The Winter Sun
by Mary Beecroft
Shelby kept her distance and quietly watched the big dog. She could tell he smelled the return of spring in the air, the way he stood with his nose up, closing his eyes, as if reliving a pleasant memory. So far he’d been gentle around her, but his size alone was enough to make her cautious.
A wind shifted through the trees, ruffling the thick of his gray fur. His eyes opened and met with hers — golden and fathomless. It was those eyes that had drawn her in when she’d found him days earlier, caged with the other dogs by the empty cabin, the wilderness pent up inside him.
“Come,” she said and clicked her tongue. He made no indication to obey, but as she continued through the woods he padded after her without making a noise. The sun hung low in the sky behind them, the trees casting long shadows.
When they neared the mountain lodge a white truck was pulling up the gravel drive. It wound around to the back and parked on the lawn. The driver’s door swung open and a tall skinny man in a hunting jacket stepped out. Even in the distance, the hunter struck a chord of familiarity. She’d seen him before, recently too. She could recall the low drawl of his voice and the misgivings he gave her, but the where and why was stuck someplace in the back of her mind.
The animal began to growl.
“Stop that.” The words were lost on the creature. She inched closer and lowered her hand to the tuft of his neck. He didn’t snap at her, so she knelt beside him and slowly moved her face to his large one.
The hunter looked over to the woods where they crouched.
She buried her cheek in the animal’s fur, her lips to his ear. She whispered sweetly — nonsensical things she’d never say to any man and to her surprise he whimpered then quieted altogether, sitting on his haunches.
The hunter was grinning. Surely he couldn’t see them. The sun must have shone right in his eyes and they were half buried in the undergrowth. But the man was grinning nonetheless, the type of grin she couldn’t hide from.
She held her breath, her fingers digging uselessly in the animal’s fur. The hunter turned, slung a duffel bag over his shoulder and sauntered off to the front porch.
She waited to make sure he wasn’t coming back before she stood and exhaled. It took some prodding to get the creature to go closer to where she kept him tied along the back wall of the lodge. He grumbled at the hunter’s truck and rooted his paws the nearer they got. She finally managed it by going to the rope and tempting him with a strip of jerky. He came — reluctant and uncertain. She let him have the rest of the jerky and tied him up while he ate. The animal howled when she walked away. She wished he hadn’t. The growling and grumbling was one thing. The howling another. Howling would bring more eyes and more questions. She took the back entrance up to her room and locked herself in.
The dark curtains muffled the evening sun. Apart from the lodge’s furnishings, only her backpack was laid out, which held everything she took when she’d run away from her mother’s house. She’d picked up a few more things since then. One was tied up outside, the rest hidden in a leather case underneath the bed.
She knelt and pulled it out, sifting through an expired hunting license, worn maps, a fur hat, and a few poker chips until she found the .22 Revolver. She held it in both hands, taking in its weight and the feel of the wooden grip and steel barrel. It wasn’t the one Jefferson Adler had used, but she had shown the papers she’d forged to buy the same type from a pawn shop in town.
Jefferson Adler. Shelby couldn’t bring herself to think of him by the other name. The name she’d been dreaming of all seventeen years of her life. She wondered if she’d run off searching for that name or for the man himself. She hadn’t found him in time to find out. When she’d got to the old cabin, his body was long gone and his place taped off.
She curled up on the bed and cradled the gun against her chest. When she’d arrived in the mountains almost two weeks before, the residents told her she’d missed the worst blizzard in local history by a scant few days. There wasn’t a trace of it now, as birds sang in newly budding trees and the first of the daffodils sprang up in heaps. But she pictured how the snow might have fallen — not fallen, but thrashed with the fury of the storm, whiting the black from the night. Jefferson must have watched it from his window during his last hour, in awe and fear. He’d decide to make one final round about his cabin. He’d burnt anything personal or otherwise incriminating days before — this time it was to say goodbye. Only afterward, on his way into the blizzard, did he hear the dogs bark and the low, long howl —
A knock on the door. She stuffed the gun under her pillow and used her foot to slide the case under the bed. She opened the door with a smile.
The lodge owner stood on the other side, wringing his hands. He was a large man with thin hair and watery eyes.
