A sequel to Kiowa Heart

CHAPTER ONE

Lou slowly came awake. The bunkhouse was just staring to become light as the sun began to rise. She snuggled down into her pillow, faced the wall and smiled as she pulled the blanket closer around her shoulders. One foot had lost its sock and was cool; she kicked the covers back over her foot and drew her knees up to her chest. She wished the blanket could be Buck's arms. She touched her lips with her fingers; she could still feel his kiss. Her smile grew at the memory. She missed Buck; her mind drifted. "Lou, I'm yours if you want me. I love you." The words brought another smile to Lou's lips as she thought back to the moment she and Buck became one. His Kiowa heart had spoken. That was almost a month and a half ago and so far they'd managed to keep their love, and her secret, private. Lou suspected that Ike knew but Buck swore he hadn't told him anything. They'd even managed to weather a rough spot when Buck won the Founder's Day Race and the daughter of the bank owner set her wicked sights on Buck when she presented him with the winner's cup and a twenty dollar gold piece.

Lou smiled as she thought back to the day of the picnic and race; they'd all entered and one by one been eliminated but Buck held on and won. That evil woman had kissed him in front of the whole town and later asked if he could teach her to ride. Buck had said yes to be polite, at least that was what he told Lou. He'd come home the afternoon of the riding lesson in a foul mood and refused to talk about what had happened. Only Teaspoon and Ike knew Buck had been tarred and feathered by the Devlin foreman, Rance and his henchmen. Lou had tried to be affectionate that night and he wanted no part of it or her; he'd said he wanted to be alone. Lou knew it had to have something to do with Kathleen Devlin, the woman was everything that Lou wasn't, very feminine. Kathleen had curves in all the right places and wore clothing that accentuated her tiny figure. Lou couldn't help but look at herself in the baggy men's clothing that hid what few curves she had and wonder what, if anything, Buck found attractive. Her hair was cropped short, she wore glasses and she smelled like a horse all the time. Kathleen had pretty curls, no glasses and Lou was sure she didn't smell like a horse, ever. Lou had been sure Buck had fallen for the pretty package and forgotten about her. She didn't blame him; the woman could easily turn heads. It hadn't helped that Cody and Jimmy had decided that Buck had tried something and gotten turned down; both saying, rather bluntly, what they would have done. Lou had fumed over that one. Kathleen had tried several more times over the next few days to be alone with Buck and his mood steadily worsened each time he saw her. Buck was using Lou; at least that was what she thought. She'd been so wrong.

A few days later Lou was getting ready for a run when Mr. Devlin and Kathleen drove up to the bunkhouse and he demanded to speak with Buck and Teaspoon. Kathleen was crying and Mr. Devlin was yelling that Buck be locked up for rape or at least for attempting to rape his daughter and when Kathleen said it wasn't rape Lou's heart had dropped. Lou led Lightening back into the barn and began crying into his strong neck. She refused to even look at or speak to Buck when he came looking for her after the Devlins had left. Lou heard the call for rider coming and left for her run without a glance at Buck. She'd heard him calling her name and begging her to please listen; she'd turned a deaf ear. He was away on a run when she returned. She was going to give him a piece of her mind and then leave the Pony Express; she never wanted to see him again. Dinner that night changed her mind. "You missed it Lou! Buck really put the Devlins in their place!" Cody couldn't wait to tell the tale. Apparently she had missed the most important parts by hiding in the barn. Kathleen had apparently tried to seduce Buck and he had rejected her, twice! Mr. Devlin had said something about his daughter cavorting with an ignorant Indian, embarrassing him and the possibility of raising less than socially acceptable grandchildren. Buck informed him that he had no interest in associating with a trollop like Kathleen and under no circumstances would he ever even consider bringing an innocent child into this world with her. His children would be born by a respectable, honest, loving and most importantly, virtuous woman. Mr. Devlin had started to protest when Buck said the conversation had ended, turned his back on them and slammed the bunkhouse door in their faces leaving a speechless Mr. Devlin, a sobbing Kathleen and a smiling Teaspoon on the porch. Teaspoon reminded Mr. Devlin that tarring and feathering one of his riders would never endear him with the law and that Buck could press charges if he wished.

Buck had enjoyed a very private welcome home the next day.

Buck had later confessed to Lou what had happened but he'd been too embarrassed at the time to tell her. Teaspoon had hoped Buck would bring charges against Devlin's men but Buck preferred to handle it in his own way. In typical Jack Devlin fashion he gave Teaspoon ten dollars to give to Buck to replace the clothing that had been ruined by his men. Buck had laughed; Kathleen had done the same thing. Buck would never be bought.

~*~*~

Lou could hear the other riders stirring as the sunlight began to invade the bunkhouse. Buck was out on a run and should be back today. She wasn't scheduled to ride for another two days so they were hoping to get some time alone. She felt Kid move on the bunk below hers and suddenly her missing sock was tossed up and landed on her face!

"I'm Hungry!"

"You were born hungry Cody!" Jimmy stood up and tossed his pillow at the blond rider.

"I'm just a growin' boy, ain't you ever heard Emma? I'm her best customer!" He hopped down from his bunk and tossed the pillow back at Jimmy.

Ike yawned and stretched as he too rose from his bunk. Lou rolled over, sock in hand, in time to see him sign something to Jimmy and Kid, all of them burst out laughing!

"What'd I miss? What'd you say about me Ike?" Jimmy and Ike were pulling on their clothes and shook their heads. "Lou, what'd he say? Come on... I didn't see...."

"Ike said you'll be growin' alright!" She made a motion to indicate a growing tummy and tossed her sock at Cody. Cody's face took on an exaggerated pouty look that sent them all into fits of laugher once again. Kid picked up Jimmy's pillow and tossed it back at Cody.

"Cody, don't you have the first run?" Teaspoon's voice boomed as he entered the bunkhouse. "The rest of you boys best get a move on if you want to get your chores done before breakfast. Ahhh, that includes picking up the dirty laundry, who's sock is this?" There were a few feathers floating in the air from the pillow and Lou's sock was in the middle of the floor. Lou waved her hand. Teaspoon picked up the sock and tossed it in her direction, laughing and shaking his head. "Cody, Emma's waitin' on you at the house, your breakfast is ready." Teaspoon turned and left, heading over to the house and his own breakfast still chuckling. He'd had his share of pillow fights.

"Have fun mucking those stalls Jimmy! I'll be enjoyin' my biscuits and honey and then be on my way...." Cody was buttoning his shirt when four pillows hit him, knocking him to the floor. Everyone, even Cody, laughed. More feathers floated to the floor.

The morning passed quickly and the noon sun brought the heat of the day down on the station. The chores were done and the boys had the afternoon to themselves. Lou was pretending to read, sitting on the bunkhouse steps. She kept switching positions and accidentally kicked Jimmy's foot as he slept propped up against the railing. He grunted something that Lou figured she didn't want to hear so she ignored him. He went back to sleep. Lou couldn't concentrate, she kept watching for Buck to return. I wonder if he's missing me as much as I'm missing him. Lou thought for the hundredth time that day. Finally she heard the words she'd been waiting for.

"Rider Comin'" Kid sang out from his perch on the top rail of the coral, he hopped down and went to meet Buck as he rode in. Jimmy and Lou followed Kid and they were all waiting in the yard when Buck dismounted his tired horse. "How was your ride Buck?" Kid asked taking the reigns.

"Not bad thanks! I could use a meal and a bath!" he laughed as he brushed some of the trail dust off his legs. His head was bent down but his eyes were searching for Lou's.

"I'll take care of your horse, if you promise not to brush yourself off in the bunkhouse!" Kid laughed as he patted Buck's shoulder and a cloud of dust puffed up around them!

"Hey Buck maybe you should take your clothes off out here and then go in the bunkhouse..." Jimmy teased, pretended to cough and waved his hands in front of his face.

"I'll just get some clean things and go for a swim, will that make everyone happy?" Buck winked at Lou when he was sure no one else would see. "Anyone else want to join me?"

"Sounds good to me..." Lou said catching the wink.

"Me too." Jimmy added.

"Jimmy, Kid, could I have you two help me and Ike move a few things?" Emma called from the porch of the house. Ike had been helping Emma since before lunch and both of them were wearing aprons. "Buck you go get cleaned up I'll have something for you to eat when you're done." Jimmy and Kid groaned but nodded as they made their way to the barn with the horse.

Buck took one look at Ike in the apron and bust out laughing Ike stuck his tongue out at Buck and everyone laughed! *At least I'm clean* Ike tossed his head back, smiled and went back in the house. He was glad Buck was home safe and sound.

"What about Lou? Doesn't he have to help?" Jimmy grumbled a few minutes later as they began restacking grain sacks and hay in the barn. Ike was no longer wearing the apron and Emma doubted she'd ever get him to wear it again. Shaking her head she began to point out what she wanted the boys to move.

"I asked you Jimmy, Lou helped me with some things yesterday, now back to work, I'll make some lemonade." Emma turned so the other riders couldn't see the smile on her face and headed into the house.

CHAPTER TWO

Buck and Lou walked toward the stream behind the pastures just talking about his ride and her days while he was gone. The carpet of green grasses was constantly changing as the soft prairie winds enticed it to dance. The stream was a bright ribbon of silver that seemed to wrap around the countryside. They didn't want to be seen or over heard by the others so they were careful while in sight of the way station. Finally they felt safe as they came on a large group of lush bushes that offered them good protection from prying eyes. The swimming hole was inviting with the sun sparkling on the surface but Lou's eyes sparkled brighter. The gentle breeze kissed her face and hair. Buck thought he'd never seen her look more beautiful.

"Lou..." Buck called her softly to him. He reached his arms out and enveloped her in his embrace. His lips found hers and the world around them disappeared. He kissed her face, neck and shoulders. She moaned as his lips left a trail of fire down her throat. "I'm missed you" He murmured into her neck as he nuzzled against her. He lay down on the soft green grass at the edge of the swimming hole and pulled Lou down beside him. Their kissing became more passionate as their emotions took control. Finally after dancing to the rhythm of the breeze, the gurgling of the stream and each other Buck collapsed on the ground, totally spent, beside her.

Several minutes passed before either was able to speak. "Buck?"

"Hmm"

"Welcome home" Lou rolled on her side and kissed his lips gently. His eyes were closed but he smiled as he moved his arms around her and held her tenderly.

"You can welcome me home like that anytime! I could stay like this all day but I doubt we'll be alone much longer, we've been gone awhile. Let's get in the water and clean up." Buck rose and helped Lou up. Together they walked hand in hand into the cool blue green water. Their legs created tiny ripples on the quiet surface of the water. Buck looked down and saw their reflection. "Hmm, you look good on me, what do you think?" Lou looked down and responded with a kiss.

"I think I agree." Lou dove under water to wash her hair.

Buck met her under water and kissed her as they surfaced. "Would you want to have my baby?" He held her against him with one arm as he stood on tip toe on the bottom. Lou wrapped her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck. Buck tried to keep both of their heads above water and he used his free arm for balance. The cool water lapped against their bodies creating an interesting sensation of cool water and warm bodies coming together.

"I'd love to Buck, I'm not sure of the timing if I became pregnant now but, yes, I would love to have your child!" Lou kissed him deeply and they fell over into the water. He resurfaced laughing. They had a splash and giggle fight which stopped only when they finally realized they'd really been gone too long, again.

"We'd better get dressed before someone comes looking for us. I'm glad Emma didn't make you help her too. I enjoyed this afternoon! Buck kissed her nose as she buttoned his clean shirt. The leaves in the tree above them whispered amongst themselves as the breeze tickled them.

"Me too, I did some work for her yesterday so she must have decided I could have the time off." Lou looked at Buck as they started walking back to the way station. "Does Ike know about us?"

"I haven't said anything to him, why?" Buck raised an eyebrow, wondering where that question came from. Buck wrinkled his nose up as he caught a whiff of the dirty clothes he was carrying..."Whew, did I really smell that bad?" He held the clothes away from him.

Lou wrinkled her nose too and nodded. "Yeeeaaaah... Ike keeps looking at me funny...Just a feeling. I don't know..."

"He and I are really close; sometimes I swear I can hear his words. It wouldn't surprise me if he can feel our connection. I don't think he knows you're a girl. Maybe he's jealous!" Buck teased.

"Jealous how? Have you and Ike ever, you know..." Lou had seen Buck and Ike touch each other sometimes but always on the arm, back or shoulder, never intimately.

"If you're asking if we were ever lovers the answer is no. When we were younger we used to hold each other and sometimes, when we were a lot younger, we'd kiss but we were all we had. We longed for human contact. The nuns pretty much left us alone and the other children scorned us. The only contact we had with them was usually painful. We looked to each other for comfort, companionship and love. Ike is like the brother I always wanted, he just accepted me for who I was and didn't try to change me. My half brother never did that, Red Bear wanted me to be something other than half white. I guess when the Kiowa captured Ike... I don't know, I was so scared that I'd loose him I didn't even think about myself." Buck paused and sighed. "I guess that part of my life is over. I'm not welcome in my brother's village, not anymore. Anyway, Ike would tell me about the happy times he spent with his family and I'd tell him what it was like to grow up in the village. I missed a lot of the things you and he had as children and I promise I'll give my children everything I always wanted!" Buck looked in the direction of the station and stole a quick kiss. "As for being jealous, we used to spend a lot of our free time together but I've been with you almost every chance I can. I guess he must suspect something."

"I think I know how you felt about Ike being held by the Kiowa, I was terrified when the Nickerson gang kidnapped you. I thought they were going to kill you, we all did." Lou shivered at the memory. "When Ike took the stand and the lady faked fainting something just told me that was the signal, I had to fight my way out of the courtroom. I would have done anything to save you."

"It was a little too close for comfort. One minute I'm hanging, tied up in the water tower and the guy is telling me Ike was going to testify...I'll never forget his words. 'Too bad your friend took the stand'..... Then I heard him cock his gun and I squeezed my eyes shut.... When I heard the shot, I thought I was dead. I kept waiting for the pain to start but it didn't. It took me a few minutes to realize I hadn't been shot and the other guy was gone. Believe me, I was never more grateful for Cody's skill with his Hawkin than I was that day!" Buck had more than enough of his own bad memories from that day. The scars on his wrists had taken a month to fade.

"Did Ike talk when you first met him?" Lou took a couple of steps away from Buck. They were too close to the way station for comfort.

"You mean with his voice? No, he said he lost his voice when he saw his family murdered. He was never able to talk after that. He's tried. The most he's been able to manage is a few squeaks and an occasional grunt but I'll swear I've heard him whisper in his sleep. I remember a doctor once called it Trauma Stress or Fright or something like that. It may never come back or it could come back tomorrow." Buck shrugged. "Now, his hair, that's gone for good!" Buck chuckled at some private memory as he saw Ike emerge from the barn.

*Have a good swim?* Ike signed to Buck and Lou.

"I feel a lot more human. Its amazing what being clean will do for a body!" Buck laughed.

*Yeah, you smell better too! Those dirty clothes don't smell so good, Emma said to toss them in the wash bucket and head on over to the house for some food.* Ike pretended to sniff around Buck. They both laughed as Buck playfully punched Ike in the shoulder. Ike returned the punch. One of the horses snorted when Buck walked by with the dirty clothes. Ike hit his chest three times and Buck looked at him. *They even smell bad to the horses!* This time it was Buck who stuck his tongue out at Ike.

Lou headed into the bunkhouse shaking her head while Buck got some much deserved lunch and a nap.

CHAPTER THREE

Almost a week had passed since Buck's welcome home and they'd had very little time alone since then. Teaspoon came out of the barn and called to them as Ike drove the buckboard in from town after picking up supplies with Emma. Buck, Lou, Jimmy and Cody were all on their own horses. Kid was on a run. "Buck, Lou, I need you two ready to ride in an hour... I have an urgent dispatch that needs to get to St. Joe's in time for the next train east. I'm sending two of you 'cos I want a second gun just in case. After that you can take your time coming home... Buck, try to stay in one piece this time." Teaspoon recalled that the last time he sent Buck and Lou on a run Buck had returned bruised and battered at the hands of his brother's braves. Teaspoon knew the price for peace with the Kiowa had been a high one that nearly cost Buck everything, including his life.

"Anything special we should watch out for?" Buck asked as he dismounted the horse he'd rode into town.

"It's from the Army and, well, I just want to play it safe. You'll be meeting a Sergeant Max Klinger at the train station. He'll take it from there. Now go get ready I'll have the boys saddle you up two fresh horses. You still have a couple of hours of day light left." Teaspoon played with his suspenders as Buck and Lou started for the bunkhouse.

Emma smiled to herself when Teaspoon gave the orders to ride. Perfect, I know those two have something going. They are getting closer by the day. Emma knew they'd enjoy being alone together and was glad Teaspoon had chosen them for the chore.

Jimmy offered to help Emma down from the buckboard. "Why thank-you Jimmy." She turned to Buck and Lou, "You two go pack your gear I'll get some food together for you. Good thing I baked those cookies this morning and hid some... I'm sure Cody's eaten his fill of the rest by now." Emma smiled when she saw the guilty look cross Cody's face.

Everyone laughed except Cody "Aww Emma, why'd you go and make cookies if I wasn't supposed to be eatin' 'em?"

Ike had the wagon unhitched and Jimmy and Cody led the horses into the barn to cool off. Cody was still grumbling about the cookies.

Twenty minutes later Buck and Lou began their trip to St. Joe with two fresh horses and a bunch of fresh cookies safely tucked in Lou's saddle bag. The trip was uneventful and they slept soundly in each others arms at night. They didn't risk making love under the stars as they were not far from well traveled routes. By unspoken agreement they chose to wait until they were on their own time. They made the meeting with Sergeant Klinger and the train in plenty of time and decided to spend the day in the city. They were able to get two hotel rooms and then take their time exploring the city.

Buck had never been to any place like this and was fascinated by all the shops and restaurants. Two of the buildings, the church and the courthouse, were four and five stories tall. He stood on the sidewalk in the heart of downtown St. Joe's and just looked up. They continued down the main street and back toward the smaller shops. He was more at ease surrounded by the shorter buildings. They strolled down the street gazing in all the shops. He wished he could hold Lou's hand but two men holding hands might attract the wrong kind of attention. He winked at Lou and she smiled back at him, he wanted to take her in his arms but he knew he'd have to wait. A little further down the street he saw Lou looking wistfully in a shop window at a blue dress with delicate white lace around a sweetheart neckline. She had her fingers up to her lips again, Buck loved this little habit of hers; she did it whenever she was thinking. He fought an almost overwhelming urge to kiss her. "I'd love to see you in that." He whispered to her causing her to jump. "I didn't mean to scare you. Sorry"

"That's OK...I don't have anyplace I could wear a dress to Buck, it would be a waste of money. Come on Buck" Lou started to walk on to the next shop, Buck followed her trying to think of a reason she should get the dress or at least try it on. "Buck, do you think we could stop at the orphanage my brother and sister are in on our way home? It's not too far out of the way and..." Lou stopped talking when she saw the look on Buck's face. "What?"

"I think you need to buy that dress and visit them as Louise, not Lou..." He playfully hit the brim of her hat knocking it over her eyes. He took her by the hand and led her into the dress shop as she took the hat off. Ten minutes later Lou was no where to be seen and Louise stood before a mirror, Buck and the seamstress.

She giggled as she looked at herself in the mirror. Lou hugged herself and twirled around in a blue gingham induced euphoria. "What do you think Buck? Should I really get it?" The seamstress added a straw hat with a ribbon band that matched the dress and had a blue cloth flower on the brim. The transformation was amazing.

"If you don't, I will. You're even more beautiful in it than I imagined." Buck kissed her. "I love you"

The seamstress smiled "Do you want me to wrap it up or would you rather wear it." She leaned in closer to Lou and whispered "He's a keeper!" Lou blushed all the way to her toes! She looked at Buck and the look on his face said wear it!

"I'll wear it, thanks; you have no idea how good this feels!" She looked at Buck then leaned in to the seamstress and whispered "I couldn't agree more!" Both women turned to look at Buck and giggled. This time it was Buck's turn to blush!

The rest of the afternoon was spent pleasantly roaming the markets of St. Joseph's hand in hand. Lou found a haberdashery and insisted that Buck buy himself a new suit. Together they picked out a dark brown jacket with deep maroon lapels, a dark brown vest and trousers to match. The tailor added a cream coloured shirt, maroon string tie and handkerchief. Buck looked handsome. Since a few adjustments had to be made they asked for the suit to be delivered to their hotel later that afternoon. The shop owner offered to send Lou's packages, which contained her normal daily clothes, with the suit so they wouldn't have to carry it with them anymore. Buck thanked the man and added a small tip for the delivery boy. Buck was very glad he'd thought to bring extra money with him on the trip. He smiled when he realized he was spending the money Devlin had given him to pay for his ruined clothing.

A bit further down the street Buck found a florist's shop and bought a white rose. The florist added some shiny green leaves and tiny little white flowers she called Baby's Breath and made a pin for Lou so she could wear it. Lou felt like the most beautiful woman in the world when Buck pinned it on her. The shadows were starting to grow long when Buck and Lou found a small outdoor café that was serving dinner. The owner was a black man named Ulysses who had no problem with Buck eating in his establishment and they were treated to a wonderful Cajun dinner of rabbit gumbo and collard greens. They even ordered a small bottle of white wine. It was a day of firsts for them and the evening had Buck thinking back to their conversation almost two months ago. The owner gave them directions back to their hotel that took them through a small tree lined common rather than the business district.

The night was perfect, the street lamps had been lit and there was a cool breeze blowing in off the plains. They could see the stars above and as the walked further into the park the full moon began to rise. Neither wanted the night to end. Buck spotted an unoccupied bench and guided Lou toward it. They sat watching the moon rise until it bathed the park in a silver glow that seemed surreal. Buck pulled Lou against him and kissed her tenderly. "I love you." He whispered to her as he rubbed his knuckles over her cheek. Lou shivered. "Are you cold? Do you want my jacket?"

"I'm fine, thanks. I love you too Buck." They kissed again. It was getting late so they rose and began walking toward the hotel again.

Buck decided it was now or never. "Lou, do you remember what I told you about the Kiowa beliefs and customs and how if we took our relationship to the next level you would be my woman, my wife?" Lou nodded. "Do you have any regrets?"

"No, Buck. Why? Do you?" Lou stopped walking and turned to face him. She sounded worried and the look on her face was puzzled.

Buck kissed her head and pulled her to him. He looked into her eyes and took a deep breath. "None at all." He dropped to one knee in front of her, taking her hand in his. "By Kiowa tradition and law we are already husband and wife. In the eyes of your God we are doing something wrong. I want you to be comfortable as my wife in your world. I want you to be mine in all possible ways, so no one can find a reason for us to part. I love you Louise, with all my heart, body and spirit. Will you be my wife in both worlds?" He had tears in his eyes as he finished with a kiss on her hand.

Lou pulled her hand out of his as if she'd been burned and for a sick heart stopping moment he thought she was going to say no and run screaming away from him. Instead she dropped down beside him and threw her arms around him. "Yes Buck! Oh Yes! I love you!" The kiss that followed caused a few other couples strolling in the park to blush and turn away smiling. They quickly made their way back to the hotel and up to their rooms.

Buck closed the door and drew her to him. Their mouths' locked and their hands caressed each other's backs through their clothes. They were hungry for each other and nothing else mattered at that moment. Buck lifted Lou into his arms and carried her to the bed. His hands caressed her face and neck while his lips softly caressed hers. Lou deepened the kiss and drew a moan from Buck. Her hands pushed Buck's vest from his shoulders down his arms onto the bed and it fell to the floor. Her fingers worked the buttons of Buck's shirt and undershirt. Her hands caressed his work hardened chest. Soon they were once again caught up in the passionate dance they craved. The moon rose and bathed the room in a soft silver glow as the young couple danced to their own song.

"Lou, baby, come here." Buck's hands were turning her and pulling her to him. "That was amazing." He was still breathing in gasps. "I love you, Louise." He rolled her onto her back as he kissed her deeply. His hands caressed her face, neck and shoulders gently and he brushed the hair out of her eyes. He broke the kiss just long enough to whisper "I love you" again. He wrapped her in his arms and held her tightly against him. Neither trusted their voices to speak. Several more minutes passed before Buck gently kissed her head and tilted her face up to his. Their lips met and they kissed tenderly.

The bed covers had been pushed to the foot of the bed during their love making; Lou pushed away from Buck just long enough to retrieve them and cover them both. They adjusted the covers over each other and snuggled into each others' arms. I love you's were murmured as they fell into a contented love induced slumber.

CHAPTER FOUR

They spent the next day shopping for presents for Lou's brother and sister and enjoying being together as a couple. Lou wore her new dress and Buck wore his new suit, minus the handkerchief and together they made a handsome couple. Buck noticed a jewelry shop and excused himself while Lou was picking out a doll for Teresa. He found a necklace with a purple stone wrapped in a couple of flowers that formed a heart, all done in silver on a silver chain. He loved it and bought it for Louise. She might not be able to wear a ring because people would see it but this she could hide under her clothes.

They made their way to the same café they had eaten in the night before and again enjoyed a wonderful meal. The owner noticed they were both dressed up and asked what the occasion was when he found out they had just gotten engaged he asked them to wait at the door. A few moments later they were taken to a table in the back with a candle floating in a glass bowl filled with flowers. Wine was poured at all the tables and the whole restaurant toasted the engagement. People kept coming over and congratulating them all evening. Buck and Lou were thrilled; it was like there was a party just for them. People would ask them to kiss by tapping their silverware against their water glasses then applaud when they did.

Buck fell in love with the Jambalaya and rice with black beans while Louise enjoyed the blackened catfish. For desert Ulysses and his wife treated them to a mouthwatering assortment of tiny pastries with sweet cream filling baked by his mother. It was brought to the table with a bouquet of wild flowers for Louise. Ulysses, his wife, Chloe, and his mother kissed and hugged Buck and Louise as if they were their own children and wished them a long and happy, fruitful life together.

