AUTHORS NOTE: Readers are advised this chapter depicts a rape. If you find this subject matter objectionable, please turn back now.

Chapter One

Wyoming Territory, Late Summer 1841

Five Horses was beginning to feel a bit guilty. She should have been gathering berries in the brambles that grew around the lake near the Kiowa village for her family's evening meal, but the heat of the afternoon sun had made the sparkling, cool waters of the lake too inviting. She had not been to this side of the lake before, but the vines close to her home had been picked fairly clean by the women of the village during the summer and she had to walk further to find the sweet fruit. Giving in to temptation, she had slipped out of her buckskin dress and mocassins and slid into the tranquil waters. Floating on her back on the glassy surface, the cool water gently moving across her bare skin, she smiled softly. The gentle sounds of moving water lulled her into a daydream and she drifted, weightlessly, reflecting on what a lucky woman she was.

Life was indeed good for Five Horses and her family. Her husband, White Eagle, was a respected war chief in the village. Although the Kiowa were not currently at war, occasional conflicts arose with the surrounding tribes or the ever increasing presence of the white man. When trouble arose, White Eagle led his people with confidence and pride, always considering the safety of the tribe before acting hastily. Five Horses loved him with all her heart and he returned the love equally. Their marriage held a passion that some Kiowa couples did not understand as often marriages in the village were arranged for convenience or mutual gain for the families involved rather than love. This was not the case with Five Horses and White Eagle. They fell in love at a very young age, too young in the opinion of Five Horses' father. When White Eagle asked him the amount of the bridal fee for his daughter, then named Yellow Bird, her father, in hopes of deterring the young couple, had set her bridal fee at the extraordinarily high fee of five horses. It had taken some time to capture five wild mustangs, but White Eagle had accomplished the task, nearly breaking his neck in the process. When the final horse was delivered to Yellow Bird's father and the marriage was approved, White Eagle changed his young bride's name to Five Horses to remind her of the high price he had paid to make her his wife.

Five Horses and White Eagle had quickly been blessed with a child, a son. A handsome boy possessing the features of his father. They had named him Red Bear after White Eagle's father, a highly honored chief who had been killed in a war with the Cheyenne some years earlier. Red Bear, now thirteen summers old, was growing into a strong young man so much like his father in thought and actions. He would earn his place as a chief in the years ahead and lead his people with wisdom and pride as his father and his grandfather before him.

Their perfect world had been almost shattered a few years after Red Bear's birth. In a battle with an attacking group of Sioux intent on robbing the Kiowa village of their horses, White Eagle had been seriously wounded when he was clubbed in the groin by a Sioux brave. With Five Horses constant care and the help of the tribe's medicine man, Cloud Walker, he had recovered, although Cloud Walker told them it was doubtful that White Eagle could father another child. This pronouncement left the young couple deeply disappointed as they had envisioned a larger family. In time White Eagle and Five Horses were able to resume their relationship as husband and wife. Five Horses continued to pray to the spirits for another child, but as the years went by she gradually gave up hope. If the spirits were to give her only one child then Red Bear was more than enough. Five Horses considered her life perfect. Her family was strong, healthy and happy. What more could a woman want?

The caw of a black crow fussing in a nearby tree awakened Five Horses from her daydreams. The afternoon sun was beginning to fall to the far side of the sky. She needed to return to the village. White Eagle and Red Bear would be returning home soon from their deer hunt and would have fresh meat for their supper and hides to prepare. She turned from her back into the water and with lazy strokes began to swim.

*****

He watched the Indian woman as she swam to shore. She emerged from the water no more than ten yards from where he crouched behind a thick growth of shrubbery at the water's edge. He had come to the lake with the intent of filling his canteen. To find a lone woman bathing in the lake was indeed a pleasant surprise.

The man was a trapper by trade. He had set out from St. Louis several years earlier in hopes of making his fortune quickly by trapping and selling the animal hides at the trading posts situated along the trails. Coats and hats of the wild animals of the west were high fashion in Boston, New York and other eastern cities. But the wealth did not accumulate as quickly as he had hoped. Although the animals were abundant, the task of setting traps, skinning the animals and hauling the pelts to the trading posts was hard work. Too hard for his liking. More often he would purchase cheap whiskey with his profits and trade the liquor with various Indian tribes for their own animal pelts. These furs he would then sell at the trading posts for a much greater price than the cost of the whiskey used as his bargaining tool. It was so easy once they were liquored up. He figured they'd sell their souls - if the savages had souls - for a jug. It wasn't that he disliked the Indians. He really had no feeling for them at all. They were to be used. He felt the same way about the Kiowa beauty standing naked before him.

Five Horses unknowingly stood facing him, droplets of moisture glistening on her brown skin in the sunlight. She was a woman of about thirty years he estimated. She was a small woman but possessed full breasts and the softly rounded hips of one who has carried a child. He watched as she twisted her waist length black hair to remove the water. The woman turned her back to him and bent down to retrieve her clothing. It had been a long time since the man had seen a naked woman. A long time since he'd had one. The man slowly slid his tongue across his lips. So easy. He quietly stepped out from behind the bushes.

*****

Five Horses sensed a presence behind her, picked up her clothing and warily rose to a standing position. At the sound of a twig snapping, her back stiffened and she drew a sharp breath. She stood perfectly still for a moment and then slowly turned around to confront the intruder. What she saw made her gasp in fright. Five Horses had never seen a white man before and if this was what they looked like she never wanted to see another. He was an average sized man with his matted and filthy shoulder length hair tied back with a strand of rawhide. His clothes were caked with dirt, mud and the blood of the animals he had skinned. His face was covered with a growth of dark stubble. Five Horses studied this particularly as she had never seen a man with hair on his face. The stench of his unwashed skin filled the air. The man ran his eyes up and down her body and she clutched her dress against herself to cover her nakedness.

"Ain't you a sight," he said with a wry smile. "You and me gonna have a good time, little missy."

Five Horses did not understand the words he spoke but the meaning of the look in his eyes required no translation. The man took a slow step in her direction and she immediately stepped backward likes an animal retreats from the hunter. As she stepped, Five Horses tripped on a rock jutting from the ground, lost her balance but clumsily steadied herself before she fell. Her heart began to pound in her chest and her breathing became faster. She could feel sweat forming on the palms of her hands, her stomach twisted in a tight knot. Paralyzed by fear, she stared at him. The man, seeing her fear, grinned widely showing his yellowed and tobacco stained teeth.

"Now, we can do this easy, or we can do this hard, but you can be sure, missy, we gonna do this," he teased raising one eyebrow. He took another step towards her.

Five Horses turned and began to run but the man was right behind her. He lunged forward grabbing her ankle, pitching her forward and onto the ground. Twisting her body around she moved to face him. Panic darted through her in a frenzy. With one hand still holding her ankle he began to move his other hand up and down her free leg. His touch triggered something ingrained. Five Horses kicked at the man with her free leg and began to swing her arms wildly in an attempt to free herself from her captor. Her right hand hit something hard on the ground and she realized it was the wooden bowl holding the berries she had picked that afternoon. Grabbing the bowl, she used it now as a weapon and swung it at the man, the berries flying through the air as the bowl made contact with the side of his head. Dazed, he released the grip on her ankle and Five Horses seized the moment. She jumped to her feet and began to run as fast as her trembling legs would carry her, cutting her bare feet on the rocky ground.

Realizing that his prey was escaping, the man ran after her and within a few seconds was upon Five Horses. He threw his body at her and she collapsed to the ground under his weight, nearly striking her head on the trunk of a large tree that had fallen during some past storm. Both of them, winded by the fall, lay gasping for air. Five Horses was pinned to the ground by the weight of the man. She could feel his hot, stale breath on her skin as he lay on top of her, panting. Five Horses jerked her head away in disgust and fought the bile rising in her throat when he pawed at her bare breasts. Raising himself slightly from her, he adjusted his clothing, freeing himself from his trousers. Five Horses summoned all her strength and began to fight against him, pounding his head and shoulders with her fists.

Her efforts proved as useless as a child railing against a bully. The man roughly grabbed her hands, removed the piece of rawhide from his hair and used it to tightly bind her hands together. Jerking her arms over her head, he secured the rawhide to a branch of the fallen tree. Terror found its voice. Five Horses screamed. Her face exploded in a burst of white light as he slapped her into silence. He quickly pulled the dirty bandanna from around his neck and forced it into her mouth.

Five Horses tugged fiercely against the rawhide binding that held her prisoner. She could feel the branch that held her give slightly. She tugged frantically. It bent, but would not let her go. Her stomach soured, sickened by the stench of the rotten bandanna forced down her throat. Five Horses pressed her eyes closed and braced herself for what was to come.

As if her will alone could save her, Five Horses welded her legs closed. The man brought a knee up and forced it into the seam where her legs pressed together, pushing against her like a burrowing animal until he had pried her legs apart. His weight held her fast - exposed and vulnerable. She tried desperately to close her body, to seal it up, make it solid. She could feel him, hot and hard, poking at her, wanting in. Her eyes flew open in pain, her body arching in defense when he ripped her open, grunting like an animal in rut. Panicked protests muffled against the gag in her mouth. The man used every bit of her, clawed at her with filthy hands, writing on top of her until her bare back was scraped raw by the rocky ground. Tears of agony and anger and resignation stung her eyes. Five Horses felt herself slipping, falling away to someplace deep inside herself until she felt and heard nothing.

After he had spent himself, the man stood and tugged his clothing into place. His breath was heavy. He smiled at Five Horses. "Bet you ain't never been done like that b'fore." Five Horses lay still on the ground, her mind numb, her body torn.

The man knelt over Five Horses and pulled the bandanna from her mouth. "I'll be needin' this back now," he told her. "Yes ma'am, I sure do thank you for your time." Awareness began to wake inside Five Horses. The man hovered over her, satisfied and smug. She spat in his face. The smugness was quickly replaced by something darker. The man clenched his fist. Five Horses shrunk away from the flying fist, but he was angry and fast and she was half numb and slow. Blood sprayed in a red mist from her nose. Pain zig-zagged a course through her face like lightning.

The man swiped at the spit on his face with the bandanna and ripped his knife from its sheath. "I'm gonna kill you, you red bitch!" he hissed. He raised the knife to her throat, pressed the blade against her skin, then stopped. "No. You'd be wantin' that 'bout now, wouldn't you? Be more fun to let you live. Let you think 'bout what we done." The man moved the knife away from Five Horses' neck and instead placed the blade against her cheek.

"I'll just leave you somethin' to remember me by." He slowly, purposely, applied pressure to the blade, opening a deep gash on Five Horses' face from her cheek to her chin. "That'll teach you. You remember what we did, bitch. Ev'ry time your man looks at you, he'll remember, too."

He knelt beside her watching the blood begin to flow. Satisfied with his work, the man cut the rawhide binding allowing Five Horses' arms to fall limply at her sides.

Through glazed eyes, Five Horses watched the man rise to his feet and look down at her like a hungry animal over a kill. He began to tug at himself through his trousers and she realized he could take her again easily, she had no fight left. He nudged her leg with a dirty boot, testing for response. There was none. She lay motionless on the ground like a discarded doll.

"Nope, wouldn't be much in it," he muttered to himself and walked away from Five Horses, disappearing into the trees.

Five Horses tried to move. Her body ached with violation and pain throbbed in her face like a living thing, beating on its own. She timidly raised a hand to her cheek, half afraid of what she would find. She lowered her hand, her eyes fixed on the blood. The nesting crow cackled sharply and she sat up quickly, fearful eyes darting around the clearing. Breathing in short gasps, her muscles tensed. The scene was benign, though. An overturned wooden bowl and a scattering of berries the only evidence marring the picture.

Blood trickled from between her legs. Her thighs were sticky with him. Dirty. Five Horses drew a quivering breath and began to shake. His touch, his feel, the stench covered her. Too weak to stand, she crawled the distance to the lake. The water that had given her so much pleasure now served as a shield to her shame. Reaching down to the lake bottom, Five Horses grabbed a handful of sand and began to rub her arms. Slowly at first she scrubbed her skin with the sand, but it would not clean her. In a frenzy of desperation, she scrubbed harder and harder, rubbing her body raw with the sand. In despair she sank to her knees in the water, her head bowed in shame. How had she allowed this to happen?

She found her mocassins and buckskin dress near the shrubby undergrowth where she had left them a lifetime ago. As quickly as her aching body allowed, she dropped the dress over her head and shoulders to cover herself. Her legs weakening, Five Horses sank to the ground.

She sat quietly for a moment. What now? How could she tell her husband what the man had done? Would White Eagle ever want to touch her again? Would he ever want her again now that she was dirty? She could hear the whispers of the others in the village. What would Red Bear think of his mother now?

Thoughts of what would and wouldn't be swirled without reason and like floodwaters through a weakened dam, her tears began to flow. Five Horses began to cry uncontrollably as body wracking sobs overtook her. The weight too heavy, she lay down on her side, huddled against the bushy undergrowth. She drew her knees up tightly against her chest, making herself small and invisible to the world. Five Horses lay on the rocky ground and wept, knowing nothing would ever be perfect again.

