Chapter 1

Buck felt a sharp pain in his right shoulder as the appaloosa mare rolled on top of him, pinning him momentarily against the ground. He had not been paying attention to their path and the tired animal had lost her footing jumping from a small incline into a dry creek bed. The misstep had caused her to stumble and roll on her side over her rider. The horse struggled to her feet, holding her right foreleg above the ground.

Buck slowly pushed himself to a sitting position in the dirt and dust of the creek bed and gingerly touched his shoulder. He slowly rotated the joint and attempted to move his arm. Everything appeared to be in working order. Painful, but working.

A quick scan of the terrain showed none of the familiar landmarks of the established Express trail into Rock Creek and Buck wondered how he had gotten off track. The riders knew the final miles to their home station so well they could likely ride it with their eyes closed. Perhaps, he thought dryly, he needed to start riding blindfolded.

Turning his attention to the appaloosa, he sighed heavily upon noticing the elevated leg. "Please, don't be hurt," he pleaded of the mare as he slowly rose to his feet, throwing a handful of dirt in frustration. Buck breathed a little easier as a closer look of the spotted horse's leg indicated there was no break. With a little luck, she would heal nicely with an application of Teaspoon's famous liniment and some rest.

He retrieved the mail pouch that had been thrown during their tumble and patted the horse's neck in apology. Already limping, he couldn't ask the mare to carry his weight. He picked up the loose reins and began walking in what he hoped was the direction of the station.

**********

Buck knew he was pressing his luck. This was the second accident he had been involved in since Ike's death a month before. The earlier incident had not been serious either, but he had promised Teaspoon that he would be more careful. Teaspoon's brief lecture reminded him that Pony Express horses were valuable and needed to be handled with care to avoid a costly injury. Teaspoon had, also, tried to impress upon him that he was more concerned about injury to the rider, but that point seemed to be lost on Buck.

Ike's death had been taken hard by everyone at the station, but after a brief time the others seemed ready to put their grief aside and go forward. Buck simply could not. He did try. But in the tug between the past that he and Ike had shared and the solitary existence that loomed in front of him now, how could he help but be pulled back to the past?

They had been so close it seemed that they were almost an extension of each other and now that Ike was gone, Buck felt as if he was no longer whole. Teaspoon, Rachel and the other riders had urged him to move on, but they didn't understand. How could he move on when pieces of him were missing? Would they expect a two legged man to suddenly be able to run on only one?

It ate at him that the others were able to get over Ike's death so quickly, though he kept that thought to himself. Certainly, none of them had the same bond that he had with Ike, but still, they had lived together and trusted their lives to each other for a year. Didn't Ike deserve more than a week or two of long faces?

Adding to that, Teaspoon's words of warning that someday what he had done to Neville would catch up with him kept Buck looking at the line he had crossed. He had been in such a state of shock at the time he really hadn't consciously planned to kill Neville. He didn't remember coming back to town that morning. But suddenly he had found himself waiting in the street for Neville and when the man appeared, he had just done what seemed right. It didn't seem like crossing some ominous line and he certainly couldn't put "murder" to it, though he had overheard that word bandied about town. He owed it to Ike and he did not feel the slightest bit guilty for what he had done. Ike would have done the same for him. Still, on the slate that held his beliefs, it was written that killing an unarmed man was wrong. That was the quandary. He should feel something. Buck felt guilty for not feeling guilty.

**********

"Cody! If you ain't gonna watch what you're doin' then give me the hammer!" cried Kid, quickly moving his hand to avoid Cody's misdirected aim. Cody was clearly more interested in Miss Lizzy Jackson's coquettish smile from across the street than carpentry.

Rachel had instructed the two riders to replace a rotting board on the bunkhouse porch steps. The task seemed simple enough until Cody took hold of the hammer and the lovely Lizzy took hold of Cody.

"Ain't she somethin?" Cody thought aloud as Lizzy daintily stepped off the boardwalk and into the street. She raised her skirt to reveal a little more ankle than a proper young lady should before casting him a final glance and turning away.

"Cody."

"Did you say somethin', Kid?" said Cody, his attention clearly fixed on the sway of Lizzy's hips beneath her blue cotton skirt.

"Cody! Can we finish this please before you drool all over yourself?"

"Sure, Kid, you can finish it yourself. If you don't need my help, I'll be goin' now," said Cody handing Kid the hammer.

Kid stood and shook his head in exasperation. Cody had a way of getting out of almost any chore around the station. Kid started to make mention of the fact, then thought better of it. He'd finish faster, with his appendages intact, on his own. He stepped aside to let the infatuated rider pass, but grabbed Cody's arm to stop him as a solitary figure leading a limping horse toward the station caught his eye.

"Cody, better get Teaspoon while you're chasin' Lizzy. Looks like Buck had trouble again."

**********

"Well, don't appear to be too serious," announced Teaspoon after a thorough examination of the mare's leg. "Kid, bring me a bottle of that liniment over there," he said, pointing in the direction of a shelf, lined with a variety of glass bottles, on the wall of the barn.

"Be good as new in no time," the station manager predicted after applying a liberal amount of the foul smelling cure to the animal's leg. "Now, what about you, Buck? Teaspoon asked, addressing the rather haggard looking rider. "You sure you're alright?"

"I'm alright," Buck answered quietly from where he stood outside the mare's stall.

Teaspoon looked at Buck with skepticism. "Appear to be favorin' that shoulder."

"She rolled on it when we went down. It's just sore," he said and slumped down on a hay bale.

"Kid, you head on in to supper. Tell Rachel we'll be along in a few minutes," instructed Teaspoon.

Kid looked from Teaspoon to Buck and back again. "Teaspoon…" Kid began. "It was just an accident. Any one of us…"

"Go on, Kid," the older man repeated. "We'll be there directly."

After Kid left the barn, Teaspoon moved from the mare's stall to a position directly in front of the hay bale where Buck sat. "What happened, son?"

Buck drew a deep breath before he spoke. Without looking up he answered, "I wasn't paying attention, I guess. I'm sorry about the horse."

"Buck, it ain't the horse I'm concerned about. I can replace a horse if need be. It's you I'm worried about. Next time you might not be so lucky as to come out of it with only a sore shoulder." He waited for a response that wasn't coming.

"Look at me, Buck."

The younger man slowly raised his head, his eyes barely meeting Teaspoon's gaze. Dark circles showed under his eyes. He had lost weight since Ike died and it showed in his face. His entire bearing had changed. His eyes were always downcast and his shoulders slumped forward as if his grief was a physical thing weighing him down. His mood swings had become famous among the other riders and Teaspoon was at his wits end just trying to keep up.

Teaspoon Hunter had seen a great deal of death in his time, enough to feel intimately acquainted with it. On occasion, when his bones ached and he felt his age, he would remember - usually with a bottle of something strong nearby - those that had passed on. Some he could see quite clearly, while others had blurred with time. Others, like the ones back in south Texas, he had hidden in the deepest places of his memory and swore he would never look at again, even though he knew that for a lie. He'd seen men die for any number of reasons, for gallantry, for their own stupidity (which he had found to be most often the case) or for no good reason at all. Others, like Ike, had simply been caught in a turn of fate. But over the years Teaspoon had discovered that when death came, it really wasn't all that particular if it collected the wrong one. So it was that Ike was gone and all his possibilities with him. Perhaps because Teaspoon knew grief well, when it came this time, he was able meet it quietly and put Ike's memory away in a soft place. Maybe that was too much to expect from one as young as Buck. One thing that Teaspoon was certain of though, was that grief was a hard thing to shape. It took different forms and changed at will, but in bearing it, grief would mold a man into something stronger than he had been before. It took time, but time will pass if you let it.

"You sleepin' any, son?" Teaspoon asked.

Buck turned his head away. He simply shrugged his shoulders and replied quietly, "A little."

"You think some time off would help? Take a few days, go to St. Jo maybe. Hear they got a new hotel there that's real nice," said Teaspoon. "Might be good to get away for a bit."

"I'll think about it, Teaspoon," Buck answered, his voice empty, his eyes downcast again.

Teaspoon sighed heavily. Yes, this was going to take some time. He reached across the space between them and placed his hands on Buck's shoulders. "It's gonna get better, son," he said. "I promise you it is."

**********

"C'mon, Buck. I haven't won any of your money for a while," said Cody as he shuffled the deck and began flipping cards across the bunkhouse table to Kid and Jimmy. Three would suffice, but a fourth would raise the stakes and higher stakes were always better.

Buck simply shook his head and went to lie down on his bunk.

"Suit yourself," said Cody. "Might do you good to have some fun, though."

Buck screwed up his face at the comment and if he hadn't been as tired as he was, he might have told Cody what he thought of his advice. Then again, maybe not. His shoulder hurt and he wanted to rest, though his mind wasn't set for sleep. Lately sleep had to be coaxed. He turned his back to the poker game, distancing himself a bit further.

The poker table grew lively with Cody's inflated accounting of Lizzy Jackson's obvious affections for him. Kid and Jimmy tossed back enough good natured jabs to keep the conversation light and the laughter easy. The sound set Buck on a hard edge. It was as if they had forgotten Ike altogether and how could they when so much of him was still there? The lack of him was just as real, just as solid, as if he was standing there. Buck couldn't help but wonder if something were to happen to him, too, would he be forgotten just as easily?

Unable to listen to their banter any longer, Buck rose from his bed, walked across the bunkhouse and out the door without a word. The door closed a little harder than necessary behind him.

"When is he gonna get over this?" asked Jimmy. "He's been mopin' around her for a month."

"Go easy on him, Jimmy," said Kid, collecting his freshly dealt cards. "He knew Ike a lot longer than we did. They go back a long way."

"I understand that, but still. There comes a time to put it behind you and go on," Jimmy insisted.

"Ain't so easy as that sometimes, Jimmy," said Teaspoon from the far end of the table. "Grief turns loose when it's good and ready. He'll come around. Needs a little more time is all."

"Well, I hope it's soon," said Rachel. The supper dishes finished, she wiped her wet hands on her apron. "He's gonna make himself sick over this." Rachel glanced through the window at the lonely figure on the porchsteps. "I thought I was gonna drown in my sorrow after Henry died," she added thoughtfully. "But it got better. I'm gonna talk to him."

Buck knew it was Rachel by the sound of her footsteps. She gathered her skirt around her and took a seat beside him on the step. Rachel closed her eyes and took a deep breath of the night air before beginning.

"Beautiful night, isn't it?" Spring has always been my favorite of the seasons. You can almost see the grass turnin' green again and the trees buddin' out. Everything comes back to life."

Everything comes back to life. No, Rachel, Buck said to himself. Not everything comes back to life.

They sat in silence for a time, then Rachel began again. "Buck, I know how hard it is to lose someone you love. I thought my life was over when I lost my husband, but it does get easier. I truly believe it helps to talk about it."

"I can't, Rachel."

"Why not?" she countered. " I'm sure it would help."

Buck didn't answer right away, knowing she wouldn't understand. "It's the Kiowa belief that if you talk openly of the dead… if you say their name… it will disturb their rest."

Rachel considered his answer for a moment, then turned it back on him. "Do you really think Ike is restin' easy watchin' you torment yourself? That doesn't make any sense, Buck. You can say his name if you want to."

The criticism was unexpected and hit him hard. Ever since Cody had tampered with his medicine pouch, there had been a silent agreement of sorts that his beliefs were not to be questioned. Why should his beliefs be taken less seriously than hers?

"I think it would help if you tried to think about the good times, if you remember…"

Buck knew Rachel was talking, but the words were merely a buzzing in his ears, like a fly come to bother. They were all so quick with an opinion. So damn well intentioned.

"…and I'll make an apple pie. I think there are still some in the cellar. I know it's your favorite."

"What?" Buck asked, wondering how in the world the conversation had swerved from criticizing his religion to his favorite dessert.

"You need to eat something or you're gonna wither away. I said I'll make an apple pie tomorrow since it's your favorite," Rachel repeated as she rose to her feet and headed back to the bunkhouse.

Buck slowly leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, supporting his head in his hands. The best thing that ever happened to him was gone and it should not have happened. He was angry at the others for not understanding and angry at Ike for dying and leaving him alone. No. Ike didn't just die. Ike got himself killed. There was a difference. His death had torn Buck's heart in two and no amount of time off, or poker games, or apple pies was going to make it whole again.

Chapter 2

Kid and Jimmy stood in front of the bunkhouse squinting against the afternoon sun and frowning.

"Rider comin'," Jimmy announced, disappointed, as Noah's figure came into view against the horizon.

Cody emerged from the barn, leading his horse and joined the two riders waiting for Noah.

"You know boys, I could be persuaded to let one of you take this run," he said. Cody flashed a grin before adding, "if the price was right."

"Get goin', Cody," Kid said as Noah grew closer. Cody swung himself into the saddle, took the handoff from Noah, and spurred his horse into a gallop. The sound of his laughter floated back to the remaining riders. Noah dismounted, weary after the long ride and brushed the trail dust from his clothes.

"So how was your ride?" Jimmy asked, though the tone of voice didn't express much actual interest in Noah's answer.

"Same as always. Long and dirty."

"Couldn't you have taken a little longer?" asked Kid.

"I'm right on time." Confused, Noah asked, "You wanted me to be late?"

Kid and Jimmy nodded.

"Why?"

"'Cause Rachel wants to start spring cleanin' soon as you get back," Jimmy explained, causing Noah's expression to turn as bleak as his own.

**********

"Rachel, gimme one good reason why we need to do this," demanded Jimmy, his arms folded defiantly across his chest.

"Because I said so," answered Rachel, "and if you want supper tonight, you best get a move on!"

"But Rachel, we've moved the bunks three times already. What was wrong with where they were?" pleaded Noah.

"It's just so crowded I thought you all might appreciate a little more room."

Rachel was right, the bunkhouse was crowded. Seven bunks, an assortment of boxes and trunks, and a variety of miscellaneous belongings didn't leave much space.

She surveyed the room, a new plan talking shape. Thinking aloud she said, "We can scoot these bunks over a bit and these two a little further this direction if we turn them this way and move Ike's trunk. Yes. I think it'll work."

Rachel smiled her approval at the new arrangement as the three weary riders collapsed on the repositioned bunks after sweeping, mopping and dusting the cobwebs from the corners of the room.

"Are we done now, Boss?" Jimmy asked.

"Nope, not yet. Still need to move Ike's trunk."

Noah, Jimmy and Kid look at each other and let out a collective heavy sigh before rolling off their beds and gathering around the large trunk.

"What are we gonna do with it, Rachel?" Kid questioned.

"Well, it was important to Ike, so I think that should be left to Buck to decide. But not right now. I think we should just put it up in the hayloft. It won't be damaged up there. Buck can decide what to do with it when he's ready."

The three boys looked at each other.

"Yes, Boss. Anything you say, Boss," said Jimmy.

"Good and please be careful with it. You finish up and I'll go start supper. I promised Buck that pie," Rachel remembered as she left the room.

"Pie?" Noah questioned. "Why does Buck get pie?"

Kid and Jimmy shrugged and turned their attention to the trunk.

Ike had been given the big camelback trunk by an elderly couple he had befriended in Sweetwater. He had found the couple's dog while on his way home from a run, battered and bloody fighting with a wild dog. Ike recognized the animal; he had seen it with the couple in town. So in true Ike form, he had broken up the fight and returned the animal to his family. A friendship easily developed between Ike and the elderly couple and when their health began to fail and they moved closer to family, they gave Ike the trunk. It was big and heavy, too heavy for the frail old gentleman to move. The trunk was a possession Ike took great pride in and he insisted they haul it to Rock Creek when the riders moved to the new station.

"How are we gonna get this big old thing in the hayloft?" Noah asked, raising up one side of the trunk to estimate its weight.

"Well, I'm damn sure not carryin' it up the ladder," Jimmy stated emphatically. "I wasn't real happy 'bout movin' it here the first time."

Kid thought for a moment. "We can carry it out to the porch and back the wagon up to the steps. Then lift in on the wagon," eyeing Jimmy he added, "it ain't that heavy. Then we can move the wagon under the opening in the loft and use the pulley to raise it up there."

"Oughta work," agreed Noah. "Probably how all that other stuff got up there."

"I'll hitch up the wagon," Jimmy grumbled.

Kid's plan worked smoothly and soon the trunk was ready to be raised into the loft. Leather straps were fastened around it and attached to a large hook used to haul feed, tack and other equipment to the top storage area of the barn. A rope was attached to the hook and drawn across the pulley in the opening hanging down the other side to the ground. Kid and Jimmy stayed on the ground while Noah climbed into the loft, ready to pull the trunk into the barn once Jimmy and Kid raised it to the proper height.

"So where is everybody?" Noah asked, raising his voice loud enough for his two friends below to hear.

"Well, Lou ain't back from Seneca yet, Cody just left, and Buck banged up his shoulder yesterday so Teaspoon's lettin' him take it easy today. That leaves us," answered Kid as he and Jimmy began pulling on the rope.

"So is Buck hurt bad?" Noah asked, watching the trunk move into the air.

"Didn't look like it to me," Jimmy answered. "Wouldn't take much to push around a dust rag anyway."

"Then where is he?" Noah questioned, grabbing the rope to help guide the trunk toward the opening with one hand, holding onto the barn wall to prevent himself from tumbling out the opening with the other.

"Don't know," answered Jimmy, straining on the rope. "Ain't my day to watch him."

**********

Buck spent the morning grooming the horses. With warmer weather coming on, they were losing their winter coats and in need of a good brushing. Although the Appaloosa was putting a little weight on her injured leg, and there was very little swelling, he still felt guilty about her injury and brushed her twice. Ike's horse received special attention, too, just because he was Ike's horse.

The animal hadn't been ridden much since Ike's passing and needed exercise. He had a lonely look in his eyes that perhaps only Buck could recognize. It matched his own. He led the animal from its stall and mounted bareback, using a bale of hay to help him, as his shoulder was still too sore to simply swing onto the horse's back. The horse seemed grateful to be released from the confines of his stall, and after overcoming some initial stiffness, ran easily across the prairie.

As Rachel had reminded him the evening before, spring had definitely arrived. The landscape had changed from barren to lush almost overnight. Wildflowers burst from the ground, their bright blossoms opening wide as if suddenly awakened from a long sleep. The birds heralded the advent of warmer days with a medley of song. New life appeared everywhere.

Ike loved springtime. He found pleasure in the smallest details of the season. A blue robin's egg held as much fascination as the earthworms that appeared after a thunderstorm. That was Ike's way.

In contrast, Buck hated spring. He found comfort instead in the long, cold winter months. He even enjoyed a good blizzard. Winter was a difficult time for the Plains Indians. All thoughts and energies were directed toward survival. No one had time to abuse the village half-breed in the winter. It had been the only time Buck found any peace. To him, spring had always meant that the old cycle returned. It was a line of thinking that was too deeply ingrained to change.

Though the scenery brought Buck no comfort, the ride itself did. He enjoyed riding with no bridle or saddle. Riding bareback allowed him to feel the movement and power of the horse beneath him. A saddle didn't allow that kind of closeness with the animal. Without a bridle and bit to guide the horse's direction other means of communication had to be developed, means which required much greater skill. Red Bear had taught him to ride in that way and the memory tugged at his heart a little.

He missed Red Bear deeply, especially now that his other brother was gone. Moving from Sweetwater to Rock Creek had been difficult for him. Although he had not seen Red Bear since Ike was taken captive, it was comforting to know he was close by. Now he was many miles away. The distance had not seemed so great before Ike died.

**********

"I think it looks right nice, Rachel," commented Teaspoon, nodding his head in approval of the cleaned and rearranged bunkhouse. "Clean, too. See if you boys can keep it that way."

"We ain't doin' this again no time soon," Jimmy grumbled. "Supposed to be Express riders not housekeepers."

"Well, you don't need to live in a pigsty and since the mess was your own, why shouldn't you clean it up?" Teaspoon asked.

All heads turned toward the sound of the bunkhouse door opening.

"Nice timin', Buck," Noah said. 'You come home now that we're done."

"Why did you change it?" Buck asked, eyeing the rearranged room with suspicion.

"The place needed a good cleaning," Rachel answered, brushing away a loose strand of hair from her face. "And with the bunks turned around like this you all have a little more room."

Buck's eyes continued to wander. "Where is it?"

"Where's what?" Rachel asked.

"The trunk."

"Oh, I had the boys move it out to the hayloft."

Buck's jaw dropped at Rachel's answer. "You put it in the barn? He's barely gone and you throw out his things!" Buck searched the faces of his friends. Couldn't they see this was wrong?

"Buck, that's not…"

Buck turned quickly, cutting Rachel off before she had a chance to finish and headed out of the bunkhouse toward the barn, slamming the door on the way. Rachel started after him, but Teaspoon grabbed her arm. "Let him go, Rachel."

"Teaspoon, I need to apologize to him," she said. "I never thought he would see it that way."

"You had no way of knowin'."

"I should have, though. Now I've really gone and done it. I just wanted to make it more comfortable for everyone. I never meant to hurt him."

"I understand that," Teaspoon reassured her. "He thinks about it for more than half a second and he will, too."

**********

The loft was a contrast of light and shadow. Dependent on the time of day, sunlight spilled through either the front or rear opening, drawing a bright box on the weathered floorboards. But shadows hung under the eaves and in the cobwebbed corners where light never reached no matter how hard it stretched. Into one such corner, near the front opening of the loft, the past residents of the station had deposited what they no longer had use for. Leaned into the corner was a selection of wagon wheels, one or more spokes broken. A doubletree harness hung lop-sided from a hook in the barn wall and a metal bedstead lay across the floor, pitted and pock marked with rust. Pieces and parts of implements and furniture lay littered through the pile. At the edge of this graveyard of broken and forgotten miscellany, Ike's trunk now rested.

Buck knelt on the floor of the loft in front of the trunk and ran his hands over the smooth wood contours of the camelback before slowly raising the lid. The trunk was large enough to hold a man inside. For a fleeting moment Buck considered simply locking himself away with Ike's belongings, but quickly scolded himself for such a childish thought.

After Ike died, Rachel packed his everyday items in the trunk. Buck sifted through the articles of clothing, sketch pads and pencils until he found the items he sought, tucked safely away in a corner of the trunk.

One by one, Buck removed the items and laid them across the floor - Ike's family Bible, the book "The Littlest Cowboy" and a pencil sketch Ike had drawn of himself.

The barn creaked a bit in its old age, but loomed strong and solid overhead. It smelled of animals and the mustiness of grain, the mildewed dampness of the shadows. A sanctuary stillness wove through the building's old bones and Buck found something oddly comforting in the mingling of it all. He sat for a moment in the quiet, then picked up the Bible and let it fall open in his hands. "Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes," he read as he thumbed through the pages, recognizing the words from years at the Catholic orphanage. He continued turning pages until he found the one he wanted. The McSwain family registry, printed on the page in the form of a tree.

Buck read the names, birth dates and dates of death of Ike's grandparents, parents and sister. After a few moments he allowed himself to look at Ike's name, birthdate and, in his own handwriting, the date Ike died. He slowly ran his finger over the name. Kiowa custom prohibited him from speaking the name of the dead, but he knew no rule against thinking it.

**********

Running behind after the trunk altercation, Rachel hurriedly finished setting the table. Kid, Noah and Jimmy were already seated, tucking napkins into their collars.

"Kid, would you call Buck, please. Maybe if you ask him he'll come in. I don't think he'll listen to me," Rachel asked.

"Sure, Rachel," Kid replied, placing his napkin back on the table.

"Thank you, Kid. And you boys really should move the wagon back into the barn."

"Since we gotta pick up that load of grain in the morning, we thought we'd just leave it out," Kid explained.

"Well, I suppose it's alright," Rachel said, looking out the window. "But by the color of those clouds rollin' in, I think a storm's comin'."

"Suppose you're right," Kid conceded. "We'll put it in the barn after supper."

Kid walked across the yard to the barn and called out to Buck. "Supper's ready, Buck. Come down, alright?"

Buck placed Ike's self portrait on the floor and walked to the opening in the loft. "Not hungry, Kid."

Kid sighed heavily. He had lost his own flesh and blood brother and not grieved as hard as Buck. He turned toward the bunkhouse and shrugged his shoulders at Rachel, waiting expectantly on the porch, to indicate that Buck wasn't coming.

Kid noticed a change in the air. Rachel was right, a storm was brewing. The wind had picked up and was now blowing from a different direction.

The pages of Ike's Bible began to flip, moved by some invisible hand, as a strong gust of wind blew in the rear opening, through the tunnel of the loft, and out the front. Alerted by the sound of the Bible pages whipping in the wind, Buck turned to see Ike's drawing skitter across the floor and become airborne as it reached the opening in the loft. Panicked into carelessness, Buck quickly reached out with his left hand to grab the keepsake as it flew past, grabbing hard onto the barn wall with his right. A sharp pain in his injured shoulder caused him to flinch and lose his grip. He tried to steady himself, but was pitched too far forward.

From the porch, Rachel watched in horror as Buck lost his balance and fell from the loft, his body landing across the sideboard of the wagon below, before tumbling onto the ground. Kid stopped short as the sickening thud reached his ears. He spun around as Buck cried out in pain, then found his feet and ran to his friend, reaching him just as the sky opened and the rain came. Kid knelt over Buck trying to shield him from the cloudburst. Buck lay beneath him curled in a tight ball, his face twisted in pain, struggling to regain the air that had been knocked from him by the impact of the fall. One hand clutched at his broken chest, Ike's self-portrait firmly clenched in the other.

**********

The gray haired physician, Doc Barnes, closed his bag and walked into the kitchen area from the small room off the bunkhouse to address the worried faces gathered there.

"Is he alright, Doc?" Rachel asked.

"Well, I don't reckon he'd believe it right now, but he's mighty lucky. Broke a couple, maybe three ribs. Hard to tell. But. . . he could have hit his head on that wagon. A skull fracture doesn't heal as easy as broken ribs. Could have easily broke his back, too, if he'd landed differently."

"So, he'll be alright?" Noah questioned impatiently.

The doctor nodded. "Providing there's nothing damaged inside. I don't detect any, aside from some bad bruising, but won't know for sure for a couple of days." Turning to Rachel and Teaspoon he continued. "You need to keep him down for a while, just 'til I'm sure nothing else is wrong."

Teaspoon nodded. "I'll see you out, Doc. You boys best get back to your supper. Reckon it's pretty cold by now, though."

The station manager followed Doc Barnes onto the porch where they stood watching the rain. "Looks like you're gonna get wet, Doc. Put this on our bill, will you?"

"I'll say one thing for your bunch, Marshal. They keep me in business. Never would have expected an accident like this from that one, though."

"Well, Buck ain't exactly been himself lately."

"Still takin' the mute boy's death hard?" Doc Barnes asked, opening his umbrella.

"Mighty hard."

"I left a bottle of laudanum with him. Don't be bashful about using it. He's in a lot of pain. Won't sleep tonight without it."

Shaking his head Teaspoon replied, "He won't take it Doc. Tried once before when he got horse kicked back in Sweetwater."

"Then pour it down his throat. Looks like he could use a good night sleep. Honestly, looks like he could use more than one."

Doc Barnes turned back to Teaspoon as he stepped into the rain. "He starts coughin' up blood or the pain becomes markedly worse, I need to know. Otherwise I'll be back tomorrow afternoon."

Rachel and the boys were seated around the table and, although she had offered to warm it up, no one seemed very interested in supper.

"Did Doc say anything else?" Rachel asked anxiously as Teaspoon entered the bunkhouse.

"Can we see him, Teaspoon?" Kid asked. Noah and Jimmy's faces echoed the question.

