The members of the expedition sat in a circle on their chairs in the clearing near the woods where the body was found. They were all sharing water canteens except Ezra who had produced his hip flask and was sharing it only with himself. The group was pensive and quiet.

Then Buck saw Ezra sitting beside him drinking the more potent potable. "Hey, mind sharin' that?"

Ezra swallowed his gulp of whiskey hard and replied, "Mr. Wilmington, if you didn't come prepared,... well, that's your loss." He raised the flask for another sip when Buck suddenly lunged at him. He quickly pulled away, but Buck jumped out of his chair and restrained Ezra's arm, snatching the whiskey from him, which almost knocked him over backwards in his chair. As Buck took a gulp, Ezra shot violently to his feet with clenched fists.

"Boys!" Maude shouted. "We'll have no fightin' amongst ourselves!" Her sharp eyes were bold and unyielding.

Both men stood down, and though Ezra was still simmering, he and Buck both looked at themselves and suddenly felt foolish. Buck apologetically handed the whiskey back to his friend, who accepted it brusquely.

"Now gimme that," Maude ordered with an outstretched hand.

Ezra took a moment to blink at her. How dare she talk to him like he was a child in front of all these people! But her fiery eyes bore into him, and he grudgingly slipped her the flask. She wiped the mouth of the container with her handkerchief and poured a shot into her tin cup. Then, before taking a sip, she passed the flask to the man on her left, who very conveniently just happened to be Thornton. Ezra could only watch with muted annoyance. He blinked a few times as he watched his nourishment being passed around the circle without his consent.

"I think what we need to do is take a moment to think about this rationally," Maude said. "If we want to prevent ourselves from meeting a bitter end, we must know exactly what we are looking for and what we are up against. Now, let's take a closer look at those riddles."

"Yeah, maybe they'll tell us to watch our step," Buck said humorlessly.

Thornton gave his knee an enthusiastic slap. "Maude's right. Now, nothing pernicious has happened to us thus far, and I trust enough in you men to see that it stays that way," he said in the direction of Ezra, Buck, and JD.

Ezra and Buck returned to their chairs and sat. JD passed the whiskey flask to Buck, who finally returned it to Ezra.

"'Follow the blinding sun' and 'The Chief surrounds himself with his loved ones,'" read Thornton from his note pad.

"Great. All we gotta do is find his loved ones and we'll find the treasure," Buck said.

"I think we need Josiah for that one," said JD.

"Just see if he assists us," said a doubtful Ezra.

"Who's Josiah?" asked Thornton.

"Large man. Very spiritual. Friend to the red man. Probably be joining us within the next 24 hours," answered Ezra.

"Well, since I don't intend to wait,..." Thornton said, then looked expectantly around the circle for answers.

After a moment of silence, Avery finally spoke. "Before they were attacked, wasn't the first expedition digging in or around the bushes where the sun shone through? Why don't we start there?"

"They were probably in the correct vicinity," agreed Thornton.

"However, they had no clue whether they ever in fact stood on the proverbial X that marked the spot. And, I think you're ignoring the most vital term in Mr. Zest's statement, which is 'they were attacked,'" said Ezra. "Furthermore, they were killed. It may be wise to stake our claim on a different--"

"A more careful course," said Thornton, incorrectly predicting Ezra's suggestion. "Yes, that's exactly why you and your men are more vital to the mission from now on. For protection." But before Ezra could correct him, he thrust an enthusiastic fist in the air and said, "A noble man to think of our safety ahead of his own! I toast you! So, we will begin--" He began to rise from the chair and creaked as he did. He froze, then with a groan, he slumped back into his seat.

"Mr. Jacobs, are you OK?" Jimmy queried.

His boss nodded and sighed, "Just a tad drained. That's all."

"Well, this looks like a nice spot to set up camp, anyway," said Buck as he rose and stretched his whole body from its tightness. "We'll need some rest before diggin' for buried treasure."

"Agreed," said Maude, making no effort to stand.

"Yup," said JD as he stood, "the western land is a... mighty tough trail for greenhorns to get used to."

Casey came to his side. "We're gonna camp the night here? With that... body out there?"

Jimmy watched them through disappointed eyes. He couldn't help it. JD had Casey hanging on to him while he himself only had Thornton.

"Casey," JD said as he placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Stay close to us, and everything'll be fine."

"Promise me you'll be safe, and don't go doin' nothin' stupid like tryin' to be a hero an' all," she pleaded, looking into his deep brown eyes.

"Casey, remember who you're talking to," JD said with a grin.

Vin picked up a bullet from the ground near the boot tracks they were following. He examined it in the palm of his hand and said, "This was no huntin' expedition."

