*This story will be available to read until April 8th.
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It was Friday the 13th, August1847when Harland Flick rode into town. Had he been a superstitious man, he might have thought better of choosing such a day. Of course, being who he was, he might have decided that any bad luck was his to dole out. He rode with just that manner of confidence and contempt.
He arrived at twilight, stinking of sweat, gunpowder and glee. He avoided the main streets, sticking to the alleys instead, moving his horse slow and easy like. Anybody seeing him ride past would take him for just another worn-down cowhand, come to town to spend his meager dollars on cheap whiskey and whores.
They'd be mistaken on all counts. The dollars, folded crisp and proper in Harland's thick leather wallet, were far from meager. As for whiskey and women, he preferred the one aged and smooth, the other young and lively. He enjoyed partaking of both without benefit of an audience, or another man’s opinion as to the manner in which he preferred to slake his thirsts.
Flush as he was, he was planning for a hog-killin’ time, a well-earned celebration. That afternoon had been the finale of a six-month effort to settle an argument between a small group of wealthy ranchers and a large group of poor homesteaders. The side Harland chose was naturally the winning one. There had been no contest. The rancher's hired guns, many of them veterans of the recent Mexican-American war, had not hesitated to fire on the homesteaders, most of those wet-behind-the-ears youngsters, few more than twenty years old.
Harland didn't know what started their fight, nor did he care. He was there for the money, simple as that, or so he'd claim if anyone was foolish enough to ask. Of course if anyone had seen him as he trod through the field of the dead, an ungodly smile on his thin lips, the very flames of hell leaping inside his dark eyes, they'd have known the truth. Harland came not for the money, but for the kill.
Dismounting, Harland dropped his horse’s reins. Until he picked them up again the animal would stay where he'd left it, ground tied. A good trick when there was no place handy to tie up, or if you were in a hurry. Harland figured he'd be in a hurry pretty quick. The little darlin' who'd drawn his eye when he first hit town a month ago lived above the grocery store on the corner. On that lucky day, he'd pulled up in front of the store, meaning to go inside and stock up before riding out to the ranch and his newest job. He’d gathered his reins and was getting ready to dismount when he’d seen her. The sight stopped him dead.
She had a perfect, oval-shaped face, framed by corn-silk blond hair, lively eyes the gray blue of a far-off lake, and skin as pale as the petals of a sego lily. She'd worn a white dress, a blue ribbon woven through to match the one holding back her long, wavy hair, white stockings and shiny black goin'-to-church shoes.
She’d been flippin' pennies off the wooden sidewalk in the company of two younger boys. Surely, she was too old for such amusements, but she seemed to be enjoying herself. Her youthful exuberance and unselfconscious laugh were like a well-baited hook to a hungry trout, but he'd allowed no slightest sign of his interest to show.
Careful not to spend another look on her, he’d gone inside and bought a can of Arbuckles and some makin’s, though picking up supplies had now become secondary in his thoughts.
The woman who took his coin was a looker herself, with the self-same eyes as the younger gal on the street. Had he seen her first she might have gathered his interest. She’d caught him giving her a good looking over and she’d gone all quiet and tight lipped like some women got. Despite the chill there was a flash of fire in those eyes and he figured it would be no more than a pleasant night’s work to change her to a biddable woman, one in a hurry to please. He figured her attitude might be more respectful as well, were she to learn his name, but he was too smart to be sharing that out.
Harland had built himself quite a rep. Rumor had gone 'round that he’d once ridden with Max Patterson. It didn't hurt a bad man to have his reputation attached to a worse one. Harland did nothing to deny the rumor and was well aware of his reputation as a tough.
Still, out on the frontier a man might take the life of a man holding a gun and walk away but touch a righteous woman and no amount of tough would save you. He had to keep his peace and plan this out careful. Taking his purchases, he nodded politely and headed out the door. The gal was gone by the time he came back out. He’d have liked another look at her, but he’d see her enough.
Leaving his horse, Harland stayed in the darkest shadows as he made his way down the alley, feeling ahead and walking quiet as if stalkin’ deer. He'd already set up a line cabin out along the edge of the Gallatin River where he planned to take her--and keep her.
He ran his tongue over yellow teeth and dry lips as he considered how sweet she'd be. Well, not at first of course. There was always the breakin' in. His lips pulled back a bit--more twitch than smile. Had to admit he wasn't sure he didn't like that part as much, or better, than the way they got later. Once they were broke they seemed to get old right quick. Eventually he always ended up slappin' the pretty clean off ‘em.
Luke hefted the last sack of flour from the back of the wagon and into the storehouse behind the grocers. It had grown dark but for the flickering light of a single kerosene lamp in Miss Eleanor's window. He figured she was up late at her books; a real blue stocking, that one.
