Word Count 30,715
Rated PG – nothing explicit, a little blood, a couple of suggestive comments.
Johnny sat on his horse and watched his brother tighten up a section of fence.
“Would you hurry up, Scott? If you don’t get to movin’ we can forget about goin’ in to town tonight.”
Scott stuffed the wire cutters into his saddlebag, and then swung up on to his horse. “NOTHING is going to keep me from town tonight, little brother. I’m done for the day. Let’s go.”
Johnny bit his bottom lip. “Do you think we’d better follow the fenceline till we get out of this pasture? Then at least when Murdoch asks, we can tell him we checked it.”
Scott looked at his brother. “We couldn’t help it if we didn’t get the whole pasture checked, there were a lot of repairs to do.”
Johnny smiled, “Yeah, especially by the swimmin’ er, I mean waterin’ hole.”
Scott took on an indignant air. “I told you, we had to check to see how deep it was, so we would know if we have to worry about it drying up.”
“Boston, I wouldn’t stick with that story if I were you, considerin’ it’s almost fall, and that hole is as dry as it’s goin’ to get.”
“Well, you never know, it could be a dry winter.” Scott offered seriously.
Johnny shook his head. “I think we’d better just check out the rest of the pasture real quick on the way home. I think it’d be a lot safer.”
Scott’s eyebrows went up. “Since when, little brother, have you been worried about playing it safe?”
“Since Murdoch has gotten so good at rippin’ my head off. Knowin’ my luck, he’d buy your story about checkin’ to see how deep the pond was, and then tear me apart for not checkin’ the fence while you were busy there.”
Scott chuckled, but at the same time he felt a little sad knowing that was just like something that Murdoch would do.
“And what if we come across a problem?”
Johnny grinned. “I happen to know that we won’t have the necessary supplies to fix it. Guess if we see somethin’ we’ll just have to come back in the mornin’.”
“Not too early, I hope. I’m planning on spending some quality time getting re-acquainted with Bess. The poor girl probably thinks I’ve abandoned her.”
Johnny snorted. “I’m sure she’s been mopin’ the whole time. ‘Specially since the Bar T hands have started goin’ over to Spanish Wells on their days off. Poor girl’s probably starvin’ to death.”
In reply, Scott reached over and gave Johnny a shove, then took off, with Barranca in hot pursuit. They let their horses stretch their legs and play for a little bit before they reined them down into easy lopes. As they crested a rise, both riders brought their mounts to a sudden stop. In front of them lay a section of fence that had been completely destroyed. A few cattle were sprawled nearby, and three more were weakly struggling with the barbed wire that they had managed to get thoroughly entangled around their bodies.
“What the……” Johnny’s voice trailed off as he spurred Barranca down the slope for a closer look. As he followed his brother down the small hill, Scott couldn’t take his eyes off of the devastation in front of him. Johnny rode up to the struggling steers and dismounted, drawing his rifle out of the scabbard. Deep cuts and gashes covered the steer’s bodies, and the animals were covered with blood, obviously beyond help. Johnny walked up to the first one as it struggled to get free and without hesitation put the poor animal out of its misery. A few moments later, the brother’s rifles went off almost simultaneously as the second and third steer’s lives were ended.
Scott looked at the barbed wire that was strewn around the ground. “I thought cattle were at least smart enough not to tackle a barbed wire fence.”
Johnny walked over to one of the steers that had already been down when they arrived. “They are, at least usually. Somethin’ must a sure spooked ‘em bad.” He knelt down by the steer. “Looks like it broke its leg and went down and the others just trampled right over the top of it. It’s just about torn to pieces.”
Scott turned and looked back towards the inside of the pasture. “I wonder if we can backtrack to where the stampede started and find out what caused it.”
Johnny looked at the ground. “Maybe, we should be able to find out where it started, but the ground’s awful hard. I guess we can try.”
Twenty minutes later, they were at the spot where the tracks indicated the stampede had begun.
“Scott, this just doesn’t make much sense. This pasture is wide open. Nothin’ to spook ‘em so bad they’d run that far and still be panicked enough to run right into the fence.”
Scott thought for a moment. “Maybe someone was chasing them.”
Johnny looked once more at the ground. “I don’t think so. I haven’t seen any hoof prints from horses except for ours.”
“Maybe it was ‘something’ not ‘someone’.
Johnny looked up at his brother, and then looked back down and studied the ground. “Maybe. Anything much smaller than a steer would be too light to leave tracks in this ground.” He shook his head. ‘Bout the only thing that would spook ‘em so much would be a cougar or a bear. But either one would have brought a steer down or given up way before they reached the fenceline. The cattle would have had plenty of time to calm down enough to at least turn at the fence. And I think I would have seen tracks if it was a bear.”
Scott looked around at the remote pasture. “What about wolves?”
Johnny shook his head. “Ain’t no wolves in these parts anymore, Boston. The worst we got around here is coyotes, and they sure wouldn’t cause all of this.”
Johnny shrugged. “Guess we’ll never know. Let’s get back to the break and see if we can fix it up so no more cattle get through tonight. We’re goin’ to have our hands full tomorrow tryin’ to find the steers that got out. They’ll be scattered from here to Mexico by then.”
Scott sighed dramatically. “Guess there goes town tonight. Bess is going to be terribly disappointed.”
Johnny grinned. “We can still make it if we hurry, and well be able to make good time on the way into town. It’s a full moon tonight.”
Johnny grabbed a rope and secured it around one of the steer’s hind legs. “Let’s get these carcasses away from here. They’ll be in the way while we work.”
Scott agreed, and went over and mounted his horse. Turning Charlie around, he was approaching his brother when the horse suddenly hit the brakes. Scott lightly applied his spurs and urged the horse forward. Charlie took a step or two, then suddenly whirled and tried to take off. Scott once again stopped him with a well-placed spur. Then Johnny watched with open- mouthed amazement while Charlie, giving in to panic, started bucking like he’d gone loco. Scott, unprepared for his usually perfectly mannered mount’s treachery, finally lost the battle and flew through the air and landed at his brother’s feet. They both watched as Charlie’s tail disappeared down the road towards home.
Johnny finally tore his eyes from the disappearing dust cloud and offered his brother a hand up. “What the devil got in to him?”
Scott shook his head. “I have no idea. He acted like he was scared to death.” Giving his brother a sidelong glance, he offered an explanation. “He probably got a whiff of you, and decided he couldn’t take it any more.”
In response, Johnny gave Scott a punch in the arm. “You just need to get yourself a good horse, not that brainless nag you’re attached to.”
Johnny turned around and whistled for Barranca, who had uncharacteristically wandered a ways away. When the horse didn’t make any move to approach him, Johnny whistled again. Finally, frustrated, he let go of the steer and stalked over to his horse, giving him a good lecture in Spanish, with Scott looking on in amusement. Grabbing the trailing reins, he turned and marched back towards the dead steer. He had gotten to within about ten feet of the carcass when the palomino balked. Turning towards the uncooperative horse, he let loose with another string of Spanish curses.
“What’s the matter, little brother, do you need to get yourself a good horse?”
Johnny shot a murderous glare at his comedian brother, and then urged Barranca forward once more. This time, Barranca snorted and tried to tear the reins from Johnny’s hands after only a single step. Now completely bewildered, Johnny took a better grip on the reins, then stopped and looked at Scott. “What’s goin’ on?”
Scott’s shrug indicated his lack of understanding of their horses’ actions.
Johnny scrambled up on to Barranca’s back. “Well, we’ve still got to move these steers. Toss me the rope.” Wrapping the rope around the horn, Johnny turned his mount away from the carnage. Immediately, the horse started out, pulling the steer behind him. When the steer was dragged about forty feet, Johnny got down, undid the rope, and went back for the next one. Barranca once again refused to come close to the carcasses. Although Johnny kept trying, Barranca would not get any closer than about ten feet from any of the dead steers. Finally Johnny gave up trying to get the horse closer and concentrated on moving the carcasses.
As Scott undid the rope round the last steer, he lifted its head and looked at its neck.
“Whatcha’ lookin’ for Scott?”
Scott shook his head. “Nothing, I guess. It’s just that all of theses steers have gashes on their necks.”
Johnny snorted. “They all have gashes EVERYWHERE, in case ya didn’t notice. Now let’s get back to work.”
Two hours later, the brothers had done a pretty good job of temporarily fixing the downed fence, using branches and small trees to replace the broken fence posts. It was hard work, because just as Johnny had predicted, they didn’t have the proper tools, and had to make do with what they carried in their saddlebags. Scott had been forced to use a small hand hatchet to chop down a number of young saplings, while Johnny laid out the wire and mended it as best he could. Then they took turns using the undersized shovel they carried to dig the postholes. Their progress was extremely slow, but at last the end of their project was in sight. All they had to do was finish wrapping the wire around their makeshift posts, and they would be done. Looking up, Johnny noticed some circling vultures, and nudged Scott. “Hey, Boston, you’d better move a little bit and quit lettin’ me do all the work.”
Scott, with sweat dripping down his face, turned to appraise his brother. “And why would that be?”
“’Cause I don’t want to have to explain to Murdoch how his son got mistook for a carcass and eaten, that’s why.” Johnny cackled.
Scott wrapped the final piece of wire around a post and glanced up at the vultures. “I’m perfectly safe. I believe I read somewhere that it was the smell of rotten meat that attracted them. If that’s the case, I’m the one that’s going to have to explain YOUR demise to our father.”
Johnny looked ruefully down at his sweat soaked clothes. “Ya know, Scott, ya could be right. Maybe we should go back and check out how deep that pond is one more time, just to make sure we got our facts straight.”
“Oh no, I’M going to go back to the ranch, have a nice bath, and go to town, where I can blissfully forget there are any such things as cattle, barbed wire, or work. And you, dear brother, will have to really worry about those vultures if you even think about getting into the bathhouse before I do.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Johnny said with a grin. “While you’re walkin’ home, I’ll just head straight in to town and get me a bath there. It’ll be quicker that way, and then I can personally explain to Bess why my poor brother isn’t in town.”
Scott reached over and grabbed Johnny around the neck, and tried to bulldog him to the ground. Johnny, meanwhile, grabbed Scott’s leg and tried to pull it out from under him. In a moment, the two of them were wrestling on the ground, each trying to get a clear advantage. As they wrestled, they got closer and closer to a small embankment, and suddenly found themselves rolling down the short incline. Their descent was stopped abruptly when they slid up against a pile of brush. Turning his head, Johnny felt his heart lurch as he found himself looking into a pair of large brown eyes, no more than a foot away.
Johnny jumped up with a curse, tossing Scott aside. As soon as he had regained his feet, however, he sheepishly bent down and offered his brother a hand up. “Sorry, Scott, I guess it just surprised me.”
Scott stood up and looked back down at the bloody carcass of another steer. Scott bent down and examined the dead animal. “This one didn’t die in the stampede. It’s had its throat torn open.”
Johnny squatted down next to his brother, and looked for himself. “You’re right. But other than that, it hasn’t been touched.” Again, Johnny expressed his confusion. “What’s goin’ on around here?”
Johnny stood up and started looking at the ground around the bush. Abruptly he stopped and bent down, staring at the ground intently. ‘Scott, look at this.”
As his brother leaned over, Johnny pointed to a large paw print in the loose soil by the bush.
Scott’s eyebrows shot up as he got a good look at the print. “I hate to tell you brother, but that’s no coyote.”
Johnny nodded his head. “Yeah, but I don’t think it’s a wolf, either. It’s too big. I’ve never seen a wolf print that big.”
“What else could it be?” Scott asked.
“I don’t know. Dog maybe. Some of those wild dogs can get pretty big, and mean, too.”
Scott nodded. “Well, at least the mystery is solved. Now we can get back to the ranch and in to town.”
Johnny stayed on the ground, staring at the print. “I don’t know, Scott. It still doesn’t make much sense. First of all, why were the horses so spooked by the scent if it was just a wild dog? Secondly, I don’t know if ANY dog is strong enough to rip a steer’s throat like that.”
Johnny finally stood up and inspected the ground more carefully. “Look, there’s another print. And another.”
Scott looked at where Johnny was pointing, then allowed his gaze to continue on the path that the beast seemed to be following. A movement in the sky caught his attention. Nudging his brother, he pointed at the vultures circling a far off shape. “Looks like there may be more dead cattle.”
Without a word, the two brothers walked back up the incline and Johnny grabbed Barranca’s reins. After mounting, he offered his hand to his brother and Scott swung aboard. Following the vultures, they approached the carcass Scott had spied earlier. Johnny halted his horse about twenty feet away, and scanned the ground for prints.
Johnny swung his leg over Barranca’s neck and dropped to the ground, followed quickly by Scott.
The two brothers approached the carcass, following the tracks up to the animal.
Scott went up and lifted the animal’s head. “Throat’s been torn out.”
Johnny nodded. “Whatever it is, it sure likes killin’. Hasn’t even eaten any of ‘em. We’ll need to kill whatever it is, pronto.”
Scott glanced at the sky, then back to his brother. “Not tonight, it’ll be dark in about an hour.”
Johnny shook his head. “No, not tonight. I just want to follow the tracks for a little ways, to see if there’s any more dead steers, and to see if I can figure out which way it’s headin.”
Thoughts of town forgotten for the moment, Scott nodded. “I think that might be a good idea.”
The brothers followed a trail of carcasses for over a mile, with Johnny becoming more and more confused. “What in tarnation would have the STRENGTH to keep pullin’ down these beeves, and then be able to catch up with the rest?”
Scott offered an explanation. “Maybe it was a pack, not one animal.”
Johnny shook his head. “Come on, Scott. You seen any tracks except from that one dog?”
Scott tried to look at his brother’s face. “Are you SURE it’s a dog?”
“Boston, I ain’t sure of nothin’ at this point, except we got us a big problem. Whatever it is just wiped out almost twenty head in one attack. Murdoch’s goin’ to have a fit.”
Johnny approached yet another carcass. “This one’s been eaten. At least partially.”
The two men once more dismounted and walked up to the steer. Suddenly, Johnny stopped and stared at the ground.
Scott came up behind him “What?”
“Scott, this is getting weirder and weirder. Look, over there on the other side.”
Scott looked at the ground where his brother was pointing, and didn’t see anything at first. He knew he wasn’t as good a tracker as Johnny, and was just getting ready to ask what his brother saw, when he realized what he was looking at. It was Scott’s turn to utter the familiar phrase “What’s going on? ”
Johnny went over and crouched down by the steer, keeping well clear of the new set of prints. “This one’s throat has been torn out, too, and somethin’ removed a pretty good chunk of meat.”
Johnny stood up and once again studied the ground. “All right Scott, this REALLY doesn’t make any sense. There’s paw prints all over the place, and it’s pretty clear that this dog or whatever it is took this steer down, and started to eat it. But there’s no tracks leading away from the carcass except those.” He said as he pointed to the mysterious second pair of prints.
Scott looked closely at the prints just visible in the churned up earth around the steer, and shook his head. ‘What would a man be doing out here barefoot?” He asked.
Just then, a long, lonely howl sounded from the surrounding hills, sending shivers down the men’s backs.
Johnny felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up as he looked towards the hills. “That wasn’t no dog.”
The sound had evoked an uncharacteristic feeling of dread in Johnny. He had bravely faced danger untold times in his life, but there was something about that howl that made him feel weak all over. At this point, all he wanted to do was get on Barranca and high tail it for home as fast as he could. He knew there was no rational explanation for feeling that way, but the sensation was still very real. He had stayed alive all these years because he always listened to that inner voice that warned him when something was not right, and he had no intention of ignoring it now, not when it was screaming at him to get out of here. He was wondering just how he could get Scott moving without his brother making fun of him for being afraid, when he heard his brother’s quiet voice.
“Let’s go home.”
Johnny looked at Scott, and saw his own fear mirrored in his brother’s face. The vague alarm he was feeling suddenly sharpened into a knife like terror. He didn’t need any more encouragement. He jumped on Barranca’s back with practiced grace, and held his hand out to his brother. Just as Scott was safely on board, another howl erupted from a stand of trees between the hills and the two men, much closer this time. The already nervous horse bolted, and Johnny did nothing to slow him down.
After a mile or so, Barranca started to slow, and Johnny was feeling pretty sheepish about giving in to panic. He decided he had imagined the look on Scott’s face earlier, and figured he was due for some pretty serious ribbing by his brother. He reined the lathered palomino down to a walk, and was trying to figure out what he could possibly say to cover up his lack of control when Scott spoke up.
“Johnny, what was that? I’ve never felt so….”
As Scott searched for the right word, Johnny took a chance. “Scared?”
“Terrified is more like it.” Scott shook his head. “It seems pretty silly now, but back there…” Again his voice trailed off with a sigh. “I guess you think I’m crazy.”
Johnny stopped Barranca and turned around to look at Scott. “Nope. Scott, I don’t know what happened back there, but I felt it too. But let’s just keep that part of the story quiet, O.K.? I don’t want to have to explain to Murdoch why two grown men acted like a couple of scared kids.”
Scott nodded his head. “Agreed. I wouldn’t know how to explain it, anyway.”
Neither brother could remember when the stone arch gracing the entry to the ranch yard felt more welcoming. Both men heaved an inward sigh of relief when they passed under it and could see the familiar buildings, bathed in the glow of the full moon.
The anticipated trip in to town was forgotten, by mutual, although silent, consent. Johnny took care of Barranca, while Scott checked to make sure that Charlie had made it home safely. Finding the wayward horse comfortably resting in a clean stall, Scott told him exactly what he would do to him if it happened again. Charlie remained unimpressed, and Scott finally relented and gave his horse a carrot from a nearby bin, while Johnny finished grooming Barranca.
After they had both made a much-needed trip to the bathhouse, they joined the rest of the family for dinner. But it wasn’t until they had joined Murdoch in the great room that Johnny brought up the matter of the stampede and dead stock to his father.
“Are you telling me that ONE dog or wolf or whatever it is killed twenty head of healthy stock?” Murdoch bellowed.
“Well, some of the steers died in the stampede.” Scott offered.
