"It was Injuns that done It!"
The words sent icy shivers down Buck's spine. More Indian trouble. And he'd get the blame, some how.
Buck, Lou and Kid had heard the commotion from Thomkin's store. The man had ridden wildly into town and to the Marshall's office, yelling at the top of his lungs.
"They killed my son, my wife, and my hired hands. My daughter's missing! Marshall you gotta do something! They killed my family!" The man broke down, sobbing. "Marshall, I think they took Elizabeth!"
"Easy Cooper. Come on in the office. I need to get the whole story."
Marshall Sam Cain led the distraught man into the office. The crowd that had gathered around them milled about in the street. Many cast angry glances at Buck, who had paused while loading the wagon. Lou stood next to him, a package in hand, watching the crowd as Kid walked out of the store.
"What's all the commotion?" Kid asked, placing a 20 lb bag of flour in the back of the buckboard.
"Seems Cooper's place got raided by Indians," Lou answered. "His family was killed and his daughter's missing. He thinks the Indians took her."
"What would they do to her Buck?"
"Depends," he said, placing the last box into the bed of the wagon.
"Who took her." Buck turned and mounted his horse as Kid climbed onto the seat of the buckboard.
"We'd best be getting back. Emma's expecting us." Buck finished as he turned his horse to head out of town.
"Yep, might be going just in time." Kid slapped the reins against the horse's rump, casting one last glance at the crowd, as Lou mounted her horse to follow. Behind them they heard angry voices, some getting louder.
"Should just shoot em all!"
"...ain't no good Indians..."
"Lets' just go after em and..."
Lou glanced over her shoulder as she rode on. Buck was on the other side of the wagon, back rigid, tense. As she turned back to the road, one of the crowd threw a large rock, hitting Buck in the right shoulder. Lou heard little more than a sharp intake of breath from him, saw his shoulder dip just a trace under the assault, then he pulled the shoulder back into place and rode on.
Lou looked over her shoulder again but failed to see who had thrown the rock. She slowed her horse and casually moved to the other side of the wagon, falling into line behind Buck. They made their way out of town.
Sam finally had Cooper seated in his office. Barnett was by the door, supposedly to keep the crowd out, but several of the citizens had pushed their way into the room.
Sam had gotten the story from Cooper that he had come into town on business. When he got home he found his barn burned to the ground, his stock missing, and his wife, son and hired hands murdered. All had been scalped. He had looked all over for his thirteen year old daughter, but there had been no sign of her.
Sam pulled his hand over his face, then looked at the men gathered in his office.
"Reverend, would you look after Cooper? Barnett, look after things here at the office. I'm going out there to have a look around."
"They're going to need a Christian burial, Marshall!" the reverend implored.
"I know. But I need to look around first. Give me about three hours, then send out the mortician."
Sam went to the gun cabinet and removed a rifle and box of shells.
"Marshall, you shouldn't go out there by yourself. Shouldn't you form a posse?" Thomkins said.
"I won't be. But I'm not taking any of you hot heads with me. You'd just stir up more trouble." Sam walked out the door and into the crowd. He ignored the inquiries and criticisms and mounted his horse, reeling it around and headed toward Emma's ranch.
"What happened?" Emma asked as she walked up to the buckboard.
Kid re-counted what had occurred at the Cooper ranch and ended it with "The townsfolk were pretty riled up. Someone threw a rock at Buck, caught him in the shoulder. I'm not sure but I think it might have done some damage."
Emma headed to the bunkhouse as Kid and Lou unloaded the buckboard and unhitched the horses. Buck had ridden directly to the bunkhouse, flipping the reins of his horse over the porch rail, and gone inside. Cody followed Emma and retrieved the horse, leading it back to the corral.
Buck had removed his coat and vest and was in the process of unbuttoning his shirt when Emma entered.
"Here, let me help," she said and helped him ease out of the shirt. There were blood spots on the shirt over his right shoulder blade.
