The Wolf is at the Door

by Pat

Alternate Universe: Two Bloods

Acknowledgements: DCP inspired and helped me with this story, every single step of the way. Many portions of this story started as IM’s on lunch. Kim Kennedy did a terrific job as beta and also had great suggestions to tighten up dialogue and make the story better and clearer.

Authors Note: This story is a stand-alone, but also part of a series found on Joe Lawson’s Two-Blood Universe.

Size: Approx. 265K

Part 4 in the Saga

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Casey Wells returned from visiting distant kin a much more mature and dignified young lady. She could wear a dress now and act ladylike, and still deck anyone who riled her. Ezra Standish had taught her proper grammar and math, Mary Travis had taught her a lot about running a printing press, Mrs. Potter taught her about keeping a store inventory and Aunt Nettie had taught her everything she needed to live in the West. Visiting with real kin relatives had made her realize just how much Aunt Nettie loved her and how much she had sacrificed for her along the years.

She had decided when she got back that she was going to settle down and really help Aunt Nettie, who was getting old as the hills.

So when she arrived in Four Corners on the stage, she didn’t jump off the stage and run to Aunt Nettie. Instead she sedately got out of the stagecoach, picked up her bags, thanked the driver properly and walked decorously to Aunt Nettie’s wagon. She smiled up at her aunt and said, “Hey, Aunt Nettie, I missed you.”

Nettie smiled at her. Casey gazed at her aunt, who wasn’t even a blood relative, but who had raised her and loved her. The older woman looked smaller. Her clothing was home made or cut down from used goods, but clean, mended and practical. Her Spencer Carbine was oiled and ready for action. The wagon looked to be in better shape then Casey remembered and she wondered if Vin and JD had fixed it for her. The horses were well fed, clean and snorting with good nature.

Suddenly all her resolution to be ladylike disappeared and she jumped up next to Aunt Nettie and gave her a huge hug. “Oh Aunt Nettie, I love you so much. I’m so glad you took me in to raise.” She kissed the wrinkled cheek tenderly and heard a low chuckle.

“Well, there, I’m glad you’re glad, child. Were your kin good to you?” This last was asked more sharply. Aunt Nettie’s wise eyes and ears saw and heard everything.

“Aunt Lottie figured to keep me as a maid of all work and treat me like a poor relation,” the girl blurted, “But Uncle Ted didn’t like that none at all. You’d like him. He’s a good man. He took me and the boys to the County Fair and brought me dresses and gave me Pa’s old watch.”

Nettie smiled. “Always thought that Lottie wasn’t good enough for Ted. I can see I was right. Were the boys good?”

“After I beat ‘em up a few times, we got along just fine,” said Casey happily. “I cooked for them some. Aunt Lottie isn’t much of a cook, and I think they missed me more when I left because of that.” She gazed upon Nettie’s bright eyes and smiled, “I made all the home things you taught me to make and everyone loved them. But they aren’t as good as what you make yourself. I miss your cooking.”

Nettie seemed to perk up a bit, “Well, then if you aren’t too tired from the journey, maybe we’ll have the boys over for supper to celebrate you coming home safe.”

Casey smiled dreamily. She’d missed Vin and JD too. Especially JD Dunne, their brave and handsome young sheriff. She’d tried to compare him to other young men as she traveled and none of them could compare with her JD “I’d love to see JD and Vin,” she said softly.

“Actually, I was thinking of having them all over. They’ve gotten to be kin too.”

Casey’s eyes opened wide, “Chris Larabee too?” she asked.

“Yup,” said her aunt in her usual short fashion. Then Aunt Nettie’s hand brushed her cheek.

“Lord girl, you’ve grown into a young woman. You’re as pretty as your Ma was back when I knew her.”

Casey’s eyes filled with happy tears and she blinked and then hugged Nettie fiercely.

“Thank you,” she whispered, then straightened up, “I’d love to have them all to supper. We owe them so much and they’re good men.”

Nettie looked approving and then pulled their wagon up in front of the jail. “Come on, youngin’,“ she cajoled, “We’ve got to tell the boys to come tonight.”

Ezra Standish appeared to be on duty today. He was playing solitaire. He jumped up when he saw Nettie and Casey and smiled at them joyfully.

“Miss Wells, I’m so pleased to see you’ve returned safely to our little community. How was your trip?”

“Nice,” said Casey

Then Ezra Standish did something that surprised her. He walked up to Aunt Nettie and kissed her on the cheek, smiling tenderly at her. Casey stared in delight. Aunt Nettie and Ezra Standish had made friends!

“Tell the boys to come for supper tonight,” said Aunt Nettie, “To celebrate Casey getting home safe and so she can meet the scalawags.”

“Scalawags?” asked Casey.

Ezra smiled at her and his eyes seemed to be measuring, as though this was much more important than just a welcome home dinner. “The two scalawags in question are two little children, distant relatives of Buck, that we’ve all taken to our respective bosoms.”

“Orphans?” asked Casey, immediately sympathetic, since she had been orphaned until Nettie took her home. Her latest visit to her relatives had made her realize just how vulnerable being an orphan could be.

“Yes, we believe so,” said Ezra in thoughtful tones. “We’ve been unable to find their parents and have all determined that we’ll care for them as our own until the parents are located.”

His expression turned soft and tender, and Casey grinned. Their resident fancy man appeared to be quite taken with the youngin’s.

“I’ll be proud to meet them,” she said quickly, already making plans. “How old are they? I still have some old toys,” she explained.

Aunt Nettie said, “Blossom is about 2 1/2 years old and Bransen is 7 or 8. Both of them have seen hard times. I’m still trying to fatten them up.” Aunt Nettie had that same strange searching expression on her face.

Casey frowned and then realized that Aunt Nettie was just as taken with the youngin’s as Ezra Standish was. Probably the whole Seven and Aunt Nettie were worried about the poor children and worried that she’d be jealous. The little ones had probably been over at the Well’s home and slept in her bed while she was gone.

Pshaw, if she was going to be jealous, it would have been when Aunt Nettie adopted Vin Tanner. Casey wasn’t surprised at all that Aunt Nettie had adopted the whole group by now and two little orphans. Heck fire, she’d be more surprised if Aunt Nettie had taken a dislike to the youngin’s.

