“Oh! That one was sad too! POOR Mister Jones! Poor, poor Thaddeus.”
“Poor Mister Smith too! He got the worst of it!”
“What a co-incidence! The girl in this one was called Em too!”
“Scarcely a girl! Old enough to know better! The hussy!”
“Oh! I felt sorry for her. After all…” Flutter, flutter. “Mister Jones is SO attractive.” “Well. Maybe I can understand the temptation.”
“And Thaddeus was naughty AGAIN!”
“BAD boy!” Giggle. Hand squeeze.
“Only because of the potion.”
“Oh!” Playful tap of a sun-kissed cheek with a half-embroidered lily. “Men will be men, potion or no potion!”
“I didn’t think it was so sad as the first one.”
“It was a bit LIKE the first one – when you think about it.”
“Well, the end result was sure the same.”
Sympathetic tutting. Both partners found their hands receiving a kindly squeeze.
The enthusiastic burst of chatter died away. Silence.
Blue-Ribbons selected a new skein of silk and began to wind it. Lace-Trim-Blouse tidily rolled a tape measure. Flowered-Bonnet finished a final French knot in the centre of a bunch of daisies and snipped off her thread. Three cheerful faces beamed benevolence at the ex-outlaws in the rosy light of the oil lamps.
Neither Heyes nor Curry could muster a smile in return. Kid merely looked stunned. He had not merely listened to Sable-Furs words; she had planted them inside him like memories. He could see – SEE – his bullets ripping the life from Heyes. He could feel the guilt like a pain. He was telling himself, over and over, ‘It never happened. Heyes is right here. He’s fine. We’re both fine. It was ONLY a story. It could never happen.’ At that last thought, something made him turn to meet Sable-Furs eyes. Not a word passed her lips, but Kid had no doubt she read his mind as easily as the cards in her hands. He had no doubt of her silent response. ‘Yes, it could.’ Nor… Kid gulped. Nor had he any doubt he believed in Sable-Furs’ prophecies more than in his own attempts to hold on to comforting scepticism.
Meanwhile, Heyes, also more affected than he would care to admit by the second story was watching the ladies as they returned to their needlework. There was something he was trying to remember …Something he’d read when he was a boy…Something…Nah! It wouldn’t come. Heyes gave up searching his memory for the present.
“Poor boys,” repeated Flowered-Bonnet. “Such a lot of trouble ahead.”
“You know what they say – third time lucky!” urged Blue-Ribbons.
On cue, Sable-Furs held out the deck.
“Seems to me, ma’am,” said Heyes, still civil, though with an edge to his voice as he answered Blue-Ribbons, “…Your friends were in the right of it when they said both futures seemed to have the same end result. I’m not sure I want to hear a third variation on a theme.”
Unphased by the echo of the dangerous tone that once made the hardened outlaws in the Devil’s Hole Gang nervous, Blue-Ribbons touched Heyes’ hand and smiled, “Poor Mister Smith. Are you ALWAYS this unlucky with cards?”
“Not as a general rule, ma’am.” A tiny pause. “Not with a straight deck.”
A fleeting flash of sardonic laughter from Sable-Furs. “Feel free, Mister Smith.”
Heyes hesitated a moment then took the offered cards. He was not familiar with the tarot, but a quick check confirmed this was not a deck stacked with more than it’s share of ill omens. A single instance of each image. A fair number seeming at first glance to signify good fortune. Of course, Sable-Furs could interpret them any way she chose…
“What would this mean?” asked Heyes, holding up a card glinting with shining gold.
“The Chariot? Perhaps a battle or some difficult task ahead. Perhaps simply endeavour, honest hard work.”
“Uh huh? And this?”
“That is The Moon, Mister Smith.”
“I can see that, ma’am. What does it mean?”
“Dreams – good or bad.” A tiny pause, just like Heyes had left earlier. “Or, it could just be ‘The Moon’.”
“Uh huh?” The tapered fingers shuffled the deck. He stopped, pursed his lips. “Once more,” he decided.
‘Once more,’ Sable-Furs agreed with an inclination of the head. The cards clicked together.
The deck passed back from Heyes to the teller of fortunes. She held it between him and Kid. And waited.
It was Kid who reached out. Anything – Anything at all would be better than replaying the scene of Heyes dying at his hand, over and over.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
“The Chariot. The Moon.” A pair of mocking dark eyes met those of Heyes for a second before lowering again. “The High Priestess. I see two men contemplating honest, hard work.”
THE COYOTE HUNT…
I see two men contemplating honest, hard work.
“There’s nothing wrong with honest, hard work,” urged Smith.
“No,” grunted his blond partner. “I just thought we preferred honest, easy work.”
“Doesn’t usually pay so well.”
Jones gave an acknowledging shrug. There was a lot of truth in there. The advertisement circled by his partner offered $30 a day and a possible $1,000 bonus. And, when they were down to their last dollar and read of a job offering hard cash, it made sense to take it. But…
“Jobs pay this well for a reason. Remember that time with the mountain lions at the Carlson place.”
“$500 per cat,” sighed Smith, nostalgically.
“You nearly became a cat’s supper!”
“Yes but THIS job…” A tapered finger tapped the newspaper, “ISN’T hunting down mountain lions taking calves in cattle country.”
“No. It’s huntin’ down coyotes takin’ lambs in sheep country.”
“That’s what I’m saying – completely different.”
The blue eyes shot an incredulous look at the persuasive, dimpled face.