"No Rachel, not much else and sorry boys, not tonight. Doc said he's hurtin' awful bad. Let him get some rest first. Doc left some medicine for him, it should help."

Teaspoon walked into the spare room and sighed heavily at the sight of his young Indian rider propped up in the bed by a mound of pillows. His ribs were wrapped tightly in heavy bandages, a huge purple bruise, partially hidden by the bandage, ran across his chest and into his shoulder area. The boy was awfully pale.

At the sound of Teaspoon's footsteps, Buck opened his eyes. Their glazed expression, his tightly set jaw, and his grip around a wad of the bed sheet assured Teaspoon that the doctor had not underestimated the amount of pain he was in. Teaspoon took a seat on the chair near the bed and reached forward to push a stray strand of hair from Buck's face.

"I'm sorry," Buck mumbled.

"Ain't nothin' to be sorry 'bout, son. Accidents happen. Though you are having more than your fair share lately."

Teaspoon settled back into the chair. "You're gonna be laid up for a while is all."

"The others are already upset with me," Buck muttered through gritted teeth. "Don't think I'm doin' my share."

"Well, I doubt that, Buck, but even if you're right, I ain't real worried 'bout it now. I'll get one of the local boys to fill in if need be."

Teaspoon picked up the bottle of laudanum from the bedside table and removed the stopper.

"I know you've got somethin' against it, Buck, but I want you to take some of this," Teaspoon said, pouring a bit of the dark colored liquid into a glass on the table. "I know you're hurtin' and there ain't no need to be."

Buck didn't like the white man's medicine. The nuns at the orphanage had believed whole heartedly in the ability of quinine to stave off any childhood malady. It had been dispensed with vigor and regularity and Buck hated it. To a young Indian, new to the white world, the spoonful of quinine forced between his teeth had seemed more of a punishment than a preventative. He preferred to use remembered Kiowa medicine when necessary, but that wasn't possible right now. The pain was bad and the more he struggled against it the worse it became.

After a moment, to Teaspoon's relief, Buck nodded in agreement.

"Well, you've made a liar out of me, Buck. I was expectin' you to put up a fight. At least a quarrel."

"Don't feel like fighting," Buck mumbled. "It hurts."

"It'll be better soon," Teaspoon said and held the glass to Buck's lips. Buck turned his head in disgust.

"Smells terrible."

"I know, and as I recall, it ain't gonna win no taste test neither. But it will do the trick."

Buck reluctantly drank the bitter liquid, swallowing it as fast as he could to rid himself of the taste. Teaspoon stayed with him until he saw his grip on the bed sheet loosen and his muscles begin to relax.

"Sleep well, son. I'll check on you later," he said quietly before turning down the lamp to a faint glow and leaving the room.

Buck lay quietly as the drug began to take effect, listening to the pattering of rain against the window, watching shadows play in the flicker of the lamplight. An unexpected warmth began to spread over him, dancing across broken bones, soothing aching muscles.

Slowly Buck drifted into a calm, relaxed state unlike any he had ever felt as the opium mixture did its work. The pain fading, he held his hands in front of him in the dim light, certain that he could see the strange liquid pulsing through his veins, seeking out the hurt inside him with a promise of comfort.

Chapter 3

Rachel pushed back the curtains and raised the window. She propped it open with a piece of wood, trying to make as little noise as possible. The late morning sunshine lit the dark room and the thin cotton curtains fluttered in the breeze. The rain of the night before had created a quagmire of the streets of Rock Creek, but had washed the dust away and the air smelled clean.

"That's better," Rachel said to herself as she tip-toed across the room. She stopped at the side of the bed and gently tucked the thin blanket around Buck before slipping out of the room. Closing the door behind her, Rachel wondered why she was trying to be so quiet. Buck wanted her to think he was asleep, but she knew better. He would have been much more relaxed had he really been resting. He was only pretending to be asleep so he wouldn't have to talk to her. Obviously, he was still upset with her about Ike's trunk.

Rachel was upset with herself, too. If she hadn't insisted on rearranging the bunkhouse and moving Ike's trunk, Buck would not have been in the hayloft and the bizarre accident would never have happened. Rachel wanted to make amends, but Buck evidently wasn't ready to give her the chance.

Once he was certain Rachel had left the room, Buck opened his eyes. He felt a brief pang of guilt for trying to deceive her, but he didn't want to talk about what happened. He just didn't feel like it. The pain in his chest wasn't as bad as the night before, but it still hurt a great deal. As long as he remained still and took shallow, controlled breaths it was bearable.

He remembered waking once in the night, trying to suppress a scream as pain shot through him. He had evidently tried to change position and the pain had torn through the veil of sleep. Or maybe he did scream. He really couldn't remember. Teaspoon had been right there with a heavy dose of the sleep inducing medicine, and it worked quickly, but the laudanum brought a heavy, unnatural sleep. He had awakened in the morning with an odd feeling, as if he was trying to surface from very deep water.

Buck had grown accustomed to waking in the night, choking back the urge to scream. His dreams ranged from bizarre to bloody and caused as much torment as the broken bones. But, the laudanum had eased the pain and held the dreams at bay. He didn't like the foggy, confused feeling, but a little peace, it seemed, came with a price.

**********

Kid raised his hand, shielding his face from the flying mud as Jimmy's palamino leapt through the muck covering the station yard.

"Ride safe, Jimmy!" Kid yelled after him, then broke into a wide grin at the sight of the incoming rider.

"Hey, good lookin'," he called to Lou as she reined Lightning to a halt and slid from his back.

"You need glasses, Kid. I'm a mess," Lou exclaimed, jumping over a puddle that lay between them.

"Don't care," Kid answered. He glanced quickly around the yard to make sure no one was watching before he wrapped his arms around her. "Glad you're home. I was worried 'bout you last night in the storm."

"Got lucky. I made it to Willow Springs and got a room at the hotel before it hit," she answered. "This is Buck's run, why is Jimmy taking it?"

Lou listened intently as Kid explained the events of the day before. Her jaw fell as he described their friend's accident.

"He did what?" Lou exclaimed.

"Rachel saw him fall. She's pretty shook up about it. Blamin' herself for movin' Ike's things up there."

"Well, it ain't her fault," Lou said. "Will you rub down Lightning for me while I get cleaned up?"

"Sure," Kid answered. He grinned playfully. "Long as you meet me in his stall later."

Lou smiled as she watched Kid lead her horse to the barn. Ike's death had some how strengthened her relationship with Kid and she wondered how something so good could come from something so bad. They both still missed Ike terribly, but the overpowering grief of his death had passed. They talked of their belief in heaven and were both certain it was an even better place for Ike being there. The tears still occasionally came. Losing Ike hurt and would for some time, but they had come to accept his death. Lou prayed Buck could soon do the same.

**********

Lou clutched her clean shirt to her chest at the sound of the bunkhouse door opening.

"It's just me, Lou," Rachel said, placing a fresh load of laundry on the table. "Sorry I barged in. I didn't know you were back."

Lou finished dressing and turned to watch Rachel absently misfolding a bed sheet. It was evident that Rachel's mind was not on the laundry.

"Let me help," Lou offered, grabbing the loose end of the sheet.

"Kid told me what happened, Rachel. It ain't your fault. Buck's just real sensitive about things right now."

"I should have realized it was too early to move Ike's things," Rachel admitted.

"I think I can understand how he felt," Lou said thoughtfully. "It might be too early." After thinking for a moment she added, "But who's to say when it's the right time? Buck will be fine. You'll see."

"Still, I'd feel better if he'd let me apologize," Rachel said, taking the folded sheet from Lou.

"I'll talk to him," Lou offered. "Is he asleep?"

"No. He's been playin' possum all morning so he doesn't have to talk to me," Rachel said as Lou headed toward Buck's room. "Maybe you can cheer him up. See if you can get him to take some more laudanum. I imagine he needs another dose by now."

Buck stole a glance at his visitor when the door creaked open. He was relieved it was Lou. If anyone came close to understanding how he felt, it was her. He had seen the tears as her eyes fell upon the empty place at the supper table. He was certain Lou still grieved.

"So, how are you feelin'?" Lou asked as she sat on the edge of the bed, creating just enough motion to cause Buck to wince in pain.

"I'm alright. Just tired," he answered after the pain subsided.

Lou picked up Ike's drawing from the bedside table and smiled softly at Ike's interpretation of himself. She had not seen this one before.

"I'm glad you saved it," she began, "but you could have been hurt real bad. You gotta be more careful, alright?"

"Is it ruined?"

"No. Just a little crumpled is all." Lou placed the drawing back on the table. She pressed her hands over the creases, smoothing them as best she could, then reached for the bottle of laudanum. "Rachel said you need to take some more medicine."

"I don't want it, Lou. It makes me feel strange."

"Strange in what way?" Lou asked, turning the bottle around in her hands to examine it more closely.

"It's hard to explain. Sleepy mostly and so numb that I don't feel anything," Buck answered.

Lou looked at her friend and smiled. "Now let me make sure I understand. You need to rest and it makes you sleepy. You hurt and it takes the pain away. Why is that bad?" Brushing his hair away from his face she added, "C'mon Buck. It's just medicine."

"Tell you what," Lou went on. "You take some of this and stop givin' Rachel the silent treatment and after supper tonight I'll find some books to press the wrinkles out of Ike's picture. Deal?"

Lou poured what she thought was enough laudanum into a glass, and then added just a bit more for good measure.

"Drink it," she commanded, handing the glass to him. She took a whiff from the open bottle and wrinkled her nose. "Does it taste as bad as it smells?"

"Worse," Buck mumbled, resting his head back against the pillows to wait for the numbness to take over. "Try some for yourself."

"Don't need to," Lou teased. She leaned forward and placed a kiss on her friend's forehead. "I'm not the one who fell out of the barn."

**********

"Any supper left Rachel?" Teaspoon asked hopefully. "Where is everybody anyway? It's quiet as a tomb in here."

"There's plenty left," Rachel answered. "Not many to feed tonight. Noah took that short run to Blue Mound this afternoon and Kid and Lou are . . . are busy."

Teaspoon chuckled and sat down at the table. "Busy, eh? So that's what they call it these days."

"You're late tonight," Rachel remarked as she placed Teaspoon's supper on the table.

The Marshal threw his hat and coat on the bench and breathed an exaggerated sigh. "Barnett must be good for somethin', but I swear, I don't know what it is. Think I'd be better off without him. He couldn't even handle a simple bar room brawl tonight. Did Buck get along alright today?" he asked hopefully, shoveling in a mouthful of food.

"Oh, he slept most of the afternoon. Doc said he was doing fine, but needed to stay in bed another day. He ate a little supper and then dozed off again."

"Good," Teaspoon replied between bites. "He needs some rest. A body don't work right without it. Probably why he keeps having one accident after another. If he's in bed, he can't hurt himself."

**********

Buck reached out for Ike but something from behind pulled him away. He tried to fight whatever it was, but it was too strong. His struggle only increased the hold on him. Buck quickly turned to see who or what was preventing him from reaching his friend, but there was nothing there. Ike's ghostly pale face turned toward him. Disappointment sat deep in his eyes. Blood began to flow from the wound in his chest, soaking the bandages crimson. When the cloth could hold no more, the blood leaked onto the bed and dripped to the floor, forming a deep pool at Buck's feet. Ike slowly shook his head and began to fade away. Buck tried to call out, but found he couldn't speak. "I'm sorry!" he cried silently, frantically searching for his voice.

Buck bolted upright in bed, his heart racing, as Ike's body faded away just out of his reach. The dream was so real it took him a little while to remember he was in the spare room of the bunkhouse, not the doctor's office. Ike had been gone for a month, not just a moment.

His broken ribs reacted violently to the sudden movement and sent waves of pain throughout his chest to remind him they were there. He tried to take a deep breath to calm his pounding heart, but the tight bandage supporting the broken bones prevented it. Buck's jaw tightened as he slowly lowered himself back into the bed. His entire body hurt. Lying in the same position all day had caused a terrible backache and the bruised spots all seemed to be competing for attention. He didn't realize it was possible to hurt in so many different places. The doctor told him a good night sleep would help, but Ike's piercing stare seemed intent on not allowing it.

Buck thought he understood the dream, at least the first part of it. It was reminding him he had failed Ike. He failed him that day by not reaching him in time to stop his foolishness and he continued to fail Ike each night by not reaching him at all.

Buck had begged the spirits to release him from his dreams, but his pleas had gone unanswered. Each night before he closed his eyes to sleep, he silently recited chants remembered from his childhood. He held his medicine bundle tightly and prayed, but nothing changed. He seemed caught up in a circle that had no end and it was wearing him down.

He just wanted to sleep, to sleep hard with no dreams, not even good ones. How had something so simple become so difficult? If he closed his eyes again, Ike's haunting image, or something just as bad, would be there. As so many nights before, Buck decided not sleeping at all was preferable.

Wide awake in the dark room, he wished for a little company. He felt a twinge of jealousy as the soft sounds of snoring drifting through the bunkhouse confirmed that its occupants were asleep. So were Teaspoon, Rachel and everyone else in town. He wondered if they knew how lucky they were. How much he envied them. Depressed and lonely, he settled back against the pillows to wait for morning.

Buck had spent other such lonely nights sitting on the porch steps, watching the drunks stumble home from the saloon or the vagrant tomcats as they scavenged the alleyways. Other times he simply tracked the stars across the sky. It didn't make the long hours move by much quicker, but it was something to do. The night sky was cloudy and he couldn't see much of it through the window, anyway. He certainly couldn't get up. Even thinking about moving hurt. It was going to be a long night.

Once his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the room, Buck glanced around for anything that could help pass the time. A large stack of books sat on the table beside him, the edges of a piece of paper showing beneath them. "Lou remembered," he thought to himself. It was probably just as well that he couldn't look at Ike's drawing. The eyes would likely show as much disappointment in him as they had in his dream.

Buck reached for the glass of water on the table next to the books, clenching his teeth in the pain the movement caused. He started to drink, but recognized the smell. It was laudanum, not water. Lou or Rachel had evidently poured it for him while he slept. Disappointed, he started to return the glass to the table, then stopped as he remembered Teaspoon's words from the night before. "It will do the trick."

Teaspoon had been right. It took the pain away and he had rested without dreaming for the first time in weeks. When Lou had given it to him earlier in the day, the effects had been rather pleasant. Like sinking into warm water, without the worry of drowning.

It concerned him that he couldn't control the way the laudanum made him feel and self control was important to Buck. He remembered, though, the Kiowa Man of Dreams often used herbal drinks to bring visions and he accepted that practice without question. Maybe this wasn't so different.

"A little bit won't hurt," he thought to himself. He would rest and tomorrow would be better.

Buck drank about half the amount in the glass, surprised that the taste didn't bother him as much as before. "Must be gettin' used to it," he presumed.

He leaned into the pillows behind him, anxious for the drowsiness to come, but the feeling the laudanum caused was different than before. Rather than bringing sleep, the medicine made him strangely alert. He felt completely calm, but excited at the same time.

In the quiet of the night, he heard sounds. Incredible sounds. He heard a mouse run across the floor at the other end of the bunkhouse and knew which direction it went. He could hear Kid and Lou softly breathing in the next room and was able to distinguish the differences between them. He heard himself breathe and was fascinated by the rise and fall of his own chest. Tracing the outline of the bruise on his shoulder he noticed what an amazing color it was. The scar on his chest from the gash Red Bear inflicted on him was intriguing, too. It felt so different from the skin around it. How strange he had not noticed these things before.

A tiny light in the room caught his attention. He watched the firefly in amazement as it played hide and seek with him, appearing and disappearing. "How wonderful it would be to glow!" he mused and held his hands before him wondering if he could, too. To vanish and then appear somewhere else would be such a trick.

Buck pondered these marvels for a time until his eyes closed and his limbs grew too heavy to move. A warm, safe feeling wrapped around him, almost as if he was cradled by invisible arms. Lou was right, he conceded as he drifted to sleep. It's only medicine. How could it be bad?

Chapter 4

"Thanks, Lou," Emily said, accepting the cup of coffee.

Lou poured herself a cup and took a seat directly across from Emily at the table. Although Emily wasn't a beauty, her attractive, honest and open spirit more than made up for her lack of fancy clothes or the latest hairstyle. Unlike some of the other boys, Ike had been more attracted to the sincerity of a woman's smile than the amount of rouge on her lips. Emily had been perfect for Ike and Lou had liked her immediately.

"Where have you been?" Lou asked. "We've been worried about you."

"I know I should have written," Emily began, "but I just wasn't thinkin' clearly for a while."

Emily absently ran her finger around the rim of the coffee cup. "I guess losing my father and Ike so suddenly was too much to take and I just started wanderin'. I ended up in a hotel in Marietta, locked myself in the room and cried until I couldn't cry anymore."

Lou reached across the table and placed her hand on Emily's, giving it quick squeeze. Emily managed a brief smile. She had not made many friends in her life. Her father's drifting nature had made it impossible. They were never in one place long enough to get to know people. Emily had known Lou for a very short time, but felt that, given the chance, they could be good friends. Even if Ike had not told her Lou's secret, it would have been impossible for Emily not to see through her disguise. It surprised Emily that Lou had been able to continue her charade for so long. Lou was obviously a woman - a young woman in love. It was impossible for Emily to miss. It wasn't that long ago she had been a young woman in love, too.

"Are you alright now?"

"I'm better," Emily answered, mustering a little confidence. "I still miss them both so much. But … I can't change anything."

After a moment, her confidence wavering, she went on. "I just wanted you all to know that I really did love Ike and I feel terrible about what happened. I know it was only a short time and you may not think that I could love him so quickly, but…"

"You don't need to explain, Emily."

"I thought I would have Ike forever," Emily said wistfully. "We would get married, have a bunch of kids, live happily ever after. I guess it just wasn't meant to be."

"What are you going to do now?"

Emily drew a deep breath. "I've found a buyer for my father's place. I thought about runnin' it on my own, but it's just too much, so I'm goin' to Illinois. My mother's family is there."

"The boys and I would be happy to help out if you wanted to stay in Rock Creek," Lou offered.

"I know you would. But I don't want to be a burden." Emily smiled softly at her new friend. "I'm gonna try to get on with my life. My stage leaves in an hour. I just wanted to say good-bye before I left."

**********

Buck was relieved to finally be allowed out of bed. He had felt so odd the day before. The laudanum had caused him to awaken with the same groggy feeling, but it didn't last too long. To his relief, he found that he was able to move around a bit without the stabbing pains in his chest. They had been reduced to a dull, persistent ache assuring Doc Barnes that no worse injuries were present. But by mid-afternoon, he felt terrible. Kid had tried to offer some company, for which Buck was appreciative, but everything Kid said seemed to hit a nerve. Kid had finally given up and excused himself to get ready for his run. Out of boredom, Buck grabbed one of the books on the table next to him and tried to read, but the words wouldn't hold still. They seemed to jump around the page. He couldn't concentrate on them, anyway, with the constant ringing in his ears. It was the strangest feeling he had ever had, almost like everything in side of him was moving too fast. He felt nervous and jittery, but couldn't understand why. It was all just too much and he had finally reached for the bottle of laudanum as the quickest means of escape.

Moving was still painful so Buck didn't venture further than the barn, but it was good to breathe some fresh air. He spent some time watching the new foal that had arrived during the night as she struggled to gain her footing and take her first wobbly steps. Buck found himself smiling, in spite of himself, at her awkward attempts.

Though only mid-morning, he was beginning to tire and headed back to the bunkhouse to rest. His heart jumped into his throat as he opened the door and saw Emily and Lou at the table.

"What is she doing here?" he demanded, addressing Lou rather than Emily.

"Hello, Buck," Emily said, a bit uneasily. "Lou told me you were hurt. Are you feelin' better?"

"She has no right to be here."

"Buck, that was rude," Lou said. "Emily has every right to visit any time she wants. She's a friend."

Buck's expression turned from displeasure to outright anger as he noticed Ike's sketch pad on the table. "What are you doing with this?" he demanded, reaching between the two young women for the pad of paper.

"I found it in the trunk when I put Ike's things away the day after you fell. I thought it would be nice to hang up some of his drawings so we could all see them. Emily might want some of them, too," Lou answered.

"They aren't yours to give away, Lou. She gets Ike killed and now you want to give her his things?" Buck briskly walked across the bunkhouse and placed the sketch pad under his bunk.

Lou pushed her chair back to stand, but before she could get to her feet, Emily grabbed her arm. "It's alright, Lou." Turning toward Buck, Emily said, "I know you're angry, Buck. I loved him, too. I understand how you feel."

Buck advanced slowly toward Emily like a predator stalking its prey. His dark eyes smoldered. "You knew him for a week," he said, his voice low and menacing. "We were best friends since we were thirteen years old and now he's dead because of you. Don't you ever, EVER dare think you know how I feel."

Emily shrank into her chair and bowed her head, shielding her eyes with her hand. Lou simply stared at Buck, slack jawed.

Buck was surprised at his behavior, too. He never spoke like that, certainly not to a woman. He stood for a moment, clutching his injured chest, not quite knowing what to do. He finally turned away and left the bunkhouse.

After a moment, Emily looked up at Lou, tears of guilt and grief threatening to spill from her eyes. "I really did love Ike, Lou."

"I know you did, Emily. I know."

**********

Buck leaned back against the bunkhouse, his arms wrapped around his aching chest, as he tried to collect the fraying pieces of himself. How could Lou have done this? He thought she understood how he felt. She knew how painful losing Ike had been. Now she was sharing a cup of coffee and making small talk with the person responsible for his death. Giving Ike's belongings away as if a week long courtship gave Emily a claim to them.

He needed to get away. He glanced quickly around the station for a quiet place of escape and headed for the barn, then stopped abruptly as Rachel emerged from the house and also walked in that direction. He instead turned away from the station and headed into town.

He walked along the boardwalk, not really paying attention to where he was or where he was going. The noises of Rock Creek buzzed all around him, like a swarm of bees. Buck bumped into Nellie Wadkins as she left Thompkins store, upsetting her shopping basket. The contents spilled onto the boardwalk and out into the street. The elderly woman and Thompkins were both quick to take offense.

"Watch where you are going, young man!" the woman said.

"I'm sorry," Buck offered quietly as he knelt down to retrieve the spilled merchandise, grimacing at the pain the movement caused.

"Get on out of here, Cross, before I charge you for the damaged goods!" berated Thompkins. "And if you can't stay out of the way of decent white folk, then just stay away!"

Buck slowly rose to his feet, glaring at the storekeeper. There were so many things he wanted to say to that man. But not now. He held his tongue. He couldn't deal with Thompkins, Lou and Emily all at once. Buck turned away without another word and continued down the boardwalk, his chest aching, his anger and humiliation heating to a slow boil.

Lou and Emily's voices followed him down the street. He quickened his steps, but the words kept pace.

"She's a friend. She's a friend."

"I know how you feel. I know how you feel."

"No, you don't know how I feel," Buck said aloud, drawing a perplexed look from the couple he brushed against on the walk.

"Good to see you up and about, Buck," Doc Barnes said as Buck stopped to rest and catch his breath against a porch post in front of the open door of the physician's office. "Come in here a minute."

Buck turned to locate the source of the voice. Doc Barnes sat at his roll top desk in the waiting area of his office, taking a break from the stack of papers in front of him.

"What is it, Doc?" Buck asked, annoyed.

"Marshal Hunter stopped by earlier and asked me to check your bandages. He thought they might need to be adjusted now that you're up and movin' around," Doc explained.

"It's not a good time right now."

"Nonsense. It'll just take a minute," the doctor insisted, getting out of his chair. "Humor an old man, Buck. It will save me havin' to go to the station later."

"Doc…"

"C'mon, you're already here," he insisted, motioning for Buck to follow him.

Buck really wasn't in the mood for this, but he genuinely liked Doctor Barnes. He was one of the few people in Rock Creek who didn't care about his heritage. Perhaps it took a doctor to understand there was more to a person than skin color. Buck sighed and reluctantly followed the physician into his examining room.

"Take your shirt off and have a seat right there," the doctor ordered, pointing to his examination table. "Need some help?"

"I'll manage," Buck replied as he slowly complied with the doctor's request.

Buck looked around the room as Doc Barnes removed his bandages. It was a bright, clean room full of shelves and cabinets that held a variety of glass bottles and containers. An unidentifiable smell hung in the room. Buck assumed it was a mixture of odors from the contents of the bottles. He couldn't put a word to it, other than it seemed unnatural and manufactured. He thought for a moment how different this office was from the earthy scented teepee of the Kiowa medicine man and wondered briefly which man's medicine was stronger.

"I must say, Buck, I think this is the biggest bruise I've ever seen," the doctor remarked as he examined the black and blue mark across Buck's chest and shoulder. "Still causing a lot of pain?"

Buck nodded his head.

"Well, you got off pretty lucky. Miracle you didn't break more than a few ribs," Doc Barnes commented as he retrieved a supply of fresh bandages from one of the cabinets on the wall. "Now, I've told Marshal Hunter, but I'm gonna tell you, too. I don't want you on a horse for at least another three, maybe four weeks. Then we'll see. Gotta give these bones a chance to heal some before you go jarring 'em over an Express trail. These bandages need to say on….."

Buck tried to pay attention to the instructions, but his mind began to wander. He was tired and beginning to feel that strange nervousness again. For a moment he considered asking the doctor about it, but decided against it. He was just worn out was all.

"By the way," Doc Barnes continued. "I saw that young woman your friend was smitten with in town today. Emily was her name wasn't it?"

Buck asked sharply, "What?"

"I said, I saw Ike's young lady today," Doc Barnes repeated. "They made a handsome couple. Too bad things turned out the way they did," he added thoughtfully.

Buck clenched his teeth as the doctor began to wrap the bandages around his chest. He glanced around the room trying to focus on something to take his mind off the pain and the words tumbling around in his head.

"She's a friend."

"I know how you feel."

"Too bad things turned out the way they did."

Buck's eyes rested on a familiar glass bottle in the cabinet on the opposite wall. He looked away, continuing his scan of the room, but he was drawn back to the bottle of laudanum He still felt a bit wary about taking it, but he had to admit, it worked wonders. It wouldn't take much of it to quiet the noise in his head, but his bottle was back in the bunkhouse and so were Lou and Emily.

Doc Barnes finished his work and helped Buck slip into his shirt. To Buck's surprise he had trouble getting the buttons through the buttonholes. His fingers didn't seem to cooperate and his hands were shaking slightly. His eyes were drawn back to the cabinet on the wall.

"Are you gettin' some rest, Buck, or is the pain keeping you awake?" the doctor asked from across the room as he placed the extra bandages back in the cabinet.

Buck hesitated for a moment before answering. "Here's your chance," he heard from somewhere inside him.

"The medicine helps me sleep. But…but, I knocked the bottle over last night and it spilled. Could I have another one?"

"Well, I don't see why not, but only for a couple more nights. I don't want you takin' too much of it," Doc said as he opened the top drawer of the small desk next to the window. Buck watched as he removed a small key and unlocked the glass door of the wall cabinet.

"Here you are. Remember, just a little bit for another night or two. No more than this much," he said, marking an imaginary line around the bottle before handing the laudanum to Buck. "I'll put it on the station's account."

"Uh, Doc, I'll just pay you for it…since it was my fault," Buck answered. His hands were still acting funny and gripped the bottle tighter to keep from dropping it.

"Suit yourself," the doctor answered as he locked the cabinet and placed the key back in the drawer. "I'll talk to the Marshal later to let him know how much more you can take."

"Um, I'm headed to Teaspoon's office now. I'll tell him," Buck said quickly, hoping his lie didn't sound like one.

