For a few seconds after the news about Josiah had been made known to them, no one could speak. A heavy silence descended upon all of them as they struggled in their own way to deal with the terrible news. The words felt almost unreal as it seeped into their bones and made its denial impossible once it intermingled with blood and become apart of them. Typically it was Nathan who came to life first, his imperative to help Buck overriding his shock. His healer’s instincts kicked in immediately as he hurried to them. Buck was not quite unconscious but he was getting there. The stain of crimson spreading from his collar in a downward descent indicated that Nathan had not much time. Nathan’s actions breathed life to the others and as Nathan reached Buck, Mary emerged from the adjoining room to investigate the commotion.

"How bad is it?" Chris asked Nathan as the healer made a quick examination of the bite mark on Buck’s neck as he and JD brushed past the others.

"I’m not sure," Nathan responded as Mary quickly vacated the small bedroom so that Nathan could treat Buck there. "I don’t think his jugular’s been punctured," he ventured a guess. "If it were, he would be dead by now."

"I manage to get that Darla woman off him," JD explained. "You know how Buck is around women, he couldn’t bring himself to hurt her, not until it was too late."

Unfortunately, Chris did. If there were one thing that could be considered a blind spot in his normally capable old friend’s psyche, it would be his reaction to women. Buck was a notorious womanizer because he adored women, in all shapes and forms. His upbringing in a bordello coupled with the fact that his mother, a working girl, had lavished shameless affection on him despite how he had come to her, had a great deal to do with his attitude to them. Buck did not believe women could be just as mean and conniving as men could. He often defended the bad behavior of many of the sex by claiming its cause was usually a life of abuse or some misfortune to which a man should attempt to make amends by kindness. Chris had lost count of how many time Buck had gotten into trouble because of that kind of thinking.

Like now.

Darla had chosen well when she approached Buck who no doubt would have fallen sway to her beauty, believing that there had to be some trace of humanity in her that would not harm he. Chris wondered if Buck had finally learnt his lesson when she sunk her fangs into his neck. Thinking about Buck’s injury, his mind immediately settled on Josiah who was in an even worse situation. It was still several hours to daylight and more than enough time for the vampires to spirit him far enough away for them to never find him. Chris hesitated to use the word ‘alive’.

"JD," Chris called out as the younger man disappeared into the room. "Once you’re done with helping Nathan with Buck I want you to show us where they jumped you. We’re going after them."

"You have no idea where they went," Giles spoke up.

"I can track them," Vin responded automatically as he went towards the door.

"In the dark?" Buffy asked with surprise.

"Done it before," the tracker said shortly.

"Giles, you and Tara stay here," Buffy turned to her Watcher and the young Wiccan. "Help Nathan with the big guy."

"What about you?" Giles asked.

"We’re going with them," Buffy stated, giving Chris a look that defied him to say otherwise.

"So am I," Ezra replied with just as much conviction.

"NO YOU AREN’T!" Buffy and Chris declared in unison before exchanging embarrassed glances at each other over having the same thought.

"You cannot expect me to stay here?" Ezra stared at them with incredulity. "You need all the help you can get!"

"We do," Chris did not bother to deny that. "However, right now, everything hinges on you staying alive. If you get killed out there," he glanced at Buffy, "she gets wiped out of existence and I rather that didn’t happen when we’re in the middle of a fight. Besides, the safest place for you to be right now is in here. They can’t come in without an invite and someone’s got to protect Buck and the others if they come back."

Ezra stared at him for a few seconds before speaking, "I am assuming you included that final portion so that I would not feel completely useless?"

"Never can get anything by you Ez," Chris retorted with a little smile, even though his mood was anything but humorous. "Come on let’s get going." He ordered.

"Chris," Mary found her voice in the midst of all this discussion. The idea that he was going to face the creature she had seen at her door tonight, terrified Mary to no end. "Be careful," she said softly.

Of course there was nothing else she could say. She could not tell him not to go because he would never listen to her and even if she admitted how much it would hurt losing him, she would never force that burden upon him. His friends had breathed life into his wounded heart. To force him to choose between them and her was an injury she would never make him suffer. So she remained silent, allowing her few words to tell him all that was needed for now.

Chris saw it all in her eyes, what was spoken and unspoken between them. He nodded slightly in a show of understanding before turning away to Ezra. "Keep everyone safe Ezra."

