Buck could see Rock Creek in the distance. He thought about taking his time riding to the waystation, but the letters in his mochilla spurred him on. As he got closer to the town, his anger began to rise. Buck hated how everyone was acting around him lately. They were always looking at him with concerned eyes. Rachel and Lou kept touching his shoulder whenever they would pass him. Cody would stop whatever he was talking about when Buck would enter the bunkhouse. Jimmy, Kid, and Noah kept offering to do his chores for him. But, Teaspoon was the worst. He had told Buck that he was there if he ever needed to talk.
What I need to do is work.
In the back of his mind, Buck knew that they were hurting too. Ike had been their friend also. Despite that, he just wanted to be left alone.
Buck headed to the bunkhouse after taking care of his horse. Maybe I can lay down on my bunk before anyone tries to talk to me. After all, it was a long ride. To his surprise, he got his wish. No one even noticed him walk in and lay down. They were all occupied by something at the table.
"Celinda always wanted to bring'um in when we were little," Jimmy was saying. "Ma always told her they belonged in the barn."
"That's probably the best place for this one, too," Rachel replied.
"Rachel, she's so little. Don't you think we should keep her in here? At least until she's big enough to start mousin'," Lou gave Rachel a rather pitiful look.
"Come on, Rachel. Ya can't deny Lou's motherin' instincts." Lou gave Cody a sharp look.
"Well, she is a cutie. But only 'til she's big enough for the barn."
Buck had no idea what they were talking about until Rachel moved over to the stove to start supper. Then he saw Kid holding what looked like a little ball of white fuzz. He got up on one elbow to get a better look, causing the boards of the bunk to squeak.
"Buck, didn't hear you come in," Rachel said, seeing him for the first time. "Have a good ride?"
"Fine," he replied as he laid back down. Knew I shoulda stayed quiet.
"Hey, Buck. Look what we found wanderin' around this morning." Kid held up the creature he had been holding. Despite himself, Buck looked at the ball and could now tell that Kid was holding onto a small kitten. You wanna hold'er?"
"Nah, too tired." Buck turned around to face the wall and laid his head down again.
"You all go do your chores and leave Buck alone," Rachel said as she shooed the riders out the door. "Supper will be ready soon."
Even though he wasn't really that tired, Buck began to doze off until felt something crawling on his side. He turned his head and saw the kitten sitting on his hip, watching him. He tried swatting the animal away, but she just jumped back onto the bed and crawled back to her previous position.
"Rachel, get this thing off me!"
"Oh, Buck, she's just tryin' to make friends with you," Rachel replied as she picked up the kitten.
"Yeah, well I don't what to make friends with it," Buck said as he got up and walked out the door.
Buck was the last one in to get supper. He had avoided going towards the barn when he had left the bunkhouse earlier since he knew the other riders would be in there taking care of their chores. Instead, he wandered out to the field behind Rachel's house, not really thinking about what direction he was going. When he heard a faint ringing in the distance, Buck decided to head back to the waystation. Don't want anyone askin' me where I was, or if I'm all right, he thought.
Fortunately, no one tried to talk to him when he came in and sat down. Well, it's about time they realized I don't want to talk. The rest of the evening stayed quiet with Lou helping Rachel, Cody reading one of his books, and the other boys playing a game of cards. Sure am glad they didn't ask me to play. However, despite his brooding, Buck soon became bored watching everyone else's activity. He decided this was as good a time as any to clean his gun, which was sitting on his bunk, under his hat. As he reached for it, he felt something else under the hat, sitting on the gun. He picked up the hat and found the kitten curled up in a ball, sleeping on his gun.
"What're you doin' here?!" The others looked up at his sudden outburst. "Lou, get this thing off my bed." Lou looked at Rachel before she obediently scooped up the kitten, cooing at the slightly shocked animal, and glaring at Buck. Before anyone could say anything else, he grabbed his hat and gun and stormed out the door.
By the time he had calmed himself down, it was so late that Buck figured the other riders would be asleep. He slowly crept into the bunkhouse and began getting himself ready for bed. Before he laid down, he looked around the room and spied the kitten curled up on Kid's stomach. With a sigh, he crawled into bed and closed his eyes. He wasn't sure how long he had been laying there when he felt something walking up his leg. Buck tried swatting it away again, but, just like before, the kitten would not be discouraged. I oughtta wake Lou up and tell her to do something with this thing. He almost did until the kitten curled up against his neck and started to purr. Well, it'd probably be more trouble than it's worth, he thought.
