A Summer of Wolves

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📅 Published on December 11, 2019

"A Summer of Wolves"

Written by S.R. Roanoke

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Estimated reading time — 87 minutes

Part I

Six years ago, if you’d asked me about the supernatural, I would have told you that it was a pretty entertaining show I’d seen on TV but none of that was or could be true.  I know there are plenty of skeptics out there, that’s fair – witches, monsters, and magic are for children’s tales after all- or so I thought. I counted myself among the ranks of non-believers not too long ago.  I believed that that magic and monsters were invented by uncomprehending minds to attach simplistic, fear-induced explanations to bring understanding to things that less educated minds needed explained.  I know differently now. This story will take time to tell, patience even, so I ask you all to bear with me.

I’m not so naïve to believe that my story read on some forlorn corner of the internet will transform a skeptic into a believer, but that’s alright.  Take what you want from my story: a warning, entertainment, maybe a laugh- but I hope it comes creeping coldly into your mind, a sobering wash of warning that the next time you believe you’re alone in the woods and hear something you can’t explain – you take pause.  Maybe even grab a gun and hope that you have the skill or the luck to make it out.  Whatever your reason for reading, thank you.  You should know that monsters and magic are far from the works of fiction shared around the campfire.  I’m going too fast, I suppose I should start at the beginning.

My name is Salem Roanoke and at the time, I’d just finished my sophomore year of college at Texas A&M University.  I could hardly contain my excitement when I checked off the last question of my Phil-240 Symbolic Logic exam and turned it in.  I was impatient, ready to begin what promised to be a carefree summer.  The year before, my parents had finally purchased a cabin along the Frio River deep in the Texas Hill Country like they’d dreamed about since moving to the state.  The property was small by Texas standards, a mere ten acres, shaped like a slice of pizza, and wedged between properties ten and twenty times as large as our own.  Still, it was a kingdom to itself, a refuge of freedom and adventure I was looking forward to spending my summer in.

To the east of our property was Concord Ranch, a working cattle ranch of 2,000 acres.  The owner, David, was an ardent conversationalist and promised to take me on to show me the ropes of cattle ranching and pay me to clear the land of cedar trees.  With a means of making money to pay for the necessities of living in a cabin on my own in the middle of nowhere, I felt I was set.  I spared no time emptying my few possessions from my cramped dorm room, checked out with the Corps leadership, and loaded all my stuff into my old Chevy and took off.  The drive was uneventful.  Five hours of highway, country roads, and winding turn and I found myself at my family’s cabin deep in the Texas hill country.

The cabin was exactly what you might think of when hearing that word.  It was made of steady logs, with a brick fireplace and chimney.  A sturdy metal roof that reflected the heat of the day and kept the rain out capped it off.  It had a wraparound porch, large windows, and a small gated yard.  Unlike the log cabins of the homesteaders of the American west, this one had all the luxuries of modern life: electricity, running water, air conditioning, and even internet- painfully slow internet, but it had it nonetheless.

The first three weeks passed without incident.  I rose every day with the sun, made some coffee and jumped into the truck.  I stopped at the gate of David’s property and waited for him to meet me.  For those of you not from the South, you don’t go onto someone else’s land uninvited.  Think of ranches like Greek city-states, they’re fiercely independent and often very well guarded.  Even our small ten-acre plot held a large safe, filled to the brim with near military-grade rifles, scopes, and thousands of rounds of ammunition.  If you wandered onto someone’s property without their permission, it was and is legal under Texas law to shoot you.  Fences, therefore, even small four-foot ones, marked the borders between property lines and should not be crossed without care.

David joined me typically within five to ten minutes of my arrival.  We’d stand outside our trucks and talk, shooting the shit about what was in the news that day before.  I’d give him grief about his Ford; he’d return similar comments about my Chevy.  The morning ritual complete, we’d inevitably drive deep into the ranch to where the cattle were.  While David owned 2,000 acres, his home was on the ten acres of his property closest to ours, at the bottom of a large canyon the Frio had certainly cut over hundreds of years.  The part of his ranch he kept the cattle on, however, was up the canyon and on the other side of a large hill that we called “Round Top”.  This meant about a half-hour drive on very rocky roads, through four locked gates and one low point in the river before we were near the cattle or an area David needed work done.

Once we spied the herd, he’d call for them to come in.  We’d check them over for injury and if they were, we’d do what we could to treat them.  David kept careful track of the total number of his herd, especially the number of calves.  Some mornings we dropped feed out the back slowly so the pellets were really spaced out and the cows would all be able to get some.  Other days it was salt blocks.  Since the Frio snaked through David’s property the same as ours the cows always had plenty to drink; we never needed to fill water troughs or anything of the like.  With the cattle check over, David would lead the way to whatever part of the property we were working on that day.  We’d spend the day cutting cedar trees down, mending breaks in the fence, and scanning the horizon for signs of predators.

The Texas Hill Country is home to a number of predators: black bear, coyotes, bobcats and mountain lion.  There are also feral hogs that rip up the land and javelina; both use their big tusk to gore a wayward cow, even if they don’t eat meat.  Finally, there were also rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasin, and coral snakes to be wary of when moving through tall grass or in the river.  We each kept a bolt-action rifle in the truck just in case we saw something that eats cow and a pistol on our hip for anything smaller.

It was on a morning like any other that David noticed the first sign that things in our corner of the world were amiss.  We were checking the fence line on the northwest side of his ranch that bordered two neighboring properties.  A hundred yards of fencing separated David’s Concord Ranch from the Peterson and Ruka Ranches, to the northwest and north respectively of his property.  The three partitions join at one point that looked like it once had been a gate, but was now wired shut.  Or… it should have been.  Rather, it had been every time I’d seen it up to then.  On this morning, the fence of barbed wire and sturdy cedar post had an uncharacteristic and savage hole ripped through it.  The sturdy, sharp wire was peeled back, as if something had forced itself through, leaving tufts of long, straw-colored hair in its wake.

“Looks like a big coyote,” David said, pulling a tuft of the hair free and raising it to his nose.  “Smells wrong, though.  Nothing like a coyote.”  He let the tuft carry in the breeze sniffing at the air.

I studied the ground around the hole in the fence hoping that the recent rain might make the normally hard earth soft, and that whatever passed through might leave any further evidence.  It didn’t take long before I found a large… print… or, I guess… that’s the best way to describe it.  Not like any print I’d ever seen.  It was long, narrow like a human foot but where the toes should have made themselves known… there were deep scores in the earth like a claw had savagely slashed through mud and root alike.  I expanded my search and soon discovered two smaller but near-identical prints.  They all bore the same telltale characteristics: long, narrow, and ended with a set of five deep claw marks.  I studied the earth and identified the direction the trio of different prints seemed to be headed.

I called David over and he gave it a look.  His blue eyes studied it slowly; he chewed on his lip as he worked.  Finally, he stood up, slapping his ample belly and looking towards where the tracks looked like they led.  “That’s nothing like I’d ever seen,” he concluded in his slow voice.

I nodded and stood, thumbing the release of the drop leg holster that held my FNS-9 handgun at my middle thigh.  For a hot summer day, there was a sudden rush of cool air down my spine.  “I haven’t either, Dave,” I offered in reply.

Dave pulled his hat off and whipped the sweat away from his bald head.  “You start on mending the fence, and I’ll head back to my truck and make a call.  If you work fast enough, there will be a beer in it for you when I return,” he said, in that slow manner that made me want to finish his sentences for him.

I nodded in reply and pulled the hiking pack off my shoulder.  I always kept spare stainless steel aircraft repair wire and baling wire in there, along with a sturdy set of gloves and a wire cutter.  Any rancher worth his salt will tell you the value of having such things on hand.  There were always jobs that these tools could fix that needed to be done.  With the tools I needed in hand, I set my pack down and went to work.

I worked for an hour or so in relative silence… silence.  After three weeks, I was used to this land.  I could tell you the difference between a hawk and rock swallow based of their call.  I could tell you by the way a twig snapped or a branch swung if an animal had made it do so, and even what it was… but… now… it was quiet.  Nature was not meant to be so…when it was…it meant something the ecosystem was not prepared for…was afraid of even…was present.

I worked quickly, mending the fence and shutting the hole.  Each time my work required both my hands I felt a small spike of panic.  It was only after the third or fourth time I had to hold two pieces of wire close with one hand and run another piece of wire through them that I realized that my hand was straying almost reflexively to the reassuring grip of the 9mm at my side.

What are you so afraid of? I wondered as I looked around.  The woods were still.  You have nothing to fear.  I told myself and just to prove I wasn’t a pussy jumping at shadows, I forced myself to complete my project without touching my handgun’s handle.  When my work was done, I hurriedly packed my gear and looked around.  Dave was still nowhere to be found.

I wish I could say this was the first time he’d pulled something like this, telling me he was going to be right back and promising me a cold drink, only to disappear.  It wasn’t.  I sighed and shouldered my pack.  The sun hung high over Round Top now in a familiar manner that told me it was close to noon.  There was a dark line on the horizon, a heavy black veil being pulled slowly over the earth.  I knew what it meant.  Thunderstorms.

Texas Thunderstorms are notoriously bad.  They come in fast and furious, dropping buckets of rain on the land accompanied by sky-shattering lightning and a deafening display of thunder.  I took a deep breath of the air; I smelled no moisture yet.  I’d have ample time to make the journey back to where I left my Chevy and, hopefully, drive in before the storm hit.  There was nothing to worry about.  Intellectually I knew that, but something was setting me on edge, hanging at the back of my mind like a threat from a scolding parent.  I couldn’t shake the feeling I was unwelcome and that somewhere among the tall grass and swinging trees, perhaps even from one of the many high escarpments that surrounded the land, I was being closely, meticulously and hungrily watched.  It was a gut-wrenching, deep into your bones cold.  The kind of fear that you knew on a primitive level was right.  That something that had ill intentions for me was just beyond my sight, studying me, waiting for me to slip up.

That thought in the back of my mind quickened my pace.  I traced the fence back away from where I’d worked, south towards where I knew the trucks were parked.  As I walked, I kept my handgun out, my finger laid ready but safely against the trigger guard.  Feeling the weapon in my hand settled my nerves some, but not enough to fully shake the worry in the back of my mind.  After a solid fifteen minutes of hiking, I cleared the forested area and found myself on a known dirt trail.  Automatically, I studied the earth and quickly identified the telltale sign of Dave’s boot prints.  One set led back the way I came and another back to where the trucks were parked.  I sighed.  He’d never even tried to make it back.  A half-hour of walking later, I found him posted up on his tailgate, a Keystone Ice pressed in his hand, several crushed cans decorating his truck bed.

“Salem!” he said happily.  “What took you so long, my boy?”  He reached into a cooler beside him, fished out a can of beer, and tossed it to me.  I caught it, tapped the lid three times, and punched the top.  It was refreshingly cold, but I didn’t allow myself to drink as deep as I would have liked.

“I thought you were gonna head back my way, and help me with the repair,” I said, taking another sip to make my comment seem casual.  I was angry, but he was technically my employer and the meager sum he paid me for a day’s work kept food on my table.  I didn’t want to piss him off.

Dave laughed, slowly thumping his gut one more time.  “Oh, that was the plan sure enough when I left,” he began, nodding in agreement with himself.  “If I can be honest,” he began, before pausing abruptly and looking back towards the wood line I’d just exited, “the whole way back out I couldn’t shake the feeling I was intruding on my own land!  Can you believe that?”  He laughed slowly and took a very long drink.  He wiped his mouth and crushed the now empty can.  “Anyway, I lost my nerve.  Figured I’d wait it out here with a cold drink.”  His eyes went to the litany of cans littered across his truck bed.  “Okay, several cold drinks.”  He shrugged.

I bit back any sense of nervousness I’d felt coming out, instead choosing to press on with my curiosity.  “You make that call you mentioned?”

Dave nodded.  “I did,” he said slowly.  Dave had a tendency to speak in at a pace that sloth would consider slow.  The same could not be said of his drinking pace.  He fished another beer out of the cooler, nodding as he worked.  When he finally retrieved another drink and popped the top, he spoke.  “Called a friend of mine working at the animal science department at Texas A&M.”  He laughed for a second and raised his hands.  “You know how you Aggies are.”  He laughed again, took a drink and finally plowed into the answer I wanted – if you could consider a word every ten seconds a “plowing pace”.  “Take it with a grain of salt, but he had no idea what kinda animal could make a track like that.  Told me he would research migratory predators from up north and see if any come out or way.”

The answer was good enough for me then, so I didn’t press him.  At twenty and no longer in the woods, I was happy to enjoy a cold beer after a “long” day.  I much preferred to focus on drinking quick enough to have a second beer before the supplies ran out than anything else.  With that mindset, it didn’t take long for me to forget all about the eerie feeling in the woods.

It was another few weeks before Dave and I noticed anything else.  This time, it was nothing as obvious as a hole in the fence.  It was something that built over time, something that not only affected us, but the rest of the loose farming community that made up the small town we called home.  For the next few weeks, Dave and I noticed a sudden drop off in coyote tracks.  Before long, there was no black bear scat, and no more mountain lion sightings.  At first, this was a blessing- one less thing for a rancher to worry about.  That ignorance was bliss, but short lived.  Calls soon started coming in from ranchers – their deer populations dropped to near nothing.  Hogs and javelina too soon became a rare sight.

I had no warning of any of this.  It was rare to see any of these animals during the heat of the day so I thought little of it.  It was only after a particularly rough day that Dave invited to his home for dinner and a call came in that I got my first indication something was wrong.  The phone rang while we sat at this large oak kitchen table eating.  He excused himself and picked the landline off the cradle.  Dave didn’t say much, a word off confirmation when required.  He tilted his head up in a manner I’d come to know meant an idea occurred to him.  “Here would be best.  Eight,” he said in his long, slow drawl.  Finally, he thanked the caller and returned to the table.

“Salem,” he began before collecting his weeping beer from the table and draining it.  “The Peterson ranch on the other side of Round Top lost three calves this morning.”

I didn’t react really.  “Predators?” I asked, spearing a hunk of venison with my fork and lifting it from my plate.

Dave shook his head, his round face gleaming in the light.  “They’ve not seen a single predator or any sign of one in as much time as we have.”

“Okay…” I offered, my voice equal parts saturated with curiosity and uncertainty.  “But just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there.”  I said as delicately as I could.

“He found the calves ripped apart, hearts and other vital organs eaten clear out of them.”  Dave answered.

