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Man Nor Beast

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Andrew looked overhead as his horse took him through the clearing. The usual clinking of his belongings in the saddle bags fell away as he marveled at the blackened, scorched trees. They arched overhead, as bare in the early spring as the surrounding trees, never to green again.

He wondered at the third lightning-struck clearing in as many days. He had seen burned areas in the forest, fires begun during the wild electrical storms that occasionally came through the Rockies. But he had never seen so many, or for them to be contained to so small an area.

The horse moved steadily and soon enough the clearing was behind them. Andrew restrained himself from looking back, but the unsettled feeling remained in his gut.

It was well past the midday break that he came upon the cabin. It was built between the trees, having stood long enough that new growth had over-taken it, the younger trees growing tall and almost flush with the house. The structure itself was dilapidated and abandoned, with broken windows and a crumbling chimney, although the logs themselves had weathered fairly well. It had been a strongly built cabin, simply slowly succumbing to nature.

Andrew reined in his horse and sat looking for a long while. There was a sinking front porch, covered by a roof that had partially fallen down. He could see the front door. He would have thought it would have been hanging on it's hinges, but it stood staunchly closed.

Preparing to continue on, movement in the window arrested him. He looked again, wondering what had caught his eye. Perhaps a bird had made it's way in. Surely there were many holes, possibly the roof on the opposite side had even caved in. He suspected many animals had made their home inside.

But then he saw it again. This time he blinked, thinking he had seen a face in the window.

Part of him urged action: move on. If someone was there they certainly didn't seem welcoming to strangers.

But another part of him was drawn to the cabin. Drawn to the fact that there was another human being in the structure; wondering what they could possibly be doing in a building that was falling down.

His horse refused when he urged it closer. Oddly enough, it didn't fidget or act nervous. It simply wouldn't go any closer to the house.

Andrew found himself climbing down, reluctantly, wondering why he was moving even as he walked closer. He tested the step onto the porch, found it sturdy enough for his weight. Stepped onto the porch. He looked back at the window, wondering if he was going to see the face again, wondering if the person inside was preparing to shoot him through the door.

"Hello?" He called, hoping to disarm anyone inside. Someone would have to be absolutely desperate to shelter in such a place. The risk of a roof collapse was probably higher than dying of exposure in even a hastily constructed lean-to. No smoke rose from what was left of the chimney. Were they hiding? All the more reason to leave them alone.

But Andrew's father was a physician. He knew that one might seek shelter, yet be unable to do much else; such as start a fire to warm themselves. He pounded an open hand against the solid door. "Hello? Do you need help?"

As certain as he had been that someone was inside, he still jumped when he heard the latch being raised from the inside. The door opened and the face from the window appeared in the crack. A long, pale face, full lips pulled down, dark eyes stared at him.

"Can I help with anything?"

There was no answer, the face didn't move, didn't change. The expression was blank but the eyes still stared.

"Are you well? This cabin is not a safe place for you to be. Hello? My name is Captain Andrew Henry."

Andrew had seen that expression before, many years before. When he was still in the militia there had been a fire in the barracks. A young man had been trapped under a fallen beam and he had been burned. He had watched helplessly as his fellows had succumbed to the flames, as the fire had stalked him and over-taken the beam he had lain under. Andrew and another soldier, he didn't even remember who, had managed to pull him out.

The young man had inhaled too much smoke, lost too much flesh to the flames. He didn't scream in pain, or even talk. He just stared at Andrew the way the face in the door was staring at him then. He felt as helpless as he had sitting in the dirt, outside that burning building.

But he was spurred on, hoping this time he could do something. "What's your name? Do you need help?"

The face abruptly disappeared, but the door swung open. Andrew hesitated, then stepped inside.

The floorboards creaked ominously beneath his heavy boots, but seemed sturdy enough. And they easily held the weight of the figure in front of him. Andrew took a moment to look around. The roof was still, miraculously, intact. No daylight streamed down from holes above. Other than a few broken window panes, he marveled that someone had taken the care to bring real glass panes out this far from nowhere, the cabin was remarkably intact. He stepped forward carefully, still not trusting he wouldn't fall through.

The Man twisted, those dark, dark eyes turned upon Andrew again. He blinked against the glazed, yet intense look. "It's not safe here." He repeated and finally the man opened his mouth.

Andrew waited, although it was some time before a sound came out. His voice sounded rusty, disused. Andrew found himself wondering how long it had been since he had last spoken.

"Not safe." Croaked the Man. He paused, tried again. "No, it's not safe. Why I'm here. It's not safe." He felt behind him like a blind man, finding a chair that had been abandoned with the house and lowered himself into it.

"Are you well?" Andrew tested the floor, took another step forward. Perhaps the little cabin was heartier than it looked from the outside. He stopped a few feet away, not wanting to startle the Man. Not trusting in the state of his mind. He did not seem to be completely within himself.

When no answer came Andrew talked, hoping something would reach the Man. It made him feel he was doing something, at least. He glanced out the still-open door, directly behind him.

