Wolf Dreams

by Mods

Part Three of the Coyote Chronicles

Thanks to my beta Judy.


~~ Coyote ~~

Coyote was basking in the morning sunlight that fell high up on the south side of the mountain, his favorite spot while he was thinking about what to do next. He turned his head into the wind and sniffed.

Out of the many different scents that always travelled on the air currents he picked out three for closer study. One was rank and unappealing, the smell of a male white stranger, but the other two were familiar. Very familiar, and though they were also white males they were not at all unwelcome.

A dead tree stretched out its grasping limbs above and the sound of fluttering wings told Coyote that Crow had just settled on a branch above him. He called on Crow to soar down and search out the unknown man to see what he was up to.

Looking through the bird's eyes he found the stranger stretched out on a large boulder some way below Coyote but still ways above the two riders climbing the trail one third up the mountain. Unnoticed Crow settled on the edge of a rock outcropping some feet above the man's head. Coyote watched with interest at what was about to happen. He was close enough that the stranger's mind lay completely open to him and Coyote could follow the thoughts in there as they milled around like ants in an anthill.

The man lowered his spyglass and thought about what he'd just seen. Two of them, there were two of them coming. He'd been expecting Chris Larabee but Vin Tanner too.... Must be his lucky day, but it sure wasn't theirs.

No need to think any longer on this, the two riders were way up on the mountain trail and probably wouldn't go much further if they wanted to get back to Four Corners in time for the shipment to arrive.

If he wanted to take them by surprise now was the time to do it. He waited until they had carefully turned on the narrow trail and had their backs to his hiding place. One of them was turning to look back up the trail as if he sensed that something was wrong but it was too late.

Four rapid shots rang out loud and clear in the morning air and when he studied the scene through his spyglass again he could see that his aim had been true. The horses had bolted and they were both down, although he could see that one of them was still moving about some.

Well, the time it took him to get down to their position and check it out would probably rectify that little problem. If not, then he had plenty of bullets left for his rifle and if that didn't do it he could also tumble the body down a cliff.

He got his horse out from hiding and he was whistling as he went down the trail to check out the bodies. Everything was going better than planned.

When Coyote saw the stranger get closer to the two wounded men he moved for the first time and stood up, instantly ready to spring down the mountain. With ease he skipped across the uneven ground until he was nearly level with the three men. He grinned with anticipation as he slid into the brush, his fangs showing. Time to play.

When the rifleman got closer to his victims he discovered with dismay that he obviously wasn't as good a shot as he'd thought he was. Both of them were still alive and only three of the bullets had met their intended targets. One had gone right through Vin Tanner's chest, but it looked like the other two had just gouged Chris Larabee. One of the bullets had made a long, deep gash along Larabee's ribs while the other one had grazed his skull near his right temple.

So close, the shooter thought, but not close enough. Wouldn't have to wait much longer. Time to finish it.

The man drew his gun and aimed it at Larabee's head but looked up again when he heard a rustling sound coming from the brush. He listened and watched a while but nothing came through. It was nothing, he told himself, just some bird or so. Then he heard it again, this time right behind his back. He turned quickly, but just like before there didn't seem to be anything there.

Except there was and it was growling. Couldn't quite tell what it was but it sure sounded big as it moved around, circling him. He still couldn't see it but it sounded real hungry now. The smell of blood must have drawn it here.

He started to edge away from the wounded men. Didn't need to waste no more bullets on men that would soon be a prime meal for whatever was out there. No sense in him getting eaten too. No sense at all. His work here was done. Now, if he could just get hold of their horses before they ran all the way back home to Four Corners and alerted the other five.

His luck held true. On the way down he found that Larabee's horse had gotten its reins all tangled up in some branches when it bolted and couldn't get free on its own. Tanner's mean-spirited horse had stayed with its companion and it gave him a good bite in the arm, near enough broke it clean off, when he tried to grab the reins. With luck more than skill he finally managed to rope it in and could proceed with the two horses to the hide-out where the others were waiting. He looked up at the sun as he rode. The morning was gone, it was noon. There was still some time until the full plan would be set in motion.

As soon as the rifleman was gone Coyote broke through the leaf cover and trotted closer. He looked down at where Chris Larabee lay like a carelessly thrown rag doll in the brush. Tasting the scent of blood on his tongue Coyote listened to the small sounds of life still coming from the man's body.

Not gone yet. Still clinging tenaciously to life. Now, this was most interesting.

Perhaps something could be made from this situation. Something fun. But it would have to wait a moment. He had the other one to consider first.

Vin Tanner looked dead, covered with dust and blood. His eyes were closed but when Coyote went near he could see that the chest was still rising slightly with shallow breaths. Soon gone. All that fire within - banked now, barely embers left. It made Coyote feel almost sad.

While he himself could not die that didn't mean that he was completely untouched by death. He wondered again where they all went when they died. Even more baffling ... sometimes, just now and then, they came back, too. Not looking on the outside as they had in their old lives but their souls were the same. It was the greatest of mysteries and no matter how he searched he couldn't find a way to see into that hidden place and find the answers to his many questions.

Coyote remembered his conversation with Vin Tanner back in Ghost Country, almost a year earlier. He had thought the man would die then and there but human resilience had surprised him, like always. Vin Tanner had longed for a death out under the heavens then but when he'd been denied that he'd quietly settled for a lesser death. This time it wouldn't be so.

Coyote looked over at Chris Larabee who was stirring a bit, moving his head slightly. Larabee was in a bad way but not at all ready to give up. Human resilience, what a wonderful thing. Maybe he should test it a bit, find out what Chris Larabee was really made of. The secrets of his mind and soul. But first he had to see to Vin Tanner. The rest would have to wait until Coyote returned.

Coyote opened his mouth and started to sing. The words couldn't be heard by human ears, they left no echo, they didn't even make a sound. They just stayed in the air, shimmering, changing the shape of the world around Coyote and his prey. The sand shifted and swirled and when it settled again the mountains were many miles behind them and they were deep in the desert.

"I will give you a gift," Coyote said as he looked down at the man who now lay silent and unmoving in the shadow of a giant saguaro. "I will give you the death you so desired."

He lay down in the shade by Vin Tanner's side and waited to see what would happen next.

Chapter One

~~ Desert ~~

Sounds came back to him first. It was the sounds of animals and insects moving all around him. Next he spotted shadows appearing and disappearing as they moved across his closed eyelids. It felt like it took a thousand years but he finally gathered enough strength to open his eyes a crack.

Blinking against the blinding sun Vin watched the dark shapes that were circling the sky high above him. He knew that shape. Buzzards were gathering. He followed their flight with his eyes as they twisted and turned, figuring that they were up there waiting for him to bite the dust.

The air shimmered with heat above the desert floor and the ground felt scorching against his back. Every breath of hot air hurt going down his lungs. He felt like he was burning up and he could hardly move a fraction before pain shot through his body. Vin knew he was in bad shape, maybe even bad enough to outright kill him. The only thing that seemed to be working properly in him was his stubbornness. Hadn't given up. Wasn't about to.

Vin wondered briefly how he'd come to be in the desert when his last memory was of riding up a mountain path, but he was plumb tired and couldn't keep his eyes from falling shut again.

He drifted for an indeterminate amount of time until a cool shadow fell on his face and this time it stayed. Vin forced his eyes open again and looked up, right into familiar green eyes. Someone had come for him, but it was the last one he'd expected to see.

"Ezra?" Vin said, his voice just a hoarse whisper slipping out through cracked lips.

"Certainly not," Ezra - not Ezra - said. "Take another guess. You know me, Mr Tanner. We are old friends."

"What?" Vin croaked. His mind didn't seem to be working properly at the moment. He felt stupid and slow and couldn't follow what Ezra was saying. Vin wondered if he was just seeing a mirage, it happened quite often in the desert to over-heated minds. But it was awful talkative for some mirage.

With an impatient sniff Ezra looked away from him and his whole body seemed to waver for a moment, then it changed back into its true form and there was nothing human left to be seen.

"Coyote," Vin said. Things were finally starting to make more sense.

Coyote looked at Vin with curious eyes and tongue hanging out of his mouth. He grinned.

"Should have known," Vin whispered and closed his eyes again. He wished that Coyote would go away if he just paid him no mind but it didn't seem to work. Instead he felt a hand impatiently shaking his shoulder, it didn't stop until he opened his eyes properly. He gave Coyote an irritated glance. Coyote was back to play at being Ezra again and taking great delight in concentrating on brushing off specks of dust from the sleeve of his immaculate green coat as he spoke.

"Wake up, Mr Tanner. I want to talk to you."

"What about?" Vin said tiredly.

"You made me welcome at your fire last time around. It's only fair that I return the favor. This is my home and you are most welcome to it."

"I thought Ghost Country was your home."

"I'm at home in most places," Coyote said smoothly.

"What do you want, Coyote?" Vin said, determined to get to the point.

"No need for this hostility," Coyote rebuked him. "I don't want anything really. Just to spend some time with you."

"What for?"

"I thought you'd appreciate the presence of a friend in your final moments. There are still so many things I don't understand about death. I was hoping you could tell me what you're experiencing."

"Ain't gonna die," Vin wheezed out through the ever growing pain in his chest. "Did you do this?"

"I can assure you that I had nothing to do with you being shot. I merely brought you here."


"Because you wanted it." Coyote made it sound as if it was obvious.

"Like hell!" Vin denied heatedly.

"Don't you recall the last time we met? It was most certainly on your mind then."

Vin opened his mouth to say it was all a lie when he was caught by a vague memory. It was so long ago and he'd been so sick that he'd almost managed to convince himself since then that what'd happened in that mine shaft had just been a fever dream. But now....

"I can see you remember it. You wanted to die out in the open, in the wild. Well, now you can. There's no one around for miles."

"Ain't gonna die just so you can watch it!" Vin replied angrily.

Coyote looked disappointed. "You're not very grateful," he said and frowned. "Maybe I should leave you to think it over while I return to Mr Larabee's side. He's been left on his own long enough. Hopefully he'll be more forthcoming than you've been."

Chris! Vin was struck by the sudden memory of how he'd been scouting out the territory together with Chris when they'd been ambushed. He thought he remembered seeing Chris fall out of the corner of his eye. Vin had no idea what had happened after that but if Coyote was involved it couldn't be good. He'd almost died the last time Coyote had interfered in his life and he didn't want the same thing to happen to Chris Larabee.

"You stay away from him," Vin warned Coyote as feelings of unease clawed at his gut.

"I'm just curious about some things. I won't harm him."

"You stay away from Chris Larabee!" Vin said with as much force as he could muster. "You stay away or I'll hunt you down, take your pelt, make a coat out of it and wear it. That's a promise. You hear?"

It was an empty threat and they both knew it. Vin found that it was almost beyond him now to raise his head even an inch away from the ground. Dying? Yeah, he probably was. Still, he meant everything he'd said and the impact of his words on Coyote was spectacular.

Something flashed by in Coyote's eyes. It was just there for an instant but Vin had seen it in Ezra's eyes enough times to recognize that look that spoke of being wounded and misunderstood. Then Coyote breathed out in sudden rage and power swept over Vin like a firestorm, he could find no shelter, could do nothing but endure it. When the fury finally ebbed it left terrible pain behind.

Vin fought to draw breath and tried to speak but found he couldn't. Coyote looked down on him with cold eyes. He was wearing Ezra's best poker face now, the one that carefully hid all feeling.

"Do what you want," Coyote said, almost impatiently. "You are on your own from here on. I'm tired of this game."

Like a howl on the wind he was gone and Vin's world went gray for a while. He came to again some time later and lay there listening to the silence and wondering if Coyote was coming back. Didn't look like it.

He was alone. From what Coyote had said there was no use in waiting for anyone to come rescue him, it just wasn't going to happen. So he could either lay down and die or try and rescue himself.

Vin looked up at the sun. It was lower in the sky now and nightfall was only hours away. Time to get going.

Struggling against pain and weakness he managed to turn on his side, it was the only way he could try and get on his knees. It seemed to take forever, and it took a whole lot of cursing to get him through it, but he finally managed it. Getting from his knees to his feet proved more of a challenge. For a second on the way up he even blacked out, falling forward onto his knees again and only catching himself at the last moment with his hands in the sand before he ended up flat on his face.

Dammit! He stayed with his head bowed and his hands grabbing at the sand. His arms were trembling and it felt as if someone was hacking at his shoulder with an axe. Vin knew that he couldn't last long. The wound was quickly draining what little strength he had left. Singleminded determination was all that was holding him up right now and he let it carry him further until he rose unsteadily from the ground and looked around.

Middle of nowhere. Wasn't the first time he had been there in his life. At least there were some landmarks. Shadowy mountains where the sun was going down, had to be water somewhere near there. Vin shook his head and tried to figure out in what direction Four Corners could be found. He turned slowly around in a circle but his thoughts were few and far apart and it was as if nothing could make real sense to him.

He needed water, he knew that much. Vin thought about getting rid of his hide coat but decided against it. The desert could get mighty cold at night, he'd need it then. He was beset by a powerful thirst but tried not to think too much about it, knowing it would only get worse that way. Instead he thought about Chris. Had to find him. It was all that mattered now.

He became slowly aware that he was holding something in his left hand that he must have picked up out of the sand. It was a smooth, white pebble, just the right size for him to put in his mouth to keep it from drying out completely. He sucked on the pebble. It seemed to him as if it tasted faintly of the sea and he almost chuckled at this notion, for how could that be?

The sea was miles away. Everything was miles away and he had to get going.

Walking was easy, Vin told himself as he started out towards the mountains. You just put one foot in front of the other and took a step forward. That was all. Just one step and when you had done that you did it all over again.

One more step. He could do it.

Just one more.

Chapter Two

~~ Twilight ~~

Buck pushed the brim of his hat away from his eyes and sighed. The kid was going to drive himself crazy, but before that happened he was going to make the rest of them crazy too, and first in line was Buck. Ever since the sun had started to sink towards the horizon JD had become fidgety and now he was pacing back and forth inside the Sheriff's office. Buck had watched and waited patiently with his legs stretched out and his feet resting on the desk, but now he couldn't take it one minute longer.

"JD, you're driving me nuts," he complained. "Why don't you stop pacing for a while and go do something."

JD halted his pacing for a second so he could give Buck an annoyed look.

"Like what?" he asked.

"You can go get something to eat," Buck suggested hopefully.

"Not hungry," JD said and continued his pacing again for a short while but then he suddenly stopped and went over to the window. He looked out at the shadows that were building strange shapes all along the street.

"They should've been back by now," JD said and then turned to look inquringly at Buck. "Shouldn't they?"

"Well, these things can take time, JD," Buck said, but he didn't sound very convincing. He had been thinking the same thing. Chris and Vin should have been back by now.

Unless they'd run into trouble.

"Tell you what," Buck said. "Why don't you go round up Ezra and Nathan and Josiah and ask them to meet quietly here."

"Okay," JD agreed and seemed relieved to finally have something to do other than wait.

He quickly left and Buck was left alone with his thoughts. He looked out the window at the darkening sky and then let his eyes travel over into the corner and the small safe there. That damn package! He'd known it would be trouble for them as soon as he'd heard about it and now it looked as if it was coming true. When Chris came back he'd take real pleasure in saying to him, "I told you so."

But in the meantime there were things he had to do. Steps had to be taken.

He made his way over to the boarding house and waited a while to make sure no one had followed him before he knocked on the door to room number Seven.

"Mr Dancer?" Buck said quietly.

A middle aged man with steel grey hair and a handlebar mustache immediately opened the door and threw some quick glances up and down the corridor to ensure their privacy before he stood aside so Buck could enter.

"There might be some trouble brewing," Buck continued as soon as the door was closed and locked behind him.

"Why? What's happened?"

"Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner left early this morning to look around some. They should have been back by now but they haven't returned. I don't like it."

"Neither do I," Dancer said and looked very thoughtful. "You know about the telegram I received this morning, I suppose."

"About the new route you're supposed to take tomorrow before meeting up with the army? Yeah, Chris told me before he left."

"It was very unfortunate that I was so delayed so much that I missed my previous contact and had to request a change of the route. The longer the journey, the more chance that someone might find the whole thing out."

"Looks like they just might have done that already."

"Indeed. What do you suggest?" Dancer's sharp blue eyes searched Buck's face.

"I'd like to bring the others in on this," Buck said but Dancer looked hesitant.

"I can vouch for all of them," Buck assured him.

"Even Standish?"

"Ezra won't be any trouble, I can tell you that," Buck replied and hoped it wasn't just wishful thinking on his part. "Judge Travis would too, if he was here."

"I'm not happy about this situation at all," Dancer said as he put aside his grey eastern style coat and put on a carefully selected western outfit that would blend in perfectly with the current style of frontier towns and wouldn't raise any eyebrows.

Buck played his trump card. "If something really has gone wrong then we're going to need them."

"Very well," Dancer conceded as he checked to see if his ivory handled Derringer was loaded before putting it in his coat pocket. "But I have to send a telegram to keep my superiors apprised of the situation."

"We can do that on the way," Buck said and they left Dancer's room.

The street was dark and mostly empty now and the Telegraph office was just about to close for the night when Buck and Dancer stepped inside. Buck waited patiently while Dancer carefully wrote down the coded message. The clerk checked it through twice before placing his hand on the key to start transmitting.

"That's strange," he said, after just a few strokes. "Wire must be down."

"What do you mean?" Dancer said sharply, immediately alarmed.

"There's no signature, no reply, not anything," the clerk replied as he tried again and again to raise someone on the other end without success. "Wire must be down somewhere near here. We're completely cut off from the outside until we can get it fixed."

"How soon can that be?" Buck broke in.

"Soon as I can get a proper look at the break. It has to be near town, otherwise I'd be able to reach at least someone. Of course, first I have to find it and that is a bit harder to do in the dark." He looked apologetically at Dancer. "Gonna be some hours at least, mister."

"Fine," Dancer said, clenching his jaw. "What's your name?"

"Pete Jackson."

"Do what you can then, Jackson."

They retreated back to the street while the clerk closed and locked the office and started to walk towards the Sheriff's Office.

"Coincidence?" Dancer asked. It was a completely rhetorical question.

"Not hardly," Buck said. "There hasn't been a storm today that I've noticed. Wire wouldn't be down unless it's been tampered with somehow. Must have been deliberately cut."

"I thought so also. This is most worrying."

"You can say that again," Buck said as he opened the door to the Sheriff's Office to find Ezra, Nathan, Josiah and JD all waiting inside. Ezra was the first to open his mouth as soon as the door was closed again.

"So, what's the reason for this nocturnal, and from what JD let us understand, clandestine meeting?"

"Clan-what?" JD protested. "I never said that." He would have continued but the look the others gave him quickly shut him up.

Dancer frowned slightly as he gave them all, and Ezra in particular, a searching look before speaking.

"I'm going to tell you something in strictest confidence, not a word of what I'm about to say must leave this office. If it does and I can trace it back to someone in here I can guarantee that you'll get at least ten to fifteen years in prison."

Ezra's green eyes flared rebelliously for a second before he wryly asked, "On what charge?"

"Anything from Interfering in a matter of importance to the State to Treason," Dancer said. "Whatever will get you put away."

"And you are?" Josiah asked.

"My name is John Dancer. I'm an agent working for the Treasury." He briefly showed them his credentials. "I've been entrusted with the task of transporting a certain item to San Francisco. Your job is to ensure that I get to my next meet up point with the item and hopefully also myself intact."

"Well, that's very interesting," Ezra commented. "Is there any special reason why you particularly need our help?"

Before Dancer could answer the faint sound of gunfire echoed back from beyond the town.

