Author's Note: This story is a sequel to "The Acts of a Mother's Love". While it is not entirely necessary to have read the original story…it would help the reader understand some of the details of this one.
The beat of the drum is the heartbeat of the Earth . . . calling to her children . . . calling her children home.
As he stepped into the yard from the bunkhouse porch, Buck couldn't help but notice how quiet the station had become, and it saddened him. The place that had been so full of life and laughter, a place full of love, a home to a mismatched family as tight as any blood relations was now still, the laughter gone, the family split.
The turbulence that threatened to divide a nation had blown westward and settled over Rock Creek, sweeping the Express family into its storm. Evidence of the coming conflict soon followed in tangible form as Army troops rolled into Rock Creek and every other town in the territory that could offer a fresh supply of young men. Rock Creek was Teaspoon's jurisdiction, but the Marshal could exercise no control over the Army and watched helplessly as recruiters lured young innocents away with promises of the glories of battle.
Cody quickly fell prey to the romantic portrayal of war. Despite Teaspoon's words of warning and more accurate depiction of the realities of battle - realities witnessed first hand - the normally light hearted rider turned surprisingly serious and rode away, committed to his duties as a Union Army scout.
Jimmy's departure soon followed, his decision to leave prompted not by an Army recruiter, but by the persuasive words of Rosemary Burke and the Abolitionist Cause. Rosemary's involvement in Noah's death deepened the division between the riders and Jimmy rode out with their differences unresolved. Buck knew his friend had feelings for the older woman, but feared Rosemary did not hold Jimmy in the same regard and would merely use him to further her true passion - the Cause. Buck had known such a woman. Rosemary's motive might be less self-serving than Kathleen's, but being used for a noble cause was still being used.
This war confused Buck. Violence was commonplace among the tribes of the plains, but the reasons for it were always clear. The Kiowa fought to preserve their land, to avenge a wrong or to obtain what they needed to survive. Decisions were made, battles fought and it was over. It seemed to Buck that no one could clearly decide what the white man's war was about. Whether they argued over boundaries, state's rights or human bondage was unclear. Too many people talked and rather than making decisions, the talking became louder as each voice strained to be heard. Once the yelling started, the actual issues seemed to disappear, individual agendas taking their place.
Kid had not yet made his decision. Buck knew his loyalties lay with the South and Kid waged his own personal battle over whether or not to return to his native Virginia to take his place in the Confederate ranks. If Kid truly felt a call in his heart to go home, then Buck felt he should go. It would be difficult to watch another friend choose a side and leave, but in the end, each of them had to make their own decision.
Small dust clouds hung in the evening air, marking each footstep, as Buck shuffled aimlessly through the dry yard to the corral, now and then kicking a stray rock out of his path. He climbed the weathered planks two at a time and assumed his usual perch atop the railing to watch the depleted herd of horses, decisions of his own on his mind. The end of the Express was near. The dwindling number of runs and the advance of the telegraph lines confirmed that. Although life among the white man was still difficult, Buck had grown comfortable within the safe confines of the Express family. Once the Express was disbanded and his family torn apart by the country's changing times, what was he to do?
It wasn't that he had no options, on the contrary, several had presented themselves within the past week. The carefully folded letter placed securely in his shirt pocket only added to his dilemma.
"Quiet, ain't it?" Lou remarked as she approached the lone figure. The appearance of the spirited young woman brightened Buck's mood some. He didn't answer, merely nodded in agreement and glanced down as she stepped onto the bottom fence board to increase her height and crossed her arms over the top rail. Given the opportunity, Lou had blossomed into a lovely young woman, her trousers and work shirt now replaced with crisp white cotton and calico. Buck smiled at Kid's bride wondering how anyone could have ever mistaken her for a boy.
Lou's future held an uncertainty that perhaps was the most knotted of all. Committed to her husband, if not his allegiance, she vowed to follow Kid to Virginia if he chose to return. Kid's indecision had drawn lines of worry on Lou's pretty face, but Buck noticed a calmness about her that he hadn't seen for a while. Perhaps Kid had made his choice.
Lou had successfully held her curiosity at bay for most of the day, but Rachel's comment finally got the better of her and she had to ask.
"Rachel said you got a letter today. Good news?"
Buck found Lou's curiosity amusing. There weren't many people in the world who would send him a letter and he knew she was aware of that.
"Maybe," Buck stated simply, countering Lou's inquisitiveness with feigned indifference.
Lou waited expectantly for more, but the young Kiowa hadn't laughed for a while and teasing Lou was a welcome diversion. Finally succumbing to Lou's look of disappointment, Buck continued. "It's from Sam."
"Did Emma write, too?" Lou asked hopefully.
Buck shook his head. "No. Just Sam. I thought I'd read it to everyone after supper."
"Well, I hope it's good news," Lou replied. "Teaspoon got a letter today, too. From the look on his face when he opened it, it ain't good news. Supper's 'bout ready, you comin' in?"
"In a minute," Buck answered as Lou hopped off the railing and headed back to the bunkhouse.
