CHAPTER 1

Buck and Cody wandered into the Silver Springs Saloon. The scent of whiskey and cigar smoke filled the air. The smell almost turned Buck’s stomach as he continued to survey his surroundings. Cody approached the bar, “Two sarsaparillas, please.”

A voice came from behind him, “And a whiskey.” Cody turned around to face the direction of the voice setting his eyes on the slender figure. As Buck approached them the bartender replied, “I’m sorry, we don’t serve ladies.”

“I don’t see no ladies here.”

With that Buck turned his attention to the angry saloon go-er. She was dressed in dust covered slacks and jacket. Her long sandy brown hair poked out from under her tan hat and hung down her back in a tight braid. As he trailed his gaze down her body his attention was quickly grabbed by the pearl handled Colt hanging on her left hip very obviously placed for quick access. He noticed a very delicately painted single red rose adorned the handle. His eyes trailed back up her body to meet her glare. Buck couldn’t help but stare. Those were the most beautiful green eyes he had ever seen, but there was an anger behind them he couldn’t place.

The bartender now turned his attention to Buck. “We don’t serve Indians, either.” No sooner did he get the words out of his mouth was he staring down the barrel of that pearl handled colt.

“I said there ain’t no ladies here, now serve me my drink or you’re gonna be eatin' the barrel of this here gun. While you’re at it, get this gentleman his sarsaparilla,” motioning to Buck.

This wasn’t the first time Buck and Cody had found themselves caught in the middle of a saloon standoff, but they were caught off guard about who exactly was ready to do the shooting. As she released the bartender from her grips he quickly placed the sarsaparillas and whiskey shot on the bar and darted off to the other end, his knees shaking with every step.

“If you ain’t a lady, what are you?” Cody questioned as she re-holstered her weapon.

She downed her whiskey shot, “Ladies wear fancy dresses and speak proper hoping to impress some young suitor. Do I look like that holds any importance to me?” Cody shook his head.

“I’m a woman.” She turned her attention back to Buck. “You a half breed?” Buck stared at his drink ignoring her. “Well, half breed, you’re welcome.”

“I didn’t ask for your help,” Buck continued looking down trying desperately to avoid eye contact with the woman and those sparkling eyes. “Consider it my good deed for the day,” she replied as she turned her back to the two riders.

The saloon doors violently swung open causing a hush to fall over the crowd. All eyes turned to the dark figure standing at the opening. “Jane Marks?” the gruff voice shouted across the room. Buck turned his attention to the gun clad woman as she turned her attention away from the doors and back to the bar picking up the bottle of whiskey. As she poured another shot the question was repeated. “Jane Marks?”

“Who’s askin’?” she shouted in no particular direction before taking a swig of the shot.

“Jack Roberts. I’m calling you out on behalf of my brother, Matthew. You shot him in Willow Springs and now it’s time I return the favor.”

“Be out in a minute” she stated almost too calmly. With that the dark man turned his back and headed out of the saloon.

Buck gave Cody a worried look as their eyes focused on Jane. Cody was the first to speak, “Are you really gonna take on a man like that?”

“Not the first time,” she replied. Jane grabbed the bottle of whiskey, took another swig and headed for the door.

“Cody, maybe we should go out there.” Buck’s worry grew with every second.

“Why? This ain’t our fight, besides, that there is a woman who can handle herself. Did you get a look at that rig?”

“Something tells me this isn’t gonna be a fair fight, Cody. Just come on.” Buck moved for the door as Cody took a sip of his sarsaparilla, rolled his eyes and followed.

Once outside they find Jane standing no more than 20 paces away from her target with hand ready. Her eyes fixed on the dark man ahead of her. As Cody watched the scene unfold he picked up a reflection bouncing off something metallic in the store window across the street. He went for his gun, but was beaten to the punch by the sound of Buck’s weapon firing beside him. At that moment, the dark man drew his gun, but was quickly out drawn by his female opponent and fell dead to the ground. Jane just stared at the body as she re-holstered her piece.

She turned to her two followers ready to give them a scolding when she caught the glint of a rifle to her left. She ran toward Buck and Cody leaping in front of them as two shots rang out. Buck hit the ground hard with the rough woman lying on top of him. The seconds passed with almost no movement from either as Cody re-holstered his revolver turning to the two lying motionless on the ground. “Buck!” Suddenly, Cody could make out Buck’s arm moving below the feminine body. Soon both began moving and rolled over to sit up.

“Damn it, half breed, stay outta my business.” She clutched her left arm as the blood flow became evident. Buck stood and offered his hand, but she quickly slapped it away trying to balance on one foot to stand. To no avail, Buck reached around to both of her arms and steadied her up to her feet. She just stared angrily into his eyes. “I don’t need any help.”

Cody replied, “Seems to me, those dead bodies tell otherwise.”

“I knew they were there. For every snake you can see there’s another one waiting in the brush. I was buying my time until you idiots started shooting.” Buck smiled to himself. He had said almost the exact same thing once to a young and overly confident James Hickok.

Jane turned toward the horses waiting outside the saloon.

“Where are you headin’?” Buck followed close behind.

“A little town called Sweetwater. Anymore questions that don’t concern you?” She shot back at him as she attempted to mount her horse with one hand.

Cody made his way up to them, “What’re you doing in Sweetwater?”

Jane’s frustration with the whole situation became evident in her eyes, “I’m meeting someone there, now if you don’t mind I need to get going.”

“You really should have someone take a look at that,” Buck motioned to her arm.

“I’ve had worse.” She began pulling her mount from the pole.

“We work in Sweetwater; we can at least accompany you there and make sure you don’t get lost. The doc there’s real good.” Buck and Cody went to mount up.

“I don’t need no company, half-breed. I know my way just fine.” She glared once again at Buck.

“The name’s Buck Cross and that there is Billy Cody. Think of it as another good deed. If we tag along with you, I won’t have to listen to his singing all the way home.” Buck gave her a quick smile.

Too tired to argue she gave in. “Fine.” All three reared their horses and began to gallop out of Silver Springs.

Buck shouted, “Hey, Jane, you’re welcome.” He smiled at her in accomplishment.

Returning only a half smile Jane shouted back “Hey, Buck, the name’s Dani.” With that she kicked her mount into a run and headed down the trail.

CHAPTER 2

Soon the steady run became a trot as the riders realized Sweetwater was only a 10 mile or so distant away from Silver Springs. Dani led the way as Cody and Buck brought up the rear keeping each other company.

“What do you make of her?” Cody shot Buck an inquisitive look.

“Not sure what to make of her?” Buck retorted.

“Seems to me you have some interest since you decided to stick out your neck and mine for her back there. You sweet on this girl?” Buck, hoping to avoid furthering the conversation, ignored Cody’s questions and rode up along side Dani.

“How’s your arm doin’?” Buck continued to look ahead still avoiding Dani’s eyes.

“It’s still there if that’s what you’re askin,” she sarcastically shot back at him.

“So, who are you meeting in Sweetwater?” Buck noticed the silence and turned to match eyes with her as she sternly stared him down. He quickly withdrew his gaze from hers.

“I know, none of my business.” He thought to himself, “You don’t trust many people do you?” Buck could have kicked himself for asking that out loud. To his surprise, he received an answer.

“Been my experience, not many people out there worth trustin’.”

“Does that have anything to do with the two names?”

“Nothing gets past you,” she fixed her sights on him again. “I go by Jane with strangers and people I don’t trust. If anyone calls me that I know what to expect from them. Only a few people know my real name. People I trust.” Dani couldn’t figure it out, but for some reason she did trust the dark skinned man riding along side her. She longed for him to look back at her, but he continued keeping his eyes set in front of them. She wasn’t so sure about the blonde following close behind, though Steely blue eyes and that goofy grin were signs of a joker or trouble.

“So does that mean you trust me?” Buck’s intrigue grew with her every word.

“Well, I did take a bullet for you, though I still haven’t figured out why. You fool headed boys had no business putting yourself in the middle of that whole mess. I been dealing with that all my life. It’s probably my fate to die in a gun fight. I don’t need two do-gooders followin’ me down the road to hell,” she exclaimed half smirking and half serious.

Pain suddenly surged through her left arm. Quickly her face went from the smirk to one of anguish and she let out a low cry as she grabbed at it. Buck noticed her shift, “You alright?”

