[Previously Published in Cascade Beyond the Veil, I, October 2000]
(Posted to the Net: 11-01-01)
My first impression of Jim Ellison was that he was a deaf mute. What else could I think as I watched him stand so untouched by the mayhem around him? In fact, that was what drew my attention to him in the first place. I was standing at the railing of the Excelsior, watching the growing excitement on shore as we pulled into Port Cascade. It was something I had seen many times since I boarded the ocean liner in New York. No matter the state, no matter the country, a ship making call was a grand event. Besides the new and exciting people and goods it brought, or perhaps took away, the ship was a symbol of adventure and variety. Being an anthropologist, I found it all quite fascinating.
While looking out at the swarming masses, I saw a tall man who seemed to take no note of the coarse yells and loud whistles, the hawkers selling their wares, the children and adults who scrambled to and fro. Some people were grinning, others appeared frustrated, and still others just seemed determined. He, however, looked to be beyond the normal fray.
"So, have you spotted the old man yet, Blair, m'boy?"
I turned to the two men I had befriended on this long voyage, Danny Sullivan and Todd Whitaker. We had bonded due to our similarities; we were all young, male, and unencumbered by a bride. Danny had sailed around the Horn looking for a better life than he had on the streets of Boston. I had no idea how he had gotten the money to afford the voyage, and after hearing some of his notorious tales, I really did not want to think too closely about it. Whit's sister had been a mail order bride to one of the loggers here in the Washington Territories. Settled with her family, she had sent for her baby brother, worried that the scarred lands of the defeated South would damage the already war-depressed soul. Whit had been too young to fight, but old enough to remember the terror of Sherman's army destroying much of Georgia.
Then there was me. I had taken the trip because, for all the traveling I had done, and the strange lands I had visited, I was still just an untried scholar. I wanted a life outside the university, and I thought I would find it here, with the grandfather I had never known. History Professor Jacob Sandburg had left New Haven back in '51, after the death of his wife, and had never returned. He had kept in contact with the children he had left behind, and had hinted that he would not mind making one of them or their children an heir. But the Sandburgs as a whole were academicians. We were all addicted to our studies, and no one was eager to go face the "savages of the West" and the intellectual isolation of the Territories. However, after careful thought, I had decided that meeting such a challenge was within my field of studies. There was also the business with Mary Jane Sutton: Mary Jane wanted a husband, specifically me. Grandfather's offer seemed the perfect solution.
"Just trying to get the lay of the land, Danny," I answered. "So many different faces. Look at them all out there together: Chinamen and Indians and whites--"
"And nigras," Whit scoffed. "I thought I was leavin' 'em all behind me in Georgia."
I did not reply. Whit and I had agreed to disagree about Negroes. Although I detested slavery, and was glad that the policy had ended, I understood Whit's bitterness. His entire way of life had ended, and the Union was being an ungracious winner, making the South bend to its will. It was unfortunate that the Civil War was still being fought on several silent battlefields and probably would continue so for quite some time.
To be honest, I would not miss either of my traveling companions. Whit's vitriolic response to Negroes was becoming boorish, if not dangerous, as there were many Negroes aboard, most working on the ship, though a few were passengers. And Danny's often-suspect behavior was not only embarrassing, but costly. Take, for instance, the incident with the gypsy. The old man had been traveling in steerage, of course, and I had spied him when my fellows and I tried to quell our boredom by exploring the entire ship. I found the stories the man had to tell fascinating, but while we conversed, Danny took it upon himself to go through the man's belongings. When the gypsy turned and caught him, and the idiot grinned at me, the foreigner assumed that my interest in him had been no more than a confidence game. Although I knew not a word of the Romany language, I was sure that the old man's rapid retort had nothing to do with empowering us with health and vigor. Later, after I had conveniently "lost" the two scalawags, I had gone to the Rom, apologized, and given him money as payment for the insult to which he had been subjected . As I turned to go, he had touched my arm and said solemnly, "You, he will save." I assumed he was talking about the supreme He, and I bowed and thanked him for the blessing.
A whistle confirmed that the ship had finally completed all its docking maneuvers and we were free to disembark. I said a quick goodbye and headed off the ship. At the end of the gangway, people stood holding cards with names scrawled upon them. Since I had no idea of what my grandfather looked like, and vice-versa, I thought searching for my name would be prudent. And there, twenty yards later, I found it, not in the hands of a jolly grandfather, but in those of my deaf mute. Upon closer inspection, I knew he was no such creature. His eyes were too bright, too intelligent for one so afflicted.
"I'm Blair Sandburg," I said, noting that while his clothes were nothing but denims and a shirt, they were pleasantly clean.
He looked at my two satchels. "Is that all your belongings?"
"Yes." If I decided to stay, my things at home were ready to be shipped. The man gave a brusque nod and started away. A second later, I realized I was supposed to follow. His rudeness was galling. "Are you an employee of my grandfather?" Hmphf. If this was Grandfather Jacob's idea of hired help, the man surely did not deserve whatever wages he received.
The answer was so brief I almost forgot what the question had been. By the time I remembered, the man was far away. His long legs created a stride which was difficult to match, even when I was concentrating. "Who are you, and where is my grandfather?" I demanded, trying to disguise how out of breath I was.
"Jim Ellison. Jake's foreman broke his leg, so your grandfather's personally overseeing the logging this week. Since I was going into town anyway, he asked me to meet the Excelsior."
We stopped at a flatbed wagon and he indicated that I should toss my bags in back. "If you don't work for my grandfather, how do you know him, Mr. Ellison?" I settled in beside him, and at the smallest cluck of his tongue, a beautifully matched pair of horses began to move.
"Make it Jim. And I'm a neighbor."
"Oh, are you a timber baron too?" He did not appear to be extremely wealthy, but I suspected the rich were less ostentatious here in the wilds than back east.
Jim laughed. "Is that what they're calling them now? No, young Sandburg, I'm no 'timber baron.' I have a small farm where I breed and train horses."
"Like those two beauties?" I pointed at the pair pulling the wagons.
"Yes, they're mine," he said proudly, and I sat back to listen to a recitation about the horses, their sires and dams, which one had a difficult birth, etc. Most people would perhaps have found the story boring, but I was, after all, an anthropologist. It was through rich storytelling that I learned about the peoples I studied. If Jim were a people, however, he would be a lost colony; he said nothing more as we rode. In an attempt to respect his silence, I concentrated on the activities around me.
We had left the crowded docks and were now in what I supposed was the business district of Cascade. In comparison to the cities back east, it was not much of a municipality. A general mercantile, a saloon, a blacksmith shop, a saloon, a barber-shop/dentist's office, a saloon, a boarding house, a saloon…. I was becoming aware of a theme. "I see you gentlemen enjoy a good drink. And maybe one or two other things," I added when a couple of scantily-dressed women appeared in a doorway.
"Hiya, Cap'n," one of them called out.
"Morning, Miss Sarah, Miss Vicky," Jim replied, gently tugging the horses to a stop. "It's a little early for you to be up and about, isn't it?"
"We always try to get a couple of extra hours in when the Excelsior docks," Miss Sarah explained. "Who you got with you?"
