Magnificent Seven Old West
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A Tale for All Hallows' Eve

by JDs Chat Group

Magnificent Seven Halloween Fic

Part 1 -Karen

The first sign of looming trouble rumbled into town in the bed of Herrick Noffke's buckboard wagon. Noffke was a broad slab of a man, solidly carved by years behind a plow. His ruddy, cherubic features contradicting the perpetual scowl that served as his only expression. His eldest boy, Wilhelm -- a sturdy lad of twelve or thirteen, rode beside him.

Noffke rarely came into town without one of his large brood along to translate for him. The few words of English he possessed were usually smothered beneath the weight of his German accent. So Vin was surprised when Noffke pulled his team to a stop in front of the hotel boardwalk where he and JD were enjoying breakfast and addressed them directly.

"Trouble," Noffke said, with the exaggerated slowness of someone who had memorized the phonetics and not the word.

"What kinda trouble," JD asked -- his tone copper-penny bright.

Wil murmured a translation for his father, his usual eager awe at addressing one of the regulators was subdued.

Noffke grunted and heaved himself off the wagon seat to the ground. He circled to the back of the wagon, gesturing for Vin and JD to join him. He flipped aside an oil cloth tarp and gestured again.

JD leaned forward and regretted it instantly. The smell marched through his nose, advanced into his gut and squeezed. He coughed, gagging on air thick enough to chew. Eyes watering, he buried his nose and mouth in the crook of his arm and tried to forget about breathing. "What the hell is that?" he asked, words garbled.

Vin peered into the wagon cautiously, handkerchief pressed firmly against his nose and mouth. Even without drawing in the toxic aroma, he wanted to gag. "Couple a sheep," he supplied for JD's benefit. Though he was largely basing his guess off the ear and partial head that remained intact, the rest could have been elephants for all the damage done to the carcasses.

The small creatures, no older than the past spring's lambing, had been demolished with such gleeful abandon that Vin felt a chill shimmy down his spine. No predator he knew of would inflict that kind of violence.

"Wolves," Noffke said, his tone stoic and unflapped. Then he lifted his face to meet Vin's gaze, and the ring of white surrounding each eye said not wolves.


Part Two -Angie

Taking a step away from the wagon, Vin gestured for Noffke to move the tarp back over the remains. "Go round up the others, JD," he said carefully, his mind still spinning with the implications of what they had just seen. "Wil, tell your pa that we will be out to your place just as soon as we get tacked up," he added to the boy.

Wil translated the regulator's words to his father and the elder Noffke nodded, asking another question in harsh, guttural tones. "He wants to know what to do with them," the boy replied to Vin.

"Tell him to burn `em," Vin said, "and bury the ashes."

Vin waited as father and son discussed his words. It was clear that Herrick was uncomfortable with taking the maimed and mutilated carcasses back with him. Finally, he stared at Tanner for a long moment before gesturing for the boy to get in the wagon.

"What have we got?" Chris asked from where he stood on the boardwalk, watching as the wagon slowly made its way down the dusty road.

"Trouble," Vin replied, his expression one of worry. "And it's gonna get worse before it gets better," he added enigmatically.

Some ten minutes later, the seven men were riding out of town. As they passed the undertaker's office, JD noticed a stranger leaning against the side of the building. The man was shabbily dressed, his hands gnarled and knobby with arthritis. But something in his eyes made the young regulator's stomach clench and his heart beat a little faster.

They would have caught up with the wagon if it hadn't been for the suddenly cool, damp wind that fell upon them just outside of town. They could see dirt devils swirling and dancing in the open areas. The entire party stopped to tie bandanas around their faces to protect them from the sand and grit being thrown at them. The horses began to prance nervously, forcing the men to keep a tighter hand on the reins.

By the time they arrived at the Noffke spread, Mr. Noffke was tending a right large bonfire some distance from the house. Elsa Noffke stepped out of the small cabin, wiping her hands on her apron as she smiled nervously at the regulators. Behind her, eight worried little faces crowded the doorway.

"Pa told us to stay inside," Wil volunteered from his position directly behind his mother's right shoulder.

"Then you'd best do what your pa said," Chris replied. "Ma'am," he greeted Mrs. Noffke, touching his fingers to the brim of his hat.

When Chris steered his horse toward the field where the bonfire was burning, each of the others tipped their hats to Mrs. Noffke and turned to follow. The wind was still cold and dreary, coming from the east one minute and the west the next. As they approached the fire, Vin's gelding began to play up, tossing his head and neighing. Vin urged him on but the horse adamantly refused to go any closer, kicking and bucking until he nearly unseated Tanner.

Vin slid out of the saddle, still firmly gripping the reins. He pulled down sharply and glared at the normally unflappable animal. The wind shifted again, this time bringing the smoke from the fire toward them and the other horses began to prance and look around nervously.

The others dismounted and struggled to control their mounts. Even Buck's placid gray was shying away from the smoke and fighting the bit.

"JD, you and Ezra stay here with the horses," Chris shouted to be heard over the wind.

"But-" JD protested, until he saw the hard resolution in Larabee's eyes.

Leaving the horses with the others, the rest of the regulators strode purposefully toward the bonfire. With each step they took, the smell became stronger until it was almost overpowering. When they reached Mr. Noffke, they noticed that he seemed dazed, staring into the flames without blinking.


Part Three - Mari

Wil Noffke pressed his face against the cold window. Papa may have told him to stay in the house but he never said he couldn't watch. Not that there was much to see. His father stood still as a rock while his livestock burned to smeechy ashes.

He watched as the men dismounted leaving the two city fellers behind to tend the fractious horses. The one in the funny little bowler seemed intent on arguing until the black danced sideways away from the others, nostrils flaring and eyes wide and white with the need to flee. With the practiced calm of someone used to the flighty creatures, the youngest Regulator took charge. Calming with pats and sing-song words he lead the group away from the immediate cause of their distress and back towards the house whilst the man in the fancy red jacket sauntered behind, leading his own.

The other men moved towards the fire forming a semi-circle around the carcasses. Papa didn't even look up as they approached, the smoke parting around them and swirling back to envelope them all, blanketing them from view.

Wil turned to watch his mother bustling around the kitchen, her hands fluttering like birds as she laid a cloth on the table and prepared strong coffee for the men. His mother was afraid and the copper pot boiling away at the back of the house with Herrick Noffke's torn jacket in it was the focus of that fear.

"Mama? Can I help you?"

She looked up then, her rheumy eyes studying his face before she raised her lye-reddened hands to cup his smooth face.

"Schätzchen, es gibt nichts wir können jetzt tun," she whispered and planted a kiss on the center of his brow, a blessing and a request for silence.

Wil nodded and went back to his window gazing.

777

Elsa Noffke had set out a bucket of fresh cool water and, after seeing to the needs of the horses, JD and Ezra took turns slaking their thirsts and washing away the taste of burning lanolin and tallow.

"Jeez, Ez, that burning sure smells bad! Don't think I'll ever be able to eat mutton again!"

JD took a long draw from dipper, sloshing it around his mouth before spitting it out into the dirt, his gaze drawn back to the men in the field.

"What do you think they're talking about down there?"

Ezra followed his eye line, squinting into the distance to pick up any body language. Noffke was gesturing towards the hills, probably indicating where the attack took place whilst Vin prowled around the perimeter of the fire. Ezra supposed he must be looking for signs of the animal that had wrought such horrific wounds on the defenseless sheep. The thought of it made him shiver. When Vin stopped in his tracks and reached for his mare's leg, he had to fight the urge to grab the nearest horse and ride fast and straight back into town, find himself a nice warm poker game and a cool glass of whiskey. The last thing he needed was the excitable tones of an enthusiastic teenager urging him on to another `adventure'.

"Guess we're going hunting, then, huh Ez?"

Ezra sighed and looked back to where the rest of the group was heading back to the house, all swagger and grim determination.

"Apparently so, my friend. Apparently so."


Part Four - Lyn

Chris Larabee let his eyes wander from the hills to Vin Tanner to Noffke and back to Vin. "So, what are you thinking?" he finally asked Vin.

"I´m thinkin´ this is just the beginnin´. And it´s gonna get right nasty before it´s done." His eyes were now riveted to the hills, as if planning the trail they would soon be taking.

"Define nasty." Buck said softly.

"Nastier then anythin´ else ya´ve ever seen," Vin replied, then looked at Noffke, jerking his head toward the house and horses, before striding purposely in that direction.

Buck fell into stride next to Chris, "Reckon we´re gonna see a whole new sort a nasty."

"Reckon so," Chris replied and shot a final look behind him as he walked.

"Wil?" Vin called as he reached the house. "Need ya ta translate for me."

The boy stepped out the doorway and stood on the edge of the small porch. "Yes sir?"

"Tell yer pa ta keep everyone in the house, and his guns loaded and at hand. We´ll help get yer livestock in the barn before we head out. We´ll need to leave our horses here and we´d appreciate it if we could settle em in the barn with yours." Wil was telling his father what Vin was saying, getting nods from his father agreeing to the barn arrangements.

"If for any reason anyone needs to come out of the house, do it durin´ the day. Even then there should be two of ya at a time and one of ya needs to be able to shoot. Once it starts gettin´ dark, ya need ta stay inside, no matter what, with all the doors 'n windows locked." Wil translated again, and received an understanding nod from Noffke. Then he turned to the other regulators, moving closer to Ezra and JD so they could hear as well.

