Authors: Eric Barkett
Pretending to look at the cemetery, he really stared at the stars beyond. He made out several of the constellations his ma had taught him. She believed the stars and planets had powers, which foretold ones fate. Ma had tried to teach him how to read the stars. If he could remember the lessons Obadiah would have consulted the stars. Maybe they knew if he would see anything. His sisters would have been able to help. That was their gift. A brief moment of longing for home struck. A wallowing desire in the pit of his gut. Yet it passed quickly. The long trip to find Jed had seen that longing much stronger, until to much of time passed. This was what Obadiah had always wanted to do. Though this particular moment was not how he had imagined it.
Then Jed whispered, “Go to sleep. I’ll wake you in an hour and then we will switch.”
Nodding, Obadiah placed his head to the mound he had previously been looking over. Grabbing his hat he placed it over his eyes. The virulent smell of sweat filled his nostrils. Obadiah never realized how bad it smelled. Those long days under the sun had given the smell a home. At first he tried to ignore it. Taking deep resting breaths only made it worse. He placed the hat to the ground by his side. After all it was night. Then taking a fresh set of breaths he fell asleep.
Jed watched Obadiah take the hat off. Chuckling to himself he settled to a comfortable position. So far nothing had happened and that surprised him. This could be a very long night. Flexibility was a vital trait and he excelled at adapting. Another lesson his father had taught. Honestly, if nothing had happened yet then he did not expect it to. However, despite all his feelings sometimes you had to make sure they were right the hard way. If he was right, the only question was why. If Nadi was responsible then perhaps she had enough cadavers for what she wanted and did not need more. Could it be someone else? Jed mostly dismissed that thought. How many crazy people could one town have?
It was boring lying, simply looking. Jed would much rather hunt. To be hot on the trail of a monster. Searching for werewolves in the mountains of Appalachia was infinitely more interesting than this. He contemplated just leaving. Kill the werewolves tomorrow night and ride to San Francisco. Jed never budged an inch. You chose this, Jed reprimanded himself. You could have stayed retired. I am retired, he angrily replied. Leaving a town to a dark fate was something he couldn’t do. Besides, Obadiah was not nearly ready to work on his own and he said he would train him.
A crunch of dirt. An inhale of breath as Jed’s hand moved leisurely to the leather holster. The presence behind their position he could feel was dark and menacing. Jed swallowed, the next few moments were crucial.
“Obadiah!” He hissed, the iron at his hip leaping to his hand.
The finger pressing on the trigger tightened, but did not give that final pull. Holding his hat, an expression of fear and surprise crossing his face, Davy stood above. He gave a quiet yelp. Obadiah groggy hurried for his Colt, blinking confusedly once he too saw Davy.
“Hello, Mr. Jed,” Davy waved nervously.
Jed released the hammer. “What are you doing here?”
“Sorry, I only wanted to see if you were doing anything about the grave robbery.”
Rubbing his forehead, Jed replied, “Didn’t I say let me worry about it?” Davy reluctantly nodded. “Get out here Davy,” Jed said unkindly.
The miner apologized briefly, then jogged away. Fed up with keeping watch Jed said, “Your turn Obadiah.”
His apprentice was still rubbing sleep from his eyes, when the gunslinger turned over and fell asleep. A giant mouthful of a yawn passed as Obadiah settled in to watch.
They stayed most of the night passing the shifts with wariness and naps. In the wee hours of the morning, Jed decided to call it off. Their horses had an easier time and were alert when their owners came back. Both men were asleep in their saddles. Doing nothing could exhaust a man more than running all night. They rode to the stable and unpacked their saddles. Obadiah did not need to be told to wipe down the horse. A horse was always taken care of before the rider.
“Sleep in Obadiah.” Jed instructed as they moved inside. “The full moon is tomorrow and we will be out the next night too.” Obadiah yawned wearily. Trying to stifle his coughing, Jed loudly went to his room.
There was a pounding on the door. Loud rapping knocks that woke Jed. “Come in,” he called.
