Topic #11: Changing Winds
|Untangling My Mind
||Blowin' In The Wind
||A Change of Deputy
|Hold Back the Rain
||Signs of Change
|Give Me a Chance
A/N: Buck and Justine again...I'm trying to get them wrapped up.
He wasn’t exactly sure what woke him, but as he rolled over and opened one eye, he was assaulted by the bright daylight pouring in through the cabin window. Not one of his better ideas, he decided once again, to clear the grime off the windows. No matter, it would quickly come back. After all, what was the point of cleaning – the cabin or himself – if there was no one around to see the state of neglect?
For two months he’d lived as a hermit in this old abandoned shack. For two months he’d hid from the world, hoping that the nightmares, the thoughts that plagued his waking hours would abate and leave him in peace. He was beginning to realize that he might as well ask the sun not to rise or set. Justine simply had imbedded herself so deeply into his life, into his heart, that no matter how he tried he couldn’t unseat her.
Maybe it was time to stop running. Running from his fear, running from his past, running from the memory of women like Kathleen Devlin who pretended to accept him then viewed him as nothing more than a savage they had to endure as a means to an end. Justine was not Kathleen.
She was a ray of beauty and truth in a world that had not made sense to him since the death of Ike. She accepted him, she welcomed him, she made him feel like he’d found a place of belonging. And what did he do? He turned his back. Chose a life of solitude and emptiness, because of the fear of rejection. His whole life had been filled with it, but he had fought against it, had found friends who accepted him for who he was, had worked to carve a life for himself. What suddenly changed within him that he felt the need to turn tail and run?
He was ashamed to look around and see the squalor and filth that he lived in due to his apathy. He was better than this. He deserved more than this. And if the world didn’t want to give it to him, then he was going to charge in and demand it from them. No more hiding out. No more living his life empty and full of longing, when there was a woman out there who had accepted him and loved him like no other.
It was time to get his life together. And then it was time to return to Justine.
Under the cover of darkness, Buck slipped into town. Freshly shaven, clothes washed and tidy, he was a far cry from the slovenly bum he’d been a mere week ago. He had a newfound sense of determination. A purpose to life. No more shirking, hiding away from the world. He was going to get what he wanted. And what he wanted was Justine. That is if she would still have him.
Well, he may not have fought for her the first time. But there was no deterring him now.
He just had one small stop to make. He was so close, and he really did miss the man who had given him sage advice and unwavering support. He’d been watching for a couple of days, and he knew that Teaspoon would be on duty tonight. He wasn’t sure he wanted to have everyone know he was in town. He sure didn’t plan on staying long, but he wanted to see Teaspoon.
Leaving his horse tethered around back, Buck walked along the side of the marshal’s office, and looked inside the building. Teaspoon was in his chair, feet propped up on the desk, his dusty black hat perched over his face as he rested his eyes. It was such a nostalgic sight, that Buck found himself looking over his shoulder, half expecting Cody to come barging into the room in his exuberant manner and startle the sleeping man.
Squaring his shoulders and feeling taller than he had in months, he placed his hand on the doorknob and turned. He stepped inside, and the smell of gun oil, leather and dust drew him back in time. Teaspoon appeared to slumber on, but Buck knew better. He’d heard the slight change in breathing as the door closed.
Slowly and methodically, Teaspoon sat up, placed his hat aright his head and leaned forward in his chair. “Buck? What brings you by, son?”
“I…I came to talk,” he said, turning his hat in his hands and crumpling the brim. “I made a mess of my life.”
He sank into a chair, feeling Teaspoon’s appraising gaze. The frankness of the words seemed to quiet both men. As his friend remained silent, Buck continued on. “I didn’t know where I belonged when I left here, and I found myself in a town that I’d visited once on a run.”
