Sheriff Barnes trotted his horse up the wide dirt track, nine more men following behind him. Next in line was deputy Wilks, and behind him the two Arnold brothers Scott and Adam. Mister Parker’s son Davey brought up the rear of the group, gripping his rifle and reins in shaky hands. The only man who didn’t carry a firearm was the town’s blacksmith, Marcus Rockwell whom everyone called Rock. He carried an immense axe that he had made himself, along with several knives and a hatchet hanging from his belt. Rock had brought his two sons with him, each with a rifle. The final two members of the group were trappers that often stayed at the Emerald, but that Barnes had never spoken to personally until today.
The dirt track that they followed took them west to the river and then followed it north, towards the Matthews ranch. The early morning sun sparkled in the swiftly moving water and the scattered boulders in the flow cast up white sprays of foam.
The posse reached the old fence that surrounded the ranch’s wide pasture sometime before noon. They stopped and lined up along the fence and gazed out across the grassy field. It was peaceful, nothing moved except the grass and trees in the soft breeze. Barnes led them slowly around the perimeter of the fence, looking for a gate.
“Stay alert.” Was all he said, his men checking their ammunition and cocking back hammers on their firearms.
As they rounded a wide hill, the cattle came into view in the distance. They were scattered throughout the pasture, at this distance not much more than black mounds lounging in the grass. Farther down the fence they could see the gate, and behind the cows they could see the outbuildings and still further beyond that, the Matthews family’s house. They reached the gate and the two Arnold brothers took the lead, heading quickly through.
“Hey,” Sheriff Barnes called to them. “Take it slow.” The two brothers nodded reluctantly to him, the eagerness apparent in their young faces.
Before they reached the first motionless lying form they knew the cow was dead. Barnes sent the trappers out into the field to check the dozen or so other cows while the main group stopped to inspect the first.
The cow lay on its side. It was torn wide open and a wide ring of the animal’s blood had seeped into the grass around it, turning the green blades a muddy red.
Barnes’ horse stamped nervously and he comforted the worried animal. He looked around and could see that the rest of the horses were also uncomfortable. Barnes looked out to the field where he could see the two trappers already returning to the group.
“It’s all the same.” They reported. “You can count on this being an animal attack. But you got me what kind of animal would do this, and to so many cattle at once.”
Barnes thought for a moment before he made a decision on his next move.
“We move on to the buildings. Split up and take a look in the outbuildings. Rock, you and your sons are with me, we’re going to the house.”
When Barnes reached the house he dismounted his horse and climbed the short flight of steps up to the well kept porch. There was blood by the door, which hung outward and in splinters from its hinges. He pointed it out to Rock when the hulking man came up beside him, and Rock tightened his grip on the axe he carried.
“Stay together and with me.” Rock addressed his sons who both nodded and followed their father as he took the lead through the shattered door and into the house. Barnes followed close behind. Barnes motioned that the blacksmith should check upstairs and that he would secure the main floor.
He moved first into the kitchen where there were signs of struggle. The back door was also smashed and there was blood on the floor. The kitchen table was flipped and the chairs were all in disarray. Barnes found a rifle cartridge by the doorway to the next room. He knelt to pick it up and looked through into the sitting room. His eyes came to rest on the corpse that lay in the middle of the room. It was Paul Matthews. His flesh was badly torn, animal claws had peeled the flesh from him and it looked like he had been chewed.
“Sheriff!” Came a booming call from upstairs, it was Rock. He had found the body of Elaina. She was in the bedroom and it looked like she had tried to barricade the door by stacking anything she could find in front of it but it had not held. Her body lay twisted by the bed, severely mauled.
“I should tell the rest.” Barnes said. “Take another look around, be sure we ain’t missing anything and then join me outside.”
When Barnes left the house through the front door and the fresh air hit him he nearly gagged. The stench of death had been thick inside the house. Death and something else he couldn’t place. He looked up and saw that the rest of his men were already gathering, all huddled around a spot on the dirt ground in between the outbuildings and the house. When Barnes reached them he saw that one of the trappers had found tracks in the mud. Now that Barnes looked, the tracks were all over the place where the ground was soft enough to hold them.
Barnes knelt and looked at the strange footprint.
“What kind of animal made this track?” He asked the trappers.
“I have no idea. I’ve never seen one like this.” The first trapper said, the other was shaking his head and pacing.