Buck and Singing Bird sat in the kitchen, staring into their respective coffee cups, each of them thinking about Adam asleep in the bed upstairs. After his breakthrough earlier in the afternoon, they'd simply sat with him, managed to get Adam to eat something, and then put him to bed early. After both the emotional and physical day he'd had, the poor child practically collapsed on the pillow.
Now, both husband and wife were forced to confront the demons in their past that managed to haunt them even to this day. Adam's anguish was so familiar to each of them and they knew he would have to confront his feelings in order to move on. As Singing Bird remembered each painful moment, it also brought her greater understanding of how every tragedy in her life had shaped the woman she was today. She looked at Buck, her husband absently tracing the edge of his cup as he so often did when he was troubled. Singing Bird still felt humbled that they'd been brought together after so many years and Adam's situation only served to give her greater realization as to what they had to do.
"Buck, I'm gonna admit…I've been a fool."
He looked up, not sure if he should smile. "Well, I'd normally have somethin' to say about that, but right now, I ain't got a word."
She reached across the table and took his hand. "I've spent a year of our lives, frettin' over a baby. Thinkin' that having a child would make us a family. But I've been so wrong. Family isn't about blood, it's about love. When I came to the Kiowa, they took me in and I became a part of the tribe. My Indian mother loved me as much as she did her blood children. You and Ike were brothers even though you didn't share blood and when you came to the Pony Express, you got another family that loved and protected you as much as your brother, Red Bear. Here I've been actin' like if we don't have a baby of our own, we won't be complete. Now here's this boy who's alone and scared like we were. It ain't just about helpin' him get through this, it's about givin' him love…that's what it means to be a family."
Buck grinned and laughed softly. "There are times that I think we share the same mind, Sora. I've been thinkin' the same thing. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've tried to tell you the same a few times." Her hand playfully hit his shoulder. "I want to help Adam and I think he was brought to us for a reason. We'll talk to him when he's ready and if he wants to stay with us, I want him to be a part of our family."
Singing Bird stood up and walked to Buck's chair where he moved back and made room for her to sit on his lap. His hand moved up to her cheek and he stroked her soft skin with his thumb. A year ago, he'd been alone, mourning the loss of his best friend. Buck had come to terms with the reality that he'd most likely spend his life without someone to love. Then when Sora came back into his life, he knew he'd been given a second chance. Buck wanted to give Adam that second chance as well.
He stared into her eyes and pulled her face close to his. Her forehead touched his and he took a moment to feel the heat of her body radiate over him. He raised his chin and sought her lips with his own. The kiss was tender and thoughtful, each of them taking time to touch and taste one another. They were in no rush to push any further and after several minutes, Singing Bird rested her head on Buck's shoulder and nuzzled against his neck.
"I think it's time we go to bed, Running Buck."
"Like I said before, sometimes it's as if we share the same mind."
Adam sat in the barn, watching the tiny newborn kittens writhe about, squealing for their mother. The small creatures looked so helpless and Adam couldn't help but feel empathy for their cries. He'd slept last night, which was more than he'd done the first night he'd arrived at Mr. and Mrs. Cross' house. Despite the rest, Adam still felt uneasy, as if he was out of place. It was the same feeling he'd had when his mother died only now he didn't have the lifeline of his father to help reorient him to his new life.
"Mornin' Adam. What are you lookin' at?" Mr. Cross stepped up behind Adam and peered over his shoulder. "Oh, she had her babies last night. That's a nice litter."
"They're so helpless."
"Yeah, they are. But they grow up quickly. They'll be out on their own soon enough."
"They won't stay here?"
"Well, they could but most of them will wander out and find a new place to call home."
Adam was silent for a moment before he felt Mr. Cross's hand on his shoulder.
"What's on your mind, Adam?"
"Nothin', sir. Just don't like the idea of these little animals havin' to be on their own."
"Animals ain't like people, son. They're made to fend for themselves."
"Just seems kinda harsh, is all."
