CHAPTER ONE

“Jane, honey, are you alright?” Amanda and Hack watched the girl who stood in front of the burned out remains of her late father’s jewelry store. They had all just traveled with Jane to Falls Church on the way to Benton following the run in with Pike and his gang. Amanda and Hack, who fancied himself the Kangaroo Kid and hoped to have another book written about his adventures in the American West, had homes to return to; Jane’s was gone.

“I guess my father’s friends boarded it up while I was gone.” Jane spoke slowly and quietly. “I’ll be fine, thanks.”

“You and your Dad lived in the back rooms?” Hack looked at the sagging roof and the broken windows on the second floor. He noticed he could see the azure sky framed by the blackened beams in places where the fire had burned right through.

“Yes, my room was in the back and Daddy’s was that one there…” She pointed to the broken window on the left as a tear rolled down her face.

Amanda put her arm around the young girl and turned her away from the ruins. “Why don’t you come with me back to the hotel, we could all use a rest, and we’ll figure out tomorrow, tomorrow!” She steered the girl toward the hotel where she had taken a suite. An old friend of Amanda’s owned the hotel and had invited them to stay. He asked Amanda to help him start an up-scale saloon in the hotel, Amanda felt it was a smart business move and accepted, for a modest fee.

The next morning dawned bright and clear and Jane woke up resigned to the task of sifting through the remains of her life before Pike killed her father and burned their home and business. She got dressed in the boy’s clothing she’d bought to track Pike down in and managed to choke down a muffin and some juice. Surprisingly the front door of the shop had survived, minus its window, and her key still worked. She entered the burned out shop and faced her nightmares.

The smell was almost overwhelming; Jane gagged at first. The burned wood and drapery fabric had started to mold and like a plague the mold had spread; a thin layer of fine green dust and mildew covered everything. Jane propped open the door and prayed for a bit of fresh air. The lantern she carried cast shadows that appeared to reach for her, wanting to grab her and drag her into their depths. She ventured further into the wreckage and spotted something glinting in the dim light. When she picked it up she found a necklace her father had been repairing for the preacher’s daughter, Cara, to wear to her wedding. Jane noticed that the clasp had been replaced and the only thing left to do was tighten the prongs that held the blue stone; and clean it up. She pocketed the piece, determined to finish what her father had started.

She spent the morning and most of the afternoon in the front part of the shop, sifting though the ashes and managed to find a good number of pieces that had survived the fire and thanks to whoever had boarded the place up hadn’t been looted. She was about to head into the area her father’s workbench and desk had been located in when someone knocked on the door. She turned to find Hack standing there with a pitcher of what looked like iced tea and two cups.

“I was over in the saloon and Amanda sent me over with this for you, I’ve got some free time tomorrow can I help you?” Hack guided Jane out of the store and they sat on the boardwalk. He was helping the local Sheriff out while his deputy was away on his honeymoon.

“Thanks, I could use the help. Do you know anyone who could haul away and burn some of the debris? There’s some burned boards in there that I’m having trouble getting around.” Jane was covered in soot. Her face bore mute testimony to the torment her heart was feeling. The tears had cleaned tiny streaks as they left her eyes and joined the ashes on the floor.

“I’ll ask around, there has to be someone here that could use the work. Look, it’s getting late and you look like hell. Amanda told me to keep and eye on you and not let you work too hard in here, she expects you back at the hotel tonight. Why don’t you go back to the hotel now and get a long soak in a hot tub and I’ll buy you some dinner?” They drained the pitcher and Hack helped her stand. “Was it just you and your Dad?”

“He and I were all we had, my mother died when I was very young. He was teaching me the business and I always kept the books for him. I learned how to do my sums before I was old enough for school.” Jane smiled sadly at the memory then looked up at Hack. “Dinner sounds wonderful.”

“Great, I’ll come get you in about an hour and a half.” Hack smiled and helped her carry the few items she’d managed to salvage so far. Jane locked up the burned out store and took the arm Hack offered and together they walked into the Hotel and toward the stairs that led to Jane’s room.

Amanda met them at the stairs. “Jane if I’ve ever seen anyone who could use a bath and some clean clothes, its you. I’ll have a hot bath sent right up. One of the new waitresses is about your size and she gave me a couple of dresses; they’re on your bed.” Amanda turned to Hack when Jane was out of earshot. “I hope I don’t need to remind you she’s only fifteen…..”

“I know that my darling Miss O’Connell, I was hoping I could persuade you to join us for dinner tonight.” Hack took her hand and kissed the back of it, bowing slightly when he did.

“You are truly incorrigible. I’d love to have dinner with both of you.” Amanda smiled and shook her head slightly. “Let me guess…. the Kangaroo Kid rides again?” She laughed out loud at his half grin and shrug of one shoulder.

“Well, you can’t argue with success…. I have a dinner date with the two most beautiful women in Falls Church!” Hack laughed. “I’ll be back to escort the two of you in an hour and a half, Cheers!”

CHAPTER TWO

Dear Jane,

Hi, this is Buck Cross, I promised I’d write so surprise! Here’s your letter, see, I remembered. How are you? I hope you had a good trip home and that Amanda hasn’t killed the Kangaroo Kid yet. I guess they’ve gone back to Benton by now. I’m glad they said they’d ride with you as far as Falls Church. I know Jimmy was ready to strangle Hack for even thinking about a book. I told you about what that Marcus guy did and the Wild Bill problems he caused for Jimmy. I guess he liked Hack. How badly damaged was the store? Are you able to save anything? How about the living area, can you still live there? If you need anything please let me know I’d be glad to help you if I can. Everyone says Hello!

Your Friend,
Buck Cross

Later that night:

Dear Buck,

Thanks for writing. I’m fine but really tried. I miss my father even more now that I’m back in Falls Church. Amanda and Hack decided to stay here and help me. Amanda is letting me stay with her in her rooms over at the hotel. The store and everything is a total loss. I’ve been able to save a few things but the building is beyond repair. Someone was kind enough to board it up while I was gone so no more damage happened. I’ve been told I need to find someone to take it down but Hack is helping me with that. I managed to find a few of the things my father was working on and I am able to finish them at night in the hotel and get the money. Amanda knows the owner of the hotel and is going into business with him on a saloon in the hotel, its really classy, and a couple of the girls that work there gave me a few dresses so I have normal clothes to wear, none of my old clothes survived the fire.

The one thing I still haven’t found is my parents’ wedding rings. I really want them, they mean so much…. I’ll keep looking. I haven’t been able to really sort through the living area. Its rained a lot and the building shakes when the wind blows.

Your Friend,
Jane

The next few weeks were a blur to Jane as she continued to salvage what few things she could from the burned out store and living quarters she had once shared with her father. She’d managed to find most of his tools and many of the pieces he’d been working on. People were very understanding when the pieces were returned late; most had assumed the jewelry was gone forever. Jane was very proud of herself and her father when Cara walked down the aisle wearing the necklace that had once belonged to her grandmother.

