CHAPTER ONE

“Well boys, it appears the company has decided to send out two riders on every run until the current Indian trouble is resolved.” Teaspoon addressed the young men seated at the table in the bunkhouse.

“I told you they don’t care who gets hurt…” Lou interjected shaking his head.

“Well, Lou, the company does care but they didn’t hire orphans for nothin’. Now I taught you boys my bag o’ tricks and I’m sure you’ve made up a few of your own…..” Teaspoon droned on but everyone had turned their attention to Emma.

“You’re not orphans as long as I’m your house mother.” Emma walked up to stand between Lou and Ike, placing her hands on their shoulders. “I care and I want all you boys back here safe and sound.” They all nodded and smiled at her kind words. All of them missed the love of their own mothers, and it felt good to know someone cared.

Emma worried most about Buck, his life didn’t have much happiness in it and the recent events in Tompkins store hadn’t helped. He’d tried to leave the pony express but then Ike had been captured by the Kiowa. He’d managed to secure Ike’s safe release but at a price. True the Kiowa had stopped attacking the Pony Express and it was mostly because of Buck’s intervention but he was changed. She’d seen Buck sitting off, away from the others, with his head bowed. His shoulders had shaken and she wondered if he were crying. Kid had told her and Teaspoon what Buck had endured at the hands of his brother’s tribe and she could still see some of the scars on his body. She longed to hold him and let him know he was loved and wanted but he shied away from her touch. She suspected this so called savage was the most sensitive and gentle of all her boys but he was afraid to let anyone get close to him. The fight with Jimmy and the others was forgiven but not forgotten.

“Is it the Kiowa again?” Cody asked, “Buck, I thought you took care of that problem…. Maybe you should go see your brother again.”

Buck stiffened slightly. “I’m not exactly welcome there anymore Cody, besides I thought Teaspoon said it was the Piute?”

“That’s right son. They’ve mostly been attackin’ the riders through Utah territory but they’re getting bolder.” Teaspoon looked hard at Buck. This was the most he’d said about his ordeal at the hands of the Kiowa. Teaspoon wondered just how much the freedom from attacks had really cost Buck. He’d seen the scar on Bucks chest. He knew Buck had lied to him about how it got there. He wondered if any of the other riders realized what Buck had sacrificed for them. Buck’s own blood had turned him away.

“I’ve worked out a revised schedule that puts two of you on every run. You’ll be partnered up different dependin’ the run. The first run leaves tomorrow morning and its Kid and Ike up next so boys I suggest you get a good night’s sleep!” Teaspoon put the run book on the table for them all to look at.

“Hey how come Buck and Lou don’t have any runs after next Wednesday?” Cody grumbled. “How come they get time off and we don’t”

“Buck, Lou, can I see you outside for a moment?” Buck and Lou exchanged glances and rose to follow Teaspoon outside.

“Boys I’ve got a special run I’m going to send you on at the end of next week. The reason I’m sending you two is because of your unique skills. Buck, you speak Lakota right?” Buck nodded. “If you get stopped you may need to sweet talk your way out so I need to send someone who speaks the language. Lou, you are our fastest rider. If something goes wrong you ride like the devil himself was chasing you. Get back here and we’ll all rescue Buck, if he needs it that is.” He winked at Buck who didn’t look too happy at the suggestion. “It’s a one time only run but its dangerous cos it’s through Lakota territory. If you really don’t want the run I’ll assign someone else. Think it over and let me know in the morning.” Teaspoon turned to Emma who had just come out on the porch of the bunkhouse. “Emma that dinner was wonderful”

Emma looked at the two riders but couldn’t read their expressions. She hoped everything would be alright. “Why thank-you Mr. Spoon” they headed toward the house leaving Buck and Lou standing in the yard.

“You OK, Lou?” Buck asked cautiously. “If you don’t want to go with me “I’ll understand. I’ll talk to Teaspoon tomorrow and try to convince him I’ll be OK, it may even be better if I went alone.”

Buck turned to go back in the bunkhouse. He didn’t know how to take the small rider. Lou was a strange, quiet boy who kept his head down most of the time. He never undressed in front of the others and was very private about his personal care. His clothing was baggy and very loose fitting. He never joined the others down at the swimming hole and always slept facing away from them. Buck shrugged; it was none of his business. He liked Lou well enough; there was just something about him. Buck suspected he had a secret he was keeping to himself but that was Lou’s demon. He had enough of his own. He’d almost reached the door when Lou’s hand on his arm stopped him.

“What if something happens to you? Teaspoon made it sound like one or both of us might not make it back. You shouldn’t be alone.” Lou’s voice was low, his head was bent. “I’ll go.” He raised his face to look Buck in the eye.