Chapter 2

"Five Horses what is wrong?" asked a worried White Eagle as he knelt beside his wife. He and Red Bear had returned from their hunt later than anticipated and expected to find Five Horses waiting for them. Growing concerned as more time passed, he questioned others in the Kiowa village but no one knew her whereabouts. White Eagle's sister-in-law, Black Water Woman, remembered that Five Horses had mentioned she intended to pick berries that afternoon. White Eagle had easily found the tracks that led him to his wife.

Still huddled on the ground, not quite asleep but not fully awake, Five Horses was startled into wakefulness by his voice and the touch of his hand as he brushed her hair away from her face. She sat up quickly and pushed herself back. Five Horses blinked the blur away. Realizing the figure before her was her husband and not the white man, she leaned forward into his embrace, collapsing into the safety of his arms.

White Eagle saw her mangled face and coming bruises and instinctively knew. "Who did this to you, Five Horses?" he softly asked.

Barely trusting herself to speak the words Five Horses whispered to her husband, "A white man."

Fury began to build in White Eagle at the thought of another man, a white man, touching his wife. Releasing their embrace he looked at her swollen face, touched the dried blood from the knife wound. "Where is he?" he asked, the anger in his voice barely controlled.

"I do not know. He is gone," replied Five Horses, her voice quivering as tears began to fall anew. "I am sorry, my husband. I am so ashamed."

White Eagle looked intently into the tear filled eyes of his wife. His hands cupped her face. "You have no need to be ashamed, Five Horses. It is the man who has shame".

Delaying his desire to follow the tracks of the white man and exact a swift justice, White Eagle picked up his fragile wife and carried her to his horse. He lifted her carefully across the horse's back, then mounted behind her. Wrapping his arms around her protectively, White Eagle took his wife home, the late summer moon lighting their way.

*****

Five Horses closed her eyes and listened to the chant of Cloud Walker. The pungent odor of burning herbs filled the teepee of White Eagle and Five Horses as the old, white haired medicine man implored the spirits to heal the woman's body and cleanse her spirit.

Black Water Woman helped Cloud Walker clean the wound on Five Horses' face and applied a salve of herbs to the bruises and abrasions. Fussing, too much fussing. Five Horses simply wanted them to leave her alone.

Holding his wife gently, her back resting against his chest, White Eagle patiently waited for Five Horses to speak. Black Water Woman had taken Red Bear to her own family's teepee for the night, allowing his parents the opportunity to speak privately.

Five Horses slowly began to relax in the security of her husband's arms. The embers of their fire glowed a bright orange in the darkness of their home. The night air retained the heat of the day and the fire was not needed for warmth, but Five Horses did not trust the dark.

She drew a deep breath, finally breaking the silence and began to tell White Eagle of her ordeal. She described the man as well as she could but the memories were muddled and pained her. White Eagle remained quiet, but his back stiffened as Five Horses told him how the man had bound her hands and forced the gag in her mouth. He reached for her bruised hands, tenderly tracing the marks made by the rawhide with his fingertips.

Five Horses paused remembering how the man had taken her, remembering the pain and humiliation. The helplessness.

When her story was finished, Five Horses turned to look at her husband. Her voice quivered with emotion when she spoke. "I am sorry that I have brought shame to our family, White Eagle. I will hide myself away so you won't be embarrassed," she offered, casting her eyes downward and bowing her head.

White Eagle shook his head "no" but before he could speak, Five Horses continued. "I want you to take another wife. Gray Owl is a widow now. She would make a fine…" White Eagle gently raised Five Horse's downcast head and placed his finger over her lips to quiet her.

"Why do you speak these things? I love you, Five Horses. I will always love you. You are my life," he said. "I want no other woman, only you. Listen to me. You have no reason to be ashamed. You did nothing wrong. I will hear no more of such talk."

White Eagle's words of reassurance began to take hold as they talked throughout the dark hours. Five Horses began to believe that she was not responsible for what happened to her. She had done nothing wrong. True, she had ventured too far by herself from the safety of the village, but that did not give the man the right to touch her.

Five Horses raised her hand to brush away a stray tear from her cheek. She touched the wound on her face and realized it would leave a permanent reminder of her attacker. Looking deeply into her husband's eyes she questioned, "When you look at me you will see…"

"The face of a beautiful, strong woman," he finished her sentence taking her hand in his.

They were quiet for a time then, the soft sounds of the deep night rising up now and again in a chorus of comfort. Exhausted, Five Horses allowed herself to rest, cradled in her husband's arms. Protected. When he spoke it was a whisper, a promise brushed along her ear.

"I will find the man who did these things and bring him here, Five Horses. You will watch him die."

*****

White Eagle emerged from their teepee into the quiet of the slumbering Kiowa village. Along the eastern horizon the night and the morning waged their daily struggle for the sky. Morning always won out, but some days the night was reluctant to let go. Night gave up easily though perhaps knowing there was work to be done in the light. A wrong to be righted. White Eagle sighed heavily as light poured across the sky. He was worried about his wife. In time her body would heal but would the memories ever fade? His thoughts centered on another concern that they had not yet discussed. Had the white man's seed been planted in his wife's womb? White Eagle knew there were ways to rid a woman of an unwanted child. He would discuss this with Cloud Walker after the white man had been punished.

White Eagle turned at the sound of approaching footsteps to see his brother, Stone Eyes and nephew, Two Elks, emerging from the trees, leading three Indian ponies.

Two Elks was strong and handsome. Sixteen summers old. He had spent a good deal of time with his aunt, Five Horses, several years prior after his mother, Black Water Woman, grew ill after a difficult childbirth and was unable to care for her family. Two Elks was very fond of Five Horses. White Eagle noted his nephew looked different somehow. He stood a bit straighter than he had just the day before. A quiet resolve had settled on the young man's face. He looked older. Heartache could do that to you. White Eagle supposed he looked older, too.

Black Water Woman approached the three men, offering small bowls of red and white paint. Silently they applied the dye to their faces. White for honor. Red for blood. Revenge is a color.

Red Bear crawled through the opening of his uncle's teepee to stand beside his father, wiping bits of sleep from his eyes. "I should go with you, Father."

"No," White Eagle answered shaking his head. Placing his hands upon the boy's shoulders, he spoke softly to his son. "Your mother sleeps now. She will need someone with her when she wakes. Take care of her for me, Red Bear, until I return."

Red Bear nodded in understanding. "Be careful, Father. The white man is evil."

"Let us go, brother," prompted Stone Eyes as he and Two Elks effortlessly mounted their ponies. "He will be easy to find. White men leave many tracks."

White Eagle nodded in agreement as he mounted his horse in one swift, fluid motion. "Yes. Tracking the white man is no more difficult than tracking a child." The anger he had held at bay throughout the night now burned like hot embers in his heart. "And when we find him, I will tear open his chest and rip out his heart while it still beats."

*****

Five Horses awakened with her body stiff and sore, the events of the previous day creeping back into her thoughts. She stood in the center of her home, her arms defensively folded across her chest, her hands moving nervously up and down her arms. She had paced in circles until the dirt floor of her teepee showed a well worn path. "No," she announced, half startled by her own voice.

Drawing herself to full stature, Five Horses squared her shoulders and stepped through the parted flap of the teepee into the bustling Kiowa village. The women of the village were busy with the responsibilities of their households. Some tended the large cooking pots while others wove reed baskets or worked on animal hides. As they began to notice Five Horses' presence the women paused in their work to cast a glance in her direction. Some looked at her with sympathetic eyes while others studied her and then quickly looked away once she noticed their staring.

Five Horses found Red Bear working on the hide of the deer his father had killed the day before. She half-heartedly began to help her son. Fragments of conversation began to float across the Kiowa village.

". . . should have known better. . . "
". . . shouldn't have been there . . . "
". . . asking for trouble. . . "

Red Bear heard them, too and taking his father's instructions quite seriously, moved to his mother's side, guarding. Five Horses smiled softly at her son. He was becoming a young man, no longer her little boy. Her thoughts drifted as images of Red Bear as a young child danced through her memory. Memories of happier times.

White Eagle had been gone only a short time, but she longed for his return. Five Horses knew he would return with the man and although she wanted him to be punished, the thought of seeing him again sent chills up her spine. More than anything, she just wanted her family around her and safe. White Eagle had promised that there would be happy times again. Watching Red Bear growing into a man before her eyes, she almost believed him.

*****

Red Bear saw the three horses approaching the village as night began to fall and breathed a sigh of relief that his father was returning. As they drew closer, he began walking to the edge of the village to meet White Eagle, but quickened his pace to a trot and then a full out run as he realized something was not right.

Stone Eyes, his back hunched forward and his head held low, led the two other horses carrying the bodies of White Eagle and Two Elks. Red Bear's cry of grief carried across the valley on the evening breeze, alerting the village of the tragedy.

*****

The three men had easily found the tracks of the white man and followed them for the better part of the day to a large grove of trees growing in an area of rolling hills. A river cut its way through the hills on the far side of the grove.

White Eagle dismounted outside the trees and followed the tracks on foot until he saw the man working over the carcass of a dead raccoon. The white man, whistling a tune, was oblivious to the Kiowa war chief watching him from no more than shouting distance.

"Ignorant white man," White Eagle thought to himself as he returned to Stone Eyes and Two Elks.

It would have been easy to drop him where he stood, but true vengeance, revenge that satisfies, was a planned thing. They were to converge upon the man from the three open directions of the grove, forcing him toward the river. With war cries filling the air and three painted Kiowa warriors bearing down upon him, the man would understand how it felt to fear for your life. Would know true terror. Once captured, he would be dragged back to the village and be put to the death he deserved.

White Eagle and Two Elks kicked their horses into a gallop to take their positions on the far side of the trees. With emotion rather than good judgment directing his actions, White Eagle, with his nephew close behind, charged over the crest of a hill into the direct view of a small hunting party of young Lakota Sioux. Mistaking the aggression of the approaching Kiowa for hostility toward them, the Lakota opened fire. It was over in a moment.

The erring Lakota scattered just as quickly, leaving the bodies of the fallen warriors in the tall prairie grass. Alerted by the shots, Stone Eyes abandoned pursuit of the white man to discover the dead bodies of his brother and son. His own grief heavier than the need to avenge the attack of his brother's wife, Stone Eyes began the slow ride home, the fate of the white man all but forgotten.

*****

Five Horses ran toward the sound of her son's cry. Disbelief gripped her heart as she saw the bodies of White Eagle and Two Elks lifted from the horses and placed on the ground.

"NO!" she screamed, and fell to her knees beside the blood covered body of her husband. Crying out to the spirits she pleaded, "Why have you taken him from me!"

But there was another victim. Another grief just as great. Black Water Woman turned from Two Elks' limp body to face Five Horses. "This is because of you!" she cried.

Red Bear moved close to his mother and knelt beside her, guarding. His eyes were transfixed on the dark red stain of his father's blood. Five Horses desperately reached for him, clutching him close to her with one arm, cradling the lifeless body of White Eagle in the other. Red Bear shifted his eyes to his mother's grief stricken face and wrapped his arms tightly around her, the family rocking in the rhythm of grief. There was nothing else then but the hum of the coming night and the sound of his mother's heart breaking.

Chapter 3

A few months after White Eagle's death Five Horses began to feel differently. Her breasts became tender to the touch and a sickness followed her throughout the day. It soon became evident that Five Horses was carrying a child.

Because she had been raped, among the village, the common thought was that the white man had fathered her child. Many of the women in the village urged her to drink the herbs that would cause her pains to come early or to allow them to prod into her womb and abuse her expanding belly. These remedies often resulted in the injury or occasional death of the mother, as well as the baby, but the women considered it a risk worth taking compared to giving birth to a white child.

Five Horses flatly refused to listen to them. Grief sought out all possibilities. She contended that the spirits had finally answered her prayers and given her White Eagle's baby. The spirits would not be so cruel as to take her beloved husband without leaving her a part of him. Why would she want to hurt White Eagle's child?

The Kiowa knew that White Eagle and Five Horses had not been able to produce another child in the thirteen years since Red Bear's birth, but the spirits had their own way and could not be predicted. Perhaps it was the child of White Eagle. Time would tell.

*****

The winter winds brought biting cold, the depth of accumulating snow greater than most of the Kiowa had ever seen. Some of the oldest in the village were unable to bear the grueling conditions and died during the months of deep winter. The most superstitious of the tribe blamed the white child growing inside Five Horses. It seemed the larger the child grew, the worse the winter became. Although yet unborn, the white child was bringing death and despair to the their village. In their minds, the days of the Kiowa were numbered.

Red Bear, now the man of the household, protected and provided for his mother as best a thirteen year old boy could. He and his father had hunted throughout the plentiful summer months, drying the deer and buffalo meat for the lean winter ahead. Firewood was not difficult to find if the weather permitted venturing outside for any length of time but the men of the village insisted on offering some assistance to the boy. He and his mother were the family of their fallen war chief and still commanded respect.

The long, dark months of winter were difficult for Five Horses. She missed her husband deeply. Her days were spent wrapped in buffalo robes within the warm confines of her teepee, her mind occupied with thoughts of White Eagle and plans for his child growing inside her. But each night her sleep was disrupted by visions of the white man standing over her, laughing wildly as she held White Eagle's dead body in her arms.

In time, the winter winds shifted direction, bringing warmer air as the dark, miserable winter finally moved on. The prairie grass held underground for so many months by the impenetrable layer of snow crept back into the open. The wild quince announced the return of spring in a vibrant burst of scarlet. The Kiowa celebrated the return of the season of life.