"God speed Chris," Ezra returned and watched them leave with the hope that God was indeed watching.

+ + + + + + +

"You can take Buck’s horse," Chris told Buffy as they walked to the coral where the horses were presently hitched.

"You mean ride?" Buffy stammered.

Suddenly, everyone froze in their tracks and stared at the slayer.

"You can’t ride?" Chris cried out in exasperation. How on earth did these people in the future get anywhere!

"I got led around on a pony once at a petting zoo," Buffy volunteered reluctantly only to hear the man in black uttering a litany of curses that made her blush.

"Its alright," Spike broke into the conversation before the gunslinger popped a vein. "She can ride with me."

"Thank Christ," Chris muttered and started walking again. The three lawmen were striding forward purposefully and Buffy did not doubt that Angelus might have reason to regret kidnapping on of their own. Chris, did not appear to be a man who took kindly to threats against to his friends and there was just enough edge to this dark mood that told that Buffy that when it overtook him, he could be especially savage. He reminded her a little of herself in that way and Buffy wondered whether or not Spike had got it wrong, that she was not related to Ezra but rather Chris, since his demeanor was so much like hers.

"You can ride?" Buffy asked quietly as she walked alongside of him. Buffy was too accustomed to seeing him in his black Desoto or the motorcycle he had acquired recently. It was difficult to picture a vampire who had a penchant for Billy Idol and the Sex Pistols astride a horse.

"I was born quite a few years before this time you know," he said as a matter of factly. "It was horses until the late 1900’s."

"Just can’t picture you on a horse that’s all," Buffy remarked, supposing she did not know very much about who he had been when he was human. "I think of men on horses and I think of Prince Charming. You are so not Prince Charming."

"So you keep telling me," he said sarcastically, as if he needed to have his nose rubbed in it at just how unsuitable he was for her hand or her affections. "I suppose I shouldn’t expect much better since I’m convenient."

With that Spike hastened his pace to catch up with the three men who were leaving them behind rapidly in their eagerness to reach their friend. Buffy paused a moment, startled that he had brought that up and the flippancy that she would normally have used to counter his acerbic remark did not surface. In its place, something else did and Buffy hated to admit that it felt uncomfortably like guilt. She felt guilty for having said that to him. She was suddenly reminded of how Parker had treated her. Parker had been her first lover after Angel had left Sunnydale. In her haste to find love with someone who was remotely normal, she missed all the signs of what kind of person he really was. Unfortunately, she learnt that lesson the hard way after spending the night with Parker only to have him discard her as if she was nothing. It was too Buffy’s absolute horror that she realized that she was now treating Spike the same callousness.

As far as Buffy was concerned, her feelings for Spike were uncharted territory. When she thought about them, she usually found her weighing the positive and the negatives of having any kind of relationship with a vampire. It was not as if this was new to her. The same debate had raged on within her when Angel was in her life. However, Spike was not Angel. In some ways this was a good thing. It was good because if were he too much like Angel, she would only be using him as a replacement and even she had enough conscience to know that was wrong. The most basic difference was the fact that Angel as in possession of a soul and Spike did not.

At least she did not think he did but then the question of the soul these days was a matter of perspective. He loved her. She had no doubt of that. He had almost endured disembowelment by Glory to protect her and Dawn from the hell god and ensured that while she had been dead, Dawn had been safe. Could a demon without a soul love her as much as he had proven on countless occasions? Xander would argue that she would be a fool to love someone like Spike or even reciprocate the deep feelings he had for her. She did not believe that was true. Angel had been accused of far worse crimes than Spike could even begin to imagine and she had been able to forgive him. It could be said that Angel had a soul and should be forgiven but where love was concerned, Buffy had given much thought to the whole concept of late. Angel needed a soul to love her because as soon as he had lost it, Angelus had torn her life apart. Spike on the other hand loved her even though he did not have a soul and was far less wi lling to leave her. Everything about Spike was a contradiction and the more Buffy tried to wrap her mind around it, the less certain she became about how she felt.

Did she love him?

