It’s a timeless hour of the day.
The sun is muted white and the snow, falling in great clumps, snaps the gnarled limbs of a black tree. The rider hears not a single bird just the heavy meandering steps of his appaloosa.
His journey has again brought him to the silence of nature; he feels grateful despite something he can’t place. It’s enough to make him pause, staring into the distance past the trees, staring like he waited for something to show itself, waiting like he was afraid to move. He sees blood slathered on the bark of a trunk and draws the repeater from its boot on his saddle, slow and unsure.
The rider dismounts, hitching his horse on a sturdy branch. He motions her to calm as the proximity of the blood put her in duress. It’s baleful, persistent dripping unnerving both horseman and horse. She whines and the rider runs his fingers down her neck until she settles.
The rider lets his attention drift from the blood-stained tree to the snow where it was most prominent. That’s when he sees the hand-print. It’s not right, it’s strange; long fingers and jointed knuckles close to inhuman.
That emptiness that spread over the forest was no accident. Everything living had fled. He understood now why the birds didn’t sing. The silence became undesirable. He heard only his heart and his trailing steps which sounded to him clumsy and loud.
He follows the blood through a winding path and his breath flees his chapped lips like scurrying phantasms. He has heard stories of these woods. Stories without moral or reason, stories told by darkened hearts. Turned so under the immense burden of what they were forced to comprehend.
He slides down a hill and comes near a frozen river where he stops. Something cried up-ahead. The rider snaps his repeater and his lip twitches.
He imagines a creature one hundred feet tall with claws as long as oaks and skin blacker than night. He imagines his bullets bouncing off its skin. He imagines his own skin being consumed to fuel the creature’s insatiable evil hunger. Then, he thinks about the other travelers. He thinks about the blood, the carnage that awaits them.
His eyes drift toward Heaven with the buyer’s remorse of conscience and bravery. He tips his hat brim away from his eyes and presses the stock against his shoulder; advancing on the sound that draw his fears and attention.
What he sees is hunched and moving its fingers rapidly inside the open carcass of a bloated thing, perhaps once a man, like the beaks of carrion birds. The figure hides in the shadows beneath a tree where the roots curl down like bars. It’s not so tall but long in the limbs, flicking away at the festering guts of the corpse.
He pulls up the iron sight slowly as to not draw its attention. The creature sobs heavily and chews, chews what makes it into the large mouth with crooked teeth. Its piss-yellow eyes are stricken with red veins; the irises a deep and fel-black. The creature looks toward the rider when he takes one more step closer to line up his shot.
He sees the semblance of hair that drapes like strings of dried grass from its balding head. He recognizes the remains of a dress that loosely fall off its deformed malnourished body. His finger curls around the trigger and he watches it watch him through the iron sights. It disgusts him and he mourns for it all the same.
When it opens its mouth, bits of gore fall loose. It screams. Screams with a sound he can’t describe and screams from a place long forgotten by men. He sees its pupils yawn and the depths of it’s rotten throat expand. This sound would long follow him, long after the winter had passed.
He pulls the trigger and its head jerks back violently. The sound of the rifle crack echoing out and then becomes lost in the forest. Forever. The rider lowers the weapon and the thing, it falls forward onto the carcass at it’s feet.
He returns to the river after fetching his spade and digs, digs through the hard and frozen earth. He dumps the creature first, carrying the reeking carcass respectfully if not a bit disdainfully for the odor. He crosses their arms and they are buried together; should they have a story before this he isn’t sure but their fates now are woven as one.
Pushing the spade into the ground, the rider squats beside the clump of earth that marks them. He looks around and, prepared to speak, opens his mouth—but nothing comes out. No eulogy or thought; no verse or song. He shakes his head and stands up again. A crude cross is fashioned with twigs and shoved into the dirt.
“I’m sorry“, he says.
The rider breathes his lungs full of the cold air and feels his hand tighten on the top of the cross. What does it mean? A cold and woeful gust of wind passes by him and the rider follows it away.