A LEX WORRIED the whole way as they rode back to town, but Cody had insisted that they could do so safely, that there would be no more attacks that night.
The Simpsons were with them, because Cody had refused to leave them alone at the ranch. Bill had worried about his herd, but Cody had told him bluntly that if they didn't put an end to the vampires within the next few days, the herd was going to be the least of his problems.
For a while, as they rode, Alex checked the sky. But she never saw that strange streak of crimson again, and not a single wolf howled at the moon, so she finally had to agree with Cody's reading of the situation.
When they got back to Victory, Cody left Brendan to herd the others into the boardinghouse and walked over to the saloon to see how things had gone in town and fill the others in on the events at the Simpson ranch.
Beulah seemed to find nothing strange in the fact that they suddenly had four new boarders-nonpaying boarders, at that. She sent Tess and Jewell upstairs right away to prepare rooms.
Dolores, however, wouldn't be sleeping upstairs that night. She was going to lie on the couch in the parlor, and someone would keep watch over her until dawn. When, a few minutes later, someone suggested untying her so she could sleep more easily, Bill, his expression sad but his tone determined, was the first to protest. "No. We can loosen the bonds a little, but...she's not to be trusted yet."
"You need some rest, Bill," Brendan told him. "I'll take first watch."
"I can do it."
They hadn't seen Cody enter, yet there he was.
"Cody, damn it, you don't have to do everything," Brendan told him. "I'll take first shift."
"Second," Bert volunteered.
"And Lord knows, we won't need a third shift, 'cuz it'll be morning by then," Beulah said. "And with all these mouths to feed come sunup, I'm going to bed." She started to leave the parlor, then hesitated and turned, looking at Alex. "You need your rest, too. Brendan and Bert have this covered. The rest of us need to sleep. And that's that."
"Yes, Beulah," Alex said. She was exhausted.
Still, she couldn't help looking at Cody before she left.
He was already looking at her.
"Good night, all," she said, and headed for the stairs.
In her room, she waited. She heard Cody enter his room and barely dared breathe as she heard something heavy being set down. His gun, she imagined.
She waited, tense, her hands clenched at her sides.
Then, at last...
There was a tap on the connecting door. She flew to it, opened it and threw her arms around him, drawing him in.
He kissed her. Hard and deep, and with no sign of weariness. His arms were strong and reassuring as he lifted her against him. She wrapped her legs around him as they walked over to the bed, where he fell to the mattress with her.
They rolled to face each other. "I was afraid..." she began, but then her voice faded.
"Afraid?" he asked gently.
"Afraid that you wouldn't come, that...oh, Cody, my father, everything that happened...the dreams...I know I'm not normal, and I know we don't have forever, you've made that clear, but I want what we have now. I-"...
He pressed a finger to her mouth to silence her and smiled deeply, as if she'd given him a tremendous gift. "Alex...trust me. None of us are normal. Some of us are just farther away than others. Nothing you can do or say could keep me away right now, unless you say that you don't want me-and even then, I'd still be here, protecting you, wanting you...."
"I want you here," she assured him, breathless, then stroked his check, threaded her fingers through his hair and marveled that he was there with her, and that he felt the same fever she did. He leaned down, capturing her lips, and she felt his fingers fumbling with the buttons on her shirt.
Their kiss, damp, wild and sloppy, was broken by their desire to be rid of the clothing that separated them. They pulled apart, and in moments they were on the bed again, naked flesh against naked flesh. She reveled in the heat that filled her, the energy, the need to get even closer to him.... It seemed like eons since they had been together this way. His eyes met hers with a sensual glitter. And tenderness. She reached out, capturing his head, drawing his mouth back to hers. Whatever inhibitions she might have had were swept away. She caressed his flesh and trembled at the erotic onslaught each time he touched her in return. His eagerness to savor each taste of her was palpable as he pressed his mouth against her, lips first, and then thighs, hips, abdomen, and then...She nearly howled like a wildcat in the night herself, but then she remembered that her house was full and bit down on her lip. She saw his shadow against the wall as he rose over her, then sank into her in a moment of ecstasy as he thrust fully and deeply home. The stars themselves seemed to enter the room, bursting in the night as she writhed and undulated to his rhythm, so close...reaching...easing...reaching...and finally climaxing in an explosion that was somehow both shattering and sweet, volatile and tender, as he wrapped his arms around her. His lips found hers again, and the kiss deepened as they eased down from the heights of sensual pleasure.
He rolled to her side, pulling her against him, but he didn't speak.
She was amazed when her eyes began to close. The feel of his hand, stroking her hair, was soothing and lulling. The warmth of his body, spooned around hers, was secure.
