25 Mar Blood Trails
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"Blood Trails"Written by Ian Smith
Estimated reading time — 54 minutes
I was nineteen years old in the late summer of 1997 when my maternal grandfather suddenly became ill and passed away. He was seventy-two years old. In the span of only five short but grueling weeks, he was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of pancreatic cancer, went to hospice care, declined, and finally passed away on a Tuesday in late August. The whole affair had been quite stressful and emotionally draining, especially for my mother, who had been quite close to him throughout her life. What was most distressing was the how quickly it had all passed, hardly enough time for him, his estranged wife, or his only daughter to get his affairs in order, and when he finally lost his battle, many issues remained unsettled. The principal issue that took some time to resolve was what would become of his few possessions, an issue complicated by the nature of what he left behind. He was a tenured professor of anthropology at the University of Texas in Austin, a man of some academic distinction as I later learned, who specialized in the study of the Native American cultures, and he left behind a veritable treasure trove of academic materials and historical documents. Why he left them to us is beyond me, since it would be better served if theses materials were donated to the university for use by his former colleagues, but at the time I believed it was simply oversight on his part.
I myself was fairly upset by the loss, although I had drifted apart from my mother’s side of the family over the years. This wasn’t over any personal issues, but simply a matter of distance; he was living in Texas and our family was living in suburban Denver, and the years had offered few opportunities to visit or get to know him. However, I was much closer to him as a child when we visited more often, and I like to think he was the one who inspired my own passion for human and social sciences. At the time of his passing, I had just completed my freshman year of college at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and was gearing up to begin my sophomore year, my chosen major being anthropology, like my grandfather. Fast forward just over twenty years, and I myself am a professor of anthropology at my alma mater, although my area of expertise is in Mississippian cultures of the pre-Columbian era, while his was the study of the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico and Arizona. Until this point, I had largely forgotten the quantity of academic materials he had left us, since they were mostly collecting dust in my parents’ attic, although bits and pieces had been donated to the university over the years. It wasn’t until the holidays when I was visiting my parents that I remembered anything about them, and being an academic myself, it occurred to me just how valuable these precious historical artifacts could be. Out of intellectual curiosity, and looking for a possible subject of research for a paper I was preparing, I took possession of these materials for my own use.
The documents were kept in a quite ancient engraved wooden chest, some of which were my grandfather’s own research notes, while others were a collection of old books and census reports going all the way back to the 1870s. But the most intriguing of the bunch was leather-bound journal, into which was tucked a series of annotations written by my grandfather during his own research. It was this journal that piqued my interest, even though it was a more modern source than what my area of expertise entails, but I was interested nonetheless. The journal was written by a man named Joseph Sheridan, my grandfather’s great grandfather, and I was immediately excited by this find, if only for its importance to our family history. My mother was quite interested in genealogy and actually kept a quite extensive family tree, where I located this mysterious Joseph Sheridan. I immediately dived into researching about this man, who I learned was actually an agent of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in the 1880s, and was actually a man of some renown. In 1880, he was the one credited with capturing Miguel Canales, a bandit chief who terrorized South Texas for several years prior, and in 1884, he shot and killed a notorious Utah cattle rustler and thief named Lawrence “Red” Cobb, earning a $150 bounty in the process. Being something of an Old West aficionado myself, I was quite enthusiastic about the find and set myself to reading his journal.
I spent the next week reading the journal cover to cover, and now that I have completed it, I’m not sure I feel quite the same way. In fact, I’m not sure just how I feel about having read it. It might be cliché to say that I regret it, but in a strange way, even though I can’t quite process what was written in it, I’m glad I know, even though I feel some dread about what he wrote possibly being true. In this journal, he chronicles the pursuit of outlaw band across New Mexico, Arizona, and down into Mexico, which took place in late 1889. What follows is something so bizarre, so twisted and horrible that I’m not sure I even believe that any of it is true. It is quite possible that his writings were just the product of a disturbed mind, but reading it and seeing his sincerity first hand, I can’t imagine why he might fabricate something so strange. It’s been a few weeks since I completed reading it, and I still can’t decide whether or not I believe it, or what any of it might mean. I think perhaps you fine people ought to read it for yourself and make your own decisions. I’ve taken the liberty of transcribing the journal in it’s entirety for you to read, with a few small interjections here and there, but completely preserved. And so, I suppose, here goes nothing.
July 28th, 1889
Had my first meeting with one of the men in charge at the Denver field office this morning, a man named J.M. Withers. Must admit, I rather dislike him. Rather brusque, and lacking in professional courtesy, but brief and succinct. Described the details of new assignment, a long one, he estimates two months of work, and high risk, but he claims I was one of the first considered for it. Thought perhaps it was a clumsy attempt at flattery, but I am still interested. No family obligations to tend to, perhaps sobriety and fresh air will do me some good. Job pays five thousand dollars upon completion, and that’s an individual reward too, not split amongst the others. Should mention, the job is a five man operation, including myself, though Mr. Withers would not say who else was offered. Claims the precise details are to be known only by those chosen for this task. I rather dislike having details withheld, but for five thousand dollars, plus expenses, a worthy trade.
July 29th, 1889
Met again with Mr. Withers. Still dislike him. Anyhow, I made it clear that I would accept, and he followed through with the specifics. Five man team, including myself, pursuing a suspect in a number of murders committed throughout Arkansas, the Indian Territories, and Texas. Offered no further specifics than that, but instead disclosed a dossier detailing the the suspect and all pertinent information. Claims that the information in the dossier is for my eyes only, but I can disclose pertinent details to the four others at my discretion. This caveat I found to be rather strange, as I am unaccustomed to this level of secrecy, even with the Pinkertons. I will have a look at the dossier later, try to determine why exactly the identity of this man is kept confidential. Possibly politically sensitive? Should save speculations for later.
August 1st, 1889
Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory
Read the full dossier on the train from Denver. Miserable train journey as well. All that money, and the Pinkertons won’t spare a cent more than they have to for travel expenses, had to ride a rather packed carriage. Anyhow, I am now staying in a hotel in Las Vegas, on the New Mexico Territory. In two days, I will meet with the others, and then we shall depart on our mission. The dossier report states that the trail of our suspect seems to lead to a point some miles southwest of here, where we will reacquire the trail, and pursue it wherever it leads. Even into Mexico, if the trail should point this way, although they were quite clear that we could not depend upon any official support should this become necessary.
August 1st, 1889, Addendum
Las Vegas, still
Still have some time to spare as a I await my comrades in this mission, so I have studied further on just who we are pursuing, or why the urgency that demanded a sudden departure. Pursuit across the desert at the height of the summer season seems quite foolish to me, but as I understand, the urgency is so great, and the risk of the trail being lost so compelling, that we are expected to trudge across desert in the middle of August. Mr. Withers and the others did not say much about sharing information within the dossier, other than that it was not be expressed to any others outside of our group. Still, they did not say anything about documenting the details in our personal writings, so I will write down some details here, for posterity if nothing else.
Our subject is a man named Deacon Chogan, aliases “Red Horse”, “Pequot”, and “Black Heron”, among others. Even the given name, Deacon Chogan, is a matter of conjecture. Subject is thought to be around fifty years old, perhaps older, some amount of Indian ancestry, either a half-breed or quarter-breed, though is thought to mostly resemble a white man. The given name was determined by a record of student at a Presbyterian seminary in Kentucky from 1853, whom they have determined is the subject in question. As far as is known, this is the only official documentation of his existence. Thought to have been born in the Creek Nation, though this and his exact age are indeterminate. A man of religious inclinations, though his denomination or his exact faith are unknown or undocumented.
He has apparently lived and traveled in the Indian Territories for much of his life. Has no known criminal record under the assumed name Deacon Chogan, though it is possible that he might under other names. Even this is not clearly known. Reports of a religious movement in the Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole Nations name one of his aliases, Red Horse, as the principal figure in a series of disturbances in the region. Crimes among the Indians in the Territories are not always well documented, but the U.S. Marshals office in Fort Smith did provide some speculation that he was involved in some other known cases, possibly under an unknown alias. They describe him as a very dangerous and treacherous individual leading a group of like-minded religious fanatics. If this is true, then I can see why they are concerned with apprehending him, given the anxieties expressed by the Federal Government over the Ghost Dancers in Dakota. However, while the subject is described as a religious figure, none can quite say that they know anything his professed faith. Perhaps some native superstitions, or given his Christian education, something of a more biblical bend. Some speculation that it might be Devil worship in some form, involving animal and even human sacrifice, or so the rumors go. Subject was largely unknown until eight months ago, when named as suspect in several murders in Arkansas, and later tentatively linked to similar crimes in Mississippi and as far east as Georgia. The murders in question are thought to be the work of several individuals in addition to our prime suspect. The reports themselves are frustratingly unclear about precise details or circumstances of the crimes, though the reports do disclose rather macabre details. Grotesque mutilations, gouging of eyes, even some reference to flaying; others describe strange symbols marked upon the remains and unusual totems left at the scene. These symbols and totems are what led to speculation of Native involvement, though none of the Indians who formed a part of the investigating force could recognize them. But it was clear, according to the investigating officers, that there was some mark of religious ceremony regarding these murders. Number of victims total is labeled at 19, not including those crimes which have not yet been conclusively linked with our suspect.
