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Blood Hunter

By Michael Dolan

Bounty hunter Lemuel Donovan tasted the whiskey in the air even before he heard a sharp rap on his door. He opened it to reveal deputy Thaddeus McKinsey, badge glinting in the setting sun.

“Rather early to be hitting the saloon, deputy,” growled Lemuel. “Or did you require some liquid courage before visiting?”

“Evening, Mr. Donovan,” the deputy answered. “I’ll keep this brief. You heard of Coyote Sam?”

“Outlaw. Robbed the Union Trading stagecoach last month.”

“That’s right. Reward’s four thousand dollars for bringing him in—alive. A pretty sum for any bounty hunter.”

“But seeing as you’re at my door”—Lemuel leaned against the frame—“seems ‘any bounty hunter’ isn’t going to cut it.”

“Apparently not.” The deputy rummaged through his rucksack. “Three have gone after him but haven’t come back. The sheriff and I were hoping you might see what you can do.”

“As you know, my methods require… certain materials.”

“Fortunately, I have one such item right here.” McKinsey drew out a bandana stained with blood.

Lemuel reached out and took the item. “From Sam?”

“Or one of his gang. They lost it while leaving the stagecoach.”

Lemuel inspected the dried stain, then raised the red-checkered bandana to his mouth. He licked the bloodstain, eliciting the slightest shiver from the deputy. Lemuel smirked and licked it again, slower. Noting the flavors. The metallic tang of blood. Traces of salty sweat. The faint alkaline taste of dirt. And curiously, an earthy hint of coarse hair.

“I’ll help you, Mr. McKinsey,” Lemuel said, tucking the bandana into the pocket of his duster coat. “But let’s be honest about why you really wanted my help.”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

Lemuel’s eyes met the deputy’s. “Who better to track a werewolf than another werewolf?”

The next day, the pair rode out from town at dawn. Lemuel noted that the air around the deputy tasted even more of alcohol. Apparently, the idea of dealing with two werewolves required proportionately more courage.

It didn’t affect his riding, however, and the two hunters made good time crossing the prairie. They rode all day, only stopping to let the horses eat and drink. On those few occasions, Lemuel would step away with the bandana—making sure they were still headed in the right direction.

“That bandana telling you anything new?” McKinsey asked when they stopped for the day. The sun had just slipped beneath the horizon, leaving a vibrant gradient of golden and crimson clouds in the sky. It was the first time they’d spoken since morning.

Lemuel, standing on a small mound with the bandana raised to his jaw, shook his head. “Just refamiliarizing myself with the taste to ensure we’re still on course.”

McKinsey nodded, picked up more kindling for the fire, then asked, “What’s it like?”

“Beg pardon?”

McKinsey bent to collect firewood. “Folks say your kind can taste things we can’t. Things like fear or weakness. Even death.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah. And those things are supposed to taste the best. That why some…” McKinsey paused. “Well, they say that’s why some of your kind hunts… certain things.”

Lemuel chuckled. He squinted his eyes and focused on the horizon. Then he turned around and strolled toward the deputy.

“Is that so? Can’t say you’re too far from the truth. You see, when we taste things, it gives us a good sense of what’s coming. Like now, this crisp air tells me we’ll have clouds but no rain tonight. That faint silvery taste I detect tells me that you are fully prepared to take on two werewolves if needed. But my favorite is the taste of this blood.” Lemuel raised the bandana. “Because it tastes like four thousand dollars.”

The next morning, Lemuel and McKinsey broke camp at sunrise. After a hasty breakfast, Lemuel led them northwest over terrain that transformed from rolling grasslands to rocky foothills.

Dusk was falling when Lemuel noted subtle flavors in the mountain air that matched those woven into the threads of the bandana. Hardy wildflowers that endured the stony environment. Foul scat of marmots and other rodents. A stale, ashy taste that reminded him of coal.

The pair headed uphill, and as they rounded a bend, Lemuel paused, tasting something new. Not the dry, lifeless flavor that had guided him this far, but something more vibrant and exciting. The blood’s very source.

“What is it?” McKinsey asked.

“He’s near. I taste him.”

Both riders dismounted, hitched their horses’ reins around two boulders, and proceeded on foot. Soon after, they reached the top of a narrow ravine cutting through the range. At the bottom, five figures encircled a low fire.

The duo leaned over the edge. McKinsey whispered, “Can he taste you?”

“Not unless he has a bloody bandana of mine.” Lemuel licked his lips. “Let’s bag us an outlaw.”

He vaulted down the rockface, leaving McKinsey cursing on the ledge. Lemuel landed beside the fire and instantly swept the coals into the faces of the two nearest gang members.

He wheeled on another thug, throwing him against the rock wall as a shot cracked from above, dropping a different gang member. Lemuel whipped around to see his prey—that blood—backing away.

“Another one?” Coyote Sam sneered. “You bounty hunters don’t know what you’re dealing with.”

“Neither do you.” Lemuel roared, leaping at him with fangs bared.

Lemuel grappled with the other werewolf. Shots rang out, but Lemuel didn’t care who they were meant for. He finally forced the outlaw facedown and opened his own jaw wide for a delicious taste of that fresh—

A shot cracked beside him. “Lemuel. Alive.”

Lemuel’s eyes cleared. He looked up to see McKinsey glaring at him. “Of course, deputy.” He stood and brushed off his chaps. “Just wanted to see what four thousand dollars tastes like in the flesh.”

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Michael Dolan’s short stories have appeared in Havok, Splickety, and The Norwegian American. When he’s not writing marketing materials for a global nonprofit, he can be found hiking, reading, gaming, or writing some more. He and his wife live with a small library loaded with YA and fantasy books in Seattle, WA.

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