Authors: Eric Barkett
Sighing, Jed called for their attention. “Gentleman if I may have a moment of your time.” A slight grumbling swept the crowd. “As you all may know Ed Miller has been savagely murdered. Not to alarm you, but it’s possible that a werewolf committed the deed. I am seeking information y’all might have on strange happenings you may have noticed.” The cat was officially out of the bag. Maybe the identity of the suspect would nudge them to talking.
Jed coughed briefly. “Please,” he said, annoyance in his voice, “stopping this monster is surely something you want.”
He had never seen a crowd this uneager to uncover a werewolf. To think of all the good work he had done, and still he almost begged. Finding any information was proving impossible and an extreme waste of time and effort. Jed remembered working around plantations in Virginia. There had always been someone that knew something.
Then a faceless voice angrily yelled, “We don’t know nothing gunslinger. How ‘bout you leave us in peace.”
“I’m trying to protect you,” Jed tried to placate.
Someone else shouted, “Like Rows Wilson tried to protect people?” That got the people growling.
Spreading his hands Jed said, “Listen here, Rows Wilson was a monster himself. But, folks that was during the war. Things were different. Times changed. Besides he was hanged for his crimes.”
“I heard he killed a hundred people!” Shouts advocating other rumors joined into a chorus. One yell was, “You can’t trust a filthy gunslinger!”
Telling them that he knew Rows Wilson and helped hanged him was an urge he easily resisted. Them misinterpreting that comment did not require a leap of one’s creative thinking. That particular gunslinger in an attempt to uncover a werewolf killed over a dozen innocent people. Ilk of his kind gave honest gunslingers a bad name. As the miners hollered, he turned his back to them, fed up with their antics. It seemed either feared or hated was a gunslinger’s choice.
Jed was frustrated as he took a sip. The beer was cheap and awful. Maybe the bartender placed something in it. Doubly annoyed he pushed the beer away. Staying in Hickory was a waste of time. His gut told him to move on. Promises to Carter be damned. Two miners sat on the stool on either side of Jed. Irritated by their presence, Jed ignored them.
That failed when the miner on the right, a bald, broken nosed man, said, “Never thought I would see the day when a gunslinger came to town.”
His friend, a burly black bearded miner, remarked, “Never thought I would see a gunslinger come to a miner’s saloon. This place is for honest laborers.”
Jed took a slow gaze at them. His pale eyes hard. A peaceful man would have left right then. Trouble was brewing as plain as day. The saloon was growing quieter with expectation. Jed was not a peaceful man and he seriously contemplated letting loose his anger.
Clearing his throat Jed said, “The people in the other saloon had no problem.”
The bearded man said, “Then why don’t you go back there?”
Jed gave a false smile, “I like the mood here.”
We’ll see ‘bout that.” The bald one spat.
Grabbing Jed’s shoulder he threw a punch. However, Jed lived his life fighting things faster than mere men. Easily, he twisted his head from the blow. Kicking the assailant, Jed swept his bottle of beer and broke it onto the second man’s head. Tremendous force is needed to break a glass bottle and the force caused the man’s head to crash into the wooden bar top. There was another thud as he hit the floor. Jed swiveled to the first miner pulling back for a punch. This blow too, Jed dodged. He punched the man’s side, the soft flesh of his belly. A third man attacked, rushing forward.
Everyone froze as Jed’s gun clicked. The giant Kruger was placed right under the man’s chin. The hammer was pulled back. Jed was not a peaceful man.
Cautiously the third man lowered his fists. Jed pressed the gun tight against his skin. “I dare you to even swallow.” He didn’t take the dare.
The bald miner on the ground raised his head, immediately staring down the barrel of a Colt Peacemaker. The dark chamber eerily resembled a pit to hell. Attentive he rose, not making any sudden moves. That barrel followed him the entire time. The burly miner, clutching his head where the glass cut him, struggled to his feet. He kept away from Jed.
Jed surveyed the room. The remaining miners had hostile stares. Miners had a collective identity. They did not like outsiders getting the best of them. Obviously, there was an advantage to being the only man with a gun.
“Didn’t your ma teach you manners?” Jed scoffed at his assailants. Pointedly he added, “It’s discourteous to go after a gunslinger. He might begin to think you have a secret to hide.” Unable to stop himself the third attacker swallowed reflexively. His eyes tightened, waiting for the response.
The gunslinger holstered his guns. Smoothing his vest, his eyes roved among the crowd. Every nerve was tense as he walked out the saloon. No one tried anything and he stepped into the night freely. After the light scuffle he felt better. Less tense.
