In the deathly quiet of the room everyone heard Charlie cuss. "I thought so. I figured you were one of them," growled Charlie from the back of the room. "So how fast are you, Jed? Fast enough to dodge a bullet?" The click of the hammer seemed loud.
Everyone scrambled away from Charlie. Jed didn't move. A cool breeze blew through the partially open window and the room seemed chilly. Jed's bright blue eyes narrowed as he looked at Charlie.
"We thought so, Charlie. Travelers don't usually find us like you and Sam did. And we were warned about a vampire hunter in the area. Who sent you, Charlie? Are you a Helsing?"
Charlie's face clouded with puzzlement, then he sneered. "I don't know what you're talking about. How about I put an end to you once and for all? And I don't need to explain myself to the likes of you, Mr. High and Mighty, better than us. I just need to..."
Charlie pulled the trigger and his gun clicked. Jed moved to his right, his hand a blur as he threw the small stone toward Charlie with a swift snap of his wrist. Charlie still looked at the failed gun when the small stone caught him between the eyes. A cue ball flew through the air and stopped at the left side of Charlie's head, a solid thud resounding in the room. Charlie's eyes rolled up and he dropped to the floor, the pistol sliding from his hand as he collapsed. Sam laughed and clapped his hands.
"Charlie, you shouldn't keep your gun in your coat pocket," he snickered to the unconscious man. Sam dropped six bullets from one hand to the next, grinning.
Jed looked around the room. “Have you ever noticed that the people who want to hurt you need to dialogue first? I've always thought that was odd.”
A blond woman entered the room from the side door and moved toward Charlie's slumped body. Her vintage tennis shoes made no sound as she walked. She wore clean blue jeans and a faded blue shirt, tied at her slim waist. Her blond ponytail swished against her shoulders as she moved. Blue stones sparkled in her dangling silver earrings, highlighting her light blue eyes and complementing her fair, smooth skin. Her heart-shaped lips turned up in a smile. "Nice trick with the bullets," she said to Sam.
Sam covered his heart with his right hand. "You wound me, ma'am! Pickpocketing the gun was a trick," he grinned. "Putting it back without bullets was art."
She laughed and Sam bowed at the waist, extravagantly extending his arms outward.
"You didn't need to hit him with the cue ball," Jed sighed at the young woman. "I had everything under control."
"Oh, I know, but I'm tired of fixing the errant bullet holes in the decor. Besides, you get all the fun. I'm bored," she said.
Jed smiled at Maddie and pointed at the unconscious Charlie. "Charlie you know." Jed pointed at the three women huddled at the right side of the room. "Nancy, Linda, Fae." Jed pointed toward the men. "Ted and Sam." Ted managed a slight bow toward Maddie and Sam grinned, an impish smile designed to seduce women. Maddie rolled her eyes at him as she bent over Charlie's prone form. Jed continued, "Ladies and gentlemen, may I present my wife and favorite person on the planet, Maddie."
Maddie smiled. "And yes, by some bizarre twist of fate, we were both transformed by the virus - vampires, as others call us, though we don't like that term. We prefer 'Transformed'." She looked at Jed. "We know others who like to be called vampires." She picked the pistol up and tossed it to Jed, who snatched it out of the air and placed it in the top desk drawer of the old desk he was sitting on.
"Maddie and I have known each other since high school," said Jed, "though that was down in Texas, not here in Colorado."
Sam pointed at Charlie. "Is he dead?"
Maddie lifted Charlie's unconscious body by his waistband and carried him to the front of the room with one hand. "No, I didn't hit him that hard. Barely enough to take him out and leave him with a headache."
Sam picked up the stone and tossed it back to Jed, grinning. "That was an awesome throw, by the way."
Jed grinned back, "Lots of practice," he said, slipping the stone into the front pocket of his jeans.
"Are...are you going to drink his blood?" Fae's eyes widened with fear and her voice squeaked. Her face paled and she twisted one strand of her dirty red hair with her left hand.
Maddie snorted and tossed Charlie to land at Jed's feet. "Look, we aren't the ones who call Transformed people vampires. Other people started that and it stuck. We don't drink blood. Our bodies seem to be more efficient about converting food to energy, so we don't eat as often. That's how the rumors started that we don't eat, but we do. And right now, I'm starved. We have clean clothes for everyone. I'll show you where to wash up. Jed, dear, why don't you bring Charlie in for dinner?"
