L INDA DRAGGED the sobbing Sherry Lyn away from the body and held her comfortingly.
Everyone else stood there staring, clearly feeling uncomfortable.
Who would have guessed that a whore like Sherry Lyn would have been in love with a stranger none of them had even known existed?
Cole walked over to the girls, Alex at his heels, and patted Sherry Lyn on the back while she cried on Linda's shoulder. "There, there," he said ineffectually. "I'm sorry you had to see this. Linda will take you on back now. Roscoe can give you a double shot of whiskey, and maybe you'll be able to sleep for a bit."
Linda stared at him. "Whiskey and sleep. Think that will cure her, do you?"
"Please, Linda, take her back. It's no good her standing here with his...with the bodies...oh, come on, please. Let us get back to seeing them properly buried and have mercy on Sherry Lyn and get her out of here."
Linda glared at him but apparently saw his point. "Ladies, let's get home. Sherry Lyn, you need to lie down, and I want to check the place and make sure we'll be safe." She glanced at Cole. "Not that you don't make us feel safe. It's just that...seems like everything's on edge, like we're waiting for something to happen."
"It's always good to be alert-and do everything in your power to make sure you're not taken by surprise," Cole said.
Linda looked at him and nodded again.
"If Sherry Lyn is too upset to ride, I can take her back in the wagon, Cole," Dave said.
Alex opened her mouth, hoping to quickly distract Sherry Lyn from thoughts of the wagon-the wagon that had carried her lover's corpse to its final resting place.
But she was too late. Sherry Lyn took one look at the wagon and burst into tears again.
"What did I say?" Dave asked, as Alex stared accusingly at him.
"Come on," Alex said forcefully, slipping an arm through Sherry Lyn's. "I want to get out of here myself," she said. "Let's leave the men to their digging. I'd love a drink right now, a big swig of whiskey."
She walked to the gate, at first more or less dragging Sherry Lyn. But Linda helped, and between them, they managed to get Sherry Lyn out to where the horses were tethered, and she grew more malleable once they were outside the confines of the cemetery.
As they rode back toward town, Linda glanced over at Alex. "Very decent of you," she said.
Alex studied Linda's face. There was a curve to her lips that might have been a smile-or might have been a mocking smirk. The woman was difficult to read.
She nodded and rode ahead, not in the mood to try to figure out the stranger her father had married.
They reached the saloon and entered through the heavy new wooden doors-which weren't locked, Alex noted.
But it was daytime, and the fact that a saloon was open to the public meant, according to Cody, that it was more easily accessible to vampire intrusion than a private home, where only friends were invited in. Open to the public-just like her boardinghouse.
Roscoe was behind the bar, lining up shot glasses, and at the sound of the doors opening and the girls entering, he was so startled that he sent one flying into the air. He caught it swiftly, looking embarrassed.
"Hey, Roscoe," Alex said.
Linda laughed softly. "You could have locked the door," she told him.
"It's daytime, and someone might have come in. Someone with money who wanted to pay for a drink," he said, then frowned darkly when he noticed Sherry Lyn's tear-stained face. "More bad news?" he asked glumly.
"She knew one of the dead men the Indians brought in," Linda told him.
"Roscoe, we'd all like whiskey, please," Alex said.
He stared at her curiously for a moment, then shrugged. "Sure. Whiskey all around. On the house. What the hell else have we got to do?"
Like the others, Alex slid up on a bar stool. Once the shots were poured, Linda lifted her glass. "Cheers to us-at least we're still standing. And we might as well drink, just like the old Europeans as the plague swept away half the population."
"Linda!" Sherry Lyn said, horrified.
"Oh, Sherry Lyn, I am sorry for your loss, but we've got to remember that we're still alive. And if we've made it this far, we might just survive this thing all the way. Drink up, ladies!"
Then she looked at Alex, smiled mysteriously and downed her shot in one quick motion.
Feeling as if she were being challenged for some inexplicable reason, Alex did the same.
THE TWO MEN HURRIED toward the church, identified by a sign out front as the Plains Episcopal Church of Hollow Tree.
Cody, alert and ready, strode up the steps with Brendan at his heels. He strong-armed the door-and found that it was securely locked.
"Cody, something's not right here," Brendan said. "This is a house of worship. How could a creature like Milo Roundtree have gotten in here?"
"I don't know, but someone-or something-is in there," Cody said. "You heard the noise, same as I did."
"Maybe you shouldn't have started by trying to bang the door down," Brendan suggested.
"And how else were we supposed to get in?" Cody asked, but privately he was irritated with himself, because who-or whatever was in there couldn't help knowing about their presence by now.
