PREGNANT! How? When? Why? Buck lay back in his bunk; his stomach was all tied up in knots. The night sounds, which normally soothed him, only set him on edge tonight. He could hear Cody mumbling in his sleep, Jimmy softly snoring, Ike, Lou and Kid all moving quietly as they slept soundly. But not Buck, how had this happened to him? Ana Maria had told him today that they were going to become parents. His face still stung from the slap she'd given him when he questioned whether the child was his.

He'd met Ana Maria Rosa at the town dance about two months ago and she'd been just as shy as he was. She was new in town, her family had only just moved north from down near the Mexican border. She was still learning to speak English and Buck had understood her position; he'd been just learning the language too when he first arrived at the mission school. She was young, only fourteen, but they became instant friends. Her olive skin was darker than the other girls her age and her Spanish heritage made many dislike her on sight. Her father was Mexican and her mother had been white; Buck thought she was beautiful. She was petite but well built with curves in all the right places. Her hair was the blackest black Buck had ever seen and he loved to touch it. She often wore it in a long thick braid which fell well past her waist. Her eyes were a deep brown that matched his own and her teeth were perfect white orbs that sparkled when she smiled, and she did that a lot.

Ana Maria's two older sisters were just as beautiful but lighter skinned and had attracted the attention of several of the gentlemen in town; Cody and Jimmy among them. Their father was keeping a close watch on all his daughters and insisted that they would never be alone with a man. Ana Maria's younger brother Ramon was her constant companion and that was fine with Buck, he really liked the young boy. They'd even gone fishing one day without Ana Maria.

That was why Buck couldn't believe Ana Maria was carrying his child. They'd never been alone, not once. Her father had made it perfectly clear that she was too young to court and he'd only allow a friendship. Buck was certain he was a dead man if Ana Maria told her father she was pregnant. How? What had they done that could have caused her to become pregnant? He didn't think she was THAT kind of girl. She certainly wasn't like THAT with him….The problem was he wasn't sure what THAT was. He felt very alone.

He'd tried talking to Ike, the only person he felt even remotely comfortable talking about this with, but neither of them had been lucky enough to have the benefit of a father to tell them of the mysteries that surrounded a woman. Ike's parents had explained a little bit about how babies were made when his sister was born but he'd been too young to really understand or ask questions for the details. Buck's brother had told him he'd explain it all when Buck was thirteen summers old; Buck had left the village before then. Family life in the village was not lived behind closed doors as it was in the white world; modesty and privacy were unheard of. Families shared the open sleeping space and Buck was pretty sure he knew how a child was conceived. Buck knew how animals got their young and he knew he hadn't done anything like that, at least not that he could remember. That was the problem. Ana Maria was adamant that they had done something and that she was pregnant with his child or children; she'd said they were having twins. He had no memory of anything other than a kiss and even that had been on her cheek. Finally, exhausted, Buck fell into an uneasy restless sleep.

Sometime later Buck became aware of something different around him. He was still lying in his bunk but he couldn't hear the others around him. He was aware of a glow near his bed. Suddenly, afraid that the bunkhouse was on fire, he opened his eyes; instantly awake. There was no fire but a soft misty glow right beside his bed. He rubbed his eyes trying to clear his vision and became aware of a person staring at him from within the mist. Before Buck could stop himself he cried out MA'MA! He'd meant to speak in English but the word that reached his ears was Kiowa.

Enveloped within the glow was his mother, Wind Song. He sat up, pulled the blanket up to his chin and stared at the person who just couldn't be there. She was dead and she looked mad. Buck swallowed hard. She was staring at him with her arms folded across her chest, her head tilted slightly to one side and her lips pursed together. This was the stance she'd always adopted whenever she suspected him of some wrong doing as a child.

"Running Buck, I am ashamed of you." She spoke in Kiowa; her voice was stern and strong. Buck feared she'd awake the others. "How could you get that sweet innocent girl pregnant?" She emphasized these words with a finger pointed at him; the finger began to shake. "I raised you better than that; your brother raised you better than that. What do you have to say for yourself?" She looked intently at him.

"Ma'Ma, I'm Sorry! I swear all I did was kiss her and it wasn't even on the lips. I…." Buck stammered suddenly feeling like he was a little boy again.

"A good Kiowa warrior respects women, especially women they love. You do love her, don't you? And stop holding that blanket up to your chin I'm your mother, I gave birth to you ….Oh, you can show off your body to a girl you've only known a few moons but you hide it from your mother? Who do you think took care of that body for eleven summers?" Wind Song was now tapping her foot. Buck swore her eyes were glowing. "I'm waiting for an answer young man…."

"I'm not…..I don't…..I didn't…..I do respect women Ma'Ma you especially, I like Ana Maria, a lot, maybe I love her, I don't know…..How do you tell? I don't even know for sure how babies get made. I thought I knew but now I don't know……I'm so confused. Help me Ma'Ma…." Buck dissolved into tears of frustration and fear.

The glow that was his mother suddenly enveloped him in warmth and he felt the pleasantly remembered and much longed for sensation of her arms around him. Buck leaned into the hug and rested his head against her shoulder. Wind Song stroked his hair and sang him a lullaby that he had long since forgotten. He put his arms around the vision of his mother and while she wasn't totally solid she did have some substance. Once he was calmed down his mother released him. Buck wondered why or how none of the other riders had woken up through all of the commotion but he was grateful nonetheless.

"I thought you knew how to make babies. Have you lived this long with your eyes closed? You are Kiowa, we are not ashamed of our bodies or hide away behind closed doors like the white man. You lived with your brother; you have seen him with his wives. You have seen the horses, dogs, and other animals mate. What are your questions? Are not red men made the same as white men?" She stopped speaking long enough to wait for his nod. "Then are white women that different from red?

"I don't know…." whimpered Buck. "I haven't seen a woman's body since I left the village, just parts, like heads, arms and a little bit of their legs…..They all look the same…."

"How could you get a girl pregnant and not see? Did you take her by force? No son of mine will ever hurt a woman!" Wind Song was suddenly angry.

Buck felt a tightening sensation around his throat. "NOOO!" Buck wailed in panic. "No! I've never touched her with anything other then my lips, on her cheek, this one!" He pointed to his face and touched his left cheek. "And….and I think I might have touched her arm but she had a blouse on…. Ma'Ma I swear, all our clothing stayed on, our bodies never touched. I, I, I, we haven't even held hands….."

Wind Song looked at her son for a very long time before she spoke again. "It must be the white man in you; I could not have given life to a son this stupid! I will be back…." With that Wind Song vanished into thin air.

"I'm not stupid….." Buck called after her.

"Stupid, eh…but dead if you don't shut up and let me sleep." Jimmy growled from his bunk.

Buck lay back on his bunk. He was covered in sweat and shaking uncontrollably. He forced his fist into his mouth to keep from making any sound. What had just happened?

He didn't sleep at all the rest of the night. He finally rose as soon as the first dim glow of the coming dawn began to light the bunkhouse. He dressed and headed for the barn to begin his chores; and everyone else's. Cody was thrilled and went back to "rest up" before breakfast. Jimmy shook his head and said he owed Buck one. Kid had an early run and was grateful for the extra time to get his gear ready. Lou and Ike both guessed something was bothering Buck; they were sure of it at breakfast.

"You've hardly touched your plate Buck, are you feeling alright?" Emma asked coming around the table to check on him.

"I'm fine." Buck mumbled, "May I be excused?"

"I wish you'd try to eat a bite or two, but I suppose…." Emma shook her head. Something was really bothering Buck. She wanted to help him if he'd only tell her what the problem was.

"I'm really not hungry is all, here Cody, you always want more." Buck said as he stood and pushed his untouched plate toward the other rider. "I'll be back to do my evening chores unless you need me for something."

"Where you goin' Son?" Teaspoon watched Buck gather his things. "We were plannin' a supply run to town today…but I suppose we'll get along without you if you don't want to go."

"Thanks, I just need to have some time to myself; I need to think about some things." Buck jammed his hat on his head and left before anyone could ask him anymore questions.

The others all stared at the door a moment then returned to their meal; all except Ike. Emma noticed that he had a strange look on his face but when he also returned to eating his meal she let it pass. The talk around the table switched from who had which ride to what they were going to do in town.

"I don't know about you but I'm hopin' to see the Rosa girls, they sure do fill…..Oh, ah, Hi Emma…" Cody quickly changed what he had been about to say when he saw her stern look. Jimmy and Kid burst into laughter, Lou rolled her eyes and Ike smirked while shaking his head.

"Hmmm, well just remember your town manners…." Emma smiled as she collected the breakfast dishes with Lou's help. "Kid, You'd best get ready for your run you should be on your way shortly."

"Yes, Ma'am" Kid replied and left to go saddle Katy.

When Lou and Emma were alone in the house a few moments later Emma turned to Lou "I thought Buck was sweet on the youngest Rosa girl, Ana Maria isn't it?"

"Yeah, and her father keeps a pretty close eye on his girls so Buck doesn't get to see her that much. Funny, I thought he was lookin' forward to seein' her today….least that's what he said yesterday morning. I think he said the whole family was plannin' on being in town today, school play or somethin'" Lou replied as she dried the dish Emma had just washed.

~*~*~

The few morning chores that were left were done quickly and after a quick lunch the group headed into town. They hadn't been in town more than an hour when Ana Maria and her sister Carmelita approached Emma as she came out of Tompkins' store. "Hello Miss Shannon, I am looking for Buck but I do not see him. Did he come with you?" Ana Maria's English was greatly improved but she still was hesitant.

"I'm sorry Ana Maria; he didn't come with us today. Was he supposed to meet you here?" Emma queried wondering what had happened between the two young people. Emma worried about Buck after the hurt Kathleen Devlin had inflected on him; she'd been happy to see him interested in another young woman.

The "I told you so" look that Carmelita gave her sister did not go unnoticed.

"I was hoping he would come but I hit him yesterday because I was angry with him and…." A tear escaped and rolled down her face. "Just tell him I am sorry and I need to talk to him. Thank-you" Ana Maria turned to leave but Emma stopped her. The stricken look on Ana Maria's face told Emma something was horribly wrong.

"What do you mean, you hit him? What did he do that that made you hit him?" Emma was concerned for both her rider and the girl in front of her. "Let's go over to the Marshall's office, we can talk there." Emma led the two young women across the street and opened the office door to find Sam and Teaspoon talking. "Mr. Spoon, Sam, I need a bit of privacy for a few minutes do you think you could leave?"

Sam was about to protest when he saw the tear streaked face of Ana Maria and turned to Teaspoon, "Lets get a cup of coffee over at Tompkins' and bother him a bit."

"Ladies" both men mumbled as they rose and nodded to Emma and the girls as they left.

Emma found a clean handkerchief and gave it to Ana Maria who dabbed her eyes. "I am sorry to cause all this trouble but I had to tell Buck something that I thought would make him happy but he was not. I miss my Mama; she would tell me what I should say to him."

"Oh Sweetie, it will be alright. I'm sure whatever it was that got Buck upset, you'll be able to work out. I know I'm not your mother but I'll help you any way I can" Emma said giving the young woman a hug.

