Prologue

She closed her eyes and imagined the ocean. She'd seen the Atlantic once years before when her family traveled from Maryland to visit relatives in North Carolina. She didn't remember very much about the trip itself, but the ocean had left an indelible impression. It was a splendid sight! Nothing but waves of uninterrupted blue as far as her six-year-old eyes could see. She remembered jumping and splashing about in the waves as they followed their time-worn path to the shore. Behind her eyelids she could see herself running toward the water and it brought a smile of remembrance to her face. Her arms flailed wildly in the excitement only the very young are capable of to then turn and run, squealing in delight, back to the beach as her playmate chased her to shore, reaching out with its foamy white-capped fingers for the ticklish spot behind her knees.

Yes . . . the ocean. The ocean was the only thing she could compare the prairie to. The only difference was the waves were created by grass swaying and bobbing in a fickle prairie breeze rather than the tug of the tide. It was just as big, though. Just as splendid, too. Patches of sunflowers stood like brightly lit islands amid the waves, their gold fringed faces turned adoringly in the direction of the mid-day sun. Their wagon was a boat. No . . . not a boat. Their wagon was a ship and its canvas covering was their sail. She could almost hear the sound of the breeze as it collected behind the sail, propelling her magical ship through the sea of thin-bladed grass. It was a grand ship carrying them to a new land - a land far removed from the threat of a war they wanted no part of.

She tried to imagine what it would feel like to run through the grass as she had in the ocean. For a moment she considered taking off her shoes and jumping into the green waves, but she wasn't a child anymore. She was a married woman and a married woman didn't do such things. At least not while her husband was watching.

He had become adept at handling the horses. Their journey had begun a little more than three months before with a rough start. He was not experienced in driving a team, but he had learned quickly. He had to. If you didn't keep up with the wagon train, you were left behind. "We got schedules to keep! Got passes to cross and rivers to ford 'fore the snow flies!" the wagon master had bellowed with such animation and repetition the travelers had taken to mocking him behind his back. East-coast born and bred, the young man never dreamed he would be starting a new life in the West. "The edge of the earth!" his neighbors had scoffed. The notion of a city boy and his young wife embarking on such a trip - not to mention giving up civilized society for the barbarism of the West - was nothing short of lunacy in their estimation. But now that their families had passed on and the threat of war was sounding more like a promise than a rumor, the decision to leave Maryland and head west was not difficult to make.

The wagon train's final destination was California, but they, as other travelers along the route, had left the group to move on in accordance with their own plans. The wagon master had frowned upon their departure and didn't mince his words expressing his opinion. "Plum crazy is whatcha are. T'aint safe out there on yer own. More'n likely gonna end up playin' pin cushion for some redskin's arrow," he insisted and spit a stream of tobacco juice between the gap in his front teeth. But the young couple would not be swayed by his tall tales and tossed aside his words of warning. An exaggerated warning, they were certain.

Their grisly guide had entertained the travelers around more than one campfire with his tales of the perils awaiting them in the 'wild west'. It was obvious from early on the wagon master had a penchant for the overly dramatic. To be fair, they had encountered a few obstacles on the journey. There was the wild dog, its mouth lathered with white foam, that had threatened some of the children. The wagon master had pronounced the dog rabid and promptly put a bullet through its skull. Then there were the folks from Ohio who had refused to lighten their wagon's load and had nearly killed their horses because of it. There had been an occasional broken axle or damaged wheel. It was a long journey. Such problems were to be expected. But overall, the trip had been remarkably uneventful.

They would join a friend who had made the trek from Maryland earlier in the year at Fort St. Vrain and travel to a small piece of property that had been procured for them by an attorney in Denver. Farm land. A future. He didn't know much about farming, but he would learn. His friend had written to them about this new land. "The soil is nearly black and anxious to please," he wrote, his excitement for their certain prosperity flowing through his pen. "It crumbles to a fine tilth and will support an ample crop. The climate is agreeable and the sky at sunset holds a hue I have until now not had the privilege to witness. My friend, I do believe we have purchased a piece of Paradise!" Rich earth, a new life, safety. They were almost there. Another week, give or take a day or two, and the journey would be over.

He noticed the bemused expression spreading across his wife's freckled face and grinned. His own skin had deepened in color during the months under the sun, but its rays had only succeeded in darkening her persistent freckles leaving her skin fair. He loved her freckles, but she insisted that she would forever look like a little girl even when she was an old, gray woman.

"What are you thinking about?" he asked, rousing his wife from her daydream.

She leaned into her husband's side and looped her arm through his. "Hmmmmm . . . all kinds of things. How big this country is . . .how beautiful. How happy we're gonna be. How good it's gonna be to get settled. Lots of things."

"We'll be there soon," he assured her.

"How soon?"

He thought for a moment, his inexperienced eyes scanning the miles of open country ahead of them. "That river we saw on the map is right ahead of us," he answered with feigned certainty. "We'll follow it 'til it forks. Then we'll follow the fork that runs due south and make it to Fort St. Vrain within a week."

She grinned and threw him a skeptical, narrow eyed look. "You're guessing, aren't you?"

He chuckled, a bit embarrassed that his attempt to sound knowledgeable had failed so miserably. He should know better than to try to fool her with a confidence he didn't yet possess. She knew him too well. "Yes, I'm guessing," he admitted. "But one thing I know for fact. We'll be there when we get there."

She laughed aloud and nodded resolutely in agreement. "We'll be there when we get there."

The mid-day sun was warm and she pushed up the sleeves of her faded lavender gingham dress to cool her arms. It was a bit tight on her still, especially through the bodice. A bit uncomfortable. Maybe once they were settled she could buy a new dress, but lavender gingham would do for now. Keeping their load light, they had brought few belongings with them. There would be time for new dresses later. Plenty of time.

She closed her eyes again and wrapped her arm tighter around his, feeling his newly-hardened muscles flex as he urged the team through the rippling waves of grass. He had changed on this trip. He was no longer a city boy - he had grown strong. Her hero. Her swashbuckling sailor, steering her magical ship through the ocean of green waves. She leaned into his side - contented - losing herself in her daydream.

She could see herself on the deck on the ship, could almost feel the salty spray of the ocean against her flawless, unfreckled skin. The breeze grew stronger, tousling her loose curls and whipping at the skirt of her dress. But not gingham. No. . . she would have a new dress. Blue satin with a hoop skirt. No. . .a hoop skirt wouldn't be right for a ship voyage. Lace. Yes. . . blue satin with yards and yards of lace. Her handsome sailor was dressed in velveteen breeches and a silk shirt complete with ruffled collar and billowing sleeves. Sensing danger, her gallant captain jumped to her defense as pirates with black eye patches and mustaches curled with wax into tight spirals stole upon the ship and vaulted over the sides with acrobatic ease. Drawing his saber and wielding the weapon with confident, grand strokes he battled her attackers. Two against one. Three against one. The pirates cried for mercy, pleading for their lives and being a noble man he. . .

A sudden jolt forward of the wagon roused her and she sat upright. Her husband slapped the reins across the horses' rumps, urgently pleading the matched pair into a run.

"What's wrong?" she asked, startled, grabbing hold of the wooden seat as the wagon picked up speed and bounced across the uneven terrain.

"Get in the wagon!" he answered and slapped the reins harder against the team's glossy backsides. When she hesitated, he demanded again, louder. "Get in the wagon!"

Obediently turning to climb over the seat and under the canvas covering she saw them and her mouth dropped open nearly as wide as her eyes. Her breath caught in her throat and a gasp of fearful disbelief was the only sound she could muster. They weren't the make-believe attackers of her imagination. They were painted, wild looking and real. She could hear them. Yelling. Screaming foreign words. She felt the wagon tilt to the left as a wheel glanced the edge of a rock. She lost her balance, tumbled over the seat and skidded on the floor, driving a splinter from the dry wooden planks into the palm of her hand. Gathering her wits she pushed herself to her knees only to sprawl on the floor once more as the air-borne wheel bounced against solid ground.

She pulled herself along the wagon floor to the large wicker basket as the wagon careened dangerously to the left and then the right, back to the left again. Screaming. More screaming. "Shhhh….." she pleaded, gently rocking the basket as the wagon continued to lurch about. She reached into the basket, her hands trembling to the frantic beating of her heart, but stopped, her attention divided between instinct and the panic in her husband's voice.

"The rifle! Hand me the rifle! Now!"

Tears beginning to cloud her blue eyes, she covered the basket with a light blanket and hid it under a small wooden table, wedging it between her mother's trunk and the side of the wagon. Making her way across the floor on her hands and knees she reached for the rifle behind the wagon seat and placed it in his anxious hands.

Fumbling for ammunition, the box of shells slipped from her grasp and fell open as the wagon rocked precariously again. She heard the crack of a wooden wheel surrendering under the strain and felt the wagon beginning to slow. Crawling like a child after a loose marble, she chased the spilled shells across the splintered wooden floor, tearing the lavender gingham as her knee caught in her skirt. Fear rose up and grabbed her throat, choking her voice into something small and desperate.

"Please dear God," she pleaded. "Please. . ."

Chapter One

Buck placed the cap back on the canteen and wiped his shirtsleeve across his mouth. Twisting in the saddle, he arched his back trying to relieve the persistent ache. It didn't help much. Too many days in the saddle and nights in a bedroll had rubbed his joints raw and left his muscles rebelling. He pulled his left foot from the stirrup and straightened his leg, flexing his foot in an attempt to work out the nagging cramp that had settled in his calf. He'd been riding a long time and there were still a good many miles between him and his bunk, Rachel's cooking and the company of his Express family. The familiar outline of Rock Creek's rooftops would be a welcome sight even if he didn't care much for their new station.

He had never been pleased with their move to Rock Creek. If they had stayed in Sweetwater then Ike wouldn't have. . .

"Don't think about it, Buck," he ordered himself. "Just don't think about it."

The Pony Express was a private enterprise but "special" runs for the Army, such as this one, were becoming more and more common as the financially strapped owners of the Express eagerly offered their riders as couriers for the military. A parcel of documents was to be picked up from the commanding officer at Fort Kearney and delivered to a unit temporarily stationed at Fort St. Vrain in Colorado Territory, well south of the established Pony Express trail. It was a long run, likely a ten-day round trip for a single rider, and there were reports that the Arapaho were becoming increasingly hostile in the area. But the government paid too well for the head office to turn the work down, even if the runs were a bit out of the ordinary.

Buck knew Teaspoon had hesitated before asking him to take the run. He had seen the worry in the older man's eyes. Teaspoon knew Buck was familiar with the area and of all the riders employed by Russell, Majors and Waddell, he was the most capable of avoiding an encounter with hostile Indians. The boy had an uncanny sense of "knowing" about him. Each of Teaspoon's riders had a gift unique to them and that was Buck's. An 'awareness' that was born in the blood. But still. It was awfully soon.

"You sure you're up to this, son?" the older man had asked as he saw his Kiowa rider off in the gray light of early morning seven days prior.

"I know where I'm goin', Teaspoon. I've been around there before," Buck assured him even though he was aware his employer's concern didn't rise from whether or not he knew the geography. "I'll be fine."

It did seem to Teaspoon that Buck was doing better. The consuming grief that had swallowed him after Ike's sudden death had lessened and Buck seemed to be adjusting to the newness of being alone. But sometimes he still saw it - a hurtful look casting a long shadow over the boy's dark eyes, a word caught edgeways in his throat. They were small things, but enough to make Buck's assertion that he had come to terms with Ike's death suspect.

In his own mind, Buck had come to terms with losing his friend. Trapped in a remote darkness by a heartache too big to get past, he had bargained with Ike's memory. The conditions of the agreement were simple. He would be permitted to sleep without Ike's pale ghost bleeding across his dreams and eat without his stomach tossing back the food forced into it as long as he didn't think about Ike. He just couldn't do it. Provided he held up his end of the bargain, he would be fine.

Buck settled back into the saddle waiting for the bay gelding beneath him to drink its fill from the shallow water hole. He had been worried about finding water. He hadn't traveled through this part of the territory for several years, but he remembered it being terribly dry during the summer months. Thankfully, an out of season rain had left scattered pockets of water that were easily located. He had no difficulty finding the fort either as the route was well marked by a steady trail of tracks left by mounted troops moving in and out of the garrison.

While grabbing a quick cup of coffee and a little rest in the mess tent after delivering the parcel to the officer in charge, he overheard bits of conversation about the Arapaho uprising. An overblown account he suspected. Noticing his presence, the men's voices grew louder just so he would know of their opinion of Indians in general. It was nothing new, but it still bothered him. It didn't matter that he had just spent five days pounding his body black and blue across the plains to deliver 'their' mail. It bothered him more that nothing he said or did would sway their opinion and the thought left a bitter taste in his mouth. He sat the tin cup back on the table, still half-full, tossed his weary bones back into the saddle and left.

Its belly cooled, the bay raised his head from the pond, flicking its ears to deflect the flies that congregated around the water hole.

"You ready to go, Red?" Buck asked, leaning forward to give his companion's neck an affectionate scratch. As if to answer, the horse pawed the ground impatiently and tossed his black-maned head sending the metallic clatter of bit and bridle into the air. A slight touch of Buck's heels was all that was necessary to urge the horse into an easy lope. Like all Express ponies, its energy and desire to run was close to the surface and both horse and rider would have preferred a faster gait. But the gelding was his only mount until they reached the nearest Express station at Julesburg, still a day and a half away. Although he had seen nothing to indicate hostile Indian activity on either leg of the trip, it would be best to conserve the animal's speed for a time when it might be needed.

Easing into the bay's rhythmic stride, Buck's thoughts began to wander down the trail toward home. Teaspoon had promised him some time off to compensate for the long run although there was no particular place he wanted to go. A few days rest at the station would suit him just fine. His mouth began to water envisioning Rachel's steaming blackberry cobbler. She didn't make the dessert very often, but knowing it was a favorite she had offered it as a treat when he got home. A smile slipped across his face as he pictured himself sitting in the rocker on the bunkhouse porch, feet propped up, a dish of cobbler and fresh cream in his hands relaxing while the others grumbled through mucking out stalls and painting the barn. Buck laughed out loud at the thought causing the bay's ears to flit in curiosity. Watching the others work. Now that would be time off well spent.

********

Two hours later Buck felt pretty good about the progress he and the bay gelding had made. Even at the slower pace they had covered a sizeable amount of ground and a few more hours of travel were still possible before darkness stopped them for the night. Barring bad luck, he would make the station in Julesburg by the next afternoon, bid the gelding a reluctant good-bye, grab a fresh horse and sprint across Nebraska for home.

At first he thought the disruption breaking the straight line of the horizon before him was his imagination. A long run in the flat lands could do that to a rider. Reining in the bay horse a bit, he rubbed the dust from his eyes and stood in the stirrups to make sure. No. He wasn't seeing things. His expression twisted in a grim thought, Buck sat back into the saddle, weighing his options. A part of him argued to swing a wide berth around the wagon and continue on his way, but that side of his nature had never been very persuasive. Slowing the gelding to a pace that would hopefully be taken as non-aggressive, he walked the horse closer to the wagon, hoping he wasn't met with the serious end of a shot gun. It had happened before.

A violent death isn't silent. The terror of a brutal ending lingers tangible in the air for a time. Makes it heavy. Cries linger long after their voices have died. Resisting the call of the hereafter, disbelieving souls hover over lifeless bodies, wringing their hands and sobbing, imploring the Fates to mend the snipped thread.

Buck had felt it before. The heaviness. He had been a small child, six or seven at most, when the Kiowa village was attacked by a thieving band of Paiute. He remembered it well - the smell of blood, the buzz of flies swarming over open wounds, their steady hum announcing the killings to higher predators. Taking the reins in his right hand he slowly slid his pistol from its leather holster and nudged the bay forward. The color in his face drained away when he rode upon them. He swallowed hard and looked away. The soldiers at the fort hadn't been exaggerating after all.

They were a young couple, not much older than he was. She had been pretty. Fair haired and skinned. Freckled. She reminded him a little bit of Emma, or what Emma might have looked like in her early twenties. She lay on her side, nearly hidden in the tall grass, her hands folded prayerlike under her chin. Her eyes were still open and when he rolled her onto her back it looked almost as if she was searching the heavens for her God, reciting her prayers before sleep.

He tried to remove the arrow protruding from her abdomen, but the pierced flesh had closed around the shaft so it almost looked like the arrow was a part of her - a feather embellished appendage of some sort. The large bloodstain marring the front of her lavender checked dress told that she had not died quickly. A stopped heart doesn't pulse blood. Her death had been slow and painful. Degrading. Buck wrapped his hand around the arrow and with a quick movement of the wrist snapped the shaft above the wound. She almost looked grateful.

