She came with little to protect herself. There was only a well worn staff and the guise of age and a measure of frailty. Walking into the heart of the white man's land with such meager protections was tantamount to suicide, but a curious woman cares little for such concerns. There is only the thought of satisfaction flowing through her veins.
"What are you doin' here ol' woman?"
She ignored the taunt and continued on her way.
"Ain't nobody round here gonna ignore me like that."
Again she continued on her way, marking each step through the dusty street.
A dark shadow fell over her path and her feet stilled.
His laugh was course and loud, indicating much of his harsh character.
She gave him her warning. "Allow me to pass."
It was unclear if he ignored her warning because of pride or stupidity. He grabbed her staff and threw it into the street. "This is my town."
She looked around the street but did not meet his eyes. "I see not your name or your mark on anything here. By what right do you claim ownership?"
The cadence of her voice was strong and compelling, but he shook off the silken command hidden within her craggy voice. "Get out!"
"When I am finished with my business here."
His anger was quick to color his cheeks with a ruddy flare. "I say you're finished." His meaty hand raised up in the air and descended in a heavy arc.
The old woman collapsed in a heap of aged material and brittle bones, laying stunned in the dust for a moment. Her confusion at such a violent act left her unable to retaliate immediately and so, as she gathered her anger to strike, another stepped in and metered out justice on her behalf.
Buck had never been so angry. Before he could check his anger, he'd sent Harvey Charles sprawling in the dust. The over-sized man was howling in pain, a hand clutched to his cheek. "You almos' busted my eye!"
"Aw heck, Harrv..it ain't gonna be more'n' a shiner-"
Harvey yelled at his companion, "Shut up, Stan! The dirty injun clocked me!"
Stan wasn't one to leave well enough alone, "He's ain't a real injun... just that half breed from the Express Station."
Scrambling to his feet, Harvey lunged at his friend, "I said 'Shut up, Stan'. Don't you be correctin' me like you know better." He turned on Buck, his ego claiming the most attention, "I ain't finished with you, Injun..." Harvey caught sight of the old woman's eyes. In the heat of the afternoon they glowed of icy fire and a dark promise that sent fear ripping through his mind. He could do little but run, "You jus' wait til' I ain't got a busted eye... you jus' wait."
Grabbing his friend by the collar, Harvey stumbled down the street dragging Stan with him.
Buck spared them one last look before turning to assist the woman. He long since learned to hide his embarrassment behind a mask of indifference.
She had pulled herself back on her feet behind him. "You should have let me deal with them."
Her imperious tone was puzzling to him. "I'm sorry, I just-"
She immediately changed the tone of her voice, allowing the softer tones of an elderly woman to permeate through her words, "No..no.. Allow me to apologize, you stepped in to help and I am grateful."
There was unease in his glance but he still bowed his head in deference to her age. "I was glad to help."
He looked at her with a quick assessment, meant to minimize his scrutiny. He took in the frail body, built of brittle bones and taut skin, marked with a map of wisdom and age. How she had managed to return to her feet so quickly was a mystery to him. The fact that she had also recovered her staff in the short time he had his back to her was troubling.
There was precious little to say, but Buck felt rooted to the spot. There was something oddly familiar about the older woman. Something out of place and that kept his attention and sent a warning through his mind. "Old mother, would you like me to take you back to your people."
She regarded him with old and knowledgeable eyes that seemed to look straight to his soul. "I am searching for one of my people. Perhaps you know him?" Her tone seemed to suggest that she knew the answer as fact.
"There are few Indians here in town. There is little love lost between the white man and our Indian brothers and few find their way to living here."
"Then my search should be easy. I am looking for a man the white men call, 'Buck Cross.'"
The air in his lungs seemed to freeze and he regarded her with a keen and observant eye. She seemed completely docile but the look in her eyes bespoke of a spirit with great intelligence. At once, the look she gave him reminded him of a number of wizened persons in his life. The owl-like quiet intelligence of Red Bear and at the same time, the wily craftiness of Teaspoon. There was more to this woman that meets the eye. "That is my name."
"Ah... fortuitous indeed." She began to walk past him, her staff marking even steps along the way as she moved further down the street.
It took a moment for Buck to realize that she was not going to turn back. Dashing toward her, he fell into step alongside the older woman.
"You're looking for me?"
She smiled and continued to walk, "I was... now I've found you."
Buck felt his feet catch in the dirt road and had to jog to catch up, "And now, you're leaving?"
'So easy to confuse them,' her thoughts held more than a bit of laughter.
'You wanted to meet him,' came the taunting reply.
She shrugged off the unwanted intrusion she moved along the road.
"You are taking me to your home."
