"Listen, my children,” the old storyteller said. “Listen
and I will tell you the way it was when the Earth was young.”
“Long ago the land was empty. Mother Earth and Father Sky
lived close together - close enough to touch and hold each other for
they were very much in love. But the Great Spirit walked across the
empty land and was not satisfied. Onto the land he placed great bodies
of shining water to quench His thirst and created forests of cool blue
shade. He placed fish in the waters and deer, raccoon, and bear in the
trees. He created buffalo but the huge animals were unsuited to the
forests so he placed them in the open and with a sweep of his hands
planted seas of golden grasses to feed the great shaggy beasts. He
called the Kiowa from the Underground World and the People emerged from
the Earth Mother and were happy. From His breath, the Great Spirit
formed an eagle and tossed it into the sky to watch over all living
things. To give Eagle a perch above the land, the Great Spirit scooped
dirt with His hands and formed mounds of earth. The Great Spirit was
pleased with the world and sent rain to feed the land. Watered by the
rain, the trees and mounds of soil grew taller and pushed Father Sky
away from Mother Earth. The lovers cried out and reached for each other
but creation needed room to grow and so the Earth and Sky became
separated, touching only at the edge of the world. The Earth Mother had
many Kiowa children to care for but Father Sky was alone and far from
his family. To ease Father Sky’s loneliness, the Great Spirit
instructed the Earth Mother to dress half their children in brilliant
white animal hides and send them to the top of the mountain. The Great
Spirit handed each of the children to Father Sky who set them carefully
in place. As the mountains grew taller, Father Sky was pushed further
and further away until the Sky Children could be seen only as sparkling
white specks in the dark distance. After a time, the Sky Children grew
restless and could no longer stand in their places. To keep them from
falling to the Earth, the Great Spirit created trails of dust in the
heavens. If you watch the night sky, my children, you will see them as
they walk along their paths, for the Kiowa Sky Children remain there
“Look!” Lou exclaimed and pointed into the blanket of night
hanging over the Sweetwater Station. “A falling star! Make a wish!” Lou
pressed her eyes closed, a wistful smile spreading across her face as a
list of fanciful wants danced through her thoughts.
“Make a what?” Cody asked dryly without expressing much interest
in Lou’s excitement or moving from his reclining position on the porch
“A wish,” Lou stated matter-of-factly and opened her eyes. “Ain’t
you never heard of that, Cody. You’re s’posed to be so well read and
knowledgeable. You make a wish on a falling star and the wish comes
true. Been doin’ that ever since I was little and it ain’t failed me
Cody snorted in amusement and craned his head around. He found the
source of his entertainment perched beside Buck on the porch railing
behind him. “I am well read and knowledgeable, Lou. But in
things of importance. Not some silly little kid’s game like star
“Yeah, I bet you find a whole bunch of important things in them
paperback novels you think we don’t know you read. What was the latest
one? ‘The Adventures of Black Jack Somethin’ or Other’?”
As the best read of the riders, Cody understood it was his
obligation to enlighten the lesser informed, although it was trying at
times. But . . . with knowledge came responsibility and William F. Cody
saw himself as nothing if not responsible. “For your information, Lou,”
Cody retorted, pushing himself to a sitting position to better address
his adversary. “A fallin’ star ain’t got nothin’ to do with makin’
wishes come true. It’s just a piece of shiny rock that floated too
close to the ground and got pulled down by gravity. Just like when the
apple fell on that Newton guy’s head. Everybody knows that funny
lookin’ chicken bone is whatcha use for wishin’.”
Cody’s air of superiority turned mischievous and a reckless glint
that matched the ornery tone in his voice found its way to his eyes.
“Bet I know what you wished for though, Miss Lou. Betcha wished for
that flowery pink dress I saw you eyein’ the other day or maybe a big
kiss from that guy with a funny name!”
Lou’s gaze iced over and her determined features froze in place.
She had successfully hid her gender from her employer for almost four
months but if Cody didn’t keep his big mouth shut everyone from
Sweetwater to St. Joseph, including Teaspoon, would know her secret.
“You clamp your jaws, Cody! And I did not . . .”
“You’re both wrong.” Buck’s calm entry into the conversation sent
the combatants to their respective corners. These two never ceased to
amaze or at least amuse him. They acted more like squabbling siblings
than Express riders. “One of the Sky Children fell.”
“WHAT?” Cody bellowed. He whipped his attention from Lou to the
Kiowa rider, humor dancing a spirited jig in his bright blue eyes.
Lou’s idea was childish, but Buck’s explanation was down right
Buck seldom disclosed the beliefs of his people to anyone but Ike
and he wasn’t exactly sure why he made the comment. Perhaps Lou’s
childhood ruminations had stirred memories of his own younger, innocent
days but now, met by the crooked grin pasted on Cody’s mouth, he wished
he hadn’t opened his own.
