AS HE RODE BACK INTO TOWN, worn and weary, Cody saw the group gathered at the cemetery.
And he saw Alex, standing by her father's grave, fists clenched at her sides as she stared wordlessly at Cole Granger.
"Oh, hell," Cody muttered.
"Maybe you should have talked to her, broken it to her gently," Brendan said.
Cody scowled at his friend. "You think I should have told her that her father might be a vampire, part of Milo Roundtree's gang?"
Cody kneed his tired horse and galloped toward the cemetery. Brendan urged his own horse to hurry and followed. As they approached, several of the people who had been tending the fire greeted them, but Cody only waved distractedly as he leaped off his horse, threw the reins over the fence and strode quickly toward the tense scene on the hill.
"What's the matter with you, Cole?" Alex was saying as Cody approached. "How dare you dig up my father? You had no right to disturb his grave-any of these graves. Why did you do it, Cole? Why?"
Cody knew the minute she saw him coming, because she stiffened, her eyes narrowing in fury. His stomach took a dive.
"Alex," he said sharply. "Don't lash into Cole-none of this is his fault or even his doing. If you need to blame someone, blame me."
"Cody, it's all right, I can take care of myself," Cole said.
Before Cody could speak again, Alex walked over to him with long, hard strides and shoved him hard. "What the hell are you doing? Everyone has been so grateful for your knowledge and help, everyone has done everything you've ordered. But now you're taking advantage of this community. What? Did you draw straws, trying to decide who you should disinter and chop to pieces? What kind of a ghoul are you?"
She slammed his chest hard again to emphasize her anger.
He caught her wrists. "Alex, listen. We didn't choose anything. We only did what we had to do. I'm sure Cole would have explained-if you'd given him a chance."
"Why did you dig up these people? Why did you dig up my father?" she demanded furiously.
"Alex, we didn't choose to dig them up. They'd already dug themselves out."
"What?" Her eyes widened in shocked realization.
"You know what vampires are-you've seen them. When a person is bled to death by a vampire, they come back. How the hell did you think it happened?"
She shook her head. "But...they were in their graves! Cole said you had to decapitate them, like the man who died in the street, like the vampires we killed last night."
"Yes," Cody said.
She stared from him to Cole. "So you found them in their graves? But...why weren't they with Milo?"
"Milo doesn't want everyone he infects. He leaves them to stumble around like newborns, starving, desperate, deadly newborns. Alex, we let them rest in peace. We keep them from killing, don't you understand?"
"And my father? You did that to my father?"
Cody was silent for a split second too long.
"No," Cole told her.
"Because he wasn't in his grave."
She stared at him for a long moment, saying nothing. Then she turned and raced down the hill to where her mare was tethered. She mounted in one smooth motion, and then, kicking up dust, horse and rider went racing off toward town.
"Where in hell is she going?" Dave demanded.
Cody didn't answer him. He was already halfway down the hill, intent on following Alex.
A LEX COULD HAVE HEADED straight to the lodging house. Beulah always kept alcohol on hand-for medicinal purposes, the cook said-and she could have chosen from brandy, sherry and perhaps some wine.
But she didn't want to go home.
She reined in at the saloon, sliding from Cheyenne's back and leaving the mare loosely tied at the hitching post in front. Then she strode through the swinging doors and walked straight to the bar.
Roscoe looked at her, hesitant. As if he was afraid of her.
"I'd like a whiskey, Roscoe," she said.
"Uh...pardon?" he said, blinking.
"I would like a whiskey," she repeated more slowly.
"A whiskey, Roscoe," she said.
He nodded, turned and poured her a drink. Alex took a long swallow, and a shudder racked her body. She grimaced. God, the stuff tasted awful.
But as it burned its way down her throat and into her stomach, she found that, oddly enough, it did give her strength.
They were all crazy, she thought. Her father was not a vampire. He was nothing like Milo Roundtree.
She spun around. Jigs was sitting on the piano bench, his back toward the keys.
"Hey, Jigs," she said glumly, then looked at him more closely. She frowned. He looked tired, ashen.
"Are you all right?" she asked him.
"I reckon I'm tired, and I know I'm worried. Dave Hinton right kindly been sleeping here the last couple of nights. He keeps vigil from midnight to 4:00 a.m., then I take over for a few hours, and then Roscoe."
She heard footsteps and looked up. Linda was coming down the stairs. Alex tried to watch her objectively. It was just so difficult, seeing Linda-Linda Gordon, that was her name now-so blithe and overt about her promiscuous sexuality when Eugene Gordon had done her the honor of making her his wife. When Alex had left after their conversation the other day, she had found herself actually liking the woman.
