‘Free State’, Nora E. Derrington

Illustrations © 2015 Laura-Anca Adascalitei

Eastern Kansas: Summer 1863

 [ Wolf, © 2015, Laura-Anca Adascalitei ] I chase my prey across rolling fields, grass baked in the summer heat crunching under my paws. As if to taunt me, he’s taken the form of a wolf, just as I have, but his scent is wrong—rather than sylvan musk, he smells of cold steel and hot viscera. His kind can never rid themselves of the heavy stench that clings to those who feed on human blood.

He can take whatever form he likes, but at his core he’s nothing but a leech. I have only two forms: human and wolf. My strength peaks with the light of the full moon, which shines down on me now. Over the past several months I have followed this creature from Connecticut to Kansas—which these days carries its own heavy stench of blood, in the thick of the war. My kind has pledged to protect humanity from his, and I have particular reason to want this one’s head. If I can take him down tonight…

I pause, shake my shaggy head to clear it. I’m not usually distracted by human concerns when I take this form. “What happens once I kill Thomas Livingston?” is not a question I entertain easily when I wear a human face, much less a wolf’s. I left my home to hunt this creature, and like as not I won’t return.

I’ve hunted him across the prairie, pushing him toward the river. They can’t cross running water, at least on foot, though their origins are in Europe, just as the stories say, so clearly they find their ways. We push through the brush and woods that line the river, and for just a moment I wish I had a pack. Like our fully-wolf brethren, we hunt better in packs, but I am alone here.

I follow his scent, catch a glimpse of dark fur through the trees. A few more yards, and the trees show me a different glimpse: moonlight on murky river. I burst forward, certain I have him now. I’m panting heavily—I don’t remember how long I’ve been running or how long the moon has been up. I ought to be keeping track, but tonight there is only the hunt.

I leave the cover of the woods, hitting the sandy bank of the river, and lose his scent. I huff in frustration, scanning the sand for footprints, then jolt at the crack of a rifle, far too close. A towhead rises from the water a hundred feet from the bank, and, somehow, there Livingston stands, in human form—but ghostly in pallor—holding a rifle and wearing a wide grin. He led me here on purpose.

His laughter rings in my ears as I race away, just like the last time, just like when he attacked Marissa. My aunts said it was my fault for befriending her in the first place, that it would be my fault if I got myself killed in going after him, and no skin off their noses, strange one that I am. I am determined not to let them be right.

I hear his voice echo behind me: “Until next time, Josephine!”

I first saw Marissa at the burying ground in New Haven. I have family there, perhaps more interred there than anywhere else, save forests where wolf carcasses were left to decay by those who knew no better. I had just left an early spring offering at the grave of my great-grandmother when I noticed Marissa.

Her skirts were full and fashionable, her dress a lovely shade of mauve, but it was her hair that caught my attention—rather than flattened and pinned and netted, her sable curls flew free, dancing around her face and shoulders as if a separate living creature. She straightened from a grave and met my eye, with a quirk of her eyebrow to say she’d caught me staring. I offered a friendly smile, or what I hoped was one, then scurried away, not yet ready to interact with her.

Thoughts I’d had previously, ideas I hadn’t known what to do with, crystallized for me in that moment. I was a good age to be married—past the right age, if you asked my aunts—and while no suitors had yet come calling, I was resigned to the idea that I would do what was expected: I would marry, and we would couple under the light of a full moon. Inwardly I hoped my husband would feel called to leave immediately, to join the 7th Connecticut, perhaps, and then my life could go back to normal. I had heard whispers about “spinster aunts” when I was in school, but I could never quite imagine such things—not with my own aunts, Teresa and Catherine, forever breathing down my neck. I could no more imagine them having illicit desires than I could… well, desires of any sort, really. Sometimes even milk in one’s tea was too much of an indulgence for their tastes. Yet they’d had husbands of their own, still had grown children of their own, so I hoped there was more to their lives than I credited.

My familial duties did not change when I saw Marissa that day, but something in my understanding of myself fell into place, just as it had the day my mother sat me down to explain my menses, and how our family was much more connected to the moon and her cycles than most.

