A Rough Riders Adventure
There were reports of sightings all across the Great Lakes region since they finished the Erie Canal. Old Indian medicine men would tell you that the monster was much older than that, but I had no time for fairy tales.
I am, if anything, a man of science and reason. But when I received the Colonel's urgent telegram, delivered by special courier, to get to the White House on a matter of urgent and secret business, I had the feeling that the material world that I was so comfortable in was about to get much stranger than I could ever know. When I arrived in Washington from my Manhattan apartment, I was whisked away by coach right to Pennsylvania Avenue.
I saw the Colonel, sitting in the Oval Office, with a grim seriousness on his face I'd not seen since San Juan Hill.
"Mr. President", I announced and gave a slight bow. I may have been brought up in high society, but I never learned the etiquette when greeting the Commander in Chief. I thought about saluting, but it had been some time since I'd worn a uniform. Tigers may not be able to change their stripes, but I’d adapted to peace and it agrees with me. Looking at the Colonel's face, I remembered a story my father told me when he was attending VMI before the War between the States.
"Old Jack", my father said, "Or at least that's what we called him then. You know him better as Stonewall Jackson. Old Jack got up in front of the Podium and gone was the strange, eccentric who instructed us in Physics and Artillery. Instead, a sober and serious military man. He said to us, "The time for war has not yet come, but it will come, and that soon; and when it does come, my advice is to draw the sword and throw away the scabbard."
Thinking about my father's words in front of President Roosevelt, I grabbed for the saber that no longer graced my body and was ready to go to War yet again if my Colonel asked me to.
"Jim. Good to see you", the Colonel greeted. "Please take a seat. I have some unfortunate task I need ask of you."
I sat in a fine high back chair, surrounded by busts of the forefathers of this great country. I'd heard rumor of all sorts of animals running around the premises, but had yet to encounter any. The Colonel, though the youngest president in history, had aged considerably since our last luncheon in Manhattan a few years ago. I never knew him to drink, but he went over to a small liquor cabinet, took out a bottle of fine scotch and brought it over with two glasses.
"I hope you take yours straight, Jim", he said, pouring me a glass. I took it and thanked him, waiting for him to pour his own. We toasted our reunion and took a sip. For that moment, the Colonel was more jovial, but the moment passed and he was, again, sullen beyond comfort.
"Jim, you're the product of the very best your country can muster. Born to a wealthy, aristocratic family down south. Studied business and law at Yale, a fine school, though no Harvard. A Lieutenant in the 1st Volunteer Cavalry, with medals for bravery and courage under fire. Now, a well to do Philanthropist in New York while your business seems to run itself."
"Well, thanks for going over my C.V., Sir. But what's that got to do with this unfortunate task you were talking about."
"This country has been good to both us. And to most Americans. The Radio allows us to project messages across the world. The Steamship and the railroad get us almost everywhere. But there are dangerous pockets of uncivilized land. Land that man cannot fair. I received a letter from one of our comrades, Hugh Teller. He lives up near the Canadian Border in Upstate New York and has seen some troubling things. A monster, the local Indians call it Wendigo, has been plaguing towns around the Erie canal. Men, women, and children, all missing, never to be seen again. I need you to go meet Teller, find this beast, and take it's head. It'll be rough hunting, but I know you're up for the task, Lieutenant."
It never occurred to me that I could say no. Not that I would. The President of the United States asked me for help. What kind of American would I be to deny him? I only asked if I'd be going alone.
"Nonsense, I've put together a crack team of our Nation's top men. Can't do much on the expenses front. This will need to be covert. John Q. Taxpayer finds out he's paying for a wild goose chase and you can kiss goodbye the Government's legitimacy in the eyes of the people. You find something out there and we can talk about getting you some American muscle behind you. For now, I'll fund you myself."
We shook hands and I was off. The long train ride gave me time to think about the assignment. I wanted to laugh it off and take advantage of an all-expense paid trip to Upstate New York, but Colonel Roosevelt was not a man to be laughed at and I knew Hugh Teller to be a man of upstanding character. If he saw something out there, then something is out there. When I arrived in Buffalo, I was greeted by a short, bespectacled man accompanied by a hulking giant whose face was more mustache than skin. The small one held a sign for Lt. James Quick and I waved to my greeters and we were soon fast friends.
