The snow twisted and writhed in the wind. Flakes continued to fall in a white, frozen swirl that made it difficult to see. John tugged his coat tighter about him. Even Red was shivering beneath her heavy cloak. Only Ray seemed comfortable with the weather. Between the bulk of his body fat and winter gear, John imagined he was far better off than any of the rest of them.
“We need to hurry,” Scully said. It was strange not to see Fox at her side but she had left the dog at home for once.
John didn’t know if she was speaking in character or as herself. The cold and the pain he was in were playing havoc with his ability to think.
The plan for the afternoon had been to head up into these hills, where he had already prepared their adventure earlier in the morning, and deal with a group of aliens who were using the snow as a means to physically manifest on the earthly plane. The adventure was a throwback to Ray’s epic Army of Scarecrows game which had directly inspired it. Of course, setting up the evil snowmen had been a far easier task than what Ray had gone through setting up his. John had been able to do it alone, leaving the others in the dark as to exactly how much fun lay ahead of them until the game had started. And once it had, John was quite proud of himself. All of them had an amazing time smashing the stick-fanged faces of the snowmen and defeating the evil from the stars that had threatened to overrun Grantville. But John hadn’t counted on a new storm moving in or getting so carried away in the game that he had charged a group of snowmen, chanting spell after spell as he ran, only to trip and go rolling into them. The momentum of his bouncing body had carried him into the trio of snowmen he had been challenging. John had smashed into them like a human bowling ball. The snowmen had exploded in a shower of white even as John came to a stop with a sharp grunt of pain. When he had attempted to get to his feet, John’s right ankle gave out beneath him and he had toppled back into the snow. Red and the others had raced to him to make sure he was okay. He wasn’t.
“You guys need to get home,” John agreed with a frown. “The storm that’s rolling in looks to be a bad one.”
“We aren’t going to leave you here,” Red protested.
The grim expressions of determination that Scully and Ray wore told him that they were with Red. John sighed.
“Look, I can’t walk and if you all take the time to carry me, you’ll never make it home before the storm gets here,” John said from where he sat in the snow. He held his ankle as he talked, inwardly praying that it wasn’t broken. “I’ll be fine. Just go okay?”
Scully was shaking her head. “What about that Yeti you kept talking about on the way up here? You sure made it sound like the yeti wasn’t part of the game you had planned for today.”
“She’s right, John,” Red said. “All of us who grew up around here have heard talk of that creature before. Weird footprints in the snow. If it’s real and we leave you . . .”
“It’s not real,” John almost screamed at them. “I was just having fun with you guys. Tell them, Ray.”
Ray blinked as John put him on the spot. “Uh, I’ve heard tales of the yeti in these parts, too, John. My father thought he saw it a couple years ago, coming back to the house late at night. There was a big shape in the woods off the side of the road. Tall and covered in fur. When he called out to it, thinking it was a traveler that had lost his way, it turned and crashed off into the darkness.”
John scowled. “That still doesn’t mean there’s a yeti out here.”
“Yeti or not, we aren’t leaving you out here by yourself.” Red propped one hand on her hip defiantly.
John wanted to grab his own hair by the handfuls and yank it from his scalp in his frustration. “Stop wasting time we don’t have. This arguing isn’t helping any of us. I want you get on the trail back towards home and get moving. If you don’t follow the tracks back to the main road . . .” He had deliberately picked a spot for their game he knew the others weren’t familiar with, to help keep it a surprise while he had been setting it up. But now they were a good mile from the road, and it was only a matter of time before the snow floating down out of the dark cloud overhead wiped out their tracks entirely.
The three of them stepped away from him, huddling up in a group. John could hear them whispering but not well enough to overhear what was being said.
When they turned to him again, it was Red who spoke.
“Here’s what we’ve decided to do, John,” she told him firmly. “Ray and I will go get help and mark the trail as we go. Scully stays with you.”
“So we can freeze to death together? That’s a fantastic plan, Red,” John snarled.
“No one is going to freeze, John,” Scully argued. “We’ll build a fire.”
“There’s a cave back over there. Looks to be man-made.” Ray pointed in the direction of a nearby rise in the midst of the winter-bare trees. “I think I remember my dad saying there were some folks who tried to mine something up here once but I don’t remember what he said they were mining. Regardless, it’ll keep you sheltered ’til we return.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I can’t walk over there.”
Red crossed her arms on her chest with a scowl. “Scully and I can carry you that far. And it’s better than sitting out here where you’ll be in the midst of the storm.”
“Yetis live in caves,” John pointed out, not because he really believed there was a yeti living in these parts, but show them just how dumb their plan sounded given their reasons for not wanting to leave him behind.