"Just don't go gettin' mad if I roll over on you," he whispered to the sleeping animal. "I didn't put you there."
When Buck woke up the next morning, he was surprised to see that the kitten was still sleeping above his shoulder. No one else was awake yet, so he took the time to study his bedmate. When he had first seen Kid holding the kitten, Buck has assumed that she was pure white. Now that he saw her up close, he noticed that the top of her head had a large tuft of brown fur. You look just like Ike with his bandana, he thought with a chuckle. Buck felt his heart drop when he realized what had just gone through his head. He was about to shove the kitten off of his bed when she woke up, stood up and stretched, and began rubbing her face against his.
"Suppose it's not your fault you remind me of him," Buck whispered to the now purring kitten. "Guess a lot of things remind me of him lately." The kitten responded by licking his nose. He chuckled, "You tryin' to tell me somethin'?" He sat up on his bed and picked the kitten up.
After petting her for a few minutes, Buck put her down on the bed where she began to wash herself. He got up and crossed the room to see if Rachel had come over to start coffee. When he saw that she hadn't, he turned around and almost tripped over the kitten. "What, now you're followin' me?" Once again, he scooped her up and placed her back on his bed. As Buck dressed for the day, he noticed that she sat there, watching his every move. When he heard Jimmy stirring, Buck quickly gave the kitten a pat on the head before he headed for the door. "Stay here," he whispered as he closed the door.
The kitten, who the riders now called Princess, had been with them for a week. Unbeknownst to anyone else, she found her way to Buck's bunk every night, curling up next to him. Buck had even gotten to the point that he waited for her to jump onto his bed before he would fall asleep. As far as anyone else knew, he wanted nothing to do with their new housemate, but whenever he was alone in the bunkhouse, Buck found himself holding or playing with Princess.
One thing that the riders did start to notice was the change in Buck's behavior toward them. He still wasn't talking as much as usual, but he also wasn't getting irritated with them either.
Under the riders' care, Princess quickly began to grow. Soon she was wandering out of the bunkhouse and following whoever was around to the barn or corral. Buck tried to keep her in the bunkhouse whenever he could, but most of the time she found her way out again. After taking her back to the bunkhouse four times in one afternoon, Buck gave up and started to enjoy knowing that she was behind him.
Rachel noticed the two of them walking to the barn one afternoon and was surprised to see Buck scoop the kitten into his arms as soon as they reached the building. I thought he didn't like that kitten, she thought.
"That's wind's really pickin' up," Kid said as he came through the bunkhouse door. It had been two weeks since Princess had made her first appearance. "The horses are all in the barn. Looks like a storm is comin'." He sat down next to Cody as Rachel started serving up their meal. He glanced up at Buck and noticed him smiling at something Lou had just said. Looks like he's gonna be all right, after all. As they ate, rain began to fall outside, making them all glad that the evening chores were done. When they were done eating, Buck got up and started to clear the table as the other riders stared at him.
"Close your mouth, Cody. Some people like to help out without bein' asked." The others quickly looked down then got up from the table to find something to occupy the rest of the evening.
Buck was drying the dishes as Rachel washed them when Lou started in a panicked voice, "Where's Princess?"
"She was wanderin' around outside earlier today," Jimmy said as Kid and Cody joined Lou's search. "I figured she would of come in for supper."
Suddenly, the blood drained from Kid's face. "I think she may have followed me outside before supper." At this, Buck dropped the towel he was holding and ran out into the downpour that was now joined by lightning. The other riders looked at each other and followed him out.
"Jimmy, Cody, you go look around Rachel's house," Lou shouted over the thunder. "Kid, go check by the corral. I'll check out the barn with Buck." As the riders frantically went their separate ways, Rachel watched from the bunkhouse porch. As much as she was worried about Princess, she was more worried about Buck. His reaction to Kid's statement confirmed her suspicions that he had really fallen for that kitten. She didn't know what he would do if he lost someone else right now.
