The Spotted Beast: Chapter 3, A Rude Awakening

Michael H. Varhola

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Wer bist du?  Was machst du hier?”  Bist du krank?”

            I opened my eyes to be assaulted by the sight of bearded man in a dark, broad-brimmed hat bending over me.  The man was down on one knee and staring intently at me. His right hand was grasping the bunched fabric of my smock near the neck, and his left rested on the haft of an axe, which balanced him as he leaned over me.  There was an annoyed edge to his voice and the look on his face displayed more irritation than concern. The stench of his breath was beyond description as it washed over me from behind blackened teeth and receded gums.

            I was flat on my back. Looking passed the man, I could see tall fir trees rising into a clear blue sky. The clean fresh smell of the trees mixed with the odor of halitosis, sweat, and alcohol emanating from the man.

            “Huh?” was all I could think to say. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the man.  Even my rudimentary knowledge of the German language was sufficient to understand the gist of the man’s questions. The problem was I didn’t know the answers. What was I doing here?  Where were the tubes? In fact, where was the hospital?

            Now the German, plainly irritated, began shaking me vigorously, and his voice grew louder.

            “Hey, Hermann, cool it!” I yelled. I could feel my own blood rising.

            “Was? Was?”  The man was working himself into an even greater rage and began shaking me even more violently.

            My head was bobbing like a rag doll’s, and something sharp was digging into my back between my shoulder blades.

            “You fucking nuts?” I shouted, and I grabbed for his eyes. He instinctively released my smock in a reflexive protective response. But I had no interest in his eyes. As soon as his arms were clear, I slammed the palm of my hand squarely into his sternum as the Army had trained me to do.

            I could hear the whoof as the man’s as the breath was expelled from his lungs. The German’s eyes popped wide as his countenance froze into a permanent expression of surprise as his heart stopped beating. Then he slowly collapsed forward onto me.

            “Oh, fuck! Oh, fuck! Now I’ve done it,” I breathed as I pushed the man off of me and with an agility that surprised me, leapt to my feet.

            But I had no time to digest this or ponder what I had done. The dead man had an accomplice, who like me seemed to be taken aback by the sudden turn of events – but not for long. “Hantschi,” he cried as he drew an evil looking dagger from a sheath at his hip. He advanced toward me, not recklessly, as he might have done before I had killed his accomplice, but with a cautious resolve.

            His face was filled with hate and his knife raised to deliver what looked to me like a clumsy overhand blow, more appropriated for a saber than his longish dagger. Was he faking it, I wondered? Or was he truly not a knife fighter? I would soon find out.

            As his knife slashed down to cut my jugular, I checked the blow with crossed forearms, then pivoted so as to bring his arm across my knee, snapping it at the elbow. The man dropped the knife and fell to his knees, screaming from the pain. He was out of the fight, but my battle blood was boiling now. I stooped for the knife and jammed it into the soft spot under his chin, through his palate, and into his brain. He crumpled lifelessly onto the forest floor.

            He was not a knife fighter. He was just what he looked like: an unwashed brigand who preyed on the weak and defenseless.

And that was it. There were no others, and looking in every direction I could see nothing but unending forest. The distant call of a cuckoo bird drifted through the trees. Otherwise everything was still. I stood there for a few minutes breathing in the silence while the adrenalin ebbed from my body and my hands stopped shaking.

                        What had happened, I wondered. “Was this real or a continuation of my dreams?”

                        Where to start? With my legs? Last time I checked, I had no legs. Now I did, and they seemed to be in fine working order. Or with these two scruffy Krauts? With the forest? With the hospital? Like where was it? Had that been a dream too, but if so, why was I still dressed in a hospital smock, and why did I still have all those plastic bands on my wrist? Nothing seemed to make sense, and it would be days before I had my answers, and weeks more before I could accept them. Even today, so many decades later, the reality of what had transpired still awes me.

