“I like that one,” Larry said, patting Danica’s head eagerly.
She grabbed his hand and forcefully pushed it back to his side. “Stop it, Larry. No one cares what you do or don’t like, we just need you to stop making these messes.”
Larry sighed and picked up the bound and gagged man and carried him out to the dining room with the others. It was strange and unsettling to see the overweight ranch hand being carried like a sack of potatoes over Larry’s skeletal shoulders but she had to keep an eye on him or he would eat another one of the dwindling ranch staff before Hernando could make decisions about them. She was fairly certain de la Feugo wouldn’t want to keep any of the ranch hands. They were all muscular men, most on the larger side. Changing them would require a lot of gold that they simply didn’t have on hand at the moment, especially since he’d already chosen the rancher’s daughter as one of his converts.
Also, she’d noticed he liked to change women far more than men. The only other man she’d seen him consider changing was the scrawny cleaning boy at the Watcher’s Post who had about as much wit and sense as Larry, which was to say none at all. However outside of the daughter, women were in short supply in these parts. So if Larry partook before Hernando got around to inventorying their latest catch it probably wouldn’t effect the ultimate outcome.
But Hernando would be angry.
As Danica looked at the three dead humans Larry left in the bunk room she wondered if it was even worth trying to deflect that anger. Larry was a mindless idiot. Let him take the brunt of Hernando’s anger, that was what he was best for. If the de la Feugo patriarch didn’t kill Larry himself the wiry creature would undoubtedly be used to slow down some hostile pursuer, like he’d spent Danica’s sister to distract the druidic mayor down south in Ferry’s Landing. Much like Katharine, Larry was too poor in mind for anything else.
On the other hand, if Danica didn’t do something to make herself look useful she was likely to share her sister’s fate as well. So she started looking over the bodies to make sure he’d at least gotten all the blood out. Once it was clear he had – perhaps not surprising given Larry was the hungriest of them all – she started carrying them out to the dining area as well.
Larry was looming over the three surviving ranch hands and muttering to himself.
“What’s your problem, Larry?” She asked, watching him warily. “You tied them up real good, didn’t you?”
“Sure did,” Larry yelled back. “But he’s looking at me wrong, Danica. He’s gonna hit me.”
“They’re tied up Larry,” she replied, setting the first body down. The eyes of the living ranch hands widened. “How’s they gonna hit you when they’re trussed up like they’re goin’ to market?”
“He always hits me!” Larry shrieked, suddenly rearing back and kicking at one of the ranch hands with his heel.
Cursing the cretin’s lack of wits, Danica ran across the dining room, bowling the massive wooden table out of her way easily, wrapped her hands around his waist and leaned back. “Stop it, Larry!”
Larry did not stop. But, despite their appearances, she was the older of the two of them and had more iron in her veins. Even Larry’s gluttonous nature couldn’t balance the scales. Hernando always took everything but what Larry needed to keep going when the wiry man overindulged himself, where as he’d only drained Danica once, a few weeks after she was changed. Her superior weight dragged Larry away from the living ranchers one step at a time.
“Make ’em stop lookin’ at me!” Larry screamed once he was out of reach of his victims. “Make ’em stop, Danica!”
“Give it a rest,” she muttered into his back. “Only one way I can make ’em stop and we gotta let Hernando look at ’em before we can do it. He hits a lot worse than they do.”
“I certainly do.”
The room’s sudden chill was all in her mind but the knowledge of that fact didn’t stop Danica’s shudder. She carefully loosened her grip on Larry and turned the two of them to face Hernando. He stood in the boarding house’s entrance, silhouetted by the afternoon sun. The light washed out the aristocratic features of his face and reduced his luxurious suit, silver trimmed sword belt and leather duster to overlapping shadows. The baleful glare from his eyes outshone that from outside.
“What have you two done?” The calm question belied his wrathful expression.
“Hernando…” Larry shrunk away from him. “Just did what you told me.”
The Tetzlani man stalked into the room, towering over even the man who’s nickname was “Long,” and grabbed his face in a vicelike grip. “Is that a fact?” He pried Larry’s mouth open and sniffed. “I don’t recall telling you to eat whatever you want. Did I?”
Unable to speak or shake his head, Larry just whimpered.
Hernando just snorted and threw him to the ground in disgust. The wiry man scrabbled back and tried to get up but Hernando stamped on one of his hands as he scuttled about. Larry groaned but kept his mouth shut. “At least you know you must close your mouth some times,” Hernando said, voice low and soft. “Learn to control it better, else I will close it for good. Do you understand me?”
Larry nodded once. Hernando lifted his foot up and Larry started to get up again when Hernando’s boot came back and smashed him across the face, sending him sprawling across the floor. Danica watched the whole thing without speaking, hoping Hernando would forget she was there. But no such luck was with her. He let the backswing of his kick spin him around and crossed over to her immediately. Murderous black eyes stared down at her from beneath the brim of his narrow brimmed hat.
