The ruthless sun screamed down, making the horizon shiver. Somewhere out of sight, a hawk cried thinly, its voice lost to the snatching wind and vast expanse of sky.

But beyond these scarce desert murmurs, the town of Hardy was silent as a tomb. The streets were empty, save for the occasional stray dog, but Ramona Romero saw more than a few faces flicker in the windows, watching them pass. From the moment she and Miguel had ridden in, Ramona had the sense of a place living on bated breath. It felt a bit like pressing her thumb against an old bruise.

Their horses’ hooves scuffed over the packed dirt of the town square. A stone fountain squatted in the center, the bottom bone dry.

Miguel pulled his horse to a stop. Ramona could just make out her brother’s eyes glimmering in the shadow of his wide-brimmed hat, bright with adrenaline and drink. “They’ve changed the décor since we last passed through,” he said with his lopsided puppy dog smile.

The base of the fountain was scattered with a haphazard collection of decorative crosses. They were covered in dust, but Ramona knew that didn’t suggest much. Dust coated everything here – the rooftops, the porch railings, Ramona’s eyelashes, her lungs. Her mother used to say that Ramona hadn’t been free of the womb a minute before dust already lined her fingernails.

“We’re close,” she said, scanning the storefronts that circled the town square.

Something twitched in one of the windows, and her hand flashed to her holster, but it was only the breeze catching a curtain. She gritted her teeth and looked to Miguel. Without a word, they pulled their bandanas up over their noses, drawing their faces into obscurity. He tipped his chin toward the saloon, a false front building with a long-faded sign. Ramona nodded.

Miguel leapt from his saddle to the ground. The silver spurs on his boots rattled as he led his horse to a fencepost. They were new – Miguel had bought them with the spoils of their last catch. In case the bastards come at me from behind, he’d said. He lifted his mask long enough to give his horse a parting kiss on the nose before sauntering up the rickety steps and through the swinging saloon doors.

Ramona dismounted, tied her horse next to Miguel’s, and followed him inside.

The front window was so dirty it might as well have been boarded up. Despite being midday, a row of grimy patrons lined the counter. The saloon was as quiet as the rest of Hardy had been – hardly a noise disturbed the stale air besides clinking glasses and occasional whispers of conversation.

In the minute he’d been out of her sight, Miguel had joined the locals, a fresh drink already in hand. She watched him lean toward the barmaid wiping glasses behind the counter and murmur something that made her laugh.

Ramona took the stool next to Miguel. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him duck under his rifle strap and set the gun against his thigh, slow and careful.

“Anything for you?” the barmaid asked Ramona.

“We’re actually hoping to get some information, ma’am,” Miguel said.

The woman drew back, lips pressed together. Ramona glanced at Miguel, trying to see him how the barmaid would. His dark skin was smeared with grime. An old cut sliced through one eyebrow, and locks of hair clung to his temples, slick with sweat. Ramona wondered if the barmaid noticed the rust-colored stains on his tan coat. She wondered if she noticed the scars on his chest where his collar hung unbuttoned. She wondered if she noticed the dangerous glint in his eyes. Maybe Ramona only saw it because she knew it was reflected in her own.

But something must have registered, because she finally said, “I’m not sure what you mean.” Ramona was sure she knew exactly what he meant.

“Let us help,” Miguel continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “We can protect you – protect everyone – but we need you to tell us what you know.”

The barmaid eyed him warily. Any previous whispered conversation between the other patrons had stopped, and Ramona’s skin prickled in response to a dozen watching eyes.

“Let us help,” Miguel repeated. He knocked back the brim of his hat with a finger and raised his voice so the rest of the room could hear. “Tell us where the monster is.”

There was a rush of movement – a man sitting nearby burst to his feet and grabbed Miguel by the collar. A heartbeat later, one of Ramona’s twin revolvers pressed to his temple. The man froze, and Miguel shoved him off with a laugh. He crashed against a barstool and fell to the ground.

“You’ll get us killed,” the man growled. “You’ll get us all killed.”

Miguel’s mouth was covered, but his eyes crinkled into a smile. “Such little faith.”

“Please just go,” the barmaid said. Her face was pale and small, her voice to match. “We don’t want to be involved.”

Ramona jerked the barrel of her gun toward the cross hanging on the wall over the barmaid’s head. It was identical to the ones by the fountain – splintered, crudely carved wood. Hurried. Desperate. “A bit late for that,” she said.

No one responded.

Miguel sighed and lifted his mask long enough to down the rest of his drink. “Alright, then. God bless you all.” He tipped his hat and slung his rifle over his back.

Ramona knew he did not believe in God.

The man still crouched on the floor where he’d fallen; Ramona stepped around him to follow Miguel through the doors and out onto the porch. She waited for the hum of conversation to resume, but there was nothing.

“Maybe we overshot,” Miguel said quietly. “Could have been the town back north.”

Ramona squinted at the horizon. “That was a ghost town. This thing can’t feed off ghosts,” she said. “It’s here. I can tell.”

They stood for a moment, staring out at the empty square and the hot void of a desert beyond. Miguel leaned against the railing and removed his hat to scratch his head. The saloon patrons couldn’t see them here, but Ramona couldn’t shake the feeling of watching eyes.

