It was the dead end of winter and Parker was riding through the
Little Sally pass, his saddlebags filled with a payroll he
really oughtn't have, wearing every stitch of clothing he owned
and wishing he was someplace warm, like Hell. Up in the highest
notch, just before the canyon started to slope down, he saw an
old Indian standing alongside the trail.
The old man was knee-deep in snow, a ragged hide robe wrapped
around him, his head slumped down and stringy gray-white hair
falling forward so Parker couldn't see his face. He looked as
if he had come just so far and couldn't go a step more. At the
moment, it wasn't hard for Parker to sympathize.
He reined in, leaned forward and tipped his hat back. "Old man,
do you need some help?" The horse couldn't carry two for long,
but judging by the bony shoulders outlined by the shabby
leather, the old man couldn't weigh much more than a child.
The Indian didn't answer. The horse stamped and snorted,
uneasy. It was late afternoon, thick gray clouds overhead and
the wind rustling the fir trees down the pass. Snow was
falling, very gently, little flakes catching in the old man's
hair. Parker wondered uneasily if the man had died like that,
frozen stiff, standing up.
Then the Indian lifted his head.
His eyes were red, as if the vessels had burst and filled the
whites with blood. The pupils were open slits of blazing light.
Parker's feet came out of the stirrups as he fell sideways off
the horse, dragging the rifle out of the saddle sheath on the
way down. As he landed hard, the startled horse leapt away like
a deer and Parker had the gun aimed, all in one furious
heart-stopping, scared-witless moment.
The Indian hadn't moved. Parker expected him to be doing
something by now: turning into a wendigo, growing horns
and batwings, or big teeth to eat the meal that had stupidly
stopped to chat, but he hadn't moved. Parker kept the rifle
trained on him but didn't fire. On the off chance that this was
a shaman who hadn't decided to kill him yet, he didn't want to
make this worse than it already was.
The eyes he didn't want to look at were fixed on midair. Very
quietly, the old man started to speak. The voice was raspy and
hollow, but human. Parker couldn't understand him; there were
three tribes around these mountains and the language could
belong to any of them. Parker stayed where he was until the old
man stopped speaking, and his head slumped again.
Cold was creeping through Parker's blood. He pushed to his
feet, chilled from the snow. Nothing happened. He started to
make a wide circle around the Indian, but when he got even with
him, the figure disappeared. Damn, Parker thought, irony
coloring his fear. This is going to be a day. He took
an experimental step backward, and from that angle he could see
the old man again. Someone coming up the trail from the other
direction would never have noticed anything.
Clumsy in the deep snow, Parker went on up the trail and spent a
while catching his wary horse, and another while calming her
down. And calming himself down. It had to be a warning, but he
had come this way last year, and he knew this wasn't anybody's
sacred ground. So what was the warning for? It was undoubtedly
clear as glass, if you understood whatever language the old
Indian's chimera spoke. Common sense said to heed it anyway and
turn right around and go back. "Can't do it," he told the
nervous horse regretfully. The payroll in the saddlebags said
he had to go forward.
Parker mounted again and urged to horse on, slowly picking a
path through the snow. It was getting colder and there was no
use looking for answers where there weren't any.
It took a long time getting out of sight of the place, and
Parker didn't look back.
But he wanted to, the whole way.
A storm chased Parker down the mountain and into the deep pine
of the valley. It was dark and he was leading the horse by that
time, battered by the wind and drenched by freezing rain. The
snow at the top of the pass was nothing but ice down here in the
pines, just wet enough to find its way inside his coat and soak
him to the skin.
There was a stage stopover and outpost a little way ahead, and
he meant to stay the night there. It was far too early in the
year for a stage to run through here, but there would probably
be a caretaker. Unsure of what condition he would be in when he
arrived, Parker had cached the saddlebags back along the trail,
under a pile of flat rocks.