"I´m goin´ up towards the hills on foot. Won´t be able ta get too far before dark but I want ta get an idea of what direction the creature is headed, then start out fresh again in the morning."

"What is it we´re after, Vin?" Nathan asked.

"I´ll say a wolf fer now."

"And why, pray tell, is there all this drama over a mere wolf?" Ezra asked, already suspecting the answer.

"Cuz it might not be a wolf at all," Vin replied quickly. "Let´s get the livestock in. Anyone that wants ta stay here or head back ta town then, that´s fine. I want ta check out the edge of those woods, then I´m spendin´ the night in the barn."

"I´m going with you Vin. You´re not facing this 'wolf´ alone," Chris told him.

"Reckon I´ll come too," Buck added.

"I´m in," JD said quickly. Josiah, Nathan and even Ezra agreed.

777

The seven men approached the wooded area up in the hills behind Noffke´s place on guard. Vin´s eyes were concentrating on the ground looking for sign, and relying on the other six to alert them for any movement in the woods. By now it was early evening, just a short time before dusk, but the wooded area was already getting dark, the setting sun unable to penetrate inside.

JD was in the middle of the group of men, with Buck and Josiah behind him. His eyes roamed the woods, a feeling of being watched coming over him. He turned his head to a spot further down the tree line and spotted two glowing orbs in the gathering darkness.

He blinked his eyes rapidly. No, not orbs, but eyes. Glowing yellow eyes. He blinked again and the eyes were gone. "Guys, I think I just saw something . . . "


Part Five - Phyllis

"Eyes . . . glowing . . . yellow . . . " Six sets of eyes snapped in the direction JD was staring and the sound of pistols sliding across leather filled the air.

Tanner moved toward the trees and took a stance between them and the men, "Where, JD?"

The youth stepped forward, his hand trembling slightly as he pointed toward the spot where the glowing yellow eyes had appeared. Vin's extended arm stopped him from moving closer.

The other five men moved forward, unconsciously forming a semi- circle with Tanner and Dunne in the center and covering their flanks from any side attack. Almost as one, they moved forward, seven weapons trained on the foliage as they advanced.

Vin signaled a stop before they actually entered the trees. He scanned the area but there was no sign of anything threatening. Yet there a feeling of being watched, of a darkness within that all seven men could feel.

Josiah could be heard saying a prayer softly as they stood, waiting . . . watching.

Finally, Tanner motioned for the group to move back. They backed away from the forest, no one willing to turn away from the danger that hid in the shadows. They continued to back away until they were once again at the burn site, the embers glowing brightly in evening dusk.

Larabee turned to the face his men, Vin in particular, his gun stilled clutched in his hand. "Vin? Any idea what we're dealing with?"

The Texan stood with his mare's leg still pointed toward the trees, watching the growing shadows. "Ain't sure . . . got a couple 'a ideas, though." Finally glancing at the men around him, he continued, "Neither one is good."

"All right, we need to split up. Vin, you said you'd stay in the barn with the animals. Buck and I will join you. The rest of you go in the house and watch over the family."

Five of the men nodded, but Chris could see JD's eyes bouncing between the men and the house, "JD?"

Swallowing hard, Dunne straightened his shoulders and took a step toward the man in black, "Herrick and Wilhelm would make six inside the house. I was thinking you might need a fourth in the barn . . . a man on each side."

Chris narrowed his eyes, "You figuring to volunteer?"

JD did not look away as he responded, "Yes, I was, but I'm betting Josiah, Nate, or Ezra would be willing to stay."

Larabee's eyes surveyed the men before turning back to their youngest, "I reckon it's a good idea to even the numbers up." Looking at Josiah, Chris nodded toward the house, "You three take the house, keep everyone inside for the night."

Josiah waved Nathan and Ezra to follow and the three regulators headed toward the small farm house.

Seeing his men enter the house safely, Larabee motioned for the others to head toward the barn. Buck reached out and gripped Dunne by the neck.

"Come on, kid. Let's get inside." The tall man bent down and said quietly, "Good call with the guns. It'll be nice to know we have a man on each wall."

Smiling tightly, the easterner nodded.

Entering the barn, all four men's noses wrinkled at the smell of so many animals in the enclosed and close quarters. The sheep were not fragrant at any time, their wool always omitting a foul stench. Add that to the normal bodily functions and the atmosphere in the barn was not appealing. The men gagged slightly as they entered but soon were too busy securing the building for the long night to worry about the unpleasant smells.

The night passed slowly with no distractions for the seven regulators or the family. The younger children had been put to bed only a few minutes after supper had been served. Armed men stood watch in each of three rooms of the homestead. Josiah was in the room where the six of the younger children now slept, after telling them a story of heroes and dragons. The smallest child, a baby boy, was in the room with his parents, secure in his mother's arms.

He now sat with a shotgun across his legs and his pistol loose in the holster. Wilhelm sat at the second window, his own rabbit gun gripped tightly Blue eyes moved slowly, watching for any movement and glancing at the nervous youngster. "Relax your grip, boy." Josiah's deep voice rumbled softly across the short span. "You'll do fine. Your brothers and sisters are lucky to have you here to protect them."

Wilhelm nodded and relaxed the white knuckled grip on his old rifle. He glanced over his shoulder at the blankets that covered his siblings. He had felt proud that his father trusted him to protect the bigger kids. Taking a deep breath to relieve some of the tension in his shoulders just as his father had shown him while hunting, he turned his attention back to the lengthening shadows outside the house.

The front room was guarded by Ezra and Nathan. They stood at the windows that flanked the door. The fire had burned down to embers in the hearth, warming the room without illuminating the men against the panes of glass. They had tried to trade off sleeping to stay fresh, but quickly found neither man could relax. The tension displayed by their normally unflappable Texan had both men on edge.

In the barn, each man had staked out the best vantage point to cover the ground on their side of the structure. They had shared a pot of stew that Josiah and Wilhelm had brought out. The pot sat on a work shelf to the side of the big doors, the remainder of the stew congealing in the bottom.

Buck leaned against the frame of the window as he watched the south pasture. He was reaching up to scratch when a movement of the shadows captured his attention. Leaning closer to the glass for a better look, he squinted, trying to separate and identify each of the shadowy pools of darkness.

"Vin?" he called softly. Tanner's vantage point overlapped Wilmington's and the big man was hoping the Texan's sharp vision would be able to see clearer.

"Yeah, there's something out there."

Chris turned to glance that way but remained where he was. "Any idea what it is?"

Buck answered the man's question. "Damn, it looks like an old man."

Larabee's head whipped around. "What? Are you sure?"

"It's a man, alright. He's just standing there, watching."

JD's voice sounded from across the expanse. "Is . . . is he dressed in old clothes? Hands twisted up?" His voice was whisper soft but carried across the barn as the animals suddenly stilled . . . as if waiting.

Tanner frowned and leaned closer. His brows pulled down further as he realized JD had described the stationary figure. "Yeah . . . you know 'im?"

JD swallowed hard. "I saw him in town. I . . . he . . . ."

Three sets of eyes turned toward him, questions unvoiced.

"He just . . . just had a look about him . . . made the hair on my neck stand up."

The men nodded and returned to their vigilant watch.

"Son of a bitch," Buck cried.

"Where'd he go?" Tanner asked, his head swiveling side to side for a better view of the entire area.

Buck was mimicking the movement at his window.

Across the room, JD and Chris looked out their own windows. Chris called out as he looked around. "Anyone see him?"

Three calls of `no' was his answer. "Damn." He considered their opinions and was turning to the others when the outer walls rattled. All four men jumped with a squeak of surprise sounding from Dunne's side of the barn.

The stock began to move as one with bleats and whinnies signaling the nervousness of the more sensitive prey animals. The sheep began to mill around in circles while the horses pawed at the ground and tossed their heads. JD moved around the barn talking calmly to the horses, attempting to quiet their nerves as the other men surveyed the darkness that now seemed to press against the windows.

The animals quieted slightly and Dunne moved back to his window. He was only a few feet away when the glass suddenly exploded inward and chaos broke loose. The sheep charged in the opposite direction and the horses reared up, some of them pulling loose and following the sheep as they plunged through the weakened wood of the doors.

Three men pushed and shoved their way through the leaping solid body of sheep and plunging horses. The sound of three shots from the far side of the chaos spurred them forward in a frantic attempt to get to their fallen companion.

JD had flung his arms up as the glass exploded, stumbling back. A flash of black flew past as he lowered his arms. The hulking form snapped at the closest ewe and she squealed in fright. Dunne raised his pistols and fired. The sheep fell lifeless to the ground as the black form whirled around. The smell of putrid flesh and blood assaulted the young peacekeeper's nostrils as the beast roared. A scream was torn from Dunne's throat as the killer charged.


Part Six -Sue

The bedlam around him faded as all JD could focus on was the yellow-eyed demon bearing down on him. He stumbled backwards and began to fall, a move that would save his life, as razor-sharp talons swiped at his throat, and missed, to tear at his shirt collar and chest instead. He felt himself leave the ground, quickly realizing whatever this was had a grip on him. JD pulled on the hand at his neck, vaguely aware of the sound of material tearing before the most terrible ear-piercing scream filled the air directly as his head impacted against the window frame. By the time JD's unconscious body dropped hard to the hay-strewn floor, the creature was gone.

