The young man stood slightly hidden by the large trees, His eyes fixed upon the grand gates that led to the majestic house. He could see the military guards as they paced their walk of sentry duty, and drew back when he felt a glance filtering his way.
He looked to be about eighteen years old, with piercing blue eyes that held a shadow of weary desperation. His dark, almost black hair fell in locks down his back, tied by a thin strip of leather. He was a handsome youth, and the slight crouch in his muscular frame was caused more by an inner influence than a weakness of body.
This was the fourth day he had waited by the gates for a sign of the man who had drawn him to this place. He knew, that given, time he would see him and, once he had looked upon his face, he would know if his search had been in vain.
Little did the youth realise that he was being watched, just as closely as he monitored the gates.
On the first day a guard had noted his presence. On the second day another guard had placed a report in to the colonel about the boy's continuous appearance. On the third, the colonel had made his way down to the gatehouse and watched the youth's activities on the close-circuit television that had been installed for just such a purpose. On the fourth day, orders were issued to bring the boy in for questioning.
Suddenly the gates opened and two jeeps roared from the enclosed compound. It took a few moments before the boy realised that the convoy was heading towards him and, after a sharp ripple of fear, he turned and fled into the surrounding trees.
The chase was short. The young man did not attempt to fight the soldiers as they surrounded him, only holding out his arms for them to frisk him and secure his hands behind his back. He stumbled forward towards the car as he was shoved from behind. He did not appear to have any apprehension about his situation, and this caused Derriman, who led the squad, a moment's confusion. Then he shook his head, and taking the boy's arm, led him towards the car, helping him into the back seat before he took the seat next to him. It was not his job to sort out what the lad wanted; his orders were to return with him to the colonel, for him to deal with the problem.
Ironhorse was waiting at the entrance to the cottage when the party arrived and motioned for the guards to escort the boy into the hallway, then directed them towards his office. He ignored Blackwood, who had come to watch the proceedings, but did not miss the frown of displeasure that erupted upon the astrophysicist's face when he saw the handcuffs on the young prisoner.
"Is that really necessary?" he enquired, moving to follow the colonel into his office.
"I think it is," came the terse reply. Then, seeing that Blackwood was about to take a seat, Ironhorse added shortly, "Haven't you some other work you could be doing?"
Blackwood just smiled. "As head of this project, I feel I should be involved with the..." he paused, searching for the right words, "interrogation of this highly dangerous prisoner... which, I might add, you kidnapped off a public highway."
"Harrison..." growled the officer, looking towards the boy who sat silently during the exchange.
Blackwood, catching the look, raised his hands in mock surrender and sat down, raising an eyebrow to counter Ironhorse's glare.
The Indian had been with the Blackwood Project long enough to realise that this was the best he was going to get from the project leader. He moved to his desk and took his seat, motioning for the two guards to leave the room.
The next few moments he spent looking at the boy who sat before him. He concentrated on taking in every detail, memorising it, in case it would be needed at a later date. Finally he asked, "What's your name?" He felt Blackwood's eyes fix upon his face at his gentle tone. The Indian could see that the boy had not had it easy for the last few days. Also, Ironhorse could not shake the feeling that he knew the boy, that they had met some time in the past. Unconsciously he raised his hand and gently rubbed his recently healed shoulder.
"Richard Caine," came the subdued reply. "My name is Richard Caine," he stated more firmly. He had been examining the Indian before him, then - as if coming to a conclusion - his body began to relax. Giving in to a deep weariness, he rested his head in his hands and slumped forward.
Both men reacted to his visible sign of weakness; Blackwood taking his shoulders and leaning him back in his chair, Ironhorse coming from behind the desk to kneel in front of him, taking the boy's arm.
"I'm sorry..." began the youth. "It's... it's been a few days... since I've eaten... Do you think I could have some..."
He got no further as Blackwood interrupted, "Of course, I'll get Mrs Pennyworth to rustle something up..." He checked to make sure that Ironhorse had a firm grip on the lad before he stood up and headed towards the door. As he left the room, they could hear his voice calling for the ever - prepared housekeeper.
After a few moments, Ironhorse asked, "Do you want a glass of water or something?" He leant back slightly, to get a better view of his prisoner.
"I think it would be more helpful to have his hands released," stated Blackwood, coming back into the room.
Ironhorse looked up sharply, then coming to a decision he reached into his pocket, and drawing out a set of keys, proceeded to release the handcuffs.
The boy rubbed his wrists and smiled his thanks at the two men. He opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by Mrs Pennyworth's knock at the door. Blackwood answered her summons and returned with a tray laden with sandwiches and a jug of cool milk.
"Here," he offered, handing Richard a glass of the milk and a plate on which to place his food.
Richard once again murmured his thanks and, after draining the glass, began to eat the food in earnest.
Blackwood met Ironhorse's look over the head of the eating lad and shrugged his shoulders. The boy hardly looked or acted like a dangerous threat to the project and a simple blood test would prove that he was not an alien... although both men were pretty certain that he was not.
Seeing that the boy was more steady, Ironhorse rose and resumed his seat behind the desk. Richard raised his head and watched the man as he moved about the room. Meeting the colonel's look, he smiled and, after wiping his hands on the napkin provided, asked in an accented voice, "I suppose you have some questions for me?"
Ironhorse nodded in response. "Just one or two."
Richard raised his hands and rubbed his tired eyes, saying, "I will answer any questions you ask, but..." he paused, "you might not... believe me..." he finished lamely.
"Why don't you let us be the judge of that?" put in Blackwood, giving him a reassuring smile.
"Where do you come from?" asked Ironhorse, deciding that the pleasantries had gone on long enough.
"Originally... a small town in the mid-west called Longreach. Recently, Los Angeles... I left there quite a while ago, and have been... travelling around the country ever since." The words were spoke quietly, but they carried conviction.
Ironhorse nodded, hearing the truth in the words. He watched as Blackwood resumed his seat. "Why have you spent the last four days outside our grounds?" he went on, making a note in the book that lay before him.
Richard looked down as his hands before answering, "I'm not too sure why I was drawn here... but once here, I was unable to leave."
"Drawn here? Unable to leave?" questioned Blackwood, leaning forward in his seat.
A sigh of frustration escaped the youth as he too leant forward, his eyes intent upon the Indian before him. "I can't explain it, but I just had to come, and now...." He shrugged, his helplessness clear to the other men.
"How old are you?" Ironhorse asked, taking another track.
Richard swallowed and looked back down at his hands. "Nineteen."
"How did you get here?" Ironhorse continued, making further notes in his book.
"Walked... hitch-hiked some of the way."
"From where?" Ironhorse looked up when he sensed that no reply was coming. He paused, seeing the look of concentration upon the other's face.
"I can't.... can't remember... I just arrived here." There was a quality of breathlessness in the voice that answered.
Putting his pen down, Ironhorse stood up. Blackwood noted the way his hand slipped to rest easily upon his holstered weapon. "I suggest we move this down to the lab and let Suzanne do a blood test." His voice was still gentle, but his eyes were granite.
Rising, Blackwood said, "I'll go and tell the others we have a visitor." He looked at Ironhorse, who nodded his agreement.
After the taller man had left, Richard glanced up and met the colonel's look. "It's you," he stated firmly. "You're the reason I'm here." His words were more of a plea than an explanation.
Ironhorse knelt down before the lad and gently asked, "Why?"
A look of pure anguish filtered across the other's face. "I don't know," he cried reaching up and rubbing at his forehead with his knuckles.
Ironhorse, sensing the pain this line of questioning was causing, reached over and took Richard's arm in a firm grasp. "Let's get your blood tested, then we'll talk some more."
Ironhorse was leaning against one of the laboratory's counters, waiting for the blood test results that Suzanne was working on. His attention was split between the working biologist and the young man, who stood between two guards by the lift.
