Coyote Waiting

by Mods

Part One of the Coyote Chronicles

I am forever indebted to my wonderful betas for their help. Thanks to Linda, Michelle and Judy.


~~ Coyote ~~

Coyote looked up at the shining disk of the moon and listened to the whispers of time swirling all around him. A man's voice was speaking and Coyote liked the way the words flowed by in a regular rhythm that was almost like the beat of a pulse.

These white humans sometimes fascinated him, as alien to him as he was to them, yet there were some that he understood and some who understood him. The red humans he understood better. They were of the land as he was, as much a part of the web of life in this place as he was, yet not the same as he was. They were mortal while he was not quite a god but something beyond animal or human and beyond the confines of a particular shape or nature.

The words Coyote heard were spoken many years into the future and far across the ocean but years or space had never bound Coyote. He stood outside of normal time and what was and what would be were the same to him. He left his body sitting on the mountain range above the little town the humans had built and let his spirit seek out the talking man.

Parts of the words came quite clearly to Coyote now as the man, who was still a boy in the time he had left behind, read the words aloud that he had just written down;

"Now this is the Law of the Jungle - as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die."

Coyote listened as the human read out a long list of instructions for any Cub who wanted to run with the Pack. The voice went on to mention names of animals Coyote knew about but had never seen since they weren't of the land that he kept watch over and therefore didn't interest him. Going to seek out the white ones were a different matter. They had come to him and were strangers to the land and yet becoming a part of it. That made him curious as to who they were and where they came from.

He listened now and grinned in amusement at the imaginative mind of a human who simplified the complex and instinctive patterns of the rules of the Pack and scribbled them down for other humans to know.

Still, amusing as the thought was that any human could even think to try and understand, many of the words rang true. The ending truest of all in it's uncompromising stance.

"Now these are the laws of the Jungle, and many and mighty are they;
But the head and the hoof of the Law and the haunch and the hump is - Obey!"

Coyote listened until the voice started to repeat the same words that he had already heard. Taking a deep breath he stepped back into the time where his body was still sitting.

There was a rider coming on the trail outside of town, far below. Coyote knew this one. His coat was made from hides and he had pale skin, long hair and eyes like blue heaven on a stormy day. There was a kinship among all living things out here in the wild and Coyote could always feel the wariness of all the little living things down there when one of the white ones moved among them. Not so when this human moved. His soul was part of the wild and he felt it and Coyote felt it too.

Coyote looked down at the rider. Which was the stronger tug? The wild or the town he had left behind?

Coyote found that he wanted very much to find out what drove this one and he cocked his head and listened into the future until the words he had been waiting for floated by again.

"For the Strength of the Pack is the Wolf and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack."

Having come to a decision Coyote moved away from his perch and started to run down a trail only he could see in the darkness. He moved swiftly until he could drop down on the trail behind the rider.

The rider abruptly reined in his horse and let his eyes sweep around the familiar surroundings, having felt a disturbance somewhere nearby but seeing nothing. He stayed perfectly still for a few minutes before he quietly moved on.

Coyote smiled, unseen in the darkness. This one was closely connected to the land and listened when it spoke. It would be easy to send the dreams to him.

- First Part -

~~ Chris ~~

I knew it was coming long before he ever said anything. You see, Vin gets this look on his face, like he's listening to something that no one else can hear. You can tell the wild is calling to him and it's like every breeze of the wind is whispering to him that he has to go.

I wasn't surprised at all when he came and told me he had to go out somewhere and follow the tumbleweeds for a spell. There wasn't really a choice. It was either to let him go or watch him get a little more distracted every day until it would get dangerous for all of us.

Vin left the same day, just as twilight was creeping up on Four Corners. I'd wished that he would set out at daybreak instead, like any sensible person, but he just smiled and told me he wanted to spend the night out under the stars. It had been a beautiful day, it was gonna be a warm night and I couldn't really blame him for wanting to get out of town.

When you're out there, far away from any light, the sky seems to lower itself down on you until you can almost reach out and touch the stars. To me it was something I liked to see whenever the opportunity presented itself. To Vin it was something else entirely. It was like he needed it. I never knew what he was thinking when he was out there under the open sky but you could see the tension slip off him like he was shedding a heavy coat.

Me and Ezra Standish were the only ones to see him off. The rest of the boys had already said their goodbyes and were busy with other things. Vin had made a habit of going out for a few days once in a while so it certainly wasn't anything remarkable about it.

I could see him turning around once on his way out of town and he gave us a little wave. I raised my hand for a second before I let it fall again. Beside me I could see Ezra staring after Vin as he seemed to melt right into the shadows that were waiting at the end of the street. I could see a long shudder run through Ezra and I wondered if he was getting sick or something.

"What's wrong?" I asked him as he kept staring at the spot where Vin had disappeared.

"I'm not sure," he told me but his voice had a faraway quality to it like he was deep in thought. "I just had the strangest feeling...." His voice trailed off and I could see him suddenly snap back to the present again.

"Well, good night then," he said as he tipped his hat and quickly walked away. I watched him walk across the street and into the saloon before I let my eyes turn back to the twilight that Vin had disappeared into. A shiver came over me for a short second, like something cold running down my spine. I knew exactly what Ezra had just talked about.

It really was the strangest feeling, as if I had just got a glimpse of the future and in it there was no Vin Tanner. It was almost as if I knew somewhere deep inside that I had just seen Vin for the last time.

I told myself it was stupid to feel that way and I ignored the nagging feeling that I shouldn't have let him go alone. Many times through the years I have wished for the ability to foresee the future, no more so than right after my wife and son were killed. If anything I should have felt something the night they died. My whole world was changed, my soul was ripped to shreds. I should have known. But I didn't.

If I couldn't see anything then I sure couldn't see it now either.

So I pushed the thought from my mind and the next day when I woke it was so far away that it was barely noticeable. The day after that I didn't even remember having felt anything strange at all the night Vin left.

Life went on as usual in Four Corners. Almost. Something wasn't right. I couldn't say what it was but it felt as if the whole town was just waiting for something to happen. At one point I felt so edgy that I even had JD telegraph around for news of any disturbances in nearby towns to see if trouble was coming our way, but for once everything seemed quiet.

I didn't think it had anything to do with Vin because he had gone out now and again and always come back. He would be gone a spell and then he would come back. In the meantime we would be one man short but we could work around that like we always did.

Still ... something just wasn't right.

Then the crows came.

~~ Ezra ~~

Odd and decidedly unsettling. That was the feeling I had when I watched Mr Tanner disappear among the shadows.

The whole encounter was quite peculiar. While I always rely on my instinct when it comes to cards it hasn't always been as reliable when it comes to judging other things. I had never considered myself to have any kind of power to predict the future. I've seen more than my share of con-artists playing fortune teller and do in fact find the the whole concept of being able to predict the future quite ridiculous, I assure you.

But this was different and I could not completely ignore the feeling of having just experienced a premonition of some sort.

It was something in the way Mr Tanner turned and gave us a wave just before he was swallowed by the encroaching darkness. I was assaulted by the unshakable feeling that I was seeing him for the last time.

I'm not sure if Mr Larabee had the same feeling, it's always hard to tell what that man is thinking and he certainly didn't mention it to me. In fact, as far as I could tell he seemed to have forgotten all about it the next day but it took me a day or two longer to let go of this thought.

Because something was wrong in town. I know I was not alone in noticing this either. Even the normally so ebullient young JD seemed muted for some reason. Several days went by before things started to change back to the way it had been. Mr Larabee made himself scarce, I played cards with strangers, JD made his rounds and there was patrol duty for all of us. Routine caught all of us once more and threw us into well-known patterns until my earlier apprehension had died down and some semblance of normalcy once again coated our daily lives.

Late one afternoon, nearly a week after Mr Tanner had left our good company, I was sitting by myself and contemplating whether or not it would be profitable to put on a game later that night. There was barely a handful of people in the saloon and I knew some of them by sight but none of them by name.

Suddenly an inhuman shriek cut through the still air and a shadow fell in the doorway to the saloon. A quick rustle of wings and then a large, dark shape came sailing in over the batwing doors. The bird circled the room and looked for a way out but found none and it was obvious it was fleeing from something outside and didn't want to go out that way again. All of us stared and ducked whenever it came too close in its frantic search for freedom. It threw itself once against one of the windows near me but the glass held so it just gave a cry of pain and with a flutter of wings it disappeared back the way it had come.

I got to my feet and quickly followed. JD was standing just outside the door and we almost collided but fortunately I managed to stop my forward momentum before this occurred. JD was looking up at the sky and I tried to follow his gaze but just caught a glimpse of black before the bird vanished beyond my line of sight.

"What the hell was that?" JD asked in astonishment as he kept looking up at the rooftops.

The breeze caught a single black feather left behind and swept it up and around until I could reach out my hand and grab it. My eyes narrowed as I looked for signs of where the bird had disappeared to. There were none.

"What was that?" JD repeated his question.

"Trouble, Mr Dunne," I replied quietly as I was once again gripped by a sense of foreboding. I shook it off and went back into the saloon to continue my solitary game.

~~ JD ~~

Every time I had come into the saloon in the past week Ezra had been at his table as usual but his heart didn't seem to be in the game anymore. One night I was surprised to find that he had been distracted enough to actually lose more than a months wages. It didn't seem to bother him. For me it would have meant a month suffering Buck's endless barbs when I had to borrow money from him, but I guess Ezra had more than enough money to keep going anyway so who was I to say anything.

It was just that there was something worrying him and it was worrying Chris Larabee too and if those two were worried then I had to worry as well cause they both had a knack for staying one step ahead of trouble.

Then the damnedest thing happened. It was Friday afternoon and the sun was shining. I had just taken a step up onto the boardwalk to go into the saloon when a blur of black and gray came shooting out over the swinging doors and almost hit me head on.

I ducked so quickly that my hat fell off my head. As I grabbed it to put it back on I tried at the same time to look up where the bird had gone and so I was almost hit by Ezra who came running out like the place was on fire.

"What the hell was that?" I asked when I saw how upset he looked. Now there's something about Ezra you have to know. When I say looked upset I don't mean upset like you or me would look. It only shows in one place- his eyes. Come to think of it, that could be said for the others as well except for Chris Larabee who's eyes never show anything at all but then he's got this muscle right near his jaw that jumps when he's angry ....

I got sidetracked there, where was I? Oh, yeah - Ezra. Now Ezra is one of the calmest (though some would say laziest) persons I know. He doesn't like to move about unless he really has to, I guess he wants to keep all his energy for thinking. To see him come rushing out of the saloon meant that something strange had happened within and it could only be the bird.

Ezra grabbed something from the air as it came sailing down gently towards us. I looked at it and saw it was a single black feather. He frowned slightly but didn't say anything and so I had to ask him once again, "What was that?" but he just mumbled something about it being trouble and then turned and walked into the saloon. Now I didn't exactly feel that that was enough of an explanation so I decided to follow him. The second I took a step into the dark room old Marty latched on to me and told me all about how this large crow had come in and fluttered about and nearly broken the window near where Ezra was sitting. Marty was a harmless old drunk that I've had to lock up some times before and I knew he wanted a drink out of it but I steered him away from me. He went on to talk excitedly with the others at the bar instead.

I went over to where Ezra was sitting and caught him staring at a large scratch on the window pane where I guess the bird had hit it. It must have hit really hard too, it was a wonder it hadn't broken it's neck and fallen down dead on the table.

Ezra kept shuffling his cards the whole time he was looking at the glass and didn't seem to notice when a small scrap of paper fell out of the deck but some movement must have caught his eye anyways because he suddenly stopped and looked down on the table.

"Where did this come from? How strange...." I heard Ezra mutter as he studied the scrap of paper and I looked over his shoulder to try and see what it was. Before I could read anything he looked up and gave me a sour look.

"Do you mind?" he said, as testy as a magpie that has found something shiny and wants to keep it to itself. But then it seemed as if he had lost interest in it because he just shrugged and threw me the piece of paper before he went back to shuffling his cards. I looked at the scrap. It must have come from a piece of fine writing paper, such as they had over at the hotel, and on it was written in a strong hand;

Now this is the Law of the Jungle - as old and as true as the sky

And that was the whole of it, there was nothing more. Ezra was right. It really was kinda strange but nothing to get riled up about. I don't rightly know why I did it but I folded it up and put it in my waistcoat pocket and then I forgot all about it.

On my way out of the saloon I spotted Josiah out on the street. He was walking down the middle of the street and looking up at the buildings like he was searching for something up on the roof tops. He must have spotted me out of the corner of his eye because he quickly halted and walked over towards me.

"JD," he said to me. "Did you happen to see a bird flying by just now?"

"Yeah," I answered. "It was in the saloon just now spooking Ezra but it's gone."

"Where did it go?"

"Up there somewhere." I pointed and we both looked up but saw only the blue sky. "How did you know?" I asked him.

He gave me a guarded look but didn't answer. I got the feeling that maybe he wasn't quite sure himself how he knew. That man can be strange sometimes when he gets a vision. I don't understand them and I'm glad it ain't me that gets them.