Changes had come to Red Bear in the spring, also. His voice began to deepen and the muscles in his chest and arms became more defined. His facial features lost the roundness of childhood and became more angular. Five Horses enjoyed watching the young maidens of the village as they cast flirtatious looks in his direction, hiding their giggles as he walked past them. The fact that Red Bear was totally oblivious of the attention only made the situation more amusing.

Red Bear had grown so tall throughout the winter months that his buckskin trousers were embarrassingly short. He had taken to wearing his father's clothing, although still much too large for him. Five Horses altered the clothing for a better fit, brushing the tears from her eyes as she sewed. She was pleased to relieve Red Bear of his embarrassment, but it only served as another reminder that White Eagle was not coming home.

As her time drew near, the weight of her womb caused her to tire easily. Five Horses spent most of her day in the seclusion of her home while Red Bear cared for her. She considered herself very lucky to have such a son. White Eagle would be proud. As if wanting to be noticed, too, the little being inside her twisted, turned and kicked. Wrapping her arms around her protruding middle, cradling the child inside, she whispered, "Soon, little one . . . soon."

*****

Red Bear sat outside the opening of the teepee, nervously tearing blades of grass into tiny pieces, frightened by his mother's muffled cries of pain. He had spent the earlier hours of the day with her but as Five Horses' labor intensified he was sent outside. Red Bear knew little about such things, but he didn't think it should take this long. Darkness was falling on the village and after hours of pain the baby still wasn't here. Other women in the village had died in childbirth. It scared him to think that could happen to his mother, also. Already a fatherless child, what would happen to him if she died?

*****

Five Horses clenched her teeth to hold back her cries. The pains in her belly would stop periodically, but the stabbing in her lower back would not subside. She had endured hours of hard labor and still the baby would not be born. Bathed in sweat, panting hard and fast, Five Horses began to feel lightheaded. Red Bear's birth had not taken this long. Exhausted, she lay back against a mound of buffalo robes to quiet her head and rest. She was scared. But what else was a woman in the throes of childbirth to do but endure? What cruelty of creation made a woman so helpless in her own body, swept along this journey to new life on nature's whim?

Although their friendship had been shattered by the deaths of White Eagle and Two Elks, Black Water Woman offered her help to Five Horses. She was knowledgeable in childbirth and had assisted in the delivery of many children in the village. They had been close once. After a moment of hesitation, fearing for her baby's life as well as her own, Five Horses accepted her help.

After a brief examination, Black Water Woman determined that Five Horses' body was ready to deliver her child, the baby simply wouldn't come. Applying pressure with her hands to Five Horses' swollen belly, she attempted to move the child to a more favorable position, but cries of agony from Five Horses were the only result.

Weak and exhausted after another hour trying to push her baby into the world, Five Horses felt as if she could do no more. Tears of frustration and fear filled her eyes as her back arched in pain. "I can't!" she cried, her voice shaking.

"Push!" commanded Black Water Woman. "Again!"

Grasping her knees to hold herself forward, she bore down with what little strength was left in her body. Five Horses finally delivered her child into Black Water Woman's waiting arms and fell back against the buffalo robes too exhausted to move or even speak. She readied herself for death for surely, she thought, she must be ripped to pieces.

After separating the baby from his mother, Black Water Woman wrapped the limp infant, seemingly as exhausted as Five Horses from his backwards birth, in a piece of soft deer skin. She cleaned out his nose and mouth and ran her hands over the small body until a weak cry announced his arrival.

Hearing the cry, thoughts of her demise vanished.

"Let me see my baby."

Black Water Woman acted as if she had not heard and began to examine the infant with a critical eye.

Again Five Horses asked, extending her arms to Black Water Woman. "Let me see my baby."

Black Water Woman went on about her business. She held the child before her in the firelight. Her expression turned to stone. The child's skin was dark, but considerably lighter than a child of full Kiowa blood would be. His hair, although there was a good deal of it, was brown not black.

"This is not the son of White Eagle. This child is white," Black Water Woman proclaimed. "He will bring the white man's death and disease to our people."

She rose to her feet with the small bundle in her arms. Black Water Woman turned to Five Horses. "This child cannot live."

Her tired mind began to comprehend and Five Horses realized Black Water Woman's intentions. As her sister-in-law walked toward the opening of the teepee, Five Horses cried out once again, "Give me my baby!"

Alerted by his mother's cry, Red Bear jumped to his feet and quickly scrambled through the opening, abruptly coming face to face with Black Water Woman. Red Bear looked from his aunt to the outstretched arms of his mother. Unaware of Black Water Woman's intent, but understanding that his mother was deeply distressed, Red Bear looked directly into the woman's hard eyes and holding out his arms, demanded the infant from her. Black Water Woman hesitated only a moment before handing the child to the future chief and quickly left the family.

Red Bear carried the small bundle to his mother, then took his place across from her on the buffalo robes that served as his bed. He watched Five Horses intently as she looked upon her child for the first time.

Five Horses also recognized that the coloring of this baby was not true to a full Kiowa child. Disappointment dropped into her heart as she realized this was not the child of White Eagle. The spirits had not answered her prayers. The infant in her arms was the son of the man who attacked her. Pictures of that horrible afternoon by the lake and all that had come after slid through her memory. Fighting tears, Five Horses turned away from the whimpering child.

After a moment, she dared to look at the child of the white man again. As she gazed at the helpless little being in her arms, something soft landed on her heart. Looking into the child's dark unfocusing eyes, she felt as if she could see to his very soul and it was pure.

Slowly Five Horses began to understand that this baby was as much a victim of the white man as she was. It was not his fault.

Without doubt, he was the white man's child, but he was, also, her child. She had carried him inside her, under her heart. She had felt his movements as he grew. Feeling the pain of his birth, she had given him life. Five Horses' tears of disappointment turned to tears of joy. The near magical bond between mother and child was sealed in a moment. She held the infant against her heart and placed a kiss on his fuzzy head.

"You are Running Buck," she whispered.

Red Bear watched the changes in Five Horses with fascination. This baby made his mother smile again. If she could love this child of a white man, so could he.

Five Horses untied the lacing at the shoulder of her dress and held her child against her skin. His flesh did not match hers, but the difference didn't matter. She brushed her finger softly against his face and the baby instinctively opened his mouth and turned toward her.

Content, Five Horses leaned back against the buffalo robes. For the first time in a long time, she slept dreamlessly, her newborn son nursing at her breast.

*****

Five Horses awakened with a feeling of emptiness in her arms. Snapping fully awake she realized she was not holding her baby. She cast a quick glance at the floor of the teepee around her. Had she dropped him? Perhaps Red Bear had moved him from her arms. She looked at Red Bear sleeping soundly on his buffalo robes. Running Buck was not with him. Quickly jumping to her feet, panic building, she searched the teepee for her child. Running Buck was gone.

Five Horses bolted through the opening of her teepee into the early morning mist. She quickly scanned the wide sweep of the village. Her eyes opened wide with terror as she saw Black Water Woman standing knee deep in the water of the lake, a small bundle in her hands. Five Horses ran across the village and plunged through the water as Black Water Woman leaned forward, ready to submerge the baby.

"NO!" screamed Five Horses as she reached out to grab the small body of Running Buck. "Give him to me!"

Black Water Woman was determined in her mission to kill the child and refused to loosen her hold on the screaming infant. Awakened by the unnatural commotion, curious villagers began to gather at the water to watch the tug-of-war between the two women - one intent on ending the child's life, the other intent on saving it. Running Buck continued to scream as each woman tried to pry him from the other's hands.

Through the tumult of splashing water and battling women a strong voice shouted. "End this!"

At her husband's command, Black Water Woman released her hold on Running Buck and stood seething with anger in the water. Not expecting the sudden release, Five Horses fell backwards into the lake, clutching Running Buck protectively to her chest. Too stunned to move, Five Horses sat on the lake's bottom trying desperately to catch her breath and calm the cries of her shivering son. She stared at Black Water Woman incredulously. The depth of the woman's hate was too great to understand.

Black Water Woman cried out in rage at Five Horses. "Two Elks is dead because of you and your bastard white child!"

"He is my son! I will not let you hurt him!"

The Kiowa listened to Five Horses in disbelief. Had she claimed the white man's child? Had the woman lost her mind?

A howl of anguish rose from the other woman. A mother's grief is constant. It lived in Black Water Woman. She began to sob uncontrollably and Stone Eyes stepped into the cold lake water to lead his wife away. He made no comment. A father's pain is private.

Five Horses studied the faces staring down on her, searching for a sign of support. But all she saw was indifference. Her fate and the fate of her son was sealed as the Kiowa turned their backs and walked away from Five Horses and her half white son.

Chapter 4

Five Horses' life continued its spiral of change after the birth of Running Buck. As the wife of White Eagle she held a position of respect and authority in the village, retaining it even after his death. By keeping Running Buck, she had gone against the Kiowa's long established code of conduct and her position in Kiowa society changed.

Friends once close to her now kept their distance, including her in their conversations rarely and never in their plans. Five Horses did not understand how a small child could have so much influence. She looked at her son and saw a beautiful innocent child. The Kiowa saw the same child as an enemy capable of destroying their culture. The isolation was hard to accept, but in the choice between appeasing her people or loving her son, Five Horses gladly chose the latter.

It would have been common practice, after a suitable period of mourning, for the elders of the village to arrange a marriage for Five Horses. Because of her white child, none of the braves in the village would have her. That was fine with her. Life would have been easier for Five Horses and her sons if she had a new husband to provide for them, but she did not wish to remarry. She would not wed out of necessity and knew she could never love another man. White Eagle held her heart and always would, in this world as well as the next.

Red Bear, forced prematurely into manhood by the death of his father, quickly became a skilled hunter supplying his family with deer meat and hides. Five Horses, with Running Buck cradled on her back, gathered herbs, fruit and nuts from the land around the village, always mindful of venturing too far by herself. At first she was afraid to gather food alone, remembering earlier tragic consequences, but she refused to let the past control her. Her children needed her to be strong and strong she would be.

With Red Bear holding his small hands, Running Buck learned to walk, then, living up to his name, began to run. Five Horses kept a watchful eye as Running Buck toddled through the village. The little boy could not understand the animosity in the eyes of those watching him, but his mother did.

Black Water Woman no longer appeared to be a threat to Running Buck's safety. Her anger seemed to have eaten away at her mind and she spent each day in her own world, talking to people who weren't there. Five Horses felt pity for her now. Her actions had been driven by the grief of losing a child and grief was a powerful thing.

As Running Buck grew older it became more difficult to keep constant watch of his whereabouts. Five Horses worried there were others waiting for the opportunity to rid the village of their threat. Red Bear thought his mother was over protective by insisting Running Buck never be out of their sight, but he complied with her wishes and allowed his little brother to tag along after him. Running Buck adored his older brother and soon became his shadow, following Red Bear wherever and whenever possible. Though the age difference was great, Red Bear began to actually enjoy the youngster's company. He had often wished for a brother and now seemed to be making up for lost time. Together they would ride for hours across the open prairie on Red Bear's horse. With his brother's arms protectively wrapped around him, Running Buck sat astride the animal, smiling broadly as his outstretched arms tried to capture the wind as they raced through the tall grass, their laughter echoing across the prairie.

There were times that Running Buck could not accompany Red Bear and he would try to play with the other children of his age in the village. The children, still young enough to have not learned the prejudice of their parents, were more than willing to play. But as soon as their mothers saw their companion, the children were quickly led away leaving a bewildered Running Buck wondering why his playmates had left. The boy would return to his teepee, his head bowed in disappointment, to wait his brother's return. At the first sight of his hero, Running Buck would run across the village and throw himself into his brother's arms. All disappointment disappeared as Red Bear scooped him up and tossed him high into the air.

Five Horses sat across from her sons in their teepee watching Running Buck's dark eyes shine with adoration as he listened to Red Bear tell stories of the deer and buffalo hunts of the summer. As her sons talked, Five Horses' mind began to wander. After almost six years she stilled missed White Eagle terribly, but the memory of his death wasn't as painful now. They had shared a great love in their short time together and Five Horses found comfort in that. Her life had not turned out at all as she expected and she wondered what her life would have been had she not wandered to the far side of the lake that afternoon years before. White Eagle would not have sought revenge against the white man and would be here with her. But Running Buck would not. She loved them both deeply. It wasn't fair to be allowed only one or the other in her life.

An unwanted tear slipped from her eye, but Five Horses refused to dwell on things that could not be changed. The sound of laughter bringing her back to the present, Five Horses watched her sons as the story telling turned into a mock battle. Red Bear always let his little brother win, but retaliated by tickling Running Buck until the boy squealed with laughter. Five Horses smiled at her son, enjoying the sound, for she knew his laughter would not come as easily in the years ahead.

*****

Six Years Later

"Let me past, Raven Wing," Running Buck demanded of the boy blocking his path.

The three older boys who stopped Running Buck began to circle slowly around him, blocking him. Running Buck had been gathering firewood for his mother and was on his way back to their teepee when the boys decided to have some fun at his expense. This was nothing new. While most of the tribe tended to keep their distance from him, these three delighted in doing everything possible to make Running Buck's life a misery. As children of the highest class in Kiowa society, they felt it their right to degrade those of lesser classes. Running Buck, as a half-breed, held the lowest class possible and to the other boys was fair game.

