Feeling his pubic hair melt, trapper
Jacques Napier sagged against the wood of his stake, wept salt, and prayed to
his God in coughing gasps. While he had expected to expire from the heat and
smoke, his prolonged suffering told him this inferno came from hell itself.
Snow mingled with the ashes.
Napier realized he’d been singled out for
a unique vengeance. Because of the snow, the flames grew slowly enough for the
agonized victim to watch ‘les sauvages’ circle his pyre again and again.
“You and your kind stole and defiled our
daughters and our sacred land. Tonight we repay the violation,” they sang.
The people he had loved, certain of his
perfidy, made sure he understood every gesture and insult.
Black-and-red-painted warriors glared and grimaced, their mouths distorted by
curses. What few women remained to them laughed, pointed, and prodded his
shriveling manhood with sticks. On display before the tents squatted settler
women, captured and impregnated by worthy warriors to increase the tribe. They
were luckier than those who had resisted or failed to conceive and become food
during the harsh winter.
Behind the naked dancers and drummers,
Mighty Oak, Napier’s father-in-law, stood with grim countenance and arms
crossed. The elder’s stony eyes held those of his former friend, whom folk
called “Napper.” He and the trapper had already been forced to watch his
daughter, staked across the ceremonial grounds, deliver Napper’s dead child
his agony, Napper remembered his
first meeting with Moonshadow and the events that followed…
Napper crossed the clearing and was just
bending over to check one of his heaviest traps, hidden near the cliff edge,
when he was tackled from behind. Claws raked his back, and he fell forward. The
trap snapped shut on his arm, and the fury of the attacker sent him over the
cliff. Flailing his limbs, Napper wished he was an eagle and not a man. With a
loud splash, his body hit the river’s icy water and the trap dragged him to the
Before the drowning man could lose
consciousness, he felt sturdy arms around him and soft lips pressed to his.
Napper opened his mouth to the breath of life, but kept his eyes closed as he
was pulled ashore.
Flopped from the water to lie gasping and
shivering on the shore, Napper opened his eyes, shocked to find his rescuer was
a woman—tall and copper-skinned, with long, lustrous black hair. He winced as
she removed the trap from his arm. Then, before he could thank her, he blacked
wake up. The moon is high. It is our time to run.
Napper sat up to see a silhouette with the
moon behind it. A furry lupine face bent over his, hot breath touched him, and
a tongue licked his cheek. He flinched, and remembered his arm and gouged back.
There’s no pain anywhere. Is my arm gone?
No! I feel strong, better than I ever
Napper stood and stretched fur-covered
limbs…until his spine began to curve, leaving him on all fours. Mon Dieu!
I am a beast, le bÍte noir…and so is she!
She sprang to the hunt, he followed, and
in the morning they awoke in human form, entwined and smiling into each other’s
“Do not tell my father we are moon-wolves,
or we will lose each other, Na-per,” she whispered. Then she took him home to
her village and day after day of happiness.
“Na-per, come…look.” Moonshadow pointed to
the smoky sky in the direction of her husband’s abandoned cabin.
His father’s heritage French, while
Napper’s mother was the offspring of an escaped slave and a native woman, the
dark, handsome man felt welcome at his wife’s village and able to keep their
secret. Alone since the age of sixteen, he had gone native at twenty-four, and
hung up his cruel traps to let them rust in the rain.
Smoke showed others had claimed his old
stead. He had no intention of paying them a visit. But Moonshadow’s curiosity
left him no choice. Before he could stop her, she was off down the trail on
swift feet, until she reached a crudely carved sign reading: STUDDART.
Napper and Moonshadow hunkered down at the
edge of the clearing, well out of sight of the cabin’s new occupants. A gaunt,
ragged, auburn-bearded man sat on the sagging porch watching a raw-boned woman
in a patched dress stir a batch of soap, her hands red from the lye. Animal
skins hung from a line strung between cabin and woods. Napper’s stomach turned
when he recognized a wolf pelt among them.
Four filthy, emaciated children played in
the bare dirt among a few chickens and a pair of tethered hogs. A forlorn tan-and-white
cow nudged a slender teen, whose threadbare dress kept slipping off one
shoulder as she worked a butter churn. Two ugly toddlers, their eyes vacant,
drooled and pulled themselves along on deformed limbs. Part of the ground
beyond them was given over to a tiny grave marked only by a pile of rocks.
The man, whose rifle leaned against the
cabin wall, took occasional swigs from a brown jug, belched, scratched himself,
spat, and swatted at flies. He eyed the butter churner, his face becoming
flushed from more than alcohol.
