The Spirit of the White Stag
Colin Blackthorn drove carefully along the gravel road that led to his homestead acreage. Snow that had been falling for most of the day, and now it seemed to be coming down even heavier. He gave silent thanks for the reliability of the old Ford pickup that was his sole means of transportation. Even though the machine was more than a decade old, it had been modified to get through conditions just like these.
Colin had worked for more than a year to pay for the modifications, saving every nickel and dime he could lay his hands on to pay for the work. One of his neighbours had helped, supplying shop space as well as tools and knowledge. The truck being a four-wheel drive had been the deciding factor for Colin's decision whether to replace or rebuild it. As the snow swirled and visibility became more difficult, his choice to rebuild the vehicle reminded him what a God-send the truck really was. If it kept snowing at its current rate, the grid road would be impassable to anything except trucks like his.
This snowfall was the result of an Arctic front that had swept down the Rocky Mountain trench, plummeting temperatures into minus values that threatened to set records for mid-November. When he'd left his cabin on his way into town, there'd been three or four inches on the ground, and the thermometer had read 4 degrees Fahrenheit. Since then, it had gotten colder, and there was another six inches that had settled on the earlier accumulation.
Colin searched for all the familiar landmarks that would indicate his turn off, and having four-wheel drive would let him get to the cabin to carry his prized provisions inside. Daydreams of the warmth he'd enjoy once he'd unloaded swam in his head. Only when he absent-mindedly glanced in the mirror did he become aware that there was a small car coming up behind him, and not one he recognized.
"Stupid asshole," he mumbled to himself. "Anyone that's out in this crap in a piece of shit like that has to be either insane or suicidal."
With his attention now split between the road and the vehicle behind him, Colin instinctively eased off the throttle. As the small car caught up to him, he saw that there wasn't quite enough clearance underneath to it push down through the snow and achieve traction. For all intents and purposes, the little vehicle had become a motorized toboggan.
The familiar gap in the stand of pines that marked his access came up slowly, and Colin eased off the throttle even more to make the turn. Again by instinct, he glanced quickly at the mirror and realized that the little car would manage to slow down safely if the driver was paying attention. Whether it would be able to build up the needed momentum to continue down the snow-covered road remained to be seen, however. He was a little confused as to why the small vehicle came to a complete stop right behind him, losing all that momentum it would need to carry on...
Pulling on his coat and gloves, Colin got out to see if the driver needed assistance, or maybe directions. As he headed for the now-immobilized vehicle, the driver rolled down the window and stared at him with an angry and malevolent look He was being scrutinized by one of two young women, probably in their early twenties and obviously a "city girl" who had no idea of the danger they were in. Beside her sat another woman of about the same age, and similarly underdressed for the conditions. While their features were pleasing, it was the driver's attitude that rankled him.
"Can I help you?" he enquired, although his first reaction was to ignore the irate driver.
"You're a hunter!" she blatantly accused him. "All you want to do is kill innocent animals! We're going to block your road so you can't get back out! You're all a bunch of damned savages!"
"Oh? Really?" he asked, not believing what he'd heard. "Well, good luck with that," and he pivoted to return to his truck.
There was a feeling of instant dislike that coursed through Colin's head. Who the hell was this woman to dictate how he lived? What gave her the right to barge into his life and try to control his actions?
The revving of an engine had him looking back at the little vehicle, and as he watched its futile efforts to gain traction, the car slid sideways into the ditch. There was a sickening sound of bending metal as the ditch's banks suspended the vehicle by both front and rear bumpers, leaving all four wheels off the ground and ineffective. The car was now useless as a means to get anywhere.
Quickly assessing the situation, Colin shrugged his shoulders, then returned to his old Ford. The high-pitched whine of the car's straining engine only served to re-enforce his resolve to leave the two to their fate.
"Hey!" he heard an angry female voice scream at him. "Pull us out!"
Between that tone and her attitude, Colin could feel the heat of anger surge through reddening cheeks. Under any other circumstances, he'd have acknowledged the demand and helped them. But in this unforgiving environment, letting them know of their pending demise became the least he could do. He turned and retraced his steps toward the car, with the driver still yelling through the open window.
