Coyote Calling

by Mods

Part Two of the Coyote Chronicles

Thanks to my betas Linda and Judy.

~~ Vin ~~

It always starts the same way. I can see it get nearer and nearer until I can count every thread in the noose that's gonna hang me. I've dreamed this a thousand times in the past couple of years but I used to wake up when they put it around my neck or just before the drop. Now that ain't so anymore. Memories have collided with my dreams and somehow got caught up in them.

Twice now since I came to Four Corners I've come closer to a hangin' than I'd ever like to get. The first was when Chanu whipped up a rawhide string in the jail and cut off my air until everything went dark, that's a whole nightmare in itself. The second was when Eli Joe, the man who framed me for murder, tried to tie me up like just another loose end so he could vanish without fear of justice catchin' up.

Something like that can set a man to thinking and after Eli Joe my dreams started to change until they got to be real bad. I no longer woke up at the place in my dreams when they dropped me. I no longer dreamed of the town gallows. I dreamed of a tree and a lynch mob that pulled me up slowly until I just hanged there, kicking and struggling for air for an eternity or more. Just choking - without ever dying.

The third night in row I had this dream I felt that maybe someone was trying to tell me something. The comanches would have said it was the Spirits. I even asked Josiah what he thought about dreaming the same dream over and over. He said that it could be a memory or a message and if so it was most likely from the Lord.
I don't think I'd rate a visit from that up high so I suspected it might have been the Devil, trying to lure me in. Whatever it was I got the feeling that I was down to three choices. To stay in Four Corners and slowly go stir crazy, to settle this in Tascosa once and for all or just plain get away from it all and clear my head.

Of the three choices the last one seemed the most appealing to me. Time was when I'd have been itchin' to get back to Tascosa to prove myself, but that was when Eli Joe had still been around. Now that he was dead I was gonna have to find someone else who knew what had really happened and I didn't know where to start looking. Maybe I'd never find someone to testify for me and I'd always be a wanted man. I was gonna have to be more careful in the future. Last year I wouldn't have thought so much about this but everything seemed to be changing and I was changing along with it. Eli Joe was just one more warning that I had gotten too comfortable here and it just didn't set right with me no more to ignore the fact that I was a wanted man. A man like that could get his friends into real trouble. Maybe the dreams were sent as a warning that trouble was coming.

But it weren't just the dreams that made me feel all jumpy. There was a longing in me that was stronger than ever before. To just get out and look at what was beyond the horizon. When I looked around the saloon one night there were few familiar faces and too many strangers in there and suddenly I felt like a stranger myself. I needed to think on this and I couldn't do it in town, with all its distractions. I had to get out in the wild and run free for a while.

The only thing left to do was to leave Four Corners.

So I did.


Chris didn't look surprised when I told him I was heading out, it was almost as if he had been expecting me to say something like that. What he wasn't expecting me to do was to leave as soon as I'd told him, he wanted me to hang around for one more day. But I was ready to go and I felt like I couldn't hold back for one second more. I said goodbye to the boys and gave one more look around town and then I was off.

It was getting real dark now but I knew the surroundings so well that I didn't need any light to find the place I was looking for. I set up camp near a small river not far from town. The moon was rising above the horizon and its light made the water sparkle. It looked so cool and fresh that I just took off my clothes and dived right in. It felt good to rinse off the dust and sweat, made me feel all new. There's nothing like a cool bath when you're hot, just as there's nothing like a hot bath to warm you up when you're freezing. Thinking about how hot the weather had been lately I longed for snow.

I floated in the river for a while and thought about where I should go in the morning. Fall was on it's way up north but snow was still some ways away. Only one place I could think of that had some snow now and it weren't that far away either. It was called Whisper Ridge and located up in Ghost Country. I'd only been through there once and it had been a long time ago but it was a place that was hard to forget. It was beautiful and wild, had just about any kind of wild beast there was roaming around in there but I had never gone after them and they had never bothered me. I had just come across their tracks and nothing more except for that one time when I had come across the wolf.

I'd gone into Ghost Country alone and I was years younger than JD then. I'd only seen a live wolf that up close once before and hadn't even loaded my rifle when I'd left camp that morning. I don't know why, I wasn't usually so careless, even young as I was. But that day, for some reason, my rifle was empty and that was the moment I came across the wolf. She was lying in the sun up on a rock and no more than a few feet away from me. My heart was thumping so loudly in my ears I think she must have heard it. She turned her head towards me but she barely gave me a look. It was like she didn't care that I was there at all and I felt that there was something wrong with her. Then she looked right at the sun with her eyes open wide and I realized that she must be blind. She was weak too, starving to death right in front of my eyes. Someone must have cared for her until then, probably her momma since she was almost grown, but that someone had finally given her up and she was helpless now.

I sat down on the rock some distance away from her and studied her for a long while as she lay there basking in the sun. Close up she didn't look at all like I had expected from all the stories I had heard about how ferocious they could be. The one time I had seen a live wolf up close before had been in the split second between the time it tried to jump a friend of mine and the moment he shot it dead. It had growled and howled and its face had been all twisted up, all wild and dangerous.

This one was still wild and I took no chances even though I guessed she was too weak to do anything. If she had been able to hunt for herself she would have been a magnificent animal. The fur looked so smooth that I longed to touch it and I reached out towards it, seeing the muscles shift underneath as she moved a bit. She turned towards me as she felt me come nearer and I looked at her face and into her eyes. She accepted a quick stroke over her warm fur and didn't warn me off, maybe she wanted the company. She had probably never felt a human so close by, she couldn't see me and didn't know that we were enemies so she stayed calm and unafraid. Seeing her from a distance you wouldn't know that anything was wrong at all. But all I could see was how she lay there in peace and waited for death. Did she know it was coming? Did she care?

I felt real bad that I couldn't ease her suffering by giving her a quicker death. There was nothing I could do to save her, I knew that much. A blind wolf couldn't hunt and a wolf that couldn't hunt was doomed. All that strength and beauty wasted. Nature would take care of it without much mercy but I so wanted to save her. In the end I lay some of my own food in front of her before I left. She sniffed at it but I never saw her touch it. When I came back the next day the food was gone and so was she but I don't know where she went.

She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen and I could never forget the way her eyes looked that day just as I couldn't forget the wolf that had been killing livestock near the small farms around town just some months back. I had caught him and killed him, it needed to be done and I was the one who had to do it. But I never should have looked into his eyes before I shot him because now I couldn't forget them either. It made my heart ache a bit, thinking about it. Maybe if I could return to Ghost Country I'd be able to put it behind me. Things don't look the same to you when you're grown-up as they do when you're a boy. I hoped this was one of them things.

I got out of the water and back into my clothes and lay down and pulled the blankets over me. It would be a long ride to get to Ghost Country and I was pretty tired. Needed the rest but the moment I fell asleep I started to dream.

I could see a tree outlined against the cloud filled sky and there were dark shapes around me that I couldn't quite make out. They held my arms and I struggled to break free of that grip but it was impossible. I could see a rope thrown over one of the branches. It ended in a dangling noose and they dragged me towards it and put it over my head. Someone was saying something to me.
"We warned you," they said. "You should have listened." I made one last attempt to break free but the noose was tightening around my neck and my body was getting real heavy and then I was hurting and dying-

I woke suddenly, cold and shaking and gasping for breath. I looked at the sky and reckoned that there was at least one more hour till daylight but there was no way I was getting any more sleep tonight. Instead I looked at the stars and let my mind drift.

Never used to think much about dying. You die and then you're gone and that's pretty much it. It's always been living that's been giving me trouble. I thought about dying more nowadays, maybe it was on account of getting older. I hadn't paid any notice to it before, until I'd met JD. We weren't that far apart in years but I don't think I had ever been as young as him. Sometimes I felt like there was a hundred years of experience separating him and me. I had no fear of dying but there were ways I really didn't want to go and strung up like a dog was one of them.

The stars were fading now and the moon had long since gone below the horizon. I liked looking at the stars, no matter where you went they always looked the same and they could help you find your way home if you were lost. When my ma had just died I had asked where she was and they had taken me out and pointed to the stars and said that ma was in heaven now. Sometimes when I looked at the stars I thought that maybe the preachers were right and she was somewhere beyond the stars and looking back at me. I wondered what she would think of the man I was now. Somehow I didn't think she'd like the way I'd made my living so maybe it was just as well that she never saw me grow up and turn into a wanted man.

I felt something damp against my cheek and almost reached for my gun before I realized that it was Peso, butting his muzzle against my face. Must have fallen asleep again but this time I hadn't dreamed anything. Peso made soft impatient sounds until I could find his oats and shut him up. Dawn was on its way now and I ate a cold breakfast and washed it down with some water before I started to strike camp. Without looking back I started on the way to Ghost Country.

Three days later I urged Peso on over the last rise and stopped to look at the valley spreading out down below. It was as beautiful as I remembered it and there was a sweet smelling wind swirling up from the grasslands below. It smelled better to me than any perfume and as soon as we got down there I let Peso run free. He was as glad as me to be out in the wild again. He hadn't been with me the last time I had been through here but he had no trouble making himself at home.

I hadn't dreamed any more dreams about getting hanged since that night by the river but another strange thing happened on my first night in Ghost Country. I was just about to fall asleep but not quite there yet when I felt as if there was someone watching me and I opened my eyes a crack to see a black shape cross the face of the moon above. It looked like a crow and I wondered what it was doing awake at this hour but I was too tired to think much on it and closed my eyes again. Now someone seemed to be whispering in my ear and I tried to hear what they were saying. It was just one voice and I felt I knew it but I couldn't quite recognize who it belonged to. "Vin, where are you?" the voice said and I sleepily mumbled back that I was in Ghost Country. Then I fell deep asleep and didn't wake until the next morning.

The weather was just right with warm sun, blue skies and cool winds as I set out towards Whisper Ridge. If there was one thing I had learnt the last time I'd been here was the strange way the valley seemed to take twists and turns at the most unexpected places so it always took much longer to get where you were going than you had figured. So it was this time too. No matter how I tried I couldn't find a good place to cross the river and when I tried any trail it was always blocked by a tree or a boulder. Trying to find a way around a landslide I got so far out of my way that I was now riding away from Whisper Ridge instead of getting closer to it. I had no choice but to follow the track and I soon found a way that was easier to travel. The trail weaved in and out of the woods and over small hills and fields until I rode up a really steep hill and came to a sudden stop.

I blinked, not quite believing what was in front of my eyes. There it was, the tree from my dream. The hangin' tree. Only thing different from my dream was that it was already occupied. A man was swinging at the end of a rope, his feet almost touching the ground. As I watched I could suddenly see him twitch and I realized with a start that he must still be alive.

He'd be dead in a second if I didn't help him and I wasted no time. I spurred Peso on towards the tree and took hold of the man's clothes with one hand to ease up on the rope before I swiftly cut him loose with the other. He fell heavily to the ground and landed in a heap with a small groan but that showed me that I had been right and that he was still alive.

I jumped down beside him and pulled the noose from his neck so he could breathe again. That taken care of I got my gun out and looked around to see if company was coming. They couldn't be long gone, no more than minutes probably. If they found out he was still alive they might come back to finish the job. The man did nothing but lay there gasping like a fish out of water while I walked around some and looked for tracks. It looked like just two men and two horses, the guy they'd hanged must have walked or been dragged here. I closed my eyes and listened carefully for a while but I could hear nothing that said anyone was near. Looked like they really were gone.

I went over to the man I had rescued and looked him over more carefully this time. He was old and grizzled, his back was bent almost like an old tree and he hardly looked strong enough to whup a kitten. Someone had set him up to die slowly ... what could he have done to make them hate him so much? On the other hand I knew full well that there wasn't always a reason for hatred.

I'd have to make camp here, he'd never survive if I tried to move him. The day was only half gone but I wasn't sure he'd make it to nightfall even. The rope had chafed a bloody ring around his neck and I cleaned and bandaged it as good as I could and he seemed to wake up some when I did. His eyes were full of pain but he didn't look the least bit scared. Full of grit and tough as they come, that old timer.

"You know them who did this?" I asked him and he nodded, even though I could see it hurt him to move.

"Think they're coming back?"

He shook his head for no.

"Know where they went?" he nodded again and tried to speak but nothing came out but a wheeze.

"Easy," I said quickly. As long as they weren't coming back it didn't much matter where they had gone but he seemed to think otherwise because he fought to speak again and this time the wheeze sounded more like a word.

"Sorrows," I thought he said and then his eyes closed and he fainted dead away.

I put some blankets around him before I went about making camp and then I settled down with my back to the hangin' tree. There was nothing I could do right now but wait and think. I wanted coffee but didn't dare risk even a small fire so I had to make do with just water.

Sorrows ... yeah, I knew about it, way up yonder and not far from Whisper Ridge. It was where they had first settled, the families that had died there. Some overgrown graves and one or two ramshackle houses were up there still. When the wind blew westerly you could sometimes hear the sound of crying women, reminding everyone of the lingering sorrow that gave the place its name.

The old timer looked familiar, even his voice, what little I'd heard of it, sounded familiar. I frowned as I tried to recall where I'd heard it in my past. What better place could there be to look for ghosts in my memory than this place.

It came to me quickly and clearly. I did know him. I could even see it in my mind what he had looked like last time I'd met him. It was as if it had happened yesterday.

He had been past middle age but not old and worn down as he was now. Me - I'd been a boy back then who thought he was a man. Not yet fifteen years old but I could set snares and hunt and I could hold my own against any grown man when it came to shooting. Men not much older than me had been fighting and dying in the war and I had seen my share of sorrows. I was alone in the world with no one to think of but myself and I owned nothing except for my name, my horse and the clothes I wore. That was all I needed to get by.

I'd heard the tales about Ghost Country just as anyone but I'd seen enough dead people to know that when you're gone you don't come back again. I wasn't scared. Huh - not me. Wishing or thinking about folks didn't bring them back. Ma had taught me that if nothing else. All my terrible longing for her hadn't brought her back for even a fraction of a heartbeat.

I'd come into the valley full of confidence and the first few days had been fine. Then Ghost Country had shown me that I still had some growing up to do. The rabbits avoided my snares and if I went hunting some strange sound in the woods always managed to warn the deers so I missed my shot. That hadn't happened to me since I'd been big enough to pick up a rifle. I'd become a sharpshooter out of necessity, bullets cost money and every shot had to count.

I loved that sure shot, to lose myself in gazing at the target and hitting it dead center every time. Pulling that trigger without even thinking about it. Choosing the moment, waiting for it and then making that choice to hold back or to take the chance in a split second. There was a beauty to it, but I'd learned later how it could also be used for ugly things.

My story could have ended in Ghost Country all those years ago. I was still a growing boy and hungry all the time and I got even hungrier when I lost what little food I had brought with me as I tried to cross the river. I wasn't choosy when I went hunting after that, a squirrel or a snake would have been fine but I had no luck, even the fish avoided me. I was starting to think that I might have to kill my horse for food but alone in a strange land it might just be that I'd be sealing my fate that way.

That's when he turned up, walking into my camp as if he owned it and sitting down by the fire without an invitation. He nodded at me as if we were old friends and said, "Hello there."

"Howdy, Mister," I said, not trusting him one bit even though he tried to look as harmless as can be.

"Saw the fire and thought I might get myself some coffee."

"Ain't got no coffee," I answered quickly and hoped he would take the hint and leave but he wasn't put off the slightest.

"Would you have some of mine then?" and without waiting for an answer he rustled up a coffeepot and rummaged around in his pack until he found some coffee grounds. It was real cowboy coffee, strong enough to float a horseshoe. He looked at me kindly over the rim of his tin mug and said, "What's your name, boy?"

"Vin." I told him, as polite as I could. Since he had given me coffee I figure I owed him at least that much. "Vin Tanner."

"Good to meet you, Vin Tanner. I'm Jeb Tyler."

We shook hands briefly over the fire.

"Would you perhaps be interested in sharing a meal with me this evening?"

He sounded friendly enough but I was immediately suspicious again when he suggested we eat together.

"What for?" I asked. Maybe he was after my horse too.

"I have more food than I need right now and you're the first soul I've seen in here for more than a year. I'd be glad for the company."

I shrugged and accepted his invitation. He was quite good as a campfire cook, in fact I've never tasted better food. It could've been because I was so hungry by that time that my stomach was starting to think my throat had been cut. I threw myself at the meal and couldn't help but wolf it down like the starving man I was. Jeb looked a bit surprised at the amount of food I could put away but didn't say anything about my manners.

The rest of the evening we talked, him more than me since he had been isolated there for so long. He'd been a school teacher back east twenty years earlier but then he'd left and never looked back. He never said why but there was something in his eyes when he spoke, a sadness. I guessed he'd gone out west to forget something.

I stayed with him for the better part of two weeks or rather he agreed to share my camp until I got the urge to be on the move again and explore other parts of the country. I was no babe in the woods but he knew Ghost Country like no one else and more importantly - he had food. He could walk out and come back two hours later with some rabbits or a dozen fish. I still had nothing but bad luck.

"How come you can get meat when I can't even trap a rat?" I asked him one day.

"Maybe you're doing it wrong," he said cheerfully.

"Like hell!" I said and walked off in a huff. I knew I wasn't doing anything wrong when I set my snares. I still couldn't find anything to eat though, not even roots and berries this time so I had to return to camp pretty soon. When I came back he handed me a piece of bread without a word and I ate it quickly.

"Say ... if'n I'm doing something wrong - then what is it?" I had to ask him finally.

"Maybe ... you should listen a little bit more."

"Listen? For what?"

"For what you don't hear," he said and that was it. I didn't have an inkling what he meant.

"Maybe you should learn to ask too," Jeb added a bit later.

"Ask what?" I said.

"Ask for permission. And forgiveness."

I must have looked as confused as I felt and he smiled in a way that made me sure he was silently laughing at me inside.

"Don't worry, boy. I didn't understand when I first heard it either."

I hated it when he called me boy. "And now you do?"

He nodded, looked at the fish he had caught that morning and said, "Now I do."


He tried to explain it to me when we went fishing together the next morning.

"I had about as much luck as you with hunting when I first came here. I'd expected the land to provide me with plenty of game. Trouble was I hadn't counted on the land thinking otherwise. I was just one predator among many in here and not as skilled as those born to hunt. It took some time to figure things out."

"Like what?" I asked. I looked with dismay at the way my fishing line was trailing empty in the water even though there seemed to be plenty of hungry fish in the creek over where Jeb sat.

"I've already told you what," Jeb said.

"You mean that asking for forgiveness?"

"Can't hurt. They've got as much right to live and eat as you've got. Someone's bound to get disappointed, either them or you."

I thought on this for a while. I didn't really know if he was right or not but it didn't seem like such a hardship.

"I gotta say something out loud?"

"Only if you want to." I got the feeling he was silently laughing at me again. "Important thing is that you know it in your heart. That you realize the price you pay for living here, it's always at the expense of something else. Be it wildlife or plants."

"Yeah ... but wolves and bears and such ...wouldn't they eat me if they got the chance?"

"Maybe," he shrugged. "Probably."

"Well, they wouldn't say something like that if they up and ate me, now would they?"

He gave me a long and serious look. "How do you know they wouldn't say something like that?"

Now I decided he was just pulling my leg and after a while I could see the corner of his mouth twitch slightly.

"They probably wouldn't think that there was enough meat on you to give thanks for," he finally said and splashed some water in my face. I splashed some back and we ended up scaring all the fish away when we both fell laughing into the creek.

Seeing how he had already caught enough fish for our evening meal we stayed on the riverbank and just basked in the warm sun until our clothes were dry once more.

"What do you think this place is?" I asked as I looked up at the white clouds sailing by. I was real curious to hear what he would say. There was a long silence between us before he answered me.

"When I first came here I felt that this valley was like the beginning of all things. You've got it all in here, everything that's in the world outside. I think it was always meant to stay unchanged. I do what I can to see that it does."

He taught me a lot those weeks when I followed him around in Ghost Country. He was easy to get along with and treated me much as a younger brother. Sometimes I caught him looking at me with such sorrow in his eyes that I guessed I must be reminding him of someone he'd lost, a friend or brother or maybe even a son. He never talked about it and I didn't ask. When my bad luck in hunting finally started to turn he stopped me one time as I was about to shoot my third rabbit.

"Don't," he said firmly. "You've got what you need already. It's enough for both of us."

"But I can get us one more," I insisted and he nodded.

"I know you can but it isn't wrong to show some mercy and let one get away once in a while."

