The sun was setting in magnificent blaze of colors while a harmonica player filled the air with a jaunty tune. The cowboys finished their supper and began to think about where to stretch out their bedrolls. Tin plates and pots banged and scraped as Ol Cookie the negro cook cleaned up and started a batch of bread dough for tomorrow. The fire that Cookie had used to prepare the evening meal was stoked up into a roaring blaze as the men settled in for a few moments of rest after a long day in the saddle. There were twelve men running this herd of close to two thousand long horns up to Kansas for shipment back east, ten cowboys, Ol Cookie, and Ben Crawder the Trail Boss. Crawder looked over his crew thoughtfully. All cowboys are drifters moving from job to job, and this batch was no different, there were whites, blacks, and Mexicans, all hired for their skill in riding and roping and little else. Some had been in the War that had ended fifteen years ago, and others had fought Apaches and Comanche's in the time since then. Crawder nodded thoughtfully and stretched as he stood up, gazing out at the rapidly darkening sky where the first few stars were beginning to make their appearance. "Whose turn to ride herd guard tonight?" he asked as he looked around the campfire.
* * *
"Augusto is out there right now," One of the other cowboys said as he eased a stone out of the ground where he hoped to spread his blankets shortly.
"It's my turn I guess . . . " a young black cowboy called Jackie stood up regretfully. None of the cowboys liked riding night herd guard very much. It was usually a long sleepless vigil with nothing to show for it but an aching back and a strong desire to do something else with their lives when this drive ended. Off in the distance a coyote howled. Jack paused as he gathered his gear and looked toward the sound. "Hey Roy, can I borrow your pistol for tonight?" he asked an older black cowboy. "If there's one of those bastards out there I'll bet there'll be more snoopin' around before long."
"What's the matter Jackie-boy," a worn-looking white cowboy called Livy grinned from his spot by the fire. "Getting spooked already? That's jus' some ol' coyote lookin' for a meal," The man lay back on his blanket and twisted his sore muscles. Jack ignored the jib and continued gazing at his friend. All of the cowboys had a man they usually liked to work with, these pairings were encouraged on the trail since it made sense to have someone watching your back when you were trying to herd a couple of thousand bad-tempered steers someplace they don't want to go.
"Sho' Jack, you can use my iron tonight," Roy said as he reached among his things for the gun belt. "Pistol be just the thing to scare off a coyote lookin' fer a heifer supper," he handed the holstered gun to Jack.
"Be careful with that thing," Crawder admonished as the young cowboy headed toward the rope line where the horses where tied up for the night. "You start shooting at shadows and you'll spook this herd." But if Jackie heard this advice he showed no sign of it. The young man tossed the big dragoon pistol and its belt over his shoulder and walked out of the firelight and into the gathering darkness.
Old Cookie dumped the last of the dinner plates into a side box on his chuck wagon and limped over to the fire. The old man walked awkwardly because his right leg was several inches shorter than his left, a condition he claimed was the result of youthful accident loading a wagon. This bad leg had kept the cook safe from both the Civil War and much of the action since then. Now, the old man had signed on for this drive and did his job well, keeping the cowboys fed and more or less satisfied when their day was done. Cookie sighed deeply as he settled down beside the fire, stretching his bad leg out in front of him. "Almanac says it'll be a full moon t'night," he wheezed as he looked around the firelight. "Anybody got a smoke?" he asked hopefully.
"I got a chaw," one of the other cowboys said as he held up a plug of twisted tobacco.
"Put that shit away Macon." Livy growled. "The only reason you chew is cause nobody wants to borrow any of it," the cowboy growled as he fumbled with a button on his shirt. "Here Cookie, I got some fixin's. Just remember me when it comes time to scoop out the breakfast tomorrow." The man tossed a small bag to the old cook who caught it deftly before extracting the papers and tobacco to roll a cigarette.
"Oh I'll most certainly remember you Livy," the old cook said as he leaned toward the fire to light his smoke.
"Full moon . . . " Crawder said thoughtfully as he studied the sky, it was the time of day between light and dark. If you looked west the sky still showed a strip of bright yellow slashed with blood red, but if you looked east the stars were out, and the night was coming on. The sound of a horse approaching drew everyone's attention. A Mexican rode into camp and drew up his horse with a flourish. The man dismounted, and walked over to the coffee pot where he pored himself a slug of the dark, harsh brew.
"Is there anything left from supper?" the Mexican asked quietly. The man's voice was a rich tenor that made the question into a song.
"You can eat after you've tended to your horse." Crawder growled. Augusto was not his favorite; the two men had not gotten along since the drive had begun.
Augusto looked at the Trail Boss and nodded. "As you say, senor." He drank off the coffee and walked back to his mount to begin stripping the saddle and blanket from the horse.
"There's biscuits and beans in a pot over there fer ya boy!" the old cook called after Augusto as the man worked on his horse.
"I even saved ya a chili and onion to eat with 'em." Livy smirked as he twisted around to get more comfortable. Several of the other cowboys grinned at this wit. In the distance more coyotes howled . . . This time the animals seemed closer, but the herd remained quiet.
Crawder looked toward the east. "Hey Cookie, when did you say the moon would rise tonight?"
The old cook took a last drag off his cigarette and flipped the butt into the fire. "I didn't say, but if you want to know I can look. Would somebody get my bag from under the wagon seat?"
None of the other cowboys moved at this request so Crawder finally ambled to the front of the wagon to look for the bag. After a day in the saddle he didn't feel like moving too much, either. Crawder found the bag, and brought it back to the old man by the fire. "Here ya go . . . " he said, tossing the canvas sack to the cook who began pawing through it looking for the dog-eared almanac that he kept inside.
Upon finding the book, the cook began turning the greasy pages looking for the right date. Crawder leaned back and watched. It always surprised him when the old ex-slave showed that he could read. Crawder wondered where the man had learnt that skill, but he never asked. "Sunset at 8:08 if today is the 15th. Of August . . . " the old cook croaked as he studied the charts in the book. "Here tis . . . Moonrise at 9:10," Cookie leaned back and waved the book in the air as he grinned at the Trail Boss, "What else you need to know Crawder?"
Ben looked down at his cook and grinned, "I was wondering who should spell Jackie on guard tonight, but I think I know now . . . " he leaned over and playfully punched at the cook. "I'll just send you since you know everything . . . "
"Then there'll be no breakfast in the morning'," the old man shot back as he dodged the poke.
"Thank God for small favors," growled Livy from his spot on the ground.
Riding herd guard is a lonely job. A solitary man in the darkness tends to think too much, if only to stay awake. Now a pensive Jackie rode through the night with Roy's huge dragoon revolver draped across the horn of his saddle. Working cows at night is a touchy business and the cowboy didn't want the heavy gun getting in his way as he made his rounds. Jack noticed that the eastern horizon was a pearl grey line, and that meant the moon was coming up soon. Off in the distance, the coyote howled again. Jack thought about that. Usually when one of the bastards started up a whole chorus of them would join in. He hoped he wouldn't have to use Roy's pistol before the night was over. Jack pulled the weapon from its holster and thumbed the hammer back, and the gun cocked easily, Jack realized he hadn't fired a pistol in a while; he sighted down the barrel for a moment before easing the hammer back to the safe position. Most of the cowboys carried a rifle of some sort, and all had knives, those were tools of the trade out here on the trail, but a pistol was something that gamblers and cavalrymen usually carried. Jack had never been in the army but he knew Roy had. This dragoon colt was proof of that.