Buck paid the doctor the required amount and hastily left the office. He rounded the corner of the building and leaned back against the brick wall. He never lied, and wasn't very proud of the ones he had just told, but it had gotten him what he wanted. Glancing around to make sure no one was watching, he removed the cork from the bottle and took a quick drink. It wasn't long before the warm waves of security began to wash over him once more. The unwanted voices began to float away and a calmness settled in him. He unbuttoned the cuff of his shirt, having no further trouble with the buttons, and slid the bottle into the sleeve, cupping his hand around the bottom of the bottle to hold it securely. For some reason he felt like it needed to be hidden. Perhaps it was because of the less than honest way it was obtained.

**********

Buck glanced around the station for Lou but didn't see her. He assumed she was still in the bunkhouse with her new friend. He wanted to rest for a while, but not if they were there. He noticed Rachel hanging out a basket of laundry and headed for the barn in search of a quiet place, but instead found Cody brushing his horse.

"Hey, Buck!" Cody called, grinning widely. "I hear I missed the excitement in the barn the other night. Was you tryin' to fly or somethin'?"

Buck found no humor in Cody's remark and his expression said so.

"So, are you alright?" Cody asked. "What happened?"

"I'm fine, Cody," Buck replied brusquely. "I don't want to talk about it."

All he really wanted was to be alone someplace quiet and with Cody in the barn it certainly wasn't going to be quiet. The bunkhouse was out of the question, too, as long as Lou and Emily were there. He decided the only option was to leave.

"Alright. Just kinda strange is all," Cody said. He finished grooming his horse and walked across the barn to put the curry comb back in its place.

Buck took the opportunity to remove the bottle of laudanum from his shirt sleeve and tucked it into the waist band of his trousers. Ignoring Doc Barnes' orders, he led Ike's horse from his stall and, using a stack of hay bales for a makeshift ladder, carefully mounted the animal.

"Hey, Buck. You supposed to be ridin?" questioned Cody.

Buck turned the horse slightly so the bottle was hidden from Cody's view. "I'm just gonna get away for a little while. Don't tell Teaspoon or Rachel, alright?"

Cody shrugged. "Ain't bothering me none. Do what you want."

Once away from the station, Buck began to understand why the doctor had not wanted him to ride. Although the horse was only walking, the movement was enough to cause the ache in his chest to return. Without thinking twice, Buck reached for the bottle of laudanum.

Soon the pain was gone and he was enjoying the familiar detached feeling. He closed his eyes and let his head drop back to feel the warmth of the mid-day sun on his face. Rocking back and forth in rhythm with the horse's steady gait, he let the reins drop and allowed the horse to wander at will. After a time Buck felt himself slipping to one side and opened his eyes to regain his balance. Scanning the countryside for a moment, he recognized where he was and urged the horse forward. It was just a little further.

He really hadn't planned on coming here. Or, maybe he had. He didn't know. Buck slid off Ike's horse and let his eye roam the area. He hadn't been there since Ike died and was taken by how the place had changed since that night. Only a month before, the grass under Ike's funeral pyre had been charred black and brittle. Now the area where his ashes lay was lush.

Buck left Ike's horse untethered and sank into the green carpet. He ran his fingers through the grass and recalled the night he and the others had come here to release Ike's spirit. It should have bothered him, should have conjured memories of fire and finality and bottomless grief, but rather than agonizing over this place, he felt oddly unaffected. Without realizing what he was doing, Buck reached for the bottle of laudanum again. A warm weight centered itself in his belly and began to spread. Soon his body grew heavy, too heavy to remain upright, and he lay down in the grass, staring up at the sky.

Clouds began to turn into the shapes of animals parading overhead, changing from one animal to another as soon as he recognized it, almost as if they were trying to outwit him. When they were younger, he and Ike had played this game. Or rather, Ike had played. Ike had been able to see these things and had tried repeatedly to point out the shapes, but Buck could never find them. Ike told him he had no imagination.

"Guess I've got an imagination, now," he said rather smugly to the bear floating past.

Buck felt a tingling sensation on his hand and noticed a small ladybug crawling across his finger. He turned over and rested his face against the ground watching the insect move its multitude of legs across his hand. Buck counted the number of spots on her back over and over again as if there was some value in knowing the number.

Buck was amazed by how differently he felt after taking the laudanum. Never in his life had he felt so completely calm. Lou had betrayed him, no one understood him, neither the Kiowa nor the white world wanted him, he had killed an unarmed man and Ike was dead. But all that just didn't seem to matter as much. Buck closed his eyes and let the peaceful feeling envelop him. He didn't know exactly what was in that bottle, but it was magic.

Chapter 5

"C'mon, Buck, wake up," Kid urged, gently shaking his friend's arm.

Knowing Buck needed the extra rest, Teaspoon had allowed him the luxury of sleeping late, but this was the third morning Buck had slept through the clatter and commotion of breakfast and Kid thought it a bit odd. Buck had always been a light sleeper, the slightest sound or movement would wake him. Now he slept hard. Too hard. He was still in the same position as two hours before; his head lay half on and half off the pillow, his left arm dangled like a weight off the side of the bunk. The rise and fall of his chest was so slight for a moment Kid wasn't sure he was still breathing. Just to make certain, he leaned in close enough to hear Buck's shallow exhale. He had never seen anyone sleep like this before. It just didn't seem natural.

Kid tried again, shaking a little harder. "Wake up, Buck. It's gettin' late."

Buck heard Kid's voice and began to move toward it, but the distance between them was far and murky as deep water. Guided by Kid's persistent call, he began to stir uneasily, his eyes fluttering open only to close tightly as a wave of pain surged through his chest. He clutched his injured ribs with one hand and tried to wipe the strands of sleep from his eyes with the other.

"Stop it, Kid," he mumbled.

"You alright?" Kid asked, taking a seat on the bunk behind him.

"I was asleep," Buck answered, irritated. "You woke me up to see if I was alright?"

Put that way, Kid's question seemed a little silly. "Well… yeah…I thought somethin' might be wrong," he stammered. "You never sleep this late."

"Maybe I do now," Buck grumbled. "What time is it?"

"Almost nine o'clock."

"Alright, I'll get up," Buck muttered. "Just give me a minute."

"You sure you're alright?" Kid asked again.

"I'm fine, Kid. Just give me a minute," Buck repeated.

"Rachel left some breakfast for you on the stove," Kid said. Satisfied Buck was awake, he stood and headed for the door. "That new filly is somethin' special. Why don't you come out to the barn and have a look at her?"

Buck nodded impatiently. He grabbed the side of his bunk and tried to pull himself up, but stopped as a sudden stabbing of pain took his breath away. Buck moaned between clenched teeth and slowly lowered himself back into his bunk.

Kid turned back to his friend. "Buck . . ."

"Go on, Kid. I just tried to get up too fast. I'll be there in a minute."

Buck breathed a little easier as the door closed behind Kid. "Thought he'd never leave," he said to himself as he slowly rolled over and reached under his bunk for the bottle of laudanum.

**********

Buck had placed the bottle between the mattress and the wooden slats of the bunk his first night back in the bunkhouse. He lay awake that night, waiting for the sleep he knew wasn't coming. His entire body ached. His nerves flitted and flapped around inside of him like insects trapped in a glass jar. A persistent craving had nudged at him all evening, growing more insistent as the night wore on, until it finally shoved him up and out of his bunk. Buck quietly slipped into the room off the bunkhouse to retrieve the laudanum. The fluttering inside him quickened as he looked toward the table and realized the bottle was gone. Rachel had evidently moved it when she made up the bed. He cursed himself for leaving the bottle Doctor Barnes gave him in a hollowed out tree trunk at Ike's funeral site earlier, but the extra bottle was a secret and secrets were meant to be hidden. It would be a long ride to get it in the dark. He needed to find the other bottle and he needed it now.

The room was dimly lit, making his search difficult. The dark shapes of furniture huddled in the shadows as he picked his way around the room. Hoping for the obvious, he opened the drawer of the table, but found it empty. His hands blindly rummaged through the contents of the small dresser opposite the bed, finding nothing but bed linens. Buck leaned back against the wall trying to quiet his nerves, but it was hard with them banging around like that.

Buck dropped to his hands and knees to peer under the bed, knowing the bottle wouldn't be there - and even if for some strange reason it was, he wouldn't see it in the pitch black cavern under the bed - but looking anyway.

"Think," he demanded. "Where would she put it?" A possibility presented itself and he scrambled to his feet. The abrupt movement released a new wave of pain through his chest, causing him to stumble into the bed. Buck regained his footing, cursing his clumsiness, and hurried into the bunkhouse to the kitchen cupboard.

He quietly twisted the latch to the storage compartment and opened the door. The light was better in the larger room, enough that he could make out the shape of the elusive bottle, hiding behind the extra containers of coffee and molasses. It was a cool enough night, but his hands were slick with sweat and shook a little. Reaching into the opening, Buck knocked the jar of molasses from the shelf. He held his breath as it tumbled out and landed on the wooden surface of the cupboard below. The jar didn't break, but rolled across the surface, coming to a rest against the back of the cupboard.

Buck threw a quick glance to the opposite side of the room. Cody stirred slightly and mumbled some gibberish in his sleep before turning toward the wall. The others seemed to be locked in slumber, oblivious to his prowling.

Buck reached into the cupboard again and carefully withdrew the bottle of laudanum. The mere touch of the glass against his skin began to calm him. He quickly plucked out the cork, raised the bottle to his mouth with both hands, so as not to let it slip, and swallowed hard. The sudden rush of relief was overwhelming. Buck felt his knees go weak and he sank back against the cupboard, marveling at the laudanum's power - its ability to turn pain to pleasure so quickly.

Feeling the need to keep the bottle close, Buck placed it under his bunk. He slept peacefully, but hard and awoke in the morning with his head heavy as mud, his chest aching. He quickly discovered that another dose of the medicine not only eased the pain considerably, but also helped clear away what the deep sleep left behind.

The ache and fidgeting nerves began to return by afternoon, but after a little rest and another dose of laudanum he was feeling no pain. In fact, he felt good. He felt better than he had in a long time.

Buck realized he was taking a good deal more of the medicine than Doctor Barnes had instructed, but surely if the doctor knew how much better it made him feel, he would allow it. That's what medicine was for. Not willing to take the chance, Buck felt it was best to keep this miracle cure to himself. Teaspoon or the doctor might try to take it from him if they knew and he couldn't let that happen now that he had finally found a little peace.

He waited impatiently each night for the bunkhouse to grow quiet before reaching under the mattress for the bottle. A dose of laudanum brought effortless sleep and marvelous dreams.

Sometimes the dreams consisted of only colors - bright, vivid colors flashing like bolts of lightning. Others were clear and distinct with familiar people and places. Once, Buck found himself walking down the streets of Rock Creek, towering over the townspeople. He was almost twice their size and they hurried to get out of his way as he passed by. They were afraid of him. Buck felt powerful, and he liked it.

Only a week before he had dreaded the night hours and feared his dreams, but the visions of Ike that had haunted him no longer came. Now he looked forward to the possibilities the night brought. Funny how things change.

**********

Kid stood in the doorway of the barn watching Buck emerge from the bunkhouse, walk easily down the porch steps and across the yard toward the barn. Only fifteen minutes earlier he had been unable to pull himself out of bed.

"So, lez take a look at that filly," Buck said, slurring his words slightly, as he walked past a baffled Kid.

"Wait a minute," Kid called as he followed Buck into the barn, his pace quickening as Buck stopped and began to sway slightly as if he was dizzy.

"Buck, are you…what is wrong with your eyes?" Kid exclaimed as Buck turned toward him.

"What?"

"Your eyes look funny. Are you sure you feel alright?"

"Stop askin' me that. I told you already. I'm fine," Buck answered, clearly annoyed. He then broke into a wide grin. "That's what's wrong with you, Kid. You worry too much."

Kid followed Buck to the horse's stall and for a moment they discussed the young animal's fine conformation. However, in mid sentence, Buck seemed to lose interest in the animal and simply walked away.

Kid picked up the hay fork and began cleaning out the stalls. Maybe he did worry too much sometimes, but Buck was acting strangely. He couldn't shake the feeling that something was definitely wrong.

**********

"Where is he?" Lou demanded of Kid as she led Lightning into the barn.

"Nice to see you, too," Kid answered, as he put the hay rake down and walked toward her. Lou had been gone for almost four days and he hoped for a more affectionate reunion.

"Where's Buck?" she asked again. "I need to talk to him."

"I think he's out behind the barn. Why?"

"'Cause I'm gonna give him a piece of my mind! That's why." Lou turned away from Kid and stomped toward the rear of the barn. Kid caught up to her in a few strides.

"Hold on, Lou. What's wrong?"

"The way he treated Emily, that's what's wrong!"

"Emily?" Kid asked. "Emily was here?"

Lou looked at Kid, perplexed, but then remembered he was on a run when Emily arrived at the station. Unless Buck told him, he didn't know what happened.

"Emily was on her way back east and stopped at the station to say goodbye. Buck treated her real bad, Kid." Lou said. "He accused her of causin' Ike's death. It was an accident. Emily loved Ike, too. I've been waitin' for days to tell him how wrong he was. Don't you think so?"

Lou stood back, her arms folded across her chest, waiting. When Kid didn't answer, Lou prompted, "Well?"

"I don't know, Lou. Hate to admit it, but I kinda feel the same way as Buck." Holding up his hands in defense, he went on. "Now, I wouldn't say anything to her like he did but…."

"What!" Lou exclaimed. "Men! I swear you're all alike! Cold hearted. Thinkin' only of yourselves…"

"What's wrong with us men?" Noah asked as he entered the barn. He had overheard just enough of the lovebirds' argument to be amused.

Hoping for an ally, Kid explained his position about Emily to Noah.

"Sorry, Lou, but I gotta agree with Kid," Noah said. "I know nobody forced Ike between her and Neville, but you gotta admit, what Emily did was just plain foolish." Noah thought for a moment then shrugged. "Can't say as I blame Buck for thinkin' the way he does. If it'd been my best friend, I'd probably said the same . . . maybe worse."

"Noah's right, Lou. Buck just acted without thinkin'. Kinda like what he did to Neville. You lose someone you love, I guess you do crazy things."

Lou's look of consternation began to soften and completely faded away as Kid quietly added, "I can't imagine how I'd act if somethin' like that ever happened to you."

"Well," Noah quipped. "I can tell when I'm not wanted."

Lou had assumed that everyone was as sympathetic toward Emily as she was. Apparently, she was wrong. "Probably a good thing she left," Lou said to herself and decided to leave it alone. Emily was her friend and Buck had hurt her. But Buck was her friend, too. He wouldn't have acted that way without a reason.

**********

Buck sat back against the wall of the barn, not quite asleep, but not fully awake either. The wall provided a little shade from the afternoon sun and flushed and drowsy after a dose of laudanum, the cool shade felt good to him. He was about to nod off when a cry overhead caught his attention.

The hawk swooped low into the prairie grass descending on its prey. Buck watched as the bird reappeared with a small field mouse firmly clenched in its talons. The mouse had done nothing to deserve such punishment, but merely had the misfortune of catching the predator's eye. He pitied the mouse, but also envied the strength of the bird.

Buck had always been intrigued by birds. The Kiowa had so many rules about them. Some birds were good omens, others bad. Feathers of certain birds carried great importance. To eat a bird was bad medicine. Rachel had questioned Buck's refusal to eat fowl and he realized that he had no real answer. The duck or pheasant she cooked sometimes smelled good, and everyone else seemed to enjoy it. But he couldn't eat it. It was a rule.

The Kiowa had rules about everything. Rules about when you could speak, how you should pray, how to behave in the class you were born into. Rules against speaking of the dead.

Buck wondered what it would be like to be a bird. What it would be like to soar through the sky to a place far from the rules and constraints of the earth. He wished he could be so free.

I would be a blue jay, Buck said to himself and even as the thought entered his mind, he pushed it away.

He didn't daydream. Ike did sometimes, but Buck preferred to keep his thoughts a little more grounded. The laudanum, though, had a way of loosening his thinking and before long his mind was wandering.

I would be blue jay, Buck said to himself, staring into sky above him. In his mind's eye he saw himself as the small bird with beautiful blue feathers - deep blue, just like Ike's eyes.

Although he was a small bird, he was very strong. His wings would never tire and force him to return to the earth and its multitude of rules. He could glide effortlessly, endlessly into the expanse of freedom.

Buck imagined himself flying over town, peering down on the residents of Rock Creek. He couldn't help but laugh as they hurried about their pathetic lives, consumed in the attainment of the things the white man held most dear - money and power. There in the middle of Main Street stood the worst of them all - Thompkins.

Buck flew at the man, fluttering around his face and, even though he knew he shouldn't, let his talons graze the top of Thompkins' head. Thompkins batted at the blue jay with his hands, shouting at the bird to leave him alone, but Buck would not be shooed away.

Fearing the strange antics of the bird, Thompkins ran toward his store. He glanced over his shoulder to see if the bird was following him and stumbled into a display of merchandise near the door, causing it to spill out into the street.

"What's wrong, Thompkins?" Buck taunted. "Why don't you watch where you're goin'?"

After enjoying a good laugh at the expense of shopkeeper, Buck flew higher into the sky, floating on the breeze across the open countryside. The sound of thundering hooves approaching caught his ear and he flew lower along the Express route. Even from above and through the thick cloud of dust that trailed the streaking horse Buck recognized the rider by the yellow hair flowing behind him.

"You think you're so fast, Cody!" he called to the rider below him. "I'll show you who's fast!" Pumping his wings fiercely, Buck gained speed and raced against Cody, leaving the rider far behind him.

Buck was surprised by how fast he could fly! At this speed, he could fly back to the Kiowa and visit Red Bear in only a few minutes! He pumped his wings harder and harder as the miles beneath him disappeared. It was golden up there in the sunlight. With every breath he drew in a little more freedom and it filled him with a contentment he had never felt before.

Buck circled the Kiowa village several times before he saw Red Bear. He flew beside his brother until the war chief noticed him and stopped, in curiosity, to watch the small bird. Red Bear held out his hand.

"Come to me, little one," Red Bear said, trying to coax the bird to him.

But Buck didn't want to land, not even onto the safety of his brother's hand. If he landed, he would be forced to follow the rules and he wanted to fly.

Red Bear's eyes filled with disappointment when the blue jay refused to come to him. Instead Buck flew away from his brother, saddened that he had disappointed Red Bear once again.

Buck wanted to show Red Bear that, though he couldn't go to him, he wished him well, so he puffed up his feathers and the blue jay turned into a golden eagle, a good omen, soaring overhead until his brother saw him and smiled.

Flying over the village, Buck watched the Kiowa below him as they went about their lives. Lives steeped in ritual and tradition. It was because of them he had left years ago. Their rules had sent him away, had caused him to disappoint Red Bear time after time. Too many rules. Their rules kept the memory of Ike locked silently inside of him when all he wanted to do was cry out his friend's name.

Buck felt himself take on the form of an owl and flew into the village. The Kiowa recognized him as a bad omen and ran into their teepees to hide. Buck followed them, beating his wings against their teepees until the sound pounded through the village like a drum. He wanted to give them a good scare, to torment them the way they had tormented him for so many years.

Fleeing the owl, the panicked Kiowa ran back and forth across the village like scurrying ants. He flew after them, flapping his wings furiously, pecking and pulling at their hair with his beak.

"Do not hurt us!" the Kiowa cried.

Satisfied that they had felt fear, Buck took pity on his people. He pulled in the wide expanse of his wings and set his mind to change back into the ordinary blue jay, but found that he couldn't. The Kiowa screamed and cried out to the spirits for protection from the owl. To his horror, they began to fall to the ground, paralyzed and dying in fright. Buck began to panic.

He desperately tried to change back to the blue jay or any other small, insignificant bird, but he couldn't. Instead, he found himself taking the form of a vulture, pivoting on black wings over the village, watching. He tried to stop himself, but the instincts of the scavenger were strong. He landed in the village and began to walk among the bodies of the Kiowa.

He began to peck at the dead bodies. Tasting blood, he tore at their flesh, ripping them apart. The vulture feasted on the Kiowa. He enjoyed the taste.

"Buck, what's wrong?"

"Buck!"

Buck had not seen Kid approach or noticed that he was kneeling beside him until Kid shook him and shouted his name. Jerked from his daydream Buck bolted forward, unable to breathe. He began to choke as if a piece of food was caught in his throat.

Could he really have envisioned such a terrible thing? The Kiowa were his people, yet he saw himself killing them, ripping away their flesh. The spirits would be angry and would surely punish him for such thoughts. It would be swift and severe and deserved.

Buck drew his knees toward his chest, wrapped his arms around them and buried his head against his arms, hiding. He rocked nervously back and forth waiting for the spirit's rebuke.

Kid reached out and put his hand on his friend's shoulder. Buck bristled at the touch.

"Buck," Kid began quietly. "Do you want to talk about somethin'? I mean…I know I'm not Ike, but…."

"No!" Buck looked up sharply, his voice shaking, "No Kid, you're not! Just leave me alone!"

"Buck, somethin's wrong. Tell me," Kid pleaded.

"Damn it, Kid! I'm fine. Just leave me alone!"

In all the time Kid had known Buck, he had never heard him swear. An uneasy silence fell between them, only to be interrupted by Teaspoon's booming voice as he rounded the corner of the barn.

"Where are you two? Takin' a siesta back here while some damn fool kids open the corral gate and scare off our new stock!"

"What are you talking about, Teaspoon?" Kid asked, rising to his feet.

"Some bunch of young hooligans been playin' pranks all over town! Set Johnson's tool shed on fire last night. Now they scare off half our new stock!"

"You sure?" Kid asked.

"Hell, yes, I'm sure! There were ten new horses out there and now there's only five! I'd say that's half!" Teaspoon bellowed.

"No, I mean about the pranks," Kid explained. "You know who's responsible?"

"Oh…Well, I got a pretty good idea 'bout a couple of 'em, but I can't prove nothin' yet," Teaspoon answered. "Right now we gotta get them horses back. They cost the Express a pretty penny. Probably all over the country by now." Glancing around for the other riders he added, "Where is everybody?"

"Lou's in the bunkhouse and I think Noah and Jimmy went to pick up some supplies for Rachel," Kid answered. "Rachel went out to the Thomas place. Guess Mrs. Thomas hurt her back carryin' around all them kids and Rachel went out to help. Won't be back 'til supper time."

Buck struggled to his feet, ignoring Kid's outstretched hand. The horses were probably headed back to the Sioux who had sold them to the Express. He could track them easily and was anxious to get started. Tracking would take his mind off the terrible thoughts flying around his head and perhaps he could appease the angry spirits by using the skills taught him by his people.

"Go round everybody up, Kid, and let's get goin'," Teaspoon ordered.

Buck followed Teaspoon into the barn and picked up his horse's saddle blanket.

"Just what do you think you're doin', Buck?" Teaspoon asked. "You ain't goin'. You ain't supposed to even think 'bout gettin' on a horse for another couple of weeks. Remember?"

"But, Teaspoon, I need..."

"No 'buts', Buck," Teaspoon interrupted. "I know trackin' is your job, but you ain't ready to ride, yet and I ain't gonna take the chance. Kid can locate them horses just fine this time. You're lookin' a bit worn out anyway."

"But…"

"Buck, I said no! You're gonna do as I say." Teaspoon thought for a second, remembering Buck's recent string of accidents. "But with Rachel gone, I better leave somebody with you. Don't want you here by yourself."

I'm not a child, Buck said to himself. I don't need someone to hold my hand and tuck me in. Fine. Go find the horses by yourself. If you can.

Buck dropped the blanket back in its place. "Don't need to, Teaspoon," he said then added sarcastically, "I'll be good."

Teaspoon hesitated for a moment before he nodded in agreement. "Alright, then. The more help I got with me, the faster we'll get them horses rounded up."

Buck watched from the doorway of the bunkhouse as the riders assembled. He hadn't talked to Lou since her betrayal and he wasn't much interested in forgiving her. Teaspoon joined the group, barking out his orders. It seemed to Buck that he took great pleasure in telling people what to do. Then there was Kid with his prying eyes and never ending questions. He thought he knew these people, but they had changed.

Kid lingered for a moment after the others headed north away from the station. Buck felt Kid's eyes on him. Prying eyes trying to bore a hole through him so his secrets would fall out. He wouldn't let that happen though. He had allowed Ike into that guarded place and showed him his hopes and fears. Ike's death had created a terrible wound there. He wouldn't expose it again. Buck quickly turned away and pulled the door closed. He leaned hard against it, closing himself tightly inside.

**********

Buck sat on his bed in the quiet bunkhouse, his hands gripping his medicine bundle, dreading the punishment that was sure to come. He was very tired, but when he closed his eyes, rather than darkness, he saw the lifeless bodies of the Kiowa. Their pitiful cries echoed in his ears and filled him with dread.

From behind him, Buck heard the familiar voice of his brother.

"What have you done, Running Buck?" Red Bear demanded of him. "What have you done?"

"I didn't mean it!" Buck cried out as he spun around to face his brother. He heard Red Bear's voice again, but from the other side of the bunkhouse. Buck turned toward the voice, but still could not find his brother. Red Bear's voice joined the cries of the dying Kiowa echoing off the walls of the bunkhouse.

Do not hurt us…Do not hurt us
What have you done, Running Buck…What have you done?

Buck held his hands over his ears to stop the voices from getting inside his head, but the sound pecked at his hands. Retreating, he lay down on his bunk, and reached for the bottle of laudanum.

He closed his eyes and watched as the medicine battled the voices, driving them from his mind, removing the visions of bloody Kiowa from his eyes. It was strong medicine. Soon Buck felt the laudanum pulsing through him, helping him see the truth, making him strong, too.

He didn't need the Kiowa. They had hurt him, beat him, laughed at him. They never cared about him. Why should he care about them?

He didn't need the white man either. He didn't need someone to tell him what to do. Didn't need someone to tell his secrets to. Not again. Never again. He didn't need them. He didn't need anybody.

Chapter 6

Still mending and unable to do much more than groom the horses and peel potatoes, Buck found himself with a great deal of idle time. More and more, he found himself reaching for the bottle of laudanum to relieve the boredom. Not only was he calmer and more relaxed than he had ever felt, but the drug had widened the margins of thought and he began to question things he had taken for granted. He wondered why the sky was blue and the grass was green and imagined what it would look like if they were reversed. Why did the sun hurt your eyes and the moon didn't? Why is a white man called "white" when his skin can blush pink in embarrassment or burn red in the sun?

His daydream about the Kiowa had frightened him terribly, but the spirits had not punished him. The laudanum had been victorious over the cries of the Kiowa. Perhaps the laudanum was more powerful than the spirits. He even began to question his Kiowa religion. Were the spirits really there or were they just a story handed down from one generation to another to scare children and force them to obey the Kiowa's multitude of rules? Was the white man's God really there or was He just a story, too? Perhaps the Kiowa spirits were the white man's God, only seen through white eyes.

Buck's dream had made him question how he really felt about the Kiowa. Maybe he really did harbor such hateful thoughts. He had every right to. Buck even had questions about Red Bear. His brother was a powerful, respected chief. He could have stopped his younger brother's torment if he had wanted to. But instead, he claimed the abuse and ridicule didn't exist. A half-white brother had certainly complicated Red Bear's life. Perhaps he secretly enjoyed watching Buck's misery. Perhaps Buck had been mistaken all this time. Perhaps nothing in his life was as he thought.

**********

"Can we talk for a minute, Teaspoon?" Kid asked from the doorway of the Marshal's office.