When it was clear that he wouldn't answer the silence got heavy between us and I felt I had to break it so I said I needed to get back to the Sheriff's office, which was the truth anyway, and turned to go. I had barely gone a few feet when he called my name and I stopped and looked back.


"JD ... " Josiah looked uneasy and spoke with the utmost hesitation. "Have you had any strange dreams lately? In the last week or so?"

"No," I answered truthfully and he looked both a bit relieved and a bit disappointed at the same time upon hearing this.

"Well, I won't keep you then, son. Go on your business," Josiah said and resolutely went on his way.

I puzzled over this conversation as I sank down in my chair over at the office.

In the last week ... he must mean since Vin had gone away.

I wondered what kind of dreams he could be talking about. As I thought back on the look he had given me I realized with a start that whatever they were they had him worried and more than a little scared.

Why? What on earth could there be that would scare Josiah?

~~ Josiah ~~

I don't see the world exactly like most people do and that can put the fear in them. Thankfully I'm old enough that needing the approval of others don't affect me quite the way it used to. I've always been inclined to go my own way but nowadays I do so with a firmer grasp of why that is the right thing to do. It is no longer an act of rebellion like it was when I was young.

Finding a place to belong is no small thing and I am blessed in having been led here in time to find a purpose in life while I still have a chance to live up to it. There is something about manual labor, seeing what you build grow daily just by hard work and knowing that you have made it happen, it's a feeling like no other. Rebuilding the church is spiritually satisfying and along the way I have found souls who need guidance and people who need protection. Most of all I have found unexpected friendship. Having reached this stage of maturity and found all this I should be content with life. I am not.

There is a price to pay for being a seeker. You can get so used to the thought of there being more to reality than what is directly around us that the borders between this world and the next becomes transparent and you start to see things that most others do not. I have accepted it as the gift it can be when it warns you of danger. I have a harder time accepting it when it acts like it does now.

Ever since Vin left our company a week ago someone had seen fit to send me strange dreams. At first I thought nothing of it, dreams rarely make sense when studied in the light of day. The third night in a row having almost the same dream I was ready to change my mind.

You see, before Vin left to clear his head he dreamt something over and over several nights in a row and was disturbed enough by it to come and ask my counsel. He is a very private man and didn't exactly go into details as to what his dreams were about but I could guess anyway. They had something to do with the price on his head and seem to have been very vivid, enough to frighten him. He asked me what they meant and I told him what I've heard from many different sources, that dreams repeated in this way was either a memory or a sign from a higher power. Not necessarily of something that would happen, maybe just a warning of what could be if certain steps weren't taken. Vin seemed content with that answer but he was still troubled and so I wasn't surprised to find him leaving a few days later. I know he found the town confining and when he needed to really think on something he nearly always went into the wild to do it.

The moment Vin left, something in town changed, or maybe I should say shifted. A precarious balance that I hadn't given much thought to was suddenly disrupted and left me feeling that something was missing. Perhaps it was because this was the closest I had come in years to having a family. Family can become a habit and when one member is away you notice the absence. I can only speak for myself but in my mind I always counted us as seven, no less, no more - always seven.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about any of us being less of a man outside of the group. Frankly speaking we still don't know each other all that well and we have had more than our share of internal fighting. It is just that as a group we are so much more than the sum of our parts. We move with the same purpose and we know that we can count on each other. That is not a small thing, that is more than most men can ever hope to find. But we are still very much individuals with all that entails of different dreams. A more diverse collection of personalities than found in our group must be hard to find, that is what makes us strong. If we lost one of us that would be the end of us as a group and I find that thought harder to cope with than I ever expected.

So I worried a bit about Vin and I worried a bit about the rest of us and this worry simply wouldn't let go of me. I started having dreams, the first one came to me some nights after Vin's departure. I dreamt I was seeing through somebody else's eyes as they were sitting high on a mountain top and looking down a valley of some kind. As I looked down on myself I could see paws. That was a big surprise, it was the first time I have had a dream where I wasn't a human being. Then suddenly the paws transformed right in front of my eyes into moccasin-clad feet, another surprise. In the dream I was waiting for something, I felt that very clearly. As I sat there on my mountain I saw a dust cloud on the horizon and I knew my wait was over. And there the dream ended.

The next night the dream was back, slightly altered but recognizable. I was a rider, going through the same valley I had looked down on before. I could see the horse, I could see my clothes and I got the feeling I should know who I was in the dream but I couldn't quite remember. Wolves were howling all around me but strangely enough I rode on as if I didn't hear anything. As I got nearer to the mountain the dream ended abruptly and I awoke shivering although the weather was pleasantly warm.

The third night I was again sitting on the mountain and looking down on the rider I had been the night before. It was daylight in the dream and not a cloud could be seen in the sky but shadows were flowing across the ground like small streams through the grass and they surrounded the rider who seemed oblivious to their presence. His shape had been just a blur before but now I could see him clearly, it was Vin. He suddenly looked up and I could see a large cloud of crows circling the sky above him. Just as suddenly as he had looked up he turned his face towards me and seemed to look straight at me, as if he could sense somehow that he was not alone. Wolves were howling all around us. I could hear them but I couldn't see even the faintest trace of where they were hiding. They were howling so loudly that I could hardly hear myself think but when Vin opened his mouth to speak I had, strangely enough, no trouble hearing him. The howling seemed to fade into the background and I clearly heard him say "Ghost Country," before I was awake and back in my room once more.

That last dream shook me badly but what happened then was much worse. I had swept away the blanket to cool my overheated skin and as I lay there, trying to calm my breathing, I felt something. It was like a feathersoft touch inside my head, like something was trying to look through my thoughts for unknown purposes. I lay on my bed unable to move as something powerful touched my mind and my soul cringed in the agony of being completely helpless. The experience was over so quickly that I couldn't say what to make of it, the only thing I knew was that it was real in the same way the dreams were.

I moved on shaky legs toward the basin and poured some lukewarm water into it to splash on my face and neck. As I cooled down I could hear a strange scratching sound and I moved quickly to get my gun and then to throw on some clothes before I moved outside. The sun was already well above the horizon but the town was just starting to wake up and no one was in sight as I moved around the church in my quest to locate the scratching sound. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a streak of dirty yellow move behind me and I turned just in time to see a coyote disappear behind some shrubbery. Now there was a sight seldom seen in town in broad daylight and I relaxed a bit and walked back the way the coyote had come. Just outside the church door I noticed some spots of blood and then a black feather and that trail led me to a hollow spot underneath the stairs where I found a few more feathers from the crow that had been unfortunate enough to become coyote breakfast. There were no remains so either the coyote had decided to finish off the bird somewhere else or it had managed to get away. Having solved the mystery of the scratching sound I returned to my room to clean up before I went to get some breakfast for myself.

With some food in my belly I was now in considerably better spirits but no less worried. Seeing the crows has always been a bad omen but I haven't always interpreted it right. When we were in the Seminole village I had seen plenty of crows surrounding us and I was so sure that I was going to die. Luckily I was wrong. I knew that the crows in the dream pointed to danger, but for whom? For Vin or for the rest of us? It could hardly be a coincidence that I had found the crow feathers underneath the church.

Having no other idea what to do about it than to wait for further signs, I set out to work on the church. I had been working hard for many hours stripping the walls of paint when I again heard a strange sound. This time it wasn't so much a scratching sound but rather a soft flapping sound and I walked over to the door to see where it was coming from. As I stood there in the doorway a black shape dove right towards me and I ducked hastily. When I turned around there was a wounded crow sitting on the floor as far away from the door as it could possibly go. I walked over to it, careful not to scare it. The crow fluttered a bit uneasily with its wings when I closed in on it but it didn't move away, instead it opened its beak and out came a hoarse sound that sounded so much like an expression of pain that it could hardly have been anything else.

"I just wanna help you," I tried to reassure it. "Take it easy."

It seemed to understand me and was still as I looked it over to see where it was hurt. It had been in a scuffle all right, there were feathers missing in one wing and in the tail but not enough to hamper it if it wanted to fly. No, the real problem seemed to be with one of its legs, it kept it up under its belly and hopped about on the other in a frantic manner when I came too close. Unfortunately there wasn't much I could do about that but maybe Nathan could if I could get the bird to the clinic. Perhaps I could catch it in my coat.

As soon as I reached for my coat the bird was up in the air, circling the room a few times before it sailed out through the doorway and disappeared. I felt compelled to follow it, just stopping for a short second to put on my coat before I stepped out into the sunshine. Why did I have to follow? I don't know, I just knew that I had to find out what would happen next.

I walked down main street looking for the crow but couldn't see anything. The air was strange. It felt charged with electricity, like before a thunder storm, but the sky was clear and there were no signs that the weather would change anytime soon. It made me wonder if I was the only one who felt like this and if it had something to do with the dreams and the warnings.

I found JD standing right outside the saloon and asked him if he had seen the crow. He told me that he had seen it and that the bird had circled the saloon and upset Ezra before it left for parts unknown. On a hunch I asked him if he had had any strange dreams in the past week but he said he hadn't and I was a bit disappointed. It would have helped if someone else had had the dreams too, to get a different view on them, but I really hadn't expected him to say yes.

I resumed my search for the wounded crow and caught up with it again outside on the stairs leading up to Nathan's room. It was almost as if it had read my mind and tried to get to the only one who could help it. The bird was laid out on the landing in a sorry state and I could see fresh blood lining the edges of new bite marks. Looked like it had lost its fight with the coyote for good this time. It was badly hurt and as I gently picked it up in my hands I felt its little heart flutter once and then be still. I rapped with my elbow on Nathan's door and he opened right away.

"Hey, Josiah," he greeted me. "What you got there?"

"I got a dead crow I found on the landing. Can I come in?"

He stepped aside and went to pour some water in a basin so I could wash away the blood that was now on my hands. I placed the bird carefully on a newspaper that Nathan supplied.

"What you gonna do with it?" he asked me and I said the first thing that came to mind, "I'm gonna bury it." Hearing myself say it I realized that I meant to do just that. Nathan didn't question it, I guess he was used to my ways by now. Anyone else would have said that it was an awful lot of trouble to go through for a simple crow, but Nathan said nothing of that sort. Instead he told me that he didn't have anything else to do right then so he might as well tag along.

We had barely reached the bottom of the stairs when I noticed them. They sat like silent shadows in a neat row on the roof across from where we were and they were watching our every move.

"Do you see them, Nathan?" I asked, not knowing what to make of it.

"Yeah, I see them," Nathan almost whispered back at me. He must have been as unnerved as I was by the eerie stillness of the waiting crows but the fact that he could see them too made me more uneasy than the presence of the crows themselves.

"This is bad," I said with growing certainty.

"What do you mean?" Nathan inquired.

"Count them, brother," I said to him. "Count them."

One, two, three, four, five, six... six crows and the one killed by the coyote made seven. Seven, just like us. If I had had doubts before that this was all deliberate, I doubted no more.

"Someone is trying to tell us something," I said.

I had a another feeling too. It wasn't just that someone wanted to get our attention, it was more than that. Someone - something - was playing with us. Pulling our strings to make us move in a certain direction.

I didn't like it. I didn't like it at all.

~~ Nathan ~~

Josiah had told me in passing earlier that there was something wrong in town but to be honest I hadn't had time to notice anything. The people in and around town were more used to me now and I even got simple jobs, like sewing up cuts and setting bones, out on the small farms. While some people still stayed clear of me on account of my color it helped to have a circle of friends who counted in town.

I owed them a lot, I owed Vin and Chris my life since the very first day we met. I did the best I could to keep them alive long enough so that I could repay them. They didn't much need my help though since they were wily and cunning the pair of them, quick to duck and hard to kill. JD was the one who most needed my help. That poor boy got into more trouble than he could handle on a regular basis and always ended up with knife cuts, bruises or bullet holes.

Things had been quiet in town for some weeks but I had been busy anyway. First helping two ranch hands that had drunk too much and tried to take a short cut home to the bunkhouse over some barbed wire. They were still hanging on the wire when I got there. One of them was upside down and cussing and he used a lot of words I've never heard before. The other ranch hands had a hard time cutting them loose 'cause their hands were shaking, they laughed so hard. I stitched the two of them up and when I got back again there was a couple who came in to hear if I could go tend to their milking cow. She had been torn by some wild beast and it was their only cow, they couldn't afford another. It was good, honest work so I did my best and treated her much as any other patient. I soon had her stitched up and feeling much better and the couple gratefully gave me some very good cheese in payment. After dropping off the remaining cheese in town and telling the boys to help themselves to it, I went to see Rain in the Seminole village for a while. I left one day after Vin had gone and when I came back he was still gone and everyone was acting like a corral full of skittish horses that've just smelled wolf.

