Chapter 1

He stood before his brother's dwelling concious that all the Kiowa watched him with curious eyes. He adjusted his vest, brushing the dust from his clothes. He told himself that he should feel comfortable amongst these braves, he was of their blood. But one look at them as they circled him, staring at his features and his 'white' clothing, he knew they would not accept him for more than a visit.

Red Bear finished his conversation with an older woman whose years were etched on her face like a fine painting. He came to join Buck and addressed him, "You came," he almost sounded surprised.

"You asked, I would not deny my brother."

Red Bear looked pleased. He nodded, "I would like for you to walk with me." Buck nodded and gave over the reins of his horse to a young boy who led his mount away. Red Bear disappeared into the teepee, reappearing a scant moment later. As they turned to walk, Buck could have sworn he saw a small hand reach out to close the flap.




"I have asked you here for a favor."

If Buck was surprised by his brother's forthright question, he didn't show it.

When he heard no answer he continued, "There is one among us who must leave."

Buck heard the sadness in Red Bears's voice and wondered what had caused him so much pain.

"I have tried to smooth the way with our tribe, but they are unwilling to make exception for Skyfire."

"What can I do?"

Red Bear stopped and looked out over the land, "I need to know that Skyfire will have a place in the white world. It is difficult. I fear that no matter where Skyfire goes, the road will not be smooth."

"How long has Skyfire been with you?"

"A little over two years, and in this time has proven cunning and skilled enough to best my warriors more than once... this has caused many problems." Red Bear's voice had become strained, "I fear that I can no longer extend myprotection and the warriors will rid themselves of the threat."

Buck raised an eyebrow. A white man besting the Kiowa would definately cause a problem among the proud warriors. "I know of a way that I could help." He had Red Bear's ear, "The Express is hiring another rider for the Sweetwater station. I'm sure if Skyfire is good enough to best your warriors, he'll find a place with us."

Red Bear looked down at his last statement. Buck thought it was saddness that a skilled warrior would be leaving. "That would be good. I want your word that you'll protect Skyfire."

"You know I would."

Red Bear set his hand on Buck's shoulder, "You have taken a great weight off my shoulders. Come, we will introduce you."

The two brothers, now unburdened, find their conversation lighter as they head back to the circle of teepees.




When they reach Red Bear's teepee, Buck stopped for a moment. The braves that had watched his arrival with such interest were all gone from sight. He mentions this to Red Bear.

Something akin to amusement crosses his face, "I have sent them on a hunt. I do not wish for Skyfire's departure to be more difficult than it already is."

Red Bear moved closer the teepee and set his hand on the opening. Buck was close behind, he was eager to see the young man.

"Wait here my brother."

Buck found himself confused. His brother spoke of this man with such tenderness. He could hear hushed voices within and could not help but hear the pleading tone Red Bear used. As Chief, Red Bear did not need to ask his warriors anything. His word should be enough. Buck found himself wondering what trouble he had taken on his own shoulders.

Red Bear emerged from the teepee, he had a look of frustration on his face, "Skyfire is packing for the journey and will join us when it is done."

Buck looked at his brother with curious eyes, "I have never known you to accept such definant behavior."

A buckskin bag was thrown through the draped opening, coming to rest at their feet. A heavy sigh fell from Red Bear's lips, "You will understand when Skyfire joins us."

The two stood at the entrance immersed in conversation about the Express. Buck was pleased at Red Bear's interest. There were questions about his friends and how they treated each other. He tried to assure his brother that the riders considered each other like family, and had a feeling that the questions weren't just to pass the time, his brother was genuinely worried.

They were deep in conversation when the entrance opened and Skyfire stepped out. Buck's half of the conversation stopped and he stared at the person who emerged from the teepee.

Chapter 2

A petite woman with waist length brown hair had stepped into the morning sun. She was fair skinned, lithe and totally comfortable in a soft buckskin dress as she faced the morning light. She met his eyes in challenge as she stepped forward.

"Is that- is she - ?"

Red Bear held out his hand to her and she stood at his side, carefully measuring the man in front of her. "Yes, this is Skyfire."

She had been warned about the purpose of his visit and was not pleased that he had arrived.

Red Bear noticed the looks that passed between the two. She still had a fear of men, and he was proud that she showed none of it to his brother. She had grown in her time with them. She had become a woman that was a match for any man.

He found amusement in Buck's questioning look. He had not looked at his brother since he noticed the woman he had just promised to protect.

Buck took his brother by the arm and walked a few steps away, "A woman? You told me that Skyfire had bested your warriors."

"I did, and it was the turth. She has caused quite a problem amongst the men. There is not a one among them who feels like she would make a proper wife. There are those who desire her, yes, but they seem to want her 'tamed' and my companion is very much her own woman."

"'Yours'? Why are you sending her away?"

"I ask you not to question what I am doing. She has already tested my patience on this matter more times than I care to admit."

"Then why-"

"Because it's what he wants. He thinks he's protecting me and I --- will do what he asks." She bit out the last part, and smiled as the two brothers turned to face her.

Red Bear was the first to recover, "It is not to your benefit to listen in."

"Well," she scolded back, "You're talking 'bout me, and if I didn't listen in, would you tell me what you were sayin'?"

Buck shook his head. "You know this changes things...I can't take a woman back to the waystation for a job. The Express won't hire a woman."

Red Bear looked down, his shoulders seeming to sag in defeat, "She can ride with the best-"

"We ride dangerous routes through lonely ground. Many have been killed, it's no place for a woman. 'sides, riders need to shoot, we don't use bows and arrows, we -"

Skyfire reached over and drew Buck's gun. She evaded him as he tried to snatch it back. He looked to Red Bear for help. Red Bear wisely stayed out of the exchange.

"Name a target."

Buck tried again to retrieve his gun, this time she aimed it at his head. He could not believe that Red Bear did nothing to stop her.

She spoke again as she cocked the hammer back, "Name a target."

He sighed and pointed to a feather hanging from a post on a teepee at the far edge of the circle, "Try to -"

A shot was fired and Kiowa appeared from everywhere. All wondering what had happened. Several of the women shot dirty looks at Skyfire as they saw the gun in her hands. They walked away and went about their chores, it was so like her to cause trouble.

Buck stared at the now barren post. He took the gun she now handed back to him and he turned to Red Bear.

"Your concerns?" There was something 'matter of fact' about her stance, she wasn't goin' to back down.

Buck closed his mouth.

Her attention was centered on him, and that made Buck uncomfortable, "When do we leave?" She looked calm, but there was tremor in her voice. She didn't want to go.

"Even with her skills, I'll never get Teaspoon to hire a woman. The job is for a man-"

She looked right at him and took out her knife. She kept her gaze on him as she gathered her hair in her hand. With one swift cut she had shorn off her long hair. She held it in her hand and looked at it as if it was something curious and strange. She lowered her knife and opened her hand. They watched as the strands caught on the breeze, floating away until her hand was empty.

Red Bear grieved inside, a Kiowa woman's hair was her pride. He had long admired her hair, it's rich brown color took on light in the summer and darkened to a lustre in the cold months. Now those same strands lay scattered across the grass at her feet.

The impromptu hair cut did a great deal to hide her feminine features. She had the air of a young man, the stubborn tilt of her chin did more to refine the image.

Red Bear held out his hand to Buck, "We have saved the paper money she had when we found her. I believe you can use it to purchase the clothes she'll need and perhaps a pair of .. ah...spectacles. It will do much to hide her eyes."

Buck closed his eyes, he couldn't believe he was actually considering this. He opened them again and stared at her, his brother must be insane. Nothing short of a mask could hide her eyes that even now burned into him.




A young boy brought both horses forward. Plains runner, as Skyfire's horse was called, stood with immense patience. Little more than a blanket covered her back. Her packs were secured across the horse's back.

Buck made up his mind to have his head examined by the doctor in Sweetwater, he must have been hit over the head while he wasn't lookin'. There is no reason why, but this plan began to seem possible.

Buck went to Red Bear and hugged him close. "We would love to have you for a visit. Teaspoon says you are welcome anytime." He mounted his horse and waited for Skyfire to say her good-byes. He moved his mount off to the side to give the two a few moments alone. Red Bear had not said as much, but Buck knew that his brother was very much in love with this young woman.

He looked back as Red Bear placed a kiss on her forhead and held her close to him. A moment later, Red Bear disappeared into the teepee leaving her standing alone in the clearing.

She walked to her horse and quietly mounted bringing her around to stand at his side.

