Chris studied the ground. He wasn’t an expert tracker like Vin, but he knew a few things. There’d been a little scuffle here. Someone was shot. “Vin and Ezra are in trouble.”
“Chaucer!” JD grabbed the horse’s reins as it trotted up to them.
Chris looked out towards the direction of the tracks. Yep. Definitely trouble.
The wolf prowled the night, stalking its prey. Two of them were wounded. The smell of blood meant weakness. As predatory animals knew, the best strategy when following a herd was to pick off the weak or wounded. Soon. Soon.
Vin heard the howl again. For some reason Ezra was following them. The wolf had to be hurtin’ some—just like he was. He hoped Ezra didn’t get close enough to get his head shot off.
Jake and his gang were ambling along. They thought they were free and clear by now. If they’d known four angry peacekeepers and a ravenous wolf were after them, they would’ve picked up the pace. A few hours later they stopped to make camp.
A determined Chris, Josiah, Nathan, Buck, and JD weren’t about to stop until they found their men. Yes, Ezra was one of them and they’d bring him back, kicking and screaming if they had to. They only hoped it wouldn’t be that way.
Vin lay on the hard ground, bleeding and tied up. His wound didn’t look too bad, but it needed tending. At least the bullet went all the way through. Vin made like he was more hurt than he was, waiting for a chance to jump one of the bounty hunters. He wasn’t too sure of his chances, though. The skinny guy, Clem, wasn’t all that bright, but Jake made up for it. And that Chavez. He was always watching, always listening. Vin didn’t think he had Chavez fooled for one minute. He bet that Mexican knew the wolf was close by, too. Chris and the others knew they were gone by now. He hoped they got there soon.
The wolf watched the humans. Two of them were wounded. The smell of blood was strong. One of the wounded, the smallest one, the weakest one, left the others to get water. The wolf slunk after him, silent as a shadow.
“YEEEEAAAARRG! JAKE! JAKE! AAAAGH!”
“Clem!” Jake ran past the trees to see why his cousin was screaming bloody murder. When he saw Clem, he almost threw up. He’d seen a lot of things in his life, but he’d never seen something like that. Clem wasn’t screaming anymore. Blood ran bright red from his throat, his eyes glazed and unseeing. A huge, dirty wolf stood over him, licking its chops. The hair on its back stood on end when it saw Jake. A low vicious growl warned the man to stay away from its food.
Jake got his wits back and pulled his gun. He was going to put that rabid animal down for killing his cousin! He shot at the creature, but it moved too fast in the dark, darting in and out of the shadows. Jake could hear it snarling, but he couldn’t see it. Thoughts of him lying there with his own throat ripped out made Jake a mite nervous. Slowly backing away, he moved towards the camp. His gun pointed at every little sound until he was back at the fire.
Chris and the others heard the sound of gunfire and spurred their horses as fast as they could go. They only hoped they weren’t too late.
“What happened over there? Where is your primo, eh?”
“Did you get the man who killed him? Did you make him scream like Clem screamed?”
“It weren’t a man, Chavez. There was this wolf. Biggest wolf I ever seen. And its eyes… Something weren’t right about those eyes.”
“A rabid wolf?”
“It was eatin’ on him, Chavez. Ripped his throat clean open and was eatin’ on him.”
“That is bad, very bad. When an animal tastes the flesh of a man, it will keep looking for it. It will want it all the time. It will follow and attack when it get the chance. We have to kill it, mi amigo.”
“I ain’t chasin’ after that thing! You didn’t see it! It was like some devil.”
“Then you stay here with Tanner. I will take care of el diablo.”
Vin felt the heart go out of him. Ezra. What were they going to do now? He forced himself back to the problem in front of him. He’d been working on his ropes for some time and he had them loose enough to slip his hands out. Jake wasn’t looking at him or even thinking about him right then. He watched Chavez leave and decided to take his chances.