“I was just on my way down,” Shelby said brightly. “I changed the sheets, towels, cleaned the bathrooms, took out garbage — everything on your list in all the chalets.”
“Good, good, Kristine,” the lodge owner said distractedly. Her smile fell a little. He wasn’t here to check if she’d done her chores. He wrung his sweaty hands. “You brought that dog with you, I take it?”
She gripped the doorknob. There was no use lying here. “I can hardly keep him tied up all day.”
“Yes, yes, I know, Kristine. It’s just the way he looks. A dog like that don’t belong here — he frightens the other guests.”
“He frightens your wife, you mean?” She couldn’t keep the edge from her voice.
“It’s not just her. You’ve been a good help this past couple days, but folks are talking. They don’t like — an animal like that around here. If he gets loose … ”
Shelby laughed carelessly. “You’re forgetting, sir. I’ve had that dog since he was a puppy. I’ve never seen him snap at so much as a fly — he’s as tame as they come.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “What kind a dog you say that was?”
“A Northern Inuit. A respectable breed.” She flashed a smile she hoped didn’t resemble a snarl.
He nodded, feigning recognition. “And your boyfriend. You say he’s coming to pick you up?”
“In three days. The dog goes with us.” She couldn’t tell if this appeased him, so she threw in, “I can help out with the bar again. You get any new lodgers?”
“Got a fellow in a few minutes ago.”
When they went down the hunter sat slouched at the bar in front of an untouched beer. He carved at a piece of wood with a long knife, a shadow of that grin on his sunken face. He looked up as she went behind the counter, his eyes large and bloodshot. The grin widened, baring yellow teeth and cracked lips.
“The girl that hides,” he said in a slow, pronounced drawl.
She acted as if she hadn’t heard. She retreated to the far corner of the bar and busied herself with the beer mugs piled in the sink. The hot water scalded her hands.
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
She wrung out a sponge and found the dish soap stuck up in one of the cabinets.
“Little girl, I’m talking to you.”
She couldn’t keep ignoring him without attracting the lodge owner’s attention. “My apologies, sir. You say you want another?”
“I say I know you, girl.”
She laughed. “I hardly think so. I’ve just been here the past few days.”
“But I’ve seen you before. Do you know where?”
The lodge owner moved away from a young couple at the other end of the bar, wiping down the counters, but he was listening. She thought the young couple might be too, along with the men playing at the card table.
She slapped her hand on the counter. “Why yes, I do! I was in the paper last month for a talent show I won. You’re looking at the best juggler in three counties. I bet you saw my picture in the article.”
“That so, Kristine?” said the lodge owner, smiling. “You’re full of surprises.”
“Show us,” said the hunter, his voice deadly calm.
“I don’t have anything to juggle.” She shrugged.
He reached into the breast pocket of his flannel shirt and dropped a fistful of poker chips on the counter. “I reckon these should do for the best juggler in three counties.”
Shelby felt the lodge owner’s eyes shift between the hunter’s steely gaze and her frozen smile. She inclined her head graciously and scooped them up.
She tossed them, one at a time, some low, some high, in fluid motion. She threw a few up behind her back and caught them without looking. She juggled them like she was born knowing how. The lodge owner’s jaw dropped and the young couple clapped and cheered. She caught them in one hand and set them before the stranger. She took a small bow. The best lies were those closest to the truth.
“Where’d a pretty little girl like you pick that up? Now it couldn’t have been from your father.” The hunter said quietly.
Shelby stiffened. He propped his cheek on his fist and smiled at her. She watched him gather his chips from the counter and recalled that little more than a week before she’d stopped at a bar in town to ask for directions to the old cabin in the woods. The hunter had been there, gathering his poker chips at a table surrounded by other men. His eyes were on her then as they were now. He’d watched her as she spoke to the bartender. He’d listened. And now he was here.
“Just spent a lot of time alone growing up.” Even as she said it, she wanted to take it back. It was too true to say in this place, to this man, and it hung in the air for everyone to see. Comprehension set in the hunter’s eyes. Horrified, she retreated to the sink. She turned the faucet on full force and picked up a glass.
“Mr. Barrow,” the hunter called the lodge owner over. “You ever hear of a Jefferson Adler? Lived deep in the mountains in an old cabin.”