My mother lost my father on a hunt, when I was small. She has never told me all the details, but she returned under the waning moon, with a mangled leg and without him. She went too long before seeking treatment, for how does a woman explain to a staid New England doctor how her leg was caught in a bear trap? In the end, the leg couldn’t be saved, and so we moved in with Aunt Catherine. I love my mother fiercely, and want to honor her legacy by passing it to children of my own, but she also taught me the shortness of our lives, how I should appreciate what I have while I have it. I soon realized how short my time with Marissa could be if I wasn’t vigilant.

The next time I saw her was at a Congregationalist meeting called to discuss the battles to the south and how to help freed and runaway slaves moving north. Mother didn’t fight anymore, but she was skilled at organizing, especially since many of our enemies were also slaveholders—the idea of humans as chattel seemed to come easily enough to them. At the meeting’s end, I caught a glimpse of those sable curls, and before I realized what I was doing, I’d clutched at Mother’s hand. She followed my eyes, tensed as if thinking I’d spotted a leech in an unwelcome place indeed. Finding none, she asked, “Who is that?”

Abashed, I loosened my grip. “I don’t know,” I admitted, excusing myself to find out.

She was leaving the church when I caught up with her. She smelled of lilacs. I somehow found the nerve to tap her shoulder. When she turned and saw it was me—hardly worth noticing, I’d always thought, with ordinary mouse-brown hair and storm grey eyes—a warm smile flashed across her face.

Marissa and I became fast friends, and more. I was so wrapped up in her I didn’t realize what was happening at first.

A bit of moisture on Marissa’s brow would not have been unexpected on that unseasonably warm day in late March, except that her hands were so clammy. As I gripped them, Marissa admitted to fatigue, weakness, and when I pressed further she confessed to seeing two small wounds on the inside of her elbow that morning.

I confused her further by jumping up and stalking across the room. Chagrined at my own carelessness, I told myself I would make up for it by hunting the leech feeding on my Marissa and taking his head. The moon was half-full and waxing; it would have been wise to wait another week for my full strength, wiser still to take the week to assemble a pack. But I couldn’t dispel the image of a leech crouching over Marissa as she slept, his teeth in the tender flesh of her arm, perhaps juicier veins—the neck, the thigh—once she’d been drained into compliance.

I imagined myself her savior.

I spent a day in surveillance, studying Marissa’s family home, the avenues of approach, checking Mother’s lists of known leeches within 20 miles. She knew of Livingston, I learned later—the family had been hunting him since before she was born—but he’d not been heard from in decades. When the moon rose that night, I snuck into the woods, hid my clothes in a familiar thicket, and changed form. I crept up to Marissa’s house, keeping to the shadows, knowing the risk a wolf takes in the city. I could smell him in her garden, the tang of blood sliding underneath the cool scents of fresh blooms and starlit lawn.

My first mistake was in the way I entered the house. Looking back, the sensible choice would have been to enter the house as a human, shifting form once the leech was before me. I was more concerned with not keeping Marissa from seeing me take the wolf before having a chance to prepare her than I was with saving her life. The latter seemed easier than the former.

Livingston had left the kitchen door slightly ajar, which seemed fortuitous, but the hinges whined as I nudged it further open. I stood, half in and half out, listening for responding noises. Hearing none, I made my way upstairs to Marissa’s bedroom. I knew what I would find there before I was even halfway up the stairs. The blood scent was hot and fresh and nearly overpowering, tinged with terror and panic. I leapt up the remaining stairs and barreled through the closed door.

Her bedroom had become an abattoir, snowy-white linens now covered in thick, dark red. Her sable curls were matted with it, plastered to her skin and pillow. Livingston crouched over her, blood smeared across his grinning maw. “Too late, little cur,” he hissed.

I choked down the howl that threatened to escape and threw myself at him, desperate for the feel of his neck between my jaws. I was the hunter, and he, my prey. My instincts told me I had him. But with preternatural speed, he evaded my lunge and hopped out the open window. An oversized bat fluttered away into the night, but a man’s laughter rang in my ears.

