by Norsebard






This humor/horror-dramedy is to be categorized as an Uber. All characters are created by me, though some of them may remind you of someone.

The story contains some profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.





Written: July 24th - 28th for the 2022 Royal Academy of Bards' Halloween Invitational.

This is the fifteenth story about Wynne Donohue and Mandy Jalinski - all stories are available at the website of the Royal Academy of Bards.

- Thank you very much for your help, Phineas Redux! :D

As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D


Description: It seems it just can't be Halloween in Goldsboro, Nevada, without a little supernatural action. Once again, Wynne 'The Last Original Cowpoke' Donohue and Sheriff Mandy Jalinski must confront an unexplainable and potentially devastating foe: the mythical Hellbeast of Rattler Gulch. But do Wynne & Mandy really have all the facts this time?





The hands of time had just moved past midnight into October 31st when the full moon broke free of the clouds that had obscured it. Tendrils of ghostly white light soon illuminated the desert landscape below the radiant disc in the sky. Before long, eerie bright spots and dense shadows amid the shrubbery and countless flat rocks reached all the way from Goldsboro, Nevada, and down to the small trailer park some eight miles south of town.

The lateness of the hour meant that only one of the six trailers saw any kind of activity other than snoring. A single lamp shone in the kitchenette of the trailer owned by the early-fifty-something Wynne Donohue - better known as The Last Original Cowpoke - and her partner of more than ten years, Sheriff Mandy Jalinski, who would soon reach the big five-oh.

Identical yawns were on frequent display as the two women continued to work their way through an impressive pile of dirty dishes. One after the other, the plates, bowls and tumblers used in the wedding anniversary bash they had thrown for their dear friend Brenda Travers were dunked in hot water and then wiped off.

Their two dogs, the black German Shepherd Blackie and the Golden Retriever Goldie, had already surrendered to the demands of sleep and were resting in their soft basket in the middle of the kitchen floor.

Because of the special occasion, the two women wore far classier outfits than their regular garb: Wynne used black suede loafers solely designed as indoor footwear rather than her regular boots or flip-flops. Her pants were a pair of straight-cut black jeans - featuring brass buttons and a matching zipper - that were held in place by a dark-brown leather belt and a buckle the size of Texas, and her upper body was swept in a silky-soft, flannel V-neck tunic in a delicate shade of off-white. The V-neck revealed that her tanned skin was graced by a braided leather necklace that carried a pair of interlocked women's symbols.

Mandy wore a pair of elegant shoes, dark-blue jeans and a dusty-red knitted cardigan over a black polo-shirt. The cardigan had been a gift from Bessie Robinson, the retired dispatcher who had worked at the Goldsboro office for decades. Before the knitting had commenced, Bessie had given Mandy the choice of either canary-yellow, mint leaf-green, baby-blue or dusty-red - the dusty-red had been the lesser evil, so that's the one Mandy had chosen.

Wynne let out a chuckle as she took the next tumbler and began to wipe it down. "Lawrdie, I be tellin' ya… Vaughn sure is one helluva luckeh fella, yuh?  Brendah is a classeh ladeh, that sure ain't no lie. I ain't nevah seen noboddah who done be that honest in that there truth an' dare game… didya get a load-a Vaughn's cheeks catchin' fiah when Brendah done tole us 'bout that there first tih-me o' hers?  An' it wussen with Vaughn, yuh?"

"I did see that," Mandy said with a grin.

Nodding, Wynne concentrated on wiping down a few more items before she continued: "Yuh. I sure be glad she done seem ta ha' gotten ovah the bad fright she got when she wus snatched by that there nasteh-ass vampiah crittah down yondah at Silvah Creek."

"Perhaps so, but the traumatic experience will always exist inside her, hon."

"Yuh… I sapose," Wynne said as she cast a thoughtful glance at the eerie tendrils of light beyond the kitchen window. Shrugging, she returned to the dishes. "But Vaughn an' me an' y'all an' them dawggies is gonn' keep workin' ou'ah asses off ta make darn sure that darlin' Brendah ain't nevah gonn' feel alone or nuttin'. An' y'all can take that ta da bank-"

The last word of the sentence was still being formed in Wynne's mouth when a prolonged, savage howl rolled across the empty desert.

Blackie and Goldie's keen hearing picked up the sound a few seconds before the ears of their human owners could, and they jumped to their paws to go into a listening mode. While Blackie zoomed over to the closed door and began to scratch on it asking to be let out, Goldie's legendary scaredy-dog instincts made her beat a hasty retreat into the sleeping area of the trailer where she hid under the queen-sized bed.

"Awww-whaddahell wus that now?  Shoot, he' we go ag'in…" Wynne said and let out a prolonged groan of her own. Rolling her eyes didn't seem enough given the circumstances, so she smacked her forehead and looked toward the heavens for guidance - although the satellite dish on top of the trailer was pointed skyward as well, no beacons containing such guidance could be picked up on any frequency.

The howl grew in intensity for several seconds before it tapered off into a guttural whimper - then it faded away like it had never been there at all.

"What the hell kind of animal could have produced such a howl?" Mandy said as she craned her neck to look out of the kitchen window.

"I ain't got no clue, darlin'…"

"Of course it had to happen on my first day off in months," Mandy continued before she reached for the light switch. With the bulb turning dark, the kitchenette was bathed in an inky blackness that lasted until their eyes had grown accustomed to the pale light outside.

Down by the foot of the door, Blackie woofed in an impatient tone like she couldn't understand why she was still inside instead of chasing down whatever had made the creepy sound.

Wynne and Mandy both stared through the window without seeing much of anything. Grunting, Mandy left the kitchen sink and strode into the sleeping area. A short while later, she returned holding a powerful flashlight and her service pistol. "Blackie and I will sweep the perimeter. I'll call you if we find anything," she said in her typical no-nonsense voice that proved that one of the best sheriffs of the state's rural counties had shown up for work.

"Ain't no need fer callin' noboddah 'cos I be ri'te there with y'all, Sheriff Mandeh," Wynne said and hurried into the sleeping area to swap her dainty indoor shoes for her sturdy cowboy boots. There was no time to do anything about her pristine black jeans and the white flannel shirt, but moaning over dusty clothes was pointless for someone who lived on the edge of the desert - thus, she strode out of the front door a few moments later wearing her Sunday finest.


Five minutes later, Wynne came to a halt to scratch her neck. "Haw, I ain't hearin' nuttin' an' I sure ain't seein' nuttin', neithah. Not unless y'all count a buncha desert rocks and stuff an' I ain't gonn'… I sapose them there rocks could be hidin' a few o' them there nasteh crittahs, but… naw. Ain't nuttin' out he' or nuttin'."

The bobbing cone of light that came toward Wynne proved that Mandy had given up the search as well. The sheriff concluded the short field operation by moving the flashlight in a full circle across the desert landscape. The light was unable to pick up anything that seemed out of the ordinary - much to Blackie's growled annoyance.

"Yuh, 's whut I done tole y'all," Wynne said and put her hands on her hips. "Ain't nuttin' out he'. I wondah whaddinda-wohhhhh-rld that there howlin' thing wus?"

Blackie ran over to the tallest of her two owners in the hope of getting some answers. Once she had sat down on the sandy desert floor, she looked up expecting a few nuggets of wisdom, but none ever came. The fierce German Shepherd soon ran out of patience and made for home with a disappointed Woof!

Mandy investigated a particular section of the desert for a second time, but the search yielded as little as her first attempt. Grunting, she clicked off the flashlight and headed for their trailer. "Whatever it was, it's not there now. We may never find out."

"Haw… mebbe. But naw. I sure do got one o' them there feelin's in mah gut… an' it ain't Diegoh's Mexican sausages talkin', neithah. We been he' befo' an' bah Gosh-golleh, we gonn' be he' all ovah ag'in perdeh dog-gone soon. Yuh?"

Mandy grinned and stuffed the flashlight into her rear pocket so she could hook her free arm inside her partner's. "You're probably right. I'm beat… let's leave the rest of the mess until after breakfast. I need to hit the sack."

"Lawrdie, I heah ya, darlin'!  Will do, Sheriff Mandeh!" Wynne said before she cast a final glance over her shoulder. Her experienced eyes scanned the sky for blinking lights without seeing any; her experienced nose sniffed a couple of times to test for traces of sulfur, but didn't notice any of that either. Shrugging, she moved on.


A few minutes past ten the next morning, Wynne, Mandy and the dogs drove north on the State Route to get to Goldsboro. Wynne's mat-black Chevrolet Silverado Trail Boss Midnight Edition purred along at a steady, reasonable speed - there was no need to cause any dramas with one of the premier representatives of the MacLean County Sheriff's Department occupying the passenger seat.

Blackie filled out her favorite spot between Wynne and Mandy so she could look at the road ahead and act as a critter-detector. On a similar note, Goldie had crawled into her own favorite spot down in the footwell on the truck's passenger side. The hide-out rendered her unable to see where they were going which in turn kept her blissfully unaware of the horrors that would undoubtedly await them there.

Mandy wore the regulatory black-and-dark-gray uniform of the Sheriff's Department: Black boots, gray pants with black stripes on the outside of the legs, a black shirt with gray shoulder straps and gray highlights around the pockets, a gray necktie that had been tucked into the shirt between the fourth and fifth button as the uniform code dictated, and finally a black Mountie hat that featured golden tassels to show her status. The heater was on in the truck so she had shed her uniform jacket and held it in her lap.

Wynne had changed back into her Last Original Cowpoke-outfit which meant the decorated cowboy boots, the faded blue-jeans, the lined denim jacket, the red bandanna in the rear pocket, the sheepskin gloves in the jacket pocket and the battered, sweat-stained, low-crowned cowboy hat perched atop her dark locks had all made a glorious comeback.

The musical accompaniment was provided by 'Tallahassee Jack' Culpepper who played an acoustic version of one of his earlier hits live-on-air on the Down-Home Ol' Country Shack - the Lansingburg-based radio station had dedicated an entire hour to the veteran Country & Western star to mark his return to the stage after a long illness.

Culpepper had just begun warbling the second verse of Keep Them Wheels Rollin' when Mandy's telephone rang deep down in her pocket. After a brief spell of digging around for it in all the wrong places, she retrieved it and tapped the appropriate bar on the display. "This is Sheriff Jalinski. Councilwoman Skinner?"

