Since the day of Ike's death, a dark cloud of misfortune has hung over Buck and the other Riders. Buck, troubled by his friend's death, has seen a vision of a man in black. As the riders are hurt one after another, can Buck stop it before someone else is killed?

It had been days since Ike's funeral pyre had burned out...and nothing was left of him but his ashes and a multitude of good memories.

Try as they could, the riders couldn’t convince Emily to stay in Rock Creek. Buck, Lou and Rachel had seen her off on the morning stage. Her Aunt lived in St. Joe and Emily was sure she could stay with her. At the depot, Emily had quiet words of thanks for everyone at the waystation. She cried on Rachel's shoulder and smiled at Lou's words, but when it came time to say her good-byes to Buck she stood there for a long moment, staring into his eyes.

"You were his brother and I know you feel his loss like a stab to your heart. I just hope that you will not hold this against me forever."

He took her hand in his own, "I don't hold it against you Emily, his spirit is free and I know that I will always have him with me. Just as he will always be there with you."

When all was said and the stage had past out of sight, Lou walked back towards the bunkhouse with Buck. She touched him lightly on the arm. "She said she might come back Buck," he looked over at his friend, "I just think everything hurts too much right now."

Buck nodded and they continued in silence.

The wind whistled past his ear and Buck slowed his steps.

Lou continued past and stopped a few steps ahead. She turned back to him, "Buck?" He didn't move, "Buck? Somethin' wrong?"

..The wind swirled around him, kicking up dust before it passed on down the street...

He half turned and saw a figure walking in the wind, a black duster covered the man from neck to ankles, light glinted off silver spurs and the man's black felt hat sat neatly on his head.

...leaves and dust began to swirl around him as he walked away...

Buck shook his head, "I'm seein' things."

That night Buck sat alone on the porch of the bunkhouse, his feet propped up on the rail.. he stared out into the night, a slight frown across his brow. He didn't really 'see' that man, did he?

Jimmy opened the door and called out to his friend, "You comin' in Buck? We're turning out the lights.."

Buck nodded and called back, "In a minute Jimmy."

Jimmy shrugged his shoulders and started to close the door. Neither one saw it, but a shadow, shaped like a man slipped in through the door.

His dreams were filled with nightmare images. Over and over again he saw Ike fall to the floor outside the Saloon, blood spreading quickly across the clean white shirt. Silent tears spilled on his pillow, but Buck could not stop the images crowding his mind.

He fought to regain control... striking out, desperately trying to wake up from this horrible nightmare he was shocked to hear what sounded like laughter.

...ha ha ha..... you think you got rid of me that easy half-breed?....

Buck was awake a moment later, his skin covered in sweat. He sat on his bunk staring out into the dark night around him. He saw that no one else was awake and strange thoughts crept into his mind. 'I thought I heard a voice...' Try as he could, he couldn't remember what the voice had told him. He left the bunkhouse and stood on the porch for what seemed like hours, his thoughts plaguing the night.

Teaspoon had been called away to the Willow Island Station. Their riders had been repeatedly late in their rides and Russell, Majors and Waddell wanted Teaspoon to straighten them out personally.

Jimmy had been sworn in as temporary Marshal and he walked through the streets, tired of being cooped up in Teaspoon's office...there seemed to be some sort of spell placed on the chairs there. He'd already had three pots of coffee but just five minutes sittin' down, and Jimmy had fallen fast asleep.

Things were quiet and Jimmy took a few minutes to stop at each business and introduce himself. Most people knew his reputation and were eager to get a good look and the young man who seemed to have been born with a target painted on his back.

A couple of young ladies cross the street to speak with him. Jimmy pushed his hat back to get a better look. Both were pretty... one short with dark hair and a lot of freckles. The other a thin willowy blond who looked like she didn't have more than a thought or two locked up in her head. Jimmy was beginning to feel like a caged animal... every time he wanted to make his escape they came up with another irritating question to keep him talkin'.

Buck had just come out of Tompkin's store when Jimmy saw him. "Hey Buck-" A single shot rang out over the clatter of the street. Everywhere you looked people dove for cover. "Get down!" No one listened as they had already thought of the same course of action. Jimmy struggled to stand up.. the bullet had torn straight through his leg.

