Fully healed from his time in the silver prison, Ben narrowly escaped from Bart and his troop as he back tracked to Devil’s Rock. Knowing that Bart might be hot on his trail, he avoided the place so as not to further incriminate himself. Instead, he refreshed himself with Clarence’s scent and deviated from the path, following the outlaw and his gang.
He passed a neighboring farmhouse and helped himself to a fresh shirt, vest, and pair of trousers. Although, it didn’t much matter to him whether he faced the outlaw completely naked or dressed for a bitterly cold winter. Justice would be dispensed no matter. For Sarah’s sake, he would take care of Clarence once and for all.
The scent trail led him to a town about a day’s travel west from Devil’s Rock. The town was modest and small, much like all the towns and trading posts in that region of the frontier. He scouted around the borders first, assessing how many people were in the town by the medley of sounds and scents that he could detect on the wind. Clarence’s scent was all over the place. This must have been a frequent stop of his.
Ben knew that his eyes would attract attention, but without a hat he could do little to hide his wolfish features. He entered town through a back alleyway and hid in the shadows, watching the comings and goings of the people. He watched a mother drag along a toddler by the hand as she clutched a shopping list in her other hand. A few men stumbled across the covered walkways, obviously inebriated. By the sun’s mark, it was just before noontime. A few ranchmen strutted into town on their horses. A few men, well dressed in tailored suits made their way to businesses and restaurants. Farmers from the frontier came in on their wagons for supplies.
Ben watched, waiting, sniffing each man that passed, hoping that he didn’t miss Clarence or that the man would make an appearance soon. The longer he stayed so close to humans, the more he put himself at risk of discovery.
All of a sudden, he sensed that another werewolf was near. His brain and scalp tingled, like a thousand dull needles scratching at his skin. Ben edged deeper into the alley and pressed himself against the wall. He looked up and down the alley, trying to find the source from where he stood.
Then, a group of men passed the entrance to the alley. Their heavy boots stepped down from one planked sidewalk and shuffled through the dirt, making their way to the saloon next door. Ben inhaled and knew that Clarence was among them. All four men were werewolves, like himself. His eyes narrowed and his nails scrapped against the wooden planks of the wall he leaned against.
This changed the hunt. Clarence, also a werewolf, would make them evenly matched. If Clarence was a freshly changed wolf, he could be far more dangerous. And if he were a seasoned wolf like Bart, the risks would be the same. A wolf who knew his own strength could be just as deadly as one who didn’t.
As the men passed, one of them stopped and let the others walk on without him. Ben examined him. He was tall and fair, wearing a long duster and spurs. The brim of his hat concealed most of his face while a dark gray bandana encircled his neck. Ben didn’t have to get a good look at his face to tell that he was a man who knew how to kill. His posture and the way his squared his shoulders said enough.
The man turned and looked directly at Ben. Habit told him to look away and hide his true nature. But Ben locked eyes with the outlaw. The man, gave him an icy blue stare. But as the seconds ticked by, it warmed into something akin to friendliness. The man gave a wry grin and nudged his head forward, as if to tell Ben to come along.
The man in the duster carried on with his friends and Ben could hear the saloon doors swing open for a brief moment.
Ben, hardly knowing what he was doing, but obeying a primal instinct to follow his own kind, exited the alley and dove into the saloon after them. The stench of alcohol and sweat assaulted his senses as he closed his eyes and made his way to the bar where the man sat waiting for him. His colleagues collected at a nearby table and were in the beginning stages of a round of poker.
Ben slipped onto the bar counter next to the man and let out a tight breath.
“What’ll it be, gentleman?” the barkeep asked. Ben refused to raise his eyes, ducking his head low as he leaned against the bar on his folded arms.
The man beside him dropped a few coins on the counter top. “Beer for the both of us,” he said in a pleasant tone, as if nothing were out of the ordinary.
The barkeep walked away and Ben felt something plop onto the crown of his head. It was a hat. He ventured a glance towards his fellow werewolf and saw that he was without his hat and looking straight at Ben with that same friendliness he had displayed before.
“Nice eyes,” he remarked. Ben watched as the man’s eyes flashed golden for a brief second. He had control over his wolf, which was more than what Ben could say for himself.
Ben pulled the rim down low over his brow. “You’re Clarence, huh?”
The man grinned, his teeth pale and straight. This man couldn’t be the notorious outlaw. He was far too friendly, too amiable. It wasn’t every day that he met an outlaw like him. “And who might you be?”
Ben nervously plucked at his knuckles with his nails. It wasn’t every day that a more dominant wolf made him this apprehensive either. Clarence must have had the same natural qualities that Bart did. They got what they wanted simply by asking for it.
“Ben Myers,” he replied in a low voice. “Your reputation precedes you.”
Clarence gave a chuckle and slapped him on the back. “As does yours. It’s a pleasure to meet a myth. I thought I knew all the wolves around these parts.”
Ben gave a quick scouting look around to make sure that no one else was listening. “You mind keeping your voice down?”
“It doesn’t matter. They know.”
