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Otto Zimmerich

"That's how you get them...teach 'em while they're young."

0 · 385 views · located in Dogs in God's Vineyard

a character in “Dogs in Almighty God's Vineyard”, as played by Nekriist


Name: Otto Zimmerich

Nickname(s): The Teuton, The Butcher of Drywell

Age: 34

Years of Service:
16 years

Weapons/Equipment: Otto's main weapon is a model 1876 Winchester lever-action rifle, of a matte black finish. For executions, or close quarters gun battles, he uses his fathers guns, two long-barreled Colt Single Action .45 revolvers with a similar black finish. For rare occasions, he possesses a Zweihander sword, a great two handed weapon as tall as he stands. Of course, this sword is rather unwieldy, and is often carried for dramatic effect or executions of extreme severity.

The only other items of note are a engraved container of consecrated earth, a winged plate helmet, a leather bound copy of The Book of LIfe, and a coat of chain mail

Otto is everything most Americans would imagine a German looks like. Solidly built, with a square jaw, harsh cheekbones, and cold blue eyes. His close-cropped, dirty blonde hair is beginning to gray at the edges prematurely, but his face retains a harsh but youthful countenance.

For clothes, Otto typically wears simple, bland clothes, over sturdy leather boots. His coat is collarless--more like a robe than anything else--and brilliant white, a symbol of the Faith in contrasting black running the length and width of the back. Upon his left breast is a a patch representing his old family coat-of-arms: A bear rampant upon a field of red, bisected by dark green.

Personality: As an adventurous youth, Otto took to the Faith like a man whose thirst could not be quenched. His judgement was swift, and the penalties harsh. That was years ago.

Many Dogs find themselves at a moral crossroads as the glow of their divine purpose begins to fade, and some become withdrawn. Like some others in his line of work, a darkness has grown in the pit of his soul, but its effect on his personality have had the opposite effect. As a young man, Otto was all fire and brimstone, with little time for humor or anecdotes. As the darkness grows, and his cynicism comes to encompass more and more of his life, he seeks to open himself up more to those around him. It is almost as if companionship will help keep his growing doubts (and guilt) at bay. The support and presence of other Dogs helps him fulfill his duties with the exacting finality it requires.

To those around him, he occasionally doles out cynical witticisms and grim humor. He is open to conversation, and more than willing to impart advice to younger Dogs. There are times though, where that advice borders on gloomy to plain nihilistic as he often times gets caught up in his internal struggle.

Otto speaks perfect english, with only a trace of Germanic accent, and in tough situations may blurt out something in "the old tongue"--German.

History: Otto Zimmerich was born the son of poor German immigrants in Boston. From birth, he was raised in a harsh, almost Prussian household that was made to instill strict discipline and an unshakeable belief in god.

However, much of his childhood was spent hearing the old Germanic folktales of Wagnerian splendor. These tales--told by his father in awed tones when the man would get drunk at night--did more to shape the rest of his life than any beating or church service. In his early teens, he faced the harsh prospect, and dim outlook of a life working a fishing trawler with his father to eke out an existence.

Unwilling to resign himself to such a life, he stole a horse and his father's revolvers and rode west, away from a miserable life and the authorities. Filled with a need for adventure, and drunk on the stories his father had told him, he was determined to find a life of excitement. And ever west he rode, following the tales and wonder people told about the frontier.

It was a miracle the boy ever made it. Often on his own, he evaded death numerous times on his journey. One night, he was ambushed by a bear in the wilderness. Though the bear died in a torrent of gunfire, the boy was badly mauled and bleeding out. While unconscious, a traveler stumbled upon him. Many days later, the boy woke up, finding his wounds almost completely healed. And he found himself in a wonderful city.

Otto would come to find out that this place was called--rather fittingly--New Life, and the man who had rescued him, a Watchdog. Dazzled by his surroundings, and taking his miraculous survival and subsequent healing as a miracle of God, he had finally found his place.

In his youth, he took to The Faith with an enthusiasm tempered with Prussian resolve. The man who had rescued him did so because he recognized potential in that bullet riddled bear corpse. And he was right. With training, Otto became a weapon of divine fury. German mettle met zealous belief, and he remade himself as a modern Teutonic Knight.

Years have passed though, and the blinding brilliance of fanaticism has become tarnished by growing cynicism at the duty he has to perform. Still, he carries it out. But each pull of the trigger is a fraction of a second longer, decisions a moment longer to make, and each execution another secretly downed shot of fire water.

There are times, in his growing cynicism, that he wonders if his duty is a sin so great that no judgment on this earthly plane will atone for it. In other times he wonders if God really intended man to carry out judgment on his behalf. But Otto is good at what he does, and it's partly that knowledge that helps him to continue meting out punishment and purity across the land.

His nickname, "The Teuton" was coined by the townspeople of Drywell, after he notoriously judged and executed six townspeople in one morning--or as one man put it, "Just in time for lunch."--for crimes ranging from prostitution to taking the Lord's name in vain. Records kept by the Territorial Authority about the incident include an eyewitness report;

"There was a mist in the morning, and much of the town was already filled with townsfolk going about their business. We all noticed a figure upon a horse, shadowed by the veil cast by the damp morning. Wings sprouted from his head, and those Faithful among us could have sworn an angel had ascended from heaven. From that obscuring white cloud we could hear him quoting scripture from The Book in an unbreakable voice that burned with the fire of conviction.

As the figure came closer, the mists parted, and we beheld a Knight from days of old. We knew immediately that the man was a Watchdog, come to punish the unfaithful. He needn't question anyone, for those with the fear of sin in their hearts, the ran. The first, Maggie Jameson was a prostitute. A nice enough lady, and a single mother of two babies. He had a pistol to her head, and told her that she need but repent earnestly, and embrace a life of devotion and moral living. We noticed he had a peculiar way of pronouncing certain words, like old Schultz who owned the mill outside of town. I think Maggie was too scared to repent. Us Faithful--we liked her, nice for a sinner--urged her to repent, but she could only open and close her mouth like a fish out of water.

Satisfied, he shot her without further comment. A man in the crowd, who was only passing through the territory, took the Lord's name in vain in his astonishment, and the Watchdog swiftly rendered judgement on him..."

So begins...

Otto Zimmerich's Story

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Character Portrait: Anna Ward Character Portrait: Horatio Morale Character Portrait: Otto Zimmerich Character Portrait: Augustus Sharpe Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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Episode One: The Red Road

The scorching sun hung high above in the sky, blasting its unrelenting rays upon everyone in its sight. The four Dogs riding forward were wearing cloaks to prevent sunburn, but they could feel the heat nonetheless. As far as they all could tell, it promised to be another regular afternoon in the West.

However, this would be the Packs first mission together. All of them had just been assigned under Horatio Morale's command, and this would be the first time any of them had worked with each other. Some of the Dogs may have known their new comrades from the past, but none of them had ever been in a Pack with the Dogs present. This would be a trial of sorts for them, for they would see how the other acted and worked first hand, and if they could truly function together as a unit.

As they continued on, a town came into sight in the distance. There, they would begin their first mission. The small settlement was called Red Road, named after a nearby trail. According to the Minister of the Watchdogs, Red Road had been experiencing some grave trouble lately, and would need all the help it could get from the Dogs.

Soon the Dogs arrived in the town, where a fair amount of people were already waiting for them. A few of the townspeople dismissed them offhand, thinking them simple travelers. However, the more observant of them caught a glimpse of the Dog insignia on their coats. Word soon spread that a Pack of Dogs were in Town, and by the time the Dogs had reached the center of town, a good sized crowd had gathered around, gawking at them. Reactions amongst the townsfolk were mixed; many were happy at the sight of the Dogs, while others seemed angry, perhaps fearful.

It was to be expected, of course. Not all citizens of the West were Faithful, even though most of the religion's followers lived there. And a lot of people did not like the Dogs at all, and even some among the Faithful did not have a good view of the Dogs, since they did not like having their Faith questioned, or their buried secrets aired for the world to see.

Out of the crowd, a relatively youthful man stepped out of the crowd and approached the dogs. He had a tin star badge on the right breast of his shirt, and a holstered gun on his hip. The man was also of obvious African descent, his dark skin evident in the harsh sunlight.