"I think I am to have Buck's baby." Ana Maria finally blurted out. Emma and Carmelita, who had been rubbing her sister's back, each took a step back in shock. "But he said they are not his….." Ana Maria wailed.

Emma recovered first. "Honey, I'm…..I'm….I'm not sure what to say but we will work this out."

Carmelita began speaking in rapid Spanish. Emma couldn't understand all the words but she understood enough to know that Carmelita was both shocked and hurt by her sister's announcement. Finally she turned to Emma. "Our Father will not like this. Your Buck must marry Ana Maria soon." Carmelita stopped a moment thinking, then looked at her sister. "This is too soon…..Ana Maria when did this happen?"

Emma had been wondering the same thing. The family had only been in Sweetwater a little over two months.

"Last week, Buck kissed me two times, that means two babies." Ana Maria was trying to control herself. "I thought Buck would be happy but he said the babies were not his."

"KISSED??" Both Emma and Carmelita exclaimed. Papers blew off Sam's desk at the same time but there was no window open to let a breeze in through.

"Uh huh, Right here…." Ana Maria pointed to her cheek. "And he touched my arm; I want him to hold my hand…..What?" Ana Maria looked confused as her sister started to laugh.

"Papa told you that so you would not let a boy kiss you, you can not get a baby that way!" Carmelita laughed then stopped suddenly and turned to Emma. "That is not how you get babies, si."

"No, you don't get babies just from a kiss. How long has your mother been gone?" Emma didn't know whether she was relieved or not. "Something tells me you have some questions. I think now would be a good time for some woman to woman talk…."

~*~*~

An hour later the three women came out of Sam's office all smiles and chatting animatedly. Sam looked at Teaspoon "I don't know what happened in there but it looks like Emma worked some of her magic."

"I wish she'd work some of that magic on Buck, he was in one of his moods this morning." Teaspoon grumbled. "I'd say its 'bout time we was headed back to the station so I'll see you later Sam." Teaspoon walked over to the wagon where the boys, Emma and the entire Rosa family now stood.

"We'd love to have you all out to the station for dinner after church this Sunday." Emma was saying as Teaspoon approached.

"We would love to but only if we can bring something, I do not want to sound too proud but my girls are excellent cooks." Mr. Rosa laughed and wrapped an arm around his youngest son's shoulder. The girls all smiled and Carmelita winked at Cody when her father wasn't looking. "We just butchered one of our pigs, how about we bring some Cochinita Pibil. It is roast pork like you have never had before. It goes with anything."

"I like it with hot bread!" Christof piped up. He was six and the youngest of the Rosa children.

"Well, than hot bread it is!" laughed Emma "We'll see you on Sunday."

Everyone said their good-byes and the boys mounted up for the ride home. Ike had a worried look on his face again. Emma suspected that Buck had told him about the confrontation with Ana Maria. She needed to get Buck to talk, or at least listen to her and on the drive home she decided Ike was going to make it happen.

~*~*~

Buck's day had been anything but relaxing. He was still trying to figure out how he had managed to father a child with a woman he had never even held in his arms. He had ridden out to the plains where only the whispering of the tall prairie grass and the cry of the hawks over head reached his ears. The bright sun warmed his face and body. He rode to a clearing and let the horse wander as he constructed a prayer circle of rocks. He sat cross legged in the middle of it and prayed for answers; none came. The visit from his mother's spirit during the night had unnerved him more than he wanted to admit. Had she really been there? Had he dreamed the whole thing?

"What should I do? I know how babies are made, I'm not stupid Ma'Ma." Buck cried out in frustration to the air around him. "I didn't do that, I wouldn't do that to Ana Maria, she's too young…." The only answer was the gentle sounds of the grass moving as the wind tickled it. Buck closed his eyes and just let the world drift by him. He listened to the sounds of nature and tried to understand what they were saying to him. He lost track of time but knew that it was getting later in the day from the position of the sun.

He was thinking about heading back to the station when he felt a pressure on his shoulder. His eyes snapped open and he turned reaching, for his knife, just in case. The intruder couldn't be there, he hadn't been asleep. He knew he wasn't dreaming. Wind Song stood in front of him, inside the circle. "Ma'Ma?" Buck whispered the word.

"Yes, Running Buck I told you I would be back" Buck scrambled to his feet and stood looking at the small figure of the woman who gave him life. "I have been watching over you for a very long time. You need to trust more. The people that you live with love you and want to help you but you are too stubborn to let them. Your empty belly is proof of that." Buck hung his head he knew she was referring to Emma and Ike. "I know that you did nothing to hurt your friend. She is very young and knows little of the world."

"Ma'Ma I'm sorry. I just feel lost sometimes. Red Bear has told me to not look back, I miss him." Buck said looking around trying to figure out if he was dreaming while he was awake.

"You chose to leave….Your spirit is Kiowa and always will be, you have proved that and I am proud of you, your brother is proud of you but you are too white to live in the red world any longer. I have watched you for many moons and you are a good son. Listen to your White Mother; she loves you as her own. Do not keep your eyes closed, my son. Red Bear may have told you not to look back but he did not tell you not to look forward." Wind Song was very close to Buck he could see through her but it was clouded. Her hand reached out and touched his face. The sensation was very strange, neither hot nor cold, just an odd pressure. "I love you Running Buck"

"I love you Ma'Ma" Buck whispered as she faded before his eyes. He touched his cheek where her hand had been hoping he could still feel her but he felt only his own skin.

Resigned to face whatever came next he gathered up his belongings and walked to the horse which had found a tasty bush about a quarter mile away. Buck secured his saddle, jumped on and headed back to the station.

~*~*~

Buck arrived back at the station just as the others were returning from town. He helped unload the supplies and put things where they belonged then immediately began his evening chores. Emma saw Ike sign something to Buck and saw Buck's shrugged answer. She decided to use that as her opening and called to Ike just as Buck entered the barn.

"Ike, could you come here a moment?" She called from the front porch as she wiped her hands on her apron. Ike came right over and looked up at her. Emma didn't want to be overheard so she motioned Ike to come onto the porch. "I know you're worried about Buck and so am I. I'd like to try and get him to talk about whatever it is. Will you tell him I'd like to speak with him after supper? I don't care if you have to drag him but please bring him over." Ike looked a bit shocked but nodded that he would do as he was asked.

Ike left Emma standing on the porch and walked into the barn where he knew Buck would be doing his chores. *Emma wants to talk to you after supper* Ike signed as she approached Buck.

"Any idea why? Is she still mad at me for this morning?" Buck asked as he speared a forkful of hay into the stall he'd just cleaned.

"Nah, Buck, I think she just wants to let you know she's helping our love lives along, she's invited the Rosa family over for Sunday dinner." Cody answered before Ike could say anything. "Hmmmm, Carmelita and dinner, I think I'm in love…."

"Oh, shut up, just 'cos she winked at you, don't mean nothin'" Jimmy grumbled as he filled the oat bucket.

"Yer just jealous cos she didn't wink at you!" Cody laughed back. Jimmy made a face.

Buck followed the exchange with a growing sense of dread. He looked at Ike and noticed him and Lou looking intently at him. "Let's just get these chores done, Ike we'll talk later, away from these two love birds." Buck muttered sarcastically and returned to his hay as Lou laughed at the faces the two riders made.

Once the chores were done Buck and Ike slipped out and walked away from the station. They were planning to go to the watering hole where they thought they would be alone. Once Buck figured they were far enough away from the station that they would not be overheard Buck began to speak. "I'm scared Ike, This whole mess with Ana Maria has me sick, I'm even seein' things." Buck paused as they approached the water and waited to see Ike's reaction. Ike just looked at him quizzically and waited for Buck to continue. "My mother's spirit has shown itself to me twice and she knows everything about the baby." A sudden splash stopped Buck in his tracks. "Who's there?" Buck called.

"It's me Buck, I'm sorry I just came down to wash up…..I didn't mean….." Lou stopped talking when she saw the hurt look on Buck's face. "I'm sorry."

Buck looked at her shirt which had two buttons undone and the rest showed signs of being buttoned by wet hands. "I guess it's me that should say sorry. I don't need any more women mad at me. You're going to find out soon enough so you might as well stay and hear this whole story." Buck pulled a long blade of grass and began working it between his fingers as he sat on the grassy shore. Ike and Lou sat nearby all of them faced the water.

"Lou, can I ask you a personal question?" Buck began slowly.

"Sure Buck" Lou answered knitting her brows together.

"If Kid got you pregnant would you expect him to marry you?" Buck asked softly.

"Yeah, I guess so….Did you get Kathleen Devlin pregnant? You're still alive so I guess she hasn't told her father…." Lou looked a bit shocked.

"No, not her….Ana Maria…" Buck started.

"Rosa, Ana Maria Rosa? Buck she's too young how could you?" Lou was definitely shocked. "Oh my God, Emma was taking to her today and Ana Maria was crying!" Buck groaned. "That must be why the whole family is coming over on Sunday. Oh Buck, I'm so sorry…." Lou turned to Buck and hugged him.

"Lou, I don't know how it happened. I don't know how Ana Maria could have my baby or babies she says there are two but how she knows I have no idea. She doesn't look like she's having a baby and, to be honest, the way you just hugged me is a lot more then I've ever done with Ana Maria, honest! Ike, Lou, you gotta help me. Tell me I'm not crazy, it takes more than a kiss on the cheek to have a baby right? I swear that's all I did. I kissed her cheek….How did I get myself in this mess. I guess Sunday I'll ask her father if I can marry her….." Buck hung his head and looked at his hands a moment before burying his face in them.

Ike and Lou looked at each other, they didn't know whether to laugh or feel sorry for Buck. Ike finally thumped his chest three times and Buck looked up. *So the only part of you that touched her was your lips? Right?* Ike asked trying to keep a straight face. A soft splash in the water made them all look up the water seemed to be rippling away from one small spot near the shore. Buck stared at it wide eyed. *Buck?* Ike waved his hand in front of Buck's face.

Buck looked at each of them then back at his mother. Wind Song was standing right at the shore. Her heels were just being lapped by the water and causing the tiny ripples. It was obvious that neither of his fellow riders could see her. She was standing with her arms folded across her chest and her head cocked to one side.

"Well, I touched her arm, like this…." Buck reached out and touched Ike's arm just above the elbow then turned to Lou and did the same. "Do you see those funny ripples?" Buck had to ask….

"That's just the wind Buck and do I really need to tell you how babies are made?" Lou looked at him wondering if he had lost his mind. Wind Song had the same look on her face and Buck wondered if all women were born knowing how to look at men so they felt like fools.

"No, I'm pretty sure I know the basics. Thanks." He looked from Lou to his mother and saw her nod as she faded away; the ripples stopped.

Thump, thump, thump, *Then why are you so scared? Why do you feel like you have to marry her? If she's having a baby, it's not yours.* Ike finished and looked at Buck questioningly.

"I don't want to see her in trouble and I like her?" Buck said tentatively.

"Are you asking us or telling us? You don't sound so sure. Do you want to get married….to anyone?" Lou asked putting a hand on Buck's knee.

