Episode 12: Creature of the Night, Pistol on the Right | Scryer's Gulch
John rushed to his brother's side, whipping off the bandanna around his neck. To Annabelle's astonishment, he stuffed it in the deputy's mouth and guided the gagged and sobbing man gently to the floor. "It hurts, Miss Duniway, and he screams a lot," said John. "I'm here, Rab, I won't let go, I promise!"
"'M srry!" whimpered Rabbit around the bandanna.
"Not your fault!" said John.
"What's happening, Sheriff Runnels?" demanded Annabelle. "Should I be going for the doctor?"
"Don't open that door!" said John savagely. "I told you to go and now you can't, you have to stay here! If he gets out--"
Rabbit screamed, high and piercing even through the bandanna. The deputy began to shake and struggle in his brother's arms, and to Annabelle's horror, brown fur sprouted from his skin. His face lengthened; his eyes moved toward the sides of his head, and his ears to the top. Annabelle let the small derringer rigged to her forearm slide unnoticed into her right hand as Rabbit's front teeth grew and his nails turned to claws.
Then, to her amazement, he began to shrink. He grew so small he slipped straight out of his clothes; John held tight, taking one hand off only long enough to pull the bandanna out of the deputy's altered mouth before it choked him. In the end, instead of his lanky brother, John held a huge brown hare the size of a terrier, long-eared, gangly, and long-legged--unmistakably Rabbit Runnels, in the form of an actual rabbit.
Annabelle let out a breath and slipped the derringer back up her forearm. "This explains the nickname," she said in a trembling voice. She was no longer afraid; she knew such things as wolf-men and other creatures existed, but she'd never seen a man actually transform.
"He had the nickname before," said John bitterly. The hare kicked as John stood up. "There now, little brother, it's all right. Into bed for the night." He carried Rabbit to the corner cell, where a large wire cage sat; inside, a well-chewed blanket made a kind of nest, and a bowl of clover and dandelion leaves sat invitingly nearby. He shooed Rabbit inside and latched the door, then closed the cell.
"Hey thar, li'l feller," crooned a voice. "I'll keep ya company, don't worry."
Annabelle started, staring about for its source.
"Aloysius," said John, sagging into a chair. "Nothing to be afraid of. He's just a ghost."
"Pleased to make yer acquaintance, miss," said Aloysius. "Sorry to give you a fright."
"Pleased to meet you," she replied gravely. "And it's all right, you didn't frighten me."
"You don't seem too shook up by any of this, Miss Duniway," observed John.
"I've met ghosts before. The academy was haunted," she said, omitting that it was Lincoln Academy, where the government trained its most promising agents, and not where she allegedly took her teacher training.
"That's not what I meant."
"When did it happen?" she deflected. "When did he get bit?"
John sighed and ran a shaky hand through his hair. "When we came here last year. This place is--excuse my language, Miss Duniway, but by the Method, this is a cursed place! It draws all manner of wicked things--demons, spirits, were-things. Ghosts form, if you're not careful."
"I fail to see how hangin' a feller goes careful-like however you do it," said Aloysius.
"You got hung for a reason, horse thief," said John. "The hills are riddled with ghosts--men killed for their claims, mostly. And quite frankly, we've had to pay for a few visits to Mamzelle's for--" He reddened. "When we've had certain very magically-sensitive, very young men here in town," he resumed carefully, "we've been bothered by poltergeists and have had to take measures to help the young men causing them to...blow off steam."
Annabelle got his meaning. When her older brother reached puberty, both his magical talent and his sex drive had been so strong that a poltergeist built around him until their father dragged him off to a bordello and satisfied his frustration. Annabelle wasn't supposed to know about the whole episode, and so even though she learned early on how to keep her own frustration to a minimum by herself, she kept a blank, uncomprehending face turned toward the Sheriff.
"Anyway," said John hastily, "Rabbit caught a hare one night in a wire trap, and it bit him when he went to fetch it for dinner. He killed it and was going to skin it when it turned into a man--an Indian, in fact."
"I didn't think they came near this place."
"No, they don't, but this one was probably driven from his tribe. Nowhere else to go, and then, the ore calls magical creatures. Rabbit gets pretty fidgety when he's more than fifty miles from this place now. We may be stuck. Oh--where are my manners, Miss Duniway," he said wearily. "Please, sit down."
"Your manners? Oh, please, Sheriff, don't concern yourself," she reassured him, though she took Rabbit's chair across the desk from him. "I'm heartily, heartily sorry for your brother's dilemma. But why do you keep him locked in like this? Wouldn't he be happier if you let him run?" She eyed the enormous rabbit, nibbling alternately at the pile of clover and the cage's grille.
"Because I'm worried he'd get torn to shreds by a dog or coyote, or caught in a wire trap like the one that bit him. That's why I wouldn't let you out--he's quick, and he's not himself when he transforms. He'd've been out that door lickety-split. He doesn't remember he's human, or who Jamie and I are. He's a wild animal, and like any wild thing, he wants out and away from humans. The only blessing in this whole thing is, he doesn't remember what happens when he's a rabbit. He wakes up in the cage--you may note it's barely big enough for a man--and it's as if he just went to sleep and had a bad dream."
"Jamie. Mayor Prake. Now, you." John stared across the desk at her, and she felt a telltale blush build on her cheeks; every time he turned that sharp blue gaze on her, she nearly lost her composure. "Again, I wonder why you seem so at home with all this, Miss Duniway." He leaned forward, and Annabelle's heart skipped a beat. "Who are you? What's your game?"
She colored furiously and stood up. "Sheriff Runnels, I don't know what you're insinuating, but I find it insulting nonetheless," she said. "I will tell you why I came here, and then I'll leave you to it. I came to say I'm almost certain Georgie Prake didn't deface the schoolhouse."
"Oh?" said John, raising his eyebrows. "What makes you so sure?"
Annabelle bit her lip. How could she explain? "Georgie...Georgie truly seems to enjoy his studies. He's helpful, he does his homework, he never hesitates when I call him to the board. He's a very smart young man. I just cannot bring myself to believe that someone who seems to like school so much would try to frighten me off."
"So who did it?" said John bluntly.
Your son, she thought, but said only, "I'm not sure. I just know it wasn't Georgie. There are plenty of interests in this town that I'm sure would rather it not become more civilized, Sheriff. I suggest you turn your attention there. Good night."
John stood as she walked out the door. Brave woman. Wasn't flustered at all, didn't scream, didn't faint, barely jumped when Aloysius spoke up. Maybe that derringer strapped to her arm has something to do with it, he thought wryly. Annabelle Duniway was no schoolteacher. And she knew something about the vandalism she wasn't saying.
By the Method, why did she have to be so beautiful?