"I'm all right," he said quietly, trying to avoid the woman's attentions. Never much of a talker, he always grew more quiet when being fussed over.
"Well, this blood on your shirt tells me otherwise. Now sit down and let me look." Emma tugged on his arm, pulling him to a bench at the table where she had extra light to see by.
"Well, it doesn't look too bad. Let me get it cleaned up." She grabbed a basin and cloth from the counter and the pitcher of water off the table.
She dampened the cloth and began dabbing at the blood, moving Buck's long black hair out of the way. The boy sat straight, staring ahead of him, his mind obviously elsewhere, his eyes unreadable. They both looked up as the door opened and Teaspoon entered.
"You all right Buck?" the older gentleman asked, sitting at the bench opposite Buck, one eyebrow cocked upward, the other eye slightly closing.
"Fine," the young man replied.
"Not much more than a few cuts and scratches. He's gonna have a large bruise though." She walked over to Buck's bunk and took an extra shirt off the peg there. She handed it to him and he shrugged into it as she picked up the one he had just removed.
"I'll wash this up for you before the blood has time to set in," she said heading for the door. Emma threw a meaningful look at Teaspoon.
She stopped with her hand on the door and smiled at him.
Before Teaspoon could have his "meaningful" talk with Buck, Sam rode into the yard. He rode up to the bunkhouse porch as Teaspoon walked out the door. The other riders gathered around and Buck stepped into the doorway, leaning against the frame.
"Afternoon, Teaspoon, boys."
"Sam. Heard about the Cooper place. Do you know who done it?"
"That's what I'm here about. I was wondering if you and the boys could ride out there with me. Buck might be able to tell me who was involved and where they went."
Teaspoon looked over his shoulder at Buck, who nodded slightly and turned to get his coat and hat.
"Saddle up boys"
"Ten? What tribe?"
"Kiowa," came Buck's reluctant answer. He turned, walking around the perimeter of the clearing.
"Kiowa," Teaspoon muttered under his breath, "Damn."
"Teaspoon, I need one of your riders to head to Fort Kearney. I'd best call in the army to go after the girl."
"No!" Buck said sharply, hurrying back to the cluster of men.
"Buck, I know how you must feel, but I've got to try to get that girl back."
"I'll get her back. There's been enough bloodshed."
"I don't think Cooper will be satisfied unless the men that did this are brought to justice." Sam motioned at the bodies of Cooper's wife and son.
"The Kiowa were exacting justice!" Buck snapped as he threw a burlap sack at Sam. The Marshall dumped the contents on the ground, looked at it, then looked up at the sky, sickened.
"Damn it," he muttered as the other riders clustered around to get a look at the sack's contents, now lying at Sam's feet. Lou moved off to the bushes and threw up, Kid turned his head away and swore under his breath, finally turning and walking away, Ike right behind him. Jimmy stood and kicked at the dirt, then turned and walked away also. Cody muttered to himself then joined the others.
Buck stared at Sam, his jaw set, the gruesome contents on the ground between them. Three heads lay there, all Indian children. The flesh partially decayed, the balance turning dry and leathery, blood dried in the hair.
"They were taking justice. Now, what will you do with Cooper? Will there be justice in your courts?" Buck demanded. He turned on his heels, swinging his leg up and over his horse's back.
"I'll get the girl, if she's still alive." He reeled his horse around and rode off, following the trail left by the departing war party.
Let it not be Red Bear's warriors he said to himself. Let one of those children not be Lily Blossom, Red Bear's daughter, his niece.
Teaspoon and the other riders mounted their horses and silently followed him, leaving Sam standing in the clearing.
"You shouldn't be here. I'm better off by myself."
"We'll stay out of the way, but we're coming with you," Teaspoon replied.
"You could all get killed."
"We'll hold back, but we're gonna be there in case you need us."
