Author's Note: Set near the beginning of Season 2, only a short while after Noah has joined.

Chapter 1

Lieutenant Warner tightened his grip on the reins but remained expressionless, as he watched them ride away. He fought the urge to draw his pistol and just gun them down. He had a clear shot and would have no qualms about shooting the worthless savages in the back, apart from the fact it would be expressly against orders. The fifty or so warriors, overlooking their position, festooned in feathers and sitting on painted ponies, creating striking silhouettes against the blazing sun, was another good reason not to act.

Sergeant Cutler sat passively on his horse, at the Lieutenant's side. The tension emanating from his commanding officer was palpable and he was only too aware of the frustration and anger the Lieutenant must be feeling. He too felt this was a fool's mission and a waste of army time and resources. To expect these savages to be reasonable and agree to sign a treaty, giving them the right to continue to live on a portion of land, donated by the U.S. government, was preposterous, in his mind. But orders were orders and he'd been in the army long enough to know you didn't question the reasoning of higher ranks but just do your utmost to carry out your duties, to the best of your abilities.

Casting a quick glance in the Lieutenant's direction, Sergeant Cutler knew he felt the same and this was all too well illustrated by the younger man's clenched jaw and stony, yet resigned expression. Feeling Cutler's gaze upon him, Warner took a breath and cleared his throat.

"Sergeant," he said, in a commanding tone.

"Sir?" Cutler replied.

"Prepare the men to return to town."

"Yes, Sir." Cutler spun his horse around and started barking orders to the dozen or so assembled men, who had been waiting patiently.

Lieutenant Warner took one last look into the distance, at the hills into which the Indians had disappeared from view and turned his horse to join his men.

As he did so, he muttered, "I'm not done with you damn heathens yet."

**********

Cody ran his fingertips along the brim of his hat and smirked at his image, in the mirror, before him.

"I swear, Cody, if you stand there preening yourself anymore then we're never gonna get to town," Noah told him, placing his own hat on his head and making for the bunkhouse door.

"Ain't nothin' wrong with trying to look your best and showin' a little pride in your appearance," Cody retorted. "Especially when there may be a lady involved," he added, with a grin and a wink.

"Heck, Cody, the day any lady is gonna pay some attention to you, is the day you say you ain't hungry," Jimmy told him flatly.

Raucous laughter filled the bunkhouse as Cody slid a sideways look of annoyance in Jimmy's direction and maintained a nonchalant expression.

"Well, we going or not?" asked Noah. "You sure you're not gonna come, Buck?" he enquired of the only one not preparing to leave.

"I'm sure," the dark haired rider, sitting at the table, replied in a low husky voice, as he turned the page of the book he was pretending to read.

Ike regarded his friend with concern.

"I'll be fine. Kid should be back from his run soon. Just don't feel like going into town today," Buck stated.

"Well, if you're sure," said Noah, guiding Cody out of the door with a firm hand on his back.

"I'll have a sarsaparilla for you, Buck," Cody called over his shoulder, before bouncing down the bunkhouse steps and making his way to his horse, with Noah and Jimmy close behind. Ike paused at the door and smiled at Buck, giving him a small nod of understanding and then he followed the other riders.

Buck sighed as peace and quiet descended. Placing his book on the table, he moved to the window and watched his friends ride away. It would have been good to go to town with them but he knew it could only bring them trouble and that was something for which he didn't want to be responsible. The riders needed little help in finding trouble at the best of times. With the army in town and all the latest Indian activity, he felt the best thing to do was to lay low for a while. No need to invite trouble - he'd leave that to Hickok!

All the same, he couldn't help but worry about his Kiowa friends and his brother, Red Bear. He knew his life was here, in the white world, with the Pony Express now but the mounting intolerance, against the Indian nations, caused him great concern. His standing within the community was tenuous enough and he felt powerless to help his people. All he could do was wait and see what would happen, although he knew in his heart that the outcome would not be good for the tribes.

For a while he stood, leaning against the window frame, lost in his thoughts and memories, gazing out at the open space, which led to the mountains, which were so similar to those where he had spent his early years with his mother and brother. He had some happy memories from those days, mainly about his mother and the care and devotion she had shown in their short time together. Red Bear had been as good a brother as propriety would allow, within the ways of the Kiowa but Buck knew his half blood status had been a burden to his brother. But those days were long gone and he'd made a new life for himself, here with the Pony Express and, for the first time in a long while, he was happy.

Movement on the horizon caught his attention and he could just make out a rising dust cloud and a dark speck. Making his way outside, he waited on the porch for the figure to get closer, confirming it was Kid, returning from his run. As the rider neared he was able to make out Katy's distinctive markings and knew for sure his friend was coming home safe and sound, giving him a brief feeling of relief and elation. Raising his hand in greeting, he stepped off the porch and waited for Kid to rein in the mare.

"How was your run?" Buck asked casually, to hide his true concerns.

"It was fine," Kid replied, as he slid tiredly from the saddle.

"No trouble?"

"None," Kid answered, taking Katy's reins and beginning to lead her towards the barn.

"That's good," Buck responded, strolling alongside him.

Kid suddenly pulled Katy to a halt. "Everything alright, Buck?"

"Fine."

"Only you seem a little … I don't know … uneasy?"

Buck looked at Kid's earnest face. "There's been some more trouble and the army is in town," he told him in way of explanation.

"Oh," Kid replied simply, instantly understanding Buck's apprehension. "Where's everyone else?"

"Town, apart from Lou who went with Rachel to the Huxley's to help with some chores."

"Mr. Huxley's arm still not mended?" Kid asked, leading Katie into the relatively dark, coolness of the barn.

Buck shook his head in response, as he leaned on a wooden partition, watching Kid remove his horse's tack.

"Why didn't you go to town with the others?"

"Didn't feel like it."

Kid caught Buck's eye as he turned to put the saddle on the partition. The young Kiowa dropped his gaze and grabbed a handful of straw and busied himself in helping rub down the mare.

Kid started to unbuckle the bridle. "You got no reason to hide away, Buck. You know we'll back you up," he said sincerely, understanding his friend's reluctance to go to town.

Buck said nothing but carried on vigorously rubbing the mare's back. Kid gave Katy's ears a scratch and flicked a look at his Indian friend.

"Things'll work out, Buck."

Buck gave a derisive snort. "Yeah, when all the tribes have been driven from their land," he retorted angrily, rubbing the mare's flank a little harder.

"I'm sure it won't come to that," Kid answered, but his response lacked conviction.

Letting the straw fall from his hand, Buck patted Katy's neck. "Rachel left some food for you in the bunkhouse. I got chores to do."

Kid watched him leave, knowing full well that Buck had probably finished all his chores hours ago, always being one of the first to rise in the morning, understanding he just needed a little time alone. He finished rubbing down the mare, gave her an extra scoop of feed and headed indoors to get some food for himself.

**********

Lieutenant Warner stood inside his tent, unbuckled his sword and tossed it aside, onto the camp bed. Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeply. He felt he was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, the Indians fitfully representing the devil and the sea being the blue of the uniform he wore so proudly. His orders were to get those heathens to sign some useless piece of paper and, if he was ever going to get that promotion he had worked so long and hard for, that was exactly what he intended to do, no matter how he achieved it.

He was a man who had come to the army in desperation and it had offered him a refuge from the constant ridicule and disapproval he had faced from his father. He had never quite managed to live up to the formidable man's expectations. The alternative would have been to work in the family business and that was something he would never have been able to stand. He felt he needed to prove himself to his over bearing father once and for all and obtaining a high rank within the army was the only choice he seemed to have. All that stood before him and a captaincy was those damned Indians.

The snap of the tent flap being opened caught his attention

"Anything I can do for you, Lieutenant?" his loyal sergeant asked.

"No, that's fine, Sergeant Cutler. I've got some paper work to catch up on and some thinking to do on how to resolve our situation."

"Yes, Sir," Cutler replied, deferentially. "I'll leave you to it then, Sir," he said, beginning to duck back out of the tent.

"Sergeant," Warner said quickly, "why don't you take some time out, get yourself a drink and consider our problem too. I trust your judgement and know you have more field experience than me."

Sergeant Cutler stepped back inside, stood up straight and saluted the Lieutenant respectfully. "Yes, Sir," he said proudly.

Once outside, he smoothed down his hair, placed his hat carefully on his head, pulled on his gloves and headed off in the direction of the saloon, with a jaunty swagger. He'd learned a long time ago how to play the officers, to get them to your way of thinking, without them even realizing and Lieutenant Warner was the perfect foil. He felt no real loyalty towards the man but he did feel the young officer had been handed a raw deal with his current orders. He was as unhappy at being stuck in this backwater of a town, having to deal with a bunch of savages with little possibility of a successful outcome, as his commanding officer. In his mind it would be a lot simpler just to kill the whole damn lot of them.

It didn't take him long to locate the saloon and, licking his lips thirstily, he pushed his way through the bat wing doors. He noted there were only a few other patrons in the room, which suited him fine. Three men sat hunched over a card game at one table and one other man propped up the bar but they were the only other customers. He knew most town folk accepted the army being there but there were a few who went out of their way to show their displeasure. He was in no mood to deal with such folk today.

Making straight for the bar, he ordered a beer and a whiskey, ignoring the impertinent look from the bar tender and settled himself at a table in a back corner, where he sat in the shadows, sinking low in his seat so as not to draw any unwanted attention to himself. The saloon was quiet for a short while and he was enjoying the solitude when suddenly the doors burst open and a rowdy bunch of young men burst in and ordered a round of sarsaparillas. He was further irritated when they chose to sit at the table next to his but, as he'd nearly finished his drinks, decided to pay them no attention and make himself as inconspicuous as he could.

"Can't believe I got me a run tomorrow," griped the one in buckskins, with scraggy, blond hair. "Don't s'ppose anyone wants to swap?"

"You s'ppose right," the one with long, dark hair, replied, taking a sip of his drink.

The young Negro sat back in his chair and laughed and arched his eyebrows and gave an emphatic shake of his head as the blond one looked at him hopefully. The one wearing a bandana on his head, merely held up his hand, pressed his lips together and shook his head also. The Sergeant gave them all a covert quick once over and, deciding they offered no threat, apart from disturbing his peace, returned his attention to the amber liquid in his glass.

The riders were unaware of the attention they'd drawn from the soldier and, indeed, were so taken up in their own conversation, hadn't really noticed the man at the table next to them.

"Seems you're outta luck, Cody," Jimmy told him.

"And favors," Noah added. Ike folded his arms and smiled at the blond rider, who was resigning himself to the fact he had a long ride ahead of him the next day.

"I could always ask Buck," Cody said, thoughtfully.

"Nope, can't do that. He's on the run with me later in the day. Teaspoon wanted two of us to go," Jimmy informed him, draining his glass. "Anyone want another?" he asked, getting to his feet. Ike finished his own drink, nodded and got up to join Jimmy. "Let's go take a look at that poker game over there, Ike. Might be able to help them out." Ike smirked and followed the would-be gunfighter.

Cody sat back, folded his arms and pulled a sulky face.

"Never mind, Cody. At least you've got the easier run. From what I heard Teaspoon tellin' Jimmy, the run he and Buck are goin' on could be kinda tough on account that they gotta go right through Kiowa land. The Express don't stop for nothin'."

"Reckon that's why Teaspoon wants Buck to go along - just in case."

"Just in case what? Can't see that Buck'll be that much help against a war party, even if he is half Kiowa," Noah commented.

"He might be, considering he's the war chief's brother," Cody told him, somewhat smugly.

"He's what?!" Noah squeaked, his eyes wide with surprise.

Cody sat up and leaned forward enthusiastically, happy to have a captive audience. "Not long after we joined the Express there was some Indian trouble and Ike was taken captive. Buck managed to get him released, after doin' some sorta trials, to prove himself Kiowa. His one half may be white but it turned out he's half brother to Red Bear, the chief."

"You don't say?" Noah responded, in amazement. "He don't ever talk about it."

"Would you?" Cody asked.

"Guess not. That why he didn't wanna to come into town today?"

"Yeah. Folk don't take too kindly to him whenever there's any trouble, so he tends to keep his head down."

"I'm guessing they don't know about his brother, right?"

Cody raised his eyebrows at his friend. "Can you imagine what would happen if they ever found out? Buck wouldn't stand a chance."

"And I thought my life could be tricky," Noah muttered, taking another sip of his drink.

Their conversation turned to more mundane matters and they did not notice the man, in the blue uniform, surreptitiously slip from his seat and exit the saloon.

**********

Lieutenant Warner snapped the ledger, in which he'd been writing, shut and tipped the remnants of his glass into his mouth. He held the warm, comforting liquid there for a moment before swallowing and debated his next move. He supposed he would have to go back and see the town Marshal - Hunter, wasn't it? Although, he had to admit, the man hadn't seemed too happy to see the army arrive in his town, commenting it always seemed to spell trouble. Perhaps he would be able to persuade the Marshal to suggest someone who could speak to the Kiowa for him. His own interpreter seemed to be sorely lacking when it came to negotiation.

Lifting the whiskey bottle, he was about to pour himself another glassful when there was a dull rapping on the post outside his tent entrance.

"Begging your pardon, Sir, I was wondering if I might have a quick word with you," came Sergeant Cutler's voice.

Warner closed his eyes in irritation at the interruption but told the Sergeant to enter, placing the bottle back inside a draw. Wouldn't do to let one of his men see him imbibing.

"Yes, Sergeant Cutler, what can I do for you?" he asked, returning the salute.

"Sir. I believe I have some important information for you."

"Well, I hope it's good news. I could do with some right now."