Buck looked at the small rider. The light hit Lou’s face softening the features and highlighting his eyes. His eyes were a beautiful soft brown and the lashes were thick. Buck looked down at the hand still resting on his arm. He thought for a fleeting instant that Lou seemed a tad feminine. The hand was almost tiny. “OK, if you’re sure….”

They walked into the bunkhouse and settled in for the night.

CHAPTER TWO

Ten Days Later

There had been little trouble from the Indians so far and the riders were beginning to relax a little. The night before Buck and Lou were to make the special run Emma fixed them a special dinner complete with desert. Both Buck and Lou wondered if this was their last supper.

The run went well until the return trip. It was raining hard and they were soaked to the skin. The wind had kicked up too, cold and biting. Buck had been uneasy the last few miles. They knew they were being watched and probably followed, but they were almost out of Lakota territory and about to cross over into Kiowa territory. Buck sensed rather than saw Indians ahead of them. What Buck and Lou didn’t know was that the band of Lakota following them and been causing trouble for the Kiowa and there was bad blood between the two groups. They were caught in the middle.

The first whoops of the approaching Lakota reached Buck’s ears and he urged his horse into a gallop. Lou matched Buck’s pace and they raced toward the open prairie. Buck heard a shot whistle by his head. Suddenly there were Indians everywhere. He recognized some of them as Kiowa and hoped they recognized him and allowed him to pass. Lou stayed as close as he could to Buck. They were surrounded, caught in the crossfire.

Buck returned fire at the Lakota urging Lou to do the same. One Indian looked a lot like the other so Lou watched Buck carefully and aimed in the same direction. Suddenly Buck grabbed his shoulder and fell backwards from his horse. Lou could see blood seeping between his fingers and watched in horror as his eyes closed. Moments later Lou’s horse reared; a bullet grazing his leg. Lou was thrown violently to the ground almost beside Buck. The world went black.

~*~*~*~

Lou opened her eyes. She was warm, dry, naked and lying beside another naked person. She was terrified. It was dark, too dark to see who was beside her or where she was. She was afraid to move. She lay as still as possible and listened to the sounds of the night. Someone was snoring softy off to her left and there were sounds of another person breathing besides the one on her right. The sounds of leaves rustling and night creatures calling to one another were muffled and she assumed she was inside a shelter of some sort. The naked body on her right moved. It rolled over onto its side and an arm and leg draped themselves over her. Her hand was trapped momentarily by the body as it adjusted its sleeping position. The body was male. She moved her hand so she wasn’t touching the man any more than she had to. His face was near hers and she could feel his breath on her cheek.

The blanket that covered them felt like a skin of some sort and Lou feared she’d been taken by the Indians. She vaguely wondered which tribe had her but figured it probably didn’t matter. They’d removed her clothing so they knew she was a woman. She’d heard all sorts of horror stories about what the Indians did to women captives. Buck was probably dead; she remembered seeing the blood and his eyes closing. He didn’t know she was a girl so she had no hope of him saving her from the man lying beside her even if he were alive. She wondered what had happened to Buck. Her life was over, the future was grim. She was probably going to be raped again. The tears came and she cried herself to sleep.

Someone was speaking. She didn’t recognize the words. The body laying half on top of her stirred and moaned. She was afraid to open her eyes. The next voice she heard shocked her. Buck was speaking but it wasn’t English. Her eyes snapped open and she looked at his face. His chin was resting on her shoulder. His arm was around her waist. His leg was draped across both of hers. He was groggy. He kept blinking and looked up at the Indian squatting beside them. Buck suddenly looked at her as if he saw her for the first time. Buck struggled to prop himself up but the injured arm protested and he settled for just lifting his head. The exchange between the two men resumed and Lou felt Buck’s hand move up from her waist. She was terrified and began to tremble. She closed her eyes and swallowed hard. His hand stopped moving as soon as he felt the swell of her chest then returned to her waist. He pulled her tighter to him; his other arm moving to circle her protectively. She could tell the movement caused him some pain but he ignored it this time. She didn’t know what to think. He had to know she was a girl.

After a few more minutes of what Lou could only describe as a scolding aimed at Buck, the older man rose and left the young couple alone. Buck breathed a sigh of relief. He lowered his head to her shoulder and squeezed her. His head moved so his lips were right beside her ear, “Lou, do you have something you might want to talk to me about? Answer me as softly as possible we are being watched.” His voice was the softest whisper she’d ever heard. He lightly kissed her neck.

“Um, do you mean like how I’m not a he?” Lou asked in a very quiet voice. “What are you doing?” She tried unsuccessfully to push him away. Her fear of being raped escalated.

