A CHILL WIND SEEMED to sweep the plain as they reached the spot where her father had breathed his last.
They were just east of the woods. A hard ride downriver led to John Snow's trading post, while bracken, brush and pine forest led off to the west. They could see the cliffs that shielded the Apache camp but not the camp itself; they might as well have been in the middle of nowhere. Truthfully, even in the center of Victory, Alex reminded herself, they actually were in the middle of nowhere. Here, alone, with the whisper of the trees in the background, the sky overhead and the plains seeming to stretch forever, a waving sea of tall grasses, the world seemed a vast and mysterious place.
"There," Dave said, and pointed to a spot where the grasses seemed deepest. "Right there is where we found him." He looked away from Alex. "He was cold, Alex. We couldn't tell when he had died."
She dismounted and walked to the place Dave had indicated, where she sank down to her knees. She had been afraid she would burst into tears, wondering how he had ended up dying here, all alone. He should have grown old; she should have been there to hold his hand at the end. It hadn't been his time.
She didn't cry, though. Instead she felt the breeze touching her cheek. A wave of nostalgia swept through her, and she just wished she could let him know how much she loved him, what a fine man and fine father he had been.
She looked up at Dave. "How did he die?" she demanded.
Dave dismounted and came over to sit across from her. He looked at her gravely. "We don't know."
"What do you mean, you don't know?" Alex demanded. "Was he shot? Stabbed?"
Dave shook his head. "No."
"Then what happened to him?" she persisted. "Dave, come on, help me. You're not making sense. Please, Dave, he was my father!"
"His horse was gone, his personal effects were gone. He might have had a heart attack, and then someone came by...or...someone might have scared him into having a heart attack. Cole thinks it was Milo and his gang, but the truth is, we just don't know. Things were happening.... Brigsby was dying, and...we didn't even know what was happening until it suddenly became a ghost town. And your dad...there wasn't a mark on him. Weren't no doctor in the town at the time. Jim Green, over at the funeral home, was the closest we had to a medical man. Anything serious, we sent for Dr. Astin over in Brigsby or Dr. Peters in Hollow Tree, but now..." He shook his head as if to clear it of thoughts too terrible to dwell on. "We brought your dad home. We prepared him for burial. And we mourned him. And then we got the news to you as quick as we could."
She nodded, then looked out across the plain. "Not a mark on him," she repeated.
"Not that we could see. Jim bathed him and embalmed him for viewing, and he didn't see a thing. Everyone loved him, Alex. No one in town would have wanted to see him dead."
They sat in silence. Then, just as she was about to speak, the comfortable quiet between them was shattered by an earsplitting howl that seemed to shake the very earth.
"My God!" Alex exclaimed.
Dave had started, too, and he laughed ruefully at himself. "It's just a wolf."
"I've never heard a wolf sound like that," Alex said.
"It must be wounded," Dave said, and shrugged. But then he looked past Alex and hurriedly got up and headed in the direction of the horses, which had been grazing un-tethered. They had been lazily grazing, but now both animals were prancing and snorting, disturbed by the cry of the wolf.
"Quiet down now, you two," Dave said, walking toward them.
But as he spoke, the howling began again, so eerie and high-pitched that it was painful.
It wasn't a single wolf anymore. It was many wolves, and as they let loose their mournful wail, it was almost as if they were giving a cue for the sun to fall.
The sky had been blue. Now, pink and gold streaks suddenly started shooting across it. Then pink darkened quickly to purple, gold to amber.
"Hey!" Dave cried. He'd been trying to soothe his horse, but the gelding was not about to be soothed. It reared, and Dave backed away. "Hey, who feeds you, you bastard?"
Alex hurried toward her own horse, but the palomino mare was backing away. "No, no, not you, Cheyenne," she said. "Please, come on, baby, it's all right, it's me. I'll protect you." What a lie. She? Protect the horse from a wolf? Not even if only one wolf was on the prowl. And if a group of hungry wolves were on the hunt...?
She realized she was letting fear set in and forced it back and focused on trying to catch her horse. She had a gun, and she was a damned good shot. She hated killing a creature as beautiful as a wolf, but if it meant survival, she would do it.
"Stop!" Dave cried, and she looked up to see his horse racing off-heading like a maddened being into the woods.
