The rider vowed a life of hunting wolves since the day a large pack invaded his boyhood home killing both parents and older sister. His father had placed him in a safe-hole under the floorboards for protection before the wolves attacked his father. While trying to help his sister, two large wolves pulled at her legs as he tightly gripped her hands at the trapdoor. Once the wolves freed her from his grip he fell backwards, and the door slammed shut. He could hear his father yell after him to latch it. It seemed like an eternity of screaming, tearing, and bones crunching between teeth and fangs. He closed his eyes at the dripping of crimson between the boards. He was only eight.
A week after the night of terror came to its horrific end; two Sioux Indians stumbled upon the carnage. They took him to their tribe location where he was cared for. At his request the chief taught him all things of the nature of wolves, their mythologies and folklore and most important, how to hunt and kill them.
Whipping through leafless branches, the winters wind carried a bitter chill. The snow fell heavy earlier in the day leaving some of the branches too weak to hold the white packs. The rider could hear the snap of the small branches breaking under the weight. The horse’s hoofs dragged along plowing the two-foot deep snow with each step as the clouds above dragged along allowing shafts of light from the full moon to spear through but only on brief occasions. An unnamed terror stalked him from the shadows.
He kept his right hand resting on the handle of his Colt Walker revolver; all chambers filled anxiously awaiting their release. He wore a deuce but used his left hand to guide the reins. He scabbards a Winchester Golden Boy under his right leg for easy access once the revolver emptied its payload. With his keen sense of hearing, a sniffing sound came from the brush on his right. He pulled the hammer back sounding out a couple of clicks causing the sniffing to stop. He heard a scraping against branches and the drumming of footfalls then all went deathly silent. He eased the hammer back into its resting place and rode through the night without further incidents.
The sun burnt a thin, red line along the zenith of the mountains that lay east of the small ghost-of-a-town he was now entering; Population 316 the wooden sign faintly read. Westward, from whence he came, was nothing but forest and flat planes for several miles before climbing a snow-capped mountain range. Dismounting, his boots landed in a soft paddy of horse dung outside the saloon. “Damn,” he said behind a black scarf covering his face from nose to chin, “parallel parkers.” He scraped the dung off his boots on the edge of the boardwalk in front of a saloon while looping the reins around the hitching post. A couple of long strides and he was inside.
A bartender and a couple of cowboy patrons occupied the spacious place. The upright piano stood alone in the corner missing some white keys like a toothless vagabond. A table with torn green felt rested center of the room near a smoldering pop-belly stove. The rider doubted that a Faro game was the town’s favorite being that it was a house-banked game. The saloon, like the town, was in shambles. The nicest thing in the place was a chandelier made from a cluster of deer antlers. As he walked to the bar, with one swift move brushed his long, black coat outward and sat on a stool that creaked under his weight.
“What’ll it be, sir?” greeted the bartender. He was a thin, lanky sort with a few teeth of his own missing. “We ain’t got much but it’ll still burn ya going down.”
The rider tilted his head up allowing the scarf to fall below his chin, “A double please.”
“Nice manners you got there,” said the bartenders smiling exposing his spacious choppers. “He’s got real nice manners, huh boys?” he said nodding to the two cowboys sitting at one of the three round tables that decorated the joint.
One wore a brown cowboy hat with a red band around it hiding sweat stains. In the back, an eagle feather dangled down past his shoulders. His clothes didn’t seem to fit, as they should, pants too short and the shirtsleeves too long. “Yeah, real nice” he said nonchalantly.
The other wore a derby that rode along his eyebrows and tilted to the right. He peered up from his shot glass without a word, just a haunting look. Likewise, his clothes were ill-fitting as well.
“This town seems short of a tailor,” said the rider eyeing them both. The two men began to rise from their chairs.
“Oh, he’s got real nice manners,” a voice floated down from the top of the stair landing. Looking up the rider spotted a woman with black, wavy hair draped past her shoulders wearing a low-cut red silk dress that all but pushed her breast out completely. “Settle down boys, wouldn’t want our guest here to think we‘re an uncongenial sort,” she said to the two cowboys at the table. They sat back in their chairs and continued drinking.
“That’s Elizabeth, but we call her Beth for short,” instructed the bartender. “I hear on good authority that she can give you a midnight ride that you’ll never forget, a real Calico Queen.”