I didn't notice it at first since I was too tired from the long ride but the next day I went into the saloon to say hello and saw that nearly everyone was there except for Vin and Buck. I had just seen Buck outside where he was talking to some girl so there was no mystery there. But when I happened to ask where Vin was I might as well have picked up a needle and thread and sown their mouths shut right then cause all I got for an answer was a lot of hemming and hawing. They all left soon after, except for Ezra who sat down and started shuffling his deck. I left too since I didn't feel like trying to wrangle information out of him just then. They were all so busy that I didn't get a chance to ask anyone anything until the next day.

It should have been a good day. It was Friday and the week was drawing to a close and since it was the middle of the month most people didn't have enough money to get drunk and start fights. I decided to put my free time to good use and scrub down the clinic. Yeah, I know what you say, it ain't no real clinic such as most doctors have but it's as close as I reckon I'll ever get to one and I'm as close to a doctor as I reckon this town has ever seen so I like to think of it as my clinic. In the army medical tents I saw enough of wounds and sickness to know what difference a little soap and water could make so I scrubbed the wooden table and then looked over my supply of thread and bandages and such. While I was doing this I suddenly heard a knock on my door and as I opened it there was Josiah asking if he could get in. He was carrying a dead crow and dripping blood all over the floor and I rustled up an old newspaper so he could put it down. I asked him what he was gonna do with it and he said he would bury it.

Ever since I first met him I've wondered about him and his crows. So far as I know Josiah's the only one who sees the special crows and I've often wondered what they look like. They have to be different enough that he can tell they're the special kind and not just any old crow like the ones the rest of us sees. Josiah seems to have a fondness for those as well, though, I've seen him bring them bits of leftover bread sometimes.

The first time I heard him say something about crows warning him of danger I believed he wasn't quite right in the head. I've learned a lot since then. He told me once of how the ancient Romans used to have priests whose only job was to look and see how the birds moved. I can't remember what he said their name was. Based on how the birds moved they could tell if something bad was gonna happen. I could see how he would have been right at home there in the ancient world in one of those temples he spoke of.

I wasn't surprised when he said he was gonna bury the dead crow. He probably felt he owed the bird that. I said I might as well go along with him since all I had to look forward to was more scrubbing. We had barely gone down the stairs when he stopped and stared up at a roof across the street. I looked where he looked and saw a bunch of crows sitting there silent and looking down on us like they knew just what it was we were carrying with us.

"Do you see them, Nathan?" Josiah said to me in a hushed tone of voice as if he was afraid they would hear him.

"Yeah, I see them," I told him and he whipped his head toward me and gave me a look that was as sharp as the edge of one of my throwing knives. Guess he hadn't expected me to say yes and his next words told me so.

"This is bad," Josiah said. In all the time I've known him I haven't ever seen him look more shaken. Tell you the truth I was a bit shaken myself. They didn't look any different from normal crows but there was something unnatural about the way they were sitting all still and quiet and just staring at us.

"What do you mean?" I said. A feeling of uneasiness had overcome me and I wanted very much to find out what he thought about all this.

"Count them, brother," he told me. "Count them."

I did, there was six of them live ones and then there was the dead one that we carried with us. Seven crows. I could see where he was going with this.

"Someone is trying to tell us something," Josiah said.

"What?" I asked.

"I'm not sure," Josiah replied. He was silent for a while before saying, "I think trouble is coming."

I waited for more but when it seemed no more was coming I said, "Josiah, what's happened to Vin?

I figured it had to do with Vin. Why else had everyone acted so strange as soon as I asked where he was?

"Nothing as far as I know," Josiah said but I could see in his eyes that he didn't believe that. "Things have just felt wrong ever since he left us."

"Wrong how?"

"Can't you feel it? You saw the crows."

We both looked over to where the crows had been sitting but they were gone. Funny how I hadn't seen them leave, it was as if they were only there one minute and gone the next.

"Shouldn't we go talk to Chris about this?" This seemed to me the wisest thing to do.

"And say what?" Josiah said and frowned. "That we've both seen seven crows in town and one of them is dead? That I've had dreams? We gotta have more than just a feeling of wrongness to go on if we're gonna find out where Vin has gone."

He was right. The others would take our word for it but they wouldn't quite believe us without evidence. I suddenly missed Vin. I felt that if anyone would have understood it would have been him. He was good at sensing when there was more to something than what met the eye.

I thought back to when I been out in the wild with Vin when we were hunting Chanu. There was a calm in him when he was out there under the stars, a sureness in the way he moved even when he was on edge. He didn't waste many words in the wild. I knew this way of his, of saying as little as possible, probably angered some who measured a man by the way he spoke but I found it relaxing. You could just sit by the fire with him in silence and not feel as if you had to hold a conversation.

I looked down at the dead crow. 'Vin,' I thought to myself, 'I sure hope that ain't you. I sure hope that crow has nothing to do with you.'

"We need to find out more," Josiah said and looked more determined all of a sudden. That man don't give up easy and neither do I. "If someone is giving us clues in this manner he'll give us more until we get the message. We need to look for more strange things in town."

I agreed with that and it was decided that I should go and look for whatever strangeness I could find and Josiah would do the same as soon as he had buried the crow.

"Nathan," Josiah said right before we parted company. "You ever hear of something called Ghost Country?"

"No, I don't think so," I said, but it sounded familiar to my ears all the same.

"Well, tell me if you do. It may be nothing-"

"-but it's more than what we've got right now," I finished what he was saying and he nodded and went about burying the crow.

Ghost Country. The name stuck in my mind as I walked down the street. Ghost Country.

Where had I heard that before?

~~ Ezra ~~

Later that night I stood in the darkness outside the saloon and looked up at the clouds as I pondered the possibility of it starting to rain. It was too hot to sleep and what was worse - I was too bored to play cards. Tonight's game hadn't paid enough to be worth the time wasted, nor had it been in any way intellectually challenging. I couldn't think of a way either to make it more challenging. Maybe the answer, at least for now, was not to think much at all. I had drunk enough after the game that this state of mind was now a blessed option and I had filled my hip flask too so I'd have plenty of fuel to sustain it.

I took a drink out of my flask and stepped away from the boardwalk into the deserted street. As my thoughts drifted around leisurely in my mind my body found itself on the way towards the glowing light coming from the church. I don't know why that was. The saloon is my haven, not the church, but I got along reasonably well with Josiah. The man was intelligent, he could start a conversation, or lecture depending on his mood, on just about any subject. I wanted to hear about something other than what had been discussed at the tables in the past week. The conversations there all revolved around how our current weather would affect crops or the price of cattle, things I'm not even remotely interested in.

I like words, I like the way they roll off my tongue to form complicated sentences that hold beauty as well as meaning. It's also a good way to keep my mind as nimble as my fingers and keep people guessing as to what I'm up to. Words mean knowledge, knowledge means power. This is especially true if you have to keep one step ahead of the cardsharps that usually converge in the glorious gambling halls in big cities. You have to keep your wits about you, it's your foremost weapon and if that fails, well, it's good to have a hidden gun to fall back on.

I took a drink out of my flask again and sat down on the church steps, not ready to go in yet. I sat there for a while lamenting the fact that it had been a long while now since I had been involved in a really entertaining conversation. I remembered all the effort I had put into working my way into different communities in the past. It was always a challenge to my mind and spirit, gathering information and storing it until I could slip effortlessly into the role I had decided on. It was a lot of work but I had seldom felt that it wasn't worth it. If the game didn't pan out you could always move on. Unfortunately the money never lasted and the friendships seldom did either in my profession but I had never cared enough to make it last. The company I was keeping these days held more of a promise of respect but less hope of enjoying a challenging conversation. I took another sip. It was confusing to say the least.

Some of our gathering were easier for me to get along with than others. Buck and JD were likable enough and could talk a great deal, in fact they were hard to shut up once they got started. Their conversation, however, lacked finesse most of the times although it could be very amusing to overhear or join in. Out of all of them Vin was the biggest puzzle to me. He never used two words where one would do. What was even more puzzling was that he was content that way. He seemed at ease wherever he was, a quality that could easily be thought of as damned annoying to those less fortunate in fitting in. Vin seemed happy to be on the outskirts of the group and yet he connected effortlessly with the rest of the group whenever needed, especially with Chris Larabee who was also quite an enigma. I drank to that.

A gust of wind interrupted my meandering thoughts as it blew a piece of paper into my eye. My eye smarted and watered and I swore a great deal as I looked down on the scrap now in my hand. Another piece of verse and as incomprehensible as the first. It read,

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk
the Law runneth forward and back -

I swore again and must have been louder than I thought because next thing I knew I felt a touch on my shoulder and looked up to find Josiah looming over me.

"I thought I heard something out here," he said as I got to my feet.

"Are you drunk?" he continued as he dragged me into the church and I felt I had to protest that assumption and clarify the matter.

"I'm not intoxicated." I put on my most earnest expression but I was having a curiously hard time getting the words out properly. "What a preposterous idea, I'm just not quite sober."

"Uh-huh," Josiah answered and deposited me on one of the benches in a way that immediately made me fall off. Anyone would have fallen off, the way that happened. I certainly didn't deserve the look he gave me, like I had done it all to myself. I got back up and sat down very carefully since my head hurt a bit. After a while I decided it would be better to lie down and I took off my coat and folded it neatly to use as a pillow as I stretched out on a bench. It surprised me that I was so tired and I wondered why that was since I really hadn't drunk that much.

My thoughts started to wander again and I looked at what Josiah was doing and talked some with him although I can't remember what about. My eyes started to drift shut a few times as I talked and I think I was dozing lightly when some sound alerted me. I raised my head towards the door and noticed a man standing in the doorway. It was Buck but I was too tired to do more than nod at him before I lay my head back down and closed my eyes again.

One observation occurred to me as strange but I was too worn out to fight sleep anymore. The observation was that Buck's steps sounded wrong somehow as he walked towards where Josiah was standing. The last thought I had before darkness encompassed me was that it didn't sound like a man's steps at all. Instead it sounded very much like the soft patter of paws moving slowly across the wooden floor of the church.

~~ Josiah ~~

All day long I had looked for signs that weren't there and now it was nighttime. I should have been sleeping but I was not yet tired enough to sleep without dreaming and I didn't want to experience another dream like the ones I'd already had. So instead I went back to stripping the paint from the walls like I had done before the wounded crow interrupted me. I hung a lantern outside the church and kept the doors open in case somebody else wanted to join me and I lit a few candles in an old candelabra I had found to give myself some light to work by.

It must have been around midnight or so when I heard a sound coming from just outside. I walked out to find Ezra sitting on the steps. It was obvious that he had no idea I was standing behind him and he almost jumped out of his skin when I touched his shoulder. I could see that he was as drunk as a skunk and I had to move quickly to stop him from falling down the stairs when he attempted to stand. He got real irritated when I said something to that effect to him as I steered him into the church.

"I'm not intoxated," he said and peered up at me much like a wayward child trying to convince a stern parent. "What a prosiperrous idea, I'm jus no- no- NOT - quite sssober."

I had to work real hard to keep from laughing when I heard that so I just answered,"Uh-huh," and sat him down on one of the benches. He immediately leaned too far to the side and fell off and when he crawled back up he gave me an indignant look like it had been all my fault.

Seeing Ezra falling down drunk was a rare occasion. When he decided to get really drunk it was usually the result of something personal and he was hardly benign at those times. Most people steered clear of him then and he liked to keep to himself anyway. The other times, when he didn't drink out of a need to quench some inner turmoil, he held his liquor well and seldom got drunk enough to lose control. I had no idea what to make of his behavior tonight, though. He didn't seem in a mood to be mean, more like a bit sentimental.

I hesitated between trying to sober him up with the help of coffee or letting him sleep it off. Ezra himself seemed more inclined to sleep it off, if the way he kept clinging to the bench as he tried to stretch out on it was any indication. My main concern soon turned from wondering if I should make coffee into keeping Ezra away from the lit candles at all costs as he wrestled with his coat like he thought it was a man-eating snake. After nearly being punched in the jaw by his flailing arms as I rescued the candelabra for the second time in as many minutes, I decided that a little sleep wouldn't do him any harm. I doubted he would agree with me when he woke up again, though. When Ezra finally, with a little help, managed to pull his coat off he immediately bunched it up and put it under his head to use as a pillow. As soon as he had put his head down on it he was out like a light. He didn't stay asleep for more than an hour at the most before he woke up again, wondering where he was and making comments on how my work was progressing when he found himself in the church.

Ezra's mind kept flitting from subject to subject in way that was quite fascinating but very hard to follow. One second he told me that I should paint the ceiling blue to match the boundless sky outside and the next he was rambling on about the price of cows and the fine art of conversing. How all these subjects were related in his mind I have no idea. I was tempted to take a sip out of that flask of his just to find out what on earth could be in it to cause such a reaction.

After listening to five minutes worth of incoherent ramblings I could see him start to yawn again and then he dropped off in the middle of telling me how he envied Vin, of all people, because of his way with words. A few seconds later he was snoring softly, properly asleep at last.

During Ezra's monologue I'd spotted Buck standing in the doorway. Buck grinned as he listened to Ezra's last statement and moved carefully over the creaky floorboards so as not to wake him again.

