John Halpern knew it should be a heavy weight on his conscience, to wake up and know that he was going to kill a thing that used to be a man. Whether it was or wasn’t was a topic of much internal contemplation for him as he walked up the long path to his brother-in-law’s house to ask for help. The fact that his brother-in-law was himself a devil-man did not escape him.
Eldred’s people lived in a valley higher up than his own, a homestead of about sixteen families, surrounded by unkempt hills. They “weren’t here for the farming” was a nice way of putting it.
The wind swung around, and Halpern knew the children would scent him soon. Sure enough, as he rounded the final bend, they scampered towards him, on feet and hands, backs hunched over.
They wouldn’t scamper like that if their momma was still around to mind them.
“Uncle Hal! Uncle Hal!” Junior hugged him first, with smaller Marna just a step behind. He squatted down and they thumped him, leaving dusty handprints all over the front of his workshirt.
“Whoa there.” Halpern held them both for a moment.
“Did you bring us anything from town?” Junior asked, his head still against Halpern’s side, squinting up with hope. Another year or two, hell, maybe a month, and it’d be handshakes and nods, like real men. Depending.
“Of course I did.”
A few deep sniffs. “I smell candy!” Marna announced. With the slow sincerity of youth she added, “I like candy.”
“Don’t I know it.” Halpern rocked up to stand, knees popping, looking down at them. Junior still held a bit of his mother in the curve of his nose and the line of his jaw, but Marna was her spitting image. Each time he visited it caught him unawares. He rustled her hair with one hand and produced wax-paper wrapped taffy with the other. Junior opened it and took the largest chunk, till he caught Halpern watching, and he broke off an extra piece for Marna with a sigh.
“Your daddy around?” Halpern asked, when they both had candy wedged inside their mouths like chaw.
“Home.” Junior pointed back behind them. “Slaughtered a bull last night, been butchering it all day long.”
“Thanks.” He tugged on an imaginary hat and left them to their chewing.
Time to ask the devil for a favor.
As he rounded the bend, he thought he saw Sarah walking ahead of him—a flash of blue fabric flapping in the wind. Then the blue was only curtains, and he was missing her again.
Eldred smelled him, same as the children had, and came out to stand on his porch. His apron was covered in dried blood, and he produced a pipe from behind it as Halpern neared.
“Been awhile since you visited last. They miss you.”
“You should bring them into town.”
“You know I’m busy.” Eldred hit his pipe upside-down against the banister.
Eldred frowned and hit his pipe again. A plug of tobacco ash landed near Halpern’s feet. “What do you want, John?”
“I need a favor.” Halpern put his boot on the first stair. “May I?”
Eldred didn’t answer, but he did step away.
Halpern followed him inside into the darkness. The cabin was pressed up against the hillside, the roof slats overhead plugged with clots of dirt. The stink of raw meat made it smell like a dog’s mouth.
Halpern sat down on a chair near the open window for the air and watched Eldred move among the objects of the house like he hadn’t put them there himself. He lumbered, wide-shouldered, wide-hipped, but it would have been a fool who called him fat. There was a chance he’d wrestled that bull he was slaughtering to the ground himself. Depending on the moon, Halpern wouldn’t put it past him. Devil-men’s strength knew no bounds.
Eldred disappeared in back, to return without his apron but carrying a tobacco pouch. He opened it and sent his pipe to dig inside.
“I need a favor,” Halpern repeated.
“I’m not much inclined.”
“Hear me out. And get Merrill to listen, too.”
“Merrill don’t listen—”
“To anyone but you. I know how you run up here.”
There was a crunch outside, of dry grass breaking, and both men looked to the open window. Halpern could see Junior’s rust-colored hair below as he gave a hiss of defeat.
Eldred made a thoughtful noise. “Boy, go get your uncle.”
Junior looked up, and Halpern watched a moment of smart-assery cross his face. Halpern was really his uncle, on his mother’s side, and the boy was tempted to say as much. But Eldred clicked his tongue like he was speeding a horse and Junior minded.
Asking Eldred for favors was bad enough—but sometimes it took a devil to fight a devil. Halpern leaned out the window and watched Junior run. At least this time he was on two-feet, as God intended.
It took twenty minutes for Junior to return, which, with his fine nose guiding him, meant that Merrill must have been off in the wilds behind his fields. Maybe farming. Maybe not. Halpern pressed his hands together like a preacher-man, between his knees, and watched Eldred’s pipe-smoke waft out through the curtains made from his sister’s old dress. He knew it when Merrill arrived—the devil took the porch stairs loudly, two at a time.