"So that's young Sandburg? He's darling."
I did not like being talked about as if I were not present. Worse, they were speaking as though I were a child. "Actually, it's Doctor Sandburg, and I thank you for the compliment," I said, using the tone I had perfected for teaching at the university. One had to grab the students' respect early if one wanted to make an impression on their young minds.
"Well, Cap'n, you best bring the doctor with you the next time you come a'visiting."
Jim laughed and I knew he must have seen the redness of my face. "I'll be sure to do that, Miss Sarah." Suddenly, he looked quite solemn. "You ladies be careful. I didn't like the look of some of the gents getting off the ship."
"Henri'll be working the rooms tonight. I'll let him know to be on the alert for trouble."
"You know to send somebody for me if it gets too bad," Jim reminded them.
Miss Sarah smiled and caught my eye. "He's our guardian angel."
"No, I'm just guarding angels," Jim said, surprising me with the nearly poetic comment. "I have to pick up some supplies at the Feed And Seed. You ladies have a good day."
"Any day with you in it, Cap'n, honey, is already a good one. 'Bye, gentlemen."
Jim clucked and the horses started down the road.
"Captain? You were in the war?" He simply nodded, as I had already come to expect. "Such a massive waste of life," I said before I realized I had opened my mouth. Criticizing the war had gotten me into trouble in the past, and not only was Jim my guide to my grandfather, he was also a good deal larger than I. He could beat me to a pulp, and since he was obviously a town favorite and I was a stranger, I was sure no one would lift a hand to save me.
"That's why I came west. Not enough people out here to fight a war."
"What was your biggest battle?" I asked curiously. I did not ask which side he had fought on; he had Union written all over him.
I tensed. The notorious Georgia prison was a well-known abomination. The conditions there were so appalling that nearly thirty percent of the 45,000 soldiers confined there had died while in captivity. The prison had been of the stockade variety, which meant it was basically a walled piece of open ground with no barracks and no protection from the elements. Although it was far enough to the south that the winter was not terribly bitter, more than a hundred prisoners had died each day during the scalding hot summer. It had a single stream, which acted as a drinking water source, a bath, and a sewer. Needless to say, disease ran rampant and the nearly starved prisoners had no way to protect themselves. Only strong constitutions, and sometimes sheer stubbornness, had kept the survivors alive. Hell itself, I had heard one man say, was heaven when compared to Andersonville. "But you were a captain. I thought Andersonville was for enlisted men only," I commented with a shiver.
"Being in Andersonville is not something I'd lie about."
"No, that's not what I mean. It's just--hell, I'm sorry."
"For what? You weren't there. You were just a schoolboy listening to glorious stories of war."
I had also seen photographs of the war, the papers showing the skeletal wraiths released from the prison in April of '65. I tried to picture the man beside me as one of them, and was shocked when the shadows seemed to shift around him and reveal to me a hollowed form of my companion. It was very disconcerting, and I wrapped my arms around me defensively.
We stopped before what looked like a huge barn. "I'm gonna be about half an hour here. You can come in, or wander around. Your grandfather is pretty well known, so if you get into trouble, just tell 'em who you are."
"What? Telling them I'm a friend of yours won't help me?" I asked, irritated that he thought I could not spend thirty minutes alone without getting into trouble.
"It'll either help or hurt, depending on who you're talking to," Jim said with a shrug. "Do what you want. Just don't wander far. I'm heading out in half an hour."
I considered being the child he apparently thought I was and going off to see the town, maybe chat a while with Miss Sarah or Miss Vicky. In the end, I stayed in the general vicinity, and finally took a seat outside the Feed & Seed to wait. As I said, disappearing would have been puerile. Besides, Jim looked like the type who would leave me just to teach me a lesson. Forcing Grandfather to mount a search party for me was not the sort of first impression I wanted to make.
"So you're young Sandburg," a burly Negro with warm brown eyes and a gentle smile said, as he came through the door with two huge bags piled on his shoulder.
Young Sandburg. I had the feeling that I would have to become accustomed to that appellation. "Yes, I am. Nice to meet you."
"Joel Taggert. I work for the store. Cap'n Jim said I'd probably find you out here."
"Oh, he did, did he?" Just when I thought the man could not irritate me any more. "Do you need any help loading his purchases?"
He looked me up and down. "You ever lift a fifty pound bag of feed?"
I started to answer in the affirmative, then thought of how many kinds of fools I would look when I toppled over. "No."
"Don't you worry, son. Cap'n Jim and Mista' Jake'll have you toughened up before too long. You just sit there and take it easy while I get this order together. Already had most of it up front anyway. The captain's a regular customer."
Joel loaded the wagon quickly, Jim helping him with the last load. Enviously, I watched them toss the huge sacks around as though the burlap bags were two-year-old children. I had always been proud of my less than muscular form. It meant I worked with my brain and not with my body. But out here, it seemed that you needed both. I supposed that, with training, I could accomplish that.
"Your rump glued to that spot, or are you ready to get moving?"
I flushed and hopped up to my place on the wagon. "Sorry about that. I was lost in thought for a moment."
"I hear that happens with doctors."
I sighed. "I'm not a real doctor, you know. I have a doctorate degree in Anthropology."
"Sounds like a real doctor to me. So what have you found out by studying man?"
My jaw dropped open. He actually knew what anthropology was. He was perhaps the third person I had met to whom I had not been forced to explain the meaning of the word. Thrilled, I launched into a recitation of my adventures in Africa and the jungles of South America. I had a tendency to talk too much and too quickly at times, but he seemed to keep up with me, laughing at the appropriate times and asking insightful questions when I took a moment to catch my breath. All in all, I spent a very pleasant afternoon with him, and I was surprised when he tapped me on the shoulder and said we were on my grandfather's land.
"It's called Sans Souci," he said. I nodded, looking at the heavily wooded area. It was simply beautiful. "A play off the family name, and because Jake believes you can't have any cares growing timber. It's all in God's hands, you know?"
"They're so big," I murmured. Odd. I had spent my entire life studying and now, in the face of all this nature, I could find no words to describe a simple tree.
"That's what happens when you have a lot of rain," Jim said. "I hope you're not the mildewing kind."
"I survived the rainy season in the Amazon. I think I can survive here."
"But can you live here? Jake's hoping you can."
I heard concern in his voice, and I realized Grandfather was more than just a neighbor to the man. I was not surprised. I had witnessed how gentle and caring he had been with the ladies of the evening. Beneath the muscles and the stoic gaze, Jim Ellison was possessed of a big heart. "I, too, have that hope," I admitted. "I've been all over the world and I haven't been able to find what I'm looking for. Maybe it's here."
"What is it exactly that you're looking for?"
I gave a small shrug. "Maybe if I knew that, I wouldn't have to look so hard."
"Maybe the looking is part of the process, Chief."
For a backwoods horse rancher, he was a rather philosophical fellow. "If I looked for the rest of my life, I don't believe I could find anywhere more beautiful than this."
"I have to agree with you."