"Hey, Josiah," Buck said cheerfully and I nodded back at him in greeting. We walked over to the corner furthest away from where Ezra was sleeping on the bench by the door so we wouldn't disturb him.

"Has he been like that all night?" Buck nodded in Ezra's direction.

"Pretty much," I said. "What brings you here, Buck?"

"Oh," he said slowly. "I just saw the lights and didn't feel like sleeping just yet."

I could sympathize with that since I was in here working rather than trying to sleep, myself.

"I was thinking, Josiah...." Buck looked thoughtful and sounded almost hesitant.


"I was thinking about moving on." He looked at me to see my reaction to his words. All I could think to say was, "Why?"

He shrugged. "It just seems like the time to do it."

"What about JD?"

I couldn't believe he would just up and leave without taking that boy with him. Buck gave me a blank look and said, "JD?" in a way that made it sound as if he had no idea who I was talking about.

"JD - the youngster trying so hard to be one of us...." I said and Buck smiled and walked over to look out the window. Over his shoulder I could see the moon hanging low over the horizon. It was barely half full tonight.

"JD," he said wistfully as he studied the night sky. "Yeah, it would be hard to leave him behind but maybe it's for the best. We're all drifting apart anyway. Vin's already gone."

"He'll be back." I said as I tried not to show that I was suddenly feeling uneasy. It was as I had feared. We really were drifting apart, but not of our own free will, I was certain of it.

"You're so sure he'll come back?" Buck sounded surprised by my conviction.

"Yes," I said. If Vin had any say in the matter he would come back, I knew it deep in my heart.

"He's happier out in the wild," Buck pointed out and I couldn't deny that.

Vin was more at home out there and we all knew it but still he kept coming back to town. There was something he needed, something we all needed to counteract the loneliness of our existence.

"Maybe so," I said. "But there is something that he shares with all of us that goes deeper than that."

"What's that?"


Buck neither looked nor sounded convinced.

"You really believe that?" he said and it was clear that he didn't.

Someone to guard your back against enemies, to know your name if you fell. To know what you stood for, good or bad. Most of all just to care. A man was lonely indeed if he died without a friend to take note of his passing and I think that Vin had come to feel that way too. That was why I was so sure he would come back to us.

"A man's gotta believe in something," I told Buck and he gave me a brief grin.

"Have you ever not believed, Josiah?"

"I question everything, all the time. But when I look at the world it seems impossible to me that all this should be without a purpose."

He looked at me and slowly nodded as if he had been expecting this answer and I had just confirmed some conclusion he had come to.

"Well, since we're talking about belief and life and death ... " Buck started. "I know of a story I think you might find interesting, Josiah. I was told this long ago. Let me see ... it went something like this - In ancient times, long, long ago, animals were human beings. The two most important were Wolf and Coyote. The Wolf - the Creator- was easy to deal with while Coyote always tried to go against Wolf's wishes. Wolf said that when a person died he could be brought back to life by shooting an arrow under him. But Coyote did not agree: he thought it was a bad idea to bring people back to life, for then there would be too many people here and there would not be room for them all.
'No,' he said, 'let Man die, let his flesh rot and his spirit glide away with the wind so that only a heap of dry bones will be left.'
Wolf agreed, but he decided within himself to let Coyote's son be the first to die. Therefore Wolf wished that the boy should die and, by his very wish brought about the boy's death. Soon Coyote came and told Wolf that his son had died. He reminded Wolf of his statement that people could get a new life if an arrow was shot under them. But Wolf reminded Coyote in his turn that he himself had said that Man should die. Therefore it would be so."

I was captured by the story but wondered why he was telling me this now. I could find no reason for it. While Buck was not a shallow man I had never figured him for one to ponder in depth the vast field of questions raised in regards to the demise of our mortal coils. Buck struck me as a man who preferred very much to just plain live instead of sitting back and thinking about life. All I could think was that it just didn't seem like him. Something was different with him, a slightly different look in his eyes, a slightly different way of speaking. Differences so subtle that you had to question if you just weren't imagining them all. A small voice in my mind told me that it all fit in too well with the other strange things happening in Four Corners.

"And there was nothing Coyote could do to change that?" I asked. There was a message in this story and I had to find out what it was. I had heard some tales of Coyote from plains indians I had encountered and I knew of him as a powerful being. I had never heard this particular story, it wasn't the Coyote I knew of. Usually he was more of a mischief-maker. This was a more serious story and Buck sounded weary as he said, "Coyote has to follow the rules that are set out too." There was a faraway look in his eyes now, as if he was lost in a painful memory.

"What about Wolf?" I asked to bring him out of it.

He gave me a long look before answering.

"We are all bound. I thought you of all of them would understand. What if all your wondering is just a waste of time? You're looking for an answer when you can't even begin to understand the question. What makes you think you can even begin to understand this purpose you so believe in?"

I stayed silent as Buck walked over to look out of one of the windows. When he spoke again it was so softly that I knew he was speaking more to himself than to me. "In all this time ... all the death I've seen ... I still don't know what lies beyond all this or what it means to die.

"Who are you?" I whispered the question I should have asked as soon as he set foot in the church. I could see the reflection of Buck's eyes in the window pane suddenly fasten on me. He grinned.

"That's a stupid question, Preacher," he said softly. As he turned away from the window I could see the flickering flames reflected in his eyes for a moment, turning them an eerie yellow. I took an involuntary step backwards.

"I'm me," Buck said, he sounded amused. "Nothing else."

I could do nothing but stand there, mute and frozen by the look he gave me as he spoke. My hair was standing on end at the back of my neck and my pulse was pounding in my ears. Something not of this world was in the church with me now and it was wearing Buck's face. I became painfully aware of the fact that I was nothing more than a man and that a being I could not even begin to understand was looking at me from behind Buck's eyes. The power surrounding us was so obvious it was almost crackling in the air like distant thunder. I could see Buck smile once again and then move towards the door. I couldn't move, I couldn't do anything at all to stop him from leaving.

"Josiah...." Buck called from the doorway. "I have a riddle for you.You have until the new moon to answer it."

He was looking right at me as he started to recite what sounded like bits of a verse of some kind.
"The strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.
When ye fight with a Wolf of the Pack, ye must fight him alone and afar, Lest others take part in the quarrel, and the Pack be diminished by war."

He was silent for a second and turned slightly away from me so I could no longer see his face, it was completely in shadow. His voice was soft but I had no trouble hearing it and I was reminded of my dream earlier. I shivered as he continued,

"Now this is the riddle so listen good; what will happen to the Pack when the Wolf is all alone and in trouble? Should it fight? Will it fall? You decide."

Suddenly a cool wind swept through the church and extinguished the burning candles. I was momentarily blinded and blinked in the darkness as my eyes adjusted themselves. When I could see clearly once again the doorway was empty and Buck was gone.

~~ JD ~~

Just before sunset the clouds had started sneaking up from under the horizon and now, as it was just past midnight, they covered almost half of the sky. I wished for rain to wash away the dust clinging to my skin but what I got was sweat trickling down my spine under my clammy shirt and that wasn't the same thing at all. At least one of the clouds blotting out the moon had to have a little bit of rain in it but, unfortunately for me, it kept it to itself. I wondered if this heat would continue. It was a bit late in the year for it to be this hot and the old folks in town swore that they had never seen the like. My mom would have said that the air had thunder in it, it felt thick enough to carve with a knife.

I stood a while in the doorway to the Sheriff's office and let my eyes follow the long line of the empty boardwalk until it curved around a corner. It was late and I was dusty and tired but not tired enough to sleep. There was no denying it - I was starting to get bored. Waiting forever for something to happen wasn't what I had come here for. For the first time I thought that maybe I had made a mistake coming west. Not that I had expected every day to be an adventure but I had thought it would be a whole lot more exciting than this.

Closed down for the night the town looked deserted, like I imagined a ghost town would look like. I had done a round of the town once already tonight but the only thing I had seen was Ezra drinking on the steps of the church. Not another soul seemed to be up and about and even the saloon that was normally open all night had decided to close tonight for lack of customers. Maybe one more walk around town would make turning in easier but I doubted it.

Ezra was gone from the steps as I passed the church this time but as I was coming up on the saloon I noticed something strange. The lamps were lit and the doors were open but I had seen it dark and locked down for the night half an hour earlier. It didn't make sense for it to be closed down and then open again almost right away. Something must have happened.

I decided to move very slowly towards the building so whoever was in there wouldn't see or hear me coming. There was a stack of abandoned crates across the street from the saloon and I crouched behind them as I tried to figure out what to do next. Buck was always nagging me to be prepared for anything so I drew my gun. My heart was pounding away in my chest as I listened for the faint sounds of someone stirring in the saloon. The best chance I could get would be to nab whoever it was when they got out on the street. Just as I was thinking this a man stepped up to the batwing doors and opened them wide. I could see him clearly outlined against the light coming from inside.

I froze in shock and lowered my gun. The man's face was in darkness but I was sure I knew him. The hat, the coat, the gun by his side - it was Vin. As soon as I stood up straight and was about to leave my hideout the light in the saloon went out. I had been staring so hard at it that I was suddenly as blind as a bat.

When my eyes finally got used to the dark again Vin was gone. The saloon was locked up tight, dark and silent as before. I ran out into the street and looked around. What had happened? Had I dreamed it?

Out of the corner of my eye I could see something moving further up on the left side of the street. It was nothing more than a dark shadow, there was no way to figure out who it could be without getting a closer look and I quickly followed. I was pretty sure it had to be Vin but I didn't want to holler and wake up the town or startle him and get myself shot. I just had to get a little bit closer before I greeted him but a funny thing happened. No matter how much I tried I couldn't seem to get close enough to say anything. As soon as I started to walk faster so did he. He must have because he was always just out of reach. Finally I could see him turn a corner up ahead and I knew it would take him into a small alley where three buildings met and with no way to get out except past me.

When I cautiously looked around the corner he was waiting for me. He was leaning against the far wall and looking as if he didn't have a care in the world. The moon was only half full and didn't give me much light to see by but it was enough to see that it really was Vin. I couldn't make out his face clearly but I could see his blue eyes under the brim of his hat as he looked right at me. Some trick of the moonlight made them seem almost as if they were shining, like animal eyes.

"Vin, you're back-" I started to say as I took one step forward but he shook his head and held up his hand to stop me from going any further. He put a finger to his lips in a hushing gesture and then he smiled as he pointed towards a mountain of burlap sacks over in a corner. It groaned and shifted a bit and I realized that someone was there, sleeping among the sacks. Right then a cloud travelled over the moon and darkness dropped like a cloak over us. When the moon came back and shone new light down where I stood I could see that I was alone once again. Well, not quite alone, the man sleeping on the sacks was still there but Vin was nowhere to be seen.

Damn! This was starting to irritate me and even scare me a bit. I couldn't figure it out.

It was like watching Ezra doing a card trick. You knew it had to be a trick but his hands moved so quickly that you couldn't see how it was done. It was like magic, you just kept wondering what it really was you had seen.

"Vin?" I softly called. "Where did you go?"

He couldn't be far away but why had he gone in the first place? I was sure he hadn't passed by me in the dark, he had to have gone into one of the buildings in front of me or something ... but why? Was he playing a joke on me?

Suddenly I remembered something ... wasn't there a door in the far wall? I could have kicked myself. Yeah, there was a door and I soon had it open and could slip inside. There was a lantern hanging on a hook beside the door and I lit it.

Vin had to have come in here. Except he hadn't. The room was empty and there was no other door or window to be seen as I looked around. I was starting to feel real uneasy now. Vin had told me some things about looking for tracks and I stared at the dirt floor but could make nothing out other than there having been a lot of people in here. The freshest prints seemed to be from some kind of dog that had gone up to the back wall and squeezed out through a hole near the floor. It wasn't quite big enough to fit a man but an animal or a child would have no trouble getting in and out. I made a note to myself to go talk to the owner in the morning so it could be repaired if he was gonna store something in there come winter.

Feeling bewildered I took the lantern and walked back out and over to the burlap sacks. I should have known or at least guessed. After all, it wasn't the first time I'd had to lock up old Marty after a hard day of drinking. It must have been a good day for him, drinkswise I mean, 'cause he was sleeping like a baby and didn't stir as I shook his arm. Usually I could get him up and about and moving on his own towards the jailhouse but he was so still now that I started to worry a bit. When he didn't answer me I decided to go and wake up Nathan to make sure Marty really was all right.

I figured Nathan would be angry at being wakened so early but as it turned out he was up and about and didn't look as if he had been to bed at all. Seemed like I wasn't the only one who had trouble sleeping in this heat. I told Nathan that and he agreed that the weather was strangely hot. Other than that he said nothing until he got his first look at Marty.

I stood to the side and held up the lantern as Nathan leaned in close and checked Marty's heartbeat and eyes. He even opened Marty's mouth and sniffed at his breath but quickly straightened up again and took a step backwards.

