men who walk in the forest, John,” snapped Wiggin. “We all know that the heathens conduct savagery on their enemies of the same race. What wouldn’t they do to one of us? The Mohawk? The Choctaw? The Cherokee?”
“Captain! It is true that some of the tribes take slaves—”
“And scalps!” added the Captain.
“—and that some of the more savage tribes might burn captives or even smoke them like meat. But none of the tribes around here have practiced rites like that for the Lord knows how long.”
“For longer than any of us have lived,” snapped Donehogawa.
“That’s right, Captain,” said Edward, which earned him a glare.
“Even if I grant you your argument—which I do not, by the way—what’s to stop some member of another tribe moving to these woods? A man who has been run off by his own tribe. A loner. An outsider.”
“The Onondowaga Nation and the Iroquois League,” said John.
“All well and good, but they wouldn’t—couldn’t—stop one man. They might not even know about the man.”
“No!” said Donehogawa. “This was not one of the people. He may have started life as one, but now he is wendigo.”
“So, then you admit this might be the work of a man?” asked Wiggin.
Donehogawa’s brow furrowed. “No. You are not listening. Just talking about things you don’t understand.”
“Come on, man! It’s what you just said: that he might have once been a tribesman—”
“I know what I said,” snapped Donehogawa. “You refuse to hear my words, though.” He turned to John and spoke in Onondowaga. “This is a waste of time. I have to warn the council.” With that, he stood and clasped John’s shoulder. “Stay out of the woods.”
John nodded. “How do we kill it?”
“Wendigos can’t be killed. They are gluttonous demons that live to eat. They can be starved, but they don’t die. They can be harmed, but they won’t die. The best we can do is trap him in his lair and seal it up. But it won’t hold him forever, sadly, no matter what we do.”
“What is all this jibber-jabber? Why is this man getting ready to leave? I haven’t dismissed him.”
Mad Jack shot Wiggin a disgusted look and stood as well. He put his hand on Donehogawa’s arm and then turned toward the door.
“Jack Martin! Where do you think you are going?” snapped Wiggin.
Mad Jack whirled to face him, his face a portrait of anger and frustration. “You asked us! You said you wanted our help, but you won’t listen. You don’t need him,” he said, crooking a thumb at Donehogawa, “or me. You need someone to follow you around like a dog!” He turned and stomped through the door, leaving the room in a state of shock. No one present could remember Mad Jack stringing that many sentences together at once.
“Well!” muttered Wiggin. “We’ll see who needs whom when the snows fall.”
“He will always have a place at my table,” John said, voice fierce, eyes blazing.
“Or with us,” said Donehogawa from the door before following Mad Jack outside.
Wiggin glared at John across the table.
“What’s more is that Mad Jack is right. If you won’t take our counsel, there is no point in offering any.” John shook his head. “Now, you have no trackers willing to help you. Well done, Captain.”
“I don’t understand what has gotten into all of you today. Why is everyone so snappish?”
John sighed and folded his hands on the table. “Is there anything else, Captain?”
“Come now, Black, you can’t believe all this superstitious nonsense.”
“I’ve learned a lot from the Onondowaga in my life, Captain. One thing I’ve learned is that they believe what they say, and they never ever lie. If Donehogawa says he believes a demon is responsible for the death of Nathan Bryce, I will act on his belief until it can be proven otherwise.”
“But a demon, Black?”
“Whatever it is,” said John, “our best bet of dealing with it lies with the Onondowaga. They’ve lived and hunted this forest for a lot longer than white men have been on this continent. They are the experts here, not us.”
“Experts? Those unwashed heathens?”
“Sir, I have never seen an Onondowaga go unwashed. Aspersions will not help us get to the bottom of Nathan Bryce’s death and indeed might slow our progress. Recall, sir, that you asked me to bring Donehogawa this morning.”
“Of course I did! I wanted help tracking an animal, Black. I did not want a bunch of primitive superstition!”
John spread his hands, palms up. “As you’ve said repeatedly. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“Everyone is so snappish,” Wiggin muttered. He leaned back in his chair until in creaked under his weight. “No, Black. There is nothing else.”
John stood and, with a nod to Edward, left the two men alone.