That was the last thing said between us. We continued for what seemed like forever before I spotted signs of human habitation: a sound of a rooster crowing, a break in the veil of green which had been my only view for most of the journey, a faint echo of voices, and finally the sharp angles of buildings coming into view. I pushed my spectacles into place and the main house came into focus. It was a two-story wooden structure with a huge porch and a second floor veranda. On the porch were two men, the voices I had heard earlier. They sounded as though they were arguing, but as we got nearer, I could see the chessboard set up between them. Them. One was a very large Negro. He had a long limb stretched out before him, kept straight by splints. The other was a smaller white man, with curly salt and pepper hair. He wore a pair of spectacles much like my own. My grandfather?
That was answered quickly enough.
"Jake, you sorry sonofabitch," my traveling companion called out. "I'm not your errand boy. I oughta kill you where you sit."
The old man laughed. "Guess it's a good thing I know you're so dirt-cheap, you wouldn't waste the bullet to do the job. Besides, you repudiated violence years ago. You're all bark and no bite, Ellison, and we all know it. Now introduce me to that good-looking young fellow sitting next to you."
"I may have done whatever you said I done to violence, but just remember I haven't given up on revenge, old man," Jim warned, before turning his cool blue gaze on me. "Dr. Blair Sandburg, may I present to you your grandfather, Jacob Sandburg, the deceiving coot who told me he just didn't have the time to meet your ship. Yet here he sits, playing chess with his foreman. By the way, Simon Banks, meet Blair Sandburg."
"Howdy, young Sandburg. Forgive my manners for not standing."
"Jim told me about your leg," I said politely, but I barely glanced at him, as my grandfather was approaching the wagon. Numbly I dismounted and stood before him.
"I see why they sent you, boy. You're my spitting image, aren't you?"
I'd heard that, but it had nothing to do with why I was here. I looked at the face that would be mine in twenty to thirty years. "No one sent me, sir. I wanted to come."
"Because I'm an anthropologist: Wherever there are people, I'm working in my field. Because I've always been an adventurer, and I knew that even if I didn't like working in the timber industry, or even if I didn't like you, the trip itself would be worth it. And because the thought of a Sandburg dying without another Sandburg with him just didn't sit well in my heart and mind." I had not meant to add that last part, but I could not lie to "myself."
Arms wrapped around me in a surprisingly strong embrace. "God, it's good to have you here, boy." His body trembled and I knew he was crying. So was I.
Grandfather pulled away, wiping at his eyes. His gaze went to the man still on the wagon. "If I invite you to dinner, will you forgive me, Jim?"
"Hmm. My cooking or Marita's cooking? Hell, yes, Jake. I accept your apology. Why don't you and your grandboy get acquainted while I help the cripple there into the dining room?"
"Hey, watch who you're talking about," the Negro, Banks, said. "My leg will heal and then I'll be able to chase your scrawny white ass back to your little ranch."
"Healed or not, I can outrun you any day of the week, Simon Banks."
"Just wait 'til Doc Wolf says I'm whole, and then we'll see."
"Let me know when you plan this event," my grandfather said. "I think I'll want to place some money on the outcome of such a competition."
The squabbling men disappeared into the house, and I looked at Jake in astonishment. "Is this the way it is out here? The races get along so easily?"
"It's not the place, son, but the people. Simon's been free all his life, so he doesn't automatically kowtow to the white man. And Jim, well, we really don't know much about him, but from what I've observed, he just treats people as people. Their attitudes have gotten them into trouble with others, but neither of them has a violent nature."
"Jim was in the army."
"That doesn't mean he's violent. He's a dutiful and loyal sort of fellow."
We sat in the chairs around the chessboard. "You like him."
"Why did you send him to collect me?" I tried to make the question seem casual, but I knew I had failed when Grandfather's hand reached out to pat me on the knee.
"No slight intended, my boy. I did have some matters that needed my personal attention, and I thought perhaps that if you met someone nearer your age in the beginning, someone intelligent enough to keep you on your toes, you wouldn't want to turn around immediately. I know us Sandburgs; our minds need constant entertaining."
"You don't think your mind's good enough to challenge me?" I asked with a smile. I already knew the answer to that.
"I do all right for an old dog. But I know you're used to being surrounded by your cousins, not to mention others at the university. I figured you needed to know there was more company around here than me."
"You seem to know a lot about me and the family."
"I left Connecticut because I couldn't stand being there without my beloved Rachel. But you and the rest of the family are a part of that sweet woman, and you will always have a place in my heart. I think, however, that I'm going to end up loving you for a lot more reasons."
"Besides the family, do you miss back East?"
"Surprisingly, no. It's refreshingly uncomplicated out here, Blair. No campus politics, no fancy teas and balls, no boots to lick."
"No libraries," I added wistfully.
Grandfather smiled. "You haven't seen inside yet."
I should have known. I had yet to find a relative who did not like books. Even the female Sandburgs were more likely to be found ensconced with a good book than with a piece of embroidery. "I think I'm going to like it here very much, Grandfather."
I did. The next week flew by as he gave me the "visitor's" tour of Sans Souci. Later, if I stayed, I would learn logging from A to Z, but for now Grandfather wanted me to see the overall operation. I had thought it was only chopping down trees, but I discovered there was much more to logging. Unlike the eastern trees I was familiar with, these were huge both in height and diameter. It took at least two men using a double-handled saw to cut one down. Then the trees had to be hauled to the river and floated into the sound where they would be transported to a buyer. To get the trees to the river, skid roads had to be built. Inferior logs were laid across a path and greased, then the timber was dragged along the "road" by a team of oxen. I was fascinated by the ingenuity of it all.
At the end of the week, we went to Jim's place to purchase a horse for me. Grandfather said there were other ranches where I could find a horse I wanted, but only at Jim's would I find the horse I needed. I did not understand that until we were there. A boy of about fifteen greeted us and said that Jim was fetching my horse. I thought that was rather audacious of him, but when Jim led a beautiful chestnut roan out of the barn, I knew that it was indeed "my" horse. I fell in love with Moses at that moment. He was well trained and just like the other Ellison horses, he could be commanded with a simple cluck of the tongue and tug of the reins. Dressed in denims and a wide-brim hat, astride my own horse, I felt I had come home.
I slept well and woke each morning ready to learn something new. But one night that changed. Strange dreams plagued my sleep. In them I had been transformed into a beast that roamed the woods, slashing out with my sharp claws and sinking my teeth into the animals that were not swift enough to avoid my wrath and hunger. I woke covered in sweat and slightly nauseated. Marita--our housekeeper and cook, and Simon's wife--thought I was suffering from an ague. That day I stayed inside the house and played chess with Simon and Marita's son, Daryl.
I thought perhaps Marita was right, that I did have some sort of lingering fever, because the second night mirrored the first. I was the same beast, but this time there were two more of my kind, and together horse, the metallic taste of hot blood, the stench of entrails as its heavy belly was split open, then invaded by our snouts and sharp teeth. I vomited, barely snatching up the chamber pot in time. I was alarmed by what I saw in the porcelain basin, and I hurried to dispose of the bloody contents. Too nervous to stay in bed, I spent the day locked in the library trying to discover what terrible disease I had contracted, for surely crimson vomitus was an indicator of something dreadful.