Buck had drawn his Colt in an instant and was running over to Jimmy when movement caught his eye.

Over in the alley a man in black.

...the wind kicked up and dust flew into his eyes...

"Jimmy? You okay?" Buck called through the blinding dust.

"Yeah! You see who done it?"

"In the alley!"

Hickok was back on his feet and faced the alley, not a soul was there...but then again it seemed like everyone had disappeared from the street. Jimmy pulled his kerchief from around his neck and wrapped it around the wound. He grimaced as he tied the knot. "The tighter the better, but *Damn* it smarts!"

Buck had almost cleared the dust from his eyes and had made his way to Jimmy's side. "Did ya see him?"

Jimmy shook his head as he wiped the blood off his hand, "Nope, are you sure you saw someone in the alley?"

Buck straightened up and looked Jimmy in the eye. "I told you what I saw Jimmy."

Jimmy held up a hand in surrender, "Okay...okay... you saw a man in the alley... do you know who it was?"

"Nope, dressed in black head to toe... someone's bound to have seen something. You think we oughta go and ask around?"

Jimmy shook his head and put his arm around Buck's shoulder, "Later maybe.. I think I should get the doc to patch me up first."

He could almost hear the voice as it whisked past his ear... .... there is was again.... two message..

who's next?

Special pouch came through the next day. Papers detailing the newest treaty with the Paiute Indians needed to be delivered to the tribe. Union soldiers were unable to deliver it due to increased problems in the area. They were needed elsewhere. Buck was the obvious choice to go... and Kid was the only one not on the schedule the next few days.

The two set out within the hour and by the time they set up camp that evening, they were just a few hours away from the Paiute camp. Buck was strangely quiet that evening, 'It's not like he's usually the chatty type,' thought Kid, 'but if he gets anymore quiet, he's liable to disappear into thin air.'

Kid busied himself with a hastily put together supper and almost had to shove the plate into Buck's hands. "Buck, you okay?"

He looked over at his friend, concern written across the Kid's face, "Just thinkin' back to this morning."

Kid nodded and began eattin', "yeah, Jimmy's goin' to be hobblin' around for awhile. Seems like Rachel and Lou are both set on playin' nurse maids for a few days... Noah didn't seem too thrilled either." He had been sworn in in Jimmy's place for the time bein'.

Less than an hour later, the two had finished eating and were set to bed down for the night. "Buck, can you put out the fire? Buck?" His half-Kiowa friend was staring out into the stars, his mind lost in thought. Kid raked a hand through his hair as he considered what to do. Finally he resigned himself to the facts. His hand dropped down on his legs as he let out a huff of air.

"I guess I'll...," The fire flared up like a firecracker had been dropped in the middle. A blast of wind had fanned the flames and now they licked up the arm of Kid's shirt.

The wind was hot and dry, the flames seemed hungry....

so very hungry, ready to devour...

Buck lurched up from his seat and threw his own body on his friend. He covered the flames, beating them out with his blanket.

Kid's eyes were wide in shock... his breath was hard and ragged as he stared at his arm... even when the flames were out he seemed mesmerized by the blackened fabric.

Buck peeled back the fabric around the burn and was shocked to she that the skin was already blistered and would most likely cause an into an infection if not treated.

Kid looked flushed, his face glistening in the firelight, "It hurts Buck 'feels like my skin'll crack open if I move." Fear preyed on him.

The voice swirled around them.

Kid felt fear flood through him as the fire leapt up again. He shrank back from the flames.

Heat... and more heat... in the cool of the night they burned...

Kid groaned as the skin on his arms blistered... the pain was almost unbearable.

Buck looked about the campsite for a solution. There, beyond the rocks, a cactus whose juice ran green and thick. He reached out to grasp a stem and pulled his hand back as if a snake bit him. There beyond the glow of the fire was a man dressed in shadows, the man was pacing .... prowling ... he could not see the face of the man, but he could 'feel' him. Angry, gloating....

Behind him Kid moaned.

There was an unspoken challenge riding on the wind.

The wind pushed on his back ... urging him to step away from the light.

