"Buck really, I don't see the problem."

Buck clenched his jaw – and his fists – and stared at the ground in front of Lou, refusing to look directly at her. He swallowed hard, not knowing how to respond. Of course she didn't see the problem. She wasn't the one that would be making the stop; going out of her way. She wasn't the one that had been gone for three weeks. She wasn't the one that was tired, hungry and fed up with the entire world. He tried to relax his hands because his fingers were getting numb from the pressure. Finally, he looked up at the expectant faces staring back at him.

"And why does it have to be me?"

"Buck," Lou said, her tone slightly patronizing, "I don't think I can go, do you?" She placed her hand on her swollen belly for emphasis.

"I really didn't mean you," Buck said, snidely. He looked at the two men flanking Lou, as she, in turn, looked at her husband and smiled.  The look on her face reminded Buck of some love-struck ninny and he had to stop himself from rolling his eyes in disgust.

"Buck," Kid said, grinning as he put his arm around Lou. "I'd rather not leave her alone right now. You understand." Again, the doe-eyed expression had Buck's ire churning as well as his stomach.

Buck clenched his jaw tighter and glared at the other man beside Lou.

"Sorry but I've got duty ‘til five," Jimmy said, raising his hands in the air, shrugging, as he looked over at Lou and Kid.  "And then, well," a small smile played upon his lips and he rubbed his hands together, "I have me a reservation at Lucky's for dinner."

"Naturally," Buck said, dryly.

He crossed his arms over his chest in a petulant manner. They all had perfectly logical reasons why not one of them could go, which meant that he had to go. He looked in the distance, at the approaching storm. He felt there would be a late snow in those clouds. "That storm is moving in fast."

"Buck it's just rain," Lou chided. "And you'll probably be home before it hits. She's on your way."

‘On my way? Only if you follow a path a drunken man takes,' he thought. "Fine," he snapped, knowing it was useless to argue any further. "Load the supplies in the wagon ‘cause I'm leaving now."  He stomped over to the front of the wagon, climbed up onto the seat and grabbed the reins. Lost in thought, he moved the leather strap from hand to hand, squeezing hard, hoping it would keep him occupied because he really wanted to hit something, or someone, right then.

Jimmy and Kid hurriedly loaded the baskets of food Lou and Polly had put together and the other supplies. Though the two men made short work of it, by the time they were finished, Buck's leg was shaking impatiently.

"Buck," Lou said softly, startling him. She reached up and placed her hand on his arm, "we truly appreciate this. It's been three or four days since we've seen Holly and," she paused until he looked at her, "we're worried."

All Buck would do is grunt. He really didn't care about this Holly person or that anyone was worried about her. Three or four days?  That was barely any time at all. He'd been out with the posse for three weeks straight now and nobody seemed worried about him. He was the only one that had stayed with it.

Kid had been with them during the first week but hadn't stayed the full seven days because of Lou. Then Jimmy joined the second week but because Teaspoon wanted Jimmy back in town, maintaining order, Jimmy had stayed just the week.  That left Buck, by the third week, very ready to come home. But no, Buck couldn't leave because Buck was the tracker so Buck had to keep tracking.

Without a word, he snapped the reins harder than he needed to and the wagon shuddered as it lurched forward. Keeping his eyes on the clouds, he headed in the direction of Holly Mayberry's house.

*~*~*~*~*

The three friends watched as Buck drove away. Lou shrugged Kid's arm off her shoulders and sighed deeply.

"Lou, I really hope you know what you're doin'," Jimmy drawled, shaking his head. He glanced at Lou and saw that Kid was nodding his agreement.

"Yes I know what I'm doin'," Lou said, more than a little indignant that either one of them would question her. "He needs someone to care for right now and I think Holly is just the…"

"What?" Jimmy laughed. "You do remember she's the same one that leveled that shotgun on me and nearly blew my head off," he raised his hand as Lou started to protest, "even as I was yellin' my name. I may think twice the next time about welcomin' someone to Sweetwater for ya'."

"Seriously," Kid agreed. "What about when I took that fabric over there? I thought I was dead for sure." He and Jimmy exchanged mischievous grins.

"Course, it did help that she couldn't hit the side of a barn," Jimmy teased, "or even Mrs. Gunter for that matter."

Both men broke, their laughter annoying Lou. "Just stop," she snapped. "This is our friend," she paused, looking at each man, "our brother, we're talking about. Aren't you worried about him?" She knew she was.  Buck had been growing more and more distant and melancholy as time passed.

Jimmy and Kid immediately sobered. "Lou honey," Kid said, trying to put his arm around her but she pushed it away. "Yeah we're worried but what can we do? Buck has always kept things inside and he deals with ‘em the way he wants."

"Look," Jimmy said, "if ya' think this'll work then," he sighed, "we'll back you up." Once Lou seemed placated, he added, "Until he ends up with a bullet in him then you're on your own."

Lou smiled and reached out to swat Jimmy. Finally, accepting Kid's arm back around her, she leaned against her husband.

"Ya' know, you two almost made me ill," Jimmy chided.  "Did you see Buck's face?" He snickered.

Lou and Kid laughed. "You just wait James Hickok," Lou said. "There will be a day." Kid's arm tightened around her and she asked, "Hmmm, reservations at Lucky's?"

