Step it gaily, off we go.
Step it gaily, off we go.
Lou and Buck sat on their horses atop a small knoll looking down into a small encampment. Music wafted on the winds to their ears. They looked at each other, Lou's eyebrows raising in question.
"I don't know…" Buck said cautiously.
"They sound friendly enough. Besides, a cup of hot coffee sure sounds good. Come on Buck."
"All right. But be careful. We don't know who they are."
The two kicked their horses and headed slowly down the hill. The song stopped and another started up, a fiddle playing the tune and some sort of whistle accompanying it.
"Hello the camp!" Lou called out as they approached. The music stopped.
"Come on in and warm yerself!" came the reply. The accent was strange. Buck couldn't identify it, the words kind of rolled and yet cut off abruptly. They walked their horses in between two of the three wagons.
There were seven adults and four children gathered around the early evening fire. The fiddle player quickly sat his fiddle down and picked up a nearby rifle at the sight of Buck. Two other guns were suddenly pointed his way as the women gathered children behind their skirts or carried them behind wagons.
"It's okay!" Lou cried out. "We're Pony Express riders! We won't harm you!" Buck's arms had already moved away from his sides, palms forward to show that his hands were empty. Lou did the same. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea.
"Aye now, just keep your hands where we can see them."
"Ethan, I'm thinking that might be an Indian." a second man spoke up.
"Would that be true now?" the first man asked.
"I'm half Kiowa," Buck said carefully "and half white. I ride for the Pony Express. We just thought we could share your fire for the night."
"We'll leave if you want us to. We're not here to cause any trouble." Lou added.
"We've been told Indians would as soon take yer hair as look at ye."
"Buck's not like that, honest."
"Well in that case come warm yourself by the fire. Molly, pour these boys some coffee!"
Lou and Buck dismounted, looping the reins to their horses over a nearby wagon wheel and moved over to the fire. The men kept their guns at hand but pointed the barrels downward.
"We heard your music from up the hill. It sounded nice."
"Well thank ye." The fiddle player said. "We were about to eat. Would ye care to join us now?"
"I don't think we'd turn down a hot meal. We've been riding for days." Lou answered him, looking over at Buck. He had a curious look on his face. "I'm Lou McCloud. This here's Buck Cross. We're from Sweetwater."
"McCloud? You'd be Scottish?"
"Aye, from Scotland?"
"No, I'm from Missouri."
The man chuckled as he handed each of them a cup of coffee. He pulled a flask from his coat pocket, motioning with it as if offering it to them. Lou shook her head.
"Yer sure? Irish whiskey, it is."
"No thanks." Lou was puzzled by Buck's reaction. He'd barely said a word since they entered the camp and he seemed intent on watching their hosts. He was never very talkative with strangers, but he was acting strange, even for him.
The woman called Molly had returned to the fire, humming as she ladled out a thick stew and began passing bowls to the children, who in turn carried them to their guests and then to the men. Lou dug into the food, Buck still watching their hosts. Lou caught his attention, lifting the bowl slightly to indicate he should eat. He picked up the spoon and began, his eyes still following Ethan and the others as they moved about, talking to each other in thick accents.
The man called Ethan and one other sat next to them.
"Me name's Ethan O'Hearn. This here's me son Patrick." The other man raised two fingers to his forehead in a salute. "His wife Bridget, my daughter Margaret and her husband Thomas, my youngest son Sean and my darling wife Molly." He concluded as she moved to his side.
"Good even' to ye." She replied, passing around a plate of what she called soda bread.
"Umm. This is good." Lou said, taking a bite.
"Ye said ye were with the Pony Express. What might that be?" Patrick asked as he accepted a slice of bread.
"We carry mail from St. Joseph to Sacramento. We're stationed out of Sweetwater. Buck and I were on a special run direct to St. Joe."
"Aye, I've heard talk of this. Is it true ye can travel from St Joseph to Sacramento in ten days?" Sean asked.
"Each of us rides seventy five to eighty miles a day, changing horses every fifteen miles. Then we pass the mail off to the next rider."
"Is it hard work?" Molly asked as she finally sat down to eat herself.
"Not so hard. The worst part is the weather. Well, and the robbers. Occasionally some Indians." Lou's voice had gotten softer as she talked, afraid the words sounded like bragging, and embarrassed about mentioning Indian trouble with Buck right next to her.
"Do ye sing?" Ethan asked as he picked up his fiddle. Lou shook her head. Even Buck managed a head shake. Ethan began to play. Sean sat next to Lou as the women collected bowls and began to clean up.
"You're from Ireland, aren't you?" Lou asked him as a lively tune began.
"Aye. We arrived last fall. We're on our way to Colorado."
"Where's Ireland?" Buck asked, his first words since they had entered the camp.
"Across the Atlantic Ocean. Near England." Lou answered him. Buck had seen a map at the Mission school and the name England was familiar to him. The idea of a body of water as big as the Atlantic, however, was somewhat inconceivable to him.
Sean moved over to the wagon and Ethan moved around the fire as the children danced around. Sean came back with a tin whistle and joined in the music. Lou leaned over , nudging Buck in the ribs.
"What's the matter with you?" she whispered.
"You've barely said a thing and you keep staring at them!"
"What? Oh. I'm sorry. I've just never heard anyone talk like they do. It's interesting.'
Lou often forgot that in many ways Buck had led a sheltered life. In other ways, he had seen and done things she couldn't even begin to dream of. She had to smile at him.
"Well just try not to stare." Buck nodded, somewhat embarrassed.
Ho! See the fleet foot hosts of men,
Patrick had begun to sing while Lou and Buck talked, his fingers brushing up against a wide, flat drum. Margaret joined in the song, singing harmony in the chorus.
As the song ended, Bridget walked out from behind a wagon with a guitar, holding it out to Patrick and taking the drum from him. He began to strum the instrument as Ethan sat next to Buck.
"Are you traveling entertainers?" Lou asked him as Buck watched Patrick move his fingers over the guitar strings.
"Us? Oh, no lad. We just do this for fun. We were farmers back in Ireland. Raised potatoes and cabbage, we did."
"So what are you planning on doing when you get to Colorado?"
"We're buying a boarding house." Molly said, joining her husband.
"Aye, and sitting back to watch the grand children grow." Ethan added, picking his fiddle up to join Patrick's guitar.
"Would you like to sing along with us? I could teach ye the chorus." Molly asked
"Oh, I don't know…"
"Come on now, both of ye. I'll let ye know when to join in." She began to sing.
Oh the summer time is comin
Will ye go, lassie, go?
I will build my love a bower
Will ye go, lassie, go?
Molly cued them on the refrain and they both stumbled over the words. But by the time the song was done, they had the words memorized.
"Now that was fine! You know the words now. Should we try again?"
They began the song again, Lou and Buck joining in. As the night grew late, they continued singing, the family teaching them song after song. Finally it was time to turn in.
Lou and Buck took care of their horses and crawled into their bedrolls.
"Buck?" Lou whispered.
"Hmm?" he murmured sleepily.
"That was fun, wasn't it?"
"Wish my family could have been like them."
Buck was instantly awake, knowing his friend needed to talk. He'd heard some stories of Lou's childhood and knew it hadn't been a good one.
"What was your childhood like? You don't talk much about it." The question took Buck by surprise.
"I don't know what to tell you." was all he could think to say.