Training his eyes on the figure in the darkness, Buck felt the voice in his ear,

'step into the darkness'


it's so easy.... you've already taken the first step


"Buck? Buck, who you talkin' to?"

A quick glance at his friend calmed his fears, Kid's face was more relaxed the pain seemed to have lessened.

When Buck looked back the man in shadows was gone. He retrieved the leaves he was looking for and broke one open. A thick yellow green sap slid out of the break in the leaf.

For an instant Kid turned as green as the sap, "What are you doin' with that?"

"I'm going to put this on the burn. It'll take some of the pain away."

After the first swipe Kid relaxed. He sat back and let Buck cover the burns with the healing sap. Mercifully for Buck... Kid closed his eyes and sat quietly. Buck was still bothered by the vision of man he saw outside the camp. He hadn't heard any horses coming up on them and the man seemed to appear from the night itself. He feared he was losing his mind. Ike would never...Ike. His friend was gone... and it seemed that Buck needed him now more than ever.

Rachel had left the waystation early the next morning and was waiting at the entrance to the store when Thompson arrived.

"How do you do, Rachel?" He let her enter first and followed her in.

"Fine, Mr. Tompkins," she was surprised at how nice he was being to her. "and you?"

"Fine, fine." He quietly went about opening the story and let her shop is peace.

Rachel was deep in thought while she gathered the items she needed. She was looking through the piles of fabric when Tompkins walked up behind her, "Uh Rachel?"

She jumped about a foot and nearly screamed, "Mr. Tompkins! My you 'bout scared me right out of my shoes!" He looked a bit embarrassed and he mumbled an apology, she wondered what he wanted, "Mr. Tompkins, is there something I can do for you."

He looked up quickly, "I just wanted to tell you again that I'm sorry about that boy, Ike." He took a step back, "It seems like a dark cloud's been followin' your boy's lately."

Rachel listened to his words thoughtfully, "Yeah I sure can see how it might look like that, but" she stopped and stepped to the side to peer past Tompkins' shoulder, "Who was that?"

Tompkins turned around and squinted out the window. He saw nothing. The street was deserted.

He turned around and looked at Rachel like she just grew a third head. "I don't see anybody."

She motioned at the window, "There was a man there. He was watching us through the window... he went around the corner before you tur-" She shook her head, "What's the use... can I just pay for these... I gotta get back to Kid and Jimmy." She absentmindedly paid for the supplies and said her 'goodbye's to Thompson as she left the store.

She was almost to the edge of the sidewalk when Tompkins looked down and saw that she left her purse on the counter. He grabbed it up in his hand and ran around the counter. He stopped just outside the door and called out to her.

"Rachel, Rachel you forgot your...." 'Thunder' came down the street, Thompson watched in horror as a runaway team of horses barreled down the street straight at Rachel who was totally unaware of her own mortal danger.

Teaspoon's office had been quiet all night... Noah had even gotten in a few minutes sleep... Buck had come in early to bring him some breakfast from Rachel and the two had eaten together. They both sat back enjoying the quiet of the early morning, not a soul was around.

Buck sat up as the wind filled his ears

i've come back again, my 'friend'

Buck stood up and looked around.

Noah put his plate down and looked around the office, "What's wrong?"

"Where are you? Show yourself!"

Noah put his hand on Buck's shoulder, "Hey there, I-"

he can't help you... and you can't keep your friends safe

Buck shrugged him off and walked to the window.

you never know when someone's going to walk right into the path of trouble

Buck looked down the street and saw Rachel comin' back from the store. He could hear horses thundering down the street. His heart slammed against his ribs, "The stage!"

catch her if you can half-breed

He ran outside, leaving a confused Noah, "What stage? There isn't a stage scheduled until tomorrow?" He took off after his friend.

Rachel was so busy concentrating on her riders that she didn't hear anyone calling her name. She remembered she needed to give Noah a note from Teaspoon, she reached down for her purse. "Where is it? Oh no! I left it on the counter!"

She turned around to head back, "Oh my Lord!" A stage was headin' straight for her. Her legs seemed rooted to the ground and she couldn't breathe. A strange calm washed over her as she watched the horses pounding forward. She closed her eyes and waited for the impact.

She went flying to the side, her basket thrown up in the air.

