Fair is youth and void of sorrow
KAGUAT P'A SAN: LITLE BUD MOON
Buck tied his horse outside the first house he came to on the reservation, and knocked on its door to ask for directions to Songbird's home. The door opened and a young, pretty white woman in a cheap plaid cotton dress leaned in the doorway, wiping her hands on her clashing flower-patterned apron.
"Good morning ma'am. Sorry to disturb you," he said, tipping his hat.
She looked him over appreciatively and shrugged a lazy shoulder, tucking a long tendril of bright-red hair behind her ear. "Not at all," she said, a sly little smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
"I'd be obliged if I could trouble you for some directions," Buck started formally, only to be interrupted.
"Who is it, Laura?"
A balding, overweight man, sweaty despite being in just his shirtsleeves, had appeared behind Laura, and was looking with narrowed eyes at Buck and his white man's clothes. "What's your business here?" The man demanded, scratching at his armpits as he spoke.
Buck started over, or tried to. "I was just asking your daughter here, for dir-"
Buck learned in an instant that he had blundered. "She ain't my daughter. She's my wife. And I'm Indian agent here, so if you're asking questions you can direct 'em to me," the man barked.
"So you're Eben Pritchard, then," Buck said patiently. "My sister-in-law's written all about you." He paused, since none of what Songbird had written was complimentary, though now faced with the man himself, he felt his sister-in-law had understated the man's personal repulsiveness. The man was most unpleasant, and suffering from an unfortunate lack of personal hygiene and manners in general. "I'm looking for her place - Songbird, and her daughter Little Dove?"
Buck didn't react when Eben slammed the door shut in his face after abruptly giving the directions. It wasn't worth it; he wasn't here to fight, but to see Songbird and make sure that her final time on Mother Earth was as easy as possible. Looking around, Buck was shocked to see what his people had become, living on the reservation in tiny shanties. This way of life was the complete opposite of what he had grown up with. If he could, Buck would turn back time and make sure that his people would never have to go to a reservation. He made up his mind then and there, he would never turn his back on his people again, and in the future he would do anything in his power to help them.
Following the agent's directions, Buck reached a shanty set in a clearing. There was a well dug out back and a vegetable garden which was still well tended. The shanty was small and poorly constructed, but clean and looked after. A young girl of fifteen summers was hanging laundry on the line, and Buck was struck with the memories of his own mother beating their few clothes against a rock to wash them. This girl looked amazingly like his beautiful mother . . . the same slender frame, tall and graceful, the same delicate hands and flowing black hair shimmering in the sun.
"Little Dove?" he called softly. The girl turned and fixed her gaze on him, sullenly.
"Don't you remember me? I'm your uncle, Running Buck," he finally said.
She picked up another garment and pinned it to the line. "I thought you might be the new Indian agent," she said contemptuously. Her eyes flickered over Buck's clothes. "You look . . . prosperous."
"Is your mother here?" Buck asked patiently.
"Where else would she be?" Little Dove snapped, and Buck saw her turn her head quickly to hide the tears in her eyes. "Inside," she said, her jaw tight and her face averted.
"I'll talk to you later," Buck said, receiving only a brief shrug in return. vHe went into the shanty, which was sparsely furnished but scrubbed clean. "Songbird?"
"Running Buck," an old woman's voice startled him from beside the door. He turned and saw a wizened, old woman he recognized well. She was known as Grandmother to all in the tribe even when he was still living with them; she smiled sadly at him. "Thank the Great Spirit . . . you reached her in time." She got up with difficulty and patted him on the arm. "She has much to say to you . . . I will go now that you are here to do what must be done. Be gentle to her, Running Buck," she said softly.
Buck was puzzled, but simply nodded as the wise woman hobbled off, leaning heavily on her cane. He pulled back a curtain that separated a part of the room from the rest, and drew back in shock at the sight of his brother's widow lying on a bed in the corner.
He would not have recognized her; the once beautiful woman he remembered was gone, replaced by a frail, ghostly looking shadow. He met her eyes; despite the years and the dark circles from her illness, those eyes he remembered. Those eyes he had loved.
"You came," she whispered hoarsely, and the effort of speaking caused her to cough violently in a convulsive fit, and he quickly went to her side, holding a handkerchief to her mouth. He drew it away when she subsided, seeing it was covered with blood.
"I'm so sorry," he murmured, stroking her long hair. It was the other reminder of her former beauty. He remembered the first time he saw her hair unbound . . . he was fifteen and she was already his brother's wife. He had happened upon her while she bathed in the river and he would never forget the way she looked standing there, her long hair falling around her shoulders and down past her waist, the water running down in rivulets over her naked body. He had loved her for a long time . . . after his mother's death she was the only one besides his brother who was kind to him in the village. But in that moment he knew he wanted her. Of course, he had crept away unseen, but the memory of it lived in his heart for years afterwards.
"I know. I'm glad you came . . . if you hadn't, I would have to tell you in the white man's words . . . on paper . . . ask you something that should only be asked face to face."
"If it's to look after Little Dove, you know I will," he soothed her. She was exerting herself too much, he saw. "Don't worry. Of course I'll look after Red Bear's daughter."
"That's what I have to tell you," she said, her face anguished. "She's not Red Bear's daughter."
Buck sat frozen, staring at her. He remembered Grandmother's words; that Songbird had a lot to say and that he must be gentle with her.
The suffering woman was seized with another coughing fit, and Buck automatically held another cloth from beside the bed to her lips, his mind racing back sixteen summers.
He had been lost, lonely . . . the war had taken away what family he had left, and he had returned to his brother's village looking for him. Red Bear was not there, though he had been gone for six months, lost in battle. Songbird had been there in their tipi alone, and now with Red Bear gone, she was the only link to his past.
Songbird looked sorrowfully at him. "You hate me," she said dully. "I was Red Bear's wife. If I told the truth, it would have killed him. The tribe would have demanded our deaths."
"I don't hate you." There was no anger in his heart or his voice. He had suffered too many tragedies to feel anger at a human mistake, now that she was dying. There was no point in it. She had done the best she could, and she was the mother of his child. He did not doubt her word on that point part of him had always suspected the truth. "Does she know?"
The woman shook her head feebly. "No. I wanted us to tell her together."
Buck nodded, and stroked her hair again. "Don't worry. Our daughter will be taken care of. I promise you that." Songbird smiled weakly and rested her head against Buck's shoulder.
"Mother, is that true?" whispered Little Dove as she revealed herself from where she had been hiding in the shadows. Still holding the empty laundry basket, she looked from her mother to the man she had always thought of as an uncle, and back again.
Slowly and with great pain Songbird lifted her head and looked at her daughter before she nodded. When her head started to loll backwards, Buck helped her lie down. "Little Dove," he said in a soft voice as looked wonderingly at his new found daughter. "I think we need to talk things through." He knew that he was coming off as brash and inconsiderate, but they needed to get things out in the open before it was too late and before Songbird left this world and moved on to the next. "Can we go outside?"
Little Dove swallowed and her eyes narrowed. When she was a child, Buck had been one of her favorite people, but now she didn't know what to think of him. Putting her basket down in a corner, she took Buck by the collar of his shirt and dragged him outside. When they were far enough away that her mother couldn't hear them, she placed herself in front of Buck and stared him in the eye.
"Why have you come back here?" she demanded to know, though she did not wait for an answer. "You may have been Kiowa once, but you have reduced yourself to a white man." The young woman pulled lightly at her father's shirt to illustrate her point. "You know nothing of my people because whenever things got hard, you left and went back to the white people."
Buck stood silently and looked at his daughter as she yelled at him. He could have spoken up and in another setting he probably would have, but he knew that he deserved every word that he got. Little Dove's words were true. He had left his people - the Kiowa - when times had gotten too rough for him to handle. He wanted Little Bird to know that he was back and back for good, but he lacked the words.
"After leaving, who are you to come back after all this time? You're a white man and know nothing of what my people have gone through." Little Dove felt compelled to turn away because tears were rimming her eyes and she didn't want Buck to see her show weakness, but still she held her stance against Buck. "You can't just come back and pretend nothing has happened."
"I know a lot of things have happened in the time I was away," Buck spoke for the first time. "And I can't make up for that time, I think we both know that will never happen, but what I ask of you is that we at least try to get along. Not for your sake and not for mine, but for the sake of Songbird." He swallowed and looked down. "She "
"She doesn't have long," mumbled Little Dove. There hadn't been many years since she had lost the man who had been a father to her in all the ways that counted, and though she knew she couldn't show it, she dreaded the day she would be alone. In a strange way, she already knew that Buck would always be there for her without condition, but he would never be her father, that was Red Bear, and Red Bear had bravely died to protect his people. Buck had left when things got too difficult, too inconvenient for him.
No longer able to hold back her tears, her shoulders started to shake.
Buck swallowed hard. He had no idea what to do with his daughter. Slowly he took a step towards her and gathered her up into a hug. At first he was careful, not knowing how Little Dove would react to the gesture, but when the young woman rested her head on his shoulder he held her closer; silently letting her know that she was safe.
"We'll make things work," he said in a soft voice. "I'm not sure how, but we'll make things work." Buck knew that it must be difficult for her. He had been her age when his mother had died, and he decided that he would make his own way in the world. It had been a long and hard road to get to where he was today, and he hoped that his daughter would have it easier. No, he would do more than hope. He would make sure of it.
"Do you want to go back?" he asked after the sobs had subsided and Little Dove had calmed down. She pulled back from Buck and wiped at her eyes.
"Let's go back, but only for my mother." As she turned away she spoke in a voice just loud enough for Buck to hear her. "But you'll never be the man Red Bear was."
Sighing, Buck walked back to the small cabin a few feet behind Little Dove. Her words stung, mostly because they were true.
