She watched as the riders went past her, walking their horses. She knew the smallest of them was not what she seemed. "Yes, she", thought the young girl. "And, if that girl can get away with it, so can I."

Chapter 1

“Alright, who put the bucket away?” came Jimmy’s bellow.

“What’s wrong,?” came Emma’s reply.

Jimmy came out of the barn, his right side drenched. “Whoever put the bucket away left it full, and danged if I ain’t gonna find out who it was and- !”

“Jimmy, I’ll not have that language,” stated Emma calmly.

He knew from her tone he was in trouble, and wasn’t about to give her any more of a reason to berate him. “Sorry, Emma.”

“Just go right on in and change.”


“Rider Commin’, it’s Cody,” called Lou.

“Ike, you’re up!” said Emma.

Ike led his horse out, mounted, and caught the flying mochilla from Cody. He raced off, just as Lou came out to take Cody’s horse.

“You look like you could use a bath, Cody,” she told him.

“Yea, but it looks like Hickok already had one.”

“Watch it, Cody, or you’ll be takin’ a bath in the horse trough,” warned Jimmy.

“Enough,” was Emma’s response to their escalating emotions. “Jimmy, go change like I told you before. Cody, cool down that horse, hop in the shower, and I’ll have something ready for you hot on the table when you’re done. Lou, get back to the chores you just left.”

“Yes ma’am,” they chorused.

That evening, Teaspoon announced that Tompkins had just hired a boy to stock the shelves and act as gofer. The boys were speechless.

"Who?" the boys chorused. What kind of boy could be so desperate as to work for Tompkins?

"Don't know. He's new in town."

"Well, what's his name?" asked Emma.

"Leon Rosser. He's about fifteen, and from what I hear, he's been on his own for the last seven years."

"Poor dear, he must have been desperate," said Emma.

"'Must a' been, to work for that old..."

"Jimmy..." warned Emma.

"...Coot," he finished lamely.

"Well, I think you boys ought to invite him for supper sometime this week. He can't have many friends, workin' for Tompkins. Could also be he needs some guidance."

"That is a wonderful idea, Mr. Spoon. Cody, you and Kid go over tomorrow and ask him to supper. Don't take no for an answer, I want him here tomorrow night," instructed Emma.

The boys did as they were told, and the next day they stood face to face with Leon Rosser.

He was on the short side, about five foot seven, but the first thing the two riders saw him do was lift a seventy-five pound sack of flour over his head and put it on a stack he had made of them in a far corner. The riders also noticed that the entire store had been rearranged. Every inch of the place could be seen from the counter, and things of similar or related use were arranged near each other, to make the store more accessible to people with specific projects.

"Hello?" asked Kid, somewhat unsure of himself in the presence of someone who could rearrange any store in one day, let alone Tompkins's store.

"Can I help you sir?" asked the boy in a melodious tenner.

"Well, we heard you were new in town, and we came to ask you if you have any plans for supper tonight?" asked the brazen Cody.

The boy did not smile as he answered, but his eyes showed immense gratitude. "Not at the moment."

"Well then, what time do you get off work?"

"Seven o'clock, an hour after the store closes."

"Well then, we'll see you at around seven thirty, out at the way station."

"Sounds good, if you can tell me where it is."

The riders left after a quarter of an hour, having invited Leon to supper, given him directions, and told him a few choice stories.

That night, dinner was Emma's famous soup, cornbread, and a lemon ice-box pie.

"So Leon, where you from?" asked Jimmy.


"Really?" said Teaspoon. "I'm from thataways my ownself. Whereabouts d'you grow up, son?"

"The Staked Plains."

"Ain't too many white men around there," remarked Buck.

"No, there aren't. We had a little ranch on the southern tip of the Plains, but there's nothing left now. I doubt even the ashes could keep out that prairie grass."

"Ashes?" asked Teaspoon carefully.

"We weren't welcome," was the only reply he got. "Miss Shannon, I think this pie rivals my grandmother's. I'm very grateful to you for inviting me this evening."

"Why thank you, young man. And may I say that it has been some time since I have met someone with manners and speech like yours. Where did you attend school?" asked Emma.

"My mother taught me. Her father had been an Irish Conscript in the British military, so she moved around a lot. Reading was about the only pastime she had, and she passed that on to me."

"You have read much, then?" she asked.

"What we could get on the ranch. I have read Blackstone, Shakespear, and a half dozen others from the books my mother managed to bring west, and of course the Bible."

"You are religious, then?"

"You could say that."

Not wanting to have a theological discussion on a full stomach, Cody asked Kid if Katy was alright.

"Yes, thank goodness. I cleaned out the wound, and I don't think there's any infection."

"Who's Katy?" asked Leon, with a twinkle in his eye.

"My horse," answered Kid, missing the subtly mischievous gleam in the younger boy's eyes. It died almost immediately.

When the talk had died down and the pie was gone, the group retired to the porch. Other than his cryptic remark earlier in the evening, Leon had made no reference to himself. Emma sensed he did not wish to discuss his own life, so she steered the conversation towards the present.

"So, young man, The Kid tells me you have rearranged Tompkins's whole store. How did you manage that?"

"That was the first task he gave me. He said I was to have the store organized by tomorrow, and he would decide if I could stay by how efficient I could make it."

"So you don't even know if you'll have a job in the morning?"

"No, Ma'am," replied Leon. "Frankly, I don't know if I can stand working for him. He comments under his breath about every customer when they leave, and although I haven't seen him shortchange anyone, he drives up the prices higher than they should be, 'cause he knows that most of the farmers can't be away long enough to get their supplies in another town."

"Well, what will you do?" asked Emma in her frank way.

"I really don't have much choice. If he gives me the job, I'll take it. I'll simply have to agree to disagree with him on some things; though I may not tell him so."

Chapter 2

Leon walked slowly back to town. He had no horse, but hadn’t mentioned that to anyone at the bunkhouse. That was part of why he needed this job with Tompkins so badly. He needed a horse to survive in this country, and a gun as well.

When he reached town, Leon went behind the store. He hadn’t been paid yet, and couldn’t afford the boarding house, but he preferred camping out anyway. Sleeping was hard without the noises in the night. The crickets would stop chirping if anything was wrong, and wake him up. He couldn’t count on that inside.

As he pulled his bedroll from under the building, he laughed out loud. He never would have thought to look for friends in this place, but the riders appealed to him. He sensed that many of them had been through hardships like he had, and some of them through worse. “It really is true,” he thought. “You can’t recognize the value of the good times unless you’ve seen the bad.”

The next morning, Lou and Buck were sent by Emma for supplies, and to see about Leon. They found him stocking shelves with the latest shipments.

“How ya’ doin’?” asked Buck.

“Can’t complain,” replied Leon. “What can I get you this morning?”

“Emma’s got a list for you,” said Lou. She wasn’t sure why, but something about Leon made her uneasy.

“Here you are, Lou.”

“Thanks, Leon,” she said.

Leon’s eyes showed something Lou couldn’t describe as she made the purchase. Could it be he knew? She pushed the thought from her head. How could he possibly know?

Back at the station, Emma was doing the boy’s weekly laundry. Sometimes, she didn’t know how they got so dirty in just one week. Sure, they had rides, and those were dusty, but how did they manage the grass, mud, and what was this....lamp oil? Well, that might explain why nobody wanted to light the lamp in the bunkhouse last night; there wasn’t one. All that was left was on Cody’s shirt and pants.

“What am I going to do with them?” she asked herself. “I’m going to run out of soap, that’s what I’m going to do.”

The next Sunday, all the boys were herded into church by Emma, and saw Leon close to the back. He was alone in the pew, so they filed in next to him.

The service went routinely, the boys singing lowly, trying to hide the fact that they only knew half of each verse, and most of them couldn’t read fast enough to learn more. Leon knew the songs, but he had another reason for singing softly.

The boys headed back to the station for chores, but at Emma’s prompting, invited Leon to come in a few hours. Teaspoon said they had the day to themselves once the chores were finished.

Two hours after the service, Leon showed up at the station, ready for a change from Tompkins’s store. He had been working almost non-stop for five weeks. He almost had enough saved up for a horse, and he couldn’t wait. Emma was a good cook, but he didn’t know how many times he could walk out to the station before his legs collapsed.

“Hey, Leon. We’re headed down to the swimmin’ hole. You up for it?” asked Jimmy.

“Can’t swim all that well, but I’ll put my feet in,” he replied.

“It’s all right. I cain’t swim neither. Guess I found a buddy.”

“Guess so.”

At the swimming hole, Leon was not surprised that Lou “couldn’t” swim either. The three of them rolled their pants up to their knees and sat at the edge of the pond, legs lolling into the water. There wasn’t much to do but cool off.

“I ain’t never seen it, but that doesn’t mean it ain’t been done.”

“What are ya’ll talkin’ about,” asked Cody, splashing his way over to them.

“Leon here says they got a man in Oregon who steers captive buffalo and uses them as oxen,” answered Jimmy

“What? I don’t think so.”

“No, I’ve seen it. He caught a few, and he breeds them. Obviously the ones that were wild can’t be used, but their young are just like cattle, if a bit more moody.”

“I don’t think so, Leon,” Said Cody. “How about you, Lou?”

“Like I said before, I ain’t never seen it, but that doesn’t mean it ain’t been done.”

“Well, you two can go soft in the head if you want. I’m goin’ over here so as I don’t catch whatever it is that bit you.”

He splashed away into the water then, away from those who were stuck on the bank. The land-bound trio shouted in mock anger at their newly wet clothing, but could not retaliate. They decided to bide their time.

Next Sunday, the riders and Leon decided to spend another day at the pond. Lou and Leon ambushed Cody. He went head first into the water with everything but his boots on. He came slogging out, ready for a fight, but Buck proposed a wrestling match to cool things down. At least there wouldn’t be any busted teeth to explain to Teaspoon. Leon was quick to accept, and Cody agreed.

Leon took stance opposite Cody, and began circling. Cody followed suit. After a few feigns on either side, they were locked in combat. Cody was taller, but Leon was infinitely more skilled in his movements. Cody would think he had Leon pinned, only to find himself locked in an iron grip from behind.

After only a few minutes, Leon threw Cody with a flying mare, and pinned him on the ground. Try as he might, Cody couldn’t throw his opponent off, and Leon was declared the winner.

Trying not to hold a grudge, Cody accepted defeat, if somewhat gruffly. About this time, someone decided the rest of the riders should join in the fun, and a match started between Ike and The Kid.

The ensuing battle was less intense than the one before, being between two relatively relaxed young men, and Ike won it uncontested.

Lou challenged Buck, and he hesitated for a moment. His fellow riders would kill him if he hurt her, but they couldn’t reveal her secret to Leon. He accepted, but allowed himself to be beaten within a few moves. Lou seemed upset by this, and went to cool herself off.

Next, Leon challenged Jimmy. He nearly laughed, he outweighed the smaller, younger man by a good thirty pounds or more, but Leon seemed sincere. Jimmy took the hint, and began to square off. He could now see how Leon moved against an opponent, and decided maybe he should put a bit of effort into his defense.

Leon circled again, waiting for a break in Jimmy’s stance. The two locked arms, but Leon slipped away. He knew that if he was ever pinned inside those arms he couldn’t break the hold.

Leon nearly danced around Hikock, exchanging minor locks and trying for the throw. Jimmy lost his footing in the wet grass, and Leon moved in.

Jimmy got one arm around his assailant, managing to thwart his demise, but he was winded. Leon didn’t let him rest for a second. He dodged, slipped behind his opponent, and allowed himself to be pushed out of minor holding positions, forcing Jimmy to use up his strength. Ten minutes into the match, Leon managed to throw Jimmy over his shoulder, pinning the bigger rider on his stomach. The match was over.

