Author's Note: Picks up where Shattered Dreams (July 2011 Volley Challenge) left off. "Rider coming!" Jimmy called. He looked to the horizon but something wasn't right. "Emma! Looks like Buck's had trouble, he's carrying someone with him." The riders poured out of the bunkhouse to see what the commotion was.

Buck rode right up to hitching post in front of the house as Emma came out onto the porch. Jimmy and Kid ran up to help Buck with his cargo. "Be careful with her. She's lost a lot of blood," Buck instructed as he lowered a girl bundled up in a blanket down to Jimmy. Jimmy couldn't help but stare at her face as he held her in his arms. He was immediately entranced by the quiet desperation shadowed on her face. It called to him as a kindred spirit.

"I'll go get the doc," Cody called and went for the barn to saddle up Soda.

Buck dismounted and took Eliza from a disappointed Jimmy's arms as Kid took his horse and started for the barn.

"Jimmy, fetch some water and rags," Emma ordered. "Buck, bring her into the sick room, and you can tell me all about her. The rest of you got chores to do."

"Yes, Emma." Lou answered putting her hand on Ike's shoulder and leading him to the barn. They looked back over their shoulders to try and glimpse what was happening at the house as Cody started to gallop toward town.

Buck lay Eliza gently on the bed and swept a curl of blonde hair out of her face. He sat on the edge of the bed and looked down at her intently marking each time she took a breath. He was scared. Eliza had been unconscious for the whole trip. He hoped he wasn't too late. She had to be ok. She asked him to save her.

Emma moved behind him and put one hand on his shoulder while petting his head with the other. "Why don't you go on and start your chores too, Buck. I'll take care of her until Doc gets here."

"I'd rather not, Emma. I had a hard time getting her to trust me. I don't want her to wake up and feel like I abandoned her too. She doesn't know you, and I think she'll be scared if I'm not here," Buck explained gently.

Emma's brows furrowed as she looked at the rider seated on the bed. She tentatively placed her hands on her hips. "What's wrong with her, Buck? Where's she hurt?"

He stared at Eliza's face remembering everything she had told him about how she wanted to die and about the baby she was carrying. "That's a complicated question, Emma," Buck said pulling open the blanket and showing Emma where he had bandaged her arms.

Emma gasped, "Poor dear." She scooted Buck off the bed and sat down beside the girl to examine her bandaged wrists. "Buck, what happened out there? Who did this to her?" The look of concern on Emma's face was starting to grow as she started cleaning up Eliza's wounds.

"She did," Buck whispered and looked at the floor. He didn't want to see the look of horror that Emma's face surely held.

Jimmy quietly knocked on the door jam, "Emma, I have the water and rags you asked for." He gingerly entered the room, placed the basin of water on the bedside table and looked down to see the form of the girl he had just held in his arms. His eyes immediately gravitated to her face. He crossed his arms high up on his chest. "Who is she, Buck? She's beautiful."

Buck's eyes narrowed as he stood facing Jimmy. "Her name's Eliza." Then he added, "Jimmy, she's very troubled and confused. What she needs right now are people that she can trust to keep her safe. In fact, maybe you should probably just stay away from her," he said protectively.

"All's I said was that she's beautiful." Jimmy defended. He didn't like Buck's implication. His body tensed and the two of them locked eyes.

Buck turned his attention back to Eliza, he didn't have time for Jimmy's tantrums. He was angry that he let Jimmy get to him.

A moment later the doctor arrived with Cody and Buck was feeling a little overwhelmed by all the people now in the room. "Doc, can I have a quick word with you?"

"Come on, Jimmy," Emma said turning Jimmy toward the door. "You too, Cody," she said and shooed them both out of the room. She closed the door and went to the dresser grabbing a white cotton night gown out of the top drawer.

Buck took the doctor aside and mentioned Eliza's pregnancy. "Nobody knows except me and I think she'd like to keep it that way for a while, if that's ok with you."

After some coaxing, the doctor finally agreed. "Alright, if it will get me to my patient sooner I agree. I'll just have to think of a reason to send Emma out of the room when I do that part of the examination."

"Thanks, Doc," Buck said and let the doctor pass. Buck softly closed the door and began pacing nervously in the parlor.

"So, Buck," Jimmy began after watching Buck for a few minutes, "Let's hear it. Where is she from, and how'd the two of you meet?" His tone suggested he was still sore about the comments Buck made inside the room.

"Yeah," added Cody smiling, "Inquiring minds want to know."

Buck felt a little cornered. It wasn't any of their business. He felt his body stiffen as if he were waiting for the fight to start.

The sound of the door opening startled all three boys from their standoff. Buck looked pleadingly toward Emma and she gave him a slight smile in understanding. "Now you two leave Buck alone. Why don't you join Kid, Lou, and Ike in the barn and get those chores done."

"Aw, Emma," They chorused trying to stand their ground.

"Don't 'aw, Emma' me, now git." She looked over at Buck who was looking up at the ceiling relieved.

Buck watched as Emma left the parlor to get something from the back room. She returned several minutes later with some more bandages and a couple of splints.

"Doc doesn't want her pulling the stitches out by accident," she said answering the questioning look on his face. He knocked softly on the door, waited a few seconds, and then slipped back into the room.

About forty-five minutes later, the doctor opened the door and came out into the parlor. Emma stayed in the room with Eliza to give Buck some privacy. The doctor called Buck over. "She's still with child, but I'm worried about how the blood loss will affect the pregnancy. There is still a chance she could lose the baby. Now, if she has any cramping at all I want you to send someone to get me, is that understood?"

"Yes sir," he replied. "I will."

"I think you should tell Emma about the baby as soon as you can, but in the meantime try and get her to take in fluids. She should wake up in the next hour or so and when she does be gentle with her. I'm worried about her mental state. Listen and don't judge, keep her as calm as possible. She shouldn't have to deal with any heavy stress. She'll need all the support she can get," the doc said looking him straight in the eye.

Buck nodded.

"I'll be back tomorrow and look in on her. You did good son," He said as he left.

~*~

Kid, Lou and Ike were sitting on some hay bales when Jimmy and Cody wandered into the barn. Their eyes all begging for information.

"What's going on up there?" Kid asked nodding his head toward the house.

"I don't really know. Buck and Emma won't let us near that girl he found," Cody sighed

"She sure is a pretty little thing," Jimmy added lost in his own thoughts.

"Forget it Hickok," Cody challenged laughing slightly. "I'm pretty sure Buck'll scalp you if you go near her."

*That's not funny* Ike signed at Cody.

"Do you know anything about her?" Lou asked concerned. "Last time Buck got involved with a pretty girl, he almost got himself killed."

~*~

Buck went back into the sick room to sit with Eliza. "Doc says he thinks she'll wake up soon. I want to stay with her until she does," he stated to Emma. "Will you stay with me?" he asked in a small voice.

"Alright, Buck. I'll go make us some tea, and we can talk while we sit with her."

Buck sat down in the chair beside the bed. He just watched her sleep for a long time. Eventually, he grabbed a cloth from the basin and squeezed the water from it. He gently pressed it to the unconscious girl's forehead.

"Want to talk about it?" Emma asked the usually stoic rider as she handed a tea cup and saucer to Buck. "Tell me how you found her."

"I was riding back from Fort Laramie, and there she was sitting under a tree in the meadow by Jackson's Pond. I saw her make the first cut. I couldn't stop her from making the second one. I tried to distract her and get her to talk, but it didn't stop her from hurting herself."

"But she did talk to you?" Emma prompted and took a sip of tea.

"Yes, she told about why she was doing it and, in the end, right before she passed out, she asked me to save her. I couldn't refuse." Buck looked down at the tea in his cup and could see the anguish on his face reflected back.

"I don't know what I'm feeling Emma. I'm scared for her. I want to protect her, but I just met her. I don't know why I feel so strongly about her."

"Oh, you've forged an intense relationship. You know the only thing standing between that girl and a grave was you, don't you? That's pretty powerful stuff."

"I'm not a hero Emma. I just happened by. Anyone would have helped her," Buck rationalized.

"Of course you're a hero Buck Cross. That's why God sent you there, he knew you'd save her, I don't believe just anyone else would."

"But I don't believe in your god, Emma," Buck said and set his teacup on the bedside table.

"I don't think that matters none." Emma remarked eyeing her rider and taking another sip of tea.

Eliza's eyes started to flutter as if she could hear voices talking. She tensed and then relaxed almost like she recognized one of the voices in the room. "Buck?" She called out quietly and opened her eyes.

"Eliza, I'm here. You're safe," Buck said, as he knelt down by the bed.

Eliza rolled to her side and reached her arms around Buck's neck, buried her head in his shoulder, and started to cry. Buck held her close, comforting her.

Emma stood and poured a glass of water. "Here Buck, get her to drink this. It's just water."

Buck offered Eliza the water, and she tried to grasp the cup but couldn't. He held the glass while she sipped it eyeing the other woman suspiciously as she drank. Buck followed her gaze.

"Eliza, this is Emma. She runs the Pony Express station I ride for. You can trust her," then he added, "She's like a mother to me."

Emma's head snapped up to look at the rider. Tears started to well in her eyes and her jaw dropped a little in surprise. A soft smile spread across her face and she gave his arm a gentle squeeze.

"How much does she know about me?" Eliza asked carefully.

"Just this," Buck answered as he caressed her wrist with the tip of his finger. "It's up to you if you want her to know more."

"You really trust her? She wouldn't want me to leave?" Eliza looked from Buck to Emma looking for the disgust she felt she deserved.

"I really trust her. She wouldn't ask you to leave." Buck looked back at Emma for reassurance.

"Of course we want you to stay with us and get better." She smiled warmly, not an ounce of judgment on her face.

Eliza slowly relayed that she was pregnant to a stunned Emma. How had she missed that, then she remembered the doctor sending her out to get supplies. When Eliza was finished speaking, she looked pale and tired; Emma didn't have the heart to keep her awake any longer.

"Oh, Honey, everything is going to be alright. You'll see. You rest now, and we can talk more later. OK?"

Eliza nodded and pulled the covers up to her chin. Emma tucked her in and kissed her on her forehead.

"Buck, why don't you come into the kitchen and help me with dinner. Eliza, you just call if you need us."

Emma led Buck into the kitchen. She handed Buck a bowl of green beans and started to wash some potatoes in the sink.

"Oh, that poor child," she sighed as she placed the potatoes on a cutting board and started to cut them up. "Does she have anyone to turn to? Parents? Boyfriend? Husband?"

Buck shook his head, "No, not really," he said and started to snap beans. "She thinks everyone has abandoned her. I think that's why she hurt herself." He relayed the rest of her story about her parents and her boyfriend and he could feel tears well up in his eyes. "Emma, when she's better, can Eliza stay with us for a while. At least until she figures out what she's gonna do?"

"I think that's a wonderful idea, Buck," Emma agreed as she put the potatoes into boiling water. "We'll get her through this."

Emma was beaming with pride for her sensitive rider. "Here, Buck," she said ladling a bowlful of broth and handing to him with a spoon. "Why don't to take this in to Eliza and help her eat it. I'll finish up here. Dinner will be ready in about twenty minutes."

~*~

Dinner was a low key affair. The riders sat around the table looking at each other wondering if now was a good time to ask Emma about the girl Buck brought home with him. When the door to the bunkhouse opened, seven pairs of eyes looked up and stared at Buck as he entered.

"How'd she do with that broth?" Emma asked as she got up from the table to get the pot of stew and Buck sat down.

"Fine, she ate almost all of it," he said and added, "She's sleeping now." Buck took the biscuits from Lou as she passed them to him. As he did, he noticed the eyes of the other riders fixed on him. "What?" He asked.

Emma dished some stew onto Buck's plate and Buck raised his fork to his mouth and stopped. "She was in trouble and she asked for help, so I helped her. That's all I feel like telling you right now."

"We're just worried about you, Buck," Lou said as Ike nodded in support. "We don't want to see you get hurt again."

Buck looked ready to protest, but Emma interrupted the conversation. "Boys, you let Buck eat his dinner in peace now. They'll be plenty of time to ask questions later."

~*~

Buck spent the night on the floor in front of Emma's fireplace just in case Eliza woke up. She didn't, but since he couldn't sleep anyway, he looked in on her numerous times. He finally drifted off to sleep just before dawn. Emma woke him in the morning to help her with breakfast.

"How did she sleep?" She asked cracking some eggs into a bowl when Buck entered the kitchen.

"Better than me," he replied rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "I must have looked in on her at least a dozen times."

Emma smiled, "She seemed to be doing better this morning when I looked in on her. Her color's better. Doc said he would stop by and see her today didn't he?"

"Yes." Buck didn't look any less worried.

"What has you so concerned?"

"Her spirit is injured too." He sadly said. "Physical injuries can be seen to and we know when they heal. Spiritual injuries are different. I just hope we can help her mend."

"We will, Sweetheart, we will," She said and drew him into a warm embrace. "Why don't you help me finish this up, and you can take a couple plates in to Eliza's room and have breakfast with her."

~*~

Buck carried a tray of breakfast food toward Eliza's room. When he got to the door he placed the tray on the small table just outside. He knocked gently and opened the door just a crack to see if Eliza was awake. She greeted him with open eyes and a slight smile. She did look better.

"Would you like to join me for breakfast?" He asked sweetly.

"I would be delighted," she replied, her smile growing.

Buck ducked out the door and returned with the tray of breakfast complete with a small jam jar of wild flowers. He set the tray on the dresser while he maneuvered the bedside table between them. "Would you like me to help you sit up?" He asked noticing her test out the strength in her wrists.

"Yes please, I don't think I can do it myself yet."

Buck took her in his arms and gently lifted her into a sitting position. He arranged her pillows and returned to the dresser to get the breakfast. Eliza was momentarily lost. This was the first time she had taken the time to notice things about Buck other than his warm and caring eyes. He was really quite attractive and his smell was amazing. She knew she was blushing and for a moment she thought she might swoon, but then she remembered she was done with love and romance. It had brought her nothing but trouble. Buck was her friend as she was determined to keep it that way. She couldn't let herself want more than that. She had been so disappointed last time and she'd lost everything. She didn't have much now, just Buck, Emma and her baby. She didn't want to lose it, any of it.

Buck arranged the breakfast dishes and sat down across the table from Eliza. He noticed her hand rubbing her lower abdomen. Concern fell across his face. "Are you in pain? Do you want me to get the doctor?" he asked standing quickly.

"No, I'm fine. I was just thinking about my baby. I don't know what I'm going to do," she said as her eyes began to fill with tears.

Buck slowly sat back down in his chair. "Well, how about we just concentrate on breakfast right now. There's no rush for you to make any decisions." He gave her a reassuring smile.

"Why are you so nice to me? You don't even know me."

"Can we remedy that?" Buck asked with a mischievous grin. Eliza giggled in return and nodded. Buck thought it was good to see her smile.

They talked all through breakfast. Buck tried to keep the conversation light. She was very evasive and didn't reveal a lot more about her family. Buck was patient. He would let her set the pace.

Buck started to clear the breakfast dishes from the table and put them on the tray. He left the wild flowers on the bedside table.

"Buck?" Eliza cleared her throat to get his attention as he was leaving the room. She looked down at her lap a moment, and then raised her eyes looking at him with concern in her face.

"What is it?" He answered her sincerely. Seeing her posture, he could tell she was uncomfortable about what she was about to ask. He walked over and sat at the edge of the bed and placed his hand over hers letting her know she was safe.

"You and Emma aren't the only ones that live here are you?" she asked with trepidation.

"No, there is a station manager and five other Pony Express riders," he answered honestly. "They are really nice people. You can meet them when you feel up to it."

"Oh I don't know if I'm ready to meet six new people all at once," she fretted.

"Well, you don't have to meet them all at once or at all if you don't want to. They are all curious about you though." He smiled soothingly.

"How much do they know about me?" she asked hesitantly.

"Just your name and that you were hurt," Buck answered and gave her hand a gentle squeeze.

"I don't know if I can tell my story six different times. Maybe you could tell them for me? On a need to know basis of course."

"I can do that. I would like to tell my friend Ike about you. He helps me sort things out when I need someone to talk to."

~*~

It was late afternoon, and Sam Cain dreaded his task as he rode up to the way station. He hated it when Emma or one of her boys was in trouble. He looked down at the letter in his hand. He prayed that this was all just a misunderstanding.

Teaspoon heard Sam's horse and came out of the tack room. "What's going on Sam?" Teaspoon asked.

The other riders filed out of the barn and over to where Teaspoon stood in front of Sam.

Sam sighed, "Where's Buck?"

"Is he in some kind of trouble Sam?" Cody asked, as the other riders approached.

"He is if he don't have the right answers to my questions." Sam looked toward Emma's house, then back at Teaspoon. "Marshal in Willow Creek says a man matching Buck's description was seen kidnapping the Mayor's daughter."

Sam nodded toward the house. "He in there?"

"Yep," Teaspoon said, taking the reins of Sam's horse as Sam dismounted and starting walking toward the house.

~*~

Buck looked up from the letter. "Sam, this isn't true," he said handing the letter to Emma. "She was in trouble, and I helped her. I didn't kidnap her."

"She is here though?" Sam asked rubbing his eyes. He really wished this wasn't happening.

"Yes, she's here."

"I need to speak with her."

"No," Buck stated plainly yet determinedly and crossed his arms across his chest.

Sam's jaw tightened slightly. "Buck, she can clear this all up, and then I can take her home to her parents."

"No," the stoic Kiowa stated with a slightly menacing tone. He adjusted his stance on the porch to block anyone who would force their way into the house.

"I'm sorry, Sam, but I have to agree with Buck," Emma said as she walked up behind Buck and put her hand supportively on his shoulder. "She is in no shape to be interrogated, and there's no way on God's green earth I'll let you take her home."

At this Lou grunted and started to mumble to herself as she stomped off angrily toward the barn.

"Emma, I have a job to do. If you and Buck won't let me do it, I'm going to have to take you both to jail. I really don't want to do that, but you can't hold that girl here." Sam was losing patience with them. Why were they being so stubborn and what kind of trouble is this girl in anyway?

"Is that what you think we're doing Marshal Sam Cain?" Sam winced as she used his name and title. He was in for it now.

"Now Sam, I'm sure Buck and Emma have a good reason why they won't let you in the house. I for one would like to hear it," Teaspoon said being the voice of reason. "Why don't we go to the bunkhouse and talk? Boys, ain't you got chores to do? In the barn?" He looked over at Cody, Kid, Jimmy and Ike.

"Aw, Teaspoon!" Cody, Kid and Jimmy chorused, while Ike looked on in disappointment.

"Good idea, Mr. Spoon. I'll put some coffee on," Emma replied, as she turned to go back in the house. "Go on Buck, I'll make sure she's alright."

"Man it was just getting good. I swear if somebody don't explain what is going on soon, I'm gonna burst," Cody remarked to the others as they made their way to the barn.