“That would be a start. Lou, I just lied to my brother and told him you were my wife but I don’t think he believed me. Are you hurt?” He was nuzzling her neck and placing small kisses on her face and neck. She was surprised to find he was being so gentle. “Put your arms around me we need to pretend you’re my wife”

“Buck? What do you mean pretend I’m your wife?” Her voice started to get louder and Buck closed his mouth over hers, effectively silencing her. Lou was surprised to find she was kissing Buck. Buck’s eyes were open and looking directly into hers. When he felt her respond to him, he moaned slightly and closed his eyes. Lou closed her eyes too and wrapped her arms around him. Her fingers wrapped themselves in his hair. Her fear began to wane.

“Oh Lou, I really didn’t expect that.” He breathed into her ear and kissed her again. They held each other close and gently kissed each other’s faces.

Lou suddenly remembered that Buck had been shot. She pushed him slightly and moved. “Let me look at your shoulder. You were shot weren’t you?”

Buck moved onto his back. Lou seemed to forget she had nothing on but the blanket. He could see her now as the blanket fell to her waist. How had he missed seeing her as a woman before? A few things became clearer; Lou was all woman not a feminine man. He closed his eyes and lay still allowing her to see the injury to his shoulder. Her fingers were gentle but he still gasped as she touched the tender skin around the wound. “Red Bear said it went right through. It didn’t hit any bone so I’ll be fine…it just hurts.”

“Here is water to clean it with and a poultice to keep the infection out.” The deep baritone voice and halting English startled both Lou and Buck. Buck moved the blanket to cover Lou and maintain her modesty. Red Bear laughed. “You have lived in the white world too long, my brother. Do you forget where you are? She is your wife. She does not need to cover herself.”

“I’m sorry Red Bear but in the white man’s world only the husband should see his wife’s body.” Lou was shaking in fear but she looked directly at Red Bear. “She’s not used to having other men see her undressed. Where are our clothes?” Buck tried to sit up and look around but he failed. His eyes rolled back and fell back heavily into the arms of both Lou and Red Bear. He groaned in pain but fought to stay conscious.

“He has lost a lot of blood. I will have my wife bring you food and water. You must care for him. He is bleeding again.” Red Bear lowered Buck back onto the sleeping pallet after Lou cleaned and bandaged the wound on his back where the bullet exited his body. “Running Buck did not mention a wife when he was here two moons ago. Have you been married long?” He looked at Lou but it was Buck that spoke.

“I’m sorry, Lou, this is my brother Red Bear. He’s chief of this village. Red Bear this is my wife Lou.” Buck reached up and touched her face. She leaned into his touch and kissed his hand. Red Bear reached across Buck’s body and took Lou into his embrace. Buck’s hand moved down her back and rested at her waist.

“You need to feed her more she is too…” Red Bear made a hand motion and Buck laughed. Lou looked like she’d happily kill them both.

“Skinny, Red Bear didn’t know the English word. Don’t be mad.” Buck pulled Lou down for a quick kiss which, to his surprised, she returned. “We haven’t been married long but we’ve known each other almost four moons.” Her arm circled his waist.

“I will get my wife to bring you food. You need to be husband to her. I want to become an uncle.” Red Bear laughed and placed his hand on Buck’s shoulder. He wasn’t gentle and Buck winced. He knew Buck was lying. Buck swallowed hard.

Moments later a beautiful woman in a simple doe skin dress entered and placed bowls of food and water near the fire pit. She smiled at Lou and handed her a bundle then left the teepee. Lou unfolded the bundle and found it was a dress very much like the one the woman had been wearing. Buck had spoken to the woman in Kiowa and she had answered quickly.

“Our clothes are still drying out. The women washed them this morning. They gave you that to wear for now.” Buck turned his head away and closed his eyes as Lou crawled out from under the blankets to put the dress on.

“You can open your eyes now” Lou whispered to Buck as she sat back down beside him.

Buck did as he was told and looked up at her. “You’re beautiful.” Lou blushed deeply and picked up the water and the washcloth and began cleaning out the bullet hole from the front. Buck gasped several times as Lou cleaned the wound and applied the poultice. “How bad does it look? It sure hurts like hell.”

Lou was getting the bowls of food and water then sat back down beside him. “It looks sore. Can you move your arm OK?” Buck tried with limited success and then tried to sit up again. “Let me help you. Your brother is right; you need to get your strength back.”

“Thanks Lou, for everything.” He touched her face again and was again rewarded with a kiss. “Hmmm, I could get used to that.” I hope it’s not all an act. He thought wistfully to himself.

Lou cared for him all that day even watching him as he slept. She brushed the hair back from his eyes as he slept and traced the curves of his face with her fingers. Buck smiled in his sleep and Lou kissed his forehead and lips lightly. Red Bear checked in on them only once and was pleased to see the woman Buck claimed was his wife touching him in a loving manner. Maybe his brother hadn’t lied after all.

