- Night of the Wolves
APRIL WAS SLEEPING PEACEFULLY. She looked younger than her sixteen years. She was a stunningly beautiful young woman, and Cody was certain that Milo had come after her himself. At one point she had even opened her eyes to smile at her mother, and Cody knew he had gained the trust of the Snow family.
They left her mother and several of her siblings to sit with her as she slept, and the other adults had gathered in the main room of the trading post. Coffee was served, and Mina insisted that they have a late luncheon, as well.
"John, Jeremy," Cody said at last, "I believe it will be best if we bring April into town for a few days."
The father looked at the son, and the son looked back at the father, so Cody was startled when John Snow didn't respond to what he said, but said, "Fox, Alex said you were born here, and I remember your family now."
"My parents had property here," he said. "But it was a long time ago."
"The property is still yours, Cody Fox," John Snow said. "It is long abandoned, but it is still yours."
Cody shrugged. "I don't believe I'll start ranching anytime soon."
"That was the first night of the wolves," John said gravely. "The night your father died."
Cody shook his head. "I'm sorry?"
"The first night of the wolves," John repeated.
He knew exactly what John Snow was talking about, of course, but he had to feign ignorance. Though the dishonor of a lie pained him, he'd lived a lie all his life.
"Whatever happened then, it was a long time ago. It doesn't have any bearing on what's happening now and the evil that must be stopped before it claims April."
"We will see that it is stopped in her," John said.
Cody shook his head. "She'll still be susceptible to Milo's influence. She will try to escape you."
"There are many of us, and we will never leave her alone. Two of us will sit with her through the night," John assured him. "We can guard her."
"You must be certain Milo never gets near her," Cody said. "I don't think she can be brought back again. And if you lose her, she will become a vampire, and your only choice will be to kill her."
"You will tell us what we must do," John said.
Cody told them, cautioning them not to let anyone in, not only a stranger, but not even someone they might think of as a friend, not once the day had begun to die. He found all the garlic in the trading post and showed them how to gird the windows with it to repel the creatures. He explained that if they were attacked, they needed to forget about their guns and fight back with lances and arrows, and he told them that they had to sever the heads of the fallen or cut out their hearts.
They listened to him intently.
No one suggested that he was a madman, and when he'd told them all he could, he and Alex left.
She glanced at him as they rode. "You didn't tell them to hang crosses," she said.
"If you noticed, John and his son had pipes and eagle feathers and other items sacred to the Apache. They have no crosses to hang, nor do I think a cross would do John's family much good." He met her eyes. "Every people, every race, has its own beliefs. What matters is a man's heart, and John and his family have good hearts and a strong belief in a higher power."
"I see," she said.
He shook his head. "I don't think you do. I'm still not sure you believe me."
She looked away, half smiling. "You have to admit, it's not easy to accept the fact that vampires roam the plain, as abundant as the buffalo."
"You saw that girl," he said.
She nodded. "Yes, I did. What would have happened if we hadn't come?"
He shrugged. "He would have come back for her."
"But how did he get to her?"
"He called to her, in her sleep, in her dreams, and she went to him."
"The same way I went out on the balcony. But I didn't hear voices. I went out because the breeze was soft and the moonlight was beautiful."
"The method of seduction doesn't matter," he said. "Come, let's ride harder. The dark comes quickly, and it's been a long day."
IT WAS BATH DAY at the boardinghouse, and the tub, freshly scrubbed, awaited Alex and Cody, so they could take their turns in the relaxing hot water.
Cody deferred to her, and Beulah sat sentinel as she bathed. Once Cody, too, was clean, everyone set about the task of setting out the stew Beulah had been cooking all day. As they ate, they talked.
Brendan was quite pleased with Levy, who was proving to be an excellent archer. He'd repeatedly hit the bull's eye, despite never having picked up a bow and arrow until that day.
After the meal, Alex went up to bed early. She was exhausted and was sure she would fall asleep easily, given how much had been going on.
Instead she tossed and turned, thinking of April and how she had bared her...
