Here’s a short inspired by another North American legend, the Wendigo. I don’t often write thriller, but I had this idea one day and here we are. If you enjoy the short story, consider checking out my full novel, Whiteout, the tale of a drunken monster hunter chasing a yeti.
When a Cold Wind Whistles
“Someone once told me stories are best told on a cold night next to a warm flame.”
The wind whipped through the trees, scattering the ashes of their campfire into the snowy air.
“Others say, stories of the creature are best left alone. Just saying its name is enough to bring misfortune upon you.”
Bud and Larry sat listening, holding cans of cold beer between gloved hands. The old man had been guiding their hunt for three days, and hadn’t said much beyond ‘Deer, there’ or ‘Rest now’. Only after an hour silent by the campfire toward the midnight hour had he spoke at all.
“Fifty years ago, on a cold, starless night, I was guiding a camping group.” He let his eyes drift to the sky, watching the ashes turn from white, to orange, to black. “Family of four, nice enough folk. Mother worked in town, father was a business man. Both wanted the boys to see something that wasn’t concrete and glass.”
“He’s talking about the Millers,” whispered Bud.
Larry nodded, silently remembering the legend that had grown almost as old as the town itself.
“Yes, the Millers, that was their name.”
“One of the worst bear attacks in the county history,” said Bud, taking another sip.
“There was no bear.” The man sat silent for a moment.
In the distance, a branch cracked. Both men shivered, but the old man sat straight-backed, as if he had heard nothing.
“They had a dog too,” he added. “Cute thing. Always liked dogs.” He reached for the six pack of beers buried in the snow and broke one off the ring.
“Hey-” started Larry, but Bud stayed him with a strong hand.
It didn’t seem the old man was asking permission anyway. With a gnarled finger, he cracked the tab with a snap hiss that echoed off the quiet forest beyond. He drained the can in one go, tossing the empty shell at the fire and sending a shower of sparks into the sky.
“My father had always told me no one wanders these mountains for free.” He turned his eyes from the fire to look at each of the men in turn. They squirmed under his intense gaze. “I was a willful child. Something I think you two might know something about.”
Bud laughed and the old man nodded.
“Yes, I thought so. Well, being the child I was, I had no desire for ancient rituals and hokum.” He smiled, but it was thin, like the act was tearing at the edges of his fragile skin. “There’s an altar just at the edge of the woods where all guides pay tribute beneath an ancient elk skull that was nailed there centuries ago. I never paid our passage, figuring I could use that money to buy a better bottle when I got back. So, we set off, me, the father, the mother, the two boys, and Rufus, that cute, yapping dog of theirs.
The first two days were really something spectacular. Clear skies, lots of wildlife, and good conversation around the campfire. Much like we’re having here tonight.”
The men didn’t think it much of a conversation but remained silent.
“The first night, we sat around the campfire, drinking and reveling, the second, more of the same, and then there was the third. I should have known from the moment that damned yapping dog took off into the sunset that something was wrong. Never did see that dog again.” He reached forward and pulled another beer off the ring. Once again, he drank it in a single gulp.
“You should slow—”
“We looked for that dog for hours, but when it grew dark, we did the only sensible thing; made a fire, left out a tin of food, and hoped the dog would find it before some other creature got to it. As last light faded from the sky, the children fell into a tearful sleep. I hated seeing them like that, but there were more pressing concerns.
Around that fire there was no drinking and no reveling. The father wanted to go looking for the dog and several times I had to physically restrain him from doing so. The man was adamant. Eventually, I got him to calm down, explaining to him that he’d likely be killed. There are no shortage of dangers in the forest at night, especially in the dead of winter.”
Larry felt his eyes drift from the fire to the forest. The trees were thin and barren; the snow giving them an odd, grey glow in the firelight.
“It was around then that the wind got this high, warbling whistle to it, like some diseased bird calling in the distance. When it didn’t stop or slow, the parents looked to me for guidance.
‘What was that?’ asked the father, standing from his seat.
A darkness grew over me then. All at once, the foolish error of my ignorance was laid bare. There was a dry crackle as something snapped branches in the distance.
The father turned away from the fire. ‘Maybe it’s Rufus’, he offered.
‘The dog’s dead,’ I replied.
In the trees, the high-pitched warble continued, growing closer with every second, threatening to drive me to madness. How he thought it was the dog, I’ll never know.
