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Published on Friday, August 24, 2012

Wolf Skins

By Benedict. J. Jones

 

Toby guided his horse down the small rise after his companion and cursed, under his breath for around the twentieth time that day. Snow fell from the wide Nebraska sky. It had been trying to snow since dawn and as the afternoon approached it finally seemed to be coming.

"Hey, Silus?" Hollered Toby.

The older man in front raised his hand.

"Shouldn't we be heading back?" Toby's thoughts were far from the snowy hills.

"Your daddy wants those steers found." Silus didn't turn around in his saddle. "He was pretty clear on that and then there's the three dollars a scalp we'll get for the wolves."

Toby cursed for the twenty first time and Silus grinned.

Within twenty minutes the snow had reduced visibility to a few yards. Silus turned to look over his shoulder at Toby.

   

"Guess you were right, boy. There's an old hunter's shack 'bout ten minutes ride. You okay for that?"

"I'll have to be."

"S'pose you'd rather be going to see the Griegson girl..."

Even in the cold of the snow Toby's cheeks flushed to red.

"Why in the hell are we out here, Silus?" Toby rode alongside his companion.

"You know why. Your daddy wants those steers found."

"But why today?"

"I'm guessin' he wasn't banking on weather closing in like it has. Course I 'spect he was worrying about the wolves that got those three head over on the Daniels spread." Toby saw Silus' hand touch the butt of his rifle.

"You don't like wolves, Silus?"

"Never have, never will." Silus spat into the snow.

A pair of small clapboard shacks gradually showed themselves through the haze of snow. The two riders closed on the buildings and then dismounted.

"We'll put the horses in that one and wait this out it the other." Toby just nodded his head and led his horse towards one of the shacks. Through the roar of the wind came the distant cry of a wolf. Toby looked round and saw Silus draw his rifle from its saddle scabbard.

"Little jumpy aren't you, old man?" He shouted over the wind. Silus threw him a look and followed with his own mount.

They stripped off the saddles, fed their mounts and headed off with their gear into the second shack. Silus had the fire going within minutes while Toby sat himself down and rolled a cigarette.

"Your daddy know you smoke those?"

"I'm seventeen!" Retorted Toby.

"Not what I asked, boy."

Toby shrugged in response.

"Not gonna roll one for your partner?"

The younger man looked up.

"We're riding together and that makes us partners. Least as far as tobacco rights go."

Toby passed the cigarette he'd already rolled to Silus and then started on another. Silus strpped off his jacket and rolled it up as a cushion. As he sat down Toby heard the old man's knees pop.

"How old are you anyway, Silas?"

Silas took a long draw on his smoke.

"I'm seventy one. I was born in eighteen hund'ed and twenty eight, new century day after tomorrow."

"And if this storm's in for the long haul I'll be seeing it in with you." Toby pouted.

"'Stead of with Sally Griegson?"

"Well, maybe... If I could get her away from her brothers."

The old man laughed.

"I've seen real snow before kid, in the Rockies, and this ain't it. We'll be out of here in the morning and you can get yourself spit shined for the party."

"Where else you been, Silas?"

"Lot of places, kid - I've panned for gold in California, cut timber in Oregon, soldiered in Mexico, worked the docks in Nacogdoches, fought Indians in the Dakota war, shit kid I even went to New York once and if I'd been fifteen years younger I would've gone to Cuba or the Phillipines last year."

"You fight in the war against the South?"

"Yep"

"Who with?"

"The South!" Silus threw a smile at Toby.

The wolf cry outside once again cut over the banshee howl of the wind. It was closer this time. Silus' smile fell away.

"You got another one of those smokes? I'll put some coffee on."

"Sure. How come you carry that old gun, Silus?"

"How come you don't call me Mister Pettinger? I carry this Sharps .50 'cause it's the best rifle I've ever used. It'll drop everything from a bear to a man. What you carrying a '95 Winchester? You ever seen when a lever action jams up? Course you haven't. Never been in a killing game have you, kid?"

