The wolf didn’t get too far away before they spotted it. Its wounded leg slowed it down more and more. They followed it through the night at a safe distance as it stumbled alongside the creek. Even if they weren’t in sight of the wolf, they would’ve had no trouble following it. Blood traced a dark trail against the ground behind the suffering animal.
As the sky lightened with the passing of night, Vin worried at the amount of blood. He hoped Ezra would still be alive by the time the sun come up and Nathan could tend him. Vin shifted in his saddle, trying to get comfortable. He was hurting bad, but refused to show it.
As the sun rose over the horizon, the wolf seemed to lose all its energy. It sank to the ground, almost crawling to keep away from its pursuers. The animal began to whimper and shake. Its whimpers quickly turned to bloodcurdling howls. The six men watched, horrified, as the wolf’s muscles and bones stretched and squeezed like dough being pounded and kneaded. The fur slowly receded, revealing more smooth skin. With one last piercing howl that became a scream, the creature collapsed as if dead.
The men still sat astride, dumbfounded. The wolf was gone. And in its place lay their resident gambler, naked and shivering. Two bloody wounds oozed on his arm. One from Chavez. One from Chris. Splatters of blood covered his body, blood that wasn’t his. It dripped from his mouth as he lay there oblivious.
Buck was the first to regain his senses. He jumped down and ran over to his friend. Ezra was so still. Was he dead? He found a pulse. No. He weren’t dead. It was just like the other time when they found him in that cave. Was that what happened to him before? He turned into a wolf for the night?
Vin slid from his horse, barely keeping himself upright. “Might be a good idea ta get him cleaned up. Don’t think it’d be good for him to see hiself with all that blood. ‘Specially not in his mouth.”
Everyone dismounted and went over to check on Ezra. He was completely limp and wouldn’t wake up just like the other time. Josiah cradled his head while Nathan tended to him. JD went to fetch some water. Vin Tanner could only watch and pray.
Chris noticed how wobbly he looked. “You okay, Vin?”
“I’ll live, Cowboy.” He grabbed Chris’s arm and pulled him aside. “We gotta keep an eye on him. He’s not gonna be in a good frame of mind when he wakes up and he might try to… Just keep any guns and knives out of his reach.”
Chris bit the inside of his lip. “He’s aiming to kill himself?”
“It’s somethin’ he might be considerin’ after he ripped out that man’s throat and all. He talked about it before.”
“I think you need to tell us what the two of you discussed.”
Nathan interrupted. “I don’t know if haulin’ him all the way back to town is a good idea. He might start bleeding again on the way.”
Vin looked at their surroundings. “We’re not far from the Seminole village. We could take him there. Maybe they got somethin’ to help Ezra with this curse.”
Chris raised an eyebrow. “Curse?”
“Yer right. I gotta explain it to all of ya.”
They rigged up a travois to pull Ezra behind. Seeming to sense his master’s distress, Chaucer readily accepted being chosen to pull the injured man. As they rode, Vin told them about the Standish Curse. He knew those things were private and that Ezra probably wouldn’t want people knowing about them, but that gambler was going to need all of them when he woke up.
Vin’s tale was met with silence, each man lost in his own thoughts.
Josiah believed. He’d seen too much to doubt such things. And he knew Ezra would never lie to Vin like that. Vin would’ve seen through a lie anyway. For some reason the tracker could always figure Ezra out.
That poor boy. It explained a lot about his way of life—moving from place to place, pushing people away, desperately trying not to make connections, keeping his emotions under tight control. What a burden to live with! But he had friends…no family this time that would make sure he was okay. They would take care of him.
Buck looked over at Ezra and shivered. He’d seen some things on the battlefields of the war that just weren’t natural. Sometimes those things still gave him the heebie jeebies in the middle of the night. He’d heard of werewolves. Sure. Just because he hadn’t seen one didn’t mean they weren’t real. He’d never seen a giraffe, and he didn’t know anyone who had, either. But he believed they were real.
Maybe there was some way to fix Ol’ Ez so he didn’t change no more? They’d do that for their friend. They’d find a way.
JD just couldn’t figure it. Everyone thought he was gullible, but the one time he didn’t believe something it turned out to be true. His favorite dime store novels were about cowboys and such, but he read the horror ones, too. He just never thought he’d meet one of the creatures from them stories in real life. But Ezra wasn’t a creature. He was a man and he was JD’s friend. Those horror stories usually ended up with the werewolves and vampires and such getting killed. They had to find a way for this story to have a happy ending.
Nathan remembered his days as a slave in Louisiana before he got sold to a plantation owner a little further north. New Orleans was a beautiful city, but it had a dark underbelly that most folks didn’t know about. Those that did didn’t speak about it. He shuddered as he thought of the night one of them Bayou werewolves almost killed him. He never forgot that terror. But Ezra weren’t like that, was he? He wouldn’t attack a friend. But he struck out at them back at the clinic. Nathan prayed that there was a way to save the man from the animal. Otherwise…
Chris wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes. He generally didn’t believe things without proof. The gunslinger knew Vin was a keen judge of character, but he still hadn’t been able to shake the thought that Ezra had conned him somehow. Maybe it would be easier if that’s what it was. This…supernatural business was more than Chris knew how to handle.
He looked over at Ezra sleeping deeply. The man looked so young and innocent when he was asleep. Had he ever really been young and innocent? From what Vin said he would’ve had to grow up real fast.
Maude killed her own husband. From the sounds of it, Ezra had seen the whole thing. No wonder the gambler was wound tight with the burdens he had weighing on him. Chris butted heads with Ezra often, but what he never revealed was how much he looked forward to those battles of will. Ezra tested him in ways no one else did. Sometimes he tested him a little too much, but Chris had to admit he would miss the aggravating little conman if he left. He was willing to mix himself up in craziness if it would get that gambler back into the fold where he belonged.