Blood Moon 8
Matt stopped abruptly and chose his words more carefully. "Anyone reported missing here or from other towns? Possible runaways?"
Newly and Matt walked away from the dilapidated little house and stopped to watch a wagon with two men approach. There was a horse tied to the back of the wagon that trotted along obligingly.
"Matt, I don't know. …." His voice trailed off and he thought about what lay underground behind them, and then he bluntly stated, "No way in hell that I could recognize anyone from that!"
"It's bad," the older lawman muttered.
The two lawmen stood, dumbstruck, staring across the prairie trying to cleanse the monstrous and gruesome tableau they'd seen that lay beneath the ground only feet away from them.
Newly had ridden like a man possessed back to the Double S and returned with Matt Dillon the morning after the storm. He'd asked Festus to head into town and bring back the doctor, along with an enclosed or covered wagon. And, for God's sake, Newly stressed to him, be as low key as possible, for the last thing they needed was a mob of lookie-loos.
Though Newly had forewarned him, when they removed the cover over the opening in the floor, Matt nearly staggered from the putrid stench of rotting meat. Bile rose high in his throat, and he fought the almost uncontrollable urge to retch.
Looping a rope through the lantern handle that they'd brought from the Dillon ranch, they lowered it into the darkness.
Matt tied a bandana tightly around his mouth and nose. Newly saw him, yanked his own off and hurriedly followed suit.
A scene from hell lay before them. Dark, wet splotches covered the floor where it looked like blood had permeated the earth. Matt would have laid a wager that he could dig down quite a way before he found fresh dirt.
Jars were placed neatly in dug out shelves along the walls. Without speaking, they moved the light closer for a better look.
In three or four of the glass containers, there appeared to be organs or meat. In one jar, several fingers hung suspended in liquid. The two men looked at each other, and Matt noticed that Newly had a line of sweat across his upper lip.
On the opposite wall, in another deeper shelf dug from the earth, there were dozens or more bones wrapped in a thick piece of coarse cloth which protected them from the dirt. Parts of jawbones. Skulls of animals. Teeth of various sizes. Long leg bones. All scrubbed clean of any flesh.
In the back were three small wooden crates stacked along the wall. The first was filled with damp, moldy clothes. The second had a woman's reticule, a gold pocket watch, and a tintype of a woman and child. The third crate was was empty.
By now the dampness beneath the little house was cloying and the air pregnant with the smell of death, and the men had all that they could stomach.
Newly turned away and wordlessly clambered up the ladder as fast as he could.
Matt took one last studied look around, committing the layout and details to memory. He climbed out and found Newly standing next to his horse, canteen in hand.
The younger man took a long swig, gargled, spit, and finally tipped the canteen onto his kerchief and used the wet cloth to wash perspiration off his face. Matt noticed that he'd thrown up what little bit of food that Kitty had practically forced him to eat before he'd left the ranch.
"I've never imagined anything as god awful as that, Matt. I don't think I'll ever get that smell out of my nose," he said. Newly buried his face against his horse's mane, trying to replace the odor of evil with the sweet, healthy smell of his horse.
"It's bad," Matt said again. "Some of the remains are animals. Some of them, definitely aren't, but this confirms that whoever is responsible for those missing animals has worked his way up the food chain."
Kitty turned and looked for Matt again before she finally started up the steps. It was getting nigh onto dusk, and she had lost count of the number of times she'd glanced down the road watching for him.
Releasing a long sigh, she set the egg basket down beside her as she sat on the top step. Kitty didn't want to go back into the silent, empty house. There was only so much cleaning, washing, and record keeping that a body could do. Kitty had worn herself out physically but was still brimming with nervous energy. In retrospect, she wished that she had pressed Hannah to stay longer; at least she would have had someone to talk to. She knew from what Matt had already told her that whatever Newly had found must be horrific, so her imagination was running wild off the leash. In all the years since she'd first met Newly, a newcomer from Pennsylvania, on the stage headed to Dodge City, he had never seemed unnerved. His natural temperament was always so steady and calm so that made his bearing earlier even more disturbing.
For the first time since they moved to their ranch, she seriously considering taking Matt up on his offer of hiring someone to help her around the house. They could afford it, but it had been a matter of pride with Kitty. She wanted to prove to herself that she could handle it. Privately, she had hopes that Lena would help fill up the silence when she got home, but their daughter wouldn't want to just stay around the ranch.
Lena was a young woman coming home from a bustling city, and Kitty was afraid that her daughter would find rural Kansas dull and uncultured. Deep down, she believed that it worried Matt, as well. Their daughter's letters were a blend of common complaints about city life and excitement over the latest play or concert that she'd attended.
Kitty smiled to herself. Lena was more like her daddy because she'd rather be outside on horseback than inside keeping house. Housekeeping wasn't Kitty's idea of fun either, but she could do it, and that's what mattered. Lena's expensive education and lady-like graces (which had been drilled into her) were forgotten once that girl saddled up and was seduced by the freedom of the open prairie.
"Miz Dillon," a man's voice jolted her, and her hands flew to her chest instinctively.
"I'm sorry, ma'am. I didn't mean to scare you."
"It's alright, Grady," she said, getting her breath back under control. "How can I help you?"
"Mr. Dillon tole me to make sure you'uns had e'nuff kindlin' and short wood for the cookstove."
Grady was…. different, she thought. He was about twenty-five, slight of build, quiet, and didn't shirk hard work. She liked him well enough, but he never seemed able to look her directly in the eye. Kitty didn't know if he was shy or a little slow, but Matt liked him. And her husband was rarely wrong in his judgement of people.
"That's fine. Go ahead, Grady."
"Well, ma'am, he also tole me not to leave this place 'less he was back. I got to go down the road a piece to git that oak I need to chop up." He looked down at the porch and nervously twisted the hat in his hands. "Which should I do?"
"Go get the wood. I'm sure Mr. Dillon will be home presently."
"But Miz Dillon, he was right firm—"
Kitty rose and walked to the end of the porch, where the ranch hand stood below her on the ground.
"I may not look like it, but I can handle a shotgun. I'll talk to my husband if he has a problem with it," she said, with a touch of teasing in her tone and turned to go, but the young man still didn't budge.
"You go on, now," she insisted in a firmer voice. "Mr. Dillon will be more upset if he has to get that wood in the dark after a long day," she said, smiling kindly.
Barely lifting his eyes up toward Kitty, he finally nodded and accepted her reasoning.
She watched him as he grabbed a rope and attached it to a mule, leading it from the corral. The poor boy could hardly be faulted if Matt had given him conflicting instructions, she thought.
Grady had been on the payroll around six months. Thus far, he'd proved dependable and was a natural with animals, even if the poor guy did have a personality quirk or two.
Kitty looked once more down the road for her husband's tall frame before finally snatching up the eggs and heading inside.