The world was made of copper and a blue so pale it was almost white. The clay of the earth glowed, the rust color rich and deep in the sunlight that struggled over the horizon, refusing to give up on the day. He was close enough now that he gave his horse its head, knowing they would be in the village soon enough.
How would she greet him, he wondered. Would she run to his arms, would he swoop her up in a hug, twirl her around? Would they laugh and kiss and hold each other tight? It was the sort of reunion he imagined a husband had with his wife after a long separation, but with Maya he did not like to rely on anything.
He had been gone too long. He knew that. He should have taken her with him, or sent for her, or simply come home sooner. Home. He was lying to call this place home and he knew it. Returning to Sweetwater had only made that clearer. But here, his people were starving, they were helpless and who was he to enjoy the luxuries permitted him in Sweetwater while his brother grew old before his time and shrank to nothing but a loose community of bones, his spirit withered and his muscles dwindling? Buck liked to think that he could help his people by staying, but as time passed he became more and more convinced that there was nothing any man could do to change the irrevocable decline of the Kiowa.
The last bits of sunshine were an hour gone, the sky a deep and endless blue, the stars too numerous to count when he arrived in the village. The government had provided houses, which no one but Maya wanted, and besides their own home, the lumber buildings crumbled into nothingness surrounded by poor-looking lodges of trade cloth and blankets. The men sat or stood at doorways, their eyes and faces blank. They had nothing to do. They sat and told stories of the old times and when they ran out of stories they complained that the meat they were given had gone bad and the flour was too little. The Kiowa had been on the reservation for only two years, and that short span of time had transformed their warriors into old women.
Buck rode to where his brother lived and felt relief to see spark still left in his brother's eyes, his back still straight. Red Bear even managed a smile for his brother and as Buck dismounted embraced him as he always had. His wife peered out of the doorway, balancing a baby on her hip. She nodded at Buck, and he could see the worry in her eyes.
"You return, brother," Red Bear said with a wry grin, "I thought, perhaps, you would stay with your white family, but I see you could not give up the riches we have here."
Buck laughed bitterly at the joke and asked, "Where's Maya?" She should have been there to welcome him home. He knew he was a fool to expect the sort of reunion he had imagined, he knew that. Perhaps she would only take his hand in hers and press it warmly. Still, she should have been there.
Red Bear shook his head and sighed, "She is gone, Running Buck; she has left."
They had argued before he left. Cody had arrived so suddenly, and the news he brought had been so unexpected that Buck was rattled. Traveling through the white world was a risk and Maya would be a liability. Buck wasn't prepared for it, couldn't even consider it as an option.
"Take me with you."
"Don't be ridiculous, Maya," Buck wished she would stop talking. Their house felt cramped, as though there was not room there for both Maya and his grief. He pulled his sadness around him like a cloak and left her outside it.
"I'm your wife," she reminded him, "I should meet your family."
"Not this time."
"Then when?" she asked shrilly and for a moment Buck forgot his urgency to leave, he was so surprised by her sudden temper.
"I won't be gone long," he muttered, returning to the packing of his saddlebags.
Maya stilled his hands with her own, and took over the task. Folding things instead of cramming them in without thought. Buck watched her hands in silence, their calm competence. That was Maya, always peaceful, always capable, but Buck could not shake the feeling that there was more to his wife than she would ever show him. When she spoke again, her voice was sweet, melodic, but that could not hide the venom in her words. "I did not marry your Kiowa half alone. I am sick of living like this, when we do not have to. The others are trapped here, but we have lived in the white world and we could do it again. Why do you keep us here?"
Buck sighed, and ran his hands through his hair. "Maya, one year at the mission school - " he faltered, unsure of what to say. He knew that Maya did not begin to understand the white world and its own particular brand of hatred. Here they might be scorned, shunned but out there was the potential for actual violence. And Buck knew he could not forsake his people for the relative comforts that the white world might provide. He deserved nothing more than his brother. He tried again, "Maya, we'll talk about it when I get back. It's a quick trip; I'll be back soon and -"
She threw his bag down and stared at him, wild-eyed, "I didn't marry you so that we could live like animals - "
"Well, what did you marry me for?" he shouted back.