"Well, what was your mother like?"
"She was beautiful. And kind. She didn't deserve to be treated like she was."
"When did she die?"
"I was ten. She was killed during a raid on our village. Red Bear raised me after that, until I went away to the mission school."
"I was thirteen when my mother died. I miss her."
"Hmm. Me too."
Their conversation died away. Ethan, in his wagon, put his arms around Molly as she shook her head sadly.
Lou woke the next morning to the smell of frying meat. She looked over at Buck's empty bedroll.
"He's been up for a bit now." Molly said from the fire where she was preparing breakfast. "He said he would be checking on the horses."
"Thanks." Lou laid her head back down, giving herself a few more moments for the last few shadows of sleep to leave. Then she drug her hands across her face and reached out for her glasses. They weren't there. She started searching around her bedroll.
"What would ye be lookin' for?"
"My glasses. I laid them right here last night."
"I found them Lou." He walked up behind her silently, handing them to her as he made his way to his bedroll.
"Thanks. Where were they?"
"Found them out among some rocks. I guess some animal took them, but I can't find any tracks that I can identify. Whatever it was, it took my knife too."
"But it didn't leave any tracks? There hasn't been much rain lately and it's pretty dusty around here. How could it not leave tracks?"
"I said none that I could recognize." He answered as he finished rolling up his bedroll. "There's tracks, but it's no animal I've ever seen."
"Little people." Ethan said as he joined the group, accepting the coffee his wife handed him.
"Little people? What are little people?" Buck asked.
"Some people refer to them as leprechauns. They're mischievous little buggers, said to be about so tall." He motioned with his hand about the height of his knees. "Never seen one meself, but I've been suspecting we had one or two with us. Been a lot of little things disappearing."
"I found my knife about ten feet out, over by that tree."
"They were probably lookin' for some place to hide it."
Buck looked skeptical. Lou grinned, figuring Ethan was trying to pull one over on them. Some animal had just wandered off with the items. She hoped Buck wasn't believing it. She changed the subject.
"Are you headin' out this morning?"
"Aye, we've got a ways to go yet and we're getting a bit anxious to get there."
"We could ride with you awhile. We were told in St Joe that there's been a lot of thieves around here lately. You might be safer with a couple extra guns."
"That would be kind of ye. But what about your jobs? Aren't they expectin' ye back?"
"Not until the end of the week. We could ride with you the next two or three days and still make it back by Friday."
"That sounds right fine. Now if we can get the rest of this family up, we can be on our way!"
Molly served up breakfast to Lou and Buck, and finally her family as they straggled out of their wagons. In an hours time they were on their way.
Buck moved his horse up along side one of the wagons. Sean was at the reins, Patrick next to him strumming his guitar.
"Morning Buck. Are ye well this day?"
"Fine, thank you." Buck watched Patrick's fingers move effortlessly across the strings. "Did it take you long to learn to play that?"
"Not too long. I could teach ye tonight if ye'd like to learn."
"I'd like that, thank you."
"Hey Buck." Lou rode up next to him.
"Hey Lou. I thought I'd ride up ahead a ways. Look for some game."
"I can already taste a venison steak!"
"I'll see what I can do." He laughed and kicked his horse forward. Lou continued to ride next to the wagon.
"So, how long have ye known him?" Patrick asked as they rode along.
"Buck? A while now, ever since the start of the Pony Express. Why?"
"He's just an interesting fellow. Doesn't talk much, does he?"
"No, I guess he doesn't" Lou chuckled. "His best friend talks even less! They're quite a pair."
"I did not think I'd actually meet an Indian!" Sean said.
"Buck's not your typical Indian. Just because he's friendly doesn't mean the next one you meet up with will be. There are plenty of tribes out there that aren't happy about the whites settling in this area."
"Still, do ye think he'd mind if we asked him some questions? I'd be interested in learning some about them."
"Well, I suppose he wouldn't mind. But there are some things he just won't talk about. They might be sacred or private."
"Oh, we'd never mean to invade his privacy. We'd just like to learn a bit about Indians."
"I don't think he'd mind then."
Buck was true to his word. He approached the wagons mid afternoon with half of a deer across his horse's rump. He had flushed it out of some bushes. Knowing how most whites felt about many parts of the animal he had field dressed it and then searched for a nearby Indian encampment he knew about. Leaving the internal organs, head, hooves and half the meat with a widow in the group, he had ridden off to meet up with the wagons, knowing that the animal had not lost it's life without providing for others with all of it's parts. He had kept the hide, planning to show the O'Hearns how to tan it, using it to wrap the meat in the mean time.
They made camp early. Buck helped them divide the meat, saving enough for dinner and cutting the balance up, laying it out near the fire to smoke and dry. Then he showed them how to stretch the hide on a frame, scraping away the fat and meat left on it. Then he hung it on the side of the wagon where it could dry while they traveled.
The women fried up venison steaks for dinner with baked potatoes, cabbage and bread. They also cooked up a roast while they were at it that would serve as lunch the next day while they rode.
With dinner over, the music began again. Patrick had pulled Buck off to the side while dinner was cooking and shown him a few chords on the guitar, which he picked up on easily. While he was gone he had found some heavy reed by a small pond and had fashioned a type of flute. He gave this to Patrick, showing him the fingering. Patrick had insisted that he play it for him and Buck had pulled up a song from his childhood. It surprised him that he remembered it so clearly.
While Patrick played guitar for the sing a long, Buck picked up the tune with the flute, adding its tones to that of the fiddle and tin whistle. They played into the night and finally retired somewhat late for Buck and Lou. They were used to going to bed early and rising before the sun. They were too tired to even have a late night conversation.
When Lou awoke the next morning, Buck was already up--again. And her glasses were gone--again. She climbed out of her bedroll and rolled both her's and Buck's up so they were ready. Molly was at the fire cooking. Lou looked around, finding that her gun belt was also missing. She had slept with her gun under her blankets, but the belt had been lying up against her saddle. She went in search of Buck.
He was already returning to camp when she found him, her glasses and gun belt in hand. He also carried a cooking pot, the tin whistle, the reins to his horse, and a picture in a frame.
"Same tracks as last night." he said before Lou could ask.
"Can you find where they lead?"
"They end in those rocks over there. And they don't come out. I've looked all over those rocks and there's no sign of whatever this is leaving them. They just disappear into the rocks."
"They've got to go somewhere!"
"Not that I can find."
They walked back to the camp with the items Buck found. Ethan and Sean had joined Molly at the fire and there were sounds of the others stirring.
"Ah, the little people were at it again were they?" Ethan said over his coffee.
"I don't know about any little people, but something made off with these things during the night." Buck said as he handed the pan and picture to Molly and the whistle to Sean.
"It was the little people." Sean joined in. "I heard em last night, I did."
"Heard them?" Lou asked.
"Aye. Heard some rustling in the wagon. And some real quiet chattering. Like they were laughin'. Too dark to see em, though."
Molly dished out eggs and bacon for Buck and Lou, adding a warm biscuit to each plate, and handed one to each of them. They began to eat, Buck chewing thoughtfully as Sean and Ethan discussed the so-called "little people" that were following them. Buck tried to never scoff at people's beliefs. Many of his own beliefs were not understood by the white world. But even he was having a hard time with the concept the O'Hearns seemed to accept without question. He decided to give the idea some more thought. Maybe he could find a way to prove the existence of leprechauns, at least for his own knowledge and benefit.