777

"Goddamnit!" Buck's anxious cry of frustration accompanied his frenzied attempts to separate himself from the fleeing animals. He barely took in the shadowy figure ahead, before a scream that chilled his blood went up and the form disappeared through the window.

"Git!" He would reflect on his guilt for tossing a sheep into the air, later, all he could focus on now was the prone form, crumpled next to the damaged window. With thoughts of the chaos they had just encountered, topped off with a scream chilling enough to freeze rain, Buck finally got to his prize and dropped down next to the still easterner.

"Kid?" His trembling hand reached out toward the blood on the young man's chest, relief swamping him as he realized the lacerations were not likely life threatening. By the time he pulled his bandana from his neck to staunch the flow of blood from the wounds, Chris had reached him, soon followed by Vin. The blond moved around to JD's head, to find an egg-sized lump there, and a small cut just above his ear.

"Took a whack to the head." As he spoke, Chris removed his own bandana and pressed it to the lump. A tiny moan from JD suggested he was feeling it, but the boy didn't stir after the initial groan. Tanner passed over his canteen, and both men worked quickly to clean JD up.

777

On hearing the commotion in the barn, and acknowledging the southerner's anxious warnings about what might be out there, Josiah and Nathan urged Ezra to stay and protect the now terrified family, while they hastily made their way to the building. On their way, they not so much saw, but felt a presence as it swept over them, and another scream emitted from the beast as it missed Josiah by inches. The heaviness in the air now dissipating, the pair could do no more than wait for the fleeing animals to clear the area before running inside.

777

Nathan instantly set to work while Buck propped his young friend up from behind and Josiah, Chris and Vin regrouped.

"Did you see anything?" Chris asked.

"Nothing I could identify," the preacher answered, his eyes on the activity around JD as he spoke. "How bad?"

"Took a knock," Vin replied, his hand gesturing toward his chest. "Got slashed, here."

Josiah moved closer. "Thinking back to the carcasses . . . how did he survive? How did any of you?"

"Couldn't see a whole lot," Buck put in, "but that . . . thing screamed out and it took off."

Fingering the cross around his neck, Josiah frowned. Buck had described almost word for word what had happened to him on his way to the barn . . . except the creature had never lashed out. Squatting down, he reached out, glancing at Nathan. "May I?"

As the healer nodded, Josiah gently eased back the torn fragments of shirt over the wounds that ran from the base of JD's neck and across his chest. His actions revealed a small cross on a chain. Buck nodded. It had been JD's mama's and he always wore it under his shirt. Lifting his own wooden crucifix and pointing to the silver blood-stained one nestled just below JD's throat, the preacher raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips as he considered that he was passed over too. 'Coincidence?´

JD gasped, sharply and jerked in Buck's arms.

"Easy, easy there, boy. It's okay."

777

Still in the nightmare of what he was encountering before he hit his head, JD fought like a man possessed to be free of the grip on him, his mind still seeing the beast hanging over him, while he gulped in the putrid smell of death hanging in the air. "Nooooo!"

"Hey . . . stop it . . . y'hear. It's gone, JD . . . it's gone."

His chest heaving, JD's eyes flew open, and he stared wildly as he tried to get his thoughts together. "Wha . . . what?"

"It's over, son."

JD's gaze instantly moved to the voice of authority. "Chris?" he breathed.

Larabee offered a small smile, "Yeah. Take it easy, Nathan's trying to fix you up."

Now the young sheriff was struggling to look up at whoever had a hold on him, "Buck." The word came out on a breath, relief evident in its timbre. And now JD was focused. He could see Vin, a lean to one hip as he stood watching, Nathan to his side and Josiah just in front of him. The boy nodded with relief.

"Well," the ladies' man grinned. "I do believe he's with us."

"Take it easy," Nathan warned as he pushed a water-soaked cloth over the cuts. "I ain't done with you, yet."

Wincing and groaning at Nathan's ministering, JD's mind drifted to what had happened seemingly just minutes, earlier. He started to tremble as a cold shiver chilled him, and was grateful for the blanket Vin handed over to wrap around him, even if it did smell of horse.

"Headin' back to the house," Vin announced and as he turned and left.

"We should all go back" Nathan suggested. "JD needs to stay warm."

Chris nodded, "Not much we can do here. The animals have all scattered."

"I'm fine," JD insisted, determined not to let this stop him from being involved as he pushed himself up against Buck. No one missed the sway as he stood, and no one commented, but Buck kept hold of the kid while the group made their way back to the house.

777

"Mister Tanner, good to see you. I hope you are here to convey good news."

Vin nodded to Ezra, closing the door behind him as he entered, "Lost a sheep."

"Just a sheep?" He watched Vin nod.

"That is good news."

"JD got hurt."

Ezra tutted, "Vin . . . we really need to talk about the order in which you impart good and bad news."

Vin offered a crooked grin as he looked back toward the barn.

"Is . . . is JD alright?"

"A mite shook up, knock to the head, marks on his chest."

"Marks?" Standish tried to keep his voice steady. "What sort of marks?"

Vin looked at him, "The kind you never want."

Frustrated by the cryptic answers, Ezra turned to the anxious faces of the family, "It would seem all is in hand. Please . . . go back to bed."

"They're comin' back," Vin opened the door and, mare's leg in hand, scanned the area while his friends made their way across the open area between the barn and the house. Once they were inside, he closed and barred the door.

Buck and Josiah eased JD into a chair. Chris approached Vin.

"What do you reckon we should do now?"

Tanner shrugged, "I guess we wait `til dawn."

A half hour later, Nathan's tea put JD out like a light and sleeping in a tattered armchair, while six peacekeepers and the two Noffke males kept watch.

777

Its belly growled. It had been unsuccessful in its quest for food. Woefully it licked at its talons, yellow eyes widening and sparkling as it tasted blood . . . new blood . . . sweet blood . . . young blood.

It wanted more.


Part Seven - Karen

The sun rose begrudgingly, spilling silver across the valley like a miser tossing alms to the poor. At the first touch of anemic light, the overcrowded household abandoned the pretense of rest. Elsa and the older children bustled about the tight space, seeking the comfort of routine in the morning chores

The men, at a grim nod from Vin, allowed their guard to relax enough to eat the watery porridge Effi -- the eldest Noffke daughter -- ladled from the heavy pot simmering on the hearth.

"Should be safe enough to take a look around," Vin ventured from his place at the doorway. He looked no worse for the sleepless night, though there was tension in his normally fluid carriage.

Chris nodded. "Josiah and I'll go with you. Nobody goes anywhere alone. Buck, Ezra, mind the house. Nathan --"

Nathan waived the off direction, already kneeling next to JD. He brushed aside sweat-soaked stands of hair and pressed one hand worriedly to the restless youth's forehead.

Chris stopped for a quick exchange with Buck and Ezra before joining Vin and Josiah outside.

Buck watched them until they disappeared into the tree line. A whimper of pain pulled his attention back inside the cabin. "How is he?" Buck asked, torn between his place at the window and hovering as Nathan checked JD's wounds.

"He's too hot," Nathan answered distractedly. He added, thinking out loud, "Those scratches weren't that deep, he shouldn't been running a fever like this." The pads beneath the bandages were stuck to the wounds and the surrounding skin was feverish. Nathan dipped a clean cloth into a bowl of warm water and began gently working the bandages free of the wounds. The pain brought JD fully awake with a hiss of pained displeasure.

"Easy," Nathan said keeping his voice low and comforting. His words dropped into a distracting murmur, while his hands kept working. The scratches when he exposed them were livid and weeping.

Buck grimaced and looked away.

Wilhelm approached Ezra, his shyness fading out of proximity. "Papa says we take family to town until the beast is dead," Wilhelm informed him. In the wake of the previous evening, no one attempted to call the creature a wolf. Herrick split his glare between Buck and Ezra, daring them to call the suggestion cowardice.

Ezra exchanged a silent look with Buck. "I believe that would be a most prudent course," he said to Wil.

"I can do more for JD back in my room," Nathan interjected, looking troubled.

When the boy translated Ezra's response, Noffke unclenched slightly. He gave a short, sharp nod and turned toward Buck.

Buck scratched at the stubble on his jaw and shrugged. "Makes more sense then sittin' around here waitin' to be monster chow. And it'll free up two more guns for the hunt. Tell your pa," he said to Wil, "The others'll be back in an hour. You have until then to pack."

Before Wil finished relaying the message, the household burst into a flurry of activity.

777

The trail was alarmingly easy to follow. Something massive had crashed through the woods at top speed and with no regard for obstacles. Churned ground and broken branches highlighted the path for Vin as efficiently as a signal fire would have. Here and there, the white of a tree trunk shone bare beneath shredded bark.

The creature's gait was unlike any Vin had seen before. When it ran, it moved like a wolf, four paws clustered together in a series of elongated leaps; but once it slowed, the front paws seemed to have vanished. There was blood in the tracks now too. Vin pointed it out to Chris and Josiah with grim satisfaction. JD had gotten a piece of the bastard. Good.

