Lizzy felt paranoid.
Like something was following her, something big.
But her hearing was extra sensitive lately, and she smelled only herself and the few snoozing squirrels in the surrounding forest. There was no one else around, she was certain.
She pushed aside the twigs beside her fire, and laid her head to rest. Despite her blood running high, she felt a sense of exhaustion and was pleased as sleep overtook her. When she awoke, she felt rested and noted that it was already mid-day. She slung her satchel over her shoulder, then walked from under the tree cover of the forest, and began the trek up the next hill. All the while, Lizzy offered brief glances back behind her, but of course there was still no one following.
Later, at Mills Creek, as she sipped water from the creek with one hand, she kept her other hand on the Spencer repeater rifle at her side. It was almost too big for her teenage body, but Lizzy managed to get the aim just right when it came to hunting rabbits. The blast of the rifle usually clipped away half the animals’ bodies whenever she hit right, but there was just enough meat leftover each time.
Now at the creek bed, Lizzy put both hands on the gun, swallowing the last mouthful of water quietly. She looked over the log beside her, and saw movement in the bushes. She slowly raised the rifle, and when the bushes shuffled again, she shouted, “Stop right there!” But the bushes kept shuffling, so Lizzy fired — and heard the man scream.
Later, after Lizzy finished wrapping the man’s leg, she looked him in the eyes and grinned, offering a meek apologetic look. “Sorry.”
“You’re not, but I don’t blame you.” He touched his leg, cringed at a sharp pain, then laid back against the rock beside the caverns. She felt bad for shooting the man, but he scared her, and she told him as such after she wrapped his leg.
“I didn’t do nothin’ to ya, was just surprised is all. Been a while since I saw anyone out here.” He pulled the bandana from around his neck, wiped his face. Then he shook his shirt, wafting out the humidity, and Lizzy saw the scars along his chest.
“What’re those from?”
“Used to be on a plantation.”
“Now you’re free?”
“So they told me.”
“Why don’t you live in town?”
“When you’re not welcome, you feel it. Not something I wanna wake up to every day. Why aren’t you there?”
“I left days ago. Been wandering since, searching for the Register Cliffs.”
He looked away, confused, and said, “That’s a place no one really goes anymore. Haunted.”
“I got my reasons. You know how to get there?”
“Best way is through Torrington.”
“And if I wanna avoid town?”
“Gonna take over a month, then. If you have the supplies.”
She looked down to her satchel, held up her empty water pouch. “I bet there’s supplies in town. Got any money you can lend me?”
He laughed in her face, then, soon almost crying. He kept laughing for a long time, and eventually Lizzy laid down and turned her back to him. “Just a favor, is all I asked.”
“Girl, if I had money at all, you think I’d loan it to a strange girl I’ll likely never see again?”
“Have any other use for it?” He still chuckled as night fell and sleep took over.
The next morning, just at dawn, she woke with a start and checked her clothes and body for injuries. There were none. Then she looked over at Thaddeus and saw him laying on his back, perfectly still. She approached with caution, then shook him on the shoulder.
When he woke with a start, and could barely get a breath as she then hugged him. “Through the night! I slept through the night!”
“Well I hope so!”
“This is a relief, believe me! I have another day, another chance, to…” Then her eyes looked away, seeing something far away, a goal almost reached.
“To do what?”
She looked at him and smiled, “To find the cure.” She offered nothing else, only gathered her things and left him in the cave, alone to consider what had just happened.
As she walked through town, she felt eyes on her but couldn’t see anyone. Windows were empty, and no one was near their horses. She thought she heard steps behind her, but when she turned there as only dust and tumbleweeds.
At Crosby’s drug store she slipped through the door that was bent on its hinges. No one was inside, so she poked about, pulled down some beans and candy, some tobacco. She rolled herself a cigarette but choked back her coughs when she inhaled, having never done so before.
When she emerged outside, there were a few men walking from the saloon, stumbling in their steps. A group of men emerged from the Inn, and shuffled over towards the bank. Another old man stepped past Lizzy into the Drug Store, grumbling.
She left town in a hurry, and ventured up the Cliffs.
In the evening, Lizzy she came to a clearing and there she stopped and drank most of her water. Then the winds crew hearty and night fell, darkness finding Lizzy rapidly as the Cliffs blocked the sun. When the moon emerged from behind clouds, Lizzy saw that it was full and then she felt it. And she started to cry.
At least she wasn’t in the town.
This thought gave her a brief second of pleasantry just as her eyes stretched within their sockets and her nose and mouth pushed out. The pressure popped her ears and forced her to her hands and knees. Through blurry vision she saw her fingers extend as hair trickled up on the backs of her hands, and as she released a howl of pain and relief, the moon became clear and large and red in her eyes.
She ran up higher into the forests on the Cliff, leaving behind her satchel.
Her howls were heard the rest of the night by the local townsfolk.