Beast of Winter
Manitou Forest, Manitoba, Canada
A damn good day of hunting, Angus Kujak mused as his bloodied hands steered the truck between snow-covered pines. The antlers of his most recent kill rattled against the hood. Kujak rubbed his mutton-chop sideburns, feeling proud. Through the rearview mirror he glimpsed the pile of carcasses strapped to the flatbed. Atop two elk bulls lay his prize trophy—a grizzly bear. Took five bullets, but he’d finally brought her down with a dead zinger through the eye. Definitely a story for the boys at the chophouse.
“Hunting’s been better than usual, eh Jeb?” Snoring came from the passenger seat. Kujak reached over and knocked his cousin’s forehead. “I’m not paying you to sleep.”
Jeb, dressed in blood-stained camouflage and a winter hat with earflaps, sat up rubbing his forehead. “Sorry. Shelby kept me up half the night.”
“What’s she moaning about?”
“Usual. I spend too much time at the pub, not enough with her and the kids.” Jeb unscrewed his thermos cap. The smell of coffee and whiskey filled the truck.
“Man’s gotta have time with his friends. Pass that over.” Kujak took a swig from the thermos. The coffee was cold, but the whiskey went down with a fiery burn.
Up ahead, a white squall was devouring the pines. Snow pelted the windshield, threatening to bury the truck with the rest of the forest. He turned the wipers on full speed.
Jeb said, “Angus, I need to tell you something…you aren’t gonna like it.”
“What is it?”
“Shelby wants me to quit working for you and take a job building that pipeline.”
Kujak got a vile taste in his mouth. Jeb’s wife was always henpecking him. Soon after they’d gotten married, she’d cut off Jeb’s balls and stuck them in a drawer. She didn’t care for hunting—Killing animals is barbaric!—or her husband working for Kujak. They’d been hunting together since they were kids, long before Shelby entered the picture, and no woman should come between them. “You wouldn’t abandon your cousin, would ya?”
Jeb looked out his window. “I dunno. Thornhill Petroleum promises good pay plus benefits.”
“I pay you damned good, plus bonuses when you actually kill something.”
“Yeah, but pipeline work’s legal. Mr. Thornhill paid a visit to the pub last night. Said he had plenty of work for anyone interested.”
Kujak slammed his fist down on the steering wheel. “That blasted son’bitch! I’ve lost most of my hunters since that weasel rolled into town. I’d like to string him up by his ankles.”
“You gotta admit, his pipeline has helped business. Ever since they started blasting through Manitou Forest, he’s been driving game right toward our hunting ground.”
“That’s why I need you more than ever.” The road straightened. Kujak shifted into a higher gear. The truck’s engine howled in protest as it drove at forty miles an hour. “Jeb, I been thinking about making you a partner. You’d be surprised how much you can make. I’m selling more than just the meat and hides. The antlers, bones, hooves, and innards, I got buyers for all of it. We can earn…”
Something rammed the side of the truck. The steering wheel spun loose from Kujak’s grip. The truck careened 180 degrees, slammed sideways into a wall of snow. Elk antlers scraped across the hood and punctured the windshield. Kujak’s face hit the steering wheel. Dazed, he stared down at his blurry boots. Blood dribbled from his nose over his lips. “Jesus!” Kujak gripped the wheel until the forest stopped spinning. “You okay, Jeb?”
His cousin rubbed his forehead. “Hit my damn head, but I’m okay. What happened?”
“Felt like a moose broadsided us. See a dead one near the road?”
“Nothing. Not even blood.”
An animal howled from the snowy mist.
“Fuckin’ hell was that?” Jeb crouched in his seat.
Kujak rubbed his eyes. “I’m still seeing double. Can you spot it?”
“Something’s moving fast between the trees. Shit, it’s coming at us from behind!” Jeb yelped.
The flatbed rocked, shaking the cab. Kujak’s neck hairs rose to hackles as something snorted inches from the back window. Claws scraped metal. A blurry shape leapt off the truck.
Kujak’s vision cleared just as the beast disappeared into the falling snow.
Jeb trembled. “W-What the hell was that?”
“Grizzly.” The hunter’s pulse in Kujak quickened. “Let’s bag ‘em!” He threw open the door, grabbed his rifle, and hurried around the back of the truck. “Shit!”
The entire load of carcasses—the two elks and bear—were missing. “How the hell?”
Kujak followed a trail of blood and fur into a thicket of pines. Monstrous footprints made deep impressions in the snow. “Must be the granddaddy of grizzlies. Jeb, get out here.”
His cousin remained inside the cab, his back to the door that was pinned against the snow bank. “I don’t wanna chase a bear that size.”
“It’s running off with our game. Get your ass out here!” Kujak loaded a fresh cartridge in the rifle’s chamber.
Jeb climbed out with his gun. “Oh lordy, your face.”
Kujak wiped a sleeve across his bloody nose, then marched into the woods. He whispered, “I’ll follow the blood trail. Keep to my left.”
