Sarah held the cooling tin cup of coffee between her palms, savoring the potent smell. She had never cared much for the drink, but her father drank it often and the smell of roasting grounds reminded her of better days.
Sheriff Bart’s group of officers caught up with them at Devil’s Rock and led them back into the desert with Ben in tow as their prisoner. A chain was tied between his cuffs and Sheriff Bart had one end wrapped around his gloved fist instead of tying it to the saddle like she had assumed he would do. Ben was in obvious pain. Sarah assumed it was from the bullet that was still lodged in his leg, but she could see the burnt skin beneath the metal that bound his wrists.
No matter how many times she begged for one of the men to take pity on Ben, none would listen. They only listened to the sheriff and Henry was mystified with them. At least he replied to her pleas with the logic that the authorities knew what they were doing.
But Sarah didn’t care for the authorities. Here they were, taking Ben prisoner while the real criminal was getting away. They were wasting time.
Even now, huddled around a campfire, the men acted like nothing was wrong. They told stories and laughed heartily while Ben was being contained in some abandoned mine. Some were drinking coffee and others whiskey or some other type of alcohol. Only she and Sheriff Bart remained silent for most of the evening.
The sun was beginning to set now and she couldn’t stop thinking about what the sheriff had asked Ben earlier that day. Something was going to happen tonight and she wanted to know what. She stood up, leaving Henry to talk with his new friends and approached Sheriff Bart.
He put off an easy vibe, but she could sense the thread of authority still there, even in this relaxed setting. She squatted down to make herself smaller than him, feeling somehow that would make him more open to listening for once.
“Sheriff? What’s going to happen to Ben?” she asked softly, hardly audible to her own ears over the jumble of loud talk and laughter.
He slid a glance in her direction, which was the most she had gotten from him in hours. She could tell that he was a man of experience, hardened by life – probably from his job – and a no-nonsense kind of person. To appeal to his better, gentler nature might have been a mistake. Instead of making demands, she asked simple questions.
It seemed to work as he took another sip from his cup and turned to face her completely. “Ben will be executed in the morning. He’s too dangerous to be roaming free in this world.”
The news fell like a bullet in her gut and Sarah forced herself to take a few more breaths before continuing with an even tone, which was terribly difficult. “Why? I don’t understand what he’s done to deserve his reputation.”
Bart’s cold dark eyes narrowed at her in the fading light as if he were genuinely confused. “You really don’t know what he is, do you?” he asked.
Suddenly, she realized that the rest of the group had gone quiet, listening to their conversation. Sarah’s eyes passed over each of their expressionless faces. She turned back to the sheriff and shook her head, unable to find the words.
Sheriff Bart sighed and seemed to ponder for a moment before he gave a curt nod and stood to his feet as gracefully as an eagle spreads its wings for flight. “Come,” he said as he made his way towards the entrance to the mine. “We only have a few moments.”
Sarah quickly followed him, both eager for an explanation and to see the condemned criminal. Getting the sheriff alone might have improved her chances to persuade him of Ben’s moral character.
Sheriff Bart lit a lantern sitting just inside the threshold and handed it to her as he led the way down the tunnel. Sarah realized she was still holding her tin cup and set it down on the ground, doubtful that she would drink anymore that evening anyway.
The air inside the tunnel was moist and cool, but there was a quality of dust in the air that upset her nose. Within the first few yards, she sneezed at least four times. The tunnel was held up by thick wooden beams stretching horizontally across the ceiling and posts lining the unevenly carved rocky walls. There was hardly any room for two people to walk abreast inside.
The tunnel twisted and turned, forking off in several directions along the way and Sarah was thankful that she had a guide. Otherwise, she would be lost and never find Ben. They came to a long, straight run of tunnel and she could see what appeared to be prisoner cells ahead. Just like the cells in a jailhouse, these rooms were blocked off with bars and were hardly the size of a standard room, leaving the prisoners little room to move around inside.
They traveled father down, passing dozens upon dozens of empty cells before Sarah began to hear it. Heavy breathing and whimpering. She looked to her left as they passed another cell, no different than the others. Only, this one contained the corpse of a creature she had never seen before. It appeared doglike, but bigger, almost the size of a small horse. The flesh was rotting away, slowly, but there were no bugs to help the process along, leaving the corpse smelling putrid.
Sarah gasped and hurried closer to Sheriff Bart. The whimpering grew louder and the smell of death was mingled with the scent of burnt flesh. Bart stopped at a cell, close to the end of this prison block and stared at his prisoner without a hint of remorse or compassion.