Vin broke into a fast trot; the tracks were slowing further, becoming erratic. They reached a small clearing carved out by a stream. The prints balked at the water's edge, pacing back and forth along the bank, ending in a place where the muddy earth was torn and trampled. Search as he might, Vin could find no further tracks matching the beast; but half a mile downstream he discovered the bare footprint of a man. There was blood in these tracks as well.

777

When Buck had given them an hour to pack, the Noffke clan had taken him at his word. By the time Chris, Josiah and Vin returned to the cabin, everything of value that would fit was in the hay wagon. JD, on a bed of quilts and clothing, lay in the back of the open buckboard. The littlest ones crowded around him, bemused by the activity swirling about them.

After brief conference, Buck joined the hunting party; leaving Nathan and Ezra to escort the two wagons back to town. Herrick helmed the hay wagon, while Wil and Elsa handled the buckboard. The rest of the children piled on where they could find a flat surface to sit; the sense of terror fading beneath the novel turn the morning had taken.

They hadn't gone far when a rough voice called out over the clatter of the wagons in heavily accented English, "Gentles, please." A wizened old man dressed in clothes at least as old as he was, stepped from his hiding place atop a rocky overhang. In one ancient and gnarled hand was a sawed off scatter gun, in the other was an antique crossbow -- light glinted dangerously off the knocked metal bolt. "I have no wish to shoot anyone. Please throw down your weapons and I will get my wish."

When his order was met with the stirring of rebellion, he turned the scattergun pointedly toward the bed of the buckboard and the assembled youngsters there. "Please," he said softly.

The quiet threat was effective; the adults of the party quickly divested themselves of any visible weaponry. Ezra held onto his hideout gun and Nathan his knives. Satisfied with their cooperation, the old man ordered Ezra and Nathan from their horses, directing them to an open area against a rock wall a few yards down the trail. Then he gestured for the older Noffkes to join them.

With the major threats thus separated, he leapt from his perch to the buckboard with surprising spryness. The baby let out a startled wail. Nathan placed a restraining hand on Herrick's shoulder.

The old man studied the prone JD at his feet, but the scattergun stayed steadily targeted on the group against the wall. "Your young sir, is he bit or scratched?" He demanded.

"Just scratched," Nathan answered. "But the wound is infected."

He nodded as if that were not unexpected. "Filthy," he said, spitting over the side of the wagon. "Still, is good that Ravid is here."

"Can you help?" Nathan asked, having decided that no one was going to get shot just yet.

Ravid shrugged. "Perhaps. In the beast's claws there is poison; in its mouth, there is only death."

He knelt in the wagon bed next to JD and set aside the crossbow. A viciously curved blade caught the light and sliced it. Ezra drew a sharp breath; Ravid had drawn the knife so quickly he hadn't appeared to move.

Ravid slid the blade between JD's chest and the bandages. Nathan started to protest. Ravid met Nathan's angry gaze with eyes devoid of warmth. He matter-of-factly turned the scattergun downward; hovering the ugly snubbed-barrel just above the sleeping JD's temple.

Nathan got the message and stepped back in line.

The bandages parted with barely a whisper of protest, falling to the side and leaving JD bare-chested in the cold air. He stirred; Nathan's sleeping draught ineffective against the sudden chill.

Ravid brushed aside Nathan's carefully applied poultice. Knotted fingers deftly stroked the feverish skin. His touch sent tremors rippling through JD.

Ezra held his breath and willed JD to remain unconscious. He didn't get his wish.

Ravid probed the scratches, pressing his fingers deep into the raw flash.

JD came fully awake with a strangled scream. Fire washed over him, consumed him, and burned away his flesh until he felt his bones blacken beneath the heat. He thrashed, flailing wildly against the weight on his chest. His feet drummed a frantic tattoo against the wagon bed, scrambling for purchase.

The baby and his older sister answered his cries with keening screams of their own. Herrick surged forward, drawn by the sound of his children in peril. Ravid swung the butt of the scattergun down in a short, powerful arc.

Light exploded behind JD's eyes, and then mercifully the pain ceased.

Ravid smoothly brought the gun back to bear on the group. He patted JD on the cheek. "You are lucky, young son. Ravid can help you." With one hand he freed a pouch from his belt and tossed it to Ezra. "Chew that. Spit the foam in the wounds."

Ezra balked. "Pardon my suspicions, but that was hardly a congenial introduction. We have no reason to trust that your interests lie in helping our young friend."

Cold eyes glittered. "He is poisoned. That is the cure. Chew or do not chew. He is not my przyjaciel."

"I'll do it," Nathan said, holding his hand out for the bag.

Ezra closed his fingers around the pouch. "No. If this is the mistake I fear it is, I'll need your skills." He opened the drawstring and withdrew a pulpy root. Wondering at the choices that had brought him to this point, he popped a piece into his mouth and began chewing. It was bitter and slightly soapy, a lather began to fill his mouth after only a few bites.

"Don't swallow," Ravid warned. He beckoned Ezra forward and gestured to the wounds on JD's chest. "Spit."

Ezra did so, feeling strangely calm about the whole situation now. He repeated the process, chewing and spitting and wondering at his lack of concern.

"More," Ravid snapped. "You," he said, pointing at Nathan. "All of you. More foam. You chew as well."

Nathan hesitated, but Ravid repeated the demand urgently. "He dies! You must trust Ravid. There is no time."

"You can treat a scratch, but not a bite?" Nathan asked, wincing around a mouth of the awful foam.

"This creature you hunt, he is a servant of the devil. He chose evil. Those that he bites are bound to the moon. They become mindless beasts, violent and evil. I spare them that. The only way I can. Better death than moon- sickness."


Part Eight - Angie

Ravid nodded as the two men continued to minister to their fevered, unconscious friend. He kept glancing over at the other man, Noffke. He saw the thick layer of rags wrapped around the man's forearm when he climbed out of the bed of the wagon.

The cold winds continued to howl through the trees, keeping everyone's nerves on edge. All of the children were huddled around their mother, the youngest burying their faces in the tails of her skirt to protect their eyes.

Ezra leaned over to spit yet another mouthful of the foamy saliva and chewed pulp onto the scratches on JD's shoulder and almost fell over on the younger man. He put another piece of the root in his mouth and began to chew.

The small fire, set in the lee of the rock wall where the wind couldn't put it out, cast an orange glow on JD's sweat-covered skin and Nathan stared at it without blinking. Every now and again, he remembered to chew on the mass in his mouth.

"That is good. Spit out now," Ravid directed, seeing the dark- skinned man was well under the influence of the roots. The fancy- dressed man had already slumped over against the wagon wheel and was staring stonily at his friend. Ravid's weathered, wrinkled face sobered at the thought of what he must do next.

Mr. Noffke looked up at the man as his children shrank toward their mother. Looking past the man, he saw that the peacekeepers were putting JD back in the wagon.

"You can . . . help a moment?" Ravid asked. "Need . . . hands," he said, motioning as if to restrain someone or something. "Boy is . . . much strong."

Getting up from where he was sitting on a fallen log, Mr. Noffke followed the man back to the wagon. He heaved himself up into the bed and knelt down to take hold of JD's legs. An instant later, something hard connected with the back of his head and he toppled over.

The root, in addition to its ability to negate the effects of the beast's claws, was also a strong hypnotic when ingested. When he got the boy to the small canyon, he would have to make a poultice of the crushed and heated roots to get all of the poison out.

With soft, urging tones, he coaxed the two, heavily drugged men out of the wagon. He got them to sit down near the small fire. The older Noffke children were watching him, torn between curiosity and fear. Ravid nodded to them and turned to climb up into the wagon. He snapped the reins and rode away. What he had to do was going to be hard but it was necessary. If the boy was affected, he would have to die. The older man was most certainly affected, the marks on his arm clearly from teeth, not claws.

777

"Mr. Ezra? Please, Mr. Ezra," Effi whined, shaking the southerner's shoulder. "Please wake up!" she begged. Behind the girl, her mother urged her to shake him again. It had been a while since the strange-looking old man had gone off with her husband and she wanted to know what the peacekeepers were going to do about it. The strange winds had died down, somewhat, and the children were getting hungry.

Several small hands were poking and patting him when Nathan began the struggle to climb up from the depths of his drug-induced nap. He made some undefined noise in his throat and the hands withdrew. There was something important that he was supposed to be doing, if he could only remember.

"Mr. Ezra?" Effi questioned, when he twitched beneath her hand.

Nathan gasped, coming fully awake. His eyes immediately took in the concerned expressions on the faces of the Noffke children. He scoured the area around him and realized that the buckboard and JD were gone.

"Ezra! Come on, we gotta get moving," Nathan announced. The world tilted and the ground seemed to move under his feet when he tried to stand and Wil was right there to help him until he regained his balance. "What happened? Where's JD?" Nathan asked.

"The man took them," Wil answered.

"Took them?" Nathan repeated.

"He took my Papa with your friend," the boy replied.

It took several more minutes before Ezra was coherent enough to understand what was happening around him. Like Nathan, he had no memory of anything after he started chewing the strange root the old man had given him.

"We gotta get these folks on into town," Nathan explained. "And all we got is our two horses and the hay wagon. We'll have to take some of the kids with us. Wil thinks he can drive the wagon."

