“Am I going to die?” Johnny asked. “Or am I already dead?”
The tall man stood silent in the luminous circle of Johnny’s flashlight, his face shrouded in the shadow cast off from his coyote-skin cowl. Johnny could not see the tall man’s eyes, but he knew they were fixed upon him; nor did Johnny want to see the tall man’s face. By instinct he knew he did not want to see it.
“Time means nothing to me,” the tall man said. “In the past you were never alive. In the future you are alive no more. You have the present, and the present alone. Make use of it however you can.”
The tall man’s slender limbs and barrel chest were bare; only his loins were covered with a strip of golden-brown pelt like the cowl upon his head. He was coppery of skin, and spoke with a Native’s flat, unhurried English. Above him the gibbous moon was the upturned eye of a lunatic, spilling its wan light in a futile wash down the Kentucky hills. All along the hilltops, and cradled in the vales between them and their slopes, were whiskey warehouses. They stood solemn and silent and reeked of sweet firewater vapors.
“I am part Cherokee on my mother’s side,” Johnny said. “And Iroquois on my father’s side.”
“White or Red, all men’s blood tastes the same,” the tall man said.
In Johnny’s left hand he gripped his flashlight, but in his right he gripped a large knife his father had made him. It had a handle cut from the crown of the king of the glade, mottled white-and-brown. The antler handle served a blade his father had fashioned from the tooth of an old circular sawblade once used in a mill. The tooth and its kin had felled and butchered many a forest, and was sharper now than it had ever been in its previous use. Security guards for the distillery were not supposed to have weapons, but Johnny always kept the large knife under his black parka, held in a deerskin sheath against his chest.
“What have I done to you?” Johnny said. “I don’t even know you.”
“It is not what you have done,” the tall man said. “It is never about what you have or have not done. It is merely a game. All the world is a game. The game is all that matters.”
Johnny had been walking around in the cold half the night. The patrol vehicle had broken down around midnight, so Johnny had to foot it in the dark. It was nearly Winter and, so, was a cold night, but he had been so angry that he was overheating by the time he made a single pass around the property. He had taken off his hat, and opened his parka, his temper a fire that seemed like it would soon catch on the fake-fur lining his parka’s collar.
“I don’t want to play any games,” Johnny said, looking past the tall man, downhill, toward the gravel road that led back to the distillery. The distillery was at a long distance, breathing steam like a dragon and lit up like a small city. It was too far away, and too loud, for anyone to hear him if he shouted for help. He had nowhere to go from atop the hill except down, past the stranger.
“The game is all there is,” the tall man said. “It has rules, and all must obey its rules, even as they cheat other players.” He seemed to grin from within the shadow of his fanged cowl. Sharp white teeth gleamed amidst the blackness. “Do you believe you can cheat against me? It may be the only way you live to see the sunrise. I will give you a hint. You must cheat by using the rules.”
“I don’t understand any of this,” Johnny said. “Who are you? What do you want?”
The tall man said nothing.
The chilly grip of Winter took hold of Johnny’s bones, tightening throughout his young body until he felt like an old man with an icicle arthritis. His hands trembled, and he shivered. His former fury had given way to cold terror, as a fireplace extinguished to cold ashes.
“I don’t want to play games,” he said. “I just want to leave. Please. Let me leave.”
The tall man stood immobile. He seemed so tall that the moon crowned him, even as he stood downhill from Johnny.
“The Hunter comes,” the tall man said. “And to face him we must find champions. Are you worthy as a champion? Can you play the game? Or are you carrion in the snow?”
Johnny should have known something was wrong. While footing the property he saw none of the animals that frequented there every night. No opossums. No skunks. No raccoons or squirrels or deer. He had been alone throughout the night.
And yet not alone at all.
“Fine,” Johnny said, his breath labored. “What do I do? How do we play?”
“It is the most natural thing in the world,” the tall man said. “You simply survive.”
The tall man raised his hands above his head, taking the moon in his hands and pushing it higher above him— as if gently pushing a balloon higher in the air. Disbelief betook Johnny, and he gasped. Before Johnny could catch his breath the tall man shattered into a pack of coyotes that scattered all around him, sprinting wildly over the earth.
Johnny swung the flashlight all about the hills and warehouses. Here and there he saw the flitting forms of coyotes in flashes, gone at the instant; almost as if they were never there at all. Figments of his imagination, he thought, but more real than the ground beneath his feet.
Then came the leaping teeth. From the left. From the right. Behind him. Before him. Below. Above. Where they manifested—snarling and leaping—Johnny slashed with his father’s blade. Blood spilled and bodies slumped. A great circle of dead beasts was piled around him, soundless and seemingly unaggrieved.
Johnny never relented, but struck out at them until none were left and he stood alone among the corpses. Breathing heavily, and sweating with the exertions of the fight, Johnny wiped the blade of his father’s knife on his pants.
“I have won!” he shouted triumphantly at the darkness. “I won the game!”
Exhausted, Johnny staggered down the hill, following his flashlight’s halo and heading toward the lights of the distillery. He felt hot and overworked, stumbling along with the help of gravity and the downward slope of the terrain into the valley. The gravel was loose. He felt tired. His hand hurt with the impact of the bodies against the knife. He tried to return the blade to his chest sheath, fumbling it while still keeping his flashlight in his other hand. Blinded by the upturned light in his eyes, he was slipping the knife into the sheath when he slid on some loose gravel and fell forward onto the ground. He landed on the knife at an unlucky angle and drove its blade into his heart. He gasped once, then slumped to the side, giving up the spirit.
The tall man stood over him.
“That is not how you trick a trickster,” the tall man said. “Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness. You must abandon them to become better. Your kind— all mankind— will never win the game playing like that. And Winter will tell his story soon. How can any of you survive the tale to come?”