"Thought you'd left for Belleville already," Teaspoon answered. He lowered his feet from his desk top and moved his chair to a more upright position. "What's on your mind, son?" he said, motioning for Kid to sit in the chair beside his desk.

Kid sat down, but didn't quite know how to begin. Instead, he stared at the floor and turned his hat over and over in his hands.

"You wanted to say somethin', Kid," Teaspoon reminded, cocking an eyebrow. "Or are you gonna sit there and count the floor boards?"

"I've got about an hour before my run and I wanted . . . I want to talk about Buck before I leave," Kid began. "I'm worried about him, Teaspoon. I think there's somethin' wrong."

"Course there's somethin' wrong. He's grievin' for his best friend."

Kid shook his head, "No. I mean . . . I know that. But I think there's somethin' else."

"What makes you say that?" Teaspoon asked. "Rachel says he's eatin' some and I know he's sleepin' more. Seems to me he's makin' good progress."

"Well, no offense, Teaspoon, but you're not around him all day. I can't explain it exactly but . . . he's different," Kid insisted.

"Different? How?"

"Like . . . in the morning I can tell his ribs still hurt real bad," Kid said. "Sometimes he can barely get out of bed, but then a few minutes later he's walkin' around like nothin's wrong."

"Go on."

"And he can't keep his mind on anything. Sometimes it seems like he's . . . I don't know . . . like he's not really all there." Kid thought for a moment. Buck's behavior was harder to explain than he anticipated. "He's so moody. One minute he seems fine and the next he's bitin' somebody's head off."

Teaspoon chuckled. "Now, Kid. To say Buck's moody ain't exactly no newspaper headline."

Kid sighed heavily.

"Kid," Teaspoon began, moving his chair closer. "I'm pleased you're lookin' out for Buck. Lord knows he's had a rough time lately. But I think you're jumpin' the gun."

Kid looked at the older man quizzically.

"You say he still hurts some. Well, he was hurt bad in that fall. It's gonna take some time to heal," Teaspoon rationalized. "Only normal to be worse in the mornin'. Probably just stiff after sleepin' hard is all."

"Alright, I suppose that's possible," Kid conceded. "But what about how he acts the rest of the day? I'm tellin' you, Teaspoon, somethin' is wrong."

"Buck's been through an awful lot between losing Ike and then gettin' hurt. It's only natural that he's gonna act different for a while. Sure, we'd like him to be his old self again all at once, but I think that's askin' a bit much of him."

Kid still looked unconvinced.

"But," Teaspoon continued, "appears to me that he's not dwellin' on Ike's death near as much. Maybe he's found a way to take his mind off it."

Anxious to get back to his nap, Teaspoon stretched and placed a dirty boot back on his desktop. "A little more time and I think Buck's gonna be just fine. Now, shouldn't you be gettin' ready for that run to Belleville?"

**********

Buck reined Ike's horse to a stop at the familiar location. Over the past week the pain in his chest had diminished as the broken bones began to mend and although the pain was not entirely gone, it was bearable. It still bothered him a great deal in the mornings, but a quick dose of laudanum put an end to his discomfort. He had even urged the horse into an easy lope without it causing him too much pain and they leisurely traversed the prairie, the motion of the rider and the animal melding into one. Buck had always felt a bond with these strong, beautiful animals. The Kiowa's very existence depended upon them. Kiowa children learned to ride almost as early as they learned to walk. He enjoyed the afternoon's ride, partly because he missed the kinship with the animal, but mostly because he had been ordered not to.

Buck found himself wanting to defy Teaspoon and his authority. Since the first time they met, he had wanted to please the man, wanted him to fill the void that growing up without a father had created. But now that desire was gone. Buck saw him for what he really was - a power hungry white man, wielding his title of "Station Manager" over the riders and demanding the town abide by his rules because of the cheap tin star pinned to his chest.

To Buck's relief, Kid left the day before on a run to Belleville, taking his questions and prying eyes with him. Kid was trying to force himself past the carefully guarded wall of secrecy. But Buck refused to allow him in. Kid could wedge himself and pry and push all he wanted. The wall only got higher.

Rachel had left the station to help the Thomas family, again, and wouldn't be back until late. Buck snickered to himself at the thought. Yes, Rachel was always trying to make things better. Always trying to help. Problem was she never thought about what she was doing. Never thought that moving Ike's things out - when Ike was barely even gone - might be a little upsetting to him. Like she could just sweep his memory out the door along with the dust.

Jimmy had just left on a run and Noah wouldn't be back until that evening, leaving only Cody and Lou at the station. Cody was too consumed by himself and his pursuit of Lizzy Jackson to notice if Buck was there or not and, even though Lou didn't seem anxious to rehash the Emily incident, Buck did his best to maintain a distance from her. Betrayal might not mean much to her, but it did to him.

It had been easy to slip away from the station and Buck relished every minute of his defiance. Smiling in anticipation, he reached into the hollow of the tree and removed the bottle of laudanum from its hiding place. The old tree, ravaged by time and weather, stood not far from the spot where Ike's funeral pyre had been built. A small hollow left in the trunk by a fallen limb created a perfect hiding place.

Buck removed the cork and brought the open bottle to his nose, breathing in the laudanum's perfume.

He closed his eyes and drank, but did not swallow. Instead he held the laudanum in his mouth and savored its taste, delighting in the feel as it slid against his teeth and spread over his tongue. His body cried out in anticipation and he finally swallowed, the golden liquid flowing down his throat like a satin ribbon. Its soft touch teased and excited him. Buck felt himself grow weak and sank back against the tree trunk, then slid slowly to the ground, every nerve in his body exploding in euphoria.

It was an unusually warm day and the shade the old tree provided was a welcome respite from the heat of the afternoon sun. Buck stretched out in the cool grass underneath the tree, gazing at the sky above through the canopy of green leaves. He felt his bones and muscles, every fiber of his body begin to soften and slowly turn to liquid, as warm and fluid as the contents of the bottle he held against his chest. If not for his skin holding him together, Buck felt certain that he would simply flow away across the prairie and that would be just fine.

The rustling of the breeze through the leaves of the tree created a hypnotic melody. The song reminded him of the music other Kiowa children learned to play on their wooden flutes. Although Buck had crafted his own crude flute, Red Bear was too busy to teach him to play. Buck tried to learn on his own, but the sounds his flute produced were anything but pleasant. Sadly, he had resigned himself to listening to the other children's music.

Buck watched as a leaf broke free from the boughs overhead and slowly floated toward him. He reached out to catch the falling leaf and hold its song, to make it his own. Buck felt the sound enter his body through the palm of his hand. The music was carried down his outstretched arm and through him, as if floating on a stream, filling his entire being with a feeling of complete contentment.

Buck wished he could stay in this paradise forever. There was no past there, no future either. Time was invisible. But he couldn't let anyone discover his secret. Although miles away, he was certain he could hear the jingle of Teaspoon's spurs on the sidewalk as he left his office and headed toward the station. The creak of the buggy's wheel in the distance told him that Rachel was on her way home, too. They would come looking for him if he stayed. Searching for him like a child who had strayed too far from home.

**********

The heat of the day refused to loosen its grip, even as darkness fell on Rock Creek. The fire fueling the cook stove as Rachel prepared supper had only made matters worse, leaving the bunkhouse warm and stuffy.

Although he didn't want to admit it, the ride earlier in the day had aggravated Buck's sore ribs and his chest was aching again. The thick layer of bandages Doctor Barnes insisted he wear helped support the broken bones, but were hot and uncomfortable. He looked forward to the rest a soft bunk and the bottle of laudanum would bring.

Hoping to circulate the air in the bunkhouse, Buck propped open the windows at the far end of the room near the bunks and then opened the window in the spare bedroom. He was rewarded as a breeze was drawn across the room.

Turning to leave, his eyes fell upon the stack of books resting on the table beside the bed. Buck felt a pang of guilt realizing that Ike's drawing was still where Lou had placed it weeks before. How could he have forgotten something so important? Buck sat on the edge of the bed, slowly removing the books that weighed down the piece of paper. The books had served their purpose, the paper had been pressed flat and showed little sign of its earlier damage.

Ike's image stared at him as if to say, "Did you forget me?"

The pang of guilt grew stronger as Buck realized he hadn't thought of Ike very often in the past week. He had been angry with the others at the station for putting aside their grief so quickly, but he had done much the same since his accident. Since discovering laudanum. Rather than remembering his friend, he had been consumed with his own needs. With the help of laudanum, he had even allowed himself to feel good. But his best friend was dead. He wasn't supposed to feel good. At first he used the drug to soothe his heartache, but lately he looked forward to the pleasure it brought instead. Even his visit to Ike's funeral site earlier in the day had been for pure enjoyment, not to feel closer to Ike.

"I'm sorry," he murmured to the drawing. He had strayed. The laudanum had clouded his thoughts and drawn him away from what was important. If the laudanum was the problem, then he would stop taking it.

Buck looked at the drawing again and felt a little better. He needed to put it back in the trunk with Ike's other belongings where it would be safely tucked away. Trying to ignore the pain in his chest and the nervous feeling that came upon him that time of night, he slowly rose to his feet and headed to the barn. Sleep could wait a little while longer.

**********

"Billy, do you really think I'm pretty?" Lizzy asked, as she tickled Cody's nose with a piece of straw from the floor of the hayloft.

Cody had been successful in his pursuit of Miss Jackson and offered to walk her home from Bible study that evening. He waited for Lizzy outside church and, offering his arm to her in gentlemanly fashion, escorted her through the streets of town pointing out fascinating bits of knowledge and amusement. It soon became evident to Cody, by the young lady's flirtatious manners and suggestive smile, that she wanted to study a lot more than the Bible.

The cracks between the dried boards of the roof allowed scattered rays of moonlight to filter into the loft, softly illuminating the porcelain skinned beauty before him. Cody could not believe his luck. Not only was she beautiful, but willing! He thought to himself that he must have done something very good to deserve this, but he couldn't remember what.

"Why, Lizzy, you're the most beautiful girl in Rock Creek. The most beautiful girl I've ever laid eyes on," Cody answered with a shy smile. "You're so sweet and kind. The sort of girl a man dreams about."

"Oh, Billy," Lizzy cooed, edging closer. "You make me feel so special."

"You are special, Lizzy," Cody continued. "Just thinkin' 'bout this evenin', 'bout how your eyes out-shine the stars will fill the lonely hours of my ride tomorrow."

"I'll be ridin' through dangerous Indian territory on a special run, tomorrow," Cody said. "Teaspoon chose me over all the other riders to carryout this important mission."

True, Cody did have a run the next day through Sioux territory, but the Sioux had recently signed a treaty and posed no threat to the Express riders. He had been chosen to take the additional run for no reason other than he was the only one available to go.

"Billy, you must be careful!" Lizzy gasped. "Those terrible savages might try to scalp you!" Leaning closer, Lizzy tenderly picked up a strand of Cody's long yellow hair and twirled it between her fingers. "And I do so love your hair."

Cody nearly jumped out of his boots at Lizzy's touch. He had hoped that perhaps they would hold hands, perhaps as the evening wore on he would be allowed to put his arm around her shoulders. But this was too good to be true!

"Lizzy . . . I might not come back tomorrow . . . it bein' a dangerous mission and all. But I'd die a happy man just rememberin' you." Cody lowered his head, feigning serious thought. "Do you think . . . I mean . . . would you be so kind . . . I mean . . . might I have a kiss for good luck, Lizzy? Just a little one."

"Why, of course you can have a kiss, Billy." Lizzy smiled and pulled Cody toward her by the strand of hair. "And if you say please," she whispered, "you can have more than that."

**********

Buck awkwardly climbed the ladder to the hayloft, one hand holding a lantern and Ike's drawing, the other holding onto the rungs of the ladder. He stopped about half way up, startled by the sounds of Cody's laughter and feminine giggles. For a moment he was tempted to barge in on Cody and his conquest of the week, but thought better of it. He wanted some privacy and he wasn't going to get it now. Cody and the young lady evidently wanted their privacy, too.

He slowly descended the ladder, gritting his teeth against the pain the movement caused. Once on the ground, he sat the lantern on a post near the ladder to the loft and wrapped his arms around his aching chest, waiting for the pain to lessen. A soft whinny from the horse stalls in the rear of the barn caught his attention and he smiled briefly, remembering the new filly. Still cradling his injured chest he made his way to the back of the barn, leaving the lantern on the post.

The animal was indeed something special. Not only was her skeletal structure ideal, but her markings were beautiful - a dark red coat with four white stockings and a perfectly symmetrical blaze down the length of her nose. Buck coaxed the young horse toward him and gently ran his hand over her head and neck, enjoying the feel of her velvety muzzle against his skin. The filly flicked her ears nervously, unsure how to react to the human touch. Heeding her mother's call, the young horse skittered away.

Tired and hurting, Buck decided to heed the call of his bunk and left the barn, promising that he would put Ike's portrait back in the trunk tomorrow, forgetting to put out the flame in the lantern.

**********

Buck put Ike's drawing back on the table in the spare room. It had been safe there all this time and surely would be for one more night. He tried to sleep, but lay awake for several hours, arguing with the craving for laudanum. He tried to tell himself that he didn't want it, but his body insisted otherwise. His chest still hurt and there was a strange ringing in his ears that just wouldn't quit. He tried to lie on his hands to prevent them from shaking, but it didn't help, they shook anyway. Even though a breeze was blowing through the room, he was sweating. He wrestled around on his bunk, trying to escape the craving, but the tossing and turning only intensified the ache in his chest. Buck glanced around the room to ensure the others were asleep before he reached under his bunk for the bottle. Lou and Noah rested soundly in their bunks, but Cody wasn't there. Buck presumed he had found the loft a more pleasant place to spend the night. His determination faltering, Buck uncorked the bottle, promising himself it was the last time. Tomorrow would be better. Tomorrow he would quit.

Chapter 7

Cody awoke in the darkness of the hayloft to the sounds of a cat fight in the barn below. For a moment he didn't know where he was, but Lizzy's soft breath on his bare chest began to trigger pleasant memories of the evening. Sleep called him back once more as he draped his arm around Lizzy's waist and settled back down into their bed of straw. A smug smile crossed his face as he envisioned looks of envy from the other riders. He would have a story to tell the boys in the morning!

The sound of neighing and nervous shuffling in the stalls below pulled Cody back from sleep once again. He bolted upright, recognizing the unmistakable smell of smoke wafting its way through the barn. Jumping to his feet, he quickly pulled on his trousers and hurried to the opening in the loft floor. His fears were confirmed as bright orange flames illuminated the darkness below. Fueled by loose straw, the floor was ablaze and the fire danced confidently up the dry timber posts supporting the frame of the barn. The old wood crackled and popped as the greedy flames advanced.

"Lizzy! Wake up!" Cody shouted to the sleeping girl.

Locked in peaceful dreams, Lizzy didn't respond to his call. Cody stumbled through the darkness toward her as the heat of the flames below began to rise through the cracks in the floorboards.

"Wake up, now!" Cody insisted, roughly shaking the girl.

Lizzy began to stir and a smile crossed her lips. "Oh, Billy," she mumbled softly, reaching out for him in the darkness.

"Not now, Lizzy! We gotta get out of here!" Cody grabbed Lizzy's arm and began to pull her to her feet.

Startled by Cody's brusque tugging on her arm, Lizzy snapped awake. "What's wrong?" she demanded.

"The barn's on fire!"

"What?"

"The barn's on fire!" Cody shouted again. "Get your clothes on quick! We gotta get out of here!"

Lizzy quickly jumped to her feet and threw her dress over her head, managing to fasten a few buttons before Cody grabbed her hand. Splinters of old wood grabbed at their bare feet as they hurriedly crossed the loft. An eerie pulsating, orange glow from below outlined the boards of the floor.

Cody looked into the opening, his heart thumping faster, as he saw the bottom half of the ladder engulfed in flames. "The ladder's on fire, Lizzy! We're gonna half to jump part of the way!"

"What?" Lizzy cried.

"It'll be alright. I promise," Cody answered, trying to convince himself as well as the frightened girl at his side.

"I'll go down first, then you jump to me," he instructed.

"I can't! It's too far!"

"Lizzy, we have to! There's no other way down!" Cody pulled the trembling girl to him and spoke in the softest voice he could muster. "We're gonna be fine, Lizzy. Trust me. You stay right here while I go down."

Lizzy nervously nodded her head in agreement as Cody began his descent. The flames spread rapidly through the dry lumber of the barn, reaching out toward Cody as he quickly made his way down the ladder. His heart pounded harder as he surveyed the scene below. The old wood had no defense against the voracious appetite of the fire. The flames had traveled up the support posts and now licked against the bottom of the loft.

Cody felt the heat of the flames below on his bare feet and realized he could advance no further down the ladder. Pushing himself off the wooden step, he jumped the remaining distance to safety, narrowly avoiding the encroaching flames. His ankle twisted underneath him as he landed in a heap on the dirt floor.

Cody quickly jumped to his feet, his ankle nearly buckling under him, and called to Lizzy. "Hold your skirt up and stop when I tell you!"

Lizzy hesitated for a moment as she looked into the opening. Her head began to swim at the thought of descending into the flames below, but as the haze of smoke in the loft grew thicker, she began to choke. The girl gathered her wits and began to climb down the ladder. Holding up her skirt in one hand, she slowly descended until Cody instructed her to stop.

"Jump to me!" Cody shouted.

Lizzy looked down into the flames beneath her and panicked. "I can't!"

"Yes, you can! Push away from the ladder!"

Paralyzed with fear, Lizzy stood motionless on the wooden step. Cody watched helplessly from below until the heat from the approaching fire burned her feet and Lizzy jumped toward his outstretched arms, her billowing skirt brushing against the flames. The force of Lizzy's body against him caused Cody's ankle to give way and they rolled onto the dirt floor, gasping for breath.

Relieved to be on the ground, Lizzy didn't realize the skirt of her dress was on fire until Cody began throwing dirt on the flames spreading through the cotton fabric. Panicking, she tried to pat out the fire with her hands until Cody pulled them away from the burning fabric and rolled her back and forth in the dirt until the flames were smothered.

**********

Attempting to prevent another night of mischief from the pranksters, Teaspoon completed his second walk through the streets of Rock Creek. He enjoyed the quiet the late night offered. It gave him time to think without Barnett or one of the riders demanding his attention. His thoughts tonight centered on Kid's earlier comments about Buck's behavior. Although he had dismissed Kid's concerns about Buck, he had noticed the boy acting strangely at supper that night. Buck appeared to be locked up in his own world, completely oblivious of the others around him. He seemed extremely nervous and had snapped at Lou for merely asking him to pass the salt. Buck hadn't acted like that before, even in his deepest moments of grief. Teaspoon realized that Kid was right about one thing at least. His duties as Marshal did force him to spend less time at the station. Perhaps there was something else bothering Buck. Teaspoon decided to talk to the boy in the morning.

Assured that the business district was locked up tight and the residents of the small town were safely tucked in for the night, the weary Marshal headed back to his office hoping for a few hours of sleep before Rock Creek sprang to life again at daybreak. Reaching the door of his office, his attention was diverted by a faint orange glow spreading across the night sky at the edge of town.

"Damn them," Teaspoon muttered under his breath as he started back down Main Street. His pace quickened to a trot and then a full out run as he realized the orange glow hung over the Express station.

Teaspoon ran into the yard of the station as Cody and Lizzy stumbled through the open door of the barn and collapsed on the ground, gulping in the fresh air as the fire crept further through the building behind them. Teaspoon looked at the two in amazement, wondering why they were in the barn at this time of night. Realization settled upon him as he noticed their state of half-dress.

"What did you do?" Teaspoon demanded.

"Nothin', Teaspoon," Cody answered. "We . . . we were asleep in the loft. I woke up and the place was on fire!"

Teaspoon pulled the boy to his feet. "Get the others out here while I start moving the horses!"

Hampered by his sprained ankle, Cody limped toward the bunkhouse. Lizzy ran ahead of him, stopping on the porch to frantically ring the dinner bell in an attempt to summon help from the neighbors. Awakened by the sound of the bell, Noah and Lou were already partially dressed when Cody burst into the bunkhouse.

"What's goin' on?" Noah asked as he hurriedly pulled on his boot. The expression on Lou's face repeated the question.

Cody leaned against the bunk, trying to catch his breath. "The barn's on fire. Teaspoon's movin' the horses out now."

Lou ran past Cody into the night, followed by Noah, trying to pull on his second boot as he ran through the bunkhouse.

Cody rummaged through the dark room trying to find something to cover his bare feet before going back to help the others. Satisfied with a pair of Jimmy's boots, he sat down and pulled them on, wincing at the pain in his ankle. As Cody's eyes adjusted to the dim light in the bunkhouse, he noticed Buck, still sound asleep in his bunk. Wondering how on earth anyone could sleep through the commotion, Cody shook Buck's shoulder.

"Wake up, Buck!"

Buck stirred slightly, hearing Cody's plea in the distance, but the thick fog separating dream from reality kept him from answering.

Cody shook him harder. "Fine time to be sleepin', Buck! C'mon!"

Buck's lack of response confused Cody, but he didn't have time to waste thinking about it. Instead, he rushed out of the bunkhouse, as quickly as his injured ankle allowed, and into the station yard. A line of haphazardly dressed townspeople passed buckets from the water troughs to the burning building in a meek attempt to combat the fire. The dry boards of the barn surrendered quickly as the flames climbed higher.

Teaspoon had already retrieved several of the horses stabled in the back of the barn and secured their lead ropes to the hitching posts in front of the bunkhouse. Cody limped toward the blazing structure as Lou emerged leading Lightning and Ike's horse to safety. Noah quickly followed, managing to handle his own horse, the mare and her new filly.

Cody tried to grab Teaspoon's arm as the older man ran past him. "How many left, Teaspoon?" Cody asked, raising his voice enough to be heard over the roar of the fire, the shouts of the townspeople and the sound of clanging buckets passed down the fire brigade.

"I reckon there's five or six more plus all the gear inside if we can get it out!" Teaspoon shouted back. "Is this all the help we got?" he questioned as Lou and Noah ran back into the barn again.

"I can't wake Buck up!" Cody shouted above the din.

Teaspoon stopped and turned back to Cody. "Is somethin' wrong with him?"

"Dunno. I just couldn't wake him up. Want me to try again?"

Teaspoon debated for a moment, remembering Kid's concerns. Buck had appeared to be in some pain during supper, but it had been almost three weeks since his accident. If something else were wrong, surely it would have been noticed before now.

"No. Don't have time. Let's get them animals out of there."

**********

Brightly colored wild horses, their coats shades of blue, green, red and yellow streaked across the open prairie. The magical creatures ran through the tall grass, leaving a trail of color behind them, transforming the prairie into a rainbow colored crazy quilt.

The colors were beautiful and exciting and Buck didn't want to leave his dream. But the chaotic sounds drifting through the open windows of the bunkhouse pulled him away and he slowly awoke to an empty room and the noise in the yard. Groggy from the laudanum, Buck managed to pull on his trousers and stumbled onto the porch, nearly falling over Rachel where she knelt beside Lizzy, trying to comfort the shaken girl.

Realizing the futility of their efforts, Teaspoon ordered the townspeople to abandon their bucket brigade. The site of a small group of people throwing pails of water into the inferno was almost comical. There weren't enough buckets, troughs of water or volunteers in Rock Creek to battle a blaze of this size. The weary, smoke streaked faces of the riders and townspeople watched from a distance as the fire claimed the building, its flames rising victoriously into the night sky.

Tearing through the cobwebs in his head, Buck made his way toward Teaspoon and the riders assembled in the yard. He caught fragments of their conversation as he grew closer.

"Think them kids are responsible for this, Teaspoon?" Lou asked.

"I reckon so. Probably tossed a lantern into that pile of straw near the loft," Teaspoon answered. "Evidently they got somethin' against the Express, but I can't imagine what we done to deserve this punishment."

Loft
Lantern
Punishment

The words spun around in Buck's head as memories of the evening came back. He remembered climbing the ladder to the loft, but heard voices and went back down. He vaguely remembered setting a lantern on a post near the ladder to the loft. Buck closed his eyes tightly, trying to picture what he had done. He had been disappointed that he couldn't put Ike's drawing back in the trunk and went to bed. No . . . He went to the horse stalls first, then went to bed. Something was missing. He didn't remember putting out the lantern. But surely he had. He wouldn't forget something so important. Still, he couldn't remember.

Buck had never experienced an actual vision quest, but after an eagle appeared to him during his trials in the Kiowa village, providing him guidance and strength to endure the ritual, he considered the eagle his spirit guide. In his drugged mind, he saw the regal bird through the front opening of the loft, perched on the lid of Ike's trunk. He reached for the medicine pouch around his neck, thanking the eagle for its protection. But the spirit's intent became clear as the eagle's wings burst into flame as it took flight. Buck's eyes opened wide in horror and crouched low to avoid the flaming deity as it flew toward him leaving a trail of fire in the sky. Suddenly, the flames devouring the floor of the hayloft disappeared, the floor and the contents of the loft dropping into the fury below. Now it was clear to him. The appearance of the spirit wasn't to protect, but to punish. This was his punishment for killing the Kiowa in his dream, for doubting the strength of the spirits. The spirit had used his carelessness to destroy what he valued most.

"No," Buck mumbled, his eyes fixed on the area below the loft, now blazing with increased fury.

Hearing his voice, the riders turned around. "Nice of you to finally join us, Buck," Cody said as he took a seat on the ground to relieve the pressure in his swollen ankle.

Teaspoon breathed easier at the sight of his injured rider, but the look of shock on Buck's face startled him.

"What is it, son?"

His legs felt too heavy to move, but he couldn't fail again. Forcing himself forward, Buck pushed past Teaspoon and Noah and staggered toward the barn. Noah tried to grab his dazed friend's arm, but Buck fought against him.

"No!"

Teaspoon and the riders watched in confusion as Buck broke free from Noah's grip and ran toward the blazing building.

"What's he doin'?" Lou asked in amazement.

Rachel watched the scene from her position on the porch steps, as perplexed as the others, until a sudden realization swept over her. "Oh, my God," she whispered.

Rachel's cry broke through the night as she ran across the yard. "He's after Ike's trunk! Stop him!"

The drug coloring his judgment, Buck ran into the barn. The heat of the fire and its thick black smoke wrapped around him like a shroud as he stumbled further into the building. Focused on his responsibility, Buck didn't feel the flames against his skin as he tossed pieces of burning lumber out of his way in his search of Ike's trunk. The heavy smoke clung to his eyes, blinding him. Closing them tightly, Buck tried to rub the sting away, but it felt as if shards of glass were cutting his eyelids. Robbed of air, his lungs crying out, Buck gasped for breath only to draw in more smoke. Dazed and disoriented, the ground suddenly rushed up to meet him as Noah knocked him to the barn floor.

Buck tried desperately to free himself from Noah's hold, but Noah was just as determined and half dragged, half carried him out of the collapsing building. Teaspoon and Noah wrestled Buck to the ground, holding him firmly as he continued to fight against them.

"You ain't goin' back in there," Teaspoon said emphatically. "It's gone," he added and slightly loosened his hold around Buck's chest as he coughed and gasped for clean air.

The weight of the roof growing too great for the crumbling walls, the barn groaned and drew its final breath.

Buck's attempt to save Ike's trunk would have been unsuccessful, even if he had found it. When the floor of the loft collapsed, the trunk landed on a corner of its base on the floor below. The impact against the ground caused the frame to contort and the hinges broke, causing the lid to fly open. Flaming pieces of the loft floor landed in the open trunk, igniting the articles of Ike's clothing Rachel had packed away. In a matter of seconds, Ike's belongings had been reduced to cinders.