Blackwood was pacing about the woman's lab, but she was pointedly ignoring him as she slipped another slide under the microscope.
Drake was delving into his computer, researching the information Blackwood had supplied about their young guest when he had come down to inform them of their visitor.
Suzanne finally stood up and, looking over towards Richard, said to Ironhorse. "He's human." A sigh of relief went about the room before she added, "Well, he's definitely not an alien." she leant back over the microscope. "But there's something not quite right..."
Ironhorse had straightened at her first words. Now he shot a look at the boy who was pointedly looking at his own feet, as if he knew that he was being spoken about but was unwilling to even glance in their direction for fear of being questioned.
"Can you enlarge upon that, Suzanne?" Blackwood said, coming to stand beside her.
"Here... you take a look." She moved aside and motioned for him to examine the slide. He gave her a short intense look before he assumed her position. A few seconds later he stood back and raised an eyebrow in her direction; she met it with a shrug of her own.
"Well, people?" Ironhorse asked, irritation creeping into his tone.
Blackwood looked at Suzanne, passing her the option of answering the colonel's question. She looked straight back at him. Sighing, he began, "It's like Suzanne said; Richard is not an alien." He paused. "But there is something in his blood that... well... isn't the norm."
"Meaning?" the voice was tight with anger. They all knew Ironhorse hated it when they were unable to give straight answers to what he considered to be straight questions.
"Meaning," continued Blackwood, moving to stand by the colonel, "I don't know."
"Could the aliens have done something to him?" Ironhorse asked, his tone low, unwilling to let his voice travel to the youth who still stood by the elevator.
"I doubt it, Paul," Blackwood said in a lowered voice. "It's nothing like we've come across before."
"It could be new," suggested the Indian as Suzanne approached them, pulling off her rubber gloves.
"I doubt it... it's too far removed from everything we know about them. This would mean a total turnabout in their makeup, and I don't think that's within their limited reach."
Ironhorse sighed; this was not what he wanted to hear. They had enough mysteries on their hands without this youth's adding to his worries. He turned slightly and glanced at the boy. Richard still had not moved from his guarded position, his attention still fixed upon his feet. Suddenly he looked up and met the Indian's look. Ironhorse sharply turned his back on the youth, unable to shake the feeling that the boy had known what he was thinking.
"So, what do we do with him?" he asked, looking at the team members before him.
Blackwood shrugged before saying, "Technically we can't hold him... he's not really done anything wrong."
"Technically we can do whatever we damn well please," snapped the colonel, his temper fraying as he felt the boy's continued presence behind his back. "We can't just let him go until we know why he's so interested in the cottage."
Blackwood raised his hand and began rub his chin in concentration. "Why not put him up for the night, and then..." he paused, before finishing in a firmer tone, "see what Norton can dig up on him... then make a decision tomorrow."
Ironhorse considered Blackwood's words for a few moments, then nodded his agreement. "I'll arrange for him to be kept in the gatehouse tonight, under guard," he finished, a steel edge entering his tone. No one chose to argue with him and, turning, he motioned for the guards to follow him with the boy in tow.
After the lift doors had closed, Suzanne looked at Blackwood and said with a slight shudder, "That boy gives me the creeps, and did you see the way he kept watching Paul?"
Harrison, unable to find an answer to her question, watched her re-enter the lab. Glancing over at Norton, he saw that he was too engrossed in his present task to voice an opinion. Sighing, he made his way to his office. He, too, had been unable to shake the feeling that the boy was trouble, and he was unsettled by the way he watched the colonel. Reaching for his tuning folk, he leant back in his chair and began to search his memory for this man/child who called himself Richard Caine.
Night trickled in upon the cottage, creeping slowly across the ground like the white mist that rolled in from the sea. The moon climbed high within its chariot as it rode across the sky.
Ironhorse lay, twisting restlessly within his bed, caught up in a dream that ripped into his very being. Pushing at the blankets, he snapped awake as the fangs from his nightmare fought to gain a hold upon his reality. He gasped air into his shaking body; the attack had seemed so real... the animal leaning over his body, the hot reeking breath seeping into his own lungs, mingling with that of the night beast.
He collapsed back upon the bed; he had not dreamt of his attack by the Skinwalker since his release from hospital. Closing his eyes, he recalled the night when Suzanne, Blackwood, and himself had been caught while tracking down the aliens. They had been used as bait to lure an animal of the night for the aliens. During the fight, an alien had wounded Ironhorse and tossed him into the clearing for the beast to savage... yet the werewolf had not killed him, but ripped into his enemy instead.
Another howl rent the air and Ironhorse leapt up, all thought of sleep gone. That had not come from his dream; that had been real. Moving swiftly, he dressed and charged down the stairs. At the bottom he met Blackwood, just leaving his office.
"Stay here, Harrison," he snapped as he sped past.
Blackwood grabbed his arm, the force of it pulling him round to face the other man. "It's him," Harrison snarled. "Your skinwalker."
That gave the Indian pause. He blinked as the implications sunk in, then commanded, "Get the others down to the gym; bar the door. It can't get in there." Then he pulled himself out of Blackwood's grip and flew to the entrance.
"What about..." came Harrison's anguished cry.
"Just do it, damn it," Ironhorse tossed back over his shoulder as another cry filled the air. Up ahead, he could see his Omegans spilling from the gatehouse. Gunfire now sounded from inside the building. A soldier came flying through one of the downstairs windows to land in a crumpled heap where he fell.
"Report," Ironhorse cried, as he came upon Derriman kneeling beside another downed man.
"Don't know, sir. I was asleep when all hell broke loose." He lifted his weapon and aimed at the front door to the gatehouse, ready for when the creature erupted from the building.
The cry came again, then silence. To Ironhorse, this was more disturbing than seeing his men tossed about like tin soldiers. A few minutes passed; the Omegans moved about organising themselves efficiently, the wounded were moved further away, a large light was trained upon their sleeping quarters, and they waited.
If it was possible, Ironhorse felt that he could hear the creature breathing. The air was so quiet. He motioned his people to fall back further from the house and set them up in a crossfire position.
Ironhorse turned to suddenly find Blackwood kneeling behind him. "Damn it, Blackwood..." he began, but the astrophysicist cut him off.
"The others are safe... in the gym..."
"You should be there as well," the Indian griped, glaring at his friend.
"Next time," Blackwood promised, then paled as the howl again rent the air. "My God, I never thought to hear that again," he mumbled under his breath.
"Hold steady," Ironhorse said into his radio to his restless people.
Then it erupted from the gatehouse: the large window on the first floor just splintered before its leap to freedom. It landed on all fours and was gone, diving across the lawn with a speed that belied its size. Gunfire followed it across the grounds but its speed was such that the bullets never seemed to reach it. Then it was gone, fading into the trees that lined the edge of the lawn towards the sea.
Ironhorse was up and following before he could even register that he was moving. Beside him, he felt Blackwood keeping pace with him. "Get back to the cottage," he cried, without stopping. As he spoke, he pulled out his service revolver that still carried the silver bullets he had made. Seeing Derriman, he yelled an order: "Keep the squad back."
The older man slowed and looked like he was about to disagree, but his army training was firmly in place. Turning, he motioned for the rest of the unit to desist in the chase and began to regroup them as the other two men disappeared into the copse.
Ironhorse slowed as the trees closed about them. He shot Blackwood a glare, but didn't waste his breath trying to get him to go back. Reaching out a hand, he grabbed Harrison's arm and pulled him bodily behind him. "Stay there," he hissed, his tone indicating that he meant business.
Blackwood nodded and stooped lower, trying to blend in with the darkness of the undergrowth. Another howl ripped the air; it was a cry of pain and longing. It affected both men, but neither stopped as they followed the path deeper into the wood.
