Author's Note: This is a story that branches off of my CD Challenge for "Long Trip Alone" - in that Series it was revealed that Buck had been showing a writer around the west so he could write articles about his travels.
"I'm sorry, sir… I don't know what to tell you." Buck felt as though the earth beneath his feet was about to open up and swallow him whole. His every nightmare was coming true. "Mr. Hammond is not available."
"This simply won't do." The tall man was flustered, that much was easy to tell but his mannerisms were just as stilted as they had been from the moment he'd stepped from the stage coach. "I was told by Mr. Hammond's publishers that he would be available to serve as a guide for my employer."
Buck looked at Jimmy for a hint on how to handle this, but the man was enjoying the situation a little too much. Moving toward the desk, Buck lifted the telegram in his hand. "I know what m- Mr. Hammond's publishers may have told you that, but they didn't count on the emergency in his family."
Jimmy's coughing fit was meant with a moment of concern from the man in the black suit and a glare from Buck.
"Oh dear… oh dear… this just won't do."
"I'm sorry, sir, but I'm sure your employer will understand that-"
"Well you'll just have to explain it yourself." The man pivoted on his heel and strode a couple of steps toward the door before during around. "I'll not be the one to disappoint."
"Wait a minute," Buck held up his hands to stop the man's exit, but he was outside and gone around the corner. Turning to his friend he held out his hand in an entreaty. "Why didn't you help me?"
"What did you want me to do?" Jimmy lifted his coffee mug and took a sip. "You're the one who won't just own up to bein' the famous writer and take the rich man out on a tour of 'the West.'"
"It's not that simple." Buck knew it was a lie when he said it but he couldn't own up to the truth. If he couldn't do it for himself he certainly wouldn't do it for Jimmy. "I'm just going to have to show up at the Oriental tomorrow and tell this man that he won't get his 'western tour' and that's the end of it."
Jimmy nodded into his mug of coffee. He admired Buck for thinking it was going to be so simple, but considering that his solicitor had argued with Buck for nearly an hour, he doubted it was going that easy to say no to the man… and all that money.
Dressed in his black suit coat, Buck had measured out the length of the ornamental rug laid out before the hearth of the hotel lobby. Outfitted with the best furniture that a catalog could buy, the Oriental Hotel had only opened up in town a few months before and had become the hub of the community for travelers and townsfolk alike. Still, Buck had never been inside and he measured his clothing against that of the other people walking through the lobby.
He turned, looking for the mysterious employer but there was no one around that seemed to fit the bill. He addressed the solicitor instead. "I'm here to explain-"
Buck's gaze was drawn to the center of the room and the young woman descending the wide curved staircase. She was the picture of Eastern decorum and dressed as though she had walked out from the pages of one of Louise's lady's magazines from New York. The ankle-length of her skirt ebbed and flowed about her leather shoes as she descended the steps one after another.
She was speaking, whether it was to him or the solicitor Buck had no idea. His eyes were riveted on her face finally as she neared the floor. Had someone been of a mind to be critical, they would have said her face was bit to angular to be pretty, needing a few pounds to fill out her face and soften the high cut of her cheekbones. Her hair was a style too simple and severe to help and the shadow of her glasses made it impossible to see her eyes.
Buck was moving before he realized what he was doing and he stopped mere inches from her, ignoring the solicitor's restraining hand. He looked over the edge of her glasses and saw the shadows reflected in her sightless eyes.
"I'm sure you're wondering, Mr. Cross," her lips twisted in a hesitant smile, "what a blind woman wants with a tour of the 'Wild West.'"
"Yes," his answer was barely a whisper in the suddenly silent room, "but that doesn't matter anyhow. Mr. Hammond isn't-"
"If you wouldn't mind, Mr. Cross." Her interruption could have been rude, easily so, but the gentle tones of her voice softened the blow. "I would so like to speak with you in a more private place." She turned her head as if she was looking about the room. Buck's gaze followed and saw the truth. They were very much the center of attention.
"Sure," he agreed instantly. He didn't want to disappoint her anymore than she would be once he explained their situation. "I think the dining room is empty at this time of the day." He offered her his arm and then shook his head. She'd never know what he was going.