Dear Jane,

This is a quick note to let you know the Company moved us to someplace called Rock Creek I don’t know if that’s closer to you or further away. I’ve enjoyed reading your letters and I hope you’ll continue to write to me. Oh Ike says “Hi” Hey, he’s making me do this, Ike says - ^^>><< pretend those are his hands moving!

Please be careful, I know I’ve said it before but I don’t want you to get hurt in that building. Any luck finding the missing rings? The new address will be on the envelope. Be safe!

Your Friend,
Buck

Later that night:

Dear Buck,

Amanda says the move is about the same distance maybe a little more but still four or five days ride by stagecoach from Benton. Amanda has convinced me I can start a new life there. I’m missing my father more some days than others. Last Sunday Reverend Culpepper’s daughter got married and she wore a necklace that belonged to her grandmother. It was one of the first things I found at the shop when I got back. Dad had fixed the clasp but had to stop to make the thing for Pike. I finished the work Dad started and cleaned it up. They paid me more than I think they were going to pay Dad but at least I was able to give Amanda something for letting me stay with her. It wasn’t much but it felt good to feel like I’m not a burden on her as much and I’m beginning to make my own way in this world. It’s really scary to think that I’m all alone now with no living kin but I’ll make it somehow. I cried at the wedding. Does this empty feeling ever go away? I wish you were here, I enjoyed your hugs and I could really use one right now.. I love getting your letters. I still haven’t found the rings and yes I’m being careful…

Love,
Jane

The living area of the shop had been heavily damaged and Jane wasn’t able to salvage very much at all but the one item she wanted to find more than anything still alluded her. Everyone warned Jane to be careful in the shell of the building and for the most part she was. Even Buck had cautioned her against going into he most damaged areas. He’d kept his promise and written faithfully to her; she’d answered every one.

Dear Jane,

Guess what! Lou brought home a stray! OK so its not a dog but the kid’s name is Jesse James and Teaspoon is letting him stay with us because he doesn’t have any family except a brother but who knows where he is. Lou, Kid and Jimmy were sent on a run to bring some guy to hang and I don’t know what went on but Jimmy and Kid are both looking at Lou the same way. Kid got shot on the run but he’s OK.

I’ve never lost anyone really close to me so I don’t know if the empty feeling goes away or not. If you close your eyes and put your arms around yourself like you’re hugging something maybe you can pretend its me. I wish we weren’t so far apart I’d love to be able to hold you again. You said I made you feel safe, I like that thought. I want to make you feel safe. Please know that, while you have no blood kin you’ll always have me.

Please, Please be careful in that building, I have a bad feeling about it and worry about you in there. I know you want the rings but are they worth it? I want you safe. When will the estate be settled? Will you come for a visit then?

Missing you,
Buck

Later that night:

Dear Buck,

I hope Kid is feeling better. Does Jimmy have feelings for Lou too? It sounds like it. How’s Jesse working out is he a rider too? I’m going to be 16 next week and Amanda says we’ll have a little party. When is your birthday and how old are you? I miss my Father so much. How old were you when your mother died? Didn’t you miss her? I’ll try to pretend you’re hugging me but it won’t be the same. Oh well maybe one of these days. I only have until the end of the month to finish cleaning out the building before the new owner of the land tears it down. I found most of my father’s tools and some other personal things but the rings are still missing I’m really scared I’ll never find them. I had hoped that someday my husband and I would wear those rings but I’m beginning to give up hope of ever finding them. My dad made them to match, I know most men don’t wear rings but I’m still holding on to the small hope I’ll find them and maybe……Hack helped me find a buyer for the land, and some of the pieces that my father had already made I managed to sell to the new jeweler in town. He’s also a watchmaker and he’s doing very well. I’m afraid people will forget my father now. Its really sad. I won’t have much money when this is all over with. Dad had some big debts and the loss of the building didn’t help. I’ll try to save up and come visit you soon. I miss you too. Since you sent me a special hug I’ll send you one back. HMMMMM did you feel it? I hope so.

Love,
Jane

Amanda noticed that Jane always answered Buck’s letters the day they arrived and waited impatiently for the next one to arrive. She guessed that Buck was doing the same since the letters were very regular. Jane finally showed Amanda the letters; they were tied with a piece of purple ribbon and had been read many times. The first letter was very general asking how she was, where she was staying and what she planned to do once her father’s estate was settled. There were almost twenty letters and Amanda could see the two were becoming very close. Buck had even sent Amanda a letter with money for Jane’s birthday instructing Amanda to buy Jane a nice dress or something she needed, wrap it up and mark it from him. Jane had been thrilled when she opened the package. Amanda smiled as she placed the letter which had arrived that day on Jane’s pillow; the younger woman was obviously in love.

Jane was combing through the remains of her father’s bedroom when she finally saw the box she’d been searching for. “Hack, I see it….. over here….” Jane reached her fingers toward the tiny wooden box and almost had it. She shifted her position just enough to put her weight on a beam that had been burned most of the way through. Just as her fingers closed on the box a loud snap was heard and the building moaned. Jane screamed!

The next few moments played out in slow motion for Hack as he turned to see the wall that had been sagging more and more finally give up and the whole front of the building collapsed into the street below. People scattered at the sound of the snap and the horses broke away from the hitching post as the noise grew deafening. Jane disappeared with the dust as the roof over that section was pulled down by the wall that caved in on itself; the first floor wall was pushed violently out into the street. Hack ran toward the back of the building and stood in a doorway hoping the frame would hold; it did.

When the dust settled the front of the building was in pieces in the street and people were running toward the disaster call to see if anyone had been hurt. The staircase that once stood in the middle of the building was now standing alone in the middle of the debris field. Hack was stuck on the second floor with no quick way down. He looked at the staircase and decided against making a jump for it; it was leaning heavily to the right. “Find Jane! PLEASE! She’s in that jumble somewhere. JANE! JANE!” Hack shouted franticly.

Someone found a ladder and maneuvered through the rubble to help Hack down, he was scratched up and his shirt was torn but otherwise he was OK. People were digging with their bare hands trying to find Jane. Someone finally yelled that they had found a foot and soon the young woman’s body was uncovered. Amanda had raced to the scene as soon as she’d heard the news and was at Jane’s side as soon as the debris covering her was removed. Amanda brushed the hair from the girl’s face and noticed blood pouring from a gash on her head just over her left ear. Without thinking she tore a piece from her petticoat and used it to stifle the flow of blood. “Jane, Jane, honey, can you hear me? You’re gonna be alright.” One of the sheriff’s deputies came over, picked Jane up and began to carry her to the doctor’s office. Amanda turned on Hack. “What happened? I’m paying you to keep her safe….” The angry woman looked the dusty man over. “Are you OK?”

“I’m fine thanks for asking……I’m not sure what happened, she called to me that she’d found ‘it’ and started to reach for something in the really burned out area and then the whole place came down. I’m sorry; I just couldn’t reach her in time.” The Kangaroo Kid looked down at his feet.

“I’m glad you’re OK and I’m sorry I snapped at you, come on let’s go over to the Doc’s and see how she is.” Amanda took Hack’s arm and they walked away from the mess in the street as the townspeople began cleaning it up; everyone was grateful no one else had been hurt.

