This story originally appeared in the anthology Creatures in Canada: A Darkling Around the World Anthology, the Saskatchewan entry in a cross-country chill-per-province/territory collection. There is a link to purchase the anthology on its Goodreads page.
The shacks of Battleford were visible ahead, as they had been for most of the past hour, each contributing a filament of white vapour from its chimney to the pale mist hanging over the town. It was the closest thing to a cloud in the whole of the broad blue bowl overhead, an encroaching paleness, as if the work of the town was to shove the whiteness of the ground back into the sky it had once fallen from. Anderson looked down from the panorama ahead, resting eyes seared by the universal brightness on the dark mane of his horse. Even the shadows that stretched ahead of them were mere bluish tints on the snow.
The cold air gave a sharpness to the sounds of their passage. There was a musicality to it, Anderson thought. The squeal of the snow under the horses’ feet provided the strings, the harrumphing snorts of the beasts as woodwinds, and the ringing of the tackle a high percussion. Another sound entered the ensemble, and Anderson looked up to see the source of the brisk jingling to his left. Sergeant Millbank had his bottle out and was shaking it briskly. The rum, made oily by the cold, settled slowly down the sides of the glass, and the sergeant beamed manically at it for a few seconds before giving it another shake.
“Good news, Constable,” Millbank said without looking at the young policeman.
“We’re back at the fort before supplies run out.” He drew the stopper from the bottle and took a long swallow. Then he turned to Anderson, holding out the bottle, a thread of saliva twinkling between it and his lips. Anderson took it, nodding a thanks he did not mean. He was not against drink, but he could not believe that liquor so cold would bring any warmth to his insides. He took a small sip all the same, not wishing to engage Millbank’s other mood, the almost-murderous anger that seemed to come as easily as this free bonhomie. Then he nodded again, and handed the bottle back, wondering idly what in the Sergeant’s past had set this deformity in his character.
“What about Danny?” Millbank looked past Anderson, and Anderson turned to regard the prisoner propped on the back of the oldest, slowest horse in the Fort Battleford stables, possibly the least capable horse in all the North West Mounted Police’s holdings. The prisoner seemed little more than a cone of blankets, a tan face peering out of a fold in the uppermost of his coverings. He looked ahead, not regarding either of his captors, apparently mesmerized by the rhythmic bobbing of the horse’s head through the ruler-straight line of the horizon.
“Here,” Anderson said to the man, “you want drink? Rum?” There was no change in the prisoner’s face. “I don’t think he does, Sergeant.”
Millbank retrieved his bottle. “Huh. Never seen one of these fellows what wasn’t mad for the drink. Your loss, Danny; you won’t have many more chances at it.”
That was true enough. The Indian agent who had summoned them, and who had made the arrest unassisted, had sent along a statement to present to the magistrate supporting a charge of murder. The two policemen had seen the mangled corpse, and under his mound of blankets, the prisoner was still crusted with dry blood right up to the elbows. There was no one to speak for him, he seemed uninclined to speak for himself, and once the court sat upon the matter he would be briskly run up to the gallows. Anderson turned to study their charge. It was likely the man was mad; he could not fathom this sort of impassive docility following such a brutal slaughter in a sane person, even if sanity had sufficient stretch in it to encompass the initial mutilation.
“Poor bastard,” Anderson muttered, not sure if he meant the likely lunatic riding beside him, the victim back at the reserve, or someone else entirely. He joined the prisoner in a contemplation of the slowly approaching town, which at the current pace they might just reach before the November sun slipped below the horizon. It occurred to him that he was looking toward home in two different meanings. Birmingham lay on almost the same latitude, a third the way around the world. The winter days were no shorter there than here, but it seemed to him the constant sun drew notice to its brief transits across the sky; back in England, it had the decency to be ashamed of its failed strength, drawing a curtain of fog and cloud to conceal itself from scorn.
“He says he’s going to die.”
Anderson sat at a bench in the mess hall, beside the door to the guard room. He was one of four men off duty for the morning who had gathered in the hall, all making use of the extra warmth from the adjacent kitchen and the breadth of the tables to repair and refresh their kit in anticipation of inspection. The voice he had just heard belonged to an Indian who had been overcome with drink, a regular visitor to the cells. The man’s accent made him sound ancient to Anderson’s ears, but he was not more than forty. He had slept away his binge, and Anderson had for some time been vaguely aware of him speaking with the other prisoner, the accused murderer, in their own tongue, for some time previous. It had formed a background to his work and he had not thought to stick his head in and silence them. McAllister, who had guard room duty that afternoon, had come in from the adjacent kitchen, and he told them to pipe down before setting their meals down.
