The title really has almost nothing to do with the song, except that it was playing on the radio when the idea for the story came to me. A big, huge thanks to Antoinette for fixing my mistakes and bigger thanks to Lady Angel for the fantastic picture!
It was dark on the lonely stretch of two-lane blacktop. The headlights from the van pierced the inky darkness, illuminating the fluorescent stripe down the middle of the road. Team 7 was coming back from a training seminar in Reno. Budget cuts forced them to rent a van rather than fly.
Buck was driving and singing softly with the songs playing on the radio. Josiah was dozing in the front passenger seat, his arms folded across his chest and his head lolling against the corner of the seat. Ezra, in an uncharacteristically generous mood, had allowed JD to use his thigh for a pillow and the young agent was soundly asleep. The southerner was listening to a CD through his headphones after complaining that the drivel that played on the radio stations was putrefying his brains. Chris, Vin and Nathan had the back seat. Nathan had his long legs stretched out along the sliding door and his head against the side window as he slept. Vin was curled up on the other end of the bench seat, his feet resting on the luggage piled on the floor. Chris sat in the middle, his head lolling to the motion of the van.
The seminar had been interesting, for a change. In light of the thousands of men and women still serving overseas in the military, the FBI and ATF were getting more responsibility from the Homeland Security Taskforce. They were asking for teams to volunteer for more dangerous missions. The up side of the plan was that the government was building a new database for a more uniform exchange of information. JD had been tapped to be heavily involved with the implementation of the system in the Denver office, a major coup for the young man. In addition to the regular meetings the others had attended, he had also been to several planning and coordinating meetings and was thoroughly and completely exhausted.
After the newsbreak, Buck grinned as a familiar tune began to play on the radio. He reached out and nudged the volume up a fraction, setting the balance so that the rear speakers were off. His fingers began to tap the steering wheel along with the bass and drums.On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night...
Buck sang along, enjoying the rush of adrenaline that he got as his fingers played air guitar around the steering wheel. Somewhere around the first chorus, something flickered in the distance. Thinking it was just a shiny rock reflecting the high beams, he ignored it. A moment later, he slammed on the brakes and turned the steering wheel. The antilock system kicked in and the van hugged the road as it swerved to the left sharply. When the driver's side front tire dropped off of the asphalt, Buck pulled the wheel back sharply and the vehicle careened to the right rolling off of the road and coming to rest in the sandy shoulder. Even as he reached up to put the van into park so he could assess the damage, the electrical system failed, plunging the interior into complete darkness.
"What happened?" JD yelled from the floorboard in front of his seat. Against Ezra's better judgment, he had removed his seatbelt so he could lie down to sleep. From the back seat, Chris and Nathan were looking around, wide-eyed. Before they could say anything, Ezra's voice penetrated the darkness.
"Would it be sufficient to say that we are experiencing mechanical difficulties?" His voice was surprisingly calm considering the way the others had wakened.
The doors were flung open and all seven men got out. Josiah took a flashlight from the glove box and walked around to the driver's side. Buck was standing in the middle of his side of the road, looking back the way they had come and shaking.
"Are you all right, Buck?" the profiler asked.
"Did you see her?" the ladies man asked.
"See who?" Josiah countered.
"It looked like a young woman, just standing beside the road. I almost hit her!" Buck exclaimed as he took a couple of steps in that direction.
"I don't see anyone," JD volunteered.
"We better walk back a ways and make certain that she doesn't need help," Nathan said as he grabbed his backpack full of medical supplies.
All seven men walked along the side of the road looking for any sign of the missing girl. Nathan had fallen into step beside Buck because he had seen in the beam of the flashlight that the other man was visibly shaken. When they had walked farther than the beginning of the skid marks on the road surface, they began to scan the ground along the edge of the road for footprints.
"I don't know, Buck. I don't see anything and there's no prints or anything along here. Maybe you're more tired than you realized. I'll take over when we get back to the van, you should rest," Josiah offered.
When they reached the van, they discovered that they were indeed in trouble. There was absolutely no power. No lights, no radio, the starter wouldn't even try to turn over. Vin popped the hood and began to check the engine under the beam of the flashlight. Deciding to use the time wisely, JD walked away from the van to empty his bladder. As he was zipping his jeans, he glanced out toward the horizon. He thought he could just make out the shape of a building in the distance. Tipping his head up at the thick clouds that covered the face of the moon, he scowled. Deciding that there might be help available if it was a building of some kind, he turned and called to the others.
"Hey, guys, does that look like a building to anyone else?"
Ezra, Nathan and Chris looked up from where they were standing at the front of the van. They supposed they were trying to be helpful as they watched the others tinkering with the motor. In the faint light of the stars, they looked in the direction of JD's voice. Sure enough, there did appear to be some kind of building off in the distance.
"What's the verdict on the engine?" Chris asked.
"It's deader than a doornail. Ain't nothing I can do for it without proper tools," Vin complained.
"Has anyone given any thought to calling the auto club?" Ezra suggested.
"If we knew where we were. We're in the middle of nowhere. Unless we want to walk until we come to a mile marker and then try to call for help," Nathan said. On impulse, they each pulled out their cell phones. Each and every one had the same dismal message, 'no service.'
"That takes care of that," Buck hissed. He was starting to feel really guilty about the whole situation. If he'd been paying attention, he wouldn't have had a problem with the van.
"Let's head over toward the building then and see if there's a land line or at least some water," Chris decided. They locked the van and headed out across the sand, following the single beam of the flashlight. JD began to sway as he walked, the effects of his head striking the back of the seat when he fell to the floorboard. Ezra caught him by the elbow to steady him and received a grateful smile in return.
The dark shape of the building was farther away than any of them realized. The flashlight grew dim as they walked and then finally died all together. JD stumbled, falling hard to his hands and knees as Ezra struggled to keep him upright.
"JD? What's wrong?" Nathan asked as he immediately came to the young man's side.
"Just dizzy is all. Hit my head on the front seat when we stopped," JD explained.
"Did you unfasten your seatbelt?" the medic asked anxiously.
"Yeah, so I could lay down," came the sullen reply.
"You think you can walk?" Nathan asked.
"Yeah, give me a minute," JD replied before coming unsteadily to his feet. Ezra took hold of his arm and dragged it across his shoulder and wrapped his arm around the young man's waist to prevent him from falling again.
About a half hour later, they came upon the first of the dilapidated buildings. Buck, walking in near darkness, slammed into a hitching post. An audible gasp sounded as the air was knocked from his lungs. A moment later, Josiah also ran into the same hitching post. The dead flashlight fell from his hand and rolled away. Ezra turned JD and backed him onto what he thought was some kind of porch to sit down. He then dropped beside the young man.