"What the hell?" Buck muttered and took a look out the window, seeing nothing amiss out there. "I'll go check it out," he told the others. "You stay with Dancer," he said as he quickly disappeared out the door to search out the disturbance. JD still followed him like a shadow on his heels. Almost immediately they were approached by a man on a horse returning from the edge of town. It was the telegraph clerk and he was nearly falling out the saddle as he reined in his mount.

"Sheriff, thank God!" Jackson said. "I was ambushed on my way out of town."

"Are you hurt?" Buck asked as he watched the man dismount with a grimace of pain on his face. As soon as he was on the ground he grabbed his left arm just above the elbow and there was a dark stain spreading under his hand.

"Just winged. It's no more than a scratch."

"JD, take him to Nathan and tell him to take a look at it."

"What are you going to do?" JD asked.

"I'm gonna go check out the main road," Buck said as he swung up in the saddle. "You don't mind me borrowing your horse, do you?"

He barely waited for Jackson to shake his head for no before he was off. Buck rode hunched low, careful not to make too big a target. He'd barely gotten more than a hundred feet outside town before a warning shot tore a strip of cloth out of his sleeve. Too damned close!

Buck turned the horse around and rode like the Devil was after him back to town. No one seemed to be about when he rode through but he searched the shadows carefully anyway. Coming out on the other side of town his horse was spooked for a second by something big and grey, a stray dog most likely, that ran across the road too fast for him to get more than a glimpse of it.

It saved his life. Just as his horse shied away a bullet went past him, near enough that he could feel the heat from it as it buzzed past his left ear.

He whipped the horse around and quickly made his way back to the Sheriff's office where Jackson was just coming out the door with his left arm in a sling. He looked weary and relieved at the same time.

"Did you get them?" he asked as soon as he spotted Buck.

Buck shook his head. "No. Look, you'd better stay in town while we get this thing sorted."

"I can still handle a gun," Jackson offered. "If you need help that is."

"I'll keep that in mind," Buck said and Jackson picked up the reins, nodded goodnight and disappeared with his horse towards the livery stable.

Everyone in the room looked up and silently stared at Buck as he walked in. The tension was thick enough to cut with a knife.

"Did you tell them?" Buck asked Dancer.

"I haven't told them anything. Jackson was in the room with us, so I couldn't. He told them about the wire so they know about that at least.What was the gunfire about?"

"There are men stationed on either side of the town, taking shots at anyone leaving by way of the main road. Lucky thing we've never had many travellers by night here. Didn't have time to check for other ways to leave town but I guess they've got them covered too. The moon is rising, giving them plenty of light to see by and the brush gives them cover. Whoever it is has us boxed in for the moment."

"So, we can't get the wire repaired," Dancer said and frowned.

"No," Buck replied. "And as long as we can't fix the wire, we can't send for outside help either."

"What are they after?" Josiah asked.

Dancer pursed his lips together. "I'm not at liberty to divulge-"

"You don't have to divulge anything, Mr Dancer," Ezra broke in. "I bet you ten dollars right now that I can name the item in question that has to be protected. If I'm right you don't even have to say yes or no. Just pay me."

For a second Dancer stared incredulously at Ezra, before he turned towards Buck.

"Does he mean it?" he asked. Buck shrugged non-committally. Dancer turned back towards Ezra. "What do you think it is?" he said.

"Printing plates."

Dancer's mouth fell open for a second before he caught himself and snapped it shut again. He slowly reached into his waistcoat pocket and pulled out a gold 10 dollar coin that he threw to Ezra. Snatching it out of the air Ezra looked at it with something akin to surprise in his eyes, obviously he hadn't expected to get his suspicions confirmed.

"Well," Dancer said with a hint of dry humor surfacing for the first time in his voice. "At least I can say that you didn't hear it from me. Care to explain how you knew this, Standish?"

Ezra was carefully studying the sparkle the coin made as it travelled through the air when he let it bounce from one hand to the other and Dancer was just about to repeat his question when Ezra looked up and said, "Money is my business."

"Aha," Dancer said. "Guess that makes two of us then. Perhaps you could tell me a little more than that."

"Simple case of deduction. A Treasury agent going to San Francisco. Where there's a Mint. With a highly important mystical package of some kind. Mints make money, hence the need for printing plates. Put it all together - Ergo."

Dancer looked a bit sheepish as he dryly commented, "Yes, sounds as if I've been perfectly transparent then."

"Not quite," Ezra admitted generously with a somewhat smug little grin. "Before you told us I had no idea who you were or what you were doing here. And I still don't know why you're transporting printing plates to San Francisco. My impression was that they only handled coins, not bills."

"Mostly they do," Dancer said. "The San Francisco Mint was founded with the primary function of turning the large amounts of gold bullion from the strikes into coins of which there was a distinct lack of in the same area. This was foremost to accommodate the miners who neither wanted or trusted other means of payment. But recently other interests in California have made it clear that they want a safer and less cumbersome way of paying than having to ship gold coins back and forth when trying to expand their businesses eastwards. Bank notes are more easily transported and at a lesser cost than the same amount in gold. A secret try-out period was agreed upon and I was contacted to pose as a simple businessman from the east and Judge Travis was contacted to smooth the way for me. Obviously I've failed in my endeavours. The whole thing is wide open and Tanner and Larabee are missing."

"Wait a minute," Nathan shot in. "Vin and Chris are missing? No one told us that. What do you know about it?"

"No more than you do at this moment," Dancer said and looked to Buck.

"They both went out this morning to scout out the road Dancer's supposed to be taking tomorrow. It's been too long and they haven't come back." Buck swallowed hard as his throat suddenly felt tight. "Doesn't mean that anything's happened. But with everything else ... well, one wonders."

The silence was heavy in the room as everyone thought over the full implications of what Buck had said. They were under siege and two of their friends were missing. It was a lot to take in all at once.

Dancer watched Ezra flip the coin around some more but looking as if he was miles away in his mind and his hands were acting completely independently.

"You know, you're lucky Wilmington thinks you're trustworthy. Otherwise I'd have shot you instead of paying you," Dancer told Ezra. "I have a Derringer hidden in my coat."

"How very interesting," Ezra said, not the least bit thrown. "So have I."

Their sparring was interrupted again, this time by a knock on the door. Buck was standing closest to door and when he opened it there was an old man standing there. He looked uneasy, continuously tramping in one spot and not stepping into the room.

"Buck, I need to see you right away," he said nervously.

It was Luke Hardin, the old man that loved horses so much that he helped out at the livery stable almost every night, whether he got paid or not. He didn't like crowds and couldn't stand being in a room with people he didn't know so Buck stepped outside instead.

"What is it?" he asked Luke.

"I've been training a boy to help out at the stables. He's new in town and don't know Peso and Pony by sight, so he didn't notice anything was wrong."

Buck could feel a cold shiver of apprehension run up his spine. "What are you talking about?"

"Peso and Pony were brought to the livery stable and left there some hours ago by one man who left on another horse. I didn't come in to check on things until 10 minutes ago so I didn't find out until then."

"The man - was it Chris or Vin?"

"That's just it, the way the boy described him it didn't sound as if it was either one of them but someone else. Boy said he had a Raccoon tail on his coat collar and it looked like the man were missing some fingers on one hand."

"Which hand?" Buck's mind was racing now, trying to take it all in and make some sense out of it. That description sounded awfully familiar. Hadn't he seen it just recently somewhere? Yes, he had, but where? On a wanted poster?

"Was the outermost fingers on his left hand, boy said," Luke told him.

"We'll need to see the horses," Buck said.

"All of you?" Luke asked uneasily.

"Yeah," Buck said. "Sorry, Luke."

"I'll just be outside for a while then," old Luke sighed as he walked away towards the stables Buck went back in to round up his gang.

They all came, armed with as many lanterns as they could grab so they could get a good look at the horses who stood quietly eating their oats. Pony and Peso were both reassuringly unharmed but they seemed wary and tired.

Pony nickered gently when he saw Buck. "What've you done with Chris then?" he whispered to the horse as he stroked his mane and Pony looked as if he really wanted to be able to answer at that moment. Peso snapped at Dancer when the man came too close but he tolerated being petted a bit by Josiah after he had been given an apple.

After seeing to the horses they went over to study the the gear, gathering their lamps so it would be easier to see if something wasn't looking quite right. It didn't look as if anything was missing but something was definitely out of place. Nathan let his hand touch the smooth leather as he leaned in closer to study some small dark stains on Chris's saddle and saddlebags.

"There's blood on Chris's saddle," he stated without the slightest bit of hesitation. "It's not much but it's there."

"Vin's too," JD said.

"Chris has been hurt before," Buck said. "Could it be from one of those times?"

Nathan shook his head. "No. Sorry, Buck, but it looks recent to me."

It was Josiah who spotted the small note tied to Peso's tail. He carefully cut it loose and opened it. His lips pressed together into a thin line as he silently read the few words written there.

"What does it say?" JD asked.

"Two down. Five to go," Josiah read out loud before he gave the note to Buck.

Buck could feel all the blood drain from his face as he read the words over and over.

Well, that was it then.

He felt a hollowness spreading through his body. Buck had only felt that one time before, when he'd realized that Sarah and Adam had been inside the house when it burned. He'd thought he'd never feel that hurt ever again, but now he did.

Chris was gone.

The drops of blood, the horses, the wire being cut - it all added up to something bad. The note was most likely true. Even if it wasn't, there was nothing he could do about it right now and that would probably make it all too late.

It hit him suddenly with absolute clarity - Chris wasn't coming back.

Rage seeped into the hollow in Buck's soul and filled it up.

"Now what?" JD said and sounded almost as if he was about to cry. The kid was looking at him, lost and scared. What the hell for? Buck didn't have any answers. He looked at the others but they didn't seem to know what to do either. All of them were shaken to the core, he could see it on their faces. Even Dancer seemed upset.

Chris and Vin were gone.

Someone needed to step in and start picking up the pieces, otherwise they'd all be lost. The rage that had burned so hot in Buck suddenly changed and grew into something much colder but equally strong and infinitely more dangerous.

They were gone. Really gone.

"Now?" Buck said. "We plan. And we wait."

He crushed the note in his hand as if it was the heart of their unknown enemy.

"Then we make them pay," he promised.


Vin had stumbled on some mule tracks and followed them for a while but they had just led him deeper into the wild and not to water. He'd fallen hours ago and hadn't been able to get back on his feet. After he'd fallen he had crawled on his hands and knees for a good while but then even that had taken too much effort. Now he could do nothing but lie still on his back and wait.

He was glad he'd kept the coat after all, the night chills were creeping in on him now and long shivers up his spine made his whole body twitch involuntarily at intervals and he could do nothing to control it.

There was a soft rustling sound nearby as some creature moved across the sand. New creatures came out to hunt at night, it could be something small that just sounded bigger. Vin hoped that was it.

He'd been pretty sure that he'd been followed by something big for several hours before he'd fallen. There had been a shadow in the corner of his eye as he walked and he'd felt watched but nothing had happened after he'd fallen so maybe he had been wrong. Surely a predator would have come out at least to sniff at him before now? He was glad it hadn't for he knew he'd lost all ability to fend for himself.

The sky was full of stars in the desert and he lay on his back looking up at them. So coldly shining, so far away. Real pretty. Was a sight a man could take with him into eternity without regrets.

Just like earlier in the day a shadow suddenly fell on his face as something was blocking out the light. He felt a presence nearby but he couldn't identify the shadowy figure bending over him.

A hand traced gently over his eyelids, closing his eyes like he was already dead.

"Sleep," a voice told him quietly. "When you wake everything will be different."

All urgency was gone now as his body was giving up. Vin let himself fall asleep without knowing if he'd ever see another day.

Chapter Three

~~ Stranger ~~

Vin's return to consciousness was slow. He had his eyes open and just drifted for a long time with his mind completely empty of thoughts before he became more aware and started to take in his surroundings. When he looked around he found that he was in a cave that was warm and dry. Water and wind must have carved it out of some mountain, he could see the tell-tale traces of it in the smooth curves running along each wall. Light filtered down from some crack near the ceiling, painting broad stripes down the redbrown walls and there was also some light coming from a small crackling fire in a pit dug out of the floor.

Vin took a deep breath and found that he could do so without even the slightest twinge now. He sat up slowly and carefully, discovering that he'd been lying on a bed of fresh grass and with a soft blanket for cover. Someone had relieved him of his coat and put it neatly folded beside his head with his hat placed on top of it and his boots beside the pile.

As soon as he moved something rolled off his chest and landed with a muffled thump on the ground near the edge of the blanket. It was the small white stone he'd picked up earlier, it had been resting above his heart while he slept. His hand went reflexively to the wound in his chest but now he could just find a big ugly hole in his shirt there. He pulled the shirt off his shoulder so he could see the skin better but there was no wound, just a fading scar.

This couldn't be. He let his fingers stroke the spot where the wound should have been. Vin could feel the faint ridges of the scar and he could see the red outline but it didn't hurt. It was fully healed and it looked years old instead of just - how long had he been here? Hours? Days? Weeks?

He looked up and quickly covered himself again when a shuffling sound could be heard from behind what looked like a simple fold in the wall. A second later a girl stepped through, bearing a simple clay jug and a cup. So that was the entrance. Vin could hardly see it, even though he was looking straight at it. The girl smiled when she saw he was awake and filled the cup with clear water up to the brim before holding it out to him.

"Thank you," Vin told her as he took it and she smiled back at him. The water tasted cool and sweet on his tongue, it must have been drawn from a well just outside. He studied her as he drank She was a native girl, quite tall and slender from what he could see and dressed completely in doe skin. Her long black hair was neatly braided and tied up with colorful ribbons. She was beautiful, in a timeless sort of way, and he wondered what tribe she came from. He just couldn't figure it out, there were no decorations to guide him on her clothes and her features were a strange mix of every tribe he'd ever seen and none at the same time.

But strangest thing of all was her eyes. The colors of her eyes kept shifting as she moved, like ripples on water. One moment it looked as if she had honey-colored eyes then she moved away a bit and the shadows in the cave darkened her eyes as well until they were a deep dark brown. Vin thought he could see flecks of green, blue and grey in there too when she got near him to pour more water in his cup. He'd never seen eyes like that before. Not on anyone.

"Thank you," he said again. "My name's Vin. What's yours?"

She just smiled a little and shook her head and he thought that it was that she didn't understand him but then she suddenly looked towards the entrance and there was a man standing there and he said, "Her name is Lupe. She does not speak."

He whispered something to the girl and she nodded and disappeared outside. The man sat down on the other side of the fire and studied Vin in silence. Vin swallowed some more water and looked right back at him. Just like with the girl it was hard to try and figure out both how old he was and where he could be from. He spoke good english, maybe he'd been taught by Missionaries.

"Just wanted to thank her and you for the care you've given me," Vin said. "Name's Vin Tanner."

The man just acknowledged this with a small nod of his head and a lowering of his eyes. Then he looked up and said, "I know."

Vin frowned. Was he missing something here? He was sure that he'd never laid eyes on either the man or the girl before, but there was something about him....

"Have we met?" Vin found himself saying.

"Yes," the man said. "But I did not look like this then. Coyote is my brother. Now do you remember?"

If Coyote hadn't already made him search his memory he wouldn't have known what the man was talking about but now faint fragments of a conversation surfaced almost immediately.

"You came to me as Chanu when I lay dying," Vin said with certainty.

"Yes. I did. I am Wolf."

"Why did you heal me?" Vin remembered how hesitant Wolf had been to interfere the last time. What had changed? Why did he help him now? What was going on?

"My brother acted in haste," Wolf reluctantly admitted. "He took you from a place where you would have been found a short time later. You were not to die. Not then and there. So, I've merely put things back the way they should be."

"What about my friend?"

"He's walking a different path right now. You must rest a while here, then I'll see to it that you find him. What happens after that is not my concern."

Vin let himself relax a bit as he heard this. Lupe came back to Wolf's side and gave him a small leather pouch. Wolf saw Vin's curious eyes study her face once more and answered his unspoken question.

"She is one of my children and very new in this shape. She is not yet used to words."

The girl brought out a woven blanket and Wolf sat down on it with her by his side. He looked at Vin as he weighed the pouch in his hand before pouring out a small amount of dust-like powder into the palm of his left hand.

"Dream with me a while," Wolf said as he scattered the powder over the fire. The dust settled in a sparkling cloud that sank down and was consumed by the flames. The smell of sage and other herbs rose up and enveloped Vin and the world around him melted away.

He was dreaming now and he knew it was so. Vin could see a man and a woman standing in front of the wall with the rock carvings he'd found in Ghost Country. As the image got clearer he could see that the woman was Lupe, but she looked different somehow. Her hair was curly now and she had on black pants and a blue shirt. And she could speak.

"Can you imagine how old these must be?" Lupe said and then he realized that he was looking at his own face as the man turned towards her. But he'd never worn clothes like that, and he'd never though to have his hair cut that way either.

Then the image suddenly changed and he was standing right near Chris Larabee up on Whisper Ridge. Chris had on the same type of strange outfit and he had dark-colored glasses covering his eyes. They were standing there, looking down into the valley, when Chris looked at him and said, "Have you decided yet, Vin?"

Before he could answer the vision was gone and he was back in the cave with Wolf staring at him from the other side of the fire.

"What was that?" Vin asked, feeling a bit shaken by it all.

"Past. Present. Future." Wolf shrugged. "Maybe they are all the same."

"What do you mean?" Vin said, feeling more and more confused. Did all of them have to talk in riddles all the time? Wolf was trickling more dust into the flames and the fumes from the fire made Vin's head spin.

"It does not matter," Wolf said gently. "It won't for some time to come. Stop thinking. Come join the hunt instead."

Vin's eyes closed but it didn't much matter for another dream took over now and he couldn't shut out the images of snow and pine trees and the pack all waiting for him. With the last bit of resistance he forced his eyes open again and tried to focus on Wolf.

"Will I remember any of this?" he asked and his voice sounded as if it came from far away.

"No," Wolf said, as Vin surrendered and closed his eyes. "You won't."

Vin's bones melted, flowed out in different shapes, solidified again. He threw off his human form and slid into his wolfskin as if he had been doing it all his life. The pack was waiting and he belonged with them.

When the others ran he ran too. All that mattered was running with the pack. Vin howled in joy. Within seconds he was completely lost in the spirit of the hunt.


There was sand under his head. He could both feel and hear the grains shift as he moved his head. He had no idea how long he'd been lying here like this, it could have been just a minute, it felt like forever. The hot dry air he breathed in nearly made him choke and gasping for air made his chest ache.

His ribs hurt. His head hurt even worse. He could see absolutely nothing.

For a moment he wasn't sure if he had his eyes already open and his heart filled with despair at the thought of having been blinded. Then he realized that his eyes were in reality closed and that his lashes seemed to be glued shut. Raising a trembling hand towards his head he blacked out when he inadvertently touched the wound near his temple.

Next thing he knew the faint scent of cool lavender tickled his nose and something wet touched his face. Someone was gently cleaning his face of dust and blood with the help of a soaked piece of cloth and he could taste drops of water on his lips. As soon as he was aware enough he was allowed a single swallow of tepid water and then, when it was clear that it was going to stay down, a little more.

He opened his eyes a crack and saw the shadowy outline of a woman against the burning sun. Keeping his eyes open was too much of an effort and he had to close them again. He wondered about the woman. Who was she? Why was she here? Did he know her?

A name came to him from out of the blue and he called out, "Sarah?"

She became perfectly still all of a sudden and stopped cleaning the blood away from his eyelids. He felt her shift away from him a bit.

"I don't know your name, Mister," she told him. "How come you know mine? Did they say something about me in town? Is that where you've come from?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," he said groggily.