"Suit yourself." Buck stopped his horse, checking tracks, then moved on. He hadn't said much since they left the Cooper's. The other riders had followed his example.
Buck was trying to cover as much ground as possible before dark, knowing that time was important for the girl's sake. But he was also trying to be careful not to miss any sign the warriors might have left behind.
It finally grew too dark to track, so Buck reluctantly agreed to setting up camp. He cautioned the riders against using a fire, so they settled for cold rations. After eating sparingly, Buck slipped into the darkness. The other riders settled down to sleep, Jimmy and Ike taking the first watch.
Teaspoon didn't sleep well. He heard Buck slip back into camp and crawl into his blankets.
"They're camped just over that rise," Buck told them as he removed his hat, vest and shirt, slipping the vest back on over his bare chest. The bruise on his shoulder was a deep purple with the edges turning a sickly green.
"I go in alone," he finished.
"All right, but we're taking up position around the camp, in case you need help," Teaspoon answered. They all stood in the early morning mist, waiting.
"They've set up sentries." Buck motioned for Teaspoon to follow him as he crawled up the hill, then pointed out their locations.
"Be careful Buck."
"I will. If anything happens get out of here fast." He walked past Ike, touching him briefly on the shoulder, then mounted his horse and rode down into the Indian camp.
Buck was immediately surrounded by seven yelling warriors. He kept riding until they pulled him from his horse. Holding him by the arms they pushed, poked, and pulled at him as they walked him into the center of the camp. Buck took several blows to the head, chest and legs, causing him to stumble and nearly fall, but he managed to remain standing. To fall would have meant death.
He looked around the camp as he went, spotting the girl lying on a pile of blankets. She had been beaten, her cheek and eye swollen, bruises showing on her arms and exposed legs. Her clothes were still relatively intact and he assumed that she had not been raped yet. Probably waiting to get back to the village to decide what to do with her. He guessed the beating was to quiet her down.
They stopped in front of a tall, regal looking warrior, pushing Buck down to his knees.
"Red Bear, " Buck said in Kiowa, "It is good to see you again, Brother."
Teaspoon and the boys watched as Buck was pulled from his horse and escorted into the camp. Teaspoon had sent Cody up a tree with his rifle and spaced the boys along the hill top, staying out of sight of the two sentries Buck had spotted. They were all instructed not to make a move until he told them to.
"Why did you come?"
"I came for the girl. I came because I found out what her father did. I need to know.... those children? Who were....?
"One was my daughter," came the reply Buck had been dreading.
"Lily Blossom," Buck whispered, remembering the little girl in his brother's camp the time Ike had been taken prisoner. She had given him a feather as he left to return to the Pony Express.
"Yes. And Waiting Pony, son of He Who Watches, and Bright Star, daughter of Spotted Dog." Red Bear replied motioning to two men who now stood nearby.
"They were playing at the river. This girl's father found them and slaughtered them. Great Elk's son got away. The man removed their heads and now they wander blind in the land behind the sun."
Buck sat back on his feet, shocked, not sure what to say.
"We took his daughter and will deliver her head to him so he will know the same pain."
"If I guarantee justice against the man will you release his daughter to me?"
"No. We will have our justice, not the white man's justice."
"But the girl is not responsible for the actions of her father!"
"He must suffer the way we have, feel the pain we have."
Buck knew it was going to be difficult to convince these men to change their minds. He searched his head for arguments, or a new plan, but was coming up blank.
Teaspoon and the boys continued to wait. Kid and Ike had recognized the tall man Buck was talking with from before.
They all hoped Buck knew what he was doing.
They talked and argued all afternoon. He was finally able to convince Red Bear and He Who Watches to let him take the girl. In exchange he would make sure Cooper stood trial in the white man's court.
Spotted Dog was not to be convinced. If the choice had been his, the girl would already be dead, her head mounted on a pole in her father's yard.