Ironhorse waved a hand at Blackwood, pausing him in mid-step. He pointed in front and signalled that he was going to amove head and that Blackwood was to stay hidden behind the tree. Harrison wanted to protest, but the Indian was gone and he watched helplessly as the other man made his way forward.
What happened next would live with Blackwood for the rest of his life. To see his parents die at the hands of the aliens was nothing compared to seeing his best friend attacked by the hell-spawned creature that he had insisted stay within their midst.
The monster leapt and Ironhorse fired. The bullet hit but did nothing to slow the creature down. It howled in pain and, landing, cuffed the gun from Ironhorse's fingers, giving him a blow to the head that felled him to the ground. Blackwood stumbled forward, his voice raised in a cry of alarm. The massive head turned towards him, its eyes pinning him, his body suddenly unable to move. It crouched over Ironhorse's unconscious body, blood seeping from a wound in its arm. Suddenly, it tilted its head and howled again at the night sky.
The sound of pursuit came to Blackwood, and he sighed in relief as he realised that the Omegans were coming to find their commander. As he turned back to the animal, he saw it stoop and sling the limp form of Ironhorse over its shoulder and, spinning, loped off into the darkness.
Blackwood blinked, unable to believe what had happened, then he was off and running after the monster and his friend, but it was useless. The creature had disappeared into the darkness and taken his best friend with it. By the time the others reached him, he was leaning breathless against a tree beside the high wall that surrounded the compound. In the distance they heard the howl again, and Blackwood could tell that the sound had travelled over a few miles to reach them.
Sinking to the ground, he held his head in his hands as he fought the tears that wanted to fall. Looking up as he felt a hand fall upon his shoulder, he looked into the kindly face of Sergeant Derriman. "Don't worry, sir; we'll find the colonel, sir."
Blackwood swallowed hard and refrained from commenting. There was nothing he could say that would convey the horror he was feeling inside.
Ironhorse hurt; there was no getting away from the pain that welled up inside him. He tried to move and barely suppressed a groan. Moving again, he did let the sound pass his lips, then slowly blinked open his eyes. He could hear the sound of a running stream and wondered if he had fallen while on a hike. Tilting his head slightly, he winced and swallowed the bile that rose in his throat.
The stream was about twenty feet away, and the bubbling was caused by the rocks and stones it tumbled over. He swallowed and realised that he was thirsty. Moving with infinite care, he tested his body and found that, although it hurt to move, he could do so. With great effort he reached the stream and, dipping his face into its cool running water, he drank deeply, letting the water revive him.
After a few minutes of dipping his head and breathing deeply, he slowly sat up. The sun was high in the sky, and his surroundings would have been pleasant if the world would only stop tilting and turning out of focus.
Then he saw the other body. He's breath caught in his throat; it was a few feet away from him. Moving with great care, he crawled over and gently tilted it over. Richard Caine. The name flared into his mind and, with it, the events of the previous night. Turning away, he did throw up then. Rething until there was nothing left to leave his body.
A groan from beside him drew his attention back to the body at his side. The boy's head was twisting from side to side as if trying to throw off an unwanted dream. Ironhorse's attention was caught and held by a ragged hole that was torn in the youth's arm. Sitting back upon his heels, he knew that his silver bullet had wounded the boy and that meant.... He paused, then looked about for a weapon. Finding none, he sighed and gathered a large rock to his side, ready to use if needed.
Turning back, he gasped as he saw the ragged wound was healing; the edges of the hole slowly closing under his gaze. Richard groaned again, this time raising his good hand to wipe at eyes that opened slowly to blink at the sunlight.
"You move and I'll kill you," threatened Ironhorse, lifting the rock and holding it in plain sight.
"What happened?" Richard asked, his voice fuzzy, filled with pain. He shifted his weight and cried out. Leaning up carefully, he looked down at the hole in his arm. Even as he did so, the healing process picked up speed and the skin joined, leaving a blazing red scar stretching across his limb. He swallowed hard, but said nothing, his eyes caught and held by his own body healing.
Ironhorse watched him for a few moments, then looked about. He had no idea where they were. The clearing gave the impression of not being touched by man for many years. Suddenly the world tilted, and darkness collected about the edges of his vision.
Blackwood was frantic. He and the rest of the team had been out searching the woods for any sign of the monster and the colonel. Now, with dawn five hours behind them, he was beginning to admit that they might never find them.
He looked up as another group of soldiers came out of the woods and made their way to the check-in point. Seeing the look upon Derriman's face, he didn't bother to ask how the search had gone.
"Sergeant Stavrakos' is the only team not yet back," Suzanne said. Her own face was drawn and pale; she, too, had spent the night out searching.
Looking at her, Blackwood could see that she was also suffering the loss of their friend. Reaching out, he took her into a big hug and, resting his chin upon her head, he comforted, "Knowing Paul, he's more than likely got it chasing a stick."
The words sounded hollow to him, but Suzanne was prepared to play along, her own voice shaky as she responded, "Well, I hope it's house-trained." Both laughed and stood for a few more moments, seeking comfort from the other.
A cough from behind separated them. Turning, Blackwood saw Coleman standing behind him. "I've just heard that Simeson will make it, sir," she reported formally, talking about the only member of the team seriously injured from the attack in the gatehouse.
Blackwood smiled down at the pretty woman and replied, "Thank you. Has Stavrakos reported in yet?"
"Yes, sir," she replied, then added, "No sign."
"Okay, we'll stop for lunch, then divide the next ten miles and do a scan from there." Blackwood's voice was firm and his intention clear. If necessary, he would search the entire area between here and the Rockies for the colonel. Coleman, being of similar mind, saluted and turned smartly to relay the orders on.
"You sounded almost like a soldier," Suzanne commented, resting her hand upon his arm.
"Where can he be, Suzanne?" asked Blackwood, turning bleak eyes upon her.
"I don't know, but we will keep searching," she returned.
"For how long? What if Norton picks up an alien transmission, or Wilson calls the search off?" His voice was dull, his eyes brimming with defeat. "You didn't see the creature... it had no reason to keep him alive. My God, it might have...." He stopped, unable to voice his worst fears.
"Stop it, Harrison... just stop it," snapped Suzanne her voice rising with her anger. "It's not your fault."
"Isn't it?" he said, a steel glint in his eyes. "Maybe I should have held him back when he wanted to go after that thing, but, oh no, I wanted to capture it. So much for being on the side of peace. I wanted him to kill that thing, wanted to see those bullets tear its life from it's body." He stopped his own emotions suddenly swinging to cool efficiency. "Get some food, Suzanne. We begin the search again in forty minutes." With that he was gone, alone and aloof, to the edge of the clearing.
Suzanne watched him go and pushed the welling frustration down as it threatened to overwhelm her. She knew that Blackwood would have traded his life for Ironhorse's. The attack must have been so sudden, so swift, that the tall man had been unable to respond. Sighing, she realised that it must have been the same when he was a child, watching his parents die before his eyes, unable to prevent it. She looked about the clearing at the group of tired people who had spent the night searching for their lost comrade. Shaking her head, she headed toward Coleman; she knew that if they did not find Ironhorse by sunset, there was little chance of finding him at all. She wasn't sure how she knew this, just that she did.
When Ironhorse opened his eyes again, it was to find himself laying flat and Richard Caine leaning over him, fear written upon his face.
"Dear God, you gave me a scare," stated the boy, laying a wet cloth against the older man's forehead.
"I gave you a scare?" questioned Ironhorse, ready to push the youth away and gain his feet, but a strong hand upon his chest prevented him.
"Stay still just a few more moments, you've a nasty cut to your head." As if to prove his words, he gently touched the open wound on Ironhorse's head and winced as the other man gasped in pain. "Sorry," he added softly.
"What the hell are you?" gasped Ironhorse from between clenched teeth, unable to hide the fear that rippled beneath his tone.