Red Bear’s wife came in and motioned for Lou to follow her. Lou was expected to help the women of the village cook the evening meal and Lou tried her best to do as she was asked. Some of the women laughed at Lou’s obvious lack of skills but they took the time to show her the correct way to do things. That evening Lou did as the other women did and brought Buck his meal before she got any for herself. Both Red Bear and Buck smiled at her. Buck was sitting up on his own with only a little help from his brother. The sleep and food had helped, he would be even better tomorrow.

Buck hadn’t left the teepee at all during the day and hadn’t bothered to get dressed. Lou had brought his clothing in sometime during the afternoon while he was asleep. She didn’t change into her clothes either and still wore the doe skin dress. There were two other sleeping pallets set up over on the side and Lou wondered who they belonged to. She had wondered if there was anyone else sleeping with them last night. She got her answer sooner then she expected.

CHAPTER THREE

The evening became night and both she and Buck were yawning. Red Bear’s wife entered the teepee and slipped out of her dress. Lou noticed that Buck watched his sister-in-law disrobe without shame. The woman was pregnant but not far along, she was still small. He didn’t seem surprised that his brother’s wife was now laying down on one of the other pallets naked. Lou felt Buck’s hand on her arm.

“Why don’t you get a couple of small logs for the fire? Then come lay beside me.” The look in his eyes said it wasn’t a suggestion. She was expected to do some work in the home too.

“OK, be right back.” She left the teepee and returned moments later with the wood for the fire. Red Bear entered immediately behind her. Lou fed the fire and watched in horror as Red Bear also disrobed and lay down beside his wife. Lou realized she was expected to shed her dress as well but her hands started shaking.

“Come here.” Buck was propped up on one elbow smiling at her. Lou didn’t think Buck had the strength to rape her and she wasn’t sure he’d do that anyway. He seemed too gentle. She had to trust him. She moved beside him. Red Bear was watching them and they both knew it. He moved in to kiss her and spoke in that soft voice again. “I’m so sorry; I’ll explain it all later.” His voice was so soft it was barely a whisper. She wasn’t even sure she’d heard him. He kissed her neck as he untied the shoulders of the dress. Lou closed her eyes and lifted the dress over her head. The only light was from the fire and she was in the shadows but she was still uncomfortable.

She lay down in Buck’s arms and rested her head against his chest. He kissed her tenderly and held her close against his body. He smiled when he felt one of her hands move to circle his waist. He understood her fears and had more than a few himself. He wrapped his arms around her protectively and drifted off to sleep.

Sometime around dawn they were awakened by the soft sounds of someone making love. Buck had grown up in the Kiowa village and families lived altogether in the one room teepees. Privacy was never an option. He had heard and seen his brother engaged in this activity before. It bothered Buck that Lou had never been exposed to this type of lifestyle before and she was trembling in his arms. He held her close and rubbed her back in an effort to sooth her. He was slightly angry with his brother for doing this. Buck was sure it was staged to see if Buck would do the same with Lou. Red Bear never made much noise before but this time there was just enough to wake the younger couple up. Buck was aware of his brother looking over at them.

Buck nuzzled Lou’s neck and showered her face with light tender kisses. Their bodies were pressed tightly together and Buck had no intention of moving his hands from her back and shoulders. His head was pressed against hers and her lips were near his ear when he heard her whisper.

“Buck, I was raped. Please don’t let anyone hurt me again.” Lou kissed his neck and buried her face in his chest. She was crying. Buck pulled the blankets over their heads and silently cursed his brother. He cradled her in his arms until he heard his brother leave the teepee. He peeked out from under the covers in time to see his sister-in-law dressing. Buck closed his eyes and sighed.

Buck and Lou lay there a while longer listening to the sounds of the village waking up. Finally Lou pulled away from Buck and rose to get dressed. Buck respectfully closed his eyes. When she knelt down beside him and stroked his face he finally opened them. Her face was only a couple of inches from his; she looked directly into his eyes. “Thank-you, Buck.” The kiss that followed was full of passion and desire. It left them both breathless.

“Lou?”

“Louise” She kissed him again. He was very glad she was no longer lying beside him and that the blankets were thick. His body responded to her kisses in ways he could not control. “Buck, I’ve never told anyone that before. I thought anyone I told would push me away or use me too but you didn’t. Why?”

Because I think I love you, Buck wanted to answer. “I’m not that kind of man.” Buck cupped her face with his hand and kissed her with every ounce of passion he had. If he couldn’t say the words maybe he could show her with actions.

“RUNNING BUCK!” Red Bear’s voice caused them both to jump. “You must be feeling better.” Before Buck could respond Red Bear began speaking in Kiowa. Buck struggled to his feet while Lou crawled away from the two shouting men. She’d seen Buck naked in the bunkhouse before when he was changing but today he looked different. The heated exchange continued for some minutes when finally Red Bear left. Buck sat down on the sleeping pallets and covered his face in his hands. He looked like he was completely dejected. His shoulders were slumped forward. He didn’t seem to notice he was still naked and Lou was sitting less than three feet away with her knees pulled up to her chin and her arms around them.