“Fine!” She cringed again. “No, you aren’t, now stop.” She wanted to tell him to leave it alone, but the steady stream of pain kept her from saying much of anything other than the low shrieks. She pulled on the reins as her mount slowed to a stop. She continued to clinch her arm.

“Cody, come up here and guide my horse.” Buck got down and quickly saddled up behind Dani taking the reins from her hand. He wrapped his strong arms around her from behind. His warmth covered her back. Though the pain was still intense, his touch almost calmed her. She didn’t complain; she didn’t have the strength or maybe she just didn’t have the will to fight the handsome man behind her from taking control. His smell overtook her senses and she closed her eyes as she leaned back to rest against his shoulder.

“We need to get her to the doc, now!” was the last thing she heard before blackness took her over.

CHAPTER 3

“Rider comin’” Lou shouted as she noticed the rider in the distance kicking up dirt in a hurry. There was a second horse being brought in beside him.

Jimmy and Ike turned their attention from the broken fence to the incoming rider, “Looks like Buck, but who’s ridin’ with him?”

They both ran up to Buck’s quickly approaching form. As he abruptly stopped in front of them he shouted, “Get Rachel!” Ike grabbed the reins of the accompanying horse.

“What’s goin’ on?” All three could now plainly make out a female lying unconscious in the saddle in front of Buck. Lou ran toward Rachel’s house as Buck led the motionless body down to Jimmy. As he slowly brought the average built woman down from the horse a glint of recognition crossed his face. The vision of her rose adorned colt confirmed his suspicion.

Buck forcefully dismounted and picked her up out of Jimmy’s grasp. Ike, now holding the reins of both horses, led them into the barn. Rachel and Lou came out running from the house while Buck carried Dani into the bunkhouse, slowly placing her almost lifeless form onto his bunk. Jimmy came in close behind and within seconds Rachel was by her side with water and bandages. Lou took a seat at the table.

Jimmy and Lou watched as Buck remained kneeling down staring at the woman. “Is she gonna be alright?” he asked. Rachel began ripping the sleeve open on Jane’s shirt to get a better look at the wound. “I don’t know Buck, we need the doctor.”

“Cody’s on his way into town to get him.”

Ike quickly entered the bunkhouse. (Who is she?) he signed.

“We met her in Silver Springs. She ran into some trouble while we were there.” Buck didn’t care to elaborate knowing full well his family would begin to pass judgment if he mentioned what sort of trouble.

Jimmy blurted out, “A gunfight?” Buck gave no response and just continued to stare at Jane. “Buck, she’s a gunfighter! You know what sorta trouble she could bring with her? What were you thinkin’?”

Buck spat back, “You’re one to talk ‘Wild Bill’!” Buck’s anger was written all over his face. “She took a bullet for me. Was I just supposed to let her leave alone?”

Jimmy looked away in shame. Lou slowly stood from the table and approached Buck. “I’m sure she’ll be alright Buck.” At that, all attention turned to the door as it quickly flew open. Cody came barging in loudly almost knocking Ike to the floor, “I got him.”

Doc Barnes entered quickly behind Cody carrying a small leather bag. Rachel readily recognized as his tool kit. “I’ll need all you boys to step out and leave Miss Dunne and I alone with the patient.”

Cody, Jimmy and Lou filed out the front door, but Buck remained still. Ike made his way over resting his hand on Buck’s shoulder and then helping him to his feet. “You need to let the doctor look at her, Buck,” Rachel said in a calming voice. Ike led Buck out the bunkhouse door letting it shut behind them. He guided Buck to the bench outside and took a seat beside him.

“Kid,” Lou gasped as she realized he was now standing behind Cody on the porch stairs. “When did you get here?”

“I was in town when Cody road in. Told me him and Buck picked up some lady who got hurt in Silver Springs and he had to get the Doc. I followed them back here. Who is she?” Jimmy motioned for Kid to follow him away from the porch. Kid gave him an inquisitive look, but followed with Cody and Lou close behind.

“She’s a gunfighter. Her name’s Jane Marks.” Kid’s eyes grew big. Cody questioned “Did Buck tell you that?” Jimmy switched his glare from Kid to Cody, the annoyance evident in his expression. “He didn’t have to. We’ve met in passing once or twice.”

Lou’s eyes shifted back to a very distraught Buck. “Well, doesn’t matter who she is, seems to me Buck has taken a fancy to her. He needs us to stick by him.” She turned to head back up to the porch taking a seat on the steps. Jimmy followed her path with his eyes, but he was not ready to dismiss the situation that quickly. “Cody, what exactly happened in Silver Springs?”

Cody, always ready to embellish one of his adventures, recounted the earlier events including Jane’s obvious spite for them helping her. “Said she was meetin’ someone and didn’t need no accompanyin’ here, but Buck talked her into lettin’ us come along. Guess he wanted to make sure she was okay. We were ridin’ along just fine. All of a sudden she grabbed her arm and slumped over.”

“So she got you two caught in the middle of a gunfight?” Jimmy stated angrily.

“Calm down Jimmy,” Kid interjected, “Seems to me Buck made a choice to help her. Any one of us would have done the same, even you. I’m not sure why her comin’ here has you so riled up, but you outta know, you can’t judge a person by their reputation.” Jimmy looked down defeated once again. He knew Kid was right. There was no need for him to be so suspicious, but he was always wary of gunfighters with or without reason.

The bunkhouse door flung open and Buck was on his feet in no time.

“Is she gonna be alright?” Buck now repeated the same question to the doctor as he had asked earlier of Rachel.

“She’s going to be just fine. Seems the bullet chipped a piece of the bone in her arm causing it to become lodged in her skin along with the bullet itself. The pain from both caused her to pass out. I removed them and bandaged her up. She won’t get much use out of that arm for a while.” Both Lou and Ike gave Buck a little pat on the back. A sigh of relief came from his mouth as a small smile escaped his lips.

“Can I see her?”

“Sure, but she’s pretty liquored up and she’s still unconscious. She should be awake in a few hours though.”

Buck made his way into the bunkhouse with Ike following behind. The rest of the riders stayed out on the porch giving Buck the space they knew he needed.

Cody turned to the group, “So, where’s Noah?” Lou replied, “He’s still out on a run, but he should be back by dark.” Cody grinned, “I’m sure he’ll be sorry he missed all the excitement.” Kid just smiled at him, “I’m sure you’ll fill him in.” Cody returned the expression as the other riders let out a chuckle.

CHAPTER 4

Buck laid on Cody’s buck to the left of his own which was now occupied by a slumbering Dani. Rachel had left him the two over an hour ago to tend to supper. He didn’t care whether or not he ate tonight. He wasn’t sure why, but he wanted to be the first thing Dani saw when she awoke. Maybe if that happened he wouldn’t feel so guilty about being the reason she was lying there now. He stayed focused on her face realizing that even as she snored away, she was still the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

Noah trotted up to the barren station. There wasn’t the usual ruckus coming from the bunkhouse that generally accompanied supper. In fact, it was eerily quiet. He made headed to the barn and saw to it that his horse was taken care of for the night. Quickly he made his way to the bunkhouse where he expected everyone had turned in early for the night.

As not to disturb them he gently pushed opened the bunkhouse door and made his way inside. He was thrown off guard by the fact that the bunkhouse was empty except for Buck, who was now fast asleep on Cody’s bunk. A figure he didn’t recognize was lying on Buck’s. He noted that whoever was there was quite shapely. He picked up the lit oil lamp from the table to get a better look at their guest when he was met by a very frenzied Buck now holding his pistol no more than six inches from his face.

“Buck, it’s me!”

Abruptly awoken from her sleep Dani attempted to leap to her feet, but was quickly overcome by the pain in her arm and let out a loud yell. “Dani!” Buck dropped his gun and ran to her side kneeling down, trying to calm her. Noah stood in shock at the cringing face of the young woman who had so rudely been awakened. “Dani, it’s okay. This is another rider for the Express, Noah.”

Buck looked back up attempting a reassuring look when he noticed the expression on Noah’s face. It was the same expression Jimmy had when he realized who Dani was earlier that day. Buck turned his attention back to Dani as he feared that Noah would have the same reaction as Jimmy. As his eyes met hers he was taken back by the same look of recognition passing from her eyes to Noah. Buck got the sneaking suspicion they knew each other, but brushed it off as she let out another low moan.

Noah still stood shocked, but regained his composure. Dani calmed herself after the final wave of pain passed. Noah offered his hand to her out of habit, but removed it upon second thought.

