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Cody lay flat against the rocks, his ears pinned back and a low, rumbling growl escaping his throat. He’d shifted hours ago, criss-crossing their back trail and erasing it, but still the posse followed them. It made no damn sense. The man leading them, however, seemed to have the same grit and determination in chasing them as Cody did it trying to evade that posse.
Three days since they’d had to abandon Scarlett in Dorado. Three days of cutting south and west until they were in the high desert and its hard, stone escarpments promised them no trail left behind. Below, horses picketed, the armed men were sitting around a fire, dining on beef jerky and bad coffee. Their leader, though, he was studying the rocky outcroppings, watching the landscape and time and again, his head turned to the overhang Cody hugged.
His rested his muzzle against his paws, fur bristling. If he could angle the maneuver, he wanted to get close enough to their leader to sniff him. It was unnatural how well he stayed on their trail. Ike could do that, but Ike was gifted. He could track across blank landscape, following some sense that only he could see.
But Ike was a part of the Gang of Seven, he was raised by Quanto and like his brothers, he was marked. But Cody knew they were not alone in this world, that there were others like them. Others who would hunt Quanto for what he knew.
The growl rumbling in his throat threatened to increase in volume, so he snapped it off, letting his lips curl away from his teeth instead. If their hunter was indeed one of the others, then Scarlett was in even more danger, because they would recognize her.
They would want her.
Few of the females survived the fever. Fewer still were as powerful as she was. The thought of Scarlett did little to calm him. Their trackers were picketing their lines, creating a strong perimeter. The posse wouldn’t move again with the sun sinking down behind the escarpments. They’d learned their lesson that first night when the Gang had turned on them, injuring, hampering and turning back the other search parties.
All but this one.
Cody studied the young who leaned back against his saddle, his shaded gaze still seeming to see straight to where Cody was lying. Full darkness was only minutes away, the sun setting fast this time of year, the hot desert would come to life as the creatures scurried out to hunt, to drink and to roam.
His nose twitched as he caught another scent on the breeze. The musk of fur, sand and sun. He let the rumbling growl escape his throat and it carried until the scent thought better of continuing up towards his rock.
He saw the coyote in a flash of movement. It was small, scrawny and hardly a threat. But the heavy teats swinging below suggested that it was female and it had pups nearby. Cody apologized mentally, he would leave the bitch and her pups be soon enough.
The sun was a dying thought on the horizon when Cody rose to his haunches. Stretching, he shook himself thoroughly, scattering the sand and dust that lay on him like a blanket. His claws clicked on the rock as he padded his way down the escarpment. The Gang of Seven was camped on the far side of the curving canyons, waiting for him.
Cody reached the desert floor and weaved his way through the rocks, six-foot cacti and scrub brush. He circled the posse’s camp, moving downwind. He wanted to scent the leader.
A rabbit froze in his path and he showed the desert bunny his teeth and it fled. Despite his rumbling stomach, he wasn’t interested in hunting for food. He could eat when he returned. Sour sweat stung his nose and he fought the urge to sneeze. Horses nickered to each other as he crept. His belly sliding lower to the ground.
Even downwind, horses seemed to know when a predator was close. His brothers told him that his wolf form was huge, bigger than his wilder brethren and that his legs were thicker, more bear than wolf. Cody didn’t care for the descriptions, his sandy blond fur stood out everywhere but the desert. His size gave him considerable advantage in fights and even ranchers thought twice about shooting him if they came across him in the course of his wanderings.
No one touched his wolf body, despite craving physical affection, he only allowed the brothers and Scarlett to get that close and only with Scarlett would he lay like a pup at her feet, her fingers stroking his fur.
The hair on the back of his neck bristled again. Leaving Scarlett tortured him. He wanted to get back to her. A flash of red hazed his vision. If he slaughtered the posse they could just turn back.
But there were twelve riders and they were all armed. If they spread out more, he could pick them off.
Or maybe he only needed to kill one of them.
As though conjured by his thoughts, the wheat haired leader of the group rose to stride out into the gathering dusk.
Cody’s lips curled back into a wolfish smile and he crept onwards, circling wider, on a course that would bring him upon their pursuer. Maybe he only needed to take out that man.
Then they could go back for his Scarlett.
A flare of red and blue scattered the darkness, then narrowed to a thin orange light. Cody found his target sitting atop a large rock, a rifle leaning comfortably against one arm, smoking a cheroot that smelled of tobacco leaves and cherries.
Fighting the urge to sneeze, Cody circled further, studying the boy. The darkness was no obstruction to his vision, flattened and two-dimensional, as it seemed in his wolf form.
“Hello.” The greeting surprised Cody into stillness. His ears flattened against the side of his head and he hunched down, his muscles preparing for the spring. “You find out everything you needed to know about us yet?” The man, no he was more of a boy, younger than Cody by at least four years, maybe more. His voice, though deep, still carried that faint hint of quavering that suggested a late change, a late bloomer.