"Excuse me?!" he almost yelled in his anger. "You come barging onto my property, accost me with a bunch of bullshit, fuck up completely and drive into a ditch, ruin the only hope of survival you two have, and I'm supposed to do what?! Sweetheart, I'd suggest you roll that window up and conserve some heat. It'll get a lot colder before the night's over. I'm guessing that by morning, you'll have run out of gas, have no heat, and will probably freeze to death. This road sees maybe four cars a day, but in this weather, there won't be anyone on it until the plows come along – in about three or four days. So, if you'll excuse me, I have a truck to unload and a nice, warm cabin waiting for me."
With that, he headed back to his truck, now irate enough to want to forget the two women completely and leave them to whatever the cosmos had in mind for their future. Even if they apologized, he felt no compunction to help them out of the mess they'd gotten into.
"Stupid fucking bitch!" he mumbled to himself as the truck's door closed. "You got your ass into that mess. Now you can figure out how to get it back out. Lots of luck, Lady."
Easing the clutch out, Colin concentrated on getting the four-by-four into motion without breaking traction, and the effort pushed the women's plight to the back of his mind. It was only when he arrived at the front of his little homestead that any concerns tried to surface again, and he quickly shoved them out of his mind.
Colin Blackthorn's cabin was a log structure that he and his father had built before Colin was in his early teens. His mother had deserted them, striking out for what she considered to be a better life. Devastated over being abandoned, his father spent the remaining years of his life teaching his son the finer points of survival. When the cabin was finished, his father never left the property again until the day he died. Colin laid his father to rest beside the river at the back of the thousand-acre homestead at the dying man's request, and often visited the site to pay his respects to the man that had shaped and influenced his life so much.
Carrying his supplies inside, Colin looked around the small building that he considered home. The interior measured approximately twenty-five feet long by fifteen feet wide. At one end was a fireplace, made out of river stone, that was one of his two heat sources. The other was an old woodstove in the kitchen area at the other end of the building. His furnishings consisted of a homemade table and two chairs, an old sofa that he'd salvaged out of a local ditch, several small end tables that he'd built from retrieved wood, and a steel-framed army cot that served as a sleeping platform. It wasn't much, but it was his, free and clear, and the only home he'd ever known.
Colin stopped to relight the wood-burning fireplace, and once he had a decent-sized blaze, soaked up some of its heat into his chilled body. After several minutes before the fire, he continued to bring in the supplies that would have to last until early Spring. Concentrating on those chores, he completely forgot about the two women stranded on the roadway.
By the time everything was inside and stored, the little cabin had become comfortably warm, and he rewarded himself with a hot cup of coffee perked that morning, reheated on the hearth. He indulged himself by adding a shot of rum that he'd left in one of the kitchen cupboards, then stretched out on the sofa to luxuriate in the cabin's heat. As his eyelids grew heavy, he succumbed to sleep.
His slumber was broken by the sound of someone pounding on the door. He woke with a feeling of mild irritation that his nap had been so rudely interrupted. Rousing slowly from the sofa, he made his way across the room to investigate the source and reason for this unwelcomed intrusion.
Partially opening the door so as not to let out too much of the precious heat, Colin was greeted by the sight of two cold and shivering women, one of whom he recognized as the driver of the little car now stuck beside his driveway. Instantly, he resented her prescience and was almost ready to slam the door shut again. But that look of despair on the other woman's face plucked at a heartstring inside him, and he waited silently for some kind of explanation.
"Umm," one woman started, "we were wondering if we could come in and get warm? It's freezing out here."
She'd been the passenger, a pretty young blond who stood approximately 5' 6", weighed around115 pounds, and displayed an attractive and well-toned body. Even with the ski jacket she wore, her soft curves were quite evident, and under other circumstances, Colin would have thoroughly enjoyed studying her. But after what her companion had subjected him to, he was inclined to refuse both of them.
"Should have thought of that before you started screaming at me," he admonished the first woman. "You got yourselves into that mess, so why should I help you get out of it?" his anger came out in words.
