The Winter Hearth: Part Two
The conclusion. Harold mounts a rescue in the dark. Part of an ongoing series of stories of anthropomorphic animals.
Harold looked around the inn as the realization dawned on him. That he was going after the missing skier was not in doubt. But he knew there would be some of the animals there that would insist they leave The Winter Hearth with him, whether to find the desert shrew or to try to make their own escape down the mountain. He would not allow anyone else to endanger themselves. The animals in his care must remain safe.
Seeing Matilda eyeing him, one silvery brow arched in a silent question, Harold realized he had again been stroking his long white ears back against his head again. He tried to put on an air of calm and confidence, but his paws just ended up unconsciously smoothing his winter parka down.
“Harold,” Matilda began warily, “you’re not thinking of going after him, are you?”
The elegantly aging grey fox, who was also his closest friend, knew him too well. He attempted to reassure her, “Of course not. It’s obviously much too dangerous for anyone to go alone. We must focus on the guests here and their safety.”
Matilda must have heard the uncertainty in his voice because she looked unconvinced. Before she could talk him out of his silent decision, Harold walked off briskly, speaking with the head of the waitstaff and then with some of the guests. She attempted to follow after him as he worked his way into the halls of the inn, but he managed to direct a few of the guests’ questions to her, and she had to stop to deal with the sudden onslaught. Harold looked back down the bottom floor hallway and nodded. That would occupy his companion long enough for him to slip out.
At the end of the hallway and around a corner, a heavy doorway marked the exit out to the maintenance yard. He eased his way out once he was sure no creatures were around to see him go. The snow had begun falling outside again, and the short wooden fence around the squarish maintenance area was already topped with an inch of powder. Twenty feet by almost twenty feet, the penned-in area sat against the rear stone wall that marked the inn’s property line. A large shed with a large, barn-style door nestled in the corner against that wall and the wooden fence. That was what held what Harold needed.
Although the cottontail rabbit owned an inn frequented by skiers, among others, he had never been a good skier. He also had need of a means of transporting goods and supplies up and down the mountain, so he had always used an old skimobile when the snows were too heavy for his truck. Swinging the wide door of the shed open, he worked his way to the well-worn motorized sledge and unhooked it from the wagon sled he used for hauling. The helmet and goggles sitting on the seat he slipped onto his head.
The old snowmobile crept noisily out of the shed, through the gap in the wooden fence, and around the large stone building. Coming around the final corner of his beloved inn, Harold caught sight of several animals milling around the front of The Winter Hearth. No doubt they would tell Matilda what they saw, but it was too late. Harold pulled away at full speed. Despite its age, the old sled was very quick, and he was out the front gate of the inn and down the snow-covered road in a few seconds.
With the inn no longer in sight, Harold became coldly aware of what he was doing. The brashness of his rescue plan shocked him. He was not a rabbit of adrenaline and danger. He was an innkeeper accustomed to a quiet life. Yet here he was, careening down a mountain after a desert shrew. And somewhere in the woods around him lurked a monster straight from a child’s fairy tale: the Great Grey Wolf. Harold felt the blood drain from his face, and his paws felt sweaty despite the cold. He shook his head, focusing on what was in front of him: a steadily disappearing trail.
The missing shrew’s skis had made a clear trail in the snow, but the fresh snowfall was quickly covering it. Harold was thankful that the careless animal had at least enough sense to stick to the main path down the mountain. But that small blessing didn’t last long. With little warning, the trail veered off the slow slope of the road and onto the steep mountainside. Harold managed to turn the skimobile tightly and followed the new path. His sledge bounced and creaked down the slope, the engine puttering to keep going under the strain. Holding on tightly to the handlebars, Harold caught a glimpse of what must have caused the skier to turn down the mountain this way: impossibly large pawprints.