A young man lay in a lifeless, bloody sprawl a few feet from her. Buck presumed he was her husband. He had probably been a good man. He had made a mistake to be sure. Heading out on their own through such dangerous country had been foolish, but that didn't make him any less a good man. Naïve . . . stubborn maybe. He guessed they had been part of a wagon train. The long, winding caravans bound for paradise had become commonplace. The man had probably been warned about the dangers of traveling alone. Buck wondered if he thought about that warning as the Arapaho brave bore down on him, his lance raised in intimidation, war cries ripping the air.

Death is at an arm's length with a tomahawk. Close enough for the man to have seen the hatred in the Arapaho's eyes before the heavy, knife-edged blows rained down on him. Close enough for the warrior to have found the terror in the white man's eyes as the weapon split his skull in half. Buck tried to brush the excited flies away from the gaping wound to give the dead man a bit of dignity, but no sooner than he swatted them away, they settled back.

Buck pushed himself to his feet, his heavy steps marking a path back to the gelding waiting patiently nearby. He doubted the animal would stray, but the last thing he needed was for a coyote intent on claiming a meal to spook the horse and be left in this vast emptiness without a mount. He led the faithful animal to the wagon, looping the leather strands through a wheel. He noticed that several spokes of the wheel were broken, the wood shattered by a stress the mechanism wasn't meant to bear. Buck ran his hand thoughtfully over the splintered wood as it told the story. The entire attack had probably lasted only a few minutes. The images were vivid and troubled him. He understood the need of the Arapaho to protect their home against enemies, but this couple's only crime had been poor judgement.

They were warring factions in an argument that repeated over and over again in his mind. In the singular, the white couple posed no threat, but when one came others would follow. Towns and cities, roads and fences would sprout in the Indian's fertile homeland and they would be pushed off ground that had been theirs for as long as the land could remember. Seeking revenge upon those who wronged you was a natural response. He'd done as much himself. "No . . ." he quickly corrected himself. "Neville was different. Very different." Neville deserved what he got.

"Don't think about it, Buck. Don't think about it."

Shaking off the forbidden thoughts, Buck untied the leather straps securing a shovel to the side of the wagon, resigning himself to the task. The Arapaho had no use for it or the white couple's belongings. All they had taken were the horses and whatever weapon the man might have had. Heaving a sigh laden with unwanted responsibility, Buck walked a few paces from the wagon and plunged the spade into the earth.

He knew this was the white man's custom, but it still left him unsettled. This act of burial. How was rest possible in a place so cold and heavy? He dug until the spade hit rock then collected the bodies and laid them together in the grave. Together they could keep each other warm. The woman's eyes bothered him. He had tried to close them, but it was too late. Although dull and sunken, her gaze was unrelenting and set his nerves on edge. Buck turned away from their pleading and blindly filled the grave until the woman's face was covered, her desperation hidden under a layer of soil.

Buck wiped the dirt from his hands on his trouser legs and placed the shovel back where he found it. He doubted the grave was deep enough to deter predators for long, but he had done the best he could and was anxious to be rid of this duty. The abandoned wagon looked strangely out of context in the sea of grass. If a more fortunate homesteader stumbled upon it, they would be welcome to it. Buck pulled the reins from the wagon wheel and placed his foot in the stirrup, too tired to merely swing into the saddle. Grabbing hold of the saddle horn, he started to raise himself in the stirrup when a sound from the opposite side of the wagon stopped him cold. He slowly lowered himself back to the ground.

It sounded like an animal whimpering, but a quick glance around the area revealed nothing. He had almost convinced himself the wind was toying with him when he heard it again, louder. Buck looped the reins around the wheel once more, warily moved to the rear of the wagon and pulled himself inside.

He felt like an intruder standing there under the canvas covering amidst the young couple's belongings. Clothing and bedding were strewn about, tossed from their places as the wagon bounded across the rough terrain. A Bible, thrown open to Song of Soloman, lay on the floor near a woman's hand mirror and an empty ammunition box. The broken pieces of mirror crunched under his boots as Buck moved further into the small enclosure. The sound called to him again, directing his movement, and in a heart-ripping moment he understood the urgency in the woman's eyes.

Buck dropped to his knees and pulled the wicker basket from its hiding place, laying aside the blanket covering. He sank down onto the wagon floor, rubbed his hand wearily across his forehead and pushed his hair back as if it would help smooth out his tangled thoughts.

He wasn't a good judge of such things, but the child didn't appear to be very old. Feeling very inadequate, he reached into the basket, holding the impatient infant at an awkward arm's length as if there was something dangerous about the child. Frightened by the stranger's touch, the baby wailed in a voice that seemed much too large for his small size and wriggled against the unfamiliar hands.

"Shhhhh….." Buck pleaded, nervousness spilling into his voice. "Hush now. Don't cry. Please don't cry."

Questioning what to do with the small, squirming being in his hands, he hurriedly tried to picture the women of his village or the mothers who shopped at Thompkins' store. Emulating their actions as best he could, he drew the child to his chest, patting the small back with a stiff uncertainty. Buck leaned heavily against the trunk beside the table, the weight of his discovery settling on him all at once.

"It's gonna be all right," he assured the quieting bundle in his arms, although he wasn't sure who needed to be convinced more - himself or the baby. "It's gonna be all right."

********

Once the child calmed Buck drew his knees up and laid the infant back against his legs to get a good look at his new responsibility. He was taken by the child's smallness. The full fist of fingers wrapped around his one finger was small. His bare toes, his ears. Everything was small. The child was healthy looking, well fed and cared for. He had been loved, Buck was certain of that. The little boy was fair skinned like his mother had been. If there was a hair on his head it was so blonde Buck couldn't see it. Blue eyes. Wide trusting eyes that could draw you in and hold you captive if you weren't careful.

According to the neatly penned wording in the family registry of the Bible Buck found on the wagon floor his name was Daniel. Born to Timothy and Lorena McAlister on the fifth of April, 1861. Buck did a quick calculation. April to August. Four months old. He thumbed through the pages in hopes the registry would provide the name of family members - perhaps an aunt and uncle or grandparents who could care for the child, but Daniel's birth was the first entry. The book was new, the pages crisp and slick, the gilt edges still bright. Unlike the worn, limp-paged Bible stored under his bunk, a child hadn't drawn pictures in it yet.

"Don't think about it, Buck," he scolded himself. "You can't think about it." Buck quickly laid the Bible atop the table and pushed it away. Rising slowly with Daniel awkwardly cradled in the crook of his arm, he stood and started for the rear of the wagon. He had lost enough time already, there was nothing more to do there. He wasn't quite certain what to do with Daniel. Finding the child had certainly altered his plans, but imagining what would have happened to the defenseless infant if he hadn't stumbled upon the wagon sent a shudder through him and Buck sent a silent thank you to whichever watchful spirit had plotted his path. Sad, he thought, that Timothy and Lorena McAlister's path hadn't been as divinely directed.

Buck turned around, his eyes quickly flitting through the wagon's contents, searching for something to bind this child to the parents he would never know. Though it felt like trespassing, he opened the trunk and carefully sifted through the items stored away inside. Bed linens, a faded quilt, a few articles of clothing. Nothing he felt was suitable. No photographs, no treasured keepsakes, no letters professing the depths of a young couple's love.

Buck knew all too well that in the years to come Daniel would need something to remind him that he had been loved. His hand wandered to the pouch hanging around his neck, his fingertips gently stroking the meticulously stitched seams. His mother had sewn the pouch for him when he reached twelve summers and was ready to begin collecting his medicine. The same year she died. The items securely bundled inside were precious to him, but no more so than the pouch itself. It connected her to him in the same way that Ike's Bible …

"Don't, Buck."

Buck drew a deep breath, berating himself for breaking the rule again. After a long moment of hesitation he reluctantly reached for Daniel's Bible and tucked the book under his arm.

Fearing Daniel would wiggle out of his grasp while he mounted the gelding, Buck held the little boy so tightly that he wailed in protest causing the bay to side step nervously, wary of the small burden. Buck's first thought was to take Daniel with him to the nearest station, but the more he thought about it the more he realized finding a decent home for him there would be unlikely. Julesburg was a rough town, better known for bar room brawls and loose women than benevolent families willing to take in a newly orphaned child.

He had witnessed the town's sinful nature himself having stopped long enough to trade his spent horse for the red gelding and treat himself to a hot meal. The vision of a half-dressed whore flying down the saloon's staircase after a drifter who had refused to pay her full fee was fresh in his memory. The woman spat obscenities as if she was possessed with something vile, the foul language flowing from her painted mouth like water. Even Teaspoon would have blushed. Julesburg was a place to pass through, maybe indulge for a moment in its song and drink, but not to put down roots. It wasn't a safe place for a child. The ride itself just to reach the town wouldn't be safe either. Julesburg was still a good day and a half away, now it would take even longer. He had no way to feed or care for a baby in the middle of the prairie. With Daniel in tow it would be difficult to watch for signs of the Arapaho and he certainly couldn't outrun a raiding party with a child in his arms.

Buck slouched back in the saddle and grazed his teeth over his bottom lip, remembering. He knew of a closer place. They could be there in a few hours. His decision was made with some reluctance, but he didn't have much choice. His arm crossed over Daniel's back securely holding the small bundle in place, the little boy's cheek resting against his guardian's shoulder, Buck reined the bay to the northwest in the direction of a home for orphaned children and more memories than he cared to face.

Chapter Two

"Our Lady of Sorrows School for the Orphaned and Abandoned" was a generous title for the cluster of tired, graying buildings held together by the grace of God and the backbone of a few sturdy Catholic nuns. The school had been founded in the fall of 1841 by a group of missionaries sponsored by an altruistic St. Louis parish. "Sorrows", as the school came to be known, fancied itself the model of Christian charity, opening its doors to unfortunate young ones orphaned by the maladies of the plains or abandoned by parents too full of their own misery to be burdened with the care of a child. Over the years a steady stream of children flowed into Sorrows' front door where they were blessed with a bed, an education and the moral upbringing deemed suitable by the Catholic church. The children didn't stop coming, but as purse strings tightened, the stipend from St. Louis did. As years passed without a benefactor, but no fewer number of young souls in need, the model of good intentions began to truly live up to its name.

Sorrows had been in a sad state of disrepair when Buck had been a student there and the years since had not been a friend. The compound consisted of the school building itself, a storage shed and barn which housed two sway-backed horses, older than anyone at the school could remember, a bone-gaunt Guernsey masquerading as a milk cow and a smattering of chickens. The limestone foundation supporting the barn had begun to crumble on one side so the structure sat decidedly out of square. Buck noticed the odd lot pieces of lumber used as a temporary fix for a hole in the barn roof five years before were still there along with an assortment of new patches. The wood used for the repairs had originally served as pieces of siding on the storage shed, but the smaller structure had been asked to sacrifice itself for the sake of the more crucial barn. No longer used, its frame reduced to a near skeleton in places, it appeared that a stiff breeze or an unkind thought could send what remained of the shed toppling to the ground.

When the mission was constructed a picket fence had been built around the school building in an attempt to keep the youngest children in the yard and animals out. Years later it failed miserably at both. A snarl of vines tangled around the old wood had grown so heavy the fence cowered under the weight giving the impression of an overgrown bully intent on choking its opponent into submission in a schoolyard wrestling match.

The school building itself was a large three-story structure built atop a foundation similar to the barn that had, luckily, not suffered the same deterioration. Clad in rough sawn pine siding, the school once sparkled in a coat of white, but the paint had long ago blistered and cracked under the intensity of the prairie sun, leaving the bare and unprotected wood easy fodder for wood ants and termites. Two towering chimneys of native stone stood on opposite sides of the building like bookends holding it together. The fireplaces provided a pleasing warmth to the immediate area, but failed to heat the space in between leaving the center of the building drafty and nearly unbearable once the January winds began to blow. The first floor housed an office, the kitchen, cafeteria and chapel. Classrooms, the nuns' sleeping quarters, the nursery and an infirmary comprised the second floor and on the third, tucked under the eaves and separated by the center stairwell were the dormitories - boys on the north, girls on the south.

Buck wearily drew his right leg over the saddle horn and slid carefully to the ground. Locating a section that still stood fairly upright, he draped the bay's reins over the fence with one hand, a fussing Daniel held securely by the other.

The bay's easy stride had placated the child for the first hour of their journey, the rocking motion of the horse and almost hypnotic melody of rustling grass lulling him to sleep. Buck's initial awkwardness softened under the touch of Daniel's small body lying warm and trusting against him. Much to his surprise, he found himself enjoying the feel of the little boy's light breath on his neck and the way Daniel's white blonde head fit so perfectly in the hollow of his shoulder. But an empty stomach brought on cries of hunger and Daniel awoke irritable, struggling against Buck's firm hold. His only experience with an infant being the baby left on the Sweetwater station's doorstep, Buck was at a loss. Assuming Daniel's discomfort stemmed from either a soiled diaper or hunger, he reined the bay to a stop and a brief rest, desperately hoping for the latter of the two ailments. Remembering the biscuits leftover from his breakfast, Buck reached blindly into his saddle bag, his eyes anxiously scanning the countryside for any sign of the Arapaho.

The outer crust of the biscuit was hard, but the inner part seemed soft enough for a child, or at least he hoped so. Buck had no idea if a four month old baby could eat such a thing, but, having planned on replenishing his supplies in Julesburg, aside from a few strips of jerky his stores were nearly depleted. He tore one of the biscuits apart and coaxed Daniel into accepting a small piece. The little boy seemed somewhat interested in the new taste, his features serious as he moved the piece of biscuit around in his mouth experimenting with the texture. Buck's hopes that the biscuit would tide Daniel over until they reached the mission crumbled as the child's face puckered in disappointment and a fat tear slid down his cheek. Daniel pushed the dough out of his mouth with his tongue, the partially dissolved pieces dribbling down his chin, and began wailing again in earnest. Having nothing else to offer, they set out again, Daniel's cries coercing Buck into asking a slightly quicker pace of the gelding, certain that the sound would alert every hostile Indian for miles in any direction of their presence. The little boy eventually found his thumb and, much to the relief of both horse and rider, the pacifier quieted him.

Buck unfastened the saddlebags and withdrew the McAlister's Bible, silently surveying the school grounds. The yard was quiet and empty, the children's chores completed for the night. Gray shadows growing tall at the buildings' feet cast a further gloom over the somber scene and deepened his already sagging spirits. Buck tucked the Bible under his arm and rounded the drooping fence line. Growing impatient, Daniel wiggled in his arms as they climbed the steps to the small plank landing before the front door. Buck's stomach turned uneasily like a key in a rusty lock releasing a vulnerability hidden away there. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, staring at the door, questioning his intent. Daniel seemed to sense his protector's distress and whimpered, fussing all the more.

"I know, Daniel. I know. . ." Buck mumbled apologetically. ". . . but I don't know what else to do."

Squaring his shoulders, Buck rapped his knuckles against the door before he could change his mind and quickly stepped away turning back to the yard. His eyes wandered across the empty playground, down the fence line, lingering for a moment on a sprawling quince bush, onto the lonely cottonwood standing guard at the south end of the yard. The tree welcomed his gaze like an old friend, but then as if something frightful had come into view, Buck's back stiffened and he turned sharply toward the door.

"Don't think about it, Buck. Don't look at the tree. Don't do it."

********

After eyeing him closely, Buck and Daniel were ushered into the Reverend Mother's office by a black garbed sister he didn't recognize to wait while she retrieved the older nun from the chapel. He really couldn't blame her for looking at him suspiciously. It wasn't every day that a bone weary, half-breed, Pony Express rider with a baby in one arm and a Bible in the other appeared on Sorrows' doorstep asking for the Reverend Mother by name.

The worn spots in the wine colored upholstery on the arms of the desk chair were larger than Buck remembered, the fabric raveled away exposing the wooden frame in one spot, but that was the only change he noticed in the office. Aside from being a few inches taller and dressed differently he might very well have been thrown back in time four years to when he last stood in the room.