Buck turned his attention back to the horizon as the sun lost its grip on the shortened autumn day and slipped out of sight. A formation of wild geese was silhouetted against the evening sky. The beautiful winged creatures possessed the awesome knowledge of nature and fascinated him. Something instinctive, something coursing in their blood, told them to fly when the air changed, their destination unquestioned. If only his own direction could be chosen so easily.
Teaspoon pushed himself back from the table, pulled the red checkered napkin from his shirt collar and wiped away the crumbs from his whiskers. The Marshal leaned back in his chair allowing his meal to settle and let his eyes rest briefly on each remaining member of his family seated at the table. Although there was plenty of room to spread out, they sat together at one end as if the table was still crowded, unwilling to accept the space created by the departure of the other riders.
Teaspoon heaved a sigh of resignation and pulled an envelope from his pocket. "Well, can't say we didn't expect it, so this ain't gonna be no shock," he said and removed a single sheet of paper from the envelope. His supper companions glanced at each other with knowing eyes, then fixed their gazes on the neatly scripted wording on the familiar stationary of Russell, Majors and Waddell.
"This here's the official word. As of. . ." Teaspoon hesitated for a moment, scanned the lines of text for the information he needed, then read directly from the notice. "As of twelve o'clock, noon, October 24, 1861, the Pony Express will cease operations. All employees of the Pony Express are hereby given notice that as of the aforementioned date and time their services are no longer required and employment with the firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell is terminated."
"Today?" Rachel questioned, her eyes opened wide in surprise. "But the telegraph lines aren't done yet. I thought we'd have a little more time."
"A little notice would have been nice," Lou said. "We risked our lives workin' for that company and this is how they treat us!"
Teaspoon shrugged. "Reckon they needed riders up to the very end, so they didn't say nothin' earlier. Prob'ly afraid you'd all leave if you knew when the axe was gonna fall." His eyes flitted across the document again. "Says here that operations will cease due to a 'negative cash flow position'."
"What's that mean, Teaspoon?" Kid asked, straining in the dim lamplight to see the wording on the offensive piece of paper.
"Means you're gonna be lucky to get paid," Teaspoon answered with some reluctance. He then set the letter on the table and pushed it away, anxious to be rid of it.
"Not get paid?" Kid asked. "We did our jobs, they owe us our pay!"
"I agree with you, Kid. But it seems the folks who invested in the Express pulled their money out to get rich quick with the railroad, leavin' the Express with a lot of debts and no money to pay 'em."
The Marshal leaned his chair back on two legs and stuck his thumbs under his suspenders. "To make matters worse, the station itself has been sold. Not just ours, neither. All of 'em along the trail bein' sold off to cover the company's debts. We gotta be out by the fifteenth of next month so's the new owners can take possession."
Teaspoon paused, surveying the long faces surrounding him. "Sorry folks, but looks like the Express is history. Was a mighty fine idea in the beginnin', but I reckon you can't stop the wheels of change once they start rollin' and now we gotta move on with 'em."
The bunkhouse was quiet for a few minutes as the weight of a simple piece of paper fell on the room. Lou nudged Kid in the ribs and he finally broke the unwelcome silence. "We was gonna wait 'til it's approved, but this seems like as good a time as any. Lou and me been thinkin' a lot lately about our future. Thinkin' 'bout where home is. I've decided the South can go to war without me. We're stayin' here."
"Well, I'm pleased to hear that, Kid," Teaspoon said with a wide smile of approval, thankful one of his boys had some sense.
"I talked to Jonas Wilkens at the bank today about a loan to buy the Emerson place. Don't know much about farmin' but I 'spect I can learn quick enough," Kid said. "Maybe buy a few head of cattle, too. We planned on addin' this month's wages to the down payment, but guess we'll just have to borrow a little more."
"The house needs a little work, but it'll be ours," Lou added, leaning into her husband as Kid wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "Rachel, I was kinda hopin' you could help me with curtains and such?"
"Honey, I'd love to. We'll get started right away," she answered. "Then I suppose I'd better see if that room's still available at the boardin' house. I must admit, it's been a bit much teachin' school and mindin' the station. There's some children who could really use extra attention. Now I'll have time to give 'em."
"What about you, Buck?" Teaspoon asked the young Indian who had remained quiet throughout the entire conversation. "You given any thought to my offer? Barnett'll be leavin' soon, although I can't imagine the U.S. Army's gonna want him any more'n I did. Gonna need a deputy when he moves out."
"We was thinkin' you might wanna go in with us on the farm," Kid added hopefully. "That is, if you ain't gonna pin on a badge permanent."
Buck looked up from his plate, a picture of indecision drawn on his face. "I don't know yet."
"What was in your letter from Sam?" Lou asked anxiously, remembering their earlier conversation at the corral and Buck's nondescript explanation of its contents. "You said it might be good news."
"News from the Territorial Marshal, huh? Well, let's here it, son," Teaspoon said as he placed all four legs of his chair back on the floor and leaned forward.
Buck withdrew the carefully folded letter from his pocket to oblige Teaspoon's request, cleared his throat and began.