"Am I dead?"

She heard a nervous chuckle and looked up, "Not today Rachel," Noah was standing over her.

"What happened?"

Noah chuckled and held his hand out to her. She took it and dusted herself off. "Boy are you one lucky woman, I don't think I've ever seen Buck move that fast!"

She looked down and saw Buck sprawled out on the ground. His face was ashen. "Buck? You okay honey?"

"The stage?" He sat up and looked down the street.

Noah pulled him up on his feet, "Gone! It was almost like it came outta nowhere and went on home like the devil himself was after it.."

"Or drivin' it.... he almost ran you down Rachel," Tompkins had just reached them, "I thought you were done for."

Buck walked a little bit away from the group and looked down the streets and alleys... there...

what a pity

...down the street to the right, disappearing around the corner a figure in black. It stopped and waved a mock salute, finally disappearing in a gust of wind.

I won't miss next time

When Teaspoon got back from the Willow Island Station late that day he found the riders were a sorry lookin' bunch and he told them so.

"What's the matter boys...y'all need me to baby-sit your bottoms so ya don't get in trouble?"

Lou had just redressed Jimmy's wound and had started on Kid's arm burns, "It's a good thing you had Buck with you Kid, or this would have been a lot worse."

Teaspoon squinted a look in Kid's direction and winced at the burns and blisters that covered his forearm. "Wow Kid, I thought I taught you better than that? Where's Buck anyway? He out on a run?"

The riders looked around but it was Noah who spoke up. "He's been sitting out on the fence since we brought Rachel back this mornin'."

Teaspoon had already heard from Rachel, "I'll go talk to him. Y'all think you can manage to eat supper without killin' yerselves?" He winked at Lou and headed back out the door.

Buck sat on the fence, his eyes closed, listening for more voices on the wind. The voices were there, but just out of reach and strangely enough Buck was glad. If the voices stayed away... then maybe the danger had past.

A strong hand clapped down on his shoulder and Buck slowly opened his stormy eyes. "Whatcha doin' out here all be yer lonesome Buck?"

Buck looked at the man next to him and said nothing.

"Well, the others are just settin' down to eat, you think you wanna join 'em?"

Buck shook his head and stared down at the dirt. "I have a great fear in my heart. Something is coming after us... and I think I brought it here."

"That sounds like a strong feelin' there, I think I know just what we both need." Teaspoon jumped down of the fence and cursed his old knees, "Come on down now, we ain't got all night. I want to catch some shut eye before sunrise."

Buck followed behind Teaspoon. He knew exactly where they were going. The sweat lodge had been a favorite place to bring his riders when they needed to talk things out... and Buck realized this was no exception.

They sat in quiet for several long minutes before Buck opened up to the man he had come to respect like a father, "I think he's after me."

"He?" Teaspoon questioned.

Buck nodded and took a deep breath, "A man... dressed in black from head to toe... he's been haunting my steps for days."

An eyebrow arched in response, "Funny you used the word Haunt Buck." Buck showed no reaction and Teaspoon encouraged him to go on.

"Looking back, they were all hurt for no reason. They were threatening no one. It makes no sense, but the voice tells me they are not being hurt by chance... they are the targets... and I will not be able to stop it."

"Voices? Tell me son, do you recognize the voice?"

Buck closed his eyes and felt the heat bathe his skin, "No, but it is still there... whispering these words to me... I think the others fear for my sanity. Sometimes, like this moment, I fear they are right."

"Whoa there son," Teaspoon took his kerchief and wiped off his face, "No one thinks yer losin' it. They're jus' concerned about you... especially after Ike-"

Buck's shoulders tensed as he heard his friend's name. "I know Teaspoon, and I've been thinkin' about what you told me the first time I went after Neville. I wonder if I should've listened to you more."

Teaspoon chuckled and turned to face the young man sittin' next to him, "Should've? Well hell son, there ain't no 'should've' about it, and the longer you deny what you're carryin' around in side of you... the longer this cloud will hang over all of us!" Teaspoon pulled his feet under him, "Now I'm heading off to get all clean and sweet smellin' or Rachel won't let me eat, but I think you should stay here as long as you need."

