Worried glances were exchanged, as Jimmy approached Buck. Everyone was going to the social except him. The boys were escorting young ladies from town while Kid escorted Lou, as Teaspoon’s niece ‘Louise.’

“Ya’ know,” said Jimmy, trying to make light of the situation, “ya’ can still go.”

“Yeah,” Cody piped in, “I’m sure there’ll be a lot of girls there without escorts.” Lou elbowed Cody in the ribs and received a satisfying “oomph” in return.

“Buck, don’t listen to them,” said Lou, walking up beside Jimmy. “If ya’ don’t wanna go, ya’ don’t have to.”

Buck sat on the corral fence, staring out at the vast prairie, and tried to keep from screaming. The people looking at him were worried about him, he understood that but they didn’t have to keep constantly reminding him that he was the odd man out. How he wished he could just take a horse and ride across the open plains, never looking back. But that wouldn’t work; he’d just get himself hung as a horse thief. A hand on his leg brought him out of his dreams. He looked down to see the worried face of his best friend, the main reason he wouldn’t ride off.

*You sure you do not mind*

Buck tried to smile, but he knew it wouldn’t fool Ike. “I will not be the reason Jess gets riled up because you don’t go.” He looked up at the rest of his family. “I’m fine, just go.”

“Ya’ know, I could stay,” offered Teaspoon. “They don’t need some ol’ man around.”

At this Buck laughed heartily . “You have to go. You’re the entertainment.” He jumped down from the fence and, wrapping his arm around Ike’s shoulder, he and his friend walked over to the group.

“Hmm, I like that,” said Teaspoon, pulling at his jacket lapels. “The entertainment.” He tipped his hat to Buck.

Gently pushing Ike towards them, Buck said with finality, “Please go and have fun.”

“You heard the man,” announced Cody, running over to Soda and pulling himself into the saddle. “Laura ain’t gonna be happy if I’m late.”

Jimmy rolled his eyes and slapped Buck on the shoulder. “She’d be fine with it if she knew she wouldn’t get any cake once you get there.” Finally, everyone was relaxed enough to laugh.

Teaspoon walked over to the buckboard. “Come on you two,” he said to Lou and Kid.

“Buck,” said Lou, raising up on her toes to kiss Buck on the cheek, “enjoy your peace and quiet.”

Buck watched as Kid helped Lou onto the seat next to Teaspoon and then climbed in after her. Teaspoon set the horses in motion and the three waved to Buck.

“See ya’ later Buck!” called Jimmy, as Sundance moved to follow the wagon. Cody waved over his shoulder and sped up to gain the lead. Jimmy was having none of it and tapped his horse into action.

Buck shook his head and looked up at Ike sitting atop Star. *You are sure*

“GO!” yelled Buck, laughing and slapping Star on the rump. Ike glanced back once more and grinned as he disappeared around the house.

Immediately the quiet descended and surrounded Buck. It felt weird, especially after the entire afternoon and evening had been full of excitement and laughter. Everyone had been busy getting chores done quickly, helping Emma prepare food, and bringing supplies into town.

Buck had helped where he could, mainly with taking on extra chores. But once his friends started to get ready, he’d disappeared into the barn. That’s where he’d stayed, except to get the buckboard ready for Emma.

She’d gone into town earlier to help with the arrangements. As was Emma’s way, she didn’t say a word to Buck about his not going, just placed her gloved hand on his cheek and smiled.

It was hard because Kathleen Devlin was still so prominent in everyone’s mind, it having been just months since she and her father first came to Sweetwater. Buck shook his head. He didn’t want to think about that, he just wanted to enjoy the solitude.

The evening was crisp, a slight chill in the air, the type Buck found invigorating. With a quick glance around, he decided he could still go for a ride, though not off forever. Determined to have an enjoyable evening, even if he was alone, he walked quickly to the barn. In not time, he saddled his favorite horse, Peace, and led the animal outside. Wrapping the reins around a post at the bunkhouse, he ran inside, grabbed his coat and hat, and rushed back out. Happy with his decision, he pulled himself into the saddle and leaned low over Peace’s neck.

“Come on boy, let’s go,” he whispered in the horse’s ear, and tapped his heels against Peace’s flanks.

Instantly the animal knew what to do and took off running. Buck gave the horse its head, no destination planned. This was just an exhilarating ride to set his and the horse’s heart racing. The wind whipped around him and he felt it bite at his face. His eyes were watering but he didn’t care. It made him feel truly alive for the first time in so long.

After an hour, his random ride had led him right to the edge of town. A cynical laugh broke through as he pulled Peace to a slow stop. How funny it seemed that he’d show up here when the last place he really wanted to be was in town.

He knew his friends felt guilty that they were at the social without him, especially Ike, and he definitely didn’t want them to see him riding nearby as if he was hoping someone would invite him in. He’d been telling the truth when he’d said he was fine with them going. The last thing he would ever want to do was keep any of them from having fun and enjoying themselves because of his bad luck.

