The Western Ohio Frontier, 1799
Things were not as they seemed. It appeared as if black storm clouds were boiling up over the horizon, spilling into the valley like floodwaters breaching a dike. The storm almost looked alive, as if it had a mind of its own. Faster and faster, the clouds surged forward as I, Cole Seavey, watched resolutely from my stony perch at the opposite end of the valley
But as I watched, I saw that those were not black clouds racing toward me; they were passenger pigeons, huge flocks being blown violently through the firmament. Their numbers were staggering — masses beyond counting.
The clouds were not the only thing to be other than they seemed. To those who did not know me well — and none did: I made sure of that — I also appeared to be something I wasn’t. For I was other than the dutiful son and devoted fiancé I had long feigned to be. But beyond the unflappable man nicknamed Cold-Blooded Cole, who was I exactly? I honestly wasn’t sure. Maybe that nickname truly summed up all that was important about me.
The wind propelling the birds and thrashing the trees suddenly struck me with all its fury. The very air seemed to explode. I flung an arm up to protect myself as dirt, dried leaves, seed husks — anything that could be swept up by the tempest — whipped all about me in a mad frenzy.
The storm had caught me at an unfortunate moment. I stood high on a treeless ridge overlooking the long, narrow valley into which I was about to descend. Luck wasn’t entirely against me, though. An ancient forest of oak, hemlock, and poplar lay a half-mile from where I stood. Beneath their protective boughs, I knew I would find shelter from any storm, no matter how fierce.
Downward I plunged over the scree-strewn hillside. Rotten, fractured rock slid about under my feet, slick as melting ice. The last thing I needed so deep into this desolate frontier was to wrench an ankle, especially since I traveled unaccompanied by man or horse. Therefore I obliged myself to move with more caution. The shriek of the wind grew louder, and a branch the breadth of my thigh smashed into a nearby boulder. Wrenched ankle be damned; I broke into an all-out run.
I was nearly to the forest when something peculiar off to the left caught my eye. I thought it to be a girl sitting on the ground, as if pausing to rest while out on an afternoon’s stroll.
I slid to a halt, nearly losing my balance. Certain I was mistaken, I shielded my eyes and peered closer. Blond hair whipped about her head, obscuring her face, but it was a girl all right. Despite the bitter cold, she wore naught but a red dress that clung to her as if wet, though no rain fell from the dark sky. I hurried to her side, mystified as to how she had come to be in such a remote place.
The girl leaned against a large boulder that afforded her little shelter from the howling wind. Her eyes were closed and her head hung limply to the side as if she were asleep — not that such a thing seemed possible in this raging maelstrom. She was perhaps twelve or thirteen, and her bare feet were so dirty and rough-looking that it was possible to believe they had never graced the inside of shoe or moccasin.
I wondered why she had not sought the refuge of the forest that lay so close at hand.
“Miss?” I shouted, drawing nearer, but no answer was returned. This close, I saw I was wrong about the color of her dress. It wasn’t red, at least not originally. It was white. All of the blood soaked into the material had misled me as to its true color.
From years of hunting, I was well acquainted with the gore that accompanied a violent death. Too, I had seen the bloody outcome of many drunken insults settled with musket, stiletto, and fisticuffs. Yet none of that prepared me for the violence that had been done in the killing of this girl. Her dress was rent in a half-dozen places, as was the flesh beneath. Indeed, her left leg had been brutally slashed from hip to knee. Beyond doubt, she had died a terrible death.
She took a breath, startling me. Somehow she was not dead after all. I leaned my musket against a boulder, knelt down next to her, and pushed the tangled hair from her face. Her gaze was frighteningly distant as if she already saw the gates of heaven opening for her. She would die if I didn’t act fast, and probably would no matter what I did.
Another falling branch plummeted down, splintering to pieces far too close by. I knew I had to get her to shelter.
But first I had to stop the bleeding from her thigh. I whipped off my belt — a fine, beaded item I had acquired in trade from an old Cherokee. I slipped the belt under her leg, pulled it high, and then cinched it as tightly as I could. Blood stopped flowing almost immediately, though she had lost so much already, I could scarcely believe more yet coursed through her veins.
Above the shrieking gusts of the windstorm, I heard the sound of groaning. For a moment, I thought it was the girl, then realized it was the sound of the forest straining to remain upright in the gale. My musket blew over, landing hard. I wanted to have it back in my hand, to double-check the charge was yet secure, the firing pan aligned. But I sensed no other threat and thought tending the girl most urgent. I threw my pack to the ground, rummaging through it for cloth to staunch her other wounds.
Given how grievously she was injured, it was hard to believe how ferociously she suddenly gripped my arm.
My eyes went to hers and in them I saw pure terror. But her eyes weren’t on mine. They were locked on something beyond me. Very slowly, I turned until I could see over my shoulder. Fifteen feet away crouched a catamount in the shadow of the forest. My approach must have momentarily frightened the big cat away from its victim, but now it had returned, fearing I intended to cheat it of its meal. The beast was not mistaken.
