The shockwave traveled through to smack Gustav Mackensen’s ears as he looked out across the snow blind plain behind them.
"That'll wake 'em up," he said sharply, reaching up to his head to push down his red, woolen cap.
He could barely hear himself speak over the whistle of the wind. His younger brother, Rene, took the musket from his shoulder and shook his head.
They were just outside of the town of Sagues, in the south of France. When one thinks of the south, some think about the beaches and bustling ports like Marsailles. But nothing could be further from that in Gevaudan, the land of rolling hills, jagged mountainsides, sheep villages, and a most terrible killer of man.
Rene dropped the gun in the snow, narrowly missing the mangled corpse at his feet. He reached for his powder horn, but couldn’t feel it. Shaking, he fell to his knees, clinched his hands around his head, and wheezed, trying not to be sick.
Mackensen turned away, looking at the tree line some eighty yards to their side. Seeing Rene become sick at the sight of yet another victim of the Beast of Gevaudan was like seeing himself all over again.
Gustav Mackensen arrived in the Gevaudan in the summer of 1764 as a private in the Major Duhamel’s dragoons. Duhamel and most of his men had seen combat, but no one was prepared for what they would see when they were dispatched to this peaceful country to solve what appeared to be a wolf problem.
"Rene!" Mackensen bellowed over a gust of wind.
"Walk away! Get some air and listen for other sho—."
Mackensen held out his hand and cupped his ear. It was a single popping sound, hardly louder than the wind.
"Never mind," he said, "Just reload." He bent down to examine the body. The victim was a woman with curly blonde hair. Maybe twenty years old or so. Not much younger than Gustav, himself. Her throat cut, blood caked ice cascaded down her throat, terminating at her dark blue blouse. One of her supple legs, chewed through. He touched the stump of the right leg just below the knee.
"No question what happened. The Beast got her.
Didn't just bite into her leg, cut it clean off."
He stared at the body for a long time as his brother breathed heavily and ran another ball down the barrel of his gun.
Mackensen had been inspecting as many victims of the Beast as he could and given he was one of the few original members of the initial response team, he had seen many of them—perhaps more than anyone else and he felt the weight of the pocketbook in his greatcoat pocket. He had documented so many instances in that book that it was half-full He fished it out along with a small pencil and opened it.
As he flipped through the pages, he was sure he just saw something that he had seen a few times before, but he could not quite put his finger on it.
He had personally inspected fifty-four murder victims of the Beast, but his pages reflected that there were ninety-eight deaths in total so far. At least ninety-eight that he knew of. It did not include the hundreds of survivors or witnesses to non- predatory sightings. And then there was the missing, those who simply vanished out of nowhere never to be seen again. Then, it caught his eye.
Victim No. 77, name unknown Paulhac
Woman, aged about thirty years, and said to be a vagrant. Found in the woods NW of Paulhac.
Entrails removed, decapitated. Partially clothed
Missing underwear and shoes 20 Dec. 1765
He looked up from his book and saw short, whitish hair poking from under the blouse as the wind blew over it. It only just occurred to him that she was half-naked. This victim had no underwear too. And no shoes and—.
"At least she is not a bloody mess," Rene barked with disgust, stepping away from his brother and heading back to the shelter of the wood behind them. "I am cold. I need to get out of the wind."
"Damn you, Rene. That’s what is wrong here," Mackensen said, "She isn't bloody."
Rene shrugged his shoulders indifferently and kept walking. Mackensen stowed away his book and stepped away from the body. He looked around more carefully and he some turbulence in the snow but no blood pooled around the body or imbedded nearby.
He and his brother had patrolled the area for days and he only remembered clear skies. Blood should be visible, but if there was nothing around the body at all but clean, level snow. He knew at once what had happened, but looking around there was no one to tell, at least not for a while. So he turned around, slung his musket around his shoulder, and headed after his brother.
Next to fire, he held his hands under his head and watched the gaps in the trees out to the northern plain where they had climbed, leaving their horses behind. It was another forty-five minutes before he saw movement out there. Greyish, amorphous blobs as the snow kicked up in the wind as it shook the trees. First one, then two, then three. A dozen shapes appeared and drew closer in a near-perfect line formation with each apart from the next. It had to be the response party. But they had no way of knowing the shot came from this place in particular. He had to do something. They would never see him if he stayed hidden.