            I studied what lie crumpled at my feet. The two were of a piece, the one with the knife was a bit less portly than his comrade, but was otherwise roughly the same. They could have been brothers. Both appeared to be in their thirties, but their grimy sun-blackened features made it hard to tell, which is to say they could have been younger. They both looked to be a little shorter than my 5”8, and both had dirty black hair and crudely trimmed beards to match. The broken veins in their noses indicated a history of sun-exposure and alcohol abuse.

            It was the clothes that I found to the strangest. They were wearing what looked to me like costumes: loose smocks closed at the neck with a cord, broad leather belts, and knickers tied just above the knees. Below that were grey stockings and scuffed leather shoes which were each tied with a single leather thong. The smock was a coarse material, probably home-spun linen, undyed and filthy. The knickers looked to be of a dark-colored wool, also coarse and also the product of cottage industry. If anything, they were dirtier than the smocks.

            The enormity of what I had done was still sinking in. I knew I needed to report this to the authorities.  “It was an accident,” I would explain. The man had assaulted me, and before I could understand what was, my combat reflexes took control. It was post-traumatic stress syndrome. I’d need a lawyer for sure.

            I looked around. All I could see was forest in every direction. On one side, the land sloped down; on the other three, the ground was flat. I might have been on a bluff overlooking a river valley, but the trees prevented me from getting a sense of the terrain. It seemed to be about mid-day, and I was unable to get a sense of direction. But I did finally notice that I was on a path that ran parallel to the slope.

            Where is the hospital, I wondered? I needed to contact the American authorities first — before the Polizei got involved. There was no way of knowing in which direction I should go. The only thing that mattered was that I stuck to the path. All paths led somewhere – or away from somewhere. I shrugged and stepped off in the direction I happened to be facing. Whether that was north, south, east, or west, I had no idea.

            I only managed a couple steps before my right foot stepped on something sharp. It was the tip of a broken twig protruding from a fallen branch, and it hurt like hell.

            That was when it really hit me. I was, for most practical purposes, naked. I was only covered in white hospital smock, which was not even tied behind me. The flimsy cord must have broken during the struggle. My legs and feet were bare. I didn't even have any underwear.

            There was no way I could get past the gate guard looking like this. Moreover, the hospital was not just a single building, it was a well-guarded complex. In fact, now that I thought of it, even if I could get past the guard, I hadn't a clue which building my bed was in. So slipping back in undetected was not an option. I would just have to approach the gate directly and ask the guard to call the MPs. I had no doubt that he would agree to do that. After that, events would take care of themselves. At least I would have a lawyer. But my immediate problem was that I couldn’t go anywhere without some protection for my extremely tender feet, and I had no idea how long or far I would have to travel. I had no doubt that any local who spotted me walking in my hospital gown would call the authorities, and I would be in German custody. When the bodies were found, they would connect the dots.

            I had no choice, I decided. I had to have something to protect my feet, and something to cover my body other than smock. The dead Germans were my only option, as unsavory and ill-fitting as their clothes might be. 

            But then I noticed that they both had packs, which were leaning up against a tree, and they both had small pouches attached to their belts. Maybe there was something useful in them, I figured, maybe a clean change of clothes; and maybe, even, better yet, ordinary street clothes rather than the folk-fest garb these fellows were wearing. If I were really lucky, maybe even I’d find something to fit my somewhat taller but leaner frame.

            I dumped the contents of both packs onto the ground. There were clothes, both pants and jackets, as well as a couple shirts and a few pairs of long woolen stockings. To my surprise and relief, everything appeared to be reasonably clean and in good condition. Even to my unschooled eyes, the garments were of all of high quality and well-made. The cloth was finely woven; the stitching was meticulously done, but clearly not by a machine. The buttons appeared to be of silver or pewter. The shirts looked like they were made of silk. In the pouch, was a jumble of coins, mostly copper, but with a sprinkling of silver, and a heavy gold ring, items of no value to me at the moment. This was perplexing, at first. Why did they choose to wear their crude garments when they had these in their pack? Of course, once I thought about it, the answer was obvious. This was loot. It was not for wearing; it was for selling.