“This fool?” Merrill asked Eldred, after he passed the door. Eldred gave him a look, and he silently took up a position with his back against the opposite wall.
“You tell us what you want now, John,” Eldred said. “Make it fast.”
Halpern stood. “A wagon got it in the highlands.”
“So?” Merrill said.
“I saw your woman at the store today.” He didn’t mention that she’d had a black eye. Made him want to spit. Devils.
“She ain’t back yet—” A deeper color flashed over Merrill’s already dark face, like a tornado funnel in a storm. “What happened to her?”
“Nothing,” Halpern said, and began to pace the room. “My point was that your people do business in Golden Falls.”
“We give just as much as we take,” Eldred said, arms crossed. “And we pay for the privilege.”
Halpern waved his words away. “The town thanks you for that. But this wagon—”
“Blackfoot? Sioux?” Merrill guessed and rolled his eyes. Golden Falls had a contract with Eldred’s people, in writing even, for the few that could read it. It was why they’d been allowed to settle in the area. Halpern had written up some of it himself, after Sarah—he stopped pacing, and faced them.
“Neither. It was a wendigo.”
Merrill snorted. Halpern studied Eldred’s face, unsure what his brother-in-law thought of things. He was a hard man to get. How had Sarah managed? “I’m willing to be wrong. But I don’t think I am.”
Merrill started walking for the door. “Our kind know better than to eat our own. Sounds like a man problem to me.”
“Your ladies like our goods and trade. It’ll be winter soon.”
Eldred held his hand up, and Merrill paused.
“If I’m right,” Halpern continued, “it’ll kill every wagon train coming in, until we can’t get any more supplies. We can’t eat only gold. You can’t eat just snow.”
Eldred’s eyes narrowed. “What’d you tell them it was?”
Them was Golden Falls, at the crotch of the valley, where gold and sin both rolled to rest. Gamblers and miners, one and the same, plus a small complement of merchants, bankers, whores. “Sioux, of course. I didn’t want to start a riot—or send idiots with loaded shotguns and half an excuse running through your fields.
“But if it’s as I say, Eldred—it’ll take every wagon that comes through. That’s how they work. They’re always starving, you know that. Give the thing long enough, and I guarantee it’ll attack town.” He still couldn’t read Eldred’s face, and he didn’t need to look to know what Merrill thought.
Merrill laughed. “It won’t attack us. And you don’t have a piece of paper that says we have to care.”
Halpern ignored him. “I said I was asking for a favor.”
Eldred was still, stone-like, lifeless, the way only a hunting animal can be. Then the wind changed and Sarah’s curtains fluttered in. He gave a subtle nod. “We’re blood, Halpern.”
“But moon’s coming.”
“I know. My horse is at the crossroads, packed.”
Eldred nodded. “Set out. We’ll catch up.”
It pained him to ask the devils for help, that was for sure. But he’d seen the ravages of a wendigo attack once before in his life, and Golden Falls didn’t need one nipping at its heels. Too many miners out there alone, exposed. It might already have been too late for some, and no one would know for weeks. Damn things always hungry, eating like a drunkard thirsts for drink. And whoever it was that had become one—Merrill was right on that. Fool ought to’ve known better than to eat his own kind in these hills. Indian curses all over the place. Only thing men had to curse them back with was smallpox.
Halfway to his horse, Halpern heard the sound of a live thing snaking through the waist-high brush beside the road. He turned to face the shadow that was matching his speed.
“What do you want, Junior?”
“Can I come?”
“Aw, why not?”
“It’s man business.”
“Absolutely not.” There was no way Junior had asked Eldred’s permission to come. “You gotta stay behind and protect your home.”
“Have pity on my horse, Junior, while we’re still upwind.”
“Promise to take me into town when you get back,” Junior hissed. Perhaps if Junior had been Merrill’s son, it would have been an implied threat. Take me into town, or I can’t guarantee that I won’t.... But Halpern knew he was still Sarah’s boy for now, even if the moon turned his pa into a monster.
“I promise. As soon as we get back. Just let me finish this alone.”
He heard a disappointed whisper of, “All right,” then the snaking sound ran away from the road.