I spun, panting, to examine Marissa. I assumed Livingston’s words meant he’d drained her dry, but her chest still rose and fell, the rhythm quick but regular, and she pressed a hand to her throat. I looked up further, to her face, and found her eyes wide and glassed-over with shock. I stepped toward the bed, and she cringed back before I remembered that a wolf in her bedroom might be just as frightening as a leech. I crouched down, concentrated, and took back the form of a woman, then stumbled toward the bed.

Marissa still cringed away from me, bewilderment clear on her face, but I ignored it this time, assessing her state: she’d lost a lot of blood, but not so much that she couldn’t recover. Livingston had clearly wanted a spectacle rather than a meal. I ripped off strips of Marissa’s bedsheet to dress her wounds as well as I could without choking her, then pressed her hand back against her throat.

“Keep pressing,” I rasped, my throat tight with humiliation. “You’ll need a doctor’s care. I’ll …” I looked around, considering how to draw her family’s attention to her and not to me. I crouched back down, let out the most piercing scream I could manage, then bolted on all fours, my hands and bare feet changing to thick paws that carried me swiftly down the stairs.

I had seen carnage before that night, but always managed to remain detached. As I tore my way out of Marissa’s house, though, everything I’d been taught in the event a hunt went wrong, everything I’d been taught about keeping myself and my secrets safe, flew out of my head. I was halfway home before I realized what I was doing. Not only might there be problems if a wolf were spotted in the middle of New Haven, but I could have led Livingston straight home. Mother could still fight—indeed, she stopped hunting less because of the missing leg than because her heart wasn’t in it—and so could her sisters, presumably, though they’d retired from the hunts long ago, when they had children, but I couldn’t stomach a second mid-night ambush.

I detoured into the woods and took as circuitous a route as I could manage. False dawn had begun to glow in the east when I dragged myself into the house, exhausted and fit to burst with emotion. I crept into Mother’s room, but she was already awake, or perhaps awake still, sitting in her wingback chair by the window. I hadn’t wept, not truly, since I was a child, but I dropped my head into her lap and sobbed. She stroked my tangled hair, and eventually I told her everything, explaining as well I could the things I didn’t have words for. She was so still and quiet, but she kept stroking my hair. I wonder now if she thought of my father, of whatever had gone so terribly wrong that night, or if she simply wondered how she’d raised such an imbecile.

That’s unfair—it’s a judgment more befitting my aunts than Mother. She wasn’t safe from their scalding tongues, either, like when they all but pronounced it was her own fault for losing her leg given how she’d insisted on continuing to hunt. Perhaps her sisters were right: perhaps she coddled me, or allowed me too much freedom, so I developed into the odd creature I am today. But in those moments when it was just me and Mother, I always felt loved and accepted.

Once I calmed enough to see things more clearly, Mother told me of Livingston, how he’d been in New England for close to a century, though he’d been spotted as far west as Buffalo, as far north as Montréal, our family nipping at his heels all the while. He was an opportunist—even more so than most leeches—and he was canny. Mother speculated that we knew his name only because he’d let it slip on purpose.

“I must hunt him,” I finally said.

That stopped Mother’s stroking hand. She reached down, took my chin, tilted my head up to look into my eyes. She searched for a moment, then said, “You haven’t enough experience.”

I fixed my mouth into a grim line. “What better way to gain more?”

She shook her head. “Josephine… I know better than to tell you ‘no.’ Once you began hunting, I knew you might well die before me, and I know part of my wanting to keep you by my side is selfish—I feel I can always protect you that way.”

“I’m a woman grown, Mother,” I said gently. “It isn’t upon you to protect me anymore.” She frowned, began to object, but I went on. “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t pursue him.” Some might think, since we’re female, that we wouldn’t concern ourselves with honor, but I knew Mother saw things as I did. She nodded, slowly, but the frown remained.

She convinced me to stay a few days to discuss strategy, during which time Aunt Catherine overheard us. We told her an abbreviated version of the story, but it was difficult not to feel she looked at me with suspicion after that, and soon Aunt Teresa did as well. Focused as I was on hunting Livingston, I couldn’t muster the energy to worry about their disapproval.