Buck and Lou soon realized that the O'Hearns operated under a far more relaxed life style than they were used to. They were always up before dawn and ready to go quickly. They had to be, it was part of their jobs. The O'Hearns rose a little slower, enjoying the morning, socializing over breakfast and finally getting a start on the day well after sun up. They also set up camp earlier in the evening than Buck and Lou would have. The travel therefore was at a much more leisurely pace. Lou politely questioned this, and was told by Molly that they were farmers for generations, up before dawn, working past dark. They had decided that they were going to treat the trip to Colorado as a vacation or holiday of sorts and enjoy the trip. They would be working hard again as soon as they reached Colorado and took over the boarding house. They were going to enjoy and explore their trip across the United States, getting acquainted with their new country and learning as much as they could. Lou thought the decision was one she might have made too.
Buck headed off to hunt as the wagons got under way. What he didn't tell anyone was that he was going to track the mysterious little people, if he could. He circled around the wagons out of sight, and returned to the camp they had used. He followed the tracks one last time to the rocks where he had found the stolen items this morning. Only now he could find a set of tracks heading back to where the wagons had sat. They disappeared at the back of one of the wagons. He followed the wagon tracks for several miles without seeing any other sign. Finally he gave up and rode on ahead, knowing he wouldn't find any game this time of day, but deciding to do some fishing.
When he met up with the wagons mid day he had a dozen or so fish on a grass stringer. He had also gathered some wild onion and other roots to season the fish with and some large leaves to wrap them in. Once wrapped and placed in the coals, the fish would cook to a tender flaky texture with minimal watching. Along with the soda bread Molly baked, they would have a regular feast for supper tonight.
He rode along side Patrick's wagon. The man had turned the reins over to Sean again and was slowly strumming the guitar strings. When Buck joined them, he moved to the back tail of the wagon and invited Buck to join him there for some more lessons. Patrick was an excellent teacher and Buck was feeling very comfortable with the instrument. Before they stopped for the night, Buck had mastered enough chords to accompany two songs that Patrick sang.
Buck transferred from the back of the wagon to his horse without touching the ground as they came upon a large stream. Patrick expressed amazement at the ability, something Buck took for normal. He agreed to show Patrick some "trick riding", as the man put it, after camp was set up. Then he rode ahead a ways, checking the area surrounding the encampment for a mile in any direction. Feeling there was no one in the immediate area that would cause them trouble, and seeing no sign of the mysterious tracks, he joined the family. The women had already begun to clean and prepare the fish. He showed them how to use the wild grape leaves he had gathered, then took Patrick and Sean off a little ways from the camp to help them with their riding.
Apparently the men hadn't done much more than minimal riding in Ireland, using the wagon more for transportation than horseback. They both mastered a swing up mount, but had trouble with the other mounts he tried to show them. Lou wandered over, giving words of encouragement and bits of advice. The lessons eventually turned into more of a demonstration as the rest of the family came over to watch. Lou jumped in to help out and Sean finally managed a running mount, to the cheers and claps of his family.
Buck was never sure how it happened, but as dusk began to fall his horse did something it rarely did. He was showing a series of bounces- sliding off the saddle on one side of the horse and bouncing over to the other side or back into the saddle- when the horse spooked. Buck lost his grip on the pommel and went tumbling to the ground, rolling head over heals for several feet, before coming to a stop against a rock. Unfortunately he rolled over several small cactus on the way.
Lou and the others came rushing over to him. He was slowly sitting up when they arrived.
"You okay Buck?" Lou asked anxiously as she dropped to her knees by his side.
"Yeah." he answered, still trying to gain back the air that had been knocked out of him. "Ouch!" He winced as he tried to move his shoulders.
"What is it?" Lou asked moving to look at his back for injuries. She had to hold back a laugh when she saw the cactus needles imbedded in his shoulder and upper back.
"Cactus." he muttered as he stood, trying to brush some of the dust from his pants and wincing at the effort as the cactus needles shifted in his shoulder.
"Are ye all right, lad?" Molly asked, concern in her voice.
"Yeah. Just have a few cactus needles stuck in my shoulder."
"A few? Laddie, you've got enough needles in there to cover that large rock over there!" Ethan added as he got a glimpse of Buck's back. The boy walked over to where he had first hit the ground.
"What spooked him Buck?" Lou asked.
"I'm not sure." Buck knelt down where he had landed and looked around. He silently pointed to six or seven of the strange tracks he had followed before. He looked at Lou and they both shrugged their shoulders, Buck wincing slightly once again. Then they walked back to camp, the others following them, Buck still following the tracks until they disappeared into a cluster of rocks. Buck whistled and his horse reluctantly walked over to him. Lou checked the animal over for injuries then picketed it with hers. She then followed Buck over to his bedroll and helped him with his vest and shirt. Most of the needles pulled free with his clothes, but there were numerous left embedded in his skin even then. Lou and Molly both started pulling the needles free, Lou barely suppressing her laughter at the situation. Buck shot her a good-natured glare.
"I'm sorry Buck!" She couldn't hold her laughter back any longer. "You've got to admit, it's pretty funny!"
"Yeah, it is." he chuckled lightly.
They spent an hour pulling needles from his back and shoulder. He spent the time pulling them from his clothes, with Sean's help. When Molly felt they had finally gotten them all she borrowed Ethan's flask of Irish whiskey and, pouring a bit on to a piece of fabric, she dabbed at the hundreds of small welts and pin pricks left behind. Then he finally put his shirt back on, the tiny wounds still stinging from the alcohol.
Bridget and Margaret served up supper and the singing began soon after. Patrick had Buck play the two songs he had learned that afternoon and despite the fact that several of his muscles were stiffening from the fall, they all told him he played them very well.
When it was decided it was time to retire Buck remained sitting up on his bedroll. He had decided to stay up for the night, determined to find out just what these little people were by catching them in the action.
"You okay?" Lou whispered.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Just not sleepy yet. Go on to sleep, I'll be fine." he whispered back. Then he settled in for the wait.
Buck jerked awake. He was sitting, the least damaged shoulder propped against a tree at the encampment's edge. He hadn't realized he had fallen asleep, and he checked the stars to see how long he had been out. From the locations of easily identifiable constellations, he figured that at most he'd dozed for about a half an hour. Then he realized that something had awoken him. He scanned the camp quietly, keeping his movements to a minimum, his ears tuned in to the night sounds. He picked up the sounds of snoring coming from Ethan's wagon. Lou shifted nearby. And a slight rustling sound came from the furthest wagon. He concentrated on that noise.
Soon he heard a tittering noise, similar to the sounds of certain birds he had heard before that imitated other sounds. It could be translated as laughter. He began to crawl forward quietly, staying in as many shadows as he could. As he drew closer to the wagon he stood, drawing his knife out of it's sheath. He continued forward, silent and undetectable due to years of training as a child.
As he reached about twelve feet from the wagon he saw a shiny pot drop from the back end. It was quickly followed by a funny looking hat and a silver hairbrush. Buck stopped in his movements, remaining completely motionless. His caution was rewarded by the appearance of a small figure dropping from the back of the wagon and bending over to pick up the items deposited on the ground. The night was a dark one, with very little moonlight, and it was hard to make out the figure in the even darker shadow of the wagon. Whatever it was turned and began to walk into the darkness. Buck could barely detect a second figure join the first, but distinctly heard chattering come from the direction they headed.