She drifted off to sleep. To sleep, and not to dream.
Just as she was reaching that nether region between the world of wakefulness and that of sleep, she thought she heard him whisper.
And just a few words.
"If only it could be forever."
A LEX WOKE UP EARLY the next morning, but it didn't matter. Cody was already up and gone. She washed and dressed quickly, and hurried downstairs.
Bursting into the dining room, she was startled by the normality of the domestic scene that greeted her eyes. The Simpsons were seated at the table. All of them. Cody and Brendan were there, too, and Brendan was talking to Bill about the situation back East, while Cody was telling Jared about his experiences in medical school.
The men all stood as they realized she had entered the room.
"Good morning, Alex," Cody said.
"Good morning, everyone," she responded, then walked to her chair, just as Beulah entered from the kitchen.
"Well, there you are. Breakfast is warm and ready to be served. It's lovely, having the table filled, now isn't it?"
Dolores Simpson was still pale, but her color was much better than it had been, and her eyes were clear. Someone had untied her and allowed her to clean up for the meal. She looked at each one of them in turn and said, "I can't thank all of you enough for what you're doing for me, for my family."
"It's a pleasure to have you here," Alex said. "And to see you looking so well."
"I-I only remember a little of what happened. It's all like a-a nightmare," Dolores said, flushing and looking downward to work her napkin nervously with her fingers. She looked up again. "I'm still so afraid." She straightened. "Not of dying. We're set on this earth to die. I'm afraid of-of turning into a monster."
Jared rose from his chair and hurried around the table to her. "You're not going to become a monster, Mother. We won't let it happen." He looked around the room, as if challenging anyone to disagree with him.
She hugged her son, and Alex smiled, then saw that Cody was watching them, too, something wistful in his eyes.
"Well, now, that's that, so let's eat, shall we?" Brendan suggested.
Just as they started eating, they heard a commotion in the street. Horses coming into town, lots of them, and that meant lots of riders. Milo's men? Alex wondered with a shiver.
Cody was out of his seat first, warning the others to stay back as he hurried to the front door, though Alex noted that he seemed more concerned than alarmed.
It was Tall Feather, she saw with relief through the open door as she stepped up behind Cody, ignoring his order to stay put. The chief had brought a party of nine warriors and two extra horses bearing packs made of blankets.
As Tall Feather slipped down from his horse to greet Cody, she saw Cole coming out of his office, with Dave just a few steps behind him.
In fact, all over town, people were coming out to stand on their porches or the plank sidewalk. Jim Green even came closer to watch the action.
"Tall Feather," Cody said, nodding in greeting.
"Fox," Tall Feather returned gravely. "We have been doing what you instructed. And we have brought something back for you. Last night, as dusk approached, they came. Different from what we had seen before." His eyes misted; Alex was sure he was thinking of his daughter. But he stood tall and proud as he spoke. "They attacked us in a large number, but we were ready. Laughing Man was killed, to our great sorrow, but we dealt with him as we must. But this...travesty we have brought you-these are two of those we killed last night," Tall Feather said, indicating the piles on the packhorses.
Cody looked at Tall Feather, then walked around to the packhorses. Cole arrived then, and greeted Tall Feather with respect. He set a hand on Cody's arm. "Go carefully," he said softly, nodding toward the gathering crowd of townspeople. "A lot of these folks had kin in Brigsby and Hollow Tree."
Cody nodded as he carefully moved the first blanket.
Alex had walked around for a better view, and she felt her stomach pitch downward.
The first corpse belonged to a young woman, just about Alex's age. She was missing part of her face, and her body was bloated and gray. She was lying next to an elderly man, and next to him, there was a teenage boy.
They heard a hoarse cry from down the street. Alex looked up to see Jim Green, his mouth opened in horror, running toward them.
"The boy. I have to see the boy!" he said. He pushed his way past them, grabbing the corpses, which fell to the ground.
The throats had been slit so deeply that the heads were nearly severed. Each corpse had been staked, leaving a hole through the heart like a double-barrel-shotgun blast.
Jim fell to the ground by the bodies, crying out, "No, no, no, oh, no. It's my nephew. I was afraid, but I didn't want to believe...."
Alex started over to him, then paused. Dolores was already on the way, a set and yet sympathetic look on her face. She rested her hands on his shoulders. "Come away, Jim. I know how you're feeling, and you know that-you know how I loved Amy. But this is the right and fitting thing for them. They're not under the control of that demon from hell anymore. Now your nephew can be buried in hallowed ground. Sheriff Cole will see to it that he's tended to. You come away now and have some coffee, and don't be looking at things that will just break your heart. Come on with me."