During this time I prowled regularly outside Marissa’s family home—I saw her once more and was simultaneously overjoyed to see her alive and heartbroken at her weakened state—but Livingston had clearly moved on. Mother and I knew the battles to the south attracted the leeches: death and strife were draws to begin with, and the ensuing chaos gave them ample opportunity to feed. We heard tales of fields covered in writhing, moaning bodies, and it was all too easy to imagine how thoroughly leeches would take advantage. As it turned out, though, Livingston was drawn west, to the hotly contested territory between Missouri and Kansas, already soaked with blood.

Tracking has always been a particular skill of mine, and so I followed him, eventually making my way to Lawrence and a room at the City Hotel. I’ve come so close to catching him, yet he continues to escape. Mother was right; my inexperience is a hindrance.

 [ Tracking, © 2015, Laura-Anca Adascalitei ] After my embarrassment on the banks of the river, I run until I am exhausted, then make my way back to town, sneaking into the hotel and dropping quickly off to sleep. I find no peace in dreams—snatches of the hunt come back to me, mixed with images of battlefields seen in newspapers, and Marissa’s voice floating over it all. When I wake on a ragged breath, kicking my way out of tangled sheets, the sun is already past its peak in the sky, and the heat is nearly smothering.

The previous occupant of this room left behind a few books, two on obscure aspects of Christian theology, and the third a surprisingly romantic novel. I try to read—Mother has always cautioned me to keep my mind as fit as my body—but I spend more time looking out the window than at the lines on the page. I cannot catch Livingston by thinking solely like a wolf any more than I can thinking solely like a human. If I’m to catch him at all, I must find a way to combine, and go beyond, both ways of thinking.

Midday brings the mail, and there’s an oversized letter for me from Connecticut. I rip open the envelope, eager for news from Mother, but I unfold her stationery to find a second envelope tucked within. Tears sting the corners of my eyes as the scent of lilacs wafts from the paper. I draw a deep breath, then return my attention to Mother’s letter.

Life with the aunts continues as usual, though their frustration with Mother’s permissiveness where my behavior is concerned has increased. Mother asks, almost casually, how I find Kansas in July—and then she tells me that Marissa came to the house looking for me, that Mother explained everything, that Marissa still wants to continue our friendship, and I have to stop reading and tear into Marissa’s envelope.

She echoes Mother’s words about coming to the house and learning our secrets, then goes on to talk about Kansas: I have been reading everything I can access at the library about what the papers still call ‘Bleeding Kansas’ and the strong people who made that wild land their home. I believe I would like to encounter those people, to feel that prairie wind and see liberty grow in a new place. She doesn’t say so directly, but clearly in spite of everything Mother told her, Marissa wants to join me in Kansas. I can scarcely believe my eyes, but it’s right before me, ink on paper. I search for pen and paper and immediately plan my reply, my hope renewed almost beyond imagining.

At sunset I make my way down to the lounge to socialize with other hotel guests. The war, and the meaning and import of liberty, are fairly standard topics of discussion, which makes me feel almost at home. The freed and runaway slaves living in shanties at the edge of town, and whether they can be included under the banner of liberty ostensibly being fought for, sometimes come up, and ideas on that subject vary. It’s possible I have much better cause than the people with whom I speak to know that those former slaves—and those still in bondage—are just as human as those who hold forth on their humanity. The leeches feed on them just as readily.

As the stars begin to reveal themselves, we sit down to the meal, though our hostess immediately excuses herself to welcome in a latecomer. When they come in, I gasp: it’s Livingston. He is all charm and wit, pulling a tittering laugh out of the hostess before making eye contact with me. I can see Marissa’s blood on his face almost as clearly as if it were still there, and his eyeteeth, just a bit bigger and darker than the surrounding teeth, gleam in the lamplight. He is laughing at me as much as ever, but only he and I can hear it.

Our hostess makes introductions, and Livingston waves her off when she gets to me. “Josephine and I knew one another back east,” he says, with just enough of a leer that I blush and turn away, mortified at the suggestion, at what the other people in the room will think of it. Supper is served—cold fried chicken, corn, biscuits—and I imagine myself vaulting over the table, shifting form as I fly, my dress shredding at the seams and splitting down the middle. For a fraction of a moment I wonder which would be more scandalous, becoming a wolf or losing my dress. I imagine my jaws clamping down around Livingston’s throat, my teeth piercing his papery skin and crushing his windpipe.