"Are you fellows Dogs? Thank the Lord Almighty! I'm glad to finally have some help around here! I'm, Sheriff, Thompson. A pleasure to meet you folks."

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Character Portrait: Anna Ward Character Portrait: Horatio Morale Character Portrait: Otto Zimmerich Character Portrait: Augustus Sharpe Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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Otto Zimmerich muttered quietly to himself. His face was swathed in a red scarf, to protect the fair skin of his face, and it was soaked in sweat. Beneath him, his black colt, Todesengel, likewise was soaked in sweat. The land was harsh and unforgiving here, though it suited the Faithful and their principles of hard work and a hard life. Gently resting across the neck of his horse was Otto's favorite weapon, his black Winchester lever-action. The Watchdog didn't expect any immediate trouble, but in a land like this, assuming safety often led to death. And so it was with a loaded rifle he rode into the town with his new pack.

As they entered, he glanced around at his companions. He had wondered if any of them had heard of him before, and not for the first time, he hoped they remained ignorant. The exploits of his younger days were something of a secret shame to him, and he'd been pestered on occasion when visiting New Life by Dogs-in-training. So full of fire and vigor those whelps, with the illusion of glory still holding place before their eyes, like a veil.

Before his thoughts could continue further down that unpleasant path, the pack arrived at their destination. Otto now turned his icy gaze around the sorry place, new, and yet so familiar. So many of these little places dotted the territory, and they all spoke to him of hard lives and broken dreams. Yet at the same time, it heartened him, knowing that people could live their existence here and remain in faith. Well, most of them. A practiced eye noticed the looks of resentment, of fear, and sometimes both written on the faces of some of the townsfolk. There would be work today, likely bloody work, judging by some of the glares the Dogs were receiving.

Otto almost ran the Sheriff over, so focused was he on reading the faces of the other inhabitants. Fortunately, he managed to stop short and curb his horse before the man. A brief quirk of a brow was all the man's color elicited from The Teuton. He'd seen blacks before, though they seemed a rare breed here. When the Sheriff greeted them, Otto responded with scripture.

"Faith shall be their armor, fury their sword. I shall send them out across the lands of men, to protect the flock, gather the wayward sheep, and slaughter the wolves."

As he spoke, Otto unwrapped the scarf from his head, revealing his face. His short blonde hair was plastered to his forehead, and his cold blue eyes sat above chiseled cheekbones and square jaw. Thin lips, set in a semi-permanent scowl transformed into a kindly smile.

"Chapter 4, verse 16, The Shepard and the Wolves." He followed up. "My name, Herr Thompson, is Otto Zimmerich. We are pleased, as always, to bring the light of The Faith and aid those who request it. These are my companions..."

He stopped, his brow furrowing. With an embarrassed look, he looked back at his pack. They'd only just been assembled, and Otto had yet to warm up enough to really talk to any of them. That and he was terrible with names. Many times over the years he'd tried to rectify that, but as always, his mind remained blank as he searched for the right names. Instead of embarrassing himself further, he nodded to the other Dogs, before glancing back at Sheriff Thompson.

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Character Portrait: Anna Ward Character Portrait: Horatio Morale Character Portrait: Otto Zimmerich Character Portrait: Augustus Sharpe Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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Anna tugged down the brim of her hat, in a vain attempt to shield her eyes from the burning sun. The heat she was used to, having grown up in this land, her skin tanned and her hair bleached to show it. But bright light of the sun has never ceased to be blinding when it was at its height. She peered out into the distance as best she could see, but fortunately there was no sign of trouble.

Absently humming a hymn, Anna looked over her companions. Horatio she knew well, the old Dog and friend of her father's, practically family. She glad he was leading the pack, trusting his experience and demeanour. The other two men she didn't know, the German and the man with an old calvary saber. Together they made a curious assortment, Anna noted to herself, but she was confident that they would handle whatever plagued the town of Red Road. She had been somewhat surprised to find herself the junior among the pack, but ultimately that meant they all had extensive experience to bring together.

Finally, they rode into the small town. At first glance, it seemed like any other dreary settlement Anna had rode through over the years. But she knew it was rarely so simple. They had been called here for a reason and she could see in the wary stares of the townsfolk that some of them feared the judgement that was to come. There was always tension, at first, when the wicked were flushed out into the open. But her faith and her resolve had not failed her yet in bringing order and justice to countless towns such as Red Road.

"Anna Ward." She tipped the brim of her hat politely as she eyed the sheriff. And with the base pleasantries performed, she promptly asked, "What happened to your predecessor?"

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Anna Ward Character Portrait: Horatio Morale Character Portrait: Otto Zimmerich Character Portrait: Augustus Sharpe Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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Horatio led his horse into town, tipping his hat low to protect his face from the blistering sun. Beside him, his faithful hound Knight trotted along, keeping up with the slow gait of the horses quite comfortably. As they walked toward their destination, Horatio took a moment to look over his Pack, evaluating them as best as he could.

The only person in the Pack he knew well was Anna; sweet, darling little Anna, all grown up. Horatio had been friends with her father; in fact, the two had been in a Pack together, in their youth. And thus, when his friend retired and started his own family, Horatio came to know Anna. She had been a feisty and daring little girl, and overall had been quite a joy to know. He'd taught her a great deal about being a Dog during her childhood; and seeing her now, as a full grown woman with eight years of being a Watchdog under her certainly proved to him that personally training her had been worth it. He was proud to see her as a full-fledged Dog, and considered it an honor to be in a Pack with her. It would be a pleasure to get to know her again, as an adult.

The other two, he did not know so well. Otto the German, he knew fact, the man had made an impression on him, some years ago. Horatio wasn't sure if William remembered him, but he certainly did. William had been apart of the Pack of Dogs that had rescued Horatio from certain death, the night after Chester Marston and his vile, depraved group of bandits had tortured and destroyed his family. Horatio himself had been left for dead, and would have died, in fact, if not for sheer luck. And for that, Horatio was quite thankful. Otto had helped to save his life, and more importantly, given him the opportunity for revenge. Horatio would never forget that. Even if he didn't quite want to make...friends, with him, he would always respect the German and consider him a good comrade, at the very least.

As for Augustus Sharpe, the man was a complete unknown quantity. Horatio had never served with him before, and had never really heard of his fellow Dog before. Which wasn't too surprising, given that there were a couple hundred Dogs out here in the West, altogether. And the Academy churned out more and more every year.

And those were the three people he was saddled with in the Pack; not-so-little anymore Anna, the unknown quantity of Augustus Sharpe, and his personal savior Otto. Quite an interesting Pack to have, to say the least. Horatio hoped he'd serve them well as their Pack Leader, and that they'd become a well-oiled and coordinated machine in the future.

There was supposed to be a fourth member of the pack, but Horatio had been told that he'd been delayed. If possible, the last member of their Pack would join them later on in Red Road.

His observations done, Horatio noticed that they were coming into town now. He looked around the quaint little town of Red Road, unimpressed with the sight that greeted him. It was like most little frontier towns in these parts; unimportant, insignificant, and liable to die off within the next few decades, as advancing railroads made little way-stations like this redundant.

Still, the folks here, Faithful or not, that tried to etch out a living in these little specks often deserved some amount of grudging respect. They either wouldn't or couldn't live a more easier life in a bigger, more important and thriving city in the West, and even with their limited supplies and options, these people tended to do moderately well. The men and women that decided to make a meager living in these types of towns truly lived a hard life. Even if Horatio didn't like towns like Red Road, these shanty quasi-villages and the folk that inhabited them earned some small amount of admiration and respect from him.

They reached the center of town soon enough, and by then, they had attracted a fairly large crowd. For the most part he ignored the people and their reactions; though he did briefly glance over them, and dismissed them when he found no familiar faces. He kept a stone-faced expression, a light scowl on his face; it was foolish to think he might find Marston in a town like Red Road, of course, but that never stopped him from trying and hoping. One day, he'd finally find that son of a bitch...

A young colored man stepped out of the crowd, and addressed the Dogs as a whole. Horatio was content to let Otto speak up first, wanting to see in person how his Pack acted. Usually the Pack Leader opened up dialogue with the town authorities, but Horatio wasn't a real hard-ass about protocol. Far as he was concerned, the first Dog that managed to speak up could start up talks.