Several minutes later, the group was on the move again. Wil and Elsa Noffke were driving the hay wagon, with the three youngest children clinging to their mother. Effi and one of the boys rode with Ezra, while Nathan had the six year old twins riding with him. Both of the peacekeepers prayed that they didn't run into trouble because, if they did, it would be a bloodbath.

777

Vin and the others searched for several hours. They were coming up on a fairly large copse of trees when the horses began playing up again. The wind blew dirt and sand into the air, obscuring their vision. Suddenly, something large and dark flew through the air, knocking Chris from the saddle and causing the horses to buck and neigh in fear.

A deep growl vibrated in the creature's throat, traveling down Chris' arms as he fought to keep the long, vicious fangs away from his body. He screamed as sharp claws raked his unprotected stomach, stopping at his gunbelt. The creature thrashed in his grasp, turning its head to try to bite his arm. An instant later, a gunshot pierced the howling wind, followed by another and another. Finally, the large, furred beast slumped and Chris was able to push it away. He rolled to his side, wrapping his arm around his bleeding stomach.

"Chris?" Buck called, kneeling protectively next to his friend. He put one hand on Larabee's shoulder while the other hand held his pistol, ready to put a few more rounds into the creature's head if it so much as twitched.

Josiah and Vin cautiously approached the animal. It looked vaguely like a wolf, except for the size and the strange, razor-sharp claws. It whimpered and its legs scrabbled at the dirt, prompting both men to put more rounds into it. Vin's shot shattered its skull, ending its struggles once and for all.

"This doesn't look like the one that attacked JD," Vin shouted to be heard over the wind.

"How can you tell?" Josiah asked. He hadn't gotten a good look at it as he was running from the house in the dark.

"This one's female," Vin replied, gesturing with his mare's leg. "It's got teats."

"Guys! We gotta get Chris back to town, he's been . . . gored by that thing," Buck yelled. He had already pulled out his spare bandana to press against the deep, bleeding wounds.

Vin stared toward the trees, looking for any sign of the other one. His instincts were telling him to continue the hunt but he knew that he couldn't ask Josiah to risk his life and the smell of blood on Chris would draw the other one.

777

Ravid abandoned the buckboard behind the blacksmith shop and began to prowl the town, looking for any sign of the beast. He knew, from his years of hunting, that it often sought larger groups of people. The harsh winds kept most people inside and that was a good thing. He kept a tight grip on his crossbow, knowing that he might only get one shot at it, if he was lucky. He might have gotten it at the farm the night before if it had not been for the seven men who got in the way.

The sound of horses in the street drove the Polish man to peer out from where he was hiding, just in time to see the black-clad gunslinger being helped up the stairs to where the Negro healer lived. He had to know if the man had been attacked.

777

Buck and Josiah slung Chris between them and hauled him up to the clinic. When they burst into the room, they were surprised to find it empty. They lowered Chris to the bed while Vin started a fire in the stove and put water on to heat.

"Nathan and Ezra shoulda got here long before now," Vin said, pulling the curtain aside to look at the street. "I'm gonna head over to the saloon and find out if anyone's seen `em."

"Be careful!" Josiah cautioned.

Vin opened the door and started to step out, only to almost walk into an old man who was brandishing a crossbow and a sawed-off rifle. He raised his hands and backed up slowly, not taking his eyes off of the man.

Buck's gun was in his hand before he thought about it. "I don't know what kind of game you're playing, mister, but I'd like it if you'd put down your weapons," he said with all the sincerity he could muster.

"No. It is you who will put down weapons," the man countered. "I only want to learn what has happened to him," he continued, nodding toward the man on the bed.

"He was attacked by a wolf-looking thing," Vin answered.

"He was bitten?" the man asked.

"No, it scored him with its claws," Tanner replied.

"Then I can help him. But only if you put down weapons," Ravid said.

The three men exchanged glances. Chris had lost consciousness on the ride back to town and he was already burning up with fever. Without Nathan there they knew they had to do something. Finally, Josiah nodded. He lifted his gun from its holster and moved to lay it on the table. He also accepted Buck's weapon and laid it on the gingham- covered surface. Vin eased his gun out and backed up to lay it down with the others.

Ravid waited while they divested the injured man of his gunbelt and shirt before he moved to examine the wounds. The claw marks were deep and already showing signs of infection. He knew he would have to find more of the roots very soon. It wouldn't do to be caught without the only means of healing the creature's poison.

He took the pouch from his belt and offered it to the blue-eyed man with the long hair. "Chew this and spit on scratches. All of you must chew. It will draw out poison," he explained.

Vin looked doubtfully at the ugly, gnarled roots. He recognized it from his time among the Indians and knew that it had properties similar to peyote. He decided that one of them should keep a clear head. "Josiah, me and Buck will chew this stuff, you keep watch over us," he said.

Just as he was about to put the root into his mouth, the door burst open and Ezra rushed inside, a gun in each hand and both pointed at the stranger. "Don't, Vin. He gave that to me and Nathan and he took JD and Herrick Noffke while we were incapacitated," he ordered.

777

Strange sounds heralded JD's return to the conscious world. He opened his eyes slowly and looked around in confusion. The sun had almost set and he could see the edge of the moon peeping up from the opposite horizon.

Something heavy and warm lay against his collar bones and he raised his hand to touch it. A steel collar, embedded with sharp, silver points inside it was fixed around his neck. Even as he was trying to figure out why someone would put such a thing on him, an unearthly yowl of pain made his blood run cold.

He saw Mr. Noffke, at least he thought it was Mr. Noffke, writhing on the ground some fifteen or twenty feet away. Getting to his feet, JD started over to see if he could help the immigrant. That was when he realized that he was chained by the neck to the boulder he had been leaning against. Something fell to the ground and he saw that it was some kind of poultice made up of crushed plants of some kind. The cool breeze that blew through the canyon also made him keenly aware that he had no shirt on.

Another howl of pain distracted him from the object at his feet and he looked up in time to see something horrific. Mr. Noffke's body was convulsing as the rough material of his clothing strained against the changes taking place. The immigrant looked up at him, in pain and confusion, before his eyes changed.

JD took another hesitant step closer, still not completely trusting what his eyes were seeing, just as whatever Noffke was turning into lunged at him with long, lethal-looking fangs snapping at him. JD fell back, scrambling across the rough saw grass until he reached the rock he was chained to. The creature made a horrific growl and leapt, jerking to a halt at the end of the chain. It fell to the ground, claws digging at the collar, the silver points of which were now deeply embedded in its neck.

777

Vin lunged for his gun and turned it on the strange, old man. Buck grabbed Chris' gun from where he had hung the belt on a peg near the headboard. The old man held up his gnarled hands and allowed Josiah to take his crossbow and sawed-off.

"Where is he? Where's JD?" Buck demanded. He was as angry as any of the others could remember seeing him.

"The boy is safe but must make sure he is not having moon-sickness," Ravid explained.

"Where?" Buck shouted.

Before the man could reply, they heard the panicked cries of the horses in the livery below them. Someone fired what sounded like a rifle and there was an angry snarl. Ezra, Vin and Josiah bolted for the door, leaving Buck to watch over Chris and the stranger.

Nathan came running from the boarding house where he had settled Mrs. Noffke and the children. He was almost to the livery doors when something dark leapt out and took off between the buildings. The thunderous sounds of his friends coming down the stairs kept him from running after whatever it was.

"What was it?" Vin asked breathlessly as soon as he reached the healer.

"Looked like a wolf but it was," he paused, searching mentally for a good word, "huge."

"I thought we killed that thing," Josiah said.

"We did," Vin said, scouring the lengthening shadows. "And I think this here's its mate."


Part Nine -Mari

The creature that had once been Herrick Noffke howled in pain and rage. The bright silver studs cut into the soft flesh at the neck, sending rivers of scarlet blood running down the coarse hair that protected its most vulnerable place. The stench of blood was exhilarating. The need to feed was the sole and all-encompassing thought in the creature's moon-maddened mind. To tear through soft skin into the layer of nourishing fat beneath, then on into sinew and muscle, the warm metallic taste of fresh, pulsing blood and the crunch as bone gave way to reveal the savory marrow. The creature tore at the constriction around its neck with its razor-like claws and bayed out its frustration with a voice no longer human.

A short distance away, JD lay on his side, legs curled to his chest and hands covering his ears to ward off the noises his companion was making. He knew that if the thing managed to slip the cruel collar there would be no hope for him. His friends couldn't know where he was or they would have stopped this by now. No. It was clear he was on his own and the pain of that realization was worse than the re- opened wounds in his aching chest.

He retreated to the comfort of the catechism, reciting out loud as he had done so often in a childhood plagued by night terrors.

"Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen."

And then he added his own, silent prayer.

"Come get me, Buck. Please."

777

Vin peered into the dark livery. The white eyed terror of the horses was clearly visible in the gloom and the snorted breaths and dancing feet of the animals would keep many in the vicinity awake tonight. There was no sign that the creature had taken its fill of meat here, though. The animal – or whatever it was – had moved on to a higher level of prey.

He stepped out of the livery to find Ravid standing there, calm and unmovable.

"What exactly are we dealing with here?"

Ravid's rheumatic fingers plucked at his beard as he considered his answer.

"Not wolf." He replied. "You must let me take your friend."

Vin shifted his weight to stand as tall and straight as his scoliosis would allow, every inch of his body language showing the old man that would never happen. Chris may be down and JD missing but there was still five of them to stop any attempt by man or beast to remove Larabee from their care.