"Nothin' gets past you," Jimmy said. "Yep, I believe that it's that day." He grinned wickedly and slowly backed away, watching the expressions on his friends' faces.

Lou and Kid exchanged a puzzled look until understanding dawned on Lou's face. "You're gonna ask Betty Ann?" The shock registered on Kid's face and, wide-eyed, he stared at Jimmy.

Jimmy laughed and walked away, leaving Lou clapping excitedly and Kid rolling his eyes.

*~*~*~*~*

Buck grumbled as he guided the wagon over the rough road towards Miss Mayberry's house. The route was worse than Buck had feared; not even a drunken man could have followed it. ‘Goin' ‘round your elbow to get to your nose,' as Teaspoon would say.  It didn't help matters that he had the wagon.

He'd been on horseback with the posse. The group had consisted of ten men, varying in experience, and they all had refused to listen to Buck.   Why should they? He was just a half-breed tracker. The men had been completely willing to listen to Kid and, almost to the point of adulation, to Jimmy as well.  Then, a few days after Jimmy left, Buck had been furious when Teaspoon had decided to scout another route and left him alone with the group.

"Now Buck, you can handle ‘em."

Buck growled low in his throat remembering Teaspoon's words. The marshal had ridden off without informing the other men of who was in charge so for the day no one listened except to directions. Finally, the next morning, they'd come upon the small gang of six men, but instead of listening to Buck's plan of a simple and safe capture, the posse had gone in firing. All but one of the gang had been killed, though he had been wounded, and two of the posse were killed, with three wounded from there. Teaspoon had ridden up in time to see the devastation.

"I'm getting my wagon."

That was the last thing he'd said to Teaspoon. Buck had left the marshal to give the orders regarding the wounded – Buck knew no one would listen to him – while he headed to town to get his rig and supplies.  The past few days he'd spent burying the dead and carrying the two men from town back to their families. Feeling desolate, all he'd wanted was to ride home without seeing anyone – Lou had changed those plans.

Buck pulled the collar of his coat up, trying to find protection from the biting wind. Glancing up again, as he had done every few minutes, he hoped he'd find shelter before the storm hit. Even if it wasn't Miss Mayberry's house.

"Just rain," Buck scoffed. "Lou doesn't know what she's talking about. Those clouds definitely hold snow." He scowled up at the sky, almost challenging the snow to fall.

He could tell the horses wanted shelter as well. Moments earlier, he'd watched as Merry, the one on the left, stumbled slightly. The animals were as tired as he was, ready to eat and sleep. It didn't help that the wind had picked up considerably since he'd left town and there was now a cold mist in the air.

"Why don't you just snow!" he screamed into the wind. He was answered by a fierce howl and the mist turned to sleet. "Wonderful," he muttered. The small icy drops stung his skin as he snapped the reins, hoping the horses would be able to move faster. Unfortunately, Merry stumbled again, this time scrapping her leg. Now she was limping and Joe, the larger of the two, was too tired to support her weight.

"Whoa," Buck said, though the horses were barely moving. He climbed down from the seat and, securing his hat on his head against the wind, he hurried over to the injured animal.

"Easy, girl," he murmured, gently rubbing her nose. He knelt down and saw the slight wound, blood shimmering at the surface. He breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn't worse and cursed his incompetence.  He hadn't been paying enough attention and the tired horse had wandered close to the edge of the road, rubbing against one of the jagged rocks when she faltered. Shaking his head, he looked around and suddenly realized he really hadn't been paying attention. He was about one hundred yards from the small wooded area where the turnoff for Miss Mayberry's house was.

"Well, Merry, Joe, it won't be too long now," he assured the horses. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wrapped it around Merry's leg, tying it tight.  He hoped to staunch the blood until he could tend it. Standing up, he rubbed the horses' noses and they nuzzled him. He felt a slight catch in his throat at the tenderness the animals showed him, kindness he really didn't deserve. Clearing his throat, he said, "Let's get a move on, this is only gonna get worse."

Hurrying over, he climbed quickly onto the seat and set the wagon in motion. As if knowing there wasn't much farther to go, the horses quickened their pace and soon they were pulling into the grove of trees where the small house was nestled.

Sitting atop the wagon seat, Buck looked around. There wasn't much to the place; a simple one-story house without a porch or any covering over the door and a barn that looked more like a large shed. Sighing, he jumped down and walked over to the barn. He hoped to find a horse to borrow so he could leave Joe and Merry there. He'd try to return the animal the next day after Joe had recuperated. But until Merry healed enough to come home, she would remain at Miss Mayberry's.  That decided, he opened the doors and was quickly disappointed. Not an animal in sight though there was a small pile of hay and two small bales against the wall.

"Great," he grumbled. "Who the hell doesn't own a horse?" He knew he wouldn't be going anywhere with these two, he was stuck, at least temporarily.

Needing to get the animals shelter from the storm, he ran over to the wagon and guided the horses to the building. There wasn't much room, broken tools and tack lay on the ground, but he was sure he could get the two in, brushed, fed and, with blankets for warmth, bedded down. And he really didn't care about the wagon; it could stay exactly where it stood.