The oversized oak desk still sat squarely in the center of the office as he remembered - the same spot it had occupied since the school had been built. In its earlier days, the desk had been a striking piece of carpentry with smoothly turned legs, precise dove-tail joints, hand carved trim and a lustrous finish - a gift to the new school by a St. Louis parishioner aiming to buy himself into God's good graces. Years of use had dulled the varnished surface and the dry climate had caused the wood to shrink and pull away from the carefully crafted joints. A few pieces of the trim had been broken away and the crispness of the hand detailing had been obscured by years of dust settling into the finely carved lines. Save for a painstakingly neat stack of papers in the middle, the desktop was completely clear, not at all like the clutter of files, wanted posters and waxed sandwich wrappers that littered Teaspoon's desk in the Marshal's office in Rock Creek.

The chair was centered precisely behind the desk - not an inch further to the left or right. The rigidly straight backed chair had always looked terribly uncomfortable to Buck, but considering the posture of the woman who had overseen the school for its twenty years, he decided it was a perfect fit.

With the exception of a silver crucifix mounted on the wall behind the desk, the office was void of any decoration or other furnishings. The room didn't strive to be hospitable. That wasn't its purpose.

Bouncing Daniel a bit as he walked in an attempt to quiet the little boy's whimpering, Buck laid the Bible on the corner of the oak desk and crossed the rough plank floor to the window that overlooked the garden at the rear of the school. Although only remnants of fading light fell across the yard he could still make out the lines of Sorrows' garden plot. The Reverend Mother's garden always seemed to turn out larger than planned. Every year the earth was turned into neat furrows, the precious seeds dropped into the nurturing soil. Sorrows' crop varied widely from the snap beans and okra that grew with little attention to more difficult varieties that required special care. Just as Buck expected, each tidy row ran exactly parallel to the next - each cabbage plant, every stalk of corn or mound of squash precisely spaced from its neighbor. Buck's expression twisted in a displeased frown. That fairly well summed up Sorrows he supposed - strict order in the midst of despair. A knowing eye would understand that each plant was carefully cultivated, its growth and individual needs meticulously tended, but Buck couldn't see past the rigid lines

Gazing out the window into the waning light he wrapped his arms around Daniel's small body holding the little boy tightly against his shoulder while the child sucked his thumb and tangled his fingers in a strand of Buck's dark hair. What kind of life was he committing this innocent child to? Daniel should have better than this. Better than this place that never had enough meat, enough beds, enough books, enough love. They all should. None of Sorrows' children deserved the hand they had been dealt. The circumstances bringing them to this place were not their doing.

Maybe it was because like the McAlister's abandoned wagon left on the prairie, Daniel belonged to whoever found him or perhaps it was the kinship he felt to this parentless child that made Buck question his actions. He had intended to simply hand over the child and be on his way, but seeing Sorrows again, faded and failing, made him think twice. Holding Daniel, Buck felt a protective instinct he had never before experienced take root inside him. He could do better than this. Buck drew a determined breath and turned away from the window to retrieve Daniel's Bible, intending to slip out the front door unnoticed. It would be difficult, but. . .

"It really is you," came a voice from the doorway, stopping Buck in mid stride. He recognized the voice, but the hint of surprise in the words was new to him.

His quick glance confirmed that Reverend Mother Mary Augustine hadn't changed since he had left the school. She was a small woman, barely five feet tall weighing no more than a tumbleweed. Tiny in stature, she stood with a firm posture as if her back had no bend in it. Demanding order from herself as well as the children she supervised, even the creases on her face were symmetrical.

Answering the call to servanthood at the tender age of fourteen after a cholera epidemic left her motherless with a drink-hardened father, Mother Augustine had spent the past forty years in service to her Lord, half of those years at Sorrows. Although dwarfed physically by the heavy, dark habit she wore, anyone who made the error of mistaking her lack of size for lack of grit was quickly corrected. Buck remembered thinking once if a tornado threatened Sorrows, Mother Augustine would firmly stand her ground in the yard, staring down the swirling green monster, demanding with a point of her finger that the whirlwind back up and go around her children. If he were a wagering man, Buck would still put his money on the Reverend Mother in such a contest of will.

"I wasn't quite certain Sister Agnes had the name correct when she informed me you were waiting," the tiny black robed woman said as she crossed the room to take her place of authority behind the desk. Shifting Daniel so he could be held with only one arm, Buck quickly smoothed down his clothing making himself as presentable as possible and unconsciously moved to the side of the desk opposite her assuming the position of a schoolboy. "We don't get many visits from former students," the Reverend Mother added, explaining her surprise.

Mother Augustine nodded to the squirming bundle in Buck's arms. "However, I assume this young one has something to do with your return and it is not a social visit that has brought you back to us."

Buck felt her steady gaze make note of the length of his hair and the medicine bundle around his neck. He was a grown man now, twenty years old, but this tiny bit of a woman still made him feel like an awkward thirteen year old boy.

"No, Reverend Mother. It's not a social call," Buck answered, trying to bounce and pat away the little boy's discomfort as well as hide his own. "I found him a few hours' ride southeast of here. His parents are dead," he concluded simply, hoping he wouldn't be pressed for further details. Even though there was no love lost between the Arapaho and the Kiowa, he was still hesitant to divulge the particulars of the incident that had orphaned Daniel. He wasn't there to debate the rights of the Indians to protect their land against the rights of the white man to take what didn't belong to them.

To his relief, Mother Augustine asked for no explanation. Every child at Sorrows had a sad tale to tell. The individual stories might vary, but the ending was always the same. "I assume you gave them a Christian burial?" she asked, her eyebrows arched inquisitively as if inquiring about an assignment.

"I buried them," Buck answered, although he wondered if laying the bodies closely together in one grave so they wouldn't be cold would really be considered 'Christian'. Buck picked up the leather bound Bible, offering it to his former teacher. "His name is Daniel . . . Daniel McAlister. His parents' names are listed in here, but no one else. I didn't know what to do . . . so I brought him here."

"Such a pity for one so young," she said quietly, her solid countenance wavering a bit at the sight of the little boy. Accepting the Bible she thumbed through the pages, confirming that no family was listed. "And of course, you did the right thing by bringing him to us. We have two others about his age, but we can always make room for one more."

Yes, they could make room, but that wasn't good enough. Buck shifted uneasily. "But . . . I'm thinkin' maybe. . . maybe I've changed my mind. Maybe I want to keep him."

The nun's tone was skeptical. "Are you able to provide for a child?"

His thumb no longer fooling the insistent hunger pains, Daniel arched his back and tossed his small body in protest, his face reddening as his fussing gave way to anger. Buck tightened his hold on the little boy trying to control the extra set of arms and legs Daniel seemed to have sprouted and raised his voice enough to be heard over the child's cry.

"Well. . . not exactly," he said nervously, the baby's flailing and the nun's look of doubt converging upon him. "I was thinkin' I might take him home with me instead. Maybe find a family for him there." His voice revealing both his growing weariness and inexperience, Buck sighed heavily as Daniel squealed again. "I think he's hungry."

The older woman nodded. "Yes, he is," she agreed, her calm reply contrasting with Buck's increasing level of distress. "I will ask Sister Ruth to prepare a bottle for him." Rounding the corner of the desk she reached for Daniel although Buck made no move to release his hold on the little boy. "As the one who found him it is your choice, but I must say I believe it would not be wise to travel on horseback for any distance with an infant." Leaving no room for discussion she concluded, "It will be dark soon and I believe the Lord is about to bless us with another rain. You will stay with us tonight and your decision can be made in the morning after you have given more thought to the matter."

Buck remained quiet for a moment considering his options until he realized they were limited. Daniel needed to be fed and cared for. Remembering his earlier inept attempt at feeding the child, he reluctantly nodded in agreement and handed Daniel over feeling more like the bundle in his arms was a late grammar assignment than a child. Daniel and the Reverend Mother were half way out the door before he could even think about changing his mind.

"I need a place for my horse, too, if it's not too much trouble."

"You will find what you need in the barn. I doubt that Blossom and the horses will mind sharing."

Mother Augustine stopped in the doorway and added, "we were just about to serve supper. Please join me in the dining room after you have tended the animal. As I mentioned earlier, we very seldom see former students. I would like to know how you and the McSwain boy have faired since leaving us."

"How the McSwain boy has faired." Buck leaned back heavily on the desk, Mother Augustine's words falling with a sickening thud to the bottom of his stomach. Returning to Sorrows was a mistake - he was certain of it now. This wasn't included in the terms of the agreement he had made with his grief. A memory he was forbidden to think about lurked in every corner. A silent ghost waited for him behind every door.

Chapter Three

It was easy for Buck to convince himself that the bay gelding was deserving of the extra brushing. Nor did he have any difficulty telling himself that because the light in the barn was dim, he needed to check the animal's hooves for damage twice. But when he tried to raise the bay's front foot for a third inspection the horse grew weary of the attention and refused to cooperate.

"What? You tired of my company?" Buck asked, straightening to look the animal in the eye. The bay merely turned his head, unimpressed with the rider's excuses.

Buck drew a slow breath and combed his fingers through the coarse, black strands of the gelding's mane. "You're right, Red," he admitted quietly as if imparting a confidence to the animal. "I'm wastin' time. It's just safer out here is all."

Although, despite its patches, the barn leaked and its joints groaned with the ache of an old man against the breeze, the barn did offer a safety the more secure school building didn't afford him. In the dim confines of the barn there was no black robed inquisitor, no questions to answer, no decisions to make - only the sweet smell of fresh straw, the muffled sound of heavy hooves and the melody of a late summer shower on the roof.

A glance to the sky as he led the gelding to the barn assured Buck the Reverend Mother was accurate in her prediction. Clouds, laying low and lightly bruised to the west, held the promise of rain, but the meek bank bore no malice. No thunderous words or jagged barbs of light lay hidden in their folds. The rain would be enough to rinse the air and settle the dust. A rarity in August. A blessing. Had he only himself to consider, Buck would have weathered the shower on the open prairie and enjoyed the communion with a higher power, but his indecisiveness regarding Daniel dictated that he stay.

Illuminating his path with a rusted lantern, Buck crossed the barn toward the hay mound. The bay had served him well and needed to be fed, but, in spite of the Reverend Mother's instruction, he felt badly about taking it. From what he had seen so far, Sorrows really couldn't afford to share. His steps interrupted by the methodical sound of chewing cud, Buck raised the lantern to the side and peered into softly familiar brown eyes. He smiled in spite of himself.

"You still here Blossom?" Buck asked, approaching the brown and white Guernsey. Completely content in her domesticity, the cow didn't shy away when Buck reached over the top rail of the stall to scratch the curly thatch of hair between her eyes. "'Bout time for you to retire, don't you think?" he inquired of the aging milk cow. The cow's bony frame shifted impatiently on heavy hooves, a look of expectation in her eyes. Noting the pile of oats on the ground beside him, Buck understood. The student assigned feed duty had evidently been in such a hurry to complete his task, he had missed the feed box and instead poured most of the ration of oats onto the barn floor outside the cow's stall.

Buck shook his head disapprovingly as his eye followed the meandering trail of oats. As if Sorrows didn't have enough trouble, valuable grain was going to waste. The Reverend Mother would certainly not hesitate to punish the young perpetrator for his carelessness. After a moment the harsh lines of Buck's critical expression softened a bit. Truth be known, he had hurried through a few of Blossom's feedings himself. Setting the lantern aside, he dropped to his knees and scooped up a handful of oats, letting the soft particles filter through his fingers into the trough. Intent on saving the grain, he didn't guard himself against the image of a hungry thirteen-year-old runaway and the intensity of the memory knocked him backward against the feed box. The barn wasn't as safe as he thought.

Running Buck regarded the scoop of grain in his hands with equal measures of desperation and disgust. Having shadowed his older brother from the time he took his first steps, Running Buck, although only thirteen summers old, was an accomplished hunter. Not for big game. He wasn't old enough to accompany Red Bear into the hunting grounds, but he could snare a rabbit or bring down a deer with his bow as well or better than any of the other boys in the village. For all the good it did him. If he had killed a massive buffalo bull with his bare hands and dragged the carcass home to a starving village, the Kiowa would have still found fault with him. Just like they always had. Just like they always would. Two months prior in a moment of utter despair, his spirit too weary and wounded to face another day of torment, he made the decision to leave the Kiowa and slipped from his brother's tepee into the cover of night. Uncertain as to just how far it was to the white world, he considered taking one of Red Bear's horses, but without his brother's permission it would be stealing. Determined to find a better life in the world of his father, he started walking with no intention of turning back. Had he known it would come to this, he might have considered his decision more thoroughly.

Assuming the white world lay in the direction opposite the hunting grounds, he had traveled south along the foothills of the great mountains. Treated no more hospitably by the few whites he encountered than by his own people, the young Kiowa runaway found himself debating whether it was worse to be cursed in his own native tongue or in the strange language of the white man. Not that he understood their angry words. He didn't need to. The tone of their voices and look of repulsion on their faces said plenty. Running Buck consoled himself by deciding that they just weren't the "right" white people. These poor farmers weren't the friendly, generous families of Little Bird's memory. He would find the prosperous villages and places of learning his white friend had described. He just needed to keep looking.

Although nights in a prairie grass bed had left his young muscles as stiff as the ground he slept on and the solitude began to wear on him, he had, at least most of the time, been able to find something to pacify the gnawing emptiness in his stomach. Having snapped the sinew string on his bow early in his trek with no means to repair it, his diet consisted primarily of jack rabbits that had the misfortune of stepping into his snare. Using every available daylight hour to search for the white villages, Running Buck limited himself to hunting only in the evening and one meal a day. At the end of each day the protests of a young body needing fuel to grow were strong, but certain there were better days ahead, he was convinced he was doing just fine. Then the rain started.

Caught unprepared in the open prairie, he watched as black thunderheads bullied their way across the sky and stalled overhead. Battling torrents of rain that rolled across him like a swollen river, he had stumbled through the flooded grassland for two long days until a flash of lightning exposed the angles of the barn's roof.

His buckskins soaked and heavy with mud, his long hair glued to his face and neck, Running Buck made his way to the shelter. While the wind took a moment to inhale he managed to pry open the door and slip inside. Following the sound of shuffling hooves, aided by an occasional flash of light filtering through the cracks in the roof, he felt his way to the rear of the barn coming face to face with the large doe-eyed creature. Although unknown to the Kiowa, he had seen a few such animals behind the white farmer's fences. Running Buck had been confounded by the animals' willingness to be penned in - to be held captive. Were all the white man's animals so lacking in spirit?

Her interest in the young intruder fleeting, the cow lowered her head into the feed box and resumed her meal as if he wasn't there. Running Buck couldn't help feeling a bit envious of the animal. Trapped for a seemingly endless time in the storm he couldn't quite remember when he had eaten last. The lack of food had left him weak and a bit dizzy. The pains in his empty belly had traveled to his head, encasing his skull in a pounding so relentless that at times he had to press his hands against his eyes to prevent them from bursting from their sockets.

Moving a bit to the side to escape a drip from the roof, he bumped against a sack of grain outside the cow's stall. Knocked on its side, the contents spilled from the burlap bag onto the earthen floor. Running Buck dropped to his knees and ran his hand hesitantly through the grain. Not an agricultural people themselves, the Kiowa traded fur pelts and buffalo hides for grains offered by farming tribes and an occasional trustworthy white peddler. Although a bit damp, the oats felt like the grain he remembered his mother pounding into a powder for bread. He brought a handful closer, wrinkling his nose and flinching involuntarily at the spoiled odor.

Running Buck sank to the floor in a crumpled heap under the weight of his mother's memory. Life in the village had been bearable while she was alive. Red Bear loved him regardless of his pale skin and brown hair, but rather than take measures to prevent the abuse that became a constant fixture in his brother's life, the chief simply chose not to see it. That selective blindness had been the final blow that drove a wedge between Running Buck and his older brother. Still, he missed Red Bear's throaty laugh and the relative safety and warmth of his brother's lodge. To honor her husband, Red Bear's wife had seen that he was fed, even if it was after everyone else had finished.

He had left the Kiowa confident in his pilgrimage to a new world, but his empty belly growling like an angry dog, drenched to the bone and no closer to his goal than the night he ran away, his resolve was slipping. Although he would certainly be punished for running away, Red Bear would take him back. But to return to the village, admitting defeat, would only validate the Kiowa's claim that he was nothing . . . that he was so worthless the white world didn't even want him. If life in the village had been unbearable before, the torment would be murderous if he returned. If not his body, his spirit would surely die. No . . . No, he wouldn't go back. Running Buck rolled the grain in his hand, his fingertips brushing against the hairy, greyish-green growth. He was thankful for the darkness. If he couldn't see what he was doing, it would be easier to deny his actions to himself later when things were better. Running Buck took the handful of molded oats into his mouth, pressed his eyes closed, and swallowed.