“I don’t think I gave you enough credit,” panted Hikock, a bit sullen at being thrown by a smaller opponent. “Where’d you learn to wrastle?”

“From growin’ up. Ever’body I knew could throw ever’body else when the timin’ was a-right.”

“Whoa there, where’d that accent come from?” asked Cody, who was pleased as pie at Jimmy’s defeat. Well, maybe not pie. “I don’t recall you havin’ much a’ one before now.”

“I’m just winded, I’ll git my schoolin’ back in a minute,” he answered.

Next, Buck and Ike decided to show off. They’d spent years at the mission school with noone else to rough-house with, and either could crack a pretty good hold, though they wouldn’t have hurt each other.

Lou was back by this time, watching with interest. She seemed to think it very interesting that Buck could keep up tit-for-tat with Ike, and come out with the upper hand more often than not, yet he managed to be beaten so easily by her.

When Buck came out “victorious,” if you could call what he and Ike had been doing fighting, Lou challenged Kid. He almost went sick, but remembered Leon’s presence. But he didn’t hold up a hand to block her win.

Lou was more than mad. She flew off the handle at the unfortunate young man, yelling faster than anyone had ever heard or was capable of understanding.

When she left, there was an awkward silence. Kid tried to pass it off to Leon, saying Lou was smaller and younger, that ‘he’ was their little brother, and none of the riders wanted to hurt ‘him.’ Leon was not fooled, he had seen the way Kid looked at Lou, and if stature was any give-away, he knew why. What he didn’t know, was whether any of the other riders knew.

Just then, Lou came back. Unhesitatingly, she challenged Leon. After seeing what happened to Kid, he wasn’t about to say no.

He was a bit weary from his two previous matches, but this was important.

His style was different when it came to Lou. Rather than try to wear out his much smaller opponent, he attempted to get her in a bear hug. There was a good forty-five pound difference between the two, and Leon used it. He kept a minimal distance between them, searching for a way to pin her. A throw would be no good, she would be up faster than he would.

Finally, after eight minutes, he had her arms pinned around her waist, her back to his chest. She picked up her feet, but he held her suspended in the air. She tried to kick his shins, but he moved his feet. Suddenly, she stopped. Something about Leon seemed very wrong. Someone counted to ten, and he released her.

Lou was spent, her anger at being treated differently gone. Telling Kid she was hungry, she started back to the station. She had to talk to Emma.

“Emma?” Lou called. “Emma, are you here?”

“Yes Lou, I’m the parlor.”

“Emma, I need to talk to you.”

“Well, Loulabell, I’m right here. What is it?”

“I was just wonderin’... you haven’t noticed anything... unusual about Leon, have you?”

Emma chuckled, “I was waitin’ for you to notice.”

“You mean, I’m right?”

“Well, that would depend on just exactly what you were thinkin’, but yes, Leon is just like you.”

“Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t notice. I mean, ‘takes one to know one,’ so how did it get past me?”

“You weren’t looking. That’s how you get away with it; no one notices because they don’t want to notice. Deep down, most people want to believe they are good and honest, and that you are too. That’s why we are so often fooled by the people we know the best.”

“Then how do you trust someone?”

“It’s mostly based on time and experience. If you can trust them with the little things, chances are you can trust them with bigger things.”

They lapsed into silence, soaking up the conversation. They each knew of several young men they trusted, and one older. They just didn’t know if they could trust the new stranger they had come across. Emma was right; true trust always takes time and experience.

Chapter 3

The boys continued to wrestle until dusk set in. Jimmy threw Cody, Buck threw Kid. Most of the aggression was taken out of the competitors, and the matches were more for sport than a need to fight.

The last match was between Leon and Buck. Each had bested all of their opponents, and the other riders were adamant that there must be a winner of the afternoon. The two shrugged their shoulders and began. They circled, each one threw the other, but they both came up ready to continue. The match seemed to take longer than any of the others had. Finally, Buck managed to knock Leon down and pin him. Leon was surprised, but managed to lose graciously. The riders noticed how late it was, and made their way back to the station for chores and supper. Leon was invited along, and they all enjoyed regaling Teaspoon and Emma with their exploits of the afternoon.

Leon walked home that night with a happy heart. He had begun helping with the chores since he seemed to be eating with them every night, and he felt accepted. There was nothing more he needed, and he had a home for the first time in years.

Leon was exasperated. The customers were demanding item after item, and a new shipment had just arrived. He was harried on all sides, and Tompkins was ornery as a bear. The store was supposed to have closed ten minutes ago, but there were too many people making purchases, and Tompkins, penny pincher that he was, wouldn’t close until they had all concluded their business.

Half an hour later, Leon was finally able to leave for the night. It was seven forty-five, and he was hungry. He knew the riders would probably be eating already, but decided to begin the walk anyway. Emma would save him something.

Just as he stepped down from the walk, Lou, Cody, and Buck rode up in front of him.

“Hey Leon, workin’ late?” asked Lou.

“Yea, we just closed. Did Emma send you three to check up on me?”

“Yes, and she won’t give us supper until we bring you back,” pouted Cody, as though it happened every night.

“Well, I’m coming now, don’t worry.” Leon started walking down the street. When he passed the livery stables, the riders were confused.

“Where’s your horse, Leon?” asked Buck.

“Don’t have one,” he stated nonchalantly.

The riders were a bit shocked. “How have you been getting to the station?” they wanted to know.

“I walk. It’s not too far, and I like the solitude.”

“Emma would kill us if we rode home and let you walk,” said Lou.

“Yes, she would. Come on, climb up with me,” said Buck.

Leon complied, and Just as they were about to ride off, a call came from the saloon.


“What?” Lou answered.

“Not you boy, I’m talking to my daughter.” The man was dirty, and more than half drunk by the sound of his voice. “What you doin’ on the back of a pony with a half-breed? And where’d you git them clothes?”

Buck stiffened, and Leon’s eyes went cold. “My choices are none of your affair, Father,” she informed him. “And as for this man and his horse, I don’t think you have any call to lay judgement on one more than the other.”

“Your mother may have been part Comanche, but you look like me, and that makes you good as any-body else who looks white. Now get off’n that pony and come with me. I got a few partners who would love to meet my daughter.”

“You stole me away from Mother, and then left me stranded in a town without a penny or a friend. I owe you nothing, and you are no longer part of my family. I have told you this before. I will not obey you, and I will not allow you to degrade the people who have made me forget you. Go away, and do not acknowledge me again. I do not know you.” Leon spoke these words with a chilling calm in her voice. Her face was stoic, and brooked no argument. “Can we go now?” this last was directed to the mounted trio with her, and they rode out, stunned to have met Leon’s father.

“Lou’s name is Louise, what’s yours?” asked Cody.

“Leona. It’s alright, Lou. I guessed already. Leona means lioness in Spanish, if you were wondering.”

“I thought you were Comanche,” said Buck.

“I am, but as you saw, my father was white. My mother was actually only one-fourth Comanche, but her mother’s second husband was a war chief, so she was not treated differently than the other children; the Comanche have a long tradition of adopting children from other tribes and races anyway. I look white as long as I haven’t had much sun, and so my mother agreed I should have a name that could serve in both worlds.”

“What if your father comes back?” asked Lou.

“I don’t know. I won’t be eighteen for eleven more months, so he may force me to go with him, or at least give up my wages.”

“What!" The three of them chorused.

“I doubt he has the money for a lawyer to do it; he never was much of a success at anything. He may even have forgotten it by morning, depending on how drunk he is. Or gets.”

The station was now in view, and the conversation ended.

The dinner table was subdued that evening. The four who had seen Leon’s father were not anxious to talk, and the others caught the mood.

After supper, Buck saddled up to take Leon home. They rode slowly and silently, taking their time, neither feeling the need to speak. Buck noticed the back of his shirt was growing damp. She had been crying so quietly he hadn’t heard her.

“Leon, what’s wrong?”

She sniffled, but did not answer immediately. He began to fear he had upset her further by asking, but she didn’t stiffen or pull away.

A heavy sigh sounded behind him, and Leon’s voice, muffled against his shirt, told him her fear of being treated as inferior now that her gender was known.

Buck did his best to allay her concerns, describing some of Lou’s exploits when the marshal had asked for their assistance. She accepted his comfort, but still harbored doubts. She knew, though, that she could not ask Buck, Lou, and Cody to keep her secret from the others any longer. It could drive a wedge between them when they found out.

“Alright, Buck. I’ll tell the others tomorrow after church, and Jimmy when he gets back from his run.”

“I’ll be there, if you need me.”


Ike and Kid responded much as they had upon finding out about Lou. One was contemplative and supportive, the other irate. Kid was still worried about Lou and her duties, he didn’t want another girl on his conscience every time he spoke to Teaspoon. He soon calmed down, realizing she couldn’t change what she was, or her need to hide it.

Leon didn’t have a dress to be introduced in. Lou’s one dress was way too small, and Emma’s clothes, although long enough, didn’t fit around her shoulders and arms. She was too muscular. She opted for a skirt of Emma’s and her own shirt. It wasn’t a blouse, but it would work.

She had both women helping with her hair, which usually hung in a long pony-tail down her back. It was a style not uncommon among cowpokes and mountain men, and suited her, but not as a dressed-up girl. She ended up with most of her hair piled on her head in an elaborate bun, with long ringlets on either side of her face that fell below her belt.

Ike, Buck, Cody, and Kid were swept away by Leon’s entrance. She had the grace of one long accustomed to hunting, and wore a pair of soft moccasins instead of hard-soled lady’s shoes. Her hair was the color of a cougar, her namesake, and her movements bespoke of the same. She was beautiful, with high cheekbones, a roman nose, and a very few freckles on each. Her skin was light enough to be ‘white’ but definitely not pale; the color reminded them of peanut butter or wet sand, like a Spaniard. Her eyes were the darkest of violets, almost black in the firelight. Her jaw was defined, and wider than most. Her face was far from classic, but startlingly beautiful nonetheless.

“Jimmy’s gonna be sorry he missed this,” admonished Cody.

“Oh, he’ll be back before dinner. Don’t worry,” said Emma.

“I doubt he’ll be all that thrilled.”

“Why is that, Leona?” asked Lou.

“You don’t remember last Sunday?”

The boys all laughed, and several looked a bit embarrassed. They hadn’t thought about their impromptu wrestling match.

**He might not know you** teased Ike. Buck was about to translate, when Leon chuckled.

“You speak sign?” asked Buck.

“Sure. My grandfather taught me.”

“Was he deaf?” asked Kid.

Leon laughed. “No, he was a member of the Comanche Council. If he had to communicate with another tribe, he needed it.”

Kid and Ike were surprised, but the others filled them in on the previous night.

Jimmy wasn’t angry when he got back, just a little annoyed, mostly at himself for having been beaten.

That week, three express riders out of Blue Creek were shot, and one didn’t make it. Their dispatches had been stolen, and if the perpetrators succeeded in gaining another, they might have enough material to decode them. All of the stations in the area were backed up until the gang was either caught or dead.

Teaspoon and the boys were once again deputized by Marshal Sam Cain, and four men from town decided to join the posse too, one of them being Leon. Tompkins was worried about his shipments being next, and ‘asked’ if his young assistant could join them. Leon had finally purchased a gun and a good saddle horse, which, in many eyes, made her an adult ‘man’.

They were split up into three groups of four to scout the area. Buck, Lou, Kid and Leon comprised one group, with Teaspoon, Jimmy, Cody, and Ike in the second. The third was Sam Cain and the three other men from town.

On the trail, it was clear that Kid and Lou had other things on their minds than catching bad-guys. Eventually, they had to travel in two groups, with Kid and Buck in the front, and Lou and Leon riding behind. There was little to say while scouting for tracks or other sign.