Toby looked away as if it was his fault that his inexperience meant he'd never seen a repeating rifle jam in the midst of a fire fight.

"Where did you first see the elephant, Silus?"

Silus passed a cup of coffee to Toby and then sat back down on his jacket-pillow with his own.

"You asking about war?"

Toby nodded in response.

"Funny you should ask that because it has to do with the wolves."

Silus paused and drew a bottle from his blanket roll.

"You ready for a splash in your coffee?"

Toby nodded again and Silus threw a slug into his mug.

"That'll put hairs on your chest, guess you could say that's what Mexico did for me." Silus paused for a moment before he continued.

"I'll tell you a story, kid. It might help to pass the time." Toby gestured with his cup and Silus threw another slug of whiskey into it.

"We were heading down to Chihuahua from El Paso and we were late - late for the war, a bunch of irregulars from Tennessee, just wandering through fighting it out with Mex militias and groups of peasants who tried to stop us. I was drunk most of the time, your age. It was a good time at first, then things went bad. Realization I guess you'd call it - half the men I was riding with were already killers, killers and marauders and I fell into that like a hog in shit."

Silus stopped talking and took a hit straight from the bottle.

"Mister Pettinger..."

Silus shooshed the boy.

"I knew we were in trouble when we lost our vanguard - ten men, gone without a shot. We found the bodies two hours later tossed in an arroyo. They'd been torn to pieces, throats gone, limbs missing, eyes ripped out..." Silus took another hit from his bottle.

"What then, Silus?"

"We let the dogs loose. We headed for the closest village and waited for night to come. As we waited for the darkness we drank. I could barely sit straight in the saddle when we charged the town; forty of us, swords and pistols, charging downhill. As we closed on the village the horses started to get skittish as though they were trying to shy away but we were in full flight and I saw men put spurs, whips and even gun butts to their horses. The lights blazed in the town but there was no one on the streets. We rode amongst the Pueblo houses firing off shots and raging that there was no one to take our anger out on. They fired once our horses had slowed - a single volley of musket fire from out of the shadows. I saw men clipped by shots and one or two fell from their mounts. Then they were amongst us. In the half-light I saw flashes of teeth, blood smeared mouths, two tone eyes and the sounds, oh God, the sound. They were amongst us. I fired off my rifle and both pistols. The men I rode with drew long knives and hatchets and tried to fight but I had my own ideas, things that didn't involve me dying in the dust in a Pueblo village. I turned and forced my horse on. I heard the screams and the roars and I rode for the dark.

I didn't see the girl until it was too late and she was under the hooves of my mount. A flash of dark hair and white dress that was all I saw. She was dragged a few yards and when I looked back she like a broken dolly lying in the dirt.

My horse lost its footing in a gulley at the edge of the village and that was when I heard it. At first it was like whisper and then it grew to a shout - "Hey, gringo." I turned knowing my guns were empty and drew my Arkansas toothpick. He stood behind me, a good distance away and if I'd of had a loaded rifle I could have dropped him. He was short and dark; naked and with every muscle in his body standing out, dark with hair and eyes glowing in the night. He howled and I gripped my knife so tight that it hurt.

The shot took my pursuer in the top of his back. He was thrown forward and fell in the dust. I looked past him and saw Bear Claw Andrews on his knee with his Hawken rifle. He nodded at me before they grabbed him. Two men, covered in hair, pulled at him and I watched as they broke his arms and then I turned away as they began to tear the flesh from his face. I ran. I crossed the fields and I ran. Feels like I've run ever since."

Silus stopped talking and took a deep draught from his bottle.

"You want some more, boy?"

Toby nodded and proffered his cup.

"Don't listen to me, kid. I'm just a stupid old man at the end of his trail."

"Silus..."

Toby was cut short by the wolf howl close to the shack. Silus grabbed up his Sharps and cocked back the hammer. The storm howled around the shack. Toby grabbed up his Winchester and levered a round into the chamber. They stood waiting with their rifles packed tight into their shoulders. The wind dropped for a moment and they both heard the whisper.