Mercy? Weren't much of that floating around out in nature. I hadn't even been knee-high when I'd first seen the ugly side of things. It was a year or so before momma died and I was still a small child. Three wild dogs had attacked our one sheep and her new lamb. Them dogs must have been pets before turning wild and weren't good hunters. They didn't know how to make a clean kill and that sheep cried out helplessly in pain until ma came running out of the house with a gun and shot one of the dogs dead. The rest of them ran away then but it was too late to save our sheep.
"Don't look, Vin," ma had said but I had looked anyway as she put the sheep out of its misery. She had shown me how to care for the motherless lamb and it had followed me everywhere for a little while until we had it sold off. Hadn't ever kept sheep after that.

I knew enough about the world not to expect any mercy for my ownself from anyone or anything so why should I show it?

"If'n I'm just as you say, just one more wild hunter in here... then why should I show mercy as you call it?"

"Because you can, Vin," he said quietly.

I still didn't quite grasp it but it was probably in the back of my mind when I met that blind wolf some days later. I'd given her what bread and meat I had with me and when I went back and told Jeb that he had smiled at me almost as if I had done something he approved of. The day after that I told him I had decided to leave.

"Well then," he said, taking it in his stride as always. "I'll take you to the end of the valley and follow you out."

"What for?" I suspected he'd only said it because he wanted to make sure I got out of the valley and wasn't sneaking around on my own in here. Or maybe he thought I couldn't handle finding the way out on my own.

"Need flour," he explained and smiled until his eyes twinkled. "You gave away the last of my bread to that wolf, boy."

And since I had done just that, there wasn't much I could say but I still suspected that his real reason for travelling along with me was to watch over me. We'd parted company outside the valley and I'd never been back here or seen him again until now.

As the years went by I'd forgotten most of what I'd learned in here. I'd hunted the buffalo for a while and I'd been proud of my skills until I saw how I'd helped in destroying both animals and people. The senseless killings had sickened me and so I'd quit and started hunting men that could defend themselves instead. I'd been skilled at that too and had never thought much on whether the warrants were fair or not. Now I was a hunted man myself and for a murder I'd never done. I guessed that someone somewhere must sure be laughing at me.

I looked around sharply as I heard a branch crack somewhere behind me. Something moved in the woods and I raised my gun but when it came into view I found that it was only a coyote. It looked like a curious critter for it studied me for a long minute until it suddenly turned and disappeared into the brush again.

I relaxed once more and fell back into thinking. The dreams had lead me to Ghost Country and then here. It was clear that I must have figured it all wrong, the hangin' I'd seen in my dreams wasn't mine. I must have been brought here because of Jeb.

It was strange how I could have so completely forgotten things that had meant so much to me. But now it was all back in my memory like it had happened just yesterday.

The sun was setting and I made a small fire and boiled water together with some dried bark I carried with me in my saddlebags. It was an old cure I'd used sometimes to help against pain and ward off fever. I only carried a handful of herbs and such with me and only knew of simple ways to use them but I hoped this would help some, could hardly hurt anyway. I made a poultice and dressed his neck wounds again. When I saw him stirring slightly I poured some of the brew into a cup.

"Drink this," I said and held the cup to his lips until he had drained it. He opened his eyes briefly.

"Who?" he asked in a broken voice that was hardly more than a whisper.

"It's Vin Tanner. We met some years ago."

He squeezed his eyes shut against the pain for a while but when he opened them again they were clear and alert and I could see that he knew me.

"You've changed," he spoke slowly. "All grown up now. Almost fifteen years ago ago, wasn't it, boy?

"Reckon so," I agreed. "Who did this?"

"Never said their names. Followed me from outside into Ghost Country and grabbed me before I could get to Sorrows. I sent them up there. They thought I had gold. Couldn't see no other reason for anyone to live up there. But you know. Don't you, boy?"

"Yeah, Jeb," I nodded. "I know."

I thought about the sweeping fields and the sun setting beyond the mountain ridge. The green, cool grass underneath the blue sky. It was always the same but always changing. You could only live it, never put it in words. Myself, I liked to sit somewhere high up and just watch. No matter how long I sat there and let the world go by I could never get enough of its beauty. But I wasn't like Jeb, he'd never needed no one else. I got lonely sometimes and longed for company when I had been out in the wild for weeks on end. When I was in town I liked to drink and such and that took money. Money needed to be earned some way and you usually had to stay put for a while until you had enough that you could drift again. I couldn't choose between the wild and town life, I hadn't ever tried to. It was two different worlds and I liked them both.

Jeb spoke again in halting whispers. I could see it hurt him a lot both to speak and to breathe and he was starting to get a fever. I tried to get him to be silent and rest easy but there was something that drove him to talk. An urge to set records straight while he still could.

"I never tried to take anything from here except what the earth gave me. The past couple of years I've lived in one of the houses up in Sorrows but there's not much there. Never wanted to own many things but I've got money. I inherited it when my father died back east years ago. I've got no relatives back there now. My dear wife and child were lost so long ago... there's no one left. Last year I started to hear them calling me home. I started to make arrangements to buy this land so it can stay as it is. I even had an attorney draw up some papers so someone else could finish what I started in case something happened."

His shaking hands fumbled with the buttons of his coat and I had to help him reach the papers that were sewn into the lining of his coat. Hidden in a pocket was a thin silver case with a pen and a small flask half-filled with ink. Them killers must have been so interested in the gold they thought Jeb had hidden that the small silver case hadn't interested them. I looked at them papers and couldn't tell which way was up or down but they looked important enough. Jeb must have seen my confusion and told me what it said.

"It says that I'm Jeb Tyler and that I entrust the bearer of this paper the use of my money, all of it. To act according to my will in case I'm unable to do so myself. That's the gist of it anyway. It just needs to be signed, by you and me. Take it, boy."

"I cain't," I protested. "It should be someone else."

"I trust you, Vin. And even if you should take the money for yourself I don't really mind. I'm afraid they might come back and get this paper when they find nothing in Sorrows. Do with it what you want, boy. Just as long as they don't get it."

I knew how he felt, I'd said the same thing to Chris before the battle in the Seminole village, telling him he should collect the bounty on my head if I died so I could get the last laugh if a friend got the money.

But this was different. I couldn't sign it because I didn't know how.

"I cain't write," I said, regretting with all my heart the truth of my words.

"Just set a mark where I tell you, it'll hold up good. I made sure of that. Just please sign it. Then I can go in peace."

"I won't let you," I said firmly. "Come morning I'll get us some help."


"I don't know yet," I had to admit.

In the end I had to sign it just so he would calm down enough to get some rest. Over the years I've learned to write a sort of signature that they said looked like my name, to sign for bounties and such. That was what I put down on that paper now. It looked like a child's scrawl compared to the other writing but Jeb said it looked fine and seemed more at peace when I'd done it.

He closed his eyes and rested and I must have dozed off too where I was leaning against the tree. I woke as he called my name what must have been some hours later and I immediately moved to his side.

"Vin...." His voice sounded different than it had before, distant and strange. He had his eyes fixed on something I couldn't see.

"Jeb." I shook his shoulder slightly to snap him out of it. "Jeb!"

"I'm goin' now..." he whispered faintly. "I'm goin' now..."

"No Jeb," I tried to convince him not to leave me. "Stay with me. Just hang on til mornin' and I'll get some help."

But as I said that I could feel that death was only a step away now and I wished for Nathan to be there with me. I didn't think even he could halt death in this case but he'd have known what to do so Jeb wouldn't suffer much.

That old man had given me nothing but kindness and I owed him. He had saved my life when I'd been a boy but I had been too late now to really save his. There wasn't much I could do for him but stay with him till the end. A wave of sorrow flowed through my whole body as I saw him fading. I'm not a crying man and I didn't cry now either but my heart got awful heavy.

"Jeb. Jeb, look at me," I asked him and this time he reacted. He turned his eyes to me again and I could see pain in them but there was also a spark that told me he hadn't given up yet.

"Just don't leave me, son," he whispered and reached for my hand but his grip was so faint now that I could hardly feel it. It was no more than the feeling of a butterfly landing on your skin.

"I promise, Jeb," I told him. "I won't leave you."

And I never did, not for one second the whole dark night but it was all for nothing. Just as dawn was breaking over the hills Jeb left me and I never even heard it happen. I'd turned around for just one second to put another branch on the fire and when I turned back I found his vacant eyes staring into heaven.

I buried him that morning underneath another tree nearby. Man should rest in a proper place, not the one where he was strung up, so I chose a location up on a soft rise where there was a nice view down the valley. I even said a few words. Just wish I could've remembered more of them.

With one last look back at the grave I set out for Sorrows with Jeb's papers safely tucked inside my coat. They were at least two days ahead of me now but if they were looking for something they'd have to stay and search and then I could catch up with them.

I could feel the rage burning in my gut as I thought about rounding them up. We were far from the law up here and they'd probably counted on that. It would be hard for me to try and prove that something had happened in Ghost Country with no other witnesses. No warrant would ever be sworn out against them for murdering Jeb.

But you didn't need a warrant to hunt down a pair of mad dogs and that's exactly what they were. Anyone who could do what they'd done to an old man who posed them no threat - well, let's just say that one way or the other Jeb's killers wouldn't ever leave this place, not if I could help it. It might not be right by way of the law but it would be justice and I wouldn't regret it.

When I made camp that evening I was so close to Sorrows that I could've seen it if there'd been enough daylight left. They hadn't bothered to hide their trail, a blind man could have followed it. Probably didn't think they needed to hide it. It made me mad, thinking how sure they must be that they would get away with it. I made my fire two times bigger than I really needed so they might get a glimpse of it up there in the Sorrows. To let them know someone was coming. Let them think and wait and sweat for a while.

I made my bed near the fire and then put my hat down and some stones underneath the blanket to make it look like someone was sleeping soundly there. When that was done I slipped off into the dark and found a sheltered place nearby where it wouldn't be too uncomfortable to get some shut eye. Just in case they were closer than I figured and tried to sneak up on me in the night. I sat down with my back against a rock and a blanket around me. With my gun in my lap I soon fell into uneasy slumber.

In the middle of the night I was wakened by the sound of someone carefully moving in on my camp and I was immediately on the move. I circled around quiet-like until I was sure it was only one man and that I had him covered. Then I spoke up.

"I know you're out there," I said. "I've got you dead to center. If you're friendly come right on in. If you're not - then this is your last chance to light a shuck and get out of here."

Everything got real quiet for a while and then a voice replied from out of the darkness.

"If you'd be so kind as to point that in another direction, Mr Tanner. I'm quite fond of this coat and would like to keep it as it is for a while. That means without any unseemly holes in it, if you please."

I lowered the gun in surprise and stepped out into the light. I knew that voice. The way he put them words together it could hardly be anyone but Ezra.

"Ezra?" I said, not quite believing it.

The shadows seemed to flow together to take the shape of a man as he stepped out of the darkness and into the warm circle cast by the fire. It was him all right, without his horse but with not even a speck of dust on his fancy clothes. He rubbed his hands together as if they were chilled and then moved to warm them over the fire. If there was one thing I had never counted on seeing it was Ezra Standish out here and on foot. Where the heck had he come from?

"No words of greeting?" Ezra said. I was just about to say something in return when he looked up for a second and watched me from across the fire. His eyes looked funny, almost as if they glowed deep within, like embers. Then he blinked and his eyes shifted from yellow back to green again. It was there and then gone so quickly that I could only think that it must have been some strange reflection of the flames in his eyes.

"Well, Mr Tanner..." Ezra gave me a slight smile. "I do believe I've managed to surprise you this time."

Peso spoke up behind my back and he sounded uneasy so I turned to check on him. He was pacing back and forth and neighing softly as if there was something nearby that he didn't like. Last time I'd seen him that upset had been when he'd smelled a pack of wolves on the hunt a few years back. He must have sensed some wild thing out in the dark now but I sure couldn't see or hear anything.

My eyes went back to Ezra. Surprise wasn't the word for it. Him - out here, alone? Ezra could hardly find his way out of a barn by hisself. There was no way he could've come into Ghost Country alone. The only way I could see him finding his way in here would be if I tied a rope to his horse and led it in myself. But here he was.

He couldn't have have followed me all the way from town without me knowing about it. Chanu probably could have. Chris maybe, though I doubted it, but not Ezra. Not in a lifetime.

It didn't ring true. None of it.

He'd have needed a horse to keep up with me - where was it now? Didn't look like Ezra had been thrown but it was too dark to say for sure. The clouds that had waited under the horizon during the day now covered the whole sky and shut out any light from the moon and stars, my lonely fire seemed to be the only light for miles around.

Peso spoke up again and I went over to him. He was still mighty skittish and for no good reason that I could find.

"Easy, boy, easy...." He finally seemed to calm down some when he heard my voice but at first he shied away from my touch. I patted him gently until he stopped his pacing and stood still but he was as tense as a bow string under my hands. Underneath his mane I could feel long tremors run down his neck.

"What's the matter with you?" I asked him but he only shook his head. He didn't want to stand still, he wanted to run, as far away from here as he could get. After a while I got him to quiet down a bit but he kept looking at something like it made him uneasy and it wasn't something outside camp. I followed his line of sight but all I could see in that direction was-

It was Ezra. There was something about Ezra that scared Peso. What was it? Some scent? Or something else....

Ezra didn't seem to feel that anything was wrong. He was making himself right at home there on the other side of the fire. He leaned his back against a stone and moved around until he was settled comfortably. Then he looked up at me but this time he didn't say anything.

I learned early on that you can find out a whole lot if you just stay still and listen and watch. Helps if you know what's going on before you make up your mind and take sides. I've always been more of a watcher than a talker and for all his smooth talk Ezra's something of a watcher too. Sometimes, though, he just ain't seeing what's right in front of his eyes.

I think Ezra likes the sound of his own voice too much to shut up for long and he ain't too particular with the rights and wrongs of things. He uses words to confuse or attack but I've seen him a few times when he's sizing someone up and he can be real quiet then. He'll sit and watch in silence for as long as it takes until he can figure out his target's weakness. When he's found it he goes for it, just like a rattler striking. And just like with a rattler you sometimes have to move carefully around him.

I moved to sit down on a spot where I could see him clearly but where the fire was still between us. We just sat and watched each other quiet-like for a while, both of us sizing the other up. There was something different about him but I couldn't quite say what it was. I was quite sure that he wasn't going to tell me either, if I wanted to know I'd have to ask.

"How'd you get out here by yourself?" I said to him.

"You must think me terribly inept to ask such a question, Mr Tanner. I was out of luck in town and bored out of my skull. So I just decided to go looking for more stimulating company."

"And you left all the others behind ... just like that?"

"I had a question to ask you about something that concerns us both. Care for a game of cards, Mr Tanner?

"You came all this way just for a game of chance?"

"There's no such thing as chance."

He hadn't answered my questions, he'd talked around them but he hadn't answered them. There was nothing in his words to alarm me but I could feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck all the same. Danger. I smelled it, just like Peso.

My mouth went dry, my heart beat faster and my senses got real sharp. Something was about to happen. Time seemed to move slower, like it did in a dream. Maybe this was a dream.

I didn't like the shape of the thought that was now in my mind. It was crazy what I was thinking.

Ezra couldn't be here - so maybe it wasn't Ezra.

Someone else in Ezra's skin, looking out from behind his eyes, speaking almost with his voice.... It was impossible and I couldn't explain how I knew but I felt in my gut that it was so.

"Who are you?" I asked.

The second I asked him something flashed in his eyes. I could see that he knew what I was talking about but he pretended he didn't.

"What a curious question, Mr Tanner. I can assure you that I am no other than your faithful companion Ezra Stan-"

"No," I interrupted him. "You ain't him. I don't know who you are but you ain't him."

I pulled my gun and pointed it straight at his heart. "So, I ask you again...." My finger rested against the trigger. "Who - are - you?"

He smiled at me suddenly but it was a feral smile without any real joy in it. Something shifted in his face and eyes, he didn't look half as much as Ezra as he had a second ago but he still sounded a bit like him when he spoke.

"I'm me," he said. "Nothing else."

My hand went to my knife. Cold steel can protect you from the unholy, or so I've heard. Never had to put it to the test. Never believed I would have to.

"What've you done to Ezra?"

"Nothing." The thing wearing Ezra's skin sounded unconcerned. "When I saw him in town earlier tonight he was safe and sound. He'll probably have a grand headache when he wakes, though."

"What town?"

"The one you came from, of course."

Of course he said, but that town was several days ride away from here. I wondered again if this was a dream but it felt real enough. Was he a ghost or some other kind of spirit?

Through the years I've heard a lot about what folks from all kinds of places think roam the night but I'd never thought I'd meet up with anything like this. Naming held great power, I wished I could name the one that was with me now.


The night surrounded us with a thick wall of silence but I had a strange feeling that there was something out there listening to us. Maybe it was the wild itself.

"You're the one who sent the dreams, ain't you?" I said.

He just nodded.

"Why? What do you want with me?"

"I merely want to speak to you. You can put down the gun now. I won't harm you, you have my word on it."

I didn't know his name and couldn't tell if his word was any good but I relaxed my hold on the gun slightly and lowered it until it rested on my knee. I did that mostly out of a feeling that the gun wouldn't be any good against someone like him anyhow. Still, I did half believe him when he said that he didn't mean me any harm. He could have killed me already ten times over if he'd wanted to. The knife probably wasn't of much use either so I laid it down beside me but I didn't intend to let go of the gun for even a second. Whatever he'd said I wasn't fool enough to think that the danger was past.

"Thank you." He smiled at me. "I must say I'm impressed that you found me out so soon. Most people don't."

"What do you want with me?" I asked again.

He was quiet for a while and looked into my eyes as if he was trying to see right through my skull and into my mind. I felt something, like the feather soft touch of wind on my face, and then my skin started to itch like it had been burnt by the sun.

All of a sudden I couldn't move. A shiver ran down my spine.

"There is a living fire in every being," he said in a low voice. "You have a spark in your heart. Out here it burns brighter and it calls to all the other sparks around it. I've seen others of your kind in here but so few of them see the life surrounding them like you do. You belong out here and you know it. But you keep going back to the town... why?"

"I need-," I said and stopped for the words failed me. It was funny too cause I realized just then that words was one of the main things that kept me going back to towns.

Out here you could lose yourself in the vastness of it all, you became one with the land and the sky and your thoughts could wander as free as the wind. There was always something new waiting beyond the horizon, new trails leading into unknown country. Life was freer but it was also harder out here and when you saw the mountains up close or watched the stars at night you knew that you were just one tiny speck on the face of the earth and not very important at all.

After a while the silence would get to you, the emptiness that came from not hearing another voice. When you'd gone without speaking for a time it flowed into your mind and made you one with the wild. At first it calmed your mind and made you feel more alive. You didn't need to think so much, you just acted and trusted your body to do the right thing. But the longer you listened to that silence in your mind the more it made you feel as if you weren't really all there in the world. Like you'd left a part of yourself behind, the part that needed someone to share your thoughts with. If you got too wrapped up in that silence it was harder to go back to being among others. Some people went crazy from the silence - alone in the mountains for years on end with only the cold wind to keep them company and no one to talk to.

Much as I loved the wild I didn't want to end up like that. Sooner or later the quiet would get to me and I would go and search out people and sit and listen until their voices drew me back into my mind and away from the wild. Hearing your name spoken by a friend or a lover put you back among things that mattered. It was so simple, yet it mattered so much.

But I still couldn't find the right words to explain it, it was just there in my heart. He seemed to understand all the same. Maybe he really could see right into my mind or my heart. See all the reasons I couldn't say out loud, that I wasn't even sure of myself.

"One day you're gonna to have to choose between one or the other, Vin Tanner." He spoke gently, as if speaking to a child. "I hope you live long enough that you can make it yourself and it doesn't get decided for you."

He turned his eyes away for a second and suddenly I was free to move again. I squeezed the butt of my gun to keep my hand from shaking and took a deep breath. Didn't want him to see how much he'd really gotten to me. Reaching out for my canteen I took a drink of water.

"Ain't fair," I said.

"What isn't?" He raised an eyebrow.

"You know my name but I don't know yours."

"You're quite right." He grinned. "Like I said before - care for a game of cards?"

"Depends," I answered.

"On what?"

"Who's rules you're gonna use."

"My rules, of course."

He had the same look on his face that I'd often seen on Jeb's when I was sure he was silently laughing at me. Pulling out a deck of cards from his coat pocket he let the cards slide through his fingers much like the way the real Ezra used to do.