"I don't know….no, I don't want to get married, at least not yet and not like this. What am I going to do?" Buck shook his head and pursed his lips. Any answers were cut off by the sound of the dinner bell ringing back at the station.

They all rose, turned and began walking back to the station for dinner. Ike thumped his chest. *If you want I'll go with you to Emma's.*

"I'll already be there….its my week to do the dishes. I can stay if you want. Buck you're not alone." Lou said slipping her arm around his waist for a very quick hug. Buck felt a funny pressure on his shoulder and knew his mother was trying to tell him to listen to his friends.

"Yeah, I guess but I'm still not sure that anything I put in my stomach is going to stay there so don't give me too much grief if I don't eat a lot at dinner, alright?" Buck said feeling somewhat relieved at least he wouldn't have to face Emma alone.

He managed to get a few bites down but once again Cody got most of his food. Everyone asked if he was feeling sick and Emma used the excuse of checking on him to get him over to the house without too many questions from Jimmy, Cody and Kid who'd just returned from his run. "Buck, you look a little pale. Ike, why don't you take Buck over to the house and I'll be along shortly, I just need to clean up here."

"I think you boys can help with that…" Teaspoon looked at Jimmy and Cody. Lou was already stacking the dishes to be washed. "You need any help with him?" Teaspoon nodded in Buck's direction and Ike saw Buck's face blanch.

"We'll be fine Mr. Spoon I just want to make him some tea and see that he drinks it." Emma smiled picked up a serving platter and herded Ike, Buck and Lou out of the bunkhouse. Ike heard Buck let out the breath he'd been holding and raised an eyebrow.

Once they were inside the house Emma turned to Buck and Ike. "Why don't you boys just relax in here while Lou and I make quick work of these dishes?' She disappeared through the kitchen door and Buck sank bonelessly into a chair. Ike tried to keep him calm but had only limited success. True to her words a few minutes later Emma and Lou emerged from the kitchen with tea for all of them. They all talked about nothing in particular until Emma finally turned to Buck.

"I think you have a good idea about why I asked you to come over here tonight. You and I will be having a little chat and it's up to you whether Ike and Lou stay." Emma had noticed that Lou kept touching Buck and smiling at him as if she were trying to comfort him. Emma correctly guessed that Buck had spoken to her as well as Ike.

Buck looked up and took a deep breath, he almost choked on it when he looked behind Emma and saw Wind Song standing there. His mother signed "Listen to your White Mother" Buck nodded.

Emma noticed that Buck's eyes were focused behind her and she looked over her shoulder but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Emma turned around in time to see Buck nod. "Yes, Buck?"

"Oh, ah, they can stay….I know you asked the Rosa's here on Sunday so I can ask Ana Maria to marry me. I don't know how but she's pregnant and she says it's mine and I'm sorry Emma." Buck's shoulders slumped and he buried his face in his hands as he shook his head.

Emma was beside him in an instant. She took his hands away from his face, he wasn't crying but he wasn't far from it. Emma placed her hands on either side of his face and forced him to look at her. "It's alright Buck, I know all about it, tell me what happened between you and Ana Maria."

"We just came back from a walk by the mill pond and her brother Ramon was a few feet in front of us. I turned to her and told her I'd had a wonderful day and I kissed her cheek, then I told her that I thought she was really sweet and that I liked her then I touched her arm cos she tripped on a rock or something and I kissed her cheek again. I swear that's all I did, EVER!" Buck's lip was trembling and he bit it hard to stop the movements.

"Buck, look at me….were you really going to ask her to marry you?" Emma looked at her upset rider.

"Yeah, I know she's young and all but I don't want her to get in trouble and have to raise a baby alone, I know there is no way the child is mine." Buck looked at Ike and Lou. "Ask them if you don't believe me, I told them that this afternoon."

"This has gone far enough, I talked with Ana Maria this afternoon and we got a few things cleared up. First there is no baby, not yours or anyone else's….Her father told her that she could get a baby by kissing a boy, when you kissed her she was sure she was going to have your baby. Two kisses, two babies. You with me here Buck?" Buck looked over Emma's shoulder and saw his mother smiling. He nodded slowly. Emma looked over her shoulder again but again there was nothing out of the ordinary. "Mr. Rosa told all his girls that so they wouldn't let boys get too close. Their mother died soon after Christof was born so she's only had her father and older sisters to teach her about becoming a woman. We had a very long woman to woman chat and she now knows that an innocent kiss on her cheek will not mean she's having a baby. She also knows what it takes to have a baby so don't get any ideas…."

"You can count on that Emma. I think it's going to be a very long time before I even kiss someone again." Buck looked over Emma's shoulder again and this time he swore that there was another woman with his mother, a woman who looked very much like Ana Maria, both spirits were smiling at him.

Wind Song signed "Remember I am watching you, always." And she faded away as the curtain rustled in the still air.

This time when Emma turned she saw the curtains move. Buck was looking right at them too. Ike and Lou glanced in that direction when they saw Emma look. "Lou will you see if I left that window open?" Emma asked keeping and eye on Buck.

Lou checked the window and ran her hand down the side of the window checking for a breeze. "I swear I saw these move a minute ago."

"That's the second time today something has moved without the slightest breath of air around…..Buck any ideas? You've been looking at that spot all evening." Emma asked looking at Buck. "None that I care to share….Its kinda personal…Emma can I go? I need to clear my thoughts." Buck looked very uncomfortable.

"Ike, Lou why don't you head over to the bunkhouse Buck will be along shortly…." Emma decided the time had come for Buck to really talk about what was bothering him clearly the baby wasn't the only thing.

"Night Emma." Lou said as she and Ike headed for the door. Ike waved to Buck and Emma while Lou winked at Buck before she closed the door. Buck looked like he was going to be sick.

"Alright Buck, it's just you and me, something's eating at you and I'm guessing the baby wasn't the only problem. Talk to me Buck…" Emma smiled at him.

"I'm…." Buck began but Emma cut him off.

"If you're about to say you're fine and nothing is bothering you I'm going to call you a liar. I understand that this is something very personal but Buck its eating you alive. You looked like you were ready to jump out of your skin a few minutes ago….What did you see behind me?" Emma guessed that Buck had seen something over her shoulder that she couldn't.

"Emma, I don't want to talk about it…" Buck began looking down at his hands. Listen to your white mother; she loves you as her own…. His mother's words played in his head. Buck looked up quickly expecting to see Wind Song. He turned around but his mother was no where in sight. When he turned back to Emma she was looking at him strangely.

"Buck? Talk to me Buck, you look scared half to death, it's just you and me here. I'll go lock the doors if that will make you feel better." Emma rose to lock the door but Buck stopped her by grabbing her hand.

"That won't help Emma….I, I'm loosing my mind….I've seen the spirit of my mother….." Buck let go of Emma's hand, closed his eyes and bowed his head. When he didn't speak again Emma sat near him and reached over touching his shoulder.

"Twice today I've seen things happen that shouldn't have, Buck, and the last time was only a little bit ago in this very room. So…..Maybe I'm loosing my mind too. Was it your mother you were looking at?" Emma watched her rider intently, he paled at her words.

For several long moments Buck didn't move. Emma had to watch his chest to be sure he was even still breathing. Finally he nodded his head ever so slightly. "I hear her speaking to me too. Her name was Wind Song because her voice was kinda like the wind on a summer day. That's what I heard. Last night I thought I was dreaming when she came to me but today she…..I know I was awake. You only saw the curtains move. I felt her. She's touched me, hugged me….I hugged her. Emma, that just couldn't happen." Buck looked stricken.

"Come here Buck." Emma patted the space beside her on the sofa. Buck hesitated then moved to sit beside the small woman. "I remember the look on your face when you saw me hold Ike that time the horse kicked him. You weren't the only one who was missing the love your mothers gave you." Emma had moved her arms around Buck and was gently pulling him closer, allowing him to pull back if he was uncomfortable. "Mothers love their children long after they've stopped being babies and start having babies of their own. Your mother will always love you Buck and I'm sure that somehow she is watching out for you. I hope she approves of the way I care for you and all the other riders. I've got a lot of mothers to keep happy…." Emma was holding Buck and rocking him gently just as she had done to Ike not so long ago. "I don't know too much about your people Buck but don't you have a great respect for your ancestors' spirits and things like that?"

"Yes, but we don't usually see, hear and touch them, at least not like that." Buck answered; his head was nestled against Emma's shoulder.

"I think your mother knew how much you needed her and came to you. I couldn't see her but I know she was here. I think she was in Sam's office this afternoon too. I think she'd love to see you settle down and raise a family, someday. I think she and I would agree that right now really would not be the best time. Wait a little while, enjoy being young and free. When the time is right you'll know, besides I'm not ready to be a grandmother quite yet." Emma smiled and kissed Buck's head.

"She said you were my white mother and that I should listen to you." Buck hesitated a moment then continued, somewhat embarrassed. "She said you love me as your own."

"I think you mother is a very wise woman and she raised her son right." Emma kissed Buck's head again as he began to sit up.

"Thanks, Emma. What should I do about Sunday? How do I talk to Ana Maria? What will her father think?" Buck began to worry about the planned gathering.

"I think the two of you should enjoy the food, the friendship and not plan on any babies for a long time." Emma laughed. "It's getting late Buck. You probably should head on over to the bunkhouse and get some sleep. You've had a rough day."

Buck rose and was almost at the door when Emma called to him again. "Oh, um, promise me one thing, Buck." Buck stopped and looked at her. "The next time something's eating at you like that….talk to me."

"I will Emma, I promise." Buck smiled as he closed the door behind him. He thought he saw a glowing mist out of the corner of his eye but when he turned his head there was nothing. Something inside him told him he would sleep undisturbed tonight.

Inside the parlor the curtains moved slightly as Emma blew out the lamps. "I know raising boys isn't easy but I'm trying….Wind Song you can be proud of your son, he's grown to be a fine young man." The curtains moved again and then were still. "Good night" Emma called to the parlor as she climbed the stair to her own bed.

~*~*~

Buck's run on Saturday turned into an overnight run and he smiled remembering that Emma had wanted all the boys to go to church services with her whenever possible. She'd made a point of saying they would be going this Sunday because they were meeting the Rosa family at the church. Jimmy and Cody each made a feeble protest until Emma walked by each of them separately and whispered "Carmelita will be there." She'd winked at Lou who barely stifled her laughter. Kid didn't dare protest; he knew Lou wouldn't like that. Ike just shrugged and did as he was asked. All of them secretly envied Buck.

Buck rode in a little after ten in the morning to find that everyone had gone to town. He cooled down his horse, grabbed some clean clothes and headed for the swimming hole. He washed up quickly and lay down on the bank to dry in the mid morning sun. When he was dry he dressed and returned to the bunkhouse for a nap. He'd been afraid to fall asleep by the river; the last thing he needed was for Ana Maria to come looking for him and find him asleep with nothing on. Nope, that was something he wanted to avoid. Lou woke him when they all arrived from town.

"Ana Maria's looking for you and lunch will be ready in a few minutes. We weren't even sure you were here until Ike saw your horse in the corral." Lou spoke softly as she gently shook his shoulder.