She watched as Kid ran from the corral over to the woodpile. She saw him crouch down next to some wood then stand back up and yell towards the barn. Soon, Buck ran out followed by Lou and headed for Kid who was once again crouched down. Lou got down on her hands and knees and tried to pull something from underneath the pile. She looked up at Kid and shook her head. Buck said something to her and she moved, allowing him to reach into the hole. It took him several tries, but he soon stood up and began running towards Rachel trying to shield what he was holding from the rain.
"Kid, go get Jimmy and Cody," Rachel shouted as she held the door open for Buck and Lou. She followed them inside and watched as Buck grabbed his fallen towel and began rubbing the soaked kitten. When the towel was no longer useful, he took the kitten over to his bunk and tried to wrap her up in his blanket as best he could. He looked up as Kid, with Jimmy and Cody walked in the door shedding their wet coats.
"You shoulda kept an eye on her, Kid!" Buck couldn't stop his blow up. "She coulda died out there!"
"I'm sorry, Buck. I didn't realize she had followed me out but not back in." Kid's apology fell on deaf ears. Buck was looking down at the kitten and trying to warm her up. What happened next he least expected. The kitten started to lick his hand and began purring. Buck just stared at her until a tear formed in his eye. Here was this poor defenseless creature who had just been through a nightmare and what was she doing? She was taking care of him. She should have been scared and wanting to hide, but, besides her wet fur, she was as content as could be. Maybe she was trying to say something to him. Maybe not. But Buck realized that if he was going to get on with his life, he needed to get himself out of the downpour he had created for himself. Just because something terrible had happened didn't mean he had to dwell on it for the rest of his life.
"I'm sorry, Kid," Buck said quietly. "I know it wasn't your fault."
Kid just stared at him until Lou poked him in the ribs. "Uh, it's all right, Buck. I know you were worried."
Buck couldn't make himself look up at anyone, but he knew that he had to say something, "I'm sorry to all of ya. I know I haven't been treatin' anyone very nice lately."
"Buck, we understand how you feel," Rachel said. "As long as you know we love you and are here for you, you don't need to apologize."
Buck and Princess had been inseparable for the two days after the storm. Kid had even offered to take Buck's next run for him. His attitude and behavior toward the other riders had improve dramatically just as Princess's recovery from her ordeal. In fact, they were both in Teaspoon's office that afternoon. Buck and Teaspoon were attempting to play a game of checkers but were not being very successful as Princess continued to attack the pieces, scattering them all over the board. Teaspoon was about to say something when they noticed a young girl watching them through the window. She turned and ran to a woman walking in the street and began to pull her towards the marshal's office.
"Afternoon, Ma'am," Teaspoon said as he stood up to greet his guests.
"Mama, look! It's her! It really is!" The young girl ran over to where Princess was getting ready to pounce on another piece.
"Laura, we don't know that," the woman chided. "That kitten may belong to these nice gentlemen."
"No, Mama. See, look at her head!" The girl picked up the kitten before Buck could do anything.
"Can we help you, Ma'am?" Teaspoon asked.
"I'm sorry, Marshal. We lost my daughter's kitten about two weeks ago. She's white except for a brown spot on top of her head that kind of looks like a hat."
"Or a bandana." Buck hadn't even realized he had said anything until the woman and Teaspoon looked at him. "Sorry."
"Well, Ma'am, this may be your kitten after all," Teaspoon said, turning to the woman again. "My riders found her a little over two weeks ago. They've been takin' care of her ever since, but I'm sure they'd be glad to know that she has a family who is missin' her."
The woman smiled at him. "Thank you, Marshal. I can't tell you how relieved we are. Laura hasn't been able to sleep a wink for worryin'. I don't know what we would have done if we couldn't find her. Everyone will be so happy when we get home." Teaspoon started to lead Laura and her mother out the door when Buck stopped them.
"Before you go, Laura," Buck crouched down by the girl's side, "what's her name?"
"I know it's a silly name for a female," the woman said. "But she just insisted that that was her name."
"I don't think it's a silly name." Buck smiled at the girl and pet the kitten one last time. "You take real good care of Ike, okay?" The little girl smiled at him as she turned to leave with her mother.
"Yup, I like that name, too," Teaspoon said as they watched the reunited family walk away.