I had no real reply to offer him.  I’d never heard of anything like this.  A cow or a calf was lost to a predator every now and then, but three in one night?  A mountain lion might kill one, but it would drag it off to its lair to eat it in its entirety.  Bear, to my meager knowledge, had never killed a cow.  I supposed wolves were a possibility, but as the novice rancher, I didn’t want to offer a theory and be laughed at.  “What does Mr. Peterson want to do about it?” I asked.

Dave leaned back in his chair and cast a look out the large bay windows at the front of his house.  The porch lights offered a small illuminated view of his porch, but nothing of the canyon beyond.  “All the ranchers in the area will meet in the morning to decide what to do.”

I had more questions, but Dave insisted there was nothing more to discuss until the morning.  We finished the meal in relative silence and when I turned to leave, Dave stopped me.  “Hold on, Salem,” he said.  I froze in the doorway, one foot already on the outer porch.  “Bring your rifle and your hunting pack.  Load it for hiking, not working.”

I nodded.  Dave wished me good luck, and I stepped out into the night.  The short drive from his place to mine suddenly felt far more nerve-wracking than I remembered it ever being.  Despite my best efforts to, I couldn’t help my imagination from wandering.  What would kill three calves that quickly?  I knew from experience that when something died out here, it was picked clean inside three days.  To find the calves the way there were – bloody and missing some organs, but on the whole not really eaten – told me the kills had been as recent as this morning.  What could have been so quick to get three?

As I drove, I kept feeling that at any moment something big, vicious, and powerful was going to erupt into the illuminated view my headlight offered.  When I got home, I sprinted from the covered pavilion, through the yard, and into the house, locking the door and dead bolting it behind me.  That night, I slept with a gun next to my bed.

I rose earlier than normal the next morning and prepped my pack.  I pulled out my camouflaged backpack, emptied it of the wire and tools I kept for work, and began prepping it for hiking.  There is a saying in the U.S. Special Operations Community: “Light is Right”.  It’s the idea that you take what you need, but not so much that the weight of your gear slows you down or forces you to burn precious energy in excess.  This phrase rattled around my mind as I went about selecting what I needed.  Water was an absolute must.  It is hot out here and dehydration was as deadly as any mountain lion could be.  I filled the hydration bladder to the brim with water and replaced it.  With my water source secure, I threw in a few power bars in case I got hungry, and strapped a kukri – a large Nepalese fighting knife I used to cut through brush- to the outside of the pack.  Finally, I added a box of .270 cartridges for the Weatherby rifle I favored, a compass, and my range finder.  With my bag packed, I dressed- 5.11 pants, a t-shirt, and a pair of new balance hiking boots.  As usual, I carried my FNS on my left thigh and kept two spare magazines on my belt.

This morning as I approached the gate to Dave’s property I found him already there and waiting.  He sat in the bed of his truck in a lawn chair, a nondescript hunting rifle across his lap.  “Morning, Dave,” I offered after I stepped out of my truck.

Dave didn’t return my greeting, his eyes never leaving the horizon.  They darted around like a man certain that every breeze moving in the wind was hiding something sinister.  Being overweight and usually bug-eyed, the sight struck me as almost comical.  “Park your truck by the house, grab your rifle and your pack, and get in,” he ordered.  Confused but curious, I did as he asked without question.

No sooner had I arrived at Dave’s truck with my gear did he sling his weapon over his shoulder and climb down.  Dave moved at a pace that for anyone else would have been casual, but was hurried for him.  I knew at once something had happened.

“Jump up in the back.”  He paused, his blue eyes flicking to where my rifle was slung over my shoulder.  “It loaded?” he asked, moving faster than usual to the driver’s side door.  I nodded.

“It holds five rounds, but I don’t have one chambered,” I answered after pulling myself up and over the side.

“Chamber a round.  Keep your eyes peeled if you see anything…shoot it.  We’re going up to the Peterson place,” he said, stepping up and into his truck.

My face contorted in confusion.  “Wait, I thought everyone was meeting us here?”

Dave offered no reply.  He simply started the truck and set it into gear.  I did as he asked, sliding the bolt back so that it would catch a glittering round, and pushed it forward again.  I set the safety and wrapped the sling of my weapon around my arm, holding the strap and the metal guard that covered the back window in one hand.  Dawn’s light slipped like watercolors rolling down the canyon walls, breathing life into our small corner of the world.  I kept my head on a swivel, occasionally peering through the long, varying power scope attached to the top of the green body of my rifle.  I saw and heard nothing that would indicate there was something amiss.  It was another summer morning deep in the Texas Hill Country.

We crossed through the river twice, found a near over grown path and turned left.  The trees on each side of the road reached their branches out like arms; their leaves raked past me like fingers, catching my pack and clothes.  It made steadying my rifle too hard and after a time I set it down, pulling my pistol free, it would be far more useful in close proximity.  Another twenty minutes passed with no incident.  My constant state of readiness made me feel foolish.  Was Dave messing with me? I began to wonder.

As the gate to the Peterson ranch appeared around yet another tree-choked corner, I slid my handgun home into its holster.  There were at least a dozen trucks in the yard, each parked in such a manner that it was as if they were trying to compete with who could get closest to the house.  Dave, as if in on this unspoken instruction, weaved the large Ford F-250 through the sea of metal and managed to park a mere ten feet from the door.  Dave stepped out and cast a glance in my direction.  “Why is your rifle not up?” he asked, his voice strained.  His words came fast and in a panicked flurry.

I holstered my handgun and picked my rifle up from the bed.  Confused, habitually perhaps, even scornfully, setting the rubber butt into my shoulder.  Dave relaxed just slightly at the sight of the weapon at the ready and waved me down.  “Let’s go.”  He turned and hurried into the house, three even four times as fast as I’d ever seen him move.

I jumped out of the truck, following him to a large porch under a heavy wooden overhang.  Large gardens on either side of the porch threatened to completely obscure its edges.  As I approached, a litany of smells overwhelmed me, almost making me sneeze.  My head jerked to the side and I spotted one man leaning against the rock wall of the house.  He held a rifle in his hand, his knuckles white and his eyes never leaving the horizon.  Out of habit, I looked to the other side and found another armed guard, thumbing the safety on his weapon.  The sight struck me as odd.  Why did a cattle rancher need an armed guard at his door?

Dave recognized both the guards on sight, greeting them each by name.  One of the men nodded in reply and opened the door for Dave and me to pass.  As we entered the Peterson house the AC hit in a rush, kissing the beads of sweat I had not known creased my sun-dried skin.  I surveyed the room.  It was decorated in the same manner as Dave’s place.  Stuffed animal heads adorned the walls leading to a large stone fireplace, where a mountain lion was mounted on a heavy wooden mantel.  Set in front of the fireplace was a large oak table, with two long benches set along either side.  The benches were choked with men, all dressed in the near same fashion: sun worn hats, flannel shirts, and ripped and battered jeans.  They brandished firearms in a way that set me immediately at edge, like men who did so without thinking, acting on fear and instinct.  They paid us no mind as we walked in, already embroiled in an argument, yelling at each other over a large map on the table.

Dave found a clear space on the bench and sat, not so much as giving me a second glance.  I surveyed the seating arrangement.  There was not sufficient room for my wide shoulders so I silently elected to stand, choosing a place that the weight of my pack and rifle would be neutralized as I leaned against the wall.  A heavyset man at the head of the table thumped a meaty fist and surveyed the room.  Quiet fell at once.

“You all know why every land owner in the canyon is here.”  Mr. Peterson looked about the room.  “Well, almost everyone.  I see that old bat Ruka isn’t around,” he said, his voice saturated in the twang I knew well came from a life in the Texas Hill Country.  There was a sudden rumble of laughter at the joke, but I didn’t understand.  Peterson smiled and continued.  “I lost three head of cattle yesterday, Shaw lost just as many in the last three days.  Brennon’s ranch was struck last, he lost five this morning.”  There was a rumble of uncertainty, of fear, as men shifted and exchanged nervous glances.  “There is some predator out there that is killing our cattle.  It is in the interest of every rancher present that we hunt this beast down and burry a bullet in it.”

There was a murmur of agreement from everyone present.

“So,” Peterson began, clearly relishing in the attention, “we should set out in force and hunt this thing down.”  There was another chorus of agreement from the men present.  Almost imperceptibly, however, there was a sharp chirp of laughter.  Only Peterson seemed to hear it, his eyes darting towards the origin of the sound.  Moments later, a tall woman emerged from a dark hallway.  She was pleasantly muscular, blonde with dark brown eyes.  The woman moved with an athletic grace, a classic .45 long colt belted on her right hip.  She stopped near the table folding her long, toned arms and casting the man at the head of the table a skeptical look.

“Daddy, you do that, and you’re liable to get yourself or one of these gentlemen shot,” she said, her voice thick with the same southern twang as Mr. Peterson.  “The lot of you out scouring the woods… someone would step on a twig and take a .30-.30 round for their trouble.”

Mr. Peterson scowled.  “What would you have me do, Samantha?  I cannot afford…”  He stopped, gesturing towards the men present.  “…nor can any of these ranchers, for that matter… afford to have our livelihoods butchered and left to rot like what we’ve discovered these last few days.”

Samantha looked about the room, her eyes lingering just slightly on me.  I felt a flush of blood to my face, a sudden discomfort.  I’d never gotten used to attention from pretty women.  I shifted uncertainly, adjusting the rifle that waited expectantly on my back.

“I see, but one or two men here who I know from my own experience could take a four hundred yard shot at a moving target,” Samantha began, her eyes moving about the room.

“Well, why would anyone need to shoot from that far away?” a rancher on the far end of the table I did not recognize asked.

“Whatever is killing our cattle is fast Mr. Houbourten.  Based on where the kills have occurred, it’s covering between ten and twenty miles in a given morning.  Animal that quick, you’re not likely to ever get in close,” she answered.  “Means when we find it, we’ll have to take the shot from an extreme distance.”

Mr. Houbourten nodded, not so much in defeat as it was the cool realization that Samantha’s logic was sound.

“Only one among you is fit enough to track this thing on foot.  I can’t speak to his ability to hunt, but he certainly looks the part.  The rest of you get in the way,” Samantha said as she pulled up a seat from a smaller table in the kitchen and took her place next to her father.

One of the men at the table laughed.  He wore a faded cowboy hat, a sun-bleached blue flannel shirt stretched too tight at the belly, and a pair of holey jeans.  “I can keep up with any man here.”

It was Samantha’s turn to laugh.  She raised an eyebrow and made her doubt clear with a tilt of her head.  “If we used trucks or anything that required you to ride and exert little energy, I’m sure you could.  But trucks are loud; you can hear them clear across any canyon.  You want to get a drop on something fast enough to kill damn near a score of cows spaced out over thousands of acres, you need stealth.”

No one offered a rebuttal.  They knew few among them were fit enough for the plan Samantha outlined; even I could see that.  A silence fell for a while.  Suddenly Dave raised a hand.  “I’d like to speak if it’s alright with you, gentlemen,” Dave began.  He removed the “Ranger Boats” hat from his head and set it on the table before him.  “You all know my ranch hand Salem.”  He trailed off, or he might have stopped to breathe.  He spoke so slowly that it was hard to tell.  “What you may not know is his dad is an active duty sniper and he taught Salem everything he knows.”

My heart sank.  My father told him that in confidence.  “I’ve seen Salem here drop a running coyote at five hundred yards.  If there is one among us up to take this thing down, Salem is our man.”  Dave turned to me and gave me an appraising look.  “I think he’s young and spry enough to make the journey Miss Peterson outlined.”

Every set of eyes in the room turned to me.  I was not prepared for this.  Yes, my dad was a great shot, a sniper by trade, and yes, I knew how to shoot.  That didn’t mean I knew how to track or conceal my movements like he could, and it didn’t mean I could do range calculations like my father could.  Well, not as well as he could.  I was good, sure, better than most – but Dave was setting me up for a bill I feared my skills could never pay in full.

For a brief moment, my imagination took over.  Was I going to be asked to take a herculean shot to prove my skill? I wondered as I looked over my shoulder to the ridge of the canyon wall above.  I forced that thought from my mind, turned back to the table, and gulped.  Every eye was still on me; they were all waiting for me to answer.

“I’ve never heard of anything as fast as what you describe,” I said slowly.  “Stupidly” might have even been an even more appropriate adjective.  “I can hit things from a great distance,” I continued, immediately realizing it made me sound no less moronic.  “I’m no tracker.  I can identify most animal’s tracks, but follow something through this country?  Through rivers, over rocky escarpments, or even an animal that knows how to hide its movements?  No.  I’d need someone who knows the land better, who knows the pattern of the animals here by heart, who could put me into a position that I could get a clear shot from.”

There was a sudden explosion of sound as every man present fought to have their voice heard, each insisting they knew the land the best and would be up to the task of tracking the beast for me.  I almost violently recoiled at the sudden onslaught of noise, but proudly managed to remain outwardly impassive.  Peterson called for silence, but it was Dave whose voice won the stage.  “I only know of one tracker adept enough to do what my hand asks.”  There was a heavy silence as each man waited for Dave to name my partner in this endeavor.  The old rancher turned, meeting Samantha’s eye.  “Miss Peterson, I’ve seen you track a pig better than my dog can smell out, I know all the men here present as well as their acumen as a tracker and I can say with certainty you have no equal.”

To my surprise, no one bothered to disagree.  Mr. Peterson turned to his daughter and favored her with a long, appraising look.  “Samantha, can you do it?”

Samantha took a deep breath, her brown eyes settling on me.  “I can find whatever it is, sure enough.  If it leaves tracks, I can follow it… but can he kill it?  It’s an awfully big risk to leave the success of the job in the hands of an outsider.”

Dave sucked his breath in sharply and wagged a finger.  “He’s from good stock.  He may not have been raised in this canyon, but his parents are military.  He’s a hard worker and as I mentioned, I can vouch for his shooting abilities.”

I felt a sudden rush to do something impressive but I smothered it.  Good thing, too, because I could feel everyone boring into me with their eyes.  Silence fell in such a way that told me I needed to say something again, but I had nothing truly intelligent to offer.  “If Miss Peterson can get me within six hundred yards of the thing, I’ll fit a round through its eye,” I offered, doing my best to conceal my fear.

There was a ripple of tension that ran down the table, personified with nervous movements each rancher made before turning back to Peterson.  The big man frowned and tossed his head from side to side.  “Alright, we have no time to waste.  Sam and Mr. Salem will head up to the last kill on Brennon’s ranch and track it from there.”  He paused and turned to his daughter.

“Take a radio.  An hour before dusk I want your current position and we’ll send someone out for you both.  No one needs to be out after dark with whatever this is on the loose.”  Mr. Peterson turned to the table.  “As for the rest of us, we should all consider moving our heard into whatever pasture is most secure.  If we pool labor, we can have this accomplished by day’s end to minimize our losses before this thing is brought down.  We’ll write down numbers and draw from a hat for who goes first to keep it fair.”

