He walked along the boardwalk, heading toward the Marshall's office from the hotel. Stepping off the walk he started across the street, breaking into a short run to avoid a wagon making it's way down the dirt road, then stepping up onto the walk on the opposite side of the street, in front of a doctor's office and proceeded on his way.
He had come to St. Joseph on an errand for Teaspoon Hunter, the Marshall of Rock Creek and his boss. Buck had worked for him for over three years, first as a Pony Express rider and now as a Deputy.
Buck wasn't really looking at the people around him, concentrating on his errand instead, so he didn't see the petite, dark haired woman that was emerging from the General Store. But she saw him and without hesitation called out his name. Buck stopped and turned, his eyes searching for the source of the voice.
"Camille?" he said as he spotted her in the doorway. She was still a beauty, her long hair falling in waves over her shoulders, her eyes sparkling. He walked happily toward her, his hands outstretched to take hers. "I was hoping to find you."
"Well this is a pleasant surprise. What are you doing here, in the 'big city'?" she asked, a sly smile on her lips as she made the reference to a conversation they'd had almost two years before. "I didn't think you were the city type." They both laughed.
"I'm on an errand for Teaspoon. You're looking wonderful. I see you've been busy." He said, referring to her protruding stomach. "When are you due?"
"The doctor says any day now. It's our first. And I'm as big as a house."
"If anything you're even more beautiful."
"Thank you. But you've always been blind when it comes to me." She said as she moved up on her toes to place a kiss on his cheek. "How long are you here?"
"A day, maybe two."
"Then you're staying at our place."
"I don't think Bill would like that."
She scrunched up her face, thinking.
"You're probably right. But you're my oldest and dearest friend. He'll have to learn to understand that."
"That may be the problem. Besides, I made such a good impression on him when we first met."
"I think he began to see what I've known all along. You're a good man Buck. How about supper tonight? We'll ease him into your visit slowly. I plan to spend as much time with you as possible while you're here."
"All right. What time and where?"
"Whenever you can get there, the sooner the better. We have a lot of catching up to do. Our last visit didn't really give us a chance to talk. Here's the address. It's two blocks down and four blocks over. Our house is the white one on the corner with the rose bushes in front." She pointed in the correct direction.
"Can I walk you there? I hate to have you walking there alone, right now."
He motioned toward her stomach.
"Thanks Buck, but I make this walk everyday. I'll be fine, honest. Now you'd better go on with your business. I'll stop and let Bill know that you'll be at the house when he gets home. He doesn't really like surprises."
"I imagine he doesn't. Are you sure it will be okay?"
"Yes. Of course it will. Now hurry with your work. I can't wait to sit down and catch up."
Buck stood in front of the white house. He felt a sudden case of nerves, not knowing what to expect from Bill Barlow. Their first and last encounter had not been an easy one, which Buck could understand. After all, he had once been promised in marriage to Camille while she had been living in his Kiowa village. And when he had last seen her, and met Barlow, Buck had kidnapped her and taken her, along with an old medicine man, to sacred Indian ground. He couldn't blame the man for not liking him.
But when Camille and Barlow had left Rock Creek, Buck thought that maybe, just maybe, Barlow might have grudgingly accepted him. But that might have been because he thought he'd never see Buck again.
Buck squared off his shoulders, and gathered his courage, and walked up to Camille's door. Her neighbor - an elderly, blue haired lady - studied him carefully from her front porch. As he knocked on the door he heard her call for someone in the house. Before Camille came to the door a younger gentleman emerged from the house next door. The woman pointed toward Buck and the man approached the fence as Camille came to the door.
"Buck! You're finally here. I was having a hard time waiting for you." She stepped out onto the porch and placed a quick, demure kiss on his cheek.
"Mrs. Barlow? Is everything all right?" the man called from the fence.
"Oh yes. Everything is fine, John. Buck here is a childhood friend come to visit."
"Well, if you're okay…?"
"I'm fine, thank you. Come on in Buck. Bill will be home in an hour or so. We can catch up some before he gets here."
She escorted him into the entryway. On one side of the hallway was a formal parlor, on the other a formal dining room. A stairway to the second floor ran along one side of the hall. Camille walked down the hallway and entered the kitchen, obviously Camille's favorite and most used room. It was bright and cheery, with white washed walls and potted geraniums on the windowsill beside a cooling pie. Red gingham curtains hung over the open windows, blowing in the light breeze. The back door also stood open, allowing even more of a breeze to enter, cooling the kitchen comfortably.
Looking out one of the windows, Buck saw the neighbor lady now standing at her back fence, talking to another woman in the next yard. They both glanced over at Camille's house as they talked.
"I think we've caused quite a stir." He said, motioning with his head to the back yard.
"They do like to gossip. At least this time they have something to gossip about. Its not often I get guests." Camille gestured for him to sit at the table, then turned to take the coffeepot from the stove.
"Especially male Indian guests?"
"All the better!" she replied with a mischievous grin. "Seriously though, they are very nice neighbors overall and look out for me when Bill is away on business. Especially recently." She patted her belly.
"Then I'm glad they watch you like they do."
"Enough about them. What have you been doing with yourself since the Pony Express closed down?"
"I've been working for Teaspoon in Rock Creek. As his deputy. But Teaspoon is thinking of going back to Texas in the next year or so. I might go back to Sweetwater then. Kid and Lou are there. I can always work for them on their ranch. And Sam Cain has offered me a job, too."
