“I don’t believe it,” Teaspoon Hunter thought numbly as he entered the empty jailhouse. “He actually went and done it.” He sank down into his chair and rested his gun on the desk. For a moment he sat looking at the weapon, wondering if he might somehow have been able to prevent the rider from making the biggest mistake of his life. But he soon realized that neither he, nor anyone else, could have stopped him. He raised his eyes and found himself staring at the silent jail cell. Not ten minutes before, Neville had been sitting on that jail bed, thanking the doctor for his services. With a smirk, he had ignored Teaspoon’s advice to leave town. Instead, he’d walked out that cell door and into the street, ready to head to the saloon for another hand of cards. But his plans were overshadowed by the presence of a silent Indian seeking the ultimate revenge.
Teaspoon leaned back in the chair with a sigh. He knew enough of Buck’s devotion to Ike to realize that the boy would be out for blood once he understood that his best friend was dead. And yet, even with this knowledge, Teaspoon’s heart nearly leaped out of his chest in surprise when he heard the shots ring out in the street. Of all his riders, he never thought he’d have to lecture Buck about the consequences of killing an unarmed man. But, suddenly, there he was, stepping around Neville’s bullet-riddled body, staring into Buck’s dark, unrepentant eyes.
Teaspoon could barely contain his frustration as he reminded Buck that he’d have to live with that man’s death on his hands for the rest of his life. He’d planned to lecture Buck thoroughly about what he’d done but, as he forced Buck to meet his gaze, the boy’s eyes were filled with such bitter despair that the Marshal could only muster a few words before he felt the tears well up within him, and had to turn and walk away, back into the jailhouse.
The clock behind him struck nine. As the hour tolled, Teaspoon wondered if he’d done the right thing by leaving Buck alone out there in the street. In his mind’s eye, he saw Buck’s pale lips parted in shock, his left hand still grasping the smoking gun that had brought Neville down. He again witnessed the cold, numb despair that clouded the rider’s eyes as he stared into Teaspoon’s face. Teaspoon’s words sounded harsh to his own ears: “You know what you done? You crossed that line, and now you’re gonna have to live with it.”
“Well, he ain’t gonna have to live with it alone,” the Marshal said aloud as he stood and walked out into the street. “What that boy needs right now is a friend.”
He glanced out before him, half expecting to see Buck still standing there staring vacantly at Neville’s body, but the boy was gone. The undertaker was already carrying off the dead gambler, the townsfolk gathering for the spectacle. Teaspoon knew it wouldn’t be long before the whole territory learned what had happened.
“Teaspoon!” Kid called, walking up beside the Marshal. “Just heard about Neville.” He paused a moment. Teaspoon’s jaw went white as he clenched his teeth hard. “You know who did it?” Kid asked quietly.
The Marshal sighed.
“Buck’s in trouble, isn’t he?”
“No,” Teaspoon responded, “not with the law anyways. No one stepped up as a witness to it. He was pretty shook up, though. Thought I might go talk with him some. He at the bunkhouse?”
“Not that I know. Nobody’s seen him today.”
A sudden shiver shook through Teaspoon’s spine. He remembered that look on Buck’s face—lost and hopeless, but determined, too. He’d been wrong to leave Buck alone.
“What is it, Teaspoon?” Kid asked, grabbing him by the arm.
“I don’t got a right feelin’ about this,” he said, shaking free of Kid’s hold, striding anxiously down the street.
“You don’t think he’s gonna. . .” Kid started as he quickened his pace to keep up with Teaspoon, but he couldn’t even make himself finish the sentence.
“Don’t know what he’s up to,” Teaspoon replied briskly. His heart pounded in his ears as he wondered if the boy might actually have decided that he couldn’t live with what he’d done . . .that he couldn’t live at all.
“You go round up the others and start searchin’ for him,” Teaspoon began as they passed Tomkins’ store. “I don’t care if you have to head clear out to St. Joe to find him. . .”
“Marshal Hunter?” a voice interrupted. He turned to find Doc Walker leaning up against the hitching post in front of his office, his arms crossed over his chest. “You looking for one of your riders?”