“Coyotes are nothing like the size of lions. You’re not going to tell me you’re frightened of a…a couple of mangy little wild dogs?”
“Nope. I’m gonna tell you I’ve a healthy respect for up to a dozen medium to large wild dogs wily enough to make up for lack of size by huntin’ in pairs.” A smiling waitress delivered two steaming plates. Jones wrapped himself around a forkful of ham and eggs. And another. His mood lifted. “The thing is,” he went on, indistinctly, “I’ve been thinking…”
“Forgetting our arrangement again, huh?”
“You’re right about coyotes not being up there with cougars in the predator stakes, so – why the $30 a day? Why aren’t the young bucks at…” he checked the small print, “Moonshine – fetching out their rifles and huntin’ down their own mangy coyotes? And what the Sam Hill is this possible $1,000 bonus for? How many sheep is this dang pack taking? It’s gonna be one easy job shootin’ ’em if its $1.000 worth! They must be fat as …as…” Jones unwonted eloquence ran out. He filled the simile gap with another mouthful of ham and eggs and chewed questioningly at his partner.
A dimpled face mused. Smith had to admit they were all good points. He sighed, “You don’t wanna take the job?”
“Nope. But…” Another forkful of ham and eggs went west. Or, should that be south? “I know you’ll talk me into it – so, I fold.” Rueful lift of an eyebrow above a half-resigned, half-joshing blue eye. “What’s the worst that can happen?”
A couple of days later…
The partners exchanged a wary glance and resisted the urge to let their eyes drift to a pair of all too familiar wanted posters on the opposite wall. Would they ever get used to walking voluntarily into a Sheriff’s office? However, both Smith and Jones were becoming aware that, of the five men present, they were by far the least nervous. The grizzled lawman shifted in his seat and failed to meet the partners’ eyes. Beside him, the portlier of the two prosperous looking sheep farmers was clearing his throat and, despite talking at great length, singularly failing to give a straight answer to Smith’s question about why bringing in one particular coyote would earn a bonus of $1,000.
Smith’s deep voice cut through the farmer’s rambling. “What is it you’re not telling us, Mister Bauer? Mister Jones and me sure aren’t complaining about being offered $30 a day and no one ever heard us complain about the chance to get our hands on $1,000…”
“So long as it’s law-abiding, like,” put in Jones.
“But, if we’re to do a good job for you and Mister Thwaite, we need to know what we’re up against. This IS just a coyote out there?”
An exchange of glances between the two farmers.
“No one’s ever seen it and li…” The skinny Mister Thwaite, who had scarcely taken his eyes off the partners, received a warning nudge. “No one’s ever seen it,” he repeated, darting an apologetic glance at his neighbour. “But we’ve all heard its howl…”
An involuntary shudder ran over the man, he stopped. Smith noted the Sheriff’s Adam’s apple bob, convulsively.
“It’s a coyote alright. Just big an’ mean an’ too dang clever to let itself get shot yet,” said Bauer, mustering a would-be-confident tone. “AND, we’re both tired of finding dead sheep in the morning and having our men all spooked up and refusing to stand guard at night!” He tried to hold Smith’s searching gaze. He failed.
“D’you mind if my partner and I talk it over?” asked Smith.
“Feel free,” grunted the Sheriff. “This is,” Again, he shifted in his chair. “…No one’s telling you any lies here, Mister Smith. This is a dangerous job – the pay reflects that. But, if you and your partner turn it down – you leave Moonshine with no hard feelings.”
The partners pushed back their chairs, rose and strode outside to consult.
“Whaddya think?” asked Jones.
“They may not be lying – but they’re sure not telling us everything,” frowned Smith. “Still, it doesn’t feel like any kind of ‘bounty hunt’ lure. And, it doesn’t feel like we’re going to be tricked into anything …shady. Not crooked shady anyhow.”
“They want fellas who are real good trackers and real good with a gun – and they’re prepared to pay for the best. That bit’s true.”
“This is a nice quiet town, no one’s likely to know us. I guess I’d rather be up against a pack of coyotes than a posse. If we don’t get the pack leader – we still get $30 a day so long as they’re prepared to let us keep trying.”
“Uh huh,” Jones nod at that was thoughtful. There was a lot of truth in there.
“What do YOU think?”
A long pause. “I think,” Jones admitted, “…We’ve two dollars and fifteen cents between us and a long spell of hungry days and cold nights in front of us if we DON’T take the job.”
In unison the partners turned on their heels and strode back into the Sheriff’s office. Once again, Thwaite’s eyes fixed on them, searchingly.
“Mister Bauer, Mister Thwaite, you got yourself two coyote hunters,” beamed Smith. “We’ll start tonight – and we’ll take our first day’s pay in advance.”
“That would be now,” clarified Smith.
“Oh!” Digging in his pocket, Bauer drew out $30 and pushed it over the desk. “Ride over to my place and I’ll show you where the last mauled sheep was…”
“Each,” interrupted Smith, still smiling.
“Our terms are thirty dollars a day, EACH,” chimed in Jones, civil but firm.
Bauer opened his mouth to argue, took another look at the steady blue eyes facing him and changed his mind. Another $30 was produced.
“Jones and me are going to go get a hot bath, a hot meal, a cold, cold beer and somewhere to rest up – not necessarily in that order,” said Smith, folding the money away into his vest. “Don’t worry Mister Bauer, we’ll be over at your place this afternoon for you to show us around – and back again at dusk.”