Ravid's face slackened into an almost-smile. This one was strong; he might be useful if he could only put aside the emotional attachments. There was no place for emotion when hunting evil.

"We should gather the townsfolk together; protect the children as best we can."

Ravid shook his head, "Children? Children not important." Vin's fist was around the old man's throat before he could choke out another word.

"Mister, I don't know what hell-hole you dragged yerself out of, but right here, we don't feed our young to monsters."

Ravid barked out something between a growl and a grunt but which was likely his form of a laugh and Vin loosened his grip.

"Beast not bother with them. Not grown. Not ready."

He smiled, a gap-toothed rictus grin, as realization dawned on the young Texan. The children were safe; the adults were the prey and the young adults the most desirable.

Ravid nodded. "Eat heifer, not calf."

777

Josiah and Buck patrolled the perimeter of the township on foot, wary of trying to control the flighty horses. There was a lot of activity belying the late hour as the word spread about dangerous rabid wolves sighted in the area. Fires were being lit to form a barrier of light and heat between the buildings and the open terrain beyond. Since the first bonfire had been lit there were no further reports and the wearied and worried peacekeepers hoped that the ring of fire would keep the thing at bay.

"We'll move everyone closer to the center of town. It'll be easier that way. I figure the saloon and the jailhouse are the easiest to defend. Damn! We could use Chris' eye on this one. Man can spot a flaw in the defense like nobody else I know! Did I tell you about that time in Baton Rouge? Well, me and Chris and this guy from... damn . . . where was it? Somewhere in Alabama – proper Southern boy . . . anyway . . . "

Josiah reached out and placed a firm hand on Buck's shoulder.

"You're rambling, brother." He squeezed tighter, until Buck looked at him. There were tears in the cobalt blue eyes. "We'll find him, Buck."

Buck dipped his chin in acknowledgement not trusting himself to speak. They turned back towards Nathan's clinic, dropping in at outlying homes to urge the occupants to come with them. By the time they reached the Hotel, a ragtag group of tired and underdressed townsfolk had gathered around them and, for once, Josiah blessed the sight of Mary Travis, organized to the point of obsession, ready to guide the itinerant assembly to their accommodations for the night.

Ezra sat outside the saloon, feet resting lazily on the rail. His barely-there acknowledgement of his cohorts' return immediately alerted them to trouble.

Vin greeted them inside the bar with a ready poured glass of whiskey.

"Ravid says the fires won't help. This thing ain't scared of fire."

Vin threw back his head and downed his shot in one. Ravid had painted a vivid picture of what they were up against – a creature from the old country. Not quite a were, not quite a nactzehrer, not quite a windigo, but a chimera of all three. A beast that could think like its prey, that could infect or kill and that had no conscience.

Buck drew his hand over his face. "So what is it scared of?"

"Nothing."


Part Ten -Sue

Daylight was on the verge of breaking and Herrick had quieted. JD was never so glad to hear silence in all his life. Unable to sleep for fear of his own safety, the young sheriff was exhausted. Add to that the ravages of his encounter with the . . . whatever the hell that was . . . yesterday? ...and he was not in the best of positions to protect himself right now.

Curling into himself on the hard ground, he groaned outwardly at the ache in his neck from the really nasty collar biting into it, and his chest from the scratches. The more he tried to remove the collar, the more it dug in, and the blood the efforts generated hadn't exactly helped Mister Noffke's mood.

JD glanced around. At first he thought this place was a cave, but now he realized it was a dense thicket, well sheltered by the overhanging trees surrounding it, but he could just see patches of sky peeking through. He wrinkled his nose and shuddered. Now he had time to reflect, the place smelled of rotting carcasses, and he began to worry that's exactly what was here . . . somewhere.

He was just finally about to doze off when a noise alerted him. Someone was coming . . . his heart pounded, reverberating in his throat as it seemed to want to escape via his ears. He failed miserably at attempting to control his breathing . . . or trembling, and cursed at the noisy gasp that caught his breath when his eyes focused on the form approaching, through the bushes. JD's eyes went wide. "You!"

777

Sitting in the saloon, four peacekeepers stared at the whiskeys on the table in front of them. Nathan was tending to Chris, which left Ezra, Buck, Josiah and Vin to watch over the town. Thankfully, a long night was drawing to a close.

"How´s he doing?"

Buck's question to Vin pulled them from their musings.

Having returned just minutes ago from visiting Chris at the clinic, Tanner nodded. "Doin´ okay. Nathan says he's feverish, but he came `round twice and asked how things were."

"I have a question." Three pairs of eyes focused on Ezra. "Bringing us back to our missing compadre . . . when do we plan on searching for him?"

"Can't search at night," Vin reminded, casting a compassionate look toward Buck. "Ravid's already on it . . . I told him we'd set out first light." He glanced around. "Someone needs to stay here with Nathan." He couldn't help smiling when no one seemed keen to volunteer.

"I think he´s wrong."

"Huh? Who´s wrong?" Buck asked.

"The old man said nothing scared the beast." As Josiah talked, he fingered the beads and cross around his neck. "Are we then saying it was coincidence it fled from both JD and myself the other night?"

Vin sat up straight. "Damn . . . " He glanced around at his friends. "Damn . . . "

"Indeed," Ezra nodded. "So . . . if this man lied to us, might we also assume fire is equally an effective deterrent?"

"Why would he lie?" Buck was getting agitated, now. He gasped, softly as it all became clear. "Ri-ght, if we don't use them . . . there's nothing to stop it attacking."

The three men became more animated as pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. Vin tossed back his shot and poured another from the bottle they were sharing. "The old man," he said, quietly.

"The one the kid saw?" Buck cut in. Vin nodded.

"You think it's . . . ?"

"Don't you?" Vin returned Josiah's question with one of his own.

"You reckon that's why he wanted to take Chris?" Josiah hit back.

"Are we to insinuate that JD and Chris would be considered `easy fodder', since their injuries would likely prevent them from fighting back?" Ezra returned the curious glances with one of growing assurance. "Mister Noffke was also removed from our protection, but, unlike JD and Chris, showed disturbing symptoms before he was extricated."

Buck stood and paced, ignoring the stares from the saloon's other two patrons, many others seemingly preferring the safety of their own homes this night. He ran fingers through his thick dark locks as he did so. Vin knew exactly what Buck was thinking and, glancing out at the first tinges of dawn, he made his decision.

"Josiah. Stay with Nathan. I want you to construct posts with crosses on 'em and place `em all around the edge of town. And let's keep the bonfires goin´, huh?" Seeing Josiah nod, his attention turned to Ezra and Buck.

"Get ready to ride. Bring matches and rags. If ya got crosses, wear `em . . . if not . . . " He looked again to Josiah.

"I have some you can use," he smiled.

Vin nodded and stood, "Meet at the livery in ten minutes." With that, he approached the batwing doors, peered out, then crossed the street and headed for the clinic.

777

Nathan reached for his gun when the door opened, relaxing when Vin's whistle announced his entrance. Tanner nodded at the sight of Nathan leaning over a conscious Larabee.

"How you doin', cowboy?"

"Well enough . . . to kick your butt if . . . you call me cowboy again."

The Texan grinned as he walked to the bedside. He leaned in and rested a hand on Chris's chest. "How you really doin'?" he whispered.

"Better," Chris rasped. "You found JD?"

Tanner shook his head. "Just headin' out, now. We think we've figured it out, but . . . there's no tellin' what's out there waitin' on us." He watched Chris raise his hand and clasped it, tightly.

"Be careful, Vin."

"Always. We're gonna bring the kid back pard . . . no matter what. You have my word." With a mutual nod from the pair, Vin stood back. "Nathan, maybe Mary could spell you a while. Josiah's gonna make up a few things to protect the folks, here. Reckon he could use a hand."

"I'll ask," Nathan agreed. "If . . . if JD's hurt real bad . . . "

Vin half-smiled. "Even if Buck's gotta run all the way here with him . . . we'll handle it." He noted Nathan nod toward a large sack.

"Some supplies."

"Thanks. Nathan . . . watch your backs." Picking up the sack, Vin left.

777

Buck was looking at his fob-watch for the fourth time in less than a minute. "Ten minutes . . . he said ten minutes . . . "

"And it's been precisely nine." Ezra slipped his own watch back into his pocket.

"Quit splitting hairs, Standish . . . I'm gonna head on out . . . "

"Best we stay together," Vin warned as he joined them. Mounting up, he looked at Buck. "Let's go get our boy."

"'Bout damned time," Buck huffed, wheeling his horse around to head out. "Should never have damned-well left him . . . can't leave him be for five minutes an' he's in trouble . . . "

"Might I remind you, he wasn't exactly in control of the situation, Mister Wilmington."

Buck glanced at Vin. "There he goes . . . splittin' those damned hairs, again."

With a last glance back at the town, the three galloped off.

777

His chest heaving, JD scrambled back against the rock behind him, his terrified gaze never leaving the wizened form before him. His eyes darted around, looking for an escape, but the bite of the collar reminded him . . . he couldn't. He closed his eyes for a moment. This was it, he was a dead man.

"I have food and water."

JD frowned. Was he being granted a last meal? He'd read about such things . . . never figured it would come to him. He inhaled as Ravid's hand reached for his tattered shirt, relaxing slightly as the man checked his wounds.