“Dani, was it?” Noah questioned. Buck noticed the quizzical look Dani shot back at Noah that she quickly tried to cover. “Yes,” she said in a low whisper giving Noah a small smile then turning her attention back to Buck.

The bunkhouse door swung open revealing the rest of the express riders with guns drawn. “Damn it, Noah!” Jimmy stated as they all realized what had taken place and lowered their weapons. Noah turned to the group and back to Buck where he realized Buck must have not even bothered to look up.

Buck and Dani continued to stare at each other as the riders scattered through out the room making themselves comfortable. “What happened?” Noah asked. Cody took his position center stage to once again recount the story. Each rider took a seat as he reenacted the day’s events.

CHAPTER 5

Two Weeks Later

The bunkhouse door opened to reveal a still healing, but seemingly happy Dani. She stretched out her one working arm keeping the sling contained one still. “How ya feelin’?” Jimmy questioned as he watched her take a step away from the doorway.

“Alright. Happy to see the sunlight from the outside of this damn place. I’m not one for lying around. Getting stuck doing it for days is liable to drive me crazy.” Ike attempted sign to her, but she wasn’t picking it up. “What did he say?”

“He says you look much better.” “Thanks, Ike.” She let out small smile in his direction.

She pulled her colt from its holster as she took a seat next to him. Jimmy continued his widdling on the top step of the porch. Dani did her best to situate her gun between her legs. She hoped to figure out a way to clean it with one hand, but was finding it extremely difficult. She looked up to survey the rest of the Express station. Buck and Lou caught her eye at the corral fence. “Haven’t you all been workin’ on that fence for the past few days? Not done yet?”

“Yea, but we caught some trouble outside of town yesterday,” Jimmy defensively remarked.

“What kind of trouble?” She was still obviously having some problems balancing the gun in between her legs.

“Peterson gang heard there was some kind of shipping schedule coming in on the noon stage,” Kid interjected after exiting the bunkhouse. “Teaspoon asked us to help.”

“You sure are a close knit group of rowdies, aren’t ya?” She had now given up on her gun and placed it down beside her.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jimmy questioned angrily. “Calm down, Hickok; I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. Just noticed that you all seem to stick together no matter what. Must be a good feelin’ knowing you always got someone watching your back.”

Ike tapped Dani’s shoulder and motioned to her gun. “You wanna see it? Bein’ that it ain’t loaded, I guess that’d be alright.” All eyes turned to the beautiful piece of craftsmanship in Ike’s hands. It was almost a match for Jimmy’s colt with nickel plating and all except for the distinguishing rose painted on the handle.

“Where did you get a gun like that?” Jimmy asked his suspicion getting the best of him.

“I could ask you the same thing. My guess is it ain’t a story you like sharin’.”

Ike’s hands began moving. “Ike wants to know why you would think that.” Kid translated for him.

“Ike, it’s been my experience that beautiful guns bring ugly reputations. Doesn’t matter how eye catching and shinny it is, in the end, all a gun brings is death. Once you strap it on, you become a target and a killer. Not a story most people like recounting.” The wisdom behind her words sounded almost like a female Teaspoon, Kid thought to himself. For someone not too much older than them it seemed she had seen a lot in her life.

With that said she stood from the bench making her way over to Lou and Buck. “Need some help?” Buck held onto the hammer while Lou held up the fence post.

“You know you shouldn’t be trying to help out with something like this with your arm hurt,” he stated.

“Well Buck, seems God gave me two arms just in case one stopped workin’.” Dani shot him a big smile which he quickly returned.

“Well, I know Rachel and the Doc would have my hide if I let you go and hurt the other one, too.”

She nodded, “I reckon a no armed gunfighter wouldn’t strike much fear into the hearts of many people.” She laughed at her own joke. “Well, I’ll just go back to entertaining those three,” she pointed to the porch.

Buck followed her movements keeping the huge grin plastered across his face.

“You like her, huh?” Lou questioned as Buck’s attention turned back to the chore at hand.

“What makes you say that?” Buck inquired with a slight smile.

“Buck, come on. I don’t know what happened with you and her, but it’s obvious that you have feelin’s for her. Why don’t you do somethin’ about it?”

“What am I supposed to do, Lou? She doesn’t seem like the type of woman who has much interest in courting.”

“Well, she was sayin’ how she’d like to get out of the bunkhouse more. Take her on a picnic. I’m sure Rachel would help. It would do her and you some good to get away from all those pryin’ eyes anyway. And trust me, she likes you. No woman smiles like that at any man unless she has taken a liking to him.” Buck began to blush at the prospect of the beautiful gunfighter actually taking a liking to him. What exactly was it about her that made him smile so much?

“When should I ask?”

“Now’s as a good time as any. I think she headed back into the bunkhouse. I can get Kid to help me with this.” Buck turned his attention to the bunkhouse as Lou yelled for the Kid.

He slowly opened the bunkhouse door to find Dani lying down again in his bunk. “Hey, Buck, that was quick.” Buck’s smile grew as he took two steps toward her and let the door close behind him. As he went to take another step a figure to his right caught his eye. “Hey, Noah.”

Noah’s attention went from Dani to his boot which he quickly slipped on. “I’m not interrupting anything am I?” Buck’s good mood was slowly slipping as he felt tension fill the room.

“Not at all, I’ll leave you two alone.” Noah stood from the table and exited the bunkhouse. Something about the situation didn’t feel right to Buck as he recalled the sense of recognition between Dani and Noah the night he got back from his run.

“Did you have something you wanted to talk about?” Dani asked. Buck remained standing as he stared at the floor. “Buck, what’s wrong?” Dani slowly rose making sure to not apply too much pressure to her continually throbbing arm.

“Why was Noah in here?” Buck asked with a slight twinge of jealousy. “I’m not sure, actually. Too many of you riders to keep up with. Mentioned something about a stone in his boot. We didn’t really talk much, why?”

Buck shook off the feeling and looked up at Dani catching her eye, “Would you like to go on a picnic with me tomorrow?” Dani smiled at him, “Seein’ as it would get me out of here, I would love to.” They continued to stare at each other as the room disappeared.

Their quiet moment was quickly interrupted by the bunkhouse door slamming open behind them. Their attention turned to Jimmy, “Buck, Kid says him and Lou need some help with that fence.”

Buck turned his attention back to Dani. She smiled her understanding to him, “Go. I’m sure I can find something to do around here.” With that he and Jimmy headed out the door. Dani laid back down on his bunk. From under her pillow, she pulled out a ten cent novel Cody loaned her and began reading.

CHAPTER 6

Buck and Dani sat gazing out at the field that surrounded them. The picnic Rachel packed was simple, a couple of sandwiches and a couple pieces of her famous blueberry pie. Random questions were tossed back and forth to each other between bites and loving looks. As they finished up the meal Dani propped herself back on one arm looking around at the open field, occasionally picking up the eyes of the young Kiowa lying beside her.

“You always take your gun out to picnics?” Buck inquired. He noticed she had it strapped on when he attempted to help her into the buckboard earlier which, of course, she pushed away. He didn’t feel like broaching the subject until things were more comfortable between them.

She looked down toward his ankle, “You always bring your knife?” He knew he was caught. “I guess I do. I think I’d feel naked without it.”

“I’d have to say that’s the same reason I carry my gun.” Buck noticed the shift in her expression as she explained. “An old friend gave it to me. He said it reminded him of me; a beauty to look at, but deadly to the touch. Haven’t gone anywhere without it since.”

Buck removed the knife from its sheath, “My brother gave this to me when I left the village. Told me it would be a reminder of where my loyalty lies. I live in this world, but my heart is with the Kiowa, though it doesn’t seem like either side wants me. I’m trapped somewhere between two worlds.” He paused. “It gets hard.” “Don’t guess you would understand that?” he stated passing the knife to her to inspect.

“You’d be surprised,” she shot back a glance at him. Buck sensed this statement wasn’t just in passing. “Would I?” he smiled back at her.

“Well, I’m a woman gunfighter. That alone is two different worlds. Seems every man I come across either wants to make me a notch in his bed post or his gun belt. One way or another I end up staring down a gun.” He laughed as he picked up her insinuation. “So, you wanna teach me how to handle this thing?” She asked using her good arm to balance herself up to her feet.