"My name is Professor Miles Aldridge", the short man said. "I'm a biologist at New York University, specializing in animal anatomy. President Roosevelt and I have had a long correspondence over at least a decade, talking about all manner subjects from taxidermy to Darwinian evolution."
"I'm Todd Dodd. T.R. and I were ranching partners in the Dakota Badlands", said the other.
"Nice to meet you both. I'm-"
"We know who you are, Sir. We get newspaper's in North Dakota, too."
My reputation preceding me, we set off to meet the other two members of the team, Teller and an old Indian brave named Red Feather. We spent the night in Buffalo, then set off for the last known location of the beast, a few miles down the canal. We rode aboard a steamer named the "Brown Bess", an older model, her plumes of smoke filled the air and I marveled at how far we've come as a society. I saw Red Feather hanging off the side rail of the boat, smoking a pipe, looking down into the canal below us.
"Is that a peace pipe, Chief?" I asked, trying to be friendly.
"Not so, Pale Face. And I am no chief. Just as you are not a fish in this river."
He turned his attention back to the canal and to his pipe and I headed back inside to the Galley, where Teller was just finishing his lunch. Teller, a Sergeant in the 1st Volunteers, was known as the best shot in the whole regiment and we relied on his keen eyesight for our entire adventure in Cuba, especially at San Juan Hill. There had been an artillery battery to our West, trained on our position and it was Sergeant Teller's quick action that saved countless men from a gruesome fate.
"Hey there, Hugh. What's with that Indian you brought along?"
"Red Feather? He's harmless. Well, not harmless, but he's a good sort. He's a Comanche, nasty bunch they are. Good in a fight. I met him at a saloon in Buffalo after I saw the creature. He told me what he'd heard from the local tribes and I told him I could get the President of the United States to send people to check it out, he told me he'd come along if it happened. Seems a bit sour about being wrong, I think."
"The Colonel was a bit hazy on details when I left Washington. What exactly did you see out there?"
"I was camping up near Lake Ontario, just outside of Rochester. There were four of us, all experienced woodsmen. One night, around the fire, we hear this earth shattering scream and as we go to grab our rifles, I see a lipless beast with steak knives for teeth, as tall as a tree and eyes as red as blood. We opened fire on him, but he was quick. Smart fellow, too. He grabbed one of the men in his claws and ripped him in half as he was reloading. We got out of there and left his body behind. Too scared to go back for him. It ain't right. Pete Thompson from Elmira. Father of four and a veteran of The Spanish American War."
Hugh was sullen and though what he described was unbelievable, he believed it and I believed it, too. I put my hand on his shoulder and he looked at me.
"Don't worry, we're going to find this thing, kill it and give your friend the burial he deserves."
"If there's anything left of him."
We made our camp near where Hugh and his gang spotted the beast and set traps along our perimeter. Dodd was a hunter and knew all kinds of deadly tricks to capture big game. Giant snare traps, tripwires, holes, it took us all day to get set, but when we were done, we were proud of a first rate campground and the bait we made ourselves out to be. All of us, except for Red Feather, that is.
"This was a waste of time. Wendigo only comes out when the natural law has been broken. Sitting out here waiting for him like he's a normal animal will get us nowhere."
"Well, I don't believe in ghost stories, Mr. Feather", Professor Aldredge replied.
"This beast, whatever it is, is a biological creature like all living things. Probably some undiscovered species of bear, given Mr. Teller's description. I might even get to name it. Ursus Gigantus perhaps."
"It weren't no bear, Professor", Hugh shot back. "I'm a God fearing man and whatever that thing is, it's the work of Satan, I can tell you that."