She managed to pull Jim away, and Beulah joined her, putting an arm around his shoulders and leading him into the boardinghouse.
"I am sorry for the pain this brings," Tall Feather said. "But we thought we must bring you those who were once your people."
"You did the right thing," Cody said.
Alex went up to speak to the chief as Cody walked over to talk to the sheriff. "Chief, do you-do you know any of the dead yourself?"
He looked down at her with his dark, wise eyes. "No, Alex, your father is not among the dead we have brought."
She stepped back. She saw that Cole and Cody had walked over to the second packhorse and lifted the blanket from the bodies. They eased the dead down to the ground, more easily than Jim had done. Alex thought she recognized a barber from Hollow Tree, but he was so discolored and bloated that she couldn't be sure.
She hadn't seen Dave leave, but he came down the street just then, driving a flatbed wagon. He stepped down and hitched the horses to the rail, and then he and the others began lifting the corpses, laying them out on the wagon bed.
"Tall Feather," she said, trying not to watch, "may we offer some refreshment to you and your men?"
He shook his head. "We thank you for letting us know we are welcome, but today we must go back to our people. We cannot leave the camp alone and unprotected."
"I understand," she said.
Tall Feather easily mounted his paint stallion by gripping the mane and throwing his leg over the animal's back. He was aging, but his agility was undiminished.
He bade a solemn farewell, and then he and his warriors turned, loping their ponies out of town.
When they were gone, Brendan turned to Cody. "We need to go," he said quietly.
"You have to go?" Alex asked. "Where?"
"We'll be back long before dusk," Cody promised. "No need to worry."
"Cody, you didn't answer me," Alex said. "Where are you going?"
"Out to the plain," he said. "There are some...signs I need to find. Signs that can lead me to Milo Roundtree's hideaway." He paused for a moment. They had an audience. Jim Green, Beulah and Dolores had gone inside, but Tess and Jewell were still hovering on the porch with Bert and Levy, and Dave and Cole were still standing beside the wagon.
Cody looked as if he wanted to say something to her, but he didn't speak.
"I should go with you," Alex said into the silence.
"No, you need to stay here," Cody said, and turned away. A moment later he and Brendan walked quickly toward the stables.
Alex started to follow, but Bert set a heavy hand on her shoulder and drew her aside, making certain none of the others could hear when he said, "Alexandra Gordon, what is wrong with you? Do you want to get that boy killed?"
She turned quickly to him. "Bert, I can help."
"You can help best by staying right here."
She turned and went into the house, furious but inwardly acknowledging that he was right.
THEY REACHED Hollow Tree in a few hours.
They had come heavily armed, but when they reached the center of town, Cody held still, a sinking feeling in his heart.
The town felt empty.
He turned to Brendan, who was looking haggard. This was where his family had lived. There was no doubt now. Hollow Tree was a ghost town. Tumbleweeds swept down the street, and nothing more.
Brendan dismounted in silence. "Let's do this. If anything is left crawling around, we've got to put it out of its misery-and prevent the same thing happening to anyone else."
Cody nodded, and Brendan started toward one of the buildings, his coat shoved behind his holster, a stake in his hand, his bow and quiver of arrows hung over his back.
"Brendan," Cody said, and Brendan stopped, his back to his friend.
"Maybe I should do this alone."
Brendan swung around. "I'll be all right. Really, what are the chances we'll find that my brother and his wife were the ones left here to...to feed on rodents? I say we move. Together. Come on."
Cody joined him.
Hollow Tree had been built according to much the same plan as Victory, Brigsby and dozens of other small towns that serviced the ranches and farms in the vastness of Texas. The sheriff's office was at one end of town, and the saloon was on the opposite side of the street at the other.
Hollow Tree had a small but fine church, however, at the corner of Main Street and what might have become a thriving cross street, had the town been given a chance to grow.
There was a barber shop right next to the sheriff's office, along with a general mercantile, a haberdashery and a place that had been called Miss Lola's Boutique. There were a pharmacy and a bank on the other side of the street. A fellow named Dr. Bernard Pritchard had set up his practice in town, along with James Jones, Esquire, Attorney at Law. Cody also saw a livery, a saddle maker and a blacksmith.
One by one, they started going through the buildings. Most were completely deserted, but a few contained corpses, human corpses, along with several decapitated vampires. Apparently someone in Hollow Tree had figured out how to fight the creatures, but if he had survived, he was no longer around.
Cody had been convinced that this was where Milo was holing up, so he searched every building with painstaking thoroughness. He looked for storm cellars, thinking of the way Bill Simpson and his family had taken shelter the night before, but they found nothing. He opened every closet in every building, businesses and residences alike, including the aptly called Hollow Tree Lodging House.