Chris came to his side. Vin passed the bullet to him. "Shot recently enough. Too clean to 'a been out here very long." He turned to Josiah and Vin. "Does Jim Dogface use a .44?"

"Not as far as I know," answered Josiah.

Vin shook his head.

"That survivor said his expedition wasn't armed," Vin recounted.

"Must be another expedition," said Nathan.

"I guess someone out here doesn't like riddles," Josiah mused.

"Yeah, so they had to force someone to be their tour guide," Nathan added.

"If these people are willin' to go and kidnap a family, they're prob'ly the same bastards who attacked the other expedition to keep them from findin' the gold first," Vin concluded.

"Then they're probably after our boys, too," Chris said holding up the bullet. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out the map Ezra had given him earlier and unfolded it. He ran his finger along the dotted line representing the group's itinerary. "According to this, they should be 'round here somewhere."

"Awful big circle," Nathan said, referring to the area Ezra circled on the map. "We better get goin'."

So the four men mounted their horses again, this time to reunite with their friends, hoping they would not be too late.

Thornton and his team were successful at pulling down two more rabbits for dinner. Everyone was eating around the campfire when they heard rustling in the bushes several yards away. Everyone stopped and pricked up their ears. Ezra and Buck took up their rifles, and JD drew his guns with caution.

The rustling and branch-cracking continued from the bushes, but as the noise neared, it seemed to multiply. The guns all rose. The pulses raced. The sounds came even closer, and they could see movement in the nearest bushes.

Then the line of vegetation broke to reveal seven coyotes, hungrily baring their long, sharp teeth. They growled as they crept closer to the camp. The one in the front appeared to drop something from its mouth to the ground. Then the coyotes began to howl. The guns remained aimed at the pack, but no one shot.

"Think they're hungry?" Avery said, slowly reaching for a skewered piece of rabbit meat.

"So what is that cacophonous refrain?" Ezra grimaced, referring to the howling. "The term in the local coyote dialect for 'Dear Lord, we are grateful for this bounty we are about to receive'?"

Avery threw the meat over the coyotes' heads, which followed it to the ground behind them. That is, all except the apparent leader of the pack. The lone coyote simply looked at his dining colleagues, then back to the humans.

"What's his problem? Not enough?" Avery said, nervous tension trembling his voice.

"Somethin' funny 'bout these guys," said Buck. "Coyotes don't go in packs."

"Maybe you better tell them that," JD said.

"Wait," said Ezra. Upon closer inspection, the misfit coyote seemed to be looking directly at one side of the group of people -- the side pointing guns at them. The other side of the expedition was huddled together for safety.

The coyote yelped in the direction of the guns.

"How 'bout a warning shot?" Buck offered. Then he fired a shot that scattered the dirt in front of the coyote, making it jump. Its friends merely continued to feast.

It yelped. But it wasn't a cry of pain. It was more deliberate, like a warning. It nuzzled something on the ground, then yelped and growled some more. All three men fired more shots, then stopped. After dropping to the ground to dodge the bullets, the coyote stood and yelped again. Its friends had stopped eating in order to dodge the bullets as well, but now returned to their dinner.

"Those are definitely no ordinary coyotes," Buck observed.

Ezra raised his eyebrows. "If I didn't know better, I'd say this fella was tryin' to tell us something." But his rifle was still raised and aimed at the canine intruder.

"Since when did you speak coyote-ese?" said Buck in a low voice.

"I'm a man of many talents. You know that, Buck," Ezra said sarcastically. "Now, go find out what it wants."


JD joined in. "Yeah, you're the one with the animal magnetism."

"I told you -- it only works on women." The two men eyed Buck with doubt. "Aghh, since you sissy boys are too chicken..." Buck said as he took a few cautious steps forward, still with the gun raised.

But the coyote jumped forward and "barked" violently at him. Buck stopped. Then the coyote sniffed the air and seemed to eye Ezra. Buck noticed, then took slow steps backward until he was between his compatriots again. He whispered to the gambler, "I think he likes you."

"Why me?" Ezra whispered to no one in particular. The coyote began to creep towards them with bared teeth.

"Go on," urged Buck.

The gambler suddenly thought about their other audience huddled several steps behind them and decided that he needed to save face as well as all their lives. Then with a deep sigh and stern eyes, Ezra started cautiously toward the coyote. The coyote yelped, then jumped backwards and nuzzled the same area of the ground again.

"Ooh, this is suspenseful," Thornton whispered, eagerly anticipating the turn-out of the night's show.

Buck and JD maintained their positions as Ezra closed-in on the mystic coyote, while Maude and the others wondered fearfully if her son had taken leave of his senses.