Buzzards circled overhead…until one of the
deformed tots gave a strangled cry and quit moving. The man didn’t react when
two of the carrion birds swooped upon the dead child’s body. The woman sidled
around to put the scene behind her, the teen sniffed back tears, and her
siblings watched the buzzards in fascination.
Napper and Moonshadow, hand in hand,
remained frozen in place. He glanced briefly at her, the disgust on her face
making him hang his head.
“Yew! C’mere.” The man pointed at the
teen, loosened the twine holding his britches closed, and motioned her to
follow him into the cabin.
“Clew, Sis don’t know nothin’ ‘bout
pleasin’ a man.”
“Shut yer yawp, woman. It’s high time she
larnt. How d’ya ‘spect ‘er ta satisfy her brothers and help ‘em provide for our
old age. I wish our boys’d git theirselves home. They oughta be here protectin’
the stead and savin’ me all this hard work.”
“They’re too busy layin’ with heathens,”
snapped Ma Studdart. “Why else they been gone so long, an’ not doin’ right by
us like they ought? I heerd it’s boys with boys at that there fort. It’ll be
them soldiers’ fault if we steaders all die out.”
“Well, it sure as hell won’t be mine!”
Laughing, Pa ignored both Sis’s wounded-animal moans and the bed thumping the
cabin wall, “Yew better larn fast, girlie, or it’ll be more lessons till yer
primed to give me back what the ground and buzzards took.”
The bed thumps came faster and louder, accompanied
by guttural groans, then mumbles.
Moonshadow gripped his arm and tried to hold him back, Napper stepped from the
shadows into the clearing, and demanded, “Clew Studdart, free that innocent!”
“Mind yer own damn bizniss, Frenchy. I can
do as I please to my git, ya heathen-lover. Haul yer ass offa my stead afore I
fill yer mangy hide fulla lead!”
“What you’re doing cries to heaven for
justice. God will strike you—”
Ma Studdart cut Napper off, eyes blazing
in indignation. “Pa ain’t doin’ nuthin’ what isn’t already in the Good Book.
Who d’ya think Adam’s sons and daughters begat with? An’ then there’s Lot an’
his girls. My body’s plumb wore out from birthin’ so many, the first three big
uns—all boys—these last three not worth feedin’. It’s Sis’s turn. I ain’t
handin’ her over to the likes o’ those poxy settler and soldier boys,
staggered naked out of the doorway and
collapsed, splay-legged, while Pa stood on the porch retying his filthy
britches and shaking his head. The girl lay crumpled on the splintery stoop,
only the whites of her eyes showing, her breathing shallow, the insides of her
bruised thighs bloody.
“Kate, git over here. I told her to lay
abed so’s the seed takes, but that big-mouth, half-breed, heathen-lover there
put a shock on ‘er.” Pa slapped the girl’s pale cheeks to rouse her, but her
head rolled limply to one side and stayed there.
Ma threw cold water on her, fanned her
with her apron, and made small whimpering noises. The other children gawked,
wide-eyed, except for the surviving misshapen toddler, who began to bawl
Watching the alert buzzards spiral lower,
Napper backed away from the chaos into the gloomy forest cover and let his eyes
adjust. Too late! Moonshadow had vanished.
Ashamed to face Mighty Oak and the rest of
the tribe, Napper wandered for two days. Returning to Wolf Meadow where he had
been changed forever by Moonshadow, he prayed to find her—whether as human or
wolf, it didn’t matter. But, before he could decide what to do, he felt a
painful blow to the back of his head. Dropping and rolling to face upwards, he
focused blurry eyes on the grinning faces of Studdart’s three oldest sons,
large sacks slung over their shoulders. Consciousness fading, he heard muffled
screams coming from those sacks—female, and in the language of his adopted
Napper swam through black depths and
crossed to a different world. His heart lifted when he thought he spied a
figure under a huge oak. In the half-light, he drew nearer, hoping it was
“Sis Studdart!” It can’t be.
“I ain’t really Sis. I’m Catherine Studdart, same as
Ma, but you can call me Kate.” The pale figure of a teen girl
stood before him in a blue gingham dress. Smiling shyly up at him, she laid a
cool, white hand on his tan arm and breathed, “Jacques.”
“But…but you—” Napper’s arm tingled where
her hand touched it.
“Yes, I died. In this place death don’t
matter. Time don’t count here. Living and dead—past, present, and to come—we’re
side by side. Take a gander yonder.”
