"Hellswatch" by Cate Vance
Magellan paused for breath at the edge of the ridge and looked down into the canyon. Hellswatch Cabin stood roughly fifty yards from the river, dwarfed by a nearby boulder that had crashed to the valley floor thousands of years before. The high canyon walls obscured direct sunlight outside of the peak midday hours, blanketing the cabin in half-lit shadow for the majority of the day.
The first shiver brushed up Magellan’s spine at the sight of the darkened cabin and lingered beneath his sweat-drenched shirt.
“There’s been poaching in the Sombre Canyon,” Cooper had said on Monday morning. “We need to send a ranger out to Hellswatch. Think you can handle it?”
Magellan swiveled in his chair, turning his back on the permit applications that swelled his inbox. “Hell yes,” he grinned.
Cooper sipped his coffee and leaned against the doorframe. “You might want to think about it,” he said, “it’s a risky assignment. Men return… well… changed.”
“C’mon, Coop,” Magellan rolled his eyes. “You think I’m scared of grizzlies? I’ve been around bears my entire life.”
Cooper shook his head. “It’s not just the bears. Not at Hellswatch. The legends say the Sombre Canyon’s cursed, you know. You wouldn’t remember the last guy—we haven’t had a ranger out there in over a decade.”
“What happened to the last guy?”
Cooper frowned. “Not sure,” he paused. “Something just wasn’t right.” The words hung between them, thick with uncertainty and… fear? Magellan waited for more information, but Cooper just shrugged. “He got promoted to a desk job in D.C. not too long after.”
Magellan’s expression soured, “Are you trying to send me to D.C.?”
Cooper laughed, “No, no. I need you here. Real outdoorsmen are hard to find these days. That’s why I’m hoping you can handle the poachers and… whatever else is out there.”
Magellan tilted his head to one side, “I never thought you were superstitious, Coop.”
Cooper gave a wry smile and stepped back into the hall, “Just take care of yourself,” he said. “You leave in the morning.”
Magellan scrambled down the canyon and followed a game trail riddled with bear scat along the river. He stopped short, eyes widening at the sight of Hellswatch. Claw marks scraped across the length of the ancient logs. Magellan could almost hear the grating nails as they tore through the weathered bark, shrieking above the bass growl of an 800-pound predator. He took an inadvertent step back as fear gripped his chest, then shook his head and continued towards the cabin.
Once inside, Magellan deposited his pack on the low cot and surveyed the room. An old rifle rested against the east wall. A narrow table and chairs hugged the wall opposite, and an old rocking chair kept company with the wood stove. Magellan started a fire and busied himself with unpacking. After devouring a dehydrated dinner, he settled himself in the rocking chair, cleaning his pistol and studying a map of the canyon.
The first knock sounded faint, almost inaudible. Magellan paused, alert, but no sound followed. He crept to the nearest window and peered beneath the curtain at the empty front stoop. Twilight had fallen, and the first stars twinkled in the purple sliver of sky above the canyon. The shadows deepened beneath the boulder. Looking out across the river, Magellan searched for movement along the grassy bank. Nothing stirred. He dropped the curtain and bolted the lock.
Magellan had just taken a sip of whiskey from his flask and returned his attention to the map when the shriek of claws racked across the west wall. He froze, then tiptoed across the cabin to inspect the rifle—it was loaded.
The second shiver needled the hairs on the back of his neck like tiny claws seeking a footing to tear across his skin.
The clawing stopped. Rifle in hand, Magellan caught sight of his pale reflection in a dark window. He peered into the murky sockets of his bloodless face, then yanked the curtain closed. The rocking chair creaked beneath him as he took another sip of whiskey and settled the rifle across the arm rails.
The claws screamed again, echoing through the canyon. Inside, the fire roared in the wood stove and the rocking chair creaked. The claws wrapped around to the front door, then stopped. Something heavy thumped against the door, throwing its weight against the hinges. Magellan positioned the rifle against his shoulder. Again and again something pounded the door, but the iron bolts held firm. Magellan breathed, observing that no claw marks marred the inside of the cabin, then gasped as the bolts slowly turned.
The door swung open. Magellan raised the rifle, bracing his lungs for the deathly stench of the grizzly bear, but a different odor pierced his nostrils. A familiar scent, like the rotten-egg bubbles that rose from the depths of the nearby thermal features, causing the tourists to giggle and pinch their noses. Sulfur.
Instead of the shadow of a bear, Magellan’s own moonlit figure stepped into the doorway. The same hair, only shinier. The same face, but more symmetrical. No bump blighted the bridge of his nose, no freckles dotted his forehead, and no eyes filled his sockets.
Magellan’s breath grew ragged as the figure stepped into the room. He moved to pull the trigger, but his fingers froze. The third shiver traveled from his fingertips to his shoulders, turning so cold it burned like fire, paralyzing every muscle. His other self brushed the barrel of the rifle aside and leaned over the rocking chair, resting his hands on the carved arms. Magellan stared up into the cavernous eyes and felt the final shiver tighten and squeeze every last inch of warmth from his bones. Unable to look away, he watched as a pearlescent swirl filled the vacant sockets. A spark of hellfire lit the white eyes and cooled to lava-rock irises. A half-smile, a wink, and Magellan’s vision went dark.
Cate Vance writes from the mountains of Montana where she is inspired by misty mornings, brilliant days, and starry nights. Her short fiction has appeared in Sky Island Journal and Scribes*MICRO*Fiction, among other outlets. Follow her on Twitter @WriterCSVance.
You can find more about Cate Vance on her website: https://catevance.com