A few nights passed and each morning found us well, no sightings of beast or man. I was beginning to doubt my friend and his judgement and I'd repay the Colonel's hysteria with a few night's in Buffalo's nicest hotel, with a few bottles of champagne and perhaps a lovely lady to help me with it. My daydreams of nightly companions were dashed away as a blood curdling scream, much like what Hugh had described, rang out due east of the campground. Red Feather, Hugh and Myself set off to investigate while Dodd and the Professor stayed behind. I didn't need to worry about the small academic and I figured that in a fight, Dodd might be too slow for this foe. We set off in the direction of the screaming and set upon some sort of ritual. A beautiful blonde was strapped in between two trees, as naked as the day she was born and surrounding her, hooded figures in burgundy robes, holding knives, ready to pounce like the senators of Caesar's day.
Without thinking, I snapped into action, pumping my shotgun and unloading buck shot into the sick creatures that held the beauty hostage. I saw Hugh also engaging them, as well as Red Feather, who preferred a bow and arrows. I could not blame him, as his keen eye fell several of them as fast as my shotgun blasts. When it was over, there were over a dozen of them dead. The hoods removed, they were as average a looking bunch as you could see. I recognized one, a former mayor of Rochester and as Hugh looked them over, it was apparent that we were looking over the corpses of many of Upstate New York's power brokers. We untied the woman, and I gave her the shirt off my back to help her regain some modicum of modesty. She thanked us and as she finished collecting herself, we began a round of questioning.
"What was going on out here?" I asked.
"I don't know. I don't remember how I got here. The last thing I remember, I was interviewing for a secretary's position at the Mayor's office in Buffalo. Then, I woke up naked in the forest, surrounded by all these men with knives and
it was just awful. Just awful."
"What's your name?"
"Audrey. Audrey Fairchild."
Even in her state, she was stunning. Curvaceous, full figure. Pouty lips. Bedroom eyes that could lure the hardest men into her bussom. She could be a beauty queen, a modern day siren.
"Wendigo only comes when summoned", Red Feather spoke. "The blood of the innocent is like sweet nectar to this beast."
That sent her over the edge and she fell into my arms and I wrapped around her, her tears dropping onto my bare shoulder like rain onto concrete. Not much time passed until we heard shooting off in the distance back towards camp.
"Red Feather, you come with me" I commanded. "Hugh, you stay here and protect Miss. Fairchild. We've still got a monster to hunt."
I ran off before Hugh could protest, but I saw resentment in his eyes. Red Feather was swift-footed and had half a football field's gain on me and by the time I was near the camp, he was nowhere to be found. The shooting hadn't stopped and there was no time to try and find the man. The professor and Dodd were in grave danger. I got to the camp's perimeter and stepped on a light patch of grass. That mistake almost cost me my life as a trip wire set off and I was almost skewered like a shish kebab. Killed by my own trap, that would have been devastating. But there was no time to beat myself up. The monster would have plenty of opportunity to do that for me.
The gunfire had slowed, one rifle instead of two and as I passed the tents, I saw the disembowled remains of Todd Dodd. The big mountain man had tufts of fur in his left hand and a bloodied Bowie knife in his right. This thing could bleed, so that meant it could be killed. I'd lost men before, but that feeling of helplessness never gets easier. I've never hardened to it, though I have tried. These were among the best men of their generation, slain in pursuit of a noble cause. I would carry the name Todd Dodd the rest of my life and hopefully one day, one of my men will carry on mine.
I found the beast, cornering the professor, who was too terrified to properly load his rifle. I fired my shotgun, but no buckshot came out. Damn, misfire. I pulled out my revolver and fired into the Wendigo's back, creating nickel sized holes up and down him, but he did not relent. I emptied the pistol and the monster turned his attention away from the professor and onto me. I dropped my firearms and pulled out my father's bayonet. It had been handed down from his father and his father before him, triangular blade, impossible to stitch up. If I could get only a stab in, I'd make it count.
Before I had chance to make peace with my maker, Hugh jumped out of the bushes, firing his weapon at the Wendigo like some Viking Berserker from long ago. There was rage in his eyes, though I suspect it was more towards himself than the monster.
He was there for revenge, it was true, but he was also finding penance for the sin of leaving a comrade behind. Hugh was magnificent, I'd never witnessed such courage firsthand before. He had enough presence of mind to reload and his fire was so rapid, after a minute I swore the beast was more lead than flesh.