Such hideous displays of violence called into question the nature of the men who committed them. For how little we know about this “Deacon Chogan” figure, we know even less about his purported compatriots. The dossier is quite specific that what is known or believed regarding these men is purely conjectural, and among our directives is to attempt to identify as many of these men as possible. According to rumors and assumptions, many of our subject’s followers are thought to be white men, many of possibly mixed ancestry, and some full-blooded Indians as well; Negro freedmen are also speculated to be among their numbers. As of yet, the precise racial composition of the group is still largely unknown, and in fact, there are no precise estimates as the size of this group, with some reports speculating varying amount from as few as 15 to as many as 100.
But what is most remarkable about all of this is how few of these details and assumptions have clearly documented sources. Police reports are generally authentic records, which offered some insight into the nature of these crimes, but other statements about our suspect’s identity, motives, and his accomplices are made as definitive statements with no clear records or sources. Whoever compiled this dossier was either sloppy, or failed to appreciate that every possible detail, even the source itself, is relevant in such an investigation. Or, perhaps there was some ulterior motive in withholding this information. Anyhow, I have been writing for quite some time, and so I will stop at this, and peruse the dossier later, and report my further musings.
August 3rd, 1889
Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory
No entry for yesterday, nothing noteworthy. Just carousing in the saloon and purchasing some additional tack and supplies. Even purchased a bottle of rye for own private reserve- can’t always trust the water out there. More importantly, my comrades-in-arms for this mission just arrived in town today, and we gathered at the saloon for appropriate introductions. Besides myself, there are four men, who will take on specific responsibilities of our company. First was a tall, burly fellow with a prominent red beard named R.J. Hannigan, a very jocular and pleasant individual with an infectious good humor. He will be our appointed expert on matters of survival in the wilderness, who will maintain our stores of provisions, or what little we can carry without a wagon. Second was our wrangler, who will attend to our horses and tack, a man named Wilfred Sharpe. He is rather the opposite of Hannigan, being a very sullen and easily agitated man who made numerous complaints right away and did not offer to shake hands. Third is the tracker, an Indian chap who only goes by the name of “William”, rather than a more typical native epithet. I believe he is either a Creek or a Seminole, though I didn’t inquire. He is a rather quiet a stoic man, as Indians are wont to be, but still projected an air of competence that I found reassuring. And lastly is a fellow agent like myself, named Henry Quinn. I rather like him as well, and though he is not as humorous or cordial as Hannigan, he is still quite agreeable and listened intently to our conversations.
Almost immediately Mr. Hannigan began to lecture us about survival tactics in rugged desert, and given my previous apprehensions about pursuing a party across the desert in the midst of August, I was quite interested in what he had to say. According to him, daytime temperatures will routinely exceed 100 degrees, though as he points out, the situation is not much different here in town, other than that we have ready access to supplies and shelter. We will be eating light, and sleeping relatively little, and spending as much of the day in the saddle as we can, so as to make good time with as little expenditure of supplies and provisions as possible. Sharpe kept piping in with his own questions, and seemed unimpressed with Hannigan’s reassurances, but Hannigan sticks by them. William seemed to concur with Hannigan, or at least did not object, as did Quinn. If the heat is too trying, he says, we can always opt to rest during the day and travel at night, to avoid the worst of it. I admit I don’t know that much about survival in the wilderness, but I will defer to Hannigan’s recommendations.
Sharpe has provided our horses, which were actually shipped in this morning on the train. I received a standard quarter-horse mare, actually a rather fine filly, who is rather well-trained. Whatever Sharpe’s misgivings about us, he has an excellent way with horses, and speedily prepared our tack and saddles. Quinn has provided our weapons: a Winchester repeating carbine and Colt’s Single Action Army for each of us, all chambered in .44-40 for convenience, with several dozen shells for each of us. However, while I appreciate having the rifle, I think I will stick with my Colt’s Frontier double-action revolver instead, even though it takes a different cartridge. Still, having two pistols just may come in handy depending on what we find. William has taken charge of our maps and compass, and I will be right at his side directing our expedition. I must admit, perhaps my previous apprehensions about my comrades were unfounded. All things considered, I couldn’t have asked for a more competent team.
August 5th, 1889
20-25 miles southwest of Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory
First day on the trail, made 23 miles by my estimation. Departed at six o’clock this morning, before the worst of the heat, and I am rather satisfied with our pace. Yesterday evening we gathered for supper, as Hannigan advised we should try to eat a large meal before departing, as we will not have the opportunity to eat much for quite some time. We stopped some six miles short our first destination, where we are meant to pick up the trail. I considered having the party push on to this point during the first day, but given the conditions, I decided against it to avoid pushing ourselves and the horses too hard to early on. I believe spirits are relatively high, since we have now gotten to the task at hand rather than all that insufferable waiting. William the Indian has shown himself a highly competent navigator as well as a tracker. Hannigan is notably more quiet now that we are on the trail, but resumed his joking demeanor once we made camp. He advised that we keep our campfire some yards away from where we sleep, so as to avoid revealing our presence in unsettled country. Sounds rather inconvenient, so I countered by saying we could do so later on, when we were closer to our intended goal; he seemed to agree.
Regarding our mission, today I disclosed some of the relevant details to my comrades, and I was surprised they did not inquire much further. I told them the name of our suspect, his general description, some of his alleged crimes and where they happened, and told them about the number of men thought be following him. Oddly enough, they all seemed to take the information in stride, asked few questions. Must be tired from our time in the saddle. The country south of Las Vegas is rather rugged and sparse, but the evening hours were still relatively pleasant. We set up camp on a small hillock some 300 yards off the trail, with some amount of scrub brush surrounding it, which will hopefully deter any prowling hostiles during the night. The rest are preparing to turn in, for we will depart at sunup tomorrow to complete the next leg of our journey. Now that the temperature has dropped, I think I can sleep comfortably, and I’m quite confident about the days ahead.
August 6th, 1889
Somewhere south of the Pecos River Valley, New Mexico Territory
I have slept on the ground many nights in my life, but it has never gotten any more pleasant. Thankfully some of the evening sounds in the high desert are rather relaxing and conducive to sleep. That said, I think my general feeling of well-being has diminished a bit since yesterday. I ought to get used to it now, as we will spending many more days on the trail. Still, a fairly productive day. We awoke at dawn as planned, and I saw that the hill upon which our camp was set overlooked a small valley with the Pecos River running through it (at least I think it is the Pecos, according to our map). I didn’t notice this is waning twilight yesterday evening, although I knew we should be getting close.
We reached the point where we are meant to pick up the trail at half-past nine o’clock in the morning, and upon seeing the area, I was rather discouraged at first. The point on the map turned out to be a small cliff overlooking an arroyo at the base of a hill that William claims is called “Mesa Sola”, and upon arriving, there seemed to be no obvious sign of human presence. I was frustrated with myself for not pushing on the previous evening, but looking back, we would have arrived here in darkness and been at an even greater disadvantage. There is a small ranch some two miles north of here, and I considered going there to question the locals about any strange happenings or notable travelers, but I decided against it.
Still, not all was in vain. William and Hannigan surveyed the scene, and pointed out that small tracks did remain, having been hastily and imperfectly covered up. This is a compelling find, as it means that our prior intelligence seems to be somewhat accurate after all. We considered that the tracks might be those of another party, and not necessarily our quarry, but the obscurity of this area and the fact that the tracks showed signs of being deliberately covered pointed to our previous assumptions being correct. William immediately began following the traces, and thus our pursuit has finally begun in earnest.
August 7th, 1889
Two miles south of someplace called “Arroyo Calaveras”, New Mexico
Spent yesterday evening ruminating about certain details that have become more apparent now. One thought that kept coming to mind was regarding our prior intelligence as to how and where we should reacquire the trail of our suspect(s). This was one of those details in the briefing that had no real source, but was stated with great emphasis, and which turned out to be correct. And now I wonder, how exactly did they come by this intelligence? I thought about how I was never told if any others before us were on Chogan’s trail; I considered how the report used the passive tense when regarding any previous attempts to pursue him, and never mentioned any specifics about who. Indeed, since the last definitive report of his crimes occurred in northern Texas, I wonder how they were able to so confidently track his whereabouts to that exact spot. I might discuss these thoughts with my comrades later.