Buck followed the sounds, trying to be careful not to walk on the exact same area he had seen the figures use. He didn't want to ruin any tracks if he could avoid it. He had traveled about a hundred yards when he heard the changes in front of him. The figures had stopped talking and Buck feared that they might have heard him. He stopped and listened. He heard a sudden scurrying sound and knew that whatever those things were, they knew he was here. He ran after them as quietly as he could, still picking up the sound of their movements.
He knew he was drawing closer. He could occasionally make out a shadowy figure in front of him darting amongst the brush and scattered trees. When the two figures separated and headed in different directions he followed the closer of the two. He dodged the shiny pot that was now lying on the ground where whatever that thing was dropped it and continued onward.
When he was close enough that he thought he could almost grab it, or possible tackle it, he felt a sharp stinging pain on his left cheek, then another against his arm, closely followed by a sting on his already tender back. He glanced over to his left and saw another shadowy figure, either the one that had split off, or more likely, a third of the creatures. He felt another rock hit his forehead, then a larger rock slammed into the back of his head. He saw everything go black as he felt himself sag to the ground.
Buck didn't know how long he had been unconscious. He slowly became aware of being drug across the ground, and not very carefully at that. He decided that the best tactic at the moment was to pretend to still be out. Not an easy thing to do as he was drug across a large rock. It felt like there were three pairs of hands on him, a pair on each arm and one grabbing his collar.
Hands? he thought to himself. Can't be hands. Those creatures aren't human. They couldn't be.
They finally stopped, dropping his arms and head roughly to the ground. He tried not to make a sound, hoping they wouldn't realize he was awake. He listened to their chattering talk, not able to make out any words. He could hear them moving about beyond his head and had to resist the urge to look their way. He heard one of them move closer to him and felt the creature begin to search through his pockets.
With a quick motion he reached out for the creature, managing to get his hands around it for just a brief second before it slipped right through his fingers and ran off. Buck closed his hand, feeling something left there and stumbled to his feet in pursuit. But the three creatures had disappeared. There was no sound of their movement, no shadows in the faint moonlight.
Buck silently cursed himself, then examined the item in his hand. It was a small button. He searched his memory. He had not felt fur, or hair, when he grabbed the creature. He had felt fabric. He was certain of it. He walked back to where they had dropped him and sat on a rock, waiting for morning so he could examine the area.
Buck walked tiredly into the camp covered in dust, carrying the items taken from the wagon. He handed these to Molly as Lou watched him curiously, then walked over to Ethan and handed him the button. Ethan examined it silently as Buck sat down on his bedroll. Lou still watched him, one eyebrow raising in question. He just smiled slightly at her as he accepted a mug of coffee. He'd explain later, in private. He was tired and his head hurt from being hit by the rock. His muscles all ached from being dumped earlier and from being dragged over rocks and branches during the night. He had a scratch on his face and a bruise on his forehead. He knew he had bruises elsewhere too. All he wanted to do was sleep, but they would be heading out soon, so sleep was out of the question for now.
Ethan continued to examine the coarse button, then handed it silently to Molly. Buck had been unable to find any good explanation for what happened last night, even though he had looked the area over for the better part of an hour. Once again the tracks just disappeared.
"Met up with em, did ye?" Ethan finally spoke.
"I'm not really sure what I met up with." Buck replied. "They were too small to be human, but I'd swear they were wearing clothes. I grabbed one of them and that came off in my hand before it got away."
"Little people." Ethan said as he took the button back and handed it to Lou.
"I thought you were just spinning a tale." Lou said, as she looked the button over. It was smaller than any she'd ever seen used except maybe on baby clothes. It was crudely made out of slice of tree branch. She gave it back to Buck, who stared at it for a moment before putting it his pocket.
"No, laddie. Twere no tall tale. Irish legend says that they exist, but no one has ever caught one to my knowledge. They say that should a person catch one, good luck would come to them, as they would be granted any wish they wanted. You almost did it lad."
"Does it count if they caught me?" He told them the story, editing it a bit to leave out the more embarrassing parts of the story. They still all got a good laugh from it, at Buck's expense.
It wasn't until they were traveling when Lou noticed how gingerly he sat his horse that he told her the rest of the story. She laughed at the thought of the bruises that were causing Buck discomfort, not able to keep that laughter from spilling out. It was too much not to laugh at-cactus needles and rock bruises in delicate places all within a night's time. Buck swung at her with his hat and she kicked Lightening onward. Molly and Ethan just shook their heads at the chase that took place.
Lightening was fast but Buck's horse was just as fast and Buck was a better rider. They were well away from the wagons when Buck managed to knock Lou as gently as he could from her saddle. They both tumbled off, rolling on the ground. When they stopped rolling Buck managed to straddle the squirming Lou, tickling her in the ribs until they were both out of breathe. Then he rolled tiredly off to the side, laying on his back as they tried to catch their breath. Just when he'd begin to regain control Lou would burst out again.
"Bruises on your….. Cactus needles…… LITTLE PEOPLE!" she burst into new laughter. When it finally died down again she sat up. Moving quickly she straddled Buck, poking him gently in the ribs and trying to tickle him in return. Buck could have taken her easily, but Lou so rarely had the advantage over anyone unless she was holding a gun, and to be honest, he was just too tired to do much about it. "LITTLE PEOPLE!" she squealed again and burst into another fit of laughter, which he couldn't stop himself from joining.
Lou reduced her laughter to a chuckle, fighting hard to catch her breathe, leaning forward slightly from the aches in her side and stomach from the laughing. She still sat on top of Buck, straddling his stomach, as he, too, struggled for breath. As they both slowly calmed down, Lou caught herself looking him straight in the eyes. He stared back, not sure exactly what was happening. Lou was caught off guard too, not even thinking, just doing, catching herself leaning forward, stopping herself just before her lips met his and moved them instead up to his forehead, then pulling away.
They were both confused about what had almost happened. Lou's eyes showed confusion and a little fear. Buck's more understanding than she wanted to give him credit for. He broke the tension of the moment by rolling over suddenly, getting back on top of Lou and tickling her again. They both began to laugh again, then gained control once more. Buck stood and pulled Lou up with him. She knew that what almost happened would never be brought up again.
They returned to the wagons in jovial moods, laughing and joking back and forth. Molly shook her head and Ethan chuckled at the dusty appearance of the two. Lou took a good look at Buck and he at her and they both burst out laughing again, sides still aching from before. They turned their horses around and headed out again, in search of a pond or creek to wash up in.
They found a secluded pond about a mile off the trail. Buck waited behind some trees while Lou went in. They talked back and forth, Buck's back safely turned away. Lou finally got out and dressed so that Buck could have a chance. He removed his vest and shirt while Lou was still there, she insisting on checking out the damage done by the cactus. A few of the needle pricks were still red, but many were already healing and next to invisible. The sight of numerous bruises, especially one on his lower back near his belt line caused Lou to burst into a new fit of laughter. Buck laughed with her, tossing his shirt in her face and walked to the edge of the pond, removing his boots and pants as he went, certain that Lou had, by now, turned her back and was safely behind the small stand of trees.