Lou had a tiny spot of chocolate in the corner of her mouth and Buck couldn't resist kissing it off as he withdrew a small velvet bag from his vest pocket. "I bought this for you today." He handed her the bag and sat back while she opened the strings.

The necklace was wrapped in tissue paper and Lou carefully prized it apart to reveal the silver creation. "Oh Buck, it's beautiful" She cried throwing her arms around his neck. "I love you!"

"Hmmm, I love you too. Would you like me to put it on you?" Buck rose and took the chain in his hands. He carefully brought the necklace to her throat and clasped it at the nape of her neck. He couldn't resist nuzzling and kissing her at the same time. "You're beautiful. I love you."

They paid their bill which Buck suspected was much too small for the repast they had just enjoyed but left a healthy tip. They walked back to the hotel hand in hand. Louise carried her flowers and Buck formed another plan for their homeward bound journey. Tomorrow they would begin their trip home with a stop at the orphanage, tonight they would make love and let the world drift around them.

Lou asked for a bath to be sent up as soon as they arrived back at the hotel and it arrived while Buck was packing the things he'd placed in the other room they had rented so people would think they were actually using two rooms. He came back into their room to find Lou laying in a tub full of bubbles and the scent of lavender wafting up from the water. The flowers were on the dresser in a bowl of water. He picked out a daisy from the bouquet and sniffed it. He took the flower and placed it in Lou's hair over her ear. "You're beautiful." He carefully removed and folded his new suit then offered to wash her back. She giggled her approval.

Later that evening as they lay in bed watching the moon rise he finger combed her hair. "I love you Louise, I never thought I'd ever be loved by anyone enough that they would even want to be with me, forget about marrying me. You complete me Louise; I promise I'll do everything I can to give you the best possible life we can have." Buck's lips brushed Lou's and she pulled him against her tightly. They both sighed deeply as passion once again took control.

They slept curled around each other and awoke with the dawn. Buck again made love to Lou as if she were a delicate piece of fine china. His movements were so gentle, his touches so delicate and light, they sent chills up Lou's spine. "Buck, you're too good to me. I never imagined making love could feel this incredible." Lou cooed into his ear as she lay beside him. "When do you want to get married, how soon?" Her fingers traced the scar on his chest that Red Bear had put there. It had faded a little but was still easily visible.

"Hummmph?" Buck made the questioning noise from his throat and opened an eye to look at her. "I don't know...Who do you want to be there for you? Do you need to plan anything? I'm afraid I don't know too much about your wedding customs."

Lou propped herself up on her elbow and ran a finger down the side of his face. "Besides you and the riders, the only other family I have are my brother and sister. The riders all think Lou is a Louis not a Louise! What about you? Would you want Ike and your brother there?"

Buck moved one arm around her, the other tucked itself under his head. She was making this easy for him. "As far as my brother is concerned we are married and Ike, well, I don't know. I hope he'll be happy for us but I think no matter what I've already hurt him by keeping your secret." Buck shrugged and sort of half smiled.

"I'm sorry Buck; I guess we should have at least told him. I was just afraid." Lou looked like she'd cry at any moment. She never meant to come between the two close friends.

"Lou, oh honey, don't look like that.... Everything will work out. If you want to and there's anyway we can do it.... I was kinda thinkin' well...you looked so perfect with that bouquet of flowers, just like a bride.... do you think there would be a preacher at the orphanage? You said it was run by nuns.... The mission school had a priest that came for services on Sunday or whenever there was a problem with one of the kids....." Buck let his words penetrate Lou's thoughts and a slow smile came to her face.

"Buck, do you mean we could get married with my brother and sister there, today or tomorrow?" Her smile lit up her face as he nodded. She threw her arms around Buck and kissed him hard.

"Today... or... tomorrow... sounds... good... to... me... do... you... really... want... to?" Buck spoke into her mouth between kisses.

Lou rolled on top of Buck and kissed him so deeply they had trouble breathing. She snuggled down in his arms and he kissed her head. "WOW! I guess I'll take that as a yes." This time it was her turn to nod.

They lay there a few moments more without speaking; finally Lou heard Buck's stomach rumble. "I guess we should go get breakfast and be on our way...I could lay here like this all day though."

"Me, too. But we're supposed to be back at the station the day after tomorrow at the latest and we've got a couple of things to take care of first!" Buck punctuated his statement with a kiss on her head. "I think today you should become Mrs. Buck Cross, how's that sound?" he bent toward her lips and kissed her deeply.

"Hmmm, wonderful, but....." Lou put her head against his chest to hide her grin.

"But what? I thought you wanted to get married?" Buck sounded worried.

"But if you keep kissing me like that we'll never get out of this bed." Lou playfully kissed Buck's nose, rolled away from him and stood up. They both started laughing and proceeded to get dressed. "I have a feeling we're going to be late getting home!"

CHAPTER FIVE

The ride to the orphanage took about two hours and they arrived just after lunch. The buildings were in desperate need of repair and the outer walls hadn't seen a coat of paint in years. The outer gate was falling off its hinges, the fence was broken and some of the clapboard siding was hanging at odd angles. Buck brought the horses to the barn and noticed several stall doors were either hanging askew or missing entirely. He wondered what the inside of the building looked like if the outside was in this sorry state of disrepair. The barn roof and walls appeared solid as did the roof on the main building and chapel. He gave the horses food and water and took the saddles off. The barn doors were open and a gentle breeze drifted through cooling the animals and him off from the hot ride. Lou had taken the packages for the kids and was waiting for him outside the barn. Together they walked to the front door; Lou drew a deep breath and knocked.

"Please tell Mother Superior that Louise McCloud and her fiancé Buck Cross are here. We'd like to see my brother and sister and speak with her about another matter." Lou spoke to the young Novice Nun that answered their knock. Buck squeezed her hand as they were shown to a small sitting room outside Mother Superior's office.

The room was sparsely furnished with two worn mismatched stuffed chairs and a very worn, and patched, sofa. There was no rug on the floor. A small battered and scared table between the chairs held a worn Bible propped open to Psalms. There was a small book case filled with books against the wall opposite the window which supplied the only light to the room. The curtains had seen better days but they were in good repair albeit faded. The door to the office was closed and the young nun left the door they had just come through open. They sat on the sofa.

"May I help you?" The voice surprised them both; she'd entered the room without a sound. The Reverend Mother was a tall woman, almost as tall as Buck. She was dressed in a long full habit complete with a white coif framing her face and a white wimple covering her throat and chest and black veil and tunic. Buck guessed her age to be somewhere around fifty. They were on their feet instantly. "Louise? Is that really you?" The older woman spread her arms and Lou embraced the nun.

"Yes, Reverend Mother, it's really me, I'd like to introduce you to my fiancé, Buck Cross" Lou stepped back and Buck stepped forward extending his hand. He'd placed his hat on the floor for lack of a better place to put it but now he wished he had it for something to hold on to; he didn't know what to do with his hands.

"Pleased to meet you Ma'am, err, I mean Mother Superior." He was tripping over his words and speaking too fast. Lou looked at him and smiled trying to calm him. Buck was never really comfortable around the nuns at the mission school and seeing Mother Superior in her full habit brought back some disturbing memories. He and Ike had always called the nuns skunks not only because they were black and white but because they could really make your life miserable. Some of them even smelled bad.

"I'm pleased to meet you as well Mr. Cross. Please call me Mother, both of you. Please be seated." She indicated the sofa and sat in one of the chairs then turned her attention to Lou. "I sent for your brother and sister, they should be here soon. Are you just visiting them or will you be taking them with you?"

"I'm afraid it's only for a visit today...." Lou began.

"I need to ask her brother's permission to marry his sister, and if it's ok we'd like to be married here with the children present. Our plans are to be married, find a place to settle down and then send for the children to come and live with us." Buck had taken Lou's hand in his and he gave it a little squeeze as he spoke. Buck was nervous and he wanted to get the purpose of their visit out in the open quickly.

"What if Jeremiah says no?" Mother Superior laughed and her eyes twinkled.

"I'll just have to work on him I guess." Buck looked a bit perplexed. Before he could say anything else two happy children came running into the room and threw themselves on Lou. Buck stood and stepped back letting Lou enjoy her family alone. Mother Superior watched Buck closely. The look in his eyes spoke volumes; he truly loved the petite woman the gawky teen had become.

Lou stood and hugged both children to her tightly, kissing their heads and faces. She'd missed them terribly and when she looked at Buck he saw tears in her eyes. He'd never known that kind of love from his blood family. He smiled sadly.

"Jeremiah, Teresa, I'd like you to meet a very special friend of mine, Buck Cross." Lou said as she introduced Buck. Buck extended his hand to Jeremiah and the young teenager hesitantly reached his own out to meet Buck's.

"I'm very pleased to finally meet you Jeremiah. Your sister speaks very highly of you." Buck shook his hand and watched his face for any sign of rejection or outright hostility but saw none.

"Buck, this is my sister Teresa," Teresa chose that moment to tug on Lou's sleeve and once she had her attention whispered something in Lou's ear. Lou nodded and smiled at her sister; both of them looked at Buck and smiled. Buck blushed, there was something in the way they looked at him that made him feel like he was on display.

Teresa brushed past Lou and wrapped her arms around Buck's waist and hugged him. Buck was surprised at first but quickly returned the hug. "I'm happy to meet you too Teresa, you're even prettier than your sister said you were!" The little girl giggled and ran to stand beside her sister again.

Buck looked at the two children. Jeremiah was in his early teens and in the very awkward stage where he was all arms and legs. He was obviously growing quickly because his pant legs and shirt sleeves were a tad too short. Teresa was very petite, Lou had said she was ten but she looked younger. She had long thick wavy hair and huge eyes framed by the same dark eyelashes her sister had. Both children were thin but not underfed, their clothing was worn but clean and they appeared happy. Both had light brown hair unlike Louise and brown eyes like Louise.

Lou sat back down on the sofa flanked by her siblings. Buck stood for a few moments just watching the interaction between them. He walked to the window and looked out into the play yard at the children there. Lou called to him and he went back to sit in one of the chairs. "We brought you some presents, do you want them now?" Lou grinned at Buck who rolled his eyes. What kid didn't want presents? The reunion continued while Mother Superior left the young family alone; slipping out as quietly as she had arrived, totally unnoticed.

Almost two hours later while Lou and her siblings were still catching up on everything that had happened in their lives Mother Superior came back into the room and motioned for Buck to follow her. They entered the hallway and closed the door behind them.

"Have you asked for her hand yet?" Buck shook his head and started to speak but Mother Superior silenced him with a look. He swallowed and prepared to be thrown off the property. "You seem to be getting along very well with Jeremiah and Teresa I don't think there will be any problem, do you?" Again Buck shook his head.

"No, Ma'am... Mother" he managed to stammer. "We'll marry anyway but I'd like her family to feel included. I know it will mean a lot to Louise."

"What about your family, Mr. Cross? You're part Indian aren't you?" The nun spoke in a soothing quiet voice that did nothing to calm Buck's nerves.

"I only have a half brother and he's Indian, Kiowa. I don't think a church ceremony would be something he'd attend. He's met Louise and accepted her as my wife. I don't want to cause any trouble, its just...... It would mean so much to Louise if Teresa and Jeremiah could be there but if you'd prefer I leave that's OK." Buck looked at his feet.

"What do you mean your brother has accepted her as your wife? You love her." It was a statement not a question. Buck looked up at the nun and nodded anyway. Again he tried to speak but she held up her hand for silence. "I spoke with Father Mulcahy and he has a little bit of paper work you'll need to fill out but if you really want to get married here you have my blessing."

"Did you tell him I'm an Indian?" Buck's voice wavered a bit but he needed to ask. He didn't want to disappoint Lou at the alter if the priest refused to marry them.

"I told him you were part Indian and probably not a Catholic. He said he has a few questions for you but that there should be no problem. I told him a little about you and that you seemed to be a fine young man with all the right intentions." Mother Superior added with a smile and noticed that Buck blushed slightly. He may be part Indian but he's no savage she thought.

"Thank-you"

Her smile finally put Buck at ease and his smile lit up the dim corridor. "Dinner will be ready soon, there's an extra bed in the girl's dormitory where Louise can sleep but I'm still trying to figure out where you'll be most comfortable, that sofa in there is a bit short for you."

"I'll just bed down in the barn or hay loft if it's all the same to you Mother. I don't need a bed." Buck had been looking around the orphanage and noticing that there were several small things that needed repairs. "Do you have a hammer and some nails? I could fix that broken gate out front and put that fence back in one piece...."

"You don't have to do any of that but I never turn away help. You should find everything you'll need in the shed beside the barn." Mother Superior smiled. She really liked Buck and it was easy to see he would provide well for his family.

"Thanks, how much longer till dinner? I'd like to get started. Um, when do we meet the priest?" Buck looked from the door to the nun.

"He'll see you and Louise tonight after evening prayers, right around dusk. Dinner should be in about an hour and a half maybe a bit more or less." Mother Superior turned to go.

Buck went back into the sitting room and told Lou his plans and noticed the look on Jeremiah's face, the boy looked bored. "Hey, would you like to help me while they talk girl talk?"

"Sure! Can I Louise?" Jeremiah was on his feet and heading for the door when he remembered to ask if it was ok. Lou laughed and gave her permission.

Almost two hours later the dinner bell rang and Buck and his soon to be brother-in-law headed for the wash basins. The fence was fixed, the gate was all in one piece again and the clapboard siding that had been falling off was all neatly back in place. Lou couldn't believe it when Jeremiah ran over to her and gave her a huge hug and a kiss.

"Ok Buck, Where is my brother and what did you do to him?" Lou laughed.

"We, um, kinda had a little talk. Would you like to be married tomorrow?" Buck winked at Jeremiah and they both smiled. Teresa giggled and covered her mouth with both hands.

Lou threw herself into Buck's arms and kissed him, a surprised Buck kissed her back. "Yes, Buck, I'd love to! Have you spoken with the priest yet? Is it OK? What did..."

"Whoa, slow down, one question at a time." Buck laughed and kissed her forehead. "I haven't spoken with the priest yet but I did speak with Mother Superior and she's made arrangements for us to see the priest later this evening. She gave us her blessing to have the wedding here. She also said you could bunk down in the girl's dormitory for the night. Everything's going to be OK, you'll see. Now your brother and I are starving so let's get some dinner!" Buck put his arm around Lou and kissed her head. He put his other arm around Teresa as Jeremiah led them to the dinning room.

The dinning hall was toward the back of the first floor just past the classrooms. The tables were all shapes and sizes as were the chairs. Buck guessed most of the furnishing must have been either donations or cast offs. He remembered Ike telling him that some of his parents stuff had been given to the mission when he came. He actually slept in the same bed he'd had at home. Ike had found it comforting Buck thought it was bizarre.

The walls were covered with pictures and drawings the children had made and it helped to brighten the room and hallways. Everything could use a fresh coat of paint. Reverend Mother stood and asked whose turn it was to say grace. A young girl about Teresa's age raised her hand and stood. Every one at each table held the hand of the person beside them and bowed their heads. Buck did the same.

They'd managed to find four seats together and enjoyed their dinner as the children kept up a happy banter. The food was simple, stew and biscuits, but very tasty. The news about the wedding had spread like wild fire and everyone was excited. It seemed like everyone wanted to be part of it. Buck noticed a man in a Roman collar eating dinner with Mother Superior and some of the other older nuns. He wondered if that was the priest who would marry them tomorrow. The man nodded to him and Buck returned the nod.

"I think that's the priest over there at the table with the nuns. Do you know him?" Buck asked the others at the table.

"Yes, that's Father Mulcahy. He's really nice." Teresa smiled and waved to the priest who returned her greeting.

The rest of the meal passed pleasantly enough and Buck and Lou tried to relax. They failed. After dinner Lou went with Teresa and got her bed ready to sleep in with clean sheets and pillow cases while Buck carried his things to the barn and made a bed in the hay loft. They met a half hour later and were brought into Mother Superior's office to wait for the Priest and the nun to return from prayers. The office was even more sparsely furnished than the sitting room. There was a large battered desk with a wooden chair and two mismatched wooden chairs in front of it. Another chair was placed against the wall. There was a candle and some matches on one corner of the desk. A large Crucifix was the only adornment for the dull walls. The only window in the room gave the same view as the one in the sitting room. When the door finally opened Buck and Lou were sitting in the chairs in front of the desk holding hands, trying to remain calm.

"Good Evening, I'm Father Mulcahy, you must be Mr. Cross and this must be Louise McCloud. You're Jeremiah and Teresa's sister, is that right?"

"Yes, Father." Lou stammered as Buck shook the priest's hand.

"Please call me Buck"

"The Reverend Mother tells me you would like to be married here with your family in attendance. Is this correct?" Father Mulcahy watched the young couple closely. He noticed that Lou leaned in closer to Buck and Buck protectively put an arm around her. The love and respect these young people had for each other was very evident, both nodded. "Please sit." They all sat down, the priest sat behind the desk, Buck and Lou sat in the two chairs again and the Reverend Mother took the chair by the wall. "You're Kiowa, aren't you son? Your beliefs are very different than the ones Louise was brought up with. Why is it important for you to get married in the church? Do you believe in God?" The priest noticed the pallor of Buck's skin change as he paled slightly.

Buck's stomach was doing flips. He had dreaded these questions and was scared that after all this they would be told the priest wouldn't marry them. Lou and her siblings would be disappointed as would the rest of the kids in the orphanage. "Yes, I'm Kiowa, and I do have my own beliefs which Louise does not share. I'm familiar with the beliefs Louise was brought up with; I spent a few years in a mission school before I started working for the Pony Express. I want Louise to feel comfortable as my wife. According to the laws of the Kiowa she is already my wife but by your laws and your God we are doing something wrong, committing a sin. I respect Louise and her wishes, her beliefs. I want our marriage to be proper in both the white man's world and the Indian world. I want our children to be able to choose which paths they will follow and the only way to do that is to start out right. While it is true that I do not believe in one God the same way you do. I do believe in many of the teachings, they really are no different than those I was taught as a child. Do not kill. Respect others. Honor you parents. Don't do anything to someone else you wouldn't want done to you. A life after death. The words may be different but the meaning is the same. I've read your Bible and the Indians have very similar stories. The names and locations are different but the basic story is the same. The two worlds have more in common than most people think. The Kiowa have a very strong sense of family and I want to start mine out right. We plan on settling down and then getting Jeremiah and Teresa to come live with us until they are ready to begin families of their own." Buck finished and took a deep breath. He was holding Lou's hand tightly and she winced in pain when he squeezed a bit tighter.

"Buck, you're hurting me...." Lou whispered in his ear. He immediately loosened his grip and kissed the injured hand.

"Sorry" Buck leaned over and pulled her closer to his side taking both of her hands in his, as they sat in an uncomfortable silence waiting for the Priest to speak.

"Well, Buck, Louise, normally the church would require that both of you be baptized as Catholics for me to marry you and as you are not, Buck, I would have to refuse you permission to marry in the church." Buck hung his head. His eyes looked at a spot on the floor. "Buck you are a very intelligent man and your argument for being married in the church is one of the best I've ever heard. The love you have for this woman is something many men will never achieve. You're willing to take on not just a wife, but her family as well. I can see that your family and the Kiowa taught you well. You're a good man, Mr. Cross, better than many white men I've met. Your honesty and sincerity are refreshing. I will be honored to marry you and Louise tomorrow if that is what you both truly want." Buck's head snapped up, he pulled Lou even closer as they both nodded vigorously.

"Now I'm going to assume a couple of things here. First you said that by Kiowa law you are already married and in the white world you're doing something wrong. Do you know what I'm trying to say here?"

"We've been together as husband and wife?" Buck spoke the words but both of them blushed deeply.

"That was answer enough. I guess that means I can skip the lecture on how to be a proper wife and husband and what to expect on the wedding night. Now for the hard question.... Are you with child?" Father Mulcahy had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing at the stricken look on Buck's face as he looked at his fiancé/wife.

"No, at least I don't think I am. Not yet anyway..." Lou babbled her face was deep red and Buck's was pure white.

"OK, that's it for the hard questions. How does 11:00 AM sound? The Reverend Mother has informed me that the children want to have a picnic lunch after the service and lots of cake. Will you stay the night here or leave for a more private celebration?" Father winked at Buck and his color returned in a deep crimson hue.

"Um, Err 11:00 will be fine and we'd love to join the children for a picnic. Will it be OK if Teresa is my maid of honor and Jeremiah gives me away?" Lou hadn't quite recovered from the earlier questions.

"I don't see any problems with that if your husband doesn't object." Mother Superior was trying to avoid laughing at the young couple as well, their innocence was refreshing. She had feared Louise was already with child. "Buck could I see you alone for a moment?"

Father Mulcahy rose and shook Buck's hand again and gave Lou a hug. "11:00 it is! Louise could you come with me and I'll give you the papers you and Buck will need to fill out." They left the room and Buck was left alone with the nun.

Mother Superior went and sat behind her desk. She withdrew a ring of keys and selected one, inserted it in the lock and Buck could hear the distinct sound of the lock disengaging. The nun looked in the draw a moment and finally found the envelope she was seeking. "Buck, this is the ring that belonged to Louise's mother. The instructions that came with it were to give it to the daughter that married first. I think that you should place this ring on her hand tomorrow when you promise yourself to your wife. There are other things in the envelope that Louise and the children should have so I'll give them to you but I think Mrs. McCloud will be smiling down on your union with her ring on her daughter's hand."

Buck took the tiny gold band in his fingers it seemed so delicate, so fragile. "Thank you, I know this will mean a lot to Louise." He turned to go when he felt a hand on his arm.

"She's a lucky young woman to have someone like you. Many of the girls that leave here don't turn out well, the future is far from certain and many will become soiled doves. It's a rough world out there and alone it's down right frightening. You're giving me something I need, the knowledge that at least two of my girls will have a good safe home where they are loved. Father is right you're a good man Buck. Bless you" Buck was shocked as the nun embraced him and placed a gentle kiss on his cheek. He returned the hug and shuddered thinking how close Lou had come to being one of those soiled doves. "Are you OK, Buck?"

"I'm fine, thanks; I promise I'll never let anything bad happen to Louise or Teresa if I can possibly prevent it." Buck again felt himself being drawn into an embrace and felt the nun sigh. He stepped back quickly when there was a knock on the door. Lou entered with the papers in hand.

"We need to fill these out and sign them. Father said we can leave them in either your office or his." Lou stepped into Buck's waiting arms.

"You can fill them out here and leave them on the desk. Good night, get some sleep its going to be a long day tomorrow!" Mother Superior closed the door behind her as she left.

The paper work was quickly filled out and signed while Buck and Lou stole a few moments alone. "I love you, Lou." Buck whispered as he kissed her neck.

"I love you too, Buck, but I really need to get upstairs before lights out. I'll see you at 11:00." Lou left a bewildered Buck standing alone in the office.

"Tomorrow....." Buck made his way to his bed in the loft.

CHAPTER SIX

The dawn found Buck already going through his morning prayers and readying himself for the day ahead. Jeremiah found him about an hour later fixing a stall door that had seen better days. "Hey Buck, you want to come on in for breakfast? Lou already ate. She says its bad luck to for the groom to see the bride before the wedding! Is that true?" The teenager was clearly excited about the events slated to take place later that morning.

"Breakfast sounds good and I have no idea if its bad luck or not. I'll stay out of her way until the wedding just to be safe." Buck laughed and put his arm around his soon to be brother-in-law. Together they walked into the dining hall and chatted all through breakfast.

"Will you teach me how to do the repairs you're doing? I'm almost a man and maybe I can earn some extra money doing things for the people around here." Jeremiah's eagerness was refreshing and Buck readily agreed. The rest of the morning passed very quickly and Buck suddenly realized that if he didn't stop he and Jeremiah were going to be late and smelly for the wedding.

"Hey, it's almost 10:30 we've got to get cleaned up or your sister will tan our hides. Run on in and get washed up and changed, I'll bet Louise has your clothes all laid out for you. I'll see you in a few minutes in the chapel." Buck headed back into the barn and quickly got washed up and dressed in the suit he'd worn for their special night in St. Joe's, including the handkerchief. He smiled as he tried to pull his hair back with a bit of leather; it didn't want to cooperate. His medicine pouch was hidden under the suit jacket. He wished there was a mirror someplace so he could check how he looked but he couldn't find one. He was used to shaving without a mirror but tying the tie was another matter. He assumed that Lou would wear the dress he'd bought her, he was pleasantly surprised.

Earlier that morning Buck had helped Father Mulcahy fix the broken hinge on the outer door to the chapel and the steps leading to the raised alter platform. Buck found a can of linseed oil and had Jeremiah rub down the lectern and the Crucifix behind the alter too. Father Mulcahy was very impressed that Buck was taking the time to show Jeremiah and some of the more curious older boys how to do the repairs so they could do the work themselves. He said a small prayer of thanks for whatever had led Buck to their door.

Buck reached the church at the same time as Father Mulcahy and was led into a back room. "Son, do you mind if I fix your tie, it's a bit off center."

"Thanks Father, I couldn't find a mirror to check it. Does the rest of me look OK?" Buck was nervous and he wanted to look his best for Lou.

Father Mulcahy smiled; he really liked Buck. He fixed Buck's tie and refolded the handkerchief. He showed Buck to a mirror so he could tie his hair back better and then the priest excused himself. The Father opened the chapel side door and motioned for one of the children closest to him. The child came and was instructed to go pick a flower for Buck's jacket; there were some daises growing just outside the chapel doors. When he turned around Buck was ready so he led Buck into the small chapel.

The chapel was filled with excited children and a plethora of nuns. Buck stood up at the front with the priest and an alter boy. Jeremiah was going to do double duty; as soon as he walked Lou down the aisle and gave her to Buck he was going to stand beside Buck as his best man. Buck truly liked the young man and looked forward to being able to spend more time with him in the future.

The piano began to play and the rear doors swung open. Teresa appeared first and was dressed in a long violet coloured dress that was a bit too big for her but she looked adorable anyway. She carried a bouquet of wild flowers and smiled happily as she began her walk down the short aisle.