We spent much of yesterday and today following an actual trail, and our pace has slowed considerably. Now we are often pausing to examine clues and traces, we are making less than ten miles in a day. It seems our quarry has taken some great pains to conceal his passing, but not enough to deter an astute tracker. Currently, the trail is pointing a ways south. I have rather mixed feelings about this; I’m hoping that the trail might divert west, rather than potentially lead us into Mexico, which I am hoping to avoid. However, further south is more settled country, which is good news if we need to procure further supplies, though resting is out of the question. We have tried to eat and drink sparingly, in spite of the heat and long days, but there is only so much we can tolerate. Hannigan in particular needs much to eat, as the man is probably six-foot-six and quite large, and always in need of food under his belt. For now, we have made our camp on the open country, and perhaps tomorrow we can discuss where to find provisions and if we should question the locals.
August 9th, 1889
Near “Estancia”, New Mexico
Haven’t written in a few days, nothing too notable in that time. The trail has veered a bit westward, to my relief. In the morning, we debated traveling to nearby town, called “Estancia” on the map. We came to the consensus that we should at least try to find an opportunity to resupply, though we are not in agreement about questioning the locals. I for one am against it, as even though following the trail is slow and weary work, we are not likely to obtain any useful information from the locals, and we might risk the secrecy of our mission or even be misdirected by local rumors. William and I are in agreement, Hannigan is decidedly neutral, while Quinn and Sharpe (especially Sharpe) are getting impatient with our progress. As the leader of our group, I made an executive call to all of them to refrain from questioning the locals. The town of Estancia itself is rather pitiful, being only a very small trading post. The local general store was not particularly well-stocked, but we more or less found what we required. Apart from this, nothing truly notable. I have mostly spent the day thinking further about our situation. I’ve revealed further details in the dossier to the others, but again they seemed relatively undisturbed, and asked few questions. Now I’m wondering if perhaps they already know some of these details themselves. Were they briefed individually beforehand? I was led to believe through my orders that these men were unaware of the specifics and that it was my responsibility to reveal them as necessary. I can’t say for certain. I’m rather exhausted, so perhaps my mood is being affected negatively. Rest and nip of rye might do me some good- I’ve been abstaining these last several days, so I think I’ve earned it.
August 9th, 1889, Addendum
By God, but I am bloody god damned irritated with Sharpe! I haven’t expressed it before, but it has been growing ever since we left Las Vegas. His interjections, unsolicited comments, and general complaining have been a steady feature of his company, but until now I have been ignoring it successfully, and refusing to engage with him worked, for a time. But now I hear this fool went against my explicit orders and has been interrogating the locals about the men we are pursuing. He hasn’t grasped that the locals are already wary of us, a group of strangers in these parts who go about conspicuously armed, and his questioning could throw suspicion on us. We could find ourselves the target of local law if we aren’t careful! I let him know this in the sternest possible terms, and he’s been sulking for the past hour, muttering under his breath. I’ll say it now, if that glorified stable hand doesn’t shut his mouth and stick to caring for the horses, I’ll smack him into next week. I’m also fairly annoyed with Quinn as well for not stifling Sharpe during their trip into town, but Quinn seems genuinely repentant, so I’ll avoid antagonizing him. That is all, I simply needed to express this before boils over.
August 10th, 1889
Near Estancia, New Mexico
I am writing this entry midday, so I’ll keep it brief. I desperately hate to admit this, but it seems that fool Sharpe managed to uncover something useful after all. Still, I can’t concede this to him, it would only encourage him. Anyhow, it seems the locals have reported unusual strangers in the region (besides ourselves, of course), and their description not only matches what had been speculated in the dossier, but also occurred quite recently, well within the time frame established by prior reports. The local owner of the general store mentioned a white man who came through a fortnight prior, who was decorated strangely for a white man. He wore a mixture of American and Indian garb, and some regalia sporting strange totems that were unrecognizable, and even had some strange markings (possibly tattoos) around his temples. Around this time, a young woman from a nearby farm was said to have gone missing, and remained missing at the time of our passing. Sharpe inquired about any attempt to find the young woman, and it was said that the only evidence of her whereabouts were a spotty series of blood trails, assumed to be hers, leading westward. I must say, this is a remarkable find, but- I must not concede this to Sharpe. We may remain in the area for short time longer to consider our next move, and see if this information concurs with the trail we have been following.
August 13th, 1889
In the ruins of a Spanish mission called Abo, New Mexico
I have not written for a few days, but today, we made a rather… disturbing find, and so I should write it down now. We wasted a day and half debating our exact plan based on the information we discovered back in Estancia, and it was only yesterday that we finally resumed the trail. It seems my fears of being misdirected by faulty intelligence were not entirely justified, but we also debated whether or not we should investigate the story of the missing woman, in the vain hope that some meaningful clue might be discovered. I came down firmly against it, as did Sharpe (finally, some agreement from him), although Quinn and Hannigan have shown themselves to be softer and more concerned. It took some prodding, but eventually they saw things my way. Getting back on the trail was a slow process, as we stopped frequently to consider our options for following the trail while still heeding the information we obtained in town. We proceeded further south, and then west a short ways, when we discovered it. We had no expectation of finding anything in that particular spot, as we had only ascended the hill to gain a commanding view of the terrain and scope a possible camp site for later. And indeed, we did find the ruins of a camp already there. There it stood, the campfire long dead, and a headless corpse sitting upright on a log in front of it. It just sat there, with its hands on its knees, as if listening intently to an interlocutor, with a copious stain of blood having spilling from its neck and onto its chest. It was a man’s body, fully clothed, in some type of garb that resembled rags. But the most strange and unsettling feature of the scene was the utter lack of activity in the area. The corpse had clearly been there for several days, the skin having gone slate gray, but in all that time no animals had bothered the scene. Coyotes or wolves had obviously not ravaged it, no vultures circled overhead, no insects explored the site; there weren’t even any flies settling on the corpse. This find silenced our group for a time, and only William came out of his astonishment and moved forward to inspect the scene. He actually dabbed some blood from the stump onto his finger and smelled it, as if had a distinctive odor. It was then that William pointed out the abnormal serenity of the scene.
Nobody spoke for a time, but when the spell broke, we openly asked one another what do next. William did not detect any trace of a trail at the site, and in fact we never did find the head. We searched all around the scene but came upon nothing. Quinn asked if we ought to report the obvious crime as soon as possible, and even broached the idea of turning back to Estancia. This I rejected, as we had wasted enough time already just getting this far, and I reminded him that we could report it at a later opportunity. Hannigan questioned if we should bury the body, but this I also rejected, because it would take too much time.
We left the scene as we found it and moved on to our next chosen destination, the ruins of a pueblo and old Spanish mission at a place called Abo. I spent the remainder of the trip thinking about that camp, and I do wonder if perhaps we ought to have done something about the body after all. Quinn, Hannigan and Sharpe have been uncharacteristically quiet since then, and I could tell they regretted leaving the remains of the poor devil, probably wondering if his loved ones knew what had become of him. We’ve settled in the ruins of the mission for the night; finally glad to spend a night under a roof, even one with so many holes. I’ve been rather irritated with others for past few days, but I think my attitude has finally softened towards them. And I think we can say for certain, we are certainly on the trail of something.
August 14th, 1889
In a village on the Rio Grande, New Mexico
We have finally reached a more settled region, at least more settled than that pitiful scrub land around Estancia, and we have decided to rest up a bit in a small village on the Rio Grande. I’ve heard the name one or twice since we’ve been here, but I didn’t quite understand it, nor could I hope to spell it, but I know roughly where it is. The settlers here are mostly Mexicans, whose ancestors lived here since the time this land was a Spanish domain. They were quite wary of us at first, given our ragged state and being openly armed, but they quickly came around and welcomed us. I must say, despite their initial suspicions, the Mexicans showed remarkable hospitality that outstrips any I have experienced anywhere. However, they remained wary of William, the Creek-Seminole fellow, who I suppose the Mexicans took for an Apache at first. They still have clear and none-too-pleasant memories of fighting the seemingly endless raids of the Apache going back well over a hundred years. This hamlet in which we found ourselves was mostly composed of family members, and the elderly patriarch invited us to share his home for evening and dine with them. I never told them our purpose for coming through their village, although some did ask. I simply told them we were tracking renegade Indians, to which they responded quite positively. For the first time in several days, we enjoyed a full meal with his extended family, enjoying the tasty cuisine he prepared for us: beans, a rich stew of pork and vegetables, even some peppers he had been saving. It was a welcome respite for us after so much hardship on the trail, and all of our spirits, even that irascible Sharpe, were greatly restored. We’ll pass the night here before heading out in the morning. I think I can sleep quite well here, with good food in my stomach and a roaring fire at my back. And then maybe I can forget where I am for a time.
