The blast of stinging, wind-driven sleet nearly shoved Storm from Blackbird’s frosty back. He hunched over against the onslaught, holding his hood on with one numbing, mittened hand, and drove the horse forward towards the tiny shanty and the attached barn that comprised Pacific Springs relay station. Not going on tonight while this is happening, that’s for sure, he thought, sputtering as a blast of driving ice crystals scoured his face and eyes. We’re both half buried and mostly frozen.
It had been snowy for most of the day, but once the sun had started to sink, and the sky turned the color of slate, the cold had become an irresistible, deadly force. Frozen rain and sleet blew across the flat plains, howling down from the distant mountains and across the empty prairie. Storm knew he and Blackbird could find themselves buried in a ten foot, hard-frozen drift in this part of the trail. I’m glad we made good time till now, because we’re really going to be scrambling to make up what we lose tonight. Damn it! I do not want to have to wait out the entire night here!
Blackbird hauled himself and Storm into the yard of the tiny relay station, and Storm jumped down to wrestle open the barn door. His boots sank into the soaking, crunchy slurry of snow and frozen rain as he pulled the exhausted horse inside. He hastily dusted the ice from animal’s coat, sighing with relief at being out of the stinging wind.
It was dim, the dismal gray light fading into shadow inside the barn. Storm fumbled around in the half-light, toweling the dampness from the horse’s coat and snugging the blanket over his back. He dried the saddle and mochila and hung them over the rail. A sudden realization hit him and he stopped, looking around and frowning. Why are there no other horses in here? He peered into the twilight shadows, his ears pricking with the soft hiss of sleet on drifted ice crystals. Not only was there no fresh horse waiting for him, saddled and ready to go, but aside from Blackberry, there wasn’t any horse of any sort in the stable at all.
This could be a problem... He settled back against the wall, pulling his hood down and flexing his saddle-stiff legs, thinking. Did this station get robbed? Merde. This could be a big problem. Especially if they’re still here.
He hastily pulled off his mittens and unholstered his pistol, feeling his quickening pulse in his ears. Taking a deep breath, he placed his ear against the door separating the stable from the main cabin.
He realized he was breathing heavily, his heart pounding. The Voice of Fear was whispering to him, telling him to be careful, that something wasn’t right, that there wouldn’t be any casual reason why there would be no horses in the stable, or why there was no warm light showing under the door to the cabin. Where the hell are Hoyt and Pulaski?
There was unsettling silence on the other side of the door. Storm stared at the darkening planks in the fading light. I can’t take Blackbird and go back out right now. Not in this. He’s exhausted, and the crew here might need help. In any case,I need a fresh horse. He took in a few slow, calming breaths, placing his hand on the door and tightening his grip on his pistol. Standing to the side of the doorframe so that anyone waiting for him wouldn’t have an easy shot, he cringed inwardly and pushed the door open.
The last of the light pooled in gray shrouds over the tiny room, and Storm could make out a lone figure sitting in a chair before the cold fireplace in the near-dark. What the...is that...is that... “Hoyt?”
The man seemed to startle, and he stood up, ruffling a hand through his dark, thinning hair. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Fell asleep in the chair, I reckon. You alright?”
Storm deflated, leaning hard against the door frame and uncocking his pistol. He suddenly felt every single mile he’d ridden, and the giddy mix of fear and readiness inside him rattled around with nowhere to go. “I just...” he sighed heavily. “What the hell’s going on? Where’s the horses and...and where’s Pulaski?”
Hoyt pulled his suspenders back up over his worn union suit and his thin shoulders, and rubbed his face. “One of ‘em jumped the fence and took off. Pulaski took the other out looking for her. Ain't neither of ‘em come back.”
Is he joking? He left the station with no horses? He huffed incredulously. “Hoyt, how am I suppose to make my run without a fresh horse? That’s not good.”
“No, it ain’t.” Hoyt sniffed, shuffling over to the stove. “Sorry. Reckon we shoulda thought of that.You want coffee? I can heat up the kettle.”
Unbelievable. What the hell does he think this is? Pony rides for children? “Something hot would help, thanks.” He was far too tired and far to cold to have the stomach for an argument. The cabin was freezing, and evidently, Hoyt had dozed so long that the fire had gone out. Storm dusted the ice out of his coat and reholstered his pistol. He was angry and uneasy, residual nervousness still making him jumpy. Tabarnak. Let me at least light a lamp.
He heard the scraping of flint against steel as Hoyt fumbled around inside the dark stove, and wondered how long the man had been asleep that he needed to entirely re-light the stove. It was painfully cold inside the cabin, and Storm felt his irritation flaring. With icy fingers, he quickly lit the lamp, and then moved to re-light the fireplace. I don’t expect to have to get a damned relay station up and functioning when I stop. I have enough to worry about.
He took a scrap of fatwood out of the wood bin and used it to flip over the gray ashes in the bottom of the fireplace as he looked for embers. There weren’t any. He leaned back on his haunches, downright angry. “Hoyt, why did you let the..” The stove hasn’t been lit, he realized. The fireplace hasn’t been lit. And there’s a blizzard going on outside. He turned to look at Hoyt, feeding kindling into the stove, and narrowed his eyes. “Hoyt... where have you been?”
“Been out looking for the horse.” Hoyt turned and smiled apologetically, shrugging his shoulders.
Is that so? The Voice of Logic was now whispering in his ear, urgent and suspicious. Both of them were out of the station so long all the embers have gone cold? Embers in a pile of ash in a fireplace will stay hot for an entire night. This is horseshit.
They both left their post.
Hoyt straightened up. “There you go, it’ll be good and hot directly,” he said, adjusting the burner under the kettle.
“How were you asleep in the chair with it so damned cold in here, Hoyt?”