"The territorial Marshall?"
"Yeah. He married Emma, the station mistress from the Sweetwater station. He was Marshall in Sweetwater at the time. You know him?"
"Yes. In fact they had supper here just the other night. Bill met him through work. They're buying a house just down the street."
"Sam was through Rock Creek about two months ago. He did mention that Emma was wanting to settle in one spot."
"She seems very nice. So does he. What would you be doing for him?"
"I don't know. It was one of those 'If Teaspoon leaves, find me. I've got a job for you whenever you want it.' type conversations."
"Well, I know where they're staying so maybe Bill will swing by there before supper and invite them for dessert."
"It would be great to see them. I really miss Emma."
"Then I'll make sure Bill goes there. In the mean time though, I have you all to myself."
They spent the next hour talking and reminiscing. When Barlow walked in the back door it was to find Buck and his wife laughing uncontrollably, tears streaming down Camille's face. She tried to explain what they were laughing about, but all that came out of her mouth was a series of gasps and stutters, followed by more laughter.
When she finally gained control of her laughter, she tried to explain again.
"It's okay darling. It's just good to see you laugh." Barlow bent to kiss his wife then turned to Buck and extended his hand. "Good to see you again, Cross."
"Barlow. Thank you for inviting me to supper."
"You're always welcome."
"Honey, it turns out Buck knows Mr. and Mrs. Cain. I was wondering if you would ride over to their hotel and invite them for dessert and coffee. I know it's late notice, but I'm sure they would like to see Buck."
"If it would make you happy, of course I'll go."
"Wouldn't it be fun if it were a surprise?"
"I'll try to avoid telling them he's here. But if it would make a difference in their decision I'll tell them."
"Thank you honey."
"That's mighty nice of you Barlow." Buck added.
"No problem. I'll be back shortly."
"And I'll have supper ready when you get here."
Barlow paused long enough to rub Camille's stomach, then put his hat back on and left again. Buck helped Camille set the table and dish up the roast she had made complete with potatoes, carrots, okra, and biscuits. She also had fresh lemon aide and tea sweetened with just a touch of sugar.
They ate supper at the table in the kitchen, confirming the fact that the room was Camille's favorite. Barlow had returned saying that the Cains had accepted the invitation, but he did tell them that he had a guest that they might be interested in seeing. He had managed to get by without telling them who it was.
Buck insisted on doing the dishes and Barlow helped him, both men insisting that Camille sit and rest a bit. She sat there smiling at them. When her husband asked what she was smiling about, she smiled even wider.
"It's just that the two most favorite men in my life are doing dishes for me. How spoiled can I be?"
Buck glanced at Barlow to see how he had taken the comment. Buck was relieved when the man laid his towel down, walked over to her, and embraced her in a hug.
"You deserve to be spoiled."
As they finished the dishes and put them away the doorknocker on the front door was heard. Camille stood as the men turned.
"Buck, wait in the parlor. I want them to be surprised." Buck headed off and Barlow answered the door, Camille at his side.
"I'm so glad you could come at such short notice." Buck heard Camille say.
"Well, Bill was pretty mysterious. I have to admit my curiosity is up." Sam replied.
"I've made coffee and an apple pie. Why don't we step into the parlor?"
Buck was standing along the door wall where he wouldn't be seen when they first entered the room. He could see Emma and Sam, followed by Camille and Bill walk into the room. His two friends looked around, and as they scanned the room not finding anyone, they both turned back toward Bill and Camille.
"Now who's this guest…" Sam started to say, but was interrupted by Emma's delighted cry.
"Buck! Oh my goodness!" She rushed to him as he opened his arms to embrace her in a hug. While he had seen Sam several times over the last couple of years, he hadn't seen Emma since the day she and Sam left Sweetwater. She pulled back just a little and looked up into his face. "It really is you!" and hugged him again.
As Sam approached Buck released one hand to shake Sam's.
"Good to see you Sam." Buck said, his arm still around Emma, not wanting to let her go just yet. She obviously felt the same way as one arm hooked him around the waist and the other rested on his shoulder.
Camille stood nearby with a huge smile on her face. Bill, however, watched the little reunion and wondered what it was about this Indian that caused everyone to like him so.
Buck hugged Emma close again and took a good look at her. He was surprised to see that she was crying.
"Emma? Tears? You don't usually cry." He said, concern in his voice.
"I've just been a little emotional lately." She looked at her husband, who nodded slightly. "It appears Sam and I are having a baby."
The room exploded with noise as congratulations and hugs went round. Buck knew how hurt Emma had been when she had lost her baby from a previous marriage. This baby would be even more cherished, due to the loss of the first baby, and because this one was the result of a truly happy marriage. Unlike the first marriage. It had been disastrous, causing Emma a great deal of heartache.
When they finally settled into chairs and loveseats, Camille excused herself long enough to serve dessert. Then they spent the evening telling stories and catching up. Conversations were peppered with "Remember the time…" and "Do you remember what happened when…"
Camille sat on a love seat, leaning against he husband's shoulder, pleased with the evening. Buck seemed very happy, which made her happy. Now, if only he could find a wife!
Unfortunately the evening had to come to an end sometime. The three old friends took their leave, Buck giving Camille a hug with promises to come back in the morning after he checked in with the local Marshal's office. Buck walked Sam and Emma back to their hotel.
