BEULAH WAS SINGING when Alex went down to the dining room.
"Good morning, Miss Alex," she said happily.
Alex cast her a curious glance. She wasn't feeling quite as chipper as Beulah. She'd arrived in town to discover that vicious outlaws were decimating the region, she'd nearly become a victim herself, and then there had been that truly bizarre dream. "You're certainly cheerful this morning," Alex said to the older woman.
"Honey, I'm alive and kicking and breathing. That makes for a good morning in my book. And not only that, but I see hope for the future." Beulah grinned, pulling out a chair for Alex. "Come on, sit down, honey. You're still tired from the journey out here, that's what's bothering you. Didn't you sleep well?"
Despite herself, Alex was certain she was blushing again. It was absurd-she knew the strange events of the night before had been all in her mind. And yet...he'd been right there. The door between the rooms hadn't even been locked.
But she knew the difference between a dream and reality, and she had been dreaming, as strange as it had been. Then again, what hadn't been strange since she had arrived?
Until now, she'd never seen anything odd about unlocked doors.
This had always been a trusting household. Her father had liked people and possessed a natural ability to size them up. No thief had ever come in and stolen anything.
The thieves terrorizing their little piece of the West right now didn't seem to be interested in the usual ill-gotten gains. They were after souls, it seemed.
Where on earth had that thought come from?
She dismissed it quickly, shuddering despite herself.
"I slept okay," Alex answered at last. "Maybe coffee will make the world look brighter," she added hopefully.
"Right here, honey," Beulah said, setting a cup in front of her. Her father had chosen wisely. No delicate china here. Their dinnerware was attractive, but of a thicker mold. The cup she lifted was sturdy, and the coffee was delicious.
"Beulah, you perform wonders out here," Alex said, the compliment heartfelt.
"Well, thank you, child. And what, may I ask, are you planning to get up to today?" Beulah asked, eyeing the tailored shirt, riding breeches and boots Alex had chosen.
She meant to see where her father had died, but she decided not to mention that fact to Beulah.
"Oh, I just want to do a bit of riding."
"Riding," Beulah said, disturbed. "Now, Miss Alex, you've seen what can happen around here."
"I'm going to coerce Deputy Hinton into being my escort, and I'll be careful," Alex promised.
Beulah pointed a finger at her. "You promise me, you swear on the souls of your blessed parents, that you'll be back before sunset."
Outlaws could and did attack by daylight as well as in the dark, Alex thought, but she decided to humor Beulah. "Yes, ma'am."
Beulah sat back, eyeing the compact Colt six-shooter, caliber .58, that Alex had strapped around her hip.
"You didn't forget how to shoot while you were off in the big city, did you?" she asked.
"I swear I remember how to shoot, so you mustn't worry," Alex assured her.
Beulah poured herself a cup of coffee and took a seat at the table, smiling slowly. "Just so long as you're careful. You're all we've got now, and keeping you safe is mighty important to us. Your father was a wonderful man. He was always so wise and so clever-" her smile faded "-until Linda."
"Where is my father's widow, anyway? Did he really marry her? Legally, I mean. According to his letters, it was quite a whirlwind thing."
Beulah let out a sniff. "First time I ever saw your father thinking with his pants."
"I'm sorry for the indelicacy, but it's true. No sooner had he met her than he stopped coming home-he'd be sleeping over at the saloon every night."
"So she was...working there? What was she? A pianist? A hostess, or maybe a bartender?"
"Whore," Beulah said flatly.
Alex digested that for a minute before speaking. "Beulah, we've both learned over the years that everyone has to survive somehow. My father was a good man, and if he fell in love with Linda, she's probably a fine woman. But where is she?"
Beulah snorted. Alex lifted a brow, and Beulah told her, "Your father weren't never a complete fool. He left her a little bit of money, and she took it and moved out. He made sure with a big Eastern lawyer that the property and everything else went to you. Linda found out just how ironclad your father's will was, and she didn't stay to butt her head against any walls."
"All right, the property is mine, but she was married to my father," Alex said. "Surely, she must know she's welcome here anytime."
"Speak for yourself, Miss Alex," Beulah said. "That one-she's a tough cookie. I don't know what went on while your father was alive. Maybe she really loved him-he was certainly worthy of love. But since he died...well, here it is. Some women are whores because they like being whores. It's addictive. They like pretty things. And they like men."