She smiled at them. Aunt Nettie looked so fit. Having youngin’s about agreed with the older woman, she could tell.

Aunt Nettie and Ezra seemed to relax just a bit and smiled back at her.

“I can see you all set store by them, so I know I will too,“ she said solemnly, so they’d know it was more than a pleasantry, but a promise to be loyal to them all.

Ezra gifted her with the full Standish grin, gold tooth shining and all. Casey felt proud to think they both cared what she thought or felt. She’d gotten a taste of what it would be like to have your folks not care back at her uncle and aunt’s, and she appreciated the kindness and concern even more.

“Well then,” said Aunt Nettie, and she smiled, “I guess we better get cracking. We’ve got a big supper to make.”

As they drove back home, Nettie didn’t say much, but appeared pleased as though a burden of some type had lifted. Casey decided she’d be a good friend to those little ones and make sure they didn’t tire Aunt Nettie out too much. She’d also help more with the house and chores. She wanted to keep the older woman hale and hearty for a long time. She remembered running Aunt Nettie ragged when she was little. It was good she was here to help.

Casey stared at the house when they neared home. The roof was completely redone and the house was painted white! The barn had been painted red. The fencing that had been looking like a set of bad teeth was now pristine. “Looks like the boys adopted you!” she exclaimed and Aunt Nettie chuckled.

“They’re scamps but they’re trying to spoil me,” The older woman agreed amiably.

Casey insisted on putting the horses away. The interior of the barn looked wonderful. Everything was neat and she could see some repairs had been made to the stalls and there was a new feed trough. Vin and JD must have been busy as bees. Maybe the rest of the boys had helped too. She had been all ready to work her fingers to the bone and here was everything already done. For just a moment, she felt a pang of jealousy. Aunt Nettie didn’t need her as badly as she’d thought. But then, all this work benefited her too. She could certainly do her best to spoil her beloved aunt.

She stood up straight, walked up on the porch and opened the door. Aunt Nettie’s kitchen had the home smell she’d missed while she was gone. There was the scent of drying herbs that she’d helped her aunt gather. There was the smell of fresh bread, homemade soap and the yeast culture they used to make bread with. She smiled and stood for a moment. Then, when her eyes were used to the change in light, she blinked. There was a new bigger stove, black and gleaming of iron. They’d struggled over that old stove for years and Nettie had been saving for a new one, but not one this big and modern. It had a two-door oven and a warming oven on top – you could bake two things at a time.

Casey smiled. Maybe the boys had helped buy this wonderful luxury. It would keep the whole house, including her oftimes chilly back bedroom, warm in the winter.

“Aunt Nettie,” she called, and felt herself slipping into the comfort of being able to talk to her aunt without fearing unfair rebukes. “You got that new stove.”

Aunt Nettie came into the kitchen with an apron on. She nodded, “Present from my fancy gambler and Chris Larabee. They seem to worry we’ll be cold come the winter.”

“Lord,” exclaimed Casey, “It will keep the house nice and warm for sure.”

“You should look in your own room, child. They did a few things for you as well,” said Nettie with a gleam in her eye that spoke of pleased anticipation.

All thoughts of jealousy fell away and were forgotten as she ran like a little girl to her bedroom. And she stopped, mouth open and clutched her hands to her chest, gasping. Tears stung her eyes. Aunt Lottie had a fine bedroom, all fancy, that she didn’t want Casey to visit unless she was cleaning. She’d acted like Casey wasn’t good enough for such a room. And now here was her old plain room with fine mahogany furniture where home hewn lumber had sat before. A real dressing table with a fancy mirror sat at one end of the room, and a fancy wardrobe was there to hold her clothing. She walked forward like a girl in a dream. She could see her face, plain old Casey Well, who Aunt Lottie called a tomboy and only good to work horses or scrub. But she was surrounded by beauty. There was a glass oil lamp with roses painted on it and a set of silver brushes and mirrors. She had told JD once that she didn’t need fancy things like that but he had caught the longing in her when they’d stared at such fancy things in the Mercantile window.

There was a real satin bedspread on the bed. She ran her work hardened hands over it and pressed down into softness like a heavenly cloud. Lordy, it was a feather bed. She’d slept in the attic at Aunt Lottie’s on an old bed and had known that if she stayed, that she’d freeze every winter as far as Aunt Lottie cared. How she wished Aunt Lottie could see this. She’d swallow her tongue.

She recognized Ezra Standish’s hand here. He must have picked out the pretty spread and the feather bed. She sat on the bed and looked through tear-dimmed eyes at the figure of her aunt in the doorway, smiling with pleasure.

“Oh Aunt Nettie,” she cried half in distress and half in joy, and her aunt came and sat next to her and let her sob on her shoulder. Aunt Nettie smelled of vanilla and her boney old shoulder was the best and safest place in the whole world.

“How?” she asked, lifting her head from that familiar and now soggy shoulder.

“They closed a hotel in another town and Ezra got the furniture from them. He and Vin brought it here in a wagon and then they all started showing up with things. JD got the lamp and the dresser set.

“Looks like an early Christmas,” Casey gulped.

Nettie’s hand smoothed Casey’s hot cheek and touched her hair gently.

“They reckon we’re kin to them, child. They all missed you while you were gone and worried about you. JD and Buck have brought me so much game, I’m selling venison sausage to the Mercantile. I reckon the boys are settling in.”

Casey’s hand stroked the fine satin and she grinned suddenly at her aunt.

“I reckon they are better kin than old Aunt Lottie will ever be. I think we should make them a Christmas meal to go with all this wonder. They always need feeding up.”

Aunt Nettie laughed. “They do, and those little ones were half starved varmints when I first laid eyes on them. No one has to teach them gratitude for a good meal.”

Casey’s eyes grew dark, “Well, we’ll make sure that they get stuffed with good things. I smell bread rising, do you want me to make some rolls? I found some old recipes in Aunt Lottie’s kitchen for sugar cookies that the youngin’s will love.”