Maneuvering Peace so they would stay mostly in the shadows behind the buildings on the opposite side of town, Buck kept the horse at a slow pace, riding between patches of dim light and deep darkness. The closer he got, the louder the laughter and chatter was. He stopped at the end of the alley across from the Excelsior Hotel, and watched the festivities.

Basked in the light of the lanterns and street lamps, Jimmy and Cody were outside with their young ladies. By the way the boys’ arms were waving, and as animated as they were, Buck was sure they were telling some whopper of a tale. Movement at the entrance to the building drew Buck’s attention and he saw Kid and Lou emerging, laughing hard at something. Buck watched them curiously until he saw Teaspoon follow behind, his hands as animated as Jimmy’s and Cody’s. Buck couldn’t help but laugh, knowing the station master’s way with words and the stories he told.

A small pang of resentment made him want to move on, but as he shifted in the saddle indicating to Peace it was time to go, he caught a flash of red on the periphery of the shadows around the hotel. For some reason Buck was curious so he pulled up on the reins, receiving a perturbed snort from Peace. Buck chuckled softly and studied the area where he thought he’d seen the glimpse of color, as he absentmindedly rubbed Peace’s neck to calm the horse. But, as he stared, he saw nothing.

Not wanting to risk drawing attention to himself, he decided it was time to go. Just as he started guiding Peace away, out of the hotel’s shadow stepped a lovely young lady. As she walked further into the light, he was able to see her more clearly. She was wearing a red satin dress, with a squared neckline in the front and a standup collar in the back. The three-quarter sleeves were finished in a flounce trim with lace around the cuff, which matched the lace around the edge of the collar. The bodice was fitted and the skirt had a small bustle. Piled high on her head was a mass of coal-black curls, so black that they blended into the darkness behind her.

Buck was mesmerized. He watched her as she paced back and forth, wringing her hands. She seemed anxious about something but then a group of young men walked up to her. Buck knew them; they were the sons of the more prominent families in town. One of them was Merrill Butterfield Oakes III, the son of the owner of Oakes Freight. When she looked up and bestowed Merrill with a beatific smile, Buck frowned. Merrill Oakes was a dishonorable and hateful man, undeserving of such a beautiful woman. Images of another beautiful woman surfaced in Buck’s mind and it gave him pause. Perhaps this young lady wasn’t as beautiful as she seemed, especially if she kept company with the men in that crowd. He knew a lovely face could hide an ugly demeanor.

A snort from Peace pulled Buck willingly from his painful memories.

“Come on boy,” he said softly, patting the horse’s neck. He tugged slightly on the reins so they headed towards the livery.

They passed behind the boarding house and Tompkins’ store, the gunsmith and the tailor. He knew they were taking the long way around but he wanted to keep clear of the hotel as much as possible. Finally, as they rounded the tailor’s shop, the livery was in sight. With a quick glance towards the hotel, they crossed the street and stopped in front of the stable. A new corral stood to the left of the building and there were five horses inside.

“Must be the new stock,” he murmured, eyeing the horses appreciatively.

Climbing from his saddle, he nudged the door opened and walked in. With Peace following behind him, he looked around for the livery owner, Abel Scruggs.

“Mr. Scruggs?” he called. “Mr. Scruggs?” No answer bothered Buck. He wasn’t used to the old man being gone. “Abel?” He didn’t think Abel would have gone to the social. “Abel!”

There was a loud clatter followed by a sharp yelp from inside the small tack room where Abel lived. Worried that something had happened to the man, Buck hurried towards the door and reached out to grab the doorknob. Abel threw open the door.

“What in tarnation? Ya’ gave me quite a start ya’ fool,” grumbled the older man. “Thought ev’ryone was at that silly dance.” When Abel saw that it was Buck, his face softened. “Son, what’re ya’ doin’ here? You should be over there.” He waved in the direction of the hotel and stepped closer, his steady gaze on Buck.

“Didn’t wanna go,” mumbled Buck, squirming slightly. His eyes darted around, finally settling on Peace, as the animal munched happily on a hay pile he’d found just inside the doors.

After an uncomfortable moment of silence, Buck cleared his throat and said, “Thought I’d come see the new additions.”

“Oh yeah,” said Abel, his face breaking into a big grin. Shuffling towards the entrance, he motioned for Buck to follow. “Got that new corral all built, did ya’ see it?”

“Yep and saw the guests,” said Buck, chuckling as he walked behind Abel. He’d known that mentioning the new stock would change the direction of the conversation. If there was one thing that Abel liked more than town gossip it was horses.

“Was gonna bring ‘em in, when ya’ came bargin’ in,” said Abel, glancing back at Buck, who just grinned. Abel barked a laugh and continued, “Come take a look.” He gestured to the corral as they walked outside.

Buck walked up to the corral and gazed over the new horses. There was one that Buck thought looked like Sundance. And he grinned as a Katy lookalike nosed him from between the posts. The soft nose snuffled at his hand in search of a treat but finding nothing still allowed Buck to rub her nose.

“They’re beautiful,” murmured Buck.

“Sure are,” said Abel, proudly. “I know my horse flesh.” Snapping his fingers and doing a little dance, he turned towards the stables. “I’ve got some apples for ‘em. Be right back.” And Abel disappeared into the darkness of the barn.