"Name's Horatio Morale." the older Dog gruffly greeted, once everyone had introduced themselves, and said nothing else. Anna's pointed question was more than adequate, here.

"Pleased to meet you all," the newly appointed Sheriff kindly greeted, before grimacing, shaking his head slightly. "That's....a grim story to tell, Ma'am. Sheriff Cobbs was murdered three days ago; his throat was slit in the middle of the night, while he was working at his office. But...if you can believe it, ma'am, that's honestly the least of our troubles. I'd be more than happy to tell you fine folk more of our troubles in Sheriff Cobbs', my office now, I guess."

Sheriff Thomspon walked through the gathered crowd, and the Dogs soon followed him. He led them over to the edge of town, where the Sheriff's office and town jail was located. The Dogs hitched their horses outside, and followed him in. Thompson walked into the small building, and led them over to a simple wooden desk that consisted of the Sheriff's office; on the walls around the room, wanted posters were hung on the wall, displaying the description and bounties of local outlaws. A door to the left of the office led further into the building; beyond that door was the town jail, where local criminals were kept.

Thompson sat down behind the desk, and motioned for the Dogs to take up some nearby chairs that littered the sparse room.

"Sorry that my accommodations aren't more...welcoming. I knew you folks were coming, after Sheriff Cobbs sent a telegraph to New Life, but I haven't exactly had the time to...clean up." Thompson sincerely apologized, grimacing again. The new Sheriff leaned back into his chair and looked up thoughtfully, fiddling a little with the badge on his chest.

"I swear, this town has gone to hell in a hand-basket in the last two months. That's when all our troubles started; two months ago. Two months back a ranch outside of Red Road was hit pretty bad. All the men and women were slaughtered, and the children were taken God knows where. The Sheriff led a band of men to investigate, and he concluded that it must have been some sort of bandit attack. He tried to track down them down, but didn't find a single trace of 'em. It was a terrible tragedy, sure, but we thought it was the end of that.

"We were wrong. Two weeks later, another ranch got hit; same situation there. Men and women killed like animals, the children dragged off to the unknown. Then another two weeks later, the same thing happened down at the Peterson Ranch. Two weeks after that, the Jones family got hit at their Ranch. Almost all of the local ranches nearest Red Road have been hit by...God knows what. Sheriff Cobbs started to think that the local tribe of Natives was causing all the trouble, so he decided to call out for some help; that's where you folks come in, I suppose.

"The latest ranch attack was over with Jacob Daniels and his family, six days ago; same thing happened with them, but we got a survivor there. Their youngest son, Jeremiah, was apparently left their by the Natives, or bandits, or whoever. Sheriff Cobbs was trying to see if he could get anything out of him about the attack, but poor little Jeremiah is pretty traumatized, and, well...he was born blind, so it's been difficult to get much out of him.

"That isn't the end of our troubles, there. About five weeks ago, people traveling through the Red Road Trail have been getting ambushed by Natives; or they say it's Natives, at least. I'm not so sure. At any rate, a lot of good people are getting killed and looted over at the Trail, which has put a mighty fear on travelers. That's the other reason the Sheriff sent out for help; to get some support with that situation. Whether or not the Natives are behind the attacks at the ranches and at the Trail, we'll need a sizable gang to help root that out.

"And then there is Red Road's final problem. Like I said, three days ago, Sheriff Cobbs was murdered here, in this office. His throat was cut and he bled out to death. It was a horrible sight. I arrested a local by the name of Nathaniel Blake for the murder; he and the Sheriff have always been at odds. Apparently their fathers hated each other, or something, and they've continued that tradition. Nate's the most likely suspect, but honestly....I don't think he did it. Nate's not a murderer. He may have hated Cobbs, but he'd never really kill the Sheriff. I just locked him up for the well-being of the Town, to calm everyone down. I honestly don't know who would want to murder Sheriff Coobs; Nate's the only one that comes to mind, and like I said, I honestly don't think he did it."

Sheriff Thompson finished his little tirade, and gave a sigh. "Well, as you fine folk can see, Red Road has got a lot of problems these days. Do you have any questions about what's going on? I'd be happy to tell you whatever I know, if it helps us end this blasted nightmare."

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Character Portrait: Anna Ward Character Portrait: Horatio Morale Character Portrait: Otto Zimmerich Character Portrait: Augustus Sharpe Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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An askew Stetson barely prevented the glare of the sun from glaring in Augustus Sharpe's face, but he did not care. He was riding with three fellow Dogs across the barren desert they called the frontier. Sand and dust and rock all around, barely any life apart from the warriors of God. And the occasional cactus. The sand and the sun were getting in Augustus's face; he liked the pain, the discomfort. Pain was a constant companion, so why not extend the party to the elements? It seemed fitting, poetically. And Augustus did enjoy such intricate symmetries.

The old battered pipe in his mouth was lit, as per usual. He was inhaling the tobacco, appreciating and savouring the heavy smoke as it filled his lungs. It never seemed to leave his mouth, this pipe. The smoke seemed to cascade over his head and shoulders, yet his face was still visible. The pipe hung at the corner of his mouth, and Augustus seemed to be chewing it slightly as he smoked. He knew it was unusual for those of the Faith to smoke, frowned upon. But it was merely one of the ways in which Augustus was an unorthodox man of the church.

He had one hand on the reigns of his black steed Bucephalus and another rested on the hilt of his sabre. Sometimes he liked to imagine the history around him; the briquet which had seen action under Bonaparte in Egypt, the horse named after Alexander's steed. Sometimes he imagined himself in those scenarios; a cavalryman in Egypt, or one of Alexander's soldiers conquering the known world. Such romantic fancies were what flickered through his head occasionally. No wonder he was rather silent, all these ridiculous imaginings in his mind! Nonetheless, he was never distracted. He was aware, constantly.

Right now, Augustus was aware he was with three unknowns. Two men and a woman. He had heard of Horatio Morale; old dogs appealed to the romantic in him. Morale's exploits were rather famous. Perhaps one day he'd be as famous and well worn as that. Yet hopefully there would be less tragedy to come in his life, for the old man's eyes were full of tragedy; Augustus had had enough for a lifetime.

Otto, the German, around Augustus's age. Augustus wondered what it would be like to see him in action; one rarely got to meet people from outside the country in these parts. Most people here were natives, either literally or as settlers. He just hoped the German wouldn't attract unwanted attention. Not everyone around here was broad minded. He'd witnessed horrific acts of discrimination many a time.

Anna, the youngest of the group. And a woman. Augustus always felt slightly odd when seeing female Dogs. Not that he underestimated the power of women; he'd had his fair share of femme fatales in his life. But he was slightly old fashioned, and saw women as those more in need of protection than those who should be doing the protecting. Still, these were ideas he disliked in himself, and he tried to see past them. Anna was clearly capable.

So these three were the Pack he'd been assigned to to deal with the problems of the town known as Red Road, which they were now approaching. As they entered, the people gathered round. Augustus remained aware in case of any threats, but apart from that didn't particularly bother himself about the townsfolk. They were the same everywhere; some horrified, some mystified, some in awe. He preferred individuals to crowds, and so ignored the people watching them, continued to smoke as the Sheriff spoke to them. He didn't bother introducing himself, just nodded at the man.

The young Sheriff led the Dogs to his office. Making sure Bucephalus was okay and taking one last glance at their surroundings to make sure nothing awry was going on, Augustus entered the dingy law enforcement building. Grand, it was not. But then, grand nowhere was in this part of the world, as he well knew. He listened to the man's report with great interest, none of which was betrayed on his face of course. This sounded like it would be interesting. Also horrifying. But he'd seen a lot, and humanity's depravity was almost boring to him now. Still, his anger got the better of him when he saw injustice dealt to innocents. It seemed he would have to kill the people behind these heinous acts, and that did not bother him at all. Even if they were natives, with whom he was friendly, he would not hesitate. His native friends would just have to accept this as a reality of justice and the frontier.

For the first time, Augustus spoke, looking around at his fellow Dogs. "Seems to me that we should perhaps split up to deal with these problems, assuming they're all separate issues. One of us could talk to this Nate fellow, the other go and interrogate Jeremiah. The other two? How about an ambush? Lure in the bandits on the trail, pretend to be some decent vulnerable folks with some valuables. Then kill them." He glanced at Horatio. "Or capture them, if that's the preferred course of action."