KAGUAT P'A: BUD MOON (MARCH)
Buck was washing up the next morning outside the shanty, when he saw a tall young brave striding purposefully toward the house. He stood up and dried his hands, when the muscular youth stopped in front of him and studied him a moment in silence. Buck met his gaze, noticing that the young man was dressed from head to toe in traditional Kiowa garb, unlike most of the reservation dwellers who combined white men's clothing and touches of Kiowa ornamentation. The boy had a quiver of arrows at his back, and his long black hair was cut in the Kiowa fashion, with the hair shaved off across from the lower edge of his eyes to the back of his ears.
"Is Dove here?" the young man asked a bit abruptly, and Buck frowned.
"She is, but it's a bit early to be calling on her, don't you think?"
"Who are you?" the brave demanded, scowling.
Buck's eyes went to the dagger at the young man's belt, and he kept his own hand over his own knife. "I'm Dove's father, Buck Cross," he replied evenly. "And who are you?" he asked with exaggerated patience.
"I am Pacing Wolf," the boy said, his head held high. "But Dove's father was Red Bear, the great chief; so who - -"
Buck sighed. "I guess you've missed the news," he said. "I'm Red Bear's brother and Dove's real father. Now that we've gotten that straight, can you tell me what you want with her at this hour?"
Pacing Wolf looked confused. "You say you're her father, now?"
"Well . . . then I suppose I should be speaking to you. I came to ask Dove to be my wife," Pacing Wolf said gravely. "But if you are her father I must ask for her from you, so -"
"Wife!" Buck erupted. "She's only a child!"
Pacing Wolf scowled. "Dove is no child," he said, stiffly.
Buck hung up the cloth over the pump handle and was silent a moment. "Have you spoken of this to Dove yet?" Buck finally asked.
"No, but I am sure she will accept me," Pacing Wolf said confidently.
"Well," Buck said, flabbergasted. Dove had never once mentioned a boyfriend; but that was beside the point. "Pacing Wolf, I'm sorry but the answer is no. Little Dove is much too young for marriage. If she is the right one for you, then come back in a year, or maybe two, okay?"
"She is old enough to make up her own mind," Pacing Wolf flared, but Buck shook his head.
"I am her father and I say no, not yet, no matter what she says."
The young brave glared at Buck, as Dove emerged from the house sleepily. "Pacing Wolf? What are you doing here?"
Pacing Wolf's eyes flickered to Dove, though he did not move or turn his head. "I came to take you back to my home, if you are willing. As my wife. Your mother can come with us until her time comes, of course."
"Little Dove, I won't permit it," Buck cut in. "You're too young; I'm sorry if you disagree but it's for the best."
Dove's mouth was hanging open . . . "Wife?" she echoed faintly. "Pacing Wolf, I . . . I don't . . ." she gulped, awkwardly, and glanced at Buck. "I must obey my father," she finally finished, a little lamely. "Thank you for the honor of asking me . . ."
The young man, his pride clearly stung, whirled around and stormed off furiously, the fringe on his leather clothes fluttering in the breeze. The father and daughter stood watching as he disappeared into the trees.
"He seems pretty mad," Dove said, regretfully. "He won't want to be my friend anymore, I bet." She sat down with a thud on the ground, sighing. "I could have used a friend now," she whispered.
Buck sat down beside her. "I'm not saying never, just not right now, Dove. You need time to grow up a little. If you two really love each other, it can wait."
"Love each other?" Dove said contemplatively. "I never really thought about it, to tell the truth. I was surprised when he said that." Buck studied her innocent, genuinely surprised face, and was reassured, after the shock of Pacing Wolf's proposal. Chewing her lip, she looked at him sheepishly. ". . . I'm glad you said no for me. Maybe when he cools down, we can be friends again if he thinks it's your fault," she said, brightening.
"Glad to be of help," Buck said dryly, getting up and patting his girl on the head. Time to lay in a supply of firearms, it looked like he would be beating back a stream of suitors unless he missed his guess, he thought with a mixture of pride and worry.
"What are you doing the rest of the day?" Dove asked.
"Besides running off suitors of yours?"
She smiled, embarrassed, and he laughed. "Well, since I'm back to stay, I thought I'd find something to do around here. The land isn't really suited for farming, is it?"
"I don't know I guess not," she said. "If the land were good enough for farming, the whites would have kept it for themselves. We rent some of the land for cattle grazing. Other than that, there's hunting, fishing."
"Hm, well, that will be a good start," he said, musing. "I was thinking of joining the tribal circle of elders, though."
"You?" she said dubiously.
"Well, why not? I'm an elder, aren't I?"
"You're old, all right," Little Dove conceded, and Buck smothered a smile. "But you're so so white. I don't know if you will be allowed to serve as an elder."
"It doesn't hurt to try. Your mother says there's an elder's meeting today. I want to start giving back to my people, maybe trying to help guide the tribe toward the future."
"Good luck," she said flatly. "Ever since Red Bear died, the elders have not had good leadership. The ones that are in charge now, think mainly of what they can get from the Indian agent for themselves and their families, not the pride or even the good of the tribe."
"Really? Who's the leader right now?"
"Circling Hawk," she said promptly. "He's the medicine man. He refuses to allow us to have or use the white man's medicine, but he has no problem taking the agent's bribes and kickbacks, and when the white government inspectors come here, or the missionaries, he tells them we are fine and well treated."
Buck frowned. He hoped Dove was exaggerating in this case, but he would certainly look into it. "I'll be heading in to the elders' meeting house, then," he said.
"The Indian agent always makes it a point to stop by, so you'll meet him too," Dove called after him. "Make sure they don't mistake you for him, with all those nice white man's clothes and all."
Buck chuckled in spite of her insolence, and headed off down the path to the meeting house.
As Buck entered the clearing he could feel all eyes on him. He swallowed hard and held his head high. He didn't want the others to know that he felt uncomfortable; any sign of weakness would be pounced upon.
Buck remembered Circling Hawk from the last time he had visited the Kiowa; and Circling Hawk nodded at him in recognition as well.
"What are you doing here?" Circling Hawk demanded, as he pointed at Buck.
"I am here to serve my people," Buck said in a loud, clear voice.
"You are Red Bear's half brother," Circling Hawk began listing the facts.
"Yes," said Buck, "and like him I have a right to help lead our tribe."
"Yet despite your brother's greatness, you are more white than Kiowa," the older man continued over the interruption. "You have forgotten your family's ways. You will leave again when you tire of our hardships."
"I want to help, this time. I won't turn away again, you have my word."
"He wishes to return to our people," Grandmother cut in before Circling Hawk could continue. She looked fondly at Buck. "At last, Running Buck wishes to return to his people."
"I have been in the white world for a very long time," said Buck, agreeing with Circling Hawk. "I know how to speak their tongue, I know their ways, and I wish to use that knowledge to help."
Circling Hawk was drawing in the dirt with a stick, and glanced up and narrowed his eyes. "Did you return to help or to take your brother's woman? It would not be for the first time, would it? The boy Pacing Wolf has said you claim to be Little Dove's father."
A muscle twitched in Buck's face.
"I see what your loyalty is worth, your honor, if you laid down with your brother's woman and gave her a child. Why should we put our trust in you?" Circling Hawk demanded. The other men murmured softly, those who had not heard the news exclaiming quietly over the disgrace, the shame, the humiliation of one brother by another.
Buck looked at the ground. "I was with Songbird at a time when we believed my brother was dead. When he returned, we said goodbye and were never unfaithful to his trust again."
"So you confessed your betrayal?" Circling Hawk asked, dubiously. "Your brother forgave you?"
Grandmother cut in, "This is ancient history; Running Buck was a child and thought his brother had died -"
"I'll answer that, Grandmother. No, I didn't tell him. I did what was harder; I left him and Songbird behind to rebuild their lives. I didn't know the baby she had was mine. Now that I know, my only family is here. I will never run away from that again, not so long as she lives."
The other elders conferred a moment, and Circling Hawk protested loudly, but another elder overruled him.
Standing Bear looked at Buck. "You told the truth, faced your duty. You could have walked away or hidden that truth. We think that counts for much. We will welcome you to our circle, and you will deal with the white man the agent, since you know his language and his people's ways best. Welcome, Running Buck. Welcome home."
"Thank you," said Buck, his back straightening and feeling proud. He knew that it would be a long road, but he was finally getting accepted among the Kiowa. He also gave Grandmother a small smile. She was one of the greatest women he had ever known and she was glad that she had chosen to speak up for him today.
Just as Buck finished speaking, Eben Pritchard made his appearance at the meeting. As the Indian agent for the reservation, he didn't like that they spent too much time on their own. They might plot to do something that wouldn't, in his mind, be what was best for the reservation. He spotted Buck, who had just taken his seat in the circle of elders.
"You're the one who asked for directions earlier," he said to Buck, who nodded.
Taking a deep breath, Buck knew he would have to talk to the unpleasant Indian agent about what had happened. "My name is Running Buck Cross, and I have been chosen to represent the tribe," he said clearly, getting up and approaching him with an outstretched right hand.
"Really now?" asked Eben with a smirk. "What would an outsider know about the goings on here?"
"I grew up with the Kiowa, but I've also lived in the white world for a very long time. You could say I have one foot in each side." Buck smiled slyly as he said the last part, so the Indian agent would know that Buck knew exactly what was going on, and that he wouldn't be fooled easily.
"Very well," said Eben, trying his best to maintain an air of authority. He couldn't help but feel that he was alone in a mob of savages. Buck Cross certainly wasn't an asset to the reservation.
"The first point of business today is that the school has been without a teacher for two months now, it's time that a new one was hired."
As Buck translated what Eben was saying to the other members of the tribe, they nodded doubtfully. The white teacher who had been there before, teaching matters of no use to the children, had been a disaster, and they were interested in finding out who would be brought in to teach their children.
