Northern Michigan circa 1880
TERROR LURKED IN THE woods and around the lakes of Wauganauksee. At least it did for the man who discovered the body and the four neighbours who helped him get it back to the settlement. Harold Thomas was the only one among them who could find words for what they'd found:
"Looks like somebody picked up a punkin and slammed it to the ground."
The grotesque remains did, indeed, resemble what was left of a scarecrow once the crops were harvested. There was clothing and there was the semblance of a human spilling out from it. The faded plaid shirt and worn trousers told the burying party who the creature had once been. They said nothing about who or what had made such a gelatinous mess.
The smell lingering over the area did give a clue to that, one none of the men wanted to acknowledge. Every one of them hunted to supplement their family's larder. Each of them knew the ways of the predators in the area as well as the prey. There should have been scavenger signs around the body. The stinging scent of the contents of the body's bladder and bowels mingled in a sickening pungency with the decomposing flesh, this should have brought in vultures and ravens at the very least.
There was no sign any of them had been there. Nor was there evidence coyotes had been around. So far as any of the men could see, even the beetles had eschewed the hapless body.
The silence around the carcasses was an additional ominous factor. The forest was never completely silent in Wauganauksee, not even when predators stalked within it. The silence now verified what sight and scent had already suspected. The killer was not something any of them had ever dealt with before.
No one uttered the words "Injun conjure!" No one had to. They lived among the Odawa. Some of them worked in the mill or the lumber camp with them. They'd all heard their stories about the soul eating Windigo and of Meshepesu who drowned the disrespectful who dared cross its Lake without permission. They'd heard about shape shifters and Manitous, and all other manner of monsters as well. Cannibalism was a central theme in many of those stories. Supernatural interaction was understood to be the prime motivator in all.
No words passed among the men that would assign the death to something pulled out of a myth. They dealt, instead, with the ordinary and mundane necessities of the tasks at hand. In that, half of the men wanted to dig a hole, push the body into it with pitch forks and shovels, then cover it over as quickly as possible. The reasoning was logical and practical
"Aint no use in scarin' the wimmen and children with this. Bad enough we gotta deal with it. "
The other half pleaded for compassion and an appearance of normalcy.
"He's needin' a Christian burial. His kin are gonna want that, and we got no decent way out of it."
Every man there cringed at the thought. None of them wanted to be in the proximity of the corpse any longer than they had to. Predators were known to return to a kill, and none of them were armed well enough to fight something capable of killing the way this thing had. Compassion won out, just barely, with one suggestion:
"Does the damn thing come back, let it have what's left of Leroy and we'll all run for it!"
This did not ease many fears, but it did allow for a compromise. Two more practical decisions followed immediately. James Almount suggested they use pitch forks to push the body onto a travois instead of into a hole.
"Then we cover it up, and kind of slide it into the coffin when we get it back to the settlement."
Thomas Gale added,
"And close that coffin tight onct that's done. Don't know about you boys, but I aint never wantin to see nothin like that again!"
The men followed the hastily drawn plan. Then, when the burying was done, they lied to the women, sheltered the children from any part of the truth, sweated with nightmares, and made clandestine plans to deal with the ungodly murder.
* * * * *
THERE WAS NO WAY they could. The men gathered together--well armed this time--to talk the situation through. Those who had not seen the body scoffed at the descriptions. Those who had hauled it back to town remained adamant concerning the details. In the end, the gathering of farmers and traders reluctantly accepted the facts they were given. They knew they had to when they found out no one could track the killer.
The best hunters in the area combed both the cleared spaces and the dense woods around them. There were simply no tracks to be found. Something big enough to kill the way this thing killed should have left tracks. This alone started fearful whispers that began to add up the frightening facts: It was huge, it was not human; and, if it could not be tracked, it was not an animal. Speculation leaped to `something supernatural', and the `Injun conjures' once again wound their way into the men's fearful thinking.
Once more the men involved tried to shelter the other settlers from the truths they were finding. It did no good. Secrets were not well kept in the small community nor inclined to stay within select circles. The reaction of the few who had handled the corpse was immediately noticeable and did much to expose the presence of a mystery. In a short time, others who had been taken into their confidence began to act in the same way.
In the beginning, furtive glances were exchanged between these men at the funeral. Those were exacerbated by the way the men shuddered visibly when they were called forward to lift the coffin onto the back of the wagon. They were underlined by the way the jobs of loading and unloading the burden were dispensed with as quickly as possible.
A particular appearance followed these actions; an expression that stayed with the five men, and later showed on the faces of the few others who had been taken into their confidence. The most noticeable element in those expressions was in the eyes. These seemed to be glazed over, whether they were working or just thinking. The rest of their expressions were grim, and haunted their faces as though they were looking at a horror no one else could see. Later, much later, the rest of the settlement would come to understand this was exactly what was happening.