“You sure you’re up for it?” Buck rushed to her side to help her balance. “Well, I ain’t dead and like I said, I have one good arm. I don’t think learning to throw a knife’s gonna do much damage. I see a good target right over there.” Buck followed her finger to a tree off in the clearing. He took the knife from her hand, the same hand that had been resting in a sling since they returned to Sweetwater.

“Follow me.” He nodded his head in the direction of the indicated tree. They approached the towering trunk that now blocked the sun from their sight. Buck stepped back 10 paces from the tree while Dani stood off to the side observing. Buck quickly turned and threw the dagger hitting the trunk square in the center directly at his eye level.

“I would clap,” she said, “but that might be painful.” She walked up to him requesting he hand over the knife for her to give it a shot.

“You can either hold it by the blade or by the handle depending on the distance you’re throwing. It’s hard to explain other than you learn the feel of the knife with practice. Eventually you’ll be able to hit your target every time without thinking about it.” She looked at him intently as he gave his lesson.

She turned to the tree and began counting off 10 paces. Just as quickly as Buck she turned on the tree and hit it only an inch from his initial mark. “Like that?” She smiled to him as his jaw dropped. He then shot her a ‘you tricked me’ look as he started laughing.

“Beginner’s luck?” She laughed at him. “Sorry. I couldn’t resist.”

“Where did you learn that?” he cocked his head to the side. “Same person who gave me this,” she motioned to her gun. He shook his head as he realized just how intriguing she became every day.

They approached the embedded knife still protruding from the tree. Both went to grab the handle when their hands locked around the knife. Neither one went to remove their hand from the others. They stared deeply into each other’s eyes as their hands gripped tighter on the handle. Dani let out a little smirk as Buck used his other hand to remove her hat then slowly stepped into her body putting his arm around her waist. Not once did he break her gaze. He leaned in catching her lips with his.

She pulled away catching Buck off guard. They stared at each other. Buck felt like he should apologize but he wasn’t sorry for kissing her and he wasn’t going to say otherwise.

The tension between them grew, but Dani wasn’t ready to walk away. For some reason she wanted this moment. As she continued to stare she felt the warmth that hid behind his eyes. This man didn’t see her as a trophy. He saw her as a person and for some reason she trusted him.

This time she leaned into him and as their lips joined she felt the whole world around them slip away. It was just her and this handsome and warm man embraced in a loving kiss that she didn’t want to end. Buck began to deepen the kiss and she allowed herself to be overcome by power. He pulled her in closer.

“Ow,” she mumbled, now upset that she couldn’t tune out the pain that surged through her arm. They quickly broke the embrace. “Sorry,” he was truly concerned that he had hurt her. He was so lost in the moment. “It’s alright,” she said softly. “I think we should head back though.” She turned walking back to their picnic spot.

Buck retrieved the knife from the tree trunk as Dani began gathering up their things as best she could. Buck jogged over to her and collected the rest, threw them into the back of the buckboard and again, attempted to help her on. This time, however, she didn’t push him away.

He climbed on beside her and grabbed the reins. She used her right hand to turn his attention back to her and gave him a long passionate kiss. They broke the exchange and she continued to stare into his eyes. “Thanks, half breed,” she whispered with a smile. He let out a little chuckle as he led the horse into motion.

CHAPTER 7

Buck and Dani returned from their picnic to an anxiously awaiting Lou. As they pulled up beside her Dani slowly worked her way down from the carriage still refuse to request any help. The smile on Buck’s face spoke volumes, but Dani was a little harder to read. While she looked happy, Lou wasn’t too sure what to make of her.

Dani tip her hat toward Lou and made her way into the bunkhouse. “How’d it go Buck?” He continued to smile as he made his way down from the buckboard and unhooked the horse. Lou didn’t want to disturb his good mood so she figured she’d wait to get all the details from him later. “Rachel left out some supper for you two. I’ll take care of the horse.”

Buck and Lou parted company as he headed up the stairs into the bunkhouse. He entered finding all eyes on him and heard the botched attempts at holding back laughter from the group. He turned his attention to his bunk where he now noticed Dani putting her things in a carpetbag. “Where are you going?”

“Well, I figure if I’m well enough to travel I’m well enough to move into Rachel’s house for now. I asked earlier in the week, but she said she would prefer I stay in the bunkhouse until I was a little better. Don’t worry; I’ll come back for supper in a few minutes.”

With that she went back to her packing while Buck removed his hat and dusty jacket. She finished putting in the last of her belongings and walked out the door. Buck sat down at the table.

“I need to check on something in the barn,” Noah rose from his bunk, “I’ll be right back.” He headed out the front door as well.

(So, Buck, you gonna eat or sit there with that goofy grin on your face?) Ike signed to him. “I’ll eat when Dani gets back.” “You may not have time,” Kid added, “Cody’s been eyeing those plates since Rachel left them out.”

Meanwhile, in the barn, Lou had already tended to Buck’s horse and was now going through her nightly ritual with Lightening. As she began to brush him down she picked up what sounded like a soft conversation coming from behind the barn. She didn’t want to intrude, but her curiosity got the best of her and she calmly crept down to the back of the barn.

“Noah, we have to tell them.” She could make out the soft whispers of Buck’s new love.

“I know I just wanted you to be ready and comfortable with it.” Lou wondered what on earth they could be taking about. “I know, Noah, and I appreciate it, we just can’t keep it from them any longer and I’m pretty sure Buck is getting suspicious. I owe him the truth.” Lou thought to herself ‘It can’t be.’ “As long as you’re sure. Go get Rachel and Teaspoon and I’ll round up everyone else.” Through a crack in the wood siding, Lou could make out Dani and Noah embracing. As they parted Dani gave Noah a kiss on the cheek and they separated.

Lou couldn’t believe what she had just heard. Dani and Noah having an affair right under their noses? How could they be so disrespectful and leading Buck on like that? Lou was going to give Dani a piece of her mind. She waited until Noah had entered the bunkhouse before she made her way toward Rachel’s. Rachel and Teaspoon were already on their way over to the bunkhouse as Lou passed barely acknowledging them. They exchanged questioning glances but continued down the path.

Lou entered the house pounding her way up the stairs. Coming o a halt in front of Dani’s new room she knocked but didn’t wait for a response. “How dare you?” she shouted as she flung open the door.

“Hello, Lou,” Dani stated not removing her eyes from her carpetbag.

“You’ve been using Buck all along. And now what, you and Noah are going to make this big announcement with no thought to how Buck is gonna feel? How could you do that to him?”

Dani, only half looking up at Lou, “Well, Louise, I don’t really think that what I do with my time and who I spend it with is any of your concern. Now if you would kindly follow Rachel and Teaspoon down to the bunkhouse, I’d be much obliged.”

“How did you know?” Lou angrily shot back realizing that either Buck or Noah must have told her Lou’s situation.

“You think you’re foolin’ anyone? These folks would have to be completely blind to believe you were anything other than a girl.” Lou stormed up to Dani now making them toe to toe. Lou’s expression being one of anger, while Dani’s seemed to be more of annoyance.

“Who do you think you are?” Lou questioned. Dani stared down at the tiny rider,

“Look Lou, I don’t want no fight. You don’t understand what’s goin’ on here, but if you feel like you need to be in my business, you’re gonna get a whole ear full in a minute, so please, wait for me in the bunkhouse.” Lou wanted to forget herself in that instant and start swinging at her bigger opponent, but she knew that a reaction like that would get her nowhere. Besides, she needed to be there for Buck when the news was broken.

Without saying a word, Lou headed out of Dani’s room and then out of the house. Dani just smiled and shook her head as she finished unpacking her things. Lou made her way to the bunkhouse where she met an over anxious Noah waiting on the porch.

“Is Dani on her way down?” Lou just gave him an infuriated look and walked into the bunkhouse taking a seat beside Buck. All the riders awaited the big news.

Minutes passed and he finally entered the bunkhouse with a huge grin on his face. “What is it Noah?” Cody was becoming overly anxious. “I’d like to introduce you all to Danielle Dixon.”

Lou closed her eyes hearing the news while everyone else stared on in wonder. Dixon, she thought to herself? Dani entered the room to the awaiting eyes.

“My sister.”

CHAPTER 8

The bunkhouse stood silent as Noah’s words slowly sunk in.

“Your sister?” Jimmy was the first to speak. Noah and Dani smiled at him.

“How is that possible? You’re not…” Kid trailed off afraid to continue his statement.

“A negro?” Dani completed his thought. “Well, you’re half right.”

