Western Short Story
The Phantom Beast of Montana
L. Roger Quilter


Western Short Story

Joe Simmons raised himself up in his stirrups, to see better over the tops of the bushes surrounding him. As he looked around his horse shied and whinnied.

“Stand still, you dumb ol’ hoss,” Joe shouted, “What’s the matter with you?”

One of a crew of cowhands searching for a lost bull, Joe shielded his eyes against the glare from the late afternoon sunshine.

“Hey Dan, Barney,” he yelled, “Where are yer?”

There was no reply, and he realized his two partners were no longer in the vicinity.

He freed a foot from a stirrup to look back, when a terrifying roar from close by, caused his mount to rear and tip him out of the saddle. Joe fell heavily with the breath driven out of him.

Shaken and bruised, Joe stood up gingerly, but before he regained his senses, a tremendous blow to the back of his head sent him reeling. A huge shape blotted out the sun as a figure of massive proportions loomed over him and clawed at his stomach. A scream left Joe’s lips as an agonizing pain in his midsection burned right through him.

Joe heard the rapid tattoo of hooves fading as his horse fled the scene, then a menacing, furry hulk stooped over him and he tasted blood frothing from his lips as death sought his soul.

The beast roared again and disappeared into the undergrowth. The last thing Joe heard before he died was a strange, drawn-out howl from afar, ending with a mournful note as if saluting Joe in his final moments.

***

Stars twinkled in the clear night sky. Billions of tiny spots created a fairytale illusion on the snow-covered landscape, but the bitter north-west wind that swept across the Rocky Mountains foothills, belied that cheerfulness. Gusts of fifty miles an hour at a temperature well below zero cut through a man’s clothing as if he wore nothing.

Dan Denison, a tall, lean, middle-aged cowpoke made his way through the snowdrifts, to a stack of firewood sheltered by a lean-to. As the wind increased, it created a blizzard-like effect carrying the surface snow with it. The clouds of icy particles erased the brightness of the stars. Bending down to gather logs, Dan grimaced from the pain in his leg, broken a few months previously in Texas.

Working his way to Abilene driving a herd of longhorns rounded up from several ranches in Pecos country, Dan suffered his broken leg on the last day, when a steer brushed past him, knocking him off his horse as he guided the animals from a cattle pen onto a train. Several hundred head of cattle, spooked by a thunderstorm, stampeded across the rail tracks where he lay, unable to move. He felt lucky to have survived.

When the other trail riders returned to the Pecos, he stayed on until his leg could support him again. Footloose and tired of the high Texas temperature, he decided to catch the next trainload of cattle heading north, where he found work on several ranches, gradually making his way further west.

Dan now worked for the K Bar ranch in Montana, where he finally felt his wanderlust had ended He tended the cattle that roamed in the rolling hills east of the Rockies, where the rugged mountain peaks covered with snow looked magnificent in clear weather. He got on well with his fellow cowpunchers, and enjoyed the work

At this moment, Dan felt that looking for the prize bull was no longer a factor. Now the main thing on hiss mind was surviving the blizzard. The sudden onset of inclement weather served notice that winter still held dire consequences for the unprepared. Even before the cold spell struck, Joe had disappeared.

Where was Joe? On the way to the cabin, the puncher had separated from them, and there was no sign of him.

“Joe knows the way to this cabin,” Barney had said, “Reckon he’ll get here afore dark.”

This was not the case as Joe failed to appear and the two cattlemen worried that he had met with an accident.

Dan and Barney, an elderly Blackfoot Indian, took shelter from the adverse weather in the line cabin. Their task to find the bull seemed hopeless, as the animal left no tracks or sign to follow.

Barney, a name he said came from a captive English child present at his birth, meant bare knees. His mother called him by his birth name, Swift Waters, but the entire Blackfoot camp loved his English name, which caused great mirth among the women.

The Blackfoot tribe occupied a vast area in western Canada, Montana and Wyoming and was fiercely independent. Barney, a holy man, cast from his tribe by the chief after Barney’s squaw, Little Rose, rebuffed the chief’s advances, wandered alone with her through the Blackfoot lands.

During his travels, Barney witnessed the awesome sight at Buffalo Leap, where herds of buffalo careened to their deaths over a cliff. He bivouacked during the warm months on the huge Kalispell Lake, where he caught fish and studied the habits of many wild animals.