"Hmm," he muttered, glancing over at the house.

As he set to work unhitching Merry first to get her into the protection of the barn, he was surprised that Miss Mayberry hadn't come out or even looked out the door. His hands busied over Merry, making quick work of the harness and soon, he had her comfortably standing in the warm, dry building. He moved a tub that was in the way, leaning it against the wall, and spread some hay in front of her. Next was Joe and he didn't take long at all, almost helping Buck remove the harness by walking out of the straps as Buck unhooked them. He laughed as Joe plodded over to Merry and helped himself to some of her hay.

"Alright Joe," Buck said, "here you go." He spread more hay in front of the larger horse.

He went back to the wagon and retrieved the small pack he carried herbs and medicines in. Taking out a can of salve, he removed the bandana and rubbed some gently over Merry's wound, replacing the handkerchief. Merry nudged Buck's shoulder and he chuckled softly, again rubbing the horse's nose. As the horses happily munched, he brushed Merry first. Once finished with Joe, Buck covered both animals with the blankets and closed the doors as he left.

Standing in front of the wagon, he contemplated what to do first. He didn't want to lug the supplies up to the house and find no one there. "That would explain no horse," he speculated. He decided it would be best to at least announce his presence so he pulled his coat tightly around him and, with his head bent against the wind, ran to the house.

He raised his fist to knock but was stopped as the door suddenly opened just a few inches. Relieved that she knew he was there, Buck opened his mouth to speak but was silenced by the shotgun barrel pointed at his head. Stepping back a few steps, he raised both hands.

"Look, Lou asked me to bring you a few things," Buck said calmly, although he wanted to rip the gun out of the ungrateful woman's hands. When he saw she was lowering the gun, he slowly lowered his hands in response and added, "I'll just go get the…things." His expression went from annoyance to confusion when the gun continued to slide down the edge of the doorjamb and hit the floor.

Buck tried to push the door open but something was blocking the way. He was pretty sure he knew what, or who, it was therefore he didn't want to use too much force.  He squeezed the upper half of his body through the small opening and saw Miss Mayberry, or he assumed it was Miss Mayberry, in a heap on the floor.

"Lou owes me so bad for this," Buck griped as he maneuvered his leg through and was able to squeeze the rest of his body into the house.

Standing inside the house of a woman he didn't know, an overwhelming sense of anxiety hit him. What would he do if someone rode up and found him in there? Especially if it was someone that didn't know who he was or who his friends were which was why he was there in the first place.  Plus, with Miss Mayberry passed out on the floor, he'd be lynched for sure.

He quickly decided he'd get out of there. He'd take refuge in the barn with Joe and Merry, eat whatever had been packed in the baskets and wait out the worst of the storm, letting the horses recover.  It shouldn't take long and then they would leave. He'd just tell Lou that because of the storm, he never made it to Miss Mayberry's. Without a second glance at the woman on the floor, he clutched the doorknob, opening the door as wide as he could.  He stepped over her and was halfway out the door when he heard a soft moan. He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, willing himself to proceed.

Another moan.

"Damn it."  He looked down at Miss Mayberry and saw a slight frown marring an otherwise pleasant face. Resigned to his task, he looked around the house, which was really just one room, to get a sense of what might have happened. In doing so, he realized he wasn't warming up and that it was as cold in the house as it was outside, which drew his attention to the fireplace. "No horse and now, no fire." He looked back down at the owner and shook his head.

"Lou," he cursed bending down to pick the woman up.

As he curled his arms under her legs and upper body, he could feel the heat coming off her. Alarmed, he withdrew his arms and stared at her, wary of what he had to do next.  If it was what he feared, he'd be drawn into something he did not want to deal with. Taking a deep breath, he got down on his knees and, removing one glove, placed his hand on her cheek. His suspicions were correct; she had a fever. Sitting back on his heels, he removed his other glove, stuffed them into his jacket, and pondered the situation.

He closed his eyes with a foolish hope that he'd open them and be back in the wagon, in the storm, with Joe and Merry.  Again, the soft moan broke through the otherwise eerily silent room. An exasperated growl escaped through clenched teeth but he did what he had to and reached over to pick her up.

"Don't touch me!"

Startled, Buck fell back on his rear as she thrashed out, punching the air. Glaring at the woman, he snapped, "If I could get you from here to there," he pointed at the worn sofa in front of the hearth, "without touching you I would.  However, I don't think that's gonna happen." He didn't get a response except for a small whimper.   Fleetingly, he thought he saw her cower.

Ignoring her reaction, he roughly picked her up. She squirmed and pushed weakly against his chest but it only made him tighten his hold. "Look," he said, grunting, "I don't want to be here anymore than you want me to. But the way it is outside and you being unable to take care of yourself, I'm stuck so stop fighting me." He placed her as gently as he could on the sofa but her writhing made it difficult. Drawing her knees against her chest, she curled into a ball and muttered softly. Though he couldn't hear what she was saying, it was evident by her tone that she was not happy he was there.

"Oh, no," Buck said, the sarcasm plain, "you are more than welcome. I've got nothing better to do and well, I was on my way home." He laughed harshly. Suddenly remembering that there were supplies to get in, he roughly pulled his gloves back on and rushed from the house.