The eyes around her prodded for more answers. “Let me get some food in my stomach and I’ll tell you a little more about it.” She sat down across from Lou and shot her a little grin. Lou just shifted her eyes down to her hands resting on the table. Dani grabbed her spoon and began eating the stew in front of her. Taking in her first bite she glanced up at Buck who seemed to be surveying her features for any clue that he may have missed. As she looked up at the rest of the room, it appeared they were doing the same.

She chuckled to herself as Noah joined her at the table. She took one more bite and gave him a little smile. She placed down her spoon and pushed her plate away looking up again at the awaiting eyes around her.

“I was born Danielle Montgomery. I’m the daughter of a slave and her master. I was raised by my mother until I was two. It was pretty obvious that my light skin wasn’t going to get darker and so I was brought into the house. Soon after my mother was sold at auction and I grew up with a father who would ignore me and a mother who hated me. The mistress never let me forget my place and reminded me on a daily basis where I came from either with her words or her fist. When I was about 4 or so my mother came for me. She snuck me out in the middle of the night and took me to a small house aways out of town,” she looked up at an intent Noah, “That’s where I met Benjamin Dixon and Sally. Turns out it was Ben who bought my momma that day at the auction. They married not too long after. Six months later my mom gave birth to Noah.”

Dani took a second to pause and reflect. “She died that night. Ben and Sally let me stay with them and I helped raise Noah. Ben treated me more like a daughter than my own father ever did, so I took his name. Noah and I became real close. When I was 14, Ben decided it would be safer if we parted ways. Every town we went to brought more suspicion, a white girl traveling with a Negro family brought a lot prying eyes. It was getting too dangerous for us to stay together.”

“Must have been hard to leave them,” Teaspoon stated understandingly. Dani just nodded up at him.

“How did you become a gunfighter?” Jimmy cut in.

“You cut to the quick, don’t ya Hickok?” Dani stated after taking another bite of the stew getting cold in front of her. “I went to stay with an abolitionist friend, Ian Marks, outside of Kansas City. He was a sweet old man, but paranoid as all hell. He had a whole shed full of guns and he was prepared to take down anything that came his way. For the first few months there we barely spoke a word to each other. I did the cooking and housework and he kept me clothed and fed. One night I found him drunk on the porch crying. He told me about how his family was killed by a gang of outlaws one night when he was on a cattle run to Tennessee. He came home to find his wife and daughter’d beaten and shot in their own beds.”

Ike pounded on his chest to get the attention of the room, (Why?) he signed.

“Seems the McCaffrey gang needed a hide out until they could rob a stage coming through from Texas with a shipment of Army rifles. Seeing as his home was a pretty fair distance out, they were an easy target. He blamed himself for not being there and being able to protect them.”

She took a second to pause, “That night he vowed to teach me how to handle myself just in case anything was to happen. He wasn’t gonna allow me to be an easy target. The next day he began to teach me how to shoot, fight and any other trick I might need to survive. He even bought me this pistol you all like so much,” she smiled at the memory of the day he gave it to her, but as another memory swept though, her expression changed.

“Six months later the McCaffrey gang came rolling through again and I guess they figured that same house was as good as any. One night they came calling, but this time they got a fight. We each had a rifle and a couple of pistols, but they had more fire power than us so we took the back way out into the woods. They surrounded us and Ian was killed. They left me for dead as well, but not after they took what they wanted.” She paused to let the emotion sweep over her and quickly brushed it off.” I returned back to the house to find they had burned it down, but as sure as day, in a pile a wood, there was that nickel plated pistol he gave me with not even a scratch on it.”

“Wait a minute,” Cody interjected, “I know this story. You took out the McCaffrey gang?” Dani looked down at her cold supper. “I read that story. I think it was called ‘Lady Gunfighter’.”

“You read that in one of your trash novels, Cody?” Jimmy shot him an angry look.

“Yes,” Cody’s annoyance was not hidden well. “Never gave your name, but talked about how you tracked them all the way to Blue Creek and took them each out one by one, four men in all.”

Dani let out a deep breath. Buck just stared at her too shocked to speak. Cody was obviously sticking his foot in his mouth, but Buck was at a loss for words at all this new information.

Noah put his hand on Dani’s shoulder as she looked up to Cody. “Stuff legends are made of, right Cody?” she said with frustration, “Yes, I killed those men and soon I became the lady gunfighter every man had to have a shot at. Been livin’ by the gun ever since.”

“And Jane Marks?” Teaspoon inquired.

“Figured it was safer changin’ my name. If someone’s using it, I know what to expect.”

“And you and Noah kept in touch through all of this?” it was Rachel’s turn to question.

Noah answered for her, “We wrote letters and would meet up every once and a while. After my pa was lynched, me and Sally even stayed with Ian for a few months, but we knew we had to move on.” Noah looked up at Buck who was letting it all sink in, “She was coming to Sweetwater to visit me.”

Dani began yawning. “I’m sorry to cut this short everyone, but I really need to go lie down. It’s been a long day.”

“No, don’t apologize,” Rachel added standing from Kid’s bunk, “It’s been a long day for all of us. I think it’s about time we turned in.”

Dani stood from the table. “Dani.” She turned to face Lou. “I’m sorry,” Lou said softly feeling quite guilty. Dani just nodded to her and turned to the young confused man beside her, “Buck, will you come with me?” He stood and they walked out the door.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about Noah sooner,” she began as they walked down the path to Rachel’s. “I just needed to know for sure I could trust you or any of you.” He kept his gaze on the ground in front of him. “I hope you understand, this isn’t something I generally like sharing with people, but you made me want to share it with you. You’re Noah’s family now and that says a lot about the type of people you all are.” They stopped at the front door.

“Look at me please,” she placed her hand under his chin to bring his eyes to her, “I needed to tell you, Buck.” She continued to stare into his glowing brown eyes until he finally nodded his acknowledgement. She removed her hand from his chin and entered into the house. He continued to stand staring out into the distance.

CHAPTER 9

Noah smoothed down the mane of his loving horse as Dani took a seat on the hay bale to his left. She stared off straight ahead while chewing on a random piece of hay, her right foot propped up beside her. Noah caught a glimpse of her expression, put down his brush and took a seat next to her.

“What’s on your mind?” he asked.

Dani just shrugged her shoulders not breaking eye contact with the wood planks in front of her. He continued to stare at her hoping to reveal any emotion in her face. They continued to sit in silence.

Dani, frustrated with Noah’s constant staring, turned her eyes to the floor in front of her, put down her foot and let out a sigh. “I’m not so sure tellin’ everyone was such a good idea.”

“Why do you say that? I haven’t noticed anything out of the ordinary.” Noah stated.

“You haven’t noticed anything?” She turned her head to face Noah, the look of anger on her face apparent. “These people won’t stop staring at me. Worse yet, Buck won’t make any attempt to talk to me. I’m not sure exactly what I said that has got everyone so riled up. This is one reaction I never thought I’d get. Maybe a bullet to the head, but not this.”

Noah chuckled, “Dani, it’s just a lot to take it. Look at us, if someone came into a room claiming we were related, I would sure think they were joshin’ me. Lucky for you, I know the truth. Give it some time; it’s only been a day.”

“A long day,” she quickly interrupted. “Look, as soon as my arm heals up, I’m moving on. Just doesn’t feel right intrudin’ on your life like this and I can’t take these stares much longer. I said I’d come for a visit, well, I’m here. Now it’s time to move on.” She rose from the hay throwing the strand she was chewing on down to the ground. “Doc says it should only be a few more days and just be careful with it after that.”

Noah, now standing, “You don’t have to go. I’m sure in a few days things’ll be fine and the looks will have disappeared. I mean, really, how long can someone keep staring at that ugly mug before they go blind?”

“Thanks, Noah. You really know how to cheer a girl up.” She gave him a playful punch on the arm. Footsteps behind them drew their attention away from each other.

“Dani?” Rachel entered the barn. “I drew you a bath. I know things today have been a little tense. Figured it might help.”

Dani had to smile at the good hearted and wise woman before her. “It couldn’t hurt.” She turned back to Noah, “I’ll just take my ugly mug upstairs.” She gave him one last smile as she turned to exit the barn behind Rachel.

Noah approached his mount and bent down to pick up the brush when he noticed a pair of legs planted on the ground five feet behind him. He quickly shot up and turned to face whoever was there. “Buck!”