The monster did not waver, however, and we two old soldiers were looking at the end. There was a mix of fear and relief in Hugh's face, as if he resigned to death, welcoming it even. Not me. I wasn't done living yet. I had no knife on me, but figured if I could close the distance, I could shove my hand in the monster's wounds and at least cause him enough pain that he'd remember who I was after he killed me. As the Wendigo came closer, we encircled him. Whoever he attacked, the other could get his back.
I hoped it was me, Hugh had the knife and could get him. The beast stopped, turning its head at both of us, thinking of how he'd gut us. The professor was still on the ground, fumbling his ammunition and cradling his rifle. Fear kills before the enemy even arrives to battle. The Wendigo chose and turned to me, Hugh looked ready to leap on it's back, when from the woods a glint of light flashed and the beast fell backward to the earth. I couldn't believe my good luck until I inspected him and found an arrow sticking out of the Wendigo's left eye. It was no luck at all, but the master archery skills of our Comanche friend.
Red Feather emerged from the brush, another arrow nocked in case the beast moved, but it was unnecessary. The Wendigo was dead and I was not and in my surprise, I hugged the Comanche Brave like I were a child to his mother. I collected my sanity and was met with a smile.
"Remind me not to save you next time, Pale Face" he laughed.
I joined him and so did Hugh, whose own joy at the situation outshined us all. I found the Professor and picked him up off the ground. He was a mess and would be like that for some time. He did speak until we got back to Buffalo and could only apologize until we got to Washington City.
"Dodd's death is my fault" he lamented. "We were holding off the monster for a while until I ran out of bullets. I tried to reload but my hands stopped working. I have never been that afraid in my entire life and I studied all manner of beasts in the wilderness. I have never seen anything like what we fought."
"There is nothing you can do about that now, Professor. You can only try to do better in the future."
"I will Lieutenant. I swear that I will."
"Good because we are nowhere near the end of this."
We arrived in Washington and were ferried to the White House in just as inconspicuous circumstances as I had been when I first arrived. The President met with us under the auspices of meeting the Ambassador of Sweden. It was a jovial affair, a bottle of champagne the size of the beast's head was popped and we toasted to our fallen comrades and to the victory we snatched from the Wendigo's jaws. It was later in the evening when the Colonel asked to speak to me in private. Ever the sober judge, President Roosevelt's famous smile was replaced with a stern and serious snarl.
"I didn't want to believe the monster was real, Jim. But it was. Satanic rituals. In America! Devil worshipping cultists, they're worse than the anarchists."
He looked out the window, rain started pouring from the sky.
"Jim, there's bound to be more of these things out there. And I'll be needing a few rough and ready men to meet them if it comes to it. Can I count on you to be there?"
I didn't even have time to register the question before answering. "Yes, Sir. Of course."
"Good. We'll figure out recruitment and pay and all that down the line. Congress is a bit tight with the purse but I've got a bully idea on where to get you some funds." He pulled out a large map of the United States lined with circles and notes around different remote areas. "These areas have been rumored to have the most activity of unknown species and missing persons. We'll be hiding them in plain sight with a little idea I call 'The National Park Service'. You and your men will be the stewards of these lands, protectors of our citizens and if were lucky, we can learn to live in harmony with the things that go bump in the night."
"Yes, Sir. We won't let you down."
"I know you won't", he said as he was leaving the room. "Oh and Jim, a Lieutenant is not sufficient rank to be leading an operation like this. We'll need a Captain or a Major, I think."
I was heartbroken. I didn't know why. There was no unit to speak of so it wasn't as if I'd lost anything. But still, to have gone through that and have to relinquish command to someone for such an arbitrary purpose. I was angry, but I let it pass. There were much more
important things to worry about than my ego. I could be a team player. The Colonel knew that.
"Yes, Sir. I agree. A Captain or a major."
"Good. Have your uniforms updated and cleaned, Major."
And that was it. From then on, the First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment was reborn and the Rough Riders were back in the saddle. And as for the woman we found in the woods, the lovely Miss Fairchild, let's just say a gentleman does not kiss and tell.