They sat there, Teaspoon listening as he described the wandering, the feeling of peace that came over him when he found himself in Hamm’s Bluff and the friendship and love he’d found there with Justine. It was the first time he’d voiced out loud the depth of his feelings for the beautiful brunette, and there was an urgency growing in him to tell her in person. He talked of being arrested, and the town’s prejudiced nature towards him. Then leaving when the sheriff found he and Justine had been sleeping together; unwilling to subject her to the same caustic remarks and disdainful looks he endured.
“What did she say when you left, son?” Teaspoon asked, finally speaking up.
“She said she didn’t care what the town thought, that she wanted to be with me, we could leave and go someplace. I just…I didn’t want to subject her to that. I didn’t know if I could handle if she decided she didn’t want to be in my life.”
“So, you made a decision for the both of you.”
With shame, Buck nodded his head. “That’s why I need to go see her. If she never speaks to me again, I’d understand, but I…I can’t leave things how they were between us. I can’t let her think she didn’t mean anything to me. I just wanted to see you, before I headed back to Hamm’s Bluff.”
“There won’t be any reason to leave, Buck,” Teaspoon said, slow and measured. “Justine is here in Rock Creek.”
In retrospect, Buck realized it probably wasn’t the smartest thing to head straight to Justine’s house from the jail. He had just been so surprised when Teaspoon said she was living here in Rock Creek. That she’d arrived there not long after he’d left Hamm’s Bluff. She had gotten to know his friends, and they had all taken a liking to her. Teaspoon seemed fiercely protective of her, and told him to wait until a decent hour to go see her.
But he couldn’t wait that long. He wanted to see her now. He needed to see her. She had come looking for him. She hadn’t stayed in Hamm’s Bluff to lick her wounds; she’d gotten on a stagecoach and tried to find him. Maybe she felt the same way he did. Regardless, he wasn’t going to wait any longer to talk to her.
So, there he stood on her front porch, knocking loudly and unceasingly. How soundly could one person sleep? Finally the door swung open, and a very tired and angry Justine stood with a candle in one hand and a gun in the other.
“What do you want?” she snapped.
“Justine?” he said cautiously, wondering if she was truly angry at him, or just not fully awake and recognizing him.
Her eyes widened, clearing instantly and the gun and the candle fell to the floor as she launched herself at him, hugging him fiercely. “Buck? Is it you? Is it really you?”
He closed his eyes, letting the memory of her warmth and softness flow over him. The way she fit up against him, the…
Before he could figure out the difference he sensed, she suddenly pulled back from him and his cheek stung from the stunning blow of her palm. “Who the heck do you think you are, Buck Cross, suddenly showing up on my door like this?”
Buck sat easily in the saddle on the bay gelding, holding the reins loosely. He needed to get away from town, away from people, away from distractions.
He needed room to think.
He’d had no real destination in mind when he left Rock Creek, and as his mind wandered over the decision he faced, he hadn’t really paid attention to where he was riding. But as he looked up now and took in his surroundings, he knew exactly where he was, and he wasn’t surprised.
He rode up to the top of the small hill and dismounted. Then he closed his eyes, picturing the hilltop as it was that night a few short months back – the night it had held Ike’s funeral pyre. He could still see the flames reaching to the sky, carrying Ike’s spirit to the freedom of the afterlife.
The other riders were so clear in his mind too. They were all gone now – at least, gone from Rock Creek. Noah Dixon was dead, killed by Southern raiders. Kid and Lou had married, stuck it out until the end of the Pony Express, and then, after much soul searching, headed for Virgina and Kid’s destiny in the Confederate army. Cody and Jimmy had also headed off to fight, though they chose the Union side.
Buck was alone in the bunkhouse now, and it was an uncomfortable loneliness. He helped with the stage runs a few times a week, but that was a far cry from the hustle and bustle at the height of the Pony days. In between, he helped Teaspoon keep order in the town.
Rachel still lived in what had been the station house, but she was close to leaving. Mike Stalder, sober now for several months, had returned and announced his intentions to court her and make her his wife – and in the process convince her to follow him to Denver. And Rachel was close to saying yes.