Jed grinned and picked Charlie up like a sack of potatoes. "Charlie for dinner. That's funny," he said.
A half-hour later, everyone sat around a long rectangular oak table in the middle of a dining hall. Food sat in ceramic and wooden bowls in the center of the table. Vegetables, mashed potatoes and a roast occupied the main spot, with a small pitcher of brown gravy sitting next to the steaming potatoes. Three other people joined them after bringing in a plate of freshly baked corn bread. There were nine chairs on each side of the table. Jed and Maddie seated the five conscious newcomers on one side of the table and took seats on the opposite side, their chairs facing the main entry doors. "August, Shelly and Claire." Maddie made the introductions as they sat. They propped Charlie in a chair between Jed and August. The chair at the head of the table sat empty.
All the residents of Selah Ranch wore similar clothes, blue jeans and denim shirts of some sort, the clothes clean and neat, though showing signs of wear.
Shelly hugged Fae and grinned. "I smell better than last time you saw me, don't I, chiquita?" Shelly laughed. Barely over five feet tall, Shelly and Fae were close to the same height. Shelly radiated an aura of contained power.
Fae, now dressed in clean clothes, smiled shyly. "I do too," she said. The clothes fit her slim frame loosely and she stared at the food on the table, her mouth watering. "Do you always have this much food?"
Shelly laughed, her almond eyes twinkling. "No, Fae. We usually have much less."
At almost six feet tall, Claire towered over the other women and was an imposing figure, a dark Amazon in blue jeans and her light blue shirt. She dazzled the newcomers with her smile as she sat at the table. "We all smell better, don't we? It's amazing how a hot shower will improve socializing."
"And I'm sure the hot food will help everyone feel better, too," said August. At six and a half feet tall, he was taller than everyone in the room, including Ted. His brown, smooth face betrayed no signs of age, and his shoulder length black hair showed no trace of grey. He could have been thirty or sixty. He smiled at the guests and sat at the table. His huge frame showed no trace of fat, his massive biceps stretching the fabric in his sleeves. Dark eyes flickered to Charlie, slumped in the wooden chair at the table and he raised an eyebrow toward Jed, who grinned.
"We say grace for every meal," explained Jed, waving everyone to their seats and sitting down. "We try to be thankful regardless of whether we have little or plenty." He smiled at Maddie. "Fortunately, right now we have plenty." They bowed their heads and Jed said a short prayer, thanking God for the food and for the new arrivals.
Maddie scooped mashed potatoes and dropped them on her plate, passing the bowl to Fae, who sat across from her. "Please, everyone, eat up. We have lots of potatoes this year. Normally we discuss all that earlier stuff as we eat, but Jed had a feeling about Charlie, so you met in the study. We were afraid he was a Helsing."
"We had some Helsings come to the swamp a few years back," Nancy said between bites. "They were pretty intense."
"Mean, hateful hearts, those people," muttered Linda as she chewed. "His heart isn't as black as theirs," she added, nodding toward Charlie.
"Linda can see people's hearts sometimes," commented Nancy. "Been real handy over the years."
Linda's eyes looked at Maddie and twinkled. "You're okay, Dear. Like my Nancy, but not." She indicated Jed. "Soft, but loves you," she whispered. She looked at Sam and grinned, a small chuckle escaping her. "He's such a bad little man to want to be king."
Sam stared at August, a far-away look in his eyes. He swallowed a mouthful of food and looked at Linda. "Lady, I think you've had a few too many squirrels for dinner."
Linda shrugged and continued eating, her brown eyes watching everyone.
The crew of Selah Ranch shared small talk during dinner and Maddie told Claire and Shelly about Charlie's gun.
"So, Sam…" Jed smiled at the impish man, "what in the world made you take Charlie's gun?"
Sam grinned, swallowing another mouthful of food. "Well," he replied, "I didn't feel safe traveling with a guy that smelled funny. And," he pointed his fork at Jed, "I didn't take his gun. Guns aren't worth much of anything, but bullets…" He shrugged, still grinning.
"You don't make a habit of taking things that don't belong to you, do you?" asked Claire.