Cursing loud and clear, not caring who heard him, he ran over to the wagon. There'd been a steady fall of the icy mix and the bed was covered. He grabbed what he could carry in one trip and ran back to the house. Placing the load by the door, he ran back for the next armful. It took one more trip after that to empty out the wagon and get his saddlebag and bedroll.

Once everything was in the house, a fire was next on his list. He opened the small door by the fireplace leading to the attached woodshed and, as he expected, it was empty. A strong throbbing had started at his temples and was steadily getting worse. He checked on Miss Mayberry who was sleeping fitfully. Once he was satisfied she was safe, he headed out the door to find firewood.

*~*~*~*~*

A sharp cry awoke Buck. He shook his head, not knowing when he fell asleep. The fire was still burning brightly so he figured that as he got warmer, he'd lost his battle to stay awake.   Finding the wood had actually been easy; it was finding the ax that had taken some time, digging through the useless tools in the barn. And, when he had found it, he had noticed how dull it was so he had wasted more time sharpening the blade with the only sharpening tool he had – his whetstone. By the time he'd finished getting enough wood to make a fire and several more loads for the shed, he was exhausted and chilled to the bone.

Crawling across the floor to Miss Mayberry's side, he saw she'd thrown off her minimal covers. There hadn't been much in the house to use so, after starting the fire, he'd added his coat and the only other cover he could find, a single quilt from the small cot in the corner near the fireplace. He had put those over the threadbare blanket she already was using.

He now realized they were soaked through. Looking at the woman, he saw too that her shift was glued to her body by perspiration. Sweat was pouring off her and she was flushed a ruby-red. He placed his hand on her cheek and felt the fire that was consuming her. Any animosity he'd had for her before was washed away by the fear and concern he felt.

"I have to get her fever down fast."

He looked around the tiny house for some inspiration. As he'd put away the small amount of sundries in the makeshift kitchen, he was surprised at how small the house really was. There was a pantry that barely held a few boxes and cans. He'd had to leave the bags of flour and sugar sitting by the pantry door. There were no cabinets, the few dishes, cups and utensils sat on the small table that had only one chair.  He'd vaguely thought how lonely that seemed. Again, that desolate feeling came over him but he knew he needed to focus. How was he going to get her fever down?

He glanced out the window and found his answer. The sleet had finally turned to snow, big, fat white flakes. It looked like a pillow fight was going on in the heavens. A lump caught in his throat as he remembered a time when he and the other Express riders had had a pillow fight. They'd gotten carried away and there had been feathers everywhere. Feathers were still floating in the air when Emma had come through the door. They'd all stared at her, waiting for her wrath. But she had surprised them, as she always did, by laughing and grabbing the pillow Ike held and smacking Cody upside the head. By the time Teaspoon had gotten there, everyone was on the floor, gales of laughter ringing throughout the bunkhouse.

Swallowing hard, he had no time for reminiscing; he had to help Miss Mayberry. She uttered another mournful cry that galvanized him into action. It made his heart hurt to hear such a sound. Pulling on his coat and gloves, he hurried out of the house and over to the barn. When he opened the door, he let in a blast of frigid air and snow and received two very indignant snorts from the occupants. They weren't happy with his intrusions.

"Sorry but this time it's an emergency."

He grabbed the tub and a pail and, after closing the doors behind him, he raced over to the house. Putting the tub by the door, he dumped pails of snow in. Once it was half full, he ran into the house to get Miss Mayberry. When he leaned over to pick her up, she shrieked. He got his arms under her and lifted as she screamed in his ear.  Again, she didn't want anything to do with him and was much more vocal in her dislike.

"Get away from me! Don't touch me! You disgust me!  You filth!"

That last declaration got what she desired. Buck dropped her back onto the sofa. Grinding his teeth, a wave of pure hatred rushed through his body. "I oughta let you die right here," he growled, his tone deadly. Right after he said it, he regretted it. He really wasn't sure why, maybe because he knew she was in the throes of a fever, but Lou's face kept appearing in his mind and he didn't want to let her down.

"Get away from me!" She continued to lash out, swatting at the air. "I hate you!"

"Look," Buck said, keeping his voice low and steady, "I'm taking you out there even if I have tie you up to do it." He grabbed the blanket to wrap her in. She fought tooth and nail, thrashing and kicking, but he finally got her secured. "Now, I'm picking you up and, if you do anything, I'll throw you out that door. Got it?"

Once again he put his arms under her but this time all she could do was wiggle, helplessly. He picked her up and carried her out to the tub.

It was really beautiful outside. Though the picture was snow falling softly, it was actually coming down hard. It had already added a few inches on top of what Buck had put in the tub.  He plopped her on the ground, not worried about injuring her, and dug out a small trench in the tub. Looking back at her, he saw she was twisting her body, trying to get out of the confines of the blanket. Sighing, he helped her stand, knowing the snow needed to be against her skin. When the blanket was off, the fists flew but Buck was ready. He pinned her arms against her side and, straddling the tub, he shoved her into the snow.  She screamed.

"NO!  You are disgusting! Don't touch me!"

The throbbing in his head was stronger than ever as she wailed. The wind seemed to mock her as it screamed back, drowning out her sobs. She wiggled and thrashed about so much, one of her arms broke free. She beat Buck about the head and shoulders and landed a hard punch to his eye. He was enraged.