Vin flicked the end of the rope out like a whip and knocked the gun out of Jake’s hand. Jake turned in surprise just in time to get tackled by the tracker. Vin knew he had to get the gun right quick because he couldn’t hold up in a fight with a big guy like Jake wounded like he was. The two of them wrestled in the dirt, each trying to get past the other to the gun laying a few feet away.
Chavez rushed back to the campfire when he heard Jake yelling and swearing at their captive. He pointed his rifle at Tanner. “Your poster in Texas—it says muerto or vivo. I think it would be easier if we took you in dead.” He readied to shoot, but he never got the chance. A mass of grey fur flew through the air to attack the Mexican, biting and scratching at him.
Jake and Vin both grabbed the gun, wrestling it away from each other. Jake seemed to have the upper hand, pushing the barrel towards Vin’s face. Vin knew it wasn’t just his life, but Ezra’s in danger now. As soon as he was dead, Jake would shoot the wolf. With a desperate burst of energy, Vin twisted the gun around towards Jake and pulled the trigger. The big man slumped on him with all his weight, pressing on his wounded side. The long-haired Texan managed to shove the dead body off and roll over to see what was going on with Chavez. The man was lying on the ground. He wasn’t moving. The wolf was looking at Vin now. Its eyes were crazed with the moonlight glinting off them like that. Saliva and blood dripped from its mouth. It was the most dangerous looking animal he’d ever seen with its snarling fangs and bloody fur sticking up along its back.
A gun cocked to Vin’s right. Chris Larabee. The man in black aimed at the wolf and started to pull the trigger.
“NOOOOO!” Vin used up all the strength he had to jump at Chris and smack his gun arm.
The wolf yipped as the bullet tore into its already wounded front leg. The frightened animal turned tail and half ran, half limped into the night—fear and pain now stronger than the hunger and madness of a moment ago.
“What do you think you’re doing, Tanner? It was a wild animal! Wounded from the look of it. The pain makes them crazy and dangerous. Did you see what it did to that man?!”
Vin lay in the dirt, working around the pain in order to talk. “He saved my life. We gotta go after ‘im. Promise me whatever you do, don’t hurt ‘im. That wolf—it’s Ezra. He’s a werewolf. We can’t let ‘im do anything stupid, neither. Don’t give him a gun. Keep an eye on…”
“Vin. Calm down now. We’re here. Where’s Ezra? Is he hurt?”
“Yer not listening to me, Chris! Ezra turned into a wolf. He saved my life and now he run off. We gotta follow ‘im!”
“Nathan, you’d better check him for a head wound.”
“I didn’t get shot in the head, Chris! And I didn’t fall on it, neither, when I hit the ground! Ezra’ll turn back into himself when the sun comes up and he’s gonna need us.”
Josiah looked out into the desert, deep in thought. He turned around and got back on his horse.
“Where are going, Preacher?”
“To get our wandering brother.”
JD shook his head. “Come on, Josiah! You don’t believe this crazy talk. Ezra a werewolf?”
The older man’s gaze went once more to the desert. “I’ve lived a lot longer than you, Son. I’ve been to places you could only imagine—places where things happen that a sane man wouldn’t believe. But I saw them with my own eyes. I can’t discount things so easily anymore and you shouldn’t either.”
Nathan finished bandaging Vin’s side. “Did you see him, Vin? See him change?”
“Then why do you think he’s the wolf? Maybe he was just makin’ up a story.”
“Or connin’ me? That’s what ya think, ain’t it?”
“That’s what he does, Vin. That’s what he is.”
“He weren’t connin’ me, Nathan! You didn’t hear the fear in his voice. You didn’t see the nothing in his eyes. He weren’t connin’ me. Didn’t you hear ‘im screaming and howling? That was Ezra.”
They all looked at each other. They had heard it. The sounds sent chills down their spines because it didn’t sound quite human, but it didn’t sound like any animal they’d ever heard, either.
Vin pushed away the hands that tried to hold him down. “I ain’t that bad off. I’m goin’ with ya, Josiah. The rest of ya can go on back to town if you want.”
They all mounted their horses and went after the wolf.