********

Running Buck hadn't intended on falling asleep, at least not sleeping for very long. Assuming the barn belonged to another white farmer, he planned to leave at the first hint of light and continue on his way before the familiar pattern was repeated and the white man threw him out. But cocooned in golden threads of straw, the roar overhead reduced to a soft patter, he slept hard. Streams of morning light spilling through cracks in the shrunken siding fell across his face and he rolled toward the warmth. Running Buck arched his back, stretching like a cat waking from a nap and tossed a lazy arm over his head. The sun's rays seeped in steadily like a warm fluid flowing through channels of awareness, waking him slowly.

Noises. Daytime noises. Voices. Running Buck's eyes flipped open like a sprung window shade expecting to see a pitchfork wielding farmer standing over him. What he saw startled him even more and he dug his heels into the mound, pushing himself further into the straw burrow.

Their features were softly rounded like a woman's, but nothing else in their appearance was the least bit feminine. Dressed in stark black from head to toe, they looked nothing like the white women he had encountered so far. They stood close together, gripping each other's hands, so wide-eyed that Buck wondered for a moment if he had grown a third leg overnight. Following their gaze he realized it wasn't an extra limb, but the large hunting knife strapped on his leg that frightened them. A youngster, a boy Running Buck estimated to be a few years younger than himself, stood beside them clutching a metal milk bucket to his chest like a piece of armor. Pointing an accusing finger in his direction, the boy started forward until one of the black clad women grabbed his arm and pulled him back.

The two women leaned into each other, their heads slightly bowed, speaking in whispered tones while the boy's curious gaze held Running Buck in place. The women nodded as if coming to an agreement. The larger woman moved toward him and pointed toward the knife. She didn't carry a weapon, at least not that he could see, but at a distinct disadvantage on his back in a pile of straw Running Buck slowly complied and handed over the knife. The nun held the blade cautiously with only her thumb and forefinger carrying it well away from her body as if it might suddenly spring to life and do damage on its own. Returning to her position beside the other woman, she motioned for him to get up and follow.

Running Buck's heart plunged into his stomach. He expected to be thrown out again, but how would he survive without his knife? Although the woman was bigger than he was, he was certain he could overpower her easily and retrieve his knife, but the other woman's hands were hidden in her black dress. A small gun like the one he saw an angry farmer pull from a sheath on his hip could be easily hidden in the many folds of fabric. When he didn't respond the woman motioned to him again and said something he didn't understand. He slowly rose to his feet and followed them out of the barn. What else could he do?

Unaccustomed to the bright light, Running Buck brought his hand up, shielding his eyes from the morning sun as he stepped out of the double barn doors flanked by the black dressed women. What he saw surprised him. If this was a family it was a very large one. Children of many different ages ran around the buildings, playing some sort of game he didn't recognize while other black dressed women tried to keep them in the grassy areas and out of the puddles of water and thick layer of mud covering the yard.

Ushered toward a building larger than he had ever seen, he noticed a group of boys about his age pulling on the low branches of a cottonwood tree, grabbing for something hidden in its limbs. They were singing, although it was a song much different from the chants and prayer songs he was familiar with.

Ike McSwain! Ike McSwain!
The dummy can't even say his name!

Ike McSwain! Ike McSwain!
The dummy can't even say his name!

As Running Buck and the nuns approached the tree one of the boys caught a glimpse of the strange procession and smacked his friend on the shoulder, pointing a finger in Running Buck's direction.

"Will you look at that!" the boy exclaimed to his friend causing the other troublemakers to turn and gawk at the young Kiowa.

"I found him!" shouted the smaller boy with the milk bucket running along behind the two nuns and the trespasser. Puffing out his chest he added, "found him in the barn when I went to milk Blossom! Prob'ly lying in wait, gonna scalp us all! Got his knife away from him though! Ya'll are safe now!" he finished, not bothering to mention it was Sister Beatrice who had collected the weapon and not himself.

Finding this intruder more interesting than their treed prey, the boys fell into line behind the nuns. They had never seen a "real" Indian before and were a bit disappointed in this one. He didn't look all that dangerous - not like the screaming, wild eyed, savages of their late night story telling sessions. Still, they kept some distance. If he was a killer, better he attack one of the nuns who was assured a place in Heaven than one of them.

"Whatcha gonna do with him Sister? Huh? Whatcha gonna do?"

"Do ya think there's more of 'em?"

"He ain't painted! I thought Indians were s'posed to be painted!"

Their questions flew until Sister Margaret turned to face the gallery, her arms folded across her chest, exasperated. "He is none of your concern. The Reverend Mother will decide what is to be done. Now go on about your chores! And haven't you been told to leave Ike alone? He's hard enough to handle without you tormenting him." Turning to the smaller boy she added, "and don't you have a cow to milk, Michael Shaughnessy?"

Buck knew he should be accustomed to it by now, but the predatory gaze pasted on the boys' faces still made him feel like a cornered animal. The nun's order sending the boys scampering away, he tilted his head to the side so he could see into the tree wondering what kindred spirit they had trapped in its branches. He expected to see a raccoon, perhaps a possum. Both animals were common to the area. What he saw was anything but common and he pulled back in surprise.

It wasn't an animal at all, but a boy crouched in the branches of the cottonwood. A boy with no hair and huge, piercing eyes ready to pop from his head. Rays of sunlight filtering through the leaves reflected off his hairless scalp making it almost glow. He sat with his shoulders hunched up around his ears giving the appearance that he had no neck. An owl. He looked like an owl! Running Buck had learned early on that an owl was bad medicine. Even a solitary hoot from the bird in the darkness was known to strike a chord of impending doom in the superstitious Kiowa people.

Their path cleared of onlookers, the procession continued across the muddy yard. Adolescent curiosity winning out over caution, Running Buck turned, craning his neck to look back into the tree. The boy made no sound or attempted to climb down - simply stared back at him with wide eyes. Running Buck felt a sense of dread blanket him as Sister Beatrice nudged him toward the building. He didn't know exactly what this place was, but the owl boy was a bad sign.

********

"He was carrying this, Reverend Mother," Sister Beatrice said holding up the knife. "I shudder to think what he is capable of."

Reverend Mother Mary Augustine clasped her hands behind her back and walked a slow circle around the young Indian. His mocassins caked in mud, bits of straw stuck to his still wet buckskins and sticking out from his waist length tangle of hair, he didn't look threatening. Running Buck didn't bat an eye as she continued her inspection, running her gaze from the sharp angles of his shoulder blades jutting against the worn buckskin shirt to the obviously hand-me-down trousers barely held up by his narrow hips. Thin. Painfully thin. And no doubt frightened. Yet he stood unflinching before her like a soldier at attention. Mother Augustine pressed her lips into a tight line, her assessment made. This Indian was a prideful one.

The Reverend Mother took the knife and examined it closely, then laid it aside. "It is very possible that the knife is used for hunting," she said, addressing Sister Beatrice. Nodding to the other nun she added, "You may go, Sister Margaret."

"Thank you, Mother," the young nun answered making a hasty retreat.

"Where was he found?"

"Michael Shaughnessy found him in the barn and alerted Sister Margaret and myself. He probably broke in during the night. I can only imagine what he was doing there."

"I should think he was taking refuge from the storm, Sister," Mother Augustine said, her eyebrows arched disapprovingly at the younger nun's insinuation. "And because the barn is not locked, he could not have 'broken in'."

"But what would he be doing here, Mother? Why would he be in our barn and not in his own . . . his own place . . . with his own people?"

"I doubt that he has a place. Otherwise, he would not have been in our barn. He is not full-blooded. Look at the color of his hair - brown not black. I have heard that some tribes do not take well to mixed blood. He has probably been expelled or abandoned by his own people. Judging by the looks of him, he is fortunate to have found us."

Running Buck watched the two black clad women with cautious curiosity. They had yet to act threateningly toward him although he did feel a bit intimidated by them. He wasn't accustomed to being inside a building and was more than a little anxious about being trapped inside one with these strange women. Their robes hung to the ground giving them the appearance of floating rather than walking when they moved and the sleeves of their heavy black garments flowed around them like wings. Black from head to toe, they reminded him of crows. He turned his head from one to the other following their cackling conversation. The small crow was obviously in charge - he could tell by the way the other one lowered her head when she was spoken to. He understood a few of the words from Little Bird's English lessons. "Mother". "Sister". "Indian". But mostly it sounded like cackling.

"Reverend Mother, you aren't suggesting that we take him in are you?" Sister Beatrice brought her hand to her throat protectively as if the very thought could slit it open. "He is an Indian. He doesn't even speak English."

"Are you forgetting the word of our Lord, Sister?" Mother Augustine asked. "'But Jesus said, suffer the children and forbid them not to come unto me for such is the Kingdom of Heaven'. Matthew 19:14. Perhaps you should reread the gospel of Matthew tonight to refresh your memory. Teaching is our mission, Sister. This is a school."

The familiar word caught Running Buck's attention. "School?"

The Reverend Mother and Sister Beatrice turned toward him in unison.

"Yes," Mother Augustine answered, taking a step toward him. "Yes, this is a school for children who have no home. Do you understand what a school is?"

"School," he said again nodding. Could it be possible that he had found one of the places of learning that Little Bird had described?

"It appears that someone has already taught him a bit of English."

"But Mother. . ." Sister Beatrice implored.

Mother Augustine ignored the interruption and continued as if Running Buck could actually understand her. He regarded the small crow warily as she once more clasped her hands behind her back and began to circle around him.

"If you are to stay at Sorrows and go to school, I will expect no less from you than any other student. You will be required to learn English, attend mass, dress and act as any other pupil. Your hair must be cut short like the other boys. And . ." she paused for a moment taking in the oddity dangling from his earlobe and the pouch around his neck. "Students at Sorrows are not allowed to wear jewelry or adornment of any kind. Nor is a weapon allowed. Your possessions will be held for you and returned when you have graduated. Is that clear?"

Running Buck didn't understand a word she spoke, but the expression on her face indicated that she expected a response. Not knowing what else to do and having been taught to respect those older than himself, he nodded.

"Good. Now what is your name?"

Name. He knew what that meant. "Running Buck," he answered solidly in the well practiced words Little Bird had taught him.

"Well, I must say the name suits you," the Reverend Mother said, "but you must have a Christian name. What do you suggest, Sister Beatrice?"

Understanding that her further objections were futile, Sister Beatrice attempted to take an interest in the Reverend Mother's new project lest she be reading the entire New Testament overnight. "Perhaps, Levi or Benjamin?" she suggested. "We have no students named Levi or Benjamin currently."

The Reverend Mother considered the names, but shook her head. "Both fine names, Sister. But I fear if we change his name completely, he will not understand that we are addressing him. Perhaps a Christian surname will suffice." Mother Augustine reached for the crucifix hanging around her neck as she often did when in thought. A tight lipped smile slid across her features. What better symbol of Christianity? "Cross," she said, addressing the young Indian. "Your Christian name is Buck Cross."

The boy shook his head. "Running Buck," he answered pointed to himself.

"No." Speaking the words slowly and with definition, she stated again, "Your name is Buck Cross."

Running Buck felt his palms begin to moisten and the sour grain in his belly churned into a heavy clump. His mother had given him his name - it was important to him - yet this crow woman was trying to change it. His concerns compounded when the small woman pointed to his earring, medicine bundle and bracelet, then held her palm open expecting him to hand them over. Learning that this strange place was a school, he had allowed himself to feel a glimmer of hope for his situation, but now he wasn't so sure. The owl boy had indeed been a bad sign.

Not wishing to be reminded of his pitiful state the previous night, Running Buck tried to swallow away the taste of spoiled grain that lingered in his mouth, but the aftertaste was persistent. If he was to survive in this new world, he needed to be taught the white man's ways, needed to understand his words. There was so much he needed to learn. This white woman could teach him. Assuming they were required in trade for a place in the white school, Running Buck reluctantly placed his belongings in the nun's waiting hands.

"Good. Sister Beatrice we have a new student. Give him a haircut and see to it that he takes a bath. Issue him a suit of clothing and make up a bed in the boy's dormitory. I will take him into my beginning readers class until he has learned some of the language then he may advance to the classes for his own age."

"Yes, Reverend Mother," the young nun said obediently, careful to hide her distaste for Sorrows' newest pupil.

"And Sister," Mother Augustine added, "give the boy a piece of bread."

********

Running Buck reminded himself that this was what he wanted. That this was what he had spent two moons searching for. But rather than relax him, the warm water of his bath began to dissolve his well crafted composure.

He was all too aware of the younger woman's opinion of him. The mistrust in her eyes and look of disgust when his dirty hand brushed against hers as she handed him a bar of strong smelling soap was no different than the prejudice he had run away from. He couldn't help but notice the striking difference in the color of her hand against his. Sadly he realized that no matter how well he cleaned himself, no matter how much dirt he washed away, the skin that had always been too pale to be Kiowa was much too dark to be white.

She had given him a crust of bread to eat - but only after he paid for it. It tasted good and had helped cushion the hard lump in his stomach. But his clothing and chopped off hair piled into a dirty heap on the floor beside the washtub seemed like a stiff price for a piece of bread.

He had found a school that would provide the education he needed. It was just that he never expected to be required to give so much of himself in exchange. They had taken everything he had - the bracelet that bound him to his brother, his knife, his medicine, his name. And his hair. Oh, his hair! He timidly ran his fingers through the short spikes sticking out from his head like the quills of a startled porcupine. He understood that hair meant very little to a white man, but to his people it was a sign of strength and the distinctive style, cut short to just under his ear at the front of one side the remaining hair left to grow long, had identified him as Kiowa.

Alone in the quiet room, his thin shoulders began to shake and he quickly wiped away a tear as his last bits of confidence slid into the bath water. Life in the village had been difficult, but at least he knew who he was. He was Running Buck, half brother to Red Bear. Who was he now? He didn't have the slightest idea.

Chapter Four

Buck intended to take his time returning to the school building thinking perhaps if he waited long enough the Reverend Mother would finish her dinner and retire for the evening. He had wasted a good deal of time pampering the gelding, seeking sanctuary in the solitude and musty corners of the barn, but found the building no safer haven than the school itself. Buck's dark eyes roamed the long wooden tables laid across the dining hall, his hopeful gaze flitting over rows of plainly dressed children and black robed peacekeepers patrolling the perimeter of the room. Resignation settled across his shoulders at the sight of the small figure waiting for him at the outer edge, her hands folded on the knotted pine table top, her dinner untouched. Buck's hopes for a quiet meal dissipated in a long exhale and he quietly slid down the wall toward his reserved seat. Mother Augustine would have waited for him all night. He should have known better.

The plate of biscuits and milk gravy that awaited him was at least a warm if not hot meal. Although the aroma floating along the yellowed, cracked walls of the dining hall couldn't compare to the teasing trail of southern cooking that called the riders to Rachel's supper table each evening, it was certainly better than the strips of jerky, hardened to near leather, in his saddle bags. His presence in the dining hall turned a few surprised heads and more than one full mouth dropped open at the sight of a real live Indian sitting down with the Reverend Mother. A stern glance from Mother Augustine was enough to turn the youngsters' attention back to their dinner.

Buck stepped a bit awkwardly into the narrow space between the wooden bench and trestle table taking his seat across from the nun, his long legs crowded under the simple table built with a smaller framed occupant in mind. He shifted in his place, searching for a more favorable position, finally giving up realizing it wasn't so much the cramped quarters, but his supper companion that was making him uncomfortable.

"I assume you found what was required for your horse in the barn?" the nun asked.

"Yes. He's bedded down for the night. Is Daniel all right?"

"He is in Sister Margaret's capable hands. You need not worry about him tonight. Now, let us enjoy our meal before the gravy turns cold."

As if responding to a signal, their hands moved at the same moment - Buck's reaching for his fork, the Reverend Mother's raised to her forehead then across her shoulders drawing the sign of the Trinity, her interlaced fingers coming to rest on the edge of the table. Although her head was bowed, her disapproving gaze peering from under heavy brows prompted Buck to return the utensil to its place. Feeling like a reprimanded schoolboy, he slowly bowed his head and folded his hands in compliance.

"Heavenly Father," the nun began. "For what we are about to receive we are truly thankful. Bless this food to our bodies. . ." Mother Augustine paused for a moment, lifting her head just enough for the magnetic pull of her lead gray eyes to draw the gaze of her former student. ". . . and let us not forget your teaching, oh Lord. Amen."