Teaspoon and Polly had quietly been courting again, and making their own plans for the future. While Teaspoon had no stomach for joining the Confederate army and fighting in another war, Texas was calling – loudly – to both of them. Teaspoon had already announced his attention to resign from his position as town Marshal after the coming holidays, and he and Polly were close to making the final decision to head south.
Buck crouched down, running his hands over the earth where the funeral pyre had blazed. It was late November now, and the ground was frozen. But the remains of the new grass and wildflowers that had grown to cover the funeral site were still evident. The earth had seen Ike’s spirit on its way, and then, as it always did, changed course, renewing itself, going on with a new coat and a new purpose.
He wished he could find his own new purpose as readily.
He stood up again, looking around. It was a gray, overcast day. The dark clouds on the horizon were getting closer, promising an early winter storm on its way. Around him the winds swirled, seemingly as confused as he found his own life just then.
Just then the wind seemed to be coming from the east, and he turned to face it. Rock Creek lay in that direction. Did his future? It wasn’t finalized yet, but Teaspoon’s successor as Marshal was likely to be a man named Horace Benson. Teaspoon spoke highly of the man, and Buck had been impressed the couple of times he’d met the man. Benson had made it clear he was welcome to stay on as a deputy, and he appreciated that vote of confidence. But with all of the people who tied him to Rock Creek gone or leaving, was that enough to make him stay? For all the times he had risked his life for the town, many people still crossed the street to avoid being near to him. He was tolerated, not welcomed, in the town’s business establishments.
Other signs of unrest also came from the east. More and more settlers were coming through, driven westward by the war. Many were electing to stay in Rock Creek, especially with winter settling in. Some were earnest, hard-working folk who would make fine additions to the town. But others came from the border wars in Missouri and Kansas, and they brought their fight with them.
The wind swirled, now coming more from the southeast. He could almost smell the war that came from that direction. He’d heard all of the rhetoric on both sides – but he certainly couldn’t say he understood the war. He could only wonder how many people – brothers, fathers, husbands – would die as soldiers before the men in charge admitted they didn’t really understand the war either.
What he did understand was that his future definitely didn’t lie in that direction.
Almost as if in response to that thought, the wind shifted again, and he turned to the west to face it. Somewhere off in that direction his brother still led the Kiowa in a fight against the incursion of the white man. Even when he’d last spoken to Red Bear, almost a year and a half earlier, his brother had understood the ultimate futility of the battle. Yet still he fought, struggling to hold on to his people’s heritage.
Buck’s thoughts had turned frequently to his Kiowa heritage recently as he contemplated his options for the future. But with everything he had experienced since leaving the Kiowa, he couldn’t truly conceive of going back. Besides, Red Bear had clearly seen that his younger brother was destined for a different path. There was no reason to believe he would be welcomed back by the Kiowa, not even by his brother.
The wind continued to blow from the west, but he turned his eyes slightly to the north, his hand going to touch the letter in his jacket pocket. The postmark was from Cheyenne, and the letter itself from Sam Cain. Sam asked – almost begged – him to consider taking a position as a deputy Territorial Marshal. The wide-open space of the northern Territory offered a multitude of possibilities, and both the law-abiding and the lawless were taking advantage of those possibilities. Sam was recruiting men he knew, men he could trust, men who were at home out in the wilderness, men who didn’t need the pampering of a big town.
Men like Buck Cross.
Buck’s hand closed around the letter as he considered the opportunity. He truly didn’t see himself as a lawman for the rest of his days. But it would be good to work with Sam again, even for a while. Sam Cain was a lawman – and friend -- he could respect. Sam and Emma were expecting their first child shortly after the New Year, and he couldn’t deny it would be fun to share the joy of their new family.
On the negative side, taking the job would mean having to convince a whole new set of people that his Kiowa side didn’t automatically make him untrustworthy, an enemy. But on the plus side, Sam would pay a decent wage, and when he was in town, Buck knew he could count on frequent meals from Emma. He could easily save up some money. Added to the stake he already had from his Pony Express wages, in addition to various reward money, and he’d probably have enough money within a couple of years to go farther north, or northwest, and get a place of his own. Something large enough to start the horse ranch he envisioned.
