The Winter Hearth Inn was a staple of the western slope. Thrill-seeking animals came from far and wide to test themselves on the rugged slopes of the Rocky Mountains, and the inn was well-known to all of them. After braving the snowy peaks, weary climbers often stayed at The Winter Hearth for a few days, enjoying the roaring fires, the hearty meals, and the peace and quiet that it provided.
Harold, a stout mountain cottontail, worked diligently all spring and summer to prepare for the winter season and its slew of hikers and adventurers. For years, he had set aside provisions, gone into towns to hire seasonal staff, and tended to the repairs and maintenance of his property. And each year, as soon as the first heavy snow set in, creatures would flock to his inn on their way to or from their treks into the craggy, wintry countryside. No matter the purpose of their journey, travelers could always count on Harold to have The Winter Hearth ready and welcoming. Standing two stories tall and with nearly fifty rooms for guests, it was a safe respite from the frigid terrain around them.
One particular winter night, however, Harold found himself in the dark, puzzling over tracks left in the snow just outside the inn. The tracks certainly looked like those of a fox, but they were much larger than any he’d seen before. Of course, Harold was welcoming to all species in The Winter Hearth. No one would ever accuse him of jumping to conclusions or holding antiquated ideas about carnivorous creatures. Everyone knew that the days of predator hunting prey had been left in the Stone Age. For Harold’s part, each year he brought on Matilda, a grey fox, to help manage the inn. But the tracks he inspected this day were much too large, spanning half his height.
“Something the matter, Harold?” Matilda called to him entrance of The Winter Hearth. She held a bundle of papers, no doubt important business documents for him to sign and send in the post. Thick black glasses perched atop her head, framed by her grey ears with tawny specks.
Thumping a long foot in the snow, he roused from thought and looked back to her, “What’s that? Oh, well, no. Or yes, perhaps. Truth be told, I’m not sure. Come here and take a look.”
He waved Matilda over and crouched down to look at the pawprint closer. Matilda’s paws crunched through the snow as she joined Harold, standing beside him.
“Is that some joke by one of our younger guests?” she mused, eyeing the imprint in the snow curiously.
Harold shook his head, “No, I don’t believe so. It’s too perfectly made. And you can see there’s a trail of them coming in over the east wall and leaving through the main gate. But what could have made these? Tracks this size are just impossible.”
Matilda’s bemused smile vanished as she took in what Harold was getting at. With more effort than Harold with his youthful limbs, she knelt and touched the outline of the impression in the snow. Quietly, she voiced, “I think it walked on all fours.”
“It does appear that way,” Harold agreed, “But no animal walks on four legs like this. Not anymore.”
His mind began pulling up fairy tales and ghost stories that he heard as a child. Stories like the Great Grey Wolf or Coyote stealing fire for animal-kind. There were many tales of giant predators, both good and evil, causing mischief or bringing destruction. It was hard not to see the huge prints and not think of imaginary beasts that supposedly lurked in the dark. Harold absently stroked his ears back against his head, his mind filling with all sorts of myths and fables. With a start, he realized Matilda had been speaking to him for some time.
“—guests ought to be informed as well,” she had just finished saying. She looked at Harold expectantly, “Well?”
Stammering, Harold shook himself out of his thoughts, “What? Sorry, I was trying to think through what we’re going to do about this.”
The lie must have been obvious to Matilda because her long snout frowned, “Harold, we need to send for the authorities. And we should probably tell the guests as well. If something dangerous is stalking about, we can’t have folks just wandering in its path.”
“You’re right, you’re right,” Harold nodded, thoughts of the monstrous Great Grey Wold still in the back of his mind, “We’ll have to get word down the mountain to the ranger’s station.”
Together, Harold helping Matilda back up, and headed inside the inn. A fireplace crackled warmly on the side of the common area, and patrons lounged around on sofas and overstuffed chairs. Waitstaff—mice, squirrels, and a couple of pikas—buzzed around between guests and the kitchens. A tall river otter waited at the counter near the entrance, looking around impatiently. Seeing Harold and Matilda enter, he called out to them, “There you are, I’ve been waiting to speak to someone about my room. I need—”
As the front door of the inn whipped open right behind Harold, the otter’s query was interrupted. Frantically, a short desert shrew, clumsily carrying skis and poles and bundled tightly against the cold, bolted in. The door bounced against its hinges, nearly slamming back into the shrew, who only just managed to shut the door behind him.