While Mandy listened to what the senior member of the Goldsboro Town Council had to say, Wynne reached over to the radio to mute the sound. Once that had been accomplished, she gave Blackie a little rub before she concentrated on the driving.

"To recap," Mandy said while she dug through her shirt pockets to find her notepad and a ball point pen, "just after three a.m., you were woken by a freakish howling that did not sound human. Very well. Miss Donohue and I heard it too, though earlier in the night. Yes. Just after midnight. Yes. Whatever it was, it obviously ventured north from the- pardon?" - Mandy scribbled a little on the notepad until she came to an abrupt halt right in the middle of a word.

"Your Chihuahua Foo-Foo was so frightened it made a mess on the genuine Korean rug?  A brown mess. I see," she continued though she abstained from adding it to the makeshift report on the notepad.

Wynne had to clamp a hand over her mouth to stop herself from delivering a resounding belly laugh - though she managed to keep it all inside, a constant stream of chuckles and snickers escaped her the rest of the way north to Goldsboro.


The sign with the far too generic slogan Welcome to Goldsboro, NV - Where Magical Things Happen! still made Wynne shake her head as they drove past it on their way into town.

"Instead o' wastin' ou'ah tax dollahs on that there dumb-ass sign that ain't noboddah evah gonn' look at twih-ce, how 'bout them folks in the Town Council done spent a few nickels an' mebbe even a dih-me on them Hallah-ween decora-shuns or som'tin?" Wynne said and made a sweeping gesture out of the windshield as the mat-black truck drove onto the deserted Main Street. "I swear, this he' town is theeee dullest I evah been in come Hallah-ween. Ain't nuttin' he'!  Nuttin', lack nuttin' with a li'l- haw!  Lookie there!  Somebodda done put up a pun'kin!  Oah-ne frickin' pun'kin!  Whoop-dee-doo!"

"Well, it's not like we have any Halloween decorations back home, Wynne…"

"Naw… I sapose…"

A moment later, Wynne pulled over at the curb in front of the sheriff's office where a kiss and a little thigh-clawing were exchanged with the lady of her heart.

"Me an' ou'ah darlin' Goldie gonn' head up ta da Bang 'n Beatin' first thing. Fat-Butt Swenson done tole me yestuhrdeh that he got a couple-a ques-shuns 'bout ol' Joe-Bob's Caddeh. He also needed-a show me som'tin he done found when he inspected that there undahcarritch, so… I bettah be dere in person, yuh?"

"Sounds like a plan, Wynne," Mandy said with a grin. "Blackie and I will be in touch in case something comes up. Will you be over at Moira's afterward?"


Mandy nodded - then she leaned across the seat to offer Wynne another kiss on the lips. "All right. Thanks for the ride. Talk to you later, hon," she said before she opened the door and climbed down from the tall truck with their black German Shepherd in tow.


The glass door to the sheriff's office needed a little firm persuasion in the shape of a thumping shoulder-shove before it would allow Mandy and Blackie inside. The wooden doorjamb had become warped for some reason which necessitated hard shoves whenever anyone needed to enter the office. All that shoving had caused the top hinge to let out incessant squeaks of pain which in turn had caused the sheriff's blood pressure to climb toward the dangerous end of the scale.

Mandy stared daggers at the offending hinge as it greeted her with its customary squeak - on this day, it even seemed a little cheery like it was happy for its moment in the spotlight. Frequent squirts of various solutions and oil-based lubricants had helped little, so it seemed they would need to call a professional carpenter whenever their tight operational budget would allow for it.

Down on the floor, Blackie performed a thorough sweep of the office. Satisfied that no critters, ghouls, zombies, goblins, ghosts, space aliens, undead vampires or any other type of Halloween-monsters were present to disturb the relative peace and quiet of Goldsboro, she ran back to the old doggy-basket that had been put just inside the door not too far from the sheriff's desk.

Senior Deputy Rodolfo Gonzalez sat at the watch desk. The thirty-something Mexican-American with the movie-star looks offered his sheriff a quick 'good morning'-nod once she had barged her way into the office.

Mandy nodded back before she put her Mountie hat and the uniform jacket on the appropriate hooks on the wall. "Good morning, Senior Deputy. Have you been contacted by Councilwoman Skinner yet?" she said as she grabbed her favorite mug and made a beeline for the coffee machine.

Rodolfo held up a wad of notes. "Yes, Sheriff. She and seven other residents have called in to report strange howling and other animal-like noises during the night." He took a deep breath like he was about to inform Mandy of the callers' identities, but she shook her head and pointed at her desk instead.

Grinning, Rodolfo got up, went over to the sheriff's desk and spread out the wad of notes in chronological order. "Personally, I think they've let their imagination run off with them. I mean, it's Halloween… and the Mexican Día de Muertos is coming up tomorrow as well. You know, the traditional Day of the Dead."


"Yeah… anyway, I spent the night with Dolores and didn't hear a thing."

"Gee, I wonder why?" Mandy said with a chuckle. Taking the coffee pot, she gave the dark-brown liquid a quick sniff to test its strength before it was poured into the mug.

As she returned to the desk, she cast a quick glance at the names and addresses of the people who had called to complain about the noises. The old and outdated map of Goldsboro on the wall behind her was soon home to a colorful array of bright-red, flag-shaped pins that offered a visual representation of where the calls had come from. After she had added a ninth pin at the bottom of the map to illustrate her own experiences at midnight, she took a step back and put her hands on her hips. Another "Mmmm," escaped her before she reached for the coffee.

Rodolfo came over to stand next to the sheriff. "They're all on the east side of town… interesting. But what's that extra pin down south for?"

"Yours truly," Mandy said and took a long swig. "Wynne and I heard the same thing everyone else did. Well, it seems we heard it earlier than most. The clock had only just moved past midnight."

"Oh… okay. What did it sound like?"

"Creepy," Mandy said and fell quiet - a moment went by before she added: "It was desperate. Full of pain and grief. Perhaps a wounded animal. Not a coyote, but something larger."

Rodolfo let out a short grunt. "And Wynne heard it as well?"

"Yes. It was plain as day."

"Then I'm willing to bet twenty dollars that it's a carnivorous alien from outer space who's been sent to Earth on a mission of Search And Stir Fry. It probably had the nickname Mouth, Teeth or Jaws back in alien college 'cos it was always hungry and scrounging around for somebody to chew on."

Several seconds went by that were filled by puzzled Woofs? from Blackie and a dark, severe glare that oozed out of the sheriff's green eyes - the intensity caused the senior deputy to scratch his ear in embarrassment.

"I'll let that slide, Deputy Gonzalez," Mandy said in a monotone.

"Yes, Ma'am."

Even Blackie seemed to give the senior deputy a free pass, but the Wooooof! Woof-woof-wooooof she uttered meant: 'You better not pull such an inappropriate joke too often or you'll have to face the consequences.'

Mandy put down the mug so she could use both hands to trace the pattern on the map: "We went on a short patrol last night but found nothing. Based on the spread of these reports, I think we were the first to hear it. All right, look at this. The next report came from the southern outskirts of Goldsboro at ten past one… obviously just over an hour later. That was Mrs. Skinner. To cover the eight-mile distance in an hour is feasible for many types of, ah… creatures. Then seven more reports from town until the last one at three. That came at the northern city limits."

"But then the reports stop… let's say the creature continued moving north," Rodolfo said as he ran an index finger upward from the northern edge of town. "The people living along the State Route should have heard it. But we haven't been contacted by anyone there. Not the Tobins or Mister… uh… whatshisname at the Old Boys' Haven trailer park."

Mandy picked up the coffee mug and took another long swig. She nodded. "Which might mean that whatever caused the disturbances has gone into hiding somewhere close to town."

"Sizing up its prey!" Rodolfo said with a grin.

A strong Woof! burst out of Blackie like she was reminding Rodolfo of her earlier warning.

A few glances were exchanged before Mandy sighed and moved over to the desk to sit down. Once seated, she sent another dark glare in the direction of her senior deputy before she picked up one of the case files from the day before and flipped it open.

"What?  It could happen," Rodolfo said and put out his arms in a half-shrug. When he was unable to get any kind of response out of the sheriff - save for yet another dark glare - he gave up and returned to the watch desk.


Half an hour later, Mandy's personal telephone rang. When the caller-ID said Tabitha Hayward, she accepted the call and put the phone to her ear. "Miss Hayward, how may I help you?"

'Hello, Sheriff. I was wondering if you had time to come up to the town museum?  The grapevine's been singing this morning… several honest townfolks claim to have heard a series of frightening howls out in the desert. I slept soundly so I didn't hear a thing, but the stories I've heard are too identical for it to be a coincidence.'

Mandy rubbed her forehead and let out an inaudible sigh - it was proving to be one of Those Days. "I can confirm the howling, Miss Hayward. Miss Donohue and I experienced it as well."

Over in the doggy basket by the window to Main Street, Blackie let out a Woof! to remind her owner that she and Goldie were in fact those who had first become aware of the howls; when she found herself ignored, she let out a grunt and settled down in the basket once more.

'Ah!  Fascinating!  Sheriff, I think I may have a theory as to the cause of the howls. It could be the Hellbeast.'

This time, Mandy was unable to hold back a proper sigh - a long one that came straight from the bottom of her soul. "The what, Miss Hayward?"

The fed-up tone of the sheriff's voice made Rodolfo look over at her. He grinned when he caught a glimpse of the look of utter resignation on her face, but soon returned to his sudoku puzzle when the severity of the glare he got in return became too strong for him to handle.

'The Hellbeast of Rattler Gulch!' Tabitha Hayward continued. 'It's an old legend… it's much easier to show you. I have the official case files from the sheriff's department as well as other documentation reaching back to the late nineteen-forties.'

Mandy scrunched up her face; when that wasn't enough, she rubbed her brow several times in rapid succession. "I'll be there in ten minutes' time, Miss Hayward."

Hearing that, Blackie perked up at once and jumped to her feet. She shook her doggy head and bared her fearsome canines as pre-emptive measures - then she relaxed her stance and let her tongue hang out to show she was more than ready for a little action.

'Excellent!  I'll send for some pastries and a pot of coffee-'

"No, thank you. Just the facts, Miss."

'Will do, Sheriff!  See you then!  Bye!'

"Goodbye, Miss Hayward," Mandy said and closed the connection. She stared at nothing in particular for several long moments before she got up, took her hat and her jacket and went over to the watch desk to pick up one of the portable radios.