Buck slowly stopped fighting against the two men protecting him from himself and fell limp in defeat. Not yet sure he had come to his senses, they didn't release him, but continued to hold him down as he silently laid blame. He had angered the spirits and the fire was his punishment. Buck slowly raised his head, facing the spirit's retribution. Hot tears stung his eyes and mingled with the dirt and smoke on his face. Ike's most treasured possessions had been entrusted to him and he had destroyed them. He had failed Ike. Again.

Chapter 8

Only the evening before, Buck had decided to stop taking laudanum, but as the light of a new day revealed the devastation he had caused, taking it was all he could think about. He wanted it, not only to relieve the morning jitters, but to numb his mind to overwhelming feelings of guilt. Guilt that he had caused the fire, that Cody and Lizzy could have been killed, and that because of him, Ike's possessions had been destroyed.

Portions of the front and west side of the barn remained upright with a piece of the roof hanging precariously between what was left of the walls. Several of the large posts that had supported the roof still stood, acting as sentinels over the smoldering heap of charred lumber and rubble. Somewhere in the waste lay the remains of Ike's possessions.

Teaspoon had been quick to assume the fire had been started by the group of young trouble makers, but Buck knew differently. A part of him wanted to confess his guilt, but as he rehearsed what he would say, he realized he couldn't tell Teaspoon the truth. He was convinced the fire was punishment from the Kiowa spirits. To tell Teaspoon that he had left a lantern burning in the barn was bad enough, but to have to explain that the spirits had used his carelessness to punish him for turning into birds that killed and ate his own people was just too much. It all made perfect sense to Buck, but a white man would never understand. He was terrified Teaspoon would think he had lost his mind and would lock him away somewhere. There was a good chance the pranksters would never be identified, and even if they were, because of their string of mischief, it would be easy to blame the barn fire on them. Buck decided to keep the truth to himself. Just one more thing to hide.

The call of the bottle hidden under his bed, just a few steps away, was strong, but he couldn't answer it. Not with a bunkhouse full of people. Teaspoon, after standing watch over the fire for the rest of the night while it burned itself out, had gone to his room for a few hours sleep, but Rachel and the other riders remained in the bunkhouse.

"Ow!" Cody whined as Rachel wrapped the last of the bandage around his swollen ankle.

"I don't think you're gonna be makin' that run today, Cody. That ankle's swelled up big as a watermelon." Rachel looked through tired eyes at the others scattered around the table. "Lou, Noah, looks like it's gonna be one of you."

"I'll go," Lou quickly volunteered. "Anything to get away from Cody's cryin'."

A mischievous grin crossing her face, Lou rethought her offer. "But … it might be fun to stay and watch Cody try to explain to Lizzy's father just what they were doin' in the loft last night."

"Lou's right, Cody," Noah added with a chuckle. "You best heal quick. You gonna need to run when he comes lookin' for you."

"Gonna need to run from Jimmy, too, when he sees his boot," Rachel added with a grin, holding up the boot that had to be cut away from Cody's swollen ankle.

Buck sat at the far end of the table, unamused. He had burned his hands in the fire and, although he hadn't felt any pain at the time, they were beginning to hurt. He tried to hold his fork steady as he picked at his breakfast, but his hands were shaking. The jittery feeling inside him was so bad he was certain he would jump out of his skin before the bunkhouse emptied and he could finally get to the bottle under his bed.

"Well, the way I figure it," Cody retorted, "I'm a hero, saving Lizzy's life and all. Besides, because of my lightning quick reaction, we had time to get the important things out of the barn."

Got the important things out…

Cody's words flew across the table and hit Buck like a slap in the face.

An uneasy silence settled on the room. Lou and Noah both felt badly that Ike's trunk had been forgotten, but saving the animals and equipment had been foremost in their thoughts. Cody, oblivious to his blunder, scanned the somber faces around the table. It was a joke. Why weren't they laughing?

Too distraught to speak, Buck looked down at his plate, but while he wasn't watching the stack of hotcakes had been replaced by Ike's family Bible. He frantically pushed himself away from the table, knocking the chair over backwards as the Bible burst into flames.

Dumbfounded, Rachel and the others stared at him. Buck hadn't uttered a single word since Noah pulled him out of the barn and he had been so upset, they were half-afraid to approach him for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. Rachel thought he might feel better if he got cleaned up and put on some fresh clothes, but even that simple suggestion seemed to irritate him.

Buck's heart pounded so hard and fast he was certain it would break free from his chest. Why were they looking at him like that? Couldn't they see it? He looked from the startled faces around him back to the plate, but saw only his uneaten breakfast.

Buck felt the room begin to spin as too many thoughts swirled through his head. Ike's Bible was there. He saw it. At least he thought he did. Maybe he really was going crazy.

Rachel slowly approached him. "Buck, Cody didn't mean anything… "

Before Rachel could apologize for Cody, Buck felt the overpowering need to escape and bolted past her to the door and down the porch steps. He reached for the lead rope securing Ike's horse to the hitching post, but stopped himself and mounted his own horse instead. He would never ride Ike's horse again. He would probably hurt it, too. The horse quickly reacted to the panic in her rider as they sped out of the station yard, narrowly avoiding a collision with Kid and Katy returning from their run.

**********

Cody's attempt at humor and the sight of Ike's Bible in flames chased Buck out of the bunkhouse and across the prairie. He kicked his horse harder, finally feeling the intensity of the chase lessen when the familiar site came into view. The hard ride and his anxiety caused him to breathe hard and fast, but the tight bandage wrapped around his chest cocooned his lungs, keeping him from drawing a deep, calming breath. Quickly glancing over his shoulder to ensure his pursuers had been left behind, he slid off the horse and stumbled toward the hiding place.

The laudanum didn't bring the rapid explosion of pleasure Buck had become accustomed to. But it didn't matter. He was seeking safety, not pleasure. Impatiently waiting for the shaky feeling to subside, Buck leaned back against the tree and began to clumsily unwrap the bothersome bandages around his chest. The cord of his medicine bundle tangled with the long strip of cloth. He removed the pouch from around his neck, laying it aside until he finished with the bandage. Able to breathe deeper, he felt a little better, but he was still trembling. Why wasn't it working?

Buck picked up the medicine pouch, intending to put it back around his neck, but something stopped him. He rubbed his fingers against the pouch, turning it over again and again in his shaking hands. Even without opening the pouch, he could identify each item wrapped safely inside by its outline against the cloth bag. Totems and keepsakes that bound him to the spirits. A medicine bundle intended to protect and guide him. But he didn't feel very guided or protected by his faith. Buck's grip around the bag grew tighter as his anger began to surface. He hadn't really killed the Kiowa. It was just a dream. Everyone had strange dreams sometimes. How could they be so cruel? He had tried all his life to follow the practices of his religion, but now, when he needed them the most, the spirits had turned against him.

He had begged the spirits to protect Ike, but his best friend still died. When the nightmares came, he pleaded with them to take the dreams away, but the images still came night after night. He had only dreamed about killing the Kiowa. He would never really hurt them. On the contrary, he had always tried to protect them. His runaway imagination did not deserve such harsh punishment.

Buck's grip tightened around the bag until his knuckles turned white as he remembered the vision of the magical eagle soaring through the sky toward him, leaving a trail of fire in its wake. The spirit had deceived him into believing it would protect Ike's possessions, only to destroy them before his eyes.

The numb, safe feeling still wouldn't come. Impatiently, Buck pulled the bottle of laudanum from the hollow in the tree trunk and began to remove the cork when the reason dawned on him. He held two forms of medicine in his hands - the white man's and the Kiowa's. They were fighting against each other. He couldn't have them both.

The medicine bundle was his tie to the Kiowa religion, a tie to his people. People who abused and laughed at him. Spirits who ignored his prayers and tricked him.

The bottle brought comfort and pleasure and safety. It prevented the nightmares and replaced them with beautiful visions. The laudanum offered sanctuary.

The lure of the bottle and its promises was strong, but how could he discard something he had believed in his entire life? He vaguely remembered sitting in Doctor Barnes' office, wondering which medicine was stronger, never dreaming he would have to choose between them.

In his opium clouded mind, Buck saw his enemies approaching and knew he had to make a decision - he needed protection. Lou and Emily skipped hand in hand, like school girls, across the grass marking Ike's funeral pyre. Buck heard something behind him and quickly turned to see Kid peering out from behind the tree trunk, watching his every move. Spinning toward another sound, he saw Rachel and Teaspoon approaching, shaking their heads sadly, a huge lock and key in Teaspoon's hands.

Buck cowered back against the trunk of the tree to hide, but the pounding of his heart betrayed his location. Making his choice, Buck tossed the medicine bundle aside and brought the bottle to his mouth.

**********

At the sound of an approaching horse, Buck returned the bottle to its hiding place and leaned back against the tree. He didn't need to watch for the rider to identify him. He recognized the horse's gait. Buck would have preferred to ride off and not be subjected to another round of questions, but his body just felt too heavy to move.

Kid dismounted, leaving Katy to graze near Buck's horse. He was relieved to see Buck sitting in the grass under a gnarled old tree, but was surprised by how calm he appeared. From the description of what happened in the bunkhouse, Kid had expected his friend to still be upset. Buck seemed perfectly relaxed. Dirty, shirtless and barefoot, he leaned back against the trunk of the tree, his eyes closed. His smoke streaked face hinted of the night's events, but his demeanor certainly didn't.

"Thought I'd find you here," Kid began as he approached the silent figure. "I was thinkin' we might talk for a bit."

Buck opened his eyes, but offered no resistance. Taking it as a positive sign, Kid sank into the damp grass near his friend. He sat for a moment, twirling a blade of grass around in his hands, trying to decide where to begin. "Rachel said you burned your hands. They alright?"

Buck closed his eyes again without offering an answer. His hands didn't hurt anymore.

Kid was slightly encouraged. The last time they spoke Buck nearly bit his head off. He wasn't answering, but he wasn't yelling either. "I heard 'bout what happened. I know you're upset over losin' Ike's things, but they're just things, Buck."

Kid glanced at Buck, trying to gauge his reaction, but there was none. "It ain't gonna change what you and Ike had, you know that," he continued. "Teaspoon's gonna catch whoever's responsible sooner or later. They'll get what's comin' to 'em."

Kid saw Buck's jaw clench at his comment. He was hopeful his words of encouragement had gotten through to Buck, but when his friend's eyes opened, he was met with an icy stare.

"Are you finished?" Buck asked, his voice as cold as his eyes.

"Damn it, Buck! I'm just trying to help you!"

"Don't recall askin' for your help, Kid. Why don't you just mind your own business?"

"Because I'm worried about you." Kid shook his head in frustration. Why was he being so difficult? "You been actin' strange ever since you got hurt. This ain't like you."

Kid sighed uneasily and pulled up another blade of grass. He had spent most of his ride back to Rock Creek trying to sort out Buck's strange behavior and had arrived at a conclusion. "Did you start drinkin', Buck?"

"What?" Buck asked in amazement.

Meeting Buck's icy glare, Kid repeated himself. "Did you start drinkin?"

Buck looked away in disgust. "I don't believe you could ask me that. You know how I feel about liquor."

"I know how you used to feel. But I'm not so sure anymore."

Disgust turned to anger as Buck grabbed the collar of Kid's shirt and pulled him toward him.

"Do I smell like a bottle of whiskey, Kid? Do I? No, I don't."

Kid struggled against the choke hold while Buck continued to fume. "You think you're so smart. Think you know me so well. You don't know me at all."

Kid finally broke free from Buck's grip, his frustration mounting. "Well, somethin's goin' on! You stumble around in a daze! One minute you're hurtin', the next you're not! Look at yourself, you're a mess!" Kid drew a deep breath to calm down before he went on. "Why won't you tell me what's wrong?"

"Maybe I'm just tired of people tellin' me how I'm supposed to feel and what I'm supposed to do," Buck spat back. "I don't want your help and I don't want you here."

Buck had always been the peace keeper of the bunch. This new antagonistic attitude baffled Kid. Kid started to say something more, but realized he was wasting his breath. Frustrated and confused he jumped to his feet and stormed away, more determined than ever to find the answer.

**********

Teaspoon's growing concerns prompted him to try to talk with Buck several times, but on each occasion he was met with firm resistance from the young Indian. It seemed the harder he pressed, the wider Buck's stubborn streak became. He had even snapped back at his employer a few times. Normally, Teaspoon would not have put up with such disrespect, but losing Ike's belongings in such a terrible way seemed to bring on a new wave of grief and it was obvious Buck was having a hard time dealing with the added loss. The sight of the burned out barn in the yard served as a constant reminder, but clearing away the rubble was a large task and would take some time.

In addition to his ill temper, the Express family was startled by changes in Buck's appearance. His dark eyes, once full of warmth, were now flat and empty. Always well groomed, Buck no longer seemed to care if his hair was combed or if his shirt was clean, let alone tucked in. The absence of his medicine pouch was noticed by everyone. The only time anyone remembered seeing him without it was when they went swimming. He even wore it when he slept. But when questioned about the pouch, he flatly refused to comment.

At one time or another Teaspoon had helped each of his young charges wrestle with obstacles in their lives and, although his hair grew a little grayer with each incident, they had always been able to sort things out. But this was different. Teaspoon didn't have a clue how to handle Buck and it weighed on him. Fearing he would only push the boy further away, he stopped questioning him. He couldn't force Buck to talk if he didn't want to. Teaspoon thought perhaps he would benefit by going back to work, but Doctor Barnes wanted him to wait at least another week. Buck's injury had provided him with a great deal of idle time. Long hours spent dwelling on things that could not be changed. Riding for the Express again would keep him busy and give him something else to think about. Surely once he started being productive again his attitude would improve - if they could only tolerate him until then.

**********

The sounds of snoring filled the bunkhouse as Buck removed the bottle from its hiding place and drank the last few drops. At first he had needed only a small amount of laudanum, just a swallow, to obtain the desired effects, but in the days since the fire, he found it took more to satisfy his cravings. But even when he drank more, the results were not the same. Rather than making him feel good, the laudanum only kept him from feeling bad. Buck wondered what had changed. He awoke every morning with a gnawing need that returned through the day with regularity. The laudanum no longer offered comfort, but rather demanded obedience.

He knew the bottle hidden under his bunk was almost gone, but he had been unable to retrieve the one hidden in the tree trunk. Knowing his supply of the medicine was running short, he had tried to lengthen the time between doses, but it was hard on him.

For some reason Teaspoon had decided to spend more time at the station. Barnett took the peace keeping duties during the day when Teaspoon felt very little could go wrong, and, between naps, he maintained order at night. It seemed every time he turned around, Teaspoon or Kid was there, making it impossible to sneak away.

The minutes slowly crept by as Buck listened to the ticking of the clock on the shelf. The sound was distant, but as the night wore on, it seemed to be coming from inside his head, each tick exploding like a gunshot while he tossed and turned. His body ached as every fiber of his being screamed out for more of the drug. Afraid the screams might find their way to his mouth, he buried his face in the feather pillow to prevent them from slipping out.

When he could finally take no more, Buck grabbed his clothes and crept as quietly as he could out of the bunkhouse, stopping for a moment on the porch to dress. His trousers and boots went on fairly easily, but his hands were shaking so badly, buttoning his shirt was impossible. His fingers fumbling with the buttons, he abandoned the attempt, leaving the shirt undone.

Although heavy clouds hung low in the sky, hiding the light from the moon and stars, Buck was certain he could find his way to the hiding place. His panic level rose a notch when he realized that the riders' regular mounts were stabled at the livery until a new corral could be built. The only horses at the station were the new ones recently purchased from the Sioux. Green broke at best, none of them were suitable for a ride through the dark prairie at night.

He wrapped his arms tightly around his middle, trying to keep himself from falling apart, as he headed out into the street. "Just a little longer" he told himself, but his nerves were jumping around so badly they obviously weren't listening. Buck tried to open the heavy wooden door of the livery, but to his dismay, it wouldn't budge. The owner of the livery had placed a lock on the door. Evidently with a group of trouble makers on the prowl, the business owners of Rock Creek were taking extra precautions.

His frustrations welled up to the point they began to overflow and he kicked repeatedly at the door. Realizing he was only making noise and had no chance of opening the door he stopped and leaned against the wall of the livery, trying to calm himself down. Even though he was standing still, it felt as if everything inside of him was moving too fast. His heart raced and the pounding reverberated in his head like a hammer against his skull.

After a few deep breaths, Buck moved away from the livery and tried to look down the street. Perhaps a horse had been left at one of the hitching rails. Even a sway-backed nag would be a blessing at this point. Too dark to see, he dismissed the thought. It was unlikely a horse would have been left out all night, anyway.

Buck turned his attention back to the stable. Surely there was another door or window or mouse hole big enough to squeeze through. The building had only one door, but to his relief, there was a window on the back side. The window, though, had been boarded over in an attempt to prevent someone from breaking in. Buck tried to pry up the bottom board, but it was nailed securely and he only succeeded in scraping his fingertips against the piece of wood.

Buck turned away, scanning the area for something, anything he could use as a tool to pry the boards away from the window. A vague memory drifting through his mind made him stop his search, but the memory wouldn't hold still so he could grasp it. Forcing himself to think, Buck remembered where he had seen bottles of laudanum - beautiful bottles of laudanum lined up neatly in a row. Abandoning all thoughts of riding to the hiding place, Buck half walked, half stumbled along the wall of the livery, back to Main Street and headed in the direction of Doctor Barnes' office.

Standing in the quiet darkness outside the door to the physician's office, Buck contemplated what he was about to do. He rubbed his hands nervously up and down his arms, trying to keep his skin from crawling. He knew this was wrong, but he had no choice. If he didn't do something, he feared his skin might just crawl right off his bones and there he would be in the morning, nothing but a skeleton on the boardwalk.

Buck quickly glanced around in search of something to break through one of the panes of glass that made up the window in the door. Finding nothing usable, he turned away from the door, took a deep breath, drew his elbow up and then smashed it back into one of the panes of glass near the doorknob. The pane broke in a spray of shattered glass. The impact with the window sent shock waves of pain through his elbow and blood trickled down his arm, but he wasted no time thinking about it. Buck quickly reached through the broken window, cutting his hand on the jagged edges of remaining glass as he searched blindly for the lock on the door.

**********

Teaspoon stopped at the outer edge of town, yawning as he placed his half eaten sandwich in his coat pocket. It had been a quiet and uneventful night in Rock Creek. Surely at this late hour, it was safe to assume it would stay that way.

"Gettin' too old for such hours," Teaspoon mumbled as he turned back towards town and headed through the side streets to his office and the promise of a little sleep on the cot in the empty jail cell.

**********

Finally locating the lock, Buck opened the door from the inside. The sound of glass breaking against the floor under his feet echoed into the night as he stepped into the office and closed the door. He leaned against the door for a moment, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.

Buck pictured the layout of the office in his mind and headed in the direction of the examining room. In his haste he didn't notice Doc's heavy desk chair blocking his path and tripped over the obstacle. Startled and unable to catch himself, Buck fell to the floor, biting his lip to hold back a cry of pain as he landed on his throbbing elbow. Struggling to his knees, he felt through the darkness for something to help him regain his bearings in the dark room. To his surprise, his hand brushed against the smooth wood door separating the two rooms. Expecting the door to be closed, he grabbed for the support of the doorknob and tried to pull himself to his feet. The door wasn't completely closed though and opened quickly under the pressure of his hand, sending him sprawling to the floor once again. Crawling to the examining table, Buck used the solid piece for leverage, and finally regained his footing.

To his relief, the heavy cloud cover had lifted somewhat, allowing a thin stream of moonlight to enter the room through the small window. Buck closed his eyes trying to remember the last time he had been in the room. He remembered Doc Barnes giving him a bottle of laudanum from a cabinet with a glass door on the wall near the window. Using the table for support he crossed the room and found the cabinet with no difficulty. His goal only a few inches away, Buck ran his hand over the cabinet in search of the latch, but the door resisted as he tried to open it.

Buck clenched his hand into a fist, intent on breaking the glass door, but fearing the force might also break the glass bottles inside, he stopped.

"Think," he demanded himself. Buck closed his eyes tightly, trying to remember. In his mind, he saw the doctor opening the cabinet door, but he didn't go directly to the cabinet. He needed a . . .

Buck turned quickly to the desk by the window and ripped open the small drawer, rummaging through the contents until his hand fell upon the desired item inside. His hands shaking and his palms wet with sweat, he withdrew the small key. Using both hands to hold it steady, he inserted the key into the lock on the cabinet. Buck let out a deep sigh of relief as the door opened and the bottles of laudanum were finally within his reach.

He reached slowly into the cabinet and touched the first bottle to make sure it was real and not a trick. The bottle was solid and dependable and his for the taking. As carefully as he could, Buck wrapped his hand around the cool glass, withdrew it and quickly removed the cork. He brought the bottle to his lips and swallowed so quickly his throat clogged and he began to choke. Coughing and sputtering, he lost his balance and fell against the wall beside the cabinet.

After a few minutes, Buck felt a calmness coming and his racing hurt began to slow, the hunger inside him fed. Finally trusting his legs to support him, he pushed away from the wall and started to leave the room, but was drawn back to the cabinet. He quickly reached for a second bottle, tucked it into the waistband of his trousers and hastily left the office.

Once outside, the cool night air against his sweaty skin sent a shiver through him. Intending to return to the bunkhouse by the side streets, he turned at the corner of the building and entered the alleyway between the doctor's office and the building next door. Exhausted by the ordeal, Buck stopped halfway through the alley and leaned against the brick wall. The cool bricks felt good against his hot skin and he closed his eyes for a moment to rest. The sound of a dog barking made him jump.

A stray dog took offense to an intruder's presence in his alley and began to bark and growl at Buck.

"Gus, is that you?" Teaspoon's voice bellowed from the end of the alley. He held up his lantern to illuminate the passageway. Thankfully, it didn't carry very far.

Buck pressed himself against the brick wall. Inhaling sharply to make himself thinner, he wished with all his might for the cloud cover to return.

"C'mon, boy," Teaspoon called to the dog and walked a few steps into the alley. The stray dog had become a familiar site to the Marshal, often accompanying him on his late night rounds. Gus had been as good a name as any.

The dog stopped barking at the sound of a friendly voice, but was still reluctant to move away from the trespasser. With a little more coaxing from Teaspoon, he turned away and ran toward the promise of a good scratch from a kind hand.

"What you after, Gus? You got a rat or possum cornered in there?" Teaspoon asked, as he knelt down beside the dog and stroked his head.

The dog caught the scent of Teaspoon's left-over sandwich and tried to poke his muzzle into the Marshal's coat pocket.

"Now I do believe that is mine," Teaspoon said in mock disapproval and stood back up. "But," he said, pulling the sandwich from his pocket, "I reckon you need it more that I do." Teaspoon tore off a piece of the sandwich and tossed it at the dog. The hungry animal snatched it in mid-air and sat waiting expectantly for another piece.

"You're a good ol' boy, Gus. Ain't much to look at . . . but a good ol' boy," Teaspoon said as he threw another piece to the dog. Cocking an eyebrow at the beggar, he added, "S'pose that's why we get along so well."

Buck pressed himself tighter against the wall, listening to the one-sided conversation at the end of the alley. Fearing Teaspoon would investigate what the dog had been barking at, he began to inch slowly against the wall in the direction opposite Teaspoon's voice.

"C'mon, Gus," Teaspoon called to the dog. "You can keep a tired old man company."

The dog found the sandwich more appealing than tormenting the frightened young Indian in the alley and readily followed Teaspoon down the side street.

Buck finally exhaled as Teaspoon and the dog disappeared behind the next building. Creeping along the brick wall back to the porch in front of the doctor's office, he hid in the shadows and waited impatiently for the light in Teaspoon's lantern to cross Main Street and disappear into the Marshal's office in the next block.

Feeling somewhat safe, Buck moved out of the shadows and leaned on the porch rail. Exhausted, he wanted nothing more than to sink down on the boardwalk and rest, but it was too risky to stay there. Gathering all the energy he could find, he quietly slipped through the night.

Chapter 9

"Well, it's about time he got here!" Cody said at the sound of Teaspoon's boots on the porch steps.

"I can't hold 'em off much longer, Teaspoon," Rachel said, shooing the flies away from the platters on the supper table. The smell of freshly baked bread wafted its way through the bunkhouse as Teaspoon closed the door behind him and assumed his place at the head of the table.

"Hold off who? The flies or this fine assembly of Express riders?" Teaspoon asked, stuffing his napkin into his collar.

"Both, I'm afraid," Rachel answered, waving her hand at the persistent pests.

"My, my, Rachel," Teaspoon said, gazing in awe at the table before him. "This looks like a fine meal. Today a holiday I don't know 'bout or somethin'?"

Rachel smiled and shook her head, "No. It's not a holiday. It's not often that everyone is home at the same time, so I thought I'd make supper a little special tonight. The table's a bit crowded, but we'll manage." Taking her place beside Teaspoon, Rachel added, "There's cake after supper if anyone's interested."

"Well, let's dig in then, before the buzzin' varmints carry it away!" Teaspoon exclaimed.

"Where you been all day, Teaspoon?" Jimmy asked. "Thought Barnett was upholdin' the law durin' the day."

"In your absence today, Teaspoon," Cody chimed in, "I took it upon myself to supervise and I must say, Jimmy don't work near as hard when you ain't here."

"Like hell!" Jimmy retorted, reaching past Cody for the bowl of potatoes. "Somebody's gotta make up for your lazy butt."

"Now, Jimmy," Cody replied and motioned to his injured ankle propped up on a chair. "You know I'm under a doctor's care. The healin' process can't be hurried."

Jimmy was about to express his view of Cody's healing process when Teaspoon interrupted.

"Sorry to disappoint y'all, but there was a matter of the law to attend to today."

"What happened, Teaspoon?" Lou asked, fighting for her space between Kid and Noah at the crowded table.

"Well, it seems Doc Barnes' office was broke into last night. Must have been awful late. Town was quiet when I made my last rounds at three o'clock."

Buck sat quietly at the far end of the table, trying not to let his nervousness show. He knew Teaspoon would investigate the break in and it would, most likely, be the topic of conversation around the supper table. He had hurriedly helped himself to the replenished supply of laudanum under his bunk to calm his fraying nerves before Rachel called them to the table, but it wasn't helping. Not wanting to bring attention to himself, he tried to show an appropriate amount of interest in Teaspoon's story.

"Did Doctor Barnes keep valuables in his office?" Rachel asked. "Of all the businesses in town to rob, a doctor's office is a strange choice."

"According to Doc, only thing missin' is two bottles of laudanum," Teaspoon answered between bites.

"Why would somebody steal medicine?" Noah asked. Curious looks from the others echoed the question. "If somebody needed Doc, why didn't they wake him up? He's probably been woke up in the night lots of times before."

"What's so special about laudanum, Teaspoon?" Kid asked. "Why take that and not somethin' else?"

"Well, since laudanum is used to relieve pain, I reckon somebody might have got shot up runnin' from the law and didn't want to make himself known by gettin' Doc, but I ain't received no word of it."

"Don't make no sense then," Jimmy said.

"I'm bettin' on somebody local, anyway," Teaspoon added. "The front window was busted in, but whoever it was used the key to get into the medicine cabinet. Somebody passin' through wouldn't have known where the key was. Can't imagine many local folk knew where it was, either." After another bite, Teaspoon went on. "Got himself cut up from busting out the window, though. There was some blood on the floor of the office."