"Pretty sure it is, Sir."

"Well go ahead man, spit it out."

"I was having a quiet drink in the saloon, as of your instructions and …"

"Not sure I mentioned the saloon, Sergeant. We don't want any unnecessary bad feeling towards us in this town."

"No, Sir. Thing was, while I was in there a bunch of young men came in and …"

"Sergeant Cutler, if you're going to tell me you got into a fight with them and the good news is you won, I'm afraid you're going to be very disappointed in my response."

"Yes, Sir - I mean, no, Sir," a flummoxed sergeant responded. "Nothin' went on, Sir. In fact they didn't notice me at all and carried on talking. From what I could make out they rode for the Pony Express as they were discussing runs and such like …"

"And this is going to help with our present predicament, how?"

Sergeant Cutler stuck back his shoulders and took a breath. "Thing is, one of the riders is an injun."

"Ah, you've managed to locate a new interpreter. Good work, Cutler."

"That's not all, Sir. This particular injun is the chief's brother."

"What do you mean?" Warner asked in astonishment.

"Just what I said, Sir. I heard one of them Express riders tellin' another somethin' of real interest. Turns out that one of the Express riders is a half-breed and the war chief, Red Bear, is his half-blood brother."

Warner squinted at his sergeant, considering this new information and just how it could serve to his advantage.

"You think this half-breed would act as an interpreter for us and talk to his supposed brother? I understand the Marshal is involved with the Express and I intended to ask for his help."

"He may do, Sir. No harm in askin', although I don't think his connection to the chief is widely known so best not to say nothin' about that. Folks might get a bit tetchy about it and no point stirrin' up no trouble."

"Hmmm?" Warner considered this proposition, not certain he'd have the full cooperation of the hard-bitten Marshal, let alone the half-breed rider.

"I'll go and see Marshal Hunter first thing in the morning," Warner told the sergeant, saluting to signify his dismissal.

Cutler returned the salute and ducked back out of the tent, not sure the lieutenant had fully understood the implications of his information.

**********

Chapter 2

"Rider comin'!"

Cody burst out of the bunkhouse door and ran towards the horse, which Buck was holding. He swung himself agilely into the saddle and gathered the reins. The other rider was coming at speed and Cody watched his approach over his shoulder.

"Take care, Cody," Buck said earnestly.

"Don't I always?" Cody replied, flicking him a quick grin before focussing his full attention on the leather mochila, being thrust towards his outstretched hand. The horse leapt forward as he dug his heels into its sides, just as Buck skilfully released the reins.

Buck watched him ride off, in a ball of dust and said a silent prayer. The sound of raised voices drew his attention back towards the bunkhouse, where the recently arrived rider was talking animatedly to the others.

As he strolled towards them Buck caught part of the conversation.

"How many did you say there were?" Noah was asking.

"About fifty," Tom Cawley, a rider out of Scott's Bluff, replied.

"Fifty?" Jimmy queried with a skeptical look.

"I'm tellin' ya, there was a good number of 'em, just movin' up the trail. There were loads of them but it was real spooky 'cos it was so darn quiet. They seemed to move like ghosts or summat."

The riders looked apprehensively at Buck as he came nearer and he sensed their unease. He cast a look about the group and no one seemed willing to meet his gaze. "What is it?" he asked calmly.

"We're not sure, may be nothin'," Noah responded.

Tom shifted uncomfortably on his feet.

"Tom reckons he saw a load of Kiowa braves when he came through Platte Bridge," Jimmy offered.

Buck's eyes widened. "You sure the were Kiowa?"

"Can't be sure. All injuns look pretty much the same to me but it's Kiowa land there's about so seems likely," Tom said assuredly.

"When was this?"

"Yesterday, early evening. I was looking for somewhere to water my horse when I heard somethin'. Looked over a bluff and there they were, loads of them, all painted up and everything," Tom told Buck, who furrowed his brow and looked perplexed.

*What is it? * asked Ike.

"I'm not sure," Buck replied, hesitantly.

"Doesn't sound good, whatever it is," Lou commented, hooking her glasses on her ears, putting on her deeper voice for Tom's benefit.

"Depends what it is. Could just be a hunting party," Buck replied, looking worriedly into the distance, as he considered the possibilities.

"They was covered in feathers an' paint - war paint!" Tom explained.

"Not necessarily," Buck replied calmly. Tom narrowed his eyes at him.

"What do you think they could be up to, then?" Tom demanded with more than a hint of suspicion.

"How should I know?" Buck said defensively.

"Well, you're one of 'em, ain't ya?" Tom snarled back. Buck bristled at his words but merely glared at the young rider.

Sensing the rising tension, Kid stepped in. "You must be starved, Tom. Come and get some breakfast with us." He steered the rider towards the bunkhouse where Rachel was preparing the morning meal. Tom went with him gladly. The others began to file in behind, except for Buck and Jimmy, who remained outside for a while. Jimmy regarded his Kiowa friend's thoughtful expression.

"What ya thinkin'?"

"I'm not sure. Seems unusual for that many braves to be on the move like that and there could be any number of reasons, most of them not good."

"What about the paint? Could it be war paint?"

"There's more than one type of paint. Tom isn't exactly an authority when it comes to Indians. Could be ceremonial, for good fortune in hunting."

"But it could be war paint?"

"Maybe."

"But you don't know for sure, Buck," Jimmy cautioned.

Buck sighed. "No, no I don't."

Jimmy looked uneasily at Buck. "Reckon we should tell Teaspoon?"

"Probably," Buck said wearily.

Jimmy regarded him for a moment then sighed, knowing there wasn't much they could do about the situation for now. "Come on, let's go and get some food before it all gets eaten. At least Cody ain't here so there might be something left. Got a feelin' we're goin' to need a good meal inside us before our run later." Hooking his thumbs in his belt, he ambled towards the door. Buck stood for a short while, looking towards the mountains, before following him inside.

As he stepped through the door the conversation seemed to diminish and Tom Dooley clamped his mouth shut. Noticing the uncomfortable looks on the others' faces he guessed there had been further discussion about what Tom had seen, perhaps saying things they didn't want him to hear. He stood looking at the assembled group, unsure whether he'd be comfortable joining them.

The decision was made when Lou grinned up at him and said, "Managed to save some pancakes before this bunch of hogs ate them all."

Rachel came towards the table with a plate of fresh pancakes. "I kept some warm for you," she said, setting them down, with a genial smile.

Jimmy scooted over in his seat, to make room for Buck, who joined the other riders at the table. Ike, who sat opposite, gave him a small nod of reassurance and the conversation turned to other matters.

All the plates were empty and they were just clearing away, when Teaspoon entered. He stood in the doorway and scanned the room. "Buck, can I have a word with you, son - outside?" Buck turned to look at the Stationmaster, recognizing the solemnity in his question.

Teaspoon's tone was all business and the rider's responded by respectively keeping quiet, while Buck slowly got to his feet.

"Sure, Teaspoon," he said calmly, pushing his plate forward and avoiding eye contact with anyone as he rose from the table before joining the older man outside the bunkhouse.

"Let's take a walk, son," Teaspoon directed. Buck nodded and fell into step, alongside the Stationmaster.

Inside the bunkhouse Tom lifted his cup to his mouth and, just before draining its contents, commented, "I'm tellin' ya, where there's injuns, there's always trouble." The riders frowned at him but didn't comment, knowing their words would be lost on a fool like Tom Cawley.

**********

Teaspoon didn't say anything for a short while and carried on strolling, hands clasped around his suspenders, head slightly bowed in thoughtful contemplation. He knew Buck wasn't going to take kindly to what he was about to ask but he had to ask and, you never know, it might be a good thing, he tried to reason to himself.

Buck sensed the other man's unease and walked deferentially at his side, waiting patiently for him to speak, even though his gut was tight with apprehension. Had something happened in town and was he, being the designated Indian, being blamed? Had there been more trouble with the Kiowa and Teaspoon was having a hard time trying to tell him? Many thoughts rushed through his head but he remained outwardly composed as he strolled with him over to the corral.

Teaspoon rested a foot on the lowest rail and leaned on the top, regarding, or pretending to look at, the horses milling about inside. Buck stood next to him.

"Son."

Buck tensed. Here it comes, he thought.

"A lieutenant from the army came to see me this morning."

Buck's eyes flicked nervously.

"He came to ask me somethin'."

Still Buck waited, without speaking, with trepidation.

"Now, I know how you feel about the army, an' all, but hear me out."

Buck remained silent. Teaspoon sighed and took a breath.

"Thing is, seems they're in some sort of talks with the Kiowa, some treaty they're tryin' to sort out and their own interpreter ain't up to much. Somehow they got to hear about you and he came to ask iffen you'd be willin' to go and help with negotiations." Teaspoons words spilled out in a rush before he stopped and glanced at Buck. The young Kiowa fixed his gaze straight ahead, not wanting to see Teaspoon's face when he disappointed him.

"No," he replied, quietly but firmly.

"Now hold on, son, just think this through before ya go makin' decisions. Might not be a bad thing if you went along, made sure things were done right, speak up for the Indians and ..."

"I won't do it, Teaspoon," he interjected. "The army isn't concerned in what the Kiowa have to say, any of them and that includes me. It'll just bring more trouble to my people and I won't be responsible for that. I won't be welcome by them, either. My brother made it clear that I would not be accepted back when he told me to leave. Best I can do is keep out of it."

Teaspoon turned to look at the younger man. He had not fully realised the extent of Buck's situation among the Kiowa. His dark, haunted eyes said it all. Laying a caring hand on Buck's shoulder, Teaspoon gave it a squeeze.

"I know this is hard for you, son. I ain't gonna push you. You gotta do what you think's right," he told him and, with that last comment, the older man walked away, leaving his young charge with his thoughts. Buck couldn't help but think he'd let him down in some way. In his heart he knew there was little he could do to help with any treaty and even if he did he knew, in all probability, the outcome would not be good for his people. He didn't want to be a part of that but perhaps he was being selfish and should try.

He crossed his arms on the top rail of the corral and rested his forehead on them. With closed eyes and slow, steady breaths he considered his options. After a while he came to the conclusion that he had decided his place was in the white world. His brother had made that abundantly clear to him the day of the trials and his place within that world was as a Pony Express rider. It was his designated job and that was what he should put his energies into and do the job as best he could, to prove himself to those about him, a half-breed was as good as any other man. Having come to a conclusion, he stood up straight, pushed his shoulders back, his mouth set determinedly and went back to the bunkhouse to get ready for his run, with Jimmy, later in the day.

**********

Teaspoon Hunter stood on the top step of the bunkhouse, arms folded across his chest, watching Buck tighten his cinch and Jimmy place his second gun in his saddlebags.

"You sure about carrying that extra weight, son?" he asked, more out of a sense of duty than true concern, because he had a feeling it was probably a good idea to take extra precautions on this run. He'd been informed of a recent incident where Indians had attacked an Express rider and he couldn't help but worry for his boys, but the mail had to go through. That was their job and they got well paid for it. Sometimes he wondered if it was enough.

"Quit worryin', Teaspoon. I know what I'm doin'," Jimmy Hickok replied flatly.

Teaspoon bobbed his head in understanding and took the couple of steps down to stand beside the two riders.

"You make sure you keep your wits about you, boys. After what Tom told us you can't be too careful."

"We'll be fine, Teaspoon," Jimmy replied confidently, placing his foot in the stirrup and stepping up onto his palomino.

"You got the parcel you're to deliver?" the older man asked, looking across at Buck.

"In here," Buck told him, placing his hand on the mochila, looped onto his saddle horn, which he grabbed hold of to expertly swing himself into the saddle.

"Best get going then if you're gonna make it to Deer Creek before dark. There ain't no return package so no need to push the horses too hard comin' back. Just keep your eyes and ears open for any trouble," Teaspoon reiterated. Resting a hand on Buck's horse's neck, he looked up at the young Kiowa. "Just do your job, son."

Buck looked down at the man and saw the sincerity in his eyes. He nodded his head in compliance and wheeled his horse around and brought it alongside Jimmy's.

"Ready?" his fellow rider asked.

"As I'll ever be," came the reply, accompanied with a lopsided grin. Jimmy smirked back as he gathered up his reins.

"See you in a couple of days," Jimmy called out as he followed Buck out of the yard at a gallop.

Teaspoon stood and watched them leave with heavy heart. It was never easy sending these young boys off to God knows what and this time it was even harder. The decision to send two of them on this run was one he was glad he had made, and Teaspoon Hunter knew his boys would look out for each other and make it back safely. Hopefully.

**********

Chapter 3

They made good time to the Deer Creek station. Their horses ran with an easy stride, which ate up the miles, as the riders expertly maneuvred them over the rough terrain. They did not talk much as the pace, which they had set, did not allow for conversation and both were being vigilant, looking out for any trouble. Both were grateful when they reached their destination without incident.

Jimmy pulled his horse to a stop at the hitching post and gratefully slid from the saddle. Just as Buck was about to do the same a couple of riders came out of the way station. They eyed Buck contemptuously. Jimmy caught the looks, as he finished tying off his horse. He shot a glance over his shoulder to gauge Buck's reaction, only to find him still sitting in his saddle, outwardly passive but Jimmy could see the frustration and anger in his Kiowa friend's eyes.

"You got a problem?" he asked languidly, addressing the two men. He was dog-tired after the run and was looking forward to resting up. He didn't take kindly to the way they had been greeted.

"Not with you we ain't, but this here injun ain't welcome," the taller of the two men, replied, folding his arms defensively across his chest.

"He's an Express rider, like me and this here is an Express station so this is where we'll be stayin'."