"We're ... we're sorry for the way we acted," the blond apologized, "but Brianna is so cold, she can't feel her toes any more."
"Tough luck!" Colin growled loudly. "How about you get your asses off my property, before I decide that you're trespassing?"
Now with a look of dejected resignation, the young blond frowned heavily, accepting a fate that seemed imminent. It was that expression and the accompanying facial expression that softened Colin's resolve enough to relent.
"Hold on," he called to her as she headed across the front veranda to the stairs that led away from the cabin. "Come on in," he invited, but set his conditions immediately after. "Take your boots off outside, but leave them outside. I don't need to clean up any more of your mess than necessary. Besides, those things are useless. No wonder you're feet are cold ... You'd have more protection going bare-foot."
The driver, a brunette who stood an inch taller than her companion, weighed about the same, and would have had pleasant facial features if it wasn't for her dour expression, almost pushed her way into the cabin, despite Colin still standing in the doorway. She'd refused to remove her footwear, and as a result he roughly pushed her back out the door.
"Lady, this is my home!" he snarled at her. "Either you do things my way, or you don't do them at all. Get those fucking boots off before I turn you upside down, rip them off myself, and shove them up your ass!" he snapped at her.
The blond heard his anger and began to undo her boots, not wanting to be a victim of his irrational rage. Once standing on the porch in just wet socks, she waited patiently until he was ready to grant her admittance, feeling grateful when it was given. Her companion remained defiantly outside, more concerned with maintaining her egotistical stance than her own physical comfort.
"Go warm up by the fire," Colin suggested, "but your friend can stand outside and freeze, for all I give a shit. I'm a little pissed off at her. By the way? Colin Blackthorn," he introduced himself.
"BethAnn," she volunteered her own name. "BethAnn Walls. And that's Brianna Halton. We really do appreciate you letting us warm up, and I apologize for her attitude."
"Yours is okay," he began to soften for this blond delight that had invaded his world. "It's your friend here that's being a total bitch. It'll drop another ten or fifteen degrees out there before midnight. If she doesn't get her shit together pretty soon, she won't live long enough to see the moon rise. Her feet might be frozen already with those useless boots she'd got on."
"Would you really leave her out there to die?" BethAnn asked, incredulous that someone could be that crass, but not doubting for a moment that this man might be capable of something that inhumane.
"Sweetheart, thousands of people on this planet die every day from one thing or another. If it's her fate to be one of those people, it's not my place to interfere. So unless you can convince her to smarten up and act half-way decent, then yes, I will leave her out there," and to emphasize his point, he closed the door, leaving the brunette still standing on the porch.
BethAnn started to protest, then stopped as she realized that she could find herself in an identical situation if she protested too much. It took all her resolve to maintain an attitude that kept her from sharing Brianna's fate. Becoming more reticent took all the effort she could expend, but she did the best she could.
Colin started to make his way back to the sofa fighting his conscience, and finally gave up on the war inside. Going back to the door, he opened it to the sight of Brianna leaning against the outside wall shivering profusely and struggling to retain the little body heat she had.
"Oh, for chrissake!" Colin growled at her. "Get your fucking ass in here, before I have to deal with a frozen body all goddamn Winter!"
As she started to head for the door, he reminded her that she needed to remove those useless boots before she'd be allowed inside. Still with a surly expression, she stopped long enough to pry them off, and Colin couldn't help but notice the beginning of ice crystals forming on the tips of her toes.
"Jeezuz!" he exclaimed loudly, not believing what he was seeing. "You really have a death wish, don't you? Get those socks off before you freeze your toes to a point where we can't thaw them! And don't put your feet too close to the fire!You'll get chilblains, and they're damned painful."
Brianna sat on the edge of the hearth to remove her socks, and in spite of an overwhelming desire to put her feet as close to the heat as she could, she heeded his warning. But when she stood up, Colin couldn't miss the wet spot where she'd been sitting.
"How'd you get your butt soaked?" he asked her, but received no response.