The coyote howled again. This time the animal sounded much closer. Jack nudged the flanks of his mount and headed in that direction. He wanted to shoo the beast away before the cows spooked. Jackie glanced at the horizon again; the moon was just shouldering its way into the starry sky. He decided it would be quite a show in another hour or so. As the cowboy rode around the edge of the herd he noticed the steers were nervous. There was the occasional rattle as two sets of horns clattered together, and the dust was beginning to rise as the cows shuffled their hooves in the dirt. Usually by this time of night the herd was quiet and resting, walking all day in the Texas heat wasn't fun for them, either. Jack tried to watch the shadows along the edges of the scrub. This was where lurking predators would hide while waiting for a chance to steal a stray heifer. The coyote howled again, this time just over the hill ahead of him, Jack reined in his horse, thinking that something wasn't right. The last howl had sounded much deeper, and had gone on longer than any coyote he had heard before. The moon was now completely up, beaming its reflected light across the prairie, outlining clumps of grass and the odd scrub brush. Jack eased the pistol from its holster and felt the weight in his hand. What had seemed a convenient gesture back in camp now took on a more comforting feeling as he held the gun by his side.
"That last howl sounded more like a wolf than a coyote." The young man thought as he urged his horse forward. At the top of the hill Jack paused and looked around. To his right was the herd, now milling around a bit as if something was disturbing them. To his left was the prairie. The ground was reasonably flat and dark with the occasional scrub bush outlined in silver moonlight. Jack sat quietly on his horse and watched the ground to his left front, this was where he thought he would spot the animal. He rested the colt across his saddle bow and waited. If he was quiet and the wind didn't blow his scent toward the creature he might get a lucky shot. If he managed to kill the wolf he could always skin it for the $5 bounty. God knew he could always use the money.
Suddenly on his right there was the sound of a cow bawling piteously. Jack heard a tearing noise followed by a heavy thud as a body hit the ground. He swiveled the pistol in the direction of the sound and kicked his horse into motion. The animal seemed reluctant to move though, and finally stopped altogether before they got down the hillside. Jack cursed to himself and kicked at the horse, "Damn horse is spooked over the scent of a wolf . . . " he thought. That's when he saw the dead steer laying on the ground. "Dammit. Crawder gonna be mad as Hell about this!" he muttered to himself. Jackie swung down from the frightened horse and wrapped the reins around a scrub tree. He remembered to keep the pistol out in front of himself and even took a second to cock the gun as walked toward the dead steer. Jack looked around carefully, still no sign of the coyote or wolf, whatever the hell it was. "Must be a big son-of-bitch to take down a steer by itself," he thought.
Behind him Jack's horse started pawing the ground and neighing in a frightened manner. The cowboy glanced at the animal and then faced back toward the dead steer. That's when he saw it. From behind the body a head slowly arose. The moonlight showed the features of a wolf, and the animal seemed to chewing on the liver of the cow it had killed. Blood stained the silver gray fur of the muzzle and chest of the big beast. "Jesus Christ, it's a monster!" Jackie thought as he sighted down the suddenly unsteady barrel of the revolver. The cowboy used his other hand to steady the gun as he took a deep breath and pulled the trigger. The shot went low and a hole appeared in the back of the dead steer just underneath where the wolf head was at. Jackie knew he must have hit something, because there was a howl of rage and suddenly the wolf seemed to grow.
Jack stood rooted to the spot as the wolf changed shape. The creature seemed to unfold into a bloody, grey-furred, man-like monster that towered over him. The thing seemed to have hands that were stiff paw-like claws mounted on long wiry looking arms. Jackie never did see the legs because they were hidden behind the dead steer, but they must have been powerful because the creature leaped over the body and lunged at the frightened man. Behind him Jack heard his horse go wild with fright, rearing and pulling at the knotted reins in the scrub. The cowboy managed to point and fire the pistol again before the wolf-monster was on him . . .
Back in camp, the shots woke Crawder from a deep sleep. The Trail Boss sat up and looked around. The moon was up and he guessed it must be close to eleven at night. Livy was sitting up as well.
"Did you hear that?" the cowboy asked from his spot across the dying fire.
"No I just woke up. What was it?" Ben asked.
"I heard a shot," Livy answered.
"Two shots," Roy spoke from his place on the ground. The black man sat up, "Two shots from a .44! Crawder, that boy seen something out there tonight!"
"We'll ask him about it when we catch up to him," Crawder said as he tossed his blanket aside and ran for the horse line. "Get the boys up! The herd is on the move!" Crawder yelled, "UP boys! UP! STAMPEDE! STAMPEDE!
Two thousand head of longhorn cattle were on the move. The sound of the shots had frightened the skittish herd into motion. Now, a dull rumble filled the air as the steers ran away from the object of their terror. With only unreasoning fear to guide them, the big beef cows mowed down anything in their path as they fled the danger behind. Fortunately Crawder's crew was not in the immediate line of the herd's flight. The cattle were headed southwest back into Texas, and they would have a good head start before the cowboys could get organized to stop them.
Crawder cursed loudly as he slung his saddle onto the nearest horse and frantically tightened the girth and buckles, making the animal whinny in pain as he over-tightened some of the fasteners. By now the other cowboys were up and running to their mounts, several of the better horsemen had skipped the saddle altogether and were riding bareback for the head of the herd. If they could turn the lead animals, the rest of the herd would circle, gradually slowing down until the entire mass would again settle down for the night. Crawder vaulted into the saddle and kicked his horse into a gallop, racing through the moonlit night to get in front of the herd. Back in the camp, the remaining men saddled up and followed as best they could. It took almost two hours but the men finally circled the herd and quieted them down.
Crawder looked over his crew as the men gathered on a small hillock close by their charges. Like himself, most of the men sat wearily slumped in their saddles, some hatless, others without their coats or shirts. Two of the men's horses didn't have saddles at all, just a ragged blanket between their buttocks and the rough hair of the horses back, they reminded Crawder of Indians when they handled their horses like that, but they had managed to turn the herd, and he was glad. Now there was another matter to attend to, and Crawder wasn't looking forward to it.
"Where's Jackie?" he asked as he looked around.
"Ain't seen him since he took off after supper," somebody answered. The others agreed, the young cowboy hadn't helped stop the herd, and wasn't anywhere around.
Crawder detailed a southerner they called Macon, and Augusto to watch the herd, then, turning to the others he said, "The rest of you, spread out, form a line, and work back toward the camp. Look for Jackie's horse, it must be around somewhere." The Trail Boss looked at the night sky, the position of the moon and stars said that there was probably four or five hours till daylight. Crawder thought angrily that if that kid was shooting at shadows and caused this stampede, he was going to ride night guard for the rest of this trip.
They didn't find Jackie's horse till they had almost reached the camp. The animal was nibbling at a bush, and there was a long broken stick tied to the reins. A little later they found the body of the steer, and just as the sun started over the horizon they found Jackie. The young black man was lying on his back with his throat torn out. There was blood everywhere and he was still gripping the big dragoon colt in his right hand.
"What kilt him like that?" a slightly built cowboy said in awe as he looked down at the body.
Roy was kneeling beside Jackie and slowly pulled his pistol from the man's hand. The gun was caked with blood. "Looks like a wolf," he said absently as he wrapped the gun in a piece of Jackie's shirt.
