The yellow-haired cowboy rode through the night, heading for the little house at the outskirts of town. His left eye, white and viscous as a pool of dirty water, stared out of his skull, unseeing, and the right turned upwards, towards the sky, where clouds had wrapped themselves around the moon. He gave a hoarse laugh and turned his head to spit into the wind.
“Guess I got luck on my side,” he muttered. “Least for now.”
He clambered down off his horse and tied it to a stake by the front porch of the house. It blew air softly through its nostrils, pacing restlessly on the spot.
“Hey,” said the cowboy. “Don’t you go judging me, now. I keep you fed, don’t I? Take care of you, don’t I? So hush. I ain’t so bad.”
He laughed again, flashing teeth that had been sharpened to savage points, long ago. Then he crossed to the door and slipped a leather glove from his hand to knock before sliding it back across the knuckles again.
After a minute or so the door opened and a woman in a white nightgown peered suspiciously out at him, the bags under her eyes as dark and hollow as canyons.
“What you wanting at this time of night?” she asked, brusquely. “Is there trouble I ought to be knowing about?”
“Well, Ma’am,” said the cowboy, tipping his hat. “That’s what I’m here to determine. I’d like to speak to your husband, if you’ll be so hospitable as to let me inside.”
The woman withdrew slightly, her grip on the door frame tightening. She was young, the cowboy noted, not much over twenty, and wore no jewellery, neither wedding ring nor silver cross dangling at her throat.
“He ain’t home,” the woman said. “What do you want with him, anyway? You the Law, or something?”
She looked the cowboy up and down, her small nose wrinkling. There weren’t any law men who dressed as he did, all in black with silver chains looping from his hips that jingled softly with every movement. She probably thought the cowboy was casing to rob the place, or else intending to plague her with some other kind of mischief. On the latter point she might not mistaken; the woman was pretty, and his time on the road had been long and lonely.
“I ain’t the law,” said the cowboy, smiling. “Matter of fact I ain’t here on business at all. No, it’s all pleasure, here forward.”
He stepped forward, his boot spurs clinking against the porch. As the woman began to close the door on him he slid the barrel of a pistol between it and the frame, cocking it towards the woman’s face.
“Now, Ma’am, I think you ought to let me in to wait for your husband. It’d be right sensible of you.”
Grimacing, the woman stepped back into the room, letting the door swing open. The room within was dark and cold, like the interior of a cave. There were no picture frames on the walls, no mirrors, nothing metal at all.
“You one of them lady killers, huh?” the woman snarled. “Shame on you. That’s the lowest of the low.”
“I ain’t opposed to it,” said the cowboy, tossing her a wink. “But it ain’t just women folk I’m partial to.”
Keeping the gun cocked towards the woman he walked into the house and pushed her down into an armchair, watching the muscles in her fine jaw jump.
“What’s your name?” asked the cowboy.
“Bernice,” came the reluctant reply. “My husband’s name is Randall. Thought you would’ve known that, if you’ve come looking for him.”
“Shit, I don’t bother remembering names. I don’t give a damn who’s who, not afterwards, anyhow.”
The woman’s fingernails clawed fractiously at the armchair, scratching the leather. They were long and curled inwards, towards the pads of her fingers. Grinning, the cowboy crossed to the window and twitched the curtains open. Clouds still cradled the moon, but sooner or later he figured they’d move and he’d be in trouble.
“You do this for fun, huh?” the woman spat. “Terrorise innocent folks in the middle of the night for no good reason?”
“Innocent,” the cowboy repeated, tilting his head. “Generous use of the word, wouldn’t you say? Heard mutterings about town of livestock being torn up, wild horses found with their guts ripped out in the desert. Wouldn’t know anything about that, now would you?”
Wide-eyed the woman twisted in her seat to hiss at him.
“So you are the law.”
“No, I ain’t,” said the cowboy, chuckling. “I don’t give a fuck about no horse-killings, neither. Hell, you and your husband could be pure as the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus herself and I’d still be here, having my fun with you. Just gives me a little kick when my sport winds up giving back to the community, is all.”
