A/N: A very special thanks to Gail G for being a beta extraordinaire

 

 

 

‘Presenteth them unto the gazing moon so many horrid ghosts’

 Henry V, Act. IV Prologue

 

Blood Moon

 

A Laramie Halloween Tale

 

By Maddie Holthe

           

 

Pale and uneasy, the fog bank whispered down the mountainside and seeped into the forest below. Heavy, clotted, yet ephemeral, it beaded the vegetation with moisture and dripped onto the sodden groundcover.

 

It appeared to hesitate when it reached the old Laramie road. A sudden breath of wind brushed through the haze, creating a vortex of shadowy figures. The spectral shapes swirled and eddied along the path before coalescing.

 

The mournful call of a timber wolf echoed through the forest as the mist slithered along the road towards Laramie

 

*****

 

Sheriff Mort Corey pawed disconsolately at the paperwork littering his desk.  He detested journal entries, bills and wanted posters. They all seemed to propagate when he wasn’t looking, since he had yet to see the bottom of the pile.

 

A sudden, guttural whine from one of the cells raised hackles on his neck, and he pushed away from the desk with an exasperated oath.

 

“Dammit, Skell, I done told you to hold it down! You’re givin’ me a toothache!”

 

Corey threw open the door to the backroom that contained the holding cells. Only one unit was occupied, but Simon Skellington was more than enough for any jail. An unwashed, unshaven remnant of a man, he was cadaverously gaunt and unceasingly garrulous.

 

He was a trapper that had limped into Laramie a week ago. Having sold his bundle of pelts Skell, as he liked to be called, retired to Sam Munson’s Palace Saloon. He then proceeded to inhale whiskey, which loosened his tongue and his purse. And there were plenty of customers willing to listen to his stories about the dark side of the mountains, as long as he was standing drinks.

 

Especially the tale of getting his foot caught in one of his own traps last year, and having to fight off a wolf with his bare hands.

 

Feeling sorry for the old coot, Corey let him have a bunk in the jail to sleep off his benders. Each morning Skell’d be gone, back to the saloon. When Corey ventured to ask him how long he planned to stay in Laramie, the man muttered something nonsensical about ‘blood moon’ and ‘when the mist comes off the mountain.’

 

Lord only knew how the man survived the winters.

 

“Skell, you gotta….” Corey’s voice trailed off.

 

The man had his back to him, clutching the window bars. His head was thrown back, an ululating whimper emanating from his throat. Low and desolate, the sound ghosted across Corey’s soul, freezing the breath in the lawman’s throat.

 

Simon Skellington whirled and advanced on the sheriff. He suddenly moved with a fluid grace that belied his age, and for a second Corey could have sworn that the man’s telltale limp was gone.

 

“Sheriff Corey.” Skellington’s raspy voice grated along Mort’s nerve-endings, like fingernails on a blackboard.

 

The trapper’s bony hands pushed open the cell door, and Corey involuntarily took a step back. Skell’s eyes, normally friendly, brown puddles, were full of malevolent shadows, a cold fire that burned like an edgy sunset. They gleamed in the scant light from the lantern on the wall, the membrane around the sockets stretched tight. His cheekbones stood out like knife-blades under the skin.

 

Corey shook himself, like a dog shaking off an unwanted hand.

 

“Skell, it’s gettin’ late in the day,” he grunted. “Time you were movin’ on.”

 

The shaggy head of his tenant nodded slightly.

 

“Sheriff Corey, I thank you kindly for your hospitality.” Simon Skellington shouldered his tattered bedroll and brushed past the lawman.

 

Corey’s nose wrinkled in distaste at the stench of the man. He radiated unwashed body heat, along with the coppery odor of dried blood and the rank smell of animal hides.

 

There was something indefinably predatory about old Skellington as he padded towards the exit. He canted forward as he walked, the tips of his boots making slight, clicking sounds across the roughhewn floor.

 

There was no trace of a limp.

 

“Skell, your leg…you’re not….” To Mort’s dismay it came out like an undignified squawk. Laramie’s sheriff swallowed against the sudden tightness in his throat.

 

Simon Skellington turned in the open doorway, lips drawn back over crooked yellow teeth. He barked a laugh, a cawing, cheerless sound.   

 

“Heed my advice, lawman, stay indoors this night.”

 

There was a thin thread of mockery in his voice as he continued:

 

“There is blood on the moon.”

 

*****

 

Slim Sherman hitched a hip on the porch railing. Calloused hands nursed a cup of coffee. Behind him the rocking chair creaked as a chill wind soughed across the front yard. It was late in the day, and the blond rancher was uneasy.