"That's a damn big wolf," Crawder said as he swung down from his horse and stretched his back. "I never heard of a wolf doing anything like this either. Least ways not by itself," He looked around the body.
Another cowboy rode up, "Jesus," he said, "Whatever kilt him sure made a mess of him."
Crawder wanted to end this quickly, the cowboys were going to spook themselves, and then he would never get them moving again. Action was needed. "You two," he pointed, "Slim and Boggs, ride over to Cookie's wagon and grab some tools. We want to get this fellow underground before the sun gets too high. Roy, I need you here for a bit."
"What about the herd?" Boggs asked.
"They'll just have to wait for now, if you see anyone else on the way to camp send a couple down to relieve Augusto and Macon, they must be beat." The cowboys turned to leave and Crawder had another thought. "Hey, tell the old man to make an extra big breakfast this morning too!" turning back to Roy and the dead man Crawder sighed, "Looks like we're gonna need it."
Roy had stood up and was looking at the Trail Boss intently. "Crawder, you read sign?" he asked.
Ben Crawder thought back to his early days when he was riding herd for another crew. He had learned to read certain tracks and understand what they meant back then, but that was a long time ago and he was rusty at the skill. "Some, what's the point?" he asked as he looked at the dead man, "Whatever killed him is long gone."
Roy pointed to a piece of shredded shirt that had been cast aside, using a stick, he flipped the rag away revealing a huge elongated print that seemed to be part wolf and part something else. "You ever see anything like that before?" he asked.
Crawder knelt by the print and studied it. "Nooo." He removed his hat and rubbed his dirty hair with a gloved hand. "What is it?" he asked.
"When I was in the 10th Cavalry, there was an old Indian tracker we used to use. He was a Tonto Apache, and was nearly crippled with arthritis, but he was the best tracker we had. If that old man read the signs and said don't go down that wash, you didn't, you know what I'm sayin'?" Crawder nodded. Apache knew how to track better than any man, if danger was lurking out there they could feel it, and they could tell you if they felt like it.
Crawder stood up. "You seen somethin' like this before?" he asked, as he motioned toward the strange print in the dust.
"Once." Roy flipped the rag so that the track was obliterated. "We were on patrol. There were twenty of us and the old Indian. Grandfather, we called him. Something came to camp one night and killed a horse same way as that cow. Butchered it out and ate the liver. You notice the guts was ripped out of that steer?" Crawder nodded and the black man went on with his tale. "When we wanted to go out after whatever it was, the old man walked over to the body and looked around it. He shook his head and said, "Don't go." Roy looked down at Jackie's body. "We didn't listen. The Sergeant sent ten men to follow the tracks, and kill whatever we found. Those men were gone twelve hours. Five of them came back. I was one of them."
"Did you see it?" Crawder asked.
"See it? Oh, we had some glimpses of it. It was big as a grizzly and covered in fur, but it could walk like a man when it wanted to." Roy laughed quietly. "I quit the army and came back east to get away from it."
"IT." Crawder said in a perturbed tone. "Roy you talk like it was some sort of monster or something. What was it really? Apaches?"
Roy shook his head, "I wished to Hell it was Apaches. Those we could fight and kill if we had too."
"Well what was it?" Crawder asked. "A mountain lion?"
"Grandfather called it The-Wolf-Who-Walks-Like-A-Man. He said that they were very rare in the mountains, and that they were the children of the Wolf Spirit." Roy spat on the ground "We called it a werewolf."
Crawder made a face, "A werewolf?' he said. "Part wolf and part man? That's not a real thing is it?"
Roy gestured toward Jackie's body "There's your answer boss," he said.
Ben Crawder was a practical man, he liked to think a problem through and come to some sort of decision. Now he was facing a problem that didn't seem to have any logical solution. He looked down at Jackie's body. The blood was drying in the morning sun and flies were stating to settle on the dead man. Using his hat Crawder fanned the insects away from his ex-employee. "If it was a werewolf," he said finally. "Did Grandfather tell you anyway to fight it?"
Roy shook his head. "The old man told stories about a lot of things. That's why we kept him around," he looked at the horizon trying to remember some half-forgotten Indian legend that he had heard years ago. "Grandfather said that the werewolf comes with the full moon, it kills and eats, then hides by day in the body of a man," Roy looked back at Crawder, "That's the easy part. But Grandfather said there was something that the werewolf feared as well, and it seems to me like it was a cross or something."
"A cross? Crawder said. "There must have been something else, there's crosses everywhere," Behind him Crawder could hear Boggs and Slim riding back with the tools. "For now don't mention this to the others OK? Not until we got some way to fight this wolf-thing if that's what it is . . . " Ben Crawder leaned over and grabbed a piece of Jackie's shirt, "Now, lets cover his face and keep the flies off him till we get a hole dug."
"Sure," Roy frowned, and leaned over his young friend. "Never thought I'd be doing this again though."
They buried the young cowboy in the shade and headed back to camp. Cookie had made extras for breakfast and there was plenty of coffee to wash the biscuits and oatmeal down with. Ben knew he had to say something to the men about Jackie's death. But how do you tell your crew that a man died from a werewolf bite? That one is easy to answer, he thought, "You don't."
After all of the men had eaten and rested a bit, the Trail Boss stood up and looked over his crew. The men were all tired looking; their faces were drawn and pinched with fatigue. Behind them were tethered the horses they had used last night, these animals were tired as well. Ben Crawder wondered how he looked, and then realized that he was really looking into a mirror when he looked at his men. Of everyone present, only Cookie seemed fresh and ready for the new day and whatever it would bring, but the old man hadn't spent the night in the saddle chasing a herd of long-horns across the prairie. Cookie stumped around the camp, serving food to the tired men, and cracking jokes just ornery enough to get them to think of something other than the empty saddle where Jackie should be sitting.
Ben Crawder wanted to give his men something other than a fresh death to think about too. He paused a moment, gauging dates and distances in his head, the crew had been pushing pretty hard and they deserved a bit of rest, this business with Jackie only made the choice that much easier. The Trail Boss made his decision and faced the men. "Boy's, we've had a hard trip so far, and you've all been working hard. Now, here's what I'd like to do. Kiowa Springs is about fifteen miles northwest of here. It's not too far out of our way. If you fellows don't mind an extra day on the trail, we can all rest a bit and water the stock and ourselves before we get to town up in Kansas." Crawder waited for a reaction from the men, and he wasn't disappointed.
Predictably it was Livy who spoke up first, "I wouldn't mind a day off and a wash."
"You could use one." Macon chuckled.
"We got enough beans and bacon for an extra day or two," Cookie chimed in.
Crawder caught Roy watching him as he cleaned his big pistol of the blood that was fouling the cylinder. "What do you think Roy?" he asked.
Roy took his time answering; he wiped the gun frame and re-inserted the cylinder, snapping the pins that held it in place as he looked up at his boss. "Crawder, I signed on to trail this herd to Kansas, if you want to walk us to Canada first I'll follow. But boss, there is one thing I won't do."
Crawder looked at Roy and leaned against Cookie's wagon, "What's that Roy?" he said expecting a joke.
"I won't ride down that wash." The black cowboy said cryptically as he returned to his gun cleaning and the conversation ended on a sour note.
