DINNER WAS ALL BUT OVER.
Cody and Brendan were drinking coffee, picking at the last of Beulah's cherry pie, when a blood-curdling scream sounded from the bedroom above.
Cody knocked his chair over as he leaped to his feet.
He raced for the stairs, bounding up the steps in seconds. He didn't knock, didn't hesitate, didn't go through his own room, only burst through the door of Alex's room, ready for anything.
But there was no intruder in sight. She was simply sitting on her bed, barefoot but dressed, staring straight ahead.
He scanned the room, seeking out any danger he might have missed, but no one was there and nothing had been disturbed.
He hurried to her bedside, clasped her shoulders and shook her gently. "Alex, what is it? What happened?"
She blinked and fell silent, staring at him.
She gasped and grabbed his arm. "We have to get out to Bill Simpson's ranch. His wife...the boys." She stared at him, her eyes clear. "I saw it happening, but there may still be time."
She bolted off the bed, searching for her boots. Cody saw that Brendan had followed him and was waiting in the doorway, the rest of the household behind him. Brendan looked at him quizzically and whispered, "Did you tell her?"
Cody knew he was asking if Cody had told Alex about the Simpsons coming to the sheriff's office and wondering whether Alex might be having strange dreams because of that. He shook his head.
"Let's go," he said to Brendan. "We've got to get out there."
"You're not going without me," Alex said.
"Alex, there's no reason to risk-"
"There's every reason. It was my vision, and I want to help you stop it from happening. Levy, you and Bert keep a close eye on the house," Alex said.
"Alex, I'm telling you-" Cody began.
"And I'm telling you we're going to have another child to bury if we don't get out there-fast," Alex said, already putting on her jacket.
Cody was worried that he might be distracted from the fight at a crucial moment by the need to protect Alex, but since she was already heading for the door, he reckoned he had no choice.
"Bert," he said, following Alex, "get over to the saloon and warn the sheriff. This might be a ruse to get us out of town. Be on the alert."
Bert nodded gravely.
"Levy, don't leave the house," Cody said.
"I won't," Levy vowed solemnly.
"Let me lock you all out," Beulah offered. "Tess, Jewell, you girls be ready to defend yourselves."
Alex, familiar with the way out to the ranch, rode in the lead. Cody and Brendan raced just behind her, neck and neck.
Cody glanced up at the sky. Still a few days until the next full moon.
Still a few days before Milo Roundtree would make his final assault.
And still he watched the night sky, leery of what might be afoot. Did Milo know about Alex's strange dreams? Was this a ruse to get them out of town?
Or, worse, to get Alex out of town?
They pulled up at the gates of the farmstead, which had been chained shut. Bill had posted signs that warned, No Trespassing. Trespassers Will Be Shot on Sight.
Cody circled his horse away, then rode hard for the fence and sailed over.
Brendan and Alex followed suit.
As they neared the house, Alex called out, "Bill, it's Alex. Don't shoot. You're in danger, and we've come to help."
Cody didn't waste time waiting for Bill to open the door. He broke it down and strode inside, almost crashing into the man who stood in the hallway, shocked, a shotgun in his hands.
He was obviously debating whether he should be using it or not.
"It's your wife," Cody heard Alex say. "She's sick, Bill."
Cody left them to talk and started checking the rooms.
Dolores was in the second one he tried, sitting on the bed next to one of her sons, her face contorted and her mouth opened unnaturally wide.
Saliva dripped from her fangs as she leaned toward the boy.
Cody flew across the room, tackling her and knocking her off the bed. He straddled her on the floor while she shrieked in fury and swung her fists at him, twisting and turning, trying to sink her fangs into his flesh. By then the boys were awake, shouting, crying.
Jared, who had so nearly just been drained by his mother, raced up behind Cody and started slamming him on the back.
By then, however, the others had come in.
"Bill, get the boys out of here!" Alex cried, then managed to corral Jared, while Bill collected his other son in his arms, looking down at his wife with a combination of horror and fear.
Brendan moved quickly to help Cody, immobilizing Dolores's legs very effectively by sitting on them, leaving Cody free to grapple with her arms-and avoid her fangs. Just as the two men managed to get her under control, Bill burst back into the room.
"Oh, thank God! She's still alive. You can't kill her. But...what on earth is going on?" he demanded.