Murdoch turned and glared at him. “What difference does it make HOW they died. We can’t afford to be losing stock like that. Tomorrow, I want you and your brother to go out and find whatever it is that did it, and kill it.”
Johnny spoke up. “It may not be that easy, Murdoch. It could be anywhere by tomorrow.”
“Then track it!”
Johnny looked uncomfortable. “Well, that may be a problem.” He looked at his brother for support.
Scott merely shrugged.
‘Thanks, brother’, Johnny thought. Then he turned to his father. “There really weren’t any of its tracks leadin’ away from the last steer that we found,” he finally managed.
Murdoch looked at Johnny and said with a deceptively calm voice. “You said you tracked it from steer to steer. Am I supposed to believe that there were no tracks leading away from that last steer?”
Johnny shifted uncomfortably. “Well…there WERE tracks, but…”
“Then follow them!” His father roared.
Johnny looked at Scott beseechingly.
Scott finally took the plunge. “Actually, the only tracks leading away from the last kill weren’t from the animal. A man made them.”
Murdoch looked at Scott like he had suddenly grown two heads. “A man?”
“Yes, sir. There were no paw prints leading away from the carcass, just footprints.”
Now Murdoch looked perplexed. After thinking for a moment, he offered a solution. “Maybe one of the hands came across whatever had killed the steers while it was eating and killed it.”
Scott looked at Johnny, but it was Johnny’s turn to shrug.
“No, I don’t think so”, Scott said.
With a sigh, Johnny spoke up again. “Because there were no human or horse tracks leading up to the kill, and I don’t think any of our hands go around barefoot.”
Scott nodded. “Barefoot.”
“Are you trying to tell me that something ripped the throats out of twenty of our best steers after running them all down, leaving paw prints the whole way, then at the last carcass, the paw prints disappeared leaving only barefoot human footprints leading away?”
As both of his boys nodded, he finally asked. “O.K., what’s the joke?”
Johnny immediately answered. “No joke, Murdoch, honest. That’s what we saw.”
Murdoch was just getting ready to make an inquiry as to how much they had been drinking when a commotion from the kitchen drew his attention.
All three men rushed in to the eating area, sliding on pieces of cake that had been strewn throughout the dining room and found Maria sitting at the table, with Teresa hovering over her.
“What happened?” Murdoch asked of his ward.
“I don’t know. She was going in to bring you some cake when she started saying something in Spanish; I’m not sure exactly what she was talking about. I hadn’t heard some of the words before. Then she dropped the plate and ran back in here, praying and crossing herself. She was very upset.”
Johnny went over to the older woman and knelt down in front of her. Taking her hand, he softly asked her in Spanish what was wrong. At first, Maria didn’t seem to respond, but after a moment, she started babbling again, praying and saying a word over and over.
Murdoch touched Johnny’s shoulder. “What is she saying, son, what does that word mean?”
Johnny looked up at his father. “She’s saying that what killed the cattle is not from this world.” Johnny glanced at his brother before continuing. “She says they were killed by a ‘ Nahaul.’”
At his family’s puzzled looks, he clarified, “A werewolf.”
Johnny awoke early the next day, even thought he had not been able to get to sleep until early in the morning. It had taken all of them to calm Maria down the evening before. The older lady’s suggestion as to what had killed those steers certainly wasn’t to be taken seriously, but he still couldn’t explain certain aspects of what had happened. It just didn’t make sense to him, and his mind had refused to stop thinking about it. Rolling out of bed, he groggily got dressed and headed for the stairs. Meeting Scott as he was coming out of his room, he decided that his brother hadn’t slept any better than he had. Silently, the two men made their way down to the kitchen and each grabbed a cup of coffee before plopping down in the chairs by the table.
Scott looked down at his plate while Maria ladled a large amount of eggs and potatoes on to it, followed by a good – sized steak. It wasn’t until he went to pick up his fork that he noticed the object that had been placed to the left of his plate. It was a silver cross, intricately worked and attached to a silver chain. Picking it up, he inspected it more closely, and then glanced at Maria. When she turned around without a comment, he turned his attention to Johnny, who was holding a similar object in his hands.
Scott looked once more at the older woman as she worked at the stove. “Maria, what are these for?”
Maria answered without turning around. “For you and senor Johnny. They will keep you safe. No Nahaul would dare to attack anyone who is wearing a cross .”
Scott looked at his brother, who was thoughtfully staring at the religious symbol.
Maria turned suddenly and spoke quickly to the two men. “Please senors, promise me that you will wear them. The Nahaul, he is bad.”
Johnny spoke up as he held up his gun. “Don’t worry, Maria, I have all the protection I need, right here.”
Maria shook her head adamantly. “No, senor Johnny. Guns are no use against a Nahaul. Your only protection is that cross. Please believe me, my mother told me of such things. You must be careful. Promise me that you will wear the crosses.”
Maria looked beseechingly at the two men. Finally, they looked at each other a little sheepishly before shrugging their shoulders and putting the chains over their necks, tucking them well beneath their shirts. Maria fixed the young men with her gaze. ‘You promise you will keep them on, Si?”
Johnny returned the gaze for a moment before ducking his head to hide a smile that was forming. “Si, senora, we promise.”
After finishing their breakfast, the two men walked towards the barn, both a little embarrassed about wearing the crosses that Maria had given them. However, before they could get more than a few feet, a very nervous Segundo stopped them.
“Senor Scott, Jaunito, may I have a word with you, por favor?”
When the two brothers stopped, he took a small vial out of his pocket. “I went to the church this morning, and got this. It will keep you safe. It is holy water, to protect you from the Lobombre.”
Johnny and Scott exchanged glances.
Johnny looked at the man. “Cipriano, I don’t know what that thing was that killed those steers, but it was not a werewolf, comprende?”
Cipriano shook his head vehemently. “I talked to Maria last night. She told me the things that you saw. It is the work of a lobombre.” He held out the vial to Johnny. “It will keep the beast away.”
Scott looked at the small via and started shaking his head. “Cipriano…..” he started.
“Please senor, take the vial, it will not hurt anything. Please.”
Johnny studied the Segundo’s face for a moment, and then with a sigh, he reached out and took the small flask and stuffed it underneath his shirt. “Thanks, Tio.”
Trying to look anywhere but at his brother, he glanced towards the barn and saw that both Barranca and Charlie had already been saddled and were standing outside of the corral.
At a questioning look from Johnny, the Segundo explained. “I knew you had to leave early this morning, so I saddled your horses for you. They were eager to go; they couldn’t wait to get out of the barn.”
“Thank you, Cipriano,” Scott told the older man. Turning towards Johnny, Scott said, “We’d better grab our bedrolls from inside, in case we don’t get back tonight.”
Johnny nodded his agreement, and as they walked towards the barn, Scott grinned at Johnny and pointed to where the small flask was hidden. “Guess were ready for anything now.”
Johnny scuffed his boot into the dirt. “It’s not funny, Scott. They really believe those old legends. It’s part of their culture.”
“What about you?”
Johnny snorted. “There’s enough evil in this world without havin’ ta blame it on some poor werewolf.”
Scott laughed. “And I suppose if there really were one, you’d try to tame it.”
Johnny reached over and punched his brother in the arm as they entered the barn.
As soon as they went through the doorway of the quiet structure a strong odor assaulted their nostrils.
“Whew, what IS that smell?” Scott looked around for the source, but could not find anything amiss. The barn was deserted, as most of the men had already left for the day.
The smell became stronger the further that they went in to the barn. Something about the silence made Johnny uneasy. His hand went to his side, and touched the soothing metal of the gun that was strapped there. As Johnny slowed down to allow his senses to tell him what was wrong, Scott went ahead to pick up their bedrolls and supplies they’d need for the day. Scott disappeared around a corner, and a few seconds later a strangled scream tore through the air.
Johnny’s heart was in his mouth as he took off at a run for where he had last seen Scott. Turning the corner, he came to an abrupt halt at the scene in front of him.
Jelly was standing next to Scott, with what looked like bunch of garlic in his hands, trying to throw the bunch over his brother’s head. Scott was trying to back away, but the wall of the barn stopped his progress. Johnny watched in amused silence as Jelly finally managed to get the ‘necklace’ over Scott’s head, but his expression turned to alarm when Jelly turned his attention on him. Taking off back the way he had come, he heard Jelly in hot pursuit.
“Now jest hold on a minute, boy, yer goin’ ta need this. Ole Jelly made ya somethin ta protect ya out there against that thing.”
Leaving Scott to his fate, Johnny shot out the door of the barn and jumped on Barranca, spurring him out of the yard. At the moment, a possible dressing down by Murdoch for galloping inside the arch was a much more pleasurable prospect than getting caught by Jelly.
By the time he’d gone a couple of hundred yards, he heard Charlie behind him and slowed down. Stopping Barranca, he turned to face his brother as he rode up.
Scott pulled up beside him as Johnny started Barranca walking once more. Scott looked at Johnny with displeasure. “It’s sure nice to know I can count on you when I’m in a tight spot, BROTHER.”
“Scott, you didn’t really expect me to stand up to that smell, did ya? I mean, that was askin’ a little much. And by the way, BROTHER, I’d appreciate it if you’d stay down wind while we’re ridin.”
Scott drew himself up and gave Johnny a withering stare. “In case you didn’t notice, I’m no longer wearing Mr. Hoskin’s werewolf repellent.”
“Is that what he called it? More like everything repellent if ya ask me. Besides, ya still stink.”
“Well, since you get to carry the holy water, I figured I might as well have some backup protection, in case Maria’s cross didn’t work.” Scott replied with a perfectly straight face.
Johnny grinned and kneed Barranca into a lope. The sooner they reached the carcasses from yesterday, the sooner they could track whatever it was and get this whole thing over with.
The vultures pointed the way back to the carcasses. The two men followed the circling birds until they arrived at the dead steer whose accompanying footprints had confused them so much the previous day. Both of them figured that they would find something today that would explain what had really happened, and clear up the mystery.
Johnny jumped down from Barranca and approached the carcass. “Whew, even Jelly’s repellent smells better than this.” When he got to within a few feet, Johnny stopped and stared at the ground, shaking his head.
“Look,” Johnny said, pointing at the earth around the carcass.
“I don’t see anything,” Scott offered.
“That’s just the point. The tracks are gone.”
Scott got closer and studied the ground. “They can’t have just disappeared.”
Johnny started circling around the steer, making wider and wider passes. Finally, he started back towards the string of dead cattle they had just passed. Scott followed with Barranca as Johnny traipsed across the hard earth. When he reached the next steer, Johnny walked over to his horse and mounted.
“Where are we going?” Scott asked.
“Nowhere. I want to follow the line all the way back to where it started, but I sure ain’t goin’ ta do it on foot.”
The two men backtracked along the path that they had followed, searching for tracks, and found nothing. Reaching the small shrub where they had rolled down the embankment, Scott pushed aside the brush and searched, but the tracks were gone. “Now what?” He asked his brother.
“I don’t know. Let’s go back to the last steer and make a big circle around it. There HAVE to be tracks somewhere.”
At the end of an hour, they still had not had any success, and Johnny was starting to get angry.
“There HAS to be a reasonable explanation for this,” he fumed.
Scott tipped his hat back on his head and thought for a moment. “I’ve heard of Indians clearing away tracks with a branch. Could someone have cleared these tracks away?”
Johnny bit his lip as he nodded. “Yeah, I suppose. But it would have taken all night to clear them for as far as we looked. And WHY? Who would care?”
Scott shook his head. “I have no idea. But I’m not willing to give up yet. I have no intention of going back to the ranch and telling Murdoch the tracks disappeared. He’d have us both committed.”
“Yeah, after he had us shot,” Johnny quipped.
“Well, brother, which way?” Scott asked.
Johnny looked around, and then nodded toward the small hills in the distance. “That way. That’s where the howls came from last night.”
As the brothers rode along, they kept scanning the ground for prints, but the earth continued to divulge nothing.
The two men spent the next several hours crisscrossing back and forth among the hills, trying unsuccessfully to find prints or any other shred of evidence that they were on the right track of the killer.
In the late afternoon, tired and frustrated, they stopped to eat next to a small stream.
“Well, you’re the smart one,” Johnny said. “What’re we goin’ to tell the Old Man?”
“Well,” Scott said seriously, “you know werewolves are really called shape changers. Maybe it turned into a bird or something.”
In reply, Johnny threw an apple at his brother, which bounced off of Scott’s leg and rolled down towards the stream. Jumping up, Johnny followed it to the water, but when he reached over to grab it, he suddenly froze.
Scott came down to the stream and looked at what Johnny was pointing at. In the mud at the far side of the stream were a number of barefoot human footprints.
Johnny unconsciously undid the loop on his gun before crossing the small creek and following the footprints up the opposite slope. When he and Scott reached the top, they spied a small cabin nestled in among the rocks and bushes.
They approached the cabin cautiously, never seeing the pair of furious eyes peering out from the bushes and watching their every move.
As they approached the building, Johnny nudged his brother and pointed at the ground in front of the door. There were numerous prints of a bare foot, both coming and going, and Scott noticed something that just might be a paw print underneath one of the prints.
Scott stopped in front of the door of the tiny cabin as Johnny drew his gun and stayed slightly to the side. After knocking several times, Scott opened the door and cautiously entered. The building was deserted, and there was obviously nowhere to hide, so both brothers relaxed slightly, and Johnny slipped his gun back into its holster and flipped the safety loop on.
Once he was in the cabin, Johnny was hit with a feeling of disquiet. Something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. A subtle but distinct coppery odor permeated the place, and blocked thoughts of anything else from his mind. The odor was well known to him, and immediately brought back memories of the bloody aftermath of dozens of gunfights. Men dying in agony on the streets, some of them cursing him, and others pleading with him to finish the job, but all of them dying, while he himself walked away.
Mentally shaking himself, he studied the interior of the shack. The cabin was very sparsely furnished, with a single blanket on a small bed, a lantern sitting on a makeshift table, and a roughly hewn chair. Other than that, the cabin was empty and reasonably clean. Nothing in the small space would account for the unpleasant smell.
The unmistakable odor also brought back dreadful memories for Scott. The odor was all too familiar during the war, both on the battlefield and later on in the surgery, where he was supposed to help an alcoholic old doctor treat the never- ending injured. In reality, the doctor was normally too drunk to do much good, and the number of men who died because of that man caused more than one nightmare for Scott. He remembered holding screaming men down while the doctor sawed off their limbs, and he had stopped counting the number of men who died in agony on that table, while cursing both him and the surgeon. He had a clear memory of the doctor stopping in the middle of an operation to take a swig from his ever – present bottle, and then shakily dropping it into the open belly of the man he was operating on. The doctor had panicked, not because of the possible contamination, Scott surmised, but because of the threat he would loose his precious bottle. After he had retrieved it, the doctor had heaved a sigh, taken a healthy swig from the bloody flask, and then gone right back to what he was doing, a little more shakily than before.
Fighting down the horrific memories, Scott managed to remember why they were here, and looked around. He felt the ridiculous urge to whisper. Forcing himself to speak in normal tones, he said, “If the owner of the footprints lives here, no wonder he took some of the meat from that steer that was killed. He obviously has nothing.”
Johnny looked troubled for a moment, and then he exclaimed, “That’s it! There’s no cooking supplies. Not even a kettle or a pan. And look, the fireplace is clean. No one’s been cooking anything in here.”
Scott looked around dubiously. “It doesn’t look like anyone’s been doing anything here. Maybe he doesn’t live here, after all.”
Johnny went over to the table and wiped a finger on the surface. “He’s been livin’ here, all right. From the amount of tracks out in front, he’s been here awhile.”
At that moment he noticed something underneath the cot. Bending over, he nudged the object out from under the bed with his foot. It was what looked like the rib of a cow, with some bloody strings of meat still attached.
Scott stared at the bone. “Well, that explains the smell.”
Johnny looked at his brother. “Does it? What would somethin’ like this be doin’ here? You don’t think he eats things raw do ya?”
Scott looked at the bloody bone. “Maybe the dog is his pet.”
Johnny snorted. ‘Some pet. Animal like that’d probably eat him. He was scavenging off the dog’s kill, more’n likely.”
At Scott’s shrug, Johnny turned and looked around again, as if he could find an answer in the walls of the cabin. Finally he sighed. “Well, now what, Scott? Murdoch is goin’ ta have OUR heads mounted above the fireplace if we don’t come back with some sort of proof that we killed whatever it is. We need to take care of this.”
Scott looked at his brother in disbelief. “And what do you think we should do? Wait until that poor man comes back and shoot HIM?”
“Better him than me,” Johnny muttered.
Scott ignored his brother’s gloomy prediction of Murdoch’s wrath. “We’ll tell our father the truth. That we found where whomever it is belongs to those footprints lives, and that the wolf or dog or whatever has disappeared.”
Johnny shook his head. “He ain’t goin’ ta buy it, Boston. He’ll want to know why we didn’t stay and talk to the man.”
Scott looked around him a little uneasily. Although he would never admit it, the cabin was making him feel uncomfortable. He looked out the window, where the last rays of the sun were just disappearing behind the mountains. “Maybe we can come back tomorrow and try to find him.”
Scott noticed that Johnny nodded his head and looked a little relieved. “Come on, Scott, let’s get out of here, we ain’t goin’ ta find anything standin’ around. But YOU get to explain things to the Old Man this time.”
Scott looked at his brother. “All right, I’ll explain about having to come back here, and YOU, dear brother can explain why you couldn’t find the animal’s tracks.”
Johnny took a swipe at his brother and then turned to leave. But just as he turned, the heavy door slammed open with enough force to tear the hinges, and a hairy form charged towards the two men.
“What are you doing in my cabin? You have no right to be here!” The man skidded to a stop a foot or so from Scott, who involuntarily took a step back.
Johnny had his gun drawn and leveled at the man before he had even come to a complete stop. “Back off, mister.” Johnny growled.
The man looked at Johnny, but the gun didn’t seem to impress him. “Get out of my cabin, NOW! Go home!”
The man spoke with a strange accent, and Johnny made a mental note to ask his brother about it later. Taking a good look at the man, Johnny lowered his gun slightly. He was of medium height, with long unkempt red hair and a full beard. His clothes had obviously seen better days, and as far as Johnny could tell, he wasn’t armed. He was also barefoot.
