July, 1862. Southern New Mexico Territory
The sharp crack of an ash-encrusted log dissolving into the bowels of the fire pit brought Bill Andrews out of his stupor. He had never liked night watches. There was something beautiful about the seemingly endless expanse of sky above him, but also something strange. As the night grew, so did the quiet. Surely a time when all good souls should be asleep and unaware of these long, dark hours.
Bill sat up, feeling the lower half of his back pop, and rubbed the drowsiness out of his eyes. Weird feelings or no, he had a job to do out here. He pulled another hunk of wood onto the shrinking fire and nudged it with the toe of his boot. As more smoke billowed up, Bill stared out into the plains around him. The dry grasses and air were still, amplifying the quiet of the night. “And not a star to be seen.”
A noise off to the left caught Bill’s attention, and he froze for a moment before recognizing the footfalls of his partner, Frank Byas. Frank entered the circle of firelight, and sat down across from Bill, taking off his hat to fan away some of the smoke and sparks.
“See anything out there?” Bill asked.
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” said Frank. He was a younger man than Bill, and had a bit more energy at this late hour. “Walked the whole perimeter of the Heeley lands, nothing but cattle. All well here?”
Frank followed Bill’s gaze across the plains for a moment, letting the silence sink in. “What would you bet on? Wolves or coyotes?”
Bill, who had been falling under the hypnosis of the too quiet night once again, looked to his partner. “What?”
“You know. The reason we’re out here. What d’you reckon is attacking the livestock? Wolves or coyotes?”
“Is there much difference between the two?”
“Well, sure,” Frank said, starting to get excited. “Wolves are bigger. And they can go solo. Coyotes work in a pack.”
“I suppose I hadn’t considered. I heard from Wyatt Heeley himself about his bull two weeks ago. ‘Shredded,’ he said. Not sure even a wolf could do damage like that to a steer. But a whole pack of coyotes? That’s different.”
Frank’s sly grin widened. “Would you bet on it?”
Bill leaned forward, grinning back. “You trying to hustle me, Frank Byas?”
“Never, Bill. I just think it’s interesting. Everyone I’ve asked so far has been of the same mind as you. And I think I might know more about wolves than everyone in Three Willows put together.”
“Then do enlighten me, oh Wolf Expert,” Bill said. “How could a wolf do it?”
A cry echoed out across the plains. The wrenching, choking screech of a steer in distress.
Frank and Bill were on their feet in seconds.
“Came from the east. Get your gun, Frank!”
“Right behind you.”
The two men ran towards the fence line, rifles in hand. The once quiet cattle were now on the move, clustering near the fence. Bill and Frank reached the hem of the herd without delay and scanned along the backs of the beasts, looking for any sign of what had birthed that awful cry.
Bill was the first to see it. “There! At the back. Steer’s down.”
The animal was flat on its side, the steam of hot and heavy breaths blasting from its nostrils. They hadn’t brought a light, but even on this moonless night, Bill could see the whites of its eyes glowing in fear.
The men approached the steer cautiously, avoiding its legs and horns. The tangy scent of blood washed over them both.
“Oh my God,” Frank whispered.
Long, wide slits ran along the steer’s side, belly, and haunches. Blood flowed freely across its hide. The rising heat and smell of the flesh made Bill’s stomach turn as he leaned closer.
“Look around,” he said. “Anything out there? Anything running away?”
Frank broke his gaze from the pitiful creature and hoisted himself up onto the fence for a better view. “Not that I can see.”
Solemnly, Bill pulled his hunting knife from its sheath, and with one steady cut, put the animal out of its misery.
Frank looked back at the sight over his shoulder. “Any wolf that would tear open a steer like that must have been rabid beyond salvation.” There was a quaver to his voice.
With the steer now lifeless, Bill moved closer to inspect its injuries. “Look at these marks. Single slashes. This weren’t no wolf unless it was ten feet tall and carrying a knife.”
“That’s crazy. We would have—” Frank halted his speech and spit on the ground, rubbing at his mouth with his sleeve. “Ugh, dirt.” He looked out across the plains again. “Jesus, where the heck’d this wind come from?”
The poorly butchered beast had been his focus, so he hadn’t noticed either, but as Bill stood to his full height, he felt the warm wind buffet his body, spraying his eyes with dust and small debris. It seemed to be picking up speed faster than he could think. “A storm?” he called out to Frank.
Frank pointed out across the landscape once again. “Rain’s coming in fast! We better get to the old barn, or we’ll be caught in it!”
Without further discussion, the two men vaulted the fence line and made a mad dash for the only structure within miles on the ranch lands, the old barn. At least it had a solid roof. Together, the men heaved open the heavy door and ducked inside as the rain began to pummel their backs.
Inside, Frank leaned against the wall, panting hard. “How did we go from the quietest night I’ve ever seen to a disaster in less than five minutes?”
Bill didn’t answer. He was just as astounded as his partner. How on earth were they going to tell the tale of this night?
As he heaved the old barn door closed, Bill took one more look at the moonless sky. Waves of wind and rain pelted the sides of the old barn, causing the structure to creak, joining the discord. Perhaps it was the exhaustion, or the adrenaline and blood pumping through his own ears, but Bill could swear there was another sound in the mix: the beating of wings.