|THEY COME IN THE SNOW by Ellis Hastings|
Act II—Messages, Splinters, and Blood
Recap of Act I: In the first act, we were brought to a cold day in February 1855, somewhere in the Utah territories, where we found four men who had been snowed into a lodge. Joe Edmonds—a gambler and borderline alcoholic owns the lodge, offering shelter to an elderly chicken farmer named Whitey Douglass, a cowboy named Corey Baggett, and an unnamed Sheriff. During a snowstorm, Whitey discovers a loose tree outside. After losing a bet, Corey is sent out to chop it down. A snow flurry picks up, hiding him from view. When it subsides, the cowboy and tree are nowhere to be found. Instead, there is a strange, deformed creature lurking on the outskirts of the property. Concern begins to settle over the men, when Joe—slightly drunk off whiskey and irrationally confident—takes the Sheriff’s gun and heads outside to confront the person or creature. As soon as Joe steps out, another snow flurry, like the one that started when the Cowboy exited the lodge, begins. Panicked screams followed by several gun shots are heard outside. When the flurry subsides, Joe and the figure are both gone, leaving Whitey and the Sheriff alone in the lodge. Act II picks up with the men sitting by the door, trying to process what had just happened.
The Sheriff and Whitey sat silently across from each other in the chairs by the window. The Chicken Farmer occasionally peered towards the forest. Goose pimples spread across his arms like a bad rash while the hairs on the back of his neck grew warm and stood up. Something was watching him; he was sure of it. But what and where the Hell could it be? The stables caught his eye. He wondered how his stallion was doing out there. He had covered it with a blanket to keep it warm in the snow and gave it plenty of food and water, but the stables weren’t heated.
Out of the blue, his intuition began telling him he needed to get far away from the lodge. The ever-so-familiar feeling of dread rumbled in the Chicken Farmer’s gut as he found himself irrationally wondering if he would be better off trying for home now, instead of waiting out the storm. It had come on suddenly, but it could be gone by the morning. However, it could also stretch on for days. With each passing hour, Whitey felt the thing hunting him and the Sheriff growing closer. They wouldn’t last another several days. Hell, they may not even make it to dawn.
“What’s got your tongue?” The Sheriff croaked. For a split second, Whitey wondered if it would be possible for the man to read his mind.
Whitey’s heart skipped a beat until he realized he had accidentally said what he was thinking aloud.
“Um…” he paused, eyes wandering to the window.
The Sheriff took note of the peculiar way the man was acting and began to grow weary of him.
Finally, Whitey found the words, “I was just thinking of how those two seemed to have vanished without a trace. Crazy, ain’t it?”
The Sheriff nodded silently; trying to maintain eye contact with the strange man. Whitey’s eyes continued diverting back to the forest.
“Whitey’s your name, isn’t it?”
The Chicken Farmer nodded; never breaking his thousand-mile-stare with the white sea of trees, “Well, it’s William, but I go by Whitey.”
“How’d you end up in this lodge, Whitey?”
“Was heading West to California. I was going to visit my sister when the snow hit,”
A pause, then, “What brings you here, Sheriff?”
“Wife’s got me on the hot seat. You a married man?”
“I can’t say that I am. Well, I was but my lady fell ill with some real bad stomach illness and,” The Chicken Farmer sighed, “she never recovered.”
“How long did the marriage last?”
For the entire duration of the conversation, the Chicken Farmer continued peering through the blurry glass; refusing to make eye contact with his interrogator.
“We had just recently celebrated our twentieth year when the sickness took hold.”
Sensing he was on to something, the Sheriff pressed deeper, “Although my wife’s been giving me the cold shoulder as of late, I can’t imagine the sorrow of losing her like that. That pain must be enough to drive any sane man mad.”
Finally, the Chicken Farmer broke sight of the woods. He turned his head back to the Sheriff; a distrustful look on his face, when a steady series of three knocks rapped on the door. Then, Whitey forgot that the lawman had been subtly interrogating him as fear swelled inside his stomach. He jumped from his chair and rushed to the window then peered out. However, the awkward positioning of the window made it impossible to see who was outside.