She was quiet for so long that he was starting to think that she had left, even though he was pretty sure that he could still feel her presence nearby. What was she waiting for? Was she thinking about leaving him here?

He opened his eyes and gave her a burning look. She gasped in surprise when his hand suddenly shot out and managed to grab on to her wrist. "Don't leave me here," he whispered. She stayed silent but she gave his grabbing hand a few awkward but comforting pats until he let go of her arm. When she spoke to him again it was without hesitation.

"Come on. Better get you moving unless you want to stay and feed the coyotes. You're gonna have to help out some, too. I'm not strong enough to carry you."

"All right," he said and with her help he got up on shaky legs. A buck-board stood right nearby and he managed to walk the short distance over to it and lay down on a blanket.

Things went kind of hazy after that. He couldn't say for how long they travelled or in what direction. There was no road and the terrain was rough, simply enduring the ride had him exhausted. When they finally pulled up to a house he barely had strength enough to walk inside. After she helped him to stretch out on a bed he was asleep in seconds.

He woke up groaning soon after, when she started to clean his wounds. She kept talking to him in a low voice, telling him of the time when her five-year-old son had brought home a frog with a wounded leg and had asked her to heal it. It must have been a way to try and keep his mind off how much he was hurting but it didn't work very well. Instead he studied her and the unfamiliar room to distract himself and tried to figure out what was going on.

The bed was very comfortable while the rest of the room was plain and bare, except for a chair and a small table. White curtains softened the sunlight that was streaming in through the window. He could see her quite clearly now. There was something about her that he recognized but he couldn't say quite what it was. He thought it was her eyes, the color or the shape. Or maybe her light-brown hair, the way it gleamed in the sun as she moved her head. It bothered him that he wasn't quite sure if he'd met her before or if it was just that she reminded him of someone.

As soon as she had finished fastening the bandage around his ribs he asked her, "How long was I out?"

"From the time we got here, barely an hour," she answered. "Someone must have have taken a real dislike to you, Stranger. What happened to you?"

His mind was a total blank and he had no idea what to answer so instead he asked her, "Who are you?"

The woman was quiet for a little while and frowned as she looked at him.
"You don't know?" she said. "You said my name."

"I did? What name?"

"Don't you remember?"

"I don't remember anything," he said and slipped back to sleep as soon as he had finished speaking.

Some of it came back to him in dreams. He was on a horse and going somewhere. It was important and he felt a sense of urgency as he looked around in the dream. There was someone with him as well but he couldn't see who it was. There was nothing more to the dream, at least not anything that was still with him when he woke again in the early hours of the morning.

The sun had just risen and the air still felt cool in the room. He felt much better but still a bit shaky on his legs as he found when he rose from the bed. For the first time he realized that she must have taken his clothes. He had on a man's nightshirt, to save his modesty, he supposed. Other than that there wasn't a scrap of clothing anywhere in the room.

He remembered the woman, how she looked and spoke. He could also recall most of what had happened since he'd met her but nothing from before that. It hurt his head when he frowned but he couldn't help it. He felt a small nagging fear in his gut when he realized that he couldn't actually recall where he came from. A man should know that, shouldn't he?

He walked over to the window and looked outside. The first thing he saw was a small empty corral near the house and the woman was standing beside it with her back towards him. Something was moving within the morning mist that floated just above the ground in front of her.

As he watched the gray shadow grew and became a silver-furred wolf. It came out of the mist and stopped a few feet from the woman but when she held out her hand it came readily so she could stroke it over the head. He could see her scratch it behind one ear and as she leaned down it seemed as if she also spoke a few words to it.

It was such a peaceful and intimate encounter, he felt like he was intruding on something that had always been private and should have stayed that way. It was almost as if the wolf thought so too, for it unexpectedly looked up and right at him. The animal stared at him for several long seconds before turning away and looking up at the woman instead. Its tongue went out to give a lick to the end of her nose and even inside the house he could hear her faint laughter. As quickly as it had come the wolf turned around and bounded back into the morning mist.

He turned around as well and went back to bed before she came back to the house and discovered that he had seen it all. Going back to bed didn't mean going back to sleep, though. He turned slightly in the bed as he thought over what he knew.

Wasn't that much. Didn't know where he was. Didn't know who she was and he really didn't know what to think about that strange meeting with the wolf.

He scratched the stubble on his jaw. Felt like he had at least a couple of days growth of beard on his chin. That must mean that he had been out there for at least that long. Then he realized that he wasn't sure how often he used to shave. Every day? Once a week?

He got out of bed and went over to the window again. The sun had burnt off the mist by now and he could see the full view of the mountain range and the green plain beneath it. Silvery sparks from reflecting sunlight told him there was water nearby, hidden in the green grass beyond the corral. This was truly a good piece of land. Good for raising a small herd of cattle or maybe horses. Probably the best piece of land for miles around.

His thoughts were interrupted as the door opened and the woman stepped inside. She had a pair of pants and a shirt folded over her arm and she was stopped short when she found he was up and about.

"You're awake," she stated the obvious. "Don't think you should be walking around. That head must be hurting some still."

He felt a bit foolish as he admitted that it did hurt a bit. She led him back to bed and looked pointedly at him until he got under the covers.

"I'm not surprised," she said as she placed the clothes on the chair by the bed. "That's a nasty wound you've got there but it seems to be clean and healing well. You've slept for more than eighteen hours and I've yet to see any signs of infection. I'd say you've been real lucky so far. Must have an angel looking out for you."

"Think I'd rate an angel?" he said. He wasn't at all sure himself.

"Maybe," she said and smiled. "Silver would have said something otherwise when he spotted you in the window. He's very protective of me and usually a pretty good judge of character."

"Silver? You mean the wolf?"

"Yes. I rescued him when he was just a cub. His mama had been shot by hunter's up on the mountain and I took him home. Raised him myself until he was old enough to fend for himself. That was six years ago. He comes back to visit now and then. I still lay out food for him whenever I can."

"Ain't that a bit dangerous? Drawing wolves to an isolated place like this?"

"Silver would never hurt me, I'm sure of that. He's never with anyone when he comes here. Always alone. Just like-"

She stopped there. He knew, without being able to say how, that if she had continued she would have said - just like *me*.

Wasn't easy for a lone woman out here. She had mentioned a son but what little he'd seen it didn't look as if there were more people living in the house. Just her. Strange.

"I'm beholden to you, ma'am, for your good care," he said.

"You're welcome to stay until you recover properly. Should be some days yet before you can get on the road. I've brought you some clothes. You can borrow them for a while. Your own need mending and washing."

"Thank you. Won't your husband need the clothes?"

For a second her face got a lost expression then it was gone and she softly said, "No."
She took a deep breath and said once again, "No. You're welcome to use them."

"Thank you, ma'am. Your name-"

"Of course, you don't know. It's Sarah. Sarah McKay."

Sarah. It was a name out of the past and it hit him like a bullet, but he never let it show. She could just see his eyes narrow for a second in reaction and nothing more. It was a common enough name. He didn't really know why he acted this way and that made him feel even more uneasy.

"What about your name then, Stranger?"

He opened his mouth but nothing came out. His name - it was .... What was his name?

"I can't remember," he said. He tried again but thinking hard only made his head pound.

"You really don't remember?"

"No," he whispered. There was just a terrible void inside his mind. He didn't know who he was and that was so strange and frightening that he didn't want to think about it.

"Don't worry," she tried to reassure him. "I've heard that it can happen sometimes when you get a wound to the head. It can come back any time, just wait and see."

"You think so?"

"When you feel a bit stronger I can take you into town to see Doc Webster. He's not bad for a small town doctor. We're lucky to have him. I think he'll tell you the same thing I have. Maybe we can help your memory along a bit. Say something."

"What should I say?" He gave her a lost look.

"The first name that comes into your head."

Without thinking he said, "Adam."

"Is that you?"

"I don't know. I don't think so. No. It's not me."

But it was a name that was terribly important to him in some way, and it brought with it such a tremendous feeling of loss that it nearly overwhelmed him. He hid his feelings and like before it didn't seem like Sarah noticed that anything was wrong. So that was another thing he now knew about himself - he was good at hiding.

"I think it'll come back to you," she said once again. "Just need to be patient. In the meantime - what should I call you? Mister? Cowboy?"

"Not cowboy," he quickly replied. "Vin's the only one-

He broke off just as suddenly as he had begun. She waited for more to come but when it was clear that he wasn't about to say anything else she gently asked him, "Who's Vin?"

"I don't know," he said and frowned. She could see dark circles and little furrows of pain around his eyes. His head had to be hurting badly again.

"I think I'll just keep on calling you Stranger, then," she told him to lighten the mood. "Until you find your name again."

"All right," he said and gave her a wry grin.

She left him alone and he slept for a few more hours before she woke him up so he could get dressed and get something to eat. With some food in his belly he felt much better and decided to take a slow walk, despite her protests. He was determined to gain back his strength as soon as he could.

He walked around the small house and noticed how skillfully it had been built. The corral was empty but he stood there by the fence for a long while and felt something stir within. Ghost horses ran through his mind and ended up in a corral much like this one. It felt real. It also felt like it was a long time ago. But he knew without a doubt that at some point he must have been working with horses.

As the sun was beginning to set he finally ended up by the wide stream and sat down on a large stone by the waters edge to take in the sky colors that that seemed almost unbelievably bright and strong out here.

Looking down at his reflection in the water he thought about his name once again but nothing came to mind. Stranger, he thought as he studied his own face. Blond hair, green eyes ... familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time.

He threw a pebble into the water and watched as the ripples grew until they blurred the image.

Stranger. The name suited him.

Chapter Four

~~ Deadlock ~~

It was well past the middle of the night and JD knew he should have been dead on his feet by now. Instead he was on edge and full of energy, like he had been sleeping for days and only just woken up. He was ready. Yep, he was surely ready for anything.

A muscle in Buck's jaw was twitching. JD could see it clearly from where he was standing near one of the windows of the saloon. The saloon was usually open 24 hours with lots of people coming or going. If anyone was watching them it wouldn't look as if anything suspicious was going on.

Not that there were that many in the room now. They'd gone from house to house, carefully waking the owners and making sure that they knew what was going on. Some of the residents had given them half hearted assurances that they would pitch in when needed but the ones that had definitely decided to help out could be counted on one hand.

Pete Jackson and a few other men had come to the saloon, the rest were at home, guarding their houses and trying as hard as they could to stay out of it.

JD threw a glance around the room. They were nine in here, ten all in all if you counted old Luke protecting the horses back at the stable. If Mary Travis hadn't been away from town he was pretty sure she would have helped out as well.

Just ten .... JD told himself that they'd seen worse odds than that. In that Seminole village, there had been much worse odds than that. Yeah. Much worse. Except it was hard to really tell, since they weren't sure who was out there or how many they were.

The townsfolk had been told as much as it was safe to reveal without telling them anything about Dancer's assignment. The few volunteers stood mostly to the side and waited while the remaining lawmen decided on a plan of action.

"That note was meant to have us shaking in our boots," Josiah commented.

"Well, that just ain't gonna happen," Buck said, sounding coldly determined and irritated at the same time.

"Do you think that Vin and Chris are really gone this time?" JD found himself saying before he knew it.

"I don't know, JD," Buck answered distantly.

"I could go after them," JD offered. "I could sneak out of town. No one would see me." He was surprised when Buck vehemently turned on him.

"No, JD! You can't leave. It's too much of a risk!"

"But-" JD bristled.

"No buts! I won't let you! They'll cut you down."

"What if they're just hurt?" JD went on doggedly. "What if they're lying out there hurt and just waiting for us to come get them. We can't just leave them out there!"

"Don't you think I feel the same way?" Buck exploded. "But trying to break out now would be suicide, JD. It ain't worth the risk! If Chris was here he'd tell you the same thing."

But Chris wasn't there and that was the whole problem. JD and Buck locked eyes until finally JD reluctantly gave in and said, "All right. I won't."

Buck squeezed his shoulder and said, "When this is over we'll go look for them. I promise. We'll bring them home any way we can." He looked at the others and could see silent agreement in their eyes.

"Gentlemen, I think I've found the one we're looking for," Ezra spoke up. He had been sitting at one of the poker tables, going through a stack of old wanted posters. Now he held one up so they could all see a crude drawing of a scar-faced man.

"Raccoon tail and missing some fingers.... sound familiar? I'd also like to add generally ugly to the list."

"Who is he?" Buck said.

Ezra turned that poster back around and read out loud, "Three-fingered Jake Caulder. Not the most original name."

Nathan frowned. "I've heard about him. Didn't he use to run with the Backer gang?"

"Who are they?" JD asked.

"Lyndon Backer's gang," Josiah said. "They've been doing raids in the border country for the past ten years. Ezra, see if you can't find a poster. Should be one. They're a vicious bunch. If it's them we've got trouble."

"How many of them are there in that gang?" Dancer asked.

"Fifteen, twenty men. Most of them hard men. Even outlaws thinks twice before crossing Lyndon Backer, he's a mean one."

"Think you're wrong, Josiah," Nathan said. "Not about Backer, but about his gang. There was some skirmish a few years back and they got beat pretty bad by the army. Backer escaped but he lost most of his men there. They've been pretty quiet since then."

"You're right, Nathan. I'd clean forgot about that."

"Found it!" Ezra waved Backer's Wanted Poster almost triumphantly. Buck stalked over to him and snatched it out of his hand. He studied it in silence for a while then passed it on to Josiah and resumed the conversation.

"So where does all this leave us?" Buck wanted to know. "Could be twenty? Could be more? Less? Is that it?"

"I'd say less," Josiah said. "With twenty men they could have made their move already. Why haven't they? They know we're only five and won't be able to raise much support, no offence-" he cast a glance at the brave souls that had actually agreed to defend the town. It was no secret that the citizens of Fours Corners relied on their hired guns rather than to fight themselves, it had happened before. "They've already taken out our two best shooters, so why haven't they just walked right on in? Only thing I can think of is that they're not sure that they can really take this whole town by themselves. They can't be as many as twenty. Either they're waiting for reinforcements or they're simply bluffing."

"Well, I sincerely hope they're bluffing since we definitely can't get any reinforcements," Ezra muttered, just loud enough to be overheard.

"Buck?" Josiah said calmly and Buck answered, "Yeah?"

"What do you want us to do?" Josiah asked and the question hung unanswered in the air while Buck thought it over.

The burden of command. Never had Buck encountered a more accurate expression. It felt like an actual weight suddenly dropped on his shoulders. All he really wanted was to get the hell out of there.

He remembered watching Chris in much the same patient way they were all watching him now. He'd seen Chris do this hundreds of times before, knowing their lives depended on his next decision and still showing no hesitation when he told them what to do. Chris was a born leader but Buck wondered briefly how he could stand it, having all their eyes on him while he came up with a plan.

It wasn't the very first time Buck had ever had to take command and times were when he'd welcomed this chance. Just not this time. This time his heart was torn into so many pieces and each one wanted to go in its own direction.

What would Chris do... Buck hoped he'd still get a chance to find that out.

"All right," he said and put a map of Four Corners on one of the poker tables. The others gathered round him as he studied the map.

"We need to set up some lines of defence here-" he pointed at the map, "- here and here. Don't let anyone cross these lines. Put a man high up, on the roof or the second floor to cover you. They've already divided up their forces to keep us in, that much we know. They'll most likely attack when it's darkest, try to take us when we're most tired and can't see how many they are. But the dark gives us shelter too and I think we'll have some hours yet to prepare things. First of all we need to make sure that they're not already in town so they can't hit us from behind. Then wait. Let them make the first move. Don't let them draw you out, draw them out instead. When they come - just do what you can. JD talked to Mrs Potter earlier and she's agreed to let us have every scrap of ammunition we need from the store. Just make sure it counts for we don't know how long this is gonna be. Everybody make sure you've got plenty of extra rounds, might not get a chance to make a supply run. Well, that's it. Take a good look at Backer's poster so you know his face. If you can, then take him alive. Whatever you do don't let him get away. Or you'll answer to me."

He looked around to see if there were any objections but there didn't seem to be any.

"I think Josiah's right," he added with a certainty he was far from feeling inside. "Have to be less than twenty, probably no more than we are. When the light comes the odds will be on our side instead. Just hold on till daylight and then it'll be our turn."


Just two more hours till dawn. The outlaws had made their first move half an hour earlier. Josiah waited behind some barrels some way back from the first line of defence, hearing the continuous gunfire but not participating. He watched for something out of place to see if someone had gotten by that shouldn't be there. Small fires were lit along the street so they could see if the outlaws were coming.

Josiah felt on edge, but it wasn't just the thought of impending battle, no. Something felt wrong. Everything went quiet suddenly and he listened intently but only thing he could hear was the silky sound of wings in the night air as some creature flew by him right above his head.

The guns started up again and Josiah suddenly realized something important. The gunfire wasn't coming any closer. He'd expected that the outlaws would try to get further and further into town and that they would concentrate their fire to the center of town. But that wasn't what was happening now. Instead the outlaws were staying at the outskirts of town.

Instead of moving in it was almost as if they were trying to draw the defenders out of town. They had expected the outlaws to pull something like that but they had also expected them to give it up and change strategies if it wasn't working but they just kept at it. Why?

Either they were particularly vicious and stubborn or they were up to something else entirely. Josiah frowned as he thought this over. If the outlaws were doing something to try and divert their attention then they should all take an extra look in the opposite direction from the diversion.

Josiah quickly made up his mind. His time would definitely be better served to go check on Dancer who was holed up in the Sheriff's office, guarding the printing plates. Unless they all got killed there was no reason for Dancer to be in trouble back there but Josiah's instinct told him that the real battle would be fought there. He moved quickly and quietly through the shadows.

The faint but unmistakable call of a crow sounded from the direction of the Jail house and Josiah felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. The enemy was already among them.

No more time. He started to run.


Dancer looked up as he heard a careful knock on the door. He picked up his gun and walked over towards the door, asking, "Who's there?"

"It's Jackson, Mr Dancer. Buck sent me."

Dancer opened the door and let the man in. He looked excited.

"I heard gunfire," Dancer said. "They're here, aren't they?"

"Yes," Jackson said. "Buck thinks that they might get by the barricades, so he sent me here to help you out in case they get this far. They're many more that we thought. I think they're gonna be here soon."

Dancer closed his tired eyes for a second, breathing out a sigh. Damn! He'd hoped Buck and Josiah would be right and that things might be going their way for a change.

No time to think about that now. He moved over towards the window and looked out at the still empty street.

"Make sure you've got them square in your sights before you start firing," Dancer told Jackson over his shoulder. He heard Jackson move in closer behind him and heard a click as the gun was cocked. Then Dancer suddenly felt cold steel against his neck

"You know-," Jackson said,"- I don't think that's gonna be a problem at all."

"Jackson? What is this? What are you doing?" Jackson took Dancer's gun and put it in his own waistband before the gun was removed so Dancer could slowly turn and face the man.

"That should be obvious, shouldn't it?" Jackson replied.

"But you were shot!" Dancer still grappled with the betrayal.

"Yes, and it really hurt, I can assure you," Jackson grinned. "But it was worth it since it did wonders when it came to making you all trust me."

"Is Jackson even your name?" Dancer said. There was a bitter taste in his mouth.

"Nope. Just call me Jack. It'll do."

"What is your full name?"

"What do you care?"

"I always want to know who I'm doing business with," Dancer said, trying to buy time. "Why not be polite when you have the upper hand? Won't cost you a thing."

"You've got guts, I'll give you that," Jack said with a reluctant grin. He touched the brim of his hat in a gesture of respect. "Jack Gray at your service. Maybe you've heard of the Gray clan. We take care of our own."

"Then why are you running with the Backer gang?"

"We're cousins, Lyndon and me. Closer than brothers they've called us."

