Buck was miserable, it was hot and dusty and the wind had kicked up on the salt flats. He and his horse were covered in a fine white dust that made them both sneeze. He hated this run, two days in the desert, three crossing the mountains and one or two days to meet the other riders from California, Yup, five or six days of hell each way but Lou had done it last month and Cody the month before so it was his turn; at least he was on his way home and could take his time. The usual watering holes had left a great deal to be desired the lack of rain had dried them up to mud. If he didn't find one with drinkable water soon they were both going to be in trouble. Buck let the horse choose the pace; it was too hot to run the animal flat out without water. He scanned the sky but his eyes saw nothing but a deep azure blue unbroken by even the slightest wisp of a cloud. Finally he saw a rock out cropping in the distance and turned the tired animal toward it.
The outcropping proved to be the mouth of a cave and offered a cool place to rest and shelter from the relentless sun. They still had about twenty miles of desert to cross before they reached the foot hills of the mountains that separated them from home. Buck figured they'd stay here until the worst heat of the day was past then travel after dark by the light of the full moon. The cave had an added bonus of a natural spring and both Buck and his mount drank their fill. Buck lay back, pulled his hat over his eyes and slept. He dreamt of cool rain, his comfortable bed, Rachel's cooking and being clean again. He awoke a few hours later to twilight with the first stars winking at him through a cloudless sky. He saddled up the horse filled his canteen and headed out.
The moonlight was bright and Buck was able to make good time crossing the desert. By the time the moon set they were within three miles of the forested foothills so Buck found a place to camp for the remainder of the night and after a quick dinner of hard tack and cool, sweet water, he curled up on his bedroll and slept. Just before dawn he was woken up by the rumble of thunder off in the distance. A quick glance at the sky revealed nothing until a bolt of lightening rent the air several miles away. The glimpse of the sky lit up by the lightening showed angry storm clouds roiling in his direction.
"Come on boy, we gotta get to those trees and under cover, this one's gonna be bad." Buck spoke soothingly to the frightened animal. "I wanted rain and it looks like I'm gonna get my wish; me and my big mouth!" He mounted up and urged the horse into a gallop, praying they wouldn't step in a gopher hole in the semi darkness. He was going to get wet, that much was certain; he just didn't want to get caught out in the open. Buck could smell the rain approaching them as they neared the trees. The lightening was getting closer and the thunder was deafening. Buck struggled to keep the horse under control.
They finally reached the edge of the trees and Buck breathed a sigh of relief, now all he had to do was find a place to hunker down and ride out the storm. They were following a small creek which meandered its way through the trees. The rain began to beat the leaves above their heads and soon the noise increased to new levels. Buck was soaked to the skin in seconds. The path they were following was slowly rising as the banks of the creek became steeper. The mud was becoming more slippery as the rain continued to fall. Buck couldn't see more than a few feet ahead and they were walking at a very slow pace. The roar of the thunder increased and soon the flashes of lightning and crash of the thunder were the only things Buck was aware of.
Suddenly it happened, a flash of lightening, so bright that Buck was momentarily blinded, sailed past his head and struck a tree on the uphill side of the bank. Buck never heard the crack as the tree split in two and a large branch split away from the trunk and fell toward him. The smaller trees in the area did little to slow the large branch as it swept Buck out of the saddle, down the embankment and into the creek landing on him. Buck felt something large and hard hit him on the side and he knew he was falling, tumbling down the steep bank into the water his last thought before his head hit the rocks was this is it.
Buck didn't know how long he'd been unconscious but it couldn't have been too long. He became aware of his body shaking and the water swirling all around him. He was freezing. The creek was now swollen and raging because of all the rain water. He was lying on his back in the creek, his left leg and arm were pinned under the branch which he could now see was thicker than he was. He tried to use his free right arm to move the tree but it didn't budge. Buck suddenly realized that the water was still rising, most of his body was now under water and the force of it hitting his chin was painful. He looked up toward the bank where he had fallen from but couldn't see the horse. He tried a few more times with his free leg and arm to move the branch but it didn't move at all. He was trapped. He cried out for help but knew in his heart it was a vain effort.
The water was so cold Buck was beginning to loose feeling in his arms and legs and he'd stopped shaking. To his horror he discovered the water was still rising and now flowed freely over his chin and occasionally covering his mouth and splashing up his nose. I'm going to die he thought all alone and they'll never even find my body. He wanted to cry as he fought the urge to sleep but finally he lost the battle and his eyes closed.
His head was about to slip underwater when he felt a hand lift it up slightly so he could breathe without getting water in his lungs. He was still pinned but he heard a male voice say "help me with that log."
"Where do you want it?" a female voice queried.
"There just like that, we'll push down you two try and pull him out." Another male voice gave directions.
"He opened his eyes" a child's voice sounded close to Buck's head. "But he closed them again."
Buck heard someone grunt and count to three while four hands gripped his other arm and leg and pulled. The pain was incredible, the arm and leg that had been trapped were now free and the blood started flowing again feeding the nerves a new supply of energy; the pain Buck should have felt before washed over floating him into blissful unconsciousness.
Buck awoke in a strange room, he was lying on a sleeping pallet covered only by a rough wool blanket; his clothing was gone. He opened his eyes and looked around the room. It appeared to be a one room lean to type of shack, not all that sturdy, more of a temporary structure than a home. He could see his clothing hanging around the fireplace drying; everything, even his boots were set so the warmth from the fire could dry them. He noticed his saddle bags over in the corner over by the entrance to the room; so the horse made it here.