Jimmy made to step forward but found his way blocked by the second man. "Like we said, ain't no problem you comin' in here but he can go somewheres else." He indicated towards Buck with a jerk of his thumb.

Jimmy sighed deeply and looked the man straight in the eye. "We're not goin' nowhere. I'm tired and hungry and this is a way station, where Express riders like you and me and him, come to rest up," he said with measured deliberation. "Now, if you don't mind …" Jimmy made a move forward and felt a hand against his chest.

"Jimmy," Buck warned in a low voice, "I'll go find somewhere else to stay."

"Now that's a real good idea, boy," the tall man sneered.

"No it ain't!" Jimmy snarled.

"And just what do you aim to do about it?" the other leered directly into Jimmy's face. It was at this point that Jimmy's patience wore a little too thin.

"This!" he replied and punched him squarely on the jaw.

The man staggered backward but managed to remain on his feet. Regaining his balance he made a rush forward, knocking Jimmy down the steps, onto his back. The man leapt on top of him, pinned him to the ground and landed a few well-aimed punches in his side.

As soon as the first blow had been landed Buck started to get off his horse, to go and help Jimmy. The click of a gun's hammer made him hesitate.

"Think you'd be wise to stay just where you are, injun," the other man instructed, his gun aimed at Buck's chest. An infuriated Buck complied.

Jimmy and his assailant rolled about on the ground, grappling with each other, managing to land the occasional hit, while Buck and the other man looked on, the latter with a gleeful face of anticipation. The fight was suddenly interrupted when a small, weasel-like man appeared around the side of the building and boomed, in a voice that seemed much bigger than his structure, "What in tarnation's goin' on here?"

With strong, confident strides, Tad Newley, the Deer Creek station master, walked over to the wrestling pair on the ground and, grabbing the back of Jimmy's jacket, pulled him off his opponent.

"What the hell ya doin' Hickok?" he asked irritably. "You causin' trouble again, Eugene?" he directed at the other man.

"He started it," Jimmy responded, childishly, waving his arm at Eugene, who stood with a stunned expression, realizing exactly with whom he'd been tangling.

"And put that gun away, Larry," Newley instructed.

Larry obligingly lowered his gun and placed it back in his holster. "Sorry, Hickok, iffen I'd known who you was I never …" He trailed off, looking both sheepish and uncomfortable.

"Now, someone mind fillin' me in to what's goin' on?" Newley requested, hands placed firmly on hips and brow deeply furrowed.

"I told them that injun wasn't welcome at the station," Eugene told him defiantly, swiping the back of his hand across his mouth, smearing the blood, which had appeared in the corner of his mouth and glaring at Jimmy

"And what gives you the right to do that?" Newley retorted.

"I ain't sleepin' in the same room as one of those murderin' bas…." Jimmy's hand reached out with lightning fast reaction as he made a grab for Eugene, stopping him from finishing his sentence.

Newley smacked down Jimmy's arm. "Enough!" he yelled. "Firstly, I make the decision who sleeps at this here station and secondly, Buck isn't one of them Indians. He's an Express rider, so's got the right to spend the night here. Iffen you don't like it, find yourself somewhere else to sleep and while you're about it, cool yourself down. Iffen you can't do that you'd better start looking for another job."

Eugene and Larry looked momentarily chastised before gathering themselves and muttering something along the lines of 'no Indian was going to push them out of their beds', adding something unintelligible about Buck's heritage. Newley glowered at them until they slunk off, back to the bunkhouse.

"Thought you knew better than to be drawn in by a couple roughnecks like them two," Newley said to Jimmy.

"Yeah, well, I probably should but they were bad-mouthing Buck and I'm too goddamn tired to stand around discussing it," Jimmy replied grumpily.

"You know the Company's rules about fightin'?" the stationmaster queried.

Jimmy grunted a non-committal response. The older man shook his head and glanced over at Buck, who was still sitting on his horse.

"You got anythin' to say?"

Buck shook his head and averted his eyes, suddenly finding a small stone on the ground fascinating.

"You just passin' through?" Newley asked.

"Yeah. Got a package to deliver over at Cottonwood. Teaspoon sent both of us because of the trouble there's been lately," Jimmy explained. "We'll be off first thing in the morning when our horses have rested up."

"Don't want some fresh mounts then?"

"Nah. We're not on a timescale with this one so we'll be able to take it steady. Appreciate the offer though. Just need something to eat and a good night's sleep and we'll be on our way at first light."

Newley sniffed and nodded. "Just keep away from them two. They're not bad lads. Just that the rider who got jumped the other week, by a band of Indians, was one of their friends, so they're a little jumpy right now."

Jimmy flicked a nervous look at Buck and lowered his voice. "Did they kill him?"

"He was pretty badly cut up. Died a couple of days after they brought him in."

"What tribe was it?" Buck asked.

"Arapaho, we think."

"I'm Kiowa," Buck stated, quietly but proudly.

"Makes no difference, son. Indian's Indian to them."

Buck accepted his words without comment, knowing them to be true. The prejudice he faced was based on people's encounters with a variety of tribes and they paid no heed to the differences and beliefs of the individual groups. With a heavy sigh and equally heavy heart he dismounted and led his horse towards the corral.

Jimmy gave Newley a thankful nod and followed.

He brought his horse alongside Buck's and started to unbuckle the cinch. Buck, who had already removed his saddle and put it on a fence rail, looked over the back of Jimmy's horse at him.

"Thanks," he said softly. Jimmy raised his eyes to meet those of his friend.

"What for?"

Buck shifted uneasily. "Standing up for me like you did back there."

"Guy was getting on my nerves," Jimmy replied nonchalantly.

Buck smiled.

Jimmy dragged the saddle from his horse's back and swung it onto the rail. He held onto it a moment, his brow creased in thought before he turned to face Buck.

"Why don't you stand up for yourself, Buck?" he asked, perplexed by his friend's impassive behaviour, but without accusation.

"Because there's no point. Most folk have made up their minds about me so my fighting back isn't going to change anything," he said resignedly. "In fact it would probably only make things worse," he added.

"But how can you just sit there and let them say those things about you and do nothing about it?"

"I've learned to live with it, I guess and accept that's just the way things are for me." Buck untied his horse and led it through the corral gate. Jimmy did the same. They slipped the bridles from the horses' heads and watched as the animals shook the dust and sweat from their coats.

"Can't be easy," Jimmy commented.

"It has its moments," Buck remarked, with raised eyebrows.

Jimmy laughed and patted Buck's shoulder. "Let's go see if there are gonna be any more moments."

With the sun dipping below the horizon, the two riders made their way to the bunkhouse. Tonight was going to be a long one, and the sooner they could leave, the better. But right now, all either of them wanted was a hot meal and a soft bunk.

**********
****

They spent an uneventful night at the Deer Creek Express station, although both slept fitfully, ever wary of any trouble, which might arise. Eugene and Larry, for their part, kept their distance and ignored them with only a couple of snide remarks, about the company Jimmy chose to keep, passing their lips. Jimmy almost took the bait but Buck put a placating hand on his arm and looked at him with such pleading, Jimmy backed off.

By the time the sun began to come up both were ready to leave, if not exactly rested. After grabbing a few leftover biscuits to eat on the trail, they made short work of saddling the horses and were soon on their way.

The sky was clear and the going good so they made it to Cottonwood, with ease by the late afternoon. Having delivered the parcel, they made their way to the Express station, where their reception was much more amiable and they passed a pleasant evening playing cards with a couple of other riders.

The next morning, after a good breakfast, they collected a few supplies and set off for home, back to the Sweetwater station. They had come to a mutual agreement not to stop at any stations on the way back but to camp out for the night. They weren't expected back until the following afternoon so did not press their horses but once again set a steady pace.

Along the trail, Buck pointed out things of interest, certain plants and their properties, tracks of animals and general signs of change in the landscape. Jimmy listened intently, astounded by his friend's knowledge of the terrain. In the time he'd known the young Kiowa his admiration for him had grown. It had started when Jimmy heard of the trials Buck had endured, to get Ike released from the Kiowa. He'd seen the way people treated him and Buck's self control and evenness of temper never ceased to amaze him. Sometimes his Kiowa beliefs spooked him out a little but if he had to be on a run with someone, Buck would always be a welcome companion.

He'd be happy to ride with any of the other riders but Buck offered the least amount of complications - well, usually. Whenever he rode with Kid, there was always that underlying tension between them. Jimmy wasn't sure what it was that brought out his competitive streak but whatever it was, Kid did it. Perhaps it just because of Lou, another person he was happy to ride with, but there would always be the temptation to contend with and battle against. Cody just drove him plain crazy, with his continuous, albeit, often entertaining, jabbering. Ike was just too darn quiet. Come to think of it Noah and Buck, the two most visible outcasts were the easiest to get along with!

Jimmy smiled to himself at the irony of the fact and caught Buck looking at him questioningly.

"What's so funny?" he asked.

Jimmy kept smiling and looked away, then looked back at him. "Just feeling happy at the moment, I guess. This has been a pretty easy run and it won't be long before we'll be back enjoying one of Rachel's dinners. Wanna step up the pace a little?"

Buck smiled broadly at him. "Race you to the top of the ridge," he said playfully and kicked his horse into a gallop. Jimmy flicked the reins across the neck of his own mount and set off after him. As Jimmy drew alongside he gave Buck a good-natured shove, causing Buck's sorrel to veer off to the side. Jimmy expected him to catch him up quickly enough but when he glanced over his shoulder, there was no sign of him. Catching a flash of movement behind a bluff, Jimmy realized his friend had taken a different route. He spurred his palomino on, giving the animal its head and raced towards the ridge.

As he rounded the last bend he was suddenly propelled from his saddle, as someone leapt from the bank on his left. He fell heavily on the ground and felt the other person grappling with him, trying to clasp his throat. At first he had thought it was Buck, taking the fun a little too far but as he rolled on the ground, he found he was fighting for his life. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the flash of a blade and soon figured out his opponent was an Indian, dressed in buckskin, a strip of paint across his face and a single feather in his long, dark hair. As he regained his composure Jimmy was able to take more control. The other man wasn't particularly strong and Jimmy discerned he actually was a boy, perhaps a little younger than himself.

They tussled for a minute or so longer until Jimmy managed to turn the boy on his back and pin his arms to his side. "Give it up would ya?" he gasped, as the boy continued to struggle.

Just then Buck rounded the corner, instantly pulling his horse to an abrupt stop when he saw the two figures on the ground. He swung himself from the saddle and ran forward to assist Jimmy. He looked down at the young brave struggling beneath his fellow rider and faltered.

"I could do with some help, Buck. Got me a wild one!" Jimmy grunted, through gritted teeth but the help he requested wasn't forthcoming.

"Buck!" he yelled as the Indian managed to struggled free from his hold. Still Buck stood motionless, just staring, wide-eyed.

Jimmy cast a look at Buck, suddenly worried that his apparent reluctance to help was because he was hurt but could see no instantly visible signs of injury. The next thing he knew was that there was a searing pain in his side. He gasped and his hand went instinctively to where he hurt and felt something hard, yet warm and sticky. Glancing down he saw a knife protruding out of his side. Everything went fuzzy and he was only mildly aware of the Indian boy scrabbling away from him. Jimmy remained kneeling, holding his hand to his stomach.

"Hickok?" Buck's voice filtered through to him and he was able to focus for a moment and raised his head to look at a pair of dark eyes, etched with concern. Jimmy opened his mouth but no words came out, as an over-whelming wave of nausea swept over him. The world swam before his eyes, his head began to spin and then the darkness descended.

**********
*****

Chapter 4

It took Buck a good while to remove the knife and stem the bleeding from Jimmy's wound. It seemed that, even though the blade had penetrated his side, fairly deeply, it had not made contact with any vital organs but had glanced the fleshy part of Jimmy's stomach. Although the wound had bled profusely, it had seeped rather than gushed, and this gave Buck hope. Buck worked tirelessly to stop the blood flow, resorting to stripping off his own shirt to pack the wound, as they carried no spare belongings on their runs. He was grateful that Jimmy remained unconscious throughout, as he wasn't sure what he could say to reassure him at this point in time.

When he felt he had things under control, he tried to rouse Jimmy enough so he could maneuvre him up onto his feet and from there, onto his horse. He knew he needed to get him some help as quickly as possible.

He crouched before Jimmy and tapped his cheek and called his name until he saw his eyelids flutter. "Hey, come on buddy. You're gonna have to help me out here." Buck stood up and moved behind his head. He put his hands under Jimmy's arms, wrapped them about his chest and grimaced as he straightened up, hauling the dead weight of the larger-framed rider upwards. There was a sense of relief and gratitude as he felt Jimmy take some of his own weight and Buck was able to sling one of his arms across his shoulders. He held him cautiously about the waist, careful not to make contact with the wound. Slowly they moved with staggering steps towards the nearby horses.

"That's it," Buck said, through clenched teeth as he reached out to the nearest horse, which happened to be Jimmy's palomino and took hold of the reins, to settle it. Next he lifted Jimmy's arm from his shoulders and placed his hand on the saddle horn.

"You think you can hold on while I push you up into the saddle, Hickok?" asked Buck, holding his swaying friend as steady as he could.

Jimmy turned glazed eyes to him and gave the briefest of nods before reaching out with his wavering hand. Buck guided it to the saddle horn until it came to rest on his other hand, then placed his hand over both of Jimmy's and gave them a squeeze to ensure he was holding on as tightly as possible.

"You ready?"

Jimmy nodded vaguely once more. Buck bent down and took hold of Jimmy's left leg and lifted it to place his foot in the stirrup.

"After three, alright?"