Halpern’s horse was where he’d left it, tied to the post Eldred’s few visitors used for such things. He stood beside it, hands tight on the reins. The bay knew they were there before he did, dancing like a frog on a skillet. Only a gimpy hind leg and his focused resolve kept her from going very far.
“Why’re you bringing a nag?” Merrill asked.
“Well, I’m bringing you,” Halpern said with a shrug. Merrill growled, and she tried to rear. Halpern held tight until she exhausted herself. His saddle clung to her sway back, loaded in the seat with supplies, fat as a tick. “It’s only two days up. I was thinking we should walk.”
“If she’ll stand it,” Eldred said.
“She’ll be fine.”
“I prefer to run,” Merrill said, and Eldred gave a subtle nod.
Merrill didn’t walk too far off. He wasn’t ashamed, not like Halpern would have been if the affliction were his own. He took off all his clothes, setting them beside the post—no one would ever steal anything that belonged to a devil-man—and then he became something else, hunching down, like he too would scamper. Maybe part of him did, the man-part, leaving just the devil-part behind.
Watching him change made Halpern’s bile rise—he stared at his boots, until Merrill was finished. Merrill howled when he was done, and had not Halpern’s horse already resigned herself to a tragic death she would have run him down dragging Halpern with her. As it was, her eyes rolled back, showing white, like if she was not able to see the thing in front of her, it would be unable to see her back.
“He always got to do that?” Halpern grumbled. Eldred grunted as Merrill’s wolf ran off, half the height of the horse, twice the weight of any man, quiet, black-furred, sleek.
Years of wagons and hooves had ground all the life out of the road Halpern and Eldred walked on. Idiot grasshoppers were thick this year, jumping out to be crushed under boots and hooves.
They walked in silence for miles, the horse gimping beside them. Halpern took a sip of his water, a swig from his flask, and watched Eldred out of the corner of his eye.
“I like your curtains,” he said, flat as he could.
Halpern hadn’t visited much after Sarah’d died. The children were still sweet on him all the same. He knew it was easier to like someone when they weren’t there. Just like it’d been easier for him to accept what went on at Eldred’s when he’d had Sarah’s word to pin it to. Halpern looked down at the dirty handprints on his shirt.
“Either of them know how to read?”
“There’s a school in town now.”
“I bet it’s nice,” Eldred said without a smile.
“Goddammit, Eldred—you can’t just keep them up there their whole lives.”
Eldred turned to look at him, and the nag tried to rise up again. “They’ll come down in good time,” he said.
“Like Merrill’s woman? You allow that? Her black eye?”
He paused for a step. “It’s Merrill’s business.”
“Not if he’s your second.”
Silence passed between them, nothing but the sound of the nag’s hooves thumping on dirt, the crunching of fool grasshoppers. It didn’t take much imagination to turn those sounds into a hand hitting flesh, the break of bone.
“If Marna ever comes to town with a—”
“She’d better not. I don’t know what I’d do.” And that was a lie. Halpern knew exactly what he’d do, and who to. He inhaled deeply and forced himself to be civil. “I like Ralston better. Or Troy.” They were all devil-men, but some were less devil than others.
“It ain’t always about the person part. There’s the wolf to think of, too.”
“Is Merrill’s wolf-part less of an asshole than the rest of him?”
Eldred gave a bark of a laugh. “Not by much.”
That night the two of them sat around an anemic fire in the middle of the road, camping as a courtesy to Halpern and a necessity for the nag. Eldred would have had no problem seeing beneath the moon, and, with whatever power it availed him, continuing strong. His eyes glittered in the firelight, and Halpern wondered exactly how well he could see.
“How’d you know,” Eldred asked as Halpern ate his dinner, “what it is that done this?”
“My prior post, before Sarah and I moved out here. Thing ate four wagon’s worth before we figured it out—people, horses, supplies. Town damn near starved.” He set his plate down and stared into the fire. “It killed five horses, and three men—I started out with ten of each. Drove it off a cliff, then went the long way down to kick the corpse.”
“And this time? How did you know?”
“I saw its sign. A lucky thing, too.” Halpern had gone out to check on the wagon once it hadn’t come in. He’d taken the path, and spotted the wagon’s remains. It didn’t take much to notice all the bodies were gone, and deep gouges clawed into the earth besides. “They can’t help but eat, anything, everything. The one we’d killed had its stomach full of horse meat and stones. This one will be wagoneers and dirt.”