But right now, on top of what she'd just learned about her father, Linda, in all her skimpy finery, was the last person Alex wanted to see.
"What's the matter, sweetie?" Linda asked casually on her way to the bar.
"You watched them bury my father, right? I mean, you weren't out of town, seeking the future, before he was buried, were you?" Alex asked.
Linda started, then smiled slowly. "Ooh. Sweet little Alex has claws."
"Just answer me. Please."
The amusement on the other woman's features faded. "Of course I was at his funeral. Which you didn't attend, I might add."
"I didn't even know he was dead. You know damned well he was buried long before the letters ever reached me," Alex said.
Linda still seemed wary after Alex's initial attack. "I saw him buried, yes. Jim Green took care of him, and the pastor came over from Brigsby to make sure he was buried with a full Christian ceremony," Linda said. "Why?"
Alex didn't get a chance to answer. Cody, who was suddenly standing just inside the swinging doors, spoke for her. "Because he's not in his grave. That's why."
Linda looked from Cody to Alex. "Of course he's in his grave," she said, as if they'd both lost their minds.
"No, he's not," Cody said. "We dug up his grave the other day. The earth was already disturbed, and his coffin wasn't sealed. And he wasn't in it."
Linda shook her head, wrinkling her nose prettily. "I don't understand. Are you accusing me of stealing Eugene's body?"
"I'm not accusing anyone of anything," Cody said, walking over to join them. "I'm just stating a fact."
"Oh, yes, you are," Alex said, rounding on him. "You're accusing my father of being a vampire. Like Milo Roundtree."
"I never said he was like Milo Roundtree," Cody argued.
"God in heaven," Roscoe breathed, pouring a whiskey into the shot glass and downing it in one swift movement.
"But they all have to be destroyed. They're all monsters, right?" Alex demanded.
Cody was stubbornly silent.
Alex looked at Linda again. "Tell me, have you seen my father? Has he been hanging around outside your balcony, calling to you-quoting from Cyrano, maybe. Or maybe Shakespeare. He always loved Shakespeare. Maybe he's playing Romeo, trying to entice his Juliet to come out and have her neck bitten and her blood sucked dry!"
"Alex," Linda murmured.
Alex was in a state verging on hysterics, and she knew it. She should have gone home. She would go home.
She turned and headed toward the door, pushing past Cody to make her escape.
Cole and Dave were just tethering their horses and stepping up onto the wooden sidewalk. "Alex," Cole said sympathetically. "One of us should have-"
"Not now, Cole," she said. Without another word, she collected Cheyenne's reins and led her horse home, walking her around the side of the house to the stable. Levy must have heard her coming; he was waiting at the barn door to take the horse from her.
"Miss Alex? You all right?" he asked her.
"What the hell does 'all right' even mean around here anymore?" she asked him.
It was Levy's look of sympathy that pierced through the miasma of fear and dread that had gripped her and touched something in her heart.
She forced a smile. "I'm fine, Levy. How are you doing?"
"Good, Miss Alex. I feel good, and angry-and strong," he assured her.
"Thank you, Levy." She turned and started toward the back door of the boardinghouse, then stopped and looked back at him. "Levy, do you ever have dreams? Nightmares?"
He shrugged. "No, not really. Well, not that I remember, anyway."
"Have you ever dreamed about my father?"
"No, Miss Alex." He frowned, clearly confused by the question.
She shook her head, hesitating, as she felt tears welling in her eyes. She blinked them back. "If you ever should dream about him-if you think he may be calling to you, asking for help, or just looking for you-don't go to him."
"Don't go to him. Promise me you won't go to him."
"I-I promise, Miss Alex."
He was staring at her, but not in a way that suggested she was crazy.
No, it was a look of helplessness.
She smiled sadly, shook her head and went inside.
She passed through the kitchen, where Beulah was preparing dinner, stirring something in a pot that bubbled over the fire. Tess was sitting at the table, peeling potatoes, and Jewell was next to her, snapping peas.
"There you are, Alex. I was about to get worried. I wonder if them fellows will be back for dinner tonight. Well, you go ahead and wash up. Won't be long now till the food is ready," Beulah said.
"I think I'm going straight to bed tonight, Beulah. Feels like I just ate lunch," Alex said.
"What? You've got to eat," Beulah insisted.
Alex ignored her and headed upstairs, well aware that Cody and Brendan would be coming back soon, and not in the mood for conversation.
She headed straight to her room. There was clean water in the ewer, and she poured some into the washbowl, then doused her face. She prayed it would somehow make her feel better.
When she was done, she pulled off her boots and hose, and lay on her bed, staring up at the ceiling.
No one knew how her father had died. They had simply found his body.
He hadn't been torn to shreds, just lying there...dead.