"I have arranged for my brother Oliver to take the position. He is a well educated man, in the finest universities. The reservation would be lucky to have him come here to teach the children." Eben knew that he had to be careful in choosing his words now that Buck Cross was here and would be translating each word that came out of his mouth.
"When can we meet this brother of yours?" asked Buck. Remembering back on his own childhood, to say that he hated the white man's school was an understatement.
"He is already on his way here," stated Eben with pride.
"Well, we'll be glad to interview him then," Buck said. Eben's face darkened.
"What do you mean, interview him? I'm the one who hires the teacher. The U.S. government is paying for it, after all, not the tribe. I have final say, and he's perfectly qualified for the job."
Buck looked at him evenly. Most likely this Oliver Pritchard would be as good a candidate as any; it wouldn't be easy to get a qualified teacher here. But that was beside the point. "I understand that, Mr. Pritchard, but just the same it's our children he'll be teaching. We do have some interest in who is selected, and we will be interviewing him and checking his references."
"I'm his reference, and I say he's a fine teacher. That's all you need to know," Eben spat angrily. The elders' eyes shifted to Buck, watching.
"That's fine, Mr. Pritchard. But the interview is still necessary, and we'll let you know if we're satisfied with the proposed candidate. Thank you for your efforts."
Eben stared, and then got up and stormed out without another word.
AIDEN P'A: LEAF MOON (APRIL)
Buck stood on the mountaintop gazing at the sun rising over the horizon. The white doctor, Grandmother, and Circling Hawk all had agreed that nothing could be done for Songbird now, other than easing her pain and making her comfortable. Songbird had known it before they told her, and afterwards had begged Buck to take her up on the mountain with Little Dove to greet the Great Spirit. He had nodded, knowing that this was the last thing he would do for her in life, and had traveled up the mountainside, putting up a tipi for shelter. They had been up here two days, reminiscing about his brother and her husband, about the old tribal days, about lost chances. She had survived the night, barely, and lived to see this glorious sunrise. He turned and pushed back the flap at the entrance of the little structure to let the sunlight in for her to see.
Sitting by Songbird's bedside after greeting the early morning, with Little Dove sleeping in the corner, Buck washed Songbird's face with a cool rag, wanting to make her as comfortable as possible. Even though the consumption had ridden her body, he could still see the beauty she once was. But then again, even in her youth, her outer beauty was as nothing compared to the beauty of her spirit, still unbowed even in the shadow of death.
"This time it is you who cares for me, eh, Running Buck? Do you remember your fifteenth summer, when I took care of you?" she whispered, smiling weakly.
He blushed as hotly as ever at the memory of it. He had fallen from his horse into a thicket of prickly cacti, and she had patiently extracted the painful spines, one at a time, and then rubbed a soothing remedy into his skin as he died a thousand deaths of embarrassment partly because he hated looking a fool in front of her, partly because her smooth, sure hands rubbing over his body sent him had into an agony of suppressed teenage desire. "I'll never forget it," he answered lightly.
"I'm glad I came," he continued after a pause, as he held her hand in his. His fingers ran across her now wasted-away knuckles, and he could feel himself falling in love with her again. Buck swallowed as a voice in the back of his head reminded him that Songbird didn't have much time left and it would only cause him more pain if he gave those feelings free rein. Then again, he had been a little bit in love with her all his life, ever since he was 15 years of age. First loves, forbidden loves, lost loves, they never really go away; and she was all three to him in one. Her passing also took with her the last of his childhood memories and a piece of his soul.
"That way I got to see you again and will get to know our daughter."
Songbird nodded and gave Buck's hand a light squeeze. She didn't trust herself to speak because she was afraid to trigger another coughing fit. Even though she was fully aware that they both knew she didn't have long to live, she didn't want Buck to see her ill and weak. It was bad enough that Little Dove had to take care of her. Songbird was the widow of Red Bear, warrior chief and that made her a strong and proud woman; she couldn't show weakness.
Biting his lips, Buck forced himself not to shed tears. He needed to be strong, not just for himself, but for Songbird and Little Dove as well. In all the romances he had in his life, he never in his wildest dreams had imagined he would be a father. For a moment, closing his eyes, Buck guessed that fatherhood had never really appealed to him because he never had anyone he could call a father, until Soaring Eagle, and then only for a short time; Teaspoon had been the closest to a father he had afterwards, but by then, he was a grown man. Opening his eyes again, he looked over to the corner where a small stove stood and where Little Dove, his daughter, was preparing dinner. He finally had found a place where he would settle down and have a family, but it would be work, hard work, he knew.
Little Dove was almost a grown woman, but at the same time, Buck saw her as still a child. Sure, he had seen her the times he had been in the village; back then she was just a very little girl. He smiled at the memory of a young Little Dove pulling at her Uncle's hand for him to come play with her. Father, not Uncle, he corrected himself.
"Buck," spoke Songbird in a small voice. "I think it's time. Wake up our Little Bird, I need to say one last thing to her." She squeezed his hand extra tightly, not yet ready to leave this world. For too many years she had been away from Buck, and she had only just found him again. There were so many things she wanted to tell him, like how a thousand times and more she had seen his face in Little Dove's, or how she had longed for him all her life ever since the summer they created their daughter. Even as much as she had loved and respected her husband, Buck had never truly left her dreams or her heart. She wanted more time with him, and most of all, she wanted to make sure that Buck and Little Dove made their peace.
In the last week, Little Dove had hardly spoken a word to Buck. He had tried to engage her in conversation, but the headstrong young woman always mumbled something about chores needing to be done, or schoolwork. Now she sensed the end was near, and that death would not wait for her to undo the consequences of her choice of years ago. But there had been no other choice, not really. They had loved each other but they loved Red Bear too, and she belonged to him. No other choice had been left to her, and regrets for the past were as futile as wishing the rain would fall upwards or the lightning rise back into the clouds. The past was done, and she was part of the past. Only her daughter's future mattered now.
Buck recognized the shadow of death approaching, and nodded, sliding one arm under her frail legs, and the other under her back. She was too weak even to hold onto his neck, and her head lay against his neck. He pressed his face against hers, the tears flowing down unchecked now and mingling with hers."Songbird," he cried out in a low, strangled voice. She managed to raise a hand and tangle it in his long hair beside his face. He looked into her eyes, reading her final goodbye there, and bent to kiss her one last time, the kiss deepening and turning frantic with longing and sorrow. "Take me to the top of Brother Mountain get our little girl, please," she whispered, at last. "We can all go."
He called to Little Dove, who sat up quickly, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes like a child and staring at Buck and her mother. "Your mother wants to go to the peak of the mountain." Little Dove winced at the sight of her mother's face, and nodded as Buck picked Songbird up and carried her out of the tipi. She was light and frail as her namesake as he swung her up in his arms, and Little Dove hurried behind, her eyes never leaving her mother's face.
They walked in silence up through the towering trees to the summit of the mountain, where the sunrise was the most spectacular and the village below could be seen. Buck knelt on the buffalo skin Little Dove spread out, and laid Songbird down gently, kneeling down and supporting her head and shoulders in his arms. Songbird smiled and gestured to Little Dove to kneel beside her.
When Little Dove came, her mother raised her hand and pushed a strand of long hair behind her ear. "Buck has made a promise to take care of you. I need another promise, this one from you."
"Anything," the little girl said, tears bright in her lovely eyes, and clasping her mother's hand to her.
"Let him do it. Let him take care of you. Promise it," the woman said fervently, gazing intently into her daughter's face. The girl's eyes flickered doubtfully at Buck behind her mother, but only for a second. She could not deny her mother's last request, and she nodded, her face twisting with tears. "I love you," she whispered brokenly, and bent down, putting her arms around her mother and burying her face on her shoulder, as Songbird stroked her long hair, tumbled down her slender back.
"I love you too, my Little Dove. Always " Over her daughter's shaking shoulders, Songbird looked Buck full in the face, and mouthed the words "I love you," through her tears. He nodded, kissing her a final time and whispering the words back to her from his own heart. The little family, united if only for this moment, sat together watching the morning dawn as Songbird's tortured spirit slipped from its prison and flew free at last to the great beyond.
SUMMER AGANTI: I'LL MAKE IT HOT SOON
Nils Nilsen thought back to the time he had wanted to run away to America, shaking his head as he did realizing how stupid he had been. This was nothing like what he had thought it would be like. Looking out at the open space, Nils had a hard time believing that this was the place where Buck Cross lived; Nils wondered why anybody would want to live there. For the last several hundred miles of their exhausting journey after leaving the eastern part of the country, all he had seen was rough-hewn shanties close to falling apart. Nils thought that America would be the land of opportunity, and had half-believed in tales of streets paved with gold. He was disappointed to find that the reality was less romantic, and that compared with his family's prosperous farm back home, the settlers' lives were full of hardship and poverty, and the natives they had displaced were even worse off on the reservation.
Looking at his mother Amalie from the corner of his eye, Nils had to wonder why she had come in the first place. It would have been much better if they had just stayed in Norway. But, no, Amalie had to go find Buck. It was looking more and more like they would have been better off without him, he thought disdainfully.
"It's different from where you're from, I imagine?" said Jimmy to Amalie, trying to make her less nervous than what she looked. He had escorted her to America after she had showed up at Cody's show looking for Buck. Even though she had three children - sixteen-year-old Nils, eleven-year-old Johan, and ten-year-old Hans - he wanted to make sure that she was safe. The journey would be long, and he figured that it might be a good idea to come along. That, and it was the perfect opportunity to come back to America as well.
"It is," said Amalie. She didn't notice what her eldest son saw; the poverty and the poorly built shanties, but instead she was searching for any sign of Buck. Some of the other Kiowa had come out to see who the strange new people were, but no one approached them. When smoke could be seen billowing in measured puffs from a distant hilltop, Amalie saw that the entire village sprung to life, hurrying to get to where the smoke came from.