It was moments like this that had earned me the nickname Cold-Blooded Cole. Staring back at the cougar, my pulse did not quicken, my hands did not shake. Some said it was not bravery that kept me so composed, but dimwittedness. I don’t know why I was not afraid at such times, but as far back as I could remember, I never had been.
Perhaps to be afraid, one must have something he fears losing.
The big cat’s eyes narrowed to slits, its tail snapping back and forth like a banner mounted upon a windy parapet. It bared its teeth, almost certainly hissing at me, only to have the sound swept away by the storm.
I stood and yelled — all that was normally needed to frighten away one of these lethal, if cowardly animals.
This cat didn’t back off. It was easy to see why. The normally sleek creature was gaunt, plainly starving, so much so that its ribs were outlined beneath its skin. No wonder it had attacked the girl and now refused to give ground, even in this terrible storm. It needed to eat or it would die.
And I needed my musket or I might die. I was a fine shot; all I required was one opportunity.
But the animal hurled itself at me before I could act. I barely had time to fling up my arm to block its charge before we tumbled backward. I slammed onto my back, skidding over crumbling rock. The panther landed on my chest, its breath rank as it snarled, its razor-sharp teeth barely missing my flesh. As hard as I could, I kicked at its underbelly, but not before its claws raked my thigh, drawing blood.
We separated for a moment, but the enraged animal instantly charged again. There was no time to think as I fended off the cat’s huge, powerful paws, blow after blow. At last its claws caught me across the face and my skin sang with pain. Furious, I struck out blindly with my fist. I felt the satisfying “crunch” of my fist landing on the animal’s sensitive snout. The cat yowled as it slunk back. But it still didn’t leave.
Injured, I sank to one knee, the wind continuing to howl all the while. Grit continuously scored my face and my watering eyes burned fiercely. The ground shuddered as a nearby tree crashed to the earth. A second followed moments later, and I glanced over as it bounced off the ground.
Instinct warned me to glance up in time to see the cat launch itself at me in another brazen attack. I threw myself to the ground as the beast passed inches above me. I scrambled upright, mopping blood and sweat from my eyes. The air was a whirlwind of dust and dirt as I searched desperately for wherever the cat had landed.
That was when I saw it.
Not the cat. The cat was gone. Where it should have landed was a thing — a monster, a devil out of the bowels of hell.
Or at least that was what I thought I saw. My eyes were so blurry that it was hard to be certain exactly what I beheld.
I had a vague impression of something huge. Seven, eight, maybe nine feet tall it stood. It was two-legged, but had an enormous head that was a ghastly shade of black. A wicked looking set of antlers jutted up from the head, the tips scraping evilly at the sky. Feathers covered its arms, and where the hands should have been were huge paws studded with cruel looking claws. Even from where I stood the monster reeked, as if left dead for days beneath a blazing sun.
No wonder the cat had fled.
As if things weren’t bizarre enough already, I thought I heard my name.
“Seavey,” the wind whispered. “Seavey.”
“Gerard?” I said, barely able to trust my ears. “Is that you?” Gerard was my brother, my only living family, and the one person out here who could possibly know my name. But I was days from the frontier settlement where he dwelled. Nor had he known I was coming, and therefore it was unlikely we were meeting by happy coincidence.
It couldn’t be him; it had to be the wind, my ears playing tricks on me.
The monster stepped toward me, its arms outstretched, and I realized there was another explanation: that foul creature could be uttering my name. Why, I didn’t want to guess. I only wanted to get away.
Trying to locate my musket, I staggered back toward the forest as another tree toppled. I feared getting too close to the woods and being crushed, yet I had no choice but to seek refuge amongst those swaying trunks.
But first I had to get the girl.
A figure emerged from the woods twenty rods distant to my left. My heart leapt with hope that it was Gerard after all, but the figure’s face was hidden by the brim of his hat. Struggling against the blowing wind, he yelled what sounded like, “Stop, damn you!”
I wasn’t sure if he meant me or the monster, but neither of us obeyed. The man swung his musket up, taking aim at the creature. The percussive bang of exploding gunpowder rose momentarily above the wind, but the shot went wide. The musket ball shattered uselessly against a rocky outcropping.
The monster turned from me, charging the man as he attempted to reload. Immediately, I knew he was in trouble. I was handy with firearms; nothing felt as natural in my hand as my musket. But despite my years of experience, even I couldn’t reload in much under a minute; this fellow didn’t look anywhere near as fast as I. The monster would have him long before he could get off another shot.
Intending to help, I started toward him, but the crack of another tree falling seized my attention. The report was as loud as a cannon, and I spun about in time to see a huge oak plunging toward me. I tried to dodge the tree, but there was no escape. Its limbs rushed at me like a bristling wall of soldier’s bayonets.
I suspected I was about to die in a most unpleasant way.