Richard reached out and removed the cloth from Ironhorse's forehead. He sat for a few moments turning the grimy material over in his hands, considering his words with care. "I guess you would call me a werewolf," he finally said.
"A werewolf!" Ironhorse snapped, unable to believe this boy who knelt beside him, unable to picture the monster that had attacked him last night within the body of this youth. "You guess I would call you a werewolf? What the hell do you call yourself, then?"
Richard jumped up and began to pace, his stride going no further than ten feet from the wounded man. "You don't understand," he began, then seeing Ironhorse about to comment, continued, "I've been trying to control these urges... I've not killed anyone... yet."
"The gatehouse... my men?" Ironhorse asked, seeing the body flying through the window to crash upon the ground.
"Not dead... I've wounded a few people, but once I realised what I was... what I could do, I moved away from man, deep into the wilderness. The only creatures I've ever killed are animals." He paused, then added firmly, "I could kill... it's just that I found that by living up here..." he waved his hands to encompass the land about them, "I've been able to contain the violence to an unpopulated area."
"So why did you come down from your wilderness?" hissed Ironhorse, starting up, then sinking back with a groan. "Why to the cottage? Why us?"
Richard sighed and resumed his seat beside the injured man, not sure he could explain the feelings that were swirling about inside him. Taking a breath, he concentrated his emotions and began: "A few months ago my peace was disturbed by those creatures you call the aliens. They found me and tried to...." He paused. "They tried to...." He stopped, shaking his head. "I changed... I've never done that before, not so quickly... so violently."
Ironhorse slumped back, picturing the scene: the aliens trying to merge with the youth, the beast within fighting back the only way it knew how. "You killed them." It was a statement of fact.
Richard nodded, unable to meet the other's eyes. "I thought I had killed humans... I was devastated at the same time as I was ripping their throats out." He took another breath. "But they dissolved even as I killed them, under my very jaws.... a part of me knew that they were not humans."
Ironhorse glanced up at the pale face, asking, "You knew they were dissolving, even when you were, er... changed?" The stories of skinwalkers from his childhood had always led him to believe that the animal from within was totally detached from the man that walked in the day.
Richard, seeing the tradition of Ironhorse's heritage fighting against the revelations of the day, confirmed, "It took many years, but yes... I can control the beast to a certain degree."
That last statement raised another question in the soldier's mind. "How long... I mean, how old are you... really?"
Richard smiled for the first time; it was clean and pure, and caused Ironhorse to draw a sharp breath. How could anything that looked so innocent be so evil? Caine, seeing this in the colonels eyes, looked away and answered, "Nearly ninety-six years."
Ironhorse closed his eyes as the revelation sank in. Richard, seeing the man before him pale, hurried on, "After the first attack I hid from them... kept watch from a safe distance. They started to dig up an old Indian burial site. That night, three of them caught up with me again. I guess I lost it... because the next morning I knew I had killed them." He slowed and began chewing his bottom lip.
"What happened?" Ironhorse asked, repelled but captured by the other's story.
"The next day... I decided to kill them all. I knew they were bad, could sense it, smell it..." He smiled at his words. "Then I came upon you." He gave Ironhorse a hard look. "You were the first man I had seen in over eighty years." He paused again, then continued slowly, "When I attacked you... you were different.... There was something about you..." He stopped again and stood up, his words not able to be expressed while sitting. "The beast... the creature," he spoke with tears in his voice, "he knew you... I don't know how or why, but you... he drew me to the cottage."
"I don't understand," Ironhorse said, his voice barely above a whisper.
"Last night you shot me... the beast should have killed or at least maimed you for that, but instead it brought you here."
"Why?" Ironhorse asked again, this time anger in his tone.
Richard Caine looked at Lt. Colonel Ironhorse and replied calmly, "You'll have to ask the werewolf, I don't know why."
"This is insane," hissed the injured man, struggling to his feet. After a few unsteady attempts, he stood swaying upon his legs, his look tearing the boy before him in two. "Just point me in the general direction out of here. In case you didn't notice, I've got another war to fight."
Richard leapt forward and offered support, but it was firmly rejected, so he said, "I... the beast can help you with that war."
Ironhorse looked at him for a few more moments then, turning, began to walk into the forest. Richard took a deep breath and cried after the retreating man, "We could work together. I can sense the aliens, tell them apart from normal men." He saw Ironhorse pause, then, straightening his back, he continued to walk away. "Damn it Ironhorse, the beast will follow you. Do you really want to lead it back to your friends?"
Ironhorse stopped, considering the words the other had spoken. He still did not turn to face Richard as the other came to stand behind him. "I have a cabin, a little way from here," he ventured. "You could rest, get something to eat... I've a good collection of books on werewolves," he added.
Ironhorse spun on the other man, a snarl twisting his own face. "I'm not the master to your dog, boy..." He wanted the words to hurt and was pleased to see the other man wince. "Summon up your beast and let's get this the hell over with, because I don't want to spend any more time with you than I have to."
Richard absorbed the words, his own anger rising, but he controlled it better. In a biting tone he replied, "Like I said, my cabin's a short distance from here. It would be better if you got some rest before tonight."
Ironhorse closed his eyes against the pounding headache; the world was still tilting slightly when he moved and he knew that, unless he did get some proper rest, he would not be in a fit condition to meet the skinwalker when it came. Motioning before him, he said, "Let's go."
As the day and the search wore on, it began to creep up on Blackwood that he knew where they were heading. The general direction of the flight was taking them back to the clearing where they had first met the werewolf. Sparing a side-long glance at Suzanne, he knew that she had not yet noticed their heading. He opened his mouth to comment upon it, then slowly closed it. Just then, the car phone rang and he snatched it up.
"Norton," he said, knowing who would be calling them.
"Hi..." came the subdued tones of his normally cheerful friend. "Any sign of the big guy?" The tone was false and Blackwood closed his eyes against the defeat he heard in the voice.
"No..." he replied. "Not yet."
"I think I've finally located our Richard Caine..." Norton stopped.
"And?" Blackwood asked, annoyed that the man just did not come out and say what was bothering him.
"Longreach was a thriving town last century. The main family of the area was called Caine and... get this... they had a son called Richard, but he was a bit of a black sheep of the family... always causing trouble. There were a few deaths in the area... and then he just up and disappears."
Blackwood sat back, stunned. "How old was he when he disappeared?" he asked, shooting a quick look at Suzanne who was eagerly listening to his side of the conversation.
There was a pause of a few moments while Norton called up the relevant information. "This stuff is ancient history, man. The only reason I found it on file was because I looked under unexplained death and werewolves," Drake said, filling in the space while he worked. "Ah... here it is, nineteen years. Longreach was in Oklahoma." The way Norton spoke, Blackwood knew that Drake expected him to tie something together but his mind was a blank.
"So?" he finally asked.
"Oklahoma," Drake said again, "where the 'Trail of Tears' led."
Blackwood gasped, totally staggered. "You mean that this could be linked in some way with Paul's ancestors?"
"Well, there were killings in the area at the time that could not be explained, and a lot of the local people blamed it on Indians, many of whom were Cherokee."
"So you think it was a Cherokee that passed the... er... curse on to Caine?" Blackwood said, leaping ahead of his friend.
"I don't know, but I did a bit of digging into Paul's history and his family were very strong; many of the men became shamen. His grandfather was considered to be very powerful, and there is a pretty good chance that he was in Longreach at the time of the killings."
Blackwood slumped back in his seat, the imagery of the past coming back to haunt him. The boy had looked so innocent, yet the animal that had attacked them last night had been far from pure. Another thought struck him and he hissed in his breath. Norton, hearing the noise, questioned its reason. Blackwood spent a few moments considering his next words before he spoke. "Richard Caine has taken Paul for revenge."
"What?" cried Norton, his tone shocked.
