Cricket Jones just turned fourteen and her parents had moved her and her family out west -mostly for Cricket's benefit. The city was becoming too polluted and the family doctor had suggested the family move west. Cricket had trouble breathing from time to time and the doctor said staying in the city would surely make it worse. So they moved to the town of Rock Creek.
Cricket was an unusual girl in that she didn't like dolls or dresses. She had dolls and dresses, but she didn't like them. She lived most of her life indoors confined to her bedroom. She spent her childhood frolicking through the pages of books while other children her age ran through the woods and played in the sun. She liked horses, but she didn't have one of her own or know how to ride one. Her father didn't believe in owning riding horses. Just horses to pull buckboards or plows. They had no need for riding horses in Chicago. Cricket wanted adventure and excitement which nearly always made her sick, but she had a new best friend here in Rock Creek. With him, she could get into all sorts of trouble. His name was Jesse James.
Cricket and Jesse were walking away from the schoolhouse on the warm late spring day. School would be out for the summer in about a month, Cricket couldn't wait to enjoy the summer by having all sorts of adventures. It was something she was never allowed to do before. Since moving to Rock Creek, Cricket and her parents noticed a remarkable change in her health. She wasn't going to let the first really nice day since they moved her escape.
"Jesse, can I go with you to the express station and see the horses?" Cricket asked. "I'm bored."
"Sure, come on. They're breaking mustangs today," he said shrugging his shoulders.
"That sounds really exciting!"
"I guess it is if you like seeing express riders landing in the dirt," he teased. "Come on, I'll race you."
Cricket and Jesse ran up to the fence of the corral where the express riders were mostly leaning on the rails of the fence. Several of them were covered in more than a little dust. Cricket was a little out of breath, but she didn't want Jesse to think badly of her. She shouldn't have run so hard. She let a couple of coughs escape and hoped she could control her breathing.
"Hey, Jesse, who's your friend?" one of the riders asked curiously.
"Hey, Lou, this is Cricket. She just moved here from Chicago."
The riders all took in the sight of the red headed girl in brown pants and a green calico shirt. She wore her shoulder length hair down, but with the sides pulled back out of her face which was dotted with freckles.
"Nice to meet you, Cricket, I'm Lou, this here is Kid, Jimmy, Noah, and Cody," she said introducing the riders next to her. "That's Ike and Buck inside the corral."
"Cricket, huh. That's a pretty unusual name," Noah said hoping she would elaborate.
"I didn't like my real name so I changed it. Everyone calls me Cricket. Even my folks."
"Have you ever seen a horse being broken before, Cricket?" Kid asked nicely -totally understanding about the name. He hoped to change the subject for her so she didn't feel pressured to reveal her real name. He didn't see the need for people to pry about that sort of thing.
"No, but I love horses."
"Well, you're in for a treat. Buck's one of the best at breaking horses," Jimmy added and smiled.
Cricket looked out into the corral at the horse and the riders. The bald one was holding the bridle of the horse while the other one was jumping on. The horse took off and started bucking and jumping. The other riders were whooping and hollering. The horse gradually tired and started to trot smoothly around the corral.
"Is he a real Indian?" Cricket asked.
"Yeah, you got a problem with that?" Lou asked defensively.
"No, I just never seen one is all," she said with a hint of fascination in her voice. She started to cough a little more. She knew she needed to relax before it got worse, but she was finding that hard.
Buck jumped down from the mustang and handed the rope off to Ike who started to take care of the newly broken horse. He walked over to the fence where the other riders were all standing. Cricket was really trying to keep her cough under control, but the more she tried to suppress it the worse it got.
"Hey, Buck, this is my friend Cricket," Jesse stated. "Cricket, this is Buck."
"Hi," she managed to say between coughs.
"Are you alright?" he asked her and looked at the other riders and Jesse.
"Yes," she said between coughs and there was a definite wheezing sound to her breathing. "This happens all the time. I just need to sit down."
"Jesse, why don't you bring her to Rachel's porch? I know some herbs that might help her," Buck volunteered.
Buck, Jesse and Cricket walked toward the house as the other riders started their afternoon and evening chores.
Buck came out of the house several minutes later with a bowl of steaming liquid and a towel. Cricket was still coughing and wheezing and Jesse looked like he'd rather be anywhere but there.
"Here, Jesse, hold this bowl right here," Buck said indicating a spot just below her chin. "Just take deep breaths and relax." He then draped the towel over her head and said some calming words in Kiowa as he listened to her cough diminish.
Cricket wasn't sure about all this stuff, it kind of smelled terrible, but it helped. It was better than a lot of other "remedies" that doctors had tried. She had no idea what he was saying, but the way he said it was very soothing. Soon she felt the attack stopping and she was very relieved.
"How did you do that?" she asked in awe. "The doctors could never do that where I'm from. That's why we came west, so I wouldn't have attacks so often."
"My people have been using plant medicines for generations," Buck explained. "White doctors don't always trust Indian medicines."
"Jesse, you should take Cricket home now," Buck said looking at the younger boy.
"I can't, I have to go to work."
Buck stared at Jesse as he left running toward the blacksmith shop. Buck sighed and ran a hand through his hair.
"Where do you live, Cricket?" Buck asked her.
"Just past the other side of town at the old Murphy place."
"Come on, I'll take you home," he said heading for the barn.
Buck walked in the barn to get his horse. "Lou, can you ride with me? Jesse just ditched Cricket and I don't think she should walk home."
"Sure Buck," Lou answered well aware of why he asked. Taking a girl Cricket's age home by himself would be borrowing trouble he didn't need.
Buck and Lou led their horses out of the barn and walked up to Cricket. He vaulted up on his horse and reached his arm down.
"Have you ever been on a horse before?" Buck asked noticing the widening of her eyes.