Whistling to his horse, he unwrapped the reins from a post and climbed on back. Dragging the reins to the right Jed aimed for his bed several miles away. It was cool in the night. Extraordinary how different the temperature could become in a couple of hours. The horse moved at a trot. Riding fast at night was dangerous if the moon was not bright. He urged the horse faster confident the road was clear. He did so confident that whomever was following him would be hard at work.
It was just a feeling that someone was watching him go. One strong enough to keep him on edge. The horse felt it also, its ears pulled back slightly and its gait moving a little faster. The days of investigating had hopefully made the culprit worried. It certainly had done nothing else.
He slowed once into town. The pounding of the hooves became a muted cluck. The stable at the back of the boarding house was quiet. The couple of horses stationed were asleep. Except he could feel them stirring now. Something in the wind. Too bad he did not have a dog. They always sniffed out trouble. Of course it was hard to find a dog brave enough to chase something like a werewolf. It was harder keeping them alive.
Jed gave a quick glance into the night as he placed his horse in the cell. “Easy boy,” he soothed, patting the horse gently. While dogs didn’t last, neither did horses. Jed never bothered to name them anymore. He brushed the horse quickly. Furtively glancing at the entrance in case his stalked decided to enter. He gave one last pat to the horse before moving outside.
Nothing happened as he moved inside. Nor as he climbed the stairs. Down the hallway he entered his room. Closing and locking the door he weighed his options. The stalkers may or may not try something that night. There was one thing he had to do. Jed closed his eyes and fell asleep.
Two hours later the werewolf broke down the door, immediately leaping on the bed Jed was asleep in. Except Jed wasn’t asleep in the bed. He was sitting at the table. The crashing door instantly woke him. Thunder roared in the night as the Kruger opened fire. Jed’s right hand pulled the hammer back as his left jerked the trigger.
A second passed and three bullets flew through the air. The werewolf staggered from the bullets. The lead tearing through its body, spreading gore on the wall. Another moment and another werewolf charged into the room. Simply a blur of darkness it leaped. Jed raised his legs in time, catching its chest against his feet.
They crashed through the thin walls landing on a bed of a sleeping man. Razor sharp teeth gleamed in the night. The werewolf’s hot breath blew on the gunslinger. Jed pushed with his legs, using all his might to throw the mutt off. Jed’s Kruger had been knocked from his grip so he drew the Colt. The man in the bed shouted in terror as Jed fired at the back of the werewolf. One bullet ripped into its throat. A hoarse howl rent the night as it ran down the hall. Jed stayed his hand. A running werewolf could be as fast as a horse. Running to his window he saw the werewolf sprinting away from town, out to the desert.
Everyone started shouting demanding to know why hell broke loose. Stepping over the hole in the wall Jed spotted his other gun lying beside his table. Scooping it up, he unloaded each spent casing one by one.. Still against the wall the first werewolf was in the midst of changing back. Jed lit a lamp watching the beast’s fur peel back and the snout shrink. It was a mostly silent process as the bones cracked and popped. A recognizable pained expression formed as the face changed to human.
Ms. Jan broke through the crowd forming outside. “What is going on?!” She shrieked. When her candle illuminated the transforming man she gasped. It was scarier in the half light, seeing the changing and the streaks of blood on the wall.
“Oh my,” the house keeper exclaimed, nearly fainting.
Fully human again and completely naked the man tried to stand up. He was to weak and dropped to the floor. Healing the wounds and transforming had taken a lot out of him. Judging by his limits, the man could not be an old werewolf. Jed whistled, grabbing his attention. The man looked up fiercely. Jed was disappointed to see it was neither of the miners he had fought at the saloon earlier.
“Who was the other one?” He asked calmly.
The man was defiant despite his situation. “I ain’t telling.”
Still even voiced Jed asked, “Any way I can persuade you otherwise?”
“Nope,” the man snarled.
Jed shot him in the head with the Kruger. The exit hole left most of the man’s brains on the wall with the blood. There were shouts and exclaims from onlookers.
From the hall came Sheriff Carter’s voice. “Move aside. Move.”
Ross was yelling too and shoving people from the sound of it. Jed patiently waited for them to arrive. Sheriff Carted was a little dizzy as he saw the mess of the man on the wall. Shaking his head he entered followed by Ross.
“Mutts,” Jed stated. He began massaging his wrist. The Kruger had a mule kick, especially when used with one hand. “The other one got away.”
Ms. Jan spoke up, “Sheriff, this gunslinger killed that man whilst he was defenseless.”
“I’ll deal with it Ms. Jan.” Carter said wearily. “Ross I want you to clear everyone out.”