The rushing water from the faucet filled her ears. She wasn’t aware of dropping the mug in the sink. Scalding water splashed on her, but it made no difference.
“Sure, I’ve heard of him,” said the lodge owner. “A hunter and trapper of sorts.”
“A gambler,” the hunter corrected. “Who got himself in a lot of trouble. He’s dead now. Blew his brains out a little over two weeks ago.”
“That’s a real shame,” the lodge owner said softly. “He have family?”
“What an interesting question, Mr. Barrow. No one ever thought he did. Lived alone up there for years. Just him and his dogs.”
“What happened to the dogs … after?”
“The sheriff came and had them put down. All but one. They say he escaped. A queer one with golden eyes. They weren’t sure he was all dog.”
The lodge owner was silent.
“You see something like that around here?”
Shelby stopped the water just as it began to overflow. The beer mugs bobbed up and down uncleaned.
She felt eyes burning into her back. They’d soon burn a hole through her skin and look right into her if she stayed longer. She made for the stairwell, keeping her head low.
“Kristine,” said the lodge owner solemnly. “You haven’t finished the dishes.”
Her feet wouldn’t take her any further, her heart going a thousand miles an hour — she wondered if it were trying to find its way out of her chest. Perhaps she was in the blizzard from that night. The cold wind biting down to her bones and the ice clinging to her clothes and hair. The sound of the dogs blocked out by the storm. All she needed was the gun.
“Kristine,” the lodge owner broke in. “There something you want to tell me?”
She turned and saw the uncertainty had gone from his face. “I’ve got a headache,” she said. “And I’m tired. I’ll clean up in the morning.”
He crossed his arms. The hunter had gone back to carving with his large knife. He wasn’t looking at her anymore. He didn’t have to.
She took the stairs two at a time. When she reached her floor the hallway was spinning and she couldn’t catch her breath. Had it been that way out in the forest with the blizzard pressing in?
She locked herself in her room. The sun had set and she was alone in the quiet and the dark. She didn’t need to see to find the gun under the pillow.
She pictured the other gun. It must have been cold on his hands that night. Cold and frightening, but he’d gone this far. In this storm, he couldn’t have found his way back to the cabin if he’d wanted. The gun was no longer an enemy, but a tender and gentle friend. She put it against her temple and closed her eyes as he had done. Perhaps he heard a howl above the scream of the wind. His last tie to the world he was leaving. A long howl, a sad one. Did it bring back memories of times forgotten? Of seventeen years ago with the young woman and daughter he’d left behind? Shelby didn’t know. How could she ever know in the wake of spring — trapped in the still and dark of this room?
She pulled the trigger and heard her gun click empty. A sound so small compared to what he must have heard, before his body fell and the blood quickly froze against the white of the snow. She allowed her image of his broken figure to fade away. His story ended there. It was all she could do to forgive him.
The animal was howling outside the lodge. She lowered her arm, exhaling. It was time to go. She packed the gun in his old case, put on her windbreaker, and hoisted on her backpack. She left the room key on the dresser and snuck out quietly, down the back stairwell.
Once outside, she followed the wall with her flashlight until she found the animal where she’d left him. He stood and wagged his tail. She scratched behind his ears and he looked up at her with his golden eyes and something in them brought tears to her own. She smiled and marveled that she’d ever found him frightful.
“I knew you’d come for him,” said the voice with the low drawl. She raised the flashlight and found the hunter leaning against his white truck, thumbing at the blade of his long knife. “Mr. Barrow asked me to take the beast out to the woods and give him a quick death. But I was waiting for you.”
The animal was snarling again, but she hardly noticed. She stepped in between him and the hunter. “Why’s that?” She was glad her voice didn’t tremble.
“Cause I’m gonna give you the chance to save him.” He took out a stone and set to sharpening his weapon. “Jefferson Adler was a foolish man. He stole from me and my friends, and just when we was gonna take it back he went and killed himself.”
“So he got away from you,” Shelby said fiercely.
The hunter chuckled. “Got away from me, did he? I reckon he did.” The laughter died from his lips. “Only he forgot about what he left behind.”
Shelby turned to the animal who snapped his teeth.