Mackensen jumped to his feet and snumbled toward the edge of the wood.
“Hey!” he yelled through cupped hands. “Over here!”
He repeated. “Over here.”
Suddenly one of the men at the head of the pack stopped and then came closer to him. Slowly, Mackensen could see a man coming through the terrible icy fog. He was mounted on a chestnut mare and wearing a thick black greatcoat. His face was covered from neck to nose in a thick, grey scarf that flapped like a flag in the wind.
As he drew closer, other men from the pack broke off and circled around the limestone block where the body was located. They must have spotted it.
"Ah. Sergeant Mackensen!" The man in black said loudly over the grey scarf that muffled his face from nose to neck.
Mackensen looked at the man, quizzically. He did not recognize the fellow, but the voice sounded familiar. He was covered from head to toe except for medium length brown hair stuffed hastily under a black tricorn and a pair of bifocals just above the bundling around his nose.
"You always seem to find evidence," the man said. He looked back briefly. "Of the ravenous Beast."
"I am not sure if we have met or not before," Mackensen said. He had met quite a few people in his own personal campaign against the Beast.
The man pulled his scarf down to his chin, revealing a strong, clean shaven face. He said, "I am Etienne Lafont, remember?"
"How did you two get up here? Where are your horses?” Lafont said over a gust. He sounded more to the point. There was only one open path to get on the plateau that lead up to the mountains above, much of the plateau was blocked off by vertical cliffs and impassable briers.
"We couldn't find the way, so we found a clear spot of rock and just climbed."
"We left the horses behind," Rene said. “He thought it good to come here and look around.”
"Never mind that, the beaters on foot will find them and bring them back. I need you two to stay behind and make sure they come through here. "
Lafont turned his horse around, bracing the musket slung across his back.
"Keep that fire going," Lafont ordered. “And keep a sharp eye out.”
"You got it," Mackensen said.
Lafont nodded, kicked his horse hard. "Ha!" The horse jumped up on its hind legs, grunted loudly, and took off across the field. Mackensen watched him waving his hands and shouting something lost in the wind and the men fanned out. They immediately returned to formation and proceeded toward the woods at the foot of the mountain.
If the Beast was still hanging around, the only other place to look was on the mountain itself. His eyes followed the woods, which grew higher and higher as if the trees were grown in formation until the woods that ghosted away in the low, charcoal cloud blanket that hung over them. The woods terminated to a small strip that extended down to where they were.
Mackensen shook his head, turned around, and threw himself down next to the fire, where his brother was already settled .
He muttered, "This is a waste of time."
He looked at Rene. The boy produced a disc of hard pralines and bit down into it hard. The pecan candy cracked loudly as he chewed.
"Why?" Rene asked sloppily.
"She had ice all over her. The Beast is probably long gone, as she usually is. She is fast, she is not of this Earth."
Rene swallowed. "What about the blood?"
Mackensen was silent for a moment. "There just was not any."
"What does it matter? It probably seeped into the snow."
Mackensen sat back for a while, thinking. Rene and he were from Cherbourg, a coastal town as flat as a coin. But he had learned that the mountain has its tricks. This girl could have been here for quite a while, preserved by the cold. But what of the blood? All the snow around them was white. Not red. Not pink. White.
Had it been so long? No. She wasn’t covered by the snowfall at all.
Rene slumped back against a log behind him and closed his eyes. Mackensen shook his head, reached over, and took the bread bag. He found another praline inside and started to eat as he watched the clearing ahead of him as the last sounds of the men in the hills above faded away, the forest resumed its tranquility.
It took another two hours for the first of the beaters to wander into the clearing. First, a well- dressed man in navy carrying a gun. Then the full chorus. They were wearing all manner of clothing, most of it ragged with use. Most of them carried short, six foot long pikes while others carried crude clubs and hoes. They moved around in a loose formation, barking at each other from one end of the line to the other as far as he could see.
Mackensen was huddled next to his brother under a big, grey wool blanket. Their faces were pale with exposure.
"Stealthy hunters," Mackensen mumbled under his breath. He put his face closer to the fire.
