The wind cut at exposed flesh like knives despite the sunny day. James stayed as still as he could, huddled under a few blankets and pelts. He held his rifle steady, waiting for the doe to turn and show him her broadside. His fingers shuddered, hands bare around the stock of the weapon. She turned, and he forced his frost-bitten fingers closed. The rifle spoke.
The doe fell. He smiled and sighed a breath of relief, pulling on his mittens, glad for the warmth. He shrugged off the blankets and pelts and dragged them to his horse at the bottom of the hill, sheltered from the snow in a copse of trees. He packed quickly, throwing everything haphazardly on the sled, and rode to where the doe had fallen, excited at the prospect of meat for dinner.
When he got there, the doe was still breathing. She lay a few dozen yards from the edge of the meadow where she fell. Quaking aspen trees stood gaunt behind her, a few yellow leaves still doggedly clinging to the white branches. The other trees surrounding them were pine, a blanket of green sprinkled with white snow on the walls of the large valley.
He walked to her side, careful to avoid her sharp, kicking hooves, and she looked up at him with panic in her big, soft eyes. He went to get his rifle from the saddle when he noticed movement in the quakies. He pulled the gun and put his horse between him and the trees. He held still, watching for a few minutes. Another movement on the right. His mind raced through potential threats; a bear? Wolves? Bandits?
He threw his mittens down into the snow, drawing his weapon up, steadying it on his horse, Ash. His eyes scanned the trees, white bark with black striations making them look nearly skeletal in the overcast light of early afternoon. Another shadow of movement off on the left, and his eyes were drawn to the color of naked, pale flesh.
Still too far off to see clearly, it looked like someone stumbling toward him slowly, wearing absolutely nothing. James quickly began leading Ash and the sled attached to her toward the figure. As they drew closer, he stopped the horse and waved.
“Hey fella, you lost out here? What happened to you?” he called out. There was no response, but it stopped moving, shoulders hunched, and looked like it was freezing. James moved to the sled and grabbed a few blankets, then turned and began walking towards the now-still man.
“Jesus, it’s colder’n a witch’s tit out here, come on over here. I got blankets and a camp nearby.” He was holding the blankets up, gesturing for the man to come nearer, when he noticed something strange. It was vaguely man-shaped, but had no hair. Nor any ears. Nor, for that matter, any eyes. The rounded portion of the head sloped down sharply to a flat nose over a thin-lipped and impossibly wide mouth. The chin was nearly not present, the jaw seeming to melt into the bare and featureless chest.
James stared at it, agape. He stuttered, “I-I don’t know what happened to you, but here, here’s a warm blanket. Maybe we can get you into town for a doctor or something.”
The far edges of the mouth turned up, and the head turned to him like a dog sniffing something in the air. It made a sound that reminded James of pouring boiling water into a mug.
It spoke, revealing thousands of needles where its teeth should be. “Your generosity will spare you and one generation of your spawn. I ask only for your prey.” Its voice was stones cracking together. It was an avalanche. It was the summer floods on the plains.
James took a moment to understand that it meant his doe. He simply nodded, still dumbly holding up the blanket, though now more as a shield than an offering.
The thing moved, each step a twitch, to the doe. It bent, opened its mouth, and began to methodically swallow the thing whole, like a snake.
James stared at the whole spectacle until the creature stood, much larger than moments prior, and returned to the woods, leaving him to worry for the rest of his days that he had lost his mind.
Mike J Watson is originally from southeastern Idaho, now living in Baltimore with his wife, daughter and two dogs. He has been published in Runebear Weekly and Dark Elements.
My website: mikejwatson.com Twitter @themikejwatson