I am putting to ink the events which took place in the year of our Lord 1967 outside the town of Crockett, Texas. I have refused to discuss this matter with anyone, save God, for the last 50 years. However, as I near the end of my life, I feel posterity will forget the affairs surrounding the disappearance of Jeremiah James when my body settles back into the dust from which it came.
A deathbed confession benefits society as a whole, regardless of whether the confessor rode a nom de plume into town or his naissance identity, thus there is no need to record who I am. Furthermore, I was but a witness and bore no responsibility in the events detailed here. Besides, when one moves from one roughneck job to the next, from one town to the next, from one life to the next, the moving is not in search of riches, but in leaving a past behind. After serving two tours in Vietnam and experiencing the death of dozens of friends, I feel more at ease alone and on the side of the road with my duffle bag over my shoulder and my thumb pointed towards heaven than around those who profess rapport.
In late spring of that year, I secured gainful employment with a contractor hired by a larger concern responsible for laying a pipeline across the Davy Crockett National Forest in southeast Texas. I found myself part of a crew tasked with harvesting the timber through 12 miles of the thickest part of the woodland. We would cut the trees down, reduce them by shearing their limbs from their trunks, and then dragging them—with either a tractor or a team of mules depending on the ground conditions—to the trucks waiting at the end of the ever-elongating logging road. The wind died upon reaching the edge of the forest, miles away, so the spring temperatures brought to mind the swamps of Cambodia. The occasional snap of a twisting trunk or branch forced me back into those swamps, dodging enemy snipers and sweating the sweat of a man confined to the gallows. The work was hard, but the pay good for someone with nothing more than war skills.
Soon after finding my place amongst the other roughnecks, Jeremiah James came to work on our line. Nothing about him struck me as spectacular, other than his skin being black as burning diesel smoke. It made his eyes and teeth seem all the whiter. He was not afraid to bend his back to an arduous task, but a colored man working alongside whites in this part of the country during this timeframe did test the limits of racial harmony.
He quickly found my company to his liking, and we spent our lunches eating together in silence, staring off into the woods. I suspect this attachment sprouted from a shared military experience. I knew he had spent time overseas because he wore his dog tags. He knew of mine from the time he offered his hand to me after I dove under a tractor when an exceptionally large limb cracked like lightning. We hardly said more than two words to each other during our lunches, but the looks we shared spoke volumes. We were brothers from that band of warriors so eloquently described by Shakespeare.
The superintendent of our crew, Mr. Cash, carried a pistol on his hip at all times. Publicly, he said it was to take care of any of the forest’s braver critters that may have forgotten who resided atop the food chain. Jeremiah and I had overheard him one day telling the two company night guards that it was for any uppity niggers on his crew. As it was, only one colored man worked the line whom Mr. Cash had not scared off—Jeremiah. And as whites who hung around with coloreds were most often characterized at the same social stratum—especially whites from Massachusetts-Yankee stock—he and I both took the effort to avoid Mr. Cash and the guards when possible. Still, encounters were inevitable considering there were only two dozen or so men on the crew. Mr. Cash, one of his guards, or any combination of the three, always managed to corner Jeremiah if he was alone. The harassment rarely amounted to true physical harm, but I could tell the unwanted attention did not sit well with him. I am certain only my prodigious height and attitude prevented the same treatment at my expense.
As Jeremiah and I were stowing our tools late one evening, he asked me if I would be interested in some homemade venison chili. He said his freezer was full of meat, and if he didn’t eat it all, it would go bad by summer. As such, he’d made up a large pot of the concoction based on a recipe handed down from his great-grandmother, a slave owned by the master of a prosperous Mississippi plantation. I hadn’t had a good home cooked meal in years, so I readily accepted. Jeremiah flashed a wide, white smile at me and clapped me on the shoulder in fraternal camaraderie. For unknown reasons, the thought failed to register in my brain that he could’ve split his boon with his neighbors, a time-honored tradition amongst country folk. I suspect my stomach’s enthusiasm at the sound of “venison chili” overrode any cerebral activity.
Jeremiah lived outside of Crockett in a house that his grandfather built after World War I. Both of his parents were dead and all siblings had moved north as the Civil Rights Movement made life hard in small southern towns. He displayed the same tenacity here that he exhibited on the line. No one was going to run him off from his childhood home. He bought out his siblings’ share of the holding.
He let me wander around his stead at will, pointing out the bathroom and where the clean towels were stowed. I spent some time roaming his grounds and looking at his works in progress in his leather shop. When I came back inside, he told me to make myself at home. Most people apply this greeting; however, Jeremiah’s pitch was genuine. I eagerly took him up on the offer and immersed myself in a hot shower.
Jeremiah was a gracious host, and the chili was spectacular. I had always felt that good chili should scrub rust from old cars, but Jeremiah’s great-grandmother felt differently. Well-seasoned with just a light tang of the wild, and not requiring dousing the tongue in lemon juice, turned out to be an ancient mystery solved.
