Edwin took long, hurried strides. His boots stomped down on dried evergreen needles, quickly lifted, and slammed down again a yard (or more) away. His panicked breath drew in cold mountain air.
Like an elk running in a frightened trot, he struggled to move quickly and quietly. He wouldn’t dare to stop, even for a brief moment, to listen.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Edwin had been a rural mail delivery person for several months. He’d been working on a ranch outside of Dayton, Wyoming since high school, and though he didn’t hate it, he’d known there was more to life than raising cows, fixing fence, and cutting hay.
In four months at his new job of delivering the mail through the Big Horn Mountains, Edwin felt he discovered everything missing from his ranch life. He met 32 new people on the Mountain, about 4 times as many people who lived in his ranching community. He got to see beautiful countryside. He didn’t have a boss looking over his shoulder.
The government even paid him for using his horse, Cedar. Cedar’s food and vet costs were covered by the postal service, and Cedar got paid a day rate! His old ranch boss practically shit from jealousy when he heard that. “Your horse gets paid!?” he’d screamed.
The loneliness of the mountains didn’t bother him. There wasn’t one single young woman who lived in his ranching community, and there weren’t any on the mountain either, as far as he had known. There was Laity Podolski’s cabin, his last stop, where lived a beautiful woman. Too beautiful, in fact, to consider Edwin a viable match, he was certain of that.
Edwin thought of Laity more as an aunt, or a sister, out of self-protection. Whomever she was keeping her heart for was going to be a hell of a lot better guy than Edwin: looks, money, smarts. Laity had given him no sign of any romantic interest at all. Except for just fifteen minutes before, when he’d delivered her mail.
“You’d better skedaddle if you wanna make it back to Bear Lodge ‘fore dark,” Laity had whispered directly into Edwin’s ears on his way out.
“You’re right, sorry about that,” Edwin blubbered. He was stunned. Her lip may have actually touched his ear.
“I’m on foot all the way back to Bear Lodge.” Edwin continued. “Cedar went lame by Big Goose Creek, so I’m on foot most the way back, not a big deal, but sun goes down sooner this time of year, and I’m on foot most the way back, so…”
Before he could make a fool of himself any more, he grabbed his Stetson, opened the cabin door and stepped out onto her porch. He threw his USPS Rural Delivery saddle bag around his shoulder, put his hat on, and turned and started down the rutted pathway through heavy forest toward Bear Lodge.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Edwin was 15 minutes outside of Laity’s cabin when something caused him to jump in a startled fright. His heart was racing. What was that? It sounded like a metallic scream, and there was something big that must have crashed into brushes right behind him.
He spun to look behind, sure he would see some great animal, ready to pounce. A mountain lion could have made that terrible high-pitched shriek.
Nothing. There wasn’t anything behind him.
Did he imagine it? It sounded was like a pickup truck fell out of a tree, screaming the whole way. It was so close to him.
He stood perfectly still and stared intently at the forest where the noise came from, scanning for sounds or sight of a mountain lion, moose or an elk. Could be a bear, but it would have to be a huge one, maybe a grizzly. But there are no grizzlies in the Big Horns, right?
He frantically dug toward the bottom of the saddlebag he was carrying and removed a .45 revolver and pointed it towards to the forest with a shaking hand. He cocked the hammer revolving a bullet into place behind the pin.
Normally, not another person would be anywhere between Twin Buttes and Bear Lodge, but he called loudly anyway, “Hello!?!”
Nothing. Impossible, it couldn’t be nothing. It was a loud noise, and he felt it too, like a gust of wind and a tremor underfoot.
He started to move, now with some speed. “I’m not gonna run,” he reminded himself out loud. “Don’t want to seem like prey. If it’s a mountain lion, she’ll be drawn to any running.”
He tried to distract himself with thoughts of Laity. She had looked exceptionally beautiful today.