“Beautiful,” whispered Buck. Peace snorted indignantly and Buck laughed. “You are too, so be nice.” Buck soon lost himself in getting to know these five horses, as he rubbed noses, patted necks, and talked softly to them.

“He’s beautiful.”

The soft voice startled Buck even though it was scarcely above a whisper and he turned quickly. Barely three feet in front of him stood the lady in red, running her hand across Peace’s neck. As her attention was on Peace, Buck’s eyes roamed over her face, taking in her delicate features. For a brief moment Buck felt irrational jealousy towards Peace, until Abel’s voice rang out bringing Buck out of his foolish envy.

“I swear them damn apples was right here,” barked the old man, causing Buck to grimace at Abel’s choice of words.

But it didn’t seem to faze the young lady in front of him. She stuck her hand out and said, “My name is Rowena Hess.”

Surprised by her candor and willingness to actually shake his hand, he reached out and took her hand. The sensation of touching her ungloved hand sent a shiver up his spine. “Um, uh, I’m –”

“Oh I know who you are, Buck Cross. You ride for the Express,” she cut in, withdrawing her hand and turning back to Peace. A small smile on her face, she leaned against the horse’s shoulder and continued patting Peace’s neck.

Awestruck, Buck just stood there staring at her. She knew who he was. How did this beautiful woman know who he was? And how she said it caused him to watch her curiously. With a quick shrug, he figured it must be due to his riding for the Express since she did know that too. Most of the town knew the riders by name, even though they didn’t want to acknowledge them.

“Got ‘em!” announced Abel as he trotted over to where Buck stood. “Got yer knife?”

Unsure of whether to pull the weapon out in front of Miss Hess, and remembering the fascination that Kathleen had shown when he had used it, he remained still. Abel gave him a peculiar look but then glanced over and was startled to see the young lady standing there.

“Miss Hess,” said Abel, “how do?”

“Mr. Scru –”

“Now how many times do I have –”

“Abel,” she said, laughing. “I’m sorry and I’m fine thank you. And you?”

“Girl’s too polite fer her own good,” he teased. “Doin’ right well. Come to see my new babies?” Before Miss Hess could reply, Abel nudged Buck. “This here girl can ride like the wind.”

The rosy blush that covered her cheeks seemed to light up her face. Buck couldn’t help but grin.

“Nothing like the Express riders, I’m sure.” She kept her eyes on Peace as she moved closer to where Buck stood, and brushed her fingers over Peace’s nose.

“I ain’t so sure,” said Abel. “I think she could give y’all a go if’n yer not careful.”

“That so?” said Buck finally finding his voice. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t get his answer. Miss Hess had been missed at the social.

“Rowena! Rowena!”

“Oh bother,” she muttered. The annoyed look that had appeared on Miss Hess’ face transformed quickly into what Buck shockingly saw as one of imploration. “Please help me hide.”

He grinned and looked over at Abel. “Shall we assist the young lady?” Abel chuckled as he and Buck, along with Peace, blocked Miss Hess from view.

*~*~*~*~*

“Rowena!”

Puffing on cigars, Jimmy and Cody watched as Merrill strode back and forth, calling for Miss Hess.

“Where the hell is that silly bitch?” he barked to the young men who were constantly at his side.

Yet, having them at his beck and call proved to be a problem. The more Merrill attempted to pace, the more the young men got in his way. Jimmy and Cody laughed when Merrill tripped over one of them. Infuriated, Merrill screamed, “Get out of my way!”

The sound of running feet caused Merrill to whip around. “Find her?”

“No,” replied the two gasping young men. One of them leaned over to catch his breath.

“Did you see anyone?” demanded Merrill.

“Just that breed with the livery owner.”

Exasperated by the missing young lady and by his inept toadies, Merrill stormed off towards the social.

The two riders stared after Merrill and his crew in amusement as they enjoyed the cigars that Mr. Brockdale had passed around announcing the birth of his son. Footsteps alerted them to company.

“What was that all about?” Teaspoon stepped up to the railing where Jimmy and Cody leaned.

“Merrill’s bein’ a horse’s –”

“Now Jimmy, don’t go insultin’ horses.” Cody took a long draw and blew a smoke ring over his head. He grinned as he watched the smoke dissipate.

Teaspoon too took a puff and matched Cody’s ring, however Teaspoon’s stayed a circle for much longer. Sullenly, Cody took another puff and Teaspoon chuckled. “Said Miss Hess is missin’.”

Jimmy and Cody exchanged sly looks. “Nothin’ missin’ about her.” Jimmy glanced back at Teaspoon and tilted his head towards the livery. If someone looked hard enough, they could just make out a glint of red surrounded by two men and a horse, in front of the new corral.

“Hmmm,” murmured Teaspoon as he stared off in the direction. “Didn’t that boy say somethin’ about Buck and Abel?”

Cody and Jimmy nodded, grinning mischievously.

“Seems he weren’t left out after all,” chuckled Teaspoon.

A/N: thanks to Raye for my prompt, “odd man out”: A person who is left out of a group for some reason. [Mid-1800s]

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