“It’s just an old legend I was told as a boy.” Buck hoped the
brief explanation would satisfy Cody’s curiosity but it only served to
kindle the blonde rider’s interest.
“Now Buck,” Cody goaded. “Ya can’t say somethin’ like that and
expect us to just let it pass.”
Even Lou turned toward him in anticipation. “Tell us, Buck . . .
Buck might have been able to swat Cody’s interest aside. It took a
little effort, but with some prodding Cody could be lead down another
trail of thought and leave this one behind, especially if the blonde
glory hound played the lead role in the new topic of conversation. But
mired in the depths of Lou’s plea there was no escape now. Well, this
would certainly teach him to keep his thoughts to himself now wouldn’t
Buck sighed in defeat and began. “Mother Earth and Father Sky were
lovers when the earth was young. But when the mountains grew taller,
the sky was pushed away and the lovers were separated. Without his
family, Father Sky grew very lonely so the Great Spirit placed half the
Kiowa children with him. To keep them safe as they moved through the
darkness, the Great Spirit made pathways in the sky for them to walk
on. When you see a falling star, one of them has slipped from the path
Cody bit his tongue to contain his amusement. Right from the start
he knew Buck was a different sort. The white man’s clothing and
language could only disguise so much. They all thought the way he clung
to that little bag around his neck like it held the key to the
afterlife was a little odd and Cody had always been told that Indians
had strange practices and beliefs. He never realized just how strange
until now. “So let me make sure I understand, Buck. You’re sayin’ the
stars are really Kiowa children hangin’ up in the sky?”
“Not just children now. They would have grown older.” Buck’s gaze
wandered across the canvas of night sky suspended above them. What
stories might be written upon that dark backdrop? What secrets could it
tell? “I suppose when you see a star fade away it means that one has
died and a new star is a newborn child just like any other family.”
“Father Sky, Mother Earth, Sky Children . . .Great Spirit!” Cody
shook his head in exaggerated disbelief, and clutched at his sides,
doubling over in a fit of laughter. “Buck, that is the craziest thing I
have ever heard! Next you’ll be swearing there’s boogey men under the
bunks and a tooth fairy!”
Buck scowled and turned away. He was in for it now. Cody would
have a hey-day with this once the other riders got back. He could feel
the color rising to his face and was grateful the darkness hid his
“You just hush up, Cody,” Lou ordered and nudged Buck’s arm with
her shoulder as a show of support. “B’sides, I like the idea. I think
it’s romantic and Buck’s got a right to his beliefs.”
“I didn’t say I believed it, Lou. It’s just a story.”
Buck knew the beliefs of his people sounded like fairy tales to
his Christian cohorts, and, truth be told, the further he immersed
himself in the white world, the more they sounded like fiction rather
than fact. Still . . . a part of him liked the idea that nothing in
creation was random. That fire had been spread across the world by a
cunning fox who had tricked the fireflies and stolen sparks from their
wings rather than by some accidental act of rubbing two sticks together
until the friction produced a flame. That a rabbit’s front legs were
short because the animal had been frightened by the hoot of an owl
while the Great Spirit was forming its body and hopped away in fear
before its legs were finished. And that the stars were placed in the
night heavens because Father Sky’s heart had ached with loneliness.
He’d never really thought of the story as “romantic” before. It
was just a legend he had been taught as a small boy. But perhaps it
was. Lovers separated by different worlds - a bittersweet love story.
Still, it was just a story and it had been a long time since he had sat
around the village fire and been schooled by the wisdom and memory of
white haired old men. A very long time. He probably didn’t remember it
Tracking the new gray mare was becoming a bothersome chore. The
first time she managed to bolt out the open corral gate and head for
the hills, Buck had admired her spirit. The second time, he decided
that she was a very intelligent animal to so quickly recognize the
opportunity and act upon the moment. But the third time, he realized it
was a game and it was high time the feisty little horse started playing
by his rules.
Buck found her for the third straight morning grazing casually
near a shallow stream bed about five miles from the station. He had to
admit the mare picked a pretty spot to play in. The stream tumbled
through a small meadow that had received enough moisture to still be
green in mid summer. Blossoms of wild columbine twirled like tiny
dancers in crinoline party dresses and the bright yellow faces of
buttercups peeked out from their hiding places in the grass in a game
of hide and seek. It was a nice morning for a ride, too. Still a bit
cool with just enough breeze to tickle the locust leaves. There wasn’t
much opportunity to enjoy such sites on a regular mail run. Buck found
himself almost wishing the mare had hidden herself a little more
stealthily, but it was his day to muck out the stalls - a chore best
done in the cool of the morning this time of year. He had wasted a fair
amount of time already on the mare’s game of cat and mouse. The stalls
would be a tad ripe if he didn’t get started on them soon.