"I'm Andrew, I'm traveling to Missouri. I've been in the Rockies these last couple of years." He tilted his head, trying to get a bead in the Man's expression. Still blank, seemingly unhearing again. "Were you traveling? Did you fall ill, injure yourself?" He thought about his horse outside. There had been no barn, no sign of another horse. "Did you walk here? Where did you come from?"

That got the Man's attention. His head swiveled towards Andrew almost alarmingly fast. "Where I'm from . . . It was . . ." He was silent so long Andrew thought he had lost him again. Then, so quietly Andrew had to lean in to hear, "terrible."

Furrowing his brow, Andrew looked around uneasily. "Were you attacked? Are you hurt?" The second question came out urgently, but he could see no blood. His clothes were old, worn, tattered, but from age and disrepair. Not trauma.

The Man locked eyes with him and suddenly Andrew couldn't move, hardly thought to breath. "I'm here because it's not safe. It's not safe for you."

Just as quickly, the spell was broken and Andrew dragged in a deep breath. The Man slumped in his chair, energy seemingly gone.

Andrew shakily moved forward again, reaching out a tentative hand. "Do you have a fever?" The Man lifted his face, but said nothing, didn't flinch when Andrew carefully put a hand to his forehead. He realized with a start that his long fingers were trembling. He withdrew his hand and clenched a fist to still them.

"You've a fever." He felt as though he were coming back into himself. Here was something he could do, a problem he could see and help find a solution to. A fever, a fairly high one based on his heated, clammy skin. It also explained the strange look in his eyes and his odd words and demeaner.

Andrew still could not stop the shake in his hands.

He placed his hands on the Man's shoulders, turning him to face him. "We need to treat your fever. Have you water? Witchhazel, perhaps?"

The Man shook his head.

Andrew stood and looked around. The cabin was neglected and mostly empty, save for the table with a single chair and a bed with a single quilt. It looked like the Man had slept there at least once. Looking at the hearth it seemed he had built a fire at some point, although it was black and cold now.

"Have you a bucket?"

The Man was silent for a long moment, then turned his eyes towards the door. Turning, Andrew saw a bucket sitting behind it. He moved to pick it up, pausing at the open door to say "I will be right back."

Once outside he realized he had left his own horse unattended and untethered. It grazed on some of the undergrowth, still avoiding the cabin, but otherwise unbothered by it.

Resolving to attend to his horse once he had settled his patient, he followed the sound of the nearby stream and filled the bucket. He carried it back into the cabin and closed the door behind him. The Man hadn't moved, but his eyes followed him as he walked to the bed and set the bucket next to it. They were bright. It must have been the fever.

Facing the Man he licked his lips, uncertain again. "Do you want to come lay down for a bit? I'm going to start a fire." He walked to the fireplace and stuck his head in, looking up and grateful for seeing daylight. The chimney was broken but not blocked, still usable. He prepared the fire, finding dry kindling in a pan next to the small wood stack.

When he had the fire started, hoping to at least take the chill out of the room, he turned back. The Man was still in the chair, but watching attentively.

Andrew stopped in front of him. "We should get you in bed. Can you take off your coat?"

The Man looked up at him then, seeing him as if for the first time. "It's not safe here." He had a deep, rumbling voice.

Andrew nodded. "I know. Let's get your fever down first. You need water and to lay down."

The Man stood without further protest, sliding his arms mechanically out of his jacket. His shirt was in similar condition, holes worn here and there, but no tears or signs of violence. Just a fever then.

The jacket fell carelessly to the chair and the Man approached the bed and lay down. He was tall, taller even than Andrew, and the bed barely contained him. He curled on his side and Andrew laid the quilt over top of him.

Looking around, there was no cup to give him water from. Once he searched he realized how odd it was. There was no sign of habitation, no dishes, food, bags. It was as if the Man had appeared in the cabin out of nowhere.

Tearing at the loose bottom of the Man's jacket, Andrew dipped the rag into the bucket and wiped his patient's face with it. He would have to drink from the bucket with his hands, but he hated to make him move again. Instead he decided to wait, dipped and rung the rag again, laid it over his forehead.

Andrew began to feel uncomfortable in the following silence, no more work to keep him busy. So he talked mindlessly, hoping to spur his patient to speak again.

"I've been trapping in the Rockies for the last couple of years. Followed my friend, Ashley, out there." Looking around from where he was squatting by the bed he spotted the chair. Stood and shuffled it closer to sit next to the Man. He readjusted the rag, watched the sightless eyes staring up at the ceiling.

Sitting back in the chair he sighed. "I don't know why I did it. The man is hopeless in business. This was just a last ditch effort to raise enough money to run for office." He made a face at his patient, unseen. "I've certainly no interest in politics. But," he crossed his arms, got more comfortable, "who knew, he was actually good at it. Changed the face of trapping in the whole area." The room was starting to darken, the fire beginning to throw shadows on the wall.

Suddenly remembering his horse, he had an idea. "You need a drink of water. I'll be right back." He laid a hand over the Man's chest, felt the steady rise and fall. Then he stood, went outside.