The cherub faced little girl Father had asked to pick a flower for Buck chose that moment to appear and scooted around Teresa. She ran down the aisle with a fistful of flowers and a huge smile on her face; even Buck had to laugh. The nun at the piano stopped playing when she heard the laughter. Teresa stopped too and stood still while the priest took the flowers from the child. He chose one and stuffed it in Buck's jacket pocket, the others he spread on the alter around the lit candles. It was a perfect addition.

Teresa backed up to the doorway, where a novice nun was waiting for her cue to open the doors for Lou, and just stood there not really knowing what to do. Father Mulcahy thanked the little girl then asked the nun to resume the music. He then motioned for Teresa to once again begin her walk down the aisle. The closer she got to Buck the wider her grin became. Buck smiled back.

Teresa reached the alter and Buck helped her up the two steps to stand on the small platform. All eyes turned to the back as the doors opened and Buck gasped. Louise stood in the doorway escorted by her brother in his Sunday best. She was a vision in white. The gown was simple, modestly cut, and her face was covered by a delicate veil. Lou also carried wild flowers just like the ones from their stay in St. Joe's. Buck thought he'd never seen anyone more beautiful. The necklace Buck had given her gleamed against her skin. Buck felt a tug on his sleeve.

"Isn't she pretty?" Teresa whispered to Buck.

"Just like you!" He whispered and winked at the little girl.

Lou reached the alter and the priest asked who was giving this woman to be wed and Jeremiah proudly announced that he was. Buck reached his hand out and Lou clasped it stepping up the two steps and praying she didn't fall flat on her face. The rest of the ceremony was a blur to both bride and groom. Lou couldn't hold back a tear as she recognized the ring Buck placed on her finger then kissed it. Their vows were repeated with heartfelt sincerity and many of the older girls and the nuns all had tears in their eyes as Buck lifted Lou's veil and very clearly stated "I love you" as he kissed her.

"I'm very proud to present to you for the first time anywhere, Mr. and Mrs. Buck Cross" Father Mulcahy beamed as the young couple turned and the kids all began to cheer and clap. "Now there's a picnic lunch ready for all of you, the baskets are in the dining room and you just need to pick them up and bring them out to the back yard past the swing. If everyone carries something the party can get under way quickly!"

Buck and Lou lead the way out of the chapel and stopped outside the doors to greet the kids as they emerged to gather the picnic things. The back yard had been decorated with paper streamers and bows of all colours. The afternoon was filled with games and food and lots of fun for everyone. Buck finally noticed that the sun was beginning to set and he wanted to spend his wedding night with his wife not alone in the loft. Lou was talking to some of the nuns when he made his way over to her. "We need to get going." He whispered in her ear.

"We'll leave in the morning Buck, please? I'm having too much fun and I'm really too tired to ride." She kissed him gently and he couldn't say no.

So much for his fun, well they were more or less married before that so he really couldn't complain too much. He looked around at the remains of the picnic and the people who were cleaning it all up. "Sure, Honey, tomorrow will be fine." He kissed her forehead and hugged her. Father Mulcahy came up beside him and asked to speak with him. "Uhm, Yes, Father, what can I do for you?"

Father Mulcahy guided Buck away from the women and toward a small groundskeeper's cottage Buck hadn't noticed before. "It's not much and probably not as nice as one of those fancy hotels but it's private and clean. I sleep here when I'm at the orphanage. I'll sleep in the loft tonight so you two can have a proper wedding night." Buck's face turned beet red and he started to protest. "Hold it right there. I may be a priest but I'm also a man. If I'd just married a beauty like Louise I'd want to spend some time on my wedding night alone with her. Now you go on and get your bride and have a fun night." The priest laughed out loud when he saw the horrified look on Buck's face and the shade of crimson he'd turned. "The sheets are clean and I'm having bath water drawn for you too, now git before the water gets cold." He clapped Buck on the back and then drew him in for a quick embrace. "I really do like you Buck. I hope you and Louise are together for a very long time."

"Thank-you, er, for everything. Thanks" Buck stammered as he headed toward Lou to tell her their wedding night was about to get very interesting.

Fifteen minutes later Buck was finally able to persuade Lou that they needed to get to bed when Teresa fell asleep in her lap. Jeremiah had hugged them both and gone to bed a half hour ago. Lou waited for Buck down stairs while he carried the sleeping girl to her bed and tucked her in with a kiss. "Just what do you have in mind, Buck? You know we can't sleep together with the children in the same room." Lou teased Buck as she kissed him lightly on the lips.

"Hmmm, I've been trying to tell you we have a private room....." Buck kissed her back and guided her back out of the main building.

"What? How did you manage that, Buck? Where are we going, the barn is over there...." Lou giggled as Buck swept her up in his arms and carried her to the cottage.

"Father Mulcahy felt we should have a more private wedding night and he's sleeping in the loft tonight. So unless you want to join him....we'll be in his cottage." Buck mounted the steps to the porch and somehow managed the door without putting Lou down. The cottage was small but well kept and smelled of wildflowers. There was a lantern lit in the center of the small table and a bathtub full of still steaming water and lots of bubbles. There were flowers everywhere. Beside the lantern there was a bottle of wine, two glasses and a bowl of fresh fruit. The chair beside the tub had two towels and a bar of lavender scented soap. The sleeping area contained a double bed with a feather mattress; a curtain could be pulled across the doorway for more privacy.

Buck set Lou down and kissed her tenderly. "Hmmm let's really enjoy our night." Lou walked over to the table and poured two glasses of wine, she handed one to Buck and reached for a strawberry. They toasted each other and fed each other the sweet fruit. Buck enjoyed the tingly feeling the wine gave him and the sweetness the fruit left on Lou's lips. "Did you set this up Buck? It's wonderful!" Lou cooed as Buck kissed her.

"No, I knew about the bath but I never expected this. I guess someone wants us to have a romantic night!" Buck's hands had found their way to the back of Lou's dress and were attempting to unbutton the tiny buttons that held the dress securely in place. "Where did you get this dress? You took my breath away when you walked down the aisle. I'm never going to look at you the same way again. You're so beautiful." Buck was winning the battle of the buttons and Lou had started her own assault on his shirt; already having pushed the jacket from his shoulders.

"I sort of borrowed it. When a girl becomes a nun she is sort of married to the church and God so they wear wedding dresses and veils when they take their vows. Mother Superior insisted I wear one of the dresses. She had me try it on last night and stayed up all night altering it for me. She even sewed on these beads and the lace at the veil's crown, and the neck and sleeves of the dress. She said that she wanted me to feel special on my special day. I'm glad you like it." Lou got the first three buttons of his shirt open.

"Mmmm, we'll have to thank her in the morning." Buck mumbled into Lou's neck as the dress fell to the floor in a puddle of white cotton.

Lou's fingers made contact with Buck's skin and he moaned. "I think someone needs a bath, and I know someone who just might be talked into scrubbing your back." Lou purred into Buck's now bare chest as she worked the ties on his pants.

"Hmmm, I wonder who that might be?" Buck looked into her face and moved his hands from her hips. "I love you, Mrs. Cross." He looked into her eyes again and saw her love and desire for him smoldering in the brown pools that matched his own. He found her lips with his and kissed her deeply as he carried her to the tub. They spent the next few hours in each other's arms doing a dance as old as time. Finally exhausted he pulled her into his arms as Lou retrieved the blankets from the end of the bed. Lou covered them both and they slept in a contented lovers embrace until the dawn.

Buck woke first and kissed Lou on the head. She was his. No one could take her away. They were married in both worlds and she loved him. He hugged her tightly against him as a tear of joy escaped down his cheek. He felt her kiss his chest and pulled back a bit to look into her eyes. He rolled her over and gently made love to her, kissing her the whole time. "Good morning, I really enjoyed our wedding and last night." Buck kissed her tenderly and rolled on to his back. Lou snuggled down into the crook of his arm her head on his chest; she loved to feel him breathe and listen to his heartbeat.

"Hmm, I could stay here all day but I think we need to get up." Lou was still curled into him as she kissed his chest.

Buck looked toward the window and saw the sun was just clearing the horizon. "I'm afraid you're right. Lou? um....If you stay there I may just have to please you again....." Buck nuzzled Lou's neck and kissed her collar bone. "We really do need to get up. I hear the church bell."

They rose and dressed, stunned to find all their belongings in two neat piles on the floor. The water from the tub was cold but Lou heated some up, enough for them to wash up with. They cleaned up the cottage and stripped the bed. Lou found clean sheets in a draw and together they made the bed. Both of them dreaming of the day they would do this in their own home.

CHAPTER SEVEN

The morning had passed by quickly and become afternoon, Buck and Lou had said their good byes to Teresa and Jeremiah, Lou's had been tearful. Buck made a sizable donation to the orphanage for all the goodwill they had received during their visit. The Reverend Mother had tears in her eyes when Buck put the twenty dollar gold piece in her hand. He and Louise had made sure to thank both the Father and the Reverend Mother for all their kindness and assistance in making their wedding day a memorable one. The Father had laughed out loud when Buck again blushed beet red when asked how the wedding night had gone. Buck had breathed a sigh of relief when he realized the Father didn't really want to know what had taken place. He was only teasing Buck. The humor was lost on Buck but he laughed with relief anyway.

They'd been riding over the open plains for a couple of hours when they neared a place they could water the horses...... "You're too quiet, Lou, are you OK?" Buck finally could take the silence no longer. He stopped his horse and pulled up beside her.

"I just wish we didn't have to go back to being 'friends' once we get back to the station. These last few days have been like a dream. I love waking up in your arms and feeling you breathe. I love falling asleep listening to your heat beat, it's so...I don't know, comforting." Lou was fighting tears and lost the battle. A soft sob almost broke Buck's heart. Buck reached out his hand and brushed a tear off her dusty cheek with his thumb. The tear left a clean path down her face and then a smear mark marred her pretty face where he'd brushed it away. Buck felt awful.

"Let's rest for a bit over there under those trees." Buck turned his horse and knew Lou would follow. They rode the next few minutes in a silence broken only by Lou's occasional sniffle and the sigh of the breeze through the grass.

Once they dismounted Buck tied the horses so they could drink and gathered Lou into his arms. "We don't have to pretend anything. It's up to you. If you want to keep riding as Lou I guess you'll have to keep pretending but if you think we can make it on my pay and with what we have saved then please become Louise. Honey, I love you, you are my wife and I want to make you happy. If you want to ride back to the orphanage right now and get Teresa and Jeremiah then we will. We'll make it somehow." Buck hugged her close as she sobbed into his chest. Buck let Lou cry a bit longer and then pulled her away from him. "Are you sorry you married me?"

"No, oh no, Buck, You've made me happier than I've ever been or ever thought I would be. I love you so much I just don't want to be apart from you. I'm sorry I'm so upset" Lou looked at Buck's soaking wet shoulder. "I got you all wet."

"Hmmm, I don't think I'll melt." Buck snickered as he kissed her. An hour later they found themselves totally spent on the soft lush grass, smiling and very satisfied. "We're going to be so late!" Buck laughed as he nuzzled Lou's neck and she tickled his ribs with a blade of grass. "We'd better get going before someone comes looking for us."

"One more night Buck, please? I don't want this to end so soon. Hold me one more night." Lou snuggled into his body. Buck knew he couldn't resist or refuse her anything. The canopy of green leaves nodded its approval as the trees whispered in the wind. Buck sighed; he loved Lou more than life itself.

"Alright but just one.... Teaspoon's going to never let us out of his sight again if we're too late." Buck kissed her forehead as she began an assault on his throat.

~*~*~

The remainder of the ride home was done with pleasant conversation and they both voiced their dreams for the future; their future. Just before they reached the station Buck left the road and rode off toward a cluster of wild oak trees near the stream that ran through the northern most grazing area for the station. They'd made love here before and it was very private and comfortable. The dense Rose of Sharon bushes surrounded a small clearing with a thick mat of grass just perfect for lying on. The bushes came right down to the stream's edge on one side and formed a wall of green at their back. There were trees on the other side and they felt safe from prying eyes. Buck dismounted and led his horse to the stream to cool down and drink. Lou did the same and soon found herself in Buck's arms.

"We'll be home soon and we still haven't decided how we want to handle letting people know, or even if we want to let people know. I'll respect your wishes. The choice is yours, I love you Lou." Buck kissed her deeply and they found themselves laying in the grass the passion and desire overtaking them once again.

Buck fell satiated to the ground beside Lou and pulled her onto him. He kissed her deeply. They were kissing tenderly when Buck's excellent hearing alerted them to hoof beats.

"Someone's coming." Buck whispered to Lou and they began pulling clothing together quickly. They were grateful they hadn't fully disrobed.

"Hey Buck, Lou, where have you two been? Teaspoon thought you'd be back a couple of days ago. He sent me and Jimmy out looking for ya." Cody called as he rode up.

"He told us to take our time coming back. I didn't think he really expected us until last night or this morning." Buck shook his head and reached for the reigns of his horse. Lou was already on her horse.

"You know Teaspoon. He worries about you two. After the way you almost didn't make it back the last time..." Cody laughed when Buck made a face and mounted his horse.

"Well, as you can see we're fine, we just stopped to water the horses and clean up a bit before we rode in. Ike said I smelled up the place after my last long ride." Buck laughed secure in the knowledge that Cody had no idea what he'd almost ridden in to find.

"Speak for yourself Buck! You are a dust magnet, look at you!" Lou teased Buck as they began the last part of the ride back home. She'd taken a bath in the stream while Buck had trapped and cooked their breakfast.

"Rider Coming" They heard Emma sing out as they rode into the yard. Kid, Teaspoon and Ike along with Emma, all met them as they rode in and dismounted.

"You had me a might worried there boys, I didn't figure you'd be gone so long. What did you find so interesting that you were gone for almost a week?" Teaspoon queried as he took the reigns of Lou's horse while Kid got Buck's and Cody's.

Buck looked to Lou; she still hadn't told him what they were going to say when they got home. Well, they were home. "Buck had never been to the city and I had so I just showed him around. We rode real hard to make the train and needed a rest." Lou began to tell them a much edited account of their journey. Buck was disappointed she hadn't told them the truth but supported her decision. He also noticed that the wedding ring wasn't on her finger.

They both felt the disappointment that night when they climbed into their respective bunks. Buck wanted to hold Lou or at least kiss her good night but neither was possible. Buck looked up at Lou's bunk over Kid's and caught her looking down at him. She mouthed the words I love you and he signed 'me too' when they were sure no one else was looking. It would become a nightly routine.

The next few weeks brought both a scare and a disappointment for the young couple. Lou was sure she was pregnant. She'd never been regular but now that time of the month was really late. She'd told Buck and he'd been thrilled. His happiness was infectious and Lou began to look forward to her next run to Blue Creek so she could see the doctor there. Buck woke up one morning about a week later to see Lou's bunk empty. He found her out in back of the barn crying. "Lou, what's wrong? Honey, are you OK?" He knelt beside her and took her into his arms.

"It just came, Buck." She sobbed into his chest.

"Huh? Lou what did? Are you OK?" Buck held her tightly in his arms not caring if anyone saw them. Someone did.

"I'm not pregnant" the words were sobbed into his chest.

Buck swallowed his own disappointment and put a finger under her chin. He raised her face to his and kissed her tenderly, he deepened the kiss. Hands roamed and bodies pulled closer as the tears were forgotten. Suddenly they heard the barn door close and they jumped apart as if there were a fire between them. "Shoot, I wonder who that was...." Buck looked back but found Lou already in the barn mounting her horse for the first run of the day. The cry of rider coming spurred her into action and out she rode before Buck could reach her. "Ride safe, Lou." He called after her. She was already too far away to hear his words.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Buck watched the reactions of the riders all that day trying to figure out who had seen him and Lou in the barn that morning but no one gave anything away. Ike was the only one who really bothered him at all. He seemed a little distant but he had seemed like that since Buck had returned from the Kiowa. The afternoon was hot and Teaspoon took pity on the boys after they worked hard to get a fence mended in the northern pasture. They all went happily down to the swimming hole and played in the water till dinner time. Ike brushed up against Buck several times.

They'd only been there a few minutes when Ike saw Cody sneak back to where their clothing was. Cody was doing something to Buck's medicine pouch when Ike confronted him. *That's Buck's leave it alone.*

"Come on Ike I just want to show Buck that it's silly to rely on this for protection. He could get himself killed, now I know you don't want that, do you?" Cody smiled trying to calm Ike.

*No, of course not. I'm going to tell him. It's his religion Cody you got no right.* Ike was upset. He might be angry with Buck but he'd still protect him.

"Don't tell him, it'll only get him mad and we don't want that do we?" Cody smiled at Ike again. "Just give me a week, one week, Please Ike?"

*Fine but don't blame me when the spirits get mad at you.* Ike looked to the sky when he said the last part.

"Spirits! What spirits? There's no such thing as spirits, Ike....." Cody placed the pouch now filled with sand back where Buck had hung it.

"Hey Cody, Ike wha'cha doin' come on in before Teaspoon makes us dig some more fence post holes." Kid yelled over as Buck splashed him.

"Just one week...." Cody ran to the stream and jumped in splashing both Kid and Buck. Ike shrugged and joined them knocking Buck, backside first, into the cool water. They all continued to splash around and cool off for a bit longer when Kid announced he was getting out; it was almost supper time.

*I've missed you; you spend all your spare time away from the station. WHY?* Ike finally asked Buck after pushing him backwards over Cody into the water one last time.

"We'll talk later, alone, will that be OK?" Buck asked Ike. The hurt look on Ike's face as he nodded his assent was almost too much for Buck to take. Buck was now sure it had been Ike that had seen him with Lou.

Lou was going to be gone overnight and Buck asked Ike to go for a walk with him after supper and the evening chores were done. Lou hadn't given him permission to tell Ike about her being a girl so Buck figured he'd have to do some fancy talking and pray Ike would forgive his lies later.

They walked down to the small stream and sat on its banks listening to the water gurgle as it passed over the rocks and under the fallen tree limbs. Buck had tried to make small talk but Ike remained mute. Jimmy was right; when Ike was silent it was down right spooky.

"Ike will you please say something to me.... Yell at me, do something. I'm sorry, I never meant to hurt you." Buck finally broke the silence.

*Well, you did a good job. I figured I'd become less important in your life when you met a girl and got married. I don't even know you* Ike pounded on his chest to show how angry he was at Buck. Buck pulled backward instinctively. *LOU! A BOY! Come on Buck, All those nights we talked about girls and the future, what was I other then someone who believed your lies? I'm so stupid. You disgust me.* Ike's words stung Buck.

"Ike, its not what you thi....." His words were cut off by Ike's slap. Buck tasted blood inside his mouth; he'd bit his cheek.

*DON'T LIE TO ME! I SAW YOU KISSING HIM! I SAW YOUR HANDS, BOTH OF YOU, TOUCHING.* Ike backed away as Buck tried to calm his friend. Ike was crying. *DON'T*

Ike looked up at Buck after a few moments. Buck was still rubbing his face where Ike's hand had connected; Buck's cheeks were tear stained as well.

"Ike, please listen to me; it's not....."Buck was silenced by Ike's hand on his shoulder.

Buck looked at Ike's hands and he began to sign. *I loved you Buck, I trusted you, why? You played me for a fool. I told you everything about me and my life and you didn't trust me enough to tell me you didn't like girls.* Ike held up his hand to cut Buck off before he could respond. *You were like a brother to me, my family, and I have to find out the truth about you like this. You're dead to me Buck, Good-bye.*

Buck tried to stop Ike from leaving and grabbed his arm. Ike slapped Buck's hand away, hard. *Take your filthy hands off me, don't EVER touch me again.* Buck opened his mouth to speak but before he could, Ike shoved him hard and Buck fell. *There is nothing you can ever say to me that can change what you've done.* With those words Ike turned and began walking away tearing Buck's heart in two. Buck just sat where he'd fallen staring after Ike. Somewhere in the distance an owl hooted.

Buck watched Ike walk back in the direction of the bunkhouse. He could tell Ike was crying hard and it hurt him deeply. There was no way he could choose between his wife and his best friend and he wished Lou had been there to help him explain things to Ike. He'd decided to tell Ike about Lou's secret but Ike hadn't given him a chance. Lou would be home tomorrow and he'd ask her for help with Ike then. He sat cross-legged on the ground, head in hands, and sobbed. He never expected Ike to react the way he had and that hurt coupled with Lou's news that she wasn't pregnant were just too much.

He didn't remember lying down but he woke up on the ground with his knees drawn up to his chest and very cold. It was night, probably after midnight by the look of the moon. His body was stiff from the cold and the position he'd been sleeping in; his head throbbed. Buck stood slowly and began to walk back to the bunkhouse. The station was in darkness so rather than disturb anyone he headed into the barn and up into the hay loft. He grabbed a blanket from one of the stalls and, ignoring the horsy smell, curled up in it on the hay and tried to sleep.

His sleep was troubled by Ike's hurt face peering at him and telling him he was dead to him. He woke up several times covered in sweat and crying. The dawn finally came and Buck hurried to finish his chores. He left the station as soon as the chores were done to go pray to the spirits for guidance and strength.

Ike had a rough night too. He was beginning to feel bad about what he'd said to Buck and looking over at Buck's empty bunk made it worse. Emma came in with breakfast and Buck was still not there. Ike barely touched his meal and Emma asked if he was feeling alright. He was clearly upset about something and when she noticed Buck wasn't there she was sure of it. She walked over and stood behind her mute rider with her hand on his shoulder as she asked where Buck had gone off to but the question went unanswered. She was about to ask Ike directly about Buck when Teaspoon walked in.

"I've got a special run to Fort Laramie, who's up? Teaspoon asked as he entered the bunkhouse. The boys all looked at each other. Everyone but Ike had their empty plates in front of them. Ike noticed Cody eyeing his bacon and pushed the plate of food to him. Cody nodded his thanks and picked up his fork. "Everything OK in here? You're all a bit too quiet." A round of shrugged shoulders answered him. Teaspoon shook his head "Now.... I asked who's up?"

Kid thought a moment then told Teaspoon the day's schedule. Buck was up but he was missing, Cody was scheduled to ride in the afternoon and Jimmy had the first run tomorrow.

*I'll go, serves Buck right, he'll have to cover my runs while I'm gone.* Ike took the parcel from Teaspoon, grabbed his coat and headed for the door.

"Don't go gettin' lost... I have enough trouble getting Buck back here in one piece." Teaspoon teased as Ike picked up his gun belt from the peg by the door. "Where is Buck anyway?"

"Ouch!" Cody exclaimed as he bit the inside of his mouth.

*See you in a week or so. Cody, watch out for spirits!* Ike closed the door behind him.

"Wait Ike; let me put something together for you for the road." Emma called after him as she followed him out the door.

"Well, anybody got an answer for me? Where's Buck?" Teaspoon looked at Jimmy and Cody; they both shrugged "Kid, you know what's going on?"

"I'm not sure; none of us heard or saw anything. Ike and Buck left together to go for a walk and only Ike came back. Buck's chores were done this morning but his bunk wasn't slept in." Kid shrugged. Jimmy and Cody just nodded.

Teaspoon let out an exasperated sigh and as he turned and opened the door the riders heard him mumble "Damn moody Indian, be the death of me yet!" He shut the door behind him.

Just before lunch Lou rode into the station and was greeted by Jimmy and Emma. Jimmy patted her horse's nose; Lightening bent his head for a scratch on the withers. Emma had a plate of sandwiches and moved them out of Lightening's reach when the horse sniffed and turned his big head toward the plate. Both Jimmy and Lou grabbed one before either Cody or Lightening got one. "You didn't happen to run into Buck on your way through town did you?" Emma asked after greeting the dusty rider.

"No, why?" Lou tried to keep the concern out of her voice. She'd been looking forward to seeing him all morning. Kid walked over from the barn and picked out a sandwich for himself. Lou tossed her leg over the saddle horn and jumped down.

"It's probably nothing but he and Ike had an argument last night and Buck didn't come home; or at least we think they had an argument. We still ain't seen Buck but his chores was done this morning." Jimmy shrugged.

"Did you ask Ike? Those two are pretty close I wonder what set them off." Even as Lou said the words she remembered Buck saying someone had seen them. Her hand unconsciously touched the necklace Buck had given her which now also held her wedding ring. Her fingers touched her lips as she thought about what Ike might have seen.

Emma thought she saw a chain under Lou's shirt and wondered what it was. This charade of hers was going to come to an end. The boys needed to know Lou was a woman and, from the looks of Lou and Buck, a woman in love. Emma made up her mind right then and there that, when the time was right, she was going to have a coming out party for her smallest rider; and soon.

"Your guess is as good as mine." Jimmy was saying as Emma focused back in on the conversation taking place in front of her. "Ike came back in the bunkhouse last night just before we put the lamps out and just climbed into his bunk and turned away from us. He never said a word. He looked OK at breakfast but he gave Cody his food. According to Cody he tossed and turned all night, then again Cody could have just used that as an excuse to take a nap before his run."

"And Buck never came back?" Lou looked expectantly around the yard hoping that he was just hiding somewhere. The horses were pawing at the ground in the corral looking for grass to munch and the chickens pecked at the hay bales. Lou began to lead Lightening to the barn to cool him off. Kid took the reigns and in between bites of his sandwich indicated he'd take care of Lightening; he walked with the horse toward the barn.

"Not even for breakfast." Cody chirped as he exited the bunkhouse. "How was your run Lou? Emma did I miss lunch?" Emma extended the now almost empty sandwich plate to Cody. Lou looked disgusted as Cody jammed a sandwich in his mouth; she walked quickly away from the group.

"Is your stomach the only thing you ever think of Cody? No, wait, don't answer that, I don't want to hear about your latest lady love!" Lou's retort was punctuated by the bunkhouse door slamming behind her.

"What's eating him?" Both Jimmy and Cody asked at the same time.

"Cody, go get ready for your run and I'll fix you up with a few more sandwiches." Emma turned to the house and Cody followed Jimmy into the barn to prepare for his run.

Buck returned late in the afternoon and Lou found him just before dinner while he was doing his evening chores in the barn. "Buck, where have you been? I was so worried." Lou ran to him and they ducked behind a pile of hay to kiss.