“Sorry,” Buck stood in defeat as he stared at Noah, “I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”

“It’s fine.” Buck went to take a seat on the exact hay bale Dani had been sitting on not 30 seconds before. “Somethin’ on your mind, Buck?”

“How’s Dani doing?” Buck asked. Noah smiled to himself as he noticed the look of concern cross his face. “She’s fine, Buck. Why don’t you go ask her?”

“I’m not sure she wants to talk to me, right now?” Buck began playing with the hay around him.

“Why would you think that?” Noah looked back at his horse after finally picking the brush up and began getting back to the task at hand.

“I acted like a fool last night. I didn’t mean to shut her out. I just hadn’t expected any of that. I was a shock, but I got to thinking and I’m glad you two felt that you could trust us. I know that isn’t something Dani’s used to.”

“Buck why are you telling me this; why not just tell her? I’m sure she’ll understand,” Noah attempted to convince him.

“I wanted to talk to you because,” He paused taking in a deep breath, “I want to know how you feel about me asking her to accompany me into town tomorrow.”

“Buck, if you’re asking my permission to court her, that ain’t really none of my business. She leads her own life. That’s something only she can answer.”

Buck smiled at him, “I just wanted to be sure, you being her family and all.” A look of excitement took over his face, “Where is she?”

“She’s in her room, but…” It was too late; Buck had already run out of the barn and was heading in the direction of Rachel’s house. Noah smiled and shook his head as he continued brushing, “This should be interesting,” he said to himself.

Buck ran quickly up the stairs to her room and without even thinking to knock, threw the door wide open. He stood in shock as he now saw his love sitting naked with her back to him in the house wash basin. His expression changed from excitement, to embarrassment and then to concern. There, running up and the down the length of her back, were obvious thick pink scars.

Dani slowly and calmly turned her head to glance him. “Buck? Did you need something?” He continued to stare, his thoughts wandering. When he finally realized he was still rudely staring at the naked woman he turned his gaze away, “I’m sorry. I needed to ask you something, but it can wait.” With that, he turned to walk out of the room, closing the door behind him.

Dani continued to sit, soaking in the now tepid water as she collected her thoughts on what Buck had just seen. She wasn’t angry. In fact, she was kind of flattered that he was intrigued enough to keep staring at her. It wasn’t the first time a man had busted through her door unexpectedly, but it was the first time, she wasn’t remotely upset by it.

She stood from the water, dried herself off as best she could and made her way over to her bed where there was a fresh set of clothes awaiting her. She quickly changed and headed downstairs with her bandana in hand. In the kitchen, she found a very red Buck sitting at the table. He turned to the doorway, “I’m sorry,” he repeated.

Dani smiled at him, “It’s alright Buck. It takes a lot to embarrass me.” She lifted up the cloth, “Could you help me get this on?”

Buck stood from the table and walked over to her taking the bandana from her hand. He grabbed both ends and leaned into her putting both ends behind her neck. Her eyes caught his and they stared deeply at each other. Her emerald gaze kept him entranced and he lost track of what he was doing.

“Buck?” she questioned. He was brought out of the stare and finished tying the cloth off in the back as she slipped her arm into the side. “Thanks,” she smiled at him.

Buck picked up his hat from the table, “Do you want to go for a walk?”

“I’d like that,” she responded. He nodded to her and headed through the parlor out the front door. She quickly followed.

As they began walking down the front steps Buck offered his left arm to her. She smiled at him, wrapped her hand under the nook of his elbow and they began their walk in silence for a few minutes taking in the beautiful sunset that was now sweeping over the terrain.

Buck let out a loud sigh catching her attention. Dani pulled him to a halt and questioned, “What’s wrong?”

Buck replied hesitating “I’m sorry.”

“You can stop apologizing. It’s fine, Buck.” He blushed and turned his whole body to face her shaking his head. “Not about that.” She could tell it would take him some time to get out what he needed to say so she motioned for them to continue walking.

“I’m sorry about how I acted last night and about avoiding you today. I don’t know why what you said affected me so much. I shouldn’t have treated you the way I did.”

“I’m sure it was a shock to find out so much about me so quickly. I should have just come out and told you earlier, but I didn’t want to ruin the moment. My past isn’t something I like replaying, but you needed to know. I needed you to know.”

He nodded his understanding as she continued, “When you talked about being caught between two worlds, I had to stop myself from telling you then. I know exactly what it feels like. I’m stuck between the white world and my mother’s world everyday. I was lucky enough to be able to hide behind my skin and eyes, but I still feel it. Whenever I see a slave following close behind his master or happen to come across a town holding a slave auction, I feel it. I see my mother’s face. That’s what drives me on; knowing that she wanted more for me than that life. Unlike the mistress, my mother never resented me for my skin color. I think she was relieved that I could hide in this world and not have to face that life.”

“The scars on your back?” he questioned. “The mistress had a particularly hard day and my spilling milk all over her new table didn’t sit well with her. She decided to show me how she would have treated my mother if she had done such a thing. She used my father’s cane. It wasn’t too long after that my mother came for me.”

They continued to walk as he listened intently to her words.

“Those scars are a reminder of a world I don’t ever want to go back to. The only problem is I walked into an equally horrifying world. At least living as a slave you know exactly who hates you and how to prepare for when they show it. In this world someone could be smiling to your face and the next second putting a bullet in your back. I learned quickly how not to trust anyone I came across.”

“And me?” he looked at her intrigued. They stopped walking as she turned to face him. She stared longingly into his eyes.

“There was just something about you. You didn’t seem too interested in who I was, just wanted to help; the sign of a sincere man.”

He smiled at her finding himself again lost in her gaze. He raised his hand to her face brushing it lightly against her cheek. She couldn’t take the look anymore. She pushed herself against him and they began kissing passionately.

Little did they know, they had 5 pairs of eyes fixed on them from the bunkhouse window. All except Rachel and Jimmy watched as the couple finally admitted their feelings for each other without fear of who would be watching. Rachel motioned for them to come out of the window and sit for supper. The eyes left the still embracing pair and moved around the table.

Buck pulled back from the kiss and looked back into Dani’s eyes. “Would you join me for a meal in town tomorrow?” She smiled at him, “Of course.” He leaned in kissing her again, more passionately than before as the sun finished setting behind them.

CHAPTER 10

Buck anxiously waited on the front stoop of the house. He paced back and forth until Ike grabbed his attention and signed for him to calm down. Buck began blushing as he took a seat on the steps next to Ike.

(She really has you nervous,) Ike joked with him.

“There’s just something about her,” Buck began to explain, “I don’t know. I can’t stop thinking about her. I just know she’s the one I’ve been waiting for.” Buck took out a ring from his pocket to examine it. “I just don’t know if she feels the same.”

(She seems like a girl most men would be running from, not to.) Ike laughed at his joke, but Buck didn’t give anymore than a smile knowing there was a lot of truth in his words. (I’m happy for you.) Ike patted his friend on the back as Noah began walking up the stairs.

Buck placed the ring back in his pocket as he stood from the steps to let Noah pass. Noah nodded to both and grabbed for the handle. “Noah?” He turned to face the very red Indian behind him. “Thanks.”

“For what?” Noah asked puzzled.

“For bringing her here. For being there for her. For everything, I guess.” A small smile passed between the two, Noah nodded and headed into the house where he found an even more anxious Lou coming down the stairs with Rachel close behind.

“Is she ready?” He inquired.

Rachel just nodded as they all turned their attention to the second floor. Dani slowly descended from the stairs. Noah’s eyes widened at the sight of his older sister clad in a dark green satin dress with white lace accents. Her sandy hair pulled back at the sides adding to the long ringlets already cascading down her back. This look was far from the dust covered rough neck appearance she normally exuded. He also noticed the lack of bandana around her neck.

“Well,” he said, “Buck may have some competition when everyone gets a look at you.” She let out a low laugh as she finished her journey down the stairs.

“Well, lucky for him, my eyes aren’t going to be on anyone else.” She smiled at Noah as she placed her arms around his neck. As they embraced he leaned into her ear, “Are you sure you’re ready for this?” They pulled apart as she stared directly into his eyes and gave him a serious and determined nod.

“You better get out there before poor Buck’s head explodes,” Rachel interjected. Dani gave Rachel and Lou a smile. “Thank you so much.”

“Just be careful with that arm, don’t need you hurting it again,” Rachel added. Dani turned to the door and grabbed the handle. There on the stoop she met with awed looks.