If only she'd said, "Because I love you." But she didn't say it. She just stood there, blank-faced, looking ridiculous with her hair pinned up in a bun and in a dress of turkey red that she'd made up after a picture she'd found in a two year old magazine. Buck felt fury rising up in him and bile choking his throat. He said nothing, but stormed out and into the dawn. Maya followed, equally silent. Cody was waiting for him, already mounted and impatient to leave. Buck wondered if he'd overheard the argument and what he might be thinking. Buck was certain he'd hear Cody's opinion on the matter as soon as they cleared the village. He vaulted onto Warrior and turned to leave but was stopped by Maya's voice, "You're coming back?" Buck only nodded before following Cody onto the trail towards Sweetwater.
Despite Cody's chatter, Buck rode in stony silence; pain and regret threatened to pour out if he opened his mouth. He found that Cody's constant babbling was soothing and by the second day on the trail he was laughing and cracking jokes at the blonde's expense. On the third day, the reason for their journey pushed in on them and they both fell into a brooding silence.
They stopped at the cemetery on their way into town. The two of them had been too far away to make the funeral. But Cody had telegraphed that they'd be coming and the others promised to wait. At times like this everyone felt the need to be together again.
Buck looked at Rachel's stone, and it seemed a thing far too dull to mark the life of such a vibrant spirit. With Sam and Jimmy dodging bullets as lawmen, he'd thought to someday pay his respects to a stone with one of their names on it. But this - the sudden snuffing out of a life that had seemed so permanent, so necessary…
"I didn't even know she was sick," Cody mumbled, breaking into his thoughts. "I was here not even a month ago. She was coughing a little but she said it was just the spring flowers," his voice broke.
Buck put a hand on Cody's shoulder and squeezed. Moments like this, their friendship was helpless. It took Emma, Lou - Rachel - to comfort the pains that made them children again. "You couldn't have done anything even if you'd known," he offered reasonably, knowing it was cold comfort.
"I could have been here."
Letters had been sent infrequently since the treaty was signed in '67. Buck knew Jimmy had a daughter, that Teaspoon was not as spry as he'd once been, but he was unprepared for the subtler changes in his family. For the gray that peppered Kid's hair and left streaks through Emma's. Not for the way Jimmy'd grown thick around the middle, nor the deep lines around Sam's eyes. Despite the changes the years had wrought, Buck found himself falling into familiar friendships; there was an ease with them that he did not experience with Maya or Red Bear. The reservation, the bad meat and little water, was far away.
No one could stay for long. They had lives waiting for them, homes, responsibilities. Jimmy and Buck stayed on. The days slipped past unnoticed as they did chores around the place. Fixed leaks and painted shutters, and a million other repairs that had been too small to bother with until now. Teaspoon supervised in his familiar way, often snoring from his seat on the porch swing.
The three talked and joked as though the years had not passed and they all avoided any discussion of the near future. Buck knew, and understood it was not to be talked about, that they were readying the place to be sold. He knew that Teaspoon could not stay on his own. He had never seen a full recovery from his stroke ten years before. His left leg still dragged, and the left corner of his mouth still dipped in a permanent grimace. His speeches were twice as long now, because his speaking was so precise and labored. And he was old. Buck did not know how old, Teaspoon did not know the exact number, but age had set in with a determination that was admirable, if frightening. Too soon the work was done and the three of them stubbornly spent a few more days pretending nothing was changing.
In the evening, they sat on Rachel's porch, Jimmy puffing on a cigar and the general mood wistful. The evenings usually passed in silence, each of them lost in a bittersweet recollection of the past, but at last, Teaspoon broke their unspoken agreement to avoid uncomfortable subjects. "I've been thinking," he croaked, leaning forward in his seat, "If'n I were younger, this place might make a decent enough ranch. Raise horses, maybe."