"Hey, gringo."

Toby fired. He put a round straight through the wall of the shack.

"Hold up, boy!" Snapped Silus as he moved to the door.

The younger man worked the lever of his rifle.

"This some kind of joke, Silus? One of your old coot friends out there?"

Silus laughed.

"If only it was. You open this door and then get out of the way."

Toby nodded and took hold of the door handle, he held his Winchester propped against his hip. Silus cocked the hammer on the Sharps, raised it to his shoulder and nodded at Toby.

The boy threw the door open and Silus sighted his rifle.

"Damn! I can't see a thing through this snow." Again another howl joined with that of the wind and seemed to echo around the shack. Silus stepped over the threshold and Toby followed.

  

They stared into the swirling whiteness trying to make out the shapes beyond.

"There!" Shouted Toby. "At the edge of the treeline."

Silus followed the boys pointing and sure enough saw a shadow moving quickly along the treeline. He aimed and fired. The shadow vanished amongst the trees and Silus couldn't tell if his shot had hit its mark.

"Are we going to go and check?"

"No." Replied Silus and headed back to the shack.

Toby shivered and followed the old man back to their shelter.

Silus sat and reloaded the Sharps while Toby stood near the door trying to listen for sounds beneath the wind.

"You think you got him, Silus?"

The old man shook his head.

"Doubt it. I could barely seem him through the snow."

"What will he do now?"

"I don't know. He won't come against us as long as we are in here. He might try and jump us when we leave. We can't go out after him, that'd be playing into his hands. We'll wait him out and then try to ride out when the snow stops."

"We could get my daddy and some of the other hands..."

Silus shrugged.

"We could try. But you should know, Toby, that every time I've tried to hunt the hunter it's ended badly. He took my wife in New Orleans and killed two friends of mine over in Kansas."

"What does he want?"

"To kill me I reckon."

"But why?"

"I've never stopped to ask him. All I know is that every man I rode into that village with hasn't been heard of since; Captain Edwards, Cherokee Pete Lomax, Bear Claw Andrews, Nonconnah Jack, Hatchet Dan McCall... Guess I'm the last of us."

"But you saw him shot down in Mexico."

"I saw him killed in Mexico. No one could survive a shot like that from a Hawken rifle."

"And he must be older than you..."

"Moves damned spritely don't he?"

Toby shook his head.

"This don't make no sense, Silus. There're two of us with rifles - is he armed?"

"Never seen him with knife or gun. He likes to do his killing with his hands."

"Why don't we just wait for the snow to lift and then hunt him down. You can't run forever, Silus."

"A man should always know when to stand and when to run, Toby. Standing cost me more than I could bear. I don't know if I could again."

A piercing scream tore through the air. Toby made for the door.

"The horses!"

"Be careful, boy. He's probably trying to lure us out there."

"But without the horses we 'll be walking out of here."

Silus felt torn. He stayed quiet for a moment as more anguished screams washed over them and then he nodded.

"Stay behind me and watch your back." Silus threw the door open and gingerly stepped out. The snow crunched beneath their boots as they approached the shack where they had corralled their horses. The screams receded as they drew nearer.

"Steady now." Silus tore open the door and raised his rifle.

Before them lay a slaughter house; chunks of horse flesh littered the ground and dark blood had painted the walls. Toby looked away. Silus stepped back and looked around, wary of attack.

"Who'd do that to a horse, Silus? What kind of man?"

"I don't reckon he's a man at all. Let's get back inside, I'm feeling fearful exposed out here."

The two men quickly made for the shack and barred the door.

"What're we going to do, Silus?" There were tears in the boy's eyes.

"Same as what I said before. We wait the snow out and then we'll walk out."

"But he'll be waiting!"

Silus nodded.

"I know it. Get some sleep. I'll keep watch."

Silus sat and threw some more wood onto the fire. Toby pulled his blanket around himself and lay down. The older man sighed and stroked the butt of the Sharps. One way or the other his troubles would be over the next day, he felt tired and knew that he couldn't run much further. He'd make his stand in the snow of Nebraska.