She began blushing as she stared into the eyes of the now speechless Kiowa staring back at her. She stepped onto the landing with only a foot or so between her and the two riders. Ike turned his attention to Buck who is still dumbfounded and gave him a slight push toward Dani. Buck shook himself out of his fog and smiled, “You look beautiful.” He offered his arm to her and they headed down the steps to the awaiting buckboard.

As they reached it the remaining riders exited from the bunkhouse to see them off. As each of the riders laid eyes on the lovely lady on the arm of their close friend they couldn’t help but gawk. Cody, unable to stop himself, shouted out to Dani, “Not a lady, huh?”

As she stepped up into the buckboard she replied, “I never said I didn’t know how to be a lady.”

The group of riders began laughing under their breaths as Kid gave Cody a little pat on the back. Buck took the seat next to her and willed the horse in front into a gallop toward town.

Buck turned his attention to her, “You are the most beautiful lady I’ve ever seen.”

She blushed, “You make me feel like a lady, Buck.” With that she placed her head on his shoulder, wrapped her hands around his arm and they rode silently lost in each other’s touch the rest of the ride into town.

They hitched up the buckboard, made their way into the restaurant and ordered their food. Buck noticed all eyes were on them, but somehow he knew it had nothing to do with him. She truly was a sight to behold. The young couple lost themselves in each other’s eyes and remained absent to the world around up until the waitress returned with their food.

The meal was filled with discussions about anything and everything. Dani spoke about the good times she had as a child and Buck let her in on the various adventures the small family of riders had experienced through out their time with the Pony Express. Laughs and loving expressions filled the table between bites. The conversation flowed so naturally, it was if they had known each other forever.

As the conversation slowed down Buck once again stared at her as she slowly cut into the meat in front of her. He chuckled to himself as she gave him an inquisitive look.

“What?” she asked.

“You really do look beautiful.”

She nodded to him and he continued, “But I was wondering; where are you hiding your gun?” he smiled at her.

She giggled as she began blushing then let herself become serious.

“I figured I didn’t need it anymore. Maybe it’s about time I retired my gun. I’ve got everything I need right here.”

She smiled at him as a quiet understanding passed between them. Buck was now completely sure of what he needed to do next.

He put down his napkins, stood from his chair and placed his hand in his inside pocket. Dani sat and watched as the young man now got down on one knee beside her. The eyes that had earlier gone back to their meals were once again on the young couple.

“Danielle Dixon, I love you” her eyes became set into his, “Will you marry me?”

He opened his palm revealing the beautiful silver ring with green center stone.

She closed her eyes and shifted her head down to the floor. Buck’s face went from a smile to expressionless as he watched her quizzically. She lifted her head and he could make out the small tear now escaping her eye.

“Yes,” she said softly with a smile. The whole restaurant was on their feet cheering and clapping.

They both stood and embraced each other not caring who was watching. As they pulled back Dani pierced his longing eyes with hers, “I love you, too.” She leaned in giving him a reassuring kiss. He returned the kiss and they once again sat down. Dani presented her hand to him and he slipped the ring onto her finger.

They soon headed out of the restaurant for a sunset stroll along the town. The walk was pleasant and the conversations between them once again flowed very easily. They discussed where they would love to live one day and anecdotes about possible children came into the mix.

Danielle was now confident that she could permanently give up Jane Marks while Buck was confident that no matter what, at least to her, he would be Buck and not the half breed she had first addressed him as. It didn’t matter who else labeled him with that title, he was sure that all he needed was her to face anything. He needed to hear her confirm how she felt for him.

Buck turned to her, “Are you sure?” She stopped him and turned again gazing into his deep brown eyes.

“About you?” She paused. “All I’ve ever wanted was someone who sees me not as a gunfighter, not as a slave, and not as a trophy. Someone who loves me for me and who I could feel the same for. I found that in you, Buck. I trust you more than I have ever trusted anyone.”

Those words filled him with all the happiness he could ever imagine. He pulled her off to the side of the walkway and stared deeply into her eyes. She smiled as he leaned into her meeting his lips with hers. They lost themselves in that moment as the sun set behind them.

“Jane Marks!” A loud, gruff voice shook them from their love induced haze.

Dani and Buck pulled apart and she looked him deep into his eyes. “Dani, pretend you didn’t hear that.” She nodded at him and they turned heading down the street.

“Teaspoon’s only a few buildings up; let’s see if we can get to him.”

They walked down the street both trying to look confident and untouched by the gunfighter who was now staring them down. One more building and they would have Teaspoon to fall back on. Those plans were quickly foiled as the yelling man stood between them and the marshal’s office. “Jane Marks?”

“Why, sir, I don’t know who you’re talkin’ about.”

Dani looked the man up and down. She recognized him and knew he wasn’t going to give up. The bearded man drew his weapon before Buck could even get a grasp on his.

“Buck, stop!” She yelled at him keeping her gaze on the man in front of her, “What do you want, Holland?” Her lady like tone was now replaced with the deep voice of a gunfighter on the prowl.

“You know what I want.”

“I’m not quite dressed for the occasion,” she spit back at him.

“I wouldn’t care if you were in your birthday suit. You got this comin’.”

“Give me a second.”

Holland nodded toward the two and backed off to the middle of the street keeping his eyes on her.

“Dani, don’t do this.” Buck worriedly stated.

“Buck, I’m not gonna have to; when his attention’s on me make your way to Teaspoon. Neither one of us’ll have to fire a shot.” Dani’s sights never left her would be opponent.

“Dani, I don’t…”

“Buck, just do it!” She was now becoming aggravated.

He pulled his attention for her to the gruff man as she made her way out to the middle of the street.

“I have two problems, Holland. 1. No gun.”

The bearded man just chuckled at her, “The great Jane Marks without a gun? Well I’ve seen it all. Are you really that stupid?”

He nodded to a man standing on the walk way to his left and the man quickly removed his holster and gun and threw them in Jane’s direction. She picked them up as her attention turned to Buck and then back to her opponent. She slowly began to put on the rig in part to give Buck enough time to get to Teaspoon and in part because her arm was still a bit sore.

She finally got the holster secured and turned her attention back across the street. “What’s the other problem?” he shouted to her.

“Well, it’s mighty dark. How are we supposed to see each other?”

“Marks, I could shoot you with my eyes closed, the dark don’t bother me. Now, on three.” The man that had earlier handed her his rig counted off, “One.”

“Hold it!” A deep and scratchy voice called out from not too far behind. “What the hell is going on here?” Buck and Teaspoon now exited from the marshal’s office both guns drawn.

“This is business Marshal and I think you need to stay out of it,” Holland proclaimed in Teaspoon’s direction.

“There won’t be no gunfightin’ in my town. Pack your men up and head out.” Teaspoon now stood face to face with the man his gun buried in his belly.

Buck stood not too far behind, but his attention stayed with his fiancé standing no more than 20 paces away. The look of hate in her eyes was not calming as she was now removed the holster from around her waist and threw it onto the ground beside her. The man that had been counting quickly ran up to her and picked up his weapon.

When the bearded man didn’t make a move Teaspoon reiterated his statement “Pack up and leave, now!” The gruff man finally turned his attention from the lady gunfighter, to the Marshal and then to his men. He nodded them in the direction of the horses, Buck, Dani, and Teaspoon watched as the men mounted up and began riding out of town.

Buck re-holstered his gun and ran toward Dani. Her attention never left the men riding off. As Buck came within a few inches of her a shot rang out. Dani, almost simultaneously yelled, “Buck!”

He fell forwarding falling into Dani as the bearded man let out a chuckle while riding away. Buck could make out the loud cracks of gun fire as the world became blurry. He felt his body meet the ground as everything went black.

CHAPTER 11

“Riders comin’.” Lou yelled as she made out the sounds of the arriving buckboard. It was too dark for her to see, but she could hear it coming.

The rest of the riders made their way outside to congratulate the couple they knew were soon to be husband and wife. As the buckboard approached the excitement that filled the group became one of confusion. They could make out only one rider coming toward them.

Dani quickly stopped the horse and jumped down from the buckboard not paying any attention to the riders walking toward her. She hurried inside. They shot each other questioning looks as they watched the once blushing young lady run into the house in a very determined fashion.

“Something must have happened. Noah, maybe you should go check on her,” Kid put in his suggestion.