"Oh, thanks Lou. I got hung up at Sawyer's Mill, the other rider's horse picked up a stone so he was late. Is everyone here?" Buck asked getting out of his bunk and attempting to straighten out his clothes.

"Yup! We got back about a half hour ago. Emma's had us busy setting up the tables out back. You should see Jimmy and Cody, they are making fools out of themselves trying to impress Carmelita. Their older sister… what's her name Buck?" Lou paused. She was getting extra plates, cups and cutlery from the cupboards.

"Margarita, I think, they all have the middle name, Maria, some Spanish custom I guess. Somethin' about a saint, Ana Maria tried to explain it but I'm afraid I wasn't listening. Want some help?" Buck asked reaching for the stack of cups.

"Wait a second, here your hair's all over the place, did you go to sleep with it wet?" Lou handed him the brush, watched his attempts at taming his hair and finally took the brush away. "Sit" Buck sat. Lou grabbed the pitcher of drinking water and poured a tiny bit on his head. A minute later his hair was silkily tied back in a ponytail. "Handsome as ever!" Lou declared as she smiled tossing the brush on her bed and picked up the stack of plates. "If you could grab those I think we're ready to get something to eat. I hope you're hungry there's a lot of food.

"Thanks, yeah I'm starving, what were you saying about Margarita?" Buck picked up the cups and an extra stack of napkins.

"She brought her beau with her. They announced in church that they intend to marry." Lou said picking up rest of the cutlery and placing it on the plates.

"She's marrying a bow? Don't you need another human? This can't be another Spanish custom." Buck said confused.

"Not a bow silly, a beau, her fiancé, her boyfriend. And it's not Spanish it's French." Lou giggled as she left the bunkhouse.

"Spanish, French, whatever, couldn't you have just said boyfriend?" Buck called to her back laughing. "Women…." He muttered under his breath.

Buck followed Lou around the side of the house and was surprised to see a table set up with so much food he thought they could have fed the entire town. Ana Maria spotted him right away. "Buck! Over here!" Ana Maria waved to him from another table she was setting with plates, cups and cutlery; the smile she flashed him made his heart skip a beat. He brought the cups and napkins he was carrying over and Ana Maria took them, placing them at each setting. "Thank-you Buck, I missed you this morning in church. Margarita and Emilio declared their wish to marry. You will meet him soon, that is him over with your Mr. Teaspoon.

Buck followed her directions and saw a tall man with long hair talking to Teaspoon and Mr. Rosa. The men laughed at something one of them had said and Teaspoon patted Emilio on the shoulder. "I hope Teaspoon's not giving him advice about keeping a wife!" Buck mused out loud.

"Would that be bad?" Ana Maria asked surprising Buck by her closeness to him.

"Um, well he's been married six times I think…." Buck said stepping away from Ana Maria before her father saw them; their bodies were almost touching. He noticed Emma smiling and giving him a nod of approval for his action.

"Oh! Will you sit beside me?" Ana Maria asked innocently as people began to gather at the food table.

"I, um, usually sit at either this end or that end. I eat with this hand so I keep bumping elbows if I have someone on my left." Buck smiled holding up his left hand.

"Father is sitting here so you can sit there and I'll sit here is that alright?" Ana Maria indicated the seat at the very end of the table. Buck wasn't sure he wanted to sit beside Mr. Rosa but he agreed. To no ones surprise Cody was the first person in line for food, the first to get seconds and thirds. The meal was wonderful and the Rosa family quickly became close friends with the make shift family the riders had become.

The wedding plans were discussed and Buck learned that the couple would be moving to El Paso as soon as they were married. Emilio was of mixed blood, his mother was Mascalero Apache and his father was a farmer. Buck was fascinated; Emilio's life had been much different from Buck's. Like Buck he had learned the old ways from his mother and took part in tribal ceremonies yet also learned to farm from his father. Emilio was accepted in both the red and the white worlds and was well respected by both communities. He had followed the Rosa family when they moved north after he realized he was in love with Margarita. Mr. Rosa felt he would be an excellent husband for his eldest daughter.

Buck had been quietly listening to the banter over the meal and had just placed a forkful of food in his mouth when Mr. Rosa addressed him. "I understand Ana Maria gave you a bit of a scare when she told you that there was a baby on the way."

Buck almost choked but somehow managed to swallow the sawdust the tasty food became at Mr. Rosa's words. Buck put his fork down and looked at Mr. Rosa. "I…. um, Yes Sir…er…" Buck wanted to get up and run as far away as possible at that moment. That end of the table had become deathly quiet.

"I guess that was my doing and I am sorry. I understand you were willing to marry Ana Maria even knowing that there was no possible way the baby was yours." Mr. Rosa continued. Buck was wishing he were anywhere but at the table. "That is very kind of you Buck, but I think she's a little young to be courting yet so marriage is out of the question. Do you agree?"

"Yyyyes ssssir" Buck managed to mumble.

"I am glad you agree, you seem to be an honorable man and one I would be proud to have as a son in law, someday." Mr. Rosa paused. Buck stared at the man not sure of what was expected from him. "Ana Maria will be fifteen in two months and can begin to court after that. Since Margarita and Emilio will be married by then and Emilio needs to return to El Paso and his farm, we are going to have Ana Maria's Quinceañera the week before the wedding. I would be greatly honored if you would be Ana Maria's escort that evening."

Ana Maria gasped and clutched Buck's hand. "Oh, thank you Papi, thank you. Buck?"

"I'd be more than happy to Mr. Rosa." Buck grinned. He wasn't sure what he'd agreed to but it seemed to make everyone happy. He wasn't too sure about the son in law reference but that was a long way off if ever.

"Just remember, I will not allow you to begin courting until after her real birthday but I think you can also be her escort for the wedding too…If you would both like that…." Mr. Rosa grinned back at Buck.

"Yes sir, I think we'd both like that." Buck fought off a grimace as Ana Maria squeezed his hand tightly. The rest of the meal was much easier for Buck. Mr. Rosa was treating him well and Ana Maria was her usual cheery self. Buck was bothered by only one thing. He had no idea what a Quinceañera was. He figured it had something to do with her birthday just from the word but he had no idea of its significance. The wedding was in three weeks which meant the Quinceañera was in two. Everyone seemed very excited about it and he figured it couldn't be anything bad. He began to worry when the Rosa's were leaving.

Emilio came over to him first. "Buck, looks like you are going to have a much easier time than I did. Congratulations! I am looking forward to spending more time with you." Emilio reached out his hand and Buck took it only to be pulled into a back thumping hug.

A rather surprised Buck returned the gesture. "Yeah, um, me too." was the best he could manage.

Mr. Rosa also hugged him as did the boys Christof and Ramon. This confused Buck but he certainly didn't mind being hugged and kissed by Ana Maria's sisters; both Cody and Jimmy looked jealous.

As the Rosa family left the station Teaspoon came over and put a fatherly arm around Buck's shoulders. "Son, I hope you know what you just agreed to, if this is what you want congratulations."

Buck looked at Teaspoon as if he'd never seen him before. "Huh? It's just a party and the wedding, her sister's not mine…." He added quickly.

"You sure about that?" Teaspoon winked. "We'll talk later, after your chores are done."

By the time the evening chores were done Teaspoon was asleep and no one wanted to wake him especially Buck. The riders all wanted sleep after a long eventful day and Jimmy and Cody amused the others with their stories of Carmelita and how she had winked at both of them all day. Buck fell asleep wondering if they'd ever settle the argument.

~*~*~

The next few days brought a flurry of activity for the Rosa family as they got ready for both the wedding and the party. Buck had been told he'd have to learn a couple of the traditional dances for Ana Maria's Quinceañera as he would be expected to dance them with her. Emilio came over one afternoon with Ana Maria and Margarita to teach him. The two couples had a good time laughing and the women had to admit that the men really were pretty good on their feet.

Buck began to wish he'd had that talk with Teaspoon when Emilio said good bye to Buck. "She is a good woman Buck, I have known the family for years and this is a good match for both of you. Take care, see you in a few days." Emilio smiled and waved as he slapped the reins and the wagon left the yard. Ana Maria waved until Buck couldn't see her anymore.

"Where's Teaspoon?" Buck asked at diner that evening.

"I believe he's in town for the night, Sam is over in Blue Creek. He'll be back tomorrow, Is something wrong?" Emma asked.

"Oh, no, nothin' that can't wait until then. Thanks, Emma." Buck said as he moved the food around on his plate.

"Hmmm, is there something wrong with your supper then? You've barely eaten anything" Emma fixed her gaze on him. "Want to help me clear the table? You can carry that over to the house." Emma pointed to the left over stew and biscuits.

"Yes Ma'am" Buck shoved his plate in Cody's direction and took the other dishes as he was asked.

Once they were in the house Emma put the leftovers away then turned to Buck, "Is your mother here?"

Buck looked around before answering. "I don't see her but I've dreamed about her…..a lot"

"Buck you promised me you'd talk to me if something was bothering you….are you planning to keep that promise?" Emma asked guiding him to a seat.

"Yes, I just don't know if you can help me…." Buck proceeded to tell her everything Emilio had said at both the dinner and today. "….It just seems like I'm missing something."

"Hmmm, I don't know anything about it really. I guess you'll have to ask Mr. Spoon tomorrow. I'm sorry Buck; I agree with you, seems like this is more than just a birthday party." Emma put her hand on Buck's shoulder. "We'll ask Mr. Spoon tomorrow."

Buck didn't feel like going back to the bunkhouse after he left Emma's so he went for a walk until he was tried and the others were asleep. He undressed quietly and slipped into bed. He lay staring at the ceiling in the darkness for a very long time before sleep finally claimed him.

Buck awoke with a start. Wind Song was standing at the foot of his bed watching him. "Ma'Ma what are you doing here?" Buck asked in a hoarse whisper.

"I have come to ask you if you are ready to have a wife. What can you offer her? You live with others; you do not have much to give her father for a bride price. What are you thinking?" Wind Song looked at her son waiting for his answer.

"No, I'm not ready for a wife, I thought we already talked about this…She is not carrying my child there is no reason for us to marry now." Buck was very confused, first Emilio now his mother.

"You have agreed to be her escort for her coming of age. It will be expected that you marry by her next birthday. Do you understand now?" Wind Song asked shaking her head.

"Oh, no, no, no, no, no, that's not what I said I'd do…..I'm taking her to her sister's wedding and her birthday party, nothing more….. I think….." Buck thought about everything that had been said to him and he began to wonder if maybe his mother wasn't right. "Ma'Ma what have I gotten myself into?…..I need to talk to Ana Maria"

"Listen to your heart before you do. She's more innocent than you know. Listen to the counsel of your white parents. Tell your white mother she is right, I am proud and it is not easy, she will know what I speak of." Wind Song was suddenly beside Buck kissing his forehead then she was gone.

"Ma'Ma….." Buck whispered touching the place she had kissed him. He did all the chores again that morning.

~*~*~

It was late afternoon when Buck was finally able to talk to Teaspoon. Emma had called him over to the house and found Teaspoon sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee. She poured two more steaming mugs, gave one to Buck and took the other for herself. Before she sat Emma asked the question she was afraid Buck wouldn't. "What is the significance of Buck escorting Ana Maria Rosa to her birthday party?" Emma took the chair beside Buck.

