The Wolf is at the Door

by Pat

Alternate Universe: Two Bloods

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Nettie watched her little family (the big part was out lawing) and smiled. While she certainly wasn’t wildly happy that the boys had to go to babysit some rustler who deserved to be lynched, having the little ones here was always a blessing. Casey had taught them songs today and they were all singing as they washed dishes together. Blossom hadn’t broken one yet and was wildly proud of the neat kitchen area.

Then, when the last dish was put away and Casey was wringing out her dishrag, she heard a distant wolf howl. She knew with all her heart it wasn’t Buck. And it wasn’t friendly.

Bransen had been pushing the chairs up against the table neatly. The boy froze and looked at her. His brown eyes were filled with fear.

Blossom stopped and so did Casey, who strangely, looked down at Blossom nervously.

Nettie’s eyes narrowed and she calmly went and got her gun. While Nettie didn’t want to let the secret of the children’s Two-Blood nature slip just yet and certainly not this way, she wasn’t going to let the secret be a source of danger to them either.

“Casey,” she said in the same voice she used when Guy Royal had been trying to steal her land, “It’s trouble. Lock all the windows.”

And Casey, to her surprise and brief pleasure, didn’t ask questions. She quickly locked all the windows and the doors. Then she too got her gun out.

Bransen and Blossom looked frightened but didn’t give so much as a whimper.

“Ringmaster?” asked Blossom.

Bransen shook his head.

The kitten sudden arched her back and hissed at the door. Then they heard the sound of large paws scratching at the door and the front window.

Other children would have screamed in terror. Bransen stood in front of Blossom and the kitten jumped into the little girl’s arms.

Then, like a physical presence, a howl rent the air from the other side of the door.

Casey froze for a second and then yelled, “Go away!” Her voice was fierce and Nettie knew that Casey deserved to know.

To her surprise, Casey turned to her and said urgently, “They want Blossom. She can turn into a wolf.”

Nettie nodded, there was no time for questions, the girl had kept the children’s secret well.

“Youngin’s go into the room with the bathtub and lock the door behind you. Don’t open it for anyone but us.

Bransen nodded and practically picked up Blossom, racing to do as he was bid. The bathroom had no exterior door or window and had an entrance to the root cellar. If worse came to worse, the little ones could escape that way.

“Wait,” cried Casey. Then the girl sank to her knees before the two children and kissed them passionately. “No matter what happens, you remember you’re my kin and I love you.” She said, then jumped up and closed the door behind her.

Another howl rent the air and something flung itself against the door. The whole front of the house shook with the impact.

Nettie went to the stove and thrust the end of a broom into the banked flames. Casey watched her and then understanding flitted over her features. She nodded to Nettie and Nettie gave her a quick smile.

“Cover me,” she said softly and Casey nodded again.

Lordy, thought Nettie, what a time to find out the girl’s become a woman.

Another howl came from the back of the house, and now the door shook once more. One of the hinges shuddered and began to buckle.

Nettie waited. The door violently broke open and there stood a huge black wolf, teeth bared in a killer snarl.

She thrust the blazing broom into its face and heard the roar of Casey’s gun. The beast leapt forward and knocked Nettie to the ground, growling.

“NO!” yelled Casey and shot the beast three more times. The wolf gave a very man-like shriek of pain and then went still.

Casey pushed it off Nettie, and they both stomped on the broom to put out the flames before the room caught.

Then Casey gasped and said, “Table, we got to block the doorway.”

Casey upended the kitchen table and began to shove it in front of the shattered doorway when another wolf appeared, teeth snapping. It knocked the table and Casey down with a mighty leap and then bit Casey’s shoulder. Nettie already had her spencer and calmly took aim, while her heart screamed in agony at the blood on Casey’s breast.

The creature jumped at her, so her shot missed his head, but took his leg. Then to her horror, Nettie saw another wolf jump over the table.

The wolf jumped at her and Nettie’s head hit the wall. Stars danced in her vision and then everything went black.

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Casey woke to pain and darkness. Her shoulder and arm hurt like fire and the house was still. Had they killed everyone but her? Her eyes burned but she refused to cry until she knew the worst. Her leg was under something heavy. Painfully, groaning, she sat up.

Part of the kitchen table was on top of her leg. She looked around in the dim fire light – it must have been hours because the lamps had gone out and the fire in the stove was low.

She looked around and saw Nettie lying against the wall, eyes closed. “No,” she whimpered and wrenched her leg free. She could feel wetness on her arm and knew she was bleeding as she crawled to Aunt Nettie’s still form.

“Aunt Nettie?” she whispered and the older woman lurched forward, hands like claws at her.

“Aunt Nettie,” she screamed. Those old beloved eyes were open and glaring, but not really seeing anything. Then the older woman stopped and the hell-fire expression disappeared.

“Casey, child?” she asked, and her hands that had been ready to fight to the last, now tenderly touched her shoulder.

“They bit you.” She said, “Where are the youngin’s?”

“I don’t know,” gasped Casey, “I just came to.”

“Can you get up?” asked Nettie sharply.

In answer Casey tremblingly got to her feet and helped Nettie up. She touched the older woman carefully and found blood matted in the back of her head, but couldn’t see any bite marks. Grasping each other for support, they stumbled to the door that was supposed to protect Bransen and Blossom. It was locked, although scored with dozens of nail marks.

“Bransen?” called Nettie.

They were met with silence.

“Blossom, darling,” said Casey, “Please answer.”

Nettie suddenly sighed, “they got in through the root cellar.”

The door locked from the inside and Casey straightened up. “I’ll go look,” she whispered, through dry lips. She helped Nettie to a chair and fetched a clean rag. Dunking it cool water, she put it to the back of Nettie’s head and heard the older woman sigh again.

“You’d best bandage that some,” the older woman said, nodding at Casey’s bleeding wound.

Absently, she got another long strip of flannel and wrapped herself. Then she picked up her gun and walked outside. She stopped at the door and looked at Nettie, whose hands were strangely still and defeated looking.

Steeling herself, the girl walked around the house to the second root cellar entrance and found it open. She took a breath, not sure if she could bear it if the children were dead. But Casey remembered the look of defeat on Nettie’s face and drew herself up. Nettie was made of iron and steel most of the time. Today she’d try to be the same, at least as long as she could.