"I didn't ask before, but can I assume that Teaspoon sent you to escort Mowery?"
"Yeah. Do you have any inside information about when they'll get him here?"
Sam shook his head, as Emma looked at the two of them, concern in her eyes.
"You two aren't talking about Jake Mowery are you?" she asked.
"One and the same." Sam replied.
"You be very careful Buck. From what Sam says, that man is pure evil."
"I will Emma." Buck smiled in the moonlight. Emma was still a mother hen, and Buck loved her for it.
Buck said his goodnights at Sam and Emma's hotel after promising to have dinner with them the following evening. They also wanted to take him to see the house they were buying.
Buck headed to his hotel, his heart lighter than it had been since given this assignment. He knew all about Jake Mowery. And Emma was right, he was pure evil. Mowery had been on a killing spree all across Nebraska territory, murdering families at whim. The worse had been a family near Rock Creek. Five children had died, two of them still in diapers. Mowery had killed the father and tortured the mother in front of the children. When tired of that he had begun to murder the children, with their mother watching, finally killing her as she begged for death.
Buck had been the one to discover the murder. He was the one who had discovered the ten-year-old girl, still alive, and questioned her. He had been the one to hold her as she took her last breath.
It had been a relief when they had received the telegram from Illinois that Mowery had been caught. He was being returned to Nebraska territory for trial. And now Buck was going to help with the escort, making sure the man made it to trial. If Mowery's current escort ever made it here.
There were plenty out there trying to make sure Mowery didn't make it. Family members of those he had murdered were threatening to take justice in their own hands. Not to mention those that would just go after a man like Mowery for the thrill of it. Add the man's own family, who had vowed to free him, and the escort had a lot on their hands.
Buck was not looking forward to the trip to Fort Kearney.
But he put those thoughts to the back of his mind and reflected upon the evening just past, spent with those most dear to him. He fell asleep smiling and content.
First thing the next morning Buck checked in with the Marshall of St. Joseph. When there was still no word on the arrival of the escort with Mowery, Buck left word as to where he would be and headed over to Camille and Bill's home. Camille greeted him at the door before he could even knock.
"I'm glad you showed up so early! I sort of volunteered you to take me out to the Olsen place. It's about five miles east. That's alright isn't it?"
"Of course it is. But should you be traveling so close to, well, you know?" He gestured at her stomach.
"I'm fine Buck! But thank you for caring. You're so sweet."
Buck hitched up the carriage as Camille gathered some things into a basket. Buck met her at the front door, taking the basket from her, and helped her into the carriage. He quickly joined her and they headed out of town.
They talked and laughed on the way out of town. Camille sat close to him, her hand often touching his arm as he drove the horse onward. They were about a mile from the Olsen farm when several men on horseback emerged from behind rocks and trees and into their path. Buck pulled the horse up sharp, halting the carriage. The men had their guns drawn, pointing at Buck and Camille. Buck counted five men but he had a feeling there were more nearby.
"We don't have anything of value." Buck said, raising his hands and lifting them upward and to the side. "Why don't you just let us pass?"
"Oh, you've got something of value alright, Breed." Buck bristled at the words of the tall man in front of him. The man wore threadbare breeches, a worn white shirt and suspenders, but had a well oiled and cared for handgun and a new rifle in a holster attached to his saddle.
"You would have been valuable enough by yourself, but you're even more so with that little mama to be at your side. Arlo, get his gun and that knife on his boot. Keep your hands where I can see them boy."
Buck didn't move as his weapons were taken from him. Instead he studied the man before him as his mind raced for a solution to this dilemma.
"Okay now, we're going for a little ride, the whole group of us. Except Arlo that is. He's gonna take that knife of yours and a note back to the Marshall in St. Joe."
"What do you want us for? I don't even know you."
"Oh you will. We're gonna become good friends. Now we need to go before anyone else comes along. I'd hate to see some innocent passerby get themselves hurt." One of the men reached down and swatted their horse on the rump and the group headed off the road. The one called Arlo turned and headed slowly back to town.
They traveled for a good ten miles, heading east and south, up into some low, rolling hills before they finally stopped. The men lead them into a secluded clearing protected from view by several rocky outcroppings and thick tree coverage. The men had obviously been camping here for some time and there were signs of numerous fires having been lit in the fire pit and the area was beginning to accumulate the debris and detritus of a camp used too long by men that didn't care.
As the men all dismounted, one of them grabbed their horse. The tall man motioned for them to climb out and Buck obeyed, turning to help Camille down. She stayed close to his side as they walked away from the carriage and sat on several blankets that had been spread out. Two men approached Buck from behind, grabbing his arms and pulling them behind him. They tied his wrists then moved in front of him to tie his feet. When they moved toward Camille Buck spoke out.
"There's no need to tie her. She's not going anywhere."
The two men paused and looked at the tall man. He nodded and they moved away to tend to their horses.
"Let it not be said that I was ever mean to a pregnant woman." the man said and turned to walk over near the fire pit. He picked up a canteen and brought it over, handing it to Camille. She took it with a demure thank you and drank, then held it to Buck's lips so he could quench his thirst. She put the cap back on the canteen and handed it back to the tall man.