Dead as if someone had sucked all the blood from him.
He had been prepared for burial and interred in the ground. Six feet under.
And now he was no longer in his grave.
She didn't feel angry anymore. She felt numb. She told herself that her father could never be a monster, and she thought about her dream.
He hadn't been about to hurt her. He had been trying to save her from Milo Roundtree. He had been warning her.
She winced, remembering how Cody had warned people that they mustn't be fooled by the cries of their loved ones.
Her father was different. Had to be different.
She rose and went over to her dressing table, where she sat thoughtfully brushing her hair.
She shook her head as if she could clear the awful implications of what might have happened to her father from her mind. Once the concept of vampires would have struck her as ridiculous.
But she had seen them, had seen them swooping down, black shadow-bats with death in their eyes, and she had seen what had happened when they were killed. She had seen April Snow.
She lay down again. If she could sleep, it might be possible to dream, and...maybe in a dream she could reach out and find her father. If her previous dream had truly been a vision, he wasn't with Milo Roundtree.
He hadn't become a vicious killer.
He what? He was living alone, hiding out somewhere, fighting the blood thirst, that, according to Cody, had to be ravaging him?
Maybe it was true, maybe...
She closed her eyes, willing her breathing to come slow and easy.
C ODY ENTERED THE HOUSE through the front and went from room to room, looking for Alex.
Returning to the entry, he found Beulah and demanded, "She's here, isn't she?"
Beulah nodded. "What's going on, Mr. Fox? Why is she so upset?"
There was no reason to honey-coat his words with Beulah, who always got straight to the point herself. "Her father's grave is empty. We discovered it the other day, but-"
"But no one wanted to tell Alex, and you were sure you had the situation under control," Beulah said tartly. Cody stared at her, and she went on. "Well, you know what, Mr. Fox? I believe if anyone can control what's happening around here, it's you. But that don't mean you can manage Miss Alex."
"Where is she?"
"Up in her room, and you leave her alone right now, Mr. Fox. You can talk to Alex when she's had a chance to calm down a bit and think things out."
Cody frowned suddenly. "Beulah, you haven't had the sense that Eugene's been around here, have you?"
"Why, no!" Beulah protested.
"Beulah? This place is decorated with crosses and garlic."
She raised her chin and answered him with great dignity. "My grandmother was a wise woman, Mr. Fox. She was a slave in Haiti, but she came to the United States during the Haitian Revolution. She taught us things she'd learned back in Africa and things she'd learned from her French master. She knew all about the walking dead. Once Mr. Eugene was gone, I decided we needed to do everything we could to keep this place safe, what with the things going on in Brigsby and Hollow Tree." She sniffed. "Didn't help much the night those filthy scallywags came in here."
"This is a boardinghouse, a public place," Cody said. "But Brendan and I are here now, and we're prepared."
"Prepared?" Beulah said. "Maybe here, but the people of Victory are spread out all over the countryside. All the ranches, all the farms. And there's John Snow's place, and the Apache camp, and...Oh, Lord, Mr. Fox, what would happen if they got into the Apache camp, if they...made those warriors into monsters?"
Cody groaned; she was echoing his own thoughts.
"We won't wait for that to happen. We intend to find Milo and his gang, and exterminate them."
Beulah nodded. "I'm glad to hear that," she said. "For now, you come and sit down and have a nice dinner. You and Mr. Vincent, you're going to be needing your strength. Then you can go and talk to Miss Alex."
COLE AND DAVE PLAYED poker at the saloon, whiling away the time until sunset. The minute the sky began to don its nightly cloak of crimson, Cole grew wary and alert.
They were armed, just as he'd told the entire town to be. Eight bows, eight quivers of arrows and a stack of sharp stakes were at the ready, and garlic and crosses guarded all the doors and windows.
The girls, now that the men of the town were battening down their homes each night, had gotten bored with card games and gossip sessions, and gone upstairs.
Roscoe was sleeping behind the bar until an attack came or it was his turn to stand watch.
Jigs was up and alert, staring at the new saloon doors.
The new doors had just gone up an hour ago; the swinging doors with their implicit welcome had seemed not only inappropriate but an invitation to danger. The wooden doors that had taken their place were rough, not sanded or painted, but they had a bolt that kept them closed. Cole wasn't sure just how much good the new doors would do, given that the saloon was still technically open to the public, but he would take what he could get, and they were as ready as they would ever be.
He was restless, and he tossed his cards down on the table.
"Danged if you didn't beat me again, Cole," Dave said with disgust.
Winning a hand of cards had been the last thing on Cole's mind. He rose and walked over to Jigs. "Jigs, Dave and I are here. You look like you've been rode hard and put away wet, so go to bed and try to get some sleep now in case we need you later."