Back out in the street Smith nodded over at the saloon. “I’m thinking we start with a cold beer.”
“Sounds good,” concurred Jones.
“AND I’m thinking a little saloon gossip might fill in some of the blanks left by our new employers.”
“Uh huh?” Jones glanced up at the name of the saloon with its accompanying lurid artwork. “The Slaughtered Lamb,” he read. The partners exchanged a glance. “Cheerful, huh?”
As the batwing doors swung shut behind them, a dozen or so customers swivelled to stare at the new arrivals. The hum of conversation halted, the music from a tinny old piano fell silent. Even the glass polishing cloth in the bartender’s hand froze into stillness.
“I’m guessing they don’t see many strangers,” murmured Smith, under his breath. Out loud, he added, “Howdy fellas. ”
No answer. Even the affable Smith was finding it hard to keep smiling faced by all these grim, guarded faces.
“Two beers, please.”
They were served in silence.
“My partner and me – we’ve just taken a job with Mister Bauer – you know him?” Smith asked, chattily.
“Uh huh,” grunted the bartender, warily.
“We hear he – and some of the rest of you – are having problems with a coyote pack. He’s hired us to hunt ’em down.”
A definite shudder ran around the room. Several men drained their glasses and, without a word, left the saloon.
“I guessed as much,” said the bartender. “You look pretty much like the pair he hired last month – and the month before that.” His eyes ran over them. “Maybe a mite more expensive,” he admitted.
“What happened to them?” asked Jones.
A long pause. The bartender returned to glass polishing. “Couldn’t say. I mind my own business. We all do here. So should you. Get back to where you came from. Leave Moonshine.”
An old timer sitting at a corner table spoke up. “Frank’s givin’ you fellas good advice there. No good can come of messin’ with,” the cracked voice shook, he drained his whiskey glass, “…The Beast!”
Holding out a couple of dollars, Smith nodded at a bottle of ‘the good stuff’. “And three glasses. One for our new friend over there.”
The bartender’s gaze flicked to the old-timer. “You don’t want to pay too much attention to anything Crazy Pete says. He’s…” A finger tapped on the side of his head indicatively. “And that’s aside from the…” A wrist motion mimed drinking.
One close look at Crazy Pete’s bleary eyes was enough to convince the partners that the second half at least of the bartender’s warning was true enough.
Smith poured a whiskey for the old man. It was disposed of in a single swallow.
“Tell us about – the beast,” he prompted. A thirsty gaze rested on the bottle. Smith poured, but kept his hand on the glass.
“It’s huge! HUGE! Near on six foot from paw to haunch! Fangs like knives! Claws like razors!” He pulled the glass from Smith’s grasp and drank.
“You’ve seen it?” checked Jones.
“No. But, Red-Eye Bob saw it. We’d been drinking hooch out back of Thwaite’s place. I was asleep, but HE saw it!” Another sustaining shot of whiskey was taken. “He told me. Ten foot tall and breathing fire!”
“Uh huh?” grunted Jones, exchanging a cynical glance with his partner and losing interest; he turned back to the bartender. “We’re lookin’ for a room. Where’s the best place?”
“There’s no hotel in town. No one visits. I told you – we mind our own business here!”
“Yup, you told us.”
The bartender’s eyes fell, faced with the blue stare. “Widow Baskerville – the white house at the end of Main Street – she sometimes takes in lodgers. Nice lady. Fine cook. You could ask there.”
“Don’t tangle with the Beast!” wailed Crazy Pete, suddenly distressed. “The Beast likes ’em young and strong – and fair!” A gnarled finger pointed at Jones. “Like YOU!”
“Uh huh?” Smith pursed his lips and examined his partner. “I guess there’s no accounting for taste.”
Later that day…
“More potatoes, Mister Jones?” giggled ten-year old Mary. “I mashed them!”
“Let me serve you with carrots, Mister Smith,” offered eleven-year old Rebecca. “I cooked these.” A triumphant glance was cast at her young sister. “They’re glazed with lemon and honey.”
“I sliced the green beans!” countered Mary.
“I helped roll the pastry for the mutton pie!”
“What do you like best, Mister Jones, Mister Smith?” Two sets of pretty hazel eyes fixed, questioningly on the two handsome supper guests.
“Now, now girls!” cautioned their mother. “Let our guests eat. More lemonade, Mister Smith?”
Smith nodded at Mrs. Baskerville. “Thank you, ma’am,” he managed through a mouthful of mutton as his glass was filled.
“I was only asking which part of supper Mister Jones and Mister Smith liked best,” protested Mary.
“It’s the best meal I’ve eaten in years – and every ingredient played its part in the perfection of the whole,” Smith smiled at her. “My compliments – and undying admiration – to ALL the cooks.”
Mary and her sister both beamed. So did their mother. “I must say it’s a pleasure to have men to cater for again,” she told the partners. “Especially when they bring such fine manners AND…” She scooped another helping of potatoes onto Jones’ emptying plate. “Such healthy appetites.”
“The pleasure’s ours ma’am” smiled back Jones. He added a touch of boyish twinkle. Mrs. Baskerville might not be in the first bloom of youth, but she was very easy on the eye. He took another look at the flushed and kindly face above the snowy white neck frill. Fine hazel eyes sparkled back at him. Yup. A very handsome woman.
“Why don’t you two go fetch the cake and the dessert plates?” Mrs. Baskerville suggested to Mary and Rebecca. Casting giggling glances back at the two handsome strangers, the girls scampered off in the direction of the kitchen.