We did not talk much, as was our habit at lunch on the line, and spent a quiet evening on his front porch playing chess. He won two of three. He offered a spare bedroom to me for the evening, but I declined as I had a sudden flash of concern surrounding my belongings. They were alone back at the line camp barracks the company supplied for those hands without the means to house themselves. Not that the men I worked with were thieves and n’er do wells, but I had no desire to try the waters of morality by leaving everything I owned under my bunk and unprotected in nothing more substantial than a cheap plywood chest. I refused Jeremiah’s offer of a ride to the camp and walked there under a quarter moon, content with the dim silvery light it gave off.
I had just entered that part of sleep where every little noise worms its way into your dreams. Someone relieving their bladder against a tree turns into whitewater rapids. Or someone cursing from a stubbed toe turns into your drill instructor explaining what a worthless piece of garbage you are. However, when a wild animal howls, that sound finds its way from your ears to that closet of nightmares you think you keep locked away, and your subconscious raises the surrender flag to your consciousness. I suddenly found myself standing up next to my cot . . . along with every other roughneck in the barracks. We stared at each other with wide eyes and then ran outside when we heard a man scream in unadulterated terror. We ran through the openings between the canvas tents that served as our barracks as if the devil himself were behind us. When we got to the edge of camp, we found Mr. Cash staring off into the forest with a face as white as a clean sheet, a lantern in one hand, his pistol in the other.
When pushed for answers from the men, he confessed that he didn’t know what had truly happened. He only saw a shadow, quite large, and its monstrous creator had dragged a guard off into the deep dark. Those of us who had spent time in the wilds, growing up either in them or during war, scoffed at that image. Animals large enough to haul off a man were not unheard of, but no one knew of one brave enough to assault a camp of humans, especially with a town full of man-smell so near.
He formed a posse with the intent of retrieving the night guard, whose name to this day I cannot remember. I do recall he would open his shirt and proudly display his tattoo of a noose. I was not chosen for the posse, as I was a friend of Jeremiah and considered not trustworthy enough to give a good showing at finding the missing man. This fact did not bother me in the least, nor surprise me, for on reflection, I found that reasoning sound. Mr. Cash did not accompany the posse either. With only one guard left in camp, he reasoned, his presence was required there. Besides, someone had to contact the local sheriff and report the incident. I’d seen men like him in ‘Nam. We called them cowards.
Six hours later the posse returned and firmly and respectfully refused to go back out that night. Whatever was in the woods was beyond their experiences and comprehension. They’d picked up spoor—broken limbs, overturned leaves—a few yards in and followed it for close to an hour, deeper and deeper into the thicket. They insisted the distance and direction they’d travelled should have put them in Crockett’s town square, but the woods only grew darker and thicker. Indeed, they felt as if they were no longer in the Davy Crockett National Forest, and they turned back out of fear of getting lost. Mr. Cash insisted on forming a new posse at first light when the odds of getting turned around were reduced. No one slept that night, and work did not begin at daybreak as was usual. The sheriff arrived in the middle of the night, took a report, and left.
The locals on the crew showed up for work as normal that morning. Jeremiah, like me, was not selected for the posse. We were charged with kitchen duty for the day. The men staggered into camp in time for their lunch, but luckless in their pursuit of the missing guard. Their forlorn faces left no doubt there was no evidence as to what might have befallen him. The sheriff’s department said they would keep an eye out for him, but without any evidence of foul play, regardless of Mr. Cash’s insistence that something had taken him, there was nothing they could do that the line hands hadn’t already done. An hour later, everyone was back to cutting, reducing, and dragging.
Jeremiah invited me to his house again that evening for a fresh batch of chili, and I accepted without a second thought. After all, his company was pleasant, the food was good, and he had a hot shower. While we were again playing chess on his front porch, he asked, “Whadda think happened to that cracker guard?”
I was surprised at this sudden assault of verbal interaction from him, but I was more than happy to engage him back. I explained that as I wasn’t fond of the man, I had not given it much thought nor was I concerned one way or the other. I am sure that was not a neighborly attitude, but death is the great equalizer. Of this I knew from my war years. If something or someone had taken the guard, then that was just the way it was.
Jeremiah pressed his lips together in a grin and nodded. Then he told me that the sheriff had come by his house that morning and insisted on looking around. Mr. Cash it seems had left the sheriff with the impression that the only colored man on the crew was the culprit. Jeremiah felt the one thing that had kept his neck out of a lynching was the fact he was a local.
Having burst through our mutually acceptable wall of silence, I inquired about his leather working. He explained how his ancestors had brought the skill with them from the Dark Continent and passed it down through the generations. He was descended from an ancient African tribe who believed in the transformation of man into animal if they ingested certain herbs and donned the skin of the beast. The tribe considered them their protectors, and they were highly respected. I, of course, took that explanation as any modern man would—it was only superstition perpetrated amongst the less fortunate races to give a spurious sense of hope and superiority in the face of overwhelming oppression. However, it did open up an unexpected and interesting direction in our conversation. I suggested running wild and free, chasing game as a wolf, and not worrying where my next meal was coming from, would be a pleasurable change of pace.