"Whouf!" Nathan said as he fanned his hand in front of his face to get fresh air. "Lord, that moonshine is strong stuff, enough to make your eyes water. Better not light any matches near him, JD, or we could set the whole town on fire."

I could agree with that. Marty stunk to high heaven of cheap whiskey, the fumes would probably make him go up like a torch if he got near any flames. It was enough to make me feel queasy and I was standing a whole lot further away than Nathan.

"He looks okay," Nathan said after taking a second, closer look at Marty. "Probably just drunk enough for the whole town."

"But he's so quiet," I said. And Marty was just that. In fact he looked dead but I didn't want to say that out loud.

"Don't worry," Nathan reassured me. "He's likely built up some tolerance to the rotgut they serve in the saloon, he's been drinking it for so long. Large amounts don't affect him as it would you or me."

Marty chose that moment to move about some and mutter something that I doubted even he himself would have been able to make out, had he been sober.

"See?" Nathan grinned at me. "Tomorrow he'll be back to his old self. Trading stories for drinks and -" Nathan suddenly broke off what he was saying and looked like he'd just been hit on the head.

"Dang," I think I heard him mutter but I wasn't quite sure I heard it right. He looked at me and said more urgently "JD, I need you to go fetch Josiah. I have something to tell him."

"What about Marty?" I couldn't just leave him there.

"I'll take him over to the jail. We need to keep an eye on him for a while - look, I'll explain later. Just fetch Josiah and get him over to the jail."

He seemed real insistent about it so I left. I was still some ways from the church when I spotted Buck going down the steps. He must have been inside talking to Josiah. I was glad to see him back but I hadn't thought anything would be able to drag him away from Laura Jennings before sunrise.

If there was anyone who could make sense of what had happened tonight it was him. I wasn't sure yet if I would tell him, though. I had a feeling that if I told him he was gonna act like I was a little kid again that needed someone grown up to scare away the monsters living under my bed and I didn't want that. I really didn't want that.

I stopped in surprise as I saw him turning away from me instead of towards me as I had expected. Where was he going? He wasn't about to go into town at all, he was walking away from it. Just as I was about to call out to him he disappeared around the corner of the church. I took a step down from the boardwalk to follow him and almost got myself run down by a horse. I had been so intent on looking for Buck that I hadn't seen the rider coming up the street the other way.

"Whoa!" The man abruptly reined in the horse and it whinnied in protest. I recognized the rider in a split second. It was Buck.

"JD!" Buck hollered at me and he sounded mighty irritated. "Ain't you old enough yet to watch where you're going?"

It was him all right. It sounded just like him, looked just like him. It had to be him. Then who was it that I'd just seen leave the church?

I tried to speak but no words came out. I could only stand there gaping at him.

"What's wrong, kid?" Buck said, sounding more concerned this time. "The way you're staring a man would think you've just seen a ghost."

Maybe I had. Two of them.

~~ Buck ~~

Miss Laura Jennings ... now that was a special gal. Golden hair down to her waist and curves to match the curls in her hair. Too bad about that pa of hers, he was mighty suspicious of me and I had done no more than talk to the girl a time or two. In spite of that I had decided to ask her out to the dance next month and so I had just spent a pleasant evening out at their homestead. Well, as pleasant as it can be when you have a man with a loaded shotgun by his chair watching your every move to see you don't get as much as a good night kiss. Lucky for me that she was both clever and a bit more on the wild side than her pa was aware of. When she was sure he had fallen asleep she slipped out to meet me down by the creek but whatever happened there is just between her and me. Ezra once said that a gentleman don't kiss and tell. I ain't denying that I like to brag a bit, who don't? But I can hold with keeping some details to myself all the same even though I know that both Ezra and JD would fall over laughing if they ever heard me say that out loud.

I didn't hurry on my way back to town, instead I enjoyed the coolness of the slight breeze. It was still some hours until sunrise but the clouds were starting to take over the sky now and I hoped it would rain some. In the past week the town had been hit with a heatwave that sucked the strength out of men and creatures alike. Strange thing was that it was much cooler when you rode just a mile outside town and the weather there was more in setting with the season. I had stayed out of town as much as I could in the past couple of days by way of volunteering to patrol the roads. They were mostly deserted and for some reason people didn't want to stay much in town right now so I could sneak away to the creek and take a dip to cool off whenever I felt like it.

Riding back from the Jenning's homestead I was in a good mood but that stopped as soon as I had gotten some ways into town. I was on my way towards the livery when that dang fool boy suddenly steps right out in front of me like he's asking to be run down.

"JD!" I bellowed at him as soon as I had reined in my horse and was sure I could avoid trampling him. I could see JD look up and take notice of me and then quickly jump back onto the boardwalk where it was safe.

"Ain't you old enough yet to watch where you're going?" I said and I couldn't keep the anger out of my voice since my heart was still racing from the scare he had given me. He just stood there gaping and staring at me. I could see his mouth open and close a few times, it reminded me of a fish caught on dry land.

"What's wrong, kid?" I asked and tried to calm down a bit. "The way you're staring a man would think you've just seen a ghost."

JD must have become aware of the fact that he was gaping at me cause he suddenly shut his mouth and blinked a few times as if he was waking up from a dream.

"Buck," he said. "Buck, is that really you?"

"The one and only," I told him as I dismounted and tied my horse to the nearest rail. JD was looking a bit shaky. "Who did you think it was? You mistake me for Vin all of a sudden?"

I don't know why I said that, I didn't mean anything by it but when I looked closer at JD I could see that my words had hit him like a fist in the gut.

"JD, what's the matter?" He was really starting to worry me now. Ever since JD decided he wanted to play sheriff he'd been a constant worry to me. He didn't know the first thing about staying alive while wearing a tin star when he first pinned it on. There are different rules you just have to follow or you'll be snuffed out quicker than a candlewick. I think he had the notion that the star was his protection while all it really did was make him a better target. A badge is no good unless you have the experience to back it up, Lord knows I tried all I could to give him some of mine, but JD just had to go his own way.

Well, I have to admit, he didn't do too bad a job, but then he had six mean fighters to back him up. I just hoped that was enough to keep him alive and keep him the way he'd been when I'd first met him. Coming into the west full of dreams and hopes and not knowing yet that life out here wasn't just an adventure but that it could grind your soul down to dust long before it did your body.

He looked tired and scared now and that made me worry even more. Something must have happened while I was out of town, something bad.

"I saw something," the kid almost whispered to me.

"What JD?" I asked him, as gentle as I could. Something must have spooked him good 'cause his eyes were large and his face was pale and he looked all of twelve years old all of a sudden.

"I saw Vin," he continued in the same quiet voice.

Vin was back? I couldn't understand why JD was so upset. Why would seeing Vin make him look like he'd just found something scary hiding under his bed? This was good news ... unless Vin had come in hurt.

"Was he hurt, JD?"

"No. I don't know, I don't think so. I saw him but when I went after him he just wasn't there. Then I found Marty and when I went to get Josiah I saw you. Only it wasn't."

I felt an urge to grab JD and shake him good. The more he explained the more confused I got.

"JD... you're not making sense here," I told him.

"I know that," he replied and gave me an irritated look. "I saw Vin and then he disappeared and then I saw you leaving the church and then you disappeared...."

"Hold it JD," I tried to stop the flow of words. Sometimes when JD got started real good he could go on for an hour or two. Disappeared? What was he talking about? Heck, I was standing right in front of him.

"The church?" I asked him. This was just some misunderstanding, I would soon have it cleared up. The kid had probably fallen asleep and then seen something while he was waking up and thought it was real. I just had to make him see that.

"I haven't been near the church all night. You mean you saw someone that looked like me."

"No, I saw you," JD said, stubborn as all that. "You came out of the church and walked around the corner. It looked just like you Buck, I swear it did. It was you."

Dang it if that boy wasn't hard to reason with when he got an idea in his head.

"JD, you must have been dreaming," I interrupted him when it seemed he was about to get worked up again.

"I wasn't!" JD looked so angry that I expected him to try and take a punch at me but he held off from actually doing it.

"You sure?" I tried to sound understanding but that didn't appease him one little bit. My attempt to calm him down just made him angrier and I couldn't understand why. I had no time to think much on it as he grabbed me by the arm and tried to drag me towards the church, supposedly to talk to Josiah. Since it wasn't such a bad idea I followed him without resisting. Maybe Josiah could make some sense out of what JD had told me.

We found Josiah sitting on a chair by the small table in the middle of the room. He looked up as we entered and suddenly his gun was in his hand, cocked and ready to fire and it was pointing right at my head. I could see Ezra's hip flask lying empty on the table in front of Josiah while the man himself lay stretched out on a bench by the door, sleeping soundly.

"Josiah, it's us, Buck and me," JD said quickly as if Josiah hadn't eyes in his head to see with. There was a funny look on Josiah's face as if he too had seen something unexpected tonight. When he drunk a lot he could get crazy, real crazy, like when he'd gotten drunk over Emma Dubonnet. He didn't look that drunk now but sometimes you just couldn't be sure. I hoped this wasn't one of those times or we might not get out of here alive.

"I can see that," Josiah said slowly and gave me such a piercing look that it felt like he was trying to look right through me and into my soul. You don't argue when a man's got a gun on you so JD and I waited in silence until Josiah made up his mind that we weren't a threat. The barrel of his gun seemed as large as a cannon to me but then he suddenly lowered his gun and secured it again. I suddenly realized I must have been holding my breath the whole time and I forced myself to draw a shaky breath. I could hear JD doing the same thing beside me and when I looked at him he was whiter than a ghost.

"I just wasn't sure who you were for a minute," Josiah said and gave me another strange look.

I decided not to comment on that since I really wanted to get out of there before things turned ugly again. JD was still frozen from fright and seemed to have forgotten why he had dragged me into the church in the first place so it was up to me to ask Josiah.

"Josiah, JD told me a crazy story earlier and I just want your help in making him see the truth. Now tell the kid that I haven't been in here all night."

"I'm sorry..." Josiah said and he did sound a bit sorry too."... but I can't do that, Buck."

I was so sure of what Josiah would say that it took a while for what he really did say to sink in and I had already turned towards JD, saying, "See JD, didn't I tell you -what?"

Struck dumb I turned to gape at Josiah much like JD had done when he'd first seen me.

"Why not?" I managed to croak out.

"I can't say that since I did see you in here just a short while ago," Josiah said. He was silent for a while before continuing, "Except I doubt very much that it really was you."

My head was starting to hurt. I wondered if there was locoweed growing in the town drinking water supply cause they sure acted crazy, both of them. Maybe I had fallen asleep on the trail and this was just a dream I was having. Maybe it was the heat, it could do things to a man's mind and they had both been stuck in town for the past two days with the heat eating away at them.

Ezra chose that moment to stir and mumble something and we all turned to look at him. He opened his eyes and quickly shut them again as if even the faint candlelight was painful to him. Ezra must be the reason that Josiah wasn't as drunk as I'd first thought. There had probably been next to nothing left in that flask for Josiah to drink judging by the state Ezra was in.

"Could someone please stop those cannons from firing again," Ezra complained and then groaned at the sound of his own voice. He didn't open his eyes again.

"There are no cannons here, son," Josiah told him.

"Sorry, explosions then," Ezra said. "Tell them I'll gladly pay-"

"Ezra, there aren't any explosions either," JD shot in. I was glad to see that the kid looked more himself now.

"Gunfire then?" Ezra sounded a bit uncertain now.

"Everything's quiet," Josiah said and Ezra opened his eyes again and I could barely keep from laughing at the sight of them bleary eyes trying hard to look in our direction without much luck. Ezra was a real spectacle with his hair standing every which way and his eyes just thin slits since he was squinting at us so hard. The aftermath of a night of hard drinking wasn't a pretty sight.

"You sure?" He frowned and then groaned as he tried and failed to sit up. "'Cause I seem to hear a very loud pounding in my ears and it has to come from somewhere."

"It's all in your head, Ezra," I said as I moved to help him up.

"More like in my stomach," he muttered. I could see he was a bit green about the gills and quickly helped him outside. I almost had to carry him down the stairs and we barely made it down before he started to throw up.

When he had stopped heaving and spitting he leaned his head against the churchwall for a moment and asked me very seriously to take him directly to the temperance league.

"I'm not sure we have one in town, Ezra," I said and this time I couldn't keep from grinning. He gave me a long and serious look as if he was thinking something over and then said,

"Then would you kindly shoot me? I promise that I won't hold it against you."

I was tempted to say that I would think about it but Ezra was such a sorry sight that I decided to take pity on him instead.

"C'mon," I said and had to grab his arm since he still had trouble standing upright on his own. "Let's go find Josiah and see if he's got some coffee."

On the way up the stairs again we were headed off by JD and Josiah going the other direction.

"Where are you two going?" I asked.

"To the jail," JD explained. "Nathan told me earlier to go fetch Josiah for him."

"What's Nathan doing at the jail?" I had the feeling that things were starting to get strange again.

"He's tending to Marty," JD said and that was all I could get out of him.