Ezra took the last few paces particularly deliberately, not wanting to make a move that might end up being his last. With each step, he was fully aware that the coyote's gaze never left him. He was nearing the animal. He felt his heart pounding against his ribs as much as he tried to keep it from doing so. He was anxious to discover what awaited him, but at the same time, he simply wanted this all to stop and go away without consequence like a bad dream. And he didn't want to move too quickly for it may startle the animal.

He took the last steps closer to the coyote like a man on a high wire trapeze with no safety net. When he arrived, the lone coyote yelped once more, then jumped back to the pack, which was finishing the rabbit. All eyes behind and in front of Ezra were on him. Feeling relatively satisfied that the coyotes wouldn't devour him, he looked to the ground near his feet at what the coyote seemed to bring him.

The sight gave him a puzzled start. He immediately looked up at the coyotes as if he could ask them what was the meaning of this, but the whole pack ran away together into the wooded area, having delivered their message. The rifle slumped in his hands as he involuntarily looked back at the object. Then he turned and stomped back to the others with the firearm clutched in one hand. His face was drawn up in a baffled guise.

Buck and JD came to meet him with their guns lowered.

"Ezra, what was it?" JD asked.

But the gambler only passed everyone in silence. He made a bee line to his horse and stuck the rifle in his saddlebag, then stroked his horse's midsection. Then he brought out his hip flask and took a gulp. His back was turned to his team mates.

Everyone looked at him with concern. JD and Buck looked at their troubled friend, then to each other. Then they finally trotted over to the spot where the object lay and took a look for themselves. It was a bushy, shredded rodent. They exchanged looks of confusion and returned to the others.

Casey ran to JD. "What is it?"

"A... uh... really... dead... squirrel... thing," JD answered uncertainly.

Casey looked confused, too.

"Don't ask us."

Ezra still leaned against his trusty horse and clutched the flask. Buck, JD, Casey, and Maude gathered around him supportively.

"Hey, pard," Buck began softly, "what's that mean back there?"

Ezra's gaze was still blank as he looked at nothing and no one. But he licked his lips and said, "A dead animal being deposited on your doorstep is never a favorable omen."

"But a coyote don't bring you nothin' unless it likes you."

"A coyote don't bring me nothin' period. But it did. And I have to wonder why. As you said, those were no ordinary coyotes."

Buck and JD exchanged glances again. Then, in turn, they patted the gambler on the back and left him alone because it was clearly what he preferred.

"Take it easy," JD said.

Casey followed the boys back to the campfire, but Maude cautiously approached her son from behind and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. She came around and stood in front of him with a hesitant but wide smile designed to cheer him up. But it wasn't working. He did, however, at least look at her. "Darlin', no reason to fear. You don't believe in omens and all that superstitious nonsense."

"No,... mother, I... I don't," he said, shaking his head and blinking, trying to make sense of his reaction.

"So this incident doesn't mean a thing. Luck, good or bad, doesn't come to you. You create it for yourself," she cooed amiably as she gently stroked his reddened cheek.

He submissively closed his eyes and nodded in agreement. He let out a light sigh and looked sincerely into her eyes. He spoke softly in his cool southern drawl. "But, uh,... I think it might be wise, and in... everyone's best interest if we... aborted this avenue of monetary gain."

His mother looked as if she was going to laugh at this ridiculous statement. Then a voice came loudly from behind him. "You can't be serious!" Thornton replied as he came around to stand by Maude. Ezra looked insulted. How long was this intruder listening in on this private moment? "We can't quit. Not when we've come so far! No one's been harmed. And we have you men to thank for it. You can't leave us now!"

"M-Mr. Jacobs--"

"I'll give you a raise," Thornton added quickly.

Ezra raised his eyebrows.

"Then you're staying. Good man!" Thornton gave the younger man two quick pats on the back and headed back to the others at the fire.

Ezra's bewildered gaze followed the writer as he walked away, then shifted back to his mother. Her lips were drawn up into a tight bow as she eyed him. "Smart tactic, son. Just when I thought you'd lost your touch." Then she shot him a sly grin that seemed like a challenge and walked away. His expression did not change as he looked after her, unsure of her meaning.

It was now nightfall, and after a few incidents while bathing in the nearby stream, everyone was ready for bed rolls.

JD, Casey, and Jimmy had returned to camp laughing and soaking wet, holding their towels. "You do that to me again, and I swear I'll hurt you!" said JD to Casey, trying not to laugh.

"With what? More water? Just you try!" she dared him playfully.