"No," Alex whispered desperately.
Too late. Her mare looked at her with wide eyes, then took off after Dave's gelding.
Alex stared after Cheyenne, then turned to stare at Dave, guilt filling her. They were there because she had insisted, and now night was coming. Night, when the evil everyone was afraid of came out to play.
She sighed. "I'm sorry-I didn't figure on wolves."
"Think we can catch the horses?" Dave asked worriedly.
"I think we have to. Maybe they stopped once they made it into the woods."
"Unless the wolves set them off again."
"Well, let's go look. We can't wait here forever for them to come back," Alex said.
Together, they started walking toward the trees. There were pines and wild oak, with shrubs and an occasional flowering bush. There were trails, because the Apache sometimes came here to hunt, but they were overgrown and narrow.
As they started down the trail the horses had taken, Alex found herself looking up at the sky, catching glimpses through the trees. Already the pastel colors were fading to darkness. Pink had become magenta, and now even that magenta was darkening.
"Stay by me," Dave commanded.
"Oh, you can count on that," she assured him.
He stopped and motioned her to do the same, listening. Earlier a gentle breeze had stirred the air; now it was as if it rustled through the trees with an edge of warning.
She spun around when it sounded as if something large had moved in the brush behind her. "Cheyenne...?" she said tentatively.
"No horse could hide in that bush," Dave said worriedly.
Simultaneously, they drew their guns.
A black shadow swept across the trail ahead of them, a shadow like the wings of some immense bird. It had to be her imagination, she told herself, a trick of the dying daylight, the time when the sun wasn't completely gone and yet the moon was rising.
"What the hell was that?" Dave asked, demolishing her hope that it had been only a figment of her imagination.
"I don't know.... An owl, maybe, or some kind of bird," Alex said, trying to come up with a rational explanation.
But she didn't feel in any way rational. It was as if something in the woods had awakened every primal fear that had been lurking unacknowledged within her.
"A trick of the light," Dave said, sounding as if he was trying to convince himself as much as her.
The wolves began to howl again, the sound more high-pitched than she had ever heard, and as loud as if every wolf in Texas had joined the chorus.
Instinctively, Alex whirled around, so that she and Dave were back to back. She held her Colt firmly, her finger on the trigger.
The shadows began to rise and fall around them. She heard a strange swishing sound, as if giant wings were beating unseen just above their heads.
Soon there would be no more shadows, though. For soon the darkness would fall, and the light of the moon wouldn't be strong enough to penetrate the canopy created by the great oaks and pines.
"Be ready," she said to Dave.
The sound, like the whomp, whomp, whomp of beating wings, was suddenly very close.
Dave fired, then fired again.
"Save it until we can see something," Alex said. "I have a feeling we'll be needing all our ammo."
"Save it until we can see something?" Dave protested, as the light continued to fade around them. "It's like we're fighting...invisible birds!"
Alex felt her muscles contract. She could hear those wings again, coming closer and closer. And again that sound.
Whomp, whomp, whomp.
The air around her was moving. Whatever it was, it was coming. She could already feel the caress of the air against her cheek, as if it was about to touch her.
THEY WERE GALLOPING flat out, and Cody thanked God that his horse was sound and healthy. And fast.
Brendan raced close behind him.
They could hear the wolves, and Cody knew it was not the ghosts of long-dead Apaches inhabiting the creatures and crying out in hopes of revenge. These wolves were howling in fear. They were predators, and they knew another predator was loose in the wild, trespassing on pack territory, and the scent of the intruder was driving them insane with terror.
Suddenly he reined in.
"What is it?" Brendan asked, jerking his own mount to a stop.
Cody started forward at a more cautious pace. The animal didn't move. It stood, trembling, in the tall grass, facing the edge of the forest. He could see the broken brush where it had crashed through from between the trees. Even at a distance, with darkness falling, he could tell that the animal was trembling. It was amazing that the creature's heart hadn't burst from exertion.
"Hey there..." Cody said soothingly as he approached the horse.
His own horse was starting to prance nervously, as if he scented something frightening.
Brendan rode up beside him. "That mare is from the boardinghouse stable," he pointed out.