“These people are laying down to die,” she muttered.

“They’re scared,” Miguel said, slouching forward onto his elbows. “You can’t blame them for being scared.”

“Yes,” Ramona said. “I can.”

“You’re still trying to save them, aren’t you?”

Before she had a chance to reply, the air shattered.

Ramona and Miguel leapt apart; there was a smoking bullet hole in the brim of Miguel’s hat. Behind them, the saloon window had imploded. The people inside cowered against the sudden light pouring in.

Ramona pulled a revolver from each hip. They twirled in her hands, and she aimed them at a balcony across the street. The doors were ajar, and she could just make out a figure silhouetted in the dark room beyond the dirty curtains.

“You missed,” she called, pulling the revolver hammers back with her thumbs.

Two more shots rang out from the balcony room, and Ramona rolled to the side. Wood paneling splintered behind her, and someone inside the saloon screamed. Miguel dropped into a crouch on the other side of the porch and set the butt of his rifle against his shoulder. Another shot fired, missing Ramona by inches.

“One, two…” she counted, the way her father always had before he made a shot, once upon a time ago. “Four.

On four, Miguel fired, and the figure in the balcony room stumbled and disappeared from sight.

“You go around,” Ramona said, and jumped down the saloon steps. She kept her revolvers up as she hurried across the street, head low. She paused behind the defunct fountain, bracing herself for more gunshots. The wind whistled, snatching one of Ramona’s dreads loose. Her veins buzzed – it felt like relief.

When nothing came, Ramona swept to the building and nudged open the door with the toe of her boot. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Miguel disappear around the corner toward the back exit.

Inside it was dark. The building must have once been an inn, with a reception desk, bar, and staircase swirling up to the second floor. Now it was a husk; Ramona’s boots crunched over old peanut shells and broken glass. She mounted the staircase, but froze at a flicker of movement. She glanced up toward the gaping darkness of the second floor before turning to the desk.

The crumpled form of a man curled behind it. His coat was black, and she didn’t see the blood until he shifted toward her and the fabric shone red and wet. The cravat caked around his throat might have once been white.

“Please…” the man groaned. “I’m…”

Ramona grimaced. “I’m sorry.” He would be dead within minutes. If not dead, then something far worse, given the origins of his wounds. She removed her hat and knelt at the man’s side to touch his hand. His trembling fingers clung to hers.

Her head shot up at the tell-tale creak of a floorboard upstairs. Replacing her hat, Ramona stood, aimed her revolver at the man at her feet, and closed her eyes. She pulled the trigger. “I’m sorry,” she said again.

She spared the body a final glance on her way up the stairs – only one, but a glance nonetheless. It was a bad habit. In the broken form she saw a dozen other broken forms, some with faces she recognized, others with ones she didn’t.

Better alive than dead, but better dead than a monster.

Her stomach turned. She took the stairs two at a time.

Ramona flung open a door just as the man inside swung a leg out the window. Not a man, she reminded herself. She fired without thinking, just as the creature slipped its other leg out the window. Her bullet hit it in the shoulder, knocking it off balance as it jumped.

She ran to the window. The creature had managed to roll and rise to his feet, clutching his shoulder. There was no blood. It turned its face up toward hers. Human, with unkempt hair and heart-shaped lips and a lumpy nose – maybe broken once. Human, until it grinned and the elongated canine teeth flashed white. Someone’s blood smudged its chin. Human, until it wasn’t.

The creature turned to run, but Ramona spun the chamber in her revolver and fired once, twice. The creature collapsed just as Miguel came around the corner of the inn. He looked between his sister in the window and the figure at his feet, an eyebrow raised.

“All yours,” she said, tipping her hat and sliding from the windowsill to land in a crouch next to him.

Miguel pulled a wooden stake from inside his coat. The pure silver tip glinted as he swung it down in an arc that reminded Ramona of the drop of a scythe, stabbing the vampire in the chest. He pushed it deep, twisting.

“Dead,” Miguel said, yanking off his bandana. His mouth quirked up into a smile, even as his chest heaved. “Or re-dead? Double dead?”

“Something like that,” Ramona said. She took out a pocket knife and dug a tally into the handle of her revolver. Seven. Technically it was six, but Ramona had never been able to shake her father’s superstition about the number three, and always skipped it.

“Super-dead?” Miguel continued. “Damn, I need a drink.”

A horse nickered behind them, and Ramona and her brother whipped around. Ramona drew up her bandana with one hand and cocked her revolver with the other. She only let the barrel drop a little when she saw a man in black riding toward them, a tarnished badge pinned to his breast.

“Y’all the vampire hunters?” he called.

“We dabble, sure,” Miguel replied, wrenching the stake free of the vampire’s body.

Ramona’s lip curled. “And I suppose you’re the good-for-nothing sheriff who left this town for dead?”

The man gave her a thin smile. “Let me treat you to a drink.” Without waiting for their response, he nudged his horse around and started back toward the town square.

Miguel grinned and shot Ramona a wink. “Man read my mind,” he said. She knew getting paid was his favorite part of their job – whether it be money, a lingering admiring glance from a passing damsel, or a free whiskey.

Ramona’s favorite part had already passed.