Filled with joyous plans of stuffing the seven and the new children on bounty, she and Aunt Nettie set to work. Casey had done a lot of cooking in her Aunt Lottie’s kitchen and had copied down the better recipes from the unused cookbook she found forgotten in the back of a dusty cupboard. She showed them to Aunt Nettie who approved them wholeheartedly.

In the middle of cooking, she peeked in Aunt Nettie’s room and saw that Christmas had run riot in that room as well. Someone had carved a fancy scroll work shelf and polished it until it shined and that sat above Aunt Nettie’s new bed. Casey recognized Chris Larabee’s and Vin Tanner’s fancy whittling work. There was a bearskin rug on the floor by the bed. That must be Vin Tanner’s work. The man dressed skins really pretty and it was silky. She stared at it for a moment. It was a wondrous luxury, but it looked like something had been chewing on the tail. She hadn’t noticed a dog or any such critter about. How odd.

+ + + + + + +

The house was jammed packed with goodness by the time the seven men arrived. She’d made rolls, that were sitting out plump with clean cloths on them waiting to be popped into the oven. The smell of baked bread, apple pudding and cookies made a truly festive air. And there was a huge roast cooking, with potatoes and sweet potatoes in the oven. Sweet potatoes and it wasn’t even a holiday.

Casey tried to contain herself. She should wait properly like a lady like Aunt Lottie said. Then it occurred to her that Aunt Lottie wasn’t a lady at all and Aunt Nettie was and Aunt Nettie always walked on the porch to greet friends.

She ran to the door and waited for Aunt Nettie to catch up.

“Good Lawd,” said a rich molasses voice on the other side of the door, “It smells wonderful in there.”

Casey opened the door. There they all were, bigger than life. JD was standing next to Ezra Standish and looking at her like she wasn’t some scrub girl, but something special.

She smiled at him.

“Why, our little Casey has grown up into a lady,” exclaimed Buck Wilmington heartily.

She blushed and smiled at them. All of them were smiling, even Chris Larabee.

“Come on in, boys,” said Nettie.

Then a little head poked out from behind Chris Larabee and a little girl with bright eyes looked up at her curiously.

Casey fell to her knees, enchanted.

“Howdy, little one, I’m Casey.” She said.

Then a bigger boy peeked from behind Nathan Jackson and she could see he was holding Josiah’s hand. They both looked so tiny, and so interested. She could see with her own eyes that Aunt Nettie was right – they needed feeding and family love.

She smiled at them. “Aunt Nettie adopted me when I was little. Did she adopt you too?” she asked confidentially.

Both children perked up and came closer, like half-starved wild things afraid of a blow but hoping for kindness.

She held her arms open and the girl came into them and she hugged her and kissed the shining black hair. “I’d sure like to have you both as sister and brother. Would you like that?”

That boy had hungry eyes and she knew it was hunger for a place. Soon she was holding him too, hugging him and making of them both.

The little girl suddenly smiled and said, “Casey?”

Casey nodded, pleased.

“I’m Bransen,” said the boy.

“Howdy Bransen, I’m proud to meet you,” she whispered and hugged him again. She remembered how scared she had been before Aunt Nettie had given her a home. These little ones wouldn’t lack for love here. She’d see to it.

Then she realized that the men were all watching her and smiling.

“I’m glad to be home,” she said. “Thank you for all the wonderful things. I feel like a rich lady.”

They all grinned now shyly and nodded to her pleasantly. She stood up and took the children’s hands. They walked into the warmth of the kitchen together.

“Take a seat, boys,” said Aunt Nettie. “Casey and me have been cooking up a storm.”

“Wanta see me put rolls in the oven?” asked Casey

The two little ones followed and watched her put the rolls on, and then take out the roast. She had put the whipped potatoes in the warming oven along with the gravy boat. What a luxury this fancy oven was. Two cooking ovens, and a warming oven was even better than what Aunt Lottie had back east.

Buck Wilmington was sniffing the air appreciatively and looked like he was in seventh heaven. Nettie pointed to seats for the children and they both smiled at her and then hopped in their chairs politely.

Nathan Jackson had that big pleasant grin on his face. Josiah was making faces across the table at Blossom and Vin Tanner had that look that meant he was trying to figure out dessert. Chris Larabee sat at one end of the table and Aunt Nettie at the other end. Casey could see JD had saved her a seat between him and Aunt Nettie.

“You sit down, Aunt Nettie, I’ll get everything on the table,” said Casey, suddenly shy of that seat and JD Dunne’s soulful eyes.

She soon had the table groaning with bounty and then took out the rolls, which were perfect. She was surprised they were waiting for her and she almost laughed because Blossom was bouncing up and down with an avid eye on a chicken drumstick.

Quickly she took her seat and bowed her head. Aunt Nettie bowed her head and was ready to start grace, when Blossom suddenly said, solemnly as Josiah, “Grace!” in a triumphant voice and then, “AMEN!” and reached for the drum stick.

Aunt Nettie glared across the table at Chris Larabee who looked guilty to Casey.

“Blossom,” he said sharply, “We’re at Aunt Nettie’s and she has to say grace.”

The little scamp put the drum stick down on her plate and stared pathetically up at Aunt Nettie, who was still glaring at Chris Larabee.

“Josiah?” said Aunt Nettie, “Why don’t you say grace for us.”

Chris sort of hunkered down in his chair and tried to look like he wasn’t in trouble.

Vin Tanner was trying really hard to be solemn, but his eyes started to shine with suppressed humor. Ezra Standish looked like his red coat might just explode with laughter.

Josiah said the quickest grace Casey had ever heard, but it was a nice one.

“Thank you for bringing Casey home safe to us, Lord, and thank you for this wonderful food. We’re grateful, Amen.”

Everyone praised her cooking and Aunt Nettie’s and Buck seemed to know what she had made especially.

The little ones watched her with wide eyes and half the time she grinned at them and the other half she blushed because JD was making mooneyes at her.

However, he wasn’t trying to shame her. He looked so sure of himself now, and he was purely just appreciative of her.

“I’m glad you like the meal,” she finally ventured.

“Its really good, Casey,” he said in a calm voice, “I’m really glad you are home safe too. I really missed you.”

He paused and then asked, delicately, “Did you meet anyone you liked back East.”