They must have been planning this for a long time, Dancer thought. And worse - to be able to place a man here they must have had substantial inside knowledge about his affairs.

"We heard rumors about your undertaking several months ago," Jack continued. "Not all your people were as loyal as you thought, Dancer. It's always surprising how little money it really takes to find out exactly what you want to know. Didn't quite know your full route, though, but we knew what territory you'd be crossing so I came to Four Corners because it was smack in the middle. I was just to pass messages along to Lyndon but now here you are, like a gift from the gods. Couldn't have planned it better myself. Now, if you'd be so kind as to open that safe, Mr Dancer."

"I don't have the combination."

"You think I'd believe that a man like you wouldn't have made sure that he knew it too? There are some places a body can be shot that will cause a man great pain but won't kill him. Do you want me to try them out on you? "

"But it's true," Dancer said. "I'm telling you that I don't have the combination."

"And I still don't believe you."

"I can't open the safe!"

"Then I've got no use for you," Jack said. Dancer could see his finger starting to pull the trigger and knew he had only a second left to live. A shot rang out deafeningly loud in the room but Dancer didn't fall. Instead he watched in near disbelief as Jackson pitched forward to end up in a heap on the floor.

Josiah shook away a piece of glass that had landed on his arm when he'd fired from the outside right through the window. He threw open the door and stepped forward, gun still aimed carefully at Jack's still body.

"Those are the wages of sin," he said under his breath as he bent down and closed Jack Gray's staring eyes.

"You just saved my life," Dancer said. "Where did you come from?" he wondered as he shook Josiah's hand enthusiastically. "How did you know anything was wrong?"

"A little crow told me," Josiah said cryptically and smiled. Dancer grinned in return. He didn't understand what Josiah was talking about but then, at that moment, he really didn't care. Being alive was all that really mattered.


Where the hell was Jackson? He should have been here covering their backs but he seemed to have gone up in smoke. Had he been hurt? Was he dead?

Buck crouched down behind a wagon and looked over towards the still body of Theo ... what was his name again? He searched his mind as he fired some shots at the shadow riders. Man had volunteered and died for them. Buck should have been able to at least remember his name. A rider crashed into the wagon with full force and Buck had to jump away, narrowly avoiding getting crushed. The outlaws were concentrating everything they had into breaking down the two barriers hastily built to keep them out.

The first one couldn't hold any longer. He knew it a split second before the rider broke through. By sheer luck Buck managed to throw himself it into the shadows on the boardwalk to find shelter behind a water barrel. There was no way he was going to make it over to the second barricade where the rest of them had retreated to but now the defenders had an excellent opportunity to fire at the outlaws from two directions.

Four riders broke in and moved in a circle around the opened area, firing continuously.

Buck looked carefully over the top of the barrel and in the light of the fires he saw that one of them could be none other than Lyndon Backer. The fury that had burned in him all night suddenly burst into full flame and he was filled with such rage that he could no longer think.

Buck rose from behind the barrel and fired as he went into a death-defying run straight towards Backer on his horse. He could see the leader of the outlaws take notice of him and stop for a second to aim directly at him. But at that same moment there came a volley of shots from the barricades and Backer vaulted off his horse with a strangled cry as he was hit. The two outlaws flanking him started to back away rapidly and when they saw Buck getting close and the cover fire was getting heavier, they chose that time to get away.

A lone rider was making a run along the street, holding out his hand for Backer to grab. The firelight shone on the scar running along the whole left side of his face and Buck knew it was Jake Caulder. Backer was getting to his feet already and holding out his hand towards Caulder but their hands had barely met before Buck was upon them and he quickly wrestled Backer to the ground.

A wordless roar rose from the position of the defenders and the remaining fighters were now up on the barricades and ready to come to Buck's defence. Caulder didn't seem to like those odds and he quickly turned his horse around to ride out of town. Buck looked up over Backer's body and saw Caulder stop at a slightly safer distance and give them one final look. Then he silently turned and disappeared into the night. JD rushed up by Buck's side and threw a few shots after the last outlaw but none met their mark.

Faintly they could hear the dying echoes of gunfire coming from the other side of town but then that fell silent too. For better or worse the battle seemed to be over, at least for now.

Buck bent down over Lyndon Backer and pulled him up by his collar onto his knees.

"What did you do to them?" Buck said. "What did you do to Chris?"

Backer stared at him. His breath wheezed in his chest and there was blood on his chin. He looked at Buck and gave a short barking laugh.

"Wouldn't you like to know," he whispered mockingly and then his eyes glazed over and his jaw got all slack. Lyndon Backer had gotten away for good this time.

"No!" Buck cried out and stumbled back a bit when he suddenly found himself holding on to nothing but a dead weight.

"Bastard!" he hissed in desperation and struck out at the corpse. Someone grabbed him from behind and tried to wrestle him off Backer but he resisted with everything he had left. He wasn't about to let go again.

"He's dead, Buck!" Nathan shouted near his ear. "He's dead! You don't need to do this! You have to stop!"

Buck froze and slowly came to his senses again. As soon as he showed signs of being calm enough Nathan let go of him and backed off. Buck looked up to find that JD was staring at him as if he didn't know him and wasn't sure he wanted to either.

"JD," Buck said. "Get me something to drink, will'ya?"

Wordlessly JD disappeared to return with a canteen full of water that he held out to Buck. Buck drank deeply to rinse the taste of gunsmoke from his mouth and then gave it back to JD. "Thanks," he said. JD nodded in return, still silent.

"JD," Nathan said and JD slowly turned his eyes away from Buck to look at Nathan instead.

"Things are handled here. Why don't you go check on Ezra and Josiah," Nathan suggested and JD nodded and walked away without uttering a single word.

"He was sure quiet," Buck said and walked over to sit down on the boardwalk. He leaned back against some wooden crates and rested for a while. He felt like he had lived a thousand years in a single day.

"Think you scared him good, Buck," Nathan said as he sat down beside him.

"Didn't scare you," Buck said.

"Hell, yes, you did," Nathan said and gave him a short laugh. "But I've seen some ugly things before. Way more than JD has."

"Ugly, huh?" Buck said with a rueful smile.

"Sure was. I've never seen you act like that. It was -" he stopped, at a loss for words to describe it.

"Ugly," Buck supplied dryly and Nathan shrugged, then said, "Wasn't sure for a second if I could stop you or not. And making that rush at Backer ... what was you thinking?"

"Wasn't. Wasn't thinking much at all."

"You know," Nathan said. "When I was a stretcher bearer I saw some strange things. One time this man was brought in and he was covered with blood from head to toe, his clothes soaked with blood, his hair matted. Had to wash him off to see where he was wounded but he just had some scrapes here and there. Had him a deep wound in his arm but it hardly bled at all, all that blood belonged to the enemy. Couldn't remember a thing when he woke up but his friends told him he'd killed ten men all by himself. Doctor said it was a true case of something, think he called it berserker rage, some sort of fighting madness."

"Think that was what I had?"

"Don't know. Never seen it, it's not that common. Think maybe you came real close. What did it feel like?"

Buck thought it over. "Felt ugly," he said finally.

They sat in silence for a bit and then Nathan said. "Look, it's getting lighter. The sun is rising. We did it, Buck."

"Yeah," Buck said. He leaned his head back a little further and closed his eyes. Within seconds he was fast asleep.

Chapter Four

~~ Deadlock ~~

Buck was having the strangest dream. He dreamt he was a wolf running with a pack of wolves. He felt no sorrow or worries, there was just a feeling of freedom and he followed the pack through the desert as it closed in on a small town not far from the foot of a mountain.

"Buck Wilmington," a voice cut through his dream, effectively disrupting it. He was forced to open his eyes as a hand impatiently shook his shoulder.

"Huh?" he asked before he identified the man who had woken him up. "Dancer."

"The same," Dancer acknowledged. "That looked terribly uncomfortable."

"Ah, yeah," Buck answered as he stretched and immediately regretted it when nearly every muscle along his spine protested all at once. Sleeping propped up against some crates had done his back no good at all. Still, he felt a million times better than before. The street was bathing in daylight now, he must have slept for more than an hour, but how much more was impossible to tell.

He looked around to find that most of the signs of battle had already been obliterated. The bodies were gone and the barricades had been dismantled. They must have been real quiet doing that. Or maybe his sleep had been much deeper than he'd thought.

Well, no matter. It was time to do what needed to be done.

"Just wanted you to know that I've sent a wire to the army and requested their aid. Help should arrive before the end of the day."

Dancer held out his hand towards Buck who accepted it to get back on his feet again.

"How did you get the wire fixed so soon?" Buck asked and Dancer looked embarrassed.

"The wire wasn't ever down. We just took Jackson's word for it."

"Jackson ran out on us in the fight," Buck said as they started to walk towards the Jail.

"That wasn't all he did," Dancer said. "He was in on the whole thing."

Buck stopped cold. "What?" he said, hardly believing his ears.

"It's true. If Mr Sanchez hadn't turned up when he did I wouldn't be here talking to you today."

"Where is Jackson now?"

"Oh, he's dead. But to get back to the matter of the telegraph wire. It seems the outlaws spared it for purposes unknown. All it required to get it operational again was to find someone to operate the telegraph. I found someone with rudimentary skills and was able to send some messages."

"Wait a minute, you sure he's dead?"

"Quite sure," Dancer said and they resumed their walk. "His name wasn't Jackson, by the way. It was Jack Gray."

"Gray?" Buck said and a coldness spread in his belly as he instantly remembered where he had heard that name before. Caleb Gray and his father, the ones that had attacked Vin in Ghost Country a year back. Elijah Gray - the youngster he'd seen dead on the trail as they tried to get out of that hidden valley. It had been a sight so gruesome that Buck still shied away from the memory.

Name had to be a coincidence, Buck told himself. Had to be. Anyway, it didn't matter. What mattered was that Jackson had betrayed them and Buck had been completely fooled by that snake. Had trusted him. The man had only been in town for a few weeks, working at the telegraph office. Buck should have been more suspicious. Things could have ended so badly. He felt like he had failed.

"Think they'll cause us any more trouble?" Buck asked Dancer. He spotted Josiah and Ezra outside the saloon and changed his course slightly to meet up with them.

"Hard to say, but I doubt it. Caulder got away, of course, but I think it's safe to say that the Backer gang died with Lyndon Backer. Jack Gray was an articulate man and very sharp. This whole thing was quite a sophisticated scheme that required a great amount of planning. I wouldn't be surprised to find that he was behind most of it but the whole truth might never be known."

Dancer paused for a short while before continuing in a sincere tone. "When I came here I had only heard about you all from Judge Travis. I must say that what he told me doesn't do you justice at all. This is a grand thing you've done and I'm proud to have been part of it. And with both Backer and Gray gone I do believe that we've effectively cut off the Hydra's head."

"Huh," was the only thing Buck could say since he had no idea what this Hydra was that Dancer was referring to. He nodded a greeting to Josiah and Ezra instead, since they were now within speaking-distance.

"You're looking better," Josiah said and gave him a grin.

"What are you talking about?" Buck replied testily.

"Saw you earlier. Sleeping like the dead, while the rest of us toiled."

"How long was I out?"

"Four hours. Nathan told us just to let you sleep, even though it looked mighty uncomfortable."

"It was, believe me. Was I the only one to get any sleep?"

"Nope," Josiah said. "We've all had an hour or two, in shifts. Just enough to tide you over. So far we've had one burial this morning. Theo Mortimer. He was a good man. Didn't know him well but he came through for us, didn't he?"

Theo Mortimer. Buck was relieved to finally remember the man's last name but he also felt ashamed for having forgotten it in the first place.

"Any more dead on our side?" he asked with dread in his heart.

"No, we got lucky," Josiah answered. "Looks like we got five of the outlaws, counting in Backer and Gray. They're being measured for caskets as we speak and brother Ezra here realized that we've got some serious money coming into out hands."

Ezra looked decidedly pleased with himself. "I've found wanted posters for all of them. Backer alone was worth $2000. The rest of them are worth about that much put together."

"What about Caulder and them that got away?"

"JD and I went out earlier to look for tracks," Josiah said. "We found tracks from what looked like five horses outside town, leading away up into the mountains. It's up to the army to hunt them down now."

"So the only thing left to do is to bring in Chris and Vin," Buck said. Josiah nodded.

"Just need to get some supplies, then we can pick up Pony and Peso and be on our way."

But even with the army on the way Buck felt hesitant to leave Four Corners and it showed on his face.

"I can keep an eye on the town," Ezra unexpectedly volunteered.

"And since the details of my mission are no longer secret I've asked to be replaced. The army will take it from here and they hardly need my help so I can stay and keep and eye on him if you want," Dancer offered.

"I find that suggestion extremely offensive, Mr Dancer," Ezra said without sounding very offended at all. He grabbed hold of Dancer's elbow and started herding him towards the saloon. "Now, there's something I've been meaning to ask you, about the making of coins.... How much gold exactly goes into each coin?"

Josiah and Buck stared after the two men but they had already moved out of earshot so they never heard Dancer's answer.

"I almost wish I could stay in town," Josiah commented. "Just to see what's going to happen. Should prove very interesting with Ezra and Dancer as the law in this town."

"Yeah," Buck agreed but it didn't sound as if his heart was in it. Josiah looked at him closely and saw how his eyes were full of regret. JD's words had come back to haunt Buck with full force now. What if Vin and Chris had been alive that night and just laid there waiting, like JD had said?

"You made the right decision to stay and defend the town," Josiah said.

Buck sighed. "I hope so," was his only answer.

A grand thing, Dancer had called it. Buck sighed and tried to shake his unease. It didn't feel like that to him.


Late that afternoon Josiah looked down on the ground where they'd thought they'd find Vin and Chris and stated the obvious. "Well, they ain't here."

He looked up to find Nathan, Buck and JD all staring at him.

"We've got the wrong place," Buck said, looking very tense.

"I don't think so, Buck," Josiah said.

"We've just got the wrong place!" Buck said heatedly. "C'mon, we have to search some more."

"All right," Josiah said, knowing better than to argue with a stubborn and angry man. He knew that Buck found the whole situation nearly unbearable and wasn't about to add to his troubles.

But searching up and down the mountain track and the road leading to it showed them nothing more than they already knew. They ended up once again in the same place and staring at the dark spots of day old blood that covered the ground.

"This is the place," Nathan said. "It has to be, Buck."

"Then why ain't they here?" Buck said.

"Maybe they weren't as badly hurt as we thought," JD offered only to receive a withering glance from Buck.

"See all that blood on the ground?" Buck said. "You don't just walk away from something like that. At least one of them was badly hurt."

"So," JD tried again. "Maybe the other one wasn't and maybe he got them some help."

"Then why haven't they contacted us?" Buck said, looking like he was about to explode.

"Maybe they couldn't," JD trailed off. Nathan stepped in and gave him support.

"JD's right, Buck. Could be a thousand reasons why they ain't here."

"Backer ain't gonna win! I won't let him," Buck said heatedly and the others stared at him. "Backer's dead, Buck," Nathan said.

Buck just shook his head.

"I asked Backer about Vin and Chris, where they were, but he wouldn't tell me," he said in a hoarse voice. "He can't be right. He can't. We've gotta find them," he pleaded.

"Buck," Josiah said and gripped his shoulder tightly until he looked up. "We will find them," he said with absolute assurance. Buck gave him a troubled look then he took a deep shaky breath and let it out slowly.

"Thanks," he whispered as he regained his composure. "But how?"

"We just gotta look where we haven't looked before and then we'll find something."

"What?" Buck asked.

"Just ... something," Josiah replied as he studied the landscape stretching out beneath them towards a mountain range on the horizon. A silvery shape caught his eye and he squinted against the sun as he spotted a large silverfurred wolf that stood majestically alone on a rise far away. Even at that distance he could see that the wolf looked right back at him and made a motion with its head as if it wanted him to follow. A crow called out from somewhere above them and Josiah knew it was a message meant from him. Follow, it said to him. The wolf motioned him once again before it leapt down from its perch and started to trot out into the wild. Josiah blinked and turned towards the others.

"I think I know which way to go," he said.


For days they searched, going from one small town to the other, always towards the same mountain range on Josiah's insistence. He was the only one among them that never seemed to falter and his conviction held the others up too. They had no idea what it was he saw but they put their faith in Josiah. As long as he was certain they were on the right track they would follow him.

Stopping in a small town on the edge of nowhere Buck walked into a hotel. He reserved a couple of rooms and then asked the clerk if he'd seen any strangers in town. He described Vin and Chris to the man but only got a negative reply. No one like that had come into town in the past week.

Five days since Vin and Chris had been lost and they hadn't come up with anything. He wasn't about to give up on them, not until he'd searched through every inch of ground from San Francisco to Washington, but he had to admit that it was looking more and more unlikely that they'd ever be found. Not a trace of Vin or Chris had been found other than the blood on the ground at the place where they'd been shot.

Feeling dusty and defeated Buck asked, "Is there anywhere else around here they could be?"

"Well," the man thought it over for a long while before he said, "there's Gila Flats, of course. It's a bit out of the way, surrounded by the desert, almost. They're somewhat isolated, no wire or stage coach line. Get mail and supplies going through to there sometimes but that's about it. Near two days ride east of here over towards them mountains there. If you start out bright and early tomorrow you can be there around noon the day after."

"Sounds good," Buck said as he gathered up their keys.

"Have to tell you, though," the man cautioned him, "if them you're searching for ain't there, it's most likely that they've been lost to the desert. It's a mighty harsh place, that desert. Taken many a soul it has."

"Yeah," Buck said and let the matter rest. Inside he was feeling that small tug of defeat again.

Gila Flats. One last chance. Maybe they'd get lucky this time.


In the days since Stranger had come to Sarah McKay's place he'd grown steadily stronger but his memory still hadn't returned. He had nightmares about a fire several times but there were gentler dreams also. Most of them were gone soon after he woke but snatches of them stayed with him during the day.

Most of the time he dreamt about a woman. In the dream he spoke to her and called her Sarah and she looked a bit like Sarah McKay but it wasn't her. He knew that because now when he looked at Sarah McKay he kept comparing her to the woman in his dreams, noticing more and more what similarities there were and also what differences.

All he really knew was that he missed her. With all that he was he missed her and he thought that she must be dead. Otherwise, how could he ever have left her? If she had been still alive he'd have been by her side this moment. Holding her. Loving her. Never letting go.

Stranger put all thoughts of his dream Sarah out of his head, it hurt too much to think about it for very long. Instead he tried once again to figure out what drove Sarah McKay. She was quite a mystery to him. He knew she supported herself as a seamstress but that was about it. She didn't talk about herself, didn't say much of anything. But instead of feeling frustrated he found her silence very restful and it somehow reminded him of someone else he knew, but like always he couldn't say who. He just knew he trusted her and that was enough for him.

Still, Stranger knew she hid things from him. It had taken him some time but he'd finally caught on to the fact that she really didn't want him to see her hands and carefully hid them whenever he was watching her. That had made him curious enough to study them when he was sure she didn't know. He'd seen that they were covered with scars, ugly burn marks that were years old. Stranger never let on that he knew her secret, not wanting to add to her pain.

It was strange this connection they seemed to have, there wasn't any words to describe it and it didn't need any words. It just was. He was attracted to her without feeling real desire. There was within him a need just to be in her company for reasons he didn't understand.

Five days after Sarah McKay had rescued him Stranger felt whole again and his wounds were healed. He knew his recovery had gone remarkably well and he attributed it to the good care he'd been given, although Sarah herself seemed to regard it as nothing short of a miracle.

Looking out at Sarah's land he wondered how there could be such a difference between this green land and the desert just a few miles away. It was like a peaceful little island of lush green grass nearly lost in a sea of wild and harsh territory. Stranger thought once again that there probably wasn't a better piece of land for miles around.