Marty, the town drunk? JD had gotten to know the old coot real well, seeing how he had to lock him up at least twice every fortnight or so. The kid liked to hear him tell of how the land had looked before there had been a town here and the people Marty had encountered. Myself, I think old Marty made up at least half of what he told JD but I didn't have the heart to tell the boy that.

Since there was more chance of getting coffee at the jail I herded Ezra in that direction. Maybe Nathan could make sense of what JD and Josiah were talking about. I sure hoped he could. Otherwise I'd just have to get on my horse again and ride around till I found the real town and not this nightmare version of Four Corners where the people all seemed to know something I didn't.

As soon as we got inside the jailhouse I knew that all hope of getting a reasonable explanation was gone. Nathan was there all right but he barely glanced at me and Ezra. Instead he was looking at Josiah and grinning like he'd just struck gold.

"Josiah," Nathan said. "I remembered. I know now."

"Know what?" Josiah replied.

"Ghost Country," Nathan said. "I know where it is."

~~ Josiah ~~

I looked at the doorway, not knowing what to expect next, but it stayed empty. After what had just happened in the church I needed a drink. I walked over to Ezra and borrowed his flask, I didn't think he'd mind under the circumstances.

I was still feeling a little shaky so I sat down by the table, drank what was left in the flask and rested a while. Barely twenty minutes had passed when I got another shock. Buck was back and this time he had JD with him, or maybe JD weren't JD either, I could no longer be sure of anything. Reacting without conscious thought I suddenly felt the reassuring weight of my gun in my hand.

"Josiah, it's us, Buck and me," the boy told me and I could see he was frightened but I could pay it no mind right now, not before I knew what was really going on.

"I can see that," I told him to try and reassure him a bit that I thought that he at least was who he gave himself out to be. I searched Buck's face but saw nothing amiss. It's not for nothing they call the eyes the windows of the soul and now I searched Buck's eyes but saw only the man I knew. This time there was nothing strange about him, nothing slightly different or wrong but rather the opposite. This was Buck - solid and real. I lowered my gun.

"I just wasn't sure who you were for a minute," I said by way of explanation but Buck didn't seem to be interested. Instead he asked me to tell JD that he hadn't been inside the church all night. When I replied that I couldn't do that he practically gaped at me in surprise before he asked me why that was. I told him the truth, that I had indeed seen him. As I spoke I could see a gleam of recognition in JD's eyes at my words but before I could ask him about it Ezra woke up and he was not at all happy.

While Buck helped Ezra outside JD asked me if I had really seen Buck in the church earlier.

"Yes, or rather someone who looked like Buck but wasn't him. It's hard to explain-"

"I knew it," JD said triumphantly. "I knew I hadn't dreamt it."

"You saw him too?"

"Not only that," the boy lowered his voice. "I saw Vin too."

"You did?" I lowered my voice too in reaction. A strange feeling had come over me, like we were being watched, but when I glanced around there was just the two of us in the church.

"Yeah," JD nodded. "But he disappeared like a ghost before I could talk to him. That reminds me, Nathan wants you to meet him at the jail right now. He had something important to tell you."

"Let's go," I told JD and we collected the other two outside and continued towards the jail.

My mind was full of random thoughts leading in all directions at once and my feelings were the same way, all jumbled up. I didn't know if I wanted to make sense out of it any more. I wasn't sure that I would like the result.

As soon as I entered the room Nathan looked up and grinned as he said,
"Josiah, I remembered. I know now."

"Know what?" I asked.

"Ghost Country." Nathan said. "I know where it is."

Startled, I just blurted out, "What?" and Nathan immediately started to explain.

"It was old Marty, see, he's the one that told me that before but I didn't remember until I saw him tonight. A few months ago or so there was a big fight over at the saloon and Marty got hit by a chair on the head so I had to stitch him up. You remember, JD? Good. Well, since he didn't have any money he asked if he couldn't tell me a true story in payment instead and I thought why not, I couldn't turn down a bleeding man. So he told me about this place he had been through when he was a youngster, a strange place he said. It had a name long ago but that name was lost now and no one was living there so those living nearby just called it Ghost Country. It's supposed to be a beautiful valley, big enough for several families to settle in if they want farm land but you can't grow nothing there. The crops wither or freeze and you can't raise cattle either cause it goes astray and is never found again. Ghost Country is surrounded by high mountains on all sides and the snow never melts, neither on the peaks nor in the deep, shaded ravine where the river runs down. It's like a cold spot surrounded by desert and woodlands and the peaks hold the clouds there all year long so it sometimes snows there even in the summertime. Marty told me that he met some families, long before the war, that were on the way to California to look for gold. They took a wrong turn and ended up in Ghost Country instead. They were warned beforehand not to settle there by an old indian who's people knew of the place but they didn't listen, guess they thought they had found paradise. They soon found out that wasn't so."

Nathan's face got more sombre the further he got into the story. He looked once at Marty who was stretched out on the bunk in the cell and sleeping like the dead. I could see through the window that the sun had started its climb over the horizon but it was obvious that it would be some time before Marty could be questioned. The story must have made a real impression on Nathan when he's first heard it though, because he never hesitated as he told it to us now. Everyone was silent and listening with rapt attention, even Buck.

"Three years later," Nathan continued, "Marty passed through a small town way south of Ghost Country and he recognized a man in the local cantina. It was the son to one of the men who had gone into that valley but he looked like he had aged ten, twenty years and he was all alone. Marty asked him what had happened to the rest of them and he got the answer that they were all dead, every last one of them. Some had been taken by sickness, others by animals. Some had just plain vanished. They never even got around to planting crops and they had to rely on hunting for game but game were scarce that year for some reason. Could be because the wild beasts were plentiful. Strange beasts, unlike what you normally see, and they scared the women with the noises they made in the night. Soon the littelest ones died from sickness and that made the grown ups lose heart completely, but before they could leave fever got most of them too. The man Marty talked to had survived together with his pa, he had lost his ma and two young sisters. The two men left right after the burials and on the way out of that place his pa had walked a short ways away from their final camp at night and never made it back. The son could find no trace of him, none at all. Out of twenty-seven people only one made it out of Ghost Country alive. And that's where Marty ended his tale and he could see that I didn't believe a word of it, but then - something happened...."

"I remember this," JD broke in. "I was there when Marty told that story, and Vin too."

Nathan nodded. "Yeah. When I said to Marty that there was no such place Vin came right up and said that he had been through Ghost Country once himself. He'd been just a kid then and met an old man who lived there and who had been kind to him. I asked Vin later if Ghost Country really was such a terrible place but he just said that it was a strange place and left it at that."

"Why would he go back there?" I wondered aloud to myself and then I decided to explain to the others about the dreams I had been having about Vin in Ghost Country.

"This just keeps getting better and better," Buck muttered when I finished. "First it was ghosts and then tales told by a drunk and now we're talking about dreams. Is there anyone here that can tell me something that they can prove actually happened?"

"Don't you feel it, Buck?" JD asked.

"Feel what? All I know is that when I rode out of town last night everything was like it should be and now that it's morning you've gone plain loco. All of you."

"Something happened long before that," JD persisted. "It's like we've been waiting every day for something bad to happen and the waiting has gone to our heads and made us act strange. I mean, take Ezra getting drunk after that bird nearly attacked him in the saloon and-"

"Ah beg your pardon," Ezra broke in sharply. He had been slumped in a chair by the desk but now he suddenly sat up straight. "Do you accuse me of becoming inebriated because I lack intestinal fortitude?"

"Huh?" JD said and looked totally lost.

"You telling him he got drunk because he lacks guts, JD?" I translated.

"No!" JD looked shocked that we would think this. "That's not what I meant at all."

"Of course not." Buck came to his defence. "JD wouldn't say that. He knows them's shooting words."

"Yeah," JD said and looked very unhappy. "I just meant that something has been happening to all of us and we're not ourselves. Ezra, you can't say you haven't felt that something was wrong because you have."

"So what if I have," Ezra said and gave us all an uneasy glance. "It's no one's business but my own."

"That's where you're wrong," I said. "I think it's quite clear now that this affects all of us. JD is right. Look at us, the sun has barely been up an hour and except for Chris we're all here."

"Somebody mention my name?" a familiar voice sounded from the door and I turned just in time to see Chris step into the sheriff's office.

"When you speak of the devil," Ezra broke the silence with a soft mutter.

Chris gave Ezra a long, indecipherable look. "Good morning to you too, Ezra."

"You wouldn't say that if you'd had the same night we've all had," Ezra replied and rubbed his hands over his face and eyes. His skin still had a green sheen to it.

"What you complaining about," Buck grumbled. "At least you got some sleep."

"And in that sleep what dreams may come-" Ezra recited, but so quietly that it was almost as if he was talking just to himself. He suddenly shuddered and looked up at Chris and asked the question that was on all our minds.

"What brings you here so early then?"

Chris pulled up a chair and set it so he could survey the room and everyone in it.

"I woke early cause I heard some animal sniffing around the shack. Found some tracks circling the place and I think I spotted it in the distance. Followed it for a while but I lost it when I got closer to town. I looked but couldn't find any more tracks so I thought I'd take a look at what you're all doing."

"Was it a coyote?" I asked.

"No, think it was a wolf. Why?"

"No reason. Just wondering," I said. "Kinda strange for a lonesome wolf to be so close to town."

Chris frowned as he thought this over and then he shrugged and said, "Maybe. Could be a real old one that's lost its pack and is trying to survive by killing livestock."

"Could be," I agreed but I was remembering the story about Wolf and Coyote.

Chris frowned as he looked at me, he must have sensed that there was something I wasn't saying. He looked around the room, at Nathan in the open jailcell by Marty's side and at Buck leaning against the bars. Last of all he studied JD and Ezra. JD was sitting on one corner of the beat up old desk near the wall and Ezra was behind the same desk with his feet resting on the opposite corner to where JD was sitting.

"What is this about, Josiah?" Chris Larabee asked and I looked to Nathan and he nodded - it was time. So I told Chris and the others interrupted me from time to time and told their own stories that seemed to fit right into mine. Now that I could see a pattern emerging I found I had been correct when I thought that I wouldn't like the result. One event had led to another in a way that went far beyond mere coincidence. It certainly confirmed my impression that something was making us move in a certain direction.

Buck continued to watch all of us as we spoke and there was a look of complete disbelief written all over his face by now. It looked like nothing short of a visit by the Lord himself would convince Buck but Chris was another matter. He just narrowed his eyes as he looked at me.

"Explain to me how both you and JD could see someone who looked and sounded exactly like Buck when you both say that it wasn't him."

"I can't," I told him. Since there was no way I could conjure up a believable explanation I didn't even bother to try.

"JD, you say you saw Vin but you're sure it wasn't really him."

"Yeah, he was just - wrong," JD said and Chris looked even more thoughtful.

"Sounds like we've got an unbelievable amount of coincidences here," Chris stated and looked me square in the eye. "Most of them center around you, Josiah."

Again I could find nothing to say against that. "I agree but I can't say why that is," I finally told him. "It's not something I've done. Maybe it's because I sometimes see things that others don't."

"What about the papers?" Ezra suddenly spoke."I mean as long as we're talking about strange happenings in town, I think that qualifies."

This was something new. "What papers?" Chris asked.

"Scraps of papers with a strange verse written on them. JD has one."

JD looked surprised and his hand flew to his waistcoat pocket. He pulled out a small paper and looked at it. "I forgot that was there. It says - Now this is the Law of the Jungle, as old and as true as the sky."

"That's all?" Chris asked and JD nodded.

"I found it in my deck after the crow had flown through the saloon," Ezra explained. "And then I found another, equally incomprehensible, while I was sitting on the church steps. Surely I can't have been the only one to find these verses .... " His voice trailed off and he looked at me.

"I haven't received any," I said and it was clear that none of the others had either.

"I don't understand why I am the only recipient." Ezra frowned.

"Maybe it's because you use them big words all the time," Buck said but Ezra ignored the barb.

"We don't know that you are the only one," Nathan said. "Two papers ain't much. Could be more that we haven't found yet."

"Nathan's right," Chris said. "Buck, you and JD go and search all our rooms. Josiah and I will search Nathan's clinic, the church and the saloon. Nathan, you and Ezra stay here and keep and eye on things. If someone wants us to find these papers they'll probably be out in plain sight so this shouldn't take long."

Less than an hour had gone by when we returned to the saloon. JD and Buck had already returned ahead of us and JD was a bit out of breath, like he had run all the way back to the jail. Their quest must have been successful, ours had turned up nothing more than dust.

"We found two more papers in Ezra's room," JD said. The boy was nearly jumping up and down from excitement and impatience.

"Well, what do they say?" I asked them. JD looked down at his scrap and read for all of us to hear, "And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper."

With a face as serious as I've ever seen on him Buck handed JD the other piece of paper and JD's voice sank almost to an uneasy whisper as he continued,
"But the Wolf that shall break it must die."