Scott decided the diplomatic approach would be best. “I’m sorry if my brother and I intruded. We were looking for someone, and thought that he might be here.”
The man remained agitated. “He is not here, no one is here. Now go, before it is too late.”
“Too late for what?” Johnny asked.
“Please, just go.” The man suddenly seemed almost resigned.
Scott looked at the man’s bare feet. “We saw tracks at the carcass of a steer. Were they yours?”
The man looked at Scott as if he didn’t quite understand the question.
Johnny spoke up. “A dog or wolf killed some steers just south of here. We saw some tracks next to one of the kills that could have been yours. Did you get some meat from the steer after it had been killed? If you did, it’s O.K., we just want to know.”
The man immediately started nodding his head, “Yes, that’s it. I needed some meat and since the animal was already dead….” His voice trailed off.
“Did you see what it was that killed those steers?” Scott asked.
The man hesitated for a moment, and then shook his head.
Scott watched the man for a second. Then asked another question “My brother thought it might be a dog. It’s not yours, is it?”
Again the man shook his head. “No,” He whispered, “It isn’t mine. And it is no dog.”
Johnny looked at him sharply. “I thought you said you hadn’t seen it.”
The man returned Johnny’s gaze calmly. “I haven’t. I have never seen the Creature. But I have heard its howl, and seen its tracks. It is not a dog.”
Once again the man started to get agitated. “Please, you must go. It is not safe in these woods at night.”
Scott and Johnny looked at each other before Scott asked the question. “Why do you think that it’s not safe?”
“The Creature will be out there tonight, looking for blood. You will not be safe once he appears.”
Johnny took a step closer to the man. “I’m telling you right now that the “Creature” has a lot more to fear from us than we have to fear from him. When we catch sight of him, he’s going wish he’d never set foot on Lancer.”
The man sadly shook his head. “I wish that you could stop him, and I wish you luck. I have been praying that the Creature would somehow die, but so far, my prayers have not been answered. Now, please, go on your way and leave me alone.”
“You have any problems with us settin’ some traps around?” Johnny asked.
The man once again shook his head, but refused to meet their eyes.
Scott caught Johnny’s eye and indicated that they should leave. Johnny wanted to ask the man some more questions, but finally gave in to his brother’s silent request and turned and walked out the door, followed closely by Scott.
Once they were back by the creek, Johnny angrily turned towards his brother. ‘I wasn’t done askin’ him questions. You know he was lyin’.”
Scott nodded as he swung up on Charlie. “I got that impression too. But he wasn’t going to tell us any more, at least not tonight. We can always come back.”
Johnny glanced back towards the shack as he mounted. “Yeah, but next time let’s come during the day. That place gives me the creeps.”
“It sure wasn’t much of a home, that’s for sure,” Scott observed as he started to guide Charlie down the hill.
“Yeah, and for somebody that’s so darn afraid of things that go bump in the night, it was pretty peculiar that there was no lock on the door. Not even a bar. Nothin to keep it from just bein’ pushed open.” Johnny shook his head. “He knows somethin’ about that wolf or whatever it is, but he doesn’t want us to know it.”
“If it’s his, he’s probably afraid that we’ll hold him responsible for the dead cattle.” Scott said. “And it’s obvious he couldn’t pay for them.”
“Yeah, well, I can’t blame him there. Murdoch probably would take it outta his hide just on general principles. If it is his animal though, he doesn’t seem too concerned that we might kill it.”
Scott shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe it turned on him or something.”
Johnny looked at his brother. “Yeah, or somethin’ is probably right.”
Taking a deep breath of the clean air, Johnny glanced up at the darkening sky. “At least we’ll be able to see the trail on the way home. The moon’s still full.”
The men had just made it down off of the hill when they heard a spine tingling howl coming from the direction of the cabin. Turning their panicked horses towards the sound, they tried to pinpoint where the noise had come from.
“Dang it! That’s right where we were. Let’s go back and see if we can at least get a glimpse of it.” Johnny spurred Barranca towards the sound as Scott fought to retain control of Charlie. “Come on, Scott, let’s go.”
“I’m trying,” Scott ground out, as Charlie snorted and tried to bolt.
Johnny turned in the saddle to look back at his brother. “Come on Scott, I thought you could ride.” Just then Barranca decided that he wasn’t going any further and lunged to the side. Johnny went flying off of the horse and landed in a crumpled heap.
“Johnny!” Scott yelled as his brother hit the ground.
Johnny slowly sat up, once more promising dire consequences to his horse as he watched it disappear into the night.
Scott looked down at his apparently unhurt brother and managed to calm Charlie enough to get close. “I thought you could ride.”
At Johnny’s glare, Scott bit back another retort and held his arm out to his brother. “Come on, we’re not going to be chasing anything tonight. Let’s go.”
Johnny scrambled up on a skittish Charlie. “This is startin’ ta get old. I think we BOTH better get decent horses.”
Scott chuckled at the thought of his brother giving up Barranca for any reason. “Maybe we should give them both another chance, brother. At least they were considerate enough to take turns dumping us, so we wouldn’t be totally afoot.”
Johnny merely scowled and kept his thoughts to himself. A few minutes later, they heard the howl again, this time off to the side, but apparently moving away from them.
“Scott, I don’t care WHAT that thing is, its days on earth are numbered. Since trackin’ it don’t seem to be workin’, tomorrow I’m goin’ ta set about a million traps and kill that thing once and for all.”
Scott nodded. “That might be the wisest course, since every time we try to find it we keep coming back without our horses.”
Once again the two men felt relief when they finally passed under the Lancer arch. As they rode into the yard, Cipriano came out and grabbed Charlie’s reins.
Murdoch stepped out of the house. “Scott, Johnny, come in here, I need to talk to you.”
Johnny answered his father, ‘Just a minute, I have to…”
“Now! You can take care of your horses when we’re done talking.”
Johnny looked after Cipriano, but he already had taken Charlie into the barn. He knew the Segundo would have taken care of Barranca properly, still, old habits were hard to break, and Johnny didn’t like leaving his horse’s care to anyone else. He guessed Barranca would have to wait. Maybe it would do him good, Johnny thought. Make him worry a little bit. With a soft chuckle, Johnny joined his brother and went in to the house.
Murdoch was sitting in the Great room with a drink in his hand. Nodding towards the liquor cabinet, he said “Boys.”
Scott went over and poured both he and Johnny a glass before sitting down by his brother. After taking a sip of the scotch, he addressed his father. “What’s up?”
“I got a visit from Jim Meyers today. It seems like he also lost at least a dozen head last night. He also says that the Bar S lost some stock, as did the Flying T. I told him that you were out trying to catch whatever it was, and he said to tell you that the ranchers have put up a one hundred dollar reward for killing it”.
Johnny whistled. “That’s a lot of money.”
“It’s done a lot of damage.” Murdoch looked at his sons for a moment. “Well? Did you get it?”
Johnny snuck a look at Scott before answering. “Not exactly.”
Murdoch stood up, “What do you mean, not exactly. Just how close did you come?”
At Johnny’s uncomfortable look, Murdoch turned towards his eldest son. “Well?”
“Well, we found out whose footprints were by the carcass.” Scott said brightly. He hesitated a moment before plunging on. “They belonged to a strange man who is living in a cabin up in the hills.”
As Murdoch continued to glower at him, Scott turned towards his brother. “Maybe Johnny can explain it better.”
Scott sat back on the sofa, aware that there were now two men glaring at him.
Johnny finally started to speak. “Like Scott said, we found out who the footprints belonged to. He’s a hermit or somethin’ and is living in a small shack up in the hills north of here. He said he took some meat from the steer after it was dead, and that he hadn’t seen whatever it was that killed it.”
Murdoch continued glaring. “Well, that makes me sleep better at night, knowing you did such a great job of finding someone who had nothing to do it.”
“I didn’t say he had nothin’ ta do with it.” Johnny spat.
As Murdoch’s eyebrows shot up, Scott interceded once more. “Murdoch, he knows something about it. Johnny and I are pretty sure he was lying.”
Murdoch turned his gaze on Scott, and then said in a steadily rising voice. “What difference does it make WHAT he says. Even if that animal belongs to him, we have every right to kill it for taking down stock! Now I expect you to go out tomorrow and KILL that thing. Understood?”
Scott nodded, while Johnny looked at his father thoughtfully. ‘You goin’ to add somethin’ ta that reward?”
Scott rose hurriedly and grabbed Johnny’s arm as Murdoch’s face turned an alarming shade of red. “Come on, brother, let’s go take care of our horses.” He pulled Johnny towards the door, and managed to get him outside before the inevitable explosion.
Once outside, Johnny shrugged off Scott’s hand and headed for the barn. “I still think the Old Man should kick in a little money to add to that reward,” he groused.
Scott shook his head at his little brother’s knack for getting their father upset. “Let’s just kill that thing, O.K? You can have my half of the reward, how’s that?”
“That sounds fair, Boston, considerin’ I’m the one that’s goin’ ta kill it. I’ll just be takin’ you along for company.”
Scott chuckled. “Then maybe I should have let you walk home, brother.”
Johnny turned and gave Scott a convincing glare. “There’s a certain horse that’s goin’ ta be in a world of hurt when I get done with him.”
Scott managed to hide a grin. He knew Johnny’s idea of punishment would be a stern talking to, probably followed by a healthy portion of carrots.
Cipriano was in the barn, working on an injured horse when they entered. Scott started over to Charlie’s stall, and then stopped dead. From behind him, he heard Johnny’s muffled curse, then a loud yell.
“Cipriano!! Where’s Barranca?”
The Segundo’s face appeared over the stall partition. “I do not know, senor. I thought maybe you left him somewhere.”
Johnny’s voice was a mere whisper. “He didn’t come home?”
Scott blanched as he thought back on the howl. It had come from the direction that Barranca had disappeared.
It had taken both Scott and Murdoch to keep Johnny from going back out after Barranca right then. They both knew the chances of finding the horse in the dark, even with the full moon, were slight. And although he kept his thoughts to himself, Scott thought that finding Barranca at all, at least alive, were slight. Not after that howl.
After a long and heated argument, Johnny had finally huffed off to bed. Scott had lain awake for a long time, listening for any sounds that would indicate that his impulsive little brother was going back out to look for his horse. As he listened to the clock chime one o’clock, he thought back over the day’s events, and finally fell into a troubled sleep.
Scott sat up with a start. He was sweaty and disoriented, and his racing heart told him something was wrong. It was still dark outside, and he could see a blood red moon from his window. He listened to the nighttime noises that emanated from the house, but found no comfort in them. They had somehow taken on a sinister quality.
Lying there, he could hear his heart as it raced in his chest, and feel the sweat trickling down his brow. The fear was like a live thing that had wrapped around him and wouldn’t let him go. Stubbornly, he tried to will it in to submission, but it had a firm hold and refused to release him.
The feeling of doom was all pervasive now, and the need to leave; to get out of this room was overwhelming. Flinging back the covers, he quickly got out of bed and slipped on a pair of pants, at once feeling a little less vulnerable. He went to the door and opened it, and then paused to listen again. He heard nothing amiss, just the usual noises, and the wind moaning lightly against the building. Still…..
He walked to the end of the hall and cautiously opened Murdoch’s door and peeked in. He could see the lumpish form sprawled in sleep, and the snores emanating from the bed reassured Scott that his father was all right.
Going to the next room, he wrestled with his conscience for a moment, and then taking a deep breath he opened the door to Teresa’s room. Again, he was reassured of her safety and moved on.
The final room he had to check was his brother’s, and for some reason his hands started sweating and he felt a chill run through him. Wiping his sweaty palm on his pants, he gripped the knob in his hand, and then felt the door open almost of its own accord. Peering in, he felt cold all over when he realized that the room was empty.
Gently closing the door, he rested his head on the doorframe for a moment before padding down the hall to the stairs. He would check to make sure Johnny wasn’t just out in the barn seeing if Barranca had come home before awakening their father.
As he descended the stairs, he was once more aware of the almost eerie feeling that the house had suddenly manifested. A pool of cold air seemed to engulf him when he reached the bottom, and he had an almost overwhelming urge to run back up the stairs. Shaking off the unexpected sensation, he continued out the door and into the yard, heading for the barn. The night was quiet, except for a light wind, and the moon splashed the yard with a light that looked almost red. The eerily moving shadows did their part to lend an air of malevolence to the scene.
There was no one in sight, and even the hand that was supposed to be a night watchman of sorts was absent. Dewdrop was also silent, and the feeling of unease dug further into his mind.
By the time he reached the stable, he was in a state of near terror. The closer he got to the building, the more he was convinced that something evil was within its walls. The fear he had felt inside the house was nothing compared to what he now felt, but at the same time something seemed to be drawing him closer. He no longer had any say in the matter. He had to go in to the barn. Taking a deep and shaky breath, he stepped in to the dark building.
Just as he entered the gloomy stable, he heard a noise coming from one of the stalls. Peering around the corner, Scott saw Barranca lying there. Relief overwhelmed him, and made him feel almost giddy. He laughed shakily, realizing how silly he would have appeared to anyone who had known his thoughts. ‘No chance of that,’ he thought.
Taking a step closer to the horse, he realized that something was wrong. At first he thought it was from the strange moonlight, but then he realized that the red on Barranca’s coat was real. Taking a step closer, the devastation wrought on the innocent animal suddenly snapped into focus.
Hearing a noise behind him, he knew it would be Johnny. Reluctant to face him, he turned, and instead he came face to face with the Creature, a half man, half wolf horror. It’s long shaggy red hair was wild and unkempt, and its eyes were as black and shiny as Maria’s hair. Soulless eyes. It stared at him for a moment before emitting an inhuman shriek and bounding towards him. Frozen in place, Scott watched as Johnny suddenly appeared from nowhere, stepping in front of it to stop it, drawing and firing his gun in a heartbeat. But the bullets had no effect. The beast continued to come, grabbing Johnny by the throat and tossing him aside like a rag doll. He saw the blood, and even as he realized that his brother was dead, the creature turned those soulless eyes on him.
Scott bolted upright, his heart racing. He had nightmares frequently, usually about the war, but this was different. It had been so real that he furtively glanced around to make sure that it had been a dream, even thought his mind told him that it must have been. He sat still for a moment, trying to calm his rapid pulse and forget the horror that had come to life in his nightmare.
Finally a little more relaxed, he stood up and put on his pants and shirt, and finished getting ready for his day. Making his way downstairs, he rapped once on Johnny’s door, and then poked his head in. As usual, his brother’s bed looked like he had been wrestling someone in it all night. Johnny’s clothes weren’t on the floor or the back of the chair, their usual places, so Scott hurried to the kitchen to catch him before he could leave. Scott had no intention of letting his brother look for Barranca by himself, especially when he was convinced that the horse had not survived the night.
Maria intercepted him as he entered the eating area. “Senor Scott, you are still wearing the cross I gave you, si?”
Scott furtively glanced at his father before answering. “Si, Maria, I am still wearing it. Thank you.”
Maria blushed and nodded before loading up a plate to give to the Patron’s oldest son.
“How long ago did Johnny leave?” Scott asked. He figured even if his brother was already out in the barn, he could wolf down a couple of bites. It may be a long day.
“Juanito is not down yet.”
Immediately Scott’s fork dropped to his plate. “Murdoch?”
Murdoch caught the look in Scott’s eye. “He’s not in his room?”
Scott shook his head in disgust. “I stayed awake half the night just to make sure he didn’t go after Barranca by himself.”
Murdoch looked at his oldest son. “So did I.”
Scott threw down his napkin and stalked out of the house. “I TOLD him to wait until this morning, but no, he had to go anyway. He just couldn’t wait for me. When I catch that brother of mine, he’s going to wish…….”
Murdoch listened to Scott’s dire threats as his voice trailed off in the distance. He felt a twinge of unease and thought briefly of saddling a horse and going with Scott, but decided he was being silly. He took his coffee in to the library, and started to work on the books, only occasionally glancing out the window towards the hills.
Scott saddled Charlie and led him out of the barn. No one had seen Johnny leave this morning, and a young horse Johnny had been working with was missing. Cipriano had noticed its absence when he had checked the barn at daylight this morning, so Johnny had probably left sometime after one A.M., when Scott had fallen asleep. Cursing his brother’s stubbornness, he headed towards the hills where they had last seen the horse.
An hour later Scott arrived at the area they had been in when Barranca had taken off. Even though he wasn’t an expert tracker, he had no problem finding the tracks of the panicked horse. The tracks led away from the cabin and in the general direction of the ranch, but stayed near the base of the hills. There was another set of hoof prints also, which meant Johnny was definitely ahead of him. Scott followed the tracks for quite awhile in the difficult terrain before they veered off suddenly and headed away from the ranch.
Scott got down off of Charlie and knelt in the dirt, trying to find out why the animal had suddenly changed directions. He thought that it might have been because the horse had heard the second howl. After a few minutes of intense scrutiny, he was rewarded with the sight of a large paw print, superimposed over the horse’s.
Scott was having an increasingly difficult time following the tracks in the rough country. The ground was hard and rocky and only an occasional print showed up. He had to rely more and more on the broken branches and other signs that indicated that he was still going in the right direction.
Then he saw what he had feared the most. Indications that something had bolted from the trail and changed directions once again, and almost at once, the blood trail started. Only a drop or two at first, and then a steadily increasing amount. At first it just spotted the branches, but soon it was splashed over the bushes like paint.
The land had started to change, and the brush was becoming less dense. Blood had pooled in places, and Scott knew that whatever was losing that blood could not survive for long. Peering ahead, he once again had proof that he was on the right track. A hundred yards or so in the distance, the vultures were slowly circling a spot before dropping down to join the feast.
With a feeling of dread, he rode towards the carcass. It was literally covered with a blanket of vultures, and it was impossible to see what the birds were dining on. A twinge of worry suddenly surfaced. Where was Johnny? He certainly wouldn’t leave his beloved horse to the mercy of the vultures. Scott urged Charlie to a faster gait.