The small woman crossed herself again and waited expectantly until Buck obediently added his own mumbled "Amen." Her uncompromising gaze then directed his movements as he reluctantly switched the fork from his favored, but allegedly sinful, left hand to his unnatural, but God-like, right.

Finally satisfied with her pupil, the Reverend Mother began. "What you have done with yourself in the last . . . what has it been? Three years?"

"Four."

The nun's brow creased in thought, reconstructing the coming and going of Sorrows' children. Verifying his answer, she nodded. "Yes . . . it has been four years. And what you have accomplished in that time?"

Since Ike's death Buck had carefully chosen the subject matter of conversation. There was little danger remarking on the fine skeletal structure of the newly purchased ponies or Teaspoon's predicted changes in the weather. To his Express family's surprise, he had even become more vocal around the supper table at the station, commenting on everything from the route changes proposed by the head office to Cody's recapitulation of the latest J.D. Marcus dime novel. Not that that he was really interested in the meal-time chatter. The meaningless banter simply served as a diversion. Arguing the character flaws of Marcus' newest "ten cent hero" kept his mind from wandering to places it wasn't allowed to go. He had let his guard down in the barn earlier. The Reverend Mother's chosen topic of conversation also bordered on unsafe ground. He could answer her without breaking the self-imposed rule that forbade him to think about Ike. He just had to be careful.

Mother Augustine listened intently as Buck quickly recanted the years since his dismissal from Sorrows, purposely skimming over a good many details he preferred not to remember, ending with his employment with the Express.

"Jacob Evans was a blessing," she commented after Buck described his first job at Evans Blacksmith and Livery. "It was such a shame about the fire. . . lost everything. We could always depend on him to assist our graduates."

Buck nodded stiffly although he didn't completely agree with the Reverend Mother. True, Mr. Evans had given him a job and the old blacksmith was a decent man. But his offer of work had arisen not so much from Christian charity, but as a cost saving measure. The shopkeepers in nearby towns knew the penniless sixteen year olds leaving Sorrows could be hired for next to nothing and took advantage of their plight. Still, it had been a job and he had learned to shoe a horse, an unknown practice to the Kiowa, before a misplaced bolt of lightning cut his employment short and set him to wandering.

Buck picked at his supper considering how strange it was that his years since leaving Sorrows could be so summarily described. It was just as well. The time between the blacksmith shop and the day he signed onto the Express was better forgotten. There had been bits of work available - meager pay for a dirty day's labor. But for the most part they were lean, hungry years spent searching for something of permanence, made bearable only because he had someone to commiserate with. Someone to share body heat and a thin supper on a cold night. Without Ike . . .

'Don't think about it, Buck,' he warned himself, putting an abrupt halt to his meandering trail of thought. 'Careful.'

"The Express is a good job . . . we're more like a family really. I'm doin' fine," he concluded hoping his perfunctory answer would satisfy the nun's kindled interest.

Mother Augustine pushed her finished plate aside and folded her hands on the table. "It appears that you are doing well. Now, what of the McSwain boy? You haven't mentioned him. Did you part ways at some point?"

Buck scrutinized the question from all angles, examining it closely, composing the safest answer he could. "We signed on to the Express together."

"When I learned you were here, I actually expected to see both of you in my office. In all my years of teaching I don't believe I have ever seen students as close as the two of you were. I remember thinking. . ."

Buck shut his ears and fixed his attention on the enamelware plate before him, focusing intently on the scattered pattern of white speckles against the blue background, until the nun's words were no more than a low drone that reminded him of hornets. But each memory, each reference to Ike added another hornet to the swarm until the words buzzed around his ears, faster, louder, breaking his concentration.

". . . so odd to see one of you with out the other. It was as if you . . ."

"Reverend Mother," Buck blurted out. Grabbing the closest explanation for his rude interruption he added, "I'm sorry . . . it's just been a long day. Could we talk later?"

"Forgive me," she said, her startled expression fading. "Of course you are tired. And I have kept you from your meal as well." Slipping from her seat, she added, "we can discuss your intentions regarding the child in the morning. Perhaps after a night's rest your thoughts will be more clear."

Buck slumped forward as she left him, his elbow resting against the table top, his chin dejectedly propped in the cupped palm of his hand. He told himself he really hadn't done anything wrong - he hadn't lied to the Reverend Mother. But the green sensation in his belly argued otherwise - he hadn't told the truth either. A 'sin of omission' he supposed. But what did it matter? He would be gone in a few hours anyway. He would decide what to do about Daniel and ride away with no intention of ever coming back.

'Decide what to do about Daniel' Everything reasonable in him argued that carrying an infant all the way across Nebraska to Rock Creek was a crazy, downright dangerous thought. Even if they did make it home safely there was no assurance he could find a suitable family for the little boy. War between the states was a certainty now. News of a battle at a place called Bull Run in Virginia had filtered west and had the town stirred up. Families, his own included, were choosing sides. Who would take on the added responsibility and expense of rearing an orphaned child when war waged just over the Missouri line? Still, how could he in good conscience leave Daniel in this place?

His eyes absently wandered through the emptying dining hall, finally settling on a group of boys lingering at a far table. Their names might have changed, but from all other aspects, they were the same children he had grown up with. Ragamuffins with uneven hair and ill-fitted clothing. Their appearance would draw stares from children more privileged. The older boys' uniforms rose high on their arms and legs - too small. In contrast, the smaller ones were dwarfed inside trousers cinched at the waist, their hands partially hidden by dangling shirt sleeves. Nothing at Sorrows ever fit quite right. Which, watching the boys, Buck decided shouldn't be so surprising. They were misfits, all of them - himself and Daniel included. Odd lot pieces of patchwork, woven together by a common, tragic thread.

"They're comin' back for me!" the small red-headed boy cried out from across the room. "You'll see!"

"No they ain't!" a larger one taunted. "Your ma and pa are stiff as a board in the ground just like ev'rybody else's. They already done turned cold and wormy! You ain't no better'n any of the rest of us, so stop your cryin', you crybaby!"

"Crybaby! Crybaby!" rang out from the older boys hovering over the small one like a chorus of vultures.

"No, they're not! They're not dead! They're just gone away for a while. That's what the preacher said," the younger one sobbed. "I know they'll be back. I know they will."

"You're so stupid!" the boy teased again, hurrying to inflict a final jab before the approaching nun scattered the group of troublemakers.

"So stupid . . ."

Buck tried to turn away, but the pained expression on the small boy's face held him firm. The memory crept up behind him, hitting him hard while he wasn't looking.

"You're so stupid. Hey you! Stupid!"

Buck paid the boy named Albert no attention, merely continued eating his supper. He didn't understand the word anyway. His English vocabulary was still limited, but because of the heckling tone in Albert's voice, he knew the word was an insult of some sort. He doubted it would be included in his English lessons any time soon. He had learned basic words - 'shirt', 'trousers', 'shoes', were easy enough. 'Face', 'hair', 'eyes' weren't difficult either. But when it came to putting the words together in sentences, he was still lost in a foreign language. Rather than attend class with children his own age, he spent the day with the youngest of Sorrows' students learning words through picture books. The sight of the gangly limbed Indian sitting amongst four and five year olds was a source of great amusement to the older boys.

In two months at the school he had learned a good many things about the white world. They prayed to a man hanging on a cross in the small room called a "chapel" on the first floor of the school. The women looked upon the man with the same adoration he had seen on the faces of the Kiowa elders when the Tai'me was presented at the annual sun dance. The man frightened him a bit - thorns wrapped around his head, hanging there captured and helpless - not at all like the powerful gods of his Kiowa religion. The cross looked like the one the important woman wore around her neck and he wondered what it meant that she had given him that name. Rather than the soft hide of animals they wore binding, uncomfortable clothing. Buttoned to his chin, the collar of his shirt fit snugly around his neck and even his repeated tugging would not stretch the fabric. Twig thin, but long legged, the only trousers that were small enough to stay up on his narrow hips were inches too short in length and revealed a strip of brown flesh between the hem and the tops of his rock-hard brogan shoes. He didn't understand at all why the teachers smacked his hand with the wooden stick and made him hold his fork differently. But the stick hurt and he was careful to use the other hand while they were watching, even though it felt strange.

There were many different kinds of children at the school. Some were quiet and took no notice of him - younger ones mostly. They were the ones that cried at night. Although the smaller boys slept on the other side of the big room with beds, their sobs carried across the open space making it hard for him to fall asleep. Others, like Albert and his friends - the ones who laughed at him for going to class with the small children - were loud and demanded attention. And then there was the "owl boy". Buck had never seen anyone so strange and made a point to stay away from him.

Buck wondered if perhaps the bald headed boy was one of the children the old Kiowa storyteller had talked about. "Sometimes," the old man said, "children are stolen from their families by wild animals and killed." He went on to explain that the spirit of the animal enters the dead child's body and lives in it. Its outward appearance is human, but its thoughts and actions are still that of the animal. Watching the owl boy at the next table, Buck decided that must be the answer. For no reason that he could see, the boy suddenly flashed wild eyes at a group of children sitting nearby and jumped to his feet. With his knees bent, his back rounded, he swooped around them, his hands clawing at the air, his arms waving furiously like wings. His strange actions scattered the children closest to him, but drew an audience of others far enough away to consider themselves safe.

"Don't let him touch you!" one of them cried out. "You'll be like him if he touches you!"

The panic his theatrics caused seemed to please him and he circled again sending children scurrying under tables and behind the closest black dressed woman for safety. The boy pulled his upper lip into a sneer and gnashed his teeth for good measure before the women grabbed his arms and pulled him out of the room.

The incident over, Albert and his friends turned their attention back to the Indian. Walking behind Buck to return to their places, one of them swung his elbow out and hit the seated boy in the back of the head just as Buck was lifting a tin cup of milk to his lips. The sudden lurch forward sent the milk splashing down his shirt front and into his lap, soaking the front his trousers.

"What's the matter, Injun? Did you have an accident?"

"Yeah, stupid," Albert joined in. "Did the baby spill his milk? Maybe you need a bottle."

Buck sat the empty cup on the table and brushed off his wet shirt, his face heated in embarrassment. He didn't need to speak their language to know they wanted a response. He knew their kind. In the village he wouldn't have let such an incident pass without a fight, but the school was different. Fighting in the village would earn him a stern lecture from Red Bear, but his brother would never send him away. Buck feared the small women in black might turn him out as quickly as she had taken him in if he caused trouble. Rather than acknowledge the boys he continued his meal.

Because the use of his right hand was unnatural he was somewhat clumsy and had to use his fingers to push the food onto the fork.

"Look at him, Dutch!" Albert exclaimed to his friend and took a seat on the bench beside Buck. "He don't even know how to eat right!"

Dutch circled the table, taking a seat on the opposite side. "That's 'cause Injuns don't eat reg'lar food. They eat dogs. Roast 'em whole, hair 'n all. Then they snap off a leg and gnaw the meat right off the bone," he said drawing the stare of a younger tow-headed boy seated further down the bench. "That yellow bitch in the barn turns up missin', we'll know what happened to her."

"Dogs?" the smaller one asked. "He eats dogs?"

"Nah," Albert countered. "They got a taste for white folks is what I hear. If an Injun catches ya first he'll scalp ya and scoop the brains right outa your head while you're still breathin'. Then" he paused for a moment making sure he had his audience's rapt attention. "Then he'll chop off your privates and boil 'em for stew."

"Really?" the young boy squeaked, his eyes open wide, his hands dropped protectively to his lap.

"That's the God's honest truth," Albert said. "They like the young uns best. Tender."

He didn't understand the conversation, but their laughter and look of morbid fascination on the small boy's face required no translation. Buck pushed himself away from the table and returned his plate to the kitchen, but Albert and his friends followed at his heels.

"Where ya goin' Injun? Hey look!" Dutch said pointing to the wet spot on the front of Buck's trousers. "I think the Injun wet his pants!"

The remark was loud enough to be heard by a group of girls about Buck's age congregated at the door to the dining hall. They readily joined in the fun, pointing out the 'accident' to each other, giggling. The flush on Buck's face deepened as he walked past them into the front hallway toward the staircase.

He hoped perhaps the group of girls the boys had been intent on impressing would be more interesting than he was, but the click of heels on the wooden floor behind him indicated their fun was not over.

"What's the matter, Injun? Where ya goin'? Gonna go look at your little baby picture books?"

"He's such a baby," Dutch added with a wide, toothy grin. "Maybe he needs a diaper!"

Their laughter stung like needles in his back as he continued his retreat. Buck tightened his jaw, clenched his hands into tight fists and continued walking. With every step, he reminded himself that he needed this school, he was learning to be white. He couldn't afford to get in trouble. The need to defend himself screamed for release, but he willed it to be quiet.

Impressed with their wit, the boys slapped each other on the back, roaring with laughter. When the Indian offered no response, Albert grabbed at Buck's arm, spinning him around quickly.

"Hey stupid, I'm talkin' to you!"

The fire in the Indian's eyes startled the group of boys for a moment, but bolstered by their number they continued taunting, closing Buck in on three sides, pushing and prodding him further backward. Unaware of the boy crouched on his hands and knees behind him, Buck's step met with resistance and he toppled over the obstacle, landing hard on his back against the wooden floor.

The impact with the floor stunned him momentarily, loosening the tight grip he held on his anger. Before Buck could gain his footing and defend himself - perhaps regain a bit of dignity - the boys swarmed over him. He lashed out, kicking and swinging at his attackers, but they held him so tightly there was little force behind his blows. His struggling only served to amuse the boys and those holding him simply clamped down tighter while the leaders of the bunch punched and kicked at will.

Buck had taken beatings before from the boys in the village. It was nothing new. But his Kiowa tormentors always had a stopping point. A certain amount of fighting could be passed off as young warriors establishing dominance. Too much would draw the wrath of the half-breed's brother. Although the war chief had turned a blind eye to much of his younger brother's suffering, Buck knew Red Bear had been his source of protection, by his position in the tribe if not by his actions. These white boys couldn't care less if his brother was a war chief and seemed to have no intention of stopping. Maybe it wasn't a crime to kill someone in the white world. For a frightening moment, Buck wondered if he might die right there on the cold, wood floor.

Buck gathered all the strength he could muster into a well placed kick to Albert's shin, sending the gang leader hopping backward on one foot, cursing like a seasoned sailor. The boy's string of profanity startled the others enough for Buck to sense his opportunity. He had nearly squirmed free from their hold when a swift kick to his middle forced the air out of his lungs and his supper from his stomach. Refusing to be further humiliated, Buck clenched his teeth and choked back the burning bile rising into his throat.

Thoughts of retaliation turning to survival, he managed to roll onto his side and drew his knees up into a somewhat protective position. It was then Buck caught a glimpse of him standing in front of the staircase. The owl boy - the bad omen. The foreteller of doom. Buck's fate was sealed.

But rather than scratch at the air and twist his face as he had done earlier, the boy stood perfectly still as if he was afraid to move. His arms were wrapped tightly, almost defensively, across his chest and he flinched noticeably along with Buck at each blow. The wild glint in his eyes was gone, replaced now with a look of empathy. He looked as if he wanted to speak, even appeared to mouth a few words, but his voice seemed to be locked from inside.

The sound of rapidly approaching feet scattered the boys leaving the battered young Indian curled in a tight ball, panting hard, questioning why he had been spared. The hem of a black robe swirled before his eyes and an unseen hand plucked him up by the collar, pushing him, stumbling and doubled over, in the direction of the Reverend Mother's office. Buck looked back toward the staircase, but the bad omen was gone. It puzzled him. If the owl was a bad sign, why did the boy seem to feel his pain? Why did he seem to understand?

Chapter Five

Buck would have preferred to spend the night in the barn. Tired as he was, he doubted he would even notice the difference between a pile of straw and a proper mattress. But the Reverend Mother was insistent, stating that "no former student of Sorrows would spend the night in a leaking barn when a perfectly good bed was available". Shortly after supper and the call for lights out, Buck found himself climbing the narrow stairs to the second floor where a bed for overnight guests awaited him in the infirmary.

The yellow circle of light illuminating his path wasn't really necessary - he knew the long stretches of corridors dividing the nuns' sleeping quarters from the classrooms and infirmary by heart. He had walked the hallways a thousand times, but rather than provide comfort, their familiarity bristled the hair on the back of his neck.