"Well, this isn't just any birthday party. It's her Quinceañera, her fifteenth birthday. It means she is now a woman, she can begin to court and if she has a special man in her life" Teaspoon nodded at Buck who swallowed hard. "They are more or less expected to marry usually before her next birthday. Since her older sister is getting married it should be allowed. It sort of sounded like that was what Mr. Rosa and Emilio were thinking."

Buck looked like he was in shock. "I'm not ready for this Teaspoon. I don't think Ana Maria is either…." Buck continued to tell Teaspoon everything that had happened in the last few weeks except seeing his mother. He figured the fewer people that knew about that the better off he'd be.

"Son, its my experience that these things have a way of working themselves out….don't worry, no one's gonna force you into anything. Emma, thanks for the coffee." Teaspoon stood and left the kitchen.

"Your mother visited you again didn't she?" Emma turned to Buck when she was sure they were alone.

Buck nodded. "She told me to tell you that she is proud and that it's not easy, she said you'd know what she was taking about." Buck looked at Emma expectantly.

Emma smiled, "I do Buck, now I've got to get supper going or Cody will starve." She rose and kissed his forehead in the exact same place his mother had done the night before. "Are all your chores done?" Buck smiled. "Well git!" Emma laughed.

~*~*~

The day of the party Buck was nervous about the dancing but looked forward to the rest of the day. He was going to meet Ana Maria at the party as it was being held at the farm her family rented. From the look of it most of the town had been invited and we already there. There were Piñata's that the children would get to hit later releasing the sweets inside and paper streamers everywhere. Once most of the guests had arrived, the music stopped and Mr. Rosa stood up. Buck was in the house with Ana Maria waiting for her to be introduced. She was beautiful. Her hair hung loose and long down her back with flowers woven in. Her dress was all white with a light pink sash.

"You're beautiful!" Buck had exclaimed the moment he saw her.

"Thank you, this is the same dress my sisters and my mother wore for their Quinceañera dance too. Listen Father is speaking," Ana Maria stood just inside the door.

Buck couldn't hear much as he was behind Ana Maria and suddenly realized he was alone with her for the first time. He quickly looked around for his mother but didn't see her. He wanted to kiss Ana Maria but decided he wasn't going to push his luck.

"Ana Maria wha…" Buck started but she sushed him.

"Listen" She whispered.

"…It is my great pleasure to introduce my daughter Ana Maria Consuelo Elisa Rosa escorted by Mr. Buck Cross." Mr. Rosa finished.

Buck heard his name and looked at Ana Maria. "Me too?"

Ana Maria linked her arm through his. "Yes, you are an important part of my day, now come." Ana Maria pulled him gently and he felt a none too gentle push from behind. They emerged from the doorway and people began to clap. Buck prayed he wouldn't trip. He risked a quick glance over his shoulder and there was Wind Song standing in the doorway smiling.

He somehow managed not to trip or knock anyone else over while they were dancing and by the end of the party he had to admit he'd had a wonderful time. When the time came for the riders to head home he stood holding Ana Maria's hands at the door. Cody was on the porch with Carmelita and a sulking Jimmy was holding their horses.

"I had a wonderful time today Buck." Ana Maria smiled up at him, "I am hoping you did too."

Buck glanced Mr. Rosa coming across from the barn and saw Cody back up slightly from Carmelita who he'd just kissed. "I did" Buck answered. "I'm almost sorry it had to come to an end. I'm looking forward to escorting you to the wedding next week."

Mr. Rosa stepped onto the porch. "Carmelita, say good night and come in the house, Good night Mr. Cody." Cody got the hint and tipped his hat to the two young women as he hastily left the porch and mounted up.

Buck suppressed a laugh and raised his hand to Ana Maria's face. "I'll see you soon." His fingertips caressed her cheek. Ana Maria suddenly looked sad. "What's wrong, Ana Maria? Don't be sad we had a great time today. I have a run tomorrow I have to go home."

Buck was suddenly aware of Mr. Rosa very close behind him. "This would be where you kiss her, on the cheek is fine." The older man whispered in Buck's ear so Ana Maria couldn't hear. Buck turned and stared at him. Mr. Rosa nodded and jerked his head ever so slightly toward his daughter.

Buck was ready to panic but this seemed to be expected of him so he leaned toward Ana Maria, who closed her eyes and gently but quickly kissed her cheek. She sighed. "Good Night Buck, I'm going to dream about today for a long time."

Buck squeezed her hand. "Good night Ana Maria, I will too." turned and offered his hand to Mr. Rosa who shook it heartily. Good night sir." He managed and almost jumped off the porch.

"Good night son. Safe ride home now boys, thanks for coming." Mr. Rosa smiled and waved as the riders rode out of his yard toward home.

"What did he say to you Buck? You did know he was behind you when you kissed her? What the hell were you thinking?" Cody asked incredulously once they were away from the farm. "I thought he was going to skin me."

"I was thinking how much I wanted to be Jimmy and already be on my horse if you want the truth. And not that it's any of your business Cody but Mr. Rosa TOLD me to kiss her. I've never been so scared in my life. HAH!" Buck gave his horse a kick and the others followed, except Cody.

"Well, don't that just beat all." Cody muttered to the dust the other riders had kicked up. "Wait for me I'm a comin'" and off he went to join the others.

~*~*~ Buck didn't get to see Ana Maria at all the following week. She and her sisters were busy putting the finishing touches on the dresses and cooking for the wedding. Buck had to cover two of Cody's rides when Cody got thrown attempting to break in a young mustang. Cody claimed his ankle was too sore to ride; no one believed him.

The day of the wedding Buck was still five miles from the station when the sun finally broke through the early morning clouds. It had rained the night before and he didn't want to push the horse in the darkness on the mud covered trail. Buck had spent an uncomfortable night cursing Cody and his sore ankle. Buck swore if he saw Cody dancing at the wedding he'd break Cody's so called sore ankle and really give Cody something to grouse about. Finally the station came into view and he spurred the horse to get home quicker forgetting about the mud. The horse came into the yard at a run and headed for the barn, Buck tried to slow the animal down too late. The horse slipped in the mud and skidded to a halt tossing Buck into the fence face first. Buck said a few choice words as he picked himself up. He was covered in mud and bleeding from a cut over his eye; someone clapped. Buck turned and saw Cody, Jimmy and Kid all standing on the bunkhouse porch.

"Well done! Are you in a hurry to see a certain young lady?" Cody laughed. "Buck you are a mess!"

Buck growled an unintelligible response and was forced to stifle his next words because Emma came out of the house.

"Would one of you gentlemen please care for that horse? Buck, come here while I look at that cut." Emma called cutting off any more comments from Cody. Lou had come out on the porch to join the others. "Lou would you have Ike get Buck's suit ready while he gets cleaned up then one of you can bring it over here so he can change. Move it, we don't have much time!"

Buck followed Emma into the house and was surprised to find she had bath water all ready poured. He disrobed quickly and got into the tub, the soap bubbles made a good cover and Emma quickly cleaned the cut. "I was afraid you wouldn't make it in time with the weather the way it was last night. This looks worse than it is, you'll be fine"

"I wasn't sure I'd make it either. Thanks Emma." Buck said before sinking under the water to wash his hair. He surfaced to find Ike standing where Emma had been holding his suit.

*Get dressed quick we're getting ready to leave.* Ike was dressed in his best suit too and Buck did as he was told. Five minutes later he had mounted a dry horse and saddle and, with wet boots and hair, rode with the others to the church.

They arrived at the church to find Ana Maria and her sisters fussing over their dresses and hair. Ana Maria ran to Buck as soon as she saw him. The others dismounted and entered the church as the young couple talked. "I was afraid you would not come, it is almost time."

"I had an over night run, I'm sorry I worried you. You look beautiful" Buck said brushing a stray strand of hair behind her ear.

"You are to walk me into the church and sit with me." Ana Maria said smiling up at him but her smile faded to a frown. "You are hurt! What happened?" Her fingers gently touched the cut and bruise above his eye.

"I got a little too close to the fence when I dismounted. Don't worry I'm fine." Buck took a chance and kissed her lightly on the cheek. A second later Mr. Rosa appeared at the church door.

"It is time! Come on you two are first." He arranged Buck and Ana Maria and pushed them gently into the church.

They reached the front of the church and Buck nodded to a very nervous Emilio, who stood waiting for his bride, beside the priest.

Carmelita followed next, her dress matched her sister's in everything but color. Ana Maria was dressed in a deep red while Carmelita's was powder blue. Both dresses accented the women's slim waists and long necks. Carmelita walked to the alter and stood to the left of the priest. She turned and looked toward the back of the church, Margarita stood in the door way on her father's arm. He looked very proud and she was radiant with happiness. Her dress was ivory lace with a long train. Buck guessed it had been the dress her mother wore for her wedding. A lace veil hung down from a silver comb and covered her face. They walked to the alter and Mr. Rosa handed his daughter to her soon to be husband. Much of the ceremony was in Spanish but Buck and the others had no problem following the exchange. Ana Maria was crying when Emilio said his vows and placed a small ring on his wife's finger. Buck felt a twinge of panic when Ana Maria rested her head against his shoulder and sighed as the couple was pronounced husband and wife. Buck looked around quickly and thought he saw a slight glimmer over in a corner of the church; when he looked again it was gone.

After the ceremony everyone followed the bride and groom to the reception area and soon the party was in full swing. Cody played the injured rider part well and had several young women waiting on him including Carmelita. Buck was having too much fun to let Cody bother him so he ignored him for the most part. Ana Maria fussed over Buck and kept touching the cut which was now developing a rather impressive bruise around the cut and the eye was a bit swollen. Mr. Rosa finally asked what had happened and to his credit managed not to laugh when Buck told him. At the end of the party Emma, Lou, Ike, Buck and several of the town women helped clean up. Mr. Rosa made sure to thank them all and again allowed Buck to say a special good night to Ana Maria with another kiss on the cheek. When he did, Ana Maria slipped a small piece of paper into his hand. "Read it later" she whispered.

Buck placed the paper in his pocket and forgot about it until he was hanging up his jacket back at the bunkhouse. He unfolded the note and read "Dear Buck, I think I love you but I am afraid when you get hurt. Please do not get hurt anymore. Ana Maria" Buck re read the note several times then sunk down onto his bunk.

"You alright Buck?" Lou asked quietly. Buck handed her the note and she read it quickly. "This is good isn't it Buck?"

"I don't know, I think I'll have another talk with Emma tomorrow." Buck whispered taking back the note and settling down in his bed; he stuffed the note under his pillow.

Sometime during the night Wind Song invaded his sleep. "Follow your heart, remember a good warrior thinks with his heart." He woke to the light touch of her lips on his forehead. He laid awake the rest of the night.

The next morning Buck finished his chores quickly and volunteered to go into town with Emma and Lou. Ike guessed something was up and asked if he could go too. Once they were on the way to town Buck handed Emma the note. She read it over looked up at Buck then reread it. "You can't make a promise that you can't keep. I'm half sick with worry every time one of you rides out of here, afraid you'll never come back."