Buck eased his horse to within about twenty feet of the mare and
reined his mount to a halt. The mare raised her head, chewing
methodically on a clump of grass and flicked her ears to acknowledge
their presence but made no attempt to move away.
“Just stay right there . . . ” Buck whispered, more to himself
than the animal, and reached for the lariat draped over his saddle
horn. Roping wasn’t his strong suit, not by a long shot, and he was
well aware it wasn’t his prowess with a lariat but dumb luck that had
dropped the lasso over the mare’s head the morning before. Buck twirled
the rope above him to gain momentum and held his breath in hopeful
anticipation as the loop sailed toward the mare’s head. The throw
looked good. His aim was on target. But no sooner than he began quietly
congratulating himself, the mare ducked her head to resume her
breakfast. The rope grazed the side of her neck before grabbing at thin
air, then fell empty into the grass. Startled by the intrusion, the
mare skittered a few feet to the right and turned to face Buck. The
game was on.
Buck blew out his frustration in a disgusted breath. He reeled the
rope toward him, recoiled the lariat and placed it back around the
saddle horn. The mare was wary of the rope now - there was no point in
trying that tactic again. Cody probably would have been successful with
another try. He was much more talented with a rope, although after his
antics on the bunkhouse porch the night before, Buck would have
preferred to dance on shards of glass than admit as much to the cocky
blonde rider. Since Cody had been the one to leave the gate ajar that
morning, giving the mare her chance to escape, by rights he should have
been the one to go after her. But because he couldn’t tell the hoof
prints of one horse from another if his supper depended upon it, the
responsibility of returning the errant filly to the fold fell upon
Buck. He reached blindly into the saddlebag behind him for the lead
rope and slowly slid from the saddle. Trusting his own horse to graze
untethered, he began a slow and cautious approach toward the
trouble-making mare. There was more than one way to catch a horse.
The mare allowed him close enough to reach out for her halter
before bolting backwards out of his grasp. Man and animal stood staring
at each other for a long moment analyzing each other’s weaknesses. Buck
reached into his shirt pocket and withdrew several sugar cubes, then
placed them in his open palm and extended the treat to the mare.
“C’mon now,” Buck coaxed, moving a step closer. “You know you want
‘em. A nice little prize. Sweet . . . nothin’ at all like you.”
The horse’s ears flitted with interest and she took a cautious
step forward, craning her neck to more closely inspect the bait. Buck
sensed victory close at hand as the mare’s lips brushed against his
palm and hurriedly reached for the slack in the her leather harness.
But quick as he was, the mare was quicker and tossed her head out of
reach before scampering sideways.
“All right, you’ve had your fun,” Buck said, trying to disguise
his growing impatience as he approached the mare once more. “But I’ve
got other things to do. Or maybe I’ll just forget to clean your stall.
How would you like that, huh?”
Correctly anticipating the mare’s next move, Buck lunged to the
right after her but slid in the dew damp grass as he tried to mimic the
mare’s quick cut back to the left. Although his recovery was a bit
ungainly, looking somewhat like a novice ice skater he was able to
right his balance before falling and making a complete spectacle of
himself. If there was anything in this life that Buck loathed, it was
being made to look foolish and the fact that his nemesis was of the
four footed variety only made this bruising to his ego slightly less
A growl of irritation rose from Buck’s throat. “Now that is
enough,” he muttered through gritted teeth. Buck slapped his hat
against his thigh in frustration then propped his hands on his hips and
glared at the obstinate animal. A different approach was necessary. The
horse would be able to sense his distress and his agitation would only
add fuel to her fire. Buck drew a calming breath and replaced his hat.
“Please,” he offered in the most reconcilatory tone he could muster and
took a step in her direction. “I really can’t stay out here and play
To his amazement, the mare dropped her head to graze and made no
attempt to move away as he approached and reached for her halter. Buck
breathed a sigh of relief as the clasp of the lead rope clicked into
the metal ring on the halter, but nearly lost his grip on the rope as
he whipped around to the sound of feminine laughter and his native
“You didn’t win, you know! She let you catch her!”
Buck’s eyes rapidly searched the clearing for his audience and
finally located the source of the voice sitting near the stream,
partially hidden by a stand of tamarix. Buck didn’t relish the idea
that someone, a woman at that, had witnessed the mare’s game and was
well aware her laughter was at his expense. He shot the mare a look
that silently said “just wait ‘til we get home” and tugged the animal
toward the stream.
He stopped short when he came close enough to really see her. She
looked to be about his age, perhaps a year or two younger. Her waist
length hair hung in a braid over one shoulder and shined blue-black in
the morning sun. A few wisps of dark hair hung loose around her face
framing a complexion as polished and perfect as new copper. She was
dressed in white doeskin adorned with glass beads that caught the sun
and reflected its rays in prisms of light. The girl laughed again - so
soft and melodic it sounded like the strains of meadowlarks floating
across the clearing. Buck found himself staring, and only when she
moved was he certain this vision - this bit of perfection come to life
- was real.