Rodolfo looked up from his expert sudoku puzzle with unbridled curiosity sparkling in his deep-brown eyes. "What did Miss Hayward have to say, Sheriff?"

"Oh, plenty. I'm going up to the museum. Either things are about to get clearer… or even more Goldsborian," Mandy said as she attached the radio to her utility belt. "You know, Rodolfo… there are days where I wish I had stayed in San Cristobal. I'll be on the radio if you need to get in touch."

"Yes, Ma'am," the senior deputy with a wide grin.

A loud Woof! burst out of Blackie as the glass door was yanked open with a long creak from the woodwork and a whiny squeak from the top hinge. The black German Shepherd soon raced out onto the sidewalk to check out their immediate surroundings. Since no dead, undead or otherwise non-human opponents were present, she sat down on the flagstones and waited for the sheriff to catch up.


Thirty minutes later, Mandy and Blackie stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of the building that housed the Goldsboro Town Museum.

Located on the east side of Main Street not too far from Cathy Pearson's Tack & Saddle leathergoods store, it was home to various Native American artifacts from the original settlers as well as official records and personal collections going back to the late-1880s - unfortunately, much of Goldsboro's earliest history had been wiped out in 1912 in a mysterious fire that was deemed to have been caused by spontaneous combustion.

Mandy's face was still set in stone after the colorful presentation Tabitha Hayward had given her. If she hadn't already had plenty of experience with various supernatural or otherworldly creatures and phenomena in and around Goldsboro, she would have called the fantastic story a big, brown pile.

While Blackie went on a short reconnaissance to investigate an exciting scent down on the flagstones, Mandy studied the printed copy the curator of the town museum had made for her. The Hellbeast moniker alone made her let out yet another of those deep, long sighs that were reserved for the really hair-raising topics.

Main Street was as quiet as ever despite Goldsboro's hard-earned title of Calamity Central, so nothing could help her take her mind off the latest bizarre mess. When the need to hear a friendly voice became too strong, she whipped out her smartphone and found Wynne's number in the registry.


Four hundred yards further up Main Street, the tickling, buzzing sensation that spread across Wynne's backside offered proof that someone was trying to get in touch with her.

She and the foreman of the Bang 'n Beatin' Body Shop, Bengt 'Fat-Butt' Swenson, were both down in one of the garage's grease pits working on Joe-Bob Millard's 1976 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible that Wynne had rescued from the desert earlier in the year.

They worked with heavy-duty power tools to get a front suspension member to release. The rubber bushings were too brittle to leave in place, but the stubborn things had been so reluctant to leave their comfortable homes of the past forty-six years that all attempts to coax them out had failed - thus, cruder measures had needed to be taken.

Wynne and Fat-Butt wore thick gloves, safety goggles, ear protection and special breathing aides that made it safe to work while showers of ancient rust and filth rained down from the Cadillac's undercarriage.

When the buzzing sensation returned a short while later, Wynne tapped Fat-Butt on the shoulder to tell him she needed a break; the large, bald man with the impressive full beard nodded and stepped over to the edge of the grease pit to have a breather.

Wynne broke out in a wide grin when the caller-ID said Mandy.  Before she accepted the call, she went down to the other end of the grease pit and climbed the short flight of metal stairs to get back up into the garage itself. "Howdy, darlin'!" she said as she leaned her rear end against a concrete pillar.

'Hi, hon. Are you sitting down?'

"Naw, ain't nuttin' he' ta sit on that don't gonn' leave stains on mah buhh-tt," Wynne said and shuffled away from the pillar. "Whatup, there, Sheriff Mandeh?"

'I just spoke to Tabitha Hayward at the town museum. There's a possibility that the howling last night was made by… please don't laugh… or faint…'

"Jumpin' Jehoshaphat!  Ain't too sure I be likin' the sound-a that!  Lawrdie, we alreddeh done seen so much wackiness that-"

'It might be the Hellbeast of Rattler Gulch.'

"Da whuuut?!"

'A mythical beast from the depths of hell that roams the desert.'

"Lawwwwwwwwwwwwwr-die… that's whut I done thunk y'all wus sayin'!  Aw-hell, if it ain't one thing, it's anothah," Wynne croaked as she shuffled out to stand close to her Silverado in the Bang 'n Beatin' Body Shop's inner courtyard.

Goldie sat on the passenger-side seat looking out at her owner, but the moment the scaredy-dog Golden Retriever caught wind of the latest calamity, she whimpered and dove down into the footwell.

"Whaddahell that there crittah be doin' he' in li'l ol' Goldsborah, anyhows?  Nevah mind. Dumb que-shun. Ev'rehboddah o' them there crittahs come ta li'l, ol' Goldsborah soonah or latah. Yuh. Wish they woudden, tho'… haw, there sure ain't nuttin' I can do 'bout it, no Ma'am. Wotcha call that there beast ag'in?"

'The Hellbeast of Rattler Gulch. The first reports were filed to the sheriff's department back in August of nineteen-forty-seven… not too long after the first UFO sightings, by the way. Perhaps the population at large was more alert to strange phenomena after Kenneth Arnold's flying saucers and the Roswell incident. I can't say.'

"Naw, me neithah. But them crittahs sure be clevah. Like ev'rehthin' else, all them nasteh visitahs come in threes. Except them foah-leaf clovahs, o' course. They be one an' foah at the same time. Not that foah-leaf clovahs ever done nuttin' bad… or mebbe they did, I dunno… but I be perdeh dang sure they ain't nevah trah'd ta invade Goldsborah, anyhows," Wynne said as she leaned against her Silverado's mat-black front fender.

'Ah… I never thought of that,' Mandy said in a voice that could be perceived as tongue-in-cheek. 'Back to the story. Beginning on August eighth, nineteen-forty-seven, a road construction crew was terrorized by a giant black dog or wolf for three nights straight a few miles south of Goldsboro. Their night quarters were under almost constant attack. On the second night, a crew foreman was mauled when he tried to set a trap for the Hellbeast-'


'-and two guard dogs that were on loan from Goldsboro were torn to shreds on the third and final night of the encounter.'

"Aw, fer da love-o'… ain't no way ou'ah darlin' Goldie gonna heah that, awri'te?" Wynne said as she cast a sideways glance at the side window of her truck; the Golden Retriever had yet to reappear. "We mi'te nevah gonn' get'er ta come out from undah the bed if she do…"

'True. The Hellbeast made further appearances in 'fifty-six, in 'sixty-eight and in 'seventy-four. The latter was only a persistent rumor, but still. You know Goldsboro.'

"Lawrdie, don't I evah!  Seventeh-foah?  Wus anehboddah we know involved in that?"

'Yes. Clifford Tobin made the report and Darnell Scott handled it. Darnell had only been a junior deputy sheriff for three weeks at the time, so it was his introduction to our town.'

"How 'bout dat?  Haw!  Ol' man Cliffoh-rd… ain't dat som'tin?  Shoot, the ol' fella gone senile. Ain't no way we gonn' get nuttin' outta him now…"

'Probably not. That was the last one until last night. It gets worse, at least according to Miss Hayward… whenever the Hellbeast is seen or heard, legend has it that personal ruin, illness and death always follow in its path for those unfortunate enough to cross paths with it.'

Wynne let out a groan before she smacked her free hand across her eyes while uttering an "Aw-fer cryin' out loud!"  The gesture nearly dislodged her beloved cowboy hat, but it was soon back in place sitting low on her brow. "Lissen, Sheriff Mandeh… y'all be sure we realleh oughttah be lookin' fer that there crittah?  I mean… it ain't done nuttin' ta none o' us beside doin' a li'l howlin' las'nite, yuh?  Mebbe we oughttah ferget 'bout this one?"

'But will it forget about us, hon?'

"Shoot. Prolleh not," Wynne said and took off her hat to have room to wipe her brow on her jacket sleeve. "Y'all be ri'te as always, there, Sheriff. Durn. Okeh. Got aneh bri'te ideahs how we gonn' do this?"

'Not yet. I'm working on it.'

"Haw!  That be good enuff fer me, yes Ma'am!" Wynne said and plonked her hat onto her black locks.

One of the garage's sliding doors moved upward while the telephone conversation went on. Once the door had reached its upper stop, the bulky Bengt Swenson - who wore his usual combo of safety boots, filthy bib dungarees and a Swedish-blue T-shirt - came out in the open and pointed at his wristwatch and then at Wynne.

The Last Original Cowpoke gave him a big thumbs-up that made him go back inside. "Tell ya whut, there, Sheriff… me an' ol' Fat-Butt ain't quite done fixin' the latest drah-mah ta hit ol' Joe-Bob's Caddeh. It prolleh gonn' be anothah hou'ah or so, but then me an' ou'ah darlin' Goldie gonn' swing bah Moira's fer some pool and a li'l bite ta eat an' all. An' mebbe a beer or two. Or three. Meet ya there?"

'I need to talk to the residents who reported hearing the Hellbeast last night. I'll get to Moira's eventually, but I can't say when.'

"Aw, but that don't mattah none, Sheriff Mandeh, 'cos I be waitin' fer y'all!  Okeh-dokeh, I gotta go. See ya… an' love ya!" Wynne said and added a few kissies into the telephone before she closed the connection. Grinning, she stuck the phone into her rear pocket and shuffled back inside to resume working on the classic convertible.


At a quarter past eleven the same evening, Wynne and Mandy stood on the back porch of Wynne's trailer studying a detailed map of the desert to plot their search pattern.

Mandy wore her regular sheriff's department uniform while Wynne had jumped into a pair of heavy-duty jeans that could take more abuse of the desert-kind than her regular faded blue-jeans. To follow the same logic, she had swapped the delicate genuine sheepskin gloves for some that had already been used to shift all types of junk known to Woman - her beloved cowboy hat and the red bandanna in her rear pocket remained the same, though.

The map they were studying had been spread out over a camping table, and Blackie stood on her hind legs with her front paws pinning down the corners of the paper to keep it from fluttering in the breeze.

That the porch was so crooked the camping table needed wooden wedges under two of the legs to even stay upright was perhaps somewhat unfortunate. The brass light fixture that had been attached to the outer wall of the trailer was a few degrees shy of having perfect alignment and was held in place by four screws of different types and lengths, but none of that mattered - Wynne had built the porch with her bare hands not too long after she had moved in, and she was damned proud over her accomplishment.