At the sound of her husband's voice, Dolores went off in another frenzy of rage, kicking, shrieking, trying to free her arms from Cody's grasp.
"Bill, damn it, I don't want to have to kill her," Cody said. "Get me some good strong rope. I'm going to do my best to save her, but I'm not letting her take anyone else down, do you understand?"
Bill nodded jerkily and disappeared.
A minute later he was back with the requested rope. Cody carefully tied her arms and legs while she struggled against Brendan's hold with a maniacal strength. Then the two men hefted Dolores onto the bed and tied her there. All the while, she was straining toward them, fangs snapping as she tried to bite.
"What should we do?" Bill asked anxiously.
"You should get out of here," Cody said softly. "You don't need to see her this way."
Bill stared at Cody, his eyes pleading. "She's my wife. We just lost our little girl."
"I know that, Bill, and I will try to save her. Now, go look after your sons. They need you." As Bill left the room, Cody turned to Brendan and said, "I need my medical kit."
"You're going to give her your blood?" Brendan asked, frowning. "It's too soon after last time, Cody."
"It's all right. I heal quickly."
"Yes. I think. Hell, Brendan, it's this woman's only hope."
Brendan left the room, and Cody leaned against the wall and watched Dolores as she began to slowly return to true consciousness. She closed her eyes and went still, then, a moment later, opened her eyes and looked around. She seemed absolutely mystified by the fact that she was tied to her son's bed.
She stared at Cody. "What-what happened?" she asked.
As he walked toward her, a look of alarm came over her features. "Where are my children? What have you done with my children? Where's my husband?"
"He's all right. The boys are all right. But you've been...infected. You nearly killed your son tonight."
She stared back at him in disbelief, shaking her head. "No," she whispered. But he could tell that she believed him. "No, no, no," she began to moan.
"Dolores, you have to trust me. You have to let me help you. I'm going to give you blood. My blood. It will fight the disease."
"Where's Bill?" she asked plaintively.
"He's right outside. I didn't want him to see you...until you were yourself again."
Tears suddenly filled her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. "Amy. I love my Amy so much. But my boys...how could I hurt my boys?"
"You weren't in your right mind, Dolores. Everything's going to be all right, but I have to keep you tied up for now. I'm going to give you some of my blood, and you can't fight me while I do it. Do you understand?"
"I won't fight you, Mr. Fox," Dolores said. "I promise. Please..." She was suddenly straining against her bonds again, not fighting, but desperate. "I'd rather die than hurt my boys. Please don't let that happen. If I...if I don't...well, if I don't come out of this right...then you've got to kill me. Don't let me put my boys in danger."
Brendan returned with Cody's medical bag. Cody quickly started selecting needles, while Brendan assisted him, arranging the tubing. "Blood transfusion is quite an amazing feat, Dolores," Cody said, trying to keep her calm. "In 1628, an English physician named William Harvey discovered the circulation of blood. Shortly after that, doctors tried the first transfusion, but it wasn't until 1665 that someone was finally successful, and it wasn't even on a person. A physician named Richard Lower kept dogs alive by transfusing them with the blood of other dogs. After that, there were several successes with humans, but because the doctors used animal blood, the law stepped in and it was a hundred and fifty years until we started being able to use human blood to save people's lives."
Cody wasn't sure she was paying any attention to his words, but she seemed to like the sound of his voice. "This is going to sting," he told her.
Dolores let out a little cry as the needle went in. Cody swiftly unstrapped the tourniquets he had tied around her arm and his, allowing his blood to flow into her, as she asked, "Am I going to be all right?"
"We're trying our best," Cody assured her.
Then her eyes closed, and she fell silent.
Cody took a deep breath, clenching and unclenching his fist to keep the blood flowing.
"Cody," Brendan said warningly. "Enough."
Cody nodded. As Brendan put pressure on Dolores's arm and withdrew the needle, Cody tended to himself.
"What do you think?" Brendan asked anxiously. "Does she have a chance?"
"There's always a chance," Cody replied grimly. "We'll just have to wait and see."
MILO ROUNDTREE PACED beneath the trees, his shoulders squared, his expression hard. Nasty.
The woman squared her own shoulders and approached him. "You sent for me," she said. "But you could have just come to me. You had no problem with that before."