In silence they began their ride. When they were a good half hour away from the village, Buck allowed himself to finally think the situation through. He wondered at how she conducted herself, not a tear or plea when she said good bye to Red Bear. His brother was right, she was a fine woman. He sought to protect her by sending her away and Buck would help by keeping his promise to Red Bear and find her a place in the white man's world.

Chapter 3

They stopped in Willow Springs, they tied their horses in a quiet corner of town. Buck and Skyfire ducked into the first clothing store they came to.

The man who owned the store wore thick glasses and squinted up at Buck as he came to the counter, "What can I do for you young man?"

"I need some clothes for..."

"Ah..." the older man leaned over and sized up Skyfire, "for your brother huh? What's he doin' in his nightclothes?" The man moved closer to her and she took a step nearer to Buck, "You get your clothes robbed right off your body young'un?"

Skyfire looked at the old man and hid her surprise... he was as blind as a bat! "Yessir."

"Funny voice too... huh, don't worry son, you voice'll deepen in time..." He turned away from them and started around the counter, "Now what can I get you, some shirts? Pants? Long Johns? I know you don't need to night shirt."

Buck could feel himself relax as the man tossed several shirts into Skyfire's arms, all the while keepin' up a steady stream of chatter. Several pants and long underwear later he ushered her into a changin' area, walled off by a screen.

Buck stood off to the side and watched the curtain. He could see her feet under the edge of the curtain. The buckskin dress dropped the floor and Buck turned to look at some glasses in a display. He had almost picked out a pair when he was startled by movement behind him.

"Hey there! You should really try on these britches.. they-" the old man swung the curtain back, and Skyfire wrenched the curtain out of his hands and yanked it closed.

Buck's heart danced a frantic beat... she had almost been caught! He had difficulty breathing for a long moment. The man paused as he passed by, "Kind of sensitive, isn't he?"




Four sets of clothes cost a pretty penny, more than Red Bear had sent with them... Buck quietly decided he'd make up the difference. It was the least he could do for his brother.

Skyfire stood in the center of the store looking very lost and very small. The clothes were too big, but Buck had picked them to hide her figure. He stood staring at her and she, for all of her uneasiness, stared right back. "What?" she asked.

"I dunno, somethin's missing'"

"I-"

"I'll figure it out."

Hands on hips she tapped out a furious rhythm on the wooden floor with her foot.

"Stop makin' so much noise, so I can think!"

Skyfire ignored the questioning look from the storekeeper and stomped her foot down... sending pain shooting through her leg.

Buck looked at her as if she were mad. She caught his attention and then looked down at the floor, eyebrows raised in a little more than mock irritation.

He followed her gaze and it finally dawned on him as he stared at her wriggling sock feet... "I guess shoes are next!"




Mr Dobkins, the near-blind shopkeep, set up a stool to measure 'his' foot. He sat down and took Skyfire's foot in his hands and tilted his head as he considered the sock clad foot before him. "Just don't seem right here mister,"

Buck moved closer.

"His feet are jus' downright 'dainty'! I don't think I got shoes for feet this tiny!"

Skyfire looked up in alarm and tried to pull her foot free of the old man's grasp. She was very worried.

"He's just young..."

"Nope... I've fit my share of young boys his age... but this one is jus' mighty dainty... like a girl's foot."

Buck moved closer, "You about done 'talkin' about HIS foot?"

The man jumped a few inches off the stool and let go of her foot as fast as he could. He stood and walked to the wall were boxes of shoes lay waiting. A moment or two later he came back.. a pair of lace up boots in his hands.

He slowly sat down on the stool again... keeping one eye on Buck the whole time.. the young man apparently had a temper! Slipping the boots on her feet, he quickly moved back, "Okay boy, you go ahead and tie 'em up the way you want."

Skyfire started to lace the boots and soon realized that she was dreadfully out of practice. Her fingers fumbled over the simple task. She fumed and chided herself 'It's amazing what you forget if you don't do something for a long time.'

The man looked up at Buck - his look said, "What's wrong with him?"

Buck moved forward and knelt before her. With a reassuring look he moved her hands away and began to relace her shoes. Skyfire looked away, ashamed. Tears, for the first time since he met her, threatened to cloud her eyes.

He looked her in the eye and shook his head slowly- "It's bound to be hard for awhile- bet you thought you'd never have to do this again." His soft tone soothed her- looking into his eyes she solemly nodded.

Chapter 4

Less than an hour later, everything was paid for and the clothes that weren't on her back were in the packs strapped to Plainsrunner. Skyfire stopped to look at her reflection in the cracked glass of a store window. She adjusted the round, wire rimmed glasses again.

Part of her heart sank into the new boots she wore, the person staring back at her looked very much the dust covered boy the store owner thought she was. This was to be her fate until .... until.... it seemed as if this would be her reality for a long time.

They walked along the sidewalk, silence was their companion. Buck found himself feeling extremely nervous... at least when Ike was around, Buck knew what he was thinking. Skyfire was still much of a mystery to him. "Hungry?"

Skyfire looked up at him, over the small oval frames. She nodded and they headed off across the street to a small hotel.




They were shown to a table near the back of the room. They sat down and Skyfire stared at the crisp white tablecloth and the shiny silver on the table. It had been two years since she'd sat at a table like this. She was almost scared to touch the utensils laid out before her.

She laughed to herself and Buck looked up to see a smile for the first time since they'd left the village. He could feel a small smile tug on his lips as well.

"What's so funny?"

She straightened when she heard his voice, then almost as quickly she slumped her shoulders down... trying not to draw any attention. "This..." she opened her hand indicating the table, "it's been quite some time."

"I imagine it has been."

She nodded and turned her attention to the menu on the table. "Thank you."

He looked back up at her. "What?"

"Thank you for helping me." There was a slight melancholy tone to her voice. He knew that it wasn't directed at him. "Red Bear," she paused as she said his name, "said you'd be willing, I didn't believe him."

"Why? He doesn't lie."

"I know... its hard to think someone else would do so much for me."

"Where we're goin' you'll meet quite a few people like Red Bear, the boys I work with, well we watch out for each other..." He began to tell her about each of the riders. Buck started with Ike, his close relationship obvious by the light in his eyes, then Jimmy, Kid, and Cody.

Fear began to shrink from her shoulders as she listened to his stories of his friends. She was just as involved with the dinner set down before her. The stew was thick and stuffed with meat and vegetables.. she could barely wait to begin. She picked up her fork and began to eat, oh my goodness, it was so wonderful!

Buck tried not to smile... she looked as if she'd been starved. She sat quietly listening to his stories, all the while savoring each bite of the meal. As he watched her he realized that there were a few things they needed to discuss.

"Skyfire?" he spoke in a near whisper. She continued to eat, unaware that he'd spoken to her.

"Skyfire?!" he kicked her leg under the table.

"What!" (cough * cough) He had startled her and a piece of carrot caught in her throat.

He leaned over to pound on her back.

"Enough!" she choked out... "I swear you're trying to kill me before we get to Sweet Water!"

"No," he tried not to laugh at her 'outraged' face. "I'm just trying to get your attention."

"You have it now..."

"A name-"

"What name?"

Buck shot her a look across the table, he had a feeling she'd be interrupting him again. "YOUR name, we should find you a name to use when you're a rider."

She looked at her plate, her appetite was waning. "What do you think?"

He didn't understand her saddness. "What is your birth name, maybe we can use a variation of it?"

"Really? Why don't you just pick one?"

"I wouldn't if I were you... I'll pick the worst one I can think of... and then the boys will make fun, and -"

"Louise."

He looked up at her soft reply.

"My name is Louise... Louise McCloud."

He reached a hand across the table. She returned the gesture and gripped his hand firmly in hers, "Glad to know you, Lou."

Chapter 5

Cloud Chaser returned from the hunt to find his mother, waiting at the entrance to his teepee.

He slid off his horse and stood before her, her expression was as dark as the clouds gathering on the horizon. "She is gone." When he said nothing she spoke again. "Did you hear me, my son? Skyfire is gone!"

He left his horse where he stood and made his way through the camp.

Cloud Chaser ducked into Red Bear's teepee unannounced, one of the elders sat next to their chief. Both were deep in conversation and ignored the impatient brave. The elder soon finished his council and left.

Red Bear turned to Cloud Chaser.

"Where is she?"

"Gone." He had been waiting for this confrontation.

"Where?"

"Back to her people."

"For two years you have claimed that she is part of our people! Now you let her go?"