The boys were getting tired and hot, having been in the same positions on the hill for hours. They passed a canteen and jerked beef amongst themselves. But no words were exchanged for fear of the sound traveling.
Given the level of distraction circumstances like this created it took several moments for any of them to realize the changes that had occurred in the Indian camp.
Teaspoon was the first to see that Buck was on his feet, one of the Indians standing in front of him. The man was obviously agitated and even as they watched he struck out at Buck, the boy dodging backward. The glint of the sun against metal told Teaspoon that the man welded a knife and was prepared to use it.
"Easy Cody," Teaspoon said quietly to the young man in the tree. "Let's see where this is goin'. But stay ready."
Cody nodded at the station master, but already had his rifle sighted on the warrior fighting with Buck, his finger on the trigger.
Buck knew he was in a fight for his life. He hadn't expected Spotted Dog to draw his knife, but the man had never trusted Buck, and it stood to reason that he wouldn't trust him now that he was living amongst the whites.
Buck dropped to the ground, dodging yet another swipe of Spotted Dog's knife and swept his leg into the man's knee. Spotted Dog landed on the ground with an oomph, but was on his feet even as Buck scrambled to his.
Red Bear and the other warriors could only stand and watch. Some of his warriors were cheering on Spotted Dog, but most stood silent, just waiting to see the outcome.
Buck continued dodging lunges, following them up with a kick or punch whenever Spotted Dog gave him the opening. And he gave Buck many opportunities. The man, in his anger and grief, was fighting poorly.
Buck found the right opening. Spotted Dog lunged at him again and Buck neatly stepped aside, swinging his arm into the back of the man's head. Spotted Dog fell to the ground face first, Buck landing on the man's back. With his right hand he pulled the man's head back by the hair, his left hand, now holding his own knife, came around the front and was laid against the man's throat. But to Red Bear's relief, that's where Buck stopped, even though Buck had every right to kill him.
"That is enough!" Buck hissed and released his grip on the man's hair. Spotted Dog would be humiliated, but he didn't deserve to die because of his grief. Red Bear knew that if Buck had killed Spotted Dog there were at least two warriors that would do their best to see that Buck never left the encampment alive.
Buck moved away. Spotted Dog rose slowly to his feet, then lunged suddenly at Buck's back. Red Bear stepped forward, grabbing the man's wrist in an iron grip.
"This fight is done! Be thankful to have your life," the chief told Spotted Dog. He released his grip on the man's wrist only when he felt the tension leave him.
"Take the girl. See to it that justice is done, even if it is white man's justice." Red Bear motioned at two of his warriors. One brought Buck's horse forward. The other cut the girl loose.
Buck mounted his horse. They placed the girl on behind him. As if by instinct the semiconscious girl wrapped her arms around his waist, leaning her head against his back. One of the warriors tied her wrists together where they rested against Buck's stomach, effectively tying her to Buck so she would not fall off.
"Ride safe, my brother, " Red Bear stood by Buck's horse. "Leave this area as quickly as you can," he added quietly. Then he grasped his brother's hand, squeezing it tightly before releasing it.
"I will see that justice is dealt, Brother." Buck turned his horse and rode out of the camp and up the hill. He silently joined the other riders on the other side of the ridge and began the trek home.
It was a tired group that rode into town around noon the next day. Buck had insisted that they ride through the night, wanting to put as much distance between Spotted Dog and his friends as he could. No one questioned his wishes, each of them being anxious to reach the relative safety of home.
The girl had slept against Buck's back most of the trip. She didn't seem to realize or care that she rode with an Indian. The time or two that she had awoke she had seen white men riding with them, so she felt safe.
They stopped in front of the Marshall's office, Sam and Emma out on the walkway waiting for them. Teaspoon dismounted, coming around to Buck's horse as the young man untied Elizabeth's wrists, reaching behind him to hold her up until Teaspoon could get a hold of her and pull her down into his arms. He silently carried her to the doctor's office.