"We could try knocking," Brendan said.
"Knocking? Why the hell-"
Too late. Brendan had already rapped heavily on the door.
Cody groaned and stepped back. There was a small casement window-stained glass, and bloodred in the sunlight on the second story, directly above the door, and someone was looking out, his identity hidden by the thick colored glass.
The window opened a crack, and to Cody's amaze ment, a man in ecclesiastical garments peered out at them. "Who are you?" he demanded.
"My name is Cody Fox, and this is Brendan Vincent," he said. "We're trying to hunt down the men who destroyed this town."
The priest glared at him. "Go out into the street and stand directly beneath the sun."
They did as ordered.
"This isn't a great test," Brendan called out to the man. "They don't go out a lot in daylight, because they don't have much strength then. But that doesn't mean they can't go out during the day."
Cody elbowed him. "What the hell did you tell him that for?"
"If we lie, he won't let us in, and it's important that we talk to the man, don't you think?" Brendan asked.
But from his vantage point above them, the priest was watching carefully, and he apparently had his own way of determining the truth about their alive-or-dead status.
"I'm coming down," he said, and the window closed with a snap.
"See? Honesty. It's the best policy," Brendan said.
They heard a rasping sound as they walked back up the church steps-evidently something heavy had been blocking the door. A second later, the door opened and the priest, a heavy cross hung around his neck, stared out at them.
He was about thirty years old, blond and blue-eyed, but his features, and the sharpness of his expression, indicated that he was intelligent and had great strength of purpose.
"Come in," he said.
A small group of people was standing behind the piano in the nave: a blond boy of about sixteen, a man in his mid-forties, a woman of about sixty, and another who appeared to be in her twenties.
Cody stared at them for a moment, then turned to the priest and asked, "How the hell did you manage to survive?"
Brendan elbowed him. "Cody, this is a church," he whispered.
That brought a smile to the priest's lips. "A church in the midst of hell. I prayed that you would come...."
"You prayed that-we-would come?" Brendan asked.
"That help would come," the priest said. He offered his hand. "I'm Father Joseph. Back there we have Timmy Kale, Miss Mona Hart, Mr. Adam Jefferies and Mrs. Alice Springfield, our pianist."
"How do you do?" Cody and Brendan said in unison, then looked at each other and couldn't help grinning. The situation was terrifying, but it was also absurd.
And wonderful, Cody thought. Because somehow these people had survived.
"Have you ventured out at all...since this began?" Cody asked.
Father Joseph smiled. "Oh, yes. We've run out, but only at high noon. And only to bring back what the general mercantile had in canned food, what smoked meat we could find...to get water, and to raid the closest houses for some bedding." He paused.
"What about the people who were...killed?" Cody asked.
The priest spoke softly, "We dealt with them," he said flatly, his tone indicating that it wasn't something he wanted to discuss further.
"We'll get you back to Victory today," Cody said. "In fact, we need to leave as soon as possible."
"We're ready when you are. But you might have noticed, we don't have horses," he said. "What animals didn't run off...well, they're dead...."
"There's got to be a wagon sitting around somewhere in town," Cody said.
"There's a livery down the street. You'll find something there. It's not like people realized what was going on in time to get out...." He looked back at the frightened survivors by the piano, then turned back to Cody. "They came at night, like black birds from hell with burning red eyes and...and the result was carnage."
"And that night, you five were the only ones in here?" Cody asked.
Father Joseph shook his head. "I was in here, praying. Alice was at her piano, practicing for the Sunday service. But the others...a man brought them here as the attack started. A rather strange man. He hesitated at the door, then came in, dragging the others with him. He told me to believe in God and in the church, and to guard those he was leaving in my care. He said that if we had faith, we'd be safe in the church-the demons wouldn't be able to enter. And I reckon he was right. We've been safe, but we've also been careful. I'm sure they know we're here, and I'm sure they've been trying to devise a way to get us out." He smiled grimly at his own ironic choice of words.
"Okay, let's get right down to the livery, pick out a wagon and get the horses hitched," Brendan said. "And pray to God those horses will be polite enough not to fight us on the way back over to Victory."
"Right," Cody said, still staring thoughtfully at the priest, wondering about the identity of the man who had brought these people here, then disappeared.
"Cody, the sun won't stay up forever," Brendan said.
"Be ready," Cody told the priest.
"We can walk over there with you now, if you think...if you think it's safe," Father Joseph said.
"No, wait here. Brendan and I can manage on our own," Cody said.
The livery was clear-they had been in it just minutes ago. But he didn't want to take the chance of having to protect the others any longer than necessary.
He unhitched his horse and strode after Brendan, who had already headed down the street, his horse's reins in his hands.