“What scrap of information are you imparting to our new guest, Will,” Beth said as she walked down the stairs exposing her right leg as the split in her dressed opened with each step. The two cowboys at the table snickered.
“I was just telling ‘em your name just in case,” Will said nervously.
“Just in case what?” Beth asked innocently taking a final step off the stairs.
“Well, ya know, in case he might be wanting to spend more coin in this little town of ours.” Beth gave Will a narrow-eyed look as she slid over the stool next to the rider. “I’m just thinking of the towns commonwealth, being that there’s only twelve of us,” Will’s voice squeaked out. The two cowboys now gave Will the same narrowed looked Beth had. Beth on the other hand was now giving the rider a soft look in hopes that he would look over and notice.
“Will sure like to talk a lot, blowing corral dust up folk’s ass and such, but I notice you don’t speak much, stranger,” Beth said trying to advance her intentions. The rider rested his glass on the bar and nodded to Will for a refill. “Oh. Well you just go right ahead and get all relaxed for little ole Beth. She spread her right leg allowing the split in the dress to widen upward.
The rider took notice. “You come from well-bred stock,” he said looking from her exposed inner thigh to her heaving breast and lastly into her glowing hazel eyes.
“You certainly know your livestock,” Beth said laughing. The two men at the round table began laughing as well. “Tell me, cattle man, are you a real cowboy or just a drifter like those two sitting over there sharing a bottle of corn juice because they’re just too damn cheap to buy their own?” The two men stopped laughing and sat up from slumping in their chairs. “Oh settle down boys, I’m just starting my negotiating and y’all happened to be a convenience,” Beth said looking over to them with a smile. They sat back unamused.
“Tell ya what I’m gonna do, cattle man.” Beth began sliding off the stool. “I’m gonna head back up those stairs and wait until sunset. If you don’t show I’ll know you’re not interested, but if you do, I will take you for a ride that black steed of yours there by the hitching post can’t begin to compare. She took a few steps up the stairs then turned to the rider, “Room 109.”
During the course of the day, several more of the town folks had arrived. One thin, tall man wearing a long gray coat with tails sat down at the piano plucking out old civil war tunes: Johnny Brown’s Body, Bonnie Blue Flag, Say Brothers Will You Meet Us on Canaan’s Happy Shore and the like. Three more men with their wife’s, or catalogue women, (the rider couldn’t tell) strolled in dressed in fancy ill-fitting clothes. Lastly, one old timer with sun-baked skin and sparse gray hair on an alopecic scalp drifted in; Panhandler, the rider thought, but with no luck by the looks of his clothes. The old man sat at the poker table and dealt out three cards each to two of the couples that sat opposite him. Either Brag or Three Card Monte, thought the rider, Jesus, they could all do with some tailoring.
The sun gave a last radiant glow behind the forest of fir and oak before disappearing. The rider pulled himself away from the bar where he had spent the day nursing an uncorked bottle. He clumsily climbed the stairs taking missteps as the two men, still at the round table, hooted and hollered. The rider didn’t give them a second’s glance. Everyone raised their glasses of encouragement except for Will who stood at the bar polishing the cypress surface.
“You won’t regret it, friend,” said Will.
After fumbling with the doorknob the rider opened the door and walked in closing it behind him to drown out the jeering. It was a corner room with two windows swung open. Snow was beginning to float in. The only furniture was a double bed with wrinkled stain sheets and a vanity with a cracked mirror.
The wind from the windows caused the closet door to creak open an inch revealing darkness and a strong stench. As the rider turned to look, a large black wolf lunged directly at him. With cat-like smoothness, the rider knelt down, produced a long, silver knife from behind his back, and drove it into the chest of the wolf. With a loud crash, the wolf slammed into the vanity finishing off the cracked mirror. The rider walked over to the wolf and stood over it watching as it slowly turned back into Beth.
“You were drunk,” Beth said through shallow panting.
“Like you said, corn juice, and the worst I’ve ever tasted. More water than whiskey,” the rider replied.
“But how did you know?” Beth asked lying naked and shivering.
“Like you said, I know my livestock.” The rider took off his long coat and knelt down covering her.
“Could you at least tell me your name, cowboy?” Beth’s lips quivered.
“Garrett, Ben Garrett. I’ve been hunting your pack for quite some time.” As she breathed her last, Beth began to laugh. “What?” Ben asked. However, the question came too late. Leaving his coat, he retrieved his knife. After cleaning it off on the stained bed sheets, he headed out the door. Looking down he noticed that every patron, save for Will, had turned into large wolves. “Shit. Funny, Beth, real funny.”