"What's going on?" Amalie asked in broken English, looking at the chaos in front of her.
"Smoke signals," said Jimmy. "We best follow them to see what's going on." He turned to Amalie and the boys. "But it's important that we all stay in the background and don't get in the way of whatever's going on?" Amalie quickly translated for the kids, who weren't that steady in the language yet.
The road up the hill was long and Amalie got tired fairly soon. She hated feeling like she was useless so she drew a deep breath and continued.
"Looks like a funeral," said Jimmy as they neared the top of the hill. He held the children back as they wanted to get a closer look.
Amalie drew a sharp breath as after all these months she saw Buck for the first time. The Kiowa believed in cutting their long hair as a sign of mourning, and both he and the young girl beside him had done so, Amalie saw. Tears made their way down Buck's cheeks and if it weren't for this situation, she would have called out to him, found a way to make things better. Her hand flew to her mouth as she saw the scaffolding with the deceased laying on top, a Kiowa woman who, despite the signs of illness, was peaceful and beautiful in death. Amalie craned her neck to get a better look, yet at the same time a part of her urged her not to look, because she had a sinking feeling what would happen next.
Allowing Songbird's body to greet the spirits, Buck stood close to Little Dove, remembering the promise he had made her mother. "We'll make it together," he said in a small voice as he held his arms around her shoulders. The rest of the Kiowa chanted prayers for Songbird's journey.
As the rest of the village returned home, Jimmy, Amalie and her children remained. Even though Amalie knew that this probably wasn't the right time, she had to let her presence be known.
"Buck," she said carefully, approaching him and the young girl standing next to him.
"Amalie," said Buck, surprised. This was the last person he had expected to see here. He had done his best to forget her. "You're pregnant," he said, his voice an octave higher than usual.
He looked over her body uncertainly. He was no judge of stages of pregnancy, but the fact that she had come several thousand miles across an ocean and the rough frontier left little doubt that she had become pregnant while he was in Norway with her, and that she was here to tell him so. His head swam slightly with the knowledge that as he buried one love, another was reappearing in his life; and as he gained a nearly full-grown child, another one was about to be born to him.
"You know this white woman?" Little Dove asked. Her teary, reddened eyes traveled over the strangers defiantly.
"This is Amalie Nilsen, from Norway I knew her when I was there with the Wild West Show."
"Yes. When you were a clown for the white men to gawk at. I see you found other amusements as well," Little Dove said coldly. She turned to walk away without another word, her head with the lovely hair cut short by Kiowa women's standards to just above her shoulders, fluttering unbound in the breeze.
"Little Dove," Buck called after her, but the girl turned with her lovely face hardened. "I am not Little Dove anymore. It is a child's name. I take the name Mourning Dove now for my mother."
Buck sighed, "Mourning Dove, then. Please understand. Your mother and I "
Amalie's pale skin went a shade grayer at the words. This child was Buck's daughter, and . . . what did this mean? Was the woman on the pallet his wife? Had she unwittingly slept with a married man? Was Buck unfaithful to a sick wife with her? She swayed slightly on her feet and Nils steadied her.
"Let's go, Mamma," he urged her. "You see how it is. Buck has another life here; we do not belong. He betrayed his wife with you, and then returned to her from your bed, it's obvious."
Buck whirled, and tried to speak to Amalie at the same time. "Amalie, please understand. I never knew I had a daughter here until Songbird her mother called me back here. I hadn't seen either of them in years. I wasn't being unfaithful to anyone when we when we It's not how it looks. "
Mourning Dove jerked her head contemptuously, putting in her two cents as well; she didn't want this strange woman and her strange family here any longer than necessary. "No, it's worse than it looks. He didn't know I was his daughter because my mother was married to his brother when he took her," she flung in both Buck's and Amalie's faces. "Go back to . . . to Norway, where you belong, and leave us to grieve my mother as she deserves," she said, softly but evenly, through gritted teeth and narrowed eyes.
"Mourning Dove, she is carrying my child," Buck said, firmly. "And she came all this way. I want her to stay, and I ask you to understand that. I missed your childhood, but this baby your brother or sister it can be different this time. Please don't ask me to choose."
It was on the tip of Mourning Dove's tongue to defiantly tell him to choose, then, to go back to Norway for all she cared, but the thought of being alone, for the first time, just after losing her mother, made her hesitate. The tears brimmed in the proud girl's eyes, and she glared at each of the faces in turn. "You will do as you wish, anyway, no matter what I feel about it," she muttered, and stalked away toward their home.
Amalie stepped forward, gently putting Nils' hand away from her arm. "I'm sorry to come at such a terrible time."
Buck looked at her bright blue eyes, and bowed his head slightly. Amalie tentatively drew even closer and put her arms around Buck's waist, and he broke down and clutched her closer, tears slipping into and mingling with her golden hair. "What are we going to do?" he whispered. "You need me so does she I can't leave her but you "
"Of course you can't leave her now, she needs you and you need to make things right with her. I will stay in America and we will figure things out, together," she answered.
Jimmy stepped forward. "Nearest white settlement is a good distance off, Buck." He nodded a greeting to his friend, who nodded back, too overwhelmed by the day's events to register any further surprise that Jimmy was there. His friend continued, "It's good day's ride by wagon, a town by the name'a Willow Bluff. We got off the stage there and rode here in a wagon I rented. I signed on as sheriff there before we started off for the reservation." He coughed slightly, feeling awkward. "I could take the Nilsens back there, get 'em a couple of rooms, keep an eye out for 'em if you'd like "
"You'll stay here for at least a few days, won't you?" Buck asked, desperately. "I wish . . ." He paused. Looking at her, he ventured it. "I wish you would move here to live with the baby, so I can teach it our ways so we can raise it together."
"Teach it your ways," Nils cut in. "These ways?" he said, gesturing around him at the desperately poor shanties. "The baby is more white than Indian, and will be fine with Mamma and my brothers and me to show him the proper way a man should earn a living and work a farm " he looked around contemptuously. "There is nothing to learn here. We should go to this Willow Bluff I can find work, maybe a farm, and take care of us fine."
"Nils," Amalie admonished, but the boy turned his face away. "And I still say you are better off without him," he added, motioning with his head toward Buck.
"The baby needs a father, Nils, and we will stay here with Buck," Amalie said firmly. She squeezed Buck's hand. "You will see, it will work fine, as long as we all try our best."
Jimmy raised his eyebrows as he looked first at the rapidly disappearing form of Mourning Dove in the distance, and the hardened, furious look on Nils' face in turn. Buck was going from being a confirmed bachelor to the father of five, two of them angry adolescents, and he didn't envy him the months ahead as they tried to forge a family. "Good luck, old friend," he muttered.
Buck drew a deep breath, now more than ever feeling torn between Amalie and Mourning Dove. He had two families from vastly different worlds, and he had to choose between them, as it was impossible to have both. That was the problem, though, he couldn't choose; he had promised Songbird that he would look after Mourning Dove, and he wanted to do that. But he had made that promise before he knew about Amalie and the child she carried.
"Go after her and sort things out," said Amalie, taking a step towards Buck and placing one hand on his shoulder to offer him support in his time of need. "Right now, your daughter is the one you have to take care of. The rest of us can manage."
"Are you sure?" asked Buck, slightly confused by Amalie's words.
"Of course," said Amalie as she stroked his arm. "It will work out in the end, I'm sure of it." Beside her Nils snorted, but for the moment she chose to ignore him. He would come around as well. He just needed time to adjust to the new situation.
"Thank you," smiled Buck and resisted the urge to kiss her. This was not the right time to show affection towards her -they had just offered Songbird's body to the spirits and with Nils standing there, he didn't want to make things even more complicated. Taking another deep breath, Buck hurried after Mourning Dove. He didn't know her well, but he still had a pretty good idea of where she might go.
Going on a hunch, Buck followed Mourning Dove to a place by the river where a big weeping willow stood. When he had played with Dove as a child she had always loved the water so it only made sense that this was where she would go. It was a beautiful place, Buck thought as he pulled the branches of the weeping willow away to reveal Mourning Dove. When he saw her, her back leaned against the trunk of the mighty tree, hiding her head in her hands and her knees drawn up to under her chin, he felt guilty. Buck had promised Songbird that he would take care of their daughter and he was already failing.
"Is it alright if I come in?" he asked in a soft voice.
Mourning Dove looked up, wiping her tears away with the sleeve of her dress. "Do I have any choice in the matter?"
Buck nodded. "If you don't want me to be here " He let the sentence hang and swallowed. The words came out all wrong, yet at the same time he couldn't help it. He had always been hopeless when it came to dealing with the more serious parts of life and helping others when they felt like life wasn't going in the right direction.
Momentarily looking away, Mourning Dove swallowed hard. Had she heard him right? Was he really saying that he'd move away if she didn't want him to stay? If it was, she could only take it as a sign that he was offering some kind of truce. But then again, when had the truce of a white man ever been honored? Suddenly she realized that she had been holding her breath and she took a few seconds just concentrate on breathing.
"You can come in," she finally said. That, of course, didn't mean that she would have to talk to him.
"Mourning Dove," said Buck as he sat down next to her. Her new name still sounded strange coming from his lips. Closing his eyes, he hoped that she would find her way back and come to terms with the situation as it was - and take her old name back. "I'm sorry about the way things are."
"Then why did you sleep with her?" The intensity in her eyes could be seen even through the sheen of tears.
"It felt right at the moment, I guess." Buck didn't have a better answer, not to mention the fact that he felt strange talking to Mourning Dove about these things. They were grown up matters and Buck had only known that Mourning Dove was his daughter for a couple of days, so in his mind she was still a child - the young girl he had played games with so many years ago. To see Mourning Dove as almost an adult just seemed strange in his way of seeing the world.