“What if he circles us?”
“Shoot the bastard. Now shush.” Kujak crept through the red snow. The drift beyond the road had piled two-feet deep. Sweet Jesus, he’d never seen paw prints that size. His boots stepped from one giant impression to the next. In some places he had to leap, due to the long stride. The claw marks looked abnormally long. The more Kujak studied the pattern, the odder he felt. What kind of bear runs on two legs?
Ahead, the evergreens huddled close together. Snow dropped like a million down feathers. As he weaved between clumps of spruce, Kujak tried to imagine how a bear could run off with the carcasses of three large animals. Scattered across the bloody trail lay broken antlers, a severed elk leg. Tufts of fur clung to branches high above Kujak’s head. His adrenaline pumped with the thrill of the hunt. He had to bag this granddaddy.
Wind howled, long and hollow, like a baying wolf.
Kujak glanced at Jeb, who moved parallel between the trees. Every few feet his cousin disappeared behind pines, then reappeared in a new place.
Jeb froze and pointed frantically.
The brown flanks of a bear moved between the trees twenty yards away. There you are. Kujak locked his scope on the beast’s back and fired. A hole opened in the dark brown fur. The beast roared.
Kujak squeezed off another shot. “Take that you bastard!”
Instead of dropping, the bear in his scope shot toward him, snapping branches. Kujak got off two more shots before a jarring impact knocked him to the ground. His vision went blurry again. More shots fired. To his left. Or was it his right?
His cousin screamed and fired wildly, bullets whizzing through the forest.
“Jeb!” Kujak sat up. The forest spun. He tried to stand, but something heavy and furry pinned his leg. “Shit!” Blind, he stabbed the animal with his knife, but it lay there without a struggle, already dead. Kujak felt along the hairy behemoth that lay on his foot. His hand found a bear’s head; his fingers plunged into a bloody eye socket. It was the bear he’d shot earlier. The granddaddy beast had hurled her twenty yards through the air.
What kind of animal can throw a grizzly?
The gunshots stopped. So did Jeb’s screams.
Kujak scanned the forest, stopping on what looked like a bloody human thigh.
Jeb’s body lay on the ground, an elk carcass covering his head and upper torso. His legs were hidden behind a copse of blue spruce.
Kujak’s scrotum tightened when he heard crunching.
The beast snorted, then yanked Jeb’s body into the thicket. As if taunting him, a severed arm in a camouflage sleeve smacked the tree next to Kujak.
He felt in the snow for his rifle. Found a shattered scope and broken nape. Tossing the useless weapon, Kujak tried to lift the bear’s carcass. He screamed in frustration and immediately regretted it.
The bone crunching stopped. Heavy footfalls stomped through the woods.
An idea came. He soaked his hands in bear’s blood and rubbed his ankle inside his boot. He crawled backward, pulling his pinned foot. After a few yanks, the greased ankle slipped free. He bolted for the truck, half running, half stumbling, his bare foot sinking in the snow.
Tree limbs snapped behind him.
Kujak didn’t look back. Kept his eyes on the truck. Thirty more feet.
A roar like nothing he’d ever heard echoed across the valley. A whirlwind of snow blasted around him.
Twenty more feet to the truck. Kujak charged up the hill.
An elk antler whirled past his shoulder, skidded across the road.
Kujak jerked open the driver’s door and jumped behind the wheel. He fumbled for the keys, his fingers greasy with bear’s blood. “Come on, come on,” he pleaded.
Another antler struck his door.
He turned the key, ignited the engine, and jammed the accelerator. The truck slid sideways as the passenger side wheels spun. He shifted into reverse.
Beyond the frosty windshield a giant shape loomed in front of the truck.
The wipers pushed away the snow, revealing a skeletal creature with pale skin. It had long white hair and a horrid face with black holes for eyes. Its lips had been chewed to shreds. A serrated mouth grinned as it pointed at Kujak and shrieked. The sound pierced his eardrums with ice-pick stabbings of pain. His skin crystallized with frost as a chill coursed through him. Kujak felt his belly caving inward. The muscles tightened around his bones.
The beast picked up what was left of Jeb and ran off into the woods.
Kujak sat behind the wheel, shaking. His Cree friends had warned him not to hunt in Manitou Forest. That’s the Wendigo’s hunting ground. He’d always laughed off talk of Indian superstitions.
His heart turned to ice in his chest as he shifted into drive and pushed the pedal to the floor. The old Chevy flatbed fishtailed then finally straightened. It took a mile before he found the nerve to look at his reflection in the rearview mirror. His face was gaunt, his plump cheeks sunk inward. The irises of his eyes had turned pure white. His teeth grew sharp as icicles. He thought of Shelby, the boys at the chophouse, and that bastard Thornhill. Kujak’s bloody hands gripped the wheel. With a voracious hunger for meat gnawing at his belly, he drove back toward town.
~ Brian Moreland
© Copyright 2017 Brian Moreland. All Rights Reserved