As if in response to his thoughts, the wind shifted again, coming now from the north. He turned fully to face it, surprised by the fresh, invigorating scent it seemed to carry. He breathed in deeply, feeling the crisp promise of freedom coming from the north.
The first snowflakes began to fall, but he barely noticed as he continued to gaze northward. The snow swirled in the wind, blowing around him, and seeming to leave a tunnel – a path – in front of him, leading that way.
Buck let go of the letter and used both hands to pull the collar of his jacket up around his neck against the chill. He looked down at the funeral site, knowing he would miss being able to come here and think. But in truth, Ike wasn’t here. Ike was in his heart and memories, and always would be. And Ike was all around him, free on the wind.
Just then he heard an eagle cry and he looked up, his eyes searching. He saw the majestic bird then, circling high above, as if sailing on a great wind. And then the bird turned in a graceful arc, heading north.
He followed the eagle with his eyes until it was a speck in the distance, and then it was gone. But the great bird’s path was clear – and suddenly, after weeks of thought and indecision, so was his.
Buck gathered his horse’s reins and mounted. He looked back at the funeral pyre site once, then turned toward Rock Creek. The wind continued to blow from the north, bringing the snow, but also bringing the freshness he savored.
He’d write to Sam when he got back to town, and accept the position. And then, when Teaspoon and Polly headed south, he’d go the other way. North, to follow the eagle – to find his future.
Sam Cain stared at his hands, listening to Emma’s tale. Evan Crandall was the reason she held back from him. Ever since the day he kissed Emma and he barely even spoken to each another. Until the day Teaspoon Hunter came to town. Then they had to speak, the Pony Express was coming. And because of that, Emma and Sam had been slowly making their way back to one another. That was till today, it was today Sam found out the real reason for Emma’s sometimes chilly behavior.
He couldn’t believe it. Why would a woman like Emma marry such a man? It made absolutely no sense whatsoever. He had just voiced that opinion when Emma sobbed, “you don’t know what I was.”
What were you Emma? the voice inside him screamed. But the voice remained silent. All he could do was watch as Emma ran from his office.
It was a few days later when Sam finally spoke to Emma again. “Emma,” he began.
But Emma cut him off. “You remember John Longely?”
Sam nodded, recalling the gunfighter.
“I knew him.”
Again Sam nodded.
“Before I knew Evan.”
“Emma,” Sam tried once more.
Emma shook her head. He didn’t understand the point she was trying to make. She had to make him see what had happened, why she owed Evan so much. “He said he was going to marry me,” she said.
“Who?” Sam asked, puzzled.
She raised her eyes at looked at him. Dear Lord, he still didn’t understand. “But then he left.” She wiped her eyes as the tears threatened to spill out. “I was carrying his baby when he left.”
“Longley’s?!” Sam couldn’t conceal his shock.
Emma looked away. “When I met Evan, I didn’t know about the baby. But I knew when he asked me to marry him.”
Sam wrapped his arms around her.
“I told him about the baby and he said he didn’t care,” Emma cried. “He married me knowing what I was. He saved me.”
“Maybe you saved him,” Sam said thoughtfully.
Emma turned to face him, unsure of the meaning behind his words.
“He’s been heading in this direction for a while,” Sam continued. Men like Evan Crandall didn’t become what they were overnight. “Maybe he thought you could change him, make him a real family man. But he just couldn’t change who he really was.”
“I always thought he left me because he couldn’t stand the sight of me anymore.” She had been ill and hugely pregnant. She hadn’t blamed him. How could he look at her? It must have been like rubbing salt in an open wound, knowing that the child inside her wasn’t his. Each time he looked at her he had been reminded of his wife’s past, a past which he would have to live with everyday of their marriage.