As they arrived at camp, Thornton was sitting on a chair watching them like a father waiting up for an irresponsible offspring. He eyed Jimmy disapprovingly. The young man became ashamed and immediately dried off.

When everyone was ready for sleep, Thornton and the other easterners rolled out their bedrolls to the amusement of the three gunmen and Casey. "All part of the experience!" declared Thornton.

"Who could resist that?" Avery said as he laid down with an "oof."

They were all struggling to get comfortable until they saw Maude. Ezra, Buck, and JD were setting up a private tent for her with an extra-padded sleep support. When she spotted the others staring at her, she said, "Well, I never said I wanted the brave the elements."

When the men finished setting up her tent, Maude graciously thanked them. As Ezra held the flap open for her to go inside, he looked in longingly at the accommodations, which were admittedly not much, but better than what he had. She noticed and turned to him from inside the tent. "Now, son, if I shared with you..."

"I know. Spare me the speech," Ezra interrupted and dropped the tent flap, hiding her inside. Then he turned to JD and Buck. "We'll take shifts," Ezra said, confirming their defensive strategy for the night, and they nodded in agreement.

The weary gambler then paced to the expedition leader who was watching Maude with admiration, even after she was veiled inside the tent.

"A magnificent woman," Thornton said, still propped up on one elbow, watching Maude's tent.

"You're certainly not the first to think so," Ezra said with some degree of displeasure.

"I think it would be wise if you boys kept watch during the night," Thornton said.

"That's the plan."

"Taking shifts?"

"That's how it works."

"Splendid. I expect nothing less from you professional guns. Mr. Standish, I feel it would be best if you took first watch, being the leader of your troupe. I feel a good leader ought to lead by example -- from the front."

Ezra stifled a yawn with his hand over his mouth and nodded. He was in no mood for speeches. Not from his mother and certainly not from this man who seemed to think he had something to tell him.

"Well, then. Good night, all," Thornton said and happily tried to get comfortable.

"Sleep tight. Don't let the... aw, hell," Ezra said and turned to return to his chair and bedroll near JD and Buck at the other side of the campfire. He was in no mood for speeches, not even his own.

Buck and JD were already ready for shut-eye on their bedrolls when Ezra arrived. The gambler picked up the rifle that leaned against his chair and sat. "Night," Buck yawned and turned over.

Ezra sat with his magnificent red coat on himself and his hat on one of Maude's tent posts. He was cradling his rifle up to his chest like it was a baby, his mind going over the day's events. This whole idea of lost Indian treasure had started out so simply. Then it became a missing person's case, then a popularity contest. Now what? A voodoo curse that was placed on him by a mystic coyote because he risked his life for some romantic tenderfoot from Boston?

He had to wonder why he felt so threatened by the gift the coyotes seemingly brought just for him. True, it was eerie, but Maude was right -- he didn't believe in superstitions. A dead animal at your doorstep purportedly meant bad luck, but not to someone who didn't believe in luck. Still, he had never experienced anything like that before. Why did the coyotes feel he was so special?

He tried to put the matter out of his mind by thinking about other things... like his comfortable featherbed back in his room above the saloon and his soft down pillow. He instantly began to feel less comfortable in the chair and began to squirm to try and change that.

Then JD turned over to face him. "Ezra," he whispered. Ezra stopped squirming and looked down at "the kid." "Are you gettin' sleepy yet?"


"Neither am I," JD admitted disappointedly and sat up.

"Better try. Tomorrow's a big day."

JD sighed. "You think we could really find that gold? We'd be lucky to even guess where to start looking."

"I haven't the foggiest inkling." Ezra looked around at the endless, black, sparkling sky, the trees, the stream, and the mountains and sighed. "But I can feel a change in the air. This venture will produce results for someone."

Then there was a rustling in the trees again.

"Good or bad?" JD asked, continuing Ezra's last thought with eyes and ears wide open.

"I can't say for certain," Ezra answered stiffly. His eyes were scanning the perimeter of the greenery with his rifle raised. He rose from the chair with caution.

The rustling continued and footsteps cracking fallen twigs approached.

"I am really beginning to hate that noise!" JD whispered as he grabbed his gun beside him. He shook Buck. "Buck!" he whispered. "Wake up!"

Buck heaved awake and turned to face JD. "Huh?"

"Somethin's out there."

Buck quickly woke up the rest of the way, grabbed his gun, and got up.

The 3 men stood together with their guns up, watching the edge of the clearing intently. Ezra whispered, "Now, uh, since I am the... designated leader during this mission, I... order you two to go out for a looksee, while I remain here... to ensure safety of our slumbering friends."

Both men eyed their leader first, then smiled.