As he drew his deuce out of their holsters, a wolf leaped crashing through the rail onto the landing five feet to his left. Ben quickly turned and fired two shots. Both met their mark. Two other wolves quickly advanced up the stairs. Through the broken railing, Ben vaulted toward the chandelier praying the cable would hold. Landing on his side one of the antlers pierced his left side: not deep but painful. He fired a couple more shots toward the landing where two wolves leaped at him. One was a clear shot in the chest but the other grazed the right side of other allowing it to grab hold of the chandelier. Unable to carry their weight, the cable pulled loose from the ceiling and came crashing down. Pain shot through Ben’s left side as he fired twice more finishing the wolf. His vision began to blur when he heard strange yelling from the saloon doors.
Two Sioux Indians exploded through the swinging doors firing silver tipped arrows bringing down two more wolves as they released a high pitched battle cry. As one Sioux threw a knife at a wolf that lunged towards him, the second Sioux noticed a wolf advancing on Ben baring its large fangs. The Sioux pulled out a long silver knife and brought it down on the muzzle of the wolf completely severing it from the face then jumped clear. The wolf released an odd sounding yelp.
The Sioux looked down at Ben. “What do you think of that dental work, white man?”
“Nice, Mahpiya. Now how ’bout giving it a quick manicure?” Ben yelled. Without its muzzle, the wolf continued to claw through the antlers breaking off pieces moving closer to where Ben was struggling to stand up. Mahpiya leaped over the antlers onto the wolf’s back and made a sweeping motion under its head with the knife. The wolf collapsed as Ben grabbed his deuces’ from the floor, rose to his feet, and stepped out of the cluster of antlers firing both revolvers.
What seemed like hours to Will who had hid behind the bar were only mere moments when the last wolf fell.
“Are you alright, Heyoka?” asked Mahpiya noticing blood on his face and arms. Heyoka had relinquished all arrows, thrown his knife, and was holding a tomahawk dripping crimson onto the floor.
“Wolf blood, not mine,” Heyoka answered looking around. “A lot of naked bodies here, Ben. Next time, I ride into town and you and Mahpiya hang back.”
“They all had clothes on before they turned,” Ben said with a smile. “The only one you would’ve had fun with is Beth upstairs in room 109. And believe me, she was no fun.” Ben walked over to the bar. “Will, get your ass up!”
“Please don’t kill me! I’m not one of them,” Will pleaded as he slowly appeared from behind the bar.
“We know the difference between the stench of werewolf and skinned rat…and you don’t smell like werewolf,” Heyoka said cleaning his tomahawk.
“Can we escort you to the nearest town, Will? I believe Gun Town Mountain’s a two day ride north,” offered Ben. “Could be dangerous staying here by yourself.”
“I’d be obliged if you would,” Will said. “I’ve had enough of these hounds killing every drifter, traveler and cowboy that comes through just looking for a place to bed down for the night then be on their way. I never really understood why they let me live. They killed everyone else in town when they arrive.”
“They used you as a diversion. They let a hunter smell you while keeping their distance giving the illusion that everything is as it should be,” answered Ben. “Beth must have been in season to take a chance on sitting so damn close.”
Riding out of town, Heyoka looked over to Mahpiya, “So, we go hunt vampires now?” Will’s eyes grew as large as silver dollars. Ben smiled.
Mahpiya laughed. “Heyoka, you know there’s no such thing as vampires.”
Bruce Rowe was born and raised in Shreveport La. where he gained an affinity for wildlife. His curiosity of how life would be in the forest if animals behaved as humans prompted him to write, The Chrysalis and the Creatures of the Highlands. He has had short stories published at Spillwords.com, Dastaanworld and Cafelit. ‘The Rider’, his first short story, was nominated Publication of the Month at Spillwords in October 2018. As well, ‘Grandfather’s Clock’ was a featured piece at Spillwords. ‘The Lonely Traveler’ received a special mention at Cafelit. He has been nominated twice as Author of the month at Spillwords. His poem, 'Twiggy Thin', is published in Clarendon House Publication’s, Poetica. His story, 'Hair of the Dog', is published in Zombie Works Publication, Monsterthology 2. He presently lives in Oceanside California where he spends his time writing, body surfing and playing guitar.