When they made camp, the different pairs on the trail took different sides of the fire, to avoid compromising themselves. After all, they didn’t know where the gang was, and sound travels in the cool night air.

Sometime after midnight, there was a cry in the darkness. Three of the travelers were awake instantly, but Leon lay thrashing in her bedroll. She wasn’t speaking English, and Buck didn’t understand more than a few words of Comanche. He touched her shoulder, thinking to calm her, but instead of soothing her, he only managed to make her jump up, fully awake, with a knife in her hand. She was instantly master of her emotions, and quietly went over to her canteen. She bathed her face and drank, all the while bearing the mute stares of her companions.

“Don’t worry. I won’t make any noise again,” she said as she recovered her strewn blanket. She lay down then, and went strait to sleep, but she told the truth. She didn’t make another noise until morning.

Leon was the first one up. There are peopel who, after years of experiance, can sleep and wake, to the minute, when they want to. She caught two hares with a sling, and had them roasting over a small fire by true dawn.

She sliced the meat, laying it on the tin trail plates, and handed one to each of the riders. There was coffee and some early berries to go with.

By noon, they had a faint trail leading away from the main road. The three groups met up, and had the gang surrounded. Although outnumbered two to one, the bandits decided to wage war. Bullets went flying, and one went through Leon’s left shoulder. She whipped off her handkerchief, pressed it over the flesh wound, and kept firing. After the fight, it took a few minutes for her to come out from the bushes where her horse was holed up. She bandaged her wound more securely, and put a clean shirt over it. It wouldn’t do to have the doctor poking anywhere on her upper torso. She would have Emma look at it later, but the only danger seemed to be loss of blood, and she had stopped that almost immediately.

Jimmy and Cody both had flesh wounds, and one of the men from Sam’s group had been hurt, but the doc didn’t think it was fatal. All in all, they had been lucky. Two of the men involved in the bushwhacking were dead, and another was soon to join them.

Though she had come through the firefight, to his knowledge unscathed, Buck was worried about Leon. He didn’t understand her cries, but they had sounded desperate to his ears. He wondered if meeting her father had upset more than her identity.

Chapter Four

Leon rode back to town in silence. She was weary, and wanted nothing more than to bathe and sleep for a month. She doubted Tompkins would let her. That old man was ornery as a skinny bear in midwinter.

“Get out here, boy!” Tompkins called the next morning. Leon had overslept for the first time since she’d been hired, and Tompkins was more than a bit perturbed.

“Sorry sir, I’m here,” she said. Her tenor had slipped up to her natural low alto, and she was pale under the tan she had received the day before. He only noticed the last.

“Goodness Leon, You look like a half-breed! I ain’t seen anyone else get that tanned in one day. You didn’t even burn! Go stock the back shelves before someone comes in here and thinks I’ve lost my mind!” he raved.

She was taken off guard; he had never turned on her for something she hadn’t done. She knew he had no love for Indians, but couldn’t understand his reasoning. Her hair was several shades lighter from being in the sun yesterday, despite her hat. None of his customers would think she was an Indian. “Even though they should,” she thought. “Something goes deeper than his customers; it isn’t them he’s worried about. He doesn’t want to see anyone that reminded him of Indians.

She decided to think about it later. There was nothing she could do at the moment, and if she didn’t concentrate on her task, she would pass out or be sick. She decided to take her midday meal early; she had lost quite a bit of blood through the bandage in the night, and hadn’t been able to have Emma look at it. She knew she was weakened. She could barely lift the same sacks and barrels she had stacked three days before without any trouble.

By eleven thirty, Leon felt worse. Very much worse. She told Tompkins she would take her break then, and went down to the saloon. She ordered a sarsaparilla and a 16oz. sirloin. When she had eaten that, she dove into a potato, then two pieces of apple pie. She felt somewhat better with a full stomach, and took another sarsaparilla and a roast beef sandwich for later. She figured she would need it, with her wound.

She was right, she felt sick again by four. She had changed the bandages three times, and finally had to sneak to the back room and put stitches in her shoulder herself. It was a through and through shot, and she did a shoddy job on the back, but at least it wouldn’t bleed as much. She vowed to show it to Emma that evening before supper.

“Leona Rosser, how could you?” came Emma’s scolding for her foolishness. “It’s still seeping, and you look pale as a fish! I don’t even want to know how much blood you lost, or how you managed to spend an entire day in that sweltering store in this condition. Now I know you feel the need to prove yourself, but this has gone too far! If you set foot in that store within the next three days, I’m gonna skin you alive!”

Leon sat on a chair in the bunkhouse while Emma removed the stitches from her back, replacing them as gently as she could. Teaspoon was away on business for the Station, and the boys had been shooed out.

“I can’t see how you managed to put those there in the first place,” admonished Emma, in a more motherly tone. She didn’t have any whiskey for Leon to drink, and had to do without. Leon never flinched, but Emma couldn’t see her writhing toes.

When Emma had finished her ministrations, she would not allow Leon to ride back to town. She insisted on her staying at the Station overnight, and on going with her to talk to Tompkins in the morning. Leon accepted her care after declaring it completely unnecessary. She did fight on the issue of a nightgown though. She hated feeling unprotected by the thin material, and opted for her regular clothing. Emma noticed she insisted on wearing her gun and two knives at all times. She wondered what had made this strong young woman need, every moment, to feel as though nothing could hurt her; and why she refused to lie in bed when she was so clearly exhausted. She sat sideways on the porch swing, watching everything within her field of vision.

Two weeks later, Cody rode in from town with Leon, announcing that there were to be dances on every Saturday for the next month to celebrate the harvest season. All who had been injured were back to their normal activities by this time, and anticipation was thick in the bunkhouse.

The night of the first dance, the riders were lost in excitement. Lou and Leon were a bit disheartened at the prospect, not being able to go as themselves, but knew they couldn’t be revealed. Teaspoon was still in the dark, but wouldn’t stay that way for long if he saw them in lace and petticoats.

The dance hall was decorated superbly for the season, and Cody was the first in line to sample the punch, and bring some back for a young lady. Kid and Lou were absent several times during the evening, but none of the other riders pointed it out. The two had enough troubles without being discovered by Teaspoon. Leon danced with a few girls, but pretended to be clumsy so as not to be a target. Buck and Ike had trouble getting partners. Every time they went towards a girl, she magically had a man on her arm. They didn’t stay long. Jimmy had no lack of partners, but left early as well when one clung to him so she wouldn’t have to dance with Ike. Leon followed, and they soon had a friendly poker game going in the bunk house. Leon graced each of them with a dance between hands, and the four enjoyed themselves more than anyone else that night. Unfortunately, Teaspoon walked in on one of their impromptu romps.

The boys and girl stared sheepishly at each other. Leon’s thick hair had been whirling in the air, and she had been smiling. Her gender was completely obvious; there was a reason she never showed mirth in public.

Teaspoon didn’t say anything. He walked right back out and went to his own room. He smiled. It was going to be an interesting day tomorrow.

Leon sat in Teaspoon’s famous sweat lodge. She didn’t know what to say, but the old station master hadn’t mentioned her to Tompkins when he had come to town that day. There was hope.

Lou paced relentlessly in the bunkhouse. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t leave Leon to be exposed alone, but she did want to keep her own job. She sighed again, no closer to an answer than she had been an hour ago.

When Teaspoon emerged from the sweat lodge, he gave the riders a look that said “What on earth were you thinking.” She had not been able to deny that they knew, having been caught dancing with three of them, but she had not revealed Lou. That was up to the rider to decide, and she did.

“Teaspoon!” called Lou, running out of the bunkhouse before he could say anything. “If you have Tompkins fire her, you’ll have to fire me too,” she rushed, pulling off her hat and glasses.

Teaspoon stood, for once, speechless. One girl had been a shock, but two was nothing short of amazing. He looked, then looked again, and finally threw up his hands in surrender. He shot the boys a glance, wanting to make sure there were no more surprises, and walked right back into the lodge, motioning for Lou to join him.

At this point, Emma came out of the house, strode to the contraption, and called them all out.

“Emma,” called Teaspoon, surprised once again. He broke into a wide grin. “Don’t tell me you’re a man.”

“Why Mr. Spoon, I don’t think that’s one bit funny. Now, I want you and these two young ladies to come over to my parlor.”

The three complied, and she started. “Mr. Spoon, are you planning on getting these girls kicked out of town?”

“Why Emma, you know me better’n that,” he said with an impish grin.

Emma tried not to smile, but lost the battle. He had been playing with them all. He did not intend to change anything for either girl, he was just being Teaspoon. Her anger died a quick death.

“Alright, you’ve had your fun. Why don’t you go tell the faces plastered against my windows that they won’t be deprived of their friends,” said Emma, gesturing behind the three.

That night at dinner, there was a lot of joking at the supper table. Teaspoon couldn’t believe how naive he had been for the past few months, and no one let him forget it. There was no harm done though, and everyone had a good laugh.

That Friday, the girls were more depressed than before. Now everyone at the station knew, and they still had to go to the dance disguised. Most of the boys didn’t want to go either, but Emma talked them into it. She also surprised Lou with new hair ribbons, and Leon with a new comb. She said they might wear them tomorrow, if they could come up with a plan.

The girls enlisted Teaspoon, and soon had a story cooked up. They were cousins from Maine who had stopped to stay with their long-lost great-uncle Teaspoon on their way to California. Lou was to be Agatha after one of Teaspoon’s wives, and Leon was Augusta, because her parents loved their state. The girls had so much fun in their roles, they let their task of fixing fences get a bit sidelined, until Emma told them they could go into town to choose dresses when they were done.

Lou wore the pink dress she already had, and Leon put on the skirt Emma had loaned her once before, and they quickly rode into town. Several other girls were there choosing new dresses, so they were able to blend in. Lou made off with a light blue taffeta, while Leon got a deep violet, the same color as her eyes. They hid the dresses at Emma’s house, making the boys suffer until the next day.

The dance went much as before. Buck left after half an hour, without asking a girl to dance. Lou danced only with Kid, but this time they didn’t have to go outside. Leon was a popular pick for many of the young men, but chose to dance most often with the riders and Teaspoon. Jimmy was a bit turned off by the shallowness of the town girls, but he didn’t want to leave too soon and make Emma worry.

When Ike finally worked up the courage to offer his hand to one of the young ladies along the wall, she nearly took his head off with her disdainful comments. He left on the spot, but didn’t even make it to his horse before falling in the dirt on his knees. Leon followed him out, and kneeled by his side. When he looked up, she took both of his hands, pulling him up with her. “Poker time?” she asked. He nodded his head, and went with her back to the station. Buck was laying on his bunk, staring up blankly when they came in. He knew immediately what had happened, and kicked himself for leaving Ike. The three played silently, using sign, unable to trust their emotions. Jimmy joined them an hour later, and they simply dealt him in.

The next day found the four companions sitting on the porch after church, uninterested in the creek. They were not looking forward to the next two Saturdays.

“Hey Ike,” called Leon when she found him in the barn later. She picked up a brush, and started on her horse. He was a beautiful blue roan, and she was proud of him.

**You don’t have to worry Leon. I’m fine.**

“I know Ike. I’m just brushing my horse while my friend does the same.”

He nodded, and they continued. After a few minutes, he asked her, **Do you think they’re right?**

“No Ike, and don’t let them bother you. If they can’t see past the ends of their noses, then that’s their shortcoming, because you are better looking than many a man I’ve seen.”

He smiled slightly, embarrassed, then thanked her for her kindness.

“I ain’t bein’ kind, Ike. I tell you what, you want to make those girls realize what they missed, give me a few hours each day this week.”

He had no idea what she meant but agreed with a dubious expression.

