This story is by Rock Martin and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
We need you to kill it, before it kills us. The words from the letter shouted at me as I rode into town, slowing my horse to a trot as the trail yielded to dirt road.
I’d never seen Wetherford this quiet, like a ghost town.
The crisp autumn wind danced and swirled past log cabin cottages and townhouses. Each featured the same square, wooden porch that I remembered. Empty swings wobbled in the wind, while doors and windows were boarded shut.
I tied my horse up outside the courthouse, where town council members Michael Fitzsimmons and George Wilton met me immediately.
“Welcome Matthew,” Michael said, brushing his hair to the side and adjusting the collar of his blue tailcoat. “Your reputation precedes—”
“How are you, Michael?” I interjected, scuttling any discussion of the past.
Michael’s eyebrows wrinkled. “I presume you’ve read the letter?”
“Our town is under attack, terrorized, really, by a ferocious creature.”
“What kind of creature?”
“A beast! No one has seen it and lived to talk about it.” George shouted, peering at me through his lone remaining eye. He approached me with the help of a cane, his body trembling. He wore a long green coat that hung loosely at his sides, adorned with a patch he earned as a citizen soldier in the Canadian military.
George leaned close. “Some say,” he began in a low, raspy whisper, “that it has six legs. And I heard it can fly. For short distances, you know.”
“I thought no one who has seen it has lived to tell—”
“The truth is we don’t know what it is.” Michael interrupted. “Something took an interest in our livestock earlier this year, taking some cattle and decimating our goat herd. Leaving mangled, half-eaten remains. It didn’t take long before… well you know.”
“How many have you lost?”
“Seven adults, four children.”
“Did you find them?”
Michael shuddered. “What was left of them. Two men have tried to hunt it, neither survived. Some even say it can’t be killed.”
“I’ve heard the legend.”
“Matthew,” Michael paused, his voice deepening. “This thing will kill us all.” My pulse quickened. “We need someone to—”
“I’ll do it.”
Michael stammered, his bottom lip quivering. “Good, good. I knew… I knew you were the right man for the job.”
The two men shared what little information they had as I filed it away in my mind.
The beast had only been active at night, infiltrating the town from the north in the morning hours. The townspeople reported hearing commotion around dawn almost every day.
In three nights, there would be a full moon. The hunt would be then. I made my arrangements and planned to be in town that day and to kill the beast the following morning.
As the day before the hunt arrived, so did the harsh northern winter, bringing stinging temperatures and a light coating of snow. I scouted the forest and prepared my things as the evening sun was setting low against the distant mountains.
I woke before sunrise the next morning and found a suitable post in the forest just north of town near a flattened trail.
I tightened my coat and checked my firearms, as jagged ice coating the rocks and tree trunks twinkled in luminescence.
Crooked trees swayed and moaned in the breeze, piercing a blanket of moonlight, and draping all sorts of shadowy shapes across the rolling hills of the evergreen forest.
It was a night like this, 24 years earlier when I made my name. Still just a young boy, I stood post on a cold morning when the sight of a massive black bear approaching sent chills racing down my spine. My muscles seized in place, like blocks of granite, as the bear plodded toward me with an uneven gate, my young life flashing before my eyes. The bear carried the wounds of an earlier encounter, collapsing mere feet from me. It succumbed to its injuries as I watched.
I had regained my composure by the time I was found and realized the incredible opportunity before me. I claimed the kill as my own, despite never firing a shot.
The townspeople were beside themselves. They’d never seen a boy so young stare down such an awesome creature and prevail. And so, my legend began, one that I was all too willing to embrace. For years I’d reaped the rewards of this myth, the legend growing bigger and bigger, hanging over me like an unfulfilled prophecy. I’ve spent this farcical life developing the skills I would need to one day step out of this long shadow.
I shifted to my other foot and wriggled my frozen toes as the memories washed over me. It was then that the morning sun began to break through the trees, bringing the sleepy forest to life.
Tiny critters, stretching and yawning, filled the empty spaces in every corner of the vast woodland, their chittering rising with the sun and carrying through the forest. I welcomed the faint sunlight, thankful that it was just enough to chase away the chill of the frigid night.
Just then the quick snap of a breaking stick caught my attention. I shifted and stilled, watching, listening.
A sound that can only come from a large creature.
I ducked behind a tree and tried to control my racing pulse. The noise grew louder, until it suddenly stopped.
The forest fell silent and held its breath. My trained eyes scanned the landscape with quick, practiced movements. I surveyed every downed tree and brush pile as I peered across the snow-covered wilderness. On the second sweep, a dark, lumpy shape emerged in the distance.
My senses focused into a thin beam, and I caught the cloud of warm breath in the cold, wintry air, and two large eyes right above, looking right at me.
White fur, matted with a mixture of mud and blood covered the massive creature. Its gaze took me in and stared right through me. I stood motionless, glaring back, waiting for the right moment.
My muscles twitched as I hoisted my musket. The beast huffed again and began to move. I didn’t hesitate.
The click of flint colliding with steel broke the silence. A thunderous roar followed. A cloud of smoke rose and obstructed my view for a moment. When it cleared the beast was gone.
I had missed.
I quickly reloaded while keeping one eye on the surrounding forest. The beast was quick and agile and suddenly came crashing through a brush pile to my left, closer than before. I lurched back, ducking and rolling behind a large rock nearby, but the beast followed, growing closer still.
For a moment I was again that 10-year-old boy trying to disappear into the forest. The task, the danger that day, was bigger than I was.
I shook my head and came back. Today was different. Today I was ready.
The beast roared and ripped through a downed tree just a few feet away.
My grip tightened. I rose and spun away from the rock as I hoisted my gun against my shoulder and took aim as the beast leapt.
I squeezed the trigger. Again, the thunder roared.
An angry, anguished sound answered as the beast convulsed and collided with me, sending both of us rolling through the snowy forest litter before coming to a stop.
Then all was still and quiet.
The cold hard ground pushed up against my back and the dark branches of the early morning forest swayed above me.
Slowly, I turned my head, finding the beast lying on the forest floor, partially hidden on the other side of a stump. The creature’s sides rose and fell through labored, pained breaths, puffs of warm air condensing to clouds of fog in the frigid morning.
I reloaded and carefully approached; my musket pointed ahead in preparation for a kill shot. The beast, sensing my approach, pulled itself to its feet, armed with long, curved claws.
I took aim.
The beast fell back, tilted toward me, and let out a hollow roar.
It was only then, right next to the creature, that I knew its story. My eyes traced the scars littered across its body, a story of a life on the brink of survival. When I met its wild gaze again, it growled, ears pinned back and blood trickling from its mouth through inch-long teeth.
I lowered my gun and watched as the beast collapsed again and took its final breath.
The townspeople arrived a few minutes later, having heard the shooting, and armed with guns and pitchforks. Awaiting them was the sad carcass of a desperate creature, worn and beaten from a lifetime in the northern forest.
I knelt by the beast and placed my hand on its massive shoulder.
Behind the legend of the beast was a frightened creature trying to survive. It was the fate we shared.