When his age prevented him from sustaining himself, he hired on with white ranchers in western Montana, ending up at the K Bar Ranch where he met Dan.

Spring arrived early that year as Dan, Joe and Barney made their way to the ranch’s line cabin. Searching the surrounding area every day, they found no trace of the missing animal.

On the fourth day, the day Joe went missing, the wind from the north brought the temperature down below freezing. The icy spell, followed by a massive snowstorm two days later, left them unable to leave the security of the cabin.

Three days of heavy precipitation, followed, and dumped over a foot of the white stuff on the ground, but the wind drifted it into every conceivable gully, turning the country into an impassable horror.

Denison gathered an armful of logs from the woodpile and carefully made his way, back to his cabin. Blowing snow almost obliterated the surrounding area and a wrong turn, even though a journey of fifty yards seemed short, could cause a man to lose his bearings and wander off. The stars were indistinct during these spells and Dan relied on them for direction.

Chilled to the bone, Dan reached the sheltered lee of the cabin, finding it quieter out of the wind. Scraping the snow from his boots, he pushed the door open by raising the latch with his elbow. As he did so, he heard a low moan rising to a deep howl that caused him to look around to find what caused that horrible cry.

Dan’s upbringing left him with little fear of anything. His father and mother owned a saloon in San Antonio and Dan learned to evade drunken cowboys and saddle tramps and beat many a wrangler in bar fights when he was full-grown.

Despite this background, Dan felt a distinct chill of fear listening to that strange scream. He could not lay a finger on what beast the cry came from, and listened intently to the noise that subsided to a low groan. Dan didn’t believe in ghosts or creatures from hell, yet something about the distant howl sounded evil to his ears.

There was no way he could discover its direction or distance as gusts of wind carried the primeval sounds away. What was it? Dan had no idea. Used to the calls of wolves, coyotes and bears this howl defied description. Dan figured he would ask Barney, currently asleep inside the cabin.

The old man was over seventy; his face, pitted with smallpox and heavily lined, fitted nothing younger. Barney possessed a vast knowledge of medicinal plants and native lore. He and Little Rose lived alone before taking jobs on the K Bar, she as cook and Barney acting as vet. The old man might identify the strange howl, if Dan could describe it accurately.

Inside the structure, it felt damp. Layers of wet clothing, hung up to dry, steamed in the pale light from the fire’s embers. After placing the firewood on the earth floor, Dan closed the door. The silence that followed seemed eerie. As he replenished the fire Barney sat up and stared at his partner, “Cold out,” he said. “Worse come mornin’.”

Barney’s predictions on weather turned out remarkably accurate most of the time.

Dan hesitated, and then told Barney about the howl.

“Heard an awful cry just now,” he paused, adding, “Somethin’ strange about it; wasn’t wolf or bear. I know bears are up and around after the false spring last week, but this sounded different.”

“I heard it,” Dan listened, surprised by the old man’s statement. Usually, Barney heard and saw what he deemed worthwhile and disregarded many other things. “Reckon its ol’ Bigfoot, myself.”

Barney picked up a wrapped bundle of eagle feathers and seemed to study them. His beady eyes glowed in the half dark.

“Bigfoot?” Dan, surprised at the name, looked puzzled, “What is Bigfoot?”

“Bigfoot is a mighty critter, covered in hair, wears no skins,” Barney seemed animated recalling the mythical creature, “Reckon we might see his sign if it stops snowing.”

Barney turned away and covered himself with his buffalo hide blanket, effectively cutting off further conversation. Dan felt he could have said more. Bigfoot? Dan knew nothing about the creature.

After adding more fuel to the fire, Dan turned in, staring morosely at the interior of the cabin, subtly lit by the flames. Everything close to the interior log walls dripped with condensation caused by the difference in temperatures from outside and inside the structure. Within minutes, he fell sound asleep.

A muffled crack woke both men just before dawn; something must have stepped on a branch dropped from his armful of firewood. Deep bestial growls disturbed the peaceful atmosphere of the cabin followed by an agonizing scream from one of the mules. Barney suddenly sat upright, listening intently. He waved a bundle of ceremonial feathers and shook a rattle he kept by his bedside, chanting something that sounded like gibberish.

The two men got up and dressed. Grabbing his rifle, Dan opened the door and slowly stepped outside. The wind had dropped and the surrounding area seemed peaceful; no sign of animal or beast was evident. Low moans from the corral reached his ears as he struggled through deep snow and found one of his two mules lying on its side. Entrails spewing from what was left of its abdomen showed Dan the animal was doomed.

