On the top of a rise sat five horsemen, their bodies bronze in the summer sunlight. Silently they watched the rider below them. The sun glinted off long chestnut locks as the rider trotted along on a large, strong horse. The horse would be good for trading and the rider, well, the rider would just be good. With a wave to his companions, the leader headed down the slope, followed closely by the other four.

The rider turned at the sound of approaching horses. Seeing the Indians rapidly approaching sent fear shooting through the slender figure. As they surrounded her horse and reached for her, Lark Hobson knew she was in serious trouble.

Gerald Hobson entered the Marshal’s office in Sweetwater a discouraged man. He had already tried getting help in Blue Creek, but received none. And he absolutely refused to go to the Army at Fort Laramie. They’d botch the whole thing. No, Sweetwater was his best hope.

“Excuse me,” Gerald made his presence known.

An older man with a hat over his eyes sat up with a start. “Can I help you?” he offered.

“I sure hope so, Marshal. My name is Gerald Hobson and I’m trying to find my daughter.”

Teaspoon studied the well dressed man in front of him. “Why don’t you sit down and tell me about it,” he suggested. By the looks of the fellow, he hadn’t slept in a few days and this could take awhile.

Gerald sighed. “Much obliged, Marshal,” he said, seating himself in the available chair. “As I said, I’m looking for my daughter, Lark. She’s been missing four days now. You see, I’m a businessman and my daughter and I were traveling together to San Francisco. We had stopped in Blue Creek and Lark decided she wanted to see the town while I discussed business. It wasn’t until that night, when Lark didn’t return to our hotel, that I began to get worried. I made inquiries and found out she had rented a horse at the livery and taken off to see the countryside.”

Teaspoon shook his head. “That ain’t good. We’ve had some Indian trouble in these parts recently.”

Hobson nodded. “The sheriff in Blue Creek told me. He led a search party the next morning. Took most of the day, since we weren’t sure where to look, but we finally found Lark’s hat. The ground was covered with tracks. The sheriff’s tracker followed them and said they led toward a small camp of Indians. When the Sheriff heard this, he refused to help me. He said I should go to Fort Laramie for the Army. Now, Marshal, I don’t particularly trust the Army to find my daughter and return her unharmed. One of the deputies in Blue Creek told me I might find help here. Said you had an expert tracker who knew the Indians.” Hobson paused and looked at Teaspoon. “Sir, if you can help me get my little girl back safely, I’d do just about anything.”

Marshal Hunter considered the distraught man before him. “I’ll do my best,” he promised. “I assume you’re stayin’ at the hotel?” At the affirmative nod, Teaspoon continued, “I’ll let you know something in a few hours.”

“Thank you, Marshal,” Gerald said gratefully as he left the office.

Teaspoon located Barnett to watch things and then rode out to the station. Going to the bunkhouse, he found Lou and Cody. “Ya’ll seen Buck?”

“He was in the barn brushin’ Warrior last I saw him,” Lou supplied. With a nod of thanks, Teaspoon exited.

“Buck?” Teaspoon called.

Buck turned from his horse. “Yeah, Teaspoon?”

“Got a special job for ya, son.” Teaspoon stated and then filled him in on the disappearance of the Hobson girl. “Think you could find her and get her out?”

Buck contemplated it and then nodded. “I could sure try.”

“Good. Let’s ride back and tell Mr. Hobson.” Buck quickly tacked up and followed Teaspoon back to town.

Barnett had gone and gotten Mr. Hobson, and Teaspoon now made introductions. “Mr. Hobson, this here’s Buck Cross, one of my Express riders.”

The two men shook hands. “Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Cross. I had no idea that this Indian expert would be an Indian himself.” Gerald said with a smile.

Buck tensed. “Is that going to be a problem?”

“Not at all. I’d say it’s an advantage. I’d trust you a sight more to negotiate for my daughter than those fools from the Army who think only of killing.” Gerald stated.

Buck eyed the man warily, but sensed only sincerity. Nodding he asked, “How old is your little girl?”

“Lark is sixteen.” Hobson responded. Seeing the startled look Teaspoon and Buck exchanged, he chuckled. “I really must stop referring to her as a little girl, but I still think of her in that way. Her mother died when Lark was five and she’s all I have now.” His voice broke slightly. “I beg you, Mr. Cross, please find her.”

“I will.” Buck assured him. Then he had Gerald tell him every detail about where the hat was found and where the Indians had been camped.

“I’m pretty sure this is just a raiding party that captured your daughter. They’re probably on their way back to the main camp. Hopefully, I can get to them before they reach it. If I can, I can trade for Lark’s release.” Buck told Gerald. “I’ll need some gold and a couple of horses to trade,” the young man finished.