It was a beautiful day and he decided to take a long walk along the river. The desert heat battled with a cool wind coming down the mountain and they blended so the air was comfortably warm and yet cool enough to keep you alert.

He followed a path down to the water and it led him to the large stone he'd sat on to watch the sunset some days before. This time, however, Stranger found that he had company. A small brown-haired boy, no more than five or six years old, already occupied the stone and he was holding a fishing pole out over the water. He looked up when he heard Stranger step out of the grass but he didn't look scared.

"Hi there," Stranger said and sat down by the side of the boy.

"Hello," the boy said politely and nodded to Stranger as if they were old companions.

"Who might you be then?" Stranger said and tried not to smile at the child's grown-up manners.

"I'm Ben."

"Hello, Ben. Mind if I sit here a while?"

"Not my stone," the boy said and then added very seriously, "Ma told me not to speak to strangers."

"That's good advice but ... what if you talk to someone who's name is Stranger, what then?" Stranger asked just to see what the boy would answer. The child looked up at him and frowned with confusion in his hazel eyes. "Stranger isn't a name."

"It can be. My name is Stranger."

"Really? Is your name really Stranger?"

"Sure is," Stranger answered. "Fish here often, do you?"

"Lady up at the house won't mind. She lets me come here whenever I like."

"Play with her son a lot?" Stranger asked and the child frowned again.

"She don't have one, she's all alone," he said, confirming what Stranger had suspected all along. Sarah hadn't said a word about her son since the first day and there were no toys or other things that could belong to a child at her house.

He looked closely at the child. Wasn't he far to young to be out here alone like this?

"Where do you live, Ben?" Stranger asked.

The boy shrugged. "In town."

"Alone?" That question earned him a toothy grin in reply.

"With my pa," the child said and giggled and Stranger couldn't help but smile in return. This child reminded him of .... his heart twisted in his chest. He felt cold sweat on his forehead.

"Does your pa know you're out here?" he asked to distract himself from what he was remembering. The slightly guilty look on the boy's face told him all he needed to know.

"Go on home now," he told the boy gently. "Don't want your pa to worry, do you?"

The boy shook his head and then he picked up his fishing pole and ran off into the tall grass. It swallowed him up completely and Stranger instantly lost sight of him. It was almost as if he'd never existed.

Stranger sat on the stone and tried to relax for a while but it was no good. There were too many thoughts in his head. He needed to talk to Sarah McKay. Needed her calming presence.

He walked back to the house and found her in his room, just about to put his old clothes on to the bed.

"There you are," she said when she saw him. "I've got your clothes here."

He picked up his black shirt and ran his hand over the near invisible stitches where she had mended it. It was skillfully done. She had been nothing but kind to him and he was about to hurt her. He almost hated himself for it but there there was no way he could stop himself from asking.

"Your husband - he's not coming back, is he?"

He could see her mouth open and close silently a few times before she finally said, "No."

"And your son?"

She looked up at him and her eyes were suddenly bright with unshed tears. When Stranger saw her eyes he recognized the look in them. Pain. Despair. He had seen it enough times in his own eyes, usually in a saloon when he'd drunk too much whiskey and caught a glance of himself in the mirror behind the bar. Now, in his mind's eye he could see a small boy running up to him and he could almost feel the weight of that boy in his arms as he imagined picking him up. His body knew that memory and it felt the loss.

Adam, his son. The longing for his son was like a thorn in his soul, always present, never healing. How could it? Adam was gone forever. He remembered that now.

"I'm sorry," Stranger offered awkwardly. When he spoke again it was with great difficulty. "I know who Adam is ... was now. He was my son."

"You've got your memory back?" she said as she turned away from him slightly to wipe at the corners of her eyes with her hand.

"Only that bit, not much else. I know that I've lost the two people that mattered most to me, my wife and my son."

"I think we'd better get into town and see Doc Webster then," she said and her voice sounded bleak. "Now that you're well enough to travel."

"Sarah, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you."

"I know," she said. "You didn't. It's just...." her voice trailed off. "I can't talk about this right now. I have some things that need to be done in town while you see the doc. I'll be waiting outside if you want to change your clothes."

And then she practically fled from the room. Stranger sighed heavily, looked at his clothes and decided that he'd better change. Putting on the black shirt felt like slipping into a second skin. He felt at home immediately, almost as if the clothes themselves held a part of his personality. Last of all he put on his gunbelt and then his black hat. He felt his hand come to rest easily against the holster.

Stranger looked into the mirror and adjusted the brim of his hat a fraction.
Was this who he was? More importantly, was this who he really wanted to be?

He didn't know the answer to that.


When Stranger came out of the house Sarah was already waiting by the wagon. A straw bonnet covered her hair and it partly obscured her face so he couldn't see if she was still upset.

Neither of them tried to speak to each other for the first miles of road. Stranger looked at the landscape for a while but there wasn't much of interest there so he turned to study her instead and wondered how he could undo the damage he'd caused. He looked at her hands holding the reins. They were covered now by white lace gloves so you couldn't see the scars any longer.

Suddenly she turned her head and caught him looking and frowned a little but she didn't say anything about it. Instead she asked if he could take the reins for a while and he did.

"I'm sorry for the way I behaved earlier," she suddenly said.

"No, it was my fault," Stranger replied.

"No, it was just ...." She sighed. "It's been on my mind a lot lately. It was a long time ago but right when you asked me, it felt like it was just yesterday."

"I know that feeling," Stranger said.

They travelled the rest of the way in silence again but it was a comfortable silence this time. Finally they drove up a small rise and when they reached the top they could see the town. When they got closer he could see something like a dozen houses around the widest street he'd ever seen, it was more like a city square. Separated from the ramshackle buildings of the town was a big white house situated on a small hill just outside town. It looked freshly painted and well kept. On the road in to town they passed close by a small cemetery and Sarah slowed down the pace as they passed and looked down on the tombstones. Stranger heard her take a deep breath when they were just past it.

"Tell me about the town," Stranger said. "What is it called?"

"Gila Flats. Don't waste time wondering if you've heard that name before, no one has except for those living here. We don't get many strangers passing by, mostly trappers coming down from the mountains. Every other week or so we get supplies and mail. Should be in next week."

"Is there a livery stable here?"

"Yes. Can't say if there's any good horses to choose from. Why?"

"Might need it," Stranger said.

"Thinking about leaving?"

"No. Unless you want me to?" He suddenly felt a bit uncertain again.

"No," Sarah said. "You can stay a while. It gets lonely out there at times," she admitted quietly.

The livery stable was just on the edge of town and they stopped there on the way in. Most of the horses were old and looked as if they had seen better days but Stranger managed to find a black horse with a temperament to suit him and hired him for a week to start with.

It was a lucky thing that the one who shot him hadn't also robbed him. Stranger had found that he'd carried at least fifty dollars in gold coins, and some silver dollars as well, in his pockets when he'd been shot. He'd tried to give Sarah some of the money early on to repay her for her care but she had refused to accept it. She seemed to possess a stubborn streak to rival his own so he knew that he'd have to come up with something else to repay her.

Right next to the livery stable, up on the second floor, lived Doc Webster. It sparked a memory in Stranger as he walked up the stairs. For a second before the door was opened he was almost certain what and who he was gonna see but as soon as the door opened it was gone again.

Webster turned out to be a small white-haired man, more than old enough to be Stranger's father. He walked with a slightly bent back and his hands trembled noticeably but his mind was still sharp as a tack.

He smiled with genuine warmth when he saw Sarah and stepped aside so they could enter. It was a small clinic, just two rooms with very little furniture. Stranger wondered how anyone could make a living at all in this town. There couldn't possibly be enough people around to make it worthwhile to stay.

Webster gave Stranger a searching look before ignoring him and turning to Sarah.

"How are your hands?" he asked her. "Still hurting?"

"Sometimes," she admitted. She removed her gloves and he took her hands and pulled her towards the window so he could study them in better light. Stranger tried to give them some privacy but he couldn't stop himself from throwing a glance in their direction and he saw that the skin on Sarah's hands looked cracked and red. It had to be hurting her.

"You've been out in desert again?" Webster didn't seem to approve of what he saw either.

"Just the other day," Sarah said and nodded towards Stranger. "That's when I found him." Webster gave him another searching look before concentrating fully on Sarah's hands.

"You're working too hard with your hands again."

"I can't afford not to," Sarah defended herself and the old man's gaze softened.

"Well, I've made up a new batch of salve for you. That should make it feel better. Here you are." He held out a small jar towards her.

"I can't pay you right now," she said and hesitated to accept it but he took her hand and put the jar in it, closing her fingers around it.

"I wouldn't take your money anyway, Sarah."

"You're too good to me, Doc." Stranger heard a catch in Sarah's voice as she spoke. It sounded as if she was almost close to tears.

"No, dear girl," the old man told her gently. "I'm not. Friends look out for each other. You and me, we're old friends, aren't we?"

"Forever and ever," she replied and they both smiled. It looked to Stranger as if it wasn't the first time they'd had this particular conversation. She wiped at the corners of her eyes with an embarrassed laugh. "It's the second time today I've started to cry. Being around menfolk must have a bad influence on me."

"Especially this one?" Doc said and pinned Stranger down with his eyes.

"No, he's not been much trouble at all," Sarah said as she put the jar in her purse and pulled on her gloves again. "He was shot in the head and the ribs and the wounds have healed nicely, but he's lost most of his memory. I thought I might as well do some errands and I have to deliver a dress to Elaine Adams. You don't need me here, do you?"

She looked at the two men who both shook their heads. "Bye, Doc. Take care of Stranger here. I hope you can help him. "

"Stranger?" Doc Webster asked as soon as she was gone.

"I'm not sure what my name is. Sarah started calling me that," Stranger answered and felt a bit awkward but the old man didn't call him on it.

"Well," Doc said after a pause. "I've heard worse names."

He listened to Stranger's heart and lungs and then examined the healed wounds closely by touch and with a magnifying glass.

"How long ago did this happen?" he asked.

"Five days ago," Stranger replied. "I think," he added.

"Remarkable," Doc said and shook his head in wonder. "I never would have expected it to heal to that extent in just a few days. I'd be surprised if that head wound even leaves much of a scar. It's fading already. You must have lost a lot of blood with that gash over your ribs."

"I guess," Stranger said neutrally. "I don't really remember."

"And Sarah found you out in the desert?"


"Huh, that is most extraordinary. That gash couldn't have healed better if I'd stitched it up myself. Shouldn't give you any trouble. God must be looking after you, son. Now, come over to the window so I can have a look at your eyes."

He tested Stranger's eyesight and studied the way he reacted to movement and light.

"You don't remember anything?"

"Some things. Not my name. Nothing from my childhood or recent years."

"But you do remember things?"

"Not the things that I want to remember," Stranger said stiffly.

"I wouldn't worry about it," Doc said consolingly. "If you remember some things there's a good chance that it'll all come back to you. Could take some time or it could happen tomorrow. The brain is a wonderful thing that we don't know much about at all. I've seen a lot of things happen to people who've got a knock on the head. Some of it you'd hardly believe. Just try to take it easy and it'll work out all right. I've found that is often the best advice."

Doc Webster disappeared into the other room and Stranger could hear him rummage around a bit in there. When he came back it was with two glasses in one hand and a whiskey bottle in the other.

"Drink?" he asked.

"Won't say no to that," Stranger said as he accepted the glass. "Why wouldn't you take her money?"

Doc took a thirsty swallow from his drink before answering.

"Sometimes you meet a good person," he said wistfully. "If that person is hurting - then what manner of man are you if you don't try to ease that hurt, any way you can?"

"How long have you known each other?" Stranger asked.

"Close on fifteen years. She was nothing but a slip of a girl then. But don't ask me more about her." He glared at Stranger. "Sarah's story is hers to tell."

Stranger could accept that. "You've lived here for that long?" It was hard to imagine anyone staying in this town for that amount of time.

"Yes. Even longer. Close on twenty years."

"You must like this town then?"

"It's as close to hell as I'd ever like to come," Doc said dryly. "It was different when I first came here. There's a few good people still here, people like Sarah. The rest are scum."

"Why don't you leave and settle down in another town?" Stranger asked, surprised by his bald statement.

"I'm too old to start over again," Doc said. "Besides, anywhere else they might take me in but I think they would object to my old friend here." He laid his hand heavily on the whiskey bottle. The look he gave Stranger was a mixture of shame and acceptance. Doc Webster was fully aware of what he'd become but he had long since given up the fight.

Stranger downed what was left of his drink. "Well, Doc," he said. "You have my thanks. What do I owe you?"

"It's on the house," Doc said and smiled. He looked at Stranger's side where the wound was now hidden from sight and muttered, "Remarkable," under his breath once more. Then he poured himself another drink.


When Stranger got back out on the street again there was no sign of Sarah. Rather than walk around trying to find her he checked on the black horse tied to the rear of the wagon and then settled down to wait on the wagon seat. There was a fresh breeze blowing through town and he watched as it pushed the tumbleweeds along the street.

A small boy ran out in front of Stranger to reach a man who was holding out his hand towards him on the other side of the street. It wasn't hard to recognize Ben, the child he'd met that morning, and the man had to be Ben's father. The boy hadn't seen Stranger, intent as he was on reaching his father. When he finally did he was was picked up by strong arms and tickled.

Stranger could clearly hear the child's happy laughter and he couldn't help but smile a little. But then the old sorrow washed over him and he could bear to watch them no longer. He looked down on his hands instead and didn't look up again until they were well and truly gone.

The world seemed easier to look at when he didn't have that reminder of what he'd lost right there in front of his eyes. Adam. He hadn't really thought about him in a long time. Every time he tried all he could see was the ashes and among them-

He still couldn't face it, he couldn't think about it.

The more he knew the less sure he was that he really wanted his memory to return. The first thing he had remembered was sorrow and loss. What if there wasn't anything else in his life now?

Maybe he shouldn't even try to remember. Maybe he should just make a new life for himself, starting here and now. He thought a bit about Doc Webster, stuck forever in a town he loathed. Stranger wondered what it was that had driven him to drink. Had it been something sudden and terrible or was it the lesser hurts, one thing added to another until it had all been too much?

It didn't really matter. Doc couldn't turn back on the road he'd started on. Stranger knew that road, he was heading down it too. He frowned suddenly. No, that wasn't quite right. Not anymore. Something had happened to him in the past year or so. He was almost sure about it. But what?

Something flashed in his eyes and he blinked. In front of the saloon there was a group of men, all of them looked to be a few years younger than Stranger. Far too old to be playing around with guns the way they did. One of them was standing apart from the rest and practicing a fast draw. Wasn't half bad, Stranger thought. The sun glistened in the metal as the man spun the gun around on the trigger guard before slipping it back in the holster. The other four men on the street looked on in admiration and one of them said something to the lone gunman and pointed at Stranger.

The man looked at him and even at that distance Stranger could see him grin before he started walking towards him.

"Well, now," the man said when he was close enough to be heard without shouting. "We don't get many strangers around here. What's your business in town?"

"Who wants to know?" Stranger said calmly.

"Name's Reese and I'm the law in this town," the man said.

Stranger looked him up and down, from his sideburns and the toothpick he was chewing on to his silk waistcoat and polished black boots.

"Don't see a badge," Stranger said.

Reese got an ugly look in his eyes and his temper flared.
"How long have you been in town?" he asked sharply.

"A while."

"Maybe you should think about moving on," Reese suggested as his hand drifted towards his gun.

Stranger looked at Reese and something in his mind he hadn't been consciously aware of before snapped into action, automatically sizing the man up to see if he posed any real danger or if he was all talk. Stranger recognized the situation, he even felt comfortable with it. A few more pieces of his old life fell into place.

He had done this before. He knew he could do it again.

Before he could say anything another man approached them and Reese fell back a step like a faithful dog giving way for its master.

Reese dressed to be noticed but this man dressed to display his power. His clothes looked to be of the finest quality and he walked with all the assurance of someone who owned the world. A man of importance in this town. Stranger disliked him on sight.

Reese didn't look like he had the smarts to carve out his own fortune, at least not in a legal way, but the clothes he had on must have cost him a fair amount of money. He had to be working for someone and it was most likely this man. Stranger doubted that there could be two people in this town rich enough to employ a hired gun.

Stranger knew a bully when he saw one, and Reese was a prime example. And this man had hired him. What Stranger hated even more than a bully was someone who'd hire a bully to do his fighting for him.

"We don't get many strangers out here," the man began.

"So I've been told," Stranger said.

"My name's Parker. What's yours?"

"Call me Stranger."

"Stranger?" Reese shot in. "You can't have a name like Stranger!"

"I think I can," Stranger said as he gave Reese a cold look. "In fact, I'm rather partial to it."

He ignored the two men and switched back to staring disinterestedly at the tumbleweeds blowing down the street.

Parker was a bit taken back by Stranger's blatant disregard of his importance.

"Very well, Mr ... Stranger," Parker said, still trying to sound polite and even a bit friendly. "You look like a smart man. I hear you came in with Mrs McKay."

He paused to wait for a reply but Stranger said nothing. The word had certainly spread fast enough. In a town this size, starved for any kind of news, it had probably taken all of five minutes until the very last person had been told.

"Maybe you can remind her that I've still got some papers for her to sign. Maybe you can even convince her it would be in her interest to do it as soon as possible. That house-" Parker pointed towards the big white house on the hill. "That's my house. Why don't you come on over... say... tomorrow at noon and we can discuss it. You'd be well rewarded."

Stranger stared at Parker silently as he thought over the offer and he could see the man become impatient. Down the street Stranger spotted Sarah coming out of a building and start walking towards him.

He gathered up the reins and said with finality, "No, I don't think we've got anything to discuss, Parker."

"You're making a mistake," Parker warned him.

Stranger gave him another bone chilling glare and then a slow smile spread over his face. "Won't be the first time," he replied and drove off to pick up Sarah McKay.

Chapter Five

~~ Scars ~~

Sarah had taken the reins again and Stranger studied her profile while he bided his time. When the town had disappeared from view behind the hill again he asked her, "Who's Parker?"

She gave him a quick glance before turning her eyes back to the road again.

"I saw you meet him," she said. "I'm surprised he didn't tell you. Usually you can't shut him up when he starts talking about himself."

Stranger grinned fleetingly, "I got that impression. Take it you don't care much for him?"

She suddenly pulled hard on the reins and the horses came to a stop. "I'd like to see him dead," she said. Her voice was very soft, as if she couldn't speak of it aloud.

"What did he do to you, Sarah?" Stranger asked in the same tone of voice.

"He's the one who killed-" her voice suddenly broke and this time she couldn't hold back the tears. She put her hands over her mouth to keep the sobs from slipping out but it was useless.

Stranger felt completely out of his depth. He put a hesitant arm around her shoulders and held on without saying anything. It cut him like sharp slivers of glass, that sound she made as she cried out her pain. He was angry at himself for having spoken at all. To his relief she stopped as suddenly as she had started and took a long trembling breath.

"I'm sorry," she said, looking shocked and exhausted. "I don't know what came over me."

"It's all right," Stranger said quietly as he took the reins and got them moving again.

They were both tired when they got back to the house and neither of them felt like talking more. Instead they ate their supper in silence before they said good night to each other.

The next morning Stranger got up just as the sun rose. Fully awake and dressed he walked into the kitchen and found a pot of hot coffee waiting for him on the stove. He poured himself a cup and went in search of Sarah.

He found her sitting on a stone near the corral, nursing a cup of her own. She smiled when she saw him and looked completely at peace with the world. He smiled in return and sat down beside her.