Jigs looked up at him. "Ain't right, Sheriff. Ought to be me, watching over the place. Me and Roscoe."
Cole set a hand on his shoulder. "Go to bed, Jigs. We'll wake you later, so we can catch some sleep. Now, get to bed or you'll be so tired, you won't be any good to anybody."
Jigs stood and arched his back, stretching. "I guess you're right, Sheriff." He shook his head. "Don't see how this can come to no good end. This town can't make it, everybody hiding all the time. This saloon, those girls...well, we can't survive without customers, you know?"
"We can hold out, Jigs. We got help when those other towns didn't. We'll win. You wait and see."
Jigs might not have believed him, but he was too tired to argue. With a wave of his hand and a muffled "Thank you, Sheriff," he shuffled on up the stairs.
He was so tired, Jigs thought. Dead tired.
He winced at his own choice of words and looked around as if afraid someone might have overheard his thoughts. "Dead" just wasn't a word to be using loosely these days, even in his mind.
He checked his window, which was securely locked, and rearranged the crosses and garlic around it. If anything happened downstairs, the noise would wake him, he knew, so he crashed down on his bed still dressed, boots and all. In two seconds, he was drifting off to sleep.
Jigs liked sleeping lately, thanks to the erotic dreams he'd been having. He didn't have any trouble finding women in Victory because of his mixed ancestry. Hell, not in a whorehouse. But finding love, that was something else again. Truth was, he was ugly, and women didn't cotton to that.
But in his dreams...
In his dreams, she would sneak right into his room, then kind of slink up to the side of his bed. He would open his eyes, and she'd be standing there, smiling. She would put a finger to her lips to warn him to keep quiet, and then she would grin mischievously and start to do things to him.
But enough. Enough to have him panting like a schoolboy as she cuddled up beside him, all lean and sleek, and whispered in his ear. She liked to tease, to nip at his earlobes and caress his neck. He'd feel a pinch now and then, but then she'd start licking him, soothing his flesh, and he would be just about flying out of the bed.
"It's our little secret, Jigs," she would whisper as she left. "I wouldn't want the other girls knowing what a treasure you are. And I sure don't want anyone knowing that I come to you...on the house!" That always made her giggle.
And then she would be gone, leaving him alone in bed to relish the lingering arousal of that dream. He was always so tired afterward, but tired in a way that made him smile. What a fine way for a man to get so exhausted.
He knew they were just dreams...but every man deserved his dreams.
A LEX TRIED TO PICTURE her father. He was a good-looking man, and not so old, only forty-five. His hair was graying, but that only enhanced the character evident in his face. He was straight-backed, broad-shouldered and fit.
She pictured him out on the plain on the last day of his life.
She tried to feel the breeze, the touch of the sun, the glow of the sunset. She imagined the tumbleweeds.
It was a thought. It was a prayer.
But no matter how hard she tried to conjure the image of her father, the picture kept slipping away.
It wasn't fair. He had already come to her once in a vision. Why couldn't she recapture that vision now?
But even as she tried, it was as if dark clouds came roiling through her mind, blocking both the plain and the image of her father.
The darkness was thick, with a life of its own.
Then it began to clear.
She saw a house. A pretty ranch house, and around it there were fields, some of them fenced.
The house was familiar, and she was sure it had been there a long time.
She heard a horse whinny, then another, and knew that there were stables just beyond the house.
Inside there was usually the smell of fresh-baked goods and the laughter of children.
She moved inside in her dream, her vision, and realized that tonight, while it was still early, the children and their mother had gone to bed, while her husband doused the lights. She knew them, she realized. Bill and Dolores Simpson. Poor couple, still mourning their beloved Amy, who'd been like sunshine in the house.
As she watched, Bill finally got into bed, and the house fell silent. Alex could almost feel the depth of their grief, something she knew far too well.
Then she sensed movement in the darkness, and in a moment she saw Dolores rise and get out of bed. She didn't bother with a robe, or even with slippers, just headed for the bedroom door, where she paused briefly and looked back. Bill hadn't moved and appeared to be asleep.
Dolores slipped out of the room, closing the door carefully behind herself, and walked down the hall. She almost seemed to...flow.
She reached the boys' room and stepped inside to assure herself that they were safe. After a moment she walked to the bed where the younger boy, Jared, was asleep and sat at his side.
A creeping feeling of unease swept over Alex, and she fought the dream, but it was no good. She had no choice but to watch as Dolores leaned over her son and clamped a rough hand over his mouth, then drew back her lips, baring her teeth.
No, her fangs.
She threw her head back with an animallike groan of pure pleasure. Then she ducked forward and sank her fangs into the soft flesh of her little boy's neck.