Three other riders, who reported that they had not been followed, soon joined the group. The men moved about the camp. Two of them built up the fire and began preparing the evening meal. The tall man talked to several of the men, issuing orders and setting up a guard schedule. Then he returned to the blanket, where Camille rested against Buck's shoulder. She stirred as the man approached and sat up straight. Buck stared at him.
"You ever gonna tell us what this is all about?" he asked.
"You haven't figured it out yet? You are far too valuable to that old coot of a Marshall back in Rock Creek, not to mention the territorial Marshall, for them to let anything happen to you. That makes you a perfect bargaining tool. And with this little lady being in a motherly state, well, she's just icing on the cake!"
"Bargaining tool for what?"
"You will be the reason my brother is released."
"Your brother?" Buck already had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"I'm sorry! You don't know who I am, do you? The name's Ezra Mowery. Jake Mowery is my brother."
Bill Barlow let himself into the house through the back door. He was a little disappointed that his wife hadn't returned from her visit, but it wasn't a surprise. He knew that she had hoped to convince Buck to do a few small repairs around the Olsen homestead while they were there. The Olsens were getting on in years and Mr. Olsen suffered from excruciating pain in his joints and was unable to do much work these days. Still, they were reluctant to sell their land and move into town, where life would be easier on them both. So Camille had taken it upon herself to help them out. Bill had even done some work around the farm.
Barlow made himself a sandwich from some leftover beef. As he poured himself a glass of lemonade he heard a loud knocking at the front door. Wiping his hands on a towel, he made his way to the front of the house. He was surprised to see Sam Cain and Marshall Donovan waiting for him.
"Gentlemen?" he said, "Is something wrong?" Barlow saw the look on the men's faces. "What's happened? Is it Camille?"
"A man on horseback dropped this in front of the Marshall's office. He came and got me." Sam said as he handed over a scrawled note.
Release Jake Mowery or the breed dies.
Across the bottom, in a different hand, was an additional sentence.
We also have his pregnant friend. She will die also.
Barlow looked up from the note. Before he could ask if they were sure this wasn't a joke, or if they could be mistaken, Sam pulled a knife from his jacket pocket.
"This was with it. It's Buck's."
"You're sure? Maybe it belongs to someone else. Maybe…"
"It's Buck's alright. He's had it for years. He would never part with it by choice."
Barlow seemed to digest this information, various emotions crossing over his face. He seemed to end with anger.
"This is all his fault! My wife would be safe if it weren't for him! Every time he comes around, she disappears, and her life is put in danger! Why I should…"
"Barlow!" Sam interrupted the man's tirade. "Do you know where they were going?"
Barlow looked stunned. He slumped into a chair, supporting his head in his hands. "They were going out to the Olsen farm. Camille likes to take them fresh bread, preserves, that type of thing."
"That gives us a place to start. I've already sent a message to Teaspoon Hunter in Rock Creek. Hopefully he can catch a train and be here tomorrow. But I'm heading out there now. I'll find them, Barlow. Don't worry."
"I'm going with you!" Barlow jumped to his feet.
"You can join the posse. But I need to scout some on my own first. I can move faster and quieter alone." Sam turned to Marshall Donovan. "Put a posse together. When Teaspoon gets here head out toward the Olsen's. I'll leave a message with them as to where I've headed, or I'll leave markers. Teaspoon will know how to follow them."
Sam turned to the door. Opening it he stepped onto the porch. "I'll get her back Barlow. Don't worry." With that, Sam headed down the walkway and swung up on his horse and rode away.
Sam studied the road. It was obvious that a wagon or carriage had left the road here and headed off for some distance. He was torn between continuing to the Olsen farm, just to make sure, and following the trail. Finally his instincts told him to follow the path left by the wheels.
Teaspoon read the telegram in his hand for the fifth time, his mind wanting to deny its contents. Buck had been kidnapped and was being held hostage, to be released when they turned over Jake Mowery. Turn over that butcher! If Buck were able to give them the choice, he would say to hang Mowery, that he'd find a way to get free. But Camille had been captured with Buck. That changed everything. Buck would do anything to protect Camille, including laying down his own life. And the woman was pregnant to boot!
Teaspoon cursed under his breath, tossing the telegram down on his desk angrily. Then he stood, gathered up the items he would need for traveling, and went to tell Rachel what was going on before catching the afternoon train.
Buck slept leaning up against a tree. Or he tried to sleep. His arms were still tied behind his back, the ropes cutting into his wrists, his hands, pressed up against the rough bark of the tree, dug into his lower back. But, since Camille slept with her head in his lap, he refused to shift or move. She was exhausted and needed the rest.
They had been given supper, Camille feeding him since they had refused to remove his bindings. Then they had been given extra blankets and were told to bed down for the night. A guard was posted to assure that Camille would not untie him. The guard leered at Camille and it bothered Buck enough that he had insisted she sleep next to him. At least that way if anything did happen, he would know it and be able to raise enough of a racket to wake some of the others.
Ezra Mowery had said very little more to them that evening. Instead he had gone about issuing more orders to his men. He had made sure they were fed, then the whole camp retired for the night.
Buck woke for the tenth time that night. His arms had gone numb and his lower back ached. He just had to shift.
"Camille?" he said softly and shifted his legs just a bit.
"Hmm?" came her mumbled reply as she groggily sat up. The guard looked their way, his gun following where his eyes went.
"I've got to move." Buck whispered. "My arms have gone numb."