Teaspoon stared at the doctor in surprise.
“He’s in here,” the Doc continued, nodding toward the doorway. He noticed the Marshal’s apprehension and added, “he’s all right, physically, anyway.”
“Kid,” Teaspoon began, his eyes focused on the doctor’s open door, “why don’t you go on back to the stationhouse. I’ll see to Buck.”
The rider nodded silently, and left Teaspoon without a word.
“I’m not sure exactly how long he’s been here,” Doc Walker said softly as they made their way down the hall. “I was away from my office. . . he must have just wandered in. I noticed the front door was open and I thought someone had brought me a patient.” They stopped before a closed door at the end of the hall. “I didn’t see anyone in the parlor, so I went to check the examination room, and that’s when I found him.” The doctor opened the door, and Teaspoon’s heart dropped into his gut.
Ike’s body still lay on the narrow bed where he had died the evening before, a white linen sheet folded neatly back at his waist. His blue lips were slightly parted, welcoming Teaspoon in with a grim smile. His body still glistened with sweat, but the hot blush of fever had long since left the cold, pale corpse. Gazing upon the dead rider alone would have been enough to turn Teaspoon’s stomach in knots, but the sight of Buck lying in the bed with him was almost too much for his old heart to bear.
The bed was not meant to hold two people, but Buck found a way to squeeze himself next to his friend. The Indian rested his right arm across Ike’s chest, his fingers gently stroking the dark red blossom of blood that marked the fatal bullet wound. Buck’s head was nestled just underneath Ike’s drooping chin. His long, dark hair flowed over Ike’s right shoulder and out onto the cream-colored bed sheet as he quietly rubbed his cheek against the base of Ike’s cold and clammy neck. Slowly, Buck stretched his left hand out from behind his friend’s head and gripped the dead man’s left shoulder, attempting to pull the body even closer to him. Lying as they were, it was hard to tell just where Buck ended and Ike began. Suddenly, Teaspoon realized just how closely linked the two really were. Teaspoon knew that Ike and Buck had grown up together. He knew they were good friends and would risk life and limb for each other. But not until that moment did he understand the depth of their bond. Ike was not simply Buck’s good friend or even his best friend. He was a physical and spiritual part of Buck—an extension of his very being.
“I tried to get him to leave, but he wouldn’t respond to me, Marshal,” Doc Walker whispered. “I have to move the body, and I can’t do it with him in the bed.”
Teaspoon cleared his throat, searching for his voice. “I see,” he said finally.
Buck pressed himself closer to his friend. He’d heard the two men walk in, but their voices sounded muffled and far away. He didn’t attempt to look up at them. He felt strangely light, almost disconnected from his own body, and he was afraid that if he raised his head, he might lose his grip on Ike and rise up above the bed like a cloud. He was afraid he’d float through the open window and out into the street where he’d break up in the breeze, then drift away into nothingness.
Buck could hardly believe his friend was truly gone. He rubbed his cheek against Ike’s throat, hoping to feel the warm beat of his pulse, but he knew his hope was in vain. He felt Ike’s body stiffening beneath him, resisting his gentle, loving embrace. He looked down at the bloody bandage as his fingers probed the mortal wound. He had tried to save Ike from his fate, but he wasn’t fast enough. He thought he might have been able to make up for his failure through revenge, but killing Neville didn’t bring Ike back to life, it didn’t cleanse Buck of his despair.
A sudden flood of memory washed through his mind. All at once, he recalled the hundreds of times he’d told Ike that he would take care of him. He’d sworn over and over again to defend not only Ike’s physical body, but his spirit as well. Buck had vowed that, no matter who hated or threatened or persecuted Ike, he would always be there to hold him. He would never abandon his best friend. . .even in death. Ike had promised the same to him.
Buck raised his hand from the wound, realizing for the first time that it was covered in blood. As he rubbed the tips of his fingers together, he remembered the day when they had first made those promises—the day they became brothers in body and spirit.
