Douglas set out and followed the wall, stepping carefully. He passed a ledge, shoulder height, its smooth surface covered in layers of dried peat. The peat appeared recently disturbed.
Beyond the ledge was an alcove. Here the odor was strong. Douglas peered into the dark recess. A sickening wave of nausea came unbidden, twisting his stomach. He lurched back, spun around and bent at the waist to vomit. Gough and Blake called out. Douglas retched again, and motioned them back. The queasiness passed. Swallowing the bitter taste of bile, he approached again.
On the ground lay a head. Partly stripped of skin, dried blood rimmed its empty eye sockets. A broken jawbone gave the mouth a hideous, lopsided grin. Shredded flesh about the neck suggested it had been torn from the body, and the body, Douglas discovered, lay behind the head. It was a torso, partially devoured, the remnants of one arm still attached. He backed away.
Gough and Blake watched him, fear clearly evident on their questioning faces.
Douglas motioned to the passage. “We leave, now.”
Blake swallowed. “What did you find, sir?”
Douglas said, “A trapper.”
The veteran hesitated. “Should we not bury him, sir?”
Douglas snapped, “There is not enough left to bury. Now do as ordered. The Company can decide how to handle his remains.”
A scuffling sound suddenly alerted the men, and a pungent odor assailed their nostrils.
They quickly leveled their muskets and scanned the cavern.
Gough pointed. “There, Captain.”
Within the shadows of a far passage stood a hulking form. It watched with close-spaced, crimson-colored eyes.
“Damned bear,” Blake said, and raised his musket.The beast grunted, a deep cough, and retreated into the dark.
Douglas placed his hand on Blake’s musket barrel and pushed it down. “No bear retreats from a weapon.”