"STOP!" he screamed. He shook her hard, grabbing at the free arm, and knocked her head against the tub. He didn't care, he was blind with anger. "I swear I'll bury you in this if you don't shut up!" At that point, he wasn't sure he cared if anyone rode by; he'd be willing to hang to get away from the shrew.

She hit him again, this time in the nose. He finally got a hold of the loose arm and shoved it down into the tub, twisting it behind her back. He had his knee across her thighs as he held her still. She continued to scream, adding curses to the verbal abuse.

"Filth!  Dirty!"

That was it.  All the attacks Buck had endured over the years came back to him in this one petite woman.

"I should kill you," he ground out, "but no, I'm going to make you well and then I will never see you again!" He did his best to hold her and get the snow to cover her. The idea was a good one but the patient wasn't cooperating. His gloves were soaked through and his hands were numb. He had hoped she'd pass out so this would go quickly but again, no cooperation. "STOP!"

He saw her flinch, her eyes scrunched up tight, as if awaiting a blow. He stared at her as he listened to her muttered pleas. Shaking his head, he pushed the snow up under her shift trying to cover her legs but her jerking increased when he touched her there.  He accidentally brushed her gown up and the sight that was before him stilled his hand.

There were scars all over her legs. He sucked in air and the cold bit his lungs. She took advantage of the lull and pulled her arm free, resuming her fight. He understood it now.

"Don't," Buck said softly, "please. I want to…"

"NO!" she screamed. Her eyes popped open and Buck realized that this was the first time he'd seen them. They were the color of the sky above them, a deep grey. She'd kept them closed the entire time he'd been there so she'd never actually seen him. The terror that shone in them frightened him to the core. What had this woman been through?

He resumed his pleas and, as he spoke softly, it seemed to help. Her flailing eased but the whimpering and mumbled pleading increased. Buck figured he'd scared her into submission and he felt disgusted with himself. However, Miss Mayberry still wasn't seeing him and whatever had her attention held claim to the fear that reflected brightly in her eyes. But, as he rubbed the snow and covered her with it, she grew quieter and quieter until she was completely silent.

Feeling that the snow had done what he'd wanted, Buck picked up the blanket and wrapped the exhausted and unnaturally quiet young woman in it. When he picked her up, she was like a ragdoll but he could see her chest rise slightly so he knew she was alive. As he carried her into the house and back to the sofa, he hoped that the tantrums had worn her out so she would now sleep. He placed her gently on the cushions and put the pillow under her head. Knowing he needed to get her into something dry, he remembered the small trunk at the foot of the cot hadn't held blankets but did have clothes. 

Opening the lid, it was almost heartbreaking the small amount of belongings inside. He saw two dresses with frayed fabric, some underpinnings, a pair of stockings that had been repaired many times and a worn pair of russet work bootees.  It dawned on him that he saw no personal items, either in the trunk or around the small house. It was as if she left wherever with little more than the clothing on her back. Snapping out of his thoughts, he pulled out another gown and closed the trunk.

He slowly walked back to the sofa, holding the shift and wondered how he was going to go about changing her. He stood over her, frowning. He knew that to touch her would send her into hysterics and that had taken its toll on both of them. As he pondered what to do, his eyes kept wandering back to her legs. How had that happened? He couldn't help but stare and soon sensed he was being watched. He looked up to see Miss Mayberry looking at him, tears shimmering in her alert eyes.

Staring quickly at the ground, Buck blushed and mumbled, "Uh, sorry." He thrust the gown out towards her. "You need dry clothes."

Without a word, she took the garment and, as Buck rushed to the kitchen, she changed. With his back to her, he busied himself digging into the food Lou had sent with him.  After deciding what to have, he glanced surreptitiously over his shoulder, making sure she was finished dressing.   Spotting her wet gown hanging over the back of the spindle-back chair, he put a few ham biscuits and some fried chicken on two plates and grabbed two napkins. With the jug of cider tucked in the crook of his arm, he carried the small spread to the fireplace.

"Um," he faltered, "um, uh, don't know about you but I'm kinda hungry." He tried for cheerful but to his ears it sounded as false as it felt. He squatted down and put one of the plates on the floor beside him, freeing up his hand for the rest of the feast. As he set the other plate down and then the jug, he realized he'd forgotten cups. Holding up the jug, he looked at it and said, "We could just take swigs out of it, what do you think?"  As it left his lips, he thought, ‘That was really stupid.' But instead, he heard a soft hiccup of a giggle. He shyly glanced at Miss Mayberry and saw a small grin had appeared on her lips.  Encouraged, he jumped up and quickly retrieved two cups.

Pouring her some cider, he handed it to her and, as she took it, she smiled at him. He again felt a blush crawl up his cheeks. Needing to be doing something, he turned and saw the fire was dwindling. "Oh, that won't do. You have to stay warm," he babbled. He grabbed the poker and, as he stoked the embers, he continued, "I probably should get some more wood.  This doesn't look like it'll make much of a fire. All the wood burned up." 

