He woke in the darkness. The faint glow of starlight exposed only the treetops. The fire had been extinguished by the falling snow. Men were snoring in quasi-unison. His head was pounding, and his mouth was sweating. His overindulgence was coming full circle. With his body shaking, he crawled in the opposite direction of the snoring and vomited violently.
The liquid bile came out hot and putrid. The acidic taste in his mouth was washed out with a handful of snow. A cold sweat had broken on his forehead as chills shook him from head to toe. He crawled toward the snoring men and shook them awake one at a time. The men groggily came back to reality and stumbled towards the tents, feeling their way through the darkness.
No fire, no moon, no light whatsoever. The darkness had crept into the campsite while they were sleeping. It was suffocating him. He thought only of seeing the treeline. Were they watching? Had they already snatched someone else? He had not taken a body count and was now scrambling to account for every man. He stuck his head inside of each tent and grabbed two pairs of boots; all of the tents except for one.
His cold hand grabbed a pair of legs, and as he moved it towards the other side of the tent; it was met by cloth. Empty space where there should have been a companion. He began to panic. He scurried towards the campfire hoping that he had passed over them by mistake. Maybe they had fallen asleep while relieving themselves elsewhere. He called out in a hoarse voice. No reply. The wind howled and the cold rattled him to his core.
He anxiously made his way to his tent, kicking himself for not being more cautious. The expedition was now down to eight men. He shoved himself under the fur blanket and pushed the arm of his bunkmate to the other side. The man groaned, rolled over, and began snoring. The rhythmic breathing, although strained, lulled him into a deep slumber.
He awoke to the shrieking of a man outside of his tent. He heard a dull crack, and the screams stopped abruptly. A gurgle leaked out of the man’s mouth as snow crunched steadily in the opposite direction. Each step quieter than the first, the steps finally became inaudible. His racing pulse thumped in his chest and through his temples. He couldn’t move.
The sounds of men leaving their tents to investigate filled the air. He was not the only one who had heard the shrill cries of pure terror. The scream echoed in his mind. It made his blood pressure surge. He roused his bunkmate, and the two cautiously poked their heads through the tent flap. Men were howling in the direction of the kidnapper. No response came.
They gave up calling, and the group gathered together in the darkness in a tight circle. They counted off by name. Seven men were present. They did their best to shake off the alcohol. Most of them were still fairly intoxicated despite the sobering incident. They were made aware that a man was missing before the screaming had started. This caused an uproar among the men. He defended himself as best as he could, claiming that the man could have wandered off in the middle of the night.
Most of the men were too cold, drunk, and tired to argue at the moment. They scoffed at his lack of effort, and the planning began shortly afterward. They were discussing their next move and the importance of starting another fire when the crunching of snow was heard nearby. Their hairs stood on end, and each man was waiting to hear the screams of a bystander.
A pistol hammer was cocked and a low voice said, “It’s me. Don’t shoot. It’s Tom.” He approached cautiously and joined the circle of men. There was a collective sigh of relief among the party. “What the hell’s going on? What was that god-awful screaming about?”, Tom asked. They explained that they weren’t sure and that another expedition member had been taken away. Tom’s inquisitiveness turned to fear as he said, “I went to take a piss and fell asleep in the bushes. I don’t know how I’m still alive.” Nobody slept the rest of the night.
Sunlight finally started to illuminate the campsite. Tired, hungover faces stared at each other in disbelief. It had happened again, and right under their noses. A single set of large, smooth footprints leading deeper into the wilderness. The campsite was once again broken down and the eight men gathered together to determine the plan for the day.
It was hotly debated as to whether or not they should continue the pursuit. Three men were now missing, and one had been mauled to death. The missing men could still be alive. He decided to keep the dull cracking sound he had heard to himself. He was almost positive that the man’s neck had been broken. Two men disputed the decision and said that there was no point in continuing. There was no sign of them aside from a single set of footprints, so what was the use?
They were outnumbered in the end, and the decision was made to continue tracking the prints. The party outfitted themselves and headed out in the direction of the long-striding tracks. They were overloaded with supplies, not knowing how long they would be stuck in the wilderness, as hundreds of miles now separated them from civilization. The crunching of snow continued through the pines, as the eight men pursued the trail of their missing companions once again.