He had ridden the path from Laity’s to Bear Lodge almost everyday for months. There was a magical little birch forest that was along the way.
Cedar always liked to keep a quick trot through this stretch. Some horses don’t like the ghostly peeling of the white birch bark or the visual trickery of the white and black dotted tapestry of the birch forest, which can obfuscate view and even create visual illusions.
Edwin thought of his injured horse. “Poor Cedar,” he thought. He had let Cedar loose in a pasture on the other side of the birch forest, not wanting to put any more pressure on his leg.
His mind must’ve been in overdrive from the loud crashing sound he heard, because as he thought of Cedar he could actually hear the clop clop clop sounds of Cedar’s hooves. He even looked behind him to see if Cedar hadn’t followed him.
His mind wandered back to Laity, but the hoof sounds continued. Then grew louder and faster and seemed to be coming from directly behind him. It was close and getting closer.
If it wasn’t Cedar, what was that noise? It was more a furious stomping than the delicate sound of hoof falls.
He twirled on his heels and reached for his gun. He saw nothing. He couldn’t be sure. He couldn’t quite see all the way behind him because the path curved out of his sight, and the birch forest seemed to make big black eyes out of every dark corner. The stomping continued along with a new more terrifying sound.
Heavy, desperate breathing. This wasn’t the nostril heavy, snorting breath of a horse. This was a wheezy, panicked breathing of a man gasping for air.
“Hello?!” yelled Edwin. Silence. The stomping stopped. The breathing stopped. He spun around, whipping his gun in front of him. Silence.
He determined to keep moving, quicker now. He turned and took one step towards home. This exposed his back, but he didn’t care. He had to move.
What happened next transpired so quickly, that even Edwin wasn’t able to make immediate sense of it. His bottom teeth jumped up into his top teeth as the floor below him jumped like a tremor from an earthquake. A shriek was pulled from Edwin’s lips, as a crashing behind him so loud, powerful, and sudden turned everything off inside his brain except for instinctual responses.
He leapt far to his right and threw the saddlebag down and fired a shot into dark shadows of the birch forest. The recoil of the .45 nearly sent the pistol flying, and the loud boom sent hundreds of crows into the air, cawing angrily at the sudden intrusion.
Between the caws and the ringing in his ears from the gun, he couldn’t hear any other noises from the forest. “Hello!!!!” he demanded. “Hello!!” He gave all his focus to his vision as he desperately scanned where the crashing sound happened.
Nothing. His frantic scanning refocused on his own thoughts as he tried to replay what had just happened. The ground right behind him had shook so violently; it was as if a large tree had fallen directly behind him. It would have to be bigger than these birches and he didn’t see any recently fallen trees anywhere.
Had he really heard stomping? He knew he had heard the wheezing breath, but it was quick and much louder, and almost had a war cry sound. Was he imagining things, or was it sharply focused on the back of his neck? He felt it there.
“Probably a grizzly,” he shuddered. “Must be huge.”
It was now getting even darker and Edwin calculated he probably had 15 minutes of any light at all. It was a 45-minute hike to Bear Lodge. 20 minutes if he had Cedar.
He started walking towards where he last left his horse, moving quietly, but as fast as he could, desperately listening and looking behind him. He did his best to take inventory at this pace. His shaky hand held his .45. He opened the chamber. One bullet gone, five left.
His foot hit a stump and he tumbled to the ground. All the crows, still angry for their disturbance, now seemed to all caw together. He leapt back up and looked behind him as he now moved even faster. He looked down at his revolver. Four bullets remained. One must’ve fell out when he tripped. Retrieving his bullet meant walking right back into the claws of whatever was chasing him. It was an easy decision. Keep going.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Edwin now had to weigh the benefits of having Cedar’s speed and power, with the costs of injuring him even further. His leg had looked pretty sore when he left him on the other side of the birch forest.
Also, whatever was chasing Edwin could also get Cedar.