Buck stopped again and nearly choked on the dust of her passing. "What?"
"The Express Station. I would like to meet your people."
Feeling much like a kite caught in whirlwind Buck trotted along behind her. "I don't know you..." Her words slowly sunk into his mind and her meaning became clear. "What? Why? I can't just bring you home!"
"You refuse me?"
Buck was about to tell her just that when something in the back of his mind seemed to push him, turning his mind from one path to another. The words he spoke seemed to slip past his lips before he could stop them. "I don't see what harm there could be. Yes, please, come to the station. Stay for supper if you like."
A calm smile tickled her lips, "How kind!"
Returning the smile, Buck wondered if he had truly lost his mind.
The station was deserted when they arrived and the bunkhouse door unlocked. There was little need for locks here in town but the woman frowned at the wooden building. "Such a place you live in."
Buck looked on her down-turned expression. "You don't like it?"
Her feeble chin lifted in reaction. Sharp eagle like eyes took in every inch of the abode. "Where are the stars when you sleep? Surely you miss their light, the blanket of the sky?"
Raising the ever eloquent eye brow, Buck pondered his answer. "There are many times that we've slept under the stars, but when there is a roof, it is best to use it."
She could feel the unsettling swell of revulsion in her blood.
"I told you that he was happy amongst them."
"Out of my mind, Old Man."
There it was, the laughter of the ages, "One has but to look in the mirror, Old Woman."
"I neither asked you for your thoughts, nor do I need them. Go, and bother another."
"I see... you still do not listen." She heard him sigh as if he was mere inches away.
She swatted at the air around her face, as though a troublesome insect bothered her. "Yes, I see, there is much about you that is strange to me."
Buck shook his head, trying to clear his own thoughts. Why had he brought her here? It made no sense to him, but there was little he could do now... she would be gone once supper was done... wouldn't she? "If you don't mind me asking... why-"
"Your friends return."
He looked at her as if she'd grown another arm or even a head, "They aren't due back for-"
Thunderous hooves pounded closer, sounding against the dusty ground unexpectedly out of a dead silence. There was little Buck could do to stave of the shivers that when through his body. There was something familiar about this woman.
Buck stepped to the window and slid the bottom pane skyward. Leaning out the window he watched as a gathering cloud of dust swept closer. "They are back." He whispered the sentence as if uttering a confession, perhaps admitting his own curious reaction to her prediction.
His mind whirled with possibilities. The others would be full of questions and Buck had to think of answers that they would believe. 'Believe,' he questioned, 'I don't believe that I brought her home! What is wrong with me?'
A multitude of heavy booted feet tramped on the boards just beyond the door.
"Take pity on the boy."
"Pity?" she scoffed. "He should be a warrior, not a mouse. What should he care for their questions. He is-"
"Of their world." The sage reminder did not sit well in her mind.
"Their world," she echoed. "Then I shall be what they can understand."
The door popped in on it's hinges and Buck looked up with heart-stopping alarm barely hidden behind his eyes. The other riders pushed in through the door and proceeded to run smack into Cody as he pulled up short, his mouth wide with wonder.
"Who is she?" Cody breathed the question on a whisper of air.
Jimmy chuckled and shook his head.
Kid all but turned beet red and looked down at the floor.
Noah cleared his throat and smiled, "I'm sorry, Buck. Have we interrupted?"
Lou gave him a glare and elbowed the smug rider square in the ribs and was rewarded with a satisfying, 'whoof.'
"Yeah," Jimmy fought against the laughter choking off his air, "Don't let Noah get on you too much. We'll just umm... leave you two alone."
Buck was wondering when they'd all taken to smoking loco weed. "What are you talking about?"
Cody shrugged off Lou's restraining arm and sauntered over to stand nose to nose with Buck, "Really, Buck. We can all understand... you... and ... her." Cody looked over Buck's shoulder again and let out a long breath through his teeth. "If I was you I'd make he most of this moment in paradise."
Confusion lent Buck power and he shoved Cody back, harder than he thought, for the yellow-haired rider nearly knocked the rest of the group over upon impact. Full of spit and vinegar, Buck turned to the old woman to apologized and nearly fell over his own jaw.
Standing near his bunk was a Kiowan woman of exquisite beauty. She looked at him with thinly veiled amusement, her lush eyelashes dusting her cheeks with a delicate dose of mirth. "Are these your friends?"
Buck, even in his stupor, had the feeling that she knew exactly who everyone was enjoying his current state of confusion. "Yes... they are."
Cody stepped forward and with a swish his hat was pressed over his heart and her hand was gloved in his, "I am William F. Cody.... but you can call me Billy... or Cody... or whatever your heart desires!"