"Highest card wins and best out of three tries wins you the right to ask any question you'd like. If you win three games in a row I'll even tell you my name - what do you say?"

I nodded and he dealt me the first three cards, one at a time. When he turned up his own cards I found that I'd won that hand quite easily, most likely because he wanted me to.

"Did Jeb die just to lure me here?" I hoped he wouldn't say yes, that would mean that Jeb died because of me. But he both looked and sounded sincere when he answered me that it wasn't so.

"No, I'd rather hoped you'd be in time to save him. I quite liked that man. We had the most interesting conversations ... did he tell you that?"

I shook my head.

"No, I didn't expect him to. You were right in thinking that you should have died the first time you were here if it weren't for him. We don't like strangers, especially of your kind, but he saw something in you and decided to protect you. He must have seen that spark even then.... A quite remarkable man. I think I'm going to miss him."

He dealt me another hand. Three cards and I beat him again. This was much too easy. He was playing with me, I knew that. I just didn't know why.

"Well?" he smiled as he waited for my next question. I let him wait.

"Why'd you bring me here?" I asked.

He stopped smiling then.

"I needed to see what manner of man you were. For as long as the Moon has been in the sky I've watched over all this. I saw the first people born here and I saw the first of your people walk into this valley. When I look across to what will come I saw the end of the Ways. I saw your kind fill up this land until there'll be no one left who knows who we are. Only the dust will know our names. You were asking me why. I wanted the answer to that question too."

He froze me with a look again. There was power in his voice though it was barely louder than a whisper now.

"You had a different destiny when you came to this place many years ago but when you changed your future changed with you. Once I made a decision and I didn't see what might come of it until it was too late. The Mother must have created your kind for a reason. Maybe you can learn, maybe we all can so the balance can still be upheld. You have given me much to think about."

He let go of me again and this time I could feel my head spin for a moment afterwards. I felt real tired now, like something had sucked all the strength right out of me.

"One final game," he told me.

This time our cards matched each other, ten for ten and then king for king. He dealt me the final card and I put it down in front of me. Ace of Diamonds. He'd be hard put to top that.

He put down his own card. It was the Ace of Spades.

"I think this is what they might call a draw, Mr Tanner."

He stood up and brushed off his coat. I knew he was leaving and there was nothing I could do to stop him.

"Wait-" I said. I had to know. "Did you know beforehand that Jeb would die?"

"I thought he might."

"Then you could've saved him. Why didn't you?"

"I could not. Just as I won't save you from what's to come. Maybe we'll see each other again before the end."

"What is it? What's coming?" Whatever it was it didn't sound good.

"I'm sorry," he said and he did sound a bit sorry too. "But I cannot say. I made a promise long ago never to interfere again in the matters of life and death."


"I didn't know the price for doing so at first. When I did, I found it too high."

And just like that there came a strong wind and dust and leaves whirled all around me, blinding my sight. When the dust had settled I was alone. I got the feeling that come morning I wouldn't even find a single footprint that would show he'd been here.

I remembered years back, a campfire and friends now dead who'd told me tales of the one who liked to play tricks on people. Had anything of what he'd said to me been true?

"I know your name," I called to the listening dark. "You're the one who plays tricks. Ain't you? I know you - Coyote!"

The sky was changing in the east. The clouds lifted enough that I could see the first rays of the morning sun painting the sky fiery red on the other side of the mountain range. Far away in the part of the valley that was dark and still untouched by sunlight I could hear a coyote call.

I had my answer.


As soon as it was light enough I was on the move. The air was much colder now than it had been before. The clouds had grown thicker and looked gray and fuzzy around the edges. It took no more than an hour before snow started to fall but by that time I was already up in Sorrows and could take shelter in the house Jeb had talked about. I had expected a change in the weather ever since I'd seen a ring around the moon just two nights back so I wasn't surprised.

Jeb'd done a fine job with the old cabin, fixin' it up so you could live snug all through the winter with plenty of supplies and all. There had been two buildings left by the settlers but the other one wasn't fit for a man to live in. Lucky for me there was enough of the roof and the walls left that it made a fine shelter for Peso. He wasn't as sure of that as I was and protested a bit at first but then I found a barrel of apples stored in the hay for the winter and I let him have one. Bribing him always shut him up real fast, if he hadn't been a horse I would have sworn he must be kin to Ezra.

The cabin was filled with things left behind by previous owners. There was a small iron stove, a table, some chairs and a simple bed. I couldn't see Jeb bringing the small iron stove up here so I guessed that must have been left by the settlers.

Someone had searched the place none too gently. The chairs were overturned, the mattress had been torn and the hay stuffed inside was mostly spread out across the floor. There were books strewn across the wooden floor too. I picked them up carefully and weighed each one in my hand. They were of fine quality, leather bound and heavy, with gold print on the outside. They looked important.

There were two whole shelves full of books, those must have belonged to Jeb. I'd known from the start that he had book-learning but he'd never talked about it much. I could recall one time when he said he preferred the company of a good book over people since books let you down less often than people did, but that was about it. Made me sad to see them books, knowing that he'd never pick them up and read from them ever again. I wished I could have done that for him, now no one ever would. I had to settle for putting them back on the shelves instead and cleaning up the place.

A paper fell out of one of the books as I put it in place. It was an ink drawing of a young man and a woman and a baby. They were dressed in their finest and looked like they had money. There was life in the small picture, it was skillfully done. The lines had faded in some places of the drawing. It looked like someone had traced the sweet curves of the woman's face and the baby's head with a loving hand and time had worn the paper thin right over those spots. I had no trouble recognizing Jeb as the young man so I figured that it must be the family he'd talked about, the one he'd lost. Thinking it over I decided not to put it back where I'd found it but to keep it. I folded it as careful as I could and put it with the papers Jeb'd asked me to care for. Think he would've wanted me to have it.

There was nothing more for me to do here but a look out the window told me I might as well stay for a few hours. Any tracks I might have found up here had long since been covered by the snow. Ghost Country was working against me once again. Seemed like it wanted me holed up here for a while. Wasn't such a bad idea. As long as it snowed this heavily there wasn't much I could do but stay indoors and hope I wouldn't get company.

I spent most of the day sitting by the window looking out over the valley as the colors changed from autumn to winter. I lit a fire in the stove and fixed me up some coffee and grub. No one would see the smoke against the gray sky, I was sure of that. Just outside the window big snowflakes danced on the winds like autumn leaves as they slowly fell from heaven. It was real pretty. I sat there for a long time just letting my thoughts drift with them flakes.

The feeling of danger was still with me but it faded some as the hours went by without anything happening. I was troubled by what Coyote had said, I couldn't deny it.

For so long the wild had been the only place where I felt truly at home. How could anyone expect me to give it up? Might as well shoot me in the heart.

That left only one choice - the town. It seemed like an easy choice, but it wasn't. I had people who counted on me now. There was Miss Nettie and young Casey. Not that they really needed me to handle things, I just liked helping them out whenever I could. Reminded me of ma and the only other home I'd had besides the wild. Then there was Chris. Wasn't as easy to just up and leave a town when you had friends there. Chris Larabee was a good man to have as a friend. A good friend to me.

I got angry with Coyote for putting all these thoughts in my head. I didn't have time to think about this now. Later maybe, some day when I was back in Four Corners, when all was settled. It was getting dark now anyhow and I was tired. Better try to get a good nights sleep for a change while I was up here. I hadn't slept much the night before and I got the feeling that it would be the last I'd have for some time to come.

Putting all the hay back in the mattress I fixed it up so it was comfortable again before I laid down on the bed with my gun by my side. Didn't bother to take off my clothes or anything. I just pulled the blanket up to my chin, closed my eyes and was asleep in seconds.

In the middle of the night I jerked awake. What the - ? Could have sworn I felt eyes staring hard at me. It was there for a moment but then it was just gone. I looked around the room but all I could see was faint moonlight shining in through the dusty windows, leaving parts of the room in deep shadow. I listened for a while but everything was calm and quiet and I soon fell asleep again.

I woke to find snow crystals all over the window panes and the sun shining from a clear blue sky. Taking a peek out the door I found the air warmer than I had expected it to be and with no wind to speak of. Still, I bundled up as best I could against the cold, ate a warm meal and put as much of Jeb's supplies in my saddlebags as they could take. Never knew when they might come in handy.

Peso spoke up as soon as he saw me leave the the cabin and he sounded like he was real glad to see me.
"Yeah, I know," I told him as I put the saddle on his back. "I feel it too."
I wouldn't be unhappy to see the last of this place, that was for dang sure.

The view outside was exactly what I'd longed for. It had snowed at least four inches in the past day and night and it covered the open fields like a sea of white. The winds had pushed portions of it into small snowdrifts that looked like glittering waves when the sun touched their crests. The trees were completely covered, some of them young saplings bent down almost to the ground by the weight of the snow clinging to their branches. Looked like the most of the snow had fallen right around Sorrows for some reason. Higher up there was less snow and the wind had smeared it across the dark mountainside in patches. It looked like frosting on a cake that was only half-finished. In all this white there was a small field of brown about fifty feet from the house.

Walking closer I could see that the brown was nothing more than sun scorched grass. It looked strange. I brushed away some of the snow near the edge of the brown patch and found that the grass underneath the snow was still green. Green grass underneath the snow while the brown patch was bare? It didn't make any sense. I squatted down, pulled off my glove and laid my left hand against the dead grass. Maybe this was some strange natural warm spot like those hot springs up in Yellowstone. As soon as my hand touched the ground I knew I'd been wrong for it felt like it was frozen solid. The cold was so strong that my hand got numb within seconds of touching the grass and I drew back quickly. The chill had already started to spread up my arm towards my heart and it felt like the beginnings of frostbite. My whole arm ached from my fingers to my shoulder as it started to warm up again. Looking carefully at the open field I saw flat mounds underneath the dead grass, some real small, others man sized. I realized suddenly what they were. Graves. Lots of them.

No crosses, nothing to tell who'd been buried here but it had to be them settlers. Didn't feel like they were resting in peace. Something was lingering here for sure. Weren't just the sorrowful souls of those that had died, either. Maybe it was something that had always been here and the settlers had just woken it up. Whatever it was I wanted no part of it. I told them settlers that I was sorry I had disturbed them before I stood up and walked over to Peso.

I had never really put much stock in ghost stories before but up here I was no longer so sure. There was something about the silence up here, like the whole place was just holding its breath, waiting for something to happen. The very shadows seemed to wait for someone to come and free them or to join them. Whatever it was it made me feel a bit uneasy.

I was glad to turn my back on Sorrows and felt the wariness slip away with every step away from that place. Soon I began to enjoy the day. Peso felt the same way, he skitted around like a young colt seeing snow for the first time. Once or twice he even bucked like in the old days when he was out to throw me. We had a long tug of war with the reins before I could get him to go in the direction I wanted to go.

We went up the mountain a bit and something strange happened. I'd never gone up this far on Whisper Ridge the last time I'd been in here. I'd wanted to but there hadn't been time. But now as I looked around I knew exactly where I had to go. It was like I was seeing it all through the eyes of someone else, I was thinking it might be Jeb. This was Ghost Country all right, with all its strangeness. I could almost hear Jeb speaking to me, telling me where to go and where not to.

Peso was sure-footed but even he slipped a few times on icy patches underneath the snow and I got down from Peso's back to scout around some on foot. In some places the snow cover got real thin. The smell of crushed pine needles rose from the ground as I moved over those spots. It was a sweet, fresh smell unlike any other and I breathed it in as deeply as I could. The cold sharpened me and calmed me at the same time, I felt like myself for the first time in days.

If Jeb said anything else I didn't hear him, it was all lost in the sound I made as I moved. A snowy landscape looks more quiet than it really is. The snow crunched loudly under my feet as I stepped onto more level ground halfway up the mountainside.

It was a large opening among the trees that would make a good camp. Not much shelter if the wind started up but I had a good view down the valley. Water wouldn't be a problem as long as there was plenty of snow.

I tied Peso to a tree and started to build a fire in the middle of camp. Looked like someone had been here before, there were two old logs that could be used to sit on and I put one on either side of the fire. I could have gone on further up since it was early still in the afternoon but I got dead sure that this was the best place to stay. There was nothing that said Jeb's killers were still around but somehow I was sure that if I only stayed put right here they'd come to me. It was like Jeb was standing some ways away and telling me so.

I was starting to wonder if Coyote had done something to my head. Maybe I was just one step away from going crazy. I'd end up like one of those crazy old men lonely on the mountain. Well ... at least it was better than hanging. Peso gave me an odd look when he heard me laugh at nothing like I was crazy already but I soon stopped and after that he paid me no mind. I put a blanket around my shoulders, put a pot of coffee to warm near the fire and settled down to wait.

It was dusk when they came. Couldn't see how they looked at first, they were just two dark shapes in the twilight, leading their horses up the same trail I'd taken earlier.

When they got close enough that the firelight shone on them I could see that they were as young as JD, one of them looked to be even younger. They looked alike and dressed alike, brothers for sure.

Damn, they looked so young. Could I be wrong? Any other place I'd have had some doubts but this was Ghost Country. The number of people going through here in the past ten years could most likely be counted on one hand. All my instincts told me these two were the ones I'd been looking for. I looked them over real good. They smiled at me like they meant no harm but their eyes told a different story, they glittered like ice. Sharp, light-blue ice.

"Hallo the fire," they called out to show they were friendly and wouldn't come in shooting.

"Howdy," I greeted them, letting the blanket slip some from my right shoulder to cover my hand with the gun already drawn, resting on my knee. I blew away the steam rising from the hot coffee and studied them over the rim of the mug as I took a swallow.

"Didn't expect to find anyone up here," the older one said as he looked me up and down, sizing me up. Didn't look too pleased with what he saw. Didn't look too worried either.

"Didn't expect company," I lied right back at them.

They sat down on the log on the other side of the fire. The youngest of them could hardly take his eyes off the coffeepot.

"Hope you don't mind company anyway," he said and gave me what had to be his most winning smile. "I'm so cold I'd give anything for a cup of that coffee right now."

Yeah, I bet you would, I thought. You'd even kill a man for it, wouldn't you?

"Help yourself," I said out loud.

"My name's Caleb Gray," the older one said. "This is my brother Elijah."

"Vin," I said. I only gave them my first name in case they'd seen it already on a wanted poster somewhere but it didn't seem like it meant anything to them. None of them asked me for my last name, they weren't much interested.

"So ... you're up here for the gold, ain't you?" Elijah said and the last of my doubts faded like smoke in the wind. I grew cold as I remembered Jeb's body swinging in the wind. I could hear him once again, saying, "They thought I had gold."

"There's no gold up here," I said. "Never was."

"The song says so," Elijah insisted.

"What song?"

"The legend of Crazy Miner," Caleb shot in. "You must have heard it. They're singing it down south all the way to the borderlands."

I had heard it, many times too. It was hard to miss it, it was sung pretty much everywhere. I'd even heard it one time in Purgatorio of all places. Thirty years earlier there'd been a man named Walker in a small town called Trouble south of this valley. Trouble was founded to deal with the overflow of gold diggers moving towards California. Walker had been one of the hopefuls but he'd got it in his head that there must be gold up in Ghost Country and so he'd stayed and gone into it. The way I'd heard it he claimed he'd found some but he never could remember exactly where that had been and he'd spent several years trying to find his way back. He never did, he went crazy and killed himself instead.

"Crazy Miner came back with Fool's gold," I said. "That was all he found, everyone knows that."

"But everyone also knows that he came in once before with a real nugget," Caleb said.

"Where'd you hear that?"

"It's in the song," Elijah answered.

"That's just it," I said. "It's a song. Ain't true."

They didn't believe me, I could see as much. But they didn't seem to get angry when I spoke against them. They were smiling. You should never trust a man who's always smiling, he's got something to hide. What the hell were they grinning about? Something was wrong, I could feel it in my gut.

The shot came out of nowhere. The way their eyes left me and strayed up the dark mountainside behind my back warned me a split second before. I ducked and dove to the right. That shot would have got me for sure but now it only got my hat, knocking it clean off my head. I shifted to get to my feet with my gun in my hand before they had time to react but my foot slipped on something in the snow and I went down flat on my back. When I looked up again there were two guns aimed directly at me and them two yahoos were on their feet and grinning fit to burst.

I struggled to my feet and they motioned me to back away from my gun and leave it in the snow. We waited in silence. The shooter was coming down the mountain somewhere behind my back. I could hear it clearly, every step he took in the frozen snow. Damn, he must have been up there all along, just waiting.

I stood out there in the open, like a bump on a log, and cursed myself for not figuring that there might be others already up on the mountain. The two of them kept their guns pointed at me until finally the third one was right behind me. The barrel of the rifle touched lightly against my skin right under the base of my skull. If he fired now he'd take my head right off. I stood very still.

A voice spoke quietly near my left ear.

"Should have looked behind you," he said.


I'd been a fool. I'd let my watchfulness slip as soon as I'd gotten them two in my sights. By the time I'd figured out that there might be a third man behind me it'd been too late. I'd been a fool and now it was gonna kill me.

Should have known it from the first. A man don't smile like that unless he thinks he knows something you don't. Turns out they did.


Hadn't seen him. Before making camp I'd looked up that mountainside, with my spyglass even, but I hadn't seen him. He was good. Better than me. I was in trouble.

The pressure eased on the steel against my neck and he moved around to stand in front of me. His eyes met mine as he peered from under the brim of his slouch hat. Had to be kin with them boys, his eyes were the same strange shade of light-blue. The firelight showed me that his hair and beard were streaked with gray, he was older than I'd expected. The coat around his shoulders could only be made out of wolf skin. He looked at home in it, he wore it like it was his own skin.

So this was the one, Ol' Papa Bear hisself. This was the one to watch, them other two were just cubs and not even half as dangerous. As he sized me up I could read what his eyes said loud and clear - no mercy.

He motioned me to sit down on the log I had just left. He was still holding the rifle on me so I went and sat myself down.

"Been watching you from up there all day," he said. "Figured you'd meet up with my boys sooner or later. Elijah!"

"Yeah, pa?" the younger boy stepped up close to us and old man Gray gave him the rifle. Then he picked up my gun from out of the snow and emptied out the shells before he gave that also to Elijah who placed it in his waistband.

"Keep him covered," old man Gray ordered as he went over to where Caleb was standing and cuffed him on the left side of his head. Caleb didn't look surprised.

"This ain't the one I told you to bring back," Gray said.

"I know, pa, but-"

Gray cuffed him again. "Don't you talk back at me, boy."

Caleb rubbed his ear, his eyes wary as he looked at his pa. I've been cuffed on the ear enough times to know it had to smart something awful. Told me where those boys got their mean streak.

"Couldn't wait, could you?" Gray spoke again. "What'd you do, hang him?"

"It was a mistake, pa. I only wanted to make him talk, to save time. He should have told us where the gold was-"

"I could tell just by looking at him that he wouldn't. You like making them swing. Like it too much. You gotta learn more patience. Look for a weak spot before you do anything."

"What about him?" Caleb pointed at me. Old man Gray looked me over again.

"Him? I know his kind. He ain't gonna talk. He'd rather cut his own tongue out than tell you something useful."

Caleb looked furious for a second, but then he grinned. He walked over to where I was sitting and Elijah moved out of his way to give him room. Old man Gray held back too, waiting to see what his boy was up to now.

"Not if I can cut it out first," Caleb said and pulled out a hunting knife from inside his jacket.

Caleb played with that knife, waving it in front of my eyes and letting the edge of it scrape against the stubble on my face. I stayed as still as stone, just following him with my eyes. If he wanted to see me scared of a yapping pup like him he'd have to wait for hell to freeze first. Caleb looked a bit disappointed when I did nothing and pulled back some but soon he was grinning again. No doubt he'd just thought up some new way to try and scare me.

All the time they'd been talking I had felt it build again, white hot and ready it was there now. Rage was burning under my skin, just waiting to be set free. Made me feel a bit reckless. Couldn't help it. I just had to wipe that smug smile off Caleb's face.

"Your pa should know better than to let a boy like you play with a big knife like that," I told him. "Could hurt yourself."

That got him in the gut. His smile disappeared and I could see his eyes go black. For a second I expected that knife to end up in my heart but old man Gray had other plans.