“We need to leave.” Buck finally turned to her. His head was hung down as if in defeat. The tone of his voice told Lou he was barely in control of his emotions.

“When?” Lou crept over to sit in front of him. She touched his arm. He looked up at her with tears in his eyes. Her heart broke at the sight of him. He looked so alone. She leaned forward and embraced him.

Buck held her in a loose embrace and finally kissed her lips gently. “As soon as we’re ready. Do you know where our clothes are?” He suddenly seemed to become aware of his lack of clothing and pulled one of the skins over to cover him. “I’m sorry Lou. Louise. You shouldn’t have to see me like this.” He hung his head as if in shame.

“Buck…… Buck, look at me.” Lou finally had to lift his chin with her hand to get him to meet her eyes. “I don’t know what you and your brother just said to each other. What ever it was, I can tell he hurt you. I know you love your brother and I’m sure he loves you but not right now. You do have a family waiting for you. They care a lot about you and I know you care just as deeply for them. Ike might as well be your brother; I know how close you are. And Buck, um, I love you.”

Buck’s eyes teared up and overflowed at her words. “I wish you were my wife, because I think I’m in love with you, I love you, Lou. I know that sounds crazy but I’ll explain all this later.” They held each other for a few minutes more while Buck composed himself. Lou had cried also and they finally ended up laughing at each other for no real reason. “Please find our clothes, we need to leave here.”

Lou gathered their clothes while Buck straightened up the sleeping pallets and rubbed his aching shoulder. He was dressing when Red Bear sent for them.

CHAPTER FOUR

Once they were safely away from the village Buck began to breathe easier. “Lou…thanks for going along with me back there. I’m sorry I had to be so forward with you. The only way I could protect you was to say you were my wife. I had no right to do some of the things I did. If you want me to leave the Pony Express once you’re safe at home, I will. You said you were raped once and I just about did the same thing to you. I’m very sorry.” Buck finally spoke quietly. They’d been riding for over an hour in near silence.

Lou pulled up her horse and turned to face Buck. “Buck, what are you talking about? You didn’t do anything to me besides hold me. I don’t know what your definition of rape is but that’s not it.”

“I had no right to kiss you the way I did and you were forced to sleep beside me naked. What do you call that?” Buck’s voice had a haunted quality Lou found unnerving.

“I call you a gentleman Buck. If this had happened with Cody or Jimmy I’d be afraid to think of what would have happened. It just so happens that I enjoyed the kisses.” Lou tried unsuccessfully to get him to smile.

“I’m glad it wasn’t too bad for you. I felt horrible when we woke up to hear my brother and his wife. Then later when I stood up I saw the fear in your eyes Lou. I’m sorry you had to see me like that…. I was mad, I wasn’t thinking, I’m sorry.” His voice was so low Lou had to strain to hear him.

“What the hell happened between you and your brother? You’ve been too quiet too long and now you want to run away from me? I care about you, Buck, and you said you cared about me too. Was that a lie? We do need to talk and you look like you could use a rest. You’re a little pale.” Lou looked Buck over, he looked like someone with nothing left to loose. His eyes were dull and his whole body was slumped forward; his head hung low. He didn’t look at her again. His eyes were downcast. Even his horse sensed his depressed mood. “You’re scaring me Buck.” Lou noticed his hands were shaking. “I need you.”

“I’m sorry, let’s find someplace to camp for the night. I don’t want to go home right now. You deserve better.” Buck urged his horse into a slow walk and turned away from her; lost in his own private dark world. They could hear the distant rumble of thunder.

The storm over took them about an hour later. Lou was cold and wasn’t looking forward to sleeping out in the open tonight. “There’s an old miners cabin just over that next rise. We can stop there if you’d like….” They were the first words Buck had spoken since the first rumble of thunder had been heard.

They reached the cabin and found it to be in shabby but livable condition. Buck took the horses over to a rickety lean to and let them bed down for the night. They found a patch of sweet grass and munched happily ignoring the rain. Lou set right in making a warm place for them to spend the night. She found a supply of very old but dry wood stacked over in the corner and soon had a fire going in the old cook stove. She hung the bed rolls up and let them dry then she unpacked some of the food that Red Bear had given her. There was enough there to make a soup and Lou managed to find a pot to cook it in. She also found a coffee pot and set about brewing some of the hot drink for herself and Buck. She was beginning to wonder what was keeping Buck outside for so long when she heard a loud thump against the side of the cabin.

“Buck, BUCK was that you?” Lou left the cabin with her gun drawn. She cautiously moved around to the side she’d heard the noise from and saw Buck, face down in the mud. The back of his jacket was crimson. The wound had reopened.