"He's offering you his arm, Miss Kendrick." This from the solicitor that Buck had written off as too dense to understand. To Buck, he explained. "You may take her hand and place it on your arm."
She smiled at both of them, most likely placing them by their voices. "Go ahead, Mr. Cross, I won't bite."
He'd wished instantly that she'd been wearing gloves. Gloves would have made his life a good site easier. Gloves would have meant that she'd touch his arm through two layers of cloth. As it was the warmth of her skin seared through the weight of his shirt and he wondered how quickly he could move them through the room.
"Are we in a hurry, Mr. Cross?" She seemed near laughter. "Is the hotel on fire and we're rushing to safety?"
"I'm sorry," he looked away momentarily, "I'm just not comfortable-"
"With a blind woman?"
His steps faltered and he stopped just inside the dining room's doors. "No," he wanted to bite out the answer, to tell her how silly she was thinking that… to tell her about Ike so she would see that he understood, but how could she know? She couldn't know the real reason and somehow it was important that she understand. "A white woman."
"Then it's true." She seemed to smile at the thought. Surely she must be at least a little daft. "Evitt had said you had the look of a red… rather, an Indian."
He continued to move, urging her into a chair near to a window, eager to separate her touch from his skin. "I am Kiowa."
"Ahh… a plains tribe."
"Yes, but Miss…"
"Kendrick," she supplied when he faltered, "Zora Kendrick."
"Miss Kendrick," he decided to sit so she wouldn't have to crane her neck 'looking' up at him, "I'm sorry you've come all this way to see Mr. Hammond, but he's not… available."
She seemed to take his words into consideration. "Well, that may be, but you see, I am a woman with patience. I am prepared to wait for him."
"I'm really not sure when he'll be coming back." He looked out the window and regretted his next words before he even said them. "Or if he'll come back."
She tilted her head as though she was listening to a different part of the room. "I'm sorry, has he taken ill?"
Buck let out a breath and shrugged. "Not really, but he may have decided to end his career as a writer."
"I see," she nodded as though she was weighing his words, "and if Mr. Evitt has it correctly, you are his… guide?"
"Yes," Buck felt better answering this question as he didn't have to color the truth, "I was hired to show him the land and the people that live in the West."
She nodded, slowly. "Yes, and I'm sure you've done a wonderful job."
"So you see, without Mr. Hammond-"
"Tell me, Mr. Cross," she leaned forward the slightest bit and looked up into his face, "tell me about the light at the top of the mountain… the one you took Mr. Hammond to for his article."
Buck nodded. It was a simple task and something that would make up, at least in part, for the long trip out to Rock Creek. "The light is same as any other place in the plains for most of the day, but it's the way the light slants across the leaves at the end of the day that makes it worth the journey."
"What colors do you see?"
"Gold… dark green like the velvet of hat ribbons in Tompkins' store… even a little blue if you look carefully enough. It peeks through the underbrush from the shadows where the animals hide. The silver of moonlight is almost as beautiful," he leaned on his knees and smiled, "you'd see the-" He stopped mid-thought, worried that he'd offended her with his careless words. "I'm sorry, Miss Kendrick," he began, nearly out of his seat, "I didn't mean to say… that is, I didn't mean to-"
"I'm perfectly fine. Please don't think to apologize to me, Mr. Cross," she stood, unfolding elegantly from the chair, "or should I say Mr. Hammond?"
Buck looked back at her in stunned silence for a long moment. "How did you… how did you know?"
"The way you speak, the way you describe things is unmistakable. I can hear the cadence of your words. This would, I assume, explain why your articles changed notably a few months ago."
"That's when Elliot passed on."
"And you became both Robinson Crusoe and Friday." She paused. "I'm sorry; I don't have your way with words."
"Yes, well, now that you know my secret, I'm sure you understand why I can't be your guide."
"On the contrary, Mr. Cross," she reached out for his hand and missed, touching her palm to the lapel of his coat. She moved her hand back slowly as if she was trying to regain her balance. "I'm even more determined to see the land you love… with new eyes."
He could see the determination in her expression; hear the resolve in her voice. Part of him knew it was the right thing to do. On the other hand, the rest of him worried that he was about to make the biggest mistake of his life. "I'll take you."