She did not know and that was the most honest answer she could give at the moment. She did know that he understood her like no one else did and that he loved the woman she was underneath the Slayer that dominated her life. Despite all the abuse she had hurled at him of late, particularly the comment about him being convenient which she had been too confused to know at the time had hurt him deeply, he still remained at her side, determined to help her and Dawn. And what about where they were now? According to Giles, the future without her had been a vampire Utopia. Spike did not even have the chip any more and yet he was doing everything to ensure its return by changing the events that saw her wiped out of existence.

Life was so much less complicated when he was trying to kill her.

The smell of animals reminded her of where she was and she blinked seeing the corral where the horse were kept. Chris, Vin and JD were already mounting their horses while Spike was staring at her expectantly.

"Come on Princess," he said sarcastically as he motioned her forward. "Prince Charming awaits."

Buffy’s response was a scowl followed by a most unladylike gesture with her middle finger that crossed the language barrier more clearly than words could ever manage.

"Now is that any way for a lady to behave?" Spike teased.

"Drop dead, Spike." She snapped as he heaved her into the saddle.

"Too late," he grinned at her. "Been there, done that."

+ + + + + + +

Josiah did not think it was possible to be hit that hard.

Most of the time, people who saw his bulk would usually think twice about making the effort. After all, who would want to provoke a stoutly built preacher with a hair trigger temper unless they really had to? It had been a long time since Josiah had been knocked out cold, so cold that he was only now regaining consciousness and it was to his utmost alarm that he realized that where he had lost consciousness, was not where he was waking up. Even as he opened his eyes to darkness, he felt his head swimming with vibrations of lingering pain. It did not help that the darkness was assaulting his senses with its pitch black intensity and the terrible musty smell that told him he was in a cellar of some sort. However, underlying that odor of dust was something else, something unspeakable. His mind latched onto the scent because during his preaching days he had attended more than his share of funerals. The inside of this room he was presently occupying smelled like a tomb.

The last thing that he remembered was hearing JD screaming for help because Buck whom at the time had left to take care of a little private had somehow run into trouble. Josiah did not know the specifics but he remembered running after JD who was off like a shot, despite the preacher’s entreaties to slow down and wait for him. At the time, Josiah’s primary concern in the warning was to ensure that the young man did not run headlong into something he could not handle. It did not occur to him that he ought to be concerned for his own welfare. As JD disappeared into the darkness, Josiah had suddenly found himself alone with only the sound of Buck’s cries to act as beacon in the night. Since learning about vampires and the existence of the supernatural, Josiah had good reason to fear the darkness around him but he assumed that if there was any danger to be had, it would be directed towards the house where Ezra and the slayer were presently residing.

It never occurred to him that he was the intended target because he was alone.

Angelus appeared out of nowhere, like a shadow suddenly given life. The vampire was tall and well built. Had he been human, Josiah would have been slightly concerned at pitting himself against Angelus. However, he was not human and coupled with vampire strength, Josiah was soon shown how outmatched he was. The creature overcame him easily with a series of blows that left the preacher staggering. The last thing he remembered before waking up here was Angelus’ leering face as the final strike connected with his jaw and then everything had gone black.

And continued to remain so.

He found that he was not bound and could move about freely. Pushing himself off the dusty floor, Josiah clawed the air around him to find support to help him move in his darkened surroundings. He put one tentative foot forward, reasoning that if he found a wall, then it would inevitably lead him to a door if he followed it. His first step yielded nothing in his way and he took his second and then a third, occasionally running into something that he was able to navigate around without tripping over or worse. Eventually he reached his objective and began the arduous journey of feeling his way to the door. He rather wondered why they had not tied him up, since it had to be academic that he would run as soon as he found the opportunity. Considering the danger to his immortal soul in their hands, it could not be any other way.

Josiah did not deny that he was afraid. Since this had all began, Josiah’s faith in his God had strengthened a thousand fold because he now had incontrovertible proof of the Almighty’s existence. Not many men were given that kind of assurance and though knowing God existed did little to change the present course of his life, it did give him comfort knowing that when he prayed, God was actually listening. It was not important that he received an answer because he was not so arrogant to think that God planned his day around Josiah’s problems and also because Josiah preferred to find his own answers. Still, it was good to know that he was listening.

"You’re making good progress there preacher," a voice suddenly filled the air and froze Josiah in his tracks.

