’Twas three nights before Christmas, and Dean had to get word to Dad that he was heading into a trap. Sam had been badly injured during the hunt that the brothers had just finished, but playing dead allowed them to overhear the demons’ plans. Now Sam and the Impala were safe with Bobby, and Dean was on his way to Rufus Turner’s cabin north of Whitefish to get the information to Dad. Rufus was helping Dad prepare for this hunt, and both of them were maintaining virtual radio silence until Dad left—not that Dad usually answered Dean’s calls on the first try anyway, and it wasn’t like northwestern Montana had decent cell phone reception even at the best of times.
But it had been snowing long before he got to Whitefish, and now the conditions had deteriorated to a whiteout blizzard. There was no way he’d get a cell signal through in this weather. And of course the old junker Dean had borrowed from Bobby gave out on him halfway between Whitefish and the cabin.
He had three choices: stay put, hike back to town, or keep going to the cabin. He was almost certain to freeze to death no matter what he did. But he had to get word to Dad, and only one option gave him any chance at all to do that.
So he ate, put on the hat and scarf and gloves that Sam had insisted he bring, braced himself, and got out of the car to head up the mountain.
The wind was disorienting, the snow blinding. It took a bit of shuffling for him to be able to tell when his feet were on the pavement and when they strayed over the edge of the roadway. There wasn’t a steep dropoff on this part of the road, to his knowledge, but he couldn’t be sure what the road ahead was like, so he knew he needed to follow the road as much as he could.
He’d gone maybe a tenth of a mile when he realized he couldn’t tell when he needed to turn. His map memory was fine, but his internal compass was completely offline.
Maybe ten steps later, he sensed something in front of him, like a wall or mountainside. He couldn’t see it, and it wasn’t within arm’s reach, but he could tell it was there. Instinctually, he turned right and kept going.
Maybe ten steps after that, he realized that whatever he was sensing was moving with him. He couldn’t hear anything over the wind, but he could tell that it was still there, still the same distance away at his left, moving at exactly the same speed. He wasn’t sure whether to be worried or grateful.
He eventually settled on grateful when he sensed it getting closer and turned to keep his path parallel to it. He did the same when it started getting further away and when it eventually disappeared and reappeared to his right. If he stumbled or fell, overcome with the cold, he felt it get closer, and a sudden hot downdraft washed over him, warming him enough to rise and keep going once it backed away.
He lost all sense of time and distance. He let his eyes close to keep out the snow; he couldn’t see where he was going anyway. Sometimes he wondered if he’d ever hear anything but the wind again. But that presence was still there, still silently guiding him, silently nudging him forward even if it never touched him or made a noise that he could hear.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the blizzard died down, and Dean felt his boots crunching on gravel beneath the snow, then the paving stones of a walkway. He forced his eyes open enough to make out porch lights on a cabin, and lights on inside, but he had no clue whether he’d reached the right one. His ears were still ringing from the wind, and he wasn’t sure if he had voice enough to call out.
But before he could get his bearings and summon the strength to look over at his guide, the toe of his boot caught on an uneven stone, and he faceplanted into the snow.
Another hot downdraft, a broad swath of warm wetness brushed along his cheek and ear, a gentle nudge against his shoulder....
Dean pushed himself up to his hands and knees as he heard boots pounding across the wooden porch and down the stairs. He looked up to see Dad and Rufus both running to him. But his guide’s presence was gone. Suddenly sad and confused, he looked down to his right and gasped silently at what he saw.
The pawprint of a giant lion.