With that, the informal council of ranchers ended.  There was a roar as benches scraped against the floor as the men stood and conversation began.  I didn’t bother to move from where I stood against the wall.  I could feel my gut turning in nervous anticipation.  My skills would be put to the test, so would Dave’s word.  If I let him down… his pull at these informal meetings would be at an end.  As if he could read my mind, he stood and made his way from the table to where I stood pressed against the wall.

“Salem, I know you can make that shot,” he said simply, his voice slightly faster than normal.

I nodded in reply.  I could tell he was nervous too and I didn’t want my fears bleeding through.

Dave smiled, almost relieved.  “Well, if I get a good draw here and you get a shot, we have nothing to worry about.  The herd will be fine and I won’t have to worry about any lost profit.”  He offered me a thin-lipped smile.

I gave him a smile in return, my gaze shifting past the heavyset rancher towards the back of the room where my tracker and guide stood.  Her gaze met mine and I almost gulped under the intensity.  She was still watching me with the same scrutinizing look.  I nodded to her and focused back on Dave.  “I can do it,” I said simply.

Dave thumped me on the shoulder and pointed to a rancher that stood not far from us.  “That’s Brennon.”  I followed his finger to find a short, stocky man, a head shorter than me, with wide shoulders and a full, bushy beard.  “He’ll take you both up to his property.  Be polite, do as he says while you’re in the truck, and follow whatever rules he sets for his land,” Dave advised.

I nodded and thanked him.  We shook hands, and then I broke my vigil as a wallflower and made my way across the bustling room to where Brennon stood.  His eyes flicked over to me like a whip, as if my mere approach was something to be lashed at and punished.  I knew this look.  It was the same gaze that Samantha gave me, the look of an insider gazing at someone they perceived as foreign, an outsider.  “Mr. Brennon,” I began, offering a hand.  “I’m Salem Roanoke.  I’m Michael Roanoke’s son.  I live next to Dave’s Concord ranch, on Four River Crossing Ranch,” I began.

Mr. Brennon looked at me like a large, rather unpleasant bug he wanted to squish.  His brown eyes narrowed, his mustache furled down in a frown.  It took him a moment before he offered a small, but roughly calloused hand.  “Salem, Dave speaks highly of you,” he said in a gruff matter-of-fact voice.

“I appreciate you letting us to your property,” I began as a courtesy Dave taught me was necessary.  As I’ve said before, each ranch is like a state unto itself.  To cross into it without paying your due, especially armed, is likely to get you buried in a holler under an unmarked grave.  “If it’s alright with you, sir, I’d be happy to shoot whatever is bringing down your cattle.”

Brennon knew this was the plan, and so did I, but as I was taught, this was still courtesy.  That’s one thing about the south many people don’t understand.  We’re polite, but being so in return is a sign of respect.  Even if you’re considered an outsider like me, showing deference to the culture is an important step in not ruffling any feathers… or being shot.

“Of course, you can.  Just try to keep up with Samantha.  No one wants to hear you crying at the end of the day or that she ran you into the ground and had to carry you home,” Brennon said, breaking the shake and unceremoniously exiting the building.

I almost gawked at him as he left but I managed to keep my composure and follow him out the door.  Mr. Brennon made his way to a large maroon F250 suspended almost stupidly high above the ground.  He climbed into the driver’s side and slammed the door behind him.  A second later the engine started.

“Salem,” came a voice from over my shoulder.  I turned to find Samantha standing there a hiking pack on her back, a Winchester lever-action .30-.30 slung over her right shoulder.  “On Concord Ranch, have you noticed anything out of the ordinary?  Weird feelings?  Odd smells lingering in the air?  Maybe tracks you’ve never seen before?”  Her gaze had an almost x-ray quality to it, boring into me.

“No… Well…” I considered her question harder.  “A few weeks back, Dave and I found a hole in the fence, straw-colored hair caught in the barbed wire, and a weird print in the ground.”

Samantha considered my words and nodded almost expectantly.  “Long foot, narrow at the bridge, but with a deep claw marks at the front,” she said as if she could see the mental image I was recalling.

“Yes.”  I answered, perplexed as to how she knew.

She offered me no reply and simply turned back and disappeared into the house.  A few minutes later, she reappeared and thrust a box of bullets into my hands.  “Your rifle is a .270.  Use these instead of what you have loaded,” she said.

I pulled the box open and looked at the rounds.  They looked no different than the .270 rounds loaded into my rifle currently except their ends were slivered at the tip, tainted with a purple hue.  “What are these?”

Samantha shrugged.  “Special loaded rounds, tipped with a natural poison.  So if you wing it and it gets away, it will still die.”  She pulled a .30 caliber round from her belt.  “I carry the same in my Winchester’s caliber,” she said.  “Ballistics are the same.  You can do the math if you’d like.”

I knew what this was.  It was a test.  If I tested her round it might convey I didn’t trust her, but if I didn’t she might consider me too trusting or stupid.  I pulled the magazine out of my rifle, ripped the bolt back, and caught the glimmering round that it ejected.  I compared the two and weighed them.  “150 grain?” I asked as I rolled one of her specially-loaded rounds in my hands.

“Yes,” she replied.

“This poison going to muck up my weapon?” I challenged as I began unloading my standard rounds.

“No,” she offered in reply.  “I’ll be in the truck when you’re ready.”

I reloaded my weapon with the rounds she’d given me, returned the old bullets to my pack, and slung my weapon over my shoulder.  Then I approached the truck.

“Salem, you ride in the bed!” Brennon called out his window as I neared the truck bed.  I nodded in reply and climbed into the back of the truck.  Just like Dave, Brennon’s truck had a metal guard covering his back window that offered an easy handhold.  As soon as I had braced myself, rifle in my left hand angled towards the sky, the metal guard held in the other, the truck lurched forward.  “You see anything that looks like it killed my cows… shoot it.”

“Sure thing!” I called in reply.  I’ve got no fucking clue what this thing looks like, I reflected.

Brennon drove like a man being chased, accelerating violently along straight stretches of the dirt roads that adjoined all the ranches and flying around corners.  It was all I could do to keep my grip on my rifle and the truck.  I choked on the dust the wheels gave flight to and my eyes watered damn near violently.  It took only a matter of minutes driving at this pace and choking down white soot before I was helpless to do anything to defend the vehicle.  If Brennon noticed my state of violent, involuntary coughing, he gave me no indication.  After what felt like six years, but my watch reported was no more than twenty minutes, we arrived at the top of a large hill near a heavy iron gate.

“Pass through here, sixty yards down the path on the left, and you’ll find the bodies… what’s left of ‘em,” he said gruffly.  I heard the click of a lighter, and seconds later smelled the harsh scent of tobacco.  “Radio channel seven when you need to be picked up.  Be specific with your location, and if you’re still on my land, ensure you’re along a road.  Otherwise…”  Brennon exhaled and I saw a stream of smoke slip outside the truck’s window.  “You’ll likely die,” he said, almost coldly, but more matter-of-factly.

I felt a chill trace its frigid fingers up my spine as I leapt off the side of the truck.  I looked almost expectantly towards where the kind kiss of a breeze that should have swiped the sweat from my face, but found myself lost towards a direction.  Nerves, I thought to myself as I slung the rifle over my left shoulder and waited for Samantha to exit the truck.  She was quick, telling Brennon to keep his radio on, his mind clear, and his courage mustered.  Well, those were her sentiments; it was gruffer than that.  Something far more akin to “Keep your drunk ass out of the bottle, and stay alert and awake. If your bitch ass fails to come and get us, then I’ll shoot you myself.”

I found myself immediately admiring her.  It was clear she was the person running the family.  I was feeling far more at ease with the task ahead.  Brennon gave no real reply other than slamming so hard on his accelerator his tires spewed gravel and kicked up more of the dust that I was positive lined my lungs permanently at this point.  As the dust cloud fell away, Samantha suddenly became clear to me.  Her weapon was at the ready, her finger tracing the trigger guard, her brown eyes studying the ground oblivious to my presence.

“Let’s get to work,” she said and turned towards the gate.

We found the remains of the cows quickly enough, exactly where Brennon said they would be.  They were ripped open with nearly surgical precision, their vital organs removed in the same fashion.  Samantha studied the bodies for a full minute.  I did my best to imitate her, but beyond knowing they were dead and that something had eaten them, there was no new information for me to glean.

“You ever seen anything like this before?” I mused as I stared down at the bodies.  “Could this be a person?  The cuts look clean.”  I tried.  Like I’ve mentioned, I’m no expert, but I can tell a clean cut from a savage one.

She looked up from the bodies and gave me yet another appraising look.  “I don’t see signs of tire tracks or boot prints other than our own, or Brennon’s, so that rules out people,” she answered at once.  You should have realized that, I thought, mentally scolding myself.  “As for if I’ve seen something like this before… not me personally, but my mother did once.  Her and my Dad had a problem like this about two decades ago shortly after buying a tract of land from Miss Ruka.”

“What did it turn out to be?  A mountain lion?” I pressed.

Samantha shook her head.  “No.  Mountain lions will eat most of the animal.  They’ll kill it and drag it back to their den to feed, not leave it out like this,” she answered, her eyes back to studying the dirt.

I mentally scolded myself again.  I knew mountain lion feeding habits and should have made that clear when I asked the question, even if just to avoid the embarrassment.  No doubling back now, I realized and mentally side swept my embarrassment.  “But what killed the cattle then?  What did it turn out to be?”

“A wolf, a big one.  The special rounds you have will bring it down if that’s what it is again… assuming you’re as good as Dave advertised,” she answered.

“I’ll do my part.  You’ll see,” I replied.  I knew Samantha was not being rude by voicing her skepticism.  It’s just how it was here in this part of Texas.  Until your action backed up your word, you were open to scrutiny.

“I can see faint traces of the prints,” Samantha said, almost to herself.  “We have a long way to go.”  She spoke in a manner that reminded me there was work to do.

I followed her, intentionally staying a few paces behind and out of her way as she worked.  She studied the dirt before her as if it were words in a language that only she could read.  She traced her way up to the fence, over it, and then further onto the Brennon ranch.  I followed, doing my best to step where she did, pausing every so often to study the rolling rocky hills and wild terrain that stretched endlessly before us.

The sun seemed to chase us as we made our way across damn near two hundred acres of land.  It was slow going, as the terrain was rough and rocky, and only sparsely punctuated by trees and vegetation.  Hours in, I began wondering how Brennon managed to keep cattle here, when the slow but distinctive lap of the river met my ears.

Samantha led the way to the river and rapidly found a narrow neck of it we could cross.  We paused briefly to roll up our pant legs and pull of our boots.  The water was clear and cool; its kiss was refreshing.  I wanted to stop and go for a swim, but thought better of it.  There would be time to enjoy nature when there wasn’t something lurking in the woods with an appetite for cow.  After crossing, we donned our boots again.

“I think I know where it’s headed,” Samantha said, studying the heavy print before her in the mud.  “Trouble is, it’s pretty far, but if I’m right I’ll be able to get you into a good spot to take a shot.”

“How far are we talking?” I asked as I laced up my boots.

“Hard to say for certain.  We’re off the Brennon Ranch now onto my family’s property.  I’d say at least three hundred acres to cover,” she answered.

I glanced at my watch.  5:30, it reported.  We had plenty of daylight left, as the sun did not start to go down until 8:30.  “Alright,” was all I had to offer in reply.

“We’ll need to move quickly,” she said, offering me a hand to pull me to my feet.  I accepted gratefully.

“I’ll do my best to keep up,” I said, giving her a wry smile now that we were eye-level.

Samantha broke into a jog that I reluctantly followed.  We’d been hiking for hours, and my body was already tired, but I knew how important this was.  I managed to keep up… sort of…  I was a full ten paces behind her.  My rifle’s bolt, made for a right-handed shooter, dug mercilessly into my left side.  I stifled any complaint that I felt tempted to make.  I was an outsider here and I had to prove my metal.

We ran up one hill then down it, making our way through woods and cliff face alike.  It wasn’t long before my lungs were burning and my legs were wailing for a reprieve.  I did my best to ignore them, determined not to slow Samantha down or impede her work.  After another hour, she stopped and I greedily sucked down water while she studied some tracks.  I’ve always been in good shape, but hiking in the heat of the day over rocky terrain really takes it out of you.

What Samantha needed to discern from the tracks learned, she quaffed a water bottle and we were off again.  Another hour later, we stopped again, once more – not to drink, rest, or give me any grief for what I was certain was my best impression of a huffing diesel engine – but to study the tracks that suddenly, imperceptibly to me but clear to her keen eye, had become lighter.  Of course, I noticed none of this; I waited for her to tell me.  It took her three tries before I understood.  Her voice drowned out by the hammer of my own heart and the rapid and near-deafening roar of me draining most of the water I carried.  “The tracks get lighter here.  It knows it’s being followed.”

My heartbeat quickened.  If it knows it’s being followed, then it likely was in the woods watching us at some point, I realized.

She paused, and I followed her gaze.  “Just as I suspected, they’re headed towards the Vaults.”

I knew this name well.  Everyone in the canyon knew them, especially the owners of our three ranches.  The Vaults were dead lands, all rock.  At some point in time, long before any of us owned land here, the vaults were a lake.  Time and harsh sunlight, however, transformed them into something else.  The lake dried up, and so too did the aquifer beneath, leaving a cacophony, an echo chamber for a cruel breeze to play like a recorder and emit the most unnerving sounds.  The Vaults straddled the property lines between Concord Ranch, Ruska’s property, and the Peterson Ranch.

“Why would they be headed towards the Vaults?” I asked.

Samantha chewed her lip for a moment.  “Lot of good places to hide. Easy to defend yourself there, I’d imagine.”  Her eyes went to the sun that hung just barely over a distant hill.  “That’s tomorrow’s problem, though. We’ve gone as far as I feel comfortable going today.  Tomorrow I can get us into a position that overlooks the entrance to the Vaults.  If it’s in there, we’ll be able to see it come out.”

I nodded, doing my best not to betray my relief.  I was beat.  “How far of a shot will it be?”

She considered my words a moment.  “About 500 yards, but it’s hard to tell.”

I nodded.  I’d have to use the range finder in the morning to know for certain.  Samantha fished a radio out of her pack and turned it on.  She reported our position and waited for a response.  None came.  She looked around, studying the high hills.  “Signal must be blocked; we’ll need to head for higher ground.”

