Halloween Ghost Story Contest -- 2005
Adult Winners

Third Place

Our third place Adult winner is William D. "Dev" Jarrett of Hawaii. Mr. Jarrett also won first place in last year's contest.

No Self-Respecting Werewolf
Would be Caught Dead Riding a Horse

Dev Jarrett

I ran.

It was hot. Usually by late October, the heat broke and the frosty winds started blowing out of the north. Not this time, though. Today was Halloween, the day townie kids dress up just like me to go get candy from the neighbors. This year’s unseasonal heat might have something to do with the damned drought. The wayward calf was far ahead of me, slowly walking toward a cliff. I thought I very likely wouldn’t get there in time, and dreaded having to explain to Mr. Walters that I’d lost a calf because I’d had such a hard time buttoning my fly after taking a leak. It was embarrassing. I’d almost just left them behind, but that would’ve been a whole different kind of trouble. It frustrated me, though, as it did the rest of the crew. After all, who the hell had ever heard of wolves wearing pants?

Bovines are about the stupidest animals in the world. Lucky thing cows are edible, or I reckon we’d be done with them all together. Overhead was a low buzz. A cloud seeder, trying to bring some rain, was throwing its chaff into the clouds. They were being used more and more, but this was the first time I’d seen one on Mr. Walters’ spread. The shadow of the plane crossed in front of the afternoon sun, then flew east.

The calf stopped about three feet away from the treacherous cliff to pull a clump of dry grass from between some rocks, and I took advantage of the situation by putting on a little extra speed, to get between the calf and the cliff. I slid to a stop right in front of the calf, and growled.

The calf, with standard cattle stupidity, stopped chewing the yellow clump of weeds and looked blearily at me, as though drunk and trying to focus. After a second or two, the calf finally saw me (lips drawn back, teeth bared) growling at her, and jumped backwards, bleating. She trotted back to the herd, fussing all the way. I loped along after her with a smile, nipping her flanks whenever she slowed down.

The boys and I took the herd down into the next valley, where there was usually a small stream. Today there was just a dry rut at the bottom of the valley, not a drop of water in sight. Not even mud. The silt was cracked in crazy spiderweb patterns. This year’s drought seemed to be worse than ever. No rain in more than a month, and the streams out of the mountains were all either low or just gone. It was actually getting dangerous for the cattle.

I heard a set of yips from the far end of the valley…meeting time. I pulled a burr from between my footpads with my teeth, then jogged over, tongue hanging from the side of my mouth to keep cool. The sharpest rocks were easily avoidable, but the burrs were still a pain in the ass. Better not complain about it out loud, though, or some bonehead would have us wearing shoes . We all went to where Charley was waiting, and gathered around him.

Charley sat on his haunches, his gold tail wrapped around his forelegs like a damned cat. Sure, he’s the foreman, but we had often had our doubts about him. Didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t cuss… and he kinda ran like a bitch.

“Well, we all know there’s supposed to be water in the streambed down here. Terry wanted us to leave the herd in this valley for the next few nights, but I don’t know if that still applies if they don’t have water.”

When he mentioned the name Terry, several of the boys rolled their eyes. Charley loved dropping Mr. Walters’ first name in our presence whenever he could, as if that would impress us. We all knew he was a big suckup to Mr. Walters. Hell, Charley probably even let Mr. Walters pet him. The very idea.

Charley gestured at me with a flip of his ears. “Gerald, I want you to go over the next ridge to check on Harmony Lake. If there’s water over there, we’ll go ahead and move the herd there today. Keep your eyes peeled, though. The herds aren’t the only ones that could be in danger out here.”

And with that, the meeting adjourned. The boys kinda looked at me with pity. They knew that Charley picked me because he believed there was some bad blood between us. I thought nothing of it, but Charley seemed to think less and less like a wolf every day. I don’t even think he went into town with us at the last full moon. He just didn’t act natural, sometimes.