By the time Saturday rolled around, Ike was excited about the dance. He and Leon had cooked up a scheme to give the girls in town a taste of their own medicine, and couldn’t wait.

When the boys rode up, followed by the buckboard, the dance hall was already a buzz of activity. After the first waltz, the band kicked up a tune of Turkey in the Haystack, Ike grabbed Leon’s hand, and they began.

The floor cleared as their antics picked up, and the town stared. He picked her up, flung her around his back, and set her down in time for her to flip over his bended form. They danced up a storm performing feats and keeping time until the band was out of breath. The whole room applauded, and partners rushed both of them, eager for the next dance with Sweetwater’s own celebrities of the minute. Their plan to impress the girls for Ike had backfired, and both had more offers than they cared to accept from every available young man and woman in town, and some that weren’t.

The whole town was a hive of activity Sunday and Monday, as everyone tried to figure out who the mystery lady was that had danced with the silent boy from the express station. Both had more suitors than they ever thought possible, but no one could find the young woman. Not even the young man who asked her in person if she was around.

Ike did his best to carry on with work as usual, but every half hour or so one of the young ladies he had danced with came out to the station to borrow something from Emma. She ran out of thimbles, needles, and was low on thread.

“Ike,” called Emma. “Ike, you know I couldn’t be happier at the town’s change of heart, but I can’t have all these girls runnin’ all over the place asking for ten things so they can be close to you. Why don’t you go into town for a while. Go talk to Leon, see if she needs any help. Lord knows, what you did last night, someone may have recognized her. And Ike, please consult me next time you want to impress the ladies. There are easier, more subtle ways of getting attention,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. She had no doubts as to who had instigated that particular scheme.

Leon had been hiding in the back room all day, rearranging things and keeping busy. Ike found her on her lunch break, and they immediately started laughing. Neither knew how they were going to get out of this predicament, but both were having fun teasing the town.

After a few days, the hounding stopped. Life went back to normal until Friday came and the final dance was anticipated.

Leon got a second new dress for the occasion, having worn the violet taffeta twice. It was hunter green, and set her features to the advantage. Lou’s dress was a dazzling pastel lavender, and she looked radiant.

Ike was now set for dancing partners, but Leon found the company of the young men mediocre at best. They treated her like a porcelain doll, even after they had seen the exuberant way she danced with Ike. She sought out Buck, and made him the object of her attentions. She did not dance with anyone else for an hour, and the other girls began to wonder what the Kiowa was really like to hold the attentions of this particular lady, although they appreciated it. They could now reclaim their escorts.

Buck and Leon strolled along the boardwalk, talking in hushed tones. They were so absorbed in their conversation that neither of them noticed they had stopped walking. Each was leaning in, intent on the discussion, when they realized their proximity. Both unwilling to pull back their lips brushed for a moment, neither having solely initiated the kiss. Both started a few inches, surprised at their behavior, but a fire had been ignited in them both. They were soon engaged in sweet, tantalizing kisses, giggling in the space between two buildings. When they had to stop for breath, their playfulness ceased, allowing the both of them to take stock. She blushed, and he looked sheepish. They glanced around, but everyone was still inside. She laughed in delight, and they resumed their playful kisses until the clock demanded they return to the world.

Buck couldn’t understand how he had fallen for her so quickly. So many people had jilted him in his short life, but she did not cringe or pull away from his touch. He knew she did not see him as a novelty to be tried. She herself was of mixed blood, and although she might not be ridiculed for it, she certainly felt the pang every time someone else was. Perhaps it was because she had been willing to help Ike. Everywhere the two had gone they had each had to fight for the other to be accepted, but Leon had joined in that fight. She had enlisted herself on their behalf, and it was rare that someone was willingly do that. He and Ike had worked hard to build that bond with the riders, but Leon had offered it. She had instigated the friendship.

All too quickly, the band announced the final waltz, and the blossoming couple returned to the dance hall. Their final twirl was a rich flourish on a heartbreaking moment; neither wanting the night to end, both knowing that it must.

Buck and Leon sat on the steps to the bunkhouse. Each wanted to stay up, but was tired enough to fall asleep standing, so they sat on in companionable silence.

Wending her way home, Leon was utterly content in her weary, wonderfully elated state of mind. She had looked so long for the kind of understanding she found among the riders. Now, she was in the tender stages of a blooming relationship. At the thought of Buck, her features softened into a blissful smile which stayed with her even in sleep.

On Monday morning, the two found each other before her shift began. They were lost in each other’s eyes when they heard the town clock strike seven, the beginning of her shift. Buck had a run late that morning, and wouldn’t be home for two days. She kissed him quickly and deeply, then went around the building to come in at the front of the store. Tompkins didn’t appreciate that she still camped behind it, and she didn’t want to set him off on such a wonderful morning.

Upon Buck’s return, Leon was sitting on the porch of the station. She hugged him as he descended. His face said he was happy to see her, but the muscles of his back tensed in protest to her touch. She searched his eyes, and motioned to the barn, not liking what she found.

Her eyes soft and compassionate, she asked “What happened?”

“Nothing, really. I just rode through a town. One of the men thought I looked at his daughters. Nothing happened.”

“Buck, I know that’s not true,” she answered, concern marring her features.

He sighed, and told her not to worry. She assented and tried to hug him, but he flinched almost imperceptibly, and she knew he was in a great deal of pain for that to happen. She gently touched his arm instead, and left the barn. He would tell her when he was ready. All she could do was let him know he was wanted.

Buck sat ramrod strait at supper, and Emma noticed. She said nothing, knowing that the rider would not accept help unless he asked for it first. She felt for the boy, needing to close himself off in order to survive.

Ike came to Emma’s house early the next morning, telling her that Buck was ill. She went immediately to the bunkhouse, and found the Kiowa bedecked with sweat and feverish. He was laying on his stomach, which was unusual, but not worrisome until she attempted to turn him over. He arched on the bed, not allowing his back to contact it. Emma quickly removed his shirt, and found a long gash from a bull whip on his back. There was only one, so he hadn’t been beaten with it. She thanked God for that, but as to how this one got there, she was loath to imagine.

Leon came from work that day to find Buck lying on his stomach in bed. When she saw the bandage, she closed her eyes, a few tears silently escaping. He was asleep, and Emma had managed to keep his fever low grade, but his injury cut her heart as deeply as it had his back.

She knew he would want to use the traditional herbs of his village for treating his wound, and left to find them. She collected willow bark, sage, hazelnut and oak leaves, and slippery elm bark. The first two she made into a tea, and the last three a poultice. She gave them to Emma, and left. If he didn’t want her there, she wouldn’t bother him.

Three days went by, and Buck’s wound was closed, but far from healed. The doctor said it could reopen at any time, and he should not work or ride for another week at least, but Buck could not let Leon think she was unwelcome. He snuck into the barn, and rode out to town. He found her alone in Tompkins’s store, working up a storm.

“Leon?” he asked. She looked up, surprised to see him there. She had been efficient and unemotional for the last three days, but he could see the strain behind her eyes. “Thank you for the herbs.”

“Of course Buck. I wouldn’t let you suffer.”

“I know. I was hurt, but... I shouldn’t have... I’m sorry.”

She nodded, squeezed his hand, and headed for the back of the store. On her way she paused, “Tell Emma I’ll be out for supper tonight.”

He visibly relaxed. Things weren’t fixed, but she would at least listen to him. He suddenly realized that his back didn’t like the relaxed position, so he stiffened himself and rode back to his bunk.

Emma wasn’t too pleased upon finding him gone, but he managed to get back in without her catching him in the action. She gave him a look that warned him to stay put, and brought another poultice for his back.

When Leon came out, she headed straight for the bunkhouse. She sat on the edge of his bed, waiting for him to begin.

“I was almost home, when I saw a town that had been started just last month. I decided to water my horse at the creek that runs at the edge, but three girls came to fill pots to cook with. They mistook my intentions, and their father came running. He told me to take my filthy Indian self down-stream. He brandished a gun and the whip. When I was about to head off, he struck me. The tip caught Wayfarer’s rump, and he bolted. I hung on until he calmed down, and we were miles away by then. I just... came home. I changed my shirt about a mile out, bandaged myself up so I wouldn’t worry anyone. I don’t know why those girls thought I would attack them. I was at least thirty yards from their spot. It was obvious what I was doing. I was even there first.” He sighed, emotionally exhausted by his tale. Leon understood his reasons. Hadn’t she essentially done the same thing when she had been shot?

She took his hand in hers, and kissed him. Their tears mingled on his cheek, and all was forgiven.

Chapter Five

Buck healed slowly.  The whip had not been exceptionally clean, and a mild infection kept him down and out for almost two weeks.  The other riders were a bit haggard as well, each having to take additional runs.  Leon took Buck’s chores as well as her own, and everyone’s tempers were easily aroused.

Jimmy and Kid fought twice in that last week over nothing, and Teaspoon was ready to dunk them both in the horse trough.  Ike, of all people, was growing sullen, and Cody even skipped lunch one day to avoid the growing belligerence within the bunk house.

Buck’s return to work was a relief, but tensions remained high for several days with residual stress.  On Sunday Teaspoon ordered the boys off the station.  He was not going to endure any more foolishness, and had determined that everyone could use a change of scenery.

Cody headed into town to buy the latest dime novel.  Kid and Lou headed to the pond alone.  Jimmy set up bottles on an old stump to try and relieve some stress.  Buck and Ike headed out to a nearby stream to see what they could catch.  Leon rode out to a meadow with the intention of napping in the sunshine.  It was a beautiful, warm October day-probably one of the last before the cold set in.

Leon cried out again, but none of the other riders were there to hear her.  She slowly drifted back into a normal sleep.

“It’s been snowing for three days!” whined Cody when late November rolled around.

“I don’t particularly mind.  Tompkins only needs me for a few hours a day now that the farmers are settling in for the winter.”

“Yea, well you try riding hundreds of miles in a blizzard.”

“I have, Cody.  On a burro no less, so don’t tell me about slow going in the cold.  You’ve got a good horse, and there’s only a few inches on the ground.  Not enough for black ice to form under it, and you shouldn’t have too much trouble making time.  Besides, you’re only going to Blue Creek.  That’s a relatively short run, and you’ll be spending the night in a hotel.”

“Yeah Cody.  Get yourself a steak dinner, a cup of coffee, and remember that we’re here, eating biscuits until Emma comes back from delivering that baby,” said Jimmy, who was none too fond of his own cooking.

“Except that Leon is cooking instead of you.  You didn’t seem to remember that part.”

Jimmy grinned.  He had forgotten that he was no longer the designated cook during Emma’s rare but significant absences.  Leon’s cooking was far different from Emma’s.  She used many more herbs and wild vegetables, and had a knack for taking the gamey taste out of meat.  Jimmy didn’t mind her dishes at all.

Leon smacked Cody upside of his head, and handed him a packet of food to take with him, along with an extra blanket for his bedroll in case he couldn’t make it to the Blue Creek Station that night.

Two hours later, Leon and Buck sat in the bunkhouse kitchen.  She was shredding dried wild carrots to use in a dessert, and he was cutting potatoes.

“It’s sure funny what all my practice came to isn’t it?” he asked her, referring to his prowess with a knife.

She laughed.  “Don’t be silly.  That’s good precision work.  You might decide to take to whittling one day,” she teased him.
“Are you calling me an old man?  You know you’re a few months older than me don’t you?”

“I don’t know any such thing.  You’ve never told me when you were born.”

“Right after the spring rains stopped.”

“Then I’m not that much older than you.  I was born the day they started, and they lasted about five weeks that year.”

“Still, you can’t call me old if I’m younger than you.”