“That’s a certainty,” McAllister said in his Scots burr, “but we have to let justice run its course beforehand.”
“He says he’s going to die tonight.”
There was a silence. Anderson quietly shifted himself to peer through the open door. McAllister was down on his hunkers, well back from the bars of the cells, looking at the face of the killer. Anderson had McAllister down as one of the decent chaps in the detachment, not soft but considerate of his fellow men. “Are you feeling poorly, Two Sisters?”
“That’s not his name,” the drunkard said
“That’s what is says on the docket,” McAllister said, in a disinterested tone. “Is he feeling poorly, then?”
The drunkard spoke to the murderer. The murderer replied, looking straight at McAllister. “No,” the drunkard said.
McAllister stood up. “Well, then, he’s not likely to die tonight. Eat up your stew, lads.”
Anderson looked to his gear, but a worm of curiosity worked inside him. He set his brush down on the red serge of his jacket, stepped into the guard room, greeted McAllister, then said to the drunkard, “Did he say why he would die tonight?”
“Yes.” The man hardly looked up from his plate as he spoke, and he shoved his spoon into his mouth as soon as the word was out. Anderson exchanged a look with McAllister, who shrugged before taking a spoonful from his own plate.
“Please tell me why he thinks he is going to die.”
The drunkard chewed for a while, looking shrewdly at Anderson. His head was cocked to one side, as if he had once been struck an unrecoverable blow. He said something to Two Sisters, who nodded. “Sure. He told me he did it wrong. That’s why.”
“Did what wrong?”
“Cut out Joseph Greyeyes’ heart.” The declaration was followed by another spoonful of stew, as if it were no more interesting than an observation on the weather.
“Surely you mean,” Anderson said, looking more at Two Sisters than the drunkard, “he was wrong to do that.”
The man laughed, spraying bits of pork. “No! He had to do it. But he did it wrong, so now the wihtikow will follow him and eat him.”
Two Sisters nodded. Anderson wondered if the man knew English, or if he was just responding to a familiar word in a string of unknown gabble. He was looking mournfully at the plate on the floor in front of him, sitting on the bed with a blanket about his shoulders, making no move to feed himself.
“Probably eat you and me, too,” the drunkard said, and the amusement drained from his face. “Hey, can you let me out before tonight?”
McAllister put his own spoon down, standing to approach the cell. “Stand up, John. Now, stand on one leg for me.” The drunkard did so, putting one foot against the other thigh and wobbling only a little, his hands on his hips, his head still bent to one side. “Aye. You seem sober enough. If you cause any more trouble, I’ll give you a good clout, though, so mind your manners.” McAllister unlocked the cell.
“Can I finish eating before I go? This is good stew.”
McAllister was about to speak, when Anderson cut in, “Only if you answer my questions.”
The man looked at the plate, then over at Two Sisters. He lowered his spoon, dabbled it in the stew, a look of inward debate on his face. Then he shrugged, refilled the spoon, and ate on.
“What is that thing you said? A what-a-woo?”
“Wihtikow.” He said it quietly this time, looking past Anderson into the white-washed corners of the room. “It’s… I don’t know the word. It’s hungry all the time, and eating makes it more hungry, and it likes eating people most of all. But it eats other stuff, too. They get into people when they’re not living right. He knows how to fight wihtikow.” He used the spoon to point at Two Sisters. “One got into Joseph Greyeyes, and he had to get it out. but something went wrong this time. That’s what he told me.”
“Rough cure,” McAllister commented.
“This time? You mean he’s done this before?” Anderson was aghast.
“Oh, yeah. Everyone knows it. All my people, anyway. He must have fought… oh, twenty of them.”
“The same way, every time?”
“No.” The drunkard considered for a bit. “I think… maybe… five of them he got out, the people got better.”
“So he has killed fifteen people?” Anderson looked at the small quiet figure in the other cell.
“No. Wihtikow killed them. He cured them. Except Joseph. He says they’re getting stronger, harder to fight.” Another spoonful interrupted his flow. “I wish I could have this stew every day.”
Anderson left, his words failing him, his free time gone and duty calling.
Anderson handed the dispatch pouch to the civilian at the desk, who thanked him and handed a similar object back to him. Anderson slid the leather envelope under the shaggy buffalo riding coat, catching it up on his gun-belt, and bid farewell to the man. He ran a finger over his moustache to knock away what ice had not already melted before passing out of the front door of Government House. The trudging of the day’s dispatches to and from Government House was another of the duties which fell to a junior constable, yet Anderson found he did not mind it too badly. It was not a long ride, unlike the previous day’s effort to collect Daniel Two Sisters or the regular patrols, and it offered relief from the smells of confined men in the fort’s barracks.