"Caleb," he barked and Caleb jumped. He turned around and looked at his pa then he turned back and drove the knife down with all his strength into the snow right near my foot. Unlucky for him there weren't just soft earth under the snow. Heard the clang of the blade breaking against stone the second before Caleb swore and bounced back to land on his butt in the snow. He sat there looking foolish and angry, staring at the tip of his knife where it had broken clean off. I could hear Elijah snickering somewhere nearby and felt like joining in. Before I could Caleb was on the move again, most likely wanting to finish me off this time. Gray reined him in once again.

"Caleb!" he called out and Caleb went over to him. Didn't look to happy about it but he wasn't about to disobey his pa.

"This is a mighty fine tree." Old man Gray laid his hand against the trunk of a large tree. He looked at his boy and then at me. Caleb followed his eyes from the tree and then over to me and his eyes lit up.

"Would look even better with someone swinging from it," he said. He pointed to another tree. "That one over there would look fine too. Got a branch just the right height for a rope."

"Think you're right," his pa agreed.

The air was cold but I was starting to sweat. There was no way in hell I was just gonna sit there peacefully while they picked out a tree to hang me in. Had to get away and the sooner the better.

I was sure I could handle both Caleb and Elijah but probably not both at the same time. And then there was old man Gray. I needed something to take their minds off me for just a second or so. I thought about what I could use. There was me and then there was Peso, but he was tied up at the moment. There was the small folded paper in my pocket that had some Ground Pine seeds still in it. I'd used it when treating Jeb's wounds and then forgot to put it back in my saddlebag. Wasn't really Pine, just some small green plant that could be dried and turned into powder. You put it on wounds to keep them from bleeding too much or going bad. Worked pretty good, only thing was you had to keep it away from fire since it burned real well. Could be useful right now. I saw some pine cones nearby. When I was sure nobody was looking for a second I gathered some of those too.

I watched as Gray took out a rope and started telling Caleb how much of it they needed. Elijah looked a bit skittish as he watched them prepare the rope. Couldn't tell if he was looking forward to seeing me swing or not, he just looked on edge. Maybe I could spook him some.

"Better start digging," I said. I spoke low so them other two wouldn't hear me.

"What?" Elijah said and frowned at me.

"I ain't gonna dig one for you."

"One what?"

"Hole in the ground. Should make it..." I broke off and looked him up and down before I continued, " feet long and six feet deep. You'd better start right now if you want one for your ownself. Otherwise I'm jus' gonna let you lie where you fall. The wolves can get you ... if they'll have the likes of you."

"Shut up," he hissed at me under his breath. I could see his hands squeeze the rifle until his knuckles went white. Probably wished them hands were around my neck right then.

I pinned him down with my eyes and then showed him my teeth like a wolf on the prowl. Elijah swallowed hard. I grinned wider. Yeah, he looked a bit spooked all right. He threw one look at his pa and brother but didn't call to them or nothing. Didn't want his pa to think he couldn't handle hisself against an unarmed man. When he spoke up it was so low that only I could hear what he said.

"You're the one that needs the hole in the ground. That'll shut you up."

"Think so?" I told him. "The dead never rest here, this is Ghost Country. Kill me and you'll never be rid of me. I'll hunt you to your grave and beyond. That's a promise."

I meant every word of what I said and I could see that he knew it.

"Ghosts don't seem to bother you none," he spoke back. "You talked about killing me."

"Got a friend looking after me on the other side. Can you say the same? You should remember my friend, you're the one that killed him. He ain't too pleased about that."

Elijah looked uneasy when he heard that. But I had run out of time now, the rope was already slung over a branch and I could hear Gray tell Caleb to go get my horse. As he got near Peso shied away and looked to me. I gave a low whistle and Peso calmed down again but his ears kept flopping up and down and back and forth, telling me he was still upset.

Caleb pulled out his broken knife and started to cut the reins instead of untying them. Kept staring at me the whole time he did it. Think he wanted me to know that he'd do his best to make my death as drawn out and painful as possible. I had no doubts about that.

Everyone was watching Caleb as he led Peso over towards the rope. Could wait no longer. It was time to set things in motion.

"I can take you to where the gold is-" I said to Elijah and sure enough, he whipped his head around to look at me. When he turned towards me I struck him down with a fist to his chin, nearly the same time I gave a piercing whistle to Peso. He started to buck and jump around like he'd gotten a burr under his saddle. Caleb swore and grabbed at the reins but there was no way he could get Peso under control when he acted like that, I'd learned that myself the hard way. Caleb and old man Gray had to scramble to get out of Peso's way as he kicked and tried to bite anyone that got close. I went for my gun still in Elijah's waistband but he tripped me and I fell. Thought he would've stayed down longer from that blow I gave him, boy must have more staying power than I'd reckoned on. We wrestled for that gun until I managed to knock him into the fire. Could hear Elijah cry out in pain while I rolled away to safety.

I looked up and found that there was no way I could get to Peso, he was too far away and blocked out by them Grays. We'd both have to fend for ourselves from here on. Caleb and Gray were wise to my game now and moving towards me. Caleb got down beside his brother to help beat at the flames eating Elijah's clothes. I got to my feet just as old man Gray grabbed his rifle and aimed it at me clear across the fire.

"Go!" I called to Peso as I picked up my gun and threw the pine cones and the paper with the yellow dust into the fire. All hell broke loose. Peso wasted no time, he was already on the run out into the night. The pine cones sounded like gunshots as they exploded and the Ground Pine made the flames reach man high in a blinding flash. I scrambled to get out of the light while them Gray's were still blinded. I jumped, rolled and slid down the mountain as fast as I could. Most likely they'd think I'd go down to the lowlands like anyone with sense would. Fine by me. They could think that while I doublebacked and went up the mountain instead. I used up all my knowhow to make sure my trail disappeared before cutting a wide swath around the camp and moving on up. When I was far enough away from the camp I stopped ro reload and rested for a while. I listened. Nothing. They'd be coming for me but for now I was free.

So, now what? I thought about the things I'd left behind. At least I knew Peso would be all right. He was smarter than them Gray boys. I knew he'd come back and look for me but if he didn't find me he'd go to the lowlands and feed on the grass before going home. There wouldn't be snow on the ground down there, like there was around Sorrows. Just hoped he could stay clear of Caleb, that one was mean enough to shoot Peso just because he was my horse.

No, I thought Peso'd be fine. My hat was another matter. Darn, I loved that hat. When you don't got much you keep a close watch on what you do have and I had that hat broken in just right. Now I'd have to get a new one and start all over again.

But better my hat than my head, I knew I'd been lucky. Now if I could just stay one step ahead of old man Gray everything just might turn out fine after all.

Up ahead I could see the peak from where Crazy Miner had jumped to his death. Maybe it was all that talk about Crazy Miner that did it but I had a memory of Jeb saying something about there being caves underneath that peak.

I walked on slowly, struggling uphill against the snow. The moon was rising and the faint light was making the snow shimmer like fine white cloth in a store window.

I stopped next to a big boulder shadowing my path. There was something not quite right here, something out of place. Something that shouldn't be here. What?

The shadows moved above me and something heavy landed on my back, dragging me down. My head was pushed down into the snow so I couldn't breathe. Didn't have too good a hold on me. Knew I could break it but I'd have to move fast before I faded out completely. Could feel the earth firm and strong under my hands and I took hold and bucked like Peso when he acted crazy. Heard someone swear in my ear and I recognized that voice. Caleb.

I'd broken his hold enough that I could roll to the side and then away from him. I came up on my knees but I wasn't quick enough to get clean away. Pain shot like lightning through my whole body from the back of my right thigh. My hand went down to the wound and I could feel a knife sticking out of my leg. Before I could pull it out another hand was on the hilt twisting the knife in the wound. Heard him laugh as I couldn't hold back a cry of pain. Caleb pulled out the knife in one swift move, hoping to hurt me again. That was his big mistake.

We both had our hands on the knife now. I locked eyes with Caleb as he matched his strength with mine. Time stretched out, then slowed and finally stopped. There was only the moment, stretched out into forever as none of us wanted to let go. The hatred shining in his eyes fed the darkness in my heart and I knew this fight could only end in death. I didn't care. I bore down on him with all my strength and felt him start to buckle under the strain. Slowly the knife started to turn. I heard him give a quiet gasp as the knife pierced his heart, that was all. I could see surprise on his face for a moment but then death took over.

I took a step back and he slumped to the ground. Seeing him fall I didn't feel much at all. No regret, no triumph. Just had a hazy sense of having won and lost at the same time. Didn't matter. I'd done it. Couldn't be changed.

Legs felt shaky. Had to sit down and rest in the snow for a while. I had two bandannas around my neck to keep out the cold. I tied one of them around my leg instead to stop the bleeding. Couldn't tell how bad the wound was, felt pretty bad but not enough to bring me to a halt. If Caleb'd had any sense he'd have shot me down from afar but he wanted to make me suffer.

How could he have found me here? Couldn't have read my trail. Must have been that crafty old man. He'd sent Caleb up the mountain in case I'd happen by. Just my bad luck. Again. I really had to get out of Ghost Country.

Good thing, at least, that none of us had come to use our guns. That way it'd take a while longer for Gray and Elijah to catch up with me. Only Caleb knew for sure where I was right now and he wasn't talking ever again.

Got to my feet with some help from the boulder. Had to keep moving.

I knew I was leaving tracks in the snow, most likely a trail of blood too. The dark would cover me for a few hours yet but come morning a blind man would be able to read my trail. I stumbled and swayed. Felt sick. My mind screamed at me to keep going but my strength was gone. Before I knew it I was down on my knees and then I fell and this time I couldn't get up again.

"Hide me," I whispered into the earth before everything went black.

A sharp pain in my hand brought me back. I opened my eyes a crack to find a large black shape sitting on my arm and picking on my skin like a vulture. As I moved the bird hopped off my hand and waited on the ground instead where I could see it. Moonlight showed me that it was a crow. It cocked it's head to the left and looked at me like it wanted to tell me something. In a crazy way I felt almost like I knew this crow. Maybe it was one of Josiah's and this was just a vision. Pain in my hand felt real, though. Good thing that crow had wakened me, I was frozen stiff. A while longer and the cold would have gotten me.

"Ain't given up yet," I told the crow as I struggled to my feet once more. There was still some fight left in me and the moon hadn't moved all that much so I couldn't have been out for long. The cold had numbed my leg and dulled the pain so it was easier to walk. As soon as I was upright again the bird silently took flight. I followed it's path with my eyes as it soared towards the top of the mountain and then I spotted an opening in the rock wall a bit higher up. Sure enough, it was a cave.

Could hole up there, find cover against old man Gray. No doubt he'd find me sooner or later but I hoped I could heal up a bit before he did. Caleb was dead so he'd have to stop and bury him. At least I thought he would .... Unless his need for revenge was stronger than the urge to do right for his boy and give him a decent burial. Damn. I wouldn't be surprised if that was so. Not surprised at all.

Took some effort but I made it up to the mouth of the cave while the sky was still dark

Right near the opening I stumbled on something and reached down with my hand to feel what it was. Torches, a whole bundle of them but they looked old. As luck would have it I still had the means with me to make a fire and the torch worked fine.

It was a large natural cave with carved out pictures on the wall. Must have been made by someone long ago. The pictures showed all manners of creatures, some I'd seen, some were new to me. No carvings of people, just animals, lots of them. Looked like the real animals shunned this cave. There were no droppings or bones or anything on the floor that said animals had ever been in here. Couldn't say why, it was warm and dry. Should have been just right to hole up for the winter. Strange.

The need was in me to go in as far as I could and burrow down. There was another opening in the back wall, leading into a smaller cave. In there I could see what must be several tunnels branching off in different directions like spokes in a wheel. I chose one and continued in.

My foot hit something. I lowered the torch until the light showed me an abandoned pickaxe. All along the right side wall, down by the floor, something glimmered. Looked like gold. This must be the place that Crazy Miner had found. So that old song had some truth in it after all, should have known. Looking at that golden shine I thought of Ezra. Lucky thing he wasn't with me. If he'd seen this I'd never be able to drag him away from it.

Probably Fool's gold, all of it. Sure made people act like fools, whether it was real or not. I limped further into the tunnel. All of a sudden I came face to face with rock. A dead end. I went back to where the tunnels divided and decided to take a look down another shaft. It was different than the first, looked like these walls were naturally carved out. Didn't reckon anyone had ever been in this far.

The further in I went the warmer it got and I soon started to thaw out. Started to hurt real bad as well. Leg felt like it was on fire, every step I took felt like that knife was plunged in again.

Should have looked more carefully where I stepped. Suddenly the ground tilted and seemed to disappear under my feet. I scrambled for foothold on a steep slope but there was just slippery gravel under my feet. Gun was wrenched from my hand and was lost as I tumbled head over heels before I downright flew through the air.

Landing was hard, felt like every bone in my body was shook loose and I blacked out for a while. It was dark when I came to again and I wasn't sure for a moment if I really was awake or not. I'd lost the torch when I fell but I could feel that I lay on some kind of flat rock covered by sand and pebbles. I reached out to the side with my left arm and almost right away I touched upon rock. It rose straight up from the ground solid and smooth. I reached out with my other hand and touched air. Couldn't rightly say where I was but I guessed it was some sort of ledge. Maybe I'd fallen down into a crack in the mountain, some natural shaft or something. I rolled onto my right side and then onto my stomach and reached down over the edge to find how deep the shaft was. Deeper than the reach of my arm anyways. I felt around until I found a small stone that I could drop down the shaft. Heard it bounce around a few times further down but then there was silence. Sounded like a real long fall, the kind that would kill you dead.

Well, now you've gone and done it, Vin Tanner, I thought to myself. How the hell would I get out of this one?

I sat up as careful as I could and felt around. The ledge was barely large enough to hold me. I could stretch out comfortably my full length but that was about it. It took some careful moving around but I finally managed to stand up close to the wall. I ran my hand over it to see if I could find something to hold on to but it was as smooth as if it had been polished. No edges, no cracks, no nothing. No way to get up again.

Only way would be if someone up there threw me down a rope. I'd barely finished the thought when I heard a scuffle up above and I knew someone else had fallen into the same trap that'd caught me. I dropped to the ground and pressed close to the wall to get out of the way of whoever it was.

A torch landed in the dirt beside me on the ledge and then came old man Gray. He was too far out to land directly on the ledge, he just struck the edge but his hands shot out like claws to grab hold of my bad leg while his own legs dangled out in the air. His hold on me was the only thing that kept him from falling but he was heavier than me and I felt myself start to slide towards the edge. I could see in his eyes that he didn't care one bit if he fell to his death just as long as he could bring me down with him. His fingers felt like talons on my flesh but the pain gave me new strength. Kicking out with my good leg to shake him off I got him square in the chest. I heard him grunt and then his fingers lost their grip. He dropped like a stone. I could see his face as he went over the edge. He had a look on it as if he could feel the fires of hell already lickin' at the soles of his boots.

Never heard him hit the ground. One minute he was there and the next all was quiet. The torch continued to burn for a while but then it fizzled and went out. It got real dark again. I lay there and took it easy while pondering what I should do next.

Never could stand being closed in and now here I was, surrounded by rock. There was nothing but stone above me, mile upon mile of stone before you could see the clear sky. The sheer thought of it seemed to weigh me down and made it harder to breathe.

Didn't take much to figure the odds. No way to get out. No one knew where I was. It was dark, I was hurting and this time there'd be no Jeb Tyler to come to my rescue.

Looked like Ghost Country would finally get me.

~~ Chris ~~

It felt like I was standing in the middle of the world and I didn't know where the hell to go. Had Vin gone up or down the mountain? Had he gone left or right?

Too much of it was down to maybes. Maybe Vin had gone there. Maybe he hadn't. Maybe it was already too late. There was no time to gamble everything on a hunch anymore but hunches was all I had left. If I chose the wrong way now we'd end up getting further away from Vin and then it would really be too late. The thought left me with a cold feeling to my gut. There had to be some sign, I just wasn't seeing it yet.

We had come all this way. There just had to be something.

The wind died down and everything became so still. I don't know how long I stood there, looking out at the wild, but it must have been a long time. Slowly I became aware of the cold creeping up my spine and that there was a growing pain in my leg. I had to move so I turned and walked back towards Buck. Didn't help all that much. The cramp in my leg grew worse and got real painful. It felt almost like a blade twisting into the back of my thigh.

Something must have shown on my face because Buck suddenly asked me, "You all right, Chris?"

"Yeah," I said. "Just got a cramp in my leg is all."

Best thing you can do when you've got a cramp in your leg is just to walk it off so I walked around the camp some more until it eased. I kept my eyes on the ground as I walked, searching for signs. I saw nothing that hadn't been there before. When I happened to look up again I saw Buck grinning at me.

"What?" I asked him.

"Cramp in your leg?" he repeated my words and his smile got even wider until his eyes twinkled. "You're getting old, pard."

"Oh really?" Trust Buck to find a way to rile me up and lighten my mood at the same time. "Well then so are you, Bucklin. Seeing how we're nearly the same age and all."

"Me? I'm still in the prime of my youth. Full of spirit-"

"Full of something all right," I interrupted him. "I can still whup you, Buck, so you'd better shut up before I-"

I completely lost my thread as my eyes caught a glimpse of black moving in the distance. It was a bird circling high above about a mile away from where we were standing.

"Buck," I said.

"I see it," Buck replied.

There was no need to waste any more words. We just got on our horses and started off in that direction.

I'd seen that same circling motion many times before so I knew that bird had spotted something dead or dying on the ground. Some animal ... or a man.

I kept my eyes on the bird and trusted my horse to find his own way. Looked like some kind of crow, a real big one. As we came closer it started to dive towards the ground but it reared up at the last moment before it touched the snow. It didn't seem scared of us at all, it was probably too hungry to care. I still couldn't see what it was that it found so interesting. Not until we got real close could I see the small mound of stones and snow that seemed to have been hastily gathered to cover something up on the ground.

I reined in Pony and sat there looking for a while. We had stopped on a narrow strip of level ground situated between a large boulder above us and a gentle slope below. The mound was halfway down the slope. I've never heard of no animal that buries its dead in a shallow grave and gathers stones and snow over the remains. It had to be a man down there. Damn.

The bird silently took flight as we dismounted. It left behind one single black feather right on top of the grave.

I took a deep breath. The air felt good and clean in my chest but the cold it brought with it seemed to settle around my heart as I looked at that grave.

There were no markings that said who it was, all I could see was the sole of a boot sticking out slightly from under the covering of stones and snow. If I wanted to know I'd have to go down there and dig him out. I took another deep breath.

"Chris-" Buck started to say.

"I'll do it," I told him but my feet seemed frozen to the spot. Didn't think it would be this hard to finally find the answer we had been looking for all this time.

"I can go down there," Buck offered.

"Said I'll do it," I told him, trying to sound more firm this time. "You go scout around some, Buck."

"All right," he said softly and walked away. Buck knew me well enough to leave me alone. He should, we had been riding together for a long time now. Only Pony had been with me longer. They were the two pieces left to me from my old life that I wanted to keep with me for as long as I could. But life didn't work that way, I knew that now.

It's a sad truth that you can never unknow something, no matter how much you'd want to. I knew how fast everything could change, how you could lose people that were important to you. It could happen in the blink of an eye. It had taken so long for me to get this far after my wife and son had died. I was almost at the point of getting settled into my new life and it wasn't half bad. In fact it was a rather good life, felt like I had a real purpose again after all these years.

I didn't want to lose any pieces of that new life. Didn't want to lose Vin. From the first I had trusted him. I don't trust many people, but I knew I could count on him. He wasn't afraid of anything and never gave up. Vin could say the damnedest things, made me smile just thinking about it. He was my friend. And I'd sure miss him if he was dead.

I looked at the grave. Maybe it wasn't Vin down there. Then again, maybe it was. Only one way to find out.

I slid down the slope until I was level with the mound. Almost right away, having shoveled away the snow with my hands and moved just a few stones, I could see that it was a white man with hair the same color as Vin. That stopped me cold for a little bit. So it really could be Vin under there. But maybe it wasn't. I tried not to think any more, just to work on steadily, and I had soon moved all the stones away from the head and shoulders so there was just a thin layer of snow left to remove. I hesitated to uncover the face but my hand seemed to move on its own and it brushed away the snow....

It wasn't him.

"Damn, Vin," I whispered and drew a shaky breath. For a moment there I'd almost thought- Well, that didn't matter now.