Buck was driving the buckboard and looked dejectedly at his hands. "I think my mother was telling me the same thing last night." His voice was so quiet Emma had to lean toward him to hear him. Then a bit louder so Lou and Ike could hear him. "You don't look worried. I mean when we leave, but we've all seen you worried when one of us is late!"

"I have to let you go and pray you'll return." Emma smiled. "Then when you're banged up, I pray I can fix you. I think of you all as my own and every parent feels that way. You'll understand better when you have your own children. Have Ike and Lou seen this note?" Emma had noticed Ike trying to read it over her shoulder.

"Lou has, Ike was already in bed when I read it." Buck replied with a shrug.

"Is it alright if I let Ike read it?" Emma asked before giving the note to Lou to pass over to Ike after Buck nodded. Once the note was passed back to Emma she turned to Buck and asked him. "How do you feel about Ana Maria?"

Buck shrugged another non committal response frustrating Lou and Emma but it was Ike who spoke next. Ike thumped his chest three times and rode up to where everyone could see him. By unspoken agreement everyone stopped. *Buck you were told by Teaspoon that escorting Ana Maria to her party and the wedding was like being allowed to court her. Are you saying you don't even like her?*

"No, No Not at all, I really lo-like her." Buck caught himself but no one missed what he almost said. "What scares me is she asked me not to get hurt. I don't want to get hurt anymore then anyone else does but we've all had our share of accidents and stuff. She seemed really upset over me kissin' the corral fence with my face. I didn't enjoy it either but what if she asks me to promise I won't get hurt. I can't do that."

"I think you need to explain your job to her and let her see that in the few months she's known you the worst you've had is that bump on your noggin'. Her father asked you not to begin courting until she really turns fifteen so you've got a few weeks yet. Are you planning on courting her?" Emma asked looking from Ike and Lou to Buck.

Buck shrugged again and Buck heard Lou swear softly about men. "I agree Lou, well said!" Emma shocked them all and then turned to Buck. "Mr. Cross, unless I'm going crazy I do believe that not all that long ago you were planning to marry that girl because you thought she was with child, and not yours I might remind you. You said you thought you loved her then and not more than a few minutes ago YOU almost said you loved her, least that's what I heard….how about you two?"

Ike and Lou both nodded silently although Lou looked pleased. "Buck, I think I know you well enough to say this…stop listening to your head and start listening to your heart." As Emma said head and heart she placed her hand on each.

Buck looked down at Emma's hand over his heart and then up into her face. "Thanks, I will." Lou and Ike both nodded and Lou winked at him again. Ike gave his horse a little kick and the group moved on again.

~*~*~

Buck and Ana Maria were able to see each other only a few times over the next several weeks. He was invited over for dinner the night of her real fifteenth birthday and they were allowed to sit on the porch alone although Buck was sure Mr. Rosa wasn't far way. Buck was holding Ana Maria's hand and their knees were touching. Buck was thinking about the possibility of a real kiss when Ana Maria interrupted his thoughts by sniffing. He looked at her face just as a tear ran down her cheek.

"Are you crying? Ana Maria, what's wrong? Why? Did I do something wrong?" Buck asked forgetting about kissing her. Without thinking he put his arms around her and pulled her against his shoulder.

"I'm sorry Buck, I just miss Margarita, you did not do anything wrong. Did you make the satchel you gave me" Ana Maria asked trying to wipe away her tears.

"Yes, I hope you like it." Buck answered giving her a little squeeze. "I do, very much. Would you be mad at me if I went inside now? I am tired. It is harvest time and we must all work early." Ana Maria surprised Buck with a kiss on his cheek.

"Not at all, I have an early run tomorrow too so I should be gettin' home." Buck placed a finger under her chin and tilted her head to his. He was about to kiss her lips when he saw a faint glow out of the corner of his eye. He turned quickly and his lips connected with her cheek. He would almost swear he heard his mother's laugh. He was about to try again when he heard Mr. Rosa clear his throat on the other side of the door. Buck stood up and helped Ana Maria up too. "Goodnight Ana Maria, and Happy Birthday." Buck risked a second kiss on her cheek as he opened the door for her. She smiled at him and disappeared inside.

~*~*~

Fall quickly became winter and the cold winds blew hard across the open plains. Buck and Ana Maria were growing closer but somehow they never managed to be alone long enough to kiss. One day Buck arrived to find the Rosa household very quiet. His calls were finally answered by Ramon who greeted him with a finger to his lips. "Shhh, Christof is very sick and Papa is praying; we are all praying." Ramon had been crying, his face was tear stained and his eyes puffy. Buck followed the younger boy to a bedroom in the back of the house.

Buck took in the family gathered around the bed and feared the worst. He shuddered when he noticed a very faint glow around Christof's head; it almost looked like a woman's hand on the child's forehead. Ana Maria reached out her hand for him to come stand beside her. He took his place at her side and quickly discarded his hat. Mr. Rosa was saying something in Spanish but Buck understood enough to know he was praying. They stayed like this for several more minutes and finally they all crossed them selves. Buck surprised himself by also going through the motions that had been drilled into him at the mission school. Ana Maria led him from the sick room leaving her older sister and father to care for the sick child. Ramon followed a minute later.

"Buck I am so scared. He looks to be so small in the bed." Ana Maria was holding his hand tightly and fighting back tears.

"Has the doctor been called?" Buck asked pulling his free arm around her thin shoulders.

"No, Papa will not leave his side and no one else can ride." Ana Maria looked down at the floor and Buck guessed there was more that she was not saying.

"I'll go get him, will that be alright?" Buck offered. The weak choking cough could be heard from the sick room caused her to shudder. Even to Buck it didn't sound good.

"No, I mean, Oh, I do not know. Buck, I do not think we have the money to pay him. Please do not tell Papa I told you that." Ana Maria begged Buck as her eyes filled with tears.

"Ana Maria, it will be alright, don't worry. At least let me go get Emma. She's really good at doctorin'. She fixes all of us up good." Buck led Ana Maria to a chair in the kitchen and gently pushed her into it. "I'll be back soon, I promise. I know Emma always makes clear broth for us when we're sick, can you do that?" Ana Maria nodded. "Good, you make sure Christof gets some broth to drink and lots of water and I'll go get Emma." Buck pulled his coat and hat back on and was almost out the door when he turned and kissed her forehead. "I love you Ana Maria, it will be alright I know it."

"I love you too Buck," Ana Maria said remotely and watched him close the door behind him.

Buck made the short ride back to the station in record time and was off his horse before it had stopped moving. "EMMA," He called as he mounted the stairs to the house two at a time. "Emma, I need you." He called again as he came through the door without knocking.

"I'm right here Buck, what's happened." Emma looked him over quickly for traces of blood. He was flushed from the cold air but otherwise appeared fine.

"Ana Maria's little brother is really sick with a bad cough and they need help. I offered to get the Doc but Ana Maria doesn't think they can afford it so I came for you." Buck gasped trying to catch his breath.

Emma walked to the door and opened it. "Jimmy, could you hitch up the buckboard for me? Lou, can you come in here please?" The other riders had seen Buck ride in and wanted to know what was wrong. "Kid, I need you to ride into town and get the Doc bring him over to the Rosa place as soon as you can. Thank-you"

"Emma, they can't….."Buck started but Emma held up her hand.

"You promised not to get the Doc, Kid didn't, if they can't pay we will, its not like we haven't paid him in apple pies before." Emma said matter of factly. "Lou, I need you to help me get a couple of things together. Buck do you still have any of those herbs you used when the Johnson baby couldn't breathe right? Well, don't just stand there go get anything you think might help." They heard Kid ride out of the yard a full speed.

A half hour later, Emma and Buck were on their way over to the Rosa farm. Emma had a huge basket full of medicines, herbs and food. They arrived to find Ana Maria attempting to comfort a crying Ramon on the porch. Both Buck and Emma feared they were too late.

"Miss Emma, I am glad you could come, please to follow me. Buck can you talk to Ramon; he feels this is his fault." Ana Maria gently guided her brother to Buck and opened the door for Emma.

Buck pulled his coat tighter and put an arm around the boy. "Ramon, I don't know what's happened but I'm sure it's not your fault. Come on help me unhitch the horses and we can talk in the barn out of this cold." Buck gave the boy a quick hug as they moved to take care of the horses.

"We need to feed the chickens too, I forgot to do that….I did not mean to…." Ramon sniffled trying not to cry.

"Well, how about this, let's you and me get the chores done and that will be one less thing to worry about. I'll bet your sister forgot to milk the cow too." Buck added with a wink. Ramon nodded and Buck saw a tiny hint of a smile.

While they tended to the various chores they talked about everything except what got Ramon so up set. Finally Buck sat down on a bale of hay. "Ramon, will you tell me why you think Christof getting sick was your fault?" Buck might have gotten an answer if Kid and the Doc hadn't ridden in right at that moment.

Kid brought the two horses into the barn. "Can you take care of the Doc's horse? I want to get back to the station."

"Sure" Buck responded taking the reins and giving Katy a friendly pat.

Once again the two cooled down the animal making sure she had food and water. When they were done Ramon almost made it out of the barn. "Not so fast, I asked you a question can you give me an answer? You seemed pretty upset when I rode in." Buck sat down and waited.

Ramon looked at his shoes for a very long time then finally spoke. "I wanted to see if you could walk on the ice and Christof fell through into the water." His lower lip was trembling and he was wringing his hands. Buck cold see the boy was fighting hard not to cry.

Buck was silent for a few moments giving Ramon time to calm himself. "Were you at the swimming hole or just the creek?"

"Just the creek, he slipped on a rock and sat down in the water. His lips were blue and he was shaking when we got home." The young boy's voice was getting higher pitched as he lost the battle not to cry. "I put my coat around him but he was so cold. We never saw ice at home. I hate this place, I wish we never left our old home."

Buck rose and wrapped the boy in his arms and allowed the child to cry as much as he needed. When the sobs subsided into sniffles Buck spoke softly and soothingly. "You never saw ice so how did you know it wouldn't be strong enough to hold your weight? Did you get wet too?" Ramon nodded. "So you were wet too and you gave your coat to your brother so he'd be warm, am I right?"

"It….It was just my feet and legs to here." Ramon indicated the water had soaked him almost to the knee. "My coat was dry."

"Well, the only thing I see you doing wrong was not knowing that the ice was too weak but there wasn't any way for you to know that was there?" Ramon looked at Buck. "I've gotten wet a few times when the ice wasn't frozen enough too so that's not anything to worry about. You got wet too and you're not sick, are you?" Buck asked. "What happened was an accident, it wasn't your fault. You tried to keep your brother safe and warm with your coat; if you hadn't done that he'd be a whole lot sicker right?" Ramon blinked but said nothing. "I'll bet you were really cold by the time you got home."

"I was. Will my brother be alright?" The young boy asked looking up to Buck for reassurance.

"Emma and the Doc are both here so let's go back to the house and see how things are going? You ready or do you want to wait a few more minutes?"

Ana Maria must have been watching for them because the door was opened the moment they stepped on the stairs. "I made coffee, you must be cold" She said and slipped up beside Buck, her arm went around his waist.