The cowboy crouched next to the woman and slipped a knife from his pocket. Rigid, the woman watched it move from one hand to the other, like a coin in a magic trick. Her hair and dress were soaked with sweat, and he could see her nipples pressing hard through the damp fabric.
“What are you harassing me for if it’s my husband you want?” snapped the woman.
Stupid little bitch; she thought he didn’t know.
“Bernice, you sure are good at playing nice,” said the cowboy, bringing his knife to where her nightdress touched her ankle. “But seems I was wrong, thinking your husband was the only bad apple on this here tree. Let me speculate: you take turns hunting, is that right? You stay home, he goes out to play, that it? That way if one of you was to ever get caught the other one could play dumb. Acting the bereft widow, or widower, such as it may be.”
Pressing her full lips together the woman said nothing, but the cowboy saw the fear stir in her dark eyes. Using the slender knife the cowboy began to cut into her dress, sliding his free, gloved hand up her leg to the top of her warm thigh. He felt the muscle twitched against him and lowered his head, breathing in the scent of her skin.
“See, I seen it all before,” the cowboy said, quietly. “How you protect each other. How you try to live like normal folks when you ain’t been anything like it in a long time. Tell me something, Bernice- which one of you turned first?”
“Fuck you,” the woman snarled.
“Fuck me,” the cowboy said. “Yeah, fuck me. Alright.”
He pressed the silver blade against the woman’s thigh and she rose up like a snake, arched in pain, her skin spitting like a hot griddle. Her lovely face began to warp outwards, the bone thrusting painfully against her freckled skin, until her jaw almost resembled a snout. Then it collapsed inwards again, and the woman growled, blood throthing in her open mouth.
“Can’t change until the moon’s fully out,” asked the cowboy. “Shame; I’d like to see what kind of beastie you turn into. Bet you make a cute little doggie, don’t you?”
“How do you even know about us?” the woman croaked. “Ain’t nobody who believes in us. Nobody knows, except folks that are what we are.”
“You ain’t the only cursed creatures on this earth,” said the cowboy, shrugging. “And I’m acquainted with a fair few. But out of all of ’em I like hunting your kind the most. Developed a taste for it, you might say.”
He ducked his head and lapped his tongue against the woman’s inner thigh, crossing the charred flesh. As he did so he unhooked one of the chains from his belt and looped it around the woman’s slim ankles, binding her to the chair. She cursed at him, coughing up more blood. Her hair stood almost on end, like the hackles of a mad dog.
“I oughta have known a bitch like you would have a dirty mouth,” said the cowboy.
He stood up, brushing dust from his knees, and bent towards the woman’s head, pushing a gloved thumb between her open lips.
“Don’t you touch her.”
The cowboy turned. In the doorway stood a tall, skinny man, stark naked and doused from head to toe in blood. Sand caked his bare feet, and an animal skin was slung over his shoulder- wolf pelt, from the looks of it. He was trembling so badly that blood droplets flew off him in all directions.
“Ah, Randy,” said the cowboy, nodding politely. “You finally showed up. Been talking to Bernice about your predelictions. Curious, ain’t they?”
“Get away from my wife,” said Randall, his teeth, gritted together. Gristle and hair swung from the corners of his mouth. “You get away from her and get yourself gone.”
“Your wife,” said the cowboy, and whistled. “Look, I don’t see no ring on her finger, on accounts of y’all taking such offence to silver, and I don’t imagine either of you set foot in church much, huh? I’d say she’s mine for the talking.”
He pulled his thumb from the woman’s mouth and sucked blood and saliva from the leather. Randall started towards him, fists clenched, dark eyes huge as bullet holes in his face. Beyond the window clouds began to stir, and a pure white beam of moonlight fell across the room. At once Randall stopped in his tracks, grinning, the sinews on either side of his mouth tearing as his jaw widened. Up and down the length of his body muscles rippled and jumped as if insects crawled busily within.
“Hurts, don’t it?” said the cowboy, eyeing him in disgust. Got to, tearing your whole body apart like that. Hell, you must wish you were dead.”