The water was cold and refreshing. It soothed the burning sensation he felt along his back. The needle marks may be disappearing but they still stung. He ducked under the water one more time, coming up and shaking his hair out, then headed to shore. Dressing with the clothes he had at hand, he called to Lou as he put his boots on and she joined him at the edge of the pond, tossing his shirt back at him. Then she handed him a comb from her saddlebag. They sat in comfortable silence, Buck combing out his long hair. They watched as a hawk circled overhead. Buck was beginning to relax a little too much, coming close to falling asleep sitting up.
Jumping up suddenly, he grabbed Lou's hand, pulling her up after him. They circled around the edge of the pond to a stand of cattails. Buck removed his boots and shirt again, wading in a few feet. Lou watched curiously as he began to pull up the cattail roots and tossed them up onto the bank. After he had about twenty of the roots he walked out and pulled his boots back on.
"So, what are these for?"
"You bury them in the coals and bake them like potatoes." She helped him pick them up and followed him back to their horses. He studied the ground as they rode back to the wagons, getting off his horse occasionally to pick some sort of greens. "It's kind of like lettuce." he told her. They also got a pair of rabbits, using rocks instead of guns to bring them down. Lou thought that if she were ever stranded somewhere, she would want to be with Buck. She could learn a lot about survival from him.
Molly was pleased with the rabbits. They were all enjoying the changes of menu Buck was supplying them with. He explained to her how to cook the roots and spent some time riding behind a wagon while he showed one of the granddaughters how to weave a small basket from the stems. He had also taken another piece of heavy reed while at the pond and he fashioned this into another whistle, giving it to the oldest grandson. He snagged the youngest grandson from the backend of a wagon, sitting him on the saddle in front of him for the rest of the afternoon. The boy squealed with delight at being allowed to ride a horse with a real Indian. Buck did these things to stay awake, but he enjoyed it, too. This was what family life should be like. He knew that some of the riders had had a childhood like this, at least for awhile. He also knew that others, like Lou and Kid, could only dream of these things, having survived poverty, drunkards, and abuse. His childhood had been no picnic either.
Once again they stopped early for the night. This would be Lou and Buck's last night with the O'Hearns. Tomorrow they would reach a fork in the road, which would split off for Colorado, while they would continue on to Sweetwater.
Sean cleaned the rabbits and the women started cooking. Molly tossed some raisins and nuts into the soda bread and they roasted up the rabbits and cattail roots. They pulled out a piece of chocolate that they saved for special occasions and heated up a pot of hot chocolate using some milk they had traded for earlier that day when they met up with a family heading east.
Lou regaled them with stories of their adventures riding for the Pony Express, doing a fairly good impression of Teaspoon, the stationmaster and father figure. They all had a good laugh at Cody's expense when Lou told them of the time he had switched the contents of Buck's medicine bag and Buck had gotten even with a fake ceremony. And the time he had taken the fake notice to the army as a decoy, falling into one trap after another before finally getting through. The talk turned somber as Lou told of the time they helped her rescue her brother and sister, leaving out the fact that that was also when they all found out she was a girl. She talked of Jimmy's ability with a gun and how a writer by the name of Marcus had started up the reputation of Wild Bill Hickock.
Buck was half asleep, sitting up against his upturned saddle, listening to the conversation around the fire. Before he knew it, he was sound asleep. They played their music that night, but played gentle ballads and love songs, further lulling Buck into slumber.
Lou was up before Buck the next morning, which was very unusual. She let him sleep and went off on her own to search for her missing glasses. She returned with a silver comb, brush and mirror, a shaving strap, and her glasses. Buck was still asleep. She reluctantly shook his shoulder, partially because he was obviously exhausted, but also because it wasn't always safe waking him, especially from a sound sleep. The latter was accurate. Buck woke suddenly, rolling to his side and pulling his knife as he bounced to his feet, crouching in an attack position. It just took him a second to realize what had happened.
"Sorry Lou." he said as he slid the knife back in it's sheath and sat back down. Molly and Ethan relaxed. His fast movements and obvious ability to do serious damage had caused them both to tense up. Buck drug his hands over his face, trying to wake up, but he was struggling. He didn't remember ever sleeping that deeply. It bothered him that somebody could have slipped up on him without him hearing, but he knew he had been very tired.
"It's okay. That's why I woke you from as far away as possible." She smiled at him and he gave a reluctant grin in return.
"Did our friends come back?" he asked as he accepted a mug of coffee. Molly had made it stronger than usual.
"Yep. I've already brought the stuff back." Lou answered as Buck started to stand. He happily sat back down.
Ethan approached and sat on a stool near them.
"Me lovely wife and I were talking last night and we were thinking of changing our route a wee bit. Molly has told ye that we want to see as much of this lovely country as we can, so we thought that maybe we might go on to this Sweetwater with ye. Then we'd move on down to Colorado. We'd like to see this Pony Express operation of yours."
"Really? You'll love Teaspoon and Emma! Besides, that will give Buck time to find those little people again." Buck tossed a small twig at her.
"How long will it take us to get there?" Molly asked.
"Probably another two days with the wagons." Buck answered her. "That would make it late Saturday. Maybe Sunday."
"And the two of ye are expected back tomorrow. Why don't ye ride on ahead and we'll meet ye there?"
"It might be better if at least one of us rode with you." Lou replied. "There's still a chance that we might run into some trouble. And you'd have a guide into town. Not that it's hard to find if you stay on the trail."
"I'll stay Lou. You go on ahead and tell Teaspoon that I'll be along in another day or so. Besides, you wanted to go to the dance Saturday night." Buck knew that Lou had been looking forward to going to the dance with Kid, secretly of course.
"Are you sure?" Buck nodded. "All right. Maybe you can get there in time for the dance?"
They both got up and saddled their horses and Lou headed out. Buck waited for the rest of the family to wake and eat breakfast and they finally got under way.
Buck rode along side Bridget and Patrick's wagon, a little O'Hearn riding on the saddle in front of him.
"You're mighty good with the wee ones, Buck. Do you have any of yer own?" Bridget asked as she smiled at her youngest son.
"No, I'm not even married." Buck said with a chuckle.
"Well then, have ye a girl?"
"No. Not many are interested in a half-breed. I was promised in marriage once, but it never happened."
"And why would that be? If you don't mind me askin'?"
"That's a wee bit personal, love." Patrick spoke up.
"It's all right. She was a white girl living with the Kiowa. Our village was raided while several of us were away. She was taken by some trappers and returned to the whites."
"How sad! To be taken away from yer loved ones!" Buck just nodded, thinking back to that far away day. Patrick brought him back to the present.
"If I understand it, the Indians and the white don't get on well. It sounds as if you grew up among the Kiowa. How did ye manage to be working for the Pony Express?"
"I ended up at a Catholic Mission school when I was thirteen. I met my best friend Ike there. We just kind of stuck together since then and managed to get a job with the Express. Teaspoon and the others don't care that I'm part Indian."
"You mean some do care?" Bridget asked.
"Yeah, some do." Buck answered thoughtfully. "Mostly because they're afraid I guess. People are always afraid of what they don't understand."
Bridget and Patrick looked at each other.
"I guess we acted a wee bit like that when you first came into camp. We didn't know any more than what we'd been told. We're sorry."
"You don't need to apologize. You've done nothing wrong. Just the opposite. You gave me a chance and got to know me as a person. Not many will take the time to do that."