While the humans around Blackie spoke among themselves, the German Shepherd's keen eyes roamed over the map to soak up as much information as she could. A whimper behind her made her jump down on all fours and rub flanks with her dearest doggy-friend Goldie.

Muted yaps, woofs and barks were exchanged in an intimate conversation that once again showed their respective mindsets: where the scaredy-dog Goldie was horrified about the whole thing and insisted on staying at home behind a locked door and underneath the queen-sized bed, the fierce and fearless Blackie couldn't wait to go out into the desert to test her skills and bravery against the mysterious, hellish opponent. After a little chat, the two dogs agreed on disagreeing and gave each other a little nudge-and-rub to say goodbye before Goldie shuffled back inside.

'Sheriff Jalinski?' a female voice said from somewhere around the corner of the trailer.

Mandy took a step back from the camping table to yell: "We're out back!"

The sheriff's raised voice made Blackie let out an excited Woof! until she realized it wasn't because of a sighting of the critter they were there to find.

The newest deputy sheriff of the Goldsboro office, the twenty-something Beatrice 'Quick Draw' Reilly, soon strode around the corner dressed in full desert survival gear: trekking boots with inch-thick soles, triple-layered cargo pants, a pair of insulated, water-resistant gloves and a multi-pocket vest over a heavy-duty canvas coat that featured an all-weather hood. Every clothing item was held in either fluorescent red or yellow which would make her stand out in any crowd - save perhaps for a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans.

The multiple layers of survival clothing turned the nimble and agile Beatrice into a square-shouldered caricature of a LEGO brick, and it made Wynne break out in a loud laugh. "Lawrdie, wouldya lookie there!  Whah, if y'all ain't dressed up fer some hevveh-duteh ac-shun, I ain't sure who is!  Holy shittt… ya sure ya got enuff clothes on, Quick Draw Bea?"

Beatrice saluted the sheriff before she turned to Wynne; a dark glare shot out of her eyes as she looked at the Last Original Cowpoke. "I like to be fully prepared. Who knows how long this will take?  This equipment and my bag of trail rations will allow me to stay out there for seven to ten days with no problems."

"Haw… I sure coudden haul ten days' worth o' beah, no Ma'am. Not without wearin' mah legs down ta them kneecaps, anyhows… an' that would be too bad, too, 'cos I just done had mah toenails clipped!" Wynne said and pushed her cowboy hat back from her brow. She grinned at her own joke, but when it only made Beatrice scrunch up her face and fire off another dark, scathing glare, she put her hands akimbo and mirrored the annoyed look.

It seemed Beatrice was intent to keep up her hostility toward Wynne because she simply ignored her and moved over to the table to inspect the map. "Goldsboro's really buzzing over this, Sheriff. Is it true the thing we're trying to find is known as the Hellbeast of Rattler Gulch?"

Mandy let out a dark grunt. "I'm afraid so, Deputy. Rattler Gulch is here, to the east of us," she said as she put an index finger on the map and highlighted a wide section of the desert. "As the name suggests, it's a dried-up river bed. The closest it gets to our present location is this bend roughly three-quarters of a mile away," she continued as she tapped on a certain spot on the map.

Beatrice nodded as she followed the sheriff's index finger. "And it stretches all the way over to Maynard Canyon?"

"Just about."

"That's a very large area to cover for two officers and a k-nine."

"We'll be four people. Miss Donohue is coming along and Mr. Benitez will join us in a moment," Mandy said and took a step back.

"I see," Beatrice said as she continued to study the map - as she did so, she turned her back on Wynne. "It's not labeled Rattler Gulch here so I guess that's just a local name for it… do we know how large the rattlesnake population is?"


"Terrific."  Falling quiet, Beatrice scratched her chin in an absent-minded fashion while she digested the information presented to her.

Wynne was just as quiet as the deputy sheriff, but her silence was caused by gulping down a can of H.E. Fenwyck Pale Lager rather than being concerned over the number of rattlers they might find in the gulch. A quick belch escaped her before she emptied the can and shuffled back into the kitchenette to put it into the metal recycling bag.

She came back out a moment later holding a can of Double-Zero - it was cracked open at once with the familiar pssshhht!  She had only just put the can to her lips when her eyes bugged out on stalks and half a mouthful of beer came shooting out past the can. "Lawwwwwwwr-die!  Lookie out yondah!" she croaked as she pointed at a stretch of desert that seemed to get up and walk toward them.

Mandy, Beatrice and Blackie all spun around and went into a fighting stance. Beatrice's quick-drawing instincts took over, and she whipped her hand into one of the vest's many pockets to grab her service firearm. Similarly, Blackie let out several thunderous barks that rolled across the wide open spaces to let the Hellbeast know it had chosen the worst possible spot to make an appearance.

The sound that came back at the trailer wasn't the howling they all expected to hear, but hearty laughter. The desert itself continued to move toward the waiting women until it entered the cone of light from the misaligned brass fixture on the wall of the trailer. "From the looks on your faces, I guess my camouflage worked!" Diego Benitez said and broke out in another laugh.

The forty-something fellow of proud Mexican heritage wore a complete set of military fatigues that he had bought at a US Marine Corps surplus store. His marching boots, pants, battle jacket, gloves, tool belt, backpack and floppy hat were all held in closely-matched shades of tan which made him blend into the desert landscape to such an extent that he would almost disappear from view. He carried his trusty thirty-odd-six rifle over his shoulder, and even the firearm was wrapped in a sand-colored cover.

Taking off his floppy hat to greet his neighbors - who all continued to stare in disbelief - revealed his dark skin, heavily-gelled hair and impressive mustache that he worked hard to maintain. "Whoa, Deputy Bea," he continued when he clapped eyes on Beatrice's colorful survival kit, "your gear looks better suited for the North Pole than the Nevada desert… I'll bet the Man In The Moon 'll be able to see you even without a telescope!"

The young deputy only had time to let out a few grumbles before Mandy stepped in: "Save it for later. Right now, we need to hammer out a battle plan. Mr. Benitez, do you have your compass and your night scope?"

"Of course, Sheriff."

"Very well. Here's your radio. Just speak openly… we're the only ones within range so there's no need for the regular call signs," Mandy continued as she handed her neighbor one of the portable walkie-talkies used by the sheriff's department.

After studying the map once more, she turned to look out into the dark desert like she wanted to verify what she had just read. "All right. Mr. Benitez, I want you to get a ten-minute head start to the rest of us. Move due East until you reach the gulch. Once there, sweep the horizon with your scope and report back. I'll tell you where to go next. Oh, and if you come under attack, don't hesitate to shoot to kill."

"Yes, Ma'am!"

"Any questions?"

"No, Ma'am," Diego said with a grin. He offered the sheriff a flamboyant salute that perhaps wasn't in accordance with the regulations but that certainly looked the part.

After matching the grin and the improvised salute with some of her own, Mandy studied the map for a moment before she turned to Wynne - or rather, where Wynne had stood until very recently. She had already opened her mouth to speak when she realized her partner's spot on the porch was empty.

"She went inside," Beatrice said with a shrug. "Sheriff, Mr. Benitez is a skilled hunter so he'll be an asset given the nature of the operation, but I still think it's inappropriate that a civilian such as Miss Donohue-"

Mandy narrowed her eyes. A brief moment went by before she said: "Your concerns are duly noted, Deputy, but Miss Donohue is coming along. End of discussion."

"Ah… yes, Sheriff."


Four minutes later, Wynne shuffled back outside. She needed to crab sideways to allow her unusual accessories to fit through the screen door: she carried not one but two cooler boxes around her neck. The cans stored in the coolers played a melodious concert akin to a Caribbean steel drum band as they clanged together each time she took a step.

Her grin was as wide as her Texas-shaped belt buckle as she presented the dual cooler boxes to her companions. "Lookie he', yuh?  I got plentah o' them there dubbel-zerahs an' a couple-a othah beahs in this he' coolah," she said and tapped a knuckle against the box on her right, "an' I got plentah o' them various othah Fenwyck products in the othah one he', yessirree!  Quick Draw, I even got one o' them there Sunneh Dreamz Smooth Apricot soda pops that I seem ta recall y'all takin' a likin' ta. Yuh?"

"Wynne…" Mandy tried, but she was cut off before she could get going.

"Anehboddah up fer a dubbel-zerah or a soda pop befo' we head inta the desuhrt?" Wynne said and unclicked the lid for the box on the right. "Diegoh, ol' buddeh, I got them there nineteen-ten spe-shul brews that y'all… haw?  Where ol' Diego at, anyhows?"

"He's already left," Mandy said and put a firm hand on the lid of the cooler box pressing it back into place. "I'm sorry, hon, but you can't bring them. We're not supposed to draw attention to ourselves, remember?  You know how noises travel at night out here… they'll be able to hear you in North Greenville even if you're careful."

"Aw… aw, shoot. Y'all be right as always, there, Sheriff Mandeh. Shoot," Wynne said and extricated herself from the broad straps she had put over her shoulders and around her neck. "Mebbe jus' one o' them boxes?  Naw. Mebbe jus' a handful o' them beers?  These he' pockets be plentah deep, I'm tellin' ya. Ain't nobodda evah gonn' heah me goin' nowheah, I promise."

"All right, then," Mandy said with a smile. "Maybe a couple of cans."

"Much obliged, Sheriff Mandeh!" Wynne said and transferred eight cans of Double-Zero into her jacket pockets. She grimaced when she realized they made even more of a racket there - the eight soon became six, then four.

A deep, dark frown spread over her fair features when it dawned on her she could really only carry one can in each pocket to stop them from clanging together. "Okeh… yuh. Okeh… haw, I be a big Cowpoah-ke. I can handle havin' jus' a couple-a beahs fer a li'l while, yessir…" she mumbled as she settled for one can of Double-Zero in each pocket.

Mandy, Blackie and Beatrice exchanged a quick look - Blackie let out a somewhat amused Woof! as well - before Mandy looked at her telephone. "All right. That's ten minutes. Let's move out. Wynne, may I have your night vision binoc-"

"Awwww-dang!  Knew I fergot som'tin!" Wynne said in a groan before she spun around on her heel and stomped back inside. Another minute went by before she hurried back out carrying her electronic binoculars that were equipped with an advanced light-enhancing night scope. "I be reddeh fer ac-shun, Sheriff Mandeh!"