Eldred grunted, unfazed. One devil to another, of course. “So the nag’s bait?”
“Once we get there, yeah,” Halpern said. “You ever killed one before?”
“Never even seen one. But I’m sure we’ll be fine.” Eldred stood and took a few steps away from the fire before setting himself down on his blankets. There was a coyote howl in the distance.
“Friends of yours?” Halpern asked, as other coyotes joined in.
Eldred said nothing, just closed his eyes.
Halpern woke up at the ass end of night needing to piss. He stood, and spent a full minute figuring out how far out of camp he could step and still be safe. How long had its arms been? Surely if it were close, the horse would have startled or Eldred would have smelled it. Behind him, Eldred was snoring, his chest rising and falling with the sound. Halpern went downwind.
He didn’t know what Sarah had seen in Eldred. He’d felt it though, when Eldred was in the room with her, like heat lightning before a storm. Townspeople said that he’d cast a spell on her. Halpern knew Eldred hadn’t had to—he knew his sister, he’d seen the adoration in her eyes.
The thing was, Eldred’d asked Halpern for her hand. Halpern could have told him no. She was young enough then to still listen. But God, the Indians were something fierce that year, and he’d been younger too. He concentrated, and urine shot from his body in a warm stuttering stream. Piss on the devils, piss on the past, and piss on Golden Falls.
A creature rose up out of the brush in front of him. He leapt backwards with a yelp, splashing his leg. A wolf’s sturdy head swung towards him, lips raised high to reveal black gums in the pre-dawn light. “The only thing I smell out here is you,” it said with a growl.
“Fuck you.” Halpern grabbed his pants and set them straight.
Merrill’s wolf stepped aside and became Merrill, fur receding, teeth pulling, going in just as smooth as they had come out. Then sharp wet sounds, like a beaver tail-slapping the top of a lake, until just a hairy naked man was left behind. Merrill stretched and walked into the campsite, naked as a newborn, and Halpern followed him back.
“There’s nothing out there, Eldred.” Merrill helped himself to the saddlebags, pulling out packed clothing. “Even if there ever was a wendigo here, which I doubt, it’s long since gone.”
“We’ll go until we see the wagon for ourselves,” Eldred said, sitting up with a yawn.
“It’s a waste of time.” Merrill yanked on a shirt, pants, boots.
Halpern looked down at his urine-stained pants. “Bringing you—that was a waste of time.”
Merrill growled. Eldred looked between them. “Go ahead with the horse then. See if you can lure it out.”
The nag, to her credit, tried to stove Merrill’s head in. But eventually he caught hold of her tie and dragged her up the road behind him. Halpern squatted beside his saddle and reassigned his belongings. The saddle itself could wait for his return, but—
“Carry this.” He handed rope and an axe over to Eldred. Lifting his lightened bag, boxes of bullets jingled inside.
“That sounds like a lot of ammo,” Eldred said.
“That’s because it is,” Halpern said, standing up.
The road went around the edge of a hillside, letting them see between the trees to the valley below. Somewhere out there the Golden River ran along, cold as the ice it came from, scattering flakes of gold into a few lucky sluices; like a moody farmer’s daughter scattering grain for chosen pullets but leaving forgotten ones to starve.
There’d been no sign of Merrill or the nag all morning. Halpern gnawed on jerky as they walked, between deep gulps of air. The mountain was robbing his breath, making his lungs work twice as hard. Eldred didn’t seem to mind.
“When’s Junior going to change?” Halpern asked, after inhaling deep.
“He’ll be like us. One way or another.”
Halpern waited for him to explain. Eldred waited, too. He could out wait the damn dead. “Eldred—”
“It’s none of your business.”
Halpern turned on him. “He’s my nephew too! If you’d been more honest when this whole thing started—”
“I warned her.” Eldred’s eyes narrowed. “She knew.” His voice went low, and his breath came hard. “She accepted me.”
Eldred’s wolf was coming on, and Halpern didn’t care. The thin air made things clearer, shined his anger more bright. “You were supposed to protect her,” he said, pointing at Eldred, one hand on his gun.
A branch snapped behind them. Eldred, wolf-at-the-ready, snarled. “Who’s there?”
“Protect her from what?” asked a timid voice, far to the right of the road.
“Junior!” Eldred shouted.
Junior peered out from behind a distant tree. “I did it! I snuck up here, you all didn’t smell me or nothing! I did it!”