So, it wasn't Vin. Then who was it? He was young and had an ugly wound to the chest, looked like a knife had done it. The snow was recent so he couldn't have been here more than a few days. That put his death to around the same time as the fight over at the camp. Most likely Vin's handiwork then. Had Vin buried him or was it someone else? If it was someone else that meant more than one enemy for Vin to handle. I really wished I knew what had happened up here.

"Chris," Buck called and I looked up towards where he was standing near the big boulder.

"Can't say who this is but it ain't Vin," I told him as I started to put the grave back in order. Buck looked like he had something he wanted to say so I asked him, "What?"

He looked uncomfortable as he answered, "There's blood here. Quite a lot."

"Must be from the dead guy," I said as I made my way up the slope and went over to the boulder. There were still traces here of a fight to the death. Even a layer of new snow couldn't hide the big pool of blood spilled on the ground.

"Yeah, most likely," Buck agreed. "But I don't think this is."

He led me up a little further on the mountain and squatted down to brush away some of the snow. At first all I could see was clear wolf prints leading up towards a nearby peak.

"Blood trail," Buck said and pointed towards some of the paw prints. That wolf had set his paws down exactly where a splatter of black drops of frozen blood pointed a way up towards the peak. The wolf tracks were quite fresh but the blood trail was at least some days old, must have been from the fight. Two men had fought here, one had walked away wounded while the other remained dead. The blood had been covered by snow but the wolf must have smelled it anyways and set off searching for wounded prey. Must have his heart set on a warm meal, didn't look like he had sniffed around the grave even once. Pretty strange. Lucky thing for us that he had put his paws exactly right so it uncovered the blood trail for us to see, if he hadn't we would have missed it.

Seeing how it wasn't Vin buried down there I figured he had to be the hurt one. So he could still be alive but now he had a wolf trailing him. I was getting mighty tired of having my hopes raised only to see them immediately squashed down again.

Buck stood up straight again and looked at me.

"I think it's time to fire them shots now," he said.

I nodded in agreement and Buck fired first one shot into the air and then two more.

I had the feeling that there was more trouble ahead. It was time for all of us to be together again.

~~ Nathan ~~

For such a beautiful valley it sure didn't seem to like us much. Vin hadn't left any tracks that we could see so we had to look for trails we hoped he had followed instead. There were several narrow trails leading deeper into Ghost Country but there seemed to be only one trail that we could follow. We tried to go in other directions at first but it wasn't any good, we always ended up back where we started. First there was a rock blocking our path and the trees were so thick on either side of it that it was impossible to try and go around it so we had to go back. Then we started up the second trail only to be stopped almost right away where the path had disappeared in a landslide and so we had to turn back once again. Josiah suggested that we might have better luck on the other side of the river instead so we made our way over to the river bank.

The second we tried to cross the river Ezra's horse got spooked by something and Ezra ended up in the water. I was riding right behind so I quickly reached down and hauled his head out of the water so he could breathe again.

"Ezra! Are you all right?"

Ezra came up spluttering and coughing and looking like a drowned rat. He never answered me but he was swearing enough to make me sure that he hadn't gotten much water in his lungs. There was the strangest look on his face as he crawled back onto dry land.

Ever seen a cat trying to walk across a patch of wet grass without getting its paws wet at the same time? It puts down each paw very carefully, and after every step it lifts it and briskly shakes off the clinging wetness. I'd seen that once and couldn't forget it for that cat had such a look on its face that said how bad it thought the whole thing was. Ezra's face had that same look, sort of suffering and disgusted at the same time.

We couldn't help ourselves. Josiah and I both broke out laughing. It was the funniest thing I had seen in a long time.

Ezra's horse stood to the side and looked guilty. Ezra gave the two of us a glare before he noticed his horse standing on the riverbank. He looked startled for a second then he went over to his horse, muttering what sounded like, "Yes, you should be ashamed of yourself."

The water was deep enough that only his pride had been hurt by the fall and not something worse. Ezra was a hard one to figure out so maybe hurting his pride hurt him even more than breaking his neck. Sometimes when you said something he hadn't expected to hear it would take a second or more until the poker face dropped in place. Those times it looked to me that he cared more about what we thought about him than he let us know. But then I as I said, he was a hard one to figure out.

We tried the crossing again. Ezra's horse didn't buck him this time but it was a near thing. I could see the anger build up inside Ezra.

"Do that one more time-" he told his horse. "-and I swear I'll sell you to a glue factory so you'll at least be good for something."

I looked to Josiah again but this time he wasn't even smiling. Instead he looked thoughtful.

"What are you thinking about, Josiah?" I said.

"I think that horse has more sense than us. I don't think we should cross this river."

So we went back a bit and this time we found another trail that we hadn't seen earlier and that turned out to be reasonably easy to travel. There were hoof prints on the trail but they were too smudged around the edges for us to recognize if any of them had been made by Vin's horse. Still, it seemed the most likely way to go so we went on.

Wasn't much to see, just the trail that seemed to go on forever with trees on either side of it. I spotted a wolf half a mile up the trail. It stopped for a moment and gave us a long look before it disappeared among the brush on the left side of the trail.

Seeing that wolf reminded me of the dream I'd had that night. I had been standing up on the side of a mountain in an open place with snow on the ground. I was alone at first but then I felt like there was someone behind me, that happened a lot in that dream. As soon as my back was turned something would turn up or disappear. The first time I turned around there was a wolf there, just sitting there looking at me. It was almost as if it was waiting for something and I think it wanted me to speak so I said, "Who are you?" And the wolf looked at me and I could hear words in my head like it was talking to me, mind to mind.

"I am Wolf," it said. "Who are you?"

"I'm Nathan Jackson."

"Can you help him?" it then said and motioned me to look to the side. There was a hurt wolf lying in the snow. There was blood all over the fur and I could see that it was badly wounded in the leg. It was whimpering softly and looked close to death. I went over to it and sank down on my knees in the snow.

"I don't know," I told Wolf as I slowly reached out my hand to see if the wounded wolf would let me touch it. Suddenly the wolf shape wavered in front of my eyes, like a mirage in the desert, and turned into a man and it was Vin but he was looking at me through wolf eyes.

Startled, I scrambled to my feet and took some steps back. I turned on Wolf, "What is this?"

"Will you help him?" Wolf said and I told him, "I don't know if I can but I will do my best."

But when I turned towards Vin he was gone, instead there was a whole pack of them wolves looking at me. Should have been scary but it wasn't, somehow I knew they meant me no harm. One was barely more than a pup but the rest of them were fully grown. The pup yapped a bit at Wolf who answered him with a soft growl until he quieted down.

Then the whole pack changed into my companions just like the wolf that turned into Vin. The young pup turned into JD but he still had his wolf eyes and so did the rest of them. Seeing Josiah looking at me with yellow eyes was a bit unsettling. I should have been afraid but this pack was my pack. They wouldn't hurt me. I belonged with them.


"Why what?" I said.

"Why do you belong with them? You are not like them."

I had heard that argument countless times before but I still felt disappointed. My skin was darker so I should stay away. I was less of a man so I should stay away. I was different so I deserved to die. It never changed.

"I did not say that I thought you were less of a man," Wolf said.

"Didn't you?"

"No, I think you are a better man than they."

And I felt pleased but also little angry at the same time. Because this truly was my pack and they were good people, let no one say anything else. I had fought beside them and patched up their hurts and they treated me like one of their own. I was one of them.

"In our hearts we are the same," I said. "That's gotta count for something."

"Even him?" Wolf nodded towards Ezra who was sitting a bit apart from the rest of them. Truth was I really didn't know. Ezra and I seemed to disagree about most things that I counted as important. He didn't understand compassion, he thought it was a sign of weakness when I felt it was really the other way around. He would use people for his own gain, and I couldn't understand that. But just when I thought there was no hope for him he would go and do something that took a lot of courage and kindness without thinking about himself at all. He had me confused.

"I think he wants to be the same," I said. And I did think that. I just wasn't sure that it would be enough.

"You defend all of them. You would die for them. Why?"

This was one curious wolf. I didn't know what he was after but somehow I knew that he meant me no harm so I answered as best I could.

"They are good people."

"You want to heal their hurts."

"Yes," I agreed.

"Would you heal your enemy's hurt?"

"I don't know. I think I would try."

"Why? You have many dark memories. Why don't you give in to them? Why don't you take the vengeance that belongs to you?"

My mouth went dry and I could hear in my head the screams of the wounded when I worked as a stretcher bearer in the war. I could smell the blood in the surgeon's tent and feel the weight of a dying man's hand on my arm as he held on to me while his life was slipping away, drop by drop. And then I went further back in my memory and remembered the first slave I had seen whipped in front of me when I was just a boy. And my heart was filled with so many feelings when I thought about it all, it made me burn. Burn with anger sometimes but more often with a will to make sure it didn't happen again, to anybody.

"I've seen too much killing, too much hurt," I said. "Nothing good has ever come of it."

"Yet you have blood on your hands."

And I did. I had inflicted hurts, I had even killed men and I'd told myself every time that they deserved it, they got what was coming to them. Because they had tried to harm someone I cared for or they had tried to hurt someone just because they were stronger, just because they could. Every man who knew the difference between wrong or right had to speak up when injustice was being done but so few did. And I knew that I would do it all again if I had to for every one of those deaths had bought the life of someone who deserved to live.

And yet ... sometimes I thought about the men I had killed and wondered if they really had deserved it or if they'd just been caught up by something bigger than themselves and not been able to fight it. Maybe they could have changed their ways if they'd only had the chance, maybe there had been some goodness in their souls, buried under layers of hurt. Maybe they could have done something good if I hadn't taken their life away from them. Now they never would.

It was a strange feeling, to regret something and yet not regret something at the same time.

"I feel the weight of every drop of that blood," I told Wolf. "I know the cost of it."

Wolf was quiet for a while and then he said, "Go with my blessing, Nathan Jackson."

The last thing I remember from that dream was that it looked like he was grinning at me when he said that. Then I woke up and now here I was.

We were coming up on the spot where the wolf had crossed the road and when I looked to the left I could see that there was a narrow trail there, leading up towards some hills that could be glimpsed through the trees.

"What do you say we go that way for a while?" I suggested and the others agreed, perhaps they were as bored with this trail to nowhere as I was.

We had to ride up that trail in single file with Josiah up front, me in the middle and Ezra riding last. Right after we had gone through a small clearing the trail widened out and I suddenly noticed that it was down to just Josiah and me, Ezra had stopped near the edge of the clearing and was dismounting. I turned my horse around.

"What you doing, Ezra?" I asked.

"I have a most urgent call that needs to be answered with the utmost rapidity."

He made a simple call of nature sound like a secret mission of some kind. I grinned when Ezra couldn't see it.

Josiah said he would go ahead and I told him I would take the opportunity to stretch my legs some. The nearest hill was well within shouting distance so I could see no trouble in splitting us up and it turned out to be a good thing that I stayed with Ezra.

Ezra disappeared in among the shadowy trees and was gone for a short while. I dismounted, tied my horse to a tree and walked around some to get the feeling back in my numb legs. Some dry branches cracked loudly in the silent wood and I knew Ezra was on his way back.

"Damnation!" I suddenly heard him say and looked to where he was standing some fifteen feet or so away from the trail.

"What's wrong?"

"I stepped in some mud," Ezra muttered. Right then I heard Josiah call out that he had found something up the hill and I turned to look at where he was instead.

"Mr Jackson," Ezra said somewhere behind my back.

"Just a minute," I told him. Josiah had just said something I didn't quite hear and I was about to go up towards him when Ezra called me again.

"Mr Jackson, I fear I must prevail upon you to help me quite urgently!" Ezra said sharply and before I could turn he spoke again, calling out my name in panic, "Nathan!"

I turned around and Ezra was already up to his knees in mire and before I could reach him he was up to his hips in it and going down fast. He must have stepped into a mud hole hidden underneath the moss. I threw myself down and anchored myself to the nearest tree I could find with one hand while I reached out to Ezra with the other. He grabbed it in a strong grip with both of his hands and I tried to pull him out. It wasn't enough. I could feel the terrible grip that mud had on him as it tried to swallow him, it was merciless.

"Josiah!" I called in desperation and heard running footsteps answer my cry.

I kept my eyes on Ezra who just kept sinking deeper and deeper and for a moment I thought we would lose him but then Josiah was finally there and his arm shot out and grabbed hold of one of Ezra's hands and between the three of us we slowly won the tug of war. The mud let him go with a wet, sucking sound and Ezra started to inch towards safer ground until finally we could drag him out altogether.

For some time we all lay on the ground just trying to catch our breaths. That had been too close, much too close. I felt totally spent but then I looked at Ezra and I could see him shivering. I thought he must be in shock so I went up and got him a blanket.

"I don't need that," Ezra said and pushed it aside.

"Don't be stupid Ezra, I can see you shivering," I told him but he refused to touch it.

"I don't. I just-" he broke off and took some deep breaths and then looked calmer. "I don't need it," he said again.

"Fine," I said and gave up. If he wanted to make it on his own, then fine by me. Too stubborn to know what was good for him. I knew he distrusted the simplest acts of kindness. Just couldn't understand that man. He complained for hours about the state of his clothes but when he had been in real danger of losing his life he shut everyone out. I didn't feel up to battling Ezra so I shook my head and let it be.

"Josiah...." I asked as I helped him too his feet.


"What was it you said up there? I didn't hear you."

"I said that I'd found a grave further up the hill. No more than a few days old it looked like."

"Is it Vin?" Ezra asked softly as I helped him to his feet. He looked much better now than just a short while ago.

"Don't know. Didn't have a chance to get a closer look. I was just about to tell Nathan to get up there when he called for me to come help haul you out."

Josiah was never one to go easy on Ezra. I don't think it was because he didn't like him, it was because he knew Ezra could take it. And Ezra usually had a quick comeback. So it was this time.

"Well..." Ezra replied with venom dripping from every word, "...pardon me for interrupting your conversation with such a trifling thing as coming close to dying."

Sounded to me like Ezra would be just fine. He was almost back to being his old self again.

"For the second time today no less," Ezra added.

Josiah looked at me and then at Ezra. He raised an eyebrow slightly.

"Brother Ezra -" he said and stepped closer to Ezra. "Looks like you've got a speck of mud right here, let me get that for you...." He brushed at some of the mud on the back of Ezra's coat, smearing it into a large dark stain all across the shoulders that was the only place untouched by mud. It had looked bad before but there was no saving that coat now.

"Whoops," Josiah said and shrugged. "Sorry."

Once again Ezra reminded me of a cat, this time of one trying to catch its own tail, as he tried every which way to see over his shoulder and down the back of his coat. I had already laughed at him once today so I tried not to even smile this time. It was hard.

"What? What did you-" Ezra started to say. Then his mouth clamped shut and he got an unholy gleam in his eye. "I expect that this expression of regret will extend into paying for the cleaning of my coat."

"Oh sure," Josiah said and then paused for a short while before he continued, "If we ever make it back, of course. Everyone better look where you're stepping from now on."

Ezra looked like he wanted to say something but then thought the better of it and just shook his head instead. I got him to borrow a dry shirt from me and waited until he had changed out of his wet coat and into a dry jacket. We both kept our silence as we followed Josiah up through the woods towards the grave.

~~ Vin ~~

I blinked. There was a light above me. I blinked again but it didn't go away. It slowly came to me that it must be daylight. Somewhere way up there was a small opening and I could see the sky through it. Seeing that, I could feel something loosening in my chest so I could breathe freely again. I no longer had to bear the weight of the whole mountain.

Must have slept some but not enough, still felt bone weary. I closed my eyes and rested for a while and in my mind I went back to Sorrows and Jeb's cabin. It was real dark in there but I could see light shining in from the outside. Heard children laughing and looking out the window I could see them running around. I put my hand on the door to go out and ask who they were but it was stuck real hard, almost like there was something on the other side keeping it shut. I looked down. There was a crack underneath the door with white light coming through. No shadow fell through that crack, nothing moved on the other side, but I could feel something there. Not the children, something else. Just waiting there. For me. The crack somehow got wider as I was looking at it and something was pushed through it from the outside. My harmonica. Hadn't even known it was gone. It was all black and strange looking but mine without a doubt. I bent down to pick it up but as I reached towards it the blackness turned into a swarm of flies that crawled over my hand, up my arm, all over my face-

I drew a deep breath and stared into the dark rock by my side. Was I awake? I tried to move and my leg hurt something fierce when I shifted just the slightest bit. Bruises protested all along my back and my ribs spoke up too. Didn't feel like they were broken, I knew that much, but they hurt some. Yep, I was awake.

I was also wet. There was water running down the wall beside me and pooling in the small hollows on the ledge underneath my head. Snow must be melting outside and it was pouring in through the cracks in the mountain. I cupped my hand against the rock and let the water trickle down till it filled my palm. My hand was shaking so I spilled almost half of what I had gathered before I could swallow it. The mouthful that was left tasted faintly of metal and earth but it was cool and fresh and the best damned drink I've ever had.

Daylight and water... I could stay here comfortably for a long time now. If it hadn't been for my leg. That was getting worse. Could feel the pulse throbbing underneath the bandanna and it felt hot- hell, it felt like I was on fire. Didn't need to see the wound to know it was turning bad. The fever would get me before long, just like it had ma.

I looked up at the small patch of blue so far up above. Now I could at least die with my eyes towards the sky. That thought gave me comfort.

Every time I moved a bolt of pain shot through my body so I tried not to move too much. My mind was starting to drift and then I think I slept for a while and when I woke I wasn't sure how much time had passed.

The light above seemed as strong as when I'd closed my eyes but something was different. Someone was watching me. He was sitting just a few feet away and dangling his legs over the ledge. I knew him.

I was dreaming, I had to be.

"Chanu," I whispered. He turned to look at me and I could see his eyes glow yellow in the gloomy light.

"No," he said. "I am not Chanu. I took this form that is known to you because I wanted to talk to you the way my brother has."

I wondered if it was Coyote again but somehow I didn't think it was. I can't explain it better than that it didn't feel like it was Coyote.

"Why?" I asked.

"I wanted to see what my brother finds so interesting."

His brother? Who was he talking about? Coyote?

"Yes," he answered as if I had said it out loud, which I knew I hadn't. "I want you all gone. None of your kind will ever touch this small valley ever again, I won't allow it. You do not belong here. This is our place."

"I've never taken anything in here that wasn't freely given," I said. "I'd leave if I could."

I'd never wished more for my words to come true than at that moment. I think he knew that for he softened up a bit.

"You speak true," he said. "That is why I've let you live. And for the wolf."

It took a while, but then I thought I knew what he meant. "The blind one?"

"Yes." He smiled at me. "You surprised me that time. The kindness you showed will be returned. Coyote brought you here. I've brought the others."

"What others?" Must be getting slow, the only thing I could think about was that there weren't anyone who knew where I was.

"The six who are like you."

That almost made me laugh.

"They ain't nothin' like me," I told him.

"When the wind moves through the grass the blades of grass all move together, even if they do not look alike. They all move for the same reason. So it is with you too."

"Yeah - I guess ..." I broke off and coughed. My mouth felt as dry as the desert. It felt so real, not like a dream at all. Just talking was wearing me out. I couldn't last long like this.

"Am I gonna last long enough for them to find me?"

He didn't answer right away and that told me what I wanted to know.

"I can't tell you that. I brought them here so they could find you. If they do then you can all leave. I can not interfere more than I have."

"Cain't or won't?" Had to close my eyes for just a second there.

When he didn't say anything I looked up and found that I was alone on the ledge again. I wished they would just leave me be, all of them. Especially Coyote.

"But that would be no fun, Mr Tanner," I heard Ezra say right near me and found him sitting where Chanu had just been. "And Wolf was wrong. You are not like any of them."

"Ain't I?"

"You say you are?"

I was tired. Didn't want to talk no more. But Coyote was still curious.

"Tell me Mr Tanner... are you afraid?" he said.

"No," I answered him truthfully. I had never feared death.

He looked thoughtful.

"You expected something like his?"

"Yeah," I said and it was true. As much as I had seen death I had never been fooled into thinking that it wouldn't happen to me like some men did. And I had always expected to die alone, much like I lived. This was just ... a bit sooner than I'd thought.

"Is it all you thought it would be?"

"No," I tried to laugh but had to break off since my ribs protested. No, I sure hadn't expected to die alone inside a mountain like this. I had expected to die out there, underneath the boundless sky, fading away until my white bones turned to dust.

A death like that wouldn't have been too bad but a death like this would have to do, I reckoned.