"I know." Cody was already leaping down. He unstrapped his large bow from the saddle, along with his quiver of arrows. Brendan followed suit, choosing a sharply pointed stake.
At the edge of the trees, Cody paused. He let the breeze surround him, and he felt the movement of the descending night. Her scent came to him before the sound of her voice.
"Dave, you're shooting too wildly. We have to hold!" she cried.
"But it touched me!" Dave replied.
"We need to make our shots count, Dave," Alex replied.
Cody could tell that she was close, and even now, with the monsters all around, something about her seemed to call to him, arousing a soul-deep longing in him. She was in danger, but she would never give up without a fight, even though she had no idea what she was fighting and would never believe him if he told her.
What the hell was she doing out here?
He dismissed the thought and called her name.
"Over here!" she shouted back.
He and Brendan raced in the direction of her voice and found her in fine defensive position, standing back to back with Dave, which might be what had saved them thus far. It was easier for the creatures to pick off a single man or woman, to swoop down and avoid the bullets. Bullets that wouldn't kill them, of course, but would certainly hurt, causing damage that might last for hours or even days, depending on age and other factors.
He and Brendan hurried to help the others, taking up their own positions. While Brendan fell to his knees, stake held firmly, his arm steady, Cody focused on listening. His hearing was acute, and he quickly located his target and sent the first arrow flying. He was pleased to hear a shrill scream and an erratic flapping as his shaft found its target. The shadow veered off, and he heard it crash somewhere far away.
Again he listened, took aim and fired.
And then the wolves went silent and the beating of wings stopped. The shadows were gone.
They all went still and silent for several seconds, instinctively waiting to make sure that the danger was truly gone.
"Thank you for another timely arrival," Alex said. She sounded assured and unafraid.
Damn it, he thought. What was wrong with the woman? She should be terrified.
"What the hell were those things?" she demanded.
Cody didn't answer her at first. He was too stunned by the strength of his response to her, and finally he swung around to stare at her, shaking with the desire to take her by the shoulders and emphasize his point. "What were they? They were death, that's what they were. What the hell are you doing out here?"
"This is where my father was killed and I wanted to see the place where he died, not that it's any of your business," she responded quickly. She had stiffened like a bowstring and was staring back at him, eyes narrowed, everything about her announcing that he had brought out her defenses-and hostility.
"Cody..." Brendan said warningly, but without effect.
He couldn't control the anger he was feeling, and though he managed to keep himself from grabbing her, he couldn't control the fury in his words.
"You're a fool. I thought you were supposed to be an educated young woman. An intelligent one. Last night, you might have been raped and murdered, and yet here you are, prowling around in the dark and-"
"Now, Cody," Dave protested weakly. "She asked me to come with her for protection. We were heading back when the wolves spooked the horses, who ran off. That's the only reason we're still here."
"Right. The horses," Brendan said. "Let's get to them before they decide it's safe to head home without us. Miss Gordon, your horse is out there just beyond the trees. Dave, we haven't seen yours, so you can double up with me. Cody?"
Cody knew that he was still staring angrily at Alex. And she was staring back at him, her fury the equal of his.
"Mr. Fox," she said, as if the discussion of the horses had never happened, "I am a free agent and over twenty-one. And I am not stupid. Not even my father raised his voice to me in such a manner as you just did, and I will thank you not to do so in the future. I'm not going to ask you to move out of my boardinghouse over this one incident, especially since your arrival has now proved useful not once but twice. But while your presence is deeply appreciated, your opinions are not."
With that, she spun around and strode past Brendan and Dave, who was standing openmouthed after her outburst. The three men quickly followed her, Cody swearing beneath his breath.
Once they left the thick darkness under the trees, the world felt familiar and safe again. The moon shone down with a gentle benevolence, and the breeze whispered softly, cool and fresh and smelling of the wildflowers that dotted the plain.
In silence, Cody mounted his horse. Alex needed no help to mount her still-quivering mare, who at least responded to her crooning tone, growing calm at her owner's soothing words.
Dave leaped up behind Brendan and Cody urged their horses toward Alex.
"I hope you'll forgive me, Miss Gordon, if my concern for your life caused me to lose my temper and offend you. There's a serious danger to be fought here, and it will be far easier for Brendan and me to root it out and put an end to it if we're not constantly worrying about your safety."