Lou managed to get Buck inside the cabin and onto the old mattress she’d pulled to the floor. She worked his jacket, shirt and underwear off his upper body so she could see the wound. She was shocked to see several deep cuts across his shoulders. They looked almost like the marks from a whip but there were even deeper cuts at the beginning of each long cut. Lou was cleaning them out when Buck moaned in pain.

“Buck, Buck are you awake?” Lou gently brushed his hair out of his face; caressing his cheek as she did so.

His eyes blinked a few times then finally focused on her face. “Hi” was about all he managed. Lou got him some water and helped him drink it. After a few minutes he spoke weakly, “I’m sorry, I guess I got hurt worse then we figured, huh?” Buck managed a half smile and reached for her hand.

“Try again Buck. These cuts weren’t there this morning. I saw every inch of your body and your back was fine, well except for that shoulder. What happened?” Lou looked into his eyes daring him to lie to her.

“Can I sleep a while first?” He looked exhausted but Lou wanted to know now.

“First you tell me how your back got all cut up, you’ll eat some soup and then you’ll sleep.” Her tone brokered no argument.

“My brother had me punished. He ordered some of the braves to beat me with the canes and reeds. Some of the reeds have thorn like stickers that tear. I guess they got me good.” Buck’s eyes were downcast again and Lou let him rest while she got some soup for him.

“You got beat because of me didn’t you?” Lou helped Buck sit up and lean against her while she helped him eat some of the soup. “Buck Cross don’t you dare lie to me.” Her voice was soft but her tone was stern.

“I’ve been declared dead in my brother’s eyes. When Ike was held I had to go through a series of tests which showed my spirit to be Kiowa but I am not welcome in the village. Red Bear told me to leave and not look back. When the Lakota attacked and we fought beside the Kiowa, you and I were knocked out. I guess your horse got shot and you fell. One of the braves recognized me and figured we were together so they didn’t kill us. They didn’t know you were a girl until they took the wet clothes off you. Red Bear’s wife decided you had to be my wife. Red Bear didn’t believe her but he won’t argue with her. She was taken from her village by some white men and if Red Bear and his hunting party hadn’t heard her screaming she would have been raped. She didn’t want you to be taken by one of the braves so she had us put together. If you hadn’t been there my brother would have had me killed for disobeying his orders. He’s a war chief and outside of his teepee his word is law. I broke that law. ” Buck pushed away the bowl and attempted to lie down. Lou gathered both bowls and set them aside. His voice was getting weaker and his eyes kept closing.

“Your pants are still damp, take them off so they’ll dry and I’ll get the bed rolls, they should be dry by now.” Lou got the blankets and made a bed for them in front of the stove. Neither of them thought about it as they snuggled together under the warm, now dry, blankets. “I like this Buck, I like having your arms around me… I feel safe.” He grunted a response and was asleep in minutes and Lou soon followed.

CHAPTER FIVE

The dawn broke with brilliant sunshine streaming in the dingy windows. Lou woke up slowly, becoming aware of someone’s arms holding her close. She nuzzled against the bare chest and was rewarded with a hug and a kiss on the top of her head. “Mornin’ Buck.”

“Good morning, sleepy head.” Buck teased and kissed her again. “Thank-you for taking care of me and for the kick in the head. I’m very glad I can make you feel safe.” He tried to sit up but the pain in his back stopped him.

“Easy there Buck. You’re cut up pretty good; maybe we should just rest here a day or two before we try to ride home. I’d like to talk some more about the Kiowa but later, right now I’ll get us some breakfast. Want some coffee?” Lou rose and busied herself fixing some coffee and bread for their meal. Buck lay on his stomach and prayed the throbbing in his head and back would just go away. Lou’s suggestion made a lot of sense. He needed time to think.

Lou bathed Buck’s back several times during the day each time it felt better than the last. Lou cared for the horses and discovered that there was another saddle bag full of food from the Kiowa and the dress she had worn was there as well. She decided to change into it while they were at the cabin. She’d have to become a boy again soon enough and it felt good to be a girl.

Buck’s eyes widened when she walked into the cabin wearing the dress. She was barefoot and smiling. “See anything you like?” She teased.

“Hmm, Very much so.” Buck had left his shirt off and was sitting propped up against the wall in just his longjohns and pants. He was barefoot too. Lou made them dinner and they sat in front of the fireplace in silence just enjoying being together.

“Ready to talk some more?” Lou finally broke the silence and nuzzled against his neck. “Besides you breaking your brother’s law why were you beaten?” Buck moved his head down to her lap. He was lying on his side. Lou ran her fingers through his hair. He rested one hand on her knee the other arm stretched down beside the leg he was laying on; playing absentmindedly with the hem of the dress.