‘Unh,' he groaned inwardly, ‘of course it burned up idiot, it's wood!' He dropped the poker and hurried to the woodshed. He knew he was fidgety but he couldn't help it. "As long as I don't talk anymore, I'll be okay," he muttered to himself as he grabbed some wood. He was very glad he'd chopped enough to at least give them a few fires.

Holly subtly watched Buck with interest. She vaguely remembered him mentioning Lou but that didn't matter. She knew who he was. Holly had arrived a few days before Buck had left with the posse. He had paid no attention to her but she couldn't say the same about him.  When she'd seen him, he'd been working at the livery without a shirt on. She was thankful he hadn't seen her because of how she'd reacted.

She'd been coming back from speaking with Miss Birdseye about the possibility of doing piecework and repairs for the dress shop, a meeting that had gone very well. Holly had been quite happy and hadn't really noticed where she was until she heard a loud noise, metal against metal. Startled, she'd looked up and there he stood at the anvil; sweat rolling down his face and upper body, his hair pulled back, his muscles taught with exertion. Her breath had escaped her and she'd felt lightheaded, so much so she'd grabbed hold of the fence railing of the corral next to the livery. The image had stuck with her after that.

Holly had been only slightly aware of Buck as he'd taken care of her, but she did remember lashing out – and some of the awful things she'd said. Pulling at the hem of her shift, she wished it was longer; she tucked her legs underneath her.  Though she was wearing woolens and the hem hit the edge of those so her legs were covered, she still felt self-conscious. However, when she'd caught Buck looking at them, she saw no judgment or revulsion.  She stared at his back as he worked the fire and pondered what type of man would go out of his way, far out of his way, to bring supplies to someone he didn't know. Not the type she'd ever known.

Buck put the wood on the fire, prodded it with the poker and was rewarded with a flash of flame. Knowing that he was finished with this and now had to face the young lady behind him, he took a deep breath and turned around. She had her legs curled under her and the quilt wrapped around her shoulders. He saw that she'd been looking at him and quickly bowed her head as she blushed. Feeling oddly giddy, Buck blurted, "Food?"

‘I really need to just shut-up.'

"Please," she answered softly.

He handed her a plate and sat on the floor facing her. She looked quizzically at him and pointed to the spindle-back chair. "Oh, I tried to sit in it but, ah, well," he paused looking for a polite way of saying it was wobbly, "I don't think it'll hold me." He smiled and she just nodded.

Every so often, she'd glance Buck's way. His right eye was slightly swollen and she knew it was because of her. "Um, I'm sorry about your…" she pointed to her eye.

"Oh, it's fine, doesn't hurt at all," he lied. She'd really gotten him good and every time he blinked he could feel the bruising. He knew by tomorrow it would be a nice shade of purple with a hint of black. Ashamed that she felt the need to apologize for defending herself, even if it was against a threat in her memory, he remembered the horrible things he'd said. "Um, I want to…well, if you heard any…it's just I'm sorry for…" He wasn't sure how to put words to his regret without bringing up the sole reason for her response.

Shaking her head slowly, Holly closed her eyes. "Mr. Cross, it is I who should apologize. You were only trying to help me and…" Her throat constricted preventing her from saying anything further. She turned her attention to the chicken on her plate.

Buck looked down at his food; sorry he'd brought it up. Not knowing what else to say, they sat in silence as they ate. Soon Buck noticed that she'd finished both her biscuits and the chicken and her plate sat empty beside her. "Do you want some more?"

She hesitated, staring down at her plate. Holly was still hungry but was used to that feeling, it was constant for her. What she'd just eaten was enough to have lasted her two days before…

"Miss Mayberry?"

Holly's head snapped up and by the concerned look on Buck's face, she realized she'd gone back to the past. She wasn't there anymore and it was all behind her. Smiling she was about to answer when she noticed how wet Buck's clothes were.

"Mr. Cross, you really need to change too," she chastised. "You can catch your death just as easily as I." She pushed the quilt off her shoulders and tried to stand but as soon as she was barely upright, she fell back onto the sofa. Buck was kneeling by her before she'd even recovered. "I believe I should stay seated." Smiling, she looked into his eyes and saw such pure concern that her heart almost stopped. Never had she ever seen anything like it directed at her. Her smile faded slightly in awe.

"I agree," Buck said softly. He took the moment to really look at the woman in front of him. She was much too thin, her skin was sallow, and her hair, making its way out of the braid she was wearing, was the color and texture of straw. But her eyes, the color of storm clouds, were big and bright. Buck could see the woman that she really was in the clear pools of grey. And that was who he was looking at.

"Your clothes?" she reminded him. She squirmed uncomfortably because she wasn't used to such attention so she curled her legs back underneath her, drawing herself back in.

"What?"  Buck looked down and saw she was right; his clothes were still pretty damp.  His head shot up. Did he have something to change into? He was pretty sure he did but nothing clean. He went over to his bedroll, now glad he'd been stingy and not added his covers to the ones she'd used. At least they'd have dry blankets.

It was what he figured, he had a pair of underclothes and an extra shirt but both were dirty. As he tried to decide what to do, the thought of putting dirty clothes on didn't sit well; he soon realized that he'd been out, on the trail, for three weeks. He was pretty sure it didn't matter whether he put dirty clothes on or not – he was sure he smelled rather ripe.  Sighing heavily, he grabbed the underclothes and shirt. He'd just cover his legs with his blanket.