They continued bantering with each other until all of the vegetables were ready for use.  Leon then dumped them in a casserole dish, and made a lasagna out of the many ingredients they had prepared, adding some venison the pair had managed to bring home two days before.  The shredded carrots were the topping for a sort of thick, sweet pudding that she wouldn’t tell anyone the ingredients to.

Lou lay awake that night, worried.  Something wasn’t right, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.  It was like someone had thrown a gauze across her face, and she couldn’t see clearly.  She finally got up, dressed, and went to sit with Lightning to clear her head.  She found Buck up with Wayfarer, and asked him what was wrong.  He didn’t know either.

Leon rode out to the clearing she had spent her free day in.  She liked it there, and no one owned the land, so she had finally moved from behind Tompkins’s store, and made a sort of camp.  Part of her wanted to move into the bunkhouse with Lou and the boys, but part of her was too timid to ask.  She was now deeply involved with Buck, and didn’t know if it would be asking too much of him to live in the same room and not be able to do anything about it.  They had never discussed any specific boundaries, but as yet all they had shared could be summed up to a few kisses, a great many conversations, and an understanding unlike either had known from someone of the opposite gender.

Leon loved her meadow, which she had named Willow Singing, because of the many willow trees running along the deep creek bed to the West, and the musical sound when a wind blew across that gully.  She wondered if she might try to buy this patch of land in the spring.  She was saving almost all of her wages, and didn’t think she would need much more to afford her little spread.  Willow Singing was about eleven acres square, and she could buy more later if she needed it.  It was further from town than the station, and not many people wanted land so far from ‘civilization’.  The perfect place to raise a family, the thought came unbidden into her mind.  She didn’t regret it, although she blocked any further thoughts on the subject.  Yes, she loved Buck, but was nowhere near ready to settle down for good, and knew he wasn’t either.

She was rearranging the mat in her dwelling that could only be called a teepee, when she heard a horse nicker not far away.  She cautiously drew back the flap, and stepped out into the crisp air.  It was late, and no one would be about if they could help it.  When she saw the figure slumped over its horse, her curiosity turned to annoyance, then to anger.  Why couldn’t her father leave her alone?

He was drunk, passed out from the whiskey that was rampant on his breath, and was only on his horse because one of his feet had caught in the stirrup, and he had fallen the other way.  His ankle was unmistakably broken, and she would have her hands full when he woke up.  She had experienced his hangovers before and they were unusually violent, but this, she was sure, would be one of his worst.  At least this time he wouldn’t be able to walk, so he wouldn’t be able to harm anyone.

“Where’d yuh git tuh, girl?  I’m a-hurtn’ and it’s yer fault!  Yuh didn’ give me ana’thn fer none o’ this payne, an’ I’m a-gonna gitchyuh if I have tuh ask a-gin!”

Leon rolled her eyes before she entered the teepee.  That was one disadvantage to this type of dwelling.  You could never pretend not to hear someone from outside.  She added willow bark to a cup of steaming water, and he tossed it in one gulp.  He hadn’t let it steep, and she knew it was weak.  She tipped the rest of the bark into a pot over the fire, and added water.  Hopefully, she could make it strong enough to knock him out, and he could pass through the hangover asleep.  She was already due at the station, and the boys would be worried about her.  It was Sunday, and she would be missed during chores and the service, but at least she wouldn’t get railed on by Tompkins for being late.  She couldn’t exactly leave her father like this, no matter how horrible he was, and he couldn’t ride.

When he was safely asleep, she cut two long poles from her beloved willow stand, and made a travois to drag him in on.  She tied it to his horse, hoisted him on, and saddled up Cornflower, her blue roan stallion, to lead him into town.  He wasn’t going to stay with her for one minute longer than necessary.

It was just before noon by the time she rode in, and several people were out visiting or strolling along, enjoying life when Leon led her still unconscious father up to the doctor’s office, and knocked on the door.  She carried him over her shoulder and dumped him on the bed offered, then strode out saying she would pay when he left.  She was angry at the possible delay of her land purchase if the doctor bills should prove high, at having missed church and chores, and at spending the night nursing a passed out drunk in her home all on the same day.  Also, her father could know where she lived if he had seen her camp before passing out the night before, and that was something she didn’t need.

Buck was relieved to see her riding towards the station, but worry set in anew when she was close enough that he could register the set of her jaw and shoulders.  She cared for Cornflower, and worked feverishly until there was nothing more to do in the barn.  She hadn’t eaten all day, being too distracted by an intoxicated house guest, but realized how hungry she was when Emma found her for lunch.

“Tell me what’s wrong, Leon.  Last time you acted this way Buck was hurt, so don’t tell me it’s nothing.”

“My father showed up at my camp drunk and injured, and I took him to the doctor.  If he talks like he did before, I won’t be working for Tompkins much longer.”

    Emma was surprised.  “What happened, that you can talk to him the way the boys say you did, and yet you pay to have him taken care of?”

“My mother’s mother was half Comanche, half Mexican.  She married a Scotsman, but he died before my mother was born.  When she was, a high-ranking brave married my grandmother.  A girl-child could not challenge the brave’s heirs, and my mother was more powerful than a princess; she is what is called a beloved woman.  One word from a beloved woman can stop a war party that the entire Council cannot, so my mother was a valuable asset in his family.  When she grew up, every brave from every tribe, Comanche or not, wanted to marry her; such is the status of a beloved woman, and so rare that there had not been one in our tribe for many generations.  She chose a young white man, and they lived happily until Texas became top cattle territory.  It was agreed that my father should be a negotiator, but he had no such skills.

“We were allowed to build a home on the edge of the Staked Plains, probably the first, in order to be close to both worlds.  It didn’t last long.  My father was partial to the white world, though he had never seemed so before.  He started carousing with members of the army and politicians who wanted the Plains for settlement, and he started drinking.  He drank himself into a stupor most nights, so the tribes of the Comanche Council and the politicians threw him out at about the same time.  The tribe burned the house, and my mother and brothers and sisters went back to them, but I was the oldest and not home at the time.  Father found me before I returned, and stole me away.  We traveled for two straight weeks, and then he found a town where he wasn’t known.  He drank himself sick for three days, and then he left.  He never told me anything, but the owner of the boarding house threw me out when I couldn’t pay.  I wandered the streets for a few weeks.  I wasn’t horrible at living off the land, but I had no horse and couldn’t go much of anywhere.  A traveling trapper and trader saw me, and took me on to cook for him.  I was only seven or eight, but He said that if I could do it he would make me his business partner some day.  He taught me to read, to think, to trap, to fight, to shoot, to survive, and to pray.  He died about two months before I came here, and the mule with him.  All he left was a donkey, and it was older than the mountains.  It perished about three miles from Sweetwater, and so here I was.  I wore doeskin, and there was nothing to hide my appearance.  I had a few dollars, so I bought a pair of pants and a shirt, and some bandages to bind myself and look like a boy.  I only planned to stay long enough to buy a horse and gun, but I didn’t plan on meeting you, the boys, and Teaspoon.  God lead me here because I needed you, but now I don’t know if I can stay.  If anyone knows I am a woman, they will not allow me remain.  They might even kill me, as that is mentioned in the Old Testament for cross dressers...”

Emma felt for this young woman who had lived through so much.  No wonder she never let her guard down.  Raised first by the warlike People of the Plains, then by a deserting father, then in the back countries of the West where anyone you met was as likely to be an enemy as a friend.  No wonder she wore three or four weapons at all times;  she had lived a life where she might need that many.

Chapter Six

“I am sure they would not kill you. The Old Testament may say to stone cross dressers, but I haven’t heard of that since then. Now, if you wish to continue working for Tompkins, I am quite sure we can work something out. That old man may be tough, but Teaspoon can handle him; especially if I ask Sam to go with him. But enough of that nonsense, if your father was as dead drunk as you say he probably won’t remember anyway.” Emma always knew just what to say, but somehow Leon didn’t feel completely convinced, other than realizing how outlandish her statement about being killed was.

Leon had to go through the story once more at Emma’s prompting. Leon agreed that if something needed to be done, the boys should have all the information before hand. Buck was heartbroken at her trials, but knew better than to say anything just yet. The rest were quiet as well, and continued to be so through supper.

Two days later, Leon’s father was ready to leave the doctor’s, but not ready to do anything else. Leon payed the doctor, relieved that the bill was about four dollars instead of the dozen she had feared. Her father had been yelling non-stop, but fortunately the doctor thought he was hallucinating due to withdrawal from alcohol.

Emma would not hear of Leon taking her father back to the meadow for care, and insisted that Leon move her “house” beside the bunkhouse, and let Mr. Rosser stay in Lou’s bunk, while the rider camped out with Leon.

The next several days were filled with the constant temper tantrums of Jedediah Bartholomew Rosser.

Lou wasn’t much better, insisting that Kid had somehow planned this to get her out of the bunkhouse. Emma hovered between bemused annoyance and exasperation. Rosser absolutely refused to be tended by anyone but Leon, and nearly lost his head when she hugged Buck after a particularly trying evening. He was refusing to sleep in the same room with the rider his daughter had chosen, and Leon was refusing to listen to him. Every time he opened his mouth, she shoved a cloth in it. He sputtered, she sighed, he cussed, Buck yelled, and Emma shooed everyone out of the bunkhouse except for Rosser, whom she practically had to tie into bed.

Fortunately, December had arrived, and with it some measure of the Christmas spirit. When not dodging projectiles from Rosser’s tantrums, the inhabitants of the Sweetwater Station were busily trying to think up unique gift ideas for the person they were buying for. One night, they had all gathered around in the bunkhouse, and drawn names for gift giving.

The hiding places grew more and more creative.

Leon kept her present in the bottom of Emma’s trunk full of quilts, and Jimmy had his in the haystack of the barn. Kid’s was under the woodpile in oilskins. Everyone had a favorite spot, but Cody was the mastermind. Or so he thought. He placed his present under the recipient’s own mattress, thinking they would never look there, but that night the rider pulled a Princess And The Pea act. Of course he knew who the present was from, Cody had given him two dime novels, but he never let on he had discovered. He merely adjusted the additions so as not to be felt in the night, and let Cody have his joke. Buck had his in the hollow of an old tree by the creek, and Ike’s treasure trove was neatly hidden inside his horse’s stall.

Leon had also introduced the idea of Advent. She had made a wreath, and placed five candles in it. Three were dark pink and one light, all placed around a fifth, a large white one.

The other riders were intrigued. Kid had seen a similar setup in his youth, but had never really paid much attention. It was just another Christmas decoration.

Leon explained it to him and the others. “The dark pink is for the depraved state of humanity. It represents much of the Old Testament. From the first sin, when animal sacrifice was necessary, until Christ came. The light pink is for hope and anticipation, to be lit on Christmas Eve. It represents the Prophesy of Jesus’s birth. The white is to be lit on Christmas morn’ as a representation of Jesus’s coming, and his subsequent death and resurrection. It reflects on the state of our hearts, that they have been washed clean.”

“When are the dark pink ones lit?” asked Cody.

“During Advent. One every Sunday until Christmas,” she said.

“And just what is Advent? What does it mean?” asked Buck, who had heard the sisters talk of it, but no one had ever explained it to him.

“It is a time of celebration. It is when we look forward to Christmas, and to the Birthday of Jesus. Trapper Travis always read the story of Jesus’s birth, life, death, and resurrection during the month. Every night we read a few chapters.”

“Sounds like some strict religious zealot,” said Jimmy.

“No. He never made me read or listen if I didn’t want to. It was a revelation. It was the best time of the whole year. I got to read about my best friend.”

Jimmy looked very perplexed at this. “Your best friend?”

“What if I told you that God doesn’t just want to boss you around? He wants to be your best friend and your Father.”

Buck’s head rose sharply at her statement. A Father? Why would a God want to be a Father? He would have to pray to the spirits and see if there was any truth to this. Did the Great Spirit want the same thing?

