NOTE: New readers may want to read up on Will and Diana's world before proceeding.
As they rode up to the decaying hacienda, Coyote closed his eyes and sniffed the air. “We’re staying here?”
“Got a problem with it, Great Psychic One?” Boeing sneered.
Coyote squinted at the mansion with its crumbling stairs and gaping windows. “It’s haunted.”
“Better not let Harley hear you say that,” Will said. “He says it’s dangerous to make people nervous when they're carrying guns.”
Coyote worked a shrug into his movements as he dismounted. “He’ll find out soon enough.”
While camp supporters built cooking fires beside the empty swimming pool, Coyote wandered the usable bedrooms with a pensive air. Finally he settled on a spot and started spreading out his blankets.
Sachi stopped weaving feathers in Diana’s braid. “Go away. We were here first.” She pointed to a row of packs and bundles as evidence.
“But this room is farthest from it. I won’t molest you or anything. I just want to be able to sleep tonight.”
By now Tiffany and Ikea had wandered in and looked at Coyote with dismay. “Don’t get weird with us.”
“It’s that thing at the end of the hall that’s weird, not me.” He lay down, using his duffel bag for a pillow. “Wake me when it’s time to eat, okay?”
This would never do. The girls went in search of a place to banish him to. Harley’s room was out of the question. The camp supporters’ room was too small and crowded. The boys’ room was already a rumpled mess. At the sight of the girls looking around the door frame, Boeing scooted over on his bedroll and patted the space beside him. “Come on in, ladies. But no more than two at a time, please.”
Sachi frowned. “Is there enough room in here for Coyote? He wants to sleep in our room, and—”
The girls walked away in a huff. There was one more room at the end of the hall and Tiffany paused in the doorway. “Looks like something happened here.”
Diana pushed her way past. The few remaining bits of furniture looked like someone had taken an axe to them, and a yellowing sheet on the floor covered a suspicious bulge. She picked up a corner of the sheet, hesitated, then pulled it away in a cloud of plaster dust.
“Well, that shouldn’t scare him,” Sachi said.
Ikea agreed. “I’ve seen him cut rings off dead people, and this is just bones.”
“But where’s the rest of it?” Tiffany asked.
Diana bent to examine the skeleton more closely. “Looks cut up with an axe.”
Sachi nodded wisely. “When you die a violent death, you become a ghost.”
“And the bones aren’t even all here,” Ikea added. “Poor thing can’t rest in peace.”
Diana was about to say something when a scratching on a door at the back of the room drew her attention. The girls fell silent and looked at each other. The scratching grew more insistent.
Tiffany was wearing a knife, so it was she who opened the door. At first they saw nothing but a dusty stairwell. Then the girls noticed the raven.
“Cats bring birds to doorsteps,” Ikea said hopefully.
“But they don’t leave a hatchet stuck in them,” Diana said.
Sachi swore softly in her father’s native Japanese.
“It’s got to be a trick,” Tiffany said.
The girls turned back into the room and were startled to find the sheet drawn back over the skeleton and another raven lying on it, blood spreading beneath it like a new pair of wings.
“Damn you, Coyote!”
The girls ran back to their room.
“We know you’re not asleep!”
Coyote sat up and blinked. “Is it supper time?”
A flurry of accusations followed, punctuated by Coyote’s protestations of innocence. As their voices grew louder, Boeing wandered to the door with Will close behind.
“Get him out of here,” Ikea said, waving a hand at Coyote.
“What’d he do?”
The girls related his crimes, real and presumed, while Will slipped away. When he came back, he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s some bones in there, but no birds.”
The girls ran down the hall to check, then turned on Will and Boeing, adding them to the list of perpetrators and reciting a litany of complaints and curses before stomping downstairs in disgust.
Supper was a tense affair, with the girls studiously ignoring the boys who tried to act like this was normal. But Coyote’s attempt at dinner conversation was another matter.