She snorted, thinking of all the people she had met and how they stacked up against these men like paper dolls against the wind.

“I found out how lucky I am to have Aunt Nettie,” she explained, “and I missed you too.”

JD smiled at her and Casey wished she could draw because she’d love a painting of the look in his eyes. She tried to memorize it so she could keep it in her heart.

When the meal was done, she prepared to wash dishes and got another surprise. Chris Larabee stood up, nodded to Aunt Nettie and said, “I reckon I better help with cleanup.” Casey figured it had something to do with Blossom’s sacrilegious version of grace and grinned. They really had become kin.

Casey dried dishes for one of the most feared gunfighters in four states. Tonight she would sleep on feathers and satin in a beautiful room. She had two new siblings she had already sworn to love and protect and she was safe home. She decided in her heart to never leave home again. Who needed adventure?

+ + + + + + +

It was night in St. Louis when a small circus sideshow came to town. Tired, almost furtive carnies set up camp outside the city limits. Tomorrow they would put up posters and hope for enough money to go on to the next town.

But in the night, something became aware of their presence. Something with an implacable fury visited their campsite. An empty cage labeled, Wolf Children, was examined with a care no mere human could duplicate. And later, after the exhausted men slept, the night filled with screams.

+ + + + + + +

A Deputy from Saint Louis Sheriff’s office came out with two men to examine a mystery. A farmer had driven into town and told them demons had invaded his farm and that he was leaving. The man was known as steady, and the Sheriff thought this was some kind of kid’s prank.

He was not prepared to see a nightmare.

They rode to the farmer’s home and found nothing. The whole place was quiet, as the farmer had moved his cows to a neighbor’s farm. Only a few overlooked chickens were left. The house looked abandoned.

Deputy Riley then found remains of a chicken. Some big dog had gotten to it.

“Old Man Silas said it was the north field,” said his assistant.

“Okay,” said Riley pleasantly, “Let’s go take a look.

Fred Durnham went first. Riley knew that the pleasant morning’s ride was over, when Fred stopped abruptly. Then he heard the buzzing of flies.

His horse, Grainger, nickered worriedly. Dismounting he walked up to where Fred appeared frozen. Before them were the remains of a small circus. The wagons were circled. And in the middle of the wagons, were bodies--each one with a throat torn out and expressions of terror and stark staring eyes.

Fred, who was tough as hell and had fought Indians and trapped bears, leaned over and threw up violently.

Riley stared, unwilling to investigate more closely. Then he heard a lion roar and realized that there were hungry animals in the cages. Whatever had killed the men had spared the animals. He approached the caged wagons and determined that the less dangerous animals had been freed, but the big cats and a python were still in their cages.

While he first would have thought that the men had died at the hands of a pack of very large predators, the piling of the bodies in the center of the circle spoke of intelligence, and the keeping the dangerous predators caged spoke of concern for humans in the vicinity.

The hair on the back of his head and neck stood straight up.

Every superstitious fear he’d ever harbored rose to the surface. He mounted up. “Let’s go report to the Sheriff,” he said, and was pleased that his voice wasn’t shaking, because, by damn, his hands were.

They walked the horses quietly away from the scene and then, unspoken, but in perfect agreement; they raced back to the city.

Demons were what old Silas had said invaded his land. Riley agreed now. Some kind of demonic vengeance had taken place and God have mercy on them all.

+ + + + + + +

Casey jumped back into life in Four Corners with a new resolve and energy. She was no longer merely a tomboy looking for fun, but a young woman with beloved responsibilities.

She took Blossom, Bransen and Aunt Nettie on picnics in the hills where the flowers bloomed. She went riding with them and learned to her delight that Bransen was already as good as JD on a horse. Casey had thought them both city kids she would gently guide in the ways of the woods, but the two children were naturals at tracking and riding. They also ate up every bit of attention Casey paid them and she loved it.

She went hunting herbs with the two and Nathan Jackson, who taught them about medicinal uses, while Casey told him about how Aunt Nettie used certain plants. Casey learned a lot about herbal medications, and Nathan Jackson knew he had another healer in the making.

Casey and Aunt Nettie started teaching Bransen his letters and ciphering. He enjoyed it and Casey gave him her old McGuffie reader as a present. The boy reminded her of JD, but he was shy and wood-crafty as Vin Tanner. He still seemed to expect her to hit him or start hating him, and Casey, who knew what rejection was, developed a fierce protective instinct toward the boy. No one dared mess with Bransen in her company.

+ + + + + + +

The day was sunny and clear and the trees near the pond were humming with locusts. In the tall grass at the pond’s edge, a small girl with a frog gig in her hand was excitedly chasing a large frog that plunked into the pond and then resurfaced to ribitt at her. The little girl growled menacingly at her intended prey, but was stymied. She wasn’t supposed to go in the water. Casey had said so.

Blossom was hunting for frogs with Bransen and Casey. Life was so much better now that her dear Papa Ezra had rescued her from the bad place. She had food, clothing, toys and most importantly more people who loved her. She chased chickens whenever possible and now she was actually hunting frogs--her first real hunt.

Casey didn’t know why it was her announced plan was so important to the two children, but Blossom was wiggling with excitement and trying very hard not to squeal. Casey had said if they caught enough frogs, they’d have fried frog legs for supper.

Blossom had seen many frogs, and chased them, but she hadn’t actually caught one. Finally, filled with frustration, she looked around. Casey and Bransen were on the other side of the pond. She knew Bransen had already put three fine fat fogs in a bucket. The little girl sniffed the wind, but didn’t notice anything close. She ducked down in the tall grass and shucked off her dress and shoes. Within a heartbeat, a small wolf pup jumped from the grass and began to chase frogs madly.

Meanwhile, Casey realized the youngest and most vulnerable of her charges had chased frogs to the other side of the pond. She looked but could see nothing, but a few frogs leaping for safety. The wind changed just then, and she let the breeze caress her cheek and then rushed to check on Blossom.

She reached the spot where she was pretty certain Blossom was when she found the little girls clothing and shoes.

Casey gasped in horror and fell to her knees staring.

Then something bounded out of the tall grass with a wiggling frog in its teeth, the biggest wolf pup she’d ever seen. First she thought that the pup had taken the baby, but then she realized, that a pup wouldn’t be able to remove Blossom’s clothing.