“You didn’t deserve it, Emma,” Sam said softly. She didn’t deserve to be deserted by the father of her child, she didn’t deserve to be abandoned by her husband and least of all she didn’t deserve to bury her own baby.
Slowly Emma raised her arms and placed them around Sam’s neck. He wouldn’t have left her, she realized that now. Not all men were like Evan Crandall or John Longely. Not everyone left.
Dep-u-tee Brown. Dep-u-tay Brown. Dep-ya-tee Brown. Yep, no matter how you say it, it sounds good. Sorta rolls off the tongue.
Darryl Brown, the newly appointed Deputy of Sweetwater, sat with his feet up on his desk in the office, gazing around his domain. Well, technically, it was still that old coot’s domain (and desk), but Darryl decided he weren’t going to let that bother him overly. He had worked darn hard for this job. He’d been angling for it ever since he’d gotten to town over, well gosh, that must’ve been over two years ago.
First thing he’d done when he’d got to town was march right on up to the marshal's office and announce his intention to be part of the law in this here town. It hadn’t been part of his plan when the marshal (by the name of Teaspoon Hunter) told him he already had a deputy. What had that deputy’s name been? Boy? Dog? Somethin’ stupid like that. Weren’t no kind of proper name, that’s for sure. Kid! That was it! Well, anyway, as long as Kid was around, Darryl knew he didn’t stand a chance. So he’d just had to bide his time and wait for an opportunity.
And it didn’t take long for his opportunity to show itself. Darryl only had to wait for a couple of weeks before Kid blew out of town. Some big to-do over his fiancée and his best friend deciding to hook up together, and never mind about Kid.
Hoo boy had Kid been mad about that. He had stalked around town like a big furry bear. Like an ANGRY big furry bear. Darryl suspected that there hadn’t been an awful lot of law-breaking during those particular days.
Darryl had heard tell of a drifter who made the mistake of shootin’ up the saloon the day after Kid found out the news. That drifter lived to see mornin’ but Darryl guessed he probably wished he hadn’t. Darryl gathered that this was real outta character for Kid, but if you asked him, which few people did, Kid had every right to drink a bit too much and rough up a couple a people. That kinda behavior just ain’t called for in a woman. Or a best friend.
Darryl happened to be outside the marshal’s office when Kid had let Teaspoon know that he didn’t think he was gonna hang around much longer, considering. Teaspoon had seemed real sad to see him go, but hadn’t really argued much. Said that Kid had always been the kinda man who did what he said he was gonna do, so he weren’t going to waste his breath, but Kid should know that Teaspoon would miss him, that everybody would miss him. Darryl wasn’t sure what the heck that meant. From where he stood, it seemed that his ex-woman and ex-friend sure weren’t gonna miss him that awfully much.
Well, so, much as Darryl felt bad about the way it happened, it seemed that the position of deputy was open again. The next day Darryl put on his best shirt, shined his boots, and swaggered straight in the marshal’s office. But would you believe that Wild Bill had made it there first?! When Darryl walked in to see that no-good piece ‘a work leaning against the wall like he just about owned the place, well, he near choked on the return of his breakfast. Darryl had tried to ignore him, tried to have a reasonable conversation with the marshal, but it was right hard with a killer watchin’ his every move.
And it seems that marshal Hunter is a mite crazier than Darryl had originally thought, ‘cuze Hunter said that he was hirin’ Jimmy (that’s what he kept on calling Wild Bill) to be his new deputy! You gotta be crazy to hire a gunslinger like that for a lawman’s position. But that ain’t even the best part! Turns out that Wild Bill is the best friend that went after the old deputy’s girl! Yep, seems that Wild Bill is now engaged to the girl that Kid used to be engaged to! Thought that would be the story of the century, but people here don’t seem all that upset. Truthfully, they don’t seem all that surprised, either.