Camille was instantly awake. She moved enough that Buck could move out away from the tree. The guard approached them as Buck lay down on his side.
"What's going on here breed?" the man growled.
"His arms have fallen asleep." Camille answered for him. "Can't you retie him so his hands are in front and he can rest more comfortably?"
"Camille, don't…" Buck said softly.
"Why would I want him to be comfortable?" The man sneered. Camille could smell his stale breath.
Camille shifted away from him, leaning against the tree instead and gathering Buck's head into her lap. Her hand moved through his long hair without realizing she was doing it. Buck shifted a bit more, studying their guard the whole time. Finally the man moved back over to the log he had been sitting on. Eventually both Buck and Camille slept.
He awoke when someone kicked his legs. The action sent electrical shocks up them. He shifted, struggling to sit up with legs and arms that were numb. His whole body felt stiff, too.
Someone reached behind him and grabbed his arm, pulling him into a sitting position. Camille stirred behind him.
"Time to wake up you two. It's gonna be a busy day." Ezra Mowery stood over the two of them, a knife in his hand. Bending over he cut the ropes around Buck's ankles first, then the ones holding his hands behind his back. Buck made sure to move slowly, then began to rub circulation into his arms.
Camille moved forward and massaged his shoulders.
"No moving around or I'll tie you back up. And you'll be even more uncomfortable than you were."
He turned to one of his men.
"See to it that they're fed, then bring them to me."
Buck studied Camille as they ate the food they were given. She looked worn out and had obviously not gotten enough rest during the long night. She smiled at him reassuringly, the smile lighting up her face. Buck was once again reminded of how beautiful she was, even with the dark circles that were appearing beneath her eyes. When they were finished, they were lead over to a stand of trees at the edge of the camp.
"Here's what's gonna happen," Mowery started out as one of his men tied Buck's hands once more, in front of him this time, leaving a length of rope dangling on the ground. "I'm sure by now your friends are tracking us, so we're going to plan a little surprise for them. In the mean time we need to keep you two out of the way. Bring them along."
One of Mowery's men grabbed the rope and they were herded over to a tall oak tree. There was a deep trench dug there. Buck heard a distinctive sound issuing from the trench. Snakes.
The man tossed the rope over a high branch, catching the end as it came back down. He flipped the loose strand of rope so that it hung over the trench. Another man joined him and they began to pull. Buck felt the play leave the rope and soon he was being lifted into the air by the wrists. Buck found himself suspended over the pit full of snakes.
The rope pulled at his shoulder joints and it only took seconds before it felt as if his arms were on fire.
"Let him down!" Camille cried out as she took a step toward the rope.
"Now just you wait little missy. We've got plans for you too." Mowery said as he grabbed her arm. He moved her over next to the men still holding the rope. Someone brought over an old, straight-backed wooden chair and Mowery pushed her into it. Then the rope holding Buck was tied to the chair.
"It's like this. If you stand up young lady, the breed drops in for a visit with the snakes. If the Marshall brings my brother, we move on and they come help you. If they don't bring him, well then, you'll both end up in the pit."
Mowery turned and started to walk away. "Let's go wait for our guests men."
Camille sat in the chair. She picked her feet up off the ground, placing them on the rungs of the chair, adding that much more weight to the chair. Then all she could do was stare as Buck swayed in the breeze.
Teaspoon studied the markings Sam had left for him. He had easily found where the wagon had left the road and had led the posse in the same direction. Sam had been leaving them clues also. It now appeared that Sam had moved off the trail.
The posse included Marshall Donovan, Bill Barlow, six men from town and the men that had been escorting Jake Mowery. Mowery himself sat atop a horse, gagged and tied to the point where he could barely move. Had it not been for the fact that Mowery's brother held Camille Barlow, Teaspoon would have sent the escort and their prisoner on to Fort Kearney. But the kidnapping of Camille with Buck made things totally different. If necessary they would release Mowery to get the woman back. Then Teaspoon himself would track Mowery down and make sure he made it to trial.
"Sam's on to something. He's circling around." Teaspoon replied, stretching his back by shifting in his saddle.
"So what do you think we should do?" Donovan asked.
"We follow the trail. Sam's probably got a plan. So we continue on."
"Can we get going then?" Barlow said impatiently. "It's after noon and my wife has been in the hands of those butchers too long."
"Barlow," Teaspoon said as he nudged his horse forward, "We need to do this carefully or your wife will be dead. And none of us want that. So exercise a little patience."
Sam crouched in the bushes studying the encampment. Men were moving about, obviously striking camp. But Sam was unable to see Buck or the girl.
Then his eyes followed a pair of men that moved into the tree line. He watched as they passed through the trees and into another small clearing. Sam was shocked to see Buck hanging by his wrists, the rope holding him leading over a tree branch and tied to a chair. Perched on the chair was Camille. Sam studied the set up. If the girl moved, Buck dropped into a wide trench. Undoubtedly there was something unpleasant in that trench.
What bothered Sam more was the fact that Camille was a tiny woman. While Buck wasn't a large man either, he still outweighed the girl. If the boy moved too much it could lift the chair right off the ground. If the girl moved, Buck would drop. Either way Buck ended up in the pit and whatever waited for him there.
Well then, Sam would just have to get to them. He would be able to steady the rope enough to swing Buck away from the pit. The problem was that one of the men that had gone to the clearing had remained, obviously to stand guard. The other man walked away. Sam could hear the man's laughter carry on the breeze.