Scully rolled her eyes. “And that’s why we’ll all be going to the cave as a group before Red and Ray head out, John.” Her voice was calm and level, but left no room for further argument.
“Fine.” He held out his hand. “Help me up and let’s take a look at this cave.”
Red and Scully pulled him upright and got one arm each draped over their shoulders. “Just lean on us,” Red said.
“Right.” He nodded and tried to grin, but the effort of keeping his leg out of the snow so the injured ankle didn’t drag was making him sweat. The girls each had one hand on his wrists to keep his arms from slipping off their shoulders, and the other hand crossed behind his back and holding his belt. He winced as he hopped along on his good leg, his trousers slowly working their way up his waist.
“Sorry about the wedgie,” Scully said breathlessly.
Red staggered as her foot found a deeper drift. “Oof. Wedgie?”
Scully giggled. “I’ll explain later.”
Ray, pushing his way through the drifted snow between the trees, glanced back over his shoulder. “Nearly there.”
“Yeah. We’re right behind you.”
Puffing and stumbling they pushed through the last few drifts and onto a patch of muddy ground. They all stood for a moment, John clinging to the girls and trying to look nonchalant despite the sharp pain radiating from his ankle. “Dark in there,” he said.
“Here.” Scully let go of him and rummaged in the satchel she carried with her finding her flint and steel. She and the others hastily prepared a makeshift torch and got it going. She used its light to take a look in the cave. “Looks pretty dry back here. And it’s out of the wind.”
“Good.” Ray was fidgeting but he nodded and edged back toward the mouth of the cave. “We need to go before we lose the trail back.”
“Go on. We’ll be fine.” She glanced at John as Red helped him settle on the ground. “Right?”
“Sure. We’ll be fine, love.” He forced a big smile and raked his hair back from his eyes, trying to look confident. In reality he was so scared he was nearly shaking. It wasn’t just the storm and cold, the thought that he might freeze to death. But he had brought the other three out here. For a game. He could have kicked himself for it if his ankle weren’t injured. If anything happened to Ray and the girls . . . How many times was he going to keep making these kind of mistakes?
“We’ll be back soon,” Ray said. “If you have to go out of the cave, don’t go very far. It’s getting pretty thick out there.”
Scully nodded and waved her hand in a shooing motion. “Go on. And be careful.”
“You too,” Red said. She put her arms around Scully in an impulsive hug. “We’ll be back as quickly as we can.”
Ray and Red strode out into the swirling snow and quickly disappeared from view.
Scully pulled her satchel off and set it on the ground. “How about I take a look at that ankle, John?”
“Finish getting a fire first. Or do you want to freeze to death?” He glared at her, angry that she didn’t seem to understand the seriousness of the situation. Scully was an up-timer, yes, but her people had been here a long time now. And they learned quickly, at least most of them, anyway.
She looked at him, lips pressed tight together and her free hand knotted into a fist. “Right,” she said finally. “I think I saw some stuff back here.” She stomped back into the deeper part of the cave.
He braced his hands on the floor and shuffled around, trying to find a spot that wasn’t quite as rocky. Then took a deep breath and tried to remind himself that Scully was scared too, even if she wasn’t saying so.
“We’re going to be okay,” he mumbled. The Monster Society might be a game, but Ray and Red and Scully were all smart and tough. They would get them out of the mess he had made.
Scully returned with an armful of branches and twigs. “There’s some dry wood piled back there. And brush, like grass and leaves and stuff. Almost like a bed.” She knelt and swept the dirt off the top of a rock slab, then started laying the wood out for a fire. “Travelers must have stayed here before.”
“Or the yeti.” He grimaced, knowing he shouldn’t be angry with her, but unable to resist pointing out how stupid they were all being.
She fixed him with a stare that was colder than the storm outside. “Yetis don’t build fires, love.”
He frowned and pulled his homemade trench coat across his chest. “No need to be snippy.”
Scully’s lips trembled, but she went back to building the fire without a word.
John sighed and raked his fingers through his hair. “I know. I’ve been an ass. It’s just . . . this is dangerous.”
“Yes, John. We all know that.” She paused for a moment, using the torch to get the fire going. Then she sat back on her heels watching as the fire continued to grow. “But just because we’re scared, doesn’t mean we’ll leave you behind.”
“I’m not scared,” he said loudly.
The deeper part of the cave echoed it back at him. “Scared.”
Scully tilted her head and looked at him. “No, love?” The mockery was clear, and he flushed.
“Worried, more like. And my ankle hurts.” Just saying it brought a prickle of tears to his eyes and he blinked and rubbed the back of his hand across his face.