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Character Portrait: Anna Ward Character Portrait: Horatio Morale Character Portrait: Otto Zimmerich Character Portrait: Augustus Sharpe Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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Anna gave the townsfolk a final wary look over as she hitched up her horse and entered the sheriff's office along with the other Dogs. She sat back in a seat, listening as the sheriff describe how his town had gone to hell in a matter of weeks. And what a hell it seemed to be, slaughtered ranches, a murder sheriff, raided trails. It was a dark time indeed for the little town.

Her brow furrowed as she considered these problems. Nothing made sense, at least by her own experience. Bandits and Natives she had dealt with before, petty crime and territorial disputes were common enough. But the sheriff's description was far too brutal to be anything similar. The question of missing children was even more mystifying, if not profoundly disturbing. But all Anna could do was briefly pray for their well being before focusing her attention on how to address the matters. The boy that had been found would have been a fortunate lead, if not for his age and blindness. Anna expected he would know little, between his disability and the trauma likely stemming from the attack.

Anna finally spoke, quietly enough to be clear she was addressing only the Dogs beside her. "I doubt these are separate incidents. It's too much violence in too short a time. The question is what is truly happening here. Natives and bandits do not butcher so indiscriminately, not without reason." She paused, looking over to Augustus. "It may be worth splitting up while we investigate the town, but I advise against going out to the ranches and trail alone. Whoever is behind the attacks is organized enough to wipe out the ranches so cleanly, and quite possibly clever enough to murder the sheriff in his own office. We'll need to speak with the townsfolk, in order to see what they know of these problems."

As her father had taught her long ago, in a little town such as Red Road, you could learn nearly all you needed to know from the preacher, the bartender, and the mayor. And Anna was confident none of them could hide their secrets from the Lord's hounds. She then looked back to Thompson. "Tell me more of Sheriff Coobs' murder. When did you find the body? Who was the last person to speak with him that day and when did anyone last see him?"

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Character Portrait: Anna Ward Character Portrait: Horatio Morale Character Portrait: Otto Zimmerich Character Portrait: Augustus Sharpe Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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Otto, like his fellow dog Augustus, had a sword. He brought it with him as they convened in the Sherrif's office. As Thompson spoke of the problems plaguing the town, the German would scrape a whetstone down the edge of a massive zweihander sword. It was a monstrous thing, nearly as tall as Otto himself, and devoid of any ornamentation, save a teutonic cross etched in the blade near the cross guard. Now and again, he would look up, and pause in his maintenance of the blade. Then he would return to it.

The weapon itself was a possession of his father. As child, he would ask the drunkard of its origins. It was when his old man was drunk that the young Otto could even talk to him. The sword, his slurring father would tell him, had been in the family for centuries. It had been give to his grandfather, whose father had given it to him. So on and so forth down the ages. The original owner, the story went, was an ancestor named Kurt Junker, a mercenary of the 16th century. To his father, the sword was a cleaver of pikes, and splitter of men. It had tasted real blood, and dealt death for hundreds of years. Otto believed the sword was likely a more modern recreation of the sword, and that his father's drunken ramblings were mere fairy tails. Nevertheless, the sword was of exceptional quality, and the Teuton had ensured the blade had kept its reputation as a tool of death. It was rarely used, as guns were preferable companions to a gunfight--but in a pinch, Otto could and had maimed and killed many with the relic.

As focused as he was on sharpening the sword, he kept track of the conversation going on around him. For himself, Otto was skeptical about the natives being involved in any attacks. His experience with them had largely been positive. They were prone to attack if they felt threatened or trapped, but otherwise minded their own business. Most of them had learned the harsh lesson of attacking frontier folk. Whether it was through the wrath of the Dogs, the CSA or the USA in other parts of the country, most natives seemed content to stick to their own lands. The possibility remained though, as young tribesmen turn their fiery words into bloodshed. What further turned him from that theory was the brutality and child abduction. The attacks made no sense to him, as he could think of little purpose for taking the children and leaving everything else. To that end, taking the children and not the women was a strange strategy for bandits, who usually did the opposite. There was clearly a purpose behind it, and the German shuddered as he considered the possibility of a religious cult of nefarious intent, stealing sacrifices in the dead of night.

He had hoped they would get to that first, as he cared little for the murder of the Sheriff. Of course it was a tragedy, but he often times figured such work should be left to the territorial authorities. Otto had to remind himself that it was his duty, no matter how unimportant it seemed compared to the other issues at hand. Then Augustus spoke for the first time.

Otto knew nothing of the man, other than his name. The man had the look of a soldier, more than anything else. A bearing, a poise that he imagined a French cuirassier might carry, or that might rest comfortably upon a Roman Centurion. The pipe was a bit of a throw-off though. Fascinated as he was with swords, Otto was looking forward to having the opportunity to question his fellow Dog about the beautiful sabre at his hip. Such questions would have to wait, though the German brightened visibly as Augustus suggested setting an ambush.

...a prospect likely shot down as the woman took her turn to speak. Like Augustus, he knew nothing of Anna, save that she was the youngest of the group. He worried at that, worried that her convictions were still fueled by youthful zealotry. It could affect them all, especially Otto himself. If she hadn't learned already, she would eventually, and it might be a costly lesson. The German remained silent, listening to Anna as she spoke her part. Though he'd rather ride straight into the country side to lay waste to their enemies, he weighed her suggestion and found a logic to it as well.

Once she had finished, Otto set his sword down, and pocketed the whetstone.

"Ultimately, it is up to our commander here." He said, nodding towards Horatio. "For what it's worth, however, I would gladly volunteer to be bait in the ambush."

With a shrug and a small grin, the German leaned back in his chair, putting his hands behind his head. "Then again, that's just the barbarian in me. I am happy either way."

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Horatio hitched his horse outside of the office, before he and his hound Knight walked inside with the others, Knight laying down at the elder Dog's side as he sat across from the Sheriff.

Horatio listened intently as the Sheriff laid out the town's problems, and later to his fellow Dogs, as they speculated on what to do. Horatio himself was more inclined to agree with Anna, even disregarding their past relationship. They could split up and do various things in town, but the idea of them doing that to tackle what was going on over at the trail seemed dangerous. They'd be better off going there together, or at the very least, one or two of them could go investigate over there, but bring along the Sheriff and a posse for backup.

At any rate...this was all so very, very strange. And horrifying. A murdered sheriff, raided trails, and massacred ranches, with the children all taken alive? Horatio could hardly imagine how these three things were related, but they had to be. It was too much of a coincidence, otherwise.

And what was causing this, too? It definitely wasn't the Natives, Horatio was fairly sure of that. He'd had some conflicts with Natives in the past, and this didn't seem like them at all. It felt too...organized, too concise. Native raids had a much more chaotic feel to them.

Couldn't be bandits, either. He could see bandits attacking those ranches, but he couldn't imagine them taking the children. The valuables, certainly, probably the women, too. But the children? What worth did they have to an outlaw?

This was all so very strange...definitely one of the stranger cases of Horatio's career, he had to admit.

Whatever was going on, though, they would end it. Regardless of how he...felt, about the Faith, Horatio still believed in Justice. He still believed in punishing the Wicked, and in protecting the innocents. And if he had a say in things, no more innocent people would die in Red Road. Not under his watch.

As Horatio considered things further and weighed his options, the Sheriff answered some of Anna's questions:

"I found the body around sunrise, Ma'am. I was heading into the office to get ready for the day, and I...found Sheriff Cobbs dead in here. And as far as I'm aware, Ma'am, I was the last person to talk to him and see him. When I left to go home that night, the Sheriff was still here, looking over some papers or something. I bid him goodnight, and, well, that was the last I saw of him...alive, at least."

Horatio took that in, absently reaching down to pet Knight while he came to a decision. Splitting up seemed the best option here, especially when it came to covering more ground. Now, he just had to figure out who would do what....