Edwin could cut the time it took to get to Cedar considerably if he went off trail and cut straight through the forest.
He looked up. Cloudy. “No stars or moon tonight to guide myself,” he thought while scanning for landmarks. “Getting lost is the last thing I need now.”
He grabbed a pointy rock at his feet, and scrambled a few steps into the forest to a birch tree. He put the pointy tip to the bark and scraped an arrow. As the rock scraped the wood, every tree around him echoed its scratch.
He walked further into the woods. He found another tree for his marking. This time, his scratching was met with an even louder echo from the neighboring trees. The trees were so tightly packed, and the black and white birch bark in this low light made it seem as if he were walking through a funhouse mirror attraction.
He knew he had to mark his path in case he got lost. Every few trees, he would scratch an arrow, and the surrounding trees would echo it back. Each time, the echo would be louder than the last.
He looked up. The top of trees still had some light left, but down where he was meandering through thick birch was as dark as dried blood. He stopped to scratch another arrow. This time his rock hit a wet spot on the tree and slid, avoiding cutting into the tree altogether. The trees around him still echoed, even though his tree hadn’t made a scratching sound.
He darted to the next tree and held the rock to it. This time he only pretended to scratch the bark. A loud scratch came from the trees around him, but seemed loudest from the tree directly behind him. His hand darted for the gun in the saddlebag at the same moment a huge thud slammed the ground directly behind him, shaking the floor of the forest. He pulled his gun and fired into what he thought was going to be the gut of some giant bear.
But there wasn’t anything in his sights, so he fired again this time to his left, and then once more to his right. He couldn’t see anything. He had to look up to the treetops just to assure himself he wasn’t blind. They were still lit, albeit just. And one treetop seemed to be shaking as if it were in a great wind.
He held the gun up to that shaking tree, hammer cocked and ready to fire, but the shaking stopped. Light was fading fast, and he only had one bullet left.
He walked back to the tree he had last marked and looked for his arrow. It was hard to see so he held his hand to the bark. He felt and could kind of see that most of the arrow, and the surrounding bark, had been shredded.
He ran back to another tree he had marked several meters back. The bark was also shredded. These were deep lacerations, the claws wide apart and clearly very sharp. “I didn’t even think there were grizzlies in the Big Horns, and now I know the biggest one that’s ever lived is near me!” Edwin shouted in a panicked euphoria.
He needed Cedar. He started to run towards his beloved horse. He would have to ride him, injured or not.
* * * * * * * * * * *
He hit the clearing where he had released Cedar running at a full panicked, clumsy, human gallop. He had heard stomping following him closer and closer until he got to the tree line that surrounded the pasture.
At least he could see a little better out here in the open. He could make out the jagged edges of Blacktooth Mountain on the horizon, and he could see the outlines of the stones and boulders in the field around him. He looked back towards the forest…they sat still. He scanned for Cedar. In the distance, one of the boulders seemed to move. Edwin strained his eyes. The boulder heaved slightly. It wasn’t a boulder. It was Cedar, laying down, visible only as an outline.
He ran towards his horse. It was obviously in distress if it was laying down. “Probably not going to be able to ride him,” he thought as he ran towards his horse.
As he got closer he could see the way Cedar was moving was very strange. Moving from the mid section, but not in an even motion from breathing, more like sudden jerking. There was also the occasional flickering of some fur near the stomach. As he got closer a grim realization hit him.
The fluff of fur he had seen was the tail of a fox. The movement he thought was Cedar breathing was actually the fox eating away. Cedar, Edwin’s beloved horse, was dead.
Edwin shouted in fury as he ran towards his friend. He would kill that fox with his bear hands. As he got closer, though, the fox ran off. He saw now that Cedar’s injuries were significant.
A fox couldn’t have done these injuries. Foxes can be slightly dangerous animals, especially when cornered, but when Edwin was close enough he saw. Cedar’s left leg had been sheared clean off and was missing. Not even a grizzly could have done that. His back had five deep ruts that ran from his ears down to his tail. They looked like the scratches on the tree.