He moved his eyes back, following the man that had left the clearing, his mind working on how to help Buck and Camille, while he studied the movement below. After a time he moved away, returning to his horse. It was time to meet up with Teaspoon and the posse.
Teaspoon was waiting right where Sam knew he'd be. The older man had insisted on the posse stopping, much to the grumbling of Barlow and the men from town. But the other lawmen had settled in and set up a cold camp to wait.
Sam arrived a few hours later. The men clustered around him for his report.
"I found them. They're about 4 miles from here." He held up his hand to stop the flood of questions that started to come. "They're both alive. Camille looks fine," he said directly to Barlow.
"And Buck?" Teaspoon asked.
"They've got him tied up pretty good. He's hanging over a pit of some kind. But he doesn't look like he's been hurt or injured."
"Then let's go get them!" Barlow exclaimed.
"Hold on Barlow. You can't just go running into their camp. They'd kill Camille and Buck for sure."
"Then what do we do? We can't just leave her there!"
Sam looked over at the bound and gagged Mowery.
"We give them what they want." Sam said, then sat down to explain his plan.
Within the hour they were moving out.
Buck tried to keep still, but the pain in his shoulders, arms and wrists was bad. He moved slightly and dropped an inch as the movement caused the chair Camille sat on to shift.
"Buck!" Camille called out.
"I know." There was no good solution that Buck could think of. All he could hope for at this time was that Sam was tracking them and that Camille didn't move.
And then there was the guard. The man had moved off into the trees, but he was still there in case anything went wrong. He was to wait until he had received one of two signals from Mowery. One he would leave the area and meet up with the Mowery gang. The other and both Buck and Camille were dead.
Buck figured they would be dead either way, judging from the smile on the guard's face when Mowery left.
Teaspoon led the posse along the path taken by the kidnappers. He personally held the reins to the prisoner's horse. He could still hear Barlow grumbling behind him.
When he saw two men sitting their horses in the trail ahead of them he stopped the posse. Tossing the reins to Donovan, he moved his horse forward, stopping it about 15 feet from the two men.
The small group sat studying each other for a moment. Finally Teaspoon spoke.
"Where's the girl? And my deputy?" Teaspoon demanded.
"They're safe, for now. They'll be even better when Mowery is released and we're about ten miles away."
"I thought we was gonna have us an exchange?"
"Oh, we are," Ezra Mowery replied. "We receive Jake Mowery and you receive the location of your two people. An exchange."
"That's not acceptable mister." Teaspoon growled, rubbing the top of his fingers against the stubble on his chin.
Ezra Mowery chuckled. "You don't have any other choice Marshall. They'll die otherwise. Now turn him over and we'll be on our way. And then you'll get the location of your people."
Teaspoon studied the grizzled man before him. Then he turned and motioned Donovan forward with the prisoner.
"If we don't get the girl and my deputy back, safe and unharmed, I'll hunt you down like the dog you are." Teaspoon said lowly as Donovan handed over the reins to Mowery's horse. One of Ezra Mowery's men was quickly releasing the bonds holding the man.
"It's been a pleasure gentleman." The former prisoner said as he took the horses reins. "But don't plan on seeing me again."
"Okay, now where's the girl?" Teaspoon demanded.
The three men wheeled their horses. "Find them yourselves!" Ezra Mowery called out as they spurred their horses forward. Teaspoon and Donovan both drew their guns and fired. Jake and Ezra Mowery fell from their horses.
Sam heard the gunshots and moved through the bushes toward the lone guard. The man was already aiming his rifle.
Buck heard the distant gunshots also and knew exactly what was about to happen.
"Camille, when I say so, stand up!" he yelled as he began to swing his legs forward. But too late he heard the crack of the rifle and felt himself falling. The momentum of his swing and the sudden drop slammed him into the ledge of the pit. He felt all the air leave his lungs and sharp pains filled his chest even as he grabbed for anything that would stop his fall. He heard Camille scream and the sound of a gun going off. Then he lost his battle with gravity and slid into the pit.
Buck slid down the side of the pit, his hands still grabbing for a hold to stop him. But his fingers found nothing and his feet hit the bottom of the pit. He immediately felt something under his feet give and that movement alone almost sent him sprawling to the floor. But he struggled to gain his feet as the snakes slipped from underneath him. He heard the hissing beasts, felt several strike out, their fangs landing against the leather of his boots. Turning carefully, he leaned against the wall of the pit for support.
His breathing was labored, and he felt sharp pains shooting through his chest. Worse yet, he felt as though he could black out at any moment. He struggled to remain conscious, but even as he did he felt the first snake reach flesh, the fangs sinking into his leg at the knee. He reached down and grabbed the writhing snake, tossing the creature aside as another found its mark.
Sam's gun roared. But the man didn't wait to see his target slump to the ground. Instead he was running toward the clearing as the young deputy fell into the pit. He paused long enough to check on Camille, who was lying on the ground where she had fallen when the chair lifted as Buck began to swing towards the edge of the pit. Then he ran onward, throwing himself on the edge of the pit in time to see the young Kiowa slip to the floor.
Teaspoon rode hard into the clearing, having followed the sound of the rifle, Barlow right behind him. The posse had continued after the other two members of the Mowery gang that had greeted them, and to find any others that might be nearby. He saw Sam lying on the ground, saw Camille kneeling next to him.