She couldn't speak she just shook her head 'no.'
Cricket grabbed hold of his arm and he pulled her up behind him. "Don't worry, just hang on."
And hang on she did. Buck had become her hero that day and she hugged him tight as they rode off to her home. They dropped her off safe and sound and her parents were most grateful.
Lou had to stifle a bit of laughter on the way back. She couldn't hold it in and snorted.
"What?" Buck asked a little irritated.
"She likes you," Lou said teasing.
"What? No she doesn't."
"Oh, yes she does. She's got a little crush on you."
"How do you know?"
"Oh, just the way she held onto you the whole way to her place."
"She's never been on a horse before and besides I told her to hold on."
"She was smilin' too, like her dearest wish just came true."
"What do I do?"
"Well, Buck, she's a little young for you," Lou tried to say with a straight face, and snorted again.
"That's not what I meant."
"You probably don't need to do anything at all, girls that age get crushes all the time. All it'll take is another handsome boy to distract her. Probably in a couple of days she won't even remember she liked you." "I hope you're right," he said wearily. "Lou, don't tell the others, they'll never let me live this down."
Lou snorted again and started to laugh. "Ok, but you owe me. I think doing my chores for the rest of the week will keep me quiet."
"Alright it's a deal. You can't tell anyone, not even Kid."
"Hey, Jesse, wait up!" Cricket called walking quickly but not running.
"Hurry up, we're gonna be late for school."
"I can't go faster, I'll start coughing again."
"What's wrong with you anyway?"
"Nothing, let's go to school."
"That wasn't 'nothing.'"
"I won't laugh at you," Jesse reassured her. "Come on, let's cut school today and go fishing."
Cricket smiled and her eyes brightened. "Ok, let's go."
They walked off and went to the fishing hole and sat down on a log. Jesse reached down beside the log and produced two fishing poles and a small bucket of worms.
"I was just here a couple of days ago," he said answering her unasked question.
He baited the hook for her and handed her a pole, then he baited one for himself. They sat in silence for a little while until Jesse got impatient.
"So, are you gonna tell me or what?"
"It's called asthma. It means my lungs are stupid. I cough and wheeze because my lungs are stupid."
"That doesn't sound right."
"Well, if I could tell you why, I would. It seems the attacks happen for different reasons, like the smoke from the factories and businesses in Chicago, running too hard, being nervous about meeting new people or just no reason at all. Sometimes it happens if I laugh too hard."
"Can you die from it?"
"I suppose so, if the attack was bad enough and I couldn't breathe, I'd suffocate."
"Can you be cured?"
"No and you can't catch it, just in case you're worried. Doctors have tried all sorts of 'treatments' but none of them really work. The only thing that has ever worked was that bowl of steaming stinky stuff Buck had yesterday."
"Are you scared?"
"I used to be, when we lived in Chicago. I had attacks all the time and they kept getting worse. That's why we moved. Since we arrived in Rock Creek I've only had one attack and that was yesterday."
"So tell me about the express riders?" she asked changing the subject.
"What do you want to know?" Jesse answered defensively. "They deliver mail. They're really not that exciting."
"They won't let you ride for the express will they."
"No, they say I'm too young. I could do it. They just won't give me the chance."
"I know how you feel," Cricket said commiserating. "My parents never let me do hardly anything before we moved here. They just stuck me in a room and paid a nurse to look after me. Now they hardly seem to remember me at all. They're too busy trying to set up the family business. If they didn't have to feed me they probably wouldn't talk to me at all."
"Rachel and Teaspoon look after me most of the time and the riders do too, but I have a family -just not here."
"Please tell me more about them," she pleaded, "I really want to know."
"Let's see, there's Jimmy. Jimmy can be ornery most of the time and he's really quick with a gun. Some guy wrote a book about him and it caused him a whole heap of trouble. He isn't anything like 'Wild Bill' Hickok though."
"Jimmy's 'Wild Bill' Hickok? I read that book once."
"He'll say he isn't anything like that book. You really read it?"
"I think I've read just about everything. Reading is all my parents ever let me do. Who's next?"
"Well there's Cody. He eats a lot and has all sorts of weird adventures on rides. You know, he once befriended a grizzly bear -at least that's what he said. Also, he can hit a bull's eye from more than a hundred yards out with his Hawkins."
"Wow. He sounds like he has lots of fun stories."
"Oh he does. Then there's Kid. Kid's from Virginia, he rides the pinto."
"She's a beautiful horse. That's his?"
"Mmm hmm. He told us he stayed in the boxing ring with a professional fighter for three minutes to earn the money to buy her."
"That sounds dangerous."
"Noah's just as good with a bull whip as Jimmy is with a pistol or Cody is with his Hawkins."
"Do they ever teach you stuff?"
"Naw, they tell me I'm too young," he said tugging impatiently at his fishing pole.
Cricket nodded in sympathy. "Nobody ever let me do anything before we came here, they were afraid I was gonna break. Tell me about the rest?
"Then there's Lou. He's really nice and all. He helps me with my homework a lot."
"He seemed very nice. He and Buck took me home yesterday. You know it's weird, but Lou kinda looks like a girl. Don't tell him I said that though."
Jesse laughed. "I won't. Ike don't talk, but he can hear. Buck taught him Indian sign though so we can all understand him."
"How did he lose his hair?"
"Teaspoon said it was scarlet fever."
"Tell me about Buck," she said trying not to sound obvious.
"Well he's pretty quiet, but like you saw yesterday he knows a lot about healing plants and stuff and he's good at breaking horses."
"So this is where you and your little friend have disappeared to, Jesse," Teaspoon said his voice startling the truants.
Jesse cringed and looked back at Teaspoon and saw that Buck was also with him. He looked back to Cricket. "Did a mention that Buck's a really good tracker? You get lost or cut school, he'll find ya."