Lifting the bag as easily as if it weighed ten pounds instead of a hundred, he tossed it to the top of the heap. That was the last of it. The workday was done.
His coarse woven shirt pulled tight around his barrel chest as he stretched his back. Next, he ran his hands through his hair, mussing the brown strands and reminding himself it was time to visit a barber and get it hacked toa reasonable length. Finally, he rubbed his hands across his face, scrubbing at his crop of thick, black whiskers.
A giant yawn cracked his jaw, closed his dark eyes for a moment. It had been a good day, with a fair bit of work done and no trouble. The kind of day he liked. His thoughts moved to a book he'd like to finish and a bed with fresh-washed sheets. That bed was only a few steps away, in a room next to this one. It wasn't fancy or overlarge, but plenty big enough to hold his meager belongings. Luke was a traveling man, on the move often, so it was best he travel light.
His time spent in Cold Springs was the longest he could recall being in one place. He knew the reason, and it wasn't just the clean sheets handed off to him every week by Miss Eleanor's ma, Mrs. Graham. It was the woman herself he cared about.
Not that he held any romantic notions where she was concerned. The gals at the Red Feather took care of his needs just fine and were much more to his liking than any serious-minded woman with more guts than good sense.
It was the woman's purpose, her dogged determination that he admired. She'd lost her man to the war and was trying hard to keep the place and make it work for her, her daughter, and the two young boys. Of late, a couple of the unattached men in town had come to the store more often than was seemly. It was them that had Luke worried. A woman with a ready-made business was quite a catch. One of the men he'd caught turning an eye on fourteen-year-old Miss Eleanor as well. Yeah, he had plenty of reason to stick around. He wasn't much for guns and such, but he could wrestle a bear, and tossing some of them yahoos into the mud would suit him just fine.
Such thoughts of mayhem made him smile. He let his head roll around his shoulders, one final stretch to ease into his resting time, and then strode toward the back to close up for the night.
As he reached for the door, he heard an unmistakable sound from down the alley, the impatient stomp of a hoof on hard-packed ground. His first thought was that it must be someone heading home from a late chore of work, or more likely, leaving one of the town's three saloons. He stood a moment waiting to see who might ride by, idly curious and enjoying the cool air wafting in, carrying the scent of water and the promise of rain before morning.
He sniffed at the air and was shocked to catch the metallic scent of blood--human blood--thin, sweet and unmistakable. Underlying that was the salty stink of sweat, tobacco, and gunpowder. The sulfurous stench was fresh, and Luke wrinkled his nose. There was another noise, a nearly imperceptible creak of lumber being asked to bear weight. This time the sound came from between the store and the butcher shop next door. The only thing between the two stores was the stairway to the family’s living quarters.
Slamming the door wide open, Luke ran out into the dark night, smashing hip first into the wagon he’d just unloaded. In a blaze of fury and impatience he shoved the wagon away with one hand. It rolled up a steep incline and smacked into the outhouse with a dull thump.
Luke forced himself to calm down. He felt along the back wall of the store and moved slowly toward the staircase, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dim light. By the time he reached the bottom step, he was able to make out the shadowy form at the top.
A man stood beside a wedge of darkness even darker than the surrounding night. It was the door to the family's living quarters, standing ajar. He had been about to step inside when something, maybe the sound of the wagon, caused him to pause in his quest and to half turn. One hand still on the doorknob, his other reached for the gun holstered at his hip.
Letting go of all restraint, and using his hands as well as his feet, Luke raced up the stairs at superhuman speed.
The storm clouds that had gathered during the afternoon parted, and moonlight drew ghostly lines along every edge it touched, highlighting the tread of the stairs, the narrow handrail, the rim of the rider's hat, and the muzzle of his gun as it cleared leather.
Luke could imagine the bullet cutting through him like a demon called to hell, letting nothing slow it down, neither bone, nor muscle, nor flesh on its way to burying itself deep in Wyoming soil. He snarled and leapt the last two steps between him and the stranger who reeked of blood and violence.
From the corner of his eye he caught a movement at the window and spied Miss Eleanor's face, pale as the curtains that framed it. He'd have stopped it then if he could--but it was too late. The transformation was upon him.
Without willing it, his lips drew back, revealing canines grown to fangs, set in a face like a nightmare. With obviously painful contortions, the flesh beneath the skin began to roll and reshape itself. The shock of that vision froze the gunman's trigger finger and gave Luke time to reach him.