Nearly convinced that I was dying, I delayed returning to my bed for as long as possible. Grandfather, pale and distressed by my illness, repeatedly demanded that the doctor be summoned. I assured him that the doctor's presence was unnecessary, and gave a sigh of relief when my forebear was persuaded to retire for the night. It was ironic that I had traveled all these miles so that Grandfather would not die alone, only to burden him with the doleful circumstance of my own death.
Once again, I dreamed of being the beast. This time I met the others at a lake. I took a good look at my reflection, clearly visible in the lucent light of a moon that had been full the night before. I was hairy, but not densely so. I remembered walking upright, but now I was crouched on all fours, each limb ending with five long, tapered claws. My snout was an elongated affair, its peak dark and glistening. Although I had never seen anything like me, I felt sure I was of canine origin, and the gleaming rows of teeth filling my mouth seemed to support that theory. All in all, I was a sorry-looking mongrel, but infinitely dangerous. That was revealed as I gazed into my own eyes, still darkly blue, but enhanced with a strong, insidious tincture of madness. More terrifying still, the irises were ringed by red instead of white. Madness surrounded by a sea of blood. I opened my mouth to give into my fears, and a howl emerged to echo through the night.
My companions joined me in emitting the chilling sound, and something distant bellowed in reply. In a flash, we all shifted in the direction of the call, our sleek forms moving wraithlike through the tall trees. The animal was large but lumbering, strong but stupid. We circled it, taunting it with growls and feinting slashes of our claws. The playful dance might have gone on for the rest of the night, but one of the others pulled his claws just a shade too late and the scent of blood filled the air. Never had I smelled anything so heady, so provocative. It was bitter, sweet, acrid, and salty all at once. I was suddenly glad that this was a dream, because in it I had no need to worry about restraint and decorum. I rushed the prey, my sharp teeth going for its thick neck. It struggled, but with my companions at its flanks, and me at its throat, it was doomed. Soon I lost myself in the passion of its wonderful, warm, pulsating blood.
I was truly surprised to wake the following morning, so certain had I been that I should have succumbed to my illness overnight. Marita declared that my coloring was better, and indeed, I felt more like myself. Still, I spent the day in the library, trying to make sense of my list of symptoms. Ulcers and other stomach maladies could cause internal bleeding, but nothing spoke of causing the horrific dreams I'd been experiencing. Perhaps it was too exotic to be mentioned in my grandfather's books.
I slept that night through, and although Marita thought it was too soon, I felt strong enough to ride with Grandfather. Simon was almost well, but still could not ride, so Grandfather and I rode to where the next cutting would take place. I knew something had happened when the assistant foreman immediately approached Grandfather.
"Old Ben's dead," the foreman said abruptly.
Old Ben? An aged cutter, perhaps?
"Damn it," Grandfather cursed. "What happened?"
"His remains were found in Section C. Not a pretty sight."
I paled. The poor old man.
"What else, Rafe? I can tell you're holding something back," Grandfather said gruffly.
"Old Ben was a hell of an ox, Jake, and whatever this was, well, it chewed up on him pretty badly. But it didn't eat him."
Old Ben was an ox? I started to sigh in relief, but froze when Rafe mentioned that the carcass had been chewed. I flashed onto the dream I'd had two nights ago. A large animal. Its warm, sweet blood. No.
"The real funny thing about it, Jake, is that it looks like the killer went after Old Ben's neck vein. Ben must have bled to death, but there ain't enough blood on the ground up there to account for it all."
"You don't think it was the Indians, do you? When I was coming 'cross the Territories, I saw them do some strange rituals using animal blood," Grandfather mused.
Rafe shook his head. "'Twasn't a human that did this. Billy tried to track the marks on the ground, but he couldn't make heads or tails outta them. Said they reminded him of wolf tracks, but they weren't spaced right or something."
"Probably rabid. Tell the men to be careful and make sure they arm themselves."
I looked into my grandfather's concerned eyes and I realized it was not the first time he had called me. "Sorry, I--"
"You look 'bout ready to pass out, son. Marita was right; you don't have any business being out here in the sun. Think you can find your way back to the house?"
I nodded, not even protesting being sent back to the house like a scolded child. I was grateful for the time alone, and since I knew Moses did not need me to get back home, I sat on his back and focused my entire being on the past several nights. Had I dreamed or had--? No, it was simply too fantastical. I knew the legends and the fables, and I knew they were just that. Humans did not transform into beasts. What did it matter that I had dreamed of attacking Old Ben? Maybe I had a mystical connection to the ox and-- That was just as fantastical, was it not? And I had not just dreamed of the ox. I had dreamed of killing other animals and…and I had vomited blood. Perhaps it had not been mine. What if--No! I was a scholar. I knew better than this. It could not be true.
But what if it was? How often had I discovered in my studies that legends were often based in fact? Could I dismiss this without even the slightest bit of research? It would be just a game, something to occupy my mind as I recovered from the fever I'd caught. Fine. What did I know of--I remembered the reflection in the pool--werewolves? According to legend, some people were born that way because of parentage. Others were transformed by magic or curse. And one could be bitten by a werewolf and become one as well. My parentage was well-known and I could not recall a single relative disappearing for three nights out of a month. Three nights. Of course, the full moon. That was in another legend, was it not?
Where was I? Oh, yes. I was not born a werewolf. And I had not been bitten by anything larger than an insect since Robert Thompson set his dog on me when we were boys. That left magic or a curse. The face of the gypsy floated before me, and Moses stopped as my body swayed dangerously in the saddle.
"Good boy," I murmured as I pulled myself together and clucked for Moses to continue our slow trek toward home. I gave a bitter laugh as everything became clear to me. The gypsy had cursed me, us-the other two in my dream had to be Whit and Danny--and now we ran about as beasts the night before, the night of, and the night following the full of the moon. Wait until I told Cousin Elizabeth, who desperately wanted to be an author like Mary Shelley. I could tell her what a werewolf looked like, and how it felt to drink--
Moses stopped as I slid off him and emptied my stomach in the brush. I'd drunk blood…and I'd liked it. I'd killed…and I'd liked it. I'd toyed with Old Ben, then torn open his neck…and I had liked it. What was happening to me? I did not even like my steak rare. Was I not myself when I was in this other form? Did the beast's mind take over? Was that why I saw my actions as only dreams? Was that why I could not remember transforming?
I groaned, my head aching beneath the weight of all these questions. But even as Moses patiently waited for me to reseat myself, I was feeling better. Questions meant research and research led to answers. If-and I still considered it to be a significant if--I was a werewolf, there had to be a way to undo the curse. There was always a way, was there not? Besides, the gypsy himself had said so: You, he will save. There was a way out of this. I had only to find it.
Oddly enough, I found most of my answers at Jim's place. Although Grandfather's collection of books was extensive, Jake Sandburg was first and foremost a historian. He preferred his history pure, unblemished by legend and myth. The only stories about werewolves I could find were incidental ones in much larger tomes. I thought I would have to wait until my own reserves arrived, and hope that my family had sent everything I requested. Conveniently, word arrived that day that my things were on the Excelsior and would be in Cascade the next week. Grandfather suggested that I ride out to Jim's to see if he would like to accompany me to Cascade to retrieve my possessions. Never underestimate the value of having a friend with a strong back, Grandfather said jokingly.