I ran up the trail to the ridgeline, keeping an eye out for anything strange, but seeing nothing. Charley had mentioned the danger we’d all felt for the last few weeks, since some of the neighboring spreads had lost entire crews of ‘thropes for some odd reason. It looked like someone was trying to kill off all the werewolves in the southeastern corner of Utah, but so far, nothing had been found. There were theories. Hell, seemed like everybody had one or two possibilities. Some of the boys thought it was hate crime—out-of-work cowboys running around with their revolvers, the chambers all loaded with silver bullets. Others thought it was a religious nut, or ground poison. I knew it wasn’t ground poison. None of the ‘thropes were getting sick, but groups of them just seemed to be disappearing. A few years ago when I worked in Nevada, there was a huge excavation job going on near the ranch I worked, and the dust it stirred up was something horrible. Once the dust settled, we thought everything’d be alright. But no. The whole crew I was running with started feeling sick, and weak, and the eldest one even went into a coma. Turns out, all the dust kicked up by the bulldozers and backhoes had some silver ore in it, and the dust just coated the ground. We went to the rancher about it, and he was apologetic, but he said there was nothing he could do to stop it. That was ground poison. The rancher in Nevada gave us some severance pay, and hired on some actual cowboys, I guess. Doubt they stayed long.

Plain humans always seem to think they can find something better just over the next hill, just around the next turn. That’s why werewolves have become such popular workers. Not to put too fine a point on it, we’re pretty easy to please. Similar to any other canine. Food, shelter, and companionship, and that’s about all we need. A little money, and a little consideration, for that time of the month, but there’s only twelve or thirteen full moons per year. We’ve just got to cut loose and enjoy letting instinct take control every now and then.

Once the doctors instituted that feral-reflex-reduction gene therapy, we were able to get a grip on the changes, so that we could actually lead productive lives, and not fear hurting other folks. Also, we found that although the change to actual wild animal was most complete on full moon nights, we could turn ourselves anytime. This makes us perfect for tending herd. We cost less than plain cowboys, we don’t have to fool around with riding horses to keep up with the herds, and we’re loyal to a fault.

From the top of the ridge, I could just barely see where the lake was, but not whether it had anything in it, so I ran another couple of miles, until I could see clearly.

Bad news. The lake was dry too. Bone dry. The dead fish in the sandy lakebed stank to high heaven, and most were already picked clean by the vultures.

I tried to think of alternatives as I loped back to the herd and the boys, but none came readily to mind. There was a pretty good-sized river running through Mr. Walters’ property, but it was miles away. No way we could get the herd there today. Well, I sighed to myself, that’s why Charley’s the foreman. He can deal with it.

As I came up the ridge, I saw that the cloud seeder had done its job admirably. A thunderhead had built up, and it appeared to be raining just over into the valley. What luck! Now the cattle can stay right where they are!

I heard a noise, and froze.

Ahead, in the valley, the crew was screaming, as only lycanthropes can scream. A mixture of human and animal terror, the mingled man and beast sounds combining in a ululating chorus of pain. I hurried up the slope to the top of the ridge, and looked down into bedlam. Rain was pouring down, every member of the crew was shrieking in agony, and cattle were stampeding in all directions. Several of the boys seemed to be trying to get under the cattle, and they were immediately trampled. Charley’s tortured eyes met mine, and he raced up the slope as hard as he could. I ran down to meet him.

“No! Stop! Go back up the hill!” he screamed at me as he ran.

I did as he said.

His run degenerated into a scramble, then to a limp, then to a stagger. On the ridgetop, where there was still no rain, he collapsed. I looked at him and shuddered.

His flesh was just runneled, as if the sky had rained acid. His guts were hanging loose out of his belly, restrained only by a strip or two of skin, and his fur was all eaten away. His ears were turned to filmy gray slices of Swiss cheese, and his muzzle looked positively skinned. A fetid steam rose from his body.

“Charley! What is it?!”

His head turned slightly and he whispered, but I couldn’t make it out through his ruined mouth.

Life left his eyes then, and I watched his body collapse on itself, quivering and quickly decaying, like some kind of sped-up film. Soon the ground simply steamed where he’d lain.

Below, in the valley, the rain stopped. The stream now had some water in it, and several of the herd were drinking. None of the crew was anywhere to be found, but here and there I saw a trampled-on, muddy pair of bluejeans, where my brother wolves had died.

I raised my head, and howled into the sky.

The first thing, I surmised, was to get back to the ranch house and tell Mr. Walters what happened. He’d know what to do. I started to run through the valley, but when my feet touched wet ground, a searing pain raced up my legs, and my feet began to steam. I quickly jumped back up to dry ground, and gave the valley a wide berth as I made my way back to the ranch house. I stretched out to a good run, and tried to work it out in my mind.