"Linda is back working at the saloon?" Alex asked.
"When she's in town. She comes and goes," Beulah told her.
"Oh, I see."
In fact she didn't really see at all. She thought of her long journey out, the train cars crammed with people that began to reek after the first hours, followed by the stuffy jolting carriage and the chubby banker who had passed gas all the way. She thought of the men fresh off the cattle drives, mud-encrusted and sweaty, and the nasty way some of them had of not seeming to know there was such a thing as a toothbrush. How could women choose to sleep with such men? Were whores allowed to force their customers to bathe first?
"She wasn't there-yesterday," Alex noted.
"I told you. She comes and goes," Beulah said.
Alex started to rise from the table.
"And where do you think you're going, young lady?" Beulah asked.
"I told you, I'm going to ride around, just get the feel of being home again," Alex said. "It will be fine. I'm going to walk down to the sheriff's office and get Dave to go with me."
"Not until you've had breakfast. You just relax. Tess is in the kitchen, and I'll have some eggs out for you in a flash. I made corn muffins this morning, too, and you are not leaving until you've told me just exactly how delicious they are. That nice Mr. Fox and his friend Mr. Vincent said they'd never had better."
Alex frowned, looking at Beulah. "They are up already? Where are they now?"
"Honey, they were up bright and early. But I don't know where they are now."
"You didn't ask?"
"I don't put my nose where it shouldn't be," Beulah told her firmly. "What those fellows choose to do is their business. I have no right to pry."
Alex had to laugh. "You don't mind grilling me as if I were a prisoner!"
Beulah looked at her sternly. "Honey child, you are my business. And bless the Lord, those fellows are like manna from above, the first paying customers in weeks, so don't you go questioning them, either, missy-we want those men around here just as long as we can get them to stay. Now, sit tight. I'll have your breakfast in two shakes, and then you can hurry down to see Dave and get up to whatever extremely careful adventure you've got planned for the day."
C ODY AND B RENDAN were both well aware, as they neared the Apache camp, that they had been followed for a long time.
Victory, like its now ghost-town neighbors Brigsby and Hollow Tree, sat near the winding Little Red River. An offshoot of the Little Red, Dead Man's Creek, meandered north through the plain and on into brush and forest land, to the sudden outcrop of cliffs that surrounded Tall Feather's main camp. In the past, the Apache people had been known to move, following the buffalo trails, and sometimes they still did. But Tall Feather's main camp, here in the cliff country, had been established for decades. It was a perfectly secure setup. Tall Feather's warriors could see for miles around and were stalking them now from the heights.
Cody had expected the escort, but he wasn't expecting any actual trouble, even though the Apache were generally regarded as warlike, and they had a complex social network. According to Brendan, who had spent time in Texas and knew the man, Chief Tall Feather was part of the Jicarilla tribe, the Llaneros band and his own clan, which he had named for the area in which he chose to live; in English, it translated as the Cave Warriors, and he was their supreme authority.
These days, Tall Feather had chosen the richness of life over the glory of warfare. In fact, from all that he had learned, Cody didn't believe that Tall Feather had ever been responsible for cold-bloodedly murdering anyone, including Alex's father. If he went to war, if he attacked riders or a wagon train, he would not deny what he had done.
"There," Brendan said quietly, nodding in the direction he meant. "The chief is waiting to meet us."
They were nearing the vast array of deer-and buffalo-skin tents, many adorned with antlers, feathers and other trophies from the hunt, that marked Tall Feather's camp. A path led through the camp, and at the end of the path stood an extremely large tepee.
A man stood in front of it, as still as the cliffs themselves, his face set in an expression that told them nothing of his feelings.
Cody noted that the warriors who had watched them from above had descended a path down the face of the cliff and were now following them, six men on horseback, silent and orderly.
Tall Feather did not have an intermediary speak for him. He waited for them to dismount directly before him, by which time the entire tribe had gathered around. Warriors, stone-faced, stood without hostility, but at the ready should there be any threat to their chief. Women hovered behind the men; children looked out around their mothers' knees.
"Tall Feather," Brendan said, "I have brought you my friend Cody Fox, who has come to help us all with the evil that has invaded this land we share so peacefully. May we speak with you?"
At last the chief moved, merely inclining his head. That seemed to be the signal for two of his warriors to take their horses as they dismounted. Cody nodded his thanks, and the young warrior who took the reins gave him a slight smile in return.