Slowly, the Sheriff stood up and walked to the door before stopping.
“Who’s there?” He asked in a commanding tone.
“The Hell you mean who’s there? It’s me, dammit. Who else would it be?” The voice of Joe said from the other side.
“Where the Hell’d you go?”
“I went to take a piss. Now let me in, it’s cold as the bottom level of Hell out here!”
“You find Corey?”
This struck the Sheriff as odd. Joe must have a bad memory forgetting his new friend’s name.
“Yes. You know, the one who you were gambling with for nearly an hour.”
“Yeah, he’s dropping trou out in the woods, like I told you.”
The Chicken Farmer shuddered upon hearing this phrase. It was as if the creature outside had been listening in on them. That, or it really was the Gambler standing outside.
“Open the damn door, Sheriff.”
“Just a few more questions,” the Sheriff said.
“It’s cold as Hell out here!” The voice suddenly changed in tone slightly before quickly reverting to the voice of the Gambler. “Let us in,” accidentally slipped out.
The Sheriff paused and looked back to the Chicken Farmer whose eyes were fixed on something on the ground.
“Us?” The Sheriff said, “I thought you said Corey’s out emptying his bowels. Who else is with you, Joe?”
“No one, it’s just that,” a tense pause, “I think there was something following me when I was out in the woods and I really don’t care for standing out here any longer.”
“What was following you?”
“Some odd-looking fellow.”
“Describe this man.”
Joe paused, then replied with a hint of a snicker in his voice, “You know, like that creature we saw standing outside before I ran into the woods. Long arms, crooked neck, and an old jacket on. I think I saw its face out by the trees which is what startled me. Call me a loon, but I could’ve sworn that thing had no eyes, just two slits for a nose and a giant hole where its mouth should have been.”
Now, with multiple red flags raised, the Sheriff turned back to the Chicken Farmer with a doubtful look on his face. Whitey’s eyes were still fixated on the bottom of the door. Suddenly, the old man lifted his gaze to the Sheriff and extended one long arm towards the floor.
“Don’t let him in, Sheriff,” Whitey said, Adam’s apple bobbing frivolously.
“Are you shittin’ me?” Joe shouted from behind the door with a hard bang of his fist against the wood. It slightly sounded like Joe had plunged a blade into the old maple.
“I’m freezing my sack off out here, let me in!”
The Sheriff ignored him and instead focused on the frightened man behind him, “Why do you say that, Whitey?”
The Chicken Farmer swallowed his courage, “L-l-look at the bottom of the door.”
The Sheriff did as instructed, and turned his attention to the crack at the bottom.
“If there was someone standing out there, then there’d be a shadow.”
Although it seemed impossible, Whitey was right, the voice of Joe was coming from immediately behind the door but there was no shadow of anyone standing behind it.
Finally, the act was dropped. The voice changed so that it was no longer Joe’s, but was instead a low, indistinct growl.
“Let us in.”
Finding himself at a loss for words, but with a crazy idea to swing the door open and ambush whatever waited outside, the Sheriff grasped the cold handle and looked back to Whitey with a shrug.
“Don’t do it!” the old man shouted.
“Sheriff, we could hear you all talking in there. Our ears are already with you. It’s only a matter of time until we get ourselves the rest of the way in.”
“What the Hell are you?” The Sheriff said. He refused to budge until he got an answer. He wasn’t so much afraid as he was dumbfounded. Superstitious was one thing the Sheriff never considered himself, but this strange turn of events was peculiar, to say the least.
“Let us in,” the voice repeated, ignoring his previous inquiry.
“Don’t!” The Chicken Farmer echoed, halfway cowering behind a chair.
“Suit yourself,” the voice said with a harsh laugh sounding like gravel being dragged across the dirt. The voice went quiet as the Sheriff and Chicken Farmer looked back and forth from each other to the door.
“What the Hell’s that mean?” Whitey whispered, trying to keep his voice low enough in case the eavesdroppers were listening in.
“They can hear us?” The old man sounded exasperated, “I… I don’t… understand. How? Why? Who? Who are they?”