The rain hurt them. Why?

The answer my mind kept sending back was the old wives’ tale about holy water. But that was so silly not even pups believed that anymore. That story came from a time when the plain humans thought ‘thropes were evil, and ungodly. Hmph. The finest preacher I ever saw was a ‘thrope. He’d get so wrapped up in his preaching he’d start changing accidentally, splitting his Sunday shirts and trousers as he did. To a congregation full of us, it was inspiring to see someone so passionate about our souls.

Holy water was out, but it still had to be the rain. Something that cloud seeder did. I kept running, trying to push from my mind the horror of my pack-brothers dying before my eyes. To plain humans, there’s sympathy and sadness at the death of a coworker, but to a ‘thrope, the feelings went so much deeper. Each of the boys had a subtle voice in my head, picked up from a million signals. A tilt of the ears or a switch of the tail was as much communication as speech. Now, there was only silence. My pack-brothers were gone, my only family destroyed in the deadly rain.

As I neared the ranch house, my heart sank. Mr. Walters’ pickup was gone. Now what?

There was a note on the door. It was simple, saying that Mr. Walters had gone into town. He’d be gone for the rest of the week. It didn’t say why, but we had suspected he was sweet on a town woman. Every time he went into town he came back smelling like a woman: perfume, hairspray, makeup, and the unmistakable underlying odor of sex.

I wracked my brain. It was up to me, but what could I do? Mr. Walters wasn’t here, and I couldn’t even drive the truck out to the airstrip to find out what was going on. I couldn’t very well just run to the airstrip as a wolf. It wasn’t legal to purposely be changed in the company of plain humans. They were still weird about it. Which was why nearly all of them stayed home on full moon nights.

I looked to the barn, and got an idea. I dreaded going through with it, though.

I went back to the bunkhouse, my pride warring with necessity. I changed, then put on fresh clothes. I put on jeans, a tan shirt, and a pair of pale boots. The jeans we were obliged to wear out on the range were obviously cut differently than standard jeans. After dressing, I went to the barn.

Mr. Walters occasionally came out with us, to see how we were doing. He couldn’t drive his truck out to the herds, and he couldn’t keep up with us, since he was a plain human. He kept a big palomino in the barn, like a cowboy.

I approached the horse cautiously. He smelled wolf on me; his eyes rolled and his nostrils flared, and he pawed at the ground anxiously. I tried to soothe the horse, whispering to it, and I moved closer. He started dancing around, trying to keep a little distance between us, but finally, I was able to touch him. We both shuddered, I think.

After much of this rigamarole, I was finally able to saddle him, and get a bit in his mouth. He tried to take a chunk of my hand with it, but he wasn’t quick enough. I put a foot in the stirrup, and mounted, feeling all the time like a complete idiot. Whoever heard of a wolf riding a horse? The horse felt the same way, obviously.

“Oh, if you boys could see me now…” I mumbled ruefully to my lost pack-brothers, and rode out. They’d get a big laugh if they saw me. Hell, who wouldn’t? No self-respecting werewolf would be caught dead riding a horse.

I really don’t know how humans deal with horses. They’re hardheaded, uncomfortable, and they don’t run with any kind of grace at all. Just a kind of weird, wobbly bounce, with no rhythm at all. I spent the first few miles just doing my best to stay in the saddle, knowing full well if I fell off, the horse would never let me get near it again.

Finally, I saw the airstrip ahead. Off to the side was a small wooden building with a temporary sign hung out front, “SALVATORE PHELPS, CLOUD SEEDING.” I rode over to the building.

I tied the palomino to a No Parking sign in front of the building, then went to the door. On my way in, two cowboys passed me. They remarked on what a good-looking horse the palomino was, and I thanked them. I was just relieved to be off the damned thing. They petted his velvety muzzle, then went on their way.

There was only one person left inside the building. A corpulent man in business attire, replete with a dinnerplate-sized belt buckle and a large felt cowboy hat that wouldn’t last five minutes in the rain. He’d get to the bottom of this, I felt sure. His pilots were doing something that was killing folks, but he’d set things right. He looked up from his ledger, quickly glanced over my shoulder out the window at that damned horse, and spoke.