"Just because it felt right doesn't mean that it is," retorted Mourning Dove. As she spoke her back straightened and some of her old sense of pride came back to her.
"You're right about that," Buck admitted, proud of his daughter and her sense of maturity. Swallowing hard, he knew that the difficult questions and decisions were yet to come. "Mourning Dove, can I ask you a favor?"
"Depends on what the favor is," said Mourning Dove as the feeling that her father was about to ask something of her that she wasn't willing to give him.
"Would you be willing to try to get to know Amalie? I'm not asking you to like her or anything like that," he hurried to say before Mourning Dove could refuse. "What I'm trying to say is that in a couple of months her baby will be born and I want that baby to have the best start in life that's possible."
Silently, Mourning Dove cursed her father. Why did he have to bring up the new baby? It wasn't fair! She had just found her father and wasn't ready to share him. As for Amalie Nilsen, whoever she was, she had no reason to get to know her; she had the best mother anyone could ever have and she was nearly a woman herself now. There was no reason she could see to get to know her father's new woman even if, as Mourning Dove doubted, Amalie cared to.
"Are you going to marry her?" she asked, her eyes narrowing.
"Not sure about that yet," said Buck with a weak smile. "I'm as new to this situation as you are."
"But she carries your child. Perhaps a son; and in their world a bastard child he would be scorned. You are going to marry her, am I right?" Mourning Dove persisted, making Buck sigh.
"Honestly, I don't know."
Mourning Dove lost interest in the topic, turning her back on her father and leaning her face against the bark of the tree. "I miss my mother," she sobbed.
"I know," said Buck as he wrapped his arms around her and held her close, slowly rocking her back and forth. "I miss her too."
A young song sparrow floated on the spring breezes that rippled the willow branches around the grieving pair, testing her wings and feeling the warm sun on her back. She dropped gracefully onto a branch and sat pensively, her bright black eyes seeming to watch the scene below before something startled her, and she fluttered away.
They had been sitting like that for hours, father holding daughter close, rocking her back and forth like he would a young child. As darkness was starting to fall, Buck realized that Mourning Dove had fallen asleep in his arms. Sighing, Buck knew that the two of them would have a long road ahead; a road that would be filled with obstacles. With careful motions he lifted her and carried her back to the small shanty Buck now called home.
Looking at the small shanty, Buck started to wonder about not only his own future, but also the future of his daughter, Amalie, her boys and the unborn child that he and Amalie created during a now far-away, carefree afternoon spent on the couch in a small house in Norway.
"She's sleeping," Buck whispered to Amalie, the only one who was awake, as he carefully laid his daughter down on a sleeping-mat and covered her with a hide. Even though it was a troubled sleep, it would do her good. Buck felt that the young woman, in many ways was still a child. Maybe it was because he had missed out on so much of her childhood that he was looking to make up for lost time.
Watching the gentleness in which Buck cared for his newfound daughter, Amalie felt lucky that she had found a man such as Buck. Still, knowing that they had to talk, Amalie motioned for Buck to follow her outside.
"How is she?" she asked, her voice in a lower registrar so no one would be awakened by the two adults speaking.
Buck took a deep breath to gather strength as he looked at Amalie. She was so much the woman he remembered from his trip to Norway with Cody's show. "She misses her mother," he said, leaning against the wall. "I remember what that's like. Though there is a difference between the two of us. She has people who are there for her, always. I missed so much of her life, I want to make up for it in a way."
Amalie smiled and reached up to stroke his cheek. "She is lucky to have you in her life. You're a good man and any young woman is lucky to have you as her father."
Smiling, Buck covered her hand with his own, enveloping it. "Thank you." Then he looked down. "Mourning Dove and I talked. She wanted to know if we're getting married."
Amalie looked down as well, knowing that the topic would come up, sooner or later. "Do you want to get married?" she asked.
"This is a difficult situation," Buck started, not sure where to continue. "For all my life I've been thinking that Mourning Dove is my niece only to find out that she's my daughter. Then you come and " Buck stopped for a moment as he was searching for the right words.
"I know it was at a bad time," said Amalie, looking down at the ground.
"That wasn't what I meant. I'm trying to do what's best for everyone, though right now I'm not sure what that thing is," Buck said, exasperated. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that." He shook his head. Not having had time to process all that had happened to him in the last few days, he was confused to say the least. "What I'm trying to say is that I want what's best for you and the baby." Buck remembered Mourning Dove's words that a bastard child would be scorned. That was what had happened to him and he didn't want that to happen to his child. "What I'm trying to say is, we haven't known each other for a long time, but it would still be a great honor if you would do me the honor of becoming my wife."
Amalie had been quiet during Buck's small speech. There had been several moments where she had wanted to intervene and to make things easier for him, but she also knew that it would be the best for Buck if he was allowed to say what he needed to say in the order that he felt the most comfortable with. Amalie looked down and touched her ever growing stomach. The child needed a father and when push came to shove, wasn't that the actual reason why she had taken her children and left her home to search for Buck.
"I'd be honored, also," she said with a shy smile.
Remembering his time in Norway getting to know Amalie, Buck leaned in to give her a chaste kiss.
Getting up after a sleepless night, Nils looked around the small shanty with distaste. It was clean, but where on earth were all of them supposed to sleep? Especially if they weren't leaving any time soon. His eyes wandered over the five figures huddled on the floor under animal skins his mother sleeping alongside Buck, the two of them holding hands over his mother's swollen stomach. His two brothers on either side of him in the corner. And he glanced over at Buck's daughter, who called herself Mourning Dove. She and Buck must have come in after he and his brothers had fallen asleep, exhausted after the long journey. Six people crammed into one room; it would be seven when the new baby came. If, God forbid, he and his family were still there. He shuddered at the thought.
No, it was out of the question for all of them to sleep in this one-room structure for more than a few nights.
He got up quietly and went to the hook on the wall where he had hung his shirt and slid into it, buttoning it up and turning to see Mourning Dove glaring at him. He nodded briefly. He knew she had just lost her mother and no doubt was horrified to have the lot of them there, especially his ridiculous mother who had traveled around the world to chase Buck here. He could hardly imagine how the girl felt, and she was not his enemy in this situation, even if she hated him.
Mourning Dove looked surprised at Nils' casual nod, and sat watching him as he went to the corner to start a fire in the small cook stove. She leapt up and padded over to him indignantly.
"What do you think you're doing?" she hissed.
"Starting a fire for breakfast. I always do."
Mourning Dove crossed her arms over her chest. "Maybe in your house. This is my house. Not my father's. Mine."
"I'm very impressed," Nils said dismissively. "May I please start a fire, then?"
"I can do it, I'm used to it. If you want to make yourself useful, then how about cutting a little more wood and fetching some water from the stream?" Mourning Dove said, irritably, taking a pail off the wall and handing it to him.
He snatched the pail from her and started toward the door. Pausing at the threshold, he turned slightly.
"What now?" Mourning Dove snapped.
"I'm sorry about your mother," he mumbled. "Sorry about coming in here like this . . ."
Mourning Dove shrugged. "You'll be a temporary nuisance, if I have anything to say about it."
"That makes two of us," Nils snarled, irritated again. He banged the door rudely on his way out. Stalking to the woodpile, he picked up the axe that had been left there and placed a log on the chopping block. He was a talented carpenter, having studied under his own father's teacher back in Norway, and he knew what he would be doing today. Building. Raising the axe above his head to swing, he started calculating in his head how many logs he would need to build a three or four room cabin a decent distance from the shanty, to live in with his brothers and hopefully his mother until she came to her senses and he convinced her to leave this hell hole. He wasn't going to stay in that house another minute longer than he could help.
Mourning Dove was beginning to re-braid her hair for the day when she heard crashing noises outside. Suspicious, she stepped to the window in her nightgown and looked out; her mouth dropped open at the sight that met her. That mongrel has no right. Stomping outside, her unbraided hair swirling around her face in the breeze, she reached around Nils and snatched the axe from his hands with a fierce jerk. When he turned to protest, instead of putting it down, she raised it overhead, wild-eyed, and shrieked, "You have no right to chop down those trees! This is my property!" she screamed.
Nils backed up hastily, taken aback by the fire in the girl's beautiful eyes, the snarl on her soft lips. As he stared dumbly at her a moment, she rattled the axe and shouted, "Why are you doing this? You don't live here. I do and my father does. You don't and never will, if the spirits are willing."
Taken aback by Morning Dove's sudden and wild appearance, not to mention her threatening him with the very same axe that he had been holding just moments ago, Nils took a few more steps backwards and held his hands up in front of him in a protective gesture. "I don't mean to impose on you," he said in a calm voice; well, as calm as he could manage. "Did you see how your father and my mother are sleeping? I don't think we're just going to be a temporary nuisance, unless they are separated. That's all I'm trying to do; don't you agree that is something we both want?"
Mourning Dove hesitated, worrying her lower lip with her teeth, and Nils stole an admiring look at her in spite of himself. They were staring one another down when a loud voice cut through the brief silence.
"What's going on?" Buck asked in a loud, booming voice on seeing Mourning Dove holding Nils at axe-point.
"He's chopping down the trees," said Mourning Dove to her father, not taking her eyes off of Nils. "He had no right."
"Nils," said Buck, calming some. "Go inside and help your mother, I'll deal with this." Glad for an excuse to get away from the crazy, if pretty, girl with the axe, Nils hurried inside.
"Mourning Dove," said Buck, his voice back to its usual softness. With determined, yet slow motions he took the axe away from his daughter.
"I don't want them to stay!" Mourning Dove screamed, pounding her fists at her father's chest. Buck, new to the role of fatherhood, had no idea what to do to calm his daughter. Holding her close, he thought it best to allow her to be angry. She had every right to be. Taking a deep breath, Buck struggled to find the best way to tell her about what had transpired between him and Amalie after Mourning Dove had fallen asleep.
