Guests

by Andy Rakich

When they were on the road, there wasn't much talking. Catherine was sullen and her dark hair danced in the winter wind. William was sneering, cursing the cold and the horse that moved like molasses. Their honeymoon was far less romantic than either had imagined.

Go west, they would keep hearing. Manifest Destiny! America will be whole, from sea to shining sea. The Gibsons had gone west the year before, and the Lowrys too. Catherine's father had agreed to the marriage provided William take her to California and raise their children in the land of milk and honey.

They had embarked late and were now mired in bad weather. In Fort Spencer there was talk of a big storm. Catherine and William had recklessly ignored it.

That night the snow fell and its weight bent the evergreen branches. The wagon's wheels gave a slow, eerie creak and the stinking horse let out labored breath. "Damn you," William grumbled. The animal hadn't eaten because he had forgotten to pack enough grain.

Catherine played with the ring on her left hand. It felt odd, constricting. The trees frightened her. A shadow moved in the corner of her eye. She wrapped her blanket tightly around her body.

The snow was piling up quickly and panic surged through William when the horse collapsed, bringing the wagon to a grinding halt.

He swore aloud and jumped from the wagon. The horse's eyelids were drooping, its big yellow teeth soaked in saliva. William removed his hat and bent, jutting his ear against the beast's chest. The heart beat slowly and receded into nothing.

"For the love of Christ..."

He told her to take what she could carry... They were walking. He stuffed his favorite shirt and a little food into his haversack and slung it over his shoulder. After about ten yards, he remembered the Navy Colt hidden in one of his socks and went back for it.

Catherine insisted on holding his hand. "What now?" she asked. He did not respond. She played with the ring. The cold dried her skin and the ring bit into it. The flesh darkened and threatened to bleed.

The pale ground rose as the snow steadily fell. She was lost in her own thoughts and fears.

"We'll come back for our belongings, Catherine. Just as soon as we find a town. There are outposts all over these hills. Smoke, Catey. Tell me if you smell smoke. We'll be all right."

Soon the snow was at their knees. Every step was an accomplishment. They panted and the cold air seeped down their throats and into their blood.

"Look," she said. There was an orange flickering glow not too far off, framed by a dark window.

It was an immense log cabin. The wood was dark and old.

William shouted and banged on the door with his fist. He looked old. Catherine noticed the round birthmark on his neck. It looked bigger tonight for some reason. She hated that birthmark.

A muffled scraping echoed from the other side of the door. It was the drawing back of locks. William took an involuntary step back.

The door slowly inched open. A tall old man stood above them. Well, perhaps to call him old would be unfair. Catherine thought he couldn't have been older than fifty. His stubble had twinges of gray and an off-white streak ran through black hair.

The tall man said, "The air is chill tonight, my friends. Is it not? Come your ways hither to warm yourself by my fire." He gestured grandly to within, as if a palace awaited them.

Catherine and William needed no other indication. They rushed inside and collapsed next to the fire pit, where a stew was cooking.

The tall man had an unsettling smile on his face when he sat with them. He ladled meat stew into two empty bowls. William wondered what was so damn funny.

William took the bowls and handed one to Catherine. "Thank you," he said, and ate ravenously.

The tall man offered a courtly nod. "It is good, is it not? A rare dish, indeed, and a rugged one; yet in the mountains this is the way of such matters."

Catherine couldn't tear her gaze away from the stranger's extraordinary eyes. They looked almost red in the fireglow. The pupils were narrow like a cat's. When the eyes turned to look at her she couldn't help but gasp.

The tall man said, "Yet you appall me, my friend, by failing to introduce me to your beautiful wife."

William swallowed a spoonful of stew and coughed. He was uncomfortable. "This is Catherine."

The tall man rose. The longer she gazed at him, the more powerful he seemed. More than powerful... beautiful. He approached. She was short of breath. He took her hand in a gentle grip that she knew could crush like a vice if it wanted to.

He kissed her in the valley between two of her knuckles. Oh God, she prayed silently. She was a married woman, for heaven's sake. The tall man was old enough to be her father, but his touch moistened the place between her legs. She was thinking base and sinful thoughts, the kind preachers warn about. She squirmed.

William's head spun with wild envy but he had to rein himself in. Be reasonable, he thought. The old bat is just kissing her hand. In his day it was probably the fashion.

"How long have you lived out here... sir?" he asked, adding the last word when the tall man turned to him with the piercing eyes.

The tall man pondered the question as he lowered himself into a chair. "Ages," he eventually replied. "'Tis true, I am no longer young like you. Little remains for me but this very hearth and a head full of memories. Death is a fate I shall readily accept... verily, greet it like a gentleman... Though perhaps I have longer life left in me yet."

He threw his head back and laughed. His teeth were white as the first snow.

William and Catherine were silent as the tall man rose and peered out the window. He was remarkably still. Every movement was deliberate, William noticed. He did not fidget.

"The snow is very thick," the tall man said. "There are many dangers from snow and wolves and night. To be out of doors on a night such as this would mean death."

William trembled. His shaking hand dropped the bowl of stew. He hung on the tall man's every word.

"It is certain in this cursed forest," the stranger continued. "Night creatures prowl and hunt just beyond the light of your vision."

Catherine imagined them. Werewolves, ghouls and evil Indian spirits, cackling in the trees. They would be tearing apart the carcass of the horse now, and soon they would follow their tracks through the snow to the cabin. This dangerous, handsome man was a shield against evil, the only thing standing between them and a grisly end. The tall man's next words bathed her in happiness.

"You shall stay with me awhile. And I will take no refusal."

He turned and smiled at them. William looked into his eyes. He had funny eyes. They were good to look at. Wonderful, really. When he looked into his eyes, everything was all right. The monsters crept back into their caves. William felt virile, strong and alive.

The tall man watched Catherine. It was thrilling and frightening for her. He had such powerful grace. She wanted him to touch her again, wanted it uncontrollably yet feared it equally so.

He whispered, "You will be my guest of honor, Catherine, treated to every finery I can provide. I fear you may love it here so dearly, you may never want to leave."

She forgot about William, that klutz. She had to have this man instead, and only him. If only she was worthy. She pulled at her dress. It was too tight, like her ring. She needed air.

"And you, my friend," the tall stranger said to William, "will prove most useful to me."

William's heart leapt. How kind this stranger was. How generous...

The tall man took a slow step to the door and swiftly locked it shut. He remarked to Catherine: "Strong young men make wonderful meals. Do they not?"

She nodded. He sat with her. His voice was soft and hovered in her ears. "Remove your scarf." His breath was icy and smelt sick-sweet.

Catherine obeyed. Red knitting tumbled to the floor. Her mother had made it. How far away she was from home.

The stranger smiled. He leaned down and pressed his lips to her throat.

And then it was suddenly all wrong. William was lost in a horrible trance, the fire cast evil shadows, wolves howled from the haunted forest and she was drifting in a sea of nightmares.

Too late. A sharp pain. She gasped. He drank. Blood. Sweet, sweet blood.

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