I cast a glance at the angry red orb of the sun that hung half-visible on the horizon.  “We need to move quickly.  It’ll be dark soon.”

She took off at a faster pace than before.  Once again, I followed.  Following half an hour of scrambling up rocky escarpments and stepping carefully over roots, we found ourselves on top of the closest hill.  Samantha tried the radio again, and this time we earned a response.

“Samantha, it’s twenty minutes till dark!” came a scolding voice I recognized immediately as that of Mr. Peterson.

“I know, but we have some idea now where this thing is coming from.  Can you send someone?” she answered.

“Dave and I are on our way.  Keep your weapons ready, and please… keep a sharp eye out.”  Mr. Peterson’s voice sounded strained and saturated with fear.

“What happened?” Samantha asked automatically.

There was a long silence.  “It’s Brennon, he’s dead.  Whatever this thing is, it got him.”  My skin erupted in gooseflesh.  It was killing people now.

Samantha cursed.  “How?”

“Looks like it hit his truck this morning sometime after he dropped you off.  Truck was beat to shit, glass broken out and dented to high hell.  Looks like it attacked him on a narrow part of the road and pushed the truck down the hill.  We found his body outside the truck a ways; he was ripped nearly in two. Brass was everywhere,” Mr. Peterson answered.  His words had a chilling effect, nearly stealing any measure of courage I had.  Brennon’s truck was huge, a twin of Peterson’s, jacked up ridiculously high and adorned with heavy metal cattle guards. Whatever we were hunting was far bigger than a wolf if it did that, I reflected.

“He went out with his boots on.  No better way to go.” Samantha said, she paused and studied the sky.  “Alright, we’ll be at the western road a hundred yards off the fourth turn, okay?”

“Be there as fast as I can,” Mr. Peterson said.

Samantha turned to me.  “It’s a half-mile away, downhill, but we’re not going to descend until we can see his headlights approach,” she said in a rush. “It’s far easier to defend ourselves from here.”

I nodded and pushed my rifle more firmly into my shoulder.  I studied the trail that we took to summit the hill.  A lone path threaded its way between high escarpments and sheer cliff faces.  She chose this spot specifically, I realized with some relief.  If anything were to threaten us, it would have to pass under our watchful eyes.

“Keep your scope at the base of the path. I’ll keep an eye in closer, just in case,” Samantha said, her .30-30 at the ready.

The sun slid slowly out of view, the light becoming far and far dimmer.  Shadows grew before me, making every swinging branch in the breeze suddenly guilty of being propelled into motion by the beast we were hunting.  There is no accurate way to describe the tension I felt that evening, waiting helplessly for our ride to come.  The closest I could come to describing it is by comparing it to those moments when you know you’re caught, and you’re waiting for the hammer to fall, and for whatever punishment you’ve earned to land firmly on your shoulders.  On a primal level, I knew we had been spotted, and that whatever we had spent the day tracking was below, waiting hungrily for the opportunity to end us.

Darkness violated my vision, making each glance through my scope less and less revealing.  After another few minutes, all light was lost.  Even though the moon was full, the overcast sky veiled the heavens, eclipsing its welcome light.  I slung my rifle over my shoulder and pulled my sidearm free.  It, at least, had a small but powerful flashlight mounted on its end.  Samantha noticed my exchange and cast me a wary glance.

“Too dark to see through the scope?” she asked in a knowing tone.

I nodded.  “It would–” I began before my words caught in my throat.  There was a crash from below, a telltale sound of rocks slamming violently downhill.  We froze, straining our ears to detect any sound, to discern whether what we heard was an approaching threat or something more benign.  It wasn’t long before I heard it: a labored breath.  It was deep, bordering on a growl.

I turned towards where I knew Samantha stood last, and whispered, “They still coming?”

Samantha offered no answer; she had no time.  There was a grunt from far below, coupled with the sudden, distinctive slap of feet against stone.  I turned reflexively, my handgun raised in preparation, my right index finger as tense against the switch for the flashlight as my left was against the trigger.  I heard a distinctive metal grinding sound from my right and knew Samantha had chambered a round in preparation.

A sound met the edge of my ear’s range with the same abruptness of a rock slamming against a windshield.  It was steady, a great rumbling, huffing breath I recognized as that of something running headlong uphill.  My stomach dropped abruptly and I thought I would vomit.  I took a steadying breath and was rewarded with a sudden and near-terrifying rush of a chill climbing my spine.  I could see no more than fifteen feet in front of me, and the temptation to flick the light on was overpowering.

My fears begged me to run, empty the magazine and high tail it away.  Something inside me kept me from doing so, however, keeping me rooted to the spot, at the ready.  I leaned into this feeling, taking solace in the sudden lethal purpose I knew intuitively it held in store.  It tempered my desire to turn on the light, knowing full well it would betray my position.  I waited, doing my best to keep my breathing slow and deep, and less conspicuous.

Whatever was climbing the hill was louder now, its own breaths coming in rapid, greedy rasps.  Every few minutes it would stop and take a great gulp of air.  I could hear the wind sliding into its lungs in sharp bursts that resembled the sound of paper tearing.  It’s smelling us out, I realized, both stunned and impressed by the beast below.

In movies, this is when the so-called hero would rack the weapon’s slide or cock it.  In reality, only an idiot waits that long to ready their weapon.  I don’t fancy myself an idiot, so I keep one in the chamber at all times.  This saved me, because I didn’t have to make the unnecessary noise of racking the slide.  I waited, prepared, with a full 17-round magazine of 9mm hollow points.

It was louder now, lumbering headlong up the hill to where we waited, hidden.  My heart hammered so loudly in my ears I thought I would go deaf.  Somehow, above the roar of my own life force, I could still hear the approach of the beast.  I waited, my self-discipline at war with my flight response.  When it sounded like it was close enough to reach out and touch, I counted to three, and then sprang into action.  My right index finger flicked the light to life and I nearly froze.

Standing over me, no more than three feet away, was something out of a horror story.  Eight feet tall, with muscle rippling noticeably under flesh stretched tautly.  Its face was a weird cross between that of a wolf and a man.  A heavy brow loomed over human blue eyes.  Its mouth was canine in appearance, the long, elongated snout of a wolf.  Its gnashing teeth were bone white and had a distinctly hungry look to them.  Its powerful arms and legs ended in large hands and feet, with fingers and toes adorned with three-inch-long black claws.

It opened its mouth; whether to roar or bite me, I have no idea.  I pulled the trigger and the clamor of my handgun drowned everything else out.  I didn’t stop pulling until the magazine ran dry.  Seventeen shots at close range were enough to kill even a bear by my estimation, but this thing seemed unfazed.  That said, the damage had been done.  I could see blood seeping down from its wounds, a steadily expanding crimson curtain descending over its body.  Still, the beast advanced, swinging its great arms like clubs.

I had barely managed to slip behind a tree when the beast felled it in an instant, its great claws slicing through the thick cedar trunk with ease. Panicking, I backpedaled hurriedly thumbing the mag release.  There was a hiss and the muted slap of plastic landing against grass. The beast was advancing again, moving with lethal purpose to sink its teeth or claws into me. I groped blindly for a fresh magazine at my hip, hoping against all hope that another seventeen rounds might save me. It was only then I heard the distinctive bark of a .30-30.

A wail of agony and pain rose into the night air as the beast balked.  It stepped back, it’s great, weird head looking back towards the path below.  I seized this chance, dropping my handgun and unslinging the rifle from my shoulder.  I barely had time to aim.  I thrust the long barrel towards the beast.  When I felt it connect with something, I jerked the trigger back.  There was a deafening blast and a spray of blood.  Suddenly, the world went quiet.

The first thing I heard after my shot was the meaty smack of a body slamming home against the earth. Sliding shale and caliche filled the air as the now dead body, or so I hoped, of the monster slid downhill.  I took a needed breath and jerked the bolt back, ejecting the spent round.  There was a peculiar scent on the air, something flowery mixing with the heavy metal scent of blood and cordite.

Samantha didn’t wait, she seemed unfazed. She leapt forward, standing over the body and aiming her weapon down at its head.  She fired once, racked the lever, then again at its heart.

“It’s dead,” she surmised as she racked her weapon again.  I found my handgun and used the light to make my way to where Samantha stood over the now-dead animal.

“The… fuck… was… it?” I managed, staring in disbelief at the bloody heap that slowly sliding back down the hill.  My mind seemed strangely incapable of processing what I’d just seen.

Samantha opened her mouth to say something but was cut short.  From somewhere far below there was a soul-freezing howl.  It drifted high and long into the night air and just as it died away, a second one answered.

“More?” I said, fear welling inside me.

“Christ.” She hissed and pulled the radio free. “Dad, hurry! One down, there’s more coming!” She said in a rush. There was a wash of static in reply. My heart dropped. We were totally alone.

* * * * * *

Part II

The silence that followed couldn’t have been more than a second or two, but it felt like an eternity.  “Sam, we’re coming over the hill now you should see our lights!”

I looked down and was greeted by the sight of two large, yellow orbs.  “I see them!”

Samantha clipped the radio to her belt. “We’re going to have to make a break for it.” She said.

There was another howl from below, this time it was noticeably closer.

I slung my rifle again and reloaded my handgun it would be far easier to shoot on the run.  “I’m ready.”

Samantha took off like a bullet, covering great bounds with each stride of her long legs. I followed and this time, I had no trouble keeping up.  The adrenaline coursing through my veins muted every ache and pain I’d earned on the day’s hike. We slipped and slid, but somehow each managed to keep our feet.

The truck met us along a dirt road and barely slowed down long enough for Samantha and I to hurl ourselves into its bed. No sooner had I slammed into the rough bed liner did Mr. Peterson shove the accelerator down. We bounced violently in the back, on a few occasions nearly being bucked entirely out of the truck, but I didn’t dare ask him to slow down.  There were more of those fucking things out there and they would be pissed when they found out we killed their friend- if they didn’t know already.

As soon as we reached the Peterson ranch, Samantha jumped out the back of the truck and slammed the gate closed. I knew why she did it, but it struck me as oddly funny. I’d seen what these things did to the gate on Dave’s land it wouldn’t stop them.  Samantha caught my eye as she got back in and seemed to know what I was thinking. “It will slow them down, might buy us time to get a gun or a shot off.”

I nodded in reply.  We drove up to the house and just like this morning, Mr. Peterson parked his vehicle as close as he could to his front porch without actually parking on it.  No sooner than the instant the engine died, were we all inside, locking the door behind us.

“Sit.” Mr. Peterson said pointing towards the table.

I shed my pack and set my rifle across it.  The adrenaline that coursed so readily in my veins before was beginning to fade.  Exhaustion began to set in as I sat heavily on one of the long oak benches.  Samantha did the same, resuming her place near the head of the table.  Dave followed suit, taking a seat next to me, his face impassive.  Mr. Peterson joined us at the table carrying four glasses and a large bottle of whiskey. He poured us each a healthy measure and pushed the glass in front of me.

“So…” He began quaffing his drink in one go and refilling it. “There are more than the one you killed tonight.”

“Two more I think; it would be more plausible that the attacks we’ve seen are the work of three total considering the geography between them,” Samantha answered, as if the conversation was perfectly normal.

“Who killed it?” Mr. Peterson asked looking between Samantha and me.

“In truth, I think Salem took it down. I made sure it would stay that way,” she answered.

“What the fuck was that thing?” I blurted out. I looked accusingly at Mr. Peterson and Samantha. “I know it wasn’t a fucking wolf. Wolves don’t walk upright and fell trees with a single swing!”

“Salem…” Dave said placing a hand on my shoulder. “You need to understand something…” He began far too slowly for my liking. I wanted answers now and I didn’t have the patience to wait for him to trickle out an explanation.

“Samantha…you explain.” I cut him off, looking to where she sat.  Samantha raised a blonde eyebrow and cast me an uncertain look from over her glass.  She took a large sip and set it down, meeting my gaze.

“It was a werewolf. I think there are two more,” she answered.

I blinked, despite what I saw, I wasn’t prepared for that. “Like from a movie?”

Samantha smiled. “No, these are real.”

I looked down at my glass to make sure I hadn’t touched it, convinced the only way that any of this made sense is if I was drunk already and misheard her.  It was full, the amber liquid sat untouched within the glass confines. I opened my mouth to speak again, but Samantha raised a finger. She rose and made her way over to a small bookshelf, selected one, and returned to the table.

“Forget what you’ve heard. Werewolves aren’t transformed by bites; they can’t shift only on the full moon. They’re the perverted product of black magic and an unwilling victim.” She set the book down in front of me.

The book had a foul musty odor, its pages turned at the corner and yellowed but the text was plain to see. Werewolves are one of the most misunderstood beasts of the black arts, a perfectly reasonable man transformed against his will into a mindless killing machine bent to carry out the will of its master.

I read the text three times before it I really understood what I was reading. Werewolves are typically enslaved to a wielder of magic – a witch or warlock – who turns their victim and then uses their supernatural strength and speed to their benefit. The spell to create a werewolf not only transforms man into beast, but bends their mind to the will of their tormenter.  They are immune to most mortal weapons but are particularly vulnerable to silver, mountain ash, and wolfsbane or monkshood.

I looked around the room. “Are you all fucking nuts? Or fucking with me or something?”

To my surprise, Samantha laughed. “I can understand why you would think so, but really think about what you saw tonight.  You know anything eight feet tall and covered with fur? Can think of anything else you can empty an entire magazine on and it kept coming at you? It took one of the special rounds I gave you to bring it down.” She stood abruptly and went to my hiking pack.  It took her a second to locate the pouch that contained the box of cartridges she’d given me and remove one.  She crossed the table and held it close to my face for inspection. “Silver rounds rolled in crushed wolfsbane,” she said. “It’s what did the job.” She shrugged, “Well, the two .30 caliber rounds I put in its head and heart helped.”

I stared at the round for a second, then…killed my glass of whiskey. I fought through the burn and turned gaze towards Samantha. “This is fucking real?”

“Yes, Salem, it is,” Dave said in his usual slow voice.

“And this is a problem you’ve had before?” I wondered aloud.

“Yes,” Mr. Peterson began before draining his glass again and refilling it. “Around the time I bought land from that old bat Ruka.  She was down on her luck and had to sell me a few acres to keep her ranch afloat. Shortly after we ran into the first one of those monsters. My wife put it down, clean heart shot from a thousand yards.”

I looked to Samantha, she’d mentioned something similar earlier but I hadn’t pressed. I knew that Mrs. Peterson was long departed, taken too soon by cancer.

“So, what do we do next?” I asked aloud.

“We find the witch and kill her. What should have been done the last time.” Samantha said casting her father an annoyed look.