Powerful hands grasped the gunman's thighs and jerked him forward. Claws dug into muscle and met bone. A hideous creature with fangs dripping saliva, and wild eyes that rolled in a head still attempting to redesign itself buried its muzzle in the gunman's belly and began to feast.
A low and guttural growl reverberated through the air. The gun barrel was shoved hard against the furry side, muzzle turned up and aimed at the beating heart of the monster. But before the trigger could be pulled a hand, too human to belong to such a hell-spawned fiend,wrapped around both gun and hand and bent and twisted until there was a low snapping sound. The gun fell from useless fingers off the edge of the stair to the ground below. The man opened his mouth to scream, but the fangs that had torn at his belly were now at his throat. They ripped away his voice, and then his life.
Inside the house a body stirred in its bed. Mrs. Graham woke to hear a wet crunching noise. In her half-conscious state she thought: You must remember to congratulate Eleanor. The kitten she chose as the family’s mouse hunter is indeed earning her keep. Then, with a contented sigh,s he returned to her well-earned slumber.
Outside on the stairs Luke lifted his head, distracted by the reflection of the moon in a window. He stretchedhis blood-stained jaws wide,but no sound came out. The face at the window was gone.
In the morning, there was little evidence left of the confrontation, only a thin skim of sand across the steps leading to the living quarters and a dark stain on the handrail. The boys, who slept in the attic at the opposite end of the house near their mother's room, were the only ones to notice. They made no mention of it, certain that they'd be the ones blamed.
Mrs. Graham had not remembered the sounds in the night and would not recall her decision to convey her thoughts about cats and mice to her daughter until several days later. Today was not a day for such small things. She had just learned that her helper, Luke, was leaving Cold Springs.
Hurt, angry and sad at turns, Mrs. Graham’s feelings were somewhat mollified when Luke informed her that he'd arranged a replacement. Bill, the slightly addlepated but strong and capable boy who worked at the livery, would take his place. She figured she'd get by, and truth be known, she’d always supposed Luke would one day go on to better things. He was far too educated, too well read, to do nothing more with his life than fetch and carry.
Miss Eleanor took it hardest. All day she'd been moping about, quiet as a ghost, wouldn't eat, and got through her chores like she was walking in her sleep. Mrs. Graham even wondered if she might be coming down with something and felt her forehead with the back of her hand. No fever, at least. Later, while she was busy waiting on a customer, she was happy to see that Eleanor was feeling well enough to come down tosay her goodbyes.
Luke was out back, saddling the horse he'd bought that morning. "I don't want you to leave," Eleanor told him decisively, her blue eyes locking hard on his dark brown ones.
Shy as a newborn colt, Luke lowered his head and twisted his sweat-stained hat round and round in his hands.
"Nice of you to say," he told her, his sight locked on the ground at some point between them. "’Course, you know I gotta."
Eleanor seemed to consider this and finally she nodded. "Where you gonna go?"
"West, I figure. Wilder places. Smaller towns."
"Lots of animals out there, I hear," said Eleanor. "Coyotes and such. I like coyotes. The way they howl. It's like music sometimes, but lonely too."
"Coyotes do like to sing," Luke agreed, looking up and meeting her eyes. "Wolves, now, they like to keep their silence."
"Must be even lonelier,” said Eleanor.
Luke didn't answer. Eleanor's hug was as strong and unexpected as summer rain. "We'll miss you, me and ma. The boys,too."
Luke patted her roughly on the shoulder. "You'll get along just fine, Miss Eleanor. Them boys too. You're a good lot."
Eleanor let go and stepped back, rubbed at her suspiciously moist eyes.
"You do me this one thing?" Luke asked, looking at her hard to make sure she saw the seriousness of his expression.
“Why, if I can,” agreed Eleanor, making the best promise she could.
"Everyday you go out and you practice with this here." Under his coat, tucked into Luke’s belt, was a gun. It was small in his hand, large in hers as he handed it over.
She took it as careful and respectful as she should have. Luke was pleased.
"You sure you want to give me this? It's an awful nice looking gun," she said.
"It’s a good gun for true, Miss Eleanor. Should help you run off a few weasels and what not.”
“Don’t you need a gun?” she asked.
Luke shook his head. “Got me a rifle for hunting. Never was much for the other kind.” Awkwardly he cleared his throat. “Well, guess I'd better be heading out.” He stepped to his horse's side and swung into the saddle.
"You take care of yourself, promise?" Eleanor said, shielding her eyes from the sun and looking up at him.
"Oh, I plan to," he promised. "Heck, I might even take up howling now and then."
Eleanor smiled--the secret between them a gift.
Luke settled his hat on his head, tipped it to her, and with a smile full of sharp, white teeth, rode away--into the sunset.