He didn't give her a chance to respond. After the tongue-lashing she had given him, he was determined to have the last word. He nudged his mount around and started loping smoothly back toward Victory.
As they neared town, he slowed his horse, and Brendan moved up to ride by his side. Cody saw that the older man was smirking at him knowingly, but he just shook his head and continued on toward civilization.
THEY ALL RETURNED TO the boardinghouse together, Alex dreading the thought of having dinner in his company. Yes, she had perhaps spoken more harshly than she should have, but he had insulted her first, so really, it was all his fault. Levy quickly came over to tend to the horses, telling them that Cole Granger was inside pacing, after Dave's horse had returned without him.
"Thank God you're back!" Cole said as they trailed in. He immediately gave Alex a huge hug, and she hugged him back. She felt his heart pounding and knew he was especially grateful for her return. He went on to clap Dave on the back, and pump Brendan's and Cody's hands with enthusiasm. "I don't mind telling you, I was terrified. After what happened last night, I couldn't leave this town unprotected again, but when Dave's horse came back...What happened?"
"Something spooked the horses," Dave said. "And...I think we have some kind of giant birds in the woods," he added, shaking his head, knowing his words sounded irrational. "Giant birds-they got the wolves howling like I've never heard before, and then they started swooping down on us. Alex and I were barely holding our own, and-then Cody and Brendan found us."
"Giant...birds?" Cole asked doubtfully.
"I swear, that's what they seemed like. Giant birds-and I think they're what's killing everyone around here."
Cole stared at the four of them.
"Cole," Alex said, "I don't know what was out there-but they flew, and they would have killed us." She hesitated, trying to keep her voice level. "I think Cody hit one of them, but it flew off before it fell, and it was too dark under the trees for me to see anything. Finally they quit attacking us and we got out of there as fast as we could. So now..."
Her voice trailed off as Beulah, Bert and the girls came running in, kissing and hugging everyone with unbridled enthusiasm. Alex couldn't help but notice that Cody had an awkward grin on his face, as if he were glad of the warmth being shown him on his return.
She remembered the bizarre dream she'd had about him, but insisted to herself that that was all it was, just a dream, nothing she needed to be concerned about.
But she couldn't help being scared. Too often in the past, her dreams had been a forewarning of what was to come.
"All righty now," Beulah said firmly once everyone's return had been celebrated. "You folks get on to the dining room right now."
"Not me, thank you, Beulah," Cole said. "I called a town meeting for just about an hour from now, and I ought to be getting over to the saloon to get ready for it."
"We'll all be going to the meeting, Cole Granger," Beulah said firmly. "And you've still got to eat. Now, get in there, everyone, and don't forget to wash up first. Then you'll all eat a nice, civilized dinner, before we get back to making plans so we can stop being so afraid."
No one was about to dispute Beulah when she was so determined, so Alex hurried upstairs to her room. Her washbowl had been filled, and it felt delicious to dip her hands into the cool water and scrub the dirt and sweat off her face. She didn't have time to change, much less for what she wanted-needed-which was a bath. A long, hot bath. Maybe after the town meeting.
She hurried back to rejoin the others. Just as she left her room, Cody Fox emerged from his. He stiffened at the sight of her.
She stiffened in turn.
They stood that way for a split second, then he held out an arm politely. "After you, Miss Gordon."
She nodded in acknowledgment of the courtesy and swept by him, but she felt him behind her every step of the way to the dining room.
Brendan had apparently washed up with Cole and Dave in the pantry, because all three men were already seated at the table. They rose quickly at the sight of Alex, who murmured a thank-you and took her place as Cole pulled out her chair for her. When he set his hands on her shoulders for a moment, she reached up and gave them a squeeze. He took the chair to her left, and Dave slid into the seat to her right. Cody and Brendan took the chairs across from them.
Beulah, Tess and Jewell served, hurrying back and forth with bowls and platters. Beulah had outdone herself, concocting a creamed chicken dish with tiny peas and onions, fresh sauteed greens, and a mound of mashed potatoes. Bert brought in water and wine.
Yes, it was an amazingly civilized dinner. Alex might have been dining in a fine mansion in Washington. They might have been planning to discuss the races, the weather, or even politics, in a measured and courteous manner.