The brothers watched the line pass them, the last man not far from where the two brothers entered the woods. A few looked over at them, but other than that, they simply walked past. Mackensen stood up and watched them. The rest of the group went on as if never noticing the girl, while two men stopped for a moment to look at the girl. They motioned their hands into a crucifix quickly, and then moved on.
"Should we go with them, brother?" Rene asked, curling himself up in the blanket.
Mackensen didn’t answer right away. He stared at the body. Suddenly, a wave of shame over took him. It seemed she was growing smaller and harder to see.
She is getting buried out there. The snow is coming down now.
"No, let's stay here."
He squatted down and grabbed his bag from under the covers. It was a white, canvas day bag. He pulled a green blanket from the bag and walked out into the clearing.
"Where are yo—?" Rene spat out, but as he watched his brother leave the safety of the wood, he knew immediately.
Mackensen slapped his hat back on his head, defying the wind that watered his eyes, and continued over to the body, walking up the slope. He watched as the line of beaters disappeared into the woods. He tightened his eyes and looked back on the body.
The girl lay frozen against the bolder, her ice blue eyes glazed over with frost. Ignoring the chill overtaking him, Mackensen looked at her for a while and then bent down to cover her with the blanket. He tucked the loose ends under now shapeless bundle until the blanket was secure. He stared at her for a long time, still.
Getting up, he dug a wooden crucifix attached to a cord around his neck, held it in his hand, and began to pray. When he was finished, he tapped the crucifix to his head, then his heart. Then his right shoulder and finally the left.
He looked the sky, gave a nervous grin, and then headed back to the safety of the woods. Rene watched silently as he came back to cover. Mackensen huddled next to the fire and watched the blanket he left behind flap in the wind around over the body. After a while, with the snow coming down, it finally settled. She deserved to be protected in death in a way he failed to save her in life. She was but another victim of the monster. A girl he didn’t know, but a girl he knew all the same. A girl destined to rest in a pauper’s grave and her name lost to posterity, just like him.
"What about the body?" Rene asked. He sounded anxious.
All Rene wanted was to go home and his older brother knew it. Certainly, the two of them could do no more by themselves so they might as well leave. But the sky was growing darker little by little and the distant spaces within the woods was already growing black.
"We can't do anything now. I know you want to go home, but we will be out of daylight long before we are back," he responded, "And we don't have any torches to light."
"Come on," Rene scoffed, jerking his head. He pulled a heavy wool blanket over himself.
"We have plenty of food and I can build up the fire some more. We can get out of here first thing in the morning."
Rene had started to speak but Mackensen was already getting up and slinging his musket around his shoulder.
"Fine," Rene muttered, crumbling back against the log that lay behind them, "You get the firewood this time."
His hands growing numb already, Mackensen reached behind the log and produced a small hatchet. Holding it tight in his hand, he walked away from the light and security of the fire plunging into darkness just feet away. The forest floor came in shades of white, grey, and black as he went forward after fuel for the cold night.
It was another night on yet another mountain for Etienne Lafont. He pulled the thick, wool scarf further over his nose to protect himself from the frigid air as he watched the remnant turquoise light on the horizon fade into darkness. It was the perfect view to see it on the edge of the camp guarding the only passable approaches along the mountain. The mountain was a chain of peaks and valleys bordered on nearly all sides by impassable cliffs. There were only two valleys that could be crossed, according to the maps. Both passes were blocked by thick snow and under guard.
"Fantastic. Is it not?"
"Ah, Count," Lafont said, turning himself around awkwardly in the calf deep snow. "The sun finally showed and it is gone."
The Count of Moramgies was looking at the sight right along with him, his hands busy, awkwardly uncorking his flask.
"Hope the men get all the firewood. It will be a hard night." Lafont said as he looked back toward the camp.
Lafont’s troop was parked in front of the right- most valley, little more than a crack about five or six feet across and blanketed high with snow. It was no bigger than a foot path, but Lafont knew it was the only hiding place of the Beast in his sector and it was a dead end. Razor sharp rock blocked both sides and this valley had no exit on the other side of the mountain. Moramgies’ men were covering both side of the pass now. The criminal they were after was hiding in the thick snow banks, somewhere in one of those valleys. There was no escape. Not this time.
But it was freezing.