A hurt look crossed Sam's face. "Absolutely not! I swear! But Charlie didn't seem too right in the head, something a bit off about him. I figured it wouldn't hurt anything to take the bullets." He looked around at everyone at the table. "And I was right, wasn't I? I mean, I would have given the bullets back if he needed them." Sam wrinkled his face, his eyebrows coming together. "Besides, it never hurts to stay in practice, does it?"
Claire chuckled. "I'll be watching you, Sam." She was grinning.
Sam grinned at her. "I'm already keeping an eye on you, Claire!" He winked and she laughed.
"Thank you for helping us on the road," Fae said shyly around a mouthful of meat and potatoes, looking at Claire.
"We were out of bullets when you showed up," said Nancy.
"It's a good thing you had at least one left," smiled Shelly. "When we heard that shot we figured there was trouble and came running."
"And right on time, ladies," rumbled Ted. "I appreciate your help. Claire, you are the fastest fighter I ever saw."
"Didn't Jed mention that some people can be trained to be fast? Like athletes?" asked Claire. "I used to study physiology. We worked to enhance people's abilities for years."
"I want to be that fast," whispered Fae. Linda smiled at her and patted her hand.
Ted pointed at the plates of food. "Thanks for dinner. Lots of what we scavenge isn't worth eating. Finding edibles is getting harder all the time."
"It's not a problem, Ted," said Maddie. "Pitch in with the dishes and we'll call it even."
Shelly reached across and touched the back of Linda's hand. "I heard about your husband and son. I'm so sorry."
Claire finished a biscuit and spoke up. "There are still a lot of old time diseases, even more so since we don't inoculate our children. We lost the skills to make the vaccines and we don't have the production facilities available like we used to." She sat back, her plate empty. "I don't mean to pry, but I have to ask some medical questions." Since none of the newcomers showed surprise, Claire lifted her eyebrows. "Oh, I see. Jed already told you I'm a doctor." She sighed and looked at Maddie, "He does that every time," she whispered.
"Yes, I know." Maddie said back in a stage whisper, and grinned.
Claire grinned back. "Right. Well, you know that Jed and Maddie are transformed…"
"Not vampires." muttered Maddie.
Claire ignored the interruption. "Shelly has never been bit."
"I'm too fast for the Zs." She grinned and looked at Jed. "Naturally fast, you know?"
Claire smiled at the shorter woman. "Quick wit, too. August and I are immune, and so are you, right Nancy?"
"Yes," said Nancy, unconsciously touching the scar on her face. Linda didn't look at Nancy, but patted her friend's hand.
Claire continued. "You might think it's against the odds for us to be here. One in ten thousand or so seems like huge odds for immune people, but the virus decimated the population, so now we are more like a tenth of a percent. Our numbers might be off, though. Some of my studies seem to indicate the odds are getting better, but I can't be sure. My few remaining colleagues in other cities think the same. What about the rest of you?"
Sam spoke up first. "I've never been bit." He looked at Claire and grinned wickedly. "Well, not by a Z, and never unwillingly!"
Claire laughed again. "That might be too much information, Sam, but thanks."
Ted put his fork down. "I have been in a few altercations, but escaped unscathed."
"Linda's never been bit. Neither has Fae."
Fae spoke up. "But my Pa was bit and he didn't turn. Well, he sort of didn't turn. He sat down and cried and cried and said it hurt and I needed to get away. Said he wanted to bite me but he wouldn't. Kept telling me to leave, even though he could barely stand up. I stayed close for a few days, but he got to where he kept moaning and saying it wasn't right." Tears streamed down Fae's cheeks. "I left when he started spitting blood. He was slobbering and crying and talking about me and Momma…I went to the river and stayed in the boat, fishing. When I went back, he wasn't there any more."
Shelly walked around the table and wrapped her arms around Fae. "I'm sorry, sweetie," she whispered in Fae's ear.
"This isn't something I'm familiar with, and I've studied the Zs since they first showed up," Claire said. She looked at Jed, concern reflected in her eyes. "I should call some of the other doctors as soon as I can."
Shelly started to gather the plates and Fae got up to help, her slight hands shaking. Shelly hugged her again and they took the plates out the kitchen doors.
"We know you're awake, Charlie. Have some food and we'll talk." Jed sat back in his chair.
Charlie opened his eyes and glared at Jed, swallowing when he saw the food still on the table. "I'm not sure I want to eat with your kind."