She descended into the familiar darkness of the roof cellar and made her way by feel to the trap door. Her fingers found it open and her eyes filled with tears. They had gotten in. She pulled up the step ladder and hoisted herself into the dark bathroom.

Lord, how her shoulder ached and how her hands trembled as they searched the darkness. Finally, she made it to the door and opened it. Then she turned back. The room was empty. She stared, then stoically entered the room and checked all the corners and places a child could have hidden in. There was no sign of a struggle and no blood.

She swayed with relief at not finding the children dead and then swallowed. Aunt Nettie needed tending. She walked into the shattered kitchen and went to the chair where Nettie sat so quietly.

“No bodies and no blood,” Casey said softly, “They took them.”

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Ezra Standish had finished today’s rounds and walked into the saloon. Inez was serving a drink to Yosemite and he immediately went to find out how the children had fared being transported so abruptly to the Wells’ Ranch.

“I trust your little trip to the Wells Ranch was not too cumbersome.” He said as Inez automatically filled him a glass of his special stock.

“Heck, no. Nettie and Casey fed me up too. Best meal I’ve had in ages.”

“Ah yes,” said Ezra affably, “Their culinary skills are excellent. I thank you again for your valuable assistance.”

“Twern’t nuthin,” replied Yosemite.

Ezra gave him a grateful smile, nodded and turned to go to his room upstairs.

Then Yosemite said, “Say, you better tell Chris and Nettie there’s wolves back again. I heard several howling when I was coming back here. Don’t want them getting in her ….”

Ezra dropped the glass.

“Stock,” finished Yosemite, “That’s sure a waste of good whiskey. Do you think it was something I said?”

Ezra raced to the jail and nearly scared the hell out of JD who was falling asleep in a chair propped against the wall in front of the tiny stove that heated the jail house.

“Yosemite heard a pack of wolves,” said Ezra, “taking a rifle off a rack on the wall.”

JD started to scramble and Ezra put a hand on his shoulder. “You stay here and wire the Pack. I’m going to Nettie’s. It could just be regular wolves, but I’m not leaving it to chance.”

JD’s hands curled into a fist, but he nodded. The boy was learning good sense and caution.

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Ezra knew all his fears realized when he saw the open door at the Wells’ Ranch. “Good Lawd,” he muttered and nudged Chaucer forward. The big horse gave a nervous whinny, indicating he smelt something that displeased him.

He leapt from the horse’s back and pulled the rifle ready. Quickly, but silently, he went to the open door and quickly peered in.

The kitchen table was upended. But that wasn’t as upsetting as the dead wolf lying by it.

Then by the fire, he saw Nettie sitting in her rocking chair, while Casey knelt on the floor by her side, her arms around the older woman.

Casey looked at him and said one awful word, “Wolves.”

Ezra gasped and felt icy cold flood his body.

“How many?”

“Three,” answered Nettie, her eyes filled with tears. “We got one, shot another in the leg but the third took us out. They took the youngin’s.”

Ezra saw blood on Casey’s blouse and absently took out one of his elegant white silk handkerchiefs to the girl. She wiped her face and some of the blood away and handed it back quietly. Ezra’s hands shook as he put it back in his pocket. The little ones, his precious little ones were gone.

A hissing sound from the corner revealed Kitty, back arched, by the wolf body. The kitten spat and then limped pathetically towards the humans.

“Did they hurt you badly, Nettie?” he asked, since he couldn’t see blood on her pale face.

“Knocked me out,” she said angrily, “If I could have only got off one more shot.”

Ezra reached out to touch the older woman consolingly, but Casey Well’s hand gripped at him instead.

“Find them,” she said desperately, “We’ll be alright, just find them.”

“No child, we’ll only lose him too,” said Nettie.

Ezra shook his head. “You already killed one and wounded the other.” He said softly, “I have to.”

He kissed Nettie’s cheek and then Casey’s. Then he was gone, leaving a broken door and two weeping women behind him.

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The wind howled off of the mountain. “Chaucer,” said Ezra Standish, “We must find the children.” He gave the horse the reins and was not surprised to find Chaucer heading for the trail that led up the mountain. The entire mountain would be easily defensible for wolves or Two-Bloods. The streams, game and caves would make it even appealing to the creatures.

Then, as though in final confirmation, he heard the howl of a wolf way up on the mountain before him. He smiled, a very evil smile and said, “That was foolish of you. Pray continue on this path and it will mean your death.”

He supposed that the wolves might possibly be kin to the children but that no longer was a consideration. They had laid violent hands on two women, attacked the ranch and stolen the children. He was going to kill them.

Of course, they had violated pack law as well. Suddenly the Two-Blood’s laws regarding territory and pack were very meaningful. They had hurt Casey, shedding her blood, they had hit Nettie and caused her clear old eyes to fill with grief’s tears. The miserable bastards had even hurt the kitten.

He thought of the last time he had kissed the children, their laughing faces, their trusting eyes. Rage and loss ripped through him and every veneer of civilization was cast aside.

The creature that hunted on the mountain tonight was not quite a human man.

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Casey had a difficult time putting the kitchen table up to block the broken-in door, but refused to let Aunt Nettie help her. She put Kitty in Nettie’s lap and dragged the wolf carcass out to the porch and down the steps before tackling the table.

Once she had the opening somewhat secured, she looked at the room. It seemed empty, empty of life, empty of two small scamps that she loved, empty of the light in Aunt Nettie’s eyes.

She looked down. Her blood was staining the floor boards and the dead wolf had bled as well. She limped over to the mop and bucket and began to mop up the mess. She heard Nettie stir. She looked over; Nettie had stood up and put Kitty in the chair. Now the older woman walked woodenly to the stove and put a kettle on.

“Best you let me look at the wound,” she said.

Casey finished mopping and put the mop in the bucket.

“It’s bled clean,” she whispered and realized she was cold.

Nettie tugged at her arm and she found herself sitting in the rocker, with the kitten. Soon she was drinking willow bark tea with honey while Nettie examined the wound.

“This is a nasty one, Casey girl. I think I’m going to have to stitch it.”