She raised a delicately arched brow, "I desire you to release my fingers."
Smiling like the canary that outsmarted the cat, Cody let her fingers slip from his grasp as he stepped back through the crowd and over more than a few toes.
"Don't let Cody upset you, he's like that with all the beautiful ladies." Noah bent his head over her hand and touched a chaste kiss to the back of her hand, "and while we suffer him most days, we'll make sure he leaves you alone. Noah Dixon, ma'am."
She smiled her thanks and turned to the Kid. He took her hand in a timid gesture, while sliding a glance to see Lou's reaction. "Nice to meet you ma'am, you can call me Kid."
Lou stepped forward, avoiding Kid's questioning eyes and took hold of the woman's hand, seemingly unsure of how to greet the woman. Coming to a quick decision, Lou took her hand and gave it a quick shake. A single downward motion that drew the line in the sand. "Name's Lou."
Jimmy was the last to step forward. He took a quick look to Buck's face and his _expression was nearly unreadable to most. Time and close friendship told Buck that Jimmy was watching him carefully. "James Hickok, ma'am." She showed no reaction to the name and Jimmy's countenance lifted a hair or two. "Glad to meet you."
She looked around the group second time before her gaze settled on Cody. "You."
Cody felt a lump balloon in his throat as the riders crowded around him seemed to melt into the shadows at his back. "You, who?"
A glance in the half-breed's direction found him nearly green with confusion. "William F. Cody." She intoned his name as if making a royal proclamation in a mile long courtyard.
Cody wasn't sure if he should puff up with pride or run. It wasn't until she fixed him with a steely gaze filled with sparks. The sharp look in her eyes reminded him more of some element of fire, flint striking stone, instead of something human. Faced with this strange and beautiful woman Cody was turned inside out. "Me?"
"I have known your mind before. Your humor leaves much to be desired."
"She's got you pegged, Cody."
Jimmy couldn't help but laugh at Noah's words. Cody tried to stop him with an angry look, but he failed miserably.
"I don't understand, miss. We've never met-"
"Oooh.. but we have."
"Cody?" There was a warning tone in Lou's voice, "What did you do?"
The young man, known for his glib comments and sure fire charm, began to sweat. "I have no idea." The room grew silent as the other riders stared at him with knowing looks.
"Hey, I said I don't know."
She fixed her gaze on Cody's face, "I would have a word with you."
Jimmy shook his head and leaned closer to Noah, "This can't be good."
Nodding, Noah answered ~back, "Don't we know it... with Cody it rarely is."
Cody trudged forward and waited for the crack of her palm across his cheek. For the life of him he couldn't remember her, but when a woman had that tone of voice he usually got hit. "I don't understand."
In a moment, the bunkhouse and all the people within it faded away, leaving Cody and the Kiowa woman alone in an endless desert. She stood with her legs graced apart and her hands settled on her hips. Her face was still beautiful, but her eyes held a dangerous glint. "You mock our ways."
He froze in place, his breath trapped deep within his lungs. "What?"
"What you do not believe should be left in peace." Her voice was near deafening, the voice of truth often is. "You have to make atonement."
Realization hit Cody like a 2x4, "Buck's pouch!" His eyes narrowed, "How did you-"
In an instant they were back by the water's edge, the pouch dangling from a branch. Instinctively Cody reached out to touch it but pulled his hand back when he fingers seemed too plunge into the center of a red-hot fire.
Her grin was angry and sharp. "You can not help yourself."
Cody flashed her a winning smile. "My curiosity is part of my charm."
"I do not see the humor in this."
"I didn't do no real harm, I gave it back, honest!" Talons of air grabbed Cody and lifted him from the ground. "Hey!"
She was suddenly nose to nose with him, the dirt and sand of the pathway several feet below them. "You will listen to my words or you will feel my anger... and it is ageless, Cody. Ageless."
What seemed like hours later, Cody's feet touched ground and the bunkhouse appeared around him. His friends came alive he could feel the chill of fear on his skin.
"What's wrong, Cody?" Lou's question seemed to shake around in his mind.
"You don't look good, Cody." Kid's statement hit him like a wall.
Cody shoved them away and looked for the door. "Leave me alone."
Noah backed away, "What's wrong with you?"
Grabbing onto the wall to support his weight, Cody avoided their eyes, "I've got to get some air... clear my head..." He pulled the door open and seemed to stare out at the sun, "You won't believe what I saw... hell, I don't believe it."
Cody broke into a dead run and showed no signs of stopping.
Buck moved closer to the woman. "Who are you?"
She looked at him, a sweet docile expression in her eyes. "I will tell you.. but are you ready to listen?"