Red Bear simply sat there staring at him.

"I have asked for her as my wife - and you-" he glared down at Red Bear, "You sent her away!" Red Bear's gaze never wavered, but Cloud Chaser knew the truth, "I will have her back."

The tone of his voice sacred Red Bear more than he cared to admit.

"You do not love her," Red Bear insisted.

"I will have her." Cloud Chaser turned and left. Red Bear followed him, calling his name.

The third time Cloud Chaser stopped and faced him again. "You will respect my wishes and leave her alone."

"Your wishes?"

"As chief-"

"You are nothing to me-" He snapped his bow in half and threw it on the ground at Red Bear's feet. "I no longer follow you or this tribe. You are all dead to me!"

Chapter 6

Miles away, Buck and 'Lou' neared Sweetwater. As they came within view of the station, she slowed Plainsrunner to a walk. Buck stopped ahead and looked back at her.

She was covered in a days worth of dust and sweat from the ride and for all intents and purposes looked like a young man astride a beautiful plains mustang. He brought his mount back to meet hers, "We can't sit here forever. It won't be that bad, you'll see."

She looked up at him over her glasses. Reassured by his smile she gave a little nudge to Plainsrunner and they were off to the Waystation.




"Riders coming!" Emma called from the porch.

Ike ran out of the stables and waved his arms above his head.

Buck spurred his horse on and came into the yard first. He slid to the ground and returned Ike's enthusiastic hug.

Emma came down to hug him next and he placed an affectionate kiss on her cheek.

Lou hung back as she watched the three greet each other. She knew them by Buck's descriptions. Buck waved her over. She slipped off Plainsrunners back and walked him over. "This is Lou, Lou McCloud. I brought him back with me. I think he'll work out fine as an express rider."

Emma moved closer as she carefully regarded this young man before her, "I take it you lived with the Kiowa for quite sometime."

Lou nodded 'his' head.

Buck looked around the yard, "Where are the boys?"

**With Teaspoon - tracking some bank robbers**

"Robbers?" asked Lou.

Emma and Ike turned to stare at the boy.

Buck smiled as he removed her packs from Plainsrunner's back, "Lou's time with the Kiowa will probably make it easy for he- him to understand Ike most of the time. When he gets used to some of the shortcuts we use... Lou'll probably be able to read Ike's mind."

Ike reached across Buck and shook Lou's hand. There was a light in his eyes and a broad smile across his face. Lou fought the urge to blush.

Emma interupted their greeting and hooked her arm through Lou's, "Well, we might as well get you settled in the bunkhouse," she took the packs from Buck and the two headed inside.

Lou pulled back a little, "But I haven't even gotten the job, yet!"

Emma leaned over to Lou, "If it's Buck recommending you for the job, it's all but done." Emma noticed the two friends horsing around in the yard. "You boys best take care of the horses...dinner will be ready when you're done."




Lou helped Emma set the table and was allowed to wash 'his' face and hands inside. Grateful for the priviledge, Lou worried what would happen when she had to 'wash-up' with the boys.

Lou was just sitting down when Buck and Ike came in. Both had just taken a shower and sat on either side of 'him'. Emma looked at the three and smiled. "I can't wait for the other boys to meet you. They should be back soon. I doubt they let the robbers get very far."

Ike monopolized much of the conversation and Emma laughed silently to herself. Lou had a pretty good handle on what Ike was saying, but some of the young girl's misunderstandings were quite comic.

Yes, the young girl, Emma was no fool. You can dress a cat like a dog, but you can't mistake the meow.

Earlier, she'd given Lou the bunk over Ike's and while Lou unpacked Emma had kept 'him' company. During the rather one-sided conversation from Emma, Lou had been busy putting things away. She had quickly tried to hide the soft buckskin skirt and blouse that lay at the bottom of the packs. Emma had also noticed the ill fitting pants and shirt Lou wore did little to hide the feminine curves of her developing body.

Emma had made a mental note to talk to Lou about this later...if she intended to keep up the masquerade, there were certain things they could do to help.

Lou and the boys dove into the meal... Lou said it was even better than the meal in Willow Springs. Emma beamed at the compliment as the door burst open and the rest of the Riders came in. Covered in mud and leaves the four of them looked like a small forest blocking the door.

"We're home!" yelled Cody.

"And.... makin' a mess of my floor!" She picked up a broom, "I swear, this is NO way to make an impression on the new rider!"

Teaspoon eyed Emma suspiciously, "I didn't hire no'one."

Emma pointed the broom at them, "You will once you meet him.. . but not like that! OUT OUT ..... NOW!"




There was still quite a bit of food left on the table when the four now recognizable men filed back into the bunkhouse. Cody took the first spot he saw and filled his plate. Kid and Jimmy sat on his right, and that left Teaspoon on the end. They filled their plates, all sneaking glances at the young man between Buck and Ike. He seemed really comfortable with both riders and seemed to understand most of what Ike had to say without help.

"So, ah.. Lou- is it?"

Lou set down his cup and nodded, "Yessir."

"You're wantin' to join the express?"

"Uh huh."

"So what makes you think Russell, Majors & Waddell would hire you?"

She drew a blank, (Because Buck said so) came to mind...but was quickly tossed out.

"Teaspoon, he's the -"

Teaspoon waved a knowing hand at the young man, "Yes I know what you must think about him...seein' as how you brought him here. I jus' think it's good to hear what the boy has to say for himself." Teaspoon nodded his satisfaction at his wise handling of the situation.

Lou looked down at her plate, she knew they were all looking at her. It all came down to this moment of truth, was she all that Red Bear believed her to be?

In a word, yes.

"Mr. Teaspoon? I know that you trust Buck, who wouldn't. What matters is how I'd fit in here at the station. From what I've seen and what Ms. Emma's told me, there's an awful lot of work to be done and I'm not afraid to do it. I ride better'n any brave the Kiowa have. Give me a chance... let me prove I can do it. You won't be sorry."

Emma stood on the side, proud of her new friend... things were surely goin' to get exciting around here.

Teaspoon looked around the room, "Well, seein' as how it's so late.. we'll test ya out tomorrow... and you best be gettin' some sleep boys."

Buck let out a quiet sigh and put a reassuring hand on Lou's shoulder.

The boys got up and put their dishes away...Lou sat in her seat. Her stomach was turning over... she'd made it this far, tomorrow couldn't be so bad.

Chapter 7

Lou didn't get much sleep that night... she tossed and turned.. and must have apologized fifty times to Ike for waking him. She dressed in the darkness...and walked to the house when she smelled coffee brewin' in the early mornin' hours.

Emma stood at the door watchin' Lou walk up, "I expected to see you this mornin'. You nervous?"

Lou grumbled as she shuffled in the door, "Like you have to ask..."

Chuckling, Emma pointed to the stove, "No I don't need to ask...grab yourself a cup and have some coffee."

Emma sat at the table and waited for Lou to join her. Lou sank down on the chair like it was a bale of hay. Emma patiently waited for Lou to speak her mind.

"I've just got a lot riding on this job," Emma took a sip of her coffee, "and Buck put himself on the line for me." Lou set her cup down and looked up at the stationmistress, "I'm just worried I'll let people down."

Emma laid her hand on Lou's,"I wouldn't worry honey. You'll be fine...besides it will be so nice to make the boys eat a little humble pie."




A half hour later... Emma and Lou had set a second pot of coffee on and laughed as the boys filed out of the bunk house lookin' worse for the sleep they had had. "I hate to say it... but Buck looks like hell."

Emma joined her at the door, she tried to hide her laughter with her cup, "Looks like he got less sleep than you did Lou."

Lou nodded as Emma took her cup. With one last smile, she headed out to join the boys by the fence.




Teaspoon Hunter walked the fence in front of the line of riders. "Alright boys, we got a new one among you... Lou's tryin' his hand and we're here to see that he gets a fair shot, just like the rest of you." He had pointed looks for Cody and Jimmy.

He nodded at Lou who took off for the stable. "I mean it boys. We're here to see what Lou can do. Jimmy and Cody - mount up.. you're goin' to demonstrate the 'hand-off'. Buck, set up the bottles on the rail. Ike I want to see how he can manuver his horse 'round some obstacles...Kid, help him out..." Teaspoon headed into the house for some coffee, mumbling under his breath, "this should be interesting."




They had already tried the hand-off, and Cody was still nursing his pride. Twice, he'd tried his best to make Lou drop the mochilla. The third time Lou had about enough of his guff. As Lou got his hand around the pouch, Cody tried again to pull it away.