The whiteout had since given away to clear skies, but only briefly. Darkness now loomed. The longing shadows had turned to a condensed dimness across the landscape penetrated only by the light of the campfires as far as Lafont could see.
The camp was at the base of some towering oak trees. The trees were lit by several large campfires that dotted the mountainside until it curved into the unknown, hundreds of yards away.
Tools, blankets, and bags hung from most of the low hanging branches. They were out of the wind, but the tree tops still swirled up high, creaking in the wind.
"Ah," Lafont grunted as he sat down on one of the small boulders next to the nearest fire. Between the rocks was a stack of branches, jagged and uneven in size. The Count sat next to him, turning his head around in the fire to warm his nipped ears. The ground under them was covered in thick snow, bald with grass in places where the Count had been digging.
An intermittent banging sound echoed up the mountain toward them. It was to be expected. Over half the men were down in the woods below scrounging for fuel. Little had been taken with them and firewood was needed to avoid freezing in the night. About a dozen men off to their right were busying themselves digging the snow away from their respective fires, just like they were.
"Where is Antoine Chastel?" The Count asked. He looked down from where they were, but little could be seen over the expanding blackness below the line of fires at their side.
"He should be back any moment," Lafont said. “We need to get settled in. Clear skies mean plunging temperatures.”
He looked over to the horses sheltering just inside the tree line, a high fire burning next to them.
Lafont had put Antoine Chastel on one of the horses and sent him to town for food. Namely, salt pork, and if that could not be found, biscuits. The horsemen had their own provisions for themselves and their horses, but they had to pack lightly. It was unlikely any of the beaters on foot brought any personal food with them.
Three men carrying armloads of wood appeared out of the gloom and split up toward their separate fires. They dumped their wood into the snow next to the fire in exhaustion. One man went back into the gloom for more while the others stood next to their fires to catch their breath. Then they moved on.
"One more armload, boys! That should be enough!" the Count shouted out into the blackness.
Lafont got up and wandered over to the nearest tree, where a spade shovel from his kit laid against the trunk. He picked it up and went to shoveling the snow away from his fire.
"Sleeping here tonight?"
"Yes, I should hope so." The Count said. “Far too late to set out back to my camp. My second will lead the hunt in the morning. ”
The Count picked up his shovel and joined in the digging.
He knew there was simply no way of getting back to the valley his forces had cut off—not safely at least. Though the prospect of digging out a shelter in the hard packed snow was far from the creature comforts in the tent he usually traveled with. But it was miles to the west.
They continued digging in the same way for ten minutes until they had a neat circle dug in the snow with more than enough room for them to lay down, a long mound of snow covering them from the wind. A man came out of the darkness from below and jumped into the hole with them, an armload of wood under his arm.
"Moreau," the Count acknowledged as the young, burly man came stumbling next to the fire and dropped the lumber messily next to the boulders.
The man went to shaking his tired arms and sat himself on one of the boulders, huddling and gasping as he got warm again. He held himself to the fire for a while.
"Is that all, Sir?" he said.
"Yes. That should be enough cordage for the night. Don't you have a blanket or something?" Lafont asked. He had only met this simple farm hand an hour and a half ago and he did not recall him carrying anything but a wheat scythe and the burlap coat on his back.
"No. Not at all. I have never been hunting
before, Sir. I shouldn’t think we would spend the night."
Thatstumpedhim forasecond. He never recalled hearing of someone who has never hunted for the Beast. Everyone hunted for her.
"There, there," Lafont said, "I do believe I have something extra in my big pack. Mr. Moreau, you might want to cut some of the pine branches down while there is still a bit of light. We will need some bedding to keep us off the ground.”
Jean Chastel lugged himself up through the snow carrying an armload of wood, sturdy pine branches tied to the underside of his boots. Ridiculous it was, it was an old trick his grandfather taught him to get through the snow quickly and he still had energy when he came over a berm to see the reassuring glow of the campfires ahead of him.
Lafont saw the old man come into view and drop his pile of wood at his own fire. He laid his borrowed axe on top of the pile and looked about curiously.
"Chastel!" Lafont shouted. He stumbled up and started bounding toward him, followed by the Count.
"Is there a problem, Mr. Lafont?" Jean said.
"Did you see your boy down there?" Lafont asked.