“Bright girls, your daughters,” remarked Smith. “You must be very proud, Mrs. Baskerville.”
“I am. I’d do anything for them. What mother wouldn’t do anything she could for her children? But, please – call me Em. ‘Baskerville’ is such a mouthful. Somehow hearing ‘Mrs. Baskerville’ always makes me feel – old!”
“Well, we can’t have that, ma’am,” charmed Jones. “Not when it’s so far from the truth. Em it is. And,” he indicated his partner, “…Joshua and I’m Thaddeus. Hey!” She had moved to replenish the logs on the fire. “Let me lift that, ma’am – I mean Em.”
“You’re so sweet,” she beamed approvingly at him. “I could eat you up!” The smile took in his dark-eyed partner. “Both of you!” She moved to the door, “I’d better go see what the girls are up to and fetch you some coffee.”
“This sure beats the welcome in the saloon, huh?” smiled Smith, once the door had closed behind her. Involuntarily, he picked up one of the silver candlesticks proudly decorating the table and checked the hallmark. Nice.
“I dunno,” the blond head shook slowly. “I got me a real bad feeling about this place.”
“Look over there.”
“A guitar. So?”
“Two young girls who keep starin’ as if they’re hungry and we’re made of candy. A guitar. What does that remind you of? I don’t want a repeat of what happened with the Jordans.”
“You think we might hear a knock on the door and find the Sheriff about to take us in? Is that what’s worrying you?”
“Nope. I’m worryin’ before we set out on this dang coyote hunt, you might sing.”
Smith gave his partner ‘the look’.
Em Baskerville bustled back in, carrying a coffee pot, as the exchange finished.
“Oh that coyote hunt!” she sighed. “I wish you weren’t in Moonshine because of Mister Bauer’s advertisement!”
The partners exchanged a glance.
“Why do you wish that, ma’am?” asked Smith.
“Because…” She stopped, threw a wary glance in the direction of the kitchen and closed the door before carrying on. “Because it’s so dangerous,” she said, in a low voice. “I’d hate anything to happen to you. But, please – don’t talk about it in front of the girls. I don’t like them frightened.”
“Not a problem, Em,” agreed Smith. “But, surely you don’t believe these stories about some giant Beast? We went over the land Mister Bauer’s been losing sheep from – no traces. Nothing.”
“And Joshua here sold himself to Bauer as the former champeen tracker of all Southern Utah!” backed up Jones, with a teasing glint at his partner.
“Well,” a rather shame-faced shrug from Em. “I take what I hear with a pinch of salt. But what with all the men Mister Bauer hires fleeing the town – and before that Reverend Green…”
“What happened to Reverend Green?” asked Jones, wide-eyed.
“He was determined to show that all this talk of a Beast was nothing but superstitious nonsense! He told his whole congregation he meant to spend the night out in the open. In the spot where the howling had last been heard…A man of principle. A brave man.”
“And…” prompted Jones.
“He was found the next morning. Dead. Not a mark on his body but…”
“But…?” this time it was Smith urging her on.
“The doctor who examined him said he could hardly recognise his old friend. Such was the facial distortion – it was almost beyond belief. He said he’d never seen an expression of such fear, such utter terror. He said in his opinion, the Reverend had died of sheer fright.” A pause. “And then, there was the footprint next to the body…”
“Whose footprint, ma’am?” asked Jones.
She raised earnest eyes to his face. “It was the footprint, Mister Jones, of a gigantic hound.”
Still the same day – just – around midnight…
Smith watched his partner check, AGAIN, the breach of both his rifles, cock them, set them aside and draw his six-gun. Jones checked each chamber, spun the cylinder and reholstered the weapon. He lowered the gun belt, a shade more, a fraction higher and executed one experimental fast draw. He adjusted the belt – and, once more, let the gun leap into his hand.
From his seat on a convenient flat boulder, Smith drew a deep, patient breath. He rolled his eyes.
Jones was, again, checking the rifles. “You just keep right on smilin’,” he grunted. “This boy’s going to be ready.”
“For what? After all that talk – we went all over this piece of ground this afternoon, never found so much as a trace of coyotes. And now…” Smith indicated the peaceful flocks. “Nothing. I’ve seen more traces of coyotes in the middle of ‘Frisco than here.”
“They’re out there,” frowned Jones. “I can…feel ’em – watching. Like knowin’ a posse’s on our trail.”
Smith shrugged, but did not argue with Jones’ instinct. “At least we’re only a day away from the full moon,” he said, indicating the waxing white sphere above. “If they come near – we’ll have plenty of light to aim by.” A pause. “If,” he repeated with a smile. “I reckon we let ourselves get spooked with all that talk of…”
The long, low howl – indescribably sad – swept over the dark prairie beyond Bauer’s land. It filled the whole air and yet, the partners could not say from where it had come. From a dull murmur, it swelled into a deep roar, then sank back into a melancholy throb.
The two tethered horses whickered and pawed the ground in fear, nostrils dilating and breath fogging in the chill night. The sheep gave out soft ‘mmmmaaas’ of alarm and crowded together, the woolly huddle shifting first one way, then another to escape the danger. But, where was it…?
Smith and Jones felt a chill of terror clutch their hearts and the hairs rise, prickling, on the napes of their necks. They were not men easily frightened, but… The sound was not like anything they had heard before. It was uncanny. It was…It was the sound of pure evil, seeking its prey.
