Thomas crept out of the tent that had been his home for the past two months and took a deep breath, allowing the December air, redolent with the stench of human filth and the close proximity of animals, to burn its way into his chest. Just past the men warming their hands over a fire, a bulky figure, swaddled in rags, emptied a brass chamber pot into a ditch. Avoiding the suspicious gaze of the men as he passed, Thomas hobbled over the frozen ground, trying to ignore the cold nipping at him through the holes in his shoes.

“Shouldn’t you be disposing of that in the woods?” Thomas asked, nodding toward the ditch.

“And chance running into Washington’s Rebels?” said a voice from beneath the rags. “I think I can endure the discomfort accompanying an unpleasant odor if it means I keep the blood in my breast.”

“Washington has been vanquished,” Thomas said. “He is cowering in the hills beyond the river, his men having abandoned him for their fields.”

“I’ll not feel free to venture out until I know Washington has danced on the end of His Majesty’s rope. Look about you. Even defeated, they contrived to burn more than half of New York.”

“I don’t think it is the Rebels you fear, doctor. I suspect you fear the same scourge that holds our liberators to this place, allowing Washington to nurse his wounds without fear of capture.”

“You’re speaking nonsense,” replied the doctor, pulling his scarf away from his face to shove a clay pipe between his cracked lips.

“I’m speaking of the Beast,” Thomas said, handing the doctor a leather pouch filled with tobacco. The doctor examined it, nodded, and retreated into his tent, returning a moment later with a tin wrapped in brown paper.

“This is all the salve I have left,” he said, handing the tin to Thomas. “How is the boy today?”

“He suffers,” Thomas said. “If he’s to live, we must quit these foul environs.”

“And go where? These tents provide scant relief from the cold, but they provide at least a slight respite from nature’s wrath. Even if you didn’t freeze to death, you’d be at the mercy of a plethora of other horrors indigenous to this benighted land.”

“Defeated Rebels, no better off than I shall be out in the wilderness? I have no worries.”

“You know of what I speak,” the doctor said, grabbing Thomas’ arm. “You were right when you spoke of my fear of the Beast. They say it stares into a fully grown man’s eyes while standing on its four limbs, and that it devours flesh and clothing alike, leaving behind no relic of its prey. Those who meet it vanish, leaving no corpse for loved ones to pray over.”

“I’ve but to cross the river and I shall be at the cabin owned by my sister’s husband. If I can avoid being mistaken for a Rebel spy, I could bring back a cart in which to transport the boy.”

“Provided I care for him until your return,” said the doctor, filling the bowl of his pipe. “That would leave me in the unenviable situation of having a charge I cannot presently afford if you do not return.”

“I doubt that my son will burden you for long in this place. I’ve stated my belief he will not survive here.”

“You have, but I do not agree with your assessment. The trip will be too dangerous.”

“I have to chance it. I will, of course, be leaving behind my store of tobacco for your use, as well as what little else the fire spared.”

“When do you plan to implement this foolhardy scheme?”

“Tonight, while the river is still frozen. I doubt I shall encounter many sentries—or Rebels on Christmas night. Your Beast may even postpone his hunt in reverence of the holiday.”

“Rebels and beasts have no reverence for that which is just or holy,” the doctor said. “Trust that your son will be well cared for, and hold your faith close so you may tender your thanks upon your return.”


Thomas set out with his shoes wrapped in rags and his tricorn hat secured by a scarf tied under his chin. A second scarf covered his face, leaving only his eyes exposed. A branch from an oak tree served as his staff. He had ventured but a short way into the woods, the wind already rankling his eyes with sleet, when he saw a light in the distance. He knew it would be imprudent to alter his course away from the path leading to where the river was at its narrowest, so he continued on toward the light, hoping the lantern was unattended, or whoever bore it would move on before he reached them. As long as the lantern was lit, he would at least have the advantage of knowing their location.

The light did not travel. It grew brighter as he approached until he could see the figure of a man, the lantern casting his shadow across the icy surface of the Hudson. The man was not a soldier; of that much he could be certain. Old and stooped, he sat on a tree stump, the lantern suspended from a branch over his head. Although the stranger had neglected to build a fire, he showed no sign of distress from the wind that whipped his long cloak back from his shoulders, causing it to resemble the wings of a gigantic black bird. As he raised his arm to push his hood back from his face, the light from the lantern glinted off the shackle around a brown wrist.

No doubt this man was a slave, escaped from his master, Thomas thought. Unless armed, he would pose no threat. Secreting himself behind a tree, Thomas called out: “I mean you no harm, friend. Show me your hands so that I may approach.”

“Who’s foolish enough to be out on a night such as this?” the man responded, doing as Thomas asked.

“Just a fellow traveler,” Thomas said, stepping out from behind the tree. “I have no interest in your affairs. My only goal is to cross the river.”

“You’ll find the stretch behind me offers the best odds of achieving your goal,” the man said, slowly lowering his hands. “The ice is thick here.”

“Have you chanced it yourself?”

“Me?” the man said with a chuckle. “It was spring when I came to this spot, and I’ve been sit’n here ever since, guard’n the spot where they laid my bones.”

“I meant what I said. I mean you no ill will. There is no need to attempt to frighten me with such fabrications.”