~*~

Buck looked back at the house and slowly started to make his way to the bunkhouse following Sam and Teaspoon. He was not looking forward to this conversation. He hoped Emma would not be long in coming in with the coffee. He didn't want to go to jail, but he would to protect her. If only he knew why. He had just met her yesterday. It wasn't like he wanted to date her. She was much too vulnerable to even think about harboring feelings like that right now. He just knew he had to protect her. If that meant defying both Sam and Teaspoon, he would do it.

Buck stopped at the bottom of the stairs. Why did this girl have such a hold on him? Maybe it was because she needed a champion. Maybe it was because he had never felt so useful in his life. Or maybe it was that she trusted him without question- why did she do that? She was unlike any girl he'd ever met, and it was confusing to him. Still, there was something about her that reminded him of… No, he didn't want to think about her, but he didn't think he could avoid it. Maybe he would borrow Teaspoon's sweat lodge and think on it. Right now he had to face Sam, and he wasn't looking forward to it. He took a deep breath, stepped up to the door and slowly made his way inside.

~*~

Lou couldn't believe what she saw. Did Buck really intend to put his life and future on the line for another pretty girl? And now he had dragged Emma into it too. She couldn't take it anymore and that's why she decided to retreat to the barn. She had an uneasy feeling about Buck and this girl. Over her dead body was anyone going to hurt her friend again. She needed to gather her thoughts and then she and Buck were going to have a little talk.

Lou was brushing down Lightning when the other riders entered the barn. "What's goin' on?" she asked.

"We're banished to the barn again," Kid explained. He sat down on the hay, put his feet up, and stuck a stem of timothy into his mouth. "I think it is high time they let us in on what's happening. I feel like we're not welcome in our own home. It ain't right."

"I wonder what happened to her." Cody thought a minute and then without restraint he started to wildly speculate on their half-Indian friend and his foundling, "What if she was being robbed by a band of devious Gypsies and she was hurt in an escape attempt or he rescued her from some evil highwaymen that were kidnapping her. Oh, I bet she's been disowned by her parents or jilted by a lover. Although it could be she was…"

"Enough Cody!" Jimmy yelled exasperatedly. He couldn't take it anymore. "Give it a rest. What kind of trash have you been reading lately anyway?"

*I think she's running from something or somebody that hurt her* Ike signed

"Didn't I just say that Ike?" Cody retorted as if his ego was bruised at not being listened to. Ike just rolled his eyes.

"I think you're right Ike," Jimmy said softly. "Something Buck said to me yesterday…he said she was troubled and confused and needed people she could trust and would keep her safe. Maybe he doesn't think she's ready for more people around her pelting her with questions."

"Well I don't like it," Lou said. "If she puts him in danger, so help me I'll…."

"Buck's a big boy. He can take care of himself," Kid defended with Ike nodding in agreement.

~*~

Buck sat across the table from both Teaspoon and Sam. Their patience seemed to be wearing thin as he had yet to say a word.

"Come on, Buck, we're waiting for an explanation," Sam said impatiently.

Just then, Emma entered with a coffee pot and four cups. Buck and the two men all rose from their seats to greet her. Emma poured up the coffee and sat down next to Buck and gave his right hand a gentle squeeze.

Buck took a long drink from his cup while readying himself to launch into his explanation about Eliza. He needed to do just one more thing and that was to ask Teaspoon and Sam to promise not to take her back home until she was ready.

Sam stood up and leaned an outstretched hand onto a window. "Buck you're asking an awful lot here. She's just a kid. Her parents have the right to come a get her. The law is on their side. If you keep her here no matter if she wants to stay, it's the same thing as kidnapping her."

"She's sixteen Sam, she's not that much younger than us."

"Did her parents hurt her, Son?" Teaspoon asked gently putting his hand on Buck's other hand in comfort.

"Not exactly, but they are part of her pain."

"I'm afraid I don't understand. I don't think I will until you tell me the whole story," Sam stated, he voice still held irritation.

Buck frowned. He looked to Emma and Teaspoon for an answer he himself did not possess.

"How about if I promise to do anything I can to help as long as it isn't against the law?" Sam finally offered.

"I guess that will have to be good enough." Buck sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He took a deep breath and starting telling Sam and Teaspoon everything starting with the meadow. As he shared his experience, he started to feel the weight of the world lift from his young shoulders.

"So you think if we send her back to her parents, she'll try to hurt herself again?" Teaspoon asked trying to be helpful.

"It's only been a day since she tried, Teaspoon. Yeah, I think if nothing has changed with her parents plan for her, she might try to do it again. Especially if she thinks she doesn't have any other options."

"There's also the baby to consider. That little one isn't out of the woods yet," Emma added. "The doc said she wasn't to have any stress. The blood loss she sustained has put her at risk for miscarriage. Sam, that's why we can't let you question her, and we can't let her go back home either. Not yet anyway. Not until she's stronger." Emma's pleas wore Sam down.

"Alright, alright I'll help," he conceded. "We're gonna need a plan."

"I think I got one," Teaspoon mused. "Sam you write a letter to that there little lady's folks. Tell 'em she was injured and brought to town and is now under the care of a doctor here. Because of her delicate condition she is unable to receive visitors or travel at this time."

"What if they come here looking for her, Teaspoon?" Buck questioned.

"Well, we'll just have to convince them to let her stay until she's better."

"Buck we can't hide her, but we can try and protect her." Emma said reassuringly.

~*~

Buck stepped out of the bunkhouse. He was really glad the interrogation with Sam was over. He wasn't sure about the solution, but right now he had another thing on his mind.

"What are you doin', Buck?" Lou pleaded -her hands on her hips. Buck knew she wouldn't let him alone until she got some answers. He didn't have answers yet.

"I'm just helping someone in need, Lou." He did not want to have this conversation, he just wanted to get to the sweat lodge and think.

"You're only going to get hurt, Buck. A rich man's daughter running away from home, doesn't this sound a little too familiar?"

"Why am I going to be hurt, Lou? Eliza is nothing like Kathleen."

"It's just that you're risking an awful lot for someone you've just met." Lou didn't understand why Buck couldn't see the danger he was putting his heart in, let alone his life.

"I'll be fine, Lou. It's Eliza that needs people looking out for her, not me."

Buck stepped around Lou and off the bunkhouse porch. He needed to figure this out before he told the rest of the riders what was going on.

"Where're ya goin'?" Lou called after him.

"To think about some things. Don't worry, I'll be back later," he replied, and gave her a reassuring smile.

Lou watched him walk toward Teaspoon's sweat lodge. She was not at all satisfied, but at least he was thinking, and not just getting all moony eyed at this Eliza whatever-her-name-is. Lou used to believe in the innocence of love until the likes of Sarah Downs and Kathleen Devlin broke the hearts of her 'brothers.' She vowed that no one was going to hurt her fellow riders like that again. She was at a disadvantage at present though; Buck was already in trouble with the law.

~*~

Buck was gathering up the hot rocks for the sweat lodge when he noticed Ike walking his way.

*Want some company?* Ike asked with a hopeful look in his eyes. There was a restrained jumpiness in his stance. Buck could tell he was dying to ask questions but knew Ike would never press him about things he didn't want to talk about.

"Yeah, I would," Buck replied and the tension started to leave his face. Then he added, "Ike, I'm glad you're here."

Ike stripped down to his long johns and clapped his hand against Buck's shoulder as they entered the lodge. They sat in silence for several minutes adding water to the rocks and letting the steam fill the lodge when Ike placed his hand on Buck's knee to get his friend's attention.

*Who is Eliza and what happened to her?*

"I found her on my way back from Fort Laramie. She was sitting under a tree. She was trying to kill herself."

Ike's eye grew wide in concern. *What!?!*

"I tried to stop her, but I couldn't. She sliced herself open right in front of me, and I couldn't stop it from happening. She didn't want me to help her. She wanted to die, at least right up until she was about to pass out. Then she changed her mind and asked me to save her. I didn't think I would be in time, but she's alive."

*No wonder you and Emma have hardly left her side. Do you think she might try again?*

"Maybe."

*Why would she want to try it in the first place? Jimmy said she was pretty. What in her life could be so bad?*

"She's pregnant. Her boyfriend left her. Her parents disowned her and told her they were taking her baby away. She thought she had lost everything in the span of a couple of hours. She wasn't strong enough to handle it, let alone defend herself."

*Do you have feelings for her?*

"That's just it, Ike, I'm having a hard time figuring out what I feel for her."

*Do you think that you're in love with her?*

"I don't know, Ike. I mean, I don't think so, but at the same time I would protect her with my life." He turned away from Ike and poured more water on the rocks. "Lou's right I haven't known her that long…"

*Forget about Lou, she's just scared that Eliza's another Kathleen. She thinks you need protecting,* Ike signed dismissively.

Buck was silent again. He needed to figure out the hold Eliza had over him, but all he could think of was things he thought were long buried. Feelings he thought were he'd never feel again. It was confusing. He didn't understand why these feelings were so strong.

Ike thumped his chest to get Buck's attention, *I know when you are holding something back. What is it about this girl you're not telling anyone?*

"I didn't really come out here to think about Eliza at all."

*What did you come out here to think about?*

"My mother," Buck answered softly.

Ike's attention was rapt; Buck never talked about his mother. Ever.

"There are things about Eliza that remind me of my mother," he said quietly. "I know you've never heard me speak of her before mostly because I don't remember a lot about her." Buck's eyes held both defeat and defiance in them. Ike could tell there was a storm of unresolved feelings fighting against Buck's usually calm exterior.

Buck was silent for a few moments. He poured more water on the rocks and took in the steam. He looked into Ike's eyes and knew that whatever was said here would never be repeated.

*What's wrong?* Ike signed and put his hands on Buck's shoulders.

"She always held sadness in her eyes -an almost desperate hopelessness- unless she was looking at me. She tried to hide it from me. There was a resignation in the way she carried herself, like she was waiting for the opportunity to be drawn into a terrible accident. I remember seeing scars on her wrists like the ones Eliza will have."

*You think your mother tried to kill herself?*

Buck nodded. "Eventually she succeeded."

*I'm sorry*

"I see the same desperation and hopelessness in Eliza's eyes. Maybe if I could save her it would make up for not being able to save my mother." Ike looked thunderstruck at the revelation. *Buck, it wasn't your fault your mom died.*

"Isn't it? I was the constant reminder of the worst day of her life. I couldn't make her love me enough to stay." Buck poured the last of the water on the rocks and let the sound of the water sizzling into steam calm him. He said nothing more, and Ike didn't press him any further. They both sat in silence using the time to reflect upon the insights of the day until the lodge started to cool.

~*~ Jimmy watched as Buck headed out toward Teaspoon's sweat lodge. Now was his chance to look in and maybe even talk to Eliza. He looked back at the bunkhouse. It seemed like Teaspoon, Sam, and Emma would be a while longer. He crept up the stairs to Emma's house and slowly turned the knob on the door. It squeaked a little as it opened. He walked through and quietly closed the door behind him. He walked across the sitting room and over to the sick room door and stopped.

Jimmy stood next to the doorway and peeked around the corner. He wanted to be able to duck away quickly in case she woke up or looked over at him. He was content to watch her sleep. He thought she was the prettiest girl he had ever seen and he just wanted to look at her. Ok, he didn't just want to look at her. He wanted to meet her and talk to her and kiss her and… There was just something about her that Jimmy couldn't get out of his mind. He had dreamt of her last night. Buck couldn't expect to keep her all to himself, could he? Jimmy was so caught up in thought that it took him a couple of seconds to realize that Eliza was awake and starring right into his eyes.

"I'm sorry ma'am. I don't usually lurk in doorways," he apologized sincerely. "I'm James Hickok, but you can call me Jimmy."

"Nice to meet you Jimmy, I'm Eliza, but I expect you already know that."

"Yes, I do," he said blushing.

"Why don't you pull up a chair, Jimmy, and keep me company for a spell?" She asked sweetly.

He nodded at her when the words just wouldn't come out of his mouth. Jimmy timidly entered the room and dragged a chair up to the bed and sat down with his hands in his lap. He didn't really know what to do with his hands so he just picked at his thumb. He had a hard time looking at her unless he was speaking to her or she was speaking to him. The awkward silence lingered in the room like the ghosts of failed relationships from his past.

"I suppose you've heard all about me by now?" Eliza asked gingerly.

"No, not really, ma'am. Buck's been keeping you a closely guarded secret," he answered her earnestly.

"Please call me Eliza, Jimmy."

"Alright. Eliza it is." He felt his cheeks flush. No girl caused this sort of reaction in him except Sarah Downs. Somehow this wasn't a warning bell to him, he felt hopeful that she was nothing like Sarah. There was no deceit in her eyes, just honesty. She wasn't flirting with him just talking to him. There wasn't any pressure to be anything. He liked that. He liked her.

Jimmy and Eliza talked about everything except her current set of circumstances until they were interrupted by Emma who brought in some food for Eliza to eat for dinner. She kicked Jimmy out of the room and directed him to the bunkhouse. Jimmy spent the evening thinking about the girl up at the main house. He couldn't help but be a little jealous of Buck. He was the one that Eliza trusted with her secrets. He rolled over in his bunk when Buck and Ike came back from the sweat lodge. He stared at the wall for a while and fell asleep with thoughts of Eliza on his mind.

~*~

Dawn was Buck's favorite time of day. He loved the feel of the early morning sun on his face. He typically rose early in the days since Eliza came here, so he could spend time with her in the afternoons. He wanted to get an early start today especially. He felt in the air as if something was going to happen today and he wanted to be ready. He started to walk toward the barn. He could hear the other riders start walking through the bunkhouse door and slowly follow him.

Ike pulled his horse outside of the barn and started to saddle it up for his ride today. The station was about to get back to normal. A day off without any runs was rare, but now they were back to business as usual.

The riders all started to take care of their own horses first. Buck gave his horse some grain and started mucking out his stall.

Cody grabbed the other pitch fork and stood in the center of the barn staring expectantly at Buck. Kid fed Katy and started to curry her while glancing frequently at his Kiowa friend. Lou was in a foul mood checking the shoes on Lightning's hooves grumbling to herself every time she looked over in Buck's direction.

Jimmy was much more direct. He walked over to where Buck was working leaned on the stall divider and said, "Ok, Buck we've all waited long enough. Let's have it. Who's Eliza and what's she doing here."

The other riders stopped what they were doing and walked over to Buck and waited.

"She's in trouble and she's scared. That's why she's here." He summed up.

"What kind of trouble, Buck?" Cody asked rolling his eyes.

"You know…trouble." When the spark of realization hit the other riders, it was almost comical.

Lou thought she was stuck inside a nightmare. It was even worse than she thought.

"How did she get hurt," asked Kid, and the other riders' attention was once more on Buck.

Buck took a deep breath and dove into the story from the beginning. Kid's face distorted uncomfortably at the details, Cody paled, Jimmy was unreadable, and something in Lou's demeanor made Buck think she was angry.

"Her parents are probably going to show up soon and I have a run tomorrow, I really hope I can count on you all to help me keep her safe and calm," Buck requested and waited until they all agreed.

The rest of the morning they all worked in silence until the breakfast bell sounded.

~*~

Permelia Caldwell was worried. Her lovely daughter Eliza had turned out to be such a disappointment. She thought she brought her child up to stay out of trouble. That her daughter was even in this mess to begin with was troubling. She had said the baby she carried was Joe Turner's but he claimed otherwise. The Turners were close family friends and Joe would never lie about something like this. Would he? She had thought that Joe loved Eliza, so to have her step out on him and engage in unladylike behavior was distressing. It spawned a rift between the two families. Of course she wanted to believe her daughter, but the support of August Turner and his circle of friends and associates was crucial to her husband's career. When this little territory gained statehood, her husband was going to be a senator. Then they could leave the west and be society people in Washington, DC. Oh, she knew it was a shallow thought, but she was sick of the dust and lack of civilization. She wanted to go back east to her family. This would have never happened to her daughter if they had just stayed in the city. Eliza had to see reason. They were just trying to give her a fresh start. A fresh start she would have taken at her age. This was for the best.

Benedict Caldwell was an ambitious man. He provided well for his family. Everything he worked for was for his family. He provided the best things that money could buy. He was going places and he was taking them with him. The last thing he needed was a scandal and that is exactly what this was. Their daughter ran away and then was seen in the company of an Indian. He felt a pang of fear but also relief when the marshal said that the Indian had kidnapped her. Fear for her safety, but perhaps he could use this to save her reputation. This scandal they were trying to suppress was only getting worse. He wondered perhaps if this Indian boy was the father of her baby. There was only one way to find out and that was to find her and ask. First he would bring her home and then he would get to the bottom of this.

Sam watched from his office doorway as the afternoon stage from Willow Creek pulled in. He was pretty sure that either today or tomorrow, Eliza's parents would show up. It had been 3 days since Buck found her and a day since they sent the letter to the marshal. Willow Creek wasn't very far from Sweetwater. Depending on how badly her parents wanted her back they could arrive as early as today. Somehow they needed to keep Eliza's parents occupied while she healed up and well, he wasn't sure how to heal the emotional kind of hurt Eliza had. The only thing he was sure of was that Emma would help that girl come hell or high water.

A smartly dressed man exited the stagecoach. He has a blue brocade waistcoat over a crisp white shirt, black trousers and coat. Atop his head was a black felt bowler. He turned and extended his hand to an equally smartly dressed woman. She wore a light blue traveling dress. Her hair was pinned up in an elaborate up do with curls framing her face. A small straw hat with a ribbon to match her dress was pinned to her head.

As soon as they noted the badge pinned to Sam's chest he knew, these were Eliza's parents. "Good afternoon, you must be the Caldwell's," he greeted them. "You must be tired from your trip, I can have a deputy carry your bags to the hotel and we can get you settled in."

"Thank you, Marshal...?"

"Cain, Sam Cain."

"Marshal Cain, we would really like to see our daughter right away."

"I'm afraid that won't be possible. I suggest you settle into the hotel and freshen up. The doctor and I can meet you in an hour to talk about your daughter and her condition."

Benedict hated gate keepers but understood how to play the game. Be cooperative and the gate opens, be forceful and the gate either locks or breaks. The key, was knowing the likely outcome. This gate was going to lock and tightly if he pushed it, so cooperation it was. "Lead the way, marshal."

Sam lead the way after he nodded to Barnett, his deputy, to signal he should ride out and tell Emma and the boys that Eliza's parents were in town. They would need to prepare.

~*~

Permelia was aghast. Her beautiful smart daughter tried to end her own life? "That's not possible," she said sternly. "This Indian boy must not be telling the truth. My daughter would never disgrace her family so." She tried valiantly to hold back the tears that welled in her eyes. Surely Eliza wasn't that fragile. If she was, how did she miss it?

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to agree with my wife, marshal. Eliza is a happy child brought up in the church. She would never do such a thing. It's against everything she was taught. I want that Indian arrested, now!" He was sure that this Indian must have hurt his daughter. That was the only way he could rationalize it in his mind.

Sam took a deep breath. "I was afraid you would see it that way. Buck wouldn't hurt her. He doesn't have it in him," Sam defended. "He saved her life. Now, the doc's on his way to meet us he can give you more details, but her wounds are definitely self inflicted."