“She was clutching this.” The Doc handed Amanda a tiny wooden box, the outside was badly singed but the inside was untouched. The box was lined with purple velvet and nestled in the folds were a small diamond ring and two beautiful matching wedding bands; the smaller band had a tiny notch where the diamond’s band locked into it.

“These must be her parents’ wedding bands. She said her father was keeping them for her.” Amanda closed the box and placed it in her pocket. “Is she going to be OK?”

“She has a deep cut on her head and she’ll have one heck of a headache but I believe she’ll be fine in a few days. I don’t suggest you let her go climbing around in that disaster any more. I’m going to keep her over night and then tomorrow she should be able to go home. I want her on bed rest for at least a week.” The Doc was looking over Hack as he spoke. “You look fine how do you feel?

“I’m fine thanks; I just want to get cleaned up.” Hack looked at Amanda. “Are you going to stay here or head back to the hotel?” Amanda looked at the Doc.

“She’ll sleep through the night so you don’t need to stay.” The Doc said as he ushered them out of his office.

CHAPTER THREE

Dearest Jane,

I think I understand your grief now. I don’t know how to say this anyway other than to just say it…. Ike was killed last week. I’m so alone and empty I don’t know what to do. This is eating me up. I hate the world right now. I can’t sleep without seeing his face. I kept his red bandana and it still smells like him but its beginning to fade and it feels like I’m losing him all over again. I’m so lost. I wish you were here I could really use one of your special hugs. I don’t know what your plans are but if you have time, could you come for a visit. Rachel would love to meet you and I know the others would love to see you again. I’m sorry I’m throwing all of this at you but I think you’re the only person who can really understand how hurt I am by his death. Everyone tells me to get over it. I can’t, I just can’t! I’ll write when I’m in a better mood just throw this away and forget you got it.

Your friend,
Buck

The letter had several blotches where the ink had gotten wet and both Amanda and Jane guessed they were from Buck’s tears. Amanda had given the letter to Jane hoping it would cheer her up but the contents of the letter made both women cry. Amanda fondly remembered the fun loving young man and his favorite donkey, Sampson. She remembered that Buck and Ike were very close and wondered how he’d survive without his best friend. Jane remembered Ike as Buck’s other half, playful and friendly, but smart and brave as well. They wondered what had happened.

“He needs me.” Jane held the letter tightly to her heart and cried. “Amanda, I have to figure out how to buy a ticket to Rock Creek.” Jane reached into the small nightstand beside the bed and pulled out a handkerchief. “I know you won't let me go to the closing on the land but will you find out how much a ticket will cost and if there’s enough left over after the lawyer pays the bills will you buy one for me? Please?”

Amanda smiled at the young woman in the bed. “That’s the day after tomorrow right?” Jane nodded and another tear slipped down her face. “Of course I’ll do that for you. I also plan to watch that lawyer and make sure everything is done right for you. Why don’t you write to Buck and tell him you’ll come to visit him soon.” Amanda stood then leaned over and kissed the younger woman on the forehead. “But you’re not going anywhere until the Doc says you can, understand?”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Jane smiled wanly as she reached for her paper and ink.

My Dear Buck,

Are you OK? I was very upset to hear about Ike. Amanda and I both cried, Amanda asked me to tell you how sorry she was to hear about Ike she really liked him. I wish I had gotten to know him better. Amanda told me about the donkey and the dance and everything. Your heart must be broken, how did it happen? I’m so worried about you. I know you and Ike were like brothers and this must really be tearing you up. I’m so sorry. I want to come and see you as soon as I can. The estate will be settled by the end of the week and as soon as the doctor says I can travel I’ll be on the stage to you. Your bad feelings were right about the building, all the rain we had weakened it and I stepped in the wrong place. The whole thing came crashing down but I’m OK. I got a bad cut on my head and knocked myself out but other than a few bumps and bruises I’m fine so don’t worry. I found the rings, they weren’t damaged at all. That’s what I was reaching for when the walls collapsed.

I forgot to tell you about the dress Amanda bought me from you for my birthday it’s a beautiful lavender dress with lace and ribbons and a velvet sash, that was so sweet. I hope you’ll be able to see me in it someday. Thank you so much. I hope you can feel my hugs because I want to hug you so bad it hurts.

All my love,
Jane

One week later:

“That’s all I have left?” Jane stared incredulously at the few bills the Lawyer handed her after the sale of the land the store had stood on. Amanda and Hack stood behind her and shook their heads.

“I’m very sorry Miss Benedict but the cleanup after the building collapsed cost quite a bit. A lot more than I would have expected but it destroyed the boardwalk and the hitching posts in front of the building and, when it fell, it damaged the awning of the building on the left.” Mr. Rozzi, the lawyer, handed her some papers to sign and once that was done he shook her hand, nodded to Amanda and Hack then left.

Jane turned to Amanda and smiled sadly. “I guess its all over now, everything I have is in that bedroom upstairs. I need to find a job do you need any help?” She asked with a look of desperation...she had to find some way of getting enough money together to get to Buck.

“I’ve got everyone I need right now but we’ll think of something. I thought you were planning on going to go to Rock Creek for a while?” As the young girl’s eyes dropped down Amanda quickly realized the problem “You know that you’re welcome to come to Benton with us. You can stay with me for as long as you want and I’m sure sooner or later there will be a job for you, if that’s what you really want to do.” Jane looked like she was going to cry she wanted more than anything to see Buck and it wasn’t going to happen. Amanda touched the girl’s arm then looked over at Hack who shrugged his shoulders.

“I’ve got to get back to the office in Benton before they make me pay to keep my job.” Hack tried to make Jane laugh but she only smiled sadly and turned away. She walked slowly toward the stairs and ascended them even slower. “Why is she so upset? Why is Rock Creek such a big deal? She’s got a roof over her head and I know you won’t let her starve….”

“Didn’t you just hear me ask if she was going to Rock Creek? I know I spoke Jane heard me……She wants to go visit Buck Cross in Rock Creek, she likes him, and I think she’s short about ten dollars and that’s if she uses every penny for the ticket and doesn’t eat any meals on the way there. Buck offered to buy her a ticket but she wants to do this herself. She still doesn’t have many clothes and what she does have are almost all hand-me-downs. I think she was planning on buying a new dress or two and she really needs a new pair of shoes. I can give her a place to stay and food to eat but she doesn’t want charity. Any money she’s earned she’s given to me to pay for her room and board. Why is it so hard for you to understand that?” Amanda spat at Hack and spun on her heels to go check on Jane. She climbed the stairs muttering to herself, 'Men never listen and they think we're hard to understand........'

Dearest Jane,

I cannot tell you how much I’m looking forward to your visit. Please know that you can stay as long as you like. Rachel says you can stay at the house with her so you don’t need to worry about a hotel room or rooming house. I’m glad you’re ok I hope you can travel soon. I need someone to understand how hard Ike’s death has been for me. Teaspoon tried to give me some time off and I was going to come see you but I came across a wagon that had been attacked and helped the lone survivor birth her baby. She was kind and named the baby Ike. I was so happy but by the time I got her and the baby safely to Rock Creek I’d used up all my time. Please say you’ll try to come soon. I miss you. I need you.