“Anything.” Hobson withdrew some money. “Oh, and Mr. Cross, I should warn you about Lark. I’m afraid I’ve always let her do things as she wanted. She’s rather, ah, willful.”

Willful, Buck thought three days later. That didn’t even began to describe the sullen figure riding next to him.

Lark felt his eyes on her but did not speak to him. Instead she studied him out of the corner of her eye. He spoke and dressed like a white man, but he looked like an Indian. True, he claimed to know her father, but how could she be certain. Was he really her rescuer or just another captor? She knew Indians were supposed to be tricky. Well, she decided, she wouldn’t give him an easy time at any rate. However, there was something about him that stirred her in a way she’d never felt before. Lark quickly shook her head. She couldn’t allow herself to be swayed now. She must remain aloof and in control.

Buck had not expected Gerald Hobson’s daughter to be such a beauty. No wonder the braves had taken her. Her chestnut hair fell in waves around her shoulders and her slim figure was pleasingly curved. It was her eyes, though, that drew Buck the most. They were a dark gray and showed determination, yet they also appeared sad, even lonely. Buck resisted the urge to hug the girl. She seemed to need comfort and reassurance, but wouldn’t know how to act if she ever got it.

Buck thought back over the past few days. After traveling for two days, he had come upon the raiding party’s camp. He was able to trade the gold and two ponies he had brought to get the girl back. He was thankful that he’d kept a third pony back at his camp out of sight.

Lark had flatly refused to ride with him as they left the Indian camp. The braves had laughed and ridden away with their new horses, wishing him luck with Sharp Tongue, as they called her. And indeed her tongue seemed to be barbed.

Lark had not fully understood all that was transpiring, since Buck and the others had spoken in sign language. All she knew was she was being traded to another Indian. Thus when Buck attempted to pull her onto Warrior with him, she kicked and fought. “I’m not going anywhere with you, you filthy savage,” she’d yelled.

Buck tried to calm her. Finally he said, “Settle down if you want to see your father.” That got her attention. Lark agreed reluctantly to ride with him, but she leaned as far forward as possible so as not to touch Buck. When they reached Buck’s camp, she jumped down hastily and brushed herself off as though she had been dirtied by his presence.

“Thank God you had enough sense to bring me a mount.” Lark said turning to the little mare tied at the edge of the camp. Buck shook his head. “Now I need to wash,” she stated haughtily. “I have the stench of you savages.”

Buck’s eyes narrowed, but he pointed toward the nearby creek. “You can bathe there.”

“How do I know you won’t watch?” Lark asked.

You don’t, Buck was tempted to answer. Instead he replied. “You have my word. I’ll be fixing supper.”

Lark sneered. “Like your word would mean anything, but I guess it’ll have to do.” Turning, she proceeded to the stream.

Buck put his head in his hands. How the hell had he gotten into this one, he questioned. This girl was full of hatred for some reason. Her father wasn’t like this, why would…oh, Lord, Buck wondered what the braves had done to her.

When Lark returned Buck had a fire going and supper was almost ready. “Feel better?” he asked.

“What do you care?” she spat out.

“I was just tryin’ to be polite,” Buck answered.

“Oh, a savage with manners.” Lark laughed.

“At least one of us has ‘em.” Buck mumbled angrily.

She shot him a hard look, but didn’t say anymore. They shared a silent supper before Lark took to the bedroll Buck had fixed for her.

“Not so much as a thank you,” Buck grumbled. He sat up a while longer. Glancing over at the sleeping girl, Buck wondered how anything that pretty could be so cruel. Lark’s chestnut hair fanned out over her arm, which she was using as a pillow. Her small, delicate hands clutched the blanket. In her sleep, she wore a half smile. Buck would have loved to have seen a true smile on her face.

“How long until we reach my father?” Lark asked at breakfast the morning after her rescue.

“Probably three days at the least. You won’t be able to ride as fast as I can.” Buck told her.

Lark’s chin went up. “I can do anything you can, savage,” she declared.

Buck sighed. “I have a name. It’s Buck, and I’d appreciate being called that, not savage.”

“Well, I don’t care what your name is, just as long as we get back to my father.”

“We’ll break camp as soon as you’re ready,” he informed her through gritted teeth.

That day seemed to last forever. The sun glared down relentlessly and just as unbearable to Buck was the complaining from Lark. She was hot; she was sweaty; she was tired; she was thirsty, and to top it all off, she demanded they stop frequently. Buck groaned. It would take them a week to make it back at this rate.

“I still don’t understand why my father sent you.” Lark complained that afternoon. “I’m sure the soldiers would have been a much better choice than some…”

Buck glared at her. “Don’t say it,” he warned.

“Some Indian.” She finished, smiling smugly at him.