His eyes scanned down the slope, panic chilling his veins, but Harold saw no sign of the desert shrew or the wolf. The winding paths of skis and pawprints faded as the fresh snow had now fully covered it. Worse, the snowflakes had started to fall so heavily that he could not see more than a dozen yards ahead of him. Harold brought the snowmobile to a halt and switched off the engine to listen. He peered around the snow-covered ground in front of him, trying to catch a glimpse of the trail, when suddenly a howl rose from below him and to the left. Cranking the engine back to life, he sped off in the direction of the haunting cry.
The snowmobile covered ground quickly, Harold pushing it as fast as it would go until he picked up the trail again. He knew he had to be close since the heavy snowfall hadn’t yet covered the wildly winding tracks. After another minute, he realized he could hear noises. Branches ahead of him snapped and creaked, leaves rustling with the sound of the enormous predator’s pursuit of the shrew. As the motor sled gained ground, he could now make out the shape of a hulking grey beast darting between trees. Harold reached one paw into the leather bag fastened to the space right behind the snowmobile’s handlebars and retrieved an emergency flare.
Harold gulped as he struck the flare with one paw, lighting it. Breathing deeply, he yelled with all his might into the whiteout ahead of him, “Hey! Over here!” Struggling to control his vehicle with one arm, he waved the flare over his head. The vague grey shape slowed, then stopped and turned. It stopped so abruptly that Harold barely managed to stop himself in time.
He was close enough now to see the wolf clearly. The red light of the flare pierced through the falling snow so that the monster and Harold could see each other well. From the corner of his eye, Harold caught a glimpse of the fleeing shrew skiing out of sight and down the mountain. If Harold hadn’t been terrified, he would have been relieved. The desert shrew would escape. He could make it to the ranger station and get help.
Looming between the pine trees, the Great Grey Wolf snarled, taking stock of Harold, his flare, and his vehicle. The beast was smart, Harold realized. It was thinking, planning, analyzing the situation. For a moment, neither of them moved. Then, to Harold’s great surprise, the monster spoke. Its voice was guttural and savage as it barked, “My. Mountain.”
With little warning, the wolf leaped toward Harold, but Harold was ready. He threw the emergency flare with all his might into the open maw of the beast. The shock and pain of a burning flare in its mouth gave the rabbit enough time to escape down the mountain, in a different direction than the shrew had gone. He assumed that if the wolf had only just kept pace with a skier, he would be able to keep far ahead of the angry nightmare. But the rage at Harold’s trick compelled it to sprint with all its might after the fleeing snowmobile, and Harold heard its snarling breath closing behind him.
Harold knew the mountain well, though. At least as well as the wolf, he hoped. Zigging and zagging through trees and brush, Harold made his way toward his only hope. The forest grew thicker as they left the easy ski slopes and entered dense woods. The narrow motorized sled only barely made it through some areas, and Harold heard the wolf struggling to keep up behind him. He risked a quick look behind as he passed under a thicket of branches and bushes and saw the wolf pawing and scrambling to get through before giving up. But he heard the heavy padding of giant paws as his pursuer worked to find a way around.
Seizing the opportunity, Harold led his sled toward the growing sound of rushing water. A cliff marked where the river became a waterfall, hundreds of feet tall. As the raging rapids of the river came into sight ahead of him, the vegetation protecting him gave way. The Great Grey Wolf came into view to his side; it snarled rough words Harold couldn’t hear over the river. Harold powered the snowmobile toward the cliff, and the wolf sprinted to catch him. Just as the snowmobile reached the edge and the wolf bounded forward to catch him, Harold used his powerful rabbit legs to propel himself backward away from the cliff. The spitting, hulking form of the wolf grabbed the vehicle in its jaws, but the momentum of the sled pulled it and the beast over the edge.
Harold panted, howls and unintelligible yells growing fainter and fainter. For several minutes, Harold just waited. Finally, he stood. Limping from the impact of his jump to safety, he turned and started walking through the snow. Perhaps the Great Grey Wolf had survived the fall, but The Winter Hearth and all of its patrons were safe. Harold began the long walk down the mountain to the ranger station, content that he had done his duty.
If you missed part one of this story or just want to read it again, you can find it here:
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