He hadn't encountered any man- and horse-eating demons on the
way down the pass, or anything to show what the chimera's
warning meant. But maybe it was such a lousy night even the
demons were tucked up in bed.
Then ahead in the dark he saw a flicker of light. He pushed
toward it, stumbling over invisible rocks in the dark, thinking,
That better be the post.
As he got closer he started to make out details. The light came
from a couple of hurricane lamps, the muted glow illuminating a
row of wooden posts that had to be a stockade wall. He could
see a broad wagon gate standing open, two men looking down at
something crumpled on the ground.
The light caught blood, bright against the muddy ice. The
damage was mostly concealed by the dim light, but what Parker
could see told him it had been a man.
"Oh, fine," Parker muttered. This was just about all he
needed. His horse, finally catching the scent of blood in the
freezing wind, jerked her head and sidled.
The men looked up, startled, and there was suddenly a rifle
pointed at Parker's chest.
"Easy!" he said, lifting his hands, showing one was empty and
the other held the horse's reins.
One of the men picked up a lamp and carried it over, staring
hard at Parker. Parker tugged his scarf down from his face so
they could see he was human and opened his coat. He didn't have
a speck of blood on him and the gutted body was covered with it,
steaming in the frigid air. "Who are you?" the man with the
"I was coming down the pass when the storm started, wanted to
take shelter here for the night," Parker told him. The cold
rain was stinging his cheeks. "What happened?"
Nobody answered, and the one with the lamp withdrew.
"Hey, are you going to let me in?" Parker felt helpless, trying
to pretend he could still feel his toes. He could hear they
were arguing, but couldn't make out the words. If he had known
he was going to end up like this, he would have let the army
catch him and save the whole damn trip over the damn mountain.
"All right, come in!" someone shouted finally.
They had to throw a tarp over the body and drag it aside before
he could get the horse through the gate. There was a sheltered
lean-to just inside with another hurricane lamp; standing in the
lee of it, out of the wind and rain, was like stepping into a
warm parlor. Something short and wrapped up in furs started to
talk to him but Parker's attention was caught by the young man
with the shotgun who was closing and bolting the gate.
The short furry figure pointed past him, into the compound.
". . . Stable's that way, son. Got here at a bad time, you did--"
That was an understatement. Parker followed him out of the
shelter. The freezing wind struck again, broken somewhat by the
stockade. Parker staggered across muddy ground slick with ice
patches. They blundered around the big dark shape of a
stagecoach and into the stable, which was blessedly warm and far
better than the lean-to. Parker waited until his guide got a
lamp lit and asked, "You had a little trouble tonight?"
"You might say that now. This is wolf country tonight." It
chuckled, face still invisible under the fur hood. "It's bad
too, real bad."
There was a team of matched grays and a couple of tired pack
mules already stabled. Parker picked a stall without waiting
for permission, unsaddling the horse and starting to rub her
down. His hands were numb inside his gloves and clumsy, and his
frozen ears were beginning to thaw, giving him a pounding
headache. The fur-covered figure just stood there and watched.
Parker guessed they were starved for entertainment around here.
He decided to play naive, and asked, "So that fellow was killed
The figure laughed, shed the hood and a couple of knitted
scarves and turned into a little old man with a salt-and-pepper
beard, small eyes, and big yellow teeth. He reminded Parker of
a chipmunk, and not in a good way. "Not wolves, one wolf. We
got wolf trouble. A werewolf."
Parker gave him a hard look. "A werewolf? It won't be a full
moon for another two weeks." Besides, he didn't think an Indian
shaman would bother with a chimera to warn about a werewolf.
"This one don't need a full moon, don't need nothing. He ain't
under no curse. Likes it probably. Sinful." He shook his
head, a sad chipmunk. "Killed two men, and a horse, earlier
today. I saw him, took a couple of shots at him, but he just
faded away into the snow." He grinned. "You don't have to look
like I'm daft, young fella. You can ask the stage passengers,
Parker wished he could ask the mules; they probably had more
sense. "Yes, I might do that."