As he rode past the end of the building, he looked up at the strange little quatrefoil window set high in the wall, far above the three windows of the ground floor. He had never been inside far enough to know what that window let onto. Its shape, combined with the carved gothic decoration under the gable’s eaves, brought chapels to mind, although the administrative nature of the portions he had seen suggested that was mere fancy. Was it also just fancy, stemming from that gothic décor, which made the building seem old to him? He pondered a moment, deciding it was less old than it was weathered, as if it had stood far more than three years’ worth of wind and rain. Perhaps that was close to the truth; it was only just the start of December, and winter had gone on as long as he could remember.
He let the horse walk on, and as he did the return leg of each of these rides he turned his attention to the vista spread out before Government House, the low flat valley of the Battle river where the old town lurked, the fort and new town on the opposite plateau, the Saskatchewan river beyond that in its own gouge, and past that a barren flatness. But not quite flat. It was like looking out at a frozen ocean, gentle swells arrested in their progress, their troughs and peaks averaging out to make the plumb-line horizon. He squinted, trying to blur the structures out of existence, trying to understand what possessed the first settlers here to lay their rickety foundations. The simple carpenter’s gothic of Government House was a palace in comparison to the shanties of old town, and it must seem like Olympus to the Indians in their tipis. His memories of home had almost faded far enough that the building no longer struck him as a glorified barn.
The sky became a pearl, and in the valley before him greyness overtook all as the sun touched the horizon, gathering colour back into itself. Even the coming of the dark seemed to last unknowable eons, yet by the time the horse brought him to the gate of the fort, the stars were out, pale behind the eerie green curtains of the aurora.
The mess hall was transformed from its mid-morning calm, a pandemonium of men chattering and bellowing in good fellowship. Anderson collected his plate and mug of tea, then worked his way back to a free spot at a bench at the dormitory end of the hall, away from the kitchen door. He passed McAllister at the door to the guard room, who nodded as he passed.
“Your lad Two Sisters ain’t eating,” he said, as he ran a piece of biscuit around the plate he held. Fragments of the meal clung to his whiskers and the front of his shirt, his scarlet undress jacket hanging safe on a peg behind him. “Pining, I should say.”
Anderson shrugged as he went. “His nutrition isn’t my concern,” he said. The shrug was returned, unnoticed, by McAllister, who retreated into the guard room a moment later.
Hardly attending to the conversation around him, Anderson sat and ate his evening meal. Here he was at least on equal footing with the more senior men of the detachment, getting his mandated ration of meat and biscuit the same as the others. The same, he thought, as every other man in uniform from Battleford to Rorke’s Drift to Peking to Sydney, although the spices likely varied. The patrols occasionally brought in an antelope or a few birds for the common pot, although that practice had all but ended with the first snow.
First snow had also been about the time he had given up seriously wondering if he had made a mistake enlisting. He was used to the ways of the service now, used as one could ever get to the cold, very nearly used to the way the people of the town and the Indians out on their reserves looked at him as something other than quite a man. That last point was a curse and a blessing. People saw the uniform rather than the man wearing it, addressing only the symbol of Her Majesty, her vice-regal representative and her loyal Canadian government which was sworn to do its duty without fear, favor or affection. The odd rough customer was rendered more tractable by a confusion over whether he was wrangling with mere Constable Anderson or mad bastard Sergeant Millbank, yet when simply passing normal people it could be a little hard to be an inhuman cog in the machine of Empire, or at least treated as one. Hard, but bearable, at least for another four and a half years. He brought to mind the cover of his pay-book, the space beside Discharged on where eventually a date in the September of 1885 would be written, and smiled inwardly, although the prospect of what lay beyond that moment of writing was entirely obscure to him.
He realized that in his woolgathering, he had cleaned his plate without noticing. He frowned at this unusual degree of inattention, casting covert glances to either side to discover any sign that this neighbours had helped themselves to some of his meal. He did not feel as if he had eaten his pound of bacon, but the men on either side, less intent on food than talk, both had plenty left on their plates; it was unlikely they had cadged any of his. Anderson looked across the way, noticing the man there had left half a biscuit sitting beside the place.
“Here,” he called across, “are you done with that?” He pointed at the biscuit, and after a quizzical moment, the man pushed it across.