Ezra pulled out the note he had found out of his pocket and read,
"As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk the Law runneth forward and back - That's all then. Told you it was incomprehensible," he said.

"There's more," I said. Up until now I had kept silent about what the being in the church had said to me in parting.
"There's what -" I stopped and shot an apologetic look towards Buck as I gave it his name, "-what Buck's double said also. I can't remember all of it word for word but it was something about fighting one wolf at a time away from the pack. What I do remember clearly is what he said to me last and it fits right in with the other verses. For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack."

"Josiah," Chris Larabee barked at me. He wanted an answer to this riddle but I had none to give him. I could make a pretty good guess though. Ezra was quicker than me, however. His mind moved like lightning, probably used as it was to being one step ahead of the game.

"We are the Pack," Ezra said softly.

Chris was not far behind. "And Vin is the Wolf?" He was still looking at me to answer.

"Could be," I said, in fact I had never considered any other possibility. I had to add, "But all the signs so far point to it involving all of us, not just Vin. We've all felt or been shown things. The last thing that man asked me was what the pack would do if the wolf was in trouble, if it should fight or not. He also said that we had until the new moon to find Vin. I guess that after that it won't matter."

The one question left to ask now was who could be behind all this, but no one asked it. Everything that had happened so far suggested actions that went far beyond what any mortal man could do. If that was the enemy we were up against it could only mean trouble. I didn't want to think further than that.

"Do you think we're in danger?" Chris asked me.

"I don't know," I answered truthfully.

"Do you really think something has happened to Vin?"

The look Chris gave me told me that he would base his next decision on my reply and I suddenly hesitated over what to say and felt doubt crawling into my mind. I felt exhausted now, as if I hadn't slept in days which in reality I hadn't. Maybe my judgment was flawed. What if Buck was right and I was reading too much into what could all be just some coincidences, no matter how unlikely. Now I wondered ... did I really have the right to set something in motion that might lead all of us into trouble, just because I personally wanted to keep us together?

The movement of a black-feathered wing against the faint morning sun caught my eye and I could see a single crow sitting on the empty rail outside the jail and stare in through the window right at me. Trust me, its dark eyes seemed to say. Gazing back at that bird I knew the truth, I could feel it in my very bones.

"Yes," I said into the silence."I'm afraid so."

~~ Buck ~~

Crazy. They were all talking crazy. Was I the only one with a level head suddenly?
Josiah saw things in a dream, JD saw things on the street, Nathan saw the crows and told some loco tale about ghosts and Ezra had definitely drunk too much. And worst of all - Chris seemed to believe them! They must all have lost their minds.

"Excuse me but - Signs? Clues? What clues?" I said in a last attempt to set them straight. "You're all talking about there being some danger just because you've found scraps of verse. This is probably a joke that someone is playing on you!"

Ezra suddenly laughed. "I never thought I'd see the day when Mr Wilmington tries to be the voice of reason among us," he said and that got me kinda angry.

"Shut up Ezra before I tell Nathan to amputate your head." I gave him a dirty look to back up my threat but he just raised his eyebrows and gave me a bored look back.

"A rather crude suggestion that I find quite appealing in my present predicament."

JD looked completely lost again and looked to Josiah for a translation.

"He's hung over," Josiah told JD. Ezra looked like he was sick to his stomach again. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard before he nodded and said, "Quite."

I felt some small satisfaction from seeing Ezra go pale but that soon ended as Chris suddenly turned on me.

"If it's a joke...." he said. "It's skillfully done by someone who knows us well. So what do you know about it, Buck?"

"Nothing," I quickly said and put on my most sincere face before I continued. "I didn't mean anything, I just-"

But Chris was already turning away from me and talking to Josiah again and I knew that he had been swayed by what Josiah had said. Whatever they decided I would have to go along with it or be left behind. Darn thing was that I was starting to believe myself that something was going on. They all seemed to have felt something, so why hadn't I? Was it because I didn't want to know? Was it because I had stayed out of town? Was it because it had to do with Vin? No, that last thing couldn't be it, I had nothing against him. Or did I? Deep down where I didn't even know it myself? No! Maybe JD was right and I wasn't myself either, both Josiah and JD seemed to think I was someone else, or had been someone else. It was all quite bewildering. I needed a drink and soft arms around my neck to make me forget my troubles. Right about now would be fine.

"Seems like we've been given a challenge," Chris said and looked at all of us in turn. "I don't know about you but I've never backed down from a challenge in my life and I ain't about to start now. If Vin is in trouble I want to find out what it is and help him out if I can, he'd do no less for any of us. If someone has done something to him, I want to make that person pay, no matter who it is. So I'm going after Vin. In this I can't speak for all of us, it just goes for me but you're all welcome to join me."

Josiah was the first to step forward, as all of us had expected.

"We started out as seven," he said. "I'd like to keep it that way."

"You might need a doctor when you get to Ghost Country," Nathan said next. "Business has been kinda slow around here, I don't think they'll miss me all that much."

Chris then turned to Ezra and looked at him and Ezra sighed.

"Well," he said. "I do like to gamble, and it seems to me that there can be no bigger gamble than all of us making it back to Four Corners alive. Maybe I can change the odds to our advantage. Besides, the way my head feels right now the possibility of death in the near future is but a minor concern."

Now it was just the kid and me left and JD looked at me as determined as all that.

"Well, I'm going," he said defiantly as if I had challenged him when I hadn't said a word for or against.

"Buck?" Chris asked.

"Don't you think us all going away at once will leave this town wide open to all kinds of trouble?" I said, not ready to give in just yet. "We were all hired to protect this town, weren't we?"

"If Josiah is right this town will be in more trouble if we stay," Chris answered. "I'm gonna send a message to the judge and ask the sheriff in Bitter Creek to come over and keep an eye on things for a few weeks. I know he's good and he's got a competent deputy to keep an eye on things in his own town. Besides, things have been quiet for weeks now and if Mary keeps our going out of the papers then hopefully nobody'll be the wiser. Can I count on you, Buck?"

He held out his hand towards me and pinned me down with his eyes and I gave up.

"You know you can always count on me," I said and met his hand with my own in a firm shake.

It was decided that we should travel by first light the next day or as soon after that as was possible. That way we could make all necessary preparations and make sure that Marty was awake enough to give us proper directions on how to reach Ghost Country. He was still sleeping like the dead but Nathan assured us that all was as it should be. As the meeting came to an end it was clear that the first stop on everyone's list was the saloon and the boys all went in that direction as soon as they stepped out on the street.

That just left me and Chris now in the sheriff's office and I grabbed a hold of Chris just as he passed me on his way to the door.

"Chris .. " I said." What if...?" I couldn't finish what I had started to say but we both knew it anyway. What if something had happened? What if Vin was dead?

When he looked at me he had a look on his face that I hadn't seen in a while. I could see that he knew exactly what I was talking about, that he had seen it all in his head already. Then he shut me out, it was like a door sliding into place and his eyes turned hard as flint and impossible to read. I had seen that look before too and I had hoped it was gone forever. No such luck.

"We'll deal with that when we get there," Chris said firmly and that was that. There was no pain in his voice. Not even a bit of it. There was nothing at all. I've heard him talk about the weather with more emotion and it worried me.

I had lost Chris once before and he hadn't really come back to his old self again, not all the way to how he had been before Sarah and Adam were killed. I wasn't exactly the same either. It had been a long hard road since then, a struggle that I thought neither of us had the strength to go through again. Chris, Sarah and Adam ... that had been such a perfect dream - but it had shattered and we were still picking up the pieces. A man don't dream more than one such dream in a lifetime but you could dream about other things, smaller things, and Chris had picked up enough pieces of his old self to find a new purpose for his life in defending this town. And Vin was a part of it somehow. I didn't quite understand how it was all tied together but there was no way I could deny that it somehow was.

I stayed behind for a while and looked at Chris as he walked towards the saloon. When I could see him no more I went over to the desk and opened the middle drawer. There it was, I knew JD would have put it there for safekeeping. Just two months earlier a photographer had come to Four Corners and most of the town residents had dressed up as fancy as they could and gone to have their picture taken. JD had pestered the rest of us until we had all agreed to take one too, even though it would cost a lot.

For posterity as Ezra put it but I mostly think he was glad to show off his new fancy waistcoat. He'd just had that made from a bundle of silk cloth he had won from a travelling salesman. In that outfit he looked like a rich man and us his hired help and I think that was what he wanted it to look like. Vin had been the most reluctant to have his picture taken, probably because he had only seen pictures like that on wanted posters before, heck maybe even on his own wanted poster. But JD had managed somehow to talk him into it.

I looked at that picture now and smiled as I saw JD look into the camera with his most serious expression on his face, trying to look like he had twice the experience and age but not quite living up to that look. A hundred years from now they might be fooled but for us who knew him it was just JD as the kid. Chris looked as unsmiling as ever and Ezra was looking stiff and had his eyes somewhere above the camera. Josiah just looked like Josiah and Nathan and I were the only ones who couldn't help grinning a bit, even when the photographer told us not to. Last of all I looked at Vin standing to the far right with his right hand resting on the butt of his holstered mare's leg and clutching something in his left hand. I couldn't quite make it out but I guessed it was his harmonica. He looked uncomfortable as he stood there and the brim of his hat was shading his face a bit but he was there all the same. For our sake.

What if he hadn't been there? What if he had never been with us? What if that place in the photograph was empty and there was just the six of us? I tried to picture it and it felt wrong. Vin was a man who didn't say much but he had a presence that was even more obvious when he wasn't around. And now something was just plain missing. Seven was an odd number but it had beaten all odds so far.

I made myself a promise then, a promise that I would have to keep no matter what.
We were going to find Vin. Dead or alive we would find him and then we would bring him home.

~~ Chris ~~

Now this is the Law of the Jungle -
as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper,
but the Wolf that shall break it must die.

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk
the Law runneth forward and back -
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,
and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.


For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

What Josiah had said kept echoing in my head as I walked across the dusty street towards the saloon. I doubted very much that the writer had had us in mind when he thought it up but it described us pretty well, all the same. Most of us could be seen as lone wolves and we were pretty much unbeatable as a pack. That meant also that every time one of us was away it made us weaker. If someone wanted to test our strength then what better way than to divide us first and test us one by one. Was that it? No one was more of a lone wolf than Vin. Was that why he had been chosen first?

The way Josiah put it all together made it sound as if he thought there was some higher power involved in all of this. The way the others talked most of them seemed to think that too, well - except for Buck. Myself, I had a hard time believing in something that I hadn't seen with my own two eyes and I wasn't quite sure what really had been happening in town.

Still ... I couldn't forget, no matter how much I tried, the feeling I'd had when I saw Vin ride away. Knowing that he wouldn't come back. That feeling was like a heavy weight on my heart now but I fought it as best I could. I couldn't afford to start doubting that Vin was still alive. If there was any way to find out the truth about what had happened I would find it.

I talked to Mary and she was more understanding than I had expected and didn't protest all that much. She was a good woman and she knew that some things just had to be done, no matter what the cost. Maybe she was calmed by the fact that the sheriff from Bitter Creek would do fine as a temporary replacement.

So things were set in motion and early next morning we were on the way. The directions that Marty had given us told us to go northwest towards the mountains and that's what we did for several days. We went as fast as we could without straining our horses and kept away from towns, preferring instead to stay out in the open. None of us spoke more than necessary during this time, not even Ezra or JD who were normally hard to shut up. When we started to speak about something it usually turned into Vin stories in the end. The kind of stories where you start out by saying 'Remember the time when Vin- '

The first night as we made camp I listened to the others as they kept bantering and interrupting each other and telling tall tales about Vin. JD was quiet too and he listened for a long while before saying, "You know what you're doing? You talk about Vin as if he's already dead and gone."

They all fell quiet and then Buck said somberly, "That's not true, JD." But as soon as JD said it we all knew it was true anyway. Josiah's eyes met mine across the fire and he smiled and turned to JD.

"Vin's got more sand than anyone I've ever met," he told the boy quietly. "He's the kind of man who'd charge hell with a bucket of water if he felt like it. He'd probably manage to put out a fire or two along the way too. I feel confident that we'll find him alive, JD. Men like him are hard to kill."

Josiah looked at me as he said the last words and I think he was trying to reassure me as well as JD. Sometimes I got the feeling that Josiah could see right through all of us, including me.

"Yeah," Buck said and reached out to squeeze JD's shoulder. "If there's anyone who can take care of himself out there it's Vin so don't you fret, JD. He'll be all right."

It was getting late and we would have to start out early the next day. There was no way of telling what would happen when we got to Ghost country but for now there was no need to keep a man up on guard so we all settled down into our blankets.

"Got sand," Ezra muttered from his nest of blankets. Somehow he seemed to have gotten hold of more blankets than the rest of us had put together. "Got any more quaint western expressions at hand, Mr Sanchez?"

"I'll think one up just for you, brother Ezra," Josiah replied immediately and the rest of us all burst out laughing as Ezra sniffed and flipped his hat down over his eyes so he could no longer see us or the fire.