Holly looked over her shoulder as she heard Buck rummage through his things. She hadn't really thought about the fact that she was sitting here, undressed, in front of a man she hardly knew. The fact that he had probably saved her life wouldn't matter to any of the biddies in town.  They treated her like she had the plague anyway so this would just give fuel to their insults. Seeing Buck stand, she turned back to stare at the fire.

"I'll just change back here," Buck mumbled, slightly embarrassed by the events. He was changing clothes in the presence of a woman, who was sitting wearing only her shift, whom he'd just met that day. He wrapped the blanket around him like a skirt, not caring that it looked more than a little ridiculous. He carried the other blanket over to Miss Mayberry and, from behind the sofa, gently put it over her shoulders. She jumped slightly at the gesture.

"Um, sorry," he said sheepishly. "Just…you should keep warm." He shuffled around to take up his post on the floor. Leaning back against the sofa, he made sure the blanket covered everything as he stretched his legs out in front of him.

Soon the only sound was the crackling of the fire as the two young people sat pondering their situation. Buck absentmindedly picked at the crumbs left from the biscuits when he realized she still needed more food. Jumping up, he said, "You're still –" Unfortunately, he caught his foot in the blanket and fell forward into the sofa, face first on her plate.

Holly squeaked and put her hands out trying to help Buck keep his balance. It was for naught. She looked at him; his face covered in biscuit and chicken crumbs, and seeing that the only thing hurt seemed to be his pride, broke out in an attack of the giggles.  She hadn't laughed like this in years and it felt wonderful. It also felt wonderful to feel safe around another person and she definitely felt safe with Buck.

Mortified, Buck pushed himself up to quickly apologize but when he heard Miss Mayberry giggling, he joined in. "Honestly," he chuckled as he wiped off his face, "I'm usually not this clumsy." He slid the plate over and sat on the edge of the sofa as their laughter died down. "What I was going to say is ‘you're still hungry.'"

"Oh, no," Holly said, shaking her head. She knew that the food Lou and Polly had sent would have to last her at least a couple of weeks. With the weather as bad as it was, she wouldn't be able to get into town for work. "I'm fine." Her stomach chose that time to disagree. Embarrassed, she bowed her head.

Buck grinned.  "Look," he said as he leaned down to meet her eyes, "you really need to keep up your strength. You're getting better but you're not well." Without waiting for her to agree, he got up and went over to the table. "So, chicken or a ham biscuit?"

Holly knew he wouldn't take "neither" for an answer and the salty taste of the ham had been so good, she replied, "Biscuits."  Then, blushing she held up her fingers to indicate she wanted two more.

Buck laughed and picked up three more biscuits. He was hungry too but wasn't worried about eating her food; he would definitely be bringing her more. He shook his head slightly as he walked back to the warmth of the sofa, this time picking up the plate and sitting beside Miss Mayberry. ‘I guess I owe Lou but I sure won't be telling her that.'

He put the biscuits on the plate and, after placing a napkin over her lap, handed her the plate. Sitting upright so the blanket would remain wrapped tightly around him, they ate their biscuits in comfortable silence. He felt the loneliness he'd been feeling for such a long time lifting slightly.  Wanting to know more about this intriguing woman, he asked, "How long have you been here Miss Mayberry?"  He thought that was a good innocuous question.

"Mr. Cross," she said softly, "I give you leave to call me by my first name, Holly. Considering the circumstances."

Buck smiled and was about to tell her to call him "Buck" when he thought about her name. He raised one eyebrow and the corner of his mouth lifted slightly. "Holly Mayberry."

Sighing, she knew what he was indicating. "Yes, that was my father's idea. He used to call me his little holly berry." She smiled wanly, staring off, as memories of her father flashed through her mind. She missed him immensely.

Again, Buck felt guilty for bringing up something that would cause Holly such pain. So he stammered, "Um, then please call me Buck."

She dipped her head bashfully and mouthed, "Buck." After finishing her second biscuit, she said, "I've been here almost a month." She couldn't believe it had been that long especially since she hadn't been in one place for more than two weeks since leaving. To avoid going back to those memories, she asked, "Was the posse successful?"

Puzzled, Buck looked at her. Considering how far outside of town she lived and that the robbery at the assay office hadn't really netted the gang much, he wouldn't have thought she would be one to follow what had been happening. "Yeah, I guess it was. Though not how I'd have preferred." He clenched his teeth at the image of the men lying dead. He quickly changed the subject and asked, "What have you been doing since you got here, besides getting to know Lou?"

Holly didn't miss the switch but figured she didn't know him well enough to push so she said, "Oh, I've been working for Miss Birdseye at her dress shop, mainly repairs but I've sewn two dresses for customers."  She smiled brightly when she talked about the one thing she loved to do – sew. "Miss Birdseye tried to get me to work with her in the shop with customers but…" She drew the blankets tighter around her shoulders, almost turning inward. Uncomfortable with being the topic of conversation she asked him, "Do you like working as the blacksmith?"