"You'll see, we're gonna have wolf trouble tonight. That's for
sure." The chipmunk laughed again and headed for the doors.
"Come on into the post when you're done. Stabling is half-price
for the night, 'cause of the storm."
Parker finished with the horse, swearing under his breath. He
was trapped for the night with a stage full of other people's
problems and townsmen who thought everybody they met was a
werewolf. "Probably all on their way to Miller's Crossing for a
witch burning," he said in disgust to the horse, who flicked an
Outside again, he couldn't see much of the posthouse in the dark
but got the impression of a long rambling building. When he
opened the heavy wooden door what little conversation there was
stopped. He stepped inside, letting the wind slam the door shut
behind him. This was the long public room of the post, where
passengers would wait while the horses were changed. The
lanterns were smoky and most of the light came from the fire in
the big stone hearth. The place smelled musty, like it hadn't
been opened up in some time, and the walls were patched with
There were three men -- one sitting at the plank table, one
standing at the hearth, and one looking as if he had just
stopped pacing and was anxious to get back to it.
Parker tipped his hat politely. He hadn't seen an unfriendlier
set of expressions since the last time he and Harry had robbed a
train. He wished Harry were here now, instead of waiting for
him in Piscaro, but there was nothing to help that. He headed
for the fireplace and put his back against it, dripping on the
sooty stone as the ice caught in his coat melted. "Quite a
night." From this angle, he saw there was a woman seated at the
table too, gloved hands around a mug for warmth. She wore a
long black dress and her hair under her bonnet was very straight
and very dark. Her face was calm and still, like something from
an old Spanish portrait, but her skin was pale.
"Who the hell are you?" That was the pacer, apparently not in a
very genial mood.
"Easy, mister, I just came in out of the cold," Parker said,
sounding sociable to save argument. In his career he had always
been more interested in acquiring money with as little notice as
possible, and not shooting people. He didn't like trouble for
trouble's sake. The obviously overwrought man glaring at him
was well-dressed, in his forties, graying, built stocky but
going to fat.
He snarled, "How can we be sure of that?"
Parker's mouth quirked at the nonsensical question. "Guess
we're just going to have to take my word for it."
The woman said quietly, "Mr. Abernathy, please." Parker liked
"Quite right, ma'am," the man standing at the other end of the
mantle said. His coat was still dripping on the floorboards,
and Parker figured he had been one of the two men at the gate.
"No reason to be unfriendly." He looked at Parker. "I'm
Gunderson. That's Preacher Johnson." He nodded to the
dark-clothed man still sitting quietly at the table, "Mrs.
Johnson," Damn, Parker thought, "and Mr. Abernathy. We
were heading to Twin Rivers on the stage, but the ice storm hit
and we had to stop off here." Gunderson was about Parker's age,
with a droopy mustache and a flashy red waistcoat.
"That was a mistake," Abernathy muttered, starting to pace
again. That was going to get on Parker's nerves sooner rather
"There wasn't a choice." The preacher stood to put a comforting
hand on his wife's shoulder. He was droopy and mousey-looking,
and seemed to need the comfort more than the composed figure of
"Kind of early in the season to run stages through this route,
isn't it?" Half-assed was more like it, but Parker wanted them
to talk about themselves and not ask him questions.
Abernathy shrugged. "The weather was clear at Chandler's Ford.
I thought it would hold. I have to get to Twin Rivers--"
"It wasn't your fault, Mr. Abnernathy," the preacher interrupted
kindly. "I have a position at a church further west. My wife
is going to teach school there. We wanted to get there as soon
as possible, so we took the risk of the weather."
Gunderson glanced at Parker, a little more pointedly. "And
"Heading to Miller's Crossing." He wasn't heading there, but it
was a logical destination for anybody coming down the Little
Sally pass. "So you think wolves killed that man out there?"