Anderson slept in his dormitory bed. It was the kind of sleep in which one is aware of sleeping; thin and free of refreshment. When the dream began, he was thus aware it was a dream, and was untroubled by the fact that he was standing in full parade uniform in the doorway of the guard room, holding a Winchester repeater at port arms, looking at the prisoner he knew as Daniel Two Sisters.
He only knew it was the guard room because it gave onto the mess hall; it was bare of the usual furniture and fittings, and Two Sisters lay on the floor. He was naked, stretched out across almost the whole of the space that, in the waking world, was divided by bars into three cells. His ribs were in stark relief, and between them and his hips his belly was little more than a thin envelope of flesh. He turned his head to regard Anderson with mad eyes which flamed red. Anderson in the doorway, rifle in hand, seemed unconcerned. A second Anderson, the nebulous consciousness which knew this was only a dream and observed all from a different vantage, found the sight shocking, but not sufficiently so to wake from.
“Tootoosis is dead,” Two Sisters said, sitting up. “Now I can carry on with my work.”
“The prisoner will remain recumbent,” Anderson said. As if following a drill manual, he stepped forward, cocked the barrel of the rifle back over his left shoulder, and drove the brass-bound stock into the face of the monstrous figure. There was a clatter, as if the impact had been against stone, and the features twisted into an ogrish parody of themselves. Observing Anderson was startled. Acting Anderson seemed to feel all was as it should be, and with clockwork movements returned to his initial position.
“You are dead, too,” the thing on the floor said. “You belong to a nation of ravenous dead.”
“You don’t speak English,” an Anderson pointed out, the observer momentarily unclear as to which of him had spoken.
“That is true. I speak the language of all Wihtikow, and we are brothers.” He stood now, hunched under the low roof, and pointed to the suddenly-absent back wall of the room. The view was that from the yard of Government House, looking down upon Battleford. Under a dim glaucous sky, the rolling landscape was smooth tan skin, the rivers dry wrinkles. The town was a collection of fat ticks, quivering as they filled themselves. The visible Anderson looked at the scene laid out below, nodded, then went through the necessary stages to present his weapon for discharge. It was pointed directly at the face of the transformed Two Sisters. Observing Anderson was looking into the barrel.
“Has the prisoner any final statement before sentence is carried out?”
A fat, ruddy tear ran down the malformed cheek. “I will miss my mother.”
Anderson pulled the trigger. The end of the rifle darted out, lodging in the throat of the giant. The monster started to laugh as Anderson clapped his mouth over the rifle’s fallen hammer, laughed as it began to crack and wither, laughed as its substance was pulled through the bulging rifle barrel towards Anderson’s mouth. It was still laughing as Anderson’s jacket darkened, began to swell and grow glossy, and the laughter followed him out of sleep.
Anderson lay in his bed, listening to the snores of the other men. By the moonlight which came through the small square barracks windows, he dressed and slipped out of the dormitory. Passing quietly through the mess hall on stocking feet, he hesitated outside the guard room door. The little stool for the man on duty was toppled, lying on the floor in the corner away from the door, as if flung aside. Cautiously, he craned his head through the opening.
Two of the cells were empty. The third stood open, and a man in red serge knelt on its floor, his broad back obscuring the other figure which lay on the floor, only its moccasin-clad feet fully visible. It seemed to Anderson that the policeman was hunched over, regaling himself on the body before him like a hyena, an apparent continuation of his nightmare. He hesitated over the right course, whether he should raise an alarm, flee, or charge, and a small sound, a stillborn scream, escaped his throat.
The kneeling man raised his head. It had been turned to the side, ear pressed to the chest of the fallen, and Anderson was so relieved to see that it had been turned aside the whole time that he stumbled the rest of the way into the room. The man could not quite make out who was behind him while looking that way, and brought his face around over the other shoulder. “Anderson! Good man!” said Davis, another recent arrival. “Cut along for the surgeon, would you?” Anderson, momentarily returned to paralysis when Davis’s beard suggested to his dream-struck mind a mask of gore, did not move. “No, never mind, you’ve no boots on. Stick here a moment while I go. I believe this man has died.”
Davis, a large man, lumbered out past him, hardly marking the look of amazement on Anderson’s face. His boots beat on the floorboards as he trotted back the way Anderson had come, headed for the door which gave him the most direct route to the hospital in the next building. Anderson heard his whole passage right to the point that the door closed, but until the place was quiet again he made no move, simply standing and staring at the still form on the floor.
