In the late 1850's, the tiny town of Casey, Texas made a pact with a vampire. Calling herself Phaedra, she agreed to keep the Comanches from attacking, as long as the town provided her with strong, hot blooded young men upon which to feed and turn into her sex slaves.
When Lee Hardcastle loses his horse in the Concho River and decides to spend the night in Casey, he has no idea that Phaedra has elected to make him one of her own. But Livvy, the Paragon's owner's slave girl, has plans of her own, and Lee is the key to both her freedom and her revenge.
August 27th, 1852
The sun was a drop of blood poised in the cleavage of bare breasted mountains by the time Lee Hardcastle trudged up the dirt road that dead ended at the tiny town of Casey, Texas. His saddle and bedroll were tossed over his shoulder along with one anemic looking saddle bag that swung limply behind him. An empty canteen patted his hip as he strode down the dusty red clay road looking for the livery stables. The palisade of bald mountains cast eerie shadows down upon the small town and the sun, huge, red and bloated, sat poised between the mountains like a ruby caught between the breasts of a dangerous woman.
Lee eased his possessions onto the ground. He removed a faded bandana, stiff with sweat and grime, from his hip pocket and wiped his face. Replacing the bandana, Lee studied his surroundings, and as he did so, he was unsure if he wanted to stay in town or not.
Casey was typical of tiny western towns that knew a brief boom, and then vaporized almost overnight in the West Texas heat. A decaying Catholic mission squatted in the center of town. Buildings, shabbily constructed of adobe and wood that the elements reduced to a wind burned gray, huddled around the mission as if in comfort. A few tired looking horses, brown and dust covered, swished their tails absently as they stood against hitching posts waiting for their masters to return.
If it weren’t for the horses Lee was sure the town had been abandoned.
True enough, small towns liked to close down around sunset, with the exception of the saloon which carried on all night long, especially if ranchers from outlying areas used this small stop to pause and rejuvenate themselves before driving the herd on to San Angelo. At least that’s what Lee assumed, but found it strange that there were no cattle pens on the edge of town. This suggested that nobody stopped in Casey if they could help it. And I won’t either, he thought as he retrieved his tack, if I can get a horse before the livery closes up for the night.
Lee found the livery on the right hand side of the mission. He approached the dark maw of the barn, feeling somewhat unsettled. He stopped for an instant and looked behind him, certain that he was being watched. He peeked inside half expecting it to be vacant, but found to his relief that it was not. Two youths were working inside; one was around eleven years old with hair the color of the straw he was tossing, and the other a redheaded boy of around sixteen. Neither of them seemed to notice his arrival.
Lee cleared his throat, hoping to catch their attention. His shadow lay out long and lean against the floor as he watched the tow-headed youth with a gimp leg continue to bed down the stall. The boy noticed the shadow, paused and looked at him. Before Lee could speak, the boy ducked his head, tossed the pitchfork into the hay and limped outside to the corral out back. He hobbled over to a heavy-set man directing water into a trough. He nodded to the boy, wiped his hands on his overalls and stepped up to Lee with one meaty hand outstretched.
“Comanches?” the man asked conversationally as he offered Lee his hand.
“Sandbar, Lee replied, accepting the man’s hand. “Damned thing got my stud when he tried scrambling up the bank. I was lucky to get out myself.”
“Lucky man indeed,” The liveryman said, eyeing the saddle as he released Lee’s hand. “The Concho is bad low but high enough to cover a sandbar or two.” He spat out a wad of tobacco as if in emphasis then added, “Surprised you managed to get your saddle.”
Lee offered the man a weary smile, “It was a fight but I managed.”
“You’ll be staying in town then.”
“I’m hoping to get a horse. I gotta get back on the road.”
“Where you headed?”
“Fort Stockton. I was hoping to get a few miles closer by the time the moon rises.”
“I’ve got a gelding out back you might be interested in, but you’ll want to see him good in the daylight. He’s a scrub but damned sturdy. He’ll do to get you to Stockton. And you can leave your tack here; I won’t charge you nothing for that.”
“Can’t sell the gelding to me now?”
“Sorry, but I’m a fixing to close up. The boys and I don’t live in town and it’s a five mile trip back to the ranch. I like to be home before sundown all on account of the wife being expecting and all.”
“Looks like you’re not gonna make it,” Lee said, squinting at the bloated sun settling between the mountains.
“We’ll make it in time if we leave right now, which is what we’re a finna do.” The stableman paused, chewed on his lower lip in contemplation. “I’d take you on up to my place but there ain’t no room, especially not with the new baby. You’d have to sleep in the barn, and there’s no call for that, not with the Paragon right down the street there. I hear they’ve got real feather beds and a water closet too.”