Cedar’s body suddenly moved on it’s own and Edwin screamed again. Cedar’s head lifted slightly and collapsed back onto the grass. A weary and pained groan came from what remained of Cedar. He was still alive.
Edwin dropped his head. His best friend was in a lot pain. He knelt by the tortured animal and put his hand on his nose.
“I love you buddy,” said Edwin as he lifted his .45 into position. Tears pooled in his eyes, but he blinked them away. He wasn’t thinking of whatever beast had done this, the ranch, Laity, or anything really. The only real thought popped into his mind as he pulled the trigger was that of his old boss snorting in disbelief, “Your horse gets paid!?”
The report of the gun cracked off the surrounding forest. After a moment, Edwin started on a slow, meandering pace across the forest opening and towards Bear Lodge. He only thought now of his bed and his cozy room one floor above the post office. He just wanted to sleep.
A scream peeled out across the pasture as Edwin yelled out in agony. The surrounding trees echoed, and amplified the tortured scream. The scream from the trees was longer and louder than the original. Edwin noticed this and his thoughts again turned toward self-preservation.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Once he had gotten to Big Goose creek, he calculated he was only a mile away from Bear Lodge. It was now totally dark, and Edwin’s sense of hearing was on high alert. Every time an acorn dropped, Edwin was sure it was the creature, every distant howl an ominous warning. Big Goose Creek was loud and echoed off the rocks and the word ‘babbling’ seemed too tame to describe it. It was a garbled roar that almost sounded like angry laughter. He needed to follow the creek to get home, but it was so loud he couldn’t hear much else.
The creek’s constant barrage of noise made him angry. The loud, furious giggling of the stream seemed to taunt him at his most vulnerable, as if the forest was laughing loudly at his great misfortune. He wanted to kill the stream, kill that fox, kill anything in his path.
He reached for his gun. The moment his fingers touched it deep inside his saddlebag, he realized it was futile. He had fired his last bullet. Cedar was in pain, and he hadn’t even thought twice, but when he put his horse out of his misery, he also lost his only line of defense. He had a small pocketknife, but that wouldn’t even be effective in a battle with a squirrel.
The laughter of the creek grew louder and more menacing. It was pointed and loud, and he could feel it directly on his neck. Suddenly, a wall of ice-cold water knocked Edwin off his feet. In fact, it was a splash of hundreds of gallons of Big Goose creek heaved out of the stream by something landing in the river hard and fast. Almost as if a boulder had fallen from the sky and performed some perfect cannonball into the creek.
Edwin quickly got to his feet and grabbed his pocketknife. He looked around and saw nothing. Then he heard the trees shaking and looked up, and Edwin screamed again.
A creature perched there, silhouetted in the green pine and dark grey background. The limbs were too long and thin to belong to a bear, and it had a long thin tail as well. But its body was too big to be a mountain lion’s either. Edwin could see that it sat upright on the top of the tree digging into its bark with huge claws connected to grotesque, human-looking feet. The creature’s face was shrouded by shadow.
In one, silent leap, it shot straight up into the air, a thousand feet or more. Edwin startled and let out another shriek. He heard that same shriek moments later coming from directly above him. He felt it. His own shriek now blasted back to him, on his neck. The creature was falling and getting closer, dropping from the sky directly above him.
He leapt to his right, and the huge thud of the creature landing in the exact spot that he just stood only a split second before meant that he had just barely escaped.
Directly in front of him, huge, grey, human-looking feet gave way to tree trunk sized legs. The creature’s skin was moist, grey, and thin - almost bat like. It’s chest sunk in revealing a large potbelly with sparse tufts of white fur. It’s long arms ended in five branch-like claws that seemed to be more swords than fingers. Its neck was long and had what seemed to be a head made of wet, sharp, long teeth. It intently stared at Edwin.