“I lied, Lou, and he knew it. He knew we were not married but he said he could tell we cared about each other. He looked at you and could see a good kind loving spirit. Unfortunately you had attracted the attention of several of the braves. They wanted you for themselves. He wanted us to prove our love by the physical act but I just couldn’t do it. In my world that would have made you mine, my wife. The day we left, Red Bear had me beaten to prove that I loved you and to pay for coming back to the village after I’d been told never to return. I argued that I didn’t come back on my own and wouldn’t have if I’d had a choice. Lou, I couldn’t let anything happen to you. You scared me when Red Bear first called you my wife. You saw how life is in the village. I grew up watching my Mother and Red Bear’s father together and later Red Bear and his wives. It’s not a real big deal but I’d never actually touched a woman before. I didn’t know how I was supposed to react. I just did what I’d seen. I’m still afraid I’ll hurt you. I’ve never felt this way before. I’ve physically wanted to be with a woman but this is different.” His voice trailed off. Lou bent down and kissed his head.

“I don’t have much experience either Buck. I’d just left the orphanage and I was trying to earn enough money to get my brother and sister out too. I took a job doing laundry in what I thought was a saloon with rooms for rent. I didn’t know anything of whore houses and the men who run them. This man that I worked for finally came to me and said it was time I started earning my pay and he took me…… OH GOD, Buck it was horrible” Lou’s sobs shook her whole body and broke Buck’s heart. He ignored the pain as he rolled onto his back and pulled her down into his arms. Almost an hour passed before Lou’s tears stopped. Buck had silently cried a few of his own thinking of his mother and the hell she must have lived through. He wondered if anyone had ever held her while she cried.

“Tell me about your family… Where are they? I’ll help you get them… I don’t have many needs so I have almost every penny I’ve made so far with the Pony Express. It’s yours if it will help.” Buck felt Lou tighten her grip on his body as she hugged him tightly.

“How did you ever become such a good man Buck Cross?” Lou kissed his chest and felt a shiver pass through his body. Lou spent the next couple of hours telling Buck about all the fun times she’d spent with her siblings when they were younger. Buck listened as she told him about her mother and how much the children were her pride and joy. He began to feel a hollow place opening in his chest. He’d never felt love the way Lou described it. He was happy for Lou but sad for himself. Lou finally fell asleep cradled in Buck’s arms. He fell into a troubled sleep after crying silently for the child he was never allowed to be and the family he never had. He wanted to feel loved.

CHAPTER SIX

Lou smiled up at Buck when she woke up, he was still asleep and she loved watching him as he slept. She finally decided that he had slept long enough and began to kiss his face and neck. At first he swatted her away like a bug but her persistence paid off and he finally opened his eyes. “Who’s the sleepy head today?” Lou teased playfully. It was raining again when they woke up so they decided to stay where they were for another day. Buck’s back still throbbed so he didn’t mind the delay.

“What has your life been like Buck? I know you haven’t had and easy life. But you’re smart, you read and write better than most of us and you speak at least 3 different languages. You give so much for others, why? I’ve seen you kicked and spit on just because of the colour of your skin and now the people you lived with as a child have rejected you. They almost killed you Buck, twice! I saw the bruises on your body after you got Ike free. You had rope burns on your wrists and…..”

“Please stop, Lou, Please.” Buck’s voice had an urgent tone. He drew a ragged breath and looked at her with tear filled eyes. “I am what I am Lou. I’m sorry.” With those words he turned away from her and lay face down on the blankets. Lou could tell he was crying from the movements of his back and shoulders but he never made a sound. It was obvious that he wanted to be left alone so Lou went outside to tend to the horses.

Buck was washing his face when Lou returned almost an hour later. He took one look at her and knew she’d been crying too. “Where were you? I was just going to look for you…. Are you alright?” Buck touched her arm then held her at arms length as he looked her over. He could see her eyes beginning to tear again.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you, Buck. I’m so sorry,”

Lou didn’t get to finish as Buck wrapped his arms tightly around her. “I know, I know, Lou. You just brought up a lot of painful memories and it hit me hard. These last few days have been tough on both of us. I’m not going to pretend to understand all of what I feel but I know I’ve never felt this way about anyone in my life. I need you to answer a question honestly for me if you can. You said you loved me, why? Do you love me as a friend or something more?” Please don’t say friend, he thought to himself.