“I…” Her voice failed her for a moment. “I rounded up the horses like you wanted, sir. The iron is all there still.”
“I saw them in the barn when I passed through.” His immaculate fingertips pressed together in front of his stomach. “I believe I instructed you to remain there with Larry until I came to get you, did I not?”
“There was a horse that wandered into the north field and I went to retrieve it,” she said. “I left Larry in the barn with the other horses but he was gone when I got back.”
The world spun around Danica in a flash of light. She had crashed into the floor before Hernando’s hand striking her with the weight of all the iron and gold he’d taken behind it registered. The floor swam in front of her eyes for a moment. One of the greatest upsides of her changing was that she no longer felt pain and damage lingered briefly. But she knew better than to get up quickly. It was a lesson she’d learned right away, where Larry hadn’t figured it out yet.
“Idiot.” Hernando stalked back over to the bodies, living and dead, that they’d piled there for him. “Do you think horse blood is one tenth as important to me as the freshness of human iron? You should have left the gelding and kept ahold of Larry.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, carefully getting up to a sitting position. “If I’d known I had to wrangle both the horses and Larry I wouldn’t have let him go off on his own. But you gave him different tasks than me, so I didn’t think it mattered.”
For a moment, as their eyes met over Hernando’s shoulder, Danica wondered if she had gotten up too soon. Then he toed one of the living farm hands and snorted. “I suppose these will have to do. You will collect the blood and bring it to me, Danica, just as you will for the horses. Collect the excess from Larry as well.”
Danica suppressed a grimace. The change took away most touch and smell but enhanced the other senses beyond the human norm. Horse blood tasted terrible and old blood filtered through Larry’s innards would be worse. Turning it all over to Hernando wasn’t any fun either. “As you say.”
Hernando stalked out of the boarding house and Danica set about carrying out her tasks. First she sent Larry out to round up the horses, or else he would try and finish the ranch hands on his own and she was tired of trying to keep a handle on him. If he collected some iron from the horses for her she wasn’t about to complain.
Then she had to drain the living ranchers. Even with them tied up it wasn’t easy given the enormous size difference between them. The only one of his changed that Hernando let keep any major portion of the gold or iron they collected was Janice, so Danica didn’t weigh much more than she did before her change. A far cry from Hernando, who was easily seven or eight hundred pounds of densely packed metal.
After a little experimentation she settled for dragging the hands one at a time over to the table, looping their bonds under a table leg to hold them in place, then draining them dry. As an added benefit, the table leg kept their worst spasms from throwing them around too much. However, with Larry out of the building the last ranch hand nearly crawled his way out of the boarding house before Danica caught up to him and dragged him back inside.
With all the thumping, hauling, bleeding and screaming that went on, it took her almost an hour to finish that simple task. For a moment she considered finding Hernando and asking if he wanted to change any of them. But she’d spent a lot of time watching him over the last five months and knew if he’d wished to change any of them he would have said so already.
So she wiped her mouth off with one of the rancher’s bandannas and walked out towards the barn calling, “Larry? Larry, where you at?”
The gangly menace was nowhere to be seen in the dirt circle that surrounded the well at the heart of the homestead. Her eyes slipped over the buildings to the field behind the barn. The barn door was still open so he should have heard her calling if he was in there, but if he’d gone to the back fence to find a horse he might be out of earshot. Huffing and grumbling, Danica made her way around the barn to the back field.
But Larry wasn’t in the field. He wasn’t beyond the fence, there were no footprints in the dirt path leading down into the gully that passed through the ridge beyond and there were no signs of horses that might have tempted him in that direction anyway. It was like Larry had vanished.
Danica knew he always sulked a bit whenever Hernando got angry at him. Frankly she didn’t blame Larry on that count, Hernando was quick to anger and rarely raged with good reason. But even Larry wasn’t so stupid as to ignore Hernando’s orders just because their creator was angry with them. That way lay starvation and eventually a second death.
So Larry had to be doing something. Maybe he had just buried his head in horse innards and hadn’t heard her calling him. So Danica went back around to the front of the barn and looked in. The first thing she noticed was the lack of horses there. Which was odd. She’d left all the horses she’d rounded up in stalls not two hours ago. They weren’t in the barn and they weren’t in the field, so where could they have gotten to?
The second thing she noticed was a faint smell. Although the change had left her with almost no sense of smell even she noticed the scents of smoke and charred meat lingering in the air.
The third thing she noticed was Larry himself, propped in a half seated position by the water barrel. His legs were folded in the Sanna style, his hands resting in his lap. His severed head cradled in his hands.