"You were asleep when I looked in the bunkhouse. You were so peaceful and beautiful I didn't want to disturb you." Buck kissed her tenderly at first then deepened the kiss when she sighed.

"Jimmy said you had a fight with Ike?" Lou asked when they parted.

"Yeah, it was pretty bad." Buck's whole face looked like it was going to crumble and his lower lip trembled. Lou brushed away a tear that escaped down his cheek while he told her the whole story. They were both crying by the time Buck finished.

"We'll talk to him together. I'm sorry Buck. Somehow we'll make this right. I love you." Lou kissed his face and brushed the hair back from his face. She kept kissing him until he responded. The kiss heated up and soon the world around them disappeared as Lou helped Buck forget his problems with Ike.

"WOW, I never expected that....." Buck moaned when he was finally able to breathe.

Before he could say anymore the dinner bell rang and Lou headed toward the door. "I suggest you fix yourself before you head on over... I don't think Emma will like you sitting at her table half naked."

Buck had to laugh. "I guess not, huh? I'll be over in a few minutes."

CHAPTER NINE

Cody returned from his run battered up by the weather and a string of bad luck; His cinch strap broke and he fell off his horse, his bunk broke and he landed on the floor, he bit into a hard piece of jerky and broke a tooth, he even claimed to have been struck by lightning. When he was telling Ike and Kid about his bad luck, the pulley broke outside the hay loft and a large bale of hay just missed Cody as it fell. Ike told Cody he had to tell Buck and return the contents of the pouch.

Buck was less than pleased with Cody but Kid broke the fight up before it got out of hand and again Buck exacted his own revenge. They all had a good laugh at Cody's expense when Buck got him to pour bacon fat over his had and rub sand in it. Buck ran for his life when Cody realized he'd been the butt of the joke but once he calmed down and cleaned up he laughed too.

Buck had hoped that since Ike and taken part in Cody's "Morning Ritual", as Lou had called it, maybe things would get better between them. He was disappointed.

~*~*~

The next few weeks flew by and Ike kept his distance from both Lou and Buck. Emma watched the friends closely and knew she needed to do something. Buck and Ike were clearly miserable and missed each other but Ike refused to allow Buck anywhere near him and had gone so far as to tell Teaspoon that he would refuse any runs with just him and Buck alone.

Life at the station continued despite the growing chasm between Buck and Ike. Jimmy was tested to the breaking point when a writer named J. D. Marcus, vented his frustrations after he lost to Jimmy in a gunfight and Wild Bill Hickok was born. The stories the writer penned about Jimmy's alter ego forced Jimmy to become the gunfighter of legend or be shot by a challenger. Jimmy hated it. They managed to get Marcus to write a story about the demise of "Wild Bill" but the damage was done and would follow Jimmy the rest of his life.

They had all been surprised by the arrival of Kid's older brother Jed and ultimately saddened when Jed's involvement in plans to steal a shipment of gold led to a confrontation with Kid. Kid had needed the love and support of the riders following his brother's death and they rallied around him as his family. Teaspoon smiled when he realized these boys from all different backgrounds and cultures were indeed a family in all ways but blood. A week later Kid captured a Sioux brave named Curly and formed a life long friendship. Buck was a bit envious of Curly because, like him Curly was a half blood, unlike him he was accepted in his village.

Jimmy got himself into a bit of a bind when he fell for a woman that was part of a husband and wife team that swindled older men out of their life savings. The husband turned up dead and Jimmy was blamed. Lou's quick thinking and fast riding had saved him from the hangman's noose.

'Wild Bill Hickok' began getting letters of admiration from one Ambrose T. Merriweather and the young man finally showed up in Sweetwater. Ambrose was the type of person whose enthusiasm was, unfortunately, matched by his lack of skills. The riders all found Ambrose to be an enjoyable, but naïve, city boy with an inner cowboy just begging to emerge. They all took part in his transformation from Ambrose to Bulldog. They had a few rough moments when Ambrose's Uncle, Arthur T. Merriweather, the general manager for Russell, Majors, and Waddell, fired them all but in the end they all managed to keep their jobs. They were all saddened when a poor decision on his uncle's part led to Ambrose's untimely, but heroic, death; even Wild Bill cried.

Buck had managed to help Ike after he was shot in the leg during the shoot out that ended with Bulldog's death. Buck hoped things were looking up but even as Ike leaned on Buck for support as they stood over Ambrose's body, Ike pulled away from Buck. When Teaspoon came over to check on Ike, the injured rider let go of Buck and let Teaspoon help him home. Once again Buck felt his heart being shredded. Lou felt guilty for causing this rift between the friends.

~*~*~

Buck and Lou had managed to keep their marriage and her true identity a secret much to the surprise of both of them. Unfortunately they assumed incorrectly that because Lou had avoided pregnancy so far they didn't need to take as many precautions.

Lou lay in Buck's arms in their special spot by the stream one early afternoon both totally satiated from their recent activities. "Lou maybe I'm being too nosy and you don't have to answer me but shouldn't you have gotten something by now?" The gurgle of the water as it played around the stones in the stream and the rustle of leaves was Buck's only answer. "Lou?"

"Huh? Oh don't worry its coming.... If you're asking about what I think you are." Lou assured him as she nuzzled down into his shoulder, kissing his neck as she finger combed his hair. He mumbled something back but both soon fell asleep caressed by the warm prairie breezes.

They both slept the contented sleep of lovers and woke up staring into each other's eyes. "I love you, Mrs. Cross." Buck murmured into her hair as he kissed her forehead.

"I love you too, Mr. Cross." Lou said as she snuggled into his shoulder.

They came back to the station separately to avoid suspicion and about an hour apart. Lou arrived first and was about to enter the bunkhouse when Emma called to her from the house.

"Oh Lou, could you come in here for a moment?"

"Sure I'll be right there." Lou dropped her coat and bedroll off and headed over to the house.

She walked in the door and Emma asked her to remove her glasses and hat. "You have such beautiful eyes, you shouldn't go hiding them." Emma brushed the hair out of Lou's face and Lou panicked.

"I think I better leave, I think you have the wrong idea about me." Lou stammered and she tried to find the door.

"I really think you'd look nice in this. I'd love to see how pretty you look in it." Emma held up the dress Buck had bought Lou in St. Joe's a few months before. "It nearly broke my heart to find this. Lou, honey, you need to let yourself be a woman sometimes." Lou sighed disheartened and sank down into one of the chairs putting her face in her hands.

"How did you find out? What's going to happen now?" Lou looked up at Emma with tears in her eyes.

"Honey, I knew the moment I saw you. I figured you had your reasons for dressing like a boy so I didn't want to say anything to you, but things have changed haven't they?" Lou nodded her head but said nothing. "I also know there is something going on between you and Buck, you're a woman in love and from the looks he gives you, it's returned, so let's have a woman to woman talk. Where is he anyway?" Emma looked out the window but saw no one.

Lou told Emma everything but omitted one tiny detail, however, when Emma prompted Lou finally relented. "Buck and I were married on that trip to St. Joe's and I think I'm pregnant. I told Buck I wasn't cos the last time we were both disappointed but I've missed two months now so...." Emma was on her feet and hugging the petite rider before she could finish the sentence.

"Oh Lulabelle, that's wonderful news! I think we need to introduce you to the boys and Mr. Spoon properly and soon it sounds like. You're going to need to tell Buck first. Do you want me to go into town with you to visit the doctor's first to be sure?" Emma's good mood was infectious and Lou found herself smiling in spite of her fears.

"I'd like that, please?" Lou shyly looked at the older woman with a new respect.

Two days later the boys and Teaspoon were asked over to Emma's house for a tea party. The boys felt uncomfortable sitting around the small linen covered table filled with dainty tea cups and saucers. Emma poured tea from a matching china teapot and smiled at the boys' obvious confusion. The centerpiece was a three tiered plate holder filled with cookies and small cakes. Jimmy, Cody, Ike, Kid and Buck sat uncomfortably at the table while Teaspoon explained the finer points of being polite. Buck couldn't help but think that the nuns at the mission school would have been mortified at Teaspoon sitting there with his thumb tucked under his suspender strap and leaning back in the chair; at least his hat had been left at the door along with everyone elses' hats and guns. Kid and Ike were trying to figure out how to drink out of the delicate cups without breaking them while Cody and Jimmy kept their hands in their laps except for when Cody reached for the cookies. They were all relieved that Emma hadn't made them dress up.

"Where's Lou, How come he gets out of this here tea party?" Jimmy grumbled while Cody ate another cookie.

"Who cares.... that just leaves more cookies for us" Cody joked.

Teaspoon and Emma both gave Cody a look that said, it figures! "Buck, could I see you in the kitchen a moment?" Emma beckoned to him from the doorway. Buck stood and followed her into the other room. "Buck, the reason Lou isn't here is because she's upstairs, we both think its time for you to introduce us to your wife. I also think that it might help smooth things out between you and Ike. You two are miserable without each other and the rest of us can all feel it."

Buck's face paled as he dropped his eyes to the floor, sighed and then he smiled slowly. "It might.... He doesn't know anything. How long have you known?" His thumbs were jammed in the waist band of his pants. Emma had learned this was his way of reacting when he had no idea what was expected of him.

"Known what? That you were married or that Lou was a girl?"

"Well, both really.....I'm sorry we didn't tell you sooner" Buck looked down at his feet.

"I knew Lou was a girl right from the start and I knew there was an attraction between the two of you almost right away. When you came back from the Kiowa I knew your relationship had changed and I knew you knew Lou was Louise. I could see the love you two have growing and I can't think of two people who deserve to be together and happy more then the two of you. When you came back from St. Joe's I knew you were a couple I just didn't realize you were married. It has been what almost five months?" Emma hugged the stunned Kiowa and he returned the hug.

"Yeah, and we are happy Emma, its not easy livin' the way we do but we manage. We want to start a family but right now I guess that's not really an option. We sort of need our own space; it's a little hard in the bunkhouse. I like watching her sleep but its hard knowing I can't hold her." Buck smiled at Emma. "I don't even know if Lou can cook!"

"I think we can change a few sleeping arrangements and get you two a little more privacy. I can teach her a few things if she doesn't already know them so don't worry." Emma was curious how Buck would react to Lou's news. Emma was sure he hadn't been told yet. "How soon are you thinkin' on starting that family? I'd love to have a baby to care for again." Emma slipped her hand up to her mouth and hoped Buck hadn't heard her use the word again. No one but Jimmy knew she'd had a child that had died a few years ago.

Buck raised an eyebrow but said nothing about her choice of words. "I'm not sure; it's more or less up to Lou. The only thing that would make our marriage even better would be a baby but I don't think it's going to happen. We haven't been too careful and so far nothing, but maybe some day." Buck shrugged he really wanted to be a dad. He'd felt that way ever since the baby had been left on the bunkhouse porch. Holding that baby in his arms had stirred something inside of him he didn't know existed.

You may get your wish sooner than you think, Emma thought, "Come on, let's introduce your bride." Emma winked at him and he looked at her quizzically but followed her out into the main room. "Please go up stairs and get that package for me, will you Buck?"

Buck nodded and ascended the stairs. He found Lou waiting for him in the bedroom on the left. She was dressed in the blue dress and was wearing the necklace he had given her; the wedding band was on her finger. "Are you mad?" Lou asked quietly.

"Not at all, I love seeing you dressed like this, you're so beautiful. I love you." He pulled her into his arms and kissed her deeply.

"Did you get lost up there Buck? We're waitin' on ya......" Emma's voice interrupted them.

"Be right there," he called out loudly and then turned to Lou, "Are you ready?" She nodded, took his arm and they started down the stairs together.

Emma, who was standing at the bottom of the stairs, turned to everyone and announced, "I'd like you all to meet your fellow rider, Louise. I think she looks a whole lot better like this don't you?"

Buck and Lou came into view and Lou heard a couple of gasps. "First one that laughs gets a punch in the nose." Lou threatened.

"Lulabelle" Emma groaned. Buck laughed and shook his head! He'd married a spitfire!

"How come Buck gets to escort her? I have a special way with the ladies!" Cody whined wistfully; his eyes were as big as the tea saucers.

There were shocked looks on all the other boys' faces and Ike had gone pale. Teaspoon, manners forgotten, sat there with his mouth open and a half eaten cookie in his hand.

They had reached the bottom of the stairs. "Well, Cody, the reason for that would be that I want to formally introduce you to my wife, Mrs. Louise Cross, the former Lou McCloud." And with those words he placed one hand on the small of her back, pulled her a bit closer and kissed her on the forehead. Buck turned toward Ike. "Ike, can you please forgive me for not telling you? I tried, but it turned out all wrong."

Ike's mouth was open and he just stared at Lou. His face was pale and his mouth closed then opened again, he shook his head in a silent no; his fists were clenched at his sides. The whole room was silent. Buck looked at Ike's face trying to read the stunned look for signs of forgiveness. Ike turned away from him for a moment. Buck closed his eyes and sighed, Lou touched his face and he looked at her sadly. Teaspoon touched Ike's arm and he again shook his head. Teaspoon removed his hand. When Ike turned back to Buck his expression had changed. His shoulders were slumped, his mouth was set in a thin straight line, lips pursed together, and his eyes were downcast. When he finally lifted his eyes to meet Buck's they were bright with unshed tears.

"Ike, are you OK? Please understand I wanted to tell you, I just couldn't...I couldn't...I promised Louise.....I'm so sorry....." Buck's voice had a pleading quality to it; he was struggling for control.

Emma put her hand over her mouth realizing this meeting between Buck, Ike and Lou should have taken place in private. Ike didn't look angry anymore just extremely hurt. Buck and Lou stepped closer to Ike but when Buck reached for him Ike backed away. Buck's face mirrored Ike's; both men had been hurt deeply.

Ike's hands were still and the silence was heavy. All eyes darted between the two riders; no one dared to speak. At last Ike nodded, and blinked back the tears. *You should have found a way.*

Buck looked down at the floor; he was fighting his own tears. He sighed, brought his eyes up slowly and finally he nodded. "You're right, and I'm sorry. I made a promise to Louise and I couldn't break it. I felt horrible choosing between keeping my promise to my wife and keeping a promise to be honest with my best and closest friend. We'll talk later, alone, ok?" He reached his hand out for Ike to shake but it was ignored.

Buck knew he'd probably destroyed his friendship with Ike. When Ike didn't respond, he swallowed hard and lowered his hand then turning Louise toward the other riders, kissed her lips tenderly; he wanted to cry. Lou's arm hugged him tighter she knew how much this secret had cost Buck. He desperately needed her strength right now.

The silence of the room was broken by an unfamiliar voice. "A Girl! Thank God"

Every one turned and looked to see where the voice had come from, Ike stood with his hands over his mouth.

"IKE?" seven voices spoke his name at once.

Teaspoon recovered first. "Son, what did you just say?"

Ike stood there and shook his head. Emma and Lou were at his side immediately. Emma had her arm around his shoulders.

"Try Ike. Please.... for me?" Lou spoke softly; her hand rested tenderly on his arm. He made several attempts but none were successful, Ike just shook his head, reached out to Lou and hugged her.

*I can't do it again; at least I don't think I can. I'll keep trying.* He shrugged and signed *How long have you been married? I thought....never mind I'm sorry Buck, and yes, we will talk later. I think you're right, we do need to clear up a few things.*

Buck didn't trust his voice to speak so he just nodded and worried his bottom lip.

"That's OK, Ike.... Keep trying, please, for me?" Lou brought the attention back to her and Ike to give Buck a break. Ike nodded. She turned slightly to face every one... "We've been married almost five months, Ike, Boys, Teaspoon. We were married by the Kiowa that time Buck and I were gone so long. " Lou answered then she turned and kissed the bald rider's cheek.

"That had to be a honeymoon for the record books, as I recall Buck, you came back all beaten up and bloodied." Teaspoon smirked. Lou threw him a look that said he was on thin ice.

"Yeah, Buck! You couldn't ride for a week! Did the Kiowa really do that or was it.....?" Cody piped in but Lou silenced him with a look that stopped the next words from forming. He knew instinctively that if he said one more word he would live to regret it. He stood there with his mouth open as he swallowed his words!

"I hope that's not their wedding ceremony... Talk about a shotgun wedding..." Jimmy wasn't going to comment on any possibilities for the honeymoon. He saw the looks Cody and Teaspoon had gotten. He'd face any five gunfighters at once rather than one mad Lou! Good luck to you Buck, she's gonna be a handful. Jimmy thought and smiled to himself! Kid just smiled and nodded.

"I violated a Kiowa law and I lied to my brother. I got caught, I had to pay for those violations and that's how I was punished. I'm no longer welcome in my brother's life. It was personal, alright? As far as Louise and I were concerned, she was accepted as my wife and a member of my brother's family. After we'd been back awhile we got thinking we wanted to make it all legal and right in the white world too so when we were in St. Joe's we got married by a preacher." Buck smiled a lopsided grin and shrugged. "Sorry boys, but she's already spoken for!" Buck and Louise had walked over to the others and as he said that everyone began to congratulate the couple.

"Well, I'll be..... Boys, that just goes to show ya that just cos someone ain't a boy don't mean they can't sit a saddle as well, ride as hard or shoot as straight!" Everyone laughed. "Actually I'm relieved; I was starting to worry about those two!" He laughed indicating Buck and Lou. Teaspoon turned to Lou and asked...."Will you still continue to ride Lou, err, Louise or do I need to find another rider? You two ain't got anymore secrets you're keepin' from us are you?" Teaspoon looked her over stopping a moment at her slim waist, looked over in Buck's direction then hugged the young woman.

Buck shook his head and started to answer. "I think that about covers......"

Lou grasped Buck's hand tightly; he looked at her and raised an eyebrow. "Well since we're tellin' all our secrets today I have another one......I'm going to become a mother in about six months or so and the doctor has said I really shouldn't do the long rides anymore. I can still do the short ones for a bit." She turned to Buck, "I'm sorry I lied, I just wanted to be sure."

Buck wrapped his arms around her waist, picked her up and kissed her; the smile on his face went from ear to ear. "Really? I'm gonna be a Daddy? Oh, Lou, I love you so much!" Buck turned to the other riders who stood staring at the couple in stunned silence for the third time in less than a half hour. "I guess that means you're all gonna be Uncles! Oh and an Aunt Emma!"

"Now hold it right there Buck.....I happen to think that Grandpa Teaspoon sounds pretty good!" He reached out his hand to shake Buck's then drew Buck into a bear hug. "Congratulations son! Now, I really want to kiss your beautiful bride!" Buck smiled as Teaspoon gave Lou a kiss on the cheek then stepped back.

"Hey, I got a question Buck... how do you know it'll be a boy?" Cody looked at Buck with a serious expression.

"Huh? I didn't even know about the baby how could I know if it's gonna be a boy or girl?" Buck was clearly as puzzled as everyone else was.

"Well you said we were going to be uncles so it must be a boy! If it was going to be a girl we'd be aunts!" Cody had a rather satisfied 'I know more than you' look on his face.

"Aww shoot Cody, are you stuck on stupid today or something?" Jimmy was trying to control his laughter. "We're men and men is uncles, didn't you hear Buck call Emma an Aunt?"

Buck rolled his eyes as Lou buried her face in his shoulder laughing. Teaspoon cuffed Cody up side the head and Kid fell off his chair laughing. Emma had to leave the room she was laughing so hard.

Ike shook his head and rolled his eyes at Buck then stepped past him and hugged Lou tightly *Congratulations, Mommy! Daddy!* and he hugged Buck as well. When he and Buck parted both had tears in their eyes. *We'll talk later* and he stepped away to allow the others to offer their congratulations to the young couple.

Later that night Buck was finishing his chores in the barn when Ike approached him. *Do you have a few minutes to talk?*

"Sure Ike, I'm so sorry about not telling you but I made a promise to Lou that I'd keep her secret and I....." Ike silenced Buck with a hand on his arm.

*First let me say I'm happy for you, I really am, but Buck you made a promise to me too. You and I promised each other we'd always be there for each other, no lies or secrets; just like when we were kids. Buck you are the only family I have and I love you like a brother. I saw you and Lou, Louise, in the barn that day and all I could think was you'd fallen in love with another guy. I was jealous and hurt and I said some things I shouldn't have. I guess now I know how you felt when I was acting so silly over Annie. I'm sorry I forced you to break your promise to me. I guess I didn't give you much choice. Can you forgive me and forget some of the things I said?* Ike finished speaking and held his hand out for Buck to shake. *I promise I won't hit you again.* he said with a smirk when Buck hesitated.

"I'm sorry I hurt you Ike. I never meant to and I never thought you were being silly over Annie, you thought you were in love, maybe you were..." Buck took Ike's hand and pulled him closer and finally hugged him. "You really hurt me too. Your words hurt more than anything that's ever been done or said to me. When Red Bear told me to leave and never look back it didn't hurt as much. I love you and my wife and I never want to have to choose between you ever again. You are my brother Ike in every way but blood. I'll forgive what you said but it may take me awhile to forget. I hope someday you find someone who will make you as happy as Lou makes me. I love her Ike, and she loves me for who and what I am. She sees all my faults and weaknesses and still wants me. I can't believe I'm going to be a father. ME! Can you believe it?" Buck sat back on a hay bale and Ike pulled up one for himself.

*What's it like Buck?* Buck looked at Ike silently asking what he was talking about. *You know, being with a woman? I've never.....*

"It's amazing. It was really kinda scary the first few times, and a little embarrassing, for both of us, but now..... Ike it's really hard to describe its like nothing you've ever experienced and it's not just the physical part there's so much more. Lou was my first and it was amazing. It was worth the wait!" Buck laughed as Ike made a face.

CHAPTER TEN

The next few weeks brought many changes. They were all stunned when Emma's husband Evan Crandall, showed up and drew Emma, Lou and the riders into a gun battle that left the station in a sorry state and Evan dead. Before Evan died he had apologized to Emma for all the wrongs he'd done to her and paid off the note on the property. Emma was now totally free to court Sam and he became a more frequent visitor.

Emma took Lou under her wing and taught her how to cook and keep house for the boys and Teaspoon. Buck and Lou moved into the spare room in the house so they could have some privacy. Emma came up stairs one night after Buck and Lou had gone to bed and found their door slightly open and the candle on the dresser still burning. She poked her head in and saw the young couple lying in bed. One of them, probably Buck, had been reading and the book lay open on the bed beside him. He was laying on his back one arm around Lou and the other holding her hand which rested on his chest. The sheet covered her from the shoulders and most of Buck except for the part of his chest where Lou's head and hand were. They looked so young, her babies were having a baby. Emma crept softly into the room marked the reader's place in the book and placed it on the dresser, kissed each of them on the head and blew out the candle. Both smiled in their sleep.

At first it felt strange to Lou to be sleeping with Buck under the same roof as Emma. Emma calmed her fears one night about a week after they moved in, when all the other riders were on runs and Teaspoon was staying in town. Buck and Lou were sitting on the front porch watching the moon rise. Emma and Sam came out to join them. "Would you two mind if Sam stayed the night? We used to be able to sneak in a night or two now and then when you all were over at the bunkhouse but it's a bit harder with you here."

Sam winked at Emma and smiled at the shocked looks on the younger couple's faces. "We don't want to upset you so we figured we'd ask...." Sam turned to Buck, "You understand, right Buck?" Buck blushed crimson. Sam and Emma both laughed.

"We could sleep over in the bunkhouse....." Lou stammered and Buck nodded in agreement.

"Nonsense, this is your home and I want us all to feel comfortable. You are the married couple, we aren't. You should be able to make love and not feel like you're sneaking around in your parent's house. I'll be honest I heard you two more in the barn than I have here..." Buck and Lou suddenly found their feet fascinating and both were crimson. "Don't be ashamed to show your love for each other in whatever ways you desire." Emma hugged each of them and took Sam's hand leading him through the open front door and upstairs. "Have fun kids!" Emma's soft laughter was heard as her bedroom door closed "Ohhh, Saaammm"

Buck and Lou looked at each other and tried unsuccessfully to stifle their own giggles. "Shall we?" Buck asked as he helped her up and pulled her to him, kissing her forehead. He didn't wait for an answer as he picked her up and carried her inside and upstairs. He kicked the door closed with his foot. Sam and Emma smiled to each other when they heard the other bedroom door close. The soft sounds of two couples in love were heard throughout the night.

~*~*~

Buck continued to ride and a series of other riders came and went as they tried to find a replacement for Lou. Lou loved having Emma to talk to and thrived under her tutelage in all things domestic. Emma was the mother she dreamed of becoming. The pregnancy continued to go well and Buck would often lie in bed with Lou, his hand and head on her growing abdomen and speaking to their child in Kiowa. She could feel her baby moving inside of her and both she and Buck marveled at the tiny life. Lou was the happiest she'd ever been and was looking forward to becoming a mother but not the birthing part. She couldn't believe one baby could move around so much or that she was this huge. Lou felt like she was the biggest pregnant woman in the world. Something, she couldn't say what, just felt different. She was not going to miss being so big that she couldn't see her feet anymore and getting up from a chair wasn't easy. She wasn't going to miss having to use the privy every half hour. Emma assured her that when her time came she'd be very ready to bring the child into the world. Lou was beginning to believe her!

Sam ran into some trouble of his own when his past threatened to catch up with him but once again the riders were able to come to his aid and clear his name. With his past now safely in the past Sam turned his sights on the future and surprised Emma with a marriage proposal which she readily accepted. The announcement was bittersweet because Sam also had some news of his own. He was selected to become the Territorial Marshall and with the promotion came a new home, in Omaha. The day of the wedding Lou was in tears. She was growing very heavy with child and Emma was leaving before the baby was due. Emma promised to try and return for the birth in a couple of months but Lou was inconsolable. She was happy for Sam and Emma but mourned the loss of the closeness they'd shared.