~*~

Buck watched Barnett ride away and then headed for the house. This was the day that he had been dreading. Eliza's parents were in town and there was only so much Sam was going to be able to do to delay them. He took a deep breath walked up to the house.

"They on their way?" Emma asked.

"Yes," he said, and started toward Eliza's room.

"You want help tellin' her?" She offered.

"No, I can handle it," he replied softly, and he smiled thankfully in her direction at the offer.

Emma decided to do some mending in the sitting room where she could be close enough to help Buck if he should need it.

Eliza heard a soft knock on the door and the gentle creaking as it slowly opened. She smiled as she saw Buck's head poked through the opened door. The look on his face was serious and Eliza felt her smile fade as her friend came fully into the room.

"What's the matter?" She asked, scared of the answer.

Buck sat down on the edge of the bed and took her hands in his. "Your parents arrived in town today," Buck reluctantly revealed. "They will probably be here in an hour or two."

"How did they find me?" She asked, squeezing Bucks hands in panic. "I didn't leave a note or anything."

"Someone saw you leave the meadow with me," he answered gently. "They knew the direction we were going and sent inquiries to all the towns."

"The marshal that was out here a couple days ago, that was why he was here?" she asked pensively.

"Yes," he replied. Seeing her look at him as if he betrayed her almost crushed him. "We couldn't legally hide you, so we're going to ask your parents to let you stay with us for a while. It's the only way," he explained. "Don't worry; we won't let them take you away. Not unless you really want to go."

Eliza started to release her grip on Buck's hands. It was then she felt the pain in her wrists. They were still sore. "Do you promise?" She asked worriedly.

"Yes, I promise."

He drew her into a hug and kissed the top of her head. "I'm gonna go get cleaned up. I don't want to meet your parents smelling like a horse."

The sound of her giggle was music to his soul. He got up from the bed and made his way back to the door. "Everything's going to be alright," he said as he looked at her once more before he left.

Eliza hoped he was right. She kept feeling that there was something Buck left out…something he hadn't revealed.

Emma popped around the door with some clothes in her arms. "I thought I could give you a hand getting ready before your folks get here," she said while she laid a skirt and blouse on the end of the bed. "Why don't you put those on while I go get my brush and I'll help you fix your hair," she said as she exited the room.

"Thanks Emma, I don't know how to repay you for everything that you've done for me," she called after her.

Eliza was dressed and sitting in a chair when Emma returned with the hairbrush.

Emma started to hum as she brushed Eliza's golden blonde hair. There was something about the scene that seemed familiar to Eliza. Like a forgotten memory. Of course, her mother used to brush her hair and sing to her when she was a tiny child. She missed it. Her mind wandered back to when Buck was in the room. There was still something unsaid that was bothering her.

"Emma, what is Buck not telling me?" She asked putting a voice to her concern.

Emma thought as she started to twist a large piece of Eliza's hair into a chignon, and decided that she needed to start trusting her with the truth. "The marshal from Willow Creek is accusing him of kidnapping you."

"Oh no! He could be in a lot of trouble all because of me." She pulled away and her hair fell to her shoulders. "We can't let that happen," she said emphatically.

"Don't you worry; Mr. Spoon won't let anything happen to Buck. Marshal Cain won't either," the older woman said as she gathered Eliza's hair once again and made a second attempt at twisting it into the simple up do.

"Why didn't he tell me, Emma?" She asked, slightly disappointed.

"He didn't want to worry you, sweetheart," Emma answered, pinning her hair into place.

"Then why did you tell me?" Eliza inquired curiously.

"I thought you could handle it and besides Buck could use more people looking out for him," she said as she put the last pin in place. She handed a hand mirror to the young woman and asked, "There all done, what do you think?"

A smile crept across her face as she looked at her reflection. She carefully set the mirror down and stood facing Emma. She then gave her a sincere hug. "Thanks for everything Emma."

~*~

Buck could see the cloud of dust coming. He knew it would be about 5 minutes before the buckboard would be in view. He walked to the house to make sure Eliza was ready. He really hoped this would go well for her sake.

He knocked on the door to the house. Emma opened it and smiled at him supportively. "She's almost ready. Are they here?"

"They will be in about ten minutes," he replied. "I was thinking maybe we should wait on the porch for them."

Eliza stepped out of the sick room wearing one of Emma's pink skirts and a cream colored blouse with daisies embroidered on the collar and cuffs. The long sleeves covered the bandages on her wrists. Emma had fixed her blonde hair in a simple up do and her cheeks were rosy.

All Buck could do was stare with his mouth slightly open. He had never seen her look so lovely. His feelings for her started to get confused again. He needed to snap out of it. This was no time to get distracted. Her parents were on the way and he needed to be on his guard.

"Doesn't she look pretty, Buck?" Emma asked, startling Buck from his revelry. She gently prodded Buck toward Eliza.

A smile danced across his lips as he held out his arm offering her an escort. "You look very beautiful today, Eliza. Are you ready?" He asked her hopefully.

She placed her hand in the crook of Bucks elbow and smiled at him, their eyes connecting. She answered him with a slight wavering in her voice, "I guess so. I'm as ready as I'm going to be."

Emma watched them both walk out of the house. Just maybe there would be a happy ending to this story for both of them. She hoped so.

"Rider comin'!" Teaspoon called from the bunkhouse porch. The other riders except for Ike, who took the run this morning, filed out as Buck, Eliza and Emma exited the house.

Teaspoon looked at his riders and he knew they would hate it, but he thought Eliza and her parents could do without the audience. "Boys, why don't you go do some chores in the barn."

There was much protesting and grumbling but finally Lou and Kid managed to drag Cody to the barn.

"You too Jimmy," Teaspoon ordered.

Jimmy shook his head. "I ain't leavin'. She's my friend too."

"Alright Jimmy, you can stay, but let the adults handle things." Teaspoon didn't like the look in Jimmy's eyes. He'd seen it once before when Jimmy was in jail protecting Sarah Downs. He was going to have to have a talk with Jimmy later. Probably Buck too, he thought as his Indian rider came into view. That was not the look of friendship or objectivity on his face. "Oh, lordy, lord," he muttered and looked to the sky. "Why does cupid have to keep shooting my boys," he sighed.

Sam dismounted from his horse as Benedict Caldwell helped his wife Permelia from their rented buckboard. Sam made the introductions as they all gathered in the front yard of Emma's house. Eliza stood near Buck and Jimmy and waited for the fight to start. She did not have to wait long.

Benedict was the first to break the awkward silence following the introductions. "Marshal, I want this Indian arrested," he commanded staring daggers at Buck. "Come Eliza we're going home. NOW!" He ordered as he moved toward Eliza.

Buck took a few steps in front of a shaken Eliza and blocked her father's path. Teaspoon, Sam, and Emma started to defend Buck as Benedict turned to argue his position. Permelia cried softly in the background just wanting this to be over.

Everything seemed like a dream to Eliza. People were moving around waving their arms. Their faces were angry. Voices were raised. She didn't know what was being said anymore, but she knew they were all fighting over her. She looked over at Buck, he had turned back to her. His brows were furrowed with what looked to her as concern and he was looking straight at her. He was the only one. Tears welled up in her eyes. She could feel the chaos surrounding her. It was dizzying. Her breathing turned rapid and she started to back away from everyone. She stopped abruptly when she backed into Jimmy. She looked at his face. His gaze was fixed on the adults in front of them. His face was angry and cold and he stood stoically ready to take on the world to defend her. She didn't know why, maybe to stop the yelling, maybe to stop the pain, or maybe she just didn't want to be ignored, but she saw the opportunity and drew Jimmy's colt from its holster and stepped away from him. Before anyone knew what was happening she placed the end of the barrel against her temple. The metal was all at once cold and comforting. She heard Buck yell in panic, "Eliza no!" She looked back at him with pleading eyes.

All at once the adults stopped their argument and looked toward the girl, she was quaking like a scared animal and her eyes were darting around wildly. Benedict stepped forward and started to admonish his daughter for her foolishness and was rewarded with the sound of the gun she held so precariously being cocked. He backed away as her mother grabbed his arm pulling him toward the buckboard.

She was so scared nothing could penetrate her fear except the voice of one person, Buck. His voice somehow cut through all the others and it was soothing. With every syllable it promised her safe harbor. She dropped to her knees, the gun still pressed tightly against the side of her head.

Buck knew she was serious, he had seen that look in her eyes before in the meadow. He knew somehow that he was the only one she would listen to. He lowered himself to his knees in front of her and gently removed the gun from her grip and let her sink into his embracing arms.

"Sam, please make them leave," he said pleadingly. He handed Jimmy his gun back and gently lifted the sobbing Eliza into his arms and started walking toward the house, rescuing her once again.

~*~

"Cody, I can't see anything," Lou complained as Cody hogged the window. "What's going on out there?"

"Aw they're just talkin'…wait, now they're yellin'…"

"Let me see, Cody!"

"Lou, why do you care so much?" Kid asked exasperated.

"Whoa, I didn't see that coming," Cody said surprised.

"What?" Lou and Kid chorused.

"She just pulled Jimmy's gun," Cody said spellbound by the happenings outside.

"I knew she was trouble, she's gonna get someone killed!" Lou proclaimed.

"She's pointing it at herself," Cody said and turned from the window. He looked a little green.

Lou pushed Cody from the window as he turned away. Lou was sure Buck was in over his head. She had to see that everyone was alright. She finally got up to the window in time to see Buck carry Eliza into the house and her parents leave. Lou heaved a sigh of relief and rushed into Kid's arms.

~*~

Buck sat down on the bed and gently rocked Eliza and held her while she cried.

"I guess that could have gone better, huh," Buck remarked trying to keep the atmosphere light.

Eliza couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of his statement. She soon found that she couldn't stop. It was the release she so desperately needed. When she couldn't laugh any more, she breathed deep and wiped the tears from her face. She lifted her head from his shoulder and gazed into his eyes. He was looking back at her and for a moment the world blurred. The smile faded from her face as she felt something electric in the air. She couldn't take her eyes off him.

Buck recognized the moment in which he now found himself. If this were any other set of circumstances where he was alone with a girl this pretty and this willing, he would be kissing her already. But this was the girl he was protecting. He wasn't supposed to develop feelings for her.

Eliza moved her hand to his cheek looking deep into his eyes and moved herself closer to him. She swallowed hard, she was suddenly very nervous. She desperately wanted for him to kiss her, but at the same time she didn't want him to, because then she would be giving in to her feelings. Feelings that she reminded herself she didn't ever want to have for anyone again.

Buck moved his hand up to hers and softly removed it from his face and clasped it between both of his hands. He looked at her warmly and said, "We can't do this, not that I don't want to, because I do, but because I don't want either of us to get hurt."

"No, I completely understand. I think we just got caught up in the moment," she quickly agreed.

It was at that moment that Emma came into the room to check on them. "How's everyone doing in here?" She asked and was delighted to see two smiling faces. She breathed a sigh of relief and smiled at them both. "I just started working on supper, it should be done in about an hour. Eliza, why don't you join us tonight?" Emma hoped she wasn't rushing her.

"Oh I don't know if I'm ready to face them," she said with a hint of panic in her eyes.

"You'll be fine. Buck and I will both be there for you." Emma coaxed. "It won't be so bad, you'll see." She turned to Buck and reminded him, "You get a good night sleep tonight, Buck. You're up in the morning." Emma turned and went back into the kitchen.

"What did she mean when she said that you're up?" Eliza asked worriedly.

"Eliza, I have to take an express run tomorrow morning. It's a short run, but I should be back before supper time."

"Do you have to go? I mean, can't someone else go?" She pleaded.

"It's my job. You'll be alright. Emma will be here and most of the other riders will be around the station. Besides, you'll hardly know I'm gone."

~*~

It felt good to back on the trail again. Buck had been so immersed in everything Eliza for days and he just needed the time away to clear his mind. He took comfort in the vast openness of the prairie and the gentle breeze caressing his skin. This was freedom. It was a beautiful late summer morning. Buck slowed his horse and tipped his hat off the back of his head. The breeze was too nice not to feel through his hair. He closed his eyes and smiled at the feeling.

Buck opened his eyes at the sound of a horses coming his way. His smile faded as he recognized Eliza's father, Benedict Caldwell, and what looked to be hired muscle. Buck looked around at his options for flight. Back the way he came seemed like his only good option. That's when he heard the footfalls of horse hooves behind him. This wasn't good. He was trapped. He hoped that Mr. Caldwell only wanted to talk to him, 'cause if not he was gonna get hurt. He heard the sound of a hammer being pulled back and knew a gun was trained on him. Buck slowly raised his arms and glared.

"Boys, remove him from his horse," Benedict ordered to two of the three men riding next to him. They dismounted form their horses and approached Buck while the two in back just kept their guns trained on the half Kiowa rider. "Buck, this is Mr. Black and Mr. Blue. I've asked them to help me convince you to send my daughter home."

Buck felt himself pulled from his horse and held by the two of the men one on each side. He braced himself as the third hired man jumped from his horse and started to walk menacingly toward him. This was going to be painful.

~*~

Buck sat as upright in his saddle as he could as he made his way back to the station. He was running slightly late, not late enough to cause concern. He didn't know why, maybe it was just an old defense, but he didn't like others to know when he was hurt. He was hoping his ribs were only bruised and not broken, but he had an awful pain in his abdomen, so he couldn't be sure.

He was glad when he rode in and passed the mochila off to Kid, that everyone was either indoors or away from the station. He thought he had made it. He only needed to unsaddle and cool down his horse and then he could rest in his bunk without raising suspicion.

Unsaddling his horse proved to be a bit more of a challenge than Buck would have liked. What made it worse was that Lou noticed as she walked in from the back door of the barn.

"Buck, are you ok?" Lou asked rushing to his side as he dropped the saddle and leaned back into the stall divider. The pained look on his face sealed it for her. "Who did it? Was it someone working for Eliza's parents?"

"Who did what, Lou? My horse took a fall." He said looking at the ground. He was never good at lying to Lou.

"Don't lie to me, Buck, you know I can tell." She said angrily. She hated it when the boys acted like they didn't need anyone's help. Of all of them, Buck was the worst.

"It's nothing, really."

Lou moved her hands to her hips and cocked her head to one side letting him know he had better start telling her the truth. "Uh huh. So, it wouldn't hurt if I hit you right here," She said as she pushed her hand against his rib cage.

Buck wasn't prepared for her to tag him and he groaned as he fell to his knees.

"Damnit Buck, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you. I didn't think it was that bad. Don't move. I'm going to get Emma.

"No, Lou, I'm ok. I just wasn't prepared for you to hit me. Just help me up and I'll go to the bunkhouse and rest. I'll be fine. Will you take care of my horse for me?" He asked and got to his feet.

"Sure." She said watching him leave. Someone had to look out for him as he was obviously not looking out for himself. She couldn't help but grumble to herself after he had gone. "You sure can pick 'em Buck. I hope she's worth it."

~*~

Buck ambled over to the bunkhouse every step toward it made it seem that much further away. He just needed to rest and then he would be fine.

He finally reached the step and gingerly lifted himself to the porch and finally found the handle to the door. He opened it to find Jimmy sitting at the table cleaning his gun.

"What happened to you, Buck? You look terrible," Jimmy said and blew some lint off the barrel of his Navy Colt.

"Horse threw me," he said, and tried valiantly, but failed to remove his coat. He took off his gun belt and hat and held his side as he lifted his arm to hang them up on a peg. He missed the peg and attempted to pick them up, but the pain stopped him. He left them on the floor.

"How many times?" Jimmy muttered under his breath as he watched the other rider struggle with everything.

Buck didn't bother with his boots and laid himself down on his bunk and tried to find a comfortable position. He couldn't really find one and in trying he was just hurting more. Finally he just tried to be still and let the exhaustion and pain overtake him.

Jimmy couldn't help but notice the look of pain on Buck's face. He didn't like it. He didn't believe for one second that Buck's horse threw him. He had the look of someone who had been beaten. He decided to keep an eye on him for awhile. If Buck was still looking poorly, Jimmy figured he'd just have Emma give him a look.

Lou quietly entered the bunkhouse and saw Jimmy at the table polishing his newly cleaned gun. "He asleep?" She asked tilting her head toward Buck.

"Yeah, but he don't look so good, do he? I was gonna ask Emma to take a look at him if he doesn't look better by supper time." Jimmy said.

"I think we should tell Emma right now. He looks a little pale." Lou said.

"I'll go," he said and slipped his gun into his holster and started out the bunkhouse door.

~*~

Eliza was helping Emma in the kitchen, when Jimmy came in looking for Emma.

"Emma?" Jimmy called once he was through the front door.

"We're in the kitchen, Jimmy," Emma answered back. "Is something the matter?" She asked as Jimmy wandered into the kitchen.

"Buck got hurt on his run. He's lying in his bunk."

"What happened, Jimmy?" She asked alarmed. She grabbed a bowl and filled it with water.

"He said his horse threw him," Jimmy replied unconvinced.

"What do you think really happened?" Emma demanded.

"I think someone beat him up," Jimmy speculated.

Eliza gasped and quickly covered her mouth. She hoped it had nothing to do with her, but that was all that made sense to her. Her father was not a man who gave up easily.

Jimmy looked over at Eliza. She looked so scared. He started to move toward her just as Emma handed the bowl of water to Jimmy and said, "Here take this over to the bunkhouse I'll be right behind you."

Jimmy reluctantly took the bowl and headed for the bunkhouse.

Emma turned to Eliza and gave her shoulders a gentle squeeze. "He'll be alright, you'll see," she comforted.

Emma grabbed some rags and then she and Eliza made their way to the bunkhouse.

~*~

Emma took charge upon entering the bunkhouse. She looked at the prone rider on his bunk and knew his condition would require a doctor. "Jimmy, go get the doc. Lou, can you get his boots off?"

Lou nodded and gently removed Buck's boots.

Jimmy darted out the door and ran toward the barn to saddle up Sundance.

Eliza stood back and rubbed her tummy nervously. This was all her fault. If she hadn't been so stupid and naïve, she never would have let Joe Turner touch her and then none of this would be happening. Buck was nothing but kind to her. He didn't deserve this. She needed to leave before something truly terrible happened because of her. First she had to make sure he was going to be alright.

"Buck, can you wake up for me, honey?" Emma asked gently. Buck just mumbled back at her and his eyes fluttered open and shut. He was so tired. He just wanted to sleep for a while. He would be fine if they would let him sleep.

"Lou, where's he hurt?" Emma insisted.

"I think his ribs and stomach, Emma," she answered.

"Can you two help me take his coat and shirt off?" Emma asked as she a Lou pulled Buck up to a sitting position.

Eliza started to undo the buttons on his shirt. She knew she was blushing. This wasn't the appropriate time, but the thought of removing his shirt was causing her stomach to flutter. She needed to get out of here. "Emma, I'll wait outside, I've never…"

"It's ok, sweetheart. Lou and I can take it from here. He's going to be alright," she reassured her.