"Well, if that don't beat all!" Teaspoon exclaimed and gave the young Kiowa an enthusiastic pat on the back. "Makes my offer look purdy slim!"
"Guess you won't be wantin' to take up farmin' now!" Kid added. "Gonna be livin' high, workin' for the government. Gonna have to start callin' you 'Mr. Cross'!"
Buck look unconvinced. Although the letter had arrived earlier in the day, the paper showed wear and the creases were deep, evidence that it had been folded and unfolded, read and re-read.
"I don't know."
"What's not to know?" Lou asked, perplexed why Buck wasn't as excited about his opportunity as they all were.
"Marshal Cain's right, Buck. You'd be perfect for the job," Rachel insisted giving Buck's arm a little shake as if to bring him to his senses. "You could do somethin' important."
"I don't know . . . never thought about workin' for the government is all. I don't trust 'em." He said as he folded the letter and placed it back in his shirt pocket. "I just don't know."
Buck lay awake listening to the silence in the bunkhouse. He normally was appreciative of the stillness of the late night, would have given a month's pay for a little privacy now and then back in the old days when the room was filled to the brim with riders, but now it was unsettling. It wasn't so much the quiet that bothered him, but the reason for it. They were gone. The family he once boasted about to Red Bear - the family that lived together, fought together, acted as one - had fallen apart like the staves of a whiskey barrel without the metal band holding it together. He realized now that he had been naïve to think the bond they shared would always be there. Maybe it was still there to a degree, but it certainly wasn't as important as it once was. "Teaspoon was right, " he thought sadly. "You can't stop the wheels of change."
He was pleased that Lou and Kid would be remaining in Rock Creek, but it wouldn't be the same. They had already moved out of the bunkhouse, accepting Rachel's offer of the extra room and a more appropriately sized bed in the house. They were starting their own lives, maybe even start a family someday. The Emerson place had been abandoned for quite a while. It would be a lot of work for just the two of them. The newlyweds could use his help, but he'd never planted anything in his life. The Kiowa were hunters. Farming was an honorable profession, but he just couldn't picture himself behind a plow.
With Barnett leaving, Teaspoon needed a deputy and he felt obligated to the older man. Teaspoon was the closest thing he ever had to a father and Buck didn't want to disappoint him or appear ungrateful. He and the other riders had assisted the Marshal numerous times, but he never really felt comfortable as a lawman. The residents of Rock Creek respected the badge, but not the half-breed who wore it.
Before moving out, Cody and his commander urged Buck to join them scouting for the Union Army. In deference to Cody, Buck hid his distaste for the uniform the officer wore and politely declined the offer. He had no desire to partake in the coming conflict and despite the commission promised him, doubted the Army would give him any greater respect than the citizens of Rock Creek did.
Buck was flattered by Sam's recommendation to the Governor, but it just didn't feel right. He couldn't imagine the lawmakers in Washington would be all that concerned over fair treaties with the Indians once war between the North and South heated up. Even if treaties could be negotiated, they would be broken as quickly as the white man could change his mind. Buck had seen it before. How could he act on behalf of the government knowing their words were hollow?
But changes were coming whether he liked it or not and he had to do something. Buck tossed in his bunk and pulled the blanket tighter around himself to ward off the chill in the empty room. He didn't approve of Cody and Jimmy's impetuous actions, but at least they had made a decision and were doing what they thought was important. That was more than he could do. If only Ike was still alive. They would face an uncertain future together like they always had. Ike would pull him into some scheme and after some initial hesitance, he would follow his friend - just like the day Ike dragged him into the Pony Express office in Sweetwater.
Buck never really wanted to be an Express rider. It was just a job when he and Ike needed one. The work suited him and to his surprise, he had gotten lucky and found a family in the bargain. But his family had grown apart and Ike was gone. Ike had been his anchor and without that tether, he felt himself drifting aimlessly. Buck tossed again, uncomfortable with the emptiness in the room. He reached for the medicine bundle around his neck, fingering the precious contents inside, hoping for a little guidance. He didn't want to plant seeds in the ground and pray for rain. He really didn't want to be a lawman or a treaty maker either. In his entire life there was only one thing he had ever really wanted to be.
"Kid, I think you might be better off just burnin' it down and startin' over," Buck suggested a bit uneasily as the two friends stood on the roof of the old house, surveying the damage caused by time, weather and neglect.
Kid knelt down on the battered shingles and peered into the gaping hole in his roof. The empty attic space grabbed at his words and threw them back slightly muffled. "I know it ain't the best, but we can't afford to start over." Kid straightened as he withdrew several tree branches that had been deposited in the dark cavity by some long forgotten storm and pitched them into the growing pile of debris in the yard. "Besides, Lou says the house has charm. She likes it."
Buck looked at Kid doubtfully, cocking an eyebrow to accentuate his skepticism. "Well, maybe so. . . . but it also has a good sized hole in the roof, a porch 'bout ready to rot off and a half dozen or more broken windows."
"Yeah, it'll take a little time," Kid acknowledged, sliding to a sitting position on the sloped roof. The young man looked upon his property with pride, dreams of the future dancing brightly in his eyes. "But. . . I figure time's what we got the most of."