Buck tried to sit up but there was a weight on his arm again; he could hear it was still raining. He looked down at the arm and saw a small head resting on his upper arm. Buck attempted to brush the hair back from the face so he could see who was beside him. The small face looked up at him and smiled. A little boy of about six or seven smiled back at Buck.
"Hello....my name's Buck. What's yours?" Buck smiled at the child and attempted to sit up. The shack was sparsely furnished and everything looked well used. The child snuggled closer to Buck; he was nothing more than skin and bones.
"I'm Joey, I'm six and my mommy said you'd take care of me." Joey put one arm around Buck's waist and hugged him.
Buck instinctively hugged the child. "Was it your Mommy and Dad that helped me?"
"Yup! They found your horse and we went looking for you. Daddy and Mommy brought you back here took your clothes off you and told me to snuggle up really close to you so you wouldn't get cold and then they had to leave again." Joey looked sad. Buck realized the child was very dirty, his hair was matted in places and his clothing, what Buck could see, was rags. "Mommy kissed me and said she wouldn't see me again for a very long time but that you would take care of me. Daddy said to tell you that your friend Ike told them where you were."
Buck looked at the child in awe, there was no way this child could know Ike and besides that Ike had been dead for more than a year. Buck then held him closer as a few stray tears trickled down his cheeks, had Ike come back to save him? "Are you hungry?" Joey nodded. "In my saddle bags is some hard tack, an apple and I think there might still be a biscuit too."
Joey jumped up and retrieved the saddle bags. Buck was finally able to sit up. He was relieved to find that his left arm and leg, although badly bruised, were fine. "I'd like to thank your parents; after you eat maybe you can take me to meet them."
"OK!!" Joey happily munched on the contents of Buck's saddle bags while Buck checked his clothing. The longjohns were dry enough to put on so he dressed in them and when out to check the horse. There was no injury to the animal and Buck saw a pond a few yards beyond the shack. He led the animal over to it intending to water him when Buck glanced over toward a copse of trees, there were two graves there. Buck brought the horse over to the water and loosely tied the animal up so it could reach both food and water than walked over to the graves; his hand clutched tightly around his medicine pouch.
It was painfully obvious that one grave was neither deep enough nor well constructed enough to keep the resident at peace. The first grave was larger and although not deep it was covered in dirt with stones placed over it to thwart scavengers. The second grave wasn't really dug at all, just a body in a ditch with rocks on top; from what Buck could see it was a woman's body, from the smell it was recient. Buck noticed what was left of a wagon nearby, the rear axel was snapped in two and it still lay in its side. Buck just stood there staring at the scene before him; he barely noticed that it had started raining hard again.
"That's my mommy and that's my daddy." Joey's little voice startled Buck. "That was our wagon but it got broke and Daddy got hurt. Mommy said he had to sleep outside under the rocks so when Mommy couldn't wake up I let her sleep beside Daddy like they always did back home. Buck?"
"What Joey? I'm sorry, how long has Mommy been sleeping?" Buck guessed the woman had been dead about a week.
"I don't know, a few days ago. Mommy said I was going to have a little brother or sister but I can't find them....Will you help me look?" Joey began to move closer to the graves but Buck stopped him; the woman's body was still swollen with a child that would never be born. Buck felt sick.
"Let's let Mommy and Daddy rest, its raining again, let's go inside." Buck took the little boy's hand and led him into the shelter; Buck was shaking again but this time it had nothing to do with the rain.
"I miss my Mommy...." Joey wailed as soon as Buck wrapped him in a blanket. Joey sniffled and wiped a dirty hand at his eyes. "Mommy used to hold me every night and tell me stories but she can't do that anymore." More tears threatened to streak the child's dirty face.
Buck bent down and took the child into his arms. "Shhh, its gonna be alright. I think your mommy wants you to come home with me and maybe we can find your old family, do you have any aunts or uncles? Tell me about where you came from...." Buck held the child close and rocked him until he fell asleep. Buck really looked around at the shack it was constructed from the wagon boards and the roof was the canvas from the wagon covered with pine boughs. The child would not survive here long.
Finally Buck fell asleep and dreamed. Ike was there and he was smiling so was a couple, one holding a tiny baby; they looked a lot like Joey. In his dream Buck saw the accident that took the father's life and the mother dying in childbirth with no one but a frightened six year old to help. He saw his own accident and watched as Ike, Joey and the couple saved his life, carried him back to the lean to and instructed Joey how to care for him. Buck woke up the next morning to bright sunshine with the sure knowledge of what had happened to Joey and his family and how their spirits had saved his life so he could save Joey's. He pulled out Ike's old red bandana and held it close to his lips. "Thank-you Ike, Thank-you." He whispered as his eyes welled up with tears. He walked out into the sunshine and felt a gentle breeze caress his cheek as the leaves whispered to him from the direction of the pond.
He turned and looked back at the sleeping child and knew what he had to do. Before Joey woke up, Buck managed to rebury his mother better so the scavengers wouldn't desecrate her body anymore. Buck had found a Bible in an old trunk and read the only passage he could remember from the mission school, the twenty-third Psalm, and then he said a prayer of thanks over her. He thanked both the white man's God and his own spirits for sparing his life and leading him to the child. He vowed to get Joey back with his family or he would care for the child himself. Buck saddled his horse retrieved the few things he thought Joey might like to remember his family by and stashed them in his saddle bags then lifted Joey in front of him. "Come on buddy its time to go meet my family."