Teaspoon exited and a cool breathe of air rushed in. Buck sat there staring at the wall, his mind in turmoil. Teaspoon could certainly act the fool when he wanted to, but when you come right down to it... the man had as much sage wisdom as any medicine man he'd ever met.

He thought about Ike and how he'd been powerless to save him... terrible doubts crept into his mind... 'I wasn't fast enough to save Ike, and sooner or later someone will get hurt or worse because I didn't act.'

Bucks eyes crept shut as he let the heat of the lodge lull his body and his mind... 'I should really go inside...' he thought, and a moment later he was asleep.

A hand carefully shook him awake, it the dim light of the night sky, he could not see who it was. Another hand touched his arm and warm fingers wrapped around him, helping him to his feet. He stood out in the open air gazing out at the sky above him. The black cloud of night was shining with stars tonight and the full moon cast a soft glow upon the earth below.

~my son, do you see before you the land of our ancestors? This is a vision of it's past~

Buck nodded his head as the stars beat out a rhythm against the silence of his soul.

~it is the same as your soul...when you flourish so it does, when you fear and find turmoil... so it does...~

A graceful hand past before his eyes,

~this is the truth as it is now. In it's present~

The black cloud of night hung torn across the sky and shadows, fierce and angy tear at the fabric, letting in strife and fear. Pain and sorrow.

'What is happening?'

~my dear son, you have always lived with honor and purpose, your friends were your strength. You have let fear and regret take a hold of your heart. This is no way for me to free your soul. If you continue to hide from what you know is true... you will continue to be torn by these demons within... your friends will suffer and you will lose them as you have lost your way.~

Buck felt a burning in his stomach and he looked down. Blood from a fresh bullet wound spilled down his body. A second jolt and a third, his life blood poured out of him as he fell to his knees. He held out his hands, covered in his own blood, pleading for help.

A smile filled his mind:

~you have always had the power to help yourself... you must remember how to use it~

"Please," he begged, "help me."

~you must cast away despair, that is the only way to save them. You must step back away from the darkness of your soul before it engulfs you my child~

The voice caressed his mind as it took it's leave, he called out "Wait! Wait!"

"Buck! Buck! Wake up!"

Buck shot upright and leaned back to look into the face of his friend, Lou. She was on her knees in the opening of the sweat lodge and was shaking him, "Wow. That must have been some dream! Teaspoon sent me out here to wake you before you froze..." The fire had died down long ago, and she handed him a blanket as he began to shiver in the cool night air. "Now come on in... we have a big day ahead of us tomorrow. They need some new horses in Seneca and a few of the new mustangs still need some training."

She stood and headed back toward the bunkhouse. Buck was not far behind when he saw a shadow following behind her. His fear held him silent and before he could gather the courage to speak ... she shut the door. The shadow remained at the door for a moment, and then disappeared into the darkness.

The riders that had no runs that day took turns working with the new horses. Buck sagged against the fence he had no desire to do much with the horses today. He stared into the dust and memories of Ike crept into his mind. Tears welled up and the wind blowing over the ground blew dust into his eyes.

He wiped at the tears and dust with the back of his hand, angry at himself for falling into this depression.

His ears filled with his own thoughts, he almost missed what his friends were saying.

Noah's voice was disapproving, "Lou?"

"Oh Noah, it's my turn."

"Yeah, I know, but take a smaller one...that Mustang's a brute."

Lou squared off against her friend, her brown eyes staring up into his through the thin lenses of her glasses. "You know I pull my own weight around here, and this is the third time we've worked with him...I think he's pretty well broken by now." Not receiving an immediate answer from Noah, she looked to one of the other riders. "Jimmy? Kid?" No dice, "Buck?"

Buck stood up and looked over the rail, "Yeah Lou? Sure hon."

With a satisfied grin she turned on her heel and walked over to the stud. The horse shied away from her, nostrils flaring.

"Lou?" Jimmy called out, "leave him be can do it tomorrow."

Now we all know that once Lou is told that something can't be done... she is all the more determined to see it through.

She called out softly to the horse, "Steady... whoa boy, it's just me... calm down... whooooooaa." Once again she reached for the ropes and the horse steadied and let her take hold. "That's better, now just a second," she swung up onto the horse's back. A momentary balk had Lou grasping the ropes tighter and squeezing her legs around the horses middle.