The Emerson place was, in deed, in poor condition. Lou's comment that the house needed "a little work" turned out to be quite the understatement. Still, the young couple, anxious to embark on a new life together, seemed oblivious to the peeling paint, missing stair steps and sagging porch. Somewhere underneath the layers of grime hid the home Lou and Kid envisioned, but Buck secretly wondered if his friends had taken on too much. The barn was in only slightly better condition and all that remained of the chicken coop was a heap of brittle lumber covering a bed of straw, turned gray and rotten with mildew, and a pile of dirty feathers. Still, he couldn't help but envy them and the future they would have at the homestead.
"The middle of the month's comin' up, Buck," Kid said, tossing a loose shingle into the pile of trash below. "You decided what you're gonna do?"
Buck shook his head and sank to a sitting position on the opposite side of the hole. "No," he answered with more frustration in his voice than was intended.
"There's a place for you here, you know. There's plenty of room in the house for now and once we start makin' some money maybe we could build another one."
Buck nodded, acknowledging the possibility, but the look in his eyes betrayed his feelings and Kid knew the hopes of a partnership would not come to fruition. "This isn't what you want though, is it?"
Buck inwardly cringed at the disappointment in Kid's voice. Kid would never be able to take Ike's place in Buck's life and he never tried to, but the two had become fairly close since the mute rider's death. Kid had been a good friend when he needed one and Buck didn't want to offend him. He had put off declining Kid's offer for as long as possible, hoping that perhaps if he waited long enough the idea of farming might become appealing.
"No. I appreciate it, but . . . I don't think farming's right for me."
"I understand," Kid conceded, not really surprised by Buck's answer. "If it feels wrong then it's wrong. Simple as that."
Buck gnawed on his bottom lip for a moment, squinting in the afternoon sun. "Problem is . . . I don't know what is right for me."
"Buck, I don't think anybody really knows. You just gotta take a chance on what feels right and don't give up on it. Take me and Lou for instance. Lovin' Lou felt right and after a while I was certain of it. It wasn't easy, I'll admit that. But I didn't give up and now I've got everythin' I ever wanted." Kid pushed himself up from the roof and faced his friend. "Maybe you just need to take a chance, Buck."
Buck snickered at the thought and looked at Kid as if he was spouting nonsense. He certainly didn't consider himself the chance taking type.
"Well, you got a little while left. I'm sure somethin' will come to mind. I'm gonna go get some more lumber. I don't think we got enough to cover this hole."
Buck watched Kid pick his way across the damaged roof. He disappeared down the ladder, but his words lingered behind. "Take a chance, Buck." Buck grabbed his tools and tried to direct his energy to the roof repairs, scolding himself for the crazy ideas running around in his head. But try as he might, they wouldn't leave him alone. They bounced through his thoughts and took deeper hold with every strike of the hammer. Any of the offers before him would provide a decent living . . . but that wasn't enough. He wanted more than food and shelter. He wanted what Kid had. He wanted permanence and a sense of purpose in his life.
A sound rising up out of the plains interrupted Buck's thoughts and he turned his eyes toward the empty expanse of sky, trying unsuccessfully to locate the source of the low, distant rumble.
"Somethin' wrong, Buck?" Kid asked as he reappeared atop the roof with a supply of new lumber.
"No," Buck replied slowly, still scanning the horizon. "I thought I heard somethin'. Thunder I guess."
Kid looked doubtfully at the sheet of blue hovering over them. "You must be hearin' things. There ain't a cloud in the sky."
Buck's look of puzzlement remained as he fixed his gaze on the grassy plain leading west, the distinct rhythm still present. "Maybe so."
It couldn't have been a more perfect day if Buck had plotted it, detail by detail, on paper. A turquoise sky was dotted with featherbed clouds, creating a serene, almost picture book setting that invited him to lean back, relax and reward himself for a job well done. Kid had urged Buck to 'take a chance' and after careful consideration of his options, he took the position with the Territorial Governor's office.
Much to his surprise, Buck found he had a talent for negotiation. His sincere desire to create a lasting peace was evident to all parties. Buck's even temper and innate sensibilities held back the animosity and mistrust that often turned the treaty process volatile. Compromises on both sides had been made and a fair agreement reached. With a new found confidence in himself, Buck watched chiefs from the six Kiowa bands appear on the horizon and approach the meeting area. Pride in his heritage swelled within him as the colorful parade of chiefs, resplendent in flowing headdresses of eagle feathers, passed by. The small wooden table displaying the treaty sat unevenly on the ground and wobbled slightly as each leader made his mark on the piece of parchment that would secure the future of the Kiowa.
Although a solemn occasion, Red Bear's admiration for his younger brother shined brightly in his eyes and erased any doubt in Buck's mind that he had made the right decision regarding his future. He finally had his brother's respect, something Buck had wished for his entire life. He was no longer an outcast little boy, but a man capable of creating change, correcting past wrongs. Rachel had been right, he was doing something important and it felt good. Very good.