Eliza leaned against the wall and breathed a heavy sigh. She saw Jimmy's horse gallop away and felt better. She was glad to be out of there and she didn't mean to listen in, but she could hear Lou and Emma talking.

"Emma, how can you be so nice to her. This is probably all her fault," Lou said accusingly.

"She's just a kid, Lou. Like all of you. She needs our help," Emma defended.

"It's happening again Emma. Why won't he ever learn? The last pretty girl that needed Buck's help nearly got him killed too." Lou was at her wits end. It was as if she was seeing something everyone else was missing.

"Lou, this is not her fault. She didn't do this to Buck. We don't even know who did." Emma reasoned.

Eliza tuned out everything but Lou's accusation. Did she almost get Buck killed? She knew she nearly got him arrested. She liked Buck a lot. He was so kind to her. She couldn't keep getting him into trouble. She cared too much about him for that. She knew what she had to do. She needed to leave. She wouldn't find a better time than now. Emma and Lou were busy taking care of Buck, Kid was on a run, Jimmy went to get the doctor, and Teaspoon had Cody and Ike with him picking up horses near Blue Creek. She would never have a better chance to sneak away and she was going to take it.

~*~

Eliza had been walking for hours. Her feet hurt and her back was aching. She needed to find shelter soon. The sky had long turned dark and there was no moon. All she knew was she couldn't hurt Buck anymore, which meant she had to make sure he couldn't find her. She heard her father talk about the posse's that were sent out in Willow Springs and she heard about some of the tricks the bad guys had used to try and get away. She hoped they worked better for her than they did for those criminals. Whenever she found water, she crossed it and she tried stay to rocky terrain. Honestly, she didn't know what she was doing. She didn't even know if anyone at the station was any good at tracking. She may have been spending too much time laying an obvious trail while trying to hide it.

She stopped to rest against a tree when she noticed the wind picking up. The dark sky was suddenly lit up with lightning. She was relieved that at least the accompanying thunder was much slower in following. The storm was still a ways off. Still, she had to find shelter.

She started to walk again heading in the direction of another stand of trees near a hill. There had to be some shelter somewhere around here. There just had to be. Another bolt of lightning spread across the sky and revealed a cabin tucked inside the trees she was heading for. A smile broke across her face and her pace quickened. She hoped whoever lived there was friendly, but she didn't see any lights on.

She reached the front door as the first drops of rain started to fall. The wind had died down some, but the lightning was more frequent and the thunder was louder. She knocked on the door and waited a few seconds of silence and knocked again. It seemed nobody was home. She turned the knob on the door and pushed it open. It wasn't locked.

"Hello?" She called out into the darkness. "Is anyone home?"

There was no answer. She closed the door behind her and tried to find a lamp, lantern, candle, or anything that would help her see. She decided the place must be abandoned after she walked through a spider's web. She was terrified of spiders. She involuntarily let out a tiny scream and began to wipe away the web quickly and thoroughly. She could feel several minutes after removing it a tickle on her arms as if a spider were crawling on her. She had shelter from the storm, but until she found a way to see her way around, she would find no comfort here.

~*~

Emma sat on her porch with a cup of hot steaming coffee in her hands. She watched the wisps of steam curl and dance into the air. She liked the quiet of the morning, but this morning was different. She hoped Buck had the good sense to stay in bed. He was lucky his ribs were only bruised, but he needed rest. He was typically an early riser compared to the rest of the boys, and he'd been up before dawn every day this week. She didn't know how to tell him that while they were tending to him last night, Eliza disappeared. The rain had probably washed away any trace of her trail too. Emma was sure he'd light out on a horse risking further injury as soon as he found out. If only Mr. Spoon would get back. He'd be able to keep Buck in bed where he belonged and maybe even figure out where Eliza ran off to. She had to keep Jimmy occupied too. That boy had taken a fancy to Eliza as well, but he had the first ride today and she needed him to take it. The station had to keep running.

The noise of the bunkhouse door opening drew Emma out of her thoughts. She closed her eyes in disappointment as Buck hobbled outside. She stood and grabbed the coffee pot and an extra cup she crossed the station to the bunkhouse porch.

"Buck, you should be in bed," she said handing Buck a cup and filling it with the hot dark liquid.

They sat on the step for a moment watching the morning break, sipping at their coffee. It was then Buck noticed Emma's face. She looked really tired and her clothes looked the same as yesterday.

"You haven't slept," he stated with a worried look on his face.

"No," she admitted. "I was too worried to sleep."

"About me?"

She nodded.

"Emma, I'm fine. Just a little sore…"

Her eyebrows rose.

"Ok, I'm a lot sore, but I'm going to be fine," Buck said dismissively.

She took a long drink from her coffee.

"It's not just me you were worried about, was it?" he asked pensively.

She shook her head.

"Did something happen?" he asked with a look of dread.

"Eliza took what happened to you pretty hard. I think she feels responsible," Emma explained carefully.

"You think? You mean you're not sure?"

She shook her head again. "Buck, you really should be in bed. Doc said…"

"She's gone, isn't she?" he said knowingly. He stood up and looked to the barn.

Emma nodded. "Buck, you can't go after her. You need to take it easy for a couple of days," she argued with a hint of panic in her voice.

"What's goin' on?" Jimmy asked while he came out of the bunkhouse.

"Nothin'," Buck replied protectively.

Emma looked at the two riders and saw a shadow of what was coming. "Jimmy, don't you have a run to prepare for?" She asked trying to diffuse the brewing storm before her riders noticed it.

He nodded and started for the barn.

"Well why don't you get Sundance ready and I'll pack you some food. Buck, you get back in bed." Emma stood up and headed for the house leaving the coffee pot.

Buck took his time finishing his coffee. He watched as Kid handed the mochila off to Jimmy. As soon as Kid came back from the barn and went into the bunkhouse, Buck saw his opportunity. He gingerly stood and made his way to the barn to saddle up his horse and sneak away. He had a good idea what direction Eliza would have gone and would start trying to find places that would be good shelter from a storm.

~*~

Emma walked into the bunkhouse to call the boys for breakfast and was irritated to find that Buck wasn't among them. "Lou, Kid, where's Buck?" she practically yelled.

"He was on the porch steps last I saw him. Is he in trouble, Emma?" Kid answered confused. Lou turned to him and filled him in on Buck's ride from the day before.

Emma walked out of the bunkhouse and slammed the door. She looked to the barn and saw Buck ride away obviously in a bit of pain. Well, there was nothing she could do but patch him up when he got back. "Ride safe, Buck," she called softly as she watched him go.

"Where's he going?" Kid asked from the doorway trying to sort out what was going on.

"Eliza ran away last night. He's gone to find her," Emma answered worriedly. "He shouldn't even be out of bed yet, let alone on a horse. I wish he would have waited for Mr. Spoon to come back…and that poor girl out there all alone…"

"He'll be alright, Emma. Buck's tough," Kid reassured her. "…and if anyone can find Eliza, it's him.

"I hope you're right. When he gets back here, I'm tying him down to his bunk," Emma said resolutely.

~*~

Buck started riding in the direction he thought Eliza was most likely to follow, which was from behind Emma's house. The rain had washed any tracks away, but Buck found some other signs that she may have taken this route. There was some trampled grass and broken brush that indicated something had gone through here. His suspicions were confirmed when he found a piece of ripped fabric on a low lying branch. It was the same color as the skirt Eliza was wearing. She had definitely come this way. He was taking his time following the trail mostly because he was hurting. He felt a little better than yesterday, but not much.

Buck was amused. Eliza had to have come this way. Even with the rain, the rocks around the area were so disturbed, there was no way the rain would hide them. He found it cute how absolutely inept she was at hiding her trail especially since it seemed that she had gone out of her way to do it. He saw a trail of trampled prairie grass heading to a stand of trees and knew she must have found shelter there last night. With any luck she was still there.

~*~

Eliza had fallen asleep against the door. That was as far into the cabin as she was willing to go. She started to stir as the sunlight that shone on her face got brighter. She opened her eyes and looked down at the biggest spider she had ever seen crouching on her skirt. She stood quickly, shook the spider off her skirt, and ran out the door straight into the arms of her friend and protector.

Buck let out a small groan as he absorbed the collision into his torso. "Are you alright?" he asked as he petted her head.

She nodded as she clung to him. She was so glad to see him even if he was what she was running from.

"I think we're going to have to stay here at least until tomorrow. I think both of us could use the rest,"

"There are spiders all over the place in there," she whined into his shoulder.

Buck tried not to laugh at her. Was there anything this girl wasn't afraid of? "Come on we'll chase them away together."

Buck entered the cabin first and looked around at the place. It was dirty. He guessed that nobody but spiders had lived here for years. It was a one room cabin probably owned by a trapper. It was sparsely furnished with just the basics. It had a table with 2 chairs against the far wall and a large bed near the fireplace. He located a couple of brooms in a corner by the back door. He handed one to Eliza and started to clean out the webs. It was slow going because of her condition and his injuries, but they were making progress.

The worked in silence for a while until Buck broke the silence. "Eliza, why did you run away?" he asked concerned.

"You got hurt because of me," she countered.

"I'm ok," he said reassuringly

"No you're not. I heard Lou talking. I don't think he likes me. He thinks I'm going to get you killed. That's the last thing I want, so I left," she said apologetically. "Maybe now my father will leave you alone."

"Eliza, you can't keep running away every time something upsetting happens. This the third time since I met you that you've run and I haven't known you that long." He was trying not to sound exasperated.

"That's not true, I've only run away once," she said defensively.

"I'm counting the time you hurt yourself and the time you threaten to hurt yourself too. They are a form of running, you know," he said trying to make his point.

"I don't want to talk about this," she said trying not to cry. She hated crying and that seemed to be the one thing she kept doing.

"Eliza you have to stand up to your problems and face them head on."

"I can't do that. I'm not a strong person."

"Yes you are. You don't have to do it alone. You can ask for help."

"Oh that's rich," she snorted.

"What do you mean?"

"Like you ask for help? Mr. I'd-rather-die-in-my-bunk-than-tell-anyone-I-was-hurt."

"That's different."

"Why 'cause you're a boy? I bet you're not even supposed to be riding yet. Does anyone even know that you left the station?"

"Ok, it's not different. So maybe I need to work on that too."

"Maybe we could help each other?"

"It's a deal," he said with a smile.

"How are you feeling now, are you in a lot of pain?" she asked guiltily.

I'm fi..., I hurt. A lot. I think resting here for at least a day will help," he assured her.

They sat at the table to rest for a moment and Eliza couldn't keep her mind on anything but her anxiety. "Buck…I don't think I'm going to be a good mother," she confessed. She was scared of his reaction.

"Why not? You love your baby, don't you?" he asked carefully.

"Yes, I love him or her, but I don't know the first thing about motherhood," she explained. "I'm sixteen years old and I don't know how to do anything. I can't cook, I don't know much about cleaning or laundry, I don't know how to sew or knit, and I've never grown a vegetable or milked a cow. The only things I do know how to do are reading, writing, numbers and I can make a bouquet of flowers look fantastic in a vase," she ranted.

"Eliza, listen to me. All that stuff can be learned if you want to learn it. You're a smart person I'm sure you can do it," he said supportively. "The important thing is that you love your child," he said as he stood up walked over to the window.

The way he said the last part gave her pause. She walked over to him and put her hand on his shoulder to look him in the eye. "Your mother did love you, didn't she?" she asked hesitantly.

"She did in her own way," he answered quietly. He looked into her face and found confusion there. "My mother was raped, and I'm…" he started to explain hesitantly.

She gasped and then smiled warmly at him. "I'm really glad your mother kept you and loved you the best she could. She made you into someone really special. I don't know how I would have survived this last week without you," she said supportively. She reached up and planted a kiss on his cheek and hugged him.

He smiled back at her and with a little bit of a laugh, he said, "Yeah, I guess it's a good thing I was here, you probably wouldn't have survived all these spiders, they're ferocious."

She balled up a fist and hit him on the arm playfully and giggled. He always had a way of making her laugh.

"Do you really think I could learn how to do something useful?" she questioned.

"Sure, Emma knows how to do most of what you listed. I'm sure she'd help you if you asked," he encouraged.

After a few minutes Buck broke the embrace. "I'm going to take care of my horse and make sure he has some water. You should get some rest."

"Don't overdo it, Buck. I'm not sure what Lou would do to me if I brought you back to the station in pieces.

"Don't worry, I'll take it slow," he promised. "I'll set some snares and see if I can catch us some dinner," he added on his way out.

She smiled as he left and curled up on the bed, it was spider free thanks to Buck. She closed her eyes and dreamed about her baby.

~*~

Benedict Caldwell rode into Sweetwater to see Marshal Sam Cain, this time he had a lawyer and a court order from a judge. He was taking his daughter home.

Sam read over the paper. This just kept getting better and better. Giving that girl up would probably break Emma's heart given what happened the last time he brought Mr. Caldwell out to the way station, but he didn't have a choice.

"Mr. Caldwell, are you sure you want to do this?" Sam asked wearily.

"Quite sure, Marshal Cain." Benedict replied.

"I was afraid you were gonna say that," he said standing up and putting on his hat. "Well come on let's get this over with."

~*~

Teaspoon was glad to be home. He had just spent the last couple of days with two boys who were the mirror opposite of each other, Cody who would talk your ear off and Ike who was quieter than a church mouse. Needless to say, he was glad to be home. Ike and Cody were putting up the horses so he took the time to look over the station as he was headed up to the main house for some coffee. There was something unnaturally quiet about the place. He felt better when Emma exited the house with some laundry, but that was short lived when she dropped the basket and wandered over to him looking like she was about to cry.

"Emma, what happened?" he asked knowing this probably had to do with a certain house guest and a certain rider.

Emma relayed the story in all its glory, not leaving any of the details out.

"Lordy, lord," Teaspoon spat.

Emma nodded. "Neither of them are in any condition to be out there alone," she worried.

"Oh, Emma, I expect Buck's found her by now. He's right good at that sort of thing," he said putting his arm comfortingly around her shoulders. "In fact, if I'm ever lost, I hope you send him to find me," he mused. "But it's probably for the best they ain't here," he said nodding to the riders approaching. He recognized Sam and Mr. Caldwell, but the third man was a mystery.

"Howdy Sam, is there something we can do for you?" Teaspoon asked as Sam pulled his horse up.

Mr. Caldwell and his lawyer kept a discrete distance behind as the marshal greeted Teaspoon and Emma.

"Teaspoon, Emma," Sam greeted, tipping his hat at his friends. "I'm afraid Mr. Caldwell and his lawyer, Mr. Sims, have a court order to take Eliza home."

"Well, he's too late. Eliza ran away last night," Emma seethed looking straight at Benedict.

"Did that filthy Indian leave with her?" Benedict asked coldly.

"His name is Buck and no, he didn't. He was too busy recovering from whatever hell your goons put him through on his mail run," Emma said with angry tears threatening to fall from her eyes.

"Where is Buck now," Sam asked not really wanting to know the answer.

"He's out looking for her, against doctor's orders," Emma said looking daggers at Mr. Caldwell.

"Well, that's just perfect," Sam said exasperated. He was sure Emma's boys were going to be the death of him or at least cost him his career.

~*~

Buck came back to the cabin after a slow hour of chores. He unsaddled and watered his horse, set some snares to hopefully catch a rabbit or two, and found some berries for lunch. He was still moving pretty slow, but he wasn't causing himself any extra pain. He grabbed his saddle bags and bedroll and quietly entered the cabin.

Eliza was still sleeping and he decided he could do with a nap as well. He unrolled his bedroll onto the floor near the bed and slowly lowered himself to the floor. Just as he settled in, Eliza woke up.

"Hey you," she smiled peeking down at the floor from the edge of the bed.

Buck smiled back at her. "You're awake," he observed.

She nodded. "This bed is plenty big for two people, why don't you come up here and rest," she offered.

"That wouldn't be proper, besides you look like a blanket stealer," he teased.

She giggled. "Not proper, well I'm pregnant and unwed, I'm not sure my reputation could get any worse, besides you look really uncomfortable down there," she reasoned. "Come on, get up here, I promise I won't take advantage of you or hog the blanket," she chided.

He smiled. "Alright, move over," he said climbing onto the bed. He lay down on his back and she curled up next to him laying her head on his shoulder. He wrapped an arm protectively around her.

"Buck, if I forget to tell you later, I'm really glad you found me," she said and within a couple of minutes they were both asleep.

~*~

It was a sunny afternoon when Cody, Lou and Kid were in town picking up supplies for Emma. It was nice to be away from the station especially with all the events of late. They were loading the wagon with grain and groceries, when Cody looked up from the dime novel he just purchased to see a young man in all his finery trot his horse down the street of Sweetwater. He must be around their own age, but that's where the similarity ended. This boy obviously had money. He looked like he popped off the page of a catalog selling English riding clothes and his horse…They didn't see it's like very often. It was tall with a high stepping gait. Not practical for ranching or the general riggers of the West, but it was a beautiful animal. They all stopped what they were doing and watched the young man ride through.

Joe Turner was a young man of sixteen. He was handsome, bright and had plans to go to college back east. He wanted to become a lawyer. He had only managed to screw one thing up, his relationship with Eliza. She was a great girl and he had hurt her. He didn't know how to fix it. He knew she had never betrayed him. He knew the baby she was carrying was his. He said so many things to her that he really didn't mean. He could tell by the devastated look on her face exactly when her heart broke. It haunted his dreams. He needed to talk to her and apologize for all the wrong he had done her, but first, he had to find her.

As he rode his horse through the main thoroughfare of Sweetwater he looked for somewhere to ask after Eliza's whereabouts. He had overheard Eliza's parents complaining about Eliza staying at the Pony Express station here. At the end of the street he spied three young men loading a wagon with supplies for a farm or stable. As he passed them it occurred to him that these boys could be riders at the station he sought. He turned his horse around and rode up to where the riders were just finishing up loading their wagon.

"Pardon me, but would you be riders for the Pony Express?" Joe asked in a formal tone.

"Who's askin'," Lou answered hostilely. Cody and Kid gave Lou a quick inquisitive look and then looked up at the well dressed stranger.

"My name is Mr. Joseph Turner. I was told my fiancé was injured and taken to your station to convalesce."

The three riders looked at each other curiously and finally Kid spoke up. "Eliza's your fiancé?"

"Well, after a fashion. You see, we had a little misunderstanding, and I'm here to remedy that," Joe said pompously. He didn't want these riders to think him unimportant or stupid. He wanted to seem worthy of the fair Eliza's hand to them. He wasn't sure by the looks on their faces if he was successful. "Will you take me to her?" he asked importantly.

Kid looked down at the dirt and then up at Cody with his brows furrowed. Cody looked at Lou for an answer. None of them was sure they liked this guy.

Joe could tell he was playing these boys all wrong. They weren't going to help him unless he acted more like his usual self. "Please," he said jumping down from his horse and dropping the air of sophistication he had put on. "I need to find her. I've messed up so badly and hurt her terribly, I know, but I really do love her and I need to make it right," he begged.

"Well, she ain't at the station just now. You see her father's been makin' some trouble for her and she needed to get away for a bit," Cody explained.