Two Sisters lay on his back, his unseeing eyes directed to the ceiling. He was still swathed in his blanket, although it was disarrayed somewhat, like a parcel set aside before the unwrapping was quite done. One hand was free, and lay beside his head, an equivocal gesture; greetings, farewell, and stop, all in one. His face was slack, as dead faces must be, but there was a residual expression to be seen. It was not the terror which might have been expected of a man who had foretold his own death by a supernatural agency, Anderson saw, but profound sadness. On a living face, it would have been heartbreaking.
Anderson moved closer in slow underwater movements, his face averted slightly. He was presently kneeling beside the corpse, a little closer to its feet than Davis had been. He reached across to the outstretched arm, took the cool brown hand in his own, and pulled it towards himself. It was in this posture that he remained, both his hands clasped around the dead man’s above the dead man’s heart, until Davis returned, bringing with him the medical officer, O’Brian. Winter’s chill clung to both of them like an inversion of radiance.
“Let’s have a look at him,” O’Brian said, laying a hand on Anderson’s shoulder. He tugged gently, feeling a tremor run through the constable as he did, then took a step back to give Anderson room to get clear. Anderson rose, pressing Two Sister’s hand down on his chest with a tender gesture neither of the others noticed. Anderson backed away, passing O’Brian and Davis in turn, until he was back in the doorway to the mess hall. There was no sound from the rest of the building, Davis’s departure and return apparently making no impression on the two dozen other men slumbering in the barracks. Anderson turned away to peer across the mess hall at the door to the dormitories.
As O’Brian said, “Oh, yes, this is a dead man,” Anderson slowly and carefully licked the palm of his left hand, the one which had been most in contact with the hand of Two Sisters. There was a cleft in his perceptions, almost the same as had been present in his dream; an observer who was surprised by the action, and an actor who was seemingly unconscious of what he did. It was the observer who tasted the earthy salt flavours from his hand, and who strove to convince himself that it was no different than what he would have tasted there any time, whether there was an element of Two Sisters present or not.
The actor had no thoughts but as he walked out of the mess hall, to finish dressing ahead of acting on O’Brian’s order to summon the Colonel, he wore a small lop-sided smile of dark satisfaction.
Constable Anderson marched into the detachment commander’s office at two in the afternoon on the third day of March, 1882. At ten minutes after two o’clock, Sergeant Anderson marched out. That evening, he sewed the new chevrons onto his jackets, then composed a letter which would urge his brother to rush to Canada with as much capital as he could muster, then on to Assiniboine District to buy up as much land around the lieutenant-governor’s holdings at Wascana as was possible.
He had a moment of rare reflection as he marshalled his arguments. He knew that such interludes had come to him more frequently in his youth, and attributed their lapse to the effects of maturity. They had trailed off, he decided, at some point during his first year with the North West Mounted, but even giving a little effort to recollection, he could not recall any epoch-marking event. His current memory of that initial year was of entirely uneventful duties. The actual reflection was brought on by a realization that the scheme he was turning over in his mind at the moment was entirely contrary to the notions of the Matthew Anderson who had fled his father’s house in Birmingham three years ago shouting over his shoulder his intention to “live a life rather than slave for profit.”
What a wonder, he thought. If his ideas then had been as they were now, he would have bowed to the demands of his father, following him into his somewhat profitable if entirely dull business, and never would he have found himself in a place to make a fortune. Clerk Anderson would have known only Birmingham’s business, while Sergeant Anderson knew of plans to relocate the capital of the North-West Territories of Canada and how to turn that knowledge to his advantage.
He wondered if a similar transformation had come over his brother. Probably not, for his brother had always been more like their father; not always on the hop for the main-chance as such, but watchful for the small advantages that in aggregate make up a small, comfortable fortune. Sticking with the family firm would have nurtured that nature, honed it, but not amended it. When this letter arrived, it would likely have a galvanic effect upon him.
The unusual interval of reflection gave way to an equally unusual speculation about the future. He knew that his tendency to indulge the whim of the moment had led him astray now and again, but as this promotion attested, he covered his tracks well enough. Now, though, it struck him that he had to start thinking of how to conduct himself properly for the rest of his term with the force, so that he could go into business with his brother with a respectable honourable discharge. As the path to the next century opened before his imagination, he saw how such a foundation could even smooth the way for giving his less-enterprising brother the push, once their concerns were running smoothly.
This country, he thought as he sealed the envelope, was a vast table of riches for those who looked at it properly. He meant to eat at it until he burst.
“Without Fear, Favor or Affection” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.