Jesse took the fishing pole from Cricket and looked back to Teaspoon. "How'd you know we was gone?"
"Well, Miss Cricket here forgot her lunch and when her ma went to the school to give it to her she wasn't there," he said looking at Cricket. "You gave her quite a fright young lady. Your ma came to me and I came to the school to see if you'd seen her and low and behold you were missing too. I asked Buck here to help me find you two."
"I'm sorry Teaspoon, it was just too nice a day to be stuck in school," Jesse rationalized. He tossed the fishing poles back behind the log.
"Come on, you two, let's go back to town," Teaspoon said.
"You can ride with me, Jesse," Buck quickly offered.
"No thanks, I'll ride with Teaspoon," Jesse said hopping up behind the Marshal.
"I guess you're with me then," Buck said to Cricket trying to hide his uneasiness with the situation. He reached an arm down and pulled her up again.
Cricket was blushing but she was delighted. Not only did she get to ride on a horse again, but she got to ride with Buck again. The trouble she was about to get into from her mom was completely worth it. She put her arms around Buck's waist and held on as they rode to town. She tried to hide her smile, but she was pretty sure Jesse noticed.
Lou walked into the bunkhouse with a goofy grin on her face she had seen Teaspoon and Buck ride in with Jesse and Cricket. She had just seen Buck walk into the bunkhouse and couldn't resist tormenting her Kiowa friend.
"Hey, Buck, I saw you riding with your little friend again," Lou teased.
"That was not my choice, Lou."
"What happened now?"
"Jesse and Cricket cut school today and Teaspoon made me go with him to find them."Buck complained. "Lou, what do I do? I don't want to encourage her, but she's a nice kid and I don't want to hurt her feelings."
"Maybe you can't do anything," Lou said shrugging her shoulders. "Just treat like you would anyone else."
"Do you think that'll work?" Buck asked hopefully.
"I don't know."
Jesse and Cricket sat at recess eating their lunch together. They didn't talk much at first and everyone seemed to be stealing glances at them. They got caught ditching school and everyone else knew it. It was embarrassing and Jesse was sure the teacher meant it to be. She tried to make an example out the two of them.
"I have to clean the jail every afternoon and Rachel is making me do my homework in her presence. The added bonus is she is walking me to and from school every day until the end of the week. So what happened to you?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
Cricket shook her head. "It's just strange. I don't think they know what to do with me."
"Come on. What'd they do?"
"They took all the books out of my room and I have to sit in there with nothing to do until supper time. Then after supper I'm supposed to go straight to bed. I'm so bored."
"At least they don't watch you like a hawk, like Rachel and Teaspoon."
"I think I would rather have that. My parents wouldn't notice if I snuck out the window every night, just as long as I was back in the morning before they came to wake me up."
Cricket thought a minute. "Hey Jesse? Let's do it. I'll sneak out of my house and we'll go on an adventure."
"I can't Cricket, at least not while I'm being punished by Rachel and Teaspoon. Like I said, they watch me like a hawk."
Cricket kicked the dirt. "Alright, maybe when we're not in trouble anymore?"
"I don't get you sometimes, Cricket."
"Jesse, do you know what it feels like to be free?" she asked. "Not being confined to a bed anymore is being free. I can go outside and play, I can explore the world, and I can go to school with other kids. I want to do everything I missed."
"It's dangerous to sneak around here at night, besides Teaspoon would catch me for sure. We'll have to limit our adventures to daytime."
"I guess you're right."
Recess ended and the two friends went back to school and finished the school day. Cricket went home to her empty room and waited. She couldn't wait for her punishment to be over and more adventures to begin. She wondered when she would get a chance to see Buck again. If she had to stay in her room with nothing to do she would just daydream about him to pass the time.
The next morning was unseasonably cold and the air was damp. It wasn't raining but a fine mist seemed to penetrate the air.
Cricket hated weather like this. Chicago in the fall was like this. The damp seemed to permeate her house and make her sick. She hadn't experienced this kind of weather here in the west yet and she was nervous. What if it her parents decided that they didn't go far enough west yet? She didn't want to lose her first and only friend. She was happy here.
Her chest started to feel a little tight and she knew this was the beginning. She was too far from home to turn back now. Her only choice was to get to school. Maybe if she could get there early enough Jesse could take her to the station and Buck could help her again. She felt herself start to panic. That always made it worse. She could hear herself wheeze with every breath she took. The coughing started soon after. This attack was going to be a bad one.
She could see the schoolhouse now and she could see Jesse and Rachel walking toward the school. She hoped they would see her as she stumbled. All she could do was cough and she could feel her eyes tear up.
She could hear footsteps pound the ground near her and she looked up to see Jesse and Rachel crouching by her.
"Help…me…Jesse…I…can't…br…breathe…" Cricket wheezed.
"Jesse, help me get her to the doctor's office," Rachel said taking charge of the situation.
Cricket started to shake her head. "Doctors…can't…help…don't…know how…to…to…help," she protested.
"I'm gonna go get Buck. He helped her the other day," Jesse said and ran back towards the station.
"Don't you worry sweetheart, we'll take care of you. Just relax and concentrate on your next breath," Rachel said trying to comfort her. She leaned the girl up against her and put her arm over Cricket's shoulders.
They sat for a couple of minutes when crickets heard footfalls again coming near her.
"Buck, can you help her?" Rachel asked seriously.
"I think so, she sounds much worse than last time," Buck observed. "Rachel can you put a couple pots of water boiling on the stove? I'll bring her to the bunkhouse."
"Sure Buck, you got her?" Rachel asked him and hurried to the bunkhouse to get the water started.
"Cricket, can you put your arms around my neck?" he asked her. She nodded and did as he asked. He picked her up and carried her to the bunkhouse with Jesse trailing behind them.