 

It was the end of October and dusk came early this time of year. The weather had been unseasonably warm the past week, but the temperature had dropped overnight. Fog rolled in from the mountains, and the darkening skies carried the harbinger of an early storm.

 

Slim jumped as the mournful howl of a wolf reached his ears. The lonely sound reverberated and grew in intensity as it soared towards the heavens. Sudden, icy fingers trailed down Slim’s back, and he hunched his shoulders as if to ward off a blow.

 

 “Pard, I swear you’re as jittery as a turkey at Thanksgiving.”  

 

The husky gravel of Jess Harper’s voice carried a grin, and Slim turned to his friend. Sand skittered across the porch, crunching under his boots as he shifted his position.

 

“That wolf sounds a little too close to home,” Slim grunted, tugging a hand through his hair. “Ain’t had one of them around since this time last year. Not since you tangled with the one had his foot caught in a snare.” He frowned at the memory. “Come to think of it, you never did tell me what made you cut him loose.”

 

The enigmatic ex-gunfighter, whom Slim had come to regard as a brother, smiled briefly. The barest knife-edge of a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

 

Jess could never explain why he had not killed the wolf that cold day in late October last year. He could still see the grey predator crouching on the ground, one leg caught in a trapper’s snare. The animal appeared old and emaciated, yet there was a malevolent splendor about the shaggy head. The wolf made no attempt to attack as he eased up on it and knelt to cut away the trap.

 

But once free, the great jaws had opened and with lightning speed closed on Jess’ right hand. The creature didn’t bite down, merely held fast as time came to a standstill. Wolf and human regarded each other over the remnants of the snare. Ageless, amber eyes locked onto midnight blue, as if searching for something.

 

Jess was frozen. On his knees, and mesmerized by the closeness of the wild creature, he felt its heated breath on his face. It gave off the unmistakable stench of carrion.

 

Suddenly, the pressure on his hand eased and the wolf backed away. It canted its head at him, teeth bared in a snarl. A keening moan, bleak and haunted, sprung from its throat, and then the beast melted into the shadowy forest.

 

Jess staggered to his feet, and remembered to breathe again.

 

His glove was torn, but there was only a pinprick of blood on his hand.

 

“Wind’s gettin’ up, Jess. I’m worried about Mike and Daisy on the road if this fog gets any worse.”

 

The young Texan uncoiled his frame from the rocking chair and tossed the stick he’d been whittling. He returned the knife to his boot, and leaned a shoulder against one of the porch supports.

 

Jess hooked his thumbs in his back pockets. Slim was right. Daisy had taken Mike over to the Bates’ farm to join the young’uns there to bob for apples and carve Jack o’ Lanterns. They’d left in the buckboard around noon, and Daisy said they’d be back in time for supper. Jess’ empty stomach told him they were overdue.

 

“Yeah, think I’ll ride out and meet ‘em while you start dinner.” He jumped off the porch.

 

“While I start…now, wait just a minute,” Slim protested. “How’d I get so lucky?”

 

“Aw, come on, Pard, Daisy said the stew’s all done, you just gotta heat it up.” Jess grinned and headed for the barn, his lean shape almost disappearing in the mist that swirled around the front yard.

 

A few minutes later Slim watched as his friend swung into the saddle with customary ease. Another tenebrous howl rode the approaching twilight, and Traveler sidestepped nervously, backing towards the pole corral. Normally, the horse was all free, easy movement, full of rhythm and balance, but Jess sensed an underlying tension in his old trail companion.

 

“Something wrong, Pard?” Slim called out from the front porch.

 

“Reckon the wolf’s got him spooked,” Jess grunted, and rubbed Traveler’s neck gently. “Ssh, boy, don’t pay no mind to that old lobo.”

 

The bay shook his head, as if in disagreement, but Jess felt the strain ease a bit.

 

Slim crossed the yard, and took hold of a stirrup. He looked up at the drifter who had blown in off the big open just a few years back, and recognized the closed off expression. The shields were back in place – this was the same man who used to take each day one heartbeat at a time.

 

Jess Harper was a restless force of nature, and standing next to him was either the safest, or the most dangerous place to be.

 

Slim swallowed a surge of apprehension.  He placed a hand on Jess’ knee, giving it a light squeeze.  “Be safe.”

 

“Always.” Jess nodded and tugged his hat down. “Don’t forget about supper.”

 

The rancher watched him nudge Traveler into a lope, the fog turning them into wraithlike shapes before swallowing them completely.