Mr. Cross sat down beside Adam. "You have any other kin, Adam?"
He shook his head. "No. Pa said I didn't."
"Okay, then. You know you have a home here, right?"
Once again, he moved his head up and down.
"Adam, I know we can never replace your parents, and we wouldn't want to…but Sora and I want you to be a part of our family."
The boy's stomach clenched. He was afraid and angry. The two people he'd love most in the world had been taken from him and now he'd been thrust into a life that he'd never asked for. As much as he liked Mr. and Mrs. Cross, he didn't want to attach himself to people that would only cast him out later. He couldn't bear that kind of loss again. The questions continued to swirl in his mind. What would Adam's fate be when they had a baby of their own? Would he find himself fending for himself like the poor kittens so helpless in front of him?
Adam stood up quickly, his face sour with hurt and resentment. "I had a family and now they're dead!" He ran out of the barn and down into the trees behind the house, his hot tears stinging his cheeks as he ran.
Buck got to his feet immediately. The debate on whether or not he should follow Adam didn't last long and he found himself running behind the boy, following him down into the treeline and toward the creek. He watched as the young man made it to the water and was forced to stop, looking frantically around for another escape route. Adam turned to face Buck, trying in vain to look as brave as he could. His red eyes and wet face made Buck's heart hurt for the boy. He reminded Buck so much of himself; trying to put on a strong front when inside, he felt out of control and afraid.
"I didn't ask for this! I just want to go home!" The boy's breath caught as a fresh wave of sobs racked his body.
"I know." Buck walked to where Adam had sat down in the midst of his crying. The boy clutched his knees the same way he had when Buck had found him the other night. The Indian sat next to him and let the quiet settle over them both for a few minutes. His voice was soft and gentle.
"You don't know a lot about Sora and I, Adam. I know she told you that she was raised in my tribe and taken from us when she was just a girl. My ma died when I was young too, Adam. And the only person I had left in the world was my brother, Red Bear. The tribe didn't ever accept me and when Sora was gone, I decided it was time I left."
The boy had stopped crying and Buck knew he was listening.
"I went to a mission school and met my best friend, Ike. He was mute. The other kids hated me because I was half Indian and they hated him because he was different. Seems we belonged together. Then when we came to the Pony Express, we met the other riders and we became family. For so many years, I thought that I'd be alone. Then I realized that family wasn't just blood relation. It's about who you trust and who's there for you in the rough times. Look, Adam, this ain't gonna be easy. Sora and I know firsthand what it's like to go through losing your family the way you did. It's gonna leave a scar on your heart forever. All we want to do is give you a place to feel safe."
"But I ain't your son. And if you and Mrs. Cross have a baby, I'll just be in the way…"
"Adam, you'd never be in the way. Besides, if we ever did have a little one, don't you think he or she would need a big brother? I think you'd fit that job nicely."
The young man had stopped crying and sat quietly, thinking of everything Mr. Cross had said. His hurt and anger weren't completely gone but he didn't feel as upended as he had before. Now, he was mostly just tired. He did want to go back home but that just couldn't happen anymore. His father was gone and there was only one person to blame.
"I keep seein' his face, Mr. Cross. When I do, I get scared…then I get mad." Adam's small voice seemed so much older than his years.
Buck recognized the pain in Adam's voice. He felt the same way after Ike was murdered. He shook his head and put his hand on Adam's shoulder. "I know, Adam."
"I want him to pay for what he did to my pa."
"I felt the same way about the man who murdered Ike." The memory of standing in the middle of the street, gun pointed at Neville's chest and the feeling of absolute fury that overtook him echoed in Buck's chest. "But revenge didn't lessen my pain. As a friend of mine once told me, killin' a man is a line you don't want to cross. Once you do, there's no goin' back. Kirby will pay, Adam, I promise you that."
Adam shook his head and wiped a stray tear from his cheek. "Yes, sir."
They sat together in silence for a while, listening to the wind in the trees and the soft chirping of the birds.