A long line of government officials approached from the opposite direction. Donned in impressive attire, Buck couldn't help but think they looked quite out of place on the dry patch of prairie designated as a neutral site. They had no knowledge of this place or its people, but he did. Protecting the Kiowa's rights, as well as ensuring the safety of white settlers passing through Indian lands, was his responsibility.
Buck breathed a deep sigh of relief as the last official approved the treaty with an arrogant flourish of the pen. Two lines of leaders - one red, one white - faced each other and with a respectful nod of the head signaled their business was finished. Buck watched the delegations turn in their respective directions, the look of pride and contentment on his face turning to horror as the white leaders suddenly drew pistols hidden in their long coats and fired on the trusting Kiowa.
Buck rushed forward pleading the white men to stop in a mixture of Kiowa and English - uncertain which language was his. But his cries fell on deaf ears. The unarmed Kiowa leaders lay dying, the word "traitor" forming on their gray lips. Buck ran to Red Bear, but the life had left his brother's body. "Why?" he screamed at the white men as he clutched Red Bear to his chest, his hands stained with his brother's blood.
The white man in charge simply shrugged and brushed the dust from his fashionably cut coat.
"We changed our minds."
Buck bolted upright in bed, the dream so vivid he could still feel the wet stickiness of Red Bear's blood and he hastily wiped his hands on his blanket to rid himself of his sin. Coming fully awake, his pounding heart slowed and his fears began to fade. It had been a dream, nothing more. Still, the vision of mass murder haunted him and the quiet of the bunkhouse was disturbing. Although Cody's late night ramblings had been annoying at times, he would welcome the tow-headed rider's tall tales over the silence. But there would be no heroic stories and no snide remarks of disbelief from the other riders to fill the emptiness. The quiet keeping him awake, Buck pulled the blanket from his bunk and left the room, taking a seat on the porch to watch the night sky and ponder his future instead.
Buck wrapped the blanket around his shoulders and leaned back against the porch post, shifting until he found a comfortable position. The fall air was crisp and full of the new season. The passing of summer was complete and autumn owned the calendar. The residents of Rock Creek seemed to take little notice. The cooler air simply meant an additional layer of clothing, but it was an important time for the Kiowa. Their dependence upon the buffalo for their livelihood kept the Indians on the move through the warm months, following the giant herds that roamed the plains. But when the air changed, bringing the promise of razor sharp winter winds, the nomadic plains tribes left the hunting grounds for shelter in the hidden valleys that dotted the foothills. The Kiowa were a summer people - strong and confident, empowered by the sun - and looked upon their annual migration and the gray, sunless days ahead grudgingly.
He wondered if the summer had been good to them and in the same thought, asked himself why he should care? Why should he care if the buffalo had been plentiful or if the uneasy balance with the encroaching white man had shifted? They had never wasted a moment concerned with his welfare. Most simply looked through him, but others had been intent on ridding their village of the unwanted half white and made his life so miserable they succeeded. Even so, and for reasons he didn't understand, Buck still felt a tie to the people who had ostracized him. Rather than turn his back on them in similar fashion, he repeatedly went out of his way to protect them, often bringing the wrath of the white man on himself. The move to Rock Creek had taken him far away from his people.
The Kiowa were "his people". The ritual he had endured when Ike was captured had confirmed to the non-believers, and to himself as well, that his spirit was Kiowa. Perhaps if Red Bear had not released him from his promise he would have been accepted by his mother's people and the wish of a lonely little boy would have finally been granted. At the time though, his desire for acceptance was outweighed by his love for his new white family. A family now gone its separate ways as Red Bear had predicted.
A good deal of time had passed since then. Would the Kiowa still be willing to accept him or had his only chance come and gone? To be accepted was the only thing that battered little half-white boy had ever wanted and the desire still burned in the heart of a strong young man.
Buck picked himself up and returned to his bunk, ready to rest, his decision made. The future still held uncertainty, but his life couldn't go forward, unless he went back.
Rising up like ghosts, the voices encircled him. Cody's infectious laughter filled the room and Jimmy's sullen moodiness hung from the rafters. Tender words of affection between young lovers hid in the corners and Teaspoon's bark bounced off the walls. Hushed too early, Noah and Ike's presence guarded the room where children had grown into adults.
Buck fastened his saddlebags and glanced around the bunkhouse to make sure he wasn't leaving anything behind. Not that it would matter all that much if he did. He never realized how dark the bunkhouse was before or that the mantle over the fireplace was slightly crooked and the floorboards squeaked terribly. Funny the things you don't notice about a place until you leave it. The room was lifeless and cold. Buck threw the saddlebags over his shoulder, took a final look around and left the room to the ghosts.
For a moment he envied Cody and Jimmy. They had departed without ceremony. Buck steeled himself and garnered his composure before stepping away from the porch and into the crisp morning air to meet the assembly gathered on his behalf. The small group stood waiting for him beside his clay colored mare, looking more like a pack animal with the load of provisions Rachel insisted upon, than the Indian pony she was. The horse seemed impatient to be on their way, and pawed at the ground while Buck secured his bedroll, saddlebags and rifle scabbard. Delaying the inevitable, he checked and double checked his equipment before drawing a deep breath and finally turning to face the party.