He cast her a cold glance that sent chills racing through her.
"I'm not risking myself to come to you."
She stiffened. How the story changed. She remembered his original seduction so well.
She'd never stood a chance against his blandishments and promises. She had believed that he adored her, needed her, wanted her, and that she would be a queen among a new race, who were strong enough to take everything they wanted. To rule the world.
"All right," she said crisply. "What do you want?"
"Why is everything taking so long?" he demanded. "They'll be hunting-by day-very soon now, if they aren't already."
She laughed. "Cody Fox and Brendan Vincent. Two men, and you're afraid, when you've gathered so many around you?"
Milo looked uncharacteristically thoughtful for a moment. "There's something...Cody Fox isn't a normal man." He shook his head. "Never mind. That's my affair. What's happening in town?"
"In town? Things are going very well. I've already turned many people, and soon I'll have turned even more," she said proudly. "Now, as to the Apache camp...I've heard it's quiet now. And I haven't heard about the family turning on itself out at Calico Jack's, either. But I've already started infiltrating the ranches. I've done as you desired. I haven't failed."
He grasped her suddenly, his strength terrifying, and wrenched her to him. "I made you, my love. And I can destroy you."
"I have done as you desired," she repeated, trying not to shake. He was so powerful, and she'd seen the way, when he was displeased, he turned on his own.
He released her so suddenly that she almost fell, but she caught herself, straightened and stood very still.
"We'll see about the ranches," he told her.
"By tonight," he said. "I will know."
She kept her distance as she said, "If you don't want to come yourself, send anyone you want to check on me. They'll see that I can manage my end of any deal."
She saw that she had angered him. Good. She had meant to. She wanted to tell those foolish idiots following him that he was selfish, and a coward. He would cheerfully risk others' lives, but never his own, letting the townsfolk shoot down his minions, those he had seduced into doing his bidding.
And she was, she knew, expendable.
He walked over to her, but she held her ground, staring at him with hard, knowing eyes.
His arm shot out, and he slapped her. Hard. So hard that she fell to the dirt.
"Remember this, and remember it well. I made you, and I can destroy you. I made you, and I gave you power-I didn't leave you to rot, or survive off rats and vermin in the woods. Cross me, fail me, and I will break you."
She sat in the dirt, loathing him.
Then he was gone.
A LEX HAD GATHERED BILL and the boys in the kitchen, where she had Bill light the kerosene lamps and the gas stove, and she'd made hot chocolate. He had politely thanked her, but he seemed numb as he drank his hot chocolate.
Now he rummaged around until he found a bottle of whiskey he apparently kept hidden in a cabinet.
"I don't understand-what are those men doing to my mom?" Jared demanded suddenly, breaking the silence.
"You're old enough now to understand," Bill said. "Your baby sister-she was...diseased. And she managed to give the disease to your mama. It's vam-pire-ism, they said. Mr. Fox is trying to...to..."
"He's going to kill her!" Jared exploded. "He's going to kill my mother."
Alex looked at Bill, then walked over and hunkered down by Jared's chair. "Jared, you're wrong. Cody is trying to help her, to get her back to being the woman she was, the one who loves you."
"Hell, son," Bill said, "your mama nearly ripped your throat out."
Jared swallowed hard. "But she's still my mama."
Bill nodded and started pacing.
Suddenly, Cody appeared in the doorway. She thought he looked pale, and unsteady on his feet. How much blood could he give away in a matter of days and still survive himself?
"Cody?" she whispered.
She picked up a clean cup and filled it with hot chocolate, then handed it to him without a word.
"How's Dolores?" Bill asked, his eyes filled with fear.
"She's hanging in," Cody said.
"Can the boys and I see her?" Bill asked.
Cody nodded. "For a few minutes. But...I'm sorry. Don't untie her yet. We need to see if the treatment was successful."
Bill nodded as the boys shoved past him, already running down the hall.
Cody waited until they were gone, then practically fell into one of the chairs at the breakfast table, his legs stretched before him.
Alex took a seat across from him, watching him intently. "Is she going to be all right?"
"I don't know."
"Is there...is there really a possibility?"
"Yes," he said, and offered her a half smile. But then his eyes grew serious. "If she is all right-same as this whole household-it's thanks to you. How often do you have these...dreams, or visions or whatever they are?"
