The beast stepped carefully through the deep woods, heedless of the brambles and sharp branches that brushed roughly against its thick wiry coat. It hungered for meat and blood this night, and its prey was ever nearer. If it had had thoughts, they might have run like this: Prey smell, prey close. Must quiet, must not let prey hear. Prey will be ours in the dark, the blood will slake our thirst, the meat quiet the hunger in our bones. The bones of prey we crush for sweet marrow. Must quiet! Must not let prey hear. Prey close. Prey smell.
Enormous clawed paws padded almost silently through dead leaves and jumbled roots in the damp earth. Up ahead, the prey lay still near its campfire, not looking at the beast. The sound of its breath came to the beast: slow, steady. Unaware. It moved slower now, willing to take the time to ensure a successful hunt. Waiting patiently until the moment came to sink razor sharp fangs into the soft neck of the prey.
In a flash, the beast sprang toward the prey, mouth opened, fangs bared. At the exact same moment, another flash as a young woman dropped from the tree high overhead, knife at the read. She plunged it deep into the beast’s unprepared neck, cutting short the scream that issued from its wide throat, stilling that which split the night air. “A good strike, Kateri!” Another young woman materialized next to the first, likewise planting a large hunting knife into the throat of the beast, effectively putting it on the ground. They stood together, admiring their handiwork. “I think he is not in much pain now,” the one called Kateri said softly.
“No,” her friend agreed. “At least no more than he already was.” She bent down to retrieve her knife, long dark braided hair swinging forward, dangerously close to the visceral mess, and wiped the Bowie blade on the fur of the animal. Straightening, she crossed herself solemnly.
At the fire, the would-be prey scrambled to its feet. “Abie? Kateri? Did you kill it?”
The two stepped aside so their friend could see. The young woman at the fire looked away with a shudder. “Ugh, he stinks. …Why are they always naked when they turn back?”
Their quarry, reeking of something like rancid meat and wet dog, had indeed shrunk in size, wiry fur receding, bones creaking and crackling as they returned to proper human size. Abie moved her moccasin boots slightly as a final death rattle shook the creature, accompanied by a gush of bright red blood that flowed just into the circle of light cast by their campfire.
“Think there are more?”
“No other reports of bites or mysterious disappearances,” Kateri shook her head. “I think we’re alright for tonight, Rose.”
“I’ll stay up for a bit,” the other returned, biting her lip. “If it had a mate or a pack, that’d be worth knowing before we’re made part of it.”
“Suit yourself,” Abie and Kateri spread their bedrolls on the ground, each with head propped on Navajo blankets they had traded for back in Langton.
After the terrible violence of the past few minutes, Rose shook herself and sat down heavily near the fire. The stench lingered, giving her cause to grumble to herself. She was grateful for the cool breeze that swept through the tall pines, carrying the foul air away and replacing it with the smell of pine needles and the forest. The stars moved silently overhead, barely visible through the dense foliage.
The next morning dawned clear and bright, a cool breeze with just a hint of chill in it whipped through the camp. Rose had eventually lost the fight against sleep and had dozed off, elbow planted on her knee, head resting heavily on her hand. She jerked awake and looked around to make sure her compatriots hadn’t seen her. They were both gone, so she groaned and slowly, achingly got to her feet. Grabbing her canteen, she made her way down the slight incline toward the Cimarron River. As she stepped over a fallen tree, her eyes were drawn to three distant figures at the water’s edge. Two she immediately recognized as Abie and Kateri, but the third appeared to be a man. Rose quickened her pace.
“We’d like you to look into it,” the man was saying.
Abie and Kateri exchanged glances, then Abie saw Rose and beckoned her over. “Rose, you remember Agent Plant from the Agency?” she said pleasantly.
“I do,” Rose nodded. “What’s this he wants us to investigate?”
“There’s a town about 30 miles from here called Dolan Springs. It’s nestled right near the Bridal Chamber mine and so its occupants are, rather were, largely miners, gamblers, charlatans, and other n’er-do-wells. In the last five months, however, they have reported a drop in crime from what we might consider a standard rate to zero.”
“Zero?” Rose looked at her friends.
“Zero,” Agent Plant repeated. “The sheriff reports that the jail cells are empty and the town has become, dare I say, respectable.”
“You’d like us to find out why that is, I reckon.”
“Yes ma’am,” Plant nodded. “If you aren’t otherwise engaged.”
The three exchanged glances silently. Abie spoke, “We’re finishing a job in Langton, hunting some aberration that has been stalking the woods. We can head to Dolan Springs tomorrow at first light.”
“I would be happy to meet you at that big stretch of the Cimmaron, about three miles north of here,” Plant said. “The Agency is happy to supply you with canoes and supplies to make your trip quicker and easier.”
“I thank you, Agent Plant,” Kateri said easily. “We will meet you there tomorrow morning.”
“Of course, ladies. May I offer you a ride back to Langton?” He gestured to his wagon and waiting horses.
“It would make our job hauling that creature back a lot easier,” Rose suggested.
“It would,” Abie agreed. “We will strike our camp and join you.”