"She ran away again, didn't she?" he asked dejected.

"Well, yes," Kid said, but then added, "Her father's at the marshal's office right now. If you could get him to back off, she'd probably come back."

"I think I can do that and then I'll check into the hotel. Will one of you come get me when she returns?" he asked with a look of trust toward the riders.

"Sure we will," Lou said and watched Joe lead his horse down the street to the marshal's office. She was hopeful this Joseph Turner would take Eliza home and then their lives would be back to normal. He didn't seem like such a bad guy after all.

~*~

It was the middle of the afternoon when Eliza woke up again. She carefully propped herself up on her elbow. Buck was still asleep. She couldn't help but watch him. He looked very peaceful. She thought about what she knew of his life. Things must be hard for him at times. She knew how her father and other people from her town felt about Indians. She didn't know how he did it without completely giving up on the world. Next to his life, hers really wasn't that bad, but she was having a lot more trouble dealing with hers than he seemed to be with his. She wished she was strong, like him. He must have left his tribe at some point. She assumed he left his tribe; he seemed more Indian than white, which would mean his mother was probably Indian. Eliza didn't even know what tribe he was from. She was so immersed in her own problems. She decided that over dinner she would ask him about his tribe, provided he was willing to talk about it. Maybe she could learn to face her problems head on by listening to his experience.

She was so lost in thought she didn't notice Buck wake up. She looked down at him once more only to find him staring at her with a friendly smile on his face. "Are you hungry?" he asked breaking the silence.

She nodded.

"I'm gonna check the snares I set and gather some other ingredients. Hopefully we'll be having rabbit stew for dinner," he smiled at the revulsion on her face. "It's ok, it'll taste good I promise," he said with a slight chuckle.

Eliza had found some cooking supplies in Buck's saddle bags and laid them out for his return. There was a small pot near the fire place that she took to the stream and rinsed it out. The previous occupant of the cabin had left the pot seasoned so it was still in good shape. She also found a wooden bucket and filled it with water from the stream for cooking and washing.

Buck came back a short time later with a field dressed rabbit, some cattail tubers, nettles, and wild onions. They started to prepare the meal with Buck talking about each item and how long it would take to cook. Eliza was fascinated by the process of cooking. She was definitely going to ask Emma about this when they got back to the station.

They sat down at the table to eat using what Buck had for trail dishes in this pack, which amounted to an enameled plate, coffee mug, fork and spoon. Eliza thought about the ingredients of the meal and how it tasted both exotic and absolutely normal. "Did you learn to make stuff like this while you lived with your tribe?" she asked, fishing for information on her friend.

"Yes," he said cautiously. He didn't trust a lot of people with his life story.

"It's ok you don't have to tell me if you don't want to. I just want to know more about you and the things in your life that brought you where you are today. I've been dwelling too much on my own life and it gets me into trouble," she smiled sheepishly.

He searched her eyes and found sincerity there. Maybe he could tell her some things about himself. She was his friend and friends trusted each other. "No, it's alright," he smiled back.

They spent the rest of the evening sharing stories about how they grew up. Buck told her about his brother, Red Bear and about a white girl, Little Bird, that lived with the tribe for a while. He told her many things that he remembered about tribal living.

"It sounds so amazing, why did you leave?" she asked gingerly.

"I didn't really have a choice. The people in the tribe didn't trust me," he explained.

Buck told her about leaving the Kiowa, the mission school and meeting Ike. She smiled and revealed things about her childhood too. Like sparse displays of affection from her parents and her mother's firm belief that she would marry a man who would be rich enough to have servants for her every need. Eliza expressed her frustration at not being able to care for herself in the world. She wanted to learn how to cook and how to sew. She wanted to do more than read books and pick flowers. Talking with Buck made everything in her life look so simple and made her feel like she had choices and friends.

They talked well into the night and finally Eliza couldn't keep her eyes open any more. "I guess we should go to sleep," she prompted. She felt herself blush a little and she bit her lower lip. "Could you…would you...," she said suddenly needing to clear her throat. "I felt so safe earlier today when we shared the bed and I'd really like it if you would share it with me tonight." She felt awkward asking but she really liked sleeping next to him. "No funny business, I promise," she added.

"Alright, I guess someone will have to protect you from spiders while you sleep," he teased. They settled in on the bed, Buck again on his back and Eliza snuggled into his side with her head gently resting on his shoulder. "Goodnight, Eliza," he whispered and kissed her lightly on the forehead.

"Goodnight, Buck," she answered him with the same whisper and tilted her head up softly kissing his lips.

Buck's eyes popped open in surprise and he stared at the ceiling as Eliza fell into a deep sleep.

~*~

Joe was feeling good. He had managed to get Mr. Caldwell to leave Sweetwater and go home. Of course he promised to bring Eliza back with him when he himself returned to Willow Springs. That promise was easy after he asked for her hand in marriage. Mr. Caldwell was only too happy to give his consent. Joe knew that Mr. Caldwell needed his family's support if he were to run for public office, so he played upon his need to diffuse the scandal surrounding his daughter. He was too much of a coward to admit that Eliza was carrying his child though, and assured Mr. Caldwell that he loved Eliza so much that he was willing to accept her child as his own.

All he needed to do now was to wait for Eliza to come back to the Express station. Then he could confess his love and take her home.

~*~

Eliza woke with the powerful need to use the privy. She thought she saw one out back when she was looking around yesterday afternoon. The sun was already up, but Buck was still sleeping. He had his arms tangled around her and she couldn't get up without waking him.

His face was tantalizingly close to hers, and she could feel her heartbeat quicken as she looked at him. She remembered the kiss she gave him the night before. His lips were soft and sweet. Even though he didn't kiss her back, she wanted to experience that closeness to him again. She wanted him to know how much she appreciated everything that he'd done for her and wanted to make his waking up as pleasant as possible. She leaned in hesitantly, closed her eyes, and gently placed a kiss on his lips.

She must have caught him in the middle of a dream, because before she could move away, Buck pulled her closer into his embrace and kissed her sensually back. Startled, her eyes opened suddenly and slowly she allowed them to flutter closed. The kiss was unlike anything she had ever experienced and she could feel her toes curl with excitement. She didn't want it to end. She moved her hand up to his face and started to run her fingers through his hair. She moaned and let his tongue compliment hers as the kiss deepened. She opened her eyes when the kiss abruptly stopped.

"I'm sorry," he said his face showing a twinge of regret for taking the liberty. "I must have been…"

"No, I'm sorry," she said cutting him off. "I kissed you. I wanted you to wake up in the most pleasant way possible," she said blushing.

He untangled himself from Eliza and sat on the edge of the bed. "Eliza, we need to talk about this," he said uncomfortably.

"Can you hold on a minute, I really need to…," she started awkwardly and then gave up and ran through the back door of the cabin to where she thought the privy was.

Buck shook his head and laughed. There was something silly about Eliza he liked very much. He tried to relax about the kiss and started to make some coffee.

~*~

Emma was up early trying very hard not to worry. She was encouraged by what Kid, Lou, and Cody told her about their trip into town yesterday. She hoped this young man they spoke of could get Mr. Caldwell to leave town. She also worried about this Joe. She didn't want to see Eliza hurt anymore. She saw the boys milling around the station waiting on breakfast. Lou was getting Lightning ready for her run and Kid was helping her. Ike was starting chores, but Cody…Cody had the look of someone needing something to do.

"Cody," Emma called. "After breakfast I want you to go find Buck and Eliza and bring them home."

"Aw, Emma, I was gonna go fishin' after breakfast," Cody complained.

"I'm making some cookies this afternoon, if you go out and find them I'll give you first pick," she tempted.

"Shucks Emma, I never could resist your cooking," he said heading for the barn.

~*~

Cody left right after breakfast just as Jimmy was coming back from his run. He handed the pouch off to Lou and walked Sundance to the barn.

Ike and Kid were doing the rest of the morning chores sleepily. "Hey Jimmy you missed all the excitement," Kid announced breaking the silence.

"What happened now?" Jimmy asked wearily. He was tired from his run and he just wanted to go to sleep. He lifted the stirrup and started to undo the cinch.

"Eliza ran away," Kid revealed.

Jimmy stopped and retightened his cinch, dropped the stirrup and rested his forehead on the saddle. "I'm beginning to think this girl's more trouble than she's worth," he said turning his head to look at his friends.

"Lou'll be happy to hear you say that," Kid said laughing. He knew Lou wouldn't be happy again until both Buck and Jimmy were untangled from the spell Eliza had them held in.

*Buck went after her,* Ike signed.

"Yeah, and Emma just sent Cody to find them," Kid said.

Jimmy flipped the stirrup back up onto the saddle and started to unsaddle his horse again. "Good, 'cause I'm bushed," Jimmy yawned.

*You go inside and sleep. I'll take care of Sundance,* Ike offered.

"Thanks Ike," Jimmy said as he walked back to the bunkhouse to get some much needed rest.

~*~

"Buck, I've come to a decision," Eliza announced while they were sitting outside drinking coffee. "I'm done running. I'm going to tell my parents I'm not going home with them. I'm going to raise this baby on my own with or without their blessing."

Buck smiled at her then asked the obvious question, "Where are you going to live and what are are you going to do for money?" He watched her carefully to make sure she didn't lose her resolve.

"Those are details that would cripple a lesser person," she dismissed. "I'm going to learn some skills and get a job," she reasoned undaunted. "The rest will fall into place."

"Good for you," Buck encouraged.

"I'm hoping Emma will let me stay awhile and let me earn my keep. Do you think she would?" she asked suddenly unsure.

"Emma likes you, I'm sure she'd help you out until you can make it on your own," he said not wanting her to pick up on how much he would miss her if she left.

They sat and observed the quiet of the morning for a few minutes. Buck didn't think they could put off the discussion any longer. "Eliza, we need to talk about that kiss from this morning," he said broaching the subject prudently. "I like you a lot…" he started

"Buck I think we both know that a romantic relationship between the two of us right now would be a disaster," she said interrupting and saving both their prides. "I would just still be running away again and I don't' want to use you like that," Eliza said looking deep into his eyes. "We were caught up in the moment. I have to say that I'm not sorry though. That was the most amazing kiss I've ever shared," she said blushing deeply across her cheeks. "I know now I'm never going to settle for anything in my life. I'm going after the best life for me and my baby. Not a life of wealth and power like my parents, but a life of love and passion."

Buck was about to say something when he heard the sound of a horse coming their way. "Someone's coming," he whispered and moved protectively in front of Eliza.

"I thought I was on the right trail," Cody called. "Emma sent me to find you. It's ok to come back, your father left town," Cody announced.

"My father came by again?" Eliza asked fretfully.

"Yeah, he had a court order to take you home. I forgot you were already gone," Cody said smiling. "We met your fiancé yesterday and he sent your father home. He said something about wanting to apologize," Cody said obliviously.

Buck saw the look of absolute panic on Eliza's face. He put his arms around her and tried to reassure her. "You are strong. You can handle it and I'm always going to be here for you if you need my help."

"Cody, can you help me saddle my horse and then we can go," Buck said and started to pack up his things.

~*~

Emma was relieved as she saw Cody and Buck ride into the station. Eliza was riding in front of Buck and they were moving slowly and carefully. Emma was sure it was as much for Eliza's safety as Buck's comfort. As they got closer, Emma noticed a change in the way Eliza carried herself. Her posture was better and she was smiling. Whatever effect Buck had on that girl it was magic.

They pulled up to the bunkhouse and Cody jumped down from his horse and helped Eliza down. Buck then slid off his horse with a pained look on his face.

"To bed mister and you're not to get up until I say so. Is that clear?" Emma sternly said to Buck and pointed to the bunkhouse.

"Yes, Emma," he smiled at her and slowly walked toward the bunkhouse.

"Cody, those cookies I promised you are in the kitchen," Emma said to the blonde rider with a smile.

"Thanks Emma," he said jovially and took the reins of Buck's horse and led him to the barn with Soda. He smiled as he spied Eliza help Buck up the bunkhouse steps. 'Something is definitely going on between them,' he thought with a smile.

Buck had been feeling so much better until the ride home. It was a little jarring to be on a horse and his ribs let him know how unhappy they were with the jostling. Still he had taken the ride slow. He had tried really hard to keep Eliza from being too concerned about him. He covered his pain really well and he couldn't wait to lie down in his bunk and let his body heal.

Ike sat at the table of the bunkhouse drawing on a pad of paper and smiled at Buck and Eliza as they walked in the door. Ike noted the difference in his friend. He still had a conflicted look about him but it was different somehow. The mute rider sensed his best friend may need to talk again. He would wait until Buck was ready and be there for his friend.

Eliza saw Buck to his bunk and helped him take off his boots and settle into bed. She sat beside him holding his hand as he closed his eyes.

Emma gave the couple of minutes of alone time and then decided to walk into the bunkhouse and check on her wayward rider and his charge. She found her rider mercifully asleep. Emma put her hand on Eliza's shoulder to lead her away from Buck and let him sleep.

"Emma, I want to start earning my keep around here. I don't know how to do anything but I am willing to learn," she said earnestly.

"Well I have a pile of mending to catch up on, why don't you help me with that?" she smiled encouragingly at her.

"Alright, I really want to learn. I tried embroidery once, is it anything like that?" she asked wearily.

"You'll do fine," Emma laughed gently and lead Eliza out of the bunkhouse and toward the main house.

Emma and Eliza sat on the porch of the house mending the boy's shirts and pants and darning some socks. Eliza was doing pretty well. She only sewed one shirt to her skirt. Emma inspected her stitching and was quite impressed with how quickly Eliza was learning. They were working for quite a while, when they were startled out of their concentration by Cody calling, "Rider comin!'"

~*~

Joe rode his horse into the Pony Express station. He couldn't wait for the riders to come find him and he was pretty sure that after Eliza told them what he had done they wouldn't come get him anyway. He needed to see her.

"Eliza what are you doing hanging around here," Joe said as he dismounted his horse. He started walking determinedly toward the porch where Eliza sat.

"What do you mean?" Eliza questioned defiantly. "I saw that Indian take you away. Did he hurt you?"

Eliza noted the anger that flared behind the concern he tried to convey.

"He didn't hurt me, he saved me. His name is Buck. He's my friend." She tried to make it clear by the tone in her voice that she would not listen to any words against her new friends.

"He saved you, how?"

"Maybe we should go inside. Emma can I use your sitting room."

"Of course you can, sweetheart. Call if you need anything."

Eliza ushered Joe into the house as Emma got up and headed for the bunkhouse to wake Buck so they could both sit sentinel over their friend. Eliza sat down on the settee and patted the other side for Joe to sit there. She took a deep breath and pulled the sleeves of her blouse up and showed him the bandages. "I wasn't in a very good state of mind. I failed us, me and the baby. I couldn't face it alone so I tried not to face it at all."

Joe was flabbergasted. He hadn't dreamed that she was that hurt. He couldn't bring himself to admit how his actions contributed to hers. The only thing he could do was be angry and he didn't want to project his anger at the girl he loved, so he chose her protector. "I don't want you hanging around that Indian anymore he's dangerous," he said his anger was just starting to become apparent, but he did attempt to hide it.

"You don't want me hanging around him?" She questioned. "He's not dangerous. Why would you think he was dangerous?" Eliza defended not understanding where Joe's fear was coming from.

"He's an Indian isn't he?" He asked as his anger started to be more blatant.

"What's that got to do with anything? He's a nice person. He has done nothing but be kind to me and protect me." Eliza was losing her patience.

"Well I'm here now. I'll protect you and our baby. Come on. Let's get your stuff packed. We can go home in the morning."

"No," she said stoically.

"What do you mean no?"

"I'm not going home. I can't yet. I don't know if I'll ever be able to," she said resolutely.

Joe thought a moment. This wasn't going at all how he had planned. "I started this all wrong. I should have started with the words I'm sorry. You see, I need to apologize. I was scared. I didn't think I was ready to be a father so I blamed you. I'm sorry. Please listen to me. Give me a chance to..."

"A chance to what, break my heart again? No, no I barely survived the last time. I won't let you do it again," she said with determination.

"Please, I've realized so much and I swear I've grown up some. When I saw that Indian ride away with you, I was so scared. I want to be a part of our child's life. I'll marry you. Whatever it takes, I'll do. Just give me another chance." Joe begged.

"Joe you don't understand. A month ago I would have been so happy to hear those words, but those weren't the words you spoke. I wasn't a strong person then. I was abandoned by you. I was then abandoned by the only people I felt I had left. I was left alone with no one to help me but me. I feel different now. Buck and Emma helped me see how strong I am and how many choices I really have. They saved me by teaching me how to be strong for myself."

"You can't keep me from our child, Eliza. I'll fight you."

"Joe I don't want to keep you from the baby," she said a little exasperated, "I want to keep you from me. I thought I loved you and I thought you loved me. We both know that was a lie. We were in love with the idea, nothing more. It isn't fair to either one of us to get married to one another. We wouldn't be happy and neither would our child," she explained reasonably.

"Can we at least be friends?" His anger was poking out again. He was getting desperate. He knew this change in Eliza must be because of her new friend. She was probably romantically involved with him and he'd never get to see his child. Something had to be done to make her see that she should come home with him and then everything would be right with the world.

"I don't know," she answered simply, but she was a little scared about Joe's reaction.

"Eliza, you're just being stubborn. If you would only..."

Buck and Emma were listening from the porch. There were several times that Buck wanted to intervene, but Eliza seemed to be holding her own. This time he didn't think Joe would back down so Buck chose that moment to enter the sitting room. "Eliza, is everything alright?"

"Yes, Buck, Joe was just leaving," she said with a stern look in Joe's direction.

Joe stood up from the settee and glared at Buck as he left. He didn't know how he was going to do it, but he needed to get Eliza away from that Indian. This Buck was ruining his chances of having a family with Eliza. Maybe Mr. Caldwell's ideas on how to get rid of the Indian were more correct. There was no way Joe could take Buck in a fair fight even with Buck injured like he seemed to be.

~*~

Buck was feeling much better by the end of the week. The doctor had cleared him to ride again and he was once again in Emma's good graces. Eliza had been having a very good week. It was like she was a completely different person. She was no longer the scared, helpless girl he found out on the prairie, but a force of nature. She wouldn't take gruff from anyone, especially Joe and she was throwing herself into learning how to cook and to sew. She was really getting good at the cooking, but she still regularly sewed something to herself. Buck thought she deserved a little reward and he asked her on a picnic. Eliza had readily agreed. She was really looking forward to spending some time with Buck.

Buck hitched up a buckboard and packed a blanket, while Eliza packed the food. She was excited. While Emma had helped her, she mostly made the meal herself. She really wanted to impress Buck with her new skills at cooking. Sewing she was finding a little more difficult, but she had really taken to cooking.

She had no idea where Buck was taking them, but the ride there was beautiful. A gentle breeze was blowing through the trees that lined the road. The sky was dotted with a few fluffy clouds. There were wild flowers in bloom everywhere. She hooked her arm in his and leaned her head against his shoulder and enjoyed the perfect late summer day.