Whole dang town seems to have gone crazy, that’s what. The day a respectable man is turned down in favor of a gun-totin’ thug is a sad day indeed. But, to be fair, and Darryl did try hard to be a fair man, Wild Bill didn’t do a half bad job. Though Wild Bill did keep tryin’ to insist that everybody call him Jimmy, or James, or even just Hickok, which most people did. ‘Cept for Darryl, yessiree. Some people don’t forget just ‘cuze somebody turns out to be a half-decent lawman.
Then when Wild Bill got all shot up like he’d done, Darryl thought for sure that his turn had come. ‘Specially since didn’t nobody know who’d done it. It weren’t safe for him to go back to work, even if he had miraculously healed up, which he didn’t. Darryl had seen him lying on the ground and thought for sure he was dead. Weren’t the only one that thought that neither. His new wife was there all screamin’ her head off, even after she found out he was still breathing. But even if he wasn’t dead, he sure weren’t coming back to work anytime soon.
So Darryl had put on his best shirt, shined his boots, and headed toward the marshal’s office. Got there just in time to see him swearing in some half-breed with hair all practically down to his waist. Now, Darryl, being a fair man, could understand givin’ the job to Wild Bill, but givin’ a lawman’s job to a half-breed? That just ain’t right! Sure did expect the whole town to rise up, but, once again, the town turned out to be as crazy as Hunter. Only person to even put up a fuss was the store owner Tompkins. And much as Darryl would like to have someone on the same side, he weren’t gonna stoop to sidin’ with Tompkins. The man had refused him credit, just on account ‘a being unemployed. Didn’t he know that it was just a matter of time until he could take his rightful place as a lawman?
Well, Darryl had assumed that the half-breed . . . what was his name? Elk? Deer? Some kinda crazy Indian name like that. Well, anyway, Darryl had assumed that he would only be there for a couple of weeks, but . . . Buck! That was his name! Right, so he’d thought that Buck would only be around until Wild Bill healed, but it turns out that Wild Bill had found out that there was a price on his head or something like that, so he left town trackin’ whoever had put it there down to make ‘em take it back off. Darryl didn’t figure he had much of a shot of returning outside a coffin. So, later, when Darryl heard Buck telling Hunter that he had to take off to go help his people, he rushed home, put on a pretty clean shirt, spit on his boots, and ran all the way to the marshal’s office.
Gotta admit, it was a little disheartening, but by the time Darryl got back to the office, Hunter was introducin’ some scrawny kid named Lou. Honestly, Darryl made nice with the kid because he assumed he was some poor relation to Hunter. ‘Bout fell outta the chair when Hunter said this kid was gonna be the new deputy. Now, that’s just plain old crazy. Ain’t never seen this boy before, and givin’ him a job? Hunter said that he and Lou went way back, but this lil piece a nothin’ sure ain’t showed his face in this town recently. ‘Sides he don’t look like he has the strength to wrassle a dog, let alone a criminal. Thought for sure Hunter had gone too far this time. The good folk of this town would have to say something. But nope, the whole town just stands by, letting their lives and livelihoods be guarded by a little boy who looks like his momma ain’t got money enough for food.
Well, looks like ole Darryl was right about that one because Lou had only been on the job for near on three weeks before he had to quit. Coulda had a chance then, but Darryl heard this Lou fella tellin’ Hunter that he’d written to Jimmy and told him he had to come on home. Don’t know what Wild Bill’d be doing takin’ orders from no showy little upstart, but they both seemed pretty sure he would come. Didn’t even bother to fetch a good shirt that time. Knew it was pointless.
Anyways, when Wild Bill did show up just a couple a days later (musta rode like the wind) it turns out he was just in time. Seems that his wife came up pregnant and needed him at home. Which is kinda funny cause ain’t nobody seen her around for a while. Thought for sure that she musta gone with him or something’ like that. Heard around town that Miss Louise is quite a fireball.