Ross entered the room followed by the sheriff. On the small table by the bed was the gunslinger’s holster. The deputy sneered, “It’s a good thing I didn’t come in shooting.”
“Sure is, I’d have riddled you with holes.” Jed retorted. Ross glared hatefully.
Carter pushed back his hat and asked, “Sorry to wake you Jed, but I was wondering what you were going to do. The full moon is tomorrow and you haven’t run any plans by me.”
“Easy sheriff,” Jed calmed. “I don’t reckon much will happen tomorrow night.”
“Well should I order everyone to stay inside?” Carter blurted.
Jed started coughing and he pounded his chest. When it subsided he said, “How about this. You round up all the guards that you can. At half past noon meet me at the saloon with everyone. I’ll tell everyone what to do. Okay?”
Carter nodded, visibly relieved. He and Ross shuffled out. Jed laid back down gratefully and fell asleep again. Woke up later, stretched his stiff limbs, checked his things, and went down the hall to Obadiah. He pounded on the door. “Lunch,” he yelled.
A groan came from the other side. Obadiah dragged himself to the table several minutes later. Per usual Ms. Jan waited for the exact moment the hands on the large grandfather clock met at noon. Less than a dozen other men were there. The beans and bread made other bland, satisfying meal. Afterwards Jed and Obadiah began the short walk to the saloon.
The gunslinger swung the doors open. He walked to the bar taking stock of the men Carter brought. Besides the sheriff and deputy, Jonathon Reed was present along with four other men. Nothing special about the others. The same rough looking men that the West produced. They carried an assortment of Colts and Winchesters. Unfortunately, none carried a shotgun.
Jed rested his elbows on the table top. Clearing his throat he said, “If you haven’t heard by now then listen up. A pack of werewolves have moved into Hickory. Now I already killed two. They’ve been quiet since then so I figure it’s a small clan. My experience tells me that only two should remain. Furthermore I reckon I know where they are.”
“Then what do you need us for if you can handle it?” Jed could have strangled Ross in that moment. The haughty deputy did receive a stern look from Carter.
Jed answered his question, albeit directing it at Reed’s men. “My apprentice and I should be able to handle it. What I need y’all to do is keep an eye on the town. Tomorrow you will need to keep guard. Stay in a high position and stay awake. If you think you heard anything strange, chances are you did. Never go alone. Stay on guard until the all clear comes. Understood?”
The four men mumbled consent. They were the guards from the bank and keeping watch was their job, supposedly. How well they handled it remained to be seen.
Jonathon responded, “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure my men keep an eye out on the miners.”
Jed said, “Sheriff take your deputy and coordinate positions with the others.”
The men filed out, flinching as they entered the harsh sun. Obadiah waited till they were gone. He asked, “So what’s our plan?”
“Tomorrow afternoon we will ride out to where they might hide during the full moon.”
Obadiah was thoughtful. “Wouldn’t it be better to grab anyone that tries to leave town?”
“A couple things wrong with that.” Jed explained, “First I don’t know exactly how many there are. One or two could already be out of town. If we tip them off by taking out their partner they could disappear and we would lose an opportunity. Next, the sheriff won’t take to hanging a man without proving he is a werewolf. He is not that kind of man. Keeping a werewolf or two in a jail is never a good idea. Never try capturing one.”
“Got it.” Obadiah said confidently.
“There is one more reason,” Jed admitted. “Few avenues exist to get experience in this business. Each encounter is liable to make you dead. This is a low risk practice run. Two, maybe three, werewolves should be no problem. You cannot waste opportunities like this. Who knows what could be fought next?”
“In this sun? Not likely.” Jed patted his apprentice. “Come on, you should get some shooting in.”
As they were walking, a hunched stooped old gentlemen sighted them and approached. It was Beth’s butler. Straightening himself, he looked weary and pale, he said, “Miss Cooper invites you to supper tonight.”