Buck spoke softly, "Adam, you've had a lot to deal with the last few days. Stay here until you decide what you want to do. If you think you want to find another family or go somewhere else, we'll understand. Okay?"
Adam shook his head and turned his head to look at Mr. Cross. "Yeah, okay."
"Why don't we head back. I, for one, want some biscuits."
The boy paused for a few second and spoke, sniffling at the same time the words came. "Think Mrs. Cross made ham?"
Buck patted Adam on the shoulder. "A man after my own heart. Let's go."
Teaspoon sat in front of the Marshal's office, drinking his coffee as he did most mornings. The warm liquid ran down his throat and he began to think this might be a nice, uneventful day. Then he saw Barnett coming toward him, waving a piece of paper in his hand.
"Marshal Hunter! You got a telegram!"
"Great." Teaspoon muttered under his breath. Telegrams usually meant trouble. He held out his hand and the deputy placed it in his hand.
"You ain't gonna like it." Barnett crossed his arms and leaned against the post.
"Doctor here held up last night. Stop. Three men one wounded. Stop. Doctor fine men escaped. Stop. Possible Ethan Kirby. Stop."
The Marshal leaned back and looked out at the quiet street of his town. A quiet street that probably wouldn't remain that way for long.
Singing Bird finished locking the schoolhouse door and turned to look at the children playing in the crisp fall afternoon air. She was pleased to see Adam among the boys, laughing and talking together as they routinely did after school. In her heart, she knew Adam wasn't as carefree as he was making himself out to be. His friends had given him pats on the back and plenty of "I'm sorry's" when they'd arrived. Adam had been quiet throughout the morning but by the end of the lunch hour, he'd begun to smile and laugh with his friends. She knew it was only small progress but she was still glad to see the boy less withdrawn.
Slinging the leather satchel over her shoulder, she watched as Adam waved goodbye to his friends and walked toward her; the smile on his face faded quickly.
"Mrs. Cross…" He paused before continuing.
"Adam, now you know better, call me Sora or Camille, okay?"
A small smile made the corner of his mouth tilt upward. "Okay. Sora. I want to go back to my…the other house."
She stood for a moment, not sure how to answer. Sora only wanted the best for Adam and she wasn't sure if allowing him back in the place where his father was killed so soon would hurt him or help him.
"I don't know, Adam. It's only been a few days…"
"Please? I just need to go back for a few things and…I need to say goodbye."
It was a difficult thing to be taken from your childhood home. When she'd gone back to the Kiowa tribe with Buck, the pain of her past was able to be put to rest. She knew why Adam felt he needed to see his home again, but she didn't relish the idea of him having to face it so soon.
"Alright, but I'm going with you. Do you want to go back to the house and get the horses?"
"No, it won't take long to get there."
"Well, let's go then."
It didn't take much time for Ethan Kirby and his men to search Jacob Palmer's small cabin and the accompanying barn. They hadn't found anything which either meant Palmer didn't have the gold or he had a much cleverer hiding spot than Kirby knew. Just as he was going to order his men to begin searching the grounds, movement out the front window caught his eye. Looking closer, he saw the figure of a woman and a young boy walking down the ridge toward the cabin. He grinned.
Sora and Adam had walked in companionable silence most of the way to the Palmer homestead. Occasionally, one of them would comment on the weather or an animal darting its way across the plain, but Singing Bird knew that Adam needed to be alone with his thoughts.
As they descended the ridge to Adam's former home, Adam stopped, seeing a horse peering out from behind the house.
Sora stopped alongside the boy and saw the tan stallion to which he referred. Her stomach clenched with the realization of who was at the Palmer homestead. "We've got to go."
Just as they turned away from the cabin, she heard a deep voice followed by the distinctive 'click' of a gun being cocked.
"Now where do you think you're goin'?"
Buck pulled the horses to a stop in front of the Marshal's office and stepped out of the buckboard just as Teaspoon exited the well-worn wooden door.
"Howdy, son. What brings you to my doorstep this afternoon?"