‘You’re Kiowa,” he stated, finally recovering his ability to
The girl looked a bit puzzled by the comment. “Of course,” she
replied as if there was no other possibility. She plucked a blossom
from the tamarix and began stroking the pink catkin-like flower. “This
“It’s a weed,” Buck answered, covering the space between them in a
few quick strides.
The girl scrutinized the flower. “It is still pretty.” Turning her
attention to Buck, she questioned, “Do you and the horse play here
Buck felt himself blushing but was powerless to stop the color
rising to his face. “No . . . well yes . . . I mean . . . she’s learned
to get out of the corral and thinks it’s fun to make me chase her
The girl flashed a knowing smile. “Yes, it looked like you were
Buck wrapped the lead rope around his hand to prevent the mare
from taking advantage of his inattentiveness and dropped to his knees
beside the girl.
“Why are you here?” he asked, finally realizing the unlikelihood
of stumbling upon a lone Kiowa maiden so near a white man’s settlement.
The nearest Kiowa village was his own and it was a good day’s ride
away. She wasn’t from his band, he would have remembered her if she
was. A face like hers would be impossible to forget.
Buck glanced around the clearing for her horse, but aside from the
pest on the other end of the lead rope, saw only his own sorrel grazing
quietly a few yards away. Her mount must have thrown her and then ran
off. Another bothersome animal. “Are you hurt?”
“No,” she answered, then shifted to one hip and rubbed her sore
backside. “Not much anyway.”
Buck sat back on his heels. “I’m Buck Cross. I live not far from
The girl regarding him curiously. “Buck Cross. That is a strange
name for a Kiowa.”
“I’m half white,” Buck explained then waited apprehensively for
her reaction. She mulled over the possibility but didn’t seem offended
“That’s my white name,” Buck added. “In the village I am called
The girl nodded her approval. “I like that better.”
“Where is your village?” Buck asked, returning to the young lady’s
immediate predicament. “The Kiowa don’t usually travel this close to
“My village is very far away. I must have wandered from my family
while we were traveling. Do not be concerned, they will return for me
once they see that I am missing.”
“You shouldn’t stay here alone. It’s dangerous.”
Her eyes roamed the clearing, passing over the columbine blossoms
waltzing in the breeze, to the stream gurgling in its own language
behind her, back to the feather soft tamarix plume in her hands. A hawk
gliding overhead appeared to be the most malevolent creature within
sight and the bird appeared completely disinterested in them both. “It
doesn’t look very dangerous,” she stated.
Buck had to admit she was right. The area around the meadow wasn’t
heavily trafficked. The chance of anyone stumbling upon her while she
waited for her family was slim. Not to be defeated so easily, Buck
scanned the area searching for a possible hazard, some bit of treachery
lying in wait for a defenseless woman, but came up short. Still, it was
best to be cautious. “No, it’s not safe for you here alone. I could
wait with you,” he offered trying to sound more chivalrous than
“You are very kind, Running Buck.” She tilted her head to the sky,
making note of the sun’s position. The day was very young. “My family
will not be here for some time. I would enjoy the company . . . and the
She looked at him and Buck felt his insides begin to soften. Her
smile seemed almost radiant and washed over him in a current of warmth
that flowed all the way to his toes.
A tug on the mare’s lead rope reminded Buck why he was there in
the first place. Pulled from his reverie, he nodded toward the mare. “I
need to take her back to the station and let the people I work for know
where I am. I promise it won’t take long.” Buck rose to his feet and
gave the mare’s neck a good scratch in appreciation of leading him to
the meadow. She wasn’t such a bad horse after all.
Buck rattled the corral gate, double checking for any amount of
play in the latch. Solid. The mare wouldn’t be causing any more
mischief today. “Emma!” Buck called as he trotted across the station
yard in the direction of the chicken coop.
Emma scattered a handful of grain in a wide arc as she walked out
to meet him. The station’s rooster strutted after her in regal fashion,
inspecting each morsel as if there might be some noticeable difference
between one kernel of corn and the next. His harem of chickens paraded
after him, eagerly pecking the ground, not nearly as finicky about
their feed. “Well, I see you got her back. What should we do with
Little Miss Trouble Maker?” Emma asked as Buck approached.
“Where’s Teaspoon, Emma?” he asked, letting the station mistress’s
comment slide past him.
“He and Cody went to pick up that load of feed in town. Me and Lou
been holdin’ down the fort . . . and been doin’ a right fine job of it
too, haven’t we Loulabelle?” Emma answered, raising her voice enough
that Lou could hear her from the back side of the chicken coop.
