A day and night past for the three travelers. Ben could sense the unease in their new member, Henry, and kept his distance. Although the bullets in his revolver would only tickle his immortal flesh, Ben didn’t enjoy the process of digging out the rounds. Sarah, on the other hand, despite their rocky start, constantly intervened for Ben and defended him against Henry. That first night at the camp fire, Ben had overheard their conversation from his place in the shadows.
Henry was trying to convince the innocent orphan to abandon the monster and they could travel alone. But, Sarah stuck by her guide. Ben wasn’t sure how to feel about her unconditional loyalty. Was she doing it out of fear that he would balk at the rejection or did she truly believe that he wouldn’t harm her?
Either way, when he returned to the campsite the following morning, they were ready to continue. Devil’s Rock was only a few hours away. As before, he led the way and let them linger behind on their horses. They spoke in whispers, but Ben could still hear Sarah’s intermittent giggles at Henry’s jokes and smell the arousal from the young cowboy. Even if they had booted him out of their mission to seek out the outlaw, Ben would have followed them to ensure that Sarah would be safe with Henry.
Ben felt a certain compassion for Sarah. Or perhaps it was pity. He admired her courage in trying to seek out her family’s murderer, but at the same time, he scorned her naivety. The girl knew nothing of the ruthless outlaws like Ben did. Without his help, or at the very least, help from the authorities, she wouldn’t stand a chance. Clarence’s reputation proceeded him across the west. Ben wasn’t afraid, but he could smell it on Henry just as potent.
It was a little past noontime and the two were complaining for a break, both for food and for water. Ben knew that a change in the landscape was coming soon. The shrubbery – or lack thereof – was changing and he could see the ridged outline of the cliffs just on the horizon. Devil’s Rock wasn’t much farther away.
But he gave them their break, knowing they would need to be fresh for their encounter with Clarence. Even Ben took this time to rest and assess a strategy. It would be easy to take down the outlaw. Bullets wouldn’t faze him and even a knife would wouldn’t slow him down for long. His only weakness might have been if Clarence had a large posse with him. That, and if Henry decided to get in his way. The boy would prove to be more of a nuisance than Sarah. If she should try to disperse the fatal blow, she could get hurt.
Ben wondered if he should have told them to wait a few miles off while he took care of business. There was no reason to involve them. Humans were far too fragile for these fights.
If they stayed away, then Ben could take on Clarence in an entirely different way. He could shed his human vessel and perhaps give the outlaw a heartache that would kill him rather killing him with his bare hands. Yet, Ben was indecisive. Geoffrey’s advice still bounced around his mind, drifting like a tumble weed and interrupting his train of thought.
Should he even try to take on the outlaw in his preternatural way? It proved successful before in other situations and there was no reason to believe it would turn out differently. Yet, would such violence and bloodshed only feed the beast within him and set back his self induced therapy of denying his better half? Or might it quench the bloodlust and settle the creature down for good?
Ben had no desire to kill Clarence. He didn’t want to kill or harm anyone. That’s why he segregated himself from the rest of society. Perhaps he should let Henry take the lead in this mission and remain hidden in case things went terribly wrong. If Sarah were to be in real danger, he would act. But no sooner, lest his beast take over and win the battle that had been raging inside him for far too long.
However, right at this moment, the beast was stirring. It awoke in this way once a month, giving him a fair warning of what was to come. If they were to meet with Clarence, it would have to be before nightfall. If they didn’t find him by then, Ben would really have to leave Sarah and Henry alone.
Feeling the building dread of what he would have to do, Ben ordered the company to move out after only half an hour’s rest. They could waste no more time.
After a few more hours of walking, they were amongst the maze of cliffs and canyons that surrounded Devil’s Rock. Ben kept his sense open to ambushes and decided to walk a little closer to the others. He could feel their tension, especially in Sarah. However, she wasn’t tense with fear. She must have been eager.
They finally found the rock formation with its twisting path carved into the side by an ancient native tribe that had migrated out of the area long ago. The path was just wide enough for a line of horses to travel around and into a cavern about a quarter of a mile upwards. They couldn’t see into the cave from this angle and Clarence wouldn’t be able to see them coming.
Ben sniffed the air and could smell the faded scent of horses, manure, a dying fire, and most of all the outlaws that had settled here. Ben assumed that their scent would grow stronger as they made their way up the winding trail, but he found that it didn’t.
The truth was all too apparent when they arrived to the plateau and the cave beyond. The ashes of the fire were still there, but no embers glowed back at them. Clarence hadn’t been here for at least a couple of days. On the bright side, he could distinguish out four scents, all different except for a certain trait in common that he couldn’t quite place. But, for men who must have spent a lot of time together, there were things they were bound to share. One of them just happened to be this scent marker.
Sarah let out a sound of tragic disbelief. “We’re too late,” she cried out.
Ben inspected the abandoned camp for any clues. “Maybe we’re not too late. We’re just early.”
Henry dismounted, his pistol gripped tightly in his hand. “What do you mean?” he asked.
Ben lightly kicked at the ashes and watched them disperse into the gentle wind that was sweeping across the plateau. “Clarence hasn’t been here for a few days. He’s bound to come back if this is his hideout.” He gestured into the cave. “Many of their supplies are still here. They wouldn’t just leave them like this.”
“So what do we do?” Sarah asked, remaining on her horse and tucking some of her golden hair behind her ear.
Ben didn’t respond right away. He surveyed the surrounding cliffs and rock formations, looking for any sign that a scout may be keeping an eye on the place. His keen senses told him that they were alone for now. But, he could hear hoofbeats coming from the direction they just came. Half a dozen at least and approaching fast. He couldn’t see them coming, but they would be there soon.