They stared at him, stricken, except for Mrs. Johnson, who
lowered her head a little and lifted a hand to her mouth.
Gunderson shifted uneasily. "That was the stage driver. Two
other men have been killed since we pulled in at dusk. Old Jim,
the post caretaker, saw...something attack his helper outside
the stockade. He fired at it, but by the time he got out there
the boy was dead. It wasn't pretty. So the stage outrider went
for help. He came back tied to his horse, tore up so much that
Halday, our driver, hardly recognized him. The horse was bled
so badly, it didn't last long either. Kind of left us trapped
here, at least until morning." He smiled thinly. "You see why
things are a little tense."
Parker frowned, trying to make sense of it. It sounded like
whatever it was hadn't been stalking the area for long, or Jim
and his helper would have been dead before this. It had to have
been here at least long enough for some shaman to find out about
it and put up the chimera to warn his people off. "You think
it'll let you alone in the morning? You aren't going to try to
leave when the storm lets up?" From what they had said, the
thing liked to pick victims off one at a time. A stageful of
armed people should be safe, even moving slow in the dark.
"These things don't have any power in daylight," Abernathy said,
taking out a handkerchief to wipe his face. "A Haunt got
stirred up in Pines one night, frightened a couple of folks to
death. But it lost its power in the morning and just drifted
around. You could see right through it, like frosted glass, and
it couldn't do a thing."
Yeah, but that was a Haunt,
Parker thought. Haunts didn't eat you. It was probably a
mistake to attempt to talk rationally to these people, but he
tried, "Why are you all so sure it's a werewolf? They don't
The door banged open, letting in a blast of cold air, Old Jim,
and the man who had let Parker into the post. He took a hard
look at Parker and said evenly, "I'd like you to turn over your
Parker lifted his brows. "Considering what's happening here,
that doesn't sound like too good an idea."
"We didn't have to let you in," the man countered, still eyeing
Jim chortled at him. "Halday, I run this place, and just cause
you people jinxed it with a wolf-curse is no reason for me to
turn folks away on a night like this."
Glad the chipmunk was on his side, Parker said, "Look, the thing
he described isn't going to have to sneak in here. It'll just
climb the stockade."
"That could be right," Halday agreed evenly. "It could also be
that Jim's 'werewolf' is a crazy man playing games."
They stared each other down. Parker could see the man was
afraid. Maybe frightened enough to do things he wouldn't
ordinarily do. "What does that mean?" Parker asked him
quietly. "You're going to run me out of here?"
Halday didn't answer and his expression didn't change. The
others were watching like it was a stage drama; whatever
happened, Parker didn't think they would interfere. Then Halday
said slowly, "You can stay. But I want to keep your gun until
you leave in the morning. I already took the rifle out of your
gear in the stable." He added, suddenly a little
self-conscious, "It was the only thing I touched."
Parker's eyes narrowed, but it was almost fair, under the
circumstances. He debated being jumped by Halday and Abernathy
and probably Gunderson and Johnson too, and ending up out in the
cold with the thing the chimera had been left to warn about,
versus being stuck in here unarmed with the thing the chimera
had been left to warn about. Either way, it was better without
the cold. "It's a deal." Smiling affably, he unbuckled his
gunbelt and stepped up to hand it to Halday.
Somebody suggested food, and Jim said, "That's a good idea.
Come on back to the kitchen and I'll get us some dinner."
But it was Mrs. Johnson who silently took charge, taking meat
and bread out of Jim's larder. She turned the meat over on the
table, studying it, nose wrinkled thoughtfully, before she cut
it up for sandwiches, did the same for the bread, and sifted the
coffee like she was looking for weevils. Jim allowed her free
rein, chuckling to himself about a woman's touch in the
kitchen. Considering how bad Jim smelled at close range, Parker
didn't think she was doing it out of a sense of duty at all, and
he had never been so grateful in his life.
