The Winter Hearth Inn was a staple of the western slope. Thrill-seeking animals came from far and wide to test themselves on the rugged slopes of the Rocky Mountains, and the inn was well-known to all of them. After braving the snowy peaks, weary climbers often stayed at The Winter Hearth for a few days, enjoying the roaring fires, the hearty meals, and the peace and quiet that it provided.
Harold, a stout mountain cottontail, worked diligently all spring and summer to prepare for the winter season and its slew of hikers and adventurers. For years, he had set aside provisions, gone into towns to hire seasonal staff, and tended to the repairs and maintenance of his property. And each year, as soon as the first heavy snow set in, creatures would flock to his inn on their way to or from their treks into the craggy, wintry countryside. No matter the purpose of their journey, travelers could always count on Harold to have The Winter Hearth ready and welcoming. Standing two stories tall and with nearly fifty rooms for guests, it was a safe respite from the frigid terrain around them.
One particular winter night, however, Harold found himself in the dark, puzzling over tracks left in the snow just outside the inn. The tracks certainly looked like those of a fox, but they were much larger than any he’d seen before. Of course, Harold was welcoming to all species in The Winter Hearth. No one would ever accuse him of jumping to conclusions or holding antiquated ideas about carnivorous creatures. Everyone knew that the days of predator hunting prey had been left in the Stone Age. For Harold’s part, each year he brought on Matilda, a grey fox, to help manage the inn. But the tracks he inspected this day were much too large, spanning half his height.
“Something the matter, Harold?” Matilda called to him from the entrance of The Winter Hearth. She held a bundle of papers, no doubt important business documents for him to sign and send in the post. Thick black glasses perched atop her head, framed by her grey ears with tawny specks.
Thumping a long foot in the snow, he roused from thought and looked back to her, “What’s that? Oh, well, no. Or yes, perhaps. Truth be told, I’m not sure. Come here and take a look.”
He waved Matilda over and crouched down to look at the pawprint closer. Matilda’s paws crunched through the snow as she joined Harold, standing beside him.
“Is that some joke by one of our younger guests?” she mused, eyeing the imprint in the snow curiously.
Harold shook his head, “No, I don’t believe so. It’s too perfectly made. And you can see there’s a trail of them coming in over the east wall and leaving through the main gate. But what could have made these? Tracks this size are just impossible.”
Matilda’s bemused smile vanished as she took in what Harold was getting at. With more effort than Harold with his youthful limbs, she knelt and touched the outline of the impression in the snow. Quietly, she voiced, “I think it walked on all fours.”
“It does appear that way,” Harold agreed, “But no animal walks on four legs like this. Not anymore.”
His mind began pulling up fairy tales and ghost stories he had heard as a child. Stories like the Great Grey Wolf or Coyote stealing fire for animal-kind. There were many tales of giant predators, both good and evil, causing mischief or bringing destruction. It was hard not to see the huge prints and not think of imaginary beasts that supposedly lurked in the dark. Harold absently stroked his ears back against his head, his mind filling with all sorts of myths and fables. With a start, he realized Matilda had been speaking to him for some time.
“—guests ought to be informed as well,” she had just finished saying. She looked at Harold expectantly, “Well?”
Stammering, Harold shook himself out of his thoughts, “What? Sorry, I was trying to think through what we’re going to do about this.”
The lie must have been obvious to Matilda because her long snout frowned, “Harold, we need to send for the authorities. And we should probably tell the guests as well. If something dangerous is stalking about, we can’t have folks just wandering in its path.”
“You’re right, you’re right,” Harold nodded, thoughts of the monstrous Great Grey Wolf still in the back of his mind, “We’ll have to get word down the mountain to the ranger’s station.”