Something with powerful claws had savaged the mule, which lay kicking spasmodically, in its death throes. Raising his rifle and cocking it, Dan fired a mercy shot into the animal’s skull. He stared at the terrible wounds and wondered what manner of beast could cause such damage. Wandering around the enclosure, Dan and Barney came across two sets of tracks.

“Grizzly, a big one,” opined Barney, examining the trampled snow. He stared at the huge tracks left by a second intruder, “Bigfoot.”

No signs of the marauders were evident in the dawn light barely showing the surrounding countryside, as the stars gradually faded. Dan examined the tracks. One appeared to be the paw marks of a huge bear, but the other set of tracks looked human; a barefooted human with footprints that exceeded any in size Dan had ever seen.

“What is Bigfoot, Barney?” Dan asked, “Who is this beast?”

“Breakfast first,” replied Barney, “I’ll explain later.”

With that, Barney strode back to the cabin, followed closely by Dan, who wanted Barney to tell him all he knew of their nocturnal visitor and its relationship with a monstrous bear.

Barney grabbed a huge knife and returned to the corral to cut several steaks from the deceased mule. He carried the meat back to the cabin, set two in a large fry pan, and cooked breakfast. Meanwhile Dan filled their coffeepot with snow, placed it on top of the stove, and then ground some coffee beans.

Both men were aware of the importance of a good meal in weather such as they were experiencing. They said nothing until after they finished eating. Dan rolled a cigarette and Barney lit an evil smelling pipe.

Puffing contentedly, Barney eyed Dan with a penetrating stare.

“You want to know about Bigfoot. I’ll tell you what I know.”

Not wanting to show how eager he felt, Dan sat back in his chair and waited. You could not rush the old man. Barney only spoke when he felt like it, and that was seldom. There was no prospect in pushing him because he would just clam up and say nothing.

Barney raised his cup to his lips and drained the last of his coffee, and then he began one of the longest tales Dan had heard the old man relate.

“Many moons ago, in fact, in white-eyes terms, nearly forty years, I still lived with my tribe in a camp way back in the shining mountains. It was wild country, and we lost many papooses to wolves and cougars.

“One night I heard the same sound you heard. The whole tribe awakened, and we all felt fearful. As you know, I am familiar with the wild beasts and birds, but never had I heard that howl before. In those mountains you couldn’t tell where the noise came from, and we thought the Great Spirit caused it.”

Barney paused to refill his pipe and light it.

“That howl bedeviled us every night, and many people lost sleep. Tired as I was, I decided to seek out what critter created the noise. I rose when the moon was full, a clear night like last night, and wandered into the forest, treading lightly so as to make no sound.”

Dan eagerly awaited Barney’s revelation.

“Durned critter left our area; never came back for a while.” Barney stopped talking as he attended to his pipe.

Dan felt deflated and showed it. He patiently waited for Barney to continue his saga.

After taking two deep drags at his pipe, Barney continued, “After many moons the thing came back to haunt us again, until one night I managed to sneak into the trees and hide.

“About the time the moon was on the wane, I heard footsteps in the clearing, so I stared out from my hiding place. I watched as this huge shape turned into a huge man-like critter, covered from head to foot in fur. It was not fur like a buffalo or bear; but he grew the stuff out of his skin just the same. Walked like a man and shuffled, leaving huge footprints such as we just saw this morning.

“The thing about him was his size. Twice as high as a horse, and must have weighed as much as a bull. Monstrous, he was and moved quick as lightnin’.

“His senses were keen, because he soon got wind of me and rushed off into the trees and disappeared.”

Dan felt skeptical about this yarn, although the footprints definitely were huge. Knowing the Blackfoot Indians believed in the supernatural, taking strange events as natural, Dan thought it helped Barney’s propensity to spin wild stories. Here was another twisted tale on the night’s events, Dan surmised.

“Do you think this monster killed our mule?” he asked.

“No, they eat sweet roots, hemlock and spruce buds,” Barney answered, “Never seen them eat meat.”

“You’ve seen more than one?”

“Seen them many times,” Barney coughed, wiped his lips with the back of his gnarled hand and continued, “There was a family, male and female with two youngsters who lived back of nowhere. There was only me and my squaw in the area, so we seen them often.”

The two paused to brew more coffee and cook another mule steak before Barney picked up his tale.