Buck raised an eyebrow at the uncharacteristic gesture but suddenly realized she was shaking and pulled her close. "Let's go into the kitchen."

"I am scared, Buck, he is too young to die. He just turned seven." Ana Maria whispered in a trembling voice.

Buck held her tighter for a moment longer, not daring to say anything; afraid his words of comfort would prove false. A noise from the open kitchen door distracted him. "You're getting cold, let's go inside." Buck said softly as he pulled away from Ana Maria and led her into the kitchen.

Emma had already started several pots brewing on the stove with various herbs brewing Buck recognized some as ones he'd introduced her to from his own knowledge growing up with the Kiowa. Emma came out of the sick room every so often to get a cup of the brews or check on their progress. She kept everyone busy doing some job or other while the doctor worked on Christof too. Somehow the day became night and then day again; time crept by quickly. Buck found himself on the sofa with Ramon sleeping against him on one side and Ana Maria sound asleep on his other shoulder.

All three were awakened by Carmelita's giggle. "They look like a happy family."

Buck's eyes shot open but he was pinned down. Wind Song, Emma, Mr. Rosa and Carmelita were all standing at the foot of the sofa looking at them. Buck groaned, sure that Mr. Rosa would be mad and confused by his mother's presence. "How's Christof?" Buck asked as he noticed a blanket had been placed over the trio on the sofa.

"His fever broke about an hour before dawn and the Doc left then. You three looked comfortable so I didn't see any reason to wake you." Emma said smiling as she wiped her hands on her apron. Wind Song smiled and faded away.

"If I could feel my arms I might agree." Buck mumbled somewhat embarrassed. "I'm sorry I fell asleep, you should have woken me." "You are keeping my children safe and quiet, they needed to sleep too. Ana Maria, your sister and I are going to get some sleep will you watch over your brother? Ramon, will you take care of the animals this morning by yourself, I'm sorry I really need some sleep." Mr. Rosa yawned as he finished telling his children what he'd like them to do.

"Come on Ramon, I have to hitch up the wagon and get Emma home so I'll help you for a bit." Buck rose and stretched.

An hour later, Buck was heading home with Emma when she spoke words that sent a chill down his spine. "Mr. Rosa is thinking about moving back down to El Paso in the spring. Did Ana Maria tell you?"

"No, this is the first I've heard of it. I'm not sure Ana Maria knows, she and I were talking about things we'd like to do this summer only last night." Buck replied. Buck's mood suddenly became as gray as the sky.

"Hmm, I gather he's been thinkin' on it for a good bit. Margarita and Emilio offered him a share in their farm and she's expecting their first child in late spring or early summer. I think Christof falling in the ice and getting sick convinced him." Emma looked at Buck's face; he looked miserable. "I'm sorry Buck. We're almost home why don't you get changed and come over to the house I'll fix you a good breakfast."

"Er, thanks but I think I'll pass, I've got chores to do." Buck answered quietly.

"Buck, you and I are going to be talking because I know this bothers you and not eating won't solve any problems." Emma tried to get Buck to agree to at least look at her.

"Yeah I know, you and my mother have both said that, I just need some time to think. Please?" Buck's voice was quiet.

"Alright, just remember nothing is official yet so don't go and do something we'll all regret later," Emma paused as they approached the station. "Promise?"

"I promise…." Buck looked like he wanted to say more but the other riders were all coming out to meet them wanting to know how the youngest Rosa child was doing.

A couple of hours later Buck was just finishing his chores when one of the relay riders rode in with news of an approaching storm. "I knew that sky looked a might ominous" Teaspoon said to no one in particular. "Buck, I know you're tired but I really think you and Ike should ride back over to the Rosa's and help them; this might be something they don't know how to deal with. If it starts to blow before you're done stay there. I'd rather be short two riders till the end of the storm then worry about you lost in the storm." Teaspoon patted Buck's shoulder then smiled at Emma who'd come out on the porch.

"Mr. Spoon, why don't they just stay over there until the storm passes that way there will be no worrying. Ike, I'll have some food for you to take with you, now hurry and get ready, that sky is getting darker by the minute." Emma spoke in a tone that brokered no argument. "Buck can I see you a moment?"

Buck swallowed hard as he mounted the stairs and followed Emma into the house. "Emma, I…."

"Really need to tell me what is bothering you and do it quickly" Emma turned and finished his sentence; he'd barely closed the door.

"I told Ana Maria I love her and she said she loved me, yesterday before I came and got you. I don't want to get married yet and move away, I'm not ready. There was that quick enough?" Buck blurted out.

"Then use the next couple of days to think things over, talk to Ana Maria. She might not be ready either." Emma stopped when they heard boots coming up the stairs. She quickly kissed Buck's cheek. "You'll be fine, now go." Just before the door opened the parlor curtains moved, both Emma and Buck looked at them and smiled.

Lou opened the door and asked "Emma do you need any help? Buck, Kid and Cody saddled fresh horses and Ike's almost ready. I threw a change of clothes in your bedroll so you're almost all set. The wind is starting to kick up you really gotta ride."

"Thanks, Lou, I'm going now" Buck left and while Ike collected the food Emma hastily packed for them, secured his gear and waited with Ike's mount. Ike tossed one package of food to Buck, secured the other and they were gone in less than five minutes.

The rest of the day passed quickly with a flurry of activity. The riders spent the day moving feed, drawing, water, chopping and stacking wood and securing anything the storm might bury or blow away at both the station and at the Rosa farm. Ropes were strung from the house to the barn and bunkhouse in case the storm got so bad they couldn't see the buildings. Getting lost in a blizzard was certain death.

~*~*~ The storm hit at dusk and blew fiercely all night and part of the next day. Buck and Ike took turns going out to the barn checking on the animals. Mr. Rosa was very grateful for their help but refused to allow his children to leave the safety and comfort of their small home. By lunch time the winds had clamed down and the sun came out in the late afternoon. Ike and Buck prepared to ride home as the sky blazed with the pinks, purples and oranges of a magnificent sunset.

"Do storms like that happen often?" Mr. Rosa asked as the boys mounted up. Ike answered.

"Ike says you get about three or four a winter, but this one was just a little one, they can last for days sometimes." Buck translated and grimaced when he noticed Mr. Rosa's jaw tighten.

"I see, thank you for your help, we'll know what to do the next time a storm comes." Mr. Rosa shook each boy's hand and returned to the porch where Ana Maria, Ramon and Carmelita all stood surveying the white landscape.

~*~*~

The winter proved to be a mild one and Buck was hopeful that Mr. Rosa had reconsidered moving back to El Paso. Fortunately Christof's fall into the icy water and illness were the worst things that happened; other than a few colds and stuffy noses. The only person to suffer an injury over the winter months was Buck. Cody had mistakenly left the feed bag for the goats too low on the post it usually hung from. Buck had walked into the barn and discovered several goats had jumped over the stall door and were eating all the feed. He ran over and tried to stop them, discovering, painfully, that goats don't like to be interrupted while eating. He tried unsuccessfully to grab the bag and hold it over his head but one goat stood right up on its hind legs and lunged for the feed. The goat had surprised Buck and took the bag back as Buck stumbled. Buck grabbed at the bag and the tender skin between Buck's thumb and forefinger managed to find its way into a goat's mouth as Buck attempted to pull the bag away from the goat. The bite drew blood and Buck decided that the goats could eat them selves to death for all he cared. For some strange reason Ana Maria didn't seem upset that he had gotten injured; she laughed at the story and patted the injured hand.

Buck and Ana Maria had become close over the winter months but had still not managed to be alone long enough for anything more than a good night kiss; Wind Song made sure of it. If Buck and Ana Maria were alone, that all too familiar glow would appear and any thoughts of romantic interludes were swept from Buck's mind; there are some things you just can't do in front of your parents.

Cody took every opportunity to try and convince Carmelita that he was the man she wanted to be with. Unbeknownst to Cody she had been able to observe him flirting with other young ladies in town and had made up her mind that he was anything but the man for her. Jimmy had done his best to romance the Spanish beauty but they soon discovered that they made better friends than a romantic couple. Carmelita had also expressed a strong desire to return to El Paso, her older sister and soon-to-arrive niece or nephew. She had made it clear that no matter what her father decided to do she'd find a way to move back to the place she considered home. Jimmy had no desire to move that far south or leave the Pony Express. Cody was blissfully oblivious to the entire situation and Jimmy, Carmelita, Ana Maria and Buck all enjoyed many a laugh at his expense.

Finally the day came that Buck had been dreading. Mr. Rosa announced that he had accepted the offer from Margarita and Emilio and join them on their farm. Buck and Ana Maria were not ready to be married and Ana Maria could not stay behind alone. Buck was torn, he'd tried to get his mother's advise but she would only tell him to wait. Mr. Rosa gave the young couple a choice, Ana Maria could marry Buck and stay behind as his wife or Buck could join them in El Paso. Emma came up with a third option. Ana Maria could stay with her and when Buck had saved enough to support a wife they would marry. Mr. Rosa agreed to the arrangement and Ana Maria prepared to move into the house with Emma as the rest of her family prepared to move back south.

The farm they lived on in Sweetwater was only rented and the owner was able to find another tenant in time to do the spring planting; they had been in Sweetwater only eleven and a half months. Mr. Rosa was thrilled and sent word to his oldest daughter and her husband that they would be arriving within a fortnight or two. Ana Maria was scared of what the future held for her.

~*~*~

The day before the Rosa's were set to leave, Ana Maria had come over to the station to begin settling into her new home. She was in the house putting her things away in the spare bedroom and trying not to cry. She knew Emma was doing everything to make her feel welcome but she still had her doubts. She missed her older sister terribly; once the rest of her family left she would be alone. Ana Marie picked up a fading picture of her mother, kissed it and began speaking. "Mama, am I doing the right thing? Buck is a good man and I know you would like him. Miss Emma's really nice but she cannot replace Papa. I miss you so much Mama, please tell me this is right." Ana Maria wondered aloud in Spanish. A soft breeze seemed to brush against her cheek, almost like a kiss. Ana Maria looked around but the windows were closed. "Mama?" She whispered as another breeze brushed against her hair the same way her mother used to when she was small and needed comfort. Ana Maria's thoughts were disrupted when Kid came riding into the station with blood on his shirt.

Jimmy had been brushing down his beloved Palomino when he saw Kid approaching the station. "Rider Comin'" He sang out then as Kid got closer, he saw the blood.

Lou had just come out of the bunkhouse with a smile waiting to greet Kid but Jimmy's next words stopped her and sent a chill of dread down her spine.

"Kid's hurt and he's alone." Jimmy yelled to the rest of the station. "Kid where's Buck?" Jimmy asked with concern as Kid rode into the yard. He and Buck had been on a special run and Buck was not with him.

"Where are you hurt, Son." Teaspoon asked fearing the answer to Jimmy's question.

Kid dismounted Katy a bit stiffly and glanced toward the house where Emma and Ana Maria had just appeared on the porch. Both women ran down the stairs toward the other riders. A quick glance assured Emma that Kid wasn't hurt too badly.