Cody hadn't lied. Vampires were real. Cody had likened vampirism to a disease. Apparently a disease that first killed, then reanimated the body in a dreadful way, with a burning hunger.
And a desire to kill.
She thought she heard the front door opening, so, both curious and afraid, she leaped out of bed and raced to the head of the stairs, but she saw no one. She hurried downstairs to look out a front window and saw Cody and Brendan headed across the street. To the saloon.
She felt a wave of anger sweep through her, though she knew it was irrational. Maybe something important was going on there. Maybe something had happened there.
Or maybe something was about to happen there.
She groaned and forced herself to head back to her bedroom.
She was going to sleep, she told herself.
But she didn't. Instead she waited. And she listened.
THE SALOON WASN'T CROWDED. A few of the townspeople were there, but no one from the outlying ranches and farms. Very wise of them to stay home, Cody thought. Sheriff Granger was playing cards with his deputy, and the girls were sitting around talking, as if the place were a social club rather than a brothel.
Brendan ordered two beers, while Cody took a seat near the girls. Sherry Lyn, Dolly and the younger girl, Liz, were together at a table, poring through Godey's Lady's Book, oohing and aahing over the fashions, though it appeared the issue was several months old. They looked up from the book to greet him.
"Mr. Fox," Sherry Lyn said. "Welcome. Can we get you anything?"
"Anything at all," Dolly said with a knowing smile. "On the house, of course."
Dolly might be a bit older than the other girls, and a bit stouter, but he had a feeling she had a few tricks up her sleeve. He smiled back. "I'm just checking in to see how things are going. How is everyone? Anything unusual happening?"
"Not a thing," Sherry Lyn said. "In fact, if we don't solve this problem soon...well, we won't be buying food, much less fashion."
The caustic blonde who had seemed to mock him at the town meeting was sitting at the bar, watching the others but not taking part in the discussion. She seemed amused.
"Linda?" Dolly said, turning to her. "You've been quiet all evening. You doing all right?" Dolly turned back to Cody and said conspiratorially, "Linda wasn't here when Milo and his gang showed up, so she doesn't really understand how bad they are."
"I make house calls," Linda said sweetly.
"Humph," Dolly snorted. "Looking for another wedding ring, I'll warrant."
He frowned. "A wedding ring?"
"Didn't you know?" Dolly asked, bright-eyed at the thought of passing on such a juicy piece of gossip. "Linda was hitched to Eugene Gordon, Alex's father."
He hid his surprise and only looked at her curiously, and she went on.
"She could have stayed over at the boardinghouse if she'd had a mind to. In fact, Miss Gordon came over here the other day and told her as much. But that one-" she inclined her head toward Linda "-well, she's always moving on. She doesn't intend to be a black-clad widow, no sirree."
Dolly shut up when she saw that Linda was on her way over to the table. The other woman had a slow, sultry walk; she moved with the certain knowledge that she was attractive, even if her appeal might not be considered decent.
She watched Cody with the sensual eyes of a cat and dipped low over the table to speak, showing ample cleavage. "Now, Dolly, don't go telling tales about me when I can speak for myself. Eugene Gordon was a fine man. But I like it right here, Mr. Fox, right where I am. In fact, I'm downright fond of men. And you...well, you do look like a lovely example of virility, so speaking for my-sisters-and myself, of course-anything at all that might strike your fancy would certainly not be too much to ask. I might not have been here, but even so, you have my absolute gratitude."
"The offer is greatly appreciated," Cody said, grinning. After all, it was a saloon girl's job to solicit men. "I'd like to introduce you to my friend here," he said as Brendan appeared with their beers. "This is Mr. Brendan Vincent. And I'm afraid we're keeping vigil over at the lodge, so we're not going to be here long. But I thank you for the offer."
Linda seemed momentarily annoyed, but she greeted Brendan with a pleasant-enough smile, and he replied with his customary courtesy. Linda, apparently bored now, yawned and excused herself, telling Dolly that she would be just upstairs-should she be needed.
Dolly rolled her eyes.