Both were looking downward.
He threw himself from his horse and ran towards the pair. Sam was yelling Buck's name and seemed to be reaching into the ground. Teaspoon dropped to his knees next to the pit edge as Barlow gathered his wife into his arms.
She hugged him briefly but pulled away to drop back to the ground, adding her voice to Sam's. Barlow watched her, then knelt beside her. The small group watched as snakes coiled around the young man below.
Almost as one, Sam and Teaspoon jumped to their feet, looking for a means of getting the young man out.
"Barlow, build a fire!" Teaspoon commanded. The man paused briefly, then did as told. Teaspoon ran to his horse for a length of rope, Sam shrugged out of his shirt and began to rip it into lengths and wrap it around a heavy branch, forming a torch.
They waited only long enough for Barlow to start kindling aflame. Teaspoon tossed the rope over the same branch used to hold Buck then fashioned the rope into a sling, tying the other end off on his saddle horn. Sam thrust the torch into the kindling and nodded that he was ready. Barlow took charge of the horse and they lowered Sam into the pit as Camille dropped several flaming sticks around Buck's inert body.
Sam held the torch below him, using it to chase more of the snakes away. He continued waving the flaming torch back and forth, sometimes even thrusting the flames directly at one of the slithering creatures that was unwilling to give up the ground. He did his best to clear any snakes away from Buck's body before grabbing hold of the young man. Using Buck's arm, Sam pulled the young man's upper body a few feet off the ground. Dropping the flaming torch beneath him, he wrapped his arms around Buck's chest. Teaspoon motioned Barlow and they hauled the two men out.
They laid Buck's unmoving form onto the ground and began ripping his clothing open, trying to find the bites. Barlow tried to move his wife away, but she pulled away from him and began to assist the two men, pulling off her friend's boots. Even she could see the swelling taking over his leg as the poison did its job.
Teaspoon used his knife to cut away clothing and Sam did the same. As they came upon the telltale marks of snakebite, they would begin to suck on the open wound, spitting the blood onto the ground next to them. Camille talked soothingly to her friend, speaking encouraging words even as she felt she was losing her best friend.
As they worked Buck's back stiffened. Teaspoon grabbed a stick and shoved it into Buck's mouth as the seizure took hold of the young man. He held the boy's shoulders as the convulsion moved through his body. When it eased, the two men went back to work.
Barlow stoked up the fire, them went to retrieve Sam's horse. Camille grabbed Teaspoon's bedroll, using the blanket to cover Buck. All in all, they were able to locate four bites, two on Buck's left leg, one on his left forearm and another on his side below his ribcage. The bites were already discoloring.
Buck's breathing was growing labored and his pulse rapid as the poison coursed through his veins. Sam and Teaspoon looked at each other, their expressions somber. Camille finally left Buck's side and buried herself in her husband's arms.
Reluctant to move the young man, Sam and Teaspoon set up camp for the night. Barlow tried to get his wife to return to town, but she refused, insisting on staying with her friend. They watched helplessly as fever invaded his body, as convulsions overtook him, as his breathing grew louder. When they heard a choking sound they turned him on his side as nausea won out. The swelling increased, especially in his limbs.
By morning, they had built a travois and began the trek back to town.
They took the two former captives to the Barlow home. The doctor was summoned and after a lengthy examination of Buck, announced that there was nothing more he could do but watch the puncture wounds for signs of infection or gangrene. Emma and Camille held vigil at Buck's bedside, Camille only leaving when forced to rest by the others. Teaspoon left long enough to send off telegrams to Rachel and Kid. The rest of the time he spent holding Buck as his stomach convulsed, or holding him down as he thrashed in pain. Emma bathed the wounds with cool cloths, trying to reduce the swelling. He tossed and turned in fever and pain induced dreams.
The wounds turned color and looked inflamed. By the third day the doctor felt it necessary to cut away some of the tissue on Buck's leg. It was all Teaspoon and Sam could do to hold the unconscious young man down.
Emma and Teaspoon were exhausted. They had sent Camille to her room to get a good night's sleep. Then Emma had crawled up onto the bed, gathering Buck into her arms. She lay up against the headboard of the bed, with his head on her shoulder, and tried to sleep. Her hand rested against his heart, or along his neck, feeling the beat there, assuring herself that he was still with them. Teaspoon did his best to sleep in a chair by the bed.
They tried to be encouraged by the fact he had survived for four days with so much poison in his system. But there was still worry that he was still unconscious and that the tea, broth and water they fed him didn't stay down long. Dehydration was a big concern.
Emma lay in the bed early that morning, only half asleep, her hand lightly massaging Buck's temple. She was unaware that the young man's eyes had opened and he was silently trying to focus on the room around him. So she was quite startled when he spoke, his voice soft and weak.
"Where am I?"
Teaspoon was immediately awake.
"You're at Camille's house Buck." Emma answered him.
"What…." He started to ask then stopped as his whole body began to convulse.
Emma held him until it passed.
"You're gonna be okay, son." Teaspoon told him when he finally relaxed. "You had a little encounter with some…"
"Snakes." Buck whispered.
"Yep. But that was days ago and you're gonna be just fine."
"She's fine too. She's sleeping right now, but she was unharmed."
"Hmmm." Buck's eyes closed briefly, then opened. His eyes were trying hard to focus. "Mowery."