Randall only snarled wordlessly, his skin writhing and sloughing from his flesh like the peel of some hellish fruit, but the woman sat bolt upright, her face transformed with an expression of almost religious frenzy.
“It don’t hurt! It’s the greatest pleasure I ever felt! Like being God! You can’t shame him for what he is.”
“Like I said, I don’t care nothing about that,” said the cowboy, reaching for his pistol again. “I ain’t a moral man. But let me tell you something, wolf-whore. Becoming a monster sure as hell don’t feel as good as killing one.”
He aimed the muzzle of the gun at Randall’s malformed skull and fired, but the man jerked aside, his reactions suddenly lithely fast. His raw flesh steamed, the first thick, black bristles of hair needling their way up through it. From time to time he spasmed, bones crunching inside him. A scream gargled from his dripping mouth, which was now more wolfish than man, although with far too many rows of teeth.
“Come here, puppy,” said the cowboy, stepping around the man in a semi circle. “Come get it.”
In the chair the woman was struggling to change, but couldn’t, the chain binding her fast. Desperate, she yelled at Randall, bloody spittle flying.
“Get out of here, Randall! He’s got silver, he’ll kill you in one shot, he-“
“Shut up, woman,” said the cowboy, and Randall snarled again, dropping to his haunches on the floor.
The creature staring the cowboy down was three times the size of a regular wolf and deformed, the shape of it under the black hair like a human pretending to be canine, fingers and toes splayed, ripped through with vast, obsidian claws. The brush of its tail curved up like a scorion’s, striking the air, and its head was almost all teeth, only the eyes and ears particularly lupine.
“Come here, horse-killer,” said the cowboy, barely above a whisper. “Come defend your woman.”
The werewolf leapt at him, missing as the cowboy wrenched to one side with the ease of a dancer. His arm flashed out, striking the beast with the butt of his gun, and it growled, shaking its bruised head from side to side as it readied itself for another strike. The woman watched, repulsed, her fingers nearly ripping the armchair open.
“Stop tormenting him and get it over with,” she snapped.
“Oh, no,” said the cowboy, dodging a snap of the wolf’s foaming maw. “I take my time. Pleasure, not business.”
He turned and used his left hand to slash at the wolf with his knife, driving the blade deep into the creature’s cheek. The wound smoked, black blood slashing across the floor, and the wolf unleashed a howl more like a terrible, echoing siren than any bestial call. It rounded on the cowboy, raking a paw across his torso. Strips of leather tore away, revealing another padded layer of fabric beneath.
“You won’t get me that easy,” said the cowboy. “I’ve cut too many of your kind down.”
In the corner of his eye he saw the woman pulling herself up out of the chair, her arms reaching for him. Without even turning the cowboy struck her with a backhand, and she fell down again, gasping, shaking her head from side to side. The wolf man unleashed a rattled cry and gnashed at the cowboy, glancing his arm, and then came at him again, poised to rip his throat out.
It was at that moment clouds began to sift across the moon again, throwing the room into darkness. As the werewolf fell upon the cowboy he slammed the pistol against its belly and fired, the shot so loud that the woman clapped her hands over her ears with a yelp. Blood trickled down her earlobes and between her fingers.
The cowboy, pinned beneath the wolfman, pushed the creature off him an inch at a time. The creature was still alive, but barely, its stomach hanging out of the wound and smouldering from the impact of the bullet. Its head, a horrible amalgamation of man and wolf, keened piteously, and it pawed at the cowboy as if seeking sympathy.
“You’re finished, puppy,” he said. “Ain’t nobody coming back from a gut shot like that even if it weren’t silver.”
Getting to his feet the cowboy poked at the wound with the toe of his boot, smirking as the creature gibbered in agony.
“Roundabout now I’d usually put you out of your misery,” he said, almost kindly. “But I figured it’d be nice to have an audience for once.”
He turned to the woman, who was whispering some pagan prayer through busted lips, her eyes squeezed shut. The cowboy took her by the jaw and shook her head in his gloved hand until they flew open and stared into his, the pupils tiny grains of terror.
“Oh, Bernice,” he crooned. “What am I gonna do with you?”
WRITING PROMPT BY ANGELA COOPER