‘Just listen here,’ started the father, walking toward me in an attempt at menace. ‘We’ve had quite enough of your-’
I covered my ears, hoping to drown out the noise, but it buzzed in my skull like a trapped animal. A cold wind blew through the camp and for the first time, I shivered.
The father struck me, trying to stir me to action, but growing up in the village, I had heard the stories. Just because I had put no stock in them didn’t mean I hadn’t listened. The warbling continued, intensifying until I could hear nothing else. The pain was immeasurable. Something wanted in, and it took all my effort to keep it away. Then, as the noise reached its fever pitch it cut out suddenly leaving us in silence.”
The old man paused, letting his eyes drift off the fire once more.
Larry wanted to tell him to stop, but they had never asked him for the story the first place. He didn’t put much stock in ancient legends but didn’t like jinxing a good hunting trip either. They only had one day left before heading back to town, and he wanted to get a good sleep.
“What happened?” asked Bud, leaning forward in his camping chair, nose practically touching the flame.
The old man let out a heavy sigh and raised a hand to his temple. In the distance, a wind blew once more and branches cracked.
“If you don’t want to tell it,” offered Larry, seeing a way out.
Bud shot him a look telling Larry to shut up and pushed the remainder of the beer cans toward the old man.
He opened his eyes again, looking down at the offering. “Kind of you,” he said, snagging another can and draining it in a single gulp, leaving a single beer on the ring.
“Sure,” said Bud, impressed.
Larry dropped a hand to the rifle resting by his side, watching the tree line where the branches had cracked. Probably just getting spooked, he told himself, feeling the wood of the stock. But never hurts to be prepared. With the moon blotted out by clouds, the fire didn’t offer much in terms of vision, but it still made him feel safer.
“The sound stopped, and for a long while, I just sat there, eyes shut, knowing that whatever was going to be there when I opened them wasn’t good.
‘Sir?’ asked the mother, her kind voice like an angel after the warbling. ‘I’m sorry he acted like that.’
I opened my eyes to see the husband had gone. The wife knelt before me, holding a cool hand to my forehead. ‘Where?’ I asked.
‘He stormed off looking for Rufus. He’ll be back soon.’ Her tone was calm, as if she expected nothing less.
‘No,’ I replied. ‘He won’t.’ I felt it, even before I saw it; the tug at my spine, letting me know I had become prey. I lifted my gaze, looking beyond the campfire, my heart freezing in my chest as I did so.
None of the stories did it justice. I stared into the glowing red eyes of a thousand dead men, all wrapped into one. The creature itself stood nine feet tall, skin pale and waxy as if it had been pulled straight from the grave. Bones poked out at odd, uncomfortable angles, in some places bursting through the flesh into the naked air.”
The old man put a hand to his side, remembering.
Larry pulled the rifle into his lap. He couldn’t be sure, but it felt like the wind had moved from a hollow whine to a low whistle.
Bud stared across the fire, eyes never leaving the old man.
“Its head was that of an elk, huge and dead for some time, lifeless, apart from the glowing red eyes. Its antlers had been sharpened to knife points and bore the dark, black stains of murder. I stared at it, and it stared at me. In its right arm, it carried a bundle, obscured in the darkness.
The creature cocked its head to one side and pulled the elk’s mouth wide to a grin of pointed teeth and lifted a clawed arm. Hanging limply, speared by a wicked claw, was the husband. He looked up at me through dying eyes, and whispered: ‘Run.’
I heard it as if the words were spoken right in my ear.
The wife must have heard it too, because she turned just in time to see the creature grip her husband with a second clawed hand. In a clean motion it tore him in half tossing the ragged body to either side with a sickening splatter.
The woman screamed, and the creature began its warbling whistle again. I tried in vain to reach for my gun but found myself frozen to my chair.
Maybe it was shock, maybe she was feeling the same thing, but the woman didn’t run. She stayed put.
‘Don’t,’ I pleaded with the creature. ‘I’ll pay the price.’ It was my ignorance that had brought it down on us in the first place.
It paid me no heed and crossed the distance to our camp in three easy strides. The red light of our fire danced in the creature’s eyes and with an effortless swipe, it put it out. Left with nothing but the light of the stars and the moon, the creature somehow looked ghostlier than before.
The woman moved in between the creature and the tent containing her children. ‘Get the hell away from me!’ she screamed at it.