They both had rifles raised and were circling, a foot or so apart, back to back, scanning the moonlit scene. Nothing. Where was it coming from? Where…
Then, from nowhere, it sprang.
“Sheesh! What the ** is that?” yelled Smith, as the dreadful shape exploded from the shadows and flew past him. It was an enormous coyote, but not such a beast as mortal eyes had ever seen. Its eyes glowed like fire. Its muzzle and hackles were outlined, huge and coal black against the silver moon.
Smith and Jones both fired as the hellish monster leapt into the flock and tore the throat from a sheep with a single snap of its iron jaws.
A second sheep was flung into the air in a splatter of spraying blood as the fiendish shape lashed out with talons glittering in the eerie shimmer of moonlight.
Another throat was ripped asunder and the partners shuddered at the almost human screech of pain from the dying animal, as her heart was devoured in a single demonic swallow. Her neighbour joined her, scarlet blood soaking into the soft, white fleece.
Jones tossed his second spent rifle aside and drew his colt, the movement nearly as swift as the creature’s first leap. The six shots were so fast they seemed a single bullet burying itself between the fiend’s burning eyes.
This time it was a howl of mocking triumph as the savage spectre, more appalling, more hellish than anything conjured by the wildest nightmare, caught up a final victim in its jaws and bounded – uninjured – into the night.
“I tell you, we DIDN’T miss!” Smith insisted, as the partners stood amidst the bloody carnage and faced an – understandably – angry Mister Bauer in the light of early dawn. “We hit it! Hit it at point blank range!”
“You didn’t fall asleep – wake up to find it killing my stock? Or run for cover the minute it appeared?”
“NO! I’m telling you. We stood our ground and pumped lead into the dang thing! It – it wouldn’t die!”
“Are you callin’ us liars?” asked Jones, a dangerous look in his blue eyes.
“Nope,” said Bauer. “I’m calling you two fellas who took sixty dollars of my money and left me with five dead sheep on your watch.”
Jones answering scowl was more at the truth of the farmer’s words than at the man himself.
“I guess now,” sighed Mister Thwaite, who had joined his neighbour, eager to see if the new hires had succeeded. “You won’t want to earn another sixty dollars standing guard and trying again tonight?”
“Pfftt!” exclaimed Smith. “It’d take more than sixty dollars to make us face that – that THING again.”
“You’ll want to ride out of town, huh?” continued the quiet voice of Mister Thwaite. “Of course, like I was explaining to Bauer yesterday, once we left the Sheriff’s office, IF the men who’d applied for the job were – oh, say, notorious outlaws with a $20,000 price on their heads – THEN we’d have some hold over them. IF, just hypothetically, I recognised them from a train robbery back in ’79 in Wyoming, THEN they wouldn’t be able to give up and ride out of town. They’d HAVE to stay. Unless they wanted me to share my memories with the Sheriff as well as him.”
“‘Course – us managing to hire two notorious outlaws is not real likely,” chipped in Bauer. “What are the odds of getting the Leader of the Devil’s Hole gang and the fastest gun in the West? It’s much more likely that we’d hire two real law-abiding fellas like yourselves, huh?”
A pause. Smith and Jones exchanged a glance.
“I’m a touch deaf in this ear,” smiled the portly sheep farmer, tapping the right side of his head. “What was that you were saying to Thwaite here about earning another sixty dollars?”
“I said,” decided Smith, reluctantly, “…It’d take more than JUST sixty dollars to make us face that again. It’d take our professional pride. The pride that means we never leave a job unfinished. The pride that gives us grit – determination. Smith and Jones are not the kind of men who give up when the going gets tough! No, sir! Sometimes,” the silver-tongued one was getting into his stride now, “a man’s gotta do what a man’s…”
“Good,” interrupted Bauer, displaying a sadly cavalier attitude to the clichés of the old west. Sixty dollars were handed over. “We’ll see you back here at nightfall. Good luck.” The two farmers strode away.
Brown eyes met blue. A pause.
“You saw that – that THING last night!” said Jones. “Dealin’ with that is going to take more’n grit and determination. It’s going to take a plan of genius.”
“Uh huh.” Smith pushed back his hat and dropped his hands to his slim hips. A long pause.
Jones laid a trusting hand on his partner’s drooping shoulder. “Soon as you come up with one – come tell me. I’m gonna go get some breakfast.”
“You’re not going back tonight?”
“We are, ma’am,” Smith told Em, as she served him with more pancakes.
A glance was exchanged.
“I think it was our professional pride,” offered Jones. “Somethin’ about ‘grit’ and a man having to do what a man has to do.”
“Did you see the Beast?” asked Mary.
“I bet you were scared!” chipped in Rebecca. “Everyone is scared of the Beast!”
Smith cast a wary glance at the girls’ mother, remembering she did not want them frightened. “Oh, we might have seen something padding around out there, but Thaddeus and I don’t get scared. We know there’s nothing to be scared of.”
“Its time you girls left for school. You’ll be late,” their mother said, firmly.
Once the front door had shut behind her daughters, Em Baskerville turned to the partners, anxiety stamped on every feature.
“You saw the Beast?”
“And – you didn’t kill it?”
“We sure tried, Em,” sighed Jones. “Our bullets simply – went through the thing.”
“Tonight will be worse!” she blurted, “it’s…” Em clapped a hand over her mouth and shook her head; the hazel eyes took on a frightened expression.