"I said let me past!" demanded Running Buck again.

"Did you say something, White Face?" asked Raven Wing tilting his head to the side inquisitively. Clearly the leader of the three, he continued. "I think the white boy said something to us my friends."

Dark Feather and Gray Wolf chuckled at their companion's comments and continued to circle around a fuming Running Buck. He knew his anger would have no effect on the older three. The confrontations were always the same, as if scripted by something unfair. The boys would taunt him mercilessly and then practice their fighting skills on him, leaving him with a bloody nose or blackened eye. Once, his finger had even been broken when Dark Feather stomped on his hand as he had tried to push himself off the ground.

Red Bear, as a dutiful older brother, had taught Running Buck to defend himself. Even at a young age the boy was skillful and could probably have held his own with any one of the three older boys, but they never came at him only one at a time.

"You do not have the right to speak to us, half-breed," spat Raven Wing. "Get on your knees and apologize."

A glance to either side confirmed there was no escape from his three tormentors. Running Buck held his head high, already knowing the outcome of the fight, but refusing to be defeated easily. He squared his shoulders.

"Get your white eyes off me, White Face!" demanded the older boy as the three began to close in.

"I look where I want," replied Running Buck, his eyes never straying from Raven Wing. His heart was pounding inside his chest but Running Buck knew he could not show fear. That would have been their prize.

His eyes squinting with the intensity of learned hate, Raven Wing leaned forward into Running Buck's face. "You do not speak to me! You do not look at me! You do not have the right to walk on the same ground as me! You are nothing! You were a mistake, White Face!"

Running Buck lifted his head a degree higher. He had memorized their catalog of insults by now, but it still hurt. He knew from experience their stream of bias would flow a while longer, then they would beat him and leave him bleeding in the dirt while they went back to their carefree lives of privilege.

Gray Wolf, not wanting to be outdone by his friends, added to the attack. "White Face, I don't think your mother was raped. I think she laid down and gave it to the white man!"

This was new. Running Buck's head snapped around to face Gray Wolf, a sudden fury erupting. Insulting him was one thing, but to say such a thing about his mother was quite another. He dropped the load of firewood in his arms and lunged forward at the older boy, knocking Gray Wolf backwards. Landing on top of him, Running Buck began to avenge the attack on his mother's dignity with well placed blows to Gray Wolf's head and chest. His sudden outburst surprised the older boys. This was not scripted. Their momentary lapse allowed Running Buck to vent his anger on Gray Wolf's nose before he was pulled off by the other two. Raven Wing grabbed Running Buck's wildly swinging arms and pulled them behind his back while the boy struggled to break free.

Gray Wolf rose to his feet, wiping the blood from his nose. "You should not have done that, White Face," he said, his voice low.

As if instructed by an unheard signal, the three older boys converged upon Running Buck at once, their fists pummeling his face and chest. Running Buck tried to stay on his feet, but the onslaught was too much and he dropped to his knees in the midst of his attackers. As easy victory at hand, the three dropped back. Only Dark Feather remained close, holding Running Buck's arms behind his back.

Running Buck held his head low, his eyes downcast in humiliation, blood beginning to pour freely from his nose and mouth. "Some day," he promised himself. "Some day I will win."

"Apologize to us you half breed, white faced bastard! Apologize for being born!" demanded Raven Wing.

Running Buck raised his head slowly, deliberately, blood streaming down his face. He calmly replied, "No."

Infuriated, Raven Wing abruptly brought his knee up under the boy's chin, the force of the blow sharply snapping his head backward. In an instant, the three bullies were on him again, pinning Running Buck to the ground under their weight.

"My father said that whites have short hair," Raven Wing taunted. "I think White Face should have short hair."

Dark Feather and Gray Wolf nodded heads in agreement, laughing at the novelty.

Running Buck struggled with all his might to free himself but knew it was no use. Raven Wing sat astride his back while Gray Wolf and Dark Feather held his arms and legs tightly against the ground. Raven Wing grabbed the hunting knife from the sheath on Gray Wolf's belt, twisted Running Buck's long hair into a tight coil and began to hack into the dark mass wound together at the base of his neck.

When the act was finished the three jumped to their feet, Raven Wing proudly holding up the bundle of hair for his friends to see. Together they danced victoriously around a degraded Running Buck, howling war cries, showing off the hair as if it was a scalp taken in battle.

Running Buck had endured countless attacks of cruelty from these three as well as others in the village, but nothing had assaulted his dignity this badly. The Kiowa took extreme pride in their hair. To have his cut off in such a way was the ultimate form of degradation. Running Buck remained motionless on the ground, his eyes closed tightly, trying to will the attackers away. Satisfied with their victory, the three boys turned to leave. Gray Wolf stopped long enough to place his foot on Running Buck's face and drive it further into the ground, mixing dirt with blood.

"Remember this, White Face," he said. "Next time we take your scalp, too."

*****

Five Horses waited for Running Buck to bring the firewood and knew when he did not return promptly something was wrong. Running Buck was an obedient boy and would not keep her waiting. There had been trouble. Again. The scattered firewood and signs of a scuffle confirmed her suspicions.

She knew where to find him. As many times before, he had retreated to a secluded area amidst a grove of trees not far from the village. A small clearing was hidden behind a dense growth of trees and brush. Here Running Buck would go to nurse his wounds and try to fit back together the pieces of his pride.

Five Horses entered the clearing and found her bruised and battered son leaning against the gnarled trunk of a cedar tree, his face buried in his hands. He looked up at his mother, wiping an unwanted tear from his eye. Kiowa warriors did not cry. But then Kiowa warriors had long hair.

Five Horses' heart broke for her son as he raised his head and she saw the length of his hair. Sighing heavily, she sank to the damp ground before her son and pulled him to her, gently caressing his shorn head.

Running Buck allowed his mother to comfort him as he leaned his forehead against her shoulder. "I hate them!" he began. "I hate all of them! I do nothing to them and still they treat me like this! Animals are treated better than this! I try to be one of them! All I have ever wanted was to be Kiowa!"

Five Horses knew the pain in her son's heart. He did try hard. There were many rules in Kiowa life and Running Buck was careful to obey them. He rose early in the morning so the sun would not think he was a lazy child. He spoke with respect to his mother and would show the same respect to other adults in the village if he ever got the chance. He learned the legends of the Kiowa and honored the spirits, praying to them every day. Running Buck was a model Kiowa child in every way but his skin color.

Running Buck pulled back from his mother. "They will never accept me. It will always be this way," he added, the anger in his voice now replaced with sadness. "I asked Red Bear to make them stop, but he does not believe me when I tell him these things."

"I know. Red Bear wants you to be accepted so he tells himself it is so. He sees with his heart and not his eyes," said Five Horses. Her hand reached out to gently touch Running Buck's swelling face.

"Will he not see this?" asked Running Buck, grabbing at what was left of his hair.

"Do not be angry with your brother, Running Buck. He is a good man. He loves you very much and is blinded by that love. He will still not believe."

"Mother, I am so tired of living this way. I have done nothing wrong. Why can they not accept me?" pleaded Running Buck.

"They do not know any better," answered Five Horses. Running Buck looked at his mother. Puzzled.

"The Kiowa have been taught to fear the white man. The white man is unknown to them and they fear what they do not know. Because you are half white, they fear you, too. To change what has been taught for many years is very difficult, Running Buck. You must be patient and wait for a time to prove yourself as Kiowa. That time will come and you will have your chance. Then you can make them change."

"How can I be Kiowa with short hair?"

"Do you really think that makes a difference?" asked Five Horses. The look on Running Buck's face clearly indicated that, yes, he did think so.

Five Horses hesitated for a moment, then reached for the hunting knife her son carried on his belt.

"Mother, no!" Running Buck cried as she sliced through her own long, ebony colored braid with one swift motion of the knife.

"Look at me Running Buck. Am I a different person than a moment ago?"

"Of course not, Mother!" Running Buck answered as if the answer should be obvious.

"Then neither are you. A Kiowa warrior is known by the strength of his spirit and the courage in his heart, not by the length of his hair. They cannot take your spirit from you unless you give it to them. You are Kiowa, they cannot change that. Do you understand?"

Running Buck nodded his head.

"They are your people. They just do not realize it yet. Some day they will."

Running Buck looked at his mother with skepticism. He very much wanted to believe her, but it was hard and "some day" was likely no time soon.

"Do not fill your heart with hate, Running Buck. Do not despise them for what they do, but pity them for what they do not know." She laid her hand on his arm giving it a quick squeeze.

Five Horses began to rise to her feet as Running Buck grabbed her arm and pulled her back down. "Mother, was I a mistake?"

Five Horses looked deep into her son's dark eyes as she sank back down to the ground. She took time to carefully piece her words together, then quietly spoke to her boy. "The memories of how your life began still frighten me. The loss of White Eagle still weighs heavy in my heart. But you, my son, were a gift from the spirits to lessen my sorrow. I looked into your eyes when you were born and came to know that love has no color. Loving you as I do, how could you possibly be a mistake?"

*****

The winter winds shook the Kiowa village, bringing an abundance of ice and a thick blanket of snow. Although the villagers, themselves, found safety and shelter in their teepees, their herd of horses required constant care. It was a daily struggle to find shelter, food and water for the animals, but it was a necessary battle. The Kiowa could not exist without their horses.

Red Bear, now married and the father of two small daughters, had taken his place as war chief and, befitting his status, had accumulated a large number of horses. Each day, he and Running Buck, wrapped from head to toe in thick buffalo hides, ventured into the frozen wilderness to lead his herd to the ice covered lake where they would chop holes in the ice allowing the animals to drink. They would then lead the animals back to the shelter of the timber surrounding the village, provide them with dry grass that had been cut during the summer and check each animal for injury or ailment. After a long day in the frigid open, the brothers returned to their homes, exhausted. Though the work was hard, Running Buck did not mind. The Kiowa were busy tending to their own worries. No one had the time or energy to torment him.

Five Horses saw the weary faces of her sons and it worried her. They clearly needed help. Refusing to allow them to wage this war against the weather by themselves and knowing Red Bear's wife needed to stay with their children, she insisted on helping herd the animals. Three could surely do the work faster than two. Both Red Bear and Running Buck initially refused to accept their mother's offer but Five Horses was determined. The brothers knew better than to cross her.

For weeks they worked together waging battle with the cold. Five Horses began to feel tired, very tired. She dismissed the pain in her chest as the aches and pains of hard work. She would not abandon her commitment. Her sons needed her. Returning to their teepee at the end of the day, Five Horses prepared an evening meal for Running Buck and then, exhausted, sought out warmth for her shivering, aching body under a mound of buffalo robes.

Five Horses woke to the mournful sound of the winter wind. Though the fire in the teepee and the robes provided warmth, she was still shivering with cold. But this cold felt different. She reached for another buffalo robe as a cough rose from deep in her lungs. Her small frame shook with the effort.

Running Buck woke to the early morning light and the sound of his mother's coughing. "Mother, are you ill?"

"No, Running Buck. I am fine," his mother lied. "I will prepare our morning meal and then we will go to the herd."

The family trudged through the deep snow, gathering the horses as they had so many times before. A new storm approached from the west. Bowing their heads against the wind, Running Buck and Red Bear plowed forward not realizing their mother had fallen behind. After a moment, sensing she was no longer with them, they turned in unison to see Five Horses collapse in the snow.

*****

The smell of herbs and the chanting of the medicine man filled Five Horses' teepee as she lay shivering with fever, violent coughs shaking her body. The ancient medicine man, Cloud Walker, knew the illness. He had seen it before. Passing an eagle feather over her body he implored the spirits to take the fever and relieve the coughing, but knew his efforts were most likely futile.

Darkness fell on the village as a distraught Red Bear sat at his mother's side, his head in his hands. He was painfully aware that Five Horses' illness came from helping him. Running Buck sat opposite his brother, slowly becoming aware of what was happening.

Five Horses felt a deep stabbing pain in her chest that increased with every breath she drew. The constant coughing only made her pain worse. She could feel her strength ebbing. Through fever glazed eyes she saw a darkness hovering over her, growing closer.

"Please, just a little more time," she bargained.

Turning to Red Bear, Five Horses reached out for her eldest child.

"Take care of your brother," she said, her instructions barely a whisper. "I love you, Red Bear. You have made your father proud."

Her bargained time dwindling, Five Horses weakly pulled Running Buck close. Her words began to falter and her youngest had to draw even closer to hear.

"You were a gift to me, Running Buck and I have loved you with all my heart. You will find your place in this world, my son. Do not be afraid to look for it."

With that, Five Horses drew closed the strings of her heart, filled with a mother's love, and passed it to her son. It was all she had to give.

Running Buck cried out, "Mother, please do not leave me!" as his one true ally on this earth closed her eyes and went to join White Eagle waiting patiently in the land behind the sun.

Chapter 5

1 ½ years after Five Horses' Death

Running Buck lay awake in Red Bear's teepee, listening to the sounds of the night - the gentle rustling of the summer breeze through the leaves of the cottonwood trees, the melody of the cricket's song, the call of the bullfrogs. Peaceful sounds. Running Buck wished with all his heart that his soul could find a moment of such peace.