"What the hell do you think really went on back there?" Brendan asked, shaking his head. "Who would bring folks to a church, then go back out into the middle of the massacre? Why wouldn't he have stayed in the church?"
"That's something we can ask Father Joseph once we get them all back to Victory," Cody said.
"I'm more interested in finding out how they knew the way to destroy their dead."
They found a wagon and, with a little searching, harnesses for the horses.
Neither animal seemed enamored of the concept of becoming wagon horses, and they protested with rearing and neighing, but finally the men got the horses hitched together. Brendan led them down the street, getting them adjusted to pulling the wagon as one, stopping in front of the church.
Father Joseph was standing at the door, waiting for them.
He waited for the others to run out to the wagon, then followed, carrying a large portmanteau.
"Father Joseph, we need to travel light," Cody said.
The priest met his eyes. "My friend, this is filled with holy water and sharpened crosses. I see that you know all about these creatures and are armed against them, and I think it's a good idea for all of us to have weapons at our disposal, don't you?"
"You're right, Father. We'll find room for your bag," Cody said.
He looked up to the sky, judging the remaining hours of daylight, as he followed Father Joseph to the wagon. So far, the sky was clear and blue. But night would come, and it was going to take them much longer to return to Victory than it had taken to reach Hollow Tree.
"I'll drive, you watch?" Brendan suggested.
Cody nodded, and Brendan hiked himself up to the driver's bench, picking up the reins.
Cody jumped on the back of the wagon, his bow slung over his shoulder.
Father Joseph's four survivors were silent, huddled together. Cody smiled at the boy-Timmy, the Reverend had said. The boy stared back at him, not blinking.
"Shall we sing?" the older woman, Alice, suggested.
"I think we should stay quiet and not draw undue attention to ourselves," Father Joseph said.
Thank you, Father Joseph. Thank you, Cody thought.
It was going to be a long enough ride as it was.
A LEX STEPPED OUTSIDE the saloon and looked down the street. There wasn't a soul to be seen. She looked up at the sky and felt a moment's unease. The sun wasn't sinking quite yet, but it wasn't strong, either. The air had taken on the slight difference that came when sunset was near.
And Cody and Brendan weren't back.
The others had returned from the cemetery a little while ago, their grim task completed. Bert and Levy had headed back to the boardinghouse, and the others had gone home, ready to batten down for another long night-except for Cole and Dave, who were staying at the saloon, one of them always on guard.
She watched the street for another long minute, wishing that they would appear in the distance. But they didn't.
She swung around. Cole was watching her from the saloon door.
"I'm coming back in," she told him. "It's still daylight."
"And you still shouldn't be out there alone," he said firmly.
"All right, big brother, all right," she teased him. "I just..."
"You're just worried. I know. I am, too," he told her. "But come on inside, anyway."
"Cole, where did they go today?" she asked. "I know you know."
He stared at her for a long moment. "Hollow Tree," he said. "They're looking for Milo's hideout. Cody says there has to be one."
She nodded. "Cole?"
"Do you believe-do you believe that my father could be a monster?"
He lowered his head and sighed softly, then looked up at her. "Alex, I've seen lots of good people turned into demons by this-this disease."
"Don't you think that some people can fight it?"
"I don't know, Alex. But...but you can't let yourself be fooled, you can't take any chances. You know that, right?" Cole said.
"Yes, I know," she said.
He was still staring at her, and though he'd never said the words, he'd answered her question. No, he didn't believe that her father could be anything but a monster.
She glanced down the street in the direction of the distant town of Hollow Tree, then sighed and went back to the saloon.
Cole was still standing in the doorway. "Alex, your father was a good man. He was like a father to me, too. He was one of the most respected men in town. But the man you knew and loved, the man I loved, is dead."
"I know that, Cole."
He nodded. "We all just-well, we care about you, Alex," he said.
She smiled and gave him a brief hug. "I know that, Cole. I know that."
"Let's go in. And let's have some faith in Cody and Brendan, huh?"
"I have all the faith in the world in them," Alex said. "But no matter how much faith we have-well, they're only men, and there are only two of them."
"But they're two men who know what they're doing."
Inside the saloon, Dave was playing cards with the girls. Sherry Lyn seemed to have recovered. She sniffed now and then, but she also cried out with pleasure as she took a poker pot.
Roscoe was still standing behind the bar, drying the same shot glass he'd been drying when Alex had stepped outside.
"Hey, where's Jigs? I haven't seen him all day," Alex said, noticing the empty piano bench.
"Sleeping," Linda said. "He's been sleeping all day."
"I'll just go up and see that he's all right," Alex said.