Teaspoon opened his mouth to give him hell, but Lou was way ahead of him. Lou grabbed the pouch and pulled on Plainsrunner's reins. The horse reared and Cody was pulled right off his saddle. There was a loud messy splash as Cody landed in the horse trough.

All the other riders laughed hysterically a few dropping to their knees. Jimmy nodded and hid his laughter. Lou sat astride his horse.. a satisfied look crossing his face. When he was able to stand, Cody stomped off to the bunkhouse to clean up.

Teaspoon walked over to Lou's side and put a hand on Plainsrunner's shoulder. "Good job Lou. There's an obstacle course set up outside the yard. I want you to go walk it through with Ike-"

Teaspoon was left graspin' air. Lou had taken off and had cleared the first fence. Plainsrunner pulled to a stop without hardly a touch on her reins. Horse and rider moved through the course... stepping through ropes and winding their way around obstacles. The other riders could only shake their heads and stare as Lou had them all beat.

Lou finished the course and sent Plainsrunner into the barn. Jimmy watched as the horse obeyed Lou's every command. "Hell, I bet that horse is so well trained she's probably unsaddlin' herself as we speak!"

Making his way over to the riders as they stood huddled at the rail, Lou called out. "What's next!?" There was a confidence in Lou's gait and the riders' had to admit it was deserved.

Jimmy leaned up against the fence and watched him. There was something about Lou that didn't quite add up. He made a note to keep an eye on their new rider.

Teaspoon nodded as he ambled over to Lou, "Well now.. looks like you can ride-"

"That's an understatement..."

"Thanks for the commentary Kid," a patented 'Teaspoon arched eyebrow' angled itself at Lou, "as I was sayin'-" Teaspoon looked to the boys for any comments, "as I was sayin'... there's just one thing left. This here's not a job that we take lightly. There are any number of people out there who'd like to steal some of the mail we carry... sometimes we need to -ah- defend ourselves."

Lou was handed a loaded Colt. The gun felt a bit heavy in her hand, but this was something she'd get used to. Buck pointed out the bottles he'd set on the rail.

"A weeks wages says he can't out shoot ME!"

The boys groaned, Cody never could keep his mouth shut.

The other boys called in for the bet and Cody's mouth went dry. "Huh?" Fresh from the bunkhouse Cody had missed Lou's demonstration of his horsemanship skills.

Teaspoon chuckled... "Well, you offered the challenge boy. Looks like your friends have quite a bit of confidence in this young man. You sure you want to make that bet Cody?"

The stubborn chin shot out, "Yep Teaspoon, I called it."

"Well then, let's have at it. Lou?"

Lou came up alongside Teaspoon and Cody, "Let's do it."

Cody cleared his throat as he stood beside Lou, waiting for the sign.

"You go first there Lou."

"No, you go Cody, I insist."

Jimmy threw down his hat, "You BOTH go. Turn your backs to the fence." They both turned, "When I say now, you turn and shoot. Ready? NOW!"

Cody lost his wits for a second before he turned and fired. Bottles shattered into shimmers of glass. The riders near to fence sent up a round of cheers. "Thank you... admiration is necessary!"

"Ah, Cody?"

Cody threw his arm around Kid's shoulders, "Yes my dear friend.. and admirer?"

Kid pointed at the fence. Ike stood behind Cody's half of the targets.. In his right hand he held a lovely glass bottle ...perfectly whole.

Jimmy and Teaspoon walked up to the young man, "Welcome," said Teaspoon.

"You're our new rider Lou. Pay up Cody!"




Instead of paying a weeks wages to everybody, the boys settled for a dinner in town.

Lou was at the center of the party and even Cody joined in the fun after whining about how his gun must've jammed. Teaspoon had gone to visit Sam and the boys were left alone in the restaurant with a stern warning to behave themselves.

Cody was blisterin' Lou's ears with stories of his skill and valor, and Lou for her part was keepin' her meal down.

Buck and Ike were holed up in the corner. Ike's face, if anyone had been watchin', looked as if he'd sat on a porcupine. He 'asked' the same question three or four times... each time he shook his head even harder.

He looked over at Lou as 'he' shoved Cody nearly off his chair, then turned back to Buck, **a girl?**

Buck nodded, "My brother, asked me to help her make a life here. I'm still not sure this is the place for her...but-"

Ike stopped him, **She can RIDE!**

Buck smiled , "Yes she can."

Ike gave him a look, **Why are you tellin' me?**

"I can' t be around all the time. I shouldn't have told you at all ... but if anything ever happens, will you help me... to keep her secret?"

Ike shook his head smilin', **You know I will.**

Buck grabbed his friend into a bear hug...."I know Ike...I know."

Chapter 8

The Sweetwater Social was the highlight of the month. That is, for everyone that wanted to be social!

Lou had been standing alone near the back wall. She soon tired of watching the boys have fun- Ike was dancin' with a young lady named Caroline and Lou decided she needed- some sleep. Kid stopped him at the door, "Where you goin'?"

"Home - I'm kinda tired-"

"Uh - okay...see you back at the station."

The cool night air did wonders for her mind- the heat inside had been stiffling. All those people in one room- Lou laughed at herself. It wasn't just that - all those men in one room. She felt fine with the riders, it was all the other men. Lou was always careful to sink into the wall and not to draw attention.




She was lost in thought as she walked down the dusty main road in town. She past by the saloon at the end of the street on the way to the livery. Inside, the piano banged out a jaunty tune and the conversation was at a dull roar. As she past by, a corpulent man in his forties stumbled out onto the covered sidewalk. Two burly men were vigorously assisting his departure.

Edwin Cooley the new bartender bellowed out, "Get out and stay out! 'til you got your temper under wraps McMannus you ain't welcome! I don't need ya breakin' up my bar!"

Lou slowed and watched as the man sized up his chances of sneakin' back in. He caught her interested gaze, "Hey Boy!?"

Lou nearly came to a complete stop, "Yessir?"

"Where's the -" Gunfire erupted and McMannus sank to his knees - his disheveled shirt now pock-marked with dark dripping holes.

Lou watched in horrified fascination...nearly frozen to the spot. Brought back to reality in a moment, she dropped to her knees in the dark, tryin' to avoid stray gunfire.

Back inside the dance, the music grinded to a halt as the fiddler heard the gunfire. Sam, Jimmy and Teaspoon headed outside. In the cool night air, they could easily see the flashes from guns down the street and they headed out to help. The rest of the riders filed out after them.




Lou kept her head down as two men emerged from the bright light of the Saloon and opened fire into the night.

She looked around frantic, 'If only I can make it across the street!' She jumped to her feet and ran as fast as she could - "AH!" she staggered to her knees as a sharp pain ripped through her side.

Lou jumped the last few feet, rolling on the wooden sidewalk. She continued on - tryin to put as much distance between the fight and herself. She staggered back and forth, more side to side than forward... it seemed she'd never get away!

'If only I'd brought that damned Colt!' she held her laughter as she chastised herself, her ribs were on fire. 'First things first... get home.'




Jimmy shot one man in the leg. He dropped next to the one that Teaspoon had killed not a moment before.

When the rest of the riders showed up, the gunfire had all but disappeared. Whoever had fired the first shot certainly did not want to be caught - everyone in the street made a hasty exit.

A small figure paused under the lantern outside the livery. Jimmy thought he recognized the boy, "Hey LOU!" The boy continued on into the darness. Jimmy shook his head, "Guess it wasn't him."




Sam and Teaspoon cleaned up with Jimmy and Kid's help, the others went back to calm down the people who had remained at the dance.

Ike ran over to Kid and held up two fingers in an 'L', **Lou?**

Kid nodded, "He left earlier - went back to the waystation."

Ike walked away relieved, he had been dancing with Caroline and when the gunfire broke out he hadn't been able to find Lou anywhere.




Sam stayed behind in the jail with Teaspoon. The doctor had been called from the dance to tend the wounded. They were both waiting for the chance to find out what all the flyin' lead was about.

Sam was convinced there might be more trouble and asked Teaspoon to stay in town. Teaspoon sent the boys home... they all had rides tomorrow. Emma was also asked to leave. "Sam Cain, you are the most exasperating man! If you don't want me here, I'm sure the doctor will find me most useful."

Doc Crandall shrugged his shoulders at the Marshal, and turned back to his patients.

Emma unbuttoned the cuffs of her blouse and rolled back the sleeves - "Where do I start, Doc?"