"We slipped and fell in the snow," BethAnn finally answered, her tone even less confrontational than before.
"Both of you?' Colin wanted to know. "I suppose you're ass is as wet as hers. Get those things off and I'll see if I can find something for you to wear while they dry. Gawd, the things I'm doing for a couple of bimbos that don't know their ass from a hole in the ground!"
"Is that what you think we are?" BethAnn snarled. "A couple of dumb-ass bimbos? Listen, no one deserves to have to put up with that kind of talk, so if you really want us to go, just say so. Whether we survive or not doesn't seem to matter to you, does it? Maybe we should go stand outside and freeze to death! And when you have to deal with our bodies, I hope you feel guilty as hell!"
Ignoring her rant, Colin finally came up with two woolen shirts, two pairs of jeans, and two pairs of heavy socks. Handing one set to each girl, he waited for them to remove their wet clothes, completely oblivious to the lack of privacy.
"I suppose you're just going to stand there and watch, aren't you?" Brianna snarled the first words she'd uttered since entering the small cabin.
"Sorry," he apologized. "I'm not used to having company. You two get changed, and I'll see about some fresh coffee – unless that's something you don't drink."
"Thank you," BethAnn responded gratefully. "Coffee sounds wonderful. I'd appreciate that."
There was something about her softening attitude that made Colin happy to be able to do something for the blond woman's comfort, and he chuckled at himself for not giving them the privacy they deserved. Going over to the hearth for the coffee pot, he couldn't help but glance over his shoulder for a quick peek, and was rewarded with a vision of soft, naked female skin that cried to be touched and savoured. But both women were facing away from him, involuntarily denying him a look at their charms. But not being caught gave him the opportunity to stare a little longer. But when BethAnn started to turn around, he quickly went back to what he'd started to do.
"Where should I put my wet things?" she asked him.
"There's a drying rack beside the fireplace," he informed her. "Pull it out and set it up, then hang your things on that. You can do your friend's stuff while you're at it."
BethAnn did as he'd suggested, hanging both her own clothes and those of Brianna, then wandered into the kitchen area to see if she could be of any help. Brianna, on the other hand, took over the entire sofa as she plunked down and expropriated every inch of the seat. Colin felt her defiance as much as saw it, and once more had to fight an overwhelming urge to throw the miserable woman out the door.
"Anything I can do to help?" BethAnn broke into his anger, and the combination of her soft voice and the message had Colin back in his state of peaceful acceptance of the intrusion she represented. He thought for a moment, then realized that they'd need mugs, and if the girls used it, cream and sugar.
"Cups are on the middle shelf over here, if you don't mind pulling three of them down. There's sugar up there, too, somewhere. Cream's in that cooler cabinet by the front door. Would you grab that too, please, while I'll get spoons?" he gave her the opportunity to feel useful and welcome.
BethAnn happily accommodated Colin's request, finding both the mugs and sugar right where he said they'd be. But as she eased off her tiptoes and found herself closer to him than she'd intended, there was a burning need to say something – anything – to keep the warmth growing between them.
"Did you get a good look?" she asked in a soft and hopeful tone, referring to their temporary nudity.
"Pardon me?" Colin tried to get her to leave that subject alone.
"Did you get a good look?" she repeated. "If it was me in your position, I'd want to. So I figured that you probably did."
Her light tone took any sting out of the question, but Colin wasn't ready to admit his transgression, or the fact that he not only had, but had enjoyed every second of the time he'd managed to use up.
"Who says I was looking?" he bluffed.
"Unless you're dead, you either looked, or really, really wanted to," she murmured softly, for his ears only. Turning away from the counter as she headed for the table, she got a little closer to his ear before adding, "and you don't look very dead to me."
"Why?" he enquired. "Did you want me to look?"
She responded with nothing more than a suggestive smile, full of warmth and implied invitation.
They drank their coffee in silence, and Colin found himself enjoying both the peace and quiet, and the company that the friendlier woman provided. Again he found himself fighting sleep, and only when his stomach started to make gurgling noises did he suggest that they might like something to eat.
"I suppose you're both vegetarians?" he asked.