"Place looks abandoned," Nathan said.
"Looks like some kind of historical village, you know, like a mining town or something," Vin suggested.
"Well, stay out of the buildings then, I don't want anyone falling through one of these rotted boards," Nathan warned.
Josiah and Buck began walking carefully along the boardwalk, looking for any of the buildings that might have been renovated for a tour. Chris and Vin crossed the street and walked along the other side. The clouds parted, allowing them to get a good look at their surroundings. Vin bent over and picked up a piece of wood lying at his feet. The letters painted faintly on the graying board spelled Bucklin's. Across the street, Josiah tipped his head up to read the sign over the porch of the building the others were standing in front of; it read 'World Famous Ritz.'
"Maybe we could pick up some loose pieces and make a fire," Vin suggested.
"And if this is some kind of historical site, we would go to jail. I think we better be very careful until daylight," Chris reminded him.
After searching the entire street, the men returned to where they had left the others. JD was out cold, his head resting lightly on Ezra's shoulder. Chris divided them into shifts to watch over the others and they tried to find a place to sit down to sleep. Nathan was concerned about the scorpions and tarantulas that inhabited the desert climbs. He was also worried about snakes. The last place he wanted to be was the middle of nowhere with one of them bitten by something.
A high-pitched scream startled them and they snapped awake. Chris and Vin had fallen asleep sitting on the ground against one end of the hitching post. Ezra was leaning against one of the porch posts with JD's head in his lap. Nathan was inclined against the next nearest post. Buck was leaning against the boardwalk; his arm resting against a broken board and his head nestled on his arm. Josiah had wandered a little farther down the dusty, dirt road and was asleep on the steps of what they could now see was a little chapel.
"What happened?" Vin asked nervously as he looked around at the others. Chris's leather bomber jacket was now a knee length black duster. His own denim jacket had become some kind of animal hide coat. JD's black ATF jacket and jeans now looked like some kind of a wool suit. Nathan's clothing had also changed but he was more concerned that the backpack containing their first aide supplies was gone. Ezra glanced down at his clothing and then looked up, shock and horror showing brightly in his eyes.
"What indeed?" The southerner drawled.
Vin clamped his elbow against his ribs and discovered that his weapon was missing. The others, seeing the sharpshooter feeling under his arm for his shoulder holster, also checked and found that their weapons were gone. In their places was an assortment of weaponry. Josiah jogged to them and they turned to stare at him. His casual clothing had been replaced and he was sporting an ornate cross on a heavily beaded string around his neck.
"Nathan, something's wrong with JD, he won't wake up!" Ezra called urgently. He had gently jostled the young agent and gotten no response. The medic surged forward and rolled the young man to his back and began to examine him. The others set out in the direction of the scream.
The four agents reached the end of the row of buildings and ran around to the back where a crowd had gathered. Chris and Vin moved through the circle of bystanders to see the mutilated body of a young woman. Buck edged in behind them, motioning the crowd back. His eyes widened in surprise when he recognized several of the faces pressing around them. Josiah knelt near the woman and brushed his fingers over her unseeing eyes.
"Did anyone see anything?" Chris called up at the crowd. A unanimous denial ran around the circle. "Does anyone recognize her?"
"That's Clara, she works in the saloon," one of the voices called out. "Should I run for the undertaker?"
"Yeah, you do that. Buck, run back and get Nathan. I want him to look at this before we move her," Chris said.
Meanwhile, Nathan was busy examining JD. The kid was in serious trouble. One of his eyes was dilated wider than the other one. He had hit his head harder than any of them realized. Ezra was standing helplessly out of the medic's way, wringing his hands.
"Nathan, how is he?" Buck called as he jogged up.
"Not good, what have you got back there?" the medic countered.
"Dead girl. Chris wants you to come see the body before they move it," Buck answered. "I'll stay here with him."
After Nathan dashed away, a young woman touched Buck on the shoulder.
"Are you going to move him to the clinic?"
Buck turned and his eyes widened in surprise. The young woman was familiar to him and to JD. Casey Wells was dressed in trousers and a long sleeved shirt and looked very plain compared to the vibrant young college student who frequented the apartment Buck shared with JD.
"Clinic? Where?" Buck asked when he recovered his voice.
"Nathan's clinic? Above the livery," she replied as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
"I'll follow you," the ladies man said as he scooped JD up from the boardwalk.
Ezra followed Buck to the stairs so he would know where JD had been taken before returning to the place where Nathan had left them. As he rounded the corner of the building, he noticed the horses for the first time. He was absolutely certain that they hadn't been there when he walked away. Out of habit, he pulled the cuffs of his shirt out of his coat sleeves. He discovered that something was strapped to his right forearm. Removing the brilliant red coat, the southerner stared at the leather rigging with the derringer. An experimental flick of his wrist dropped the little gun neatly into his hand. He put the gun back and pulled his coat back on.
Nathan knelt and studied the dead woman. From the ligature marks on her neck and wrists, she had been tied up for a while after she died. The impression on her neck looked like a twisted cord rope. There were other marks on the body. A tall thin man approached with another man bearing an empty coffin between them. The woman's body was reverently lifted and placed in the box and carried away. Chris dragged his hand through his short, blond hair as he watched the body being borne away.
"What do you think?" The team leader asked the medic.
"She's been dead for at least a day, judging from the rigor. Looks like she was strangled. I need to get back to JD. If we don't get the swelling in his head down or get him to a hospital, he's going to be in a bad way pretty quick," Nathan explained as he rushed back around the row of buildings. He slid to a halt when he saw the horses at the hitching posts. They hadn't been there when he walked around the buildings earlier. Shaking off his surprise, he hurried to where Ezra was standing. JD was nowhere in sight. "Where's JD?"
"Buck took him to the clinic. Come on, I'll show you," the southerner said as he started quickly up the street, mindless of the horse manure dropped here and there.
The team gathered in the clinic. Nathan stared around the room in dismay. To call the place primitive would have been a compliment. There were no medical supplies to speak of and the lighting in the place was atrocious. The medic sorely wished for the backpack he had with him when he left the van. "Maybe we should head back for the van, try to flag down a car," he suggested.
"I got a feeling we aren't in Kansas any more," Josiah intoned.
"Maybe I should saddle up a horse and ride out that way to see if the van or the highway are still there," Vin suggested.
"Might I accompany you, Vin? This whole situation has my nerves on edge," Ezra asked.
