"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 still.”

“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 steps.

“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 yet.”

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 wishin’.”

“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 laughable.

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 . . . please”.

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 it?

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 and fallen.”

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 embarrassment.

“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 right anyway.

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 painful.

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 all day.”

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 Kiowa tongue.

“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 speak.

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 is pretty.”

“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 every morning?”

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 down.”

The girl flashed a knowing smile. “Yes, it looked like you were enjoying yourself.”

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.

“I fell.”

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 here.”

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 by it.

“That’s my white name,” Buck added. “In the village I am called Running Buck.”

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 Sweetwater.”

“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 hopeful.

“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 protection.”

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 real easy.”

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 one.”

“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 excitement.

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 beginning.”

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.”

“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 soon.”

“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 them.

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 there.”

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 you, Kid?”

“A little. Why?”

“’Cause I hear a poker game callin’ and I’m fixin’ to take your money away.”

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 all right?”

“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.”

“I’m sorry.”

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 little longer.”

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 not quite.

“I won’t be far,” she had promised. “Just look for me. I’ll be right there.”


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