Lou looked up into his handsome face and saw the desire she felt for him reflected there. “I’ve had feelings for you since the first day I saw you Buck. You were the only one who didn’t look at me like I was a child. You didn’t have anything to prove like the others. Cody is too full of himself. He’s a nice guy and all but he thinks he’s God’s gift to women, I hate to burst his bubble but… Jimmy has too many ghosts in his past. He’s damn good with that Colt and he makes sure we all know it. If he’s not perfect he gets upset. Kid is too nice. He wants everything to be right with the world. He’s too by the book, sure there are rules to live by but sometimes you have to bend those rules and live a little. Ike is your best friend and I know you love him and accept him unconditionally but Ike wants the rest of us to see him that way too. I love them all as friends but you, Buck, you just have this live and let live attitude that I loved from the start. You didn’t pretend to be the best shot or the best rider. You are the best tracker but you don’t brag about it like Cody does. If someone makes a mistake you help them correct it, you don’t point fingers. There have been times I know you were mad but other than that time with Jimmy you’ve never really directed that anger at any of us. You tried to protect me from taking this run. You’re selfless in a lot of ways and I love you for it”

“Oh, OK,” Buck kissed the top of her head and began to move toward the bed rolls. His hand dropped from her shoulder as he reached for his blanket. “My back hurts I’m going to lay down for a bit.” She stood watching as he curled up in his blanket and shut his eyes.

“You’re not getting away with shutting down like that Buck. Your back may hurt but something else is bothering you. You asked a question so let me finish answering it…” Buck didn’t move he just sighed. Lou lay down beside him and touched his face. “Open your eyes and look at me, Buck Cross, NOW!”

His eyes snapped open. He’d seen this small rider angry with Cody and he didn’t want to incur her wrath. Her hand was still on his face and he covered it with his own. “I love you and have loved you for a lot of reasons; your selflessness is just one of them. I love the way you handle yourself around people who hurt you, like Tompkins. I hate seeing the way you look after you get thrown out of someplace or denied something. Your shoulders seem to sag and you always hang your head. I know it hurts you but you don’t bring your hurt or anger home, most of the time anyway. I love the way you ride, the way you care for your horse. One advantage I had since I was the only girl in the bunkhouse was watching the rest of you everyday. Guys just don’t look at each other the same way. You are one handsome man and the rest of you ain’t bad to look at either.” Buck felt his face grow warm against her hand as he blushed deeply. Lou laughed! “I love you Buck!” Lou was still laughing as she kissed his lips. “Your turn, why do you love me?”

“I thought there was something wrong with me.” Buck sighed; this was it, all or nothing. “I watched you too. You have the most amazing eyes. I felt strange inside every time you looked at me. I’d watch the way you moved and liked it. I love the way you care for all of us. I love how you touch people when you talk sometimes. I love that you are taking the time to learn sign so you can talk to Ike. Lou, I thought I was falling for a boy. I couldn’t understand my own feelings. Then Teaspoon told us about this run and you touched my arm. The light fell on your face from the bunkhouse door and I realized that no matter how wrong it was I loved you. I never planned on telling you or acting on it cos I still thought you were a boy. I tried to push all my feelings away, bury them deep inside. ”

“How do you feel now Buck?” Lou interrupted him.

Buck answered her by folding her in his arms and kissing her deeply. The kiss lasted several minutes and when they finally parted they were both breathless. “Relieved and scared. I’m relieved you’re a girl and scared of how strong my feelings for you are. I’m afraid of becoming like my father. That’s the reason I’ve never physically been with a woman. I’m afraid I’ll enjoy it too much and want more. He just took what he wanted from my mother and left her to die. She had me and didn’t kill me at birth like many women would have done. Sometimes I wish she’d done that, other times I’m glad she didn’t. I don’t want to ever bring a child into this world unless both parents want the child more than anything. I love you Lou, I’m in love with you, but I can’t offer you the life you deserve. I’m sorry.” Buck kissed her forehead and tried to pull away from her. She had tears in her eyes.

“Buck, don’t do this to me. Don’t say you love me than leave.” Lou was crying now and Buck’s own tears were threatening to spill over. “Buck, please say that when we get home you won’t turn away from me… You’re the only one who knows my secret and I need you. If you were anything like the man that fathered you, I doubt you would have let me be. I don’t know too many men that wouldn’t take advantage of waking up naked with a woman. Buck you did everything you could to protect me. Even your hands never wandered, you were upset that you had to kiss me. Come on Buck; face the truth about yourself, YOU ARE NOTHING LIKE YOUR FATHER. Your father’s son would have raped me then let whoever else wanted a turn, have me.” Lou was sobbing. “Please Buck…..”

Buck reeled from the force of her words and the truth behind them. He knew she was right but didn’t want to admit it to himself. He lay there silent listening to the rain outside and the crying woman in his arms. His feelings for this woman could not be denied. His heart said to love her, his head said no. Somewhere inside he heard a tiny voice, Teaspoon’s voice, telling the riders that an Indian thinks with his heart while the white man thinks with his head. Hadn’t Buck proved his spirit was Kiowa and always would be? Buck rolled Lou on her back and propped himself up on his elbow above her.

“Lou, I’m yours if you want me. I love you.” The Kiowa heart spoke.

The End

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