"Any news on Kirby?"
"Nothin' since the last telegram. Got me a feelin', though. A man that ruthless ain't just gonna let things be. I think he might be headin' back here, maybe to look for the boy."
Buck's head nodded in agreement. "Yeah, I got that feelin' too. Had to get a few things from Tompkins but I really just wanted to keep an eye on Sora and Adam."
Just as the young man's name escaped his lips, he saw one of the school children leaving Tompkin's store.
"Teaspoon, it's too early to be out of school, ain't it?"
The older man stepped forward and shook his head. "Sure is."
"John Lawler!" Buck's voice carried down the street and the young man stopped in his tracks, looking around for the source of the voice. He saw Buck and waved.
"Howdy, Mr. Cross!"
The Indian moved forward as the boy approached the two men. "Ain't it a might early to be done with school?"
"Yes sir. Mrs. Cross finished our lessons and dismissed us about an hour ago."
"I didn't see her and Adam on my way here. You see where they go?"
"I seen 'em head out toward Adam's house." The boy paused when he realized what he'd said. "I mean to say, his old house."
Buck's brow furrowed with concern. "Do you know why they would go out there?"
"Nope. Just saw them walkin' that way as I went to Tompkin's store to get some things for my ma." The boy began to walk away. "See ya, Mr. Cross."
Buck and Teaspoon looked at each other. "Son, I don't like to be a nervous Nellie, but somethin' about this don't feel right."
"I know better than to question your instincts, Teaspoon, and I sure as hell don't question mine. Let's go."
Sora and Adam sat inside the small cabin and watched as Ethan Kirby paced back and forth along the wooden floor. Sora's arm was wrapped around Adam's small shoulder and she felt him tense each time Kirby's boots echoed through the space.
"Now, you mean to tell me that in all this time, your pa never told you what he did to put food on your table?"
Adam remained silent his eyes downcast toward the floor.
"I'm talkin' to you boy!"
Kirby's voice boomed and, once again, Adam jumped at the sound.
"Leave him be! He said he didn't know anything!"
The murderer's dark eyes found Sora's and his lips drew back in a lecherous smile. "Pretty lady, I would be a might careful as to how you speak to me, lest you find yourself in the barn alone with Bart over there."
"Mr. Kirby, you put me anywhere with Bart alone, and you'll find yourself one man short when all is said and done."
In an instant, Kirby's hand struck the side of her face but Sora didn't scream, cry or cower. She wasn't about to give this man more power over the two of them than he already had and she intended to see him unsettled by her bravado. Maybe then he would make a mistake that would allow them to escape.
"Don't be a sassy bitch, lady. You know what I did to the boy's pa, and I sure as hell don't mind putting a bullet in your head either."
Adam's arm snaked around her back as if telling her to stop. She resisted the temptation to lash back at Kirby and held her tongue.
"Nathan, watch these two. Bart and I are going to have one more look around the barn." He turned to face Adam. "Maybe by the time we return, your memory will be improved. If not, boy, you and the pretty lady here are going to end up just like your pa."
Buck had borrowed Barnett's horse and he and Teaspoon circled around the tree lined side of the homestead. While Buck hoped that Sora and Adam were fine, he didn't want to take any chances by riding straight up to the house. They'd left the horses behind them and approached the area where, less than a week ago, they had found Adam huddled against the trees. Three horses waited, tied to the hitching post behind the house. The barn door stood open and both men heard the occasional thud of items being moved around.
"Damn it, Teaspoon."
"Couldn't have said it better myself, son."
Buck hid himself behind a tree but stood up to try and look through the window. He could see Sora and Adam sitting on the bed, staring at the other side of the room. He knew there had to be at least one man inside the house with them.
"We're gonna need a distraction."
Sora could tell the man leaning against the wall was injured and judging by his pale skin and sweaty face, she was pretty sure he was fighting an infection. She could definitely use this to her advantage.
"Nathan, was it? We're not gonna make a break for it and you don't look so good. Why don't you sit down?"