Clamping his jaw tightly, Jimmy prepared himself for the pain that was sure to come with the action he was about to perform. Buck got behind him and counted. On the last number he manhandled him upwards, as Jimmy pulled with what little strength he had left and swung his leg awkwardly over the back of the saddle. He sat gasping for a few moments, as he waited for the stabbing sensation in his side to subside.

"You okay?" Buck asked worriedly, looking up at Jimmy's pale and drawn face.

"Just great," Jimmy groaned back, weakly.

Buck bowed his head and moved towards his own horse, swung easily into the saddle and brought his horse alongside Jimmy's. He looked across at the hunched figure of his friend and hoped he'd get him back home in one piece. A tap on the horse's sides with his heel sent it on its way and they slowly moved off. Buck was glad that Jimmy's palomino obediently followed.

Keeping the pace slow and steady as best he could throughout the day, Buck ensured they covered a relatively good amount of ground. Jimmy clung to his saddle with a grim determination and muted control. They'd been moving for near to a couple of hours when Buck glanced across to check his charge, only to see Jimmy slip to the side in his saddle and his eyes roll back in his head. A quick reaction ensured he reached out and grabbed Jimmy's jacket sleeve just in time, to prevent him falling off the horse.

"Hickok!" he called out, trying to rouse him but his head rolled as Jimmy passed out once more. Buck guided his horse alongside his friend's palomino and took his weight against his shoulder. He skilfully guided both horses, in unison, along the trail. Soon his arm ached so badly he was forced to pull the horses to a stop and push Jimmy into a more upright position. He held firmly onto the back of Jimmy's jacket and tentatively tapped his cheek with his fingers.

"Hickok? Come on, wake up. I can't hold on like this much longer. "

Jimmy's eyes fluttered slightly and his head swayed as he tried to drag himself back to consciousness. Buck tapped a little harder, this time with his full hand.

Jimmy's eyes flew open and stared at Buck. There was a fleeting lack of recognition at first and for a moment Buck thought he was going try and shoot him.

"What the hell ya doin', Buck?" Jimmy suddenly croaked.

A relieved smile spread across Buck's face. "I was beginning to think you planned on sleepin' all day."

Jimmy grunted in response.

"You think you can hold on little while longer? Sun's going down but I want to cover as much ground as possible while it's still light."

"Just point the horse in the right direction and I'll stay on," muttered Jimmy, clasping his saddle horn a little more tightly.

"I'll be right beside you," Buck assured him. "Won't be long now and we'll get you some help. You just hang in there a little longer, buddy."

As the horses moved off once more, Buck cast a worried glance across at Jimmy who had turned an ashen grey but stoically sat as upright as he could in the saddle, keeping his gaze firmly fixed straight ahead. He didn't fool Buck though who could tell his friend was hurting pretty badly, so much so that after a short while Jimmy passed out once more and Buck was forced to take his weight again.

Buck kept the horses moving with dogged determination and it was with some relief he conceded to stop for the night. Finding a suitable spot, he quickly dismounted and went to the side of Jimmy's horse, slowly lowering him down. The movement stirred Jimmy enough to make him regain full consciousness and he was able to take a few wavering steps. With Buck's help he sat down with his back against a rock, letting his head loll back, to rest against the hard cold surface.

After securing the horses, Buck returned and took off his jacket, rolled it up and carefully eased Jimmy's head forward to lay the garment behind his head. He then checked the knife wound, pleased to see it had stopped bleeding completely.

"I'm sorry I got you into this mess, Hickok." It was almost a whisper but Jimmy still heard.

"Ain't your fault. My own damned fault for not paying attention. Can't believe I didn't see that boy." He grimaced as he shifted position slightly.

"Here," Buck said offering him some water.

"Pointless askin' you if you've got anything stronger I s'ppose?" Buck responded to Jimmy's question with a wry look.

"Thought so," he said before taking some water from the canteen, which Buck held for him.

"I'm going to get you back to the Express Station as soon as I can. Think you can do that?" Buck peered questioningly at Jimmy's pale face.

"Aren't we nearer the Deer Creek station," Jimmy mumbled.

"I'm going to take you to Sweetwater. It's closer now. I'm going to get you home," Buck told him with demonstrative certainty.

"If you think that's best," Jimmy said quietly, as his eyes began to close once more.

Buck couldn't help thinking he didn't deserve that trust. He'd let his friend down badly.

As he set about making a fire, Buck thought back over the events of the last days. No matter what he did, life seemed to conspire against him. He had learned to deal with it over the years, as he had told Jimmy but what he didn't like was the way those he cared about were drawn into the situation. He felt nothing but gratitude for the way Jimmy had defended him against the two riders, back at Deer Creek but, at the same time, wished he'd not made such an issue of it. The lower profile he could maintain, the better Buck liked it.

There was nothing he could have done to stop the boy jumping Hickok like that but he could have prevented him from getting stabbed. He'd considered taking him to the Deer Creek Express station but wasn't sure of the welcome they'd get, especially when they found out it was and Indian who had caused the injury. He just couldn't face another confrontation. Jimmy needed the best possible care and the best place to find that care was back at their home station. Besides, if anything bad happened to Hickok he didn't think he could go back and tell the others. Perhaps he was being selfish? Just like he was about not helping the army out?

As these thoughts coursed through Buck's mind, the flames of the fire took a stronger hold of the wood he had piled up. He watched intently as the fire licked up into the darkening sky, sending bursts of red and yellow sparks. Squatting before the fire, he wondered if Teaspoon had understood his decision. Things never seemed to turn out well whenever the army was involved, in his experience. The less he had to do with them the better but, with the looming war, he felt that was going to become increasingly difficult. He certainly didn't want to be associated with them in front of his brother Red Bear. Being related to a half-breed, conceived through violence, had been difficult enough for his brother but to have him act on behalf of the white man, as they would see it, would be insulting. Buck felt assured he'd made the right decision.

"Any chance of some water or you forgotten about me already?" came Jimmy's croaky voice, interrupting his thoughts.

Buck immediately responded, grabbing a canteen and moving back to Jimmy's side.

"Sorry," he muttered as he removed the stopper, wishing he had something more to offer, such as hot tea but they carried few supplies, as pots would only add to the weight, so he had been unable to heat any water.

"There you go apologizing again," mumbled Jimmy.

"Story of my life!" Buck commented dryly. "How about something to eat?" he asked. "You need to keep your strength up. We've still got a ways to go tomorrow."

"Reckon I could eat somethin'," Hickok replied as he tried to push himself into a more upright position, only to gasp as a sharp pain creased his side.

"Take it easy, my friend. That's a pretty deep wound in your side and you don't want to make it bleed anymore. You've lost quite enough blood for one day."

"Story of my life!" Jimmy retorted grimly.

**********
*****

Chapter 5

It was still dark when Buck awoke to the sound of Jimmy groaning, as he shifted position to alleviate the constant throbbing in his side. Buck regarded him worriedly in the dim glow of the embers of the fire.

"I think we should get moving," he said, getting to his feet, knowing it was probably the last thing Jimmy felt like doing but also knowing the sooner he could get him some doctoring, the better. Jimmy understood too and prepared himself for what he knew was going to be an arduous ride.

By the time Buck had packed up their makeshift camp and saddled the horses, there was a soft glow of morning light in the sky. Once again he checked the rough bandaging on Jimmy's wound and was a little perturbed to find fresh blood stains had soaked through, from where Jimmy had moved about in the night. He'd already lost quite a bit of blood, from the initial injury. Too much blood, Buck thought anxiously.

"Let's get you onto your horse, Hickok," Buck said, putting his arm across Jimmy's back and helping him to his feet. Jimmy gritted his teeth but bore the pain silently. He did let out a stream of obscenities when he pulled himself up into his saddle. Buck merely raised his eyebrows at the colourful language.

Once mounted Buck again moved his horse alongside Jimmy's and they set off again. As they rode on Jimmy became increasingly listless. Suddenly his horse tripped and Jimmy lost his grip on consciousness and began to slip from the saddle. Buck instantly grabbed hold of his jacket sleeve and was just in time to prevent him tumbling to the ground.

Holding on tightly, Buck tried to rouse him once more but without success. With grim resignation he came to the decision that the only way they were going to keep moving was if they rode double. With some difficulty, he managed to shift himself from his own horse to sit behind Jimmy on his, taking the unconscious rider's weight against his chest.

Looping his own horse's reins around the saddle horn, they set off for Sweetwater and help.

The trip seemed endless and Buck's arms were numb from holding on to his charge for so long. But hold on he did, with resolve, until the familiar outline of the Sweetwater Station appeared on the horizon.

Buck fought the urge to spur the horse into a gallop but maintained the even pace. He scanned about but could see no sign of any of the other riders. The horse dipped, as it walked through a hollow in the ground and Buck tightened his grasp, causing Jimmy to moan.

"Take it easy, we're nearly there," Buck whispered in his ear, hoping that they weren't too late.

As they drew closer Buck called out. "We need help! Anyone here?" Nothing happened for a moment and his heart sank but just as he was about to call again, the bunkhouse door opened and Teaspoon came out, closely followed by the rest of the riders and Rachel.

Within an instant, on seeing Jimmy's slumped body cradled in Buck's arms, they all rushed down the steps, crossing the yard at a run, and crowded around, looking worriedly up at the returning riders.

Teaspoon was the first to speak. "What happened, son?"

"There's time enough to find out later. Jimmy looks like he needs a doctor," Rachel said decisively.

"I'll go," Cody replied, ripping his napkin from where it was tucked into the collar of his shirt and dashing off towards the barn to get his horse.

"Let's get him inside," instructed Teaspoon.

"Take him to the house," Rachel added.

Many willing hands reached out to help lift Jimmy from the horse, then carry him into the house. Buck slipped backwards and helped ease him down and watched as the others carried him off.

Only Teaspoon remained behind. "You all right?" he asked, looking worriedly up at the young Kiowa.

"Fine," came the husky reply.

"I'll take care of the horses while you go wash up."

"I need to go see Jimmy's okay," Buck stated, slowly lowering his aching body down to the ground.

"Think you should go get cleaned up first. Get rid of some of that blood on ya."

Buck looked down his front and saw the dark marks on his undershirt, where Jimmy's blood had stained. He nodded meekly and began to make his way to the bunkhouse.

"Then you can come and tell me what the hell happened out there," Teaspoon called after him.

**********
*****

The bunkhouse felt cool and dark when he entered, the half empty plates testimony to the interrupted meal, which now lay discarded. He looked at Rachel's fried chicken and his stomach rumbled but he had no appetite. Exhaustion claimed him for a moment and he could not resist the urge to sit on his bunk and gather his thoughts. For several minutes he sat, elbows on knees head in hands, running the events of the last couple of days. There was a lot to take in. Rubbing his face with his work worn hands, he gathered himself and got back to his feet. He needed to know how Hickok was doing. Selecting a clean shirt from his trunk, he went back outside to the washbowl. He didn't bother to change his undershirt but splashed the water on his face and pulled his shirt over the sweat soaked garment. There'd be time for a better wash later when he knew Jimmy was going to be all right.

The sound of fast moving hoof beats alerted him to the arrival of Cody with the doctor. He watched as they both rapidly alighted from their horses and rushed up the path to the house, taking the steps two at a time and disappeared inside.

Buck rubbed his face with the towel once more and tucked his long hair behind his ears. He caught a look at his own reflection, on the small, mottled mirror, which hung from a nail above the basin and stared at the anxious face, which looked back at him. With a sigh he turned and made his way over to the house.

When he reached the door, muffled voices and busy footsteps could be heard inside. He opened the door cautiously, afraid of what might await him and slipped through the door. He was greeted with a bustling scene of activity, as the riders moved a large table into the center of the room, while Rachel and Lou filled pans with water and put them to boil on the stove. The doctor stood to one side, delving into his bag, pulling out an assortment of items. Jimmy was standing, or rather being held up by Kid and Cody, who helped him over to the newly positioned table, where they lowered him to sitting.

"Right young man, let's get you sewn up," the doctor said, wiping his hands on a clean cloth, Rachel had provided. "If you two could help him lie flat on the table we'll get started," he directed Kid and Cody.

Jimmy groaned and winced as they laid him down. "God damn it Buck, why didn't you do nothin'?" he snapped, with the irritability born of pain and exhaustion.

A hush fell over the room and Buck felt six pairs of eyes look at him accusingly.

"Seems to me, Buck patched you up pretty good, Hickok, and got you back here," the doctor stated, unaware of the discord in the room.

Sensing the tension, Teaspoon cut in, "Let's give the Doc some room here, people."

Lou was about to protest but Teaspoon took her shoulder and smiled at her. "Let the Doc take care of things. We'll be right outside if you need anything, Doc," he offered, herding everyone else out of the room.

"Rachel, I may need some assistance, so if you could stay?" the doctor asked.

"And I'm gonna need some whiskey," Jimmy growled, through clenched teeth, his brow glistening with beads of perspiration.

Rachel glanced at the doctor, who nodded. "Sure thing, honey," she told Jimmy. "I'm sure I've got a drop in a bottle somewhere."

As she went in search of the whiskey, Teaspoon moved over to look down at Jimmy, lying prone on the table and pasted a smile on his face. "Just can't keep outta trouble, can you, Hickok? Doc'll sort you out and you'll be up and ridin' in no time, son." He squeezed Jimmy's shoulder reassuringly and moved out of the way as the doctor approached, with a large needle and thread.

Taking a deep breath, Teaspoon prepared himself to face the other riders. He was keen to know what Jimmy had meant when he'd asked why Buck hadn't done anything and he was determined to find out.