She was slightly embarrassed but being in his arms had a calming effect on her. She really liked being this close to him, but she would give anything for him not to see her this way.
Buck gently laid her on his bunk and opened his trunk and pulled out a small tin. He pulled out a bundle of herbs wrapped in cheese cloth. Jesse sat at the end of Buck's bed and watched helplessly his eyes wide with worry.
Buck went over to the stove and poured some hot water in a cup over the cheese cloth bundle. "Rachel let this steep for 5 minutes and then get her to drink some. It'll help calm her down a little and it should help her breathing a little."
"What is it?" Rachel asked.
"Chamomile and catnip with a little bit of mullein and lobelia. I'll be right back," he said on his way out the back door.
Cricket drank some of the tea, which didn't taste too bad.
Buck came back later with some more herbs which he added to the larger pot of water. Rachel helped him create a steam tent for Cricket and they kept the bowls of steam coming until her breathing became clear and even.
Why don't you rest up a little and I'll take you home later," Rachel said to a sleepy Cricket. The bad attacks always tired her out so much. She was grateful for the opportunity to rest. She could tell by the familiar smell that she was resting on Buck's bed and right now there was nowhere else she would rather be.
Jesse was sitting at the bunkhouse table working on some homework, when Lou came inside. Jesse shushed her and nodded toward a sleeping Cricket when Lou was about to say something. Lou smirked and put her stuff on her bunk and went out to the barn where she thought she saw Buck doing some chores.
Lou walked into the barn and saw Buck shaking some new straw underneath his horse. "Hey, Buck, what's Cricket doing sleeping on your bunk?"
"She had one her breathing attacks on her way to school," he explained. "Jesse came and got me and we brought her back to the station. She's better now."
"I can see that. She's more than better, she's over the moon."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, she's sleeping on your bed, with her head on your pillow. So much for not encouraging her," Lou said laughing.
Buck looked a little stricken. His brows furrowed and the corner of his lip curled downward.
"I don't know what to tell you, Buck, but she's got it bad."
"Who's got it bad?" Jesse asked coming into the barn. "Oh you mean Cricket. Yeah, she does, but I'm warning you, Buck, you break her heart and you'll have to answer to me."
Lou snorted and broke into laughter.
"Oh and Buck?"
"Yes, Jesse?" Buck asked slightly annoyed.
"Rachel asked me to ask you to get a buckboard ready for her. She's gonna take Cricket home."
Cricket listened at the door of her bedroom as her mother and Rachel talked. Rachel told her mother all about the episode that Cricket had on the way to school and how Buck had made some tea and a steam tent to help her get through the attack.
Her mother was really unnerved at first by Buck's being an Indian and that made Cricket a little sad. But she felt better when her mom was impressed by how well the Indian medicine had worked.
Cricket heard Rachel leave and rushed back into bed. She knew her mother would come see her when Rachel was gone. She would probably tell her how worried she was about her "special little girl" and then tell her she was spending the rest of the week in bed.
She was not disappointed. She would have to wait four whole days to go back to school and see Jesse or the riders again. It wasn't fair. She was better now and her mother was just being overprotective.
It was Sunday morning and Cricket found her chance. Her parents had left for church about five minutes ago and they were meeting some friends at the restaurant in town after church for lunch. That would leave Cricket about three hours to herself. She decided to see if Jesse or any of the riders was hanging around the station.
Buck was in the barn grooming his horse. It had been three whole days since the last Cricket crisis and he was glad for the peace and quiet. He didn't mind helping her out, she was a nice kid, but the crush she had on him was making him a little uncomfortable.
He heard a noise in the back of the barn and that brought him out of his thoughts. He looked up from his horse and continued to brush him while looking around. Teaspoon, Rachel and the other riders were at church so there shouldn't be anyone in the barn but him. He caught some movement in the tack room. Slowly, he grabbed his knife out of its sheath. He stalked quietly toward the noise and movement. There was someone in the tack room, he could see their shadow. Slowly he pulled his knife back and waited pressing his body flush with the wall by the door -waiting for the intruder to walk past him.
He was ready to pounce when Cricket walked through the door. Buck let out the breath he was holding and let out an angry growl. Cricket jumped.
"Cricket, what are you doing here?" Buck asked as he re-sheathed his knife.
"I was looking for Jesse. Is he here?"
"No, he went to church with Rachel. Isn't that where you should be?"
"No, I'm supposed to be at home in bed."
"Then why aren't you there?"
"Because I snuck out the window?"
Buck looked up at the ceiling of the barn in frustration. Why him? He put his hand up to his face and rubbed his temples.
"Cricket, you have to go home. Won't your parents get worried?"
"Probably not, they'll be gone for hours. I was just so bored. They took my books away and I can't just lie in bed anymore. I'm not even sick. I needed to get out of that house. Can't I stay here for a while? I'll help you with your chores," she bargained flashing him her best set of puppy dog eyes.
"Oh alright," he said giving in, "Grab a brush."
Cricket smiled a huge smile. "Thanks, Buck," she said blushing, "For letting me stay and for helping me with my coughing fits. I don't think I ever thanked you properly for that."
"You're welcome, Cricket, I would have done it for anyone," he said trying to downplay what he did for her.
They brushed the horses in silence for about ten minutes before the silence became too much for her.
"How long have you been riding horses?
"As long as I can remember." He could see the desire to know how to ride on her face, but he wasn't going to teach her. This crush of hers could not be encouraged. Besides any of the others could teach her it didn't have to be him.
"Jesse knows how to ride, you should have him teach you," Buck offered strategically.
"Yes?" he asked back his eyelids falling half down his eyes.
"Can you teach me about the plants you used to help me breathe better?" she asked earnestly.