As he approached, he realized that the shape on the ground was wrong. It was quite a bit smaller than a horse. Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye he saw some familiar shapes. Barranca and the horse that Johnny had been riding were grazing quietly a little ways away. A feeling of relief washed over him before another, darker thought pushed its way to the surface.
Scott tore towards the body in a panic. “Oh dear God, no.”
Charlie skidded to a halt as the vultures rose like a black wave and blocked Scott’s view. Stumbling down off of his horse, he hit the ground at a dead run, screaming and waving his arms as he approached the body. He then came to a sudden stop and just stared.
From behind him a familiar voice spoke up. “Geez, Scott, what’s wrong with you. You get in to some locoweed or somethin’?”
Instead of turning around, Scott took a deep breath. He wasn’t sure whether to hug his brother or punch him. Before he turned around to face him, he waited to see which impulse won out. In the end it was a tie.
Scott looked at his brother. “I take it you’re O.K?, he asked in an icy voice.
Johnny looked bewildered. “Yeah, I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”
Scott’s voice remained cold but gradually rose in volume. “Oh, I don’t know. I just had this silly notion that you might be in trouble.”
Johnny watched his brother warily. “No, I’m fine.” He brightened. “So’s Barranca. The way I figure it, that thing was chasing him when the deer panicked and jumped out between it and Barranca. Saved him for sure.” He looked down at the bloody carcass. “Not so great for the deer, though.”
Scott muttered something under his breath that Johnny didn’t quite hear. Johnny opened his mouth to ask him what he said, and then figured that maybe it was better if he didn’t know, and shut his mouth with a snap.
Scott ran his fingers through his hair in frustration and looked around. “Now what?”
“Well, I brought some traps with me. I plan on settin’ em in a circle surrounding that cabin, and a couple hundred yards out. Maybe put a few more scattered around. Don’t want to put too many out, though.”
Scott’s interest was piqued. “Why not?”
“Can’t check ‘em often enough. Traps are pretty cruel things. Normally I don’t use ‘em at all, but this is different. But I don’t want anything I catch layin’ there fightin’ the trap for days. It ain’t right.”
Scott was once again surprised at his brother’s soft heart. He had never heard anyone saying much against traps, and he knew that most ranchers used them regularly to control predators. He had wondered why Johnny had always insisted on hunting any animals that were causing problems, and now he knew. He wanted to make sure it was a clean kill.
Scott’s anger at his brother evaporated, and he chuckled, realizing that for some reason, he didn’t know anyone who could stay mad at Johnny for very long.
The brothers worked together, setting the traps, with Johnny showing Scott all he knew about it. By the time they were all placed properly, the sun was just setting. As they rode back to the ranch, both brothers expected to hear the eerie howl at any moment, but the beast was silent tonight.
The next several weeks passed quickly. No more stock was killed, and no one saw or heard anything that would indicate the predator was still around. Either Johnny or Scott checked the traps every day, and except for a few unlucky coyotes, they remained empty. Johnny decided that he would give it one month, and if there was no sign of the animal by then, he would pick up the traps and figure the beast had moved on.
It was exactly four weeks later when Scott and Johnny rode into town for a drink before checking the non- productive traps.
As they walked into the saloon, Johnny sank into his customary chair next to the wall. “That’s it, Boston. I don’t care if Murdoch does think it’s a good idea ta keep ‘em out there. I’m sick of traipsin’ back and forth checkin’ them things. I’m pickin’ ‘em up tomorrow, and if the Old Man wants more set, he can do it.”
Scott was inclined to agree. There had been no more problems, and the two of them had wasted an awful lot of time on those traps.
The two men had just gotten comfortable and were making a serious dent in their drinks when the owner of the Bar S came bolting through the saloon doors. Johnny was on his feet in an instant, with the gun leveled at the intruder before he recognized him and slid the pistol back in its holster.
“What in tarnation’s wrong with you?” Bill hollered from behind the bar.
Pete looked around frantically. “Where’s the Doc?”
Scott stood up and went over to the distraught man. “What’s wrong?” he asked gently.
“It’s my boy, Dave. He’s hurt bad. I need to get Sam out to the ranch, quick.”
“I’ll go get Sam. Just stay here.” Scott hurried out the door in the direction of the doctor’s office.
Johnny went up and offered Pete a drink of his beer. “What happened?”
Pete chugged a good portion of the drink before answering. ‘He was workin’ out by one of the line shacks. He didn’t come home last night, and this mornin’ I went out to check on him.”
“Go on,” Johnny urged.
When I rode up, there was blood outside the shack. I thought maybe he’d cut himself or somethin’. But when I went inside…..” Pete grabbed another drink, and then wiped his mouth on his sleeve before continuing. “He was all tore up.” He whispered.
Johnny’s voice was quiet. “Do you know what did it?”
Pete shook his head. “Dave came around for a minute or two. He said it was a wolf.” Pete looked at Johnny for a moment, and then suddenly lunged at him. “It’s all your fault! You and that brother of yours! You were supposed to kill it.”
Johnny and Scott rode home slowly. They had gone with Sam and Pete out to the line shack to see if they could help, but Dave was already dead when they arrived. Pete hadn’t been exaggerating, the young man had been torn apart. Johnny had looked around outside of the cabin, and found numerous large paw prints in the earth surrounding the shack. Evidently Dave had been surprised, but had somehow managed to make it in to the cabin. Not that it had done him much good.
Johnny still heard the accusation that the distraught father had made, and vowed to kill the thing once and for all. Later Pete had apologized for blaming him, and Johnny knew Dave’s father had been nearly hysterical, but it still weighed on Johnny’s mind. If he had tried harder, maybe Dave would still be alive. He sighed. By rights, he should go and check the traps now, but it was getting late, and he didn’t particularly want to be stumbling around in the dark in that heavy brush. Besides, he really didn’t care if that thing had to stay in the trap an extra day. Dave had died a terrible death, and he wasn’t feeling especially charitable towards whatever it was.
‘Whatever it was.’ Maria’s warnings circled around in his thoughts and wouldn’t go away.
“Scott?” Johnny didn’t look at his brother.
“Hmm?” Scott was evidently thinking about the thing too.
“What do you think it is?”
Scott turned to look at him with a raised eyebrow. “A wolf, I guess, or maybe a big dog. What difference does it make? We’re going to kill it.”
Scott watched his brother finger the cross that Maria had given him.
“Yeah, I guess,” Johnny said thoughtfully.
Johnny hesitated a moment, then said quietly. “I just never seen a wolf or anything else act like that.” Johnny’s voice got soft. “It’s sort of spooky.”
Scott looked at his younger brother, who still wouldn’t meet his eyes, and realized that Johnny was admitting he was frightened, something he would never have done even six months ago. Scott was reminded once again just how far their relationship had come since they had first met. He knew Johnny would still never admit any fear to Murdoch, and was touched at just how much his brother trusted him.
The fact that Johnny was apprehensive about the whole thing made Scott feel better about his own fears. “Johnny, I don’t know what’s going on either. I don’t know why, but it has me spooked too. Whatever it is, it isn’t normal, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be killed.” He lowered his voice. “We just need to outsmart it, and be very, very careful.”
At last Johnny nodded and glanced at his brother. “And manage to stay on our horses”, he said with a grin.
“That would definitely help.” Scott responded.
They rode into the yard about an hour later. After taking care of their mounts, they trooped dejectedly into the estancia. Murdoch was sitting at his desk nursing a drink. Scott and Johnny walked in and sat down on the couch, bracing for Murdoch’s ire.
Murdoch voice was calm as he looked at his two sons. “I take it you still haven’t had any luck.”
Johnny was in no mood for one of Murdoch’s temper tantrums. “No” he said curtly.
Surprisingly, Murdoch’s voice remained calm. “We lost another 10 head last night.”
Scott looked at his father. “Did the steers stampede again?”
Murdoch swirled the amber liquid around in his glass. “It wasn’t steers this time.”
At Johnny’s sharp glance, Murdoch met his eyes and continued. “It went after that small herd of Palominos you had been working.”
Johnny jumped up and threw his glass in the fireplace. “I don’t give a damn what that thing is, I’m goin’ ta kill it if it takes me the rest of my life. Losin’ stock is bad enough, but Dave was my friend. I at least owe him that much. I’ll be leavin’to check those traps first thing in the mornin’. You comin’ with me Boston?”
At Scott’s nod, Johnny turned and stalked up the stairs to his room.
Murdoch looked up at his older son, feeling a tingle of apprehension. “Dave?”
Scott nodded. “Pete came racing into town while we were there. He had found Dave all torn up at one of his line shacks. We went with Pete and Doc out to the shack, but Dave was already dead. Whatever it was had come right through the door, smashing it open.”
Murdoch looked at his son in shock. “It came through a door?”
Scott nodded. “Yes. It wasn’t a very heavy one, but it looked like it broke in without too much trouble.”
Murdoch shook his head. “I’ve never heard of any wolf doing that.”
Scott stared at his father for a moment. “Neither has Johnny.”
Murdoch thought about what Scott had said, and everything that had happened. He felt a sudden jolt of fear for his sons, but made an effort to shake it off. “You boys be careful out there.” He hesitated for a moment. “Maybe you should take a few more men with you.”
Scott thought about it, but knew that Johnny would not approve. It had become personal now, and the two of them would handle it together. “No sir, Johnny and I can take care of it. There’s a good chance it’s already in one of the traps, and we shouldn’t have any trouble.”
Murdoch got up and walked to the window. “All right, but remember, you watch your backs.”
“Don’t worry. We will. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to turn in. It’s been a long day.” Scott turned and headed for the stairs, leaving Murdoch alone, standing in front of the picture window, gazing at the moon.
The next morning, Scott and Johnny left at daybreak to check the traps. They cautiously snuck out, hoping to avoid Jelly and his famous repellant. As they rode out of the yard, they felt a sense of relief at their successful escape.
Riding under the arch, they could see smoke rising from one of the nearby pastures where the carcasses of the doomed horses were still smoldering. Johnny’s mouth set in a grim line as he thought of the wanton destruction of the horses and the murder of his friend. Strange, that’s how he thought of it, as murder.
He didn’t care what it took, or what it cost him; he was going to get revenge. Johnny shook his head. He had wanted revenge on dozens of men over the years, but never an animal. Before now, he had never thought of an animal as vindictive or cruel. In his experience, when an animal hurt someone, they were either acting out of instinct, they were hungry, or they were scared. But this creature was different. It was like he enjoyed killing, and he would show it no mercy when he finally caught it.
Scott glanced over at his brother. “What?”
“I want to stop in at the cabin and talk to that man again. And this time, I’m goin’ ta get some answers.”
Scott nodded his head. “You won’t get any argument from me. We have to find whatever it is and stop it.”
“O.K., I just wanted to make sure we were in agreement. Nothin’s goin’ ta stop me from getting’ that thing this time.” At Scott’s understanding nod, Johnny continued, “let’s start by checkin’ the traps and then go up to the cabin.”
Scott looked at him curiously. You don’t think there will be anything in the traps, do you?”
“Don’t know. Guess it’d be too easy. And somehow, I don’t think catchin’ this thing is goin’ ta be easy.”
Scott grinned. “Whatever gave you that idea, little brother?”
Johnny snorted and kicked Barranca into a ground- eating lope. The sooner they got there, the sooner they could come back. And although he’d never admit it, Johnny wasn’t relishing the idea of being out by that cabin after dark.
The two men started by checking the traps that were the furthest away from the cabin, and then working their way closer in. The last trap that they checked was one that they had laid next to the small creek where they had eaten their meal the first day. Mindful of the proximity to the cabin, Johnny had been careful to put it in a place that would be difficult for a person to reach, but fairly easy for a wolf.
As they approached the trap, they saw signs that the earth had been kicked up around it. Motioning for Scott to stop, Johnny walked towards it, carefully looking for signs that might tell him what happened. He pointed towards the ground. “Paw prints, big ones.” Going closer, he saw that the trap had indeed caught something, but whatever it was, it was long gone.
The trap had been sprung, and there was blood on the jaws. Scott looked at the trap, then at his brother. “ Is a wolf powerful enough to spring a trap like that?”
Johnny shook his head. “No wolf I’ve ever seen could do it. This trap should be able to hold a bear.”
“Well at least this time, there are tracks to follow” Scott observed. He pointed to some paw prints heading away from the trap.
Johnny looked at his brother. “Let’s go!”
After a few feet, the tracks led down to the stream, and then once again they found bare footprints intermingled with the paw prints. And again, the only tracks the two brothers were able to follow from the site were the tracks of the man, which led in the direction of the cabin.
Scott studied the tracks for several moments along with his brother. “Well, where did the tracks go this time?”
Johnny shook his head. “I don’t know, Scott. If it were a man we were trackin’ I’d say he went in to the stream to lose us, but wolves just ain’t that smart. He wouldn’t even have known we’d be trackin’ him.” Johnny shook his head again. Maybe he went in to the water ‘cause his leg was hurtin’. I just don’t know. If he DID go into the stream, we should be able to pick up his tracks on the bank real soon. Why don’t you stay on this side, and I’ll go on the other side, and we can see if we can pick ‘em up again.”
Scott spoke up. “Maybe we should check out the cabin first. He could have seen something, or maybe the animal IS his pet and he carried it up. That would explain the lack of prints.”
Johnny shook his head. “We’ll talk to him, don’t worry. I just want to rule every other possibility out beforehand, so I’ll know for sure if he’s lyin’.”
Scott and Johnny followed the stream a hundred yards in either direction, but could not find any paw prints. Finally, frustrated and angry, they wound up back where they started. “Now what?” Scott asked.
Johnny glared toward the cabin. “Now we go have a serious talk with our friend. And this time, I ain’t leavin’ till I get some answers!”
Johnny strode up to the cabin and pounded on the door. When there was no answer, he drew his gun and pushed the door open, the coppery smell assaulting his nose just like before. At first he thought the shack was empty, but as his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw a huddled form on the makeshift bed.
Johnny stared for a moment, but when there was no movement, he took a step closer and leveled his gun at the body. “All right, get up, nice and slow.”
When the figure didn’t move, he cautiously stepped up and grabbed the blanket off of the form.
Both brothers’ mouths dropped open as they stared in stunned silence.
The man was lying naked on the bed, apparently unconscious. His right hand had a filthy rag wrapped around it up to the elbow. Blood had soaked through the wrap completely and was dripping onto the mattress. Johnny put his gun back in the holster and looked at his brother. “He needs help. We need to get him into town fast.”
Scott nodded in agreement. “Maybe we’d better check his hand first.”
Johnny shook his head. “I was afraid you were goin’ ta say that.”
Scott grinned at his brother. “You hold his arm, and I’ll unwind the bandage.”
Johnny grabbed the man’s elbow and held it while Scott carefully undid the filthy rag. Both men swallowed hard when the injury finally came into view. There was a severe laceration all the way around his forearm a few inches up from his hand. It was deep enough that the bone could be seen in places. Right below that, his hand was mangled and the skin completely peeled off in spots.
“What could have caused this?” Scott asked in bewilderment.
A thought skittered through Johnny’s mind, but it was gone before he could catch it. He bit his bottom lip as he thought. “I have no idea. Maybe his “pet” got a little rambunctious. Anyway, let’s get it wrapped up and go see Sam.”
Scott nodded. “Why don’t you go get an extra shirt out of your saddlebag so I can start wrapping this?”
Johnny looked at his brother thoughtfully for a moment, and then went outside. He returned a few moments later, smiling, and handed his brother a shirt.
“This isn’t one of yours!”
Johnny kept grinning. “Nope. I figured all of your shirts look the same anyway, so you wouldn’t miss one. Mine, on the other hand, are one of a kind works of art.”
“But I have to send to San Francisco for my shirts.”
“That should tell ya somethin’.”
Scott glared at his brother for a moment, than went about sacrificing his shirt. “I’ll finish putting the bandage on, YOU can put his pants on.”
Johnny looked at the man uncertainly. “Maybe you should use one of my shirts after all.”
“Too late. Now get busy, unless you want to carry him into town like that.”
A few minutes later the man was decently covered and had a new bandage wrapped around his wound. Johnny brought the horses up to the cabin and tied them outside, then went in to help Scott with the man. Between them they carried him out to the waiting horses.
“All right, Johnny. You get on Barranca and I’ll hand him up to you.”
Johnny looked at his brother in distaste. “Why do I get to carry him?”
Scott tried to suppress a grin. “Because I sacrificed my shirt. Now go on and get on your horse.”
“The guy smells like a wet dog,” Johnny grumbled as he mounted the palomino. “O.K., hand him over.”
Scott lugged the man towards Johnny, but when he tried to lift him up, Barranca shied and backed away. “Hold him still!” Scott groused. “I can’t wrestle this guy forever!”
Johnny nudged the horse back into position, but as soon as Scott approached, Barranca once more spooked. “Can’t you control that stupid nag?” Scott grumbled. “This is hard enough without dealing with that spoiled horse.”
Johnny’s temper began to flair, and he spurred Barranca close once again. This time, however, the horse was not going to get anywhere near Scott or his burden, and he tried to bolt. When Johnny put an end to that attempt, Barranca ducked his head and started to buck. Scott eased the man down and watched as Johnny finally got his horse under control. Johnny brought the Palomino up towards the cabin and then jumped down and tied him back up. After casting an evil look at his horse, he joined Scott.
“Better let me have him, and you get on Charlie.”
Scott glared at Barranca as he walked towards his own horse. “He probably promised you a carrot if you got him out of carrying that guy.” Scott mumbled. He quickly mounted and then held out both of his hands. “All right, come on.”
Johnny took three steps towards his brother when Charlie took off without warning. Johnny watched in amusement as his brother tried desperately to grab the reins. ‘And what did you promise him?” he yelled as his brother disappeared down the hill.
Ten minutes later the two men were standing on the porch, no closer to getting the man into town than they were before, and Charlie and Barranca were standing watchfully, and Johnny thought smugly, several feet away.
“Well, Boston, you’re the bright one. Any ideas?”
Scott glared at the horses. “Yes, but it involves a gun and having to buy two new mounts, and right now, we’ve got to get this man some help.”