The creature let out a low, shuddering laugh. Frozen to my chair, I watched as bones and muscle tensed in its back. The whistling started again and the creature knelt to the woman’s height so that it could look at her eye to eye.
‘Fuck you,’ she spat.
The creature brought a clawed hand up into her chest, lifting her off her feet.
She gagged and spluttered, trying desperately to get a final breath. Blood flowed from her lips and down her chin. The creature twisted its claw and let her fall to the side. She was dead before she hit the ground.
Scared, shuffling noises came from within the tent and the creature turned its head hungrily.”
The old man’s eyes went vacant, staring into the fire, reflecting its light.
Larry stood up from his camping chair, looking around the forest uneasily. “I’ll say it, Bud. I don’t like this story.”
If the old man heard him, he didn’t say anything.
“Oh come on, Larry. It’s just a ghost story. Grow a pair and sit down.” Bud chuckled to himself. “I had no idea you were such a sissy.”
Larry racked the slide on his rifle.
“Will you cut that out. You’re going to hurt someone,” said Bud, standing from his chair. “Put the gun down Larry, it’s just a story.”
There was another crack from the woods and both men turned suddenly. “It’s a racoon, Larry,” put the gun down.
Larry’s heart beat violently in his chest.
“Wendigos you see,” started the old man again, “are inherently greedy, gluttonous creatures.” He snagged the final beer can.
Larry and Bud turned their attention back to him.
He stared straight into the fire, not looking up at either of them. “It had already killed two fully grown adults. Plenty to feast on for days to come. But when it heard the cries of those children. It wasn’t survival, or even sport, it was pleasure. The smile on those dead lips was one I’ll never forget.”
“I want him to stop telling this story!” yelled Larry, hysterically. He backed away from the campfire, suddenly afraid of the old man.
“Jesus Christ, Larry.”
Larry swung the rifle around toward the forest.
“Alright, that’s it.” Moving up behind him, Bud took the rifle and stripped it from Larry’s grip, elbowing him in the gut as he did so.
Larry fell to his knees, coughing.
“Get some sense in you, and you can have this back.” He pulled the slide back, releasing the round in the chamber and removed the magazine.
Bud sat back in his camping chair and watched as the old man closed his eyes and finished the final beer. “Take a queue, Larry. Sit down and drink a little. It’ll calm your nerves.
“I’ll never forget the way those kids screamed,” the old man continued as if nothing had happened. “It left an imprint in my mind.” He raised his hands to his temples, massaging them gently.
“I couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything but watch as it shredded the tent and everything in it. Those poor kids. All the while, the creature sang its horrible, warbling song, gleeful in its work.” The old man stopped, shutting his eyes tightly.
Larry paced on the edge of the fire, holding his gut from where he had been punched. Desperation crept into the back of his mind and he felt something at the base of his spine. It was a tingling, pulling sensation that he couldn’t shake. “I don’t like this, Bud.”
Bud ignored him. “How did you escape?” he asked.
A low smile spread across the old man’s face, his skin taut in the firelight. “I didn’t really. The wendigo feasted for what felt like hours before it came to me. Like it wanted me to watch. Then, as I thought I might die from exposure, it knelt before me, eyes gleaming red, boring into mine. In that moment I saw every soul it had ever taken and every foolhardy child that had ignored the elders’ warnings.
The vision wore on for an eternity, but then suddenly, in a snap, it was gone. I didn’t realize it, but my eyes had been closed the whole time. When I opened them, the creature was gone, and I was left with the bloody remains of the family scattered around me. I left that place and wandered, eventually coming back to town to tell the tale.
I knew no one would believe me, and so I told them it had been a bear, woke early from its hibernation. When the rangers found the family, there was no question. No human could have done that.”
The forest went silent around them and Larry stopped his pacing.
“That’s it?” asked Bud. “The wendigo just left you?” He let out an exasperated sigh. “Four beers for a bunch of buildup.”
He spat. “Well played, old man.”
“I’m not finished,” said the man, his voice growing quiet, gravelly and low.
A high-pitched warble cut through the forest.
Bud froze as the old man opened his eyes and stood in the firelight. They had taken on a red glow and his skin had grown pale.
Bud fumbled with the rifle, suddenly wishing he hadn’t unloaded it.
A massive rack of horns sprouted from the old man’s head, tearing through the thin flesh. His fingers extended to grey claws, creaking and popping horribly as they did so. “It’s like I said: No one wanders these mountains for free…”