I manage to make pleasantries even as the perverse scene runs through my head. The gentleman next to me pours me a glass of lemonade, and as I sip it, feeling the sweet tartness bloom over my tongue, I force myself to focus. There is more going on here than just Livingston taunting me. Were he planning on feeding on these people, he would have begun already. He has a plan, I think, something beyond me, beyond our conflict, perhaps even beyond the conflict between our kinds.

He takes his leave at the end of the meal. A few minutes later I persuade the man I’ve been sitting beside to accompany me on a walk in the moonlight. The town is on high alert, as rumors of an attack from pro-slavery bushwhackers have trickled in. We are far enough from the state line that many dismiss the rumors, but others make sure the armory is fully stocked, and watch, and wait.

I fear I might make poor company, because my thoughts flit between past events and what Livingston’s future plans might be. As a woman, I cannot patrol the block on my own without raising suspicion, but I find ways, like feigning more than friendly interest in a man so I may stroll along Massachusetts Street, Lawrence’s main thoroughfare. I bring up a dependable topic, Union versus Confederacy, and consider the rumors of pro-Southern raiders in Missouri recruiting others to their ranks. Union supporters have been speaking of the battle in Gettysburg as such a major achievement that victory must soon follow, and that may be so, but I know just how vicious a trapped animal can be, and I fear there are dark days to come.

Days become weeks, and Livingston and I circle each other like dogs before a fight. It is clear to me, however, that as much as I am focused on him, he is not similarly focused on me. He meets with bushwhackers regularly, and I believe he knows I see those meetings. After the last full moon, I suspect he’s taunting me, daring me to call the people of Lawrence to arms.

The moon goes dark, and under her shadow I am at the nadir of my strength. I lose half a day to terrible cramps, but when I’m able to move again, I secure a pistol and bullets. One thing all of my family, all of my predecessors, have agreed on is that fighting with firearms is beneath us. We’re best suited to fighting up close, they say, to the elegance of tooth and claw, as opposed to the barbarity of gunpowder and metal. But why not make use of human weapons along with those of the wolf? Those who came before were no more successful at catching Livingston than I have been. I spend as much time as I can on target practice; I have little enough ammunition to spare compared to what I think I’ll need, but I can’t afford to miss if I get the chance, either.

News from Kansas City trickles our way: soldiers on the border have been gathering bushwhackers’ family members in hopes it will stop their raids. They’re not called hostages, of course, but it amounts to the same thing. Some of them were kept in a building that then collapsed, and while it looks to have been merely a tragic accident, I can’t help but wonder. No one in Lawrence thinks twice of the handful of women who were killed, but it seems a handy excuse for renewed violence. In spite of the anxiety of the last full moon, the rumors have quieted, and most people see the fifty miles to the state border as a more than adequate cushion.

I continue to prepare and to track Livingston as the moon waxes, mailing updates to Mother and Marissa every few days, urging them to have the patience I lack, to consider their own safety before making any travel plans. The moon is half full when I have perhaps my most triumphant day: I think I may have found Livingston’s nest, ten miles to the south and east. It is long past nightfall, though the western horizon still glows violet, fading into the dark indigo of the rest of the sky. I snuffle quietly through the brush, following a fresh trail, and look up to see in the distance the outline of an old stone cabin nestled into a dry creek bed. I move slowly, making sure I’m downwind of the cabin, then sink to the ground. Before long I see Livingston is up and about, and soon after that I see torchlight, as a cluster of scruffy men creep their way to the door. It looks like they’re wearing uniforms, but old and tattered ones, and their scent is intense and feral, like they’ve spent weeks in the wilderness, on horseback. I bristle at the thought that they’ve beat me to my prey, but when they knock, Livingston welcomes them in as friends. I want so badly to attack, but I’ve the presence of mind to know it’s a terrible idea. Best to wait one more day, catch Livingston alone, while the sun is still up, and trap him inside the cabin.