Though the hallway was empty, he could almost feel his shoulders lurch forward sharply as Albert and Dutch shoved him from behind. In his mind's eye, Buck could see himself falling forward, cringing as his books and writing slate jumped out of his hands and were trampled and kicked down the corridor by children rushing to class. 'Did you drop somethin', Injun?' Albert clucked, strutting around him like a rooster. Buck saw himself scurrying after the Reader and slate, wincing at the punishment he knew he would receive if the Reverend Mother saw their abused condition.

His silhouette danced on the wall in the flicker of the lamp's flame like a taunting ghoul mimicking his every movement as he continued down the dark corridor. The steady click of boot heels against the wooden floor echoed through the hallway and ricocheted off the far wall, bouncing back to him. The emptiness seemed to magnify the noise. It was a strange, unsettling, almost haunting sound.

He could have passed by the open doorway on his way to the infirmary, but before he could remind himself he had encountered enough ghosts for one evening, Buck found himself in the middle of the Reverend Mother's classroom. He turned in a slow circle, the amber sweep of the lamp's glow bringing the darkened room to life. It had been seven years, but the memory was as fresh as yesterday.

They were very young, not much more than six or seven years old. Each child sat perfectly still, hands folded on their desktops, backs ramrod straight - too intimidated by the small woman in black to do otherwise. Feet were placed firmly on the floor and even those whose legs weren't long enough to reach took great care to hold them still. No swinging legs or shuffling feet were allowed in Mother Augustine's classroom.

The small wooden desks sat in perfect alignment across the floor, the Reverend Mother's larger one situated at the front of the room. An alphabet of precisely drawn letters was printed across the face of a chalkboard mounted on the wall behind her chair and a set of McGuffey Readers stood at attention between metal bookends on her desktop. Nothing was out of place. Nothing except the lanky, confused thirteen year old Indian at the back of the room.

Little Bird had told Buck stories of school and the wonderful things she had learned before the attack on her family's wagon train brought her to the Kiowa village. The English words she taught him were easy enough to memorize, but she never mentioned how difficult the white language was to read. She had never explained how these strange marks became words and the words became a thought or a story. The Kiowa way was much simpler. Pictures told stories. One painting could describe the heroics of a successful buffalo hunt or record the number of enemy lives taken in a great battle. He couldn't imagine why white men chose to tell their stories by making marks across a piece of paper when the Kiowa paintings were so easy to understand.

Little Bird never told him how slowly the school day dragged by either. Rather than sitting in a classroom for hours on end, Kiowa children learned by experience. Whether it was arrow making, tanning a hide, or learning the uses of different plants, they were outside in the fresh air, learning by doing. Even with the window open, the classroom in the white school was stifling in the early September heat. Accustomed to wearing little more than a breechcloth in the warm weather, his white clothing was uncomfortable and clung to his sweaty skin where his back and legs pressed against the seat of his desk. The heat made it difficult to concentrate.

From his place in the back of the room Buck could see directly out the window and his thoughts began to wander into the expanse of blue just the other side of the second floor window. He noticed the dark shape of a bird against the sky in the distance and imagined himself lying on his back in the cool, grassy depths of the prairie, chewing on a tasseled blade, admiring the gliding, effortless flight of the hawk. Or better yet, he envisioned a lightning quick sliver of wood slicing through the layer of blue as he tested his perfectly crafted arrows - arrows so straight even Red Bear would be impressed. They were painted with his special mark - his signature - so there would be no doubt who had made them. A crowd of onlookers congregated around him. Even the Dog Soldiers, the most respected men of the village, stopped to watch their leader's younger brother. The warriors spoke in low tones among themselves then turned, smiling broadly at the young brave who held such promise. They gathered around him, patting him on the back to congratulate his fine workmanship. "Well done, Running Buck!" they said. "What a fine warrior you will be!" His cheeks flushed scarlet, but from modesty rather than embarrassment, hearing their praise. "I am proud of you, little brother," Red Bear whispered privately. The boys his age looked on enviously as he was asked to demonstrate his skill once more. "Show us again how well your arrow flies, Running Buck!" they said. He could feel the tension in his bow as he drew back on the string, felt the weapon quiver with excitement in his hands as he released the arrow. Its flight was perfect, soaring so high into the sky it might never come . . .

"Buck Cross!"

The Reverend Mother's voice shook Buck from his daydream. He tried to slide further down in his seat hoping to make himself small enough that she couldn't see him, but when the nun repeated his white name he knew it was a lost cause. Buck slowly wriggled free of his too-small desk, his tattered McGuffey Primer clutched in his hands. His gaze was fixed on the floor as if his eyes were glued to the wooden planks as he trudged to the front of the classroom, taking the assigned spot beside his teacher. The other students in the Beginners class read no better than he did - some of them were much slower and needed more practice - yet the Reverend Mother insisted upon calling him to read. Every day he found himself in this same spot and every day he failed to please her.

Buck felt a trickle of sweat slide down his neck as she replaced the McGuffey Primer in his hands with the more difficult First Reader. He was familiar with the Primer. He had memorized the bold letters printed on the pages and could recognize many of the words by the illustrations they described. The new book was different. Instead of just one word on the page there were many all strung together and there weren't as many pictures.

"Quiet!" the Reverend Mother demanded although the only sound in the room was the soft rustle of turning pages. "We will begin a new Reader today, class. Buck will read for us."

Buck glanced at the open page before him. He turned toward his teacher, speaking in choppy English under his breath so the rest of the class couldn't hear. "Don't know words. Where pictures?"

"Only little children need pictures," she replied, her strong voice contrasting sharply with his whispered tones. "You know the sounds the letters make. How will you ever learn if you don't try? If you don't learn to read you will have to stay in this class rather than advance to one of your own age. Would you prefer to stay here?"

"No," Buck answered through gritted teeth.

"Then perhaps you should spend your time concentrating on your studies rather than daydreaming."

Buck felt his ears flush red in embarrassment as Mother Augustine's comment sparked a round of giggles from the younger students.

"Quiet!" she ordered. Turning to the boy fidgeting beside her, she added, "we are all waiting, Buck."

Buck looked down at the page again and swallowed hard. Suddenly everything he had learned seemed to have vanished. Would they laugh at him if he made a mistake? He couldn't bear it if they did. He would rather be beaten than laughed at. "Don't want to say mistake," he confided in his teacher.

"Shall I ask one of the smaller children to help you?" Mother Augustine asked.

"No."

"Then try. We all make mistakes," she said. "That is how we learn."

Buck didn't think he had ever known anyone as stubborn as his teacher. She wouldn't back down - he was certain of that much. The only way she would leave him alone was if he read her words. Buck drew a deep breath in an attempt to calm himself and began. The boy stuttered and stammered his way through the simple sentence, sounding out each letter, hoping they would somehow flow into a recognizable word. But the sounds were slippery and he couldn't quite catch hold of them.

"J..Jan..e sat on t...he w..hit fenk..e." .

A shudder of frustration ran through him. The words didn't make sense. He knew he was wrong before Mother Augustine spoke.

"No. The 'e' is silent after a consonant and that is a 'c' not a 'k'. 'T' followed by 'h' has a different sound. Try again."

Buck tried to concentrate as he sounded each letter, but his repeated efforts were still not enough to remove the creases of dissatisfaction from his teacher's brow. English was a hard language. It seemed to Buck that the rules kept changing. The same letter could have different sounds depending upon the word. Sometimes a letter had a sound, sometimes it didn't. Some words were pronounced exactly the same yet had different meanings. It was all so confusing.

He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, then back again, and wiped his damp palms against his trousers. His mouth went dry. His belly flip-flopped. His fingers felt thick and clumsy. In his nervousness he fumbled with the book and it leaped out of his hands. He grabbed for the Reader and snared it before it hit the floor, but when he tried to find the page again it seemed to have disappeared. Buck turned quickly back and forth through the pages with sweat slicked fingers. The Reverend Mother's gaze weighed on him like a mound of rocks, growing heavier with each flipped page. Buck felt himself shrinking under the weight, growing smaller and smaller until after what seemed like an eternity, he finally found the assigned passage.

It was too hard. He was such a fool to think he could ever learn this terrible language. Buck looked out upon his classmates hoping for a sign of support or encouragement, perhaps a show of unity against this taskmaster. But none of the younger students met his panicked gaze. Instead they trained their eyes on their own Readers, afraid to make a sound or movement lest the Reverend Mother notice them and they end up in the same predicament as the Indian.

"Again," she said.

Buck stumbled over the words once more, but the Reverend Mother interrupted him, correcting his pronunciation before he could complete the sentence. Hot tears of embarrassment and anger stung his eyes and blurred the words until he could no longer differentiate the straight lines of one letter from the humps and curves of another. This was new to him! He was trying! Why couldn't she see that? Buck's dark eyes pleaded for leniency, but he received none.

"Try again and since you are having such difficulty, perhaps you should stay after class and review the alphabet. You seem to be having a lapse of memory today, Buck."

It suddenly occurred to Buck that perhaps she wanted him to fail. Everyone else did, why would a teacher be any different? Did it please her to watch him struggle? Why else would she demand so much of him? He had lost many battles in his life because he had been outnumbered in a fight or had allowed criticism to injure him. But this was a war fought not with fists or fragile emotions, but intelligence, and his mind was the only weapon needed. This was a fight he could win. A feeling unlike anything Buck had ever felt before began to spread through him - empowering him. He stood taller and turned back to the book, his jaw noticeably tightened, his anger breeding determination. Buck held the edge of the Reader against his chest to prevent the book from shaking in his hands while he hurriedly blinked away the tears. The letters distinct once more, he steadied himself and began again.

In that moment he hated her - perhaps more than he had hated any one person in his entire life. He would not be so easily defeated. Not this time. Somehow he would learn this strange language. He would learn to speak it and read it and write it. No matter how hard it was or how long it took, he would learn . . . just to show her that he could.

Chapter Six

Buck leaned back against the door of the empty infirmary, pressing it closed until the latch clicked into the strikeplate. He tilted his head back against the paneled door and let the day slide off his shoulders. Alone. Quiet. Finally.

Gathering the energy to undress, he shrugged out of his vest, tossing it toward the end of the bed. His aim mindless, it slid onto the floor instead. He pulled his shirttails free from his trousers and slipped the blue cotton down his arms and off his wrists without even bothering to unbutton the cuffs. The shirt landed no closer to his goal than the vest had. He sank down heavily on the edge of the bed and struggled to slide his boots from his heat swollen feet. When they finally pulled free with a twisting tug, he lobbed them in the same general direction as the shirt and vest. By the time his buckskin trousers had been added to the pile, his clothing was strewn across the infirmary floor as if a cyclone had upended a closet. A frown clouded Buck's face as he surveyed the sorry site, but he made no move to remedy it. He usually took better care of his belongings, and Rachel would certainly cast a reproachful look in his direction if he acted that way in the bunkhouse, but he was too tired to care about being neat and he was a long way from home.

The cornhusk mattress beneath him was worn from years of use - a lump here, matted flat there - and not much softer than the prairie bed he had slept on every night since leaving the station a week, or however long it had been, earlier, but it was the best Sorrows had to offer. He didn't mind. All he really wanted was to get some sleep and perhaps, as the Reverend Mother had said earlier, his thoughts would be more clear in the morning. Clad in only his long john bottoms and medicine pouch, Buck scooted across the narrow bed and leaned against the wall behind him. The plaster felt cool and inviting against his back. Arms propped on his bent knees, Buck blew out a long, slow breath and tried to relax while taking in his surroundings.

None of the Sisters having more than a slim knowledge of medicine, the infirmary was used only for minor illnesses - a cough or fever, perhaps a queasy stomach. A child with a more serious ailment was sent to a doctor in one of the nearby towns rather than expose the entire school to the malady. Sorrows' students had been blessed with good health throughout the summer and the infirmary had seen little recent use. The air in the closed off room was a bit old and harbored an odor of stale antiseptic.

It was a sparsely furnished room containing nothing more than a table, chair and two narrow beds. Although the beds themselves were simple, they were covered in patchwork quilts of many small, meticulously stitched pieces - gifts from a St. Louis parishioner years earlier. Laundered to a worn softness they provided a bit of comfort to a child spending the night in the sick room. The pattern on the bed near the window reminded Buck of the spokes of wagon wheels rolling across a plain of muslin with a solid colored center in each block acting as the wheel's hub. The wheel pattern was interesting, but for some reason it almost pained him to look at it. He preferred the quilt on the bed where he sat. The long rows of triangles running its length looked like the spread wings of wild geese taking flight in blue calico. Buck ran his index finger along a triangle of faded cotton, his mind wandering back to the last time he had spent the night in this room. He hadn't really been sick. He and Ike had just taken a bad enough beating that . . .

"Don't think about it, Buck."

The forbidden thought sent a chill knifing through him, its icy blade cutting to the bone. Buck crawled under the comforter, his stiffened limbs stretched the full length of the small bed. The patter of raindrops against the window on the opposite wall was gentle as a lullaby and Buck should have fallen asleep easily, but he couldn't. He pulled the quilt closer around his shoulders hoping to find solace in its softness, but the folds of faded patchwork could not sooth his weary mind. Buck turned on his side, his back to the room, and tossed his arm over his head knowing full well slumber would not find him there either. Tired. Too tired to sleep. Searching for a comfortable position on the matted cornhusk bed, he tossed and turned, churning the bedclothes into a tangled heap. He felt the dull ache of loneliness grip him as he finally flopped on his back, staring at the quivering pattern of lamplight on the ceiling.

He had been gone a long time and was anxious to be home again. Buck clasped his hands behind his head and sighed audibly, wondering what his friends were doing at the station. Having been gone for such a long time, he didn't remember the schedule exactly, but thought that Noah would have taken the run to St. Joseph and either Lou or Cody was up next for the run to Seneca, probably Lou. The others were most likely gathered around the table alternating between rich man and pauper in a game of poker. With three of them away, Rachel would be sitting in to make the game more interesting. The thought was amusing and a thin chuckle rose from Buck's throat. Rachel had learned to shuffle a deck of cards before she could tie her bootlaces. It was a good thing she didn't join in their gambling very often or she'd be a wealthy woman and they would be taking extra runs just to earn a little spending money. Rachel understood the game wasn't won or lost by the hand you were dealt, but by the 'bluff'. He'd seen her clear the table with nothing more than a pair of fours.

Bothered by Lou's absence, regardless of his cards, Kid wouldn't be playing very well. Of course, the others knew his mind was elsewhere and would take every advantage of his distraction. It hadn't taken them very long to recognize Cody's weakness around the poker table. The cocky, blonde rider would be mortified to know the corner of his mouth twitched noticeably whenever he held a hand with promise. Some day they might tell him just for the fun of it. Cody's stage acting might have a future, but his poker face needed work. Jimmy was a harder read. Narrowed to a dark slit, his eyes didn't give away much and his expression was solid as granite. Only a slight inflection in his voice as he called for cards hinted of his hand. But Rachel. Rachel was the master at hiding what she held. Buck had learned a few things watching her bluff. His own acting had improved greatly. And not just in poker.

Buck reached for the lamp, intending to put out the wick, but stopped himself. He didn't much care for the dark anymore. Funny. It had never bothered him until . . . well, it had bothered him for a while. Darkness had always been an escape, safety, a covering, but he had learned that daylight offered greater protection. In the light of day he was an actor following laid out stage direction. Put on the face. Wait for the cue. Deliver the line. Move to the next scene. His performance was believable, even to himself. But darkness was a wiser audience and saw right through him.

Buck sank bank into the warmth of his bed trying to rest, but found the darkness behind his closed eyes crimson and cold. Curling onto his side, he resigned himself to a sleepless night. His eyes wandered across the room, stopping briefly on the yellow center of a patchwork wheel on the bed opposite him. He tried to pull away, but the quilt block held on tight and wouldn't let go.

The site of Sister Francis dozing in the small chair at the table was comical. Sister Francis was round and soft like rising bread dough and her ample frame spilled over the edge of the seat. Leaning a stubby bent arm on the table to support her head, she had fallen asleep an hour or so earlier. The pressure of her jowls against the heel of her hand made the large woman's open mouth sit slightly contorted on her face. Buck stifled a giggle as the nun's double chin slipped off her hand, sending her head bobbing. For a moment she wove slowly back and forth like a child's toy top in its final rotations before toppling over. She mumbled something he couldn't quite hear and fell forward using her oversized arms on the table top as a pillow. She was doing a fairly poor job of watching over the sick room. Luckily he was only battered and bruised rather than really sick. He could probably die of one of the white man's illnesses without Sister Francis ever waking up.