Buck held his temper in check. “Your father thought I could do the job. He was worried about you.” Buck told her. “Though I can’t imagine why,” he added under his breath. But Buck did know why. He’d figured it out right away. Under that grand and haughty attitude was a scared little girl who desperately wanted love. Sure, her father had given her all money could buy, but obviously he’d never spent much time with Lark and she acted this way to gain attention.

As they sat eating the supper of rabbit that Buck had killed and prepared, Lark grimaced.

“Somethin’ wrong?” Buck asked.

“I am not use to eating little bunnies,” Lark said softly.

Buck bit back a smile. So there was some kindness in her after all. “You don’t have to eat if you don’t want to,” he said.

Lark’s head shot up and her gray eyes flashed. “So you’re going to starve me now like the others?” she questioned angrily.

“No, I was just jokin’,” Buck tried to assure her. Then he asked quietly, “What did they do to you, Lark?”

Lark looked away. “Nothing really. A couple of them tried to touch me, but the leader wouldn’t let them. I gathered that he wanted me for his own personal slave and woman. He wouldn’t feed me unless I did the work.” Suddenly, she turned to Buck. “And I never gave you permission to address me as Lark. You refer to me as Miss Hobson, when you speak to me. Now, good night.” And she abruptly withdrew to her bedroll.

Buck felt pity for the girl and also anger at being treated as inferior. Tomorrow, he decided, they were going to have a talk about her attitude.

Breakfast was quiet until Buck announced. “It’s almost time to go. Pack up the stuff and I’ll get the horses.”

Lark looked at him with rebellion in her eyes, but Buck walked away pretending not to notice. He’d done all the work yesterday, the least she could do was help. When he returned, Lark had things ready.

They rode until lunchtime and stopped to eat beside a rippling stream. Lark sat on a fallen log and waited until Buck had watered and tied the horses.

Then she stood up. “I did not appreciate being made to work this morning,” she stated.

Buck stared at her. “It wasn’t real work. I just asked for a little help.”

“I am no servant. And I did not appreciate it,” Lark repeated.

Buck’s patience was gone. He wondered how on earth that perfect rosebud of a mouth could spew forth such vile venom. “Neither do I appreciate being treated like a servant and talked to like a dog,” he responded coldly. “Especially by some spoiled little brat like you.”

“How dare you!” Lark stormed. “You should count yourself lucky to be treated as well as I have treated you. You’re nothing but a dirty, stinking, murdering savage, no matter how much you try to dress up and pretend to be white.”

With that Lark whirled and stalked toward the stream. Buck was about to call out that the slope was steep and slippery, when Lark’s shriek notified him that she’d found out. Buck hurried to the creek bank to find the girl struggling to her feet. He could see where she had slipped and fallen. Lark rubbed her hip where she had fallen against a rock and then attempted to straighten her now torn dress.

“Are you okay?” Buck questioned. She had a scratch on her arm, but Buck didn’t see any major damage. Other than that pride of hers, he thought.

“You should have warned me.” Lark fumed.

“I was about to, but you took off so quick I didn’t have time. Besides, if you hadn’t been so rude, this wouldn’t have happened.” Buck stated as he regarded her solemnly.

Lark dropped her head from the slight chastisement. Maybe he was right, she thought. Still she wasn’t quite ready to yield to him.

“Maybe this little lesson will teach you some manners.” Buck offered her his hand. She shook her head and scrambled up on her own. Buck sighed heavily and followed. It promised to be a long afternoon.

They rode all afternoon without speaking and without stopping. Buck watched as Lark shifted uncomfortably in her saddle. He knew riding hard all afternoon was making her plenty sore, but she wouldn’t admit it to him. With a slight smile, Buck halted Warrior.

“We’ve made good time today. We’ll stop for the night,” he told her. She simply nodded and slid down.

While Buck readied the horses for the night, Lark gathered firewood. She used the opportunity to covertly watch Buck. He was so strong and handsome, Lark admitted to herself. She was standing and wondering if his long black hair was as soft as it looked, when Buck turned back toward her. Lark dropped the wood and hurried away to freshen up for supper.

“No bunnies tonight,” Buck teased as he handed her a plate of beans and biscuits.

Lark nodded and ate hungrily. After supper she quickly rolled up in her bedroll.

Buck was almost asleep when he heard the soft sounds of someone crying. He sat up and looked at Lark. She was curled up like a child, sobbing. Buck went to her and instinctively pulled her into his arms. She clung there while he rocked her gently and smoothed her hair.

“I’m sorry, Buck. I’m so sorry,” she choked out between sobs.

“Sshh, it’s okay.” Buck soothed her. Then he realized she’d called him by his name. “What did you just say?” he asked tentatively.

“I said I was sorry. I never should have treated you like I did.” Lark sat up and wiped her face. “Just because I was scared and mad at those other Indians, I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. You were only trying to help me and I was acting like a spoiled brat, just like you said. I’m sorry, Buck. Can you ever forgive me?”