Alex shrugged uncomfortably. "Not often, though...more often lately. In the past, I've tried to use what I learn to help people, but discreetly. I wound up in trouble when I was living in Washington. Arrested, actually. Luckily, both the president and his wife seem to believe in dreams, so I made it back out here."
"Abraham Lincoln is a good man. I feel sorry for Mary, though."
He leaned toward her. "Alex, you have to tell me everything you see. That you dream. It's crucial."
She nodded. "I do tell you everything."
"I'm not so certain. Alex, your father is out there somewhere."
She shook her head passionately, needing him to believe her. "I refuse to believe that he's a monster. Haven't you ever heard of any one...having the disease and not becoming a killer? Ever? It's got to be possible."
He looked away so she couldn't look in his eyes and see the thought running through his mind, a thought he wasn't going to share with her. "Alex, there have been some unusual cases where a person hadn't fully made the transition into being a vampire-that's why we could save April Snow, and why we may be able to save Dolores. But...your father was attacked weeks ago. We don't know who killed him, but we do know that he was buried and he isn't in his grave. Alex, you can't take any chances, even if he comes looking for you. That's a vampire's strategy. Amy was able to lure her mother out because she knew her mother loved her. I'm afraid that your father will do the same thing, and that you won't have the strength to fight him."
She straightened in her chair, drawing away from him. "And I'm afraid that you won't give me a chance to prove I'm right about my father. No one has ever seen him with Milo, you know."
Cody lifted his hands. "We haven't seen half of what Milo's got yet. We haven't found his lair. And he took down two whole towns, along with God only knows how many wagons and carriages and even wagon trains."
"My father isn't with him," she insisted.
"Alex, this is what I know. We killed a good number of Milo's men when they attacked Victory, but he will attack again. Right now he's trying to get to people through trickery and seduction. Look at what happened with Dolores. If he could have turned her, she would have killed her whole family. Or maybe she would have turned the boys-they would make fine soldiers for his army. And he's going to keep on doing the same thing, using whoever he can to infect the living. Then, when he's weakened the town, when he has it on its knees, he'll attack again. And this time he'll feast, just like a king enjoying the spoils of war."
Alex was about to reply when Brendan suddenly appeared in the doorway. "Cody, I think you need to come," he said.
Cody rose immediately, and Alex followed him down the hallway to Dolores's room.
The boys were curled up next to their mother on the bed, Bill Simpson on his knees by her side.
Dolores's eyes were open again, and when she turned her gaze toward Cody, she seemed to be clear and rational, but when she spoke, her voice was filled with tension.
"They're near...I can feel them," she said.
"I don't know what she's talking about," Bill said, looking at Cody with a worried expression.
"I do," Cody said, crossing the room to the bed. "Come on, boys. We've got to get you and your mother someplace safe."
"What?" Bill demanded.
"She can feel the vampires coming. We've got to get somewhere safe."
"You have to untie her," Bill said.
"Not yet," Cody said firmly.
"But...we're in danger!" Bill Simpson said.
"And there's still a thread connecting her and the vampires. I'm sorry, but we can't take any chances. Now, do you have a cellar? Anything underground with a good strong latch?"
"The storm cellar," Bill said.
"We've got to get your wife down there, along with the boys," Cody said.
"Okay, come on," Bill agreed. "I'll show you."
They had to leave the house to reach the storm cellar. Alex shivered as they walked outside. The very tenor of the night had changed since their arrival.
The wind had picked up and almost seemed to moan.
She stood on the porch, feeling the air and looking up at the sky. A streak of red crossed that dark, star-filled canvas, like a warning written in blood.
"Alex!" Cody shouted to her.
Suddenly the wolves started to howl, sharp and shrill, like a wail of anguish in the night.
"Alex!" Cody repeated more loudly.
She hurried toward the storm cellar, frowning. Brendan was already beside the horses, procuring their weapons. He had a row of stakes lined up against the balustrade of the front porch and was armed with two revolvers, along with a bow and arrows, and he had laid out additional bows and arrows for Cody-and one more fighter.
She reached Cody. He'd carried Dolores Simpson into the cellar, still tied up. The boys were down there with her. Bill was standing next to him, like a man caught in the midst of a situation he still couldn't believe.
"You have to get down there," Cody told her.