August 15th, 1889
Socorro, New Mexico
The people of the village gave us a fond farewell upon our departure. They even gave us some extra provisions for our use, which I was all too grateful to accept. So far, we have followed the Rio Grande further south through the day, to a town called Socorro. I’m familiar with this town, though I am puzzled why we have come here, or why the trail has led south along such an obvious route where before it went through remote wilderness. I’ll have to keep a closer eye on my comrades, as they’ve shown remarkably poor judgment when they find themselves back in civilization after so long in the country. It was a relatively short ride from the village to Socorro, so we arrived in the mid afternoon. We might need some supplies, though thankfully not much, thanks to a previous gracious hosts. For now, I’ll find a hotel and see if I can sleep in an actual bed for the first time in nearly two weeks. Morale seems to have held strong, and I hope it will stay this way.
August 17th, 1889
Somewhere southwest of Socorro
Words cannot express my current fury. I just read my last two entries, and it still pains me how much my former sense of well-being has fallen since then. I am beyond enraged with my team, and I’m now wondering if perhaps their sheer idiocy the last few days may have ruined this entire mission. Two weeks trudging across New Mexico in the height of summer, all for nothing.
When I went to rest at a hotel in Socorro, I was expecting to have a bath and a quiet evening, perhaps a decent meal and few drinks at the saloon. Imagine my surprise when I awoke at three o’clock in the morning, having fallen asleep in the early evening before. It must have been the rain; I was rather looking forward to a sudden late summer tempest that moved in over town and brought some much-appreciated rain to the desert, and I must have fallen asleep listening to it. Instead, I awake to shouting, gunfire, and screams in the street, wondering just what was going on. I remained inside, looking cautiously out the window, pistol in hand, when I caught sight of the source of the ruckus. It was my team, all four of them, charging up and down the street, howling like Indians, firing their guns into the air and nearby windows, bottles in hand. I ran down as soon as possible and accosted them, wondering just what in the hell they got up to. I had to buffalo that idiot Sharpe to stand still and listen to me, and I even held my gun on Hannigan and Quinn, and William was seemingly nowhere to be found.
The rest I pieced from interrogating these damn fools after we bid a hasty retreat after a confrontation with the local constable. I hope to God that these idiots didn’t actually harm anybody, because we didn’t stay to see what came afterward. It turns out that my men had gone to the local saloon early in the evening, intending to relax and amuse themselves, when the drink got the better of them and they decided to try their luck at a card game with some locals. Drunk as they were, their foray went poorly and a brawl of some kind ensued, whereupon they went out into the streets, amusing themselves with wild gunfire and general revelry in chaos. They know for certain they severely beat a man in the saloon and assaulted several others, and Quinn admitted that he struck a lawman in the face with his pistol butt on their way out. We came upon William some ways outside of town, and he had apparently escaped the fracas by absconding over the rooftops, in possession of several bottles of whiskey. I was so angry when I saw those bottles that I threatened to shoot him if he didn’t toss every single one of them in the river.
I gave them as fierce a verbal lashing as I could, but still in their relatively drunken state, I can’t say how much of it stuck. But I could see them returning to their senses by mid morning, hopefully recounting the lurid details of their escapade made them ashamed enough to consider their behavior. Damn it all, I’m not a school headmaster, I should not have to do something like this! Undoubtedly we will have the local law searching for us, so for the time being, we shall head south as far the trail goes then deviate west. This of course assumes that our mission isn’t a bust, thanks to them.
August 20th, 1889
Unknown mountain west of Socorro, New Mexico
Again, I haven’t written in some days. There seems no point right now, but I suppose our progress, or lack thereof, still needs to be recorded. After our retreat from Socorro, we headed south for a brief spell, and then west and up into the foothills of a mountain just west of Socorro. We’re only a few miles from town, but we are relatively secluded here. Once again, our morale is quite low, low as it has been so far. After recovering from their drunken stupor, I think the men have mostly realized just what they did and how it could cost us dearly. Now, even though I am confident about disciplining them, I wish that I hadn’t scolded them like children. After all, these are mostly grown, rational men, and my anger has largely subsided. Quinn has been openly repentant about his actions, as is Hannigan, though he is mostly embarrassed and humiliated rather than genuinely sorrowful. Sharpe, as ever, is unrepentant, and seems to conceive of his behavior as some kind of rebellion against our situation instead of anyone in particular. I hope that fool doesn’t force me to do something rash to put him back in order.
I assume that their ill-advised rebellion was born from an insatiable desire for recreation after so long on the trail, although Quinn spoke to me earlier today, suggesting otherwise. I was resistant to the idea that their behavior was the product of anything but general irresponsibility, but Quinn’s story, if I believe it, has made me see it differently. Time on the trail was exhausting, he said, and they were in fact desperate to relax and forget their troubles, but for other reasons. He says that he and others are struck by a growing dread, a fear that has been growing all these weeks while pursuing our man. It was a strange, almost unaccountable kind of fear, whose source was not clear. And this intense dread had been shared amongst themselves all this time, growing precipitously, especially at times when supplies were short and days were long. Even the ever-stoic William was struck by this fear, even though he did a good job concealing it. I asked if it was a fear of what we were doing, about our mission and the men we sought. He says at first he couldn’t identify the source of the fear, that the early days of our expedition were relatively benign. What changed was what we found at the camp near Abo. The sight of that headless corpse sitting upright in the unnatural stillness around him cemented his fear, and that it severely perturbed the others as well. I admit, I felt a similar feeling after that moment, though I had dismissed the scene it as a savage but meaningless atrocity. That fear, said Quinn, motivated them to seek escape wherever they could, as if their drunken revelry was akin to some sort of last meal. This all struck me as odd yet strangely illuminating, I wonder now if it is true. I see now that I never really interacted closely with the others, never palavered with them, so perhaps it’s no surprise that their private fears were never apparent to me.
Another day or two, and I think we can safely rule out any sort of pursuit against us by the authorities in Socorro. We were in town only a few hours, and so it’s entirely possible that nobody there could conclusively identify us. I just hope the trail of our suspect hasn’t gone cold in the meantime. Whatever their fears, whatever our fears, having come so far, seeing this thing through is all that makes sense anymore.
August 24th, 1889
Estimate 40 miles northwest of Las Cruces
Morale is still quite poor. I had hoped for an improvement after we left our hideout three days ago, though obviously in vain. We’ve kept a quite brisk pace the past few days, making over eighty miles in that time. It has taken some motivating to get these men to accept such a pace, though now I know the source their poor spirits I am a bit more sympathetic. Sharpe is complaining as usual, but he hasn’t changed much, which is actually a relief. The others are more concerning, particularly Hannigan, who has mostly abandoned his jocular demeanor. The trail is still continuing south, though it has deviated some ways from the Rio Grande. With spirits so poor, and many of supplies running short, I thought better of asking them about what they knew of our mission and situation. Perhaps it is just excessive suspicion on my part, but the question remains, and now I wonder if knowing about what we’re up against is the source of their fear. It’s even starting to affect me, though I mostly feel despondent about our apparent lack of progress. I might cease my journaling for a while. Whatever relief I feel when expressing myself in writing is more or less gone.
August 28th, 1889
Location unknown exactly. Somewhere near Arizona Territory boundary
I have been praying these past four days for a definite sign, any sign, any more of a trace of the men we’re after than whatever tracks and traces that William and Hannigan can divine from the dirt and mud across this awful desert. And today I got one. God have mercy, for my sins, I got what I asked for. Another dull day on the trail, nearing Arizona, I thought the monotony was getting to me, that horrible, caustic type of boredom I remember from my days in the Cavalry, waiting for a battle to erupt, fearing a Sioux brave waiting around every rock and tree on the plains… I’m rambling. Around three o’clock, we spotted men on the horizon, two of them, who seemed at first to be moving away from us. But as we continued forward, it seemed they were heading in the same direction, but would wait periodically for us to close the distance, then move again for a short time. It almost seemed like they were waiting in ambush, or luring us into ambush. Bandits, renegades, whatever they were, I didn’t care, it was something, after so much of nothing. It’s stupid, being so willing to thrust into an apparent ambush, but we did. My comrades must have felt the same, because they followed without hesitation.