Buck finally pulled the horse and buckboard up near a stand of willow trees. A nearby babbling brook added a calming and serene atmosphere. Eliza looked around in awe at the beauty of the place. "Buck, this place is amazing. How did you know about it?" she asked with a look of absolute wonder on her face.

"Well, I have a job that requires me to travel all over the countryside. I get to see a lot of beautiful things," he said smiling at her.

Eliza blushed as Buck helped her down from the buckboard. She was feeling a change in the way she and Buck were relating to each other. As much as she was trying not to, she was falling for him. Ever since she kissed him and he kissed her back, she looked at him differently.

Buck laid the picnic blanket on the ground and lifted the basket of food out of the back of the wagon. He unhitched the horse and let it drink from the brook and then graze on sweet prairie grasses. He wanted this day to be perfect for Eliza. She had been trying so hard to make her way and he wanted to acknowledge her efforts.

~*~

Joe crouched behind the bushes about a hundred yards away from where his love and her…he didn't even know what to call him…her friend, her protector, her lover? He got angrier every time he thought of them together, but this was different. They were alone on a romantic picnic without a chaperone. This Indian was stealing his girl. Something had to be done. He had to get her back, but Joe knew he had to be careful. Eliza wouldn't listen to reason. She had a soft spot for this half-breed monstrosity. She was ruining her reputation. He didn't want his child tainted by the presence of that Indian. He got up from the ground and started to pace.

~*~

Buck leaned back against a tree and sighed contentedly. While Emma's cooking was still the best he had ever tasted, Eliza had done pretty well with lunch. She had made them some simple sandwiches and a fruit salad with apples and late summer berries, but by far the best was the cookies she had tucked in for dessert. His eyes started to droop as got more comfortable under the canopy of the tree.

"I hope you're not falling asleep," Eliza teased and reached a hand over to him lightly tickling his ribs.

He suddenly grabbed her hand and pulled Eliza over to him and started to tickle her back. They laughed and pulled in closer to each other until they were kissing. Neither one knew who had initiated the kiss, it just happened. The kisses were tender and sweet the way first kisses usually are. There were no demands just offerings and explorations of feelings. The kiss ended with the two leaning their foreheads together and their hands on each other's faces.

"What are we doing, Eliza?" he asked wearily.

"I think we're falling in love," she replied just as wearily. "I don't want to fight it anymore, Buck."

"I don't want to hurt you or confuse you," he said

"I'm not hurt or confused," she reassured him and pulled him into a deep kiss. Eliza suddenly pulled away from the kiss and placed a hand on her swelling belly, "OOOOoooo!" She winced.

"Are you alright? Should we go back and fetch the doctor?" Buck asked with worry on his face.

"No, no I'm alright," she smiled. "Here, give me your hand," she said enthusiastically taking his hand in hers and placing in on her abdomen. The baby kicked again. "Did you feel it?"

A soft smile spread across Buck's lips as he felt the tiny life inside Eliza make its presence known. He nodded at her and his smile grew. He felt honored that she let him experience this intimate moment.

"This little one isn't usually so active and I don't think anyone but me has been able to feel it before now," she said excitedly. She smiled at him and their eyes locked briefly before she closed hers softly as Buck moved in to kiss her again.

"We should head back to the station," Buck said reluctantly after breaking the kiss once again.

Eliza and Buck reluctantly pulled away from each other and started to clean up their picnic site. Eliza handled repacking the basket while Buck hitched the horse back up to the buckboard. Soon they were on their way back. Eliza leaned in and rested her head against Buck's shoulder while he reached his arm around her and held her close.

~*~

Joe was enraged. He couldn't believe that the Indian had touched her. Eliza belonged to him not that Indian. That savage had done more than just touch her, he kissed her. Joe stood up and balled his hands into fists. He wasn't going to let that half-breed raise his child. He had to get Eliza away from that station and that Indian. He needed a plan. He started to pace again. To hell with a plan, he needed a gun. He needed to put that Indian down like a rabid dog. That's the only way the hold he had over Eliza could be broken. He got up on his horse and started for town.

~*~

Buck and Eliza arrived at the station smiling and laughing and generally in a good mood. Lou was sitting on the bunkhouse porch got up and went inside slamming the door behind her at the sight of the happy couple. Ike had been whittling beside Lou and looked back at her as she left. He took a look at his best friend and decided that Buck might need to talk again. He got up and headed toward the barn to help with the horse and wagon.

Ike watched Eliza move toward the main house looking over her shoulder at Buck with a smile on her face. He also saw Buck return the smile. Something had happened between them on that picnic. No wonder Lou was worried.

*Hey, Buck, need some help?* Ike signed to his friend.

"Sure Ike. Can I talk to you?" Buck asked hoping Ike would want to listen.

*Why do you think I'm over here?* Ike signed rolling his eyes.

"Thanks Buddy," Buck said laughing. He unhitched the horse and led it into the barn and started to unbuckle one side of the harness. Ike started on the other side. They had the harness removed from the horse and hung up by the time that Buck spoke again.

"Ike, I think I'm falling for her," Buck confessed running his fingers through his hair.

Ike looked down at the ground and laughed shaking his head. He had seen this coming even if his Kiowa brother didn't.

*I'm happy for you,* Ike signed and clapped Buck on the shoulder. *What about the baby? Are you ok with becoming a daddy to a child that isn't yours?* Ike asked carefully.

"That child didn't have a choice about who its parents are, neither did I. It's a part of her and if we end up together I will love it because I will love her."

Ike smiled. He didn't expect anything less from his friend. *Is Joe going to leave her alone? Or do you think she might want him around too?*

Buck sighed a long troubled sigh. "I don't know. I don't think she knows," he speculated. "Am I making a mistake, Ike, getting involved with her?"

*I don't know. All we can do in this life is follow our hearts and hope for the best,* Ike signed sagely.

~*~

"Can I help you Son?" William Tompkins asked the young man who had just burst through his shop doors.

"Yes, I think you can sir," Joe responded coldly. "I have an Indian problem I need to take care of. I believe I will need a gun."

"What kind of Indian trouble you got?" Tompkins asked always liking to be in the know where those savages were concerned. "Is there a hostile tribe coming our way?"

"No, it's just a certain Indian Pony Express rider," Joe seethed.

"Is that half-breed's giving you trouble? That boy ain't worth the lead." Tompkins dismissed.

"He's taken up with my girl and poisoned her mind against me," Joe argued. "I have to get her away from him whatever it takes."

"Son, I see you won't be dissuaded, but I gotta say, I seen this same thing happen oh, not even two months ago."

"Tell me what happened," Joe demanded.

"That half-breed took up with the banker's daughter," Tompkins gossiped.

"What did the banker do?" Joe's attention was rapt.

"Oh he wasn't happy that's for sure, his hired man took it even worse. He and his men caught that savage and covered him in paint and feathers. Now I would have liked to have seen that," he mused and chuckled to himself.

"Did that work?" Joe asked hopefully.

"Naw, that half-breed has a nasty sense of revenge. Took one of those guys and hung him over a pit of rattlesnakes the other he buried up to his neck and dumped a bag of poisonous spiders over his head."

"Why isn't he dangling at the end of a rope?" Joe asked looking horrified.

"The marshal is sweet on the station mistress, and she's mighty protective of her boys. The marshal wasn't going to do anything to that boy considering everything that happened the last time one of her boys almost got hung. Besides the banker's men high tailed it out of town anyway. They sure weren't gonna tell anyone that they got bested by an Indian."

"I suppose not. Do those riders always get away with things like that?" Joe asked frustrated.

"Well they stick together, those boys, do. You take on one of 'em you take on 'em all. They're all good shots too. A couple of them are as fast as gunfighters and that Cody kid can hit anything at a distance. You best just walk away, Son." Tompkins advised.

"Sorry Mr. Tompkins, but I can't do that." Joe said as he left without buying anything.

~*~

As soon as Joe was out sight, Tompkins closed up the store and wandered over to the marshal's office. Sam was sitting with his feet up on his desk. His hat was pulled comfortably over his eyes. His deputy, Barnett was sweeping the floor near the cells.

"Sam, I just wanted you to know that, that half-breed's stirring up trouble again." Tompkins reported bursting through the door.

"Tompkins, what are you talking about?" Sam replied defensively not moving his feet or his hat.

"I just had a customer come in wanting to buy a gun in order to do what should been done long ago to that dirty heathen." Tompkins yelled.

"Did you sell him one?" Sam asked alarmed as he moved his hat back and swung his feet off his desk.

"Well no, but something has to be done about that boy, Sam," Tompkins complained as he left to go back to his store.

"Well this is just great," Sam said with frustration evident in his voice. Buck was becoming almost as good at attracting trouble as Jimmy. "Barnett, watch over things. I'm riding out to Emma's."

Barnett just nodded and watched Sam leave.

~*~

After Lou had calmed herself a little, she put her glasses on and walked toward the main house. She and Eliza were going to have a little chat. Lou felt very protective of her brothers and needed to know if Eliza was just toying with Buck's emotions or if she was really serious about him. Out of all the boys, Lou felt Buck was the most deserving of a happy ending. She'd seen how people treated him in town. Most of them just gave him looks of disgust or distrust, but some like Tompkins were openly hostile. When Kathleen Devlin broke his heart, it took him weeks to recover and he didn't even know her that long. The speed at which Buck lost his heart once he became interested in a woman, was alarming to her.

Lou found Eliza in the kitchen. She was cleaning up her picnic dishes. "Want some help?" Lou asked in her low 'boy voice' grabbing a towel to dry.

"Sure Lou," Eliza said happily. She didn't really know Lou very well at all. She was sure he didn't like her. She wasn't sure why, but this would be a perfect time to clear the air between them.

"I wanted to talk to you about Buck," Lou said breaking the silence.

"What about Buck, Lou?" Eliza asked carefully.

"I just don't want to see him hurt is all," Lou said with a slight air of warning in her voice and demeanor.

"I don't want to hurt him, Lou. I really don't. He has been the best friend I've ever had. He's really helped me see what I would be giving up in this life if I left it," she said as her eyes started to well up. "He's such a special person. I see how hard his life must be. Most people would carry a chip on their shoulder or be angry all the time. He isn't like that. He tries to help people whenever he can," she said admiringly.

"That's Buck alright. That's why we all look out for him. I almost thought we lost that part of him for good after the last girl broke his heart," Lou said trying to drive her point home.

"The one that used him?" she asked interested.

"Yeah, her name was Kathleen Devlin. Did he tell you about her?" Lou asked surprised.

"A little bit. It seemed to be a raw wound so I didn't push," Eliza answered.

Again Lou was a little taken aback on how much Eliza was also looking out for Buck's feelings. "What about Joe? Given the way you two were looking at each other when you came back from your picnic, you must know that if you went back to Joe, Buck would be pretty hurt?"

"I know that, Lou. Joe's not the same boy I thought I loved. Or I guess I should say Joe is the same boy, I just overlooked his entire personality." She said with a smile. "Don't worry, I know you boys stick together. I wish I had a brother like you, Lou. Maybe if I'd had someone like you looking out for me I wouldn't be in this situation."

~*~

Sam was weary. The only times he seemed to be coming over to Emma's was to deliver bad news. This time seemed no different.

"Hi Sam," Emma called from her porch as Sam rode in. "What brings you out here today?" she asked hopefully. She really hoped Sam's visit didn't have anything to do with Buck or Eliza.

Sam sighed and looked away toward the bunkhouse. He didn't really want to see the look on her face when he told her that Buck's life may be in danger. "I came to see you Emma, and to ask you to keep Buck away from town for a few days," Sam warned.

"What's happened Sam?" she asked her voice trembling with worry.

"Someone came into Tompkins' store looking to buy a gun -looks like they were intent on settling a score with Buck. I thought it would be a good idea to let the dust settle a little," Sam explained.

Emma put her hand up to her mouth. She really hated how the townsfolk treated her riders, especially Buck. That boy was one of the sweetest, most caring people she'd ever met. He shouldn't have to lay low every time someone else had a problem with him. It just wasn't right. There was, however, a simple solution to this problem. "It's ok, Sam, Buck has the early run in the morning, he won't be back until day after tomorrow," she said with more than a hint of anger.

"I'm sorry Emma," he said dismounting from his horse and walking toward Emma. "I don't like this any more than you do," he confessed and drew her into a comforting embrace. "I just want to keep you and your boys safe."

"Sam, why don't you stay for dinner?" Emma said and she smiled.

"I thought you'd never ask." ~*~

Joe Turner could no longer think clearly. Hate coursed through him like water down a mighty river. He was really trying to get a handle on things. If he couldn't get his anger under control, he was going to lose everything. He was in over his head. There was no way he could slip in and take Eliza without at least one of those damn riders noticing. He needed help and he knew exactly where to get it.

Joe rode up to the Caldwell house late in the evening. The lamps in the house were just being lit. Joe slowly dismounted his horse and walked up to the front door. He took his hat in his hand and tried to confidently knock on the door. Mr. Caldwell could be an intimidating man, almost as intimidating as his own father. Joe needed Mr. Caldwell's help if was going to get Eliza away from that Indian.

"Joe, my boy, what brings you all the way out here?" Benedict Caldwell asked with a pipe in his hand. "I was just relaxing in the study before dinner, why don't you join me."

"I would be glad to, sir," Joe answered and followed Benedict into the house.

Benedict's study was mostly dark stained hard wood polished to a nice sheen. Book shelves with handsome leather bound books were built into each wall. A sideboard bar with an arrangement of crystal decanters was nestled between to bookshelves by the door and a large stone fireplace stood on the opposite wall. A large desk was at the center of the room with a dark tufted leather wingback chair stationed imposingly behind it. A large tufted leather sofa was also in the room flanked by a couple of ornate mahogany end tables.

"Have a seat Joe," Benedict said pointing to the sofa. He walked over to the side board and set out two crystal high ball glasses. He took the topper off of a crystal bottle of Bourbon and poured some in a glass for himself and a smaller amount in another glass for Joe. Benedict walked over to Joe and handed him a glass and sat on the edge of his desk. "Now, what can I do for you, Son?"

"Mr. Caldwell, sir, I'm afraid I have failed. Eliza refuses to come home with me. What's worse sir, she seems to have taken up company with that Indian. I saw that half-breed bastard kiss her yesterday." Joe relayed with an angry tone. "I know I should have defended her honor Sir, but I'm afraid I am not a match to best him in a fight. I need your help, Sir."

Benedict turned toward the window and took a long sip of his Bourbon. He didn't like this development at all. His little girl caught in a compromising position with an Indian no less. Joe was rather useless. Perhaps it was good that his daughter had discarded him. He was not at all pleased with the replacement though.

"Leave him to me. I let him off far too easy on our last encounter. I will not make that mistake a second time," he said coldly staring at the contents of his glass. "Joe I need you to find out when that boy is taking another mail run. Then be ready. I'll take care of the Indian; you grab Eliza and bring her here."

"Yes Sir. I believe he is taking a run tomorrow morning." Joe reported.

"Perfect. When I get through with him, that Indian will wish he was never born," Benedict seethed.

~*~

It was late in the morning when Buck got ready for his run. He led his saddled horse out of the barn and tethered him to the hitching post by the bunkhouse porch. Eliza walked up to him carrying a small bundle of food.

"I made some snacks for you," she said a little awkwardly and handed him the parcel.

Buck put it in his saddlebag and seeing Eliza blushing he swept her into his arms and kissed her thoroughly and deeply. He broke the kiss when he heard Lou cough and announce, "Rider comin', Buck."

Buck took the handoff from Cody and started his horse running before jumping on.

"Ride safe, Buck!" Cody yelled as Buck and his horse galloped away.

Eliza watched Buck ride away and touched her fingers to her lips remembering the goodbye kiss he had just bestowed on her and hoped for his safe return. She felt a comforting hand on her shoulder and placed her hand over it. "Thanks Lou," she said softly. "Does it ever get any easier watching them leave?"

"No, not really," Lou answered thinking of Kid.

This was Buck's first run since he had his run in with Eliza's father. He was a little nervous about a repeat and Sam's warning about Joe was also a little bit of a distraction. It did make him more cautious. Buck couldn't shake the sense that someone was watching him. He didn't know if it was real or imagined so he decided to treat it as real. It was the only logical course of action. He would be changing horses several times on his way to Cottonwood. The first change would be in Willow Springs. This was a little bit of a concern for him as Eliza's parents lived there. If anyone tried to hurt him it would likely be around there.

The first horse exchange had gone without a hitch and Buck was quickly on his way. He was so concerned with the feeling that someone was following him, that he completely missed what was lying ahead. As Buck's horse galloped among some trees a trip line sprung up from the ground. The horse reared and fell rolling over Buck. As the horse fell Buck quickly removed his feet from the stirrups and rolled into a protective ball. He looked up to see the familiar faces of Mr. Black and Mr. Blue. He then heard a twig snap behind him and felt the butt of a pistol as it struck the back of his head. Everything went black.

~*~

When Buck woke up, he couldn't move and his head really hurt. The first thing he noticed was that he was blindfolded and gagged. There was no breeze and it was unnaturally quiet so he thought he must be indoors. He obviously couldn't tell what time of day it was. He thought he was probably alone. He was seated on a chair his hands bound behind his back and secured to the chair by ropes that were wound around his waist. His legs were also bound to the chair. Someone had taken great care to prevent his escape. All he could do was wait for his captors to come back.

He didn't have to wait long.

Buck heard a door open and someone walk toward him. The blindfold was yanked off his head. The pain in his head surged and it took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust. He looked up to see Mr. Caldwell and his henchmen standing in front of him. He looked up at them defiantly and shook the hair out his face. He felt the ropes around his waist loosen as Mr. Black and Mr. Blue untied him and stood him up.

"Buck, I thought we had come to an understanding the last time we met," Benedict Caldwell sneered insincerely. "You didn't hold up your end. Not only is my daughter not home, she's still living at your station. In fact I've been told that you've been hanging around her alone an awful lot." Benedict's tone was accusatory. He pulled out a pair of black leather gloves and started to put one of them on. "As a concerned father, I must ask you, Buck, what are your intentions toward my daughter?"

Buck didn't answer, he just stared at Benedict with contempt.

Benedict pulled on the other glove and turned his back on his captive. "I have to say I'm not happy, not happy at all," he mumbled threateningly. He adjusted the fingers of his gloves to get a better fit. When he was satisfied with the way the gloves conformed to his hands, he formed a fist with his right hand and dealt Buck an unmerciful blow to the midsection.

Buck let out an involuntary groan and tried to double over. His head fell forward and he looked at the floor trying to collect himself.

Benedict picked Buck's face up by the chin and looked him straight in the eye. "Buck, I want you to stay away from my daughter," he said menacingly. He gave a nod to Mr. Black and Mr. Blue and took his leave.

Buck's arms were tied over his head and secured to the rafters of the shack. His ankles were tied to metal rings protruding from the floor. He could tell by the blood spatter on the wall what this place was used for. He noted the dangerous smiles on the faces of Benedict's trusty henchmen. He was in for a long painful night.