Linda adjusted the cards in her hand. "Last door at the end of the hall, honey," she said.
Alex walked up the stairs and headed straight for the last room, then hesitated at the door. The poor man was probably exhausted. Keeping guard, on edge-all of them afraid that if they went to sleep, they might not wake up.
That they would wake up. As monsters.
She raised her hand, preparing to knock gently. But then she decided that if he was sleeping, she didn't want to wake him, only look in and make sure he was all right. She turned the knob carefully and opened the door.
The room was in shadow.
She stepped in, trying to make out the man on the bed in the dim light.
As she did, a cry like a bobcat's suddenly filled the room, coming from behind the door.
The door slammed into her, knocking her off balance, and she gasped for breath as Jigs came flying out at her, hands like talons, fangs dripping with saliva and anticipation.
"THEY'RE COMING," C ODY SAID.
The priest stared at him.
"I can hear them. Get ready."
He heard Brendan swear, heedless of who might have heard him in back, and saw him flick the reins to urge the horses into a burst of speed.
They were still about five miles out of Victory, and the sun was going down.
Cody stood, balancing on the back of the wagon, stringing his bow, watching the sky.
The sun was a ball of fire in the west, and shadows were beginning to stretch across the plain.
The vampires came in a wave, but there were only a few so far, few enough that Cody could count them. Six.
To his surprise, he realized that the priest was standing at his side. He'd opened his portmanteau and pulled out a bow and arrows. Now he, too, was taking aim, gauging the distance as the creatures approached.
Alice was passing out stakes and vials of holy water to the other passengers. The boy slipped forward to take a position next to Brendan, a stake at the ready in his raised right hand.
The other two were braced against the side of the wagon so they could shove their stakes home without tumbling to the ground.
"Now?" Father Joseph asked.
"Wait...wait...hold...now!" Cody said.
They picked off the first two immediately. The third reached the wagon, flapping and shrieking, giant wings beating the air. The man surged forward, impaling the creature.
Cody nocked another arrow as, from the corner of his eye, he saw the monster's body fall under the wheels. The wagon shuddered, and they all struggled for balance.
Cody let his arrow fly.
The fourth creature went down without reaching the wagon. Father Joseph's arrow hit the fifth, which exploded in a burst of black powder, still fifteen feet from the wagon.
The sixth came diving toward them.
Alice rose. "God, let my aim be true," she prayed.
Cody reached for a stake.
He didn't need it. Alice splashed holy water at the screeching shadow, which let out a hideous wail and flopped into the back of the wagon. Father Joseph shoved it, and it fell into the dirt behind them, writhing as it turned to ash, which flew toward the sky like a tiny whirlwind.
The wagon kept rolling at a breakneck pace. Father Joseph lost his balance and fell backward, but the young woman caught and steadied him.
"Victory is straight ahead!" Brendan shouted.
A LEX SCREAMED, STUNNED and weaponless. She leaped away from the door, staring at the wild thing that Jigs had become.
He was ashen, with a day's growth of beard shadowing his face, and his eyes glowed with a red fire. Most terrifying of all, he was grinning at her with a madman's pleasure.
"Jigs! Jigs, stop!" she cried as he started toward her.
To her amazement, he paused for a moment, his expression uncertain.
In that blessed second of reprieve, she streaked past him out the door and slammed it shut, then leaned against it to keep Jigs from escaping. Immediately he began screaming and shrieking, hammering at the wood between them.
But by then Cole had come up the stairs, Dave on his tail.
"Alex, what in God's name...?" the sheriff demanded.
"It's Jigs-he's infected," she said.
"Jigs?" Cole said incredulously. "But...he hasn't left the saloon."
As he spoke, the door began to splinter.
"Dave, get something...anything. And hurry!"
Dave turned around, white as a sheet, and shouted down the stairs. Roscoe came rushing up, a sharpened stake in his hand.
Cole grabbed it from him and watched as the door shuddered and began to split.
With one final blow from the far side, the door shattered. There was not help for it. Cole gripped the stake hard and slammed it into Jigs.
The pianist let out a howl of pain, staggering back, gripping the stake, which had only gone through the shoulder, not his heart, as the momentum of his escape had nearly carried him straight past Cole.
But Jigs didn't come at them again. Instead, he staggered down to his knees, deathly white.
She spun around, recognizing Cody's voice and feeling weak with relief that he was back. He was halfway up the stairs, his features taut with concern. Somehow she refrained from throwing herself in his arms.
"It's Jigs," she said.
Cole was already stepping forward, ready to rip the stake from Jigs's shoulder and impale him with it once again.
"Wait, please!" she cried. "Cody-can we save him?"
