Feigning a Fine Fettle

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The Shadow in the Valley

At first it was just a tiny dot in the cool blue afternoon sky. Moses Dudley saw it first as he and his companions, Jacob Wittman and Robert Normandin, were descending into the valley. Moses reined in his mule and looked up at the dot, shielding his eyes with his hand to mitigate the sun’s glare off the snow.

Jacob rode up behind him, leading the pack mule, and stopped. “What’re you looking at?” Robert glanced over his shoulder at the two and stopped his mule as well.

“That little dot up there in the sky,” Moses said. “See it there?” He pointed, his eyes squinted.

Jacob stroked his beard, his mouth hanging open, breath steaming in the cold air. Robert looked up as well, but just shrugged his shoulders. “Probably just Venus or Mars. What else could it possibly be?”

“You don’t think it has something to do with that story the injuns was going on about, d’ya? They seemed mighty keen to keep us from coming here,” said Moses.

Robert scoffed. “Course they don’t want us to come here. Want to keep it a secret. There’s plenty o’critters down there ripe for the skinning, mark my words. We stay busy, we’ll leave here with more pelts than we can carry.”

Jacob was still stroking his beard, squinting upwards at the dot. “Fellas,” Robert and Moses both looked his way, “I think I just saw a cloud move behind it.”  Moses’s face drained of color and Robert tilted his head up to look, a perplexed expression drawn across his face. Sure enough, they could all see the last few wisps of a cloud moving out from behind it.

Robert just shrugged again. “I don’t know what to tell you then, but I’m not going to give it any more thought right now. Only getting later. We need to be down on the valley floor by sundown.” He urged his mule forward without further discussion. Jacob followed suit, riding past Moses, leading the pack mule behind. Moses stared up at the dot a moment longer, thinking about the wild stories the natives had told them of this valley. How it was cursed. Moses was a God fearing man and didn’t believe in any of the red man’s devilry, but he was still mighty nervous about this whole venture all of a sudden. Moses grabbed his “good” canteen (the one with whiskey), took a pull, and spurred his mule onward.

***

They’d found the rotting remnants of an old cabin that first night on the valley floor. Robert figured it was probably an old coureur de bois outpost. They fixed it up over the first few days and it made a comfortable enough shelter. They built a small lean-to for the mules up against the wall of the cabin, closed in enough to keep them warm at night. It wasn’t too cold since spring was coming on, but still cold enough. They’d broke off from the brigade earlier than anyone else. If you wanted to say one thing about Robert, say he was ambitious. He wanted as many beaver pelts as possible and he wanted them thick with their winter coats.

Trapping was good, Moses had to give Robert that. They already had a sizable stack of prepared beaver pelts piling up inside the cabin.

What wasn’t good, in Moses’s mind, was the dot. It was getting bigger. His days were spent glancing up at it, hanging there in the sky. Just a black hole. Moses couldn’t judge its distance. Everything seemed to fall behind it. Clouds, birds, the sun. But it still looked like it was far away. Robert and Jacob didn’t pay it much mind. Moses couldn’t understand how they could just ignore it. Perhaps they weren’t, though. None of them were talking much.

His nights were worse. He slept fretfully, dark thoughts racing through his head. When he did sleep, he always dreamt of it. A great white creature, muted and featureless, standing and staring at him from behind the trees, its black eyes as dark and deep and still as the hanging darkness in the sky.

He was brought out of one of these nightmares by a frightened braying. Robert and Jacob snapped awake as well. Grabbing their Hawken rifles, the three groggy and confused men went outside. They saw branches swaying wildly just a hundred feet from the front door, a bloody smear drawn across the tufts of yellowed grass and patches of snow, originating from the mule enclosure. One mule was missing and the other three were terrified, huddled against one another.

Moses glanced up at the dot. It had grown huge since yesterday evening, larger even than the moon now, a blackness that swallowed the stars behind it. They led the three remaining mules inside with them and clutched their rifles, waiting for the dawn.

***

The sun never rose.

They waited for hours. They waited through what should have been the day. They cracked the door open just a bit. Moses looked for the dot, but couldn’t find it. He couldn’t find the stars or the moon either.

It was then that Moses realized what he was looking at. It wasn’t a dot anymore and it didn’t seem so very far away now. It was even covering some of the trees, like they were in a cage.

“Trapped.” Moses and Jacob jumped. “We’re trapped, ain’t we?” Robert rasped.

Moses, wide-eyed, was trying to think of something to say when Jacob let out a horrified moan. “Oh God, it’s here.” He pointed to the tree line.

It stood there, white and mute, black eyes flat and dead. Its head reached the bottom branches of the trees a good fifteen feet up. The mules in the cabin behind the three trappers began ramming their heads into the walls over and over again.

“Throw the pelts out!” said Moses, “We hunted on its grounds, just throw them damn pelts out!” He didn’t know if he was struck by inspiration or desperation.

The three trappers quickly threw out all the pelts. It just stood there.

“What does it want?” whined Jacob.

The creature slowly lifted an arm, pointing up into the trees.

The three men heard the mules beating themselves senseless against the walls as their eyes slowly rose to look where the creature pointed.

Skins. Hundreds of skins held out in stark relief against the blackness beyond. Red skins. White skins. All expertly flayed from toe to scalp, all flapping listlessly in the silence of the valley’s shadow.

Jacob babbled incoherently. Moses pissed himself. Robert let out a resigned sigh. “Looks like he’s taking this outta our hides, boys.”

This was a writing exercise from terribleminds.com. The instructions were to pick a fifteen word opening line and write a story with it. The opening lines were submitted the week before.

I chose “At first it was just a tiny dot in the cool blue afternoon sky,” by ZTS (my thanks).

I wasn’t supposed to use mine of course, but, if you’re interested, I submitted:

“Events unfold a little differently each time. Despite this, I can never save them all.”

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