Buck remained on his horse while the others dismounted, happy to stretch their legs.
"Where's Cooper Sam?"
"In a cell, Buck. I've sent for the district judge," Sam answered him. He looked around at the gathering crowd. "Let's go inside boys."
Sam made a production of announcing loudly to Cooper that his daughter had been returned, wanting the crowd outside to overhear and for them all to know that it was due to Buck and the other Express riders. Then he closed the door behind him and gave the boys a chance to help themselves to coffee or water.
"You boys eaten yet?" he asked. With the negative reply he got he sent Barnett off to bring back some food. The boys looked tired. They were all subdued, not their usual boisterous selves. Buck could not take his eyes off Cooper, who was sitting on the bunk in his cell.
"How's my daughter?" the man said rising to grab the cell bars. "Is she all right?" he demanded.
"No thanks to you!" Buck answered, fire in his voice.
"Easy Buck," Emma walked over to the young man, placing her hand on his shoulder. To Cooper she replied "Teaspoon took her over to the Doc's"
"She wasn't hurt bad," Lou filled in. "Just slapped around a bit." Buck nodded confirmation.
Buck was keyed up and restless from the events over the last 24 hours. He stood and walked over to the cell. Grabbing hold of the bars he glared at Cooper, unnerving the man, who backed as far away from the half breed as his cell allowed.
"You're lucky," Buck said quietly. "Your daughter is still alive. She still has her head. My niece was not so lucky." This was the first the riders knew of the relationship between Buck and Lily Blossom. They hadn't realized just how personal this had become for Buck.
"Oh, Buck, I'm so sorry!" Emma exclaimed once again trying to touch the boy, trying to offer comfort, understanding now how much pain he must be feeling. He allowed her touch only for a second then turned away. Teaspoon entered the office at that moment, glancing from face to face, finally stopping at Sam.
"So now what Sam?" he asked.
"I've sent for the judge, but I gotta tell ya, the chances of him ruling on this case are slim." Sam watched for Buck's reaction as the boy turned to face him.
"What do you mean?" Buck asked. The boy was too calm. It made Sam nervous.
"It's gonna depend on the judge. Cooper here says he didn't do it, you know, what happened to those children."
"You've got the proof!"
"It's not proof he did it Buck. He says it was one of his hired hands." Sam really didn't want to tell him the rest but he had no choice.
"It's also possible the judge won't even bring it to trial because it involves Indians." Sam raised his hand to silence Buck's arguments until he could finish his explanation.
"Some judges feel that Indians don't have legal rights. I purposely didn't tell him when I sent for him. Figured I'd have a better chance of getting him here. I'm sorry Buck."
"One of the children got away Sam! There was a witness! He did it!"
"I'm sorry Buck. I'll do everything I can, you know that." Buck turned away toward the door as Sam spoke. "Buck, wait a minute. Buck...!" Sam called after him as he slammed the door behind him. Ike followed him out, Teaspoon close behind him.
They caught up with Buck about a mile outside of town. He had ridden his horse at a gallop as he left town, then slowed it down, realizing how tired the horse was. He knew Teaspoon and Ike had caught up to him, but he just kept riding silently, accepting that they were there but not wanting to talk. The two men fell in beside him, not saying a word.
Without realizing where he was heading, he found himself on a hill that overlooked the Express station. He got off his horse and sat down with his back against a tree. Teaspoon and Ike joined him. It was a long time before anyone spoke.
"Buck, you can't let this eat at you, son. Ike filled me in. I'm very sorry for your loss."
"I promised them justice in exchange for the girl."
"Sam will do his best."
"It may not be good enough." Buck replied softly.
"I know son. I know"
They were still on the hill top as the sun went down. Buck got up and went to his saddle bags, pulling out a leather wrapped bundle. He built a small fire and unwrapped the bundle, pulling out a clump of sage. He preferred to pray at dawn... and alone... but he felt the need to pray now and it was obvious the two men were not going to leave him alone. He knew Teaspoon would understand, having spent time amongst the Indians. And Ike would not interrupt, knowing his friend needed this type of solace.