She had him and he couldn't get away. He was the only one who could teach her that and it was something she should know. There needed to be ground rules. He would teach her with her parents' permission and if there was someone else along with them. Maybe he could ask Rachel to come along. She was always wondering about herbal medicines too.
"Alright, on a couple of conditions," he said and explained how it was going to work. Her excitement waned only at the parental consent and he soon found out why.
"Maybe you and Rachel can ask my folks, they'll just tell me 'no.' It was hard enough to get them to let me go to school. They don't really trust Indians, but I know if they met you they would be ok."
"I'll talk to Rachel after she gets back from church. You should probably sneak back through your window now. Hear that bell? That means church is over."
"Can I come over next Sunday?" She asked him hopefully.
"Won't you be in church?"
"No, my parents don't take me to church with them. I embarrass them," she explained matter of factly.
"I'm sorry," he said sympathetically.
"I'm not, I hate going to church."
Buck smiled involuntarily at her statement.
"How do you embarrass your parents?"
"I ask the preacher too many impossible to answer questions. I don't know if you've ever read the Bible, but I have -six times. It doesn't make sense to me so I ask the preacher questions. My parents just started leaving me at home."
Buck had to admit having company today was nice and maybe if they spent time together as just friends her crush would fade and they would be just friends and he wouldn't have to worry.
"Well, if you're sneaking out of your house anyways, you might as well be here."
She walked up to him and gave him a big hug and then skipped out the back door with a big smile on her face. Buck really hoped he didn't regret this.
Jesse started to teach Cricket to ride the very next week. Buck thought this was good, because where he was going to take her and Rachel to learn about herbs, they would need to get there on horseback. He would rather Cricket be on her own horse rather than on the back of his.
Rachel laughed as hard as Lou had when Buck told her the situation with Cricket and the conundrum he faced being the only one who could teach her about the breathing remedies he knew. She was sympathetic and agreed to come along to keep things comfortable and to keep the town from talking. She also saw the value of learning the information herself. Buck wasn't always around when the riders caught colds and she was always very curious about the remedies he knew.
Rachel and Buck sat down with Mr. and Mrs. Jones and asked permission to take cricket on a nature study that week and they eventually agreed after asking many questions of both Buck and Rachel. Cricket's parents were very prim and proper. Buck thought it was no wonder why Cricket kept sneaking away and getting into trouble.
Buck saddled up three horses for their excursion making sure that the gentlest horse at the station was for Cricket. He knew she wasn't completely confident in riding yet, but Lollipop was the best choice.
Buck smiled as Cricket walked toward him and noticed Rachel coming from the house. Rachel handed him a cup of steaming liquid as she approached. Buck handed the cup to Cricket.
"Here drink this before we set out," he said to Cricket and handed her the cup.
"What is it?"
"Some tea like you had the other day. It will help prevent a breathing attack," he explained.
Buck was glad he asked Rachel to make it. Cricket looked nervous about the trip and Jesse said that nerves were one of her triggers. Buck attributed her nerves to two things: being with him and riding a horse by herself.
When she was finished with her tea, Buck gave Cricket a leg up and adjusted the stirrups for her legs.
They spent the day looking for and finding many wild flowers and plants that would help Cricket out of a breathing emergency. Buck gave Cricket the recipe for the preventative tea and suggested that she use it at night before bed. He taught both Cricket and Rachel how to identify, harvest and store all the plants they went looking for. Cricket had a small sack of plants to take home with her.
Buck was happy at how the trip played out. Cricket was really sincerely interested in the plants he was teaching her about. Cricket even took out a journal and drew pictures of the leaves and flowers to help her remember. He didn't feel like it was a ruse to be near him and he appreciated it. Rachel and Cricket both asked really good questions and the day was very pleasant.
They rode the horses all the way to Cricket's home and dropped her off there. On the way back to the station, Rachel couldn't help but bring up Cricket's crush on Buck.
"She really likes you, you know."
"I know Rachel, what am I going to do?"
"Well, I think you're doin' fine. It was a good idea to bring me along today, although she is genuinely interested in learning about things that will help her. She's such a sweet girl too. I think it's kinda cute."
Buck gave Rachel a look and Rachel laughed.
"I don't want to hurt her feelings, Rachel."
"Then don't, Buck. Be her friend and maybe in time she'll get over her crush or she'll grow older and you'll see her differently."
They rode in silence the rest of the way to the station and Buck took care of the horses while Rachel made supper for the station.
On their way to school, Cricket noticed a couple of men stringing a banner across the thoroughfare announcing the upcoming spring dance.
"Jesse, are you going to the dance?" Cricket asked shyly.
"I suppose so."
"Do you think Buck will be there?"
"If he's not out on a run, sure. The riders always go to things like that. Teaspoon makes 'em."
"Do you think he would dance with me?" she asked looking at the ground as they walked.
Jesse shifted uncomfortably. "I don't know, maybe. He knows you like him, though."
"He does?" Cricket asked as she came to a complete stop. She was a little alarmed.
Jesse smiled. "Of course he does, Silly."
"Oh, no, what I am going to do?" she asked rhetorically and turned a very dark shade of crimson and started walking toward school again.
Jesse's smile got bigger. "I suggest you do nothing different. He's known for a while now and he's still nice to you."
"You don't think he's just humoring me, do you?"
"He thinks you're a nice kid and doesn't want to hurt your feelings."
"Oh God, he is humoring me," she said quickening her pace. "I don't know how I'm ever gonna face him again."
"What do you mean, you hardly face him now?" he inquired not understanding.
"The last few Sundays I've snuck out while my parents are at church. He's been teaching me how to take care of horses. Grooming and cleaning their hooves stuff like that."
"So that's how he gets done taking care of the horses so quickly on Sundays. He's had help."