Jed agreed and Henry wiped his brow with a handkerchief saying, “Supper will be at six. Good day.” He stomped off.
Obadiah asked, “Does that include me?”
Jed slapped his shoulder. “No chance.”
Deciding to freshen up before supper Jed went to the barber. Three other men were waiting. All were burly bearded and long haired. The barber knew his trade and soon Jed was on the seat. He had his hair cut short. The heat didn’t seem to be passing soon. It felt marginally cooler by his ears. Then he placed his hat back on. Jed also ordered a shave to get rid of the several days of growth. After the shave Jed asked for a bath.
“I’m afraid that because of the drought I cannot use any water to fill the tank up,” The barber said apologetic.
Disappointed, Jed did change into a slightly fresher set of clothes. Of course he did not have Sunday’s best packed in his saddle bags. Inside the shop, Jed did not see the barber place a truffle of his cut hair in a burlap pouch.
It did not take long however, for the dust to cling and sweat to stain. In short order his new look quickly became old. That evening he went to the house, noticing buds, small green buds, sprouting in the desolate garden. Amazed, he rapped on the front door. Henry opened the door and Jed bequeathed his weathered hat. Apparently, he was the last guest to arrive. The guests of the small dinner party were seated in the living room: Douglas, Beth, Nadi, and Carter. It seemed the sheriff did not extend the invitation to his subordinate either.
“Glad you could come,” Beth said graciously.
“My pleasure,” Jed responded.
Douglas said, “We were discussing your course of action for the full moon.” Jed sat upon a simple chair, not all of the furniture had yet been replaced. Douglas continued, “You are confident you know where their hideout is located.”
“Fairly certain,” Jed said not willing to give Douglas the absolute certainty he actually felt out of spite. It was evident that he did not like the gunslinger. Jed placed him on a growing list.
Douglas asked Carter, “How is the town?”
“Quiet, sir. Since the attack on Jed, everything is peaceful. There hasn’t been any other crimes.” Carter ended his brief report. The mine owner had a presence that demanded answers, tolerating no nonsense.
Jed subdued a wry smile. If Douglas tried to boss him around, then he would find another thing coming. He was retired and he wasn’t going to take orders from anyone. In the room was a small bar, so Jed walked over and poured a drink.
Beth spoke, “Seems brazen, going after the werewolves in their lair.”
“Shouldn’t be any trouble. I’m anticipating only a couple. Plus I don’t plan on fighting them that night. It’s just a scout mission.”
For the first time, Jed heard Nadi speak. She said, “You believe you can remain hidden? Werewolves have a keen sense of smell.”
Jed swallowed. “They do. I don’t recommend anyone trying it. However, I have experience in this area. I will keep quiet and stay down wind.”
Nadi nodded. “If you wish gunslinger, I can make a brew that will eliminate you scent.”
“I’d be mighty obliged.”
Douglas stood and moved to the empty fireplace. “I am curious, Mr. Ethan. Exactly what is the extent of your experience? The sheriff holds you in high regard and believes you are the best suited to hunt werewolves. While it is true that you have handled yourself remarkably so far, I cannot but wonder how qualified you really are. If I am to pay for your services I want to be assured that you are the best man for the job. I abhor waste in any form. So right now I wish to know how deserving your reputation seems to be.” Beth gave Douglas an annoyed glance. He ignored the warning.
The steely voice of Douglas made most people squirm in their seats. It didn’t faze Jed. It was just exhausting. In that moment he was tired of the harsh criticisms of men like Douglas and Ross. The ingratitude of towns when the filth was cleaned by dangerous means. The arrogance of men, unwilling to do what he did. The ingratitude, especially the reluctant payment.