Once she was up there, she realized that the horse seemed much bigger than she thought. He was several hands higher than Lightning, and the inherent strength of this horse was daunting.

For a moment, she felt panic, and then she quickly stored the feelings away... she knew the horse could sense - "Whoa!"

The clear morning sky filled her eyes in the space of a heartbeat. The horse was rearing on his hind legs and Lou was in real danger of falling off. The mustang's shrieks of rage disturbed the other horses in the ring, they began to toss their heads and trot around the ring.

The riders climbed on the rails and called out to Lou, "Hold on Lou!" "Hold tight, we'll be right there!"

"No!" she called back, terror thick in her voice, "Stay right where you are, the other horses will trample you!"

Buck remained frozen as he watched the man standing in the middle of the ring, his arms frantically waving in front of the horse. His black duster was flapping in a nonexistent breeze. He seemed to appear out of thin air and no one else seemed to react to him. Buck would almost swear this man was straight from his imagination, but to the horse he was real enough. With his ears plastered down to his head the horse reared again and again, lashing out with his hooves.

Lou was frantically clawing at the lead ropes as they pulled out of her hands. Her mouth wide with fear, she struggled to regain any control of the massive horse. It seemed for a moment, she regained a semblance of control as she wrapped one of the ropes around her forearm.

Kid was sitting on top of the railing, looking for any opening. Jimmy had his hat off and was crouched next to Kid, his eyes trained on Lou and the frantic horse. "Lou! Lou take the rope off your arm! If he throws you, he'll drag you and break it in two!"

Kid stared at Jimmy, "That's it, I'm going in there!"

Jimmy grabbed him by the shoulder, "Not yet... you'll probably get her killed. Let the pack calm down.."

Noah had opened the gate and a few horses had left the ring, but the majority continued to move in circles. Their heads tossing up and down, they circled ever closer to Lou and her mount.

"Don't you get it? They aren't calming down! We need to do something, or Lou.." Kid stopped screaming at Jimmy and looked back at Lou. She was reaching for the second rope, her slim fingers just a hair away from grabbing it, when the horse reared again. Lou's legs slipped off the horse and landed on the dirt next to his hind legs. She released the rope from her other hand, but it remained coiled around her arm. "Oh God!" she called, "It won't come off."

Buck stared out at Lou, the man held her by the arm trapping the rope against her skin. "Let her go! Damn you, let her go!"

what? I can't quite hear what you're saying...

She scratched at her skin, but the ropes stayed put. "Kid? Jimmy? Help me! Please!" Her tears were streaming down her cheeks and her voice was filled with sobs. Her arm felt like it was being pulled from her shoulder, the pain was incredible. The horse continued to rear and buck... Lou cried out as she crashed against the horse's side.

Buck reached through the wooden rails, his hand was battered by the spooked horses, "Did you hear me?! LET HER GO!"

The man paused for a second and the world seemed to grind to a halt,

'Is that what you want? Well, fine, all you had to do was ASK

The rope slid lose from her arm like a writhing snake. Lou slumped to the ground out of breath.

She pushed herself up on her right arm and stared through the sea of horses, "Help, please.... NO! NO! Stay away!"

The sun was gone and Lou looked up at the under belly of the mustang. The horse had turned and now stood above her. Eyes wild, the horse seemed to move in slow motion. One hoof and then the other rose up, the hot breath of the horse on her face felt like an oven... She had the distinct feeling that this would be the last thing she ever saw.

Lou threw her good arm over her head, turning to look down at the ground and protect her face. A moment later, the horse began to pound her into the ground. He had only gotten in a few good hits when Cody ran into the yard, shotgun raised. A single blast and the horse fell over dead. The other horses immediately quieted down and dashed from the ring.

Lou was immediately surrounded by the other riders. Noah had gone to fetch the doctor and Cody was standing over the horse. Jimmy tried to find somewhere to touch her that wasn't already black and blue and Kid tried to turn her over without moving her too much. Buck stood off to the side trying to make sense of what he had just seen. Who was this man?