We caught up with them after an hour or so. They weren’t at all what I expected, what little I expected. These men were fearful, desperate, even terrified of us. They were emaciated and pale, clothed in animal skins like cavemen, their hair shaved off. And I saw those scars on the sides of their heads, ugly, ragged scars that were still bright red. One of them was missing an ear. And they were terrified of us when we caught up to them, so scared they could hardly move. They weren’t visibly armed. Before we could ask them anything, once demanded in hysterics to know who we are, and the other chimed in, saying we were with them, whoever that was, and we couldn’t calm them. We could hardly even get a word in between their hysterical questions. The one asking started asking faster, louder, more shrill, and even our shouts in return couldn’t make ourselves understood. Before I knew what was happened, the other had pulled a great big horse pistol from nowhere a fire upon us. Gunfights are like that. They start and end so quickly. In a second, we pulled our pistols gunned down the both of them. We emptied our revolvers and just riddled them, and when that smoke cleared, both were sprawled in the dirt, one with his skull smashed open by a bullet, the other releasing a loud, rasping death rattle.
We leaped off our horses and immediately checked to make sure they were dead. The whole incident had transpired over the course of 45 seconds at most, and we still could hardly believe what had just happened. Both men were stone dead, as we saw. It was a minute or two before we realized that Quinn had been struck by one of their shots. The shot him in the hip and knocked him clear off his horse, and his groans went unnoticed for several seconds while processed what had happened. Sharpe was the first to come out of his astonishment and went to check on Quinn. As much as I hate Sharpe, he has a toughness in him that I never suspected. He knows something of medicine, and inspected the wound and applied pressure to it. By then, we had come around and did what we could to assist Sharpe. The wound is quite bad, he says, and the bullet likely struck the bone and shattered it. After nearly a month of following an endless trail, pursuing a dangerous criminal, and now, in a matter of seconds, one of our companions has been lost. Quinn is not dead, and won’t die soon, but we are far from anywhere civilized, and the man may lose his leg this grievous wound. We have few medical supplies, many of which are for horses, not men.
But Quinn has put on a brave face. I always rather liked him, and now I have to admire the manful way he is bearing the pain, a strength beyond his years. He insists that we push on, even though we tell him we can turn back, bring him someplace where he be treated; he has earned that, at least. He insists, and says that we can bring him someplace along the way, but that he does not want to impede us. Secretly, I am relieved that insists we push forward, because it is all that can do anymore, in spite of everything. And despite our grim situation, we have a clue, a clue of the kind we haven’t seen in weeks; the slain men bear strange markings about their heads, they have bizarre totems carved into their backs, the animal skins, those strange mutilations across their scalps. It can’t possibly be anything else. It has be connected to our man, this Deacon Chogan, Red Horse, Pequot, or Black Heron, or whatever they call him. For weeks, he hasn’t even seemed real. All he’s been is faint markings in the dust and dirt, a headless corpse around a campfire, veritable road to nowhere of scattered blood trails. And now, he is real. I’m not cracking up. I feel it indelibly in my gut that something is happening. I prayed for a sign when I thought I would die in dirt for nothing. God as my witness, I got one. And God have mercy on me, it may cost young Henry Quinn his life.
August 29th, 1889
Near territorial boundary of Arizona and New Mexico
I am writing this in the morning. It has taken me nearly an hour to accept what has just happened. I was lying before, I think now I might actually be cracking up. Sharpe has been ranting and raving for an hour now. Hannigan just seems sick, he won’t meet anyone’s eyes or even respond. Sharpe has been yelling at him intermittently this whole time, and William is just staring off the west at nothing in particular.
We set up camp and bedded down for the night not far from where Quinn was shot. We thought he should rest after what happened, to brace for a long journey ahead with awful would in his right hip. I never thought I could sleep with everything that was going on, but sometime in night, while I stared blankly at the stars, it came. I awoke when I heard Hannigan and Sharpe shouting frantically around the perimeter of our camp, calling Quinn’s name. Quinn was missing. Somehow in the night he had slipped away from our camp, how exactly I can’t say. We should have noticed if his groans of pain had suddenly disappeared. He couldn’t have walked in his condition, much less get far enough to be out of sight. And then I noticed that horrendous stench, an incredibly foul miasma that seemed to permeate the entire camp. Quinn’s bedroll was lumped together, with all of his supplies and weapons gone, but his horse and saddle were still there. I joined Hannigan and Sharpe in calling for Quinn while William scoured the edge of the camp, searching for whatever trace could be found. Hannigan went over and checked Quinn’s bedroll, and that’s where he found it. He made this horrible gasp when he unwrapped the bedroll that immediately got all of us to pay attention. That bedroll was the source of the stench, and we saw why. Inside the roll was pile of organs and innards, lumped together like the offal in a slaughterhouse. The entrails were covered in faint splotches of blood and unidentifiable fluids, but there was no mistake that these were real entrails, in Quinn’s bedroll, and we couldn’t account for where Quinn was. The thought that occurred to us in these moments paralyzed us. Sharpe immediately said it couldn’t be him, no one could say what kind of entrails these were, all we know is that we found it in Quinn’s bedroll and that Quinn was missing. He has a resilient mind, I must admit. Nobody had suggested that whatever was in that bedroll was what was left of Quinn, but he gave voice to what all of us were thinking. And I couldn’t dispute him, but I can’t dismiss what we’re thinking. How could something like this be possible? How could he leave or be spirited away in the night without our noticing? How could that hideous pile of innards and gore suddenly appear within his bedroll? Sharpe has ceased his tirade finally. I have seen his many faces, but this is the first time I have seen him defeated. The once-jovial Hannigan is a shell of his former exuberance and good humor. William has just come back, and he seems frustrated, exhausted and defeated, just like Sharpe. I think they have come to the same conclusion. Our foe is very much real. Whatever became of Quinn can’t be anything other than his doing. I’ve read the dossier, I’ve seen the details of his crimes; that this Deacon Chogan, accused of 19 murders across three states and territories, is capable of such things, I have no doubt. Suddenly, I don’t think I want to know just what exactly happened to young Henry Quinn, a faithful, stalwart companion for only too short a time. What we found in that bedroll is anybody’s guess. But it won’t be mine.
September (?), 1889
Arizona, according to our map
I have not kept track of the precise date for several days. I imagine it must be September by now. We left what remained of Quinn at the campsite, still wrapped in his bedroll, taking his few supplies with us. His horse as well will remain with us as long as we can manage. Sharpe has taken responsibility for his saddle and tack. Quinn had no other personal belongings in his kit, or had them on his person when he disappeared. No journals, photographs, or even a small a bible. There was nothing I could bring back to his next of kin. Assuming I ever do notify his next of kin, I am not sure I could bring myself to tell the truth of what became of him, or what we assume to have happened to him. We have ridden all through the days since then, stopping rarely and keeping a brisk pace. Sharpe no longer seems concerned about pushing our horses too hard. I assume by now we must be well inside the Arizona Territory, and now we are heading south yet again. If the trail should lead down into Mexico itself, I shall not hesitate. My desire to see this thing through has overridden my feeble concerns about doing so.
The nights have been getting worse. Every night, without fail, the horses will become supremely agitated and Sharpe will spend well over and hour trying to calm them and prevent them from running off. Hannigan has finally come out the worst of his torpor, but his moods have been shifting wildly, and he swears blind that during the night he can hear strange sounds, like the call of wild animals in the distance, but like none he has ever heard before. I have never heard them myself, but in my state I can hardly focus on anything, much less notice anything beyond the perimeter of our camp.
My private reserve of whiskey has finally run out. I wonder how I will now get to sleep. We have been leaving our campfire lit throughout the night, in spite of risks. Not one of us can bear the thought of passing another night in darkness.
September 4th or 5th, 1889
Near the Mexican border
By God, I heard those sounds that Hannigan has been warning us about. I heard them in the night coming from the south, directly in the path we are headed. And like Hannigan said, these weren’t any kind of animal call that I have ever heard, in this country or any other I have visited. It almost seemed that the noises came from the sky itself, rather than from some distant point on the horizon. It was like a deep, wavering howl, almost like a wounded animal, and despite its faint report it echoed definitively across the plains. Sharpe claims hasn’t heard them, but I saw everybody in camp become riveted in place when those echoes went out. He has heard them, I have no doubt.
We are coming close, I am sure of it. But now I wonder if it not them, but us that is being followed, or lured, to wherever our trail shall lead us. I wonder how long we have been followed; perhaps since the mission at Abo, or even before, when we discovered corpse at the camp near there. Or from Estancia, where we interrogated the locals, or maybe even from the very beginning. Hannigan is cracking up, William has hardly said a word for days, and despite Sharpe’s frequent denials, I know he is fraying at the edges as well. I have held my silence long enough. Before to long, I will confront them about what they know and do not know. I am starting to crack up myself, but there is no reason my comrades should be so forlorn unless they know something I don’t. Perhaps tomorrow, after another night of sounds and distant threats they will finally come around.