“I forgive you.” Buck assured her. “I think you learned your lesson.”

“I did.” Lark stated.

Cautiously, Buck reached to finish wiping away her tears. When she didn’t pull away, Buck caressed her cheek gently and then asked, “Think you can sleep now?” Lark nodded. “We’ve got a long day tomorrow and I don’t think we’ll make it to Sweetwater by nightfall,” Buck told her.

“That’s my fault, too.” Lark hung her head.

“It’s okay.” Buck turned back to his bedroll.

“Good night, Buck.” Lark called.

“Good night …” Buck hesitated.

“You can call me Lark,” the girl said.

“Good night, Lark.” Buck smiled.

Lark was awakened by a gentle shaking. She opened her eyes and blinked to get them focused.

Buck crouched next to her. “Breakfast is ready,” he spoke.

Lark nodded and struggled to her feet. She hadn’t realized last night how sore she was.

Buck smile sympathetically. “Sore?” he asked. Lark nodded. “You’ll get used to it if you ride a lot,” Buck informed her.

Lark gave him a half smile. “Believe it or not, I like riding. I’m just not accustomed to doing it all day for several days.”

“We’ll take it slow and easy today,” Buck promised.

“No.” Lark shook her head. “I’ve already held us back enough.”

Buck’s eyes registered his amazement. Was this the same girl who two days earlier demanded to stop every hour? “We can’t make it home till tomorrow anyway, so we don’t have to rush,” he stated.

Lark helped clean up and pack things and they started out for the day. Buck did indeed set a more leisurely pace and to keep Lark’s mind off her discomfort he told about his life with the Pony Express. Soon Lark was laughing merrily at Buck’s tales of the other riders.

“They all sound wonderful.” Lark sighed wistfully. “I wish I had friends like that.”

Buck turned to look at her. “Don’t you?”

“No. See, Daddy travels a lot, so we’ve never really put down roots anywhere after my mother died. We never stay in one place long it seems. Any so-called friends I had just liked me for my father’s money, not me.” Lark responded with a touch of bitterness.

Buck ached to hold her and take away the pain. He knew better than anyone how it felt to be rejected. “What’s your father like?” Buck changed the subject.

Lark thought for a moment before answering. “Daddy is a dear man. He’s always given me everything I wanted. I had dolls, pretty dresses, fine food, a grand house with servants to take care of me, and even special tutors.” She paused.

“Everything but love,” Buck ventured softly. It was late afternoon by now and they had stopped to make camp for the night.

Lark stared at him as they dismounted. “How did you know?” she whispered.

Buck shrugged. “It’s pretty obvious to me.”

“Daddy really does love me,” she assured Buck. “It’s just that he’s not very good at showing his feelings most of the time.”

Buck thought about the man he’d met in Teaspoon’s office. He’d shown his feelings then. Maybe this incident would be enough to draw the father and daughter close. Buck sensed they never had been truly close. He doubted Lark had ever had anyone to talk to and confide in.

They set up camp silently, each one lost in their own thoughts. Lark smoothed out her bedroll and watched as Buck made the fire. He had such nice hands. To be sure they were work hardened, but they were lean and strong, yet so gentle. Just like the whole man, Lark thought. She remembered how gentle and tender Buck had been as he stroked her hair and held her last night. Then again, he could be stern and firm when necessary, she reflected ruefully. I wonder if he’s got a passionate side, too, she thought and then blushed at the ideas filling her head.

Buck glanced up to find Lark observing him with a slight smile. “What’cha thinkin’?” he questioned with a smile of his own.

“About yesterday,” she remarked.

“It was quite a day.” Buck admitted.

Lark dropped her head. “Do you know that’s the first time anyone has ever talked to me like that?”

“You’re kiddin’?” Buck was incredulous.

“Nope.” Lark told him. “I’ve always been allowed to do things my way. Daddy even told my tutors and the servants to give in to my every wish.”

Buck shook his head. “That’s unbelievable. No wonder you’re …”

“A spoiled brat?” Lark supplied.

“I was gonna say willful, but yeah, brat works, too.” Buck replied.

Lark saw his grin and laughed herself.

“I’m sorry if I was too hard on you.” Buck apologized. “But I was mad.”

Lark took his hand in hers. “I know, Buck, and it’s alright. What you said was true and you did it because you cared enough to want me to behave properly. All my life I’ve been told how to behave, just never made to do it. You said what needed to be said to change my attitude. I guess now I should use my manners and say thank you.” She smiled.

Buck laughed and hugged her before he thought. When she didn’t pull away, Buck looked down.

“What?” Lark asked innocently. “I told you, you changed my attitude.” Laughing merrily at his amazed expression, Lark slipped from Buck’s arms and ran to the nearby stream to wash for supper. Pausing to smile and enjoy her laughter, Buck then darted off behind her.