**********
*****

Out on the house porch, the riders stood around, anxiously waiting. Buck was standing to one side, cornered by Cody, who was staring at him with a stony expression. As Teaspoon came out, they all looked his way and he looked back, with steady composure.

"He all right, Teaspoon?" Kid enquired.

"He'll be fine," came the confident response. He turned his attention to Buck, who seemed to have retreated further into the corner.

"Want to tell us what happened out there, son?" he asked, calmly.

"Yeah, Buck. Wanna tell us why Jimmy wanted to know why you did nothing?" Cody asked indicatively.

"Cody," Kid warned, not liking the tone of the fair-haired rider's voice.

"Settle down," Teaspoon told them sternly. "Well, son?" he said, turning his attention back to Buck. "Let's hear it."

Dark, doe eyes peered at the older man unwaveringly. Buck hesitated, considering how much he should tell them. He knew Teaspoon would be annoyed to hear of their race antics but he also knew it wasn't the real issue. It hadn't been his fault but he could have done more, should have done more, to help Jimmy out and prevented him from getting hurt. He knew he had to offer them an explanation and owed it to them to justify his actions but wasn't sure they'd fully understand.

Eventually, he took a breath and started to recount how he and Jimmy had been on the way back when the young Indian had pounced. What he chose to leave out was why he hadn't instantly gone to Jimmy's aid. As soon as he had seen the Indian boy he had frozen. But he couldn't admit this to the other riders, so he chose to divert from the truth a little, telling them it had all happened so quickly that he hadn't seen the knife in the boy's hand.

The others regarded him skeptically, after he had finished recounting events and Teaspoon merely crossed his arms over his chest and squinted at him.

"Why'd the boy jump you?" Cody wanted to know.

Buck explained it probably was a test, to prove himself worthy to be considered a warrior, so he could join them in battle. If he spilled the blood of a white man he would earn a place next to the other warriors of the tribe.

Cody snorted derisively but seemed satisfied with Buck's explanation - for now.

"And that's what happened is it, Buck? You didn't see the knife and manage to get to Hickok in time?" "No, sir," Buck replied, shifting nervously on his feet.

"Well, I'm sure you did all that you could, son," Teaspoon replied, not totally convinced by the story. Of all his riders, he would have said the Kiowa was the most alert to any threat or danger. There was something that didn't quite fit with the story but he'd let it go for now.

Buck looked back at him, feeling his cheeks flush with discomfort at the man's misplaced faith in him.

Just then, the door opened and Rachel popped her head outside. The assembled group on the porch turned and looked at her enquiringly.

"He's doin' fine," she smiled. "Doctor's just finishin' up and then he's gonna to need some rest, so I'm gonna need some help gettin' him into a more comfortable bed." Kid and Cody readily volunteered.

As they were about to step through the door Cody looked back at Buck. "Yeah, let's go and see what Hickok remembers," he said cynically.

There was an awkward pause before Teaspoon ushered the rest of them back to the bunkhouse. "We still got mail to run so I suggest you all get a good night's rest 'cos with Hickok down, your gonna have to pick up a few extra runs."

He watched them amble back across the yard and couldn't help but notice how Buck seemed to keep his distance from the rest of the group.

**********
*****

The stars glinted down, as Buck sat on the porch steps, leaning against one of the support posts. He'd needed some space from the other riders, who were all asleep in their bunks. The atmosphere in the bunkhouse had been strained throughout the evening, although no one had said anything to him. Even Cody had kept quiet. They had all gone about their business but without the usual banter and friendly jibes.

He had been relieved to hear that Jimmy was going to be fine, just sore for a while. He'd been pretty woozy after the doctor had finished stitching him up and Cody hadn't been able to get any more information from him. Buck felt relieved at the respite from further interrogation but the guilt still sat with him. Why hadn't he stepped in to stop Hickok from getting hurt? It was something he didn't quite understand or could explain. All he knew was that for those moments, where he had seen Jimmy wrestling with Little Horse, his two worlds had collided, unleashing a cacophony of emotions and now he was left with the feeling he'd let both his Express riders and Kiowa friend down. He just wasn't sure he could determine where his loyalties truly lay.

He was so lost in his thoughts he didn't immediately register someone opening the bunkhouse door. Ike peered out sleepily, his brow furrowed with concern but his features softened when he located his friend. He ambled over and eased himself down, next to Buck.

*Can't sleep?* he signed.

Buck gave him a tight-lipped smile and shook his head.

*Want to tell me what really happened out there with Jimmy?*

"Nothing to tell."

*Did you know the Indian boy?*

Buck's eyes widened at his friend's intuitiveness.

"Does it matter?"

*Why don't you tell the others?*

"I don't think they'd understand."

*They might.*

Buck looked away and stared out into the inky darkness and considered the suggestion. He still wasn't sure he wanted to share that part of his life with the other riders, as he wasn't convinced they'd fully empathize with his situation, caught between two worlds- especially Cody. At the same time, he didn't think he could bear the feeling of mistrust they now seemed to have for him.

"I'll ride out in the morning and pray to the rising sun and ask for guidance," he told Ike.

Ike smiled and nodded, then got back to his feet. *Better get some sleep then. Coming?*

"I'll be right in," Buck told him.

Ike shuffled off and Buck took a deep breath of the cool night air. Things would look a lot better in the morning, he was sure.

**********
*****

Chapter 6

Buck never tired of the elation he felt riding out into the respite of the misty stillness of the beginning of a new day. The chill, fresh air tingled on his skin, awakening every nerve, alerting all the senses. The long, willing strides of his horse ate up the ground, skimming its way through the prairie grass with certainty, testimony to its Mustang breeding.

His favored place for Morning Prayer was a short ride from the Express station, near to the river, where he and the other riders came to cool off on very hot days. There was one particular spot, which was hidden from the trail, near to the water's edge, where the rippling water seemed to sing as it flowed, over the uneven rocks and stones, on the riverbed. From here, Buck had a perfect view of the distant mountains to the West and could watch the sun scale the sky and escape from its confinement, during the hours of darkness, to caress the land once more.

As Buck watched the light invade the sky, in a myriad of hues, he felt his spirit soar before settling peacefully. He knew now what he must do. The Pony Express was his chosen home and he thought of the other riders, Teaspoon and Rachel, as family, the closest to a real family he'd ever had. It seemed only right they should know of the truth. He owed them that much at least. The brightness of the day brought renewed optimism and he hoped they'd understand - especially Jimmy, to whom he felt indebted.

He gave thanks to the sun for the guidance he'd been shown and, feeling satisfied with his decision, set off for home.

**********
*****

Sergeant Cutler's lip curled with contempt as he rode away, after accomplishing his duty of arranging the next meeting for negotiation, between his superior officer and the leaders of the Kiowa. The deed left a nasty taste in his mouth, which stuck in his throat like an unsavory meal. He had watched the Indian interpreter, employed by the army, deal in a stilted manner, with the representatives sent by the leaders of the Kiowa tribe. Cutler felt the whole mission was a lost cause and could see no benefit in allowing any native to be allocated any land - land that had been taken by the superior white man who would put it to better use.

He dug his heels sharply into his mount's sides, making the animal lurch and snatch at the metal bit in its mouth. Cutler jerked savagely on the reins, his temper getting the better of him, causing the horse to concede submission and fall into step with the rest of the troop. The sergeant's disposition had not been good for the last couple of days, the frustration at the lack of proper soldiering, as he saw it, building inside. The irritation, which brewed within him, was reaching a point where it would need to be unleashed with full fury. His handling of his horse was only one point of release, as he had been demanding and hard on the men, under his command, all morning. It was then that he spotted the potential whipping post for his anger. Riding out of the clearing ahead was the half-breed, who rode for the Pony Express.

Before he had a chance to realize what was happening, Buck found himself surrounded by the troop of soldiers. He looked about him cautiously but made no movement, knowing this would certainly invite trouble. His gaze met the hard, stern glare of Sergeant Cutler.

"What's this about?' Buck asked flatly.

The muscles in Cutler's cheeks tightened, as he controlled his mounting rage.

"You're to come with us back to camp. The Lieutenant wants to talk to you," he snarled.

"I already said I wasn't interested in getting involved with the talks between you and the Kiowa.'" Buck kept his tone even and calm.

"I ain't concerned with what you're interested in, injun. That wasn't a request but a order."

"I don't take orders from you, Sergeant," Buck replied pointedly.

"Oh yes you do," Cutler hissed, swiftly producing a pistol from within his jacket and aiming it at Buck, who eyed the weapon with disdain.

Sergeant Cutler gave the command for Buck's gun and knife to be removed and then told his men to move out, with Buck hemmed in the middle of the group.

**********
*****

"Ike, come and eat. Food's getting' cold," Rachel called from inside the bunkhouse.

Ike continued to stare out into the bleak scrub, which surrounded the Express Station.

"He'll be back, Ike," Cody mumbled, through a mouthful of bacon, as he stepped up behind him. "Seems to me he had a lot of thinkin' to do," he added, popping the last bit of bacon into his mouth.

Ike turned and scowled at him.

"Aw come on, Ike. You know somethin' didn't quite add up about Buck's story. Jimmy said he didn't do nothin' to help get that Indian boy off him and that ain't like him. I ain't sayin' there ain't a good reason for what he done, or didn't do but there's gotta be a reason so he's obviously out there givin' it some thought. You said yourself he was goin' off to pray, to whatever it is he prays to, this morning. All I'm sayin' is he's takin' his time about it. He'll be back soon, don't you worry." Cody finished his monologue, slapped Ike on the shoulder and grinned.

Ike gave him another hard stare and stomped into the bunkhouse. Cody shook his head in bafflement and ambled off slowly, to start his chores.

**********
*****

Buck was not happy. Not only was he hungry, having had no breakfast but he now found himself inside a tent, at the army's camp, with a rifle levelled at him. He took deep, even breaths, trying to keep his nerves in check. He still wasn't quite sure why he was here and what they intended to do with him. He had made it clear he wasn't interested in acting as an interpreter for the army, or being involved with any dealings they may have with the Kiowa. Surely they wouldn't expect him to act under duress?

The tent flap snapped open and an officer stepped in, closely followed by the sergeant, who had accosted him.

Lieutenant Warner stood in front of Buck, hands clasped behind his back.

"I am Lieutenant Warner, commanding officer at this post. I understand you've offered your services as an interpreter to us Mr. …? I apologize, I have not been informed of your name." Warner stood ramrod straight and looked Buck unwaveringly in the eye.

Buck glanced at the sergeant, aware he was sneering at him with unveiled contempt before answering the Lieutenant.

"Cross. My name's Buck Cross. I thought Teaspoon told you I wasn't interested in acting as your interpreter."

Warner looked confused and looked enquiringly at his sergeant. "He did but your presence here implied you'd changed your mind. I don't understand. Sergeant Cutler, I was under the impression this man had come to help with the negotiations with the Indians."

"He is, Sir," Cutler replied assuredly.

"I was brought here at gunpoint," Buck protested. "I'd have thought it was obvious I'm not a willing volunteer."

Cutler scowled at him. "There's more than one way you can help," he responded harshly.

"Sergeant, I think you need to explain yourself," Warner demanded.

"Well, Sir, seems to me the chief may be a little more co-operative if we got his brother and there's a possibility somethin' bad might happen to him."

Buck stared at Cutler in utter disbelief. How did he know of his connection to Red Bear? He debated denying it but felt they knew the truth somehow and it would be a waste of time.

To his credit, Lieutenant Warner looked taken aback by the suggestion. "What do you mean, Sergeant?" he asked, somewhat nervously.

"What I'm saying, Sir is that this half-breed might give us some leverage due to his bein' related to the chief. It will give us some bargaining power when we're negotiatin' with them injuns."

"You can't do this!" Buck shouted, stepping forward angrily. The soldier pointing the rifle at him instantly cocked his weapon and shoved it against Buck's chest, who instantly stilled himself but braced defiantly.

The Lieutenant was alarmed at the suggestion and felt Cutler was manipulating him in some way but had to concede the Sergeant's suggestion held a certain appeal. The sooner he could clear up the stand off with the Kiowa, the closer his promotion would be and the more likely he would be to being given his own company to command. Could he justify using this boy to achieve his personal ambitions?

He regarded Buck thoughtfully. He was a rider for the Express, which presumably meant he was an orphan, so, apart from his brother, had no other family. As he had chosen to live among the white man he could assume he had chosen them over the Indians, probably looking for a better, more civilized life. There was the possibility that his tribe had turned him out because of his white blood but as the other Express riders seemed to know of his connection to the Kiowa chief perhaps there still was a bond there, one of which could be taken advantage. At the same time, there could be no one in the white world who would care too much about a half-breed, no one to be concerned should some unfortunate accident befall him.

Buck glared at him with unveiled antagonism and Lieutenant Warner licked his lips nervously.

"Sergeant, secure him and put him in with the supplies. You'd better gag him too. We don't need anyone to know he's here. We'll be moving out at first light tomorrow, for our meeting with the Kiowa," he commanded resolutely. "You'd better keep him well out of sight until then."

"Yes, Sir," Sergeant Cutler responded fervently, giving his commanding officer a sharp salute.

Buck's head spun in disbelief at what was happening. "You won't get away with this," he snapped.

"Oh, I think we will," Cutler shot back. "Who's gonna be troubled if the half-breed goes missin'? They'll just think you've got tired of good, honest work and gone back to your savage ways and'll probably be glad to be rid of you. Ain't no place for you here amongst decent folk so we're doin' everyone a favor. One less savage to worry about," he added for good measure.

"That'll be enough, Sergeant," Warner cut in, uncomfortable with the implications. "You've had your orders, now I suggest you carry them out."