Yours, Buck

A week later they were all settled in, back in Benton, but Jane wanted to see Buck now more than ever. Jane asked Amanda if they could talk, “I’ve been to everyplace I can think of to get a job and so far no one has anything I can do. I need you to do something for me. I spoke with the jeweler and he agreed to buy the rings, he’s offered me a fair price and I’ll have enough for the ticket, traveling money and some new clothes. I can’t sell them, they mean too much to me so I’m asking you to do it for me. Please?” Jane was crying when she finished and handed the box to Amanda.

“Are you sure about this?” Amanda accepted the box.

Jane nodded and handed her the envelope from Buck that had arrived the day they left Falls Church. “He needs me….”

CHAPTER FOUR

“I had your bags sent ahead, they’re already loaded up top. Have a good trip and be sure to write me when you get there.” Amanda hugged Jane and kissed her cheek.

“I will and thank-you for everything. I don’t know what I would have done without your help.” Jane accepted Hack’s hand as he helped her into the stagecoach.

“Does Buck know you’re on the way?” The Kangaroo Kid had grown fond of Jane and wanted only the best for her.

“I sent a letter today but I’ll probably get there before the letter does.” Jane reached down and hugged him.

“Have a safe trip.” He kissed her hand and closed the door.

“If you can’t find a job there or things don’t work out, don’t forget you’ll always have a place here.” Amanda called out as the stage began to pull away.

~*~*~

“Excuse me but could you tell me where the Pony Express station is?” Jane asked the driver as he unloaded her bags.

“It’s right at the end of the road over there, you can’t miss it. There’s one of the boys now. HEY CODY!” The stage driver called to Cody who was loading the wagon with supplies. “Cody, I’ve got someone here who wants to get to your station.”

Cody walked toward the stage and stopped suddenly…”Jane?.... Is that really you? What…. Where are your bags?” He drew the young woman in for a bear hug. “You look great!”

“Yes, Billy, it’s me…. My bags are there….those two.” Jane hugged him back and pointed to the bags.

“Are you sure Miss? This trunk is marked for you just the same as them two bags.” The driver handed Cody the bags and indicated a large travel trunk on the back end of the stage.

Jane looked at the tag on the trunk and smiled; written in Amanda’s neat hand it read “For your new life in Rock Creek, Best of Luck, Love, A.” “I guess it is mine Amanda must have gotten me a few things I didn’t know about.”

Cody loaded her bags on the wagon and the driver helped him with the trunk. “Thanks, Tony, have a safe ride.” Cody waved to the stagecoach driver as he climbed back on the stage and snapped the reins, urging the horses into an easy lope. “Jane, its great to see you again, here let me give you a hand up.” Cody helped her into the wagon seat for the short ride to the station. “I gotta tell you, you look really good all dressed up! This is it….home sweet home” Cody swept his arm around the area ahead of him.

“Thanks, Billy. I’ve missed all of you. Buck wrote and told me about Ike. I’m so sorry…” Jane saw Jimmy’s palomino tied to the corral fence as they neared the station. The station was only few hundred yards from the Stagecoach stop at the far end of town. The bunkhouse, main house, corral and large barn formed a square at the end of the street. Beyond the barn she could see the pastures where the express and stage horses grazed. There appeared to be a small river or creek a couple of hundred feet behind the bunkhouse. It was so much different here then in Falls Church or Benton, Jane felt at home instantly but really didn’t know why. Her attention was drawn back to the yard at the sound of a man’s voice.

“It’s about time Cody…..” Jimmy started to tease Cody but stopped when he saw Cody wasn’t alone. “Is that Jane? KID, LOU, we got company!” Jimmy jogged over to the wagon, lifted Jane down by the waist and hugged her. “I gotta tell ya, you look a whole lot better in a dress then boys’ clothes.” Lou and Kid came running from different directions; Kid from the barn and Lou came out of the house with Rachel right behind her.

Lou ran to Jane and hugged her tightly. “You are a sight for sore eyes! OH, this is Rachel. Rachel Dunne….Jane Benedict, she’s the girl we met when we went after Emory Pike.”

“Yes, I’m very pleased to finally meet you, I’ve heard a lot about you…Buck said you were planning to visit but he didn’t say when. He’s out on a run but he’s due back tomorrow. I’m so sorry he couldn’t meet you at the stage. I wish he’d told someone so we could have met you there, it was just lucky that Cody was picking up supplies. ” Rachel hugged the young woman and guided her toward the house.

“Don’t blame Buck; he didn’t know when I’d be arriving. How is he? He told me Ike was killed and he seemed to take it pretty hard.” Jane allowed Rachel and Lou to bring her into the house while Cody, Kid and Jimmy brought in her bags and the trunk.

“He did, I’ve been worried about him…. I’m really glad you’re here he talks about you all the time. How are you feeling…..Buck said you had a scare when a roof fell in?” Jane nodded but Rachel was distracted by Cody dropping her bags. “Cody can you put her things in the spare bedroom upstairs? Thanks.” Rachel led the group into the kitchen. “Lou, there’s fresh coffee on the stove, could you pour us all a cup? Would you like something to eat?” Rachel set about heating up some left over stew for the hungry traveler. The boys came downstairs and excused themselves as they left to finish unloading the supplies and doing chores.

“I’m much better now thank-you.” Jane gratefully accepted the coffee from Lou as Rachel placed a plate of stew and some bread on the table. This felt like home, the only thing missing was Buck. “I hope I’m not imposing, Buck said you’d offered to let me stay at the station. I can get a hotel room if I’m too much trouble.”

“Nonsense! We’ve got lots of room and I’d love to have you. Buck will be thrilled to find you here. We’ve been worried about him too. For the first week I don’t think he ate anything at all, he was angry all the time and nothing we said or did helped. When you wrote that you’d come as soon as you could he started getting a little better. At least now I’m not worried that he’ll be careless and get himself killed too.” Rachel sipped her coffee as they chatted and Jane enjoyed her late lunch.

“What happened to Ike? Buck didn’t go into it in his letters. This is wonderful Miss Dunne.” Jane finished up the last of the stew on her plate and dabbed her mouth with her napkin.

“Oh please, call me Rachel. I think Buck should give you all the details of what happened. I wasn’t here when it happened. I’m sure Lou will be glad to fill in any gaps once he tells you his version of the events and answers any questions. He really needs someone to talk to. If you don’t mind me asking how old are you?” Rachel had a good idea of the feelings Buck had toward this young woman and her motherly instincts were aroused; Jane looked very young. She was dressed in a simple blue dress with a high neckline and long sleeves. Her long light brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail.

“Thank-you Rachel, I’m sure Buck will tell me everything in his own time but the suspense may kill me…. He’s not the most forthcoming of people sometimes. Um, I’m sixteen, I just turned sixteen. Is that a problem?” Jane looked down at her hands. “Maybe I shouldn’t have come…..”