"Sure you do, Charlie." Jed heaped some potatoes on a plate, added meat and gravy and the few remaining vegetables. "Eat up." He put the food in front of Charlie and smiled.
Charlie glared at Sam. "I want my bullets back, you little weasel."
Sam patted his pocket. "Sure, buddy, whatever you say. As soon as Jed says it's okay," Sam laughed. "I still like you, Charlie. You're my kind of guy."
Charlie stared at the plate in front of him but didn't touch his fork. "I think he's afraid we're fattening him up or something," Maddie said.
"C'mon, Charlie. We need to decide if you're going to stay or move on, but you might as well get a good meal out of it. I don't hold a grudge." Jed relaxed in his chair.
Charlie picked up a spoon and shoveled the food in his mouth, his eyes shifting from Jed to Maddie. Bits of potato stuck to the rough blond whiskers on his chin. He didn't notice.
"Claire, would you show the other guests to their rooms, please? I guess we need to talk to Charlie alone." Claire glared at Charlie. Maddie smiled as the rest of the residents left the room, Fae casting a frightened backward glance. As Charlie kept eating, Jed, Maddie and August watched him. August slid his chair back from the table, facing Charlie. Jed turned his chair.
With his plate empty, Charlie sat back, touching the side of his head and glaring at Maddie. "You're the one who hit me?"
Maddie smiled sweetly and shrugged, saying nothing, putting her folded hands on the table.
"Who sent you, Charlie?" Jed sat back in his chair, thumbs in his jean pockets and fingers tapping at his pocket seams. August watched with wary eyes.
"Sent me? Why would anyone send me?" Charlie's eyebrows drew together and he narrowed his eyes.
"I have my reasons for asking." He studied Charlie's face. "Are you a Helsing?"
Charlie sneered at Jed. "I don't even know what that is, you freak."
"So why try to kill me?"
"Because you and your kind are an abomination of nature. Because you think you're so much better than the rest of us." Charlie's eyes shifted to the left, glancing at August.
Maddie looked at Charlie. "What was her name, Charlie?"
Charlie's eyebrows shot up. "Uh… what?"
"The name of the woman who died because of you?"
"She didn't die because of me. She tripped. Ellie tripped, is all."
"And you kept running…"
The muscle in Charlie's jaw tightened. "She tripped. They bit her. I didn't have a choice, did I?"
"And she screamed your name, didn't she, Charlie?" August's voice rumbled in his massive chest. "She cried out your name and you were too afraid to go back and get her."
"What do you know?" Charlie pushed his chair back and stood up, facing August, who remained seated, legs stretched out.
"Did she follow you, Charlie? Did a zombie with Ellie's face come after you?" Jed asked.
Charlie whirled around, tears springing to life in the corners of his widened eyes. "She… she… I had to …"
He sat forward in the chair, head in his hands and cried.
"Ellie was bit and died, Charlie. That wasn't your fault. We were bit and survived. That's not our fault. We didn't choose." Maddie's voice was quiet.
After a minute or so, a huge hand settled on Charlie's shoulder. August's deep voice rumbled. "Everyone lost someone, man. Maybe you could have saved her, but probably not. You have to come to grips with the reality that you have no control over life, Charlie, only over your own actions and your own thoughts."
Charlie wrenched away from August's hand and stood up, glaring at Jed with hate-filled, red-rimmed eyes. "What do you people know? I hate vampires. I'll hunt you until I've killed every last one of you or died trying."
Maddie lifted an eyebrow. "He might not be a Helsing, but he sure sounds like one," she said.
Jed shrugged."So he wasn't sent for us. That's good news, right?" He stood up, looking down at Charlie and his rage. "Well, Charlie, I'm sorry you feel that way. I could end your mission here, but I don't have the energy. It's been a long day." He turned away and he and Maddie walked hand in hand toward the exit door. "August will show you to your room and make sure you get on your way early tomorrow morning. Don't come back here, Charlie. I never want to see you again. I only have so much patience." He shrugged. "You can keep the gun, Charlie. I guess we'll let Sam keep the bullets, though."
Charlie glared at their backs as they left the room. When the door closed, he turned to August. "You're going to kill me, aren't you?"
August didn't smile. He dropped a massive hand on Charlie's shoulder and led him from the room.