Somehow, Josiah was not entirely surprised that there was someone in the room with him. He had questioned why he had not been tied up or restrained in anyway, he supposed now he knew. The vampire had been waiting quietly in the dark, having superior vision to see him without the use of any light and no need to take breath, maintaining his anonymity as he watched his prey and waited for him to wake up. For Josiah, being caught did not feel as bad as never having any chance of escape at all. The preacher let out a heavy sigh and remained where he was, seeing no need to continue but having no wish to return to the place he had been.

The strike of a match soon after flooded the room with light and Josiah found that he was indeed in a cellar. Unfortunately, the light showed him the smell of death that he had earlier identified came not from the walking undead in the room with him but rather what was left of the earlier occupants of the residence. Josiah closed his eyes and forced his revulsion away because that was the least of his troubles at the moment. Angelus sat on a chair, facing an empty one as he waited for Josiah to speak.

"What do you want?" The preacher finally asked.

"Lots of things," Angelus remarked with a smile. "The sun going on the world forever, a houseful of lusty wenches for the turning, the possibilities are endless but for now," he turned his dark eyes on Josiah. "I’d settle for information."

Josiah stared at him hard and replied softly, "you’ll have to settle for something else. I don’t have any."

"You don’t have any?" Angelus laughed out loud as if finding his resistance amusing. "My father was a preacher back in Ireland, you know. Made my life a hell as boy growing up. He seemed to think that I ought to following in his path, made me suffer when I wouldn’t. He told me that I would be damned for eternity. I guess he was right there but he kept telling me things anyway. He always seemed to have something to say. I find it hard to belive that any man of the cloth even when they’re supposed to abandon the faith would have nothing to say."

"Believe it," Josiah retorted. "I’m not telling you anything."

"I’m sorry to hear that preacher," Angelus replied coldly. "This relationship might have ended amicably."

"How amicably would it have ended? I doubt you were going to let me go," Josiah answered trying to control his fear, telling himself that he had done much in his life for which penance was owed. It appeared that he might be accounting himself before God sooner than he liked. However, if it meant saving his friends from this monster, he could accept it.

"No I wasn’t," Angelus replied with a smile. "That’s still something left over from my father that keeps me from lying to a man of God. I was going to kill you but how you die is entirely up to you. It can be quick or it can be slow and do not doubt me when I say that I have had an exceptionally long time to sharpen my skill in how slow it can be."

Josiah suppressed the tendril of fear that was wrapping itself around his spine and faced Angelus, determined that he would not give into this creature and betray his friends. "Then I suppose we better get started."

+ + + + + + +

Frankly Buffy was amazed that there was any trail to follow at all as they rode into the night. Dawn was only a few hours away and if they did not find the preacher soon, Spike would have to turn back before the sunlight killed him. The urgency of more than just that was pressing down on them however, the possibility that Josiah could be lost to them in a way worse than death preyed heavily upon all their minds. The three men said little but when they did speak, they were all business. Chris was the most somber of them all and seemed to take it personally that Josiah had been taken by Angelus. Buffy could not imagine why he would think that way when it was mere chance that allowed the abduction.

Vin Tanner seemed to be able to find tracks in the most obscure places, in a broken branch, in the groove of dirt which somehow translated to him as more than just irregularities in the ground but a vague path that they could follow. She marveled at his ability to track at night but apparently prior to his arrival in Four Corners, Vin had tracked buffalo and that made him quite adept at nocturnal hunting. If there were time, she would have asked him to teach her some of what he knew because it would have been a very useful skill for a slayer to have.

For some reason, Spike seemed somewhat agitated as well. It was hard enough riding double on horseback with him and trying not to get lost in how his closeness next to her but he was unusually tense which somewhat surprised her, not to mention unusually determined to find the preacher. Buffy could not imagine why that would be the case because she could think of no less likely person for Spike to befriend than a man of the cloth. Of course, even as she thought that, she was reminded of the fact that it was as unlikely as a vampire falling for a slayer.

"I can smell blood," Spike remarked as they paused briefly in their journey for Vin to seek out more tracks. "They were here."

"There’s a little of it on the ground," Vin sniffed the dirt in his hand. "The horses slowed down about here, probably needed the rest after hard riding." The tracker guessed.

"What’s around here?" Chris asked, looking around the place with its tall trees framing the trail they were taking.

"Not much," Vin answered. "A couple of homestead, scattered around but that’s about it."