Crawder guided the herd to Kiowa Springs. They arrived that afternoon, and the cowboys let the animals water themselves, while the men adjourned to a nearby tank where they drank their fill. After the men had swallowed as much water as they could hold they filled Cookie's barrels on the chuck wagon and then started splashing in the tank, trying to wash off some of the trail dust they had accumulated. After dousing himself, Crawder rode over to the nearby herd and looked things over. The cows were quiet and grazing on some of the lush grass that grew around the springs. They would be alright for a while. The Trail Boss rode over to where Cookie was stirring a big pot of beans and was surprised to see a haunch of beef roasting over the fire.
* * *
"Where'd that come from?" Ben asked as the old cook held up a tin cup of strong coffee for him to drink.
"That cow t' was butchered last night," the old man answered. "Didn't see any reason for it all to go to waste."
Crawder nodded. "Yeah. I suppose the company will take it out of the boy's pay anyway." Cookie grinned. "Company don't have to know everything Ben."
Crawder nodded agreement, then looked at the old cook before answering. "Company man counted'em before we left, you can bet they'll count'em when we get there, too." He drank some of the coffee, then gestured toward the beef haunch sizzling over the fire, "How'd you find the carcass out there in the scrub? It was pretty far from the camp," he asked idly.
Cookie shrugged, "I smelt the blood," the old man said. "You get as old as I am and you get a nose for that sort of thing."
Ben Crawder nodded at the cook's answer, but his attention had shifted to the sky, "I'm gonna have everyone eat together tonight Cookie. I'm thinkin' of doubling up on the night guards." He looked down at the cook, "Just to keep everyone awake."
Cookie studied the Trail Boss for a moment before nodding his head. "Might not be a bad idea," he said. "Moon's full for another two nights according to the almanac."
"I know," Crawder said as he handed back the tin cup and turned his horse toward the herd.
Cookie out did himself on the dinner that night. Instead of the usual beans and bacon, the old cook had prepared some barbeque sauce and served that with the roasted beef, there were beans (of course) and cornbread with wild honey from a hive the old cook had spotted in a tree by the spring. The cowboys lounged around the campfire stuffing themselves with food as they watched the sun ease down toward the horizon. It was only after the meal was over that the subject of night rider for the herd come up again. Predictably, it was Livy who started the conversation, "So who wants to ride first tonight?" he grinned as he leaned back on his saddle. Nobody answered, and several of the cowboys suddenly seemed nervous.
Inwardly cursing the man, Crawder wiped his hands on his chaps and spoke up. "I think we can double up tonight and tomorrow," he said. "Cookie says, the moon will be full both nights and that means more critters sneaking around the herd. We should be ready." More of the men exchanged glances. Crawder continued, "You all have a partner you like to work with, I'll just let you boys sort out who rides with who. I'm thinking two pairs of riders switching with their relief about 2 o'clock."
Several of the cowboys groaned at this, but Crawder ignored them, he looked over at Cookie, "When does your book say the moon will rise tonight?"
"Thought you might want to know," the old man grinned. "Moon comes up at 9:04 tonight. I checked."
"Uh, Ben?" Roy stood up and motioned to Crawder as he walked over behind the chuck wagon. Ben followed the cowboy and stopped when the man turned to face him. "Ben, Jackie was my partner . . . " he started to explain.
"I know, you'll ride with me." Crawder said.
"Oh," the man looked off toward the herd. "Are we going out soon?"
"When it gets dark, Roy, we need to try to keep things as normal as we can, OK? If the boys get too shook up we'll never get to Kansas." Crawder explained.
"I realize that." The black cowboy agreed. "I remembered some more of Grandfather's stories about the werewolf. "
Crawder didn't want to hear anymore about monsters right now. He had spent the day telling himself that a big lobo had killed one of his cowboys, and he liked it that way. This talk of were-monsters was unsettling, and it smacked of the unknown, Crawder didn't want to deal with that. He had ten men and two thousand steers to worry about.
Roy mistook Crawder's hesitation for interest, and went ahead with his tale. "If I remember Grandfather's words right, the werewolf came be harmed or kilt with a cross, a Holy symbol blessed by a priest, or with something made of silver."
"Silver?" Crawder grunted. "Why silver?"
"I don't know, that's just what Grandfather said." Roy shrugged.
"You sure?" Crawder asked.
Roy nodded and held out his hand "Look at these . . . " There were five .44 cartridges in his palm. " . . . See the tips?"
Crawder looked at the bullets closely; he saw that the black cowboy had carefully cut a cross into the heads of each of the bullets. "Well, those will certainly make a mess of anything they hit," He said.
The cowboy pressed the bullets into Crawder's hand, "They ain't blessed, but the cross should make'em more potent against the thing," Roy said. "I made a mess of 'em fer my pistol too."
"What are you two whisperin' about back here?" Cookie's voice croaked out of the gathering darkness.
"Roy was concerned about who he rides with since Jackie was his partner." Ben said automatically, as he stuffed the bullets in his jacket pocket. "I told him that he could ride with me," he added as he turned to face the old man.
Cookie stood watching them. The firelight shone on half of his face making the old cook look sinister in the gathering darkness. Ben abruptly stalked by the cook, and headed back toward the campfire, "C'mon, we need to get the night watch settled before it gets full dark," he said.
"Good thinkin' Ben." The cook smiled at Roy as both men walked back around the wagon. "Our boss got a lot on his mind?" he asked.
"Yeah," Roy answered. "Lot's to do . . . " and he headed toward his blanket roll where he began oiling his big pistol again.
To be fair and to show the others that he would do the same work that they had to do, Crawder had himself and Roy stand first watch. He also had Livy and Macon saddle up. "We'll ride west and south of the herd," he told Livy, "While you fellas' ride north and east. That way we can see each other once in a while. If you hear anything working around out there, stay put and make sure of where it's headed before you do anything, and we'll do the same."
For once Livy didn't have a smart answer, he just clamped his jaw tight and nodded. Macon walked a pair of horses over for the two men. They were all using fresh animals tonight from the string of spares that trailed from the back of the chuck wagon. Livy looked at his partner and made a face.
"Jesus man, where'd you come up with that thing?" he said. Crawder looked over at Macon; the southerner had a long holster strapped awkwardly to his leg. Inside the holster the butt of a sawed-off shotgun was sticking out.
Macon appeared embarrassed. "Ma Daddy carried this durin' the war," he said as he patted the stubby gun, "He gifted it to me when I left home, but I never had no need to carry it till now," the young Georgian looked at the others. "You let Jackie carry Roy's dragoon t'other night. What's the difference?"
Crawder busied himself with checking his tack. "I don't care what you strap on yourself as long as you stay awake and do your job." He answered over his shoulder. "Jus' remember we're here to watch those steers, not go bat-shit crazy over some big lobo in the brush," he turned to face the two men, "Jus' do your jobs and stay awake." The two men nodded as they mounted up and headed out. Roy walked over leading the horse he had selected for this nights work, a dark colored mare.
"You ready?" Crawder asked.
"Ready," the ex-cavalryman said as he patted his side where the big dragoon pistol rested in its holster.
"Damn man," Crawder said as he slung his leg over his mount, "we are going on a night ride, not to war."
"I here you," Roy answered. The two men were silent as they rode out, the clatter of the camp dwindled to silence as the other cowboys settled down for the night. The two men rode quietly around the herd, watching the scrub brush and the night sky. Then, after they had been out about an hour, they heard the howl of a wolf to the north of them . . .
Livy and Macon heard the howl as well; they reined in their mounts and listened.
