The snow came down in large white clumps, so quickly that my my footprints were erased as fast as I made them trudging back to the cabin from the woodpile with an armload of logs. The satellite dish perched on my roof was buried in the winter’s snowfall and completely useless, but I didn’t need some fancy TV weatherman to tell me it was going to be a hell of a storm.
The solar panels were likewise ineffective this time of year, so the television was nothing but a blank frame anyway. I had plenty of kerosene for my lamps, and the wood kept me warm and cooked my food. There was a short wave radio for emergencies, but it got all the power it needed from a car battery. My books didn’t require electricity, so as long as I had light to read by, the storm could do what it wanted.
I didn’t own the one-room cabin, it came with the job. I was a ranger for the National Park Service, but I didn’t do the typical ranger stuff, like admonishing tourists about leaving food out for the bears, or cautioning them to stick to the trails and stay hydrated. I was a sort of concierge, catering to the hikers and mountaineers who came to summit the mountain. Those who held this post before me had carved their names and the years they were here into the wooden lintel above the door. Curiously, none of them seemed to have held the post for more than one winter.
Ascending the nearby peak, especially in the winter, was a challenge for a lot of Alpinists. Its remoteness was particularly appealing for solo climbers, but the National Park Service wasn’t too fond of climbers getting lost or injured, so I served as a base camp that was there if they needed help. My visitors jokingly called the simple cabin The Last Chance Inn.
Normally, I saw a few people a week, some requiring first aid, others needing water or food or some piece of equipment. There was a box of odds and ends in one corner of the cabin that served as a “take one, leave one” collection of climbers’ gear that had apparently grown over the years. Ropes, pitons of various shapes and sizes, socks, gloves, hammers, even a pair of crampons could all be found there, probably enough to outfit someone who had come this far with nothing more than hiking boots.
Once the cold set in, I saw maybe a few people a month. They were supposed to get a permit to attempt the summit in the winter, and then check in with me before their climb and after their descent—just to make sure there weren’t any bodies wasting away on the peak.
Odds were I wouldn’t have any visitors for the next month or two. Hopefully someone was checking regularly to see that smoke was coming out of my chimney, and the stores of freeze-dried meals I had hauled up in the fall would last until the snow melted.
So I nearly choked on the coffee I was drinking when I heard knocking.
I set down my mug, walked the three steps to the door and opened it.
The man standing there was knee-deep in snow, wearing a fur coat, mittens and had a knapsack on his back. He wasn’t the typical climber who graced my threshold—he wasn’t wearing the latest lightweight insulated parka and tinted goggles, nor did he have ropes and carabiners hanging off his belt.
“It’s really coming down. You mind if I come in?” he asked.
“Sorry, please do,” I replied. “Welcome to The Last Chance Inn.”
He smiled at the name. “Last chance in or out,” he remarked.
With him came an avalanche of snow. While he started slipping out of his coat in front of the fire, I grabbed the shovel I kept by the door and scooped the drift that had forced its way inside back out into the cold where it belonged.
I closed the door, then crossed to the stove where the coffee pot was keeping warm. “Would you like a cup?” I offered.
He waved off the offer and settled into one of the rough-hewn chairs in front of the fire place. I picked up my coffee and joined him.
“So, which are you?” I asked.
“Are you coming in or going out?”
He smiled. “Just passing through.”
“Don’t get many of those,” I told him.
“No, I don’t expect you do.”
“You’re welcome to stay the night. I have extra cots,” I offered.
“Thank you,” he said, in a way that left it unclear as to whether he was accepting my offer.
“You’re lucky you found this place. It’s really coming down. Where are you headed?”
He glanced at the small window pane over the tiny kitchen sink, now completely covered with snow. “We get a storm like this at least once a year. There’s so much snow that everything stops. The animals and birds hunker down, even the people stay away. It’s peaceful,” he said, avoiding my question.
“Yes,” I agreed. “But I still wouldn’t want to be caught out in it.”
He nodded. “So you’ve heard the stories,” the man said, staring into the fire.
“Stories?” I asked.
He looked at me, surprised. “About the beast,” he said.
Ah, the beast.
I had heard the stories, mostly in the context of visitors to The Last Chance Inn remarking that the beast hadn’t gotten me yet. The versions I had heard so far described it as a giant bear, or an huge ape, even a wolf that walked on two legs. The one thing they all had in common, though, was that it was as white as the snow and had glowing red eyes.
“Yeah, I’ve heard them,” I said. “The local Bigfoot, huh?”