“Ike McSwain! Buck Cross! Come out from there this instant! I know it was you who put the mouse in Sister Katherine’s bed and the worms in Sister Anne’s tea and the snails in Mother Margaret’s shoes.” Sister Regina stopped a moment to catch her breath, her huge body heaving like a cow gone into labor. She squinted nervously into the small, wooded area just behind the orphanage where the two troublesome boys were known to hide, but she didn’t bother to enter. Both Buck and Ike knew that Sister Regina had a fear of the woods and especially the creatures in it. Jesus himself would have had to lead her by the hand in order get her to set foot in there.
“We should’ve put the mouse in her bed,” Buck whispered from behind the rock where the two boys crouched together.
No, Ike signed, a toad would suit her better.
Buck snickered, struggling not to laugh out loud.
“All right then, if you won’t come out, I’ll have to send in Karl to fetch you. And I’ll see to it that he brings the strap with him. I’m sure he won’t mind straightening out your wicked ways with a sound whipping!” She turned on her heals and wobbled off.
“Great. We’re really gonna get it now,” Buck moaned.
Ike grasped his friend’s arm and gave it a squeeze. Don’t worry. I’m here.
“How’s that going to help save us from a whipping?” Buck asked bitterly.
It won’t, Ike began, but whippings always hurt less when you know you have a friend with you who’s feeling the same pain.
Buck twisted up his mouth skeptically. He’d been humiliated and beaten more times than he could count, and even though he tried never to show it, the pain was always intense. He had a hard time believing that simply knowing a fellow-sufferer was nearby would make it any better.
Ike noticed his friend’s disbelief. It’s not just any friend that will help make the pain less, Buck. Only a blood brother can do that.
A blood brother. That’s a friend who’s made a promise to protect you and be there for you no matter what. A blood brother can’t go back on his promise like an ordinary friend can, because he swears the oath in blood.
The thought of swearing an oath in blood intrigued Buck. It sounded pretty serious. “How do you do it?”
First you have to make the promise.
“OK. I promise to defend you, Ike, against fat, ugly, mean nuns. Or at least stand by you when they send Karl to give you a whipping.”
“Oh, and I’ll protect you against all the bullies, too—not just at the Mission School, but everywhere. I’ll stay with you and I’ll be there for you so you’re never alone. I can promise that.”
Ike silently swore the same.
“Is that it?” Buck asked.
No, Ike began. I think there should be more. A blood brother isn’t only there to help defend your body, he’s there for your spirit, too. The bond of blood brothers is so strong it lasts even after you die. That’s one of the things that makes it better than just regular friendship.
Ike thought a moment. His gaze dropped to the ground as the words took shape in his mind. Then he lifted his head. His bright blue eyes grew intense as he stared at his friend. I promise to always watch over you, even if I die.
“How can you do that?” Buck asked. “I mean, how will I know that you’re watching out for me if you’re dead?”
Ike frowned. He hadn’t considered that question.
Buck brightened. “I know! If one of us dies, he could come back in another body--a spirit body—one that we choose now, so we’ll both be able to recognize each other’s spirit.”
Ike nodded in agreement.
“If I die, I’ll come back as a bear,” Buck stated enthusiastically.
Ike shook his head vigorously.
“Why not?” Buck asked.
You’re too skinny to be a bear.
Buck blushed in shame, knowing Ike told the truth. Who’d believe he could come back as something that powerful?
You look more like a wolf to me, Ike signed. Wolves are mysterious and beautiful, too.
Buck smiled at that. Wolves were good medicine to the Kiowa. He’d visit Ike as a wolf if he died.
“Now it’s your turn,” he said.
Ike pursed his lips. His eyebrows furled in deep concentration. He thought for a moment, then rested his gaze on the Indian. What do you think I’d come back as?
Buck looked his friend over carefully, then rested his gaze on Ike’s bald head. “You look sorta like a turtle to me,” he joked.
“I know. I know. All right. How about a horse?”
Ike shook his head. He loved horses, but he didn’t think he looked like one.
Again, Ike shook his head.