Buck was beside himself with worry about his wife's new role. Lou had to take over all the domestic chores Emma had done and prepare for the baby's arrival. The rest of the riders all did their parts and Lou supervised as Cody, Jimmy and Ike all learned to wash clothes and hang out sheets to dry! There were times she laughed so hard she thought she'd deliver the baby just from laughing alone! Teaspoon had a help wanted sign up and Lou prayed they'd find someone soon. The prospects so far had been less than adequate; it seemed no one could handle five healthy, boisterous and adventuresome young men; they still didn't have a rider to replace Lou. The boys who tried out didn't like the heat, the smell of horses, or riding alone. Some of them were hopeful and tried hard but spent more time picking themselves up off the ground then riding the horse. One promising rider named Matt was killed on his first run by a gang of thugs who had over run one of the towns he had to pass through. The sad event brought the harsh reality of the dangerous job crashing back down on all the boys. Buck wanted to stay closer to the station as the arrival of the baby grew closer by the day. The others understood and took the longer runs so Buck didn't have to do any overnight runs.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

The overland stage came roaring into town one day and brought Lou's replacement with it. There had been a bit of trouble in Saddle Falls and Jimmy had been shot in the leg so he was riding on the stage along with a handsome young free Black by the name of Noah Dixon. The stage had broken a wheel and run into a little trouble on the way to Sweetwater and the driver, Stagecoach Sally had taken a bullet in her arm and needed to rest up a few days. Jimmy invited them all to stay at the way station. Stagecoach Sally took one look at Lou and declared her ready to pop! Sally took over the cooking and demanded that Lou rest.

Buck awoke the next night to Lou's fingers locked in a death grip on his arm. "Buck, it hurts, where's Emma? ........She promised she'd try to be here. OHHHHH. It's too soon." Lou was sweating and the tears were beginning to flow.

For the first time in Buck's life, he was totally lost. "Sweetheart, what's wrong? What's too soon?"

Lou's fingers dug into his arm and he could feel the nails digging into his skin. "What's wrong? Buck, how can you ask..... ooooohhhhhh....... Such a stupid question?"

"Lou? Honey, I can't help you if you don't tell me what's wrong....." His arm instantly regretted those words as Lou drew blood.

"I'm being split in two and it's all your fault.....Arrrggghhhh... Buck, it hurts so bad......make it stop. This shouldn't be happening for almost another month. Oh God it hurts!" Lou wailed as another contraction hit her.

The bedroom door opened and Sally bustled in and went directly to Lou. "It's OK Honey, Sally's here...." She stroked Lou's hair and spoke soothing words to calm the frightened rider. "Buck get yourself dressed and go get the doctor your wife is about to birth your baby."

"Oh OK, but Sally...." Buck was holding the covers around his waist, "I'm..."

"You ain't got nothin' I ain't seen before so git before I let your wife here tear your arm off.....NOW!" Sally's words finally sunk into Buck's sleep fogged brain and he jumped up, the covers, and modesty, forgotten as he tried to find his pants and shirt. Even Lou had to laugh at his sudden lack of coordination. He was hopping around on one foot trying to untangle the leg of his longjohns as he pulled them on. It was just what Lou needed to take her mind off the pain; even if only for a few moments.

The other riders were coming out of the bunkhouse having heard Lou's cries of pain. Teaspoon emerged from the barn with a horse already saddled and instructed Kid to ride for the doctor while he'd try to calm Buck who, by now, was almost panicked. He'd managed to get his pants and boots on but his shirt was buttoned wrong. Ike got Buck to sit on the bunkhouse stairs a moment to get his breathing under control while Ike re-buttoned Buck's shirt. Buck was actually shaking. Lou was screaming and with each scream Buck grew more and more pale. He looked like he was going to be sick. Teaspoon and Ike took on the job of calming Buck or at least keeping him down stairs each time Lou cried out. He must have asked where the doctor was a hundred times and that was just in the first ten minutes. Lou's cries came every few minutes and seemed to have a rhythm to them. They were all getting used to hearing them when they changed and grew closer together. No one was prepared for the sudden silence following one very prolonged scream. Buck looked like he was going to pass out. He was sure Lou had died; the others wondered the same thing.

The doctor arrived at the same moment and went directly upstairs. *I'm sure everything will be fine Buck. This could take a long time it's only been, what, an hour or so? You said it hit her hard and fast so maybe it just stopped.* Ike tried to soothe Buck's frayed nerves. He might have succeeded if Lou hadn't screamed out his name at that moment. Buck raced toward the stairs as Ike just looked at Teaspoon and shrugged... *We tried.*

Buck nearly flew up the stairs and burst into the bedroom in time to see the doctor assisting a tiny body into the world. Buck vaguely noticed Lou was already holding an infant to her chest before his world went black.

He woke up to find himself seated in the chair in the bedroom with his feet propped up on a box. Lou was sitting peacefully in the bed with two small bundles tenderly held in her arms. "Whhhattt hhhhappened?" His words sounded slurred even to his own ears.

"Well, well, well, look who's awake...." Lou laughed; it was a sweet sound to Buck's ears. He looked around and found everyone was gathered in the small room and they were all looking at him.

"How do you feel son?" Teaspoon came over to where he was sitting and touched something on Buck's head. "You really got yourself good. I think you dented the door frame when your head hit it. Oh good, the bleeding has stopped."

Buck arched one eyebrow and grinned rather lopsidedly. "Oh, um, I guess I was a bit excited..... Are you Ok Lou?" He tried to stand and the room spun around him. "I think its best if I just sit a bit longer......"

Teaspoon turned to the other riders, "That, boys, is why men just got no place in the birthing room." Everyone laughed as Buck groaned.

Sally shooed everyone out and changed the sheets and Lou's night dress while Buck sat with his eyes closed desperately willing the room to stay still. She walked over to Buck and helped him to his feet. "I think its time you were properly introduced to your son and daughter. Come on, I've made room for you on the bed."

"Son, Daughter, there really are two babies?" Buck stared at Lou who nodded her head and smiled back at her husband.

"Honey, where I come from they call them twins. They are perfect, ten fingers ten toes, two eyes and one nose and mouth each...Now get your body over here, do you need help still?" Sally softened as Buck staggered a bit, still unsteady on his feet. She helped the shaky new father over to the bed.

Buck settled in next to Lou and watched as one of the infants suckled contentedly at her breast. He thought he'd never witnessed anything more beautiful. The other infant was sleeping and Sally placed the baby in his arms. They seemed so tiny and fragile. Their skin was so soft; they were all pink and wrinkled. Neither infant had any hair but rather soft dark peach fuzz that he rubbed against his own cheek when he kissed the baby he held. He took the infant's hand in his and was rewarded with his finger being circled by the infant's hand. He saw a drop of wetness appear on the child's blanket followed by another and suddenly realized he was crying. He looked up at Lou and found she was crying too. He took his free arm and wrapped it around her, pulling them together. Buck's head touched Lou's as they looked down at their children. The infant he was holding yawned and opened its eyes for a moment to look directly into its father's face. The tiny mouth formed a perfect bow shape and the eyes were dark. Buck fell in love all over again with Lou and felt a love he never could have described welling up inside for his two children. "I can't believe we made something this beautiful. I love you so much. Thank-you......" he choked up and couldn't speak anymore. Lou turned her face to his and kissed him.

Sally sighed and smiled. She'd never had a child of her own and watching the Cross family was bittersweet. She'd raised Noah from birth but it just wasn't the same. She silently picked up the soiled bedclothes and left the new parents marveling at their infants. She was about to close the door when Lou called to her.

"Sally, I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't been here. Just saying Thank-you isn't enough. Buck and I would like to know if we can name our daughter Sally?" Lou smiled at the child in her arms.

"Oh honeychild, I'd be honored but Sally's not my real name, its Ellie, I was named for my momma and they been callin' me Sally since I was knee high to a grasshopper." The older woman was clearly touched by the offer from the younger couple. She still stood in the door way.

"Would you prefer we call our daughter Ellie or Sally? Please toss that stuff in the hall and come here." Buck asked as he pulled Lou toward the center of the bed and closer to him so Sally could sit on the bed beside Lou if she wanted to.

"Me? I have a choice?" Sally was at loss for words.

"Sally, If you hadn't been here Lou would have ripped my arm off and the doc might not have gotten here in time. We owe you so much." The new father touched the black woman's arm. "Hmmm Sally and Stephen or Ellie and ummm.....Ethan?"

Both women looked at Buck. "Where'd Ethan come from? I know we talked about Stephen..." Lou looked at her son.

"I don't know, I heard the name, I think I read it in a book, and liked it... besides he looks like an Ethan..." Buck looked down at the child in his arms.

"Buck, you make me laugh.... I'm never gonna forget you bouncing around this room in the suit the good Lord gave you, trying to get those longjohns on and now you've done it again..... That's Ellie you're holdin'..." Sally laughed, Lou joined her and Buck blushed.

"Well, Ellie and Ethan it is.... Which ever one I've got! Sally we love you you'll always be part of our family." Buck placed the child in his lap and hugged Sally.

"I couldn't agree more!" Lou hugged Sally and when they pulled back Sally had tears in her eyes.

"You've made these old bones happy, God bless you" Sally kissed all the members of the Cross family on the head and stood up. "Those sheets ain't gonna wash themselves so I'd best get crackin'...and Thank-you." She smiled as she closed the door.

Several days later Sally lead a wagon train of escaped slaves northward toward Canada and freedom. Noah agreed to stay on and took Lou's place as a permanent rider. That night after seeing the wagon train safely out of the area Noah, Buck, Cody, Kid and Jimmy all came home to find a buxom blond haired woman ringing the dinner bell. Lou watched from the porch of the house as the boys nearly fell over themselves in their haste to get to the bunkhouse. Teaspoon stopped them. "Ahem, I, errr, forget to tell you boys I hired us a housekeeper. May I present Ms. Rachel Dunne...."

All the boys made comments but when Buck opened his mouth he looked at Lou and quickly shut it again. He heard Kid ask if someone that pretty could cook and Cody's response of who cares. The rest of the riders headed to the bunkhouse and dinner with Rachel and Teaspoon while Buck excused himself and dutifully went toward the house and his waiting wife. Teaspoon chuckled as he watched Buck place an arm around Lou's waist and guide her into the house. Smart man he thought no sofa for you tonight.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Rachel quickly fit right into life at the station and became fast friends with Lou. The twins kept Lou busy day and night so the extra pair of hands and eyes was a huge help. Lou still missed Emma but Rachel did everything she could to make Lou feel comfortable around her. Rachel didn't try to replace Emma but rather let Lou know she was there as a friend and confidant. Emma sent over blankets, sweaters, booties and diapers for the twins but was unable to make the trip herself. Emma was pregnant and having a difficult time in the first few months but promised Lou she'd visit as soon as she was able.

The boys soon came to realize Rachel was a much better poker player than they were as she routinely emptied their pockets of coins. Rachel even managed to win back a silver saddle that had belonged to Noah's father. Noah had been forced to sell the saddle to pay to free a couple of slaves; a noble cause. Rachel it seems had spent a good deal of time on river boats gambling and had learned more than a few tricks.

They all had a scare when some bad meat was sold from Tompkins store and the illness it caused was thought to be cholera. A group of men from Blue Creek wanted to burn the town to drive out the cholera. Buck hated leaving Lou and the twins to ride to the army surgeons at Fort Laramie but he did as he was asked. Rachel, Teaspoon and Cody all became sick which left Jimmy, Ike and Kid trying to hold the vigilantes at bay. Lou had her hands full caring for Cody and Rachel back at the way station. Buck prayed his family would be safe and his prayers were answered. Unfortunately for Buck, he and a stray dog, got sick from eating some of the bad meat but a friendly Ogala brave cured them and helped Buck save the town with herbs made into a tea. Buck wondered about the dog but figured it had probably died. Buck was doing some work at the time for Teaspoon as a deputy and this incident went a long way toward helping him be accepted as a citizen of Sweetwater.

Buck came out of the jail one afternoon a few days later and found the dog he'd befriended just before he got sick, sitting patiently beside his horse. "Well, hello there, I see you're feeling much better too. How'd you find me, boy?" He knelt down beside the dog and scratched its ears. His horse took one look at Buck and the dog and got jealous; promptly knocking Buck on his backside with his huge head. "Ok, OK, I'll scratch you too!" Buck laughed picking himself up out of the dirt. Two little girls walking by on the boardwalk burst into laughter at the sight of the deputy being pushed around by his horse. The horse snorted and Buck swore it was laughing too!

The dog followed Buck back to the station and Buck named him Lucky. Neither Lou nor Rachel bought the 'every child needs a dog' theory or the 'but he followed me home' ploy either. It took a bit for Buck to convince Lou and Rachel that they needed to keep this dog but he finally managed, or rather Lucky did, when he turned his big brown puppy dog eyes on the two women and nuzzled their hands. Lucky, it turned out, was a great herder and worked well with the horses. The dog earned its keep!

Life continued on pretty much the same for all the riders. The rides were never totally without incident and the two women patched the boys up often. Lou and Rachel shared the chores and cooking. Lou soon learned to cook some of the Southern dishes that were Rachel's specialty and even learned to bake. Buck loved Rachel's Chocolate Sour Crème Cake and her Oatmeal Raisin Cookies; Lou learned to bake both. Rachel loved the twins as if they were her own and she doted on them. She even insisted they would call her Granma Rachel once they started talking.

Teaspoon already introduced them as his grandbabies. He'd proudly show them off to anyone who came by the jail or the station and made a point to introduce them to Bill Tompkins. It seems a baby's smile can soften even the hardest hearts and even Tompkins admitted they were cute.

Buck and Lou could not have been prouder of their babies. It amazed everyone how much the children had changed their lives in the short three weeks since they'd been born. They were sure there were no other children in the whole territory that were loved as much as the twins were.

Cody had led a party of soldiers to a Lakota camp and was successful in freeing the white women and children who were being held there. One petite blond girl caught his attention. It turned out the girl was Bill Tompkins' long thought lost daughter, Jennifer. Cody fell hard and but even at the tender age of fifteen she wanted no part of his amorous attempts and left to stay with her mother's family back East. Cody was heart broken for a day or two until the next pretty face rode into town. Bill Tompkins breathed a sigh of relief; Cody as his son-in-law, at least it wasn't Buck.

Buck had finally learned to diaper them, with a lot of help from Ike. His first attempts were pathetic; the diapers fell off or he managed to stick either himself or the children with the pins. Ike had taken pity on him one afternoon, about a month after they were born, when Lou was in town shopping and left Buck in charge of both babies. Lou had warned Buck that changing little boys meant paying attention and placing the diaper over certain parts to prevent accidents. Ike bust into silent laughter as Buck found out the wet way why Lou had warned him.

*I think Ethan just got you back for sticking him last night. Here, it's easy once you learn and practice it a few times. Is Ellie still asleep?* Buck looked over to the cradle and checked on his sleeping daughter; he nodded. *Good watch me do this then you can try, OK?*

Buck nodded again and watched closely. Ike soon had the baby changed and cooing softly. He handed Buck the baby and encouraged him to try. "This sure is hard work, Ike; I don't know how Lou does it... OUCH!"

*Pay attention Buck this isn't a saddle blanket it's a diaper and this is not a horse this is baby with tender soft skin not a hide!* Ike helped Buck and felt a strange yearning and a bit of jealousy for all Buck now had. He couldn't wait until he found the right woman to be his wife and give him children. He was sure he'd be a great dad.

A month later Lou had an appointment with the doctor to see how she'd healed after the birth. She came back from town and her check up with a wide grin on her face. Rachel recognized the look right away and smiled. "I take it the Doc gave you a clean bill of health? How about if I take the twins in my room tonight so you and Buck can enjoy some time together?"

Lou blushed, "Why Rachel! How did you know?" her grin suddenly disappeared. "What if Buck doesn't want me that way? I still have a little tummy and what if he heard me saying I hated him for making me pregnant and causing the pain and....."

"Whoa, slow it down with the what ifs and trust me, he won't turn you away....What Tummy?" Rachel laughed and patted Lou's almost flat tummy. "I'll go move the cradles now so you can tell Buck the good news. He's over in the bunkhouse with the babies and Ike."

"My children's savior, I think either Buck or one of the twins would have bled to death by now if Ike hadn't taken pity on them and shown Buck what he was doing wrong... I still remember Buck changing Ellie and mumbling 'not a hide, not a hide' over and over. I had to bite my hand to keep from laughing. Well, here goes... wish me luck!"

Rachel laughed as she watched Lou head toward the bunkhouse.

Lou opened the door and was greeted by the sight of the riders sitting around the table, Uncle Jimmy and Uncle Cody were making faces and silly noises at the twins trying, very successfully, to get them to laugh. Uncle Ike was holding Ellie while Buck patted Ethan's back. Uncle Noah was tickling Ellie's toes which she kept trying to eat. Louise laughed, "What would the company think of their brave, manly, Pony Express Riders right now? The five of you held captive by a couple of three month old babies!"

Everyone laughed and Buck handed Ethan to Noah. "Hello to you too, my lovely wife..." He walked over and took her in his arms for a quick kiss. Both Ethan and Ellie heard their mother's voice and wanted her. "Come on, I'll take one, you get the other. I guess its lunch time for a couple of little somebodies." Buck took Ethan back while Louise gathered up Ellie and headed for the house.

"Thanks guys, we'll see you all in awhile." Lou flashed them a smile and mooed as she left the bunkhouse. They all laughed.

That evening Rachel and Lou put the twins down for the night and Buck read a book in the parlor. Lou came back down stairs and stood behind him, finger combing his hair. He put the book down when she started nibbling on his ear. "Lou, what are you doing? Oh, Baby, don't tease me like this..." He pulled her down into his lap and kissed her lips tenderly.

"I'm not teasing Buck.... The Doc says.... I'm good as new so....... I want you...." The words came out breathlessly between kisses.

"Really? You want me how?" Buck kissed her deeply his free hand cupping her face; the pad of his thumb caressed her cheek. Lou's hand began unbuttoning his shirt and caressed his chest.

"Rachel has the twins for the night.... I'm all yours." Louise gasped as Buck managed to stand with her in his arms and carried her upstairs. Rachel heard their door close and went downstairs smiling as she blew out the lamps. As Rachel passed their door a bit later to go to bed she could tell by the sounds that Buck had definitely wanted his wife as much as she wanted him.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Buck and Lou agonized over the move. The twins were six months old and Buck really couldn't just quit the Pony Express. He wouldn't have many prospects for employment once Teaspoon and the Pony Express left Sweetwater; he didn't figure Tompkins would hire him. Lou didn't want to leave Sweetwater and the only real home she'd had since leaving the orphanage herself but she also didn't want to loose her family. Kid informed them that the property they had managed to secure came with a larger house, a bigger barn and bunkhouse so there was room for everyone to make the move. Rachel insisted that Lou and Buck stay with her in the new house but Lou's mood only grew more depressed and Buck grew melancholy.

"Buck, are you and Louise having problems?" Rachel and Teaspoon finally confronted Buck in the barn one afternoon. Rachel had tried to coax the problem out of Lou but was unsuccessful. They didn't want to see the family torn apart.

"No, we're fine.... I think the problem is the distance. We'll be so far away from her brother and sister we won't be able to visit. I've been taking her over at least once a month to see them. I've been teaching the boys how to do repairs and Lou and I bought paint and all the kids helped paint the place. Lou made curtains and showed all the girls in Teresa's dorm how to sew and do repairs to clothes and stuff. We're both gonna miss going to see the kids but leaving her brother and sister behind......" Buck sighed and paused a moment. "It'll really hurt Lou and the kids will feel abandoned. They love the Ethan and Ellie but their birth put a bit of a crimp in our plans to get them out of the orphanage. I just can't afford to raise four kids right now; I thought I could raise three and that was going to be hard....I'm failing Lou and her family." Buck kicked the dirt with the toe of his boot as he admitted his shortcomings. He looked defeated. He hung his head, his shoulders were slumped and his arms were crossed as if he was hugging himself. Rachel recognized it as something children from loveless homes do to comfort themselves. She assumed, correctly, that Buck had done this when he was at the mission school as a child.

"Son, why didn't you mention this before now? You and Louise are family and families got to stick together. We'll work something out. I assume you'd like to come to Rock Creek with us and bring them too?" Teaspoon put a reassuring hand on Buck's shoulder. "I'm leaving at first light with Cody to go help Kid and Jimmy but I want you to think this over and help wrap things up here. I'm counting on you and Noah to help Rachel move the rest of the station. I'll see you in a couple of weeks." Teaspoon turned and left Rachel and Buck alone in the barn.

Rachel wrapped her arms around Buck and held him; it took a minute or two but he returned the hug. "Buck, Honey, this will all work out in the end, you'll see. You and Louise are very much a part of my family. I want you to come with me to Rock Creek and bring all the kids with you. How old are the other two?"

"Jeremiah is fourteen, I think, and Teresa is eleven, maybe....somewhere around there anyway.

"Well, they are certainly old enough to help with packin' and movin' all this stuff so why don't you go have a talk with your wife and hitch up a wagon. I'll pack you some food for the trip." Rachel turned Buck toward the house with an affectionate hug and a little push. She smiled at the bewildered look on his face. He'd just become the father of four, more or less.

A day and a half later, Buck rode into the yard with a very excited Teresa and Jeremiah. He'd explained all about the move and why they were being picked up without Louise and the twins. Louise, Rachel and Noah met them in the yard for a warm welcome home.

"I have a nice dinner planned for you but we need to get packing so I'm afraid you'll all have to do a bit of work before then. Teresa why don't you come with Louise and I and Jeremiah you go with Buck and Noah. We're hoping to start to Rock Creek by the end of the week." Rachel shooed the boys off to the barn and entered the house followed by the two sisters.

"We really are moving with you Buck?" Jeremiah asked as Buck unhitched the horse.

"Yup! You sure are. I'm sorry the move was so sudden and you really didn't have much time to say good bye to your friends. You'll be able to write them once we get settled. I wish you had more time to relax after that trip from St. Joe's but we've got a schedule to keep. Do you feel comfortable driving the wagon now?"

"Sure Buck, and thanks for teaching me. Um, I have a question it's kinda personal and Teresa's gonna ask Louise but well..." Jeremiah looked at his shoes and Buck took a deep breath. Noah heard the last sentence and left the barn, thankful he wasn't in Buck's shoes. "Buck, when we left the orphanage, the Sister said to be good for our new parents but Louise is our sister. Is she also our mother and are you our father? Teresa and me talked about it last night and it just feels... I don't know....strange... maybe a little wrong."

Buck let out a sigh of relief. His mind had gone in the direction of THE TALK, something Lou had said she was going to have to have with Teresa soon. He wasn't ready. This was very different from the way a Kiowa child came into adulthood. "It would be awkward for you to call me father or dad, I mean you're only what five maybe six years younger than me? You're more like my brother right? I'd rather you just kept calling me Buck, if that's OK with you. I guess Teresa will have to decide what she wants to call me for herself but I can just be Buck to her too. Louise will always be your sister, but there may be times we have to act like your parents at least for a while yet."

"Thanks Buck!" Jeremiah hugged Buck and picked up the comb to brush down the horses.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The rest of the week had flown by and soon the move was under way. Buck Noah, Jeremiah, and Rachel all drove a wagon loaded with everything from the old station. Rachel didn't know what they'd have at the new station so if it could be carried it was. Teaspoon and Cody had taken most of the horses that they were planning to move so Buck and Noah only had to deal with a half dozen other than those with the wagons. Lucky happily kept them all together as he trotted along side the wagons. The journey took almost two weeks and the twins cut new teeth the whole ride there. They were miserable and their parents got very little sleep; nobody else did either. The arrival in Rock Creek was uneventful but heartwarming. The riders didn't realize how much they missed each other until they were apart. They welcomed Lou's siblings as if they'd been part of the family all along and Teresa took one look at Jimmy and fell in love; Buck and Lou both groaned. Teresa followed Jimmy around like a little puppy for the first month. He was flattered and graciously tolerated it but desperately hoped she'd meet some new friends once school started.

The boys continued to go out on runs while the women and anyone else home worked hard to put the station in order. The house was more than large enough for Rachel, Louise, Buck and the four children to live in. Teresa and Jeremiah shared a room while the twins slept in their parents' room. Rachel had her own room. They had room downstairs for a sick room if one of the boys needed it. The bunkhouse was bigger and each of the riders had more room for personal space. There were three bunks that were extra to accommodate other riders when they passed through. Jeremiah asked if he could live over in the bunkhouse rather than share a room with his sister. It gave Teaspoon and idea and an opportunity.

Teaspoon had been thinking about how he could help Buck with the burden of four young mouths to feed. Louise was getting a small salary from working as their house keeper but it was still hard on Buck. Rachel was the cook and kept the books for the station. He and Rachel figured he could give Teresa an allowance of sorts for helping with the laundry and devised a way to get Cody's share of the work done with less whining. Teaspoon chuckled to himself as he detailed his idea to Lou and Rachel, the offer would allow Jeremiah to live at the way station without putting a huge strain on Buck's finances. The women liked the idea but insisted that both kids would still have to attend school at least until they were sixteen. When he told Buck about the offer he could read the relief on the Kiowa's face; at least this way Buck could feel less pressure to support the family. Buck readily agreed to the arrangement as long as Jeremiah was Ok with it. Teaspoon had hoped Buck's pride wouldn't get in the way of common sense.

Buck spoke with Jeremiah as they chopped wood behind the barn the next day. "Have you thought much about what Teaspoon offered you? Room and Board plus three dollars a week to help out around the stables isn't a bad offer."

"Yeah I think it's great. Did you talk to Louise yet?" The young man placed another log on the stump to split.

"She said as long as your school work gets done its fine with her. Do you remember how to do the repairs I taught you back at the orphanage? You're getting to an age where you'll have to learn some skills to earn a living soon; any ideas what you'll want to do?" Buck and Jeremiah talked while they managed to split and stack almost a whole a cord of wood.

"Sure I remember Buck! You saw what all us boys did with the paint you bought....well most of it anyway. The whole place looked so much better! And no matter what Sister told you I did not paint Alison Burke's hair white, it was Jacob!" Jeremiah laughed. Buck shook his head and smiled.