“You—” Eldred raced out and grabbed Junior by his arm, dragging him out.
“See? You don’t need to leave me alone anymore. I can run—”
Eldred wheeled back and hit Junior full across the face. Halpern made to step in, then realized if Eldred hit him that hard he wouldn’t be able to get back up. Junior stumbled but stood, sullen.
“If you’re going to run with us, you gotta learn to listen,” Eldred said. “I told you to stay home, boy.”
Junior nursed the side of his face. “I just wanted to show you I—”
“There’s no excuse for disobeying.” He brought his hand up again.
“We can’t send him home. It’s not safe,” Halpern said, interrupting. Junior heard him and nodded.
Eldred whirled on Halpern. Halpern thought he could see fresh teeth, straining out. “There’s nothing here—”
A horse screamed in the distance. Then again—nearer.
“You sure?” Halpern asked, unholstering his revolver.
Eldred looked to Halpern. “Stay here.” He ran away, leaving both nephew and uncle behind.
Halpern put himself in front of Junior, following Eldred up the road. “Keep close.” There were no more sounds of horses, humans, or wolves.
“Can I have a gun?”
Hoofbeats neared, then the nag bolted down the road at them. Halpern shoved Junior out of the way, felt the whip of her tail as she passed. She jumped sideways, and then around the next bend he heard her fall.
He ran back after her, saw one leg crippled, another bent wrong. There was a raw wound on her haunch, the still-running muscles twitching inside. It matched the gouges he had seen near the wagon’s remains.
The nag screamed.
“I’m here!” Junior pulled himself out of the rocks Halpern’d shoved him into and trotted down. “Aren’tcha gonna shoot her?”
“I suppose so.” Halpern drew his gun again.
“Can I do it?”
Halpern looked from the gun to Junior. Devil or not, his nephew was almost a man.
“Please Uncle Hal, please.”
“All right. Don’t miss.” He handed the revolver over and watched the boy. Junior took three shots, and all of them went wide.
“Come here,” Halpern said, and reached out to correct Junior’s hold on the gun. “You gotta kill her to be kind.” Aiming together, a fourth shot put the nag to rest. Her blood spilled out around their boots like it was coming from a spring.
Merrill loped down the road towards them, still wolf-formed and black. Eldred followed him, buttoning up his shirt. He spotted Junior with the gun.
“Put that down!” He left his top button undone and reached for the gun. “That’s what men do—”
“But I’m a man!” Junior said.
Eldred growled. Merrill’s wolf paced around Eldred, scenting the horse’s meat. Then it jumped backwards with a yelp, revealing one of Junior’s misplaced slugs on the ground.
“Watch it. Silver.” Halpern leaned over and pocketed the slug. When he rose again, the devil men and his nephew were staring at him. “You seen what that thing done to the nag.” He shrugged. “I’d throw Bible pages at it, if I thought it would care.”
Junior looked in horror at the gun in his hand, grabbed the barrel, and gingerly offered Halpern its grip. Halpern took it.
But he didn’t reholster. The monster was nearby.
They dismembered the horse. Merrill, content to stay in wolf-form, dragged the front half of the carcass behind him in a harness Eldred’d rigged up around his furry shoulders. Even Halpern could smell it, entrails dragging behind them, as the high road finally took them down. When everything around them was quiet except for the slide of the horse’s flesh, Halpern’s boots, and Junior’s breathing, Eldred looked back.
“We’re not tracking it,” Halpern said. “It’s tracking us.”
“How long will half a horse sate it?”
Halpern still hadn’t put his gun away. “It won’t.”
A shining afternoon turned into a greasy dusk, and they reached the place where the wagon’d been left behind. Pieces of wood jutted out like bone, though actual bones were absent. The gouges that Halpern had seen, that mirrored the marks on the horsemeat, stood out like frozen ripples on a pond.
Merrill’s wolf stopped. “Stay here, or go on?”
Halpern grunted. “There’s no good place to fight one of them.”
Eldred stared up at the sky, then looked to Halpern. “The brighter the moon, the stronger we are. Tonight’s the night to kill it. We’ll build a fire, then wait.”
Junior scampered off to bring in pieces of wagon wood and brush to burn, under Halpern’s watchful eyes. Merrill freed himself from the harness and arranged himself behind what remained of the horse, his back to the nascent fire, his eyes out at the thin forest beyond. Eldred paced the edge of what was probably safe, sniffing deep.