"Is good. Now, eat."

Sitting up, JD watched as the man loaded something small into a handgun, a gun unlike anything he'd ever seen before. He jerked when the silence was broken by a soft narrative.

"Many years I roam these lands to fight evil. I try to protect the souls of the innocent . . . " he cast his gaze at Herrick. "For some I am too late. Placing the gun to Noffke's temple, Ravid looked at JD. "He was crazed with the madness last night, yes?"

Swallowing, JD nodded. "Ain't never seen anything like it," he whispered. Ravid chanted a small prayer. JD jolted violently, as the gun was fired and Noffke's body jerked, his eyes flying open to stare sightlessly into blessed oblivion.

"What . . . what did you do?" JD squeaked out, his face reflecting the horror he was feeling.

"A bullet made from silver. He is at peace, now." Ravid turned to JD and the boy was once again trying to lean away.

"I'm fine . . . truly . . . I never had anything other than a fever . . . " he blurted out.

"This I know." The man approached and smiled, his eyes flashed yellow. "You will fill me with the lifeblood I need to survive." He gazed wantonly at his victim. "I too have suffered the madness. Was taken during one of my many fights. I survived . . . and now, I feast." He passed a hand over JD's head, hesitating before reaching into a pouch on his belt.

"You are protected from the beast." He gestured to the cross around JD's neck. "I cannot kill you, but I can feed." Again his eyes flashed and with lightning reflexes belying his appearance, snatched at JD's hand. Ravid sliced at the material of JD's shirtsleeve with the knife he had extracted from the pouch and . . . smiled.

"No . . . NO!" JD tried to pull away, but the collar dug in and Ravid held firm. Terrified, he started chanting a prayer, halting when a vicious punch to his face knocked him senseless.

"You will not utter those words," Ravid scolded the unconscious boy, returning to the task in hand. Pressing the blade to the soft skin on the underside, below JD's wrist, he cut, salivating as dark blood appeared and began to run. Placing a shallow, wooden bowl under it, he allowed the blood to fill the bowl a quarter of its depth before licking the wound, the action causing it to hiss and smoke.

Wrapping the wounded, cauterized wrist in a bandage, he stroked JD's lax face and placed the bowl to his lips, supping greedily. Licking the bowl clean of the sweet, life-giving, sanguine fluid, a low growl emanated deep from within his chest, erupting in a long, piercing howl as his eyes flashed between his regular gray to deep yellow, then back to gray. Inhaling deeply, he licked his lips and spoke to the unconscious boy.

"You may be protected from the beast of the night, but it will not stop Ravid from taking what he needs to endure ... he sighed, " . . . and for this you have my deepest regret." Bemoaning the loss of the injured gunslinger, who would have made an excellent addition to his larder, Ravid proceeded to drag Herrick's body to a funeral pyre he had constructed, earlier.

His only threat of discovery now was from the men from town. As he watched Noffke burn, and his veins pulsated with the blood of his young prey, he planned his next move.


Part Eleven – Angie

When JD awakened next, the sun was overhead. Beams of light shone through the overhanging tree branches. His arm throbbed, bringing back the memory of the strange, old man´s confession. He raised his fingers to the tiny silver cross and shuddered.

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Mary Travis couldn´t resist reaching out to smooth the wrinkles from the blanket that lay over Chris as he slept. She thanked God again that Billy was with his grandparents and not in danger from whatever creature had attacked the gunslinger. Josiah asked her if she had a crucifix or a cross on a necklace and told her to wear it at all times until further notice. She felt the warmth of the small, ornately etched Celtic cross as it settled between her breasts. It had been a gift from her grandmother when she left home to marry Stephen.

Gloria and Inez worked side by side in the saloon´s kitchen, preparing a meal for all of the townsfolk. Vin had impressed upon them that they must not leave the building alone. The Potter children were with the Noffke kids, playing under the watchful eyes of Yosemite and one of his helpers. Both of the men were armed with scatter guns and there was a bucket with sticks wrapped in rags soaked with kerosene ready to be lit and used as torches if needed. Inez reached up to run her fingers lightly over the small cross she was wearing. If she closed her eyes, she could still feel the warmth of Vin´s fingers as he fastened it around her neck.

Tanner had sought out the young barmaid and pulled her into the kitchen. "I got something I want you to keep for me," he explained in a soft, raspy whisper.

"Of course," Inez replied, staring at him worriedly. Her dark eyes widened when he pulled the delicate chain from his pocket and the light from the nearby lantern caught on the small, dainty cross dangling from it.

"It belonged to my ma," Vin explained. "It´s the only thing I have left to remember her by."

"Oh, Vin! I cannot take this from you," she protested softly, shaking her head, "You must keep it."

"I want you to keep it for me. I don´t know for sure but I think it might protect you from-" he paused, uncertain how to explain it to her. "Just promise me that you won´t take it off 'til I get back."

Inez nodded solemnly and began to gather her hair up off of her neck. His fingers brushed against her skin and she trembled, unable to conceal the fear and tension she felt all around her. He fastened the clasp on the chain and turned her around, his eyes fixed on where the cross rested against her skin.

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Ravid tested the wind again. He knew he was getting close to the beast. Energized by the blood from the young man, he hoped to find and kill it before it attacked again. He was frustrated that he had not been able to convince the peacekeepers to allow him to take the gunslinger. He was sure that the one with the long hair and piercing blue eyes knew more than he was letting on. After this hunt, he would take the boy and move on.

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The three peacekeepers rode along in a tension-filled silence. Each man scoured the landscape, alert for ambush. Josiah had armed them with a variety of crosses, each one carefully and lovingly made and blessed with as much fervor as the former priest was capable of giving.

As the group rode over the crest of a hill, they spotted several vultures circling. Immediately, they urged their horses forward. Buck prayed softly under his breath that it was a dead animal.

Buck´s heart was in his throat as he raced alongside of Vin. He would never forgive himself if anything happened to JD. He was still angry at himself for leaving his young friend to go out the day before.

It was a calf, or, at least, what was left of one. The vultures were picking over the scraps, squawking and screeching at each other. Vin and Buck slid out of their saddles and slowly approached the gruesome sight, each blanching at the horrible mutilation. It was painfully obvious that something large had killed the animal.

Ezra swung down from horseback and surveyed the scene. Whatever had gotten hold of the calf had been vicious. The poor thing had been torn limb from limb and its entrails scattered. Standish took a few hesitant steps, following the trail of bloody footprints.

"It looks like it went off that way," he said.

"Yeah, and so are we," Vin announced.

"Shouldn´t we be looking for JD?" Buck asked, his voice strident with worry.

"We are," Vin replied. "But we have to kill this thing too."

Suddenly, an ear-splitting shriek filled the air, an inhuman cry of pain and torment. All three men immediately mounted up and rode in the direction of the sound.

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Ravid smiled as he advanced on the creature. The silver-tipped arrow was buried deeply in its chest. It writhed and screamed again, sounding something between a human and a wolf. He approached slowly, knocking another bolt in case the beast tried to get up again. With his other hand, he pulled out this pistol and fired two silver bullets into its skull. The creature convulsed once, then went limp, settling heavily into the leaf litter. As he moved to rip out the arrow, Ravid heard the thunder of several horses advancing on his location. Cursing their luck, he abandoned the creature and ran for his horse.

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JD looked up as the old man in the tattered clothing rode up. He shrank back as far as the chain would allow, his hand clutching the apple-sized rock in his fist. The mad didn´t come over right away so JD settled back against the boulder.

The hunter/pseudo vampire rapidly loaded his supplies into saddlebags. His plan to take the young man with him was discarded as he knew that the peacekeepers were going to be hot on his trail. He would feed one last time before he left the boy to die. It was such a waste, but the part of him that would never succumb to this fate quietly cheered.

It had happened to him during a hunt in the bayous of Louisiana. Ravid had closed in on the nest of vampires. He had enough stakes to send them all back to hell before he burned the mansion to the ground. It was nearly sunrise as he stood on the dirt road, watching the fire as it took hold of the house and its former inhabitants. He never saw or heard the one that attacked him from the shadows.

Namib was a fledgling vampire, new to the changes taking affect in his body. He didn´t understand the strange hunger that called to him, nor did he know what to make of the awful cramps that clenched in his guts. All he knew was that something about the stranger was calling to him.

The attack came suddenly but Ravid wasn´t unprepared. He lashed out with his blade, opening a deep furrow in the vampire´s chest. It struck at him, splitting his lip against his teeth.

When it was over, Ravid was pinned on the damp, muddy ground with the vampire on top of him. He managed to bury his blade in its back several times before it finally slumped onto him. When he shoved the dead body off of him, Ravid winced at the deep marks the creatures nails had left on his stomach and ribs. His undershirt was soaked with blood not his own.

It took him several days to realize what had happened to him. He deduced that the reason he hadn´t turned into a full vampire was that he hadn´t gotten a full dose of the venom. He still craved but not with the mindlessness of a true vampire. He could also tolerate the sunlight but it had aged his skin until he looked much older than he actually was. He vowed that he would take down as many of the sons of bitches as he could before he died.

JD shrank back as Ravid closed in on him. He had a sinking feeling that the man was about to flee and he was a loose end that couldn´t be left behind. Groping along his side, he picked up the rock again and waited.

