"Cap! Cap'n Cross! Get out here, sir. You gotta see this!"
Recognizing Salty's voice, Lewis ran back out on the double, Skinner close behind him. And, what they saw stopped them dead in their tracks.
The bodies of the half-giant viragos had vanished! In their place were the corpses of much-more petite women!!
"What in blazes...?" he began.
"They shrank," replied Salty: "Right before our very eyes!"
"He's right," added Tom: "One moment, they're built like dead grizzlies. The next moment, they were all shorter than my sister, back when she was still in her teens!"
"How on Earth is any of this possible?" muttered Lewis (mostly to himself).
The other men could only shake their heads in mutual puzzlement. Then, Tom knelt down and took a closer look at the bodies.
"Cap? You're gonna think I'm loco. But, the way these women are dressed; reed skirts and pierced nipples? I think they're...Karankawa!"
"Karankawa?!" echoed Skinner and Salty, in astounded unison.
"What's...Karankawa?" asked Hiram.
"Gulf Coast cannibal tribe," replied Lewis: "Supposedly wiped out before I was even born."
"Back in Germany," replied Fleischer: "...there are tales of nocturnal creatures called 'vampiren.' Undead corpses that drain the blood of the living! Maybe these are similar?"
"I don't know," shrugged Lewis: "All I'm sure about, at this moment, is that we've got to get to town. The buckboard is ruined. So, Skinner? You, Doc, and Leif will have to ride bareback on Leif's Shires. Tom? You take Hiram and round up those horses. Salty? You help me bring down the rest of our remuda.* Dutch? You stay on guard, down here."
"Ja wohl, mein hauptmann."
Five minutes later, Tom and Hiram found what was left of the wooden hitch that had kept the two draft horses together.
"Drat it!" cursed the former: "They've split up. Looks like we'll have to do the same. The hoofprints on the right side head southward. So, you go that way, Hiram. I'll follow the tracks headed north."
Hiram nodded, making sure his Spencer rifle was out and ready for trouble as he rode off.
After another five minutes, he found something totally unexpected. A young woman, with long dark hair, wearing what appeared to be the torn and tattered remnants of a white dress!
Thinking it might be the missing Lauren Findlay (he and Salty had heard the tale of the attack through the shack's open windows), Hiram hurriedly rode up and dismounted.
"Miss? Miss Findlay? Are you all right?"
The face that smiled up at him revealed fangs like those of a cat.
* * * * *
Tom was halfway back to where they had split up, when he heard the blood-curlding scream. He swiftly dropped the lead on the Shire he had found, and kicked his palomino into full gallop. In less time than it takes to tell, he came across Hiram's horse running back towards the O'Reilly Brothers' shack. And, looking back in the direction it had come from, he saw a bone-chilling sight.
A raven the size of a golden eagle was feeding on something in the prairie grass.
Tom immediately unsheathed his Spencer and began firing at it. The giant bird croaked in pain, but that was about it. It otherwise appeared able to fly off in total retreat.
Tom rode up and dismounted, finding his worst fears confirmed: Hiram had been shrunk to the size of an ear of corn. And, worse still? The bird had been disemboweling him alive!
"T-Tom? Is that...y-y-you?"
"Shhhh! Save your strength; lie still."
"No! No...t-time. Tell the cap...her name. He needs...to know...her name!"
"Whose name? Who are you talking about?"
And, with that, the little man died.