The riders settled into life in the new town and much to Buck's horror Bill Tompkins decided to move with the Express and opened a store in Rock Creek just down the street from the express station. The new surroundings did nothing to ease the animosity between the two men.

The move to Rock Creek brought them closer to the War and tensions ran high. The war was growing larger by the day and there were signs of it everywhere. There were soldiers camped outside of town and Army recruiters actively attempted to lure innocent young men, some still boys, to sign up by extolling the glory of war. They called it a Civil War, the War Between the States, there was nothing civil about it and already some of the town's folk had heard of friends or relatives taking sides and dying for the cause; brother against brother.

Jeremiah had listened to the pitch by the recruiter and been tempted, fortunately Teaspoon had caught him in time and informed the officer he was too young. Lou looked at her brother and said a prayer of thanks that he would be too young to enlist for at least another eighteen months. She hoped that if the war was still going on then that the reality of it would taint the glamour and glory the recruiter had spoken of and keep him from enlisting. Lou was sure that Buck would not get involved in the war and prayed it would be over long before Ethan was old enough to fight. Her prayers were repeated by countless women on both sides.

Noah ran into a bit of trouble when a bigoted Army officer was killed but as fate would have it he also managed to meet a lovely young woman named Cassie in the process. The officer had attempted to rape Cassie and she had defended herself with a pair of scissors. Unfortunately for Noah he and the officer had gotten into a very public fight earlier that afternoon when the Officer had first approached Cassie. Noah was accused of the murder until Cassie had tearfully but purposefully shown Teaspoon and the officer's Commanding Officer the scars on her body the attempted rape had left. Noah was cleared of the charges, Cassie thought that Noah wouldn't want her since she'd been damaged by this man and had a younger brother to support, she was wrong. Noah became even more attentive and caring. It wasn't long before he and Buck had a conversation about marrying a woman with a younger brother. Buck warned him to be careful and always let Cassie have a say in any decisions and disciplines that concerned her brother. Buck teased Noah about becoming the father of a teenager but both men had a secret admiration for Teaspoon; he'd taken on six of them. Teaspoon and Rachel were watching their family grow up and knew that soon Buck would not be the only rider to start his own family.

Cassie, Louise and Rachel became close friends. All of them had yearned for the friendship of another woman and now it appeared they would all be family. Quinn Ellis, Cassie's brother, was only six months younger than Jeremiah and the two were soon inseparable. Cassie called them trouble and double, Lou and Rachel soon agreed the names fit. Noah was the perfect gentleman and, like Buck, asked permission from Cassie's younger brother to marry her. Noah surprised them all at dinner only six weeks after first meeting Cassie and asked for her hand in marriage. She agreed with tears in her eyes and a wedding date was set for that May; less than a month away.

Ike and Buck were relaxing in the saloon two days later when a young woman named Emily Metcalf caught Ike's eye. He'd been working on his drawing skills and Buck was encouraging him, when a gambler named Neville was caught cheating by her father. Emily had an argument with her father about his gambling and stormed out of the saloon nearly tearing the doors off the hinges as she left. She reminded Ike of Louise, not afraid to speak her mind, headstrong and independent; Buck agreed. Buck was meeting Lou and the twins for their check up at the Docs and Ike rode home alone, lost in thought about the dark haired beauty he had just seen. On the ride home Ike stumbled on them again, stopped Neville from robbing the father and daughter and gave Mr. Metcalf a ride home after Emily got fed up with his excuses and left him there. Ike thought again about Lou because she'd made Buck walk home more than a few times. Emily also proved that, like Lou, she was good with a gun and could hold her own in a fight. Ike decided that he would try to stay on her good side.

Ike used the opening to introduce himself to Emily and helped her with some repairs at the home she and her father had just bought. They quickly became close friends and Ike wondered if there was something more

~*~*~

*Hey, Buck, can I talk to you a second?* Ike signed when Buck was in the barn cooling down his horse after a run a few days later.

"Sure Ike, what's on your mind? Did you see that Metcalf girl while I was gone? What was her name?" Buck teased Ike playfully.

*Emily and that's kinda what I want to ask you about.... I think I love her* Ike watched Buck for his reaction. *How did you know with Lou?*

"Hmmm good question.... We didn't really start out the same way as you did. I didn't know Lou was a girl at first. I woke up and found myself laying beside Lou, who I still thought was a boy, both of us were naked, and my brother is asking me about my wife and pointing at Lou. We were covered by hides so I couldn't see anything. I moved my hand a little and got a surprise. She was scared half to death, she'd already found out she was laying beside a man during the night and was terrified she was going to be raped. It was too dark then for her to see who it was beside her all she knew was that she touched a male. You should have seen her face when she told me about touching me, she was so red! I was asleep and never felt a thing.... Anyway....She had finally fallen back to sleep and my brother woke her up when he was demanding to know how I managed to get myself a wife. You've seen him he can really be scary when he's mad. She was shaking like a leaf and trying not to cry. My brother wasn't helping so I told my brother she was indeed my wife." Buck chuckled at the memory of that first touch. "I don't know who was more afraid, her or me...."

*Ok that must have been a shock... what did you touch?* Ike wanted details.

"Not what you're thinking so forget it!" Buck laughed.

*OK what did Lou touch?* Ike asked with a smirk on his face and twinkle in his eye.

Buck blushed. "OK, she touched what you're thinking....ANYWAY..... I'd sort of rolled into her and had draped my leg and arm across her in my sleep. My hand was already on her stomach; I moved my hand up and touched a little bit of her chest just enough to know she was no boy. I didn't go any further cos I honestly didn't know what to do. I just held her tighter. Finally my brother left us alone and I rolled closer and onto her so I could let her know we were in a little trouble but that I had no intention of hurting her or letting her be hurt. I had to speak very softly because my brother can hear a rabbit breathe at a hundred feet. Anyway to make a long story short, I had to keep her safe. I was told I had to prove she was my wife so I asked how I was supposed to do that. My brother said that we were only married in the white world and the Kiowa would not recognize that marriage. As far as they were concerned she wasn't my wife, that meant anyone could claim her, so we were married by the Kiowa. We left right after the ceremony and once we left the village I told Lou she didn't have to feel obligated to me or anything, I mean she's not Kiowa so... We hadn't consummated the marriage and that's the part that truly seals the marriage; my brother didn't force us to do that part, thankfully. I mean I was still dealing with Lou not being a boy. I wasn't ready to be forced to act like her husband. Well, I'd been beaten and whipped for coming back to the village and for the lie to my brother, I'd lost a good amount of blood; I was too weak and couldn't make it home. Lou didn't know about the beatings and when she saw my back, insisted that she'd nurse me back to health. We found a place to camp in for a few days and one thing led to another and the marriage became real. I guess we started falling in love the moment I found out Lou was a girl." Buck paused and looked at Ike. "Lou already liked me. I thought there was something wrong with me because I liked Lou before I knew he was a she... I was really happy when I found out he was really a she!

*What about you? If Lou hadn't wanted you would you still be married to her?* Ike was puzzled by Buck's story.

"Yes, my spirit is Kiowa and Lou will always be my first wife, I didn't think I'd ever marry so I figured it was safe. Lou could go on living her life her way and maybe fall in love and marry someone someday. I gave her that option; she chose me." The grin on Buck's face lit up the whole barn.

*I'm glad but I still don't know how you knew you were in love... You gotta help me here Buck.* Ike was happy that he now knew the whole story but frustrated that Buck hadn't answered his question.

"Do you get a funny feeling in your stomach when you see her?" Ike nodded. "When you say good night do you wish it was morning already so you could see her again?" Ike kept nodding. "When you hold her does the rest of the world disappear?" Buck smiled as Ike once again nodded. "It's a bit soon Ike, I mean, what do you really know about her? Get to know her better. Lou and I did things backwards but true love is worth waiting for. I can't imagine my life without her and the twins. How often have you seen Emily; you've known her what almost a week and a half?"

*I've seen her everyday but we haven't kissed, well, OK, on the cheek, but nothing else. Her Father came back from Cotton Wood yesterday and I haven't seen her today. He was supposed to buy a mule so they could plow the fields and get ready to plant corn or beans or something. I don't know.... I want to ask her to the dance next Saturday* Ike helped Buck put away the tack and they were walking out of the barn when both men saw Emily walking toward the bunkhouse.

Both men stared; her usual trousers and man's work shirt were gone. She was dressed in a long dark skirt and a white linen blouse, her hair was held back from her face by two combs and her face had a healthy pink flush from the cooler air. She looked pretty. "Emily" Buck called out when Ike asked him. "Over here"

Buck said a brief hello and left the young couple alone. He continued into the house and they sat on the bunkhouse stairs. They were still there a half hour later when Buck helped Lou and Rachel carry over the riders' dinner. Emily was holding a drawing Ike had done of her and they were laughing. Buck tilted his head in Ike and Emily's direction, winked at Lou and they both smiled.

"Dinner's almost ready; Emily would you like to join us?" Rachel smiled at the young couple.

"Oh! Thank-you but no, I mean I can't, I need to get back home and fix dinner for my father. I didn't mean to stay so late." Emily stood up and Ike helped her down the stairs. She kissed him quickly on the cheek and started to leave.

Buck leaned into Ike, "Did you ask her?" Ike shook his head. "Well what are you waiting for? Hurry before someone else does, walk her home." Buck couldn't hide his smile as Ike ran after Emily. Ike missed dinner that night and returned late after everyone else had gone to bed.

The next few days brought some problems for Emily because of her father's gambling. He caught Neville cheating and they had another heated argument. That night the Metcalf's barn was set on fire. Emily was home alone and somehow managed to save most of the animals, a few chickens didn't make it, and kept the fire from spreading but it left her in a foul mood. She'd had it with her father's gambling and let him know how upset she was. Unfortunately for Ike she didn't want his company while she was mad at her father so he told everyone they weren't going to the dance. At the last minute Ike decided to try and snap her out of her bad mood. After everyone else had left for the dance he got dressed up, hitched up the wagon and headed over to get the woman who'd captured his heart.

"Emmy, your friend Ike is here." Mr. Metcalf called to Emily as he let Ike into the home.

"Ike why are you here?" Emily looked at him in disbelief. She'd been in such a foul mood Ike hadn't seen her in two days. Ike indicated he was picking her up for the dance. "You still want to go? With me?" Ike nodded. "Give me ten minutes" and she disappeared into her room to change.

"You've really made an impression on my little girl..... Take good care of her!" Mr. Metcalf and Ike spoke, or rather Mr. Metcalf asked questions and Ike either shook his head or nodded, until Emily came back out all dressed in a power blue blouse and skirt with ribbons to match in her hair; both men gasped at the transformation. The blue dress made her eyes shine an even brighter blue and Ike fell in love. "You're beautiful, Ike's a lucky man." He pulled his daughter in for a hug goodbye and whispered "I like him."

"Thanks. So do I" Emily responded.

"Have fun tonight, don't stay out too late." He waved to the young couple as they drove off.

The dance was in full swing when Ike and Emily arrived to the surprise of the other riders. Noah turned and saw him first. "Why that no good lying snake!" He said with a smile as Ike tossed his hat to him and bowed. Cassie was laughing so hard she had to sit down to keep from falling. All the riders and their dates danced, laughed and ate for the next couple of hours. Jeremiah and Quinn found a few of their classmates and danced with them. Cassie and Louise kept close watch on the young men, who were becoming very interested in the young ladies. Teresa danced with all the riders and Teaspoon declared himself her official date.

Ike finally decided it was time for some alone time with Emily and walked her back to the barn for some privacy. He was greeted by Sampson, his favorite donkey, and introduced Emily to him. She scratched Sampson's ears and nose and declared him adorable. Ike fed him a carrot and patted him on the head then put a finger to his lips as if to say quiet! Sampson nodded!

Ike took Emily's hands in his and they slowly came together. The first kiss was tentative and tender. He touched her face rubbing the pad of his thumb across her cheek. He looked deep into her eyes and saw the same desires and needs he felt reflected back at him. He kissed her again then pulled her closer as he deepened the kiss. Their hunger for each other mounted as the passions of the last few days rose to the surface. They soon found themselves lying on the hay. His hands caressed her through her dress and she began unbuttoning his shirt. Ike surprised her when he suddenly pulled away and stood up. She watched, wondering what would happen next as he walked to the barn door; and locked it. When he came back he took her into his strong arms and kissed her tenderly then with more and more passion; they began the dance of the ages. He pulled back slightly before he took the final steps and looked into her face for signs of fear. She encouraged him by kissing him with so much passion neither could breathe for several moments. He pulled back again and held her face in his hand.

"I want this as much as you do Ike, its OK" There were tears in her eyes but she was smiling. Ike smiled back, kissed her deeply and finished the dance.

They lay together for several minutes each enjoying being held by the other. Sampson decided to bray his approval.

Emily and Ike looked at Sampson. "He won't tell will he?" she teased. Ike made a motion to show that Sampson's lips were sealed. "That was nice." Emily purred to Ike as they lay back on the hay. "We should probably get back to the dance... We've been gone awhile" Ike's response was to hug her tighter. They heard a few gunshots in the distance.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

"IKE, IKE, EMILY!!!" Buck's voice had a very urgent tone.

Ike and Emily rushed to the door, Ike's shirt wasn't totally buttoned or tucked in, but he didn't care. Buck met them just outside the barn took one look at Ike and raised an eyebrow but said nothing about his state of dress.

"Come with me there been a shooting over at the saloon." Emily's face went pale as she heard the words. Buck broke into a run and they followed quickly. Buck slowed as they neared the saloon and a body could be seen on the ground. A dark pool of blood was seeping into the earth. A small crowd was milling around the body but parted when Emily came running.

"DADDY, GOD NO! DADDY GET UP!" Emily ran past the two friends and dropped to her knees beside her father. They walked over to her and stood behind her. She gently brushed back the hair from his face "Daddy, It's me, Emmy, I'm here....you're gonna be fine, Daddy please......"

"Miss, I'm so sorry, he's gone" Teaspoon tried to soothe the trembling woman.

"NO! He's faking it, you don't know him, DADDY, get up PLEASE!!!" She was sobbing.

Teaspoon shook his head, "Boys take her over to my office. Did anyone see what happened?"

Ike and Buck bent down and gently but firmly guided Emily away from her father's body and toward Teaspoon's office while Teaspoon sorted out what had transpired.

Buck was sickened that there was nothing the law could do to the man that had killed Emily's father but by all accounts the act had been self defense. Ike took Emily home, put her to bed and then he slept fitfully in a kitchen chair. Later that day they rode into town together to make all the arrangements for the burial. Ike stayed with her all that day and Rachel sent Jimmy over with food and an invitation for Emily to stay at the station after the funeral.

Buck, Lou, Ike and Emily were the only ones who attended the burial besides the preacher, it was the way Emily wanted it. She spoke to her father for the last time and scattered his lucky deck of cards on top of the casket. "No one could ever prove they were marked." She said to the others. "Please tell Rachel I appreciate the offer to stay but I need to start making a life for myself. I'm going over to Cotton Wood to get a mule Daddy wanted. Then when I get home..." Ike signed something.

"Ike wants to know if you'd like him to go with you." Buck translated.

"Thanks, Ike. That's sweet but I need some time alone right now when I get back I want to start the rest of my life and that's something I hope you'll help me with." Ike nodded. "Good, I'm really looking forward to that."

Ike helped her into her wagon and went back to the station with Buck and Lou. Lou and Buck changed their clothes and Lou went off to find the twins who were now almost one and had found their legs. They learned to run, not walk, and they ran everywhere. Buck was already teaching them how to ride and they loved it. Teresa was a huge help as the twins never seemed to want to be in the same place together unless they were getting into trouble. They now slept in Teresa's room and the younger girl loved caring for her niece and nephew. Lou found them happily playing in a mud puddle behind the house, all three were covered in mud and laughing. Lou decided that was why God made wash buckets and returned to the house.

Buck and Ike were in the bunkhouse talking to Kid, Jimmy and Noah when Cody came in from his run. "How was the funeral, Buck? Oh Hi, Ike I didn't see you there..."

"Fine for a funeral, I guess." Buck shrugged he was leaning on the table with his backside watching the game. Noah and Kid were sitting at the table playing cards and Jimmy sat on his bunk cleaning his gun. Ike lay in his bunk still in the clothes he'd worn to the funeral.

"How's Emily doing Ike? I guess she took it hard..... I just passed her in town and she acted like she didn't even see me." Cody said taking off his jacket.

Ike sat up and signed, *Where was she headed?*

"Towards the Saloon, I guess, not much else down that...." Cody was interrupted by Ike jumping off his bunk. "Hey, what's...."

Ike looked at Buck a split second then grabbed his gun and ran out the door.

"She's going after the man who shot her father" Buck shouted over his shoulder as he also grabbed his gun and ran after Ike. "IKE, WAIT, IKE!!!" Buck's voice drifted into the distance as the other riders also gave chase. Lucky, startled by the sudden activity, began barking and ran after his master. Lou and Rachel heard the commotion and came out of the house in time to see the boys running toward town. Ike, Buck and Lucky were already out of sight.

"What's gotten into them?" I've never seen Cody move that fast unless food was involved." Rachel asked Lou.

"I don't know but something doesn't feel right. I thought I heard Buck yelling at Ike. I guess we'll find out soon enough. Let's get the kids cleaned up and fed in case there's trouble. One less thing to worry about." Lou shrugged and went around back to collect the twins and Teresa from their mud bath.

Ike arrived at the saloon just as Emily disappeared through the doors. He barged in and pushed Emily aside as the first shots rang out. Buck was right behind him and Ike's sudden stop sent Buck hurtling into him. Ike fired his gun as another shot was fired in his direction. Buck fired also and when the smoke cleared four people lay on the floor of the saloon, a puddle of blood spreading beside each one.

Emily sat up stunned and looked about, Ike lay on his side, his gun on the floor beside him and his right hand holding his left shoulder as blood seeped between his fingers. She reached out her hand toward him and vaguely noticed the blood dripping from a large cut on her palm.

"Ike, Oh my God, NO!" Emily crawled through broken glass to his side. He struggled to sit up as Kid and Cody arrived. There was spilled drinks and broken glassware everywhere. Emily felt pain as the glass cut her knees but she ignored it in her haste to get to Ike.

"Buck, Oh God, BUCK!" The panic in Kid's voice turned both Ike and Emily's heads. Kid fell to his knees beside Buck. Buck was still conscious and looked at him with pain filled eyes. "It's gonna be OK Buck, you're gonna be fine." Buck's eyes closed as Kid rested his hand on Buck's forehead. Kid prayed it wouldn't be for the last time. Lucky nudged, then licked Buck's face as if to say get up.

"I'll get the Doc" Cody yelled as he turned and ran in the direction of the doctor's office. Teaspoon and Jimmy arrived and both looked quickly at Buck and Ike then Teaspoon went to check on Neville. Jimmy dropped to his knees beside his injured friends. He placed his hand on Buck's chest he could feel a slight rise as Buck struggled to breathe. Emily was helping Ike over to where Buck lay. There was blood everywhere mixed with the spilled drinks and everyone had some blood on them. It was hard to tell who was hurt and who wasn't. The other patrons in the saloon just stood in shocked silence at what they had just witnessed.

"Dear Lord let this just be a nightmare and let me wake up." Teaspoon mumbled as he checked Neville's lifeless body. He was looking over at Buck and said another silent prayer. Buck was too young and had too much to live for to die like this.

Teaspoon was just coming back to Buck as Ike and Emily knelt beside their injured friend. Blood was spurting from the wound in his chest with each heartbeat. Kid ripped his own shirt off and began pressing it against the wound. "Hang in there Buck." He whispered over and over.

Ike held Buck's limp hand and couldn't stop the tears. Ike's lips were moving but as usual no sound came out. Suddenly Buck's body began to shake and he was gasping for air. Little bubbles of blood formed on Buck's lips as he breathed through his mouth fighting for every breath. The faces of all the riders were pale and horror stricken. Lucky sat nuzzling Buck and whimpering, as if he was begging Buck not to die. There was blood on the dog's snout.

The shaking stopped as suddenly as it had started and the voice that had been silent for so long was heard again. "Buck, Please hang on, I love you, don't die." It was little more than a whisper "Please Dear God, don't take him" Ike's emotions overwhelmed him and he gratefully let Emily hold him as he cried. When Ike spoke Lucky moved toward him and nuzzled Ike's free hand. Ike would have sworn that Buck squeezed his other hand. The dog whimpered and then put his head in Emily's lap as if he too were crying. He had a paw on Buck's arm.

The Doc arrived and checked Buck quickly. "He's still alive but barley. Good work Kid. Jimmy, Kid, Noah do you think you can get him to my office? Put him in the surgery in back, don't leave him. Kid, keep the pressure tight on that wound, that's what's keeping him alive. Has someone told his wife?" There was a small crowd gathered around the outside of the saloon, people shook their heads. The silence was eerie and unnerving.

Jimmy immediately knelt at Buck's head and put his arms under Buck's back and shoulders. Noah instinctively went to Buck's feet but a stranger was already there. Ike tried to help but Teaspoon held him back. Noah supported Buck's body and made it easier for Kid to keep the pressure on the wound. There were many murmured prayers for Buck's survival. Lucky was on his feet as soon as Buck was lifted and followed along behind them with his tail between his legs and his head down. As the boys struggled to carry Buck they were joined by a couple of the town folk, including the owner of the hotel who Buck and Noah had helped recently.

The Doc turned to check Ike and Emily. "Cody, could you help these two to my office? Teaspoon, what about him?" Doc Barnes indicated Neville's body on the floor near the wall.

"He's gone, does Buck have a chance?" Teaspoon's voice cracked. His own emotions were barely held in check. He'd been prepared to loose one or two of the boys on runs, it was part of the job, but this was something else.

The doc put his hand on Teaspoon's shoulder. "He's breathing that's a start. He's got youth and good health going for him too, I'll do my best. I'm going to need my daughter Sarah to help me. Can you have someone get her for me? I need to go and start taking care of Buck. You gonna be OK?"

"I'll be over soon as I get this mess cleaned up. I guess we should consider ourselves lucky no one else was hit." Teaspoon nodded and turned as the undertaker arrived for Neville's body. He instructed Barnett to get Sarah. He'd go and get Lou himself.

~*~*~

They all sat on the front porch of the doc's office Cassie and Rachel sat on either side of a sometimes sobbing, sometimes silent, Louise. Teaspoon had gotten her and Rachel as soon and the undertaker had arrived for Neville. Lou had taken one look at Teaspoon and known it was Buck. Teresa and Jeremiah were instructed to stay home and care for the twins, and pray for Buck's survival. Rachel had helped Teaspoon bring her over to the Doc's. Jimmy and Noah had changed out of their bloody clothing but Kid and Cody still had on the clothes they were wearing at the saloon. Cody's had Ike's and Emily's blood while Kid's undershirt was covered in Buck's blood. Lucky sat at Lou's feet his head on her boot. When Lou cried Lucky would sit up and nuzzle her then put his head in her lap. Lou would calm down by scratching his ears. Emily and Ike were still inside being worked on by Sarah while the doctor and the stranger who helped carry Buck out of the Saloon, worked on Buck. The stranger it turned out was as an army surgeon, Captain Pierce; he'd been in the bank across the street and knew the town's doctor would need help if he was going to save the young Indian's life. Jimmy had ridden out to the army camp and retrieved a list of things the surgeon had asked for. Jimmy had no idea what most of the stuff was but if it was going to help Buck he'd ride to the moon.

Finally the door opened and Emily emerged. Her arm was in a sling and her hand was heavily bandaged. "Were you shot too?" Rachel asked. She thought Emily was just in there with Ike.

"No, when Ike pushed me I fell on a pitcher and shattered it. It cut me up pretty good....... I'm so sorry, GOD what have I done?" Emily sat bonelessly in the chair Cody held for her. Lou looked up at the woman and reached out her hand to offer her support. "Oh Lou, you must hate me...I'm so sorry, Buck...." She was shaking and sobbing so hard that Noah offered to take her back to the bunkhouse to lie down.

Sarah opened the door just then. She'd been training beside her father all her life and was just as good a doctor and surgeon as he was; everyone trusted her. "I'm still working on Ike but he should be fine. I don't have any news about Buck except that they are still working on him so that means he's alive...... I have something that will help you Emily, Noah are you taking her home?" Noah nodded. "Good get her to lie down then take a teaspoon of this; it will help with the pain and help her relax." She handed Noah a small vile of brownish liquid. "Someone should stay with her for the next few days. She shouldn't be alone."

"Thank-you Sarah, We'll see Emily is well cared for. Don't worry." Rachel touched Sarah's arm and the woman nodded as she went back inside. "Noah, please take her home and have her rest in the spare room downstairs in the house." Rachel hugged the sobbing girl and turned her over into Noah's capable hands.

Another hour passed before Sarah came out again. "Ike's all set he's resting in the side room I managed to get the bullet out and he didn't bleed too badly so I 'spect he'll make a full recovery. Before you ask there is no change with Buck, I simply don't know anything."

"Can we see Ike?" Teaspoon asked hopefully.

"Yes, but not everyone at once, two or three at a time. He's going to be a little sleepy. He's had some Laudanum for the pain." Sarah held the door open as Kid, Cody and Jimmy entered. They looked toward the closed door at the end of the hall where they knew Buck was in the fighting to live.

Several minutes later they came back out the relief clear on their faces; Ike was really going to be OK. Teaspoon and Cassie went in next and only stayed a few minutes also. Teaspoon also looked at the closed door and prayed Lou wouldn't notice the trail of blood which led down the hall to it. Cassie noticed where Teaspoon was looking and asked Sarah for a mop and bucket. Once the hall was clean they left to let Lou visit Ike.

Ike was fighting sleep but he wanted to see Lou. Ike almost cried when he saw Lou's face. Her eyes were all red and swollen and her nose looked raw from blowing it so much while she cried. *He saved my life Lou! Any word?*

"Not yet but Sarah says the longer he holds on the better his chances are. They've been working on him nearly three hours now." Lou was holding Ike's hand but he pulled away to speak.