The stranger laughed. “Bigfoot has nothing on the beast,” he claimed.
“You want to know the real story?” he asked.
I topped off the fire with a fat log. “Sure, looks like we’ve got all night.”
He sat back and stretched out his legs. He was wearing a buckskin shirt and pants, and fur-lined leather boots. Everything looked like it was handmade. His hair and beard were both shaggy and thick, and both almost pure white. He didn’t look like he was much over thirty, though. His skin was pale, but free of wrinkles and his eyes were bright and full of life. I wondered if he had a cabin somewhere in the woods, even more off the grid than this one, and suspected he was one of those crazy preppers who were completely self-sufficient, living solely off the land.
“The stories go back to the first tribes that inhabited these lands. When they arrived here, they encountered the beast during their first winter. It took one of their women. Three of their best hunters went out to kill it.
“They were never seen again.
“The beast didn’t return for the rest of the winter, and they lived unmolested throughout the spring and summer, and through the next fall.
“But when winter returned, and the first big snowfall of the season stilled the landscape, the beast came back. One of the elders of the tribe offered himself to the creature. It struck the old man down, then started eating his flesh and bones as the rest of men watched.
“Once it had finished consuming its prey, it flashed its red eyes, then disappeared into the snow, not leaving even the slightest trace that it had been there. They thought it must be a god, and decided from that day on, to honor it by sacrificing one of their number each winter.
“This continued for centuries. But, as the years passed, and the white man pushed the tribe off this land, the tradition was abandoned. But the beast still demands its tribute, and if you’re unfortunate enough to be the one it finds alone in the snow, you’ll never be seen again.
“Some say the beast is supernatural, that it has the ability to assume the shape of other animals, and hide in plain sight. It hibernates in its fashion during the heat of the summer, waking in the fall to mark its prey.”
I couldn’t help but smile. This was certainly the best telling of the story I had heard yet. “Well, nothing’s going to be moving in this storm, including me. So I don’t think I have anything to worry about.”
The stranger shrugged. “There was one year when none of the elders of the tribe agreed to be the sacrifice to the beast. They hoped that it would pass them up that winter. But instead, the beast stole into every hut where there was a newborn child, and took them all.
“The creature has become accustomed to its winter meal. If it cannot find its human victim out in the blizzard, it will find it where it can. If you seek shelter in a cave, it will root you out. If you are a stranded motorist, it will peel open your car like a tin can. If you are in a small, wooden cabin—”
I nearly jumped out of my skin at the loud pounding on the door. Lukewarm coffee spilled into my lap and I leapt to my feet. My sleeve got caught in the armrest of the wooden chair and I took a tumble onto the linoleum floor, nearly banging my head against kitchen table.
I scrambled to my feet and looked back at the stranger.
“Do you really think an ancient snow beast would bother to knock?” he asked rhetorically.
“No, but I’m not sure I want to find out who’s crazy enough to be out in a storm like this.”
“You mean, ‘who else?’” he corrected with a smile.
I dabbed the coffee off my pants with a kitchen towel as I crossed the short distance to the door, eyeing the lockbox on the small hutch where I kept a loaded gun.
I opened the door.
A gust of wind blew a torrent of snow into the cabin.
And then I saw a tall figure standing in the doorway. It had fur as white as the snow, and eyes as red as embers.
It entered, peeled back the fur on its head and raised its hands to those glowing eyes.
Then I realized it was a woman dressed in a white fur parka with red-lensed goggles that she removed to reveal dark, almost black eyes, and equally ebon hair.
“What’s a girl gotta do to get out of the cold around here?” she asked.
“Sorry, come on in,” I said, stepping aside. For the second time, I shoveled the encroaching drift back outside and shut the door.
The woman slipped out of her parka. Under it she wore what looked like a leather jumpsuit, almost form-fitting. I couldn’t imagine that it would keep her very warm unless it had a hidden lining.
“Hello,” she said to the stranger in front of the fire, ignoring me completely.
“Can I get you some coffee?” I asked.
She turned and looked me over. “Do you have any Bourbon to put in it?” she asked.
I shook my head.
She shrugged and took the seat I had vacated to answer the door. “Never mind.”
I poured myself a fresh cup of coffee, grabbed one of the smaller chairs from the kitchen table and placed it so I could join my guests around the fire.
“Rough night to be out for a walk,” I said, hoping to break the awkward silence that had developed.