“Lordy,” she whispered, Blossom must have jumped in the water. She stood, ignoring the pup as unimportant in this instance, but remembering it as only a possible harbinger of danger, and rushed into the water. “Blossom!” she shrieked at the top of her lungs. She dove into the clear water and searched frantically for little chubby limbs and dark hair but found nothing. Then she rose out of the water for a breath and saw the object of her search, dry, standing naked with a frog in her hands.

Casey froze. The pup had held a frog in its jaws, and now that very same chewed on frog was clutched to Blossom’s breast. And the little one was staring at her fearfully.

There was a long silence, broken only by the sound of the locust buzzing.

Dripping, she walked up into the grass and looked at Blossom’s feet. Pup tracks led straight to Blossom and then disappeared.

Bransen was tearing up to them with their frog bucket clutched in hand. “Blossom?” he asked, his voice pitched high with concern.

“She disappeared on me and I thought she’d gone in the water,” said Casey woodenly, still staring at Blossom’s feet. Blossom stared right back, rigid with fear.

“Blossom,” scolded Bransen, “You aren’t supposed to take your clothing off.” He grabbed her shoulder and pulled the little girl to his side. Picking up her discarded dress, he grabbed her prey, put it in the bucket, and then made her lift her arms overhead so he could slip the dress back on.

Casey looked at where those tiny feet had been in the mud. Wolf pup tracks, and then, right on top of them, little girl tracks, tracks that swirled as though they had changed sizes. She stared, water dripping off her nose. She shook her head and let water splatter and then walked to the bucket and picked up Blossom’s frog.

Bransen seemed anxious and worried, but Blossom’s frightened eyes never left Casey’s face.

She looked at the bite marks on the frog quietly.

The evidence was clear if completely unbelievable. Blossom had changed into a puppy, hunted, killed the frog and then, when she’d heard Casey’s yell, had changed back, but not in enough time to put on her clothing. And now the child who had been so excited and happy before was looking at her like the world had come to an end.

Casey Wells was schooled in practicality. She based her decisions on certain constants. One of them was survival, necessary in this wild land, and the other was kin. Aunt Nettie was kin, and so was this frightened little girl.

Whether Casey had just gone mad or not, or if Blossom was a loup garou, she was kin. A story Aunt Nettie had told her by the fire late one evening flitted through her thoughts, of an Indian child turning from a wolf.

Casey knelt down and looked into Blossom’s eyes. “You scared me, sweetheart,” she said softly, like she would to a frightened colt or a kitten.

Blossom’s lip trembled. Bransen had Blossom’s shoes and socks now and was staring at those naughty mud-covered feet and trying to decide how to clean them.

Casey smiled at Blossom tenderly. It didn’t matter none. Blossom was her heart’s kin and to be protected at all times. Didn’t matter if she was furry or not. She touched Blossom’s cheek softly and saw some of the fear leach away.

“Darling, you can’t take off your clothing when we hunt together. You could lose them or get hurt. You need the clothing to protect your skin. And you can’t go out of sight range from me and Bransen again. I thought you had fallen in the pond and drowned, Blossom. I thought you had died.”

Blossom’s eyes filled with tears. “Me bad?” she asked.

Casey shut her own burning eyes for just a moment, then stared at Blossom. “No, you are not bad, but you must obey or we can’t hunt again.” She said sternly, “Now let’s clean off those feet.”

She picked Blossom up, deliberately walked over the track marks to obscure them. Then she held Blossom over the water to kick her toes clean in the pond. Blossom usually laughed when she was being bathed but she only giggled softly this time and she still seemed stiff with unease.

“She’s scared of me,” thought Casey, “She thinks she’s bad.”

Casey let the two children away from the pond, Bransen holding the bucket, and found a sunny patch of grass. She sat in the sun then, drying her clothing as best she could, pulling the shirtsleeves out and taking off her boots and socks.

Bransen was looking oddly at Blossom, who still was silent. “Blossom, are you not feeling well?” he asked.

Blossom nodded, her eyes still on Casey.

“Does your tummy hurt?” he asked, now more concerned.

She nodded again solemnly. Casey had the feeling that the tummy ache had to do with fear. She held out her hand and to her pleasure, the child came to her trustingly.

“Blossom,” she said sitting the child on the grass besides her and rubbing that little tummy with gentle hands, “I ain’t mad at you.”

The little girl’s eyes filled with tears and despite the fact that Casey was wet, put chubby arms around her and wept.

“I love you, Blossom,” she crooned. “You are my little sister now, we’re kin. I’ll always take care of you and protect you.”

The little dark eyes looked up at her, chin trembling dramatically, and Blossom whispered, “Love Casey,”

Casey smiled, “And Casey loves Blossom.”

She knew what her eyes had seen. Blossom was different and in Casey’s world, that meant she had to be protected from cruel people. And she also had to be taught to survive.

“When we are on a hunt,” she said, automatically thinking of how a wolf’s pack did things, “I am the hunt leader.”

Both children looked at her with great attention.

“You must stay within sight of me. We may hide from what we are hunting, but unless I give you an order, you must always stay near me. When we hunt for things or we are in the wild, I am responsible for you and must take care of you. That is what the hunt leader does.”

Both children nodded.

“Now, let’s look at your first kills.” The girl said conversationally.

Bransen handed her the bucket solemnly and Casey hid a grin. For a moment she paused. Did Bransen know? Was Bransen like Blossom? It didn’t matter, though, was her fierce decision; she’d protect him too.

She took out the frogs. There were six. She had caught two, Blossom one and Bransen three. “This is a fine catch.” She proclaimed and watched Bransen’s little chest puff out. Blossom’s black eyes glittered, and she pointed to the mauled frog, which was the biggest.


“Yup,” said Casey, “that’s the one that Blossom caught. You both did really good.” She pulled out her hunting knife and looked at them both sternly. “No using a knife till Aunt Nettie says you are ready, but I can show you how to dress the meat.”

Normally she would have taken the whole bucket home, but the protective instinct that was driving her wanted the chew sign on the one frog to be gone. So she showed them how to prepare the frogs, and her two charges watched in fascination. She could tell Bransen was itching to have a knife of his own.