"Good," Mandy said as she took the binoculars and put the Nylon strap around her neck. "Deputy Reilly, I want you to act as the rear guard. Give us a one-hundred yard head start, then maintain that distance until further notice. Do you have your portable radio?"

Beatrice nodded as she patted one of the countless pockets in her survival suit. "Yes, Ma'am."

"Very well. Wynne?"

"Lawrdie, I be right behindcha, darlin'!  I be so close y'all gonn' be thinkin' y'all done sat in some chewin' gum or som'tin!  Yeee-haw!  Ain't that right, Blackie?"


"Haw!  Tole ya!" Wynne said while flashing a broad grin.


Wynne's broad grin had been reduced to a concerned grimace as she, Blackie and Mandy trekked through the desert. Though the full moon provided some light, it was still at an early stage of its eternal journey across the heavens - its position near the horizon meant it did little beyond creating shadows that seemed to go on for miles.

The abundance of loose rocks, soft sand and coarse shrubbery made the nocturnal operation a difficult one. Their progress was slower than anticipated, and since the area they needed to search had already been laid out, it would take them far longer to get anywhere. Wynne in particular felt a heavy strain on her denim-clad shoulders as she had already drained both cans of Double-Zero well before they had made it halfway out to Rattler Gulch.

"Lawrdie," she mumbled to herself to take her mind off her empty pockets and bone-dry throat, "all them weird, weird crittahs who done roamed this he' desuhrt ovah da yea'hs… haw, there be that there fifteh-foot nekkid garillah thing o' course… an' Rev'rend Raymond Light's zohm-bie horde… an' I bet we ain't heard the las' o' them there puke-green goblins or that nasteh-ass vampiah sombitch who done kidnapped ouah darlin' Brendah down yondah at Silvah Creek, neithah!  Naw…"

"Wynne, please pipe down," Mandy said in a whisper.

Wynne didn't notice - "An' not ta men-shun them there sulfur-stinkin' space aliens who done blowed up mah truck, or that there Butchah'ed Backpackah ghost-thing fella who done thunk I wus such friendleh comp'neh he done visited me twih-ce durin' that there bus rih-de back from Texas an' all…"


"An' if them ugleh crittahs wussen enuff… an' they wus!  But if they wussen enuff, now we gotta fi'te a fah-roah-shus Hellbeast, dag-nabbit… I mean, whaddindahell's next?  Atomic ants like in that there ol' mooh-vie?  Shoot, I plum fergot that there giganto lizard thing who done ran away from them Air Fohr-ce folks the othah yea'h!  Onleh the bearded gah in the skah knows whutevah else be out he' in this he'-"

"Wynne!" Mandy said in a strong stage-whisper. To underscore her intention, she tugged hard at Wynne's denim sleeve.

"Haw?  Whazzat, darlin'?"

"Please be quiet."

"Haw… yuh, darlin'. Sure thing an' all. Whah, I wus jus'… jus'… bein' quiet, yes Ma'am," Wynne said and tipped her cowboy hat to the sheriff.

The portable radio on Mandy's utility belt crackled to life with a: 'Diego to the Sheriff. Diego to the Sheriff. Come in, please.'

"Go ahead, over," Mandy said after keying the transmit button. She stopped to take in her surroundings. Blackie ran around in a circle to perform a perimeter sweep while Wynne dug really, really deep into her jacket pockets to see if she had somehow missed a full can of beer the first fifteen times she had done so.

'There's nothin' here apart from the regular wildlife. I've moved a further three-hundred yards north-north-east within Rattler Gulch itself. Nothin'. Well, except for a few jackrabbits, over.'

"Very well… stay sharp."

'Will do, Sheriff. Diego out.'

Mandy scratched her chin a couple of times before she keyed the button again. "Deputy Reilly, what's your status back there?"

'I have nothing to report either, Sheriff. It's all quiet, over.'

"All right. Sheriff Jalinski out," Mandy said and attached the radio to her belt. She stood with her hands on her hips for a brief moment before she reached over to touch the small of Wynne's back. "Let's move out. We only have a hundred thousand square miles of desert left to explore. Won't be a problem," she said with a wink.

"Haw, sure gonn' be easeh-peaseh, yes Ma'am!  Fer somebodda perhaps, but ain't nevah fer Wynne Donnah-hew… Lawrdie!  Whah, that there Hellbeast mi'te not even be out he' tanite an' then we all gonn' look like a buncha dang foo-"

A spine-chilling howl cut through the quiet night; the special climate and wide-open nature of the desert meant that it seemed to come from everywhere at once. The howl grew in intensity until it was near-apocalyptic - then it came to an abrupt halt and turned into a long sequence of tormented moans and whimpers that made the stars high above stop twinkling until they had regained their composure.

The emergence of the Hellbeast of Rattler Gulch had an immediate effect on those unfortunate enough to hear its howling:

Blackie jumped into the fiercest offensive stance she could muster. Her ears lay flat along her head as she bared her fearsome teeth; while she let out a few thunderous barks to give their opponent a warning it shouldn't ignore, she moved her head left and right several times like she was trying to pick up the target's scent.

Wynne smacked a palm across her forehead. When that wasn't enough, she whipped off her beloved cowboy hat and threw it onto the dusty ground. "Awwwwww-shoot!  Shoot, shoot, shoot, it jus' hadda happen!  Good-gosh-golleh-ding-dong-darn'it, it jus' hadda happen!"

'Contact!' Diego's voice cried over the radio. 'Confirmed contact three-hundred-twenty yards south-east of me… half the distance back to where you are!  A large, dog-like creature. I got it on the scope… it looks frickin' massive!'

Mandy's face had been reduced to a grim mask; she keyed the transmit button with her left hand while she drew her service pistol with her right. "Ten-Roger, Diego. We heard it. Keep track of that thing!  Tell us the second it moves!"

'Will do, Sheriff… it's just standin' there for the time being. It seems to be sniffin' around like it's picked up someone's scent. Do you want me to approach it, over?'

"Negative. Stay where you are and be ready to defend yourself. Break. Deputy Reilly, close the distance between us. On the double!  Jalinski out."

'On my way, Sheriff!' Beatrice said in a voice that held a strong undertone of stress and adrenaline.

"Dammit," Mandy mumbled as she swapped the radio and the pistol for the advanced night scope binoculars. After setting the range and sensitivity of the scope's light-enhancement features, she made a thorough sweep of the desert landscape without seeing anything untoward.

Blackie remained in a high state of alert. To be ready to respond at the first sight of their opponent, she maintained a constant rhythm of running twenty paces to the left, spinning around and running twenty paces to the right.

"Didya pick up dat dere Hellbeast yet, Sheriff?" Wynne croaked.

"No," Mandy said as she continued moving the night scope in a slow, deliberate fashion. Now and then, she adjusted the image by twisting a physical knob or moving a virtual slider further to the next stop. "I can't see a thing out there. Dammit!"

The trio soon turned into a quartet as Beatrice Reilly caught up with the others - as expected, the woman known as 'Quick Draw' also held her service firearm ready. "Gawd, this howling gives me the creeps… will ya listen to that thing!" she said in a whisper.

"That sure ain't no lie, Bea… them howls be givin' me the dang heebie-jeebies!" Wynne croaked; she had picked up her hat and used the battered fashion-item to fan her flushed cheeks. "Lawrdie, if onleh Ah hadda beah… dang'it… ain't got no beah… an' Ah ain't gonn' have no clean shorts, neithah, if this ol' Hellbeast don't shut its trap perdeh dog-gone soon!"

Blackie's keen eyesight and hearing had been hard at work trying to pinpoint the exact location of their opponent as well, but just like her owner, she had been unable to make much headway. As the spooky howling resumed a short minute later, she ran a short distance away from the humans to get a clearer impression of the howls.

A couple of muted, puzzled Woofs escaped her like she was working hard to figure out why the Hellbeast's howling seemed to carry an undertone of heartfelt sadness and torment rather than hellacious joy or even pure evil. She looked back at her two owners for a moment before she made up her mind - running ahead at a swift pace, the black fur of the German Shepherd was soon absorbed by the darkness.

"Wynne, take this," Mandy said as she thrust the night scope into her partner's hands. "You're taller. Maybe you can see past or above something I can't."

"Yuh, okeh… ain't too sure Ah wanna be seein' nuttin, tho'," Wynne said as she put the oculars to her eyes, "but Ah'mma-gonn' give it a shot anyhows. Naw… naw… naw… still naw… naw. An' anothah naw. Ain't nuttin' nowheah… but them shadahs out there be so dang-blasted heaveh- wait!  Wait… Lawwwwwwr-die, Ah see it!  Ah see it!  Awwwwww-shittt… darlin', we be in a heap-a trubbel now… a giganto heap-a trubbel, Ah be tellin' ya!  There be two Hellbeasts out yondah!"

While all that had been going on, Beatrice realized she hadn't seen or heard Blackie for a while. "Sheriff, we seem to be missing our K-nine officer all of a sudden…" she said, but Wynne's loudness overpowered her concerns.

"Two?!" Mandy said and reached for the night scope in a hurry.

'Sheriff!  Sheriff!  Somethin's goin' on out there!' Diego cried over the radio, but Mandy was too busy with the binoculars to have time to reply. 'Is that… isn't that… what the flyin' fig, that's Blackie!' Diego continued at an even louder volume.

Wynne came to a crashing halt and just stood there like a marble statue. She only started breathing once she had little, golden stars dancing around on the edges of her vision, and she used the oxygen to let out a resounding: "Blackie!  Whaddahell y'all be thinkin', girl?!  Don't you worry none, Ah'mma-gonn' come an'… an'… an' save ya!  Hol'on, mommah's comin'!"

Jumping into action, she tore across the uneven desert at such speed her boots sent up little puffs of dust and sand whenever she moved her feet ahead. She had little idea about where she needed to go - and none at all about what she could do once she got there - but she knew for a fact she had to do something.

"Wynne!" - "No, wait!" Mandy and Beatrice cried as one. When it became obvious their words had no effect on the woman who continued to race along, they drew their service pistols and set off after The Last Original Cowpoke.

'Blackie and the Hellbeast are just talkin', or whatever!' Diego said over the radio that bobbed up and down on Mandy's utility belt as she tore across the desert to catch up with Wynne. 'Okay… they're… they're doin' somethin' or other… they're still not fightin' or anythin'… get this, they're movin' away together!  No they ain't, they're runnin' away!  What the hell is goin' on here?!'

