He stood hidden in the shadow of the tree, its bark biting into his naked back, his ears straining for the sound of the crunch of leaves beneath the hunter’s feet. The hunter, a moving shadow among a forest of shadows, passed the tree never knowing how close he was to his prey until it was too late. As the hunter passed the man came suddenly behind him and strong hands closed tightly around the hunter’s throat. The hunter tried to cry out, to struggle free, but could not. The fingers dug deeper into his throat until he ceased his efforts.
Overhead, the moon full and bloated, drifted indifferently.
When the killer was finished he stood over his victim for a minute until breath returned, then bent and stripped his victim. He was naked and very cold, in need of clothed, and the hunter was close enough to his size. When he was dressed he found a sharp pointed rock and began very carefully to tear the flesh from the dead man.
It was important that the hunter look as if he were killed by an animal, he felt. The rock was not a perfect instrument to simulate claw and teeth marks, but it was good enough. Presently he stood back from his work and looked down at it. It was good. It was necessary.
He turned and moved into the trees.
He was a young man, not tall, but lean and gaunt in the way that a wolf is lean and gaunt, and with a wolf’s strength. He moved among the trees with sureness, despite the darkness and his movement was loping, athletically graceful and quite soundless. He moved with such assurance that it came as a complete surprise to him that he suddenly stepped into a clearing and found himself face to face with another hunter and that hunter’s rifle aimed straight at his chest.
“Damn!” the hunter said. “Boy, you don’t know how close you came to getting yourself killed.”
“I – I’m sorry,” he said.
The hunter lowered his gun. He gave a rasping chuckle. “God damn, that would just about do it. Bagging another hunter instead of whatever it is we’re after.”
“The wolf,” the gaunt man said.
“That’s right, the wolf.” The hunter peered through the darkness at him a minute. Overhead light from the full moon poured down, catching the younger man’s face.
“Say, I don’t know you do I?” the hunter asked. “What’s your name?”
He hesitated only a moment. “Mann,” he said.
“Mann … You’re not from around here, are you? I’d know you if you was. I know everybody in these parts. Say, what happened to your gun?”
Mann realized then he had taken the dead man’s clothes, his knife, his boots – everything but the man’s gun.
“Well?” asked the older man.
“I – I lost it. Back there.” He pointed roughly in the direction from which he came.
The hunter came closer, peering intently. “You okay, Buddy? You seem a little … I don’t know. Flustered, maybe. You see something back there? Something maybe caused you to drop your gun.”
Mann did not answer.
The older man put a hand on his shoulder, and when he spoke his voice was friendlier, more reassuring. “Now don’t you worry about it. Believe you me, I know what it is to see something that scares you. It’s no disgrace. They’s two of us now. We can go back and look for it together. The idea of people hunting separately at night is plain foolishness, anyhow. Right?”
Mann nodded, unable to think of anything else. “Right,” he said.
“Now we’ll go back and take a look for your gun and whatever made you drop it, right? That’s the way. My name’s Charlie Henderson, incidentally.”
Mann managed a smile. He turned and started back into the woods, Henderson behind him.
He retraced his steps, swearing at himself for forgetting the gun. Henderson was smart – and alert. He wouldn’t be so easy to surprise as the other hunter.
Near the place where the mutilated corpse was, Mann stopped and looked around, as if trying to get his bearings.
“This the place?” Henderson asked.
Overhead the moon was full. Mann looked around again. “I think so.”
“Well, if you dropped your gun, it should be around here somewhere, shouldn’t it?”
“Then let’s have a look around for it, all right?”
Mann nodded. He looked around, saw nothing. He turned and saw Henderson probing into some bushes. Henderson looked up. “Well, better get looking,” he said.
Mann probed and prodded into the underbrush, pretending to search for the gun.
“It doesn’t seem to be around here,” Henderson said after a few minutes. “You sure this is the place?”
“No. Not sure.”
“It’s pretty dark in these woods, even with that moon. I guess one place looks pretty much like another. Let’s move on. You feel like telling me what happened?”
But before Mann could frame an evasion there came a sound. It was the sound of something moving through underbrush. Both men whirled toward it. At the edge of the clearing a wolf crouched – and as the men whirled, the wolf sprang.