"The desert outside town," she said as she looked out at her own green grasslands, "-it didn't use to be this large. It's taking over more and more. The wild is creeping closer and closer to town every year."

"Drought?" Stranger asked. She nodded.

"Seven long years of it. Reverend Jordan left us after two years of it, he was convinced that the town had been cursed by God in a biblical way. Maybe he was right, since Parker showed up right about when it all began."

"I'm sorry I upset you yesterday," Stranger said.

"It wasn't your fault," she said. "You have nothing to be sorry about, Stranger."

"Still... I'm sorry," he said and looked down into his coffee to avoid her eyes. But she only sounded resigned, not upset, when she said, "You're gonna ask me about Parker again, aren't you?"

"I think I have to. He made me an offer."

He could feel her body tense beside him. "What did you tell him?"

"That I wasn't interested."

She sighed. "Maybe you'd better listen to him."

"No," Stranger said. "He's got nothing to say that I'd want to hear. I want you to tell me everything you can about him. He wanted you to sign some papers. Why?"

"It's about the river. All the land between here and town get their water from it and the small streams feeding on it. Parker's land is on the other side of town, as far away from here as you can get. The source is somewhere up in the mountains, no one really knows, but this is the land closest to it. "

Stranger understood most of it now. "You own the water rights to this piece of land," he said.

"And Parker can't do a thing about it," she added with some satisfaction. "He's tried, ever since he first came here. He started out with the small holding where his house is now. There were a lot of small farms and homesteads here then. He'd buy the land and water rights to the land bordering his and if someone wouldn't sell he'd go on and try with the next in line. Old man Finn died and his son got so drunk at the funeral that he signed over the water rights for practically nothing. The second Parker got control of it he diverted the stream to go across another piece of his land and cut off the supply to the one remaining piece bordering his land that he hadn't gotten yet. It was just a few days but the cattle needed water and there were newborn calves so both Finn and Lindy had no choice at all but to sell since he controlled the water for both their lands. It was all legal, or so they said. No one could do anything about it. Parker kept on working that way until finally there was just a few of us left. I own both this land and the water rights. He's tried to buy out the people holding lands bordering mine but he can't cut off the water supply anywhere along the way without hurting his own lands since he's at the end of the line. The others all know I'd never do anything to deprive them of water. As long as I'm here they won't sell to him."

"Where did he get all the money to do this?"

"No one's really sure. I think he inherited it. Heard he had an uncle with a gold mine near the coast but that could be just talk."

Stranger sat back and thought about it. Why would someone who had money come out here and start buying up land? There couldn't be much value in it. Did Parker know something no one else did? Future plans for the area? Gold? Something else? He didn't know the man well enough to say yet. Another worrying thought took hold of him.

"So Parker wants you to sign over the water rights to him."

"Something I'll never do. He knows it, but he won't give up. It's a matter of pride now. He starts off charming and polite, but if you don't do what he wants then he starts to pressure you. A little more each time. He owns the land where the town is now, nearly all the houses too."

"Gives him a powerful reason for getting rid of you, Sarah."

"He won't do more than try to talk me into it. Parker is-" she stopped abruptly.

"He's what?"

"He's afraid of me." She looked uncomfortable all of a sudden. "Nearly all of them are, back in town. Except for Doc and a few others. They shun me if they can."

"Why?" Stranger asked, taken by surprise. It was the last thing he had expected to hear.

"I have...," she paused and frowned, as if she didn't know quite how to put it into words. "I have a ... I can see things. I can see when something is about to happen. People have stopped talking to me. I think they're afraid I will look at them and see the way they're going to die. But I can't. It doesn't work that way. It always comes unbidden and I don't even know what I've said to them half the time."

Stranger had a thoughtful look on his face. "Could you always do that?"

There was pain in her voice when she told him, "No. If I had known I would never have let them go that day. We had a cabin up on the mountain then and John wanted to take Benjamin with him and show him some of the things you can find there. I should have gone with them but I didn't. I don't even remember why that was. He promised they'd be back early next morning but they never came. I waited and waited but they never came. I didn't know what to do. When it got to be around noon I went up there and I found- I found-"

She had been speaking rapidly, hardly even drawing breath but her voice was starting to break and he could see her steele herself to continue.

"You don't have to-" Stranger said but she closed her eyes and pressed the words out, almost feverishly.

"I found them. John was dead on the ground. He'd been shot and the cabin was burnt almost to the ground. Inside - inside, there was ... there was no roof and the beams were burning still. Small, dying flames. I saw my baby there. I tried to pull away the timber from my boy and I burned my hands. It didn't hurt at first. I couldn't feel it, not for a long time. But one day my hands suddenly felt as if they were burning still, even though they were healed by then. It's been hurting me ever since."

Her voice died out. He could see tears on her cheeks but it was nothing like the desperate crying he'd seen the day before. Now he thought he knew why it had seemed as if he knew her from the first moment. They were like mirror images where both could see the loss in the other. Her pain was like his own. That recognition and understanding tied them together.

"How old was your boy?" he asked quietly.

"Five years and three months." She smiled through tears. "Months are so important at that age."

"I know," Stranger said. He gently squeezed her right hand, needing to hold on to something living if he was going to be able to tell her anything at all about Adam and Sarah. He needed to tell her, needed to remember them.

"My boy was around the same age when he died. The day I first held him in my arms, I've never been so proud in my life. It was a good life. I used to have a small ranch, it was a bit like this place. Horses. Some cattle. For a time I was happier there than I'd ever been anywhere else. But I made an enemy too, that I didn't know about. And one night I went away to do something and when I came back, all I could find was ashes and death."

"How long ago was this?"

"Nearly five years ago," he said without thinking about it.

Five years. A lifetime. Adam's lifetime.

"Five years is an awful long time, isn't it?" she said. "I lost mine five years ago too."

"Doesn't feel like that long," Stranger said. "Time moves differently when you've lost someone."

"Yes," she agreed. "Yes, it does."

In silence they watched a large crow that was sailing on the wind high above them.

"I never figured myself for a marrying man until I met Sarah," Stranger said.

"What was her last name?" Sarah McKay quickly asked.

"It was -" he broke off. Damn, it was there, just on the tip of his tongue! He shook his head, saying, "I don't know." It was like hearing a whisper he just couldn't quite make out.

She patted his shoulder comfortingly. "You're real close to it now, aren't you?

"Sometimes I think so."

"Tell me more about her. Maybe it'll come to you. Who was she?"

Stranger started to tell her and the words came to him so easy now. He told her things that Sarah had said to him, dreams they'd shared for their son. Things came to him that he hadn't thought about in years and Sarah wasn't just a dream to him any longer, she felt real now. He could see her face clearly in his mind's eye once again and felt ashamed that he could ever have forgotten her.

"Sarah had a light within. It burned strong and calm and it touched everyone who came to know her. I used to call her Sunrise because of it. She made me into a better man, just by letting me be with her. I was a wild one but she gentled me. We fought sometimes but I never doubted that she loved me and I always loved her. I would have done anything for her, I would have died for them. Instead-"

"-they were the ones who died," Sarah McKay finished the sentence when he couldn't. Stranger closed his eyes for a moment, almost overcome by his endless longing for what was gone.

"John was the light of *my* life," she almost whispered. "When he held me sorrow couldn't touch me. But when he was gone I drowned in it. Doc Webster and my sister tried to help me. As soon as she found out she came all the way from Denver to help me when I couldn't use my hands, and she stayed for months but it made no difference. When my son died I died too. There was nothing but sorrow and I couldn't live like that. I waited for day they had died to come again and on that day I went out into the desert, as far as I could go. Then I sat down and waited to be taken home to my family."

It was a strong image, her sitting out there in the sand while the tumbleweeds rolled by and the sun burned, waiting to die. Stranger knew what it was like to wake up in the mornings and have nothing to live for. For every shovel full of dirt he'd dug out of Sarah's and Adam's graves he'd sworn he'd find the one that killed them. For years that had been all he'd lived for.

"What happened?" he asked. What was it that had made her change her mind?

"I fell asleep and when I woke it was near sundown and there was a wolf just sitting there. I waited for it to kill me. I was never afraid, I welcomed it but it just sat there looking at me."

"A wolf? Was it Silver?"

"I thought so at first, it looked something like him, but it was older and bigger and -"

"And?" he encouraged her.

"You're not going to believe me," she said.

"You can tell me," Stranger said. After everything she had told him already he couldn't understand her hesitation.

"It spoke to me," she said slowly and then looked at him closely to gauge his reaction. He got a look of intense concentration on his face like he always did when he tried to recapture a half-remembered memory.

"It spoke to you?" he repeated in a distant voice.



"I'm not really sure. It looked at me and I knew what it was saying."

"What did it tell you?"

"That all my tears wouldn't ever bring them back to me again. I should hold them back for my life wasn't over. "
She had to stop and swallow hard before she continued. "The next morning I woke up in the grass near the river. For weeks afterwards I thought it had just been a dream but then I started to see things. I thought it was just daydreams and I seldom could remember quite what they were about until one day I told little Megan to look out for the snakes hiding in the shed. I had seen it so clearly when I looked at her and she was nearly bitten the next day, my warning saved her life. I realized I had gained something the day I met the wolf. It frightened me. It still does."

"I spoke to a wolf once," Stranger said. "Up on a mountain in a valley far away. Maybe it was the same one."

"What did it say?" she asked, hanging on his every word.

"Well, that I can't remember." His smile was bitter. "It's hard to piece a life together like this. I want to remember them but most of the time I just see them dead and then I try to forget. They both deserve better than that. They lived. They deserve to be remembered."

"Memories only matter for the living, not the dead," she said. "But that's no comfort."

Silence fell between them again and Stranger thought about his family. Ever since they'd died all he had lived for had been to find the killers. It was the only thing he could think of that might make the guilt he felt disappear. He should have been there. He should have protected them.

He'd thought they'd be safe. Wouldn't make that mistake again. No place was safe.

Stranger looked at Sarah. He thought she was wrong when she said Parker wouldn't do anything. Parker was trouble, he felt it in his bones. "You said Parker was the one that killed your family."

"I think he was behind it but I can't prove it," she said. "I don't know if it was a mistake or not, if he expected it to go that far. Reese is supposed to be his foreman now but he had a different one back then. Henry Wilkins handled all of Parker's business except for the signing of contracts. Parker said he'd been with him up at the house the whole time and the law - well, there's never been much of it out here. Sheriff did nothing. I think Wilkins did it. But I'll never know for sure. He died years ago."

"Died of what?"

"Wilkins went missing one evening and the next day when the sun rose he was found dead right in the middle of Main Street. It was a few days after John died. His throat had been ripped out. Some said it had to be a bear, others said they'd heard wolves howling that night. The story just grew. I was living at Doc's then but I never saw anything of it. He gave me a powder to help me sleep that night. I never even dreamed. At least, not that I can remember."

"Does it feel easier?" he asked. "Knowing that the one who did it is dead?"

"Some," she said somberly. "But not much. What about your family? Do you know who did it?"

"I'm not sure," Stranger said.

He'd seen it in dreams but he hadn't been able to make sense of all the images. There had been a fire, not the one that had killed his family, a different fire. He'd been chasing a black fox, it had lead him to something hidden. Searching, ever searching. Then a fight to the death. And a sense of satisfaction entwined with despair.

Nothing more came to him. "It feels unfinished to me," he said.

A cool wind ruffled through the grass and he turned his face into it, breathing in silence and peace. He could see Sarah do the same beside him. She rubbed away the tear tracks from her skin.

"I haven't cried since the day the wolf talked to me," she said, "not until I met you. You're the first one I've ever told the whole story to."

"I'm honored," Stranger said and it was no lie.

She gave him such a searching and intense look then that it almost made him uneasy.

"When I first met you I thought you were one of Parker's men. But Silver would never have accepted you if that was so. A wolf is a good judge of character. I knew you had to have a good heart."

He looked away. "My heart was buried with Adam," he said quietly.

But she shook her head as she laid her hand lightly against his chest and said to him quite seriously, "No. It's still there."

She took her hand away but he could still feel the warmth of it lingering on his skin. Sarah stood up and picked up the two empty cups. She squinted up at the sun.

"It's past midday, I'd better get us something to eat. I'm going in to town tomorrow morning to get some supplies. Should I get you anything?"

"No. Thank you," Stranger said.

"You're welcome," she said and smiled at him before she left him with just his thoughts for company.

He felt tired. Funny how the wounds on his body hadn't made him feel even half as tired as just talking did. But then he guessed they were different kinds of wounds.

Hearts were always harder to heal. Sometimes they never did.


Parker looked up Main Street and immediately spotted Sarah McKay's wagon, empty and waiting right outside Bell's General Store. So she was back again. And today Stranger wasn't with her.

Parker had waited the whole day before to find out if Stranger would do the smart thing but he obviously didn't know what was good for him. Too much like her. It would be a pleasure to see them both get what they deserved.

Parker strolled over onto the boardwalk and stopped just short of going into the store, choosing instead to just watch through the open door. That McKay woman was standing before the counter and her agitated voice carried out to the street where he could hear it quite clearly.

"But why?" she was saying to the store manager. "I can't pay you right now, you know that. My credit has always been good before."

"Mrs McKay-" the man began gently but then he caught sight of Parker just outside the door and his voice hardened slightly. "Times have changed. I can't afford-"

He never had to finish that sentence for she suddenly realized that he was looking at something behind her and turned around so she could see what it was. When she saw Parker her face paled while her eyes sparkled with anger. She turned her back on him and tried to reason with the store manager one final time.

"Please," she said softly. "I'm asking you. Just one more week."

"I'm sorry, Mrs McKay," the store manager said and she could see a measure of compassion in his eyes but that only made her feel even more humiliated and alone, not less.

Swallowing hard she turned on her heel and walked out of the store, passing by without looking at Parker as if he simply wasn't there.

When she had just settled in the buckboard she found that he had followed her and was standing right beside her now. Before she could do anything he grabbed hold of her reins to keep her from leaving.

"Let go, Parker," she said with disgust seeping into her voice. Parker smiled.

"Now that's a good idea - for you, that is," he said. "You should sign over the water rights and then leave and never come back."

"You'll never get that water," she said with quiet conviction.

"You'd better get out, Mrs McKay, before-" Parker was going to continue but he broke off when he saw her eyes suddenly change and go all strange as if she was no longer quite all there. And then she looked at him and it was as if she could see right through him, down to his very bones. It had to be some trick of the light but her hazel eyes seemed to have taken on a strange amber color and no longer looked human at all, instead they reminded him of wolf-eyes.

Cunning. Ancient. Merciless.

They were watching him now, weighing all that he was against some unknown source of knowledge. Finding him wanting.

"When I leave this town you'll already be lying in your grave," she softly told him. "You'd better get your affairs in order, Mr Parker. You've not got long on this earth."

For a moment he was frozen by the statement and her gaze and the reins slid through his nerveless fingers as he reflexively let go of them. Then she blinked and her eyes looked just as they always had. He blinked too and took an involuntary step backwards as she swiftly commanded the horses to start moving and drove off.

Parker stood in the middle of the street for a while and watched her disappear as he tried to fight down the shivers that wanted to run up and down his spine.

The worst thing about Sarah McKay was that she was nearly always right in her predictions.

But not this time. She couldn't be.

The morning sun had just started to get hot but a cloud seemed to darken the sunlight for a moment and he shivered again. Damn the woman for unsettling him so!

He walked into the saloon, bypassing a thirsty newcomer on the way. Parker gave him a brief glance and a pair of blue eyes glared back at him. The stranger had long hair and he was wearing a strange coat, made of - what was that - some type of skin? Had to be a trapper. Parker instantly dismissed him as no one of importance and sat down at his customary table in the back. Without being asked the barkeep brought over a bottle of the finest and most expensive whiskey to be found for many miles around and poured him a glass.

"Leave the bottle," Parker said without looking up and the barkeep silently went back behind the disk again. Parker's eyes sought out Reese among the few men in the saloon at this time of the day and a plan took form in his mind. He'd been holding back for far too long on account of her being a woman but now the time had come to finally get rid of Sarah McKay. They even had someone to blame it all on. Stranger was the key, he'd have to be dealt with first. The rest would be easy.

The hired gun ambled up to Parker's table as if sensing his thoughts and stood silently, chewing on his toothpick and waiting for orders. Parker finally looked up.

"I need you to get rid of Stranger," he said.

Reese nodded and his toothpick tipped over into the left corner of his mouth as he grinned. His thumb briefly caressed the ten notches carved into the butt of his gun. Ten easy kills, soon to be eleven.

"Consider it done," Reese replied without a doubt in his mind.

Chapter Six

~~ Noon ~~

"I need to finish this," Stranger said as he gave Sarah McKay a careful look. She hadn't been able to fully hide how upset the encounter at the store had made her and he'd drawn the story out of her soon after her unexpectedly early return.

"Stranger-" she started to say but he interrupted her, already knowing what she was about to say.

"It ain't just for you," Stranger assured her, although it mostly was. He knew her well enough by now to be sure that she wouldn't like it if this battle was fought just for her sake. She was gentle and kind and he feared what would happen to her if he had to go away.

There was a new urgency in his soul now. Something was coming, he was sure of that, but he didn't know what it was. Could be good, could be bad, but something was about to change. If, for some reason, he was to leave soon then he needed to be sure that she was cared for. The only way to ensure that was to bring Parker down.

"I don't want to see you hurt again, not over this," she said. He brought his hand up to her brow and rubbed gently with his thumb at the worry lines there until they became smooth and disappeared.

"I can take Reese," Stranger said with confidence. There was no doubt in his mind that he could.

"But it's not just him," Sarah protested. "You're alone against five of Parker's men."

"With Reese gone they'll fold like a house of cards. They're all holding on to his reputation, thinking it'll protect them, but it won't. I've seen him. He's good, but not good enough. And he needs to be gone."

"Just be careful," she told him. "I couldn't bear it if-"

"Sarah," he said gently and embraced her. On an impulse he raised her chin so he could kiss her.

Their lips barely touched but it was the sweetest of kisses. Brief, soft and gentle. It was meant to comfort and it did. Sarah lowered her head so she could rest it against Stranger's chest and listen to his steadily beating heart.

"Don't make promises," she whispered. They both knew how empty those could be.

"I'll be careful," he said, regardless.

"Just be who you are, Stranger," she told him as she let go.

Watching from the window she could see him sit straight in the saddle. It was written in every proud line of the back that was turned towards her, he would never give in, no matter what the consequences to himself. She closed her eyes as soon as he disappeared from view and told herself that he would be all right.

Sarah breathed in deeply and opened her senses, trying to see what would happen. She'd never done that deliberately before, never tried to see for herself, never called on her unwanted gift. But she did it now.

At first it was all just a grey mist that wouldn't scatter but then she could see movement and there was the figure of a man walking towards her in the distance. She couldn't see him clearly but she was sure that she had never seen him before. He seemed young, with long brown hair that moved around his head as the wind twisted it, obscuring his face. All she had time to see was a flash of blue eyes, then the man blinked out of existence and instead she was looking at a pack of howling wolves that were running straight at her. The image splintered into a thousand gleaming shards of unbearably white light and with a desperate effort she wrenched herself free from the vision.

Sarah sank down to the floor and curled in on herself. Her head was pounding and she could see nothing more. But she still felt it, in the pit of her stomach, a small knot of apprehension that was growing with every minute. Something was about to change. For the better or for worse, she couldn't tell. It centered on Stranger, that much she was sure of.

There was so much she didn't know about him but she had learned that he was sharp and quick and that he had a good, strong heart.

She just hoped that it would be enough to see him through what was to come.