Cutler nodded curtly, grabbed Buck roughly by the arm and marched him outside.

"You won't get away with this," Buck continued to protest, as one of the Privates forcibly pulled his hands behind him and tied them together tightly, with a leather thong.

"I wouldn't be so sure of that," Cutler said, snagging a kerchief from his pocket and forcing into Buck's mouth before securing it at the back of his head. The young Kiowa was marched to a large tent, shoved inside and forced to sit on the ground amongst wooden crates, oil lanterns, spades and sacks. His feet were then tied at the ankles.

"Wouldn't want you missin' out on the family reunion tomorrow, would we? So's you'd better sit tight and try not to draw attention to yourself. Be a shame if you missed it 'cos you was out cold from a bang to the head - or worse." By the hostile expression on Cutler's face, Buck knew he meant what he said.

After instructing the private to stand guard outside the supply tent, Cutler gave one last menacing look before exiting. Left alone, Buck began to think through all that had happened. Cutler's harsh words, about no one caring if he disappeared, echoed in his mind. He knew that the other riders would be worried about him but in the present circumstances they may not want him about and would think he'd taken off some place. He knew he couldn't depend on them to get him out of this mess.

As the heat of the day grew, the air became increasingly stifling within the confines of the tent. Buck's hands and feet were numb, due to the bindings about his wrists and ankles, cutting off his circulation and became progressively sore as he tried to loosen them. His mouth was dry and the kerchief sucked what little moisture there was, making swallowing nigh on to impossible. By late morning he was feeling totally miserable.

He was offered some respite just after midday, when one of the soldiers brought him something to eat and drink. For a short while he was untied so that he could feed himself, but the presence of an armed guard made any thought of escape unfeasible. Once he had finished, the bindings were put back in place and he was gagged again.

The afternoon dragged by interminably and Buck could do nothing but sit it out, continue to hope that he would be missed and someone would find him.

He gauged it to be early evening when the strains of a familiar voice reached his ears.

Teaspoon was engaged in talking to someone outside. Buck strained at the thongs about his wrists and ankles, trying to twist himself loose, all the while giving a desperate, muffled cry through the kerchief in his mouth.

"Well, thanks for letting me know. It ain't like Buck to take off like this without letting us know where he's goin'. He'll probably turn up soon, at least when dinners on the table," he heard the Stationmaster tell one of the soldiers outside, between his muffled cries.

"If you hear anything, be sure to let me know," Teaspoon called out, as Buck heard his retreating footsteps.

In desperation he tried to muster as loud a noise as he could but, within moments of his attempt, the private, stationed outside the tent, entered and in a low, threatening voice told him he'd better keep quiet if he knew what was good for him. Buck glared at the man and defiantly tried to make another loud noise. He was rewarded with a sharp smack to the side of the head with the soldier's rifle butt, causing him to fall into dazed submission.

By the time he had regained full awareness all was quiet and Teaspoon had gone.

**********
*****

Chapter 7

Jimmy Hickok stepped gingerly down the steps, at the front of the way station house. He could hear Rachel humming a tune, as she hung out freshly laundered sheets. He knew she'd be annoyed at his getting out of bed but he'd had more than his fair share of lying there, with nothing much to do. It wasn't as if he could even lose himself in a book like Cody would.

As he took the last step, he slightly misjudged the drop and jarred himself. His hand went protectively to his side.

"James Hickok, what do you think you're doin'?" Rachel's voice traveled clearly across the yard stopping him in his tracks.

Before he turned to face her, he inhaled deeply and planted a smile on his face, to mask the discomfort he was feeling. "Aw, Rachel, I'm goin' stir crazy, laid up in there. Just needed some fresh air."

Rachel frowned at him but the twinkle in her eyes belied her true mood. She was pleased to see Jimmy up and about again and knew Noah would be delighted to learn his estimation, of the mid morning, had won him the wager as to how soon Jimmy would be up and about.

"Well, you just make sure you take it easy, Jimmy, ya hear?" she called over before turning her attention back to the washing. She watched surreptitiously as he walked stiffly towards the bunkhouse, taking the steps up to the door with care. She only relaxed when he disappeared inside the door.

The other riders greeted Jimmy warmly. Kid got quickly to his feet and offered him a seat. Lou clasped her hands, holding them to her mouth and grinned happily at him.

"Damn it, Jimmy. You could have stayed in bed until lunch time," Cody scolded. Noah just smiled triumphantly.

Jimmy frowned questioningly at the pair.

"Take no notice," Kid told him. "He's just sore at losing out on our little bet."

Lou explained the riders' wager and, at first, Jimmy scowled, as if annoyed at their antics but soon he was laughing along, whole-heartedly, with the others. He was mid belly laugh, at one of Cody's well observed impersonation of Teaspoon, when Ike walked through the door. The atmosphere in the bunkhouse instantly changed. Ike's expression was stony. He looked at the other riders, sighed, shook his head and slunk over to his bunk.

"What's up with him?" Jimmy asked.

"He's just worried about Buck," Kid replied.

"Why? What's up with Buck?'

"He rode out before breakfast and hasn't come back," Cody told him.

Jimmy looked at the others, his face etched with concern. "Why ain't the rest of you worried like Ike?"

The others didn't instantly respond but exchanged looks, unsure of what they wanted to say.

Cody spoke up. "After what you said we thought he probably had some thinking to do and has just taken off for the day. He hasn't got a run until day after tomorrow so no reason for him to come back today."

"And just what exactly d'you think I said to make him take off like that?" Jimmy asked.

"Well, you said he didn't help you out when that Indian boy jumped you. He hasn't really told us why, like he's got something to hide."

Ike suddenly started gesticulating angrily from his bunk.

"Slow down Ike," Kid told him. "We can't follow what you're saying."

"Hold on," Jimmy interjected. "What exactly did I say and when, 'cos I don't have a problem with Buck so I don't see why the rest of you should."

"But you said he didn't help you out and that's why you got knifed, so why do you think that is, Jimmy?" Cody said animatedly.

"Hell, I don't know but what I do know is I'd trust Buck with my life. What I said was because I was hurt and angry, but not at Buck."

The others looked furtively about.

"Perhaps we were a bit hasty …" Kid started.

"Hasty! Sounds like you all jumped the gun to me," Jimmy said tersely.

Ike's arms moved rapidly once more.

"What's he sayin'?" Jimmy asked.

Kid's brow furrowed as he concentrated on Ike's arm movements. "He says we shouldn't have doubted Buck."

"You know something Ike?" Jimmy enquired.

Ike shrugged and signed, *It's not my place to tell you.*

"Meanin' it's Buck's?" asked Cody.

Ike just looked at Cody but said nothing.

"So where's Buck?" Jimmy still wasn't sure what was going on.

Ike shrugged his shoulders. *I went to the place he goes to pray but there was no sign of him.*

"You think we should go look for him?" Kid asked worriedly.

"Where would we start?"

The group fell quiet as none of them had any answers, knowing full well that if Buck didn't want to be found then he wouldn't.

"Guess all we can do for now is wait," Kid said finally.

**********
*****

The heat of the day had made Buck lethargic and eventually lulled him to sleep. It was short lived however, due to the uncomfortable position he was in, with his hands still tied behind his back and gag in mouth. His head still throbbed from the blow he had received and, in his dozing state it rolled forward causing him to lose balance. The falling motion jerked him back to full consciousness. Bracing his legs, he managed to stop himself from falling and maneuvre into a more upright position. He tried to alleviate some of the aches he was feeling by stretching his back and rolling his shoulders. There was a brief respite but the soreness soon returned.

The interior of the tent was shrouded in a dim light, provided by a single lantern, turned down low. Through a slit in the tent entrance, he could see that it was now dark outside. He had no idea exactly what time it was but he guessed it to be late evening. At least it was feeling a little cooler.

He contemplated his situation once more but found no new answers. If the other riders hadn't found him by now there was little chance that they would. Teaspoon had clearly been unaware of his predicament and there was little chance of his returning again. His thoughts turned to Red Bear. There were times he desperately wanted to see him again but not like this. The shame would be great, he knew - for both of them.

Frustration and anger welled inside of him and he tugged furiously at the bindings about his wrists and kicked out with his feet but they did not give way. He did manage to catch one of the crates with his foot, sending the lantern to the floor and smashing the glass with a loud crash.

The soldier, stationed outside to guard him came bursting in, rifle in hand. Seeing the broken lantern, he stamped out the small fire and regarded Buck with disdain. "You'd better keep it down, iffen you don't want another smack on the head and want to see morning, injun."

Buck's shoulders rose and fell with each deep breath, brought on by his fervent activity. His eyes were wide, dark and threatening, his native heritage clearly reflected in them.

The soldier stood his ground for a moment but there was discomfort in his demeanor and he quickly retreated back outside.

Closing his eyes, Buck lay back as best he could and calmed himself, coming to the conclusion all he could do now was wait.

**********
*****

Soft, malleable lips pouted outwards and wrapped themselves about the offered carrot. Ike scratched Samson's ears distractedly, his eyes flitting to the horizon from time to time. It was nearing evening and the sun was skimming the far off hills. His attention was drawn to the Kid who had emerged from the bunkhouse and also looked off into the distance, keeping his own private vigil. Ike watched as he stood with hunched shoulders, hands in pockets for a while before shuffling towards the barn.

As he approached, Ike caught his eye and gave a halfhearted smile of acknowledgment. Kid looked discomfited for moment but then came striding over to him. A soft smile creased his lips as he tickled Samson's forelock.

"Nice evening," Kid commented, unconvincingly.

Ike nodded and offered Samson another carrot.

"Still no sign of Buck?"

Ike shook his head.

"Lou was due in a while back too." Kid tried to sound casual but worry permeated his words.

Ike gave him a small smile of understanding. *She'll show up.*

"So will Buck," Kid said, assuredly.

They stood in silence for a while, watching as the sun sank lower in the sky and the shadows stretched and crawled their way across the yard. The sharp clang of the metal triangle, as Rachel called everyone to supper, made them jolt. Both smiled sheepishly at one another before making their way across the yard towards the bunkhouse.

"Rider comin'." Cody's call rang out across the yard and two pairs of eyes looked in the direction of the approaching rider.

"It's Lou!" Kid exclaimed joyfully. Ike's shoulders sank a little but he pasted a smile on his face and slapped his friend happily on the back as Kid ran forward to greet her.

"Where have you been?" he demanded. "You should'a been back hours ago."

Lou frowned as she swung her leg over the front of the saddle and slipped to the ground. "Had some errands that needed seein' to so I stopped over in town. Ended up visitin' with Teaspoon for a while - not that it's any concern of yours," she added scornfully.

"I was just a little worried. What with Buck disappearin' an all. I mean I …" Kid's words trailed off when he realized he was doing what Lou hated most of all - fussing and worrying over her. At the sight of his forlorn face, Lou crumbled a little and looked at him coyly from beneath the brim of her hat before a perplexed look crossed her face. "Hasn't Buck showed up yet?"

Kid shook his head.

"That's strange. When I went to the store, to pick up a few things, Tompkins said he'd been told someone had seen him ridin' in with an army troop early this mornin'. Made some comment about Buck doin' the right thing at last, helping out the army. I reckoned he must've changed his mind about helpin' them but seems strange he hasn't let anyone know. Teaspoon was gonna go talk to the Lieutenant before comin' home to find out what's happenin'."

"Let's go tell Ike and the others," Kid said, taking the reins of Lou's horse in his right hand and gently holding her hand with his left. Lou gave him a happy smile and fell into step alongside him.

**********
*****

Supper was a strained affair, as all the riders waited anxiously for Teaspoon's return. Even Cody didn't eat with his usual gusto. Rachel was just about to cut into the pie, she had prepared for dessert, when the rhythmical drum of hoof beats was heard. All the riders were instantly on their feet and heading for the door, leaving Rachel standing at the table, knife in hand but only briefly. She too was eager to hear Teaspoon's news and quickly joined the others, on the porch as they watched him ride in.

Ike was the first to approach, stepping down the steps and going to the side of Teaspoon's horse. His arms moved frantically but the concern in his face was all that the older man needed to see to understand what he was asking.

"Hold on, son. Let me get off this here horse and tell you all that I've found out. Seems to me the others seem kinda anxious to find out too," he added, flicking a look at the assembled group.

Ike looked at them also and nodded in resignation knowing he'd have to be patient just a while longer. Teaspoon stepped down from his horse and looped the reins over the hitching post.

"Is that pie I smell, Rachel?" he said, his eyes twinkling in anticipation.

"Sure is," she smiled back. "I'll go cut you a piece."

The riders parted, letting Teaspoon through and into the bunkhouse, where he took his seat at the head of the table. Rachel dutifully placed a piece of apple pie in front of him before doling out portions to the others. Teaspoon lifted a forkful of pie to his mouth and realised six pairs of eyes were intently watching his every move, waiting for him to say something but respectful enough not to push it by interrupting his eating.

Teaspoon let the fork clatter back onto the plate and gave a look of exasperation.

"Guess you ain't gonna let me eat in peace until I tell you what that lieutenant said, are you?" He tried to sound stern but the creases around his eyes betrayed his good nature.

The riders exchanged looks and then returned their attention to the older man.

"So what did the lieutenant say?" Cody demanded, for them all.

"Not a whole lot," Teaspoon told them, before putting a forkful of pie in his mouth.

"What did you find out, Teaspoon?" Lou enquired.

"Well, seems your information was right. Buck did ride in with a troop this morning. He went to talk with Lieutenant Warner but was not prepared to go talk to the Kiowa, so left."