777

The density of the trees forced them to slow down. Vin leapt to the ground and approached the downed figure carefully, his mare´s leg clenched in his hands. Buck was directly behind him, also clutching his weapon.

Ezra blanched as he approached. He had seen something similar to what was lying on the ground when he was in New Orleans as a teen. He squatted down and pointed to the bullet holes in the skull.

"Someone put this poor thing out of its misery," he announced.

"This is probably what attacked JD in the Noffke´s barn," Vin added.

Digging his handkerchief from his pocket, Ezra used it to cover his nose and mouth as he crept closer. His forehead wrinkled expressively at the unpleasant odor coming off of the corpse. He flinched when Vin took hold of the arrow and ripped it from the body to examine the tip.

"Forged metal dipped in silver," Vin explained before dropping the arrow at his feet.

"Alright, it´s dead! Let´s get back to looking for JD!" Buck demanded, swinging up into his saddle and turning his determined stare on each of them.

Vin shuddered as he looked at the dead creature. If that was what had attacked JD, the boy was lucky to have survived . . . If he had survived.

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JD tried not to let his intentions show on his face as he clutched the rock beneath his hand. Ravid approached him, pulling out a short, razor-sharp blade. Shrinking back against the boulder, his feet scrabbled against the rocks.

"Please, mister, you don´t have to do that," JD said, his voice quavering. He held out his empty hand, trying to hold the man back. "I won´t say anything. You just go on about your way."

Ravid grabbed the outstretched arm and lashed out with his blade. Suddenly, stars exploded across his vision as the boy struck him with the rock. Ravid roared in pain and slashed at the arm that held the rock. He used his other fist to grab the boy by the hair and dash his head against the boulder.

A red curtain descended on his vision and JD slumped against the boulder. He managed a low moan as the old man caught his blood in a bowl. Opening his eyes, he saw the dust motes dancing in the beams of light shining through the canopy above him. His last conscious thought was that he hoped his friends found his body before the animals got to it.

777

Vin studied the ground for a moment before leaping back into the saddle and gesturing toward the mouth of the small box canyon. Buck and Ezra raced past him, both leaned low over the neck of their mounts, each racing to find their young friend.

As his horse was a few hands taller, Buck got first look at the old man kneeling over his friend. His gun seemed to leap into his hand and he fired, striking Ravid high in the back. He was off of his horse almost before it stopped, stumbling as his feet met the uneven, rocky ground. He grabbed Ravid and pulled him away from JD.

Ravid hissed angrily at being pulled away from the boy. He´d already had several swallows of the sweet, pure blood and it was singing through his veins. He lashed out at the tall, mustached man, catching the sleeve of his tan jacket before the knife was knocked away.

Ezra dismounted and pulled his gun in one smooth motion. He waited until Buck knocked the knife out of Ravid´s hand before he fired, striking the old man in the chest. To his surprise and shock, the man only growled and took another step toward Buck.

Vin´s horse thundered into the canyon and he leapt from the saddle, tackling Ravid and knocking him to the ground. Before any of the others realized, Tanner plunged his Bowie knife up to the hilt in the old man´s chest. He sprang back before Ravid´s clawed hands reached for him.

Buck sank to his knees and reached out to try to stem the flow of blood from JD´s arm. The blood was warm where it ran between his fingers. "Hang on, Kid, you hang on!" he urged, looking at JD´s too pale face. He pressed harder on the still- bleeding wound and wished that Nathan had ridden out with them.

Ezra grabbed the bag Nathan packed for them and ran to fall beside JD. He groped in his saddlebag and came out with a wad of clean cloth to press against the wound.

When they got the bleeding under control, Buck tried to remove the locked collar from around JD´s neck. When he found the lock, he jumped up and rifled through Ravid´s saddlebag until he found the key. He unlocked the collar and gently, carefully opened it, wincing at the shallow cuts the points had made in JD´s neck.

Vin stood over Ravid, who was still growling and pawing at the hilt of the knife. He watched in horrified fascination as the creature continued to struggle. Finally, Vin reached into his pocket and withdrew a clump of what looked like weeds. Ravid´s eyes widened and he increased his struggles, making strange growling and groaning noises in his throat.

"What´s that?" Ezra asked, having come to tell Vin that they needed to get JD back to town immediately.

"Herbs and wild garlic," Vin replied, "It´ll paralyze it so we can kill it."

"You mean . . . the knife in his chest won´t kill him?" Ezra asked. He sincerely hoped that no one noticed the slight tremor in his voice . . . or in his hand.

"No," Vin answered, sparing Ezra a glance and a nod before he stepped forward to scatter the herbs over Ravid. "We have to drive a stake through its heart and decapitate it to kill it."

"De . . . capitate it?" Ezra repeated, his eyes darting to Vin and back to Ravid.

"We have to get him back to town so Nathan can fix up his arm," Buck announced, checking the bandage around JD´s forearm.

"Go. Help him get JD back to town," Vin ordered Ezra. "I´ll stay here and take care of this."

Buck and Ezra lifted JD to his feet and manhandled him over to where Buck had left his horse. They lifted the unconscious youth and pushed him into the saddle. Buck mounted behind the younger man, wrapping one arm around JD´s torso as he settled limply against his chest.

As he was getting ready to mount, Ezra saw Vin coming out of the woods with a straight, peeled piece of wood that he was whittling into a point at one end. He shuddered again, grateful for the chance to get away from the grizzly scene.

Buck rode as fast as he could without jarring his injured friend too badly. Ezra rode alongside to help him keep JD upright in the saddle. As they were approaching the town, JD moaned softly.

"Hang on, Kid, just hang on," Buck urged. He couldn´t see it but a hint of a relieved smile ghosted across JD´s face before he lost consciousness again.

Vin returned to town hours later and went straight to the clinic to check on his friends. He had taken care of Ravid´s body, as well as the creature in the woods and the remains of the calf. No one would ever guess that the charred remains were anything unnatural . . . he hoped.

777

It was warm and quiet in Nathan´s room. Chris and JD were laid out on the beds on opposite sides of the room. Chris was awake, sitting up in bed and sipping a cup of coffee while JD lay, still and pale, on the other bed. Bandages covered both of JD´s forearms.

Weary hazel eyes scoured Vin. Once satisfied that he were none the worse for wear, Chris nodded.

"How is he?" Vin asked Buck, who was sitting in the ladder- backed chair with his elbows rested on his knees and his forehead on his palms.

"He lost a lot of blood," Buck answered, his voice shaking with emotion, "and we don´t know what else that . . . thing did to him."

Vin leaned over the bed, reaching out to peel back the bandage wrapped around JD´s neck. He caught the acid look Buck gave him, so he explained, "It doesn´t look like he got bit, that´s the only way it catches."

"What catches?" Nathan asked.

"The only way you turn into one of them is if you get bit by 'em," Vin replied.

"You know that for a fact?" Buck asked.

"I only know what I learned while living with the People," Vin said, looking to Josiah.

"He´s right. I saw the same thing in Europe. Ravid didn´t have fangs like the other ones, maybe that´s why he used a knife, but JD should be safe as long as Ravid didn´t bite him," Josiah explained.

"Only way to know for sure is to wait for the next full moon," Vin added. "If it got him, he´ll start showing signs."

"Is there . . . is there any way to cure him? If he was infected?" Buck asked, a note of pleading causing his voice to tremble.

"I´m afraid not," Josiah answered. "The only cure is . . . " his voice trailed off, unwilling to say it out loud.

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They spent the next three and a half weeks watching over their friend. JD recovered slowly from his injuries. Inez and Gloria kept him well stocked with rich, meaty broths and other foods to help build up his blood. If he noticed that his friends seemed to be watching him a little closer, he never commented on it.

777

"But I don´t understand why we have to spend the night out there!" JD protested as he tightened the cinch on his saddle. "His cabin is awfully small for all seven of us."

"I don´t know, but Chris said he wants all of us to be there so we´ll be there," Buck replied. He was anxiously looking toward the horizon, waiting for the moon to make an appearance. "Besides, old man Haynes gave him a whole quarter-side of beef. We´re gonna have a feast!"

Josiah tossed the steaming baked potato from one hand to the other as he hurried over to the plank table set up outside of Chris´ cabin. The all watched JD as the moon rose in the sky. Buck was sick at heart over the possibility of having to participate in killing his young friend. They shared thick, juicy steaks and potatoes swimming in fresh-churned butter, a last meal for the condemned man, if it came to that.

The thin howl of a wolf rang across the hills and was answered by several young voices. Chris quickly scanned the area, locating each of his friends before he sat back in his chair. The moon had risen several hours ago and JD showed no sign at all of turning into a horrific creature. Catching Josiah´s eye, he silently questioned.

Josiah glanced over at where Buck was regaling JD with some story of his travels that involved voluptuous females. JD was laughing and shaking his head, ending with an elbow to Buck´s ribs.

"You are so full of crap!" JD announced.

With a look back at Chris, Josiah shook his head . . . and smiled.

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In the dark of the woods, four small creatures crept out of their den. They managed to kill a lamb earlier in the day and were full and strong. They had been struggling to survive since both their sire and dam were killed but they were learning to hunt as an effective unit. Given time, they would become as deadly as their parents.

The End?
You decide!