"Oh, Linda's all right," Sherry Lyn said, whispering, even though Linda was halfway up the steps.
"A whore, the wife of a prestigious man, and then a whore again. Only in Victory," Dolly said. "And now she's looking for another man with some money and some grit left in him."
Cody rose, taking a long swallow of his beer. "Well, ladies, we just came to check on you, though I see the sheriff is watching over you, too."
"That he is," Sherry Lyn said, smiling. "And the deputy. Victory isn't a bad place. Let's just pray we can keep it that way."
"Amen," Brendan said, dipping his hat.
They walked over to the poker table, aware that Cole had been watching them since they'd entered. "How is John Snow?" Cole asked as they approached.
"John is all right," Cody said as he and Brendan sat. "His daughter was...ill, though."
Cole frowned. "You didn't convince him to put a stake through her heart, did you?" he asked. "I don't want to have to arrest you for murder, you know."
Cody shook his head. "No, I believe she's on the mend. And John Snow understands the situation. He'll do what he needs to do."
"I left Dave in charge and rode out to a couple of the ranches today," Cole said as he set his cards down on the table.
Dave groaned. "A flush, ace high? Hell, I had a straight!"
"We're not playing for money tonight, Dave," Cole said.
"How were things out at the ranches?" Brendan asked.
Cole shook his head. "Pete Weathers thought I was crazy. But old man Dougherty out at the Red Mountain Ranch was ready to believe me. He lost a whole herd and three men just a week ago. They headed out one morning and never came back. He was ready to believe every word I said."
"That's good. Maybe he'll have some influence on his friends," Cody said.
"The town has been quiet. Mighty quiet," Dave said.
"That's good, but it won't last, not if there's no-" Cody broke off.
"No what?" Dave asked him.
Cole stared at Cody, then answered for him. "Food supply," he said.
A LEX WAS DOUBLY ANNOYED. She needed a good night's sleep, but knowing that Cody was at the saloon kept her up. She was worried-and, she had to admit-jealous. It was pathetic. He'd rejected her-nicely, of course-and yet...She curled up in misery, thinking that it might literally kill her if...
If he chose to be with Linda.
As she tossed and turned, she heard the door open and close, followed by the twist of the bolt.
They were back, and they hadn't been gone long.
Of course, a tryst with a whore didn't have to last long.
It was none of her business, she told herself, but even so, the possibility of what he'd been doing twisted like a knife.
She heard him enter his room. Heard his footsteps, heard him hesitate near the connecting door, and waited, breathless.
Heard his footsteps move away.
She leaped out of bed and rushed to the door, tapping it lightly, then swinging it open. He was standing by his bed. He'd taken off his coat, hat and holster, and was in the process of unbuttoning his shirt.
"Alex, is everything all right?" he asked.
She let out a breath. "Yes, I suppose...I just wanted to make sure it was you."
He nodded. "It's me."
She tried very hard to sound casual and yet concerned as she asked, "Is everything all right over at the saloon?"
"Yes. Brendan and I went over for a drink and to talk to the girls."
"Just talk?" she said.
He laughed. "Yes, just talk."
She wanted to look indignant, but she found herself laughing instead. "Sorry, I didn't mean to be intrusive."
"Yes, you did," he said. "But it's all right." He stared at her. "One of the girls was married to your father?"
She shrugged. "Linda. I talked to her the other day. I believe she really loved him. I hope so, anyway. I don't really know what...what either of them really felt. I wasn't here when they got married. I never met her until I came back. I saw her at the meeting, but until Beulah told me, I had no idea who she was."
He looked as if he were about to say something, but he shook his head as if to banish whatever it was and said only, "Well, I guess we should get some sleep."
"Of course," she said, suddenly embarrassed to be standing there in her nightclothes. "Good night."
She retreated to her own room before the rush of blood to her cheeks could give away her embarrassment.
She lay down, drew her covers up and smiled.
He had gone to the saloon and talked.
She closed her eyes and slept at last.
WHEN IT CAME AGAIN, she fought it.
As always, she knew it was a dream. A dream, a vision-or a nightmare.