They talked companionably through supper. Then Buck announced, “We should be home around lunch tomorrow.”

“Good.” Lark remarked. “I’ll be glad to see Daddy again.”

“I’m sure he’ll be just as glad to see you.” Buck stated.

“You think so?” Lark asked hesitantly. “I haven’t exactly been an ideal daughter, Buck. I’ve only thought about me and what I wanted, like riding out the other day. I was mad that Daddy had once again found someone to talk business with instead of spending time with me, so I decided to take off on my own. Now I realize how foolish that was.”

Buck listened and then commented. “I think you and your father need to have a long talk, Lark. You both have your faults, we all do, but you’re family and you need to work things out.”

Lark studied her companion. “You are very intelligent, Buck.”

Buck shrugged in embarrassment. “I don’t know about being so intelligent, I’m just observant,” he told her. “Right now we’d better get some sleep.”

Lark nodded and curled up in her bedroll.

Buck had things ready to go the next morning before he woke Lark. Looking down at her, he smiled. She looked so sweet and innocent. Buck thought briefly about waking her with a kiss, but quickly dismissed the idea. True, they were getting along much better now and had really talked to each other, but he wasn’t sure how Lark would handle a kiss.

Meanwhile, Lark was having a delicious dream that centered around a certain “savage”. She was in his arms and he was kissing her softly. She sighed happily. Then she became aware that the hand stroking her hair and the voice whispering to her was no dream. She looked up to find Buck brushing back a strand of wayward hair, while he said softly, “Lark, time to get up. Come on, little one.”

“Good morning,” she greeted Buck with a smile.

“Mornin’,” he returned. “You’re sure in a good mood.”

“Ummhmm,” she murmured, her gray eyes looking into his dark ones. Buck hadn’t realized he was holding his breath until he was forced to exhale loudly. Lark giggled and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek before scrambling up.

Buck sat in astonishment until Lark called, “Are we leaving today or not?” Buck rose and headed to Warrior.

It was late in the morning when they rode into town. When Buck entered the Marshal’s office with a girl in a dirty, torn dress, Teaspoon immediately sent Barnett to get Mr. Hobson.

Moments later, Gerald Hobson ran into the Marshal’s office and seeing his daughter, hugged her tightly. “Oh, my little girl, you’re safe!” he cried. Lark looked surprised at the affection, but she returned the hug.

“You had me so worried, Lark.” Gerald told her as he held her at arm’s length to get a good look at her. Lark saw the love and concern in her father’s eyes.

“I’m sorry, Daddy. I didn’t mean to worry you,” she replied, her eyes filling with tears.

“I’ve got you back now, though, thanks to Mr. Cross.” Gerald turned to Buck. “How can I ever thank you?” He extended his hand to the young man.

Buck shrugged and shook hands. “It wasn’t that big of a deal.” Lark rolled her eyes and Buck tried to hold back his laughter.

Mr. Hobson looked at Lark and back at Buck. “Not that big of a deal, huh?” he remarked. “And Lark comes in polite and apologizes for worrying me. Mr. Cross, what have you done with my real daughter, the willful little minx that would rather disobey and cause me problems than anything.”

Buck chuckled as Lark flung her arms around her father. “Oh, Daddy, that spoiled brat is gone,” she assured him. “Let’s just say that Buck gave me a lesson in manners.” And in love, she added in her head.

Gerald kissed his daughter’s cheek. “Then I can never repay him enough for this new young woman I have gotten in place of the willful child.” Noticing Lark’s attire for the first time, Gerald smiled. “Let’s see about getting you a bath and some clean clothes. Then you can rest in our room.”

“The bath and clean clothes sound wonderful, Daddy, but after that may we ride out to the way station? Buck has told me about the riders and I’d very much like to meet them.”

“Alright, if you’d like.” Gerald agreed.

“If you want, I could wait here for you and take you out.” Buck volunteered.

“Yes, thank you, Mr. Cross.” Gerald replied.

“Please, sir, just call me Buck,” the young man requested.

“Very well, Buck. We’ll meet you here in about an hour.” Gerald and Lark left the office, talking happily.

“Looks like those two got a lot to catch up on.” Teaspoon observed.

“About ten years worth,” Buck commented.

Teaspoon turned to the young man. “Gerald and I had several talks while you were gone. He’s a nice fellow. Feels real bad about never bein’ the father his girl needed. He wants to try to make up for it now, but he was worried how she’d react. I must admit he painted a different picture of that girl than the one I just seen. He loves his daughter and realizes he was part of the cause, but accordin’ to him she’s a connivin’, bad-mannered, self-centered, spoiled child.”

“She was.” Buck acknowledged. “And you could add spiteful, prejudiced, and ill-tempered to the list. Not to mention beautiful.”