Sam sank into his chair with a huff, "This is goin' to be a very long night."




The others headed home. They kept an easy pace on the way to the livery. Jimmy and Kid kept the jokes goin' and Ike walked along listening in the near-darkness.

They rode up to the barn at the waystation and Kid stopped. He slid off Katy's back to pick up something. It was a hankerchief. He brought it up under a lantern. The white cloth was cool, sticky to the touch, and covered in dark stains.

"Jimmy," he hissed. Jimmy dismounted and moved closer, "I think someone's hidin' out here."

Ike came up and looked at the cloth. **split up**

All three drew their guns and began their search of the property. Jimmy checked all the doors and windows of the house. All locked tight and intact.

Ike took the barn. With a glance he knew everything was fine, he'd spent enough time training the horses and would have known by their reactions if someone was hiding in their stalls. He headed back out and met Jimmy comin' out of the bunkhouse,**Lou?**

Jimmy shrugged his shoulders, "He's not in the bunkhouse, no one is."

Ike felt his stomach turn over.

Jimmy looked around understanding Ike's unspoken fear. "Let's find him."




Kid was out by the woodpile... he had searched most of the yard and figured that the woodpile was as good a place as any to hole up. As he neared it he was relieved to hear the steady chirping of crickets in the night air. His shoulders relaxed a split second before he tripped over something. He fell to his knees in the dirt, making a frantic grab for his Colt that had slipped from his fingers when he lost his footing.

He turned back towards the pile and his eyes widened in surprise. A foot, sticking out from the darkness... that's what had sent him to the ground.

He trained his gun on the body and nudged it with his own foot. It rocked back and forth but there was no reaction. Back on his knees, Kid crept closer and reached out to turn the fallen man over. The jacket was all too familiar-

"Oh God!" he looked about frantically, "Jimmy, Ike- over here!"

Jimmy reached his side first as Kid had just managed to turn the body over.

"Good God!"

Neither knew who said it... maybe both. Lou's shirt had almost completely changed colors - even in the darkness of the shadows, they could see the sheen of blood across the thin cotton of his shirt.

"Ike - get over here!"

Ike had checked the barn again... Plainsrunner was missing... where was Lou?

As he neared the woodpile he heard Jimmy's hushed and frightened voice, "Maybe you better check, you know....to see if the bullet went through..."

Kid nodded and pulled Lou's shirt tails from his pants.

Ike knocked him on his side and quickly pulled Lou's shirt down.

"What the HELL!?"

Ike turned to his two friends, 'they wouldn't understand' he thought.

He turned back to Lou, touching the side of 'his' face. Her skin was soft and cold, covered in dust. Hearing no movement behind him he turned back **Doctor - Jail - NOW**

Kid looked at Jimmy and then ran off into the night...

Chapter 9

Ike pulled up Lou's shirt and turned her on her side. The bullet had gone clean through and now a long bullet hole trailed her ribs. As he looked at the injury he heard Jimmy walkin' closer, "He okay Ike?"

Ike drew the shirt down again and he nodded over his shoulder.

He grabbed her chin and shook her gently.

Jimmy was about to tell Ike to stop when a soft gasp escaped her lips. Ike smiled and shook her shoulders... Lou's eyes drifted open and focused on Jimmy standing above her and then Ike, "..am I home?"

Jimmy looked at Ike, "yeah Lou. You're right by the woodpile...'

Lou frowned, "I guess I got turned around in the dark..." She tried to sit up but her vision disintegrated and she leaned back on her arms.

Ike reached out to lower her down slowly. **what happened... who**

Lou looked around, her head turning in slow arcs..."Didn't see who shot me.. I was caught in the crossfire. The man I was talkin' to..."

She began to cough, a hollow cough...followed by the sick wet sound of blood. Ike stared at her as a trickle of blood dripped from a corner of her mouth. Lou looked up at him, fear etched in her gaze.

Jimmy crouched down next to her, "Kid went for the doctor Lou. He'll be back before you know it." Lou looked to Ike, one hand reaching out to grasp his arm. She felt the soft cloth under her fingers. Everything seemed 'sharper' ... what was happening?

"Ike, I need to get inside... I don't want to die out here."

Ike looked horrified **No**

Jimmy put a hand on 'his' shoulder, "Lou, don't give up... you'll be fine... you just hold onto that. We won't let you down."

Lou looked up at Jimmy. There was no bravado in his voice... this was a new side of Jimmy.

Her gaze leveled at them both, "Help me up... I need to..." Ike tried to bring Lou to her feet. She was nearly standing when the young rider collapsed again, unconcious.




Kid reached the Marshal's office out of breath. He'd just left Katy outside, "L-l-"

Teaspoon jumped out of his chair and Emma rushed forward..."What's wrong Kid?"

Emma forced a cup of water in his hands, and when he wouldn't drink, she pushed it towards his mouth, "Won't do us any good if you pass out Kid."

He looked at her like a petulant child, but downed the water and took a deep breath. "Lou - shot... need doctor."

Emma already had her coat in hand and was headin' out the door. Teaspoon wrapped his arm around Kid's and pulled him toward the door, "Well than, what you standin' around jawin' for... let's go!"

"Let me know how he is!" Sam called after them, but they had already disappeared into the darkness.




Jimmy had helped Ike carry Lou into the bunkhouse, but Ike wouldn't leave Lou's side... Jimmy knew somethin' was up. Ike wasn't the strongest of the riders, but something made him real protective of their littlest rider. 'I guess we all feel the same,' he thought. 'Lou's kinda like.... a little brother...no, not really...' Jimmy's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the wagon pulling around outside.

"Jimmy? Ike?" Teaspoon's bellow moved through them in a wave of sound.

"In here Teaspoon!" Jimmy answered back. Emma pushed the

door open and was across the room in seconds. Ike moved forward to

stop Emma's hand.. his eyes held a warning.

Emma remembered what was at stake... she turned to the men

gathered around, "All of you out! Jimmy, you're rested... go take a mount and fetch the doctor from home.. I'll take care of things 'til he can get here."

Ike grabbed her arm. He looked frantic and Emma felt pity for the boy. She leaned over to him and patted his arm, "I know the secret Ike," she whispered, "Lou's safe with me." He relaxed and helped Emma peel off Lou's shirt. The two of them worked to clean the wound and dress it before the doctor arrived.




When the doctor arrived, Ike was still sittin' like a sentry next to the bed... he watched closely as the doctor examined Lou. Emma had put a new shirt on her and tucked the shirt up to hide... well... you know.. and still give Doc Crandall a chance to look at the wound.

Doc questioned Emma, "Why'd you put a new shirt on... it's better if we take it-" He had reached over to unbutton the shirt.

Emma stopped him, "Please don't-"

"Emma?" Doc looked at Emma like she was some irrational woman, "Is there a problem?"

Emma nodded and looked at Ike for help, "Lou's just a bit shy..." she stared at the other rider as he motioned to the candle flame... her eyes popped open when understanding dawned on her, "fire... burns..." she turned back to the Doctor, "Lou was burned in a fire as a kid... he doesn't like anyone to see the scars... it's personal. You understand?"

Doc Crandall shrugged his shoulders, "I guess." He shook his head like a disappointed father, "You sure got some strange boys out here Emma."

He didn't know it... but he was lucky Emma took it as a compliment, "Thanks Doc... now, about Lou?" The doctor unwound the bandage..."hmm, real clean. Good job." He seemed to be mumbling to himself. "Lucky cuss, isn't he.... clean through... hmmm... strange,"

Both Emma and Ike were on their feet looking over the Doctor's shoulder.

Doc looked back at them, "Somethin' wrong?"

They shook their heads and sat back down, closer this time.




Less than 20 minutes later, the doctor walked out onto the porch, his bag in hand. Teaspoon, Jimmy and Kid stood up and met him. The doc laughed to himself, "You boys sure worry 'bout one another, huh? Well Teaspoon... the boy needed some stitches in his side. Other than that.. he'll need a lot of rest... From the looks of his shirt and that hankerchief Kid found, he's lost quite a bit of blood. Slight boy like that will need lots of sleep." He put his hand on Teaspoon's shoulder, "He'll be fine.. I just hope you don't expect him back on a horse any time soon."

Teaspoon smiled as he felt relief flash through his achin' bones, "Nope Doc. I'll have to give him a day or two off at the most... that enough?"

Doc smacked Teaspoon on the back, "You ol' goat! I guess the boy will just have to heal fast!"