"Where'd he go?" asked Kid.

"The lieutenant didn't know that but at least we know Buck was fine this morning. He's probably just taken his-self off for a while and I wouldn't be surprised if he came ridin' in any minute now, especially if he knew how good this here pie was," Teaspoon answered and popped another piece of pie into his mouth and smiled his compliments to Rachel.

The riders responded by sitting back and relaxing their stance a little, reassured by what they'd been told - except for Ike. The mute rider frowned and shook his head. He hadn't been convinced by Teaspoon's words.

*Why hasn't he come back? He knows we'd be worried,* he signed.

"Well, there could be a lotta reasons, Ike. Seems to me he wasn't be made to feel too welcome around here after he brought Jimmy back. Perhaps he feels he's not wanted around for a while." Teaspoon took another bite of pie and cast a glance at the riders to assess how they were taking his words. Each wore a certain amount of shame, knowing they had been a little rough on Buck.

"We was just worried about Jimmy," Lou pleaded.

Jimmy raised his eyebrows and gave her a smile and an appreciative nod. "Still not sure why you was so hard on Buck but I don't think he'd take off like this just because of it. He knows we're his friends and that no one meant nothin' by it."

"You sure about that, Jimmy?" Teaspoon asked.

Jimmy hesitated before answering, "I guess not."

"What we gonna do, Teaspoon?" Kid asked.

The older man wiped his mouth and sat back in his chair. "Well, don't seem to be much we can do for now. We'll give him another day and if Buck ain't back by then we'd better go look for him. Besides, he's got a run that day so I'm sure he'll be back to do his job."

*That's another day. We should go look for him tomorrow,* Ike signed furiously.

"I know you're worried, son, but let's give it one more day. If Buck has taken himself off he won't appreciate us interferin'. He just needs a little time. Besides, he's probably wantin' to avoid the army for a while." Teaspoon's countenance was reassuring to all but Ike, who looked decidedly unconvinced.

"Now, Rachel, you got any more of that pie?" Teaspoon asked happily.

**********
*****

Chapter 8

The trill blast of the morning bugle woke Buck with a start. For a moment he couldn't remember where he was but the sharp, stabbing pain between his shoulder blades quickly reminded him his hands were tied behind his back and the musty smell of damp canvas, that he was inside an army tent.

He clenched his teeth on the 'kerchief in his mouth and drew in a deep breath, through his nose. His stomach tightened, with apprehension, at the thought as to what the day would bring. He still couldn't quite comprehend how he'd come to be in this fix. No matter what he did to avoid it, his heritage seemed to cause him trouble. As he pondered his situation the tent flap flicked back and Sergeant Cutler stepped in, accompanied by another soldier.

"Time to get goin', injun," he snarled.

He gave a nod and the private at his side produced a knife. Buck's eye widened with alarm but was relieved when the weapon was used merely to slice through the rawhide, binding his ankles together. He was then grabbed roughly by the arm, hauled to his feet and unceremoniously marched outside into the early morning haze.

Outside the troop was preparing to leave. A group of about a dozen soldiers were tightening their cinches and mounting up. Buck felt his hands being untied but before he had time to rub the circulation back into his wrists his hands were grabbed and thrust into the sleeve of an army jacket.

"Don't need anyone spotting you this time when we ride out," Cutler told him, as he slapped a regulation cap on his head. Buck's hands were once more tied, but this time to the front and the gag remained in place, in his mouth. A horse was brought forward and he was told to get on. Buck looked warily about, noting Lieutenant Warner talking to another soldier a little ways off. Seeing no other option other than to comply he grabbed the front of the saddle with both bound hands and pulled himself up.

The command for the soldiers to mount up was given and they organized themselves into pairs, with the Lieutenant riding to the front of the two columns, followed by Sergeant Cutler, who led the horse on which Buck rode. The Lieutenant raised his hand, swept it forward and the troop moved off.

There was no feeling of elation for Buck this day, as he rode into the early morning mists. The rhythmical clatter, of hoof step and harness, jarred his senses making his gut twist in apprehension, with every stride of the horse beneath him. He stared at Lieutenant Warner's back as he rode in front of him, deciding what revenge he could exact on the man to satisfy his rage, each one that came to mind more unpleasant than the last. He vowed he'd keep the most severe form of punishment for Sergeant Cutler who had been the instigator of his present circumstances.

**********
*****

It wasn't the first time in that long night that Ike's eyes had opened but this time, instead of being greeted by inky darkness, he could see the soft light of early dawn creeping through the bunkhouse. He lay for a moment debating what he should do and it didn't take too long for him to come to the conclusion that he couldn't just lie there when his best friend might be in need of his help. He wasn't sure what he hoped to find but did know he couldn't just do nothing.

Quietly he sat up and swung his legs over the edge of his bunk, dropping lightly to his feet with a soft thump. He waited a few moments to make sure his movement hadn't disturbed any of the others then carefully picked up his boots and clothes and padded softly outside. On the bunkhouse porch, in the chill of the breaking day, he pulled them on before heading to the barn to saddle his horse.

The last sighting of Buck had been at the army camp so that is where Ike headed and before long the triangular forms of the lines of tents appeared against the horizon. He steadied his horse and left it a little ways from the camp, carefully making his way towards it, on foot. As he approached he was surprised at the amount of movement in the camp. A number of soldiers seemed to be preparing horses and yet more were milling about. Within a short time he heard an order being called and they began to mount up. Ike felt pleased, thinking that with fewer soldiers about he'd have a better chance of poking around and find some clue as to what had happened to Buck.

He watched as the company rode out in two columns. His attention was suddenly drawn to one of the soldiers riding at the front. There was something very familiar about the tall, slim figure and the ease in which he sat a saddle. Ike stared harder, taking in the regulation army hat and jacket. He'd know that rider anywhere. The tan pants and long boots, with a sheath strapped to the left one, although the knife was missing, confirmed it. Ike felt a rush of elation at finding Buck but then panic gripped him. Why did the army have him and why did he appear to be tied and gagged? Where were they taking him? What he did know was he was going to need some help as there was no way he could help Buck escape on his own. With one last quick glance at his friend, he made his way stealthily back to his horse and raced back to the Express station.

**********
*****

Jimmy Hickok's hand instinctively reached towards his thigh. His heart pounded in his chest and the sudden movement tore at the injury in his side. It took him a few seconds to steady himself and realize that the loud noise, which had woken him had been caused by someone barging their way in through the door. A few moments later he became aware that the person had been Ike who now stood at the side of his bunk and tugged at his arm furiously.

"God damn it, Ike. What the hell ya doin'?"

Ike ignored the tirade and gesticulated wildly once more and pulled at, the now irate, Jimmy. The interchange had now awoken the other riders who rose from their various bunks, sleepily.

"What's going on?" Kid asked, rubbing his eyes open with a fist.

"Keep it down, would ya. I'm tryin' ta sleep," Cody muttered and flopped back down onto his bed. He had only just closed his eyes again when he felt hands grip his shoulders and shake him roughly. Spinning over he came face to face with Ike who shook him once more and started to frantically move his arms.

By now, Kid was at his side. "Slow down, Ike."

Ike calmed himself, took a deep breath and started to sign more coherently.

"You saw Buck? Where?" Kid asked, incredulously.

Five pairs of eyes watched carefully as Ike swiftly moved his hands.

"What's he doin' at the army camp? Thought Teaspoon said the Lieutenant told him he'd left?" Jimmy's brow furrowed deeply.

"They had him tied to a horse?!" Cody exclaimed loudly. Their eyes met and in an instant each sprang into action, pulling on clothes and boots, reaching for hats and guns.

"I'll go get Teaspoon," called Noah, as he scurried out of the door, buttoning his shirt.

Ike waited agitatedly, keen to get moving.

"Don't worry, Ike. We'll find Buck," Jimmy reassured him, as he checked the chambers in both his guns.

Ten minutes later seven riders galloped out of the yard, as Rachel watched anxiously from the steps of the way station house.

**********
*****

Buck endured his situation with grim silence. He tried not to think about what was going to happen, as the only thoughts he had were bleak. At this moment he had no control over the situation and could only trust himself to the spirits, praying they would look kindly on him and his brother, Red Bear.

They had been riding for just over an hour and were now in Kiowa territory. From what he could gather, from overheard comments amongst the soldiers, they were heading for a meeting with the Kiowa war chiefs, for one last attempt at getting some sort of treaty signed. It was clear that he was being used as a bargaining device, no doubt, with his brother. The thought of being used in such a way filled him with dread and disgust. He could only guess at how Red Bear would deal with such a threat but knew it could only bring shame and sorrow. Buck suddenly felt sick to his stomach.

A shout went up and lieutenant raised his hand and the company came to a halt. A soldier, who had been scouting ahead, cantered back towards the waiting troop. He hauled his horse to a stop and saluted.

"The Indians are approaching the arranged meeting point, Sir," he reported.

"How many, Corporal?" Warner asked.

"Ten, Sir, but there were signs of others in the hills. Didn't get a firm sighting but they're there alright but I'm not sure how many."

Lieutenant Warner considered the information for a moment.

"Sergeant Cutler," he commanded and the man responded immediately by moving forward, pulling Buck's horse along with him.

"Yes, Sir?" Cutler replied.

"You will keep a close watch on our …." Warner paused, searching for the right reference. Buck glowered at him, daring him to say the words. "… on our captive," Warner concluded weakly. Buck's teeth clenched the gag tightly and he breathed deeply with contempt.

"I'll do that, Sir," Cutler said eagerly. "I'll keep him nice and close. Don't want to give those ...," he started, then checked himself, "… savages any ideas on tryin' anythin'." Winding the rope, attached to the bridle of Buck's horse, around his saddle horn, drawing it closer to his own horse, he pulled out a pistol and cocked it, before thrusting it into Buck's belly. "Now don't you go nothin' stupid, half breed," he sneered.

Every bone in Buck's body tensed, every sinew was taut and anger burned in his dark eyes, which bore into the man, with insurmountable animosity. Cutler responded with a derisive snort but looked away, unwilling to meet the glare.

The command went up and the company moved off again, with Buck's horse so close to the Sergeant's that their knees occasionally brushed together and the pistol muzzle pushed harder into his side. "Not one false move now, injun," Cutler snarled.

A short ride later, the troop came to an open area, with a rise of rocks to the left and a stand of trees to the right. Buck felt himself tremble with trepidation as a group of Kiowa entered the clearing, with Red Bear positioned centrally, at the front. Cutler stayed behind the other members of the troop, not wanting to reveal the full terms of the ensuing negotiations too soon, in case agreement could be met, without using the last resort, namely the half breed brother of the Chief.

Both groups of riders stopped and faced each other until Lieutenant Warner and his interpreter slowly rode forwards. Red Bear and one other brave did the same, each pair meeting in the middle. The Lieutenant signed his greeting and Red Bear responded. Buck watched with pride at the way his brother carried himself, with authority, dignity and power. He truly was every inch a Kiowa war chief.

More words were exchanged until Red Bear sliced through the air with his hand, signalling he'd heard enough and that the talking was over. He was just about to turn his horse about when Lieutenant Warner called out to him, before turning and signalling to Sergeant Cutler to come forward.

Cutler rode up to the group, in the middle of the clearing, taking Buck with him. Buck hung his head, the shame and guilt he felt weighing heavily on his broad shoulders. He could not bear to look at his brother and see the disappointment in his eyes.

When they were a couple of feet in front of Red Bear and his companion, Cutler stopped the horses.

Lieutenant Warner sat straight in his saddle, pulled back his shoulders and addressed Red Bear. "The time has come for you to reconsider the terms of our offer. It would be best for your people …" He glanced across at his sergeant and bobbed his head before continuing, "… and for your family also."

Right on cue, Cutler slid the army cap from Buck's head, grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked his head back, so that his face was level with that of his brother and clearly visible.

The only sign of recognition was a slight widening of Red Bear's eyes, which was only just perceivable to Buck. To others, his expression remained stark and indifferent.

Lieutenant Warner stared at the Chief, trying to gauge his reaction but saw no visible emotion in his face. He glanced across at Cutler and frowned his consternation at the Sergeant.

Cutler's mouth twitched with infuriation. Keeping a firm grip on Buck's hair he took his pistol from it's position on his belly and brought it up to rest against Buck's temple.

"Sign the god-damn piece of paper or I'll blow a hole in him big enough for you and your whole god-damn tribe to ride through!" he snarled.

Still Red Bear did not outwardly react. Internally his gut was twisting. He knew his connection to the white world would cause difficulties some day. He had told Buck, the last time he'd seen him, that if they met on a battlefield then he would have to kill him. Although Buck had said he knew it had to be so, neither of them thought the battlefield on which they would meet would be one such as this.

Red Bear could see the shame in his brother's eyes but saw no fear. He was a true warrior, as he had proved himself that day, during the trials to compensate for the release of his hairless, mute friend. The Chief would have been proud to have him ride alongside him in battle, but he knew it never could have been. Even though he had denied it to Buck, he knew of the treatment his younger sibling had suffered due to his mixed blood, as he grew up in the Kiowa village. His brother may have been tolerated but would never have been truly accepted within the tribe, even though he was the Chief's brother. It would have caused problems and the Elders had warned Red Bear against allowing him back to the Kiowa. He had hoped when he had told him to return to the white world that day, it would be the last he saw him as he knew any further meetings would not bode well for either. How right he had been, he thought, as he looked across at Buck now, with the cold metal pressed against his head.

"Well, Chief? What's it gonna be? You gonna sign that paper or am I gonna send your brother to the hunting grounds in the sky?" shouted out Cutler.