Jim seemed genuinely glad to see me, and I thought back to something else Grandfather had said. He liked Jim and worried about how lonely his life was. "Except for Josiah Simpson's grandson, who wants to be a veterinarian, Jim doesn't see anyone for weeks on end."
"Maybe after Andersonville, he needs the isolation," I'd replied.
"After Andersonville, he needs people more than ever," Grandfather had said.
The Simpson boy was there when I arrived at Jim's ranch. He grinned at me and said, "Hey, young Sandburg. You come to watch the captain break his horses?"
I sighed. Even he called me young Sandburg. "Jim's breaking horses today? Will I be in the way?"
"Never, Chief," Jim said as he stepped out of the barn in his usual denims and shirt. He carried a saddle and a blanket. "But you might be in danger of being bored."
"Bored? I've read some of those penny Westerns. Although I'm sure they exaggerate somewhat, I can't imagine watching you break your stock as boring."
Jim shrugged. "I don't exactly break them the way everyone else does, Chief. In fact, I despise the word 'break'. Why would I want something so beautiful broken?" His eyes gazed out across the pasture and I caught a glimpse of a powerful, proud stallion.
"Is that him?" Jim nodded. "I don't think he's going to like having that saddle on his back."
"He doesn't think so either. It's my job to convince him otherwise." Jim hefted the saddle onto his shoulder and headed toward the field. "Stay here with Mike. This might take a while."
In fascination I watched him walk purposely into the center of the pasture. In consternation, I watched him sit down there, the saddle lying next to him. "What is he doing?" I asked Mike.
"That's what the stallion's wondering too. Look at him." The horse had stopped its pacing to watch Jim. "The captain say this horse's pride and curiosity are going to make this an easy one. Watch him toss his mane. He's used to being the center of attention, especially since he was captured. So now he's wondering why the human is ignoring him. Pretty soon his curiosity is going to draw him in closer and closer."
Jim started talking, but I was too far away to hear him. "What's he saying?" The horse was not the only curious one.
"He's talking to the horse, telling him what he wants, explaining to him about saddles and bridles and riders and stuff like that," Mike said excitedly.
"And the horse is going to understand and accept it, is he?" I asked dryly. Even I, an Easterner, knew animals had to be trained, not talked to.
"Oh, he'll argue with the captain for a while, but the captain's a stubborn one."
So was I. That was why I stayed and tried to figure out what kind of trick Jim was playing. But what I saw was exactly what Mike had said. The horse eventually ambled over to Jim's side and nudged the saddle. Then he stepped back. Jim stood and held the saddle, steadily talking. The horse stepped forward and stood still while Jim put the saddle on his back. The stallion reared and snorted. Jim just crossed his arms and continued his monologue. In the end, he swung up into the saddle, and he and the horse raced off across the pasture. Ten minutes later, they were back. Jim took off the saddle, groomed the stallion, and gave him a pat on his flank before leading him into the barn.
"That was--" I stopped, seeking the right word. "That was incredible, Jim! Where did you learn that? Is it a standard practice here in the west? Have you tried to teach anyone else? Do you--"
"Stop, Chief," Jim interrupted with a roll of his eyes. "Just take a deep breath and take your time. I'm not going anywhere in the next few minutes."
I took a deep breath as ordered. "Where did you learn to do that?"
He shrugged. "From the horses. Mike, you better get on home, now. Miss Carolyn says you're getting behind in your learning hanging around here like this."
"I'm the best student she's got," Mike replied petulantly.
"I know your classmates, son. That ain't saying much."
Mike burst out laughing. "Okay, Captain. I gotta be better than good to get into a school back east, right?"
"Right. Tell your mama I said thanks for the cookies."
Mike saddled up his horse and said his goodbyes.
"Now you can ask me all those questions you got, Chief."
While he put out food for his horses and assorted livestock, I asked as many questions as I could, but he had no real answers for me. According to him, much of what he did, he did by instinct or by trial and error. I asked if he'd written any of it down, or tried to teach someone else, but he just shrugged and said he suspected it was just something peculiar to him so it was useless to try to pass it on.
The sun was on its way down by the time the farm animals were fed, and just as Grandfather had expected, Jim invited me to spend the night. While he rustled up some "company" food, I looked around his sprawling house. All the rooms were on the same level and very spacious. Or maybe they seemed spacious because of their emptiness. Only his study, with books stacked neatly along every wall, looked lived in. I expected the many volumes on equine husbandry. The military books were a bit of a surprise and I suddenly realized that Jim had not just been a soldier; he had attended West Point Military Academy. I should have recognized it from his bearing, but he just did not have that air of superiority that I had come to connect with graduates of the Point.
An even bigger surprise were the texts on legends. Some of the books were old, others obviously mail-order new. I felt a sense of relief as I scanned the spines, smiling at the titles. Choosing one of them, I sat down, intending to flip through it quickly.
"Ah, you found my guilty secret," Jim said, startling me with his presence. It was not the first time that had happened. The man moved with the grace of an elegant cat. "I have an insatiable curiosity about creatures of myth."
"Then we share a secret," I said, frowning as I noticed the long shadows in the room and the number of candles he'd lit. I looked at the book in my hand and realized I'd read three straight chapters. "I fear I've been horribly rude, haven't I? Is dinner ruined?"
Jim smiled. "No. It's just stew. And no, you haven't been rude. You felt comfortable enough here to make yourself at home. How could I be anything less than pleased by that? But since you're at the end of a chapter, I suggest you take a break before your stomach starts to growl."
We sat down at the table and I returned to my earlier questions about his work with the horses. "So you don't subscribe to the theory that what separates man from animal is that man has a will and animals have not?"
"Whoever came up with that theory apparently has had no experience working with mules," he said with a laugh.
"But what if the mule's stubbornness is just pure instinct?" I argued. Jim knew animals, and I had just spent three nights as one--well, perhaps. The killing had been instinctive, so I thought. But if there was a chance that I could exert some will over my actions….
"It's just not that simple, Chief." Chief. I had asked him earlier in the day why he called me that; not that I minded--anything was far better than young Sandburg. He had replied that I reminded him of a young Indian chief he had met during his journey west. Smaller and than most of his warriors, the Indian had nevertheless commanded the respect of the entire tribe. Jim meant it as a compliment, and I accepted it with a warm heart.
"Take your Moses for instance," Jim continued. "When he was a colt, lightning struck a tree in the pasture. It's instinctive for all animals to run away from fire, even man. But when I reached the field, I found the colt standing there, just out of the flame's reach. Apparently, his instinct had warred with his curiosity, and curiosity won."
"Or maybe he was merely too terrified to run."
"That was my first thought too. But he wasn't scared. His heartbeat was normal, and in fact, he was quite annoyed that I'd interrupted his contemplations."
"He was annoyed?" I smiled. At least now I knew why he was called Moses. What else would one call an animal not afraid to face a burning bush?
Our plates were empty, and I helped Jim clear the table. "You talk to your horses."
"Don't we all?"
