The night was late when the stranger stumbled into the tavern, gasping for air and shivering from the cold, arctic blast. They could see that his clothes were ragged and filthy, but still new; evidence that the stranger was not a vagrant, but one of those hapless folks who thought they could brave the frozen Yukon only to find that they had bitten off more than he could chew. His frostbitten hands and ears further cemented this assumption, as did the bags beneath his eyes and the vigorous shaking from the cold. More so than any of these, the mush and snow covering him–whitening his coat, his pants and even his hair–proved to them that this man was one of those fools who so often came north looking for gold and were battered by the deadly Arctic winters.
The bartender hardly looked up as he dried the last glass, and simply ordered the young prospector near the door to make a run for the town doctor. Nor did the prospector so much as glace back as he casually made his way out into the snow. What caught their eye was the stranger’s reaction–in a flash as sudden as lightning, he grabbed the prospector and screamed at him, begging the young man to tell him if anyone else had come into town.
The fear in the stranger’s eyes was what caught the attention of the old man sitting in the back. He stood up from his stool and walked toward the two of them, softly plying away the man’s frozen digits from the prospector’s shirt. “No one else today, as far as I know,” he said. Without turning, he told the prospector, “Better get to the Doc’s house now, boy, and hurry. This man’s hands are starting to turn black.”
As the prospector raced out the door, the stranger’s eyes widened with terror, watching the young man run out into the blizzard, past the still-burning bonfire in the center of town. “Please,” he said. “Not today, but any other time. A young girl, about eight. She’s my daughter–I need to know if she’s here.”
The bartender slammed the empty glass down. He leaned over the bar with menacing eyes. “You left her out there?” he exclaimed. “What kind of heartless–”
“Let him speak,” the old man said. “This isn’t the time for judging, and he may have had a good reason. If you want to be of help, get him some blankets, and bring him closer to the fire. We won’t be able to find them unless we know more, and we won’t know more if this man dies before he can speak.”
The bartender shied back for a moment, and then stepped out from his post. He opened a small cabinet door and pulled out two wool blankets, keeping an eye on the old man as he led the stranger to the table closest to the fire.
“I had to….” the stranger said. “I couldn’t let them…. I couldn’t let them get my daughter.”
The bartender froze. “Who?” he asked. The old man waved to him, and he quickly raced across the room to the stranger’s side. “Who was after your daughter?”
A strong look of consternation crossed the bartender’s face. He’d heard a few stories about wolf attacks on children–mostly in his youth, when he traveled through Europe, where the wolves were more apt to take men as prey–but these attacks were usually by solitary wolves, ones who had been left behind or driven from their packs.
And they were almost unheard of in the Yukon.
But the old man seemed less surprised than him, and his face now seemed softer in the light of the fire. “Tell me,” he said, “did you happen to cut through Dunham Pass?”
The stranger stared into the old man’s eyes and began to shiver and weep. “Why?” he asked. “I reached the pass some time ago–I don’t know when, but I’m sure I did.”
“Tell me about these wolves,” the bartender asked. “Were their coats brown? Were they mixed with dogs? I’ve never seen a wolf go for a child, not unless they had some mutt in their blood.”
“Wolves and mutts,” the stranger muttered, pulling the coat tighter over his shoulders. “Those things are nothing of the sort. What you would call an animal, I’d call the hound of hell.”
The bartender frowned. Was the young man delirious? He seemed to shake more than ever, and his eyes now bulged out from behind their sockets. “Tell me then,” he said with a cautious air, “what makes you think these animals are the devil’s dogs.”
“We had just reached the pass itself,” he said, “and my wife and daughter were asleep. Right away I saw them feasting on the rotting corpse of a musk ox. There were at least fifty of them, all viciously fighting over the last of the putrid flesh. Their teeth were like scimitars that hung at angles from their mouths, and their paws bled without bearing a single wound. Hell, their eyes shone bright in the light of my lamp, but it was a blackish-red, and they oozed a dark ichor that ran like rivers down their faces. Even the teeth in their own mouths seemed to secrete that fluid.
“I should have just let the dogs run on by, and slipped silently through the pass. But the horror of the sight took me, and I shouted in fright. The beasts turned their gazes toward me and at once abandoned their meal. The snarls and howls cut through the night air, and I could hear my wife scream and my child begin to cry. And in no time, they were upon us.
“They went for the dogs first, nipping at their shoulders and throats, throwing them into chaos as they tried to fight back against the beasts. The sled nearly threw itself onto its side, and would have had I not fired a shot into the mess. I don’t know if the shot hit, but the wolves broke off their assault. When they pulled back, my lead dogs were dead, and the snow shone crimson in the moonlight.
“But the wolves–those things, I should say–they did not run far. No sooner than I had cut free the dead dogs than did they return. This time they went straight for the sled, tearing apart our provisions and forcing my wife and daughter to flee.
“I do not know exactly what happened next. Before I could line up a shot, my wife had sunk into the snow, and my daughter was nowhere to be seen. I quickly fired another shot into the mess, and I hit one of the wolves square in the neck. Blood hit the snow–old blood, thick and dark–but the wolf did not fall. Instead, the thing let out a terrifying howl–a wet, shrieking, hollow cry that seemed to rise from the bowels of hell itself. And I heard something snap, followed by an agonized scream, and then the sound of meat being torn from bone.
“Then I saw her, my daughter, climbing back onto the sled, and I shouted at the dogs to go, and watched in dread as the sled shrank in the distance while the wolves continued to rip my wife apart.
“Then they turned toward me, and I ran. I ran as long as I could, and I dared not look back, for I could hear them behind me, yipping and whooping as they hounded me, stopping every so often to let out another of those hellish cries. The meaning of these calls, these yelps and screams, were clear to me–they were talking to each other, telling each other of my direction, where I was headed, and where I was at any moment.
“I don’t know how long they chased me, but it was clear that they never intended to catch me. After what seemed like an eternity, the wolves broke off their pursuit, and I collapsed in the snow. I found myself lost on the tundra, exhausted and without provisions, and with no bearings on which to go on. I wandered for days, listening to the distant blood-howls of the wolves–they were watching me, even then, waiting I guess for me to die in the bitter cold. I had almost given up when I saw the bonfire light up in the distance. I followed it, drawn to it like a moth to a candle, until finally I found this tavern.”
here was a painful silence. The bartender found that his knees could no longer bear his weight, and took quickly to a nearby chair. The old man was himself shaken, and even the fire seemed to be hushed by the tale. Whether it was the fevered dream of a dying man, they did not know, but the emotion with which the stranger had recounted his tale could not be ignored.
Something had happened to him out on that pass.
The old man reached into his pocket and produced a bottle of bourbon. He’d been out on the tundra a day before, and had found an overturned sled just a few miles south of Dunham Pass; there were no dogs or child in sight, only shredded canvas, a hastily-cut lead and a few scattered trinkets. “I’m thinking,” he said as he handed the bottle to the bartender, “that we could all use a glass.” He barely looked up when the door opened. “It seems the boy has returned with the doctor,” he said. “Might as well pour one for them too. None of us will be sleeping tonight.”