Over the next weeks, Buck and Jimmy both listened intently as Leon read one book for every candle. First, she read Matthew. Next came Mark, and then Luke. With the light pink candle she read John.

On Christmas morning, as the boys made their way to their stockings, she picked up her Bible to read. They noticed her, and stopped. She hadn’t called them or even looked in their direction, but had started right in.

“What are you doing, Leon? Don’t you want your presents?” asked Jimmy. He had understood relatively well, and no longer scorned religion, but he did not understand this.

“I’m examining one of my presents,” she said without looking up.

He still didn’t understand. “That’s the same Bible you’ve been reading out of for the past month.”

“Jesus was the first Christmas present; his birth created Christmas,” she smiled. He had an incredulous look on his face, and she didn’t blame him. It had taken two years for her to understand Trapper Travis’s devotion, and she knew that not everyone was comfortable with hers. She smiled once more, shrugged, and led the way to Emma’s parlor for the rest of the presents.

The Christmas celebration was one of a kind. Emma and Leon had combined their efforts to prepare a meal worthy of even Cody’s wildest dreams, and the gifts were heartfelt and well thought out.

Emma received a quilt from everyone with various things of special meaning sewn into it. She was also graced with a new tablecloth, and napkins to match.

Cody had drawn Jimmy. He gave him two dime novels to improve his reading, and a picture that sent the gunslick young man reeling. “How?” was all he managed to say. The picture was of his mother.

“I talked to your sister on one of my runs.” Cody and Jimmy hadn’t always seen eye to eye, but for one night at least, they were brothers.

Lou was next. Jimmy had drawn her name, and proceeded to present her with a hand drawn picture of her on Lightning. What caught her breath was not the detail and precision, although they were stunning. Across the bottom, the words A True Woman were emblazoned. Lou noticed that her hair was long and flowing, and her gender not disguised by the shirt and pants as they usually were, but the gun was as comfortable as ever on her hip, and she was in perfect riding form. She nearly cried. It was her dream to be a rider without hiding her gender, although she hadn’t admitted it, even to herself. She knew Jimmy hadn’t drawn the picture, it was most likely the work of Ike, but he had come up with the idea, and her heart swelled with his thoughtfulness.

Buck took this opportunity to present Leon with her gift. He had drawn her name, and was in dire straits to see if she liked his gift. It was a pair of flutes. No one else in the room knew why she was so touched. Buck had heard her talking to Cornflower one night, and had made these flutes from the description she had given the horse. Her husband to be and she had been playing upon identical flutes, and dancing to the rhythm of a hymn he didn’t know while the guests played on small hand drums from their seats. The two had walked down the isle together, and stood facing each other to make their vows. It was a blending of her two cultures, and Buck thought it a most beautiful ceremony.

Buck and Leon looked so intently at each other that, for the first time, the others in the room began to suspect that there was more than friendship between the two. Leon blushed when she became aware of the audience, and handed Cody his present.

He was wild over the handmade saddle boot for his rifle, and the pie was nice too.

Ike presented Kid with a bridle for Katy that had her name engraved in the leather across the forehead strap, and his on the reins.

Lou gave Ike a harmonica she had seen him looking at in town.

Kid had been unsure of what Buck would want, but now felt satisfied as he handed over his gift. Buck unwrapped The Count of Monte Cristo. It was perhaps the longest book he had ever seen. He didn’t know if he would be able to finish it in a whole month; there were over a thousand pages, but Buck knew Kid had done his best, and was gracious in his thanks.

The riders then presented Teaspoon with a smoking pipe and a half bushel of onions. Everyone had a laugh, and Emma’s superb breakfast topped it off.

At noon, the church service was held, and there was a dance planned that evening.

Lou was stunning in her crimson dress, and Leon likewise in cobalt blue. Lou’s hair was now just down to her shoulders, and she had swept it into a comb on each side while the back hung down in thick tresses. Leon’s was up in an elaborate bun done with ribbons to match her dress.

Buck’s heart nearly leaped out of his chest at Leon’s stunning entrance, as did Kid’s at the appearance of Lou. The other boys were practically drooling as well, especially when Emma donned her cream colored gown, with her hair down and curled. The three women swept away the hearts of everyone at the dance, and their beaus were the envy of all.

Kid and Lou were present only for the first three dances. They soon left the crowded hall, and found the livery empty except for the horses. They were not heard from for quite a while after that.

Emma and Sam, on the other hand, preferred to dance or sit along the wall, watching the riders enjoy themselves.

Buck and Leona danced for a while, and then found an out of the way corner to sit in. They laughed and talked about the day. Leona thanked Buck again for his gift, and then presented him with one. His eyes widened when he found the beaded belt inside the plain wrapper. It depicted a stag bounding through a field of wild-flowers. For a moment he sat, engrossed in the image of his name. Then he stood slowly, pulling Leon with him, and kissed her softly, passionately. They came apart, and headed slowly out of the dance hall and around the building.

They twirled around each other, dancing to the now soft music; eyes seeking eyes, and hands seeking hands. Their lips met again, and then it was the world that spun and twirled about as they clung to each other. Hair was entwined in fingers, and then in fists as the kisses grew hungrier. Her back was against the building’s rough exterior, and her face was cupped in one of his rough but infinitely gentle hands. All in a moment, she knew that she was utterly safe, yet in danger. She loved Buck more than any other human being on earth, as she knew he did her, but that love was leading to places she wasn’t ready to go. She forced her kisses to become less intense, and he responded to her signal.

Their foreheads rested against one another, the pair breathing heavily from the effort of pulling apart as well as from the effort of their activities. Buck started to apologize, thinking he had pushed her too far, but she stopped him with her fingers on his lips, and let him see the hunger in her eyes.

He stepped back, confused, seeing that she wanted him but also that she had pushed him away.

“Not yet, Buck,” she whispered. “Someday, just not yet.” He understood then that he had pushed too far and kicked himself. He needn’t have done so, for she was berating herself as well.

They made their way back inside without holding hands, and Buck left soon after.

Leon wanted desperately to rush after Buck and explain to him her reason for pushing him away, but knew that she might damage things more if she stopped him now. If he hadn’t returned by morning, she would go after him. Until then, she needed to trust him to himself.

Buck felt wretched. He rode Wayfarer aimlessly for a long time, thinking mostly about Leon. He knew she hadn’t hurt him on purpose; she hadn’t rejected his advances, only postponed them.

The real hurt was in his own mind. He thought he must have misread her signals, must have pushed farther than she had wanted him too. Try as he might, he could not recall her pushing him away until that last moment, but he knew that if he had felt her doing it he would have complied. His fear was that he hadn’t felt it. He knew he was not the kind of monster his brother had told him about. He knew he would never intentionally force a woman who didn’t want him, but what if he didn’t understand her pleas? What if, in the heat of the moment, he was so caught up that he forgot to listen to Leon telling him when she’d had enough? It wasn’t a pleasant thought. In all his anguished life, he had never had a less pleasant one.

He veered toward home about the same time as he thought everyone else would be leaving the dance. It went totally against his nature, but he felt as though he should. Perhaps going against his nature would help him to master his impulses, and he could still have a chance to mend things with Leona. He arrived about thirty seconds after the others, and those thoughts were blown away with what he found.

Leon’s father had hobbled out of bead to find Emma’s stash of medicinal whiskey that she had kept since Leon’s injury, and had proceeded to drink three quarters of the bottle. All of the horses were out of their stalls, Sampson was shut into Emma’s house, and Rosser had just set fire to Leona’s teepee. He was now trying to douse the flames with the remaining contents of his bottle.

Jimmy ran, knocked the drunken man to the ground, and heaved him away from the flames. Leona was already running for a bucket, but was hindered by the unusual drag of her long skirt. Buck came up beside her, grabbing her hand and pulling her with him rather than passing her by. The inside of the barn was in shambles, apparently the object of Rosser’s drunken rage, but the buckets were undamaged. The pair raced over to the horse trough, but it was obvious that the dwelling could not be saved. The hide walls had been treated with animal fat and fish oil, and burned brightly, aided by whiskey and a brisk breeze. Buck, Leon, and anyone else who could find something to carry it with threw water on the ground around the inferno, and drenched the nearest structures thoroughly to keep the fire from spreading.

When the blaze abated, Leon sat on the porch in Buck’s arms, taking comfort in the fact that he had been there, and that he wasn’t leaving. She cried for a while for her beautiful flutes that had been in the fire, but mainly because she was still afraid that Buck was angry with her. He had stood by her and held her, but he had not yet said anything. She hugged his arms tighter around her, and let the silent tears fall.

Buck was jumbled around until his head hurt. Leon wasn’t mad at him, which thrilled him, but he was furious at her father, and he longed to heal the heartache he saw flit across Leon’s face every so often.

Finally he could stand it no more. He had to stop at least one of the wrongs. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

Leon’s spine thrilled at hearing his voice. “It wasn’t your fault. He refused to come to the dance, and he stole the whiskey...”

“I meant for what happened earlier.”

Leon turned around in her seat and looked in his eyes. “Why?”

“Because I should have known you wanted me to stop. I didn’t pay attention to you, or I would have sooner.”

“But I didn’t ask you to stop before you did.”

“You didn’t?”

“Buck, I was as caught up as you were.” When she saw the look on his face, she said, “You’re right. That’s the wrong way to say it. I should say, that I wanted it as much as you did.”

Confusion creased his brow again. “If you... I mean... Why did you stop me then?”

“Because I made a vow just before Trapper Travis died. He was always so concerned that I... that some man would sweep me I vowed to be married before I bedded a man. I just never thought it would be so difficult a vow to keep.” She blushed in embarrassment, and he grinned stupidly. “I guess he knew better. Will you help me keep that vow, Buck?”

He grew serious, and took her hand. “I promise you now, I’ll not steal your honor. I will wait until we are married.” He grinned suddenly. “It’s going to take a lot of work, though.” She blushed even deeper, and he kissed her. She went red right down to her curling toes.

Nothing could be saved from the burnt-out dwelling but Leon’s guns, some coins, and a knife. Luckily, Lou had not yet put her Christmas present in there, and her trunk was still in the bunkhouse as it had not fit in the small space.

Rosser did not awaken from Jimmy’s none-too-gentle dismissal until dawn had crept into the sky. He did not remember the night before, but Teaspoon took great care in reminding him, while seeing that the boys did not. Teaspoon was very clear that he would be the one to chastize Rosser, with Leon if she desired; she did not. Although he seemed to have a permanent limp, he was fully healed by this time, and she wanted nothing but to send him on his way. Teaspoon silently agreed, but unfortunately Rosser himself did not.

“She’s my daughter!” he kept yelling. “I kin do what I want! It’s the law! She’s my property ‘till I kin mar’ry her where I want her t’go!”

Teaspoon was utterly put out by the man. It was true of the law, but the station master wanted nothing more than to cram that confounded piece of legislature right down the man’s indignant throat.

Leona knew her father would not relent, he thought he could make money with her, and he had always been extremely vocal about his entitlement. She therefore decided to leave. She knew he would follow her, and that she could lose him and return. He was stubborn, ruthless, bigoted, and loved alcohol; none of which would contribute to an iota of intellect.

Lou had reclaimed her bunk, and Leon had insisted on a bedroll in the corner until a new bunk could be built for her. Rosser had been unanimously elected to camp on the porch.

Leon and Buck had slipped past the snoring Rosser, and made it safely to the barn. The pair quietly saddled their horses, and left a note saying that they would write when they were settled where Rosser could not find them. They then left another note pinned to Lightning’s mane explaining themselves fully, instructing Lou to read it and share it only with Teaspoon and Emma.