"Blackie!" Wynne cried at the top of her lungs somewhere in the darkness. "Dontcha be 'fraid or nuttin'!  Ah be comin' fer ya, darlin'!  Blackie?!"


"Mah Blackie… she goah-ne," Wynne croaked after two fruitless hours cris-crossing the desert searching for her beloved pet. She could barely muster enough energy to step up on her own crooked porch, and the first thing she did once she got there was to fall into the lawn chair that her dear friend Ernie Bradberry had given her as a jokey birthday present - the legs on the left side of the chair had been extended by two inches to compensate for the uneven floor.

Wynne's complexion had turned gray and her eyes were dull and listless as they continued to stare into the desert. She just sat there breathing, staring and clenching her fists over and over again.

Happy yapping from inside the trailer proved to be Goldie who was anxious to greet her human owners and her dearest doggy-friend. When only the first part of the equation could be found anywhere near the trailer, she clammed up and moved down to lie at her denim-clad owner's boots in complete silence.

Mandy, Beatrice and Diego had their heads together debating what the best tactic might be to breathe some life back into the stricken Wynne. Now and then, one of them looked up to study the forlorn figure in the lawn chair. "No," Mandy said, "this requires a remedy straight off the top shelf… literally. I'll do that. I won't be long," she continued as she moved away from her two companions.

On her way past the lawn chair, she put a comforting hand on Wynne's shoulder. "I hope she'll make her way home soon."


"I wish I could say that everything's going to be all right, but…"

Wynne shrugged and reached up to put a hand on top of Mandy's.

Stepping inside the trailer, Mandy found the stepladder and used it to access the top shelf of one of the kitchen cabinets. She was still a tiny bit too short to be able to reach the item she was searching for, but a quick application of her metal handcuffs sealed the deal - the bottle of Wynne's favorite brand of Irish whiskey was soon wrangled in and pulled toward her.

She prepared the coffee machine to create a steaming hot dose of liquid gold that would work as the base for an Irish Coffee for Wynne. While the machine percolated, she took a collection of mugs from another cabinet and put them on a tray.

Back outside, she remained in the doorway for a moment to observe her shell-shocked partner - the one thing that really underscored that something terrible had happened was Wynne's complete silence.

A dark grunt escaped Mandy as she put the tray of mugs on the camping table. "I'm making us some strong coffee. We all need it," she said to Diego and Beatrice who nodded and smiled at the news.

"And Wynne," Mandy continued as she moved over to the lawn chair; she crouched down to be closer to eye-level, "I'm making you an Irish Coffee. O'Connor's. Your favorite. We don't have any Cream-in-a-Can, but we do have brown sugar. It'll make you feel better."

Wynne shrugged.

Mandy reached up to caress her partner's cheek. A comforting kiss was soon delivered before she whispered: "Blackie's tough. You know that. Tough and clever. She had a plan when she ran off on her own."


"I'm sure she did."

"Merceh Sakes, Ah ain't been this ner-vuss since… shoot, Ah dunno when," Wynne said in a monotone. She let out a sigh. "Mah insides be tremblin', that sure ain't no lie."

"At least we heard her bark some time later. It didn't sound like she was in trouble."

"Naw. It didden. But then we didden heah her ag'in, did we?"

Mandy leaned in to place another kiss on Wynne's lips. "Don't lose hope, honey. You know how life… and our lives in particular… tends to move in twists and turns."

"Yuh. I jus' wish it hadden done taken this he' turn an' all…"

When the coffee machine let out its regular post-brewing burbling to inform everyone close by that it was ready, Mandy stepped inside the kitchenette to fetch the pot. She poured the steaming-hot, dark-brown liquid into Diego and Beatrice's mugs before she moved the pot over to Wynne's.

After putting a teaspoon of brown sugar into the mix and stirring hard to dissolve the super-sweet additive, she added a fair shot of O'Connor's in the hope the Irish whiskey would give Wynne a badly-needed pick-me-up.

The four members of the team remained silent while they drank the coffee and used the mugs to warm their fingers. Wynne let out a long sigh before she took the first sip; her eyes flew open as the whiskey and the brown sugar tickled her palate. "Haw… it sure be good I wussen plannin' on drivin' anehwheah… Lawrdie, didya leave anythin' in that there bottle, darlin'?

"There's more than enough if you want a second mug," Mandy said with a wistful smile.

Wynne's lips mirrored the smile, but it faded far too soon. Sighing, she fell back into the morose state she had been in since returning from the desert. Although she took sips of the Irish Coffee at regular intervals, she just sat there without uttering a word. As time went by without news, the mask of raw concern that fell over her face was a good indicator of the amount of pain that grew inside her.


Twenty minutes later, the mood around Wynne's place couldn't get any more depressed. The four-person search team had dispersed: Diego had gone home to shower, Beatrice sat on the couch in the living area of the trailer studying the pages Tabitha Hayward had printed out to learn all she could about the mythical Hellbeast Of Rattler Gulch, Mandy washed and wiped the coffee mugs they had used, and Wynne sat stock-still and deathly quiet on the lawn chair simply staring into the desert.

A loose floorboard squeaked as Mandy stepped out onto the porch a short while later. The breeze that rolled in from the desert was on the chilly side, so she donned her uniform jacket and zipped it all the way up.

Taking the other lawn chair, she moved it over next to Wynne's, sat down and grabbed the icy hands that been resting in her partner's lap. "Hon, it's getting pretty frosty out here. Won't you come inside?"

"Naw," Wynne said in a croaky voice - she had been quiet for so long she needed to clear her throat a couple of times to get the frogs out.

"I think you should. There's nothing gained from you catching a cold."

Wynne sighed and looked the other way. "Blackie wus jus' an itteh-bitteh pup when Ah done bought her. Yuh… Ah got her from an animal sheltah on da third day aftah leavin' Shallow Pond way back when. Prolleh wussen the smartest thing ta haul such a tih-neh crittah neahleh a thousand miles or mo' from Texas ta Nevadah, but that's whut we did, li'l Blackie an' me. We wus tagethah almost from day one. Yuh. It kinda fits that we wus tagethah when she… when she left."

"Please don't lose faith, honey," Mandy said in a voice that didn't go much beyond a whisper. "As long as we don't have proof that something happened to her-"

"It's been neahleh three hou'ahs, darlin'. Three hou'ahs without aneh signs o' lih-fe. Nuttin'. Hell, even if she wussen gonn' make it, Ah wish she be he' when it done happened. This is ou'ah hoah-me… Ah can't stand thinkin' 'bout her goin' an' Ah ain't bein' there ta comfert an' honor 'er."

Down on the floor of the crooked porch, Goldie's ears moved like they had picked up a strange sound she had yet to identify. A moment or two went by before her ears moved again. This time, she raised her head from her golden paws to glance into the desert. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary so she made herself comfortable once more.

Wynne sighed for a second time; it was even deeper than the first one and prompted Mandy to give the cold hands an extra squeeze. They looked at each other for a moment before Wynne continued: "Ah smuggled her inta Missus Bizzehboddeh's boardin' house 'cos the ol' bat didden allow no pets or nuttin'. Blackie's first doggeh-basket wus so large fer her li'l frame it done looked lack the dang-blasted Southfork Ranch from that there teevee-show."

Chuckling, Mandy reached over to put a tender kiss on her partner's cheek.

"Thanks, darlin'. Anyhows, Ah wus jus' gettin' mah feet on da ground he' in Goldsborah so Ah didden ha' much tih-me fer li'l Blackie durin' them long days… so at ni'te when Ah got back, Ah could tell she wus loneleh. Doc Gibbs done tole me she needed a li'l buddeh, so he helped me get in touch with a sheltah up in Barton Citeh. Entah mah darlin' Goldie he'. Yuh. Now we done hadda famileh, yuh?  A propah famileh whe' ev'rehboddah done loved ev'rehboddah. An' them li'l dawggies took ta each othah lack a howse on fiah."

"And then you bought the trailer and moved down here?"

"Yuh. It wus a big step… a scareh step, but it done helped that Missus Bizzehboddeh gave me one o' them there ultahmatums. Eithah them dawggies hadda go or Ah did. O' course, Ah wussen'boudda lose mah best friends jus' 'cos some crazeh ol' bat done had her undies in a wad ovah nuttin', so… yuh. Ah came he'. Then 'bout seven-some years latah, Ah saw some weird lights an' shit out in that there desurht one ni'te. Jus' out yondah. Ah called ol' Bessie 'bout it an' guess who done showed up?"

Mandy smiled and leaned over to add another kiss - this time, she aimed at Wynne's lips that were treated to a gentle smooch.

Goldie rested her eyes at her owner's booted feet. The gentle, melodious sound of the voice soothed her sensitive soul and allowed her to find a modicum of peace; when the voice stopped, the typical night-time sounds of the desert dominated once more. The Golden Retriever had never as much as peeked into an encyclopedia so she was unaware of the high-falootin' Latin names of the nocturnal insects, reptiles and mammals living out there, but she recognized most of them and stored them under either 'no threat' or 'irrelevant.'

One sound that reached her ears didn't fit into either category. She cracked open a doggy-eyelid when she realized it could have been a distant bark. The dark eye scanned the narrow stretch of the desert that she could see from her vantage point near the ground but found nothing.

Just when she had made herself comfortable once more - after convincing herself she had been dreaming - the sound that had alerted her returned. This time, there was no doubt it was a distant bark.

Jumping to her paws, Goldie responded to the bark with a cautious one of her own. She ran over to the edge of the crooked porch and turned her head in every direction to take in as much as she could in as little time as possible - her tail wagged at such frenzied pace it almost seemed like she was trying to use it as an outboard motor.

"Goldie?" Wynne said and sat up straight. Tension mounted exponentially, so she hurried over to the eager dog and crouched down next to it. "Wotcha sensin', girl?  Ya hearin' som'tin?  Can ya heah Blackie or som'tin?  Lawrdie, tell me y'all can heah ol' Blackie!"

A series of impatient yaps and woofs that meant 'Will you please clam up for a moment so I can figure out what this is?' escaped the golden dog.

Suddenly the howl of the Hellbeast echoed through the dark night. It seemed to come from everywhere at once, and it was impossible to tell how far it was from the trailer.