The horse hadn't gone far. He loosened and removed the saddle and bags, then led it to the steam to water it. When he brought it back he tethered it next to his things, then opened one bag and took out his canteen. He shook it, low but there was plenty in the bucket to refill it.

He closed the door quietly, wondering if perhaps the Man had gone to sleep. But his eyes still stared at the ceiling, even darker in the low light.

"Here, drink." He helped the Man lift his head, poured a little into his mouth carefully. He gave him a little more then stopped. He had no idea when he had last eaten or drunk; the last thing he wanted was to make him more ill.

The drink seemed to revive him slightly. He seemed to focus on Andrew once more, seemed to be more present. Andrew smiled at him and re-wet the cloth on his forehead. "Welcome back. Do you know who I am?"

He didn't expect an answer but the man whispered "Andrew."

Andrew couldn't help but smile. "Yes. Hello. Do you have a name? Do you remember how you got here?"

Disappointment filled his breast as the dark eyes returned, unseeing to the ceiling. But the Man spoke again.

"They were watching me. Always watching me. They saw what I did. They knew what I was; what I am. I had to leave."

Andrew frowned. "What are you?"

The Man ignored him. "I came here, as far as I could go. I built this cabin. I never left. I don't . . . I don't know how long I've been here."

Andrew's frown deepened. He looked around the cabin. It had to be at least twenty-five years old, and the Man was as good deal younger than his own forty-eight years. At best he would have been a child when it was built. It was the rambling of a delirious man, but his voice was clear and strong. If anything, his fever seemed diminished.

Andrew began to suspect a demented state, perhaps there had been an attack after all. Damage Andrew couldn't see. It would explain the paranoia.

Then he remembered the lightning-struck trees. Had the Man been hit by lightning?

He looked down as a large hand gripped his sleeve. The Man was looking at him, an expression finally on his previously blank face.

Fear.

Fear and, desperation? Andrew fought down a crawling sensation in his chest, forced himself to not pull away.

"I'm not a murderer." The Man said. Andrew fought back bile. "I'm not, I'm not."

Swallowing hard Andrew gently pulled the Man's hand away from his sleeve. Uncertain of what to say he murmured, "here, have another drink of water." He reached down, carefully lifting the canteen from the floor. As he unscrewed the lid the polished metal caught the firefight, flashing in the Man's eyes.

*** **

Andrew sat up with a rush of air. His heart pounded in his chest and he was breathing as if he had run a Texas mile.

His hands flew out and he knocked against something hard on either side of him. Looking down he realised he was laying on the floor between the bed and the chair. The chair was laying on it's side, the table upright but shoved crooked.

Blinking and slowing his breath, Andrew vaguely remembered where he was. A glance onto the bed showed it to be empty, the quilt hanging off the foot.

Pulling himself onto the bed he looked around, more of his memory returning as he calmed. The Man, he had a fever, thought he was hiding out from . . . Had he said who? He must have been much more sick than Andrew thought. But, where was he?

Standing quickly Andrew immediately sat back down, dizziness and nausea washing over him. His foot kicked against the bucket, sloshing the water but not knocking it over. As he put his head down between his knees something on the floor came into view. His canteen. He realized he could see it clearly, the sun brightening the room. He glanced up and the fire he had lit had gone out.

His eyes returned to the canteen lying on the floor. He suddenly remembered raising the canteen to the man's lips, lifting his head with his other hand. The firelight had reflected, flashed in the Man's eyes . . .

Andrew jolted again. No. They had simply reflected the light, there was no light coming from his eyes, growing brighter, blinding . . .

Running outside, Andrew squinted into the morning sun. He saw the saddle and bags sitting alone and he had a moment of panic. His horse . . . It must have bolted when the Man . . .

No, don't be ridiculous, he told himself. There's the horse. It simply slipped it's tether and was grazing a little further away.

The rush that had carried him outside left him suddenly. He collapsed on the stair of the porch. He could not have seen what he remembered. It could not have happened. Perhaps he was the one with the fever.

Perhaps there had never been a Man. Andrew had hallucinated him and all the strange, disturbing things he had said.

That should have comforted him, even if it meant he had been very ill. That Man had never been, that was more important.

But he didn't feel comforted. The cabin suddenly loomed ominously behind him, feeling as though it had eyes and he was the one now being watched.

Without looking back he rose and walked shakily to his horse, somehow mustering the strength to saddle it and replaced the bags securely. As he mounted he briefly struggled with having left his canteen inside. He turned the horse and trotted away swiftly. He would eventually reach a town where he would buy a new one. He couldn't go back. He would drink from his cup at streams until then.

The further he traveled on in the bright sunshine the less shaky he felt. It had just been a fever. It was lucky he had stumbled across the cabin, had the wherewithal to light a fire, collect water for himself. He would be certain to stop early enough to eat and be well-rested that night. But until then he traveled as far as he could.

As far as he could from that cabin, that Man, and what surely must have been just a dream.

*** **