That was true. I'd told Moses quite a bit. "But you behave as though they talk back to you."
My mouth dropped opened. Then I realized he was probably teasing the greenhorn. Gullible young Sandburg. "And what do these noble beasts have to say? Other than 'I'm talking to a burning bush so don't disturb me'?" I questioned lightly. Together we put away the clean dishes and headed to the study.
"Actually, they're terrible gossips," Jim said, grabbing a brandy decanter and silently asking me if I wanted some. I nodded.
"And what do horses have to gossip about?"
"Mostly about their humans. They're constantly amazed by our intelligence and our stupidity."
I laughed and sipped the brandy. "So am I."
Jim built a fire and we sat talking quietly about everything under the sun. For the first time since the full moon and its revelations, I was completely at peace.
I left the next morning, my saddlebags weighted down with books. The next few nights saw me going through a number of candles as I reviewed all that was known of what I had become. The key fact that I held onto in my heart was that the effects of the curse were reversible as long as I did not drink of human blood. Since the thought of such a thing made me ill, I imagined that would be my saving grace.
The waxing moon brought with it a jumble of emotions. The prospect of being a werewolf alternately excited and frightened me. To find out such things existed was fascinating, and to have actual proof…that was something all scientists dreamed of, even anthropologists. But being the creature itself was more daunting, and I did not know whether to be anticipatory or appalled. However, if I could exert my will as Jim seemed to think animals could, I could deal with being the beast a mere three nights a month. My biggest task would be to stay away from humans, not just because I must not taste their blood, but because werewolves were not immortal. They could be killed by an injury to the brain or to the heart. One well-aimed rifle shot could easily defeat me. I had to be careful.
"Jim'll be coming for you in the morning?" Grandfather asked.
"Good. You like him, don't you?"
"He's becoming a good friend."
"I like that. Having a good friend makes a place hard to leave."
I was startled. I had spent so much time thinking about me that I had not realized Grandfather did not know I'd made up my mind. Even if I could go home--and tonight would decide if that were possible--to my mind, I was already there. "I'm not planning to leave, Grandfather. Jim said I could accompany him to the Indian village up in the mountains. But that's just a trip. After that trip, or another, I'll come home. And that will be to here, if that's all right with you."
He grinned. "Damn, boy, you have a way with words."
"I'm a Sandburg," I answered, leaning forward to embrace him. "It's a family trait."
I went to bed, my heart pounding anxiously. For which outcome should I be hoping? That I was not a werewolf, but insane? Or that I was a werewolf, and I had to take on all the problems inherent with that? Or it was possible, I thought with a deprecating grin, that I was both insane and a werewolf. Laughing at myself, I fell into a deep sleep.
I woke in the forest, my body in that strange but familiar form. Oh, God in heaven. I was a werewolf. What did this mean? Could I bear this? It was so easy to be objective when it was a theory, a worrisome musing. But now it was real. I stretched the hairy body and I felt the power I possessed. I was strong and dangerous, everything that Blair Sandburg, Ph.D. (Anthropology) was not. I stared at the claws on my limbs. I could kill. I could rip apart a beast, a human--No! No humans. Never a human, because then I would be damned forever. That was a possibility I never wanted to face.
I ran, testing my limits. I howled at the nearly full moon. I pounced upon small rodents scurrying in the underbrush. Some I ate. Some I just toyed with, laughing as they scrambled away. I felt a pull toward the north, but I ignored it. In the north were the other two, and I did not want to be with them. I knew the allure of being in a group, the danger of losing oneself in one's companions, and I knew those were not companions I wanted to be lost in. They were dangerous; I was not. They would kill and be damned. I would do no more than play with the opossums and thus endure the night. I had free will. Jim told me so.
Then I smelled it. A scent. Overwhelmingly intoxicating. As sweet as a berry picked at the height of its season. It sent me soaring to a state of exhilaration. It made me want as I had never wanted before. Blood. Female blood. Human blood. It called to me, sang continuously in my head until I had to follow the tune. As I drew nearer, the song changed from "seek her" to "taste her." Better than a gourmet meal prepared by the finest chefs in Paris. Better than the hot essence of the ox, Old Ben. A simple taste of her would surpass every ecstasy I could imagine. Yet, I knew it--she--was forbidden. Just a drop of the honeyed liquid would consign me to Hell.
No. I must not taste her.
I would not taste her.
I had to taste her.
I would taste her.
She was riding in a small wagon pulled by a mule. I ignored the animal, knowing it would be no match for me. Her. I had to have her. I had to have her blood in me. Now.
I heard them coming. The others. No! This was my kill. The sweet blood would be mine. I howled my rage. The others howled back. The mule bolted, the woman crying out as the wagon jerked back and forth across the dirt road. The others approached from the right and the left. I watched from the rear, waiting for my chance. They cut off the mule's frantic advance, and the wagon tumbled end over end. The woman was tossed onto the packed earth. Mine!
Drawing my lips back, I leapt, ready to sink my fangs into her soft body. Instead, I found myself flung wide of my target when something warm and dark collided with me. With a startled yip, I hit the ground hard. Stunned, I slowly climbed to my feet and came face to face with the largest black cat I had ever seen. What was a panther doing this far north, I wondered even as I was scrambling back from his challenge. I made a peculiar barking sound, and he let loose a roar that seemed to make the ground reverberate. Boldly, I took a step forward. A paw struck out and raked across my chest.
The smell of my own blood brought me fully back to my senses. What was I doing? The woman was crouched behind the panther and the look on his face was definite: to get to her, I had to go through him. The werewolf of a moment ago might have been foolish enough to make the attempt. The werewolf of now wanted nothing to do with the woman or the cat. I backed up--straight into my fellow changelings. So the panther was challenging all three of us. Well, the other two could try, but I wanted no part of it. The others saw the blood on my chest and backed away too. The last I saw of the panther, he was standing, with the woman's head leaning against his soft fur.
"Time to get up, son. Jim will be here soon."
"I'm awake," I called, listening as he moved past my door. I swung my feet to the floor slowly, trying to discern dream from reality. This time I wanted to be insane. It was a far more acceptable proposition than my other choice. That I was a werewolf. That I had tried to kill a woman. That I would have killed her if it had not been for the panther. If I was the werewolf, then I had to accept that I could not stop him. His desires were too strong…or I was too weak. Please, God, let it have been a dream.
I stood and reached to pull my nightshirt over my head. There was a tight pulling in my chest, and I looked down to see a long scratch marring my torso. My knees gave way and I dropped to the floor as I took in the telling mark. It was all true. The werewolf. The woman. The panther. I was a werewolf, and for all intents and purposes, the werewolf was a killer. I was a killer. And I had to be stopped. I drew my knees up and lowered my head upon them. Then I cried for the first time since childhood.
"You're quiet this morning," Jim said as we made our way toward Cascade.
"I didn't sleep well last night."
"Excited about getting your things, huh?"
Jim shrugged. "Well, if you want to catch a nap now, I won't be offended. Just try not to fall off the wagon."