Noticing Buck’s slightly ruffled state, she propped the bucket of grain
on her hip and asked, “Something wrong, Buck?”
“No. Not really. I just need the day off.”
“That’s kinda sudden ain’t it? Has to be today?”
Buck gnawed on his bottom lip and nodded.
“I don’t know. We’re a bit short handed today with Kid, Ike and
Jimmy still gone. What’s so important that can’t wait?”
“Yeah, Buck, what’s up?” Lou asked as she rounded the corner of
the chicken coop, a bundle of lumber and a hammer in her hands.
Buck ground a kernel of corn into the dirt with the toe of his
boot and tried to compose an answer that didn’t sound frivolous. I want
to spend the day with a beautiful woman instead of doing my share of
the chores, was the truth, but probably wouldn’t earn him the time off.
“There is a girl in the meadow where I found the mare. She said
she fell, so she must’ve been thrown and then her horse ran off. She’s
waitin’ for her family to come back for her. I don’t think it’s safe
for her to be alone.”
“Why not just take her home?” Lou asked.
“It’s not that easy, Lou. She’s Kiowa. She must have gotten
separated from her people when they were movin’ through the hunting
grounds.” The girl hadn’t really said as much, but it made sense. He
hitched his thumbs in the waistband of his trousers and moved a bit
more dirt around with his boot. Hopeful eyes peered out from under his
dark lashes. “She shouldn’t wait alone, Emma. Somethin’ might happen if
there’s no one there to protect her.”
Emma had to force back a smile. This boy read like an open book.
With a bit of effort she managed to present a stern face. “I s’pose
you’re right, Buck. Lots of danger lurkin’ out there in the meadow. You
get the stalls finished up and take the rest of the day off.”
Buck’s face fell. It would take several hours to clean out the
stalls and lay fresh straw. Not to mention smelling like a pile of
manure when he was finished. His disappointment was almost tangible and
didn’t go unnoticed.
“Emma . . . ” Lou interrupted and shot Buck a conspiring glance. “
. . . I forgot to tell you. Me and Buck swapped chores today. He’s
gonna finish fixin’ the chicken coop and I’ll clean the stalls. The
coop won’t take long. He could probably get it done later this evening
Emma glanced from Lou to Buck, then back to Lou again. “Well, all
right,” she answered and pushed away a stray curl from her face. “Just
as long as everythin’ gets done. Don’t want to be explainin’ to Mr.
Spoon why the chores ain’t finished.”
Emma resumed scattering the chicken feed, waiting until her back
was turned to the two riders before breaking into a wide grin. She
didn’t believe Lou for a second, and even more unbelievable was the
idea that Buck’s only interest in the girl was for her safety - but it
was nice to see these kids looking out for each other. Mucking out the
stalls was a nasty job compared to replacing a few boards on the
chicken coop. Lou’s trade off was fairly generous. Emma didn’t doubt
the young lady would even out the bargain, though. Lou could take care
of herself. Buck wouldn’t be getting off cheap.
“Thanks, Lou,” Buck said once Emma was out of earshot. “I owe you
“Nope, Buck.” Lou dropped the hammer and load of lumber beside the
chicken coop, wrinkling her nose at the thought of the chore that
awaited her in the barn. “For this you owe me two.”
“Just name it.”
Lou crossed her arms loosely over her chest and propped herself
against the corner post of the coop. She narrowed her eyes suspiciously
and arched a teasing brow. “Soooo . . . is she pretty?”
Buck felt the familiar feeling of heat rising to his cheeks again
and ducked his head to hide the crimson flush. Such a dead giveaway.
Was there no way to stop it?
Lou grinned. If the intensity of the blush coloring Buck’s face
was any measure of the girl’s looks, she was a beauty. Buck hadn’t
seemed to care much at all about women since that she-devil of a
banker’s daughter had sunk her claws into him. It was about time he
took notice of a pretty face again.
“It’s like . . . ” Buck hesitated for a moment trying to find the
right words. When he finally spoke, he sounded unsure of himself, like
such a feeling couldn’t possibly belong to him. “ . . . it’s like she
smiled and the whole morning lit up.”
Lou couldn’t help but think her friend looked a bit like a
bewildered little boy searching for direction. She didn’t know about
these boys sometimes. They could break a wild mustang, haul in a gang
of horse thieves and outride anybody in the territory, but needed
someone to hold their hands and lead them around like little children
in matters of the heart.
“So what are you waitin’ for?” Lou asked and waved her hands to
shoo the enamored rider on his way. “Go!”
Buck slowed his horse to a gait that hopefully wouldn’t appear
over anxious as he approached the clearing. Pulling up out of breath
from a hard ride on a lathered horse wouldn’t make a very good
impression. Anticipation faded to disappointment when he didn’t see her
beside the stream. She said her family wouldn’t be back for some time.