Macon looked around nervously, "Should we go after it?" he asked.
"Shut-up and listen." Livy growled. The older cowboy squinted into the night; there was no breeze, and very few clouds. He eased his right hand down to where he kept his rifle in its scabbard. Pulling the weapon out Livy checked the action by moonlight; then cradled the gun across his saddle bow. "That bastard is out there again tonight," he whispered. "It's following us."
"Lordy Livy, what're we gonna do?" Macon's hands fiddled with the reins, his horse felt the man's nervousness, and started stamping its hooves in response.
Livy spat into the dust. "Kill it," he murmured. "Now settle down. We know it's out there now, if we can figure where its going to hit us we can be ready fer it." Livy grinned "If it's as big a lobo as it sounds, there'll be a good bounty paid fer the skin. We split 50-50," he looked at Macon and grinned.
Macon smiled now. The thought of the bounty money seemed to cause the southerner to relax a little, he scratched an ear and said "When I was young, if we had a fox stalking the farm we'd stake an animal out as bait . . . " he looked toward the herd, then at Livy. "You reckon Crawder will mind?"
Livy looked at his partner. "Damn boy, you got a head on your shoulders after all," and he slid his rifle back in its sheath and reached for his lasso. Pausing for a moment as he paid out some of the rope, Livy looked toward the herd. "Let's find us a volunteer."
Out in the scrub the wolf howled again.
"You hear that?" Roy said out of the darkness. The voice startled Crawder, who looked around for a moment before he found his partner riding off to his left and a little behind him.
"Yeah," he glanced back at Roy, the black man had on a dark poncho and hat, and the horse he was riding was dark as well, the entire effect was that of a blob of darkness moving slowly through the night. "Sounded like it was to the north?"
"Northeast." Roy answered.
Ben met the black mans questioning look. "Let's go."
Roy nodded "Quietly," he said.
The two men trotted their horses around the herd. Time passed, and Crawder began to doubt the wisdom of his actions. The night was hot, and despite his recent wash Ben felt himself sweating under his shirt and jacket. The occasional cloud floating across the full moon threw the landscape into pitch darkness and made it very hard to see. The horses were steady enough, but the herd was once again starting to move around as if they sensed something amiss.
"Hey Crawder, you got your Winchester don't you?" Roy murmured from off to his left.
Crawder nodded in the darkness and then realized that the other man couldn't see the gesture.
"Yeah," he answered.
"Not so loud man. If this thing is the same as what I saw in Arizona it'll hear you a mile away." Roy urged his horse up next to his boss. "You got them cartridges I crossed for you?"
Ben had forgotten the special slugs Roy had shown him earlier, they were still in his jacket pocket. "I got'em, but we won't need anything like that. This has to be just a big wolf," he answered, but he didn't sound like he really believed the words.
Roy was silent for a moment. "Seeing is believing boss," was all he said as he allowed his mount to lag back into a trailing position once again. The wolf howled at the moon and the steers became visibly more nervous. Roy and Ben were almost to the opposite side of the herd now. Up ahead they heard a cow bawling in terror. The night echoed with the sound of a rifle blazing away. One shot followed by two more in quick succession.
Ben kicked his horse into a gallop and headed for the sound of the gunfire. Behind him he heard the hooves of Roy's mount as the cowboy trotted after him. Up ahead the two men heard the BOOM! Of Macon's shotgun and then a long wail of terror that was cut short in mid-screech. Roy kicked his horse harder, but the animal was suddenly shying away from where he wanted it to go. The horse was fighting the reins, something no trained cowpony would ever do. Rather than fight the horse Crawder pulled up on the reins and brought the animal to a halt. He listened. Behind him Roy walked his horse silently into position, once again on his left, and to his rear.
"You hear that?" Crawder whispered.
"Couldn't help but hear it." Roy whispered back. "It's out there."
Crawder pulled his rifle free from his saddle. "I'm going to look for the boys. Stay here or come with me, it's up to you."
Roy hesitated, and seemed to be listening for something, but there were no sounds in the night except the occasional cricket chirping away and the steers moving about uneasily in the darkness. He dismounted and tossed his reins into a nearby scrub tree. The two men started walking through the grass. The tall dew covered prairie plants soaked their boots and pants after only a few steps. Crawder walked more or less upright with his rifle pointed forward, while Roy crossed over behind his boss to the right side, here he moved along as carefully as he could, crouched low with his pistol cocked and pointed ahead of him. Both men said nothing, they were looking ahead of themselves and down at the ground. Every hump and stand of weeds seemed to shelter a possible wolf. Nowhere was safe. They moved like that for what seemed like an eternity. The long stalks of the prairie plants swished around them, and moths flickered across their line of sight, once some small animal bolted across their path.
Crawder brought his rifle up to fire before he realized that he was trying to sight on a rabbit. He cursed under his breath as he lowered the weapon. The night had been quiet since they had heard the gunfire and the scream, now he was wondering what to do next. Behind him, Crawder could hear Roy stepping lightly around something lying in the grass; he turned to speak to the man and almost threw up. Roy was standing beside something that Crawder at first took for a pile of bloody rags. Then it dawned on him that what he was looking at was what was left of Macon the cowboy. It looked like every bone in the man's body had been broken, and then the body had been tossed aside. The long holster that had held the sawed-off shotgun was empty.
Crawder looked at Roy who shrugged, "Still think we ain't at war Crawder?" he asked tightly.
"Jesus," Crawder managed to get out, "I never seen a man so broken up."
"The werewolf is strong . . . " Roy said " . . . and Macon's shotgun must have stung it a little to piss it off so much. C'mon Crawder, we can't do this boy no good. Let's see if we can find Livy. That was his rifle we heard."
"Yeah," Crawder wiped his face with one hand. "God what a mess that thing made of him."
Roy turned to Crawder, the black man was all cavalryman now, "Look man, take a deep breath, look anywhere but at the body, but pay attention! You're not getting me kilt because you were worryin' about a dead man!" Then Roy turned and disappeared into the high weeds crouched low with his gun pointed forward. Ben Crawder followed instructions. Roy had seen this sort of thing before. He had fought Apaches', he had seen something like this monster in the deserts of the southwest. He knew what to do. Then Crawder remembered that Roy had said he had quit the army and left the desert to get away from the thing in the first place . . . Crawder shook himself like a horse being bitten by flies. He took a deep breath, and started through the weeds behind Roy, crouched low with his rifle pointed forward.
Ten long minutes later they found the steer. The animal had a rope looped around its horns, with the long end tied off on a stout mesquite bush. "Looks like they tried to set a trap," Roy said as he surveyed the dead animal. The belly of the steer had been torn open and the entrails pulled out on the ground. The liver was missing.
Crawder's boot kicked something in the darkness at his feet, it was Macon's shotgun. He picked the weapon up out of the dirt and noticed that there were several loose shells lying on the ground, also. "Here's Macon's gun," he commented as he held up the shotgun. But Roy wasn't paying attention to him; the black man was standing beside the dead steer looking around, as if he was expecting something.
"Wonder where Livy is?" Crawder said.
"I'm lookin' for him now," Roy answered shortly, as he slowly surveyed the dark landscape around them.
"They thought they were smart," Crawder said as he knelt by the steer and prodded it with the barrel of the shotgun, the same oddly shaped tracks were everywhere in the dust by the dead animal.
"They played it right." Roy answered, "But they didn't have nothing that would hurt that thing."