Buck's back stiffened as he looked down at his hand. The cuts made by the jagged edge of the glass as he reached through the broken window had, thankfully, not been deep enough to require much attention. It would have been a difficult injury to explain. He had tended to the cuts as best he could, but they were still visible. Buck glanced up to make sure no one was watching as he placed his fork in his right hand and dropped his left hand into his lap.

"Doc's got some suspicions 'bout why laudanum was taken," Teaspoon said. "Seems that along with relievin' pain, it's got some qualities that other medicines don't. Evidently some folks crave it like a drunkard needs a bottle of whiskey."

"But it's medicine," Rachel said.

Teaspoon nodded. "It's medicine, but a powerful one from what Doc says. Most folks use it for pain relief, but according to Doc, it can produce a feelin' similar to being drunk. If you drink too much of it, a body develops what Doc called a 'need' for the medicine. Doc admits he don't know all that much about this, but apparently those poor souls who have this 'need' will do most anything necessary to fill it. That's why he don't give his patients very much. Anyway, he thinks that's why it was stolen."

Kid's fork stopped in mid-air at the reference to liquor. Only a few days before, he had attributed Buck's odd behavior to drinking. He quickly glanced toward the end of the table for a reaction from Buck, but his head was hung so low Buck's face was covered by a curtain of hair.

Teaspoon scratched his chin and said, "Now that I think about it, I remember when I was in the Army, couple of fellas kept askin' for somethin' to relieve their pain long after their wounds had healed. I didn't give it much thought at the time, too busy fighting off Santa Anna's boys I guess. But, I reckon somethin' like what Doc described could have happened to them."

With each question and comment Buck felt the carefully guarded wall of secrecy built around him begin to crumble. The others were showing too much interest in this subject. He would have liked to change the topic of conversation, but he spoke so rarely at the table anymore, it would be too obvious. Buck could hear the rapid pounding of his heart. He glanced up quickly to see if the others could hear it too, but they seemed too engrossed in Teaspoon's story to notice. He tried to concentrate on eating his supper, but an uneasiness in his stomach made each bite he swallowed bounce around inside him and he had to force the food to stay down. Attempting to take his mind off the queasy feeling, Buck fixed his attention on his plate and began to push the food around in intricate patterns.

"Hey, Buck," Cody said, addressing the rider opposite him. "Doc gave you some laudanum when you got hurt. Did it make you feel like that?"

Focusing on the artwork his supper had become, Buck didn't hear the question until Cody repeated himself.

"Oh, Bu-uck," Cody called in a sing-song voice, waving his hands wildly in front of Buck to get his attention.

Jolted out of his daze by Cody's theatrics, Buck looked up at the faces around the table staring at him. Panic grabbed at his throat and he swallowed hard. Why were they looking at him? Did they know?

"What?" he asked cautiously.

"You took laudanum when you got hurt, right?" Cody asked again.

The grip on his throat tightened. "A couple of times."

"How did it make you feel?" Jimmy asked.

"Why?"

Jimmy shrugged. "Just curious is all."

Buck hesitated for a moment, trying to determine if he was stepping into a trap. "Makes you sleepy. That's all . . . just sleepy."

"You think it was those kids again, Teaspoon?" Lou asked directing the conversation to the opposite end of the table.

"Well, I did at first, but I questioned the ones I suspected and they all got rock solid alibis for last night. For the night of the fire, too."

Buck heard Teaspoon's comment, but as if from a distance, as the laudanum finally began to take effect. He was somewhat concerned that the pranksters could not be blamed for the fire, but the swirled design he had made out of his supper was suddenly more interesting.

Kid glanced at Buck again, hoping his growing suspicions were wrong. The sight of the sullen Indian at the end of the bench, picking at his meal, had become commonplace, but something was different with the picture. It took Kid a moment to realize what that difference was. Buck, being left-handed, usually sat at the end of the bench to prevent knocking elbows with a right-handed rider, but he was holding his fork with his right hand. Kid could think of only one reason why Buck would use his right hand over his favored one. It had been cut on the glass in the door of Doctor Barnes' office.

Kid's heart sank as the final pieces of the puzzle fell into place. The doctor had prescribed laudanum to relieve the pain from Buck's broken ribs and he had never stopped taking it. Buck had taken enough of the medicine to become one of those poor souls Teaspoon described. Kid tried to imagine a craving so powerful it could cause someone to steal, but it was beyond him. He tried to put Buck's face on that someone, but pushed the thought away. It was too disturbing. That wasn't the Buck he knew.

"Speakin' of that fire, Mr. Cody," Teaspoon said. "Don't suppose you saw or heard anything unusual in the barn that night."

"Nothin' but some cats scrappin'."

"You know what I think?" Jimmy chuckled. "I think Cody and Lizzy had the loft so heated up it just burst into flames!"

Laughter and good-natured teasing over Cody's lack of discretion continued until Teaspoon felt the boy had been properly embarrassed. "Alright, that's enough," he ordered, trying to contain his own amusement.

Teaspoon leaned back in his chair and hitched his thumbs in his suspenders. "I spent all day thinkin' about fires and robberies and foolishness. Don't wanna think about 'em no more," he said. "We got enough things to take care of around here. The lumber for the new barn oughta be here by week's end. Cody, regardless of what you say, I believe you'll be healed in a few days and Buck will be ridin' again here real soon. Gonna get this place back to runnin' like the top-notch station it is. Now, Missus Dunne, you mentioned cake?"

The sound of laughter interrupted Kid's thoughts and he wondered how Teaspoon could be so blind to the obvious answer. Buck was in serious trouble, but Teaspoon just sat there teasing Cody and eating cake. Why couldn't he see it?

Deep disappointment settled on Kid as he cast another quick glance at the quiet figure at the end of the table. Buck had changed in less than a month from the honest, compassionate person he thought of as family to a common thief. Kid was certain of it now and the knowledge hurt badly. He began to understand Teaspoon's blindness. It wasn't that Teaspoon couldn't see Buck's problem. He didn't want to.

**********

"I've been wondering where you were," Rachel said as the bunkhouse door closed behind Kid. "Where'd you get off to this morning?"

"Needed to go for a ride. Had some thinkin' to do," Kid answered. "You plannin' on doin' some readin'?" he asked, motioning to the stack of books on the table.

Rachel chuckled at the thought that she might have time to read one book, let alone the stack before her. "Not any time soon. These were still in the spare room. I think Lou used them to press the wrinkles out of Ike's picture when it got wet that night. Worked nicely, too," Rachel said as she held up Ike's drawing.

Kid couldn't help but smile at the cartoon-like drawing. He missed that lop-sided grin. They all did.

"I'm gonna put the books away. I'm sure Buck would like the picture back. At least something was saved from the fire," Rachel said, laying the picture on the table. "So what did you need to think about? You and Lou havin' troubles?"

"No. Me and Lou are fine," Kid answered, a little embarrassed. He wondered for a moment how much Rachel knew about his relationship with Lou. Was she aware that he and Lou had spent some time in the loft, too? "I've just had somethin' on my mind."

"Get it sorted out?"

"I think so. Where is everybody?"

"Noah left this morning and I sent everyone else out to the Thomas place. They had a stallion go a little crazy and tore up the corral. Ned's still in St. Jo and Madeline can't mend a corral and keep track of that passel of kids." Rachel smiled and shook her head. "I do love children, but six of them is a handful."

"Is Cody here?"

"He went along to supervise the others," Rachel said smiling, amused at the notion of Billy Cody in charge.

"Did Buck go, too?" Kid asked.

"No. He isn't supposed to lift anything yet."

"Do you know where he is?"

Rachel thought for a moment. "He was in here, but left when I came in to clean up."

"Was he acting strange?"

"No stranger than any other morning lately," Rachel answered. "Why all the questions, Kid?"

Kid hesitated for a moment before answering. He knew his suspicions about Buck were right, but he needed to prove them. "Where's the bottle of laudanum Doc left for Buck when he got hurt?"

Rachel's brow creased in confusion. "I put it in the cupboard. Why?"

"Can you show me where it is?"

Rachel didn't know quite what to make of Kid's request and started to question him, but the look on his face stopped her and instead she crossed the room and opened the cupboard door.

"It's right here behind the coffee and . . ."

Rachel began moving the containers of coffee and molasses around in the small storage compartment, but the bottle was gone. "Well, it was right here."

"You sure it was this cupboard?"

"Yes. I'm sure," Rachel answered, sorting through the containers one more time.

"Could Cody have needed it for his ankle?"

"Well, I suppose, but he never asked me for it. I really don't think his ankle hurt that bad."

Kid sighed heavily and sank down on the bench beside the table. He leaned his elbows on the table and ran his fingers through his hair, contemplating what to do. The bottle wasn't there because Buck had taken it. And when he finished that bottle, he had stolen not just one, but two more from Doctor Barnes. He couldn't prove it though. He considered confronting Buck with his knowledge, but Buck would only deny it and the accusation would make him madder than he already was. He needed proof.

Kid had kept an eye on Buck and knew he had not left the station since the day after the fire. The bottles had to be at the station, but where? His first thought was that the original bottle had been hidden in Ike's trunk in the hayloft. Knowing how possessive Buck was about the trunk, no one would have disturbed it. He quickly dismissed that idea though. With a bunch of freshly broken ribs, it would have been too painful for Buck to climb the ladder to the loft. Kid thought back on Buck's behavior and remembered how surprised he had been watching Buck barely able to move when he woke up, only to seem fine a short while later.

Deep in thought, Kid jumped at Rachel's hand on his shoulder. "Kid, what's goin' on?"

"Rachel, watch the door," Kid said. He rose from the bench and started toward the bunks.

"What are you doin?" Rachel cried as Kid opened the wooden box beside Buck's bed and began rummaging through the articles of clothing inside. Buck's moccasins would make a perfect hiding place, but Kid quickly cast the soft leather boots aside realizing they didn't weigh enough to be hiding a bottle of laudanum inside.

"Kid, stop this right now! You can't just go through Buck's things!"

"Rachel, believe me. I can explain. Please just watch the door," Kid pleaded as he closed the box. Dropping to his hands and knees beside the bunk, he peered under the bed, but found only Ike's sketch pad. Reaching further under the bed, his hand rubbed against a piece of cloth hanging down from the wooden slats holding the mattress. Kid tugged at the fabric, but the weight of the mattress held it firmly in place.

Rachel stood at the foot of the bunk, shocked by Kid's trespassing. "Buck's gonna throw a fit if he finds out you've been in his things and I won't blame him one bit!"

"I've got a reason, Rachel," Kid assured the fuming housekeeper as he lifted the edge of the mattress.

"Then, I'd like to know what . . ." Rachel stopped in mid-sentence as Kid pulled a nearly full bottle of laudanum and a familiar blue shirt from under the mattress. A closer look revealed another full bottle of laudanum and an empty bottle wrapped in the shirt.

Dark stains marked the right sleeve of the shirt and Kid noticed the fabric was ripped in the elbow area. A closer inspection revealed a similar colored stain smeared across the bottom of the shirt.

"He must have used it to wipe the blood off his hand," Kid said, fingering the stain. "Ah, Buck. What have you done?" Kid said. He sat down on the floor and leaned back against the neighboring bunk, the heavy reality of Buck's problem falling like a rock into the pit of his stomach.

"It was Buck? Why?" Rachel asked and sank down on the bunk beside Kid.

"I knew somethin' was wrong, but you know how he's been since Ike died. He won't say anything."

"What are we gonna do?" Rachel asked.

Kid thought he would feel better when the truth was known, but he didn't. Why couldn't one of the others have found it? he asked himself. Because you were so damned determined, that's why. He didn't want to get his friend into further trouble, but Buck needed help and Kid knew he certainly didn't know how to offer it. Teaspoon knew about a lot of things, but he didn't know about this. From the sounds of it, Doctor Barnes didn't have much experience with this kind of problem either.

Deciding he had no choice, Kid pushed himself to his feet. "Stay here 'til I get back, alright? Buck won't come lookin' for these if someone's in here," he said. Rachel nodded in agreement.

Kid gathered up the bottles and bloody shirt and placed them in a cloth bag Rachel found in the cupboard. He tied the top of the bag closed and headed out of the bunkhouse toward the Marshal's office.

**********

Teaspoon stepped out of Doc Barnes' office and quietly closed the door behind him. He shook his head sadly at the temporary repairs made on the broken window in the door. The window had not yet been properly repaired and Doc had nailed a piece of wood to the door to cover the broken pane of glass.

Teaspoon walked across the boardwalk and leaned heavily on the porch post, watching the residents of Rock Creek as they carried out the simple acts of their ordinary lives. Routine business transactions. Meaningless social chatter. Mundane tasks of everyday life. Although his life had been colorful, Teaspoon never felt it was very complicated, even with the baggage of six marriages. His life was simple and he liked it that way. Teaspoon's outlook on life was based on a few elementary principles: Never give less than your best, choose your friends wisely and your enemies with even greater care and never do anything that would cause you to be unable to face the mirror in the morning.

These rules had served him well his many years and he hoped to instill the same guidelines in the rag-tag bunch of kids he gathered together a year earlier. They were good kids. He could see it from the beginning. Sure, they'd been in their share of scrapes, but they were young. It was to be expected and he tried to take their occasional lapses in judgment or impetuous actions in stride. Life didn't have to be hard. But in no more time that it took Kid to dump three glass bottles and a bloody shirt on his desk, life became very difficult.

Perhaps it was his desire to keep life uncomplicated that had allowed him to dismiss Buck's behavior as grief and not something more serious. As Kid emptied the contents of the bag onto his desk, he had asked, "Do you believe me now?" Even while Teaspoon touched the dried blood on the shirt he had hoped for a plausible explanation, but the evidence was clear.

Teaspoon watched a group of boys pass him on the street and felt a twinge of embarrassment that he had questioned them and others all over town about the robbery, only to find the guilty party was under his own roof.

As if developing a dependence on a bottle of laudanum wasn't bad enough, now a crime had been committed to obtain it. As crimes go, it wasn't that severe. Breaking and entering and petty theft. Restitution and a little jail time would settle it. But it had been committed by one of his kids. Might as well have been an armed bank robbery. The greater crime couldn't hurt any more than this did. The thought that one of his riders, the sensible one at that, was capable of such destructive behavior, both to himself and the property of others, distressed Teaspoon deeply. Buck was smarter than that.

But perhaps being smart didn't have anything to do with it. Doctor Barnes had explained the effects laudanum was capable of producing and it made sense that Buck could have fallen prey to the drug. Buck had discovered that not only did laudanum ease the pain in his chest, but also relieved the ache in his heart.

Teaspoon wondered if the boy had any idea what he was doing to himself every time he took a drink. Or was the relief so welcome that he didn't allow himself to notice his growing dependence? Why couldn't he have just said something? Was it his damned pride that kept him from admitting he needed help? Did he know what he had become and was too ashamed to reveal it? Or was it because the only person in the world he trusted enough to talk to was dead?

Teaspoon had gone to Doctor Barnes for several reasons. As Marshal, he had a duty to the citizens of Rock Creek and was obligated to report his findings about the robbery. But as station manager, surrogate father and friend, he needed to know how to help Buck. Admittedly, not well versed on the matter, Doc Barnes had initially suggested sending Buck to a hospital in St. Louis or Chicago where there were physicians with a greater knowledge of such things. One of his medical journals described new treatments involving a "galvanic bath"*, a "motion cure"** or the simple act of withholding the drug from the affected patient. Teaspoon flatly refused to consider sending the boy away. Buck was his responsibility. He knew nothing of the complex cures described in the journal, but if depriving Buck of laudanum was all that was necessary to eliminate the need his body had developed, then that's what they would do. The journal indicated that the amount of time and difficulty in overcoming the dependence would hinge upon how much laudanum had been ingested. It concerned Teaspoon that Doctor Barnes remembered Buck asking for another bottle shortly after his accident. Buck's excuse that he had spilled the first bottle seemed reasonable to the Doctor at the time, but they now realized it had been a lie. There was another bottle somewhere. What had he done with it? How much had he drank?

Teaspoon returned the full bottle of laudanum to Doctor Barnes, but kept the one Buck had been using. He looked at the seemingly innocent bottle of medicine in his hands with disgust and slipped it into his coat pocket. How could a life be so drastically altered by a simple bottle of medicine? Teaspoon felt a strange combination of disappointment, anger and fear as he stepped into the street and headed in the direction of the station.

**********

Buck stared at the rubble for the better part of an hour before he summoned the courage to approach it. He hadn't intended to even look at the pile of charred lumber until the sun's reflection on a piece of metal caught his eye. He had made a point to stay as far away as possible from the site, fearing the burned out building would come alive and pull him into the darkness where he belonged. But the piece of metal beckoned him and he felt compelled to answer.

Most of the large pieces of the barn that had not perished in the fire had been pulled down and hauled away, leaving only large piles of unidentifiable debris and burned lumber. But as Buck stepped through the ruins and located the piece of metal, he knew exactly what it was. The triangular shaped hinge was still attached to the splintered piece of wood that had been a part of the back of Ike's trunk. The nails holding the hinge in place had been jarred loose by the impact with the ground and the metal hinge now clung to the wood by only one of the three nails that had originally held it in place.

Buck reached out cautiously toward the hinge as if it was capable of hurting him. He suddenly felt that he was being watched and turned quickly to see who was there, but saw no one. The yard was surprisingly empty and for a moment he wondered where everyone was. Buck warily glanced around again before returning his attention to the hinge. He debated with himself for a few minutes over why he felt he needed to touch it. It was nothing special, just a piece of refuse to be hauled away. But in the end, he reached down to retrieve the piece of metal. Its touch burned into him as memories of his failure flashed through his mind. He felt someone looking at him again and quickly turned around, nearly losing his balance in the pile of rubble, looking for the eyes. He knew them. The eyes that had once projected acceptance and kindness now hurled disappointment and anger at him.

"I'm sorry," Buck mumbled, trying to turn away from Ike's steely gaze. His efforts to avoid the dead man's stare proved futile as every time Buck turned away, the eyes followed. He turned around again and again, trying to escape Ike's glare, until he grew dizzy and stumbled into the pile of debris.

"I'm sorry!" he cried again as the damaged wood gave way under his weight and, as he feared, the blackened remains of the barn began to pull him in.

Buck struggled to his feet, quickly escaping the clutches of the barn. Reaching the safety of the bunkhouse, he sank down on the porch steps and tried to reason with himself. What was he thinking? Someone's eyes don't just float around in mid-air, waiting to attack. His imagination was just getting the best of him. But Buck did feel as if he was under attack, not only by the daggers cast from the eyes of his dead friend, but the questions at the supper table, Kid's persistent presence, Teaspoon's prodding and the demands of his own body. The bottle of laudanum might be the cause of those demands, but it was also the cure.

**********

Buck lifted the mattress of his bunk and reached underneath for the familiar glass container. It wasn't there. His puzzlement turned to panic as his hand roamed further under the mattress and across the wooden slats supporting the bed. His stomach flip-flopped and he felt a little queasy. Perhaps the bottles had merely fallen to the floor. They would still be hidden under the bunk. There was no need to worry.

Buck quickly dropped to the floor and peered under the bunk, but his frantic search yielded nothing. He fought back a sudden rush of nausea as he realized his secret had been discovered. Someone knew. Fear and anger and resentment converged in a violent storm as he jumped to his feet, tore the sheet and blankets from his bed and threw them across the room. He had trusted the mattress to guard his secret, but it had betrayed him and allowed someone to enter his hiding place. Buck pulled his knife from its sheath and plunged it into the traitor, ripping the cloth covering to shreds before tossing the mattress aside.

Buck stood in the midst of the battleground, his chest heaving. He felt it again.

"Stop it!" he cried out into the empty room. His knife slipped from his hand and dropped to the floor as he searched for Ike's eyes.

"This is your fault! You died and left me alone!"

A surge of suppressed resentment burst into the open. Buck ripped the bedclothes from Ike's bunk and tossed them on the floor, then hurled the pillow against the wall.

"You didn't have to die! Why was she more important than me?" he cried and picked up the mattress from Ike's bunk and heaved it away. He spotted Ike's sketch pad on the floor, grabbed it up and sent it spinning through the air. The pad of paper hit the wall and fell to the floor, its pages fluttering.

Buck grabbed the wooden slats from Ike's bunk and one by one sent them flying across the room, then kicked or threw or tore at anything in reach that wasn't nailed down. Finally spent, he leaned back against the post supporting the top bunk and drew a quivering breath. He had to leave. He didn't know where to go, but he couldn't stay at the station any longer. He would get the other bottle hidden in the tree and just ride away. He didn't care where. Buck reached for his knife and replaced it in the sheath on his boot. His decision made, he felt a little calmer and stepped away from the battle zone.

A piece of paper lying on the table stopped him as he headed for the door and his new life without the Express. Buck's resentment returned in full force as he picked up the drawing of Ike and stared back at the likeness of his best friend.

"It's your fault," he said. Buck wadded up the piece of paper into a tight ball and threw it into the mess on the floor of the bunkhouse.

He rushed out the door onto the porch, but stopped, dead in his tracks, at the sight of Teaspoon standing at the bottom of the steps.

"We need to have a talk, son," Teaspoon said, moving toward the bottom step.

Buck stood perfectly still, assessing his chances for escape as Teaspoon continued. "You lookin' for this?" he asked as he pulled the bottle of laudanum from his coat pocket.

"That's not yours," Buck answered.

"Well, seein' as you stole it from Doc Barnes, it ain't yours neither," Teaspoon said and slowly moved up the step. "Buck… I talked to Doc and I understand what's happened to you . . . whether you do or not. You've developed a need for this and . . . "

"I don't need it!" Buck interrupted. "It makes me feel better, that's all. You wanted me to feel better, didn't you?"

"I want you to feel better, Buck, but not with this . . . not like this. This ain't no way to live. Needin' a bottle of medicine to get through the day."

"I told you I don't need it! I can stop anytime I want to!"

"Then you won't mind if I do this," Teaspoon said as he removed the cork and poured the contents of the bottle on the porch steps.

Buck gasped and his eyes opened wide as he watched the laudanum splatter against the wooden boards.

"Thought so," Teaspoon said sadly and dropped the empty bottle to the ground. "Now, Doc says all you gotta do to get over this is just stop takin' it, so we're gonna go away for a little while. I figure we'll head out to that old cabin by the lake where Jack Bailey used to live. It's quiet, real peaceful. Private, too. We're just gonna stay there 'til this is over."

The panic building up inside Buck threatened to overflow as Teaspoon spoke. Memories of the misery he endured the night he broke into the doctor's office came rushing back with such force he stepped backward, away from the man who wanted to inflict that on him again.

"And if I don't want to?" Buck asked jutting his chin forward, trying to mask his panic with defiance.

"Buck, I ain't givin' you the choice," Teaspoon answered. "Now, I'd really prefer you did this willingly, but like it or not, you're comin' with me and this is gonna stop."

"Why? Just because you say so?" Buck spat at the man standing in front of him. "You think that tin star pinned on your chest makes you so important. Such a big white man. Throwin' your power around . . . do this . . . do that. Well, I've had enough of it! You're just like all the rest. Just like the white government trying to force my people off their land . . . no different than the white bastard who forced himself on my mother. You can't force me to do anything."

Teaspoon shook his head sadly at the angry young man. This wasn't Buck. This was a frightened animal backed against a wall.

"You broke the law, Buck, and this tin star gives me the authority to haul you to jail. Now, Doc Barnes, bein' the kind soul he is, don't want that and he ain't gonna press charges 'less you don't cooperate. You fight me and you'll be spending some time in a cell."

"You wouldn't dare."

"Watch me."

Buck crossed his arms defensively over his chest and began to shift his weight from one foot to another. "So that's what this is really about. You can't stand that I never paid for killin' Neville. You wanted me punished and this is how you're gonna do it."

Teaspoon hung his head in despair. What happened to this boy? "Buck, I ain't tryin' to punish you, son." He took a step forward, but his advance only caused Buck to retreat further. "I couldn't love you more if you were my own. You're hurtin' yourself and it's got to stop."

Buck's head snapped toward Rachel's pleading voice as she appeared outside the railing at the end of the porch. "Please listen to him, Buck."

Startled by a voice behind him, Buck whipped around to face Kid in the doorway. He had evidently been waiting in the spare room off the bunkhouse.

"C'mon, Buck," Kid said. "It's time to stop."

So that's where they had been earlier, Buck thought. Hiding out, waiting for an opportunity to trap him. The need to escape overwhelmed him and he tried to run past Teaspoon, but the older man anticipated that he would bolt and blocked him. Teaspoon reached out, but Buck recoiled from his touch.

"Don't fight me, Buck," Teaspoon pleaded.

Buck stood motionless - Kid a few steps behind him, Teaspoon in front - trying to find a way out of the trap. He hung his head and hunched his shoulders forward, hoping the posture of defeat would make his assailants drop their guard. The act was convincing.

"That's my boy," Teaspoon said and relaxed his stance.

Buck capitalized on Teaspoon's lapse and bolted past him. Kid was after him in a heartbeat and before Buck could jump down the steps, he grabbed his arm and spun him around. Kid's fist connected with Buck's jaw in an uppercut that lifted the young Indian off his feet and sent him sprawling onto the floor of the porch.

Teaspoon sighed heavily at the site of Buck's limp, unconscious body at his feet. "I was really hopin' that weren't gonna be necessary, Kid."

"I'm sorry, Teaspoon, but he wasn't gonna listen."

"I know . . . I know. This didn't go as well as I hoped. Not even close." The older man bent over Buck and examined his already swelling face. "Let's just hope you didn't break his jaw. You don't have to come, Kid. He's gonna be madder than a wet hornet when he wakes up and he's liable to hate me before this is over. Don't want him hatin' you, too."

Kid rubbed at his knuckles and glanced from his throbbing hand to the bruise forming on Buck's jaw. "I think it's a little late to be worried about that now."

* "Outlines of the Opium-Cure" by Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Harper & Brothers, Publishers 1868 "Another most important means of alleviation is the galvanic (i.e. to stimulate or shock with an electric current) bath. Many a sufferer who seems quite a discouraging subject under the dry method of administering galvanism responds to it at once transmitted through a bath, and in any case this is a no less beneficial way of using it. The skin is so much better a conductor when wet, and the distribution by water so uniform, that in most cases it may be pronounced the best way."

** "Outlines of the Opium-Cure" by Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Harper & Brothers, Publishers 1868 "He is stripped to his shirt, dressing-gown, and drawers, and laid on his back along a comfortable stuffed-leather settee, running quite through whose bottom are a number of holes about four by three and a half inches. These holes are occupied by loose-fitting pistons which play vertically up through the cushion -- lying level with it when at rest, and when in motion projecting about two inches above it; at the height of their stroke. Motion is secured to them by crank connection with a light shaft running beneath the settee, revolved by a band-wheel, which in its turn connects by a belt with the small engine outside the building. The patient is adjusted over the holes so that, in coming up, the pistons, which are covered with stuffed leather pads, strike him alternately on each side of the spine, from about the region of the kidneys to just beneath the shoulder-blade. The shifting of a lever throws the machine into gear, and for the next five minutes, or as long as he experiences relief, the artificial fists pummel and knead him at any rate of speed desired, according to the adjustment of a brake. This process over, if he still feels pain in the lower extremities, his foot is buckled upon an iron sole which oscillates in any direction according to its method of connection with the power, from side to side, so as to twist the leg about forty-five degrees each way, up and down, to imitate the trotting of the foot.

Chapter 10

Buck awoke to a pounding headache as the wagon wheel bounced across a rut in the trail. He was confused for a moment, but it didn't take long for the pain in his jaw to remind him what had happened - and why.

He tried to raise his head, but a sudden rush of dizziness forced him to lie back down on the layer of quilts on the bed of the wagon.