*Please take care of Emily for me...while I'm here.* Ike was fighting to keep his eyes open. *I love you, Lou, Rachel*

"We will Ike, don't worry, we love you too now get some rest so you'll heal up faster!" Rachel kissed Ike's forehead followed by Lou. Ike closed his eyes and drifted into a drug induced slumber.

Almost another hour went by before the surgeons came out onto the porch; both men were covered in blood. Lou paled and gripped Rachel's hand tightly. Teaspoon sat and put his arm around Lou's slim shoulders. Cassie had gone to the station to help Noah with the twins and get dinner for Jeremiah and Teresa; Lou didn't want them at the doc's. Cody, Kid and Jimmy all stepped closer. Cody and Kid had both finally gone home and changed out of the blood soaked clothing. Kid had thrown his shirt away.

"Let me start by saying he's still alive. Dr. Pierce is an amazing surgeon and if he hadn't been here Buck would be dead. The bullet nicked the artery that supplies the blood to Buck's right arm and punctured the lung. In order to repair the damage we had to break a few ribs and his collar bone. The biggest problem Buck has right now is blood loss. I don't understand all the new techniques and procedures so I'll let Dr. Pierce explain" Doc Barnes turned to the other doctor.

Lou interrupted before the army doctor could start. "Can I see him?"

"You're his wife?" Lou nodded as the army surgeon gently placed his hand on her shoulder. "You can in a few minutes. Sarah is cleaning him and the room up. How are you doing?"

"I'm Ok, I guess, I'm scared to death. I don't want to loose him, I can't, he doesn't even know we're going to have another baby." Lou stared sobbing again. Everyone looked at Lou but no one said anything; no one knew.

"Well I guess we're just going to have to make sure he lives through this...He's a strong man, Mrs. Cross. He must have a very strong will to live because I've seen other men not survive the surgery he just lived through. Do you want to know what we had to do to him?" The doctor spoke directly to Louise but he was watching the others. Everyone was hanging on his every word. Lou nodded. "It's ironic that because of this war we are advancing greatly in the treatment of bullet wounds, blood loss and infection. I was able to give your husband back some of his own blood and stitch the artery closed. A wound like this, even five years ago, if the person survived, would have meant the loss of the arm too; Buck still has his. The fingers are warm which means the blood is flowing the way it should, I'm almost certain I will not have to amputate. Who's Kid?" Kid raised his hand. Doctor Pierce turned to Kid and shook his hand. "Your friend is alive because of what you did. Your quick thinking, putting pressure on the wound, kept him from bleeding to death and closed the tear in his lung enough so he was able to keep breathing. If you hadn't done that... nothing we did would have saved Buck....." The Army surgeon continued to tell them how the surgery had gone and Teaspoon asked a few questions but Lou didn't hear much and understood even less. All she wanted to do was see Buck. Finally Sarah came out and said Buck, and the room, were ready.

Rachel and Lou followed the doctor into the bedroom. Buck lay on the bed under a blanket. His face was almost the same color as the sheets. He looked so small and still Lou had to watch him for several moments before she finally saw him take a breath. The right side of his chest was heavily bandaged and stained red. Someone had thought to put a chair beside the bed and Rachel guided Lou toward it. "Can I touch him?" Lou looked at Doc Barnes hopefully.

"Of course you can. Speak to him too. He may be able to hear you. I'm having Sarah set up a cot for you in the next room so you can be here with him. I know you only live a few minutes away but I get the feeling you'll be here more than at home." The doctor patted Lou's shoulder. "I'll give you a few more minutes alone then I'll let the others in one at a time will that be OK?" Lou nodded.

The next few days brought little change and Lou was beginning to give up hope. She spent all her waking hours beside Buck and slept next to him on the cot. Sarah and Doc Barnes had shown her how to care for Buck's wounds and she changed the dressings often. She fed him and bathed him, held his hands and kissed his face; he was as helpless as a new born babe. He lay there pale as a ghost. His face was framed by his dark hair spread on his pillow like a halo. His thick dark eyelashes were a stark contrast to his cheeks as they fanned across his handsome face. The normally deep coppery reddish tan was now a pallid sickly hue. She'd lifted his eyelid a couple of times and looked at his deep brown eyes, she'd cried when she didn't see the usual spark; they were unseeing.

The Doctors kept telling everyone that the longer Buck held on the better his chances for recovery were but almost a month and a half went by with little change at all. He'd survived an infection and the fever that accompanied it. The wounds had closed and the bandages were gone but Buck was still unconscious.

Buck's medicine pouch hung on the bed post and when the bandages came off Lou decided it was time for it to go around Buck's neck. She even decided to add something to it. She knew there was a lock of her hair in there from when they were first married. She took a pair of scissors and snipped a bit of Buck's hair and then cut an equal length of her own and braided the two together. These she tied with bits of leather then took the locks she had cut from the twins earlier. She had tied Ellie's with a pink ribbon and Ethan's with a blue one. She took the two and tied them to the braid, kissed it and placed it in the pouch. When she placed the pouch around Buck's neck and kissed his lips she would have sworn he smiled.

The doctors explained it was something called a coma and they didn't know much about the condition. The only good thing they could see was that the coma allowed his body to heal the broken bones without any signs of pain or discomfort. All they told her was to wait and pray. Lou did a lot of both. Lucky took up residence on the doctor's porch during the day and slept on the bed with Lou at night. He missed Buck.

Lou had been forced to go back to sleeping at the station because the twins missed their mother. Lou was afraid they had already lost their father. He was getting very thin but his breathing was better, deeper. A couple of times Lou swore that Buck had squeezed her hand but he didn't do it when she told him to in front of anyone. She thought he'd moved his eyes toward her when she spoke but again he didn't do it when he was asked to.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

The twins were now almost fourteen months old and were starting to say words. One day Ethan started in a tiny singsong voice Dadadadada and Ellie joined in, Lou broke down in tears and ran to her room. Rachel found her there a half hour later sobbing into the pillow. "Teresa said she thought you were up here....can I come in?" A muffled yes came from the pillow. "Lou, have you seen Buck today?" Lou shook her head another muffled response came from the pillow followed by a sob. "You haven't taken the twins over for a while, would you like me to go over with you and help you with them?"

Lou put the pillow down and looked up at Rachel. "Ethan and Ellie both said Dada today... and Buck wasn't here to hear it. I'm starting to show and he doesn't even know I'm pregnant." Another round of sobs followed but this time Rachel held the young mother and soothed her.

"I think we need to take a walk. Come on lets go see Buck and tell him about the twins. I haven't had a chance to see him yet this week. How far along are you? You look great." Rachel asked stroking Lou's hair.

"I'm a little over two months, almost two and a half. I just knew I was pregnant, I just knew it." Lou splashed water on her face to wash away the tears.

Rachel got Lou calmed down and they got the twins ready to go see Buck. If Lou was starting to show she hid it well; Rachel couldn't see even a tiny bump.

Sarah greeted them when they arrived and made a fuss over the now very active toddlers. Lou went in and sat in her chair holding Ellie on her lap. Ethan was distracted by Sarah and Rachel waited while the little boy got tickled. Lou listened to her happy son as Ellie squirmed to go join him. Lou hugged her tighter and began to tell Buck about her day when Rachel came in with a still giggling Ethan.

"Lou you didn't tell me he was getting some color back... his cheeks are pinkish and his lips are redder. Those have to be good signs." Rachel brushed her fingers over Buck's face. She almost would have sworn he twitched at her touch.

Lou stood up and took close look at her husband's features he did have more color. She just hadn't noticed because she saw him everyday. The twins were forgotten for the moment as Lou leaned over to kiss his lips. Lou's lips had just brushed against Buck's when the whole bed shook.

"DADADADADA" Ethan had climbed up from the foot board and jumped onto Buck's legs.

"DADADADADA" Ellie squealed as she clambered after her brother and landed on her father's legs also.

Lou turned her back to Buck's face as she and Rachel each grabbed a child. They kept up their chorus mixed with a healthy dose of giggles. Lou spoke to Buck as she turned toward him. "I'm sorry hon....BUCK!" She almost dropped the child in her arms. "Rachel look, Sarah come quick." Buck's eyes were open and he was looking at Lou with a tiny smile on his lips. "Buck, honey, can you hear me?" Buck blinked.

Lou took one of his hands; both twins had been placed back on the bed and were bouncing on Buck, happily chattering between themselves in a language only they understood. Rachel had Buck's other hand and was stroking the back of it. "Buck, can you try to squeeze my hand?" Lou asked almost pleading. The other two women both watched as the hand Lou was holding moved ever so slightly. Lou dropped his hand and threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. He responded. Sarah left to go get her father and Rachel was trying to calm the twins. All three women were crying tears of joy.

That night all the riders were able to see Buck and witness for themselves that he was indeed awake. He was very weak and couldn't stay awake for long periods at a time but he opened, blinked and moved his eyes when asked. He was able to follow a person's voice and look at the speaker. Lou was delighted to discover that whenever she kissed his lips he'd kiss back. He squeezed Lou's hand often but still hadn't spoken or even tried to speak.

Ike and Emily arrived late the next afternoon when Ike came back from a run. Lou was sitting in the chair with her head on the bed. Buck's right hand was on her head and his fingers played absently with her hair; his left was held in Lou's hand and lay across his body. Ike knocked softly on the open door. Buck's eyes moved to see what made the sound. Lou lifted her head up; she'd been asleep. "Hi, come on in. Honey, Look Ike's here with Emily." Lou smiled. "Come over to the bed I'm not sure how far he can see yet. The Doctor said it will take time but he should be OK."

Ike walked up to the bed and put his hand on Buck's shoulder. *Hi Buck, It's good to see your eyes open. Can you see my hands or does someone need to tell you what I'm saying?*

Buck very slowly moved his hands. *I see, you spoke....baby OK?*

Lou looked at Ike who shrugged. She hadn't told Buck she was pregnant yet. Her attention was brought back to Buck when he tugged on her sleeve. *I love you.* Buck movements were slow and jerky but he was talking, sort of.

"I love you too, Buck, I've missed you so much!" Lou leaned over and kissed him. "You look exhausted; do you want us to let you sleep?" Buck responded by closing his eyes.

*You were asleep when we came, Lou. Did you sleep last night? We'll walk you home when you're ready to leave.* Ike put his hand on Buck's head and brushed the hair back from his face. *Get some sleep Buck, we'll come back in the morning.* Buck opened his eyes and smiled at Ike.

Buck touched Ike's hand then his own lips. *I hear... speak* Ike shook his head, just then Emily spoke.

"It's good to see you awake, Buck, but you really do look exhausted. You get some sleep it will help you get better quicker..." Emily leaned in to kiss Buck's forehead.

Buck touched her stomach. *baby.*

"Buck, what baby?" Lou was confused. Buck pointed a finger at Emily and Ike. "Do either of you know what he's talking about?" Lou was clearly confused.

Ike shook his head but Emily paled. "Oh my God" she whispered she was leaning heavily on the bed. Ike and Lou looked at the young woman; their eyes full of question. Emily turned to face Ike, "I, I'm, Well I think I might be....you know... in a family way." Ike wrapped his arms around her before she sat fully on the bed. "Ike, I don't know for sure, not yet. How would Buck know?"

"He just knows things sometimes, Emily." Lou hugged Emily and turned to look at Buck. His eyes were closed and he was breathing deeply, already sleeping soundly. "He's sound asleep! The Doctors said it would be awhile before he's fully awake. He was better today than he was yesterday. He didn't sign at all yesterday he just blinked and squeezed my hand."

*Let's get home before it gets too late. You look like you could just curl up beside him and sleep too.* Ike gently guided both women out of the bedroom and into the doctor's outer office. Doc Barnes looked up from his desk. *Do you need to have the doctor see you Honey?* Ike signed to Emily.

"How's he doing today, Lou? Good to see you Ike, How's that arm? Good as new? Miss Metcalf you're a bit pale are you feeling alright?" The doctor greeted everyone.

"He's more aware of what's going on around him today. He still hasn't spoken but he's using some sign, like Ike." Lou answered. Ike signed something and then prompted Lou. "Ok Ike. Ike says his arm is almost back to normal, it still gets tired after a long day or a lot of lifting. He wants to know if you can take a quick look at Emily; he's worried about her."

"Sure, I've got a few minutes before dinner will be ready. Lou did you get Buck to eat all the broth?" The doc rose and opened a door to another room. He indicated that Emily should go on in.

"He ate most of it, better than yesterday; I'll stay out here and keep Ike company." Ike was ready to go into the examining room with Emily.

"Is there anything particular bothering you, Miss Metcalf?" Doc Barnes turned his attention to Emily; the door to the examining room closed behind them. The Doctor and Emily emerged from the room a few minutes later. "Come back and see me in three or four weeks, we should be able to tell for sure then. If you have any problems come see me at once, OK?" He patted a clearly upset Emily on the back. "She's fine Ike but I think I'll let her tell you why she's a bit pale. Good night now....." The group left and headed toward the way station. Lucky trotted along behind them. Lou could have sworn the dog was smiling, his head was held high and his tail was wagging for the first time in weeks.

"Lou, can I ask you a really personal question?" Lou nodded and looked at Ike. "How many times were you with Buck before you got pregnant?" Emily had a very scared look in her eyes.

"It didn't happen right away if that's what you're asking." Lou cocked her head to one side. "Why? Are you?" Emily didn't answer she just looked from Ike to Lou. They had reached the house. "Come on in and have some supper, everything will be alright." Lucky's ears perked up and he raced across the yard after a rabbit. "I swear that dog knows Buck is getting better"

Rachel had set aside some dinner and she heated it up for the tired friends. Lou told her how Buck was doing today and how she'd fallen asleep. She didn't say anything about Ike and Emily.

Rachel left them alone and went into the parlor to plan her lessons for the school children. She was the town's new school teacher and loved every minute of it. The beginning had been a bit rocky but the children loved her and they enjoyed learning though her unique but effective teaching style.

"Lou, Ike, the doctor said it's probable I'm pregnant but it's still too soon to tell for sure. He said since it's only been a little over two months he needs to check me again in a couple weeks." Emily finally blurted the answer to the question they were all afraid to ask. "Ike, I'm sorry we were only together that one time and now I have to go and ruin everything....."

Ike was on his feet and at her side in an instant. *You didn't ruin anything, this is good news, don't cry. I love you and we're going to have a baby!!!* Ike hugged her close and smiled. They stayed like that for several minutes until Emily finally began to relax looking at Ike's smile and feeling his happiness at the thought of becoming a father. Ike pulled away from Emily and turned to Lou. *That husband of yours better get better quick or he'll miss all the fun....* Ike went home that night with Emily and didn't come back until the next morning.

Buck continued to improve and on the forth day asked for water with a scratchy and weak voice. Lou thought it was the most wonderful sound she'd ever heard. He was able to try standing by the tenth day and fourteen days after he woke up he was allowed to go home.....to rest up some more.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Buck found that everyone was very protective of him since the shooting and was rarely alone. He came to cherish moments alone in the privy but even there if he was gone too long someone would come looking for him. Lucky had been his constant companion before the shooting and now he was Buck's shadow. If you wanted to know where Buck, was look for Lucky. Buck was frustrated and longed for the Doc to say he could go on runs. Buck finally got Ike alone one day and asked him if he would go with him to see the Army surgeon who'd saved his life. Buck had yet to meet Doctor Pierce and Lou had told Buck she liked his idea of having the doctor over for dinner sometime. Ike agreed to ride out to the Army camp with Buck and they set out the next morning. Dr. Pierce was thrilled beyond belief to see Buck not only alive but healthy. Buck had a lot of questions and the doctor took the time to answer every one. Finally Buck asked the question that was, for him, the most important.

"Doc, my friend Ike here lost his voice when he saw his parents and sister murdered and hasn't spoken since except for twice. Both times were really emotional times. The last time was the day I was shot. Can you help him? Or at least explain what's happening?" Ike had a shocked look on his face but Buck didn't care.

*You did hear me?! You squeezed my hand!* Ike remembered the day all too well. Buck quickly gave the doctor a rough account of both days helped out by Ike.

"Well, Buck, Ike, I've seen this happen before. I don't know why or how it works but somehow your mind shuts down a tiny part of itself. You say it happened when you saw your family murdered?" Ike nodded. "Were you able to yell to them or warn them?"

*I was too afraid, I hid in the shed. I'd done something bad and my mother was looking for me when the men attacked. I saw the whole thing through the window and did nothing.* Ike was fighting tears. Buck translated; his hand on Ike's shoulder.

"Ike, I assume you can write and I'd like to speak with you privately. Do either of you have any objections to that?" Doctor Pierce wanted to give Ike some privacy if he wanted it. He picked up some paper and a pencil and handed them to Ike. Buck rose to leave but Ike grabbed his arm and pointed to the chair.

*We don't have secrets* he wrote then signed.

"Ok, that's fine. I just wanted you to be comfortable. I think the problem is in your head. You put up a wall the day your family died and the only time it can come down is when something happens to make your mind forget. When you saw Buck shot did you even think about your family or just Buck?" Ike pointed at Buck. The other time was it also something to do with Buck?" Ike nodded. "Ok, I'm going to guess that for you Buck is your family and by speaking, your mind felt it could somehow help Buck." Both Buck and Ike shrugged. The doctor continued to ask questions and finally stood up and walked over to a corner of the tent. He continued to ask questions while he appeared to look for something.

"Buck, has Ike ever spoken in his sleep?" The army surgeon was looking at something in a book he'd picked up from a stack in the corner of the tent.

"I'm not sure, I've thought he has a few times but since he couldn't do it when he was awake I thought I was mistaken." Buck looked from the doctor to Ike and back.

"Buck, this time I am going to ask you to leave so I can talk to Ike alone and no protests from you." He looked at Ike. Buck left the tent and went to check on their horses. The way the doctor reacted to the possibility that Ike had spoken in his sleep made Buck hopeful. Buck walked slowly to the horses lost in thought.

Several minutes later both Dr. Pierce and Ike met him at the picket where the horses were tied. Dr. Pierce shook Ike's hand and wished him good luck then he reached over to Buck and embraced him. "I'm so happy you came here. I don't often get to see that I've made a difference in someone's life. The soldiers I work on get sent to other hospitals, home or back out in the field. I almost never see them again. You've got a wonderful family too, please tell your wife I'd love a home cooked meal anytime she wants me there!"

Buck laughed, "Then how about stopping by Sunday around noon? We usually have a huge dinner with everyone there. If you like chocolate cake I'll ask Rachel to make one.....what Ike? Yes, Emily is more than welcome too, as long as she brings some of that squash...Man, I'm getting hungry thinking about it!" They all agreed and shook hands again. Buck and Ike mounted up and rode home. Sunday would be a fun day with lots of fine food, good company and the twins as the center of attention once more.

~*~*~

Buck had been home almost a month, his strength improved daily and he was back to doing most of his normal daily chores. He was even doing some of the shorter runs. Finally one night as he crawled into bed beside Lou he teased her. "Either you've been swallowing pumpkin seeds or you're pregnant, when are you planning to tell me?" He ran his hand down her body stopping to rub her rounded tummy before circling her waist and drawing her to him.

"Why Buck Cross, are you saying I'm fat?" Lou teased him as she curled into his arms.

"Lou I need you, I want you, I love you." He pulled her nightgown off over her head and his mouth found her waiting lips. Lou moaned as Buck pulled her tighter against him and deepened the kiss. Lou and Buck finally were able to make love with all the pent up passion she'd missed these last two and a half months and he'd missed for the last month. He had to bite the pillow to keep from screaming out too loudly but they were far from silent. Mere seconds after they had pulled the covers over themselves, Rachel and Teresa came bursting through the door.

Rachel took one look at the couple grinned from ear to ear, blushed and put her hand over her mouth. She mumbled a quick sorry and tried to stop Teresa from entering the room.

"What's wrong? Are you OK, Buck? I thought I heard you scream. You sounded like you were in pain. Louise, you're both sweaty, are you sick?" Teresa started to go to the bed but Rachel managed to keep her near the door.

"I'm sorry I woke you. I'm fine I just had a dream, that's all." Buck was trying to get his breathing under control. Lou was suffering from an attack of the giggles.

"Do you want to talk about it? Louise says it helps chase away the bad dreams." Teresa still hadn't seen Lou's nightgown on the floor. Lou had the covers drawn up to her chin.

"I'll talk about it with Louise, will that be OK?" Buck was ready to loose it especially since Lou's hand was wandering. Rachel caught the slight movement and turned Teresa back into the hall. "Good night ladies" Buck called as Rachel closed the door. They both broke out in a fit of the giggles.

"Lou what are you doing? I know Rachel saw your hand move..... Oh, Lou...." Buck pressed his head back into the pillows as Lou took control and 'danced' with her husband again. When they finished the dance he was laying across her body when she shuddered again. Buck picked his head up to look at her, she was smiling. "Hmmm, still enjoying me?"

"Nope", she said with a giggle, "hiccups!"

He had to bite the pillow to keep from laughing too loudly then lay back down beside Lou and pulled her close. "You really know how to keep the romance going in our lives!"

She laughed softly and pulled the covers over them and snuggled down on his shoulder; safe and secure in the arms of the man she loved with all her heart and soul.

~*~*~

Cassie and Noah's wedding was the next Saturday and everyone was excited. Louise, Rachel and Teresa had been cooking almost non stop. Cassie had made a simple but beautiful dress with lace at her throat and wrists. Lou had kept the veil from her wedding which Cassie would be wearing; it complemented the gown perfectly. Just like in Lou and Bucks' wedding Cassie's brother would both give away the bride and be the best man. Jeremiah filled Quinn in on all the things he'd have to do but informed him that it made all the girls want to dance with him afterwards. Four adults raised eyebrows on that statement... Buck decided he'd better have that talk with Jeremiah very soon, if he wasn't already too late. He advised Noah to do the same with his soon to be brother-in-law!

The day of the wedding dawned bright and clear, the groom was nervous and the bride was a bundle of energy, all of it caused by nerves. The service was short and simple and to the surprise of the couple of honor almost all of Cassie's clients attended. It seems the sweet coloured lady that did their wash was very popular. The reception was a wonderfully fun party and everyone danced happily late into the night. The children at the party, and Cody, were delighted to find that there was plenty of cake and they each had more than one piece.

Noah and Cassie spent the first night of their marriage in a hotel room. They had opted to wait and consummated their love for the first time, as a married couple; both agreed it was worth the wait. It was a beautiful, romantic day and night neither would ever forget.

Cassie felt like a princess and Noah treated her as if she was exactly that. He told her that the woman who raised him, Stagecoach Sally, had always called him a black prince so that made Cassie his princess. She fell asleep in his arms after they made love and dreamed about castles, kings, queens and of course princes and princesses. Her life had been a fairy tale. She'd been born a slave and she and her brother had been sold with their mother and later given their freedom but not until after her mother's death. She'd had to raise her brother alone and do laundry seven days a week just to make ends meet then along came her Prince Charming riding in on a noble steed and swept her off her feet. She smiled in her sleep.

Mr. and Mrs. Noah Dixon moved into the home Cassie had been living in for the last few years. Noah bought it from her landlord as a surprise wedding gift. The home was small and in desperate need of repair but the boys had spent a few afternoons and done all the repairs it needed to make it weather tight and comfortable. Rachel, Teresa and Lou had all made new curtains and a new quilt as their wedding gifts. The men added two extra rooms so there were now three bedrooms, a roomy kitchen and a comfortable sitting room. Cassie loved it! She had hopes of filling the extra bedroom with a little one or two over the next couple of years; Noah agreed.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Ike, to no one's surprise, asked Emily to marry him. She had surprised everyone and stunned Ike when she said she needed to think it over. Buck, Lou and Rachel had spent a sleepless night calming Ike down. Buck remembered well the sick feeling in his stomach when Lou had pulled her hand away from his; for that one moment his world had stopped. Buck rode out to Emily's farm to talk with her the next day while Ike was on a run. She had decided, with Ike's blessing and help, to keep the farm her father had bought and had just finished planting corn. The other vegetables, squash, peas and snap beans, were already producing some wonderful additions to the local tables.

"I'm sorry Buck, I just needed some time is all, I thought he understood that...." Emily sat at her kitchen table, head in hands.

"I think maybe he did..... it's just that he really loves you and doesn't want to loose you." Buck pulled out a chair and sat. "Is it because you might be carrying his child?" Emily nodded and a soft sob escaped. "I can tell you right now that he loved you before the baby was even a thought. No one other than Lou, Ike, me and you know there is even the possibility of a baby so you don't need to think you're expected to marry him just for that reason. Ike loves you. He came to me before the dance and wanted to know how to tell if he was in love." Buck took her hand in his and stroked the back of it in an effort to calm her.

"Before the dance? Really?" Emily looked up at Buck hopefully.

Buck smiled and nodded. "You said you two were only together the one time?" Buck paused waiting for an answer and hoping he hadn't gone too far.

"It was my first time and his too I think. We've been afraid to be together since then." Emily again looked down. "Why are you afraid? Did Ike hurt you?" Buck was concerned Ike might have forced himself without meaning to because Emily didn't know much sign language when they first met. Buck sat back down but still held her hand.

"No Buck, he didn't hurt me. I wanted him and much as he wanted me. It's more about what happened afterwards. My father died that night and we were afraid if we did it again..... This sounds so silly now....you'd die. Buck, you were so close to dying we were all scared. Ike and I were terrified you'd die; the whole thing was my fault. I guess I felt like I needed to be punished for being stupid. I wish I'd just gone and gotten that stupid mule and forgotten all about Neville. You never would have been hurt. Noah wouldn't have postponed his wedding. Louise could have enjoyed telling you she was pregnant instead of worrying if she'd be a widow. It's all my fault." She was sobbing so hard she had to stop speaking.

Buck was on his feet and took her in his arms. She stood to reach him better and let him hold her while she cried out all the frustrations of the last three months. "Shhhhh, it's all right. No one is blaming you, least of all me, so it's OK. Shhhh...." Buck patted her back and stroked her hair. He was a bit shocked at some of the things he's just been told. He knew that his being shot had been hard on Lou but he hadn't figured anyone else would have stopped their lives because of him. Finally Emily's sobs quieted and Buck let her sit back down but kept hold of her hand. "shhhh.....It's all in the past. I'm still here, I'm healthy and I'm not going anywhere. Lou and I are happy about having another child and what's the story about Noah postponing the wedding? No one mentioned that to me."