Not that I was ready to die yet. I had changed. I had people I cared about now and for the first time I thought about what it would be like to die among friends. And my soul was once again split in two, one part longing for the friendship of the town and the other part longing for the freedom of the open plains. Now I had neither.

"I told you we might meet up again before the end," Coyote said.

"Ain't there yet."

"But you soon will be. Too bad, I was quite starting to like you. Do you remember our conversation a few days ago, the one about choices?"

"Ain't gonna choose," I told him. But I had almost run out of time and he knew it too.

"You don't have to. It's been decided for you after all." He sounded almost sad as he went on, "I told you it would. You know it now, Vin Tanner. Wild things belong in the wild. In every way and forever."

I think he left me then or maybe I woke up. I was no longer sure of anything except that I felt very alone as I lay there in the darkness.

I win, Coyote whispered in my head.

I could feel something in my hand. Where had it come from? I clutched at it, felt the edges and the smooth surface. A playing card. It was too dark to see the markings but I didn't need the light, I knew what it was.

The Ace of Spades. Ezra's card ... and Coyote's.

~~ Ezra ~~

If it wasn't so ridiculous a thought, I'd say that Ghost Country was conspiring to kill me or at least destroy my clothes, whichever came first. It near drowned me in the river and then when it found that I was still alive it tried to swallow me up in a mud hole instead. No, this pretty valley didn't like me one bit. I returned the sentiment.

However, all such considerations faded away when I first saw the grave. It was located in a lovely spot, just underneath a majestic tree with the surrounding wood opening up on both sides to show a beautiful view down to the grasslands that we had left early this morning. It felt like a very peaceful place. A lot of thought had gone into picking out this location. Someone had obviously cared a lot for whoever it was that had been buried here.

The grave was carefully put together too, with a covering of stones and a simple cross made out of two small branches that were tied together. A hat hung on that cross. Josiah went over to it, picked it up and looked inside.

"There's something embossed in gold on the sweatband," he said. "Name of Jeb Tyler."

I heard Nathan give a sigh of relief beside me.

"So it isn't Vin," he said and I couldn't help but comment, "Unless it's a ruse and that hat belongs to someone else." Well, it needed to be considered.

"The only way to find out for sure is to dig up the grave. Can I get you a shovel?" Josiah was looking at me when he said it but I recognized a rhetorical question when I heard it.

"No, I don't think that will be necessary," I said. I had considered the idea of it being Vin in that grave and rejected it as very unlikely.

Nathan had gone up closer to the grave and was contemplating it in silence.

"Think Vin built this grave?" he said to us.

"Could be," Josiah said and passed the hat on to me. Although it was old and worn I recognized top quality when I saw it. This hat had belonged to someone that'd had money at some point in his life. The letters in gold were faded but nicely done.

What would such a man be doing up here away from everything? What had he died of? Who had buried him? Important questions all that we would probably never find the answer to.

"This is getting us nowhere," Josiah said and I silently agreed.

Looking around for tracks we found a set leading away up into the woods. We followed that for a couple of hours in complete silence before we came to a hill with a splendid view in almost every direction. Not that there was much to see, just a plethora of trees except for one open white patch higher up near where the others had to be. I spotted a small, dark structure that must be a house among all the white and stowed that bit away for future use.

Josiah looked around where we were and said, "Isn't this a bit closer to where we split up?"

"I think so, yeah, "Nathan said. "Ain't that so, Ezra?"

"I believe that might be the case. We have in effect traveled in a circle. Should we turn back and try another route?"

"No, don't think so," Josiah disagreed. "We haven't found any other trail, we should follow it until it runs out of tracks at least."

And so we did, drawing ever closer to where we had left the others. Late that afternoon we finally heard a gunshot that sounded like rolling thunder as it echoed over the mountain. There was a short pause and then came two more.

"That was the signal," Nathan said. "I hope to God that they've found Vin already."

But that was not to be as we found out when we rejoined the rest of them further up on that mountain ridge late that night. For hours we had traveled as fast as we could without straining our horses and by some miracle we had found a number of shortcuts along the way that lead us directly to where our friends had made camp. The final miles had been quite arduous and slow as it was too dark to clearly see what was on the trail and we had only the faint light of the campfire to guide us.

We nearly got lost among the trees as the wood thickened and we could no longer see the fire but by some fortunate occurrence the moon came out and guided us up the final mile through the trees and then there was snow on the ground and it all looked quite enchanting as the moonlight made it seem like there were diamonds hidden in the snow.

"Howdy boys," Buck greeted us from near the fire, a most welcome sight. The hot coffee they supplied us with was even more welcome and made me feel almost human again. We all bundled up in our blankets on logs around the fire and exchanged information. Chris told us what they had found so far and we were all caught up in discussing what to do in the morning when we had light enough to search for more tracks. I told them that I had seen a house up here and wondered if they had come across it. They hadn't seen it but now we knew where to take Vin when we found him again. No mention was made of the grave Josiah had found, it didn't seem relevant now when we had a better idea of where Vin might have gone.

The anticipation of finally finding Vin and the bitter cold, both these circumstances worked together to deprive us of our sleep, even though we truly needed it. Instead we sat up and talked about a great many things without really saying much of value while we waited for the dawn.

JD said that he'd had a marvelous dream the night before where he had been a wolf at first and then a human being. Another wolf had been in that dream. They had been up on a mountainside that looked much like the one we were sitting on and JD described in great detail his encounter with this creature.

"I tried talking to it but it didn't want to talk to me-" he suddenly broke off and just shrugged.

"Did it say anything at all to you?" I prodded him.

"Yeah, it said, Hush, young pup. Let your elders speak. Can you believe it?" JD sounded most indignant.

I could see Josiah hide a smile behind the boy's back and the right corner of Chris Larabee's mouth twitched a bit. Buck had no such considerations of sparing young JD's feeling's, he howled with laughter and teased the youngster with crude dog remarks but JD gave back as good as he got.

I was glad that the conversation had taken this turn so I could stay out of it and think instead upon my own strange dream. JD's dream was something like my own but not quite so. The wolf spoke to me about different things. I stood before it and it said to me, "My brother likes to take your shape best of all. Why is that?"

I had no answer, what answer could I give? I didn't know why it said that to me in the first place. What brother? And what did it mean by saying that he took my shape?

"You both like to play tricks on men and you care not for what might follow. You are both dangerous."

"I don't understand," I replied, for indeed I felt confused.

"I know you don't," said the wolf. "That is why you are dangerous. Look behind you."

And I did and then I felt my heart speed up for there was a whole pack of wolves sitting there. None of them looked at me and I felt strangely bereft by that fact. To the left of them I could spot a lone trail in the snow that lead up towards the mountain range. I wondered where it ended.

"Do not take my brother's path," the wolf said to me, not unkindly. "It is a lonely one and you have other choices."

I woke at that point, amazed at how real that dream had felt. But it had so clearly been a dream, wolves don't talk in real life. So why did I now feel like I had been told something important? What did it all mean?

I must have dozed off in the middle of my reasoning for the next thing I knew someone was shaking my shoulder to wake me up. I felt terribly stiff after all the earlier exertions and sleeping upright on a log in the cold. But the sun was just about to rise and in a few minutes this whole land would be transformed as the darkness dispersed.

As soon as it was light enough Mr Larabee lead us up on foot to where the blood trail and the wolf trail had started from. Buck had been walking something like fifty feet ahead of the rest of us, but now he suddenly stopped, barely a half a mile higher up where the snow was thinning out.

"Chris, we have trouble. Both trails disappear."

"Both of them?" Chris said. "Damn. Alright, we'll have to fan out and see where the trail picks up again. Any of you find anything just holler."

We searched fruitlessly for hours without finding the slightest trace, it was as if the earth itself had opened up and swallowed Vin. Where could he have gone? Up ahead I could see a row of jagged cliffs belonging to the peak looming above. The way the shadows fell up there it almost looked like there could be an opening among the rocks but it could also be an illusion. Since I had nowhere better to search I thought I might as well check that out and I called out my intentions to JD who was searching closest to me. He nodded back and continued to look at the ground for drops of blood.

The mountain got steeper the higher up I got and I was starting to revise my earlier thought. This seemed much too arduous a climb for a wounded man. But then I was close enough to see that there really was a crack in the mountain up there so I decided to chance it anyway. Just a quick look to eliminate that possibility. What could it hurt? By the time I was level with the opening I could see that it was big enough for a man to step in through and that it was indeed the mouth of what looked to be a large cave.

I also got the first signs of human habitation, a group of torches stored near the entrance and ready to use. I took out my matches and picked up one of the torches. It worked surprisingly well considering how long it must have been there. Several years at least, I should think.

I raised the torch so the light fell on the walls of the cave and got such a surprise that I could feel my jaw fall open until I stood there gaping. Carvings covered the wall from top to bottom, they were even in the ceiling, thousands of them. There were what looked to be at least a dozen or so birds, all of them different. There were even more different sorts of fish. I could see a bear that was so lifelike that you could see the hairs covering its skin. There were all manners of beasts here, most of whom I didn't even dare to guess what they might be. One picture looked like it might be of a mountain lion but it had what appeared to be two giant tusks growing out of its mouth instead of ordinary teeth. It looked quite formidable.

The further I walked into the cave the stranger the animals looked. It was truly amazing and I completely forgot for a moment why I was there in the first place.

But then I came to my senses again and looked down on the cave floor and lo and behold - there it was. A faint pattern of dark blood could be seen and it lead on into what appeared to be a second, smaller cave.

I walked into that and was discouraged by the sight of a myriad of tunnels leading off in different directions. I looked on the floor but this was much more rugged than in the outer cave and the faint trail was lost. This would most certainly take time if I'd have to search through each of these tunnels. However, I could see no other way to better accomplish my task. I decided to take a look into each tunnel, working from the left towards the right side of the cave.

Almost immediately my plans were overthrown for I could see something strange on the ground in front of the second tunnel. It was the back of a slightly dusty playing card and a few feet into the tunnel I could see another.

Playing cards. How...? There seemed to be a whole deck of them laid out in a straight line all through the tunnel, one card every few feet or so. It started with the Two of Spades and I followed it further into the dark, turning over each card as I encountered it. Finally there was but one left and I turned it over to find that it was the Ace of Diamonds. One card was missing, the Ace of Spades. A shiver ran down my spine. That card was my calling-card. This couldn't be a coincidence. This was a sign.

The tunnel went on ahead of me and I had to go into that dark place to find out what was waiting for me. I didn't much like it and I remembered my little adventure out into the swamp and walked very carefully indeed, searching every inch of the ground before treading on it. Soon I came upon a steep sloping patch. It looked dangerous and I decided to stop and turn back but then I saw it. Balanced precariously against a small stone that must have halted its downward progress, lay Vin's Winchester, his Mare's Leg, as he sometimes liked to call it.

That meant he must have come this way. And that in turn meant that he probably must have fallen over the edge of that slope. There was simply no way he would otherwise have parted with it. Was he dead then? Had it all been for nothing?

"Vin!" I called. "Vin Tanner?"

I waited, but for the longest time all I could hear was the echo of my own voice reflected back from the labyrinth of tunnels. Then, just as I was about to turn back, I heard something. It was the faintest of sounds. But a soft whisper of a voice rising out of the dark depths, saying warily,

"Yeah ... who's there?"

~~ Vin ~~

Someone was calling out something. Vin. Vin Tanner, they said. My name. At first I thought it was a call from the other side but then I realized that there really was someone up above and he was saying my name. It was someone who knew who I was.

"Yeah, who's there?" I called back. Right then I didn't really care who it was, it could have been a posse out to hang me and I'd have fashioned a noose for them my ownself, just as long as they threw down a rope and pulled me out of there.

"It's Ezra Standish. Are you hurt, Mr Tanner?"

Ezra? Out here? On his own? Seemed I had been down that road once before and not so long ago. But then I thought about what Wolf had said, "I've brought the others", and new hope started to burn in my heart.

"Hurt my leg," I called up.

"Hold on, I'm going for help."

Everything got quiet again and stayed that way for so long that I was starting to wonder if it had all been a dream. I could see a patch of blue up there again. It was the morning light. My own little piece of heaven.

Then I heard what sounded almost like a commotion up there. The tunnels twisted every sound until it was hard to recognize what it had started out as but I had no trouble recognizing the voices of my friends as they called out their greetings to me from above. Soon afterwards I could see a light slowly moving towards me. I had been so long in the dark down here that the light hurt my eyes and I had to squint like when you're looking at the sun. When it got closer I could see that it was just Ezra with a torch in his hand.

He looked like he was floating in the air. Hadn't known Ezra could soar through the air like that. Birds had wings and so did angels but if Ezra was an angel he was the ugliest one I had seen. Still, he looked real good to my eyes right then, I can tell you. When he came closer I could see that he had a rope tied around him and then he was close enough that he could scramble for foothold on my ledge.

"Ez, is that really you?" I said.

"Indeed it is. Lay back and take it easy and we'll get you out of here."

He took a look at my wound and recoiled a bit and then he laid his hand on my forehead.

"What are you doing?" I asked him.

"I'm checking for fever," he told me.

"Couldn't you just ask me?"

He withdrew his hand and looked at me. "Fine," he said. "Do you have any fever, Vin?"

"Yeah," I said.

"I already noticed that," he said. "Let me get you something to drink. You look parched." I could see his eyes go to the thin trickle of water running down the rock that had saved my life before. "We can either wait a hundred years while I gather a cup of that or you can risk a drink out of my canteen. Which do you prefer?"

"Canteen," I told him. Water wouldn't taste as good but there would probably be a whole lot more of it.

He placed the torch as far away from us as it could get on the ledge and still give us proper light to see by without falling down into the darkness below us.

Ezra had the canteen slung over his shoulder but it seemed to be all tangled up in the rope and he had to struggle to untangle it without untying the rope around his midriff.

I gave him a close look. Was it really him? It sounded like the real Ezra but I had been fooled for a while before and I was sick of games.

"Your eyes ain't yellow anymore, are they?"

Ezra stopped what he was doing and when he spoke up he sounded almost worried.
"Did you hit your head, Mr Tanner? Maybe the fever is making you delirious...."

Good ol' Ez. Sometimes you could see right through him. Coyote might have looked just like Ezra but on the inside he was different. Ezra had a good heart, even when he pretended he didn't have one at all.

He finally got the canteen free from the rope and passed it on to me. I took a long and careful swallow before I said, "Ezra ... I think I've misjudged you."

"Think nothing of it," Ezra said and he even sounded a mite touched. He blinked suddenly and I felt my own eyes burning. Damn, it was dusty down here.

Seemed there was a lot of talking going on up above but Ezra and me couldn't quite hear all that was said and so most of it made no sense. We waited in silence for a long while, at least it felt like a long while to me. Then Ezra suddenly asked, "Do you need anything, Vin?"

Yeah, I need to get out of here , was my first thought but I didn't say it out loud for I knew that wasn't what he meant. Instead what came out of my mouth was, "Could do with a bath."

He sniffed the air, wrinkled his nose and looked at me. Then he looked down at his own coat, wrinkled his nose one more time and started to laugh. "Indeed," he said. "And so could I. Ah, here comes the rope."

He was looking up and when I looked where he was looking I could see another rope slowly snakeing its way down the rock. It hurt to move around even the slightest bit but I had to for the rope to go around me. Ezra apologized a lot as he trussed me up so I knew he saw me hurting, even though I did my best not to let it show. Maybe the fever had taken more out of me than I'd thought, but I told myself that it was just Ezra doing what he did best. He could read people as easily as he read them cards. Some times anyway. Not always.

"Count yourself lucky, Mr Tanner," Ezra softly said as he checked them knots for what seemed like the tenth time to be sure they wouldn't slip loose. "You're going home."

He shouted up to the others that they could start hauling away.

"Careful of his leg," I heard Nathan call but the second they started to shift me the world around me was gone in a flash of white-hot pain and I knew nothing more.

~~ Chris ~~

Vin was out of it the whole time it took us to drag him out of that black hole and take him over to the cabin Ezra and the boys had seen earlier. It turned out to be in better shape than I expected. Someone had obviously lived here until quite recently, there were three chairs, a small table, a stove and a bed. It was a tight fit to squeeze all of us seven in there but it felt too good to find shelter against the cold, I didn't think any one of us minded right then.

We placed Vin on the bed and let Nathan do his first real examination and he frowned a few times so I knew he'd have some bad news for us.

As soon as we got a fire going in the stove and the cabin was getting warmer Vin stirred a bit and soon thereafter he opened his eyes. He looked at us like he couldn't believe we were all really there with him and then he looked at his surroundings.

"Sorrows," Vin said. "This is where they all died."

I didn't understand what he was talking about. I didn't get a chance to ask him either for he closed his eyes right away and seemed to sink into a stupor where he almost couldn't be reached.

"Can you do anything for him, Nathan?" I asked.

"Well, he's in better shape than I would have thought given what he's been through. His leg seems to be the worst of it. Looks to me like he's got an infection in his wound. Most likely I'll have to cut it open and drain it. Wish I had some Laudanum with me but I used it all in town. Was expecting a shipment earlier but it hadn't come by the time we left. But I've got a bottle of whiskey, it'll have to do."

Nathan was quiet while I took it all in. The he slowly said, "I may have to take off his leg later."

"Later?" I repeated, not quite grasping what it was he was saying.

"Vin's strong but he's had a rough time. You never can tell. Should probably do it right now but I don't have the right instruments, need a proper saw...." his voice trailed off. An ugly feeling took hold of me.

"He's gonna lose his leg?" My mouth went dry.

"He'll be lucky if that is all he loses, Chris."

"You mean he could still die?" Up until that moment I had thought that we'd been in time and that things could only get better from here on but now I suddenly knew the truth. The bleak look in Nathan's eyes told me what he wouldn't say out loud. It could easily go either way. The fight for Vin's life was just beginning.

"It won't come to that," Nathan said. "I'm sure it won't."

I could hear the determination in his voice but also the doubt. There was no one I trusted more to fix this than Nathan. If trust alone would carry us through this ordeal then I could give him some of mine, I had more than enough.

We started to prepare for the operation as the night drew near. Nathan had most of us busy scrubbing and boiling things. At one point he drew me aside and said that I should find something for JD and Buck to do. JD because he was so young and didn't need to see what was about to happen and Buck because he kept bumping into everyone else. I sent them out of the cabin with rifles to guard against any one of Vin's enemies who might still be out there. I didn't truly think that there was anyone but better be safe than sorry. Couldn't keep them out there all night though, it was too cold outside.

Josiah held the legs, I held Vin's shoulders and Ezra held the lamp so Nathan would have some light to see by. When Nathan had uncovered Vin's leg I could see that it was an ugly wound. If Vin came out of this with only a limp he would be lucky, it would surely leave a bad scar. Vin struggled against us for a little while when Nathan put the knife to the wound but then I could see his eyes roll up in his head and he was out of it. I think that made it easier on all of us, knowing that he wasn't suffering as much. Had to look away at one point. Seeing all that blood and pus and smelling it too... well, it turned my stomach. But before long Nathan said he was finished. He'd done a fine job, just as I knew he would. I told him so but Nathan was still in a somber mood and just said that he hadn't done much and that it was up to Vin now.

We did our best to bring the fever down but instead it continued to rise. Nathan didn't have to tell me that it was a bad sign. I had expected Vin to be out for most of the night but it was only some hours or so afterwards when I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye and turned towards the bed. Vin was awake but quiet, his eyes bright with fever as he watched me.

"How are you feeling, Vin?" I asked him when he just kept looking at me without saying anything.

"Make'em stop," he said instead of answering my question.

"Who?" Everything was quiet inside and outside.

"The women - they're crying for the dead. Cain't you hear them?"

He looked at me pleadingly. I shook my head.

"Can't hear a thing, Vin."

There was nothing to be heard but something was still bothering him.

"They want me to go," he told me.

"Don't talk like that," I said to him as my heart filled with dread. "You gotta stay here. Damn, Vin. We came all this way. You owe us to stay, cowboy."

Vin looked right through me and didn't answer. He was lost to me after that, his mind wandering away from me as the fever took hold of it.

In the middle of the night I went over to the window and looked out. It was pitch black outside, no stars, no moon, just darkness. Almost like we here inside this house were the only ones left in the whole wide world.

Vin didn't look so good. I almost winced as I touched his shoulder, it felt like he was burning up. And there was nothing we could do now but wait. He'd have to fight this one for himself, like he had all along anyway. Laying my hand on his arm I gave it a gentle squeeze to show him I was still there. I hoped he could draw some strength from knowing that he wasn't alone.