“Go ahead,” said Casey flatly. It would take her mind off the missing half of her heart that was out there in the dark. “Oh, Lord, please protect Ezra,” she prayed.

Aunt Nettie touched her cheek. “You’re getting cold,” she said. She brought out two quilts and wrapped one around Casey’s feet and the other around her good shoulder and torso.

Kitty trembled against her side, but didn’t purr. Casey hoped the kitten wasn’t dying and handled her gently, glad of the frail warmth. She leaned her head on the quilt on her good shoulder and could smell the unique mixture of horse, grass and vanilla that meant the children. Tears scalded her cheek.

Nettie touched her hair softly and said, “Drink some whiskey. This will hurt.”

She drank the harsh stuff down fiercely, not minding the burning for once. Nettie poured boiling water for the needle and thread and then quickly took stitches in the rips. She also poured whiskey on the wound. Casey welcomed the pain. The thread was still steaming as it pierced her torn skin and Casey watched it with a sort of detached interest. It didn’t seem to hurt a lot and she knew that meant she was in shock.

“I reckon I ought to be in bed, with my feet up,” she said, remembering Nathan’s careful instructions on wounds and injuries.

“Yes, Child, you’ll sleep with me. We could both use the company,” said Nettie sadly.

Nettie finished her sewing and looked grim, “I’ll leave the puncture open so they won’t fester,” she said as she carefully bandaged the wound.

They helped each other to the bedroom. Nettie got Casey into her night flannels and put a pillow under her feet like Nathan had instructed them. Then Nettie put Kitty next her, changed her clothing, and got into bed next to her.

“Oh Child,” she whispered, “I feel like they tore my heart in two.”

“I know,” Casey answered, “it’s like they planned to do this when the Seven were gone, like they’ve been watching us.”

“I reckon they were, although I still don’t understand why they attacked.”

“Well, they didn’t kill the youngin’s,” Casey whispered, “If they wanted them dead, they would have killed us all and just left. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that Blossom could be a wolf.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell,” said Nettie, “I reckon you proved up just fine.”

The kitten suddenly gave a heart wrenching howl of misery and both women touched the miserable creature.

“Blossom won’t be able to sleep without Kitty,” said Casey and began to cry again.

Nettie’s arms went around her and both women wept in the cold night, weeping for their loss. The wind howled down from the mountain and they prayed for the man who had gone seeking the children.

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The people who had snatched Blossom away from her pack and home smelled like Two-Bloods. They had broken into their hiding place from below, thrown blankets over them and headed off into the night. Blossom didn’t like their smell, or the smell of the rough blanket, or the screams and shouts she had heard from the front room before her capture.

Most of her life before Four Corners had been spent in harsh discipline, hiding her existence from One Bloods. Now she fell back on the old discipline and waited. She could smell her brother near, so she didn’t struggle as she was carried far up the mountain in the night. These Two-Bloods were bigger than her and she didn’t want them to hurt Bransen.

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The wolves left the house, raging at the death of their brother, but didn’t take vengeance. Their original hunting in the town and around the ranch had revealed that the children smelled healthy and unafraid. Because of this the Lobos had decided beforehand that no vengeance would be taken on the ones who rescued pack members and treated them with respect.

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Ezra Standish, mounted on his faithful steed Chaucer, silently but swiftly went up the mountain trail. Only starlight and his own recently acquired knowledge of the mountain helped him make way. He used every bit of tracking skill taught him by Vin Tanner. Chaucer’s own invaluable ability for silence and speed helped too. He was perfectly sure that the great gelding was aware of the situation and was out for blood as he was.

For Ezra was out for blood tonight. He fully intended to murder the men who had laid violent hands on Miz Nettie and dared to bite their dear Casey. If the Two-Bloods were close kin to his beloved children, it mattered not. He was going to kill them for kidnapping the children. Because as far as Ezra was concerned, they had lost all benefit of kinship by taking his children from their home.

As he followed, his mind nimbly considered where a group of at least 2 Two-Bloods would go with the children. The mountain was wild and uninhabited and they had obviously headed there. He considered his nearly exhaustive survey of caves and decided that the cave closest to the summit would be the best and unfortunately most defensible location for the Two-Bloods.

On he sped in the darkness and cold, fueled by a red-hot rage and icy resolve. As he neared the location, he slipped off Chaucer and led the horse silently through the brush.

A rabbit, startled by his presence, bolted and he froze a moment. He sniffed the air with his own inferior nose, every sense tingling, and was aware of no longer being alone.

He readied his gun and started as white teeth and blazing yellow eyes suddenly flashed at him. Spooked, Chaucer screamed and reared up.

The biggest wolf Ezra had ever seen knocked him from the saddle, teeth sank into his arm. Ezra felt something crunch in his foot as he struggled on the ground, while the huge brute snarled over him and tried to bite his neck. Two could play at that particular game. Ezra stuffed his whole arm down the bastard’s throat, immediately being bitten hard. He felt the bones of his forearm snap, but continued choking his assailant, who began to make sounds of distress.

He sneered at his attacker and activated the derringer, shooting inside the beast. The wolf gagged and jerked violently, the yellow eyes wide with shock.

Chaucer reached down and bit into the wolf’s back fiercely.

Another wolf came out of the darkness. This one limped and snarled.

Ezra snarled right back. Evidently Nettie or Casey had shot this one. He raised his Remington and took careful aim.

Chaucer reared again.

Ezra fired and caught his attacker in his fire and the wolf snarled more in rage than pain, but kept on coming.

Then two small bundles of fur came hurtling at them.

“Blossom!” Ezra screamed, and stared in shock, as the two mere pups jumped the wounded wolf and bit him on his bullet wound. The wolf howled in surprise and fresh agony.

Then the smallest pup jumped the choking wolf decorating Ezra’s left arm and bit at the muzzle viciously.

Both the wolves stopped their attack. The wolf attacking Ezra’s arm whined and drew back desperate to get away from the hand that had bit back.

Then both the Two-Bloods changed and electricity crackled in the air.

“You attacked us!” cried the giant of a man who had been gnawing on Ezra. “You can’t attack us, we’re Pack!” He seemed astonished that the children had defended the One-Blood.