But, oh, that was the moment of glory for Mr. Darryl Brown. Wild Bill came into town and made a beeline to the marshal’s office. Told Hunter that he didn’t guess he had to explain that he would be needing some time off in ‘bout seven months. An’ then Hunter said course he didn’t, but they’d have to find someone to fill in while he was gone. Well, hearing that, it didn’t matter bout takin’ time for no clean shirt or nothin’ like that. Darryl stepped right up and offered his services to the community. Thought they’d be right happy about the solution to their problem showing up and all, but they just kinda sighed. Guess maybe they were worried ‘bout some other stuff. Hunter said he supposed there weren’t any other options he could come up with right then, and he’d have to see, but that he couldn’t think of nobody else that could do it.
Well, Miss Louise had her baby a mite early, and Teaspoon said he hadn’t had time to arrange for a new deputy, but luckily, Darryl was there to remind him that he had. So here he is. Deputy Darryl Brown, surveying his kingdom. Hunter seems to be a bit forgetful, cuze he keeps saying that this is only a temporary job, like he hadn’t already said that over ‘n over. See, Darryl understands that this is temporary right now, but it seems that these people can’t even barely keep their heads on straight. Every time a body turns around there’s a new deputy. And eventually, there’s gonna have to be a new marshal, too. Darryl suspects that if he’s in the right place at the right time, there will be other opportunities.
‘Cept that these people do seem to have an awful lot of friends.
It was a beautiful day, the sky filled with soft cotton-candy clouds and the sunshine warm and comforting on his skin. Buck smiled as Elizabeth took his hand, tugging gently and urging him to run, run, RUN to the waters edge. They pulled up at the bank, laughing together, and Buck could only stand, open-mouthed, and watch the play of sunlight on her golden hair, the dancing light in her eyes, the full lushness of her lips… and marvel that he was loved.
Elizabeth bent to the shoreline, giggling as she scooped up a handful of water and flicked it in his direction. Buck laughed as the scattered droplets splashed against his face, trying to scamper away as she flicked her fingers again… and again… and again…
Buck blinked as another bead of water hit his cheek, shaking his head to ward off the suddenly icy sting. Where was the sun? He frowned as yet another onslaught of water droplets drenched his flesh. Trying to shrug away from his laughing wife, his cheek brushed against a blanket of velvet softness as the pungent scent of fresh hay wafted around him.
Buck’s head shot up, the dream fading away in an instant as Warrior neighed his displeasure at his owners abrupt jolt back into reality. He glanced down at his empty hand. There, at Warrior’s hoof, lay the curry comb. He didn’t remember dropping it. But then, he reflected, he wouldn’t remember… considering he’d been dead asleep with his head resting on his horse’s back.
Buck blinked again, lifting his eyes skyward as another drip of moisture struck his face. When his gaze followed the back trail of the condensation to a gaping hole in the barn roof, it was all he could do not to let his own tears join the patter of fresh water caressing his upturned cheek.
Buck trudged to the house, his feet dragging listlessly through ground that was rapidly becoming a quagmire of sloppy, thickening mud and grime. He grimaced as he rounded the corner from the barn. It was well after midnight, yet light still shone brightly from the sitting room windows.
His shoulders sagged, knowing what he would find when he opened the front door. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. And it would have to stop.
“You’ve got no right to tell me what to do!”
“I have every right. I’m your husband!”
Elizabeth threw down her sewing and threw up her hands, tired already of this circular argument. Pushing back the chair with a clatter, she stalked toward the small pot-belled stove and checked on the huckleberry pie. She unhurriedly pulled it from the oven and placed it on the counter to cool before banking down the flame and replacing her oven mitts on the peg by the counter. A spot of dried fruit marring the near-spotless countertop caught her attention. She looked around for a wet cloth to clean up the spill. Anything to avoid looking at the fury in her husband’s eyes.
“Don’t walk away from me, Elizabeth.” Buck’s voice was cold steel.
“Then stop acting like a pig-headed, overbearing fool!” Elizabeth spun toward Buck, trying to calm her temper by force of will alone. God knows, she thought, the unyielding look on his face was enough to warrant slapping him senseless. But she loved him… even when he was acting like an opinionated jackass. So she’d do her best to present a reasonable and concise argument. Even if it killed her.