~*~

Jimmy had been lying low for the last week. He could see that maybe a romantic relationship was developing between Buck and Eliza and he thought his chance might be blown. He didn't want to be jealous around Buck and Eliza so he just avoided them. With Buck out on a run, it seemed like the perfect time to spend some time with Eliza.

Eliza was on Emma's porch mending a shirt. She was distracted and looked worried.

"Hey pretty girl, why the long face?" Jimmy asked trying to make her smile.

"Oh I just have a bad feeling about Buck is all," she replied distractedly. "He's going by Willow Springs and after what Sam told us last night, I can't help but worry."

"Willow Springs, that's where you're from ain't it?" Jimmy asked.

She nodded staring out past the bunkhouse to the open prairie. "Last time Buck went on a run near there he came back all bruised. I'm sure my father had him beaten up," she reported. "When do you think he'll be back?"

"I 'spect he'll come trotting in somewhere around supper time tomorrow," Jimmy reassured her.

"What if he doesn't?" she asked and took a sharp intake of breath. She had punctured her thumb with the needle.

"If he doesn't, we'll go find him," Jimmy said and smiled sweetly. He took out a handkerchief and wrapped it around her injured thumb. "Hey that's one of my shirts ain't it?" he asked pointing to the heap of cloth on her lap.

"Yes," she said holding it up. She groaned as she realized she had sewn the shirt to her skirt.

Jimmy tried to keep from laughing but he couldn't. Eliza decided to laugh with him.

Jimmy was feeling bold. He felt a connection between him and Eliza. He looked around to make sure no one was watching them and leaned in and kissed Eliza tenderly.

Eliza pulled away in surprise her eyes wide and concerned. "I'm sorry," she said.

"No, I'm the one that is sorry. I shouldn't have done that. We were getting on so well and I just ruined it," Jimmy said regretfully.

"I'm very flattered Jimmy, you're a very handsome boy and most girls would be over the moon right about now," she started to let him down as easy as she could. "I would love to have you as a friend. I am in desperate need of those." She smiled at him gently knowing she was slowly tearing his heart into pieces.

"Yeah, maybe we're better as friends, besides Buck's like a brother to me and I don't want to hurt him," he said trying to convince himself. He was sick of always coming late to the party where damsels in distress were concerned -first Lou and now Eliza. He thought he found a great gal in Sarah Downs, but that turned into a disaster. Jimmy absent mindedly rubbed his neck as he got more and more lost in thought. ~*~

Joe looked out from his favorite spying point just in time to see Eliza and Jimmy kissing. His eyes narrowed. 'Great,' he thought, 'his Eliza was turning into quite the little whore.' He needed to get her away from those riders. Back home under her father's thumb would be better. He could turn her around. She was just confused, he told himself. She must be otherwise she wouldn't be doing so much damage to her reputation. She should be back with him.

He decided he would make his move during the night when all the riders were sleeping. That would be best. With the Indian out of the way, he shouldn't have any trouble getting around. He would use all his talents of trickery to get her to come along with him. It worked before when he wanted to get her in his bed. He smiled wickedly at the memory. She was too easy to manipulate. All he had to do was tell her that her Indian was in trouble and she would lead the way home. It wouldn't be a challenge at all.

Joe made his camp up and settled in for the hours it would take before he could put his plan in motion. He had his horse hitched to a small buggy. Even though he didn't care about hurting Eliza, the baby was another story. The baby would be his so he needed to keep its mother safe.

~*~

Mr. Black decided he and Mr. Blue should take a break outside the shack before they got down to business. He took a plug of tobacco out of his jacket pocket and offered some to Mr. Blue, who took some and deposited it in his mouth. Mr. Caldwell wanted them to work the Indian over slowly throughout the night, so he thought they had plenty of time. There was no need to rush things. He took a pinch of tobacco himself and placed it in his cheek. George Black had been with Mr. Caldwell for about ten years. He had seen it all and really enjoyed his work. He was Mr. Caldwell's chief enforcer. Clint McMahon or as he liked to call him, Mr. Blue, was his protégé. Blue had only been with him for about a year. George wasn't completely convinced that Blue was meant for this line of work. He questioned his orders a little more than George would like. Blue also had a soft spot for the Boss's daughter, Eliza. He was pretty sure Clint would sell them all out if Eliza was hurt.

"Hey George, are you sure we should be doing this? I mean, he's just a kid," Clint said feeling a little guilty about the task ahead. "I'm fine beating up adults that cross Mr. C or owe him money. But what did this kid really even do? Sounds like the only thing he did 'wrong' was to be nice to Mr. C's daughter."

George moved his hand to his faces and massaged the inner corners of his eyes with his thumb and index finger. The last thing he needed was for Clint to pity their victim. "Aw Clint, don't feel sorry for a stinking Injun even if he's just a kid. I guarantee you if he gets loose, we'll never enjoy a restful night's sleep again. He will visit a nasty revenge on us and he'll know how to make it hurt. We won't even see it coming."

Clint spit some tobacco juice onto the ground. "I reckon Mr. C wouldn't be so hard on the kid if he didn't think Miss Eliza was sweet on him. That poor girl, why don't they ever let her be happy?" Clint asked sounding a bit sad.

George let out a frustrated sigh. "You have to look at it from the perspective of a parent, Clint. They just want what's best for their only child and so far she seems to want to ruin her life in every way possible. First the little princess gets herself in the family way then she runs off with an Indian. Who's gonna marry the little tramp now?"

Clint thought for a moment. "I see what you mean, but Mr. C has money he could find someone to marry her. It seems like that Turner kid is still interested in her. They been hanging around together for months and months, seems to me that he's probably the daddy to Miss Eliza's baby. So why aren't we beating up the Turner kid instead?" he asked curiously.

"The Boss needs his business dealings with Mr. Turner to remain stable. That means we keep our hands off the sniveling son," George explained and spat on the ground.

"In the meantime we're supposed to beat the snot out that poor bastard in there? Just doesn't seem right to me, George, even if he is an Indian," Clint reasoned.

"Well it's a good thing for us that I'm in charge. Now get in there and soften him up. Not too much now, we gotta make it last all night -and stay away from the face. The Boss is coming in the morning and wants to be able to see the defeat in his eyes. I think he wants to teach his girl a lesson."

"He's bringing Miss Eliza here?"

"Yeah, the Turner kid is supposed to fetch her."

Clint didn't like this at all. Mr. C was probably gonna kill the Indian in front of Miss Eliza and work on her obedience. If she did have feelings for this poor kid in the shed, she may never be the same. He wasn't good at making plans but he needed to make one now. Maybe he could make a deal with the Indian. He spit the rest of the tobacco out on the ground and made his way toward the shack. ~*~

Lou watched Eliza all through dinner. She still looked worried but it also seemed more than just about Buck. Jimmy was also very quiet. 'Maybe something happened between them,' she thought. She would try and find out later. She decided she would catch up with Eliza after dinner and she would listen to her new friend if she needed to talk.

Lou found Eliza sitting on the porch swing of Emma's house; she was lost in thought and stroking her swollen belly. She didn't hear Lou walk up and was startled when Lou spoke to her.

"I'm sorry. I didn't hear you come up. Can you repeat what you just said?" Eliza asked embarrassed.

Lou cleared her throat to keep her voice in its lower register. "I just asked if you'd like some company," Lou said and smiled warmly.

"Oh Lou, I would love some. You see, I have a problem," Eliza started to ramble. "I didn't realize Jimmy had feelings for me until this afternoon when he kissed me. I tried to let him down easy, but still I think I may have broken his heart a little. I truly didn't mean to. Oh I don't know what to do. I feel so bad…" "Hold on," Lou said alarmed, "Jimmy kissed you?" Lou tried to calm herself. She knew when she couldn't keep her emotions in check her voice would sound more like a girl.

"Yes," she sniffed. "I hate feeling like this. I'm still so worried about Buck and now I hurt Jimmy's feelings.

"Jimmy will get over it," Lou smiled knowingly. "He's got us and it's only a matter of time before another pretty girl will drift into his sights. We're young men, we get distracted easily," she said and tried to project some swagger.

"Thanks Lou. You know you're different than any other boy I've ever met. Please don't take this the wrong way, but talking to you is almost like talking to my best girlfriend," Eliza said sincerely.

At that Lou tried to make her face unreadable. Emma and the boys were the only ones who knew her secret and she feared if she spent too much more time with Eliza, she would either give it away or Eliza would figure it out. "Well I've got the early ride tomorrow, so I should get some sleep."

Eliza watched Lou walk away. Every once and a while she thought she caught a little too much hip in Lou's walk. 'Nah,' she thought dismissively, 'couldn't be.' She shook her head and tried to put all thoughts from her head. It was getting late so she decided to go to bed and pray for Buck's safe return.

~*~

Clint walked into the torture shed and appraised the Indian boy in front of him. He looked like he was somewhere around seventeen or eighteen years old. He obviously wasn't full Indian, as his skin and hair were too light.

Buck was silent and followed every move Clint made with his eyes. His gaze was cold and insolent.

In that moment, Clint knew George was right. If Buck escaped, he was sure he would never sleep well again. The revenge would be painful and Clint would never see it coming.

Clint lifted a leather bag onto a stack of powder kegs and took out the contents and laid them out haphazardly. There were all manner of things looking like someone had hastily packed for a night away from home. He put pieces of clothing back in and removed his jacket and shoved it inside as well.

He looked Buck straight in the eye and said, "If this is going to work, I'm going to need your cooperation. When I hit this bag, I'm going to need you to moan or groan like I hit you, ok?" He explained with a sincere pleading look in his eyes.

Buck looked back at him trying not to look hopeful and nodded skeptically.

Clint punched the leather bag and Buck dutifully let out a groan of appropriate timbre and volume.

"I have always liked Eliza and I don't think this is fair to you and especially not to her," Clint explained. "I think her father has gone too far this time. The boss means to kill you in front of her in the morning. I mean, the two of you are just kids," he said scoffing.

Clint punched the bag again, and again Buck groaned.

"I'm not really good with making up plans. George and Mr. C do most of that, I just carry them out, see," he said and walked to the door and listened for a moment to make sure George wasn't about to come in.

He walked back and punched the bag once more and once more Buck let out an appropriate groan.

"I need to make sure of one thing. Do you love her?" Clint asked seriously.

Buck's face softened at the question and warmth filled his eyes. He had the look of a man who would do anything to protect the woman he loved. He nodded.

"Does she feel the same way too?

Buck nodded once more.

"Ok, I'm going to help you. Not for you, for her," he said quietly in his ear. I gotta leave now for a bit, but I'll be back."

He gave the leather bag one more punch and Buck groaned as he left the shack.

~*~

Night was in its full splendor when Joe stood up and stretched. The riders had gone to bed hours ago and the night was impossibly still and quiet. Maybe this wasn't going to be as easy as he first thought. As he neared the main house he noticed an open window on the ground floor. He peaked in and saw a sleeping Eliza snuggled into the bed. Things were looking up. He had worried that his entry would be difficult and noisy, but with the window to her room open his concerns were assuaged.

Joe carefully crawled into the window and strode across the floor to the bed. He put his hand over Eliza's mouth to muffle any screams she might attempt and slowly shook her awake.

Eliza woke with a start and found herself staring up at Joe.

"Don't scream, don't even talk, just listen. I'm taking you home. You will come with me quietly if you want to save your Indian. Your father already has him and he will kill him in the morning if you don't show up with me." He removed his hand from her mouth and threw back the blankets on the bed.

Eliza got up and quickly threw some cloths on over her night gown. She sat on the edge of the bed and laced up her shoes. She was ready to leave in a matter of minutes.

While he was happy she was so quick about leaving, he really seethed inside as he realized just how deep her devotion was to Buck. He was going to take great pleasure in watching that Indian get what he deserved. Then he would have Eliza back and his baby too.

Joe jumped out of the window and helped Eliza to the ground. He nearly dragged her to where he had his horse and buggy waiting. He wanted to get this over with as soon as possible and that meant leaving here as quickly as they could. A buggy would be easy to track. He had to get them to Willow Springs before morning.

~*~

Buck's arms were getting a little tired from being held above his head, but at least he was in good health otherwise. So far only Mr. Blue had visited him. The last 2 visits, Mr. Blue brought him water and a little bit of food. They kept up the charade of the beatings while they tried to come up with a plan to save Eliza. They didn't really have much of a plan yet. Eliza wouldn't be here until morning. What he needed was help from the other riders, but there was no way to get that. Not unless they knew he or Eliza was missing, which may be possible, but hardly something to count on.

~*~

Emma was up early fixing Lou a pack of food for her run and breakfast for the other boys. Lou's run would be several days to Fort Bridger and back. Emma wanted to make sure Lou had enough to eat. The sun was just peeking up from the horizon and Emma could hear a commotion outside by the bunkhouse as the riders started their day. Lou was on her way to the barn to saddle Lightning. Ike followed Lou out to the barn to help her. Jimmy and Cody were on the bunkhouse steps putting their boots on and keeping a watch out for Kid. Mr. Spoon was up as well dragging some bridles out of the tack room for the boys to fix. All in all it was a normal day at the station. Or at least it was.

Emma found it a little odd that Eliza wasn't up yet, but she did have a stressful day yesterday. Emma decided to wake her. Emma opened the door and felt an immediate chill. The window was open and Eliza was gone. Emma went to the window and looked at the ground. There were tracks all over the place.

Emma ran for the front door and called out, "Mr. Spoon! Eliza's gone!" Emma was frightened.

Teaspoon dropped the bridles he was carrying and ran to Emma to find out what happened.

"I think she's been taken," said breathlessly. "There are a lot of tracks outside her window."

"Rider comin'!" Cody yelled. The dust cloud was getting closer and they could all see Kid at the center of it. "Kid's coming awful fast, Teaspoon! Cody hollered. Something must be wrong."

Lou mounted Lightning and prepared to take the hand off from Kid. Every bit of her wanted to stay and find out what was happening.

Jimmy, Cody, and Ike rushed over to Teaspoon to hear what was going on.

Kid handed the mochila off to Lou and she took off toward Fort Bridger. "Teaspoon! Buck's in trouble." Kid exclaimed. "He never made it to the next station after Willow Springs. I found a horse dead on the prairie. There was no sign of him, but the mail was still there."

"Damn!" Teaspoon exclaimed. "Mount up boys! Cody, you go get Sam. I have a feeling we're gonna need him."

"Eliza's missing too," Emma added quickly, "And I have a feeling they're both together and you'd better hurry." Emma was scared. She had come to care for all the boys like they were her own and she was starting to feel that way about Eliza too.

Cody took off toward Sweetwater as Kid took care of Katy while Ike and Jimmy saddled up the rest of the horses they would need. ~*~

"Where are we going?" Eliza asked angrily. She hated being in Joe's company especially after hearing that her father had Buck. "Where is Buck?"

"Those questions will be answered soon enough."

Eliza didn't like the tone of his voice, it scared her and for the first time she was truly frightened of Joe.

They rode in silence until they came to Willow Springs. Eliza knew they weren't stopping here. They were just passing through in order to lose anyone who might be following them. She saw her mother come out of the general store and looked at her and made sure her mother had seen her. Her mother gave her a confused wave as the buggy left town to the north. Eliza answered the wave with a pleading look.

~*~

Teaspoon started investigating at Eliza's window and had followed a pretty easy trail to what looked like what was a horse and carriage. The carriage looked like it was heading for Willow Springs.

Jimmy, Ike and Kid joined Teaspoon. Teaspoon mounted the horse they brought him and they set out following the trail as fast as they could.

When they got to the town of Willow Springs they lost the trail in the traffic of the town. Teaspoon was about to give up when Mrs. Caldwell started to walk toward him.

"Mr. Hunter, I think I can help you," Permelia Caldwell said.

"How's that ma'am?" Teaspoon asked.

"I assume you are looking for Eliza. I saw her ride out on the north road out of town with Joe Turner. She didn't look like she was going willingly."

"Ma'am did you tell the local law about this?"

"No Mr. Hunter, I did not. They were about fifteen minutes behind my husband and some of his associates."

"Bout how many associates was with your husband ma'am?" Teaspoon asked gently.

"About five, Mr. Hunter. Why?"

"One of my riders went missing yesterday somewhere around here."

"The Indian boy?"

Teaspoon nodded.

"Well then, Mr. Hunter, I suggest you hurry," she said. "There is a shack outside of town to the north where my husband handles 'problems.' You better go now if you are to find my daughter and save your rider."

Teaspoon and the boys kicked their horses to a gallop and followed the north road out of town.

~*~

George was making breakfast. It was late morning and just a matter of time before his boss arrived. Clint was inside tossing the half-breed another beating. 'He should be broken by now,' he thought. Clint was very efficient about dealing out punishment, but George liked to put on the final touches. George had no love for Indians that's pretty much why he was content to let Clint rough the kid up all night. With the boss coming, it was time to make sure the kid was good and broken. He took a swig of coffee and poured the rest out of his cup and headed for the door to the shack.

Clint and Buck were deep in conversation. They still had not really figured out a fool proof plan. Right now Clint was going to make sure Buck had a chance to get away by loosening his ropes.

George walked in and saw the Indian looking unexpectedly healthy. "What the…," he started to ask, but before he could finish Mr. Blue struck him with a right uppercut and knocked him unconscious.

"Change of plans. We have to get you out of here now," Clint said as he cut the ropes on Bucks feet and hands. He handed him his knife and pistol and started to open the door. As he did so he came face to face with Benedict Caldwell.

"Hey, Mr. C, I was just…," Mr. Blue started to say as a shot rang out and he slumped to the ground.

~*~

Joe and Eliza crested the hill overlooking her father's special shack. Eliza had followed her father there once when she was younger and was very disturbed by what she found. She shifted uncomfortably in the buggy. "Why are we coming here?"

"To meet with your father of course," Joe said condescendingly.

"Why aren't we meeting at my home then?"

"Your father wanted to teach you and your Indian a lesson I expect."

Tears of fear, anger, and hatred started to well in her eyes. She knew she needed to keep her emotions from taking over if she was going to help herself and Buck get out of this trouble.

Joe drove the buggy closer and closer to the shack. She was able to start making out people and gasped when she saw Buck being held by a couple of her father's goons. She was relieved that he was alive but scared that it was only temporary.

When the buggy stopped, Eliza jumped down and darted to where Buck stood struggling.

"Eliza wait!" Joe called after her.

She ran all the way to where Buck was held and embraced him in an attempt to protect him.

"Ah, Eliza, my dear," Benedict said. "So nice of you to join us."

"Don't hurt him, Daddy, please,"

"I'm sorry, Darling, but you have left me no choice." His expression of sinister calm turned to anger. "Being unwed and pregnant is one thing, but whoring around with this Indian is something I cannot allow."

"I don't belong to you anymore, Daddy," she answered courageously. "You can't make my decisions for me. I don't want anything from you. I don't need your love, your money, or your protection. I have friends who care more for me than you or Mother ever did. They're my family now."