Buck took another step and looked her in the eyes. "I am."
There was a smile in her eyes as looked toward the open door. "Then come with me."
Buck followed her out of the bunkhouse and around the corner of the barn. "Who are you?"
She stopped just out of reach and her long dark hair seemed to swish about her waist like swinging vines. In a long slow turn, she swept her gaze around to pin him to the ground where he stood. "You would not understand."
"Still, you underestimate him, Trickster." The voice faded into the air around them.
Buck's eyes focused on the form of his old friend, "Bob."
The older man wrinkled his eyes in a mirthful response. "I see you remember me, Buck. I am glad I have not slipped from your memory."
A nervous laugh was all Buck could manage for a moment. "Forget you? Not likely."
Bob's weather crackled skin pulled back in a wide smile, "See? I am remembered."
Her sly look was filled with an indulgent affection, "We try to forget and find it somehow impossible."
Bob nodded to Buck, "She finds me irresistible."
"The word is irritating, Old Man."
A long suffering sigh was Bob's reaction. Moving closer to Buck, he took a long look into the younger man's face. "You are confused."
"You could say that." The wry tone was the only sign that Buck was alive and breathing.
"My lovely friend was quite curious about you, Buck."
"Me?" Buck recoiled as he considered Bob's words, "Why me?"
"He may be an old man, but the love he has for the sound of his own voice is its own fountain of youth. From the time of your first meeting, he has done nothing but sing your praises. I found I could not help the strength of my curiosity."
Buck understood. It had been in his thoughts for weeks, that one name that still made his blood run cold. "Kotahete."
Her tone matched his thoughts, "I had little patience for his evil. You have shown yourself worthy-."
"I did it for Camille, not to prove myself. Not for any other reason."
Trickster eyed him with her quicksilver gaze. "Modesty is not becoming."
Bob chuckled, "Ah yes, my friend, you are the perfect example."
Her eyes shifted again, "You have a strength within you that few can lay claim to. I wish to honor you with a gift."
There was something inside of Buck that made him pause. "A gift?"
She held out her hands, both cupped and pressed against each other. There was a ripple of air that stirred around the three, a heaviness in the air that seemed to pull at their minds. A shiver of sound and a bowl was seen within her hands.
Buck peered into the bowl and saw the sheen of water filled to the brim. He stepped closer and peered in again, but nothing disturbed the skin of the water, no wind, no impurities, not even his own reflection.
"I offer you a place at the council fires of your people. Free of the tainted blood you have suffered so long. A place of honor and respect with powers beyond your imagining."
The gentle movement of her hips seemed like the soft roll of waves on a windswept pond. She moved closer, and still no movement disturbed the water. She lifted her hands and brought the cup to his lips, "Drink. Take what is offered."
His lips parted as he leaned closer. The liquid was fragrant and he could almost taste its sweetness on his tongue but he stepped back and searched for Bob's stable gaze and asked for council. "What is this?"
The older man nodded to the cup, "A chance to be whole, to shed the difference in your blood. Become one of us in body as you already are in your spirit."
Buck looked to the woman, her eyes a tempting dance of light. "All Kiowa."
"That's right." She could feel the triumph shivering through her body.
"I.... I...." A whirlwind of pictures and emotions flew through his mind. Good and bad, happy and heart rending, anger and sweet tenderness. The hell of his past, the fears of his future.. they all tore at him, but she was always there, out of reach and beckoning.
He felt incredible thirst, a raging fire inside his chest, and still she called.
"Come, be whole."
Buck's hands lifted from his side, reaching for the cup with a painful longing aching in his chest. "I... I... "
His fingers brushed the smooth outside of the bowl, felt the tremble of his hands against it, but something stopped him. "No."
"No?" The bowl slipped from her hands and splintered before it touched the ground. "You refuse?"
Her outrage was deafening.
"How could you?"
Buck looked from one to the other, a calm sage-like acceptance in his eyes. "It was the... difference in my blood that helped me fight him. The war within my heart had made me strong. I can no more give up that part of me that saved Camille then cut out the half of my hear that is white. Take out that 'imperfection' and you leave me half a man."
Bob laid a hand on her shoulder and gave her what seemed to be a comforting squeeze. "Let him go, Trickster. He is, who he was meant to be."
Bob moved beyond her shoulder and dissolved into the lightness of day.
Her eyes, dark and shifting with living light, turned to measure him again. "You would have been powerful, but somehow I sense that you have made the right choice." She began to move backwards and the light around her seemed to be wrapped her within its arms, "Pity... you would have been a most intriguing... companion." Her body slipped away into the light, leaving only the silver glint of her gaze behind. "A pity, indeed." With a wink, she was gone.