The limping wolf turned into a naked limping man with brown hair and a scruffy beard. Bransen retreated and now both pups stood in front of Ezra in defensive posture. They snarled and showed their teeth, their fur crackling with energy and their backs curved, fully prepared to pounce again.

“What kind of lying human ways did you pick up, boy?” asked the limper, “You can’t take their side against us.”

The air filled with static once more and a naked girl child stood before them. “Bad men, not Pack.”

“He’s only a cursed One-Blood, our enemy,” said the giant who had tasted Ezra’s blood tonight. “Come away from him and let us kill him.”

Blossom snarled at them, her little girl’s face distorted by sheer protective venom.

“Ezra MINE,” she said.

Bransen, who hadn’t relaxed his defensive stance, now sniffed the air and looked at Ezra. The air seemed to move again. Chaucer stomped one foot and moved closer to the naked assailants, obviously ready to charge.

Bransen put a small hand on the great horse and said, “Wait, Chaucer.” He crouched next to Ezra and pulled the handkerchief Ezra had used to clean Casey’s wounds earlier out of his vest pocket, sniffing at it.

“You hurt Casey,” he said and handed the piece of silk to Blossom.

Ezra ignored his bleeding hand and watched the Two-Bloods with his own predatory glance. “You hurt members of the Four Corners Pack. They bit Casey and hit Miz Nettie.” He said to the children.

He didn’t’ want to shoot the bastards until the children weren’t there to see it, but he wanted them to understand.

Blossom was sniffing the handkerchief with a strange lost expression on her face. She suddenly choked out a sob. “My Casey. My Nettie.” She dropped the silk to the ground and changed again, lightning fast. And she bit the giant fiercely.

Instead of batting the child away like an errant mosquito, the giant screamed in shock.

The limper turned and ran. Blossom chased after him and bit him once more. He screamed too.

Ezra aimed at the limper and Bransen put a gentle hand on his, stopping him.

“They’ll die now.”

Ezra looked at Bransen in puzzlement.

“Blossom is pure blood. If they hurt a pure-blooded pup and the pup bites them, they die. Otherwise, the males would kill most of the pups.”

“Buck never mentioned this,” said Ezra, listening to the dying wails of his attackers.

“It’s only in the Lobos tribe. They don’t have anything to do with other Two-Bloods or One Bloods and they attack any that come into their territory. They don’t keep animals or ride horses like other Two-Bloods. That’s why they didn’t want me. I’m not pure.”

Ezra closed his eyes and felt tears slide down his face.

“Ah beg to differ!” he said and then winced as the adrenaline of the encounter wore off. His shoulder was out again, and the wolf had apparently broken and mangled the bones of his forearm during the attack.

“You are my darling child and no one had better say different.” He muttered. A pup raced out of the brush and sat next to him, panting. He could see blood on her muzzle and paws. He was both appalled and gleeful. Appalled that his precious magnolia blossom had been subjected to violence and gleeful that she had fought for her pack.

Blossom whined softly and began to lick his various injuries. Her small pink tongue was warm and strangely comforting. Ezra smiled at his small rescuer. “Darling child,” he whispered softly and ran the fingers from the unbroken arm through her fur with a loving caress.

Bransen went to Chaucer and worked on calming the upset gelding. The magnificent horse stomped angrily and neighed into the darkness but not in the direction that the two injured wolves had taken. Bransen stopped and sniffed in that direction.

Quickly he turned back. “There’s another wolf nearby,” he said. “Its not one of the ones who took us and its hurt.” He sniffed carefully, “It’s a female.”

Ezra shook off his stupor and sat up, nearly fainting when he did, for the woods appeared to dance around his head.

Blossom gave a little admonitory yip that reminded him of Nathan chastising him for trying to escape his sick room. He smiled consolingly at her and tried to stand up. Bransen rushed to his side and helped him up.

“Son, you should get dressed.” He said to the naked child, “Its cold and you are not in fur.”

Soon the boy’s clothing was retrieved and Ezra went to investigate this new possible threat. He made the children stay behind him, although at this point he was laughingly unable to do much more than totter in the direction Bransen had shown him.

The going was awkwardly slow, but Ezra was pretty sure the sick wolf had hidden in a small overhang he had found in this area. With Bransen supporting him and a vigilant pup at his side, he found the spot and could see the reflective glint of eyes staring at them.

“Please change into human form,” Ezra requested, wincing in fresh pain, “Ah promise not to harm you as long as you don’t try to harm us.”

The usual sense of electrical activity was much weaker than when Buck or the children changed and he sensed that the female’s life force was much depleted. Bransen’s supporting hand suddenly shook and the boy clung to him.

“What’s wrong?” he said softly, still eyeing the darkness that hid the female Two-Blood from full view.

“It’s our mother,” the boy gasped. “She’s sick and it makes her smell funny.”

Blossom whined.

“Good Lawd,” said the gambler. “Bransen, find a blanket,” he requested and while the darkness hid the silent woman’s form, he felt better knowing he had tried to preserve her privacy.

Bransen, whose night vision was superb, raced off and returned with a ragged but adequate specimen. He handed it to the dark form and Ezra watched as a white hand took it from him.

“You didn’t steal my children,” said the woman softly. Her voice was weak and seemed to indicate great pain. He doubted seriously that she had been one of the Two-Bloods to attack the Well’s home. Everything here screamed of a long debilitating illness.

“No, Ma’am,” said Ezra, automatically.

“He rescued us from the Ringmaster,” said Bransen. “When the Ringmaster caught him and tortured him, he wouldn’t give us up.”

“I knew they were fools,” said the voice softly. Blossom whined again and changed.

“Mama?” she asked, leaning naked against Ezra’s undamaged leg.

“Yes, Blossom, I’m Mama,” said the voice, “Come see Mama before she sleeps forever my little one.”

Blossom looked up at Ezra for reassurance. “Go to her Dear.”

“Thank you,” said the woman. Blossom went to the dark shadow and was engulfed by white arms.

“I told them they were fools, but they don’t listen to me. Now that I can’t bear them pups, they listen even less. They wanted Blossom because she is the last pure blood female of the line. All the others have died from their constant feuds over territory.”

The woman stopped and coughed.

“I’m sorry they stole the children from you.” She said in those same soft but pain-filled tones, “But I’m happy to see how well you’ve cared for them.”