Pleased at how she'd opened up about sewing, he was again slightly startled that she knew what he did but he also felt a warm glow of pride. That warmth soon dissipated when he figured Lou had talked about it. "What did Lou say? That I shouldn't be wasting my time there, that I would be better off working for them?" Knowing his tone was harsher than he meant, he looked over to see the shock on Holly's face. Sheepishly, he said, "Sorry, I didn't mean for that…"

"Actually, Lou didn't tell me," Holly murmured. Maybe it was the full stomach or the warmth from the first real fire she'd had since moving there but she was feeling almost daring. "I saw you."

"Me?" Buck did everything to stop the goofy grin that was pushing its way onto his lips. "When?"

"After I arrived, I'd talked to Miss Birdseye…" The daring feeling was quickly disappearing because of the intense way Buck was looking at her. She suddenly needed a diversion. "Do you?" she blurted.

"Do I what?" Buck said softly. When Holly fidgeted, her eyes wide, he knew he was staring. He blinked and, remembering her question, said, "Oh, yeah I do. In fact that's what I think I want to do though no one else wants me to." He said the last few words in a whisper.

"Who doesn't want you to?" She leaned forward, truly interested in this man's life, wanting to be a part of it, even if just a small part. "Was that what you were saying about Lou?"

Buck sighed, slouching down a bit to get comfortable. The sofa barely seated two and the cushions were about as soft as sitting on the ground.

"Yeah, everyone seems to know what I should be doing." He stared intently at the dancing flames. "Kid and Lou have a growing ranch," he glanced at Holly, "which is great…for them." He looked back at the fire. "They think I should come help them and I do on occasion, like foaling, but I want something of my own." His leg began to shake up and down. "Then there's Polly. She wants me to help her with her saloon. Tend bar, keep peace, that sort of thing." He felt the weight of all the decisions overwhelming him. "Teaspoon and Jimmy want me to be a deputy but…" he bit his lip to keep from continuing because he knew he owed Teaspoon a lot. Realizing that he wasn't the only one who had been with the posse for three weeks, he suddenly was hit by a pang of guilt over how he'd left things with his friend after the posse got back.

"But what?" Holly coaxed. She sensed that he needed to talk and perhaps talking to her, someone who had no relation to his past would help. She'd never really had any friends, she was normally a loner, so she wasn't used to conversations like these, about one's future, hopes and dreams. And it had been so long since anyone had inquired about hers, that she was curious about this man sitting beside her, so she listened.

Buck looked over at her and said, "Jimmy's the natural choice for marshal once Teaspoon retires," he chuckled, "though getting the old man to retire won't be too easy." He sighed and turned to stare into the flames, like they held the answer to his queries. "I don't know if I want to be a deputy all my life."

"You want to work as a blacksmith all your life?" She continued to prod.

"I don't know that either." Buck released an exasperated breath. He sat up quickly, turning to face her. "See, Mr. Boyd, the livery owner now, is talking about moving on. I've been doing most of the blacksmithing around here when I can and I thought that," he looked down, and self-consciously picked at the frayed edge of the blanket that was wrapped around him, "that maybe I'd take over and combine the two."

He'd mumbled the last part but Holly had heard him and couldn't help but hear the enthusiasm in his voice. "What's stopping you?"

"I've been doing everything I just told you about. Deputy, tracking, bartending, ranching, so I haven't had as much time to –"

"Buck," Holly interrupted softly, "I know I don't know these people as well as you do. But I do know how Miss Birdseye talks of Deputy Hickok. And what everyone you've just mentioned has done for me since I've arrived shows me that these people care." She blushed slightly. "Though, I really wouldn't be surprised if Deputy Hickok didn't come to call anymore."

Buck looked at her curiously, cocking his eyebrow. "Why?"

"I shot at him."

"You what?" Buck asked, incredulously. He laughed in spite of himself.

"It was the first few days I was here," she explained, trying to talk over Buck's laughter. "Stop."  She giggled. "I didn't know who he was." Thinking it would be good to come clean, in a quiet voice, she added, "And I shot at Kid."

This time Buck's laughter was softer and more sympathetic. Something must have really scared this woman to be so untrusting of people. "Well, sometimes I want to shoot at them myself." She smiled at his effort of acceptance. They sat in silence for a moment, both looking towards the low-burning fire.

"Does it make you happy?" Holly asked after a few moments.

"Smithing and the livery?" he asked, though he knew that's what she meant. He contemplated his answer, thinking how he really felt. Finally, he answered, "Yeah, it does."

"Then I think that's all your family will care about." She yawned, trying to hide it with her hand. She was so comfortable and, even with everything that had happened, somewhat content. She had a feeling that for the first time in a long time, she'd sleep soundly through the night.

Buck saw the yawn and realized it was very late. He glanced out the window and saw that the snow was still drifting down and night had fallen. He moved to get up but was stilled by Holly's hand. He turned as she tugged at his sleeve to make him sit again. Twisting around, she curled herself under his arm and placed her head on his shoulder. Within seconds, she was sound asleep. Buck wiggled a bit, turning so he was sort of lying down and put his arm around her.

Pulling the blanket up around her shoulders, partly covering him with the other, he was soon drifting off, a small smile on his face.

Outside the night was cold but this would be the last of the dark, harsh weather.  Winter was passing.

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