"Anna," Horatio looked over at the sole female Dog, turning to face her. "I want you to investigate the Sheriff Cobbs murder. I'm not sure how it relates, but I highly doubt it's a mere coincidence that, in the midst of all this turmoil, the Sheriff got killed. He's got to tie into this somehow. Look at those papers Cobbs was looking at the night he got killed, interrogate that Blake fellow, interview his wife, whatever you think will help you figure out what happened. Might not be a bad idea in general to interview some of the townsfolk; some might have some insight into what happened with Cobbs, or what's going on at the trail or with the ranches. If we're lucky, at least. Take the Sheriff with you, too. Might make the townsfolk more comfortable if you're with someone they know."

Her mission given, Horatio turned his attention to Otto and Augustus. "I agree that setting up an ambush for whoever's raiding the trail is a good idea, but let's save that for later. We'll all be needed for that, plus the Sheriff and whatever posse he can get together. For now...Otto, I want you to head out with me over to the Daniels Ranch, see what we can find over there. It's the latest one that got attacked, maybe we can find something left behind by the bandits or whoever, that can point us in their direction."

With that said, Horatio turned to look at the last of the Pack. "Augustus, I want you to try and interview the boy, Jeremiah. Heaven knows what he'll actually be able to tell us, but it wouldn't hurt to try. After that, we need someone to go over to the local Native encampment. See if they're actually responsible for all this. And if not, maybe they can help us find out who is. So try to track down the Natives if you can, and see what they're up to."

Horatio knew it might be dangerous to send in Augustus alone to confront the Natives, but Horatio highly doubted they were responsible. This didn't have their calling card at all, and stealing children wasn't really their thing. Besides, he was sure Augustus could handle himself. The Natives had long since learned that it was...unwise, to mess with a Dog, even if he was alone.

Just as he was about to ask the Sheriff where Jeremiah was, and if he had an idea where the local Natives were encamped, the man spoke up.

"Jeremiah's staying over with Archdeon Joshua, at the Church." Sheriff Thompson helpfully supplied. "And we have a...vague idea, where the local Natives are camped out. Sheriff Cobbs scouted out their locations some time back, and marked them on a map in the office, so he'd know where they were in case we ever had to go after them."

With all that settled, Horatio rose to his feet, Knight getting up as well a moment later. "Any questions? If not, then go do your damn jobs."

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Anna nodded to Horatio as he gave out his instructions. When the Dogs were ready to file out, she moved to rest her hand on Horatio's arm for a brief moment. "Be careful, Uncle. I am certain this is more than simple bandits or Natives." She smiled faintly at him, as warm an expression as she was ever likely to give. She then nodded to her fellow Dogs. "Godspeed and good luck."

She remained in the office as the rest of the Dogs went out to their assigned tasks, looking over to Thompson. "Sheriff, if you could show me Sheriff Cobbs' papers. Letters, journals, anything he's written recently."

Slowly strolling around the office, Anna carefully examined every detail. She had a feeling that he was involved, if not complicit in the troubles plaguing the town. And yet, he had sent out the call for help. Perhaps that was what led to his death. "What was Sheriff Cobbs like? What sort of man was he?" She asked Thompson as she continued to search through the office.

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Otto grinned, and slung his zweihander across his back as he rose to his feet. This was the job he wanted, and he silently mouthed a prayer. The business with the Sheriff's murder was a sordid business, and the German preferred to prosecute and promptly decimate without the need to prove guilt. Long years of investigating made him clever, but tired. The number of men and women he'd executed for murder were uncountable for him at this point, and he'd made mistakes. Those mistakes had grown heavy over the years, and truth be told, he would avoid towns like this all together if he could. Each one was a new Drywell.

A younger Otto would have walked into the town and judgement would have been swift following on his heels. Now, he merely regarded these places with weary resignation, and the knowledge that he couldn't pass through without leaving a mother, or father, or brother, or sister dead in his wake. So being offered the opportunity to go with Horatio and fight those who needed no judgement, and whose death would not stain his conscience was a boon he readily accepted.

Both men left the other two Dogs to their duties, and saddled up. Before mounting, Otto kissed the plate helmet strapped to the saddle. Unlike the sword, it was modern, commissioned at the start of his career. Back then, as a young man, he liked to imagine himself a Teutonic Knight of the modern day. And for all intents, he had been. That had faded, though he still kept the helm, as well as the coat of mail that accompanied it. The tales of Germanic adventure his drunk father had regaled him with still lurked in his memories, and sometimes--just sometimes--he could still see himself as the knight. Perhaps today was one of those days.

Once both men were mounted, they set out of town at a leisurely pace, Horatio in the lead. Otto vaguely recalled him. They had never known each other informally, but Otto could still see the leftovers of a man who should have been dead. What he had gone through was something even Otto's guilt-riddled mind couldn't comprehend--nor would he want to. From what he'd heard before being assigned to this pack, was that Horatio wasn't always as cold and hard-edged as he was now. The German couldn't see it. Then again, he couldn't imagine Horatio or himself as a young man. Too many years, too many corpses. Too much blood.

After a while, he spoke up. The town was receding into the distance, and the silence was becoming uncomfortable for him. These days he sought to know his fellow Dogs. It helped take his mind off of the blood his could sometimes physically see on his hands.

"How are you these days Ho--err, Herr commandant?" It was asked in almost timid fashion, ridiculous given Otto's brutish appearance and very real lack of fear. Yet he feared their commander. It was like a man on the edge looking at what might be.

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Their orders settled, Horatio set out to leave with Otto. Anna intercepted him just before he left however, touching an hand to his arm.

"Be careful, Uncle. I am certain this is more than simple bandits or Natives." She smiled faintly at him, as warm an expression as she was ever likely to give. She then nodded to her fellow Dogs. "Godspeed and good luck."

Horatio couldn't help the small twitch of a smile that briefly overtook his face. He smiled down at Anna, nodding to her before conferring with the Sheriff for a brief moment, getting directions to the Daniels ranch. Once that was secured, Horatio and his partner left. He and the German saddled up on their mounts outside, and were soon off, leaving the town of Red Road behind in short order.

Some time after Red Road disappeared from their view, Otto spoke up, breaking the silence between them.

"How are you these days Ho--err, Herr commandant?"

Horatio raised an eyebrow, turning his head to look over at the younger Dog. Odd that he'd be so formal. Well, if it made him more comfortable, he wouldn't really argue against it.

"Fine enough, I suppose." he finally answered, his voice rather gruff and terse. Though Horatio wasn't necessarily snapping at Otto. It was just the way he spoke nowadays. Only a select few could get any real warmth out of his tone, nowadays. "Yeah. Fine enough."

As fine as any man who'd lost two wives and all the children he'd sired with them, over the course of his adult life. Which was to say, not at all.

There was no God. The Faith was a lie. Tragedy after tragedy had hammered in that fact into Horatio's mind. If there was a God, then He would be a cruel deity indeed, for no man should have to experience what he himself had been put through. The only reason he continued to be a Dog, was a because he knew no other life. True, he'd been a civilian for some years after settling down with his second wife, but to return to that life, after what had happened...

There were many days when the weight of what he'd been through, of what he'd experienced...all the hardships and pointless sufferings...more than once, Horatio had toyed with the idea of killing himself, just to end the vicious cycle of pain. Just to fade into the empty nothingness of death...

And then he remembered Chester Marston, and how the bastard that had ruined his second family was still alive. When he remembered that, Horatio gained enough fortitude to soldier on for another day.

"And you, Otto?" Horatio went on, figuring it would be polite to ask in turn. And, his own dark ruminations aside, some conversation would help pass the time away, as well.

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Otto almost winced at Horatio's initial reply. The man was like jagged glass--it could be picked up, handled, but could injure with careless manipulation. It was how he decided he would deal with his commander. To be fair, the German couldn't blame him for his cold nature, and even sympathized with him. From what he'd seen, and what little he'd heard about the Dog, he figured he probably wouldn't rode the rope long ago.

It was a lesson in humility for Otto, who sometimes found himself thinking he carried the greatest burden amongst his companions. True enough, he'd seen hardship. Truer still that he carried his memories like a cancer in the pit of his soul. But his horror, his guilt, was precipitated by his own hands. The German took a moment to reflect on that, before Horatio spoke up again.

"And you, Otto?"

Otto considered his reply for a moment, and then cleared his throat. "Ah, about as well as can be. Until I received orders to join up with you and our friends, i'd been spending some time to myself." He paused for a moment, as if unable to find the right words. After a short moment, he looked back at Horatio. "...studying scripture."

