The highway snaked through evergreens, over the mountains where firs gave way to pines, and then the forest ended suddenly. A bolt piercing the desert, the highway seemed to glow in moonlight. Sagebrush flickered through headlights, spidery ghosts dodging the 1951 Buick hearse speeding along the midnight ribbon with the mortician at the wheel and Death, a silent passenger along for the ride.
The little town of Bend, nestled beside volcanic peaks, sat at the crossroads between timber and ranching. The hearse lumbered through town, splashing through light of streetlamps revealing quiet parking lots housing sleeping automobiles and the occasional pedestrians on the sidewalk. At the southern edge of town the sidewalk gave way to burnt red rock and pine trees. The hearse rolled into a dusty parking lot and stopped beside a ‘57 Chevy.
Augustus Thyme climbed out of the Buick and gave the establishment a crooked look. Pine Mountain Tavern according to the hand-carved sign on the roof. The light was on, and he could make out music playing inside. He checked his revolver in the holster and pulled his coat closed. Out here in ranch country with a gun hanging from his belt, he felt a little like a cowboy—a cowboy without cattle. Trying to hold back his nervousness, he bit his lip.
Inside, the jukebox played “Love Me Tender.” The fat man behind the bar shot Augustus a glance and went back to reading a book. Sitting at the bar, head hanging with troubles of the day, a scrawny man in a gray suit nursed a beer along like he was savoring his last drink on Earth.
Augustus ordered a shot of whiskey. As the bartender poured the drink, Augustus politely asked for directions to the ranch.
“I can’t imagine the Pine-Bar expecting you so late,” said the bartender.
The scrawny man snickered and said, “Pine-Bar not expecting nobody no more.”
“Shutdown years ago,” said the bartender. He looked up at the ceiling in thought. “That old codger still lives there if I reckon correctly. Neville, what’s the old man’s name, again?”
Neville slurped from his beer and stared at the glass for a moment.
“Hell if I know.”
“What can you tell me about this old timer?” asked Augustus.
“Keeps to himself,” said Neville. He gazed at the bartender with narrowed eyes. “They say that old fart is over a hundred years old.”
The bartender shook his head and batted his hand at Neville.
It was starting to sound like whomever had left the note on his door had pointed him in the right direction. All he needed now was a proper vampire hunter, someone with experience in these matters. How does one go about hiring a vampire hunter? It wasn’t like he could browse the phone book. The wanted ads, perhaps.
“Who’s they?” said Augustus.
Johnny Cash’s voice came over the jukebox singing, “Ring of Fire.”
“Them,” said Neville. He lazily twirled his finger in the air and shot Augustus a crooked look. “Old folk in town.”
Augustus downed the whiskey, but it didn’t extinguish his nerves. He pushed the glass around with his fingers. He didn’t want to go to the ranch alone, not at night anyway. He didn’t want to wait long to find out if his son was there, either. Maybe a quick gander.
Gaze roving over the coat bulging over Augustus’s hip, a look of curious concern darkened the bartender’s face. He asked, “What’s your business with Pine-Bar, stranger?”
Augustus studied the bartender’s face, the building suspicion. The man sneered revealing teeth, sharp teeth like a vampire. Feeling his eyes bulge, Augustus gritted his teeth trying to hide his surprise. Recalling his earlier episode, he reminded himself it was his intoxicated imagination seeing vampires everywhere. Searching for the truth, he focused. The sneer seemed to fade, but his eyes grew heavy and he looked down at the empty shot glass.
“Family business,” said Augustus. His hand shook, and he clenched his fist.
He stole a quick peek finding the bartender appearing normal. He nodded.
“Cool beans, man,” said Neville. “Drink up for it’s the witching hour!”
Heat scrambled up Augustus’s legs, and he began to perspire. Music from the jukebox mutated, horns blaring, and Johnny Cash’s voice lowering an octave, slowing. Neville cackled like a witch in slow motion. Cash’s voice took on a disturbing tone like Sam Hill inviting Augustus into the fire.
The bartender set the shot down, and Augustus slammed it back feeling the fire racing down his throat.
Creaking door swinging open let the cool breeze extinguish the heat. Neville and the bartender glanced over at the entrance, and Augustus twisted around to look.
Standing in the doorway was the driver of the dark Cadillac, the vampire whom had taken young Samuel Thyme.