“I didn’t mean to make you feel unwelcome, I’m sorry if I did. I just don’t want Buck to get himself, or you, in trouble. He’s hurtin’ and I’m not sure what he’ll do, until he starts thinking right again; just be careful OK?” Rachel touched Jane’s arm as she spoke to reassure the young woman then stroked her hair. “You have beautiful hair, I’d love to plait it for you someday….. I’ve got an hour or so before I have to start dinner so what do you say we go get you settled in?”

“OK, but only if I can help you with dinner. I’ve been living in a hotel for the last month and a half, I miss cooking. This is going to sound really bad but I even miss washing dishes!” Jane laughed as she stood and followed Rachel toward the stairs.

“Jane, Cody is gonna LOVE you!!!” Lou laughed as she picked up the few dishes off the table and placed them in the washbasin before following them up the stairs.

The valises were placed on a small braided rag rug beside the three quarter sized bed that sat in the middle of the far wall between two windows. The trunk sat at the foot of the bed against the white metal footboard which was a smaller version of the headboard. There was an armoire on the side wall flanked by a dressing table and mirror on the left and a five draw chest of drawers on the right. The wall opposite the bed sloped down toward the eves with a dormered window and a window seat; a privacy screen stood in the corner. The wash table was beside the door on the right. The room was done in a light blue with pink and white curtains tied back with light blue ribbons. The quilt on the bed was done in the same colours.

The first valise they opened contained five everyday dresses, three skirts, four shirts, two nightdresses and all the underpinnings a young lady should have plus slippers. Rachel placed the camisoles, stockings and pantaloons in drawers while Lou helped Jane smooth out and hang the dresses. Jane chose one to change into and stepped behind the privacy screen in the corner to change; she put the clothing she’d traveled in in a heap to be washed. Rachel had to laugh when she unpacked an apron with a J embroidered on the pocket. “I guess we’ll know whose apron this is!” Rachel looked at the stitching. “This is really fine work did you make it?”

“Thanks, yes and the brown skirt and the gingham dress. I used to make all my clothing and some of my father’s as well. Amanda bought me some fabric when we first got back to Falls Church so I could make a few things, mostly the underclothes, her girls gave me some clothes they didn’t wear anymore. I’ve been sewing since I was little. I’d be happy to help you with any sewing you need done.”

“With eight of us here there is more than enough for both of us; I could really use the help!” Rachel smiled, she liked Jane already.

The empty valise was placed in the bottom of the closet. The second valise contained the boy’s clothing she’d worn, some heavier clothing for cooler weather and a pair of new boots. It also had all her father’s tools and the few things she’d managed to salvage from the store. Jane noticed that many of the small things she’s salvaged were still missing and she figured they must be in the trunk. They were just about to open the trunk when they heard Kid shout “Rider Coming”.

“Oh my, that’s got to be Noah! I think the time got away from us. We’ll have to save the trunk for later.” Rachel tossed the extra blankets for the bed onto the trunk. “Come on ladies, we’ve got some hungry men to feed.” Rachel hurried toward the stairs.

“I’m glad you’re here Jane. This is the best thing that could happen to Buck, he even talks about you in his sleep. He’s kept all your letters. I think they’re under his mattress, I’ve seen him reread them… a lot!” Lou smiled as the younger girl blushed.

“I’ve got all of his too, at least I did. I’m hoping that they’re in the trunk. Did he tell you he sent Amanda money to buy me a dress for my birthday! I’m hoping that there’ll be a dance or something coming up so that I can wear it, it’s really fancy and I feel so, I don’t know, special and pretty in it!” Jane followed Lou down the stairs and into the kitchen. They peeled potatoes and snapped beans for supper while Rachel made some of her special biscuits and gravy.

Jane helped carry the supper over to the bunkhouse when it was done. She had barely put her bowl of mashed potatoes on the table when both Noah and Teaspoon were on their feet giving her welcoming hugs! Dinner was a happy affair as the friends caught up on all the events of the last month; no one mentioned Ike. Everyone told her how much Buck spoke about her and how impressed they were that she had the guts to stand up to Emory Pike. They were all amazed that she’d come out of the building collapse with mostly minor injuries. She told them she’d like to learn more of her father’s trade and someday open a shop of her own. Teaspoon pointed out that the only jeweler in Rock Creek was an elderly widower with no children. Jane had to laugh when Cody suggested that she marry him and inherit the business.

Finally the dinner dishes were washed and the riders all said good night. Jane walked back to the house with Rachel and decided to put away the things in the trunk tomorrow. The two women said good night and Rachel hugged Jane at her door way. “Sweet dreams, Jane, Buck should be back well before lunch, possibly as early as breakfast time tomorrow, so get a good nights sleep.”

CHAPTER FIVE

Jane awoke to the sound of thunder, as she lay in bed lightning lit up the room as brightly as the sun would. Jane felt a spray of dampness and realized she’d left a window open she got out of bed and pushed the wet curtains back to close the window. That was when she saw him. The sky was starting to lighten as dawn neared and the lightning flashed spotlighting a person limping into the yard leading a limping horse to the barn. It was Buck. Jane pushed the window closed and ran down the stairs and out the front door in her nightgown and bare feet. She didn’t notice Rachel in the kitchen already preparing the riders’ breakfast.

“BUCK, Buck!” Jane called as she ran to the soaked rider.

Buck spun around at the sound of his name being called and nearly fell over in the mud. “JANE!” he dropped the reigns and half limped half hopped to the excited girl. He pulled her tightly against him and the rain seemed to choose that moment to come down harder. “Is it really you? When did you get here? Why didn’t you tell me you were on your way?” The questions poured out of him as fast as the rain poured down on them. He brushed a strand of wet hair off of her face. The thunder boomed loudly and his next words were lost. Another flash of lightning split the sky. Jane put her mouth next to his ear so he could hear her over the sound of the storm.

“It’s me! I came as soon as I could!” Jane held on to him tightly. They walked closer to the barn arm in arm then looked at each other again once they were mostly in the lee of the barn.

“Are you alright?” They asked each other at the same time, laughed and hugged again. The rain soaked the young couple to the skin as the storm rumbled overhead.

An annoyed snorting followed but it took the sound of the barn door getting kicked to bring Buck back to his senses. The horse was standing in the over hang of the barn trying its best to get out of the rain. “I guess he wants out of this weather.” Buck laughed and put his arm around her shoulders. They started walking the last five feet to the barn when another brilliant flash of lightning lit up the yard. Jane suddenly realized that her night dress was not only plastered against her body but hid nothing. Buck noticed the white material had become transparent too but he was gentleman enough to quickly remove his coat and put it around the embarrassed girl. They reached the barn and Buck quickly unlocked the doors, the horse went directly to his stall with another snort and stomped his feet waiting for Buck to remove the wet tack. Rachel watched from the living room as the couple entered the barn.

“I have to take care of the horse, have a seat on the hay, here’s a blanket it smells a bit like a horse but at least this one is dry, my coats soaked through too.” Buck laughed then gently pushed the hair back from her face hooking it over her ear. He put his finger under her chin and leaned closer to her. Jane closed her eyes not sure what to expect next. She felt his lips kiss her tenderly on the forehead and heard him sigh softly; another snort and a stomp drew his attention back to the weary animal.