"You know I didn't plan for things to happen this way," he started, moving her hand up and down her back, trying to subdue her tears. "I'm sorry that neither of us have more time to adjust - to get to know one another." He swallowed. "I regret spending most of my life not knowing you - I don't want that to happen to the new baby."
"I'm just not ready to share," a teary Mourning Dove mumbled into her father's shoulder. "I've just getting to know you."
Buck bit his lip and nodded. "Life doesn't always work out the way we want it. I'm afraid you'll have to share me, but that doesn't mean that we can have some special time together, just the two of us."
Mourning Dove thought about what her father was saying. He was right, she would have to share him. And if she forced a choice, she would not even have that much, as he of course would go with his white woman and new baby, rather than stay here with a grown-up daughter, she thought . . . or worse yet, if he stayed and sent the Nilsens away, then he would blame her always for losing Amalie and their baby. No . . . this was not the way. The white woman had to be the one to decide it. And maybe the young man was right, there were other ways, stealthier ways to fight this new family from taking over my mother's home, my father's attention. She flung the axe down and scowled more deeply at Buck. "I'll hold you to that," she said, swallowing her pride and stalking past her father toward the house.
As Mourning Dove came into the house, Nils came out, not wanting to be in the same house as the crazy girl with the axe. A small smile appeared on Buck's lips, hoping that the two children would eventually learn to get along.
"Nils," he said to the young man, making him stop. Buck motioned for him to follow to where Nils had been chopping down trees earlier. "What are you doing, Nils?"
"I'm getting ready to build us a house. I felled these trees from out back," he gestured, "and set up skids to roll them here. They're almost ready . . . if you'll help me, I could get it done faster than just me and my brothers."
Buck stared, dumbstruck, at the young man. "You did all this yourself?"
"Yes. What of it?"
The older man sipped coffee from a cup and appraised the sweaty, red-faced young man a moment. "Nothing. Your family is very . . . determined when you set your minds to something." He was thinking of Amalie coming all this way, and agreeing to live on a reservation, and he meant it as a compliment, but Nils' face darkened.
"What's that supposed to mean?" he said, stepping forward. The young Norwegian was little more than a child at sixteen, but he was muscled and strapping from hard work, and his eyes flashed dangerously. Buck raised a hand and waved the boy to a stop.
"I meant exactly what I said. You all don't let obstacles get in your way, that's all. I respect that."
"If you had any self-respect you'd have built a decent house for your daughter by now anyway," Nils muttered.
Buck bit back a retort, and reproved Nils as gently as he could manage. "Okay, that'll be enough of that. On another topic, I don't recall you asking Mourning Dove for permission to build on her property. Or to cut down her trees either."
Nils hesitated. "You can't seriously expect us all to cram into that tiny shack," he protested.
Buck sighed in unwilling agreement. "That's a fact . . . if Mourning Dove agrees, though, I'll help you add on to her house, so she can have her own room, you boys can have a room, and . . ."
Nils flung down his axe and looked darkly at Buck, daring him to say where Amalie would sleep and with whom. Buck chose his words carefully, realizing how many people and how many different viewpoints he had to consider in his newly complicated household. "Well, we'll have enough rooms for everybody, that's all. I'll talk to her. And a little advice- -"
"I don't remember asking for any," Nils sneered.
Buck chuckled. "I'll give you some anyway. Get a shirt on and come in for the midday. You're already burnt to a crisp as it is, if you stay out in the noonday sun you'll probably get sick." He turned to return to the house as a frustrated Nils followed behind him, buttoning up his shirt with a wince as the fabric came to rest on his already scorched flesh.
"Little Dove?" Buck called as he entered the little shack. His daughter was at the stove, stirring a rabbit stew while gazing out the window sadly. At hearing her name, she stiffened and refused to turn around.
Buck sighed. "Mourning Dove?"
The girl turned promptly and sent a stony glare at her father and Nils.
"Nils has something to propose to you."
Setting her chin at a haughty angle, she shrugged and looked at Nils insolently.
"I was going to suggest that I build another house down by the copse of trees near the river, if you don't object. My brothers and mother and I could live there, for now."
Mourning Dove nodded. "Certainly. That seems most reasonable. I give my consent," she said as she imagined a queen would grant a boon to a supplicant.
Buck sighed, and glanced over at Amalie, who was about to protest, but kept silent at Buck's nod.
Nils nodded back, and Mourning Dove took a carved wooden bowl from a shelf above the stove, ladled some stew into it, and jammed the bowl into his hands. "Eat," she commanded, taking two more bowls down and shoving them at Nils' two hungry-looking younger brothers. They were standing respectfully as she spooned stew into their bowls, and as the children busied themselves readying the noon meal, Buck gestured to Amalie to join him outside.
"I had hoped you and I would live together under one roof when we welcomed our baby," Amalie murmured. "But I see that perhaps it is best to wait until the children are ready."
"One step at a time; hopefully before long they will accept us being together and we can all move into the new house then. I'll only be a few yards away, and we can have our meals together and maybe even . . . I could visit you at night, after the children are asleep," Buck said, smiling at her. He felt a longing to be close to Amalie . . . her vibrancy and life and sweetness a balm on his aching spirit after watching his beloved Songbird suffer and die so horribly. He felt less lonely and lost when he was holding Amalie. She reached up and stroked his face gently, understanding without words as they always did with one another.
Over the next week, Buck had to continue to admire Nils' determination and, what was more, his skill as a workman and carpenter. The apprenticeship in Norway had been complete in all but name, and Nils had intended to take over as the local carpenter there someday, before his mother insisted on coming to America after her baby's father. He used his considerable skills well and quickly, and Buck was impressed as a well-built house, not a mere shanty, efficiently rose up under Nils' able hands. Nils reluctantly accepted Buck's help for the heavier tasks his brothers were too small to accomplish, and worked from dawn to dusk every day.
The boy came into the house only to sleep and eat, and to bicker incessantly with Dove. The fact that English was a second language for both of them was no impediment to their sharp-tongued, sarcastic mockery of one another and the other's parent at every opportunity. Both Amalie and Buck were wearied by the clamoring, obnoxious voices of the sullen and sarcastic children, and secretly realized that separate houses for their warring offspring was essential for any type of peace in the struggling family.
On moving day, Dove rose before dawn, packed all the Nilsens' belongings in their luggage, and cooked a large breakfast. When the sun peeked through the windows of the shanty, she clanged two iron pots together loudly to wake the others.
As they sat up, startled and gasping, she grinned grimly. "Time for breakfast, lie-abeds," she announced, pointing at the small table. "It's moving day, thank the Great Spirit," she finished, flinging the two pans into the sink with a crash that made the others, still half-asleep, wince. "The sooner you all eat, the sooner you can move into your fancy new house."
Nils stood up and stretched. "Thanks," he said sarcastically. "I cannot wait to get out of this . . . I am sorry, I do not know the English for what this place is called . . . not a house . . . but like a shed, perhaps?" he said, gesturing mockingly around the small shanty.
Buck's lips tightened as Dove put her hands on her hips and scowled at Nils, who took a piece of bread and started calmly making a sandwich out of some of the eggs Dove had cooked. "Just eat and get out," Dove growled, and Amalie quickly got up and started washing the dirty pan for Dove.
"Let me help," Amalie started, but Dove cut her off.
"No. Feed the children and yourself, please, don't waste time with that." She took the pan from Amalie's hand and pointed to the table. Amalie bit her lip and went to sit down, looking sadly at Dove's stiff back as the girl scrubbed the pan.
"Amalie was just trying to help," Buck started, and Dove slammed the pan down and stormed out without another word.
"How rude," Nils commented. "In Norway, no one would treat a guest in that way. Oh well, I will go now. I will see you at the house, Mamma." He picked up the luggage, balancing it, and jerked his head for Johan to get the door. The younger boy ran to open the door for his brother and then returned to the table.
As Nils got closer to the new house, he saw a slender form emerging from the house. Dove approached silently and took Johan's carpet bag from the top of the pile Nils was carrying.
"Thanks. So . . . how do you like the house?"
"It looks all right," Dove allowed.
"It'll be yours once we get them broken up," Nils said. "Yours and your father's."
Dove shrugged. "We'll see . . . I like the house I lived in with my mother. We still have work to do to make them see."
"I think it is going very well. We have them in separate houses now," Nils pointed out, placing the bags inside the door. "That's something, at least."
"And I'd be willing to wager your lovely mamma will not enjoy life on the reservation much, and will be more than glad to go back where you all came from, before too long," Dove said.
Nils sighed. He knew his mother better; she was plenty stubborn when she set her mind to something. But for very different reasons - - he, to get away from this strange and forbidding reservation life, and Dove to protect her mother's memory - - they had made this truce to make sure it wasn't any easier on their parents than it had to be. Spotting the rest of the family coming through the clearing, he winked at Dove and suddenly shouted for the benefit of those approaching, "And you can rot in hell for all I care!" He stormed to the door and pointed out of it as if ordering her out of the house.
"Same to you, you stuck-up thing!" Dove shrieked, though there was a smile playing around her lips. She shoved past the boy and slammed the door in Nils' face violently. Fixing a frown in place, she flashed past the Nilsens and her father with a swirl of blue calico.
"Just a moment," Amalie called. Dove kept walking, but Buck firmly added his voice to Amalie's.
"Mourning Dove, Amalie asked you to wait. We need to talk."
Nils emerged from the house, about to show his mother around, and hesitated when he saw Dove stiffly standing with arms crossed over her chest, waiting for Amalie's words.
"I found out from Grandmother that Eben Pritchard's brother arrived on the reservation a few days ago. School will be back in session now, thanks to your father. I imagine you took a break for . . . well, to care for your mother in her last days," Amalie said gently. "But it's been a while now since she died. I'd be glad to take over the cooking while you and the boys are in school. Perhaps you could walk with them and show them where the school is."
"School?" Nils blurted, and Dove looked uncomfortable.
"I haven't been to school in over a year," she mumbled. "It had nothing to do with my mother's illness."
"Really?" Buck said, frowning; he had assumed Dove had dropped out of school to take care of her mother and hadn't realized she had quit permanently. "But why?"
Nils noticed that Dove's eyes were wider and more varied in color than most of the members of the reservation, with greenish and gold flecks against a dark brown, nearly black background. They clouded now. "I am a woman, fifteen years old. I do not need school," she said evasively.
Buck shook his head. "That's what you think. You're going to school and getting an education."
"What for?" Dove spluttered. "What earthly use is your white man's schooling to a Kiowa, especially a woman? I don't want to go. Mother said I didn't have to."
"Why did she say that?" Buck asked. Gazing at her troubled eyes, he suddenly thought he understood. "The teacher . . . what's she like? Was she . . . unkind?"
Dove looked suddenly at the ground. "The one that was there when I left was like all the others. She hated us for being what we are, tried to make us be something else." She glared upwards, defiant. "And those of us who would not be broken, were beaten."
Amalie said quietly, "Mr. Pritchard said he brought in his brother Oliver to take the position. He is very well qualified, and went to a fine university in Massachusetts. Why not give him a chance?"
"He won't be any different," Dove said sulkily. Seeing her father's frown, she shrugged. "Fine. I'll take the boys to school and see how this new teacher is."
"Not me, you won't," Nils interrupted. "I am sixteen years old, a grown man. I have a trade; I do not need any Indian school. I planned to ride in to town and see about getting some work, and visit Jimmy while I'm there." Nils had taken a strong liking to Jimmy during the long voyage from Norway to Oklahoma; Jimmy had helped immensely with the boys' English and impressed them with his skill with a gun. Nils hadn't thought that much of Willow Bluff, but that was before he saw the rest of the reservation and realized what it would mean to live there, a white boy among the Kiowa, to go to school here . . .. No, it was madness for his mother to condemn all of them to this life, and he shook his head defiantly. "I want to go to Willow Bluff right away," he repeated. "It is time I got some work, and I asked around here. There is nothing for me to do on this reservation."
"You need to learn English better, and to continue your education as well. There is no rush for you to go to work, and I insist," Amalie commanded, with a tone that Nils knew well enough meant business. "You may visit Jimmy at the sheriff's office in town over the weekend, and invite him back to the house for dinner if you like. But come Monday, you and your brothers will be in school."
Nils and Dove exchanged exasperated looks behind their parents' backs, both realizing that Buck and Amalie intended to make this transition permanent, and that school was only a part of the changes that would be forced on them. As Buck guided Amalie up the steps to the house, Nils murmured from the side of his mouth to Dove, "We should meet tonight after they go to bed, and figure out what to do next, yes? I will meet you at the pond at midnight."
Dove nodded slightly, and set off at a light, graceful run through the trees toward her old house, savouring her freedom while she could . . .
That evening, Buck sat outside and watched the sun set, many thoughts running through his head. Mainly he thought about what Mourning Dove had told him about school. It brought back many memories from his own time at the Mission School.
"Father, it's late," Mourning Dove stood in the doorway, looking at him with her arms crossed over her chest.
"I know," Buck smiled as he turned towards her. His daughter had turned out well. Red Bear and Songbird had done a great job in raising her - there were so many aspects of her life that he had missed out on. "Will you come sit with me for a moment?"
Giving a small smile, Mourning Dove gathered her skirts and sat down next to Buck.
"There's one thing we have in common," he said after a few moments of silence. "Neither of us likes school much."
"You went to the white man's school?" asked Mourning Dove.
"Yes, after I left the village. What you told me about the teacher there, reminded me of what I thought about the teachers at the school I went to."
"So I don't have to go to school?" Her voice was full of hope.
Buck laughed. "You still have to go. What I wanted to tell you is that I see you doing a lot of great things for your people. Red Bear once told me that he did not what to see his people live on a reservation begging for food, but at the same time he knew that this war couldn't be won." He looked around himself. Red Bear's prediction had come true. "The way I see it, the only thing we could do now, is to play their game, and to do that, we need an education to understand how their mind work. Does that make sense?"
Mourning Dove thought about that for a long time, her brow furrowed and her eyes narrowed. "Our warriors would be better than theirs if we did not have to beg for food."
"That is true; I used to be one of those warriors." Buck smiled and pushed a greying lock of hair behind his ear. "But unfortunately I'm getting old."
"Not too old to get a strange woman pregnant." She looked at him with a wry grin.
Buck took a deep breath, trying his best not to get angry. "What Amalie and I did or didn't do is between the two of us."
"I think it's more about what you shouldn't have done," smirked Mourning Dove as she rose to her feet. Buck followed suit and held her arms so she couldn't escape him.
"Nice try, but you can't change the subject quite that easy, young lady." She flashed an angry, pouting look at him, but was silent. He continued, "Don't you see why a white man's education is important to our people? Yes, we are on a reservation and yes, we are begging for food. That's why we have to learn their ways; play their game. A white man's education is important because we have to know what's in the treaties that we sign. We have to make sure that they're being upheld in the way that they're intending. The white man isn't going to go back across the sea. Every day more and more of them come. I've been across the sea and there are more white people there than I can count."
"You probably didn't count them because you were too busy sleeping with them," Mourning Dove challenged him, still trying to deflect the conversation from school onto Buck's past mistakes.
"Mourning Dove, please don't be like that. The amount of white people coming to our land is why we have to learn to live together, yet at the same time we have to be leaders of our people. You could be one of those leaders. With your strong will," he smiled in spite of himself at Dove's stubborn glare, "You really could help your people. If you open your mind to knowledge, no matter where it comes from."
He released her and she started to stomp out. "Oh, and Dove?" he called after her. "There's another reason you're going to school."
"What's that?" she muttered sullenly.
"Because I'm your father and I said so."
Amalie was approaching as she caught the last words and Mourning Dove flounced by her wordlessly. "Because I said so?" Amalie chuckled, slipping her arms around Buck's neck. When he grinned sheepishly down into her sparkling eyes, she laughed outright. "Congratulations. You're really a father now."
For some reason, Buck thought that the small shanty he shared with Mourning Dove was too quiet. He had become used to the constant bickering between Nils and Mourning Dove. Not to mention holding Amalie's hand at night.
It was night now, and Buck felt alone. Sleeping on the floor, he felt cold. Mourning Dove was sleeping in her bed, snugly tucked in an animal hide. Standing he pulled the jacket closer around him, Buck silently closed the door behind him. The road down to the newly built house was short, and he slipped into the doorway and upstairs silently, on feet like a panther's.
"Hi Amalie," he smiled as he pulled off his shirt and lay down next to her. He had managed to sneak into the house without waking the children. Cupping her cheek, he placed a light kiss on her lips. "I've missed you."
"I missed you, too," smiled Amalie, happy that Buck had kept his promise that he would visit with her.
"How's the baby?" asked Buck worriedly, moving a hand over her stomach.
"Which one? Yours or mine?" she said, a hint of a smile in her voice.
"I meant the new one . . . ours," Buck chuckled.
"It's hard to tell with so many acting like babies around here," she sighed.
"They're acting like teenagers. Which I guess is the same thing," he acknowledged. "I'm willing to tough it out if you are," he said, snuggling down and spooning himself against her back.
"With you on my side, I can tough anything out," she whispered, clasping her hands over his.
Dove sat upright suddenly when a tapping came to the window of her small house. Groggily looking around her, she saw the dawn was just breaking, and her father was not in his bed across the room. The tapping became more insistent and she looked up, finally realizing Nils was outside. She gestured to him to come in, and he disappeared around the front of the building.
Opening the door, she asked him, grumpily, "What is it at this hour of the morning?"
"It's not that early," Nils scoffed. "I'm going to Willow Bluff today. You're in charge of the campaign here until I get back. Good luck."
Dove yawned. "To Willow Bluff? What for? Your mother said you can't get a job there, you have to go to school here on the reservation. Or are you going to run off and get a job anyway?"
"That's part of it; I'd like to see if there's a carpenter I could do some odd work for on the weekends. But also, I want to go see Jimmy, invite him back here for dinner like Mamma said I could."
She set her hands on her hips. "Why are you wasting time with looking for jobs, and with dinner invitations?" She pointed at the empty pallet on the floor. "Can't you see this is getting serious?"
"You're telling me nothing I don't already know," he groused. "I'll only be gone for the day."
Jimmy smiled as he looked out at the main street of Willow Bluff. He wasn't too sure as to how he had wound up as Sheriff, but he liked the job plenty and intended to keep it. Willow Bluff was a quiet town and there weren't much going on, which suited him just fine. His job was mainly to oversee things and be there just in case something should happen. Most people were nervous about the Indian reservation being so close.
Jimmy leaned back against the wall, putting his hand behind his head contentedly. The Indian reservation was actually a big part of the reason he wanted to stay on in Willow Bluff in particular. Buck Cross was a good friend of his who was going through a rough patch. Shaking his head, Jimmy counted himself lucky he was not in Buck's shoes; learning that the girl he thought was his niece was actually his daughter, learning of a baby on the way, and trying to build a family where the two oldest children were bound against it. He'd avoided becoming a family man himself, and he couldn't imagine putting up with that kind of warfare in his own home. He wondered, too, what it would be like for Buck living on the reservation, when he'd been in the white world so long. He expected to see a lot of Buck, since he'd offered him the position as part-time deputy, to cover the office on the off-shifts Jimmy couldn't cover. Jimmy didn't doubt that peacekeeping would be easier in town than in the home for Buck.
