Published on Friday, August 1, 2014
Hang on for the Ride
By Milo James Fowler
Three can be a real crowd, particularly when you're crammed into a cellar full of preserves in mason jars, down in dark so black you can't see your own hand in front of your face, and when you try, you end up bumping into somebody's unmentionables. But when that cellar door stands between you and certain death at the claws of a giant, rabid hound, well, then you thank the Good Lord for that cramped cellar and the two beating hearts on either side of you.
This was where Big Yap found himself one fine autumn evening in the year 1886, sandwiched between solid muscle and supple curves.
"You think it's gone, Cal?" he whispered at length. There hadn't been a sound on the other side of that cellar door for a good ten minutes.
"Only one way to find out," Coyote Cal said in a low tone. His thick-muscled frame shifted in the dark.
"Let's give it another minute or few," said Donna the Witch Jamison. "Just to be sure."
"Last time I checked, you ain't the hero in this story," Big Yap muttered. "What Cal says goes, and if he says it's time to open— "
"I don't fancy seeing what we're about to see on an empty stomach is all." Glass jars on a nearby shelf clinked. Her curves shifted against Yap's back. "Peaches?"
"How do you know what we're about to see?"
"The brute has fed. I'm sure it left a bloody mess."
Big Yap pshawed into his scraggly beard. "Then an empty stomach will suit me fine."
"The sight of blood doesn't make you hungry?"
"Enough playful banter," said Cal. His hand slid toward the Colt holstered at his side. "Brace yourselves."
He pushed aside the heavy shelf he'd used to barricade the door, then heaved it open. The hinges shrieked, shattering the silence as flickering lantern light invaded the cellar and shoved the shadows into far corners.
"Get ready." Big Yap reached for the sawed-off shotgun sheathed across his back.
"Born ready, old timer." Donna licked peach juice from her fingers. In her other hand, a mason jar was missing half its contents.
Cal stepped out into the corridor, his boots creaking heel-to-toe across the cedar floorboards, his spurs jingling softly, his Colt cocked and ready. His Stetson cast a shadow over his features, all but the chiseled jaw, rough with dark stubble.
Big Yap chewed his chapped lip as he followed Cal out of the cellar. The ranch house was quiet. Too quiet for its own good— or that of the folks who called it home.
A sudden growl tore through the silence, and a dark shape like a dog but big as a man lunged at Cal, knocking his shooting hand upward as it tackled him to the floor. Cal's Colt went off like a load of dynamite in the narrow corridor. The bullet dug into the plank ceiling and sent splinters flying.
"Cal!" Big Yap had his weapon at the ready, but he didn't have a clear shot, not with the beast and Coyote Cal fighting the way they were— wrestling, really, when you came right down to it. Cal was no stranger to the canine race, having himself been raised by coyotes when his distraught mother abandoned him in the wilderness. But this creature— it wasn't quite the same, and it appeared to be gaining the upper paw.
"Allow me." Donna shoved her way past Yap and threw her arm in a downward arc. The blade of her Bowie knife caught the light before it embedded itself in the creature's neck.
With something akin to a howl and a hoarse scream, the shaggy monster dropped limply and lay still. Cal kicked it aside and leapt to his feet.
"Thanks." He tugged the knife free and wiped it on the creature's fur— only it didn't look like fur so much anymore. More like the hairy chest of a naked man. Very hairy. Very naked. Cal's eyes were fixed on Donna.
"Haven't eaten all day, y'know," she apologized, finishing off the peaches. The light caught her auburn hair and the remnants of a faint scar that ran down her throat. It may have been a trick of the light, but she looked almost pretty. She took her knife and sheathed it on her hip.
"Uh...Cal?" Big Yap directed their attention to the man on the floor. "This wouldn't be what I think it is, right? Because I'm thinking something like this doesn't belong in a tale out of the Wild West."
"It's the weird west now, old timer," Donna said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Best get used to it."
"I'd rather not, if it's all the same to you."
"She's right, Yap," Cal said to his loyal sidekick. "We knew when we came to the aid of this family ranch that we may not like what we saw. Cows butchered. Cowboys torn apart. Full moon out tonight. All the warning signs were there."
Yap dropped the shotgun to his side and tugged at his grizzled whiskers. "Guess I was hoping it'd be your standard dog with rabies scenario."
"No such luck." Cal holstered his Colt. "Looks like there's one less werewolf in Texas."
"You boys bag the critter, and I'll go collect our reward," Donna said. "Assuming there's anybody alive around here to pay us."
"Pay you," Yap muttered. Coyote Cal never took a red cent for his good deeds, and he expected—without ever saying so— his honorable sidekick to do the same. Donna, on the other hand, lived by her own code.
"Justice is its own reward, my friend," Cal said.
"Keep telling yourselves that." Donna tossed him the empty peach jar, and his shooting hand caught it with lightning-quick speed. "Even heroes gotta eat."
"Amen to that," Yap said before he realized they were agreeing on something. Grumbling into his beard, he set about assisting Cal with the disposal of the monster's body. Once Donna was out of earshot, he said, "How'd she kill this thing, anyhow? Ain't the were-kind supposed to be impervious to metal?"
Cal raised an eyebrow. "Silver blade."
"Resourceful," Yap grunted.
"Good to have her around, don't you think?"
"I don't trust her, Cal. Never have, never will."
"She just saved my life."
"Maybe so." Yap sniffed. "And I admit it, she knows a sight more about this weird west than I do. But a hero riding around with a witch? Kind of unheard of, ain't it?"
Cal half-smiled and inclined his head toward the body they carried out of the house: a man who had been a savage, bloodthirsty monster, covered in fur. Big Yap nodded reluctantly. Plenty of unheard-of things were going on these days, he supposed.
"Guess we'd better hang on for the ride, Cal."
Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day, speculative fictioneer by night, and an active SFWA member. Stop by anytime: www.milojamesfowler.com