“I doubt any words I could mouth would deter you from your quest. One who’d venture out alone in these woods on a night such as this is made of sterner stuff. Be you a Rebel?”

“I am a loyal subject of His Majesty, the King.”

“Then you have no part of the madness being unleashed upon this land. God bless you, but you’ll be consumed by it nonetheless. Men seek to unleash the chaos of freedom, but they think they can let out just enough to suit themselves. They don’t know that once they let a link outta the chain, it still won’t be long enough. It’ll never be long enough. They’ll spend generations try’n to contain it, and in the end they’ll fail, just like your red coats will fail to contain them.”

“Then so be it. I shall return to England with my son if the Lord so wills it.”

“Go then, and take my lantern. There are none about to see its glow.”

Thomas hesitated, and then slipped the lantern off the branch.

“You have my gratitude, but I wouldn’t wish to deprive you of it. Are you certain you are willing to give it up?”

“I have no need to see in this world,” the man said, pulling the hood down over his eyes.

Thomas left the man and ventured out onto the river, testing the ice before him with his staff while holding the lantern above his head with his other hand. He had only taken a few paces when a sound like a low, mournful moan caused him to direct his attention to the shore he’d just abandoned. The man was nowhere in sight.

His lantern revealing nothing but white sleet swirling in an unfathomable chasm of impenetrable darkness, he turned back to the distant shore and tapped his staff lightly on the ice before him. His intent was to tread lightly, but the numbness in his feet caused him to doubt his ability to gauge the weight put upon them. With each step threatening to obliterate his bridge to safety, condemning his son to a burial attended by strangers and an unmarked grave, Thomas moved slowly, prayers wafting to the void above on clouds exhaled from between trembling lips. Pausing once to shift the lantern to his other hand, he looked back and, finding only darkness, resolved not look back again. Cut off from the world of men, he cast his gaze downward and tried to envision his mother, telling tales of the last frost fair when she and his father had skated on the Thames. He imagined himself and his sweet, lost Hannah, twirling about on the ice. He pictured her laughing as he spun her, but when he grabbed her free arm and pulled her to him, she went limp and the face that stared up at him was pale and slack. He was back on the ship, cradling her lifeless body in his arms. They were going to throw her over the side! He couldn’t let them do that!

A rough hand fell upon his shoulder and turned him toward the boy in the corner of the cabin, gazing at him with tear-filled, fearful eyes. He knew then he had to let them take her. He was not at liberty to succumb to the madness of grief, just as he was not at liberty to succumb to his fear now. He had to get across the river.

He plodded on, the echo of his staff against the ice answering the howl of the wind. Or was it the wind? He looked up from the ice and discovered his destination was perhaps half a furlong away. It should have been cause for jubilation were it not for the two glowing red embers flickering between the shadows of the trees. Thomas raised his lantern higher and squinted through the veil of sleet. What was it? He rubbed his eyes and looking again, discerned a large black figure perched on the bank. As he watched, it lifted its head and bayed at an invisible moon. Startled, Thomas dropped the lantern.

As Thomas reached for the lantern, he felt water seep through the rags and into the holes in his shoes, and stepped back as dark lines snaked across the ice. The ice growled at him as it split, opening a fissure between him and the lantern. Using his staff, he caught the lantern under the handle and hoisted it up as the fissure widened beneath it, leaving a gap too wide for him to leap over. There was no turning back now.

The flame in the lantern sputtered as he secured the latch, but did not go out. He held it high, regarding the shape on the distant bank. Hounds were sometimes known to howl, and perhaps he had imagined the red eyes, or it had been some illusion caused by the glare from his lantern reflected off the ice. He certainly didn’t see them now. Whatever it was, he had no choice but to face it. He resumed his trek, though abstaining from tapping his staff on the ice.

He was close, only about 20 yards off, when the red eyes reappeared as the thing raised its head. It was a gigantic black wolf, its paws resting on what remained of a man—a soldier. Thomas moved to extinguish his light, but it was too late. The beast snarled as it rose up off its haunches, the sleeve of a red coat dangling from its maw. As large as a bear, its shoulders scraped the low-hanging branches as it stepped over its prey and onto the ice.

There was nowhere to run. Thomas could only watch and hope the ice failed to bear its weight as it advanced upon him. It paused a few feet before him, tensing up, ready to spring. Thomas closed his eyes and held out the staff to block the fangs from his throat, only to hear the staff snap as he felt the hot breath on his face before being forced down through the ice.


“Yes, I knew him,” said the doctor, standing over the frozen corpse they’d pulled out of the river that morning.

“You say he was trying to walk across the river?” said the soldier gazing out at the waters flowing unencumbered. “Was he mad?”

“Quite mad,” replied the doctor. “The poor wretch lost his wife on the journey over from England, and his son perished in the fire set by the traitors. It was too much for him to bear. He developed the delusion his son, though gravely ill, yet lived. I tried to dissuade him when he determined to go on a quest to seek assistance for the child and hoped I had been successful. Sadly, he was beyond reason.”

“You’re certain it wasn’t an act? I’ve been told Washington’s spies are not above such subterfuge. Could he have been enlisted in the traitors’ cause?”

“I’m quite certain,” said the doctor, filling his pipe. “As for the Rebels’ cause, he was too mired in fantasy for understanding. I doubt if, towards the end, he was even aware there was such a beast.”