Bransen now looked to Ezra for permission to go to the woman and Ezra nodded gravely, sitting down on a nearby log. He was beginning to feel woozy with reaction to the attack and blood loss.

Bransen’s voice was excited, “We’re Four Corners Pack now and Ezra is our Papa. He takes really good care of us, Mama. He gave me a beautiful horse. I like this pack much better.”

Blossom said “Papa” in emphatic tones so her opinion would be noted.

How tired the woman sounded. Ezra realized she was closer to death than he had estimated.

Ezra realized he was starting to slide off the rock. He pulled himself upright and painfully extracted a clean handkerchief from a pocket and tried to tie up his arm. He didn’t want the woman to die alone, but he wasn’t sure Blossom needed to see this.

There was a rustling noise, and Bransen was at his side, small fingers nimbly tying up his arm. The boy looked up at him, and even in the starlight, Ezra could see the knowledge in the boy’s eyes. The boy tilted his head, sniffing the wind.

“The others are dead, the ones who took us. Can I make a fire?”

“Most certainly,” agreed the gambler. He was already shivering and hoped the fire would give the children’s poor mother some comfort.

Bransen made the fire with the same competence that Vin or Buck would show and swiftly. In the fire’s dancing flames, he could see the woman clearly now. She was white as a sheet, and the lines of pain and weakness told a grim story. Her arms were around Blossom. She had long black hair and he noted that someone had bruised her once-lovely face. His opinion of the male members of her pack plummeted even further.

Bransen found his mother’s pack and came back with more blankets.

She took the blankets with a light of pride in her wan eyes. “You are a better man than the others,” she said softly, “they often beat the females and the pups. The line is dying out and you two are the last surviving pups. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have let me come to find you. I should have realized they wanted you for their own purposes. They wasted time taking vengeance on the circus people, when they should have kept up tracking. I should have realized then that they didn’t care.”

Ezra nodded thoughtfully. It was good to know that none of the ones they had killed were the children’s fathers.

“Did they kill any of your folk?” she asked.

“No Ma’am. They knocked Miz. Nettie out and tore up Miss Casey’s shoulder terribly, but they should survive.”

“That’s good,” she responded in that tired voice. “I’d hate it if I’d been the cause of any more pain. My name is Leonora. You are called Ezra?”

“Yes, Ma’am, pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Blossom’s little voice said very sadly, “mama sick.”

“Yes, darling,” said Leonora, “I’m going away now for good, but you just remember that I love you and I’m happy you found a good pack of true wolves.”

She smiled at Ezra across the fire, “I’ve said all my says now, Ezra. I’m tired and want to die as a wolf, not a human, so I hope you don’t mind me changing.”

“Not at all, Ma’am,” said Ezra, his eyes burning with sympathy, “May I ask one question first?”

She nodded tiredly.

“Are there more kin from your pack who may come searching for the children?”

She smiled at him, “No, we were the last. Keep them safe for me Ezra. You’re a good man and a better wolf than any I have known.”

She changed then and lay back. Blossom changed again, and snuggled against her mother, licking her muzzle and whining consolingly. Bransen, after making Ezra more comfortable, did the same.

+ + + + + + +

JD Dunne was worried as hell. Ezra hadn’t come back. He had telegraphed to the rest of the Seven and hadn’t received an answer yet. He patrolled the town nervously and drove the telegraph operator to distraction. Mrs. Potter finally took pity on him and told him that she, Josh and Inez would watch the jail so he could go and check on the Wells.

Excited to be able to take action, he kissed the mercantile owner on the cheek and raced off.

The closer he got to the Wells Ranch, the colder he got inside. Some instinct was sending chills of dreadful anticipation up and down his spine, and even his horse was nervous.

He knew his screaming instincts were correct when he got to the ranch and found the door broken in and a kitchen table blocking it. The huge dead wolf on the porch terrified him.

“Casey!” he hollered, “Miz Nettie, are you in there?”

He waited for a moment and then, like a miracle, he heard Nettie call to him.

“Oh Lord, thank you,” he prayed and pushed the table aside. The familiar fire was out. He used his flint and tinder to fire up Miz Nettie’s lantern and found both women in Nettie’s bed.

While Nettie looked wan and tired, Casey’s chest was bandaged and she looked dangerously pale.

“Casey,” he cried and came to his knees at her bedside. Her beautiful eyes opened and she gave him a sad smile, “They took our babies, JD. Ezra went after them.”

JD closed his eyes and took Casey’s hand, putting it against his tear-dewed cheek.

“There was no blood, so we think they wanted them alive.” said Nettie.

JD looked up. “How many?”

“Three, we shot the one outside and wounded another.”

“How long?” he asked, his heart pounding with fear for the pups and Ezra.

“Nigh about 2 hours,” said Nettie.

JD stood up. “I’ll make up the fire then and look for them.” He could see that Nettie had cleaned and bandaged Casey’s wound. “Are you in pain?” he asked.

“Right now, just my heart in grief,” she said softly. “Please don’t get killed JD”

She closed her eyes. He leaned over her and kissed her pale cheek.

Then, boldly, he walked around to the other side of the bed and kissed Miz Nettie. “You take care of yourself. You’re kin now.” He whispered. Then he rushed into the kitchen and made up the fire. When he was sure the stove would stay lit and warmth began to trickle out into the cold kitchen, he went outside, where his horse was twitching with nervousness.

“Ready to do some tracking?” he asked and mounted up. He looked around and guessed that they had gone up the mountain. “Do you know where Chaucer went?” he asked the horse, which had been trained to find his herd members. The horse nickered and headed up toward the mountain. JD kept his gun ready.

The wind bit like ice and he shuddered in his jacket but kept on. The thought of Casey being wounded tore into him like a knife. He wanted to stay with the women, but the chance that Ezra and the children might still alive, drove him on.

“Oh God, please let them be alive,” he whispered. His horse tracked Chaucer’s steps and snorted frequently at some smell he didn’t like. JD patted his neck and kept himself ready.

After what seemed like a million years, his mount stopped and shied in distress. JD looked down and saw something dark lying across the trail.

Cautiously he dismounted.