Mr. Peterson did not meet his daughter’s eye.  “The wolves, too, may be reluctant participants in this game, but they need to die.”

I slammed my fist into the table, a sudden wash of guilt crashing into me. “So your solution is to kill the innocent people turned to monsters then kill the witch that transformed them?” I picked up the book, flipped it closed and threw it towards Mr. Peterson. “Your book say anything about what happens to the magic if we kill the witch?  Does it save the men turned into wolves? Turn them back or something?”

Mr. Peterson looked uncomfortable for a brief second. “You have any experience with magic?” he said through clenched teeth.

I looked around the room as if hoping so would remind the rest of the people assembled I was the neophyte to this world. “No. What kind of fucking question is that?”

Mr. Peterson nodded, took another drag from his glass and stared me down through squinted eyes. “Salem, magic is like radiation, in a way. You can cut the source, but once the damage is done- it’s done.” He pointed towards the darkened windows, out at the woods beyond. “There is no coming back for them.”

No one said anything for a while. I occupied myself by refilling my glass and sipping on the whiskey inside.  It was Dave who spoke next. “So…this witch… who do we think it is?”

“It’s obvious,” Samantha said at once. “It’s got to be Ruka. She was the only one who wasn’t present, the only one who stands to benefit from the deaths in our herd.”

Mr. Peterson nodded. “She makes the most sense.”

“So what are we supposed to do? Roll up on her house and shoot her?” I interjected. “That’s murder.”

Mr. Peterson’s eyes narrowed and he gave me a hard look. It became immediately apparent to me this was not the flippant option I offered, but something real.  “One of those monsters killed Brennon today. That was murder. This is justice. It’s what has to get done.  We’re at war. Civilities and speculation are out of the question.”

I didn’t balk under his gaze. “You say Ruka makes the most sense, she stands to benefit the most from your heard dying…” I paused hoping he would fill in the gape.  I was the outsider, perhaps I hoped he would remember.  Yet, no answer came, so I was forced to ask, “how?”

“The first of these things showed up shortly after Ruka was forced to sell off part of her land to keep her ranch afloat.  If enough of our heard dies, we would be forced to resort to a similar measure to make ends meet ourselves.  She’d get a chance to buy her land back.”

My jaw about dropped. “That’s your proof? It’s circumstantial at best. You need more.” Peterson opened his mouth to reply but I was not going to let him get a word in. “I realize this isn’t something you can call the police about, I saw the monster, I fought it and I’m still struggling to come to grips with the idea that magic and monsters are real. But we need to know for certain before we just go off and murder someone.”

Peterson’s jaw clenched, the muscles rippled visibly in his face but I could tell he knew I was right. He looked at a loss for words and looked towards his daughter.

“We need to act quickly though,” Samantha said. “Our cows are dying, and with each one we lose, we take a financial hit. Most ranchers around here won’t hesitate to act in the defense of their herd. It’s our livelihood, after all.”

“I understand.” I met the eyes of everyone at the table. “I really do, but what is your recourse here? You plan on just rolling up on Ruka and putting a bullet in her?”

There was a long silence at the table. “If she’s a witch, then yes.” Peterson finally answered.

I let loose a sarcastic laugh. “And how do you plan about testing that?  Gonna hold her underwater and if she can breathe she’s a witch? Burn her at the stake?”

I didn’t want to say the name of the witch trials I was referencing, since it was my also my name and I felt it would make light of the seriousness of the situation.

“To continue with the analogy my father used earlier, magic like radiation leaves a physical imprint.” Samantha began getting up from the table. She walked over to a large bookshelf and removed a leather-bound photo album.  She flicked it open, scanned through it before finding what she wanted and returning to the table, plopping the album open in front of me.

I scanned the photographs in front of me. There was a series of images, some pulled from newspaper clippings, others were clearly taken using an instant camera that printed the picture right after taking it. The photo series was organized to demonstrate a ‘before and after’ set up. The newspaper clippings providing the before photo- usually with the headline “missing” plastered above in thick, black, block lettering.  The people in these photos were normal-looking, to say the least.  The photo to their right, however, despite the person in the photograph still being the same person, they’d physically changed.

Their eyes were now bloodshot; their skin had taken a yellowish pallor. Dark red, almost black lines traced their flesh like veins, creeping like ivy up their neck and over their faces.  Their teeth yellowed, their pupils distorted. The black of their eyes almost totally eclipsed iris, leaving just a faint ring of color at the corners.  It looked like a virus had taken hold, like something unnatural was feeding off them.

The pictures looked damning but I was uncertain. I’d seen the proof of magic in person, but my mind was still looking for a rationale solution to all of this.  It could be drugs. Meth did crazy things to people.  For all I knew, I could be looking at the result of extended drug use.  I said as much and my comments were met with laughter.

Samantha’s laughter was biting, annoyed. “I thought the same, but then again I’d not seen what you had.”  She pulled the book away from me and snapped it violently shut. “You killed a werewolf tonight.  What more proof do you need?  I’m done coddling you, we’ll do as we see fit.”

I snatched the album back, feeling my temper rise. I did not enjoy being talked to like I was a child.  This was not a lesson in arithmetic I was failing to grasp.  My world was being turned on its head, I was being confronted with the reality that magic was real, monsters walked the earth, and more than likely I would be pitted against them in the near future.  As far as I was concerned, being a skeptic was a fairly understandable defense mechanism.  I was entitled to the bliss of a few short moments without the realization that I would be hunted against yet another supernatural killing machine.

“No,” I said more firmly than I felt. “You need my help.  You’ve said it before there isn’t anyone else around that can take a shot at one of these things from as far as way as I can.  So unless you want to risk another round up close and personal, then you’re going to get proof Ruka is behind it before we run off and put a bullet in her.”

A heavy silence settled over the room. They knew I was right. “And the wolves in the meantime?” Samantha inquired.  I could tell she was annoyed, but I didn’t care.

“Those we can hunt,” I answered.  I felt slightly sick, for saying as much but the evidence was there. I was done with being gentle. You might feel similarly if you saw a giant beast sheer a tree in half with what looked like a lazy swipe of its paw…hand…whatever you want to call it.

Samantha seemed to agree first, and her endorsement carried her father’s mind.   As soon as she agreed, so did he and the matter seemed settled.  Dave asked for another few shots.  He took them as fast as Mr. Peterson seemed to be able to pour.  I was bothered by that, but I was a trigger man, I did not need Dave to do anything more than shut up and ride in the truck if it came to it.  Still, it would be hard to drive and shoot at the same time if Dave was too inebriated to drive.

As soon as Dave felt brave enough, I found myself hurried towards his truck again.  I can’t say my rifle was out, while I still was uncertain of the potency of a wolfsbane round Dave was predictably hammered. I loaded him into the passenger side, took the bullets out of his rifle and let him hold it for courage.  I climbed into the driver’s seat and drew my sidearm.  I had my handgun at the pseudo ready, my trigger finger against the guard.  I know some of you in the comments might be squawking that I’m too cynical. That the proof of the potency of those rounds was the dead wolf.  Well, you have yet to be here, so fuck off.

Dave sorta successfully thumbed the window down.  His first few tries were nothing to write home as a success.  It took him about ten tries but the window went down and his rifle barrel was pointed out.  Meanwhile, I kept my right hand on the wheel. My left was on my handgun, tucked neatly between my legs.  I felt I could pull and shoot if it came to it. I tucked my .270 between the seats, put the brights on and set off.

I never got a second chance to test the silver rounds. I drove Dave home, helped him into his house and even used his spare key to lock up. Then I managed a walk back to my truck, keep in mind my handgun light was moving like a goddamn searchlight, but I saw nothing. I got into my Chevy, drove home and thanked God I saw nothing.

I wish I could tell you that the next night, on some lonely portion of the ranch I fought the battle of my life.  That didn’t happen. It was almost a month before things changed. After the chaos of midsummer, I was almost hoping I could return to A&M with minimal worry.  It had been near two weeks without any sign of a beast.  I almost had chalked it up to a wild dream that involved my life here in the canyon.  Not going to lie, I thought about packing up and leaving many times over the month, but I gave Dave my word I was here for the summer.  Your word in Texas is your bond, at least around these parts, and I was not going to give anyone a reason to doubt me.

I almost succeeded in leaving without another bought with the monster, but that was before Samantha showed back up. She appeared like an early morning fog to a blind man.  There was no indication, no snap of stick, no rustle of leaves or a swinging branch.  She just was there, as if she had been there from the beginning in the hours I’d spent mending the fence I’d just failed to notice she existed.

Samantha looked annoyed as soon as she found me, about three miles from my house.  I was working the fence on the northeast pasture of Dave’s land, mending a break that appeared to me strictly from a fallen log.  Well, so I believed, Samantha seemed to come to a different conclusion and let me know fast enough.  In my defense, it had been weeks, I felt like the danger passed.

When she appeared, I followed her eyes to the break in the log. I was almost at the point where laughing made sense when I studied the cuts. That’s the only way to describe what broke the tree branch that fell on the fence. Cuts, well that would be an inaccurate description.  It was more akin to a hack, a massive fissure. Something had intentionally severed the branch and let it fall, as if someone with a great axe had made it do so.

“How stupid are you?” Samantha began.

I could feel my temper spike, but as someone who is averse to flying off the handle, I slowed my roll.  My eyes immediately went to the breaks in the branch closet to me and I studied them with an eager eye.  In truth, it was the first time I paid them any real mind.   I could see the clean ‘breaks,’ how pristine the separation in the wood looked.  They were surgical separations.  This was the work of something strong and who wielded something sharp…perhaps their fingers, perhaps a blade, it all looked the same.

Confronted with the evidence, I had nothing to offer in my defense.  “I should have seen that.” I managed to reply, my hand moving reflexively to the handgun at my hip.  I was suddenly aware of how deep and dense the surrounding forest was.  It’s an eerie feeling knowing that you’re not the apex predator, that there is something big and perhaps hungry looming unseen.  The best comparison for this feeling is swimming in deep saltwater.  You know there are things below you, things that could and might possibly eat you.  It’s that feeling.  The animalistic primal worry that you could be somethings meal if you’re not careful.  For those of you who can’t relate, well, you live a life much softer than mine.

“That won’t do anything other than piss it off,” Samantha commented, her eyes following my hand to my holster. “Where is your rifle?”

I jerked my head. “In the truck. Still has those rounds you gave me in them,” I said, anticipating the next question.

She glared at me as if I’d kicked her dog or slapped her.  “I will never understand how someone who has seen what you have, done what you have can still be so damn ignorant of the way of the world.” She said, tapping the .30-.30 she carried. “I was a girl when we first came across these beasts even being that tender naïve age, I still move about these woods with appropriate regard for the dangers they hold.”

I said nothing.  I had no rebuttal of any merit. What could I have said? That a month later I felt safe? That I thought the danger had passed? I felt like many of the commenters on any number of news stories I’d seen online. The folks who read a story, then forget about it as they went about their lives.  The kind who forgot and then pretended, by their ignorance, that the dangers of the world did not exist because I had not immediately thought about them.

“I need some of those rounds for other guns.” I began making my way back to the truck, not distinctly aware of how naked I felt without the .270.  “I would be very grateful for some 9mm or 5.56 rounds laced with that poison of yours.”

She laughed.  “We are not an armory.  Silver is not cheap.”

I frowned, “Fine.”  I pulled the handgun free and ejected the magazine.  “Will lead work if it’s rolled in the poison?”

She considered it, chewing her bottom lip for a moment. “Not as well, not with the immediate effect you’d need or are used to.  The best would be a crossbow bolt.  A silver arrowhead stays in the body much better than a bullet.  Hollow points do well, but making them with silver is difficult.  It’s not quite as pliable as lead, doesn’t quite break apart the same.”

“If I gave you some silver, think you could make me a dozen rounds for each?” I asked. I figured that since silver rounds were rare and they’d given me some already, they more than not had a means of making them on their own.

Samantha laughed again. “You gonna just go off and mine it from these hills?  I know they’re plentiful with game… or they were… but mineral resources aren’t what the hill country is known for.”

“No, I have some fine silverware at the house. My mom might be mad if some of it went missing but I think she’d be far more upset if I turned up dead,” I replied. I’d reached the truck now and opened the door.  I freed my rifle from its place on the rack and checked it. I still had four rounds.  I slung it over my shoulder and drove my question home by meeting her eye with an inquisitive look.

Samantha raised an eyebrow. “Finally taking this serious, are we?”

I frowned.  “Who died? You wouldn’t come find me if something hadn’t happened.”

“Kingsbury’s dead. So are his wife and two kids. House looks like it was hit by a tornado.”

My blood ran cold at the news.  I felt a rush of guilt and stupidity.  I’d brushed off that night, I’d pretended it was over even after what I’d heard… what I’d been told… what I knew was to be true.  It was not a dream I had had.  Yeah, it was stupid.  I’d ask you scolding me now, hearing this to just pump the breaks. Imagine if I told you pigs could fly; you’d approach that with a good measure of skepticism if you weren’t an idiot. Then I showed you one time, alone, then we went about our lives.  Many months later, or so it would feel, I’d challenged you to recall for the world that pigs can fly.  Would you recall honestly what you saw? Understanding the scrutiny that saying they could invoke?

“Oh…” was all I could manage.  I knew what country etiquette required of me. I was supposed to offer condolences, but the family was dead and anyone who actually would want them was long departed.

“Still think we need proof Ruka is up to this or can we just go and put her down so she can’t make more of these monsters?”  Samantha challenged with as much malice in her voice as was required to convince me that if I disagreed she’d level her weapon and put me down.

I said nothing for a while.  I was at war within myself.  There was no doubt I still wanted proof of her alleged transgressions before we did something rash, but people were dying still and that required action.  “You been up there? Seen her? Talked to her?” I stammered out after I found my voice.

Samantha seemed a little taken aback. “No.” She said with the slightest hint of regret. “The rest of the canyon figures if we try, we’ll get mauled for our trouble.”

I considered her words while I brought up a mental map of the hills and hollers of the Real county.  I knew this land well now, outside of my experience, both Dave and my Father were steadfast about me knowing the maps of the local area like the back of my hand.  I could see the Ruka property in my mind’s eye, where the local map indicated her homestead was located, at the junction of two rolling hills.  If someone were to view it from up top of one of those hills, they could see the whole property with a scope, but not well enough to know magic had inflicted her.  That would require someone to walk in and physically see her.  Still, someone could be perched up high and watch that person’s back.

A plan began to form in my mind. “You willing to walk in and do that?” I said and was met with an immediate look of skepticism and speculated insanity. “Provided, I’m watching you through a scope,” I added hastily, taking the opportunity to thump my weapon.