Buck noticed out of the corner of his eye that the boy in the other bed was amused by Sister Francis as well, although he made no sound. The owl boy never did. He looked to be white and should know his own language, but in the four months Buck had been at the school, he had yet to hear the hairless boy utter a single word. He was very odd. Most of the time he acted wild, like he was possessed with something dark and strange, but the image of the boy standing by the stairs, watching Albert's gang beat him was lodged in Buck's mind. The bald boy had made no effort to help him then. Why had he helped him today?

The boy turned away from the sleeping nun, his eyes locking briefly with Buck's sideways glance before each boy quickly flitted his gaze elsewhere. A yellow circle in the middle of a quilt block on the other boy's bed caught Buck's attention. His curious gaze seemed determined to seek out the boy again, but Buck focused hard on the yellow circle to keep his eyes from straying. It was late, but he wasn't really tired. There were too many thoughts rumbling around inside his head to rest.

He and the owl boy had been included in a group of older students to accompany several of the nuns to pick up the school's supplies at the mercantile in Oak Grove that afternoon. Buck had felt uncomfortable hemmed in by the tight aisles inside the store and preferred to wait on the front porch while the shopkeeper totaled the bill. He had never seen a general store up close and was intrigued by the amount of merchandise. That much food could feed an entire Kiowa village for weeks. Even months!

Some of the vegetables in the display bins were unknown to him and he had picked up various pieces of produce to examine them more closely. His actions didn't go unnoticed by the shopkeeper's sixteen year old son and his friends. The group of older boys had spent the last half hour leaning against the hitching post outside the store, trying to conceal the metal flask passed between them and impressing each other with jokes about the troupe of orphans loading the ramshackle wagon. Taking offense at the "stinkin', low-life, dirty, half-breed" handling his father's goods, the shopkeeper's son was quick to confront the younger boy and demand payment for the merchandise the "no count, Injun" had ruined by touching it.

In his still limited English, Buck had tried to tell them he was only looking and had no money to buy anything and nothing to trade.

"Well that is a problem, Injun," the older boy said, tilting his head in mock concern for the orphan's plight. "But no r'spectable white woman's gonna buy this merchandise now that some stinkin' Injun's done touched it. You gotta pay, breed, and if you ain't got no money, looks like we'll just have to take payment outta your hide."

Buck understood enough of what the older boy had said to realize he was in trouble, but before he could react, one of the group clamped a hand over his mouth while the others dragged him into the alleyway between the mercantile and the livery.

He had hesitated to fight back when Albert and Dutch had cornered him in the hallway at the school for fear the small woman in charge would turn him out and he would find himself homeless and hungry again. But even though he had been on the receiving end of the fight, she had punished him as if he had been the cause of the altercation. When she was finished with her wooden paddle, his backside was as tender as his bruised middle, but she didn't send him away. He'd had a few more problems with Albert and his bunch since, but unlike the first time, had no qualms about fighting back. He was going to be punished either way and at least if he got a few good licks in, he would retain a bit of pride. A sore bottom was a small price to pay for the satisfaction of seeing Albert or Dutch sporting a black eye or swollen lip.

But these boys were much bigger than Albert's gang. Stronger too and he smelled something ugly and dangerous on their breath. Buck bit down hard on the hand over his mouth and felt a satisfying rush of blood sweep across his lips. Cursing and enraged by the bite, the older boy rewarded Buck's efforts with an uppercut to his chin so fierce that Buck's head snapped backward like a rag doll shaken in the mouth of a mad dog. Flying fists pounded him relentlessly from more directions than he could keep track of. He heard laughter, but from far away as if he was in the bottom of a well. He began to feel dizzy. Their grinning faces moved in and out of his vision in a strange, swaying, slow motion. Buck staggered, but kept his feet, knowing that to fall would most likely be his end. A thundering blow to his nose sent flashing lights before his eyes and blood spewing from his mangled face like a geyser. Buck stumbled backward as another blow broke his eyebrow open and a gush of blood flooded over his eye.

His vision obscured by blood and dancing lights, he didn't recognize the owl boy for a moment and even when he did, he didn't quite believe his eyes. Never in his entire life had anyone come to his aid in a fight. Yet there he was, the bald headed boy, fists clenched, swinging wildly at his attackers.

He wasn't a seasoned fighter, that much was obvious, but a few of his blows hit their mark before the shopkeeper's son swatted him away like an unwelcome pest. Not to be deterred, the boy simply ran toward the ruckus, jumped on the nearest gang member's back and held on tight, gouging eyes and pulling hair. The interruption gave Buck the opportunity to clear his head and wipe away the blood blocking his vision. Before he could comprehend this strange turn of events, the two orphans were side by side, swinging, kicking and clawing at their attackers with a combined vengeance. They still lost the fight. Badly. But before falling into blessed blackness, Buck was certain he saw the trace of a smile cross the owl boy's battered face.

He woke up on the trip back to Sorrows lying beside the owl boy in the back of the wagon between sacks of flour and cornmeal, wondering what on earth had happened. Because they had both been knocked senseless and the Reverend Mother thought their eyes still looked a bit strange, she had decided they should spend the night in the infirmary. So there they were, alone in the sickroom, under the less than watchful care of Sister Francis.

It was said if he touched you, your hair and tongue would fall out. Buck raised his hand to his own shorn head, protectively fingering what little hair he had left, and dared another sideways glance in the white boy's direction. The boy didn't notice. He was just lying in his bed, tracing a piece of the quilt block with his fingertip - not snarling or clawing the air with his hands. He didn't look very threatening.

Though his English had made significant strides, Buck was still in the Beginners class and knew the silent boy only by watching him during meals and in the big room of beds at night. He remembered waking in the night once to the sounds of laughter when some of the other boys had tried to scare the owl boy by putting a mouse down the collar of his nightshirt while he slept. The boy had been frightened waking to the scratching and scurrying of the mouse in his clothing and lashed out in his animal way. But after his antics scattered the troublemakers he carefully set the small creature back on the floor. His gentleness with the mouse had surprised Buck at the time, but he assumed it was because the boy was really some sort of animal, too. Now he wasn't so sure.

Fighting back was the only response Buck knew, but perhaps this boy's defense was to frighten people. He'd shown that he wasn't much of a fighter. By scaring his tormentors away he used his wits instead of his fists and kept his face intact. Well . . . at least intact until that afternoon.

"Why?"

Buck's question hanging in the silence of the sickroom startled the other boy. He raised up on an elbow and turned to face the Indian in the bed opposite him, arching his eyebrows as inquisitively as his battered face would allow.

"Why you fight?" Buck asked again. Each word he spoke was pronounced sharply - the edges of a new language not yet rounded smooth.

The boy was still for a moment, then finally twisted his expression and shrugged to indicate he had no answer. His lack of a reason puzzled Buck all the more and he sat up in his bed, dangling his legs over the side, to get a better look at this strange, silent boy. The quiet one seemed a bit uncomfortable under the scrutiny, but when the Indian offered a quiet "I thank you", he sat in his bed, mirroring Buck's position and nodded solemnly to accept the words of gratitude.

Though the light in the infirmary was dim, Buck could see that the white boy's face was a mess. One eye was completely swollen shut and the pale skin was bruised an ugly purple. His bottom lip was split and swollen twice its normal size. By the hunched over way he sat, Buck knew the boy had been kicked in the middle and was probably nursing as many sore ribs as he was. Buck didn't feel any too well himself, but was confident he didn't look nearly as bad as the white boy did.

Buck pointed to the other boy's face. "Hurt?"

His sick room companion puckered his mouth in thought, then raised his hand, his thumb and index finger spread apart to indicate an amount. He thought for another moment and then moved his fingers a bit wider apart. He then pointed at the Indian opposite him to pose the same question.

Despite the ache encircling his chest, Buck straightened his back to sit taller and gingerly traced the hump of his nose with his index finger. It was tender and swollen so full it was almost a straight plane from the bridge of his nose to his cheekbone.

"No hurt," Buck answered, wincing at the pain in his nose as he lied.

The bald boy simply smirked and rolled his eyes. This Indian was a prideful one.

To refer to him as the 'owl boy' no longer seemed appropriate. When Buck first saw the boy crouched in the limbs of the cottonwood tree in the school yard, he had been certain it was a sign of doom, but a bad omen would have never come to his aid in a fight.

"What name?" Buck asked, then realized the silent boy wouldn't answer. To his surprise the white boy reached for his shirt at the end of the bed and withdrew a small piece of paper and the stub of a lead pencil from the pocket. He scribbled something on the paper and then reached out to hand it to Buck.

Buck hesitantly accepted the paper. His English was much improved, but new words were still very hard. He gripped the note, thumbing through the stacks of grammatical rules newly imprinted in his memory before attempting it.

"Ike?"

The boy broke into a grin and nodded.

"Ike," Buck repeated with more confidence. That wasn't so hard. Pointing to himself he said, "Running . . ." He stopped and shook his head. No, that wasn't his name anymore. "Buck Cross," he said correcting himself. Ike merely nodded nonchalantly. He knew the Indian's name.

The two sat in silence for a time doing little more than look at each other and occasionally grin at the generously sized nun snoring from the far end of the infirmary. It was a different silence than either had experienced before. Not an empty silence begging for words to fill the stillness, but a comfortable, fertile silence where seeds of possibility sprouted.

"Why no talk?" Buck asked. "No tongue?"

Ike looked slightly offended and rolled his tongue out of his mouth. Yes, he indeed did have a tongue! His indignity was short lived. He frowned and ran his hand up and down his throat, then shook his head and shrugged.

A haunting sadness floated in the boy's eyes as he tried to explain his muteness - almost as if there were ghosts scaring him speechless from the inside. Buck understood now. It wasn't that Ike didn't want to speak - he couldn't. Ike was alone not because he wanted to be or had done something to deserve his isolation, but because of a difference he couldn't control. No more than Buck could control the color of his own skin. This boy was just as parched for the cool waters of acceptance as he was. His soul had been cut just as deep by the sharp angles of a rigid, unyielding world.

The silence returned while Buck contemplated his offer. It was hard enough taking care of himself. He needed to concentrate his efforts on learning the white man's ways. There was so much yet to learn. But he owed this boy and his Kiowa upbringing demanded that his indebtedness be paid.

"I teach you."

Ike frowned and shook his head, motioning to his uncooperative throat again.

"No." Buck started moving his hands, making shapes and gestures that Ike didn't understand. "Make words with hands."

Ike leaned forward, his posture anxious with interest in what the Indian was doing.

"Not hard," Buck assured him. "I teach you."

A slow grin of understanding spread across Ike's face, brightening the dimly lit room. He leaned across his bed and pulled another piece of paper from the shirt pocket, then quickly scribbled a word across the paper. He started to hand the scrap to Buck, but stopped and instead on the reverse side of the piece reprinted the word in block letters that would be easier for the Indian to read.

Buck sounded out each letter carefully. "Fend?"

Ike shook his head "no", his eyes urging Buck to try again. Buck studied the letters closely, then made another attempt. He concentrated hard on the 'r' in the word. There was no such sound in the Kiowa language and its pronunciation was still difficult for him.

"Friend."

The hopefulness in Ike's eyes made Buck realize it wasn't just a word, but an offer . . . a plea. If he could have turned his eyes upon himself, he would have seen the mirror image of that longing in his own.

Buck raised his right hand to neck level, his palm facing outward. He brought his index and middle fingers together until they touched, then folded his thumb and remaining fingers into his palm so only the touching fingers were extended. He then raised his hand until his fingertips reached the level of his face.

Ike's blue eyes danced with excitement as he mimicked Buck's hands. He repeated the sign until his movements were smooth and fluid. Buck nodded his approval.

"Friend."

The sound of raindrops on the window pane brought Buck back to the present. Ike had told him once that when he was very little, he had been afraid of the rain. His mother had reassured him that there was nothing to fear in a storm. That rain was simply the sky's way of crying. Surely the sky that looked out over the world, witnessing all the pain and hurt below, was deserving of a cry once in a while.

Although it was only a mother's story to calm the fears of a small child, Buck thought that perhaps it was true. Sometimes the sky appears to be in mourning. Black clouds bent low under a heavy veil. Thundering sobs shaking the drops loose. An angry, thrashing, unbearable pain unleashed in a torrent of tears. But at other times, it weeps quietly, gathering in scattered, confused tears left behind the roaring storm. The sky cries, unashamed, until its tears are spent, then cleansed of their pain, the clouds lighten and move on. If so, then how well nature knows itself. Knows what it needs.

Buck silently crossed the short distance between the beds and crawled across the quilt top to the window, raising it a crack. Crisp night air and the voice of the wind floated through the opening, breathing life back into the closed room. Buck wrapped Ike's quilt around his shoulders and sat back on his heels, quietly tracing the stream of teardrops sliding down the face of the glass with his fingertips. Safe in an embrace of faded patchwork, he slept, dreaming of a voice he had never heard . . . yet knew by heart.

Chapter 7

In his three years as a student at Sorrows, Buck had heard the Reverend Mother humble herself in prayer before her God, scold children for stepping outside her boundaries and lecture him in the importance of proper grammar - but he had never heard her sing. He had intended to check on Daniel in the nursery and hopefully, by some bit of divine inspiration, decide what to do about the child. But to his surprise, rather than a quiet nursery of sleeping infants, he found Mother Augustine seated in the nursery's rocking chair, quietly singing something about 'black sheep' and 'the little boy who lives down the lane' to the baby cradled in her arms.

The sharp contrast of the Reverend Mother's crucifix against her black habit had caught Daniel's eye. The little boy seemed mesmerized by the bright cross and occasionally reached out with a dimpled, inquisitive hand to touch the shiny object. The baby seemed perfectly content in Mother Augustine's arms and didn't seem to mind at all that her voice was more than just a bit off key.

Perhaps it was the faint trickle of early morning light filtering through the window beside the chair that softened her features. Or maybe a helpless infant has some sort of magical ability to change even the most severe countenance into something gentle. Whatever the cause, the result was startling. Buck crossed his arms loosely over his chest and leaned against the door frame watching the scene before him, nearly as captivated by the Reverend Mother's actions as Daniel was by her crucifix.

A whisper floated across his memory, distanced and muffled by time. Buck closed his eyes for a moment and tried to bring the blurred image into focus. He was very young, no more than three or four years old - an age of discovery when a child's mind begins to grasp hold of precious moments, tucking them away to remember later. He had awakened in the night, frightened by Red Bear's story of the Utes sneaking into Kiowa villages to steal away the children. His mother had drawn him into her arms and promised to scold Red Bear for scaring him. She had even let him hold her beaded medicine bundle so he would be protected from the story. Blue and yellow beads. It reminded him of sunshine - soft, warm and beautiful. Just like she was. Her arms around him felt soft and warm, too. Like sunshine in the middle of the night. He couldn't quite hear the words of his mother's song. He strained to remember, but it was such a long time ago . . .

The heron is homing, the plover is still ,
The night bird calls from his place on the hill,
Afar the fox barks, afar the stars peep
Little brown baby of mine go to . . .

"Come in, Buck. No need to stand in the hallway."

The sound of the Reverend Mother's voice broke through his reflection like a stone tossed into still water. Buck hurriedly tried to pull the ripples of the memory back together - he wasn't ready to let it go just yet - but they had slipped away out of his reach.

"I don't mean to interrupt," he answered, his arms instinctively tightening to an almost defensive posture.

"You aren't. Daniel and I were just getting to know each other. We need to talk. Come . . . sit," she said, nodding to a stool near the rocking chair. "Did you sleep well? You look rested."

Buck offered a nod in reply from the doorway. "Yes, I did."

The Reverend Mother motioned to the stool again and Buck compliantly crossed the dimly lit room feeling more like he was back in grammar class called to recitation. She wanted an answer about Daniel and he didn't have one yet. After all these years, he still couldn't please her.

"I didn't think anyone would be here this early," he said taking his assigned seat on the edge of the stool.

"I always begin the day with the little ones . . . every morning for the past twenty years." Mother Augustine rubbed her hand almost affectionately over the wooden arm of the chair. "This rocker and I are old friends."

"I didn't know you tended the babies. I thought they were Sister Margaret's responsibility."

"Every child at Sorrows is my responsibility, Buck."

"I'm sorry. I meant no disrespect," Buck muttered, fidgeting uncomfortably under her gray gaze. "Have there been many as small as Daniel here? I don't remember."