"Brianna is, but I'll eat anything, as long as it's cooked," BethAnn volunteered, her own stomach beginning to feel empty.
"I've got some left-over venison stew that I was going to finish off. You're both welcome to some, although your friend will have to pick out the meat if she's going to be fussy. There's spuds, carrots, and onions in the root cellar, if she'd rather, but she'll have to cook them herself."
"I'll have some of that stew," BethAnn accepted his offer. "Brianna? You want some, or should I get you some vegetables instead?"
The brunette remained silent, not even turning her head to acknowledge her friend. BethAnn let the snub slide, offering her assistance to Colin if he wanted any help. But that silent treatment was the straw that broke the camel's back for him. He got up from the table, walked over to the sofa, then squatted in front of the surly brunette, his nose mere inches from hers.
"Look, let's get something straight, right here and now," he began to lecture her, his voice quiet, yet authoritative. "Yes, I hunt. And yes, I eat meat. I happen to like venison. But despite what you might think, I only take as much game as I need, and no more than the land will allow. I've lived here since I was ten, so I know how much I can harvest without jeopardizing the three herds that are kind enough to share their home with me. If you have a problem with that, you can either suck it up or get the hell out of here. But this is my home, not yours, and I don't appreciate you sitting there, sulking like a little kid and trying to make me feel guilty for doing what I have to do to stay alive. It's your choice, but I'm getting fed up with your attitude. So I'll give you until I sit down again to either change it, or get your wet clothes on and get the hell out of here!"
With that, he stood up, went to the kitchen, and fixed three large bowls of the venison stew. Looking towards BethAnn, he could see that she felt uncomfortable in the middle of this war of wills between Brianna and him. But it wasn't something he'd started, and it wouldn't be him that would finish it. That was, of course, unless she got him riled up enough to actually throw her out, and she seemed to be working hard to get him to that point.
BethAnn took a tentative first taste, and found that she actually enjoyed the flavours. Well, the fact that she hadn't eaten all day might have been of some influence, but still, she wolfed it down, then timidly waited to see if she would be offered seconds. Colin saw that hope in her eye and had to smile to himself. The girl really was infectious, he admitted, but there was still an element of control about their encounter that he quite enjoyed exercising.
"Go on," he finally conceded. "If you want more, help yourself. It's not going to get any more flavourful sitting on the stove. Go help yourself."
Brianna picked at her meal, but finally ate the whole bowl's worth, including the venison. However, as soon as she finished, it was back to that sulking pout. Colin considered having another talk with her, then decided she wasn't worth the effort.
As he cleaned up after supper, BethAnn was right there to help, drying and putting away the dishes, wiping down the counters, and sweeping the floor. Colin appreciated the assistance, but more than that, he enjoyed her company.
"Anything else I can do?" she asked when they'd finished cleaning.
"We'll need wood for tonight. Could you help me bring some in? I'll show you where it is," he accepted her offer.
BethAnn headed for the fireplace hearth and her soggy boots. As soon as Colin understood what she was about to do, he stopped her.
"Forget those useless things," he told her. "Give me a minute and I'll see if I have something that'll keep your feet from freezing off."
Returning to the old wooden storage trunk, he routed through the contents, finally locating an old pair of mukluks that would probably fit. While he was at it, he pulled out an old Inuit delta parka that had been his when he was a lot younger. She struggled to pull the mukluks on, and as he watched, her efforts confirmed BethAnn's complete lack of survival knowledge.
"You've got them on all wrong," he chuckled softly, his tone one of gentle encouragement. "Here. Pull them off and I'll show you how it's done."
She did as he'd asked, then watched as he demonstrated the correct technique. He did one foot before she followed his example and did the other one. Once they were on, he told her to stand up and shake her foot.
"Should be fairly loose," he let her know. "They're not tight, are they?"
"They feel like bedroom slippers, but will they keep my feet dry?" she asked with incredulity.
"They should. Worked pretty good, the last time I wore them," he gave his opinion.
"How long ago was that?" she wondered about their age.
