The first thing Buck recognized was the pungent scent of burning sage. It surrounded him, enveloping him in a thick, heady mist. For a moment, everything around him seemed to be smoke. Even his body felt as if it were dissolving away into the haze.
Before he knew it, he was lifted up into the air. Twisting and twirling, he floated through an endless smoldering cloud-propelled forward by a driving, uncontrollable wind.
His heart thumped hard in his chest. He wanted to question where he was and where he was going-but before the thought had a chance to shape itself into words, he felt his feet touch down on a patch of soft earth. As the veil of smoke slowly lifted, he found himself standing in the middle of the prairie. He turned slowly around once surveying the grassy sea as it swayed and bowed before him in the breeze. Though he'd lived on the prairie most of his life, he didn't recognize this specific place.
The sudden sound of an eagle's cry cut through the sky. He raised his eyes to meet its call, hoping to find guidance, but he was met only with empty space. Confused, he lowered his gaze and was met with a sight that caused his jaw to drop. There, not ten feet ahead of him, knelt a man who looked exactly like him. It was him. His hair was a bit longer, his face more pale. But in every other respect, they were exactly the same.
Curious, he stepped toward his twin image. The kneeling Buck didn't notice his approach. Instead, he remained intent on filling his revolver. His fingers trembled with anger as he loaded each bullet. Buck felt his twin's desperation shake right through to his bones. He saw the kneeling Buck's jaw tense, his eyes glistening with hot, unshed tears. Something terrible had happened. But what?
Before he had a chance to consider the question further, Buck found himself standing in the middle of a town. His eyes rested on a window across the main street that read "Rock Creek Jail". Rock Creek? Where was this? He had never heard of a place called Rock Creek before.
He heard a gun cock and he turned to find the image of himself that he had seen on the prairie standing behind him, with gun at the ready. Again, he didn't notice Buck, but seemed to be waiting for someone else. His eyes were cold and distant-almost mechanical. Buck felt a chill steal through him. The expression he saw in his own face was the look of a cold-blooded killer. What the hell did he think he was going to do with that gun?
"I ain't up to a fight."
Buck spun around to find a well-dressed man with near shoulder-length blond hair standing in front of the jailhouse door. He seemed to look straight through Buck, smiling smugly at the Buck holding the gun.
The stranger pulled back his long black coat to show that he carried no weapon. Buck noticed that he was wounded. He turned toward the image of himself. He still held the gun. But now, it was pointed with cold precision at the stranger's heart. His face remained expressionless-except for the slightest hint of sadness that seemed to press up against his pursed lips. Buck's heart jumped up into his throat. Surely, he wasn't thinking of shooting a man who was not only unarmed but injured as well?
"You're just like that dummy friend of yours."
Buck's eyes widened. Dummy friend? Ike. He swallowed back the sickness that rose like a wave within him. Once more, he looked into those eyes that were the mirror image of his own. Again he saw the cold, calculated stare of a man determined to achieve the ultimate revenge. Now he knew. Something terrible had happened to Ike.
"You ain't got the nerve."
A shot rang out. He spun toward the stranger who stood, dazed and a little surprised by the bullet wound in his chest. Then, the stranger's lips curled into a knowing smile. Suddenly, the stranger disappeared and in his place stood Ike, his eyes wide with shock. Buck watched in horror as another shot blasted forth from the other Buck's gun and tore through Ike's chest.
Ike's mouth dropped open in stupefied indignation. But instead of directing his attention toward the man who'd shot him down, Ike turned his gaze toward Buck.
"Why me?" Ike mouthed silently.
"Ike?" Buck whispered, staring back at his friend's helpless face. He felt the tears sting in his eyes, as all he could do was watch like a paralyzed man as his best friend sank to the ground in a puddle of blood.
"No!" Buck gasped. His eyes flew open, his breath coming in smothered gasps as he began to grasp the world around him. He let his gaze wander across the darkened bunkhouse and then out the window at the full moon keeping watch like a silent sentinel over the sleeping riders.
He stumbled out of his bed and headed toward Ike's bunk. He sighed with relief as he saw the figure of his friend rise and fall beneath his blanket. Ike was breathing. He was alive. He knelt down beside his best friend and rested his head on Ike's shoulder. The rider started, but when he knew Buck had awakened him, he sighed good-naturedly.
Buck wrapped an arm across Ike's chest, letting the sure and steady beat of his friend's heart remind him over and over that it had only been a dream.
Ike gripped Buck's hand reassuringly and Buck felt the tears begin to fall.
"Don't ever die," he whispered.