After the two men left, Nathan examined JD again. His pupils were more even but not reacting to light as well as they should. The young agent was breathing evenly and that put the medic at ease. As long as his breathing continued to be unimpaired, he would just wait and see.
Entering the livery, Vin and Ezra were startled to see the familiar mounts. Peso blew loudly and shifted nervously in his stall. Chaucer tossed his head and nickered, demanding attention. Buck's gray gelding was dozing serenely in a stall and Chris's big black was tossing his head and shaking his mane.
"This just keeps getting more and more weird," Vin said as he approached Peso and ran his hands along the long face of the animal. The horse nickered softly and pushed against the man, indicating that he wanted out.
Quickly saddling the horses, they rode out of the town and headed in the direction of the highway. Vin knew they were headed in the right direction because he could see the tracks the seven of them had left in the loose sand. After several minutes, they had clearly passed the area where the highway should have been. There was no black top, no van, and no road signs. A sick feeling started in the pit of his stomach and Vin turned to see what the reaction of the southerner was like. Fear and unease scrolled across the green eyes as Ezra stood in the stirrups and looked in every direction. A cold finger of fear wiggled in the hearts of both men as they wheeled the horses around and headed back to town.
The rest of the day, the seven men searched the town. The buildings were not as dilapidated as they had been the night before. Several of the faces they encountered were familiar but the people were not the same ones that they had known just a few days ago. The town and the people appeared as if they had stepped right out of time. It seemed as if everyone accepted that they were the law in town. As the sun went down, the men gathered in the saloon. Nathan stayed with JD. The young agent was slowly recovering, he had opened his eyes for a couple of minutes.
The sun dipped low on the horizon and the team began to plan for the coming night. Buck had discovered that they all kept rooms at the boarding house except for Ezra, who had a room above the saloon. Chris ordered that they at least stay in pairs to watch each other's back. Buck stayed with JD and Nathan in the clinic. Chris and Vin shared what the hotel owner indicated was the team leader's room. Ezra and Josiah shared the southerner's room above the saloon.
Morning came and the men gathered in the clinic to check on JD. He had wakened a few times in the night and was oriented, after a fashion. When he woke up the first time, he announced that he was John Dunne and lived in Denver. The second time, he said he was JD and he lived in Four Corners. The last time he woke, he told them that he was the sheriff and asked what had happened with finding Clara's murderer. Buck was beside himself with worry.
"We should see what we can get for breakfast. Buck, you should go. You need to get out and stretch your legs," Nathan urged.
"The manager of the saloon informed me that she would have our breakfast ready in a short time. It seems that our meals and rooms are comped into our pay," Ezra informed them. "Besides, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised to meet the proprietress of that establishment."
Curiosity piqued, Buck followed the southerner around to the saloon. Stepping through the batwing doors, the ladies man came to a stop. His eyes locked on the young woman cleaning the bar. Making a quick check with Ezra, he smiled broadly as he started across the floor.
"Senor Wilmington, how is young JD this morning?" Inez asked as she caught sight of the two men.
"He ... he's better this morning. Thanks for asking. Uh, Nathan sent us down to ask about breakfast. By the way, would you consider going out with me this evening?" Buck asked. His emphasis on the word you went unnoticed by the fiery woman as her dark eyes took on a hard look.
"Nunca! How many times must I tell you that I am not interested in becoming one of your conquests? I'll have your meals in a couple of minutes. The small coffee pot is for Senor Vin. I'll have another ready for the rest of you in a moment," she said as she wiped her hands on her apron.
"Seems that some things never change," Ezra teased.
After finishing their meal, the team sat quietly discussing the situation. JD had drifted off to sleep almost before he finished his food.
"Is it possible that we've been drugged and relocated?" Ezra posed.
"Unlikely. Everything is exactly as it was when we first arrived, only newer," Nathan explained.
"Group hypnosis, hallucination?" Josiah suggested.
"Also unlikely, the odds of all of us having the same hallucination are unimaginable," the medic replied. "And hypnosis isn't able to produce the images and the people we've been seeing. It would be impossible for all of us to see the same person at the same time if they weren't already familiar to us."
"Maybe this is all a bad dream," Chris fumed.
"The question becomes what do they want from us? What are we supposed to do for this illusion or fantasy to end?" Josiah said as he looked around the small, semi dark room.
"You mean like some kind of mission we have to complete?" Vin asked.
"Possibly. It makes more sense than anything else," the profiler explained.
"You expect me to believe that we are on some kind of cosmic truth or dare?" Ezra challenged. His voice was dripping with disbelief as he began to pace nervously.
"Take it easy Ezra," Chris cautioned. Of all of his team, the undercover agent was the most high-strung and uneasy when he felt out of control. The strange clothes and weapons were just the beginning of the things that they didn't understand and couldn't control.
A sudden knock at the door had all of them reaching for weapons. The door opened and Mary Travis stuck her head in and looked around.
"May I come in? I wanted to see how our young sheriff is feeling," she said while keeping her eyes steadily fixed on Chris.
"He's sleeping, Ma'am," Nathan said as he stepped closer to the newspaper reporter.
"Then may I have a word with you, Chris? I'd like to get some information about the girl who was killed yesterday. Have you any idea who killed her or why?" She asked as she cocked her head.
Chris edged toward the door. In the 'real' world, he would have trusted her, so he stepped out onto the landing to talk to her. As soon as the door closed, the others exchanged knowing glances.
"Clara was the girl I saw on the side of the road!" Buck suddenly said as he sank to the foot of the bed where JD lay sleeping. "I thought she looked familiar yesterday."
Vin stepped closer to the older man and rested a hand lightly on his shoulder, "Are you sure?"
"At first, I wasn't but I am now. She was standing at the side of the road. The headlights bounced off of her. That's why I slammed on the brakes," Buck reiterated crossly.
"Perhaps she is the key to the puzzle," Josiah said. "It may be that we are here to apprehend her killer."
Coming quickly to his feet, Buck headed for the door. He wanted to go and have another look at the body of the unfortunate woman. Someone had said that she worked at the saloon and he suddenly realized exactly what that phrase meant. Josiah and Vin jumped up to follow him.
The team leader walked down the boardwalk with Mary. She wanted him to come to her office to discuss the dead woman. He suspected that there was more to it than an interview. He hoped to be able to garner information about the town and their unique place in it from her. Taking the cup of tea she offered, he settled in for the long haul.