When Teaspoon read the first note, he just about threw Rosser through the window. Upon reading the second, however, he became much more calm. In fact, he praised Emma’s pie to the heavens that evening, and of the riders, Lou was the only one who wasn’t perplexed.

Rosser did indeed set out after Leon the next morning. His nag had become a horse in the care of the riders and was reluctant at best, but he soon had it under his thumb and was off. Incidentally, in his rage he forgot to eat breakfast and came back only to be turned away at the gate.

Buck and Leon rode long and hard. He was amazed at how she could keep up with him; most men couldn’t pace an express rider. But pace him she did, and when they stopped for the night she never complained, although he knew she had saddle-blisters in some very uncomfortable places.

After two days they slowed down, saving their horses because they knew Rosser would not. They were headed for her mother’s village, and she allowed her face to go hatless in the sun to be recognized by her family. She hadn’t seen them since her father had taken her away, and now she was running from him again.

It took them two weeks to reach Comanche territory and find the village, and then Leona had a long-awaited reunion with her mother. The older woman was overjoyed to see her, and to show her two new siblings, twin boys she had from her second marriage. They were now four, and Leona was touched at the way they took to Buck. At first he was unsure how to respond to them, not having had much contact with children since he had been one, but he soon learned the ropes. Elk With Me and Buffalo Watcher followed Running Buck everywhere. He had to sneak away just to use the latrine!

Leona caught up with her mother. Surprised that her daughter was not married, she was nonetheless happy with the girl’s choice.

“He will not ignore your children, the way some men in the tribe tend to do,” she said after watching Buck romp with her sons. Leona blushed, but silently agreed. Buck would make an admirable father. Someday. She then explained their arrangement to her mother, and shared some more details of the years after their parting. Her mother was greatly relieved that she had not spent the years with her father, but slightly angered that he had found and pursued her again.

“If he follows you here, my husband will kill him,” she told her daughter. Leon did not think this was such a wonderful plan after all. She wanted her father gone, not dead.

She shared her thoughts with Buck that night in the small teepee her mother and several other women had made for them before she had explained their circumstances. Unfortunately, refusing such a grand gift could be a very bad idea, so they had hung skins right around the rim of the dwelling so that each had a kind of curtained room, leaving a place for the fire in the middle.

Her brothers loved the arrangement, and invited themselves over for the night on most occasions, but Leon had insisted they return to her mother for tonight.

“I understand you don’t want him dead, but what can you do? If we leave here, he could find you again. If we stay here, he might or might not find us, but he could be killed for just being in the area.”

“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” she replied. “He was never a great one for tracking, and that was a long way we came in the dead of winter. Hopefully, he’ll get drunk in some town, forget, and just wander off to continue what he was doing before he found me.”

Buck doubted this would happen, as did Leona, but until they had something to go on, they might as well remain where they were.

A week later, Rosser had not shown up, and the two were almost ready to head back. Leona longed to spend more time with her mother and brothers, but knew that Buck’s job was in serious jeopardy as it was.

After a tearful farewell, they returned to the station with Leona’s new teepee lashed across a small dalmatian-spotted pony her mother’s husband had given them as a kind of engagement present. The tiny stallion, which stood about twelve and a half hands, was only about two years old. He frolicked around in the snow, upsetting his burden and stretching the journey by nearly three days.

It was mid-February by this time, and Buck had to run double shifts through March and half of April in order to catch up. Teaspoon was understanding, but he also needed as many riders as he had hired, and one of them going absent for more than a month put a strain on everyone that Buck needed to make up for.

Emma had accepted Marshal Sam Cain’s proposal during their absence, and was to be married in June. Sam had been named the Territorial Marshal, which entailed a relocation, and was away preparing their new home. Teaspoon had begun a quiet inquiry for a new housekeeper, and everyone was both elated and heartbroken at Emma’s news. They weren’t sure what they would do without her, and none of them wanted to find out, especially not Lou and Leon.

Emma herself did much of the interviewing, but none of the women she found met all of her criteria. They weren’t good enough for her boys. Leon offered, but Emma told her in private that her age and her relationship with Buck gave her too little authority in the boys’ eyes. She couldn’t be their mother if she was their sister or sweetheart.

Leon didn’t know what to do. Obviously, Tompkins had fired her for her long, unexplained absence, but she was now questioning whether it was necessary for her to continue her masquerade. She no longer needed it to keep a job, and Tompkins might even hire her back without realizing it if she asked for a clerking position. He didn’t pay much attention to her, and she doubted if he would notice.

Overwrought from all that had happened, Leon put on the long doeskin dress and moccasins she had worn in her mother’s village, and left for the pond. She fell asleep on the bank, with the trees whispering in an evening breeze and a symphony of crickets, little tree frogs, and a whippoorwill in the distance. Buck watched over her unbeknownst, and kept her sleep more peaceful than it had been in years.

Leon awoke from a pleasant dream to find the object of it hovering between sleep and wakefulness at her side. He smiled but did not speak. She traced his eyebrows softly, then watched while he slumbered, as comfortable under her protection as she had been under his. It was Sunday, and neither had any obligations at the moment. Church was long over, and while Leon did not like to miss it, she knew that her God was more concerned with her well-being than her flawless attendance record.

When Buck awoke some hours later, Leon was still nearby, with three freshly caught fish in one hand, and a contented smile playing upon her features. It twisted with playfulness as she realized he was awake, and she sat down beside him to clean the fish.

“Hey, stop that!” she giggled, as he reached around to tickle her. She flicked fish scales in his general direction, and the meal was postponed when both fell into the pond after a chasing match in which each tried to tickle the other without getting caught. They laughed all the way back to shore, and while she finished cleaning the fish he gathered firewood. They spitted each fish on a stick and had them roasted and eaten in short order. They basked in the late afternoon sun, and just enjoyed each other’s company for the first time in a long while. She told him of her desire to purchase the meadow, and he told her of the dream he and Ike shared to start a ranch and raise horses. Leon secretly thought that the meadow would be a perfect starting point for a small ranch that could be expanded later. Buck’s thoughts were along the same line, although he was quick to hide them within the recesses of his heart. They were only eighteen, and while his tribe might think that fifteen was plenty old to be married, he had been living in the white world for some time, and this was one of the few things he agreed with it on. Twenty-two was a much better age at which to think of such things.

As dusk settled over the land, a chill crept in, and a fog to match it. It was very early in the season for spring to be starting, but the elements seemed in a hurry to make up for their lapse. April was halfway through, and the temperature had hovered around sixty until this afternoon. Now fifty would be a more accurate guess, and it was still dropping. Both knew there would be a storm before morning, and were anxious for Ike and Kid who were both on runs in opposite directions.

The pair rushed through their chores before reporting for supper, as they knew that neither of their surrogate parents would appreciate their independence of the rules.

They were just in time to hear Emma call the others in, and receive a look that plainly told them to expect to stay after the meal. Emma was extremely tactful, and would not call them out in front of the others unless necessary.

The meal was quiet, but not unpleasant, and everyone went to bed without a fuss except for Leona and Buck, who got to stay behind.

“Where were you all day?” Emma asked them when everyone else had gone. She had convinced Teaspoon to let her have the first word for once.

“It was my fault,” Leon confessed to Emma. She talked about her fears and concerns. She told Emma about leaving to sleep by the pond, and about finding Buck beside her as she awoke. She left out the tickling match, but was otherwise truthful. Nevertheless, she was blushing as she ended, realizing how much they had probably inconvenienced everyone, and also how much Emma might guess. Emma understood, especially since Sunday was Buck’s day off, but warned them that their long absence meant that they could not afford to run off whenever they felt like it. Buck was done with his extra shifts, but they both still had chores that needed to be done. “Animals have to be fed, Sunday or not, and I need you two to be a little more responsible, especially since I won’t be here much longer,” she told them.

The wedding day drew near, and a woman had not been found who could fill the roles of den mother, housekeeper, cook, nurse, and confidant. Leon agreed with Emma’s assessment of her unsuitability, but couldn’t think of another solution to the problem until Teaspoon came home that night. He said that he had met a woman that afternoon who was looking for work and seemed to fit the bill. She would be coming by the next week. Unfortunately, it would be two days after the ceremony; two days after Emma’s departure.

The wedding was simple and elegant. Emma’s white dress was done with smooth lace about her neck and bodice, with her hair swept up in the front and down behind. Sam was a handsome but very nervous groom. Lou was the maid-of-honor, and the reverend performed the traditional ceremony. Afterwards, the whole town came by to see them off.

Buck and Leon walked their horses slowly back to the station after Emma had gone with Sam on their honeymoon. Both were thinking of their own day, far in the future. Leon was lamenting her flutes, and Buck was fingering the belt she had given him. Near the station, Leon decided to pass it up and rode for Willow Singing. She had not been back since her father had shown up, and she needed to think. Speckle, the spotted pony her step-father had given her, was her mount for the day. He was turning into quite a good saddle horse, and she had decided to give Cornflower a holiday for Emma’s wedding. The colt took to the place, and she had a time getting him to leave.

When she returned to the house, it was to find the riders in a subdued state of mind. Emma was gone, and although each of them had been promised letters, it wasn’t the same. She started dinner, opting for a meal more reminiscent of Emma’s cooking than her own.

The boys ate it as though they could not taste anything, then quietly went to sit on the porch. Leon sat with her arms entwined in Buck’s, thinking about all the implications of the day’s activities. Their backs were against the bunkhouse wall, and the others couldn’t see. She nuzzled into his neck, and his lips brushed her hair.

Buck’s emotions were flying. He was joyous at Emma and Sam’s happiness, but at the same time he felt abandoned. Teaspoon was like a father to him, but there are some things only a mother can do.

Buck had taken his mother’s death hard. For several months he had wandered, not knowing where to go or how he would fulfill her final request. Now he felt he was losing Emma, the only woman who had been able to touch that secret corner of his heart where his mother still lived. Somehow, her leaving felt as if his own mother had died all over again, and his heart ached with a pain passed all descriptions of the word. He loved Leona, Ike, the riders and Teaspoon, but none of them could fill that void. Emma had only come close. He wondered if anyone could heal that dull ache that sharpened itself into a knife every night.

Leon could almost feel Buck’s anguish through his tensed muscles. She wanted so much to comfort him, but knew that she did not fully understand his pain. She prayed fervently as she sat with him, begging God to give him peace.

The evening passed slowly for everyone on the porch. Around midnight, Teaspoon came out.

“Alright boys and girls, I know how you’re feelin’ but we still got chores in the morning, and I still need you to do your jobs.” The riders filed off to bed, and Teaspoon called Leon back.

“Darlin’ I know Tompkins fired you. Now, frankly, I can’t really hire another rider right now, but if you’re willing, I could make you a stock handler. You wouldn’t be making as much as the boys, but it would be more than nothin’.”

Leona grinned. She grabbed the old man in a bear hug, kissed his cheek, and said she’d be glad to take the job. He tipped his bowler at her, and then told her to scoot off to bed.

Two days later, the prospective housekeeper arrived. Teaspoon introduced Ms. Rachel Dunne to the boys, and the girls-as-boys. The riders were smitten immediately, creating tension between those that were available. Kid and Buck did their best, and succeeded for the most part in not going goo-goo eyed over the new station mistress.

Lou and Leon were slightly jealous of the success of the new Ms. Dunne, even though they knew she had done nothing to encourage the boys.

Finally, after a week of unsettled emotions, Rachel slammed a bowl ful of mashed potatoes down on the table at dinner. “I am not for the having,” she said simply. The boys and Teaspoon just sat stunned for a moment, then quietly resumed their meal. Lou and Leon couldn’t quite keep their faces strait at the boys’ puppy-that’s-been-swatted-with-a-newspaper looks.

The next night seemed to be the first relatively normal supper the group had enjoyed in a long while.

“Buck?” asked Leon.