Halpern sat down by the fire and watched its colors change. Junior sat beside him. “What is it you’re hunting?” he asked.
“Used to be a man.”
“What happened to it?”
“It—he—ate someone. Now he’s cursed to always be hungry,” Halpern answered, as Junior stared in frank disbelief. “It’s an Indian curse. Same as yours, I guess.”
“I never did nothing to no Indian,” Junior said. He gathered his knees to his chest.
Halpern grunted in agreement, then picked up another branch and tossed it into the fire.
As the night went on, Halpern stoked the embers of the fire. The wind kept shifting, and each time it did he felt like he could feel the thing, breathing on him. Only Merrill’s and Eldred’s stillness kept him calm.
“I taught your momma how to shoot,” he said, after the third time he’d caught Junior dozing off too near the fire. “She was good, too. A dead-eye.”
Junior’s eyes glittered with the memories flashing inside his mind. “I never knew that.”
“Bet I know a lot of things about her that you don’t.”
“Maybe so, maybe not,” Eldred’s voice warned from the darkness outside the firelight.
“Her favorite number was thirteen. She always wanted to have a palomino colt. She could play the harmonica good as any man.”
Junior laughed. “I knew that one.”
“The merits of harmonica playing are debatable,” Merrill said from his station by the carcass.
“And I know she prolly would have wanted a different life for you.”
Eldred made a warning noise, deep inside his throat. “Halpern—”
“How do you mean?” Junior asked, cutting Eldred off.
“School, for one. How can you expect to come down into town when you can’t read nor write? And secondly, it wouldn’t kill you to go to church now and then.”
Merrill laughed. “Shows what you know.”
Halpern looked over his shoulder at the wolf. “I ain’t talking to you.”
Junior stared into the fire. “I miss her.”
“Me too.” Halpern wondered if he missed her so much as he missed the chance to make things right. As long as she’d been alive, there’d always been a chance. Now, though—he stared into the fire too, looking for answers, reliving his past.
A small sound escaped Junior’s throat, and then he sat straight up, hands clutched around the edge of the log he sat on. He reached for his own throat.
“What’s—what’s happening?” Junior’s voice rose an octave and broke. His hands clawed at his face. “I can’t breathe—”
Halpern looked at his nephew and started kicking dirt at the fire. “Did someone burn poison oak?”
Eldred ran over and Merrill leapt near as Junior stood up, head whipping back and forth, panicked, same as when Halpern had once seen a man fall out of a boat and drown.
“Junior,” Eldred warned, waving his hands calmly. The boy’s eyes got big, and Junior let out a tiny broken howl and raced off into the underbrush.
“No!” Eldred yelled, but it was too late. Merrill made to go after him. “Hold!” Eldred commanded.
And the change took him then. He wasn’t like Merrill, sleek and dark—the change threw him to the ground and broke him. His clothes strained, split, then hung off him in shreds, cuff and paw, and the belt that’d been around his waist snapped off like a whip. He was as grey as a winter cloud, and as large a wolf as he was a man. “Stay here,” he said, his voice like tumbling steel, before running off.
Halpern found himself standing, gun out, staring impotently after both of them.
Halpern paced in the clearing by the now-dying fire. “That was the change, wasn’t it.”
“What do you think?” Merrill’s wolf asked him back.
A deep and abiding fury for what had been lost rose up inside of Halpern. “He’s not like you—”
“The boy knows exactly what he is.”
“He’s still my sister’s boy.”
“I don’t know if you noticed, Halpern, but your sister’s dead.” The black wolf looked at him, eyes golden in the night. “When she whelped a puppy instead of a man-child.”
“I saw it before they buried her with it.” The wolf rose and stalked around him, like he was an unlucky doe. “Four paws. Black nose.”
Halpern shook his gun. “I said for you to shut up!”
Merrill dashed away, laughing, and Halpern shot after his shadow.
Whatever was left of the man inside the wendigo liked these new and better odds. The familiar scrape of the horse carcass sliding over earth sounded behind Halpern. He turned just as the wind changed, now blowing towards him a stench that he didn’t even need their nose to smell. He remembered one flood season back home, when the riverbank had taken a side of the cemetery away, leaving arm bones and leg bones and pieces of rotting meat to wave out in the wind—it smelled like that, like the earth itself had burped up something sick.