The man glared at her and raised himself forward, off of the wall.
"I'm fine, lady. Keep your mouth shut."
"I have some experience with gunshot wounds. I could look at that for you."
He took a few steps toward the two of them and his wince told her all she needed to know.
"I said, shut your mouth or I'm gonna give you your own gunshot in a minute."
"I'm just sayin', I could help…"
"Last warnin', woman!"
Nathan took one more fragile step and, in an instant, Sora leaned back and kicked her leg as far as it would go. Her boot struck the outlaw on his injured leg and he cried out, dropping to the floor. The gun flew from his hand and she hurled herself from the bed, grabbing it just as the weapon slid across the floor.
The man writhed in pain, clutching his wounded leg. "You bitch!"
Sora stepped closer to the man and stood over him, the gun pointed at his head. "You will watch your language around my son."
It was that word that stirred Adam from his fugue state. He looked at the man and then at the woman standing in front of him. Her son. The tears began to well in his eyes.
Buck was looking toward the barn when he heard a thud inside the house. A few seconds later a man's cry of pain pierced through the wooden cabin walls. The corner of Buck's mouth turned upwards in a wry smile.
"That's my girl."
"Yeah, well, seems your girl provided the distraction, Buck."
Buck turned his head and saw two men emerging out of the barn, their attention on the small cabin.
The two friends stepped from their positions and pointed their guns at the outlaws.
"Ain't this a picture. Ethan Kirby, I presume."
The large man glared at the Marshal, his hands hovering at his side.
"I don't think you're gonna arrest me when I got two hostages inside, Marshal."
"Yes, well, I have somethin' to say about that, Mr. Kirby." Sora came around the side of the house, the wounded and limping Nathan walking in front of her. "Seems our guard wasn't quite up to the job." She pushed him forward a few more steps and he stopped, his head down, avoiding the damning glare of his boss.
Buck wanted to look at her; make sure she was okay, but he dared not take his eyes from the men in front of him. "Adam alright?"
"Yes, he's fine."
"Since it seems you're out of options get your damn hands up." When neither of the outlaws responded to Buck's command, he straightened his arm, aiming the gun directly at Kirby's forehead and cocked the hammer. "Now."
Their hands rose slowly and Teaspoon moved behind them, taking their guns one at a time. "On your knees, boys." Kirby and Bart complied with the order while Buck made his way into the barn for some rope.
Silence hung in the air as the men were tied and bound without much regard to their comfort. It was all Buck could do to restrain himself from striking Kirby down where he stood. As he finished tying up the injured Nathan, he looked up to see Adam walking slowly but determinedly around the side of the cabin. He wanted to take Adam in his arms and hug the boy but Adam didn't seem to even acknowledge his presence. The boy's face was firmly set on Ethan Kirby.
It was only after Adam passed Buck that the Indian saw the gun the boy had been holding behind his back. He saw Adam's arm move the gun to the front of him and point it at Ethan Kirby's head. Since the man was kneeling, Adam was virtually face to face with the man who murdered his father.
It seemed as if everything around them stilled. The gun shook lightly in the boy's grasp and the tears rolled down his small face. Kirby didn't say a word as he stared into the eyes of the boy he'd so recently orphaned.
Sora's voice echoed softly. "Adam. No."
Buck stepped forward and motioned for Singing Bird to stop talking. He knew firsthand about the emotions roiling through Adam and prayed he could calm him down before Adam did something he would regret for the rest of his life. Buck moved slowly to Adam's side, not wanting to startle him.
"I know what you're feelin' Adam. Kirby took your pa from you. You want him to pay. But this ain't the way to do it, son."
Adam's tears kept rolling down his cheeks, his eyes never leaving Ethan Kirby's face.
"I told you before this ain't a line you want to cross. I shot the man that murdered my best friend, Adam, and not a day goes by I don't think about it. Don't let Kirby win by puttin' him out of his misery. I promised you he'd pay and he will."