"Angelus wouldn’t go to far," Spike responded. "He’d have to get where he was going before daylight and he’d want to talk to the preacher in a hurry."

"You mean torture him," Buffy blurted out, remembering what Angelus had did to Giles once in his efforts to learn the secrets of Acathla’s awakening.

The four men tensed and Spike gave Buffy a dark look that warned her against being so frank. The preacher meant a great deal to them and they did not need to be reminded what the stakes were if they did not find him.

"Josiah won’t talk," Chris said firmly.

"Are you sure?" Buffy had to ask even if he did not wish to face the possibility.

Chris stared at her sharply. "Yeah I’m sure," he retorted. "Josiah’s tough. Unfortunately, he’s also got one hell of a death wish."

"Excuse me?" Her eyes widened, thinking she had heard wrong for a moment.

Chris did not respond and simply walked back to his horse, leaving Vin to do the honors. JD seemed just as uncomfortable about answering because he did not understand enough to explain it.

"He’s calls it the hearing the crows," Vin sighed before answering them. "Ever since we met him, he has this strange idea that he’s time had come, that the crows were gonna come for him. He ain’t been so bad since we got together but he’s more than ready to die. If Angelus tortures him, Josiah would die before saying anything."

"Makes sense," Spike nodded in understanding as Vin and JD turned back to mount their horses to begin riding again.

"It does?" Buffy looked at him because she could not see what birds had to do with death.

"In lots of cultures, its believed that crows come when someone is about to die," Spike explained. "It’s a very old legend."

"Since when did you become knowledge guy?" She asked.

"Since I’ve been around about a hundred and twenty years longer than you?" He snorted. "In any case, it’s not going to happen. I’m not going to let the preacher die, no way."

"Not that I’m not impressed by this sudden show of compassion Spike," Buffy retorted skeptically as he helped her into the saddle again. She could not quite get use to riding an animal to get from one place to another yet. "But when did you decide to join the human race?"

"I didn’t," the vampire hissed with annoyance. "But the preacher was decent to me. Not many people especially men of the cloth would give a vampire the time of day. So I don’t want him hurt just because of some mess than came about because of me."

"That’s not going to happen," Chris said firmly, touched by Spike’s words and glad to know that something more than duty motivated the vampire’s desire to help them find Josiah. He considered the situation carefully and tried to outthink his enemy. Vin’s clues were leading them in the right direction but Chris feared that it was still taking too much time. "Vin, what homesteads are around here?"

"Cal Anderson’s place isn’t too far from here," Vin ran off the names in his mind to the best of his recollection.

"No, that wouldn’t work," Chris shook his head. "Cal has a dozen men working for him on his spread and a family. If they tried for a place like that, you can count on at least one person making it out a live to warn us. I get the impression that Angelus wouldn’t want any fuss."

"You’re right," Spike agreed. "Knowing my sire like I do, he’d want to keep it on the quiet."

"What else is around here?" Chris inquired. Vin patrolled more than any of the seven because the tracker felt the bustle of town too much for him. Vin preferred wide open spaces and was known to take off for days at a time just so he could enjoy the quiet existence he had lived before making Four Corners his home.

"Patterson’s place is at least two hours away," Vin added.

"Too far," Spike immediately discounted it. "He wouldn’t take the risk."

"There’s the Landers," Vin suggested and then his expression became grave.

"What is it?" JD and Chris caught the expression in his eyes.

"The Landers place is small," Vin said softly, "there’s only the four of them. Mr. and Mrs. Landers and their two children."

"That’ll be it then," Spike said firmly. "If I know Angelus, he would have checked out the area before he needed the place. Bastard’s very thorough that way."

"How far is their spread from here?" Chris asked tautly, aware, as all of them were that the Landers were most likely already dead.

"About an hour in that direction," Vin nodded towards the west.

"I say we take the gamble and try for it," Buffy suggested. She thought of that entire family, allowing Angelus and the others into their house, probably thinking it was an act of kindness, unaware that it was probably sealing their doom. Her blood filled with anger and wondered how many others there had been since their arrival in Four Corners. They should not be dead! If it were not for that damn demon, they would not be.

"If it means finding Josiah, what the hell." JD agreed with the young woman who gave him a little smile for his show of support.

"Let’s get going," Chris declared. "Don’t want to lose any more people than we already have over these damn things."


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