“It’s what, Em?” asked Smith. “Why will tonight be worse?”
She hung her head. “If I tell you, you won’t believe me. You’ll just think I’m some dumb woman letting her imagination run away with her.”
“Em,” said Jones, gently. “After what we saw last night – we’re not likely dismiss anything as ‘just imagination’. Try us.”
“I told you the other men Bauer hired fled the town. Most did. But two – two simply disappeared. One in September, One last month – around Halloween. They – Bauer and Thwaite – hushed it up, but all the rumours say…” Em twisted her snowy apron in her hands.
“Go on,” urged Smith.
“The Beast took them. At certain times, it has a taste for human flesh. Poor Billy Harper. He was such a nice young man. Fair curls just like my late husband.” A fond glance at Jones. “Put me in mind a little of you, Thaddeus.” Her voice filled with distress. “And tonight it’s…”
“It’s the full moon! You’ll think I’m foolish, but I’ve noticed that they all – Reverend Green, the tow-headed man back in September, poor Billy Harper – they all went on a night when the moon was full. I’m sure…the Beast is really a … a…”
“Are you thinking about…” Smith hardly liked to say it. “Werewolves? Or, I guess in this case Were ‘prairie wolves’.”
Em hung her head, but nodded. “I know it’s hard to accept – but it would explain the size and the – the cleverness. It’s not a coyote at all – it’s a human transformed. It has all the cunning – and evil – of the most wicked person you could…” She broke off. Again the white apron twisted in her nervous grasp. “I hate to think of it. It could be someone you’ve met – knowing your plans. Licking their lips at the thought of …It could be Mister Bauer, or the Sheriff, or even poor old Crazy Pete. How would you know? You MUST stay away from the prairie tonight.”
Her bright hazel eyes met Smith’s brown ones. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
“Frankly Em, it’s a lot to swallow,” admitted the dark haired young man. “But then, so was what I saw last night. If there is anything in what you say…” His forehead puckered. Tapered fingers reached out for a silver-trimmed black hat. “If you’ll excuse me ma’am – I have thinking to do.”
A moment later, Jones and Em watched a lean figure, hugging a grey coat around himself, pace back and forth in the chill back yard.
“He’ll be at that for hours,” said Jones, knowing the signs. He pushed back his chair and stood up. “I guess I’ll go get some rest. It’s been a long night.”
“Thaddeus.” Jones was surprised to find his hand taken between two, small feminine ones. “Would you think I was very forward if …if…?” The sentence was not finished. Instead, he found himself being gently kissed by a pair of soft lips. “Oh! I’ve embarrassed you – you’re blushing – I’m sorry.” She made as if to leave.
“Hey!” Jones pulled her back and folded his arms around her. “This isn’t a blush! This is me – er – flushin’ with delight.” He studied her face a moment, checking she was willing, then kissed her back – not quite so gently.
“Didn’t you need to go upstairs to rest?” she murmured with a definite flirtatious gleam.
“I sure could do with lyin’ down.” With a wicked twinkle, he added, “How about you?”
“Oh, Thaddeus,” Em growled throatily, emerging from a second crushing embrace breathless and with a shining lock of hair worked loose from her bun. “You’re so…so cute. I could eat you up!”
“Thaddeus,” called Smith striding back into the house. He ran upstairs, checked their room. Empty. Back downstairs – checked the parlour. “Thaddeus! Where the Sam Hill are you?”
The sound of boots clattering on wood brought Smith back out into the hall. His partner, gun belt dangling from one elbow, a hand tucking in shirt at the back was running down the stairs. His expression was…Well, Smith decided, there was a dash of smug, but mainly it was just plain happy!
“What are you looking so dang cheerful about?” he demanded.
Em appeared on the upper landing. Perfectly neat, perfectly composed but…glowing. Smith, a sharp observer, noted that her chestnut hair was now tied up with a green ribbon. Two hours ago at breakfast it had been pink.
“It’s a good job ONE of us keeps his mind on the job in hand,” Smith muttered, giving his partner the ‘look’.
Jones, not one to ‘kiss and tell’, tried to wipe a little of the sappy smile off his face and assume an air of complete innocence. This was rather spoilt by him seeing his partner’s eyes rest on a telltale dangle of rosy ribbon. Jones made haste to tuck it out of sight in his pocket.
“Ma’am,” Smith called up the stairs. “I’ve a favour to ask.”
She ran down, lightly.
“I’ve decided, unbelievable as your theory is, I can’t come up with anything better. AND, I’ve been racking my brains for anything I can remember reading about…” Smith winced at having to say it. “Werewolves.”
“Werecoyotes,” corrected Jones.
Smith pushed back his hat and dropped his hands to his hips. “Well, there’s no point me racking my brains over what I’ve ever read on Werecoyotes, is there? That’s nothing! At least Werewolves sometimes turn up in dime novels trying for a taste of the gothic. Werecoyotes don’t even exist! I mean they exist even less than non-existent Werewolves!”
Jones looked rather hurt at the scathing tone of his partner. “No need to get proddy.”
“You were going to ask me a favour, Joshua,” intervened Em, peaceably.
“Would you sell us your silver candlesticks?”
“Oh! They were a wedding…” She stopped. Light dawned. “You mean to make bullets. Silver bullets, the only thing that can kill a werewolf. You’re assuming they will work the same on the Beast,” she said, quietly. A sudden flash of admiration from the hazel eyes. “You ARE clever, Joshua.” A pause. A deep breath. “You can have them. No charge.”