I grinned and accepted his offer. Or at least, I pretended to. I closed my eyes and thought about the decision I had made. I had to die, and hopefully that would occur before I killed someone. I feared that if I did taste human blood, then I would lose this resolve of death, I would lose my humanity even when in human form. I did not want Grandfather to have to deal with that. I did not want the name of Sandburg to be tainted. Briefly, I considered engineering an accident whilst in Cascade. But to kill the werewolf in me I had to make sure my head or my heart was injured beyond repair, and an accident had too many variables. The scratch on my chest gave me another choice. The panther's claws could easily have ripped my chest open and yanked out my heart. All I had to do was offer myself to the panther, if he appeared tonight, and I would have my deliverance. My body would be discovered eventually, and although Grandfather would be sad, he would more easily accept my death at the intervention of some wild animal than at my own hand.
My eyes sprang open, and I saw that we had reached Cascade. Miss Sarah hurried down the wooden sidewalk toward the wagon.
"Miss Sarah?" Jim stopped the wagon directly in front of the brothel. "What's wrong?"
"It's Vicky. She was attacked coming home last night."
I paled. No. Had that been--? I had not only almost murdered a woman, but a woman I knew?
"How is she?" Jim asked, leaping off the wagon.
"She's pretty bruised 'cause she was tossed from her buggy. But the animals didn't get to her."
"What kind of animals?" I asked weakly.
"She's so shook up, we can't get a decent answer from her. Doc Wolf is with her now, but I think she needs you."
Jim nodded. "Chief--"
"Go take care of her, Jim. I can get my things by myself."
"You got cargo coming in on the Excelsior, right?" Miss Sarah asked, and I nodded. There were very few secrets in Cascade. Maybe Jim was right; the horses did gossip. "I can get Henri to help you."
They disappeared into the tidy-looking building and a Negro soon came out, hopped onto the wagon, and picked up the reins. "Good morning, young Sandburg. I'm Henri."
The Negroes were big out here in the west, but he had a friendly enough face. "Good morning, Henri. Thank you for helping me."
"Wasn't doing nothing else 'cept getting in the way."
"How is Miss Vicky?"
"Banged up, but lucky. If it hadn't been for the Guardian, she'd probably be dead." He handled the horses easily. I wondered if everyone knew how to drive horses that came from Ellison Ranch.
"That's what the Indians call him. He's some kind of spirit that roams the forest, protecting what he considers his."
A spirit had not cut my chest. "And what is his exactly?"
Henri shrugged. "I know he has a thing for the whores. They're always seeing him. But that might be because no one else gives a damn about them."
"It's my job."
"Well, the doctor takes care of them and that's something. I know where I come from, sometimes the doctors won't associate with them--not in the daytime anyway."
"Doc Wolf's an Indian, and he say we all the same. He don't care about color or where you work."
Ah. That was where I had heard the name before. Simon had mentioned him. "If the doctor is caring for Miss Vicky, why do they need Jim?"
Henri grinned. "The captain is good for a woman's nerves. He's a big man, but he don't scare them none. Miss Vicky'll just curl up in his arms and go to sleep better than anything the doc done give her."
I remembered the peace I had felt with him, and nodded in understanding.
So my soon-to-be-savior has a name, I thought, as I assisted Henri in loading the trunks my family had sent. The Guardian. The patron saint of whores. And why not? They had to be the saddest creatures on earth. Most of them were forced to sell themselves, and instead of garnering the pity they deserved, they were scorned, beaten, and exiled. Yet the brothels were filled every night. Yes, they deserved to have a patron saint. And it was only right that he would be the one to save me before I became a whore to blood.
"How is she?" I asked Jim when he slid onto the seat beside me. With a jerk of his head, he indicated that I should pick up the reins.
"She'll be fine." He glanced into the wagonbed. "Thank you for getting my order from the Feed and Seed."
"Joel said it was a standing order. Is she really fine?"
"Yes. Scratches and bruises. They'll fade in a week. She was mainly just frightened."
I felt sick. "I'm sorry," I whispered.
"It wasn't your fault, Chief."
Yes, it was. But I would pay the price for it tonight. It was the only just thing to do. "Thank you for being so kind to a stranger, Jim. You have been a friend to me."
"You haven't been so bad yourself," he said and cuffed me fondly on the back of my neck. "So tell me about the contents of all those trunks."
We talked and laughed the entire trip back to Sans Souci. For a final day on earth, it was a good one. Jim stayed for dinner, fussing outrageously with Grandfather and Simon. I would miss them all. I truly hoped my death would be quickly accepted, and my memory placed into the back of their thoughts as it should be. I surprised Jim with my embrace when he stood to leave, but he returned it, and winked as he drove away.
I also gave my grandfather a gentle squeeze and told him that the past month was the happiest of my life. Then I went to bed for the last time.
I gazed at the full moon with my blue and red eyes, waiting for the inevitable. For some reason, I knew the panther was on his way. I could feel him as I felt the others: The Guardian. I blinked and he was there. He, too, had blue eyes, but they were the color of the sky on a clear fall day; full of bright color but not sun-washed. They were hard eyes, but compassionate, icy, but not cold. I sensed he judged, then simply meted out the judgment. He stared at me, then dipped his head. I understood that meant I had been judged and now would come the sentence.
Instead of extending a paw to rip out my heart, he turned and started to walk away. Confused, I stood where I was until a low growl beckoned me to follow. If not for the excellent sense of smell possessed by the werewolf, I would have lost him in the night, so well did he blend into the darkness. I lost track of our journey, but knew we had ended it when he stopped and urged me forward. I took a step toward my doom, and at that moment the werewolf took over. Growling, I charged the Guardian: the werewolf determined to live. The panther seemed to expect my aggressiveness and sleekly moved out of the way. I found myself scrambling for solid ground and not finding it.
I fell. In reality, it was but for a moment; in my mind, it was an eternity. The plunge ended with my crash into an icy wetness. The shock of hitting the surface drove out my last breath and I sank, knowing death was but a moment away. Then the cold was replaced by heat that went rapidly from pleasant warmth to scalding. My skin split, the churning water boiling it away in shriveled strips. My surroundings became red with blood. I had been right all along. Judged and sentenced. With a grateful sigh, I gave into the pain and knew no more.
I woke to the gentle lapping of a tongue.
Shocked, I opened my eyes and stared into those of the Guardian. Why was I still alive? I got to my feet and--and realized something was different. I was not human but-- The Guardian pushed me forward until I was gazing into the waters I had died in. Gazing back at me was not a werewolf, but simply a wolf. Thick gray fur; eyes still blue, but retaining the whites. A timber wolf, I thought. How appropriate. But what was even more wonderful was that I could no longer feel the tug of the others, and that I could feel no conflicts in my thoughts. I was a wolf, but I was myself. Entirely myself.
I turned to the Guardian. He licked me and raced away. I knew a game when I saw one, so I ran after him and together we darted through the forest--like cubs. I was not sure if a wolf could laugh, but I made some kind of happy sound the whole night long. Even when I woke in my bed, I was still laughing.
