A LONG WALK IN
THE HARD WINTER
The wind whistled and the snow crunched audibly beneath his feet as he walked. The world felt very empty and desolate, and it seemed to him, that it would be very easy to die out here. Alone and unnoticed.
It was one of those bright midwinter nights, when the moonlight reflected crystalline shimmers on the fresh snow.
He trudged along, cursing his friend Jerry.
His snowmobile was about half a mile behind him. Dead. He wasn’t a mechanic. He had no idea how to fix it. He’d have to go pick it up with some friends tomorrow, either get it going in daylight, or have it towed in.
The reason people go snowmobiling in pairs, he thought angrily, was so if one of you got in trouble, the other could stop to help you out.
You weren’t supposed to get so far apart that you didn’t notice.
He cursed Jerry again.
Still, town was only a few miles away. With luck, Jerry would notice that he was missing and come and pick him up.
He walked. The only sound was the steady crunch of his footsteps on the snowmobile path.
It wasn’t a bad winter’s night. Brutal cold spells in the early months had given way to a succession of heavy snowfalls. It made for great snowmobiling weather.
Hell on deer though. The cold spells had put pressure on them, and now the snowfalls made it almost impossible for them to move around on their dainty pointed hooves. Some farmers had even taken to leaving bales of hay out, to help them through the winter. You knew it was harsh for animals when farmers started feeding deer.
It made for easy hunting though. You could just drive right up to them. Easy hunting, but poor meat.
Not that there seemed to be any deer left. They were hard to find now, even for poachers.
It occurred to him, as he walked along, his breath hanging visible in the frigid air and the snow crunching under his feet, that he could die out here. It could happen. Just wander off the track for a few yards, he’d be lost. You could freeze to death before they found him. The next snow would cover the body, they might not find him until the spring melt.
He had no illusions about how easy it was to get lost in the woods, or how difficult it was to find someone.
He made sure he kept to the path. As long as he was on that, he’d be safe.
The snowmobile path through the woods followed the power transmission line clearance, dipping in and out of meadows and farmers’ fields. The power company workers kept trees and bushes from growing along the pathway of the line, making it, in winters, a perfect snow trail. It lead straight to town of course, that made it hard to get lost.
He wasn’t worried then, just inconvenienced. He cursed Jerry. It helped to pass the time.
Then he noticed the footprint, right beside the particular snowmobile track he was walking on.
He stopped and stared at it.
It was a roughly oblong footprint, with a clearly defined heel, ball and five toes. It was easily twice the length of his own boot. It had sunk at least three or four inches into the snow.
A weird thrill ran through him. Some kids in the seventies claimed to have seen one. Crazy Old McPherson claimed to find footprints around his farm from time to time. But then again, Crazy also claimed to see flying saucers.
Briefly, he considered other explanations. A couple of bear prints together? No, you could see from the way the toes gouged the top of the snow as the foot lifted that it wasn’t a bear. Besides, there were no claw marks.
A joke then? Some hoax? Could be. But the print looked very authentic.
He looked back the way he came. Now that he was looking for it, he could see a series of depressions in the snow, some in the snowmobile tracks, that lead to this print.
It was obviously going in his direction. He turned towards town again, searching.
Yes, there was its mate, a few feet ahead, a left foot print. Not nearly as good though, it was half on, half off a snowmobile track, and had slid, making an indistinct cavity.
Fascinated, he began to follow them, measuring their distance against his best stride. Easily, they were at least twice his.
The footprints generally followed, often laid over, snowmobile tracks. He supposed that meant they could have been made by jokers on a snowmobile. That would explain the length of the stride. But he didn’t think so. Some of the prints were deep; it would take a lot of weight to make them.
Abruptly, he realized that the prints had to be fresh. Some were on top of tracks, none, as far as he could see had been obliterated. They must have been made within the day, maybe even within hours.
He wondered if Jerry had seen them. But there was no place to indicate that a snowmobile had stopped. There were no boot prints around any of the tracks.
As he climbed a rise, a low hill, he realized that Jerry probably wouldn’t have spotted them. When you’re doing twenty or thirty klicks on a snowmobile at night, you aren’t looking for footprints. Especially not ones like these, right beside the trail…
He reached the top of the rise and stopped dead, staring down open mouthed.
It looked up at him, red eyes flashing, and growled.
For a few moments, he was conscious of nothing except his heart thudding inside his chest. His mouth had gone completely dry, and his chest contracted, he couldn’t seem to take a breath.
It was crouched in the center of the path, not two dozen feet below him. Eating. He was instantly aware of blood drenched snow, steaming pieces dripping moist, the wreck of a snowmobile a few feet away from it.
They don’t bother people, he told himself in astonishment.
Hard goddamned winter, the thought crept through his mind, as if in answer.
As he stared at the half human face, at the powerful, fur covered body, he was vaguely proud that he never even tried to identify it as a bear.
Turn around; just walk back the way you came, was his first coherent thought.
And then where? What next? That way led away from town. It was a good fifteen kilometers before the trail crossed the road and another five before he’d come to a farmhouse.
He’d freeze to death.
Unless it decided to come after him. He’d have to run.
If he ran, it would chase him. It was a natural instinct in all living things. Something runs from you, you chase it. It caught a snowmobile on a dead run, he thought suddenly. If it comes after me, I’m not going to get away.
He stood there, watching it. It stared back angrily. Abruptly it stood up; with quick hands it shoved torn bits of meat, pieces of Jerry, into its mouth until its cheeks bulged.
It barked angrily, spitting little pieces of red gore, black in the moonlight.