Jimmy and Kid smiled... if the Doc was this happy... Lou would be fine.

Chapter 10

Buck sat opposite his brother at their own council fire. He had arrived that afternoon, having permission from Teaspoon to visit awhile before making his way home.

"What weighs heavy on your mind brother?"

Buck threw down the rock he had been studying for nearly an hour. "I would like to know why she is so afraid of men."

"I thought you said she has found a place among the riders?"

Buck nodded his head, "She has.. they all care for 'him' like a brother. I wonder at her reaction to others. In town the other day, a man bumped into her and she nearly drew her knife on him."

Red Bear nodded silently... "and what has she told you?"

"Nothing, she avoids the subject and asks me to leave it alone."

"Then leave it."

Buck looked up at his brother's sharp tone. "Can you tell me something? Anything?"

"You may ask questions and I may answer." Red Bear looked satisfied with his answer.

Buck was thoroughly frustrated by his brother's evasive answers. "Did it happen before she came to be with the Kiowa?"

"Yes."

"Was she 'hurt' by a man."

"Yes."

"and..... "

"That is all you need to know."

"Why didn't you marry her?"

"I thought the questions were over little brother." Red Bear fought nervous laughter, "You were never so tiresome when you were a child."

Buck sat across the fire staring intently at his older brother, "You were never so evasive then."

"Well said-" Red Bear sighed, "I can see you will not let this question rest." He looked at the letter he held in his hands, Skyfire's delicate writing on the outside. He had not yet opened it.. waiting instead for privacy. " She is young-"

"That has never mattered among our people."

Red Bear nodded, "but it would have mattered to her." A deep sigh escaped his lips, "I believe that she would one day have outlived me and would want to return to her world. With Kiowa children in tow...it would be difficult."

"She could stay if there were children."

"And the man that would take my place?"

Buck treaded carefully with his question, "You sound as if you know who it would be."

"From the day she came to us, Cloud Chaser has made no secret of his desire for her. She would not have him and sought out my protection... that caused a great split within the tribe. I would never have given her to him, he would have broken her spirit."

"I have heard of his temper."

"It is more than that." Red Bear's eyes grew dark, the flames from the fire fanned higher. "He has left us.. along with a third of our number... all young men. They seek to make the white man fear the Kiowa. They want white blood to flow and wash over the land. They have thought me too weak and now make their own way."

Buck was aware of the keen saddness in Red Bears's heart. "Where have they gone?"

"I do not know for sure, but Cloud Chaser left a warning."




Lou slept like the dead for two days.. and Ike didn't get any sleep at all. The riders were all concerned for Ike. He moved around the station like he had a mill stone hanging from his neck. Even Cody's bad jokes did nothing to help.

Jimmy talked with Kid in the bunkhouse, "Kid?"

Kid looked up from his bunk, "Yeah Jimmy?"

"You notice anythin' strange 'bout Ike?"

Kid rolled over to face the ceiling, "Besides him spendin' all the time in the house?"

"Nope, just that... we're all worried 'bout Lou... but the other night Ike was near crazed. Never seen him like that before."

Kid nodded and rearranged his pillow, "Yeah, maybe Buck will understand... he'll be home tomorrow at the latest."

Jimmy climbed up to his bunk and covered up, "It still seems strange."




Buck rode without rest... he kept his horse at an easy but constant pace.. there was no time to waste. Cloud Chaser's warning weighed heavily on his mind. Skyfire, in the short time she'd been with the riders, had become part of their family. He couldn't imagine how he'd feel if something happened to her.

He had to think of a way to let the riders know to watch for the Kiowa brave without giving away the reason. The key to keeping her close was to continue the secret. Buck was more concerned than ever.




In the darkness a lone figure moved through the shadows of the waystation. Cloud Chaser's numbers included two that had traded horses to the Express. They told him that this is the place that Running Buck shared his meals with the white man. If Skyfire was to be found, it would be here.

The stables were the first place to look. Quiet and sleepy horses stood in stalls. Only one looked up when he entered. Plainsrunner, who he himself had picked for Skyfire, looked up from her place. She tossed her head in greeting and he moved closer.

He murmured soft words to the horse and she nudged his hand. He stroked her mane and placed his forehead against hers. "Soon, soon you will join us .. and Skyfire will come with you."




He continued along to the one story building near the main house, there were soft lights burning inside. He could hear the voices of young men and moved to a window. He could not hear her voice inside. No one spoke of a woman. He had nearly given up, 'I should set fire to the house and kill them all!'

Cloud Chaser heard a horse riding in and disappeared into the darkness. Running Buck rode in and left his horse outside... goin' straight into the bunkhouse. "Where's Lou?"

"Lou's in the house, Emma set a bed for him."

"WHY?"

Well, 'cause the doctor said-"

The door slammed open and Buck rushed out toward the house.

A sleepy Cody walked out and grabbed Buck's horse and headed to the stables, "He'll owe me, again."




Cloud Chaser moved quickly though the night and knelt near one of the windows, moving so that he could see inside the front room.

Running Buck knelt by a bed, "Lou? Sky- what happened?" he asked the woman that came down the back stairs.

"Buck, Lou was caught in the middle of a gunfight during the social. She made it back here and Ike and Jimmy brought her inside."

Buck was looking at her strangely, "Her?"

Emma shook her head, "I know a girl when I see her."

"Ike?"

"Ike kept her secret, I finally got him to rest just an hour ago. He's been drownin' in guilt for letting her out of his sight."

"What did the doctor say?"

"She'll be fine.. we managed to keep her secret from him too... that took a lot of fast talkin'."

Buck took a cloth from the table beside the bed and wiped her forehead. "Wake up Skyfire, we have much to discuss."

She moved slightly on the bed... Emma looked at the two, "Bad news from your brother?"

He nodded, "She's in trouble."

Emma started off to the kitchen,"Well, come on in... she'll be up in the mornin' until then, you might as well let me know what's headin' our way."




Cloud Chaser watched as they left her alone in the room. He opened the door silently and moved closer to the bed.

She was pale and her hair had been cut short. His hands curled into fists, 'How dare she? A maiden's hair is the source of her pride.'

He touched her face, feeling the smooth skin beneath his hand. She stirred and turned toward his hand with a sigh... for an instant he considered taking her.

A low whistle outside caught his attention and he cursed. "I will come for you."

He left and found his mount waiting in the trees. With one look back Cloud Chaser rode off in the darkness.

Chapter 11

The next morning Buck went into the house before breakfast. Ike sat next to the bed. His head tucked to his chest... he

was fast asleep. Buck looked to Skyfire. Still asleep she held onto Ike's hand. Buck looked again and the picture did not change but the feeling in his heart did.

He resisted the urge to knock Ike out of his chair.

He turned and left. The departure was noted by Emma as she stood over the stove. She laughed quietly to herself, "The boy has it bad.. and he doesn't even know it."




Ike woke with a start when he heard the bunkhouse door slam in the distance. He looked down at Lou and slowly removed her hand from his. During the night she had been crying in her sleep. Calling for Red Bear and then Buck, she had been shaking with fear. Ike could not wake her from her nightmares, but she had calmed at his touch. He felt his guilt choke him again. He knew that Buck would be back today and he'd have to explain what had happened. He didn't look forward to it.

He could smell Emma's cooking and knew that breakfast was on. He stood and with one look back at the sleeping rider he went tojoin the others.




The boys were seated at the table and Emma was placing the trays in the middle. Cody tried to sneak a biscuit and Emma smackedhim on the hand with a serving spoon.

"Try that again Cody and you'll be nursin' a headache for a week!"

"Ah Emma-"

"Don't you 'Emma' me, I'm tryin' to teach you boys some manners. Jimmy?"

Jimmy folded his hands and said a short albeit unconventional grace. The boys dug in. Buck sat in the middle of it all, plate empty and hands flat on the table.

Ike entered a minute later and came around the table to greet his friend. Buck stood before Ike could reach him. He brushed past his friend and walked out the door.

Emma sent the boy a sympathetic look, shrugging her shoulders. Ike turned away from the table, his appetite gone. He walked out the door after Buck.

Jimmy elbowed Kid, sending his fork flying. "Did you see that?"

Kid shook it off and picked up his fork, "Jimmy, leave them alone!"




Ike walked out to the barn, Buck was saddling his horse. Ike stepped in front of his line of vision **what are you doing**

Buck choked out a laugh, "What's is look like I'm doin'?"

**runnin' away**

Buck threw down the blanket and stepped up to Ike, "You wanna tell me what happened?"