“Thank-you, Buck.” Jane curled up on the hay bail, pulled the blanket tightly around herself and watched him work with the horse. He spoke softly to the animal and soothed it every time the thunder rumbled. He’d lit a lantern when they came in the barn and Jane enjoyed watching him move in his wet clothing. He was still limping and Jane finally looked down at his legs. His left leg was soaked in what looked like blood from the mid thigh down. He was looking at something on the horse’s leg too and rubbing the animal down gently. “Buck, are you hurt? Did you get shot?” Jane stood, both the blanket and Buck’s jacket fell to the floor, as she came toward him.

“No, I was trying to beat the storm and we took a tumble about a mile out from the station in the mud. Looks like we both got cut up a little bit.” Buck pulled up his shirt a little to reveal a number of bloody scratches on his chest and ribs; a nasty looking bruise was already forming on his left side. The horse had similar scratches on his left flank and a few deeper cuts on his lower legs; none were serious.

“Your thigh looks like its bleeding a lot, let me see.” Jane knelt in front of Buck as she pulled the fabric over the cut back exposing the wound. Buck leaned against the horse and moaned when Jane’s fingers probed the edges of the cut.

“WHAT IS GOING ON IN HERE?” Rachel’s voice startled both animals and humans alike. Buck and Jane looked at each other and Buck suddenly realized what it must look like to Rachel. His shirt was out of his pants, Jane was on her knees in front of him with her hand on his thigh and he had his back to Rachel. While Jane’s nightgown was not stuck to her body anymore it was no less see through than it was before.

“It’s not what you’re thinking, honest!” Buck stammered. He could feel his face becoming beet red. “Jane, I think you should put that blanket or my coat back on, now, Please!” he whispered loudly to the bewildered girl.

“Buck? Rachel, why are you mad? Buck’s hurt, please take a look.” Jane stood up and followed Buck’s eyes down her body. Suddenly embarrassed, she grabbed the blanket off the floor and wrapped it around her again. Rachel walked to the stall and looked down at Buck’s leg. She smiled when she saw he actually was hurt and she’d walked in on nothing less innocent than Jane checking the wound.

“Alright, I’m sorry, Jane why don’t you go inside and change into something dry and Buck, go with her. I’ll grab some clean clothes for you and meet you in the kitchen so I can take a look at your leg. Is the horse all set?”

“He’ll be fine for now, I’ll come back out and clean the cuts off better once he’s calmed down a bit. I think he’s mad at me right now.” Buck picked his jacket up off the floor and took the blanket off Jane, replacing it with his jacket; he tossed the blanket over the rails of the stall. Together they limped out the barn door with Rachel behind them. Rachel watched them walk into the house then quickly ducked into the bunkhouse to get some dry clothing for Buck.

The storm had woken everyone up and they were all in various stages of dress or undress in the case of Cody. He was crawling under his bunk in nothing but his longjohn bottoms. “Cody, what are you looking for?” Rachel stifled a laugh as the startled rider banged his head on the bed in his haste to cover himself as he scrambled up from the floor.

“My socks, Rachel, I lost my clean socks. I, I,” He had sat down to cover himself better. He didn’t mind Lou seeing him like this but Rachel was another matter.

“Cody try looking IN your trunk not UNDER your bed.” Rachel drew in a deep breath then turned to the others. “We’ll have breakfast over at the house in an hour. Buck came back early and he’s hurt. It doesn’t look bad so don’t worry I’ll just need a little time to patch him up. Kid could you check on Buck’s horse? It looks like they fell and both of them got cut up.

“Does Jane know Buck’s back?” Lou piped up from her bunk.

“Yes, she saw him ride in, I guess, and was trying to help him in the barn.” Rachel opened the door just as the rain started pouring heavily again. “Damn rain; remember breakfast in an hour at the house.” She gathered her skirt in her hands to keep it out of the mud and ran to the house.

Buck was waiting in the kitchen, alone, someone had started the coffee and the house smelled wonderful. He was still dressed in the wet clothing but his coat was placed over the back of a chair and placed near the stove to dry. The big kettle for bath water was also heating.

“You’ll catch your death in those wet things, take off your shirts first and let me look at you.” Rachel poured some hot water in a basin and added some soap. She turned to see Buck wince as he pulled the shirt off over his head. “Hmmm, that hurt, huh? See these things; they’re buttons, you….”

“I know, I know, Rachel we weren’t doing anything wrong. I swear I didn’t touch her. OUH!” Buck winced as Rachel touched one nasty looking bruise on his side. “Is it broken?”

“I don’t think so but its bruised bad. Maybe later you should let the Doc look at you. I’ll clean up the rest, I promise I’ll be gentle.” Rachel tenderly cleaned all the cuts on Buck’s chest and side. “I see the water is on for you to get a bath if you want one. Smells like the coffee is ready, want a cup?”

“Thanks and yes to both.” Buck smiled; he knew Rachel wasn’t mad at him.

“I’ll get the coffee!” a small voice spoke from the doorway. Do you want me to start the bacon too?” Jane, now fully clothed had noticed the slab Rachel had taken out to cook for breakfast. “I put the water on for a bath if you want one Buck.” She avoided looking at Buck’s bare chest.

“That would be great Jane; the eggs are in the pie safe on the left of the sink if you want to start them too. I think they keep better in there.” Rachel pointed out where everything was and Jane began cooking. “Buck why don’t you go in the mudroom and take off the rest of your wet things, You can wrap up in the quilt out there and come back in so I can work on your leg, that looks kinda nasty. Rachel had noticed that the two young people were a little embarrassed that Buck was shirtless. Rachel wondered how long the innocence would last.

Buck rose and disappeared into the mud room emerging moments later barefoot and wrapped securely in an old quilt. Rachel took the huge kettle she heated bath water in off the stove and poured it out into the tub in the mudroom then refilled it and placed it on the stove to heat up a second kettleful. “Let me see that leg Buck. What did you get caught on? This is filthy! There’s mud and twigs in the cut. Oh honey, this is deep. I’ll do the best I can then I want you to soak it for awhile and I’ll clean it again after you get out of the tub.” Rachel began the arduous process of cleaning the cut. Buck winced a few times but said nothing.

The others finished up the early morning chores and filed in for breakfast just as it was ready and Buck settled back in the tub for a much needed hot soak. The door to the mudroom was closed but he could still hear the usual banter as the riders ate their meal. He heard several compliments about the cooking and smiled; Jane was fitting right in.

CHAPTER SIX

Once his leg was cleaned out again and bandaged he dressed in his clean clothes and had breakfast. He started to go take care of his horse but Rachel told him she had asked Kid to see to it and it was all done. Buck sat down on the sofa to visit with Jane a while but while Jane was telling him about the events in Falls Church she noticed his head was nodding. “Buck did you ride all night?” He nodded, his eyelids were heavy. “I can wait, you need sleep. Why don’t you go sleep for a few hours and then we’ll talk OK?” Again Buck nodded and slipped down into a prone position on the sofa; his head rested on one of the decorative pillows. Before Jane was able to return with a blanket for him, he was sound asleep. He slept most of the day and missed lunch, Cody happily ate Buck’s portion of the sandwiches while Rachel shook her head.