“It happened that they got used to us being in their territory. Mind you, we left them alone and they never came close; it was mutual respect for each other. I studied their habits some, and I never saw them attack any critter. Guess I watched them nigh on two years afore they wandered away. Ain’t seen hide nor hair of them since.”

“Why do ya think that critter ripped the mule like it did?” Dan queried.

“Reckon that was a big ol’ grizz. Probably scared each other off. No Bigfoot would rip a mule.”

By noon, the wind died down and heavy clouds drifted in from the west heralding a Chinook system where the temperature rose swiftly. Rain fell steadily, washing the snow from the open spaces and the small creek near the cabin flowed in increasing intensity as the ice thawed, causing green-tinged glacial water to cascade down the hillside.

Ensuring their wood supply inside the cabin was enough to last the night, the two punchers turned their attention to strengthening the corral, erecting a fence across the lean-to that sheltered their two horses and the remaining mule.

Late that night they heard a huge animal scraping against the logs outside the cabin. Low growls and scratching sounds moved alongside the rear and a monstrous shadow blocked the moonlight from outside. For a moment, Dan figured the beast would hurl itself through the window. Just as swiftly as the huge apparition approached the opening, it backed off and moved away, leaving two badly frightened punchers letting their breath out gratefully. Gradually settling down from the scare, they relaxed, until several frightful screams roared out loudly.

Seconds later the frightened whinnies of their animals came to them. Carefully stepping outside, rifles at their shoulders, Dan and Barney made their way towards the corral.

As Dan rounded the corner of the lean-to, a large bestial creature, roaring with rage, confronted him. As it advanced on Dan, Barney fired at the beast. Although he hit it, the wound was not fatal, but he recognized the brute as a huge grizzly as it turned and ambled off.

Examining the footprints when it was light enough, they discovered the grizzly was lame, one of its paw marks showed a distinct clubfoot.

“There’s your mule ripper,” said Barney, “Can’t move fast enough to catch salmon, and probably can’t move far to forage. His belly is flat, and he’s starved.”

Dan was not convinced. He believed the so-called Bigfoot might still be a companion to the bear.

The next night, the unmistakable, distant roar of a grizzly, wakened both men. The anguished screams of a steer, in obvious distress, reached their ears. Screams that soon ceased, because the animal died. Dan shuddered at what he might find on the way home, as the noise seemed to point in that direction.

The next two days and nights, they heard only the strange, weird howl in the distance. No creature invaded the cabin area. Dan lay awake in his bunk, hands clasped behind his head, imagining the creatures in his thoughts, while Barney slept soundly, producing several loud snores.

Awakening the next morning they saw most of the snow gone from the trail and only huge drifts left as evidence of the weather of the past few days. The punchers loaded their remaining supplies, distributing the equipment between the surviving mule and their two horses.

Before they departed for the journey back to the ranch, they cut and stacked wood to replenish what they used and secured the cabin door.

Mounting their horses, they rode off on the journey back to the ranch. Dan felt the hair on the back of his neck tingle, as he carefully looked around, scanning the surrounding terrain. He saw nothing, but the feeling that somebody watched him remained for several minutes, until the pair moved far enough away for Dan to feel safe.

All was quiet for the first hour of the journey and both men relaxed as they distanced themselves from the rugged area. Dan still kept a keen eye for anything out of the ordinary, disturbed by thoughts of phantoms and hidden dangers.

“Hallooo!” A distant voice that echoed through the hills attracted their attention. Jeb Morgan and Ed Smith, two cowboys who worked on the same ranch as Dan and Barney, appeared through the trees.

As they neared, Dan saw that Jeb carried a set of horns across his saddle. He held them up above his head. “Found the bull yesterday, not far from your cabin,” he cried, “Somethin’ ripped it apart. Cost the boss a lot of dinero to replace it.”

“Huge grizz tracks near the carcass,” added Ed, “Never seen tracks that big afore. Heard somethin’ roaring in the distance. Ain’t never heard anythin’ like it. Real weird.”

For several minutes, the four punchers exchange stories of the strange events of the past few days. Jeb and Ed said they had seen no biped prints and were very curious about Dan’s story. Both men, surprised that Joe was missing, woke up to the reality something strange was happening.

“You reckon them prints were made by a man?” queried Jeb.

“No idea,” Dan answered, “But Barney reckons it’s a critter he calls Bigfoot.”