            Reenactor highwaymen? And filthy to boot. That was taking realism just a bit too far. And if this were a dream, then it was taking dreams a bit too far. I had no choice but accept this as my new reality, at least for now.

            I sorted through the clothes and was pleased to find a combination that fit me well enough, although all of it was reenactor garb. I donned knee britches of fine wool, dyed a dark blue, almost navy, to which I added knee-length stockings of a similar color. On my feet, I fitted a pair of well-made black shoes with silver buckles. A silk shirt, the color of old parchment, and a buff- colored vest almost completed the ensemble. I lacked a hat and a belt. I could find neither in the two packs, and there was no way I was going to put on the hat of the men I had killed.  I wouldn't be surprised if they were lice-infested. Their belts, however, was a different matter, and one came with a long thin dagger in a black leather scabbard. In the hilt of the dagger was a polished blood-red stone, possibly a garnet.

            I buckled on the belt and repacked the knapsacks and the pouches. Into the one pouch, I stuffed my hospital gown, along with the coins and the ring, and then slipped the strap of the pouch over my shoulder. I pulled the knife from the scabbard and examined the blade. It was of polished steel and well-honed, not at all like the oversized dagger of the second man who had attacked me. I returned it to its scabbard. It had a comforting feel to it.

            I would, of course, turn all these items over the authorities. The packs I would leave, here, but the pouch and dagger might not still be here when the police arrived. Valuables like this had a way of disappearing. German forests might appear deserted, but, ultimately, this was a crowded country, and Germans loved to walk in their forests. Someone surely would wander by.

            I looked around me, considering again the direction I should take. Now that I was clothed, I had more options -- but that decision was taken out of my hands. 

            From somewhere off in the direction I was facing came the sound of baying dogs. This was accompanied by the beat of horse's hooves, first faint, then louder, and accompanied by the occasional snapping of a fallen branch. The dogs' barking grew more rapid and demanding. They had the scent. I could tell. Should I try to run, I wondered. Outrun horses and dogs? Maybe I could, if the terrain were right. I was a good runner. Or should I just face it now, I thought? As much as I wanted to deny it, there was no way around it. One way or the other, I would have to deal with the German authorities once the bodies were discovered. My bizarre dress would see to that. Sure, I would rather do it in the company of an American lawyer, but I could still get a lawyer, even in jail. The Germans would eventually notify the Americans. The bands on my wrist were my identification, and I would have an opportunity to engage counsel. So, that decided, I picked up stick to fend off the dogs, and waited.

            Why horses, I wondered? They must figure that horses are the fastest mode of travel in a forest, when one is following dogs. Some things didn't change, even in modern times.

            As I peered through the trees in the direction of the barking, I could see the dogs coming through the widely spaced trees. Close behind was a rider, the white plume in his broad-brimmed hat was visible against the dimness of the forest. Other riders followed closely behind.

            I stood my ground, prepared to beat the dogs back, until a handler could pull them off. They were big, but probably not trained to attack. They were trackers. But to my surprise, they ignored me altogether. The dogs leaped and yapped around the dead German called Hantschi. I knew dogs, and I could knew what they were saying. "Here he is!  Here he is! Here he is! Here he is!" 

            I also knew that they would not let up until their master congratulated them on their success. Until then, their cacophony of victory would continue. 

            The riders approached at a trot, and one of them, a dark, bearded man in forties, dismounted and pulled some bits of dried meat from his pouch. The dogs danced around him as he led them some distance from the assembled horsemen.

            Then an older man, awkwardly astride a mule, dismounted and shuffled over to the dead German. He bent over the body a squinted.

            "Yah, tzat ist im.  Tzat iss tzer Hantschi," he said, in some language that was neither English nor German. “Tser anderer iss zine brutter. Er hite Karli.”