"Dear God," Suzanne said, not hearing the words Drake had spoken but knowing that what Harrison said he truly believed.
"We've got to find him... them..." Blackwood said. Snatching up a map from the dashboard, he began to trace the path the beast had taken the night before. Drawing a direct line into the wilderness, he stopped when he came across the co-ordinates of their last attack by the werewolf. "Norton," he spoke quickly, his mind leaping ahead. "I think I know where it's taken Paul. Get in touch with the others, tell them to meet us at..." He glanced back at the map, reading the instructions over the phone to Norton. When he had finished he added, "Tell Derriman to use those bullets..."
Drake, understanding what Blackwood was getting at, agreed and, with a final word of warning, cut the connection.
"How long will it take us to get there?" Suzanne asked, turning the car in the direction Blackwood had given.
He looked at his watch and then at the map co-ordinates again." About forty minutes."
"It will be dark in a few hours," she said, glancing at Blackwood, not really expecting an answer, she continued, "What did Norton have to say about Caine?"
Sighing, Blackwood began to explain the information the computer expert had passed on to him.
Lt. Colonel Paul Ironhorse stopped beside a large tree, his breathing heavy, as his vision played tricks on him. Reaching up, he rubbed his eyes. He knew that he was suffering from a concussion, but could not allow that to interfere with his present situation.
Richard Caine stopped and, looking back, saw that the Indian was having trouble. He paused and waited patiently for the man to recover; his last attempt at offered help had ended with his hand being slapped away and a snarl from Ironhorse.
"How much further?" Paul asked, trying to see the sun through the trees that rose about them.
"Not far. Ten more minutes at the most," Richard supplied, looking back along the path they were to travel.
"Bastard," muttered the Indian, pushing himself away from his support and moving towards the other man.
Richard smiled and commented, "I have excellent hearing, Colonel, and I knew both my parents."
Paul stopped short and then apologised, "Sorry."
"No matter, it's not important any more.. they're long dead."
Ironhorse considered the slim youth that walked in front of him: his step was assured and the movement almost graceful. "How did it happen?" he ventured, suddenly curious as to how the boy had become the nightmarish hell creature that had attacked him the night before.
Richard stopped and turned to look at him, as if judging to see if the man was really interested in his story or just talking to hear his own voice. He must have been satisfied with what he saw, because he began his tale.
"My family were fairly well off. I was born the youngest of four; two girls and two boys. My elder brother, John, was the golden boy, whilst I.... I guess you could say I was the bad boy of the family... got thrown out of school so many times, I learned to bounce quite well." He paused, allowing Ironhorse to catch up with him. As they walked, he continued, "I was a hardened drinker by the time I was sixteen." He laughed as he spoke. "Man, I would down that old moonshine like it was water to a thirsty man. Anyway, one night I was down at Betty's... she used to brew the stuff... and it got quite late. Usually I'd stay over, she being a friendly kinda lady, but I'd had an argument with dad about that, so I decided to mosey on home." He stopped again, lost in the memory. Ironhorse looked at the profile of the man he walked beside and said nothing, seeing the pain in the eyes as the story unfolded.
"There was a ford on the river just down from the Perkins place. I remember it was the height of summer; there wasn't too much water in the damned thing and I could have crossed anywhere along that bank, but I always used that ford so I guess, in my drunken state, it was just natural that I would use it that night." Reaching out, he steadied Ironhorse as he stumbled. His hand remained, offering support, and Paul was loathe to reject it for fear of breaking the story-line.
"I came upon it down by the ford. It was hideous; the jaws were so big, they looked like they could bite a man's head whole and just squeeze the bones until they cracked. It was crouched down, drinking I guess, dipping its snout into the water, just lapping it up like a mountain lion. I stopped, just stood there and watched it, didn't even consider running. It sat there for a few minutes, shifting its head from side to side as if catching a whiff of something." He paused and swallowed. The events of the next few minutes had happened over eighty years ago, but to him they were as fresh as the wound he carried upon his arm.
"It must have caught sight of me, 'cause it just upped on its hind legs and howled. Man, that sound tore right into me. I could almost feel the strength of the damned thing from across the water. Its arms hung at its sides and it bayed again and again, until I felt as if my bones were singing along with it. Then it moved; not fast, just...." He stopped, unable to call upon the words he wanted to use. "Just casual," he finally stated. "It walked towards me as if daring me to run. Well, I was damn sober by this stage and scared witless; I couldn't have run if my life depended on it." He paused at that and then added softly, "Which it did."
"Then what happened?" Ironhorse could have bitten his tongue at his words, but he knew he could not prevent them.
"It got right up close. I could smell its breath, hear the noise it made as it sucked breath in through its nose, like a horse that had run for a few miles without let-up. I could almost reach out... touch it. I remember raising my hand to do just that... Then... then it was all over me... I remember trying to hold its fangs away from my face, but that was a joke... me, hold off a werewolf." He smiled at his own joke. "I guess I didn't put up much of a fight, 'cause the next thing I knew folk's were leaning over me. Mr Perkins was shouting that the devil was within me, and then everything faded out again. Next time I came to, I was at home and in my own room. I thought it was a dream, could almost pretend that it was... until I heard the stories about the killings."
"You said you never killed?" stated Ironhorse, feeling for the boy as his tale of pain unfolded.
"They had been happening for a few weeks, only I'd been too drunk to really take much notice. Dad reckoned that whoever attacked me was the killer, so he put out a big reward, but nothing ever came of it. Life returned to normal for a few weeks. That was my longest period of being sober. I took to walking in the woods, trying to find whatever had attacked me. My family thought that the assault had muddled my brain and chose to ignore my ramblings of monsters." He stopped and, pointing ahead, indicated a rough cabin that seemed to just appear out of the forest.
Richard helped Ironhorse inside and settled him on the one bed that occupied a corner of the room, then he set about making up a brew of an herbal tea in the small kitchen. Ironhorse watched the man as he moved, and felt his eyes grow heavy. Caine pulled a blanket up over the nearly sleeping man and offered him a drink, once the water had boiled. Ironhorse accepted the bitter brew and coughed as it seared its way down, but the drink revived him enough to ask, "What happened then?"
Richard took a seat upon a tree stump that had been roughly shaped into a chair. "Nobody believed me. Nobody that is except this Indian. Anyway, he found me one day in the forest and we began to talk. Before long, I had told him all about the night of the attack, and he, in his turn taught me the legend of the skinwalkers." He sipped at his own drink, remembering his reaction to the legend. "I was so angry. I could tell from the way he spoke that he knew who that animal was, but he denied it when I confronted him with it. Instead, he said that I would have to learn to control the beast that lived within me. I laughed in his face. He just sat there and smiled to himself, as if he already knew that I would return to him." He stopped again.
"And did you?"
Richard looked at the cup in his hands and swallowed the tears that threatened to fall. "I woke up one morning... in the forest, near the river..." he said, his voice suddenly choked. "I was covered in blood... I could taste it in my mouth, my throat. I spat out fur, then I was sick. I lay there for a while, remembering what the Indian had said. Do you know what it's like to have to realise that you are a monster? I had become that thing I saw by the river." He took a deep, steadying breath. "I wanted to die, that's why I went in search of that Indian; he said there was only one way to kill the monster, and I wanted him to do it."
"But he didn't," Ironhorse stated the obvious fact.
Standing up, Richard moved to get another cup of the herbal brew. "No, he didn't. No... he just told me I had to cope with it, that it was a creature of the mother earth, just as I was. I could have hit the bastard. I think I did try, but I was no match for him, and he just tossed me to the floor. I remember screaming at him, demanding that he kill me, but he just stood there and refused." Moving over, Richard sat on the edge of the bed. "Your grandfather could be a right bastard at times."