Three days later we got our first glance of Ghost Country. The entrance to the valley was hard to find even with Marty's directions, at first we even went past it and had to re-trace our steps. There was a trail, if you could call it that, that looked mostly unused and led up a steep mountainside. It had to have been near impossible to make it up there with a wagon. A man had to be desperate or truly convinced that the effort was worth it to make that drive. Riding over the ridge and looking down on the land spread out below I began to understand. It was no wonder the settlers Nathan had spoken about thought they had found paradise, I'm not sure I've ever seen greener, prettier land. It looked like an ocean of the greenest of grazing land with islands of gently rolling hills. Far in the distance there was the telltale glitter that spoke of a lazy river and then there were the mountains that surrounded us. Gentle slopes and steep falls, patches of white snow and peaks covered by green pine trees. Everywhere you looked there was something new to be seen and it was beautiful, and much bigger than I ever could have guessed. In a strange way it looked as if the valley was much bigger on the inside than it looked from the outside. You never would have guessed there would be this bounty hidden within the mountain range.

"Chris," Buck had come up beside me and stopped to see the sights as well. There was awe in his voice when he spoke.
"This is beautiful. But so big. Chris, we ain't gonna have time to search through it all..."

"I know," I said, that thought had stuck me also with my first glance into Ghost Country. It would most likely take weeks to search through it all and it was time we just didn't have.

The rest of the boys were coming up behind us and we started on our way down and it took the rest of daylight just to make it to the river where we decided to make camp.

A grim silence had settled over us. At one time or the other during that evening I could see all of the boys stop what they were doing for a second and just look and listen out into the dark to see if anything was there. When twilight was finally gone I walked some ways away from the fire into the darkness and looked around. There shouldn't have been enough light for me to see the contours of the woods ahead of us but I could see them all the same. It wasn't hard to imagine Vin moving around these woods like a ghost among the shadows. He could be out there watching and we would never know it, he was that good at what he did. Worst thing was that Vin was the best tracker among us and we sorely needed a man with his knowledge right about now.

Ghost Country lay silent and mist was starting to creep up from the river so I hurried back the short way to camp and lay down to restless sleep. Once I woke up as the horses softly whinnied at each other but it didn't sound like danger. I knew Buck was on guard and he didn't say anything so I soon fell asleep again.

I had a dream that night, a strange one. I dreamt that I was following a trail in the darkness up the mountainside. It was so real that I could feel the ground against the soles of my feet and I could feel the leaves brush against me as I got higher and higher. Then the undergrowth gave way to just big pine trees and I could run free up towards the mountain top. Running like that made me realize that I had more than just two legs. I stopped and looked down on myself and I could see that I was a wolf. Being a wolf didn't feel as strange to me as you might expect, it was still me deep inside. I looked up at the moon and it was the same moon that was above us now, but then it shifted and grew fuller. It looked like it must have when Vin had come here a week ago.

My eyes were much keener as a wolf and I had no trouble spotting the campfire up on the mountainside, far in the distance. I ran towards it but before I got there I could hear shooting and when I got near enough to look the camp was already abandoned. I wanted to move around it but something held me back and I sat down and waited instead. It seemed like I only blinked or maybe the whole world turned because suddenly everything was changed. It was daytime, the fire was out and there was snow on the ground. I looked up at the heavens and could see the moon as a pale sliver against the blue sky. I stood up and found that I was back to being me again but the wolf hadn't left me completely. It was sitting on the ground across from me and looking at me with its strange yellow eyes. It didn't look dangerous, more like it was curious, and I felt no fear. Then it spoke to me and I took a step back in surprise. I can't tell you what kind of voice it was, it was more like hearing your own voice inside your head but the words coming from somewhere outside.
*You do not belong here,* it said.*This place is ours. Go back.*
*I'm looking for someone,* I started to say but it interrupted me with *Go back,* once again. Then the wolf turned and ran away.

Suddenly I was looking at the dark sky and I realized that I was awake and the dream was over. I hadn't woken by my own self either, someone was shaking my shoulder and I looked up to see that it was Josiah who had waked me so I could take his place as a guard. He signalled me that everything was quiet and I nodded and swept the blanket closer around me against the chilly night air. Picking up my rifle I took my place as guard.

Being out there on my lonesome while the others were sleeping gave me plenty of time to think on what the dream could mean. It had to be a warning, it felt like one but also as if someone was trying to give me a helping hand in a way that I couldn't understand. Having got that far I gave up and just waited for the morning that came ever so slowly.

The boys seemed to have slept about as well as I had and when the grey dawn was breaking we were already packing up our camp. Islands of mists floating just above the ground softened all shapes and muffled the sounds of gently jingling metal as we saddled our horses.

"Dear Lord!" I suddenly heard Ezra exclaim and we all flocked to where he was standing by his horse furthest away from the fire. Near to Ezra's horse stood another. There had been six horses in the group when we'd set camp and now there were seven. Another horse must have joined our party in the night and it was no stranger either. It was Vin's horse, Peso.

I walked over to him and looked him over. He was saddled and bridled and looked unharmed. Had the fool horse thrown Vin somewhere?

"Hey boy," I told it softly so as not to spook it and walked over to it and slowly took its reins. It nickered in greeting and rested it's muzzle against my shoulder for a while as I looked it over more closely. It was sure glad to see us, even before I gave it some of the sugar I kept in my pocket for Pony. Peso could be a real ornery critter if he wanted to but Vin and him had an understanding. He wouldn't leave Vin and run away without good reason. Something must have spooked him real bad and he looked almost relieved at finding someone he knew out here. Looking closer at the reins I could see that the ends were unevenly cut. Peso must have been tied to something and Vin or someone else had cut him loose to free him.

"Where's Vin?" I asked him but he just lifted his head and shook it as if to say that he didn't know. Vin had told me one time that he was trying to teach Peso to respond to his whistle but I realized that I had no idea whether or not he had managed to actually teach the horse that trick. Maybe Vin hadn't had time to whistle for Peso to come back after the horse had run off, but why had Peso done that in the first place? The second possibility I didn't want to think to deeply on, that Vin hadn't called or whistled for Peso because he was no longer able to do so. Whatever the reason Vin was out there somewhere on foot and that wasn't good. The odds just kept shifting and never in our favor.

The morning sun was starting to burn off the mist and it was time to start our search. At first we tried to backtrack Peso's tracks but they seemed to get lost among other tracks and the springy grass made them disappear at times. Maybe Vin could have found a clear track but none of us was that good. The others gathered around me and we decided to divide into two groups. Josiah, Nathan and Ezra were to search the grasslands and everything to the east and south while Buck, JD and I would search the wood covered mountainsides to the west and north.

"If any of us finds Vin-" I told them. "-or any traces of him, we signal the others with one shot then a pause and then two more. Understood?"

It was a simple enough signal to remember and they all nodded so I continued. "If we haven't found anything at all in 48 hours, or something else has happened, then we meet back here to re-think things."

I tied Peso to Pony's saddle and we rode off towards the woods I had looked at last night. Six hours later we stopped at the foot of the mountain to eat something and try to find a trail of some kind that would lead us up.

"You know-" JD said and then paused to put a large piece of bread in his mouth. "I had a funny dream last night. I dreamt I was a wolf."

I nearly choked on the gulp of water I was just about to swallow and I started to cough. Buck looked at me strangely but JD jumped up and patted me on the back until I could breathe freely once again. I thanked him and by then he seemed to have forgotten what he had started to talk about and went back to concentrating on his food instead. I could see Buck give him odd little glances but JD didn't seem to notice. I got the feeling that Buck knew as well as I what JD had dreamt about but I knew I would never get him to admit it.

We soon found what looked like a trail leading upwards and the further up we went the more familiar the surroundings seemed to me. The higher up we got the more the temperature dropped until we had to stop and put on some more clothes to keep from freezing. I was sure we were on the right trail now. I stopped and looked up into the sky at one point and the moon was there, just as I had dreamt it. Finally I saw a trail that was as familiar to me as if I had already gone through here once before.

"This is just like in the dream!" JD exclaimed, confirming my suspicions.

Buck and I looked at each other but we said nothing. A silent agreement was passed between us and Buck turned around and told JD to take Peso and wait further down at the beginning of the trail. The boy must have been freezing cause he turned around without so much as a complaint. I had the strangest feeling and I guessed that Buck had it too, that we would find something up there. Something I wasn't sure that JD should see.

Buck and I continued higher up and soon came upon more level ground. There we found the snow-covered remains of a small camp that looked hastily abandoned. A coffeepot lay overturned and I could see gun shells glimmer like rare metals underneath the shallow snow in the stray rays of sunshine that broke through the treetops.

And right there, in the middle of the camp, lay a hat that had been left behind. I recognized it right away. It belonged to Vin.

~~ Buck ~~

The higher up we went the colder it got. The thing about Ghost Country was that everything seemed turned around in here. The seasons, the lights and even the animals. It had been curiously quiet in the night and I had yet to hear birds singing, t'weren't natural. The mountains weren't the highest I've seen but there was a bitter wind sweeping over them and higher up it looked like the snow never melted all year round. Soon my breath was freezing in sharp ice needles in my mustache and JD's skin was turning blue.

He had really thrown me with saying he had dreamt about being a wolf. I had dreamt the same dream and from the way Chris was choking on a simple drink of water I guessed he knew what JD was talking about too. Three men having the same dream at the same time - it was impossible. All this unnatural stuff was making my skin crawl.

When JD said that the trail was the same as in the dream I knew he was right. The whole place looked as familiar to me as if I had been through here once before. I looked at Chris and he looked at me and we both came to a silent agreement that whatever was up there JD would be best left out of it. I had expected more in ways of protest when I asked JD to take Peso and go down the trail and wait for us there but he hardly said a word. I guess he was trying to keep his teeth from chattering, the poor kid was freezing.

So it was just Chris and me left now as we went up the mountain trail and we had barely ridden for more than an hour when we came across a small camp.

There was a thin layer of snow covering the ground in soft waves made by the wind. It wasn't enough to completely cover the remains of a small camp that must have been suddenly abandoned. I took the horses and tied their reins to a branch while Chris carefully walked into the camp, studying the ground all the way. I stayed on the outskirts while he walked round it twice, stopping to pick up small things, like spent shells and parts of a broken knife, that had been buried underneath the snow. A coffeepot was laying thrown on its side with the spilled contents frozen in a puddle the color of dried blood. Finally Chris stopped and picked up the one thing he had barely glanced at until then. It was a hat.

"It's Vin's," he said with absolute certainty.

"You sure?" I asked him even though I knew what the answer would be.

"You know it is," he replied. And I did, it was hard to mistake that hat.

Chris took the hat and slapped it against his leg to make snow fall off and then he studied it in silence. He held it up against the sky and I could see the light shining through a small round hole in the crown. A brand new bullet-hole.

I walked over to where I could see traces of soot mixed in with the snow near the coffeepot. I kicked a bit at the fire before I bent down and put my hand in the ashes to confirm what was obvious. They were cold. The snow cover was so thick over the dead fire that I needn't have bothered but I guess I needed something to do. Whoever had been here was long gone. Two-three days at least.

I looked over at Chris who was studying the hat with such intensity that I was surprised his eyes didn't bore a hole straight through it. Suddenly he looked up, took a deep breath and let it out slowly in a cloud of white mist.

"No blood," he said without showing any emotion and then he walked away to the edge of the trees and turned his back on me and studied the surroundings instead.

~~ Chris ~~

I looked down at Vin's hat and brushed off the last remaining flecks of snow from the crown. Vin had been here, it was as clear as day. Where had he gone to? He wouldn't have left without his things if it hadn't been absolutely necessary.

The signs of a battle that we had found here worried me no end. I had never worried about Vin before, it felt strange. If there was one man I knew could take care of himself in a fight, it was Vin. I trusted him more than I trusted myself even. JD was another matter. You had to keep an eye on him all the time to make sure he didn't get in anyone's way or left himself without cover. The kid was learning and what he didn't have in way of instincts he made up for in plain stubbornness, he just kept trying until he got it right. Still, it only took one careless move and one bullet so we all looked out for JD when we could. But I never looked to see where Vin was in a fight 'cause I knew he would be where he did us the most good. It came as natural to him as breathing.

At least we hadn't found his gun. He must still have that with him and that meant he had the means to defend himself. That was what I wanted to believe anyway.

I looked around further, searching for something out of place that could tell me where to go next. The wind and the snow had long since erased any tracks near the camp and I saw nothing. For the first time I could feel my hope fade into nothing and coldness squeezed my heart. Vin could be lying injured somewhere out there. He could already be lost to us and we'd never know what happened to him. It was not an uncommon fate up here.

"Vin!" I called out but the wind snatched the name right out of my mouth and carried it away before I could even hear the faintest echo. I stayed silent for some time and listened anyway, hoping to hear something. Some response other than the howling wind in the treetops.

Somewhere out in the wild a coyote was calling.
It was a lonely sound.

END of Coyote Waiting

CONTINUED in Coyote Calling