"Something hurt it." Crawder said as he stood up and brandished the shotgun. "That monster won't have taken the time to kill Macon like that if it hadn't been in pain."
"Grandfather used to say that the Wolf-Who-Walks-Like-A-Man was always in pain," Roy's attention settled on a nearby pile of brush and sticks, "That's why they're so mean." The cowboy walked over to the pile, giving the heap a wide berth as he neared it. Crawder looked up as Roy cocked his pistol and stepped around behind the brush.
"Roy?" Ben called, he suddenly had a terrible fear of being alone out here in the night with whatever had killed the cowboys.
"Right here Crawder," Roy answered softly. "I found Livy."
Crawder didn't know if he wanted to see what was left of the other cowboy or not, but he started walking toward the brush
"I think he's still alive." Roy continued. Off in the distance a wolf howled.
Crawder immediately faced the direction of the howl. "That's back toward the camp!" he said tightly.
Roy ignored the wolf in the night however, "This man is alive. We need some light, I think he is clawed pretty badly, but I can't tell in the dark." Roy looked around, "Crawder, can you get a small fire going?"
Ben was already on his knees raking together a small pile of grass and twigs. He used this as tender and lit it with a match. The flame rose and light flooded the small area around the two men. "This light'll kill our night vision," Crawder said as he looked toward the camp again. There was the sound of a single gunshot in the distance, then it seemed like every gun in camp was shooting. The dark night was rent with flashes and sounds as the various weapons sounded off. The herd picked up on the sound and started to move away from it. "Roy, the herd is starting to move again!" Crawder shouted. "Something's going on back in camp! I need to get over there . . . " But despite Crawder's concern, the herd merely flowed away from the camps position. For some reason the tired steers refused to break into a run tonight. Crawder silently thanked God for that small favor.
There was a rustling sound as Roy straightened Livy's body. The man was breathing and Roy had rolled him around so that he was resting on his back looking up at the night sky. Whatever had hit the older cowboy had clawed him across his face; Livy wasn't a handsome fellow to begin with, now he had three diagonal claw marks scratched across his forehead and the bridge of his nose. The left eye was swelled shut and it seemed that his right shoulder might be broken as well. There were the same odd wolf tracks all around. Livy's rifle was broken in two pieces beside him on the ground. The fire light gleamed off of brass cartridges mixed with blood spots in the dirt. Roy picked up one of the bullets and looked at the tip before holding the bullet out for Crawder to examine. "Look at this." The ex-cavalryman said. The tip of the bullet had been filed flat and then a crude X had been cut into it.
"Dum-dum's" Crawder said as he glanced at the slug.
"Livy's a smart-ass, but he wasn't stupid." Roy agreed. "Those slugs would have torn the heart out of anything they hit."
"An X is a lot like a cross." Crawder said thoughtfully.
"Right again Boss," Roy nodded. " . . . and they seemed to have worked, see the blood stains in the dirt? Now we got to figure what to do next."
Ben fished in his jacket pocket and pulled out the handful of special bullets that Roy had given him earlier. "First things first . . . " he said as he emptied his rifle of cartridges and replaced them with the special bullets. Far away they heard the wolf howl again. This time they thought they detected a note of pain in the plaintive cry.
"I go back for the horses," Crawder said as he handed the shotgun and shells to Roy, "then bring yours here. I need to get back over to the camp. I think that werewolf is over there someplace."
Roy nodded as he looked around for some more wood to toss on the small fire. "I'll keep this going, but I'm not staying outlined in this light. I'll be off somewhere close, "he said.
On the way back to where they had tied the horses Crawder had to pass the body of Macon lying in the tall grass. The man had been thrown almost sixty feet from where they found the shotgun and the steer. Crawder didn't dwell on what injuries had killed the southerner, because he knew that he was going to have to look at the man tomorrow in the day light as they buried him. The horses were still skittish when he reached them, but they would move when he mounted his and kicked them into motion. He was back by Livy's fire in no time, Ben tied Roy's horse to a brittle bush, he didn't see the black cowboy and didn't say anything as he tied the horse off. If Roy wanted to remain hidden that was his business. He dismounted from his horse and took his canteen from the saddle; carefully he poured a little water on Livy's mouth. The man stirred and winced as the pain rolled over him. Ben poured a little more water onto the cuts on the man's face and told him to lie still.
"Ya git it?" the damaged mouth asked.
"Not yet Livy, hold on man, helps coming." Crawder answered as he mounted back up and headed for camp.
The campfire was roaring when Crawder reached it a good twenty minutes later. The figures of several of the cowboys were outlined by the light, and Ben understood why Roy had not wanted to stay close to their small fire, an outline of a man was as good as a target on a fence post. The cowboys crowded around Crawder as he rode into camp, they all looked scared, several had cuts and scrapes, while one man lay by the fire, his face white with pain as he nursed what was obviously a bullet wound in his lower right leg.
"What's going on here?" Crawder asked as he dismounted.
The men all started talking at once; even the wounded man by the fire had something to add to the din. Crawder finally held up his hands for quiet, and then he picked one man to tell the tale. "You, Boggs, tell it, and do it so you don't leave anything out," the Trail Boss said as he and walked over to the chuck wagon for a drink of water. He hadn't realize how thirsty being scared made a man.
The other cowboys stood back a bit, giving Boggs some room as he started to tell what had been going on. The man took off his hat and looked around at the others before launching into his story, "After you men rode out for the night, the rest of us sorta laid around the fire for a bit, gettin' ready to sleep." Crawder looked at the man and nodded to show he was listening. Boggs brushed a lock of hair out of his eyes before he went on, "I reckon you weren't gone an hour when we heard the wolf howling again. We all sorta looked at each other and didn't say nothin'. Couple of the boys pulled out their pieces and checked that they was ready, just in case. Somebody said we ought'a have a couple horses saddled in case the herd got restless, you know, after last night and all . . . "
Crawder nodded again, "What happened then?" he said as he dipped more water out of the barrel.
The man paused to think it through before continuing. "Well, we heard a steer bawling like we did last night, and then the rifle shots and the blast of Macon's shotgun." The man looked down now, "Then that scream. That spooked most everyone here."
Crawder nodded again, "Roy and I heard all that too," he said.
"After the scream things got quiet again," Boggs continued. "We talked it over, and some was for going out and checking on you boys and some was for waiting a bit to see if'n you came back yourselves . . . " Here Boggs looked around at his mates. "That was when we started hearing the growling sounds outside of the camp."
"Growling sounds?" Crawder said.
"Yeah, soft sounds like a big dog warning ya' to stay back when it's hurt. That sort of thing . . . " another cowboy suddenly added.
Boggs looked over at the man and nodded agreement. "Crawder, there was somethin' out there as sure as I'm a white man. We never did actually see it, but you could feel it out there."
Ben pointed at the wounded man. "How'd that happen?" he asked.
"When the growling started everyone pulled their guns out. Nobody knew exactly where to shoot, but they wanted to be ready. This here boy was standing by the chuck wagon. Somebody got jittery and squeezed a round off. When that happened everyone started shooting at shadows and this'n caught a stray bullet." He walked over to the wounded man "We wrapped the wound up best we could, it didn't hit the bone or nothin'."
Crawder looked around; he had just realized that someone was missing from the camp. "Where's Cookie?" he asked.
Boggs looked ashamed, "Well, that's the real tough part to explain Boss." He said as he turned to face Ben. "Ain't nobody here seen the old man since you boys rode out this evening."