Tall Feather preceded them into the tepee, where a central fire burned, the smoke escaping through a shaft at the peak. Tall Feather's tent was large, and Cody saw sleeping pallets and skins all around the edge. Tall Feather had many children, it appeared.
He sat before the fire, indicating that they should join him. Something bubbled in a pot that hung over the fire. It smelled oddly like coffee, Cody thought.
The chief was dressed handsomely in hand-sewn and beaded buckskin, a band around his forehead keeping his long braided hair from his face. Cody estimated that the man had to be in his sixties, but his posture was so erect and his muscles so honed that they were at odds with the reality. His face, however, was deeply lined, and there were many gray strands in his long black hair.
"We are living in grave times," Tall Feather said, staring at Cody. "I am anxious to hear what you can do to help."
The man definitely didn't need an interpreter. His English was perfect.
Cody spoke carefully. "Chief, what I hope to do is root out the evil that my friend Brendan has spoken of. To do that, we must first find the heart of that evil. It's my belief that this man, Milo, is more than your usual outlaw. So no matter how brave, strong and selfless your men may be in battle, they simply aren't prepared to fight this particular enemy."
To Cody's surprise, Tall Feather smiled. "You need not be so careful in your words, Cody Fox. You are not speaking to one of your reporters."
Cody smiled in return. "I'm talking about a different kind of being. Something diseased and...not human."
Tall Feather nodded. "In our culture, the Black Sky and the Earth Mother came together and created our Great Spirit, who we call Hascin. When a man or maid is ill, ghosts will offer them fruit, and if they accept, they will go on and enter the new world. If they do not, they will return to us. If they eat of the fruit and die, we take them carefully to their burial place. The dead are tended reverently, clad in their best. The horse of the dead man is slain, and his belongings are dispersed. The funeral party takes a different route back from the burial site, because we believe in ghosts, and our ghosts do not always come to plant a gentle kiss on the cheek of a loved one. Our ghosts sometimes come with vengeance in mind, angry over some wrong that was done to them in life, and they can take many forms, perhaps the coyote or the bear or the mountain lion."
Tall Feather paused, and Cody nodded silently, certain that it wasn't his time to speak yet.
After a moment Tall Feather nodded, as well, satisfied that Cody accepted the way of the Cave Warriors. Then he went on.
"At first I thought that ghosts had come in the form of these outlaws, an army of ghosts, our enemies from years gone past," he said.
"So you fought with them?" Cody asked.
Tall Feather nodded gravely. "Many of our maidens were at the stream. They were set upon by the outlaws, and our young warriors heard them screaming and ran to save them. We killed several of their kind, but they killed one of my warriors, as well. He was buried in the caves, as is our custom. But soon after that, my daughter Gentle Doe, who had loved the warrior and awaited his payment of ponies for marriage, began to see him by night. Then, last week, Gentle Doe vanished into the darkness. I will not see her again."
Cody hesitated. "How do you know that?"
Tall Feather offered a sorrowful smile. "We smoke the pipe, and the dreams and visions come to us, Cody Fox. We see what others cannot. My daughter is...dead. At least to me. This I know." He hesitated. "Now I fear for another warrior, for he has been ill. He tells me that he has visions of my daughter. He fears to tell me the whole truth, but I believe that the vision attempts to seduce and lure him from his resting place."
Cody said, "I believe everything you have told me, and it fits with what I know of the evil terrorizing this land. The monsters must be found and routed out, and I believe you will understand my methods more than many a white man would. There are men like you and I who ride with those who are...diseased, because the diseased men need the help of those who are not tainted. But it's often difficult to tell the difference between them. This is a Spirit World enemy, Chief Tall Feather. Brendan and I have brought you some new weapons that you and your men must use. We have stakes as sharp as spear points-and your own lances must be made equally sharp. A single bullet, even in the head or heart, will not kill the diseased men-or women-though many bullets or arrows will wound and weaken them. Once they have fallen, they must be destroyed completely. The head must be severed from the body, the heart cut from the chest. We have brought you army swords, to make this task easier for you, and knives that work just as well. It is not easy to sever the head from a body, but it is necessary. Also, the enemy may come in daylight, but they are far more powerful at sunset and by night."
The chief gave him no argument, simply nodded gravely.