“Aw, it wasn’t that bad earlier.”
He’s lying. What’s he hiding? Storm cleared some of the ash from the middle of the fireplace, making a place to stack some kindling. It was oppressively tense in the cabin, as if there were an arrow aimed between his shoulder blades. He couldn’t shake the feeling, and gooseflesh rose inexplicably on his arms. His heart had started to throb in his ears again. He reached for a charred piece of old wood and added it to his kindling pile and suddenly, he felt his spine become ice. His eyes fixed on the curved, blackened thing in the fireplace and he resisted the urge to react. It was the remains of a horse’s hoof. What..?
“How about some biscuits?” Hoyt went on from behind him. “They’re cold, but we can heat them up.You sure can’t go nowhere with this weather like this right now.”
“Sure.” Storm wasn’t certain if his voice was steady or not. It didn’t feel steady. “Biscuits sound great.” He didn’t know what was going on. But he knew one thing; he had a far bigger problem than he had initially thought.
He could hear Hoyt rattling a pan on the stove, and the sound was like talons scraping along the inside of his skull. A growing horror had sparked inside him, flickering to life, gaining strength. At least while he’s fooling around over there, I know where he is...but...ah, tabarnak...I still don’t know where Pulaski is. He fought to keep his hands steady as he scraped the flint across the striking steel, accidentally skipping it across his knuckles.
Behind him, Hoyt drew in a sudden deep inhalation through his nose, seeming to sniff the air. Storm watched the thin, red abrasion across his cut fingers well and bead with blood. He concentrated on keep his breathing steady, on fighting the sudden urge to bolt. The Voice of Fear was reciting every single terrifying monster story Storm had ever heard, stories of madness and skinwalkers and creatures that devoured men. Of beasts who came in the long, dark days of winter and settled their hideous spirits inside people and drove them to an insatiable craving for human flesh.
He was sweating. This is crazy, he told himself. Did they eat the horse? That’s...well, it’s certainly not grounds for panic. People eat horses. His mind reeled for some other explanation. He was coming up short. I can’t seriously be entertaining the thought that stories told to frighten small children...
Behind him, he heard the sound of a knife against a strop and he froze. Hoyt went on amiably.“I’ll cut you some bacon. I ain’t et tonight, neither, so might as well.”
The station keeper was still over by the stove. Where the hell is Pulaski? The thought deeply unsettled him. The flint sparked onto the charcloth, and Storm pushed it into the kindling, blowing it to life. It flared and danced and grew, and in the flickering orange glow, he saw gleaming white glints among the ashes and he gasped, his heart squeezing hard inside him, bile rising in his throat. Teeth. Human teeth. And that’s a partially melted glass eye.Oh, merde. His mind had a hard time processing this discovery as acid roiled up the back of his throat. I think I just found Pulaski.
The pricking feeling of imminent doom was overwhelming, and he flinched, turning his head ever so slightly to steal a terrified glance behind him.
The open door of the stove was throwing eerie red light around the cabin. Hoyt was standing over the stove, his face mostly turned away. Storm could see only a sliver of his profile. It was enough.
Hoyt was grinning, his lips pulled back in an inhuman snarl of madness over long, animal teeth. The dancing light sparkled on the ropes of drool glistening on his chin, and he held the knife down at his side. His body heaved with deep, steady breathing, and the front of his bloodstained union suit had the look of something that had been worn to butcher a deer.
The Voice of Fear had given up on him. It had gone away and gotten its elder brother, The Voice of Primal Terror, to help. Now Primal Terror, who he really hadn’t talked to very much in his life, had him by the throat and was screaming the word ‘wendigo’ into his face. In fact, Primal Terror was the only voice that would actually use this word and mean it. Storm’s hand slipped to his knife. He was lightheaded, his breath rattling in his throat. Pistol won’t work. Not for this. One bullet won’t do it...and that’s all I’ll get, if that.
He braced himself, listening to the sound of Hoyt’s breathing, his hand around the knife’s grip so tightly that his palm was slick with sweat. If he knows...if he realizes that I know...
And then suddenly it was on him, a clawed hand clamping onto Storm’s jaw, jerking his head back to expose his throat, and though he was ready for it, he screamed, twisting, blocking the would-be killing blow with his arm. He jammed his knife under Hoyt’s jaw as Hoyt’s deflected knife blow sliced through his coat sleeve. An inhuman screeching filled Storm’s ears and he screamed again, pulling forward with all his might, barely feeling Hoyt’s knife as it pierced the thick wool of his coat and scraped across his collarbone. He jerked Hoyt across his shoulder, shoving him face-first into the fireplace. He could hear impossibly long claws skittering around in the flames as the thing that was Hoyt thrashed snarled, his skin igniting like waxed paper and fluttering upwards like the ashes of burning leaves.
Storm rolled away, giving what was left of the creature a hard shove with his foot. The noxious stench of burning fur and festering death filled the room, making him cough and gag. Ah, merde. Ah...tabarnak... He sat down hard on the floor, trying to slow down his pulse before his heart exploded. He could feel blood running down the inside of his coat.
“We gotta go...” he whispered, staggering to his feet and fighting to shake off his panic, to force his brain to start working again. He realized that the storm outside had abated. Of course. Of course it’s stopped. It wasn’t a natural storm. And now this...this... he leaned against the wall, rubbing his temples with the heels of his hands, reluctant to name the thought. Evil spirit...this Wendigo...is gone. So of course the blizzard’s lifted.
He...it...was waiting for me.
He felt a cold that had nothing to do with the snow and ice. Shivering, he pulled his hood back over his head and headed for the door that opened into the barn. “It’s two miles to South Pass,” he muttered to Blackbird as he put the saddle back on the horse. “We can make it if we go slow. But we sure as hell aren’t staying here.”