"If it's a pack of wild wood rats, we'll handle it," JD joked.

"Still smartin' from that furball earlier?" Buck laughed.

"Well, someone must remain here, and I simply volunteer myself," Ezra said in defense of his pride.

Buck chuckled slyly but nervously and gave Ezra a pat on the back. Ezra returned the pat as the cowboy started for the trees. JD walked by Buck's side. Buck picked up a stick from the still-lit campfire to light their dim path. Their pulses raced but their breathing stopped as the two men walked closer to the rustling shrubbery, listening. Then they stopped.

"All right! Come out! We know you're in there!" Buck whisper-shouted with his gun pointed into the trees. JD pointed both of his guns in the same general direction.

Then JD heard and saw someone dash past behind some trees. "Hey! Stop!" The stranger didn't. Just when they moved closer, two "ghosts" jumped down on top of the two of them from the trees above, and they all went to the ground. The two violent masses of bodies struggled and punched. Ezra dashed to JD's side, where the young gunslinger was dodging blows by a giant club carried by the tree ogre with the face made of painted cardboard. The gambler, being careful not to hit his friend, whacked the ogre with the butt of his rifle, knocking him off. JD then aimed his guns at the man, who suddenly disappeared into the nearby vegetation. "Hey! Come back here!" JD shouted and bounded after him, guns a-blazing.

Meanwhile, Buck was able to kick off his opponent but now was being whipped by a long, thorny branch protruding from a bush, which stung when it hit. "Come out and fight like a man, you sissy fake!" He shot where he thought the "ghost" must have been, but the attack kept coming. Suddenly, an arrow shot out at him. He ducked and narrowly missed being skewered in the arm. Then a large, shadowy figure crept around behind a tree. "Hey!" The figure appeared to be wearing a leather vest and pants with fringes and a mask. It began to hop on one foot, then the other, then back to the first. Buck shot. The figure dodged the bullet behind a tree, then fled. "Come back here, you coward!" Then he chased it through the loosely-spaced trees.

But Buck no longer had the torch in his hand and the gunslinger's path was a dark one. In any case, the flame had extinguished on the ground. Ezra looked after them, hesitating to follow. Then a high-pitched, undulating screech descended on him from above. When he ducked and looked up, he saw a figure wearing feathers accelerating down on him with a tomahawk. The gambler gasped and dove to the side into the vegetation. The tomahawk, with "ghost," crashed down to the ground where he had been just a split-second before. The tomahawk again swung down at him, which he blocked from his position on one knee with his rifle in a bench-pressing manner. The blow knocked him onto his side. Then the tomahawk was raised again, and Ezra rolled out of the way as it fell.

The blade came down again on the other side of him, stopping his roll. The man was so close, he couldn't aim the end of the rifle's long shaft at him, but he was able to kick him off. He shot at the tomahawk man, but the latter fell over and the bullet missed. Ezra got up on one knee and was immediately attacked by a small bush being thrown in his face. He blocked it with one hand, letting go of the rifle with it. His other hand still clutched the rifle on the ground, and was about to be chopped by the tomahawk man. Ezra moved just in time but the rifle was knocked out of his hand. As he staggered backwards and to his feet, he immediately wished he packed his sleeve gun, because before he could draw his pistol, the tomahawk came whooshing at him again. Ezra quickly dove for the tomahawk at the top of the swing, and he and the "ghost" struggled for possession. Over his opponent's shoulder, Ezra caught a glimpse of Thornton Jacobs observing the fight from just inside the clearing.

"Thornton!" he shouted through gritted teeth. "I'd greatly appreciate your assistance!"

But Thornton's eyes only widened in terror at the thought of joining the fight, and he slipped quietly away. Ezra was left to struggle for the tomahawk alone.

Meanwhile, guided only by the light of the moon, JD and Buck chased and shot at the shadowy figures through the trees and over bushes. One of them had already disappeared without a trace, so they concentrated on the one they could still see -- the one that had attacked Buck. As they neared the rock-laden stream, the trees grew fewer in number, but a cloud of thick smoke suddenly filled the air, masking their vision. "Hey, where's that coming from?" JD asked, trying to fan it away with his hand.

"I don't know, but it smells like a trap. Let's go back!" Buck said as he turned around, still unable to see.

"But I can't see!" complained JD with a cough.

"Just go!" ordered Buck, giving JD a push.

Both men walked blindly back in the direction from which they came to get out of the smoke screen, but a high-pitched whistle and a thundering, rustling noise from above them sent their eyes instinctively skyward. They could barely make out a massive block-like shadow, pushing its way through the smoke, hurtling, accelerating right at them.......




Comments to: