Synopsis: This is the first in a series of stories involving Buck and Nikki. The series is called Forever and For Always.

On a “special run” from the army, Buck and Cody find themselves in the middle of a battle for the secret information they are carrying. With no way to escape their captors, Cody agrees to a risky venture in exchange for Buck’s life. Things seem hopeless, when a young saloon girl tries to come to Buck’s rescue. Will she save his life, or put the Express in even greater danger?

Chapter One

"He's coming around" someone hollered.

Buck's head was throbbing, and when he tried to move his arms, he found they were tied behind his back. Trying to remember what had happened and where he was, he thought back to this morning when Teaspoon had sent Cody and himself on this special run. Thinking of Cody, he wondered what had become of him. The only good thing about the situation, it seemed, was that he didn’t have to listen to his friend’s constant babbling. Buck was willing to swear that his friend sometimes sounded like a neurotic parrot that’d had too much coffee. Coughing up some blood he returned his thoughts to this morning and what had happened to get him into this current situation. He remembered leaving the station with Cody, and wishing that the blond rider would quit talking for just a minute. They rode into town, stopped for a bite, and…

What? Buck thought. He recalled finishing their meal, leaving the restaurant, and heading towards the bank to pick up the parcel Teaspoon said would be waiting for them. He was trying hard to remember who it was that handed Cody the package, he had recalled the words "Not trusting no damn Injun with this............."Buck's throbbing head was making it hard for him to concentrate.

As he tried to remember what had happened after the bank, Buck heard a moan somewhere next to him. He tried to move his head so he could see who was making the sound, but it hurt too much.

He took a deep breath and then closed his eyes so his captors would think he was still out cold. After a couple of minutes, the man standing over him was convinced that Buck was still out of commission, and walked away. Ignoring the pain that shot through his head as he moved, Buck shifted positions, and saw Cody just a few feet away.

Just as his were, Cody's hands were bound behind his back, and if Buck's face looked anything like Cody's, it meant they both took one heck of a beating. Buck heard a door open in another room, and could hear voices.

"Did you find the map on them?" a woman's voice asked.

"Didn't find nothin’,” a man answered. "But they know somethin'. I'm sure of it."

"So we gonna get rid of 'em or what?" A second male voice asked the question.

"Not yet. Let's just sit tight awhile."

Buck didn't recognize any of the voices. He fought through the pain in his head and once more tried to remember what had brought them here.

They'd left the bank with the package and many warnings to be very careful with its contents. As soon as they'd gotten out of town, they met a couple of surly looking men heading into town, but the two men had said nothing to them. Riding farther on, he remembered, there was a wagon tipped over on its side, and he and Cody stopped to see if everyone was alright. He thought he remembered a woman and..............

"I tell you, it was the girl, she done took the map" one of the men spat. "You know, the pretty blond they was takin' with 'em." He walked over to where Buck lay and nudged the Indian in his side.

Buck managed to stop the moan that tried to escape and once more convince the man he was still unconscious. When he felt the man move away from him, he risked opening his eyes once again to try and see if Cody was awake.

He was pleased and alarmed when he saw Cody's eyes staring back at him. There was nothing left of the usual mischievous spark. Buck was saddened.

“Lookie here, the Injun’s alive and kicking.” Buck heard a voice say. He didn’t reply or made any indignation that he had heard the man. Slowly his eyes closed again.

Suddenly Buck was yanked to a sitting position. The blow to his face was too hard for him to contain his pain any longer, the movement causing him to cough and moan. When the man pulled his head back by his hair, Buck tried to glare through the pain and nausea he was feeling.

"I knowed you was playin possum boy, ain't no Injun ever been able to put one over on me yet." The man bent down to where his face was close to Buck's, and Buck could smell whiskey on his breath.

"Now...we can play nice if you want. Just tell us what we wanna know."

"I don't know what you want." Buck spoke through gritted teeth and a swollen lip.

"Tell us where she hid the map, or your friend here's gonna have one hell of headache." The other man kicked Cody in the back, and he grunted in pain.

Buck tried to think through the haze of pain that he was feeling. He had to come up with an answer to buy some time.

Chapter Two

Suddenly, things started coming back to Buck. He now remembered where the girl these people had been talking about came into the picture. He and Cody had picked up the package at the bank, and about six miles out of town they met up with a regiment of soldiers. They were then ordered to escort Captain Moore's daughter to Fort Henry, as the regiment had other plans, and could not continue to protect her. Buck and Cody tried to protest, but were told they would be punished if they didn't follow orders.

"Maybe your blond friend here would be more apt to tell us something.........maybe, he cares more about you than you do him." The big man continued his taunting. " 'Sides I'd rather torture me an Injun than a pretty white boy any day, but I'll do whatever it takes to get what I want."

"Quit messing around, we have things to do." The woman had stepped into the room.

The man let go of Buck's hair, and Buck shook his head slightly to try and clear away the cobwebs that kept filling his brain. He once again thought back to earlier...

They had reluctantly stayed and helped the girl right her wagon, get all her belongings back on it, and escorted her to the fort and her waiting Father. Upon their arrival, Cody was summoned unceremoniously to the Captain's quarters. When he returned, with a solemn look on his face he whispered to Buck.

"That's the last favor I do for this man, that mule Samson has better manners than he does." Cody's small smirk was interrupted by the Captain's right hand man.

"You can't spend the night here, it's imperative you get this parcel to St. Louis, where Colonel Marvin Billings will relieve you of it." While he said this, the man was looking at Buck with distaste written on his face.

They had been escorted from the fort right after that. As they left, Buck remembered seeing the Captain’s daughter. She was a very pretty girl, with a great sadness in her eyes.

"Hey handsome," The woman who had entered the room approached him now. "Penny for you thoughts."

She had coal black hair, and reminded Buck of one of those women that run whorehouses.

The woman looked him over and shook her head. "I shouldn't have left these two in here with you; that was a mistake. You're much too pretty. Wouldn't want to leave any scars."

"What do you want?" Buck spat.

The woman simply ran her hand down his cheek, tenderly touching the bruises she found there. "I'd like to be able to nurse you and your friend back to health," she said. "In order for me to do that I need your help; you were to deliver a small package to St. Louis I believe. Where is it?"

"I don't remember." Buck lied. Cody had put it in his saddlebags.

"Playing hard to get isn't a good idea." the woman smiled.

"Your two friends searched everything didn't they? If they didn't find it, then I don't know where it is."

The woman's lips curved into a surly grin. "I thought you were smarter than that," she snarled. "I'm going to let you ponder your options, and I suggest you're quick about it. I don't have the patience for games." She turned and left the room.

Buck closed his eyes wondering how he would get him and Cody out, when a soft moan was heard from his friend. Buck opened his eyes and saw Cody beginning to stir. When Cody opened his eyes, he looked at Buck.

"Boy, you look like hell." He moaned more as he tried to force a smile to his split lips.

"Yeah, well you don't look as pretty as you used to either" Buck tried to grin at Cody, just thankful he was alive, and, okay yeah, thankful, he was trying to talk at least.

"What about Nikki, did she get away?" Cody asked genuine concern in his eyes.

Once more Buck turned his confused mind back to the happenings of earlier - was it still the same day? How long had he and Cody been here? Who exactly was Nikki? Was she the girl the others had mentioned?

Finally he replied, "I'm not sure, but I think so. They want that package that you put in your saddlebag. I know they searched everything..."

"She took it with her..." Cody closed his eyes and rested his head on the hard floor. "Man...I think I'm gonna be sick."

Buck looked at his friend with concern. "Just take a deep breath, that'll make it better." For once Cody listened.

"What was in the package? Did she tell you?"

"She just said...if it got into the wrong hands people would pay with their lives."

Chapter Three

"Do you know where she would have gone?" Buck asked Cody quietly, looking towards the door to make sure no one was coming.

"Me........? How would I know? Except for telling me, us... don't you remember her?" Cody eyed Buck. "She was probably more comfortable talking to you than she was to me. I think she liked me, and was afraid to show it." He smiled, but started to cough. He needed water.

"Hey" Buck yelled, although it hurt. “He needs something to drink." He opened his mouth to holler again, when one of the men came through the door, anger on his face.

"You got something to tell us?" he asked.

Buck remained silent for a few seconds. "My friend needs water," he repeated.

The man stared at Cody and scowled. "He can have some water as soon as you tell us what we want to know," he stated.

"Give the boy some water." The dark-haired woman had entered the room. She leaned against the doorframe as the man reluctantly complied. When Cody had finished she turned to him.

"Maybe you have a better memory than your Indian friend," she said lightly. "Where exactly did you put the package you were given?"

Cody looked at her a while before saying, "I put it in my saddlebag. If it wasn't there, I don't have any idea what happened to it. Maybe one of your friends here decided to branch out on his own."

She placed a firm kick to Cody’s abdomen.

Buck knew that Cody shouldn’t try and put words into her mouth or theorize. But Cody was always one to speak his mind. Feeling the need to throw up Buck swallowed hard. Looking at what used to be his stomach contents. The woman took a step back from the mess and turned from Cody to Buck. "I hope you realize that isn't going to get cleaned up until I get what I want."

Buck took a deep breath and replied, "He did put it in his saddlebag; if it's not there one of them took it."

The woman suddenly took a gun out of the pocket of her skirt and, avoiding the mess on the floor, held the gun to Cody's head.

"Are you sure about that?"

Buck held his breath, wondering what she would do next.

"That package isn't worth his life." she pointed out

Buck looked her dead in the eye and repeated, "He was handed the package and told to take it to St. Louis. He put it in his saddlebag, and we started on our way. I never saw the stupid thing again."

He looked at Cody and noticed a bit of fear flickering in his eyes. Buck continued, "The man who gave it to him didn't like either of us. Especially me." He paused for emphasis. "We don't have any information to give you."

The woman cocked the gun, but Buck didn't flinch.

"And if you kill one of us, you'll never know if I'm telling the truth."

Buck held his breath and to him it took an eternity before the woman removed the gun from Cody's head and released the trigger. She seemed to contemplate Buck's words for a moment.

Cody let out a soft sigh and closed his eyes, only too aware of how close he had been death.

"You're lying," she said. "None of my men would do anything like that." But there was a hesitation in her voice, and she must have realized it too. She stared at the boys as if she with her eyes could determine if they were lying or not. Finally she decided on Cody and leaned next to him.

"You," she said coldly, "are going to find the girl - and don't tell me you don't know what I'm talking about. If you fail - your friend here is going to die - slowly."

Cody just stared at the woman. "You want me to do what?" he finally asked.

"I want you to go find the girl and bring her here," the woman said. She moved away from Cody over to where Buck was tied. "If you don't, your friend here is going to be very sorry." She slowly raised her gun and started to bring it down on the back of Buck's head.

"Stop!" Cody yelled. "I'll do it!"

The woman brought the gun down and smiled. "Good answer."

"She ain't just gonna come with me like that. Her father didn't want nothin' to do with us...you think he's just gonna hand her over?"

"You look pretty creative...I'm sure you'll figure something out."

The woman unbound Cody and gave a straight message of no funny business. With one last look at Buck Cody followed after the woman. He didn’t feel really creative right now, but for the sake of his friend he had to come up with something.

Buck moved painfully away from the door and the mess on the floor. He wished he could remember more of what had happened to bring them here. He still couldn't remember the girl - Nikki, was it? He collapsed back to the floor with a moan as offered a prayer for Cody's safe return.

Chapter Four

He once more tried to remember the events that had led up to their desperate situation. Cody had said the girl had seemed more comfortable around him than around Cody. What if she had told him something? Something important...or worse...something that Cody would need? But all his efforts rendered him was a headache. He had never felt so helpless and afraid. Why can't I remember what happen after we left the fort to finish the trip to St. Louis? Why can't I remember talking to Nikki?

Buck tried to make himself comfortable, but it was no use. There just wasn't a way to position himself that wasn't painful.

He wondered where Cody was, and prayed that his friend was still alive. For all Buck knew, they might have already killed Cody. Even if they hadn't, the chances of him getting back into the fort and seeing Nikki were slim to none.

Never before had Buck wished so much for the support of the other riders. It seemed that, together, they could overcome almost any obstacle. But, alone, tied up in this dark, dank room, he could do nothing but worry.

He decided to do his best to not worry. In order to do that he had to occupy his mind with something other than Cody and what might happen to him. So, Buck took a deep breath - and closed his eyes. He listened to the world around him. Outside his 'prison', he realized there were other activities going on. He could hear music playing along with voices, of men mostly, and suddenly felt as though he was close to a saloon, or be in one. There was the sound of wagons being driven and people bustling around, almost like back in town. He was being kept prisoner, out in the open, in some town, somewhere, but where? He felt sick as he wondered to himself about the woman, and what she looked like she did for a living.

Buck drew a shuddering breath and closed his eyes. He was beginning to feel desperate, but he knew he had to stay calm.

Just then someone unlocked the door. Buck turned to see a young girl standing in the doorway. The heavy makeup she wore made her look older, but Buck guessed she was about 16.

Eyeing him suspiciously, the girl stepped inside the room.

"Here," she held out a cup of water.

Buck turned his head away from the glass. “Who are you?” he asked weakly. He was getting dizzy and he was pretty sure that he had a concussion.

“I’m Nikki, remember.” She had a sweet voice. Again she put the glass to his lips and he drank warily. “Cody...where...” Buck stopped speaking, and took a deep breath. "Cody found you already?" he finally managed to ask.

Nikki shook her head. "I couldn't get to him before he rode off," she said. "If I had tried anything to get his attention, the others would have realized I was..." she stopped speaking and moved away when she heard movement.

"What's goin' on in here?" one of the men from earlier barked at her as he opened the door.

"I was just giving him something to drink." she explained, her eyes downcast.

"Well you ain't gotta talk to him while you do it. Hurry up."

Just as the man started to close the door, Nikki spoke again.

"Can't we clean up the mess in here? It smells awful."

The man shot Buck a look of distain, then glanced at the girl. "You wanna do it, go ahead. He can drown in it for all I care."

"I'll be right back," Nikki whispered as she followed the man out into the hallway.

Buck was remembering the girl, not the one he just saw, but the one he and Cody had escorted back to the Fort. Could this be the same one? He was trying to remember her eyes...

"I don't like takin' orders from any girl, specially a new one." Buck heard the man grumbling as he pushed open the door. Buck noticed he had a mop and bucket with him.

The 'girl', Nikki, was following him, and following close behind her, was the woman with the dark hair and very mature features.

"Just clean up the mess Benton, then I want you to stand outside while our new girl, Bambi, right?" she looked the small young blonde woman over, making sure the sparse outfit she wore, was accommodating for the task at hand, "shows our Indian friend we're not totally bad. At least he can enjoy part of his stay, until his friend returns, if he returns." She smiled wickedly at Buck.

The woman moved closer to Buck. She once more ran her hand down his cheek. "I guess we'll have to move you in order for Bambi to be able to entertain you properly," she whispered.

Buck felt the gun pressing into his ribs. "I'm going to untie you," the lady said, "if you try anything funny, I won't hesitate to shoot. Understand?"

Buck nodded.

He was soon lying on the bed with his arms tied above his head to the headboard. "Enjoy," the lady said with a wicked grin as she and Benton left the room.

Buck was beginning to panic. He had a sickening feeling of what was to happen next, and to be quite frankly, Buck didn’t want that to happen; at least not under these circumstances. Frantically he began to search for a possible way of off this snag. He couldn’t get his hands free; the ropes were much too tight. 'Bambi', or so the woman had called her, leaned over him, and he could smell the scent of lavender water on her body. It smelled very sweet, and had this been any place else, he may have thought about enjoying what was going to happen next. Instead, he felt very helpless and vulnerable. She leaned her mouth down towards his, then suddenly moved to his ear and whispered.

"I'm going to cut you loose, but you will have to play along with me, so we can take care of Benton. The knife, I will lay under your right shoulder; if I remember right, you are left handed." This last sentence was said close to his mouth and their lips brushed slightly.

"Nikki...." Buck's voice was hoarse as he remembered. Nikki 'shushed' him with her finger to his lip, as she began to cut free his hands.

When his hands were free, Buck moved to where he was sitting on the edge of the bed. He rubbed his wrists to try and get the feeling back in his hands. Nikki sat next to him. "How long do you think it will take before Cody comes back?" she asked him.

Buck shrugged. "Depends on how easy it will be to get the captain's daughter back here."

Nikki's brow knotted in confusion. "Why would she come here?"

"Because she has the..." Buck stopped, and he felt his stomach drop to his feet.

"She doesn't have the package." Nikki whispered. "I do."

"Or, at least I did." She stated. "I am Captain Moore's daughter, remember? Cody is not going to find her.... I mean me, there, and he'll end up in another big mess of trouble."

"What kind of trouble, what are you talking about?" Buck looked at her confused, but suddenly many things were coming into focus.

"My father will think that you two have done something to me, as I left soon after you did. I followed you for awhile, I needed that parcel. I couldn't let it get into his hands, not anybody's hands. You snuck up behind me and...."she stopped speaking and pushed Buck down on the bed, kissing him.

Chapter Five

The door opened, and Benton snickered as he looked in, not even noticing Buck wasn't in the position they had left him in.

Benton quickly closed the door in disgust, muttering to himself. Why the boss would allow a no good Indian to sample her merchandise was beyond him, but she was the boss and he had no reason questioning her decision. But sooner or later she would get tired of the young half-blood and Benton couldn't wait to get his hands on the young man. He would teach him his place once and for all.

In the room, Nikki slowly moved her lips from Buck's. She smiled apologetically at him, but Buck was hardly aware of it. The soft touch of her lips on his bruised ones had been tender and caring.

"Sorry bout that." her soft voice said shyly. A faint blush appeared on her cheeks where the make-up hadn't been applied.

As she lowered her eyes, Buck replied, "I'm not. Just sorry it didn't last longer." He touched her cheek to get her to look at him. "I realize this isn't the right place, and definitely not good timing, but, it was a nice kiss." He smiled at her, not even thinking about the injuries his face had sustained earlier. She smiled back, and leaned toward him again.

Suddenly, Nikki stood quickly, afraid that she might forget what she had come here for.

"We need to find a way to get you out of here, some kind of plan so you can get to Cody before he attempts to enter the Fort. No matter what, you need to leave this place." She really emphasized this last sentence.

Hearing voices in the hallway just on the other side of the door, Buck saw her eyes fill with fear. He reached for her. Pulling her into an embrace, he eased her down on the bed and covered her body with his. He expected the door to open at any minute.

Nikki held him tightly, and when the voices continued on down the hall, Buck sat up slightly. "I think they're gone." he said. At that moment, the door swung open.

"You been runnin' your mouth ain't you!" Benton screamed at Nikki.

She stared at him, and Buck could see that she had no idea what he was talking about.

"What do you mean?" she asked in a quivering voice.

"Somebody's askin' about that Injun. Wants to know if I seen any around here."

Nikki composed herself a little. Still, in a shaky voice she answered the angry man, "I don't know what you're talking about. I only met Buck today...." her eyes widened as she realized she had said his name. Trying to cover her mistake, she added." Loretta won't let me leave the building until I've proven to her how useful I can be, and how much money I can bring in." She lowered her eyes, hoping she had covered well.

"How do you know his name?" Benton grabbed her by the arm, and drew his pistol on Buck. "Did you know him somewhere else?"

Nikki looked petrified, not necessarily for herself, but for Buck as well.

"I told her my name" Buck spoke up. Grinning at Benton, he added, "I thought it was ironic that if this was going to be Bambi's first time, then she should at least know she was in the good company of a Buck." Smirking at the man whose gun was aimed at his head, Buck wasn't ready for the fury he invoked.

"You should have better manners, half-breed" Benton snarled, as he brought the pistol across Buck's head. Buck was fighting to keep from passing out. The last thing he heard was Benton threatening Nikki.

"Miss Loretta's gonna have a fun time with you, especially when she finds out you untied the Injun."

Jimmy stood at the end of the bar, nursing his whiskey. Not his favorite drink, but this didn't look like the kind of place where you could get away with ordering a sarsaparilla.

His inquires had come up with nothing, but he just had a feeling. Something wasn't right. Still, he couldn't stay long, with Noah waiting outside. With a sigh, Jimmy downed his drink, and, taking one last look around, started for the door.

That's when he heard the scream.

"Take your hands off me!" Nikki yelled as loud as she could. Hopefully someone would come to her rescue and she could lead them to the room where Buck lay - possibly dying.

Jimmy tracked the sound to the room where the man had been standing guard - "protecting the client's privacy" is what he'd called it. Without hesitation Jimmy pulled his gun, pointing it at Benton.

"Let the girl go." He had seen the way the man was severely squeezing the young woman's arm. The big man never even flinched.

"Or what?" He challenged Jimmy. "You gonna shoot me, when I ain't got a gun, all for this little tramp?"

"You have a gun........."Nikki started to say, till Benton twisted her arm harder. She swallowed hard, trying not to sob.

"Maybe, if I have to, now let her go." Jimmy was trying to be patient, but this man was really pushing it.

"Is there a problem here, Cowboy?" The woman who spoke to Jimmy was quite a bit older than the young girl, and was obviously the "Boss Lady" who ran things. With her small derringer pressed next to Jimmy's head she said, "Why don't we all just put our toys away, and see if we can straighten out whatever the problem is." Looking angrily at Bambi/Nikki, she continued, "I'm sure we can work something out. After all, it's probably just a small misunderstanding."

Jimmy hesitated. There was something seriously wrong here and he was reluctant to put down his gun. However, with the woman's derringer aimed at his head, he didn't have much choice. Trying to ignore the desperate plea in the girl's eyes, he shrugged at put his gun away.

"I heard a scream," he said nonchalant.

"A ladies' man," Miss Loretta said with a smile as the derringer disappeared as swiftly as it had reappeared. "Well, I can assure you that there is no problem here. Why don't you let the house buy you another drink, Mr...?" She easily slipped her arm in his. Before Jimmy could answer, Nikki decided this was her one and only chance and ignorant of the hard grip around her arm she lounged forward. Benton lost the grip and Nikki ended up in Jimmy's arms.

"They killed him," she whispered. "A Pony Express rider..."

Chapter Six

That was all she had time to whisper before Benton grabbed her again and started to haul her back into the room they had just exited.

"She sure is friendly," Jimmy drawled, smiling at the older woman beside him

"New girl," Miss Loretta explained with a smile that made Jimmy cringe.

"Well uh.... if she ain't busy -?" Jimmy gave the woman a grin hoping that a little charm might work.

"As a matter of fact," the lady replied, "she's supposed to be entertaining a very important client. That's why Benton there was standing outside the room; to make sure they weren't interrupted."

Jimmy continued to grin. "I think maybe your client didn't like her," he said. "I, on the other hand..." he let the sentence drop and scanned the room before him. His smiled broadened when he saw Noah at the corner of the bar.

"You look like the type that could use one of my more experienced girls," Loretta motioned to one of the other girls to come over.

Jimmy needed to talk to the girl that was taken into the room real bad. "Actually, I like my girls on the 'learnin' side, if ya know what I mean, and that young filly, well, she looked like she could use a lot of learnin'." He nodded to Noah, and turned to look at Loretta as he spoke to her. "I got lots of cash, so money's no object."

Loretta felt quite safe, with the fact that Buck was being taken care of, but she sure didn't want to lose out on making a profit either.

"Let me go see how things are?" she said. "I may be able to persuade Bambi's client to reschedule." She smiled at Jimmy; went to the room, knocked, and without waiting for an answer, entered.

Nikki stood by the bed looking at Buck, who lay face down, not moving. She was trying desperately not to cry.

"Looks like you got yourself a paying customer little girl." Loretta smirked at her.

"You killed him...” she whispered in a tear-filled voice.

Benton snickered. "You know what they say...the only good Indian is...."

"Shut up both of you." She took Nikki by the arm and pulled her toward the door. "Get a smile on your face and do your job. And you," she turned to Benton, "come with me."

"What about him?" Benton jerked his thumb in Buck's direction.

"Tie him up just in case she's wrong and you didn't kill him," Loretta snapped. "Make sure the bonds are snug; might even want to be sure he'll be uncomfortable." She smiled a devilish smile. "I want him to appreciate my attentions when I get around to him."

She quickly helped Nikki freshen her face, and then took her outside to where Jimmy was waiting.

"Here darling, she's all yours." To Nikki she added, "You take real good care of this gentleman, or you know what will happen." She pushed Nikki into Jimmy, and told her to take him to the first room up the stairs on the right. "That's the next best room we have, after this one." she coyly added.

Jimmy took Nikki by the arm and urged her to start up the stairs. She seemed very reluctant, and when they reached the room, Jimmy leaned forward, brushing against her, as he opened the door. Once inside the room, Nikki began to shake, and tears rolled down her cheeks.

"I'm sorry, I can't do this; I'm not really one of these girls. Please, don't make me go through with this." she was begging Jimmy.

"Shh," Jimmy put his finger on her quivering lips." I don't have any intention of making you fulfill your duty. You mentioned something earlier about a Pony Express rider. I need to know who he is, and what you know about him. Also, if there was another rider with him."

Nikki looked up at Jimmy and was only partly reassured by his words. She wondered if she could really trust him.

"I won't hurt you. I promise. I'm just worried about my friends."

"His name is Buck. He and the other rider, Cody, stopped to help us when our wagon was overturned. They took me on to the fort and..."

"Where is he now? Where's Buck?" Jimmy interrupted her.

"In the room I just left. Those men almost killed both of them."

She stopped to compose herself. "After Loretta sent Cody out to look for me, I dressed like this to try and get in there and free Buck. We were just about to try and break out when Benton came in all angry because..."

Jimmy shushed her. "That would be due to my naturally friendly ability of getting people to talk to me." He grinned at her. "Ya see, I was askin' about two Pony Express riders, and nobody seemed real interested in talkin' to me, until I mentioned one of them was part Indian. Then, 'no one' had seen any new riders for quite some time."

"By the way, name's Jimmy, and I'm guessin' yours really isn't Bambi?" Jimmy extended his hand out to the young girl.

"My name is Nikki Moore, Captain Moore's daughter," suddenly remembering Cody, she looked at Jimmy, "We have to find a way to get to Cody, he's in terrible danger if he tries to get to my father." her tone was serious.

"Well, let's make this look good. We want Miss Loretta to think you're learnin' things real fast, and maybe that you like me a little bit too. If we can catch them off guard, somehow, one of us could get back into the room with Buck. My friend Noah is in the saloon. I need to find a way to get this information to him before........" Jimmy stopped talking as he heard the floor creak outside the door.

Thinking quickly, Jimmy pulled Nikki into an embrace slowly backing her towards the bed. As they fell onto the mattress, he heard the door open. "You're doing really well," he said.

Nikki smiled up at him. "It's easy when the gentleman is so handsome," she replied and wrapped her arms around his neck.

"We've got to figure out a way to get to Buck." Jimmy whispered in her ear.

"I think I've got an idea." Nikki replied.

Glancing behind him, Jimmy stood up and offered Nikki a hand as she stood up herself. She glanced down at his six-shooter.

"Do you know how to use that thing if you have to?"

Jimmy raised an eyebrow, and tried not to laugh. "Yeah, I think so."

Nikki walked over to the door and opened it. Just as she suspected, she saw Benton walking down the stairs.

"Benton?" She smiled sweetly at him. "I think we need your 'help' with something."

Benton turned on the stairs, and looked back at the girl. "What do you want?" he barked. "Ain't he man enough for you? Or you too much woman for him?" He snickered at his own joke.

Nikki rolled her eyes as she glanced back into the room. "A name," she whispered to Jimmy, "I need a last name, quick."

"Butler," Jimmy gave her his ‘last’ name. No one knew him by that name anyway.

Nikki messed up her hair a little, then pulled the shoulder of her dress down further off her right shoulder, probably revealing a little more than she wanted to, so that when she stepped further out into the hall, it would look like things had been hot and steamy. When she stepped back out, she almost ran into Benton. Frightened at first, she regained her composure when she realized her ploy was working on him, as he was having a hard time keeping his eyes off of the newly revealed flesh that was showing on her body.

Chapter Seven

"Mr. Butler here would like a tub and some water brought up, so I can help him bathe." she was trying to catch Benton's eyes, and drag them back to her face.

"Is that all?" Benton snorted.

"Well," Nikki smiled, "if you hurry, I'd certainly be indebted to you."

She batted her eyes at him and Benton was a goner. "I'm sure you could come up with a way for me to show my appreciation."

As he hurried down the steps to do her bidding, Nikki closed the door.

"He'll be up directly" she said.

"Would've worked on me too," Jimmy admitted, giving her a lopsided grin.

But then he quickly turned serious. "You better stay here," he said. "If that guy gets back before me, you do your best to stall him, understood?"

Nikki couldn't do more than nod as Jimmy quickly slid out the door and headed for the room he now was where they kept Buck. He tried the handle and cursed softly. Of course they had locked it. Steps on the stairs forced him to quickly return to the room where Nikki waited.

"Locked," he replied at her unspoken question. Then a slight feeling of hope entered his mind. There was just one reason for the door being locked, or so he hoped. A dead man wouldn't go anywhere, so maybe, maybe, Buck was still alive.

A knock on the door was echoed by a soft tap on the window. Looking at each other, Jimmy nodded towards Nikki.

Quietly he asked, "Can you go peek out the curtain, but stay to the side of the window, it might be my friend Noah, but I want to be sure." Hollering towards the door, he added, "Hang on a minute, we're a little busy right now."

"You want this tub, or not?" Benton hollered back. "I ain't got all day ya know, and I'm gettin' real tired of being little Miss Prissy's servant. 'Sides, the sooner you're done with her, the sooner I can be appreciated." his voice was nauseating to Nikki.

Nikki pulled back the curtain and gasped with shock. Instead of just one man, there were two of them, and one of them the blond rider she recalled from before.

"Cody........." was all she got out before Benton started banging on the door again.

"Just a minute..." she called sweetly as she raised the window and Cody and Noah climbed inside.

"Look who I found outside wanderin' around." Noah smiled.

Jimmy gave a wide grin as he saw his friend. "You look like...."

"Already heard that once today." Cody interrupted. "Ain't you a bit late?" he joked. He felt like hugging Jimmy he was so happy to see him.

"Timing's off I guess." Jimmy laughed.

"Hey, I done told you I ain't got all day!" Benton hollered again.

Jimmy motioned for Nikki to answer the door, and stood where he'd be able to clobber Benton as he came through it.

"Wait!" Cody said in a loud whisper, and he reached out a hand for Jimmy's gun. "Let me do it!"

He nodded to Nikki; "Come in." she called, unlocking the door.

Benton came in with the tub, grumbling about always getting the "leftovers". When he looked up to see Cody pointing a gun in his face, his eyes went wide with shock.

"What the hell..."

"Surprise." Cody smiled, and then hit the man as hard as he could across the face with Jimmy's gun.

As Benton fell to the ground, Nikki quickly closed the door. Noah and Jimmy made fast work of securing Benton and making sure he couldn't make any noise when he came to.

"Buck's just down the hall, but the room's locked," Jimmy said.

"I don't think so," said Noah. "I saw that lady you were with and another man carrying someone out the back; I'm fairly certain it was Buck. I heard her say something about taking him to the Ranch."

"Damn," Jimmy cursed, "Did you happen to see which way they were headed?"

"Nope, had to divert my attention elsewhere, before she realized I was watching. That's when I run into Cody here, trying to sneak back in." Noah shook his head unbelieving.

"I'm glad you're back," Nikki told Cody, "Not exactly to this mess, but I was afraid you would be in just as much trouble at the Fort, with my father. I'm sorry I got you and Buck mixed up in this." She had tears in her eyes. "Now I'm afraid, really afraid, for Buck's life."

Cody drew her into his arms, and held her for a bit. "It's gonna be fine. Heck, I've been hurt worse than this lots of times, and Buck, well, you'll see, we'll make sure he's gonna be alright too." Cody looked at the other two riders in the room, trying to get reassurance. "Besides that, Buck was startin' to like you way too much to wanna leave this world now. You're about the prettiest thing that's ever noticed him over me, I'm not sure why that is, but I'll just have to say you picked a good man. "He took his gloved finger and wiped a tear that had fallen down her cheek.

"Cody's right," Jimmy replied, "and maybe if we get to askin' a few questions, we'll find out where this Ranch is." He grinned and tilted his head at Benton, looking at Cody. "If Cody hadn't hit this big oaf so darn hard, I'd get him to tell us where it is. I guess if no one else will tell us, we may have to come back here and wait till he wakes up."

"Wait!" said Cody as he let go of Nikki. He turned to Noah. "Did you see where they left this building?"

Noah nodded. "Don't see what good that will be though," he said.

Cody grinned. "I can track them, or at least try," he said. "It's better than sitting here and wait for that guy to wake up or going around stirring up suspicions in town. I had a feeling the people here were a bit weary when it come to matters concerning Miss Loretta."

"You're sure?" Jimmy looked dubiously at Cody. "The only thing you've ever been good at Cody was bragging - what if you can't find them? Where would that leave Buck? And besides, you look as if you've been to hell and back - you're sure you are up to this?"

Cody looked sternly at Jimmy. "You think I'm gonna let those bastards kill Buck," he sneered and clenched his fist, when Noah held him back.

"You two stop it," Noah ordered curtly. "If you think you can track 'em Cody, then let’s do that. Every minute standing here arguing is one too many."

"Sorry," Cody mumbled and Jimmy nodded.

"What about me?" Nikki wondered slowly as the boys started leaving.

"You better come with us," Jimmy decided. "This town ain't safe for you."

Nikki nodded and was just about to tell them that she still had the pouch - including the message Miss Loretta was after, when she thought better of it. Better to save that piece of information for later, she decided as she allowed Cody to help her out the window.

Chapter Eight

Soon they had reached the horses and were following Cody as he trailed some wagon tracks out of town.

The small group soon found themselves sitting on a hill looking down at a small, but well-kept cabin. Smoke curled out of the chimney, but there was no sign of anyone being there.

Noah said, "Why don't I go down there and have a look around? Don't seem to be too much activity right now..."

"Anybody got a plan about what to do once we get down there?" Jimmy asked.

Cody laughed, "Since when did you start plannin' things Jimmy?"

"Since we don't know if Buck is alive or not. I didn't come all this way just to get him killed."

"You really think he's still alive?" Nikki asked hopefully.

"One way to find out," Noah said as he started down the hill.

Just then a shot rang out, coming from some trees on the hill the other side of the cabin. The bullet missed Noah, but plowed into the dirt beside him. He scurried back up the hill, and behind the small mound of rocks they had found as a hiding place.

"Don't look like we're quite as alone as we thought we were." Jimmy said, trying hard not to snicker. "You should have seen your face, when you come hightailin' it back up here." He chuckled a little as he squeezed Noah's shoulder.

"You think it's so funny, why don't you be my guest," Noah motioned toward the path he had just made.

"Hey, I was just funnin' ya, no harm meant..." Jimmy was trying to be serious when another couple shots rang out, totally missing them, but somehow knowing approximately their location. "We're sitting ducks here, if we move, I think he might actually get one of us."

The door on the cabin opened and another man with a rifle stepped out looking towards where his partners’ shots were aimed. He raised his rifle, obviously something inside needed his attention. He hollered and someone from the back of the cabin came to stand guard, while the other one went back inside.

"Buck's alive, I know he is." Nikki stood and started running down the hill.

Jimmy ran after her and pushed her face down in the dirt, landing on top of her, just as another bullet whizzed past his head.

"What the hell are you doin'?" He demanded. "You're gonna get us killed!"

"We can't just sit here - we've got to help him!"

As Jimmy helped her back to where the others sat, he asked the question that had been nagging him since they left the saloon.

"Well maybe you're just the one to tell us how to do that."

"What?" Nikki asked. Her eyes looked frightened in the middle of her tear-streaked, dirty face.

"Seems like getting hooked up with you is what got Buck in trouble to begin with."

"Leave her alone Jimmy," Cody told him.

Jimmy looked straight at Nikki "I'm right, ain't I?"

Nikki simply nodded. "I never meant for anyone to get hurt," she whispered. "I just knew that I needed to stop that package from being delivered."

"Why?" asked Cody, moving to stand next to her. "You said before people could get hurt, what's in that pouch?"

Nikki looked at the three men in front of her.

"A delivery schedule."

"What kind of delivery?" Noah asked.

Nikki sighed. "Guns, money. It's all connected to the war effort."

The riders looked at each other. "Why are you trying to stop it?" Jimmy asked.

Nikki looked at him, with tears in her eyes. "My older brother was killed at Fort Sumter. Now my father is hell-bent on making sure he didn't die in vain. He'll end up dead too before this is all over." She drew a breath and tried to calm herself.

"There's going to be several shipments of guns and supplies to the army posts south of here." she explained. “The package contained the details about that, and a map of the route.”Miss Loretta" is a rebel sympathizer and she wants that information. That's why she's so interested in it."

"How did you..." Cody began.

"That doesn't matter. If either side gets the information, more people are going to die."

Jimmy shook his head sadly. "They're gonna die anyway. You can't stop what's comin'."

"I have to try...." she whispered.

Cody placed his hand on her shoulder. "You did take the pouch out of my saddlebags, didn't you?" he asked.

Nikki simply nodded. "I figured that once they realized you didn't have it, they'd just give up. I'm so sorry."

She turned to face Jimmy. "We can offer to make an exchange."

Jimmy's brow knotted in confusion.

"Me for Buck. I'm worth a lot more to them than he is."

"No way," Cody shook his head.

"They wouldn't really hurt me, once they find out my identity. It's the only way to get him out of there."

Noah smiled at her. "No it ain't..."

Chapter Nine

Everyone turned to look at Noah.

He looked each of them in the eyes before continuing, "They think one of you has that package; let's give them a package in exchange for Buck."

Nikki shook her head. "No!" she shouted. "Haven't you been listening? I won't..."

She stopped when she saw Cody's grin. "He didn't say give them the package; he said a package."

Jimmy's eye's sparkled, and he grinned at Noah.

"I like the way you think Mr. Dixon."

Cody winked at Nikki, "Just stick with us girl, we'll give them a run for their money."

Jimmy made his way back to the edge of the hill, to see if he could assess if anything was going on. He noticed two fresh horses tied to the railing in front of the cabin, and realized the four of them had been too involved in their conversation to realize someone else had joined the party down below.

"Damn, looks like they got company while we were discussin' things." he muttered, half to himself, and half to the others.

As he started to go tell the others, the door to the cabin opened and Buck was shoved out, with his hands tied, and a rope around his neck, by a man Jimmy didn't recognize. Following them was the woman from the saloon, Loretta, and then the man they had seen when they first encountered the cabin. The last man pointed toward where Jimmy and the others were hiding, and Loretta smiled, saying something to the man in charge of Buck.

The man helped Buck mount one of the horses, then climbed onto the other one, never letting go of the rope around Buck's neck. Around the corner of the cabin, another man came with two more horses. Loretta mounted one, and the three of them took off at a lope for town.

"We need to try and intercept them." Jimmy hollered, as he ran towards where they had left the horses. But before any of them could get to the horses, a man stepped out with a rifle aimed at them. Holding out a note, he said.

"The boss wants you to read this, she says that she'd like to make a deal with Captain Moore's daughter, in exchange for the Indian." He grinned as he handed Jimmy the note, making sure his eyes came in contact with Nikki's.

Nikki returned his gaze unflinchingly. Without taking her eyes from him, she took the note from Jimmy. "Tell her we'll think about it, but that if anything else happens to Buck she'll be sorry."

The man started to laugh, but stopped when Noah's whip wrapped around the barrel of his rifle and tore it from his hands. Stunned, the man reached for the six-shooter that hung on his hip, but was stopped by the sound of his own rifle, ready for firing at any moment. He looked up to see Cody, grinning from ear to ear, holding the rifle and aiming right at his head.

" Now Jimmy, you know how good I am at long range shooting, right? Ya think I might miss, him bein' so close and all?" Cody used the butt of the rifle to scratch his chin. “Maybe we ought to let him get a head start runnin', and then I'd have myself a better target." He was watching the man's face go pale with fear.

"As good as that sounds to me, I'm thinkin' you best just let him live Cody," Jimmy suggested. "I have a feelin' if he don't show up with some sort of message to Loretta, that she may be liable to take it out on Buck, and I ain't about to let that happen."

Looking at Nikki, he went on to say, "We're in this with you, what do you want to do?"

"This isn't your fight it's my turn to do something to save Buck." She looked at them bravely.

"You think she's gonna let Buck go when you give her what she wants. Hell, now that she obviously knows who you are, she ain't gonna let him go, and she won't let you go either." Jimmy said. "There's got to be another way. As far as it not being our fight, Buck is part of our family, that makes it our fight."

"It started to be our fight when Buck and I were given that pouch from the very beginning," Cody stated, " I have a feelin' someone knew what was in there long before we reached the Fort."

Nikki looked at the faces of the men surrounding her. She smiled. "Alright," she said. "We do it your way. What message do we want to send back with this gentleman?"

Cody grinned. "I say we gag him and pin the message to his shirt. That way he can't holler when I hit him over the head with his own gun." Cody snickered.

"I'll tell 'em whatever you want, I swear!" The man pleaded.

"Where'd they take our friend?" Noah asked him.

"Back to the saloon."

The group moved slowly towards their mounts. "What do we do with him?" asked Cody as he pushed the man along with them.

"Take him with us," replied Jimmy. "Hopefully he's important enough to Miss Loretta that she'll think twice about doing anything stupid." He waited as the man mounted his horse and then tied his hands together. "Not a sound," he warned.

Chapter Ten

As the group got closer to town, Cody began feeling a little uneasy. "Town seems awful dead for this time of day. Ain't nobody around, almost looks like a ghost town.... I don't like the looks of this Jimmy."

"The saloon seems lively enough, must be havin' a party over there." Jimmy nodded his head towards the music and laughter. A person would have to be blind not to have seen the six army-regulated horses tied to the railing in front. "Wonder what that's all about." He spoke to his comrades. He heard Nikki gasp before he noticed the Army Captain and Loretta in deep conversation. The woman was entertaining him, but she made certain that her derringer was right where she wanted it when she turned and saw the riders come into town. Smiling, her devious grin she let them know she could, and would use it if she were pushed, without even saying a word.

"My father," Nikki quietly whispered with emotion. As tears filled her eyes, she went to get off her horse, but Cody stopped her, as several soldiers came out of the saloon. In the midst of these soldiers was a man in shackles. It didn't take long to realize this man was Buck.

Jimmy's hand automatically went to his hip, but he caught a look that Buck gave him that made him hesitate. Buck shook his head slightly, and somehow the feeling that Jimmy was getting made him gather everybody and move them back out of town, even with Nikki protesting. The soldiers being in the way of Loretta's view of them gave them the diversion they needed to slip back out of town, so they could rethink their strategy.

The group hid in the brush near the road the army would be taking. "I knew it was wrong to trust this Indian with that information," one of the officers was heard saying. "I hope you make him pay for his actions."

Captain Moore replied coldly, "If he doesn't tell me what he did with my daughter, he'll pay with his life."

The army man in charge of Buck laughed and pulled on the shackles that bound his legs. "Hear that Injun?" he asked. "We're going to get to kill you. I just hope that he lets us have some fun while we're at it."

Buck simply glared at the man and then let his gaze travel past the man to the small cluster of trees off to the side of the road. He hoped that he wasn't seeing things; that it really was Cody's face he saw in the weeds just off the road from where the army regiment had stopped to rest. Buck tried to remember if he had seen Cody with Jimmy back in town, he wasn't sure, he knew he had seen Noah, and somehow he was positive Nikki was with them. So, if Nikki was with Jimmy and Noah, chances were that Cody was with them too.

Being knocked down to his knees brought Buck back to his present predicament.

"You ready to talk, boy?" The Captain came up to Buck's face. "Just tell me where Dominique is, and that she's alright." The older man's eyes were damp with tears just threatening to fall.

Buck could barely speak. He was having trouble staying awake, and it had been a while since he'd had any water. He looked at the older man and shrugged. "I don't know for certain," he managed to whisper.

"What does that mean?" the man next to Captain Moore screamed as he moved closer to Buck. Grabbing him by the neck of his shirt with both hands, the soldier pulled Buck to a standing position. "What did you do to her? If you hurt her, I will personally make you pay, you no good half-breed." The anger in his eyes was evident, and he was pulling on the shirt collar so tight, Buck was having a hard time catching his breath.

"Let him go McQuaid, we're not going to find out anything if he's dead." Captain Moore ordered his Lieutenant. McQuaid let go of Buck and he fell to the ground gasping for air. He tried to sit up.

"Get this man some water" the Captain hollered. After Buck had been given a drink from the Captain's canteen, the older man asked again. "Can you tell me anything about my daughter? I don't want to be hasty, and place blame on you, but you and your friend were the last people she had any contact with besides my men, and I'm not going to take the chance of letting you go, knowing you might have something to do with her disappearance."

Buck struggled to speak. "The last place I saw Nikki was the same place you found me. As far as I know, she's still there somewhere, unless she went looking for Cody." He was feeling very sick and dizzy, but he needed to say more. "The pouch" he swallowed hard, "she said the pouch............"Buck couldn't finish as the darkness overtook him once more. He collapsed at the feet of Captain Moore.

From where they were hidden, the others could see Buck, but not hear what was being said. When he fell unconscious, they turned to look at Nikki. "Would your father consider killing him?" Jimmy asked.

Nikki shook her head, "Not if he thinks that Buck knows where I am. He'd make sure that Buck stayed alive, in hopes of finding me.

"Well, if he don't get up soon, I'm goin' in there to get him myself. After what we went through at Miss Loretta's I don't think Buck can take much more of this."

Nikki wiped tears from her eyes. "This is my fault...I never should have left the fort."

'We ain't got time to worry about that now." Noah told her. "We've gotta get him outta there."

Suddenly, Nikki stood. Looking all three boys square in the eyes she said. "Let me go to my father. He's not going to hurt me, and I'm sure when I explain what I've done, he'll realize that Buck hasn't done anything wrong either."

"How do you know he'll believe you?" Cody asked. "Maybe if I went with you......"

"He's my father," Nikki looked at Cody with disbelief that he would say something like that, "he loves me. He may not be the best person in the world, but he is understanding, and I'm sure he'll listen to me, as long as Lieutenant McQuaid doesn't convince him otherwise."

"Who is this McQuaid, what kind of influence would he have, and why does he scare you?" Jimmy asked.

Nikki looked towards the men surrounding Buck and her father. "He's the one who has been taunting Buck. He thinks I should marry him, he didn't like the way I was 'too' friendly with Buck, and he told me so. I also think he has a connection with Loretta, and that's why I left the Fort to try to catch up with the two of you." She looked at Cody when she said this.

"Let's get our stuff gathered, so that whatever we decide to do, we're ready." Jimmy headed back to the small cluster of trees where they had left the horses. Cody and Noah followed. "Nikki, I'm not sure this would be..........."Jimmy voice stopped as he heard........

"Daddy, it's me, please don't hurt Buck anymore." Nikki stepped towards her father, but stopped when a rifle was raised aimed right at her heart.

Nikki paused only a few seconds before continuing. "Buck didn't have anything to do with my leaving; I left to get away from him." She pointed at Lt. McQuaid. "I didn't appreciate the way he was treating me, and..." she stopped speaking when her father slapped her across the face, and said, "You're defending him? Where have you been? Do you know what you've done girl?!?"

Nikki's hand flew to her face, and at the same time Cody, Jimmy, and Noah came out of the bushes behind her - guns drawn. Cody leveled his rifle at the Captain. "Tell your man to step away from Buck," he said. "I'm not going to let anything else happen to him."

Captain Moore stared at the three men in front of him.

"What the hell is going on here?!" he demanded.

At the same time, McQuaid pointed his gun at Cody. "Go ahead boy," he sneered. "I'd love to see you hang from a gallows. Right next to your half-breed friend."

Chapter Eleven

Noah's whip moved so quickly McQuaid didn't have time to react. It wrapped around the gun and pulled it from his hand at the same instant that Jimmy leveled his colt at the man's head.

"You care to explain how you know Miss Loretta?" Jimmy asked him. "I'm sure your Captain will want to know why you're such good friends with the enemy."

"I don't know what you're talkin' about" McQuaid sneered, glancing at the Captain for his reaction. "This girl's been tellin' you stories, and you been falling right into her sweet little trap." Nikki glanced at him, and rushed past her father to Buck's side, as the three other riders seemed to have the situation well in hand.

She fell beside Buck in a sitting position and proceeded to place his head in her lap, all the while begging for him to wake up. "I'm so sorry, please, please Buck please, wake up. I don't think I could ever forgive myself if you don't." Tears were falling from her eyes and landing on Buck's face. He began to stir.

"Explain what these boys are talking about" Captain Moore was staring at his Lt., a man he thought he had known, but now wasn't so sure.

"I can't explain something that don't make sense. Look at your daughter." The Lt.'s grin was evil." Look what she ran away to be, a whore, she's probably laid with the lot of them........."McQuaid quit talking and his eyes grew wide, as the Captain's fist struck a blow to his chin knocking him down.

"How dare you insult my daughter that way," the Captain yelled. He turned to one of the enlisted men who had accompanied him on this mission. Pointing to McQuaid, he instructed, "Secure this prisoner until we can get back to the fort and clear up this mess."

As the man followed his orders, Captain Moore turned to face Cody and the others. "Do you think you could be so kind as to follow us? I think it will be important to hear what everyone has to say in this matter."

Jimmy holstered his guns, Cody lowered his rifle, and Noah put away his whip. "We'd be happy to assist you," said Cody, "as long as you make sure nothing else happens to Buck. No accidental shootings, run away horses, or fist happy soldiers." Cody smirked as he added, "Wouldn't want to make the army look any worse than it already does."

"I can guarantee nothing else will happen to the Indian." Captain Moore insisted.

"Our friend has a name." Jimmy emphasized the word friend. "We'd appreciate it if you would kindly use it."

"Forgive me," the Captain apologized. "Of course, I meant nothing by it. Buck will be well taken care of from here on out." Hollering at the same man he'd had tie up McQuaid, he said. "Take the chains off that young man, and make sure he has some water."

He looked over at where Buck lay, with his head in Nikki's lap. Though, the thought of his daughter being friend's with a half-blood was not exactly pleasant to him, he knew he needed to be a soldier right now, and do the right thing. He could be a father later. But that didn't stop him from trying to manipulate his daughter.

"Dominique, why don't you come away from him, I think we have a few things we need to talk about." He tried to be diplomatic.

"No father. If you want to talk to me, you can talk in front of everyone here, or it will have to wait until we get back to the fort." She looked with determination at her father, all the while stroking Buck's cheek with her fingers. "We need a wagon for him, I don't think he can ride a horse." she directed this request to the three riders she had come here with. "Do you think one of you could go back to town and get one?"

"Sounds like a good idea." Jimmy answered. "It shouldn't take long. Just don't leave without me." Jimmy smiled at Nikki, hoping that she was feeling better, now that things seemed to be on the right track with her father.

Nikki returned Jimmy's smile and once more turned her attention back to Buck. She spoke softly to him to let him know what's happening and that he's safe. Her father watched her and realized that she was much like her departed mother - caring about all people, not just the ones he found worthy.

"Dominique," he said softly as he knelt down beside her, "I am so relived that you're alright. I must admit I thought the worst when you disappeared. I thought that he...that Buck might have taken you. I'm glad I was wrong."

Nikki just looked at her father, not sure what to say. She was angry with him, but she also knew that running away like she did was not right. She just hoped she could make him understand her feelings.

"Why did you do it?" he asked. "After we lost Duncan, you must have known what it would do to me...thinking that something had happened to you too."

One of the men approached, with a canteen and a clean cloth. He handed it to Nikki, and she started to bathe Buck's face gently, wiping away blood and grime. She concentrated on her task, grateful for an excuse not to answer her father just yet.

As she cleaned Buck's face, Nikki began to go through her mind to sort out the best way to tell her father how she knew what was in the parcel he was sending to St. Louis, and how she knew about McQuaid and Loretta's plan to intercept the shipments. She knew as a father he might understand her reasoning behind wanting to protect the army's position on the war, due to what had happened with her brother. But as a Captain of the U.S Army he may be angrier that she had betrayed the country, and him, by reading, and then taking a government issued document, and keeping it from getting to it's destination. Now, the document was still back at the saloon, in the room she had been given by Loretta, hidden only by the mattress on the bed. At least she had been able to sew it inside, not very well hidden, but well enough that unless a person knew where to look, they shouldn't be able to find it. She had remembered her brother telling her, "If you want to hide something, so no one will be able to find it, hide it out in the open, in the obvious." She remembered he always did this with her birthday presents, and would torment her until she couldn't stand it any longer. Her eyes started to well up again with tears just thinking about Duncan.

Her thinking was interrupted by a movement beneath her hands. She glanced down to see Buck looking up at her.

"I thought I was dreaming." His voice was almost a whisper. It was raspy and sounded rough. "I must have died, 'cause there's an angel touching my face. A beautiful angel with a dirty face, but beautiful nonetheless." he was trying to smile, but his lips were so parched they couldn't move without cracking open and bleeding.

Nikki put one hand over her mouth to hold back the excitement, and relief she felt at the sight of him waking fully. She wanted to kiss him, and thank him for not dying on her, but with her father right there, she thought it would be better for Buck if she restrained herself. She did however laugh a little, with tears falling again. "You'd think with all these tears, my face would be clean by now." she countered.

Buck's weak hand grabbed the hand she had on his face with the cloth and just held it. She was handed another clean cloth, as the one she had was dirty and bloody. She dampened it and reached for Buck's face again. "No, this one's for you." he told her. "You'll feel better." he squeezed the hand he held and looked into her eyes.

As he watched the exchange between his daughter and Buck, Captain Moore came to realize that he needed to be very careful how he handled this situation or he could lose Dominique forever. He couldn't let his hatred of Indians get the better of him in front of her. He took a deep breath and spoke to his daughter again.

"Perhaps we should continue this discussion later. As soon as the wagon arrives, we'll head back to the fort, and the surgeon can tend to him if he needs it."

Nikki nodded in agreement. She had avoided the conversation for the time being, but she'd have to face it sooner or later. Pushing it to the back of her mind, she smiled at Buck again, and held the canteen to his lips so he could drink.

Cody and Noah exchanged glances, and then Cody went to check on how well Lt. McQuaid was secured. He didn't want the man getting lose because one the men who was under his command didn't do his job right.

Noah turned his gaze to the Captain. "What exactly was in that package? I think it's only fair Buck and Cody know what it is that almost got them killed."

The captain looked at Noah, suddenly remembering for the first time in a while, that there was more to this mission than rescuing his daughter, and getting her home safely. Right now, he had failed to get the army schedule delivered to St. Louis, and to Colonel Billings. In fact, it should have been there several days ago. Glancing at Buck, who still lay in his daughter's lap, and then at Cody, who was talking with the men by McQuaid, he wondered which one of them had the package, or which one of them had done something with it.

"Well," Noah asked again, "What was in it?"

"Cody didn't tell you?" Captain Moore seemed surprised. "I would think that by now you all would know, since it hasn't surfaced. I assume that between the two of them, one of them knows where it is." He raised his brows, waiting for Noah to give a sign that he knew already.

"They don't have the package, your daughter took it." Noah shot back. "Seems to me, you should be asking her where it is. She's the reason my friend over there is in the shape he's in." The Captain accusing Buck and Cody of stealing infuriated Noah as he knew all too well what it was like to be misjudged.

Nikki looked over to where the two of them were speaking, as their voices were getting louder. She moved to get up, but Cody was there by her, and putting his hand on her shoulder said, "Stay put, I'll go take care of this. You need to stay with Buck. This is just as much our doing as yours." Nikki shook her head no, but he gave her shoulder a friendly squeeze and smiled at her. "Trust me, okay?" he asked. She nodded.

Before he moved away, Nikki spoke. "Cody, if I tell you where the package is, will you promise me that you won't go by yourself to get it? Take me with you, I can retrieve it for my father, and I will tell him what I did........"

Chapter Twelve

"Hold that thought" Cody told her, as he hurried over to the two men who were arguing. He didn't think they needed any more bad blood in this camp today.

Cody walked up to Noah and put his hand on Noah's shoulder. "Why don't you go keep Lt. McQuaid company?" he said softly. "I don't think now is a good time to discuss the missing package."

Noah looked at Cody, "You know he thinks you or Buck took it, don't you?"

Cody simply nodded.

When Noah left, Cody said, "You got somethin' we need to discuss Captain?" Cody gave the man a lopsided grin.

The officer approached Cody so that no one else could hear their conversation.

"You know where it is, don't you?"

"I got no idea what you're talkin' about. Afraid you'll have to be more specific."

"Don't play games with me young man. People's lives are at stake here."

"I know that." Cody answered, suddenly serious. My friend nearly lost his life over this whole thing. And by the way, you ain't the only one interested in gettin' your hands on that information."

"What do you mean?" the Captain asked.

"Those people back in town weren't playing around; Buck isn't in that condition just because they don't like Indians. They were trying to beat information out of him," Cody said. He stole a glance at Buck before continuing, "I'm not sure why everyone thinks he can't be trusted; I'd be more worried about me trying to see what's in a top secret military parcel than him; he always follows the rules."

With those words he turned and went back to where Nikki was tending Buck. "You were trying to tell me where the parcel is." Cody spoke quietly to Nikki.

Nikki glanced over to where her father stood staring off in the distance. She needed to make sure he didn't overhear what she had to tell Cody. She didn't want him barreling in to the saloon, and risk getting himself killed, she'd already caused enough problems. With Cody and the other two riders, she figured they were young, and they had already showed her how smart they were at being careful. Still, she wondered if telling Cody would be a mistake. She didn't want anyone else getting hurt because of her brash decision to take the parcel in the first place.

"Nikki, you with me?" She looked up into Cody's face, and found he was smiling a little but with a sense of worry in his voice he added. "Thought I'd lost you there for a second."

"You promise me, absolutely promise me, that you won't do anything without me, if I tell you?”Nikki was serious, as she contemplated her decision.

"I can't promise you that....."Cody started to say.

"Then I can't tell you." the girl interrupted. “I can't put you in danger again, I can do it myself."

"Listen, I meant, how are we gonna get you outta here with your father, watching you like a hawk. Besides there's no way I'm gonna let you go off on your own," Cody hesitated before adding, "we'll work something out, we just need to get that parcel back to the rightful owners, whoever they may be."

Nikki nodded her head in agreement. Motioning for Cody to sit beside her and Buck she began to tell him where she had hidden the parcel. Noah noticed them talking, and headed their way.

As Noah approached, Nikki quit talking.

"It's alright," Cody assured her. "You can trust him."

Nikki glanced at Noah and continued. "I hid it in the room I was using. I'm pretty sure they won't find it, but I'm not sure how to go back and get it. I was planning on just walking in, but that won't work anymore." She sighed.

Noah looked from Cody to Lt. McQuaid. There was a slight resemblance. An idea began to form in the back of his mind. "Do you know how well Miss Loretta knows McQuaid?" he asked.

Nikki looked up at Noah, wondering what he was thinking. "To my knowledge, Loretta has never met the Lt. in person. He's dealt with one of her right hand men; I'm not sure which one."

"More than likely, it'd be Benton," Cody mused, "though we'd want to make sure, before we did anything rash." He looked at Noah, reality hitting him as to what the young man had in mind. "Aw c'mon Noah," he whined, looking at McQuaid, then back at his friend, "You gotta be joking. I'm a whole lot better looking than him."

"That's just it Cody, you're much prettier and you're one hell of an actor, too. "Noah grinned mischievously at his fellow rider.”If Miss Loretta hasn't seen McQuaid, you could go in as him, with Nikki as your prisoner, and the rest of us will be right behind you."

"Have you forgotten Miss Loretta has seen me?" Cody asked.

"You were pretty beat up when she saw you. With a little bit of work, we can fix you up so that unless you get right up in her face, she shouldn't recognize you. You can keep your hat down low enough to cover your eyes. I'm telling you, it's probably the only chance we got to get the schedule." Noah paused to get some reaction.

"It could work." Nikki sounded enthusiastic.

"What could work?" Buck's hushed voice broke into their conversation.

Nikki looked down at Buck, who was awake now.

"How are you feeling?" she asked gently. "Take another drink."

Buck accepted the canteen, this time holding it himself as Nikki held his head. He swallowed the water and eased his head back to her lap.

"What were you talking about?" Buck asked again.

The other three looked at each other, and Noah spoke.

"Nothin' you need to be worryin' about right now. Soon as Hickok gets back here we're takin' you back to the fort to get some rest."

"Are all of you coming back to the fort too?"

"Soon as we make a little detour..." Cody commented. Buck caught the look that Nikki gave the blond rider.

"What's going on? You're not planning on..."

Nikki smiled sweetly, not wanting to worry Buck. "Everything is fine. My father knows you didn't have anything to do with my disappearance. Nothing else is going to happen to you. I promise."

Buck smiled weakly and once more closed his eyes. Nikki turned her attention to Cody. "This can work," she said. "We go in after dark; you take me to the room I was using before, and lock me in. The only problem..." she stopped speaking and glanced to where her father stood looking towards town.

"Is getting your father to agree," said Cody following her gaze.

Nikki nodded. "I'm not sure he will, or that he'll understand that I need to take care of this myself."

"Well, whatever we do, we'd better make it quick." Cody told her. "If that package disappears they'll hold your father responsible."

Nikki's eyes widened with fear. She hadn't even thought of that.

"We can't tell him what we're going to do, then. He'll just make things difficult, he won't allow us, me, to do it." Nikki looked at Noah and Cody with a desperate look in her eyes. "Please, we have to do this without letting him know somehow."

"Use me." Buck opened his eyes and looked at them, more awake now than ever.

"You heard what we were talking about?" Nikki's startled voice shook as she asked.

"Not everything, but I'm pretty good at figuring things out. Just lying here listening to the tension in your voices tells me a lot. If you have to do this use me somehow. Somebody can tell the Captain I won't make it to the Fort, that I need a doctor, now." Buck grimaced as he finally got out part of what he wanted them to hear. He wasn't too sure he really didn't need medical attention now. It hurt him to speak, even to breathe; he thought maybe his ribs had been bruised, or worse. He wasn't going to let his friends, and this girl that he had come to care so much about, risk their lives if he could help them in some way.

Noah stood thinking for a few minutes. "You know," he mused, "that would work. If the Captain sends McQuaid back to the fort until he can finish investigating, that would take most of the other soldiers. Then he could go into town to ask around, but first he'd have to take you to the doctor..."

Cody picked up the idea. "While the Captain and Buck are at the doctor's office, Nikki and I sneak over to the saloon and..." he stopped speaking as Captain Moore approached the group.

Buck squeezed Nikki's hand, whispering to all of them. "Let's hope this works."

"How's our patient doing?" The Captain asked with actual concern in his voice. "I sure wish that boy would get back here with that wagon, I'd like to try to get as close to the fort as we can before nightfall."

Buck moaned and started coughing, some just a put on, but as he continued to cough, his ribs began to really hurt, and he was trying hard not to scream in pain.

Chapter Thirteen

"Daddy, I don't think Buck can travel all the way to the fort," Nikki's eyes filled with tears, partly to play along, but more so because she could tell that each time Buck coughed he really seemed to be in pain. "Can't we please take him back to town - it's so much closer, I'm sure the Doctor there could take a look at him." She looked at her father with pleading eyes.

"I need to get Lt. McQuaid back to the Fort, and secured, while I sort through this whole mess. If what you're saying is correct, I need to get things cleared up as soon as possible. This could mean my career. "Captain Moore looked at the other two young men.”How do you feel about your friend here, do you think he can make it to the fort? If not, I can send most of my men back with Dominique and the Lt., and we can take him into town............."

"No, I won't go back, I want to stay with Buck, "Nikki screamed at her father.” You can't make me go back until I know he's okay." Buck started coughing again and she reached for the canteen and held it to his lips so he could get some water. By now, her whole body was shaking, and the tears that fell, though she tried to stop them, actually gave this plan of theirs a little more hope.

"Please don't send me back with him Daddy..." Nikki begged.

The Captain sighed heavily and ran a hand through his hair. "You realize you've put me in a hell of a spot Nikki..."

Noah and Cody glanced at each other. That was the first time her father hadn't called her Dominique. They figured it had to be a good sign.

"Alright. You can stay. But I don't want you wondering off again. Don't either of you let her out of your sight." The captain's tone was commanding as he looked Noah and Cody in the eye.

"Don't worry Captain Moore. You can count on us." Cody spoke with true sincerity.

The captain went and gave orders to his men to take Lt. McQuaid back to the fort and secure him in the stockade. As the men left, everyone was pleased to see Jimmy returning with the wagon.

"Where's everyone going?" Jimmy asked as he pulled to a stop next to Nikki and Buck.

"They're taking McQuaid to the fort while we go back into town to have the doctor check Buck over," explained Noah. "Let's get him in the wagon and I'll explain everything to you."

Once they got Buck into the wagon, Nikki's father offered his hand to his daughter to help her board the seat of the buckboard. He smiled when she refused it and climbed into the back of the wagon to be with Buck. 'You are just like your mother, God rest her soul', he thought to himself.

Jimmy climbed up onto the seat of the wagon and took the lines. "I'll drive if no one objects. I know about where all the potholes in this road are, I think I hit every one of them on the way here, and I think we should try to spare Buck that little bit of entertainment as much as we can." He smiled his lopsided smile, and motioned for Noah to join him. "Why don't you ride along, we can tie two of the horses to the back of the wagon, and Cody can ride the other one. That takes care of the horses we brought."

Captain Moore had already mounted his horse, and was ready to head back into town. He had sent all of his men back to the fort, and was putting his faith and trust in these young men that his daughter seemed to already trust. There was no sense in getting any of his regiment hurt, while he investigated what these boys had said about his Lt. and this Loretta character. His first course of action though, would be to get this injured boy to a doctor to get the help he needed. If he didn't, and something happened to the Indian, to Buck, his daughter would never forgive him, and he couldn't let someone as beautiful as she was, live the rest of her life with hatred for him.

"Captain," he was startled by someone speaking. It was Cody. "Captain, are you okay? We're ready now, if you are."

"Right, yes, well then, let's get moving. The longer we take, the later it gets." The Captain gave his horse a light kick to get it started, and the group headed back towards a town full of unanswered questions.

Noah began to fill Jimmy in on the plan.

As Jimmy pulled the wagon to a stop in front of the doctor's office, he'd agreed to help Noah distract the captain so Cody and Nikki could go to the saloon and retrieve the package. He asked the captain, "You think you could go ahead and inform the doctor that we're coming?"

Captain Moore nodded, "I'll be sure he has a place ready for your friend by the time you get him up to the office." He turned to Nikki and prepared to ask her to accompany him to the Doctor's office. What he saw made him realize it would be a futile request. His daughter had drifted off to sleep sometime on the way into town and was lying curled up next to Buck with her head on his right shoulder, and somehow Buck had managed to slip his arm around her pulling her closer to him.

"Take good care of my daughter, you hear me?" Once again Captain Moore spoke to the other three riders with a stern voice. "I don't want anything happening to her."

"She's in good hands Captain," Jimmy answered back, then had to stifle a smile as his eyes wandered to where the Captain's eyes had settled. He hadn't realized that sometime during the ride here, things were getting cozy in the back of the buckboard, since he and Noah had been in deep conversation.

"Should we wake them?" Cody asked his smile too evident to hide.

"Just make sure you get the young man ready, and bring him as soon as you can." The Captain said. "Give me a few moments to make sure the doctor is in. Then come ahead, but try not to make too big a scene, we don't want certain people getting suspicious." He turned and headed into the office.

"Couldn't agree with you more," Cody murmured quietly. He wanted the Captain to get out of sight so that he could don the army uniform they had confiscated from the battalion before they left to take the Lt. on back to the Fort. He hadn't felt bad about the Lt. wearing only his long johns, but he sure was amused at the look McQuaid gave them when they asked, okay, told him to shed his clothes for them. Lucky for them, they had gagged the man, and had no trouble from any of the other soldiers, during this request. Actually, the other men seemed to be getting quite a kick out of Lt. McQuaid's predicament.

"We need to get this wagon hidden, too many people already lookin' this way," Jimmy warned them." Cody, go find someplace, and get changed while Noah and I get this outta sight."

"What about the Captain?" Noah asked.

"We'll deal with that later, "Jimmy said nodding his head down the street.”Looks like trouble on the way."

Coming towards them was Miss Loretta, and a man that no one recognized. They were sure the two were still too far away to have recognized them, and Jimmy planned on keeping things that way, for now.

Cody quickly donned the McQuaid's uniform and then gently woke Nikki. "Time to go to work," he said. "We've got company, and I think it's best they don't see us with Buck."

Nikki managed to move out of Buck's embrace without waking him. She turned to Noah. "Get Buck to the doctor before you come over to the saloon. I want to be sure he's taken care of."

Noah nodded. "I'll see you in the alley in just a bit. You two best get a move on. If we're going to pull this off; we need to get things rolling right now. With these new circumstances, you don't have time to warm up, so good luck, and make things look and sound convincing." With that, he slapped Cody on the back for reassurance and disappeared around the corner of the building, to where Jimmy had moved the wagon.

Cody held Nikki's arm firmly with his hand, and looked the opposite way of the oncoming people. He had the army hat pulled farther down so his eyes were shielded from the setting sun, and hoped that Loretta wouldn't recognize him.

"Excuse me sir," the voice was unmistakably one Cody could never forget. "I believe you were here with Captain Moore's regiment this afternoon, and I thought I saw him enter Doctor Samuels' office. Has there been an accident or something?" Loretta moved around where she stood in front of the two of them. Grinning, she added, "I see you found my wayward girl." she reached up and squeezed Nikki's chin with her hand. "You owe me a few hours of your time, young lady, and there's a couple of clients who I'm sure would love to have your company."

"This filly belong to you, Ma’am?" Cody's voice sounded deeper, and he started to really get into his role of Lt. McQuaid. "It was my understanding that this little thing belonged to the Captain, and was soon going to belong to me." As he said this, Cody pulled Nikki close to him and smiled at her wickedly, leaning down to take her mouth with his. He kissed her hard, and she pulled away from him, slapping him with her free hand.

"What do you think you're doing?" she scolded him.

"Just takin' what's mine, is all." Cody, acting as McQuaid said.

"You are Lt. McQuaid, might I assume?" Loretta asked. She turned to the man who had come with her. "Go inside and see that the Captain is okay, the Lt. and I have a few things we need to talk about." She turned back to Cody. "If you don't mind, maybe we can talk about our situation over a drink or two." Glancing at Nikki, she added. "By all means, bring the little vixen. I can keep her for you in a nice comfortable room, until we are done talking. I'm afraid something has been lost, and I'm hoping maybe you can help me retrieve it."

Cody nodded and tightened his grip on Nikki's arm. "Let's go," he said, as he steered her down the street towards the saloon. Miss Loretta walked along beside them talking about how pleased some certain individuals were going to be at Nikki's return.

As they made their way onto the sidewalk in front of the saloon, Cody said, "Would you mind just keeping her locked up for me? I'd really appreciate it if I got my taste first."

"I wouldn't mind at all," Loretta said. "Let's just make her comfortable in her old room, and then come have ourselves a drink while we discuss our situation."

Back at the doctor's office, Noah watched the man who had accompanied Loretta across the street make his way up the stairs. "We need to get in there and stop him," he said to Jimmy. "If he sees Buck,"

Jimmy interrupted, "If he sees him this whole thing'll go to hell in a hand basket. You'd better think fast." Jimmy said as they headed quickly toward the saloon.

"Thinkin' fast is your specialty Hickok." Noah winked at his friend.

Neither man was sure what they were going to do, but they didn't have time to think it over.

Suddenly, Noah thought better of accompanying Jimmy, "Go on...I'll catch up with you." he said, heading back to the doctor's office.

Jimmy made his way to the saloon, as Noah walked in on the doctor and Captain Moore.

"S'cuse me gentlemen....Captain, I think we have a situation..."

Captain Moore turned to look at the young man who had just entered the room. Noah could see Buck lying on the bed on the other side of the Captain and the doctor, who was busy wrapping his ribs. He didn't see the man he had come in looking for right away. As his eyes scanned the room, he could see through a mirror on the wall, the man was in the room across from this one, making conversation with another patient. Obviously, Loretta's man hadn't talked with the Captain yet, or things would be a whole lot different than they were now.

"Young man," Noah was brought back to his present place by a stern command. "What is it you were saying?" The Captain had stepped closer to Noah.

"Ummmm, oh, yeah, uhh, one of the horses has a lame foot, so Jimmy and Cody took it down to the stable to see if they could replace it." Noah kept his eye on the mirror, he didn't want to lose track of the man he was watching.

"And my daughter? Did you just leave her outside, alone?" The Captain was growing impatient. "Where's Nikki? I told you all, in no uncertain terms, that were you to leave...."

Noah reached over and shut the door. He didn't want to lose sight of his query, but the Captain's tone was getting loud, and he didn't want to draw attention to the people in this room, either.

Chapter Fourteen

"Captain," he spoke gently and softly," Your daughter is fine, she went with Jimmy and Cody. We figured she'd be in good hands. We haven't let you down yet, have we?" He grinned, and nodded toward the bed. "How bad is he?" Noah asked the question to no one in particular, he just wanted to know about his friend.

"I'd have to say, very lucky." The doctor answered. "Someone must've been taking very good care of him." He slyly looked at the Captain and then at Noah, then back to the Captain, seeing if there was any kind of reaction. When neither man spoke, he continued. "I've done what I can do. I've bandaged his ribs, I'm sure there are a few bruised, if not broken. The cuts and swelling on his face will heal in time, and I've covered the more serious ones. He is in and out of consciousness, which makes me believe he has a slight concussion. Otherwise, in a few days, you can take him home. But I really do believe if this Nikki person he keeps muttering about were here, he would heal a lot faster." With that, the doctor excused himself, and said he had to go look in on his other patient. As he was leaving, the Captain turned to follow.

"Captain," Noah spoke to the army hero. "Please don't tell anyone that Buck is in here, they don't take too kindly to people like us in this town, and I'm sure you don't want the extra trouble. I mean, you saw how they treated him before, and that was because of his skin. They thought bad things about him, just like you did, only they haven't had the chance to change their minds like you have." Noah waited for a response.

"No one will know he's here. I'm here to check out how much of the story I was told is true. That's what I'm here for. And I'm hoping the schedule hasn't ended up in the wrong hands." With that the Captain left, leaving Noah in the room with Buck. Noah checked to make sure his Indian friend was resting, then turned to sneak out the door himself.

"Noah, where's Nikki?" Although weak, it was still Buck's voice.

Noah tuned back to Buck. "She's with Cody," was all he said in reply. "She's fine," he added as he moved to Buck's side. "You need to rest; I'll get her over her as quickly as I can," he continued as he placed a hand on Buck's shoulder gently pushing him back onto the bed.

Buck shook his head. "I need to help her," he managed to say.

"You can help by working on getting better," Noah said. "If they see you, they'll know something's up. Just stay here and we'll come get you when everything's done."

"Don't let anything happen to her Noah." Buck spoke earnestly, looking his friend in the eye. "Promise me...." Buck had to stop to take a breath, and when he did so, he let a moan slip from his lips. He clenched his teeth and sat up, suddenly realizing that whatever Nikki and the others were doing had to be dangerous, and it hit him that they were going after the pouch, the same pouch that Loretta was after. His mind had been a little foggy the past several hours. He remembered his friends and Nikki talking about the package, and little bits and pieces, and then he remembered telling them to use him to get back to town.

"Noah, you can't let her go through with this. If Benton gets hold of her, I'm sure he'll kill her, or worse." agitated, Buck tried to stand, but became lightheaded. Had Noah not been there to catch him he would have ended up on the floor.

"See Buck," Noah eased him back onto the bed," I told you the best thing for you to do is to get yourself better. As far as keeping that girl from doing this, it'd be easier to get Cody to do all our chores for a whole week, without complaining once." Noah grinned at his own remark.

"And yes," he added, as he saw Buck getting ready to protest. "I promise I will make sure no one, especially Benton, hurts her. Boy, I think you got it bad." He winked at Buck and turned to leave.

"Noah," Buck had one more thing to say. Noah turned to look at him. "Thanks." Buck made an attempt to smile at his friend. Noah nodded his head at Buck, then after carefully surveying the room outside the door, he headed towards the saloon. "I sure hope you stay put, Buck." Noah whispered to himself, though he knew the Kiowa was just as stubborn as the rest of them, and he figured Buck would be there to help, if he could possibly find a way to do it. "You just be careful." Noah murmured a small prayer for his friend.

As Noah left the room, he saw the Captain and Loretta's man talking in the outer office. He slowly made his way over to the door, being sure to keep out of the other man's line of sight.

When he was close enough to hear them, he was relieved to hear the captain say, "I needed to bring in one of my men for the doctor to look over; seems he had a run in with some wayward Pony Express riders..."

Noah smiled and carefully shut the door behind him. As he made his way down the street toward the saloon, he hoped that things were going smoothly for Cody.

As he entered the tavern, he spotted Cody sitting at a corner table, facing the door. Miss Loretta and another one of her henchman sat facing him. Cody sipped a glass of whiskey, a menacing grin on his face.

Chapter Fifteen

Nikki was perched on Cody's leg, looking very much the damsel in distress. As they were talking, Benton came into the room. Loretta motioned him over to the table. She spoke to him, and he reached for Nikki. Her eyes reflected true fear, as Noah watched to see how Cody would play this out. Cody was talking gruffly and not wanting Nikki to go with Benton, but somehow through all of the discussing, it was decided that Nikki would go with the man, who would take her to her old room, and then stand guard, to prevent her from escaping again.

Noah got close enough, and had his back turned, but he could still hear Cody threaten Benton. "If I find out you've touched one hair on her head, I'll kill you." He spoke in a voice that sent chills up Noah's back, and Noah was very glad that he was on the same side as the blond rider.

"Mr. McQuaid, I can promise you, that Benton here won't harm your darling girl, nor will he allow anyone else near her. Isn't that right Benton?" Loretta's voice was chillingly sweet.

"Yes Ma’am, you're right." Benton answered his boss, but the smile and the wink that he gave her didn't go unnoticed by Noah, who had turned around slightly, and could see the exchange, even though Cody couldn't.

Benton walked over to Nikki, and grabbing her by the arm tightly, lead her through the door towards the rooms in the back. Noah moved to follow, when the doors to the salon were opened and a familiar voice spoke.

"I need to speak to the proprietor of this facility." Captain Moore demanded.

Praying the man didn't give Cody away, Noah quickly followed after Benton and Nikki. When Benton opened the door to Nikki's room, Noah knocked him on the head with a near by vase. As he grabbed the man to keep him from hitting the floor, he said, "You'd best be quick; your father just arrived."

Nikki turned even paler than normal as she silently nodded and moved to the bed.

Nikki reached under the mattress, and after a moment her eyes went wide.

"It's gone..." she whispered.

"Don't tell me that." Noah sighed. He glanced down the hall and then shut the door behind him. Quickly, he walked to the bed and lifted the mattress up to look under it. There was nothing there.

"This is where you hid it?" he asked.

Nikki nodded, as tears threatened to fall from her eyes.

After a few seconds, Nikki composed herself and looked around the room. "This isn't the same room," she said as she carefully opened the door and looked out into the hall. "I was in the room next to this one."

She started to leave when Benton groaned. Noah quickly moved around Nikki and grabbed the big man under the arms, dragging him into the room.

"Get me that sheet." He spoke to Nikki. When she brought him the sheet, he tore it, making strong strips to tie Benton's hands and feet with. As he was finishing up, Benton began to come to.

"What the hell....."He started to holler, glaring at Noah and Nikki.

"Sorry pal, hate to do this to you again," Noah grinned as he slammed his fist into the man's face, knocking him unconscious again. "No, actually, that felt real good." He took another strip of the sheet and put a gag in Benton's mouth. "Don't want him making any noise, if he happens to wake up before we're through." He took Nikki by the arm and led her out the door, then closed it, hoping no one would be needing this particular room for awhile.

Nikki went into the next room, which she recognized more. She quickly went to the bed and lifted up the mattress, feeling along the underside for the familiar shape of the parcel.

"What's taking so long?" Noah whispered, looking inside.

"I don't know where it is, it's not here. It should be, the spot where I secured it is opened, but it's gone." Nikki was frantic. She got down on her hands and knees and began to search under the bed, hoping that maybe it fell on the floor. She expected Noah to come in to help, or to at least say something. Suddenly, she felt a chill.

"Noah? Noah, did you hear me?" Nikki walked slowly to the door. She opened it carefully, and saw Noah lying on the floor, a small pool of blood forming around the side of his head. She bent down to touch him, then squeezed her eyes shut when she not only saw the boots, but felt him standing there.

"I'll bet you're looking for this." McQuaid's voice was menacingly nauseating.

"How did.........I mean you were..... how could you...?" Nikki tried to sort it all out. She couldn't believe he was here. She had seen her father's men cart him away, and yet......she looked around him and saw several of her father's men with him. The tears in her eyes were making it hard for her to focus, but she knew almost every one of them. McQuaid reached down and grabbed her arm, pulling her up beside him. Putting his arm around her neck, he pressed his gun to her temple.

"Maybe we should take advantage of this empty room here, now that your guard dog is sleeping." He lowered his mouth to hers.

Just before his lips touched hers, the Captain's voice could be heard coming nearer as he walked up the stairs with Miss Loretta. "I really don't see the need of going someplace..." he stopped speaking when he saw the group of men assembled before him in the hallway.

"What in tarnation are you doing here?" he bellowed. "You're supposed to be - ” He never finished the sentence. Nikki watched in horror as one of the men hit her father in the head with the butt of a gun.

"Daddy!" she screamed.

"Shut up!" McQuaid growled at her, his hold on her arm tightening. His lips curled in an evil smile as he saw the fear in her eyes.

"You didn't really think you could get away from me did you? You thought that half-breed Express rider was better than me? Well I'm gonna teach you a lesson!" He shoved her into the room and was about to close the door when the woman who had walked up with the Captain pushed it open. The look on Loretta's face was one of confusion.

"Who are you?" Loretta demanded of McQuaid, who stood with his gun aimed at her, his hold on Nikki making the young girl lightheaded.

"I'm Lt. Preston McQuaid of the United States Army." McQuaid never flinched, nor did he lower the gun. "I'm hoping for your sake that you are Loretta."

"I am, but how can you be the Lt., when he's down in the saloon?" Loretta questioned him back. " Do you have proof that you are who you say you are, because I don't take kindly to people trying to trick me." She stared into his eyes, showing no fear.

" Would the schedule for the army shipment route be proof enough?" McQuaid studied this woman before him.

"How did you get it? I thought it was missing." Loretta's eyes lit up at the information.

"This little tramp stole it, I heard where she hid it. I came and got it. It's as simple as that. Now, do you believe me, or not?"

"I want to see it."

"I'll show it to you as soon as we take care of a few things. The imposter, where is he? I think we need to take care of that situation first, then you and I can get down to business." He motioned to his comrades to take both the Captain and Noah, tie them up, and put them in the room.

Nikki broke free of his grip to run over to her father as they drug him into the room. She knelt beside him caressing his head. "Daddy, I'm so sorry, please be alright." Looking at McQuaid, she angrily screamed. "If my father dies, I will see you hang."

"Do you want us to tie her up too?" one of the men asked.

"No, she's coming with us, though tying her hands behind her back might be a good idea." Preston went over to Nikki, reached down, and tried to pull her away from her father. She turned on him and started punching him as hard as she could. He grabbed hold of her arm and twisted it behind her back, causing her to flinch and whimper. Taking a rope that one of his men had handed him, he tied her hands together, then letting his hands slide up the side of her body, he took her face in them. "You, my dear, are gonna be fun to tame. Right now, we have business to attend to." Nikki spit in his face, then cowered, afraid he would hit her. Preston McQuaid just laughed at her and leaned down taking her lips in a forced and hard kiss. Whispering in her ear, he said," I will make you mine.”

Nikki just stared at him and then past him to where her father and Noah lay bound and gagged. She needed to warn Cody, but didn't have any idea of what she could do since her arms were tied behind her. As McQuaid took hold of her arm and began to escort her from the room, an idea struck her. She waited until they were at the top of the steps, and then she stomped on his foot as she pulled with all her might to free herself from his grasp. She was happy to see Cody looking up in her direction just before she felt herself start to fall.

Nikki didn't scream. It was as though she felt a calming presence, and she was enveloped by two unseen arms, which helped her catch her balance, and set her back on the top of the stairs to the other side of the man she had tried to flee. Even though she couldn't see him, she knew it was no mistake when she heard Buck's voice whisper to her. "Don't be afraid, you are going to be alright. Everybody will be alright. Trust me."

Chapter Sixteen

As if the sight of two identical McQuaid’s wasn't enough to confuse people, what they had seen just take place between the girl and the unseen force had everybody awestruck. What had happened in only a matter of seconds had seemed like it took a long time. Finally, the anger getting the best of him, Preston reached once again for Nikki.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you." The man in McQuaid’s uniform, at the bottom of the steps spoke assuredly. "Not unless you want to die, right here, right now." Preston turned to see a pistol aimed at him. He grinned at the imposter wearing his uniform.

"So, you think you can kill me without the girl getting killed?" He nodded his head towards the woman standing with him, who had her small derringer set against Nikki's temple. "Looks to me like we got us a little problem here. Now how do you think we ought to go about getting it straightened out?" McQuaid grinned as he stepped closer to the girl.

"Let the girl go. Or are you such a coward that you need her for protection?" Cody challenged the Lt.

Loretta glanced at McQuaid before lowering her gun. "I think the boy's right," she said with a slight smile. "You two should settle this like men; leave the girl with me and stop hiding behind her."

McQuaid glared at her and then motioned for Cody to step aside. "Let's take this outside so no one else has to get hurt," he said as he started down the stairs.

As he pushed past where Loretta stood holding Nikki, Nikki quickly stuck out her foot.

Unable to catch himself, Preston McQuaid tripped over her foot and fell down the stairs, landing at Cody's feet. Moaning, he tried to get up. "Damn tramp, I think you made me break my arm. You're gonna pay for this." He glared up the stairs at Nikki, and once again tried to lift himself up with his good arm. Cody placed his foot on the arm and stepped down hard.

"I don't think you're going anywhere." he told McQuaid as the man grimaced under the weight. Seeing the parcel poking out of the man's jacket, Cody reached down and grabbed it.

"I believe I'll be taking this."

"And I believe you will be giving it to me." Cody had almost forgotten about the woman at the top of the stairs. When he looked up at her, he saw she once again had her gun to Nikki's head, while her other arm had a strong hold around the frightened girl's neck. "You give me the schedule, and I'll give you the girl. Seems fair to me. How about it?" Loretta spoke clearly, and straightforward.

Before Cody could answer her, Buck came into the room at the base of the stairs. Loretta smiled as she recognized the young Indian. "Well, this is getting interesting. I'm surprised to see you handsome, at least on your feet." She motioned for a couple of her own men to come stand by her. Handing Nikki to one of them, she told the other one to go find Benton. "Looks like we might have us a little reunion." she smirked, as she ran her gun down the side of Nikki's face.

"If we give you the schedule, will you let her go?" Buck asked.

"How about an exchange? You and the schedule for this girl's life?" Loretta spoke right to Buck. "You bring me the schedule, and I'll let her go."

Buck swallowed hard, and breathed out slowly. Turning to Cody, he said, "Give me the schedule." Cody shook his head, and Buck repeated. "Cody, give me the schedule, NOW."

Reluctantly, Cody handed the parcel over to his friend, seeing the look Buck gave him made him realize that refusing would only make matters worse.

"Buck, no," Nikki cried from above. "Don't do this, she's lying, she won't keep her word. She'll kill you, she........Nikki's words were cut short when a man's hand was placed over her mouth.

She tried to struggle free from her captor. Loretta leaned close to her and whispered. "If you don't be still, I will plant a bullet in his head right now, do you understand me?" Nikki nodded and began to calm down, but the hand remained over her mouth. Tears rolled down her face as she watched Buck take each painful step toward the top floor.

As he got closer to the top of the stairs, Buck looked at Nikki and mouthed the words "Trust me." They locked eyes for a brief moment, and she could see his were moist with unshed tears. This look said a lot that the two of them hadn't been able to say to each other since they had met.

Nikki let Buck know that she understood, and stopped struggling against the man who held her.

Buck carefully stepped onto the landing in front of Loretta. He held the parcel out, but as Loretta reached for it he moved it away from her. "She goes free first," he said calmly, staring at the woman in front of him.

Loretta took a step back and motioned to the man that held Nikki. "Let her go," she said, surprising herself as well as the man.

The man pushed Nikki forward.

"Untie her hands." Buck demanded of the man. The man looked at Loretta, who nodded at him to do so. After untying Nikki's hands, the girl moved quickly to Buck's side, rubbing her arms and wrists with each hand to get the circulation back.

"Go downstairs to Cody." Buck told her, not once taking his eyes off the people in front of him.

"But..." Nikki started to protest, then remembered the look she had seen in his eyes. " I love you, be careful." She needed to say it, at least once, in case something was to happen. She started down the stairs slowly. Cody, believing that McQuaid had passed out, was coming up the stairs to meet her.

Nikki looked back once more at Buck. "He knows what he's doing." Cody had reached her, and trying to reassure her, he added. "Buck will be fine, he just needs to know you're safe first." Cody took her arm gently and led her down the stairs. Just before they reached the bottom, McQuaid had rolled over and was aiming his gun at Buck's back with his good arm. When Nikki saw this, she screamed and jumped in front of the gun as it went off, the bullet hitting her. At the same time Cody's weapon went off shooting McQuaid in the neck, instantly killing him. Nikki's body fell on the stairs.

At the top of the stairs, Buck turned and saw everything happening, losing his hold on Loretta. "Noooooo." He yelled, as he watched Nikki fall. Loretta then snatched the schedule from his hand, and pulling her derringer aimed it at his head. Directing her man to secure Buck, she smiled as she gloated. "Looks like everything has turned out my way after all. Come on, let's get out of here." She and her friend were trying to drag Buck away from it all, when the tables turned on her. She found herself staring into Jimmy Hickok's gun.

"I'll take that," Jimmy said as he took the parcel away from her. "Now," he smiled, "tell your man there to put my friend down real gentle like, or you'll be sorry you ever hurt him."

Loretta simply nodded to the man holding Buck. Jimmy motioned for her to move toward the room where Noah and the Captain were being held prisoner in. "And you call yourselves soldiers." Jimmy smirked at the army men just standing around. "You allowed this to happen to your Captain? I'm glad I don't have to count on you to save my butt all the time." He made a disgusted face as he turned back toward Loretta. "The Marshal's on his way. I met him on the street before I came up the back stairs, and just in time looks like. I have a feeling you're goin' away for a long, long time."

"I haven't done anything wrong." Loretta smirked back at Jimmy. "I had nothing to do with these two in here, nor did I have anything to do with the murder of the Lt., or the girl."

"What girl?" Jimmy glanced back to ask Buck about Nikki, but Buck was already down the stairs, assisting Cody with her. Turning back to the woman in front of him, Jimmy warned her. "You've done enough with what's happened to my friends, and the conspiracy to steal the guns and money from the army, I think that will put you away for a good long time." Hearing guns clicking, he pulled his other weapon before turning to see that the soldiers who had come with Lt. McQuaid had rounded up the other members of Loretta's group, including Benton, who still looked a little dazed from the blow to his face.

Jimmy had a couple of the soldiers untie and help the Captain and Noah to their feet. Noah's head had dried blood on it, and Jimmy thought he should see the Doctor before they decided to leave town, that is if they'd be able to leave before too long. They had already been gone far longer than anticipated, and Jimmy was sure Teaspoon was stewing about where the four of them were.

Chapter Seventeen

On the steps, Cody and Buck were tending to Nikki. "She's bleeding pretty badly. Thing is, I can't tell where it's coming from." Cody said distressfully.

"We need to get her to the Doc's." Buck answered. He knelt down to lift her up, almost passing out himself.

"We need to get you both to the Doctor's." Cody replied. He could tell his friend was hurting, and he could tell it wasn't just physically. He put his hand on Buck's shoulder. "Hang in there, pal. We'll get her help." Cody watched as a tear slid down Buck's face, knowing how hard it was for the Indian to show his emotion.

"I can't let her die, Cody. Not like Ike. I was here this time. I can't let her die." Buck pleaded with his friend for reassurance.

Just like out of a dream, Teaspoon was there, with Lou and Kid.

While Teaspoon assisted Buck, Kid gently picked up Nikki. They headed across town to the doctor's office. Meanwhile, Lou made her way upstairs with Cody to help contain the prisoners until the law arrived.

It looked like things were going to turn out alright after all. But then the doctor announced that Nikki's condition had taken a turn for the worse.

"She's lost an awful lot of blood." he told Teaspoon. "It could go either way. We'll just have to see how she does through the night."

Teaspoon took in the physician's words with a sober look. "I understand. Say doc?" Teaspoon called after the man as he turned to go back to his patient. "Can I ask you not to say anything to Buck about this? I'd rather he not have to worry about it, right now that is. He needs all his strength to get himself well, I'm afraid if he were to hear the girl wasn't doin' too good....." Teaspoon stopped there as Kid and Lou came out of the room Buck had been placed in. Lou had stopped by after Captain Moore and the local law secured Loretta and her helpers in the town jail.

"What's wrong?" Lou asked, looking at the older man's face. "She isn't..., she didn't...?" Lou's words caught in her throat, as she thought about how much Buck had been talking about this girl, this Nikki, and how it would kill him if she were to die. How he would never be able to forgive himself, and how he would never care for anyone again. It had taken both herself and Kid to finally get him to relax enough to drift off into a light sleep. And now the look on Teaspoon's face scared her.

"No, no, she's still with us. Doc says we have to wait........"

"Don't they know anything else to say but "wait and see?" Lou cut Teaspoon off. "We waited for Ike, remember? And, for what? We just waited for him to die." There were tears making their way down her cheeks. "Teaspoon, Buck can't go through this again. Why does this keep happening to him?"

Kid reached over and took Lou in his arms, his eyes wet with unshed tears. Teaspoon walked over and put his arm around the two of them. "I can't answer those questions, darlin', I wish I could. Life's not fair, we all know that, and we all know that whatever happens, we need to be there for Buck. Just like always. We're a family, and we'll take care of each other like a family would." All three glanced up when they heard the angry voices of the Captain and the doctor.

"You can't move her, not right now. It's very critical that she stay where she's at, if there's any chance at all of her surviving." Dr. Landon was trying to explain the situation to the Army Captain.

"Well, I have something very important that needs taken care of, and it can't wait. I need to be in St. Louis before sun-up tomorrow morning, or many lives may be at stake." The Captain stated. "If she isn't ready to travel in half an hour, I'll have to leave her behind." With that Captain Moore stomped out of the office.

"But Captain, your daughter........."Dr. Landon's words fell on deaf ears. He turned to see Teaspoon, Kid, and Lou standing not far from where this fiasco had happened. He shrugged his shoulders, then his eyes widened as he saw Buck standing shakily in the doorway of the room they had left him in.

"Lou..." Buck called to his friend, his eyes searching her face for an explanation to what he had just heard.

"It's alright." Lou told him, quickly wiping her eyes in an effort to hide her worry. "Come back and lie down." Lou went to him and put an arm around his waist, to lead him back to the bed.

"What is it? Is something wrong with Nikki? I thought you said..."

"She's alright. You just need to rest." Lou said as she helped him sit on the edge of the bed. Buck looked at her, his dark eyes holding her gaze.

"Don't lie to me..." he began.

Lou pulled him close and hugged him as tightly as she dared, trying not to cause him anymore pain.

"Buck," she whispered, "you have to get some rest. If you don't take care of yourself, then you won't be able to help Nikki."

Buck looked at her as he moved to lay back on the bed. "Will you sit with her until I'm better?" he asked quietly.

When Lou nodded, Buck closed his eyes and once more drifted into a light sleep. Lou watched his rest for a few minutes before going back to the room where Nikki was resting fitfully. She sat down next to the girl and waited just a bit before leaning in and whispering, "I'm not sure if you can hear me, I have to believe you can. Buck needs you to get well. I'm not sure what exactly happened between the two of you, but he cares an awful lot for you. You must be extra special to him. It takes someone special for Buck to give his heart away, like it seems he has with you, so you just gotta get better for Buck. He needs you now." Lou remembered that Cody had said Nikki took a bullet meant for Buck. She thought to herself how she would do the same for Kid, heck, for any of them, if she had to. They all meant a lot to her. So, Nikki must think an awful lot of Buck, to sacrifice her life for his.

Lou brushed Nikki's hair away from her forehead with her hand. "I think you and I could be good friends." she whispered. She absently reached for the washcloth in the small pan by the bed, and started wiping the young girl's face with it. Lou's eyes lit up when she thought she saw the corners of Nikki's mouth turn up into a smile, a small smile, but a smile just the same.

As she sat there tending to Nikki, Lou didn't realize there were three men watching her from the door.

"Ain't there nothin' else we can do for her Doc?" Kid asked.

"Right now, this is the best thing for her. I've seen a lot of my patient's fight their way back when there seemed to be no hope. If they know that somebody needs them, well it makes a difference."

Kid entered the room quietly and knelt down next to Lou. He covered her hand with his and gave her a reassuring smile. She smiled back and let out a sigh. It looked to be a long night, but they'd get through it somehow.

Just then Captain Moore came back into the office.

"Doctor, I need to speak with you."

The doctor glanced at Nikki before turning to meet with the captain.

"I see you haven't done anything to prepare my daughter for travel," the captain snarled.

"If you want her to get better, you'll leave her right where she is," the doctor replied calmly. "Go tell her that you're sorry you have to leave, and that you'll return as quickly as possible. Or just leave her alone, but please don't take her with you."

Captain Moore studied the scene in front of him and decided that Nikki was in good hands. He quietly moved into her room and went to her bedside. As he knelt down next to her bed, he remembered a time not too long ago, when he was saying good-bye to his son. Duncan had died for a good cause, yet the pain of losing him had never gone away. Now, he couldn't even feel pain for his daughter, for he felt what she did had been deceiving. He reached his hand to gently touch her face, got up, and walked away.

"When do you expect to return?" The doctor asked him.

"I won't be returning here." Captain Moore replied. Looking at Teaspoon, he asked. "Are you in charge of these young men, the ones who were to deliver the schedule?"

"I am. And before you go putting blame on them........" Teaspoon started to speak, but the Captain interrupted.

"I'm not placing blame. My daughter brought this on herself. What I wanted was to ask if you would be so kind as to watch over her, should she survive this. I can pay you." The man started to reach into his pocket.

"There's a lot I would like to say to you, but this isn't the place to do it." Teaspoon quietly answered the Captain, anger in his voice. "When, and I emphasize the word when, your daughter gets better, I will more than gladly take her home with me and my boys to Rock Creek, and we will treat her like family. I don't want your damn money, keep it and remember how you threw away the chance at being a father." Teaspoon turned to walk towards the door to Nikki's room.

"You don't understand........"Captain Moore began, the tears in his eyes evident.

"You're right, I don't understand. I know you make me sick, so why don't you just get on outta here, before I do somethin' about the stench." The Captain looked as though he wanted to say more, but instead turned and walked out, mounted his horse, and rode off.

Teaspoon took a few deep breaths to calm himself down before moving to Nikki's bedside. "Don't you worry none," he told her. "We're going to take good care of you and Buck both. If he cares this much about you, there must be a reason. You just concentrate on getting better. Lou was right, Buck needs you." With that, he left the room to go talk to the doctor. He wanted to see how long it would take before they could see about getting everyone home.

Through the night, the "family" stood watch over Buck and Nikki. As the morning light peaked through the window of the room where Buck was sleeping, he began to stir. He woke to find Jimmy slumped in a chair next to the bed.

Chapter Eighteen

"Jimmy?" When his friend didn't wake up, Buck reached over and shook his shoulder. Jimmy jumped awake, and almost fell off of the chair. Buck smiled weakly as Jimmy tried to keep from falling on the floor.

"It ain't funny, but at least you're smilin' for a change." Jimmy grumbled.

"Where are we?" Buck asked looking around the room. "Where's Nikki?" he queried as he struggled to a seated position.

Jimmy moved quickly to his side. "You're in the doctor's office; she's in the room next door. Lou's with her, and I'm under strict orders to keep you lying in this bed. Don't make me resort to violence."

Buck simply nodded, exhausted by the simple movement. "She alright?" Buck asked as he settled back into the bed.

"She's getting stronger every minute," Jimmy replied, praying that he wasn't telling a fib. "I'll go check on her, and see about getting you something to eat and drink."

As Jimmy exited Buck's room, he heard voices coming from the room next door. Excited that it might be Lou and Nikki talking he knocked once, then entered. The doctor was inside checking on Nikki, and Lou was trying hard to stay awake.

"You've got to get some sleep." the doctor was telling Lou. "I think the worst part is over. I sincerely did not expect her to make it through the night. I guess I underestimated how strong she was."

"I think you probably underestimated how tough Lou can be, and how good a nurse she makes." Jimmy commented. Lou turned to smile at her friend.

"I think Nikki's the one who deserves the credit, she and Buck. Buck finally accepting the fact that he needs people sometimes, this time he needed Nikki. And Nikki finally feeling that someone needed her, in this case, Buck." Lou yawned after making her brilliant statement. At least she thought it was brilliant.

"What?" Jimmy looked at her confused. "Never mind, I think Doc's right, you need to get some sleep."

"I promised Buck I'd sit here until Nikki woke up," Lou insisted, "and I'm not goin' back on my word." She slumped back in the chair the doctor had brought in for her.

"Suit yourself. I told Buck I'd bring him back some food and something to drink. You want anything?" Jimmy asked. There was no answer. "Lou? Lou?" He smiled as he heard a small snore come from the chair. "I'll just bring you a blanket."

The doctor grinned at Jimmy, and motioned to the foot of the bed. Jimmy took the extra blanket and draped it over Lou. Then the two of them left the room leaving the door slightly ajar.

"Now, I'll go check on my other patient. If he's up to eating, he must be feeling a bit better." Doctor Landon opened the door to Buck's room.

Buck lay quietly while the doctor checked him over. When the doctor finished, he ventured, "So when can I get up and move around?"

The doctor shook his head. "I would like for you to rest at least today." When he saw the look of concern cross Buck's face as he glanced toward the door, he added, "I'll see about getting an extra bed moved into the other room. Then your friends can help you over there, and I'll have both my patients in one room. Sound good?"

Buck smiled at the doctor as he nodded. "Thank you," he said. He carefully moved to where he was seated on the edge of the bed. "Is it alright if I sit here until Jimmy brings me my food?"

The doctor nodded. "Just don't try moving around too much."

As Buck ate the ham and eggs Jimmy had brought him, Jimmy watched in amazement. "Man, if I didn't know better, I'd almost think you and Cody switched bodies." He grinned as Buck cleaned up the plate.

"Which reminds me," Buck looked up, "Where are Cody and Noah?"

"Teaspoon sent them back to Rock Creek. Had to make sure things were okay back there, 'til you were ready to come home." Jimmy answered. "Sides, he figured Cody would be tickled about now to get home and do some chores."

Teaspoon and Kid walked into the room. "Looks like Doc has set up a bed for you in the other room........"Teaspoon began, then as Buck started to stand, he gently pushed him back to a seating position, "providing, you behave, and do what you're told." Buck opened his mouth to speak, but the older man held up his hand, as if to say he wasn't through. "Which means, when you're told to rest, that's what you do. Now any questions?" Teaspoon smiled as he placed his thumbs through his suspenders waiting for an argument.

"No sir." Buck politely answered. "I just want to be in the same room with Nikki, that's all. I'll do anything and everything the doctor tells me to."

"Good," Teaspoon winked at Buck, then speaking to the other two boys, he said. "Let's move our friend here over to his new residence for a little while. The sooner the both of them get better, the sooner we can all go home."

"All of us?" Buck looked at the man, trying to assess what he had said.

"All of us, that little lady in there included." Teaspoon answered. "I have a feeling she's gonna need some support, and we're the family to give it to her."

Buck grinned at that remark. "Thank you." he said. As Jimmy and Kid led Buck into the room where Nikki lay, Buck noticed how pale the young woman looked. He also noticed how peaceful she looked, and how beautiful, even with the bruises on her face where she had fallen on the stairs. Looking to the other side of her bed, he saw his friend, right where she said she would be, sitting in a chair next to Nikki's head. He thought how lucky he was to have friends like Lou, when she gave her word, she kept it.

After getting Buck settled, Teaspoon asked if he would be okay while the others went and grabbed a bite to eat. Buck was more than happy to let them go, even asking them to wake Lou and take her with, as he knew she should be famished. He wanted them to leave so he could try to take some of his strength, and channel it through to Nikki. Within seconds after they left, Buck got up from his bed, walked over to the other side of Nikki's bed, and took her hands in his. Closing his eyes, he began to chant in Kiowa, hoping to send healing powers with his strength through himself to her.

"Just what do you think you're doing?" Dr. Landon's strict voice broke his concentration.

Chapter Nineteen

Buck simply stared at the doctor. He knew no matter what his answer, it would not be seen as a good enough reason for him to be up out of bed.

"Marshall Hunter assured me that you would be a good patient. I'm beginning to think he was mistaken."

"I was just trying to..."

"I know what you were doing young man, and under different circumstances I would encourage it, but you're still healing yourself."

Buck hung his head, feeling ashamed. He hated to admit that there was nothing he could do for Nikki right now, but deep down, he knew the man was right.

"Your friend was right." The doctor continued. "You were very badly injured, and you need to take care of yourself first. Otherwise you will be no good to this young lady or anyone else that you care about."

Buck stood up and made his way back to the other bed. The doctor came over and made a show of covering Buck up all the way to his chin. "I don't want to see you out of this bed for the next 8 hours. If I catch you up again, I'll move you back to the other room and tie you to the bed. Is that clear enough?"

"Yes sir." Buck replied quietly.

Satisfied that he had made his point, the doctor turned to leave. At the doorway, he turned back to look at Buck once more. "She knows you're here. You can take comfort in that...and she can hear you, if there's anything you want to say."

Buck smiled his thanks at the doctor. "I'll keep that in mind," he said.

The doctor simply nodded and left the room. As soon as the door closed behind him, Buck started once more with the chants. As he sang, he thought of now nice it would be to spend time with Nikki once they were both healed. When he heard someone calling his name, he wasn't sure if it was real or a dream.

"Buck, Buck?" It was faint, but it was definitely hers. Buck sat up just a little to look at the girl in the bed next to his. Her eyes weren't open, but she was moving her head restlessly back and forth. Her moans of pain made Buck's heart ache, even though he was thrilled that she was gaining consciousness. He wanted to reach out and touch her, to let her know he was right there, but his bed was just far enough away from hers, that he would have to climb out of it to offer her any comforting caresses. Heeding the doctor's warning, he began to talk to her. "Nikki, I'm here. You're going to be okay." His voice cracked as he tried not to choke up on the emotion that was swelling inside him. As tears of joy threatened to fall from his eyes, Nikki's breath became labored, and she gasped and moaned with each one she took.

"Doc!!" Buck yelled as loud as he could, even though the extra effort made his body hurt more. Thinking the doctor wasn't coming fast enough, although he had just called him, Buck began to get out of bed. He had to do something.

Doctor Landon rushed into the room, Teaspoon and Lou on his heels. "You stay put." he ordered Buck, then went to work on Nikki. Calming her down, the doctor was able to get her breathing back to normal. He gave her some medication to ease the pain, and she was once again out, but this time she was just sleeping. He turned and smiled at his other patient.

"Looks like we should have brought you in here sooner. I believe she's gonna be just fine." The doctor's smile disappeared. "I thought I told you to stay in that bed, or else." He started laughing when he saw the look on Buck's face. Buck looked like a puppy being scolded for chewing up a slipper. Teaspoon started chuckling, also.

"So Doc, does this mean I'll be takin' my family home soon?" he asked.

"I would like to give Buck 8 hours, and Nikki a day, before I make any promises." the doctor answered. "But the fact that she's come out of the coma is a real good sign. If you need to get going sooner, I suppose you could take Buck, and come back for the girl, later."

Teaspoon needed only to glance at Buck, before saying. "Nope, I reckon Rachel and the two I sent back can hold the fort for another couple of days. We'll wait till everyone's ready to go home." Speaking to Buck he added. "That means following the Doctor's orders." Buck nodded his head in understanding while smiling at his mentor.

"I think it would be best if we left these two to rest," the doctor said after quickly checking Nikki over once more.

"I agree; I just need to discuss one thing with Buck," said Teaspoon as he ushered the doctor and Lou out the door.

Buck watched Teaspoon as he made his way to where Buck lay. "I do something wrong?" he asked as Teaspoon sat down beside him.

"Nope," replied Teaspoon. "I just wanted to make certain that you were up to supporting this girl here. She's going to need someone she can depend on what with her father running off and leaving her and all."

Buck looked at Teaspoon, a little confused by what the man had just said. "You mean since Nikki will be coming to Rock Creek with us for awhile until the Captain finishes this mission?" He questioned Teaspoon.

"I mean her father took off, and don't seem to me that he plans on coming back for her." Teaspoon watched Buck's face as he relayed this news.

Buck glanced at the girl in the bed beside his. Even though thoughts of how wonderful it will be to actually be able to spend quality time with her, he couldn't help but feel responsible for the way her father had deserted her.

"It's because of me, isn't it?" He whispered.

"No, it's not you, it's not Nikki." Teaspoon assured him. "I think Captain Moore has other demons still eating at him, probably most likely from the death of his son. He may come around, and he may not, what I need to know, is if you think you're gonna be strong enough mentally, to be supportive of her." He sat on the bed, and put his hand on Buck's shoulder.

"I care for her, Teaspoon, I really do, but...."Buck hesitated before adding, "but, I don't think we're even close enough to knowing each other well enough for marriage....." he stopped when the older man's eyes got big, and Teaspoon's face broke into a big grin.

"I'm not talkin' bout marriage son, I'm talkin' bout her goin' to need someone to talk to, to be close to. Sure, there's Rachel and Lou, and the rest of us, but I'm thinkin' she's gonna need, and want you, more than anybody else. Ya see, you both seem to have formed a special bond." The Marshal squeezed Buck's shoulder. "You just need to be there for her, that's all, as long as yer willin' to do that." He waited for Buck to answer.

Buck lowered his head a little, blushing at the statement he had made. "I will be there for her, Teaspoon. I don't know how, or really when, but somewhere along the way, she's become an important part of my life. I feel that if I lose her, I'll lose another piece of me, just like when Ike died. I want the chance to get to know her more, and explore the feelings I have. Does that make sense?" He looked up in time to see Teaspoon wipe his eyes with his other hand. "Besides, I know the bullet she took was meant for me, wasn't it?” Buck's question caught Teaspoon off-guard.

Quickly regaining his composure, Teaspoon replied, "I'm not sure it was meant especially for you. I think that crazy Lt. just wanted to hurt someone; he didn't really care who. Still..." he glanced at the girl, "I'm pretty sure she was trying to save you."

Buck nodded. "I know she was," he said softly.

Teaspoon smiled. "I guess we all need to be sure and thank her when she's better," he said as he softly patted Buck's shoulder. "Not sure what our family would do if we lost you." With those words he turned and left the room.

Buck watched Nikki sleep for a few seconds to be sure she was really resting comfortably before closing his eyes and trying to catch a few hours of sleep. He had really meant what he'd told Teaspoon - Nikki was important to him, and he planned on helping her any way he could.

Waking from a fitful sleep, Buck felt much better. He was still stiff, and his body ached in every spot imaginable, but he felt more together now than he had the past several days. Trying to sort out in his mind where he was, he suddenly remembered the girl in the bed next to his. He sat up slowly, and glanced over to where she lay. She still looked as peaceful now, as she did before he had drifted off to sleep. When had that been? He wasn't even sure how long he'd been asleep.

"Well, you finally got some rest." The doctor came over to the bed to assess Buck. "Made me feel good to see you sleeping away like you were when I stopped in a couple hours ago."

"What about Nikki? Has she been awake yet?" Buck inquired of the doctor.

"No, but I'm thinking it's not gonna be much longer. We're through the worst part of it, anyway. As long as everyone is patient with her when she does wake up, I believe she'll make a full recovery." He finished his exam of Buck, then walked over to Nikki. "Come on little lady, seems to me you have a lot of good reasons to open those pretty eyes." As he was fixing the blankets around her, she stirred.

"Buck, Daddy, please someone help me. I can't see, it's so dark. Where are you?" Nikki's voice was petrified." Is anybody here?"

The doctor patted her hand. "It's alright, Nikki. You're safe in my office. Buck's here with you, but he needs his rest." He turned to Buck and mouthed for him to speak.

Buck sat up a bit and said, "Nikki, I'm here. I'll be here as long as you need me. I'd be over there with you, but the doctor here threatened to tie me to the bed if I didn't stay put." He smiled weakly at the doctor before continuing, "Do you remember what happened?"

Nikki calmed as Buck spoke. "I thought he was going to kill you," she said, "so I tried to make him miss."

Buck said, "You made him miss me, but I'm afraid he hit you instead. That's why you’re in here too."

Nikki moved so she was sitting. "Why can't I see?" she asked with just a touch of panic.

"I'm not sure," the doctor replied. "Let me take a look and we'll see what I can find."

To Buck's surprise, the doctor motioned for him to come over and sit on the bed next to Nikki. He stood up slowly and walked the few steps to her cot, sitting down next to her. It actually felt good to move around, despite the pain it caused him.

"I'm right here," he said softly, taking her hand. She held on tightly, her body tense with fear.

Buck watched as the doctor examined her, trying to read his expression for any sign of what the problem was.

"I'm finished now Nikki, you can lie down." the doctor told her.

Buck helped her lie down again and tried to make her comfortable. He looked at the doctor questioningly, but the older man just shook his head.

"Is my father here?" Nikki asked, looking in Buck direction.

Buck looked to the doctor for his guidance on how to answer her. Dr. Landon shook his head, and mouthed the words, "Don't tell her, not yet." Buck squeezed her hand tighter.

"I'm not sure where your father is right now, he was here awhile ago, but he stepped out for a minute." Buck tried to sound sure of himself. "He'll be thrilled to know that you're awake."

"Don't lie to me, Buck, please. I'm not a child." Nikki's eyes welled up with tears. "He's gone, isn't he? Or, maybe he never even came to see how I was. He didn't, did he?" she broke down, and Buck pulled her up into his arms, and held her while she sobbed. She clung tightly to him, her body racking with each sob. Buck smoothed her hair with his hand.

Chapter Twenty

"It's okay, everything's gonna be okay. I'm here for you. I promise I'm not going to leave you. I'll take care of you." He whispered into her hair, his own eyes becoming teary. Suddenly Nikki pulled away from him. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"I can't see you. Why can't I see you? Take my hand. Let me touch your face, so I can know for sure that it's really you, please." Buck took her hand and let her explore his face, reveling in the softness of her touch. When her fingers reached his lips, he gently kissed them, then held her hands. "Is the doctor still here?" she asked. "I want to know why I can't see anything."

Dr. Landon walked over to the bed. Standing next to Nikki, he touched her gently on the shoulder, and said. "You hit your head pretty hard when you fell. I'm not sure why you have no sight right now, but there's no reason why you shouldn't regain it, in time. Right now though, I do believe you and Mr. Cross here, need to rest as much as you can. You've been through a lot and Mr. Hunter would like you both to be able to travel by tomorrow if that's possible." He smiled at Nikki, even though he knew she couldn't see him.

"Who's Mr. Hunter? What's he talking about?" Nikki was confused, and fear started to show in her voice. Buck held her hands a little tighter.

"Teaspoon, I mean Mr. Hunter, is the Marshal of Rock Creek. That's where I live. Where we all live. Cody, Jimmy, Noah, all of us. We want you to come to Rock Creek with us. I want you to be a part of our lives. Is that okay with you?" Buck suddenly felt that maybe she wouldn't want to go with him.

"Do you mean it? You really want me to come back with you, after I almost got you killed?" Nikki lowered her head.

"How can you ask that?" Buck reached to gently touch the side of her face. "You took a bullet that was meant for me. You probably saved my life."

Nikki shook her head, "Don't be ridiculous Buck. We both know none of this would have happened if it weren't for me. I've made such a mess of everything."

"Please don't cry, everything will be alright...I promise." Buck took the girl in his arms as her eyes filled with tears again.

Taking a shaky breath, Nikki tried to calm herself, and sat up. "I have some relatives in Baltimore. I suppose I could go stay with them for awhile."

Though she couldn't see, Nikki could feel Buck's disappointment at her statement. "It's not that I don't appreciate your offer Buck. I do, but I just wouldn't feel right staying with you. We hardly know each other and after all that I've put you and your friends through, I just wouldn't feel right about it."

"But I..."

"I think both of you need to get some more rest before you think about going anywhere." the doctor interrupted. "Especially you Nikki. We need to see if some rest is what's needed to take care of the problem with your sight."

"Of course doctor." Nikki answered. To Buck, she added. "Can we talk about this later? I am kinda tired, and my head is starting to hurt again."

Buck, believing she was mostly just trying to avoid the conversation, decided to let it go for now. However, he did want to give her something to think about as she was resting, so he leaned forward and gave her a kiss on the cheek. Whispering in her ear, he tried to bargain with her. "Come to Rock Creek, just for a while anyway. If you don't feel comfortable, then I'll take you wherever you want to go, but please, at least think about it. I need you." As he helped her lie down again, Buck lightly touched his lips to hers. "Pleasant dreams to you." He got up and went to his own bed.

Nikki reached up and touched her lips with her fingertips. The fact that they still tingled after Buck's light kiss, made her feel confused about what to do. She knew how she felt about him, could he possibly feel a little something for her too? Was it worth the risk of going with him and his friends to Rock Creek, to find out? Or would she only bring more problems with her, and cause more trouble for them, if she went? Buck had said he needed her. Did he know how much she needed him? She tossed and turned for awhile before finally deciding how she would answer. "Buck? Buck, are you awake?" she called to him, but could only hear the sound of him breathing softly. To herself she whispered out loud. "No bother, it can wait." Feeling that maybe she had come to the right decision, she relaxed and was asleep in no time.

The doctor walked back in to check on his patients. Pleased to see them both sleeping, he turned and went back to his desk, sat down, and began to nod off himself. It had been a tough 24 hours, and he was exhausted, but he was happy with the fact that both of his charges were alive. Now, if he could only promise the girl that her sight would return.........

Nikki awoke sometime later to find herself alone in the room where she and Buck had been resting. She panicked for a moment, then remembered where she was. She imagined when she turned her head to the window, she could see a bit of light, but decided it must be her imagination. She was still blind.

When the door opened a bit she started, "Who's there?"

"It's Lou. How are you feeling?"

"I'm not sure,” Nikki smiled, trying to sit up. “My head still hurts but not as much. I can't see."

"Buck told me. He's very worried about you." Lou moved to help her new friend to more comfortable position.

"He's such a sweet man. I can't imagine many people that would be as kind to me as he's been after..."

"Buck is a wonderful person." Lou interrupted. "He's been through quite a lot in his life."

Both women were silent for a moment and Nikki couldn't help but feel that perhaps Lou was sizing her up for something.

"Buck asked me to come back to Rock Creek with all of you. I suppose you know that."

"Yes. He also said you refused his offer." Lou's tone was even, watching Nikki's reaction.

"Actually, I've been thinking about that and..."

"Wait," Lou interrupted her again. "Before you answer can I say something?"

Nikki nodded and Lou took a deep breath. She wondered if she might be speaking out of turn, but she decided since her friend's heart was on the line, she had to speak up.

"I know you haven't known each other long, but Buck...cares for you a lot. He's had his heart broken more than once, and I'm not sure how much more rejection he can take."

"I would never intentionally hurt him..."

"I'm sure that's true, but if you do decide to come to Rock Creek, please do it for the right reasons. I know what it's like to have nowhere to go. If you need a place to stay, there's a place for you with us, but if you don't feel anything for Buck, please at least be honest with him. Don't lead him on."

Nikki opened her mouth to speak, but when she heard the door open again, she stopped.

"Lou?" Buck's deep voice broke the silence in the room. "What's going on?"

Lou quickly glanced at Buck's face to see if she could assess if he had heard anything or not. She knew he would not be pleased to know what she had been discussing with Nikki, even though she was doing it because she didn't want him to be hurt, yet again. His face showed concern, but brightened when he saw Nikki sitting up. His eyes lit up and a smile broke out across his face.

"Evidently I've interrupted some pretty intense girl talk." Buck looked at Lou, winked, and then moved closer to Nikki. Taking her hands in his, he spoke. "I'm happy to see you awake. How are you feeling today?"

"I still can't see, if that's what you're asking." Nikki's voice cracked as she answered him." My head hurts a little, but not as bad as before. "And you..., do you feel better Buck?" She lowered her head, afraid he may see the sadness she felt at this moment.

"I feel a lot better, a little sore still, but I think that's to be expected." Feeling things were a little tense in the room, Buck turned to Lou. "Do you think Nikki and I could speak alone for a couple of minutes."

"Sure, I'll just go find Kid, and see what's going on?" Lou started to rise from the bed.

"No Lou, please stay." Nikki pleaded with this girl who she felt she had a few things in common with. "Buck, would you mind if Lou and I visited for awhile longer? There 're some things I need to ask her." She lifted her face, trying hard to hold back the tears that threatened to fall from her eyes, and forced a smile. "I do want to talk to you. I just need a little time with Lou. Is that okay?" Nikki expected Buck to abruptly pull his hands away, instead he leaned down and gave her a kiss on the forehead. "You and Lou have a nice visit. I'll go get some breakfast. But don't keep me waiting too long." He patted Lou on the shoulder, and looked into her eyes trying to figure out what was going on.

"We won't be long." Lou smiled at him. "It's just been so long since I've had someone close to my age to talk to, well, I mean female. Besides, I think Nikki might want to freshen up a bit, after all, she's been sick for awhile now." Buck nodded and moved to the door. Pausing, he looked back, Lou nodded her head for him to go, and he walked out closing the door behind him.

"Nikki, I........"

"It's my turn." Nikki interrupted Lou. "I think it's wonderful the way you care about Buck. I want you, and everybody else to know, that what I feel for Buck, I've never felt for anyone before in my life. I know we haven't known each other long, but I do know that from the first time I met him, there was something that just drew me to him. I can't explain it. I do know that in the saloon, on the stairs, at one time, he was there for me. He saved my life. I would have fallen down the whole staircase, but he saved me." she wiped her eyes with her hands.

Chapter Twenty-one

"No, that's not the way it happened. Buck was there, but you saved his life, he...."Lou thought the girl was confused so she started to explain.

"I'm talking about before I got shot. I know it sounds crazy, but it happened. He was here, in the doctor's care, but he was there, too. I know it, because I felt him and heard him." Nikki expected Lou to start laughing, thinking she was nuts.

Lou's eyes became teary, and she reached out and grabbed Nikki's hand. "I believe you." she told her. "I really do believe you. Buck's part Kiowa, and has certain beliefs. I'd be the last person to say he couldn't be in two places at the same time. He's a special person. That's why I don't want him to be hurt."

"I couldn't hurt him, and you did say he cares for me," Nikki began, then with concern etched on her face she added, "unless he's only pitying me right now because I'm blind, and he feels sorry for me."

"Buck wouldn't do that." Lou quickly came to Buck's defense. "I've known him long enough to know by the way he looks at you, and the way he smiles and acts when he's around you, that he isn't being this way because he feels sorry for you. You don't know how he was when you were really hurt, and you wouldn't wake up. He was a wreck." Lou tried to keep from crying. "Talk to Buck, feel for yourself how he feels, and then make sure, real sure, you feel the same way. If you come back with us to Rock Creek, whether you can see or not, if it's what you and Buck want, I know with time things will work out. Just be sure it's what you want." Lou finished just as Buck stepped in again.

"Sorry, I really need to talk to Nikki." He flashed his smile at Lou. His face looked serious, and he swallowed hard. "Lou, do you mind? There are some things she and I need to talk about." Lou got up, patted Nikki's hand, and gave her a hug. Then she crossed the floor and when she met Buck, she hugged him tight. Leaving the room, Lou closed the door tightly behind her.

"Don't bother them for awhile, okay?" Buck heard Lou speaking to someone outside the room.

Buck carefully settled onto the bed next to Nikki. He gently took her hand in his. "I was wondering if you had a chance to think about my question," he said.

Nikki simply nodded. "I've been thinking about almost nothing else," she answered softly. "I was a bit worried that you were only asking me because you felt sorry for me, but Lou assured me that you wouldn't do that."

Buck moved so that his hand rested on her cheek. "Nikki," he said tenderly, "I care for you in a way that I've never cared for anyone. I realize that we hardly know each other, but I feel that we've been given a chance to..." he stopped speaking when he realized that Nikki was silently sobbing.

Now he felt like a fool. She had already told him once that she wasn’t comfortable with the idea. She was dealing with the sudden loss of her father, and her sight, and he was pushing her to move to some town in the middle of nowhere and live with people that she hardly knew.

The last thing he’d wanted to do was upset her, and now she was in tears. Buck cursed himself silently as reached to take Nikki in his arms. He was surprised that she seemed to welcome his embrace.

“I’m sorry,” he told her. “I…I shouldn’t have brought it up. You already said you didn’t want…”

Nikki shook her head, and tried to get control of her emotions.

“Please,” she interrupted, still struggling not to cry, “let me say something…”

“I’m sorry Nikki,” he whispered again.

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” she smiled at him through her tears.

"You are the kindest man I've ever met." she continued. "I 'm sorry for being so emotional right now. I feel so overwhelmed that someone like you would care for someone like me. I've never felt about any man, the way I feel about you, and it scares me."

"I don't want to........" Buck stopped as she put her hand on his mouth.

"Wait, let me finish. I want to be able to get to know you better. I do want to come with you and your friends to your home. I just don't want to disappoint you. I don't want you to think I'm someone I'm not. Back at the saloon, those other girls were, well, I'm not like them. I've really never been with anybody before." Nikki lowered her lids as more tears slipped through her lashes.

Buck was glad that at this moment she couldn't see him smile, because he felt she might be offended by it. But in reality, he was relieved that this seemed to be her biggest worry. Pulling her closer to him, he replied. "Nikki, I have never thought of you in that way. I would be lying if I said I didn't hope to someday have some kind of relationship with you, but I know that's a ways down the road. What I would like to concentrate on right now, is just getting to know you better. Does that make sense to you?" Nikki nodded her head yes against his chest.

Buck smoothed her hair with his hand and kissed it. She tensed up, and moved back from him.

"What, what is it?" Buck asked. "Did I do something wrong?"

"How do you look at me right now?" She inquired, suddenly becoming a little agitated.

"What do you mean?"

" I'm blind." she stated this, as if he didn't know, "I'd like to know how you look at me. I want to see your face when you look at me. I can usually tell how someone is feeling by the way they look, but I can't do that now. What if I never regain my sight. Are you still going to want me around? Are you still going to want to get to know me better?" Nikki pulled away from Buck, trying to get off the bed. Catching her foot in the blankets she fell forward, hitting her head on the small table sitting by the side of the bed. She collapsed on the floor, a little pool of blood forming around her face.

Buck jumped off the bed, hollering for help as he knelt down beside her. The doctor quickly made his way into the room. After examining Nikki for a few minutes, he turned to Buck and said, "Help me get her back into the bed. I'm certain she'll be fine when she wakes up, but I think we should make her comfortable until then."

As they settled Nikki into the bed, Buck asked, "Is this going to make her eyesight worse? She's really worried about being able to see again."

The doctor shrugged. "I'm not sure what this will do to her sight. I don't think it will make it any worse, but I'm not certain. Just do your best to keep her lying down when she wakes up."

Buck nodded. As the doctor left the room, Buck knelt down next to the bed and began to softly say a prayer of healing. His voice soft and low filled the room. After a time, he ended his prayer and sat quietly at Nikki's bedside. When the door cracked open, he looked up to see Jimmy standing in the doorway.

"Feel like some company?"

"Sure." Buck smiled faintly.

"How's she doin'?" Jimmy asked as he pulled the other chair up near Buck's.

Buck shrugged his shoulders, wishing he had an answer. "No change that I can tell, but I hope she's getting some rest."

The two young men were silent until Buck spoke again. "Do you think I'm doing the right thing?"

"About what?" Jimmy asked.

"Asking Nikki to come back to Rock Creek with us."

Jimmy took a deep breath. He wanted to take his time with the answer. He had his own opinions, but he wasn't sure what Buck would think of them.

"I'm not sure if I should answer that. I don't really know Nikki, not like you do."

"That's just it Jimmy. We've hardly spent any time together, and all the time that we have been together hasn't exactly been the best situation."

"That's an understatement" Jimmy mumbled.

"What would you do in my place?"

Jimmy laughed slightly at that question. In many ways, he and Buck were like night and day. He had a fiery temper, he never thought things through; he lived moment to moment. Buck kept his emotions in check for the most part, and all of his decisions seemed to Jimmy to be well thought out. That's why his actions where Nikki was concerned were a bit surprising. He didn't know anything about this girl, and it was because of her that he'd almost been killed. Jimmy hoped that his friend wasn't making a mistake.

"Jimmy?"

"Hmmm," Jimmy heard Buck speak his name. It dawned on him that Buck had been asking him a question and he had slipped away into one of his many thinking modes. "What was the question again?" he sheepishly asked Buck. "Sorry, I guess I kind of wandered there for a moment." He gave Buck a crooked grin.

"It doesn't matter, it was an unfair question. You and I are really nothing alike, so I guess it would be hard for you to determine what you'd do if you were me." Buck slightly smiled at Jimmy, then turned his attention on the girl again.

"If I ask you a question, you promise not to deck me?" Jimmy asked Buck. He wasn't sure if it was his place or not, but he felt someone needed to make sure Buck remembered why he, himself was in this particular spot in the first place.

"I know what you're going to say." Buck looked at his friend. "And no, I wouldn't deck you. I know you all think that Nikki's the reason I got hurt........."

"You mean, almost got killed, don't you?" Jimmy interrupted.

Buck gave him a stern look. "If Nikki hadn't been in the picture, Loretta's thugs would have jumped Cody and me anyway. We had that parcel. We were taking it to St. Louis. It was Cody's and my job to deliver..........."

"But sweet little Nikki stole it from you, and you both got beat near to death." Jimmy sarcastically interrupted again.

Buck grabbed Jimmy by the collar. "I said I wouldn't deck you, but you're pushing your luck, Jimmy. Now, shut up and let me finish." Buck's anger got the best of him. "Let's go out of here, so we can talk. I don't want Nikki waking up to angry voices, especially mine." With that, the two of them walked out of the room. Buck spotted Lou, and asked if she would sit with Nikki for awhile until he came back. He told her the doctor's orders about keeping Nikki lying down should she awake, until the doctor had time to examine her.

As the two young men stepped outside, Jimmy tried to apologize. "Listen Buck, I'm sorry for what I said about Nikki."

"Just shut up and listen to me, okay Jimmy." Buck's eyes were wet. "I listen to everybody talk about how Nikki almost got me killed, nobody realizes she saved my life. Suppose she hadn't been with Cody and I when we were jumped. Suppose Loretta's men found what they were looking for then, you think they would have let Cody and I live? I think the fact that they didn't find what they were looking for, I think that's why Cody and I are alive today. Okay, Nikki taking and hiding it, probably caused a bit more pain than needed, but I can't blame everything wrong that happened on her. She jumped in front of a bullet and saved my life, Jimmy. She didn't have to do that."

"That's why you want her to come to Rock Creek, you feel you owe her something?"

Buck's eyes shot daggers at Jimmy. "I care for her. Is that too hard for you to understand? I don't feel like I owe her, I feel, I feel maybe there's something connecting the two of us. You wouldn't understand, someone like me isn't supposed to have any kind of relationship with a woman, that's just reserved for you and Kid, and Cody. Not my kind, right?" Buck pushed his way past Jimmy into the Doctor's office, before he did something he would regret. Opening the door to Nikki's room, he watched Lou as she gently swathed Nikki's forehead with a clean damp cloth, talking softly to the young girl.

Chapter Twenty-two

As he watched Lou, Buck realized that he needed a chance to think. He needed some fresh air and a change of scenery to help him get his thoughts and feelings straightened out. Nikki was in capable, caring hands if Lou would agree to watch over her just a bit longer. He carefully approached Lou.

"I'm not sure if you can hear me," Lou was saying, "but I'm going to act like you can. I hope you had a chance to think over what I told you earlier about not wanting Buck to get hurt anymore. I'm..." Buck's shadow falling across Nikki's face caused Lou to turn.

"What did you say to her?" Buck demanded.

Lou started to answer but he cut her off, "I can't believe you'd go behind my back like that Lou!"

"Buck I didn't do that, I was just trying to..."

"To what? Convince her that coming back with us was a bad idea? Because that's what she thinks, and now she's afraid I won't want her there because she can't see!"

"Buck..." Jimmy came back into the room when he heard Buck's raised voice. He took a step towards the Kiowa, but stopped when he saw the anger in Buck's eyes.

"After all I've been through, don't you think I deserve a little happiness? Or at least a chance..." Buck shook his head then and laughed sadly.

"You know, she's probably better off going back East. Everybody I care about ends up dying or leaving me anyway."

Buck rushed past Jimmy and left the room. Lou and Jimmy looked at each other, neither of them understanding what had just happened. Lou had never heard that tone in Buck's voice before. Jimmy reached over to touch Lou's shoulder in reassurance, then turned to go after Buck.

"Hey!" Jimmy yelled at him as Buck opened the front door of the doctor’s office to go outside.

"I don't want to talk to you!" Buck scowled.

"Ok, then you can listen. I wanna get one thing straight right now. I never said nothin' about you not being allowed to have somebody in your life...you said that, not me, so don't put words in my mouth!"

Jimmy's anger seemed to surprise Buck, who stood silent. For his part, Jimmy took a breath and continued.

"You asked me what I thought and I told you. Because I'm your friend and I don't want to see somebody you don't even know take advantage of you! You may think that can't happen, but just because you feel somethin' for somebody, that don't make them the person you think they are!"

"She's not like Sarah, Jimmy." Buck said flatly.

That remark was like cold water in Jimmy's face. He hadn't thought about Sarah Downs in a long time. That had been his first heartbreak, and one he would not forget.

"I didn't say she was. I'm just saying' you need to be careful. I know you been through a lot. I don't want to see you go through any more pain. None of us do."

Buck stood digesting what Jimmy had said. He knew he was right about Nikki, but now he understood that his friends were acting with concern for him, not because they thought he wasn't good enough for this girl.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you."

"Well, I may have deserved part of it." Jimmy was trying hard to contain his anger. He was mad at the Kiowa, but he was trying to understand Buck's frustrations. But yelling at Lou, that was a different story." Buck, Lou didn't deserve it. Lou cares for you, and all she wants is for you to be happy. Hell, that's all any of us want. Maybe we were wrong to voice our opinion, but, then again, you asked for some of it." He watched Buck, as his friend turned to look at the hill.

Turning back toward Jimmy, Buck asked. "Could you tell Lou I'm sorry, and that I'll be back in a while. I need to get some breathing space." He knew Jimmy was gonna tell him to tell her himself, by the look on his face. "Just tell her I want to talk with her when I get back, okay?"

"Where ya goin'?" Jimmy demanded.

"Just for a walk. Can't go too far, wouldn't want Teaspoon sending out a search party for me, and knowing him, if I'm gone too long, he will." Buck half-grinned at his friend. Stepping off the porch to the doctor's office, he headed towards the outer end of town. Jimmy turned to go back inside. "Hey Jimmy," Buck called after him, and Jimmy turned around, "If Nikki does wake up before I get back, would you not tell her what happened, just tell her I went for a cup of coffee, or something. Tell her I'll be right back." Buck's eyes were pleading.

"No problem, Buck." Jimmy answered. "Just be sure you DO come back, and in one piece. I'm kinda gettin tired of haulin' your sorry butt around." He halfway smiled at his friend. As he turned back to go inside, he collided with Lou.

"Who's in with Nikki?" he asked her.

"No one right now. I just wanted to make sure Buck was okay." Lou said, her eyes wet with tears. She turned to go back to the girl.

"Wait Lou, why don't you take a breather, I'll sit with Nikki for awhile. Go find Kid, I think he's down at the livery. Teaspoon wanted him to see what he could do about renting a wagon for the trip home."

"You sure?" When Jimmy nodded, Lou walked out the door, and headed to the livery. Jimmy went to the room where Nikki lay, and pulled his chair up next to the bed, close to her head. Watching her rest, he mused to himself. "I'm thinking Buck sees something real good in you, I guess I have to look harder. I have to trust him." Absently he reached over and pushed a strand of hair away from her eyes.

As Jimmy pulled back his hand, Nikki's eyes fluttered open. She blinked a few times, and then squinted trying to make her eyes focus on the person beside her. When she recognized Jimmy, she smiled. "You're Jimmy, right?" she asked quietly.

Jimmy nodded. "Buck needed to step out for a moment; he asked me to sit with you until he gets back."

Nikki smiled at him. "If I squint real hard, I can see you," she said as she moved to sit up.

Jimmy quickly placed his hand on her shoulder. "I was told to keep you lying down until the doctor has a chance to check on you," he said. "I'll go call him."

Nikki nodded slowly and settled back into the bed as Jimmy went to the door and called for the doctor. "She's awake," he said as the doctor came towards the room. "She says she can see me if she squints."

"That's good news," Doctor Langdon said as he moved past Jimmy into the room.

"Maybe that last bump on the head did you some good." The doctor smiled and Nikki laughed quietly at his joke, thrilled that she could actually see something, no matter that it was still very blurry.

Buck sat quietly by himself just outside of town. The walk here had been uncomfortable, but at the same time it felt good to actually move. He took several deep breaths, trying to calm his thoughts. It was times like this when he missed Ike the most.

"I'd give anything if you were here right now Buddy. I just don't know what to do. I want to help her, I want to be with her...but what if I'm wrong?"

Just then, a breeze blew by him, moving his hair across his face. It felt like someone's hand touched his cheek, and he could almost swear he heard someone whisper. "Go with your heart." He turned to see who was there, and could hear someone calling his name. The voice got louder and louder, and closer and closer. "Ike?"

"Buck, I'm glad I found you. Don't get mad at me, I thought you'd want to know as soon as possible. Nikki's awake, and she can see. She can see Buck." Lou was panting, and practically out of breath. There were tears in her eyes, as she tried to apologize again for the misunderstanding earlier. "Buck, I'm sorry you thought I was........"

"No, I'm sorry Lou. I've been a little on edge. You said Nikki was awake? How do you know? Did you see her?" Buck started firing questions at Lou, excitement in his voice.

"Whoa, cowboy," Lou put her hand on Buck's arm. "Kid and I had just come back from the livery. Jimmy was in the outer office with Teaspoon, and the doctor was in with Nikki. Jimmy told us she had awakened and said she could see him when he was sitting with her." she felt Buck's arm tense.

"Jimmy was there? You didn't stay with her, then?" Buck looked at his friend, wondering what Jimmy had told her to get her to break her promise to him. "You promised to stay with her, Lou, not Jimmy." He noticed Lou's eyes welling up again with tears. He grabbed her and held her close to him. "I'm sorry again, I'm such an idiot. It's okay. I don't know why I'm acting like such a fool." Lou pulled away, smiled up at him and answered.

"Feelings of the heart will do that to ya. Look at Kid and me." she grabbed his hand. "Now, c'mon, I know there's someone who's gonna want to see you."

Chapter Twenty-three

They made their way back to the doctor's office. As he pushed open the door to Nikki's room, Buck was greeted by her smiling face.

"I can see you," she said.

"I'm glad. That's means you can't use that as an excuse not to come with us."

Nikki glanced around the room at Jimmy, Lou, and finally her eyes came back to Buck. "I'm sorry for what I said earlier. I should have known that you weren't doing this out of pity; I'd be happy to go back with all of you. I can't promise I'll stay, but I'd like to give it a try."

"That's all I asked you to do," said Buck, moving to take her in his arms.

"Well," Jimmy smiled, "guess I'll round up Kid so we can start loadin' up to go home."

Buck and Nikki looked expectantly at Dr. Langdon, who stood nearby.

"I would like to see how you do for the rest of the night. Why don't you get everything ready, and if the night goes well, you can leave first thing in the morning."

"If that's your best offer, we'll take it." Buck grinned as Nikki hugged him tightly.

As Buck watched Jimmy and Lou walk out to the front of the office, he kissed Nikki on the forehead and whispered, "I'll be right back."

"Hey Jimmy, wait up!"

Jimmy turned around and gave his friend a lopsided grin. "I don't think you're up to helping just yet."

"I just...I just wanted to thank you both..." Buck began.

"For what?" Lou asked.

"For everything. For taking care of me, and Nikki. And caring enough to tell me things I don't always want to hear." Buck smiled at both of them, and then looked away, suddenly embarrassed.

"That's what family is for ain't it?"

"I just want you to know how much I appreciate it."

Lou said nothing, but she did step forward and give Buck a hug. "I'm just glad we're all going home."

"Me too." Buck whispered.

"Now don't go gettin' all sentimental on me..." Jimmy joked. "Get back in there and take care of Nikki. I think you'd better prepare her for life at the bunkhouse."

While the other two went to get things ready for the trip home, Buck returned to the doctor's office. Nikki was resting comfortably so he quietly sat down next to her bed. He wasn't sure why he felt so drawn to this young lady. I wish I could remember more of what happened between the time we found that wagon and waking up in the hotel room, he thought.

He watched her as she slept. She really was a beautiful young woman, and for some reason she was drawn to him as well. As if sensing him staring at her, Nikki opened her eyes and smiled.

"I can't imagine waking to a more pleasant face than yours." she whispered.

Buck smiled back, slightly embarrassed that she had caught him staring. "How are you feeling now?" he asked, as he, without thinking reached over and felt her forehead, letting his fingertips gently slide down her cheek. She reached up with her hand and held his hand to her face.

"Your touch is so gentle, and so warm." She closed her eyes as she said this for a moment, savoring the intimate feeling between the two of them. Just as quickly, she removed her hand and turned her face away from Buck. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that." she was embarrassed herself, overcome by the feelings that she felt in the pit of her stomach each time she touched this man.

"What are you sorry for? Nikki, you didn't do anything wrong. I wanted to know how you were feeling. How's your eyesight?" Buck tried to make her feel comfortable.

Nikki looked at him with her big deep blue eyes. "I can see you so much better than before, but things are still a little blurry beyond you. And I wish this headache would go away for good, but I suppose that will come in time."

Buck figured now was as good a time as any to try to put the pieces he had been missing in this puzzle together. He struggled to try to find the right way to go about asking her just how and when they had become friends, if not more.

Nikki must have sensed his confusion. "You don't remember everything, do you?"

Buck simply shook his head no. " I want to, I'm just drawing a blank on most of it. I know something must have happened............."

"The wagon that was transporting me to my father tipped over because of a broken wheel. You and Cody just happened to be at the wrong place at the right time. The men my father had sent to escort me to the Fort didn't want to be bothered with "babysitting" the Captain's daughter, so they basically handed me over to the two of you, since you were conveniently headed that way." She paused, looking at Buck to see if he was remembering anything.

"I do remember that. I believe those soldiers weren't very kind to any of the three of us. In fact, they threatened Cody and I if we didn't do as they said. Not that escorting you was going to be a bad thing, you are after all a very beautiful girl." His brow raised as he started to remember more. "That night when we made camp, after you went to bed, I was standing guard. I heard you crying. I came to you....."

"I was missing my mother.........."

"Let me try to remember, okay?" Buck took her hand and helped her sit up. "You said you missed your mother, and that you hadn't seen your father in several years, except for a holiday here and there. You also said your brother had died, and your father wanted you with him because he was lonely, but since he never treated you the way he treated your brother when you were around, you were afraid of what it was going to be like."

"He told me he had someone picked out to be my husband. He said he had already promised me to one of his most distinguished officers. I was coming to tell him that I would choose who I would marry. I didn't plan on staying long. I knew after I told him I wouldn't marry someone just because he chose him for me, that he would be angry, and would probably send me away anyway." Just thinking about how her father had never accepted her brought tears to Nikki's eyes.

"I remember we talked about your mother, and it seemed so easy for me to open up to you about Ike. We both were feeling lonely, but we weren't alone. It was nice that Cody snored all through that night, it gave us a chance to bond. I think that's when it first started. You finally fell asleep with me holding you. I was able to fall asleep right after. I guess that's why Cody was a little put out that morning. He must've thought something else had happened. He kept giving me static about the whole thing, but finally came to the conclusion that what went on between the two of us was innocent." He looked into Nikki's eyes. "How am I doing so far?"

"You're remembering more than I would have expected you to."

"When we were at the Fort, I heard you and your father arguing. You came down the stairs, and that's when McQuaid grabbed your arm, and told you he couldn't wait until you were his. You broke away from him as he was trying to kiss you, and ran back up the stairs. I believe that's when he came and told Cody and I that we were to take the parcel on to St. Louis ourselves. Before we left, I was hoping to see you again to make sure you were okay. I knew I couldn't go back in, and I didn't have to. You met Cody and I at the gate. You gave Cody a hug, and were giving me a hug, when I bent down for a kiss. I think we would have kissed except your father interrupted us, and he was very angry when he saw what almost happened, no wonder he thought I'd done something with you when you ended up missing." Buck half smiled at the thought. "That's why I feel we owe each other this chance to see if anything can come of the way we feel about each other." Nikki's eyes were damp with tears, and Buck drew her to him in an embrace, holding her. Neither one heard the door to the room open.

Teaspoon and the doctor stood quietly in the door a few seconds before turning and leaving. The doctor turned to Teaspoon. "It looks like they're both up to traveling. Take it slowly and be sure they rest a few days once you get back home."

Teaspoon nodded. "I plan on taking an extra couple of days to make the trip home." He paused a few seconds before continuing, "Do you have any means of getting a message to her father? I think he needs to know where she is, and that we'll be taking good care of her."

The doctor nodded. "I'll get word to him that she's gone back the express station in Rock Creek. I can't for the life of me understand why he couldn't wait one extra day to see if she was going to wake up." He shook his head. "Some people just don't appreciate what they have in their lives."

"Excuse me..." the young soldier's voice startled both of the older men.

Chapter Twenty-four

"Yes son? What can we do for you?" the doctor asked.

"I have a delivery for Miss Moore". He held out a small package.

"She's resting now. I can make sure she gets it. I take it you're with her father's regiment?"

"Yes sir." the boy answered.

"If you'll wait a moment, I'll have a dispatch to send back with you. I want to let him know his daughter's condition."

Handing Teaspoon the package, Doctor Landon made his way to his desk for pen and paper.

Teaspoon looked at the small parcel in his hand, which was addressed to Dominique, and wondered what it might contain. No doubt it had been sent by her father. He hoped whatever was inside might give the girl some measure of comfort.

"Buck..." Teaspoon called softly to Buck, who still sat on the edge of Nikki's bunk. She was sleeping soundly.

The stationmaster motioned Buck outside the room, and Buck followed. "Doc says you're alright to travel tomorrow. We'll have everything ready to go at first light." He paused, and handed the package he was holding to Buck.

"What's this?"

"Just came for Dominique. Looks like it's from her father. Figured you should be the one to give it to her."

As Nikki continued to sleep, Buck studied the package he held in his hands. It was about the size of the parcel that had started this whole mess; the one that she had worked so hard to keep her father from delivering to the army.

When Nikki started to stir, Buck placed the package on the bedside table and moved so that he was sitting next to her. As she opened her eyes, she saw him and smiled. "I thought that maybe it had all been a rather pleasant nightmare," she said.

Buck returned the smile. "I know what you mean," he said. "I'm having trouble believing it all really happened too."

When she moved so that she could sit beside him, she noticed the package. "What's this?" she asked as she reached for it.

Buck shrugged. "I don't know; it arrived a few minutes ago from your father."

Nikki stared at the parcel, but made no move to open it.

"Would you like me to leave?" Buck asked.

Nikki shook her head. "I'd like you to throw it away," she said, handing him the package.

"Not until after you open it," Buck said. "You need to know what he sent you."

Nikki shook her head. "No I don't," she said. "I don't need anything from him. In case you didn't notice, he left me because his job was more important to him than I was. He didn't care that I didn't want him to deliver that stupid parcel; that I almost died trying to stop it from getting delivered. He has nothing I want." With those words she threw the package across the room. When it landed, the wrapping tore and a small leather case lay on the floor.

Seeing the case exposed only agitated Nikki more. "How could he? Why would he think that now, after all this time, I would want anything like this from him?" Buck had started to go pick the case up, but he turned and looked at the woman sitting on the bed. Seeing the tears start to flow from her eyes he quickly made it back to her side, and drew her into his arms. Stroking her hair, he asked.

"You know what's in it?" he held her sobbing body as she nodded her head. Kissing her on the top of her head, he placed his finger under her chin and tilted her head up so he could see her face. "What is it? What could be so bad, that it would shake you up this much?"

"You open it." Nikki pleaded with Buck. "Please. I can't bear to look at it by myself, especially if it's what I think it is." Her wet lashes made her blue eyes look even bluer. Buck traced the path of her tears down her cheek with his fingertip, and gently placed the tip of his finger on her lips. Seizing the moment, he leaned over and placed a light kiss on her lips. "It's gonna be okay, Nikki, I promise." As he rose from the bed to fetch the leather case she had tossed to the floor, Nikki took hold of his hand. "Thank you, thank you for being here. With me." She released his hand so he could retrieve the package.

Buck picked up the leather case. It was a soft case, delicately etched with a beautiful design. It wasn't light, but it wasn't real heavy either. He brought the case back to the bed, and sat down next to Nikki, who had been watching him. He held it for awhile, before trying to hand it to her. She shook her head, and pushed his hand away.

"Please," she looked into his eyes.

Buck knew what she wanted him to do. Although he felt as if he would be intruding on her privacy, he also knew he didn't want her to feel like she couldn't trust him. He unhooked the clasp on the case, and taking a deep breath, opened the case up. Inside was a beautiful locket, without a chain, and a letter folded neatly next to it. He opened the locket to reveal a picture of a pretty woman, whom he assumed was Nikki's mother, but the picture on the other side looked nothing at all like the Captain. Nor did it look young enough to be Nikki's brother, Duncan. Buck looked at Nikki. She had been looking the other way when he first opened the case. Now, he saw the look of fear and confusion on her face as she looked at the locket he was holding in his hand. "It can't be. It's not true. It's a lie, I know it's a lie." Nikki whispered as she reached for the locket.

"There's a letter here." Buck spoke. "Do you want me to leave so you can read it?"

"No, I don't want to read it. It has nothing but lies in it anyway. Could you just throw it away for me, please?" She handed him the locket. "And get rid of this too. I never want to see it again."

"Nikki, I think you should read the letter. If, for nothing else, at least hear what your father has to say. I could read it for you, but I really think this is something you need to do for yourself. I'll stay with you if you want me to, or I can leave the room, but I really think you need to read it." Buck handed the letter to her, and put his arm around her. Nikki solemnly looked at Buck, then reluctantly opened the letter. It began,

My Darling Dominique,

I realize there is no excuse for my behavior yesterday, but I suppose you are not unused to me putting my job before my family.

Nikki stopped reading, and rubbed her eyes.

"Are you alright?" Buck asked, concerned.

She looked at him, feeling helpless. "It's so blurry...I don't think I can make it through the whole letter. Would you...would you read it to me please?"

Buck blushed, again feeling that the contents of the letter would be too personal for him to see.

"Please Buck? I can't do it by myself."

Buck smiled, "Of course I'll read it to you." He took the letter from her, and after another moments hesitation, began to read aloud:

My Darling Dominique,

I realize there is no excuse for my behavior yesterday, but I suppose you are not unused to me putting my job before my family.

I could tell you that I had to leave for the sake of my mission, but that would be a lie. I could have had someone else take the schedule to my superiors. In truth, I left because I was afraid. Afraid of losing you, and at the same time, afraid that you would need me, and I would not be the father that you wanted. Perhaps that doesn't make much sense, but I feel I must be honest with you now. After all that has happened, I owe you that much.

You are so like your mother, in appearance, and in temperament as well. You have the same gentle, accepting nature. I saw that so clearly when you befriended the Express riders that escorted you to the fort. You have such a way of seeing the good in people, just as she did. I may have chastised you for that tendency in the past, but it is a gift, and one that I pray you never lose.

When we were first married, your mother and I were truly happy. She had a way of bringing me out of myself that no one else did. But, I let my ambitions get the best of me. I told myself, and your mother, that I was simply trying to get ahead and make a better life for us. But the military is a hard life, and being left alone and lonely did not suit your mother's nature. I put her needs second to my own once too often, and I pushed her away for good. It is something I regret deeply, and I will never forgive myself for it.

She found comfort elsewhere, and looking back, I cannot blame her. Anyone else in her place would have done the same. After she was gone from us, and I had no hope of gaining her forgiveness, I put all my hopes in your brother, trying to make him a better man and a better officer, than I was. When he was killed, another part of me was gone. You were all I had left. Every time I looked at you, all I could see was your mother. I was reminded of the pain I caused her, and not wanting to do the same to you, I pushed you away. Of course I have only recently began to realize what I mistake that was. Now I fear too much time has passed, and once again I have hurt the person that I should be closest to.

I know you have suffered a great deal of loneliness in your young life, and for that I am truly sorry. It seems I have been alone all my life, and it is a fate I do not wish on anyone, especially someone with as much love in their heart as you possess, Dominique.

I urge you to consider staying with Buck and his friends for awhile. I believe he is an honorable young man and will do all he can to keep you from harm. When you spent time with him at the fort, brief though it was, you seemed carefree and happy. That is my one wish for you, that you find happiness.

I do not ask anything of you Dominique, because I know I do not deserve it, but if you wish to contact me, I will respond, and I pray that this letter finds you well.

With Love, Your Father

When Buck finished reading, even he had a tear in his eye. Nikki's body was shaking next to him, and he pulled her close in an embrace, hoping she wouldn't pull away from him. He had nothing to fear, as she wrapped her arms around him, and sobbed. He could feel the back of his shirt becoming very damp, but it didn't matter to him. He breathed in the scent of her hair, which had been washed earlier this morning, with Lou's help. After a few minutes, Nikki pulled herself partially away from Buck, just back far enough to look into the eyes of the man who had become such a major part of her life. Sniffling, she spoke to him. "Thank you. Thank you for everything you've done for me." Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she added. "My father is right about a couple of things. You are an honorable man, and you do make me very happy." Buck took his finger and wiped another tear that was threatening to fall from her eyes. Smiling at her he pushed her hair away from her face and placed the palm of his hand on her cheek, caressing it with his thumb.

"And you, you're everything he said you are, too. That and more. You are a gentle and accepting young lady. You're also beautiful, not only on the outside, but on the inside as well. I've been on that receiving end of your inner beauty, so I can say that with honesty." Buck reached for the locket, and the case. "Do you want to put everything back, so we can pack it with your things, for the trip?"

Nikki touched the locket again, noting that it was still open. She picked it up and studied the two pictures inside. Her mother had been a very beautiful woman, and her....."This, this is my father." It was a statement she needed to be true. "The Captain. Don't you think it looks like the Captain when he was younger?" she looked at Buck for reassurance. Buck, not wanting to cause any pain, because he simply didn't know what was or wasn't anyway, answered. "I never saw your father when he was younger, but the two of them did make a handsome couple, and they did bring a beautiful daughter into the world, and into my life." He didn't know if she had really listened to the letter, and was choosing not to acknowledge the one paragraph, or if maybe he, himself, had read something into nothing, but he decided it wasn't his place to bring it up.

Chapter Twenty-five

The light tap on the door made both of them look up. "I hope I'm not interrupting, but I think you two need to get a good night's rest, ‘cause we're goin home tomorrow." Teaspoon gleefully teased. His face turned serious as he noticed how red Nikki's eyes were from crying. "Somethin' wrong child. Your father, he's okay isn't he?" He looked at Buck.

"I'm fine Mr. Hunter. My father is fine. I guess I'm just a little emotional is all. You all are too kind. I hope someday I can repay you for everything you're doing for me." Nikki tried to smile at the older man.

"We ain't done a whole lot yet, darlin'. And as long as you keep this young man here smilin', well, that's pretty much all we ask from you. That, and we want you to act like part of the family. Another thing, could you call me Teaspoon, I ain't used to the Mr." Teaspoon winked at Nikki, then turned to Buck. "You make sure you both get some good shut-eye tonight. We want to leave as early as we can." He turned to leave the room. Turning back around, he asked. "By the way Buck, just where are you gonna sleep tonight?" he raised his eyebrows as he said this.

Buck looked at Nikki, then at Teaspoon, then at the cot that he had occupied for the past couple of days. "Here?" It was more a question than a statement, and it was directed at his boss.

"I suppose that'll be okay for one more night. When we get home, ya know you're not gonna be sleeping in the same room. Nikki will be staying with Rachel, hell, I might just decide on another change in the bunkhouse once we get home. Do Louise some good to get outta that place with all you boys." He winked once more at Buck. "See ya bright and early."

As they settled in for the evening, Nikki suddenly sat up. "What am I going to wear in the morning?" she asked. "If we're leaving bright and early, I won't be able to purchase a new dress before we leave."

Buck smiled at her. "We'll think of something," he reassured her. "Maybe you can borrow something from one of the others. It won't be the nice dresses you're used to, but I'm sure we can find something that will fit. Now try and get some sleep."

Nikki smiled back. "I should have known you'd think of something," she said as she laid back onto the bed. She was soon sleeping soundly, dreaming of a new and happy life ahead of her.

Nikki woke up the next morning and as soon as she opened her eyes, she realized something. She could see. Really see. Her vision was no longer blurred and hazy, but clear, just as it had been before her injury. She was so relived and happy that she thought she might cry.

She looked over at the cot where Buck had slept, and felt disappointment at seeing it empty. She also noticed the bright sun that streamed in the window right above the cot. It was bright but not early. For a brief moment, she panicked, wondering if the others had left without her. Surely Buck wouldn't have left her behind...

She saw the package at the end of her cot, wrapped in plain brown paper. A neatly folded note lay on top of it.

Nikki - We thought you might need the extra rest. As soon as you wake up, Doc will send for me, and we can be on our way. I hope you like your present, I got it for you this morning. ~Buck~

With nervous excitement, Nikki tore open the wrapping to reveal her gift.

The dark blue coloring of the material brought tears to her eyes, as Nikki slowly pulled the dress from the paper. It wasn't a fancy dress. There were no frills, no beads, and lace only around the neckline, but to her it was the most wonderful dress she had seen in a long time. The round neckline made way to the buttons in back, which proceeded to run all the way to the belted waistline. Nikki loved the way the sleeves would cover her whole arms, she had worn the saloon dress and felt cheap for too long. She slowly stood up, as she was still a little shaky from not being out of bed. Taking the dress, she put it to her and held it close, feeling the soft cotton against her skin beneath the meager nightshirt she was wearing. Her head began to get light, so she reached down with her hand and steadied herself with the same table she had hit her head on only hours ago. She sat back down on the bed, her face feeling flushed, when she heard the tap on the door.

"Mind if I come in?" It was Lou. "I heard you stirring, and I thought you might need a little help getting ready."

"Please do, that is if it wouldn't be too much trouble." Lou could see the girl was smiling, but the words she spoke caught in her throat.

Lou slipped in, carefully closing the door behind her. She then quickly made her way to the bed where Nikki sat, and sat down next to her. "Something wrong?" she asked. She knew Buck had hoped Nikki would be happy, not sad.

Nikki looked at Lou. "No, not really. It's just.....well, you know when you said how caring Buck is?" Lou nodded. " Well, I'm just so touched by how sweet he is, too. He bought this dress for me. He didn't have to. I didn't want him to feel like he had to do something like this."

Lou put her hand on Nikki's hand. "Buck didn't buy it because he felt like he had to, he did it because he wanted to. Besides, you couldn't go home with us wearing what you have on, Rachel would have a fit. She would tar and feather all of us." She smiled at the blond girl. "Would you feel a bit better if you knew that I helped him. He picked out the dress, I just had to help with the sizing, which I hope we got close to right. I figure you and me, we're almost the same size, except every woman I know seems to outdo me on the, umm, upper area." Now Lou blushed, feeling silly for feeling jealous about this particular part of her anatomy. "I just hope it's not too small for you...........there." She looked at Nikki, who was smiling at her. "Oh, I forgot, your boots were okay, so I wanted to get you a little something too, just from me to you, since I gave you a hard time in the beginning." Lou handed Nikki a tissue with something wrapped in it. Opening the tissue, Nikki revealed a small floral decorated clip for her hair. She looked at Lou.

"It's beautiful, thank you." She gave Lou a hug. "Would you help me get dressed now? I don't want to keep everyone waiting."

"Let's do it."

After helping Nikki get dressed, Lou noticed a brush on the table. "May I?" Nikki nodded her head. Lou brushed the golden locks so they were smooth. She then found a band and pulled the hair into a side ponytail. Nikki handed her the clip, and Lou clipped it just above the ear on the side where the ponytail was. "Now, you look beautiful. You stay right here, and I'll go tell Buck you need to see him. He'll want to help you to the wagon anyway. I don't think you could walk by yourself yet, you seem pretty wobbly." She grinned at the blond girl, then turned to leave. Before she walked out the door she winked at Nikki, and said. "Welcome to the family."

Buck arrived shortly after Lou left and assisted Nikki down the stairs and into the back of the wagon. He climbed in beside her. "Teaspoon doesn't think I'm up to riding on my own just yet." He smiled. "I didn't argue with him too much."

Nikki laughed and settled into Buck's embrace as Lou started the wagon and they began the trip back to Rock Creek and her new home.

It wasn't long before Nikki had fallen asleep in Buck's arms. Jimmy and Kid rode alongside the wagon, where they could all visit, while Teaspoon rode ahead of them to make sure the trail they followed was as smooth as they could make it. He knew the two young people in the back of the wagon were probably still sore, and he wanted to try to make sure they avoided all the rough ruts they could. Glancing back, he could see his riders looked like they needed a break. And he, himself was hungry. He knew Dr. Landon had sent Kid over to the restaurant with orders from him for the cook to fix up a picnic lunch, and to send some dry goods with them for their trip home. Teaspoon knew their first meal would be tasty, as he could smell the fried chicken when they placed the box in the wagon. As far as the other meals, well, they might have to draw straws to see who was gonna cook, and when. Course, he considered himself to be quite handy when it came to fixin' grub. He'd had to fix meals for the boys on more than one occasion, and heck, they hadn't died on him yet. Riding back towards the wagon, Teaspoon held up his hand. "What do you say we stop here and have a bite to eat?"

"Sounds good to me," Lou was the first to answer. She pulled the horses to a stop, and set the brake. As the wagon came to a stop Nikki awoke and stretched, for a moment forgetting where she was. When she felt Buck's arm around her, she smiled. It isn't a dream. This is really happening. Buck helped her out of the wagon. As he lifted her down, she thought how nice it felt to feel his muscles. She blushed when she realized he was smiling at her, because she must have been staring into his eyes. As Buck set her feet on the ground, Nikki found it hard to stand. Her legs felt like heavy logs, and her feet tingled. She started to fall forward, and Buck caught her, grinning.

"Now, wait a minute. I was in the wagon with you, but I don't recall anyone offering me something to drink."

"I, I didn't, I'm not...." Nikki started to get flustered, until everyone else started hassling Buck about picking on her. "I'm embarrassed; I didn't realize I would be this stiff and sore. Just give me a moment and I'll be fine." She playfully punched Buck in the shoulder, and he squeezed her tighter, walking her in front of him to the blanket Lou had spread out on the ground for everybody.

"Okay everybody, let's eat." Teaspoon grinned, as he noticed Jimmy and Kid already had a piece of chicken. "Buck, you and the girls better get yourselves some food, fore there ain't none."

After eating lunch, Nikki helped Lou pick up the blanket and everything. They stuffed it back into the box that had been packed for them by the good people from town, and placed the box back in the wagon. Lou went to climb up on the seat, and found Buck sitting in the driver's seat. "Let me drive for awhile. You look like you could use a little rest. Why don't you sit in back and keep Nikki company." He looked at Teaspoon, hoping the older man wouldn't object. As it was, Teaspoon nodded his head. "If you get tired, you let us know, understand?"

"Yes sir!" Buck replied. Smiling, he lifted the brake and set the horses in motion. Soon, they were on their way again, Lou and Nikki becoming faster friends as they moved along. Every once in awhile, Nikki would giggle, and Buck would turn around to see what they were talking about. Lou would tell him. "You best mind what you're doing up there, Buck Cross. And if you think I'm telling stories about you, you're right, but I don't think I'm gonna be able to scare her away." She would grin, and Nikki would giggle again. Buck thought about how beautiful that sound was, and one particular time when his eyes met hers, she shyly bit her bottom lip, and her face became flushed, but she didn't look away.

It was late afternoon by the time they had decided to stop for the night. Lucky for them, they had chosen a spot close to a creek. Buck had been longing to go swimming for quite some time now, and he and the other two boys went down to the water to get refreshed, while Teaspoon and the girls began to set up camp.

"Looks like we got company." Teaspoon said, loud enough he hoped the boys heard. There were four Indians headed their way. "Lou, you and Nikki get behind the wagon."

"Teaspoon, you know I can help if you need me."

"I'm hoping it ain't gonna come to that."

"What's goin on?" Jimmy asked. The three boys had heard Teaspoon, and two had already gotten their guns. But not Buck.

As the four braves approached, Buck couldn't help but notice they had a string of ponies with them. It looked to be about 4 or 5. They must've been out rounding up ponies, and were just on their way home. When they got closer to the camp, Teaspoon raised his hand. "That's far enough boys." Without looking behind him he hollered. "Buck, come see what these fellas want. Tell em we don't want no trouble, if we're on their land, we're sorry, and we'll be gone by morning light."

Buck approached the leader. Somehow this felt very familiar. Asking the brave what he wanted, Buck knew what the answer would be.

The brave pointed to the wagon where Nikki and Lou hid. "White girl with yellow hair." He spoke in his native tongue of Lakota/Sioux.

"No," Buck responded. "She's already spoken for. She's my woman." He was glad his Lakota Sioux was still as good as ever.

"I will buy her from you."

"She's not for sale." This was beginning to make him sick. He was remembering a time not that long ago, when the same thing had happened. He only knew now that after that time in his life, he would have given the other girl up for 1 pony, maybe even for free. He had been a fool, but he wasn't going to let that mar his judgment now, not as far as Nikki was concerned. The one thing different with this transaction was the fact that it was actually being spoken, the one he'd had before with the Indians who wanted Kathleen, was done by sign. Just thinking of her name brought a bitter taste to his tongue.

"I will give you three ponies." the brave stood tall and proud.

"No less than six." Buck countered back. He knew by now that they only had four ponies. The other woman, he had told her she was worth 5, maybe 6 ponies. He soon realized how very wrong he had been, but this woman, she was worth more than material things. He could feel it, he knew it in his heart. He stared at the brave.

"I will fight you for her." the brave said coyly.

"I will not fight you, she is mine. I am done dealing." Buck turned to walk away. He knew when he turned his back that the brave would attack him, and he did. When Buck heard the noise of the other man get close to him, he turned back around and punched him, once, knocking him to the ground. The other three braves never moved a muscle. If they had they would have had holes in them from all the guns pointed at them. Jimmy, Kid, Teaspoon, and even Lou had them covered. Their leader lay still on the ground at Buck's feet.

"Get him out of here, and tell him not to come back. Tell the people in your village that his life was spared by the brother of Red Bear." Even in their language, the braves understood the powerful name. They picked up their brother, deposited him on his own horse, and turned and fled the way they had come.

Buck turned back around and almost had the wind knocked out of him by Nikki. She had run to him and was holding on to him, her body shaking from fear. "I was so scared for you. Why did he want to hurt you?"

Buck held her for a little while, then he leaned down and kissed the top of her head. Taking his hand, he tilted her head up to look at him. "It's nothing for you to worry about. Just a misunderstanding. They won't bother us again." He wasn't about to tell her exactly what had transpired, and he knew if his friends understood any of it, that they would abide by his wishes and not tell her either. He would tell her some day, but today just wasn't the right time.

Before settling down for the night, Buck had a talk with Teaspoon, Jimmy, and Kid, about taking turns standing guard. He didn't want to exclude Lou, but he thought it would be safer if she weren't put in that situation. He was pretty positive that the braves wouldn't come back, but he wasn't going to take the chance anyway. Jimmy decided he would take first watch, so the others bedded down the best they could with the sparse blankets they had. The two girls were sharing a big blanket, and there were 2 more for the others to share. Thank goodness, it was the right time of the year, when the air was not so bitter cold. Off in the distance, lightning danced across the sky, and the low rumble of thunder was steadily becoming louder.

They were fortunate that the rain held off until after they'd broken camp, but it still made travel difficult. As they rode, Teaspoon kept his eyes open for a place to stop that would offer them shelter. He was feeling that it would be best to wait this one out since the low rumble of thunder was growing louder with each wave.

Just as the rain started to grow stronger and the sky turned dark Kid spied what appeared to be an abandoned house off to the side of the road. He and Jimmy quickly checked the area and soon the weary group was sitting inside the building doing their best to dry off and keep warm around a small, but steadily growing fire.

"And that's when I found out our Lou was really our Louise." Teaspoon had been telling stories to pass the time while everyone was trying to get warm and stay dry.

Nikki was snuggled close to Buck, using one of the blankets that had gotten semi dried from the fire they had going. "But how could you not possibly know she was a girl, she's got such a beautiful face." She was looking at Lou and smiling.

"We never got to see much of Lou's face. He always kept it down, and wore the silly glasses she has in her shirt pocket." Jimmy snickered as he gave Lou a poke in the ribs. "Talked real low and quiet too, we all thought there was something the matter with the boy."

"Speak for yourself Jimmy; I never thought there was anything wrong. Lou was just different, like all of us. There was something different about us all. Including you." Lou smiled at Buck for saying this, stuck her tongue out at Jimmy, and snuggled closer to Kid with the second blanket.

"Yeah, and I'm real glad she turned out to be Louise. I was getting kind of nervous with the way I was feeling around a boy. Thought I was going crazy." Kid piped up, squeezing the woman he hoped he would be marrying soon. First, he had to get up the nerve to ask her, again.

Jimmy was leaning against the wall of the house, his eyes getting heavy. He started to nod off, and had to catch himself before he fell flat on his face. "Jimmy, why don't ya come snuggle with me." Teaspoon taunted. "Don't seem fair that you and I gotta be all alone while the others have someone to keep warm with." Jimmy's eyes grew wide.

"No thanks Teaspoon, I'm fine right where I'm at." He tried to suppress his yawn. He was chilled, but he wasn't about to share a blanket with an old codger, while Buck and Kid got to be with the warm body of a woman. He smiled as that image of lying next to a warm body of a woman enveloped him. Closing his eyes, he could envision Violet Johnson lying next to him, stroking his back and kissing his neck.

"Rise and shine everybody. It's a bee-u-ti-ful day, and I'm smelling Rachael’s stew already. If we get going, we can be home by early afternoon." Teaspoon's loud and cheery voice filled the empty walls of their shelter. Jimmy didn't stir. Teaspoon tiptoed over to the boy, who lay under the blanket he had ended up sharing with Teaspoon. "Jimmy." he quietly whispered.

"Not yet Violet, that feels so good." Jimmy spoke, his eyes still closed.

"Violet." Teaspoon hollered, then started snickering. Bouncing around Jimmy from one foot to the other, he kept repeating. "Jimmy's got a girlfriend, Jimmy's got a girlfriend." which had everybody else laughing so hard that Lou grabbed Nikki by the hand, and asked her if she had to go as bad as Lou did. Nikki, noticing how Lou was crossing her legs nodded and the two of them went out the door to find some willows.

Jimmy sat up to three somber faces looking down at him. "What, did I miss something?"

Trying not to laugh, Buck started to say. "We were just wondering Violet....." at that name, all three started laughing once again. Jimmy's face turned a crimson red. Then he jumped to his feet, and took off after Buck and Kid, who headed out the door in a hurry. "If I catch you, you're gonna be sorry you made fun of me. I better not hear you tell anyone else what you just said."

"Buck, Kid, get outta here." Lou's voice was loud and demanding. "My goodness, can't a woman get any privacy."

Chapter Twenty-six

"Sorry" they replied at the same time. Then they grinned when they heard her scolding Jimmy for just the same crime. They waited for Jimmy to catch up to them before walking the extra few feet to the building where Teaspoon had just about everything loaded in the wagon. "Nice you could help out, boys." was all their father figure said.

The girls slowly made their way back to the wagon. Nikki was moving a little slower and would catch her breath with each step. "Teaspoon, the wound on her side has opened up a little," Lou explained. "Is there anything in there we can use to put some pressure on it? Just looks like it split a little, but we don't want it to get infected."

Buck rushed over and helped Lou get Nikki to the wagon. He gently picked her up and set her on the tail end. "I'll go see if I can find some root to help stop the oozing, but you're gonna have to either pull the dress down or up so we can put it right on the opened part." Nikki looked at Louise, and then at all the men around her. "I'm okay, I'll be fine." she said quickly, even though there was a blood spot showing on the dress.

"Buck, you go find what we need, then you three young men skedaddle." Teaspoon looked into Nikki's blue eyes. "Lou and I will get ya all fixed up, and ready to travel. You'll be okay, I'm not gonna harm you." He put his hand on her shoulder and gently pushed her down to a laying position. With Lou's help, he rolled her to her side. "Hurry up with that root Buck." Buck came back and handed Teaspoon the root he had collected. Standing there, looking worried, he asked, "She's gonna be okay, right?"

"You just go on over there with Jimmy and Kid, and twiddle your thumbs or something, and let me do my job here, and she'll be fine and ready to continue home." Teaspoon gave Buck the look that meant do as I tell you to, so Buck went to join the other two young men, and wait.

Soon, they were all loaded and ready to travel again. This time, Buck sat in the back of the wagon again, holding Nikki. She seemed a little uncomfortable. " I'm sorry," she told Buck. "I just, I don't want you to see my ....."Buck shushed her. Smiling, with his chin resting on the top of her head, he thought to himself. *I must be a very lucky man. You've obviously not been very promiscuous.*” He remembered that word from a lesson he had learned at the mission. It was one of the Sisters' favorite sin stories.

The morning passed quickly, and everyone agreed that instead of stopping for lunch, they would press on to Rock Creek. The riders were anxious to get home.

Buck took another turn driving the wagon, while Nikki slept in the back. Teaspoon announced that he would ask the doctor stopped by first thing in the morning to check on Nikki's wound, and make sure that Buck was doing as well as he seemed to be.

When Nikki woke up a couple of hours later, Buck told her with a smile that they would be arriving at Rachel's in just a few minutes. When she didn't return his smile, Buck's brow knotted with concern.

"What is it? Is something wrong?" without thinking, he reached to touch her hand.

Nikki kept her eyes downcast as she spoke. "I'm feeling nervous I guess."

"Why?" Buck spoke gently, wishing she would look at him.

"What if she doesn't like me?" Nikki glanced at him, her big blue eyes the color of cornflowers.

"Who? Rachel?"

Nikki nodded, "It is her house. How's she going to feel about a stranger showing up on her doorstep? And what if...."

Buck put an arm around her and pulled her closer. "She'll like you just fine. I'm sure Noah and Cody have already told her about you..."

"So she'll know I'm the person that lied and stole...and almost got you killed." Looking down at her lap, Nikki toyed nervously with the fabric of her dress.

"Nikki," Buck took her by the shoulders and turned her body so that she had to face him. "I'm not going to go through this again. You did what you thought was right at the time..."

"But..."

"Enough." Buck spoke quietly, but firmly. "You saved my life. What happened is in the past. What's important now is that you're here, and we can spend some time together. I want you to see what my life is and get to know my family."

Nikki finally smiled, and Buck felt the tension leave her body.

"Once Rachel gets to know you, she'll love you as much as..."

Nikki's eyes flew up to his, and Buck sat frozen, with his mouth still open. But it was too late. It was obvious what he had meant to say.

Noticing his uncomfortableness, Nikki quickly moved so she could kiss his cheek. "I feel the same," she said quietly. "I was afraid to say anything..." she stopped speaking as Buck placed his fingers to her lips.

"I know Rachael will like you just fine," he said relieved that Nikki was the only one who had heard him and that she appeared to understand his feelings.

Nikki smiled as she relaxed into his embrace. She sat and smiled as she recalled what he'd almost said. He loves me, she thought. I finally have someone in my life that loves me.

Lou pulled the wagon up next to the barn, while Teaspoon rode up to the house to get Rachel, and the two boys he had sent home. Rachel came out, and taking one look at Teaspoon, ran and gave him a big hug. "I am so glad you are home." she told him. "Noah's on a run, and I sent Cody to Tompkins place to get me some supplies, but they will be thrilled that you're home too." Looking past Teaspoon to the barn, Rachel watched as Jimmy and Kid unhitched the horses. She saw Lou, and standing next to Lou, was Buck. Tears filled her eyes as she was so happy he was standing, since when Cody and Noah had returned it sounded like Buck wasn't in the best shape.

"Well, ain't ya gonna come down, and welcome everybody else home?" Teaspoon put one arm around Rachel's shoulder, while he led his horse with the other hand. She smiled at him, she was surprised at how close the two of them had gotten in the few months she had been here.

"Of course." she walked with him until they got closer to the others. Then she broke free and ran up to Lou, giving her a big hug. "Oh Lou, it's so good to have you all home. And you," she turned to look at Buck. Until now, she hadn't noticed the petite blonde young woman standing in front of him. He seemed very protective of her, as his hands held tightly to her shoulders. "I'm glad to see you up and moving around. You know how Cody can be. He had you as close to........" She caught herself before saying the word. She knew Buck was still sensitive about Ike's death. "Well, he said you were in pretty bad shape." Rachel knew she needed to address the young lady, she just wasn't sure how to go about it. Cody had told her a young girl had jumped in front of a bullet that was meant for Buck, but was this the one?

Nikki swallowed hard. She thought her butterflies had gone away, but seeing this pretty blonde woman, and how much she obviously cared for the riders, and how close a family they did seem to be, only made those butterflies multiply. She felt as though she might faint.

"And you must be...."Rachel was fishing, hoping someone would come to her rescue. She didn't want to seem insensitive, but she couldn't even remember the name Cody had told her.

"Nikki," Buck spoke up. "This beautiful and caring lady is Nikki."

His smile spread across his face. "She is probably the biggest reason I'm standing here today." He took his arms and wrapped them around the girl. "And Nikki, this is Rachel. She's the one who has to put up with the lot of us. But, at least her cooking is a whole lot better than Teaspoon's." This last part he whispered to Nikki, but loud enough for Teaspoon to hear. This was in reference to the breakfast the Marshal had fixed for them earlier this morning, the one that nobody ate but Teaspoon.

"Now wait just a gal'darn minute here. I told ya that I'd fix somethin that would stick to your ribs, and..."Teaspoon began.

"Yeah, and it stuck to everything else." Jimmy remarked. "Heck, you couldn't even scrape it off the spoon."

"I didn't seem to have no trouble with it." Teaspoon retaliated. Everybody laughed. That helped ease the tension of the first meeting with Rachel for Nikki. "Jimmy, since yer bein so mouthy, you kin take care of my horse." Teaspoon handed his reins to Jimmy, and turned and headed toward the house.

"Well, when you get everything done here, there's a pot roast with vegetables cooking." Rachel mentioned. "And, there's apple pie for dessert, if you clean your plate. Why don't we all go up to the house and catch up, ‘til supper's ready, then I could use some help bringing it to the bunkhouse."

Nikki looked up at Buck with confusion. "We eat in the bunkhouse. And the riders sleep in the bunkhouse. You'll get used to things.”

Rachel noticed how Buck was so gentle with Nikki. Then she remembered. The dear child had to be hurting a bit, since she did get shot. Rachel told Lou to go on to the house, then she walked back to where Buck and Nikki were walking slowly. She reached out and took one of Nikki's hands in her own. "I didn't tell you how thankful I am for what you did. For doing what you did for Buck. This family would have been devastated if something would have happened to him. I hope you plan on staying around for awhile. It'll be nice to have another girl to talk to." To Buck she said." We'll have one of the other boys come get her stuff, and bring it to the house later. You're not to be carrying anything."

"I don't have anything, so it doesn't matter." Nikki stated.

"Nothing?"

Nikki shook her head.

"Then we'll have to do something about that, won't we? There's a social on Saturday. That gives us a couple of days to get you some things of your own, and maybe we can alter one of my dresses to fit you. You do like to dance, don't you?" Rachel smiled at the girl, then hurried back ahead of them to make sure Teaspoon wasn't snitching any apple pie before supper.

Nikki glanced up at Buck, a worried look on her face. "I don't want to put anyone out. I don't want to be a burden." she insisted.

"You're not putting anyone out. And what are you gonna do? Wear that dress the whole time you're here. You know, things do wear out, and as much as I'd like to see you running around in your underwear, you probably wouldn't be too comfortable with it." Buck grinned, as the girl's face got a crimson red.

Nikki lowered her eyes. Buck lifted her face up with his hand. She was chewing on her bottom lip again, and she was trying not to look at him. "C'mon, I was just teasing." She looked up at his sullen face, which made her smile. "Forgive me?" he asked.

"If you'll forgive me for worrying so much." she answered.

"Done." He leaned down and gently kissed her on the cheek, slowly moving towards her lips.

"Hot damn." Cody hollered, which broke up the tender moment. "Aren't you guys a sight for sore eyes."

Nikki blushed, and laid her head on Buck's shoulder, smiling shyly at Cody.

"Hey Cody," Buck smiled too, and held out a hand to his friend.

"What's that for? Ain't I gonna get a hug?" Cody embraced the Kiowa, truly glad that his friend had come home in one piece. Buck was glad too, and knew that after what they had gone through together at the hands of Miss Loretta, he and Cody would be closer now.

"Well, Miss Nikki," Cody smiled. "It's good to see you too." He leaned down to kiss the girl on the cheek and she blushed again.

"Thank you Cody. It's nice to be here."

"Come on in and eat. You must be starvin' after Teaspoon's cookin'"

Buck and Nikki smiled at each other, and putting an arm around her, Buck led the girl toward the bunkhouse.

It was good to be home.

Later that evening, after Noah returned from his run, the family enjoys=ed a night of storytelling and Nikki felt safe as she sat in Buck's arms. She can't believe how they already made her feel a part of their family, and she laughed out loud at Kid’s telling of the story of Cody's repentance after stealing Buck's medicine pouch.

Just a short distance away in Rock Creek, a young woman stepped from the stagecoach after a long trip. She looked around at this new home for the Express riders, and wondered how thrilled a certain man will be, when he finds out she's back in town. She tells the driver of the stage to take her things into the hotel. For now, that's where she will have to stay, but she's hoping not for very long. She pulls a chain with a cross attached to it from her small purse, kisses it, smiles deviously, and closes it up in her hand.

The End of Part I... To Be Continued

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