Cody hesitated, then went on. "When someone has...disappeared, he-or she-cannot just be welcomed back with open arms. You will know if they are...infected. Their eyes will be different. They may look perfectly normal otherwise, but their eyes will give them away. But when the infection is new, as it is...with any of your people, they will not know how to handle it. They will not be good at guile and pretense, and you will know they are not...as they were. Do you understand?"
Tall Feather stood stiff and straight as, again, he nodded. Then he spoke.
"An Apache warrior knows that he may die in battle, whatever that battle may be. A diseased warrior who fell in battle against evil will still be accorded the honor of one who fought well, even if he lost."
Cody was aware that someone else had come into the tepee. He turned and saw a young maiden in bleached white buckskin, her hair arranged in shiny black braids, bearing pottery cups. She dipped liquid from the pot above the fire.
"I will accept your gifts, but first we will share a welcome drink," Tall Feather said.
"Thank you," Cody told him gravely. He was anxious to get started, and worried about what might be in the pot. The Apache were not averse to hallucinogens.
"There is more, Chief Tall Feather. You must take us to the grave of your fallen warrior."
Tall Feather frowned, about to argue.
"Chief, we believe he may have been tainted. He will not be strong yet, but in time, he might taint your entire clan," Brendan said gently.
The young woman handed Cody a steaming cup. He smiled his thanks, and she blushed. "This smells like coffee," he said.
Tall Feather grinned. "It is coffee. We knew you would come, and we wanted to make you welcome."
They drank the coffee, praising its taste-despite the fact that they ended up chewing on the grounds. When they had finished, Cody rose. "Tall Feather, forgive me, but it's imperative that I see your dead warrior. He is a danger I can stop."
"It will be as you say. Come. I will send for the horses."
IT WASN'T EASY FOR A LEX to get Dave to ride out with her.
He and Cole were talking when she got to the sheriff's office, but he made himself scarce when she entered. Cole greeted her with a hug, offering his sympathies on her father and her fiance. She hugged him back with equal warmth. A lot of people, including her father, had always thought that she and Cole should get together, that they would have made a perfect couple. What they didn't understand was that, though she and Cole loved each other, it wasn't a romantic love. They were both only children who had lost their mothers when they were small and grown up lonely. He was like her brother, and you didn't marry your brother.
She sat down across from him as he went back behind his desk, grinning pertly as she threw her legs up on the desktop and eased back.
"I must say, Miss Gordon, that all that time you spent back in Washington didn't do much for your manners," he teased. "What are those feet doing on my desk?"
"Resting," she said with a laugh, but then she grew serious. "I need one of you to take me out to the place where my father died," she said.
Silence greeted her words.
"I won't be leaving the limits of this town again," Cole finally said. "Not anytime soon. I leave, and that band of filthy thieves comes in. Thank God for those two fellows from back East. And speaking of them, I sure hope they get back from wherever they went in time for the town meeting I'm planning for tonight. The men in Victory can't be cowards. They have to step up and fight."
"I'm sure they'll be back. The trouble out here seems to be the reason for their appearance in town, after all," Alex said.
Cole nodded. "And that trouble means this isn't the time for you to be running around out there. Can't you go...bake a cake or something?"
"Cole Granger, how dare you?" she demanded as she swung her legs off the desk and stood. "I'll find the place by myself."
"Damn it, Alex!" Cole said, rising as well. "Look, right now it's daytime-"
"And everyone knows the danger comes by night. So instead of arguing with me, have Dave take a quick ride out there with me now. Cole, you know me, and you knew my father. I have to see where he was killed...where he was found. I have to know what happened to him. I don't believe it was Indians, but I need to be certain."
Cole thumped his fist on the desk, staring her in the face. "Alex, God help us all, I know who killed your father. The outlaws. Milo and his crew. And I mean to bring them to justice. So you need to stay here and stay safe, and let me do my job."
She turned away from him. "I'm going now. Great to see you, Cole."
"Cole?" She turned back.
He was frustrated. "I'll put you in a cell," he threatened, pointing toward the two rarely used cells at the back of the room.
"No, you won't."
"If your father were alive..."
She smiled sadly. "That's just it, Cole. He isn't."
As she had expected, Cole let out a growl of irritation. "Dave," he called, and the deputy appeared from wherever he had been lurking.
"Alex wants to see where her father was killed, and I need you to-go with her. Just make sure she's back by sunset. And then...hell, make her bake a damned cake!"