Stranger tied his horse to the rail outside the store and walked in. He stopped just inside the door to let his eyes adjust to the half-light within. The manager looked pale and worn. He tried to look calm but his shaking hands betrayed him as Stranger faced him with just the counter separating them.

"I want Mrs McKay's credit restored," Stranger said without any preamble.

"Mr Parker-"

"What he has to say about it won't matter for much longer. Are we clear on that?"

"Yes," the store manager's voice was so low that it was nearly a whisper. "Mrs McKay's debt-"

"-will be paid in full," Stranger answered. "How much does she owe?"

The man took a look in his ledger and answered, "Seventeen dollars and Thirty-three cents." He looked up to find Stranger staring at him.

"You would ruin the life of a good woman for Seventeen dollars?" Strangers voice was deathly quiet. The manager looked as if he had a hard time breathing now, he was shaking so hard.

"Mister, I have a family," he explained desperately. "There was nothing I could do."

No, there probably wasn't, Stranger thought as he watched the man sweat. There was nothing a man like him could put up against men like Reese, not if he wanted to keep living. The manager wouldn't stand a chance. Oddly enough Stranger didn't despise him for it. Having a family made you vulnerable in so many ways and Stranger put all the blame on Parker in this case. He gave the man twenty dollars and told him to keep the change, then he left the store.

Stranger thought about Sarah and Doc Webster and Ben and Ben's father. They shouldn't have to live like this. The whole encounter had made him more determined than ever to get rid of Parker and his ilk. It didn't matter to Stranger any longer why Parker had taken over the town. He probably just did it because he could. It didn't matter.

The man was like a sickness, spoiling all with his touch. He needed to be gone.

The question was how to do it. Stranger had a strong feeling that he needn't go far to look for trouble. He just had to stay still in one spot for long enough and it would find him.

He walked down Main Street that lay deserted in the midday heat. When he was just outside the saloon he stopped. The perfect spot, if ever he'd seen one. Stranger went inside and the small crowd in the saloon parted quickly to give him free way up to the bardisk.

"Whiskey," he said as he flipped a coin onto the polished wooden surface. A glass swiftly appeared in front of him. Having filled the glass to the rim the barkeep gave him a searching look and muttered under his breath, "The mirror is brand new. Don't start anything in here."

Stranger merely looked at him and swallowed his drink in a single long swallow. "Leave the bottle," was his only answer. The barkeep sighed resignedly as he moved away.

Stranger had a bored look on his face as he watched in the mirror what was going on behind his back. Parker didn't seem to be in today but he recognized several of Parker's hired hands from the previous day. The conversation had died as Stranger stepped inside but now it started up again. The piano-player had started a new tune and he listened as he waited for trouble to seek him out. He could see a man get up from one of the poker tables and start moving in his direction. It was Reese.

The hired gun walked up to him and stood beside Stranger, staring at him as he carefully poured more whiskey into his glass.

"Your money's no good in here," Reese said.

Stranger turned towards him and said, "That's mighty generous of you."

"What?" Reese was thrown totally off track by the unexpected reply.

"Offering to pay for my drink," Stranger said. "That was what you meant. Wasn't it?"

Reese chewed furiously on his toothpick and even with the dim lights it wasn't hard to see that his face had just turned a deep shade of red.

"What I meant was that we don't want you or your money in here," he said sharply.

"You calling me out?" Stranger said with just the barest hint of disbelief in his voice.

Reese's eyes narrowed as he heard what sounded like hidden laughter behind Stranger's words and his quickly rising anger made him forget his carefully thought-up plan.

"Reckon so," he responded, and realized in that same moment that he'd just made a serious mistake. Stranger was supposed to call him out, not the other way around.

Then Stranger did something that few in town had seen him do before. He smiled. It was quite a grim smile that lasted barely an instant but it lit up his green eyes in an eerie way.

"Then let's take this outside," he suggested.

They walked out into the street and faced each other right outside the saloon. Through his easy stance Stranger made it clear that he had all the time in the world to stand there and wait for Reese to make the next move. Not being the most innovative of men Reese was forced to go back to his original plan and try to goad Stranger into action.

"You a hard man?" the hired gun spoke up. "Are you quick on the draw?"

"Maybe," Stranger replied.

Reese must have heard something in Stranger's voice for that statement made him hesitate and he asked more carefully, "Would I know you?"

"Depends on where you're from." Stranger let him draw his own conclusions as to that.

For a while Reese stopped chewing on his toothpick and looked almost thoughtful but he was too full of himself to hold back for very long.

"Pity you haven't told us your real name," he taunted Stranger. "I'd hate to let a man die without a name on his grave."

Stranger smiled coldly. "Why don't you just call me Cowboy?" he said in a whisper-soft voice that would have held a note of warning for a more perceptive man. Reese was oblivious. He was eager for the kill and wouldn't hold back calling Stranger out for anything.

They both knew it. One of them would die today.

"Well now," Reese said in a mocking tone. "I think this town ain't big enough for the two of us, Cowboy."

They stared at each other across the dusty street for many long minutes. Reese's hand was beginning to twitch where it hovered just above the handle of his gun. He could see Stranger's eyes coolly watching him from under the brim of his black hat. The man hardly blinked, just kept up that unnerving stare while Reese felt the sweat running down his face in the murdering midday sun and sting his eyes. The hired gun suddenly found that he could wait no longer. To hell with the law, he was the only law that counted in this town. Reese spat out his toothpick and went for it.

He'd just gotten his gun up and aimed it right at Stranger when something hit him square in the chest and he stumbled back a few steps. In disbelief he watched the thin curl of smoke coming from the barrel of Stranger's gun as his own gun dropped from suddenly numb fingers. Reese knew without a doubt that he'd drawn first but he still hadn't been fast enough to beat Stranger. Hell, he hadn't even managed to squeeze the trigger.

His strength deserting him completely Reese fell to his knees and then dropped to the side. Stranger walked over and looked down at the hired gun as the man coughed once and then died.

"Think you're right," he said quietly. "Just ain't big enough."


Vin Tanner watched from the shadows of a side alley as the hired gun called out Chris Larabee. He didn't want to walk right into the gunfight so he kept still and just waited, ready to step in if Chris needed help. Couldn't quite hear what they were saying to each other from that far away but it didn't look like nothing that Chris couldn't take care of. It was just the one guy, although there were some others waiting outside the saloon. They didn't look like much trouble either, at least nothing that Vin couldn't handle.

He had been in town for little more than a day, resting up in a small boarding house at the outskirts of the town. Strangest thing was that he had no idea really how he'd gotten all the way across the desert to this town, he could hardly remember a thing about it. There were just some snatches of memory left, of talking to someone and having an odd dream, of nearly dying and hurting and finally of being healed.

Then he'd just woken up one morning near a small spring up on a mountain and seen the town in the distance. To walk to it had taken him the rest of the day but it hadn't been hard work getting there at all. In fact, he hadn't felt this good in years. Vin knew something quite out of the ordinary had happened but he didn't waste much time thinking about it. Whoever it was that had been watching over him, it was someone that was clearly on his side.

Now he had to see to the matter of finding Chris Larabee.

After he'd slept and eaten and taken a much needed bath, he'd gone to the saloon where he'd been drinking quietly and listening to the loudmouths telling him all he wanted to know without him even having to ask anything. Hadn't taken Vin long to find out that Parker thought he was the big man in town and that there was some feud involving him and a woman named McKay. For some reason nearly everyone spoke her name in a hushed voice as if they were afraid of her. Mrs McKay also had a man staying out at her place some ways outside town, a man that was simply referred to as Stranger and nothing else.

He'd figured out right away that the one called Stranger might be Chris Larabee, sure sounded like it when they talked about him. They described in detail a man with blond hair and piercing green eyes who dressed mostly in black. If that wasn't Chris then it had to be a twin brother that Vin had never heard about.

One thing worried him some. He had no idea why Chris wouldn't use his own name if it truly was him. Maybe he didn't want them to know about his reputation?

Well, they'd all know soon enough. Vin had been on his way to the livery stable to get a horse when he'd seen Chris standing in the street, just as the man was being called out. Now Reese had made his move and he hadn't been near fast enough, just as Vin had predicted. He watched as Chris walked over and looked down at the dead man. It looked as if he was saying something to the body.

Vin stepped out of the alley and started to cross the street to where Chris was standing. He stopped for a while when he spotted movement in the corner of his eye. There was a growing dust cloud out on the road leading in to town and out of it emerged four riders and he knew them all well. A wild grin spread over his face for a second as new hope flooded his heart. The riders still had some distance to cover as Vin resumed his walk towards Chris with new determination.

They'd been found. He knew things would be all right now.


Stranger looked around and saw the rest of Parker's men all frozen with shock on the boardwalk outside the saloon. They cowered as he looked at them and scattered quickly when he seemed as if he was about to take a step in their direction.

He'd known it would be that way. Just money didn't buy much loyalty, at least not for long, only mutual trust could do that. Now there was just Parker left and Stranger had to make sure that he didn't hire someone else. Someone better and meaner than Reese. Someone better than Stranger himself.

Had to get Parker. Now was the time to do it.

He was about to start up towards that big house on the rise when a voice suddenly spoke up nearby. Stranger slowly turned towards the speaker, thinking it was another one of Parker's men.

"Chris Larabee," a man said as he stepped out into the street. He looked like a wild one with his hide coat and long hair sticking out underneath his hat. Stranger hadn't seen him in town before but there was something vaguely familiar about him all the same. That name sounded familiar too. Was Larabee the man standing in front of him or someone else?

"I don't care who you are," Stranger said and watched in wonder at the impact his words had on the other man. He had stopped his advance and stood stock still now, his blue eyes narrowing with uncertainty.

"Tell me your name," the newcomer urged him.

"What's it to you?" Stranger said, but he wavered nearly imperceptibly. He was starting to feel as if there was a terrible pressure in his mind, as if all those locked down memories were about to be unleashed all at once. He didn't know if he could handle that. Wasn't even sure if he still wanted it.

The man's next words sent a shockwave through Stranger's whole body.

"I know your name," the outsider said.

"That don't matter to me none," Stranger said stubbornly, desperate not to show any weakness. This town was his now, no one was going to take it away from him. He had to make it safe for Sarah.

"You sure about that?" The man sounded even more insistent when he said, "Don't you know me?"

"Should I?" Stranger replied.

"Yeah," the familiar man said. "You should."

He could see the man's eyes shift to something beside him and then back to his face for the barest fraction of a second. Damn! There had to be someone else behind his back. This was an ambush!

A thousand thoughts flowed through his mind between one heartbeat and the next. Stranger couldn't figure out what they were waiting for, they could have finished him off by now. Something was going on. Maybe he could use that as a distraction to even things out.

The draw was so smooth and fast that it was barely visible. Just like magic, the gun was there in his hand. There was no conscious thought now, it was all instinct and reaction.

He could hear voices around him calling that name again, the one he felt that he almost knew. Chris! No! Don't! they were calling.

It didn't matter to him, none of it. He was surrounded and he knew he was going to die. There was only one thing on his mind right now, to take at least one of them with him in death. He squeezed the trigger and saw the man in front of him tumble and fall while the sound of the shot still echoed along the dusty street.

The scene looked oddly familiar as if he could see into another time, another place where he'd seen that long-haired man tumble and fall just as he was doing now. He couldn't break free, the scene kept repeating itself in his mind. Stranger felt something happening in his head. An ice cold thread of pain seemed to cut right through his brain, dispersing the fog in his mind, and he suddenly knew exactly who he was and what he was doing.

"No," he whispered in denial of what he'd just done and it was echoed by another anguished voice behind him, a voice he recognized immediately. Buck! It was Buck, and the man he'd shot, it was- No! Chris was just about to turn around and say something when he was hit by a tremendous blow on the back of his head. Stunned he fell to the ground.

Laying there Chris could feel the dark creeping up on him. His eyes went to where his friends were running towards Vin who now lay sprawled on his back in the dusty street. He couldn't stand it, he had to turn his eyes away but then he just saw Buck's face as he looked down at Chris with agony in his eyes. It was all too much for Chris and he closed his eyes, finally giving in to the darkness.

He didn't want to know any more and fleetingly wished that this was the end for him even though he felt it probably wasn't. There would be a day of reckoning.

He'd just shot one of the best friends he'd ever had.

Death was too good for someone like him.

Chapter Seven

~~ Last Sunrise in Gila Flats ~~

Awareness came back to him suddenly, not the slow glide into reality it had been the first time he'd woken up in Sarah's spare bed. One second he was nowhere and the next he was wide awake and staring up at the smooth planks in the ceiling. He could recall everything that had been happening up until that moment with perfect clarity.

"Did I really try to shoot Vin?" he asked out loud, having a hard time believing what he'd done and hoping that it had all been a bad dream.

"Try?" a soft drawl answered him. "Hell, you did shoot me, cowboy. Got my hat and all."

Chris looked to the left and there was Vin, leaning against the wall right next to the window. He had lifted the curtain a crack so he could look out at the mountains without letting the burning sun shine in too much on them, the room was already nearly as hot as an oven. Vin looked reassuringly unmarked for a man who'd been shot twice in the past week.

"Vin? Is that really you?" His head was pounding and Chris wasn't quite sure that he wasn't just imagining things.

"Sure ain't no ghost," Vin said and walked over to sit down on the chair next to the bed.

"But I shot you," Chris said and felt twice as sick from hearing himself say it.

"Only gave me a hair cut," Vin said. Chris could see that the hair near Vin's left temple looked jagged and slightly singed and he knew it must have been clipped short by his bullet. So that was how close he'd gotten. Too damn close.

"Saw it coming a mile away so I threw myself out of the way. Reckon I'm lucky you cain't hit the broad side of a barn even on a good day."

"Ain't never missed since I first learned to draw," Chris grumbled.

"Could chalk it up to Buck distracting you at the last minute. Reckon he knocked some sense into that hard head of yours at the same time. Not often you let someone sneak up on you, pard. Must have known somehow it was a friend."

Vin's voice trailed off a bit when he said that last word, not much, but enough that Chris noticed it and he felt sick again. He'd let Buck sneak up right behind him, near enough to knock him out, but he'd hardly let Vin come within twenty paces before he'd shot him.

What the hell was wrong with him? If he had recognized Buck then why not Vin? It made no sense to him. Ever since he'd met Vin they'd relied on each other without a moments doubt in battle after battle. They'd had some serious disagreements before about how some things should be handled but it had all been over and done with as soon as the situation was resolved. He'd thought that the trust between them had been absolute. Until now.

He should have known. He should have known.

Why hadn't he?

"I'm sorry," Chris said and knew that it wasn't nearly enough. He didn't know what could ever be enough, but whatever it was he knew he'd have to find it.

"Ain't got nothing to be sorry for," Vin said but there was a distance between them now that hadn't been there before. An uneasy silence stretched out for far too long until Chris felt that they'd better start talking about something.

"Vin, when we were up on that mountain I saw you fall. I knew you were hit and hurt bad. What happened?"

"Well," Vin began with a faraway look in his eyes. "I don't rightly know. I remember walking through the desert, but -" he broke off and shook his head as if he couldn't find the right words. Chris could see that he was holding something in his hand. It looked like a small white stone and Vin's thumb rubbed over it continuously and unconsciously as he was thinking.

"Think it's better left alone," Vin said finally. "Should let it be."

He looked Chris right in the eye as he said the last bit and they both knew that it wasn't the only thing that was better left alone right then. This time it was Vin that switched subjects.

"Nathan thinks you'll be ready to travel in a day or two unless you're feeling poorly. You're not seeing double or something, are you?"

Chris was about to say, "No, one of you is more than enough," but he didn't quite feel he had the right to just fall into their usual banter. Not this time.

He settled for a simple, "No," instead. Vin gave him a long and searching look as if he didn't quite believe him but he didn't call him on it.

"So, you're ready to go back to Four Corners and be a lawman again?" Vin asked.


"Good. 'Cause I gotta tell you, cowboy," Vin said as he tugged on a strand of his singed hair "- you sure ain't much of a barber."

He swiftly stood up and started to move away. Chris grabbed hold of his arm to stop him from leaving.

"You gonna stay in Four Corners?" Chris felt foolish and uncomfortable asking it but he had to know the answer, had to hear Vin say it. He let go of Vin's arm and waited. He wouldn't blame Vin if he said no.

Vin gave him a searching look and then a short nod.

"Are we still friends?" Chris asked, feeling even more awkward.

Vin just gave him that searching look again. Then he looked at the wall behind Chris's head and kept his eyes there as he carefully chose his words.

"See - it's like this, Larabee - if we ain't, then I got shot and walked through that desert to find you and then got shot again for nothing."

Vin looked away from the wall and instead pinned Chris down with his eyes as he slowly said, "I ain't doing something like that again."

Chris got the message. He'd just gotten one more chance. One. He held out his hand and felt Vin's hand meet his own, just holding on without measuring his strength.

Warm. Solid. Real.


"Thanks, Vin," Chris quietly said.

"Wouldn't have it any other way, cowboy," Vin replied sincerely.

He let go of Chris's hand and took a step back, turning towards the door.

"Buck's waiting outside. He's deeply sorry he had to hit you but he saw no other way to stop you." Vin gave Chris a lop-sided grin before saying, "Told me to hide your gun before he dares to step into this room."

"Think I'm done shooting anyone for a long time to come," Chris said wryly.

"Sure hope so," Vin said, sounding very serious. He disappeared out the door before Chris could think of anything more to say.

Buck came into the room looking very contrite. He was talking loudly from the moment he stepped through the doorway and it made Chris's head ache something fierce.

"Chris, I swear, if I'd seen any other way I wouldn't have knocked you out. I mean - it's not like it's the first time I've had to - but - this time I hit you real hard and .... you didn't even know it was us. But you do now, right? You recognize me? I'm real sorry. If there's anything I can do-"

"Yeah, you can quit being sorry so loud."

"Sorry." Buck lowered his voice to a near whisper and asked, "How are you feeling?"

"I'll live. And so will Vin. Thanks to you."

Buck sank down on the empty chair and shook his head.

"I tell you, Chris ... I never thought I'd see the day- How's he taking it?"

"Me shooting him in the head?" Chris said and winced at hearing his own blunt words. "Better than I would if I was in his shoes."

"Vin ain't one to hold a grudge against a friend."

"Yeah. Guess that's more than I deserve. A friend wouldn't do what I've done."

"He ain't blaming you, Chris. I know that much. There was something else at work here-" Buck broke off suddenly. He always felt uncomfortable when thinking about things that couldn't be explained by men. "Did you feel it, Chris?"

"Feel what?"

"Like there was more going on than someone wanted us to know about."

"Maybe," Chris said. Everything that had happened since he'd first been hit on the head seemed pretty strange to him. Parts of it might have been just a fever dream for all he knew. "Vin said something like that. Said it was better left alone."

"He's probably right," Buck said. "It's just that it reminded me so of last year when we - well - never mind."


"No, it was nothing," Buck said again and tried fight down his uneasiness. "You ready for travel in a couple of days? Nathan said you might be."

"Have to take care of some things before I can leave."

"You mean Parker? Don't need to do anything about him. Josiah should be reading the final words over his grave right about now."

"What? What happened?"

"Found him sitting dead in a chair in that big house of his. Have you seen the insides of it? Real fancy. Crystal glasses, fine linen, silver ware-"

Chris cut him off with a sharp, "Buck!"

"Now hold your horses, I'm getting there. Nathan said that it looked like his heart must have stopped suddenly, just like that. Josiah told us it was the Lord calling home a sinner. From the look that was on Parker's face I'd say he looked like he'd been scared to death of something. Whatever it was he's beyond human justice now."

"If there's any justice at all in the after life he went straight to hell."

"Must have been a bad one, huh? You know, that's what the little lady said also, maybe not in the same words as you, but still."