“All of them?” Ben whispered as if they were still talking about a secret.
“Well, I’m sure the children don’t know, but the barkeep certainly does.”
Ben straightened and lifted his head a little more confidently. “Why risk it?”
Clarence grinned again, this time with a twinge of menace in the way his lips curled. “Why not? If you tell the mice that you’re a cat, they are a little more obliging.”
Ben might not have used that analogy, but he understood the meaning. If they all knew that Clarence could snap their necks with a flick of his wrist, they weren’t likely to betray him. It also meant doors would open a little easier. Plenty of hiding places and people willing to cover your tracks.
The barkeep brought them drinks and Ben looked up for the first time, meeting the barkeeper’s gaze. Ben saw the way he flinched, but didn’t retreat right away. Instead, he gave Ben an acknowledging nod and went to the other end of the counter to tend to another customer.
“Why don’t you just turn the eyes off, partner?” Clarence asked.
Something within Ben wanted him to let down his guard and open up to this man. He was a fellow werewolf. A kind one, like Geoffrey. But Clarence was a murderer. He killed Sarah’s parents in cold blood and that reality snapped him back to his sense.
Ben leaned it and did not hide his golden eyes from the outlaw, glaring with every bit of hatred he had within him. “I’ve got a bone to pick with you,” he growled.
The change in Ben sobered Clarence for the moment and the smirk disappeared. “I’ve never met you before this day. How could I have offended you so quickly?”
“You murdered the mother and father of a young girl a few weeks ago. Their homestead was about four day’s journey from here. Ring any bells?” Ben sneered.
Clarence leaned back on his stool and tilted his head, as if listening to some internal voice, listening to his wolf perhaps. “I think I might recall this incident. But I did not murder them.”
Ben narrowed his eyes on him, searching his face for any sign that he was lying. He was unsure whether to think this man a liar or not. “What do you mean?”
“It was not murder, my friend,” he said before taking a draft of the beer. “It was self defense.”
“Explain,” Ben demanded softly.
“The rancher was in league with a group of men that are determined to destroy our kind. Have you heard of Sherrif Bart and his goody-too-shoes band of enforcers?”
“That farmer had a meeting with Bart, giving him valuable information about what he saw when a few of his cattle went missing. Apparently one of my men were out hunting and picked off a few unbranded strays. But do you think Bart cared? Not a bit. The farmer was about to rat out one of my men to Bart. I know that because the farmer came to me and tried to black mail me. Told me that he knew my men killed his cattle and wanted compensation. When I told him to take a hike, he said he would tell Bart. You see, lots of people know about me and my men. In exchange for their silence, I protect them. Well, I lifted my protection from this farmer and he got hurt.”
Ben listened, letting the words soak in. It would make sense that Sarah knew nothing about what transpired between Clarence and her father. Hence why she thought her family had been murdered. But Clarence’s form of retribution was still murder. Whether he made the killing blow or not, he had let Sarah’s parents be torn to shreds.
“That does not excuse you.”
Clarence took another sip of his beer and gritted his teeth. “Do you know how many of our kind have been systematically hunted down and killed by Bart?”
Ben didn’t have an answer, but he knew other werewolves had been in that silver mind before him.
“Far too many,” Clarence continued. “And we’re going to do something about it. Whether you think it was right for me to kill that family or not, I know it’s not right for Bart to be killing his own. We intend to take care of him the same way that he’s been taking care of us.”
“You’re going to kill him?”
Clarence nodded. “Him and his twisted ideas of justice. Me and my men have banded together out of sheer necessity. If it were up to Bart and his damaged mind, we would all be dead and not one of our kind would be left in the whole frontier. Yet, the whole world.” Clarence tapped a finger against his temple. “He’s not right in the head. He’s too old and has forgotten how to change. He hasn’t for years.”
Ben remembered the lessons of his mentor. If a werewolf stopped changing, it meant that he was close to the end of his life. The wolf within him no longer had the strength to keep them both alive. This came from either old age or infrequency in changing. Ben knew that if he didn’t change on a regular basis, he would suffer the same fate. That was why he hadn’t bothered to keep up with it.
“Bart is the one who needs to be exterminated. Not us.”
There was sense in what Clarence said. Ben could sense that there was something wrong with the old sheriff. Something in the depths of his eyes didn’t seem right. Like he wasn’t all there. Empty. He might not have agreed with Clarence’s way of dealing with exposure to the wrong people, but he might have the right intentions when it came to the conflict with Bart.
A vindictive spirit rose up in Ben, remembering how he had been locked away in that cell for a crime he didn’t commit. How many more like him – who hadn’t tasted the flesh of humans and posed little threat to society – had Bart killed in the name of justice. But, how many had Clarence killed in the name of self preservation?
But the wolf within him wanted revenge. More importantly, he wanted a pack. And these men, these supposed outlaws, were a pack and Clarence was their alpha. Ben had never known what it was like to be in a pack and his wolf longed for it with a frothing passion. Perhaps with these men, he wouldn’t die alone.
“Do you need an extra hand?”
To Be Continued…