“Oh, I love the snow,” the woman replied. “I saw the smoke from your fire and thought it might be a good idea to warm up a bit. Oh, my,” she said, as if suddenly realizing something she forgot, “you must think me terribly rude. Thank you for letting me in to share your fire.”
“No problem, that’s what I’m here for,” I replied.
“We thought for a second that you were the beast,” the man said.
“The what?” she asked.
“It’s kind of a local legend,” I explained. “Apparently there is a creature that stalks these parts during the heaviest snow of the winter in search of a human victim.”
She smiled. “I guess I’m flattered that you think I’d have to be some sort of beast in order to be out in the snow.”
The man leaned forward. “It is said that the beast can disguise itself as an animal, why not a beautiful woman? What better way to lure its victim into a false sense of security.”
She laughed again. “That would be clever.” She turned toward the stranger and looked him up and down, and I swear, she licked her lips. “You look like you would make a good meal,” she said.
He smiled, “I think you’d find me rather tough.” He nodded in my direction. “I think our young host would be much more flavorful.”
She turned her gaze to me, her eyes dancing over my body, while she bit her lower lip. “Yes, I see what you mean.”
“I have some Tabasco in the cabinet, it that will help,” I offered.
The woman started laughing, and the odd tension that had developed melted away.
The man laughed, too.
But when he did, I thought I caught a glint of red in his eyes.
Just a reflection from the fire, I assured myself.
“Seriously,” the woman continued, “here we are, three strangers in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, buried in snow, talking about some beast possibly stalking us. I’m starting to think I should have stayed home.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “it sounds like a corny horror movie.”
She turned to the man. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around before. Where do you live?”
“I have a place on the other side of the mountain,” he replied. “I don’t get out much.”
The woman spun around in her seat to face me again. “And you just let him in?”
“Like I said,” I explained, “that’s what I’m here for. In case someone needs assistance.”
“And you’re not worried that he’s this beast.”
“Why would he tell me the story?” I asked.
“A hundred reasons,” she replied. “To put you off your guard, to justify his transforming into a giant white creature with glowing red eyes and ripping you limb from—”
“I thought you didn’t know anything about the beast,” the man challenged. “I don’t think we mentioned anything about what it looks like since you’ve arrived.”
The woman laughed, shaking her head. She held up her hands. “You got me, I’m the beast. And it looks like I get a super-sized meal tonight,” she said, eyeing the two of us as she continued laughing.
I couldn’t help but join in. The man seemed equally amused, but assumed a posture that was ready for action. I looked at him, and he met my eyes, then glanced across the room.
I knew exactly where he was looking. At the metal case on the hutch that held my pistol. He surely assumed I was armed living here alone, and the lockbox was the most logical place to keep my weapon.
Was he trying to tell me that this woman actually was the beast? Could that be possible? Her story about liking to wander around in a blizzard in that ridiculous skintight outfit was a bit sketchy, but did that mean she was an ancient creature driven to eat human flesh?
“Awkward,” the woman chimed, a mischievous smile on her face.
Her eyes glowed red.
It wasn’t a trick of the light. There was a definite crimson radiance in the back of her eyes. She smiled again, broadly, and her teeth appeared to have grown, her incisors protruding over her lower lip.
“I think I need more coffee,” I said, rising quickly. I set my cup down on the kitchen table, but instead of refilling it, I continued walking over to the hutch. The case wasn’t locked, but I had to open the latch to gain access to the gun inside. It was loaded and a round was chambered.
I swung around and immediately, the man grabbed my wrist and thrust it upward, pointing the gun at the ceiling.
Behind him, the woman was no longer human.
She was seven feet tall, covered in a fine white fur, with a wolf-like muzzle and fiery eyes.
“What are you doing?” I asked the man.
He was strong. His other hand grabbed my neck. “You know, some people think the beast isn’t some immortal demon, but a creature that lives and dies, is born and gives birth to more of its kind. Which would imply that there is more than one of them, and from time to time, they need to seek each other out… and mate.”
I looked at the man. His eyes assumed the same fire as the beast behind him, and in an instant he was an even taller beast whose razor sharp claws sliced through my neck, severing arteries and crushing my trachea. I couldn’t breath.
I fired the gun into the ceiling. Once, twice… then the strength left my hand and the gun fell free and clattered onto the linoleum.
The beast let go of my wrist and I slumped to the floor.
He turned his attention to his mate. They engaged in an act that was brief and appeared painful for both of them.
When they were finished, they ripped away my clothing, then dismembered me and crushed flesh and bone between their powerful jaws until I was completely consumed.
No wonder no one has held this job for more than a year.