The words had been a near-whisper, but they had the effect of cold water on the man laying injured in the bed. He struggled up, glaring at the other man. "My grandfather?" he gasped, his face losing all colour.
Caine reached out and caught him as Paul slumped down in a half-faint; the knowledge of what this boy was to him too great on top of his other wounds. "Your grandfather taught me how to live with what I am. He showed me how to survive out here in the wilderness. I learned the way of the Cherokee from him, and when the monster within me saw you that night it, too, recognised a friend."
"No... my grandfather never mentioned you, never spoke of a skinwalker except as legend." Yet, even as he denied it, he could remember the smile that would touch his guardian's lips when he spoke of the creature. Paul had always assumed it was because he was afraid of no creature. Now he knew it was the smile of remembrance and, for once, he hated his grandsire for not telling him the truth, for not giving him the ability to handle what he was being told.
Richard, seeing the battle that warred within the colonel, laid a hand upon his chest and pushed him back. "You need to sleep. I should not have mentioned this until you had rested more."
"Damn you, why tell me at all?" hissed Ironhorse, trying to struggle from the bed, wanting to flee from the words the other had spoken.
"Because my beast knew you, sought you out... I did not come to the cottage, he did. He waited there day after day for a glimpse of the man who had not been afraid of him, who had treated him with kindness when no one else would."
"This is not some fairy tale. I'm not about to take in a werewolf for a pet," snarled Ironhorse, slumping back as his strength finally left him. Looking up, he fought the tiredness that seemed to be seeping into his bones.
"I'm sorry, Paul," Richard said sadly. "Your grandfather should have told you, warned you."
"You drugged me." Ironhorse could feel the pull of a sedative and knew that the drink had been laced.
Reaching out, Richard once more pulled the blankets back over the nearly sleeping man. "You need to rest, when you awake we will talk further."
"I don't want..." The words tailed off as the drug took effect and the Indian slipped into a world of dream. The slumber would be too deep for nightmares; Richard knew those demons would wait until the other man awoke.
Blackwood shot a glance towards the darkening sky and knew that they were running out of time. They had searched the clearing and the surrounding area with the Omegans, but with little success. He could tell from Suzanne's glze that she considered that he was not searching for something they were not going to find.
Slowly she approached him. "Harrison," she said gently, resting her hand upon his arm. "There's nothing more we can do... this was the last place to try and there's no sign of him."
"We have to keep trying," he insisted, turning away from her.
"Harrison, I know how you feel," she began, "but the men are tired, and we don't really know if he even came this way."
Blackwood spun on her and snarled, "I know." He hit at his chest. "In here, I know. If you want to go back, then fine... leave... but I'm staying. I know he's around here somewhere, and I'm not going to give up until I find him." He stopped, shocked at the anger he felt towards Suzanne for not believing that Paul was still alive.
She glanced down, refusing to meet his look. "I don't want to give up any more than you do," she stated firmly, holding her own emotions in check, "but we have to face reality; we've a bigger war to fight. Norton's received some transmissions and we have to attend to that. Paul would want us to." As she finished, she looked up and caught his eyes. She could have wept for the pain she saw reflected there.
"I can't, Suzanne..." he said, his voice barely above a whisper. "I just can't. He's here... I can feel it, and if I leave here without turning over every stone I won't be able to live with myself."
Suzanne looked away again, seeing the truth in his words, knowing that nothing she said would get him away from this place until they had either found Ironhorse or his body.
"Sir," Derriman said, moving up behind them, his attention still on the radio he held to one ear. "Stavrakos is reporting sighting some smoke about eight miles from here; believes it could be coming from a cabin."
Blackwood spun round to face the man. "That's it... tell him to locate the exact position and then wait until we arrive." The words were solid and the tone firm. He was convinced that they were near the end of their search.
Suzanne exchanged a glance with Derriman and wondered if they were going to burst in upon a family out enjoying the wilderness and, if so, what effect it would have upon the already unstable Blackwood.
Derriman, seeing her concerned look, reached out and squeezed her arm. "The colonel's a lot tougher than you think, ma'am."
"It's not the colonel I'm worried about," she stated quietly. Blackwood glanced up sharply, then looked away, unable to reassure her.
Paul Ironhorse twisted, caught on the edge of a dream that refused to release his sleeping mind. He groaned and fought to open his eyes. Looking about he saw that he was still in the wooden cabin that Richard Caine had brought him to. Tilting his head, he saw his host looking at him.
"You drugged me," Paul snapped, struggling to sit up. As he did so, he raised a hand to his head and suppressed another groan.
"You needed the rest, and I needed some time to think... about what's happening."
"Such as?" Ironhorse asked, not liking the situation he was in or the pathway the conversation travelling.
Richard stood up. "It was never my intention to hurt you or your friends. I don't really know why I feel this attachment for you, other than to say that the werewolf remembers your grandfather, and you are his spirit-holder."
"My grandfather and I were close," Paul conceded. "But he never mentioned you at all," he finished firmly.
Richard sighed and offered Ironhorse a drink. Seeing the hesitation, he answered, "It's just tea, no drugs... I promise." Slowly, the cup was accepted and the contents drunk. "I know about the aliens," Richard went on, "and your fight against them, and..." he paused, letting his words sink in, "I want to help you."
"Help us... How?" questioned Ironhorse, swinging his legs off the bed and sitting up.
"What I said about the beast being able to see the creatures in their true form... no matter what shape they take. To a certain extent I can see them, too. You're looking for their headquarters... I can help you."
Paul raised an eyebrow. There was such eagerness in the boy's face, and the need to do something good from the evil he lived with. "Can you control the beast enough to get it to do your bidding?" he asked, still sceptical.
Richard returned the other's look with one of his own. "I think we can both assume that the aliens are not hidden in a populated area, and my beast does have its uses. That night in the clearing should have proved that to you... and I did prevent them from getting their hands on whatever it was they were after."
Ironhorse had to concede that point as well. After a few moment's silence, he asked, "Why does the change occur, or is it really linked to the moon's phases?"
This time Richard did laugh out loud and, shaking his head, replied, "No... usually it only happens if I'm threatened or attacked. I've changed more times in the last five months than I did in the previous five years."
Ironhorse suddenly paled. "Harrison," he gasped, thoughts of his other team members just crossing his mind. "They must think I'm dead." He stood up and swayed, but caught himself before the other man could come to his aid. "I must return to the cottage. I can make no decision on this without talking to them first." Ironhorse felt a deep fear settle in his stomach at the horror his friends must be going through at the thought of his death. The last sight Harrison would have had of him was as he was attacked by the werewolf. "I have to leave," he said more firmly, heading towards the door.
Richard intercepted him before he could reach it. "Colonel, I don't think that would be a good idea."
"I don't give a damn what you think, Caine," retorted Ironhorse, spinning round to face the man. "My friends are out there, thinking I'm dead, and a man I admire very much is no doubt blaming himself for this. I'm not about to let him suffer one more moment than I have to."
Richard took a step back, saying, "I don't like this any more than you do, but there are greater forces at work here than you realise."
"Such as?" questioned Ironhorse, his mind clearer after his sleep, no longer befuddled by the blow to the head.
Richard reached up and rubbed at the side of his face, as if trying to ease a growing pain. "Look," he tried to reason, "the werewolf brought you here. If you leave now, he will just come looking for you again."
Ironhorse took a step backwards, only now fully understanding the reason why he was here. "Are you saying that I'm a prisoner here until the werewolf decides to let me go?" There was a dark anger to his tone, and Richard winced.
"I don't know what might happen," he finally confessed. "All I can tell you right now is that I will do my best to stop you from leaving, and I'm not even sure why." He paused again, this time to turn beseeching eyes upon the man before him. "I will have to stop you... I have no control over the urge; it's like a panic attack and I have to act."