She took her gloves off to work, and when she handed him the
plate he noticed her hands were pale and neat, the nails filed
back nearly to the quick.
The kitchen was a smaller room and the potbellied stove kept it
almost warm. Nobody seemed to want to talk, but Parker still
wanted to know more. "So what did you see?" he asked Chipmunk
Jim. Jim stared at him blankly, and Parker clarified, "When the
first man was killed. He was outside the stockade? What did he
go out there for?"
He was trying to get Jim to tell the story from the beginning,
knowing people always came out with details that you would never
think to ask about. Or that you didn't want to ask about in
front of the concerned parties. From what the others had said,
it sounded like the coach had already been inside the stockade,
and Parker would have liked to know who was stretching their
legs out in the yard and in sight when the man had been killed,
just to settle his own mind. But Jim shuddered in his bulky
coat and skipped all that, saying only, "The light was failing
early because of the storm. I just got a glimpse of it, running
off into the trees. I heard it howl."
"That doesn't mean it's a werewolf," Preacher Johnson said
quietly, making everyone look at him in surprise. He had his
hands wrapped around a mug of coffee for warmth, his eyes on the
fire inside the stove's belly. Mrs. Johnson didn't look up at
him. "There are creatures of darkness that could do this, that
could curse this entire valley."
Ignoring the interruption, Jim continued, "Dark as pitch,
running like a wolf but on two legs." He shuddered again, but
Parker read malicious enjoyment in that, not fear.
for entertainment, Parker thought again. "If it's not a
werewolf, then it could be somebody using craft, making a
chimera of himself to make it look like he was with the others.
And if that's so, he could have killed your guard with a spell,
and not his hands."
Abernathy snorted, but Halday and Gunderson stared at him.
Gunderson said, "You ask questions like a lawman. Are you a
"I was raised by Jesuits." It wasn't true, but it did tend to
shut people up.
"Why do you think it's not a werewolf?" Halday asked, sounding
more like he might be willing to listen to the answer. Parker
chalked it up to the Jesuit thing.
"It's not a full moon," Parker pointed out. But it seemed like
there was another reason, too. Parker's gut was telling him
that even if everybody on the coach except Halday was a
werewolf, he would have still bet the whole army payroll that
something else had done this.
Parker never managed to get more sense out of Jim, and nobody
else had seen anything to speak of. Finally Mrs. Johnson went
down the hall to one of the bunkrooms to retire. Parker thought
the back of the house had to be nearly as cold as outside, but
she seemed to want the privacy. Gunderson had gone out to take
Halday's place guarding the gate. The others were in the
Parker waited for the place to get quiet, then he went out on
The storm had died away earlier while they were eating, leaving
the night still and frozen. There were lamps lit out in the
yard now, several hanging from the porch roof and lighting the
area around the gate. In the pools of yellow light, he couldn't
see anybody moving, just the fine coating of ice. He had never
been warm enough to take his coat off, and his clothes were
still damp, but he stepped off the porch and walked toward the
stable, ice crunching underfoot.
The sound was oddly loud in the quiet and Gunderson stepped out
of the lean-to beside the gate to stare at him. Parker,
determined to maintain a friendly and innocent demeanor no
matter what, waved. It was too dark to see the man's
expression, but he didn't wave back.
Since Gunderson had seen him and it would be good to have a more
obvious reason for walking around in the cold, Parker stopped
and opened the stable door. He held it wide enough for the lamp
light outside to penetrate the darkness. The horses and mules
stared curiously at him.
Then a patch of ground a few feet away exploded from a shotgun
Parker bolted for the corner of the stable almost before he
realized Gunderson must have shot at him. In the dark patch
between the two buildings, he flattened himself against the wall
and called out, "What the hell?"
"I saw it! It went this way!" Gunderson was running across the
compound, out of the lamplight, toward the outbuildings.
"Don't follow it!" Parker yelled. "That's what it--"
wants. Oh, for God's sake. He ran after the man.