Together, Harold helping Matilda back up, they headed inside the inn. A fireplace crackled warmly on the side of the common area, and patrons lounged around on sofas and overstuffed chairs. Waitstaff—mice, squirrels, and a couple of pikas—buzzed around between guests and the kitchens. A tall river otter waited at the counter near the entrance, looking around impatiently. Seeing Harold and Matilda enter, he called out to them, “There you are, I’ve been waiting to speak to someone about my room. I need—”
As the front door of the inn whipped open right behind Harold, the otter’s query was cut short. Frantically, a short desert shrew, clumsily carrying skis and poles and bundled tightly against the cold, bolted in. The door bounced against its hinges, nearly slamming back into the shrew, who only just managed to shut the door behind him.
“We all need to get out of here! Wolf! Huge, four-legged wolf!” the hysterical shrew’s story poured out, disjointed and out of order, but the entire inn heard. He claimed to have been skiing back down to the inn just before sunset when he caught sight of a huge grey shape moving slowly through the trees. According to the shrew, he’d finally caught a good look at the creature: a grey-furred wolf, walking on all fours and at least ten feet tall.
Matilda and Harold shared a worried look before she led the shrew by the shoulder over to an empty armchair, waving to a wide-eyed mouse girl to bring the shrew something hot to drink. Harold’s mind raced again, filled with the legends of his childhood. He wondered if the Great Grey Wolf could truly be real. Regardless, he knew that standing like a statue in front of his anxious guests would solve nothing.
“Everyone, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Shadows in the trees and oversized pawprints are no reason to panic,” Harold began. He had not meant to mention the giant tracks yet, but as soon as the words were spoken, animals around the common room gasped and began muttering to each other.
The river otter still standing at the front desk spoke up, nerves making his voice almost a shout, “What pawprints? How big? Has the giant been here?”
The guests all around the room were suddenly bursting with nervous conversation, talking over each other in attempts to be heard. Foot thumping again under stress, Harold cleared his throat, “Now, please. Please! Can we all just calm down for a moment?” Eventually, they all quieted and looked to Harold, “What we must do first is make sure all patrons of the inn are accounted for. Matilda and I will check through the list of guests. I need each of you to ensure everyone you came with is here, then check on those in rooms neighboring yours.
“Then,” he paused to ensure the animals were all following his words, “We will secure the inn for the night. In the morning, we will form an orderly evacuation down the mountain until rangers can come up and clear the area of any danger.”
Nodding heads around the room seemed to signal agreement to Harold’s plan. Feeling like the situation may just stay under control, Harold found Matilda, still consoling the desert shrew. The mouse who had brought a steaming mug over for the skier took over for Matilda, letting the fox and the rabbit leave to find the guest registration list. Passing through a door behind the front desk, Harold noted that the river otter seemed to have left to follow his directions.
“Let’s see,” Matilda said, pulling out the heavy book that held the guest lists. They walked back out to the front desk so they could see as many of the animals as possible while reading the list. Matilda called out names, and Harold, his memory of the guests of his inn extremely sharp, pointed them out. The ones that weren’t present in the room with them were found, other animals running through the two floors of the inn calling out their names. Eventually, every name had been accounted for, both from the list as well as by the guests themselves. Harold sighed and began talking with Matilda about the plan to lock down the inn and its property for the night.
With a repeated pulling on his sleeve, Harold was pulled from his conversation with his fox companion. He turned to see the small mouse girl that had been helping take care of the frightened desert shrew.
“What is it, Leanne?” Harold asked, almost impatiently.
“It’s the guest, the shrew I was helping,” Leanne spat out hurriedly, the snow-white fur on her ears shaking from worry, “He’s missing. I went to fetch another round for him, and he was just gone. In the commotion, no one seems to have seen him go.”
A pit formed in Harold’s stomach as he thanked the girl and turned back to Matilda. Pulling her further aside to speak privately, he whispered, “What was the name of the shrew with the skis? I don’t recall him checking in, and he’s no longer in the common area.”
After flipping through the recent check-in pages of her list, Matilda concluded that he must have been waiting to check in until he came down from the ski trails before he had spotted the beast. They enlisted a few of the waitstaff to help them scour the inn for the shrew. Finding no trace of him, his absence as well as the absence of his skis and poles led them to one chilling conclusion: he had gone back out in the night to try to make it to the ranger station alone. Harold knew instantly what he must do. He was going after the shrew.