“I’ll look at it in a moment.” She added a few more branches to the fire, crackling fiercely now. “There.” Scully stood up and came around the fire, then knelt beside him. “Let’s get your boot off and see what’s going on.”
“Ow.” John gritted his teeth and stared at the rock overhead as Scully slid off his boot. More tears welled up and he blinked them away, hoping the dim light would keep them hidden.
“Hmm. Seems pretty swollen.” Scully rolled his sock down and tugged it free of his toes. “Bruised, too.”
“You don’t say?”
She reached into her satchel and dug around for a moment, then handed him a handkerchief. “Here.”
“What’s this for?”
“So you can dry your . . . face.”
John flushed. “I’m not crying. I’m not a little kid. I was a soldier once ya know?”
Scully blinked. That was something she didn’t know about John despite of how close they had gotten. She wondered if he was lying but then simply shrugged. “If you say so. You’re not that much older than I am, and I’d be bawling if I’d twisted my ankle like this.”
“Well, you’re a girl.” He swallowed hard as she glared at him, his wounded foot still in her hands. “I mean, thank you.”
She stood up, fists clenched. “I’m going to get some snow to pack around your ankle. See if I can get that swelling to go down some.”
“That’s a good idea. Thank you.” He had to yell the last words after her as she stomped out of the cave. He leaned back against the cave wall and thumped his fist against the dirt floor in frustration. “Good job, John. Bloody good job.” He blew his nose on the handkerchief and rubbed his cheeks dry. “Stop worrying.”
His stomach clenched anyway as he watched the snow drifting past the mouth of the cave, turning Scully’s footprints into soft hollows even as he watched. Surely she wouldn’t have gone very far. Not in the storm.
Just as he was starting to think he would have to put his shoe back on and try and hobble after her, she came back in, her scarf bundled in her arms.
“Natalie.” John called her by her real name as his voice cracked with relief. “You were gone so long. I was starting—”
“I brought some snow for your ankle,” she said. She set down the scarf and unwound the ends to reveal a large snowball. “Lift your foot up.”
John put his hands under his knee and lifted his leg up. Scully slid the ball of snow under his foot, broke the top part off with her hands.
“Put it back down.” She packed the extra snow back up around his ankle, then wound the scarf around it. “There.”
John grimaced. “That’s cold.”
“It’s supposed to be.” Scully stood up and went to add more wood to the fire. “I’ll get some more wood from the back. Don’t want it to burn out while we’re waiting.”
“Right.” He sat and watched the snow fall until she returned, this time carrying several larger logs as well as more branches.
“This should last for a while.” She laid one of the logs across the side of the fire where it could start to smoulder without smothering the bed of coals that had already formed. Then peeled off her gloves and laid them out so they could dry.
John frowned. “Your hands look really cold.”
“They are really cold,” Scully snapped.
She glared at him and he realized her eyes were red. She’s been crying. “Here.” He held out the handkerchief. “You might want this back. ”
She was silent for a moment, but she walked over and sat down beside him. “Thanks.” She took the handkerchief and turned it ’til she found a dry spot to wipe her eyes and blow her nose.
John cleared his throat. “I’m sorry.”
“Okay.” Scully tucked her knees up against her chest and held her hands out toward the fire. Her fingers were white, the knuckles red and blotchy.
“Let me see.” John nodded at her hands.
She hesitated, then scooted back a little so they were sitting shoulder to shoulder. “My gloves got wet picking up that snow.”
“Yeah.” He pulled his own gloves off and wrapped his hands around hers. “You get cold really fast like that.”
Scully sighed and John put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close. For a moment they sat, staring at the fire. She leaned her head back against his shoulder. “How’s your ankle?”
“Cold,” he said. “But it doesn’t hurt quite as much.”
“Good. Maybe the swelling’s starting to go down.”
“Yeah.” He handed her his gloves. “Just ’til your fingers warm up.”
“Thanks.” She slipped them on and snuggled a little closer. “This dirt is hard.”
“And full of rocks.” John tugged a small one out from under one hip and tossed it toward the mouth of the cave.
“I’m scared,” she whispered.
“I know. Me too.” He squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. “But Ray and Red will be back soon and then we’ll all go home.”
“I’m sure.” He stared out at the snow, the light beginning to fade between the trees. I’m sure.
Something moved in the blowing snow. At first, John thought it was his eyes playing tricks on him until Scully said, “John, there’s something moving out there.”
Whatever it was, it blended in with the snow perfectly and was almost impossible to see. John could tell it was coming closer to the mouth of the cave though.
“Scully,” John whispered, “Hand me the torch.”