Past the barn, between two tumbledown outbuildings, Gunderson
jolted to a halt, lifting the gun. Something moved in the
shadows, a fast blob of darkness. Parker saw Gunderson go down
and the gun go flying. He dived for it, landing in the frozen
mud and snatching it up. He rolled and fired the other barrel
into the dark thing standing over Gunderson. It jerked,
snarled, and tore away from the body, hunkering down only a few
Parker rolled to his feet, holding the empty gun like a club,
thinking, Back away slowly, then run, very very fast.
Then the creature laughed, a high-pitched growl of amusement,
and bolted off into the dark.
He took a step toward the body, but there was nothing to be
done; Gunderson had been ripped open neck to groin, blood
pooling dark on the frozen ground. Saw that one coming,
Parker thought sourly. It could have gotten him, too. It
obviously knew the gun was empty, having tricked Gunderson into
firing the first barrel. But he figured it had done what it
came to do; picked another one of them off. Then he felt a
prickle along his hairline and looked up. Mrs. Johnson was
standing a few paces away on the other side of the body, a neat
figure in her dark coat and bonnet.
"Mr. Parker," she said with perfect composure, drawing her
skirts back from the blood.
"Mrs. Johnson," he said. She didn't look at all discomposed for
a woman standing over steaming insides. Yep, Parker
thought, Just out for a walk on an icy winter night in an
isolated outpost populated by strange men and murdering
werewolves. Of course, she might just be having an affair
with Halday or Chipmunk Jim. He tossed the useless shotgun down
next to the guard's body. "I don't have a gun."
"Neither do I."
"But I don't think you're unarmed." He circled to the right,
trying to get a better view of the body without touching it,
keeping one eye on her. She went left, keeping one eye on him.
"Did you see it?"
"I saw what I was meant to see," she said, her voice as neat and
precise as her movements. "Why did he shoot at you?"
It could have sounded like an accusation, but Parker knew it
wasn't. "He didn't. He thought he saw it creeping up on me.
But there was nothing there." He added, "He saw what he was
meant to see."
Her fine mouth twisted in agreement. "It's unfortunate."
Then the door to the post banged open and hurried footsteps
crunched on the snow. Mrs. Johnson vanished into the dark with
a flick of her skirts. Parker yelled, "Over here!"
Abernathy, Preacher Johnson, Halday and Chipmunk Jim were
running toward him from the post.
Johnson moved up beside Halday, saying with grim fear, "So it's
in here with us now."
"Maybe it always was." Abernathy looked white-eye scared.
"This thing . . . it didn't start until we got here."
"That's what I said," Jim put in, not helpfully.
Ignoring him, Johnson was glaring at Abernathy. "What do you
mean? You think it's one of us? Is that what you're saying?"
Abernathy flung his arms up in exasperation. "You heard the old
man, none of this happened before we got here! It has to be one
of us. I said we should all stay together, but Halday and I
were alone in the bunkroom when the shots woke us. Where were
"I was with my wife, where do you think?" Johnson said coldly.
Abernathy stomped back inside, but Halday held a lamp while
Johnson and Parker got the body wrapped in a tarp and carried it
out to a shed near the stockade wall, where the other three
bundles were. If it hadn't been for the cold, the place would
have smelled like a charnel house by now. "It can't be one of
us," Halday said as they crossed the yard on the way back. He
sounded as if he was mostly talking to himself. "No one was
alone, except you." He threw a sidelong look at Parker. "And
you don't have blood on your clothes."
"Thank you for noticing," Parker agreed.
Johnson said, stubbornly, "It must've climbed the stockade, then
got back out again."
And he'll stick to that story 'til it kills us,
Parker thought. He said, "I'll take the watch. If I can have
some shells for the shotgun."
Halday stopped and eyed him. "It's my job, I'll do it."