It started with a burst of wind. The French doors swung open, and the breeze entered as if it were a living being. The drapes billowed and fell, and someone whispered her name, and though she kept on trying to fight, she had no choice. She had to go.
She slipped out of bed, and though she knew, somewhere in the back of her mind, that she needed to fight the desire to go, she couldn't remember why. The breeze was balmy and delightfully cool. It played with the fabric of her gown, winding it around her legs, lifting it. The sensation alone was more erotic than anything she could remember.
Another voice was calling out to her from behind, commanding her not to go. She knew that voice. It was her father calling out to her, and she wanted to turn and run to him, but she couldn't. Whatever drew her toward the balcony was strong, and though she wanted to hate it, did hate it, she kept moving, anyway.
Suddenly she was jerked from sleep and realized that she was standing by the open balcony doors.
It wasn't a dream, wasn't a vision. It was real.
All of a sudden the connecting door flew open and Cody was there. He wrenched her into his arms, drawing her back. As he moved to close the French doors, a massive shadow seemed to descend. Alex looked up and screamed. Giant bats were sweeping toward the balcony.
Cody thrust her behind him and reached behind the drape. She hadn't noticed that he'd left a bow and a quiver of arrows there. As the first bat made a dive for the balcony, he drew the bow with muscle-crunching speed and let the first arrow fly. She heard a terrible shrieking, and the massive bat came crashing down on the balcony.
She stared at it in horror.
Cody didn't even spare it a glance. He was too busy taking aim again.
He hit a second creature, and it, too, let out that chilling, unearthly sound and crashed to the balcony beside its fellow just as the first disintegrated into a pile of black ash.
She looked closely and saw that the second...bat...had the face of a man, then watched as it curled into the fetal position, still screeching, as its limbs shook violently. Then it went still and dissolved into a pile of putrid flesh on its way to becoming ash, leaving her with the memory of something human-and yet not.
Cody closed the French doors at last and searched the room quickly. He grabbed one of her parasols and stuck it through the door handles, securing them against opening again.
A moment later they heard the sound of a bell clanging from the sheriff's office, and screams and shouts coming from the street.
"Come on!" Cody told her.
Gripping her hand, he was heedless of the fact that he was now shirtless and shoeless, and she was in nothing but a thin cotton gown. He pulled her along with him as he raced down the stairs. The others were already gathered in the entryway, Brendan gathering the stakes and bows and arrows that had been stored in the hall closet.
He tossed bows and quivers of arrows to Levy and Bert, and armed himself. Cody went for one of the stakes-his bow and quiver were already over his shoulder. "Stay here, and watch over the household," he told Levy. He threw open the front door and headed out to the street, Brendan and Bert right on his heels.
Alex looked around and saw Tess and Jewell huddled together in a corner, and Beulah standing dead still in the center of the entry hall. As Levy hurried to the window to look out, Alex hesitated for only a second, then raced to the closet herself, finding a bow and a quiver of arrows still hanging from a hook. She drew them out, not certain how accurate her aim might be, but determined that she was not going to be attacked and not fight back.
"Alex! What are you doing?" Beulah demanded with dismay.
"Guarding my home," Alex announced. And avenging my father, she added silently.
She opened the front door and stepped out onto the sidewalk. The shadows were coming from everywhere, shrieking with a blood-curdling intensity meant to instill terror, she thought.
She took aim as one came near, then loosed her arrow. She hit it, but only in the wing. It tumbled to the street, where it flopped around...
And headed toward the house.
It was some unnatural combination of man and bat, standing but winged, and as black as shadow, except for its eyes, which shone with a red so intense it was like the fires of hell. It came at her, stumbling at first, and then suddenly moving with terrifying speed.
She tried to nock another arrow, but her fingers fumbled. She realized with a sinking feeling that she wasn't going to be fast enough.
An arrow sailed by her and hit the creature dead-on. This time its cry was a death knell, and it fell and sizzled, and turned to ash and remnants of bone.
Alex spun around. Levy only smiled and shrugged, clearly pleased with himself.