The creature’s face opened revealing a mouth and more teeth that started to open and snap shut over and over again. It leaned towards Edwin. Its arms reached for him, and its sword-like fingers started to curl like a rattlesnake preparing to strike. Edwin, still clutching his tiny pocketknife, slammed the blade into the creature’s foot.
The whole mountain seemed to howl in pain, and the creature kicked Edwin’s hand away and leapt what seemed to be a mile into the air. Edwin jumped, leaving his saddlebag and he started to run towards Bear Lodge. It was a half-mile away, although it might as well have been a hundred.
He was still clutching the little pocketknife as he ran, and he grabbed a big dead stick. It was nearly pitch black out, and an uphill scramble over loose stones, mossy rocks, and high bushes stood in his way. He heard the creature’s pained roar above him. He started to whittle the stick into a sharpened point as he ran. Wielding the knife and a pointy stick while at a full run, through a darkened mountain forest, is not safe, but neither was getting squashed by whatever it was that wanted to kill him.
He scrambled to the highest point by Bear Lodge and now could see its familiar outline in whatever light remained in the night. This was his safety. He had two more guns inside the cabin, and the doors were reinforced for blizzards and just as strong as the walls, once closed and locked.
He felt a sudden warmth of hope as he saw his home, but he thought he smelled the fireplace. There wasn’t anyone home, and so there shouldn’t be any fire. He looked to the chimney.
He could make out the chimney, but it was hard to tell if there was smoke, so he looked even harder. A brief movement took his eye away from the chimney and down the roof. It was almost pitch black, but he thought he saw movement on the roof just above the porch.
The sky was overcast all day and night, but a hole opened up in the clouds, and the full moon light shone through and hit Bear Lodge. For Edwin, who had been straining so hard to see in the dark, it seemed as if a spotlight had been focused. To his horror, it revealed the huge, grey creature. It was perched atop Bear Lodge’s roof. There was no way for Edwin to enter without being seen and killed.
He started to frantically sharpen the stick. It was almost at a sharp point, and the other end could be used for blunt impact. It was a very sturdy stick, but he wished he had a bullet back. He gave a few last flicks of his knife to his new spear. A useless weapon, he thought.
His thumb had slid to the apex at the moment he took his last grinding swipe with the knife blade. The blade cut deep into his skin and struck the thumb’s knuckle. Blood shot out into Edwin’s face, but he didn’t flinch. He didn’t cry out. He never took his eyes off the beast.
The creature suddenly called out in a new scream. This time it sounded like a squeal of pleasure, and it seemed to stretch upwards and give a little shake of satisfaction. It had seen Edwin cut his thumb nearly off, and it had smelled the blood. It wanted more.
Edwin took this moment as a distraction and ran full speed towards the front door of Bear Lodge. He could get there in about 1 minute if he didn’t trip. If he tripped, he’d be dead.
The creature’s cry of pleasure became a shriek of ecstasy as it leapt from the roof, high in the air. It was now visible in the moonlight, and although it had leapt a quarter mile into the sky, Edwin thought he could see a human face staring back at him. It was going to be close. The creature looked as if it would land directly in front of the cabin just as he got there.
“I’ll dart to the left just as it lands, then jump up and run into the cabin before it gets me,” Edwin planned. He was at a full sprint, but still looked up at the creature to determine it’s precise location.
The creature’s thin arms spread out as it fell, revealing a thin, wet skin that connected its chest to its arms, forming a viscous wingsuit. It could steer its fall!
If he darted left, the creature could plan for that, Edwin surmised. Now with full visibility, it could stomp him right out of existence. He kept running, this time putting his head down, counting on reaching the door first as his only hope.
The creature’s groans of ecstasy grew louder, and seemed to contain multiple different voices and sounds. It was eager for the kill, not for hunger, but for the lust for destruction. It wanted to rip Edwin apart, and he knew it. Its shrieks became deafening. It was hard for Edwin to think.