All through that long night I sat by his side and thought about things. I thought about my life up until that point. I thought about friendship. I thought about death. By the early hours of the morning I had pondered so many things that there was barely a thought left in my head, it felt quite empty. There were only a few words there, running constantly through my mind like a prayer.

Don't you die on me, Vin. Don't you die. Don't.

~~ JD ~~

Chris had sent me and Buck out with rifles to guard against anyone who might be after Vin even though we all doubted that anyone was still out there. I think Nathan made him shoo us out because he didn't want a crowd in there when he had to cut Vin's leg open. So I stood guard just outside the cabin and shivered a bit. It was real cold but I was glad not to have to see what was going on inside.

Never heard so much as a whimper from in there. I didn't think I could have kept quiet if they were carving up my leg. What if the wound was so bad that they had to cut off his leg? What would Vin do if he lost a leg? What did one do? What would I do if it happened to me? The more I though about it the happier I was about not having to be in there.

Time moved so slowly that I wasn't sure that it had moved at all. It was too dark and cold to think about much except how dark and cold it was. I was tired. Could eat something too. And drink. My toes were getting cold, they could use some hot coffee right about now. Or maybe something stronger. I walked a stretch along the side of the house while Buck did the same thing on the other side of the house. It was dark. I was cold, I was tired, I was hungry. I sighed and then I turned and walked back.

"Hallo there," came a voice out of the dark and the next thing I knew a man was stepping up real close to me. I took a step back and kept the rifle ready. I didn't think he meant us any harm, if he'd wanted to he could have killed me already. I wouldn't have seen anything before it was too late. Still, I wasn't quite as stupid as Buck sometimes treated me.

Looked like a trapper of some kind. With just the light from the windows it was hard to see how old he was but he looked to be about Buck's age or somewhat older.

"Hello," I said cautiously. He looked harmless but what did I know?

"You wouldn't be a friend of Vin Tanner by any chance?" he asked.

"You know Vin?" Buck asked from right behind my back and I nearly jumped a foot.

Jeez! I hadn't even heard him come up. Some guard I was.

"Ever since he was a youngster," the trapper said. "He's a good lad. He with you?"

"He's in there," Buck said and I jumped in and told Vin's friend, "He was hurt."

Buck gave me a look like he thought I had said too much but I had a feeling about that man and I could see that the trapper really was a friend of Vin's for he looked almost worried for a moment.

"Now that's a shame," he said. "Is it bad?"

I thought about what was happening inside and shivered and not from the cold this time.

"Pretty bad," I said and expected that Buck would jump in and shove an elbow in my side to shut me up but he seemed to have changed his mind about the stranger too and decided to trust him for he did nothing.

"Don't worry, boy," The trapper tried to reassure me. "Vin is strong."

"He's got a lot more in here," and he pointed to his chest, "-than people give him credit for. Look, I think I know someone that might be able to help him, I'll go right away."

"Right now?" I blurted out. "Isn't it too dark?"

Man could get killed walking around a snowy mountainside in the night. I would have waited for daylight but he just laughed like it was nothing.

"Don't you worry about me, boy. I lived here for a long time. I know this valley like my own pocket. I won't get lost."

"This your cabin?" Buck asked.

"Used to be but it's not of much use to me now. I much prefer the outdoors, always have, even at this time of year. You're welcome to the use of it for as long as you need."

"Much obliged," Buck said and nodded.

"If I were you I'd be out of here within the week, though." The trapper sounded very serious. "Tell Vin that when he's better. He knows how fickle the weather is in here. More snow is coming. Seven days. No more. Don't forget."

I wondered why we should be the ones to tell Vin that. Hadn't he just said that he was going to get help? Wasn't he coming back then? Didn't he want to see Vin? Besides, who could there be that would help us way out here?

"Thank you," Buck said before I got a chance to ask. "We'll remember that. I'm sorry but I didn't quite catch your name there."

The trapper had already turned and was about to walk away but he stopped just before he was about to be swallowed up by the dark and turned to smile at us.

"My apologies," he said. "It's been so long since I've been around people that I forgot my manners. My name is Jeb Tyler."

And he was gone in the dark before we could offer our names in return. Just then the door to the cabin opened and Nathan came out with a basin full of dark colored water.

"All done?" Buck asked and Nathan nodded.

"All done," he repeated. "Give me a minute to clean things up and you boys can come back in."

"Nathan, is he-" I hardly dared to say anything.

"His leg is still there if that's what you mean. Other than that we'll have to wait. He's still pretty sick."

"You did good, Nathan," Buck said and clapped him on the shoulder, making some of the blood and water slosh out on the ground at our feet.

"Thanks, now I have to get rid of this." Nathan disappeared with the basin somewhere behind the cabin. Pretty soon he came back and went inside and Buck and I waited out in the cold for a while longer. Just as we were about to go in I heard a sound. It was so faint that I couldn't quite hear what it was at first but it was something all right.

"What was that?" I stopped for a moment and listened to the night.

"What was what?" Buck said with his hand on the door handle.

"Could have sworn I heard something," I told Buck. "Sounded almost like ... like a woman crying out there."

We both stared into the night and listened but no sound like it was heard again. Maybe it had been a bird. Maybe I had just imagined it. This dark played tricks on a man's mind.

"Well, there's no one there now," Buck said and opened the door.

He gave me a gentle shove in the back that made me take the step over the threshold into the warm cabin and then he closed the door behind us and closed out the night at the same time.

~~ Vin ~~

I don't remember much about making it back to Sorrows, just bits and pieces. Didn't even know I was in Sorrows until I opened my eyes and recognized Jeb's cabin. I knew I had to be real sick since everyone was talking so quietly to me, almost like I was a spooked critter of some kind.

Nathan told me what he was about to do but I had a hard time remembering most of it. There were things going on all around me, people moving around, the fire being stoked, people talking, but it all got to be a part of the dream I was having. Everything felt jumbled up in my head and I didn't have the strength to sort it all out.

After a while I was moved to the table with a whiskey soaked rag in my mouth to bite down on when things got bad.

"Hold him steady now," I heard Nathan say as he started to cut away my clothes from the wound. Chris was standing by my head and firmly holding on to my shoulders and I could feel someone else holding on to my legs but I had no idea who that was.

I waited and steeled myself for what I knew was coming and then Nathan's knife cut into my leg. A bolt of pain shot through my whole body and made my senses swim. The pain was getting worse and worse until I could hardly breathe and I fought against the hands holding me down. "Easy, Vin. Easy," I heard Chris say but I was already falling into blackness and everything faded away for a while.

I came to some time later and cursed. Couldn't move, I was weaker than a newborn foal. Didn't feel so good. I was too hot and about to freeze to death at the same time and I shivered even as I was wet with sweat. But worse of all was the wailing that filled the air, it cut through my head like a red-hot poker.

Chris had drawn up a chair near Jeb's bed. He had a mug of steaming coffee in his hand and was looking out through the window into the darkness. Must have seen me move cause he suddenly turned his head to look at me.

"How are you feeling, Vin?" he asked.

"Make'em stop," I told him.

"Who?" he asked, frowning a bit and looking confused.

"The women - they're crying for the dead. Cain't you hear them?"

He shook his head. "Can't hear a thing, Vin."

How could he not hear them? They weren't just wailing with grief, they were saying something. I could almost make out the words. The longer I listened to them words the clearer they got.

"They want me to go," I whispered.

"Don't talk like that," he chided me. "You gotta stay here. Damn, Vin. We came all this way.... You owe us to stay, cowboy."

The wailing got louder. I could see that Chris was still talking but it got harder and harder to really pay attention to what he was saying. I couldn't move my limbs but it didn't matter much because I could hardly feel my body any longer, I was starting to float away from it all. Was this dying? Was this what Jeb had felt?

I looked around the room and it was packed with people, men and women I had never seen but it was as if they were made of air, you could see right through them. It was cold too, damn, why was it so cold? Something must be wrong with my head 'cause I swear I saw Ezra walk right through a woman without hardly noticing it.

Suddenly the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I smelled danger. I looked to where Chris was sitting by my bunk. Two boys and a small girl stood just behind his back but he didn't seem to notice. Their faces were so pale and their eyes so huge and dark. I could feel them reach out for my arms with their hands as cold as death as they tried to get a hold of me.

I knew what they wanted, they wanted me to join them here, to never leave... They were so lonely, had been for so long. I could feel that loneliness sweep over me like cold water and it was starting to drag me down. I couldn't let that happen and I fought them as best I could but I had no strength left. They were hurting me, their hands were clammy but it burned where they touched my skin.

Suddenly a bright light appeared by my side and a woman stepped out of nothing. There was someone behind her, I could see him faintly for a second and it looked like Jeb, only he was young again, but then it was like a door closing. The light was snuffed out and he was gone. The children looked at the woman and drew back a few steps before they just faded away like wisps of smoke.

She looked familiar to me somehow and she smiled at me with eyes that were full of love. There was a soft light surrounding her still but it didn't hurt my eyes as I looked at her. She reached out her hand and stroked my brow, just like she used to when I was little and I knew her then, as surely as if we had parted just yesterday.

"Ma..." I whispered and she smiled at me again. I thought she had come for me and I asked her out loud if that was so but she never spoke a word, she just kept stroking over my brow and hair and her touch brought calm and peace. My eyes fell shut but I could still feel her beside me with her love surrounding me like a warm and comfortable blanket.

Was this dying? I didn't know and I no longer cared, I was just so weary. The dark was calling me again but it was a different kind of darkness from the one the children had tried to drag me into. This one was warm and peaceful ... and ma was there.

I stopped fighting. The pain went away first and then the outside world - and then finally I was gone too.

~~ Buck ~~

The silence struck me first of all. Vin had been fidgety all night long, tossing and turning and muttering about seeing things none of us could see. It was downright eerie to listen to him sometimes. Nathan and Chris did what they could to make him comfortable but still he just seemed to get worse and worse for the longest time. He was calling out for his ma and talking to her like she was there among us. I was expecting to be out digging a grave come daylight, that was how bad he was.

JD and Josiah were both sleeping sitting upright on the floor near the warm stove with their backs to the wall. Chris was sitting still as a statue on one of the chairs by the bed and Nathan was sitting with his head in one hand as his elbow rested on the table by one of the windows. Couldn't tell if he was sleeping or not, but most likely just dozing. Ezra was standing by the books, taking out some of them, looking them over and then placing them back on the shelf again. Several times I watched him take out a book that was the wrong way up and put it back the right way. He never did read from any of them, he just looked at them.

Then Vin just stopped talking and moving around. We were all so tired that it took a little while for us to realize it. I had grabbed a chair and straddled it in a way that I could cross my arms over the back of the chair and rest my weary head on them. Now I looked up again and I could see Ezra turn slightly to look at the bed. He must have been struck by the same thought as I, that this was the end.

Vin lay there as silent and still as death. I couldn't see if he was breathing. I hardly dared to breathe myself. I heard Chris's tense voice break the silence as he sharply said, "Nathan!"

Nathan went over to the bed and checked on Vin for what seemed like forever before he turned towards Chris with a huge smile on his face.

"It's all right," he said. "It's all right, Chris. The fever's broken. He's just sleeping now."

"He's gonna live?"

"Yeah, I think so."

It took almost another day before Vin was awake enough to tell us himself that he really was on the mend. After that he got better real fast. He hardly did anything but eat and sleep for a few days but in between he was awake for longer and longer times. One of those times JD decided to tell him about the old trapper that had come up to the cabin. I had clean forgotten to tell anyone about it until then, don't know why.

"Hey, Vin," JD said. "We met an old friend of yours, he came to the cabin."

"When was this?" Vin asked. He was propped up against what seemed a mountain of blankets, most of them donated by Ezra. Vin still looked like death warmed over but getting healthier by the minute.

"When you were the sickest," JD answered.

"Who was it?"

"Jeb Tyler," I said.

"Weren't," Vin answered back.

"Yes it was," I told him and looked at JD who nodded back at me.

"Weren't," Vin said again. He was nothing if not stubborn that one.

"He said it was Jeb Tyler, I heard him clear as day," I told him, close to getting angry now. Doubt my word, did he?

"Jeb Tyler's dead," Vin near whispered. "Buried him myself."

"You're joshin'" I said.

"Buck," Nathan said. "We came across a grave a few days ago with a hat that said Jeb Tyler. I'd clean forgot about it until you said that name...."

"But I just talked to him," I protested.

Suddenly I heard a strange sound. It took a few seconds for me to understand that it came from Vin. He was laughing. We all turned to look at him.

"What's so funny, cowboy?" Chris asked.

"That old man," Vin said. "He's still not sure I can find my way out again on my own."

Talking, or maybe laughing, must have tired him out because his eyes closed again and he fell fast asleep right away.

My mind was still wrangling with what I'd heard earlier. Jeb Tyler was dead? But that must mean that it hadn't really been Jeb Tyler at all or that I had spoken to a- a-

A flash of silver danced in front of my eyes. A hand was holding up a flask and shaking it slightly, just inches away from my face.

"Care to imbibe, Mr Wilmington?" Ezra must have read my mind. I could sure use a drink right then.

"Thanks Ezra," I said and took a large swallow. It felt good going down. "Sometimes you ain't half bad to have around."

Ezra didn't look too pleased at hearing that.

"Why thanks," he said dryly. "I've been waiting all day to hear a compliment like that. It's nice that someone finally appreciates me fully, even if it is someone of your disreputable standing."

You gotta hand it to Ezra. No one can trade insults with you in a better manner, all polite-like. I glared at him a bit and then I grinned and he glared back at me before he grinned too.

Things were finally moving in the right direction. Now we just needed to get back to town and then everything would be all right once again.

~~ Vin ~~

I woke up slowly and found Nathan sitting by my bedside. There was no denying it - I was still alive. And I was feeling better too but still awful weak. Took a few tries to get my voice loud enough for him to hear me.

"My leg?" I finally croaked out.

"Still there, believe it or not." Nathan smiled. "Might regret that later."

Huh, not likely! "No, not ever," I said and fell asleep again.

Sleep and eat was all I did for a few more days and then I was almost back to feeling like my old self again. Well ... enough to start irritating Nathan at least.

"I swear, Vin," he said at one time after catching me balancing on my good leg as I tried to hop across the cabin to get me something to drink. "Next time you do that I'm cutting off your left leg."

"Was my right leg that was hurt," I reminded him. He just looked at me and said, "So? If that's what it takes to get you to stay put...." I went back to bed.

I think Nathan would have like to keep me there for a few more weeks but we didn't have the time to stay. Jeb had told us we had a week and one morning when JD looked out the window he spotted a wolf outlined against the sky, looking up at the house. When he saw us watching him he turned and ran. I knew then that it was time to leave.

They had fashioned a litter for me out of blankets and saplings and I had no choice but to make use of it. I told them to just tie me to the saddle but I knew even as I said it that there was no way Nathan would agree to that. He didn't.

"Don't want to have to take off that leg when we've all gone to such lengths to keep it. So you rest now. In that litter. Hear?"

"Yeah, yeah. I hear," I told him.

Peso neighed in greeting as soon as I stepped out the door. I swear that horse was grinning when he saw me and he would have come running up to me too if Chris hadn't been holding on to the reins. Worse than a dog sometimes that horse. He was a bit surprised at first to find that I was travelling in a litter behind him instead of in the saddle but he soon got used to it and we made better time down to the grassland that I would have thought possible. Just one more day and we would be out of Ghost Country.

We made camp on the plains and spent the night there. I don't remember dreaming, I don't think I did. I don't know if any of the others did but no one said anything about it later.

Bright and early next morning we set off again. Again it turned into a smoother ride than I had thought it might be. It was like the valley had flattened itself out to make the way easier for us, it sure seemed to want us out of there.

Even so, when we reached the mountainside and got in among the trees we nearly got lost. Took some time to find the right trail leading up but when we did I knew we couldn't be more than a few miles from the opening.

Half a mile further up the trail everyone suddenly came to a stop. I was in the middle with Nathan right behind me and with, JD, Buck and Chris up ahead.

"What is it?" I tried to turn around and see what was going on but only got a view of Peso's behind. Damn, I felt useless laid up like this.

"Buck, JD," Chris ordered. "Find out what that is."

"Right, Chris," Buck called from further up and I heard them dismount and walk away a bit.

"What's going on?" I asked again and pretended not to hear Nathan's mutterings as I got up from the litter and walked around Peso. Felt good to be standing on my own two feet even when the wound protested a bit.

Chris told me that he had spotted a gathering of birds in a treetop nearby that seemed to be watching something on the ground a stone's throw away from the trail. We waited. Didn't take long for Buck to come back with JD trailing behind.

"Found a dead one," Buck said as he got closer.

He swallowed hard and looked pale. JD walked towards us then seemed to change his mind and stepped off the trail. Leaning against a nearby tree he was violently sick. Whatever it was they'd seen it must have been bad.

"Young feller," Buck said. "No older than JD." That told me why he was so shaken. "Looks like he was mauled by something, a whole pack of somethings. Never seen the like. Wasn't eaten, just killed. Ripped apart. His face was untouched ... there was a look on it-"

Buck broke off suddenly and rubbed his hands over his face as if he could wipe away the memory of what he'd seen. JD came back around to where I could see him clearly, he was looking whiter than a sheet. Buck promptly put a blanket around his shoulders and led him away.

Buck had told me enough. No need for me to traipse up there and see for myself, I had known who it must be even before Buck had said anything.

Elijah Gray, I thought to myself. That made three for three.

I remembered what I'd said to him; I'm jus gonna let you lie where you fall. The wolves can get you ... if they'll have the likes of you.

He'd been a bad seed, but he'd seemed to me to be the least bad out of a bad lot. I felt near sorry for him. He had come so close to making it out. It was almost like I'd sealed his fate with my words. Maybe I had.

I just hoped Jeb could be at peace now that his killers were all dead. I also hoped that their ghosts wouldn't follow us out of this valley.

It worried me much that we had found him out in the open like that.

"We should bury him," Nathan spoke softly.

"No," I said. I saw Nathan about to protest and quickly added, "We need to leave now."

"Shouldn't we at least-" Nathan tried but I broke him off.

"It's a warning. Wouldn't have found him otherwise. Believe me, we need to go while we still can. Something's about to happen." I could feel it, like an itch all over my skin.

Nathan still looked doubtful. I had thought Josiah would take his side, him a preacher and all, but he surprised me.

"Nathan," he said. "I think he's right."

"Do you see anything? More crows?"

"More than I've ever seen before. Lord, there must be thousands of them...."

We all looked around but no one else could see them this time. It was enough that Josiah said he did. I hobbled back to the litter.

"No time to waste then," Chris said. "I for one don't wanna get stuck here for the rest of my life. Lets go." Chris seemed to feel it too, just like Josiah and me, and he was itchin' to get out of here. He started to lead us all up the trail that would get us out of the valley.

It was hard riding and to tell the truth it wore me out a bit, even though I just lay there taking it easy. Before we reached the highest points we had to stop and dismantle the litter since I didn't think it would make it safely on the narrow trail down. It irked me terribly that I needed help getting in the saddle but I managed to hold back my temper to the point where I at least didn't shoot anyone. Nathan wasn't too happy about me riding but there wasn't much he could do, it was the only way we could all make it out of there.

And it turned out to be a near thing too. We had barely gone more than ten miles away from Ghost Country when we heard what sounded like a loud rattling or grinding sound behind us, it was louder than the worst thunderstorm. I've never heard the like before and I hope I never do again.

We stopped and turned towards the mountain range. I could hear Buck softly swear beside me. Didn't need to use my spyglass to see what had happened. Parts of the mountain had fallen. It looked like a river of stone running down the mountainside and spreading out for a mile or more on the flatter lands below. The ridge looked dented now and the only way in or out had been closed off for good. All those sharp rocks made it hard for even a single man on foot to make it up safely. I didn't think many would try it. Only the crazy ones and I didn't think they would make it back out again.

We were lucky not to have been caught in that slide but then I think that luck had very little to do with it. Someone had let us go. Now we had to honor his wishes and never come back. Truth was I didn't think I would need to. Ghost Country was within me now and would stay there until the day I died.

Come twilight we had long since made camp near a fresh stream and had eaten too. We could all sleep easy tonight under the stars. At least I could, no one was making me stand guard. But somehow I knew we were out of danger now.