"You've given us no reason not to trust you. In fact you've been very helpful."
"I guess I should warn you that you could get yourself into a lot of trouble if you try to approach most Indians right now. I've lived among the whites long enough to understand them some. But the rest of my people don't. All they see is the white man trying to take their land, desecrating their holy grounds, killing off all their food. They do the only thing they know to do and that's fight back."
"So the stories we've been told are true?"
"It's all a matter of perspective, but it could be dangerous for you out here if you're not careful. Just like whites don't know the difference between the different Indian tribes and will often take revenge on innocent tribes for the actions of others, so do some of the Indians. They view any white man as an enemy come to take from them."
"And what do you think?"
Buck paused, collecting his thoughts. "I'm not sure most of the time. My brother tells me that my spirit is in two worlds at once and therefore has no focus. He's right. I don't like what the whites are doing to the land and how they're treating the Indians. There's enough land for all. But I also know that there are too many whites to fight and it could bring an end to the Indian nation."
"We've heard talk of Indians going to reservations in the East."
"It's more like being forced onto reservations on useless land, and being forced to adopt the white man's ways. It's not living. It's surviving, if they're lucky." Buck looked over at the two. Bridget looked sad, Patrick thoughtful. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you sad. I just wanted to tell you to be cautious."
"No. We asked. And thank you for your honesty. It gives us a bit to think on." Patrick replied.
Buck spent the afternoon fishing, coming back with a full stringer of catfish. He had also located some more wild onions, and several other herbs to season the fish with. The group traveled a little longer this day, Molly and Ethan wanting to reach Sweetwater in time for the dance Saturday night. They thought it would be a nice change of pace for the family, but also didn't want to be the cause of Buck missing out. They didn't realize that Buck wasn't concerned about attending, only going to appease his fellow riders.
Patrick still found time before dinner to teach Buck a few more chords on the guitar, insisting later when the family sat around the fire that Buck be the one accompanying on the guitar while he took up the flat drum. By this time Buck had learned all the words to many of their regular songs, and, as Molly put it, he had an affinity for music. His voice blended in well with the family's.
But Buck wanted to call it an early night. He secretly planned to get a few hours sleep, then rise during the night to search for the mysterious visitors. He crawled into his bedroll, the O'Hearns harmonies lulling him to sleep.
When he awoke he lay quietly, listening to the sounds of the night. Only his eyes moved, as was his habit, until he was sure the camp was secure. He sat up slowly, then rose to his feet, moving silently into the shadows of a stand of trees, and promptly fell flat on his face. He heard Ethan moving in his wagon as he pushed himself up into a sitting position and looked to see what had tripped him. A series of thin ropes had been strung amongst the trees, low to the ground so as to catch at a person's ankle. Buck shook his head as he began to gather up the cord.
Ethan had climbed out of his wagon, rifle in hand. Buck showed him the rope, and Ethan's conclusion was expected. The little people did it. Buck wasn't willing to accept the answer and searched the area just in case. He found no sign that he could make out in the dark. Giving up for the night, he crawled back into his blankets.
Buck was up before dawn, heading out into the trees. As the sun came up he followed the mysterious tracks, recovering more items in his search than he ever had. His arms full, he headed back to the camp, depositing his findings with Molly, then heading back out again. The tracks, as usual, ended in a cluster of rocks.
He hung back as the wagons started out, hoping to catch sight of the creatures, but saw nothing.
They rode into the Sweetwater station late Saturday afternoon. Lou had made it back the night before so the riders were all expecting them. Emma had made a large supper and had water heating so the O'Hearns could clean up before the dance. The boys were all planning on bunking in the barn, so the family could have the bunkhouse. Buck grabbed a change of clothes and headed off to the creek to wash.
When he returned, he found the O'Hearns settled into the bunkhouse, the children running around the yard being chased by Ike and Lou in a game of tag. Buck reached out as a child ran by him, snagging him and swinging him around before putting him back down to run some more. Buck joined Emma and their guests on the bunkhouse porch.
Emma had a sly smile on her face as she patted the porch step next to her. Buck sat next to her. She took hold of his chin, moving his face from side to side, examining the bruises there, clucking her tongue in admonishment.
"Have a hard time staying on your horse? And what's this I hear about cactus?" Emma pretended to start to pull Buck's shirt up in back, until he jumped up suddenly out of her reach.
"Emma!" he exclaimed as Emma broke out in laughter.
"Come on back here. I'm not gonna touch you."
He carefully approached the step again and sat down. Cody and Jimmy approached the porch having taken care of the O'Hearn's horses.
"So, how are the little people today Buck?" Jimmy asked, grinning ear to ear. Lou had obviously been talking. Cody dropped to his knees, walking along the ground that way.
"I'm a little person and I'm going to drag that big ole Indian across the ground and bruise his…" Cody didn't have the chance to finish as Buck jumped up from the porch step. Cody leapt to his feet and ran, Buck on his heals, hurdling the corral fence and chasing through the barn. Jimmy watched them for a moment, then joined in the chase. Emma and the others could do nothing more than laugh.
"Boys will be boys." Emma said between chuckles.
The O'Hearns enjoyed the dance greatly. With Patrick's encouragement, Bridget drug Buck out on to the dance floor, surprised to see that the young man actually knew how. He further surprised her by catching onto the polka she made him try. Emma insisted on the family performing a song or two, which they did only with Lou and Buck joining in. The other riders thought it quite funny until they actually heard the two, their laughter turning into admiring looks and claps.
The group sang all the way home, the children falling asleep in the back of one of the wagons. They split up once reaching the station, Emma heading to her house, the O'Hearns to the bunkhouse and the boys to the corral to release the horses before heading to the barn. But they all ran to the bunkhouse at the sound of Molly's outcry.
Buck and Jimmy were the first to arrive, with the others hot on their heels. The O'Hearns stood in the bunkhouse looking at the scattered items and broken crockery all over the floor. The rider's trunks had been opened and their possessions thrown around the room. A sack of flour left on the counter had been cut open and the powdery mess covered everything. Plates had been knocked off their shelves and broke as they hit the floor
Buck knelt down, examining the tracks left in the scattered flour. Aside from those of the room's occupants, he saw the same odd tracks he'd found since meeting up with the travelers. Cody looked over his shoulder, gently scratching his chin.
"Little people?" he asked sincerely.
Buck looked over his shoulder at him. He stood, following powdery footprints back out the door. No one had noticed them in the darkness when they had arrived home, but he saw now that they headed toward the barn before fading away. Buck, Cody, Ike, and Jimmy headed that way as the others began the cleanup.
They found the barn in similar disarray. Bales of hay had been split open, tack was laying on the ground or missing entirely, their bedrolls were scattered. The horses left there stamped nervously in their stalls. The four riders made a thorough search, but found nothing, finally heading back to the bunkhouse to help.
Two hours later they finally headed back to the barn, climbing wearily into the loft to their bedrolls.
Buck was up with the birds, tired but determined to find whatever these creatures were. Lou heard him rise and insisted on going with him. They left the others still sleeping in their blankets, Jimmy's snores mingling with the sound of the horses below them.
Buck led Lou back to the bunkhouse, searching in the soft, dawn light for tracks. He only found a few, heading toward the barn. He then searched around the barn itself, finding two prints in some soft ground near the horse trough. They headed away from the station.