"The weather could get bad any time now. You sure you don't want to wait for spring? Kid asked, grasping for anything that could change Buck's mind.
"I can't, Kid," Buck replied, searching for a way to convey to his friend the longing in his heart that he didn't quite comprehend himself. "I just feel that I need to go now. I can't explain it."
Even if he had an explanation, Kid wouldn't have understood. He didn't understand why Buck would possibly want to return to the people who had treated him so badly that he felt forced to leave the only home he had ever known and venture into a different world. He feared his friend would receive the same abuse, or worse, the same rejection that he had experienced before. Kid had seen Buck verbally and physically harassed by white men, but their treatment paled in comparison to the torture he willingly submitted to when Ike was captured by the Kiowa. Buck's decision just didn't make sense, but it was his decision to make. Kid consoled himself remembering Teaspoon's explanation, "an Indian thinks with his heart, not his head. " He could only hope that Buck's heart knew what it was doing.
"I'm gonna miss you, Buck. I hope you find what you're lookin' for," Kid said and grasped Buck's extended hand to wish his friend farewell.
Buck reached into his pocket with his free hand and produced a small brown envelope carrying the local bank's insignia. He slipped the envelope into Kid's hand.
"What's this?" Kid asked.
Buck shrugged. "Just a wedding present. Fix the roof, alright?"
"Buck…we're not gonna take your money," Kid protested.
"It's alright. I held out enough to get me where I'm goin'…"
"And what if they don't…" Kid broke in.
"…and enough to get me back if need be," Buck finished. "Just take it, Kid. Don't want the snow blowin' into Lou's pretty new house this winter."
Kid started to object again, but the look of quiet resolve on his friend's face stopped him. There was no winning when Buck set his jaw like that. Kid turned the envelope over in his hands a few times, thinking.
"On one condition. It's not a gift. It's an investment. Means part of the place is yours. Means you got a place to come home to," he said and after a moment Buck nodded in acceptance of the compromise.
Buck turned to Lou and wrapped his arms around the young woman, lifting her off the ground.
"Promise me you won't go back to wearin' men's clothes, alright? I like you this way."
Lou managed a teary eyed nod of agreement. This was hard - losing another brother. At least Jimmy and Cody were nearby, in places with actual names and she could probably find them if she needed to. But Buck was headed for another world. He might as well be going to the moon.
"I really love you," she said quietly into her friend's ear. "You know that, right?"
"I know," he answered and set her feet back on the ground. He brushed a tear from Lou's cheek with his thumb and studied her face until it was good and solid in his memory. "I really love you, too."
"You be careful," Rachel ordered, folding down the collar of Buck's jacket and pulling it tighter around his shoulders. "It's a long trip."
"I'll be fine, Rachel. Would you make sure this letter to Sam gets posted? I hope he understands why I can't take that job."
Rachel pulled the young man into her arms before accepted the neatly addressed envelope. "I'm sure he will," she answered, but at the same time couldn't help but feel that Buck was throwing away a future full of bright possibilities. Rachel smiled weakly to hide her disappointment. She gathered her shawl around her shoulders, but it provided little comfort against the chilly emptiness that filled her each time her family grew smaller.
Buck had successfully retained his composure, but all self-assuredness fell away as Teaspoon ignored his outstretched hand and instead pulled him into a firm embrace.
The older man had watched this boy tip-toe between two cultures, claiming both, but committing to neither. The path he walked grew narrower and eventually a choice had to be made. Teaspoon suspected Buck's lingering doubts about his future would send him back to the place where all his questions originated, and perhaps that was as it should be, but it didn't make the parting any easier.
The touch of the man's strong arms around him brought a feeling of such security that for a moment Buck's convictions began to falter. It would be safer to stay. He didn't know what his reception would be. The hand that reached out to welcome him home could just as easily hold a dagger. But he wasn't looking for safety. His soul longed to sing a melody of belonging and he heard no music in the white man's world. Buck swallowed hard, and with effort finally forced his words past the lump lodged in this throat.
"You never saw my color and I thank you for that, Teaspoon. I feel I owe you and I'm sorry I can't be what you want. But I've carried these questions inside me for so long . . ."
"I know. . . I know. You don't need to explain," Teaspoon assured him, experiencing some difficulty with his own words as well. He pulled Buck tighter to him, giving him his blessing, reluctant to let the boy go, but proud of the young man who made the decision to leave.
"You go find your answers. If they tell you to stay with the Kiowa. . . then it's been an honor knowin' you, Buck. If they lead back here . . . then you know the way home. You do what your heart tells you, son, and you'll never be wrong."
With a slight movement of the reins, Buck veered his horse off the compacted earth of the trail and headed across open prairie. There was just one more thing he needed to do. But before the animal covered more than a few yards, he reined her to a stop, realizing the needlessness of his actions. He breathed deeply, filling himself with the moist morning air, then reached forward and gave an affectionate pat to his trusted mount. The animal shook her head and stepped impatiently as if displeased with her rider's indecisiveness.