Johnny grinned. “O.K., why don’t you ride into town and get Sam, and I’ll stay here with our friend.”
Scott looked at his brother warily. “Why do you want me to go into town?
Johnny laughed. “O.K. I’ll go into town. Geez Boston, you sure are suspicious.”
Scott relaxed and glanced at the unconscious man. “That’s all right, I’ll go. I can’t think of a better idea, although I’m not sure if we can get Sam’s buggy up here. He may have to ride a little ways and it will probably be dark before we get back.”
For some reason Scott felt uneasy. He looked at his brother thoughtfully. “You sure you’ll be all right?”
Johnny laughed. “Sure, you think he’s goin’ ta try anything?” he said, jerking his thumb at the unconscious man.
After Scott left, Johnny looked around the cabin to see what supplies were available in case they were needed. He was still surprised at the sparseness of the cabin’s furnishings. After checking to make sure the man wasn’t waking up, he went outside to gather some wood for a fire. The man seemed to be developing a fever, which wasn’t surprising, given the type of wound he had. Johnny looked desperately for some type of container to carry water in, but finally had to settle for his own canteen. ‘Great,’ he thought. ‘That means about a million trips to the stream.’ Apparently, the man lived almost like an animal, eating his food raw and drinking directly from the creek.
“Just wish he’d used the creek for bathin’ once in awhile’ Johnny thought, as he settled down in the rickety chair to wait.
An hour or so later Johnny was awakened from a doze when the man began speaking in some foreign tongue. Going closer, he could see that the fever had finally taken hold, and the man appeared to be delirious. Grabbing the rest of Scott’s shirt, he doused it with some water and began wiping the man’s face and neck. Johnny shook his head. He had never seen anyone with quite as much hair as this man had. The thick red hair on his chest and back could almost be described as a pelt. There was even some hair on the man’s palm, Johnny thought wryly. Studying the man’s hand a little closer, he realized that his fingers were exceedingly long, and the middle and index finger were the same length. He’d have to remember to ask Scott if people from whatever country this man came from all had those characteristics. He shook his head once more. “Strange.” He said aloud.
He thought once more about the man’s injury. He hadn’t really examined it closely when Scott had changed the bandage, and now he wished he would have. There was something about the wound that brought back a memory that seemed to be just beyond his grasp. He tried to remember the many injuries he had seen inflicted on men’s bodies over the years, but he couldn’t remember any quite like this one. Still, it seemed he should know what it was. It somehow was familiar; he just couldn’t put his finger on it. “Guess Sam will know how you did it,” Johnny told the delirious man.
For the next several hours, Johnny continued to wipe the man off with cool water in an effort to bring down the fever. He sure wished he could understand what the man was saying; it might give him a clue as to what had been going on. One thing for sure, whoever ‘Lew Garoo’ was, he was sure important to the guy. It was the one thing that he kept repeating almost incessantly. He just hoped Scott could clue him in on what some of the other words meant.
In the late afternoon, the man’s fever finally started to subside. He was resting more comfortably, and seemed to be sleeping rather than unconscious. Johnny thought about checking the wound, but he didn’t have any more bandages, and he sure wasn’t going to tear up his own shirt. The guy would just have to wait for Sam. He sure hoped Scott would hurry up; this place still gave him the creeps.
It was well after noon when Scott finally tracked Sam down. He was over at Meg Wilson’s house treating her boy for chicken pox. The doctor was reluctant to leave so soon, as Meg had promised him a pumpkin pie, and it was already in the oven. Sam was a bit grouchy when Scott insisted that they didn’t have time to wait.
Riding in the buggy with the doctor was a mistake, Scott realized. After he had explained to Sam about the man’s injury, he had tried to explain why they couldn’t bring the patient to him. Scott had received a raised eyebrow and an unbelieving look from the old man when Scott described their horses’ reaction. He closed his eyes and sighed. He was sure it would just be a matter of time before everyone in town found out that the Lancer boys couldn’t even control their own horses. He couldn’t wait until Jelly and Murdoch heard about it.
Trying to get his mind off of their recent misadventures, Scott looked anxiously at the sky. It was still afternoon, and they had a chance of getting there before dark, if Sam would just encourage Josephine to break out of the slow jog she seemed stuck in. For some reason, it suddenly seemed very important that they get back to the cabin before night fell.
The man had bolted out of bed as soon as his eyes came open. Glancing wildly around, he didn’t seem to know where he was. Talking softly. Johnny tried to reassure him, but upon seeing him, the man became even more agitated.
“You must go, now!” He said, pointing to the door.
Johnny continued to use the soft voice that he used when he broke young horses. “Just relax, everything’s all right. You hurt your arm, and my brother went to get the doctor, but you’re going to be fine.”
The man looked at his arm as if just realizing he was hurt. “What happened to me?”
Johnny wondered if the man was still delirious. “Don’t you remember?”
The man shook his head, and then started towards Johnny. ‘It doesn’t matter. You must go, NOW! Get OUT, I don’t want you here!”
Johnny grabbed him and wrestled him on to the bed. ‘For bein’ a sick guy, he sure is strong,’ Johnny thought. Finally the man stopped struggling and just stared at him. Johnny slowly let go of him and stood up.
“You thirsty?” Johnny asked.
When the man nodded, Johnny picked up the canteen from the table. “I’ll be right back. I’ve got to go fill this up. Now don’t you move, understand?”
Again, the man nodded sullenly, and Johnny left the cabin.
Taking a deep breath of the clean air, he walked to the creek and filled the canteen. Glancing up, he noticed that the sky was turning dark. He sure hoped Scott got back soon. He wasn’t lookin’ forward to spending the night alone with this guy.
“Scott, why don’t you get out and ride Charlie?” The old doctor had just about had it with the boy’s edgy movements. He had always thought of Scott as the calm Lancer, but he was anything but calm tonight. His fidgeting was even making Sam nervous. At Scott’s refusal to leave the buggy, the doctor reached under the seat for his bag and drew out a small flask. “Here, maybe this will help,” he said, offering it to the young man. “For medicinal purpose only,” he said, and then winked. Expecting at least a break in the tension, Sam was disappointed at Scott’s serious nod.
The doctor watched with amusement as the young man drummed his fingers on the side of the buggy, and then started to tap his feet on the floor. If he didn’t know better, he would think it was Johnny sitting beside him. Finally he’d had enough. “All right, Scott. What’s wrong? What aren’t you telling me? Johnny’s not hurt, is he?”
Scott sighed and looked at the night sky before replying. “No. At least I don’t think so…. I hope not.”
Sam studied the young man. “Why don’t you tell me about it?”
Scott looked at the doctor, considering. What could he tell him? That something weird was going on? That both he and Johnny had been scared to death the other day for no apparent reason? That he had dreamed about werewolves?” He snorted. Sam would probably advise Murdoch to lock him up, and he wouldn’t blame him.
Something strange was going on, and all of the clues pointed to something that Scott refused to believe. And he SURE wasn’t going to try to convince the good doctor, not after Sam’s reaction to what Scott told him about the horses.
Finally he shook his head. “ It’s nothing Sam. I don’t know why I’m so edgy.” He hesitated a moment. “I know it sounds strange, but I just feel that Johnny’s in trouble. And the later it gets, the stronger the feeling gets.” Scott shook his head. “I know it doesn’t make sense.” Scott took another sip from the flask, and then offered it to the doctor.
“No thanks, Scott, not till I know what I’m going to find.”
Scott nodded and slipped the flask back in the doctor’s bag. “I’m sorry Sam, I can’t help it. I’m worried about him,” he said unhappily.
“Don’t worry, we’ll be there soon. We’re making pretty good time. With the full moon, it’s almost like daylight out.”
Scott nodded miserably and tried to will Josephine into a faster gait.
An hour later, they pulled up to the cabin. Scott had managed to find a path that was wide enough for the small buggy. Before it had fully stopped, Scott jumped out and ran into the shack, leaving the doctor shaking his head.
Sam was just crawling down when he heard Scott’s panicked voice. “Sam, hurry! It’s Johnny!”
Sam grabbed his bag and ran to the cabin. Johnny was lying in a pool of blood next to the door. Kneeling down, Sam grabbed his hand and felt for a pulse, then put his head to the young man’s chest to listen. After an eternity, he found a heart beat, and sat back with a sigh of relief. “He’s alive. Let’s get him on to the bed.”
Sam and Scott carefully lifted him onto the bed, and Sam began to examine him.
“Sam?” The sound of Scott’s voice when he said that one word was enough to remind the doctor of the special bond between the two brothers.
Sam stood up and looked at Scott. “As far as I can tell, the only injury is that head wound. It’s bled a lot, but I don’t think it’s too bad, but he’s got a concussion for sure. We’ll just have to wait until he wakes up to know for certain how bad it is.”
Scott reached down and picked up the lantern that was lying on its side on the floor. Absentmindedly he traced the outline of a deep dent in its surface. “Why would he attack Johnny? We were just trying to help him.”
Sam shook his head. “I don’t know Scott, but right now we’ve got to take care of your brother. I’m going to have to bandage his head to stop the bleeding. Can you get me some water so I can clean it first?”
Scott looked in the doctor’s eyes. “What are his chances?”
Sam looked carefully at the young man. He was showing signs of going into shock. “Scott, I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see. But right now, I need that water, O.K?”
Scott continued to trace the outline of the dent. “It’s my fault. I should never have left him. I knew something was wrong, and I didn’t get here fast enough.”
“Scott, listen to me. It wasn’t your fault. You had no way of knowing what would happen. And even if you had been here, you may not have been able to prevent it, and then I would have had two patients. There was absolutely no way you could have known what would happen. Do you understand?”
“I understand I wasn’t there for my brother when he needed me.”
Sam went over and gently pulled Scott’s face towards his. “Scott, it wasn’t your fault, and Johnny would be the first one to tell you that. You’re not thinking right. Now I need some water so I can clean and bandage Johnny’s wound. Will you help me or do I need to get the water myself?”
Scott closed his eyes for a moment, and then woodenly turned and left the cabin, leaving the old doctor with some guilt of his own. If only he had listened to Scott, they may have gotten here in time to prevent it. But how could he have known?
A few moments later a wolf howled in the distance, and Sam jerked his head up and stared in the direction that Scott had gone.
“Sam?” The doctor whirled around at the sound of the weak voice. Johnny was attempting to sit up, shakily trying to make his arms support his weight.
Sam quickly went to Johnny’s side and eased him back onto the mattress. “Now you just relax, young man. You’ve had a nasty bump on the head.”
“Where’s Scott?” Johnny croaked.
The doctor shook his head at the brother’s loyalty. “Scott’s fine. He went down to bring me some water so I can take care of your head. Now let me take a look.” Sam looked in Johnny’s eyes, and then held up two fingers. “How many fingers do I have on this hand?”
Johnny tried to make his eyes focus. “Five.”
At Sam’s raised eyebrows, Johnny continued. “But you’re only holding up two.”
Sam chuckled and shook his head. “I think you’re going to be fine. Now what happened?”
Johnny closed his eyes. “I don’t really remember, I think that guy hit me when I came back in from getting’ water.”
Just then the door slammed open and Scott came into the shack. “That wolf is on the prowl again. Did you hear him?”
Johnny opened one eye and glared at his brother. “Scott, don’t yell. My head feels like somebody’s playin’ a drum inside it.”
A grin formed on Scott’s face as he came over and sat down on the bed with his brother. “You O.K?” He asked softly.
“Yeah, I’m just fine,” Johnny said as his eyes slid shut.
Sam cleaned the wound and bandaged Johnny’s head. Turning to Scott, he said, “For once I am grateful for your brother’s hard head. I think he really is going to be ‘just fine’.” He pulled the chair up to the bed and sat down to watch his patient.
Johnny slept through the night, and when he woke up the next morning he seemed so much better that Sam decided that they could leave, as long as Johnny rode in the buggy. Sam knew that Johnny was feeling better when he tried to insist that he could ride Barranca, and threatened both he and Scott with bodily harm when they wouldn’t give in. Sam stayed in the cabin and changed the dressing on Johnny’s head while Scott got the horses ready and harnessed Josephine. Johnny walked out of the cabin and scowled at the sight of Barranca with no saddle or bridle and tied securely to the back of the buggy. Scott had taken no chances that his stubborn brother would try to ride home.
They arrived back at the Hacienda well before noon. Murdoch, startled to see Sam’s buggy with Barranca tied behind, came hurrying out of the house, followed by Jelly. Sam stole a glance at Johnny’s face and the frown there told the doctor what his patient thought of the impending attention.
“Johnny! Are you O.K?” Murdoch asked.
“I’m fine.” Was the clipped response.
Murdoch shot a questioning look at Sam, who caught Scott’s eye. “Why don’t you fill your father in on what happened while I see to my patient.” He nodded his head towards the door. “Come on young man, you need to be lying down.” When he saw Johnny start to protest, he added, “Unless you want to stay and help Scott explain to your father what happened.”
Johnny snuck a quick look at his brother before starting into the house. “I’d really like to, but I am tired. I think I’d better rest awhile. Sorry, Scott,” Johnny smirked.
As Sam and Johnny disappeared up the stairs, the rest of them went into the Great room. Scott stood by the mantel and absentmindedly looked at the pictures taken of the family last Christmas.
“Well?” Murdoch ordered.
Scott sighed and thought about how to proceed. He decided to start at the beginning and tell them everything, leaving out only his nightmare and down playing the fear the brothers had felt. Looking at Jelly, he thought he might leave one or two other details out, too.
When Scott was done, Murdoch studied his son for a moment, sensing that maybe something more was bothering him. “It sounds like the man in the cabin has one heck of a vicious animal as a pet.”
As Scott looked up, Jelly interrupted. “If that’s what you think, Murdoch Lancer, then yur blind. Anybody kin see it’s a werewolf that’s bin doin’ all the damage. I told them boys to be careful. John’s jist lucky he’s still in one piece. You kin thank me fur that. If I hadn’t givin him that string of garlic and wolfs bane no telling what’d happened.”
Murdoch looked once more at Scott. “Garlic? Wolfs bane?”
Scott silently wished Jelly would get laryngitis. “Yes, Jelly made Johnny and I some uh… Werewolf repellant.”
Murdoch smiled. “And Maria gave you the crosses.”
Scott looked sheepish. “And don’t forget Cipriano’s holy water.”
Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t know what’s going on, but there IS a natural explanation. There are NO werewolves running around Lancer, understand?”
Jelly’s jaw jutted out. “Well, jist because you say there ain’t don’t make it so.”
Murdoch shook his head in exasperation. “Jelly, there are NO such things.”
Jelly took a step forward. “That shows you how much you know, Mister Smarty Pants. I saw one once. You callin’ Jellifer B Hoskins a liar?”
Murdoch glanced at Scott before answering. “No, Jelly, no one’s calling you a liar. Maybe you just thought you saw one.”
Scott wanted to hear more. “What made you think what you saw was a werewolf?”
Jelly gave Murdoch a reproachful glare, and then turned towards Scott. “I was jist a little tyke. There had been somethin’ gittin’ at the stock my pa kept, and he and I waited up one night ta catch whatever it was. Well, long about midnight during a full moon we saw this big black wolf come slinkin’ up to the barn. Bigger’n any natural wolf. My pa shot it, but it didn’t do no good. Can’t kill a werewolf with a normal bullet, that’s what my pa said. Said ya need silver bullets ta kill one.”
Murdoch interrupted. “Jelly, your father could have missed.”
Jelly’s jaw came out again. “My pa never missed. No sir, that bullet went right through that wolf, and never hurt him a bit. That wolf, he took off, and the next mornin’ we followed his tracks. They led straight to a house about a mile from our’n. When we got there, the only thing in that house was a big man with black hair, jist like that wolf.”
Murdoch shook his head. He didn’t want to offend the old man, but it would take a whole lot more than that story to convince him that werewolves were real.
Scott was curious as to what happened next. “Then what, Jelly? What happened to the werewolf?”
“Don’t know. We picked up and moved away.” He looked at Scott as though he were crazy and rolled his eyes. “Couldn’t expect us to stay in the same town as a werewolf, now could ya?”
Murdoch glanced up as Johnny and Sam came into the room. Sam shepherded Johnny over to the couch. “He decided he wanted to get in on this conversation, but he’s going up to bed as soon as it’s done.” He looked at Johnny. “No arguments.”
Johnny grinned at Scott. “Didn’t want to throw you to the wolves, big brother.”
Scott rolled his eyes, and Murdoch shook his head at his son’s warped sense of humor. “All right, John. What happened in that cabin?”
Johnny began to wish he’d left Scott to the wolves after all. He shrugged. “I don’t really remember what happened. I went out to get some water, and the guy must have hit me when I came back in.”
Murdoch’s brows furrowed. “Why would he hit you?”
Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know.” He looked at his brother. “When he woke up, he was actin’ just like he did before. He was all excited and kept tellin’ me ta get out, that he didn’t want me there. Then he came at me, but I managed ta push him back on the bed. I remember thinkin’ he sure was strong for somebody that was so sick. Right after that is when I went out to get the water.”
Murdoch looked at his youngest son. “Just how sick was he?”
Johnny shrugged again. “Pretty sick, his fever went way up. Spent most of the night tryin’ ta keep it down. The guy was hurt real bad. His hand was a mess.”
“What do you think happened to it? Sam asked.
“I don’t know. Seems like it reminded me of somethin’ but I couldn’t put my finger on it.”
“What did the wound look like?”
Johnny thought for a moment before replying. “He had a real deep cut, all the way around the arm, just above the wrist. But then, the skin was sort of peeled off in spots from there down on to his hand.”
Scot spoke up. “It almost looked he’d gotten the hand caught in something and then pulled it out.”
Johnny’s eyes lit up. “That’s it! That’s where I seen it. I shot a bear one time that had gotten out of a trap just before. His paw looked about the same as that guy’s hand.”
Scott’s eyebrows shot up. “You think he’s the one that got caught in our trap?”
Johnny looked thoughtful. “Don’t know. Could be, I guess, but none of his prints were that close. We didn’t see any of his prints till the paw prints disappeared down by the stream, remember?”
Scott nodded. “I remember, still, he could have hidden his tracks like before.”