The wendigo lumbered into the clearing, over the destruction of the wagon, and the vestiges of the fire gave Halpern a clear view. It looked like a rotting pelt, patches of sickly fur alternating with too-pale skin. It was tall and gape-mouthed, and he knew he wanted it dead.
He shot at it. The flash blinded him, and he shot at it again. It ought to have been too big to miss—but it might be too big to die. He broke open the revolver, slotted more shells into it, and shot again.
The sound of the shots punctuated his thoughts. Goddamn Merrill—shot—goddamn devil-men—shot. What the hell had happened to Junior? Shot. Why couldn’t things be what they were supposed to be? Shot.
A dark form separated from the forest and launched itself at the wendigo’s side. Halpern held his fire and reloaded again, the hot cylinder burning his hands. The wolf latched its teeth into the wendigo’s neck and dug at its side with hind-leg claws. Maybe it found a bullet hole Halpern had already made—it rent the creature’s side, a gush of fluid rushed out, and the smell got even worse.
Halpern ran nearer, looking for a shot in the fire’s dying light. He found one, took it. The wendigo yelled out with an inhuman cry, the throat once used for voice long since ruined by eating dirt and stones when man-meat wasn’t near.
It threw the wolf aside. Halpern heard the crunch when it landed, like half-burned tinder, but he didn’t look away. Sarah hadn’t been the only one with a good eye—he shot, and shot again, walking forward, aiming for where he hoped the monster still had a heart. The wendigo fell to its knees and reached for him, swatted him down with a too-long arm, knocking the wind from him. A blackness not entirely of the night fell upon him, and Halpern expected to die.
Did men who let their sisters marry devils go to heaven, or to hell? The clawed hand that’d fallen didn’t rise up again, and Halpern shoved it off of him with an angry shout.
Merrill’s wolf stepped forward. Halpern leveled his gun and shot at it. It bolted into the dark.
“I killed your monster, Halpern,” said a gravel-edged voice.
Halpern stood in the clearing, panting, shaking. “Not yet, you didn’t.”
He turned and aimed at where the voice had come from, but shot too slowly—then a blur of fur knocked him to his right. He fell against a piece of wagon, felt a rib snap, and shot again, wild. The moon broke free from the branches above and cast everything in its gunmetal light. Halpern crouched and reloaded.
“Uncle!” cried a tortured voice at the edge of the clearing. A creature half again as tall as him stood there, man-shaped, half-hidden in shadow. Halpern stared, then was bowled over from the side. Teeth ground against bone in his shoulder, and he raised his gun to shoot the wolf as the man-shaped thing joined the fray. He jerked his wrist to miss and his shot sailed at the moon as he was slammed to the ground, and his gun spun off, grey as everything else in the moon’s light.
The monsters rolled off of him, fighting viciously, both snarling. The man-thing had hands, but the wolf had teeth, and Halpern wished he could better see what was going on. He held onto his shoulder, feeling blood well up and trickle down.
And then there was the click of a cocking gun, and three shots in quick succession. He saw Eldred in the flashes of report-light, and the fighting stopped. The winner rose up, and Halpern saw it wasn’t much different than the wendigo he’d slaughtered.
“Junior?” Halpern whispered to himself.
“He bit you good,” Eldred said, coming near, naked in the clearing. “Swallow a silver bullet whole—it’ll burn the wolf out of you by the time it reaches the other side.”
Halpern stumbled up to stand. “Junior, is that you?”
Eldred stepped over to Junior and put a hand on his shoulder. “Merrill forgot his place. He was blood, but we’re family. Wasn’t his place to fight you.”
The thing that must have been Junior nodded.
Eldred tossed the gun at Halpern’s feet. “You got what you wanted, Halpern.”
Halpern lunged for the gun, then looked up. Junior’s face was misshapen by half a muzzle and jutting teeth. Oh Sarah! “Why’d you save me?” he asked Eldred, without taking his eyes off his nephew.
“Your last shot,” Eldred said. “You shot wide, intentional.”
And then Eldred was on all fours again, and Halpern heard the sounds of his change, till his wolf stood there instead of him. “You can walk back,” it told him. Then it raced into the forest, Junior close behind.
“Eldred! Sarah always said you were a good man!” Halpern stumbled after them. “Junior! You can come into town, anytime! Tomorrow! I’ll be there! Come into town Junior!”
Halpern yelled until his voice gave.
The empty dark never answered back.
Return to Issue #172 - Special Weird Western Issue