"I dunno. I think about twelve years ago, maybe? My Dad made them with me. Taught me how to do it for myself, actually. If your feet start to get cold, walk around in a circle for a bit. That'll warm them up again. And that parka should be fairly loose at the waist. Pull the hood up if you start to get cold. That's all you should need in these temperatures. It's not that bad out there."
Grabbing a flashlight, he led the way outside, shining the light behind him for BethAnn's benefit. Colin had made this trip so many times in his life, he knew the path well enough to do it in his sleep. As they turned the corner of the cabin, he stopped and shone the light on a small building just off the trail.
"That's the outhouse, if you need it," he pointed out. "Be careful, though. The seat's going to be cold as hell if you sit on it. Either keep your butt up and off it, or rub it with your hands before you sit. Otherwise, you're liable to freeze your ass to it."
"Reassuring," BethAnn commented, but was grateful for his advice.
They continued to the back of the cabin and headed toward an enclosed shed that stood almost fifteen feet from the main building. On one side was a large stack of split wood that seemed to be Colin's destination. When they got to the wood pile, he instructed BethAnn to stick her arms out. As soon as she'd complied, he began to load her arms with wood. All she could carry was dozen pieces.
"Guess I'll take the rest in, but we'll need everything we can carry to get us through the night. Might have to make a second trip unless you're careful with how much you use," he let her know.
Once he'd packed as much as he could handle, the two made their way back to the cabin's door, and stepped inside. BethAnn put down her small load, then helped Colin add his pile to hers. He noticed that Brianna made no move to help out in any way.
"Keep the fire going if you want to stay warm," he advised the blond. "You'll have to feed it about every two hours, and only put about three or four pieces on. There should be enough to last the night. Any questions?"
BethAnn had a few, but dared not voice them. Instead, she shook her head and resolved to find the answers by herself, if she needed them.
"Okay. I've had a long day, so I'm going to hit the sack. There's a couple of blankets in that box over there," as he pointed to a second storage trunk, "that should keep the cold off you. Drag that braided rug over if you don't want to sleep on the bare floor. Oh, before I forget, you might want to lay with your feet facing the fireplace. That way, if there's any sparks, you won't get hit in the head."
Without another word, Colin grabbed several pieces of firewood, placed them in the embers of the kitchen stove, then stripped down to his shorts as he got ready for bed. Once under the heavy quilt that served as a cover, he wiggled into a comfortable position and was asleep within minutes.
There were several candles burning that supplied the cabin with light. Without consulting with her companion first, BethAnn went around the room and extinguished all but two on the mantle. With nothing more to hold her interest, she dug out the old army blankets, gave one to Brianna, then tried to make herself comfortable on the floor in front of the fireplace. She remembered Colin's advice and made sure that she was oriented as he'd suggested.
The gray light of dawn barely lit the little cabin as Colin felt himself being shaken. It was too early to start the day, and he had no idea who or what was disturbing his sleep. But when it persisted, he admitted to being awake, if only barely.
"What?!" he snapped at whoever had woken him.
"Brianna's gone!" an unfamiliar voice called to him, the panic in it quite evident. "I heard her go out the door and thought that maybe she went to use the ... the outhouse. But that was ten or fifteen minutes ago, and she's still not back. Can we go find her?"
"Gawd, that woman's a pain in the ass, isn't she? Cusses a blue streak at me, damn-near freezes her feet off, eats my food without so much as a thank you, then behaves like a cretin. Now she's gone outside? Shit, I should leave her out there!" he growled.
"Well, I'm going out to look for her," he was told in no uncertain terms.
"Not by yourself, you're not," he stopped her. "It's probably between 15 and 20 below out there. I'll give it fifteen minutes before the cold gets you, and another fifteen minutes before it kills you. Give me time to get dressed, then we'll go look for the silly bitch."
"Listen," BethAnn expressed her anger at his use of derogatory names, "Brianna might be a little idealistic, but she's my best friend, and she doesn't deserve to be called names."