He reached down and touched cold fur. Apparently Ezra had taken care of one of the wolves. That meant better odds for Ez and the kids. He snarled fiercely, egging Ezra on.

The wolf carcass had little heat in it and JD figured he’d been dead at least an hour in the bitter wind. Then something metallic glinted and he found Ezra’s derringer. It was covered in blood and spit and the metal looked chewed up.

Before he could start to be afraid, his horse nickered joyfully and tossed his head. JD looked and very dimly, noted a little light ahead. It flickered and he decided it was a campfire.

He grabbed the reins and made his way swiftly, then heard Chaucer’s familiar whinny.

“Ezra!” he called.

He heard Bransen’s voice, “JD? We’re over here.”

Ezra had found the children! JD rushed forward and then halted. He had to take care for the children’s sake.

“Are you alone?” he asked.

“Ezra and Blossom and my mother are here,” called Bransen sadly, “The pack members who took us are dead.”

Reassured, the young man went into the firelight. There lay Ezra, unconscious with his head propped up by a log. He was covered with several blankets and one pup that he recognized as Blossom.

Bransen sat next to him naked. He had obviously changed to reassure JD

JD immediately helped the boy rush into his clothing and covered him with one blanket. Then he knelt next to Ezra. Their elegant gambler looked like he’d been fighting grizzlies. His cheek had one slash, and something had broken his forearm. There were savage bites near his throat but not the jugular. He’d lost some blood, if the blood soaking his familiar red jacket was any indicator. Ezra moaned and shifted when JD touched his left foot, and JD feared it was sprained or broken. The most frightening wound was the break on the forearm. The mangled rigging from his derringer was actually providing support.

The wound would have to be at least temporarily set until Nathan could look at it but also carefully cleaned to stave off the possibility of infection. Maybe the unseen woman that Bransen said was his mother could help.

Ezra groaned and opened one eye, “JD, thank God you are here. Make sure the children are safe.” Then the eye closed. JD touched his forehead and it was hot. Worried that his injuries were beyond his skill he turned to Bransen.

“Where is your Mama?” he asked gently.

Bransen looked at him and said, “She died JD” He pointed to the small overhang and JD realized that another wolf lay there.

Blossom looked up at him in her wolf form and lifted a tiny muzzle to the stars. “Awooooo” she howled sadly.

JD sat down and drew Bransen to him and started to cry. “Oh Bransen, I’m so sorry,” he stuttered. Blossom edged next to him and he hugged her too.

“She didn’t try to steal us,” said Bransen softly, “They told her they would find us, but she realized they just wanted to use Blossom to breed more Los Lobos.” Then the boy began to sob and JD held him close.

JD remembered how much it had hurt to lose his own Mama and wept for them both and himself. How terrible to find their mother so violently and then to lose her. JD held them both and tried with all his heart to let them know he was there and he loved them.

Then Blossom in her cub form sat up and kissed JD’s cheek, wolf-style and started to lick Ezra’s cheek. Ezra didn’t even moan. JD jumped up. They could cry more later, he had to take care of his pack brother now.

Soon he had water boiling over the fire from his canteen. He got clean cloth from his saddlebags and began the laborious work of cleaning each wound. The arm in particular looked nasty. It had swollen up and JD grimaced. He was going to have to get the jacket off and Ezra would at some point have a fit over the loss of his fine jacket.

Bransen put a hand on his arm, “Let me undo the seams in the shoulder,” he said and did so gently and swiftly. JD was sure he couldn’t do such a thing. He smiled down at the boy and said proudly, “You sure are good with your hands, little brother. Thank you.”

The fabric of the arm was then split away carefully with a knife. JD handed Bransen a cloth and they both laboriously cleaned.

Bransen began to work on the face and shoulders, and Blossom helped pull the jacket away from the shoulder bites by pulling with her little teeth.

JD smiled at her and she wagged her tail briefly.

JD almost tried to remove the rigging, which looked chewed up too, but decided that if he could clean it, it would support the arm.

This complete, JD realized he had no carbolic to clean with. Nathan had told him to use whiskey and he remembered Buck using it on him when he’d been hurt on the trail while patrolling.

He grimaced. This would hurt like hell. He found Ezra’s flask and dipped another clothing in to the boiling water. Then he took his kit off the flames and let the cloth cool a bit. When he judged it safe to touch, the young sheriff pour whiskey on it and them began to further clean all the wounds. Ezra never opened his eyes, but he did twitch and moan a few times.

Bransen watched him with trust in his eyes, and JD found himself swallowing nervously. This must be what he did to Buck, especially when he first came to Four Corners. He didn’t realize what a heavy responsibility open trust and being the responsible adult could be.

When their labors were as complete as they could manage, JD bandaged the wounds and then covered Ezra with a blanket. He quietly considered how to get Ez back to Nettie’s. He could try to ride behind him and hold him up, but worried that Ezra would be hard to handle, especially if the fever got worse. Ezra was short, but the man was solidly built and he just didn’t know if he could handle him or would end up making it worse.

Finally he decided to make a travois. He stood up and started to look for branches he could use and then looked at the place where Blossom’s and Bransen’s mama lay. He couldn’t leave her for the animals. The thought of his own mother’s pathetic body left in the woods made him shudder. The woman deserved honor and the children deserved to have a grave to visit.

Glad that he always carried rope, he lashed boughs together until he had a makeshift travois. He looked at the ground and noticed the terrain here was rocky. He started picking up large rocks, and used the travois to drag them to where the children’s mother lay. The cave she was in had a small entrance. JD used a big branch as a lever and pushed several larger rocks over the mouth.

Bransen came to his side. “What are you doing?” he asked softly.

“I’m protecting your mama’s body from the animals. I want her to have a place to rest.”

Bransen eyes lit with comprehension and some of the sorrow left them. “That would be good, JD” While JD pushed rocks in front of the entrance and filled the gaps, Bransen helped him.

Finally JD dusted his hands and stood. “This will keep her safe from coyotes and cougars. We don’t see bears up here, so it should be enough.” He turned to the boy. They needed to pray.

“Let’s pray for your mama,” he said, feeling fresh tears at their loss. Bransen went back to where Ezra slept fitfully and put a gentle hand on Blossom’s head.

“JD buried Mama so the animals won’t get her. We’re going to pray for her now, come with us.”