“Yes, he left that beast. And one more thing that he’d forgot.” His eyes locked on hers. There was the grin that found the loneliness she’d always tried to hide.
“So what do you want from me?” Her voice wasn’t steady this time.
“What an awful big coincidence to have you show up in these parts right around the time he dies. Seems to me you might a known something about that fortune he owed me and thought you had the rights to inherit it.”
The color drained from her face. She thought of the useless things she’d taken from that cabin — the poker chips, the hunting license. The animal. She felt its presence behind her.
“So the choice is yours,” the hunter continued. “You give back what he took from me or I take what was his.”
“You don’t understand. He left before I knew him. I don’t even have a real memory of him. How would I know where he hid some stupid fortune?”
The truth came out in a rush, the first time she’d said it, but he didn’t believe her. Or maybe he did and just didn’t care, because the knife was on her before she could think, right up under her throat. He yanked her close by the collar of her jacket and the flashlight slipped from her fingers. The creature was still behind her snarling, gnashing his teeth — he could rip the man’s throat out — but he was out of reach, yanking against the rope.
“The girl that hides, the girl that lies. Who’d miss her? She don’t belong here.”
He shoved her away. She stumbled and hit the ground. The case slid from her hands and popped open. She scrambled to her knees and sifted through the spilled contents. Her hand curled around the wooden grip. He came down behind her, pressing in close, the stink of his breath against her cheek.
“I’ll give you one last shot.”
She turned slowly. “Careful, I might take it.” She pressed the gun against his chest, holding it steady in both hands.
“The little girl don’t know how to use that.”
The cylinder was still empty but she went through the motions and pulled back the hammer. “You tried calling my bluff before. As I recall, it didn’t work out for you.”
Even in the dark, she knew the grin had fallen from his face and he couldn’t see through her anymore. She backed away from him and got to her feet.
She aimed the gun at his forehead. “Give me the knife.”
A long, begrudged silence. Would he attack? Even if the gun were loaded, he could spring up, knock her over and slit her throat before she could react.
The knife hit the tip of her boot. She grinned. He was a stupid man after all, afraid of a stupid gun. She lowered herself, keeping the gun steady in one arm, and snatched it up. “I’m leaving Mr. Adler’s old traveling case, so you’ll know I wasn’t lying.”
She moved back to her animal. He stood tall but silent. Waiting for her. She severed the rope at his neck and he pounced. He threw the man backwards who screamed like a child. Shelby didn’t know what the animal would do to him and for the moment she didn’t care. She picked up her flashlight and went to his truck, puncturing the back tire.
The animal had the hollering man pinned, hissing and snarling — sounds no ordinary dog could make. He snapped his fangs an inch from his eye.
Lights sprung on in the lodge behind her. She called to the animal and he slunk off him and came to her. Footsteps clambered down the back stairwell. She stuffed both weapons into her pack and they took off. They’d made it to the edge of the woods when the lodge door banged open and she heard the shout of men’s voices.
The animal shot ahead of her. He ran like flowing water as she followed behind, her feet tripping on the undergrowth. She clicked off her flashlight and the darkness overwhelmed her. She lost her footing and fell to her hands and knees.
She was breathing hard, but listening to the wind in the leaves and the soft padding of the animal circling back for her. Nothing else. The men at the lodge were not coming. The animal nuzzled against her cheek. She got back up and brushed her knees.
They moved on slowly, the animal taking lead. She didn’t know where they were going, but it didn’t matter. She wasn’t tired and she wasn’t afraid.
At sunrise the forest cleared and they reached a dirt road and an open meadow. She set her backpack down and took off her windbreaker.
The animal dug his snout into the long grass. She went and knelt beside him, setting her hand on the tuft of his neck. He turned his golden eyes to her, her own reflection in them. “You’re trouble, you know?” she said with a laugh. But the funny thing was that she felt alright. They’d made it out of the blizzard.
She stood, took a deep breath, and lifted her backpack up on her shoulders. She looked to the vast sky across the meadow and clicked her tongue.
“Come along.” The animal came as she knew he would and they walked together down the winding dirt road.
Mary Beecroft was raised in Kingston Springs, Tennessee, graduated with an undergraduate degree from The University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and has since lived and traveled to places all over the world. However, it is the woods of her childhood that inspired the setting of this story.