"Noah wanted you to be at his wedding. He said it didn't feel right to be celebrating something while you were still fighting for your life. Cassie agreed. She stayed with me a few days while Ike was recovering at the Doc's." Emily's eyes were still damp but she was regaining her composure.

"Here, I think you could use this." Buck pulled his handkerchief out of his vest pocket and she dabbed her eyes and nose with it. "Ike is like a brother to me and I'd love to have you as a sister-in-law."

How did you and Ike meet?" Emily was calming down and Buck told her the story of him and Ike at the orphanage and how they became friends.

"...we got the hell beat out of us but we became inseparable. I guess you know the rest. Louise asked me to see if I could get you to come back to the station for dinner. I think Rachel was making chocolate cake......"

Emily laughed, "How can I say no to an invitation like that but Buck, um, about the baby, it's not a possibility any more, I'm about three and a half months along" Emily was quietly crying, again. Buck put his hand on her arm to comfort her. He remembered Lou crying at the drop of a hat during her pregnancy. Emily pushed her shirt close to her body and Buck could see the familiar shape of a new life. He pulled her to him and hugged her, gently kissing her cheek. Will Ike be there?"

"I'm not sure he was on a run when I left. Does it make a difference?" Buck watched her for her reaction.

She smiled, "No, I was just hoping to see him... I think I have an answer for him. Thank-you Buck... I'll be honored to be a part of your family." Emily stood and kissed Buck's cheek. "I want to freshen up a bit before we go, can you wait a few minutes?"

Buck nodded and she disappeared into another room. He couldn't wipe the smile off of his face. Ike was going to marry Emily and they were going to have a baby! His mind had drifted to other matters and was sitting there with a huge grin thinking about Rachel's cake and his own twins covered in it, when Emily came back into the room and said she was ready to go.

"You look happy what's that smile for?" Emily laughed when she saw the silly grin on her face.

"I was just thinking back to when the twins got their first taste of cake. Ellie loved the icing and Ethan liked the cake. Let's just say they wore it well." Buck laughed and held the door open for Emily as they left her home.

Ike was indeed back and rode in at almost the same moment Buck and Emily did. He got off his horse and looked at her. Buck quickly excused himself and took Ike's horse along with the other two to the barn to cool off. When he came back into the house Ike and Emily were seated in the parlor talking with Lou. He couldn't tell if the couple had talked about getting married or not. He hoped they had.

Dinner was an animated affair as all the friends talked about the annual homecoming picnic and what they had done in the past. They all had a good laugh when Ike told about the time a little girl managed to get Sam in the dunking tank back in Sweetwater! The twins entertained the adults as they had fun with their food. They both tried feeding Lucky, who got sent outside for begging, they fed each other and their parents. Ellie took great joy in smashing the carrots in her hands before she stuffed them in her ears or up her brother's nose or occasionally even ate them. Ethan tried to put a carrot in Buck's medicine pouch.

"Ethan, don't touch Daddy's pouch the spirits will be mad." Cody warned as he looked in horror at the small boy happily mashing the carrot into the closed pouch.

"Huh?... Oh thanks Cody." Buck removed the pouch from the little hands, wiped the carrot off both the pouch and child and shoved the pouch inside his shirt. "Ethan, here eat this carrot." Buck distracted the child who moved on to mashing his carrots and mashed potatoes together before smearing the mess in his hair. The twins insisted they would feed themselves and stubbornly held their mouths shut when an adult tried to feed them. They weren't starving so Buck and Lou gave in.

Emily was amazed at the amount one small tablespoon of mashed potato could cover on a single child. By the end of the meal there appeared to be more food on the outside of the child then actually went into them but they were happy and eagerly attacked the cake when it was given to them. Emily found it even more amazing that the cake managed to get eaten without spilling or smearing, unlike the carrots and potatoes. Both children had brown chocolate mustaches but there wasn't one crumb in any hair, ears or noses. This was what she'd be looking forward to in two years. The thought made her smile....

*What's that smile for?* Ike asked playfully. *Can I tell them now?* He signed under the table out of sight of everyone.

Emily leaned into Ike's ear and whispered... "Babies, I'm thinking about ours and yes now would be a good time."

Ike stood up and thumped his hand on his chest to get everyone's attention. Once he had everyone looking at him, including the twins, he smiled. *I want you all to know that you all have another wedding to plan and kinda soon....we're expecting!*

The twins moved their hands imitating Ike; he signed thank-you to them and they repeated it, then both clapped. Lou and Buck smiled while everyone else took turns congratulating the couple. Teaspoon took one look at the smiles on the Cross family and correctly guessed. "You two knew about this all along didn't you?"

Ellie chose that moment to show everyone exactly how much food went into a child; as it came back out. Buck turned to Lou and shrugged; she picked up Ellie and headed for the kitchen while Buck handed Ethan over to Teresa. "I'll clean this up if you take him." Teresa happily took care of her end of the deal and she followed the others into the parlor. Jimmy and Cody both swore they'd never have kids.

The next few days flew by. Emily didn't see any reason to plan a big wedding as she had no one and the only people she really wanted at her wedding were all right in front of her. They decided that the wedding would take place that Saturday in the field behind the bunkhouse. Lou and Rachel helped Emily redesign one of Rachel's older dresses for a wedding dress. They chose a dress that was light pink with tiny white flowers all over. They added white lace to the neck and sleeves and added a white bow in the small of her back. The dress had an empire waist and hid the small bump that was the evidence of their love. Once again Lou's veil graced the head of a rider's bride.

Jeremiah shocked Buck and Lou when he asked if he could bring someone to the wedding. She turned out to be a very nice girl from a new family in town, the Sullivans. Buck and Lou rode over to meet the young lady and her parents. Her parents were just as anxious to meet Lou and Buck and it was finally agreed that the young couple could see each other this one time, provided an adult was with them. Both teenagers were still too young to start courting; both sets of parents agreed.

Ike had written a poem for Emily as part of his vows and Buck, as the best man, read it for all to hear. Cody kept asking who would have the honor of walking the bride down the aisle and finally Emily chose Cody to stop him from pestering her. Ethan and Ellie held hands and carried flowers down the aisle followed by Lucky who had the pillow with the ring securely tied to it in his mouth.

Ellie was supposed to be the flower girl and Ethan was supposed to be the ring bearer but they fought over the pillow. Since there was one pillow and many flowers Buck solved the problem by dividing the flowers and giving the pillow to the bewildered dog. Buck dressed Lucky up by tying one of his string ties around Lucky's neck, backwards. Both children and dog made it to their father without any problems much to the delight of all present. Everyone had a wonderful time and the twins didn't knock the desert table over despite their best efforts. Ike and Emily spent the first night of their marriage in the hotel then Ike moved into her house.

Buck and Lou lay in bed that night after the wedding and Buck's hand rested on her tummy. He hadn't been able to feel the baby move yet but Lou had assured him it was moving. Her head rested on his shoulder and he felt her breathing hitch. He looked down and confirmed she was crying. "What's wrong Lou? Everything was perfect today. You and Rachel did an amazing job with everything...."

"He's growing up, Buck, They both are." Lou spoke very softly.

"Of course they are but Honey they're not even two yet. They'll still need us awhile longer." Buck stroked her hair.

"Not them, Teresa and Jeremiah, She's in love with Jimmy, again, and Jeremiah's asking permission to court someone. It's too soon. They're still babies."

"Lou, honey, I don't want to see them grow up too quick either but think about it. Jeremiah's almost sixteen and one date is not courting. If he was still at the orphanage, he'd be getting ready to go out on his own. I was scared half to death at the thought of being alone in the white world. I'm glad I had Ike. Jeremiah has us. He's working and earning his own money and living expenses and saving a good bit I might add. We were only seventeen when we started riding for the Express and not even eighteen when we got married. Remember all we had was each other." Buck kissed the top of her head. "I fully expect he'll be asking permission to court Miss Sullivan when she turns sixteen. He'll be almost seventeen by then you know."

"I know, but, still, Ok, what about Teresa? She thinks she's in love with Jimmy. Don't tell me you approve of that?" Lou was getting angry with Buck.

"Calm down.... No, Jimmy is too old for Teresa, at least right now. He's not even ten years older than her so if she were older it might be a good match....She's what, thirteen and he's almost twenty-one? I think that's only eight years that's not bad but by the time she's ready he'll probably be an old man in her eyes. Who was it last month? The McGregor boy and the month before that it was Ryan Blackman, and the month before that she hated all boys... she's growing up. Besides, Jimmy is a safe love......he thinks of her as his little sister."

"He better or I'll KILL him!" Lou was not calming down. Buck held her tighter hoping she wouldn't take out her anger on him. There was not a single doubt in his mind that if Jimmy or anyone ever hurt one of her babies she WOULD kill that person. "Don't you care who might be compromising your daughter?" Lou wiggled free and sat up on one elbow poking her finger at Buck's chest emphasizing her point.

"Hold it Lou," Buck captured her again before she could do much damage or leave marks. "Our daughter isn't even two and no one is going to come courting her anytime in the near future. Teresa's not courting anyone either, at least for another two years."

"I thought we agreed she had to be sixteen, the same as Jeremiah?" Lou was trying to sit back up but Buck had her in a bear hug.

"Honey, she'll be fourteen in three months and didn't Rachel tell you these were infatuations?" Lou nodded slightly against his shoulder and stopped struggling. "OK, so let's not worry, at least not tonight." Buck began kissing her face and she soon melted into his arms, all angry thoughts vanished. In the distance the rumble of thunder could be heard. The couple on the bed kissed passionately. Buck deepened the kiss when Lou sighed against his mouth. Buck rolled her onto her back and her arms circled his back. One hand found its way into his hair and began finger combing it. He loved this and nestled his head onto her shoulder while she stroked him.

"Buck..." Lou whispered into his neck.

"Hmmm" Buck made the noise in his throat as he kissed her neck.

"That storm's getting closer. Remember the last time we had a bad storm. We had a full bed of children!" She pushed him slightly away.

"Damn storm." Buck grumbled with a smile but rolled back to his own side of the bed.

The thunder grew louder rolling across the open plains and the lightening flashed vividly lighting up the room as if the sun were shining. Suddenly a very loud clap of thunder rocked the house and a second or so later their bedroom door flew open. Ethan, Ellie and Teresa all came running to the bed and climbed up. Buck and Lou moved the covers around and let everyone crawl under, a few moments later something jumped on the bed. A flash of lightening reveled Lucky, muddy paws and all, settling down at their feet, some guard dog! Buck looked at his family and smiled. It was good to be alive.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

The days of the Pony express were numbered and everyone wondered what would happen to them. Cody was already doing special runs for the Union Army and was around the station less and less. Teaspoon worried that the Mason Dixon line was going to cut right down the middle of the bunkhouse as Kid wanted to go back to Virginia and fight for the South. Noah was both hurt and upset by the Kid's decision but he understood even if he didn't like or agree with it.

Jimmy had also done some scouting for the Army but tried not to get too involved. He'd had it with The Cause and all the death that surrounded it. He had a more than a few bad memories of Rosemary Burke and her dedication to The Cause. Noah had almost been killed because of her, thankfully the bullet had gone straight through and he recovered quickly. Jimmy felt he could have really made a life for himself and Rosemary if only her obsession with the movement her late husband had died for had been lessened. Somehow he always managed to pick women that brought him trouble. He secretly wanted a woman just like Lou, strong and independent but soft and feminine all at the same time. Jimmy's only plans for the future included visiting his sister and her family for awhile while he decided what his next move would be. Teaspoon had suggested that there might be a job as deputy available should he decide to come back.

Lou was nearing the end of her pregnancy and was uncomfortable all the time. Lou couldn't believe how much had gone on in less than seven months. Their whole lives had changed. Buck's close call had made him appreciate living more and he let many of the things that bothered him in the past go. He even managed to have a couple of civil conversations with Bill Tompkins. Buck made sure he set aside some time each day for his family, they would go for walks together or go riding. His favorite time was just before the twin's bedtime. He would sit in the rocking chair in their room holding one twin while Teresa held the other twin and he read or told them a story. Lou would often sit on the bed and listen too; she loved to hear his voice become the characters in the stories. He held a different twin each night so they both got equal time. Buck felt there was nothing, in this world, more comforting then holding his children as they fell asleep in his arms. He vowed he would always kiss them and tuck them safely in bed as long as they would let him.

The twins couldn't understand why their momma couldn't hold them both in her lap anymore. She still read to them almost every night with Buck and sung songs with them during the day but picking them up was beyond her at this late stage. Teresa was a tremendous help both around the station and with the twins and Louise wondered how she had ever managed with out her.

Emily was a few weeks behind Lou in her pregnancy and had a million questions for the experienced mother. Lou reassured her that she would be a wonderful mother and told her, to Buck's embarrassment, all the mishaps he had during the first few weeks of the children's lives. Lou vividly remembered the first time Buck got Ellie up from her cradle and she'd been wet. Buck carried the poor confused child as far away from him as possible, by the arms. Lou had rescued her daughter and once the child had been changed showed Buck the proper way to carry an infant. Emily had laughed till she cried over the story of Ethan's very soiled diaper. Lou had come back from town in time to see Buck retching over the porch railing. She had to give him credit, he'd tried.

When Cassie found out she too was going to become a mother, Buck was forced to relive it all over again. The women laughed until they cried. He found himself laughing a few times thinking back to how intimidated he'd been by his own children. Buck just hoped he'd remember how diaper an infant. It didn't help that every time one of the women would walk by he'd hear the words 'not a hide, remember not a hide" He'd never live this down. He seriously wondered if anyone had ever died of terminal embarrassment.

Ike was thrilled at the prospect of becoming a father and looked forward to it. He adored Ethan and Ellie and they loved him right back. They learned to sign before they could speak and Ike beamed when he realized that they made no sounds when they signed to him. Once they found their voices he loved hearing the words 'Unka Ike', just not four hundred times in one minute. Emily secretly was afraid she'd be more like Buck and have no clue how to care for her own child. She'd never had an infant or child to care for. She was an only child and they'd moved around so much she'd never had any friends around with infants either. The twins were already close to a year old when she first met them. Lou was more than happy to let her borrow a twin or two whenever she wanted to get some practice. Both Ike and Emily and Cassie and Noah had borrowed the troublesome duo from time to time. Emily had been horrified when she had them at her house and they'd gotten into some mush she'd made for a baby goat that was sick. Ike had assured her that there was nothing in the mush that would hurt a child and that just because it was made for a goat didn't mean it was bad for the children. Emily was in tears when they brought the kids back the next day. When Lou asked what was wrong and Emily had told her Lou had laughed. Buck nervously asked what was in the mush and was relieved when he found out it was more or less watered down oatmeal and milk mixed with honey. Buck tried honey on his oatmeal the next day and liked it.

Noah was nervous but happy none the less. He had a little more experience with children but not babies. Ike promised to help him through all the ruts and pitfalls of the first few weeks. Cassie had cared for children all her life and, like Ike, was very confident of her child rearing skills. She hoped her own children would be a little less fearless than Ethan and Ellie but assumed that skinned knees, bumped chins and mud encrusted clothing were just part of being a healthy happy child. She wasn't too sure she'd let them ride as soon as Buck had taught the twins, they could ride before they could walk, but she wasn't going to be overly protective either.

Finally the last runs were made and the group had to decide what they would each do. Cody took a full time scouting position with the Union Army, as expected. Kid was determined to return to his home state of Virginia and defend his homeland. Teaspoon hated the thought that his boys would be on opposite sides but the same dilemma befell many families as brothers joined both sides. The day Cody left was hard on everyone, Lou and Rachel had both cried. Teaspoon made sure Cody knew he had a place in Rock Creek whenever he wanted it.

The day Kid was supposed to leave Katy picked up a stone coming back from town and bruised her hoof. Kid was forced to stay while she healed. Two days before he was planning to leave again, the station woke up to hear Lou screaming.

Buck opened the window and yelled out "Kid, Jimmy, someone..... The baby's coming and something's wrong....get the Doc NOW!" The panic in Buck's voice coupled with Lou's screams had everyone up and alert in record time. Kid ran for the doctor while Jimmy helped Teresa calm the twins who were terrified by their mother's screams.

The doctor arrived within minutes to an eerie silence. Teaspoon had been working in town and had come with the doctor as moral support for Buck. Jimmy and Teresa stood on the porch of the bunkhouse each holding a twin. Jeremiah stood beside his sister. Teresa was silently crying.

"Where's Buck?" Teaspoon had visions of him passed out in the door frame bleeding from the bang he gave himself the last time. A chorus of don't' know's and shrugs was the only answers he got. "It's awful quiet, Doc. Kid and I will wait over here with the others, yell if you need us."

"Teaspoon, I don't like the silence either why don't you come with me. I may need help with Buck if something has gone wrong." Doc Barnes spoke quietly. Teresa started to shake and the sobs became audible. She began to follow Teaspoon over to the house but Jimmy and her brother kept her outside. Jimmy guided her to the porch swing and gently held the frightened girl. Kid waited on the porch with the others.

Teaspoon and the Doc entered the house and ascended the stairs to the second floor. They knocked on the partly open door and entered the room. Buck sat on the bed holding a tiny bundle. He had some blood on his pants and a smear on his chest where the bundle didn't cover. His head was bowed and his hair covered his face. Rachel was helping Lou out of her stained nightgown and quickly covered up the small woman when she saw Teaspoon.

"I'll wait outside" Teaspoon blushed slightly, turned around and left closing the door behind him. He went down to the porch. "Teresa, Boys, I don't know all of what just happened but it looks like Louise has had the baby. She looks OK, but I don't know about the baby. It wasn't crying."

"How's Buck?" Jimmy asked he remember the last time too.

"He was holding what I assume was the baby I couldn't really see his face so I don't know how he was, other than still in one piece and standing." Teaspoon shrugged.

Almost an hour passed before Rachel came out of the house with Doc Barnes behind her. "Thanks Doc, I'll make sure of it. See you tomorrow or the day after."

The Doc tipped his hat to Teaspoon and walked back toward his office. His face was concealed by the darkness so they were unable to read his expression.

"Don't just stand there, I've got coffee on, come on into to the house." Rachel called them all inside.

Teresa walked just over the threshold and stood there, her eyes again welling up with tears, "Where's my Louise?"

"I'm up here Sugar Bear, come on up and meet your new nephew." Lou called down from her room. "Buck's coming down; I think he could use a Drink." Teresa started up but backed down when she saw Buck.

The men burst out laughing, both out of relief and mirth over Buck's need of something stronger than coffee.

A moment later Buck appeared on the stairs he had his new son cradled in his arms. "I'd like you all to meet Jacob Mathew, the newest member of the Cross family." Jacob had a thick mop of unruly dark hair and huge brown eyes. Everyone came over and looked at the baby. He seemed to study all the new faces then looked at his father and yawned. Buck kissed the tiny head and stroked the infant's cheek. "He's perfect just like his brother and sister." The twins were fascinated by the infant; finally something was smaller than them that wasn't covered in fur.

Lucky who'd been sleeping in front of the wood stove lifted his head looked in the direction of the baby and barked once. "Do you approve Lucky?" Lucky gerrumphed, snorted softly and put his head back down on his paws.

"I guess he's thinking it's another one of those things that bites his tail!" Jeremiah laughed and they all joined in. Buck let Ethan and Ellie touch their new brother and Ellie kissed his head just like she'd seen her father do. Buck kissed all three of his children then handed Jacob over to Teresa to take back to Lou.

The adults sat in the kitchen drinking coffee and taking turns with the twins while Buck told them what had happened. Buck had put on clean clothes but the sleeves were rolled up. Teaspoon noticed that there was a hand print and finger nail marks on his arm and hands. Lou had drawn blood again.

"Louise woke up with this really sharp pain and it just got worse. She said it felt like the baby was coming out and when I sat up all I could see was blood, that's when I yelled out the window. I turned back to her and she was in so much pain, I checked and Jacob's head was right there, one push and it was out then Louise took a really deep breath and pushed again and Jacob was born. Rachel came in the room and I'm standing there holding my son, he's not crying but looking at me like he's asking why I'm crying.... It's an amazing feeling guys..... Holding something that you created; a little tiny life.... I don't think from the time Lou woke up to the time the baby was born was more than a few minutes. It happened really fast. Lou's fine but the doc says the next time she's going to stay at his place when it gets near her time. I couldn't agree more, I don't want to do that again!" Buck took a long swallow of his coffee which Teaspoon had put a little whisky in. He made a face but he was visibly calmer.

No one got anymore sleep that night and Buck and Lou didn't get any sleep for the next month. Jacob, it seems, had his days and nights mixed up.

Jimmy decided he needed a little time to think over his options and left two weeks after Jacob was born to visit his sister. He'd also been offered a position as scout for the Army but he'd turned it down outright. He didn't want to choose a side. He really didn't have many skills except for riding fast and shooting straight. He was privately thinking of becoming 'Wild Bill' but he didn't tell anyone that.

Emily gave birth to a son exactly a month after Louise had Jacob. Emily didn't have the quick birth Louise did; she was in agony for hours and threatened to disembowel Ike if he ever came near her again. She and Ike named the baby Ronan Patrick after her grandfather. He was a healthy happy perfect little boy with a thick head of blond hair. Rachel told Emily that the hair was what had given her all those weeks of baby sickness. Ike finally understood what Buck meant when he told him he would find out what it was like to really fall in love. Babies just make it all happen. Emily could have sworn she heard Ike say "I love you" just after their son was placed in his arms.

Cassie and Noah welcomed a daughter they named Sandra Leigh three months after Jacob was born. Sandra was also perfect and she learned to use her big brown eyes within the first weeks of her life! She'd look at her Daddy and he'd do what ever she wanted. Cassie swore she was going to get Sandra to train her father to do housework!

Noah managed to find work with the blacksmith, Yanush Starkofsky ,thanks to Rachel, and was learning the trade well. He enjoyed the work and had a reputation as an excellent person for shoeing one's horse or fixing wagon wheels.

Somehow Kid never got around to leaving for Virginia and found work at the local newspaper as a press man and proof reader. Jennifer Tompkins moved to Rock Creek to help her father with the store after he'd fallen and broken his leg during an ice storm. She was now eighteen and beautiful. The General store was next door to the newspaper office and Jennifer and Kid saw each other every day. He finally worked up the courage to ask her to dinner and they were now thinking of asking to borrow Lou's Veil.

Teaspoon decided to continue on as the town's marshal. He hired Buck as his full time deputy and Ike and Kid as part time deputies. Barnett was still there and Buck was forced to put up with the well meaning but incompetent man. Rock Creek was growing and the telegraph office was built at the end of Main Street. Teaspoon had his hands full and was looking for more full time help.

Jimmy came back to Rock Creek just after Sandra was born and announced he was here to stay. Teaspoon wasted no time and offered him the other full time position. Jimmy readily accepted and started looking for a place to live. Barnett offered Jimmy his spare room but Jimmy was afraid he'd shoot Barnett for attempting to think without a brain and declined. Buck and his family were still living at the old way station. Teaspoon now lived in the rooms above the Jail. Both men offered Jimmy a place to stay. Jimmy moved back into the old bunkhouse.

Rachel had been asked to become a permanent teacher for the town and she'd accepted. The job came with a small house in back of the school. It was uncommon, even frowned upon, for a school teacher to be married but Rachel stood in front of the committee and asked permission. A discussion ensued and permission was granted. Both Rachel and the blacksmith had been married before and both had been widowed. The committee figured that since it would be a second marriage for both there would be less problems and adjustments. Rachel had just shaken her head at their circular logic. She and the local blacksmith began courting openly. She wondered if Lou would let her borrow the veil too.

Teaspoon's ex wife Polly had come back into his life and opened a new tavern. It was a really fancy place with a formal dining room and a saloon off to the side. The Saloon section had a room for smoking cigars and another for playing high stakes poker. Polly's Place soon became the place to eat and enjoy one's self. Teaspoon and Polly quickly became a couple again. They didn't bother with a veil neither wanted to be married again, he moved into her rooms above the saloon.

Ike and Buck pooled their money and bought a huge parcel of land which included the old way station and all the buildings. They started a horse ranch and Ike did the day to day running of the ranch while Buck worked in town. Buck and Lou continued to live in the house in town and the barn and corrals were turned into stock yards for horse sales. The old bunkhouse had a second floor added and Jimmy and Jeremiah each had their own rooms. Buck enlarged the house adding on an additional three bedrooms, a study for him and a sewing room for Lou. The twins had their own room and Teresa finally had the privacy she craved now that she was almost an adult. Jimmy also worked the ranch and enjoyed his favorite job of Uncle Jimmy every chance he got.

Jeremiah got a job as the first telegraph operator for Rock Creek and once a certain young lady turned sixteen, began courting Diana Sullivan. Her parents insisted that there would be no wedding until she was eighteen. Her eighteenth birthday was only months away. Lou and Buck were sure there would be another wedding in the near future.

Teresa finished all the school she could get in Rock Creek and Rachel helped her study for an entrance exam for college. Teresa wanted to be a teacher and asked if she could go to a teaching college. When the results from the tests came back Buck and Lou were both proud and saddened. Teresa had tested very well and was accepted at a school in Boston. Louise tearfully kissed her little sister good bye and watched the train until it was out of sight.

Buck stood there with his arm around his wife. "She's doing what she wants Lou, I'll miss her too. Everyone will. I've got enough saved to bring her home for Christmas and during the summer so you'll see her again soon."

"I know Buck, its just, well, maybe you better sit." They walked to a nearby bench and sat. "Remember how I felt funny before the twins were born? Well, I'm not sure but it feels like twins again."

Buck looked down at her still flat tummy and groaned. He was glad he was sitting.

(The End, maybe)

A very special thank you to Leah for all her hours of work reading, re-reading, and then re-re-reading this story and making it what it is now. Thank you for letting me borrow your brain and for not breaking my fingers. Pyro!

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