The back of his neck started to feel the breath of a thousand screams as he neared the entrance to Bear Lodge. His lungs were on fire, and his legs were jelly. He was exhausted and feared he might collapse beforehand and just lay there, a limp target. He looked up and clutched his stick.
The creature’s feet seemed to be about 25 feet above him and closing fast. The grey human-looking feet were giant and contained several claws, and large nails protruded from the soles of the feet. This was it. He was done for.
He dropped to his knees and held his stick straight up into the air, the pointy end aimed directly at the creature’s feet. The creature spread its arm skin once more to navigate away, just as its feet would have hit the upturned wooden spike Edwin had whittled. Momentum carried the rest of the beast right down onto the spike.
Edwin was stunned, he lay on the ground under this great hulking beast. Its thin grey skin smashed into Edwin's. He could feel he had broken several bones in the impact. He couldn’t move.
The creature shifted and gave a scream of pain so loud, that Bear Lodge shook, and Edwin could feel its tremors. He shifted his weight and came face to face with the beast. His spike had entered the beast through the thigh, then carried on through its protruded potbelly and into its sunken chest. The end of the stick came out the back of the creature where its neck met the base of its skull. It was gushing blood out of its mouth of endless teeth onto Edwin’s face. Its mouth fought back the blood by opening and clasping shut, its long sharp teeth only millimeters from Edwin’s neck. He pushed it away with all the might he could muster, but he felt it getting closer to his jugular. Then it lifted itself slightly and gave one more cry. This time it was a quieter whimper, the mountains did not echo its call.
The creature brought its head down slowly, mouth closed, and rested it on Edwin’s forehead. It was in its last moments. Its eyes opened and met with Edwin’s. They were human. They showed relief. The weight of the creature seemed to lessen on Edwin’s body more and more every second. Its arms seemed to shrink, its claws retract. Its legs grew smaller and its skin turned thicker and pale. Edwin couldn’t take his eyes off the creature’s. It was a human It was turning into a human. It was nearly dead, and its eyes started to smile.
“Thank you,” the creature said in a dying whisper.
“Thank you,” the mountains echoed in a dying whisper.
Edwin had broken several ribs, he could feel that, but the pain was starting to go away. He regained some strength and easily pushed the smaller, more human creature up off him a little bit, revealing a different sight altogether than what he expected. A naked man lay on top of him, skewered from leg to head.
The man used the last of his dying strength to hold Edwin’s head in his hands. Their eyes met, and in them Edwin saw something. He could travel into the man’s eyes and see behind them, into a shimmering darkness. He felt numb. He felt hungry.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Edwin started to feel much better, much stronger. His ribs didn’t feel broken at all. His legs were no longer tired from running. In fact, they felt stronger than ever. He felt angry and pent up. He shook his head and opened his eyes (had they been closed?) and saw nothing. There wasn’t anything or anyone on top of him. There was nothing skewered, just a sharp stick lying next to him. He leapt up, quickly and easily. He was starving.
A scream came from his lips as he let go of any remaining fear of living or dying. It was a scream of triumph and of loss, of pain and of lust. The trees around him shared his scream. The boulders echoed it, the cliffs amplified it, and the mountains shook. He wasn’t tired, he no longer craved his bed. He was starving.
The closest place for a meal is on the other side of the birch forest, he thought. He had food in the fridge at Bear Lodge, only feet away, but as he walked towards its tiny entrance he stopped. His hands, his feet, his legs, his arms…they were turning grey, elongating. His body was transforming, he was getting bigger, and if he didn’t feed his body something big, he would starve.
Edwin turned toward the birch forest, and Laity’s cabin, and leapt high into the air taking long, hurried jumps. His grey claws stomped down on dried evergreen needles, quickly lifted, and slammed down again a half mile (or more) away. His panicked breath drew in cold mountain air.
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