Jeremiah agreed on my choice of creature, though his imagination turned to his more . . . baser needs. The need for revenge, in fact. I didn’t know what it was like to ride a bus across the southern United States as a colored man, so I couldn’t empathize with him. However, if it was only a tenth as bad as I imagined it was, the number of people on his list was undoubtedly a high figure.
Trying to turn the subject of our exchange from where I was afraid it was going, I reasoned with him that wolves were pack animals. They are not strong alone. Moreover, they are just as susceptible to large doses of highly kinetic, lead shot, just as most other animals are. I asked him how a single wolf would be able to carry out such a string of attacks. His white smile flashed across the chessboard, and a shiver skittered its way across my shoulders until he permitted a friendly laugh to escape through his teeth. At that moment, I understood. The chance of dying did not interfere with his wishes, for death stalks all men. You may hide in a foxhole, but if fate is intent on killing you with a grenade, you can rest assured you will not climb out of that hole before the fuse lights the charge. I had learned in the Asian jungles that the same thing applied to a man willing to give his own life to perpetrate his death dealing.
Full of chili and content in my showing at the chessboard, if not a bit concerned for Jeremiah’s mental well-being, I left his house. I’d seen worse cases of combat stress, but I decided I would keep an eye on him when I could just the same.
I had made it back and was making my way amongst the tents when a howl struck the nighttime air like a hammer strikes a railroad spike. The moonlight itself wavered before my eyes. When it ceased, I found myself, once again, standing straight up, the hair on the back of my neck even straighter. I clenched my hands in nervous concern. A low rumble rolled at me from the left, and I spun to face my doom. Out of the darkness came a herd of wolves, rats, raccoons, and every other manner of forest creature. I say herd, because that is the only way to describe what I saw, for I could not count their number. Exceeding a dozen many fold, they ran for the center of camp. I thought I would die under their cruel claws and ferocious fangs as I was in their direct path with no way to escape, but instead, they parted and flowed around me as if I was a boulder and they were a stream.
Enough wit remained for me to turn and watch the last of their number pass. I opened my mouth to scream a terrible warning to the men in camp, but as I took a tentative step forwards, a growl rooted me to the ground. Its owner, a wolf-shaped monstrosity as black as death’s cloak, sidled up next to me. As I have stated, I’m not a short man, so believe me when I say it was of unimaginable size. Its shoulders came to my chest, and its fangs were as long as my finger. It slowly turned its head and looked at me with eyes as red as a napalm explosion. I’m not sure how I knew it, but intelligence harbored there. Ancient intelligence. The growl died in the beast’s throat as it sat upon the ground next to me.
Suddenly, I found myself sitting across the chessboard from my friend as a scream flayed my throat. I turned and ran from the camp, down the logging trail to town, and to Jeremiah’s property. I ran while the stitch in my side tore at me, and then I ran some more. I had to know.
I ran to his workshop. There, I saw the article of my fear. A piece of leather, newly tanned, cream in color. Two human nipples, one encircled by a noose tattoo, betrayed its true source. A calm descended, as if from a mother’s hug, banishing all things harrowing. Though in this case, knowing was the relief.
I backed out the door and ran into the house. Apprehension by the owner was no concern as I scrambled into his kitchen. Even today, I cannot say aloud what I found in his freezer, so horrified I was. I will admit to losing that night’s meal of . . . oh, God . . . the guard . . . on the floor.
When the heaves subsided, I washed my face and mouth at the sink. My body howled for replenishment while curiosity centered on a mug sitting next to the stove. The Earthy and fruity-smelling swill soothed my parched and raw throat. It was then I saw my friend’s note to me. It had been pinned under the mug, next to a box containing a wolf pelt. Drink this. Wear the pelt, it read.
Terror found me once again at being offered the choice between known reality and childhood nightmares. I crumpled the paper in my hand as I fell to the floor.
The authorities, when they discovered the massacre on the logging line, found only bodies of white men and Mexicans. They quickly surmised that Jeremiah was the culprit. When they searched his house, they found the remains of hundreds of humans buried in its grounds, the bones gnawed clean. Further investigation revealed most of the leather used in the construction of the furniture and other utensils was human.
The locals didn’t wait for a trial. They burned Jeremiah’s house to its pilings.
To this day, whenever I run my fingers through the supple fur on the pelt, I wonder if they ever found my friend. I suspect not. They’re looking for a man, and he’s a creature of the wood now.
Tom Bont is a United States Navy veteran, has a degree in computer science from Louisiana Tech University, and lives in north Texas with his family. Even after 25 years of marriage, he still spends as many hours as he can on the dance floor with his wife. His work can be found in Road Kill: Texas Horror by Texas Writers from Eakin Press. In addition, he has two self-published credits: Howlers: Lupus Rex (as Tom Sutherland) and Transplanted Yankee: Lest All My Balderdash Be Forgotten (as Thomas Lee Bont, Jr.). His numerous essays and articles have appeared in various online magazines. This is his first publication on The MOON.