I return to Lawrence, careful to cover my own tracks, taking such a roundabout route that when I tiptoe back up to my room at the hotel, I hear the clock above the hearth strike two. I know better than to let myself feel cocksure, but the idea that I might end this hunt tomorrow and turn my full attention to a reunion with Marissa is too appealing to keep entirely at bay.

Just over three hours later, I’m awake and throwing on my nightgown—it’s been far too hot to sleep clothed—before I’m fully aware. The air is stale and still, even this early in the morning. I realize what noise woke me when I hear it again: gunfire. It comes from the south, but it doesn’t sound like dawn exercises at the recruit camp. I take a moment, close my eyes, focus. I hone in on horses, shouts, screams. I stuff my feet into boots, snatch up my pistol, and dash down the stairs.

I’m not the only one awake, and more people trip down the stairs every few minutes. I want to run out and join in the fray, and several men in the room express similar sentiments, but we have no sense of what’s actually going on. A breathless man bursts in to pass along the news: a whole regiment of bushwhackers has descended on the town. They’ve gunned down the recruits and are spreading out, calling men out, killing and looting and setting fire to buildings. The sun is up, and I’m wearing a calico nightgown. What in heaven’s name am I supposed to do?

A knock sounds at the door—so strangely polite, under the circumstances—and the proprietor opens it, letting two of the raiders into the front hall. The three men speak in low tones, and the woman beside me, a widow from Illinois named Caroline, reaches out for my free hand. Her palm is clammy and trembling, her face pale, and I think immediately of Marissa. Caroline has reason beyond leeches to be pale and shaky, though, and this hardly seems the time for bizarre questions, so I simply lead her to a chair. She collapses into it and weeps softly, but when I glance toward the door, it doesn’t seem the men wish us harm. They appear to be acquainted with, even friendly toward, the proprietor. I think, fleetingly, how I wish I’d known that before choosing to reside here, but then the door opens again and dozens of people stream in, most in nightclothes or hastily-pulled-on trousers, many with tear-stained faces or expressions of dull resignation. I recognize a few from my evening strolls, and my guess, soon confirmed, is that this group is made up of the residents and employees of the Eldridge House, the jewel of Massachusetts Street. They’ve been robbed but not harmed, though one man grimly tells me he saw a young man try to climb the courtyard fence, only to be shot down.

Once everyone is crowded into the small lobby, with a number of people spilling into the lounge and dining room, a man carrying a sizable revolver in one hand and a sweat-stained, tasseled hat in the other steps inside. Something about him, though I’m not sure what, puts ice in my belly. He nods to the proprietor, then speaks to the people gathered before him.

“You are safe here,” he states. “Remain in this haven, and do not attempt to go into the streets.” Then he turns and leaves, and from the sound of it, he and his followers take their mayhem back to Massachusetts Street. I hear the murmurs as they pass from the newcomers to the residents of the City Hotel: That was the man himself, a well-known pro-Southern raider. William Quantrill.

I still have no notion of what to do, but know I can’t sit quietly while the city is under attack. “You just stay right here,” I tell Caroline. “You’ll be safe, just as the man said.” I squeeze her hand and begin to move away.

Caroline looks up at me with too-wide eyes. “Where are you going?”

I smile, aiming to express confidence and calm, as if this is something I’ve encountered before, a storm easily weathered. “I’m just going upstairs for a moment. I’ll be back before you know it.” I free my hand from hers and turn away, moving slowly through the crowd back toward the stairs, doing my best not to draw attention to myself.

Once upstairs, I open a few doors before finding a young gentleman’s room. I pull on his trousers—snug around my hips and too long, but I’ll manage—and a shirt, grab his hat off the dresser, and head toward the back of the building. In another unlocked room I open the window, lean out, look around. The alley is empty. I pile my hair on my head and pull the hat down over it, tucking in stray wisps, then shove my pistol into the belt of my stolen trousers.