September 6th, 1889
I knew there was something on that hill! Our camp the previous evening was set in a depression between two hills, one bare, the other with a small grove of cottonwoods surrounded by thickets of tall scrub brush set in its slopes. I spotted that gap in the thicket, like the entrance of a cave, but surrounded by creosote and low-hanging branches. I paid it no mind at first, all through that evening I was transfixed by that gap. Maybe there was a convenient spring to water the animals, or place to set up a secluded camp, but that wasn’t the reason I noticed it. This morning, only a few minutes ago, I finally worked up the nerve to investigate it, and I found something, something so terrible and edifying that whatever doubts I have had about our task are gone. I went into that gap in the thicket, where it was several yards deep, and I emerged in a small clearing overshadowed by those cottonwoods, when I found it.
Suspended by those low-hanging branches was an enormous totem, perhaps six feet across, hanging several feet over the clearing. And it was made of bones, animal bones, maybe some human bones as well, all arranged like spokes on a wheel, with feathers and animal skins. Around its border were mummified limbs, both animal and human, with a similarly mummified head of a goat at its crest, and a string of dried human skulls hanging down from the bottom. But those animal skins were the worst- they were fresh, some even still dripping blood. It can’t have been here more than a day or so. The message is unmistakable. We are most definitely closing in. Whether we are closing in on them, or if they are closing in on us, we shall soon find out.
September 6th, Addendum
I finally confronted these fools about whatever they have been hiding this whole time, and despite some early resistance, they finally spilled it.
I was right before, they were in fact individually briefed about what was going on. Each one had a copy of the very same dossier I was given, with subtle alterations to specific details. Each was told that they were the sole possessors of the information, and that the others would not know, and could only be told sparingly. But they found this out for themselves when I freely shared the details I was given, against orders. Why would the agency have done this? Do they expect none of us to come back? Is that what they actually hope for? It’s the only reason I can think of. Each man believes only he knows what is going on, and when the others are lost or killed, he becomes the sole witness to what happened. But why tell us in the first place? No, I’ve answered my own question. If I had not known what was going on, I would have deserted this mission back in New Mexico. We have just enough information and reason to push on, and when each man believes only he knows the full story, he will have all the more reason to turn on each other or leave the others to die. They want as few witnesses to this operation as possible. This is only conjecture, but it is the only reason I can think of.
I’ll be keeping a much closer eye on these men from now on. The secret is out. I won’t have them turning on me or deserting us. They will see this thing through, I will make sure of it. That lingering, unnameable fear that Quinn told me about in Socorro is clear to me now. But it will not get the best of us.
September 7th, 1889
12 miles past the border, in Mexico
That miserable cur William has deserted us. Our designated tracker, the one who so capably led us across the wastes using nothing more than faint prints in the dust, a faithful and stalwart companion, has shown himself no more than a feckless, no-account coward. He stole away in the night, presumably while we slept, and was long gone by sunrise. He took with him his own horse and supplies and left few traces of his leaving. Hannigan will be taking over in his duties as the tracker, although his slow pace and reluctance to go on could impede us. It is no matter. His demeanor has hardly changed, even after the revelations of yesterday.
Sharpe turned Quinn’s horse loose this morning. Quinn’s supplies were long since exhausted, and the extra horse was no use to us any longer. He even broached the idea that we should turn all the horses loose, and continue on foot. When we reach wherever we are headed, will have no more use for them. I can’t say that I disagree. But we will press on further before doing so. And depending on what we find, a return journey may not be necessary.
September 10th, 1889
The Forest of Skins, in the Sierra Madre
We turned our horses loose yesterday, when we reached the foothills of the mountains. They lingered for a minute, and then bolted abruptly. Since then, we have moved further into the mountains when we reached It. Less 100 yards into the trees, we found our first definite signs of the men we are following. Animal skins nailed to trees, totems of sticks and bones. And at the edge of an arroyo, we saw a clear sign that we have been waiting for: a symbol, painted on a rock face, of a man with many arms and legs, and a head painted completely black, with narrow white slits for eyes. It was like a gatekeeper, for beyond that was what we have called the Forest of Skins. Dozens, even hundreds of skins, of animals and perhaps even humans, stuck to trees, draped over branches, pelts of animals of different species stitched together in horrible shapes. Every tree in sight is covered with them, and some are so fresh that they drip blood from overhead, like light drizzle of rain. I think I can see torches ahead in distance, deeper in the forest. We are Here. I know it. Hannigan is on the verge of hysterics. Sharpe is bracing himself. Everything ahead of us is our Enemy. I’ve been so preoccupied with getting here that I haven’t even thought of how we should take our quarry alive or dead. But it will come to us. We are at the end, and our End will make itself clear. Deacon Chogan, alias Red Horse, alias Pequot, alias Black Heron, is finally at our door. …….
This is where the journal entries end, but not where the story of Joseph Sheridan ends. The second portion of his writings is much shorter, and was apparently written many years after the events he describes in his journal, in the year 1896. In it, he reveals just what happened in that forest in the Sierra Madre mountains of northern Mexico, in terms much more coherent than his earlier writings. He evidently survived the horrific ordeal, and returned to normal life a few years later, having spent many months in a sanitarium recuperating from happened. He left the United States for South America in 1898, settling in Argentina and living out the rest of his life. It is unknown when and where he eventually died, although he left behind his estranged wife and their young son.
Again, I’m quite sure what to think about what I read in that journal. It all seems so surreal, too strange to even be true, but I can’t imagine why Joe Sheridan would fabricate something so revolting and horrible. But the fact is, not long after this, he did indeed spend time in a sanitarium to recover from an extremely poor physical and mental state, which points to two possible conclusions. One, that his writings really are the product of a diseased mind, which led to his placement in the institution. But the other, more worrying possibility is that perhaps there is at least some amount of truth in what he wrote, and that his condition was a result of it. I have a hard time imagining a world where something like this is possible, but he seems so certain, especially in his recollections afterword, that it was all quite real. But I just don’t know, and I can’t say for certain. I suppose it is up to any readers to draw their own conclusions. What follows next is a transcript of his writings after the incident, in which he details what happened after the final entry in his journal. Perhaps you people can read it and draw better conclusions than mine.
It has been a full five years since my release from the institution, and the personal vow of silence I imposed upon myself has run its course. I have spent the years since those fateful months in 1889 rebuilding my courage and resolve to one day describe what happened, and the fate of my former comrades. Indeed, it is the memory of these men that has spurred on my desire come clean. Though we were companions for only a short time, and were not always on cordial terms, I feel a certain kinship with these men, not unlike that I forged with my former comrades during my time in the U.S. Cavalry. In fact, I daresay that there is some deeper bond with R.J. Hannigan, Henry Quinn, Wilfred Sharpe, and that stoic Indian William than any I felt before or since. We are victims all of a horror beyond reckoning, one that has thrown into question my own faith in the sanity of the world. But alas, I feel I owe them a certain debt, one that I intend to repay in their memory.
I was found in the village of Agua Prieta on the Mexican border in early November of 1889. My state, both physically and mentally, was one of profound deterioration, covered in strange wounds and scars, babbling nonsense, and completely naked. In only my bare skin, I wandered into the village in the wee hours of the morning, having walked a considerable distance through thirst, hunger, and inclement weather for several days and nights. The locals were naturally disturbed by my appearance, though their alarm became genuine concern and I was taken into the care of the local convent, where the Sisters helped restore me to some health. I am eternally grateful to those wonderful women, particularly Sister Mary Agnes, who ministrations were among the first to bring me out of my deranged state. A message was sent across the border, where evidently word was reached that I, Joseph Sheridan, was found alive, though not well, and within days I was retrieved from the care of nuns by my sister Meredith, in the company of two men from the agency.
Even before my convalescence in the institution in Colorado, those two agency brutes attempted to “debrief” me, even though my dismal state should have precluded any clumsy attempts at interrogation. Meredith, God bless her, came to my defense and saw to it that I was placed into better care and that I would be safe for a time from their prodding. I was in the institution for thirteen months, all the while frequently visited by Meredith and even my wife Eleanor, whom I have not seen for quite some time. She did not, however, bring our son, which I suppose is a small mercy given my state. The doctors and nurses at that institution treated me quite well, and with their treatment and kind considerations I am glad to say I made progress. But I have incurred some wounds that I believe shall never truly heal. In an interview with my primary doctor, I described my state as being one in which my mind and soul were shattered in many pieces, and though my recovery managed to meticulously pieced together again, it shall never again come together in its original shape. But, God willing, I will find the strength to push ever on, and make peace with my new self.