“Reckon somethin’ other than a bear ripped that bull apart,” said Ed, “But we seen no human tracks anywhars.”

“Wasn’t Bigfoot,” chimed in Barney, having remained silent and taciturn since the four met, “Bigfoot eats like steer, no meat.”

“Guess we’d better mosey on back to the K Bar,” Dan reined in his horse and pointed it in the right direction, “Might have trouble with the river, bound to be flowing high with this thaw.”

An hour later, Barney spotted a dark shape off to one side of the trail.

“Looks like Joe’s jacket,” he cried, “It is Joe.”

The four mounted men rode up to the body and dismounted. The terrible condition of the corpse showed the same symptoms of death as Dan’s mule and the prize steer. With the amount of gear they carried, there was no place to carry the corpse back to civilization, so they decided to bury Joe right there The burial took ages as the frozen ground took its toll on the two spades they carried. A short, mumbled service over Joe’s body left the group saddened by their loss.

The ford where they crossed on the outward journey proved impassable, so the four made camp near the river in a copse of Douglas fir trees.

Ed and Jeb unloaded a large tarp carried on one of their two mules. It took less than an hour before a tidy camp took shape. The snow was gone from the ground this low down, but the soil held a lot of moisture, so it proved to be a damp night.

After eating mule steaks, beans and mugs of coffee, the four settled in. The only noises were occasional snorts came from the horses and the rush of swift-flowing water. The wind, so strong during the blizzard, had waned to a gentle breeze.

A little after midnight, they awoke as a shrill scream echoed through the valley. Dan recognized it as the same howl he heard back at the cabin.

“What in tarnation was that?” asked Jeb.

“Only Bigfoot, he’ll do us no harm,” Barney said quietly and emphatically, “That noise he made was to warn us.”

Jeb snorted derisively, “Crazy old man. Warn us of what?”

“Ol’ grizz is near, better watch out, because that bear is mad and dangerous.” Barney rolled over under his blanket and fell asleep. Three white men took a little while longer to follow suit.

The sounds of frightened, agitated horses woke them as dawn approached.

“Somethin’s spooked ‘em,” Dan offered, “Get your rifles and keep yer eyes open.”

The mechanical sounds of four rifles cocked almost in unison made a comforting noise. The men swiftly raised their weapons to their shoulders, fingers nervously twitching on the triggers.

Horses and mules grew even more frightened, tugging at the ropes that tethered them to trees and kicking their hind feet at imaginary beasts. They snorted and pawed at the ground.

A terrifying, angry scream came from the tree line and a huge shape barreled towards them on all fours, roaring ferociously.

“It’s the grizz,” Dan yelled and four rifles spat lethal death at the frothing beast. The impetus of its charge carried the stricken animal a few more feet forward and then it collapsed, lifeless, almost at their feet.

Barney fed the fire’s embers with some kindling and the flames roared skyward illuminating the immediate area. The flickering flames cast wavering shadows that appeared to animate the corpse, and four nervous cowpokes cautiously walked to the dead bear, prodding it with their rifles to see if any sign of life remained.

Satisfied the beast signified no further threat, they examined the animal that looked like it was over seven feet tall and weighed more than three hundred pounds; a body ravaged with scars and welts. The bear was very old; it had a clubfoot showing this animal had attacked Dan’s mule. Its few remaining teeth were yellow and ground down. In contrast, the razor sharp claws on the huge feet seemed very lethal.

“Lookee here,” said Dan, examining the brute’s mouth, “Some cougar must have bit this fella’s tongue, there’s only part of it left. No wonder it couldn’t hunt or eat well. That’s probably what made its roar sound so strange.”

After skinning and butchering the animal, they cooked some of the meat over the fire, but it proved to be tough and stringy. It tasted worse than mule meat.

"Good thing we got coffee,” Jeb murmured, as he spat a chewed piece of meat into the fire, “Takes the taste away.”

Breaking camp an hour after dawn, the small cavalcade departed, heading downhill towards the K Bar.

Barney took up the rear and turned around to watch the back trail. He was the only one to see a tall, hairy biped loping across a clearing several hundred yards distant. Suddenly the creature stopped, stared at the old man and waved, before disappearing behind some cedars.

“Goodbye Bigfoot, my old friend,” Swift Waters, the Blackfoot warrior, whispered, raising a hand in salute, “May the Great Spirit always walk with you.”

As he turned away, he reverted once again to his image as Barney, and cantered his horse to catch up with the others.


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