“We’ll wait,” he declared and offered to help Sarah from her saddle.
It was something he hadn’t done before and up until now, he had felt no inclination to. But somehow, the moment called for a little tenderness. Sarah hesitated at first, but extended her hand like she was about to accept his assistance.
Almost predictably, Henry came beside him and made to shove Ben out of the way. Not wanting to incite a fight, Ben dodged out of the way before Henry could so much as lay a finger on him. He was ten feet away from both of them within a blink of an eye.
Henry helped Sarah down instead and Ben wouldn’t help but sneer at the cowboy before turning his attention to the desert again.
What he didn’t predict was Sarah leaving Henry’s side and joining Ben on the edge of the plateau. Ben heard the disapproving grunts from the boy, but Sarah was too strong willed for that.
She reached out and touched Ben’s arm in a reassuring gesture. Ben looked to her with his golden eyes, unashamed of them as long as Sarah was the one they were fixed on. Her expression told him all he needed to know. She didn’t believe what Henry tried to tell her. She didn’t think he was a monster or a threat. He was her only chance for vengeance and she was more than ready to take it when the time came.
“Do you think Clarence will come back soon?” she asked in a low voice as Henry was taking the horses into the cave.
“I hear a posse coming. If this is where they’re headed, they’ll be here within half an hour.”
“Can you tell if it’s Clarence?” she asked eagerly.
Ben shook his head. “Having never met him, I don’t know. And the wind is working against me from this plateau.”
Sarah gave his arm a comforting squeeze and squinted out over the landscape. “I forgot to ask if we have a plan.”
Ben had still be debating on that for some time. There no places to truly hide up here, unless he dug himself a niche within the rock face somewhere around the cave and huddled in there to wait while Henry took care of Clarence. He would have to face the outlaws. In the same way, there was no place for Sarah to take cover when shots were exchanged.
“You need to hide deep in the cave while Henry and I take care of Clarence and his men.”
Sarah frowned. “But I want to kill Clarence myself.”
Ben took a deep breath and couldn’t restrain himself from saying what was on his mind just then. “Let us take care of Clarence. Let his blood be on our hands. I know how badly you want revenge for your family, but killing Clarence would only make you as bad as he is. I wouldn’t want that kind of guilt to be on your conscience.”
Sarah opened her mouth to protest, but Ben shushed her. Something in the air had shifted. He listened, but only heard the roar of the wind around the rocks and the grunting of the horses. Neither could he smell what the disturbance was. The only real thing that rose the alarm was the tingling sensation in the back of his skull.
Another of his kind was close by.
Before he had time to think on this, a gun went off. Ben felt the bullet lodge in his shoulder and burn like hellfire in his flesh. He had the clarity of mind to shove Sarah towards the cave, but the pain was too intense for him to recover before the next bullet caught him in the leg.
Ben roared out in rage and agony. He looked up, sharp canines bared at the man who dared to attack him.
The man approached, pistol leveled on Ben’s core and thumb pulling back the hammer to prepare for another shot. He wore the badge of a sheriff, but the clothes of a desert outlaw. Judging by the difference in his scent that now reached his nostrils, this was not Clarence, nor any of his mates.
The werewolf had tanned and weathered skin, like he had lived a thousand lives before and older than Geoffrey. His shoulder length black hair was streaked with gray, showing his age even more than his face did. To be this old and this dominant in presence, he had to be an alpha from somewhere. He was even more dominant than the man who c hanged Ben years ago. It was somewhat thrilling, yet troubling to be in the company of this man who wanted to harm him and exuded so much power.
Ben did not struggle to his feet, but he gave a threatening growl that the stranger should have understood immediately. But, he continued his march forward. That is, until Sarah dove in between them.
“Stop!” she shrieked, spreading her arms out like it would do any good in the way of protecting Ben. “Why are you doing this? He’s done nothing wrong!”
Henry was with her and deemed himself the voice of reason. “Sarah, let the man do his job. I’m sure there’s a perfectly good reason he’s here.”
“How long have you two been traveling with this rogue?” the sheriff asked, his voice deep like the rumbling of distant thunder. His pistol was still trained on Ben, his hand steady.
Sarah retold the story of her parents, Clarence, and enlisting Ben’s help. All the while, Ben could feel the poison of the silver bullets erode his flesh and muscle. He dug at the wounds and managed to get the one in his shoulder out. The damage would heal, but slowly.
By the time he began working on the bullet in his leg, the sheriff spoke again. “If you knew what kind of man this is, you wouldn’t have asked him for help.”
The sheriff charged forward, his boots kicking up dust in his wake. He seized Ben by the collar and pulled him up to where his knees didn’t touch the ground, but he didn’t have enough room to stand himself up either.
The dominate wolf stuck the barrel of the pistol in Ben’s gut and drew him in closer. “When’s your night?” he asked, his brows furrowing with a deep frown.
At first, Ben was too dazed to answer. Out of all the things this man could ask, he wanted to know when he would change into the monster that lurked within him? The sheriff jabbed the gun into Ben’s stomach with bruising force and repeated his question.
“Tonight,” Ben managed to choke out through the searing pain.
The sheriff threw him down to the ground and with the aide of gloves, clasped a pair of silver handcuffs on Ben’s wrist. The effects of the metal could easily be seen by the two humans present, as little wisps of smoke drifted up from the burnt skin under the cuffs.
“What’s going on?” Sarah demanded, his voice high pitched with urgency and distress. Ben didn’t have the chance to explain himself before the sheriff tightened a kerchief around his mouth to silence him.