Jimmy pulled his hat back a little so he could get a better overview of the main street. As it turned out, being sheriff in this town wasn't as much of a challenge as he was used to in his line of work The most excitement he'd had so far was last night; Clyde Fisher had a little bit too much to drink and started getting loud. Jimmy simply retrieved him from the bordello's bodyguards and tipped his hat to the madam, who had smiled back graciously as he escorted Clyde to the sheriff's office. Letting him sleep it off in the town's single jail cell seemed to do the trick. If not, Mrs. Fisher coming to pick up in the morning certainly would be punishment enough for anybody. Jimmy had a hard time not laughing at the situation as the petite woman more or less herded the big brute out of his office, harping at him all the way home. Clyde's drinking problem seemed a little more understandable, after getting an earful of his wife.
That morning, the owner of the saloon, Miss Raven, came to visit with Jimmy. Jimmy hadn't had the chance to get a good look at her, as she was rarely seen outside her establishment and had been standing half in shadows when he had paid her a call the night before. When he saw her in daylight, Jimmy had a hard time not picking his jaw off of the floor. Standing a little taller than average, she had bright blue eyes that startled under her luxuriant dark hair. Simply put, the woman was gorgeous and had a smile that could break even the hardest of hearts.
"Good morning Sheriff . . . " Miss Raven smiled up at him.
"James B. Hickok, ma'am, but most folks call me Jimmy."
"I've been meaning to make your acquaintance for a while now . . . Jimmy. I'm Miss Catherine Raven, the owner of the Raven's Nest over yonder. I'd like to thank you for helping out with poor Mr. Fisher last night."
"He'll be the one needin' help this morning." At her curious look, Jimmy explained with a wave of his gloved hand, "Mrs. Fisher came to collect 'im this morning." Miss Raven smiled at the thought of Mrs. Fisher teaching her husband a lesson or two about staying out too late. It would be a few weeks before he'd be back to visit Stella at the cat house, she reckoned.
But for now, Miss Raven was distracted from that business matter. This Sheriff was well worth getting to know, she mused; he was something that ironically she didn't run across much in her profession: a real man. The air crackled with energy between them, as he looked her over admiringly and she openly returned that admiration. He motioned for Miss Raven to sit down. She gathered up the train of her long bustled gown, and took a seat across from his desk. He sank down in his own chair and smiled affably at her.
"How're you finding Willow Bluff, Jimmy?" she asked easily. From her experience, talking with men as easy . . . usually just ask 'em about themselves and a lady would get the reputation of being a good conversationalist. But for once, she was interested in the answer.
He shrugged, watching her. "I've tended wilder towns."
"So I've heard tell," she said matter-of-factly. A grin broke across his face as they chuckled together, the ice broken, when the door opened and a young blond man stood in the doorway. "Jimmy?" Nils asked, removing his hat at the sight of the woman.
"Afternoon, Nils," Jimmy said. "This here is my friend Nils Nilsen, Miss Raven." The beautiful woman nodded and smiled at Nils, as she straightened her lace gloves. Jimmy turned back to Nils. "What brings you to town?"
"I see you're busy now, so I'll run along. But I hope you'll drop in to my place sometime soon. I'll be sure to take good care of you . . . personally," Miss Raven said, a hint of a smile playing around her mouth.
"That sounds like a distinct pleasure, ma'am. My shift tonight ends at seven, that ain't too early for you, is it?"
"Not at all . . . sounds perfect. I'll see you at the Raven's Nest, then."
Nils' face fell; he had been hoping to bring Jimmy to dinner tonight. Seeing the beautiful, flashy-looking woman who walked with swaying hips out the door, he felt a bit foolish . . . his mother, with her three children and one on the way, was nothing like that, and could hardly compete especially right now. But then again, Miss Raven didn't seem like the type to settle down. Maybe in time, Jimmy would see Amalie as a potential wife. It didn't hurt to invite him out to the house.
"How are things out at the reservation, Nils?"
"Fine, fine. I built a house for Mamma and the rest of us. It's all done," Nils said proudly.
"That was fast," Jimmy acknowledged, impressed.
"Yes. I'm in town to look around for some work . . . and to invite you back for dinner."
Jimmy folded his hands across his chest and leaned back in his chair. "Well, tonight's not so good for me, Nils. I'm workin' tonight and . . ." he glanced out the window at the rustling bustle that was making a bewitching path across the street. ". . . I expect to be occupied later. Could we make it tomorrow night, maybe?"
"Tomorrow sounds fine," Nils said, relieved.
"For now, since yer here, how about takin' a little walk and seein' if we can find you a little work. Buck and yer ma are okay with you working, then?"
Nils pressed his lips together, and Jimmy glanced over at him as he shut the sheriff's office door. "Did I say something wrong?"
"No. But Buck has no say in what I do," Nils explained. "He's not my father or even my stepfather, and I don't expect he ever will be." Flushing, he continued, "But mamma prefers I not take a full-time job just yet. I am looking for something part-time."
"Oh," Jimmy said. "Y'know, maybe it'd be a good idea to post a few bills around town letting folks know you're available for odd jobs. Weekend work, that kinda thing. Let's get a little chow at the boarding house first."
As they walked amiably along, Jimmy cleared his throat. "I know Buck's not yer pa, Nils. But you could do a sight worse 'n him for a stepfather. Trust me, I know. Buck's a good man, and your ma loves him."
"Love," Nils said dismissively. "They are old people, both of them. What is love to them at their age. It's ridiculous."
Jimmy sighed and slapped Nils on the back. "Well, let this old geezer treat you to a little lunch, son, and we'll leave that question for another day."
"Have a good first day of school, children," Amalie called as Nils, Johan, Hans, and Dove all trudged off toward the reservation school with Buck solemnly following to be sure no one defected from the line.
"Do you have to come along too?" Dove asked irritably.
"If I want to make sure you get there, yes. And I'd like to meet the teacher. I was in town working with Jimmy when the elders interviewed him." Buck was irritated that the interview had been conducted when he was in town working his second job as a deputy sheriff, and he was going to put in a personal appearance with this new teacher who came on the Indian agent's recommendation, especially after what Dove had said about the last one.
Nils and Dove exchanged a look but said nothing. The younger children were more amenable to school, running on ahead as the older two lagged and stalled, but soon enough the schoolhouse loomed ahead. A tall young man with a medium build and a sensitive, intelligent-looking face was reaching for the rope to ring the bell mounted on a wooden post in the yard, and the pealing tones rang out loudly. Buck nodded and extended a hand. "You must be Mr. Pritchard?"
"That's right," the man said shyly. Buck noticed that the other man's grip was soft as they shook hands. "And who might these fine-looking children be?"
"My daughter Mourning Dove Cross; and Nils, Johan and Hans Nilsen. Their mother recently moved to the reservation and all four will be attending school here."
"My," Pritchard said, his brows above his pale blue eyes coming together worriedly. "Of course, all the students are welcome, but I'm afraid the school is so very crowded already."
Before Nils and Dove could finish the sentences that were forming eagerly, the man smiled and clasped his smooth-skinned, white hands together. "But the more the merrier, I'm sure. We'll find room, somehow, someway."
"That's great, Mr. Pritchard. I hear you've come from a fine university back East. What made you want to come to teach here on the reservation?"
The young man flicked at a piece of lint that had found its way on to his immaculate, fashionable suit jacket. "Well, my brother Eben wrote and told me of the great need for teachers here. A good teacher goes where he is needed most, I believe."
"What's the curriculum you have planned?" Buck persisted.
"Oh, I hope to impart my love of the classics, of science and mathematics, to the children. And history, of course," Pritchard said amiably if a little dreamily. "You're welcome to stay and observe if you like."
Seeing Dove's warning look, Buck shook his head. "No, no, I'd love to some other time, but I'd best be going." He gave a goodbye kiss to Dove's cheek and whispered, "Be good, now. See you at home after school."
He was about to turn and walk away when he saw Laura Pritchard, the Indian agent's wife, lingering by the schoolhouse gate. He opened the gate for the flame-haired young woman and let her through, and she bridled and grinned up at him as she passed. She was swinging a lunch pail and swaying her hips as she approached the teacher, and Buck watched, dispassionately, as she smiled and looked up at the tall young man through a veil of fluttering eyelashes. When Oliver took the pail from her outstretched hand, their hands brushed a little too long, Buck noticed, before he shrugged and started off towards home. He had to get into Willow Bluff, Jimmy was taking the day off and it was his first day on the job covering for him.
The children finished filing into the school, and Mr. Pritchard frowned a little, wondering what on earth was to be done. The children were two to a desk already in the tiny schoolhouse. He headed into the schoolroom and looked around. "Stephen and Bartholomew," he said sharply. The two little boys, whose parents called them Standing Bear and Little Coyote looked up dutifully from their shared textbook. "You may sit on the floor to make room for our younger two new students." He was about to tap an older boy on the shoulder to move him to the floor for Nils, when Nils' face darkened.
"We are the new students. No one need move for us. You sit on the floor and I will sit here," he told his brothers, as he sat in the window sill.
Mr. Pritchard shrugged. "As you wish." Turning toward Mourning Dove, he appraised her slowly, looking her up and down as she stared back defiantly. "Your name in school will be Margaret," he pronounced. Her eyes flashed with anger, and Nils braced himself for the explosion. "My name is Mourning Dove," she said deliberately, enunciating each syllable, and the other children cringed visibly. Nils glanced at Pritchard, whose face was flushed with anger, but who looked back at Nils with an odd expression.
"If you prefer," he said off-handedly, and the other children looked puzzled but remained silent. Mourning Dove took a seat in the windowsill on the wall opposite Nils'. The young man nodded approvingly at the girl as Pritchard turned his back and began writing a list of spelling words on the board, and Dove grinned back, with a flashing smile so brilliant that it took Nils' breath away briefly before he shook his head and directed his eyes to the teacher.