"That's your opinion, and I, for one, don't share it," Colin took offence to this verbal assault. "If your friend, as you call her, is stupid enough to go out in this cold with no idea of where she's heading, I have a bad feeling that she might be dead already. Mother Nature isn't very forgiving, especially in weather like this. So don't get your hopes up too high that we'll find her alive."
Now scared for her friend, BethAnn became resigned to keeping any comments to herself. She watched as Colin quickly dressed, then made his way over to the storage trunk. Opening it, he pulled out an old green parka, and two pairs of gauntlet mitts, throwing one pair towards BethAnn, followed by the green parka. She caught them, amazingly. Using the clothing he'd given her the previous night, she imitated his lead as he put on his own parka, mukluks, and a pair of gloves. His last stop was at an old cabinet beside the trunk, where he retrieved his rifle. Without further word, he headed out the door with his overnight intruder right behind him. As she stepped out of the building, BethAnn made sure the door was soundly closed.
Colin set a brisk pace to the corner of the building on the trail that led to the back shed. Scanning the ground, he located a set of footprints that showed where Brianna had gone. A little further along, they spotted a discolouration in the snow where the girl had relieved herself. But instead of the tracks returning in the direction she came from, they led towards dense forest beyond the cabin clearing.
"Jeezuz!" he cursed softly. "What the hell's wrong with that girl? She has no idea where she's going, knows fuck-all about the terrain, and now she's gone through to the meadows? Shit! If the cold doesn't get her, the fucking wolves might! Come on, let's move!"
Just beyond the shed, they entered a thick stand of spruce and pine, and Colin slowed to follow the girl's trail. As soon as they came out of the thickest part of it, he spotted a large and deep imprint, indicating that the girl had tripped and fallen.
"She's going to be soaking wet," he indicated the hollow. "If she'd had a chance before, she sure as hell doesn't now. And quit being so goddamned noisy! You're about as subtle as a rogue elephant! If you don't scare off all the game for the next mile, I'll be amazed."
"I can't help it if there's all these branches on this trail!" BethAnn snarled as she defended her actions. "What did you expect me to do? Fly, maybe?"
"Look, I'll show you how it's done, but by the time we get out of this stand, you'd better have it figured out. I'd send you back to the cabin, but you'd probably never make it. This is how it's done," and he proceeded to walk quietly over the trail's wooded surface with virtually no noise whatsoever. As he went, Colin shone the light on his feet, demonstrating his method of traversing as quietly as possible.
BethAnn tried to imitate his walk, and by the time they left the dense woods, she'd mastered about half of it. While she still broke a lot of twigs, her steps were a lot quieter than before, and Colin silently reminded himself to congratulate her, assuming they survived this early morning trek.
Now standing on the edge of a large meadow, Colin raised his rifle and began to sweep the barrel across the open meadow before him. Brianna's tracks indicated that she was now stumbling and disoriented, probably as a result of the cold. Unless she was close to where they were now, the chances of her being alive were minimal, in his mind.
Suddenly, he stopped scanning, almost as if taking aim at some disguised target. Lowering the rifle slowly, he stared into the gray fog that covered the field before them.
"Go slow," he commanded his accompanyist. "She's about a hundred yards that way", indicating the direction with a nod of his head.
"Why are we going slow?" BethAnn wanted to know.
"Because if we rush, Whitey might spook, and God only knows what he'll do," she was informed.
Colin passed her the rifle, then indicated that she should look through the scope. Aiming her in the general direction of where he thought Brianna lay in the snow, she, too, scanned the area, finally finding a dark form – and a large, pure white stag laying right beside it.
"Whitey," Colin identified the buck. "He's an albino that's lived here for about eight or nine years. One of these days, I'm going to have his head stuffed, mounted, and hanging over the mantle of my fireplace."
"But ... but ... he's too beautiful to kill!" BethAnn sputtered.
"Yeah, he is gorgeous, isn't he?" Colin agreed. "That won't save his goddamn sorry ass, though. One day, I'll get that son-of-a-bitch, for what he did."
"What could something that beautiful do that you'd want to kill him?" BethAnn couldn't comprehend.
"That 'beautiful' animal, as you call him, gored my father to death."