Teaspoon raised an eyebrow. “So what happened out there?”

“We came to an understandin’ and Lark changed her ways. She found out her rudeness wouldn’t work on me. After I told her what I thought of her, we had several talks and got to know each other.” Buck explained. “She’s never really had anyone go against her before or hold her responsible for something. She told me no one ever cared enough to do it.”

Teaspoon regarded the young man thoughtfully. “So do you care enough, Buck?”

“Yes, sir,” the young man answered.

Lark and her father returned to the Marshal’s office. Buck smiled at Lark’s changed appearance. She now wore a wine colored dress dotted with forest green leaves and her long hair hung in a single braid down her back. Buck thought he also detected the faint smell of roses.

With a smile, he asked, “Are you ready to go?”

“Whenever you are.” Gerald replied. “I rented a buckboard and we will follow you to the station.”

Teaspoon watched them leave. He had noticed the look on Buck’s face when Lark had walked in. “Hope that boy ain’t to heartbroke when he finds out that gal’s headin’ to San Francisco,” Teaspoon commented to his hat.

In a short time, Buck and the Hobson’s had arrived at the station. Rachel was taking clothes off the line. Jimmy and Cody were working with a new horse, while Lou, Kid and Ike looked on. Buck assumed Noah was on a run, since he was nowhere in sight.

Everyone came over when they saw Buck and the newcomers. Buck made introductions.

“Why don’t ya’ll come over to the porch and I’ll get us some refreshments?” Rachel offered. “I know it must be a great relief to you, Mr. Hobson, to have your daughter back.”

“Yes, it most assuredly is, Ms. Dunne.” Gerald stated as he followed the blond woman to the porch. They were all soon enjoying a glass of Rachel’s refreshing lemonade.

Lark set her glass down and asked, “Daddy, would it be alright if Buck showed me around the station?”

Gerald nodded. “Just don’t be gone too long.”

Buck took Lark’s hand and they left the porch. The other riders trailed behind them.

“I’m so glad to get to meet you all,” Lark told the others. “Buck’s told me all about you and you’re all just like I pictured you’d be from his descriptions.”

“Just what did you tell her, Buck?” Cody questioned.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Buck grinned teasingly.

Lark laughed. “Don’t worry, it was mostly good,” she assured him.

“It’s the ‘mostly’ part that worry’s me,” Cody whispered to Jimmy. And they all laughed.

They had shown Lark the horses when she turned to Ike and asked, “Where’s Samson?” Ike smiled and led her to the little donkey’s pen.

“Oh, he’s adorable!” Lark exclaimed as she leaned over to pat him. Ike pulled a carrot out of his pocket and handed it to Lark. She fed it to the donkey as Ike signed something.

“Ike says he’s a pig. He’d rather eat than anything else.” Buck translated.

Lark smiled mischievously. “But, Buck, I thought you said Cody was like that, not Samson.”

“Hey!” Cody complained as the others laughed. “I’ll get you later, Buck,” the blond rider threatened.

Kid spoke up. “Lark is a pretty name, but it’s kind of unusual isn’t it?”

“Oh, like ‘Kid’ is real common.” Jimmy teased. Kid ignored his friend as Lark smiled and answered.

“My mother loved birds and she named me after the meadowlarks that lived round our house. I can remember walking in the meadow with her and she’d always say, ‘There are your birds, Lark,’ whenever we saw the meadowlarks perched on the blowing grasses, bobbing and singing.”

“Why don’t I show you the meadow behind the barn?” Buck offered. With a look that plainly told his friends not to follow, Buck walked away with Lark.

As they walked along Buck showed Lark different animal tracks and they even saw a bird’s nest in a tree. They picked wildflowers and made their way toward a little thicket at the edge of the meadow. When a rabbit bounded past them, Lark laughed.

“I don’t think I’ll forget having to eat that bunny,” she commented.

“You do what you have to do out here. We’d starve if we didn’t eat the cute little bunnies.” Buck said half jokingly.

“I know.” Lark replied. “I just never really thought about it before. There’s a lot I never noticed or thought about before I met you, Buck.”

“It’s just ‘cause you’ve never been around that sort of stuff.” Buck said with a shrug.

“No.” Lark argued. “It’s because I have a good teacher.”

“Well, I guess us ‘savages’ do know some things.” Buck winked.

Lark blushed. “Oh, Buck, I’m sorry I ever said that. I know now you’re not savage at all.”

“You sure?” Buck’s eyes gleamed as he reached for her. Lark squealed and ran. Buck caught her easily and pulled her close. His lips found hers in a kiss that was anything but savage.

When he released her, Lark gasped, “That’s one lesson I wouldn’t mind being taught again.”

“I guess we’ll have to repeat it till you learn it well.” Buck stated as he lowered his head to hers again.