 

Slim Sherman stood for a moment. He hugged himself against the chill wind that swept through the yard, and tried to catch sight of Jess cresting the ridge, but he was gone. ‘Be safe, Pard.’

 

The ululating of the wolf followed Slim as he closed the door on the mist that whispered onto the front porch.

 

*****

 

Jess Harper rode with the devil on his coat-tails and a feverish surge of adrenaline pounding in his ears. He should have known it would come to this. The signs were all there. It was October 31st – All Hallows Eve, and there would be a hunter’s moon tonight. Some folks called it Blood Moon, and he knew there would be blood spilled – more’n likely his own. But not that of his family. Never that of his family.

 

Guilt tore at him – had he unwittingly put them in harm’s way this past year because he was so confident he could save them? Save them from the chimerical being that flashed through the trees to his right, matching, and then outpacing him?

 

Rocky outcroppings, like rows of jagged teeth, slowed the creature’s movements, and Jess pushed his mount to pick up speed. Traveler needed no urging, the bay had caught the scent of the wolf and Jess could sense his old friend’s panic.

 

The dark-haired Texan was past worry and fast closing in on despair.

 

*****

 

Daisy Cooper chided herself for not having left earlier. It had been a clear, sunny day when they arrived at their neighbors’ farm, and it was a fun-filled afternoon for the children. The Bates’ had a large brood, and there had been pumpkin carving and bobbing for apples. Mike proudly declared he’d swallowed half the Laramie River before sinking his teeth into one of the elusive fruits.

 

He had looked like it too, with an ear to ear grin, and face and hair sopping wet.

 

After a late lunch they’d hurriedly taken their leave as the skies darkened and fog started to roll in. Bill Bates offered to ride along with them, but Daisy declined. She knew she could find her way back to the Sherman ranch blindfolded – but right now she wished she had taken him up on his offer. On both sides of the road the waning sunlight turned the wooded slopes to late autumn blood and gold. Wisps of fog drifted across the path. It shrouded the horse’s hooves, making it appear as though they floated on air.

 

It was becoming harder to discern the trail ahead.

 

“Gollee, Aunt Daisy, we’re not gonna get lost, are we?”

 

Mike clutched his carved Jack o’Lantern. It had won a prize, (a bag of Mrs. Bates’ molasses candy) for having the most toothless grin. It had been a wonderful day, filled with games and treats, and he was pleasantly tuckered as the buckboard ambled towards home.

 

The silver-haired woman, who considered herself mother, boss and just plain Daisy to the boys at the Sherman ranch, gave the boy a small hug. He leaned into her, yawning mightily.

 

“Of course we won’t get lost, Mike,” she smiled. She nodded at the buckskin plodding confidently along the road. “Old Mosey will get us home, as long as he remembers where there’s oats and water.”

 

She shivered suddenly, and drew her shawl closer. Above them, the sky was sullen, and the wind had picked up, bringing with it a smell of wet, decaying earth.

 

The woods had grown strangely silent.

 

“Aunt Daisy?” Mike’s voice was subdued. “Is that a dog?”

 

She peered through the mist in the direction he was pointing, and her heart froze in her chest. Up ahead, at a bend in road, an escarpment jutted out over the path. The wind shifted the haze for a moment, and Daisy became acutely aware of just how vulnerable their situation was.  

 

A rapacious beast, seemingly comprised of all the earth’s darker elements, loomed larger than life at the edge of the cliff. Pitiless, golden eyes stared at her as the wolf lowered his shaggy, grey head between massive shoulders. His lips pulled back in a snarl, showing powerful canines. A savage growl rolled towards them as the creature crouched down, tongue lolling as he readied to leap from his perch.

 

Mosey, hitched to the buckboard, whinnied and danced in abject terror, and Daisy knew she couldn’t hold him. But there was no place to run. They could not turn back, and they could not go forward. She had no weapon. They were trapped.

 

Daisy Cooper made a decision. It was an easy one. She would make herself the target and give the boy a chance to run, to hide, climb a tree! She prayed it would enough.

 

“Mike,” she whispered, never taking her eyes of the wolf, “do exactly what I tell you. When I say run you head for….”

 

What followed happened so fast that Daisy could never be sure exactly what she saw or heard. From deep within the fog in front of them came the urgent drumbeat of hooves. A dark shape soared across the road just as the grey wolf launched himself from the parapet. They collided in midair with bone-crunching force and tumbled off the side of the trail.

 

The miasma swirled around them, creating a nightmarish scene of ghostly shadows.

 

For a moment all Daisy could do was stare into the mist in horrified fascination. Mike’s screams brought her back to reality, and Mosey needed no urging to make tracks.