He hadn’t been gone all that long. Was he too late?
He slid from the saddle and looped the sorrel’s reins over a
locust limb, then headed toward the spot by the stream where he had
left her. A spray of tamarix plumes bundled together by a blade of
grass marked the spot where she had sat, but the girl was nowhere in
sight. Buck dropped to a knee and absently stroked the soft blossoms
then placed the nosegay in his shirt pocket. His heart sank, then
nearly skipped a beat at the sound of a soft voice floating across the
meadow behind him.
“I’m over here!”
Buck’s eager steps cut a quick path through the knee high grass.
He found the girl lying on her back, curtained by the tall blades,
staring with wide-eyed wonder at the sky above her. Buck turned his
face in the same direction in search of what oddity held the girl’s
rapt attention, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Batted about by
the four winds, wisps of white cotton drifted aimlessly across a sky of
robin’s egg blue. A monarch butterfly pirouetted on the breeze. It was
a pretty picture, but nothing uncommon.
“It’s so beautiful,” she murmured, her voice barely above a
whisper. “I’ve never seen it like this before.”
Her comment was a bit puzzling, but before he could respond, she
stretched her arm toward him seeking his assistance. Buck readily
reached for her hand to help the girl to her feet. “You haven’t told me
your n . . . ” His breath caught in this throat at the warm pulsing of
her touch. His skin seemed to tingle where their hands joined and his
train of thought melted away.
“I want to see everything!” she exclaimed. A childlike excitement
danced in the girl’s eyes as she released Buck’s hand and began
twirling like a ballerina across a stage of prairie grass and
wildflowers. “It’s so different here!”
No flower went untouched, no insect, leaf or sound unnoticed as
the hours drifted past. She seemed to be enraptured by everything she
saw, taking time to commit every color and scent to memory. Buck had
never known anyone quite like her. She seemed to almost glow with
enthusiasm and even the air around her became alive with her energy and
Buck reclined back against the trunk of a locust on the stream
bank, watching the delicate patterns of sunlight and shadow the lacy
canopy of leaves overhead cast upon the water. “You never said where
your village is,” Buck reminded, drawing the girl’s attention away from
her inspection of the pebble in her hand.
“We do not stay in one place for very long,” she answered and
dangled her hand into the stream reaching for another stone. “We were
traveling from the north when I lost my way.”
Buck nodded in understanding - it was beginning to make sense.
Before the Kiowa came to their home in the Plains, they had dwelled in
the colder northern lands. Many Kiowa yearned for a place where the Sun
cast a longer shadow and wandered to the south, but one band of the
Kiowa people remained in the northern hills in what Buck now knew as
the Dakota territory. The land in the Black Hills was much different
than this flat prairie. If the girl was from this Northern band of
Kiowa, no wonder everything looked new to her.
It had long been the hope of the Southern bands that their
brethren left behind would someday join them in the flatlands.
“My brother has often talked of the bands uniting. It would be
good for the Kiowa to become one people again as it was in the
She smiled softly and answered simply, “Perhaps someday.”
The girl cupped her hands in the stream and brought the water to
her face. “It’s so cold!” she cried and opened her fingers allowing the
cool liquid to filter back into the stream. To Buck’s surprise, she
then quickly pulled off her moccasins and waded into the water
squealing in delight as the current wound around and tickled her knees.
“I thought you said it was cold!” Buck laughed.
“It is wonderful!” she called back. “Come . . . come with me!”
Buck shook his head and settled back into the shade of the tree.
He tossed his hat aside and lifted the thick layer of hair from his
neck to wipe the ribbon of sweat that threatened to trickle down his
back. “No, I don’t think so.”
Buck enjoyed a rejuvenating swim on a hot day as much as anyone
else, but at its deepest, the stream only boasted of water knee deep
and he wasn’t the wading type. Most certainly not. Ike maybe. Ike was
prone to spontaneous play and had often done such things when they were
younger, but not him. He had to remain cautious and watchful -
especially around a young lady. Didn’t he?
“Please!” she called again and bent to splash a wave of water in
his direction. Beads of moisture from the spray dotted her bronze skin
and glittered in the afternoon sun with a beckoning light. The fringe
on the bottom of her dress splayed out across the water like the petals
of a flower giving the girl the appearance of a pristine white water
lily floating on the glassy surface. Buck felt his resistance fading.
The afternoon sun burned bright and the sound of water trickling
over the rocks was enticing. No. He simply wasn’t the sort to play.