How thoughtful of them, Buck thought sarcastically, as his head touched the soft layers of fabric. At least I'll be cozy while they haul me away against my will.

As the dizziness subsided, Buck opened his eyes and found he was able to assess his situation without moving around too much. The wagon bounced uneasily over rough terrain telling him they were traveling through the open prairie and not on an established road. He remembered Teaspoon telling him they were going to a lake somewhere . . . somewhere quiet and peaceful . . . and that they would stay there until he didn't need laudanum any longer.

Better think again, old man, he thought bitterly.

Turning his attention to the wagon itself, Buck noticed a stack of hastily loaded provisions beside him. If he hadn't known better, it would appear as if they were headed for a Sunday afternoon outing in the country.

Yeah, it's gonna be some picnic.

Buck twisted his head around just enough to see Teaspoon's gray hair confirming that his adversary was at the reins. He listened closely for the sound of other horses, but could only make out the gait of one other animal. Without even looking, he knew the horse was Katy and mounted on Katy would be the ever present, do-gooder, Kid.

Surprised they didn't all come along to watch.

Wondering what time it was, Buck slowly turned onto his back and searched the sky for the sun, shielding his eyes against the bright afternoon rays. He estimated it was mid-afternoon, two or three o'clock, which meant they had probably been traveling a while. He assumed they had left shortly after he'd been ambushed. But where were they going? Teaspoon mentioned a man's name, but the pain in his head kept him from thinking hard enough to remember it.

Buck began to feel the familiar need for laudanum. It nudged him, shook him a little, reminding him it was there. It was only an uneasy feeling, but he knew from experience the discomfort the next hours would bring and each creak of the wagon wheel took him further away from the antidote to the coming misery. The need to know where he was overcame the pain in his head and Buck slowly pushed himself up.

**********

A muffled groan from the back of the wagon alerted Teaspoon that his passenger was awake and he turned around to see the young Indian struggling to sit up, gingerly holding his jaw. Teaspoon felt badly that it had come to that. He had hoped that once Buck knew he had been found out, he would come along willingly, but that certainly hadn't been the case.

"You doin' alright, Buck?" he asked.

Buck's back stiffened at the voice, but he made no reply.

"Did you hear me, son?" Teaspoon asked, but again there was no answer. Teaspoon turned toward Kid, riding behind the wagon, but Kid shrugged his shoulders. Buck's head was bowed and he couldn't determine his condition, either.

"Well, we need to stop for a while anyway," Teaspoon said and applied the brake. He stepped over the wooden seat into the bed of the wagon, grabbing his canteen on the way. The Marshal stretched for a moment to relieve the stiffness that had settled in his joints, then knelt down beside the silent young man.

Buck slowly raised his head. His unforgiving stare locked with the eyes of the man in front of him - neither of them blinking or turning away. For a moment it appeared to be a contest of endurance until Teaspoon opened the canteen and offered it to Buck. Although he was thirsty, Buck wasn't interested in anything the older man had to offer. Teaspoon took off his bandana, folded it into a neat square and soaked it with cold water from the canteen.

"This oughta help the swellin' some," he said, trying to apply the compress to Buck's face. Buck quickly turned his head away.

Teaspoon sighed heavily and motioned for Kid to dismount and join them.

Kid left Katy to graze and walked around the wagon toward Teaspoon. Buck couldn't hear their conversation, but was certain he was the main topic. He shifted to a more comfortable position and stretched his legs out in front of him, biting back his anger when he noticed that the knife sheath on his boot was empty.

Now who's the thief?

With Teaspoon's attention diverted from him, Buck used the opportunity to scan the area. He thought he recognized where they were, but what good did it do him? Even if he could get past his captors, he didn't have a horse to escape on . . . or did he?

Buck's gaze fell on the painted mare grazing a short distance behind the wagon. He then cast a hurried glance at Kid and Teaspoon to ensure they were still occupied in conversation.

Serve him right to lose his precious horse.

Buck quickly vaulted over the side of the wagon, sprinting toward Katy as soon as his feet touched the ground.

Kid darted after him from the opposite side of the wagon. Under normal circumstances it would have been a close race, but Buck's chest had not yet completely healed and it slowed him, allowing Kid to overtake him easily. Katy shied away nervously as the two riders tumbled onto the grass a few feet from her. The impact against his bruised chest caused Buck to momentarily lose his focus and Kid used the opportunity to pin his breathless opponent to the ground.

"Don't make me hurt you, again!" Kid cried as Buck struggled for freedom.

Teaspoon shook his head sadly, reached for a length of rope in the wagon and headed toward his riders.

"You're makin' this harder than need be, but you ain't givin' me much choice," he said, pulling Buck's arms behind his back. "Hold him down, Kid."

Teaspoon's heavy heart dropped a little further as he securely tied the rope around Buck's wrists.

"Don't fight me, son," he pleaded as Buck struggled against the restraints.

Realizing his efforts were futile, Buck quieted and grimaced in pain as his shoulders began to protest the unnatural posture. Teaspoon sighed heavily, witnessing Buck's discomfort. He loosened the bindings a bit, allowing Buck's shoulders to return to a more tolerable position. His act of kindness went unnoticed though, as Kid relaxed his hold and Buck twisted around to face his tormentor, absolute contempt in his eyes.

Teaspoon and Kid pulled the furious young Indian to his feet, but Buck refused to move and they were forced to drag him the short distance back to the wagon. Teaspoon pulled Buck back onto the pile of quilts on the wagon bed and removed the rider's boots in hopes that he would think twice about trying to run off barefoot, but realized it probably wouldn't stop him and used another length of rope to bind Buck's ankles.

"Teaspoon, is that necessary?" Kid asked quietly as Buck's chest heaved in indignation.

"Well, short of knockin' him out again, you got any better ideas?" Teaspoon asked brusquely.

Kid frowned and shook his head.

"Let's get movin'," Teaspoon said and wearily climbed onto the driver's seat. If anyone had told the Marshal a few days earlier that he would haul off, hog-tie and humiliate his crime committing, opium dependent Kiowa rider, he would have laughed in their face. But that was exactly what he had been forced to do and it was breaking his heart.

Kid mounted Katy and took his place in the rear as the wagon lurched forward. He couldn't help but wonder if perhaps Doctor Barnes had been right in suggesting they send Buck somewhere better equipped to handle his problem. Kid understood that Teaspoon felt responsible for his rider and that those feelings were probably fueled by guilt for not seeing the situation for what it was earlier. But they didn't know what this drug had done to Buck. Kid looked at the stranger sitting in the wagon, staring back at him with such intense anger. It was as if the Buck he knew and loved as a brother had disappeared into that bottle of laudanum and emerged as someone else. Kid didn't like this new Buck, in fact, he was a little frightened by him. Sadly, he wasn't at all sure they would get the old Buck back.

Some friend you turned out to be, Buck thought as he fixed his stare on the rider behind him. Bet you're enjoyin' this, aren't you? /

Kid turned away from Buck's angry eyes only to be pulled back moments later as if by some magnetic force to the Kiowa's unwavering glare.

How does it feel to be watched, Kid?

Kid shifted uneasily in his saddle, occupying himself with the landscape, a bird overhead, the patterns of Katy's coat, but Buck's fiery glare was still there.

Buck found Kid's obvious discomfort so amusing, he was disappointed when Kid could finally take no more and kicked Katy's flanks, urging her to the front of the procession. Buck enjoyed causing Kid's distress. In spite of the pain in his face, he smiled.

**********

Teaspoon was right. It was a quiet, peaceful place. Buck recognized it. He and the other riders had been there once to help Teaspoon's friend, Jack Bailey, break a mustang with a wide mean streak. The cabin didn't look occupied now, though. Buck seemed to remember Teaspoon talking about old man Bailey a while back. Something about a mail order bride and moving to St. Joseph or Leavenworth or somewhere.

The cabin was built beside a small lake, nearly at the water's edge. On a quiet night, one could sit on the small porch and hear the water lapping at the shore. The log building was small and simple, nothing more than a single man would have needed. It would be a nice place to spend a few quiet days, but Buck sat in the back of the wagon, his hands and feet still bound, looking at the small cabin the way a convicted man gazes upon the gallows.

The pleasure he felt from causing Kid's distress was short lived. The rest of the trip had been anything but pleasurable. The binding on his wrists restricted the movement of his arms, but didn't stop his hands from shaking and trying to control his hands only intensified the cramps in his arms and shoulders that the awkward position created. His skin began to itch and he desperately needed to scratch it, but had to resort to rubbing his arms and back against the wooden side of the wagon for a little relief.

Once the supplies were unloaded, Teaspoon cut the ropes around Buck's ankles and allowed him out of the wagon. "Kid, you go on and tend to the horses. Me and Buck are gonna get settled inside."

Buck stood completely still, his dark complexion turning pale. He didn't want to go in that building. He thought about running, but knew they would catch him. He wouldn't stand much of a chance with his hands tied and without his gun, knife or a horse. Maybe he could just stay outside. He could breathe outside. The cabin had been closed up for so long there probably wasn't any air in there. He would surely suffocate.

"Let's go, Buck," Teaspoon said quietly, reaching for his arm to escort him inside.

Buck pulled away from his grasp and drew an apprehensive breath. Teaspoon was intent on inflicting this misery on him. His options were few. A myriad of thoughts swirled through his head as he tried to find a way out, but he soon realized he had lost the first battle. Surely he would be alright without laudanum. He knew it would hurt for a while, but he had endured terrible beatings in his life and lived. Laudanum was just medicine. How bad could it be?

Alright, old man. You get your way. But when this is over, you'll never see me again.

Buck walked on his own to the front door and after a moment's hesitation, drew a deep breath and entered the cabin.

He slowly exhaled, fully expecting the breath he had just drawn to be his last and just as expected, he was unable to draw another. He tried to breathe, but his chest hurt and felt very tight. The unknown that lay waiting in the room bore down heavily on him and he felt certain he would be smothered under the weight. Teaspoon's touch on his arm jolted him and he gasped hard enough to pull in the air that was hiding in the corners of the room.

The cabin was sparsely furnished with several chairs and a bed, covered with a worn patchwork quilt, in the main area of the room. The head and antlers of an eight-point buck were mounted as a trophy over the stone fireplace. Its glass eyes, gone milky with age, stared dumbly at the visitors. A stove, possum-belly cupboard and small table off to the side of the main area acted as the kitchen. A layer of dust covered every flat surface and the staleness that accompanies vacancy hung like a thick curtain in the air.

Teaspoon sliced through the rope binding and attempted to rub the soreness out of Buck's shoulders, but Buck pulled away from his touch and tried to ease the aching himself. Between trying to rub the cramps away and relieve the itching, Teaspoon worried Buck would scratch his skin raw, but his repeated offers of help were refused. Instead, Buck turned his back to the older man and placed himself by the window in the corner of the kitchen area. He felt safer in the corner - near the hidden stores of air.

"The horses are taken care of, Teaspoon. Now what?" Kid quietly asked as he entered the cabin.

"Well, I reckon it's about supper time," Teaspoon answered. "Why don't you check what Rachel packed for us and see if you can whip us up some grub?"

"But, what about . . ." Kid said, nodding his head toward Buck. "What's gonna happen to him, Teaspoon?"

Teaspoon glanced at the lonely, fidgeting figure by the window. He drew a deep breath and blew it out slowly. He suddenly felt a lot older than he had just that morning. But no wiser.

"I don't know for sure, Kid. Doc didn't know much neither, other than not takin' no more of that poison will make him feel kinda sick. He said just don't let him have none of it and let nature take its course. I guess we just wait and see."

Chapter 11

Despite Teaspoon and Kid's urging, Buck refused to leave his post at the window, steadfastly guarding his view to the world outside - and his silence. He hadn't uttered a word since the argument with Teaspoon that morning and didn't intend to. His anger was well beyond words.

The cravings and uneasiness he had felt throughout the day had steadily increased and found their way to his stomach. Buck stared out the window, watching day give way to night, his arms wrapped tightly around his middle, now and then wiping the sweat from his hands on his shirt. Although darkness had fallen, he didn't want to leave the window. The glass was grimy with dirt and neglect and the haze distorted his view a bit, but the knowledge that there was still a world outside the cabin made him feel a little better. Growing weary, he leaned his throbbing forehead against the cool glass and tried to focus on anything but the growing hunger pains. He tried to envision the new life he would have when he was released from this prison. Imagined himself mounting the nearest horse and riding away from those who had held him captive without a word or a look back. The thought pleased him, comforted him a little.

Buck tried not to give in, but the craving was overwhelming. His hands moved restlessly. He rubbed his fingers against his palms, longing for the feel of the smooth glass bottle against his skin. He touched the cool windowpane and began to move his hands across it, almost convincing himself the smooth flat surface against his fingertips was the contoured bottle he longed for. His weakened body ached for the smell, the taste, the sweet numbness that the laudanum provided. For a brief moment, Buck imagined the drink in his mouth, but when he swallowed it was nothing more than his own spit. Buck scolded himself. If he was going to get through this, he had to be stronger. Staring outside at the freedom he was denied, imagining something he couldn't have, was useless. Determined not to show such weakness again, he left the window and made his way to the bed.

He was tired and hoped for a little rest, but found none. His increasing restlessness preventing him from lying down for very long and instead he spent most of the night sitting cross-legged on the bed, arms wrapped protectively around himself, rocking back and forth to a beat pounding in his head. Despite the cool night air, he was bathed in sweat. It infuriated him that he could no longer hide what was happening to him from Kid and Teaspoon. The best he could do was turn his back to them.

Soon the rocking did little to alleviate his restlessness and he began pacing the floor. Over and over again he crossed the kitchen - seven steps, turn, seven steps, turn, seven steps, turn.

Though nearly daybreak, at Teaspoon's insistence, Kid had settled down on his bedroll near the fireplace for a few hours sleep. Teaspoon sat at the kitchen table drinking his umpteenth cup of coffee, playing a game of checkers by himself and watching his troubled rider wear down the floor boards. It had been a long night and if the pacing was any indication of what was coming, it was going to be a long day.

Teaspoon Hunter considered himself to be a patient man, probably more patient than most, but the stubborn young Kiowa seemed intent on testing him. It frustrated him no end that Buck would not speak to him. Teaspoon didn't find the boy's game very amusing and Buck's incessant pacing was making him nervous as well. He knew the boy was hurting, but Buck refused to let him help and that maddened him, too. The site of his normally quiet, even tempered rider nervously pacing the floor like a caged animal was hard to take. He didn't recognize this Buck. Every thing about him was mixed up. He just wanted to grab the boy by the shoulders and shake him until the misaligned pieces fell back into the right places.

"Buck, will you please sit down!" Teaspoon barked, more exasperation in his voice than intended. Buck continued pacing as if he hadn't heard. "What is so all fired special 'bout seven? Why not six or eight or twenty-two?"

Buck heard Teaspoon's complaints through the pounding in his head, but paid them no mind. It fact, it pleased him some. The old man deserved to feel a little stress. After what he had done to him, Buck felt he deserved it. He had entertained notions of trying to get away during the night, but Teaspoon and Kid read his intent and blocked every available exit with pieces of furniture to hamper his efforts in the event he did try to escape. He had hoped his guards would grow tired and perhaps doze off at the same time providing him an opportunity, but it didn't happen and he finally came to the distressing realization that he was stuck there.

"Son, it would do us both good if you would just sit down for a while. You're wearin' yourself as thin as the floorboards and you're 'bout to drive me to drink! C'mon over here and play some checkers with me. I'm pretty good, but I bet you can beat me. Here, you be black and I'll be red."

Buck glared at Teaspoon through weary eyes. The last thing he wanted to do was play a stupid, white man's game. It had been a very long time since he last took laudanum and it was all he could do to keep from screaming. Everything inside his body was moving too fast. Although he was exhausted, the only thing that seemed to help at all was to keep the outside moving at an equal pace to the inside. He continued pacing, seven steps in one direction, seven steps in the other.

Undaunted, Teaspoon set up the game board and made his first move. "It's your turn, son. C'mon, make your move."

Buck glared at the man and clutched his stomach tighter.

"Alright, I'll make your move for you then."

Teaspoon moved the game pieces around on the board, making his moves as well as Buck's. Buck tried to block out the noise, but each sound of the wooden checkers dropping on the board shook the room and echoed off the walls like a clap of thunder and added to the storm already raging in his head.

"Now Buck, that was not a smart move," Teaspoon said as he intentionally moved Buck's checker into a vulnerable position. "Just look what I can do now," he added and began to jump his red checker over three of the opposite color game pieces.

Suddenly Buck flew at the table where Teaspoon sat, grabbed the checkerboard and hurled it across the room. The board slammed against the wall behind Teaspoon and the individual game pieces clattered to the floor around him.

Teaspoon sat back in his chair, drew a deep breath and blew it out very slowly while he contemplated his response. Well, if nothing else, at least Buck had acknowledged him. That was a start.

"Son . . . I believe it was my turn," he said flippantly, hoping to taunt Buck into breaking his silence.

But Teaspoon's provocation had the opposite affect. Rather than voice his anger, Buck allowed his actions to speak for him as he picked up an empty chair at the table and smashed it against the floor. The release of hostility only fed his frenzy and Buck turned toward the kitchen. Teaspoon jumped from his chair, knocking it over backwards in his haste and started after Buck, but not before the angry young man grabbed the coffeepot on the stove and sent it airborne across the room. Kid awoke and slowly rose to his feet, rubbing the remnants of sleep from his eyes. The grogginess cleared quickly as the coffeepot flew by his head and smashed against the wall, the hot liquid spewing like a geyser from the pot.

"That is enough!" Teaspoon shouted as Buck scanned the kitchen area for another unwitting target.

"You already done tore up the bunkhouse, you ain't gonna do it here, too!" he shouted and grabbed for Buck's arm as he picked up a crock from the top of the cupboard.

"Put it down, Buck!" Teaspoon ordered as he spun the angry stranger around to face him. "Enough!"

Buck looked Teaspoon squarely in the face and defiantly threw the crock against the floor, breaking it into jagged shards of pottery.

Kid wondered for a moment what had happened during his nap that had caused the two to face off like prize-fighters. He hurried toward the combatants, but froze as Teaspoon finally lost his temper and backhanded Buck across the face. The force of the blow sent the stunned boy stumbling backward.

The shock in Buck's eyes matched Teaspoon's own as the older man watched an angry red blotch mark the imprint of his hand on Buck's face.

"Buck . . .I'm . . .I'm sorry . . ." Teaspoon stammered, breaking the uneasy silence in the room. He had never raised a hand to any of his riders before, no matter how upset he had been with them. His hand had flown so rapidly, it was as if it had a mind of its own and he had been unable to stop it.

Fearing Buck would retaliate, Kid quickly stepped between the two, but his preventative measures were unnecessary. Buck stood there dumbly, overwhelmed with pain and disbelief. His already sore and swollen face was on fire and the sharp, stinging pain traveled to his eyes, making them water. Tired and insulted, he lowered his eyes to avoid making contact with either Kid or Teaspoon and slowly dragged himself to the bed.

Teaspoon hung his head and prayed to God that he could turn back time. How could he have done such a thing? This boy was suffering, but he had only succeeded in adding insult to injury. He started toward the huddled figure on the bed, but Kid's restraining hand stopped him.

"Why don't you get some rest, Teaspoon? You ain't gonna do him no good like this," Kid said quietly. "I'll clean this mess up."

After a moment, Teaspoon slowly nodded in agreement. "I reckon you're right." He suddenly felt heavy and tired and very unsure of himself.

Buck curled himself up tighter and pressed his eyes closed. He hated the man, he was certain of it. He had been struck a good many times in his life, but something about Teaspoon's blow was different. He couldn't understand it and the confusion stung at him all the more. If Teaspoon hit him in the face, why did his heart hurt?

**********

He stood in the middle of the street outside Teaspoon's office, a smoking gun in his hand and Neville's lifeless body a few feet away. A dark mist rose up from the ground and snaked around his ankles.

He had taken Neville's life and felt no guilt in doing so, but the gambler's death didn't lessen his sorrow. The strange, black fog applauded his courage and strength, and praised him for killing the man. The mist rose higher around his legs, but he wasn't afraid. It felt warm and safe and he knew it meant him no harm.

The mist rolled and churned like a thundercloud, finally taking the form of a beautiful creature robed in black silk and disappeared beneath the ground, bidding Buck to follow. "Come with me," it whispered softly. "I will take your pain away." Awed by its magic, Buck took its hand and allowed it to lead him away to another place - a place far from common understanding.

They walked on a path covered by the same mist that had created the creature. Buck couldn't see the path, but he felt it, firm and solid, under his feet. As they walked, the creature moved its slender hand from side to side, pointing out untold mysteries and never before seen wonders. Buck was amazed by its knowledge. This beautiful being knew the truth. He enjoyed its company and the way it made him feel.

Buck saw a toll gate ahead and questioned why the payment of a fee was required to continue their journey. The creature merely smiled and assured him there was no reason for concern. Buck reached into his pockets but they were empty - he had no money to pay the toll. He was ashamed and hung his head in disappointment. He wanted to see what lay beyond the gate. The creature lifted his chin with a long finger and stroked his neck with a loving touch, assuring him a trade could be made. Buck bargained with the gatekeeper and offered himself in payment of the toll. The collector looked him over closely, estimating his worth. Satisfied with the value he raised the gate and allowed Buck to enter.

The land behind the tollgate was more beautiful than Buck could have ever dreamed. He gazed upon the landscape and memorized its every detail. It was a place of pristine beauty and virgin thought. A place holding answers to questions not yet asked. Buck saw the beautiful creature before him, swaying in the dark mist as if blown by the breath of heaven. Mesmerized by its mystical nature, he entered its homeland and devoted himself to the creature.

The dark beauty pulled Buck to its breast and held him tight - their souls melding together in a pledge of fidelity. With a touch of its hand, the creature offered sensual and sensory pleasures beyond the scope of his imagination and he accepted them willingly. Buck breathed the creature's sweet scent, tasted its luscious, smooth lips and they danced as lovers.

The creature pulled away from their embrace and moved further down the path, bidding Buck to come further. They came to a door and Buck eagerly followed the black robed creature into its parlor. The mist grew thicker and rose to his waist, but Buck wasn't afraid, he had felt the mist before. He lost sight of the magical beauty and searched the darkened room for his love. Buck heard footsteps and followed them in the direction of the door, but when he reached the opening it was locked.

Buck knocked at the door and called to the creature. The mist around him grew colder and heavy. He didn't like this room and wanted to return to the beautiful land, but the door remained locked. Buck began to search for another exit and walked along the hidden pathway further into the dark place. His footing on the path wasn't as secure as before and he slipped occasionally. But he wasn't afraid. His love was near - hiding somewhere in the mist.

It grew steadily darker and Buck began to worry. He needed the creature. This place seemed so far from home and he wasn't sure where he was anymore. He turned around and around in the mist looking for something familiar, but succeeded only in disorienting himself. Realizing he was lost, Buck felt a flush of embarrassment color his face. He always knew where he was. He was Kiowa. He was a tracker. How could he be lost?

A sudden movement in the mist startled Buck and he watched in surprise as figures rose up from the mist and began moving in slow circular patterns. At first, Buck thought they might be magical, too, but as he watched he realized they were only men - no more special than he was. Buck was strangely pulled to these men. They were dirty and unkempt - offensive - but there was something about them that he understood. They seemed so sad and alone.

As Buck wandered through the sea of abandoned lives his eyes were drawn to the weary face, so void of emotion or intellect. His heart went out to these pitiful souls. Where were their families? Why had they been left there?

The clanging sound of metal beneath the mist provided his answer. Although Buck couldn't see the leg irons, he knew by the noise that the men wore shackles. He understood - the men were prisoners.

Buck wondered how long they had been there. They looked so old and ill. Many suffered from open, festering wounds, full of infection. Some of the wounds looked serious, but with the proper attention, Buck thought they might heal. Others were beyond all hope of healing. Their bodies were blackened and rotten. The stench of gangrenous flesh turned Buck's stomach and he was forced to move away. They would die soon.

Buck shivered at a cold chill in the air. The men jerked their heads up suddenly, like wild animals catching a scent in the wind. The expressionless faces began to show fear and the men cowered down in the mist.

Another creature rose from the darkness. It wore a black robe similar to the lovely one, but the likeness stopped there. This dark being had a sinister soul so unlike the loving, sweet spirited creature he sought. Buck noticed a ring of keys hanging from its robe and he understood the new creature's purpose. It was the guard.

With a wave of its long talon-like hand, the guard demanded the men continue. The movement of its claws in the breeze sounded like the crack of a whip and Buck jumped at the noise. He felt sorry for the prisoners no matter what their crimes had been. It was obvious this guard was a tough taskmaster.

Fear spurred some of the men to move faster in their habitual patterns, anxious to please the guard. Others tried to hide from it only to receive a lash of its hand to penalize their attempt. A few of the men tried to escape and pulled at their shackles. One of them rubbed against the iron bands so furiously the metal cut into his flesh and blood spurted freely from the wounds. Buck heard the man cry out, but it was a cry of joy rather than pain as the metal band sawed away at the bone and the leg irons slipped off his ankles. The freed man ran, but his grotesque stumps left a bloody trail in the mist and the guard found him easily.

Buck started forward to help the fleeing prisoner, but his fear of the guard stopped him. Perhaps it was better not to interfere, after all they were prisoners. With a single slice of its clawed hand, the guard brought the man down. It became apparent to Buck that once put into bondage there, no one escaped and evidently, no one was set free. The guard returned to the other prisoners, stopping before each one of them, dangling its keys in their faces. Buck wondered why the guard carried keys if no one was ever released.

The guard grew tired of tormenting its prisoners and turned to Buck. Reaching out its hideous hand, it motioned for him to come forward, but Buck was frightened and refused. He tried to step backward, but the mist had risen up behind him and turned solid, blocking his retreat. Trembling with fear, Buck watched the guard advance toward him. It stood inches away examining him with its hidden eyes. With a quick slice of its claw, the guard ripped open Buck's chest and abdomen, creating a gaping wound. Buck gasped in pain as the guard pried him open and inserted its hand into his body. It clawed at his insides and pulled him open further to take a good look while the terrorized Kiowa writhed in agony against the wall. Buck hit and kicked at the dark being trying to break free from its clutches, but the guard continued to search until it finally found something that suited its purpose. The guard withdrew its hand and smiled at what it found within Buck. Yes, these would work nicely. They always did. Guilt and fear were very strong. The guard quickly wove together Buck's weaknesses into a strong cloth and gagged him, silencing his cry for help.

Buck tried to run, but he was weak and couldn't move through the mist. The guard suddenly disappeared and he searched frantically for the maniac. Fearing for his life, Buck tried desperately to scream, but the gag of weaknesses prevented it.

Buck flinched as a cold metal band closed around his ankle. He felt the clawed hand of the guard on his other leg beneath the mist, and kicked furiously at the jailer. Why was this happening? He had only wanted to explore the beautiful land the creature had showed him. He wasn't like the others. He was only an observer. Summoning all his remaining strength, Buck broke free of the guard and ran for his life, but the loose shackle flying around his feet tripped him and he fell. Buck felt a tug on his free leg and the cold touch of the metal band sealing his fate.

He was pulled to his feet, but rather than the hideous guard, he saw the dark beauty he sought standing before him. At last help had arrived. Surely the creature would be his salvation. It loved him - it had told him so. Buck started to speak as the lovely one reached out and removed the gag, but it placed a finger gently over his lips to silence him. It brushed its soft hand over Buck's eyes and he closed them under the feathery touch. Buck felt its sweet, perfumed breath as the creature came close and waited expectantly for his release. The dark creature whispered his name - claiming him for its own. It leaned over him and placed a gentle kiss on his lips . . . then threw its head back against the darkness . . . and laughed.