THE WARRIOR HAD BEEN called Running Cat. He had been buried with honor, dressed in his finest buckskin and plumage. His body had been wrapped in buffalo hide, and he'd been placed on a natural shelf within the cave, then covered with rocks.
Only the chief had come with them, but Tall Feather had not helped them remove the stones.
Nor did he speak when they stared down at the corpse, though despite the absolute composure of the older man's features, Cody knew that he was surprised to see no sign of decay on the body.
"Chief, you won't like what I have to do next," Cody told him.
"I will like whatever saves my people," Tall Feather said gruffly.
Cody looked at Brendan, who nodded.
Quickly, Cody drew a stake and hammer from his pack, then drove the sharpened stake into the warrior's heart. There was a horrendous sound, a loud, ghastly hissing, and the warrior shot up, his eyes flying open. They were the color of glittering onyx, but scarlet fire gleamed in them.
Those eyes fell on Cody, and a few soft words escaped the warrior's lips.
Then he fell back.
Cody finished his gruesome work, severing the head. It was enough. He didn't cut out the heart.
Through it all, Chief Tall Feather stood stoic and silent.
"It is done," Cody said, standing over the body, which would now begin to decay as it should have days ago.
Tall Feather nodded.
"What did he say?" Brendan asked.
"He said 'thank you, by the Great Spirit,'" Tall Feather answered.
They turned to pick up the rocks and replace them over the body, but Cody heard a rustling from the far side of the burial ledge and turned swiftly, the stake, still bearing a trace of blood from the warrior, at the ready. He saw her, and his heart sank.
It was a maiden, a stunning Apache maiden with huge dark eyes and gleaming black hair. She had strong, beautiful features. All that marred her beauty was the look of madness in her eyes, the fire that burned at the back of them-that and the contorted twist of her features, which spoke of nothing but rage and pure hatred. She bared teeth that came to a fine point.
Tall Feather turned then, too, staring in horror. He cried out in pain and misery.
He spoke, and though Cody didn't know much of his language, he understood the man's meaning. This was his daughter, his lost daughter Gentle Doe.
And she was indeed lost to him forever.
There was no help for it; she was about to attack, and she was fueled by full-blown rage. She had lain silent during the staking and decapitation of her lover, but in the end it had proved to be too much for her. She wouldn't have understood that he had already been dead-that she herself was no longer among the living. The word "vampire" didn't even exist in her language, much less her mind, and she had become one without knowing that the hunger it created would drive her to murder her own people.
There was no choice.
In another second, Tall Feather would be taken, or killed.
Cody spun, the stake pinning her directly in the heart.
Tall Feather let out an anguished cry. There was nothing Cody could do to save the chief from having to watch as his daughter reached out to him while death throes racked her body and her face contorted further in pain. Her death had been so recent that she wouldn't crumble into dust and ash, but, like the warrior, would begin to decay naturally.
Tall Feather reached out to his daughter, his expression both beseeching and welcoming.
The innocence and beauty of youth were back in her eyes, along with recognition and pain. And love.
Then her eyes closed, and Tall Feather howled, the sound deep and shattering.
Cody stepped between him and his daughter, then eased her down to the pallet where the warrior she had loved in both life and death still lay. He quickly drew his knife and severed her head. Then, while Brendan set his hands on Tall Feather's shoulders and forced him outside, Cody respectfully arranged the remains of the lovers, ensuring that they would go together into the next world.
He hadn't known either of them or, until this morning, Tall Feather, and yet he felt great sadness for the father, a compassionate man in a world of violence, who had lost both a daughter and a man who would have become a son.
He replaced the stones that sealed the burial place.
When he stepped out of the cave, the other two men were mounted and the sun was just beginning its descent in the west. The first glorious streaks of sunset were already painting the sky.
"I must hurry back to my people," Tall Feather said, his expression stoic and his back straight atop his mount. "And you must return to yours." The Indian nodded gravely to them and turned his horse's head toward his village.
Cody climbed quickly into the saddle. They did need to return to town. When the sun fell, the heat of the day disappeared with surprising speed, and the pink-and-gold-streaked sky would turn to darkness-and shadows.
A sudden sense of urgency filled him, and he kneed his mount into motion.
"The chief is right-it's time to get back," he said to Brendan, and their horses began a swift thundering across the plain, the animals' hoofbeats matching the pounding of his heart.