“We’ll buy you somethin’ just as pretty if we get the bonus,” said Jones, squeezing her shoulder, gratefully.
“I want to protect my girls. Don’t tell them about silver bullets, they’ll be frightened for…” Em pressed her handkerchief to her lips, then controlled herself. “For you.”
“We won’t say a word,” Jones reassured her. Touching her hand, he added, “They’re lucky to have a mother like you, Em.”
“Oh no,” she demurred. “What mother wouldn’t do anything she could – for her children?”
“How many bullets did you manage?” asked Em, bringing coffee out to the barn.
Jones, flushed from working over the hot brazier, looked up. “Twelve.” Looking down at the shining fruits of his afternoon labours, he added. “Six each.”
“Nah,” said Smith. “I did my share coming up with the idea. I reckon I’ll leave the shooting to you. You take them all.”
Their eyes met. A mute conversation. Jones nodded. His partner’s utter faith in his marksmanship was understood, but, to leave himself unarmed in the face of that – that thing they’d seen last night, displayed a trust that was…
“I always did end up doin’ the hard work,” Jones grunted, gruffly, turning away so neither would be embarrassed by a sudden moistness in his eyes.
“We gotta stop meeting like this,” joshed Smith, blowing on his hands to warm them and stomping his booted feet.
“Do you reckon it’s your birthday yet?” Smith checked his pocket watch. “Yup. Midnight. Happy Birthday, partner.”
“Thirty! We’ll have to change your nickname, huh? You’re getting old…”
“Still two dang years younger’n you!”
Smith blinked. Sheesh! Talk about sensitive! “No need to get proddy,” he remarked.
“It’s colder’n last night,” observed Smith. He glanced up at the moon, a perfect sphere overhead. “Brighter too. We should see it fine. No problem you getting a clean shot.”
“The sheep seem kinda jittery.”
“They ain’t the only ones!” exploded Jones. “Will you shut the Sam Hill up and stop jiggin’ around! I’m tryin’ to listen.”
“Sorry.” Pause. “You see, when I’m nervous I tend to talk.” Pause. “Always been that way. Some folks go quiet, me – I start talking…”
“For Pete’s sake! Will you…”
A raised hand from his partner and a suddenly arrested expression in those dark eyes silenced Jones. What had Smith heard? He strained every nerve to listen. Nothing but the low sounds of the flock and a cold snort from his horse. Silence. Then…
Their blood ran cold at the sound. How could an animal howl convey such – such wicked malevolence? This was no dumb beast. Em must be right, MUST be – this was evil, evil with a human intelligence behind it.
Jones, gun in hand, steadied himself, boots planted firmly a foot apart. His blue eyes narrowed, dangerously. He found the inner calm he always managed to summon in a standoff. Let the Beast come! He was ready.
The black shape exploded from nowhere. Blotting out the moon with its massive raised hackles. Eyes darting tawny hell fire. Fangs glinting between the snarling black lips. Fresh blood, still smoking with ripped life, dripped from its huge, savage jaws.
With the practice of years, Jones fired with a swiftness incredible as that of the Beast leaping toward him. His aim never faltered. Six bullets buried themselves in the very heart of the Fiend.
Aaaaoooooowwwwwllll! Contempt dripped from the lips of the Monster as, unhurt by Jones bullets, still it came.
Stunned, but acting with instincts honed to perfection, Jones swept Smith’s loaned six-gun from his belt and fired. Dead centre! A flawless hit. Still the Beast howled its derision. A razor taloned paw slashed at Jones’ chest. He smelt the stench of the creature’s death tainted breath as the gaping jaws closed in.
Jones struggled back to consciousness, shivering in fear at the nightmare filling his mind. A waking terror gripped him.
“Heyes!” he yelled, starting up. “Where are you?”
Frightened blue eyes took in his surroundings. He was back in Em’s room. In her bed. She was bathing cuts and bruises on his chest, her lovely face lit by the glow of an oil lamp. Still night then.
“Where’s – Joshua? Did it get him?”
“I brought Joshua back too. He’s next door – with the girls.”
“How did you…?”
“Shush.” A gentle finger pressed against his lips. A cool cloth mopped his brow.
Jones took a few deep breaths. The clock ticked. Em stroked his face, her eyes lingering on a bloody scratch on his naked upper arm. She bent to kiss it. A soft snuffling sound came from beyond the door. The full terror of what had happened flooded back.
“You musta been wrong, Em. The silver bullets – they didn’t work.”
“Which bullets?” she asked. “These bullets? The ones I took from your gun.” Her hand, not so small as he had once thought, unfurled to reveal a glint of silver.
Jones stared at the bullets, then at her. Her eyes gleamed amber in the soft light. A pink tongue licked the red lips where they had touched his wound.
“Where’s my partner?” Jones’ voice shook. He stared at the door with the snuffling sound behind it. Leaping from the bed he tore it open. Two pairs of bright hazel eyes looked up from their feast, blood dripping from two silky young muzzles. Sharp teeth tore another hunk of fresh meat from…
Jones flung up an arm to shut out the sight of that familiar lean body ripped and torn and…hollowed.
“I told you – I brought Joshua back for the girls,” smiled Em. “What mother wouldn’t do anything she could for her – cubs?”
A slim hand – had the white tipped nails always been so sharp? – pulled aside the blind to let moonlight flood the room.