Wynne clamped her hands down onto her cowboy hat. "Dang-blasted!  That there nasteh-ass monstah there done found us instead!"

"Goddammit!" Mandy barked as she jumped up from the lawn chair. "Deputy, get out here on the double!  The Hellbeast is here!" she cried over her shoulder.

Beatrice rushed out with her service firearm drawn and ready to use. The young deputy sheriff stared into the darkness but had no greater success in seeing what was going on than the others - just as she had arrived, the howling made an unwelcome return.

Goldie froze in place at the horrific sound; she would already have been on her way in under the queen-sized bed if it hadn't been for the barks that accompanied the howling. Recognizing the barker, she went into a yapping frenzy and began to dance around on the spot.

The regular barks were so close by that Wynne yanked off her battered cowboy hat and nearly crushed it between her strong hands. She stared into the desert with wide, unblinking eyes that had already begun to sting from the lack of lubrication.

Simply standing on the porch wasn't enough, so she hopped off - despite Mandy's loud protestations - and ran a handful of paces toward the desert. "Blackie!  Girl!  Blackie!  Y'all out he', girl?  Mommah's he'!  Gimme a sign or som'tin!  Lemme heah some barks, girl!"

Mandy and Beatrice soon joined The Last Original Cowpoke at the edge of the vast desert to stare into the night. None of them could see anything at all, but their efforts were soon rewarded when a black, though severely dusty, German Shepherd burst onto the scene.

"Lawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwr-die!  Blackie!  Mah darlin' Blackie!" Wynne cried and fell onto her knees. Grabbing hold of the dusty dog, she gave it the biggest doggy-hug-and-rub anybody had ever seen while letting out an endless string of nonsensical, incoherent sounds.

Up on the porch, Goldie let out a happy yap at a far louder volume than usual, and she stormed ahead to greet her long-lost dearest friend. Fifteen doggy-paces into the rapid journey, she came to a hard stop that kicked up desert dust from all four paws - though her jaw moved, all she could produce were croaking whimpers.

"Wynne!  Watch out!" Mandy roared as a second dark shape came out of the desert not five yards from where Wynne and Blackie were hugging.

Wynne whipped her head up to stare at the massive figure that had appeared right in front of her without warning. "Hooooooooooleh shittt… do som'tin!  Somebodda!  Anehbodda!" she cried in a croaking voice.

"Get up and move backward!  We got the beast covered!" Mandy roared while signaling Beatrice Reilly to run over to the left flank so they could have both pistols trained on the Hellbeast.

"I he'ah ye, Sheriff…" Wynne croaked and got to her feet; she dragged her cowboy boots through the dust and across the many flat rocks which made it a perilous journey.

The only one who didn't freak out at the sight of the dreaded Hellbeast was Blackie. The German Shepherd shook her head and let out a string of barks like she was trying to inform her owners and 'Quick Draw' Beatrice - whom Blackie didn't exactly consider a friend even on a good day - that they were reading the situation all wrong.

When two of the humans present continued to threaten the Hellbeast with their weapons, Blackie ran over to it and deliberately moved into the firing line. She stomped a paw into the ground while letting out several thunderous barks in the hope that calmer heads would prevail.

"Lawrdie, I do bah-lieve ol' Blackie be tryin' ta tell us som'tin!" Wynne cried. "Hold 'em hosses, ev'rehboddah!  Ain't noboddah start shootin' or nuttin'!  Yuh?  That goes dubbel fer y'all, Quick Draw!  I'mma-gonn' check out what this he' weird deal is-"

"No, Wynne!" Mandy yelled. "Don't go any closer!"

"I gotta see whaddahell 's goin' on he', Sheriff Mandeh!  Blackie woudden act lack this if this wus some kinda killah crittah!  I'm tellin' ya, hold 'em dang-blasted hosses fer a moment!" Wynne continued as she moved ahead with careful steps.

Once she got close enough, she could see plain as day that the Hellbeast wasn't a supernatural monster at all but a regular, extraordinarily dusty Rottweiler whose black skin was covered in old scrapes and fresh blood that glistened in the light of the full moon.

The large dog exchanged a few barks with Blackie like it was questioning the intentions of the tall human; it seemed satisfied with the response as it moved down to lie flat on its stomach while panting hard.

"Stan'down, ev'rehboddah!  Is jus' a dawg!  A plain, ol' dawg!" Wynne said over her shoulder. Moving ahead with slow, deliberate gestures so she wouldn't spook the large dog, she got an eyeful of the glistening blood on its flanks. "Dang-blasted, it be bleedin' all ovah the durn place. A whole buncha scrapes an' abray-shuns. Gettin' desuhrt dust in them wounds gotta be hurtin' lack a sombitch… ain't no wondah it done howled an' all. Aw, it even got a collah with a tag on it!"

She reached out to have a look-see at the metal plate that was attached to the leather collar. "Lawrdie… 's a boy bah the name o' Freddie!  Whaddindahell… mebbe it done ran away or som'tin?  Someboddah gotta be lookin' fer this he' dawg!"

Mandy holstered her sidearm and ran up to Wynne. Crouching down next to the large Rottweiler, she eyed the countless abrasions along its sides and legs. "It must've been out there for a couple of days at least. This isn't the Hellbeast."

"No Ma'am, it sure ain't that there oah-riginal Hellbeast… this he' nih-ce fella be Freddie," Wynne said and pointed at the name tag.

Nodding, Mandy turned around and waved to catch Beatrice's attention. "Deputy, please fill a bucket with plenty of fresh water. There's one under the kitchen sink."

"Will do, Sheriff," Beatrice said and hurried inside.

The fatigued Freddie let out a few rumbling barks that it had problems articulating. Nodding, Blackie called for Goldie at once who hurried out to the doggy duo. After a short sequence of barks and yaps, the Golden Retriever and the German Shepherd settled down on either side of the wounded Rottweiler to provide close-quarters protection from two or four-legged foes.

"Well, I be a sombitch… will ye lookie there," Wynne said and let out a chuckle. "Lawrdie, now I done seen it all. Lissen, Sheriff Mandeh, I reckon we oughtta call Doc Gibbs an' get 'im down he'. Ol' Freddie he' may onleh be dead-tiah'd, but all them scrapes gotta be hurtin' 'im som'tin awful."

Mandy got up and put a hand on Wynne's shoulder to get her to follow. Once they were a short distance from the three dogs, she said: "It's three in the morning, hon. Doctor Gibbs isn't the youngest. It wouldn't be fair to call him out in the middle of the night for what amounts to a stray dog. I think we need to wait until his regular opening hours."

Wynne chewed on her cheek; she took a good look at the injured Freddie before she pushed her cowboy hat forward to make it sit low across her eyes. "Tell ya whut, darlin'… how 'bout we done made one o' them there comprah-mih-ses. Yuh?  Y'all go ahead an' call Doc Gibbs ta let 'im know I be haulin' a badleh hurt dawg up ta his practice in 'bout half an houah or so. Yuh?"

While Beatrice came back out carrying a two-gallon bucket of water for Freddie and Blackie, Mandy rubbed her chin a couple of times. "All right… with a little adjustment. I have a tarp in the back of the Durango. If we wrap it around him, we can keep him pretty secure on the back seat. Deputy Reilly could look after him during the drive."

"Sounds lack a plan, darlin'. I sure be thankin' ya fer lissenin'. So does ol' Freddie he'," Wynne said before she dove down to place a quick kiss on Mandy's lips. "Then me an' ou'ah own dawggies gonn' be followin' ya in mah Silveradah. Yuh?"

"Very well-"

Heavy footfalls suddenly interrupted the quiet scene. Blackie had already drawn a deep breath to let out a warning-bark when she realized it was their friendly neighbor back from his shower. She let Freddie know through a series of gentle woofing that the new man was all right, even if the sausages he liked to offer as treats were often a bit too spicy for sensitive doggy-tongues.

"What the hell's going on here?  Is that the Hellbeast?" Diego said as he whipped his head around to get an angle into understanding the confusing mess. Once he realized the large Rottweiler was no threat to anyone, he swung his rifle back over his shoulder so it was out of the way.

Unlike the combat fatigues he had worn earlier, he had changed into regular street clothes after his shower: ankle boots, jeans, a suede Western-style vest and a flannel shirt. "I heard the howlin' but I was in my birthday suit at the time… I didn't think that would have been, uh… appropriate."

Mandy, Wynne and Beatrice looked at each other - Wynne broke the silence first: "We sure be thankin' ya fer bein' so considerate, Diegoh… 'cos, dang, we alreddeh had one Hellbeast ta deal with!"

"Haw-haw… very funny…"

"Yuh, I thunk it wus funneh… anyhows. We's gonn' haul this he' dawggie up ta Doc Gibbs in a mo' ta get'im ta clean them wounds an' scrapes an' shit. Ya comin'?  I got them keys fer Moira's refri-tcha-ratahs so we could stop fer a brew on ou'ah way home an' all."

"You convinced me, Wynne. I'll be right back," Diego said with a grin before he spun around and hurried back to his own trailer.

While that had been going on, Mandy had called the county's best veterinarian who just happened to live in Goldsboro. "Doctor Gibbs will be ready when we get there," she said as she put her telephone away. "He said he has a scanner that can extract Freddie's information… of course, the dog needs to have been chipped for it to work."

"Naw, them scrapes sure be hurtin' Freddie, but he still in one piece. Ain't nuttin' missin' that I can see. He sure ain't got chipped out theah or nuttin'. It wus a good ideah but it prolleh ain't gonn' do noboddah much good."

Mandy scratched an eyebrow for a brief moment. "No, Wynne, it means that Freddie may have been outfitted with a computer chip in addition to the traditional name tag."


"If he is, the veterinarians can read the information with a special scanner."

Wynne pushed her hat back from her brow. She stood like that for a couple of seconds before she broke out in a shrug. "I didden get none o' that, but nevah mind. Lawrdie, we human folks prolleh gonn' get chipped befo' long, huh?  I can deffa-nete-leh see that comin'… dang, I need-a beah… an' then we be goin' up north. Yuh?"

"Yes, with Mr. Benitez driving," Mandy said in a no-nonsense tone. When it became obvious Wynne didn't get why, she added: "The Irish Coffee, remember?"

"Awwww… yuh. Okeh. Sure thing, there, Sheriff Mandeh. Sure thing," Wynne said and dove down for yet another kiss.