"Do it boy, I bet you're as yellow as your pa." Kirby's voice was a growl as he spoke.
Buck turned and punched Kirby as hard as he could. The man reeled backward and landed on his back. Buck didn't want Adam to shoot Kirby, but he didn't intend on letting him torture the boy any longer.
"Kirby, so help me God, if you say another word, I'll put a bullet in you myself."
"Adam, give the gun to Buck, honey. Please."
At Sora's words, the boy lowered the gun and let it drop to the ground. He stepped backwards and turned, burying his face in the fabric of Sora's dress. She wrapped her arms around his small shoulders and let out a sigh of relief.
"Buck, let's get these three on their feet. They've got a long walk to town."
"But my leg!" Nathan whined.
"You're lucky I don't drag you behind my horse, now shut your pie hole."
As Teaspoon and Buck began to secure their prisoners, Sora continue to hold Adam tightly.
"Adam, where did you find that gun?"
He sniffled softly and backed away from her. "Got somethin' to show ya."
Taking her by the hand, he led Sora back into the cabin where she saw the bed moved to the side and a floorboard ajar. As they approached, she saw a small metal box on the floor. Adam sat on the floor and took the box in his hands as if he was holding a precious treasure.
"The night my pa….died…he told me to look under the bed. Said there was some money hidden under there. Figured he might have other stuff too. Found the gun under there."
He opened the box and Singing Bird's breath caught in her throat. There was much more money there than she could readily count. Whatever Jacob Palmer had done to earn it, he'd certainly been smart enough to save as much as he could.
"Oh, Adam. Your father saved this for you."
"No, this is for us."
"It's okay…Sora. I want us to have it. We're a family, remember?"
"Yes, we are, love. Yes, we are."
Kirby and his men were hung early in the morning only a week after their confrontation at Palmer's cabin. Buck wouldn't allow Adam to be there, the boy had seen too much death in his young life already.
The months following were like a rebirth for Buck, Sora and Adam. The money was kept in a safe place, despite Adam's insistence that they spend at least half of it on candy. Adam had taken to his place in the Cross family relatively easily after Kirby's trial. He had difficult times, as any child would after such a traumatic experience, but the passage of time seemed to both heal his heart and open it to the possibility of being a part of a loving family again. The spring afternoon was cool and breezy as Adam and Buck returned from the creek, their basket laden with fish for dinner and berries for a pie.
"Think Ma will be mad we ducked out on our chores to go fishin'?"
"Probably." Buck dodged a branch and placed his hand on Adam's shoulder. "I'm tellin' her it was your idea."
"She won't believe you."
"Oh, why not?"
"'Cause she likes me better."
"Well, that's true."
Adam's soft giggle was music to Buck's ears. While the boy had taken to Singing Bird almost immediately, it was more difficult for Adam to bond with a man so soon after losing his father. Adam had taken to calling Sora "Ma", but he had yet to call Buck anything other than his first name. Buck was nothing if not patient and he worked hard to let Adam know he was part of his family in every way.
Adam's voice was low as he spoke. "Buck…thanks for takin' me in. Not many folks would want an orphan kid. And you and Sora have been real good to me."
Buck could tell by the tone in his voice that Adam wasn't finished. "You know we love you, Adam. You're a part of our family."
"Yeah. I want to change my last name, if that's alright."
Buck stopped walking and turned to face Adam. "It's more than alright, son. But, you don't have to do that for Sora and me, you know."
"I know. But I want to. Just like I want to call you Pa."
The Indian's eyes stung with the pressure of tears pushing to be shed. He looked at the young boy's sincere, honest eyes and smiled. "I would be honored, Adam Cross. Right honored."
Adam stepped forward and put his small arms around Buck's waist and squeezed tightly. After a moment, the two moved back from each other and wiped the tears from their respective eyes. They resumed their walk back to the Cross homestead where Sora would be waiting to gently scold, laugh and cry with her husband and son; three orphans who found each other and, together, discovered what it meant to be a family.