Almost immediately upon my release, I was recalled to the Denver office of the Pinkerton Agency for a thorough debriefing of the events of those fateful weeks in 1889. And I did give them thorough report, though the exact truths of what happened remained mine, and mine alone. I did indeed get their man, this Deacon Chogan fellow. But, as things turned out, I could not conclusively prove to them that I had. But my sincerity swayed them, and they could not deny the evident truths of my predicament, that I returned with a broken body and mind, a living testament to some horrific ordeal that they could scarcely fathom had I not corroborated it with my own words. Of the five men that departed Las Vegas, New Mexico that August seven years ago, only I remained, and only I can say what exactly became of most of them. The mystery of what happened to Quinn remains a mystery, but I am confident that he shall never be seen again. After that, I imposed that vow of silence upon myself, which I have maintained for five whole years until now. The act of conveying my tale to the Pinkertons so soon after my release was quite painful and trying. I have since left the agency, and I have moved back home to Ohio and found employment with my brother-in-law, Frederick, at his grocery store. I received the five thousand dollar reward I was promised, and despite my urging to offer the same reward to the next of kin of my compatriots, I cannot say if they ever received it. I reread my journal, which I had fortunately saved, making some private annotations about certain statements I made. My God, I can hardly believe just how fragile my mind was in the latter days of that time. But even then, I can distinctly remember how little truth I expressed about myself, like my feeble quotes about finding sobriety on the trail; I drank like fish that whole time, and had no business making a similar expectation of my comrades. Nor did I ever express that I indeed was struck by a dread, a mercurial fear, throughout the early days of that expedition, just as my fellows were. In these self criticisms I have found a reserve of strength to recount the latter half of my tale, and no matter what fears and reservations may come flooding back, I am committed to putting my memories to the page.
My last journal entry puts the three of us in what I called the Forest of Skins, which is precisely as it sounds and as I described those years ago. I knew that we were quite close to our intended goal, and I felt an insatiable desire to confront our man, and to see for my own eyes the men we had pursued through thick and thin these many weeks. When night fell in that ghastly forest, we were set upon by our enemies. For all this time, we had only ever heard rumors or seen faint traces of their passing, and it was only then that we laid eyes upon men who were formerly distant nightmares in our imaginations. They were more horrible than anything I expected. They were dressed entirely animal skins, from head to toe, strangely stitched together so nothing of human visage could be identified, not even a patch of skin. Those horrible, faceless demons, with bones and sticks in their hoods to resemble antlers or horns, descended upon us in near darkness and complete silence. They said not a word, no warnings or threats, as they appeared from all directions, hunched over like stalking animals, carrying primitive weapons, but in those numbers, we could not hope ward them off with our guns before they reached us. With knives, spears and clubs fashioned from wood and animal bones, they charged in with murderous intent. We had drawn our pistols and rifles, and with that horrible fear and icy feeling in our veins, we did not hesitate to pull those triggers. Yet, it did nothing. I know for a fact that our bullets struck home, yet our assailants did not drop, nor did they even react to being shot. With their speed, we had only seconds of fire before they came upon on us, and with great violence, they pummeled us without mercy, raining down blows on our hapless heads with their clubs and the blunt end of their spears. For many agonizing minutes that seemed as hours, we beaten without a sound from any of our foes, struck constantly without any regard for where their blows landed. In those moments, I felt the sting of failure, feeling that we come to our deaths and that our enemy would be victorious. Somewhere in those moments, I lost myself, thinking vaguely that I had just died, and that I was in those strange moments just before meeting my Maker.
But it was not the end. In spite that vicious beating, I and my comrades had only been rendered unconscious, badly injured, but still alive. As I awoke, I was strung up by my hands and feet in a strange position, in considerable pain from the beating and from the strain on my wrists and ankles. I was suspended face down a short ways above the ground by three ropes between a group of trees. My arms were pulled full span, and my ankles tied together and pulled painfully tight to a tree behind me. I was positioned almost like a man on a cross, though held up only by ropes, suspended like a marionette some four feet above the ground. It was still night, though this part of the forest was quite well lit, with many torches staked into the ground, and when I gathered the energy, I could look up to a degree. I saw, through a haze of blood in my eyes, that others were about, dressed in a manner similar to our assailants, regarding me in complete silence. I said nothing, but as I looked about I could not see my comrades anywhere.
I was held in this state, drifting in and out of consciousness, for a time whose length I cannot determine. It was twilight when I was finally cut down from my painful situation, and though I was not restrained, I had no energy to resist with more than feeble struggles. I was simply dragged through the forest by my arms and then roughly thrown down into the dirt, where I lay for some time before being grabbed again. I was raised to my knees, and it was only then that I realized that my captors had completely stripped off my clothes, except for some torn rags around my nether regions, and I was that I was in front of a roaring fire, facing a man completely cast in shadow by the bright flames. He was completely bald with no trace of beard, but had numerous patterns painted upon his scalp and face. He regarded me with cold, empty eyes that showed nothing but contempt for pitiful man before him. I could only stare blankly at his face, saying nothing. With a start, he brisk signaled the men restraining me to bring me to another spot. It was there that I saw what had become of my comrades.
William, the Indian tracker, was among them. Despite his best efforts to flee our desperate predicament, he had not evaded capture. Having come as far as he did, perhaps he was fated to be among us at the end of journey. His state was horrific beyond words, but I shall do my best. He was restrained to an X-shaped crucifix elevated above the ground, fully illuminated by the fire light. His head, like the others, was completely shaved of its long, flowing black hair, with numerous fresh lacerations made into the side of his skull, some of which still trickled blood. His eyes were wide open, with a haunted look and a trembling jaw that showed a man utterly broken. Across the front of his torso were even larger cuts and lacerations, some of which were stitched closed, with two main slashes in the shape of an X running from shoulder to hip. And his limbs… Good God, his limbs! They had been almost completely flayed, and in their place were a patchwork of animal skins sewn into his flesh. They held my face up to regard this horrific sight for several minutes, tugging on the skin of my forehead to keep my eyes open. They then lowered the cross with a violent drop, and William let out a brief, blood-curdling shriek that was utterly ignored by our captors. Still on the cross, he was dragged away into the dark forest out of my sight to God knows where.
By this point, the bravado with which I had pursued these men was completely gone. As they dragged William away, I went into a pitiful wail and felt my nerves utterly collapse. As I still wailed, the men once again dragged me off to another spot, a crude enclosure make of sticks, where I again came face-to-face with man from before. There was an alter in the center, and on it I recognized my friend Hannigan, who lay completely senseless and weak. He was still alive I saw, and over him stood that painted man, who glared at me balefully in the dim light. I saw then in the corner was Sharpe, in a state of shock not dissimilar to mine, and two men were at work trimming the hair from his head, shearing it off with a knife and then dry-scraping the scalp of any stubble, not caring if the blade sliced the skin. They forced my attention back at Hannigan, who lay completely incontinent and at this man’s mercy. He raised Hannigan’s head from the altar, and drawing out a long, thin instrument, he began to vigorously thrust it into Hannigan’s bare scalp. The poor devil began to come around as that horrible tool began to root around under his skin, and was soon making gasping cries of agony through his sluggish state. I know now the reason for the hideous markings about the scalps of the other victims. That horrible blade was pushed ever deeper into Hannigan’s head, and I was sure that it must have punctured his skull, and all the while his cries became screams, but he could do nothing, as this evil surgeon used his considerable strength to restrain the poor man.
In an instant, the screams stopped, and Hannigan’s head lolled over for me to look into his face. That look of abject horror remained, but his eyes were now black, darting back and forth without comprehension, and I could see that this horrible surgeon’s blade had gone completely through his head, just behind the temples. Then the blade was violently pulled out, and then the surgeon turned his attention to driving the blade into his victim’s chest, ripping a deep gouge that resembled those I had seen on William. I was rendered utterly speechless by this spectacle, but I could not look away. This dark figure splayed open Hannigan’s torso began rooting around without object, as if out of curiosity, occasionally plunging his tool into some unseen viscera. Hannigan was still alive, but could only make faint struggles against this horrific torture, and no sound would emanate from his mouth. But those eyes of his, those blank eyes, would still come alive for brief instants, and I would feel faint, but I could not lose myself.
Some time later, Hannigan was dragged off that altar, and Sharpe, whose preparations were apparently complete, was put in his place. But Sharpe, still is possession of his faculties, struggled with great force, crying and shouting at the top of his lungs, when the Surgeon grabbed the sides of his head and began to push his thumbs into Sharpe’s eyes. The cries became shrieks, and the pain had hobbled Sharpe long enough the Surgeon’s assistant could strike a vicious blow against the sides of Sharpe’s head, which stunned him. It was then that the Surgeon retrieved a horrible object, a mummified human head with no eyes that had been fashioned into some sort of chalice, with the liquid draining from its open mouth. They forced Sharpe’s mouth open and poured down his throat some hideous concoction that resembled dark blood, but which gave a sharp, acrid chemical odor similar to carbolic acid. Within moments, Sharpe was rendered as senseless as poor Hannigan before him, and this ghastly Surgeon repeated his horrific mutilations on Sharpe, but with great violence and force than with Hannigan. As before, Sharpe still showed some vestige of life behind his eyes, but that grievous wound to his brain had permanently stifled his struggles.