"Oh this is all going so wrong," she said and she started pacing. "My ma and pa bought me a dress for the dance a real grownup one and all I wanted was to dance in it with the boy I liked."
"Buck's hardly even a boy anymore, Cricket," he said stopping to watch her. "He's more of a man. Teaspoon deputizes him all the time. He wouldn't do that if Buck was a boy."
"I can't go to the dance now," she said coming to a stop and facing him.
"Sure you can."
"I'm too embarrassed," she said hiding her face in her hands.
"You can dance with me, I don't mind," he said putting his arm around her. "It'll keep those silly girls from school away from me. We can go as friends."
"Okay," she agreed, "As friends. That way if you want to dance with any of the silly girls you can."
The twosome started to walk toward the schoolhouse once more.
"And you can dance with Buck if he asks you."
"He won't ask me. He doesn't even like me."
"He likes you as a friend."
Cricket looked at Jesse like he was crazy. "Promise me that if the dance is boring we'll find something else to do?"
"I promise, but it won't be boring. We're going to have a good time," Jesse reassured her.
Jesse burst through the bunkhouse doors after school was over and found Buck sitting at the table along with several other riders playing cards.
"Buck, you have to ask Cricket to dance with you at the dance," Jesse announced when he caught his breath.
Buck put his hand of cards down on the table and looked at the looks of amusement on the other riders' faces. He was never going to live this down.
"Why do I have to ask Cricket for a dance, Jesse?" Buck asked a little mortified.
"Because she knows that you know that she likes you." Jesse explained.
That information caused a minor explosion of laughter and teasing from around the table.
"Jesse, can I talk to you outside?" Buck asked defeated.
"Sure," he answered wondering what he did wrong.
"Jesse, why did you have to say that in front of everyone?" Buck asked once they were outside.
Jesse just shrugged his shoulders.
"None of them knew Cricket had a crush on me."
"Oh,"he said sheepishly, "Will you ask her to dance? She doesn't think you like her at all that you're just humoring her. Ask her to dance as a friend. Please?"
"I'll think about it," Buck promised.
The night of the dance, Cricket sat in her room drinking tea to calm her nerves. She looked over at the dress. It was a dark green calico with small pink roses on it and trimmed in a cream colored lace and pink ribbon. Her mother told her it would bring out the color of her eyes.
It had been so long since she wore a dress. She preferred trousers as they were easier to play in and easier to ride in. She didn't know how Jesse would react seeing her dressed like this. Would he think she was one of the 'silly girls' from school now that she was dressed as a girl? Maybe Buck would look at her differently because she was in a dress. Only kids wore pants. Ladies wore dresses.
She stood in front of the mirror in her room after she put on the dress and smoothed the skirt. She turned sideways to the mirror. The pants and shirts she usually wore hid her blossoming figure quite well. Not so with a dress. It accented the smallness of her waist and hinted at her growing bosoms. She vaguely remembered her mother saying something about her baby being all grown up and tying a green velvet ribbon around her neck. Hanging from it was a cameo. She sat down on a chair as her mom pulled the sides of her hair back and fixed with another ribbon this one the same pink as the ribbon on her dress. She curled some tendrils of hair to frame her face. Cricket looked back in her mirror and almost didn't recognize herself. Gone were the smudges of dirt and in their place were rosy pink cheeks. She looked up to see tears forming in her mother's eyes.
When they got to the dance hall, Cricket reluctantly followed her parents inside. She scanned the hall for the one safe harbor she had. She had to find Jesse.
Jesse looked up from the dessert table to see Cricket and her folks walk in and was immediately taken aback. Cricket looked so different. He smiled at her and walked over and asked her for a dance. She immediately accepted and walked out onto the floor with her best friend.
"You look really pretty tonight," he said sincerely.
"Thanks, Jesse. I feel so strange. It seems like everyone is watching me."
Everywhere she looked she saw someone looking at her. She saw Rachel look at her and smile placing a hand on her heart. The girls her age from school were pointing at her dress and giggling. She saw the riders laughing about something while looking at her out of the corners of their eyes. They were talking about her. She found Buck. He wasn't laughing. He wasn't amused at all. The other riders were teasing him about her. She had to get away from here. She could feel the tightness in her chest. All she wanted to do in that moment was to disappear.
"Jesse, I need to go home," she said panicking. She made her way quickly through the door and starting walking toward home.
"Cricket, wait!" Jesse yelled after her.
She didn't stop. She brushed a couple of tears out of her eyes and kept walking. This night was all wrong. She wanted a fairy tale to happen to her tonight -the one where the princess gets to dance with her prince. There was no way that was happening. Her prince didn't want to dance with her. Her prince didn't even like her. The only times she ever got to be near her prince is when she was in trouble.
She knew it was stupid and irrational, but she wanted to be close to him. She wanted him to save her. She started to formulate a plan in her mind.
When she got home she went into her room and arranged the bedclothes to look like she was sleeping. This would undoubtedly trick her parents into thinking she was safe and sound in her bed.
She left out the window and decided to 'get lost.' Jesse had told her when they got caught ditching school that Buck was a really good tracker who could find you if you got lost. She was going to count on it.
She went out the window of her bedroom. It was away from the road so just in case anyone was coming they wouldn't see her leave.
She just started to walk. She didn't take anything with her except the shawl that went with her dress. It was probably not the best thought out plans in the history of plans, but it was the plan she was going with. She left her house in the same outfit that she wore to the dance and she didn't pack any supplies like food or water. She just walked away. She thought the more wooded areas would be better for hiding places so she primarily stuck to places with cover.
Her only traveling companion was her mind, which kept replaying the dance. She felt special in her dress until she arrived, then she felt awkward. Everyone was laughing at her except her prince. He didn't ignore the others, he was angry with them for teasing him about her. He wasn't really her friend. She sniffled a little and kept walking. When she couldn't walk anymore she sat against a tree and rested. She knew she couldn't rest for long. She needed to keep moving otherwise she would be too easy to find.