The undertaker's shop was dark and empty when the trio arrived. Since the door was unlocked, they went in to look around. The simple wooden coffin rested on a platform in the middle of the room. Buck stepped closer and hesitantly lifted the lid. The young woman looked peaceful. Powder had been applied to her face and neck. Tightening his hands on the rough-hewn sides of the coffin, Buck studied Clara's face. He didn't notice when Vin reached in and lifted one of her hands to study the marks left by whatever was used to restrain her. He committed the pattern to memory and tenderly replaced her hand on her stomach. Josiah also studied the marks on her wrists and neck before moving to check her ankles and feet. Noticing a sticky substance on the bottom of one of her feet, he pulled something that was stuck to the ball of her foot.
"What'cha got there, Josiah," Vin asked in a hushed whisper.
"Something stuck to her foot. Might give a clue as to where she was killed," the profiler answered as he rolled the object between his thumb and finger.
A shudder raced up his spine and Buck shivered as his hair stood on end. His hands fell from the side of the coffin and he picked up the lid. Vin helped him to replace the lid and they left the dark, somber room. In the bright light of the street, Josiah showed Vin what he had found. A small piece of some kind of plant had been stuck to her foot. Neither man recognized the variety and they hurried back to the clinic to see if Nathan did.
Waking up in the clinic, JD rolled over and turned his attention to the two men who sat talking softly at the table in the corner. What he heard puzzled and confused him.
"... how much longer we'll be stuck here. Our cell phones all registered no service and there isn't a single reason why. There is no topological reason for a loss of signal."
"Maybe we're on the fringes of the signal area. It happens sometimes. What concerns me more is the way it's affected JD. He really thinks he's the sheriff of this town! I think he must have hit his head harder than I realized. I would love to get him to a hospital for a CAT scan or an MRI."
"If we are really where and when we appear to be and any one of us is injured, it could well prove to be fatal," the southerner said.
"Nathan's pulled us back from death's door before, he can do it again," JD announced, startling them both.
"We didn't realize you were awake. How are you feeling?" Nathan asked as he brought a cup of water to the bed and lifted the young man's head to give him a sip.
"I'm fine. When can I get out of here? I need to get after Clara's killer," JD said as he sat up and tossed back the quilt that covered his legs. Immediately, what little color he had faded and he swayed unsteadily. Both Nathan and Ezra rushed to his side to stop him from taking a nosedive onto the floor.
"I think you need to rest a while longer," Nathan said as he eased the young man back on the pillows while Ezra replaced the quilt. The trio that had gone to the undertaker's shop came in. Josiah immediately moved to show the medic what he had found.
"It looks like some kind of tree sap on a leaf," the medic murmured as he rubbed the sticky substance between his thumb and forefinger. He sniffed at it, trying to discern if it was familiar in some way. "Where did you say you found this?"
"On the bottom of Clara's feet. I thought it might give us an idea of where to look for the site of her murder," the profiler said.
"Let me see it," JD demanded. Nathan shrugged one shoulder before crossing the room and dropping the plant substance in the young man's hand. "Clara was out gathering flowers near the James place. I wonder if she saw something out there?"
"We need to get out there and look around," Chris said.
"I want to go along," JD said as he struggled to sit up.
"You aren't going anywhere! You've still got a concussion. The only place you're going is to a hospital, young man," Nathan said as he scowled at the dark haired agent.
"Hospital? Heck, Nathan, there ain't no hospital in a week's ride from here! You never talked of sending the others to a hospital when they took a knock on the head. You even treated Chris right here in this bed when Ella Gains' men shot him. Treated me here after that crazy Stokes girl shot me, too!"
"Okay, settle down! Nathan says you're not up to going, you stay. Ezra, you and Josiah gather whatever we will need and get our horses ready to ride out in 15 minutes. Nathan, you stay here with JD and keep watch," the team leader ordered.
After deciding that Nathan could handle JD on his own, the other five men headed for the livery to collect their horses. Like Vin and Ezra, they were amazed at the familiar mounts. Buck stroked carefully over the front right hock of his horse, knowing that he had been treating a deep scratch from a brush with a fallen fence post. Sure enough, there was a healed scratch just barely felt beneath the fine hairs. Shaking his head, he hurried to catch up with the others in saddling up.
They rode out toward the James spread, having gotten directions surreptitiously from Mary Travis. Chris reviewed what he knew about Stuart James. In the real world, the man was a small time thug, running numbers around Purgatory. In this world, the man was a cattle rancher who had a real problem with the settlers taking up residence around the town. When they reached the edge of the James property, they left the road and headed across the open, rolling fields. They dismounted and crept along a ridge to a place where they could see the ranch house.
Vin tensed as he watched the men coming from the house and heading toward the barn. He edged carefully forward, hoping for a better glance at one of the men. After confirming his suspicion, he backed away from the ridge and motioned for the others to follow him.
"What is it, Vin?" Chris asked.
"One of the guys down there is Lucas James. He's real bad news. Deals in illegal drugs and weapons in Purgatory. The State's attorney has been after him for months," the sharpshooter announced.
"Still doesn't give us a clue as to who killed the saloon girl."
"Just thought you ought to know who we'd be dealin' with."
Just then, a trio of horses came over the rise. With an evil smile, Stuart James stared down on the five men who were squatted down at the tree line.
"Chris Larabee, is there some reason for you and your men to be spying on my place?"
"Actually, we're just trying to find out who killed one of the saloon girls last night," the team leader said as he came to his feet. Vin rose to stand at Chris's shoulder and scowled angrily at the elder James and the two men who sat on either side of him.
"Down boy! You'll want to get hold of the tracker, Larabee. Just remember, this is my land and you and your men are not welcome here."
"Someone reported that the dead girl was out this way picking flowers," Chris said calmly.
"No flowers growin' on my place. Take your men and get off of my property," James demanded before reining his horse around and away from the team. The men watched as the others rode away before looking to Chris to see what his reaction was.
"We need to be careful, I don't want to get into some kind of pissing match with Stuart James, especially since we don't know what's happening around here."
The men returned to town, each deeply lost in their own thoughts. At the livery, they removed the saddles and turned the horses into the corral. Chris thought he recognized the livery owner as being Yosemite Mitchell from the auto pool at the federal building. They returned to the clinic to find that Nathan had allowed JD to get up. The young man was combing his hair. Buck tried to swallow the laughter that threatened to erupt. JD always wore his long hair combed back from his face and had no natural part, he was now slicking his hair down from a part in the middle of his head and pulling it straight down the sides of his face.
"You find out anything at the James place?" JD asked as soon as he saw the others arrive.
"Only that he's got Lucas James out there with him. State's attorney wants him for dealing drugs and selling weapons in Purgatory," Vin answered.
"Purgatory isn't in Judge Travis's territory. Lucas is his nephew, nothing wrong with him being out there at the ranch. Did you ask them about Clara?"