He looked up, nervous because of the recent tension the two had faced with the arrival of Rachel. “Yeah?” he said slowly.

“Care for a stroll after dinner?” she asked so that only he could hear over the slight chatter coming from the others.

He swallowed. “Yeah,” he said again.

Lou took the other rout to set things strait with her wayward beau. After dinner, she cornered him in the barn for a heated argument that ended with both of them not speaking. It seemed that the strain of life in the Express had ended not only their romance but their friendship as well.

Leon and the other riders were apprehensive in the presence of either Lou or Kid, but the two together was almost unbearable. None of the other bunkhouse inhabitants could figure out what exactly had split the two up, but there was a running consensus that Kid’s overprotectiveness had been brought up again along with the recent addition of Rachel and possibly an epithet along the lines of a “low-down-yellow-bellied-stinking-mountain-coyote.” But noone was sure.

Chapter Seven

“Why don’t he just... ”

“Lou, I’m sorry, but I’ve heard you saying the same thing for the past three hours that we’ve been fixing this busted stall and I can’t take it anymore.”

“Sorry Cody. I know I’ve been a pain this past week, but he just makes me so all-fired mad I could scream.”

“I know that darlin’ but going back over it as much as you do ain’t gonna do nothing but make you miserable. If he ain’t here to see it, it can’t hurt him.”

Lou gave a half-smile at Cody’s unexpected burst of insight. He was the first to crack a joke if he could, but if you really needed a friend you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one.

“Thanks Cody.”

“Boys, gather round!” came a gruff voice outside.

They came out into the warm light of a late morning sun over the rise.

“Boys,” said Teaspoon when the riders had gathered around. “This just came from Russel, Majors, and Wadell.” He held up a letter stamped with an official-looking seal.

“Teaspoon?” asked Buck carefully.

“We’re moving, Boys. This route is nigh dead, and the company is reassigning us to a new station in a town called Rock Creek. They ain’t giving us much warning, we got a week and a half, so we need to start packing things up tomorrow and move out to be there on time.”

The next three days were spent making preparations for the departure, not too hard of a task considering that everything the boys owned could collectively fill half a buckboard, but the house had to be cleaned and boarded up so that it could be ready for whatever Emma decided to do with it later.

When everything was done, the boys, girls, and Teaspoon rode out alongside Rachel driving the buckboard to the new station at Rock Creek. Each rider was also leading one or two horses, most of which had small satchels on their backs.

At the new station, the boys were busy moving in to the bunkhouse when Rachel approached Leon.

“I’m afraid you won’t be able to live in your teepee this close to town without attracting some very unwanted attention. You’re welcome to move in with me if you want, but other than that I don’t know.”

“It’s alright, Rachel. I’ve already discussed it with the boys. I lived in the bunkhouse for a while not too long ago, so it won’t be awkward to do it again. There’s more than enough space here, and it would probably cause as much fuss to have a stock hand living in the station-mistress’s house as it would to have one in a teepee.”

Rachel looked dubious as to the wisdom of Leon sleeping with the riders, but then Lou was already doing just that. She shrugged it off. If it didn’t bother the riders, it didn’t bother her.

The next day was Saturday, so Teaspoon decided to give the riders a break in the early afternoon to look around the town.

Lou took a short walk down the center of town, and came strait back. She wouldn’t say what had bothered her, only that she wanted to get a jump on the chores waiting back at the station. Jimmy thought she was bothered by having the Kid in such close proximity, but Leon did not agree. Lou had been just fine until they had passed the saloon; the saloon complete with cathouse and brothel. It made her uncomfortable as well, so she decided to head back soon after.

She found Lou hard at work on the new corral Teaspoon had wanted built behind the barn to exercise the horses that weren’t regularly taken on runs. Leon picked up a shovel and started in as well.

After about twenty minutes both girls were soaked with sweat.

“What makes me mad is that no matter how hot we get we can’t do anything about it, whereas the boys can all run around with their shirts off without arousing a stray look from Teaspoon.”

“Teaspoon isn’t here now,” said Leon. “The boys are exploring, and even Rachel stepped out to see the town.” Lou looked at her incredulously. Leon laughed, “I’m not saying we should strip down, but we could do with something a little less reminiscent of the sweat lodge on our backs.”

Lou glanced around nervously. The new corral was far enough away from town, and on the other side of the barn. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt,” she grinned. “I think I’ll like not sweltering for modesty.”

Leon went to her new trunk that had been a gift from the boys after the fire, and found two sturdy cotton shirts cut similarly to halter tops. The girls readily shed their heavy long-sleeved work shirts and long johns in favor of the lighter garb, and went back to work. They were amazed at how much faster the work went, and envied the boys all the more for the ability to work without their heavy shirts. Unfortunately, they lost track of time and the male riders all filed back to the station without the pair noticing.

“All right boys you’ve had your fun, now get to work on that coral. I want it done by tomorrow evening!” shouted Teaspoon. The girls froze at hearing that, and were about to bolt when the whole kit-and-caboodle of their family walked around the barn.

The boys stared for a moment at the scantily clad riders before them, then hastily dropped their eyes with blushes rising. Rachel was the last one around the corner, and so couldn’t see past the bodies in front of her for a moment. She walked around to get a better look, and clapped her hand over her mouth.

What shocked Rachel was not only that the girls had their shoulders and bellies bared, both big no-no’s, but at the scars running down Leon’s body. Emma and Lou had seen them and been told a few short stories when Leon had gotten ready for her “coming out” and for the dances, but this was the first time any of the others had gotten a glance.

The scar from her bullet wound was bright pink from the recent injury, but she also had large scars on her stomach and back from some sort of animal if Rachel was any judge of such things.

Buck’s eyes were a testament to pain. He could see that the older wounds had not been man-made, but the suffering they caused would have been no less sever.

The other riders had been too shocked by so much female skin to notice those details, but at Rachel’s gasp they had looked anew.

Teaspoon cleared his throat. “I do believe we aught to get these two inside. This fence can wait ‘till tomorrow, and I know I’m interested in an explanation.” The riders mutely followed his directions, and once the girls were properly clothed the group gathered on the porch to await Leon’s story.

“I don’t know what the big deal is,” she stated uncertainly. “It’s just a couple of bear-scratches.”

The soft, pained voice of Buck came from next to her, Just a couple of bear-scratches?” She looked at him with consternation.

“It’s no big deal. It was almost three years ago, it’s not like I’m hurt now.” She didn’t understand the concern they were throwing her way for such an old event.

“Are you sure? A scar like that can leave marks on more than just your body,” Rachel offered.

Leon looked surprised. “Do you mean I should be ashamed of my scars?” she asked.

Buck threw a withering look at Rachel which shocked her into silence for a moment.

Teaspoon said, “We certainly didn’t mean that. It’s just that most ladies would be a little disturbed at having such marks.”

Leon nearly laughed and cried at the same time, which luckily allowed her to retain a strait face. “I didn’t ask for these scars if that’s what you mean, but I’m certainly not hiding them either. I am not ashamed of my hardships. These scars are from hard-fought battles, but if they bother you we don’t have to speak of them again.”

Rachel was again shocked into silence. Leon thought her scars were more damaging to others then they were to herself. Well, she may be right the woman thought wryly.

Buck was not so easily put off, but had the grace to wait until they were alone on the porch. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked quietly.

“Honestly, I live with them every day and it didn’t seem important. I mean, I look at them almost as badges of honor. I killed that bear with my swords and a Bowie Knife after it attacked me.”

He looked at her like he’d never seen her before. “Where’d you get swords?” was all he could think to say.

She laughed at him. “Trapper Travis had them made for me when I was ten. They were dreadfully heavy those first few months, but he taught me how to use them.” She blushed, “Guns are all well and fine, but in the backwoods enemies are more likely to sneak up behind you and use a knife. Very few people know how to defend themselves from a shortsword anymore, let alone a broadsword. That includes bears.”

“Where are your swords now?” he asked.

“I had to cache them when I came into Sweetwater so as not to attract attention, and I haven’t retrieved them. Together they weigh more than eighty pounds, and I don’t know how much good they would do me in town. I know Speckle is too small to carry them very far, and I doubt even Cornflower is large enough for them to be permanent additions to my gear.”

“How did you carry them if you didn’t put them on a horse?”

“In sheaths, which I left with them.” He raised his eyebrows at her. “Just how did you think I built up all this muscle?” she asked with some amusement.

“I’m not sure, but I didn’t think you carried swords.” She laughed at that, and had to admit it was rather unusual.

“It’s a ways off, but if you like we can get them on my next run in that direction. If we split the weight between two horses it shouldn’t be too much, and I know you’ve been feeling left out while the rest of us go on rides.”

She just looked at him. How had he known that? “You never cease to amaze me, Buck Cross. How on earth do you know what I’m thinking?” she asked softly. He quirked a smile at her, then captured her lips in a tender embrace. “You did it again!” she laughed, and returned the gesture.

Rachel was enlisted so that they could make two of Leon’s days off coincide with Buck’s run to the area, and Teaspoon was told nothing. “I don’t know what you two are planning down there, but I can certainly understand the desire to visit your old stomping grounds. Alright, I’ll tamper with the schedules, but if Teaspoon catches me it’ll be your necks. I know about your little escapade, and I won’t be responsible for the consequences if this turns into another one.”

Five days later, it was Saturday, the day the run was to begin. The mochilla came in during the predawn light, so only the rider delivering it saw the two of them go, and as he was from another station, he didn’t say anything about it. He assumed the station master knew what the riders were doing.

They passed Sweetwater by on the way to the next waystation, and then made a slight arc with their corse to go to the little town. They found the cache easily, and Leon strapped the broadsword where a rifle boot would have rested, and Buck did the same with the shortsword. They had made excellent time on the way, and were home by late Sunday afternoon, right on schedule. Luckily, Teaspoon was not on the porch to see them both ride up, and they seemed to get away with the whole thing.

After a good long rest and a full stomach, Buck wanted to see Leon use the swords. She agreed, but warned him that she usually practiced in the same white cotton shirt she had been wearing the day she and Lou had been caught in them, as well as a pair of cropped pants made of the same material. The clothes had been made by Leon herself to replace the set she had lost in the fire and were not intended to be seen, so they would have to go somewhere secluded if she was to give a full demonstration.

Her movements were sluggish; she had not practiced in too long. She knew she had to make up for it, so she commenced practicing every day for an hour, and for six hours on her days off. She wanted to be in top fighting form before making her demonstration. The rest of the boys had found out somehow, so she had decided to give one big show, although she would have to do it in her regular work clothes.

Finally, after nearly a month of her regimen, she decided she was ready. The boys gathered on the porch, and she lifted her shortsword into a defensive stance. Starting slowly, she allowed the momentum to build until the movements became intricately woven, a deadly dance to anyone who ventured too close. She smoothly transitioned the weapon out of the two handed stance and into her right hand, drawing her Bowie Knife smoothly. Her movements changed to incorporate the two weapons. When she had finished a complicated series of blocks and charges with that combination, she quickly sheathed both of those blades on her hips and drew the broadsword from the sheath angled down her back. It whistled through the air faster than its fifty-six pounds had a right to, then was amazingly changed to just her right hand and joined by the thirty-one pound shortsword in her left. She could not keep that formation going very fast or long, but the exercise was designed more to build strength than to be a viable fighting option. When her right arm could stand it no longer, she switched hands, and continued. At last, she sheathed both weapons and drew only the Bowie Knife, going through the lightning fast movements required of a warrior using the much smaller blade. There was a method to the madness: the faster work at the end stretched her endurance and coaxed her muscles into remaining limber. When she finished, she faced the bunkhouse with sweat pouring from her body and trepidation apparent on her features. How would they take this latest of revelations?

To Be Continued....

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