Sitting up on his bed, Running Buck surveyed the interior of his brother's home. After adjusting to the dim light, his eyes rested upon Red Bear's daughters sleeping soundly as children should. He envied them in their knowing who they were and where they belonged.

His eyes moved to Red Bear and his wife, Wind Dancer, sleeping peacefully, entwined in each other's arms. Running Buck wondered sadly if he would ever find that kind of love with a woman. "Probably not," he answered himself. "Who would want me?"

A great sweeping sadness overcame Running Buck as he remembered the events of earlier in the day and similar incidents in the months since Five Horses' death. His shoulders hunched forward as if he carried something heavy. He could take no more.

*****

Running Buck continued to be the victim of jokes, insults and abuse after his mother's death. He felt the suspicious eyes of the Kiowa on everything he did. Even Red Bear's wife, Wind Dancer, looked at him with distrust. She had made a place for him in their home after Five Horses died, but it was clear to Running Buck it had not been her idea.

While Five Horses was alive Running Buck could confide in his mother and she shared in his despair. Five Horses understood her son's misery, the Kiowa showed her no kindness, either. Now that she was gone, Running Buck had no confidant. Little Bird, a white girl taken in a Kiowa raid on a passing wagon train, had filled the void in Running Buck's life for a short while. But she had been returned to the white world leaving Running Buck alone again.

The boy tried to talk to Red Bear about his life in the village but his tormentors were careful to inflict the worst of their punishment when the chief was away. Red Bear honestly didn't see the worst of it. The bruises he did see were simply dismissed as the rivalries of adolescent boys. He knew some of the adults in the village did not approve of Running Buck's presence but, in general, Red Bear felt his little brother was overreacting. The chief's eyes could not be opened.

Since no one would listen, Running Buck simply stopped talking about his troubles. Instead, he held his pain inside, swallowing more and more until it began to eat at his insides. Lying awake at night, curled in a tight ball, he fought the burning in his stomach that kept sleep away.

At thirteen summers old, Running Buck's primary responsibility in his brother's household was to care for the horses. He had a quiet way with the animals and they responded well to him, giving him some much needed self-confidence.

Next summer he would be old enough to accompany the adults in raiding or hunting parties, although even then, a boy's duties consisted of caring for the horses and tending to the animal carcasses taken in the hunt. Running Buck dreamed of doing something important in a raid or dropping a mighty buffalo with one well placed arrow from his bow. The men would be impressed and he would be able to prove himself Kiowa. He looked forward to next summer. But until then, he tended Red Bear's horses.

*****

Running Buck slid from the back of his mount, quickly scanned the herd and accounted for each animal as they drank from the lake. Satisfied that all were present, he took a seat in the grass and leaned back against a large rock at water's edge, watching the animals as they began to graze.

Running Buck leaned his head back against the cool surface of the rock, allowing the summer sun to warm his face. It felt good, almost relaxing. He had not slept well the night before and was tired. He closed his eyes, listening to the hypnotic sound of water lapping against the shore. He promised himself he would rest for just a moment.

Raven Wing, Dark Feather and Gray Wolf had been rabbit hunting and were returning to the village when they spotted Running Buck asleep against the rock. They had intended to take a dip in the lake to escape the summer heat, but tormenting the half-breed would be better sport.

The three troublemakers quietly approached the sleeping boy and knelt down in the grass beside him, motioning to each other to be quiet. Raven Wing plucked up a blade of grass and began to brush it across Running Buck's face.

"Wake up, White Face," Raven Wing teased. He tickled Running Buck's face, quickly moving the grass only to tickle again as the sleeper tried to brush it away in his half-sleep. Squinting in the bright sunlight overhead, Running Buck opened his eyes to see the familiar faces of his tormentors hovering over him.

"You should not be asleep, White Face. What would our war chief think if he knew his horses were tended in such a careless way?" taunted Raven Wing. He shook his head in put on disapproval.

Running Buck, clearly at a disadvantage with his back against the rock, tried to get to his feet, but was roughly pushed back to the ground by Gray Wolf and Dark Feather.

"White Face, you spend so much time with horses you smell like one!" Raven Wing leaned forward into Running Buck's face. He sniffed the air and then quickly turned his head away. In mock disgust, he waved his hand back and forth under his nose. "White Face, you stink like a horse's rump. You need a bath!"

The three older boys grabbed Running Buck's arms and legs and carried him into the water. Running Buck twisted and kicked at his captors, but could not break free. Swinging him through the air, the boys threw him into the water, laughing at the joke as Running Buck splashed unceremoniously into the lake. Running Buck quickly gained his footing and stood in the waist deep water glaring at Raven Wing and his friends. He tried to gather his dignity, but soaked dignity is hard to find. He began the slog through the water to the shore, but before he got far the boys gathered around him.

"You are not clean, yet, stinking half-breed. We will help you."

Lunging forward at Running Buck they pulled him further into the lake where the bottom dropped off sharply and pushed his head under, holding him just beneath the surface. Unprepared for the dunking, Running Buck took in water and began to sputter. The boys released their hold and allowed him to raise his head above the surface, gasping for air.

"My mother said Black Water Woman tried to drown White Face when he was born" stated Gray Wolf. "But this white bastard took her mind and made her crazy. I think we should do it for her."

"Great," thought Running Buck as the boys pushed him under again. Now he was being blamed for Black Water Woman's insanity.

Struggling against the pressure on his head and shoulders Running Buck thrashed against the water and willed the coming panic away. Somewhere in the muffled distance he heard the sound of laughter. It was a game. He simply had to endure it. As expected, just as his air ran out the boys let loose, allowing him to break the surface.

Before he could catch a breath they pulled him under again and held him hard. Pushed him further down than before. Running Buck began to sense the rules had changed. They were supposed to let him go. Emptied, his lungs began to scream, his heart pounded faster and faster and he wondered if it might burst through his chest before he had a chance to drown. Neither way was how he wished to die.

*****

Red Bear was returning to the village from a visit to a neighboring band of Cheyenne with a new mare. He had bargained back and forth with the Cheyenne chief for weeks until they agreed on a price for the animal. She was a strong, gentle creature with excellent conformation, her coat the color of red clay. Red Bear was delighted with his new prize and was certain she would serve as a trusted mount and excellent breeding stock. He was anxious to show the horse to his brother and was fairly certain he could find Running Buck at the lake with his other animals.

Gray Wolf spotted the approaching war chief and alerted his friends. They released their hold on Running Buck and quickly swam to shore, greeting Red Bear as they emerged from the water.

"We were swimming with your brother," lied Raven Wing. "I think he got a cramp. It is a good thing we were with him." The other two nodded in agreement. Red Bear eyed the boys not quite believing their tale. Likely there was more to it, but boys will be boys. With a nod of his head he sent them on their way.

Released from his watery grave, Running Buck fought his way to the surface, dazed and coughing up water. His sensibilities returning, he realized his enemies were gone. Slowly, he worked his way to the shore, wondering why they had let him live.

Running Buck pulled himself from the water and staggered onto the bank where Red Bear waited. He collapsed in the grass and quickly sent an appreciative thought to the spirits for his brother's timing.

"Thank you, Red Bear," Running Buck muttered as he propped himself up on one elbow. "They were trying to kill me,"

"It was just a boy's game," Red Bear said, waving his hand as if to hurry the incident away.

Running Buck looked at Red Bear, stunned. "A game? They want me dead."

"Running Buck, why would these boys want to harm you? They are good boys. There is no reason for such talk." Red Bear paused for a moment before offering a bit of advice. "Perhaps you should try harder to make friends, not spend so much time alone."

Running Buck jumped to his feet. "How can you be so blind! I want to stay away from them! Every time you go away they hurt me! Have you not seen the scars?"

He wondered for a moment just how thick his brother's skull might be. "They hate me! All the Kiowa hate me! I will never be accepted and you will not see that! When they kill me will you then understand?"

Running Buck had never raised his voice to an adult before. Such disrespect was strictly prohibited and he figured his misdeed was being noted somewhere. But this was family and family should be different. Especially if your family was as dense as Red Bear.

Red Bear reached for his brother's shoulder, "I know at times it is difficult for you, brother, but when you are older…"

"If they have their way, I'm not going to get any older!" Running Buck angrily shrugged Red Bear's hand away. Too hurt and angry to continue the conversation, he turned and stormed away. For the first time in his life he was angry with his brother and it was a feeling he didn't like at all.

*****

Gathering his few belongings, Running Buck quietly rose from his bed. He silently made his way across the teepee and stopped at the opening, a hard lump forming in his throat. He turned back to look at the man he loved so dearly. That love was no longer enough. It was time to leave.

Running Buck emerged from Red Bear's teepee and let his eyes wander across the slumbering Kiowa village. He had spent his thirteen years among these people. He knew their names. He watched as they celebrated the births of children and grieved for departed loved ones. But always from outside their circle. All he had ever wanted was to belong. If any one of these people could have given him the smallest indication he was welcome, it would have been enough. Five Horses had told him not to be afraid to look for his place in the world. Sadly, Running Buck was certain he would not find his place here.

He walked away from the village to Red Bear's horses, searching for the gray gelding that was his usual mount. A pang of guilt stabbed at him as he realized if he left, there would be no one to care for the horses. How could he leave when Red Bear needed him? Running Buck began to have second thoughts.

He knew next to nothing about the world beyond the village. Where would he go? Little Bird had taught him some of the white language, but would it be enough? Maybe this was a mistake. Red Bear was a powerful chief. He could make the Kiowa listen. He could make them change. Things could be different if…

Running Buck frowned as he realized he was fooling himself. How could Red Bear make the Kiowa listen when he would not listen himself?

He found the gelding and started to swing onto the horse's back, then stopped. The horse belonged to Red Bear, not him. It would not be right to take it. Instead Running Buck patted the trusted animal's neck, bid the horse goodbye and began his walk to the white man's world.

*****

Red Bear woke early intending to speak to his brother. They had never before argued or even spoken a cross word to each other and their quarrel bothered him. Running Buck had gone to bed early without saying another word or even looking in his direction.

Running Buck had grown sullen and moody since Five Horses' death. Having lost his own father at thirteen, Red Bear felt he understood the boy's grief. He tried to be both brother and parent, but had to admit much of the time he simply didn't know how to deal with his younger brother. Red Bear did not know exactly what he had done to upset Running Buck so, but he was anxious to try to make things right between them. If he could find him. Red Bear grew worried as he noticed Running Buck's belongings were gone. Had his brother been that angry with him?

Red Bear was startled to find Running Buck's familiar footprints leading away from the teepee, through the horses and into the prairie. "Have I taught you no better than this?" Red Bear had spent a great deal of time teaching his brother to track and the necessity of covering your own. It disappointed him that Running Buck had not paid attention to the lessons, until it dawned on him that his brother wanted to be found.

Red Bear easily followed Running Buck's tracks through the day and into the evening. It had not taken long to catch up to the boy since he was on horseback and Running Buck was on foot, but Red Bear stayed out of sight, not showing himself until night fell and his brother would be tired and ready to go home.

"You must remember to cover your tracks, little brother," Red Bear said as he entered Running Buck's camp. The boy had built a small fire and was roasting a jack rabbit on a spit over the flames. The juices of the meat dripped into the fire, sizzling as they danced on the hot coals.

Running Buck was not at all surprised by his brother's appearance and did not look away from the rabbit until Red Bear stood directly in front of him.

"I am sorry we argued, Running Buck. Come. It is time to go home."

Running Buck cast his eyes downward and mumbled, "I'm not going back."

Exasperated, Red Bear tried again. "I apologize, brother. Please do not be angry with me."

Running Buck raised his head and looked at his brother. After a moment he spoke. "I am not angry with you, Red Bear. Not anymore. But I am not going back."

Red Bear was growing tired himself. "Why was he being so difficult?" He was tempted to throw his brother over his shoulder and haul him back to the village, kicking and screaming, but the hollowness in Running Buck's words made him think better of it. He took a seat on the ground beside Running Buck and finally began to listen.

Running Buck hadn't expected his brother's full attention and realized he wasn't quite ready for it. He hesitated before speaking, searching for the words to make him understand. Drawing a deep breath, he turned to his brother and began.

"Red Bear, I have tried for so long to make you realize how hard it is for me to live with the Kiowa. They do not trust me. They act…they act like at any moment I could bring the white man upon them. Red Bear, I have never even seen a white man."

Running Buck stopped for a moment to make sure Red Bear was listening. He was. "I am insulted, humiliated and beaten for their amusement. If it rains too much, it is my fault. If it does not rain enough, it is my fault. If the buffalo are scarce, it is my fault. I have done nothing wrong but to be fathered by a white man. They do not accept me and they never will."

"You are Kiowa!" broke in Red Bear.

"Red Bear, please listen! To you I am Kiowa, but to the others I am nothing more than the bastard son of a white man and always will be. I despise that white man and if I was ever to find him, I would kill him a thousand times."

Speaking slowly to emphasize the importance, Running Buck laid out his plans. "I need to find a place where I belong. I can no longer live this way. My spirit dies a little more every day and I do not wish my life to end this way. Red Bear, I will love you until my heart no longer beats, but I cannot go back."

Deep furrows creased Red Bear's brow as he fumbled for a response. Could his brother's life really be as miserable as he claimed? Needing a moment to think, he diverted his eyes from his brother, looking at the ground, a tree, the fire, anything but the hopelessness in Running Buck's face.