"Stuart James said there aren't any flowers growing on his place. He ordered us off of his property," Chris added.
After lunch, a young woman approached the team as they sat around a table in the saloon. Ezra had discovered a deck of cards in his pocket and was dealing them hands of poker.
"Buck, can I have a word with you?" The blond woman asked hesitantly.
The ladies man turned and recognized the woman. Her name was Millie and she worked in the secretarial pool at the federal building. He had asked her out a couple of times but she had always had other plans.
"Of course you can, Millie dear. Come on over here and have a seat," Buck said as he nudged JD out of the chair closest to him. His roommate gave him a hard glare before grabbing a chair from a nearby table and spinning it around to sit in.
"If we could ... perhaps go some place ... private?" Millie asked timidly.
Buck wasted no time in springing from the chair to take the woman's hand and lay it over his forearm. Nodding to the others, he escorted Millie from the saloon. Nathan's mouth went dry when he noticed what JD was doing. He was spinning one of the Colts from his holster and flipping it back into place, forward and backward, over and over. 'Their' JD had never fiddled with a firearm in such a careless manner.
"JD! Cut that out!" The medic hissed urgently. Scowling, the young man shoved the gun back into the holster and huffed in disgust.
Down the boardwalk, Millie pulled Buck to one of the benches and leaned in close. "I shouldn't be telling you this but I'm scared. I saw Lucas James ride into town yesterday evening driving a surrey. I saw the tail of Clara's dress sticking out of the box on the back of it."
"You're certain about this? That it was Clara's dress?" Buck asked.
"I gave her that dress, Buck! Poor girl didn't have a thing in the world when she left the James place," Millie insisted.
"Left the James place?"
"She was engaged to marry Lucas! She said he beat her up and she was afraid of him, so she left. I know she told you about it!"
"I forgot. I'm sorry, Millie, this business with JD has me all confused. I need for you to tell Chris what you saw so we can go out there and arrest Lucas James."
They wouldn't get the chance to ride out. Four men rode into town just after lunch and tried to rob the bank. Ezra and Josiah were pinned down behind a water trough in the crossfire. The profiler took a bullet in the arm. Vin climbed up a trellis along the side of one of the buildings and danced across the rooftops until he hunkered down behind the big hotel sign. From that vantage point, he was able to take out two of the bank robbers. Buck and JD were trapped inside of the saloon with Millie and were doing their best to protect the woman while not getting themselves shot. Nathan crept along the side of a building until he came up behind the men. Unwittingly, he stepped on a large stick, which cracked, giving away his stealthy approach. The remaining gunmen turned and opened fire on him. Chris bounded out from his cover and squeezed off a couple of shots. Buck yelled angrily when JD leapt from behind the bar and ran out onto the boardwalk and opened fire. He picked off the last of the bank robbers.
As the dust settled, the seven men gathered in the street. Chris visually checked each of them. Nathan hurried to Josiah as soon as he noticed the bloody shirtsleeve. Vin and Buck knelt to examine the dead men. Before they even thought of it, the undertaker and a couple of other men were coming toward them. With a very manner of fact attitude, the deceased were hoisted up and carried away.
"Chris, I have to get Josiah's arm taken care of," Nathan said as he pulled the profiler toward the clinic. He sorely wished for his backpack again.
"Hey Chris, this is one of the Maloney boys! He's got a bounty on him. I'll wire the sheriff in White Water and let him know we got him," JD said as he hurried away.
"Buck, stay with him. Keep an eye on him," the blond said as he glanced around nervously. When he had heard the shooting, he had instinctively gone for the weapon at his hip. It was vaguely similar to the 357 he used when he worked for the DPD but also significantly different. The single action meant that he had to thumb the hammer every time he pulled the trigger, unlike the Glock, which could fire as quickly as he pulled the trigger. He had also seen the way Vin handled the sawed off shotgun. Although he knew the sharpshooter had probably used something similar before, it was still eerie watching the easy familiarity he had with the gun. And then there was JD, the kid had come out of the saloon with guns, plural, blazing. With a Colt in each hand, the computer whiz had taken out the last bank robber. He was still deep in thought when Vin nudged him.
"Come on, Cowboy, lets get a drink to settle our nerves," the sharpshooter teased. Chris glared at the Texan for a moment before shifting his weight and stumbling.
"Are you alright, Chris?" Mary Travis called anxiously as she hurried up the boardwalk.
"I'm fine, Mary, thanks," he answered.
"Who were those men?"
"JD thinks one of them was one of the Maloney boys, he's gone to notify the sheriff in White Water."
"And did I hear that Josiah was injured?"
"Nathan's taking care of him. I'm sorry, Mary, I don't have time for this right now," Chris said as he strode away from the blonde woman, ignoring the hurt and surprise that showed on her face.
Puzzled, Vin jogged to catch up with the team leader. He fell into step with him, but remained silent, waiting for the right moment to question him. Chris stopped suddenly and turned to face Vin, his jaw tightly set in anger.
"I've had enough of this! We've got to get out of here before one of us gets killed!"
"I agree, now what are we going to do about it?" Vin asked.
"We need a plan," Chris said as he turned and walked away, leaving Vin standing there confused. The sharpshooter sighed and started to follow.
In the clinic, Nathan finished cleaning and dressing the shallow wound on Josiah's arm. He had made use of the supplies on hand and found them barely adequate to the task. He hoped that none of them would be seriously hurt.
Coming to the door of the jail, Chris and Vin heard JD talking animatedly to Buck.
"You remember, Buck, Ezra in that purple dress, singing? When we rescued Mrs. Travis from Wicks?" JD asked, his voice rising in disbelief at the puzzled expression on the older man's face.
"JD, what do you know about Stuart and Lucas James?" Chris asked as soon as he stepped into the jail.
"Just what you already know, that they've been hassling the settlers. We haven't been able to get anything on them 'cause folks are too scared to go up against them," the young man answered. "Between the James' and Guy Royal, they've run off four families in the past two months"
"Two months? JD, how do you know that, when we've only been here," Chris started, only to be interrupted by Buck.
"Well now, it don't hardly matter how he knows, the important thing is that he knows," Wilmington said firmly. "And it appears that young JD was right about those guys that tried to rob the bank. Horton Maloney and his cousin Eustace Avery are wanted, dead or alive for murder and escaping the territory prison. Looks like we'll be splitting the bounty on them."
"Did my ears deceive me, or did I hear the word bounty being bantered about in here?" Ezra asked as he slipped into the jail.
"Where have you been?" Chris demanded. He hadn't seen the southerner since he disappeared after the shooting stopped.