Harold looked around the inn as the realization dawned on him. That he was going after the missing skier was not in doubt. But he knew there would be some of the animals there that would insist they leave The Winter Hearth with him, whether to find the desert shrew or to try to make their own escape down the mountain. He would not allow anyone else to endanger themselves. The animals in his care must remain safe.
Seeing Matilda eyeing him, one silvery brow arched in a silent question, Harold realized he had again been stroking his long white ears back against his head again. He tried to put on an air of calm and confidence, but his paws just ended up unconsciously smoothing his winter parka down.
“Harold,” Matilda began warily, “you’re not thinking of going after him, are you?”
The elegantly aging grey fox, who was also his closest friend, knew him too well. He attempted to reassure her, “Of course not. It’s obviously much too dangerous for anyone to go alone. We must focus on the guests here and their safety.”
Matilda must have heard the uncertainty in his voice because she looked unconvinced. Before she could talk him out of his silent decision, Harold walked off briskly, speaking with the head of the waitstaff and then with some of the guests. She attempted to follow after him as he worked his way into the halls of the inn, but he managed to direct a few of the guests’ questions to her, and she had to stop to deal with the sudden onslaught. Harold looked back down the bottom floor hallway and nodded. That would occupy his companion long enough for him to slip out.
At the end of the hallway and around a corner, a heavy doorway marked the exit out to the maintenance yard. He eased his way out once he was sure no creatures were around to see him go. The snow had begun falling outside again, and the short wooden fence around the squarish maintenance area was already topped with an inch of powder. Twenty feet by almost twenty feet, the penned-in area sat against the rear stone wall that marked the inn’s property line. A large shed with a large, barn-style door nestled in the corner against that wall and the wooden fence. That was what held what Harold needed.
Although the cottontail rabbit owned an inn frequented by skiers, among others, he had never been a good skier. He also had need of a means of transporting goods and supplies up and down the mountain, so he had always used an old skimobile when the snows were too heavy for his truck. Swinging the wide door of the shed open, he worked his way to the well-worn motorized sledge and unhooked it from the wagon sled he used for hauling. The helmet and goggles sitting on the seat he slipped onto his head.
The old snowmobile crept noisily out of the shed, through the gap in the wooden fence, and around the large stone building. Coming around the final corner of his beloved inn, Harold caught sight of several animals milling around the front of The Winter Hearth. No doubt they would tell Matilda what they saw, but it was too late. Harold pulled away at full speed. Despite its age, the old sled was very quick, and he was out the front gate of the inn and down the snow-covered road in a few seconds.
With the inn no longer in sight, Harold became coldly aware of what he was doing. The brashness of his rescue plan shocked him. He was not a rabbit of adrenaline and danger. He was an innkeeper accustomed to a quiet life. Yet here he was, careening down a mountain after a desert shrew. And somewhere in the woods around him lurked a monster straight from a child’s fairy tale: the Great Grey Wolf. Harold felt the blood drain from his face, and his paws felt sweaty despite the cold. He shook his head, focusing on what was in front of him: a steadily disappearing trail.
The missing shrew’s skis had made a clear trail in the snow, but the fresh snowfall was quickly covering it. Harold was thankful that the careless animal had at least enough sense to stick to the main path down the mountain. But that small blessing didn’t last long. With little warning, the trail veered off the slow slope of the road and onto the steep mountainside. Harold managed to turn the skimobile tightly and followed the new path. His sledge bounced and creaked down the slope, the engine puttering to keep going under the strain. Holding on tightly to the handlebars, Harold caught a glimpse of what must have caused the skier to turn down the mountain this way: impossibly large pawprints.