Red Bear grasped at the first idea that presented itself. "I will speak to the fathers of the three boys who torment you. Everything will be fine then."

Running Buck knew then that his mother had been right. Red Bear saw what he wanted to see. As a war chief, Red Bear was well known for his ability to plan and carry out a large scale attack. He had never led the Kiowa into a fight without first assessing all sides of a situation and taking precautions for any possible counter measures. How could a man so capable of seeing all things at once not see this?

"It is not only Raven Wing and his friends, brother. No one wants me there. Not even your own wife."

"That is not true! Wind Dancer loves you as I do!"

"No she doesn't, Red Bear. She tolerates me because of you. That is all. When I was gone this morning was she concerned?"

The question surprised Red Bear, causing him to think for a moment before answering. Lowering his head slightly he answered quietly. "No."

A silence fell between them then. Finally, Red Bear asked, "How will you live? You are too young to be on your own. Where will you go?"

"I have my bow and my knife," Running Buck said, his optimism shiny and untested. "I will not be hungry. Little Bird told me of the villages of white men where there are places to learn the white language. Surely I can find such a place."

Red Bear shook his head in disapproval. "I fear for your safety, little brother. The whites are evil. Remember your father, Running Buck."

"Little Bird told me not all white men act as my father did. If all whites were bad then Little Bird would have been bad, too, and she was not."

"Little Bird was different."

"How was she different, Red Bear? She was white."

Red Bear evaded the question for which he had no answer. "Your father's people will not see you as white."

"And my mother's people see me only as white. Red Bear, I know the life I will have if I stay. Perhaps I will find something better if I go."

Reluctant to give up, Red Bear placed his hands on his brother's shoulders and made another plea. "Please return with me, brother. I promise you that it will change."

Answering Red Bear was the hardest thing Running Buck had ever done. "I cannot, Red Bear. It is too late."

The disappointment in his brother's face was almost too much. Running Buck didn't think it could get any worse, but it did. Red Bear rose to his feet and turned away as if to leave. Running Buck was not ready for him to go. They had not said goodbye. They had not said whatever it was that in parting they should say. He scurried to his feet and started after his brother. "Red Bear. . . "

"Wait."

Red Bear disappeared into the trees surrounding the small camp and returned leading the gray gelding and his red mare.

"It is a long walk to the white world, Running Buck. You will need a horse," he said handing the reins of the red mare to the boy.

Shaking his head, Running Buck refused to take the reins. "No. She is yours. I cannot ..."

Red Bear held up his hand to quiet his brother. "She is young and strong. She will serve you well. Take care of her."

"Red Bear, I cannot take her."

"Treat her well," Red Bear said and placed the reins in Running Buck's hand.

"Go if you must, little brother, but remember, when the white world turns you away there is a place for you in my home." Hesitating for a moment he added quietly, "You will always have a place in my heart."

Red Bear removed one of his matching silver bracelets and slipped it on Running Buck's wrist. "My father, White Eagle, and I wore these to bind us together as father and son. I removed it from his body the day he died and have worn them both since. Now they bind us together as brothers."

"No, Red Bear. You should save it for your own son."

Red Bear chuckled for a moment in a half-hearted attempt to lighten the mood. "Wind Dancer gives me only daughters."

Unbidden tears threatening, Running Buck firmly embraced his brother. It was time. He wanted so badly to say the right words. Something important. Something strong enough to sum up the past thirteen years. But all he could manage was a whisper and the words seemed woefully lacking.

"I love you, Red Bear."

And so it was settled. The war chief and the half-breed stood together a bit longer, hanging on to the moment. Red Bear cleared his throat and Running Buck swiped at his nose with his sleeve. It was quiet save for the dull plodding of the horses, shifting weight from hoof to hoof. The night was moving on and they must go with it. Reluctantly and without another word, Red Bear mounted the gray horse to return to his people.

Running Buck settled down by the fire for his first night on his own, dreaming of a better life . . . praying to any spirit who would listen.

Chapter 6

Sweetwater, Wyoming Territory, June 1860

"C'mon, Billy, if we're goin', let's go!" Kid said, impatiently watching Cody smooth down his hair for the umpteenth time.

Cody peered through the cracks of the mirror hanging over a wash basin on the bunkhouse wall and smiled back at his reflection.

"Now, Kid, a man needs to look his best when seen in public. Never know who might be waitin' for us in Sweetwater."

"If we ever get there," Kid grumbled.

The supper dishes finished, Emma dried her hands on her apron and surveyed the two boys. "You both look just fine. I'd say we've got the handsomest bunch of boys around. What to you think, Mr. Spoon?"

Teaspoon sat at the table intently cleaning the firing mechanism of his gun. He didn't look up when he spoke, but went on cleaning. "I think just 'cause it's payday, don't mean you need to spend it all in one night."

The riders at the Sweetwater station had been employed by the Pony Express for two months. None of the boys had held down a permanent job for any length of time before, so the idea of a regular payday was exciting. Ike, Lou and Jimmy were away on runs leaving Cody, Kid and Buck at the station with Teaspoon and Emma. Two of the three riders remaining at the station were anxious to get to Sweetwater and waste some money.

Kid looked across the bunkhouse at the other rider reclining on his bunk, reading. "Sure you don't wanna come, Buck?"

"Why don't you go, Buck," urged Emma. "The chores are done and it's a fine evening."

Buck looked up from his book, unconvinced.

"Emma's right, Buck," Teaspoon added. "No need to stay around here, less'n of course you want to get started muckin' out them stalls. I was waitin' to have you start on that in the mornin', but if you'd rather stay here, you could start on 'em now."

Teaspoon understood Buck's hesitancy to go to town. Many of the residents of Sweetwater had questioned the hiring of an Indian by the Pony Express and were less than cordial to Buck when he accompanied the other boys to pick up supplies. In Teaspoon's opinion though, if the boy was to live in the white man's world, he needed to find a way to make the townspeople change their opinions about him or grow a thicker hide. He couldn't accomplish either one tucked away at the station.

Teaspoon hoped to create a family of sorts out of this rag-tag bunch of riders. In the short time they had been together a bond was growing between the boys and he was pleased. Each of them had disclosed enough of their lives before the Express to illustrate that no one had led a charmed life. Never having spent time with an Indian, the other boys were a bit too curious about Buck's past. Clearly uncomfortable with the inquisition, Buck quietly replied that his mother had been raped by a white man and he left the Kiowa for his own reasons. Cody, certain there were exciting stories of buffalo hunts, raids on white settlors and scalpings in Buck's past, pushed for details, but a stern look from Ike put a stop to the prying.

At first, Teaspoon thought the bald mute and Kiowa half-breed were an odd combination, but after observing the two for a while, he realized they complimented each other perfectly. The fact that Ike couldn't speak and relied only on sign language to voice himself mattered little. They communicated on a level that didn't require words. Buck was clearly more comfortable when Ike was with him and seemed a little lost when his friend was away. A bond as strong as theirs was a rare and envied thing. But heaven help the survivor if anything ever happened to one of those boys. An Express rider's life was not without peril.

It seemed to Teaspoon that the riders had paired off, somewhat. Ike and Buck of course. Lou and Kid. Jimmy and Cody. He hoped all his boys would learn to appreciate and trust each other. Their lives might very well depend upon it some day. A little social time together was a fine start.

"Aw, c'mon, Buck," urged Cody as he walked to Buck's bunk. "Sweetwater's bound to be more excitin' than. . . " Twisting his head sideways to read the title of the book, he sounded out, "He-len of Troy."

"Troy." Cody thought for a moment. "Ain't that in Missouri?"

Buck looked at Cody, so sincere in his question, and had to laugh.

"Buck," Cody went on. "The Sweetwater Saloon has got to be more interestin' than readin' 'bout some farm girl named Helen from Missouri."

Cody's good mood was infectious. "Alright, alright, I'll go," conceded Buck, swinging his legs over the side of the bunk. Marking his place in the book, he placed it carefully under his bunk and grabbed his hat from the peg rack on the wall.

"That's fine," said Emma, a smile crossing her freckled face. "You boys have a good time and be home before too late."

The trio was already out the bunkhouse door and headed across the yard to the barn before Teaspoon could bark out his orders. "Don't be spendin' every cent you got just 'cause you got it! Cody, you still got some unpaid debts from last month as I recall! You know my rules. No whiskey and NO WOMEN!"

*****

The Sweetwater Saloon was buzzing when the three riders arrived in town. A hazy curtain of smoke hung over the room as Cody, Kid and Buck entered through the swinging doors and made their way to the bar. Cody summoned the bartender and proceeded to break Teaspoon's first rule.

"Whiskey, my good man," he ordered with a wide smile.

"Make that three sarsaparillas, please," Kid corrected. "You know the rules, Cody."

"Aw, Kid," Cody whined. "When you gonna live a little?"

The bartender readily placed the drinks in front of Cody and Kid, but held back when he saw Buck. The bartender was poised to make a quick comment, but Cody was faster.

"My friend is thirsty, too, mister," Cody said, waving a handful of bills in front of the saloon owner. "We'll likely be thirsty all night long. Lucky for you it's payday." Evidently principles ran cheap on Express payday. The barkeep placed the drink slightly out of Buck's reach, and walked away.

Buck tried to push down the all too familiar feelings - they were supposed to be having fun - but the humiliation must have been written on his face. Cody and Kid turned him away from the bar and the three focused their attention on the sights and sounds of the saloon.

There were five or six games of poker in progress. Men from all walks of life sat at the tables scattered around the room, glasses of whiskey in their hands and saloon girls in low-cut dresses at their sides or on their laps. The boys recognized some of the men from town, but others were unfamiliar. Most likely drifters just passing through. In the corner a piano player plinked out a lively tune although no one seemed to be listening.

Cody spotted an open chair at one of the card games and quickly invited himself to join. Kid and Buck took places behind the poker players to watch the game. Buck started to relax a bit and even began to enjoy watching the cocky rider lose hand after hand.

"You better quit now before you lose it all, Cody," Kid said.

"Nope. I can feel a change comin' on," proclaimed Cody, holding his hands in front of him, shaking them slightly as if they were tingling. "I'm too good lookin' to have bad luck!"

Waiting for the next hand to be dealt, Kid went to the bar for another round of drinks and Buck turned his attention to the table directly behind him. A good deal of liquor had been consumed and the men at the table were growing drunk and loud. It was a rough bunch of men, drifters and trappers. Men obviously not accustomed to manners. Or bathing. Buck had little use for alcohol and less for those who indulged in it. He grew disgusted and turned away as their conversation turned to female conquests.

Buck tried to shut out their noise to pay attention to Cody's next losing hand, but the volume of the table behind him increased as the bar maid served another round. The girl squealed when one of the men smacked her on the behind as she leaned over to put the glasses on the table. She promptly threw one of the drinks in the offender's face and the table roared louder yet.

Their game of one-upmanship passed to the next player at their table. "You know boys, the funnest time I ever had, though, weren't with no white woman at all. Yes sir. Had many since and many before, but none so entertainin' as a little red bitch 'bout eighteen years or so ago. Had me some fun, I did. When that Kiowa whore had the nerve to spit in my face, I cut her good. Left her scarred from cheek to chin just so she'd remember me."

Buck spun around so quickly, searching for the speaker, that he nearly lost his balance. The color drained from his face. The palms of his hands growing damp with sweat, he found the storyteller.

The trapper appeared to be in his early fifties, balding slightly with a growth of dark stubble across his face. He was of average build, but his belly hung over the waistband of his trousers as evidence of too much liquor.

He stared at the trapper, the words "scar from cheek to chin" tumbling over themselves again and again in his ears. Closing his eyes tightly for a moment he pictured Five Horses' disfigured face and calculated the possibility.

The trapper glanced around the table at his listeners, clearly reveling in the attention. He looked up at Buck staring numbly at him from across the table.

"What you lookin' at, boy? Heh! Barkeep! You allow redskins in here?" the trapper bellowed.

Buck felt as if he was paralyzed, unable to move or to speak even if he knew of something to say.

"You want somethin' of me, Injun?" demanded the trapper, leaning forward in his chair. The other men at the table turned toward Buck, clearly irritated with the interruption.

Buck felt his heart beating so hard and loud he was certain everyone in the room could hear it. Dizziness came on him and he grabbed the chair in front of him for support. The occupant of the chair took offense and pushed him away.

"Get your filthy red hand off me!"

Buck began to feel a tightness in his chest as the room grew smaller and smaller, the walls closing in, squeezing him until he could no longer breathe. If he didn't get out of that room he feared he would die right where he stood. He quickly turned and darted away from the table.

"Who let the breed in here anyway?" someone at the table called out. The others laughed and slapped each other on the back as men congratulating themselves do.

Buck pushed his way across the saloon heading for the door and fresh air. In his hurry, he bumped squarely into Kid returning to the table from the bar, sending the sarsaparilla in his hands up into the air. The front of Kid's shirt was drenched.

"Heh! Watch it, Buck! What's the hurry?" Kid said. His tone changed once he saw the look on his friend's face. "Buck, you all right?"

"Sorry," Buck mumbled and continued his retreat, stumbling over a chair in his path.

Bewildered, Kid watched him leave the saloon, then turned to Cody for an explanation. Cody, engrossed in his first winning hand, simply shrugged.