“Yes sir.” Deputy Ross unkindly moved everyone from the scene.
“You killed him like that,” Sheriff Carter asked once they were alone.
Jed sat down before answering. “Yep.”
“Why did you not question him?”
“I did. He wasn’t going to talk.” Jed replied.
Deputy Ross asserted as he returned, “There were ways to make him talk.”
“Do you mean beating him?” Jed scoffed. “A werewolf breaks every bone in its body to transform. You think a couple of punches would make him talk? Werewolves are rapid dogs and rapid dogs have to be put down.”
Sheriff Carter moaned. “What happens now?” He asked.
“There is still another werewolf. We have to find it.”
“Yeah, how do you plan on doing that,” Ross snarled.
Jed scowled. “I saw it run out to the desert. His friend was a young one. I don’t the wounded mutt will have the willpower to change until he is far away and the terror dies down. Regardless I don’t particularly fancy chasing a werewolf in the dark, even a wounded one. Tomorrow morning I will hunt it down.”
“Okay,” Sheriff Carter said. “There is a bed at my office if you want.”
Jed tipped his hat. “Much obliged.”
He moved to the stairs, finding Ms. Jan waiting for him. “Where do you think you are going, young man?” She demanded.
“To bed,” he answered tiredly.
She dismissed that. “Not without paying for the damages.”
“Collect it from the werewolf. He was the one that made the mess.”
“I do not care if the Devil himself is responsible,” she huffed.
Despite her small size and matronly appearance Ms. Jan could be downright intimidating. Pulling out his wallet he handed over money to cover the damage. Then he carefully crossed the street and went to the sheriff’s office. The crowd that arrived because of the noise was being sent home by the sheriff. Lying in the covers of the sheriff’s office, Jed gratefully went to sleep.
The next morning he woke near dawn. A brilliant red was blazing on the horizon, setting the sky afire. Pulling his boots on, Jed got ready. Like every morning he made sure he had all of his equipment. Satisfied everything was fine he stepped outside. The land was dark and undisturbed. Jed coughed and spat a wad of mucus on the ground. He could be in San Francisco in a few days, he thought. The sheriff and deputy were walking over.
“Need someone to come with you.” The sheriff asked, not sounding eager to offer.
Jed shook his head, upset that he had allowed himself to get caught up in hunting a werewolf. “Nope, I’ll be fine by myself. Just make sure you have my money ready when I get back.”
Sheriff Carter said, “We got you some supplies. They should last several days in case you need it.”
Ross handed him the saddlebags. Jed saddled up and studied the tracks thirty feet outside the boarding house. Last night the curious crowd had erased the closer prints. The tracks were large, and despite its name not dog like. Instead it was mostly human with small points where talons pressed in the dirt. The elongated feet stretched further than Jed’s boot. The talons were simple points in the dirt. Judging from the size of the prints the werewolf was roughly the same size as Jed. He continued following the tracks. Another dry day meant the footprints would not be blown away.
The werewolf had begun running on all fours at the edge of town. The hand prints were more menacing than its feet. The distinctively human hands also ended in fingernails. Fingernails an inch long and as sharp as a sword. A trail of blood extended alongside the tracks before stopping. The werewolf had healed from its wounds, making it weak and hungry. Unfortunately, not serious enough to make it transform into its less threatening human form.
Jed spent a mile following the tracks from town. While possible, Jed did not think the tracks would lead this far from town. They showed no sign of circling away. In the distance were canyons and rocky hills. The further he rode, the more convinced he became the werewolf had entered the canyons. More specifically the tracks aimed for a large red rock jutting forth on top a hill.
The miles of dust did not pass quickly. Made slower by the burning sun above. Jed perked up when he finally made it to the entrance of the canyons. Here began the rocky hills and mountains. The shrubs and bushes made a sharp contrast with the lifeless look of the rock and dirt. The ongoing drought had rendered the plants as dead as the rock.
Before entering the canyon, Jed rode a large radius around the area. No other tracks were found. It appeared the werewolf was by itself and judging by the change in tracks and small pile of fallen hair, had finally transformed back to human. Technically on his toes as he followed the tracks, Jed honestly was not worried. The man was unarmed, naked, and exhausted. Until night fell he would not be able to transform. He had hunted rabbits more dangerous. In the shade of the imposing rock formation, He studied the stone. It reminded him of ancient obelisks.
The walls of the canyon were not narrow or constricting. They were wide and open, banked by rising rocks and mountains to the side. The plethora of rocks made finding any tracks hard. Ultimately, Jed lost all track of where his prey was moving. Boulders and rocks outnumbered the dirt and sand.