The secrets surrounding the gruesome death were ripped open when a second body was found in the same condition. Now all of the men and some of the women were aware of the frightening details. Words like `phantom killer' and `murdering monster' began to flash in whispers through the settlement. Softer, more furtive voices once again whispered, `Injun conjure'. Actions followed when men and women alike began carrying weapons as they went about their daily lives.
The more superstitious folk of Wauganauksee were convinced this was a futile effort at best. A third corpse, this one heavily armed, proved them right. Wauganauksee, it seemed, was becoming a place of the dead.
* * * * *
THIS LAND OF THE Crooked Tree was not a small area. It extended from the Straits of Mackinaw and wandered some forty miles south of there along the Northwestern coast of Lake Michigan. Once it had been the exclusive land of the Odawa. Now the vast forests were punctured with the small settlements and farms of the Habitaunt and Shauganosh as well. Now it had become a place of diverse settings and diverse Peoples, a place where legends as well as cultures met and either clashed or merged.
The framework of these things did not matter, here. Each of the different Peoples brought with them their own spectres that haunted the night. These dark pockets of terror were all filled with mysteries and monsters. Those monsters, it was rumoured, were very much like the killer now skulking around the area, and many of the mysteries were the same.
Once there had been a huge, crooked white pine that leaned out over one of the many towering bluffs along the coast. This wauganauksee had been the guidepost of Indian and Voyager alike. Its massive trunk and branches were visible for miles out into the Lake and along the route from the Straits throughout the land that took its name. Many travelers in canoes and ships alike took their bearings from this landmark and were brought to safe harbour because of it.
The tree had been gone for many years, but legends about it remained. Now the superstitious made up their own legend and looked to it as a place of protection. More pragmatic citizens scoffed at the notion, but they did agree it could be a reference point to work from as they marked out the pattern of the murder settings. Still others, those who were more experienced in the ways of these wild woods, saw no use for either.
"Something's back," they declared, but only among themselves. They knew the Odawa would understand, but the English and the Americans had never been receptive to their ways. Neither were the newer immigrants the logging industry brought with it.
The Swedes and the Finns had their own ideas about the horror and their own solutions for handling it.
"We stomp that something with the boot spikes, then we see how ghostie it be, yah?"
Those older settlers knew this bravado was misplaced. How could they stomp something they could not find? These settlers who had lived for over two hundred years on this land knew stomping--or trapping, or knifing, or shooting---held no fear for this thing prowling in the forest. There were legends about `Injin Conjures', ones they believed and passed on to their children to believe in. There were also legends about how to deal with such things.
"Quaquay!" they whispered, and went to do what they had to do.
* * * * *
A FACE LOOKED OUT of the window and smiled at the huddled figures with scurrying feet.
"Like rats, rats scampering away from a prowling cat!"
The thought pleased the spectator for moment, and then brought up a frown. The rats were many. The cats were few. His vermin control would bring a small respite for a time, but after that the rats would be back nibbling at the desperately needed food stores again. This was the way of rats.
It was also their way to be everywhere. Where one sneaked in a dozen followed. Kill the dozen and there were a dozen times a dozen more to take their place. Even here--here, in this most inhospitable place--the foul creatures were taking over the land around them and laying it to waste.
The watcher sighed and closed the curtain at the window. The land was a good land. If one knew this, the land itself let a person breathe and it breathed with them. There was a sweetness in this, a beauty in the land of one's home and one's heart. It was a sweetness the rats stole without ever knowing it existed.
The thing in the corner twitched as the curtain closed, then moved forward to the table, waiting for its orders. A flick of a wrist sent it back to where it came from. The coming journey was going to be a long one but an uneventful one. The services of beings like the one in the corner would not be needed at the end of it. That place was already overrun with rats.
It would be better, now, to keep the thing where no one would think to look for it. Better to set it for one more kill, a kill which would take place sometime after its owner was gone.
The owner corrected his thinking immediately. There would be two kills. The most necessary one would be accomplished in the deep pines. The body would then be left there until--who knew? That far back in the woods he might never be found.
"Better to put it where the People can find it, and the papers, eh? Maybe in a sugar grove? Yah. That is best I think, for now."
The government would send another agent, of course. They always did. The death of this rat was a stalling tactic at best. But, then, all of the deaths were. Except for the second of the two. That death would establish an alibi. Blame would be set somewhere else--and the rats would continue to huddle in fear.
"Let it be, den. Dis fear, it is only what rats deserve wherever they come from."