Buck stumbled through the swinging doors onto the covered porch of the saloon. He grabbed hold of the porch rail for support, holding it so tightly the knuckles on his hands turned white. He fought back the urge to retch.

After several breaths of fresh air, his heart rate slowed and the roiling in his stomach began to calm somewhat. Could that trapper really be the man who raped his mother? Had he just looked into the eyes of his father?

Buck had learned long before how to brace himself when indignity threatened. It still hurt, but not as much if he was prepared. But this . . . this came without warning, without time to prepare himself. "Calm down and think," he ordered himself.

The music and laughter of the saloon were too loud. He needed a quiet place. Buck pushed himself away from the porch rail. On unsteady legs, he moved toward where his horse was tied at the hitching post. He fumbled with the reins as he tried to untie the leather straps and nearly jumped out of his skin when a hand fell on his shoulder.

"Buck, you all right?" Kid asked.

Cody pushed through the swinging doors of the saloon. "What's goin' on, Buck? I was winnin'."

Buck didn't know what to do. This was a part of his life he simply didn't want to discuss. It was much too private. He leaned into the red mare and rested his head against her neck. Kid once again, but carefully this time, placed his hand on Buck's shoulder.

"Buck, what happened? Maybe we can help if you tell us."

Buck turned to face his two new friends. He wished Ike was there, Ike would understand. He wasn't sure that Kid and Cody would. No one but Ike had ever offered to listen before, though. Could he trust them?

Deciding to take the chance, Buck drew a deep breath and began to explain. "I heard a trapper at the next table talk about raping a Kiowa woman." His voice beginning to falter, Buck continued so softly that Kid and Cody had to strain to hear him. "I think it was my mother."

Kid and Cody looked at Buck with skepticism written all over their faces. Kid, thinking in logical terms replied, "Buck, there were probably lots of Kiowa women raped by white men." Buck's pained expression instantly relayed that his logic was not appreciated.

Kid stumbled over an apology, but Buck wasn't listening. "You don't understand!" he cried out. "My mother's attacker left a terrible scar on her face! That trapper bragged about cutting the woman's face! It's him! That man is my father!"

Clearly not sure what to do, Cody awkwardly stuffed his hands in his pockets and Kid toed the ground with his boot.

"I've wanted to kill him for so long."

Startled, Cody broke in. "Buck, you ain't even sure it's him! That was a long time ago and you ain't never even seen him before!"

He had been wrong to trust them. Buck looked at Kid and Cody in disappointment. He jerked the reins free from the hitching post and quickly mounted the mare.

"Where you going, Buck?" demanded Kid. Buck turned the horse away and kicked her into a gallop, leaving them standing in a cloud of dust.

*****

Alerted by the sound of approaching horses, Teaspoon and Emma looked up from the paperwork spread across the bunkhouse table. It was barely a moment before Kid and Cody burst through the door.

"Manners, boys," Emma reminded.

"You boys actin' like the house is a'fire! Slow down!" commanded the station manager.

"Is Buck here?" Kid asked, trying to catch his breath.

Teaspoon pushed the log book in front of him aside and wondered just what it would take to have a quiet evening. "Ain't seen him. He's supposed to be with you. Somethin' happen in town?"

"Well, I'd say so," quipped Cody. He took a seat on the bench next to Emma and threw his hat on the table. "This sure ain't how I wanted to spend my evening."

Emma tossed a reproving glance in Cody's direction. "What happened, boys?" she asked. "Someone givin' him a hard time?"

"Worse," Kid said. "Buck overheard some trappers in the saloon tellin' stories about… " Glancing uneasily at Emma, Kid searched for the appropriate words. "'bout havin' their way with Indian women."

Emma nodded her head at Kid in appreciation of his attempt at discretion. "Go on, Kid," she said.

"Well… evidently the trapper said somethin' that made Buck think the woman was his mother. He's convinced the trapper is his father and he got real upset."

"Ain't never seen Buck like that! Ran outta that saloon like a wild man!"

Teaspoon looked skeptically at the dramatic Mr. Cody. 'Wild' wasn't a term he could imagine being applied to Buck.

"He's right, Teaspoon," Kid said. "Buck was really shook up. Talkin' crazy, too."

"Like what kind of crazy?" asked Teaspoon.

Kid hesitated for a moment, turning the brim of his hat around and around in his hands. "Said somethin' 'bout wantin' to kill him."

"Good Lord! You boys try to calm him down?"

"We tried to tell him it might not even be the same man, but he wouldn't listen."

"Don't much matter if he's the same man or not, Cody, long as Buck believes he is. Any idea where he went?"

"He headed north out of Sweetwater. We tried to follow, but lost him. He was ridin' pretty wild."

"We need to find him. Hearing that story must have been a terrible shock," said Emma.

"I agree, Emma, but I don't think we're gonna find Buck 'less he wants to be found." Teaspoon thought for a moment. "You boys get a look at this trapper?"

'Not really," Kid answered. "There was a bunch of 'em. Why?"

"Our best chance of keepin' Buck from doing somethin' foolish may be gettin' to this man before he does. We find this trapper, most likely we'll find Buck, too. Hopefully, we can calm him down, talk some sense into him before he makes a big mistake."

Pushing himself away from the table Teaspoon stood and ordered, "C'mon boys, we're goin' to town. Emma, if Buck turns up you do whatever you got to do to keep him here. We'll be back soon as we can."

*****

Buck headed out of Sweetwater on the road north of town, but soon turned the mare into the open prairie. The mare seemed to sense her rider's need to escape and once Buck let her have her head, she ran at full speed through the tall grass. Good sense soon prevailed as Buck realized he could seriously hurt the horse. Although the three-quarter moon and a canopy of stars lit up the prairie, rabbit holes and prairie dog burrows were hidden under the grass. The mare could easily break a leg if she stepped into one at this speed.

Buck slowed the mare and reined her to a stop. The horse pawed at the ground as he leaned forward, resting his head against her neck.

He had not thought of his father for a long time. There had been a period of his life at the end of his time with the Kiowa when plotting revenge on this man was a daily occurrence. Once he left the tribe, just getting through each day with enough to eat and a safe place to sleep were his only thoughts. At the mission, his energies were spent on learning the ways of the white man and defending himself from the white bullies who were as intent on humiliating him as Raven Wing had been.

And then he found Ike. A true friend who seemed to understand all the pain and frustration, all the fears and self-doubt he kept locked up tightly inside. Together they forged a firm bond and vowed to find a better life than either of them had previously known. They had found hope for the future in the people of the Pony Express. Buck was not completely comfortable with all the riders yet. He knew they were not totally at ease with him, either. He liked the stationmaster and felt he was a man to be trusted. Emma reminded him a little of his mother, a compassionate but strong woman. They had not turned him away because of the color of his skin. That was a start.

It wasn't that Buck had forgotten this despicable man or the hatred he felt for him. Thoughts of his father had just been pushed to the back of his memory, a place that was too painful to go. Hearing the story of his mother's rape hit him like a hard slap in the face.

Buck raised his head and closed his eyes to the night sky, wishing with all his might he could simply disappear into the darkness. Memories began playing themselves out on the screen of his closed eyelids. He could see the Kiowa beating him, spitting on him. Saw the hatred in their eyes as they watched him, or saw their indifference when they looked through him as if he didn't even exist. He had never been able to decide which hurt the most. The hating or the ignoring. The backdrop shifted and he saw the people of Sweetwater moving to the other side of the street as he approached them. Saw the bartender refusing to serve his drink.

"Stop it!" Buck cried out pressing his hands to his head. He drew several deep, controlled breaths and began to regain his composure. Letting himself get carried away like this would accomplish nothing. In the quiet of the night, his thoughts began to clear.

The man responsible for the injury and embarrassment he had endured his entire life was sitting at a poker table in Sweetwater. Buck turned the mare back toward town. He knew what he had to do.

*****

Kid and Cody stood inside the swinging doors of the saloon with Teaspoon, scanning the smoky room for the men Buck had referred to. Kid shook his head to indicate he did not see anyone who he remembered from the other table. Teaspoon questioned the bartender, but apparently the man's memory was short. Seemed he had no recollection at all of a commotion in his establishment that evening.

"What now, Teaspoon?" Kid asked as the left the saloon. "Can't find him. Won't be able to find Buck."

"I don't know, boys. This ain't good. Best we let Sam know what's happened. He can keep a watch on things here and I reckon we head back to the station to wait. Maybe Buck will come to his senses and head home."

Teaspoon and the boys headed to Marshal Cain's office, unaware that the trapper had not left the saloon, but merely gone upstairs with one of the saloon's prostitutes. Nor did they notice the young Indian, his mind set on revenge, waiting in the shadows outside the saloon.

*****

The trapper emerged from the saloon shortly after midnight. Buck followed him to his camp a few miles outside Sweetwater and waited in the darkness for the man to settle in for the night. The trapper sat on his bedroll near a small fire, pulled off his mud crusted boots and began to count his poker winnings. He had enjoyed himself in Sweetwater. The poker game had been profitable, the whiskey drinkable and the whore entertaining.

Slowly the man looked up from his profits and stiffened at the sight of a young Indian watching him from the other side of the fire, his face expressionless, his gun drawn. The trapper quickly dropped the money in his hands and reached for his rifle.

"Don't," ordered the Indian.

The trapper complied and picked up his winnings, offering them to Buck. "Here, it ain't that much, but it's yours. Take it and go."

"I don't want your money," Buck replied. His voice was eerily calm.

"Then what do you want?" The trapper took a long look at Buck. "You're that Injun from the saloon. What you want from me?"

Buck paused for a moment before speaking the words that would soothe his soul.

"I heard your story in the saloon. That Kiowa woman you raped was my mother. That makes you my father and I have looked forward to killing you my entire life."

Chapter 7

The floorboards of the bunkhouse porch creaked under the wooden rocker where Teaspoon sat, listening to the sounds of the night, and waiting. He pulled out his pocket watch and moved the dial around in the moonlight until he could make out the time. Two-thirty. It wasn't that he needed to know the exact time to confirm that it was late, rather he just needed something to do while he waited for Buck.

He had sent Kid and Cody to bed, under protest, after their trip to Sweetwater had turned up neither the trapper nor Buck. Both boys had runs the following morning and needed a decent night of sleep. A six or seven hour ride was hard enough on a rider when he was rested. Taking off on a run without proper preparation was asking for trouble.

Emma had waited up with the Teaspoon until she dozed off about one o'clock. Only after Teaspoon promised that he would wake her at the first indication of trouble would she retire to the house, leaving the station manager to keep watch for the missing rider alone.

Sam had promised to take whatever measures were necessary to keep Buck out of trouble should he return to Sweetwater, even if it meant locking him up for the night. Teaspoon was appreciative of the marshal's help, but didn't hold out much hope that Sam would see Buck. The boy could be nearly invisible if he wanted to be.

Teaspoon really couldn't blame Buck for seeking revenge against this man. He had been around Indians enough to know the type of treatment Buck would have received from the Kiowa. Teaspoon had known of white captives treated better than a half-breed. The Indians knew what to expect from someone who was white, but a person of mixed blood was a different matter. A half-breed walked in both worlds with undetermined loyalties. He could not be trusted.

It would have been easy for Buck to become bitter and lash out at either or both sides of his heritage, but instead, it seemed to Teaspoon that he tried to walk a fine line in between the two worlds. Although choosing to leave the Kiowa, he held firmly to their beliefs and seemed determined to maintain a tie to them. He wore clothing of a white man, but the length of his hair and the medicine pouch hanging over his heart clearly spoke that he would not entirely succumb to the white man's dress.

Teaspoon remembered a Sunday morning when Emma decided her boys needed some religion and dragged Jimmy, Cody and Buck to church with her. Jimmy sank down uncomfortably in the wooden church pew, dodging the pastor's fire and brimstone. Cody used a hymnal to hide a paperback novel and entertained himself through the sermon with "The Adventures of Deadwood Joe." Buck, in contrast, had sat quietly though the sermon, likely trained in the proper way to behave in church by the sisters at the Catholic orphanage. Upon returning to the station, however, he quickly packed together several items in a leather bag and rode into the prairie. Teaspoon recognized the contents of the bag as a prayer bundle and gathered that Buck felt the need to pray to his own spirits lest they think he had converted to Christianity.

Teaspoon understood it wasn't the people who had abused and turned him away, but rather the generations of a proud people who had come before him that Buck wanted to remain close to. It was this tie to the Kiowa's beliefs that demanded he seek revenge for the attack on his mother. Teaspoon couldn't help but think that if this was the man who attacked Buck's mother and had caused so much misery in their lives, he deserved what he got. Unfortunately, if Buck did kill the man - avenging an eighteen year old crime against an Indian woman - there wasn't a court in the territory that would see his side of it.

He genuinely liked this boy and hated the thought that Buck might have destroyed his chance for a future. As far as Teaspoon was concerned, the boy definitely had a job with the Express for as long as he wanted. Buck was a perfect Express rider, often appearing more at home on horseback than on his own two legs. The Kiowa were known as the horsemen of the plains. Teaspoon now understood why. The boy rode a horse with such grace and agility it was difficult to determine where the animal stopped and the rider started.