Lack of blood only went so far, apparently. As the others went
into the house, he said, "I'll check the horses, then," and
headed toward the barn. He glanced back, making sure Halday's
attention was on the gate, and stepped into the shadows between
the two buildings.
He stood still a moment, feeling his feet freeze, waiting for
his eyes to adjust. Now he could finally have a look for what
he had originally come out here to see.
He made his way through the dark, past the rundown
outbuildings. It was too dark to search without a lantern, but
on this night that would be like traveling with a brass band.
He reached the stockade wall, and felt his way to the corner.
He couldn't see a damn thing and reluctantly tugged his glove
off. His fingers were mostly numb, but the marks carved into
the post were wide enough to feel with the back of his hand. He
stepped away, pulling his glove back on. Those were some kind
of hex signs, and the carving wasn't new. They were pointing
inward, meaning to protect whatever was in the compound. "Not
doing such a great job at that," he said under his breath.
Unless they were. It could be that, Parker thought. He
should have gone with first impressions.
He went back to the house, moving quietly, keeping to the dark
patches. The floorboards of the back porch didn't creak, and
somebody had left the latch lifted on the kitchen door. But
Chipmunk Jim had been awful careless for a man who was being
stalked by a werewolf or whatever the hell. Parker had thought
about trying to enlist Halday's help and already discarded the
notion. Appearances aside, Johnson would probably be the one
most likely to keep his head. But explanations and proof would
take too long, and they would all end up with their insides
steaming on the ground. And he still wasn't certain where Mrs.
Johnson fit into all this, if she was an innocent bystander or
cheering from the grandstand.
He had to pass through the front room to get to rest of the
house, and Johnson was in there with Abernathy, sitting on
opposite sides of the room, both watching the door. Parker
nodded to them as he went through to the back, down the dark
hallways, past the locked doors that led to rooms for storage of
supplies and beds for passengers, past the presumably locked
door to the bedroom Mrs. Johnson had taken.
Halday had put the guns in a locked room in the back that did
the duty of a safe for mail. Parker felt for the lock with a
certain degree of confidence; he had been a safecracker before
it got easier to just blow the things up. But the hasp was
Well, you should have seen this coming,
he told himself wearily. He stepped back and pushed the door
open with a finger.
Jim was standing inside, leaning against the cabinet where
Halday had put the guns. He chuckled merrily to himself. The
chipmunk teeth were now long and white and pointed on the ends.
He said, "Now tell old Jim what gave him away."
"There was hex marks protecting whatever's inside the stockade.
If you could do that, you could stop anybody with a wolf curse,"
Parker said, to give himself time to think. Jim had long dirty
claws now too, long sharp ones, that hadn't been there an
instant ago. His coat had fallen open to show nothing under it
but a squat muscular body covered with straggly black fur soaked
with blood. Jim had smelled pretty foul as it was, but the cold
had disguised the worst of the odor. "But it's not a wolf
curse, is it?"
"Oh, no. That was just a joke." Jim chuckled. "You weren't
the only one I was teasin'. Funny, huh? What's the point of
someone being a werewolf and smelling the witchery on me, and
then not being able to tell anybody about it because you can't
say how you know? Now that's funny."
"You used a chimera to make Johnson and Abernathy think you were
with them when Gunderson was killed." Parker took a step
backward, trying to think where the nearest weapon was, if he
could make it all the way outside to Halday and the shotgun.
Jim shrugged. "Didn't have to. Just gave them a little nudge
to make 'em fall asleep. I was in the yard with you the whole
time, boy. When they come running up I just stepped up behind
them like I'd been following them the whole time."
Harry had always said Parker liked to make things too
complicated. He took another step backward. "So you thought
you'd live in the woods, eat folks, for fun?"