It had taken time, but the icy coldness that wrapped around him as he gazed upon the mound of earth, rising up like a monument in the distance, had finally mellowed to a bittersweet warmth. Buck intended to pay a final visit to the grassy knoll where Ike's ashes lay, but decided the white man's custom of visiting a loved one's resting place wasn't necessary. His friend wasn't there. Ike's remains lay scattered under a rug of dried grass and faded wildflowers, but his spirit floated free. Buck was certain of it. He had felt Ike's breath in the breeze that cooled his face on a hot summer day and in the whisper of the wind that turned the cottonwood's silvery leaves into a thousand shimmering mirrors. He saw him in the wink of the fireflies, raising their lanterns at dusk. His touch would be felt in every glistening snowflake that fell from above, blanketing the earth with a pure and perfect beauty. No, Ike wasn't on that hill. Ike would travel with him.
Buck would have preferred to cover the miles between Rock Creek and wherever he might find his brother's village in as little time as possible, but he no longer had a change of mounts every ten miles. The little mare beneath him begged to race, but he held her in and they traveled at a slower pace than either of them wanted. The clay colored horse was a precious animal, a gift from Red Bear years earlier to carry him into the foreign white world. The animal was older now and Buck wouldn't risk her safety. She had carried him away from the Kiowa. . . now she would carry him back.
He rode the familiar trails for a time until the open country called his name and Buck eagerly answered, urging the little horse into unmapped territory. The landscape enthralled him and he gazed upon the wonders of the season as if seeing them with new eyes. They traveled near a nameless river, partly because he and the horse needed fresh water and partly because he enjoyed the gurgling, almost giggling, sound it made as the water tumbled over rocks and tickled the riverbank with liquid fingers. The trees lining the river grew rebellious with the changing season and no longer were satisfied with the monotony of green. Touched by a brush of frost, they burst into individuality, painted in a palette of scarlet, orange and gold, in a final show of their finery before the nakedness of winter. Each color demanded his attention and Buck's pace turned almost leisurely as they followed the meandering path westward.
Buck kept his distance, not wanting to startle the children playing in the yard. He knew Emma had sold the house to a young family, but he couldn't pass so close to the old station and not stop for a moment.
It really hadn't been so long ago that a bewildered group of orphans gathered in that yard and watched their new employer bathing in a horse trough. Buck smiled at the memory of the grizzly older man wiping his face with a horse's tail. He had to admit that for a moment or two, he had wondered what on earth Ike had gotten them into and questioned the sensibilities of the man with the strange name. But his doubts were quickly set aside, replaced with an intense respect for the colorful station manager. Surprisingly, Teaspoon seemed to understand from early on the pain he harbored deep in his soul. Buck remembered a night shortly after he joined the Express when an unexpected encounter at the saloon in Sweetwater opened up old wounds and sent him on a mission of revenge. Teaspoon had waited up half the night worrying about him. The older man's concern came as a surprise and for the first time in his life, he felt the love of a father.
His life had changed here and memories tugged at him like an old acquaintance. Ike had been his close companion for years and he felt fortunate to have such a friend. He fully expected that Ike would be the only friend he would ever have and a friend like Ike was plenty. But as the riders shared each other's lives and fought side by side, a bond greater than anything he could have ever hoped for grew between them and bound them together. Even though they waged occasional battles amongst themselves and petty jealousy reared its head once or twice, he felt he was truly lucky to be a part of their family. The spirits had smiled upon him.
A pang of something Buck guessed must be homesickness crept up unexpectedly and settled on his chest. The feeling was somewhat uncomfortable, but he was hesitant to brush it away. He had been a part of something rare and wonderful and a voice inside urged him to turn around, go back and try to find that feeling again with what remained of his white family. But another, stronger voice demanded he listen to the cries of the small mixed blood boy that still echoed through his memory. After a quick glance back, Buck turned his horse to continue on the journey. The love for his white family was still strong, but he needed to dry the tears of the child.
The little horse sensed the nearness of her birthplace as the land leveled into the high plains. The prairie stretched endlessly before them, amber grasses waving a welcome, bidding them to enter the wide flat land. The Indian pony begged to run and Buck finally loosened the reins. She surged forward, ears laid back against her head, nostrils flaring to breathe in the spirit of her homeland as the last miles disappeared beneath her hooves.
There was something starkly beautiful in the emptiness of this place - a place where horse and rider lose themselves and become one with the land. Rather than insignificance, Buck felt a sense of comfort in this union with the earth. It spoke to him in ancient voices that rose up from the dry ground and found flight in the autumn breeze. This grassland, wild and wide and everlasting, held him in the palm of its great and benevolent hand. The young Kiowa dropped the reins, letting the animal race to her goal and opened his arms wide to embrace the wind.