The tracks were sporadic. Buck found one or two, here and there, when the grasses thinned out and the soil was soft. They appeared to be heading toward the pond the riders used to swim in. Buck set out at a steady trot, one that was meant to eat up some ground but not wear out the runner. He stopped frequently to check tracks, for which Lou was very thankful.
By the time they reached the pond, Lou was out of breath. She stopped, dropping to her knees and holding her side, as Buck examined the area. At the ponds edge he found numerous tracks embedded in the soft, sandy ground. He followed them around the pond to a pile of rocks, finding a cache of the rider's possessions. As he leaned over to pick up Ike's sketchpad, he felt a slight push against his leg. Next thing he knew he was falling headfirst into the pond.
Lou couldn't believe her eyes. There was a blur of movement and then Buck went tumbling into the pond. She ran toward him as he came up sputtering, her eyes on the area he had been standing on. She saw nothing further, no other movement, after the initial blur of motion. Buck was climbing out of the water as she arrived and they both looked over the ground for sign of whatever had been there. Dripping water, Buck followed the tracks that were now very familiar.
He moved quickly, Lou right on his heels. Every so often he thought he caught motion up ahead. He started a slow run, eyes still on the trail. They entered a wooded area, still deeply shadowed in the early morning light. Lou watched as Buck suddenly lunged forward. She was amazed to see a small figure in his clutches, but before she could get a good look at it, it squirmed and popped out of his grasp. She joined him in the chase, never getting a good view of what they were after, but seeing the quick motions and blurs of greens and browns.
Buck split off to the side and Lou kept on the figure's path, the idea being to approach it from two sides. When the creature suddenly veered off in a different direction, both Lou and Buck had to do a fast pivot to follow, Buck slipping slightly on the foliage covered forest floor. But he was back on his feet in one step.
They jumped over downed trees, dodged low hanging branches. Buck pushed himself harder, gaining ground. As he overtook the creature, he grabbed it again. Lou was just steps away when Buck suddenly dropped the creature, a loud "ouch" coming from him. He shook his hand and began running again. Lou stopped long enough to pick up an item that fell to the ground, tucking it inside her pocket, then continued after him.
The figure changed course again. Lou thought she could hear it breathing heavily, but she couldn't be sure if it was the creature or her imagination. When whatever it was shifted it's path again, Lou found it right in front of her. She dove at it, getting her arms wrapped around it. She lost her grip, though, when she felt a sharp pain on her chin. She could almost swear it had hit her! Buck was right beside her, grabbing at the figure. It again slipped from his hands.
The two ran side by side, once again in pursuit. Apparently they were both concentrating on the figure, because neither noticed the sharp drop off that the creature apparently jumped over. They both went tumbling down the hillside. It wasn't a long fall, but it was enough to let the creature get away. Buck and Lou would both swear later that they heard laughter as the creature move off through the brush.
It was a bedraggled pair that walked back into the station's yard. They had hoped to avoid the others, but that was not to happen. Cody and Jimmy both burst out in laughter at the sight of the two. Buck was still soaking wet and they were both covered in leaves and dirt. Lou had a bruise forming on her chin and Buck's hand was bleeding.
Emma pulled Buck over to the bunkhouse porch, sending Ike to her house for bandages. Molly brought out a basin with warm water and soap. Emma proceeded to clean the wound, washing the mud from his hand to find a small human-like bite. She looked up at him, then at Lou, her eyebrow up in question. Lou just silently pulled the article she had picked up from her pocket, handing it to Ethan. Then she tiredly and stiffly walked back to the barn, Kid following her.
Buck didn't get away so easily. Emma still had a firm grip on his arm and the riders served to block any path of escape he might have had.
"Well, Buck?" Teaspoon asked as the rider tried to find a path to escape. Buck knew what everyone was thinking. He also knew he would never live it down if he told the truth. He wished Lou hadn't gotten away, at least he would have had someone to help him take the heat for this.
"Well?" Emma asked him again. Ike had also brought some alcohol along with the bandages and Emma poured some over the bite.
"Ow!" he tried to pull his hand back, but Emma held strong. She began wrapping the wound, still expecting an answer.
"Well son?" Teaspoon was not going to let him get out of this.
But before he could answer Ethan spoke up. "Twas the little people." Ethan held out the article Lou had given him. It was a small hat, brown and mossy green in color, too small to fit even the smallest of the O'Hearn grandchildren.
As they all looked at the hat, Buck found the opportunity to make his escape, slipping through a small gap between Ike and Jimmy and headed to the barn.
"So come on you two. What really happened?" Cody asked.
Buck and Lou had changed clothes and were now going about their chores, mucking out the horse stalls. They had avoided questions all morning, not sure enough themselves what they had seen to even think about explaining it to anyone, especially the boys.
Patrick, Sean and Thomas had joined them, wanting to do something to help them out. They were sorting through the tack, repairing damage done in last night's mischief. Buck tossed a final pitchfork full of hay into a stall, then turned to head outside where the firewood was waiting to be split. Jimmy and Cody followed him, Ike grinning as he strolled behind, somewhat enjoying the sight of his friend squirming.
Lou was somewhat amazed that they hadn't made her the target of their inquiries, but she had a feeling Kid may have had something to do with that. He had headed out on a run shortly after they came back from their little adventure, but he had had a chat with Cody and Jimmy before he left. Maybe this one time she would be thankful for his interference. But she did feel sorry for Buck. She knew how relentless Cody could be.
"Come on Buck! Something happened out there! What was it?"
"Don't you two have chores to do?" Buck asked as he picked up the axe.
"I do believe they do." Teaspoon's voice came from behind them.
"Awe Teaspoon!" Cody whined.
"Go on!" The pair moved off reluctantly, heading toward the garden to turn over some new sod for the flower garden Emma had planned.
"You too, Ike." Ike disappeared back into the barn.
"So, Buck, what exactly did happen?"
"Not you too, Teaspoon."
"Now, son. I'm just wanting to know if we got ourselves some sort of vicious animal out there. It's not everyday one of my riders get bit."
"I'm not sure what it was Teaspoon. It moved awfully fast and it was still pretty dark amongst the trees."
"It looked like a very small man." Lou said from the barn door. She walked out into the sunlight, her face serious. "Honest to God, Teaspoon. It looked human. You saw the bite on Buck's hand!"
"That I did. What do you say Buck?"
Buck nodded. "Yeah, it looked human." he agreed reluctantly.
"Then maybe we can set a little trap for it? Put all these questions to an end once and for all. Come on. I've got a plan."
They followed Teaspoon to his shack.
Since most of the thefts and shenanigans attributed to the little people occurred at night, or during dawn or dusk, Teaspoon figured a good time to lay their traps would be in broad daylight. He sent the other riders into town on errands, mostly to keep them out from under foot while he, Buck, Lou, and the O'Hearns set to work. By the time supper was ready, the others were riding into the station yard, and Teaspoon's little traps were set. Now the challenge would be to keep the others from springing any of them.
Supper went without a hitch. The O'Hearns led them all in a sing a long until most of the riders couldn't stifle their yawns. They had a moment of concern when Jimmy said something about a late night walk, but Teaspoon managed to distract the boy by having Jimmy follow him back to his shack on some made up task. By the time he was done, Jimmy only had thoughts of bed.