Ike looked down at the floor, **if I'd known she was goin' to be hurt, i'd never have left her side at the dance**

"What?"

Ike looked up at his friend, **the dance**

Buck shook his head and grit his teeth together, 'Why won't he admit it?' "I'm not talkin' about some stupid dance! I'm talkin' about you fallin' for her while I was away!"

It was Ike's turn to be confused **i never-**

"Buck!" It was Emma's voice from the house, "Buck! Lou's awake... he's askin' for you!"

Both men left the stable runnin' for the house... but one look from Buck and Ike stopped dead in his tracks. Buck entered the house alone.




Lou was propped up in the bed, a new bandage had been applied by Emma just a few minutes ago. When Buck walked in she brightened up until she noticed his dark expression. "Oh God! Buck did something happen to Red Bear?" She sat up and grabbed her side as pain shot through her, "Ow!"

Buck knelt beside her, "You should be resting-"

"Not if something's happened."

"Red Bear is fine. He was happy to hear how well you've 'fit in'."

She looked up as she heard the hard edge in his last few words. "Then what is it?"

He looked at her... and for the first time he noticed the sallow color of her face and the dark circles under her eyes. His anger subsided as realized how hurt she was. He sat on the edge of the bed and gently pushed her shoulders down, "You should be resting."

She pushed a hand away, "and you should stop avoiding my questions!"

He smiled at the angry tone of her voice, she was getting better.




The next day was bittersweet for the riders. Lou was recovering nicely... the doc had been by earlier and pronounced he was "fit enought to move around, but NO riding yet, young man."

Lou was none to pleased... she had been away from Plainsrunner for a couple of days and that was a couple of days too many. Emma gave her a look that said, 'stay put young lady'.

The downside was the rift that had sprung up between Ike and Buck. The later seemed to avoid bein' in the same room with his friend. Buck slept outside and Ike stayed in the bunkhouse with the others. The riders tried to cheer him up, but Ike just turned a deaf ear.

Teaspoon was about ready to drag the two into the sweatlodge when Emma announced it was high time for the new horses to be broken in. A wide knowin' grin spread across Teaspoon's face. He grabbed Emma and hugged her. "You sure are a smart one Emma. It's just what those boys need to get out some frustrations and 'manly' energy!"

Emma rolled her eyes and headed back to the house, "Manly energy? That's the last thing we need!"




Inside, Lou had been moving around the room slowly. This was her first time out of bed in days. She found a half finished dress layin' across Emma's chair. Slowly she made her way over.

Emma's sewin' was near perfect. Lou could hardly see a stitch in the fabric. It was a dark rose colored fabric with sprigs fo white flowers printed on the cotton. Long wrist length gathered sleeves and a sweetheart neckline finished the design, "Emma'd be so pretty in this-"

"Well, glad you think so Lou!"

Lou quickly put the dress back down on the chair, she cleared her voice and tried to salvage the illusion, "Um - I bet Sam would love to see that at the next dance."

Emma stood in the middle of the room shakin' her head, "First, give up the voice girl... I helped Ike take care of you for the last few days.....I know! Second, I haven't worn a dress like that in years, and third, if I let Sam that close at the next dance, he'll be lucky!"

Lou smiled, her cheeks coloring, "Whew - that's a relief... what about -"

"The other boys are still in the dark...so far. With all the trouble brewin' about that brave huntin' you down.. you should really consider tellin' the boys."

Lou shook her head vehemently, "NO! I couldn't! I'd lose my job and Bu-" Lou realized what she almost said... she bit her lower lip between her teeth and turned her head away.

Emma smiled, "Well... finally we're gettin' down to the heart of the matter." She moved closer to Lou, "I've been wonderin' when you'd see it yourself."

Lou turned back to Emma, her chin raised defensively, "See what?"

"That you're sweet on him."

Emma watched as the words sunk in. Disbelief, affection, frustration, and finally melancholy... the emotions danced across her friend's lovely features. They were quite lovely...especially without those glasses muckin' up the picture.

"He doesn't see me that way."

"You'd be surprised."

Lou ignored her, "I was forced on him by his brother... he's just doin' what Red Bear asked him to do."

"You're foolin' yourself."

Skyfire ignored the comment "I don't understand what I feel when he's around... I want him to hold me... but then I also wanna punch him too! Ooh!" Lou stamped the floor and then winced as the pain echoed in her side.

Emma picked up the dress and her sewin' basket. As she walked outside to watch the boys she smiled, "Ah.. young love!"




When Kid walked into the house a half hour later, Lou was asleep at the table in the kitchen, his head pillowed on his arms atop the table. Kid tried to make as little noise as possible as he dragged the metal tub into the middle of the kitchen floor.

Around the third bucket of water, Lou stirred from his nap.

He sat up slowly as Kid poured the bucket in the tub, "Kid?"

"Oh, hi there Lou! Emma thought you'd want a bath-"

Lou smiled and rubbed his eyes, "That would be nice-" he noticed Kid looking at him, "somethin' wrong?"

Kid stood up straight, "No! It's just you look real nice without your glasses."

He quickly walked out of the room to fill the bucket and when he returned, Lou had his glasses back on. Kid paused for a moment and then shook it off - maybe Jimmy had somethin' there.

When he was done he set the bucket down - "I'll leave this here so someone can bail it out. I've gotta ride comin' up."

He was almost out the door when a soft voice reached his ears.

"What?"

He turned back, "I said - 'Thanks Kid!'"

'That smile-' Kid cringed, 'What the hell am I thinking?' Kid fairly ran out of the room. Lou watched him go.




"Sorry Jimmy," Kid looked flustered, "gotta ride."

"Yeah well-" he grabbed Kid's arm- "How's Lou?"

"What about him?" Kid almost laughed, that sounded really rude.

Jimmy growled at him, "You were just in there, how was he?"

"Lou was-" 'really kind of pretty-' Kid resisted the urge to smack himself silly - he looked around for help.

Emma took pity on him, bein' flustered around Lou seemed to be an illness that was highly contagious! "Rider Up!"

Kid sprinted to Katy and headed out to meet Ike. Emma walked up to the riders. "Lou's resting. I asked Kid to check on him. That's another reason I want you boys out of the bunkhouse. The more rest he gets the sooner he'll be back ridin'."

Ike had returned from the barn during the last part of Emma's 'excuse'. Cody, who was perched on the top rail let out a holler, "Finally! I'm tired of coverin' for that boy!"

Ike smiled in relief.

Buck saw his reaction and opened the gate to the corral, slammin' it closed behind him. "Hey Buck!" shouted Cody,"It's my turn."

Buck shrugged off Cody's complaint and mounted the mustang in the ring.




Inside, Lou had gone into the back room and taken off everything except the oversized shirt Emma had left for her.

With a quick peek to make sure there was no one around - she took a step onto the hardwood floor. The boards were cool to the touch - Lou was thankful Emma had thick curtains in the kitchen windows. She unbuttoned the shirt and set it down on the back of a chair. One foot reached over the edge of the tub. The water was cold, but it didn't matter. Days without a bath...'it's a wonder they come near me at all!'

Slowly, she knelt down in the water. Holding her breath until it lapped around her waist. The skin around her wound was still tender and she winced as the water touched it. The cold water began to numb the pain and Lou sank back against the high metal wall. She let her arms float up to the surface and marveled at how light she felt.

She reached for Emma's soap. Bringing it to her nose she inhaled the fragrance- sweet, like roses. 'I wonder if Thompson's store has this?' She ran the soap over her skin, watchin' as a thin layer of suds and bubbles popped up. Days worth of grime slid off into the water, "Heaven."




Outside, Ike sat near Emma, lookin' down at his feet. He had noticed the look Buck had given him, and was so confused.

Emma took out another pin from the dress. "Ike hon-" Ike continued to stare at the floor. She reached into her skirt pocket and drew out some paper and a pencil. She set it next to him. "Now, I know I'm not very good at that signin' you do - but I know you can write."

Ike looked up and seemed to brighten a bit. He reached over and took the paper and pencil, writing for a moment before he handed the pad back to Emma.

i didn't do anything

"I know."

he won't let me explain

"He's hurt."

what can i do

"Talk to him-"

i've tried

"Tie him down!"

Ike thought for minute and then, smiling, he wrote:

is that what you do to sam

Emma looked at her quiet charge and laughed, "If he's lucky."

