A story based on circumstances from Antonia Bird's RAVENOUS.
|Captain John Boyd woke in the early chill of the morning, drenched in sweat. Dreams of blood and steel, of cannon-smoke, of dashed hopes and severed lives, had plagued him all night. Though it was well after dawn, the sun had not yet ascended high enough to spill over the snow-capped peaks to the east. That's how life was at Fort Spencer – short dull days and long, lonely nights.
He wrapped himself in a greatcoat and emerged from his quarters. Private Cleaves' unmistakable cackling carried across the courtyard. Boyd followed the sound and noticed that candles burned still in the mess hall. Inside he found Cleaves and George puffing hemp from a peace pipe. Martha was at work by the cookfires. She wished Boyd a good morning in her broken English.
"Care for a drag?" Cleaves asked betwixt hysterics. Boyd nodded and mustered a shy smile.
As he smoked Boyd made out the unconscious form of Major Knox sprawled on the couch. A bottle of San Miguel's finest tequila was cradled in the folds of his dusty frock coat. No one, it seemed, had bothered to put him to bed after supper.
"I've boiled some eggs," Martha said to Boyd over the howling of the overmedicated private and her brother. "To break your fast." He was famished, but the thought of food so soon after the terrors of the night sent through him a shudder of revulsion.
Boyd left the mess quietly and started walking. There wasn't much to see around Fort Spencer. The view from the watchtower was like a painting – though its beauty was superficial. A painful reminder in still life, the very image of the frozen Nevadas was a mural of persistent isolation. It was the highest perch a man could hope to achieve in this dilapidated outpost, in these godforsaken mountains, in this life, broken beyond repair.
Boyd stopped. Without thinking, he had come to the dark oak doors of the bathhouse.
Why, he asked himself, did he walk to the quarters of the stranger? The ragged, wild-haired man had stumbled into the fort two nights previous before falling into a deep sleep, in which he remained. Boyd had helped the others carry him indoors and bathe him, scrubbing his blood into movement. The stranger was half-dead, skin frigid to the touch, but there was an undeniable vitality in his corded frame, his ruddy face, those muscles hardened by a no doubt harrowing ordeal in the wilderness.
Boyd took the step to the door and laid his hand on the latch, unsure of the how of things, bewildered about the why. He couldn't have said where the urge to push the door ajar came from, only that it was there.
The bathhouse was pitch black, silent save for the stranger's slow breath. Boyd crept on his tiptoes to where he slept. He wondered if the stranger too had bad dreams. It didn't look so – the wild man's face was so serene as to be sure of itself, confident even in convalescence. Around the stranger's wrist was a rosary, a gilded crucifix hanging from beads of pearl. Boyd reached out and ran his fingers over the glistening metal. When he looked up, the stranger's eyes were open and fixed upon him. Eyes, brown and depthless and terrible, regarding him in what could have been rage but felt more a savage desire.
A jerk of panic wrenched a gasp from Boyd's lips. He stumbled and nearly lost his footing. A thousand apologies and as many excuses danced on the edge of his tongue when, heart hammering, he saw that the stranger was still fast asleep, still peaceful. Eyes closed.
Boyd's first thought was: Jesus, what did Cleaves put in that weed?
His breath came back to him, crystallizing in the pale air. He stood there beside the sickbed, all motion suspended. The stranger's eyes had been open – hadn't they? Or was it just the shifting light?
Boyd snapped back to life at the sound of footsteps and the humming of a melodyless hymn – Private Toffler, come to start the fires and say a prayer for the ailing man. With a last glance at the stranger, Boyd slipped out the back door.
He was pouring over maps with Colonel Hart when Toffler jounced up to announce that the stranger was awake. He hurried to the bathhouse with the two of them, checking his pace for the colonel; the larger man was panting after only a few strides.
"I suppose I owe you gentlemen a story," the stranger said, the dip in his voice seeming to indicate that it was not a very pleasant one.
"Only if you feel up to it," Colonel Hart assured him, though the whole room crackled in anticipation of it.
Boyd watched the stranger – who introduced himself as F.W. Colqhoun, servant of God – talk. His eyes were indeed brown.
"We left in April. Six of us, in all. Mr. Macready and his wife, from Ireland. Mr. Janus, from Virginia, I believe, with his servant Jones. Myself – I'm from Scotland. And our guide, a military man, coincidentally. Colonel Ives..."
Ives was on top of the world, literally and figuratively speaking. The cave had come to occupy a special place in his heart, like a beloved bakery where fine dining at bargain prices were always in the offing. In this high pass, he was cut off from even Indians. There were none to interrupt his feast.
None to judge him, either.
The fat one was coming along splendidly. He had regained consciousness only once, but long enough for Ives to get some roast Toffler down his gullet. This morning Ives fancied he would sample a side of George, perhaps from the thigh, where he was thickest. Biting in, Ives tasted obsidian and woodsmoke, a life of running, hunting and hardship. He thought of Captain Boyd, huddled in that absurd pit with the late Private Reich, and laughed.
A strange impulse had saved Boyd's life. It would have been all too easy to leap down and start gorging – but Ives decided much on a whim to let him rot. He was so inured to cunning that such improvisation was, he supposed, uncharacteristic.
Boyd smelled delicious, of course. On the trek from the fort up the mountains, Ives had oft found himself watching him, salivating quietly. He had a scientist's curiosity when it came to Boyd – an unexpected fascination, but impossible to ignore. Electricity had passed between them the morning Boyd crept to his bedside. It had twisted Ives' gut and set fire to his restless libido. During the massacre, he had saved Boyd for last, but for the simple reason that he was least likely to put up resistance. In Ives' line of work, pragmatism was everything.
He had to chuckle at the sheer audacity of the man. Cornering Boyd at the edge of that cliff felt sublime. Never more had Ives enjoyed the thrill of the hunt. The terror was pulsing off the captain in waves. The stink of it was cloying, all consuming, and utterly enticing. He had wailed and struggled like a bear in a trap, his blue eyes shimmering. Ives had laughed and growled and danced, undeniably stiffening, his blood and Boyd's both running hot, coursing in unison – then Boyd had leapt from the cliff rather than be taken.
Ives could not lie to himself: it's lonely being a cannibal. He had everything he needed in his mountain holdfast. But what he wanted, more than anything, was someone to share his meals with.
Well... more than almost anything.
Boyd would resist at first, he knew – but the power of his craving would implacably unravel him. Besides its inherent futility, trying to fight the Hunger was like blowing at a blizzard. Yes, Boyd would see the light. Ives was sure of it. First there would be gratitude, admiration. Affection would follow in time, and then, perhaps even...
Ives sucked George's femur clean and reached for a haunch of buttock. He would have certainly died in the mountains had it not been for generous helpings of Mrs. Macready's le porc longue. Even with all his strength, Ives' wearied collapse at the fort was no performance. He had done well, and today he would reward himself. Plans could wait until tomorrow.
The sun was shining. Ives felt positively virile.