I stopped laughing when word came that a worker on a farm on the other side of Cascade had been found dead, mauled by at least two large animals. Whit and Danny were now damned. And if it had not been for the Guardian, I would be damned as well. Grandfather and Simon got their rifles and joined the hunting party. Since it was well known that I barely knew one end of a gun from the other, I remained at Sans Souci. Besides, I knew they would not find anything while the sun was in the sky.
I spent the day trying to figure out what the night had meant. What would I turn into tonight? Would I turn into anything? Were the effects of the waters lasting? Would my mind stay as clear as it was last night? Would the Guardian be waiting for me again? What exactly had been done to me? Why had the Guardian chosen me to be the one saved from damnation? Because the gypsy had changed the curse? Because I had sought death when I realized what the werewolf was capable of? Or was there something else about me that set me apart?
Grandfather and Simon returned just before nightfall, discouraged by their lack of success. Marita fed them and they trudged to their beds. I soon followed, and when my eyes opened next, the Guardian was beside me. I took a moment to look at my legs and was reassured to find them the hairy forelimbs of a timber wolf. Then I was running after the panther. I did not care what our destination might be. This creature had saved me. My mind was clear and my body sound. He was the reason I lived; he was the reason I wanted to live. The least I owed him was obeisance.
Even when I realized that we were hunting, and that our prey was the other two werewolves, I did not falter in my step. We came upon them in a clearing awash with moonlight. They growled ferally and I could tell they had changed. The fear they had had before their damnation was gone. There would be no turning them away tonight. The Guardian looked at me and I understood instantly. We, too, would not be turning away. He took a step toward the larger beast: Danny--bigger than Whit and meaner. That meant I had Whit. So be it.
Whit attacked me first, leaping so quickly that I was bowled off my feet and onto my back. Only fast action on my part kept him from sinking his fangs into my throat. I planted my hind paws in his belly, and kicked him away. I rolled to my feet and bared my teeth. Whit came at me again. I pretended to run and when he had to stop and reset his position, I whirled around and jumped on his back, my fangs clamping down on his spinal cord. He bucked several times, trying to knock me off, but I retained a steady grip. Minutes later, Whit collapsed, paralyzed and dying. But not really. Brains or heart? I rolled the body over and raked my claws across his chest. His heart pulsed beneath the cage of ribs. I punctured the organ with my fangs and dragged it out of the body, then slung it off my incisors and up against a tree. I spat, making sure that no taint of it was left in my mouth.
I turned to see how the Guardian fared. As I had known, his fight was much more brutal; Danny was a dangerous animal. But so was the Guardian. I watched in total awe as the panther forced the werewolf back against a tree. Giving a chilling cry, the Guardian plunged his fangs directly into the werewolf's forehead, instantly piercing the brain. Danny spasmed and died.
The panther backed away, sat on his haunches, and started to lick himself clean. I took a step toward him, and froze when I felt something else approaching. The Guardian looked up, his blue gaze penetrating the dark. A second later, he went back to his personal grooming. Apparently, whatever it was, it was not a threat. Still, I went to the panther's side, making sure my allegiance was known to all.
Two Indians came into the clearing, and I tensed when I saw their bows and arrows. A tongue brushed wetly across the top of my head, and I relaxed. The humans spoke, but I could not understand them. The panther growled and the two men slung the dead werewolves across their shoulders and left. I closed my eyes and rested.
Some time later, a claw-sheathed paw whacked me across the hind quarters. I got up and followed my panther.
"Good morning, son. You're up early," Grandfather said, surprised to see me at the breakfast table.
"I'm going with Jim to the Indian village. He's delivering some horses. We'll probably be there a few days, maybe even a week. That's fine, isn't it?"
"So you'll be home in a week?"
I kissed the top of his head, and remembered a panther's lick. "Yes, sir. I'll be home in a week."
"That'll be fine, son."
Jim and I were silent as we made our way to the majestic Cascade Mountains. Near lunchtime, he guided us off the main path. We stopped in a clearing, the horses munching on the low grass there. Jim took our lunch from his saddlebags, and motioned for me to follow. He led me through some dense undergrowth and when I was finally able to stand, I was beside a pool of water. A very familiar pool, even in the daylight. I looked at Jim in surprise. At that moment, I truly saw his eyes. As blue as the color of the sky on a clear fall day.
"You're the Guardian," I said breathlessly.
"And you know who--what--I am." He nodded. "What did you do to me? What did these waters do to me?"
"In your previous form, you were in a battle. Not fully one thing; not fully another. The waters purified you, enabling your mind to be clear of conflict."
"And it's permanent? I'll still change every month, but I won't change into that horrible creature?"
"Yes, it's permanent. I'm sorry. I cannot remove the curse."
"But you've made it bearable. Thank you."
"You have a good spirit, Chief. It's unfortunate that this happened to you."
I shook my head. "I should have chosen my friends better. And this time I have." I smiled when he turned away uncomfortably. "So what are you?"
"For want of a better term: a werecat." He plopped down on the ground and unwrapped the linens surrounding the sandwiches he had prepared.
"So you become the Guardian under a full moon?"
"No. I transform at will. I was not verbally cursed or attacked. I was born with the ability to become the panther. My father kept me hidden away until I could control the transformations. My control became so perfect that I didn't change once I became a school-aged boy. To survive Andersonville, I reclaimed my gift. After the war, I came out here so I wouldn't have to repress it again."
"How did you become the Guardian?" I asked, swallowing the bite of food I had taken.
"The Indians have a legend about a tribal protector. The medicine man took one look at me and said I was it. He even told me he knew about the panther inside me. According to the legend, I was to protect the lands of the Ancients and all who dwell therein. I wanted to laugh at the legend, but deep in my heart, I knew it was true. Protecting the people felt right and honorable."
"So now you stalk the area at night in panther form?"
"Not every night. Just when there's a disturbance."
"Like three killer werewolves."
"Did you--did you know it was me that first night?"
Jim nodded. "I recognized you by smell. Then I remembered the conversations we'd had about animals and will. I realized you were struggling and decided to help. The waters would only change you as much as you were willing to change."
"And you knew I would help you to kill the others. They were two men who were on the ship with me." I explained what had occurred on the Excelsior.
"It's a bitter price to pay for something you had no part in," Jim said as he tossed his bread crusts into the pool. Fish popped up to claim them.
"A price, but no longer bitter. What happens now?"
"What do you want to happen?"
"Um, you wouldn't like some company on your stalking, would you? Say, three nights a month?"
Jim grinned. "The Indians had a name for you last night."
"Don't tell me: young Sandburg?"
Warmth flooded my being. "Is that acceptable to you?"
"Yes, Chief. More than acceptable. Come on. We want to make our destination before dark."
"But if it gets dark, you can just transform and have excellent night vision. Now in the winter, if it gets too cold for even a hairy creature like me, I can always come and curl up in front of your fire, can't I? I promise not to howl."
"Can't be any louder than your snoring."
"My what? Come now, Jim. I don't snore. Do I?"
He merely chuckled and led the way back through the underbrush. And like a good Guardian's Companion, I followed.
As recorded by Blair Jacob Sandburg, Ph.D. (Anthropology), Timber Baron-In-Training (a.k.a. Young Sandburg), Werewolf (three nights a month), and Guardian's Companion (forever), this day in October, 1875.