"No.Ithoughthewasup here with you.
Anyway," Jean said. "No. I didn't see him."
"Damn," Lafont said. "It's been four hours. I sent him back before we got up here."
"Don't worry about it too much," the Count said. "The sentries will see him when he does show up. We can all wake up. Have a late meal. And be out of here in the morning. If the Beast fails to show herself, that is."
Lafont rose from his icy tomb and pulled himself closer to the fire, he pulled out his pocket watch and opened the dust cover.
“I guess light isn’t coming today.” He choked out. He leaned over and hacked, seizing his chest.
It was still dark, the sky was a rough, polluted grey color. But it was fine to see with the snow contrasting against every rock and tree.
It had been a rough night. Nearly every hour he was chilled into waking only to nudge himself closer to the fire. He and Moreau had taken turns stoking the fire, but the Count was still laying down with his back facing them.
“Sir. You might want to sit by the fire longer.” Moreau said groggily as he sat up.
Lafont wretched again. Mucus came across his tongue as he gasped.
Damn it. Not now. Not now.
Getting sick again was the last thing he needed.
Etienne Lafont was always a sickly man, but things had taken a turn for the worst since the summer of 1764.
In June of that year, a mysterious animal had made itself known in his jurisdiction—Gevaudan— and in short order began to murder his constituents. Wolf attacks were nothing new in this wild land and there were quite a few of those animals around. In the preceding years, there had been a few deaths blamed on wolves, but this new threat was different in many ways. She resembled a wolf in some ways, but that was where the similarities ended. She had a long strip of black fur along her back and a thin tail. Her head was massive with jaws that took limbs off like a razor and when in flight, she laughed like a man. She had the brain of a man as well, having escaped certain death time and again.
Lafont had been the governor’s representative in Gevaudan since 1759, but when the animal known to all as the Beast of Gevaudan started spiriting away his people, he was the very first to organize a party of hunters to stop her. Much has happened since that hot summer of 1764. But what never changed was the Beast. She was still out there. Living freely. Hunting for her next meal.
The weather never seemed to affect her, even when Lafont was near death two years ago from pneumonia contracted from being out in weather just like this, pursuing his quarry.
Now he was thinking he will probably have to retire to his office in Mende to recover again. But who would take over his men? And—.
Lafont jerked his head toward the woods that lay below their position and saw one of his men running in his direction, gun in hand.
“What?!” Lafont shouted out. He sounded raspy and irritated.
“I found her tracks! Look! ” the guard pointed to the ground some ways from where Lafont had rested his head. “They are paw prints. Going back down the mountain, sir.”
“Where is Chastel?!”
The guard shook his head. No.
“No one has seen him come back, sir.”
“Come on, Moreau.” Lafont said. He raised himself up again out of their hole. “This isn’t looking good.”
Mackensen felt his feet go numb. His legs felt like rubber. And his face. The chill overcame him and his eyes opened wide. It was daylight. His boots were stuck out from under the blanket covered with frost. His brother was already up, stirring the leftovers from the previous night.
"Got any more of that pork?" Rene asked with a mouth of salt pork and biscuit. He picked up the fork again and stirred the can of boiling pork and biscuits, crushed into the mix. “Damn is it salty.”
Mackensen groaned and forced himself upright. He looked and saw the body of the girl was still there, undisturbed.
"Just enough," Mackensen said dizzily. He reached behind the log the two had sheltered against for the night and produced a clay container. He opened it and threw more of the crystallized meat into the brew.
"You don't even like salt pork." Rene said.
"You get used to it," Mackensen said. “You do know you are supposed to soak it in water a few times then cook it, right?”
“Eh.” Rene said, shrugging his shoulders. “ I can live with the taste. You sleep okay? Took me a while to get to sleep.”
“I slept okay but I had to get my back against the fire really close so I could close my eyes. Honestly, on a full stomach sleeping out here isn’t that bad.”
Rene leaned forward and picked out some of the boiled leftovers from the pot with the fork. He stopped.
"You hear that?" "What?"
Mackensen heard nothing over the crackling of the fire and the bubbling of the water in the pot.
He waited. In a moment he finally heard something. It was intermittent. A huffing sound coming from the right. From where they had come in. It sounded to him like the breathing of a horse.