That was true enough. He'd been lax in his duties over the past year, and hadn't been seen in New Life for almost two years. During that time, he'd wandered much as he'd always done as a Dog, but spent the majority of that time in contemplation. His book of scriptures was well worn by now, rifled through over many long nights of contemplation. The truth was that his faith was in crisis, though not necessarily from the threat of loss. But the doctrine of the Faith had begun to bother him, and he wondered if maybe the interpretation of the scriptures weren't being perverted--perhaps since before he'd found life as a Dog.

Otto's correspondence--bills of expense, and reports (There was little other than that, as Otto had no one he could call friend or family)--had dwindled to practically nothing, and his handlers as well as other higher ups in the church had become worried. It wouldn't do for a Dog to go astray, no matter how much or how little he knew of the inner-workings of the Faith. It was, the German suspected, the reason he had been put together with Horatio. The others he wasn't sure about, but Otto had a feeling both Horation and himself were put together for the purpose of whipping them back to their duty and devotion. If only they knew how cynical and discontent both men had grown.

Or perhaps it was wiser to keep two malcontents in one place. That was Otto's cynicism at its finest.

"I sought to understand the truth of the Faith for myself. It's well and good enough to have doctrine spelled out for you, but i'd rather understand it through my own eyes...with my own mind." The German gave Horatio a challenging look. Those were dangerous words, bordering--and possibly crossing--the line of heresy. But he figured that if anyone would understand, it would be Horatio.

Their conversation would not last much longer, as they were nearing the destination. As they spoke with each other, that fact festered in the back of Otto's mind. What he couldn't understand yet was the goal of the attack. Natives and bandits had been offered as the perpetrators, but there seemed to be clear intent behind it. Not something as simple as making off with cattle just running the inhabitants out. There was a sinister motive behind it, at least in his mind.

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"I sought to understand the truth of the Faith for myself. It's well and good enough to have doctrine spelled out for you, but i'd rather understand it through my own eyes...with my own mind."

Horatio raised an eyebrow at Otto's bold statement, surprised to hear such words coming from a fellow Dog. After a moment, his lips twitched, holding a brief smile, before he replied. "Well, I can understand that. I've done much the same, over the years."

It was a safe enough reply, Horatio figured. Still, he hadn't expected Otto to voice such near-heretical thoughts. It was unexpected...but not unwelcome, all the same. Perhaps he'd get along with Otto better than he'd first supposed.

It did make him...suspicious, though. Two malcontent Dogs, on the same Pack together? It didn't strike him as a coincidence.

Since his return to duty, Horatio had largely been striking out on his own, hunting down the members of Chester Marston's gang one by one (seven in total, with six dead, and Marston himself the only one left alive at this point), while officially on a sort of pilgrimage, or so he told his superiors in New Life.

They hadn't questioned that excuse too much, all things considered. Horatio had sat down with Minister Harrington himself, Old Man Eli's successor, when he'd first returned to duty. Harrington had given him a look that clearly stated he wasn't buying that bullshit, but didn't vocally question it, all the same. His fellow Dogs didn't want to get in the way of his righteous vengeance, after all. No one objected to his quest of revenge...any Dog would have done the same as Horatio, had such a grievous fate befallen them.

Something had changed with his superiors, though. Four years, and two months into Horatio's supposed pilgrimage, he'd received a telegraph at his house in New Life. The telegraph had put an end to his supposed pilgrimage, and put him back on active duty, placing him in charge of a Pack for the first time in six years.

Granted, the last, mystery member of their Pack (a fellow whose name he couldn't remember offhand, who was supposedly delayed due to unexpected circumstances, and would join them in Red Road as soon as possible) hadn't shown up yet, but the other two members he did know...Anna, and Otto...

Anna, the niece he'd helped raise from a young age, and inspired (alongside her father) to eventual become a Dog herself. Otto, a discontent Dog who acted much like Horatio had, before he'd lost Selina and Evangeline (he'd had doubts before, after the death of his first wife and stillborn son....the tragedy with Selina and his little girl merely pushed him over the edge). Not to mention Otto had contributed to saving his life, after Chester Marston left him for dead.

To think that Anna and Otto were placed in his Pack by mere chance was not possible. This...everything about this was intentional.

To what end, Horatio couldn't entirely say. He'd be able to speculate further when their fourth member showed up, but as it was now...Anna was placed here to clearly restore his Faith, he could tell that much. Perhaps his superiors in New Life hoped that he'd only become closer to Anna, making her a surrogate daughter of sorts in place of Evangeline. As for Otto, perhaps his superiors hoped that they would help each other get past their doubts and flagging Faith, by bonding over shared experiences.

Whatever the end game goal was, Horatio now clearly saw that none of this was accidental. He had been called back into active duty for a reason, and Otto and Anna had been placed with him for a reason as well.

Well. Whatever his superiors in New Life had up their sleeves, it was no doubt a clever plan, but it would fall on deaf ears. Horatio was long past the point of ever being Faithful again.

"You see a lot of things out here, as a Dog, that...calls things into question." Horatio spoke up, his eyes darting back over to Otto, as he continued. "A lot of things that don't make sense, in the grand scheme of things. So yeah. I can understand taking a...personal look at the Faith's doctrine."

As the two Dogs continued on, a few minutes later they arrived at their destination. The Daniels ranch loomed into view, the place clearly abandoned and devoid of all life. The bodies of the Daniels family, and their ranchhands, had since been buried, but the blood spilled from them still stained the ground, pooling around near the porch of the ranch house. More blood remained inside, as most of the Daniels family had been killed within their home.

Their cattle were gone as well, taken away by fellow ranchers, so that they would be taken care of. It was curious, that whoever was behind these attacks, would kill the adults, take the children, but do nothing to the cattle, who most would view as the most valuable prize to be taken, as it were.

"Looks like we're here," Horatio commented, as they came upon the main gate to the Daniels ranch. He stopped his horse, got off, hitched his ride to the fence post, and looked over at the deserted house. "Don't know what we'll find here, if anything, but if we're lucky, we might find something the Sheriff missed. Ready, Otto?"

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Horatio absently took in Otto's musings and speculations, taking a good look at the exterior of the ranch himself. Like Otto, he noted that it looked surprisingly...intact. Not much marred the main ranch house and the few outlaying buildings, aside from wear-and-tear typical of the frontier. It certainly didn't look like a firefight had taken place here, if it was true that the ranches were being attacked.

What did that mean, then? They must have been taken by surprise...slaughtered before they had a chance to fight back. But by the time the Daniels Ranch had been hit...they knew that four other families had been taken out. They would have been prepared to fight for their survival at this point. The menfolk woulda stayed up all night, their guns pointed out the windows of the house. Their was no way they could have been taken by surprise.

And then, there was the children. Horatio silently recounted the names of all the missing children, given to him by Sheriff Thompson on the way out of town. Sarah Smith, Muriel Smith, Jack Peterson, Andrew Peterson, Harold Jones, Bradley Jones, Steven Williamson, Beth Williamson, Rachel Williamson, and Elizabeth Daniels. A total of eleven, orphaned children missing, all under the age of twelve, the youngest of them five years old.

What did these bandits, or whoever, want with these children, though? Horatio couldn't fathom a reason. Well, he could, was simply too horrible to think about for long.

Jeremiah Daniels had been left behind, however, even though his younger sister was taken by these scoundrels. Why? Was it because the boy was blind? It must have been, since Horatio couldn't think of any other reason. But what did it all mean? This all had to make sense, somehow, but Horatio didn't know how just yet. He was missing some pieces of the puzzle, here...

"I doubt this was just some simple feud." Horatio spoke up, looking over at Otto. "This feels...more than that."

With that said, the older Dog opened up the front door, entering the house with his compatriot. Immediately, a raw stench hit the two of them, causing Horatio to pause slightly, grimacing as he held a hand to his nose. Undeterred, he soldiered into the house, heading for the source of the smell.

It didn't take long to find. He and Otto came upon the family dining room, where the Daniels family's last meal remained untouched. The table was set for dinner, and the partially eaten food, long since expired and rotted, still sat on the tabletop, silverware and plates strewn about. Horatio could easily tell the smell came from the rotting food, which made him feel strangely relieved. He half expected to find a new body here or something, from that stench.