"Well, I figured that, since all of you were engaged in your own interests, that I would visit the bank and ascertain the safety of the employees, therein," Ezra answered smugly.
"And are they all right?" the blond asked.
"They are, however, the bank manager is quite upset at having this 'third' attempt on his business establishment in the past month."
"Yeah, well, at least ain't nobody made off with any of the town's money in that length of time," JD defended proudly.
"Okay, let's not worry about that right now. JD, what do you know about Lucas James?" Chris asked, ending all other discussions.
When JD had repeated all that he knew about the James' and their activities, Chris came to a decision. "Saddle up and let's ride out there and arrest him."
"Arrest him? Chris, have you lost your mind? Stuart James isn't going to let us just ride in there and take his nephew without a fight!" JD exclaimed.
"Well, we'll just have to come up with something," the blond declared as he left the jail.
Before they could head out after Lucas James, he came into town with a group of his ranch hands. They stopped at the store to pick up supplies. Not wanting to endanger the innocent townspeople, Chris and the others waited. The entire group ended up at the saloon, drinking and celebrating with their pay. Nathan and Josiah joined the others in strategic locations around the room and waited for the bust to go down. Several of the saloon patrons, sensing danger, finished their drinks and left, looking worriedly over their shoulders until well out of sight. Finally, Chris nodded to the others and strode purposefully toward the bar and the young man drinking and laughing with his men.
"Lucas James, you are under arrest for the murder of Clara Settfield," the blond announced. The merriment at the bar came to an immediate halt as the young man turned to face the darkly clothed gunslinger. James' face held an expression of surprise.
"Mr. Larabee, what are you saying? I could no more kill Clara than I could kill my own mother. I loved Clara."
"Then you can explain to the judge how it is that you came to be seen bringing her body into town," Chris said as he gave the younger man a lethal glare.
"Who said they saw me bringing Clara into town? I haven't left the ranch in over a week! We've just gotten some new stock and I was helping with the branding and settling them to graze!"
"Tell it to the judge," Chris said as he reached for Lucas.
While the team leader was engaged in discussion with the younger James, Ezra and Josiah were watching the other men who accompanied him into town. One man, who looked barely old enough to shave, slipped out the back door. Vin also saw the man flee and slipped out after him.
Wilson Holmes slinked around the row of buildings until he came to the hitching post where his horse was tethered. As he reached for the reins, a soft drawl came out of the darkness. "And just where do you think you're going?" Vin asked as he stepped away from the wall, his gun leveled on Holmes.
"I - I - I just didn't want no trouble. Please mister, I just want to ride out," Wilson pleaded as he held his hands away from the well-worn belt at his hips.
"What do you know about Clara Settfield?"
"I know Lucas James didn't kill her. He may have knocked her around some, but he didn't kill her."
"You know who did, don't you?" Vin asked as he stepped closer and lifted the pistol from the kid's holster, cocking it and holding it level with the sawed off shotgun.
"If I tell you, they'll kill me, just like they did that girl. Please mister, just go ahead and shoot me if you're going to, but I ain't gonna tell you anything."
Coming to a decision, Vin gestured the kid toward the church and nudged him in the back with the pistol. Once inside, he holstered the mare's leg and pushed the kid into the small room in back of the church. In the near darkness, he tied the kid up, gagging him with his own bandana, before leaving him to check on the others.
The tension in the saloon was so thick, you couldn't have cut it with a chainsaw. Chris and Lucas James were standing barely an arm's reach apart. The other men who had come to town with him were all standing ready to leap into the fray. The other five members of Team 7 stood poised to assist. Vin slipped in the back door and edged around until he could make eye contact with the others.
"Chris, why don't we investigate this a little more before we throw an innocent man in jail," the sharpshooter said, just loudly enough to be heard by the blond.
"And you'd know about being wrongly accused, wouldn't you, Tanner?" Lucas asked.
Searching Vin's face, Chris saw that his teammate knew something. Nodding almost imperceptibly, he stepped back slightly. James and his men took advantage of the opening and beat a hasty retreat. When the sound of their horses had faded, the team leader turned on the sharpshooter.
"What just happened here?" Ezra asked as he and Josiah came forward.
"One of the ranch hands snuck out and I caught up with him. He says that he knows who killed Clara, and it wasn't Lucas James. I got him tied up over at the church right now."
All seven men rushed out of the saloon and up the street to the church. When Chris burst through the door and into the little room, the bound ranch hand shrank back in fear. Josiah poked around the room until he came upon the sulfur tipped wooden matches. Lighting the wick on the hurricane lantern, he replaced the globe and turned to face the others. Chris had pulled the ranch hand to his feet and shoved him into a straight-backed chair. The kid continued to look up in sheer terror as the gunslinger stood over him.
"Okay kid, tell me what you know about the death of Clara Settfield."
An hour later, Buck and Vin dragged an infuriated Larabee out of the church and threatened to toss him into a horse trough if he didn't calm down. Holmes may have been terrified of the darkly clothed blond, but he was more afraid of what would happen to him if he revealed what had happened at the James' ranch.
"He doesn't have to tell us, Chris. We'll just hold him and see who comes to get him back. If the killer thinks the kid will tell, he'll try to kill him," Buck suggested.
"And how do you expect to identify the killer if a whole gang of them come riding in here?"
"I hadn't thought of that. But I'm not going to let you beat up that kid!"
"It's not a bad idea though," Vin interrupted. "If just one guy comes for the kid, then he's almost surely to be Clara's killer. And if more than one comes, we lock them all up and wait for the trial."
"Wait for the trial? Do you want to stay here indefinitely? What happens the next time the bank gets robbed and someone gets shot for real? Nathan said that he doesn't have any of the proper supplies to keep us alive. What if one of us gets sick? They don't even have antibiotics here!"
" 'S'alright with me, damned things make me sick anyway," Vin said with a slight grin.
The lameness of his argument was apparent in the easy way the sharpshooter was blowing it off and Chris sighed. He had to admit, it was the best plan in the light of the situation. In the distance, the door of the church opened and he could see Josiah's large frame blotting out the wan light from the lantern.
"Alright, we'll try it your way," the blond conceded.
After considerable discussion, it was decided to stow their witness in the basement below the hotel. Josiah would keep him company. The kid looked horrified when Chris ordered him to strip. With shaking hands, Wilson stripped to his underclothes. A worn quilt was placed in his hands to keep him warm, as it was cooler in the underground basement. JD was the only one small enough to fit into the 'borrowed' clothing, so he would have to serve as the decoy. With his longer hair tucked up under the other man's hat, he would pass for Wilson, from a distance. They just had to hope that Clara's killer didn't get close enough to realize that he was being duped.