"A ranch would take a lot of work, Teaspoon," Jimmy muttered.
"A lot of money, too," added Buck.
Teaspoon was not to be deterred, "Well, I got a considerable savin's what with the Silver Spoon and all. 'Course, I wouldn't be worth much when it comes to the labor involved. Maybe I could find some younger fellers to partner up with."
Jimmy shook his head with a smile. He looked over at Buck, but Buck would not meet his eye. It was a tempting proposition, and Buck considered it before guiltily stopping himself. A life like that wasn't in the cards for a half-breed. Even if the town would accept him, even if he could run a ranch, he couldn't leave his brother. He would face the ugliness of the reservation with his people. He deserved a better life no more than they did. His thoughts ran in a dizzying circle from what could be to what had to be.
"I'm turning in early. I'll have to head home in the morning." Buck said abruptly, standing up.
"You're leaving tomorrow?" Jimmy asked, a little angrily. Buck knew Jimmy didn't look forward to selling the place and moving Teaspoon on his own. He could understand his anger.
"I've been gone too long already," Buck said sadly and left them without further comment.
He'd pushed himself to get back quickly, but he hadn't been quick enough. Buck turned away from Red Bear and walked the few paces to his own home, the one where Maya should have been waiting. He went inside and saw that nothing had been taken. And he was not surprised. What would she take? The little they had was worthless.
He stood in the center, staring blindly at the charred logs in the fireplace. She should be there now, leaning over the flames, the orange light casting unfamiliar shadows across her face. The funny kink in her nose would look grotesque in the dancing light, but up close, it was endearing and he'd kiss it, calling her little pet names he made up. She'd slap his chest playfully; make attempts to tease him in English. He would never correct her, though he knew she abused the language. She rarely made sense, and yet he always knew what she was saying.
Red Bear had come in with characteristic silence and his voice jolted Buck out of his reverie, "She caught the eye of one of the soldiers at the fort -"
"And he took her?" Buck grasped at the terrible hope that she had not left him herself, that someone had taken her.
Red Bear shook his head. "She went to him. You were gone longer than expected." There was no reproach in his voice, it was a mere statement of fact. Buck could say nothing, and he sank down onto the soft robes of their bed with a weary sigh. "You should not have come back at all." Buck's eyes snapped up to look at his brother. "There is nothing here for you. There was nothing here before. You think you deserve to live like this, but you don't."
"Nobody does," Buck protested, unsure what his brother meant and too tired to ask.
Red Bear sat beside him and clapped his hand on Buck's shoulder, giving him a little shake, "But some of us have to. Tomorrow, you should gather your things and go. Return to your white family."
"No," Buck answered, trying to keep the hurt from edging into his voice, "This is where I belong. I am Kiowa."
"And you are also white," Red Bear stated flatly, silencing his brother's interruption with a fierce look, "There is no animal that will choose to stay in a trap; all of them will try to escape. What are the Kiowa now that we stay in this trap?" He made a sound of disgust, and stood up, slowly unfolding his body to his full height. He looked down at his younger brother, affection mixed with authority reflected in his face. ""The men grow into women, sitting and talking. They wish to be warriors again, and make plans against the white wagon trains that pass near here. As we have nothing left to lose, I will lead them again into battle. When the moon is full, we will ride against the white man. You should not be here when we do." He went to go, perhaps mistaking Buck's weary silence for acceptance. He opened the door to leave and paused there, letting the cool night air push its way into the house, before leaving Buck alone.
In the dark, Buck sat and stared at nothing. He thought of Teaspoon living in an extra room at Emma and Sam's or with Kid and Lou. Teaspoon would feel as trapped as the Kiowa. He looked around his small house and felt disgust at the pitiful way he'd been living. Even the air here smelled bitter, as if despair had a scent.
He was a stubborn man. He had rarely given up, but he could no longer fight what was happening. To fight the army that kept them there was to hasten the inevitable. To accept the reservation was to let the Kiowa spirit slowly waste away, fade into nothing. He slept heavily that night, without dreams, and left in the morning.