Jim shook his head, grinning. "I came out here to get away from
the witchcatchers back east, but the damn Indians sniffed me
out. The local medicine man made one of my rituals backfire and
I ended up like this. I hadn't tried any since; they're
Parker took the last step and slammed the door, but Jim was damn
fast. He was just turning to run when the door burst open,
knocking him flat. He shoved to his feet and slammed his way
about seven paces down the hall when claws caught in his coat
and yanked him flat.
Parker twisted around and saw Jim leering down at him. Parker
kicked at his kneecap, connecting hard, and sending Jim falling
forward, flailing. Parker rolled and scrambled up, lunging
forward again but a set of claws wrapped around his ankle and
pulled him down.
Then the nearest door flew open. It startled Jim enough that he
let go when Parker scraped at his hand with his bootheel. It
gave Parker just enough time to get his feet under him and throw
himself through the door and into the room.
He landed on the dusty floor and realized the dark figure
looming over him was Mrs. Johnson, bonnet askew and furious,
holding an ax.
Jim lunged in after Parker and got the first swing right in the
face. He staggered back, yowling like a wounded bear, and
Parker shoved to his feet, breathing hard.
A faint line of consternation between her perfect brows, Mrs.
Johnson handed him the bloody ax, saying, "Better cut his head
off to make certain."
There wasn't much else to do under the circumstances. Parker
took the ax and said, "Yes, ma'am."
What with all the explanations of how Jim turned out to be a
monster, Parker didn't get a chance to talk to Mrs. Johnson in
private until the next morning, when Halday and the others were
occupied with harnessing the horses and loading the coach. They
were going to take Jim's poor packmules with them, since there
was no telling when the stage company would be able to get
someone to take over the post.
The sky was gray and overcast, but it didn't smell like more
rain was on the way. Mrs. Johnson was standing primly on the
porch, wrapped in her dark coat, her little hands gloved again.
Without looking at him she said, "You knew. About me, I mean.
Standing below her on the muddy ground, Parker leaned against
the post. "When you took your gloves off in the kitchen." He
thought that would have been a good moment to take her hand, but
across the yard, Preacher Johnson was holding the horses for
Halday and had one eye on him. It was a shame. He had never
had a woman hit anybody with an ax for him before, and it had
quite turned his head. He just explained, "You keep your
fingernails cut back so you don't accidentally scratch anyone.
What I didn't realize is that you were checking the food to make
sure Jim didn't put any curses on it. He looked so unhealthy, I
just thought you were checking it over for rot."
She nodded slightly, keeping her eyes on the other men across
the yard. "He knew, as soon as I stepped off the coach. As I
knew what he was." She folded her hands tightly. "You haven't
said anything yet, so I assume you don't intend to."
"Oh no, ma'am," Parker assured her. "My friend Harry has the
She looked down at him then. Her face was still serious but her
dark eyes were smiling. "You haven't told me your name," she
said, not making it a question.
Considering what he knew about her, Parker couldn't see why
not. "It's Robert Parker, ma'am."
Parker managed to be the one to hand her into the coach, though
Preacher Johnson gave him a dark look. Parker just tipped his
hat and smiled.
About the Author:
Martha Wells is the author of seven fantasy novels,
including Wheel of the Infinite, City of Bones, The
Element of Fire, and the Nebula-nominated The Death of the
Necromancer. Her most recent novels are a fantasy trilogy: The
Wizard Hunters, The Ships of Air, and The Gate of Gods,
all currently out in paperback from HarperCollins Eos. She has had
short stories published in the magazines Realms of Fantasy,
Black Gate, and Stargate Magazine, and in the anthology
Elemental, edited by Steven Savile and Alethea Kontis. She also has
essays published in the nonfiction anthologies Farscape Forever
and Mapping the World of Harry Potter from BenBella Books. Her
most recent book is a media-tie-in novel, Stargate Atlantis:
Reliquary, which was published in March of 2006. Her books have been
published in eight languages, including French, Spanish, German,
Russian, Italian, Polish, and Dutch. You can learn more about
Martha at her web site.
Story © 2006 Martha Wells.