With JD secured in one of the jail cells, the others took up positions to protect him. Buck took the first watch in the jail, while Chris and Nathan watched from other places. Vin and Ezra were sent to get a few hours of sleep.
It wasn't until they had reached the ranch that Lucas missed the Holmes kid. He waited until the others were close enough that he wouldn't have to shout before he asked. "Where's Wilson?"
"I haven't seen him since you got into it with Larabee. Anybody remember seeing him in the saloon?" one of the ranch hands asked.
"He was in the saloon with us but I didn't see him after Larabee walked up, I was too busy watching him," another answered.
"You think some of us should ride back and look for him?" another voice suggested.
"No, it's late. Let's get on home so I can let Uncle Stuart know what's going on in town," Lucas said, turning his horse back toward the ranch. He and the others rode a little more quickly when they reached the familiar surroundings and reached the bunkhouse in no time. They didn't miss Thomas Larkey until then.
Thomas hung back from the others, his dark gelding blending into the night. He waited until the others were far enough away that they wouldn't hear him when he turned back toward town. He rode for a half hour before stopping and letting his horse rest. Tying the animal to a fallen tree, he threw down his bedroll and tried to grab a few hours sleep. He would be up before daylight so he could get into town before that fool Holmes kid spilled his guts to the lawmen. He didn't think the kid would talk but he wasn't completely sure.
On the cot in the corner of the hotel cellar, Wilson Holmes tossed fretfully in his sleep. On the one hand, he was afraid of what would happen to him at the hands of the blond haired gunslinger, on the other, he was afraid of what Larkey would do to him if he caught him. Whether or not he told, he was sure that the ranch hand would kill him, slowly and painfully, the way he had Clara.
"It might go easier on you if you confess what you know, Son," Josiah said softly.
"I don't know about that."
"If you had no hand in killing that young woman, you have no need to fear."
"If you knew the man who killed her, you'd know why I can't say."
That was the way it went all night. Every time the boy opened his eyes or sighed loudly while facing the wall, the profiler urged him to tell what he knew. He could see that the kid was scared. After a few hours, he changed his tact.
"She certainly was pretty," Josiah offered.
"Yeah, she was."
"I heard someone say she was from a small family. Do you know if she had any relatives we could notify?"
"It was just her and her brother after their parents died of the fever a few years ago."
"Do you know where her brother lives?" Josiah prodded.
"He took a job breaking horses up around Denver," Wilson said. "Was trying to raise enough money to buy a house for him and Clara."
"Sounds like you knew her pretty well. You know about her family, about her brother."
"She and I used to talk."
"If she was a friend, wouldn't you feel better if you saw to it that her murderer got what was coming to him?"
"I don't want to talk about it anymore," the young man said as he pulled the quilt up around his head and turned to face the wall again.
Vin and Ezra relieved Chris and Nathan a few hours later. Buck was dozing lightly in the jail, his gun on the desk in front of him. After checking on Josiah, they went to grab some sleep, it would be daylight soon.
Thomas awoke and hurriedly picked up his bedroll. He choked down some jerky from his saddlebags and drank the rest of the tepid water in his canteen before saddling up. It was just light enough for him to see the road, leaving everything else shrouded heavily in shades of gray and black. His horse took a leisurely pace, following the path without need of guidance.
Vin brought breakfast down for Josiah and Wilson. The kid seemed amazed that they were feeding him, he expected to receive little more than water. After making sure that Josiah was rested enough to watch their witness, Vin left to rendezvous with the others. Ezra, having made himself at home in the saloon, had brewed coffee and heated some leftovers for them. He carried the tray down to the jail and they ate. After breakfast, Buck headed for the church to get some rest. Even though he had napped in the chair, he was still exhausted. Chris made sure that JD had both of 'his' guns hidden in the cell with him. Vin took over inside of the jail, with Nathan sitting outside. Chris and Ezra mounted up and took short rides around the town, looking for anyone who was out of place.
Hunkered down in the stall, Thomas dared not even breathe as the two horses were led out by the lawmen. He waited until the horses' footfalls receded before creeping out and making his way down the alley to the back of the jail. In his hand, he had an old stick of dynamite. He was planning to blow up the Chinese laundry and make his way to the jail in the ensuing chaos. It was still fairly dark when he crept across the road and made his way down the narrow alley near the undertaker's. With trembling hands, he struck the wooden match against the graying boards. When the match was burning well, he held the fuse over it. As soon as the fuse began burning, he tossed it as hard as he could toward the large, copper basins that were used to wash clothes. Jogging, stooped over to avoid being seen, he hurried back and ducked into the undertaker's, pushing the door nearly closed.
At the sound of the explosion, Nathan leapt to his feet. Vin opened the door to the jail and looked out to see what had happened. JD was on his feet, clutching the bars.
"That sounds like it came from the Chinese laundry," JD called to the others.
"It's a diversion," Vin mumbled softly to Nathan.
"I'll go see if anyone's hurt," the medic said as he stepped off of the boardwalk and hurried across the street.
The sound of the explosion also reached the cellar of the hotel. Wilson bolted upright in the cot and looked around fearfully. "He's coming for me!" he cried in panic.
"Who is?" Josiah asked as he pulled the big Schofield revolver and crept to the staircase for a look. "Who's coming for you?"
"Larkey, it's Thomas Larkey! He's the one that killed her! He's the one that killed Clara! Please, you gotta protect me! He'll kill me!" Wilson pleaded.
"We won't let anyone get you, Son. Sit back down and keep quiet now," Josiah said as he crept up the stairs.
Outside of town, Chris and Ezra also heard the explosion. Both of them wheeled their mounts and raced back as quickly as was safe for the horses. Chris was first to reach the site, pulling his horse to a halt and leaping to the ground to help with the bucket brigade that was forming to put out the fire. Ezra came into town from the other direction and went to the alley behind the jail to dismount. Pulling his Remington, he crept along the side of the Potter's store until he reached the boardwalk. While most of the townspeople were running across the street toward the explosion, one dark figure was headed in the opposite direction, toward the jail.
Buck's feet hit the floor running. He raced through the church and out the front door, heading for the jail at a dead run. He dodged several people coming out of the hotel before he leapt onto the boardwalk, running past the southerner. Ezra shot out of his hiding place and fell in behind Buck, feeling very much like a quarterback following a blocker.
It was all over in a few moments. Larkey ran into the jail and skidded to a halt. Pulling his gun, he fired three times into the prone body on the bunk. When he paused, a straight-backed chair was shattered across his back, sending him crashing into the bars and then to the floor. As he reached for his gun, a booted foot came to rest on the weapon, crushing his fingers painfully. A pair of guns clicked ominously in his ear.