As Noah made it to the top step of the front stoop Rachel came running out, “Buck’s been shot,” she yelled out to the riders. Panic took over in the riders as they approached Rachel. All except Noah who quickly made his way into the house and up the stairs. He flung the door open.

He could just make out her disheveled appearance in the dimly lit room. “Dani, are you alright?” She never turned her attention from her bag that now rested on the bed in front of her. Noah approached grabbing her arm and turning her toward him, “What happened?”

The subtle light of the candle now revealed the blood that was spattered on her chin and all over the once beautiful satin gown. She pulled out of his grasp and continued to unpack her carpet bag. Ignoring any sort of manners as a lady she hurriedly stepped out of her dress and began pulling on her pants and shirt.

“You got called out, didn’t you?” He just continued to watch as she dressed in front of him. She never acknowledged his question, but he already had his answer. She pulled out her holster and Colt and strapped it on. The sounds of heavy footsteps could be heard in the hallway.

“This is all your damn fault. I knew havin’ you here was a mistake. He could be dead now because of you!”

Jimmy angrily lashed out at her as Kid attempt to hold him back. Noah stood in the line of fire making sure Jimmy didn’t try anything stupid. Dani finished putting on her jacket and hat as Jimmy continued to shoot the blame at her for Buck’s condition. She ignored him as she grabbed her bag and walked in the direction of the door.

Kid continued to hold Jimmy back as they both blocked the doorway.

“Get out of my way,” she stated in a stern voice.

“So, what? You’re gonna just run now and leave him to die?”

She repeated her earlier statement, “Get out of my way.”

Jimmy pushed Kid off of him and stood toe to toe with her. “You’re not leaving him like that.”

She drew her pistol before he had a chance to move and now stuck it to his chest. “I’m not leaving him. I’m going to finish this, so get out of my way!”

“Dani, you can’t go alone,” Noah pleaded with her.

“This is my fight,” she bluntly stated as Jimmy moved out of her way.

She continued to point her gun ahead of her as she exited the house and made her way to the stables as the other riders, except Rachel and Ike who had already made their way to Buck on the buckboard, just looked on. Once in the stables she holstered her gun and began to saddle up her horse. She made out footsteps behind her and quickly drew again.

“You’re not going alone,” Noah now stood behind her with Jimmy in toe.

“This ain’t your fight,” she stated again as they both began saddling their horses as well.

“They made it our fight when they put a bullet in Buck,” Jimmy stated as he mounted his horse.

Noah in turn stated, “I haven’t turned my back on you before and I’m not gonna to do it now.”

She re-holstered her gun and turned her attention back to her horse. As she mounted up the rest of the riders came in and began saddling their horses.

“We’re going to see to Buck,” Kid stated. Jimmy and Noah nodded to him as Dani kept her focus ahead and galloped out of the stable.

Kid, Lou, and Cody made their way to Doc Barnes and as they dismounted the door slammed open in front of them. Out stomped a pale Buck, the stains of blood evident on his jacket and shirt.

“Buck, you’re alright?” Lou ran up to him.

Teaspoon yelled from within the office, “Buck, you can’t stop her.” Buck ignored the older man’s cries and headed for the nearest horse.

“Buck,” Kid approached him, “You’re in no condition to ride out of here tonight.”

Buck slowly attempted to mount Lightening as everyone looked on.

(Buck, this is who she is. A ring isn’t going to change that.) Ike signed to him.

“She’s going to be my wife. I’m not walking away from her now or ever.” With that he kicked Lou’s horse into a gallop and headed toward the end of town.

Teaspoon turned to Kid and Ike, “Go with him, we’ll catch up.” With that Kid and Ike mounted up on the two remaining horses and headed in Buck’s direction.

They met up with him a half a mile outside of town. He had dismounted and was staring at the tracks on the ground.

“Buck, you’re never gonna find them without any light.”

“I don’t need sunlight to find her.” He mounted Lightening again and off they went.

They road for a few hours until daybreak made their journey a bit easier. They stopped by a nearby stream and filled their canteens.

Kid questioned Ike, “Do you think he knows where he’s going?” Ike just shrugged his shoulders and pulled his canteen from the water.

Suddenly gun shots rang out no more than 200 feet away. All three mounted up again and headed in the direction of the shots. There, in the distance, they found Noah and Jimmy holding their weapons on the scraggily looking group of bandits that surrounded the bearded man. Dani was now standing directly opposite of the man in an obvious gun fighting position. Buck dismounted removing his weapon from his holster and pointing it in the direction of the group.

“Dani, you don’t have to do this. We can take them to Teaspoon. It’ll be over,” Buck shouted to her.

Her sights never left Holland and her hand stayed ready to draw. “Buck, this will never be over. Don’t you understand? There will always be someone like him gunning for me. This ends here.”

Ike and Kid now stood on opposite sides of Buck watching the events unfold in front of them. Everything seemed to shift to slow motion.

Dani and the Holland both drew down on each other. Two shots rang out. Dani hit the rocky dirt behind her as the bearded man began chuckling.

Buck instinctively ran toward her as Holland pointed his gun at him. No sooner did he turn as Buck put two shots into his chest. Holland fell to the ground dead.

Buck ran to Dani’s side as he dropped his gun and kneeled beside her. Her face becoming ghostly pale as he placed his hand on her cheek.

“I’m sorry,” she said almost too soft to hear.

He looked her up and down as he noticed the blood exiting a wound on her chest that she was instinctively covering. He lifted her hand from it as the tears began to form in his eyes.

Noah ran up beside them and kneeled down to the other side of her. The others just watched in horror keeping their guns aimed at the camp of outlaws.

“You didn’t have to do this,” Buck said to her softly.

“It had to end here,” she stated gasping in a deep breath.

He began pushing back her hair as he continued to hold on to her hand. She let out a low cough as blood escaped her mouth. He lowered himself down to her ear.

“I love you,” he calmly stated and pulled back to look into her eyes. She nodded to him and her eyes shifted back.

She gave one last deep tug on his hand and she fell limp. Buck kissed her forehead and dropped her hand to her chest. Noah leaned in kissing her cheek, whispered something in her ear and pulled back placing his hands on her eye lids to close them.

Buck stood from her side, calmly walked to Noah’s horse and mounted it. He road off as fast as he could. The riders watched as their dear heart broken friend road off into the dawn. They allowed him the freedom to do what he needed to do.

EPILOGUE

Two Months Later

Dani was laid to rest a few days later in the Sweetwater Cemetary. Her epitaph read, “Jane Marks. Taken away before her time.”

Buck quickly healed from the bullet graze he received that day, but it would remain a permanent reminder of what happened.

As soon as he was able he took as many runs as possible. He tried desperately to escape that day, her face and those eyes. He barely spoke two words to anyone for fear that her name may be mentioned. It was tearing everyone up to see him this upset, but Noah knew that this upcoming news might help soothe him. At least he hoped it would.

“Buck, you’ve got mail,” Noah quickly handed him the brown paper wrapped package.

Buck looked down at the simply wrapped paper, looking for some sign of who may have sent it, but found none. He took a seat outside of the bunkhouse and slowly unwrapped it. Inside he found a note and book. His attention was quickly grabbed by the title, “Death of the Lady Gunfighter.” He found himself getting very angry and was ready to kill whoever would send him such distasteful trash. He quickly opened the letter and began reading,

My dearest Buck,

Not a day has gone by without my thoughts being filled with your eyes, your lips, your touch. I’m sorry you have to find out this way, but I couldn’t risk Holland’s men not believing me to be dead. On the ride to find them, Noah and I realized the only way to keep you safe was to kill Jane Marks. She did die that day at the hands of Calvin Holland. Unfortunately, Danielle Dixon had to go into hiding because of it.

I have never taken off the beautiful ring you gave me. It’s a constant reminder of what we shared. I know this may not ease your pain, but you needed to know. I needed you to know. Noah can explain everything.

I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but I take comfort in the fact that I know you are safe. Maybe one day we will meet again, but for now, just know that I will love you until my last breath.

Yours Forever,

Dani

Buck dropped his hands between his legs and looked up to find Noah watching him in the distance from the corral. Buck met his eyes and gave him a nod. Noah quickly returned the nod and made his way toward the barn.

Buck stared down at the letter in his hands as a tear escaped his eye. He then turned his attention to the book beside him. He set the letter down and grabbed hold of the book turning it to page 1.

He read, “The two express riders wandered into the Silver Springs saloon. The scent of whiskey and cigar smoke filled the air.” He smiled and continued reading.

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