Instead of the prey animals Napper had
encountered in his first night with Moonshadow, he saw a meadow full of
children laughing and playing together.
“One is mine…by Pa…and these others are my
little sister and brother,” said Kate quietly, beckoning them to her.
Napper barely recognized the brown-haired
boy—whole, instead of deformed, and appearing to be about five. Two smaller,
tow-headed girls held the boy’s hand. The three circled Kate, gazing up at her
with shining eyes.
“I know what you’re athinkin’, Jacques
Napier. Jimmy-John is like he was meant to be. Janey Faith isn’t under a rock
pile anymore. Josie Hope was nuthin but a spark inside me the day I died. After
passin’ out, I lingered two more days afore passin’ on. She’d-a come out wrong
like Ma’s last three...”
Napper was distracted by a hug around his
knees. His hand touched the top of a child’s curly head, and he stared down
into a face that reminded him of his own, save for darker eyes, fuller lips,
and button nose. He lifted the chubby girl-cherub, whose arms immediately
encircled his neck.
“My name is Flaming Star. I was born in
fire.” At her ticklish whisper in Napper’s ear, tears swelled in his eyes and
spilled from his lashes.
“Winter’s a-comin’ and it’ll be a bad un,”
warned Kate. “Ya can only save one side,
Jacques. Either head fer the hills or the settlement. Come along,
Napper awoke in Big Lulu’s bed with the
first storm of the season on its way. At sixteen he’d fathered the cook’s only
child on just such a night of wind and hail. Lulu, born to freed slaves, took
after her very large pa. No one messed with Lulu and her ever-present cleaver.
Ashamed at her weakness and waving the cleaver for emphasis, she’d encouraged
Napper to leave the settlement and keep his mouth shut.
Watching eight-year-old Jasper take charge
of the pot-bellied stove and his ma’s cookware, Napper felt a pang of affection
for him. When the tall, wooly-haired boy tiptoed over to the bed and fed his
guest a bowl of delicious stew, Napper realized the lad had inherited Lulu’s
cooking skills and tidiness…plus his heart and good looks.
“Jasper, where’s your ma tonight?” Napper
appraised the snug cabin.
“Mama took sick last month from tendin’
soldiers she cooked for at the fort. I can’t be mad at them, though, ‘cause
they stopped the Studdart Boys from stompin’ you after clobberin’ you. The
settlers didn’t let me see her, only her grave. She left me a letter says
you’re my pa, even though you look too small for Ma. Is it true, Mister
Taking the boy’s slender, callused hand in
his, Napper tried to smile. His voice wouldn’t get past the lump in his throat,
so he just nodded ‘yes.’ He vaguely remembered young Kate Studdart, but not
Moonshadow. The blow to his head had erased most of the details of his journey
from Wolf Meadow into the world beyond life.
Lulu had left him her silver cross; wearing it in her memory kept him
Thanks to Jasper, Napper began to heal.
Meat and other necessities being in short supply for the settlers, sickness and
Indian raids took their toll. When he felt well enough, Napper returned to
trapping and fishing, and got to know his son. Jasper, who stayed miraculously
healthy, tried to take his ma’s place as cook at the fort.
“Soldiers say things are worse for Mighty
Oak’s tribe than us, Pa. Can’t we help?” said Jasper one night.
“I don’t think Mighty Oak’d be too happy
to see me, Son. Those Studdarts the soldiers caught stealing and spreading the
sickness to his women started his braves stealing ours.”
“Cap’n Jones at the fort says the Indians eat women who don’t
make babies fast
enough,” offered Jasper, his voice trembling. “D’you think they’d eat me, Pa?”
“I’d believe it of Studdarts—damn them for
starting the whole mess—not of Mighty Oak’s people. Oh, Jasper, you know they’d
never eat a skinny tadpole like you!” Napper reached over and tickled the boy’s
“Uncle! Unnn-cull…I give, I give!”
squealed Jasper, kicking and squirming, until he stopped, his eyes huge, and
pointed out the window at a dark shape. “Pa, I think I see a ghost,” he
There came a clawing and bumping at the
“Please, please don’t open it, Pa,” begged
Jasper, running to hide under the bed, “’cause it might be the Wendigo.”
Knife in hand, Napper crept to the door
and put his ear to the wood. Weak sobs, followed by another soft thud, came
from the other side. Deciding to take a chance and open the door, he lifted the
A pitiful, blanketed heap lay across the
stoop. Napper lifted a dead weight, dragging it inside, and returning the
crossbar to its place. His hands shaking, Napper unwrapped the blanket and
examined the skeletal, swollen-bellied thing inside.
hollow-eyed wolf face peered up at him.