Ike sat up a little more as Emma continued to sew some buttons on the dress. "Ouch!" Ike looked up at Emma , "I broke the thread."

you want me to go inside

Emma read over his shoulder, "Oh no! Lou's sleepin'"

Ike sat back as Emma set the dress down.

They both watched as Buck and Jimmy started throwin' punches at each other. "What the - BOYS!"

Ike watched Emma march off to the corral... 'I can get the thread and be back in a minute... besides, everyone knows I'm quiet'




Lou used the soap in her hair... turning it white with foam. The water had warmed and she moved around. She knew the peace wouldn't last forever, 'I should wash out all the suds... i wonder if anyone will smell the roses..' She disappeared under the water, scrubbin' her fingers through her hair.




Ike opened the front door quietly and looked around. He looked to the bed... no Lou. Ike felt a moment of panic until he heard a splash from the kitchen. He looked over and his jaw dropped a few inches.

Lou sat up in the water. Her head to elbows could be seen over the edge of the tub as she faced the side wall. Water slid off her body and as she shook her head, little crystal drops of water sprayed the floor. She laughed..it was more of a giggle... and brought more water up to rinse her face.

Ike backed up through the door and closed it silently. He struggled to keep on his feet. He felt.... awful....wonderful....guilty. Thoughts flew through his mind. It had all been in silhouette, but he'd seen enough.... and he felt awful, even though he knew she didn't see him.

He made his way back to the bunkhouse. Buck and Jimmy were sitting on opposite sides of the corral fence like children. Emma looked up as Ike nearly missed the chair.

"Ike? You okay?" He looked like he was goin' to faint.

He grabbed the paper and pencil and wrote like a madman, nearly grinding the pencil into the paper. After he finished he stared at the words for a good minute, as if he was unsure of what to do.

"Hand it over."

The command was answered:

i went into the house

Emma looked like she wanted to hit him, "And..." she prompted.

i saw lou

She looked at him through glaring eyes. He took the pencil and added some short lines under his last note:

i saw lou

Ike was bright red and his heart was pounding in his chest. Emma shook her head, "When will they listen. You better go into the bunkhouse and lie down. We'll talk later."

Ike stood and with the help of the wall he walked to the door of the bunkhouse.

Cody called from the corral, "Hey Ike.. the next one's yours!"

Emma stood, "Wrong Cody... he's yours."

"What! AW... come on IKE!" Ike turned around and Cody called out, "You look like HELL! Nevermind.... go LIE DOWN... but you OWE me!!!"

Ike nodded and waved at him as he walked into the dark bunkhouse.

Chapter 12

Lou buttoned her shirt and looked in the mirror. The dark circles under her eyes were nearly gone, reduced to faint smudges like the soft grey ash in the fireplace. Her hair, newly washed, was almost dry... a soft wave near the bottom. She ran her fingers through it and sighed.. it had been awhile since she'd been able to care what she looked like.

Emma walked in and caught Lou lookin' at her reflection. She stopped for a minute... "Sure nice to see a smile on your face Lou."

Lou looked away and blushed a light pink. "Sorry Emma, it's just nice to not worry-"

"That someone will walk in and wonder why young Lou, the Pony Express rider, looks so pretty?"

Lou laughed, "Exactly! Emma, how is it you know so much 'bout me?"

Emma walked over the mirror and stood next to Lou. She set an arm around her shoulders, "Cause you're so much like me, it's like I'm lookin' in a mirror almost ten years ago."

Lou looked into the eyes of Emma's reflection, "You know, I've hardly ever had a friend... a 'woman' friend before..."

Emma pulled the girl closer to her side and in a quiet voice she confided, "and I never had a sister before."




Lou helped Emma with some of the dinner preparations. She watched in awe as Emma seemed to juggle five different dishes at the same time. Keepin' an eye on the biscuits while the potatoes boiled and the soup was simmerin'. It was a sight to behold. Lou had her hands full tryin' to keep up.

When it came time to take the platters into the bunkhouse, Emma told her to sit down by the fire and relax. "I can take these in... you still need to rest." Lou was about to complain when a yawn stretched it's way from her chin to her nose. She grudgingly agreed to rest.

As Emma came back in for the last set of dishes for dinner, she found Lou fast asleep in the chair by the fire. She covered her with a blanket before returning to the bunkhouse.




Emma soon wished she had stayed in the house with Lou. Dinner was a morbid affair. Buck and Ike sat at opposite ends of the table. Buck throwin' glances at his 'friend' and Ike starin' down at his plate. The food was hardly touched. Even Cody pushed the food around his plate... barely a bite passin' his lips.

Emma looked around the table. "I don't know what's worse," she slammed a serving spoon on the table, "Men or Children."

Most of the eyes in the room focused on her. She leaned down to Buck, "Ike's your friend, your best friend, and if you can't talk to him and get this mess cleared up than I don't know what to do with you!"

Jimmy rubbed his jaw, "Yeah... the mood you're in ...we're liable to really hurt each other next time we have a disagreement."

Ike looked up at Buck hopefully.

Buck stared at his place and after a fitful moment of thought he shoved his plate toward the center of the table and stalked out of the room. Ike looked like he was goin' to be sick. He took to his bunk. The other's ate in silence.




Lou awoke with a start. The fire had dimmed and the sky outside the windows were dark as ink. She stood and stretched... her side ached from sleepin' in the chair. After folding the blanket and layin' it across the armrest Lou walked to the door and looked out.

From across the yard she saw a tall figure moving through the shadows. She couldn't see him in the darkness, but she knew his gait. Buck was goin' to sleep in the barn again. Lou shook her head. Emma had agreed that something was wrong with Buck.. and Ike was worried.

Lou counted Ike as one of her closest friends. Whenever Buck was away on a ride, Ike was always there by her side... keepin' her company. If there was something she could do to fix their friendship, she had to do it. Talkin' to Buck was as good a place to start as any.

She borrowed one of Emma's shawls and after wrappin' it around her shoulders, she headed out into the dark yard.




Buck hung his vest from one of the tack hooks. Far from bein' sleepy he paced restlessly around the barn. Finally, he came to rest on a bale of hay near Plainsrunner's stall. The mare moved closer and Buck laid a hand on her head.

Lou opened the door and slipped in quietly. It was almost a game, to see if she could sneak up behind him. Plainsrunner was taking the bulk of his attention and she was able to come to rest right behind him.

"What are you doing out here?"

He didn't jump, he merely looked at her over his shoulder, "I - was..."

"You are avoiding your friend."

He grit his teeth and turned back to Plainsrunner. She didn't make it easy on him either. The mare danced away...

The light from the lanterns in the barn cast a warm glow on everything within their realm. "Why don't you tell me what happened - "

"There's nothing to tell." She stepped up behind him and set a small tentative hand on his shoulder. "I know you better than -"

"Then you know to leave it be!" He moved away from her in a moment.

She reached out to stop him and cried out, "Ow!" She sank down on the hay bale, gripping her side tightly.

In an instant his expression changed. He moved back to her side, "What happened?" He studied her face carefully. She tried to shrug off the pain, but as she tried to stand it knifed through her again. She tried to push his hands away.

"Let me look! Lou- SKYFIRE!"

She stopped her struggles and her hands moved away. Buck lifted the edge of her shirt, and using his arm to hold the shirt up to her ribs he examined her side. Lou looked away from Buck, she could feel her face coloring in the lamplight.

Closing her eyes she concentrated on the feel of his hands on her skin. His hands were warm and rough, but as he traced the scar along her ribs his fingers were gentle, almost sensual.

Breathing became hard for her. Every moment that passed caused her breath to catch in her throat. She had never had this kind of reaction to a man's touch before. No man had ever made her... want before.

She looked down at him as he knelt before her. His handsome features half hidden by his long hair. He may be only half Kiowa, but his face was a testament to the noble blood within him. He moved back a bit and Lou found herself drawn to him. A small hand reached out and touched his cheek, tracing his jaw with her fingers.

His eyes slowly closed and she could feel his jaw tense. She leaned forward and slid to the ground facing him on her knees. Her right hand reached out and touched the ornament which hung from his ear. Her attention was caught for a moment as the light reflected off of the metal.

She turned her head and met his eyes in the soft light of the barn. His hands were at his sides but the look in his eyes held her captive. She smelled of wild prairie roses fresh from the morning rain. He breathed in her scent and held onto his thoughts for a moment.

One hand touched the back of her neck and drew her closer. She felt a shimmer of energy roll across her back leading her to him. In the second before their lips met... the breathed each other's names.

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