"No reason that you should. The youngest ones have always been kept a bit apart from the rest of the school," she explained, brushing her thumb gently across Daniel's pink cheek. Despite the little boy's contentment in her arms, when she continued, her voice was tinged with sadness. "But, yes, I'm afraid there have been quite a few. Orphans come in all ages. Steven, there," she said, motioning with a slight nod of her head to the curly topped little boy pulling himself into a wobbly legged stand in a nearby crib. "Steven came to us at only three days old. His mother left him here, promising that she would be back, but I knew better. That was over six months ago. I do think she loved him, but she was young and alone. I don't know which is worse. For them to have known their families and lost them or to be this young and never know them at all."

"But surely you've found homes for them. Don't people want babies?" Buck asked hopefully. He could understand families not wanting to adopt older children, but certainly there was hope for the little ones.

"We placed a few in the early years," Mother Augustine replied. "But these are difficult times we live in. A war will make matters no better. Still . . . we pray that all of Sorrows' children will be blessed with new families and trust the Lord will answer. Until then we do the best we can and we will always make room for more."

Buck was quiet for a moment considering Sorrows' state of disrepair. The 'best' the school could do certainly fell short of what he felt Daniel or any of the children there should have. The school's finances weren't really any of his concern . . . no, if he was considering leaving Daniel there, it most certainly was his concern.

"Reverend Mother, how can you afford to take in more children? You said yourself that the barn was still leaking and it looks like it could fall down any minute. Blossom must be nearly dry by now and the horses are worn out. The school was crowded when I was here years ago and it's worse now."

Buck waited expectantly for a tangible answer from the Reverend Mother. Perhaps she would answer that the school had found a new benefactor or that there were coffers of cash hidden away for the lean years. Or if there was no immediate relief, at least an acknowledgement of the school's dire straits would appease him. But his barrage of Sorrows' shortcoming did not penetrate the nun's armor of faith.

"We are doing the Lord's work, Buck. Our needs will be provided for. They always have been. They always will be." Mother Augustine spoke with such a serene certainty that Buck almost believed her.

"Buck, I understand that you feel a responsibility for Daniel, and that is commendable, but it would be very dangerous to take him with you. The fate of his parents reminds us that traveling in the open plains is treacherous and certainly unfit for a child. You will both be safer if he stays here."

"I just want what's best for him."

"I know you do. So do I. He'll have a home here and an opportunity to learn just as you had."

Buck's sharp intake of breath felt like a stab wound reopened. An opportunity to be laughed at and humiliated was more to his recollection.

"You were hard on me," he said, half under his breath. He hadn't intended to be so bold, but the words had been poised on his tongue since he rode into Sorrows' yard the day before and used his moment of weakness to assert themselves.

"Yes, I was."

Buck's own remark had startled him, but the Reverend Mother's calm response left him slack jawed. To his greater surprise, there wasn't so much as a hint of guilt or remorse in her voice for treating him badly. Surely if she admitted as much, he deserved an apology. Didn't he? But rather than asking his forgiveness she just sat there, rocking Daniel as if there was nothing regretful in her admission.

"I always ask more of those who show potential." Taking note of his bewildered expression, she began to explain. "Buck, I've been teaching children for longer than you've been on this earth and no two have been exactly alike. Each requires a different approach. Some respond to a gentle touch, some need constant supervision to learn. Others," she added, pausing long enough to cast a knowing look in his direction, "others need to be challenged, to be made angry for the best in them to be called out. We had a very short amount of time to teach you what you needed to know to survive away from your own people. You say I was hard on you, but can you carry on an intelligent conversation in a language you weren't born into?"

"I'd like to think so," Buck answered, a bit put out by the question. What kind of a thing to ask was that anyway? Wasn't she the one who had taught him?

Buck's irritation brought a quick smile to her face. "Yes, you can. Quite well in fact. But at first you were so afraid of failing that you wouldn't try. A teacher must use whatever method is necessary to reach a child and if I had coddled you or made allowances for you, the result would have been different. I was hard on you because you needed me to be."

Buck sat back on the stool absorbing the Reverend Mother's explanation. It wasn't what he had expected to hear, but once it sunk in, he realized what she said was true. She had pushed him at every possible turn and he had responded to the pressure angrily, bitterly, at times hating her, but always more determined to succeed. He tucked his head, a bit embarrassed, trying to think of something to say. Should he thank her for making him so angry that he had learned just to spite her? Should he apologize for having drawn a picture of her with flames shooting from her mouth? Should he admit that he had let the garder snake loose in her office? No. He couldn't confess that. The snake had been only half his idea anyway. He glanced up uncertainly, but understood by the look in his teacher's eyes that nothing needed to be said.

"Will you be as hard on him?" he asked instead, nodding toward Daniel.

"If need be."

"Good."

"You are welcome here to visit him anytime and I do hope you will come back. And please bring Ike with you next time. I would like very much to see him again."

"Don't think about it, Buck," he warned himself. "Don't think . . ."

"Reverend Mother . . ." Buck went cold inside and swallowed hard to loosen the grip around his throat. He took a deep breath and a moment to reconsider. He didn't have to tell her, but for some reason he wanted to.

"Ike can't come back with me."

The nun was puzzled by his response, but the distress written on Buck's face spoke more than his few words did.

"He died about a month ago," Buck explained, his voice so quiet the Reverend Mother had to strain to hear the words. "I should have told you last night, and I'm sorry . . . it's just hard."

Mother Augustine seemed to sink into the wooden rocker as the news of Ike's fate slowly settled on her, much as he had limply dropped to his knees on the boardwalk beside to his friend that terrible afternoon, the realization of how bad is was numbing him blank and breakable. After a moment, though, her sturdiness returned. He had yet to find his.

"I'm certain it has been a very difficult time," the nun said. "How did this happen?"

The touch of her smooth fingers against his calloused palm startled Buck for a moment, but he allowed her to take his hand and the warmth of her touch drew the story from him. The words that had been lodged in his throat like chunks of ice for so long spilled out.

"Ike met a girl. Emily was her name. Emily Metcalfe. He had feelings for her. More than that, I guess. He didn't know her for very long - not much more than a week - but I think he loved her. It worried me and I told him not to get involved with Emily. Ike always came out on the losing end whenever he cared for a girl." Buck was quiet for a moment as the brutal accuracy of his statement settled on him. "Never thought it would come to this end, though. He should've listened to me."

"Emily's father got on the wrong side of a gambler. He accused the man of cheatin' and . . . well, there was a lot of bad blood between them. Metcalfe called the man out, but he wasn't much of a gunfighter. Got himself killed instead. Emily tried to settle the score and drew on the man." Buck's voice tightened, unable to hide his bitterness as he continued. "She never should have done somethin' so foolish. Emily didn't stand a chance against him and Ike died tryin' to protect her."

"Buck, I can understand your resentment of the young lady, but it doesn't surprise me that Ike gave his life for someone he loved. That boy had a sweet soul." A sad smile crept across the creases of Mother Augustine's face as she added quietly, "once he let us see it."

"I'd put what happened out of my mind and was doin' fine," Buck insisted. "But then I found Daniel and had to come back here. And now . . . now Ike's everywhere I look."

"Those memories can be a comfort to you if you allow them to be. They can provide the peace you need to move on," she replied, her gray gaze locking with his dark eyes.

Buck pulled his eyes away. If only it could be so easy. She didn't understand that he was perched precariously, straddling a wide chasm in a fragile balance. One misstep could crumble away his delicate foothold and send him tumbling back into the abyss of grief that had swallowed him in the days after Ike's sudden death. She didn't understand how hard it had been just to climb this far.

"It's hard."

"But you mustn't be afraid to try."

"Ike didn't deserve to die like that."

"No, Buck, he didn't. Neither did Daniel's parents or any of these children's families. Such violence mocks the will of God and the innocent suffer. I've seen too much of it. But the word of the Lord assures us that those who follow the darker path will be judged according to their actions." Mother Augustine paused for a moment and then asked, "and what of the gambler who caused you such grief?"

Buck took time to consider his response. Would she think him a sinner or a savage to know he had taken Neville's life without an ounce of remorse? He was a grown man now, not a child longing for his teacher's approval, but for some reason that he couldn't quite fathom, what this woman thought of him still mattered.

"He was punished," Buck answered quietly. It wasn't really a lie.

"Ike has found his reward, Buck," the Reverend Mother offered in reassurance. "The reward that is promised for all the faithful. I will ask a blessing of peace for his soul and for yours."

The nun took a moment to carefully study the young man opposite her - the foreign features, the heathenistic relic around his neck. Mother Augustine squeezed Buck's hand gently as she rose and caught his eye once more. "We never really converted you though, did we?"

The corners of Buck's mouth lifted for a moment and he readily met her gaze. "No, Mother, you didn't. But I'd appreciate the prayer just the same."

********

Buck settled against the spindled back of the rocker and brought Daniel to his shoulder. He couldn't help but smile at the little boy, all clean and pink and smelling of talcum. The baby's weight was warm and comfortable against him and the soft rhythm of Daniel's breath against Buck's neck seemed to slow the pace of his thoughts.

He had never rocked a baby before but there was something wonderfully soothing in the motion. Maybe there really was something magical about holding a child - holding a new life in your arms. Buck rested his head back against the chair's wooden frame, watching the dawn unfurl outside the window. The feather wisps of a dappled gray morning seemed strangely in contrast to the harsh realities inside Sorrows' walls. He would also pray for a family for Daniel, but realized the little boy would most likely spend his first sixteen years at Sorrows. His growth wouldn't be celebrated with parties and cakes, but marked by exchanging one ill fitting suit of clothing for another that fit just as poorly. Lying awake in the dormitory at night, he would wonder what his life might have been like if his parents hadn't been taken from him. He would be given a religion whether he wanted it or not. And at sixteen, with two dollars in his pocket, he would be ushered out the front door into a world that offered few chances and no apologies.

But there was more to Our Lady of Sorrows School for the Orphaned and Abandoned than that. Buck understood that now. How narrow his scope had been, or perhaps how little he had allowed himself to see. It wasn't the home his own mother had wanted for him, or the life the McAllisters or any of these orphan's families would have provided, but there was a love here. Not as open or as obvious, perhaps you had to pull back layers of discipline and an endless supply of rules to find it, but it was a love none the less.

"They'll take care of you here, Daniel," Buck whispered to the orphaned child in his arms. "And if you find a friend, you'll do just fine."

Epilogue

The night's rain had cleared the dust and the morning breathed easier. Buck closed the front door behind him and stepped onto the slanting front porch of the school, taken with the changes that had occurred overnight.

The quince bush was in full glory, its scarlet buds blushing under a kiss of morning dew. Wrapped by a blanket of awakening blossoms, the fence around the school, though bent low under the weight of the vine, seemed content not to be the keeper of order it was designed to be. The barn did sit a bit awkwardly, but the building didn't seem to be nearly as out of square as Buck remembered from the evening before. With a coat of fresh paint and a few repairs it would probably stand for quite a while. He had some money saved. A nice little nest egg, actually. The Sisters would never need to know where the 'repair fund' came from. The money certainly wouldn't be enough to cure all of Sorrows' ills, but if he couldn't find a new family for Daniel, at least he could do something to make this home a little better.

The wooden frame intended to support the porch stairs had suffered from dry rot over the years and wasn't a terribly secure passage. The top tread was missing altogether. Buck took a big step off the porch into the school's front yard, the Reverend Mother's words, "You mustn't be afraid to try," following him.

Washed clean by the rain, the leaves of the cottonwood had been transformed into a thousand shimmering mirrors. But rather than the image of a cornered child seeking a safe haven from his tormentors in the towering tree's limbs, each silver frond reflected the laughter and dreams of two young boys back to him.

The tree had been their refuge. Perched upon its wide shoulders, its branches acted as tributaries carrying them to a private place. In the boughs of their safe harbor, they had passed idle time hatching coolly calculated pranks of revenge against those who had wronged them and mapping plans for a brighter future.

From their lofty hideaway, Buck had spotted a young beauty across the school yard and fell head over heels for his first blue-eyed blonde. An embarrassing infatuation that had sent Ike tumbling from the tree's branches in near hysteria watching his friend's bumbling attempts at courtship on the ground below. But when his affections were not returned and Buck climbed back into the sanctuary of the cottonwood, Ike had followed to pick up the pieces of his friend's fifteen year old broken heart and assure him that girls really weren't all they were cracked up to be anyway.

In their open air classroom, Buck's patient instruction had given Ike a language, but Ike had proven to be an equally effective teacher. Books were not plentiful at Sorrows, but the school owned an ample supply of Bibles and once accustomed to the "thees" and "thous" it served as a fine textbook. Although Ike couldn't read the foreign words for him, at Buck's mispronunciation, he would tap at his chest to draw Buck's attention and insist his pupil repeat the word until the syllables flowed together correctly. To Ike, the Bible was the history of his faith, but to Buck it was a book of great adventures. He had tried to imagine rain so fierce it would flood the world and cheered along with David as the boy's simple slingshot felled a giant. After reading of Samson, Buck felt a special kinship with the man. Samson knew the importance of a full head of hair. Ike, however, preferred the story of Job who having lost everything precious to him was rewarded ten times over for his faithfulness. The tale of unwavering faith in the face of despair struck such a chord in Ike that he asked Buck to read the story twice.

And when dusk blurred the words, they would mark the page with a leaf and watch the day fade away in a blue mist, content in a silence so golden, its harmony so perfectly blended, it might have been composed by a grand master.

The sounds of laughter broke into Buck's thoughts and he leaned back against the white bark of the tree watching two young boys carrying a milk pail between them jump from the porch and run across the yard toward the barn. Their peals of unbridled laughter floated across the school yard and swept him back to another morning, not so very long ago.

Ike dropped to his knees in the loose, sandy dirt of the yard and carefully withdrew a small wooden box from the canvas bag that had held his belongings in safe keeping for the past six years. He reverently opened the box containing his possessions as if it contained the world's most precious jewels. With a tender touch, Ike ran his finger along the faded wording, scripted neatly in a woman's hand across the stationary. If he tried very hard, he could still smell the faint traces of his mother's lilac water on the yellowed pages. Ike sifted through the papers until he found the object he sought at the bottom of the box. He lovingly fingered the filigree finish etched in the metal casing, wound the knob, and smiled his approval at the movement of the watch's hands. He slipped the watch into the security of his trouser's pocket and placed the box back into the cloth bag.

*Come on, Buck!* Ike signed feverishly and jumped to his feet.

"I'm comin'! Just hold on a minute!" Buck yelled back. The hunting knife looked a bit out of place strapped around the leg of his school uniform trousers, but he didn't care. There had been a time when he thought the few belongings he had carried with him from the Kiowa were lost for good. In his urgency to reclaim his possessions, he had dumped the contents of a similar canvas bag onto the school's front porch and his bone earring had fallen between the cracks of the dried planks. In the time it took to retrieve it, Ike had gained a good twenty strides on him and was waiting at Sorrows' gate.

"Got it!" he proclaimed and headed across the yard, slipping his medicine bundle around his neck as he trotted toward Ike. His hand anxiously clutched the small bag, his fingers blindly counting the contents inside. One, two, three, four . . . Yes! Everything was still there!

*Hurry up* Ike's hands worked rapidly, signing his impatience. *I thought you were anxious to get out of here!*

"I've been here for three years, Ike. I'm plenty anxious."

*Well then, since I've been here twice as long, I'm twice as anxious! Come on. We gotta see if old man Evans will give us those jobs like he promised. Two dollars each won't last us very long,* Ike signed rapidly then double checked his pocket for the coins Mother Augustine had pressed into his palm as she bid the boys good-bye at Sorrows' door.

"Sure he will," Buck retorted, wincing a bit as he tried to work the metal hoop of his earring through the partially closed hole in his earlobe. "He promised us didn't he? Don't white men keep their promises?" he asked with sixteen year old innocence.

*You ain't never gonna get that earring back in there. The hole's been closed up too long.* Watching Buck's grimace Ike questioned, *Don't it hurt?*

"No, it doesn't hurt!" Buck insisted, working the hoop through his tender flesh . "Ow!" he yelped, causing Ike to snort in amusement at his friend's over abundance of stubborn pride.

"There!" Buck announced victoriously as the hoop finally slid through. With the sheer jubilation of new freedom he took off running down the dusty road leading away from the school.

"Who's the slow one now, Ike?" he called back over his shoulder to his friend. "C'mon! Let's go!"

Buck's gaze clung to the image in his memory until the two figures were nothing more than small specks in the distance. They were so young. So innocent. Thinking they had all the time in the world. He felt something foreign in his eye, but didn't brush away the tear that slid down his cheek as the boys disappeared from view.

It did hurt to remember . . . but he didn't want to forget.

The End

Email Kim R
HOME