Johnny merely shrugged.
Murdoch was puzzled. “Did the man say anything?”
“Just for me to get out. Before that he was delirious, and wasn’t makin’ sense. Kept talkin’ in some other language, and ramblin’ on about some guy.”
Scott’s interest was piqued. “What guy?”
Johnny shrugged. “Some guy named Lew Garoo, or somethin’ like that.”
Murdoch stared at him for a moment, and then spoke as if in a daze. “Not Lew Garoo, ‘Loup Garou’. It’s French.”
Johnny looked at him quizzically. “What does it mean?”
Murdoch’s eyes held his son’s. “It means werewolf.”
Scott looked at his father. “I didn’t know you spoke French.”
Murdoch hesitated before answering. “I don’t.”
“Then how did you know that word?” Scott insisted.
Murdoch was looking decidedly uncomfortable. He glanced at Jelly, and then looked back at Scott. “I guess I must have heard it somewhere.”
Johnny was enjoying his father’s discomfort, and wasn’t going to let him get away that easily. “Just happened to hear it, huh? It probably came up at a Cattleman’s meeting? Or maybe you and the Widow Carlson were discussing it when you took her to dinner?”
Scott and Jelly each gave a strangled cough to keep from laughing, and Sam was also trying hard to keep a straight face at Johnny’s audacity.
Murdoch’s glare would have stopped most men, but it lost some of its power because Murdoch couldn’t quite decide whom to glare at. Turning his gaze on each of the men in turn, he finally decided Johnny deserved it the most. However, Johnny had been the recipient of this particular stare more times than he could count, and it no longer held the threat that it once had.
Johnny returned Murdoch’s look. “Well? Where did you hear it?”
Finally Murdoch looked away and mumbled. “My father told me.”
Johnny wasn’t going to give up, and Sam felt a moment’s concern for the young man’s safety. “What? I didn’t hear you,” Johnny pressed.
Murdoch bellowed, “My father told me!”
Heaving a sigh, Murdoch finally continued. “When I was little, he told me a story about a…..” He hesitated, and then went on, “a werewolf. A ‘Loup Garou’. He told me that in his grandfather’s day, one of the noblemen was having trouble with a large wolf that was attacking both stock and people. He hired different hunters to track it down and kill it, but they never had any luck. The animal always seemed to disappear. Finally, one of the best hunters in the country decided to try to kill it. He tracked it and cornered it in the woods, and during the fight, the hunter managed to chop one of the wolf’s paws off before the animal ran away. The hunter followed the beast’s tracks back to the castle, where they disappeared inside and ended at the private door of the nobleman. He reported to the nobleman what had happened, and told him where the tracks led. They both went to the door, and when it was opened, they found the young wife of the nobleman standing inside, stark naked and with a missing hand.”
Johnny asked, “Was she pretty?”
When all eyes turned towards him, he merely shrugged. “I just asked.”
Murdoch seemed to lose his train of thought for a moment. He finally looked away from his son and continued “Anyway, the story was accepted as true by most of the people of my father’s town.”
Johnny spoke up. “Everyone but your family, right?
Murdoch stared at his son. “My grandfather was the man who supposedly hunted the beast down.”
Murdoch smiled as the mouths of all four of the other men dropped open at the same time. “Now, before you get too excited, let me tell you that my father only told me this story after he’d had quite a few drinks too many, and he was well known for his, shall we say, glib tongue. And no, I still do not believe in werewolves.”
The same four mouths shut in unison.
Jelly couldn’t resist the temptation. “But Murdoch…..”
Murdoch interrupted the old man. “That’s all, Jelly. I have heard enough nonsense for tonight. Whatever it is that is doing the killing is alive and can be stopped. We don’t need any silver bullets or witchcraft.”
He looked at Scott. “Tomorrow you and I and Cipriano are going to pay a visit to that shack and get to the bottom of this once and for all. This business about disappearing tracks is nonsense.”
He then turned to Johnny. “And before you ask, No, you may not come. You are staying here until Sam says you can ride. Understood?”
At Johnny’s reluctant nod, Murdoch continued. “Good. Then we’re all in agreement. Now I don’t want to hear one more word about werewolves, is that clear?” Without waiting for acknowledgement, Murdoch went on. “All right. Scott, you and Jelly had better GET TO WORK, and Johnny, GO TO BED!
Nodding at the quickly retreating forms, he turned to Sam and smiled. “Would you care to join me for a drink?”
The next morning the three men set out for the cabin. They came home late that afternoon, hot, tired, and thoroughly frustrated. They had not found any trace of the man or the wolf, and hadn’t even been able to find tracks that would prove either had ever been at the cabin. Scott barely resisted the impulse to tell his father ‘I told you so.’
Johnny was up and about in a day or so, and was soon back to his usual routine. He and Scott discussed what had happened a couple of times, but both were reluctant to even mention the word ‘werewolf’. For some reason, however, they both kept the crosses that Maria had given them around their necks, even though they felt a little bit foolish. They both hoped that whatever it was that had caused the problem was gone forever.
The next month passed quickly, with no more attacks or killings. It seemed like the beast was gone for good.
Johnny and Scott were sitting in the saloon having a beer after spending a long hard day stringing wire for a new section of pasture. They were both a little bit grumpy, Johnny because he had managed to lose most of a week’s pay in a poker game, and Scott because Bess was visiting her aunt up in Stockton and wouldn’t be back for a week or so. They were just going to finish this one last drink and then head for home. It was late, but the moon was full and the road would be well lit.
The batwing doors suddenly flew open, and several of the hands from the Bar S walked in and went straight to the bar. “Jake, give us a round.”
After they had gotten their drinks, Bob Turner spied Johnny and Scott. “Lookee here, boys. It’s the Lancers. It’s a wonder they can even show their faces in this town after they got Dave killed the way they did.”
Both Scott and Johnny managed to remain calm and ignore the baiting remark, knowing that Bob and Dave had been best friends since childhood; Dave’s death had hit Bob hard.
Bob came over and stood next to Scott. “I heard that you boys told everybody that you couldn’t track the wolf, that its tracks just disappeared.”
Bob turned to his buddies. “Ever here of tracks just disappearin’? Maybe they disappeared ‘cause the Lancers here were too chicken to face a wolf.”
Johnny looked up at the man. “Back off, Bob. You don’t know what you’re sayin’.”
Bob looked back at Johnny, understanding the threat, but too hurt and angry to care. “Oh, the big, bad gunfighter. What’re ya goin’ ta do? Shoot me down in cold blood, like ya killed Dave?”
Scott could see Johnny’s temper was about ready to explode all over Bob. He looked up at the man. “Johnny didn’t kill your friend, a wolf did. We did everything we could to stop it. Now go home and cool off.”
“Cool off? I’ll cool you off,” Bob said as he dumped his glass of beer over Scott’s head.
A moment later, the bar erupted as both Scott and Johnny went after the man. Bob’s friends jumped in to protect him, and the fight was on.
Jake abandoned his business and scurried over to the sheriff’s office. “Val, come quick, they’re wreckin’ the place.”
Val continued to clean his nails with the edge of a wanted poster. “Who?”
“Some hands from the Bar S and Scott and Johnny Lancer.”
At the mention of Johnny’s name, Val stood up and grabbed his gun. “Who started it?”
“Well,” Jake said, “Johnny threw the first punch.”
At Val’s raised eyebrows, the bartender continued. “Course, that was after Bob Turner dumped a beer over Scott’s head. Guess Bob started it.”
By the time Val and Jake made it back to the bar, Johnny and Scott had everything pretty much under control. Bob was knocked cold, and two of his friends were in no condition to continue. The one remaining combatant was weakly swinging at Scott while Johnny sat on the bar holding a towel to his lip and giving advice. Just as Val walked up, the man lurched forward, grabbed Scott around the neck and then sank to his knees.
Val looked around, then addressed Scott and Johnny. “You boys wanna press charges?”
Scott shook his head. “No.”
Val walked over and tried to look at Johnny’s cut lip. “Maybe you two should go see the Doc.”
Johnny batted Val’s hand away and jumped down off of the bar. “We’re fine. Let’s go home, Scott.”
Scott reached down and grabbed his hat and then joined his brother.
The sheriff watched as the two men left the bar and rode off, and then he turned his attention to the remaining men. “You boys get out of here and head on back to the Bar S. I’ll be contacting your boss about damages tomorrow.”
After they left, Val spied an object on the floor and reached over and picked it up. “Hey Jake. Do you know who this belongs to?”
The bartender came over and studied the silver cross. “Never seen it before.”
Val slipped it into his pocket. “Guess whoever it belongs to can wait till mornin’ ta get it.”
Johnny and Scott rode out of town at a gentle lope. Both were plotting on how they could be the first one into the bathhouse when they got home. While the first person in line would get plenty of hot water, the second person to use the bath would either have to wait quite a long time for the water to replenish, or settle for less than an ideal temperature. Since both brothers enjoyed soaking for long stretches and adding hot water several times, being second could mean a two-hour or longer wait to use the tub. And both men were planning on being in bed and asleep within two hours of getting home. They were tired, sore, generally out of sorts, and both were very serious about getting a good night’s sleep.
As they rode along, each man was also thinking about what Bob had said. Although they both knew that they had tried their best to catch the creature, they were still upset that they had failed so miserably.
Johnny thought once again about the elusive animal. Even thought he really didn’t believe in werewolves, he admitted to himself that everything that happened could certainly be explained by the old legends. He glanced up at the moon, sitting bright and full in the night sky. “Hey, Boston.”
When Scott didn’t react, he kneed Barranca a little faster to catch up with his brother, who was a few feet ahead of him. As he got nearer, he reached over and tapped his arm. Scott jumped like he’d been shot, and then sheepishly looked at his brother. “Sorry. What did you say?”
Johnny grinned at his brother. “I said that if you had any objection to me usin’ the bathhouse first, you had to tell me, otherwise it was mine. And since ya didn’t say anything, I guess I’ll get it first when we get back.”
Scott glanced at his brother. “Somehow, I doubt that’s what you said. And since it’s your fault I’m in this shape, then it’s only right that I get to use it first.”
“My fault! How come it’s my fault?”
“Because, dear brother, it was not only your idea to go into town tonight, YOU threw the first punch.”
Johnny glared at Scott. “Oh, and I suppose I was just supposed to sit there and let you get beat up.”
“Actually, that’s exactly what you did. I have a distinct memory of you sitting on the bar while I finished the fight.”
“Scott, you weren’t exactly getting’ beat up, besides, could I help it if I took care of my two before you finished? Just cause….”.
Suddenly, from behind them and up in the distant hills, a long undulating wolf howl arose.
Both men pulled up sharply on their reins and looked back towards where the sound was coming from. They waited several minutes, but when it wasn’t repeated, they turned towards home once again.
Johnny shook his head. “Boy, I hope that thing doesn’t decide to pay the ranch another visit. I’m not lookin’ forward to tryin’ ta track that thing again.”
Scott looked at his brother and grinned. “If ‘that thing’ causes any trouble this time, Murdoch can go out after it. I plan on being sick.”
A similar grin slowly formed on Johnny’s face. “Boston, I think you’re right. In fact, whatever you have is definitely catchin.’ I think I’m already comin’ down with it.”
Scott nodded “Good. Now because of my brilliant strategy, I get the bathhouse first. Agreed?”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “Nope. If you get the bathhouse first, I’ll just convince Murdoch to wait till you’re better before goin’ off after that ole’ wolf.”
And where does that leave you?” Scott asked.
“At home. Murdoch can’t expect me to work with a twisted ankle,” Johnny grinned.
Scott was just getting ready to reply when once again the eerie howl rose from the surrounding hills, and this time both of their horses spooked. As soon as their mounts were back under control, the two men once again stopped and looked towards the hills.
Scott spoke up first. “It’s closer.”
Johnny nodded. “It must be movin’ awful fast. That howl was a whole lot closer than last time. Wonder what it’s after?”
Scott looked at his brother thoughtfully. “I believe, dear brother, that it may be after us.”
Johnny looked at his brother in surprise, and then back towards where the second howl arose. As if in answer to his question, another cry sounded, closer still this time, and slightly to the side.
Johnny looked at his brother uneasily. “How about you and me racin’ back to the ranch to see who gets the bathhouse first?”
Scott nodded. “Agreed.”
Both men leaned forward and let their eager mounts have their heads, and the horses didn’t argue. They both took off like they’d been shot out of a cannon.
After several hundred yards, Scott glanced to the side and was shocked to glimpse a dark form keeping up with the horses about a hundred feet away. He shouted at Johnny, and when his brother looked around, Scott nodded towards where he had seen it. Johnny turned in the saddle, and without slowing down looked towards where Scott indicated, but couldn’t see anything. Scott looked again. Whatever it was had disappeared.
Several minutes later, the horses started to tire, and without the howls driving them on, they gradually slowed. Scott kept looking towards the side where he thought he’d seen something but the landscape was empty. “Must have been shadows, or maybe a deer,” he thought to himself. He grinned sheepishly. ‘That and nerves.’
Johnny was also feeling a little embarrassed. Like that night out by the cabin, the fear had seemed overwhelming, but now it seemed sort of silly.
As both brothers convinced themselves that they had acted totally irrationally, they allowed their horses to slow to a lope. Scott looked over at Johnny and grinned sheepishly, and his brother returned the grin. Then, as Scott watched, Johnny’s eyes focused on something behind him and his expression changed to horror. As Charlie spooked, Scott just had time to wonder what was wrong before he heard the snarl in his ear. His hands instinctively sought to reach the creature, and then everything went black.
As Johnny turned to his brother with a grin, he saw a blur of motion behind Scott. It took him a moment to realize what he was seeing, but then it suddenly snapped into focus. In the space of a couple of heartbeats, the scene unfolded as if in slow motion. A huge wolf with reddish brown hair was launching itself at his brother. Johnny’s hand went instinctively for his gun, but Scott was effectively blocking the shot. He drew the gun anyway, hoping that he could somehow get a better angle. Scott’s horse spooked, and unbelievably the creature landed on Charlie’s back, right behind his brother. Johnny leveled his gun, but before he could fire, Barranca shied, destroying Johnny’s aim. With the creature’s head so close to his brother’s he couldn’t risk his shot going wild, and he kneed Barranca back into the fray. As if in a dream, he saw the wolf’s gaping jaws grab Scott by the side of the neck. Johnny knew that he had run out of time and that he had no choice. As Scott’s hands caught in the animal’s fur, he leveled his gun once more, and pulled the trigger just as Charlie bolted.
Murdoch stood at the window watching the full moon rise behind the barn. The moon. What a silly thing to blame for strange happenings. This morning Maria had lectured the boys at length about being home before the moon came out, and she had made both of them show her the silver crosses that they both still wore. Scott and Johnny had managed to escape without promising anything, which Murdoch was grateful for. He knew if they had promised Maria, they would keep that promise, and Murdoch had let the two men go into town this afternoon with his blessing. He wanted to put the werewolf idea to rest once and for all. When Maria had found out that he had allowed them to go into town, the kitchen had turned into a veritable no man’s land, with ominous bangs, thumps and crashes reminding him to never annoy the cook. This point was reinforced at dinner when a burned mass of something was slammed down in front of him and he was left staring at Maria’s retreating form.
When he had escaped to the outside to avoid the noise from the kitchen, the usually easy going Cipriano refused to even talk to him, and had instead communicated with his boss by glares and sullen nods. Jelly on the other hand had no trouble communicating. When he got back from an errand and found out that the boys had gone in to town after work, he about had a fit. His yelling was matched in intensity by dewdrop’s squawking, and the resulting din made Murdoch beat a hasty retreat back into the house.
The noise had finally subsided and Murdoch was just sitting down to finish his book when Cipriano burst into the room. “Senor, come quickly. Something is wrong.”
Murdoch jumped up and followed his friend outside as the Segundo explained. “Senor Scott’s and Juanito’s horses have come back without them. They came running into the barn as if the devil himself was after them.”
Murdoch relaxed slightly. According to the clock, the boys were probably not at their most sober, and had probably been fooling around on the way home from Green River. Knowing them, they were sitting by the side of the road, arguing about whose fault it was that they were now afoot.
Murdoch grinned slightly. “Saddle up a couple of horses and let’s take the boys their wayward mounts.”
Cipriano hesitated. “Senor, por favor.” When Murdoch looked at him, the Segundo walked over to Charlie and pointed at the saddle. As Murdoch got closer, he saw what was troubling his friend. He turned cold as he saw the large splashes of blood covering the saddle. Without hesitation, he grabbed Barranca and swung aboard. “Send someone for Sam, and then wake up Jelly and have him get a wagon hitched up with some medical supplies. After you’ve done that, you can catch up with me.” At the Segundo’s nod, Murdoch turned Barranca towards the arch and kicked the tired horse into a gallop.
Murdoch hoped that the boys were still on the road, and they had really gone to Green River like they had planned. If they had cut cross-country he might not find them until morning, and with the amount of blood on the saddle, morning may be too late. He forcefully pushed the unwelcome notion from his head. His boys would be fine. They had to be.
At least there was plenty of light, Murdoch thought. He glanced thankfully at the full moon, but another possibility intruded into his thinking. He shook his head. He refused to believe that anything that had happened was any more than a huge coincidence. No matter what Maria and Cipriano and Jelly thought, he refused to believe that there was some kind of Werewolf stalking Lancer.
He was still on Lancer property when he caught sight of a bare chested Johnny sitting at the side of the road. His first reaction was relief at seeing his youngest, but that was soon followed by another, more insistent thought. ‘Where was Scott?’ Looking frantically around, he saw nothing. It wasn’t until he got closer that he realized that Johnny was sitting with his head bowed, holding Scott’s body.
‘Dear god, no,’ Murdoch whispered as he slid Barranca to a stop. He flew off of the horse and approached his sons. Kneeling down, he looked first at Scott’s bloody and pale form, and then at Johnny’s tear –stained face. As he studied John’s face, the unasked question burned in Murdoch’s eyes. But he was unprepared for the answer that came from his youngest son.
“I shot him.”