“Oh Thaddeus,” Em growled, eyes burning with tawny hellfire, “You’re so cute with your mouth hanging open like that! I could eat you up!”
—oooOOOooo— —oooOOOooo— —oooOOOooo—
—oooOOOooo— —oooOOOooo— —oooOOOooo—
“Oh! POOR Mister Jones! Deceived by a woman again!”
“Poor, poor Thaddeus.”
“That one had a real twist at the end!”
“Do you think so? I guessed it was her all along!”
“Oh, you’re so clever! I never suspected. Not until the last minute anyhow.”
“Poor Mister Jones. Eaten! Still, at least he had some…” Giggle. Flutter. “You know! L’amour – first.” Snirt. Giggle. “Mister Smith never gets a girl in these stories.”
“I’ll bet he does in real life. They’re BOTH so attractive.” Flutter. Coy peep over an embroidery frame.
“And POOR Mister Smith – dead again!”
“Well they both end up dead!”
“They always end up dead!”
“No – in the second story Mister Jones rode out.”
“No! Not the real him. The real him was gone forever. That’s the same as dead.”
“I never thought of it like that!”
The partners found their knees and arms receiving encouraging pats. Lace-Trim Blouse went so far as to ruffle Kid’s curls.
“Poor boys. It seems however often you ask – the cards have nothing but bad news.”
“I noticed that,” remarked Heyes, wishing his voice retained some of its usual nonchalance. Despite trying to cling on to cynical detachment, the last story had left him with a gnawing, hollow sensation in the pit of his stomach. He looked from one sympathetic face to another, then to the quiet Sable-Furs. Why pretend? They knew he was shaken.
Kid simply stared at the trio of images that had spelt out such a tale of horror.
Heyes cast a glance at his partner’s bleak expression. He guessed bad as it was for him to hear three versions of his own death, it was worse for Kid. Kid was the survivor – however briefly – each time. Each time contemplating the loss of…Well, of the last solitary piece of ‘family’ life had left him.
The white fingers of Sable-Furs swept away the cards. The blond haired ex-outlaw raised his gaze to meet her impassive face. He knew there was no reason to believe in this woman’s prophecies. No reason. But…he did. Staring into those cool dark eyes, Kid believed. He shifted in his seat. He didn’t want to ask but…No! He wouldn’t ask!
Relief flooded through him when Heyes, possibly reading his partner’s mind, posed the question. “Do we get another deal?”
“Oh no!” fluted Blue-Ribbons.
“That was the last story,” chirped Lace-Trim-Blouse.
“Three is kind of…” Giggle. “The magic number you see.” Flowered-Bonnet’s voice could not have been kinder.
“Just the ONE chance…”
“Oh yes, I forgot!”
“Silly! How could you forg…?”
“What is the one chance?” Heyes deep voice cut through the renewal of feminine fluttering.
“There is always a chance you could avoid ALL three possible paths mapped out for you,” beamed Blue-Ribbons.
“She deals a single card,” explained Lace-Trim-Blouse.
“And that reveals the only way you might escape,” finished Flowered-Bonnet.
In the shadowed corner, the cards were shuffling from one pale hand to another. Without looking up, Sable-Furs stopped and held out the deck.
A mute conversation. In unison the partners reached out.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
A single card turned. Sable-Furs spoke a single word, “Death.”
Heyes broke the silence. “Are you telling us the only way we can avoid one of the destinies you foretold is by dying before they happen?”
“That’s right!” smiled Blue-Ribbons.
“But – all the stories were set around my thirtieth birthday,” protested Kid. “That’s only…”
“Oh yes! You’ll be gone before then,” beamed Flowered-Bonnet.
Lace-Trim-Blouse nodded cheerfully and patted his hand.
“This train’s going to crash!” guessed Heyes, suddenly.
“He’s clever isn’t he?” Blue-Ribbons sounded delighted. She even clapped her hands. “That could be it!”
“Maybe it’s crashed already,” suggested Lace-Trim-Blouse. “If you were dead already, you’d never know!”
“Maybe you never even got on! Maybe your last plan never did work and the posse got you,” contributed Flowered-Bonnet. “Could be you’re bleeding to death in a rocky gully and dreaming all this!”
The partners exchanged a glance. This was – unreal!
“Who the Sam Hill are you ladies?” demanded Heyes.
“Oh, you recognise us! Think back to the stories your father told when you were a child,” urged Blue-Ribbons. “Here I am – winding a thread. And my sister …” she indicated Lace-Trim-Blouse, “Has the tape ready to measure the length.”
“And once it’s measured,” smiled Flowered-Bonnet, kindly, “…I’ll snip it through with my sharp, sharp scissors.” She held them aloft, so the steel blades flashed in the lamplight.
“You are the fates,” said Heyes, quietly. “Spinning, measuring and cutting the thread of life. And, you are familiar because you are there at our birth.”
“I KNEW you’d remember!” exulted Lace-Trim-Blouse. “You always did remember stories! Such a clever boy!”
“And you,” Kid turned to Sable-Furs. He dreaded the answer, but he had to know. “Who are you?”
“Surely you remember me, Jedediah? Hannibal?” The dark eyes rose and met each man’s searching stare in turn. “We met face to face once before. Kansas. 1863. You know MY name.” A slim finger rested on the final card.
“Yes,” replied Heyes, sadly. It had been a good life, but it was over. “We both know you.”
One sister held aloft the thread.
Another measured the length.
The glinting scissors snapped shut.