Katrina frowned and ducked into a stand of brush several paces from the cave's mouth as the sound of hoofsteps carried up the winding dirt path behind her. Her sister had stayed by the forge to meet her when she returned from the vampire's lair; no one else would know she was not in town. So any other who would travel this path was not likely to be a friend.
She gripped her stake more tightly, once again cursing the fate that struck one sister with such a curse and not the other. In everything else, she and Ilsa supported each other; but in this, despite equally strong bodies and wills, Katrina stood alone. As the Professor said: she was the 'one girl in all the world'. But one was a lonely number when faced with men whom she must not kill.
This vampire had killed seventeen homesteaders, each of them in increasingly vicious ways. The news had been horrible enough to reach Albert's lab in San Francisco and prompt her journey to Oklahoma; but it had also been enough to draw bounty hunters and gunslingers of all kinds, very few as polite as the ones she'd met in Albert's company. Especially to a pair of female blacksmiths who said they hailed from No Man's Land.
Well. She could not kill a man; but she could defend herself, and she heard only one horse. She would strike him over the head, whoever he was, so that he could not interfere; then she would find the vampire, return to Ilsa and pack up immediately. They would leave orders unfilled-- but their purpose here would be complete, and it would be nice to see Albert again. He had not wanted them to travel alone, but he said John Bly had known of Watchers, and a vampire once of his gang would know what a scholar traveling with young women meant.
Decision made, Katrina tucked the stake through her belt and waited for the rider to crest the hill. In the darkness, she could not see the color of his horse or clothes, but she could see the gleam of the gun barrel in his left hand dimly reflecting the starlight. She held her breath, then leapt from the bushes as he passed, knocking him bodily from the saddle.
He might not have been expecting her, but he had been expecting something. Though he grunted as he hit the ground, he did not let go of his weapon. Katrina hastily wrestled his left arm back and away, keeping most of her weight centered on his torso, then pulled her other arm back for a knockout punch. He heaved his hips upward, trying to dislodge her, but all that came free was his hat, tumbling back on the earth behind him. She saw the gleam of wide, alarmed eyes in his shadowed face-- and then paused, frowning down at unexpectedly familiar features.
He stopped struggling at the same moment, voluntarily raising the hand she wasn't pinning up over his head. "Wait! You're one of the Schwenke sisters," he said, narrowing his eyes. "Katrina?"
"How do you know I'm not Ilsa?" she asked, curiously. Most men noticed only the muscles, the blond hair, and the German accent, in her experience; they were not so good at identifying them apart.
Brisco County Jr. smirked a little, abruptly relaxing beneath her, and gestured with his chin toward her still-clenched fist. "Ilsa doesn't play hardball. But what are you doing here?"
Ah; the interrogation. Katrina stared at his sprawled form for a long moment, weighing her options, then smiled wryly back at him. "Nothing you need to know," she said, regretfully.
He was the Professor's friend; he had ridden a steel horse and had touched the Orbs of the Professor's tales. He would believe her if she told him his quarry was a vampire; though he might try to explain it with science as some of the Professor's other friends did. He would ask questions, then carve his own stakes-- and try to join her hunt. Men of his kind always did. It was why Ilsa and Katrina had fled to No Man's Land before Professor Wickwire found them; it was why Katrina always left Ilsa behind on a hunt. She didn't want to watch anyone else die doing her job.
She sighed, then followed through with the punch. Brisco's eyes widened, then rolled back in his head as her fist connected with his jaw. He was down-- but not alone, as she was reminded a moment later. His horse had only run a few paces further without him, and at the sound of fist on flesh it whinnied in anger, rushing back up the path to charge her down.
Katrina leapt hastily back to her feet and stepped away, raising her hands. "I mean only to protect him," she said, feeling a little silly for doing so-- but the Wonder Horse was in all of the dime novels, many of which Albert had bought to share with the sisters, and he always said there was some truth in almost every legend. "There is a vampire near."
The horse stopped short at her words, kicking up small puffs of dirt in the darkness. Then he walked over to Brisco, planting all four hooves wide around his body, and nickered imperiously as though he understood.
She sighed in relief. "Thank you, Comet." He would stay safe, now, while she finished the hunt.
Dixie Cousins would not be pleased, when next the sisters returned to the Horseshoe Club as cover for Katrina's Slaying in San Francisco. But some things in life could not be avoided. The time it took to heat metal before it could be worked. The smell of an honest day's sweat staining her clothes. And the secrecy shrouding her nighttime job.
Dixie was an independent woman. She would understand.
Katrina shook her head, then turned back toward the cave, drawing the stake from her belt once more.