Jane spent the day helping Rachel with the chores around the station and while she was sorting the laundry she found several things which needed mending. She placed them all in a pile on top of her trunk at the end of her bed. The boys were hard on their clothing and Jane soon had a basket full of socks that needed darning and shirts with missing buttons or tears in the pockets or elbows. One of the shirts that needed to be fixed was the one Buck had been wearing the night before. Jane took it off the clothes line and quickly fixed the small tear on the side. Before she folded it and put it in Buck’s pile she added a little note and slipped it in the pocket.

That night Buck was still working on his chores as the dinner bell rang. He’d barely gotten to see Jane at all and he felt a little guilty. Rachel noticed that Buck made it a point to sit beside Jane and very often offered her the food first or just served her. He asked her to go for a walk with him after dinner and Jane accepted but informed him she would have to do the dishes first.

“I guess that leg is feeling better? Don’t forget you still have some chores to finish up on too.” Rachel reminded Buck.

“Yes Ma’am I’ll finish them first…My leg is still sore but I don’t want it to stiffen up. I think sleeping helped a lot.” He looked at Jane and smiled shyly. “We won’t go far.” He reached for her hand without thinking. He was falling hard and fast for the young woman and Rachel made a mental note to keep a very close eye on the couple.

The dinner dishes were finally done and Jane had the rest of the evening to herself. Buck was waiting on the bunkhouse porch having finished his chores and washed up. “Are you ready for that walk now?” Buck led her toward the corral and the back pastures. The moon was nearly full and a soft silver glow bathed the landscape. “I’m very glad you’re here. I’ve needed someone to talk to and no one here seems to understand how hard it is for me.” Buck’s leg was still very sore and they were walking slowly. “Can I tell you something personal?”

“Sure, I guess so. Does your leg really hurt?” Jane noticed he was limping more.

“Yeah, I guess we should turn around but not before I tell you this. You are beautiful Jane, I love the way the moonlight makes your eyes sparkle and your hair shine; I want to run my fingers through it.” Buck gently pulled the startled girl to him and kissed her tenderly on the forehead. He tentatively pulled the cord that tied her hair back and it cascaded to her shoulders and down her back. “Beautiful, so soft and silky, may I?” Jane nodded, her head rested against his chest, not sure what she was agreeing to. Her hand slowly moved around his waist to the small of his back and the other lay against his stomach, she could feel him breathing and hear his heart beating. She felt very safe. His arms surrounded her while his fingers laced into her hair then let it flow between them; the moonlight made it shimmer. He did this several more times before he kissed her forehead again and hugged her tightly against him moaning slightly. They hugged a moment longer and then turned back toward the bunkhouse.

They stopped at the corral and watched a young horse playing in the moonlight. It was prancing back and forth, tossing its head and appeared fascinated by its shadow. Every few moments it would nicker and paw the ground in an attempt to catch the shadow. Buck whistled and the colt stopped in mid stride, turned its head toward them, looked at them and snorted.

“I guess he told you.” Jane laughed. Buck thought he’d never heard a sweeter sound. The colt resumed his play and the couple resumed their walk toward the bunkhouse and the other riders.

They were greeted by everyone as Buck limped toward the stairs. The night was pleasant not hot but not too cool either, a perfect night to just sit and enjoy being outside. Kid and Lou were sitting together on two different steps; Lou was between Kid’s legs with her back to him. Kid’ hands rested on her shoulders while Lou’s head rested against his leg; she absentmindedly stroked his knee. Noah sat leaning against the railing to the left while Jimmy was on the right; Cody sat on the same step as Kid. Jesse was sitting on a turned over rain barrel worrying a stick with his pocket knife. Teaspoon and Rachel were sitting together on the swing. “How was your walk Buck?” Teaspoon asked. “Jesse, watch it with that thing, don’t go cuttin’ nothin’ off, you’re starting at the blacksmith’s after school tomorrow.”

Jesse scowled at Teaspoon but moved his finger out of harms way. Cody looked Buck and Jane over, noticing her hair was down. “You’re walking a little funny Buck.” Then he lowered his voice and spoke quietly to Buck… “Did you get lucky?” He winked at Buck. Buck ignored the remark and the gesture. Kid and Lou both heard Cody and gave him a dirty look.

“It sure is a nice night for a walk; I’m surprised you two weren’t gone longer. You’re limping again how’s that leg doing?” Rachel asked concerned for Buck’s health.

“It’s throbbing a bit so we cut it short.” Buck limped around to the other side of the steps and pushed Cody’s leg out of his way so he could sit. Cody burst out laughing. “What is your problem, Cody?”

“Frustrated, Buck? No dancing tonight?” Cody tried to calm his laughing down but failed. Jane looked from Cody to Buck and back to Cody again. Suddenly it hit her that Cody was laughing at her and Buck. Buck had made the mistake of telling her about Jimmy’s new use for the term dancing once when he mentioned Lou and Kid were becoming more serious.

Jane turned and looked at Buck; he looked disgusted at Cody and Teaspoon kicked Cody in the back but the damage was done. “What am I? Am I supposed to be just another notch on your belt?” Jane turned and ran toward the house.

“Cody, I’ll kill you.” Buck snarled as he started after Jane. “Jane, wait….”

“I’ll help” Jimmy and Noah both offered at the same time.

“There weren’t no dance tonight… what are you all talking about?” Jesse asked innocently then the reality set in. “Way to go Buck!!”

“Jesse go to bed, you’ve got school in the morning.” Teaspoon grumbled. Jesse started to protest but stopped when he saw the look on Teaspoon’s face. He nodded and headed to his bunk.

Kid was shaking his head and Lou stood up to follow Jane but not before giving Cody a look that screamed ‘You are in trouble!’’. Rachel angrily brushed by Cody and joined Lou.

“Wha’d I do?” Cody whined, “I was just funnin’ ya is all”

“Cody you are an idiot, no wait, that’s an insult to idiots. I suggest you stay well clear of both Buck and the women for the next few days.” Teaspoon growled.

Everyone left Cody sitting alone on the porch wondering why they were angry with him.

Jane had gone straight to her room, shut the door and threw herself on the bed. Buck was standing outside the door pleading with her to come out.

“Buck why don’t you wait in the parlor, I’ll talk to Jane. Just answer one question……” Rachel paused as Lou joined them.

“Buck if you compromised her I’ll pound you into dirt and then I’ll get mad.” Lou’s eyes glowed with anger, her hands were on her hips and her feet firmly planted on the floor in front of Buck; he cringed.

“I’m not doing anything like that nor do I plan to, I thought you knew me better than that and why are you mad at me, Cody’s the jerk not me.” Buck pushed past Lou and stomped down the stairs.

“He’s right, you know.” Rachel turned to the closed door. “Jane?”

“I’ll go apologize to Buck.” Lou went after Buck.