Cody stared at her, looking almost dismayed.
"We can give him my blood. Please?" Alex begged.
"Alex, what are you talking about?" Cole asked.
"Alex, no," Cody said.
"Cody, please. This is Jigs. We have to try to save him."
But Cody shook his head, then told Cole, "We'll get the stake out. If he doesn't die, there's a chance for him. But be careful. Don't let him bite you. If he even scrapes you with his teeth, it will make you weaker and could end up killing you."
Alex stepped back, relieved that he was going to help Jigs, who was still wailing and writhing frantically as Cody and Cole closed in, as careful as if they were trying to pin a rattler.
She turned away, unable to watch, and saw that Roscoe and the girls were at the top of the stairs, watching with wide eyes.
And they weren't alone.
To her amazement, a priest stepped past them and headed toward her end of the hall. He was saying a prayer and carrying a vial of what had to be holy water in front of him. He went straight past her, to where Jigs was screaming as the men worked to remove the stake without getting bitten.
"In the name of the Lord," the man thundered, and sprinkled the holy water around.
To Alex's amazement, Jigs went silent, then began to sniffle. Cody and Cole quickly grabbed him and carried him back to his bed.
Cody looked at Alex. "I need my bag," he said. "It's at the boardinghouse."
"I'll go," the priest said.
"No, send Brendan. They don't know you. And priest or no, they might not let you in."
"I hear you," Brendan said as he walked along the hall toward them. "I'm going."
Cole asked, "Father, who are you?"
"Father Joseph, and I'd just come out to serve in Hollow Tree when this terror started," Father Joseph said.
"And you're...alive?" Dave asked skeptically.
"Father Joseph and a few of the others were holed up in the church," Cody explained.
"Others? Where are they?" Cole asked.
"Downstairs." Cody said.
Alex took a look at Jigs. His shoulder was bleeding, but Cody was stanching the flow with a wadded-up pillowcase.
Jigs had gone silent, but his eyes were open. He looked scared, and as docile as a lamb.
"Do we need rope?" Alex asked.
"Yeah, probably a good idea," Cody said.
"I think he still fears a higher power," Father Joseph said softly.
"And I'm afraid we still have to fear him," Cody said.
Brendan returned with the bag. Roscoe, who had come to the doorway out of curiosity and overheard the conversation, produced a curtain cord, which they used to truss Jigs.
"The rest of you might want to get out. Brendan can assist me," Cody said.
"I said that I'd give him my blood, Cody. You can't keep using your own," Alex protested.
"It's no good, Alex. Mine has a-a special coagulating power. Trust me, it will be all right. I know what I'm doing. Everyone, please, I need you to get out."
"Look, he can have my blood," Cole said.
"Or...mine," Dave offered, a little hesitantly.
"No. It needs to be mine," Cody said. "Out."
Cole took Alex's arm, leading her toward the stairs. The others turned and hurried down ahead of them.
Downstairs, Alex was stunned to see that the saloon was now hosting two women, a middle-aged man and a boy of about sixteen.
"Hello," she said.
"Hello," the older of the two women said, stepping forward and taking Alex's hand. "I'm Alice. The boy there is Timmy, that's Miss Mona Hart, and that's Mr. Adam Jefferies."
"Uh-how do you do?" Alex said.
Alex hadn't realized that Linda was standing behind her until the other woman spoke softly into her ear. "Might want to get them over to the boardinghouse," she suggested. "At least the boy and the ladies."
"I own a boardinghouse across the street," Alex heard herself say. "I'm sure Beulah, our cook, has supper ready, and that it will stretch."
"A hot meal?" the boy said, smiling in a way that suggested he hadn't had one in a long time.
"Yes, so come on. We'll all walk over together."
"I'll escort you," Dave said.
"Thank you," Alex said, then glanced hopefully at Linda.
"I'll look out for Jigs," the other woman offered.
Alex nodded and headed across the street, her strange little posse following her.
"You can't keep using your blood like this," Brendan said.
"I know. But-this will be all right," Cody said.
"Are you sure he's not too far gone?"
"I don't think so. He reacted to the holy water like a child who's behaved badly. It didn't burn him, it cowed him."
"How did this happen?" Brendan asked, as Cody's blood started to flow into Jigs.
Cody looked at him. "You know how it happened," he said quietly.
Brendan shook his head. "You know what I mean. We see everyone in town, everything that happens, but somehow someone slipped in and attacked him."
"I don't think Jigs was attacked. I think he was seduced by someone he knew, someone he didn't know was dead."
"So you mean...?" Brendan asked, wincing, knowing what Cody was about to say.
"I mean there's a monster among us."