The hunting grounds had welcomed him, but were fiercely loyal to its people and provided few clues to their whereabouts. He would have to work for it, show that he was worthy. The tribes of the plains were masters at simply vanishing and Buck's search for any sign of the Kiowa grew tedious. He didn't expect to find Red Bear's band in the hunting grounds, they would have moved to a more secure location by this time of year, but if he could find an old camp he was certain he could follow their trail. After five long days scanning the endless prairie for remnants of a camp, Buck was tired and frustrated. The hours of light grew shorter with each day and the night air demanded a fire, but firewood on the prairie wasn't plentiful and at times he had to resort to burning dried buffalo chips instead.
Buck had purposely stayed away from towns and the snide looks that waited for him there. It was just easier that way. But the provisions Rachel packed were nearly gone and he was developing an extreme dislike for the taste of rabbit. Buck could have located other game, but it was more important to search for signs of a camp. Hunting took additional time he didn't have. He longed for a warm bed, a decent meal and a bath. A conversation with something other than his horse would be nice, too. Late November now, doubt assailed him and Buck began to think he should have listened to Kid and waited for spring when the village would be easier to locate.
He walked the endless stretch of prairie until his feet ached and his eyes blurred, searching for anything - a bone discarded from a meal, a patch of brittle grass that would betray a past fire, a tuft of buffalo hair removed from a hide - but found nothing. His frustrations blinding him, Buck didn't notice the hole hidden under the dried grass and stepped squarely into the obstacle, twisting his ankle as he fell unceremoniously to the ground. Cursing his clumsiness, Buck released his aggravation on a clump of grass. Rudely ripping the sod from the earth he heaved it mindlessly into the late afternoon sky, clods of dirt falling away from the roots of the grass, pelting the ground like brown hail. Feeling no better for the effort, Buck sank down wearily and withdrew his foot from the hole. Gingerly removing his boot he cursed aloud in Kiowa again, his ankle already beginning to swell. He didn't need this.
The disgruntled look he wore slowly gave way to a knowing smile as he inspected the hole more closely. Ignoring the nagging pain in his ankle Buck stood and hobbled through the tall grass. To his delight he found two similar holes spaced equally from the first one. These indentations might have gone unnoticed by an untrained eye, but Buck knew the three main support poles of a tepee had been placed in those carvings in the earth. Altogether, he discovered fifty or so such groupings of holes, indicating a village of fifty-some families. From what he remembered, only two of the six Kiowa bands contained that approximate number, the Kata and his band, the Sindiyuis, and the Kata generally kept to the northern region of the hunting grounds.
Feeling better about his situation than he had for a while, Buck hastily set up camp and limped off to locate the makings of a fire. A healthy stand of cattails marked the location of a water hole and Buck eagerly slipped his fortuitously injured limb into the pool. He sat quietly and reclined back on his elbows, soaking up the remnants of afternoon sun while the cool water eased the swelling and the red horse drank her fill. Painfully aware on one leg he would be no match for a crafty rabbit, Buck had to be satisfied with hard biscuits and beef jerky for supper, but he didn't really mind. He'd eaten his fill of rabbit anyway. With any amount of luck he'd have a proper meal soon.
The night sky was calm and breathed easily, twinkling the canopy of stars overhead with each exhale. The air was brisk, but the fire near him provided adequate if not comfortable warmth and Buck lay back on his bedroll, staring aimlessly into the night sky. He clasped his hands behind his head, breathing as deep and easily as the night sky did, finally able to relax. There were stories in the stars, though he hadn't thought of them for quite a while. The muted noises of the prairie night and the crackling of burning wood carried him back to an evening, years before, when the storytellers of his village recanted the tales of earlier days to a captive audience of Kiowa children.
The old one told of a place where no grass grew and the mounds of earth were painted dark colors. Buck had never seen this place, but knew that before finding their home under the prairie sun, the Kiowa had dwelt in the shadows of the black hills the story teller described. He told a story of eight children, seven sisters and their brother, who went to play at the base of a rock. Something strange happened to the boy and he was struck dumb. He began to tremble and move about on his hands and feet like an animal. His hands became claws and fur covered his body as the boy became a bear. The change in their brother terrified the sisters and they ran away from him, but the bear, their brother, chased after them. Searching for shelter, the sisters came upon the base of a great tree that spoke to them. "Climb upon me," the tree ordered and the sisters did as they were told. The tree raised them into the air safely out of the bear's reach. The bear angrily reared at the tree, scraping the bark of the tree with its claws. To ensure their safety, the tree bore the sisters high into the sky and they became the stars of the Big Dipper. From that moment on, the sisters have guarded their earth bound Kiowa kin from above.*
Buck smiled at the thought and pulled his blanket closer as muscles wound tight by the long journey began to uncoil. Locating the constellation in the dark sky, the weariness overtook him and he fell into a welcome rest, a look of something close to contentment on his face. The emptiness of the land around him was consuming and there wasn't another human being for miles in any direction, but Running Buck of the Kiowa wasn't alone. He had family in the sky.
*The legend of the boy and his sisters was described in "The Way to Rainy Mountain" by N. Scott Momaday. The large tree trunk that carried the sisters to the sky is actually the plateau now known as "Devil's Tower" located in the Black Hills of northeast Wyoming. The plateau is a sacred place to many of the plains tribes.