Finally Lark sighed. “I guess we’d better go. Daddy’s probably ready to leave.”

“Alright, little meadowlark.” Buck brushed her cheek with his hand.

“Little meadowlark.” She smiled. “I never had a nickname before. It’s kind of nice. Thank you.” She kissed Buck’s cheek.

Reluctantly, they walked back to the station.

Gerald Hobson smiled when he saw his daughter returning arm-in-arm with Buck. He was no fool; he could see that something was developing between the two. He also knew it was time to talk to Lark about his plans.

Her father stood up as Lark came over. “Ready to go?’ he asked. Lark nodded.

Turning to the riders and Rachel, Lark said, “It was really nice meeting all of you. I hope to see you again.”

“We enjoyed meeting you and your father, too.” Rachel smiled. “You’d be welcome anytime.”

“Thank you for your hospitality, Ms. Dunne.” Gerald smiled and helped Lark into the buckboard. Then he turned to Buck. “Buck, I’d like to invite you to join Lark and myself for supper tonight. It’s the least I can do since you rescued my daughter.”

Lark looked pleadingly at Buck and he readily agreed.

“Very well, shall we meet at the restaurant at six?” Gerald suggested.

“That sounds fine, sir.” Buck nodded.

“See you tonight,” Lark called as they drove off.

“You’ve got it bad.” Kid grinned as the buckboard disappeared from sight.

“What are you talkin’ about?” Buck regarded his friends.

** Lark ** Ike signed with an impish look.

“She is a nice lookin’ girl.” Cody commented.

“Down, Cody.” Lou warned. “She’s Buck’s.”

“She’s not ‘mine’. I just helped bring her back to her father.” Buck protested feebly.

“Right.” Jimmy smirked.

“I’m goin’ get cleaned up for tonight.” Buck headed for the shower, trying to ignore the laughter from behind him.

Buck arrived early and waited in front of the restaurant for Lark and her father. He smiled as he saw them heading toward him. But nothing prepared him for the sight of Lark dressed up. Buck had seen her in a dirty dress and then in a simple everyday dress, but this young lady couldn’t be the same Lark.

Her hair was swept back with combs, earrings dangled from her ears, and a diamond pendant sparkled at her throat. Lark wore a lavender dress with a scooped neckline and capped sleeves. The skirt swayed gently with the motion of her hips. She looked like a princess and Buck found himself staring like an idiot.

“Good evening, Buck.” Mr. Hobson greeted him.

Buck shook his hand. “Good evening, sir,” the young man said. Turning to Lark, Buck swallowed hard. “Good evening, Miss Hobson,” he said formally.

Lark laughed and hugged him. “Stop staring at me, you savage,” she whispered teasingly.

Buck grinned. Fine dress or not, she was the same ol’ Lark, he thought, as arm in arm, they followed her father.

The meal was delicious and the conversation relaxed. Buck was truly enjoying himself. It was amazing to see how much closer Lark and her father seemed after just a few hours.

“Well, my dear, it has been a wonderful night, but I think we should be going now.” Gerald announced after a couple of hours. “We have to get up early tomorrow.”

“Why?” Buck asked innocently.

“We leave for San Francisco in the morning.” Gerald replied.

Buck felt as if one of the horses had suddenly kicked him in the stomach. “San Francisco?” he managed to ask.

“Yes. I have to conduct some important business there.” Gerald pushed back his chair and stood up. “Why don’t you two stay and say your good-byes. I’ll see you back at the hotel, honey.” He kissed Lark’s forehead.

“Yes, Daddy. I won’t be late, I promise.” Lark replied. Gerald smiled fondly at his daughter. “Thank you again, Buck. Lark told me that you probably wouldn’t take money, but I’d like to offer it anyway.” He held out several gold coins.

Buck’s eyes widened, but he shook his head. “Lark’s right. I can’t take this.”

“Alright.” Gerald conceded. “But if you ever need anything, you just let me know. I’m eternally grateful for all you’ve done, Buck.” Gerald shook Buck’s hand and left.

“You didn’t tell me you were going to San Francisco,” Buck remarked after Gerald left. Lark flinched at the accusing note in his voice. “Why?” Buck prompted.

“I…I don’t know,” she stammered, not meeting his gaze. But she did know, and she was fearful of telling him her feelings.

“Don’t lie to me, Lark.” Buck spoke quietly, but firmly.

Lark looked up only to have his piercing eyes bore into her. “I didn’t want to tell you because I wanted to enjoy what little time we had together,” she admitted in a whisper.

Buck sighed and reached to take her hand. “Wanna go for a walk?” he asked. Lark nodded her consent.

Together they walked through town. As they paused beside a bench, Buck pulled Lark down next to him to talk.

“I don’t want you to go,” he told her. “Can’t you get your father to postpone the trip?”