John wanted to be armed and the torch was the only weapon the two of them had at hand.
Scully passed John the torch she had used to light the fire. It was still burning.
The white form crept closer to the mouth of the cave.
“What is that thing?” Scully asked, her voice so low that John barely heard her.
John’s heart was pounding in his chest. Could it really be a yeti? Yetis weren’t supposed to be any more real than alien snowmen or magically animated scarecrows. Nonetheless, John shifted where he sat so he could swing the torch if need be.
“What have we here?” a booming voice echoed off the walls of the cave as a giant of a man, clad in white furs, appeared at its entrance.
“Stay back,” John warned, hoisting the torch at him.
The yeti man laughed. “Boy, this is my home. You better put down that torch before one of us gets hurt.”
John looked over at Scully. She was staring at the giant with wide eyes.
“Are you a yeti?” Scully asked.
The man cocked an eyebrow at her. “You mean am I a monster? Some might say so.”
With a sad expression, the big man moved to take the torch roughly out of John’s trembling hands. He hurled it out of the cave and then sat down at the fire across from them.
John and Scully both stared at him, watching him closely.
“You’re from Grantville?” the big man asked.
John shook his head. “I’m not but she is.”
“I’ve never met an up-timer before,” the big man grinned.
“And I’ve never met a yeti before,” Scully shot back at him. “Guess that makes us even.”
“Do you have a name?” John asked.
“That’s none of your business boy,” the giant growled.
“Look, we’re sorry for intruding in your home,” Scully kept her voice calm. “John hurt his ankle and we didn’t have anywhere else to go with the storm rolling in.”
The big man looked them over. “Want to tell me what you were doing out here to begin with? No one comes around these parts in winter unless they’re fools. I make sure of it.”
“Make sure of it?” John asked.
“I try to scare them away. I guess they’ve come to call me this yeti or whatever it was you said.”
“Why?” Scully leaned forward.
“I like to be alone,” the big man said. “The world has changed a great deal since the Ring of Fire brought Grantville here. It changed too much for me. When my wife died, I decided I was done with the world out there and these woods, these hills, here, were enough for me.”
“So you’re a hermit?” Scully was suddenly grinning. She turned to John and said, “It’s like we’re in an episode of Scooby Doo!”
John’s confused look told her that he had no idea what she was talking about.
“Never mind,” Scully sighed. “Just think about it like this. We’ve just uncovered the truth about the yeti legend in these parts.”
“That you have,” the big man said. “The question though is what do I do about it?”
Scully’s excitement quickly changed to fear.
“I can’t have you telling people that I am out here,” the big man snarled. “I want to be left alone.”
John seized the moment. “No one would believe us even if we told them. You asked what we were doing out here right? Well, we were battling monsters. We call ourselves the Monster Society and we keep Grantville safe from the things that lay beyond the world of man. We had just finished stopping an invasion of creatures from the stars when I got hurt.”
“It’s all just made-up games,” Scully added quickly, “Nobody outside of our society even knows it exists. We could get into a lot of trouble if our parents found out.”
“Not to mention the church,” John chimed in. “So I think we can make a deal. You keep our secret and we’ll keep yours.”
“Why should I believe you?” The big man showed his stained and yellow teeth. “I could just eat you and be done with it.”
“You’re bluffing,” John called him. “You’re just a man like we’re just kids. You’re not going to eat us. I doubt you’d really hurt us either.”
The big man grunted. “You’re sharp, boy. Sharper than you have any right being wearing whatever that thing is you’re wearing.”
“It’s a trench coat,” John snapped defensively.
“Trust us, sir,” Scully pleaded. “You won’t regret doing so. The Monster Society keeps its word.”
“It had better,” the big man snarled.
The big man’s head jerked towards the mouth of the cave. “Someone’s coming.”
“That would be our friends, Red and Ray,” Scully explained. “They went to get help.”
“Your word?” the giant demanded again.
“Our word,” John promised.
“Then get out of my cave before they get here. Meet them out there and keep out of my woods.”
Scully helped John to his feet, pausing only to say “Thank you” before she led John out into the snow. They met Red and Ray not too far from the mouth of the cave. Red and Ray had brought an ox with them along with a makeshift stretcher to haul John home on.
“Scully!” Red shouted with relief and excitement as she saw them.
The two of them made John as comfortable as he could be as the ox dragged him along behind it with Ray leading the animal.
“I’m so glad you guys are okay,” Red told Scully.
“Me too,” Scully nodded. “Things got a bit hairy after you left.”
“But we made it through,” John said, “The Monster Society always does.”
“Yeah, and who knew yetis were real?” She laughed.