She turned back to the street and saw Cody and Brendan standing back to back, shooting arrow after arrow. The shadows were falling all around them, some falling to dust and others remaining corpses, but all of them screamed and writhed in terrible death throes before finally going still. She looked around and saw Cole and Dave, along with a large number of the townspeople, all drawing courage and strength from one another as they shot their arrows.
One of the creatures nearly reached Dave, but someone shouted, and Cody turned and staked the creature before it could reach its target.
Another one swooped near the house, but this time, Alex didn't miss. She and Levy held their positions just outside the door and kept firing their arrows into the storm of black-winged shadow creatures.
She heard thuds, flopping, and shrieking and screaming. From the corner of her eye she would catch a flash of fire accompanied by a sizzle, and then there would be only ash...and bone.
Then, just as suddenly as they had come, the creatures rose into the sky in a giant black cloud, hovered there for a moment, and then were gone.
The street was still and silent. What seemed like forever passed as everyone stood dead still and silent, in shock now that the attack was over.
"Good work!" Cody called out at last. "But now we have to make sure they're dead. If there's a body, take off the head, because they can heal, if there's enough of a body left. We fought tonight, and we won the battle, so we don't want to let one of them in now."
Alex stood on the porch, suddenly shaking. She jumped when she felt Beulah's hands on her shoulders.
"You come on in now," the older woman said. "You did your part. Let the men finish it."
Alex allowed Beulah to lead her back in. Levy followed, shouting orders to Tess and Jewell, his voice firm and confident now, telling them to make sure that none of the windows had been breached. The girls ran off to do his bidding.
"Tea with whiskey sounds like a good bedtime drink," Beulah said, heading for the kitchen.
Alex had to admire her calm.
At last Bert, Brendan and Cody returned. Alex was still standing in the entry hall, and Cody looked at her curiously as he locked and bolted the door.
As she heard the bolt snick into place, she snapped out of the trance that had seized her. "Beulah is making tea and added whiskey for everyone," she said, her voice calm. Then she turned and walked into the kitchen without looking to see if the men were following.
Tess and Jewell were all but inhaling their drinks. Levy was standing thoughtfully by the stove sipping his, and Beulah was busy preparing more cups.
"Thank you kindly, Beulah," Brendan said, taking one.
"Yes, thank you," Cody added.
"Pleasure," Beulah said, then set her hands on her hips and asked Cody, "Will they come back?"
He shook his head. "Not tonight. They took a beating. But they'll regroup. And when they do come back, they'll be looking for our weak spot, a way to slip in so that doors can be opened to them."
"Oh, dear," Beulah said.
"But not tonight," Cody repeated. "We took down a lot of the old and powerful ones tonight. Milo will need to regroup. I suggest we all get some sleep-while we can."
They finished their drinks without any more conversation, then dispersed to their respective rooms.
But Alex didn't stay in hers. She went straight to the connecting door and tapped lightly, then opened it without waiting for an invitation.
Cody was sitting on his bed, looking weary, wheaten hair drifting over his forehead, his broad shoulders hunched.
He turned swiftly, watching her.
"You're afraid," he said, smiling grimly. "You should be. But you did well-even though I wish you'd stayed inside. So why are you here now?" he asked.
"I don't want to be the weak link that brings the town down. I dream, and then my dreams become reality, and I'm not fighting very well on that level," she said.
Cody rose. Moonlight seeped through the drapes, and a lamp was lit on his dresser, casting ripples of light over the skin of his muscled chest and arms.
"I'll keep watch over you," he promised. "You can sleep."
She met his eyes, her own open and honest. "I don't want to sleep. And I don't want you to keep watch. I want you to be with me. You say that you're not what I want, but I don't believe in forever anymore, and you're what I want now."
He stared back at her, eyes golden and enigmatic.
"Cody, please. I'm not some fragile creature, though I have learned just how fragile life itself can be. All I'm asking is for you to sleep with me."
Still he stared, those golden eyes on her. And then, at long last, he moved. Sleek and swift, he was at her side.
And then she was in his arms.