Just as he was becoming annoyed he found several vultures feasting on a ruined carcass of rabbit. Shooing the birds away, he went for a closer look. It had been eaten raw. Hazarding a guess it was leftovers from his prey. Not tasty eating in his human form, but still it would give strength. Exactly how old was impossible to tell.
Spotting a cave entrance, gun in hand, Jed approached. The angle riding in ensured it was easy to miss. The entrance was mostly hidden by a jutting rock. It was dark and he had no of light. Per usual business, Jed ignored his instincts and explored further inside. The cave was large, similar in scope to a house. Something bumped into his boot as he walked. Crouching down, his hand felt the object. He nearly dropped it when he realized it was a bone. Unconsciously, he wiped his hand on his pants. Going forward his boots kicked more bones. Enough that he figured more than a couple things had been tossed here. Grabbing another he went into the light.
The contrast between in the cave and outside was blinding. Holding a hand to shadow his eyes from the sun, Jed gazed at the bone. It was old and dirty. Little indentations covered the bone. While no expert, the gunslinger reasoned something had nibbled it. Doubtless, the bone did not come from a small animal. Perhaps it was a human bone. Jed imagined werewolves dragging a hapless man to the cave amid his cries. Disgusted, he tossed the bone back inside.
Then he scanned the land. Noticing an uprooted bush on a slope in front, Jed climbed his horse and urged it upwards. It snorted meaningfully, pawing at the ground. His chestnut was not a mountain horse and the slope was steep.
“I was afraid of that,” he remarked absently.
Dismounting, he set to climbing the slope solo. Rough going, he used many of the brush for handhelds. More than a couple roots upturned as he pulled, throwing dust and dirt. When Jed got to the same point as the bush, he could easily tell it had been used as a hand hold. The dried limbs were crushed and the roots jutted out above.
A simple view awaited him at the top. Save for rock and boulders it was an empty view. Looking back down the gunslinger could see his horse and the cave. Immediately, Jed froze. Every warning in his head screamed. He could not tell if he had heard something or whether some sixth sense warned him. Regardless, the Colt smoothly came to hand as he twisted around. Jed shot the rock right out of man’s raised hands.
The naked man threw both hands up in surrender, scuttling back. He was tall and burly, similar to his partner. Dirt covered his blond hair. He also looked to be in terrible pain. His fair complexion was completely open to the sun. Like a spurned lover it burned him. The extra healing from being a werewolf was the only reason his condition was not more serious.
“I surrender,” the man said, a subtle accent to his words.
Jed raised the gun, “Do you think I care?”
The eyes widened immediately. “Don’t kill me! I...I can help you.” He begged.
“Help me with what?”
The man opened his eyes tentatively. “I’m not the only werewolf. I can tell you the others. Just don’t kill me.” He pleaded.
“Start talking,” the gunslinger prompted.
“Not here. You will kill me as soon as I finish. I’ll speak if the sheriff is listening.”
Jed frowned. The man was smart. Jed would have killed him the moment he spilled his beans. It left a thorny problem. Keeping an eye on one werewolf by himself was going to be hard. Not enough daylight remained to escort him to Hickory by dusk.
“One question for the road then,” Jed said. “What is your name?”
“John.” There was a slight hesitation. “Gibbon.”
The gunslinger noticed it. “Lie to me again and I will drag you behind my horse all the way to town.
“Adolf,” the man said proudly. This time no last name was offered.
“I changed my mind. I have another question, Adolf. Down below there is a cave filled with bones.”
“So,” Adolf snorted.
“I don’t see why you wouldn’t hide there. Makes sense with this hot sun to get under some shade.”
“I didn’t see it.” Adolf argued.
Jed remained silent. While hidden it was not invisible, especially from up here. His hunch on it being a feeding ground for werewolves could be right. During a full moon it would be good to have a place far from town and far from discovery. Not that it meant more werewolves existed.
On the other side of the ridge was a slope less steep. They used it to descend. Circumventing the hill back to his horse took a half hour at Adolf’s slow plodding pace.
“Don’t move,” Jed warned. He took several steps forward and pistol whipped his prisoner. Yelping the man collapsed to the ground. “Don’t move,” Jed threatened again.
Going to his saddlebags, he withdrew a long coil of rope. Sometimes gunslingers were asked to bring a monster to town so it could be hanged and then burned. Usually there was help on jobs like that. Keeping a foot on the captive Jed roped him up like his father had taught. The rope went around one ankle, then the opposite hand, and likewise for the remaining appendages. Finally the rope was wrapped around the throat and tied to the hands behind his back. Jed helped the man stand up. The knot was designed so that if he moved his hands too far or his feet took a long step, it would tighten the noose around his throat.