Lou and Buck feigned sleep until they heard the gentle sounds of the others as they dozed off. Lou stationed herself at the top of the loft's ladder. Buck made his way down the ladder and slipped quietly out the door, keeping to the shadows until he reached a tree. Silently he swung up into the lowest branches. He knew that the others would be taking their positions also. Then he settled in to wait.
It was several hours later before Buck heard the first unusual noises coming from behind the barn. He remained perfectly quiet and motionless, waiting for the creatures to come near. Unfortunately, there was only a sliver of moon out, so the possibility of seeing anything was slim. He was going to have to rely on sound.
Whatever the creatures were, they took their time heading toward the bunkhouse. Buck could only imagine what they were doing back there. Finally he heard one of Teaspoon's traps go off, quickly followed by scurrying feet. They hadn't been caught, but had obviously been startled. He heard their movement coming his way.
Tracking the creatures by sound, Buck grabbed hold of the rope they had strung earlier in the day. He heard thrashing below him but couldn't make out a thing in the darkness. He concentrated on the sounds and when he heard the creature, or creatures, below him he pulled hard on the rope. The loop of rope below him gathered together as he dropped to the ground, but was empty when Buck got to it. He moved as quietly as he could through the darkness toward the sound of the moving creature, hoping that Teaspoon and the O'Hearns would have better luck. He really didn't want to chase this thing in the dark.
Buck could hear the other boys stirring in the barn loft, heard Lou telling them to stay put. He heard Teaspoon's trap drop, a rope net meant to capture the creature underneath. When he heard more scurrying sounds heading away from him, he knew Teaspoon had been as unlucky as he had been. It was now up to Patrick and Sean.
The two O'Hearn boys were the next closest trap in the direction the creature was heading. Buck continued in his quiet pursuit, still hoping just one of the traps would work. He heard the creature trip, caught up by one of the ropes pulled suddenly across the yard, but Buck could also tell that it was up and running again in seconds. When it tripped again, over the second rope, and Buck heard yet another rope net drop, he thought for sure they had it. The muffled curses from Sean told him it hadn't worked.
He stepped up his pace, knowing it was now down to a chase once again. In the darkness. Buck knew he wouldn't get far in the chase this time. It was just too dangerous running full out in the pitch black. He heard Teaspoon call out his name as he increased his speed, telling him to be careful.
The creature wasn't quiet at all in his retreat and was easy for Buck to follow. He could even tell he was gaining ground on it. Patrick and Sean were following him. He could hear the creature's heavy breathing as he got closer and closer still. In just a few steps he knew the creature was right in front of him. As he dove at it, the thought that it seemed bigger flashed through his head, confirmed when he grabbed hold of very human legs, and heard the loud oomph as his prey fell to the ground.
He wrestled with it, keeping hold this time, knowing that this was not the creature he had almost caught twice before. As Patrick and Sean came up to him, followed by Teaspoon with a lantern, the thing he was now straddling talked.
"Okay, I give up already! Get off me Buck!"
"I was just playing a joke!" Cody exclaimed as they all sat around the bunkhouse table. The children had slept through all the noise and still weren't phased by the activity in the room. "When Lou told us about Buck staying up trying to catch these 'little people' I couldn't resist."
"Cody, you shouldn't make fun of other peoples beliefs." Teaspoon chastised the blonde boy sitting in front of him.
"I wasn't meaning to do that Teaspoon. I just thought it would be a good joke on Buck. I even snuck out of the dance, rode back out here, and hid some things. But I didn't scatter the flour. I must have left the door open and some animal got in."
"What about the tracks in the flour?" Buck asked him.
"Don't know about those. Honest!" Cody glanced around at the others. Jimmy was barely suppressing his mirth, turning his head away so he couldn't look at his friend. Ike had a smirk on his face, enjoying the sight of Cody squirming. Kid just looked tired. Lou stood with her arms across her chest and Buck leaned against the counter. Cody tried not to laugh himself at the sight of the leaves and dried grass in Buck's hair and on his clothes. Then he realized that he probably didn't look much better.
"Cody, I trust this will not occur again?" Teaspoon continued.
"No Teaspoon, it won't. It doesn't seem all that funny now."
"Then I suggest we all get to bed. Who's up in the morning?"
"I'm afraid I am." Buck answered, already feeling how tired he was from little sleep all the past week and none so far tonight.
"I'll take his run." Jimmy volunteered.
"Thanks." Buck said as they all started back to the barn. They called their goodnights to the O'Hearns as they went.
The O'Hearns stayed on for three more days, enjoying the company of Emma and the boys, watching and learning as much as they could about America and the area in general. Nothing else disappeared during that time.
They found the operations of the Pony Express fascinating, watched as Ike and Buck broke a new horse, learned more about horsemanship themselves. Buck even taught them about native food plants. But they finally announced that it was time to move on to Colorado and they would be leaving the next day.
Emma out did herself, cooking up a storm. Teaspoon and the boys decorated the bunkhouse porch, hanging lanterns and streamers to give the ranch a party air. And, of course, the O'Hearns entertained. When they made Buck play the guitar for them once more, they also insisted that he and Lou sing a song alone. Everyone was surprised at how good the two sounded together.
When Ethan presented a guitar to Buck as a gift, the boy could only sit in shock. He had never received a gift like this before. Ethan waved away his attempts to return such a valuable gift, saying that the boy had taught them so much that the guitar was actually an inadequate gift. They owed him and the others so much more. It was well after midnight when they all headed to bed.
They were all up early. Kid and Jimmy helped hitch the wagons. Emma packed a basket of food leftover from the previous night's banquet. Buck carried the littlest grandchild out on his shoulders as Ike spun another around in circles. After they piled all the children into wagons, the adults had a chance at good-byes.
"If yer ever in Denver, you've got a place to stay, all of ye." Ethan said, standing with his arm around Molly. The older woman had tears in her eyes as she gave all the boys hugs.
"You are all very special people." She said. "I feel as though I have six more children."
They all clamored aboard and waved as they rode away. When they were no longer in sight the riders went about their chores.
Buck and Kid started in the barn, mucking out the stalls. Cody prepared for the next Express run, and Lou, Ike and Jimmy headed to the bunkhouse and gardens.
"Hey Buck?" Kid asked pausing in his work. "Have you ever seen these before?" He held up a silver brush and mirror. As Buck took them from him, he bent over again, pulling a framed photo and two cooking pots from the straw.
"These belong to the O'Hearns." Buck headed outside to saddle his horse, Kid following close behind.
"Do you think it was the little people?' Kid asked. Buck pointed to the ground. In the soft soil near the barn were more of the tiny tracks. Buck hadn't noticed them before now. Teaspoon and Emma approached the two.
"Where you going Buck?" Teaspoon asked as Jimmy and Lou joined them
Kid showed them the items they had found as Buck swung up into the saddle. As Teaspoon and Emma shook their heads and chuckled, Kid handed Buck the items wrapped in a feed sack and he took off after the wagons.
"Cody!" Both Teaspoon and Jimmy yelled for the rider that they were certain had once again tried to play a joke on Buck and the O'Hearns. As they all headed after the boy, none of them noticed Ike on the bunkhouse steps, a grin on his face as he pulled the pieces of cushioned fabric from the ends of several sticks he had hidden under the porch.
From beneath a bush nearby a very small person dressed in greens and browns giggled, the turned and darted from bush to bush until he was around the corner of the barn and heading off in the direction of the O'Hearn wagons.