She hurried to the cell and what she saw frightened her more than the corpse in the other cell. Tears stung at her eyes as she beheld Ben, lying half naked and exposed on the cell floor. The yellow glow of the lantern cast flickering shadows on his body and she saw horrible burns blotching out his skin to the point she hardly saw any bit of skin still in tact.
Ben was shifting and moving about the small room like a caged animal, his eyes half glazed over with pain and unseeing. It was then that she noticed the walls of the cell. They glittered like tiny stars on the black canvas sky. Whenever Ben’s bare feet touched the shimmering stone on the floor, Sarah heard a tiny sizzle as if that was what burnt him.
She took a step back. “What is that stuff on the walls and floor?”
“Silver,” Sheriff Bart replied matter-of-factly. “It’s like poison to him. If it comes into contact with his skin, it burns him and he isn’t able to heal back from it as quickly.”
The tear that had been collecting in the corner of her eye finally rolled down her cheek. “How could you treat him like this? This is torture, not justice.”
Sheriff Bart stepped closer to her, keeping his gaze fixed on Ben. “This is the only way he can be contained. If this prison of his shackles were made of iron, he would have escaped long ago.”
“Why does silver work better?” she asked, watching the way Ben pounding against the walls with his fists, but his energy was all but gone.
“Ben is not human. He’s something much more. But he is uncontrollable and deadly in the state that he’s in. I have met others like him and they were never able to suppress their other nature. I’ve had to execute them too.”
Sarah finally looked to Bart, having seen enough agony in Ben’s eyes to last her a lifetime of pity. “There are others like Ben?”
“Oh, yes. Many more,” he replied with a sober nod.
“And it’s your God given mission to kill them all?” she asked with more than a little resentment in her voice.
“Not all of them. Just the few bad eggs.”
Sarah hugged her free hand across her chest. “But, what is he? I still don’t understand.”
Bart lifted his chin and closed his eyes, as if listening for something. After a few beats, he looked to Ben again. “It’s better that you see it for yourself.”
Sarah looked back to Ben and noticed the change. He wasn’t moving anymore, not in the sporadic, restless way. Instead, he was hunched on the floor and convulsing in waves, like a dog or cat dry heaving. The groans that rumbled from his throat were akin to growls, but turned shrill like a whine.
Unable to look away, she watched with horror as the shift came. She saw bones pop in and out of joints, bulging against his already raw and battered skin. Before her eyes, Ben grew in size and his inhuman screams reverberated down the hall. The rocks vibrated with his agony and Sarah felt her chest tighten with fear at what she was witnessing.
His skin grew pale and as his naked body took form, long black fur sprouted from every pore, covering him completely in a pelt that she had never seen before. It was like that of a coyote, but thicker and glossier.
His ears grew tall and pointed, his face lengthened and a doglike muzzle appeared with gnashing teeth. The sounds he made told her that there was no longer a human in that cell, but a beast more wolf than man.
Gold eyes glowed in the darkness as the change completed. Bart was unaffected by what just happened, but she could glimpse a bit of sympathy in his eyes now. While Sarah had her eyes turned, the beast charged at the bars.
She shrieked and buried herself into Bart’s body for shelter. But the animal hit the bars and his humanlike hands with pads and gnarly claws wrapped around the metal. It yowled in pain and threw itself back into the cell, rolling around as the silver bits ingrained in the stone burned him.
Sarah looked upon the monster and tried to find any resemblance to Ben, hoping beyond all else that there was still something left of her guide. The only similar thing between the two forms were the golden wolf eyes that glared and blinked back at her in the lantern light.
“A werewolf,” Sheriff Bart confirmed in a gentle voice. “He doesn’t recognize you or me. The real Ben is in their somewhere, sleeping while the beast takes control once a month.”
Sarah should have guessed it, but she had only heard a few myths about werewolves before. But this wasn’t what she had heard. She thought werewolves changed into complete wolves. This was something else entirely. Its form may have been based off of a wolf, but it was more of a nightmarish creature than the wild predator it might have been related to.
“And that’s why you have to kill him?” she asked, finally noticing that she was weeping by the way her voice broke every few words. “Because he can’t control himself?”
“Yes. I’m trying to make the world safer. I once thought that they could be taught to control their beast, but I was wrong. The only good wild werewolf, one without a pack, is a dead one.”