His tracking skills had proved invaluable already. Sam had enlisted the aide of Teaspoon's boys during the first month the Express was in operation to bring in a ring of horse thieves who had robbed a neighboring ranch. Buck easily tracked them through rocky terrain. The thieves were quickly apprehended and the rancher's stock recovered. Both the Marshal and Teaspoon had been impressed and told the boy so. Buck's entire face lit up when Teaspoon and Sam praised his abilities. The reaction surprised the two men. It was as if the boy had never received a compliment before. Slowly it dawned on Teaspoon that he probably hadn't.

Yes, there was a place for Buck with the Express. Teaspoon could only hope that he hadn't thrown away the opportunity in exchange for revenge.

Teaspoon pulled the watch from his pocket again. Three o'clock. Gazing into the watch in the moonlight, he sighed heavily and began to wonder why he was waiting up, when his attention was diverted by the sound of an approaching horse.

Teaspoon heaved a sigh of relief that the boy had come home and watched Buck dismount and lead his mare into the barn. But where had he been all night? Buck emerged a few minutes later, slowly closed the barn door and walked quietly across the station yard toward the bunkhouse.

Buck started up the steps and across the porch, taking care to avoid the boards known to squeak.

"Out kinda late, ain't you, Buck," Teaspoon asked from the far side of the porch where the darkness had hidden him. "Anything we need to talk about, son?"

Buck stopped abruptly. He might get past the tattle-tale porch boards, but he wasn't getting past the boss. Reluctantly he turned around and took a seat on the step. Resting his elbows on his knees, he held his head in his hands and waited for Teaspoon to join him.

Teaspoon rose from the rocking chair, stiff from hours of waiting, and walked the length of the porch to where his young rider waited. He lifted a lantern from a peg on the porch post, struck up a light and took a seat beside Buck. His heart sank, fearing the worst, as he noticed blood stains on the boy's shirt and hands in the lamplight.

Teaspoon paused for a moment before asking, afraid of the answer he might receive. "You in trouble, Buck?"

*****

The flames of the campfire danced against the darkness and illuminated the angry young Indian in an otherworldly glow.

"Now, you just hold on there, boy!" exclaimed the trapper. "What the hell are you talking 'bout? I ain't never seen you b'fore and I sure as hell ain't your father!"

Buck remained rooted in his spot, his fiery gaze nearly burning a hole through the flesh and bone of the trapper.

"Where'd you come up with a notion like that?" cried the trapper. He began to rise to his feet. A quick motion of Buck's gun demanded the man remain seated and the trapper sank slowly back to the ground.

"You said so," Buck calmly replied and cocked the hammer of the pistol with his thumb.

"Boy, you are makin' a big mistake! I don't know what you're talkin' 'bout!"

Buck liked the feeling of being in charge. He enjoyed watching the man he hated squirm. He wanted the trapper to remember his sin and in a calm, unwavering voice began to explain why the man was about to die.

"In the saloon tonight, I heard you talking about raping a Kiowa woman and leaving a scar on her face. That woman was my mother, Five Horses. I was born after you attacked her. Now you are going to pay for what you did."

"Now wait a minute. You got it all wrong!" argued the trapper, holding his hands in front of him defensively. "I ain't never really done that. Them's just stories I like to tell to have a good time, you see. Makes people laugh."

It was bad enough his mother had been raped and beaten by this man, but now for him to claim it was just a made up story, the equivalent of one of Cody's paperback novels, was intolerable. Anxious to right past wrongs, Buck took a step toward the trapper, taking aim at the spot between the man's eyes.

Fearing for his life, the trapper confessed, "Listen here, breed, I never hurt your ma myself, but I know who did. Used to trap with him down around the Platte years ago. Gabriel Jensen was his name. He was always telling me 'bout getting his pleasures from Indian women, but I thought he was just puttin' on a show. Never really believed him."

Buck held his aim as the trapper chuckled nervously, "Old Gabriel talked a lot. Guess you're the proof he weren't lyin' after all."

Buck remained motionless, his intent solid.

The trapper grew more anxious as he pled his innocence. "You looked at yourself, boy? You ain't bad lookin' for a breed. Think the likes of you gonna spring from the loins of an old coot like me?"

Buck studied the man. The trapper was right. They bore no resemblance whatsoever. A spark of doubt flickered for a moment. Buck doused the thought. He knew many fathers and sons who looked nothing alike.

"Boy, I am tellin' you the God's honest truth".

"Why should I believe you?"

The man thought for a moment, then shrugged. "Ain't got no reason. You're gonna kill me if you've a mind to. Just so you know, though, you ain't gonna be rightin' no past wrong done to your ma. Just killin' an old man who opened his big mouth one too many times."

The doubt flickered again, a little harder to put out. Buck chewed on his words for a moment. "So where is this man, your partner, now?"

"Hell, I reckon!" bellowed the trapper. "Don't think the good Lord be lettin' someone the likes of him past the pearly gates. That man was a mean son of a bitch!"

"Word was ol' Gabriel got caught cheatin' on some trades with the Lakota up north 'bout ten years ago. Them Sioux didn't take kindly to watered down whiskey. Reckon they made short work of ol' Lefty."

A puzzled look passed across Buck's face. "What did you call him?"

"What? Lefty?"

Buck nodded his head slightly.

"Ol' Gabriel was one of them queer folks liked to use his left hand over his right. Looked totally backward to me, but he said it just come natural to him that way. I never could understand it. Started calling him "Lefty". Never looked like a "Gabriel" to me, anyhow."

Buck cast a quick glance at his own left hand extended before him, remembering the sting of the nuns' wooden ruler striking his knuckles as punishment for using the wrong hand.

The doubt grew brighter still. He had been so sure. It would have been so easy. The bastard was right there in front of him!

"Pull the trigger!" a determined voice in his head ordered.

"NO!" countered another. "It's not the same man!"

Buck closed his eyes tightly for a moment while he waged war with himself. He would put a bullet through the trapper's skull with no hesitation if he was certain the man was his father. But he was not certain.

The trapper sighed in relief as Buck lowered the gun. "Didn't mean no harm, boy. Just told that story for some fun."

Years of hurt exploded from Buck like an animal released from its cage. "It's not funny! It's not some story to impress the drunks at the bar! It's my life! My mother's life! It's not a joke!"

The old familiar feelings began to creep back in, replacing the confidence and strength he had felt just minutes before. Lowering his head in defeat, Buck holstered his gun and began to turn away from the trapper.

"Boy, whatever happened to that woman?" the trapper asked.

"Why would you care?" Buck spat back and began to walk away.

After a few steps, he stopped and turned back to the trapper. He didn't want to admit it, but the man almost sounded like he did care. Deflated, he told the man of Five Horses' fate.

"She gave birth to a white man's son. Because she loved me, her own people shunned her and turned her away. She lived a sad and lonely life and when she died, none of them cared."

Hot tears stinging his eyes, Buck turned away from the trapper and disappeared into the night.

*****

Buck raced his mare across the open prairie, but the past kept pace and could not be outrun. He reined the horse to such a sudden stop she nearly sat on her hind legs as he slid from her back and fell to his knees in the tall grass.

Buck had watched Red Bear openly grieve for Five Horses after her death, but was too young at the time to join him in the ritual. He quickly stripped off his vest and shirt and turned his face to the sky in search of the gods of his faith.

In the stillness of the night, swaying with the rhythm of the bending grass, Buck sang his mother's death song. He sang of her life, her pain and her death, but also of her love for him. In his song he implored the spirits who controlled the land of the dead to give her a place of peace and rest.

When his song was finished, Buck drew his knife from its sheath on his boot and sliced, quickly and purposely, through the flesh on his upper arm, opening a large gash. Dropping his head back, he looked into the dark sky and released a cry of grief. The blood began to flow as he inflicted another wound on himself, and then another until the blood ran freely down his arm and onto his hand.

Buck closed his eyes and allowed himself to remember the chants of his mother's people. The ancient words brought an odd sense of comfort as he felt the pain of the knife, his grief releasing itself in the flow of his own blood and the long over due tears of a motherless child.

*****

Buck raised his head and looked into Teaspoon's worried face. "No," he answered. "No, Teaspoon. I'm not in trouble."

The older man exhaled slowly like he was letting go of something heavy.

"Cody and Kid told you what happened?" Buck asked.

Teaspoon nodded. "Yep, they did."

Buck really didn't feel like talking, but Teaspoon deserved an explanation after sitting up waiting half the night. He was going to have to face Cody and Kid in the morning, anyway. Maybe if he told Teaspoon what happened he wouldn't have to tell the others.

"I followed the trapper from the saloon to his camp and confronted him with what he said about my mother. He denied that it was him who hurt her . . . said it was just a story. He liked to tell stories, guess it made him feel like a big man."

"He said his partner was the one who attacked my mother. The Sioux killed him for cheatin' on trades years ago."

"You believe that, son?" Teaspoon asked.

"I suppose so," Buck answered slowly. "I don't know. I…I thought I would feel something, a connection of some sort if it was really him and I didn't. I just wasn't sure. So I let him be."

Teaspoon nodded his approval, but a question still lingered. "Whose blood is it, Buck?"

Buck held his hands out in the lamplight. He hadn't thought about the blood and wasn't sure Teaspoon would understand. "It's mine," he quietly answered.

"Are you hurt, son?" Teaspoon asked.

Buck shook his head. How could he explain a mourning ritual to a white man? He remembered though that Teaspoon had talked about spending time among Indians.

"I was young when my mother died. Eleven maybe. I never grieved properly for her. Tonight I felt the need to."

"You don't need to explain, Buck," the older man said. "I understand."

They sat quietly for a time and when Buck spoke again, he was surprised how easily the words came.

"When I was little, I would lay awake at night and think of all the ways I could kill my father. I would have tonight, without a second thought, if I had been sure it was him. Does that make me a bad person?"

When Teaspoon answered it wasn't what Buck expected. "Buck, my father left my ma with four kids and another on the way. I watched her work herself into an early grave taking care of us and swore I would hunt that man down and put a bullet through his heart. Does that make me a bad person?"

Teaspoon's words took Buck by surprise. "Did you ever find him?"

"No, son, I didn't."

"Would you have killed him if you had?"

Teaspoon drew a deep breath. "Ain't rightly sure, Buck. Finally stopped lookin'. Decided that much as I despised him, he was half responsible for puttin' me on this earth." Teaspoon raised an eyebrow and gave Buck a mischievous grin. "And I have enjoyed my time on this earth."

Buck bit back his own grin. He waited for a moment before turning the conversation back in a darker direction. "Sometimes I worry that I might be like him, might have that same anger and cruelty inside me. It scares me, Teaspoon."

"Well, son, I admit there is a bit of an angry streak in you, but it's not the same thing. Your anger is against injustice, not the kind that would hurt someone just for the hell of it like your father. You're a good man, Buck. You ain't capable of somethin' like what he did."

Teaspoon stretched his legs, and yawned, then scratched at his chin.

"Now, I know there are many schools of thinking 'bout this. I do think that some traits are born in a person, but I honestly believe, son, that what a man becomes is largely up to him. I've seen many the son of an honest man swinging at the end of a rope, his mama crying "Lord, where did I go wrong?" Likewise I've seen the son of a drunkard take up the cross and follow Jesus. I don't know much 'bout the other boy's parentage, but Lou's father weren't no saint and he's growin' into a fine young man."

Buck hid his amusement behind his hand and chuckled to himself over the fact that Teaspoon still didn't realize Lou was growing into a fine young 'woman'.

"Buck, I know it ain't easy, but there's no point tormenting yourself over that man and what he done to you and your mother. It ain't fair and it ain't right, but you gotta find a way to make peace over this or it'll poison you. I don't want that to happen."

In that moment it struck Buck that this man really did care. It was a feeling he was not familiar with.

"I miss her," he said quietly. "She gave up everything for me. She didn't have to keep me or love me, but she did. Her life was ruined because of him. Because of me."

"After all these years, Buck, I miss mine, too. Ain't nothing so pure, so powerful as a mother's love for her child. I do believe Caeser's legions of soldiers would lay down their swords and surrender rather than battle a mother protectin' her young."

"Buck, it may have been an act of violence that brought you into this world, but it was the acts of a mother's love made you the man you are. If I was gonna dwell on somethin', son, I'd dwell on that."

Teaspoon put his hand on Buck's shoulder, using it for support as he rose to his feet. "These bones of mine are too old to be keeping such late hours. I'm headed to bed. You best do the same. Them stalls are gonna be callin' your name in the mornin'."

Buck watched him stiffly walk down the porch steps. "Teaspoon," he said, pausing for a moment as the station manager turned back. "Thank you."

"For what, Buck?"

"For worrying about me."

Teaspoon nodded in understanding and turned toward his shack outside the barn.

Buck turned down the wick in the lantern until the flame guttered out. He turned to lean back against the porch post, listening to the secret sounds of late night. A breeze whispered through the leaves of the tree in Emma's yard. Somewhere a coyote called out, low and mournful, in the distance. Another answered. Closing his eyes, he saw the face of his mother, Five Horses. The memories came easier this time. The faraway look in her eyes as she felt the scar on her face. The touch of her hand tending his bruises and wiping away his tears. Her moment of hesitation before taking his knife and cutting off her hair to match the length of his. The apology in her eyes as she lay dying. Buck smiled at the memories and tucked them away safely. They were infinitely more important to him than hatred of a dead man.

The acts of a mother's love. Teaspoon was right. He would dwell on that.

THE END

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