His eyes scanned down the slope, panic chilling his veins, but Harold saw no sign of the desert shrew or the wolf. The winding paths of skis and pawprints faded as the fresh snow had now fully covered it. Worse, the snowflakes had started to fall so heavily that he could not see more than a dozen yards ahead of him. Harold brought the snowmobile to a halt and switched off the engine to listen. He peered around the snow-covered ground in front of him, trying to catch a glimpse of the trail, when suddenly a howl rose from below him and to the left. Cranking the engine back to life, he sped off in the direction of the haunting cry.
The snowmobile covered ground quickly, Harold pushing it as fast as it would go until he picked up the trail again. He knew he had to be close since the heavy snowfall hadn’t yet covered the wildly winding tracks. After another minute, he realized he could hear noises. Branches ahead of him snapped and creaked, leaves rustling with the sound of the enormous predator’s pursuit of the shrew. As the motor sled gained ground, he could now make out the shape of a hulking grey beast darting between trees. Harold reached one paw into the leather bag fastened to the space right behind the snowmobile’s handlebars and retrieved an emergency flare.
Harold gulped as he struck the flare with one paw, lighting it. Breathing deeply, he yelled with all his might into the whiteout ahead of him, “Hey! Over here!” Struggling to control his vehicle with one arm, he waved the flare over his head. The vague grey shape slowed, then stopped and turned. It stopped so abruptly that Harold barely managed to stop himself in time.
He was close enough now to see the wolf clearly. The red light of the flare pierced through the falling snow so that the monster and Harold could see each other well. From the corner of his eye, Harold caught a glimpse of the fleeing shrew skiing out of sight and down the mountain. If Harold hadn’t been terrified, he would have been relieved. The desert shrew would escape. He could make it to the ranger station and get help.
Looming between the pine trees, the Great Grey Wolf snarled, taking stock of Harold, his flare, and his vehicle. The beast was smart, Harold realized. It was thinking, planning, analyzing the situation. For a moment, neither of them moved. Then, to Harold’s great surprise, the monster spoke. Its voice was guttural and savage as it barked, “My. Mountain.”
With little warning, the wolf leaped toward Harold, but Harold was ready. He threw the emergency flare with all his might into the open maw of the beast. The shock and pain of a burning flare in its mouth gave the rabbit enough time to escape down the mountain, in a different direction than the shrew had gone. He assumed that if the wolf had only just kept pace with a skier, he would be able to keep far ahead of the angry nightmare. But the rage at Harold’s trick compelled it to sprint with all its might after the fleeing snowmobile, and Harold heard its snarling breath closing behind him.
Harold knew the mountain well, though. At least as well as the wolf, he hoped. Zigging and zagging through trees and brush, Harold made his way toward his only hope. The forest grew thicker as they left the easy ski slopes and entered dense woods. The narrow motorized sled only barely made it through some areas, and Harold heard the wolf struggling to keep up behind him. He risked a quick look behind as he passed under a thicket of branches and bushes and saw the wolf pawing and scrambling to get through before giving up. But he heard the heavy padding of giant paws as his pursuer worked to find a way around.
Seizing the opportunity, Harold led his sled toward the growing sound of rushing water. A cliff marked where the river became a waterfall, hundreds of feet tall. As the raging rapids of the river came into sight ahead of him, the vegetation protecting him gave way. The Great Grey Wolf came into view to his side; it snarled rough words Harold couldn’t hear over the river. Harold powered the snowmobile toward the cliff, and the wolf sprinted to catch him. Just as the snowmobile reached the edge and the wolf bounded forward to catch him, Harold used his powerful rabbit legs to propel himself backward away from the cliff. The spitting, hulking form of the wolf grabbed the vehicle in its jaws, but the momentum of the sled pulled it and the beast over the edge.
Harold panted, howls and unintelligible yells growing fainter and fainter. For several minutes, Harold just waited. Finally, he stood. Limping from the impact of his jump to safety, he turned and started walking through the snow. Perhaps the Great Grey Wolf had survived the fall, but The Winter Hearth and all of its patrons were safe. Harold began the long walk down the mountain to the ranger station, content that he had done his duty.