“No. We’re already running late because of my little escapade. I won’t ask my father to make any more concessions for me.” Lark responded.

Buck had to admire her new maturity and concern for her father, but it didn’t help ease the ache that her leaving was causing him. “Maybe you could stay here and your father could go on without you,” he suggested hopefully.

“By myself? Unchaperoned?” Lark shook her head. “It wouldn’t work. Besides Daddy just found me.”

So did I, Buck thought. He tried again. “You wouldn’t be unchaperoned. You could stay with Rachel.”

Lark regarded him with amusement. “Buck, you can’t just volunteer Rachel like that.”

“Oh, she wouldn’t mind. Please?” Buck pleaded with a slight whine.

Lark laughed and brushed his hair back. “Now who sounds spoiled?” she teased. Buck gave her an embarrassed grin. “I don’t want to go, Buck, but I owe it to my father. And I’ll write to you.” Lark tried to offer comfort.

Buck took her face in his hands. “Promise me you’ll come back someday.”

“I promise.” Lark vowed.

Buck kissed her softly, then more passionately as Lark returned his kisses.

When they finally released each other, Lark took his hand. “I need to get back.”

Buck nodded and walked her to the hotel.

“We’re supposed to leave at nine in the morning,” Lark informed him.

“I’ll be here.” Buck told her.

“Good night, Buck.”

He responded by holding her close. “See you in the morning,” he whispered into her hair.

Lark was pacing the sidewalk in front of the hotel when Buck arrived in town.

“There you are!” she exclaimed, hurrying over to him.

“What’s wrong?” Buck asked worriedly.

“Nothing.” Lark’s eyes sparkled. “I’ve got good news!”

“You’re stayin’?!” Buck guessed with a smile. When Lark shook her head, Buck’s face fell. He’d been awake most of the night thinking about her and wishing there was a way to keep her with him.

“Daddy and I had a long talk last night.” Lark explained. “He knows how I feel about you, and he likes you, too. He also likes Sweetwater and especially Marshal Hunter. So…” Lark paused teasingly.

“So, what?” Buck almost yelled.

“So we’re coming back here to live after Daddy finishes his business in San Francisco.” Lark told him happily.

“How long will that take? When will you be back?” Buck asked.

“How does around Christmas sound?” Lark asked with a smile.

“It sounds wonderful!” Buck whooped and picked her up in a bear hug.

“Put me down, Buck.” Lark laughed. “What will people think?”

“I don’t care what people think.” Buck stated as he set her down and gave her a kiss.

“I take it Lark has told you our news.” Gerald chuckled as he stepped out of the hotel.

“Yes, sir.” Buck looked embarrassed at being caught kissing Lark.

Gerald patted the young man’s back. “And I assume it meets with your approval?” he joked. Buck grinned sheepishly.

Gerald smiled. “I have to go and see about a few ships that I plan to purchase, which should take about a month. Then I intend to find a nice spot for Lark and myself to settle down and stay put while my ships do all the work for me. When I found Sweetwater, I knew my traveling days were over.”

Lark studied Buck with a happy smile. “So can you wait a few months for me?” she teased.

Buck smiled. “I think I can manage. I’ll still miss you, though.”

“I’ll miss you, too. But I have a feeling that Marshal Hunter and the Express will keep you busy so that the time will fly by.” Lark looked over Buck’s shoulder with a wink.

“I’ll try my best to keep him occupied, little lady.” Teaspoon spoke from behind Buck.

Buck turned. “I didn’t know you were here.”

“Had to come see these folks off,” Teaspoon stated as he shook Gerald’s hand. “Looks like the stage is on time.”

Sure enough the stage pulled into town. Gerald and Teaspoon began loading the bags while Lark and Buck exchanged last minute good-byes.

“Thank you for everything, Buck.” Lark hugged him.

“You’re welcome, brat.” Buck teased affectionately.

Lark laughed. “Without your lessons, I’d still be a brat. And I never would have learned to love.”

Buck held her close. “I love you, little meadowlark.”

“And I love you, my savage,” she replied.

They shared a lingering kiss and then Lark allowed her father to help her on the stage. Waving good-bye, Buck thought about the coming months and hoped they’d go by quickly.

As if reading his thoughts, Teaspoon asked, “Don’t you have a run first thing tomorrow?”

“Yep.” Buck answered.

“Reckon you might need to get home and get ready for it,” Teaspoon commented.

“I guess so.” Buck grinned. “I’m sure Rachel’s got chores waitin’, too. See ya at home, Teaspoon.” Buck turned to swing up on Warrior.

“See ya at home, son.” Teaspoon waved.

Lark leaned back against the seat and contemplated her adventure and all the things Buck had taught her. I’ll bet Buck has plenty more lessons to teach me, she thought with a smile. Learning from a savage never seemed so inviting.

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