I climb out the window and manage to scale down just a few feet before losing my grip, twisting as I fall to get my feet back under me. I roll as I hit the ground, so I end up scraped and dusty but not too much the worse for wear. I set off down the alley, toward the river, trying to keep distance between myself and the sounds of already-drunken shouting, gunfire, screams, and breaking glass. I can smell buildings burning before I see the smoke rising into the air, but it’s not long before the previously clear sky is darkened.

I make a wide loop around and ultimately toward the park, keeping as much out of sight as I can. Bands of bushwhackers are spread about, some clearly looking for particular enemies, others content to loot and burn. I see several of the uniformed men from Livingston’s cabin wreaking havoc, confirming my suspicions. I keep heading west, and soon reach a home that’s been set ablaze. A woman struggles to pull a bucket from the well, and before I realize what I’m doing, I’ve rushed over to help her. The fire is mostly confined to one corner of the house—the confinement aided by the lack of any breeze—and between the two of us we manage to get it extinguished. I pull up one more bucket from the well, and we both drink from it before dropping to the ground. I slide the hat off my head and let my hair pool down around my shoulders.

The woman watches me for a few moments, but doesn’t comment on my appearance, just fans her skirts around her legs while I fan my face with the hat. “They were after James—my husband,” she tells me. “They made sure he wasn’t hidden here somewhere, then took what they could and set the fire. They let me save the portrait, though.” She nods at a painting of a young girl, and I wonder about the woman’s life, about how many times she’s had to rebuild before today and how many times she’ll rebuild again after.

After I’ve caught my breath, I set out, moving back toward the center of town. Many fires have been set, and with the men either killed or hiding, women and children are left to fight the blazes. I help where I can—some fires are easily put out, but many homes are lost. I see one group of women succeed at putting a fire out, only to have a raider come back to reignite it.

For the most part, the women are left alone, so they do what they can, fighting fires, pulling corpses off the street, covertly treating the wounded, lest a rebel come back to finish the job. Many of the bodies on the ground have been fired into several times, and several are men who still breathe, but play ‘possum as well as they can.

The sun is not yet at its zenith when the bushwhackers decide that their work is done, that they’ve raided as much of Lawrence’s wealth as they can carry, and they ride back out. Once they’re gone and the town has mostly quieted, men climb out of hidden cellars and other hiding places, and the people of Lawrence survey the results of the attack. I leave them to it—I have what are, to me, more pressing matters. I know Livingston helped instigate this latest eruption of violence, and I need to find him.

I need to end him.

People trickle into town, from farmers who saddled their horses as soon as they saw the smoke to residents who fled into cornfields and woods when they heard they were being hunted. I recognize the grim determination on the faces of those who are still up and moving: their road will be long, to be sure, and it might lead elsewhere—it might be that this time Lawrence has been destroyed for good, but if it cannot be rebuilt, it won’t be for lack of trying on these people’s part.

My time is now. I unhitch a draft horse from a dusty cart. The bay gelding’s eyes roll a bit at my scent, but he is otherwise steady. Many horses smell the predator in me and won’t let me near them, but this one is either too dull or too stubborn to care. I swing myself up onto his back, grasp his harness in one hand and thread the fingers of the other through his dark mane, and dig my heels into his sides. We walk out of town, my head tucked down in hopes that I won’t draw attention to myself, and then when we hit the prairie, I lean down and give the horse as much of his head as I dare, urging him up to a canter. We have much ground to cover before the sun sets.

The miles seem to pass more quickly on the back of a horse than when I’m running on my own four paws, not because this beast is any faster than I am, but rather because I’m more easily distracted in my human form. The images of charred corpses and terrified and exhausted women race through my head, and I’m reminded that while I hunt monsters—while I might be called a monster myself—sometimes the cruelty men visit upon one another seems worse than anything a leech can dream up. Yet in this moment it seems easier to kill a leech than to kill men’s fear and hatred of difference.