With a snarl of pure hatred the creature leaped straight for Mann, fangs bared, ripping toward the man’s unprotected throat. Mann ducked and rolled to the ground with surprising speed. The wolf landed harmlessly and turned to attack again. Henderson raised his gun but before he could fire, Mann was on his feet, rushing toward the wolf. Before the beast could gather itself for a second spring, Mann was on its back, snarling and growling like a wolf himself. Moonlight glinted from his hunting knife as he raised it up and plunged it downward, again and again. The wolf cried in agony, thrashed, trying to free itself of the human. But it could not. Again and again, Mann’s hunting knife plunged home. Within seconds the wolf stopped its cries, its struggling.
Mann, shaken and gasping for air, stepped away from the dead animal.
“Damn it all,” said Henderson. He looked from the dead wolf to Mann. “Who the hell are you, Tarzan? I never seen anything like that.”
Mann just stood there.
Henderson took his arm and led him to a log. “You just sit down for a minute. Get your wind back, all right?”
Mann nodded, sat. He still held the knife limply in his right hand so that blood dripped from the blade to the leaves.
Henderson went back to the wolf and examined it. “It’s sure enough dead,” he said after a moment. “It’s sure a big one.”
He got back to his feet and looked at Mann. “You know, it went right for you just like it knew who you were and just plain hated you. Is this what scared you?”
Mann was still too shaken to talk, but he managed a nod.
Henderson nodded back at him as if in agreement. “Son of a gun, I never saw nothing like this before. I mean, here we are, out hunting for a thing nobody understands, a thing I don’t rightly believe in anyway, and I see a man kill a wolf with a knife, just like old Tarzan against one of them jungle lions in a movie. God damn, what a night!”
Something suddenly occurred to Mann. “That the one we’re hunting?”
“Likely. Of course it hasn’t turned back into a man. Do werewolves turn back into a man when they’re killed or do they wait for sun up? Course, I don’t believe in werewolves. These full moon killings don’t prove it was a werewolf, that’s a lot of poppycock any way you look at it. I guess the full moon drives some wolves crazy, is all. They howl at the moon, don’t they?” He looked at man. “You don’t believe in werewolves, do you?”
“Yes, I do.”
“You do? You got the look of an educated man about you. I figured wouldn’t believe in a thing like that. Well, I’m going to take a look around. There might be another wolf somewhere.”
“Good,” said Mann, absently.
Henderson moved toward the edge of the clearing and peered into the woods. Mann, seated on his log, looked up at the sky: the moon, full and yellow as if it were about to burst with its ripeness. A ripeness of evil. What was it doing to him? Turning him against his own … turning him into a killer.
But soon the sun would be up and it would be over for a while.
Henderson had vanished into the woods. Mann sat on the log, waiting. He knew the direction Henderson had gone and he knew he would not go far. It was just a matter of time.
And sure enough then came the sound of Henderson calling him.
Mann moved into the trees, looking for him. He found him standing over the mutilated corpse.
It’s Fred Riley,” Henderson said. “There’s enough light to be sure of that. Looks like a wolf, all right. But his clothes are gone. What would a wolf want with his clothes?”
Henderson’s back was to him. Mann didn’t take the time to explain things. He drove the knife through Henderson’s jacket, his shirt, into his back in the region between his shoulder blades. Henderson gave a small gasp in an effort to cry out. Mann twisted the knife blade, pulled it out, plunged it in again. Henderson fell dead.
There was no time now, no time to rend the body. Not even time to pull the knife out. Soon the sun would be up. Soon –.
Mann moved away from the two bodies. Through the trees he thought he could detect the faint lightening of the night sky in the east. He stopped.
There was no time.
He tore the stolen clothes off.
He let them fall to the ground at his feet and stood naked as the sun rose. The change gripped him, the horrible agony of metamorphosis.
The change …
He dropped to his knees, unable to stand erect. His hands fell upon damp leaves. He could feel fur growing on his back and sides; his face was changing shape, the nose and chin elongating into a muzzle.
The sun was rising.
As daylight colored the sky in the east a wolf stood beside a discarded pile of clothes. It turned, detecting the scent of its enemy, man. Its hackles rose and it gave a low, meaningful growl.
Then loped away.
Illustrated by Jim Garrison