“Good evenin’ mister, how you doing? I’m about to close up for the night, but you look like we might need to talk.”

He stood. “My name is Salvatore Phelps, but folks just call me Sal. I know exactly why you’re here. I can tell right off the bat that you’re a cowboy, concerned for your future. Am I right?”

Cowboy? No self-respecting werewolf would be caught dead riding a horse. He didn’t wait for an answer.

“Those damn ‘thropes taking all the work around here, it’s getting so a real human can’t make a living. It’s a pure-d shame, is what it is. But this drought, it’s just the thing to change matters around here.”

He knows what he’s doing, I thought. He wants to kill ‘thropes.

In my mind, I saw the flesh of my pack-brothers melting right off the bone, the bones dissolving into wet, shapeless lumps. This man… this monster … killed my family! Anger rose in my heart, stiffening my spine. Rage quickened my pulse, and oh God, it felt good. It felt right . He went on, oblivious.

“You see this?” he said, holding up a vial of something that looked like sand. “This solves both problems. It seeds the clouds, causing rain, and it eliminates your competition. Cloud seeding is done with silver iodide, and the raindrops form around the stuff while it’s floating in the air. Silver! In the rain! These ‘thropes are melting away right and left, and what’s a poor rancher to do without werewolves to run his herds?” He winked, then laughed. “Looks like he’ll have to hire on some cowboys.”

He paused, and caught his breath. When he continued, he was reminiscing.

“I loved riding the range. I’d been a cowboy all my life. Then it was all taken away because the damned werewolves took over. Now, maybe we can get a little back.”

I looked down at my hands. My anger was beginning to show. My nails were thickening, and the backs of my hands had grown hairier.

“Until we get these damned ‘thropes wiped out, there won’t be any peace for us cowboys. I’m expanding operations, and I could use some new scouts, who would go around and see what ranches are employing those mangy ‘thropes. We find them, and then I approach them with my guaranteed cloud seeding, and presto! Rain comes, werewolves go! So, you interested?”

The pressure had grown too much. This man was killing my people. He gloated over it. Murderer! For better or worse, I let myself go, carried away by the rage, fully immersed in instinct.

I said, “No thank you,” but I don’t think he could understand me. In the last instant, my muzzle had painfully lengthened, as had my teeth. He threw the vial of silver iodide at me, but I batted it away and it shattered on the far side of the room. He sat down hard in his chair, and quickly reached into a desk drawer. He had a gun.

In the time it took him to bring the gun up, I had mostly changed. The feeling was liberating, powerful. As he cocked the revolver in his shaking hand, I tapped it, and it flew across the room crashing through the window glass. With my other hand, I nudged the desk out of the way. It, too, went flying, putting a huge hole in the plaster drywall.

Sal backed away from me. My shirt and jeans were in ribbons. I cast them aside. I smelled the high, ammoniac smell of urine as a dark stain spread at Sal’s crotch.

“Stay away from me, you damned animal!” His voice had changed from an easygoing, twangy drawl to something higher, panicky, almost feminine.

Animal? Me?

He was against the wall now. He had nowhere left to go.

With the last of his courage, or perhaps it was desperation, he swung a fist at me. It looped through the air clumsily.

I caught it easily, held it tight. Looking into his eyes, I slowly and dispassionately crushed it. It felt good doing it, and it felt even better watching his face blanch in pain and fear. He shrieked, and his fingers quickly purpled, the destroyed blood vessels pumping spastically.

This man killed my pack-brothers. My family.

He had to die.

The old boy never had a chance. I killed him quickly, and I fed. His muscle, now mostly gone to fat, tasted rich and could easily have fed three or four of me.

Giving in to instinct had never felt so good.

Afterward, I changed back, cleaned up, and found a flight suit that more or less fit. As long as no one noticed that I was barefoot, everything would be fine. There might be some explaining to do, when they found what was left of Phelps, but I knew I was right. My pack-brothers would be proud, if they knew. Even Charley.

I went out to the palomino, untied it, and considered. Nope, no self-respecting werewolf would be caught dead riding a horse.

Taking hold of the bridle, I led the animal home.

We walked into the setting Halloween sun, back to the ranch.

Continue to the 2nd place story

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