"God . . . " Crawder thought, " . . . how was he going to explain this? Two men dead, one clawed half to death, one wounded, and now one man simply missing?" he realized the others were looking at him, waiting for him to make a decision, to tell them what to do. Ben tossed the rest of his water on the ground. "Four of you, walk around the camp in a circle, look for Cookie or tracks where he might have gone off to. The other three mount up and come with me, Roy is still out there with Livy and Macon, and we need to bring them in." He looked at the night sky; the moon was almost directly overhead. Man, was he tired, and the night was only going to get worse when the cowboys got a look at Macon's body out there in the scrub. Then there was the herd to worry about too. So far, the cows had remained restless, but fairly quiet despite the ruckus. But Crawder knew he couldn't count on that luck holding up all night. That meant he'd have to set another cattle guard, exposing yet another man, or pair of men to whatever danger was lurking out in the prairie night. How much longer would the cowboys do what they were told when their numbers were being steadily whittled down?
Mentally Crawder shrugged. He'd handle that when the time came, now he needed to bring in his people and secure the camp if he could. As the men started walking around the edge of the camp looking for the cook, the other cowboys saddled their mounts and he led the three of them out into the darkness. Ben Crawder watched these three men carefully for any sign of fear. All of the men were Mexican's, they all were short in stature, but excellent horsemen, two of these men had ridden out into the stampede last night without the benefit of a saddle. Crawder hoped they wouldn't break down when they saw what was left of Macon.
The ride back to where Roy and Livy were was longer than Crawder's trip to the camp had been. Ben had figured he could use the small fire they had lit as a guide to where Livy lay, but the light seemed to be lost in the prairie night. So Ben rode carefully, looking for the dead steer, and once he found that he knew he was close to where the hurt cowboy was. Crawder looked behind himself as he drew up beside the dead animal; the three Mexicans had bunched up looking down at the body, talking quietly in Spanish.
"El lobo sure make a mess of this beef." Augusto finally said in English. The other two men murmured their agreement.
Ben couldn't argue with that assessment, he looked around. Where the Hell was Roy? He had to have heard them coming. The man's horse was still tied to the brittle bush where Crawder had left it. The Trail Boss dismounted. Now that he had his bearings he could remember where Livy was laying behind the stand of bushes. He took two steps and stopped, remembering what Roy had said about being careful. He turned back to his horse and removed his rifle from the saddle sheath. "You men stay here till I see what's what," he said.
"As you wish senor," one of the Mexicans answered. All three men were anxiously scanning the surrounding brush.
Cocking the weapon, Crawder advanced on Livy's position. The man was laying where he had left him, only now he was propped up with Macon's shotgun pointed in his direction. "Livy, it's me Crawder," Ben said. The shotgun wavered a moment and Crawder realized that the wounded man was motioning him closer. The fire Crawder had made earlier had burned down to a few embers, but there was still plenty of heat coming from the ashes. He stepped around the debris and knelt beside the clawed man. "Where's Roy?" He asked.
Livy motioned him closer and Crawder could make out a whisper coming through a set of torn and bleeding lips, "Roy said to tell ya, "It went down the wash . . . " and he's gone in after it."
Crawder looked at the hurt man in disbelief. "He went after it alone?" he said.
Livy nodded. "Sorry bout this Crawder, Macon and me thought we had it cold with that steer as bait, . . . " the man's eyes closed in pain and remembering. " . . . It was so damn big and fast . . . " He said as he came back from where the memory had taken him. "I shot it." He said proudly, "I hit the bastard square, but it didn't do nothin' to it. Jus' made it mad . . . I got two more rounds off before it jumped me . . . That was when Macon opened up with that cannon of his..." He looked down suddenly realizing he was holding the shotgun now. "Where's the boy at?" he asked quietly.
"Out in the brush." Crawder said. "Look I got some men here who're goin' take you back to camp."
"Where yo' goin"?" the Livy asked.
Crawder stood up, "Down the wash to find Roy."
The night remained quiet as Ben Crawder and his Mexican cowboys hunted for, and found, the body of Macon. Crawder was grateful that the Mexicans said nothing as they slung the southerner's remains over a saddle. He was having trouble believing this was happening himself, let alone trying to explain it to someone else. Livy was hoisted onto another horse and tied so he wouldn't fall off. There was still no sound from Roy. The Mexican's spoke amongst themselves for a moment as they prepared to head back to camp, and then Augusto turned to Crawder. "Senor, what will you do now?"
Ben looked at the man and then at the night sky. He figured it was about three in the morning. "I got a man out there somewhere, and I need to bring him in safe," he said.
"You will go out there now? Alone?" the Mexican asked.
"Yes." Crawder answered and walked over to his horse.
"I will go with you." Augusto said.
Crawder looked at the man, "I'm not asking you to go Augusto."
"Maybe that is why I choose to do it," the man returned as he swung up on his horse. "Some things you just do you know?" he smiled.
"OK, I don't mind the company," Crawder answered as he nudged his horse forward.
"What do we look for senor?" Augusto asked.
Crawder thought about how Roy would have approached this problem and then looked at the ground, anything as big as this werewolf seemed to be had to leave some deep signs in the dirt. Looking around Ben found a print like the one he had seen the other day by Jackie's body. "We look for whatever made this Augusto." Suddenly Crawder thought of something. "What sort of rifle you carry amigo?" he asked.
"I use the same as you jefe. A .44 Winchester," The Mexican answered.
Ben levered two rounds out of his weapon and handed them over to the Mexican. "Here, put these in your gun. Make sure they're on top." Giving Augusto two bullets still left him with three, Crawder hoped that was enough.
"These are special?" Augusto asked as he peered at the bullets.
"Roy thought so. C'mon, he may need us." Crawder answered as he kicked his horse into motion. They started trailing the strange prints.
After Crawder had headed back toward the camp Roy had sat quietly for a bit, looking anywhere but towards the firelight to conserve his night vision. He opened Macon's shotgun and reloaded it. As he slipped in the new shells, Roy glanced at the paper bindings. "Packed by CROSSMAN OUTDOORS they where stamped "Finest materials used throughout" Roy smiled in spite of himself. The Georgian had hurt the monster by accident. " . . . And got himself kilt fer his trouble . . . " Roy thought. Then he started to wonder about what Crawder might find when he got back to camp. Roy tried not to think about that time in Arizona, when ten men had gone looking for trouble and only five had come back. Something about all this troubled him. Something about what Grandfather had said about the werewolf. The monster had to hide during the day in the body of a man. But they had seen nobody close to the herd as they drove north. The prairie had been empty of men. Hell, they hadn't even seen any stray horses wandering around. Where was the monster hiding? Roy's gaze strayed across the herd toward camp, and suddenly he knew the truth. The werewolf wasn't hiding. It was riding with them! The ex-cavalryman turned back to where Livy lay. The hurt man had pulled himself up a little bit so he could drink from Crawder's canteen. So that was two men Roy could cross off the list of suspects. No werewolf would claw itself, and Crawder had been with him all the time. Macon was dead, and Jackie was buried. Roy thought hard, the Mexicans all wore little silver crucifixes, something no werewolf could stand the sight of, let alone wear around its neck, so they were in the clear. Roy suddenly stood up and walked over to Livy.
"Hey man you hear me?" he asked, as he bent over the injured cowboy.