Still . . . the rocks on the stream floor could be slippery. She could
fall if he wasn’t there to help her and then what kind of a protector
would he be? Before his rationalization could lose its merit, Buck
pulled off his boots and rolled his pants legs to the knee. His first
step into the stream sent an icy tingle shooting up his legs and he
shivered between the frosty swell wrapping around his ankles and the
fevered air above. His concern may have been for the girl, but it was
he who slipped on a moss covered rock from the surprise of the chilled
waters rolling around his legs and danced an awkward variation of the
two step trying to regain his balance. His misstep brought a peal of
laughter from the opposite side of the stream, but once back on
somewhat solid footing Buck had to admit his performance must have been
an amusing sight and laughed at himself along with her. Once acclimated
to the temperature, Buck decided she was right. It was wonderful. The
gentle current of cool relief from the day’s heat that eddied around
his legs had an almost entrancing affect. Buck couldn’t remember the
last time he had thrilled to the feel of mud oozing up between his toes
and the flutter of tadpoles against his feet. Surely he had at some
point long ago before life became complicated.
Perhaps that was why this girl intrigued him so. Nothing seemed
complicated to her. Everything in life was fresh and new - every moment
a taste to be savored. He hadn’t even looked twice at a girl since
Kathleen had wrapped her deceitful fingers around his heart and twisted
it into a shape that fit her needs. But this girl was different. He
could see it in the genuineness of her smile, in the purity of her
laughter, in the way she could make him laugh at himself. There must be
something wrong with him. How could the sound of a woman’s voice make
his knees go weak? Every glance she cast in his direction softened him
to the point Buck feared he might just dissolve into a puddle right
where he stood and be swept away in the current.
Was this how Kid felt when he looked at Lou? Were his eyes dancing
the same way Emma’s did whenever Sam was near? He was fairly certain a
silly grin was plastered across his face but he didn’t care. He didn’t
really believe in love at first sight. The notion seemed more suited to
fairy tales than every day life. But if this was something less, then
love must be beyond his wildest dreams, because he couldn’t imagine
anything better than this.
The heat of the day burned itself out and surrendered to the
cooler air of evening. Bidding a reluctant farewell, the sun fell to
the other side of the sky with a watercolor flourish of pink and gold
swirled across the horizon.
“The sun is tired and must find its bed,” the girl said and sank
into the grass beside Buck to watch the day slip away. Buck smiled at
her observation and a thin chuckle rose in his throat.
“Did I say something that amused you?” she asked, turning toward
him with a smile that drew him into its warmth.
Buck returned her smile, blindly twirling a stem of grass between
his fingers. “I was just remembering something from when I was a little
boy. My mother used to tell me a story about the sun finding its bed on
the other side of the mountains and going to sleep at the end of the
day. I suppose she thought if I could be convinced that something as
important as the sun went to bed without argument I would too. It
worked for quite a while,” Buck admitted. “But then I grew old enough
to understand it was just a ploy to get me to bed.”
The girl looked at him in guarded surprise. “Do you not believe in
the stories, Running Buck?”
Buck sighed and tossed the blade of grass aside. “I used to. But
not so much any more. Living in the white world has made me question
many things about our beliefs.” Buck shook his head and snickered
remembering Cody and Lou’s opinion of his tale on the bunkhouse porch
the night before. “My friends think the legends are like fairy tales.”
“Make believe stories told for amusement,” Buck explained.
“But you must believe in the stories, Running Buck,” the girl
insisted. She twisted herself around until she was kneeling in front of
him and gathered his hands into hers. “The stories are the threads that
connect the past to the present and the present to the future. It is
who we are. The stories unite the Kiowa as one though we are separated.
You must believe,” she said again with a hint of urgency in her voice.
The slim crescent of a quarter moon rose behind Buck’s shoulder
and drew her gaze. “It is almost dark. My family will be coming for me
“Will you come back?” Buck asked hesitantly, his voice echoing the
lament he heard in her own.
The girl sank bank on her heels and squeezed his hands tighter. “I
do not know if I will be able to return here. My father will be very
watchful of me now that I have lost my way once.”
Her touch sent a shudder pulsing through him and Buck felt himself
falling into the almost magnetic pull of her eyes.
“Don’t go,” he pleaded. Buck brought his hands to her face and
traced her delicate features with his fingertips, memorizing the hollow
of her cheek bones, the bow of her mouth, the curve of her jaw -
praying his first touch wouldn’t be his last.
“I am meant to be with my father. I must . . .”
Buck lost himself in the sound of her voice and tilted her chin
toward him. Dipping his head to meet her, his lips brushed against
hers, catching the words he couldn’t bear to hear. The warmth of her
kiss held a gentle reassurance, her breath a soft flutter of light
against his skin. Drowning in the warmth of her touch, he couldn’t have
pulled away if he tried. Buck wrapped his arms around her waist and
they held each other close, guarded from the ribbon of twilight weaving
its way across the sky by the sentries of the meadow that encircled
Her eyes glistened with unshed tears as she cupped his face in her
hands. “Walk with me to the top of the ridge?” she asked. She smiled
softly at the puzzlement forming on his face and kissed him again
leaving his lips tingling with her touch. “So they will better see me.”