"No…" Ana Maria moaned staring at Kid. Emma stood with her arm around Ana Maria's shoulders; hoping she wouldn't faint. The girl looked like she was fighting back tears already.

I'm really just sore all over Teaspoon; thanks Cody." Kid paused and gave Katy a pat as Cody took her reigns. "It's not my blood."

Emma tightened her grip on Ana Maria as the girl gasped and covered her mouth with her hands.

"It's not Katy's either." Cody said looking the tired horse over. Those words caused the tears to fall down Ana Maria's face while Lou and Emma exchanged a look of concern.

"Buck's alive; I took him into town and left him at the Doc's. I'm sure he's gonna be fine in a few days." Kid added quickly. "We were ambushed on our way back from deliverin' the package. Buck got hit in the arm, it went right through, and he fell off his horse. They were on us before we knew it and demanded the package. I told them we'd already dropped it off and things got really nasty. Buck hadn't gotten back on his horse yet and one of the men kicked him in the face. When I looked over at Buck another man grabbed me and the real fight began. Buck was on the ground already and they really started beatin' on him. I shot one of the men that jumped me and Buck managed to get his knife out and killed one of his attackers, he cut another one before they decided we really didn't have what they wanted and left. We started ridin' home but Buck must of lost more blood than we thought 'cus all of a sudden he just sort of slumped over and fell off his horse again. I think he hit his head on a rock because he had a cut that wouldn't stop bleedin' that I didn't notice before. Anyway I patched him up as best I could, got him up on Katy and rode him into town. He was awake and back on his own horse by the time we got to town. He wasn't real happy when I left him. All or at least most of the blood is his. I cut the inside of my mouth and got a blood nose when I got punched but I'm not really hurt at all."

"I'll be the judge of that, Kid, come on into the house, and let me check you out." Emma released Ana Maria and motioned Kid toward the door. "Ana Maria I assume you'll want to go to town to check on Buck?" Emma paused and waited for the girl to nod. "Could one of you boys hitch up the wagon for Ana Maria, and figure out who'll be going with her besides Ike. Cody you have a ride first thing tomorrow so I'd try for good night's sleep if I was you." Emma quickly took charge of the situation. "Lou, could you give me a hand in the house, please."

"Sure thing, Emma." Lou said mounting the stairs quickly. She smiled when she saw Emma wink at her. Emma didn't need help, she knew Lou was anxious to check out Kid's injuries and assure herself he was alright.

~*~*~

Almost an hour and a half passed before the wagon was hitched up and Teaspoon, Ike, Jimmy and Ana Maria were ready to leave. They hadn't gone more then a few hundred yards when another wagon could be seen heading toward them. Jimmy rode out to meet it and was surprised to see Buck's horse tied behind it and the Doc driving. Buck was in the back partly lying down and partly sitting up against the sideboards. He looked awful.

"Hi Doc, we were just riding in to see you. Buck, the way the Kid talked I figured you'd look a lot worse." Jimmy said hoping to get a response from the injured rider.

"Hello Jimmy, This one insisted on coming home and I couldn't let him go by himself so here we are. Hello Teaspoon, Ike, Miss Rosa….." the Doc greeted every one as they approached. Teaspoon had turned the wagon around and they were all heading to the station.

"Do you want to put Buck in this wagon and head on back to town or would you like to come to the station? I think Emma was bakin' today…." Teaspoon smiled jovially.

"Hmmm, never could resist Miss Shannon's cooking, don't know too many men that could" the Doc added with a chuckle. "Aside from that I'd like to look in on Kid. He took a pretty bad beating too, I tried to get him to stay in town but he's as stubborn as you Teaspoon." Jimmy tried to hide a laugh but failed, Ike smiled. Ana Maria was beside herself trying to see Buck.

"Um, well, I know a person more stubborn than both of us, Emma, and she's taking care of Kid at the house." Teaspoon spluttered causing Jimmy and Ike to laugh harder.

They'd arrived back at the station while they were talking and Ana Maria almost fell out of the wagon in her haste to get to Buck. Cody had seen them coming and managed to catch her before she fell. He helped her up into the back of the other wagon and was worried he'd have to catch her again when she saw Buck.

Buck's face was pale on one side and a deep reddish purple on the other with his eye swollen shut. There was dried blood matting down one side of his hair and a bloody bandage wrapped around his head. His right arm was in a sling and the sleeve of the shirt had been cut away to reveal another bloody bandage on his upper arm. What little of his shirt that could be seen, was blood soaked.

He saw Ana Maria and managed a small half smile but winced as the movement caused him discomfort. "Hi" Buck managed to croak. "Isssh not asssh bad asssh isssh looksssh." Buck's words tripped over his swollen lips and face.

Ana Maria sank to her knees beside him and started praying in Spanish. She crossed herself several times and very delicately drew a cross on Buck's forehead; as gentle as she was, he still winced. Tears streaked her ashen face while her body shook with emotion. Buck raised his left hand and tried to wipe away her tears, comforting her. She cried harder.

Buck noticed a glow out of the corner of his eye and saw his mother stroking Ana Maria's hair; she didn't seem to notice though. Seconds later he felt his mother's hand touch his shoulder. When Wind Song finally had her son's attention she signed "It is for the best." She bent forward, kissed his head and vanished. Ana Maria was still crying and praying in her native tongue. Buck was lost, what was for the best? His head hurt too bad to think much and his thoughts were fleeting.

Teaspoon came to his rescue. "Jimmy, Cody will you help Miss Ana into the house? Ike, want to give me a hand with Buck? How do you feel Son? You look like hell." Teaspoon and Ike gingerly assisted Buck out of the wagon and mostly carried him to the house and Emma.

Emma had the kettles boiling for water for Kid to take a bath but she quickly filled a basin for Buck. Kid's bath could wait a few minutes for another kettle to heat. Emma reluctantly allowed Lou to help Kid with his bath; she kept checking behind the screen to assure herself nothing improper was taking place. Kid had insisted on keeping his long johns on; Lou was one thing, but being naked in front of Emma and Ana Maria wasn't very appealing.

Emma tried several times to get Ana Maria to help wash the blood off Buck but the girl seemed to be afraid to touch him. She refused to even look in his direction when Emma helped him out of his shirt and long john top. She had retrieved her Rosary beads and sat in the corner saying the Rosary in Spanish. Emma had to change the water several times as she and the Doc worked to clean Buck up. He'd fought them at first; that was until a pan somehow fell off the side board where it always sat when not in use. The pan landed almost at Buck's feet and he'd stopped any protests immediately. Emma looked up quickly but saw nothing else move. She was sure Wind Song had let her son know she didn't approve of his behavior. "Thank-you" she said to the silence of the room then turned to Buck, "please sit still." Buck swallowed hard and nodded, his eyes fixed on something over Emma's shoulder.

An hour later the Doc was satisfied that both Kid and Buck were in good hands. Kid had taken a beating and would be sore for a few days but was otherwise in good shape and would be allowed to ride the next day. Buck was grounded for a week. The bullet had indeed passed right through his upper arm, somehow missing the bone and not damaging the muscle too much. The cut and bump on his head looked a lot worse then it was and the bruise on his face looked just like a boot print. Sam had sent a posse after the men who ambushed Kid and Buck but the men were long gone. Everyone wondered what had been in that package, even Teaspoon didn't know.

The Rosa family delayed leaving a couple of days to be sure Buck was alright. The night before they were to leave Ana Maria asked Buck to speak with her alone. "You will not ride for the Pony Express now….You were hurt, you promised me."

"Ana Maria, this is my job, I've told you that. I don't like to get hurt but I'm fine. You've known me almost a year and look around, we're all still here. No one has been killed, sure a couple of us got scraped up a little but that's just part of the job, its how we live." Buck looked into her eyes and watched as they filled with tears.

"I can not live like this; I can't sit in the house and worry every time you ride out of the yard that you might never return. I care about you too much. I told you once that I loved you and I do but I can not live with the worry that you will die, please understand Buck. Tomorrow my father will pick me up and I and my family will return to El Paso. I love my family more than I do you and they are safe, farmers don't get shot at over a package, you do." Ana Maria's tears spilled and tripped over her long lashes as they made their way unchecked, to the floor.

"Don't go please. You asked me to promise not to get hurt but that's a promise I can't make. I can promise to try and not get hurt. Talk to Emma, I know she worries but she manages to let us go. Ask her how she does it. I love you Ana Maria, stay, for me…." Buck's own tears weren't far away but he didn't want her to see him cry.

"Buck in the year I have known you, I have seen your blood three times, once when you fell and hit the fence, this time and the time the goat bite you. This last time was too much. You will not be happy on a farm, goats don't like you. I can not live with a man who is not happy. I did talk to Emma and she told me to follow my heart. My heart says to go home with my family. I have prayed and I believe we will both be happy apart. You do not share my faith and that hurts me also. You are not like Emilio; you are too much in danger. I must go Buck." Ana Maria started to walk away but Buck grabbed her arm.

"But I love you…." Buck pleaded. "I thought you would be my wife….." He stopped speaking as Ana Maria kissed his cheek.

"I must go, your love is not enough, I do not want to be a widow before I am a wife. Please let go of my arm." Ana was crying.

Buck dropped his hands to his sides and watched her run toward the house. He slowly made his way back to the bunkhouse and sank heavily onto the stairs. He sat there until the lights in the house were extinguished and he had finished crying. No one from the bunkhouse had come outside. He figured about an hour has passed and with a heavy heart made his way to his bunk. He kicked off his boots and shrugged off his vest, he didn't bother to undress further. He could tell by the other rider's breathing that everyone was asleep except Lou and she had her back to him. He thought he heard her sniffle a couple of times and wondered if she had known what Ana Maria's plans were. Buck's own silent tears soaked his pillow.

The next day Mr. Rosa and his family arrived to pick up Ana Maria, Emma cried as she said goodbye and Lou managed to get dust in her eyes, again. Everyone hugged and wished each other well. Cody finally got a kiss from Carmelita; so did Jimmy. The Rosa family was happy they were headed back to the south where it was warm all the time and they knew the land, the language and the customs. As the wagons left the yard Buck walked away from the group and stood watching the family until there was nothing left to see. It nearly broke Emma's heart to hear him mutter. "Remember I love you….." to the wind.

That night he became aware of the now familiar glow beside his bed; he wasn't sure if he had slept or not. He raised his head and looked around. Just like the first time he'd seen his mother the rest of the room seemed to disappear. "Ma'Ma I'm so hurt. Why? Why did she have to leave, I loved her I told her that, what did I do wrong?" Buck felt hot tears on his cheeks, this time he didn't care.

"Shhh, tomorrow you will be a brave Kiowa warrior once again, tonight you are my son. Your spirits were not meant to stay on the same path. You are meant for someone different, as is she. Love was not enough, sometimes it is never enough. You need more than love to have a wife and children. Listen to your heart, my son, you know this. Everything will be right again soon." Wind Song enveloped Buck in her arms as she spoke. He felt a gentle rocking motion as she began to hum. The hum became the same Kiowa lullaby she had sung to him the first time she'd appeared to him. His eyes closed and he drifted off into a contented sleep in his mother's arms. She was right; everything would be alright.

Email Jo

HOME