"Sarah?" Chris said in alarm when he realized that he'd clean forgotten to even ask about her until then. "Is she all right?"

"Right as rain. Seems she had some idea that you might need her and drove into town right after I knocked you out. She was mighty upset and called for that old guy, Doc Webster, and he came running out with a shotgun. Thought he was going to shoot me on the spot but I managed to talk him out of it."

Chris raised an eyebrow ever so slightly and wished he'd been there to see it for he was certain that their first meeting must indeed have been something to see.

"She took it all in stride, I must say," Buck continued. "Told us everything we needed to know about how things stood. Vin had scouted around enough beforehand to vouch for her so we brought you over to her house and set about to clean up the town."

"How long was I out?"

"Nearly a day," Buck said and frowned. "Thought I'd about killed you. Had me worried."

"No need," Chris said and added dryly, "I've been told I'm pretty hard-headed."

"Really? No kidding," Buck said and grinned. "Yeah, that's what they told me."


"Nathan, Doc and Mrs McKay. She's a strong woman that one. Name shook me up some and seeing her did too. Reminded me an awful lot of ...." Buck's voice trailed off and Chris could see a look of profound loss and grief shadow his eyes for a moment.

"Yeah," Chris said, his own heart pierced with sorrow. "I know."

Feeling suddenly weary beyond belief he sank back against the soft pillows and closed his eyes.

"You look tired," Buck said quietly. "I'll let you rest now. Be back later."

Chris never heard Buck leave, being too worn out to really care. He started awake for a brief second when he felt a cool hand on his forehead but it was just Sarah and she whispered to him that everything was all right and to go back to sleep.

So he did.


Chris spent the best part of the next day in bed recovering, sternly watched by Nathan to see that he didn't overdo it. He talked a lot with Buck, JD and Josiah to find out exactly what he had missed while he was away. Turned out it was rather a lot, it sounded like they were real lucky that the town was still standing. Vin never came, he'd gone up in the mountains to look around. He had probably heard it already.

Laying in bed tired him out and Chris fell asleep in the afternoon and didn't wake up until the sun was going down. His room was empty and since no one was there to stop him he got out of bed and got dressed. Carefully opening the door he listened to the nearly silent house. Most everyone had to be out somewhere except for a lone person quietly shifting and moving some things around. It sounded as if it came from Sarah's room and he gave in to his curiosity and walked over to the door, risking a peek into the room.

Sarah was kneeling on the floor and carefully wrapping a pair of candlesticks in soft cloth before putting them in a battered old trunk that was nearly full with all sorts of small things, similarly wrapped up. She looked up and got on her feet when she heard him enter.

"I'm going with you when you leave," she said determinedly.

For a moment he felt something clench in his gut. What was she thinking? Had he misread her feelings towards him? A woman like Sarah, she meant serious business and he wouldn't like to see her hurt. Did she feel more for him than he had known?

"Sarah," he said and got no further for she made a slight gesture with her hands, clearly to ward off whatever he was about to say.

He cared for her, maybe he even loved her a little. There was a bond between the two of them that couldn't be denied. But it wasn't enough, not for him, not for either of them. The care they had for each other was just a ghostly echo of the love that had been torn from both their lives far too soon. The feeling was just as real, but nothing compared to what they'd lost and it was nothing to build a brand new future together on. He knew that but so did she, he could see it in her eyes when he looked closer.

"It's time for me to move on," she said. "I'd like some company on the road. Nothing more. If you don't mind."

He wondered if he was always so easy to read or if it was just the fact that she seemed to know him so well. Sarah was an uncannily perceptive woman. Maybe that was why she had gotten The Sight.

"I don't mind," he said. He watched as she picked up a bunch of letters neatly tied together with a red ribbon. She looked at them for a moment and then put them down and carefully covered them with a small quilted baby blanket.

"Not much to show for fifteen years of life with someone," she said softly and then she resolutely closed the lid of the trunk.

All Chris could think about was the ruins of his own home. He would have given almost anything to have even that much left after his family but he never said it. It was an old pain. No need to dwell on it.


Chris spent the rest of the evening by himself in quiet reflection. He called up every bit of his history that he could recall, even the things he most wanted to forget. The whole shameful affair with Ella Gaines. The guilt felt like a terrible weight around his heart. And she was still out there somewhere. He shied away from it and Ella was replaced by Sarah's father Hank Connelly, gone crazy from his grief and his guilt. Chris remembered him dying on the street in Four Corners and telling him not to forget. And Chris had told him he'd never forget. But he had, though not for long.

Chris felt free to remember things he rarely dared to think about for it always made him feel like his heart would crack asunder. All the good things. Adam's first day on earth. Sarah on her wedding day. The rush of joy he'd felt when he'd heard her say her new name for the first time. In his mind he could hear her voice again as she said it, Sarah Larabee. Remembering her full name meant more to him than finding out his own. He closed his eyes as a bittersweet feeling took hold of him. Never forget. Never again.

He must have fallen asleep for a while and something had woken him but he didn't know what it was. Chris knew where he was, in Sarah McKay's house, stretched out on the bed and he felt a presence nearby and so he opened his eyes to see who it was. There in the moonlight he saw his love stretched out beside him, her head a familiar weight on his arm.

"Sarah," he whispered in wonder and she opened her eyes, those glorious eyes that had always held such love for him. He could see it shining in them still. "Oh, Sarah," he whispered, all his longing breaking free as he raised a trembling hand to stroke the hair out of her eyes. How could this be? It couldn't be a dream, he could feel the strands of her hair as soft as silk between his fingers. "I'm so sorry," he told her what he had longed to say for so many years. "It should have been me, Sarah. Forgive me. It should have been me."

She lay a finger on his lips to stop him from speaking, hushing him gently. "I love you, Chris," she whispered back. "There's never been anything to forgive. Don't give up your life for me. It's not over yet."

He could hear her whisper so clearly in his mind that he was bitterly disappointed when he was suddenly wide awake and found himself alone. Had it been just a dream? But his arm was numb as if something had rested there. Chris didn't know what to think, but then he was too tired to think about it for long. He fell into uneasy sleep but there were no dreams that he could later remember.

On the morning of the second day he was up and dressed soon after sun up. He decided it was high time to take care of his new beard and while he shaved he thought about everything they needed to do before going home again.

Home. He actually had somewhere to be after drifting for so many years. Felt good.

Chris stared at his reflection in the mirror as he scraped away the stubble on his jaw. Yeah, he recognized that face now, he concluded with satisfaction. Just as he was finished there came a knock on the door and Sarah came into his room. She silently handed him a fresh towel and he could see an unfamiliar gleam in her eye.

"There's something I've been meaning to do," she told him very seriously, "and I think now is a very good time to do it. In all this time we haven't been properly introduced. Would you be so kind as to tell me your name, Stranger?"

"It's Chris. Chris Larabee."

"Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr Larabee." She curtsied and held out her hand towards him, saying, "My name is Sarah McKay."

He took her hand and was pleased to notice that she wasn't wearing her gloves. She wasn't hiding from him anymore. Chris tried to keep a solemn look on his face as he shook her hand but then he saw the corners of her mouth start to twitch and they both grinned at each other.

"Sarah ... I can't thank you enough," he said.

"I think I know," she said, her eyes shining brightly. He could see in them the memory of their first and last kiss.

Chris became aware that they had been standing in silence holding hands for some time. Instead of letting go he suddenly raised her hand to his lips and ghosted a kiss across her scarred knuckles. She looked shocked and pleased all at once.

"Sarah, I wish you joy," he said quietly but with feeling. She smiled. For the first time since he had met her all shadows were gone from her eyes and she looked truly happy.


Vin stepped out of the store and squinted against the sun in his eyes. He tightened a buckle on his saddlebags and swung them up behind his saddle. It had been three days now since the showdown in town and even Nathan had to admit that Chris was back to his old self and well enough to go home.

Home. They were going home, all of them. Felt strange.

He could hardly wait to get away from this town but he wasn't so sure that he really wanted to return to Four Corners. But maybe it was for the best. Things might feel better in Four Corners. Might get back to the way it had been before. Getting up in the saddle he quieted Peso down a bit and hoped that it was so.

The others were already mounted with the exception of Chris. Vin suddenly noticed that JD kept staring at his coat.

"Vin," JD said with something like awe in his voice. "There's a big hole in your coat."

Vin looked down at it. A row of neat stitches held the flaps of hide together where it had been torn by the bullet that had almost ended his life. Round the edges were faded dark brown smudges. Blood stains. His blood. A brief image flashed by in his mind of a girl with strange eyes but that might just have been a dream and soon it was all gone again.

Vin looked at JD and shrugged. "So?"

"So, there's a big hole in your coat!" JD said.

"Ain't half as interesting as the fact that someone's mended it," Vin said cryptically and smiled when he saw JD looking thoroughly lost. His eyes then went to where Chris was talking to that old doctor and Vin's smile disappeared.

Something felt wrong between them and Vin had no idea what to do about it. He felt like the ground between them was covered with patches of sand and quicksand and you never knew which one you were gonna step in next. It had made him avoid talking to Chris on his lonesome and he'd never done that before. He'd never been one to shy away from trouble in his life but this was different somehow.

Chris said goodbye to old Doc Webster and turned to find his friends all ready to go. Vin gave him a long look from where he sat slouched in his saddle but his face gave nothing away as to how he was feeling.

Chris felt relieved when he could turn his back on Vin to get back in saddle. He had no idea what to do about this awkward feeling of shame that came over him whenever Vin was around. Well, it was nothing he could do anything about right now, it would have to wait.

When they got out on the road Chris could see the lone figure of a woman out by the cemetery. As they drew nearer he could see that it was Sarah, standing in front of one of the few proper tombstones. Her wagon was packed full and waiting by the cemetery gate. Chris wanted to talk to her alone and he turned towards his friends.

"You go on," he told them. "We'll catch up with you on the road."

Vin gave him another long look and Buck winked at him but there were no protests, they just moved on while Chris dismounted and tied Pony's reins to the gate. Sarah never looked up, her head was bent down and her eyes were closed. Was she praying? He thought so at first but when she spoke her voice sounded strained and lost and he knew that she was trying to hold back her tears.

"I've stood here so many times, wishing I could change time itself or that the desert would take me and make me forget it all. I never realized until you came how many years I've wasted this way. Not dead, yet not quite living."

"Sometimes just surviving is all you can do." Chris spoke from experience.

"The difference between before and after... that memory never softens. I've thought so much about that moment, that line between knowing and not knowing. You know it too, don't you, that moment when everything changes forever? When you cross that line nothing ever looks the same again."

Chris stayed silent, but he knew. You would never again be so sure that nothing bad could really touch you. Never be sure that you could protect the ones you loved. You were allowed no more illusions.

"That wolf, it gave me a gift, I see that now," she continued. "Changes will never catch me unprepared again. I can see them coming now. I didn't ask for it and it still scares me, but now I think that I wished for it deep in my heart. And the wolf knew that, even if I didn't. Not until now."

Chris studied the worn tombstone and frowned a bit when he found that the late John McKay had been born in the same year as he. In fact - Chris Larabee and John McKay had been born just seven days apart. Huh! Wasn't that odd....

"I had the strangest dream last night," Sarah said and diverted his thoughts once more. "I dreamt the wolf came back to me."

"What did it say?"

"It wasn't quite words, it was more like feeling things. It breathed on me and it was like it was breathing away all my sorrow. When I woke my cheeks were wet. I must have been crying in my sleep." She brushed at her left cheek as if mapping out the tracks of her tears. "I couldn't go back to sleep again so I went up and made breakfast instead. It was early but one of your friends was up and about and we talked a while. Now I feel better."

"Which one?" He figured it had to have been Buck but she replied, "The quiet one."

Vin. She had talked to Vin. What could they have had to say to each other?

"Did he say anything-" Chris said and regretted it the moment the words left his lips.

"-about you shooting at him?" she finished his sentence. "No, he didn't. He doesn't want to talk about it any more than you do. I don't think either of you should just let this be."

"Sarah," he said and his tone warned her off the subject.

"But then," she continued undauntedly, "who am I to speak about the unwise silence of a heart that need not be so lonely?"

Chris frowned, not quite sure what she meant with her words. He'd stopped trying to figure her out and decided it was best not to say anything at all. They stood in silence for a while before Sarah abruptly said, "Is it time to go?"

He nodded. "Yeah. You can still change your mind."

"No," she said firmly. "I've seen my last sunrise in Gila Flats. I've packed what I'm going to keep and arranged everything with Doc Webster. He's going to sell the land and the things I leave behind and send me the money."

"What about the water rights?"

"With Parker gone it's going to be all right. I wouldn't leave unless I was sure. Besides, soon it won't matter much. You said there was a stage line in that town you're from?"

"Yes there is. You've decided where you're gonna go?"

"Yes, to my sister in Denver. She's been wanting me to come see her for years but I couldn't leave. There were so many reasons for staying. Especially Benjamin. I couldn't leave him all alone here like this in the cold ground. I think I was most afraid I'd forget about him if I left."

"And now?"

"Now I realize that he's with his papa. I won't be leaving him alone. And I carry both of them with me wherever I go. In my heart."

For a second she was unable to continue talking and she stroked slowly over the top of the worn headstone. A few tears fell and were soaked up by the dust covering the grave. Chris looked the other way, not wanting to intrude on such a private moment.

His eyes fell on the hazy figure of a small boy standing just outside the fence that separated the cemetery from the rest of the desert. It was hard to see with the sun right in his eyes but Chris was pretty sure it was Ben, the small boy he'd found fishing by the river. When he saw that Chris was watching the boy gave him a grin and a small wave of the hand and then, inexplicably, he was gone from sight.

Chris blinked and squinted hard against the sun. There was no trace of the boy, even when he looked all around the burial ground. There was no shelter out here, nothing to hide behind, nothing but the desert outside the fence. The boy couldn't have just disappeared into thin air - but it seemed he had done just that. Chris walked a bit closer to the fence and saw that the dust outside was untouched by human feet. No one had been standing there for quite some time.

There was no shade out here but he could feel a cool breeze against his back all the same and he shivered. He hadn't made the connection before but now he suddenly did.

Ben. Benjamin. Sarah's child. Her heart, just as Adam was his.

If Sarah's child was watching over her, then maybe Adam was out there somewhere too. Maybe love could survive even death.

A wave of emotion swelled within him with this thought. He fought it down like he always did, it was not for others to know or see. But it left behind a strange sense of peace and expectancy that breathed new life into his battered soul.

Sarah's voice drew him back to the here and now again and he turned towards her.

"I know they wouldn't want me to spend the rest of my life here," she said. "This town is dying, there's no future for it. A few years time it'll be just the dust blowing through here."

"What about your wolf, Silver?"

She was quiet for a while as she looked one last time towards the blue mountains.

"He'll find me if he needs to," she said with certainty. Sarah smiled. "And he's not my wolf, he's very much his own wolf."

"You've seen it?" he asked.

She shook her head, "I just know. Well, Stranger, you've certainly turned my life upside down. I think I'm actually going to miss you."

"We've got some days yet before we have to part," Chris said, thinking about the road ahead. First on to Four Corners where he'd see her safely on her way to Denver. After that was done, well, he'd just take it easy for a while and then who knew what might happen.

He helped her climb up into the wagon and get settled in her seat before he got back in the saddle. Out on the road he could see his friends hadn't gotten very far. Instead they had stopped at a distance where they couldn't overhear his and Sarah's conversation and were watching and patiently waiting, even though he had told them to move on.

"Ready?" He looked at her and she nodded as they urged their horses on.

"I've said my goodbyes," Sarah said and never looked back even once.

But Chris did. He turned slightly in the saddle and looked at the town one final time. In a sense he had been reborn there. Perhaps Sarah had the right idea. Time to move on. The burden of guilt and sorrow he'd carried with him for so long seemed a little lighter today, out here in the sun. Maybe he could put it down for a while.

He turned his eyes back to the road ahead of him and thought about Adam. If he was out there then Chris might even get to see him one day.

It was something worth hoping for. But more than that, it was something worth living for.

At least he could try.


~~ Coyote ~~

The moon rose in the dark sky and with it rose the winds. They were always unpredictable, could hurt as well as soothe, but tonight they weren't sent to torment the land and break the old trees or bend the young saplings. They were just there to pass messages along for those who were listening.

Coyote raised his head and called out a greeting to all his kin, far and wide. It warmed his heart to hear the answering calls of his many children coming from all around.

A deeper howl behind him made him jump and turn and he found Wolf standing right behind him, staring at him. He looked quite angry.

"I am angry," Wolf confirmed Coyotes silent observation. "I've told you this before -they are not just something for you to play with, Coyote."

"I didn't start it!" Coyote protested. "They did that all by themselves. I didn't really harm them at all. Nearly all I did was to watch. And it's not as if I was the only one to take an interest, you did too."

"Only to try and set right what you had changed," Wolf told him.

"Hah! Then what about that man?" Coyote asked. "He was so afraid of you that he died. And what about the woman?"

"Her fate is not your concern. She was owed a kindness. You were the one to set things in motion, you should have let it be. I know you've been waiting for another chance to interfere in their lives but it ends here. You already know what can happen if you interfere too much. You just never learn. Leave them alone, Coyote."


"Promise to leave them alone!" Wolf thundered and Coyote hung his head.

"I give you my Word that none of them will see or hear any more from me for this the rest of their lives," he said but his eyes flashed defiantly.

"Good," Wolf said and trotted off into the dark.

Coyote waited to be sure he was really gone before he let out a short barking laugh. Wolf's will might be stronger in this case but Coyote was always the wily and inventive one. Wolf really should have known better than to let Coyote use his own words to make up the vow that was meant to bind him.

Coyote's Word was strong and it would hold him, but it didn't much matter in the long run. The seasons, the stars, the sun - everything around them turned in an endless circle and sooner or later it came back again to the same spot.

He'd made a promise to leave the seven well alone, but only in this life, and he knew that a man such as Vin Tanner couldn't be lost forever to death. Souls like his were ever wandering, ever searching. It would turn up again. And when it did Coyote wouldn't be bound by any old promises made to Wolf.

They would meet again, it was inevitable. He could leave them alone, for now. It wouldn't last forever. Nothing ever did, except for those few that were like him and stood outside of time.

Sometimes he wasn't so sure that he truly was eternal. Coyote looked up at the stars and found that he couldn't remember if he had been created before the heavens or if it was the other way around. He couldn't recall a time when he hadn't been here or, likewise, a time when the heavens hadn't been there either. Some of the stars had changed since first he'd seen them. Some were gone, others had been born. It was the one thing that almost made him feel humble. Where did they come from? Where did they go? If even stars died, then what chance did he have?

For a second he felt the almost unbearable weight of his own loneliness that was ever growing as year was added to year, but he quickly shook it off. It wasn't in his nature to feel that much sorrow for very long.

He rested his head on his paws and closed his eyes for a little while so he could focus on hearing. Something was out there, something fun. He listened to the wind and two names came to him, whispered by the wind coming from the east. Denver. Colorado.

Coyote knew it held some significance for him but he didn't quite know how or when yet. It felt like it was still far into the future from the place where he now was but he decided not to find out more about it just yet. Wolf had said that Coyote never learned, but he was wrong! Anticipation could be sweet sometimes with so much to look forward to. He could be patient. Yes, he could. No need to hurry. Time time would tell, it always did. And he had plenty of time.

Meanwhile, there were so many others out there to play with. Most of them would not be as entertaining as the seven, though. Ah, well.

"Until next time, Vin Tanner," Coyote whispered back as the wind turned and small tendrils of air ruffled through his fur.

He put his paws firmly on the ground and stretched out his spine, preparing for the run. It was time to dance with the stars and chase the moon.