He got up slowly, yawning, and grabbing his musket as he did. He freed it from the blankets and started to walk out, certain the noise was from a horseman somewhere. Close too.
When he came into the open, he saw a man on horseback. The greyish-brown pebbled horse was hauling a two-wheeled cart. It looked just like his own horse that he had to leave behind.
Mackensen held up his hand. "Good morning to you!"
He watched the man as the wagon lumbered on toward him in the distance. As he drew closer, Mackensen could clearly see in the light of day the horse was indeed his. He had left it tied with up at the foot of the plain with food as he had not found an obvious way up.
"Morning," the man said. He pulled back on the reins of the horse, slowing it to a stop. "I did not know you were still here."
"Mackensen. And you are?"
Mackensen did not recognize the man at all, but he looked tired. His mid length brown hair was messy and stuffed under a brown tricorn hat, his lips chapped ghost-white. His hands and thinly shaped brown eyes looked red and raw. “Where’d you get the horse?"
"I am Antoine Chastel. Mr. Lafont sent me down last night for food. But I ran into the Beast," he said. "What?! Last night?!" Mackensen said, gripping the horse by the side of the head and stroking the
animal along its long, cold snout.
"Yes. I had run out of daylight. She jumped at me as I was coming down and my horse threw me and took off.”
“ I hit the ground and pretended to be dead and she moved on down the mountain. I managed to climb down a low cliff. I found this horse down there by the road."
"Jesus Christ," Mackensen said. He looked back toward Rene as he was tending to the fire."She must have passed right by us last night. Thank the Lord you are alright. And that you found my horse.” "I am okay, but I must get up there. Some of the men are weak and this food is needed," Antoine stated, motioning for Mackensen to look in the cart.
Inside next to a pair of neatly folded canvas tarps was a sealed wooden barrel tied down with rope.
"I have not seen them." Mackensen said. "Get on going then. And be careful, Mr. Chastel."
"Much obliged. I'll send for you once we get back for the return of your mount," Antoine said, nodding his head politely.
He smacked the reins and the horse moved on.
Mackensen saw him move slowly onward; the wagon creaked as it came up over a trough of snow before sinking back down as Chastel went on.
Mackensen retreated back into the woods. Rene was huddled near the fire, poking at some of the salt pork floating in the water with a fork.
Rene said, “Who was that?”
“That was the person who was to feed those men up there. The Beast was here.” Mackensen said sharply. He made a bee-line for the woods behind their encampment. “The Beast made it down the mountain last night. He said she must have gone right past us.”
“You are kidding?” “No.” Mackensen said.
He stepped over the downed tree he had rested next to in the night and then he froze.
“Shit.” Mackensen said heartedly. “You okay?”
“Come look at this.”
Rene’s eyes squinted as he got up and held onto himself. He walked over to Mackensen and he too saw what it was.
The big prints of the Beast cratered deeply into the snow along the tree, just five or six feet from where Mackensen was sleeping. Where Rene had been sleeping. They were fresh tracks, never filled in by the snow that stopped blowing around late yesterday evening. These were made last night.
“What’s that?” Rene pointed out to left of the tracks.
Mackensen saw where he was pointing and followed what seem to be a trail, made distinct only by the glassiness of its appearance against the powdery, undisturbed snowfall all around them. He could see several pine needles imbedded along this trail. They walked alongside the trail. Mackensen was perplexed by this. It looked like little more than a drag mark. A continuous one at that.
Could it be a rabbit trail?
Certainly it couldn’t be a large animal. There were no tracks on the path, even as they walked along. It was like a river without water.
“What do we do?” Rene asked. He looked confused by the sight now. “I mean Christ. We have to get after her.”
“Right. One of us needs to go into town to warn them.” Mackensen said. He started back to their camp. “One of us needs to stay and make sure that body is attended to.”
Rene said. “I will go. I’ll get to my horse and get into town.”
“Alright then. Maybe get yourself something hot while you are down there.” Mackensen said. He walked past the fire with his brother. Rene threw on his haversack and fetched his gun. “Make damn sure that gun works.”
Mackensen looked up and down at his brother and saw a sheathed knife dangling from his belt. His shoulders dropped. “Are you sure? I can go and you can stay with the fire.”