“A deer? A cow? An otter? A cat? A mouse?”
Ike waved his hands, cutting his friend off.
I’ll come up with one later.
“No, you have to tell me now, or else I won’t know if you’re looking out for me,” Buck replied seriously.
Don’t worry, Ike signed, gazing deep into his friend’s face. You’ll know it’s me. I’ll make sure of it.
Buck nodded his head. “OK.”
Now it’s time to seal the pact. Ike glanced around himself, searching for something sharp. A broad smile dawned across his face when he spied some porcupine quills scattered nearby. He picked one up and quickly poked the forefinger, the middle finger, and the ring finger of his right hand until he drew blood. Then he passed the quill to Buck so he could do the same.
The Indian took the quill carefully from his friend. He pricked his fingers just as Ike had, pinching at them to make sure there was enough blood to share.
Ike raised his right hand and then pressed his palm against Buck’s. Buck’s fingers stung as Ike twisted the bloody tips of his fingers against his own. Buck could almost feel Ike’s blood entering his body, pulsing through his fingertips, flowing into his own veins, washing away the pain of loneliness.
Slowly, Ike drew his hand away from Buck’s. Now we are brothers in body and spirit, he signed. Now, nothing can separate us.
“Buck?” Teaspoon whispered, gently placing his hand on the Indian’s shoulder. “Buck?” he said again, but the rider made no reply.
Buck reached for Ike’s hand, pressing his warm fingers against the dead man’s. Ike’s cold, unresponsive touch sent a sick shiver down his spine. Ike had promised that nothing would separate them—not even death. But where was Ike’s spirit now? His heart sank into his stomach as the truth finally hit him. Ike had forgotten his promise.
“Buck,” the Marshal whispered once more, “it’s time to go. Doc needs this bed.”
“No,” Buck mumbled.
“I’m afraid so, son. There’s nothin’ more we can do here.”
Teaspoon glanced up at Doc Walker, who stood rather impatiently in the doorway. Teaspoon knew it was time to employ more forceful measures. He grabbed Buck’s arm and proceeded to pry him off of Ike. For a second, Buck resisted. But he suddenly stopped when he heard a faint scratching sound. He lifted his head, his eyes focused on the open window across the room. Noticing that the rider’s interest had been suddenly diverted from the dead man, Teaspoon loosened his grip, hoping Buck would finally leave the bed willingly.
The scratching sound grew louder in Buck’s ears. It almost felt as if something was calling to him from the window, anxious to have him draw near. Shakily, he sat up and swung his legs around the side of the bed. He stood quietly as Teaspoon stepped away from him, giving the rider some space.
Buck barely felt the floor beneath his feet as he stumbled to the window. The blood pounded in his head, pulsing thickly through his body, as he peered outside and into the street. His heart sank once again as he saw nothing but the ordinary bustle of daily life. He tried to make eye contact with a horse hitched up near the window, but it didn’t acknowledge him. A gray spotted dog had been begging across the way. For a second, it seemed to Buck as if the dog was going to approach him, but the mongrel trotted off in a different direction. Then, he heard the scratching sound once more. He looked down. There, perched on the window ledge was a small, brown speckled bird, clawing at the splintering wood frame. Its soft, sleek feathers shimmered in the sunlight. Buck had never seen a bird as beautiful, or as unafraid of humans. Sensing that the rider had finally noticed him, the bird cocked its head. Its black eyes probed Buck’s own, searching the Indian’s spirit.
Suddenly, Buck felt the tears well up in his eyes. A faint smile crossed his lips as he reached out and gently stroked the bird’s back. Then he rested his hand on the windowsill, knowing it was time to say good-bye. The bird gazed at him for a second more, then unfurled its wings and darted away into the sky, its body becoming one with the sunlight.
Buck felt the welcome tears stream down his face, washing away his sorrow. He knew now that he had not been forgotten. Ike was right; the bond of blood brothers was stronger than death. He glanced up into the sky. “Thanks, Ike,” his heart whispered. “Thanks for watching over me.”