Blossom got up, whining, and nosing at Ezra, but finally changed into her human form and quickly dressed. She took Bransen’s hand they solemnly walked to where JD was waiting.

JD took off his hat and bowed his head. Blossom stood on one side of him, clutching the legs of his britches while Bransen took his free hand.

JD softly prayed in Latin some of the traditional prayers for a person who had died, but then realized the children had no clue as to what he was saying. When they were done, he spoke in English, “Lord, please be with Blossom and Bransen’s Mama. May she be in heaven with you and my Mama and Buck’s Mama. May they all know how much we love them and may they be happy and free of all pain.”

Bransen’s grip on his hand tightened and the boy choked back a sob. Blossom trembled and rested her head against his side.

“Mama,” she said softly, the saddest sound he had ever heard.

They stood and wept together, the young gunslinger and two orphans. Then JD wiped his eyes angrily, put on his hat and crouched down to hold both little trembling bodies to his heart.

Blossom started to howl, but as a little girl, and not a wolf. Her whole body trembled, and she held on to JD for dear life. Bransen wept silently, but his body shook.

Finally, Blossom grew still and her weight seemed heavier. He smiled at her tenderly; she had fallen asleep crying in his arms.

Bransen too had grown still, and now he looked up at JD the light from the fire near Ezra showed tear streaks. JD took out a bandana and wiped his face with one hand, holding Blossom with the other.

“Come,” he said in a soft voice, “We’ll sleep by Ezra and come daylight, we’ll bring him home.”

And they did, snuggling against the gambler, being cautious of his injuries, but giving him benefit of their love and body heat. JD made sure that he covered them with blankets too. They slept, exhausted, but the first call of a bird woke JD instantly. He checked the children and Ezra, who were sleeping peacefully. Ezra’s skin was still hot, but he wasn’t delirious.

JD always rode with some provisions. The children went through his jerky like locusts through a cornfield. Ezra woke briefly, but shook his head at the offered dried beef and gave it to Blossom. JD made coffee, but even that didn’t interest Ezra, which was worrisome.

Chaucer didn’t take kindly to the travois until Bransen began to talk to him. While JD prided himself on his skill with horses, it was obvious that Bransen was especially gifted. Chaucer laid his huge head on the boy’s shoulders and seemed to give in to the child’s will.

The journey down the mountain was laborious. JD ended up walking in front of Chaucer while Bransen followed riding JD’s mount with Blossom behind him. The mountain paths were convoluted and JD was afraid that Chaucer might get hurt. Ezra was silent until about half way down. Then he gave a slow sad moan.

JD stopped Chaucer and then checked on his pack brother. Ezra’s skin was hot to the touch.

“Bransen,” the gambler moaned, “Blossom,” his voice held terrible fear and longing.

JD began to bath Ezra’s face with a canteen-moistened bandana. Ezra moaned again and began to move restlessly.

“Ez, I’m here and so are the little ones. You saved them, Ez.”

Ezra was too far gone in the fever to be aware. He threw his arms about and JD finally had to tie him down to the travois. Chaucer snorted at him but JD was too worried to console the horse.

Ezra’s fever raged, and JD worried about brain fever and convulsions. His first instinct was to stay there and keep Ezra cool, but the wind was cold and they needed shelter.

He looked up at the children and saw fear in their eyes.

“Blossom,” he said, “Do you think you could ride next to Ezra and keep him cool with this cloth and water? He’s pretty sick.”

Silently she hopped off from behind Bransen and crawled carefully onto the travois next to Ezra.

“Papa,” she said softly.

Ezra stilled.

So they made their way down the mountain. Every time JD looked back, Blossom was wiping Ezra’s face gently.

Once they hit level ground, their pace improved. When Nettie’s house was in sight, JD was relieved to see smoke coming from the chimney. If they hadn’t let the fire go out, that was a good sign that at least one of the women was able to get around.

+ + + + + + +

Casey had thought almost losing JD had been the worst agony she’d ever known, but losing the children and seeing Aunt Nettie turn old before her eyes was worse. All the spark and vinegar that characterized her dear aunt had slipped away in the night, stolen with the children. She finally looked her age and Casey feared that she’d slip away from her. Casey felt like she had lost everyone. Ezra and JD might die up there fighting those wolves and the youngin’s were gone. The thought of Blossom’s dimpled arms no longer reaching to her for hugs and kisses made her chest burn horribly. She ached to see Bransen’s peculiar little smile of pleasure when he successfully completed a chore.

Her kin were on the mountain in the cold and wind and she was too damned weak to protect them.

Aunt Nettie had started a meal, but neither of them ate. After they’d finished a minimal amount of the chores, Nettie sat in the rocker and drank tea and stared out the window up the mountain. Casey made sure there was enough fuel and then changed her bandages and clothing. Aunt Nettie came and helped, but the sorrow and distant air in the older woman only served to frighten the girl.

Aunt Nettie made willow bark tea for her and absently touched her cheek. Then she sat in the rocker again. It was unnerving. Nettie was almost never still. Casey had told JD that she thought Nettie did chores in her sleep. Those old and well-loved hands were always busy.

Now they sat folded in Nettie’s lap.

Casey’s heart was breaking with fear for her family. She was getting ready to put the untouched meal away, when she heard a horse whinny in the distance.

Nettie looked up and Casey saw a flare of the old light in her clear blue eyes.

Casey put the dish she’d held down, with a rattle, and ran to the door, snatching up the spencer on the way.

She looked toward the mountain and saw two horses coming with a travois behind the first. She recognized JD’s hat and saw one small person riding the second horse.

“It’s JD !” she cried.

Nettie was next to her now, her hand on Casey’s good shoulder. “I see Blossom is on the travois with a man. Its probably our Ezra.”

Briskly the older woman turned and hugged Casey fiercely, minding her bandages, but with all the strength and fire that Casey had thought dead and gone scant hours before.

Casey’s eyes filled with tears.

“None of that, girl,” cried Aunt Nettie. “At least one of them is hurt. We’ll need the carbolic, hot water and clean clothes.”

While before, Casey would have bolted outside and ridden a horse to meet her anxiously awaited family, now she raced with Nettie to prepare for dressing and sewing wounds. She sat the meal back on the stove to heat up. The children would be hungry.