Lou didn't move or open her eyes, but a soft sob racked her body. Kid leaned forward and listened to her breathing. A terrifying moment later he looked up at Jimmy, tears in his eyes, "I can barely hear anything, I don't know if she's...

"Don't say it," rasped Jimmy, "She's tough, and she'll make it through." He touched the side of her face, "I won't hear it...or believe anything else Kid!"

Buck sat near her bed for the better part of an hour... each soft breath was counted and blessed. She lay in Kid's bunk, they had piled extra blankets on the bunk, tryin' to soften the mattress. The other riders lay in their own bunks, Kid taking Ike's so he wouldn't disturb Lou. Buck could hear them tossing around as they tried to rest. They had all taken turns watching her. It was the only way Kid, or any of the other riders, got any sleep that night.

Her color was still ashen but just seeing her breathe was enough... She looked like a fragile little doll in the bunk. Her left arm was bandaged and held straight by two pieces of wood. Livid purple and black bruises covered her skin under the sheet.

They had all seen the damage when the doctor had torn away her shirt and pants to examine her. Lou was a maze of nasty welts and bruises... several of the welts looked like she had been branded with a horseshoe. Jesse, who had insisted that he needed to stay for Lou, took one look at his friend's battered body and ran outside to lose his lunch. Noah followed him to keep watch.

Buck was worried more than anyone else knew...he felt responsible somehow. He couldn't shake the feeling that he had allowed this to happen. He had seen a vision of the shadow following her. He had to say it... maybe the man he had been seeing was death. Was he the only one who could see it? Had he been cursed with these visions as punishment for failing his friend? It seemed the only explanation and he fought back tears thinking that he may never get the chance to make it up to the woman who lay unconscious in the bed before him.

Her eyes opened slowly and Buck moved closer, "Lou? Lou? Can you hear me?"

Pale lips opened slowly and her eyes swept across the room, "Bu...Buck...did you see him?"

He was silent as her words sunk in, "who?"

"...the man... he scared the horse Buck... how did he get in the ring-"

She seemed miles away and Buck leaned closer, "Talk to me Lou... what man? Tell me what you saw!"

" saw him too, I saw the look on your face... it's -oh lord... he's-behind you!"

In a single moment of sheer terror Buck understood the warning and hit the floor hard. Unconscious from a single blow to the back of his head.

The grain of the wood floor was oddly distorted... seeming to slant across his sight. Slowly his wits washed over him, along with a sharp pain that centered on the back of his head. "The floor...I'm on the fl- LOU!" He called out, but it sounded like a hoarse whisper. "Lou?" His arms were weak, and trying to regain his feet seemed like a far off dream.

He pulled himself up on his elbows, his knees slid up dragging his body across the floor. Buck felt like a baby having to pull himself along the floor. He was almost next to the bunk where Lou had been placed. He tilted his head up, ignoring the blinding pain in his skull. A small hand hung over the edge of the bunk...limp and pale against the sheets... her fingers slightly curled and held open to his gaze. A single bullet, spent and rusted, lay in her palm.

Buck reached up a shaky hand and took the bullet. His heart dropped as he touched her skin. Cold as ice. He avoided lookin' up at her face, afraid he would see death. As he brought it closer he felt a deep knot in his stomach. He knew where this bullet came from and as realization dawned on him he couldn't help but feel this was the end.

what's with the sad look half-breed? cat got your tongue?

Strengthened fingers balled up around the bullet in his hand. He turned to the voice.

There in the darkness, he saw the mocking eyes of the man who had haunted his steps.

again we meet

"Neville, what did you do to her?!" The man clothed in darkness to a step forward. He looked like he had been painted on dirty glass, flat and a mottled. The lamp light in the bunkhouse seemed to illuminate his body.

oh? you seem angry, i'm scared injun...

"I have a name," he bit out under his breath.

Both were distracted for a moment, as Lou stirred. Buck felt relief for a fleeting moment.

He started to regain his feet, but stopped when he heard the unmistakable sound of a hammer drawn back on a revolver.

i don't think so... I like you right where you are

"What's the matter Neville, can't face me like a man?"