Murdoch’s heart dropped to his stomach as he knelt in the dirt next to his sons. He swallowed hard before cautiously lifting the blood-saturated shirt that Johnny had wrapped around Scott’s throat in an effort to stop the bleeding. His hands shook as he took in the mangled flesh of his son. Shakily he took his hand and gently laid it on Scott’s torn throat, frantically feeling for a pulse. After an eternity his own heart started again when he found a weak but steady beat. He closed his eyes in relief for a moment before looking at his youngest. “He’s alive.”
Johnny nodded. “I know.” He raised tortured eyes to his father. “I shot him, Murdoch. I didn’t have a choice, I had to shoot, or that thing would have ripped his throat out.” Johnny dropped his head, and then said quietly, “For a minute I thought it had.” Johnny looked at his father. “But I shot him. The most important shot of my life, and I missed.” Once again his head dropped.
Murdoch looked down once more at his older son. Scott’s throat was torn, but although he had bled profusely, the wound certainly wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The bleeding had already pretty much stopped due to Johnny’s care. Murdoch noticed another bloody spot on Scott’s arm. Pointing to it, he asked. ‘Is that where your bullet hit him?”
Johnny winced and then nodded. “I was aiming at the thing’s body. With Barranca and Charlie bouncin’ around like they was on hot coals, I couldn’t take a chance on a headshot. It already had its mouth around Scott’s neck, and their heads were just too close together. So I aimed at its shoulder. I could have sworn I hit it, ‘cause Barranca stopped movin’ for a second and I got a clear shot. Trouble is, Charlie decided he’d had enough of that thing hangin’ on his back just then and took off and I got Scott too.”
Murdoch studied his son in awe. “You made a shot like that at night, when that thing was hanging on to your brother’s throat and Charlie and Barranca were spooking?” He shook his head in disbelief. “Johnny, I think you’re being pretty rough on yourself when you say you missed. Besides, you did what you had to do and you probably saved your brother’s life. I don’t want you to blame yourself for what happened. Understand?”
Johnny nodded reluctantly but wouldn’t meet his father’s eyes, and Murdoch knew this was far from over.
Murdoch spoke up once more. “Cipriano and Jelly are on the way, and Sam will be at the house shortly. Can you hold him until the wagon gets here?”
Again Johnny nodded, weighed down by the guilt he was carrying.
Murdoch watched him for a moment and then decided to ask before anyone else got there. “Johnny?”
When his son’s eyes rose towards him, Murdoch asked, “What was it? A wolf?”
For some reason that Murdoch couldn’t figure, Johnny hesitated and looked away before answering. Finally he responded in a soft voice. “Yeah. It was a wolf. Biggest one I’ve ever seen. Probably weighed close to 150 maybe even 175 pounds. Never seen one like it. Strange color for a wolf, too. Sort of red.” Johnny’s brows furrowed, remembering the man in the cabin. Johnny continued in the same soft voice, as if he were contemplating something. “Fast, too. It covered a lot of ground in a real short time.”
Murdoch interrupted. “You said you hit it. Did you kill it?”
Johnny shook his head. “No, I didn’t kill it, and now I’m not even sure I hit it. At the time I thought I had. Like I said, I could have sworn I saw the bullet strike the thing’s shoulder. That’s what made it lose its balance and let go of Scott and fall off of Charlie. But it ran back towards the hills, and it sure didn’t act like it was hurt.”
“Maybe you did hit it. You know animals can go a long way even when they’re fatally shot. We’ll probably find it dead tomorrow a little ways from the road.”
Johnny looked out towards the hills. “I don’t think so.”
Murdoch was perplexed. “Why don’t you think so?”
Johnny started to say something, and then he glanced at Murdoch and changed his mind. Instead, he looked down the road and watched for the arrival of the wagon.
Two hours later, Sam descended the stairs for what seemed like the hundredth time since the boys had arrived at the ranch. He snorted. The way things were going it would probably be an even thousand before they were done with him. Scott and Johnny had a knack for finding trouble. As he entered the Great room, his eyes went to Johnny first. He knew the boy’s guilt would eat him alive if he somehow wasn’t convinced he had done the right thing.
“There’s no permanent damage. I sewed up the laceration to his throat, and he’ll be sore for awhile, but there were no major vessels or organs damaged, just the muscle was torn.” He looked at Johnny. “It could have been a lot worse. If you hadn’t stopped that thing when you did, Scott would have died on the spot.”
Johnny hung his head. “How’s his arm?”
Sam shook his head at the young man’s persistence in feeling guilty. “It will be fine. The bullet went right through without hitting anything major. It’s basically a deep flesh wound. In a few weeks it’ll be as good as new.”
The doctor looked at Murdoch. “He’ll probably sleep until morning. Watch for infection; that’s what I’m concerned about most in animal bites. Be very careful about keeping it clean. Other than that, he should be up and about in a week or so. I gave Maria instructions, she’s up there with him now.”
Johnny swallowed hard. “What about rabies?”
Sam hesitated as Johnny’s eyes were drawn to him. Everyone in the room froze, awaiting the doctor’s verdict. Murdoch was stunned. It was something that he hadn’t even considered.
In Scott’s room, Maria bustled about, picking up the dirty bandages and supplies that the doctor had used. She went over to the young man’s bed and stroked his hair gently. Looking at him, her eyes narrowed when she realized that the cross she had given him was gone. No wonder the poor nino had been attacked by the Nahaul . Maybe it was still not to late. Unclasping the silver cross from her own neck, she said a short prayer before wrapping it several times around Scott’s wrist and then fastening the clasp. Nodding in satisfaction, she left the room.
Downstairs, all eyes were on the doctor. Sam held up his hand. “Now calm down. In my opinion, the animal wasn’t rabid.” Hearing a collective sigh, he went on. “Usually animals that are rabid act sick, and from what I have heard, this one certainly seems healthy enough. None of the livestock that survived its attacks have gotten sick, and also, he has been causing problems for quite awhile. If he had rabies, he would have been dead long before now. However, I would certainly like to examine the animal if possible, just to be sure.”
Johnny looked at the doctor. “No problem Sam. That thing’s goin’ down, one way or another.”
Sam nodded. “You just be careful. I don’t want any more patients, understood?”
Murdoch spoke up. “Don’t worry, Sam. No one’s going out after that thing alone.” He looked pointedly at his son. “Understood?” he repeated sarcastically.
Before Johnny could reply, Jelly interrupted. “Well I think yur all foolish. You jist leave that thing alone. Don’t matter how many of ya go after it, ya need to jist stay out of its way.”
Johnny turned on Jelly with a glare. “And I’m just supposed to forget about it takin’ Scott down, is that it? And everybody’s just goin’ ta hide out and leave the stock to fend for themselves every time it’s a full moon, right? And what happens next time Teresa is out at night? Oh, yeah, I forgot. It’s O.K. as long as the moon’s not full. I guess we’ll have ta start watchin’ the calendar to decide if we can go anywhere. Well I’m not goin’ ta let that thing dictate how I live, or threaten my family, and I don’t care WHAT it takes, I’m goin’ ta kill that thing.” With that Johnny turned and started to leave the room, leaving Jelly with his mouth hanging open. Johnny had only gotten a few feet when Murdoch’s bellow spun him around.
“Johnny! You hold it right there! First of all, YOU are not going after that WOLF, we BOTH are. Secondly, It IS A WOLF, not some mythical monster. Whether or not the moon is full has nothing to do with ANYTHING, do you understand?”
Johnny looked at his father for a moment, and then said flatly, “You weren’t there, Murdoch, I was.”
Turning to go once again he looked at Jelly. “Sorry, Jelly. I know you’re just worried. We both are.” After pausing to glare at his father, he continued up the stairs to sit with his brother.
Jelly looked belligerently at Murdoch. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m goin’ ta make sure that boy has protection against that thing. Since you don’t believe in it, I guess you won’t need any help from old Jelly. An you kin call it anything ya want, but it’s still bad news!” Jelly stalked off, leaving Sam, Murdoch, and Cipriano staring after him.
Murdoch turned towards Cipriano before the Segundo had time to speak. “I don’t want to hear one more word about a werewolf, understood?” he ground out.
Cipriano looked at his friend for a moment and then replied quietly. “Si, Senor. But not talking about it will not make it go away.” With that he turned and left Sam and Murdoch alone.
Murdoch strode over to the sideboard and grabbed a couple of glasses. “Want one? He asked the doctor. At Sam’s nod, he filled the two glasses to the brim and sat down on the couch, where Sam joined him.
Murdoch shook his head. “I just can’t believe that everyone here seems to think that wolf is some kind of monster. Even my own son, whom I thought had better sense than that, seems to be starting to believe that nonsense.”
Sam took a sip of his scotch before replying. “Like he said, Murdoch, he was there.”
Murdoch looked at the doctor in disbelief. “You can’t tell me that you really believe that thing is a werewolf?”
Sam swirled the drink around in his glass before replying. “No. But something made Johnny think so. Murdoch, Johnny’s no fool. I’m not saying he’s right, but on the other hand, I’m not saying he’s wrong, either.”
Murdoch exploded. “Then what exactly ARE you saying?”
Sam looked at his old friend. “All I’m saying is to keep an open mind. I’ve seen a lot of strange things in my time, and I learned a long time ago to never assume anything. Whatever that thing is, it’s extremely dangerous, and I don’t want you going out there trying to prove a point.” He smiled at Murdoch. “I really don’t want to have to keep coming out here, so you and Johnny just be careful, O.K?”
Once he was in Scott’s room, Johnny calmed down a little bit. Going over to stand by the window, Johnny looked out and studied the moon. Was Murdoch right? Sitting here in the safety of the hacienda he could certainly believe that he was. But out there…….. Johnny sighed. He didn’t know what to believe. He knew Murdoch was probably right, he usually was, he thought with a scowl. It was just that when he was out there, listening to the howls and actually seeing the creature, it was so easy to believe the myths.
Johnny put his hand on his brother’s forehead to check for a fever and then pulled a chair over by the bed and made himself comfortable. The moonlight was streaming in the window and reflected off of the cross that was wound around Scott’s hand. Johnny fingered it gently. Evidently Sam had wrapped it around his brother’s hand when he had bandaged Scott’s neck. Johnny snorted. So much for that theory, Scott’s cross sure hadn’t saved him. Besides, the more he thought about it, the more convinced he was that Murdoch was right anyway. He shook his head and then reached behind his own neck and unclasped the chain. Staring at the cross for a moment he slipped it into his pocket. With luck, Maria would never know he wasn’t wearing it.
Murdoch and Johnny left the next morning before dawn. Johnny insisted that they go back to where Scott was attacked to see if they could find any paw prints. Surprisingly to Johnny there were numerous prints at the sight. He studied them for a while, walking up and down the road. Finally he stopped and studied one print in particular. “Look at this, Murdoch.”
Murdoch approached the print, being careful not to obliterate any of the others. He studied the mark in the dirt, but it didn’t look like anything recognizable to him. “All right, I give up. What am I looking at?”
Johnny smiled grimly. “A paw print.”
Murdoch looked again. “It doesn’t look like one to me.”
Johnny nodded. “That’s because the paw’s been hurt. It’s his right front paw.”
“I don’t see any blood.”
“It’s an old wound.” Johnny explained patiently.
Johnny watched him for a minute, but when Murdoch still didn’t get the connection, he let it go. He certainly wasn’t going to get in a shouting match with the old man. Let him figure out the connection between the injured paw and the man’s hurt right hand. That is, Johnny thought with a shake of his head, if there really was one.
Johnny soon picked up the tracks that the wolf had left after the attack. He followed them for several hundred feet, but they seemed to be going in a straight line back to the cabin. And after fifty feet or so, Johnny started seeing spots of blood mixed in with the prints. He felt a moment’s relief knowing that his aim hadn’t been off quite as much as he thought. Still, he thought grimly, it had been off enough.
The two men rode in silence, occasionally checking to make sure the prints were still there. They followed them right up to the door of the cabin, which had several smears of blood on it. Dismounting quietly, they approached the doorway with their guns drawn, and Murdoch burst inside. The man on the bed jumped to his feet, and then slumped to the floor, blood oozing from a deep wound on the top of his shoulder.
Murdoch rushed over to the man and helped him back onto the bed. “Johnny, go get me some water.”
‘Here we go again,’ Johnny thought as he went outside to grab his canteen.
By the time Johnny got back with the water, the man was fighting with Murdoch. “Leave me alone! Go away, I don’t need your help!”
Murdoch was valiantly trying to keep the man on the bed. “Now just calm down. No one’s going to hurt you. You need to have that shoulder looked at.”
“Go away, I don’t want you here. Leave!”
Murdoch finally wrested the man into submission. “We need to take care of that arm, or you’ll bleed to death.” Murdoch growled. “Now either cooperate, or we’ll knock you out and do it anyway.
The man finally sagged back against the bed and merely glared at the two men that had invaded his privacy.
Murdoch cleaned the wound while Johnny started to tear up an extra shirt for bandages. He looked sorrowfully at his shredded garment, but he hadn’t quite had the courage to destroy one of his father’s.
Murdoch watched the man for a moment before asking him the questions that were on his mind. “We tracked a wolf to this cabin. Do you know where he is?”
The man continued to glare. “No. I do not know where the beast is.”
Johnny decided it was time to get involved. “Look, mister, we tracked it right to your door. You tellin’ me you don’t know nothin’ about it?”
The man dropped his head. “I didn’t say that. The animal……..is mine. I am sorry for any trouble he has caused. He is not always controllable, no matter how hard I try.”
Murdoch thought that was a strange way of wording it, but let it go. “Where is he now?”
The man shook his head. “He is gone.”
“Gone where?” Johnny asked impatiently.
The man shrugged but didn’t answer.
“How did you hurt your arm?” Murdoch asked.
Again the man shrugged.
Johnny’s temper flared. “Look Murdoch. This ain’t getting’ us nowhere. Let’s take him in to town and let Sam look at that shoulder.” He glared at the man. “Then you and me are goin’ ta have a talk and you are goin’ ta answer some questions.”
“NO!” The man looked almost frightened. “Please, just bandage the wound for me. Don’t take me into town. I will be fine.”
Murdoch ignored the man and looked at Johnny. “Cipriano and some of the men are fixing that bridge just south of here. They’ll have a wagon with them for supplies. Why don’t you ride over and bring it back, and we can get him into see Sam.”
When he heard Murdoch’s words, the man jumped up and headed for the door. This time it took both Murdoch and Johnny to wrestle him back to the bed, where he finally passed out. Murdoch was breathing hard when he stood up and glanced at his son. “Go on, go get the wagon and bring it back here. He’s lost too much blood and if we don’t get him to Sam, he might die.”
Johnny privately thought that the man dying might not be such a bad thing, but he kept that thought to himself. Johnny looked doubtfully at his father, hesitating to leave him alone. “Will you be O.K?”
“Go on!” Murdoch roared. “Do you think HE’S going to hurt me?” He asked, pointing at the unconscious man.
Johnny turned and left, thinking that he’d heard those words somewhere before.
The man was still unconscious when Johnny got back with the wagon, and remained that way the whole way into town. As they were lifting him off of the wagon in front of Sam’s office, he finally regained consciousness. He immediately began fighting them, but a few threatening words from Murdoch calmed him down.
Under Johnny and Murdoch’s watchful eyes, Sam immediately undid the bandage and checked the wound, which was still oozing blood.
“How did you get this?” Sam asked.
The man’s gaze went to Johnny and he stared into the blue eyes for a long time. “I was shot.”
“Shot?” By whom?” Sam asked.
The man’s eyes slid away from Johnny’s. “It was an accident. I was cleaning a gun and it went off.”
Sam continued to clean the wound. “Uh huh. So you shot yourself?” Sam went on.
The man merely nodded as Sam finished bandaging the wound. The doctor left the room for a moment and then came back with a glass of tea. “Here, drink this.” The man looked at it suspiciously, and finally took a few sips, and then a few more. Several minutes later, he was fast asleep, thanks to the laudanum that had been mixed with the tea.
Murdoch and Johnny followed Sam into the outer office. Sam went over and sat in his chair. “O.K. Who is he and what’s going on?” He asked the two men without preamble.
Johnny was amused when Murdoch looked at him expectantly. Johnny got up and started for the door. “Murdoch can tell you all about it, Sam. I’m going to be in the saloon.” He walked out of the door, leaving Murdoch facing an impatient doctor.
A half an hour later, Johnny looked up as a very annoyed Murdoch joined him in the saloon. “Well?” Johnny asked.
“Sam says that he certainly didn’t shoot himself.”
Johnny snorted. “Well, that was pretty obvious. What else?”
Murdoch shrugged. “He’s going to keep him here overnight and try to find out who he is and what’s going on. And why did you leave me to explain things to Sam? I felt like a fool.”
Johnny grinned. “Well, you haven’t liked my explanations lately, so I thought that maybe you could do better.”
Murdoch looked at his son in exasperation, and then shook his head. “Johnny, do you really believe that man is some sort of werewolf?”
Johnny looked down as the smile left his face. “Murdoch, I don’t know what to believe. If somebody woulda said a few months ago that I’d be sittin’ here discussin’ the existence of werewolves with ya I woulda laughed myself silly.” Johnny shook his head. “The problem is, every single thing that’s happened could be explained if that guy really was a werewolf.”
Murdoch shook his head. “Son, I just can’t believe that. And, you’ll have to admit, it IS ALSO possible that he was telling the truth about the wolf being his pet that just turned savage. He could be lying about who shot him for some other reason.”
Johnny nodded reluctantly. “I suppose.” He looked at his father. “But there’s still somethin’ strange about the whole thing. And I’m not real comfortable leavin’ him here with Sam.”
Murdoch stood up to go. “Sam will be all right. He said he gave the guy enough laudanum to knock him out till tomorrow morning.” Murdoch smiled. “And he’s had quite a bit of practice doing that, thanks to you. Now, come on, let’s go home and check on your brother.”
Johnny scowled at the knowledge that Sam regularly knocked him out when he was injured. ‘Goin’ ta have ta do somethin’ about that.’ He thought.
The two men arrived home around noon, to face a distraught Maria. As the two men climbed off of their horses, she came out of the house, ranting about ghosts.