The question was what we should do next. Nathan told all of us that there was no way I could ride all the way to Four Corners just yet. I was sorely tempted to sneak out in the night and ride without a break for four days just to prove him wrong but I didn't want to make Peso ride his heart out for me.

"There's a town south of here called Trouble," I told them. "Could rest up there."

Josiah started laughing and the rest of us looked at him, wanting to be let in on the joke.

"What you laughing at, preacher-man?" Buck finally asked flat out.

Josiah reined in his laughter but he was still smiling when he answered, "Oh, just thinking that no matter where we all go we always end up in trouble."

Didn't seem all that funny to me but then Josiah had a strange sense of humor.

"Besides ... see that?" he pointed up at the white thin sliver of the moon. "That's the new moon and we're all still here. So I say I've got cause to laugh."

"Hey, I ain't about to stop you," Buck said. "You wanna laugh at nothing like a crazy person you just go right ahead."

Luckily Josiah took that the right way. "I'd rather have a drink instead. Got any of that whiskey left, Nathan?"

"You'll have to wait until I've had a look at Vin's wound, might need it."

Damn. There was no escaping Nathan's attention now. I told him I was fine a number of times but he just wouldn't listen to anything I said. He took a long look at my wound and hmmed a few times before he bandaged me up again. Then he pestered me until I had to go and lie down just so he would shut up for more than a minute and leave me alone.

"Now get some rest," Nathan cautioned and locked eyes with me.

"Don't you ever get tired of sayin' that?" I couldn't help but mutter but I didn't feel like fighting Nathan tonight. I really was kinda weary and my leg throbbed and ached something fierce.

"Nope," Nathan said. "- and I'll clobber you on the head if I have to, jus' to make sure you don't get into more trouble." I think he would, too. He pushed me down on the soft bedding and resolutely pulled the blanket up to my chin.

The soft crunch of Chris light step on the ground warned me of his approach no more'n a split second before his voice floated towards us in the darkness.

"Don't worry, Nathan, I'll make sure he stays put."

I've been told some times that I move as soft as one of them big cats but Chris ain't far off. With them black clothes it's real hard to spot him coming in the darkness. I was glad he was on our side.

"I never asked'd y'all find me?" I asked when Nathan had left. Chris shook his head slightly and said, "It's a real long story, Vin."

He sounded real tired when he said it and I was weary too so I told him, "It'll keep then."

"Didn't think we'd find you alive," Chris went on after a while. "We almost didn't."

He said it so quiet-like, almost as if it was of no importance. But there was something in his voice that told me to take a closer look. When I did I could see a darkness in his eyes that told me that it still bothered him some. We had just come down from cold country and Chris looked like he had a layer of ice around him. Maybe Ghost Country had set him to remembering things he thought he had forgotten. Old wounds, older losses, things you didn't want to remember but that you couldn't quite forget. But you had to try.

And this time nothing had really changed. We were all still alive. Maybe he just needed to be reminded of that. I hoped that was it.

"Won't get rid of me so easy, cowboy," I said for lack of other things to say and then I yawned as I settled down under the blanket and Chris gave me a half-amused, half-irritated look.

Just before I fell into sleep I heard Chris do something strange. It seemed to me that he walked some ways away from me into the darkness and quietly said, "I don't know who you are, but I thank you."

Who was he talking to? I raised my head and called out, "Hey, Chris." And he was back by my side almost immediately so he couldn't have been far away.

"Yeah?" he said and I asked him "Who you talkin' to?" since I couldn't see anyone but us out here.

"No one, cowboy," he said and settled down on his blanket. He leaned back against his saddle and for a short second I could see his eyes clearly in the light from the match he used to light his cheroot and he looked thoughtful but calm so I knew there was no danger nearby.

"Go to sleep, Vin," he said and I reckon I must have been more tired than I had known up until then 'cause I fell asleep almost before he finished saying that.

~~ Josiah ~~

Nathan, Chris and I stayed in Trouble with Vin for more than a week while he rested up. The rest of the boys decided to go back to Four Corners after a days rest. They promised us they would wire Chris if something was up in Four Corners but they never did. Everything was quiet and stayed that way, thankfully.

When we finally rode back into town Vin was still looking pale and a bit thin but at least he could stay on his horse without much trouble. He limped quite badly at first and Nathan cautioned him that the limp might be permanent, especially if he didn't rest that leg. Vin just nodded and went about his business the same way he always had. No one said anything about it, we all knew it had been a near thing. Too near.

Some time afterwards Vin came to me and asked me to help him purchase a piece of land. I asked him why he didn't ask Ezra since that would perhaps have been the wisest choice. He asked me if I would do that if I were in his shoes and seeing the amount of money set aside for the purchase, I agreed. Lead not your brother into temptation.

So I helped him purchase the land and set up the money so it could be used to preserve the valley and the land surrounding it. Vin wouldn't take any money for himself. I felt he had earned at least some of it but he kept insisting that it wasn't his money. So I set things in motion with help of a man I knew could be trusted back east. When word came back that the purchase of Ghost Country was set in motion I went and asked Vin what his plans for the future of that valley was.

"I'm gonna forget all about it and just let it be," Vin told me. I wondered if he could really let go of Ghost Country that easily and if it in turn would let go of him. I hoped so.

One day, some weeks after we had come back, I had just finished putting the first coat of paint on the inner walls of the church and it was looking better than I had imagined. Now I could stop for a while in good conscience. I had been joined for the last few days by a young cat who followed my every move with great interest when I worked. Every morning he turned up to watch me and every evening he left me again and I have no idea where he went in between. He liked to lie down on the steps leading up to the church and bask in the sun for most of the day and he lay there now with eyes closed and golden stripes of fur almost glowing in the sunlight. It looked so comfortable I thought I would follow his example and sat down on the steps to rest my back. I turned my face to the sun and closed my eyes for a moment.

While in Trouble Vin had told Chris and Nathan and me most of what had befallen him since he had left us and gone to Ghost Country. I got the feeling several times that he didn't quite tell us all there was, but it was enough to understand that it had been quite a harrowing and strange experience. In return we had told him about our own mystical experiences in town. Now I sat there thinking and wondered what to make of it all.

There was no doubt in my mind that we had been visited by at least two strong powers that had involved themselves in our lives for whatever reason. We had been pawns in some game and I didn't think we would ever find out what for. What had been the stakes? What had been gained? I knew far too well what had almost been lost.

Vin had been in the center of most of it, did he know why he had been chosen? If he did he wasn't telling anyone and I wasn't about to ask him. I think he was afraid that we would think him crazy if he told us all that he had seen and heard.

It almost seemed unreal what had happened to us. Sitting there in the sunshine I could still feel the intense cold that had surrounded Sorrows, it was as if I had carried a piece of that valley back with me, a piece I didn't want. I think people who have survived a great storm feel the way I did, the lingering awe and terror over finding out that there existed forces so incredibly more powerful than oneself. It takes a while to get over, even when the storm had long since passed.

I looked over toward the barely visible mound where the crow was buried. I wondered about that crow... had it come from Ghost Country? Did all of them come from there? Who sent them? Some days I wasn't sure I wanted to know that answer. To me it felt like that crow had started it all. I had dug a small pit right near the church and said a few words of peace over the remains, that was as close to a proper grave as I could get it.

I looked more closely. Something didn't look right about it. I got to my feet and went over there and stared. There was a fresh paw print from a large wolf in the dirt right near the center of the grave. One print, that was all, no more to be seen anywhere near it.

Had it been there yesterday? I didn't think so, but I couldn't be sure. It couldn't have been there the day before that. A great deal of rain had fallen the day before yesterday and that would have erased all traces of it.

I looked up and down the street to see if any of the others were around but they were all off in other parts of the town. Suddenly I felt something stroke against my leg and looked down. It was the cat who was now looking up at me while meowing inquiringly.

"I don't know, cat, I don't know," I told it and I stood there for a moment, hesitating over what to do about it. I wondered if it had been put there as a warning or a greeting or maybe a bit of both. I looked at it a while longer. Finally I made a decision.

I bent down and brushed it away. I didn't stop until the earth looked smooth and untouched once more.

Then I forgot all about it, or at least I tried to.

And life went on.

~~ Vin ~~

Some weeks after we made it back to Four Corners I had one more dream of the hangin' tree, only this time it was different. In earlier dreams it had been barren and dead but now it was in full bloom and jus' swaying peacefully in the wind. I discussed with Josiah the meaning of this and he said he didn't know what it meant but when I pressured him he said that he thought it was a sign of some kind. Either that old Jeb was at peace or simply that I should stay where I was and 'not be in such a danged hurry to get yourself strung up', as he put it.

Sounded fine by me, I wasn't about to leave anytime soon. I no longer limped around but the still leg ached some, reminding me of how close I came to losing it. Didn't want to risk that again.

Another thing that stopped me was that I had a home now. Down in the shaft when Ezra said they'd come to bring me back home I had felt it in my gut. This was home. I don't know why I doubted that before but I can guess what Chris would say, he feels I'm jus' too stubborn by half, but then he's got that same flaw hisself.

Chris Larabee .... Ain't just any man that will travel for a week just to go bury someone, that takes a friend. Was a good day the day we met, the day we all met.

I thought back to what Wolf had told me, the six who are like you. And I could see now how he had been right.

Josiah knows an awful lot and he told me a story from back in the old world, of women who took care of the threads of life, cutting some short, spinning others long and thin for a long life. We were like those threads, single strands that overlapped each other, all part of the same weave. That's what Wolf was saying, what I didn't understand then. But I do now.

The first time I had gone into Ghost County I'd been a boy and come out a man. This time I had gone in as a solitary man - but I had left with friends. I had gone looking for Ghost Country and it had found me, with all its strangeness, and it had reminded me of things I already knew but that I'd forgotten. Important things. I swore that this time I wouldn't forget.

Coyote said I'd have to choose between town life and the wild. He was wrong. There are more choices in life than that for a man. I could turn my back on this town in a heartbeat, but I can't just turn my back on the people I've met here. And I know something now. Where you live your life isn't as important as how you live it. That is something I don't think I could ever explain to Coyote.

Sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I think I see him again. The shadows move, just a little bit, and Coyote is there. I never quite see him clearly and when I turn towards the shadows there's nothing to be seen. But I know he's been there - watching me.

Then I think it's all about to start over again. I know he wasn't happy with the answer I gave him and I also know that time is on his side. He can afford to wait me out, to lure me in once again. So I wait for the dreams to come but they never do and the next day when I wake I feel quite sure that our ways have parted forever. Until the next time I feel his eyes, then I know it's not over yet. He who lives long enough will find out, I guess, and Coyote is sure to outlive me. Maybe he'll lose interest in me one day, you never know.

Thinking back on my life I know that the wild has made me into the man I am today. It taught me all I needed to know to survive. I learned from it how to be independent, how to fend for myself and how to trust my judgment. It gave me skills that have saved my life more than once. But there's one thing you can't learn from the wild - that's how to be a friend. And maybe that's the most important lesson of all.

That's why I'm still here and that's why I'm gonna stay. All my life people have told me 'You were born to hang, Vin Tanner'. I've come close a few times but I've proven them wrong so far. I'll prove Coyote wrong. If it's the last thing I do.

~~ Chris ~~

It felt good to be back again. The town had been quiet while we were gone and I hoped it would keep that way. Some weeks after we had returned I sat myself down on a chair on the boardwalk to watch the town for a bit. It had rained two days before and the clouds promised that there was more to come but the air was balmy and pleasant.

On the other side of the street I could see Vin step out of the saloon with Ezra in tow. Ezra laid a hand on Vin's arm and waved a piece of paper in front of Vin's face. I was too far away to hear what they were talking about but Vin stopped just as he had stepped off the boardwalk and turned towards Ezra.

I was caught by the scene played out before my eyes. I'd seen a play once but this was much better than that and I couldn't even hear a word they were saying.

Ezra was talking and Vin listened in silence for a while and his eyes followed Ezra's finger as it trailed across the sheet and pointed out something. Ezra stopped talking and handed Vin the paper, looking at him expectantly. Vin slowly took the paper and looked at it, then he folded it carefully a few times before he started to tear it up into small pieces. When he had a good handful of paper bits he held it over Ezra's head and let them slowly rain down. Ezra didn't even bat an eye, he just brushed them away and then reached into his coat and pulled out a second paper that he thrust at Vin before he turned to walk back into the saloon. Vin's shoulders slumped for a moment as if he was beaten and then he shook his head and called after Ezra to wait. When Ezra had turned around Vin folded the paper again into a small square and put it on the ground, took a few steps back and then shot it into oblivion.

I sat up straighter in my chair. Everyone on the street froze for a second and I thought Ezra's eyes would pop out of his head but Vin just stood there, calm as all that and then he continued walking towards me as if nothing at all had happened. I could see some of the town's folk shake their heads and mutter things to each other but soon they went about their business again. Just another day in Four Corners.

Vin couldn't see it since his back was towards the saloon but I could clearly see Ezra give me a wide grin before he went back. So he was pulling Vin's leg ... I decided to keep that bit of knowledge to myself for the time being.

Vin sat down on the empty chair beside me. When he was settled comfortably he turned his head and nodded towards me before he went back to his customary pose of watching the street.

"What was that all about?" I asked him.

"Ez told me I should replace the money he might have made if he'd stayed and played poker instead of going to Ghost Country to look for me."

Ezra would think that, and probably not in jest either. I don't think he ever truly expected to see any money but he'd pester Vin about it none the less. Ezra never wasted any opportunity to make more money, except by way of good honest work.

"At least he ain't after you to replace the gold that Crazy Miner might have left up there."

Seemed Ezra had heard a song called The Legend of Crazy Miner on the way back here and he had been somewhat upset that we hadn't told him about it earlier. I don't know if he seriously thought that he could have explored Ghost Country to find that hidden gold during those days when Vin was laid up. I guess he just couldn't keep from sighing about "Wasting such a golden opportunity", as he put it.

Now Vin gave me a long look, "What you think the other paper was for?" he said.

I had to bite my lip to keep from grinning. Vin had told me what he'd seen in that mountain but we decided to keep it just between the two of us so Ezra had no idea that he had probably been closer than 50 feet to the gold ore at that time.

"You gonna pay him anything?" I was curious.

"Like hell," Vin said strongly.

I thought of the ten percent interest Ezra without much luck had tried to squeeze out of Vin for lending him them 300 dollars to purchase Nettie Wells' farm. He still talked about it sometimes. Vin still ignored him.

"Well, you got money now, cowboy. What you gonna do with it?"

Vin shook his head, denying my words.

"Ain't mine," he said. "Josiah's helped me set something up, a trust I think he called it, so Ghost Country can stay exactly as it is, free of prospectors and others."

"Think it will?"

"Cain't say. The entrance is gone, so maybe... Think they're gone too. Don't think man is meant to follow where they've gone now."

"You know, pard," I said to him. "Sometimes it's hard to believe we were there at all."

"I know what you mean," Vin said. Then he shifted in his chair and winced a bit. Leg must be hurting him. I silently cursed myself, I was a fool. Here I was telling him how it seemed like a dream to me yet he carried the scars to prove it had all been far too real. Thinking back on the time when I had dug up what I thought was Vin's grave I shivered a bit as if I could still feel the cold. I guessed I had some scars too, only on the inside.

I thought a while on the sweeping mountains and the sweet green grass up there that was forever out of reach now. All I had left was a faint memory that didn't do the beauty of Ghost Country justice at all.

Vin had that faraway look in his eyes now. I wondered what it was he was remembering. Probably nothing good.

Damn, Vin, I thought as I looked at him. You don't look cheerful at all. Aren't you glad to be back even a little bit?

"It'll fade," I told him and saw him snap back to the here and now.

"When?" he asked.

"In time. You know that, Vin."

"I guess," he said half-heartedly.

"Few years from now I'll have to remind you about it."

"You think we'll still stick together a few years from now?" Didn't sound like he thought that.

"Well-" I said slowly. "From all the trouble we went through to find you I figure you owe us at least five to ten years of your time."

Vin gave me a look from out of the corner of his eye.

"You mean I gotta spend the next ten years saving y'all from trouble?"

I nodded.

"Shoot, that's a thankless job if ever."

"Yup," I agreed.

"Can I at least get something for it? More free time? More pay?"


Vin was quiet for a while as if thinking it over. He voice sounded very dry when he answered.
"Well, you sure know how to honey-coat a deal, cowboy."

"It's a deal then?"

"I reckon," Vin said. I held out my hand, he grasped it and we shook on it.

I had a strange dream that night. I was in a place I didn't know. It was somewhere high up and I was standing beside a waterfall with a lake spread out below it. I wasn't alone, there was a coyote staring at me from across the lake. We looked at each other in silence for a while before he turned and disappeared among some brushes.

I woke up in a cold sweat. It was morning and the sun was up. The handle of my gun felt smooth and solid in my hand as I went looking for tracks outside. I never found any. Just a crazy dream, that was all. Just a crazy dream.

That morning I sat down to think on everything that had happened and what Vin had told me about Ghost County and the beings he had encountered in there. There was the one that had helped us and then there was the other one. The one that started it all. Coyote, Vin called him. The one who plays tricks on people. I had another name for him. Enemy.

I don't know if he'll ever find his way back here. I hope not. But if he comes ... I'll be ready.

~~ Epilogue ~~

Coyote ran fast over the rim and down towards the valley but stopped suddenly when he found Wolf blocking his way.

"So, old friend, old enemy," Wolf said in greeting. "What are you up to now?"

"Who said I'm up to anything?" Coyote grinned.

"You walked in the dreams of the one with the great sorrow in his heart, didn't you?"

"I did no harm. I merely ... looked around."

"You said to me that you would leave them alone."

"I said nothing of the kind. I just said I wouldn't bring any of them here again."

"Leave them be," Wolf said and let the whole weight of his gaze fall on Coyote. Coyote locked eyes with him for a while but he soon gave in and looked away.

"I don't know why they named you the reasonable one," Coyote grumbled. "Is it reasonable never to dare to have some perfectly harmless fun?"

A strand of moonlight wove itself into a circle of light right in front of Coyote. Coyote leapt through it and in a fraction of a heartbeat he was Elsewhere. As soon as he was through the circle faded as if it had never been. Wolf shook his head and continued on his way without another thought to the encounter.

The Mother was speaking, her voice was the wind sifting through the grass, the fall of rain and the rustle of leaves. The clouds gathered and pushed against the mountain ridge until the Mother let them go. Her gentle caress was in the slowly falling snow that covered the land like the softest of blankets.

Standing as far up as he could come on Whisper Ridge, in a part that was as yet untouched by snow, Wolf lifted his head and listened for a moment. When the Moon shone through a rift in the clouds Wolf let his voice call out his renewed joy and wonder to the land and his voice was heard and answered far beyond the rim of the valley.

In the darkest hour of the night Coyote slipped into the town of Four Corners. He sneaked around the house corners and back alleys until he found what he was searching for. There it was - the wagon where Vin Tanner lay sleeping. Coyote shifted through the shadows and when he was near enough he reached out and put his mark carefully on the side of it.

He looked at what he had created and was satisfied with what he saw, two pale and dusty paw prints that stood out clearly against the darker wood. The moonlight made them seem like they glowed. His work done Coyote grinned and turned away in the darkness. He was tempted to stay until morning and watch when the tracker woke to see how long it took him to spot the prints but another feeling was taking hold of Coyote. A longing that was in the very core of his being, a wish to run as fast and as far away as he could get.

It was time. Coyote stretched out his limbs and took a deep breath in anticipation. He let the joy of moving take over as soon as he was out of the town and was many miles away in no time. He stopped near the river where Vin Tanner had spent his first night out of town so many weeks ago. Spotting the Moon's reflection in the water he lifted his head and howled his greeting.

A faint echo of his cry wove itself into Vin Tanner's dreams and he shifted uneasily in his sleep but didn't wake. Soon he was still again, sinking deeper into dreams. In his dreams he heard Wolf and Coyote speaking but this time he couldn't understand what it was they were saying. It no longer mattered to him, he was done with it.

Underlying their voices he could hear the soft murmur of the earth singing an ancient song for all of her children to hear and it soon took over and made all other things fade into the background. As the quiet sound of her voice filled his heart with peace he finally knew that it didn't matter if he kept moving or if he stayed put for the rest of his life. As long as he listened to her she would be there and as long as he heard her he would be home.


Now this is the Law of the Jungle -
as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the
Wolf that shall break it must die.

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk
the Law runneth forward and back -
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,
and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

END of Coyote Callng

CONTINUED in Wolf Dreams