"No, I'm better off up here. I can fight-I fought them the other night."
"Someone has to stay with Dolores," Cody argued.
"She has her sons."
"No. Milo still has influence over her through Amy, and they could be convinced to let her go," Cody insisted.
"Send Bill down," Alex argued.
"Bill will be just as vulnerable," Cody said, his tone growing more forceful as the wind continued to rise and the wolves to howl.
"Someone needs to get the hell down there!" Brendan cried out. "I can see them coming now!"
"I won't let her get to me, by God, I swear I won't," Bill Simpson declared. He was down the hatch and into the cellar in two seconds; the hatch closed, and they heard it lock.
"Alex, get up on the porch-at least your back will be protected. Brendan, you go left, and I'll take the right," Cody commanded.
Alex saw the wisdom of his plan and raced to obey him. She saw that the two men were already taking aim, their arrows pointed toward heaven.
The sky...a deeper darkness was forming there. A darkness that moved, hiding the moon, whose light should have sifted down to illuminate the yard.
"Be ready. They're close," Cody said.
BILL S IMPSON HELD HIS wife's shoulders while the boys sat tensely, just feet away. He wished he could cover his ears against the howling of the wolves.
Suddenly, beneath him, Dolores began to move. She looked up at him, smiling, a coquettish look in her eyes.
"They're coming, Bill. You have to let me go."
He shook his head, instantly afraid.
"Oh, Bill. They can give us things you can't imagine. Virility and youth. If you would just let me go, Bill, you would know. You would remember."
He did remember. He enjoyed remembering the days when they were young, when they had kissed every chance they got. When they had first been intimate.... Somehow her words made him think back to hot nights, sweaty limbs and illicit ecstasy under the stars. They'd always intended marriage...but now he remembered, with a feeling of rather delicious wickedness, how they had dared to anticipate their vows.
"Dad?" Jared said worriedly.
Bill shook his head firmly. "It's all right. We do as Cody said."
Dolores let out a cry of rage and rocked hard against him, baring her teeth, straining to reach him.
Bill drew back from her in horror.
He knew he had to do something, but he was frozen in horror, watching his wife twist and turn and convulse.
And seek to pierce him with teeth that had become fangs again.
"Dad!" Jared cried in horror.
Bill looked at his son. Amy was gone, and now the boys were seeing their mother turn into a monster.
"Forgive me, Dolores," he whispered, then gave her a good upward punch to the jaw.
A sigh escaped her, and all the fight drained from her body as she lapsed into unconsciousness.
The wolves fell suddenly silent as the shadows drew near.
The men were ready. They had taken aim.
Alex followed suit.
Cody's arrow flew first. Seconds later, they heard a shriek in the night. Brendan fired off the next arrow, and Alex snapped into motion herself, nocking an arrow into place.
Another arrow sailed, followed by another thump and a scream, but Brendan's next shot apparently missed its mark. Alex let her own arrow fly, and a thing fell to the ground and started crawling toward them. One of the others hit it again, at close range, and it lay still.
She saw with a shudder that the monster had once been a man.
A smell of decay rose as the thing flapped around for a few seconds, then dissolved into a putrid mass of blackened rot.
After that the night came alive with a mass of screaming shadows, wings flapping and arrows flying so fast that Alex no longer had any sense of which were hers, and which were Cody's and Brendan's. Then several of the creatures managed to alight.
Cody tossed aside his bow and arrow and reached for the sword hanging at his side, stepping out to meet them as they approached. His swing was powerful, dispatching heads and cleaving through torsos.
Alex caught sight of movement and shouted, "Brendan!"
One of the creatures was slithering through the darkness by his side, seemingly a shadow and nothing more, so stealthily did it move.
Brendan swung around to face it as he drew a stake from inside his jacket and drove it into the shadow, all in one smooth motion.
A second later, there was nothing to see of it but ash.
The wolves began howling again, a terrible sound that rang in evil harmony with the shrill screams that cleft the night.
Then, as if a mass of migrating birds had suddenly taken flight, she heard the sound of wings beating the air, rising high.
The yard was strewn with...ashes. Body parts. Corpses in various stages of decomposition.
The three of them stood dead still as sounds of battle began to fade.
A lone wolf howled, and then that sound, too, faded away.
At last Cody said, "It's over. For tonight, at least."