Beneath the table, dried pools of blood absolutely soaked the wooden floor, extending outwards toward Horatio and Otto. It was obvious that most of the Daniels family had died here, in this room.

"Looks like they got taken out during dinner," Horatio commented, still holding a hand to his nose. He furrowed his brow, trying to make sense of the scene. "How, though? It doesn't make sense. They would have heard the gunshots from the men killed out front. No way they would have stayed in their seats."

As Horatio considered the matter, he noticed a lone bottle of whiskey placed on the table, that somehow stood out from the rest of the food and drinks on the table. He reached over and picked it up, weighing it in his hand. It was almost empty, with only a sliver of alcohol left inside of it.

Horatio stared down at the bottle thoughtfully, an idea slowly forming in his mind. It made a disturbing amount of sense, the more he thought about it...

"Maybe..." Horatio turned to look over at Otto, the bottle clutched in his hands. "Maybe they were already dead, when they were shot. It's the only thing that makes sense. Someone drugged their whiskey, poisoned them dead. That way they're out of commission, leaving...whoever did this, free to make it look like they got raided by bandits."

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A family at their dinner table. Life was hard on the frontier, and every day was hard work. These people looked the part, with faces prematurely wrinkled, made more obvious by the grit trapped in those lines. But they looked happy, as they should be. Hard work brought the bounty that lay on the table before them. Cooked meat, fresh from the cattle they raised through their own hard work. Milk for the children, also of their own hard work. Bread bought with money they earned through their hard work.

The temptation to just dig in must have been great, but these humble people instead bowed their heads and held hands. All along and around the table, young and old, they prayed. They thanked their god for their meal, for their continued good luck, and their beautiful family.

The prayer ended. One of the older gentlemen brought out a bottle of whiskey he claimed he'd bought at the local general store. A special reserve it was. The rest of the adults looked delighted, and one of them went to scrounge up shot glasses while a woman hushed children asking for a taste. Glasses were set down before each adult, and a slug of whiskey poured.

They made a toast. Why wouldn't they? They lived a hard life, but it was peaceful and full of contentment. Smiles were wide and genuine around the table as they raised the glasses and downed the whiskey quickly. A woman choked and coughed on the rough vintage, and the rest laughed.

Cattle stirred outside. One of the men said it was probably a coyote. Still laughing, he grabbed a shotgun and walked outside, eager to scare the animal off and get back to the meal. The rest waited patiently for the missing man.

But minutes passed in silence. Some of them began complaining about their stomachs, and all the adults were sweating profusely. The woman collapsed. Others went to help her, but they too collapsed. Happiness turned to abject terror as the children screamed at their parents, pushing and hitting them. A boy, blind, was terrified enough to wet himself. How horrible it must have been for him, unable to even see the calamity that was befalling his family.

Shadowed figures came in through the front door, one wiping blood from a long, vicious knife. The children were grabbed by their hair and dragged out the door, as the rest knelt to draw blades against the adults on the floor. Blood saturated the wood boards, the feast--their reward--left untouched.

Otto shook the mental images from his head, and quelled a tear that had threatened to swell up and run down his cheek. The sheer evil it would have taken to commit such an atrocity was incomprehensible, and the German felt a sudden murderous fury shudder through his form. He took a moment to steady himself, then looked back at Horatio.

"It makes sense herr commandant. But they left the one boy. If they were looking for slaves or children to turn into prostitutes--" He paused as another tremor of fury ran through him. "--even a blind child is worth something. Perhaps a cult? I've heard stories of devil worshippers and natives making sacrifices to their gods..."

The stench was getting to him, so Otto took a bandana from his coat pocket and tied across the lower half of his face.

Still shaking his head, the German began to wander around the house. "Where did they find the boy? Perhaps we might find something there. I find it hard to believe there won't be something left behind. An act this audacious has to require a signature...of sorts."

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"Maybe," Horatio concurred, pursing his lips. He still doubted that Natives were behind this, he saw none of their calling cards here. A cult though...that seemed feasible. Like Otto said, even a blind child would serve some purpose if these kids were being kidnapped to become...prostitutes. So perhaps something along those lines was at work here...

"Sheriff Thompson says they found the boy the next morning after they didn't hear from anybody over at the ranch. He and Cobbs found Jeremiah out cold, laid down in the room he shared with his sister." the older Dog recited, furrowing his brow some.

It was highly unlikely the boy had gotten to his room before the...murderers--that seemed a good enough name until he found out just what was going on here--had knocked him out. The boy was blind, and in a panic between the sudden deaths of his parents and relatives, and the kidnapping of his little sister. Not in a good state of mind to race back to his room, without any help, before the murderers had caught up with him.

Which suggested, then...that they had placed him in there, after taking care of him? Why? It seemed to show a surprising...compassion, of a sort, for these murderers. They weren't adverse to poisoning and kidnapping, but instead of just leaving the unconscious child on the floor, they took the time to carry him back over to his room, and laid him down on his bed.

Things were just getting stranger and stranger here. None of this made a lick of sense...

"May as well search the room. The house too, in general." Horatio agreed, nodding his head. "Maybe we'll find something the Sheriff and his posse missed."

Thus, the two Dogs set to work. The ranch house was a one-story, modest abode, and quite easy to search through. They searched the dining room, or as much as they could before the stink of the rotten food got to them. They found nothing new, and moved on. The story was much the same with the rest of the house. A few personal trinkets lay here and there, untouched, but otherwise much of the house had been raided, in a sense. What wasn't nailed down, and worth a little money, had already been taken. Perhaps by the murderers, but more likely than not by looters, with no sense of decency or honor, who came in after the bodies had been taken away.

They searched the children's room last, where Jeremiah Daniels had been found. The room itself was rather modest, with two beds for Jeremiah and his sister to sleep in, as well as some dressers and cabinets to house their clothes, and whatever other personal items they had.

Horatio glanced around the room, trying to see if anything had been left behind. Far as he could tell though, it appeared clean. Still, perhaps something had been here, once. A clue of some sort...

"The house is clean now," Horatio commented, a moment later. "But maybe there was something here before. We need to ask the Sheriff if he or his predecessor found or took anything from the house...perhaps a clue was mixed in with the boy's belongings by accident, when they picked him up."

It was a faint hope, but worth checking into, all the same. It'd mean a trip back to Red Road, but it was time to leave, at any rate. They had found all they could over here, more likely than not. It was about time to interview Jeremiah Daniels anyway. Perhaps they'd catch a lucky break there, and the boy remembered something significant from that night. Something he heard, or smelled, or touched....

Besides, they did have a theory now. Horatio was taking the whiskey bottle with him to be sure...and somewhere along the way, he'd test it on an animal. Maybe an armadillo, or a rat. Something to prove that bottle had been poisoned, for sure. Once that was confirmed, they were one step closer to figuring this whole mess out.

Once he and Otto finished searching the house, they left to go outside, and saddled their horses once more. Once that was complete, they started back on the trail to Red Road.

"If the family was poisoned," Horatio spoke up again, as he and his fellow Dog rode on. "Then that means someone had to give them the whiskey. Someone they trusted. Maybe they bought it from a friendly general store owner, or it was loaned by a friend...either way, they got it from someone they knew. Someone in Red Road, more likely than not. Which means that one of these damned murderers is someone from town."

That thought sickened Horatio. That someone from the very town itself could be behind these was almost unthinkable. But experience had more than proven to the jaded Dog that the Hearts of Men were very, very Wicked indeed.

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"Could be a cult," Horatio replied with a noncommittal shrug, grimacing at the idea. In his tenure as a Dog, he'd yet to run across anything cult related, in all honesty. Not to say such things didn't exist, of course, but...he'd be damned surprised if this turned out to be related to something as farcical as a cult. Nonsense things like that didn't exist, or at least the way the superstitious fools of the world currently envisioned them.

Still, what other explanation was there? Damnit...this job was messing with his fucking head so much....

As they approached the town, Horatio noticed a figure in the distance. He brought his horse to a slow trot, and motioned for Otto to do the same. The figure staggered toward the town, his gait odd and seemingly weak...and then, suddenly, the figure collapsed, falling to the desert floor.