It’s afraid; he thought suddenly, his heart pounding at the thought. From up here, I’m taller than it is.
Animals attack out of fear as well as anger.
What do I do?
It was growling constantly now, staring at him menacingly. It had stood up, rearing to its full height. It shifted edgily from foot to foot, massive fists balling. He could see heavy muscles hunching in its shoulders.
If I retreat, it’ll follow. If I just stand here, it’ll eventually work its way up to attacking.
He took a step forward. It watched him, motionless, its eyes narrowing redly. He saw that they reflected light back, like a cat’s eyes.
After a long moment, he took another step.
It made a low rumbling noise, deep in its throat.
He took another step. Each footstep took a nightmarish effort of will. It was almost like walking through mud.
I can’t go back now, he thought desperately.
Again, the low rumbling in the creature’s throat. Its shoulders bobbed from side to side. Suddenly it clutched one of the large fragments of the corpse to it defensively.
It roared and charged.
Suddenly all he could hear was the pounding of its feet, it’s angry snarl. It was almost on top of him. He could see its face clearly; it’s red eyes, the inside of its mouth.
It stopped abruptly, backpedaling several feet.
He was drenched in sweat suddenly. He could feel it trickling down the small of his back. His intestines were wound so tight he knew he couldn’t vomit, no matter how much he wanted to.
What now? He thought.
An abortive charge. A lethal game of chicken, as it psyched itself up to a killing frenzy.
The creature backed off slowly, never taking its eyes off him. It growled constantly, punctuating it with an occasional angry bark, as it worked its way back to the remains.
It’s protecting its kill, he realized.
Go around the kill site, flounder off the hard packed snowmobile trails, into the deep snow. He’d poached deer that way, riding up to them as they struggled to take a step.
Abruptly he recalled that sharks attacked humans because their awkward swimming motions seemed like wounded seals.
Wounded, awkward animals were prey.
He visualized himself struggling awkwardly through the deep snow, lifting his legs high, flopping forward, as its long legs and flat feet carried it swiftly, lethally towards him.
He’d made a terrible mistake, he realized, his heart pounding.
It would defend its kill.
He could have gone back. He was suddenly certain of that. He could have stopped at the rise and turned around. Perhaps before it even saw him. He could have walked slowly away, and it would have stayed with the kill.
What about now?
It was too late, he thought suddenly. I’ve come too close, I can’t retreat.
I can’t go forward either.
What would happen if he just kept standing there? He visualized the beast, sitting and snarling as it wolfed down the corpse, spitting as it retreated. Or maybe it would work itself up to attack, enraged by his presence.
With mounting terror, it struck him that all options were equally bad, equally fatal.
Go back then, he decided. Back up slowly; never take your eyes off of it.
Through his mind, vivid images flashed of him backing up, taking a misstep, tripping. The monster on top of him, those slavering fangs about to dig into his face…
NO! With a physical effort he halted his imagination.
One step back.
He couldn’t move. He was aware that he was trembling slightly.
One step back. That was all, one little step.
The creature stood. Rapidly, it started gathering all the body parts to itself, holding them in its arms. All of a sudden, it was almost comical as, the more pieces it tried to hold, the more spilled from its arms. Finally, it got them all, holding a large segment in its mouth.
With long strides it stepped off the path, heading for the tree line, never taking its eyes off him. It stopped there and hunkered down, the body part spilling from its mouth as it growled warningly.
It’s giving the ground, he realized.
I can pass.
All he had to do was get past it, then it was just a couple of miles to town. Something very much like relief insinuated itself into his guts like a warm liquid serpent.
All he had to do was take a step.
After what seemed like an infinitely long time, he took one.
And then another.
With painfully slow paces he walked up to the place it had been.
It growled softly the whole time.
Their eyes were locked, but through peripheral vision, he could just make out the twisted wreckage of the snowmobile. Black stained half melted snow. Bits of gore.
He saw Jerry’s hand in the snow, palm up. It seemed so natural, like Jerry was playing a joke, buried just under, only his palm showing. Ready to give the finger. He tried not to pay attention to it.
As he passed the creature, he had to twist his head further and further to meet its angry red gaze, until finally, he could do it no longer.
He looked away from it, staring down the path between the trees.
He could hear it growling softly behind him.
But that was all it was doing. There was no sound of footsteps after him. No sound of a sudden lethal charge.
Keep going then.
Suddenly, the awful paralysis that had made it so difficult to move had vanished. His muscles leaped.
Don’t! He warned himself. Don’t run. If he ran, it would chase. If it chased, it would catch. If it caught, he would die. Die horribly.
Carefully, he measured his pace. Walking with careful meticulous steps, he left the monster behind him. Long after he could no longer here it growling, he imagined he could hear it devouring its kill. Devouring his friend.
Tears trickled down his cheeks.
Minutes passed before he found the courage to wipe them.
He walked, setting a careful measured pace. He never looked back. He didn’t dare.
He listened intently; his every footfall was like an echo. His senses seemed so taut, he thought he could hear the snow falling; hear the air moving through the trees.
Gradually, an overwhelming familiarity stole over the landmarks. Each tree, each stone and bush, each curve and rise in the trail felt like an old friend, he almost felt that he could have named each of them, if they’d had names.
There was nothing behind him.
All he had to do was turn around and look.
He didn’t. He couldn’t.
Finally, he topped a hill and looked down at the net of brilliant pinpoints of house lights and street lights of the town below. Warm relief surged through him like a wet current. He fell to his knees and wept, shaking as he finally allowed himself to experience the horror he’d rigidly denied.
Behind him, he heard the heavy dry crunch of a footstep.