She stood up and carried the bucket back to the pond where she washed the frog legs and put the offal next to a rock.

“This is the part that we don’t eat,” she explained, “But some of the animals around here will want it. If we were fishing, we’d cut it up for bait. But because we’re not using it, we don’t want to waste it, so we’re leaving it here, cut up small, for the animals that come to the pond to drink. That way nothing goes to waste and it will be a nice surprise for any hungry critter that comes here.”

Even as she finished speaking, a jay flew down from the sky and nabbed a piece in its bill, its eyes flashing at them. Then silently it flew away.

The two little ones laughed in delight.

“Birdy!” crowed Blossom.

Casey’s shirt was almost dry, but she really needed to change her britches. Her underclothing was starting to itch and ride up something fierce. They returned home, Bransen triumphantly carrying the bucket, and Casey with the giggers that they almost forgot.

Aunt Nettie greeted them at the door. “We caught frogs,” announced Bransen proudly and gave her the bucket with a manly little swagger. “I caught three.”

Aunt Nettie looked into the bucket and smiled at him, “This will make a fine lunch for my little hungry hunters. I’ll get these fried up right now.”

She looked silently at Casey in her wet clothing, and Casey nodded, “I thought Blossom had fallen in the pond and jumped in to find her. Thought I’d lost her. I told them both about keeping in sight and obeying me when we hunt for things.”

Aunt Nettie’s wise old eyes surveyed them quietly, “Sounds like they both learned a lot today. You did well, Casey.”

Casey went to her beautiful new bedroom and changed. She put on another pair of britches and under things and then hung up the wet clothes to dry in the fancy bathing room the Seven had built onto the house. As she worked in these familiar and beloved surroundings, she decided not to tell any of the others what she had seen. After all, maybe she was just plain crazy, although she doubted it. She might doubt her eyes, but she couldn’t doubt that give-away little trail and the chew marks on the frog. But while she was growing up in many ways, she’d learned that grownups could take on something fierce about stupid things and make unnecessary trouble. She’d protect her little sister by herself.

She could hear Aunt Nettie calling them to lunch and went in to help.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington were riding patrol together. Chris Larabee had decided that everyone needed a partner on patrol. Part of it was just good sense. On many an occasion one of them had been attacked while riding patrol, and having two men on patrol could often scare off potential ambushers. However, the other reason was much simpler. They were Pack now and Pack sticks together. Buck particularly needed the company. He had been alone for years, carrying the secret of his Two-Blood origins with no backup. But now they knew his greatest secret and had formed Pack around him. He would not be left alone.

Vin grinned under his hat as his eyes scanned their surroundings and the ground. Forming Pack had been a Godsend for Buck, but it had done as much or more for the rest of them. They had formed a family tie between seven wild and lonely men. They were more than a gang of peacekeepers. They were kin now. And into the joy of Pack had come Miz Nettie, their alpha female and mother to all of them and now, because of Ezra’s keen eye and quick wits, the Two-Blood children Bransen and Blossom.

Vin Tanner was a family man now. He had responsibilities. He had beloved kin. In fact the man he was riding with was someone he would die to protect. Also, someone he would tease to his dying day.

He considered some of the differences now. He was wearing socks that Miz Nettie had knit for him, and a shirt that Ezra had purchased. He and Chris had made Miz Nettie wooden shelving with fancy scrollwork on it for her room, and Vin was working on a cabinet for Nathan that would have herbs carved into it to hold medicines and herbal mixtures. And he and Josiah had proudly made a bookcase for Nathan to hold all the medical books Ezra had purchased for him.

That was another surprise. Ezra, their resident gambler and slick fox of a conman, had started investing in town, purchasing a house and then the latest acquisition, an icehouse. He considered his winnings at the table to belong to the pack, and had purchased all sorts of things for them. Then he’d noticed a hotel going out of business in another town. The owner of the building had discontinued the lease, and the hotel owner wasn’t going to let him have any fixture he’d installed for the hotel. Ezra had gotten Miz Nettie and Chris real fancy bathtubs and several wagonloads of fine furniture. They had fixed up Chris’ ranch so it looked like a real house, and delighted Casey when she returned from visiting kin to find that they’d put in new bedroom suites for both her and Miz Nettie.

Vin was proud of his part in that. He was the one that thought of setting up a pump line that would send water directly to a tank set over the room with the bathtub. The sun would warm the water nicely and they didn’t have to haul buckets to fill any of the tubs. And they didn’t have to boil much water if anyone wanted the bath to be hot. JD and Buck had gotten involved and then Josiah, and they’d arranged a line to send the old bathing water out into the garden area. That saved more work emptying the tubs and helped water the plants.

Buck had begun raising chickens at Chris’ ranch and was actually starting to have extra eggs to sell in town from time to time. And Miz Nettie made egg noodles for chicken soup that was a real meal, not a mere broth for a convalescing gunslinger.

Nathan Jackson, easily the busiest of them-with his healing work in the community, had started making herbal soaps and baths that perked up listless patients or soothed cranky babies. He’d started cataloguing plants and various cures that were used by the people in town and at the Seminole Village. Ezra had purchased him a big old journal and the dark healer would spend many an evening writing out cures and recipes or reading the medical books that Ezra had gotten him.

And now Miz Nettie had started making venison sausages and smoked jerky that made a man’s mouth water just thinking of them. The boys always brought her the alpha’s share of any hunt and when she brought some to the store in town to see if it might be saleable, Mrs. Potter sold it all within an hour. Now people put in orders and waited for Nettie to bring in a batch. When Casey got back, she had waded into the work, trying to take the burden off Nettie and her sausage was just as good as Nettie’s. She and Nettie were making cash money from sales and putting it in the bank.

Josiah had built the addition to Nettie’s house to hold the bathtub, and was spending half days at Chris’ helping their alpha to add to the ranch house, which had gone from mere shack to a sprawling building that would hold all of them. When the Larabee Ranch was done, Josiah was making plans for doing a smoke house at Nettie’s place. People were talking about her sausage and jerky, and the restaurant in town wanted to know when she could start selling to them.