In small print beneath the name were the words Families Welcome. Not anymore, he thought grimly.
It was when they were nearly finished with the task at hand that they suddenly heard the loud slamming of a door. They stopped dead and looked at each other.
The sound had come from the church.
A LEX WAS CONVINCED SHE couldn't spend another minute in the house without going crazy.
In her effort to make sure that their guests didn't sit around dwelling on the troubles in their lives, Beulah had set the Simpsons to work; they were busily sharpening brooms, mops and any appropriate household utensil into a stake. The archery targets were still set up, and Bert had promised that when they finished with burial detail, he would be back to help the boys practice.
Jim Green had rallied quickly and was angry now. He wanted revenge. He, too, was happy to sharpen brooms and think about getting some target practice in, as well.
Alex managed to slip out to the stables. She didn't bother saddling Cheyenne; she leaped up on the horse the way Tall Feather had, then urged the mare along the carriage trail beside the house before hesitating. She didn't want to put anyone in danger-especially herself-and she didn't want to worry anyone, but she couldn't sit there in the house anymore.
She decided to help with the burial detail and called through one of the windows to tell Beulah where she was going, hoping to avoid giving the other woman a chance to protest.
Of course, Beulah tried to get one in, anyway.
"Alex Gordon, why on earth would you want to do that? You really ought to be-"
Alex didn't hear the rest.
She was already riding out.
She could see the men working as she rode closer, struggling because the ground out here was hard.
But a few of the townspeople had pitched in, and they seemed to be making as quick a task of it as possible.
Alex flicked the reins across Cheyenne's neck, and the mare took off, delighting in stretching her legs as she galloped across the open land between the graveyard and the town.
Cole looked up, resting his hands on his shovel as she drew near, slowing her mare.
"You should be at home," he said wearily.
"I came to see if I could help."
A flicker of amusement crossed his face. "What, you think you can dig faster than these men and me?"
She flushed. "No." She slid down from Cheyenne's back, tied the mare to the fence and walked over to him.
The corpses had been taken from the wagon and were lined up on the ground, covered with blankets.
The breeze blew a strand of hair into her eyes and she swept it aside, looking at Cole. "Did you know any of them?"
"Yeah," he said. "The doc is there, and a young fellow named Sam Birch, who was starting up a newspaper. But there's one corpse...no. He might have been passing through or something. Looks like a Latin gentleman. None of us knew him."
Alex sighed. "The doc-I remember him. I saw him a few times when I got sick...and when I broke my fingers once."
"He was a right fine man," Cole said.
"And Jim Green's nephew..." she murmured. "I really would like to help. I can't dig better or faster than anyone, but-"
Before she could say more, she noticed that Cole was looking past her. She heard hoofbeats and swung around to see who was coming.
Three riders were heading their way.
Linda Gordon, Dolly and Sherry Lyn, from the saloon.
"Great," Cole muttered.
The women slid down from their horses and walked over. They looked awkward-except for Linda, who seemed to be in charge, even though Dolly was the madam.
Linda walked straight to the fence and accosted Cole.
"We need to see the corpses, Sheriff."
"Linda, please. No one needs to see those corpses," Cole said. "Go home."
Linda nodded toward Alex. "You let my stepdaughter in," she pointed out. "Girls, come on. It's our right to see the dead."
Cole's jaw tightened, and he shook his head.
"Cole, please..." Sherry Lyn said. "There was someone...I had a man, an old friend from back East, and he was coming out to see me. I...he didn't care what I'd been doing. Please."
"Sherry Lyn, if you cared about him, you don't want to see him," Cole said.
"I have to, Cole," she said. "His name is Carlos Ramiro, and...I have to know. I have to see...."
Cole fell silent then, and he made no protest as they walked around to the gate, where the other men greeted them politely, tipping their hats.
No one tried to stop them, only watched as Linda walked straight over to the row of bodies. She pulled back each blanket in turn until she got to the fourth corpse and went still.
Sherry Lyn suddenly let out a cry that was horrified, mournful, and full of the worst agony and loss imaginable. Then she fell to her knees and crawled over to the corpses.
"Sherry Lyn, no!" Dolly cried in dismay.
But Sherry Lyn wasn't to be deterred. She reached for the body of the man Cole had assumed to be a traveler and wailed, "It's him. Oh, God, it's him!"
She started to reach for the corpse, moving to hold him as if he were a soldier, dead in battle.
"No!" Cole called out, racing over to her.
But he was too late.
As Sherry Lyn clutched the body, the head went rolling away, and blank brown eyes stared sightlessly up to heaven.