“Not without knowing if you’re as good as you say.” She challenged in reply.

“How might I prove that?” My counter-challenge came.

Samantha didn’t say much, only asked I follow her.  So I did, up through the draw between two austere hills to a perch up top.  We had a clear view of the wide valley that overlooked Dave’s property.  “Put in a regular round, save the ones I gave you,” she said and settled in behind a large tree.  I did as she asked and found a good perch to sit on.

There we sat for several hours, her offering no conversation, her eyes glued to a set of binoculars she’d produced from her pack. I spent the ensuing time ranging various landmarks, a sneaking suspicion that she wanted me to take a shot to prove my skill winning over.  Knowing the speed of my round, its weight, the amount of gunpowder off the top of my head, I had a rough idea of what I could and could not hit.  I considered other things, like the wind, which was low, the humidity, which was oppressive.  Assisted by the drop count hashes in my scope, I knew which has I needed to line up on the target at various guess ranges.  This kept my mind occupied, but after a while I got bored.  My eyes felt heavy and I found myself shifting more than I would like to keep myself alert.  Finally, after an easy four hours of silence, she lowered the binoculars.  “Six hundred yards out, at our ten o’clock.”

I raised my rifle hesitantly, my naked eyes scanning the hills below us. I gauged the distance and referenced the pre-plotted landmarks that might better help me find what she wanted me to see. “By the clump of trees or closer to the stream?” I asked.

“Just off the clump of trees, let’s say ten meters off, but it’s moving fast towards the nine o’clock.” Samantha replied after another brief check through her binoculars.

I raised my weapon, settling the butt into my shoulder and peering through the scope.  I found what she was looking for.  It was coyote, moving at a lazily but still fast enough pace to cause problems at this range. The full magnitude of this exercise settled in at once.  She wanted me to shoot it, to prove I could. Just as I had suspected.  It was a fair challenge.  Like I’ve mentioned, people out this way tend to take your action over your word and for good reason.

I sighted in, dialing my scope to max power settling the right has over the target. I knew ballistics well enough.  A professional might have pre-sighed all of this better, but I was not so. Still, I felt confident.  I set my crosshairs just off its shoulder blade, where I knew its heart and lungs would be.  It was not my typical shot placement, but at 600 yards, the neck was too tricky a shot.

I took note of my breathing cycle, settled into the rhythm and moved my trigger finger against the trigger guard.  Moving just slightly to keep the coyote in view, I slowly moved my finger off the trigger guard and onto the trigger itself.  I found the natural pause in my own breathing cycle, right between my exhale and inhale, where my body was most stable.  Once it was there I began the slow pull, waiting for the trigger to go off and ‘surprise’ me as I was taught.  After what felt like an eon, my gun went off.  My aim was true and my rifle steady. I was rewarded with the coyote tumbling out of view, jerked violently by a well-placed shot to its center chest.

I followed the cloud of dirt its violent revolutions kicked up and waited for them to clear.  I was rewarded by the sight of a motionless, dead, animal.  Even at this range, I could make out the bright red of its blood mating its fur, poring freely over the gaping wound in its side and wetting the earth.

Just as a side note, for those of you appalled at my ‘cruelty’ coyotes kill young calves and deer.  They are a direct threat to a rancher’s way of life, so fuck off. I have no qualms about killing them, neither would you if a lost calf meant the difference between keeping your home or losing it to the bank. It was a nuisance, its why she selected the target for me to shoot.

Satisfied with my shot and feeling I passed the test, I lowered my weapon.  Samantha offered no praise, nor did I really expect her to do so.

“Can you do that again, on Ruka, if it comes to it?” she asked.

I took a while considering her question.  I had no doubts provided the time to sight in and understanding the ballistics of the bullet I could.   What I was uncertain of was would I shoot just because she’d told me there was proof.  Scopes are great, but picking out minute details at advanced ranges… still not in the purview of what they could do. At least with the scope on this rifle I couldn’t.

There was one scope I owned that could.  A scope that would let me see what I needed to, without her confirmation.  It was the Night Force branded scope my Dad kept on a .308.  Which I didn’t have a specialty round for. Nor was it a round in the caliber I’d requested.

“With the right weapon I could, I’d need a .308.  You have any of those special rounds for one of them?” I inquired. Before she could answer I followed up with another request.  “I’d need to know how much the round itself weighed and would need a round dozen to practice at that range, all exactly prepared as the one I’d have to use on her.”

For those of you fucking gamers listening to this, you can’t just swap scopes like its PUBG or that kid game Fortnight.  You need to mount it, level it out, and then test it with whatever round you want to use.  Bullets vary in weight and the amount of gun powder that’s packed behind the bullet itself, even ones of the same caliber.  It’s a painstaking process, one that for precision and accuracy you have to work hard at. You don’t put in the work, even the best scope mounted wrong or with the wrong bullet won’t hit shit. I realize these asides take away from the flow of the story, but I’m familiar enough with the comment section to know how those self-proclaimed “gun experts” will be scrutinizing my every word.

Samantha stood and brushed the dirt off her jeans. “You give me some of the silver, we’ll make your rounds.”

We hiked down the hill to my truck and I gave her a ride home as she had not driven out to find me.  Let’s all take notice that she has balls of steel to hike out to where I was working, knowing full well what lurked in the woods.  Seriously, I doubt I would have done that, even armed.

It would be another week before I saw her again.  It was a busy enough week, not with ranch work but the local sheriff department was nosing around.  As they questioned the nearby ranchers including myself and Dave, I felt the inclination to warn them of what I knew.  To tell them that they were not looking for deranged axe murderer, but a supernatural monster but my tongue was stayed. They’d think I was fucking nuts if I started spouting stories of werewolves and witches.

When Samantha appeared next, I was lounging on my front porch, sipping a cold beer and listening to the TV through the screen door.  I heard the growl of her truck engine long before I saw it, but as soon as it crested the bend I knew it on sight. Samantha drove up our winding drive and exited her truck.

“Samantha!” I called to her as she exited her truck.  “Come on up,” I said pulled the rifle loaded with her special rounds off the pillowed seat next to me and into my lap so she’d see I was not unprepared should I be attacked.

She marched up the porch steps and entered the small gated area.  She said nothing but looked at me like I’d violated some southern custom.  I was slow to the take, but eventually, I caught on to offer her a beer which she accepted.  She cracked the Lone Star, took a deep few gulps and set it down. “I have your rounds.” She said producing a box.

Inside the small box were three dozen bullets, a dozen for each of the calibers I’d requested.  Additionally, there were several small tubs of a finely crushed powder that Samantha informed me was a special mix of several strands of wolfsbane and monkshood.   I took out a .308 round, studying it.  I weighed the round in my hand, taking note of the purple tinge to the otherwise silver .308.  I fired off a few questions about the casing, the gunpowder amount, the weight of the overall round and its projected exit speed from my rifle.  She answered each diligently, draining her beer after a while.  I offered her another as soon as it was empty, eager to right my earlier transgression, which she accepted.

“Take your practice tomorrow morning, tomorrow afternoon I’m going up to Ruka’s with Dave and my Father.  Half a dozen ranchers wanted to go with, but I managed to convince them to hang back at the edge of her property.” Samantha said after another long drink.  I could tell she sounded annoyed by this.  She was convinced Ruka was guilty and understandably wanted every gun she could to back her up, but my previous experience taught me that coordinating with all the ranchers in the area could be a tiresome process.

“Smart play.” I offered in reply. “Best to keep from someone taking a shot meant for Ruka.” I finished, alluding to the heavy possibility of a friendly fire accident which with a group of fear crazed, untrained, shooters seemed a likely outcome.

“You do your job; my life depends on it.” Samantha finished, then drained her Lone Star. She thanked me for the beer and then left.

I didn’t sleep well that night.  I spent my sleepless hours cleaning my FN and reloading it with the silver rounds Samantha had given me.  As I only had twelve silver rounds in 9mm, I reloaded the rest of the magazine and a spare with regular 9mm I’d rolled in the wolfsbane.  Due to being up so late, I was slow to get up the next morning. I downed a full pot of coffee before I met Dave for work.  At work, I didn’t get much done.  I spent the morning hiking up and down his land, setting various targets up at a number of ranges to test the rounds Samantha had given me the day before.  All my shots were true, minus the first.  It still hit the target, but a bit higher than I expected.  I adjusted and the next five landed without issue.  With my .308 loaded with a full four-round mag and two more in the bullet loops on the butt I was primed and ready when Samantha met me.

“You ready to do this?” she asked me.

I nodded and shouldered the weapon. “I am.”

I couldn’t help but notice how nervous Dave looked.  He was uncharacteristically sober, his large blue eyes bulging even farther out his head. Mr. Peterson looked equally nervous, he kept his hand on the bolt action .270 at all times.  I loaded into the back and we drove the next several miles in silence.  She parked at the edge of her and Ruka’s property and let me step out. “How long do you figure you need to hike up?”

I considered the terrain. The hills were high, steep and rough country. “I figure thirty minutes before I can see her house.  I’d wager another thirty before I found a good hide to shoot from.”

Samantha produced a walkie. “Click the button twice when you’re set. The others are waiting on the other side of the canyon and have similar instructions.  Don’t speak on the walkie unless it’s an emergency.  I don’t need Ruka hearing you squawking as I walk up.  After you give the signal you’re in place, we’ll drive in.”

I took it and flicked it on and tested it. “Will do. I’m gonna keep it off as I move,” I said my heart already hammering, a mix of fear and apprehension working through me.

Samantha offered no protest. “I expected as much.”

The conversation ended, she put the truck in gear and shot off.  I watched her go, she disappeared in short order, but I stayed put until the dust settled.  My heart was hammering hard already, I was alone and very much afraid.  Should one or more of those wolves show up, I knew I’d have no quick escape.  Somehow, I found the courage to begin my march.  It was slow going; the terrain was rougher than I’d anticipated.  Unlike my .270, the .308 was set up to be a range weapon.  You build range weapons without consideration of having to hike rough country with them slung over your shoulder.  This .308 was built with a heavy 18-inch match grade barrel, a bipod mounted underneath for more stability when being fired.  The scope on the weapon was the best we owned, varying between two and twenty-four magnifications.  It too was long, running two-thirds the length of the barrel.   In short, with everything on the weapon it was really fucking heavy, longer than my .270, and cumbersome to hike with at the ready.  The Texas hill country is not known for being forgiving.  Lots of loose rock and savagely tough underbrush that manages to punch through the hard soil and leach whatever water I can from the otherwise dry terrain.

Despite the rough terrain, I made good time.  I ascended the hill, my head on a swivel and my rifle always at the ready.  Every sound that seemed to have an origin other than my movement was met with my lethal gaze.  It seemed the sun was moving with criminal speed, drooping lower on the horizon than I was accustomed to seeing it do so in my time working out here.  By the time I found a good spot, with limited avenues of advance and a clear view of Ruka’s single-story farmhouse, the sun looked lower than the 1500 time my watch reported.

I set myself up in a stable shooting posture with my rifle resting on my hiking pack and further stabilized by the legs of the bipod.  I pulled out my range finder, dialed in about three ranges off various possible spots and readied myself for an outcome a dearly hoped would not come. When I was ready, I turned the walkie on and clicked the talk button twice.  There was no answer, but a minute later I saw a dust cloud about three hundred yards out begin to rise.  When the vehicle came into view, I knew it at once as the Peterson’s truck.

The truck stopped a hundred yards away from the ranch house and from my scope I could clearly see Dave, Samantha, and Mr. Peterson exit.  It was then I took the opportunity to work the bolt and put a round into the lethal readiness I knew would mean a trigger pull from someone’s death.  I set the safety and waited.

Samantha was at the lead, her father behind her and Dave, noticeably shaking- even at this range- behind them all.  They stopped about ten yards from her house and while I couldn’t hear them yelling, I could tell they were doing so.  Nothing happened for a while. Well, it could have been a minute or even ten seconds.  It was hard to tell.  My adrenaline was going, my heart hammering so loud that it drowned out anything else my ears were straining so hard to hear.

An indiscernible amount of time later, Ruka stepped out of her house.  Even from this range, I could tell at once she’d been exposed to magic.  She looked terrible.  With a slow, stooped gate, she stepped out from under the shade of her porch.  Her skin bore the tell-tale signs of magic, angry red streaks ran up her arms, weaved around her face like infected veins. Her body emanated a weird glow, as if it was radiating heat like blacktop on a hot summer day.   She said something which immediately set the party on edge.

Without warning, the walkie squelched to life.  It startled me with such amazing effect I almost squeezed off a round. I’d forgotten to turn the radio off.  Over the walkie, I could hear Samantha talking, accusing Ruka of what she’d expected. It was then I heard it, the muted slap of bare feet on rock, moving away from me, but fast.  My pulse doubled, which was impressive because at that point my heart was hammering so fast I could have pumped jet fuel into a plane doing Mach two.

“We know what you did Ruka…what you’re doing.” Samantha began. “We know these beasts are your doing, and we want it to come to an end.  Call them off.”

Even through my scope, I could tell the woman smiled.  It was not the white smile of a human but the black maw of something sinister.

“Oh, do you?” Ruka crooned. “Go home, girl, before you wind up the meal for something you know little about.”

To her credit, Samantha raked a round home and raised her weapon. “Oh, I know plenty,” she shot back. “I know how to kill those monsters of yours and I’d wager these bullets work just as well on you.”

I would have felt some kinda admiration for her, but the flicker of motion on the edge of my scope’s view distracted me.  I paned over and was rewarded with the brief flash of a monster moving on all fours towards the group.  Even in motion, I could tell it was a dead match for the monster I’d seen before.  Muscled, hairy, and with a mutated mouth that was a cross between man and wolf, it was clear what it was.  It ran on all fours, taking great leaping bounds that allowed it to traverse the land at a pace even a truck could be envious of.  My heart sank at the significance of the sight. Werewolf.

At once, I moved my scope back towards Ruka.  My crosshairs settled on her chest.  From the radio, I could hear the exchange of words between the group and Ruka.  It was as damning she was behind it as the sight of the magic’s effect on her body.  She was certainly the origin of the disaster that befell this canyon. “You took my land. I want it back, its mine.” I could hear her saying.

“You sold it to me, fair and even. The ink on that deal has long been dry,” Mr. Peterson shot back.

