Paladin is at the Carlton when Hey Boy has an elder perform a blessing on
him. Afterward, Hey Boy shows Paladin an article about the legendary Monster of
Moon Ridge, which is leaving large paw prints around the town and bewitching a
local girl, abducting her. As Paladin prepares to ride off to investigate, Hey
Boy gives him what he claims is a dragon tooth as a charm against evil, but
Paladin assures him that reason and science prevails in the United States.
When Paladin arrives in Moon Ridge, he talks to Sheriff Lundsy. Lundsy explains that everyone has locked themselves inside so the Monster can't get in. When a local man, Jake Kelly, tries to break into the office, Paladin captures him. Lundsy tells Jake that the missing girl's father, Dan Bella, hired Paladin to find his daughter. The sheriff wants Jake to escort Paladin to Dan's cabin. Jake refuses, insisting that he's seen the half-bear/half-human monster, and Lundsy reluctantly tells Paladin that his men have seen similar paw prints. After Jake leaves, Paladin questions Lundsy and the sheriff confirms that there's nothing valuable in the land that someone would want to scare them away from. Lundsy doesn't believe in monsters, but Paladin points out that the sheriff has hung mistletoe above the door as a traditional ward against evil.
Once Lundsy gives Paladin directions to the Bella homestead, the gunfighter rides there and finds the girl, Emily Bella, sitting on the porch staring. Dan has Emily curtsy to Paladin and reminds her to tell him when she goes outside, and then gives her her doll. Once they're alone, Paladin explains that his daughter is brain-damaged because of the same fever that killed his wife, a fever brought on by an epidemic. Dan stayed when the other parents fled the epidemic with their children, believing that Emily was cursed. When Paladin asks about the Monster, Dan insists that it doesn't exist and has nothing to do with his daughter's condition. However, someone abducted Emily for a week and took her up into the mountains. When Dan searched for her, he found the Monster's paw prints beneath Emily's window. Paladin suggests that they all three search for the Monster.
The next day, the trio ride to Moon Ridge and Paladin spots more of the paw prints. When they hear something growling in the brush, the two men draw their guns. However, their horses panic and run off, and Emily wanders off on her own. When Dan tries to find her, he disappears as well. Paladin sets up camp for the night so he can search in the morning. Much to his surprise, a witch appears near him and then mysteriously disappears. Paladin realizes that someone is trying to trick him and loudly says that he has no intention of leaving. A large furred figure come behind him, grabs his throat, and chokes him into unconsciousness.
When Paladin wakes up, he finds himself chained to the wall of a cave next to a similarly-restrained bear. Bored, Paladin talks to the bear until the woman returns, cackling. Unimpressed, Paladin says that he's seen MacBeth and asks for a light. Taken aback, the witch lights his cigar and then gestures at the bear. The torch goes out and then comes back up, and the bear has transformed into a man. The witch then gestures again and the flame goes out and then back on. The bear is back and the witch as disappeared. Paladin spots a miner's pick nearby and uses it to break the chain and leaves. The witch watches from the shadows, satisfied with tricking Paladin into leaving. However, when she leaves, she's unaware that Paladin is following her.
As Paladin goes through the hills, Dan finds him and has their horses in tow. Paladin asks if anybody has ever been hurt by the Monster and Dan confirms that they haven't. The gunfighter then offers to take Dan to Emily and the desperate father eagerly agrees. They ride to a nearby cabin where the witch leaves and find Emily playing with the man from the cave. The bear is chained up to a tree, and the older woman is tending the house. Paladin realizes that she's the witch from the cave and Dan confirms that she was the town's former teacher, Maria. The man is her grown son, Clairy, who suffered brain damage just as Emily did during the epidemic. As the two men watch, Clairy walks around, stepping in the bear's paw prints and making them appear monstrous.
The two men approach Maria, who explains that the townspeople drove her and Clairy out, thinking he was cursed. She explains that she got the idea of the witch from MacBeth, just as Paladin realized, and invites them in for stew. As they eat, Maria tells them that she created the myth of the Monster to keep people from coming to torment her son. However, she has run out of tricks to keep the people at bay and now she'll have to move on with Clairy. Touched, Dan offers to buy her land and protect her and her son, as well as his daughter Emily. Maria and Paladin both realize that Dan is attracted to the teacher but he refuses to acknowledge his feelings. Paladin is satisfied that he's finished his job and tells them that Lundsy and the others deserve their ignorance and he won't attempt to correct their beliefs. As he goes, Paladin feeds the now-friendly bear and then rides off.
Written by Gadfly on Jun 3, 2018