The man on the ground nodded.
"Crawder should be back soon," he said as he handed the Livy the sawed-off shotgun. "Keep this in front of you till he gets here. I'm going after that thing."
The injured man grabbed Roy's shirt. "Don't." was all he could get out.
Roy gently pulled free of the man's grip and said "Tell'em they'll hear me as I go down the wash." Then he checked his pistol and disappeared into the grassland, headed back toward the camp.
Crawder an Augusto rode silently, rifles at the ready, as they followed the werewolf tracks across the prairie. It was hard trying to track at night, but the size of the creature helped, since it broke branches off of small trees and crushed the grass flat wherever it trod. Crawder noticed several spots of blood when they first started following the creature but these dried up after about 50 yards. Once or twice Ben thought he saw the print of a cowboys boot in the dust as well, but after a while they too disappeared. The tracks lead the two men in long loop around the edge of the herd and back toward camp. Crawder was worried that the men he had left in camp were going to be ambushed. Then he wondered if they had found Cookie's body out in the brush, all mangled up like poor Macon. Crawder grinned a little at the thought of the dead man's shotgun somehow hurting the monster. Something had made it bleed for a while, he thought. The two men lost the trail when they were half way around the herd, and Crawder brought them up to listen. The sky said that dawn wasn't fair off; the eastern horizon was beginning to lighten. Augusto was nervous; no man likes to be up against the unknown on a moonlit night. The Mexican kept looking around in short jerky movements, eyes darting from one silver-rimmed object to the next. He would never see anything like that, Crawder thought, you got to take your time and pay attention.
Suddenly there were two reports from a pistol not 100 feet from camp, followed by a long wail of some animal in pain. Crawder looked at Augusto, "C'mon!" he shouted and kicked his horse into action. Augusto shouted something in return and slapped his horse's rump with his rifle. The two men covered the ground to the camp much faster than when they had ridden out to retrieve Livy and Macon. They bent low over their saddles and let the branches of the sage bushes whip over and around them. The tall prairie grass swished as they cut through it, and an occasional thistle plant slapped across their faces and hands. Up ahead, Crawder could see the chuck wagon parked across the light from the fire, the image of the wagon was a black silhouette, and off to one side there stood another outline, this was of a creature almost 8 feet tall. Beside the huge thing was a shorter figure, obviously a man who was fighting for his life. The monster had much longer arms and seemed to be holding the man with one of them as it swiped at him with the other. As Crawder watched, the smaller figure leveled a pistol and fired point blank into the monster's chest. The night was filled with that animal howl of pain and rage again. Crawder reined in his horse. The animal was starting to shy away like it had done before when it got a whiff of the werewolf's scent. Augusto pulled up as well. The two men looked at each other and then leveled their rifles, sighting at the monster.
The sound of the shots was followed by another wailing scream and the monster dropped the man as it fell to the ground. Ben leaped off his horse and ran for the camp, jacking another shell into his rifle as he trotted along. Behind him he heard the sounds of Augusto struggling through the tall grass. Crawder suddenly stepped into the open. The chuck wagon was thirty feet away, and on the ground between lay a creature like he had never seen before. The body was covered in silver-gray fur, and if the spine hadn't been crooked, the thing might have topped nine feet tall. The arms were long, and the hands were without thumbs, the fingers, such as they were, ended in long sharp claws. The rear legs were bent like those of a dog, but they were still longer than a man's. Crawder noticed that one of the monster's rear legs was shorter than the other. But it was the head that Crawder kept coming back to. The head was that of a wolf, a huge lobo with pointed ears and a snout filled with long sharp teeth. The body on the ground twitched and Crawder fired another cross-treat bullet into it. BLAM! The response was electric. The creature heaved up off the ground in one pain-filled spasm and the night was filled with that animal howl again. The werewolf collapsed into a heap and Crawder stepped around it to the man lying in the dirt.
It was Roy. The dragoon colt was lying in the dust by the man, and once again it was caked with blood. Roy had fought hard and was still breathing, but both of his arms were clawed and bitten, and his shirt had been ripped down the front leaving deep claw marks in the dark skin. Augusto came up behind Crawder as he knelt beside the cowboy on the ground. The Mexican held his rifle in one hand and used the other to work his cross from around his neck.
"Senor Crawder . . . " the man said as he offered the silver cross to him. "Put it on Roy, . . . as a comfort?" he said.
Ben Crawder nodded and placed the ornament around Roy's neck. Roy opened his eyes and looked at him. "Grandfather . . . would be so angry with me . . . "
Crawder shushed the man, "You gonna be OK Roy." he lied. The other cowboys started to appear from wherever they had been hiding in the brush around the fire. Augusto called to some of them in Spanish, but Ben was concentrating on Roy. The man was trying to speak again.
"I . . . figured it out Crawder." Roy mumbled. "The Wolf-That-Walks-Like-A-Man . . . He needs a body to hide in during the day . . . Had to be one of us . . . " Roy's voice trailed off and the dying cowboy licked his lips.
Ben looked up quickly, "Water!" he yelled. "Somebody bring me some water over here!" He looked back at Augusto "Get something to use for a bandage, man!" Somebody brought some water, but Augusto didn't move. He could tell when an effort was wasted, the man on the ground was bleeding out very quickly.
"I left Livy out there . . . Hope he's alright . . . " Roy went on. " I had to . . . get back over here . . . I knew it would have to get back to camp . . . before the sun came up . . . "
"Livy's safe." Crawder interjected. But he wasn't sure Roy heard him. In the east the edge of the sun began to appear on the horizon. A new day was dawning; one that Roy would never see the end of Crawder thought.
"I knew . . . it had to get back to camp . . . " Roy repeated. "It had already . . . been seen over here . . . " Roy took a deep breath. "I followed it for a bit . . . then cut across the herd . . . and waited by the wagon . . . Knew he'd show up . . . sooner or later . . . We all worked the stampede last night . . . except him . . . " Roy nodded toward the chuck wagon.
"You did good Roy. Now just take it easy, we'll get you patched up in no time." Crawder said. He looked over at what was left of the werewolf. The body of the creature was rapidly changing before the startled Trail Boss' eyes, the corpse had shrunk and it looked more man-like every second.
Roy managed a grin, "No time . . . is what I got Boss . . . " he answered, and then the mortally wounded man started to ramble a bit. "I . . . heard the thing come out of the scrub . . . and I waited till it was real close . . . I know it must have smelt me . . . because it started growling . . . It turned to face me and I let fly."
"You hit it Roy." Ben said.
"I did more than that . . . I kilt it . . . " Roy sighed.
Crawder looked down, but Roy was gone. The Trail Boss looked at the Augusto, who was offering him a hand up, "Senor, it is time to bury the dead," he said quietly. The rays from the morning sun were golden on the Mexicans brown skin.
Ben Crawder stood up and leaned against his rifle. He squinted into the glare in the east, it would be hot again today, but they wouldn't move the herd. Crawder's world was coming apart at the seams and he recognized that he probably was in shock, he gestured at the body of the cook, which was lying in the spot where just a few moments before there had been a lupine monster. "Bury'em separate, . . . " he said, " . . . drag that other thing away from here some place and toss it in an arroyo. But bury Macon and Roy together . . . "
"Si senor . . . " Augusto turned to the scattered cowboys, "Arriba amigos!" he said a little too loudly. "Let us give one cowboys last gift to another, and bury our friends in the shade . . . "