The nose, ears, lips and paws were raw from frost-bite, and the fur was falling
out in patches. The eyes and tears were human. He suddenly knew those eyes. Merde!
crawled out from under the bed and
began to rub the shivering creature’s paws. Together, Napper and Jasper watched
wolf transform to woman, great with child, as she lay on Big Lulu’s bed. Then
the woman found her tongue and rasped out her plea.
“Take me back to my people, Na-per. I am
the sacrifice. Once I and the child I carry burn under the full moon, the game
will return so my people can eat. The sickness will stop. The sun will shine on
the land again. Too many have died already!”
Napper clutched Moonshadow to his chest,
feeling their hearts beating together as she spoke. “The Studdart Boys were
cursed by my father to run as wolves. They could not return to their father’s
stead, so they found and defiled me with their seed. I hid from my tribe in the
wilderness and buried my foul litter at birth. I saved you soon after, we ran
together and became one, and returned to my tribe…only to be lost to each
“I will die if you die, Beloved!” cried Napper.
“How could I have forgotten you?”
“No, Pa, no…please. God can’t take you from me too,”
“If this is your son, you already had a
wife when you made our child with me. I see why you never came for me when the
Studdarts took me again!” Moonshadow reached up before he could stop her,
grabbed Napper’s knife, and tried to slit her belly.
“Help me, Jasper!” Napper stanched the
bleeding as Jasper raced to the stove, plucked the hot poker and seared the
woman’s wound closed. Moonshadow fainted.
Man and boy bathed the woman’s bruised
body and wrapped her in clean blankets, then Napper said, “I must return
Moonshadow to her father first thing tomorrow. Maybe he will know how to lift
the curse. I felt no movement in her belly, so the Studdarts must have used her
until they killed our child. We’ll pack our mule with food for the tribe. They
may be grateful enough to let me live and return to you.”
Jasper drew himself up and stared soberly,
first at the wolf woman, then at his father. “We’ll meet in heaven anyway, Pa.
She’s wrong. You didn’t betray her. The clobberin’ just made you forget. You
don’t deserve to die for loving both her and Ma.”
“Jesus didn’t deserve to die either, Son. You’re the
man today—love better than I did.”
Napper led the loaded pack mule up the
trail with Moonshadow secured to a travois. He craned his neck to watch Jasper
as long as possible. The boy’s black skin shone so brightly in the dawn light
from amid the white fur of his hood, Napper’s heart hurt.
Don’t run to the fort too soon,
Son. I don’t want anyone killed trying to save me.
By late afternoon Napper, alert for
another Studdart ambush, had reached the village. Wails of mourners arose all
around. Almost every tent was marked with spirit signs to signify death’s
visit. Captives had been relegated to special tents marked to ward off wicked
spirits and invite those associated with fertility. By the look of the
captives, the fertility spirits had been winning despite the fierce winter.
Mighty Oak emerged, and carried his
daughter into the chieftain’s tent. He made no comment on her state, only
barked at Napper, “Prepare to burn.”
Napper stood in silence until Mighty Oak
returned and declared in a ringing voice, pointing to the pack mule: “Tonight
we feast. Tomorrow we fight the traitor’s people.”
Immediately, the surviving tribesmen slunk
forth to claim the mule, ignoring Napper. They unloaded and slaughtered the
docile beast. The few tribeswomen prodded their captives into helping them cook
and prepare paint. Finally, Napper was taken to a tent where Moonshadow lay in
soft deerskin, a fierce wolf mask covering her face and head. Captives, their
bellies greased for good luck, stripped and painted Napper in black and white
from head to toe, and wrapped the silver chain and cross around his manhood.
While the tribe feasted, Napper and
Moonshadow, legs spread, were lashed to stakes across from each other. The
dancing and drumming started, and Moonshadow’s pyre was lit. Eager flames
entered her open thighs to make her push the child from her womb into the heart
of the flames with a cry rising beyond pain to elation. The snow covered her
blackened body when it collapsed.
Napper’s agony was not as swift. As flames
licked at his scrotum, he began to scream, and could not stop. When the silver
cross dangling there melted, the echoes of his holler rang through the white
corridors of the woods to the den hidden behind Studdart’s stead.
The fierce answering howls of the Studdart
Boys rang through the woods loudly enough to reach all the way to the place
that would forever mark the moment of his release—Napper’s Holler.