When the Surgeon completed his work, he came around the altar to look me close in the eyes, his hands almost completely slathered with fresh blood. Then he gave a cold, baleful smile, sneering in my face, even chuckled. The he quietly said, “Later on,” and briskly got to his feet and walked out. It was then that a tight, smothering rag was pulled over my head, starving me of breath, and as I was sure I would suffocate, I was struck over the head and left in blackness. I came back to my senses seconds later, and saw that I was being dragged away yet again to new place. I was quite afraid that I would again be strung up by those ropes, but I instead was dragged in front of a hole in the ground, looking into a small, covered dugout, into which I was pushed and left alone.
I was in utter shock as lay on that frigid sod floor of that dugout, unable to comprehend the meaning of what I had just witnessed. Those horrendous, meaningless mutilations, the apparent death of my comrades, the knowledge that I was likely next for such treatment, all of it imposed on my fragile mind and left me in complete despair. I remained like this for days, held in this filthy dugout that was so small that I could not stand up, and was forced to lie in my own wasted. One night I awoke to find myself being brusquely ripped out of the dugout and again dragged off and forced to face the Surgeon. I was convinced that my time on the altar had come, and knowing that the grotesque mutilations of the brain would not kill me but leave me to suffer, I was deathly afraid. Instead, I was brought again before this Surgeon, and to my utter horror, I saw that he was flanked on both sides by Hannigan and Sharpe. They stood their feet, though unsteadily, and swayed mildly while their blank eyes regarded me. They still had those terrible lacerations on their chests, with bits and pieces of animal hide stitched into their shoulders and arms, and the Surgeon leaned down to scrutinize me with that familiar dead glare. But to my further surprise, he ushered my guards back and leaned forward to whisper in my ear. I cannot remember his precise words, but I distinctly recall his cold, soft voice, and I recall what sort of things he told me. He said that humanity would not inherit the Earth, and that the world did not belong to the first men, or to men like us, nor would it belong to anybody that comes after. Instead, he said that the next men who rule the Earth would not be born, but made, fabricated out of the pieces of the old world. He claimed that he and his men were the parents of a New Order, that I and my comrades and countless others who suffered that horrible fate would be the children, and those we bore after us would inherit the Earth.
I could not fully understand what he meant, and for all I knew, it was the simply the ramblings of an insane man. But what he said next came with perfect clarity. In a soft, taunting voice he said, “You’ve found me”, and I realized then just who this diabolical “Surgeon” was. It was the man I sought, this Deacon Chogan and all his other aliases. I studied his face in the better light, trying to make out his features. At first glance, he did indeed seem to be white man, but on further examination he seemed to defy any firm classification of race. His skin was a very pale brown in the torch light, but his painted face made it difficult to define any exact features. He was not at all what I imagined, not the wizened sorcerer or hideous monster that I had pictured. With another brisk signal, his guards brought me to my feet and dragged in the direction of the altar. Having seen what became of Sharpe and Hannigan, I began to panic, despite my defeated state. But I was taken by complete surprise when I felt long, sharp object slide into my hands. I looked behind in confusion, and saw that Sharpe was following close behind us, and I could swear then that I saw a faint glimmer of human life in his eyes, and small nod touched his features. My panic turned to confusion, then determination; had I been granted a slim chance of escape? Had Sharpe, in his diminished state, had a brief resurgence of humanity and recognition? That feeling of hot-blooded determination that I felt in the days before our arrival returned to me. I had a chance again.
I was placed on my back upon the altar, presumably destined for same fate as Sharpe, William, and Hannigan. Chogan leaned over again, glaring into my face as he had done all of these times, and he gave evil grin as waved that horrible surgical instrument in front my eyes. His men restrained my arms, and once again he bore that head-chalice with foul elixir within. My force was forced open and the substance poured into my mouth. It was foul tasting beyond belief, as if some caustic chemical had been poured down my throat, mixed with blood. I saw what this foul stuff had done to Sharpe before, and so I thought I could fake swallowing it, but it was so foul that I spit it out into Chogan’s face. This absolutely enraged him, and for a man of his appearance, his rage very nearly drove me to panic again. Then he gave that distinct, evil smile, apparently intending to continue the procedure, even without this elixir to paralyze me. As I looked around, I saw Sharpe and Hannigan standing by my side, as if to guard me, but they were both glaring at Chogan, some of that spark of life having returned to their eyes. As Chogan raised his instrument to strike at my head, they acted.
With an enraged, animalistic cry, Sharpe and Hannigan struck at the two other men guarding the altar. They drew concealed knives, and with tremendous fury plunged them into the faces of their targets, drawing screams and dropping them where they stood. Chogan was briefly frozen with astonishment, and I seized my moment. I had hidden that long knife under the small of my back, and in one motion I drew it and regarded Chogan. For a moment, time slowed and saw his attention shift to me, with confusion and fury clouding his eyes, and after a brief hesitation I swiped that knife with all my strength. The slice caught him across his throat, completely ripping open the front of his neck, and a warm jet of blood pelted my face. He stumbled back, not understanding at first, and his eyes became incredulous at his state. He teetered back and, with his eyes still fixed on me, collapsed flat on his back, and lay still. As I saw this, I returned to my senses and realized I had been bellowing a loud and vicious war cry as struck him down.
I turned to turn and saw that Sharpe and Hannigan had already charged out into the camp, weapons in hand, striking with unbelievably speed and fury at other men who came to challenge them. They suffered numerous blows in return, being slashed and skewered, but they did not slow, hacking away at their foes with boundless fury. I turned to my heels and fled into the forest, heading whichever way I thought was north. But as I ran, I turned back to see my comrades, still fighting, surrounded by slain foes, and they began to succumb to their wounds, their bodies hideously torn, but not deterring them. With an energy that I never knew I possessed, I ran, sprinting with all my might in the direction from which we came. I must have been running for hours when I was finally drained of energy, and I was well clear of the forest, and could see no pursuers. It was early evening by now, but even in my exhausted state, I stayed on my feet, keeping a brisk trot to the north. The delayed sense of relief at being out of there finally came to me, and even in my dismal state, I exulted. Sharpe and Hannigan were surely dead, overwhelmed and mortally wounded as they were when I last saw them, but their fury and courage had given me my opportunity for escape.
It is here that my recollections fade. I only remember walking endlessly, with vague sense of time that seemed like the passage of days. I did not sleep, and rarely stopped to rest. It was in this state that I stumbled into the village of Agua Prieta, and rest of my tale I have already told. By now, it has taken me three days, and numerous stops, for me to completely write down my memories of the events of those horrible days. Now that it is out, I can already feel a certain relief coming on, even though I am quite drained emotionally. My recovery from this chapter of my life may never be quite complete. I do not expect the pain that still reoccurs to ever cease. I still bear the marks of the ordeal on body as well as my mind, with scars and marks from the beatings on my legs and back, and a strange symbol carved into flesh between my shoulder blades. I have never laid eyes on it myself, but I can feel the raised scar tissue and get a sense of the pattern it makes. My doctors in the institution have been quite skeptical of my story, or what little of it I told them, and even the scar on my back never convinced them, believing that did that myself in my fugue state.
I have come to some realizations over the past few years, about life, about human history, about our general place in the universe. When my ancestors came across the ocean to the Americas, they called it the New World, but this could hardly have been a more inappropriate title. The land beneath our feet is ancient, ancient beyond reckoning, and over the centuries it has swallowed whole countless generations of men. War, famine, disease, and the slow march of time drench this land in blood, and in process, changed the shape of men and beasts that roam it. I still ruminate on what Chogan told me in those fateful moments, about how mankind will not inherit the Earth, and I wonder if perhaps he was correct. Trains, telegraphs, and steamships have made the Earth somewhat smaller, brought distant corners closer together, but even the most remote and dark places on this planet, even a place like the Forest of Skins, are not truly different from any other spot on Earth. Every inch of it has feasted upon the flesh of all the poor beasts in Creation. I cannot escape it anywhere. In time I think I will travel elsewhere, perhaps South America, and find a corner of my own to fertilize one day. We follow blood trails all our lives, and on mine, if look hard enough, I think can even see the end of it, and the end of Joseph A. Sheridan.
🔔 More stories from author: Ian Smith
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