Shuffling forward the moaning captive began moving. They made even less time with the awkward waddling of Adolf. They ended the day’s journey early. Jed wanted to set up a fire and eat before dusk. The dried brush made excellent firewood and in short order Jed had one burning.
The sun fell as Jed sat, his back to the fire and the Smith and Wesson in his lap. A dozen yards away Adolf was lying comfortably as he could, tied as he was. Jed watched him and the coming night. His horse nibbled on the bush it was tied at, trying to find something worth eating.
Then Adolf spoke up. “Did you kill Hemming?”
“I reckon I did. A friend was he?” Jed had no compassion.
“He was a brother.” Adolf said fiercely.
“Ah. Got bit by the same dog, eh?”
“We were chosen. It was an honor.”
Jed doubted Adolf thought that at the time. “Chosen because of what?”
Adolf remained silent.
Jed sought to rile his prisoner. “I see, chosen because it was convenient. You were probably a bastard before. Makes it easier to be one after a bite. Less compunctions to killing innocents.”
“We were chosen because we retained the old ways. Because when we die we will forever hunt in the fields of Valhalla.” Adolf nearly shouted back.
Jed yawned. “Dogs don’t have souls.”
Adolf growled. The sound happily human. He kept silent after that giving the gunslinger time to think. Werewolf packs sometimes had some sort of esteemed brotherhood, which small groups lacked. Hunting in Valhalla was a common theme. When a new member joined, or infected as Jed thought of it, then they were branded a new name. A name for the pack. Jed tried to think what Adolf or Hemming could possibly mean. It would hold special meaning, their new names. They were either Scandinavian or Germanic for sure. Beyond that Jed had little idea.
Night descended, blanketing the land in darkness. No clouds crept in the sky to block the pale moon. The stars were like lanterns shining far away. Desert nights were strangely bright. Many gunslingers had trouble sleeping at night. The darkness was where their toughest enemies lay. Though their experience at fighting in the night was useful when they chased human men. Jed had little trouble sleeping. Of course that did not help him when he had to stay awake all night looking after Adolf.
His captive spoke up croaking, “Can I have some water? Just a little sip?” Adolf’s lips were cracked and his face was peeling. Even if he was a werewolf, he might not survive tomorrow in his state.
Jed stood up, first stretching his limbs. Grabbing his canteen and keeping his gun at hand, he walked over. The water trickled down to Adolf’s mouth. Suddenly, he lashed out with his foot, striking the gunslinger on his face. Jed moved with the blow spinning around. Adolf was already moving. His hands had turned into claws, cutting through his bonds. Jed fired a shot and missed. Adolf was half transformed as he jumped behind a large rock.
Jed drew his other gun. From behind the rock there was a cracking sound. It went silent and Jed realized Adolf had already transformed. The transformation was too quick. Adolf had even been able to control it long enough to cut his bounds. He had severely underestimated Adolf. He was not a new member of a pack. A werewolf with that capability was old. Perhaps even half a century old.
Running away was not an escape plan. Jed cursed himself for being a fool. It had been a trap. A blur ran out from the rock. The gunslinger held his fire. His hands were crossed so his right wrist was over his left hand holding the Kruger. The position gave added accuracy and support for the large revolver.
A bone chilling howl sounded somewhere in the night. The walls of the canyon echoed the sound. Where once the canyon seemed bright and open, night had enveloped it into a dark room. He ignored the baying of his chestnut. Keeping eyes open, he waited for any imperceptible movements and hoped he would see them. The werewolf streaked to the side. The guns trailed and he tightened his fingers on the triggers. The light of the campfire came into view and Jed turned away.
The damage was done. His night vision was ruined. Now the night was darker than he could have imagined. Someone had snuffed out the lanterns in the sky. This beast was smart, retaining some of its human intellect. Jed was brought back to the night he had first hunted a werewolf. How terrifying that had been. Except his father had been with him. Tonight he was alone. Focusing back on the moment, Jed scanned the night. It would strike soon, before his night vision returned. But where, was the gunslinger’s quandary.
Hindsight revealed the obvious choice. The werewolf was canny and Jed berated himself the instant it happened. The werewolf leapt over the campfire. Barely, Jed saw the action from his peripheral. A jumping darker shape on a dark sky. The gunslinger rolled to the side. Claws, sharp as daggers, scrapped his shoulder and arm. Shots ranged from the two guns, as he went to his knees. A furry arm slashed and Jed fell backwards. Blood flowed from lacerations in his chest.