“Whitey, you’ve got to get a hold of yourself,” The Sheriff said in a stern yet calm tone.
“Get a hold of myself?” Whitey’s eyes darted from the door to the window then to the Sheriff and back again.
“You’ve got a look in your eyes.”
Finally, the old man’s rapidly scanning orbits fell on the Sheriff. Velvet bruises sagged along the bottom of the sockets. Bloody red strings of yarn sat practically bulging in the whites. The Chicken Farmer seemed to have aged twenty years in the last ten minutes.
“What do you mean, Sheriff?”
The Sheriff sucked at his teeth, then said, “When you’ve been a Sheriff for as long as I have, even in a small town such as Carver’s Creek, you learn over time to read a person’s intentions based on the expression and mannerisms painted on their face.”
Whitey’s lower lip twitched and he bit nervously at it until a thin line of blood rolled down the skin, making a turn along the curve of his chin and dropped between the cracks in the floorboards.
“Whitey,” The Sheriff said, “You’ve got madness in your eyes.”
Whitey’s head began twitching slightly in what must have been an attempt to shake it in denial, “What do you think I’m going to do, Sheriff? I… I’m not mad. I’m just… terrified.”
The Sheriff sighed, but before he could say anything further, the rattling of tin cans being shaken came from the door. When the two men fixed their eyes upon the bottom of the door, they both froze in morbid curiosity and fear. A slim, almost-skeleton hand had slid beneath the crack. Pale, ghostlike skin strained tightly against the disfigured bones of the hand, highlighting every crooked tendon and vein. Lacerated fingers dug into the wood; nails chipping and tearing from the bedding as the long fingers pulled the palm of the hand and wrist further and further into the room until the pale hand grew into a pale arm that seemed to reach out an inhuman four-feet before being stopped at the elbow.
Slowly, the Sheriff turned his attention to his blade which sat wedged in the floorboard just inches to the right of the hand.
“Of course,” he muttered under his breath as he scratched that option from the list. He turned his attention back to the Chicken Farmer who stood frozen with his arms raised as if trying to defend himself from an attacker. Whitey’s face had completely drained of blood and his eyes bulged from the already swollen sockets. The expression of pure unadulterated terror in the old man’s face would be amusing in another situation. Deciding that Whitey would also have no idea of what to do, the Sheriff simply took another step away from the hand.
A floorboard squealed under the weight of the lawman. When this happened, the hand moved quickly as if awoken from a slumber. The fingers rose and the tendons along the wrist tightened as the hand revealed its palm to the men. Encrypted in the centre of the flesh was an eye. At first, both men assumed the eye was a very detailed drawing until it began to move.
Rolling hauntingly, the shrivelled orbit scanned the room. It first looked at the Sheriff who regarded it with disgust, then panned over to the Chicken Farmer who remained frozen in the same position. The eye watched Whitey for a good deal longer than the Sheriff—it was as if it knew or wanted something from him. The Sheriff turned his attention to the old man who was literally quivering in his boots, then grabbed him by the shoulders and guided him to a chair across the room. When he looked back, the Sheriff saw that, to no surprise, the eye had followed his every movement. Whitey let out a whining squeal as he exhaled. Suddenly, a long grating sound called out to them as the hand quickly removed itself from the lodge. The Sheriff rushed to the spot the hand had just been and tore his blade free from the floor, then sprinted to the door and undid the latch.
“Sheriff, don’t,” Whitey begged.
Ignoring the Chicken Farmer’s plea, the Sheriff threw the door open; knife held in a striking position. Neither the hand nor whomever—or whatever—it belonged to was in sight. Instead, he was greeted by the hatchet that Corey had taken with him outside. The blade was wedged into the snow and was surrounded by tiny brown particles that looked to the Sheriff like oddly coloured ants. Scooping up a handful of snow, he saw that these tiny objects were pieces of wood. The Sheriff’s eyes went wide as he jumped to his feet and spun around. The broken splinters had come from the door to the lodge. And upon that door from which they came was a name carved into the oak.
Corey the cowboy.
TO BE CONTINUED