"You're under arrest for the murder of Clara Settfield and the destruction of the clothing of Wilson Holmes," Vin drawled, while grinning at the prone man. Buck and Ezra burst in a moment later, both out of breath from their run. They both stopped and looked at their two friends standing over the man on the floor, who bore a striking resemblance to Lucas James. Buck looked a second time when he noticed that JD didn't have a shirt on. He looked toward the cell and saw the shirt, complete with three new bullet holes, lying on the bunk.
"If he didn't shoot you, who did he shoot?" Buck asked.
"We stuffed the shirt with the other cell's blanket to make it look like Holmes was lying there. It worked too," JD bragged with a broad grin.
A few moments later, Chris and Nathan came running into the jail as Larkey was being shoved into his cell. Nathan looked into the other cell, and then to the shirtless JD before nodding.
"I take it everything went alright?" Chris asked as he surveyed the room. Josiah arrived last, leading Wilson, still wrapped in the quilt. The young man took one look at the cells and turned on the profiler, righteous indignation in his eyes.
"What did they do to my clothes?" he screeched.
A few hours later, Mary Travis informed them that the judge was coming on the noon stage. Ezra sat down with Wilson, appalled that the young man couldn't even write his name, and wrote out his statement. The sad tale spun from the kid's mouth. Clara had been picking flowers, not on the James' ranch but on an adjacent piece of property. Larkey, knowing that the girl had recently broken up with the bosses' nephew, decided to have a little fun with her. Holmes had come up on them accidentally. He had been horrified to see the young woman staked out on the ground, her body covered in welts and bruises. Thomas had run him down, holding a knife against his stomach and threatened that he would gut the boy and hang his intestines in a tree for the animals to eat if he ever told. Having been hunting with the older ranch hand, Wilson had seen him kill a wolf that way when he found it alive in a trap. The animal had lived for several hours, suspended by its front paws with its guts hanging out. Clara was already dead by the time he'd found them.
There was little for Judge Travis to do by the time he arrived. He looked over the Holmes boy's statement and found it to be credible. He said he would convene a jury later that afternoon. The members of Team 7 headed for their rooms to get some more sleep, now that the crisis was past and the killer safely behind bars.
A hand shook him and Josiah opened his eyes slowly. The state trooper was looking down on him with a mixture of worry and amusement on his face. Coming to his feet, the profiler looked down the dusty street to where the rest of his team slept.
"What happened to you?" the trooper asked hesitantly.
"What day is it?" Josiah countered. The trooper told him and the graying man nodded in acceptance before walking away. Squatting down, Josiah gently shook the team leader's shoulder. "Chris? Wake up. Vin? Nathan?" As Josiah stood, Ezra startled awake, grabbing JD by the shoulder to keep him from falling off of the edge of the boardwalk. Vin immediately felt under his arm for his shoulder holster and sighed in relief to find both it and his weapon. JD sat up slowly, clutching his head and moaning softly. Nathan instantly went to him and tipped his face up so he could see his eyes.
"What happened? What day is it?" Chris asked as he looked around at the dilapidated buildings. Gone were the horses and the people and the whole windows that he remembered from the past few days. He reached around to the small of his back and wrapped his hand around the grips of his gun.
"You gentlemen have a rented van break down on the highway?" the trooper asked.
"Yeah, it just died, no lights, no radio, nothing," Buck answered.
"Let me take you back and call a tow truck."
"Thanks, we appreciate it," Josiah said as he offered his hand to the man to shake. When the trooper took hold of his hand, the profiler winced.
"Josiah, let me see your arm," Nathan demanded. The profiler pulled off his windbreaker and pushed up the sleeve of his shirt. A deep crease marked the skin.
"It's from where I was resting on the steps, Nate. I'm fine. How's JD?"
"He's got a knot on the back of his head but I think he'll be fine."
The trooper shuttled the team to the van in two groups, taking Buck, Josiah, Nathan and JD first. The other three walked along the block of graying, weathered buildings. The memories were so real, so vivid that it was almost impossible to believe it had been a dream.
To add insult to injury, the van started right up when Josiah got behind the wheel. The trooper shook his head with a knowing smile. When he had dropped off the other three men, he leaned in the open sliding door.
"I'd have to say that you must have succeeded, solved the crime," he said.
"What do you mean by that?" Chris demanded.
"This happens about once a year. A vehicle breaks down and the passengers report that they spent days in an old west town trying to solve the murder of a young girl. We find them here the next morning and not one of their cars would start. Not even after taking them to a shop, every one was totaled by the insurance companies. Your van started right up, you must have solved it."
After stopping at the hospital to have JD's head examined, with all the usual jokes and jibes intact, the team headed for Chris's place to unwind and discuss what had happened. Buck made a beeline down to the barn to check on his horse. The others, catching the same idea, followed him down to check on their animals, too. They spent the day getting over the weirdness of it all. They fired up the grill and cooked steaks with all the trimmings.
When they got home that night, Buck discovered that his keys to the apartment were missing. He searched all through the bag he had taken to the meeting without finding them. He called the rental car place to make certain he hadn't turned them in with the van keys. He finally resolved himself to having another set made, thinking that he must have lost them on the walk in the desert.
Several days later, JD was surfing the web when he stumbled across something that made him look twice. He printed the information and forwarded a copy to the others. By the end of the day, they had all decided to go see what the kid had found. They piled into two vehicles and drove out to the small, unnamed cemetery south of Denver. It took them most of an hour to find the stone they were looking for. It was in the oldest part of the cemetery, just a few of the stones that were so weathered that the letters were almost worn off. Josiah knelt down and pulled the grass away from the base of the stone. Something reflected the sun and he used his fingers to dig it out. He turned in awe as he held up the ring of keys with the very familiar key tag that read 'STUD.' Buck's eyes widened in amazement as he plucked the keys from Josiah's hand.
The article JD had found detailed the plight of the tiny cemetery that was in danger of being taken over for a commercial construction project. The people who tended the small plots were seeking anyone with a connection to any of the people buried there to write letters to try to save it. Along with the request was the story of how the land had once belonged to a David Settfield, who set the property aside after having his sister's body moved from the small town where she had been brutally murdered. It was rumored that even though the body had been moved, that her spirit still haunted the town, seeking justice or retribution for her murder.
The men returned to Denver, feeling very sobered by their experience, and amazed by the fact that they had found Buck's keys there even though the ladies' man had never been to the tiny cemetery.