“I don’t mean to pry, but didn’t you say you’re wife is expecting?”
“Yeah,” the stableman said, flushing. “It was a surprise to us too, especially since little James is only three months old.”
“It happens,” Lee said, thinking back to his sister Bess, who had two children nine months apart. Despite this, Lee was certain the liveryman was lying to him. If he didn’t want to put me up for the night, all he had to do was just say so, Lee thought.
“I understand.” Lee said, looking out toward town once again.
“The Paragon’s real nice. You can get a bath and a shave. They also put on a little supper too. Their stew is pretty good. Bath is a nickel, kinda high if you ask me, but with water getting scarce—”
Lee touched the brim of his hat. “Thankee,” he said “But if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather go ahead and buy that gelding from you now and be on my way.”
“Ah, there ain’t no call for that. It can keep till morning.” The liveryman paused, and Lee thought he looked ‘twitchy.’ “Like I said, we’re fixing to leave and you look like you’re about to drop in your tracks. Besides, there’s Comanches out in those mountains. They’ll skin you alive if they catch you.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Lee said doubtfully.
“And we do have the Paragon.” The livery man reiterated, his face flushing a violent shade of purple. “It don’t look like much from the outside but it’s the best saloon between here and San Angelo.” He pointed at the run down building constructed of a mashed together mess of shiplap and adobe “There’s some nice looking gals that work there too, in case you get lonesome.”
“Awful quiet for a saloon,” Lee stated as he stepped further out into the street.
The liveryman laughed as he joined him. “It is now, but wait till the cattle drive comes through. It’ll liven up.”
“And when will that be?”
“October,” the stableman said.
“Awful late in the year for a cattle drive,” Lee noted. “And I find it peculiar there ain’t no cattle pens.”
His companion flushed again, the fine muscles around his eyes twitching as he stared out toward the mountains.
“Tornado took out the corral last spring,” the stableman said after a lengthy pause, “and the cotton shed too.”
“You’re lying to me,” Lee said quietly.
“Well—” the stableman stuttered. He looked over his shoulder, his behavior odd, nervous, as if he were being watched.
“What’s going on?” Lee demanded.
“You don’t look like a man who’s worrying about nothing,” Lee noted. “And you’ve lied to me, twice already. Once about your wife and again about the cattle pens, so what are you playing at?”
“Nothing Mister, honest.”
“Why are you so interested in getting me into the Paragon?”
“I don’t mean no harm, mister. It’s just that we don’t get many strangers around here, and the bartender is my wife’s brother. I just thought he could use the extra money.”
It was a feasible explanation, yet something didn’t set right about the way the stable master looked at him and out toward the bald mountains in the distance. It made him nervous. Almost nervous enough to go out of town and sleep under the first mesquite tree he came to. He cast a furtive glance at the Paragon, again feeling that chill that had nothing to do with the weather.
“I’ll pay you triple whatever you’re offering for that horse if you’ll get it out now.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t. I really have to be going,” the stableman stammered, mopping sweat off of his forehead with a bandana that might once have been red. “Boys,” he called as he stuffed the stiff piece of cloth back into his hip pocket. “Come on, Shep. It’s getting late.”
Lee stepped back out onto the windswept red dirt road and watched as the liveryman and his boys drove off into the dusk. Feeling strangely abandoned, he crossed the street and stepped onto the boardwalk. As if on cue people left the shops and hurried out into the street. Several tired looking women wearing long black veils rushed scabby kneed children onto buckboards while their husbands waited with nervous tension at the reins. Odd, Lee thought, I didn’t see them a minute ago. Where did they come from?
Lee saw a preacher approaching and he tipped his hat. “Nice evening for it, enit, parson?” he asked. The minister turned on his heel and fled across the street, his black jacket flapping in the hot dry air as he went.
Puzzled, Lee watched as the minister disappeared down a side street. Several people were on the other side of the red dirt road, clumped together like branding steers. He noticed with an uncomfortable sensation forming in his guts that they were staring at him. And not in an offhanded friendly way when people see strangers come into their midst, but in a scared, trapped animal sort of way. Several Mexicans saw him too. They crossed themselves and rode quickly out of town.
Within minutes, Lee was the only man left on the boardwalk
Again, Lee considered leaving town and sleeping under the nearest grove of mesquite trees, but his provisions went down with his horse. Yet his instincts told him that staying here was a catastrophically bad idea. Unless he intended to strike out in the morning without his saddle and no food or water, he’d have to stay in Casey whether he wanted to or not.
“It’s just a town,” he muttered to himself. “ You've been riding so long that you've forgotten how it feels to be around folks. Keep being unneighborly and you’ll go feral altogether.”