Ironhorse watched in fascinated horror as the eyes of the man before him began to change, as if glowing with an inner light. Holding up his hands, he confirmed, "It's alright, Richard... I'm not going anywhere." He spoke slowly, clearly, and felt almost certain that he was trying to soothe the beast within, rather than the man who turned his whole body and bared his teeth without even knowing that they had grown into fangs.
"Can I have another drink?" Paul asked, moving carefully to pick up his cup.
For a few moments the metamorphosis of Caine hung in the balance; the eyes still glowing, the teeth bared, then slowly - almost painfully - the creature was put back in it's resting place.
"I'm sorry." gasped the boy, silent tears forming with his now, normal eyes. "I just can't..." He stopped, not knowing the words to say, how he could explain the emotions that ran through him at this time, how drained he felt. He stood for a few moments, gathering himself.
Ironhorse, seeing the danger had passed, placed the cup upon the table and asked, his voice low, "How long is it going to hold me here?"
"I don't know," came the honest reply.
"I'm fighting a war. People I care about are trying to save this planet, can't you make it understand that?"
Richard took another deep breath. "I can't... but maybe you can... I mean what I said earlier about wanting to help you, and I truly do believe that it would not harm you... I feel that it only wants to protect you."
"Protect me? And what am I supposed to do, eh? Just sit down and ask a werewolf if it would consider letting me go?" The disbelief was tainted with an inner anger.
"Your grandfather knew how to talk to him; they spent many hours together," Richard said, trying to be reasonable.
Ironhorse leapt up, his anger now a palatable substance. "I'm not my grandfather," he snarled. "I'm leaving this cabin, and if you want to call upon your hell breed monster to stop me... then do so... I'm not staying; I would rather die fighting than live a prisoner."
"Wait, Paul," cried Richard, trying to stop the Indian, but Ironhorse was too well-trained to be halted by a 98 year old man in the body of a youth.
Once outside he sprinted across the clearing, intent on reaching the other side before the man/beast could reach him. Behind him he heard a primeval cry, half man, half beast, and knew that the werewolf was claiming Caine's body once again. He did not let this knowledge slow his pace, but instead used it to give him more speed.
He heard the howl behind him and knew that the beast would soon be upon him. Slowing, he shot a glance behind him and saw the werewolf framed by the light in the doorway of the cabin. It filled the small opening and, tilting its head up, sniffed at the air, then in leaps and bounds it crossed the clearing, following the same path Ironhorse had taken.
The chase was short, the beast catching up with him with startling speed. Turning, Ironhorse placed his back to a tree and faced the creature that stopped a few feet away from him. "Richard..." he gasped, his body striving for oxygen. "I'm going back... you can either let me go or kill me, but I'm not going back to that cabin," he stated firmly, looking the animal right in the eyes.
The eyes glowered right back at him, saliva dripped from its mouth and it tilted its head from side to side, sniffing at the air. Then, as if in answer to Ironhorse's words, it howled again.
Ironhorse darted away from the tree but was forced back by the animal that leapt into his intended path. The large head tilted again. Paul stumbled back, using his hand to keep his balance against the tree.
The werewolf made no attempt to go any nearer. It just seemed content to keep him there, not moving, a prisoner to the tree. Ironhorse got his breathing back under control and slowly counted up to twenty, all the while letting his eyes roam about the area, noting the trees, the rocks, a possible escape route. Finally his glance came back to the beast. "What do we do now?" he finally asked, having no other option but to do as Richard suggested and talk to the beast.
The head tilted again and a softer growl was issued from the throat. A shifting of feet accompanied that action.
"I've got to get back." Paul became almost pleased that Blackwood was not here to witness his attempt to talk to this animal. It was very hard to think of anything to say when confronted by such a beast, but taking another breath he began, "I'm not my grandfather... and I wish I had listened more closely to the tales he used to tell about the skinwalkers." He paused. Had the animal's ears twitched at the term 'skinwalker'? "I know that you've been alone for a long while. I could see it in Richard's eyes, but this isn't the answer." He stopped again, glancing about the clearing. "I'm fighting a war... in its own way it's as insurmountable as your fight and, like you, I don't have a choice because, if we lose, then we are as damned as you are."
The werewolf took a step forward and Ironhorse crouched in a battle position, ready to fight the beast to the best of his ability. Instead, the animal just leant closer and sniffed at him, much like any animal would when meeting a potential friend. Slowly, almost stupidly, Ironhorse reached out a hand. He nearly laughed as the thought of scratching the beast's ear rippled through his mind. The creature shied back at his action, but then leant forward again to sniff at the offered appendage.
As Ironhorse looked at the bent head of the werewolf he felt a stirring in his memory. As a child, he had always had an affinity with wild animals, bringing wounded birds and other small creatures home for his grandfather to heal. It was strange that such a sensitive child should become a professional soldier. Shaking his head, he realised that his career had been more of an escape than a desired direction for his future life.
His attention was drawn back by the creature, as it suddenly tilted its head up and sniffed at the air, turning slightly as if seeking another scent. The massive head turned back to face Ironhorse and he knew fear. The look in the eyes meant death to whatever creature it came upon. Lifting its head, it bayed to the sky, giving warning to its prey.
"Ironhorse!" came a not too distant cry from the direction of the cabin.
Paul paled as he heard the voice; he recognised it as Blackwood's. "No..." he said from behind clenched teeth. "No..." he repeated, seeing the werewolf preparing to hunt. He felt his breath catch in his throat, a wild idea forming within his mind.
"Paul..." The voice was nearer; he could almost hear the movement of men moving through the forest in search of him.
"Harrison.... Go back," he shouted at the top of his voice. The werewolf spun at his words and glared at him, then it began to move in the direction of the voice. It was a steady tread, as if it knew that its victim could not escape it. Ironhorse took advantage of its turned back and, with a swift movement, kicked at its leg, intending to bring it down.
The animal growled and spun back, only half-unbalanced. Ironhorse rolled away from the clawed arm that reached for him and scrambled to his feet. Crouched low in the battle stance he had been taught, he was prepared to take the creature on to save his friend. He was only doing his duty, but it was one that he had grown to take great pride in.
The beast looked at him, as if gauging his intentions. Gaining its footing, it began to turn away again. Ironhorse issued a hoarse cry and flew at the beast again, but this time it was ready for him and, just as he leapt, it spun and caught him in a rib-crushing hold. Slowly the air was squeezed from his body, his feet dangling uselessly above the ground, the snarling jaws of the creature mere centimetres away. The world started to darken as he felt some ribs creak under the strain. Suddenly, he was released and fell helplessly to the ground.
"Paul!" The cry was so near now that he knew he had failed his friends. Turning, he saw the flashlights as they weaved towards them.
Reaching out, he grabbed at the animal's leg. "Don't..." he gasped, as he began to climb up the furred limb. He no longer considered it strange that he could do that to a wild beast that would tear any other person's throat out. To him, it now seemed natural to trust the beast.
Blackwood burst upon them, his light picking them up as they stood side by side; Ironhorse clutching at the beast that swayed away from him, as if wanting to leap in their direction. "Get down, Paul," he cried as Derriman, who had been following him, raised his weapon.
"No," cried the injured man, now struggling to save the beast's life as he had fought to save Blackwood's. "For God's sake, no." he stumbled in front of their weapons, using his body to shield the werewolf, who stood raised on hind legs, growling at them. Tilting its head, it barked at the sky, as if daring them to use their weapons.
"Paul," Blackwood yelled back, his face pale with fear for his friend. "Get down," he commanded again.
"Don't shoot, it won't hurt you," Ironhorse beseeched, knowing that what he said sounded crazy.
"Move away from the creature, Colonel," called Derriman, still training his weapon upon the beast.
"Don't," he began again, but Derriman interrupted him.
"Move away sir." It was a command, and Paul knew that if he was to save the beast he had to do as he was told. Slowly, one arm curled about his ribs, he began to walk towards the men, still trying to keep his body between them and the werewolf.