“We all need to get out of here! Wolf! Huge, four-legged wolf!” the hysterical shrew’s story poured out, disjointed and out of order, but the entire inn heard. He claimed to have been skiing back down to the inn just before sunset when he caught sight of a huge grey shape moving slowly through the trees. According to the shrew, he’d finally caught a good look at the creature: a grey-furred wolf, walking on all fours and at least ten feet tall.
Matilda and Harold shared a worried look before she led the shrew by the shoulder over to an empty armchair, waving to a wide-eyed mouse girl to bring the shrew something hot to drink. Harold’s mind raced again, filled with the legends of his childhood. He wondered if the Great Grey Wolf could truly be real. Regardless, he knew that standing like a statue in front of his anxious guests would solve nothing.
“Everyone, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Shadows in the trees and oversized pawprints are no reason to panic,” Harold began. He had not meant to mention the giant tracks yet, but as soon as the words were spoken, animals around the common room gasped and began muttering to each other.
The river otter still standing at the front desk spoke up, nerves making his voice almost a shout, “What pawprints? How big? Has the giant wolf been here?”
The guests all around the room were nearly bursting with nervous conversation, talking over each other in attempts to be heard. Foot thumping again under stress, Harold cleared his throat, “Now, please. Please! Can we all just calm down for a moment?” Slowly, they all quieted and looked to Harold, “What we must do first is make sure all patrons of the inn are accounted for. Matilda and I will check through the list of guests. I need each of you to ensure everyone you came with is here, then check on those in rooms neighboring yours.
“Then,” he paused to ensure the animals were all following his words, “We will secure the inn for the night. In the morning, we will form an orderly evacuation down the mountain until rangers can come up and clear the area of any danger.”
Nodding heads around the room seemed to signal agreement to Harold’s plan. Feeling like the situation may just stay under control, Harold found Matilda, still consoling the desert shrew. The mouse who had brought a steaming mug over for the skier took over for Matilda, letting the fox and the rabbit leave to find the guest registration list. Passing through a door behind the front desk, Harold noted that the river otter seemed to have left to follow his directions.
“Let’s see,” Matilda said, pulling out the heavy book that held the guest lists. They walked back out to the front desk so they could see as many of the animals as possible while reading the list. Matilda called out names, and Harold, his memory of the guests of his inn extremely sharp, pointed them out. The ones that weren’t present in the room with them were found, other animals running through the two floors of the inn calling out their names. Eventually, every name had been accounted for, both from the list as well as by the guests themselves. Harold sighed and began talking with Matilda about the plan to lock down the inn and its property for the night.
With a repeated pulling on his sleeve, Harold was pulled from his conversation with his fox companion. He turned to see the small mouse girl that had been helping take care of the frightened desert shrew.
“What is it, Leanne?” Harold asked, almost impatiently.
“It’s the guest, the shrew I was helping,” Leanne stammered, the snow-white fur on her ears shaking as if she was deeply troubled, “He’s missing. I went to fetch another round for him, and he was just gone. In the commotion, no one seems to have seen him go.”
A pit formed in Harold’s stomach as he thanked the girl and turned back to Matilda. Pulling her further aside to speak privately, he whispered, “What was the name of the shrew with the skis? I don’t recall him checking in, and he’s no longer in the common area.”
After flipping through the recent check-in pages of her list, Matilda concluded that he must have been waiting to check in until he came down from the ski trails before he had spotted the beast. They enlisted a few of the waitstaff to help them scour the inn for the shrew. Finding no trace of him, his absence as well as the absence of his skis and poles led them to one chilling conclusion: he had gone back out in the night to try to make it to the ranger station alone. Harold knew instantly what he must do. He was going after the shrew.