In fact, at first they were quite courteous.
"Beulah, this is amazing," Dave said as the cook hovered nearby, like a mother hen protecting her chicks.
"Thank you, Dave," she said.
"This is truly a fine meal," Cody told her. "Thank you."
The words were perfectly innocuous, Alex thought. So why did she want to hit him?
"Ditto," Brendan said.
"You didn't have to go to so much trouble, Beulah," Dave said.
"Cooking took my mind off worrying about you," Beulah told them.
"Miss Gordon," Cody said, "would you kindly pass the peas?"
"I'd be delighted, Mr. Fox," she assured him, fighting to keep herself from throwing the bowl across the table at him.
After that they ate in silence for a while, until Cody-of course it would be Cody, she thought-brought reality crashing back in.
"Pardon me for asking, Cole," he said, staring intently across the table at the sheriff, "but just what do you intend to say at the meeting tonight?"
Cole set his fork down, seeming a bit startled. "Well, I'm going to point out that these outlaws are now making a play for Victory. We didn't see what was happening when they went in and destroyed Brigsby and Hollow Tree. God knows what they've done to all the people, if they've fled, or if they've been-" He broke off and hesitated, looking around, clearly uncomfortable. Alex knew that Cole had been raised to believe that certain conversation was indelicate and not for the company of women.
"Cole," Alex said quietly, "is 'slaughtered,' or maybe 'massacred,' the word you're looking for?"
He looked down, sighing. "All right, Alex, I guess I do have to speak plainly. Slaughtered," he said, then turned back to Cody. "And what scares me most is that I wasn't here when they attacked Victory, and this whole town might have been lost if you and Brendan hadn't been here. Tonight I'm going to tell people that they can't be cowards. We have to fight together, we have to look out for one another."
Cody nodded. "It's a good start, but it isn't going to be enough."
Alex felt another surge of irritation rise. Was it because he had no right to lecture Cole, who had lived here all his life? Or because, dream or no, she was fascinated by him-and afraid at the same time...?
"Mr. Fox, as I've said, we're all extremely grateful to you and Mr. Vincent. But Cole is an excellent sheriff and a very courageous man," she said.
Not only didn't Cody take offense, he didn't even glance her way, only grinned at Cole. "I don't doubt that. In a pinch, Sheriff, you're one man I'd like fighting at my side. But I'm afraid that Miss Gordon isn't likely to under stand what I'm about to say. And I'm rather afraid, as well, that if I stand up at your town meeting and try to explain what's going on around here, a few folks are going to know in their hearts that I'm right, but all the rest are going to tell you that I'm a madman."
"I'm lost myself," Cole said. "What on earth are you getting at?"
Cody looked across the table to the corner of the dining room where Beulah stood, half hidden by shadows.
"Beulah knows," he said softly. "And I'm certain that Tess and Jewell believe, as well. This boardinghouse has been protected, not just decorated. The garlic fronds, and all those fine crosses."
Cody glanced at Brendan, then went on. "We are facing true evil here. Those men are not just outlaws. Not all of them, anyway. Some are...diseased. The disease is terrifying and transmissible. Sometimes it's transferred by an act of pure terror, sometimes through seduction. Sometimes, rarely, if a person has only just contracted the disease, they can be cured. But there is a point of no return, and it comes quickly."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Alex demanded bluntly.
"What you and Dave saw in the woods tonight-I did bring something down with an arrow, something against which your bullets were worthless," Cody said. "We're fighting an ancient evil, something unlike anything you've ever faced before that can be fought only with specific weapons, kept at bay only by specific precautions."
"What weapons?" Cole asked. "What precautions?"
"The weapons are arrows, stakes, knives and swords. And holy water, but you don't seem to have much of that around here, though I have a small supply. And the precautions-let no one in. No one. The enemy can enter only if asked."
"This is insane," Alex said. "Do you think I asked those men in last night?"
Cody shook his head patiently. "This is a boardinghouse. Open to the public, just as the saloon is. Such places need more protection than anywhere else."
"This evil?" Dave asked. "Does it have a name?"
Silence fell as Cody met each of their eyes in turn.
"Vampires," he said at last.