**********

Buck woke from his nightmare delirious with pain and fear. That monster had been inside him. It ripped him open and tore at his insides. His stomach began to cramp and he felt something happening inside him. Something very wrong. It was still there. Buck bolted upright in bed and ripped his shirt open. He looked down at himself, expecting to see the large wound the creature's claws had made, but saw only smooth skin. The wound had healed with the creature still inside.

He cried out in agony as the monster inside him grabbed at his back and twisted it in unnatural ways. Bolts of pain shot through his back and exploded into his legs as the enemy ran a clawed finger up and down his spine.

Buck felt hands on him, trying to hold his legs down, but kicked them away fearing the leg irons. He felt the claws moving inside him, shredding his body to pieces as the creature searched for the way out. Buck knew it would kill him soon. He pulled frantically at his skin, but the wound wouldn't reopen. It had healed so well there wasn't even a scar.

The guards tried to hold him down, but Buck pushed his way past them and crawled to the edge of the bed. He tried to stand, but his legs wouldn't hold him and he fell with a thud to the floor. The guards rushed to him. He felt their hands again, but he kicked and hit at them until they backed away. He could feel the claws reaching into his legs, squeezing the muscles until they tensed in rigid cramps. It had to be the creature. Nothing natural could hurt that badly.

Buck began to tear at the skin on his stomach, scratching fiercely with his fingernails until bright red streaks appeared. But it wasn't working. He needed something sharper.

His eyes flitted rapidly across the room and finally fell on the broken pieces of crockery left on the kitchen cupboard. Buck grabbed at the side of the bed and struggled to his feet while a baffled Kid and Teaspoon watched. Although angry and upset, he seemed to have his senses about him when he fell asleep, but terror now filled his dark eyes. Kid looked at Teaspoon for an answer, but the helpless expression pasted on the older man's face told him he didn't have one either.

Buck gained his footing and clumsily made his way to the kitchen cupboard. Since he had reacted violently to their attempts to restrain him, Kid and Teaspoon thought it best to let him do what he wanted - until he snatched up a piece of the jagged crockery and began slicing at himself.

Kid rushed across the room and grabbed at Buck's arm, knocking them both to the floor. He tried desperately to wrestle the weapon away from Buck, but the confused young man was intent on freeing himself of the creature trapped inside. Teaspoon held Buck around the waist while the delirious boy thrashed wildly against them. For a moment, Kid thought that Teaspoon would have to slap Buck again to bring him to his senses, but the older man had no intention of striking him again. Instead he wrapped his arms tighter and pulled Buck toward him, cradling him like a frightened child, rocking him back and forth while he struggled to free himself of the hold.

Fearing for his life, Buck continued to battle the enemy, both around and inside him, but something was different. Something felt warm and comforting. Safe.

Kid made a move toward the weapon and let out a sigh of relief as Buck allowed him to open his hand and remove the crockery dagger.

Buck drew a quivering breath as the pain tore through his back again, trying to sort out dream from reality. He looked up at the faces hovering over him, expecting to see the laughing faces of his guards, but they weren't laughing. They were just as terrified as he was.

He lay in Teaspoon's arms, drawing air in ragged breaths, and allowed the man's touch to calm him.

"You won't leave me there, will you?" Buck asked, barely above a whisper.

Teaspoon didn't have a clue where "there" was, but it was obviously a place where Buck didn't want to be. He pulled the boy tighter to him and to his joy, Buck neither flinched or pulled away.

"No, son. We ain't gonna leave you there."

Chapter 12

Teaspoon Hunter was not an openly religious man, certainly not the church going type. He would have been hard pressed to remember the last time he sat through a Sunday morning service. But in his own way, he believed in a higher power and the guidance and healing that was given to those who asked. And he did ask, many times, as Buck waged war with the enemy he had created inside himself.

Although Buck had been schooled in a Catholic mission, he knew the boy wasn't a Christian. His Kiowa religion was, or at least at one time had been, important to him. But Teaspoon didn't think the good Lord would hold it against the boy. Buck certainly needed more help than he and Kid could offer. Whether it came from the Kiowa spirits of the earth and air around him or from God in Heaven really didn't matter. Teaspoon figured they were really all the same anyway. It just depended on what you had been taught to believe. Sitting in the quiet, dimly light cabin, watching the boy sleep, Teaspoon closed his eyes and offered a silent thank you for answered prayers.

He and Kid would have gladly joined in Buck's battle, had they been able, but it was his fight. The most they could do was keep him safe and offer encouragement through the long torturous hours.

During the early hours, Teaspoon sat with Buck, his arms wrapped protectively around the boy leaning back against his chest, spinning tall tales of his days as a Texas Ranger. He could feel Buck's body tense and his breathing grow labored as cramps twisted his stomach. Teaspoon was able to occupy his thoughts with grandiose stories that put Cody's colorful yarns to shame and Buck even posed an occasional question or two. Teaspoon knew Buck didn't really believe a word of the daring exploits he described, but having something else to think about seemed to help for a while.

The enemy he battled was fierce and unwilling to give up without a fight. Teaspoon was amazed by the power of this strange and frightening opponent. On more than one occasion, he questioned whether his actions had been the right ones. Certainly there were others more qualified than he and Kid to see Buck through this ordeal. But as he watched Kid sitting with his sick friend, gently rubbing Buck's back as his stomach heaved again and again, Teaspoon realized that the touch of a friend was more important than any amount of medical knowledge.

Kid sat with the troubled rider for hours, tirelessly rubbing away the cramps in Buck's legs and back. Buck tried valiantly to maintain his pride and not give in to the pain, but as the war raged on it became nearly impossible. Pain flew at him from more directions than they could count and his determination to win the battle faltered. Forced to put his dignity aside, Buck pleaded with Teaspoon, begging for the drug. He promised it would be the last time and he would never do it again - he just needed a little bit. It nearly tore the older man's heart in two, but he looked into Buck's dark eyes, full of desperation and pain, and answered, "No".

The enemy was crafty and determined. At times it would seem to retreat, only to return with renewed vigor and a different tactic. After hours of suffering, Buck lay in Teaspoon's arms, exhausted, scared and hurting, insisting he couldn't go on. But Teaspoon refused to allow the boy to give up and simply held him tighter, assuring him of how strong he was, until the demon inside him finally grew weak from starvation and surrendered.

As Teaspoon watched Buck stir in his sleep, he couldn't help but notice how young he looked. Kid, curled up in his bedroll by the fireplace, did too. Teaspoon realized that, in spite of their heroics, all his riders were very young. They were just kids struggling to find their way in the world. Each of them was special to him in their own way. They were the children he never had. His family. Losing Ike nearly broke his heart and knowing how close he had come to losing another child - not to death, but something equally unforgiving - made him shudder. This wayward one hadn't made it all the way home yet, but he was out of danger. In the quiet of the night, Teaspoon bowed his head and offered up another prayer of thanks, just to make sure the good Lord knew how very grateful he was.

**********

Buck had grown accustomed to sleeping with the aid of laudanum. Out of sheer exhaustion he had fallen asleep, but awoke in the middle of the night unable to remember how to rest on his own. His muscles ached, reminding him of the long hours of abuse they had endured, and he still felt shaky. Whether it was from exhaustion, nervousness or something else, he didn't know. He just wanted it to stop.

Kid had stretched out on the floor and slept with such a look of contentment on his face that Buck was certain his dreams were pleasant ones. Teaspoon hadn't intended on falling asleep, but he was resting soundly also, although his slumped position in the chair next to the bed didn't look nearly as comfortable as Kid's. Buck would have appreciated a little company, but he didn't have the heart to wake them. The past several days had been hard on them, too. Instead, he lay awake in bed, the sounds of slumber in the cabin reminding him of the countless sleepless nights he spent in the bunkhouse before discovering the magical powers of laudanum. He had traveled a long and twisted road only to end up right back where he started.

Finally giving up on sleep, Buck sat up and moved toward the edge of the bed. He had been too tired to undress completely before falling asleep and still wore his buckskin trousers, but couldn't remember where he had left his shirt. Glancing around the darkened room he finally found it at the foot of the bed. He slowly slipped into the shirt and managed a couple of buttons. His head swam as he rose and he felt very heavy, but he had been shut up in the cabin for too long. He needed to make sure there really was a world outside. After a few minutes he felt a bit better and slipped out of the quiet cabin to wait for the morning.

The heavy dew clung to his bare feet as he made his way through the grass and found a seat along the rocky bank of the lake. It had been quite some time since he had seen a sunrise. Young Kiowa were taught to wake early so the sun wouldn't see them sleeping and think them lazy or bad children. As a child, Buck had taken great care to impress the fiery ball in the morning sky. Life in the village was difficult enough without offending something as important as the sun. Watching streaks of pink and gold nudge the darkness from the sky, Buck wondered, after all he had done, what the sun thought of him now. He certainly didn't think very much of himself.

"You're up mighty early." Teaspoon said, approaching the hunch backed figure tossing pebbles into the water. "Mind if I join you?"

Buck sighed heavily at Teaspoon's voice. He knew this was coming and he really didn't want to talk. He wanted to curl up somewhere and hide. Teaspoon wanted answers and he wasn't sure he had any, but he would try. He owed the man that much. He owed him a lot more than that.

"I don't mind," he answered quietly, his eyes focused on the ripples in the water as the pebble broke the surface.

"Well, that was a nice sunrise. Gonna be a purdy day," Teaspoon remarked as he lowered himself to the ground beside Buck. He turned to look at the boy in the early morning light.

Teaspoon cupped his hand under Buck's chin and turned his face toward him. He was tired, that much was obvious. His eyes were shadowed in dark circles and held more than just a hint of sadness, but they were Buck's eyes and not those of the stranger who had taken his place. The bruises on his face from Kid's fist and Teaspoon's knuckles were fading from purple to a sickly shade of green. He brushed his thumb across the mark on Buck's face, half expecting rejection, but to his surprise Buck leaned into his touch, resting for just a moment.

"I'm sorry I hit you, son. I had no right."

"I deserved it." Buck replied sadly as he turned back to the water and tossed another pebble. "I deserve worse."

"You remember much about all this?"

Buck drew a deep breath and thought for a moment. He remembered nearly forgetting his best friend and pushing his family away. He remembered exchanging his faith for a bottle of lies and insulting the man who was the closest thing to a father he ever had. Yes, he remembered. Much more than he wanted to.

"Enough to feel pretty ashamed of myself." His words came with difficulty, but needed to be said. "I did some bad things, Teaspoon. Said some terrible things. I'm so sorry."

"It weren't you, Buck. It was that poison you were swallowin'. I'm sorry I didn't see it sooner. Kid tried to tell me somethin' was wrong. Guess I just didn't want to believe you would hurt yourself like that."

"I didn't know what was happenin', Teaspoon." Buck closed his eyes for a moment, gathering the strength to talk about what he had taken such care in concealing. "I had terrible dreams. It hurt to be asleep . . . hurt to be awake. I just didn't want to hurt anymore. It was so easy. Just a swallow and I felt so good. It was nice to feel good for a change." Buck gazed across the water remembering the powers of the magical medicine. "I saw the most amazing things. Things I never knew existed. It was so beautiful."

Buck hesitated as his face twisted into a frown. "But after a while . . . something changed and it wasn't beautiful any longer. It didn't make me feel good. I just had to drink it so I wouldn't feel bad. And the more I drank . . . the more I needed . . . and I couldn't stop." Buck propped his elbows on his knees and ran his fingers through his hair. "Teaspoon, I'm so confused. So much happened, but . . . I don't know what was real and what I made up."

Teaspoon wrapped his arm around Buck's waist and gave him a reassuring squeeze. "Buck, I'd be willing to venture a guess it was just your imagination running wild. Seems whatever's in that medicine is awful powerful."

Buck thought for a moment and realized he felt a little bit better. There had been times he was certain he was going crazy, but he wasn't. The drug had been playing with him. Making him see things. He had been poisoning himself, but at least he wasn't outright losing his mind. That was something.

"I messed up pretty bad, didn't I?"

"You made a mistake. But . . . if we had paid more attention to how bad you was hurtin' rather than expectin' you to grieve the way we wanted you to, maybe you wouldn't have gone lookin' for help elsewhere," Teaspoon admitted.

"So . . . when do we have to go back?" Buck asked, dreading the answer.

Teaspoon reclined back on his elbows and stretched his legs. "Depends on what you feel like doin'. We can head back today or wait 'til tomorrow if you'd rather. You decide."

Buck felt an uncomfortable pressure settle on him as Teaspoon offered his options. The cabin was quiet and secluded and he would like to just hide away for a while. A long while. But Teaspoon was a 'get-back-up-on-the-horse-that-threw-you' kind of thinker and wouldn't let him put it off very long.

"Do the others know?"

"We left before they got back from the Thomas place so I ain't said nothin' to 'em," Teaspoon answered. "But . . . I'm sure they know somethin's wrong. I reckon they're mighty worried 'bout you, too. Just how much Rachel told 'em, I can't say."

"I'll tell them," Buck said uneasily. He had behaved badly and they deserved to know why, though he wasn't at all sure what that explanation would be.

"Ain't nobody gonna think any less of you," Teaspoon said.

Teaspoon sounded confident. Buck wasn't so sure. "Tomorrow," he said quietly.

The older man nodded in agreement. "Tomorrow will be just fine."

After a few minutes of companionable silence, Teaspoon reached into his shirt pocket and withdrew a neatly folded piece of paper.

"Rachel asked me to give you this. She found it when she was packin' up some things for us the other day after you . . . rearranged . . . the bunkhouse." Buck's pale face turned a shade lighter as Teaspoon unfolded the paper and smoothed out the creases. "She was hopin' you would want it back when you felt better."

"It's a nice picture, Buck," Teaspoon said softly, offering the portrait. Buck lowered his head, refusing take the piece of paper.

"Buck, we need to talk about this. If you went to laudanum to hide the hurt, and that hurt ain't really gone, how can I be certain you won't go lookin' for somethin' to cover it up again?"

"Kiowa law says I can't talk about him or even say his name, but you and Rachel insist I must," Buck said. "Everyone else just wants me to get over it."

"You've told me what everyone else wants," Teaspoon said and moved to kneel down in front of Buck so the boy couldn't avoid him. "What do you want?"

Buck raised his head to meet Teaspoon's gaze. "I want him back," Buck said quietly. Fully aware of the futility of his statement, he threw his hand full of pebbles into the water. "I want Ike back."

Buck knew he broke the rule by saying Ike's name, but he wanted to. He missed the sound. It flowed off his tongue and floated on the air, wrapping itself comfortably around him. But the acknowledgement also brought back the heartache.

"I failed him, Teaspoon. He's disappointed with me."

"Why would Ike be disappointed with you?"

"We made a promise when we left the school to always watch out for each other and I didn't do my part. I knew he shouldn't have gotten involved with Emily, but I didn't stop him. I should have known what he was gonna do or should have run faster or should have . . ."

"Whoa there, Buck," Teaspoon said. "Ike died because it was his time."

Buck started to object to Teaspoon's fatalistic philosophy, but the older man continued before he could speak. "We all got only a certain number of days on this here earth. I know it don't make no sense that some scoundrels get such a big number and a sweet soul like Ike got so few. I suppose that's not for us to understand. Ike died honorably, protectin' someone he loved. When my time's up, I hope I'll go the same way."

"Teaspoon, he knew her for a week," Buck protested. "He died for her. Emily took him away from me. Even if he hadn't died, everything would have changed."

Teaspoon began to understand.

"Son, there was enough room in Ike's heart for the both of you. Just because Ike loved Emily don't mean he loved you less." Buck frowned and looked away, but Teaspoon turned the disbelieving boy's face back toward him, making him listen. "That's the remarkable thing about love. It don't get divided. It multiplies."

"If you feel Ike's disappointed with you, Buck, don't you think it might be 'cause of what you done to yourself," Teaspoon asked. "If the good Lord allows worryin' up in Heaven, I reckon Ike's been wringin' his hands over you."

Buck didn't know what to think. His thoughts hadn't been his own for such a long time. He drew a deep breath and slowly reached for Ike's abused likeness, fearful of what he might see. But there was no anger or disappointment there. Instead, looking back at him was the only person who had seen something worthwhile in him as an angry, foreign outcast years earlier.

Buck sat quietly, tracing Ike's penciled features with his fingertip, reacquainting himself with the boy in the picture. His mind wandered back to a stifling hot classroom in a dilapidated orphanage. Buck saw himself dressed in uncomfortable, ill fitting clothes - his hair cut embarrassingly short - trying to maintain his dignity while an iron handed Catholic sister forced him to speak a language he didn't understand. Peals of laughter from the white children rang in his ears as sharp and cutting as if he was still there among them. But the boy in the picture didn't laugh at him.

"I had a hard time learnin' English, Teaspoon. It's a difficult language. I would say the wrong word or pronounce it wrong. Everyone made fun of me. But it didn't matter to Ike. Somehow he just knew what I meant. After a while, it didn't matter if I couldn't say them right and Ike couldn't say them at all. We understood each other without sayin' anything. I'll never have that again."

Buck shifted uneasily as the finality of his words settled on him. His throat felt tight and unbidden tears began to form.

"I don't know what I would have done without him. I'd been told how bad and worthless I was for so long, I believed it. But Ike was the most kind, caring person I'd ever known and if he loved me, I couldn't be that bad. He was a part of me and now there's a big hole there. What am I gonna do without him?"

"You're gonna learn to accept what you can't change, Buck, and stop blamin' yourself for what you had no control over." Teaspoon pulled the heartbroken young Kiowa toward him, speaking softly as he stroked Buck's mass of dark hair. "You gotta go on livin' and one day, I promise you, you're gonna understand how lucky you are."

"Lucky?" Buck asked in astonishment as he straightened and met Teaspoon's eyes. He could imagine feeling a good many things, but lucky wasn't one of them.

"Most folks never know a bond like you and Ike had," Teaspoon explained. "I never have. It's a truly rare thing, son. Some day you'll treasure those memories of Ike instead of lettin' them tear you apart. No matter what you want, Buck, Ike ain't coming back. I know it's hard, but it's gonna hurt 'til it don't need to no more."

Buck still looked unconvinced. Grieving for Ike hurt so much, he wasn't sure he would ever feel anything else.

"Your chest still hurt?" asked Teaspoon.

"Some. Not too bad," Buck answered, perplexed over Teaspoon's sudden change of topic.

"Those broke ribs hurt awful bad at first though didn't they?"

Buck tried to remember his fall from the loft. It seemed like such a long time ago. So much had happened since then. He nodded. Yes, the pain had been nearly unbearable.

"But the bones have started healin' and now it don't hurt so bad. Grief is a wound, too, Buck. Ain't no different. It will heal in time. But you can't hurry it up, or hide from it in a bottle of laudanum. Understand?"

Buck knew Teaspoon was right. He had tried to hide from what was too painful to face and the results of his cowardice were more terrifying that what he had run from in the first place. Buck nodded again. He understood. He wouldn't run anymore.

He settled back against the rocky ledge, feeling more like himself than he had in a long time. It felt good to have everything out in the open. Buck folded Ike's picture carefully, intending to place it in his medicine bundle, but stopped himself. It wasn't there. He had thrown it away, like everything else important in his life. He had been so certain his guiding spirit had betrayed him, but to believe the fire had been his punishment for make believe crimes against the Kiowa seemed pretty farfetched now.

"Teaspoon, the fire was my fault," Buck said, wiping his slate of guilt clean.

The older man started to get up to stretch his legs, but stopped and sank back down to the ground, surprised by Buck's confession. "Just how did you manage that? Cody couldn't even wake you up that night."

"I left a lantern in the barn . . . I guess it got knocked over somehow. I didn't mean for it to happen."

"I see," Teaspoon said with a hint of disapproval. If he'd told them once, he'd told those kids a thousand times to be careful. His tone softened as he considered the amount of blame Buck must have carried around since that night. "Well, I reckon it was an accident and you didn't mean no harm. But breaking into Doc Barnes' office, my boy, is another matter."

Buck sighed heavily as his list of responsibilities grew longer. One more person he needed to make amends to.

"You know anything 'bout buildin' barns, Buck?" Teaspoon asked, cocking an eyebrow.

"Not much," Buck answered, a brief smile passing across his weary face.

"Well, you are about to get the opportunity to learn," Teaspoon said as he lifted himself off the ground. "And…when you're done puttin' in a day's work for me, you'll be doin' a little over-time for the good doctor just to show your gratitude for his kind nature."

Surprisingly, the thought of a hard day's work felt good to Buck. He actually began to look forward to being useful and productive again. He'd been idle much too long. Maybe his friends would understand. Maybe he could start riding again soon, too. He missed the freedom that riding a swift horse across open territory created. Perhaps he could get through this after all.

"Teaspoon, I want to go home today."

Buck's simple words spoke volumes, filling the Marshal's face with a smile and his heart with relief. "You sure?"

"Yes." Buck pushed himself off his rocky perch, noticing he didn't look very presentable. His clothes were dirty and his hair hadn't been combed in longer than he could remember. "I need to get cleaned up first. I don't want to go home lookin' like this."

"It's good to have you back," Teaspoon said as he helped Buck to his feet and wrapped his arms around the young man. "You gotta promise me, if you ever feel the need for that poison again you're gonna tell me . . . tell somebody."

A wave of relief washed over the older man as Teaspoon felt Buck's nod of agreement against his shoulder. "I am proud of you."

Buck pulled back and gave Teaspoon an incredulous look. "For bein' weak enough to do something so stupid?"

Teaspoon pulled the boy tightly to him again and smiled. "No, Buck. For bein' strong enough to admit that you did."

**********

Buck intended only to wash up while Kid and Teaspoon packed the wagon, but as he splashed the cool lake water on his face, he felt the urge to cleanse himself completely. He stripped off his clothes and waded into the lake, enjoying the feel of the sand between his toes. The water had not yet been warmed by the sun and was cold. Under any other circumstance, it would have been uncomfortable, but to Buck, it felt good. It felt real and honest against his skin. He hadn't felt anything real in a long time. Every sensation, every thought, had been artificially created.

No longer able to touch the bottom, Buck began to swim with cautious strokes. He was tired, sore and still felt himself shaking a bit. But the intense need to reach for a bottle of laudanum to relieve his distress was gone. The aches and pains didn't bother him quite so much, either. They weren't just sore muscles, but battle scars of a hard fought victory. A victory he was proud of. His confidence increased, each stroke becoming stronger than the last as the crystal clean water washed away his deceit and deception. He felt lighter than he had in some time - free of the guilt he had carried.

Thinking of Ike still hurt. He wasn't sure he could accept Teaspoon's rationalization that it had simply been Ike's time to die. His death seemed like a senseless loss of life. He still felt some bitterness toward Emily, too. It was an honest emotion and he wouldn't deny it. But maybe, in time, he could accept Ike's passing as fate and forgive her. Ike wouldn't want him to be angry with her. Ike had loved Emily, but Ike had loved him, too.

Even though he had gone through the physical motions of setting Ike free, Buck realized he hung onto Ike's soul tight, afraid to let him go, afraid of what he would be without him. The hands he fought against in his recurring nightmare of Ike's death bed weren't those of some supernatural force prohibiting him from touching Ike and saying good-bye. The hands were his own, holding him back from something too frightening to accept. Laudanum had prevented Ike's bloody form from haunting his sleep, but he no longer feared the visions and doubted they would return. Maybe now he and Ike could both rest.

They had shared an extraordinary bond. Anything less than an extraordinary amount of grief at his death wouldn't do Ike justice and that understanding seemed to make the depth of Buck's mourning a little easier to accept.

Buck turned onto his back, floating effortlessly across the glassy surface, and let the life renewing rays of the morning sun warm him. He wasn't embarrassed by his nakedness. It felt appropriate. He had nothing left to hide. No more secrets, no more lies. His head was clear and it felt good. He had said Ike's name and that felt good, too. The heaviness in his soul lightened a bit and the healing began as the grief in his heart moved over, making room for a little touch of peace.

**********

Teaspoon pulled back on the horses, bringing them to a halt and applied the wagon's brake as they reached the specified location.

"I'll just be a few minutes," Buck said as he stepped down from the wagon seat.

"You take as long as you need, son," Teaspoon replied. "We'll be right here."

"Do you want one of us to go with you?" Kid asked as he reined Katy to a stop beside the wagon.

Buck smiled at his friend and shook his head. No. He needed to do this alone, but he appreciated the offer. Kid had thrown him into the fire, but rather than watch him pick his way through the hot coals alone, Kid had jumped into the flames with him, making sure he found his way to the other side. The southerner on the painted mare would never replace Ike, but he was a good friend and a good friend was no small thing.

Teaspoon noticed that Buck seemed a little taller as he walked away from the wagon to the place where the riders had bid Ike farewell. And although his steps were still a bit unsteady, there was a purpose in his stride.

It hadn't really been that long since Buck had been there, but it looked different. The grass had grown taller and it took him a while to locate the object he sought. But after a diligent search he found his way back to it and retrieved his medicine bundle from beneath the grass where it lay waiting for his return. Buck opened the bundle and carefully placed the folded piece of paper inside. He then placed the cord around his neck returning his faith, his heritage and his best friend close to his heart. Back where they belonged.

The tree had hidden its young friend's secret, as Buck had asked, in its own wound - unable to object. Relieving the tree of its unwanted responsibility, Buck reached into the hollow in its gnarled trunk and withdrew the bottle. He held it almost fearfully, watching his former love swirl hypnotically, attempting to lure him back with promises and gifts. The call was strong and a part of him still wanted the pleasures it brought - the contentment that washed over him and calmed him like a warm bath, the visions and music that had excited his dulled senses. But they weren't really the generous gifts of a friend or lover. They carried a hidden cost.

Worry for his weakened rider filled the lines of Teaspoon's face as the temptation in Buck's hands caught a ray of sun and announced the whereabouts of the last bottle. His concern turned to admiration as Buck gathered his will and hurled his enemy against a nearby rock, shattering the glass container. The liquid lies sparkled momentarily, but quickly lost their luster, as falsehoods do, when exposed to the truth.

It had been a long search, but Buck felt he had found himself again. He wasn't quite the same, but perhaps would be a better person because of the journey. He dropped to his knees in the lush grass marking the resting place of Ike's remains and ran his fingers through the thick, living carpet. In a voice stronger than he expected, he was finally able to finish what, for so long, he had been unable to do.

"I love you, Ike. I always will, but I'm gonna let you go now. Tryin' so hard to hang on to you, I nearly lost myself. You don't need to worry about me anymore, Ike . . . I'm gonna be fine."

The End

Authors Note: An article entitled "Nineteenth-Century America - a Dope Fiend's Paradise" written by Edward M. Brecher describes the problem of drug abuse in early America. Opium, often dispensed in the form of laudanum (a mixture of opium and alcohol) and later morphine were used for the relief of pain with little knowledge of their addictive qualities. Both men and women, from all walks of life, innocently enough used these drugs for the relief of pain from injury or illness and unknowingly became dependent upon them. Civil War surgeons, both Confederate and Union, often rubbed pure opium into open wounds, sending many soldiers home hopelessly addicted. Their habits could be easily maintained, though. At one time there were more than six hundred easily and legally obtainable products containing opium on the open market. These medicines could be purchased at the local druggist, general store or even by mail order. In 1914, the Harrison Act was signed into law, restricting the sale of such products. However, the opium poppy was legally cultivated in the United States until 1942.

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