The gunslinger spoke in a low controlled voice, “To clarify Douglas you ain’t paying me for service, just the results. I’m retired. But that’s neither here nor there. Since fourteen I’ve been hunting monsters. I’ve killed scores of foul beasts. When the war broke out, I joined a company specializing in hunting the legions that sprang up. I saw my fair share of the horrors. Be it howling mutts in the forests or ravenous hordes of zombies in Antietam. Trolls in the mountains of Appalachia or ghouls in the graveyards of Gettysburg. Bloodthirsty vampires in the dark places of the night and so many other creatures to drown the world in fear. I have seen innocent victims and their broken bodies. I have killed evil men worse than any demon and good men caught up in the wrong side. Mr. Douglas if there is anyone better, then I will gladly stand back and let him go out tomorrow night.”
Then Jed coughed harshly and the room was silent. The aging butler stood in the entrance and announced supper was ready. The cough subsided, Jed stood and said, “Good. I’m famished.”
They moved to the dining room. The aroma was intoxicating. Joyfully, Jed discovered dinner would be steak, corn muffins, vegetables, and no beans. A red wine was also served, however he did not have a taste for wine and he drunk sparingly. For him the steak was cooked medium well. He glanced at Beth’s plate, hers was dripping red and he half expected it to moo.
An awkward silence still drifted in the air, so Jed asked Nadi about the plants growing in the garden. He expressed his surprise that they were growing in the heat.
Nadi replied, “I planted ones that thrive in the heat. This climate is where they thrive.”
“Really. I could have sworn I saw a foxglove.”
“You have a discerning eye, but I’m afraid to say you are mistaken. The plant is very similar though.”
“How is that boy doing?” Carter asked. Without his hat, Jed could see his thinning hair. The sheriff was more at ease here at the dinner than at his job.
“Name is Obadiah. He is doing fine,” Jed said noncommittally.
Beth chimed in, “Do tell his story. I was surprised that you hired help. You seem the lone wolf type.” She gave a dazzling smile. “Pardon the pun.”
Jed couldn’t help but smile and respond, “I didn’t hire him. He is the son of an old friend, so I let him hang around. I’m giving him some pointers is all and some valuable experience. He knows once this whole werewolf situation ends I’m moving on to San Francisco.”
“What is waiting for you in San Francisco?” Beth asked.
Jed paused, unwilling to answer. Hastily he lied, “I wanted to see the other coast.” He rushed the words out and doubted anyone believed him.
Dinner passed, lasting only a short time. Carter was the first to leave, before the sun fully set. Jed suspected the convenient timing. Douglas left soon after, commenting on work at the mine requiring his attention. Soon after Nadi went to bed, leaving Jed and Beth alone. Well Henry was busy clearing the dishes, but his presence was easily forgettable.
Beth sipped her drink, the dark red swirling down her throat. Jed leaned back in his chair. “You should tell me how you came to be a co-owner to a coal mine.”
She told him, “My late husband started the company with Ed Miller years ago. They had a little success until they met Douglas. Together, the business flourished. When my husband died of illness, things began turning for the worse. The war started and we found ourselves trapped between both sides. Unfortunately, since we operated below the Mason-Dixie line we ultimately had to support the South. War hurt the business and when the whole affair was over, rich men from the North came down for ripe opportunities. Unable to compete as they strangled our business dry, Douglas decided we should move west away from the troubles back home. So we packed our bags and left.”
Beth smiled, “Eventually we found this wonderful oasis of civilization.”
“So exactly what are your responsibilities?”
“I handle the financial aspects of the company. Pay for the workers, costs, and those sort of things. I have a good head for numbers. Milled handled the day to day operations mainly, while Douglas was the traveling salesman of the company. Of course that’s all changed now.”
“And Nadi, where does she fit in?”
“She helped my husband while he was sick. We became good friends during the ordeal. She can make potions and balms that cure just about everything. Nadi is exceptional.”
Jed remarked, “I’ve heard many people argue that alchemy cure diseases modern medicine cannot.”
Forlornly, Beth said, “Alas not everything.”
While her spirits drifted down, Jed’s were soaring. He stifled a cough, an annoyance that had been plaguing him for a time. Standing up, Jed said his goodbyes. “I should get going, miss. I have a long night tomorrow.”