“Maria, calm down. Now what seems to be the problem?” Murdoch asked.
“It is ghosts, senor. First the Nahaul , and now there are ghosts in the house.” Maria crossed herself.
Johnny smirked as Murdoch looked frustrated at even more references to the supernatural.
“Maria, there are no ghosts in this house. Now tell me what happened!”
Maria crossed herself once again. “I was cleaning the silver, senor. I had cleaned the big silver tray and put it on the dining table. I went into the kitchen to get the matching bowl, and when I came back, the tray was gone. I put the bowl on the table and went back into the kitchen, to make sure I wasn’t mistaken and had left the tray there. It was not there, so I returned to the dining area, and the bowl was gone also!” Maria finally paused and took a breath. “It is ghosts! They know that the Nahaul does not like silver, and they are getting rid of the silver for him!”
Murdoch shook his head. “There are no ghosts, and certainly not any that would steal our silver. Someone must have taken the pieces. You just have to find out who.”
“I tried, senor. I asked everyone. There was no one besides me and Senor Scott in the hacienda at the time, and the men all said they had seen no one enter. Maria planted her hands on her hips and looked threateningly at her employer. “It is ghosts,” she said firmly.
Murdoch rolled his eyes and gave up for the time being. “How’s Scott?”
Maria’s voice softened. “He is a strong man. Senor, he will be fine. He is resting now.”
Murdoch nodded and started to follow Johnny up the stairs, but decided that the two men probably needed to talk. Johnny was being eaten up with guilt over the shooting, and although Scott was doing his best to convince Johnny that he had saved his life, Johnny was still upset about what had happened.
Murdoch waited until Johnny left the house after lunch before visiting his older son.
After he left the house, Johnny went into the barn to brush Barranca. He didn’t see Jelly working on a project just around the corner. Johnny picked up the currycomb and went to work on Barranca’s golden coat. “Well, boy, you’d better behave tonight. I’m not goin’ ta be walkin’ back, so you’d best be makin’ up your mind to mind your manners.”
Jelly came flying around the corner, flailing his arms and yelling, spooking Barranca and causing him to flatten Johnny against the stall partition. “What’s the matter with ya? You gone plumb loco? It’s a full moon out tonight, boy, jist in case ya hadn’t noticed. Ya best be stayin’ in the house.”
The breath went out of Johnny with an “OOF” and he dug his fingers in his horse’s side in an effort to make him move. Once he could breathe again, he glared at the old man. “It’ll be a whole lot safer out there than it is in here with you.”
“Johnny, ya can’t be serious ‘bout goin’ out there. That werewolf’ll git ya fur sure.”
Johnny smiled. “Jelly, do you really believe it’s a werewolf?”
Jelly jutted out his chin. “Yep, and yur not gonna make me believe nothin else, neither.”
Johnny smiled. “Well, if you’re right, then I’m in no danger, and I won’t find anything if I go back to that cabin. The man is sedated at Sam’s office in town. And if you’re wrong, then I figure I can handle one wolf. Either way, I aim to take care of this tonight. And don’t you dare tell Murdoch, or it’ll be all over town about you and that widow over in Spanish Wells.”
At Jelly’s glum look, Johnny relented a little. “Don’t worry, Jelly, nothin’ can go wrong.”
As soon as Johnny left the barn, Jelly scurried back to his project. Nobody ever bothered him when he was cooking up batches of his famous concoctions. This time, however, he was cooking up something far more important. When he finally had the fire hot enough, he reached under a large rag in the corner and brought out an ornate silver platter and matching bowl. After putting them into a large cast iron kettle, he sat back to wait. He just hoped he had time.
Johnny went upstairs, and after taking a short nap, he spent some time with Scott, talking and playing a few games of checkers. When his brother started getting tired, Johnny went back to his room and shut the door. Scott had continued to tell him that it wasn’t his fault that he had been hurt, and he had even tried to convince him that shooting when he did had probably saved his life. Johnny went along with it because he didn’t want to upset his brother, although he knew in his heart that he had messed up. But he was going to make up for it tonight. He was going to find out once and for all what that thing was, and he wasn’t going to come back until he had killed it. The creature had caused enough pain and suffering, and the fight had become personal.
Taking off his rig, he went over the holster completely, checking for worn spots or anything else that could cause problems at an inopportune time. After he was satisfied with the holster’s condition, he turned his attention to his gun. When he was convinced that everything was in perfect order, he went down to dinner, leaving the rig in his room. Even though it always made him uncomfortable to be without it, he had learned long ago that no one appreciated his wearing the gun at the table.
Jelly waited until the family was seated and Maria was busy serving them before he snuck through the kitchen to the back stairs. He had missed lunch, so he grabbed some tortillas that were warming on a pan on the stove before disappearing up the stairs.
When Maria came in to get Johnny’s tortillas, she looked at the empty griddle and started mumbling in Spanish. Approaching the pan as if it might bite, she started some more tortillas to go with the young man’s dinner.
Sneaking upstairs, Jelly hurriedly made his way to Johnny’s room, where he slipped in and closed the door. He grabbed Johnny’s gun out of the holster and quickly unloaded it. Taking a small cloth bag out of his pocket, he dumped the contents on to the bed. The shiny silver shells looked perfect. Jelly grinned. He sure was glad that his father, a gunsmith, had shown him how to make homemade bullets for emergencies. Jelly snorted. If this wasn’t an emergency, he didn’t know what was. He picked up one of the silver bullets and put it in the cylinder. He had a moment of panic when it seemed not to fit, but it finally slipped in. He quickly loaded the rest, and then replaced the rig exactly as it had been and left the room. He sure hoped they worked.
On the way out of the house, he grabbed a few more tortillas and hurried back out to the barn, relieved that no one knew he’d been in the house. A moment later, Maria came in to the kitchen, and upon seeing the griddle empty once more, she ran screeching into the dining room.
Murdoch sat in the library, pretending to read. It had taken almost an hour to get Maria to calm down. Even then she still insisted that there were ghosts at work in the estancia. She had refused to remain in the house tonight, but insisted on going to stay with her daughter, who lived in one of the ranch houses a couple of miles from the main house. Maria had been quite insistent that she leave before dark, and had made it clear that she would not come back until the ghost was gone.
Murdoch snorted. And just how was he supposed to prove something was gone, when it had never been here in the first place? He had been quite annoyed with Johnny, who pointed out to Maria that ghosts were supposed to be around this time of year, and would probably be gone a day or two after Halloween. Maria had not been amused, and told both men in no uncertain terms what she thought of their attitude. Johnny had finally apologized and offered to drive her to her daughter’s.
They had left about an hour or so ago, and it was just now getting dark out. Murdoch noticed that Johnny had tied Barranca to the back of the buggy, and assumed his son was going to go into town to check on Sam and his patient after he saw Maria safely to her daughter’s. He knew Johnny was worried about Sam being alone with that man; his son had been on edge all night. Murdoch figured it would do him good to go in and find out for himself that the man was just that, an ordinary man. Closing the book in frustration, Murdoch decided to go upstairs and visit with Scott. At least HE knew better than to think there were any such things as ghosts and werewolves.
An hour later, Scott had fallen asleep and Murdoch was finally making progress on his book when Val came storming into the house.
“Murdoch, Johnny, anybody home?”
Jelly came running into the house to see what the commotion was all about and Murdoch once again closed his book with a snap. “Over here Val, what’s wrong?”
“That crazy guy hit Sam over the head and took off. Thought maybe you and Johnny would know where he’s headed.”
“Is Sam O.K?”
Val nodded. “Yep. He’ll have a headache for a while, but he’ll be all right. Do you know which way that guy might be headed?”
Murdoch nodded. “He’ll probably go back to his cabin.” He turned towards Jelly. “Go find Johnny and tell him what happened and that we’re going back to the shack.”
Jelly felt sick to his stomach. Johnny was out there, not knowing that the werewolf was out there too. He looked at Murdoch. “He’s already there, boss, he went ta kill the wolf. He thought the man was in town.” Jelly shook his head. “He doesn’t know what kind of danger he’s in. You’ve got to find him before it’s too late.”
Johnny dropped off Maria at her daughter’s, and after making sure they were both safe and secure, Johnny unhitched the buggy and bedded down Zanzibar in the small stable. His ears were still blistered from listening to both Maria and her daughter warn him about traveling at night when there was a full moon out. He had a hard time getting away, but he had finally pointed out that it wasn’t quite dark yet, and if he hurried, he would be safe at home in no time. A small lie, but if it eased the women’s minds it was worth it. Johnny smiled. And it was especially worth it if he didn’t have to listen to another lecture. Swinging aboard Barranca, he kneed the Palomino into an easy lope and headed towards the cabin.
As he rode along, Johnny thought about everything that had happened the last several months. Even though in his mind he knew that his father was right, and that all of the ‘strange occurrences’ could be explained by natural means, way down in the darkest recesses of his mind, the werewolf legend kept popping back into his head. Well, he’d find out tonight, one way or another. He was going to go back to the cabin and try to find that wolf. If he were successful, he would know that the legend was just that, a legend. And the bullets in his gun would certainly take care of any mortal wolf.
Johnny’s thoughts turned towards the other possibility. What if he couldn’t find the wolf? Would that mean that the legend was true? That the strange man really was a werewolf? Johnny decided if he couldn’t find any sign of the wolf after a few hours, he would go into town and check on the man. No matter what it took, he planned on finding out one way or another, even if he had to keep the man in his sights clear until the next full moon.
As he got closer to the cabin, Johnny slowed down, his senses on full alert. He watched Barranca carefully for any sign of nervousness, but the horse remained calm. Johnny looked around as he rode to make sure nothing could jump out at him. He grinned wryly. The full moon was going to come in handy after all. The horse remained calm as Johnny rode up to the cabin and dismounted. He started to tie Barranca to a bush by the front of the cabin, and then thought better of it. If the wolf did come, he wanted his friend to be able to defend himself, or escape if necessary.
He cautiously approached the cabin and opened the door. The moonlight streaming through the window illuminated the inside of the shack as well as any lantern, and Johnny saw immediately that it was empty. He stepped in and looked around, for what he didn’t know. The smell was still there, as obscene as ever. Johnny shook his head. The cabin was small and relatively neat. How could that smell be so over powering? He looked under the bed, and poked around in the fireplace. He examined every part of the cabin where something could be hidden, and he still found nothing.
Going back outside to look around, he noticed Barranca’s ears were pricked and pointing towards town. Johnny looked down the hill, but couldn’t see what had caught his horse’s attention. Barranca, however, remained interested in whatever it was that he was focused on. A second later the horse began to champ at his bit, a sure sign the horse was becoming restless, but his eyes remained glued down the hill. Johnny felt a prickle of apprehension and went over and grabbed Barranca’s reins as he strove desperately to see what was bothering his horse.
A moment later he knew. A long, undulating howl rose from the base of the small hill, and Barranca immediately started to spook. Johnny suddenly realized the dilemma he was in. If he turned Barranca loose, the wolf would probably go after the running horse, and not come near the cabin. If he tied Barranca, Johnny would have to tackle the wolf outside with very little cover, in order to protect his friend. When another howl announced the impending arrival of the beast, Johnny decided to try to hold Barranca until he could see the wolf and then turn him loose, just in case.
Every nerve was on edge as Johnny waited for his enemy’s arrival. His hand went to his gun and he flipped the safety off, but his hand remained hovering just above the butt of the weapon. Johnny fought back the impulse to draw his gun out of its holster; he knew his aim was better if he drew and fired in one motion. And he had the feeling he’d only get one chance.
Barranca suddenly panicked and reared back in an effort to get away. Johnny desperately tried to hang on and still keep watching for the wolf. After a few seconds, he saw a flash of movement coming up from the direction of the stream. He threw both of the reins over one side of Barranca’s neck and when the horse turned to run, he slapped him on the rump. Johnny turned his head to focus on the wolf, and to his surprise it ignored the horse completely and charged straight towards him. Johnny drew the gun and fired.
As soon as he fired, he knew something was wrong. The gun bucked hard in his hand as it went off, throwing off his aim and sending the bullet wide of its mark. Johnny just had time to register that he’d missed when the thing was upon him, driving for his throat.
Murdoch and Val rode towards the cabin as fast as the moonlight and the condition of the road would allow. Although Murdoch was usually confident that Johnny could take care of himself, Jelly’s near panic had rubbed off on him, and he spurred his horse to an even faster gait. Even if the escaped man surprised his son, he knew that Johnny could take him with no trouble. The man wasn’t even armed. Murdoch was much more concerned with Johnny being alone out in the brush with a wolf that had already proven itself to be a killer. And alone with probably no protection, thanks to Jelly.
He couldn’t believe that Jelly had pulled such a hair-brained stunt. Jelly knew how much Johnny relied on his gun and the care he took of it. To purposely exchange Johnny’s bullets with some homemade creations that probably wouldn’t even work was inexcusable. Murdoch shook his head. Silver bullets. What possessed Jelly to do something like that? Murdoch just prayed that his son wouldn’t need to fire his gun to protect himself. He knew that if Johnny were injured because of the bullet’s failure, Jelly would never forgive himself. And heaven help him, neither would he.
Murdoch heard a horse quickly approaching and pulled his own mount to a stop. When the riderless horse came into view, his heart gave a lurch as he recognized Barranca. The Palomino slowed as it approached the two men, and Val was able to reach over and grab the reins.
Val turned towards Murdoch. “The way the reins were thrown over Barranca’s neck, looks like Johnny turned him loose on purpose.”
Murdoch relaxed slightly; he had come to the same conclusion. But why would Johnny turn his horse loose? Unless…….. “Come on, Val, let’s go. I think Johnny’s found the wolf.”
“Or the wolf’s found him.” Val muttered under his breath as he turned and followed Johnny’s father.
They went back in the direction that Barranca was coming from, but as they approached the base of the hill that the cabin was on, Barranca suddenly refused to go any further.
Murdoch looked back in disgust. “Come on, Val, let’s go. Johnny may be hurt.”
“I’m tryin’. This mangy flea bag won’t take another step.” Val once more pulled on the reins while Barranca did his best mule impression.
Murdoch impatiently went back and popped Barranca on the rump with his reins, which resulted in Barranca suddenly lunging forward and running into Val’s horse. The much-abused bridle finally gave up the ghost and broke, giving Barranca the chance to make good his escape. Murdoch took time to tell the horse’s disappearing rump what he thought of his ancestry before he turned his horse towards the cabin once again.
He and Val approached the shack alternating between trying to be cautious and trying to hurry in case Johnny was in trouble. As they got closer, the only sounds they heard were the chirping of crickets and the far off sound of the stream. The night seemed peaceful and calm, but the hair on both men’s necks were standing up as they rode up to the shack. Something was dreadfully wrong.
The men dismounted and cautiously walked towards the cabin. The door was ajar and hanging by one hinge; as though something heavy had tried to burst through it. Blood was splashed on the door and pooled on the ground in front of it, and more led the way into the cabin. As Murdoch hurried through the hanging door, he spotted his son lying in a pool of blood with a huge wolf lying next to him.
“Johnny!” Murdoch and Val rushed to the young man’s side and gently rolled him over. His left arm had been torn down to the bone along most of its length, and he was rapidly losing blood. Murdoch tore off his shirt and wrapped it around his son’s arm to stop the bleeding. Johnny also had a bump on his head, probably from when he fell, but it didn’t appear to be serious.
Val quickly checked to make sure the wolf was dead; they didn’t want any surprises. At Murdoch’s questioning look, Val nodded his head. “He’s dead. Shot right through the heart, it looks like. Guess Jelly’s bullets worked after all.”
“Thank God.” Murdoch secured the shirt around Johnny’s arm. “Come on Val, help me get him home.”
Val continued to look at the carcass for a moment. “Big for a wolf, never seen one quite this color, either.” Val picked up the beast’s right front paw. “Maybe this is why he was so mean. Looks like he got caught in a trap at some point. Must have been pretty painful.” Val turned the wolf over. “And look at this.” Val pointed to the beast’s shoulder, which had a deep wound, which was not yet healed.
Murdoch looked at the wolf and an unexplained shiver went down his spine. Could it be? Was he the one who had been wrong all along? Murdoch shook his head. It didn’t matter. The thing was dead and his sons and the ranch were safe. There were no more wolves haunting the night.
EpilogueMurdoch had just about had it with his two sons. They had been wrangling with each other and had both been in downright disagreeable moods for the last several days. He really couldn’t blame them. Sam had given them strict instructions to take it easy and not to ride or do any work, and they had been cooped up for a month. To Murdoch’s immense relief, Sam had just left this afternoon and given them both a clean bill of health. Johnny had immediately talked Scott into joining him for a trip in to town. Ordinarily, Murdoch would have objected, but he was just as glad to have them out from underfoot as they were to get away.
Scott was already dressed and impatiently pacing in front of the fireplace, waiting for his younger brother. Murdoch shook his head. Scott was as edgy as a caged animal. He hoped a night on the town would calm everybody’s nerves.
Scott looked up sharply as Johnny came bounding down the stairs like some wild thing. “Come on Boston, it’s our night to howl.”
Scott and Johnny nearly ran out the door to their waiting mounts. Murdoch was amused that his normally horse savvy sons had spooked the horses by running up to them, and it took them awhile to get them calmed down enough to be able to mount. Murdoch chuckled. Evidently Barranca and Charlie were sick of the enforced vacation too, as they fought to take off with their riders. Johnny and Scott finally got them under some semblance of control, and headed towards town.
Murdoch watched them until they disappeared in the fading light, and then turned back to his desk and worked until he nodded off.
He awoke with a start when he heard the wolves howling in the distance. He got up and went to the window, looking out at landscape eerily illuminated by a full moon, and thought back to the strange episode the month before. The man from the cabin had never been found, although Val had contacted all of the local authorities, and Murdoch figured he was holed up in another cabin somewhere, hopefully far away from Lancer. The wolf had been examined by Sam, and thankfully was not rabid, and the talk of werewolves had finally ceased.
The wolves howled again, closer this time, and two of them by the sound of it. He shook his head. He sure hoped there wouldn’t be more trouble.
~ end ~
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