            I counted a dozen men on horseback, not including the old man and the keeper of the hounds. So far, none of them had paid any attention to him, the perpetrator. Which of the men was the leader was obvious. He was the one with the white plume waving from his hat. 

            "A right proper cavalier," I thought, borrowing the phrase I must have heard in an old movie. But he also had a boyish look about him -- like Chris O'Donnell in that Three Musketeer movie. I smiled at the recollection. I had loved that movie, and for a few months all he could think of was 17th century France, the scheming Richelieu, and, of course, the lovely Constance. I had fallen in love with Julie Delpy, just as had D'Artagnan.

            "You smile, sir?" I noted a hint of a brogue in his accent, a slight trilling of the "r's."  The cavalier dismounted and walked toward me. He clearly was not a policeman. If he had been, I would have been face down on the ground, my legs spread, and my wrists secured behind my back. He must be from the reenactment, or whatever it was that was going on. Yet he had an unmistaken air of authority, and, for want of a better word, gravitas.

            "I'm sorry," I replied. "It was self-defense."

            It took me a moment to realize that we were conversing in English.

            "You're not a German," I said. It was more a question than statement.

            "Lord no," he chuckled.  "I'm with Mackay's regiment."

            "Brit?" I asked, feeling the relief wash over me. There must still a few British units left in Germany, even though the Wall had been down for a few decades now. If this was a British soldier, maybe even a British officer, playing in this reenactment, he would surely be willing to get me to the American authorities."

            "You mean English? No, of course not. We're all Scots, and damn well proud of it."

            "Luetzen!" One of the mounted men shouted. The cavalier smiled, but, without turning, raised his right hand and wiggled his index finger. There was immediate silence.  I could see that the man clearly expected to be obeyed. They were certainly well disciplined for reenactors, I thought.

            I shifted my gaze to the men on horses. They were mostly young, in their twenties – and fit – but there were a couple who seemed to be approaching forty. Probably the NCOs, I figured.  They all looked lean and physically fit. They must all be active duty soldiers, probably all from the same British Army regiment up north in the British sector - Scots Guards, Highlanders, or whatever, and "damn proud of it!" I wondered if there were any American soldiers among the reenactors. Not these guys, probably. They were all Scots - or Brits pretending to be. 

            I nodded to the dead men at my feet. "It was an accident.  I didn't mean to . . ."

            "Aye, now. It is of no concern. You're not from around here either."

            "I'm an American.  Somehow I wound up here. I don't know how, or exactly where I'm at. Somewhere near Landstuhl, but . . .

            "Landstuhl's down there."  The Scot gestured vaguely behind him.  "But did you say Armorican? From Brittany? A fellow Gàidheal?" 

            Judging from the expression on the cavalier's face, I figured that must be a good thing. I nodded. Then the man added in a language that was totally incomprehensible me:

            "Na h-uile fear a theid a dbollaidh, gheibh a dolar bho Mhac Aoidh."

            Their Scottish language I guessed. But why? Was this part of the role-playing? Only later did I learn what it meant – and how to spell it.

            This guy was not going to step out of character, I could see that, even with a corpse lying on the ground in front of him. But still, he seemed friendly enough. I didn't know whether to laugh, or to . . .  to what?  Break the spell? 

            This isn't a game, I wanted to tell them. Those guys are really dead. I killed them, and the police will be after me sooner or later. But I didn't say that.

            "I need to get back to my unit,” I said, not wanting for some reason to say "hospital."

            "Of course. John Hepburn at your service." and the man bowed, an honest-to-goodness hat-held-to-the-chest, right-arm-sweeping-out-gracefully, bow. 

            "Jake Charloe." I nodded in response. I would enjoy this while I could.

            "Sergeant, take four men and escort the gentleman back to Nanstein. And take that scum with you. The rest of you follow me."

            And, with that he galloped off, the dogs racing ahead, leaving the sergeant to quickly hold back four men back before they were all gone.