Benedict observed the defiance in his daughter's eyes and looked at the pride in the Indian's. That boy was almost certainly responsible for the change in his usually docile daughter. Benedict's eyes turned as cold as steel. He pulled out his gun and started to raise it up pointing it straight at Eliza's head.

As he did, a shot hit the dirt right in front of him and coming toward them were four men with their guns drawn.

~*~

Teaspoon started to bark orders at the boys to find cover after Jimmy's shot alerted Mr. Caldwell and his henchmen to their presence. The all shot their way towards the wooded area behind them.

Mr. Caldwell and his men started to take defensive positions near the shack. There was a downed tree next to the shack where most of the men went to, guns drawn. The others used the shack as cover.

In the confusion Buck broke free of his captors and led Eliza away to safety. "Stay here, I'll be right back."

"Where are you going?"

"To get Mr. Blue. He was trying to save me."

"No, it's too dangerous."

"I'll be careful. Just stay put. Promise me?"

She nodded and watched him run stealthily back to the fray. He didn't have his gun, but they had forgotten to take his knife so he was armed at least.

Teaspoon was pinned down behind a tree. Jimmy and Ike had found some boulders. Teaspoon couldn't see Kid, but he was sure he found cover somewhere by a tree.

"Jimmy, can you see Buck and Eliza?" Teaspoon yelled as a bullet whizzed by the tree scraping the bark away as it passed.

"I thought I saw them running away to the north of the cabin." Jimmy answered back with another yell. A bullet ricocheted off the rock and he ducked behind. He answered the shot with one of his own.

Ike started to tap his chest and wave at Jimmy from his crouched position behind a large boulder. When Jimmy looked over he saw Ike sign, *I see Buck over by the cabin, it looks like he's gone back for something.*

"Oh hell, Teaspoon, Buck's back by the cabin."

"Let's give him some cover and maybe a distraction," Teaspoon said as he moved up to a fallen log closer to the action. Jimmy, Ike and Kid all covered him.

Buck let his knife fly into the back of one of Benedict's men. He was on a mission. While Benedict had shot Mr. Blue, Buck had seen his chest rise and fall the last time he was close to him. He couldn't leave the man who had helped him.

It was starting to look like Benedict and his men had the upper hand when a stray bullet from Kid's gun went through the wall of the shack and struck a keg of black powder. The explosion was large and immediate and sent everyone flying to the ground. Teaspoon had been hit in the head by a flying piece of debris and Kid who was closest to the shack was laid flat but moving.

Benedict was the first to recover his footing and saw the source of all his frustration lying helpless on the ground in front of him. Buck looked up at the man and realized he had no weapon and no defense.

"I've had it with you Indian. Now, you die." Benedict aimed his gun and pulled back the hammer.

A single shot rang out and Buck closed his eyes waiting for the sensation of a bullet ripping through him, but it did not come. Instead he heard a familiar victory yell and opening his eyes, he saw Benedict Caldwell fall to his knees with a bullet hole right between his eyes.

"Wooohoohoo!" yelled Cody as he and Sam rode down the hill toward the shack. Cody had taken the shot from at least a hundred yards away.

Buck shook off the shock of the blast and retrieved his knife from the back of one of Benedict's men. He then crept over to where Mr. Blue lay. As he checked him over, he realized that the blast had been too much for Mr. Blue. He was dead. Buck said a silent prayer of gratitude to the dead man and headed back to where he left Eliza.

Teaspoon, Jimmy, Ike and Kid started to round up the rest of Benedict's men and Sam placed them under arrest.

In all the commotion no one had been tracking the movements of Joe Turner. He stalked alongside Eliza and grabbed her arm pulling her to her feet. "Come on," he said pulling her away roughly, "You're coming with me." Joe's tone was angry and arrogant. "I won't let my baby be raised by an Indian." They were almost to the top of the hill where Joe had seen a horse when they heard a familiar voice behind them.

"Let her go, Joe." Buck's voice was cold and demanding.

Joe stopped and swung Eliza around using her as a shield. Joe was at a disadvantage and he knew it. His only hope to get away was standing right in front of him. He said a quick prayer asking God to forgive him for what he was about to do and threw Eliza, as hard as he could, down the hill. He managed to throw her just out of Buck's reach, though Buck had tried gallantly to prevent her fall. Joe quickly turned and ran toward the horse. He knew Buck would go to Eliza and forget about him and he was right.

Eliza screamed as she tumbled and fell unconscious as she stopped at the bottom of the hill. Buck raced down the hill with reckless abandon. Nothing was as important to him as Eliza at this moment. He stopped short a few feet and took in the sight of her laying there. She was unconscious on her side. He could see blood start to soak her skirt. He cautiously knelt beside her and turned her over resting her head in his lap. He felt the panic rise in him. He could see she was still breathing, but he didn't know what to do for her.

"Sam! Teaspoon! Somebody help me!" Buck yelled and the panic grew in his voice. She looked so pale. He could feel her slipping away and he was powerless to stop it. Tears ran down his face as his friends came to his aid. Jimmy, Cody and Kid stayed with the prisoners while Sam, Teaspoon and Ike came to him. Ike looked at the sky and started to cry for his friend. Teaspoon and Sam took charge.

~*~

Buck sat alone in the doctor's office for hours with his head in his hands waiting for news of Eliza. He was still covered in soot, dirt, and blood from the battle. No one could get him to leave. Sam, Teaspoon, and the others had taken the survivors to jail. He was supposed to meet them all for supper, but he couldn't leave. He couldn't stop thinking about her. She looked so pale the last time he saw her. He knew she had probably lost the baby, there was so much blood. He didn't know how she would take it when she found out. He just hoped that he would have the opportunity to find out. She had come so far in such a short time. She was finally taking charge of her life. He hoped this wasn't going to be a setback for her. First and foremost, Eliza needed to live through this and then he could help her to live past it.

Joe Turner was another problem. When he pushed Eliza down the hill, he ran off and no one could find him. Buck was sure he was still a threat, but right now all he could think about was the girl he now knew he loved absolutely.

Buck leaned his head back against the wall and looked at the ceiling. He was trying to keep his emotions in check but was finding them too strong to hide. When he closed his eyes, a couple of tears fell and he let them roll down his face.

"You really care about her don't you?" a shaky voice said breaking Buck's vigil.

He opened his eyes as he nodded and standing before him was Eliza's mother. Her face was wrought with worry and a little guilt. She kept wringing her hands compulsively. He quickly stood up and offered her a place to sit. She sat down and indicated to Buck that he should sit next to her. He slowly sat beside her.

"I'm afraid, Benedict and I have been lousy parents," she said looking at the surprise in Buck's face. "Surely that didn't surprise you."

"No ma'am," he tried to say respectfully. "I'm just surprise that you said it."

"Oh, Buck, may I call you Buck?"

He nodded.

"I've done that girl such a horrible wrong, I didn't teach her anything except to be helpless, but I have always loved her in my own way. I just don't think I know how to be a good mother to her. I am not what she needs in her life."

"But you could be…" Buck started to say.

"No, I couldn't," she said softly. All the memories of Eliza's childhood came flooding back to her. All the times she avoided the child or just outright ignored her. She hadn't meant to be so cold, but engaging the child would have been something far more painful to her. "Buck you're still just a boy so you can't really understand."

"Try me," he challenged gently.

"Sometimes choices are made for us and we don't get a say in our own lives. Bad things happen to us and our parents, thinking that they are helping, actually make our lives worse."

Buck looked at her with a knowing expression. His whole life sometimes seemed like that. People making decisions about him that made his life worse not better. Well, until he joined the Express.

Permelia noticed the look of complete understanding on his face. She started to notice other things as well. She had only really met Buck one other time and at the time just dismissed him as a dirty Indian. But she couldn't help but look deeper this time. There were many things about this young man she hadn't recognized before and she almost felt maybe he would understand better than she could have anticipated. "Can I ask you something?"

He nodded.

"Was your mother Indian or white?"

Anger and surprise flashed in Buck's eyes for a brief second and she knew she needed to be gentle.

"She was Indian," he said softly and looked down at his lap.

"So then your father was…"

"A rapist," he said looking up at her angrily. "Is that what you wanted to know?"

She looked down and then up into Buck's face. She moved her hand up to his face and caressed his cheek. "You, dear boy, have more in common with Eliza than you realize."

A look of shock spread over his face and his eyes softened. "You were…"

"By Benedict, yes," she said cutting him off. Even though it had happened over seventeen years ago it still hurt like it was recent. "My parents didn't believe me and when I found out I was pregnant my parents forced me to marry him. Turns out he was after my family's money the whole time. Benedict was a very shrewd and calculating man."

"I'm sorry,"

They sat in silence for a few minutes when Permelia spoke again, "You have to understand, Eliza is…"

"A reminder of the worst day of your life," he said completing her sentence sadly.

She nodded. "I tried to get past it, but I couldn't. I just distanced myself from her so she wouldn't see the pain on my face," she explained. "I didn't want her to think I hated her. How did your mother deal with it? Did she ever get over what happened to her?"

"No," he whispered and fresh tears fell from his eyes.

Permelia seeing the pain she caused felt she must explain. "I'm sorry, Buck," she started, "I see that look in your eyes and I see shadows of my daughter's pain all over again. She didn't understand why I didn't act like other mothers. She didn't know that I couldn't."

A solitary tear ran down her cheek. Buck seeing it took out a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her.

"I love my daughter, she is a precious gift and the only good thing to ever come out of my time with Benedict. I'm sure your mother feels the same way about you."

"Felt, my mother's dead."

"I'm sorry, felt." Buck nodded understanding more than he really wanted to. He felt sorry for her. Slowly he told her about what happened to his mother and how her life ended.

Permelia took Bucks hand in both of hers. "I want you to understand that even though she suffered, your mother's pain was never because of you. If anything her pain was lessened by you. That sometimes something beautiful can come of tragedy. If her pain was anything like mine this is true. We're only human, your mother and I, and we tried our best like everyone else." Buck nodded in understanding. "Does Eliza know?"

"No, she doesn't …I don't think I could ever tell her. I'd just rather she went on believing I was just a bad mother."

"I think you should tell…"

"No. With all the problems she's been having lately, now is not the time."

She sat up straight and resolute. Buck knew there was no winning an argument with her about this. She also had a point. Buck knew how the knowledge of his own mother's rape had colored his life and feelings about himself. He couldn't add that burden to Eliza now.

"Buck, I'm leaving as soon as the doctor's sure Eliza's going to make it. I'm going east, back to where my family is. I won't be taking her with me. I'll leave some money with her so she won't be completely helpless, but I need to know you'll look out for her."

Buck's lips began to part in surprise. He nodded to her as the door opened and the doctor came out.

"Well, she's out of danger," the doctor announced. "As I'm sure you know, she's lost the baby but I've stopped the bleeding. She should be up and around in about a week."

"Doctor, will she still be able to bear children?" Permelia asked hopefully.

Buck looked up from the floor more hopeful and interested than he meant to show.

The doctor scowled at Buck and turned his attention to Permelia and said, "I don't see why not, though I would hope she would try to be married the next time."

Permelia blushed a little at the doctor's admonishment and Buck's gaze hardened at the insult to Eliza's honor.

"She asked to see someone named, Buck," he said and looked Buck up and down with distaste. "I'm guessing she meant you."

"Does she know about the baby?" Buck asked ignoring the rudeness of the doctor as he moved toward the door.

The doctor nodded and went to his desk to start some paperwork.

Buck slowly opened the door and took in the scene before him. Eliza was sitting on the bed with her legs drawn up to her chin and her face buried in her knees. Her arms were wrapped around her legs holding herself in a tight ball. He could hear her crying softly.

He walked in and sat at the edge on the bed and began to stroke her hair lightly. She looked up at him with tears in her eyes. She unwrapped her arms from herself and accepted his embrace. He held her for the next half hour just letting her cry and kissing her lightly on the top of her head while rocking her gently. He even cried a little himself as he remembered feeling the baby kicking just a couple of short days ago. When he had felt that kick he decided that if she would let him, he would have been a father to that child. He felt the loss with her.

~*~

Buck brought Eliza home a week later. She had healed up and was cleared to travel. Eliza was looking forward to seeing Emma. Emma was a mother to her the way her own wouldn't be. Her whole world had been turned upside down. Her father was dead and her mother had abandoned her. Joe had caused the death of their baby. She felt empty, like a piece of her was missing.

At first she would stay in her room away from everyone. She would still help Emma in the kitchen, but she took her meals alone, away from everyone else. By the end of the week, Buck was getting very worried about her and one day after lunch he knocked on her door. She didn't answer so he turned the knob and slowly opened the door and peaked in.

Eliza was sitting in a chair facing the wall she had something in her lap that he didn't recognize. He could hear her sniffle and saw her wipe the tears from her cheeks.

"Eliza, can I come in?" he asked gently.

She didn't answer. She just sniffled again.

He walked into the room and knelt in front of her chair and looked up at her.

"I don't know how to get past this, Buck," she said not looking at him but at the object in her lap. "It almost seems like my baby wasn't real. The doctor said it was a boy, but I didn't even get to see him. I didn't get to say goodbye. The only thing I have left of him is the blood on my clothes," she said indicating the mound of cloth in her lap.

Buck's eyebrows furrowed with concern and sympathy. He had felt a lack of closure too, but felt it wasn't his place to decide what kind of memorial was to be had or if one was to be had.

"I need something, but I want it to be private," she said. "I don't want it in a church or with people I don't know. I just don't want to be around a lot of people right now."

Buck thought a moment. "I have an idea that might help, if you're willing," he said nervously.

"What?" she asked looking at him.

"My people have different kinds of ceremonies and rituals for things. I'd like to share one with you if you're up to it."

"Today?" she asked weighing her feelings

He nodded. "Well, this evening. I need to grab a few things and find some things on the way. I'd like to include the rest of the riders and Emma and Teaspoon if that's alright with you?"

She smiled weakly and nodded in agreement. "They are your family aren't they?"

"Yours too, now, you're not alone."

~*~

Teaspoon drove Eliza and Emma to a spot on the prairie about a mile from the station. The rest of the riders followed closely behind. No one said anything on the way. The mood was somber and respectful.

Buck had been clearing and preparing an area all afternoon. It was dusk now and he welcomed everyone and gave them some brief instructions of what to do in the ceremony. He then invited them all to come into a large stone circle. He was shirtless and barefoot. His knife and sheath was tucked into the waistband of his pants. He smudged them all with a smoking bundle of sage as they entered the circle. There was a fire in the middle that illuminated them all and on one end there was a small blanket with pieces of a pipe placed on it. Everyone took a place around the fire and sat down. Buck picked up a small earthenware bowl and dipped his fingers inside pulling out a dab of yellow paint. He drew a line over his nose and underneath his eyes. He moved over to Eliza and drew the same mark. He then passed the bowl to the others to use if they chose to. He had explained before they came in the circle that yellow paint was for mourning and they didn't have to wear it if they didn't want to, but they all did.

Buck then went to the blanket and stood behind it. "Great Spirit, we are gathered here tonight to grieve the loss of a life that was dear to us. Though we never had the chance to meet him, his presence was with us and touched us all."

From the time Buck knelt down and started putting the pipe together, it almost looked like a dance. His movements were stylized and there was absolute reverence for each piece of the pipe and the pipe as a whole when it was together. He then bowed his body and lifted the pipe up to the Creator. He waited a few moments and then sat back up. He took a pinch of a tobacco mix and lifted it to the sky and moved it in a small sun-wise circle above his head. Then he placed it in the pipe. He did this several times until the pipe was full.

Buck looked to his right and nodded at Teaspoon, who got up and picked up a small burning stick from the fire and brought it over and lit the pipe for Buck. After it was lit, Buck stood, took a puff off the pipe and while always moving in a sun-wise direction, began a methodical and intricate series of turns. Every time he would stop, he would turn the pipe offering the stem to one of the six powers of the world and blow the smoke in that direction as an offering. He would take another puff and turn again. He took three quarter turns and sometimes he would take a quarter turn, the last time he took a half turn and blew the smoke out. He sat back down behind the blanket and passed the pipe to his left.

Buck had explained to his friends before they entered the circle that his people believed that prayers were represented by the smoke of the pipe. Inhaling the smoke you mixed the smoke with your prayer and exhaling the smoke sent the prayer to the Great Spirit. The pipe passed around the circle everyone inhaling the smoke and sending their prayers up.

Ike was the first to receive the pipe. He thought about his own family and how they were killed while he watched. He had never really had closure on it and now he felt a little like he had finally had the opportunity to honor them and their memory.

Lou thought of her mother who got sick and died. She prayed to be able to afford to get her brother and sister from the orphanage soon and honor her mother's wishes that they stay together.

Kid thought briefly about his parents, but his focus drifted to the recent death of his brother Jed. He hoped his brother's soul had found peace.

Emma prayed for Eliza and her loss, but also the loss of her own baby who had died of small pox.

Cody was fascinated by the whole ritual and although he thought most of it was probably bunk he acted respectfully and prayed for his friends, knowing his life was a lot better when he was growing up.

Jimmy didn't do grief well. He had a lot of walls, but he thought of all the people he had killed like Longley and the kid who had called him out. He then remembered the friends he had lost, like Ambrose, and sent his own plume of smoke up to the heavens.

Eliza was next and her thoughts strayed back and forth from her father to her baby and with her eyes swimming in tears she watched her prayers ascend the sky and disappear. She passed the pipe on to Teaspoon.

Teaspoon thought of the Alamo and a few of his wives. He had lost a lot of friends over the years. He prayed for the lives of the boys he looked after now. All of them including Emma and Eliza had wormed their way into his heart and he felt like he had found his family here.

Buck took the pipe back and offered his own prayers into the sky with everyone else's. He thought of Eliza and her baby as well as his own mother. He had never taken the opportunity to really resolve his feelings about her. He thought about what Ike and Permelia had said and he forgave his mother and himself a little.

Buck concluded the ceremony by bowing once more with the pipe held up above his head. He removed the tobacco from the pipe, removed the stem from the bowl and placed them on either side of the blanket once more.

Emma, Teaspoon, and the riders moved out of the stone circle and made their way to their horses and the wagon.

Buck caught up with Eliza and asked her to stay longer. Eliza nodded and Buck led her back to the fire as the others left to go back to the station. He opened a bag and took out the bloody clothes that Eliza was wearing when she lost her baby. "I think we should burn these," he said gently.

Eliza was hesitant. She didn't want to lose her only physical connection with her child.

Buck sensing her hesitation took out a handkerchief and handed it to her. "Open it," he urged.

Eliza opened the square of cloth and inside she found a small pale leather medicine pouch with fringe all along the outside. She looked at Buck for an explanation.

"I made it for you. It has a scrap of fabric from your clothes a quartz crystal and some of the tobacco mix we used tonight. I thought you might want to keep your memories close and protected."

Eliza hugged him and he put the pouch around her neck. He held her close as she put the first piece of cloth on the fire.

They burned the rest of the clothes and watched the fire until they fell asleep in each other's arms.

The End... for now.

Author's Note: Thank you to Shauna, Karen and Miss Raye for helping me with this.

Email Flame
HOME