“There’s a rancho near Truchas where some people were murdered by their son,” he said. “He smothered them with pillows and now anyone who tries to sleep there—”
“No ghost stories,” Harley said. “You know the rules.”
“Did I say anything about ghosts?” Coyote toyed with his food but didn’t eat. Instead, he looked around. “If I was a ghost, this would be the perfect place. Sickness, suicide, murder. . . this house has seen it all. Yeah, if I was a ghost—”
“Enough!” Harley pointed to the door. “Go relieve Aguilero. I want you at that front gate, no wandering off. Understood?”
Coyote stalked away, mumbling, while the girls exchanged satisfied glances. They returned to their supper, making idle chat about archery practice and piñon harvests. When a dessert of quince and apples was brought around, they all took double portions.
Their satisfaction was short-lived. As they knitted in their room by lantern light, the house settled with odd creaks and sighs. At a tap on their door, they jumped, but found no visitor. Things scraped across the attic in a manner very unlike mice. And footsteps in the hallway seemed always to lead, upon investigation, to no one being there at all.
The girls huddled closer, stitching furiously. But at a sound like pebbles skittering across the ceiling, Diana stood up in exasperation. “It’s got to be him.” She went to the window and peered out. A dark figure paced the watch station at the gate.
“It’s the other boys, then,” Tiffany said. But when she went down the hall, nervously clutching her knife, she found reassuring lumps under the boys' blankets, and Aguilero was snoring loudly.
A sound from the next room, the one with the bones, gave her pause.
“It’s back,” Ikea said.
The scratching grew louder.
“We'll go together,” Diana said.
Sachi picked up the lantern and held it high as Tiffany flung open the door.
Birds. A dozen of them, all dead. The lump under the sheet was gone and behind the stairwell door was that persistent scratching.
Wide-eyed and holding each other for reassurance, they approached the stairwell. Diana reached for the knob and pulled. It wouldn’t open. She pulled again. Still stuck.
“Let me help.” Sachi gave it a mighty jerk, the door flew open and a dark faceless thing lunged at them with a howl.
Shrieking, the girls tripped over each other as they raced for the door. In the hall they collided with Boeing and Aguilero. Aguilero caught Sachi in his arms where she struggled and flailed. It was Ikea who got out the words, “Back there!”
Boeing ran to investigate. After a series of shouts, thumps and curses, he dragged Coyote into the hallway, still holding onto his dark blanket. “Is this your monster, ladies?”
By now Harley had emerged from his room. “Didn’t I put you on watch?”
“I traded with Will.”
“Well, trade back again. And in the morning, you and I are going to have a long talk.”
Coyote made a show of annoyance as he slunk down the stairs, but once outside, he ran to where Will was manning the watch station.
“How’d it go?” Will asked.
Half an hour later, still chuckling, they were joined by Boeing and Aguilero. As always, Aguilero had some whiskey and passed the flask around, offering a toast “to scared little girls."
“May we find other ways to make them scream next time,” Boeing added.
They rehashed the events of the night, snickering. “But the best touch of all,” Aguilero said, “Was those birds. How’d you do it?”
Coyote paused, the flask frozen at his lips. “What birds?”
Boeing gave him a shove. “What birds, my ass. You know. All those dead ravens.”
Coyote sucked down the last of the whiskey and shook his head. “I didn’t do anything with birds. You mean you guys didn’t—”
They looked at Will, who spread his arms wide in innocence. “Don’t look at me. Where the would I get a bunch of dead birds?”
Aguilero snatched the empty flask from Coyote’s hands. “Well, whoever got the birds, they were a great touch. See you at breakfast.” He started toward the house with Will and Boeing trailing behind.
Coyote looked around at the dark and brooding landscape, retreating until his back was against the wall. Suddenly weak, he sank to the ground and pulled his knees close to his chest. He stared intently into the night as if he could will the sun to rise, and shivering, he waited for morning.