Josiah had started a fireplace on the north wall of the Larabee Ranch, and on his off days, Vin and the rest of the Pack helped with it. The dining room was going to be right cheerful when it was cold.

That was another thing he liked. He knew sign enough to know this was going to be an even harder winter than the last one and Buck’s nose agreed with him. And because of their reputation, the townsfolk were bringing in more woodpiles, laying in supplies and preparing for a hard winter. It made Vin proud.

That was why Ezra’ had brought the house in town, in case the winter got to be too much for Nettie. Vin thought that Nettie would probably be too much for the winter, but he loved the fact that Ezra was watching out for the older woman as well as all of them.

+ + + + + + +

After lunch was over, Nettie and Bransen set to washing dishes. He was very proud to help with anything, even after today’s manly success in hunting. Then Bransen turned and said, “Buck and Vin are coming!” in excited tones. She listened, but it was a few more minutes before she heard horses coming in.

“You have good ears,” she told Bransen, who blushed with pleasure.

When the men came to the door, Blossom ran into Buck’s welcoming arms.

“Hunted!” she exclaimed in true excitement. “Froggies!”.

“Well now, little lady, two years old and already you’re hunting.”

Bransen rushed up, after carefully putting down the plate he was drying, and said, “I got three and Blossom got the biggest one.”

Vin Tanner smiled at them and then turned his blue eyes on Casey. “You took’ em froggin’?“ he asked.

“Yup,” said Nettie, bringing over two cups of coffee, “We just had them for lunch and ate every bite.”

Blossom rubbed her tummy, contentedly.

Everyone laughed.

“Shucks,” said Buck, “Next time, maybe you’ll save some for poor old Buck.”

Blossom and Bransen nodded eagerly, obviously proud at the thought of providing for the others.

“Froggies?” asked Blossom of Casey and Casey’s heart warmed. For just a moment she considered telling them all what she had seen, but decided again not to. It felt too much like a betrayal.

“Not now, child,” said Nettie. “Casey and me have work to do and you two have chores.”

Blossom’s face fell, but only momentarily. She loved sweeping.

“But first,” said Nettie, “We ought to see if the boys are hungry. Casey made cinnamon rolls this morning. Would you like some with your coffee?”

Casey flushed with pleasure. Her culinary skills were getting to be up there with Aunt Nettie’s.

Vin and Buck claimed they weren’t hungry at all and then swarmed through her rolls like locusts on a wheat field. Casey was absurdly pleased with the way they both licked their fingers clean.

“Well, Ma’am” said Buck in that pleasant voice of his, “We got to finish our patrol now. I sure am grateful for the coffee and rolls.” He patted his tummy in obvious imitation of Blossom and Casey grinned.

Then he went over and kissed Aunt Nettie’s cheek like she was a queen. Aunt Nettie kissed him back and then opened her arms for Vin, who more shyly came forward and kissed her. Aunt Nettie gave him a hug and then gave Buck another one.

Then Buck turned at looked wistfully at Casey and she realized he wanted to kiss her but wasn’t sure. She smiled and gave both him and Vin matching appreciative hugs. And she realized that they were just like little Bransen inside. Little boys, hungry for love.

That made her brave enough to shyly kiss each man on the cheek and grin as Vin blushed and Buck smiled. They saluted her, and went solemnly out the door. Then she heard Buck whooping as they rode away.

“Scalawags the lot of them,” said Aunt Nettie. “And blessings at the same time.”

+ + + + + + +

The train conductor watched the man and woman board the train. She was dressed like a man in levis and flannel and had eyes that had seen to much. They both watched everyone around them in a cold calculating fashion that made him wonder if they planned on robbing the train. And they seemed to be smelling the car too. He got their tickets and then they both stood up and walked to the back of the car as though seeking something. They went back into the livestock cars and concerned, he followed them.

He found them looking at an empty corner with angry looks.

“Can I help you folks?” he asked.

The way their heads swung around, he raised his hands placatingly.

“Ever have circus people on the train?” asked the man in a deep voice that sent chills up the conductor’s spine.

“Yup, latest was four months ago into St. Louis.” Said the conductor carefully.

“How about out from St. Louis.”

He thought about it. “Nope, not for a few years. St. Louis is the edge of civilization for many of them, although I hear some of them make up wagon trains and hit further on west.”

The two stared at him, till the hair on the back of his neck stood straight up.

Then the woman said, in a very tired voice, “Thank you.” The conductor heard her say softly, “Maybe my babies are in St. Louis then.”

Abruptly they left the car and the conductor wondered about lost children and decided to start carrying a pistol with him. Something about those passengers frightened him.

+ + + + + + +

Bransen was riding with Chaucer and Ezra. He had been surprised when Ezra showed up and wanted only him. Blossom had scowled, but been diverted by Casey’s cookie making lessons, and he’d left. Bransen still found it amazing that this pack was so interested in him.

Bransen was surprised when they passed the town, and worried, the little boy wondered if they’d found out that he was the smallest and weakest of all the pups in his pack. There had been talk about him being a potential burden that he had overheard years ago before the days of the Ringmaster.

Then they stopped at a very nice ranch, and the sadness of memory and any potential fear was whisked away by a gambler’s golden smile.

“Come, Bransen, we have some important shopping to do.”

“Wouldn’t we do that in town?” asked Bransen, basking in the conman’s genial smile.

“Not the type we must do today.”

They walked up to a corral and Bransen grinned at all the horses. They were beautiful creatures, almost as nice as Chaucer.

“Which one pleases you the most?” asked Ezra conversationally.

Bransen stared at them all with searching eyes. There was a smaller horse, black as midnight, with a great deal of spirit who was playfully snorting at some of the colts his age. He practically danced.

“That one!” he exclaimed.

Ezra’s hand suddenly had an apple in it and he showed it to the young horse, who sniffed the air and shyly came forward. Bransen was impressed that Ezra managed to hide it from the other bigger horses so well.

Now the horse was at the fence, sniffing encouragingly at the treat.

Bransen went very still. This was a young thoroughbred colt and liable to startle easily.

Ezra placed half the apple in Bransen’s hand and he shyly held up his offering, making his hand flat so he wouldn’t lose any fingers.