Neville stepped forward, his gun pointed at Buck's head.

thanks to you...i ain't a man no more

He smiled, an ominous grin stretched across his face. With one hand he opened his shirt, three bullet holes etched into the pale skin, inflamed skin puckered around the wounds.

"How can you be here?" Buck stared at the wounds on the man's chest.

you, my 'friend'... you set me free

Buck felt his insides burn. He knew what Neville meant. The words he had said a few days ago came back to haunt him. The Kiowa believe that death only sets the spirit free. What could he do, his own spirit wavered and Neville took another step closer.

"Leave him alone!" Lou's eyes were open and she struggled to sit up. Pain flashed through her with every tiny movement.

Neville looked at the small woman.

didn't i hurt you enough

"You killed Ike, you're not goin' to hurt us like that again."

she's more stubborn than a mule... and just as annoying

"You've done enough.."

A hand reached out and grabbed her throat, squeezing the air out in fitful gasps. With her right hand she tried to pry his fingers away.

do me a favor, little girl, quiet down and behave, or you'll end up dead like your friend, Ike

Neville threw her body back against the bed. She lay there unmoving.

Buck watched in horror as his body seemed frozen in place. Neville turned back to him and lifted the gun.

your turn boy...say your prayers

Buck knelt down and closed his eyes, his hand grasped the medicine pouch that hung around his neck. Ike. He failed his friend and now another... he had to do something. He remembered the words he had heard in his dreams...when his mother had come to him,

‘If you continue to hide from what you know is true... you will lose your friends as you have lost your way...cast away despair, that is the only way to save them. You must step back away from the darkness of your soul before it engulfs you my child'

"I killed you, not her, not the others. I fired the bullets, I take the responsibility. I was wrong, too angry to listen to reason, but now I take responsibility for my actions, something you've never done. I killed you in cold blood and I will live with that mark for the rest of my life." A weight lifted off Buck's shoulders. He had cleared his soul and was ready to face him. He looked up into Neville’s eyes, "why don't you take out your revenge on me!"

i have... it's so much fun to watch you suffer through them

"I won't let you hurt them anymore."

how are you gonna stop me?

"With my life, if I have to." Buck felt a another in the room, but his mind was focused on the danger at hand.

Buck turned as he heard motion outside the door. Neville smiled and turned to aim at the door.

"NO!" Buck launched himself off his knees and leapt for the door.

The door opened and Teaspoon could be seen out side. Buck crashed into Teaspoon as a bullet tore through his shoulder. They fell together on the porch just outside the door. Neville stepped into the opening and aimed again. Buck placed himself before Teaspoon who angrily protested with him. He had just about regained his feet when something stopped him from moving.

There was a man behind Neville. A sweet smile graced his face and soulful eyes looked out at them.

"Dear lord almighty," breathed Teaspoon behind him.

Neville froze and stared down in shock as a hand reached through his body to take hold of the gun. He turned to face his destiny.

you...I should've known you'd be back

Only a smile greeted the snide remark.

i'm gonna make them pay... and you can't stop it

One quick shot and Neville fell to floor.

An angry wind blew through the circled abound Neville's body like an vicious tornado...ripping him to pieces. As quickly as it was gone. Leaving two very surprised men staring at their welcome visitor.

Ike walked forward, his hand extended. After a moment's thought, Buck reached out and grasped his hand, it was warm and solid. Teaspoon regained his feet and moved a little closer, "Ike, son, I-"

Ike motioned, *no time to talk... have to go...good to see you all again*

He turned away and walked through the bunkhouse, pausing by Lou. He looked back at Buck and Teaspoon. *She'll be alright*

Teaspoon blinked in disbelief, “How do you....”

Ike shook his head, a little half smile lighting his face.

Buck breathed a sigh of relief as Ike leaned over the little bunk and touched her face before he stepped away into the shadows.

The first rays of morning light cleared the horizon and Teaspoon and Buck stood together on the porch. Kid had been the first awake and after hearing what had happened while they had been asleep he was eager to spend some time with Lou.

The two men hardly said a thing... they just stood there enjoying the quiet morning hours. The cloud of grief that had been centered over the riders was gone, replaced with a peace they hadn't felt before. Buck felt like this new morning also rose in his soul...his friend had set him free.

Email Raye