By the early light of dawn the snow had stopped falling leaving a thick white carpet in its wake. Silus checked his rifle, tucked his knife into the top of his boot and pulled a glove onto his left hand. He left his right hand bare so as to get to the trigger of his weapon more easily. Toby held his rifle tightly and waited for the word from SIlus.

"I'm sorry about this, boy."

Toby nodded and stepped to the door. The two men crunched across the snow and headed back towards the ranch skirting the tree line. A crashing in the brush made them turn and Toby fired off two rounds in quick succession. Silus raised his rifle but held his shot. Nothing moved in the bushes. Silence reigned. Silus moved forward and pushed into the undergrowth. A ferret lay where it had fallen pierced through the body one of Toby's shots. As Silus turned back to call to the boy a heavy weight dropped from the tree above and bore him down into the snow. Silus smelt a heavy muskiness and felt rough fur against his face, he tried to bring the Sharps to bear but the weight moved with him. There was a growl and Silus' ear erupted into a geyser of white hot pain. He let go of his rifle and pulled the knife from his boot. Lashing out blindly Silus tried to dislodge the growling attacker from his back. A gunshot sounded close by and Silus felt himself released. He dragged himself into a crouch and saw the shadow of his attacker fleeing into the bare trees. Toby appeared at Silus' side.

"Jesus! You look like you've been in a fight with a bob cat!"

Silus looked down and saw the tears in his thick coat. His back felt wet and cold and the pain from his left ear made him wince.

"How bad's the ear?" Toby came closer.

"Ain't no ear there..." Toby passed his handkerchief to Silus pressed it against the place where his ear used to be.

Silus grabbed up the Sharps and crashed away into the trees. Toby stood for a moment and then followed the old man. They moved through the trees in silence, the only sounds coming from the snapping of twigs and their boots sinking into the snow.

"There!" Shouted Toby and fired twice at a figure bounding towards the ridge line. Silus raised the Sharps aimed at the central mass of the disappearing figure. His shot was true and they watched the figure stumble and fall. Toby whooped and raced ahead.

"Watch out, kid. Could be he's playing dead."

Silus cursed and ran after Toby.

Toby had stopped near the body and pointed his Winchester at the man who lay on the reddening snow. Silus pulled up next to him.

"Never thought I'd see this..."

The man was short and dark, he was naked and his body thick with black and grey hair. The bullet had taken him high in the back. His breathing was short and laboured with a wet undertone. Silus crouched low near to the man while Toby kept his rifle aimed at the man's heart.

"So here we are..." Silus grinned.

The dying man grinned back, his large white teeth stained with blood.

"Here we are, gringo. And I will remain, I think."

"Don't look as bad the shot that I saw you take the first time we met."

The man laughed and it soon turned to a wet cough.

"Not me. That was my father and my sister was the girl you rode down that night." The man closed his eyes for a moment and lay back.

"Well, the best I can offer you is a Christian burial." The man opened his eyes.

"You think this is over old man? You think I'm the only one. I guess we all look the same to you but there are my six brothers. We've been looking for you for a long time, they know where you are. You're the last." The wolf man smiled and Toby shot him through the heart.

Silus sat back in the snow.

They buried the man-thing in the hard ground and walked out to the ranch. Silus was weak with loss of blood and by New Year's eve he was raving with the fever. They put him to bed and he died a week later the wound around his ear a stinking mess of blood and pus.

Toby didn't say much about what had happened, only that they had run into a pack of wolves that had killed their horses and mauled Silus. He stayed close to the ranch and let Sally Griegson take care of him. He heard it one night as he sat smoking on the porch; the howl of a wolf close at hand and then a whisper from the shadows.

"Hey, gringo..."

THE END

 

Benedict. J. Jones is a writer from London who mainly works in the genres of crime and horror with occasional forays into historical writing. He has had more than fifteen stories published in the small presses since 2008.

 

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