When I’m a half-mile or so outside Livingston’s den, I slow and stop the horse, sliding off onto wobbly legs. I point the horse back toward town, give his ears a quick rub, then slap his rump, and with a swish of his tail he trots in that direction. I kick off my stolen boots, pull out and double-check my pistol, and make my way, as quietly as I can, toward Livingston. As I walk, I can’t help but think of all that could go wrong, beginning and ending with Livingston having moved on. It’s possible he assumed I would be preoccupied with the aftermath of the raid, if I hadn’t managed to get myself caught in the crossfire, and found a way to sneak away while my back was turned. When I’m within twenty yards of the cabin, though, I catch his scent and know he’s in there. My heart races like a rabbit’s as I fight the urge to burst in. Instead, I take my time, approaching quietly, carefully, until the moment when I use my shoulder and hip to shove the door open.

He’s awake, just biding his time until the sun is far enough down that it won’t sear his flesh, and I dare say he wasn’t expecting me. He whirls to face me, but I manage to get a shot fired before he can close the distance. I aim for his heart, but between my nerves and the moving target, I only get his left shoulder. It’s a solid shot, though, and I see the shock on his face that I’ve managed to wound him.

The sound of shredding fabric is muted by the roar in my ears as I shift into wolf form, diving across the room and landing on Livingston before he’s even caught his balance from the shot. He grapples with me, using my own momentum to push me off, past him, and I skid across the packed-dirt floor. He crouches, grunts, then curses, the lead bullet lodged in his shoulder perhaps preventing his own shape-shifting. Then I am on him again, a growl rumbling from deep in my chest and ripping out in a snarl, the best way to express my anger and hatred. I snap my jaws at his throat but don’t quite make contact, and we are rolling across the floor, slamming into heavy furniture, a kerosene lamp crashing against a wall, flames licking at the heavy drapes, and there’s no time to worry about more fire because I have him now, and nothing, not even fear for my own life, can get in the way.

There is a sharp pain beneath my ribs, ice-cold stab followed by slow burn, and I catch what looks like triumph flash across Livingston’s face. I lose my bearings for a moment and he is on top of me, but I am stronger. He has underestimated me. We roll again, and I see flame, and smell the sick sweetness of singed fur, and the pain beneath my ribs still throbs hot and cold—and then I have Livingston pinned. There is just enough time for the triumph in his eyes to fade to horror before my teeth close around his neck, piercing skin, snapping tendons, crushing his windpipe, just as I’d imagined. I bite down with all my might, then tear back, ripping out his throat. He sags beneath me, the fight gone from him as blood gushes hot and dark in the flickering light, but I do it again, bite and tear. I know he might yet recover even now—I need to remove his head entirely.

I shift back into human form, and that’s when I realize I’ve been stabbed: the pain beneath my ribs is a knife wound that’s now the size of my thumb. Right now, all that means to me is that there’s a knife somewhere in this room. A few moments of frantic searching, shoving away splintered wood and scraps of cloth, lead me to a hunting knife, one I’m sure Livingston expected to use to claim his newest wolf pelt. I saw frantically at Livingston’s neck, suddenly desperate, terrified he’ll wake and kill me before I can finish, feeling more nauseated with every snap and crunch beneath my hand, but then I yank at his hair with my free hand and it comes away, not cleanly but completely. I run outside with it, feeling completely ridiculous as I stand naked in the baked-dry dirt with my hands on my knees, vomiting, with what looks like a human head at my feet. His eyes are open, and he seems to be mocking me still, but there’s no blood in my vomit, which means at least it isn’t a gut wound.

I stagger back inside, and it finally sinks in that the cabin is on fire. I grab what I can: some rags to dress my wounds, whatever drapes aren’t aflame to cover myself, and a satchel into which I stuff Livingston’s head. I will leave his body to burn and throw his head into the Kansas River, and then I will be done with him.

I sit outside, giddy, shaking with relief as I wrap the rags around my ribs and watch the flames dance out of the cabin’s windows. The sun sinks toward the horizon, tinting the sky gold and pink, and the giddiness slowly fades into exhaustion. I stand with a sigh, wrapping the drapes around me, hitch the satchel over the shoulder that isn’t burned bright pink, and trudge toward the setting sun, back toward Lawrence. I begin composing a letter to Marissa in my head, one in which I will abandon talk of patience and safety and ask her outright to come west to be with me. Dark clouds still linger above Lawrence—if they choose to rebuild, we will be here to help.

© 2015 Nora E. Derrington

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