Jesse felt badly that Cricket left the dance so soon. He really thought she looked very pretty. He was moping around the station the next afternoon. Since it was Sunday, he sat trying to do his homework but he kept staring at the same page in his book. Rachel was cooking Sunday dinner and the riders were lazing around the bunkhouse all except Buck. He was still in the barn doing…whatever it was Buck did in the barn.
Jesse closed his book suddenly and remembered that Cricket usually snuck out of her house on Sundays and helped Buck with chores. He left the bunkhouse abruptly and ran to the barn.
He opened the door and found Buck sitting on the stall divider feeding his horse a carrot. He had a long look on his face and looked up when Jesse entered.
"Have you seen Cricket today?" Jesse asked anxiously.
"No, I was hoping she'd show up today. I wanted to apologize to her." Buck said. "I think I hurt her feelings."
"It's my fault." Jesse conceded. "If I hadn't told her that you knew she wouldn't have been scared to go to the dance in the first place. If I hadn't tried to fix it, the others wouldn't have teased you."
They both looked over as the door to the barn opened and Teaspoon walked in. "Jesse, Buck, I'm glad you're both here."
"Cricket's folks just stopped by the jail and they can't find their daughter anywhere. Have either one of you seen her today."
"No, last I saw her was at the dance last night," Jesse reported, "She was upset and left early."
"You know where she was goin'?"
"She said she was goin' home."
"Her folks said she made up her bed to look like she was sleeping in it."
"She sneaks out of her house all the time, Teaspoon," Jesse confessed.
"You think she means to sneak back in? Or do you think she ran away?"
"I'm going to go to her place and look around Teaspoon," Buck said guiltily. "If she ran away it's probably my fault."
"I'm coming with you," Jesse said adamantly.
Buck nodded at him giving him permission. Jesse was Cricket's friend. They saddled and packed their horses for a multiple day search -just in case.
"If you find her, bring her to the station. I'll have Rachel stay with her folks," Teaspoon called after them.
Cricket's feet hurt. She should have changed her shoes back to the ones she normally wore. These boots with the heel were fancy and grown up but very uncomfortable for walking long distances.
This was a bad idea. She should go back home. This plan of hers was stupid and it wasn't going to get her what she wanted anyway. If she was going to have a chance at friendship with Buck she would have to come by it honestly not getting herself in trouble on purpose to trick him.
She turned around and started walking back the way she thought she came until she didn't recognize the landscape anymore then she tried logic. She left under the cover of darkness and didn't really pay attention to which direction she was headed. Her bedroom was on the north side of the house so she probably went north. So heading south would probably get her to where she needed to be. She set off on her way, trying to trust herself to get her through. She was trying not to panic, panic nearly always led to breathing problems. She would take it slow and steady, resting whenever she needed to. If she could figure out how to get home, maybe no one would notice she was gone in the first place.
Jesse stayed on his horse while Buck searched around Cricket's house on foot for tracks.
"Jesse was Cricket wearing boots with heels on them last night?" Buck asked finding an unfamiliar trail.
"Yeah, she was a little taller last night, so she must have been."
"I think I found her trail. It looks like she left last night. She's got most of a day on us."
Buck vaulted onto his horse and started to follow Cricket's trail as quickly as he could. Jesse followed close behind.
After about a half an hour, Buck stopped his horse and jumped down to look more carefully at the tracks.
"She doesn't know where she's heading," Buck said worriedly, "That's going to make it difficult to anticipate where she's going to end up."
"She and her folks ain't lived here very long. She's probably lost by now."
Buck looked over at Jesse and saw the concern on his face. "Don't worry, we'll find her. Just maybe not as quickly as I'd hoped."
Buck got back on his horse and continued following the trail.
Cricket smiled as the terrain started to look familiar. She knew she had been here before. Perhaps she would get home before dark. Her smile faded as she realized that this spot was where she decided to turn around and go home. It looked familiar because she had been here already today. She sat down and tried not to cry. She wasn't weak or lost. She had just suffered a setback that was all.
It was getting dark and she knew she couldn't get home now. She needed to find a place where she could take shelter for the night. She was hungry and thirsty. She hadn't seen a stream or creek anywhere. She had no idea if any of the plants around her were edible. She walked to a nearby tree and settled in against the trunk and tried to get some rest. She pulled the skirt of her dress down to cover her feet and wrapped the shawl tightly around herself. The temperature was falling and she was scared.
Buck looked at the sky and knew they were losing the light. He knew there was a small creek nearby and they could water the horses. They would have to camp here for the night and continue the search tomorrow.
Jesse was quiet as he sat across the fire from Buck. He was worried about his friend. He looked over at his older companion and saw the distraction on his face.
"Cricket ain't like other girls. She kinda reminds me of Lou sometimes," Jesse said starting a conversation.
"Yeah, except she gets herself in over her head all the time," Buck observed.
Jesse smiled. "I meant that she doesn't shy away from things that scare her. If it scares her she's more likely to do it. It's like she's always trying to prove herself."
"That does sound an awful lot like Lou."
"Why do girls do that?" Jesse asked sincerely.
"If I knew that I wouldn't be single, Jesse," Buck said smiling. "Get some sleep we've got a long day ahead of us."
They both settled into their bedrolls and tried to sleep.
"Cricket sure did look pretty in that dress, didn't she?" Jesse asked.
Cricket stirred a little as she heard a twig snap to her left. She started to open her eyes when she felt someone's hands on her upper arms.
"Wake up, Missy, and let's have a look at ya," demanded an unkempt and smelly man.
Cricket gasped and tried to pull away but she was trapped by the tree she had slept against.