The smell of his cheroot interfered the boy’s scent. Top notes of horse and sweat were strong, but below that, something teased Cody’s senses. He couldn’t label it.
“I know you’ve been watching us. I know you’ve been following us.” A hint of laughter shivered his words as he exhaled a long stream of smoke. He’d abandoned his Stetson to sit on the rock next to him, and despite his casual posture, there was wariness to his muscles, a preparedness that warned Cody to stillness.
“So I’ll say it plain. We’re not going to stop until we get the gold back. You’re not going to lose us as long as you’re slowed by the gold. So leave the gold in the canyon. If I find it there in the morning, we’ll take it back to Dorado. You can go your way.” A flick of the cheroot sent smoking ash to the desert floor. “You don’t leave it. We’ll stay on you. We’re going to get faster, you’re just going to get slower. We catch up to you. They’re going to hang you.”
Cody cocked his head to the side, staring at the boy. He rose from his crouch, stepping forward until he was certain the boy saw him. The young man’s eyes widened. He curled his lips back, giving the boy a very good look at his teeth.
“Okay. Maybe they’ll just shoot you.” The tone was conversational, but the scent soured with a hint of fear.
The bland delivery amused Cody despite his irritation with the boy, even as the rough scent of fear calmed him. He cocked his head, ears flicking forward. There was more to the boy than his appearance suggested. He was young, but his gaze carried the weight of years.
They stared at each other, waiting. Cody knew the boy wasn’t done talking. His urge to listen was surprising, but he waited, nonetheless.
“You should go. They’ll send someone over to check on me. Can’t lose me or my pa would shoot them. They’re not a bad bunch, but they don’t like thieves. I meant what I said about the gold. Leave it. We’ll take it back.” The boy shifted, but it was slow, every move telegraphed carefully. He was setting the gun aside, laying it on the rock.
Cody’s ears flattened as he watched. The boy was putting down his only measure of defense. If Cody pounced now, he could snap his neck before he got off a sound or could scrabble to reclaim the gun.
Not for the first time, he wished he could communicate in a manner that humans would understand. But he would have to shift to do that. He wasn’t going to shift in front of the stranger.
“Look. I don’t know if you really understand me or if I’ve gone completely sun struck, but you left that girl behind in the vault. My brother’s the marshal. He arrested her and was going to send for a judge. If I don’t get that gold back, they may string her up for your crime.”
Cody growled, rising to all four feet. His fur did more than bristle now. They were not hanging his Scarlett. He’d kill them all first.
“Yeah, I thought that might get your attention. So leave the gold. I’ll take it back. Don’t let that girl hang for what you did.”
How the boy recognized Cody could even understand him, he didn’t care. He glared at him. That was the second time he’d threatened the hanging. Red hazed the edges of his vision. Teeth bared, he lunged and the boy scrabbled backwards, but Cody had already turned and raced into the darkness, giving in to his body’s desire to run.
He wasn’t followed.
If the boy were true to his word, he would wait for the first light of dawn to check the canyon for the gold. Cody loped through the desert, scattering rabbits, snakes and startling the coyote bitch from her hunt. He ignored them all, stretching his body out for speed. It still took him a half hour of racing over rocks and circling the escarpments and canyon drops to reach the brothers' camp.
The fire was quiet, banked in the darkness. He scented them all and let them see him before he trotted to his saddle and bags. The shift was a slow process, but his fur retreated and his body twisted, bones grinding on bones and his skin snapping back into place. They wouldn’t watch him.
None of them liked the change.
He was on his knees, panting when he was done. Sweat soaked his fever-heated skin. The flushed pink color would fade, but the heat would linger. It always did. The change was brutal to his body. He breathed through the pain as the last of his bones snapped to where they should be.
Buck squatted in front of him, handing him a canteen. Cody guzzled the tepid water. The brothers moved closer, saying nothing as Buck passed him dried jerky. Cody tore into the food, hunger a driving force after denying himself the hunt earlier.
He could feel the weight of their stares. Expectation hung like moist air before the storm. “They’re not going to stop until they get the gold back. And they do have Scarlett.”
Silence met his declaration. They knew he wasn’t done. Interrupting him or pushing him this close to the change was just as likely to piss him off. So they waited. Buck handed him another piece of jerky and he bit into it, the dried meat not remotely what he wanted, but it would do. He chewed, washing down the bites with more water and finally reached for his britches.
He jerked them on over bare legs—the rasp of fabric stinging the sensitive skin.
“They’re going to hang her.” He stared at Buck. “Have you been able to reach her?”
“No.” Buck was Quanto’s son by blood and by skill. Like the Shaman that raised them, he could walk in dreams, communicating over long distances. “Father reached for us though. He said Wyatt will be leaving tomorrow to meet us in Dorado.”
The collective in drawn breath around him suggested that Buck had reserved that news for Cody’s return. Cody sighed. Wyatt shouldn’t leave the mountains. He needed to be with Quanto. Wyatt rode at the side of death, if they couldn’t reclaim Scarlett before Wyatt got there…
…Dorado would be losing a lot more than their gold.