Buck sat before the fire, passing the sage over it and breathing in the smoke. He began to chant, praying for wisdom and justice.
The judge arrived a week later and trial was set for the next day.
Elizabeth had been sent to stay with relatives, her father not able to care for her while in jail. Buck suspected that Cooper wanted her away from the trial, that the girl knew the truth and he was afraid that she might talk.
The trial did not go well. As Sam had said, the judge was not happy to find out that there was Indian involvement and even less happy about the lack of concrete evidence showing that it had been Cooper who had decapitated the three children. Cooper was free before lunch.
Teaspoon made sure that he sat next to Buck during the trial and both he and Sam watched the boy carefully as the case was dismissed and Cooper walked out of the room.
Buck showed little reaction, just a slight tightening of his jaw. He stood and walked out, followed by the other riders. They rode back to the Express station in silence.
The boys went about their chores, Buck included. They all tried to engage him in conversation, but he replied only when he had to and in as few words as necessary.
He was silent all through dinner, barely eating anything. Teaspoon watched him closely. After the dishes were cleared away Teaspoon went out onto the porch, the riders scattering to finish up chores or staying inside to read or play cards. Buck went out to the corral, hanging a lick and filling the trough with fresh water.
Teaspoon stopped him as he returned to the bunkhouse.
"Have a seat Buck. We need to talk a might."
Buck considered refusing, not feeling like talking and definitely not in the mood for one of Teaspoon's lectures. But Buck had a great deal of respect for Teaspoon and rarely went against an elder's wishes. He leaned up against the porch rail.
Cody came out of the barn about that time, but seeing Teaspoon and Buck on the porch, he turned around and went back inside.
"Buck, you're not thinking of doing anything crazy are ya?" Teaspoon started out, "Cuz, if ya was I'd do a bit more thinking on the matter."
Buck was silent, staring out into the darkness.
"I've always counted on you being the level headed one of this here bunch. You don't go off half cocked like Cody or Jimmy. I'd hate to think you might let this cause you to do something stupid. Something you might have a hard time living with."
"I'm not going to do anything stupid, Teaspoon."
"So you're saying that it would be safe for me to sleep in my own bed tonight instead of here on the porch?"
"Yes," Buck stood to go inside pausing only for a second when Teaspoon said "I wish I could believe that son."
Teaspoon didn't sleep much that night, keeping one ear tuned to the bunkhouse. But no noise had come from there or the barn. Teaspoon felt he would have heard if Buck had slipped out during the night. After all, he had heard the boy before, when he had gone to meet Red Bear a few months back.
Even so, he rose early, before the riders were up and checked Buck's horse. No sign that it had been ridden recently. As a precaution he checked the other horses. Buck could be crafty. He came to the same conclusion, none of these horses had gone anywhere during the night.
Still he wasn't surprised when Sam rode up that afternoon. Cooper had been found hanging in his barn.
Buck hadn't left all day, having been helping the other riders mend the corral. All but Lou that is, who had taken an Express run. He listened to the news with the other riders, showing no emotion, then returned to work on the corral, the other riders right behind him.
"I listened for him all night Sam," Teaspoon told the man quietly as they watched the boys walk away. "I never heard him leave and none of the horses have been ridden."
"Well. I'm assuming the man hung himself. I hope I'm not wrong."
"I hope you're not, too, Sam."
Buck went for a ride two days later. No one questioned his leaving.
He found his brother easily.
"The man is dead." Buck told him.
"I know. The spirits told me," was Red Bear's reply.
The two sat in silence for a time.
"White man's justice?" Red Bear finally asked.
Buck paused before answering, remembering his prayers at the top of the hill and the answer the spirits had given him.
"No," he answered sadly, "Kiowa justice."