The canyon was still and black beyond the camp. Only the light chatter of the few men still sitting around the fire broke the steely silence of night.
Most everyone had taken a quick meal of beans and jerky, then collapsed into their bedrolls for the night.
It had been a long first day on the trail from Topeka up to the logging camps in the northwest, and there were many more ahead of them. The payoff would be worth it, though — running supplies to the loggers was about the most lucrative job a man could find in those parts.
Of course, it came with its risks.
Wolf country for one.
The troupe had camped down there just on the edge of the territory where men started disappearing, or at least that was the scuttlebutt. Trappers and lawmen and men of science, doctors and such … well, they’d tell you there weren’t many wolves in the area, and the ones that were there would pretty much steer clear of humans.
Tell that to the missing men’s missuses, Clyde Lawson always said.
But the money had just been too much of a lure, and so there Clyde sat, munching a hunk of meat across from the few other insomniac stragglers, eyes wide and listening for any noise in the prairie night.
“What’s wrong, Lawson?” the hulking man on the other side of the fire asked. “Look like you seen a ghost.”
By reputation, Wolf Swanson wasn’t the sort of man who asked idle questions, and he wasn’t the sort who asked twice. If he was talking to you, there was a reason.
Clyde gulped down his jerky and his fear. “Nothing, sir. Just tired, I suppose.”
Swanson stared at him for a few seconds. “Well, ain’t no place for fear out here, son. The animals can smell it. Taste it.”
Somewhere off in the distance, a howl pierced the night silence. The men’s chatter stopped, and all eyes turned to Swanson. Legend was, he hadn’t lost a man in more than a hundred trips to the coast.
No one knew how he had managed, but there were plenty of guesses.
“Just a coyote,” he said, eyelids dropping just a shade. “Nothing to worry about. Am I going to have to worry about you, Lawson? About your scent giving us up?”
Clyde shook his head. “No, sir.”
Another howl, closer. And then … a low growl.
Swanson stood and stretched. “Best not. I won’t let you put the rest of us in danger.” He scratched behind his ear, paddling at the area with an open palm. Clyde thought it looked like something a dog might do.
Footsteps sounded in the blackness just beyond their vision … first one set, then two, then six, then ten. Low growls mingled with yips and scraping.
Swanson’s eyes darted into the night. He put his hands over his belly. “Looks like my supper is disagreeing with me, men. I apologize for the unbecoming symphony.”
A chorus of howls erupted just beyond the campfire, and Clyde could have sworn red flames swam across Swanson’s eyes. The big man held up a hand.
“Excuse me for a moment, won’t you, gents?”
He turned and skulked into the darkness, his frame hunkering down and coiling with every step he took. The instant he disappeared from the men’s sight, growling drenched the night air, enough voices to fill ten church choirs.
A great roar, followed by screeching cries.
And then, silence.
After a few minutes, Swanson shuffled back to the fire circle. He looked exhausted, and he rubbed a meaty forearm across his mouth.
Was that … blood?
And … had his beard grown? It sure seemed like it covered more of his face — most of his face — to Clyde.
“Well, men,” Swanson said. “I think I’ll turn in now. I don’t expect any trouble tonight. We should all be able to get some sound sleep.”
“But … what was all that noise?”
Swanson flashed fire-red eyes at Clyde. “Why, I didn’t hear a thing. Quietest night I can remember.” He squinted. “I’m not going to have trouble with you, am I, Watson?”
Clyde shot a glance to the other men around the fire. All were looking at the ground. All were shaking, just a little.
“No sir,” Clyde said.