Behind them, Chaucer made a grumpy noise, indicating his disapproval of sharing apples with other horses.

Ezra immediately left Bransen with the colt and went to his own beloved mount and gave him half the apple and a peppermint.

Chaucer nibbled on Ezra’s hat to let him know he was not entirely placated.

Then Bransen felt soft horse lips delicately taking the apple from his hand.

When the apple was gone, he gently patted the horse’s soft nose and said, “Hello” in his best approximation of Ezra’s horse-talking voice.

The horse nuzzled his hand and stayed for more petting.

Now Bransen heard stern footsteps coming up and he carefully put his hand down. Perhaps the owner didn’t like little boys touching his beautiful horse.

“This your boy, Standish?” said a big voice.

Ezra’s voice was full of pride, “I have the honor of being partially responsible for him, yes Suh.”

Bransen’s chest squeezed with a hot joy. Ezra was proud of him.

“Looks like he’s got an eye on the black colt. He’s a bit flighty.”

“But an excellent piece of horseflesh. And I believe within the limitations of our arrangement. He’s halter broken too?”

“Yup, but he ain’t broken to the saddle.”

“That’s all right. Mr. Larabee and the rest of our little gathering of peacekeepers are excellent horsemen, and every boy deserves a good horse.”

Bransen’s heart began to beat – “Every boy deserves a good horse?”

He turned now, careful not to startle the horses.

“For me?” he mouthed.

Ezra nodded, extremely pleased.

The older man looked gruff, but smiled at Bransen. “You’re one lucky boy, let me tell you. Just be kind and careful with him and you’ll have a fine horse.”

Bransen nodded and then whispered hoarsely, “Thank you very much, Sir.”

This evidently pleased the man even more.

“You got good manners, young man. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Ezra and Bransen were given the beautiful black horse, with a nice halter.

Ezra now introduced Chaucer to the younger horse, explaining to the horse that Bransen couldn’t ride with him all the time and he needed a horse for himself.

Chaucer snorted at this, but appeared to take the matter under consideration.

Bransen was given half another apple, which he immediately shared with Midnight Dancer.

Ezra offered Chaucer his half of the apple and then introduced himself to Bransen’s new horse. Bransen saw him give the colt a peppermint and could see Chaucer giving him the evil eye.

“May I have one?” he asked politely. He had learned about politeness from Ezra and was trying to be like him.

“Why, of course,” said Ezra genially, and then was astonished when Bransen gave the mint to Chaucer.

The boy stood on his toes and whispered in the great horse’s ear, “He loves you best. Don’t be jealous. He’s just making friends for me.”

Chaucer tossed his head, but also ate the peppermint.

“Ah can see you have the makings of an excellent horseman,” said Ezra in a smiling voice.

They walked the horses casually at first, letting Bransen get used to leading a horse. Bransen talked to the horse the whole time.

Then Ezra said that it was time to ride, and Bransen proudly rode in front of Ezra with the lead to Midnight Dancer in his hands. They bypassed the town.

“Your horse is inexperienced, and I think meeting you is enough for him today. I don’t want him frightened by all the activity in Four Corners.”

The Larabee Ranch was closest. Josiah was outside working on the fireplace, which was now as tall as his head. The ex-preached turned and smiled at them in pleasure.

“Bransen,” he said, “Did you know you have a beautiful horse following you?”

Bransen giggled and then dismounted.

He went to Midnight Dancer who quickly checked his hands for more treats. He petted the horse and it nickered at him. Bransen knew most boys didn’t get horses like this. His heart was singing with joy and anticipation of teaching Midnight Dancer. He hugged the horse, putting his head against its side and whispered, “I promise I’ll be a good friend to you, Midnight Dancer.”

+ + + + + + +

In the mountains of Pennsylvania, there is a wolf known as the Lobo. This wolf is a solitary creature, much more likely to attack a man, and cruel even to its own pups. Their fierceness is legendary. Some say they learned their cruelty from man. They have nothing to do with other Two-Bloods, deeming them impure because they mate sometimes with One-Bloods. They even battled each other to the point where they were in danger of extinction. Only one adult female remained, one who they ordinarily would killed for mating outside the pack. Now however, her lost pups were the tribe’s only hope for continuing.

+ + + + + + +

Their patrol was done. Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington headed to the Larabee Ranch. They planned to help Josiah with the chimney and then to take hot baths in the tub Ezra had brought from the hotel closing. They had built a private room for bathing, and Vin found himself indulging almost as much as Ezra. He liked the privacy and knowing his pack of brothers were surrounding him and protecting him.

When they reached the turn in the road that brought the ranch in view, Vin grinned and pointed.

“Ezra done it – He went and got Bransen a horse!”

“Whooeee!” said Buck, just as excited as Vin. Horses were precious out west and a good horse could often make the difference between life and death in the wilderness. But more than that, both men loved horses. When Chris had started raising horses, Buck and Vin were involved most in the planning, although Ezra had a tremendous knowledge of good horseflesh and many good practical ideas on making money.

Vin looked and said, “It’s a fine two-year colt, I’d say. Better not race to it, might scare it.”

Buck, whose eyesight was phenomenal, nodded in agreement. “I think its only halter-broken.”

They both sighed when they came up to the Ranch proper. Bransen was petting it on the nose.

Carefully, they cooled their horses down and then settled them in the barn, all the time, sending longing glances to the new horse, a beautiful black stallion. Peso knocked Vin’s hat off and bit at him. Vin patted the ornery horse consolingly, ‘Don’t be jealous, Peso, no one’s as mean as you.”

Ezra and Josiah were standing watching Bransen engaged in full-blown horse worship. The happiness on the boy’s face made Buck get all snuffly with emotion. Vin punched the bigger man in the shoulder and then hugged him. Buck had the biggest heart of them all, though Vin wouldn’t bet against Ezra, spending cash money on a fine breeding horse like that.

“That’s a fine horse!” said Vin, “Has he got a name?”

Bransen looked up with shining eyes, “I named him Midnight Dancer.”

“Lordy,” exclaimed Buck, almost choking with emotion, “That’s a beautiful name. Fits him well with those beautiful mincing steps.”