Ruka said something in reply, but I couldn’t hear it anymore.  My heartbeat somehow found a higher tempo, each thunderous beat washing blood through my ears with such a deafening effect I could barely hear my own ragged breaths.  I took a calming breath and forced myself to focus on the instructions my father had taught me.  Somehow I found the rhythm in my breathing, the natural pause between breaths.  It went once, then again my finger creeping off the trigger guard and onto the trigger itself.  I felt the tension, reveled in the weight of the weapon and began the slow pull I know would deliver a killing blow.

Meanwhile, in my scope’s view, I could see Ruka moving towards the trio.  She walked with a confidence that she did not know she didn’t have.  She looked predatory, hungry even, as if she would relish in the kill that her beasts would assuredly deliver.  I corrected for this movement, my finger never wavering in its slow progression.  At once, without warning, my gun went off.  I felt the kick, was deafened by the blast and momentarily lost sight of my target.  When I found her again, she was prostrate on the ground, thrashing as if she was being electrocuted.

At my gunshot, Samantha, Dave, and Mr. Peterson had leveled their weapons and let loose a barrage of fire.  If my aim had not been true, my crosshairs had misled my round from eviscerating her heart, the ensuing hail of gunfire had certainly done it.  They all emptied their weapons into her, in a scene that felt so horribly of overkill I’d have not believed it had I not seen it.  Without warning, Ruka’s body suddenly began to glow, then erupted into a giant fireball.   The flames rose into the air, but unlike any fire I’d ever seen.  They were bright blue and purple, in a burning visage of Ruka’s shape.  No sooner had they left the ground did they vanish, leaving nothing in their wake.

When my hearing returned, it registered two blood-chilling, horrific sounds.  Ruka’s wolves were in anguish.  Their screams seemed equal parts enraged and in pain.  I tried to thumb my radio’s talk button and scream a warning but no reply came.  Samantha still had her talk button jammed down, preventing my frantic warnings from being delivered.  Still, I could see from my scope that they’d heard the howls.  The trio was frantically reloading, or as fast as they could while still sprinting back from the truck.  I feared for them for a heartbeat, before I realized with an even more chilling effect that the sound of something large and angry ripping through the forest was getting louder.  The wolves were not going for the trio; they were hunting for me.

I hurried to eject the spent brass and settle another one into place.  I could hear the crashing growing louder with each passing second.  Fortunately, I’d chosen my shooting spot with great care.  There was only one avenue of advance to my position, of which I had a clear view of for at least 150 yards.  I knew I could hold this position with relative safety, but I still felt the temptation to run.  It was a panicked feeling like I had not known, my fight and flight reflexes battling for control.

A branch swung just at the edge of my scope’s periphery and seemed to settle my resolve. I was going to fight. I tucked the rifle into my chest a little harder, my sweaty palm clinging even more savagely to the rifle’s grip.  It didn’t take long before I found the first wolf.  It was bigger than the one I’d encountered before, that was plain to see.  With great leaping strides, it covered the steep and slippery terrain as easily as fog.

I had no time to double-check the range, no time to ensure I gave the charging monster the appropriate amount of lead.  It was all instinct, muscle memory, and the practiced result of the hours my father had spent drilling me with a rifle.  I eye-balled the range, guessed the lead, and fired.  There was a puff of smoke behind the charging wolf that let me know I’d missed.

I yanked the bolt back with a panicked strength and pushed it forward again.  I knew I had two rounds before I needed to reload left.  This time I gave it less lead.  I fired again and saw a spray of blood.  There was an almighty wail- a howl mixed with agony.  The werewolf crashed forward, rolling end over end before it settled to a stop.  There was a savage wound in its lower torso, ribboned intestine and ragged muscle hung out like crimson potpourri, as blood poured onto the dusty earth.

The werewolf was struggling to stand when my crosshairs found it again.  It couldn’t move as fast as it once could.  The effects of the poison the round left as it passed through its body were immediately evident, as was the severity of the wound the bullet inflected.  The monster could not move with any speed that would be considered quick, it was sluggish and slow.  It made it all the easier to put my crosshairs somewhere lethal.  They settled on its head for a second before I fired again.  It spun when the bullet found it, falling back down the hill and coming to a final stop wrapped around a small cedar tree.  I studied it in my scope and was rewarded by the sight of its face blown half off, blood and brain matter leaking out down what was left of its head.

It was the slap of a bare foot on rock that first let me know I was royally fucked. No sooner had I looked up from my rifle did I see a werewolf standing above me.  I’d been too focused on the first wolf; I’d forgotten to look out for the second.  Time seemed to slow as my hand shot to my side in a last-ditch effort to pull my handgun before the beast would reach me.  I was too slow.  It leapt down, falling ten meters and landing as easily as a child jumping onto a bed.  The werewolf landed in front of me and with one great sweep of its paw, I was flung bodily away from my rifle and sent tumbling down the hillside.

I couldn’t cry out in pain, even though it felt like hot metal had been poured over my chest.  I’d wanted to scream, but the air was driven from my lungs when I hit the ground.  My head slammed painfully into a rock and I saw stars and felt the hot rush of blood begin to spill over my face.  Somehow, with a strength I did not know I possessed, I managed to roll myself onto my back and pull my handgun free.

I could make four wolves standing over me, but I knew what I saw was wrong.  My eyes seemed unable to focus, the lead dot of my handgun sight multiplied and swam in and out of concentration.  I am no advocate of spray and pray, but dire circumstances require a full mag dump.  Without hesitation, I began to fire.  I had a 17 round magazine, so while I saw four wolves swimming in front of my eyes, I put four into three of them and five into the one I most suspected was the real monster- betting that maybe one would find purchase.

There was a meaty smack of a bullet hitting meat, followed closely by a howl.  I don’t know which round hit which of the four I saw. The shot did nothing to stop the monsters advance.  Panicked consumed my consciousness and I completely forgot that I had a spare magazine at my hip. When my handgun’s slide locked back to signify the magazine was empty, I knew my death was seconds from coming.  There was no moment where my life flashed before my eyes, I did not think of the loves I’d lost or the things I didn’t get to do.  I was terrified, so gripped by my fear and the effects of my wound I’d resigned myself to die.  I, to this day, am not proud of this, but I lay frozen, waiting for my death to come.  Blackness found me first.

* * * * * *

Part III

When I awoke, I was gazing up not at the star-studded sky of a clear Texas hill country night, but the stucco paint of a roof.  I sat bolt upright and was rewarded by black spots in my vision and an almighty pain from my chest.  I looked down, I had four ragged wounds running the length of my torso, stitched crudely closed.

“Fuck…” I managed to gasp before movement on my left caught my eye. I reached for a weapon that was not there while my eyes searched wildly for a threat.  Samantha appeared, a look of concern and relief on her face.

“We thought you wouldn’t wake.” She managed before reaching me and pushing me back against what I now understood was a bed.

“What happened?” I gasped. My throat felt raw, my head hurt, my body ached.

Samantha considered me for a moment. “We found you on the hillside, covered in blood and unconscious.”

“The werewolf?” I inquired. “Water?” I asked further, suddenly aware of how scratchy and painful my voice made my throat feel.

She handed me a glass and I drank.  There was a searing burn to the liquid that let me know at once it was whiskey.

“We found one dead about three hundred yards away from you,” Samantha answered before calling for her father.

“Just one?” She looked worried. “So there was for sure another.”

I nodded. “I shot the first and soon after the second got me, I think I wounded it.”

My brain seemed in a fog, but there was a sudden rush of panic and concern. “It hit me.  Will I turn?”

Sam shook her head. “No, magic is the only thing that turns a man to a beast.  The wounds will heal in time.  Painful as they may be, they were not as deep as we feared.”

Her father burst in, followed closely by Dave and a few of the ranchers I’d seen before, though I didn’t know their names.

“Salem…” Dave said in relief. He made his way over to my bedside and slapping me heartily on the shoulder.

I winched.

“Sorry Salem.” He said embarrassed.

“There was another wolf,” I said, ignoring his apology. “I think I wounded it but I can’t know for certain.”

“Some of the ranchers we’d staged in a waiting area arrived just as you passed out.” It was Mr. Peterson who answered.  “They fired on the beast but we’re unsure if they hit it. It retreated from our fire and we lost it in the woods. There was more blood on the ground than we suspect you lost.  We think from the beast that, hopefully, your wound and the poison your rounds carried will kill it in time.  There isn’t a werewolf doctor, after all.”

I felt a small measure of relief at this, but I was uncertain.  Until I saw it dead with my own eyes, I wouldn’t be convinced it had left this world. Still, I was comforted in a small part, at least enough to allow my aching body to rest against the soft surface of the bed.  My body felt hot and sweaty and while I trusted their counsel, I was still uncertain if the wound would make me a mindless killing machine.

There was a sudden rush of questions from each of the nameless ranchers present.  “Where do you think you hit it? How many times? How big was the beast?”

I was relieved when Samantha barked at them and put an end to their questions. “He needs to rest.  We can discuss this later, when Salem’s strength has returned.” She banished them from the room, her father too.  Dave resigned himself to being a wallflower and sipping meaningfully on the Key Stone Ice in his hand.

“My gear?” I inquired as I readjusted myself so I was reclined in a semi-upright position.

“We retrieved your pack, rifle, and handgun. They’re here at the house.” She answered.

“Could I have my handgun at least?” I pressed, feeling naked and unprotected despite knowing there were many ranchers here, each assuredly accompanied by a weapon.

“I don’t think that’s best.  We have the watch. You need to rest.” Samantha answered.  She picked up her .30-.30.  “I’ll watch over you. Rest.”

I didn’t like being unarmed, but with the panic of my rude awakening fading and the exhaustion of what I’d been through creeping back over me, I was ready to sleep.

I awoke next sometime later.  My eyes opened slowly and I could tell by the way the light spilled into the room it was late in the morning.  Samantha was seated at my bedside, her eyes fixed on a book she seemed absorbed by.

“What time is it?” I pondered aloud and was rewarded by Samantha suddenly setting her book down and checking her phone.

“11:30.” She replied. “You up to eating something?”

I nodded and slowly began the laborious effort of swinging my legs off the bedside. As I did, I caught my reflection in the nearby mirror.  I looked bad. My face and head were swollen to twice their size and I could make out the ends of what was surely a deep cut covered by my hair. There was no shirt on my chest and I could see the angry red lines where my flesh was stitched back together. Four long swipes now adorned my otherwise alabaster skin, marking the length of my midsection.  They began just under my left peck and ended at my right hip.  Much of my ribs were now colored a deep purple, almost black of heavy bruising.

“I look like shit,” I said after surveying myself. “Could I have a shirt?”

Sam pulled open the closet and produced a flannel easily three sizes too big for my frame. “Sorry, it’s one of my Dad’s your shirt was slashed to ribbons and matted with blood and dirt. We threw it out after we got it off you.”

I didn’t protest, I pulled it around my shoulders slowly and buttoned it halfway closed. I was grateful for the bagginess in truth, it made my swollen head look less worse for wear and kept the shirt from rubbing against my cuts.  I tried to stand and failed, falling back almost instantly against the bed.

“Let me help,” Samantha said.  She threw a strong arm under mine and guided me to my feet.  As she did, I caught the sweet smell of her body wash.  I felt a sudden rush of affection for her I pushed away.  Now was not the time for that.

Samantha helped me across the bedroom, through the hallway and back to the large oak table in the kitchen.  Each step we took hurt, my breaths were labored and shallow.  Every time I inhaled, it flexed my abdomen, stretching the stitches on the wounds that ran the length of my frame. By the time Samantha helped me to my seat, I was grateful to be seated again.

“My dad made pancakes and bacon a few hours ago, there is some left I can reheat,” she offered.

“That’s fine,” I replied. “There anything around for the pain?”

Samantha shot me a sympathetic look. “Not anything beyond whiskey and an ample amount of beer.”

“I wouldn’t say no to a dark beer and maybe another shot of whiskey.” Alcohol isn’t a pain killer by any means, but something was better than nothing.

Samantha retrieved a Shiner and set it before me, then filled a large whiskey glass with an ample amount of the dark liquid.  I took the beer and drained it without hesitation.  She was kind enough to bring me a second with my meal.  She sat next to me and did me another kindness of not plying me with questions about my experience as I ate.  I managed my food far more slowly than I drank, I could feel the effect of the first beer dampening the dull ache from my wounds quickly enough.  Mr. Peterson soon joined us, as did Dave.

As soon as I finished the last bite of my pancakes and washed it down with the last of my second beer, Samantha allowed her father to begin the questions.  I answered them in Dave’s manner, slowly. Not that I was trying to do so, but my mind and recollection felt slow and foggy.  I explained how I shot the first wolf twice before the second ambushed me.  They seemed dissatisfied with my recollection of not knowing which of the wolves I was seeing was the real target.

“So, you’re not sure if you mortally wounded the beast?” Mr. Peterson pressed.

“No, I’m not sure, but by your own admission,” I began, recalling the conversation from the night before, “there was more than my blood on the ground, so I did hit it.”

“We gave you twelve silver rounds for your handgun.  When we found you the magazine was empty, do you know if you hit it with a silver round or a regular one?”

I was uncertain. “I don’t know, but I laced the regular lead round with the poison blend you gave me. So even if I hit it, it’s got the poison in hits veins.”  I answered.

I could tell at once that this bit of detail was met with much discomfort and disapproval. They all shifted in their seats which did nothing to keep my temper from rising.  “I was wounded, clubbed, and dazed.” I challenged them. “I’m sorry I don’t know which hit, but I doubt anyone could have done better in that position. Besides, it’s been poisoned, won’t that kill it?”

“No Salem, I’m afraid it won’t,” Dave answered in his usual fashion.

“A 9mm is too small to leave ample silver in its flesh to kill it, even one laced in wolfsbane. If it was a regular bullet covered in wolfsbane, it will slow it down, but not kill it.  It’s likely alive and very angry.” Mr. Peterson followed. “We commend you for your effort and thank you for bringing two down, but we would be fools to believe the third is dead.”

There was a long silence that followed this assessment.  I found my mind wandering back towards the eruption of flames following Ruka’s demise.  “Ruka, is she dead?” I put my uncertainty to words. “I’ve never seen someone erupt like that.  Did one of you hit her with a grenade or something?”  I asked, fully realizing how stupid the question sounded.  Grenades were not common, even in a gun-loving state like Texas.

“No, that’s what happens when a witch dies. The magic inside them erupts in a volatile fashion.” Mr. Peterson answered.

I didn’t like that. I didn’t feel any remorse for the two wolves, they had tried to kill me…or would have if I let them get close enough.  Ruka…well…even with the effects of magic visible on her…I’d never shot a person before. I felt a heavy measure of guilt for that. Samantha seemed to sense my feelings.

“I don’t know how much you heard, but Ruka made it clear she’d kill all of us as well as our herds to get her land back,” she said softly.