"What ya got there, Pete?" another man asked.
"A tasty little treat. I reckon there's enough to share," Pete answered smiling.
Cricket was in trouble. She had to find a way out of this. She was scared but she saw an opening. This Pete, had left himself vulnerable to attack. Cricket took a deep breath and kicked her foot with all her might into Pete's most sensitive of areas. She then jumped up and ran for all she was worth.
She heard a scuffle behind her and the sound of a gunshot as a bullet hit a tree as she ran past it. She let out a scream but she didn't stop, she couldn't.
Buck was off his horse again looking perplexed at the tracks on the ground. "Yep, she's lost alright. She's been here at least twice."
They both looked up suddenly when they heard the gunshot and a scream.
"Jesse, stay here," Buck said quickly. He pulled his knife and ran off toward the scream.
Jesse did what he was told and kept hold of the horses. It was hard, but he'd gotten in the way too many times before and didn't want to mess this up.
Buck could hear people running through the undergrowth of the wooded area before him. He looked around trying to find the best ambush point. He had a feeling the scream he heard was Cricket and she was in more trouble than he would have liked.
Buck found his spot and let Cricket run past him. She looked tired and scared, but mostly alright. He could hear that her breathing was labored -he was afraid of that. He'd have to take care of her pursuers quickly and efficiently.
Buck let his knife fly as one of the men raised his gun to take a second shot. The knife hit its mark with a sickening thud. The other man stopped as his companion fell. He started to take his gun out of its holster.
"I wouldn't," Buck said revealing his position and aiming his own pistol at the man's chest.
After making quick work of tying the man up and retrieving his knife from the dead man, Buck went after Cricket. He found her a short while later gasping for breath trying to hide behind a tree.
She tried to stifle every urge to cough and then she heard a familiar voice. She didn't know whether or not to trust it. It could just be exhaustion tricking her. She didn't look over at him she just cowered.
"Cricket, it's me, Buck," he said gently, "Can you put your arms around my neck?"
She turned to look at him and she couldn't suppress her tears. She flung her arm around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder. She was going to be ok.
Buck gently lifted her off the ground and started walking toward where he had left Jesse and the horses.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she repeated the whole way back to the horses in between coughs, wheezes, and gasps for air.
"Shhh. It's alright, nobody's angry with you, we're all just really worried," he said comforting her.
"Buck, is she alright?" Jesse asked anxiously when they came into view. He jumped off his horse and ran to his side to check on Cricket himself.
"She's gonna be fine," he said reassuring both Jesse and Cricket. "Let's get out of here."
Buck put Cricket on his horse and climbed up in back of her. She leaned on him still coughing and wheezing. Buck really just wanted to put some distance between them and the man he left tied up.
Buck stopped his horse when he and Jesse reached their campsite from the night before. Once there Jesse went to the stream to get some water as Buck set up a fire and put a blanket around Cricket's shoulders. He made her some tea to help with her asthma attack and prepared a light lunch. It was his intention that their stop would be only long enough to eat and get Cricket through her attack. They could still make it home today.
Buck and Jesse packed up the campsite as soon as they had eaten. They mounted their horses and Buck offered his arm to Cricket indicating that she was to ride with him. She looked over at Jesse who wasn't paying attention and reluctantly took his arm and he swung her up behind him. Soon they were riding for home.
Cricket was really quiet, in fact she hadn't said a word since Buck had brought her back to the horses. She was barely hanging onto him. Her hands were just grabbing onto the sides of his jacket. He had an idea, but he felt she was embarrassed to talk in front of others.
"Jesse, why don't you ride ahead and let Teaspoon know we found Cricket and she's fine."
As Jesse rode away, Buck turned his horse toward the fishing hole. The sun was just starting to set and the reflection on the water was breathtaking.
"Why are we stopping here?" Cricket asked confused.
"I just thought you might want to talk before we get to town."
He helped her down from the horse and then jumped down himself and led her over the log bench where they both sat down.
"So, why did you run away?" he asked her.
She looked down at her hands in her lap and started to pick at things on her dress.
"It's ok to tell me, I won't laugh at you."
"Everything was wrong. I felt good getting dressed up for the dance. I felt pretty. I got to the dance and everything was wrong."
"What do you mean?"
"Girls from school were laughing. The riders were laughing. Everyone was looking at me and laughing. Except you. You were angry."
"I'm sorry I hurt your feelings. I didn't mean to."
"I know. I shouldn't have thought I could have a fairy tale. That's kid stuff," she said tears collecting in her eyes. "What I did was really stupid. I thought if I pretended to be lost, that you would find me."
"I did find you," he said smiling a little.
"But I shouldn't have done that. I tried to come back but I got lost for real."
"How did you know?" she asked curiously.
"Your tracks told me."
"I'm sorry for all the trouble I caused. I just like you is all," she said baring her soul.
"I know," he said cautiously. "I'm too old for you, you know that, right?"
"But that doesn't mean we can't be friends."
"You want to be my friend?" she asked surprised.
"Buck, I'm ready to go home now," she announced feeling all at once better.
"One last thing before we go," he started and smiled at the confused look on her face.
Buck stood up and extended his hand to Cricket with a sincere smile on his lips and asked her the question she had dreamed of hearing the other night, "May I have this dance?"
Cricket bit her lip and looked around to see if anyone was around to laugh at her. She took his hand and slowly stood up.
He whirled her around as the sun set on them and at the end of dance he kissed her sweetly on the cheek.
"Now, I think you're ready to go home," he said. He vaulted onto his horse and pulled her up behind him and away they rode.
Cricket hugged him around the waist and thought to herself, 'In a few years, Buck Cross, you better watch out.'
Author's Note: Thanks to Shauna and Jennalynn for giving me feedback on this one.