"For fuck's sake," Horatio swore, and drove his horse forward, riding over to the downed man in quick order. Once he was near him, Horatio stopped his beast of burden, and rushed over to the fallen figure.

The figure...a middle-aged man, by the looks of him...had managed to flop over on his back in the meantime, giving Horatio a glimpse at a rather gruesome sight. The poor bastard was beat up to hell, by the look of it. Black eye, cuts and bruises all over his face and skin, what looked like a broken tooth...the man had lost a fight rather badly, by the look of things.

"Please..." the beaten man looked up desperately at Horatio, his breath shallow and pained. ""

Horatio swore again, shaking his head. When he noticed Otto by his side, he gestured to the man. "Come on, help me carry him over to my horse. Gently, now."

Working in tandem with the German, the two Dogs carefully lifted the beaten man up, and draped him across Horatio's horse. With that settled, the older dog saddled up, and called out to Otto. "You go on ahead, get the town doctor ready for us. The poor bastard's gonna need all the help he can get."

And so, while Otto rode on ahead into town, Horatio carefully trotted his horse along, making sure to keep a slow pace so as to not jostle the injured man behind him, or otherwise cause him more pain.

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The operator raised an eyebrow, looking momentarily offended as Anna questioned him "What, they aren't there? They should be! I keep a meticulous record....and I know for certain that the Sheriff's most recent telegrams weren't old enough to go into the trash pile. If they aren't there..."

The operator was cut off, as the door to the telegram office was sudden thrown open. A young man rushed in, heading over to Sheriff Thompson.

"The other Dogs are back, Sheriff, and they got Brother Samuel with them!" the man hurriedly proclaimed, gesturing outside. "He's beat up pretty bad, but Doc Cottle is looking at him now, last I heard."

Thompson blinked, nodding after a moment as he dismissed the man. When he was gone, he turned back to face Anna.

"Brother Samuel's the other Archdeon of the town; unlike Father Joshua, though, he don't preach. He's just here to teach the children. He's a Secretariat, I think, if that's the proper term for it." the darker-skinned man proclaimed, frowning after a moment. "He went to go visit some family over in Baker City a week ago...hasn't been back here since. I just...assumed it was a long visit..."

The Sheriff shot Anna a concerned look, clearly wanting to check up on this 'Brother Samuel'. When Anna gave him permission, and even decided to come with him, the new Sheriff left the telegram office, the female Dog trailing behind him.

Thompson led Anna over to a small building with the word "DOCTOR" plastered over the top, Horatio and Otto's horses hitched outside the doctor's office. Clarence paid that little mind though, and simply strode into the office.

The office itself was rather simple and quaint, a one-room affair with a small cot in the back, no doubt where Doc Cottle slept. The Doctor himself was hovering over a bruised and injured man laid across a table, tending to his wounds best as he was able. Otto and Horatio were off to the side, watching the Doctor as he tended to Brother Samuel.

Horatio noticed Thompson and Anna, giving them both a brief nod. When Anna approached the Pack Leader, the older man spoke.

"Came across the poor bastard just outside of town, on our way back." he explained, gesturing to the patient. "Apparently he's 'Brother Samuel', according to the Doc. Some Secretariat preacher that came here a few years back to teach the children of Red Road, or so I've gathered. He was supposed to be gone over at Baker City, visiting somebody...not sure if that happened or not. The man's pretty out of it, and the doctor's still working on him."

After letting Anna take a moment to absorb that knowledge, Horatio spoke again. "Otto and I found a clue of sorts, back at the Daniels Ranch. It...certainly casts a new light in this whole matter, I'll say. You find anything important yourself?"

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Anna nodded to Thompson, then looked back to the telegraph operator before she headed out. "Search the office for it. Please, this is important. Ask the office at New Life if they have a copy, if need be." It was likely that the record had been stolen from the Red Road still. And it was just as likely that the serpent's agents in New Life had done the same. But it was all Anna could do, for now.

Unless Brother Samuel had run into the culprits. Anna followed Thompson to the office and found herself smiling faintly as she saw Horatio. If nothing else, she knew she wasn't alone in the investigation, no matter how dark it became.

"Uncle, it's been...Lord, I don't even know where to begin." Anna responded to Horatio, motioning to him to step closer as she lowered her voice. Her mouth felt dry at the thought of trying to explain everything she had found, as if it could be summarize so simply. Her voice was hoarse and quiet as she spoke, "This is not an isolated incident. Cobbs was investigating, he found records that similar attacks had happened, only they were years ago, all over the frontier. Natives and Mexicans as well. All butchered, with the children missing. I have his journal where he wrote his finding, but someone ripped out several pages. Likely his murderer. I told the Sheriff to keep a posse around the town. No one gets out. But the killer is one of their neighbors. They will hesitate."

She paused, drawing in a slow breath. "But extends beyond even the frontier. He had sent a telegram to a friend, Howard Franklin, in New Life. Whatever he told him, Franklin was afraid. When I tasked the Dogs in New Life to find him, they found a murdered man at the telegram office and Franklin is the suspect. The police are searching for him. I told the Dog who contacted me that he must find Franklin first, but...whatever monsters are behind this have reached into New Life, Uncle."

Shifting about restlessly, Anna glanced back to the doctor and Samuel. "What did you find? Does the archdeon know anything? Whoever killed Cobbs may soon be..." She paused as the thought came to her. "If the killer thinks Samuel knows something, he will strike. He has to or he risks exposure, fleeing would not be enough. But...even if Samuel knows nothing, we only need the townsfolk to think that he does. And then we wait. We can catch him. We can finally get real answers."

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Horatio listened as Anna detailed her findings, his eyebrows raising in incredulity as she laid things out for him. He opened his mouth to speak, then paused, shaking his head slightly.

It all sounded...quite frankly, it sounded like a wild, tall tale. That was his first, gut reaction to the whole thing. Some sort of conspiracy stretching out decades, all over the Deseret? Such a thing seemed impossible. Still...

Anna wasn't one to come to such a conclusion likely, Horatio knew this. His surrogate daughter was a smart, rational young woman. No way she'd be spouting all this crazy nonsense without solid, hard evidence to back it all up.

He still found it so hard to believe, though. What the hell was going on in this town?

"I haven't talked to the Archdeon just yet. We should, soon." Horatio replied, nodding slightly. "Otto and I found...well, I think we've figured out how the ranch families are being murdered. We'll have to test it, of course, but...I think they were all poisoned."

Here, Horatio held out the bottle of nearly empty whiskey to Anna's inspection. He hadn't gotten the chance to test it on a rat or some other sort of vermin yet, but he was fairly sure the alcohol was poisoned. There was little doubt in his mind that he'd be proven right, on that accord.

"They were all poisoned...and the Daniels family, at least, was poisoned by this bottle of whiskey. Then, once they were dead, the children were taken and whoever did that shot the corpses, to cover up the poisoning." the older Dog elaborated. "Which means...more likely than not, someone close to them or someone who knew these families is behind these...atrocities. You're right in suspecting someone from the town's involved in this, Anna."

Further debriefing was interrupted, when the door to the doctor's office was opened. A balding older man dressed in clergy robes, maybe only a few years older than Horatio himself, walked inside.

"How is Samuel? Is he okay?" Father Joshua hurriedly inquired, looking around the office for his colleague. He finally noticed the prone form of Brother Samuel, with Doc Cottle working over the injured man. Joshua rushed over to the two of them, but was held back by the doctor when, without even looking up from his patient, the doctor held out an arm to stop him.

"Samuel should be fine, Father." Doc Cottle gruffly informed, tossing the clergyman a brief glance before focusing back on the Secretariat. "I've patched him up best I could...all he needs to do now is rest and recuperate."

At that declaration, Brother Samuel groaned slightly, shifting around as he suddenly sat up, despite the protests of Doc Cottle. He looked over at his colleague, a wide-eyed look of terror spread across his face.

"You''ve got to help them, children...I know where the children are..." Samuel proclaimed, grimacing as he fought against the aching pain within his body. "The children are...oh, Prophet have mercy...we need to rescue them, before it's too late!"

And with that dramatic declaration, Brother Samuel groaned one last time and fell back on the table, the exertion apparently too much for him as the man fainted.