Finally Rachel was allowed to enter the young girl’s room. Jane was sitting on the bed with her knees drawn up to her chin and her arms wrapped around her legs; she’d been crying. “Jane, I know you’re upset and you have every right to be, but be sure it’s at the right man. Has Buck done anything to you that you didn’t want him to?” Rachel really wasn’t sure how to ask the right questions. Jane didn’t respond at first and Rachel just stood watching her.

“No, not at all, he’s been a perfect gentleman… but, but, why would Cody say that? Is that the real Buck? I thought Buck was my friend but Cody made it seem like Buck had planned to…well….you know….; just make me another…..just use me, and….” She started crying silently and put her head on her knees.

Rachel sat on the bed beside the girl and put her arms around her. “I’ve known Buck awhile now and he’s never given me any cause to believe he is the notch on the belt type. Cody, yes, according to Lou he likes to brag. I think Buck really wants and needs you as a friend and that Cody is a little jealous.”

“Jealous of Buck? Why?” Jane shifted position so she was sitting facing Rachel.

“Buck is the type of person who doesn’t play games, he’s honest and sweet. Don’t get me wrong he has a temper and he can be moody but his heart is in the right place. I wouldn’t want to be Cody when Buck gets his hands on him. I have a mind to punish him a bit myself.” Rachel smiled when she saw Jane brighten up and almost smile.

“Was I overreacting? I guess I just assumed Buck was one of those men my father warned me about. I don’t have much experience with men, well, none really. My mother died when I was really little so I never got to ask her about men. All I know is what my father told me and, to be honest, I think he was being over protective.” Jane smiled for the first time since Rachel came in the room.

“I think you’ll find Buck is overly sensitive sometimes, especially since Ike died, and he has his own set of rules to live by but if anything they’re more restrictive than normal. I’d say give him a chance to prove just how wrong Cody is about him. I’m probably a poor substitute for your own mother but please, feel free to come to me with any questions or concerns you have.” Rachel stood up when Jane did.

“Thanks Rachel, for everything. I guess I need to go talk to Buck.” Jane hugged Rachel and they started downstairs.

While Rachel was upstairs talking to Jane, Lou was downstairs apologizing to Buck. “I’m sorry Buck, I just think of Jane as if she was my little sister, I heard what Cody said and all I could think of was that you’d planned or tried to hurt her. You’re right; you are not the kind of man to just have a roll in the hay. I’ve got no right telling you what you should do or assume what you have done.” Lou watched Buck for his reaction when he didn’t move from the window she continued. “I know Kathleen hurt you and I’m sorry. I’m sorry things didn’t work out for you and Jennifer either…”

Buck turned and Lou stopped speaking; the hurt look on his face was too much. “I’ve never, ever done anything with a woman that she didn’t allow. I am NOT my father. You’ve been alone with me dozens of times, have I ever ONCE done anything to you? Have you ever been afraid I’d do anything to hurt you? Did you ever think I’d rape you?” Buck was very upset, his fists were clenched at his sides but he only turned to the window again. He continued in a very soft voice. “I like her Lou, I know she’s young but she’s a lot like you, independent, strong, brave and yet sort of vulnerable in a way; I admire that about you. Kid’s a lucky man. I really hoped that there was maybe a tiny possibility for Jane to like me too. I’m afraid to hope for more. Is it wrong for me to want to be happy? Cody made my being with her sound dirty, I expect Tompkins to call me names but I never expected it from any of you. Cody made me feel like the low life Tompkins believes I am.” Buck looked down at his feet and turned toward the window again; his shoulders slumped, he looked defeated.

“Thank you Buck, Is that really how you see me?”

Buck nodded. “I’m sorry I snapped at you, thanks for listening. I don’t have many friends Lou, since Ike….you know….” Buck swallowed hard and stared intently out the window.

Lou walked to where Buck was standing and put her arms around him. It took a moment but he finally put his arms loosely around her too. “I can honestly say that anytime I’m with you I feel safe. You have never given me any reason to fear you. I’m sorry I said what I did and you deserve to be happy and loved. Maybe Jane is the person for you and maybe not but no one other than the two of you can decide that.” Lou reached up and kissed his cheek.

Buck looked down at Lou and sighed then quietly laughed.

“What’s that for?” Lou asked when Buck squeezed her slightly and lightly kissed her forehead. Buck broke off the embrace and directed Lou to the sofa.

Buck sat in the chair near the fireplace and propped his leg up on the ottoman. “I think I know now why Kid says you’re hard to figure out! You drive him crazy, you know, he says that even when you’re mad you’re cute. He can’t ever stay mad at you, it’s your eyes! They remind me of a puppy.” Lou tossed a pillow at Buck, he laughed then his tone became serious again. “I hope Rachel’s making progress with Jane.” They had just sat down when Kid and Teaspoon came through the front door.

“You and Jane OK?” Teaspoon queried as he walked to stand in front of the fireplace. Kid sat beside Lou and put his arm around her; she rested her head on his shoulder.

“Rachel’s with her now, she wouldn’t let me in the door.” Buck shrugged and rubbed his sore leg.

“What are you planning to do to Cody? I hope you are not thinking of killing him.” Teaspoon asked only somewhat jokingly.

“Can I at least scare him?” Buck asked with a wry smile.

“No blood, strangulation, eight legged hairy monsters or snakes.” Teaspoon thought back on some of Buck’s former retaliations. “Bacon fat, grease and sand are acceptable!”

“And not in the bunkhouse, Please” Lou laughed.

“I remember we got a tin of warm water and put one of my old friends hands in it while he was sleepin’…..I suggest you do that one outside….” Teaspoon chuckled at the memory.

“Humpf, I can’t have any fun….” Buck grumbled. He did know where a fire ant mound was and he’d only put a few in Cody’s bed roll.

A few moments later Rachel came down the stairs with Jane behind her. Buck started to stand but Jane shook her head she came over and sat on the floor beside him.

They joined the group and everyone talked about how Cody was very good at eating his foot and how often he managed to do it. Buck and Jane sat side by side, occasionally touching, but were never alone the rest of the evening. Jimmy and Noah joined the group about a half hour later and announced that Cody would not be a problem for the rest of the night. He was hog tied and gagged in his bunk. No one believed them at first so Lou ran over and checked; sure enough Cody was tied up. Lou left him just the way he was.

When it was finally time for bed Buck walked Jane to the bottom of the stairs and took her hands in his. “Jane, I’m sorry about what Cody said and I’m sorry if I did anything to hurt you. Are we still friends?” Buck looked into her eyes and waited for an answer.

“Yes, Buck, we’re still friends.” She reached up and kissed his cheek.

“Does that mean you’ll stay in Rock Creek for awhile? I’d like to show you around. We can have Rachel or Lou or someone come with us if you’d feel more comfortable.” Buck looked hopeful, her eyes sparkled, he wanted to kiss her but didn’t want to push his luck.

“I’d like that, just promise me you won’t really kill Cody. Let me do it!” Jane kissed his cheek again and ran up the stairs to her room. The trunk remained unopened.

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