 

Her heart in her throat, Daisy tried to close her ears to the wet, tearing snarls that followed them down road.

 

She slowed their pace when she felt it was safe, and pulled the boy close to her. He shivered violently, his face bone-white, eyes wide and staring. The Jack o’Lantern lay at his feet, its toothless maw grinning up at them.

 

“Oh, Mike.” Daisy kept her tone low and soothing as she rubbed his back. “Mike, everything’s all right. It was just two wolves fighting over territory. They don’t want us – we’re safe now.”

 

“Are you sure, Aunt Daisy, really, really sure?” It was muffled against her shawl.

 

“Yes, I’m sure, Mike, and if you…. Her voice trailed off, and she gaped at the sight of the horse that emerged out of the fog in front of them. “Traveler?”

 

But where was his rider?

 

The bay pricked his ears at the sound of the familiar voice and trotted over to them. Mike made a snuffling hiccup of delight, and then it dawned on the boy that something was terribly wrong.

 

“Where’s Jess? Trav, where’s Jess?”

 

The horse nosed at his hand, seemingly unconcerned about the whereabouts of his old friend. Daisy could see no injury or blood on the animal, but that only made her more alarmed for the safety of his owner.

 

“Aunt Daisy, you don’t think something happened to Jess, d’you?” Mike’s voice was small and scared again.

 

She was about to reassure him when a dark outline appeared in the thinning mist in front of them. It shifted and wavered for a moment, was swallowed up by the haze, and then coalesced into the object of their concern as Jess Harper limped towards them.

 

“Jess!”

 

Mike flew off his perch on the buckboard and threw himself into the arms of safety. Strong hands lifted him up and held him close, and he sniffled contentedly into the familiar scent. His small arms held tight to the blue shirt as he pressed his ear to the strong, beating heart of his friend.

 

“My goodness, Jess, what happened to you? What are you doing out here?” Daisy exclaimed, overjoyed to see her prodigal son apparently unhurt. Well, mostly unhurt, she amended to herself. If Traveler had thrown him, she would probably need to bring out the liniment.

 

“I’m fine, Daisy.” Jess swung Mike up on the buckboard, and stroked a quick hand through the youngster’s hair. “Slim and I got concerned about you two when the fog started drifting in. Dang wolves howlin’ spooked ol’ Trav. Dumped me, back a ways.”

 

“Wolves.” Daisy smiled a bit. “Yes, we heard them too, didn’t we, Mike?”

 

She winked at the boy. Mike clapped a hand over his mouth, and giggled in hysterical relief that their ordeal was ended.

 

Daisy watched Jess limp over to Traveler. There was an air of utter exhaustion in the slump of his shoulders. The bay nickered, and pushed his nose into his trail partner’s shoulder. The dark-haired man tied the horse to the back of buckboard, and motioned Daisy to scoot over as he climbed up and took the reins. Her keen eye did not miss the fact that his hands were trembling.

 

‘I’ll get you home, Jess Harper, and then we’ll see how “fine” you are,’ she promised herself.

 

But for now, she was content that her family was safe.

 

*****

 

Slim Sherman stepped out on the front porch, and found his friend whittling away at yet another stick of wood. Jess had restless hands. They were in constant motion, cleaning his gun, repairing harness…warding off unseen dangers….

 

He put a hand on the Texan’s shoulder, and let out an oath at the searing heat that radiated through the shirt.

 

“God, Jess, you’re burning up!”

 

His partner shook off his hand, but didn’t turn around.

 

“I’m all right, Slim.” The words were low, and bruised by sadness. Jess moved off the porch, taking the heat with him.

 

Slim chewed on the inside of his cheek. He was worried, but knew Jess well enough to leave him be for the moment.

 

 “Well, when you’re done moon-gazin’, Pard, Daisy’s got supper on the table.”

 

Jess nodded slightly, and walked down to the corral. He rested his arms on the top rung. Half a dozen horses milled about, but none approached him as the cold October moon slid out from behind the clouds. Shrouded in crimson it signaled first frost, and final harvests. 

 

Jess Harper nursed his fears in a cradle of blood.

 

He bared his teeth as he stared into the night. A keening, unearthly whimper crossed his lips, and above the darkened mountains the stars blinked, as if in sudden panic. For a split second cobalt blue eyes gleamed feral yellow.

 

Jess used the tip of the stick he’d been whittling to remove a stubborn sliver of furry hide from between two molars.

 

His family, his pack, was safe. He was whole again.

 

Well, at least until this time next year…until the next Blood Moon….

 

 

The End…?

 

 

e swaHeH






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