Everything was ready in apple-pie order when they heard JD call out. Casey slid the broken door out of the way and ran to help JD pull the travois into the house.

Ezra’s beautiful gelding, Chaucer, was fussing up a storm. If he could speak, he’d have hollered at her to make tracks and take care of his human. She looked at the gambler and saw that the wolves had gotten him too. She stopped and swayed a bit. His arm and shoulder were really bad. Her own wound seemed like nothing compared to what had been done to Ezra.

Blossom and Bransen jumped down from their mount and ran full tilt into her arms and she grabbed them.

“Oh babies, I thought my heart was going break,” she whispered and kissed them both frantically, memorizing their faces, checking for injuries.

“Casey,” sobbed Blossom, “My Casey.”

Then Nettie came through the opening that used to hold a door and the children raced to her. Nettie’s eyes filled with tears and she whispered, “thank you, Lord.”

Then she stood up.

“We got a sick man to care for,” she said briskly.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee stood guard in front of a courthouse and scowled. The mob he was supposed to turn back had dwindled to a much more manageable size when they learned that the Seven were guarding the courthouse. It dwindled even more when Buck had casually mentioned that Chris Larabee, the famous gunfighter, was in charge of the guard detail. Now, the smaller group grew even smaller when Chris scowled, and he scowled even more.

Something felt wrong about all this. The Judge’s call for their help had been more than legitimate, but his instincts were howling. He sensed the same unease in the others. Finally, he had sent Buck to telegraph back home and check on things.

He scowled again and looked up the straight towards the direction Buck would return by. Buck popped into sight, and he wasn’t walking, but running flat out.

Chris straightened and heard some of the remaining mob gasp. Buck was panting when he got there, but he grabbed Chris with desperate intent.

“Wolves on the mountain,” the big man gasped.

Chris Larabee snarled and drug Buck into the courthouse. He looked back, about to threaten the crowd and then realized there was no one there. Strange.

Judge Orrin Travis looked up when Chris entered. His eyes narrowed and he banged his gavel, calling for a quick recess.

Nathan, Josiah and Vin all came to immediate attention from their posts about the courtroom.

Chris strode up to the Judge’s bench. He leaned over and whispered, “Trouble back in Four Corners.”

The Judge lifted a finger to his lips and considered, “Can Josiah and Buck stay here?” he asked.

Chris closed his eyes and then nodded. Buck would be useful to them as a Two-Blood, but by damn, he couldn’t explain that to the Judge, and Buck and Siah were the two most impressive in size.

He nodded to his men and they met at the front door.

“Buck,” he said, “Judge says you and Siah gotta stay. JD telegraphed us that they heard wolves on the mountain.”

Buck’s mouth fell open, “I should go with you!” he cried.

Chris scowled, “Yup, but the Judge needs you here. We’ll take care of it.”

Buck snarled angrily, “But …” and Chris grabbed his shoulder in a brutal grip.

“I’m Alpha.” He growled.

Buck closed his eyes and nodded, his shoulders slumping in defeat.

Chris turned to the others and said, “Let’s ride.”

+ + + + + + +

Ezra Standish was sure he had died and gone to hell. While he didn’t see any flames, he burned with both physical and emotional anguish. The children. He couldn’t find the little ones.

He tried to call their names and finally was aware of two somethings touching him. Coolness touched his face and he scented wolf.

He heard soft whines and smiled. The children were with him. This wasn’t hell. He stopped fighting and fell asleep.

+ + + + + + +

Nettie Wells had seen terrible accidents in the west and she worried about Ezra’s wounds. They had tried to clean them again, but Ezra was wracked with fever and fought them, softly calling for Blossom and Bransen. They were afraid to remove the mangled rigging too, and decided that it could wait till Nathan Jackson arrived.

Finally, she told the two worried pups to take care of Ezra. They turned into wolf form and crawled on his bed, one child/pup on each side. Gently they began to whine at him and lick his face. Finally Ezra smiled and Nettie knew he realized the children were safe. Ezra fell into a true sleep, with a trace on that smile on his lips.

JD came silently into the room. She looked up from her cleaning of the mess that had been the Gambler’s right arm and looked at the boy.

“I think we’ll save him,” she said calmly, “but I don’t know if we’ll be able to save his arm. It’s hurt bad.”

Bransen, who was still in pup form, yipped and sat up from his post at Ezra’s side.

Nettie looked at him, “I reckon boy that he figures you’re worth a right arm, so don’t you take on about it. We’ll do our best and when Nathan comes back, he’ll have a better chance.”

“Is there anything we can do?” asked JD

Nettie shook her head. “We’ll keep taking good care of him and with all the love the children are showering on him, I think he has a good chance.”

She looked out the door into the kitchen and dining area. “You might work on that door. It will help keep the cold out.”

JD grinned and tipped his hat, but before he left he sent a look filled with sorrow towards their patient.

JD got tools from Miz Nettie’s barn and started in on the door. Casey helped him and stared at him while they worked. Finally, she touched his shoulder.

“You knew about the children?” she asked pathetically.

He looked at her worried. Casey had a fearsome temper and might hold this against them. Her volatile tendencies were one of the reasons why they hadn’t let her in on the secret yet. He looked into her eyes for a moment and then nodded.

“Yes,” he said without fear, “I knew.”

Casey was silent a moment and then put her hand on his cheek gently. “Thank you for protecting them,” she whispered, then got back to work.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan Jackson rode into Four Corners side by side with Chris and Vin. The town appeared to be doing business as usual and that lifted one worry, but Nathan was going mad at the slowness. He feared for Nettie and Casey and the children … oh god, the children. They just had to be safe.

Yosemite came out and reported that all was well in town and that JD had put people in charge while he went to the Well Ranch.

The men looked at each other grimly and changed to fresh mounts.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee rode as fast as he could for the Wells Ranch without killing off a good horse. If this turned out to be a false alarm, he was going to buy the kid a beer. But life just wasn’t like that, not for him. He’d invested himself, body and soul, in his pack and those two children. If they were dead, he was going to take a terrible vengeance. He didn’t know if it would be enough, but shoved the thought from his mind. His first duty was to find his missing pack members.