The residents of Goldsboro had grown accustomed to witnessing strange things at all hours of the day, but having three people and two dogs strolling along Main Street at five minutes to four in the morning was something new even for the oft-beleaguered town in the middle of nowhere - the group had originally consisted of four people before Beatrice Reilly had gone over to the sheriff's office to change back into her regular uniform.

Thus Blackie, Goldie, Wynne Donohue, Diego Benitez and Mandy Jalinski all walked south on the sidewalk to get to Moira's Bar & Grill. The sheriff had her personal telephone to her ear attempting to get in touch with Freddie's listed owner who lived in a suburb to Barton City, the capital of MacLean County.

The Rottweiler had indeed been chipped, and Byron Gibbs' scanner had been able to retrieve exact information on Freddie's birth data, breed, lineage, past medical history and even the name and address of the owner.

"Good morning, Sir," Mandy said after contact had been established. "This is Sheriff Mandy Jalinski from the MacLean County Sheriff's Department, the Goldsboro office. May I- pardon?  Yes, I know it's four A.M. May I speak with either Mr. or Mrs. Adams, please?  Very well. Mr. Adams, we've rescued your dog Freddie- no, he's basically fine though dehydrated and- pardon?"

Mandy came to an abrupt halt as she listened to the comments made by one of the dog's owners - a mask of anger soon fell upon her face.

The grim look made Wynne push her hat back, put her hands on her hips and cast a puzzled glance at Diego who broke out in a shrug as his only response.

"Thank you, Sir," Mandy continued. "You've stated your opinion quite clearly. I need to speak to Mrs. Adams so I can- you're not going to tell me where I can reach her?  Sir, I must inform you that verbal- Sir- Sir, there's no need for name-calling. Verbally attacking a member of the Sheriff's Department is a criminal offen- yes. Yes-"

Grunting, Mandy moved the telephone away to look at the display. The connection had indeed been terminated from the other end, so she turned off the phone. "And a big F.O. to you too, Sir," she said under her breath.

Wynne threw her hands in the air. "Lawwwwr-die, that sure wussen whut I expected from them folks… whaddindahell did that there sombitch say?"

Mandy scratched her flushed cheek before she put the telephone away and zipped the pocket. "Well, apart from using seventeen different variations of the F-word?"

"Whut?!  Wussen he at all happeh that we done found his Freddie?!"

"No. Here's what apparently happened. He and his wife had been on their way south to visit some family in Laurel Creek when Freddie had an accident on the back seat. In the words of Mr. Adams, they had stopped to kick the living shit out of the rotten mutt. When that hadn't been enough to subdue it, they had used the handle of a shovel. They left Freddie for dead at the side of the road."

Stunned silence spread among the group; it lasted until Blackie let out a guttural growl that told a colorful tale of what she would like to do to Freddie's owners. An emphatic "Bastards," was uttered by Diego - Wynne nodded.

"Y'all took that there woh-rd straight outtah mah mouth, Diegoh. An' when ol' Freddie came to, he done wandah'ed inta that there desuhrt tryin' ta find some watah an' som'tin ta eat… he prolleh done got lost which is easeh ta do out there. An' he even trah'd ta head fer hoah-me up north!  Come hell or high watah, he wanted ta go hoah-me!" Wynne said in a voice that grew in volume and intensity as she spoke.

A few silent curses followed before Wynne drew a deep breath. "Them folks gotta be mellah in them noggins o' theirs!  Buncha sombitches!  Lawrdie, that there kinda behaviah realleh makes me steamin' hot, I be tellin' ya!  Good thing them nasteh-assed sombitches ain't he' or us decent folks woudda taught 'em a dang-blasted lesson or two!" Once she was done talking, she slammed her clenched fists together to produce a meaty thump! that left no doubt as to her intentions.

The group fell silent once more before Diego said: "Now what, Sheriff?  Freddie's gonna need a new home. I'm definitely willin' to provide for him until some other arrangements can be made."

Mandy rubbed her chin. "I appreciate the gesture, Mr. Benitez, but I honestly don't know the ins and outs of cases involving cruelty to animals. Beyond that, Freddie's a very large dog who's been through a nightmare. There's a risk he's been severely traumatized and he certainly won't trust any humans for a long while. Once he's regained his full strength, I'm worried he might act aggressively toward the other residents."

"Yeah, okay… I see your point. Shit," Diego said and folded his arms across his chest. He let out a few grunts like he hadn't been fully convinced after all. "Well, Doc Gibbs 'll keep Freddie here at the practice for a couple of days, anyway. I think I'll pay him regular visits with little treats and things to show we're not all horrible."

Wynne reached over to slap her friend's shoulder. "Haw, that be good thinkin', Diegoh. Yessir. Tell ya what, we still got Blackie an' Goldie's ol' doggeh-basket. I jus' need-a vacuum it, an' then y'all can see if Freddie likes it. It was made fer two, so I reckon the big fella gonn' fit in it jus' fih-ne. Yuh?"

"Thanks, Wynne. Now, I could be mistaken, but didn't you say somethin' about havin' the keys for the bar and grill?" Diego said with a grin. "My throat's gettin' mighty dry all of a sudden."

"Lawrdie, I sure do!" Wynne said and patted her jacket pocket. She smacked her lips in a comical fashion. "Yuh, now y'all men-shun it… I do bah-lieve mah whissel needs-a be wetted, too, dontchaknow!"

Mandy let out a chuckle. "While you do that, I'll head over to the office. I need to find the telephone numbers for the legal advisory department up in H-Q in Barton City. Catch you later."

"Bah-bah, darlin'!" Wynne said and waved her cowboy hat high in the air.

Down on the ground, Goldie and Blackie glanced after Mandy as she strode across Main Street to get to the sheriff's office. The prospects of perhaps getting a late-late-night jerky-snack at Moira's place were far more intriguing than resting on the cracked linoleum in the old office, so they remained at the booted feet of their owner and her neighbor.


Moving closer to the Bar & Grill, Wynne dug into her pocket to find the keys. "Ya know… I almost be amah-zed this he' deal done had such a happy endin' aftah all. It sure don't always happen he' in Goldsborah. Yuh?  I mean, how offen didden we get mixed up in som'tin shitteh that took all kinds-a duckin', divin' an' dodgin' ta fix?  Da Hellbeast o' Rattlah Gulch… sheesh!  An' then it wus jus' a big, ol' dawggie called Freddie. Ain't dat som'tin, Diegoh?"


"Mebbe things are fih-nalleh gettin' bettah… Lawrdie, they sure coudden get any worse, I be tellin' ya…"

After inserting the key into the lock on the front door, she twisted the cylinder to open the door. A small, red LED began flashing on a panel next to the entrance. Wynne walked straight past it to get to the refrigerators - and three seconds later, the newly-installed alarm system activated a strobe light and a siren that went off at maximum volume.

"Hooooooooooooooleh shittt!  I plum fergotta'boutt'a dang-blasted alahh-rm!" Wynne cried as she clapped her hands over her ears.

Spinning around, she tried to make her way back to the panel without bumping into anything, but the strobe light was so vicious that she slammed into half the tables on her way there - one of which tipped over and landed with a rattling thud that sent the little reed basket containing various shakers and napkins flying.

By then, Blackie and Goldie had already vacated the premises and were busy setting a new world record for hasty retreats for German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers. One hundred yards further up Main Street, they finally stopped and turned around to stare at the latest calamity to befall their denim-clad owner. A few merry sounds escaped Goldie that almost seemed like laughter; Blackie just shook her head over and over.

The strobe light and the siren stopped when Wynne punched in the correct code, but it was already too late by then - 'Quick Draw' Beatrice Reilly flew across the street with her service firearm in her right hand while the other held her nightstick poised to strike. "All right, just what the hell do you people think you are doing?!"

Diego put his hands up out of sheer reflex but soon lowered them again. "Don't look at me, Deputy. I was just passin' by."

"Yeah, right…"

"No, honest!" Diego said with a grin. "If you hurry, you might still catch the real bandit-"

At the same time, Wynne came out to stand in the doorway. She cast a final, gloomy glare at the offending alarm panel before she moved out onto the sidewalk. "Haw-haw, Diegoh. Verrry funneh. Howdy, there, De-per-teh Quick Draw. Y'all wanna dubbel zerah or som'tin?  Them Smooth Apricots be all out 'cos I done took the last of 'em fer mah coolah boxes back hoah-me."

Beatrice holstered the pistol and shoved the nightstick back into its loop on her utility belt - her sour mask remained in place. "Are you trying to bribe me into forgetting about you disturbing the peace, Miss Donohue?  Both are finable offenses," she said as she reached for a special notepad that she kept in a pouch on her back.

"Naw, that ain't got nuttin' ta… do… whaddindahell, y'all be handin' me a fih-ne, there, de-per-teh?  Ah mean, seri'sleh?"

"I sure am, Miss Donohue," Beatrice said as she filled in the appropriate fields.

"Whaddahell for?!"

Once Beatrice had completed the fixed-penalty notice by adding her name and the exact date and time it had been issued, she tore the top page off the special notepad and handed it to Wynne. "For disturbing the peace. That's an eighty dollar fine."

"Holy shittt!  Y'all gotta be shittin' me, de-per-teh… naw, y'all ain't shittin' me," Wynne said as she studied the fine. "I mean… whaddinda-wohhhhhhrld?"

"Have a nice day, Miss Donohue. Mr. Benitez," Beatrice Reilly said before she spun around on her heel and strode back to the sheriff's office.

Diego chewed on his lips for a moment before he dared come closer to the seething Wynne. "So… didya get a Nineteen-Ten Special Brew for me, or…?"

"Yuh… yuh, I did. He'," Wynne mumbled and thrust the dark-golden can into her neighbor's waiting hands. "Lawrdie. Quick Draw ain't gonn' get no Chriss-mas card from me this ye'ah… no way, no how, no Ma'am. Anyhows. Drink up, friend… ya nevah know what kinda horrahs we gonn' be facin' tamorrah," she continued as she cracked open the can with a pssshhht!

A moment later, she and Diego leaned their heads back in perfect sync to sample the golden nectar known as beer.


Across the street, Mandy took a sip from a mug of steaming-hot coffee. Shaking her head in amusement over the odd - but typical - outcome to the doggy tale of the Hellbeast Of Rattler Gulch, she returned to her desk and the tall pile of paperwork that waited for her there…