Red Bear regarded the man with dignified disdain and then turned back to the Lieutenant. He knew the rest of his tribe would be watching his every move and he could not falter now and show any weakness.

Sitting tall on his Pinto pony, he looked Lieutenant Warner in the eye and, in a low, strong voice said, "I have no brother."

His gaze slipped towards Buck and their eyes met, the older brother's showing regret at what he had to do and the younger's telling of his understanding. Red Bear dipped his head respectfully to Buck and then turning his horse, rode back to his people.

Lieutenant Warner watched him leave in disbelief and consternation. With the Kiowa chief went his hopes of promotion.

"What are your orders, Sir?" a frustrated Cutler called out, his hand still firmly gripping Buck's hair and the pistol still aimed at his head. He got no response from his commanding officer. "Sir?" he demanded, more loudly.

A deflated Warner turned to look at him. He looked across at his men who waited expectantly for his command. "I …" He hesitated, trying to come to grips with what had just happened. He had been so sure it would work.

"Sir?" Again Cutler tried to stir the officer. "Should we attack?" he asked.

The suggestion brought Warner back to the reality of the situation. "No, Sergeant," he answered finally. "God knows how many of them are watching our position now. We would be sitting ducks. We shall retreat."

"Sir, what about the half breed? We can't let him go? Shall I dispose of him now?"

Buck felt a lump rise in his throat. He pulled against the restraining hand that held his hair, trying to break free. Cutler grabbed the back of his jacket, pulling it down from his shoulders, pinning his arms against his sides.

Warner looked on with renewed shock. He hadn't considered what would happen if things hadn't gone to plan. There was nothing he could do now but return to the fort, having not accomplished his orders. It would not go down well if it was ever found out he had stooped to such devious methods in an attempt to achieve them. He had little option than to get rid of the Indian. It was very probable no one would worry about an orphan, half-breed express rider anyway.

"Yes, Sergeant, but not here, in front of the men. I will lead the company back to camp and you will carry out your duty and report back to me to finalize the details."

Cutler smiled maliciously at Warner's instruction and let go of Buck's jacket to give his commanding officer a sharp salute. Buck's head snapped forward and he gasped with relief. The pistol had also slipped from its menacing position and Buck seized his opportunity and spurred his horse forward in a bid to escape. What he had forgotten, in his haste, was that the rope, from his horse's bridle was still wrapped around Cutler's saddle horn, jerking his horse to a stop, causing Buck to lose his seating, slip to the side of his horse and fall in a heap to the ground.

Lieutenant Warner was distracted from his task of organizing his men briefly by the events but was unwilling to become involved in the slaughter of the innocent pawn in his unsuccessful dealings with the Indians. He simply gave the order for the troop to move out, leaving Sergeant Cutler to deal with the situation.

Buck lay on his back, momentarily winded from the fall, trying to drag air into his lungs, through his nose, as the gag in his mouth restricted any substantial intake via his mouth. He had only just regained his composure when Cutler was at his side, taking hold of the binding between his hands and dragging him to his unstable feet.

"I ain't ready to let you go jest yet, injun. Now, get walkin'," Cutler told him forcefully, waving his pistol in the direction in which he wanted Buck to go.

Buck was desperate to try and reason with the man but the gag impeded any form of coherent communication. The only thing he could do was comply - for now. They walked a short distance until Cutler instructed Buck to stop, near the edge of a gully, which was almost totally hidden by overgrowth.

"That's far enough," Cutler said. "This will do."

Buck stood before him, eyes dark and piercing, looking vulnerable but dangerous.

Cutler swiped the back of his free hand across his brow. Buck, sensing the man's tension and knowing he had little to lose, reached up and dragged the gag from his mouth and took in a gulp of fresh air.

"You don't have to do this," Buck said, managing to keep his voice steady and calm.

"I guess not but orders is orders," Cutler replied assuredly. "You know too much. Ain't gonna have a no account half breed like you sully the good reputation of a fine officer, like Lieutenant Warner and the army. Even your own brother didn't want you so's can't imagine anyone else will worry about you."

"That's where you're wrong, my friend."

Both Cutler and Buck looked up, in the direction from which the voice came. Standing on a large boulder, the fringing hanging from his jacket sleeve fluttering in the breeze, rifle in hand, butt resting against his shoulder, sight levelled, was Cody.

Buck's heart leapt. Further relief swept over him when Jimmy sauntered out from behind another rock, head slightly bowed, wearing both his pearl handled guns. "What you gotten yourself into this time, Buck?" he asked casually.

Cutler hesitated, looking from Cody to Jimmy, determining his best way out. The boy with the two guns looked to be in pain so that would slow him up some. The other boy was a little ways off but he might not be a bad shot with that rifle. The best option seemed to be to take him out first then the other one.

He was just about to act when five other people appeared, in various positions around him, all pointing guns in his direction. Cutler's head spun around in astonishment then he threw his pistol to one side and raised his hands.

"Don't know what your problem is. He's only a damn half-breed. He ain't worth makin' all this fuss about it. It ain't like his own family wants him or nothin'," Cutler babbled.

"You're the problem," Cody interjected, leaping down from the boulder. "And we're his family."

Buck felt further exultation when Teaspoon and the other riders appeared from various positions and made their way down to the clearing. Ike ran to Buck, a wide smile of delight on his face. He quickly untied his friend's hands.

"You alright, son?" Teaspoon asked.

"Yes," Buck replied huskily. "I am now. How'd you find me?"

"Ike spotted you with the troop this mornin'. We seen the rest of them ridin' back to town. Have to say, when you weren't with them we … , well, you know."

Buck nodded solemnly but then grinned at Ike. "Thanks, buddy."

"Let's get you home and get this fella locked up. Got a few questions I want to ask that Lieutenant," Teaspoon muttered tersely.

Lou came into the clearing leading the Sergeant's horse and the one that Buck had been riding. After they were all mounted, with Cody riding shotgun behind Cutler and Kid and Jimmy flanking him, they set off for Sweetwater.

They had just left the clearing when Cutler slumped in his saddle. For a moment no one quite realized what had happened and then they saw the arrow protruding from his back. Buck looked up just in time to see the feathered head dress, worn by Kiowa War Chiefs, slip behind the edge of an outcrop of rocks.

**********
*****

Chapter 9

Buck smiled appreciatively up at Rachel as she put another large piece of pie on his plate.

"I'll have another piece too, please, Rachel," garbled Cody, through the lump of pastry already in his mouth.

" 'Fraid that was the last piece, Cody," Rachel replied.

"How come Buck gets it then?" Cody responded crossly.

A brief look of exasperation crossed Rachel's face but she decided if Cody didn't already know then it wasn't worth explaining it to him. "He just does, alright."

Buck gave Cody a cheeky, lopsided grin as he popped in another mouthful.

Cody was just about to say something else when the bunkhouse door opened and Teaspoon stepped in. All seven riders looked up from their suppers, at the stationmaster come marshal.

"Everything go alright, Teaspoon?" Kid asked.

Teaspoon sank wearily into his chair and placed his palms on top of the table. Rachel put his supper on the table in front of him and he sighed gratefully.

"Well, I don't think we'll be seein' that Lieutenant Warner in these parts again. In fact I'm not so sure he'll have much of a career left in the army when my report reaches Fort Laramie, along with Buck's statement."

The table grew quiet and reflective for a moment, until Cody said, "What I don't understand is how they knew of Buck's connection to the Kiowa. I mean he don't exactly advertise it, do you, Buck?"

Buck furrowed his brow thoughtfully at Cody but chose not to respond.

"Seems, that sergeant overheard some conversation in the saloon one afternoon and that's how he got to know of it," he said, arching his eyebrow, between mouthfuls of potato.

Cody opened his mouth to say something more but wisely closed it.

"Oh!" said Noah, somewhat sheepishly, understanding instantly.

"What did they say about Cutler, Teaspoon?" Jimmy asked.

"Killed during the rescue of the captive," was the succinct response.

Buck's eyes flew up and he looked at Teaspoon.

"Seems no one's quite sure how he died or who killed him, what with all that was goin' on, so the army is happy to just let it rest. Decided to cut their losses, so to speak."

Buck's shoulders sank with relief.

"Got you your knife and gun back too, Buck. They're in my saddlebags. Get 'em for you after I've finished appreciatin' Rachel's fine cookin'," the older man said, between mouthfuls.

Buck nodded his head in thanks as his eye caught Teaspoon's. There seemed to be a genuine look of concern and affection in his weathered face. It was a look Buck appreciated, one that a father would give a son. One he'd never really experienced as a child. It gave him a real sense of belonging.

By now, Teaspoon's plate was cleared and he sat back, hands clasped over his belly, with a satisfied smirk on his face. Rachel took the empty plate and replaced it with one, on which sat a large piece of pie.

Cody looked at her incredulously but Rachel just smiled sweetly back at him.

**********
*****

The riders slipped into their usual evening routines. Ike sat with his paper pad, drawing Cody and Noah, who were playing cards. Kid and Lou were at the other end of the table, looking at a goods catalog Kid had brought back from his last run to St. Joseph. Buck took in the reassuring scene before stepping outside to get some cool, evening air.

He found Jimmy sitting on the porch steps, fiddling with a piece of rope. He looked up and gave Buck a small smile of acknowledgement before turning his attention back to the rope in his hands.

Buck stood at the top of the steps and leaned against the post, admiring the smattering of stars daring to challenge the pale, steely blue of the sky. "Nice evening," he commented softly.

"Sure is," Jimmy replied, without looking up. He shifted position a little and Buck caught the wince of pain in his face as he did so.

"That gash in your side still giving you some trouble?" Buck asked, as he lowered himself to sit alongside Jimmy.

"Some," came the succinct response.

Neither spoke for a while, Jimmy continuing to twist the rope in his hands while Buck stared at the sky.

"I'm sorry you got hurt, Hickok. I should have done something …"

Jimmy squinted at him now, in thoughtful contemplation. "What the hell you talkin' about, Buck? Appreciate you getting' me back here and takin' care of me like you did," he replied, self-consciously.

"But I could have - should have prevented it from happening in the first place," Buck responded remorsefully.

"Weren't you that stuck a knife in my side."

"No, but I should have stepped in sooner. But seeing Little Horse was a bit of a shock and I …"

"You knew him?" Jimmy interjected.

Buck hung his head. "Yes," he replied quietly.

"Why didn't you say nothin'?"

Buck looked up at Hickok now and was surprised to see no anger in the other rider's face only a look of question.

"Didn't really get the chance. It all happened so quickly. I haven't seen him for years. He'd changed some but I knew it was him."

"Who is he?" Jimmy asked, noting the look of melancholy in his friend's face.

Buck closed his eyes, conjuring the images of his past to mind. He wasn't totally sure that Jimmy was the right person to try and tell but he truly felt he owed him an explanation. Taking a breath he started to describe how Little Horse had been the closest thing to a friend he'd had while living with the Kiowa. The younger boy had been the only one who disregarded his mixed race and had chosen to spend time with him, unlike the other boys, who constantly shunned or taunted him.

Jimmy listened with quiet contemplation, calmly fiddling with the knotted rope in his hand but taking in every one of Buck's words.

When Buck finished talking, Jimmy simply finished tying a knot in the rope and let it dangle, limply, from his fingers. "I'm sorry for what happened with your brother, Buck. I mean, not bein' accepted by your people like that .. well, it must be kinda hard."

Swallowing down the emotion Jimmy's comment had evoked, all Buck could do was nod an acknowledgement. He couldn't bring himself to share with him the shame and humiliation he felt about how he'd been treated by those he considered his own people, which still burned within him, even after all these years. Instead he kept it hidden deep inside, not willing to share even with his closest friend and confidant, Ike.

"Seems to me that we're kinda there to look out for you now, so it don't matter none," Jimmy said awkwardly.

It wasn't the most poetic thing he'd ever heard but Buck fully understood the sentiment and appreciated it greatly. He was suddenly reminded of the words he'd said to his brother once, that he and the Pony Express riders worked together, ate together, slept together - they were like one. It was a real good feeling to know how right he'd been. He'd found his place in this world and had found a family - of sorts, who were willing to be there for him. He still cared greatly for his brother, Red Bear and had understood why he had done what he had done, although it did not make it easier to accept. This was where his loyalties lay now and he vowed never to let it stand in the way of his judgement again. He was thankful Jimmy hadn't been more seriously hurt and made a promise to himself that he'd make it up to his friend - and brother - someday.

The bunkhouse door opened behind them and the other riders appeared, one by one. Kid and Lou went and sat closely together on the wooden bench, shoulder to shoulder, casting secretive looks between them. Noah leaned nonchalantly against the porch post, beside Buck and Ike stood behind Jimmy, gazing up at the sky. Cody sat himself down next to Buck, on the steps and slung his arm across his shoulders.

He smiled widely at him. "Good to have you back, Buck," he said happily.

Buck smiled and ducked his head, a little embarrassed and overwhelmed by the attention. Having the other riders around him felt like a true endorsement of Jimmy's words.

"You're only sayin' that 'cos you don't wanna do any extra runs, Cody!" Kid chided him.

Cody threw him a look of disdain. "Now Kid, ya know that ain't true. I'm just happy Buck's back safely with us, is all."

"Oh, so you won't mind you've still got a couple of extra runs 'cos Jimmy's still not fit enough to ride and Teaspoon reckons Buck needs a couple of days to rest up then?" Kid replied, with a rueful grin.

Cody took his arm from Buck's shoulders and looked about him incredulously.

"Aww, damn it!" he cursed.

Author's Note: Huge thanks to my very kind betas - chyron girl, Mollie and Grace. Your suggestions were invaluable.

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