“Why?” I asked aloud, retrieving my glass of whiskey. “Forgive me for saying this, but it’s just land. She didn’t sell much of it. That worth killing over?”

The three exchanged looks and seemed to silently elect Samantha to keep speaking. “It’s the Vaults. She believed they had a strong magical presence that she wanted sole control over.  The parts of her land she sold, allowed each of us a small dominion over the Vaults. She wanted to draw from its power alone, our claims to that land, by her assessment, diminished that.”

I didn’t like the answer, but I was not about to put that to words. What was done was done. Instead of mounting a protest, I sipped my whiskey and relished in its dampening effect on the ache from my wounds.  The others seemed to take my silence as an endorsement to move to another subject: guessing as to where the last wolf went.

“The Vaults. It has to be.” Mr. Peterson offered. No one seemed to object.

“So how do we play this? Attack them in force? Send every rancher around into those tunnels?” Samantha asked though it was clear she didn’t think this was the right answer.

“We go into those vaults, we’re likely not all to come out,” Dave answered.

My mind moved sluggishly to solve this problem.  It would be an easy solution if we could seal the exits to the tunnels and bury the wolf in them. How would we do that? My thoughts seemed to be shared by all present as the rest began to debate how to tackle the problem.  Tunnel them closed with shovels, or use Dave’s tractor to plug the exits shut, the others offered.  I realized how problematic these solutions were at once.  Even if we knew where all the exits were, which we assuredly did not, it would be difficult.

“We could draw it to some kind of bait and then blow it up,” I suggested, though I felt my suggestion was a comical one at best.

They all looked at me like I was an idiot, which I took as a silent cue to explain myself. “I have BoomGel at the house. We could fill a jar with it, pack it with silverware and then shoot it.  The fire and shrapnel would assuredly kill it.”  For those unfamiliar, BoomGel is a range-finding tool.  In the business, they call it a reactive target.  You fill whatever you’re going to shoot and if you hit it, it explodes.  Much easier to confirm you hit your target at great lengths when it blows up.

The group seemed to feel it wouldn’t work and shot it down at once.  They debated for another hour at length before I excused myself from the table.  I was feeling tired again and my mind was even foggier thanks to the alcohol. Samantha helped me back to the room I was staying in.

Despite it being dismissed and my own assessment it was a stupid idea, some part of my brain could not let my bomb idea go. The idea festered in my mind and I made a silent promise to myself I would build the explosive as soon as I was strong enough to go back home.

I stayed at the Peterson place another week.  It seemed the whole canyon had elected to stay there, as the house was full of people each day.  Ranchers pulled shifts on guard, each exchanging the few weapons we had that were armed with the silver rounds.  Every morning, a large contingent of them would head out to collectively tend to all of the herds, the status reports on them being discussed each night at dinner.

My wounds healed at a supernatural pace.  After one day I found my strength returned.  By day two, much to all our surprise, my wounds healed entirely. The slashes the wolf had given me had transformed into thin pink scars on my chest.  All the bruising had vanished.  The swelling too had gone down and my head returned to its normal size. There were other changes I noticed, changes that terrified me so badly I didn’t want to risk sharing them with anyone.

I began to like my steaks at dinner served rarer than I had before.  I enjoyed them best when they were still bloody as you cut into them.   I was stronger too, but not superhumanly so.  I couldn’t lift cars or jump buildings, but I found that things I tired doing before seemed to have less of an effect.  I could run up the switchback trails without losing my breath and lift the hay bales with one arm.   I felt more energized. These changes worried me further.  Was I slowly gaining the powers of a wolf before becoming one?  By the fifth day, I needed to test if I was shifting.  Some part of my feared that Samantha was wrong, that a wolf’s bit or scratches were enough to turn someone without magic.  I retrieved a silver round from my rifle and pressed it firmly into the bare skin of my neck. Nothing. No burning, no pain. I was relieved, but I wanted to test it further, just to be sure.  I found wolfsbane in the garden and smelled it.  It too had no effect.

It was eight days after my injury I voiced the physical changes I noticed to Samantha.

“You’re imagining it,” she assured me. Still, I was unconvinced, but I learned enough to not voice my concerns again.  “You’re just becoming Texan; we don’t like our steaks cooking more than medium-rare.”

As soon as the others took note of my rapid recovery, I was treated as a pariah.  Worse even, like I was something dangerous.  Where they once regarded me as the hero who killed two werewolves, they now treated me as a beast they knew was exposed to rabies they were waiting to turn rabid. It didn’t bother me deeply, as the outsider already I was not unaccustomed to the exile.  Samantha, however, treated me no differently.  In her eyes, I’d done what was needed to be treated like someone who belonged.

Two weeks into my stay I was fed up with the cold shoulder.  With Dave’s protests ringing in my ears, I asked Samantha to drive me home.  She agreed after realizing I would not be convinced otherwise.  The house didn’t look different, despite my doors never being locked. When I went inside I found it just as I left it.   My coffee pot full of moldy coffee grounds being the worst I discovered.

Now home, I didn’t hesitate to busy myself with my pet project.  I grabbed a large jar off the shelf my mom used to fill with sugar water for the bees and mixed the BoomGel.  I packed it with the rest of her good silverware.  For those of you unfamiliar with the mixture, it takes a round moving at high speed to make it go boom.  It was stable and unlikely to go off accidentally.  I set it downstairs near the door, far away from where I slept above.

My first night home, nothing happened. I slept hard and well in my own bed, drank my own blend of coffee the next day. The next morning, I took my .270 and went out to work on Dave’s land.  I rolled another 9mm mag worth of bullets in wolfsbane for good measure and as always kept my FN strapped to my leg. The drive out went without anything to note. The land too looked normal, no signs of anything vicious about.

Dave was not to be found but I felt a brave ambivalence to being alone. By midafternoon I noticed the group of ranchers come through, they checked over my work and left as fast as they arrived. The rest of the day went by with me cutting cedar, listening to music from my phone, and noticing nothing to even indicate I should be slightly worried. The next four days went the same.

I began to suspect that maybe I put more than one shot into a lethal position, growing more and more confident even if it was a lead round, the poison had done its job.  The woods even felt better, less like there was something predatory hidden behind the trees.  On the fifth morning, however, I found three of Dave’s cattle dead. Ripped damn near in half.

On this particular day, I was up early.  I was out in the pasture as the sun rose, finding my night vision better and the need to start later unwarranted. By the time I arrived, the cows were fresh dead. Had it been November or December I could have seen the steam rising off of what was left of their organs.  I could tell by the smell they were newly dead, hadn’t turned rancid. They smelled like fresh ground beef, which made my stomach turn in hunger.

I could smell more. Another blood on the air, something more rotted.  I found the source in short order.   It looked like oil, felt the same.  I knew differently.  It was blood but blood choked full of poison.  The Wolf. I knew. I went back to the truck, retrieved my rifle and my pack and began to track the trail.  What I couldn’t see I could smell. There was a stink on the air, a heavy must that I knew didn’t belong.  Don’t ask me how I knew exactly, I just knew it didn’t belong.  I followed the scent, hurtling across the countryside, much of it an uphill climb at a near dead sprint.  After my third hill, feeling just barely winded I decided to consult my watch.  It had been no more than ten minutes. I dismissed it, figuring the old watch’s battery had gone to hell.

Another hour later I found myself at the mouth of what looked to be a large cave opening, but I knew better. It was the opening of yet another tunnel that led right to the Vaults. I gave the opening a strong whiff. It was heavy with the musty odor of the wolf I was tracking. Even with my heightened senses, I knew better than to track the beast further.  I’d report what I found to Dave and the others, they’d decide how we would proceed next.

I checked my watch to discover it was only 0930.  I booked it back to my truck, running half off memory and the smell of gas in the air.  This time, I paid careful attention to landmarks.  I would know on sight just how far it had meant I’d traveled.  After passing three land markers I knew to be spaced out by several hundred acres, I understood just how quickly I had been moving before.    I found my truck and drove it home.

I was sitting on my porch with another cup of coffee at 1130.  Not by my watches report, but by both clocks in the house and the microwave. It was confirmation of what I’d already suspected, my wolf wounds had not made me a mindless killing machine, but had certainly made me better able to handle this country.  I relaxed on the porch with the day’s work done, sipping coffee until it was time to drink whiskey. Then I had a couple of glasses and went to bed.

So went the next two and a half weeks. The end of my time here was rapidly approaching. I was in the Corps of Cadets at A&M. I was expected to return a week before the semester began, to train up the Freshman class.  I debated at length about telling my parents about what had come to pass this summer.  The law had been around a good amount, especially after Ruka went missing. Still, there was nothing that incriminated me.

The canyon seemed content to leave me be, and during that time Dave even came home.  Three nights before I was set to leave the bliss of being left alone ended. I awoke before dawn, there was an odd scent in the air.  A mix of death and motor oil.  I went bolt upright and pulled the handgun from my bedside table.  As I did not keep a round chambered in the house for safety, I raked the slide and was rewarded by the sound of a round sliding home.

My window was open, a screen keeping out the bugs. I heard the soft patter of feet on pliable earth and I knew shit was about to go off.  A moment later, there was a tremendous crash; glass broke, and wood splintered. My heart rate jumped wildly, but I felt prepared regardless. I’d done this a few times now, I felt steady and ready. I could smell the monster, just as assuredly as I could hear it crashing through most of the ground floor. Furniture was moving, slamming into the walls.  It’s searching for me. I knew at once.

On instinct, I punched out the screen of the window and leapt out. I landed easily, far too easily after a near five-meter drop.  I rounded the building, leaping the fence that enclosed a small corner of my yard.  I could see the front door broke in.  Even in the faint light of the one downstairs light I left on, I could make out the hulking figure of a werewolf in my kitchen.  All I had was a handgun, a weak offering in the event of a fight.

I studied the house through the gaping opening the wolf created when it crashed through the double doors off the front porch.  Even if I emptied the mag, as experience had taught me, there was little I could do to stop the monster.  I knew there was a rifle ready near the bottom of the stairs, where I had recently become accustomed to leaving my pack and weapon at the end of a day’s work.  Even with my recently enhanced speed, I couldn’t cover that distance easily.  Not before the werewolf stopped me.

Something playing on the light caught the corner of my eye.  It was the jar of BoomGel and silverware I’d mixed a few weeks before. I knew what to do at once. The wolf was in the kitchen, however, and would likely be shielded from the shrapnel if I shot the jar now.  On impulse, I took aim at the dirt and squeezed off two rounds.  The wolf reacted as I knew it would, barreling towards the source of the sound, out the door.  No sooner had it reached the doorway, did my sights line up on the jar.  I squeezed off a third round and was rewarded with a boom.  Fire erupted, pillaring forward and engulfing everything.

The werewolf was blown forward and to my left, slamming through the porch fence and landing heavily in the dirt.  It wasn’t moving.  In the moonlight, I could see the twisted and jaggedly warped remains of the fine silverware.  Knives, forks, and spoons were buried deep into the wolf’s body.  I advanced, and put three rounds into the prostate being’s head.  The rest I emptied into its body, where I approximated its heart laid from its back. I reloaded and fired half a mag again in its back, just as before. When I was certain it wasn’t going to get up, I sprinted back into the house, which was beginning to burn and retrieved my rifle from where I found it in the debris.  I put a final .270 round in its head. Insurance.

Now that I was certain the beast was dead.  I took stock of my house. It was on fire, flames licking eagerly at its wooden walls.  I knew I needed to get the fire under control.  I sprinted to the side of the house, freed a hose, turned it on and began jetting the house down with water.

Dave soon arrived and did his best to help me fight the blaze, keeping it from doing maximum damage.  By the time the fire was out, the sun was creeping up over the horizon.  “We need to do something about the body,” I said.

For once, Dave was already thinking a step ahead.  He drove back to his place and retrieved his tractor.  I guided his bucket into picking up the body and we drove it out to one of his pastures, dug a big ass hole and dumped it at the bottom.  By the time the wolf was buried, the rest of the canyon knew of its demise.   All morning ranchers came in to see the photos Dave had taken of the last monster.  After retelling the tale, a dozen times, Dave knew it well enough to tell on his own.  I was grateful to escape and return home.

The house was damaged significantly, much more so by the wolf than the following explosion and fire.  There were deep scores in the walls made by hand, cabinets were pulled down off the walls, the glasses and plates inside were shattered.  Furniture was turned over and broken.  All the windows on the ground floor were blown out, which I attributed to my shooting the BoomGel.  This would be hard to explain.

That evening, Dave threw a party for the entire canyon.  Drinks were flowing and there was an ample amount of food to be shared.  I went, but I didn’t overindulge.  I was relieved, however, when Dave offered to make the call and explain to my parents what happened.  He even promised to make my role in limiting the damage look heroic. I forget what story he told them, something about local teenagers and a firework prank gone wrong.  They bought it, the insurance promising to cover all repairs.

I stayed one week more, keeping a diligent eye over the repairs.  The workers made good progress, but I had no explanation when they asked how the ‘giant claw marks’ got here.  On my last night, Samantha arrived.  She looked like a woman with something on her mind.  I offered her one of the last beers I had in the house, contending myself to sip on the last of a bottle of whiskey Dave had given me.

“So you’re going back to the world?” she finally asked me after a few slow sips. “Knowing what you know?”

“I’m in the Corps. I have to do as much,” I replied.

She laughed. “Bunch of boys pretending to be military,” she shot back. “Not a real obligation.”

“What would you expect me to do?” I challenged in return.

“Oh, I don’t know. You know the way of the world better than most, I just thought you might stay. Help us figure out what was in the Vaults that Ruka alluded to,” Samantha answered. “You’re part of this canyon now.  You can’t just leave it like a prom date you don’t like much.”

“I never went to prom,” I answered flippantly.

Samantha gave me a look that would have melted metal. “You’re no different than when you arrived, content to ignore the dangers that exist now that they’re not in your immediate view.”

I laughed. “No.  I’m definitely changed forever.” I let loose a wolfish smile.  “I’m just ready to go back to where magic and monsters are not included in the work of the day.”

Samantha drained her beer. “I’ll see you again. You’ve got the wolf blood in you now.  You’re bound to this land.” And with that, she left.

The next morning, I left Real County and returned to my unit, and to my university.  But Samantha was right. It was sooner than I expected when our paths crossed again.  That summer changed my life, made me the man I am.  Well, if you can call me that anymore.  Still, I have more stories to tell.  There are things that go bump in the night that are more terrifying than witches and werewolves.  As Samantha would attest, people need to know what the way of the world is.  I owe her that much.


Credit: S.R. Roanoke

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