After a few steps Ironhorse sensed a weapon being cocked and turned to his left, just in time to see Stavrakos aiming his gun. With a cry of half-rage, Paul threw himself backwards in the track of the bullet that spat from the rifle the sergeant held. He felt the impact as it bit into his arm, forcing him back into the werewolf, who also let out a howl of rage as the bullet passed through Ironhorse's arm and bit deep into its body.
Paul lay on his side, clutching at his bleeding arm. A howl cried from above him, and he looked up to see the creature rear above him. "Go... get out of here," he cried, as darkness threatened to capture him.
The beast spun and disappeared into the night before another shot could be fired. Blackwood threw himself down at Ironhorse's side. "Paul... Paul?" he asked, placing a hand either side of the downed man's face and tilting it up towards him.
"You didn't have to shoot him," he hissed from behind clenched teeth. "You didn't have to shoot him," he repeated as darkness claimed him.
It had been three weeks since they had literally snatched Ironhorse from the jaws of the werewolf and, although his wounds had healed well, he had not yet reached the peak of fitness that the others had grown accustomed to.
Blackwood stood in the door of the lounge and watched the man before him. Paul had taken to spending most of his time in this room, and hardly any in his office or with the project leader. The last two alien radio transmissions had only evoked a half-hearted attempt on the colonels part. Suzanne was inclined to put it down to his healing body. Blackwood knew better.
"So, Colonel," he said, coming fully into the room. "Ready for a work-out?"
Ironhorse looked over at Harrison and felt his anger rise. "Not today, Blackwood," he snapped, standing and making to move from the room. A hand upon his good arm prevented him.
"Paul." The name was spoken quietly, but the plea was clear. "What have I done?"
Ironhorse looked up at Harrison, saw only a deep concern for his welfare and, sighing, turned away from the glance. "You didn't have to shoot him."
Blackwood felt annoyance rise; he had done what he thought was best to save his friend's life, and now Paul was treating him as if he had shot a puppy. "It was going to kill you," he stated firmly.
"It was a him, Harrison. A person called Richard Caine. He didn't ask for what happened to him." Paul felt the frustrations of the past three weeks rise and, spining, continued his attack. "You are such a hypocrite! You spout your philosophies about life being sacred and then, at the first sign of a new form of life, you have it shot."
Blackwood allowed the tirade against him to continue, knowing that if there was any chance of their friendship surviving he would have to face the anger. "I did what I had too to keep you alive. The information we had clearly showed that this creature..." Seeing the look his last word drew from the other man, he stated, "Yes, Paul, it was a creature; a massive beast that had already attacked you and was standing over your body when we came upon you." Realising he was losing his track, he backtracked and repeated slowly, "Our information led us to believe that the creature knew your grandfather and, from its actions, we knew that it meant you harm."
"Oh, come on, Blackwood," snapped Paul, moving over to look out the window, pointedly ignoring Harrison's reasoning.
The taller man took a deep breath and fought to hold on to his own anger, knowing that to lose it would only give Ironhorse more reason to slip away from him. "Paul, I'm not going to apologise for saving your life..." He stopped as Ironhorse turned to look at him, his expression one of such sorrow that he had no words to comfort his friend.
Swallowing the pain, Ironhorse said in a choked voice, "My life was never in any danger; the creature was communicating with me. It would not hurt me. My grandfather had befriended it years ago, and it sensed his spirit about me." Moving over, Paul slumped down into a chair and slowly, hesitating at times, he began to tell the tale as Richard had told it to him. When he had finished, he glanced up at Harrison and was satisfied to see the sorrow reflecting in his eyes.
Reaching out, Blackwood gently placed a hand upon his friend's shoulder. "I didn't know, Paul... but I had to act upon the information I had, and seeing that... him," he amended, "attacking you... I'm sorry, Paul, I truly am, but I made the decision and, given the same circumstances, I would have to do it again." He glanced away, knowing that this was one area where they would never agree. He only hoped that their friendship was strong enough to withstand such a mortal blow.
"I didn't really expect you to admit that you were wrong," Ironhorse said, moving slightly and dislodging Blackwood's hand, "but I at least expected you to understand." Standing, he walked from the room.
Blackwood resisted the urge to follow him, knowing that both needed time to consider what the other had said. Moving over the window, he took up the position recently vacated by Ironhorse. He stayed that way for several hours while he contemplated all that Paul had told him; he tried to imagine the life Richard had led up in the wilderness, all alone, and his vain attempt to reach out to another human being. Finally, realising that he had no real answer, he turned and headed towards his office, intending to consider the problem of the aliens... at least that one he had a chance of solving.
Later that same evening there came a quiet knock at Blackwood's office door. "Come in," he called, expecting to see Suzanne enter. As Ironhorse entered the room, Harrison dropped his feet from his desk and sat up straighter. "Paul?" he questioned.
"I just wanted to say that I was sorry for what I said earlier." Blackwood made to interrupt, but Paul held up his hand and prevented him, finishing instead, "I can accuse you of many things, Harrison, but not understanding isn't one of them."
"I am truly sorry for what happened," Blackwood stated again, emotion filling his words.
"Please, Harrison. You acted as a friend... as I would have done. You had no way of knowing..." He stopped, feeling uncomfortable with Blackwood for the first time in over a year.
Harrison, looking over, could see that Ironhorse was slipping back behind the wall he had spent so long knocking down. Determined not to let that happen, he jumped up and said, "Race you to the beach." With that he was gone, his door slamming back on its hinges, to be followed by the front door banging open.
Ironhorse stood for a few moments, stunned. He had expected a reaction, but not that. Then, with a slight smile, he set off after his friend, realising that he had, once again, foolishly expected a rational reaction from Blackwood. As he chased after the other man, he felt a swelling within his chest. He did not try to put words to it, because he knew that there were no words to describe the feeling of being home.
Two weeks later, Blackwood was taking his one hour nap in his office when the door flew open. He reacted by leaping up and sending the chair crashing into the desk, as he tripped over the corner of the flat surface. Ironhorse was standing in the doorway. "Aliens?" snapped Blackwood assuming from the look on Paul's face that they were attacking the cottage.
"Postcard," came the breathless reply.
"Postcard?" Harrison said, a frown marring his features. "Paul, I know we don't get a lot of letters around here, but I don't think getting one postcard is a good enough reason for giving me a heart-attack," he chided lightly, pleased that the events of the last few months were behind them and they had now settled back into their easy-going friendship.
"Harrison, knock it off, will you? You know we don't get any letters here... they go directly to the postbox at Fort Streeter."
"So how...?" Blackwood began, a sudden feeling of dread creeping over him. Without a word, Ironhorse handed him the postcard. "Richard..." Harrison gasped, reading the name at the bottom of the few short lines.
"He did say he was going to look for the alien leaders," Paul said, coming to stand behind Blackwood. Reaching out, he turned the card over displaying the city of Phoenix.
"Then he didn't die," Blackwood said, feeling both relieved and worried. Glancing at Ironhorse, he saw the look of relief in the other's eyes.
"No, he didn't," stated Paul firmly.
"Do you think he really will find the aliens?" Harrison asked, totally stunned.
"You never know," Ironhorse shot back, a smile on his handsome face. Plucking the card from Blackwood's grasp, he headed towards the door, saying back over his shoulder, "I would appreciate it if, next time, you could refrain from shooting him." Then he was gone, as suddenly as he had appeared.
Blackwood slowly lowered himself back into his chair, all thought of sleep now gone. If Richard Caine was alive, it was almost a certainty that he would be drawn back to Ironhorse at some time. Harrison only hoped that, when the creature returned, they would survive the encounter.
WAR OF THE WORLDS * HOME PAGE
This website is maintained by Donna and Wyvern