"Dead." Teaspoon answered. "Both of them. And the rest of the men have been rounded up and are sitting in jail as we speak."
Buck's eyes closed again. But he continued to talk. " I feel horrible," he muttered.
"Well, you have been pretty sick." Emma replied. "You feel like trying some tea? Or broth?"
Buck shook his head gently. The thought of any type of food made his stomach churn. His eyes remained closed. He was too tired to keep them open, but not tired enough to sleep just yet. Emma's hand felt cool against his forehead and he sunk down into her embrace, letting go just this once, allowing himself to be comforted. It felt good.
He started to fall back into a blissful sleep.
Only to be awoken by a scream from the next room and the sound of feet running across the floor and out into the hall. The door to his room was thrust open as Teaspoon jumped to his feet. Bill Barlow entered the room, panic across his face as Camille moaned in the background.
"Emma! It's time! The baby's coming!" he said breathlessly.
"Well, it's about time!" Emma said calmly. "Put some water on to boil then go after the doctor. I'll be right in." Teaspoon leaned over and help Buck sit forward so Emma could move off the bed. They piled pillows up behind him as Barlow ran down the stairs. Then Emma placed a kiss on his forehead and moved to the door just as Sam stepped inside.
"I just saw Barlow run out of here like a bat out of hell. What's going on?"
Camille let out a moan in the other room in answer. "Finally happening huh? Well hey Buck, good to see you awake."
Emma gave her husband a kiss and headed into Camille's bedroom. Sam entered Buck's room and pulled up a chair. The three stayed there talking until they heard Barlow and the doctor enter the house. Sam got up and retrieved Barlow, letting the man pace in the room with the rest of them. Occasionally Sam would leave long enough to retrieve something for Emma or the doctor.
Buck stayed awake, concerned for his friend and bothered by Barlow's pacing and impatient mutterings. But Buck realized that he would probably not be much better if he were in Barlow's shoes. Sam and Teaspoon seemed a bit amused.
The day crept on. Buck dozed, but never fell into a deep sleep. Sam left to fix them all something to eat, and Teaspoon insisted Buck take some broth. Unfortunately it came back up, but Teaspoon kept at him, forcing his stubborn young deputy to keep trying to take in fluids. Barlow kept up the pacing, moving out into the hall periodically, then back in to the room, apparently wanting the company of the other men.
It was shortly after dark that Camille's moans increased. The men all got a little edgier, anticipating an end to the day's events. When they heard a loud scream and a baby's cry, the small group of men erupted. Barlow was out of the room, hovering in the hallway in a matter of seconds. Sam stood in the doorway. Emma emerged from Camille's room a few moments later.
"You've got a beautiful baby girl!" she told him as she held the door open for him.
"A girl? We've got a girl!" he yelled back in to Buck's room, then went in to see his wife and baby.
Emma walked over to her husband and into his embrace, both anticipating the day not so far away that they would be sharing the same experience. Then they turned back into Buck's room. The young man lay amongst the pillows holding him up, sound asleep.
A week later Buck stood on the porch of Camille's house, his hat in his hand. He was still very weak and his legs were threatening to give out on him.
But he was ready to go home. Besides, Bill and Camille deserved some time alone with baby Evelyn Rose.
He watched the couple before him. He wasn't sure he had ever seen Camille so happy before. He felt a little twinge in his heart, realizing that if things had been different when they were children, the baby in her arms could be his. But she was happy and that's what mattered to him most.
"We're going to miss you Buck." She said in her little girl voice. Bill's arm was wrapped affectionately around her shoulders.
"I'll miss you too. I'm sorry you got dragged into all that mess with Mowery."
"It wasn't your fault." Barlow said. Buck was surprised, figuring Barlow would be the first to put the blame on him for endangering his wife and unborn child. But maybe the baby had mellowed him for the moment.
"Well, I appreciate your understanding." Buck held his hand out and Barlow shook it without hesitation. "May I…?" Buck motioned at Camille. Barlow nodded and Buck leaned in to kiss Camille on the cheek. Her smile lit up her face and she kissed him back. Buck's hand dropped down to stroke the sleeping baby's cheek and chin.
"She's a beauty. You're very lucky."
"Some day Buck, you'll find it too. You've got too good a soul not too." Camille said quietly knowing exactly what her friend was thinking. He smiled at her, acknowledging the meaning of her comment.
"I've got to go. The train leaves soon and Teaspoon is there waiting for me."
"You be careful Buck. And take care of yourself."
"I will. Thank you for everything." He kissed Camille's cheek again and turned, making his way to the carriage where Emma and Sam waited for him.
It was another hard goodbye at the station, leaving Emma and Sam, but it was done with the promise to come back for the birth of their child. Then he was finally on board and sinking tiredly into a seat across from Teaspoon. The two waved goodbye to Sam and Emma as the train began to move.
Teaspoon studied the young man sitting in front of him. The boy looked exhausted as he looked back at him.
"What's the matter Teaspoon?" he asked tiredly.
"Not a thing, son, not a thing. Just happy to be going home."
"Me too." Buck said as he slid down in the seat, moving his hat over his face as he had seen Teaspoon do many times, and proceeded to fall into an exhausted sleep.
"Just happy you're still alive son." Teaspoon whispered, smiling at Buck's imitation of him, then followed the young man's actions and fell asleep himself.