“If you go, how will I ever find you again?”
“I won’t be far,” she promised. “Just look for me. I’ll be right
Watchful of the stationmanager, Kid inched closer to Lou on the
porch step and wrapped his arm around her slim shoulders. A shy smile
turned up the corners of his mouth when she leaned into the embrace.
“Nice night, ain’t it?” he asked of no one in particular. “Anything
interestin’ happen while I was gone?”
“Nope,” Cody answered, adding a sigh that bordered on
melodramatic. “Not ‘less you count loadin’ the supplies and unloadin’
the supplies and sweepin’ out the tack room and shoein’ the new stock
interestin’. Least that’s how me ‘n’ Lou spent the day. Now Buck here
on the other hand,” he added and leaned forward to pat the Kiowa rider
sitting on the step below him on the back. “Buck talked Emma into
lettin’ him play hookey today. Seems he found himself a lady friend.”
“That so,” Kid said. “Anybody we know, Buck?”
When his query went unanswered, Kid asked again, “ Buck, is she
anybody we know?”
Pulled reluctantly from his thoughts, Buck shook his head. “No.
She’s not from around here.”
“She got a name?” Cody questioned.
Buck didn’t really want to talk about the girl. It was his story
to be tucked safely away - to be guarded and treasured - but he knew
William F. Cody altogether too well. He also knew the quickest way to
get Cody to go away was to feed him what he wanted, if only a crumb or
two. Cody would gnaw on the morsel for a while like a dog with a new
bone and then move on once he had gleaned it clean. Buck opened his
mouth to offer a cursory answer, then stopped, his shoulders slumping
dejectedly when he realized he didn’t have one. “She never told me.”
“You tell Emma you gotta take the day off to go stay with some
girl and then you can’t even come up with a name? Buck, ol’ buddy, I
think you been out in the sun too long . . . or maybe you just dreamed
her up?” The blonde rider leaned toward Buck as if to impart a
confidence, grinning slyly. “Next time you want out of your chores for
a day, come to me first. I’ll come up with a better story.”
Straightening, Cody turned to Kid and added, “You got any money on
“A little. Why?”
“’Cause I hear a poker game callin’ and I’m fixin’ to take your
Kid would have preferred to stay where he was. He could spend all
night on the porch steps next to Lou. He’d like to spend eternity on
the porch steps next to Lou. But when she nodded and motioned with her
chin that he should follow Cody into the bunkhouse, he reluctantly
agreed. “All right. I’m in.”
Lou slipped from her seat on the top step to the lower one where
Buck sat, but he didn’t seem to notice her presence until she nudged
his arm with her shoulder. “You’re awful quiet tonight.” Lou smiled at
the thought of Buck being anything but quiet. “More’n usual anyway. You
“It’s pretty isn’t it?” he asked, his gaze trained on the nosegay
of tamarix blossoms in his hand.
Lou leaned into his side to view whatever was holding his
attention. “It’s a weed.”
Buck nodded. Yes, he knew that. “It’s still pretty.”
“Don’t mind Cody. He’s just bein’ Cody,” Lou offered reassuringly.
“I haven’t had a chance to ask you what happened with the girl.”
Buck was silent for a moment. “I stayed with her until her family
came. She had to leave.”
Lou watched as he gently fingered the tamarix plumes, then sighed
and placed the tiny bouquet back in his shirt pocket. “Did you want her
to stay?” she asked quietly.
Buck pondered his response for a long moment. What could he
possible say? Yes, that she was everything he had ever dreamed of. Yes,
that he would have wrapped her in his arms so tightly that their worlds
could never be separated had it been possible. When he answered it was
simply to say, “It wasn’t meant to be, Lou.”
Buck offered a weak smile of thanks. “It’s all right. I met a
wonderful woman and we had a great day . . . but she had to go home.
She didn’t belong here, Lou. I’m fine, really.”
“You never know. She might come back,” Lou offered hopefully.
“I don’t think so.”
The soft ruffle of shuffling cards floated through the open door.
Lou glanced through the bunkhouse doorway to where Cody was flicking
cards across the supper table. “Cody’s dealin’. You want to play?”
Buck shook his head. “Maybe next hand. I want to stay out here a
Lou searched for comforting words, but her friend’s attention
seemed riveted on something she couldn’t discern in the distance.
Buck waited for the door to close behind Lou, then stretched his
long frame out on the porch steps and tipped his head back. The night
sky spread endlessly above him, its starlight casting a soft
illumination over the plains. So beautiful. A pinpoint of light in the
darkness, sparkling like glass beads on a swath of blue velvet. Close .
. . so close he could almost reach out and touch it. Almost . . . but
“I won’t be far,” she had promised. “Just look for me. I’ll be