Throwing down her cloth and taking a deep breath, she walked to his side. “Buck, we already agreed that we’d both work and take on extra jobs--”
“Take on extra jobs!” Buck exploded. “You’re baking, sewing, taking in laundry, cleaning homes! You’re up till all hours of the night! You were supposed to help out by selling your baked goods to the Hotel. That’s all!”
“That‘s all? Bake a few pies and spend the rest of the time sitting at home and looking pretty while you work your fingers to the bone for Liam O‘Connell, is that it? While you come home later and later each night, looking more exhausted with each sunset?”
“I never said that! Woman, you are infuriating!”
“One of my finest qualities!” Elizabeth flounced back to the sewing table, gathering her supplies with shaking fingers. She could feel the heat radiating in waves from her husband… anger that whirled like storm clouds around the tiny room. Far from intimidating her, it merely fuelled her own wrath.
She squared her shoulders and ignored the warning tone. “Save your breath, Buck. I’m not going back on my part of the deal.”
“Yes, you are.”
“Or don’t you care about our unborn child?”
Elizabeth drew back, the gasp of shock searing her lungs and leaving her breathless. Her hand went unconsciously to her stomach, her eyes wide and suddenly brimming with tears. Tears that threatened to overflow when she saw her husband merely watching her stoically.
“How dare you imply that I would do anything -- anything! -- that would endanger this baby!”
“I didn’t imply anything.”
Elizabeth lifted her chin, a glacial cold instantly replacing the fiery rage that had thundered through her blood. She blinked back the tears. There would be time for tears later. Now, she simply gathered her things and walked stiff-backed into the bedroom. The click of the latch as the lock slid into place seemed to echo in the sudden silence.
For the first time in their married life, Buck did not share her bed.
A storm raged overhead. She could hear the crashes as furniture was thrown about, and precious belongings that had been tenderly packed away and carried across miles and miles of rugged country were tossed aside without care. She huddled in the corner of the root cellar; praying that whatever caused this storm would move on and leave her in peace. She waited for the sounds to disappear, and then she waited some more.
Finally, after the silence had become deafening, she crawled out from where she had wedged herself between the shelves and stood. She worked the cramps out of her muscles as she debated with herself as to whether or not to risk going back upstairs. She wasn’t sure that the storm had really passed; it might be sitting up there, waiting – waiting for her to show her face so it could pounce.
The need for water eventually decided for her. She could no longer tolerate the dryness that was overtaking her mouth and throat. She carefully made her way to the door that lead up to the house and the unknown. When she reached the door, she waited and listened. There were no sounds so she cracked the door open and peered out into what used to be her mother’s meticulously perfect kitchen. It was in shambles. Every dish had been smashed, the table was overturned, and the beautiful chairs were possibly useful as kindling. She cautiously pushed the door open the rest of the way and crawled out and mad her way slowly to the water pump. It too was broken. ‘Who would do this?’ she wondered, ‘And why?’
She glanced out the small window towards the well. It appeared to be undamaged. Hopefully, the bucket still hung in one piece at the end of the rope that hung down. She gathered all her courage and moved towards the door. It was getting darker by the minute. Soon it would be too dark to find her way without a lantern, and she doubted that any of them were still functional. She would have to hurry. She started to run as soon as she was outside to small cabin. She reached the well and pulled up the rope. The bucket was there! It was full of water so she took a drink and then sank to the ground. The last rays of the sun had disappeared below the horizon and the moon had not yet appeared in the sky. It was dark and she was afraid. She hugged the bucket to her chest and began to cry. That’s how he found her – huddled against the well, holding onto the wooden bucket for all it was worth, crying as she slept.
He managed to take the bucket from her without disturbing her sleep anymore than it already was. He watered his horse and surveyed the destruction that surrounded her. She must have strong medicine to have survived whatever it was that caused this; he would take her with him. She must be the woman he had dreamed about; the woman who would bring happiness to the lives of his family. He gently picked her up, put her on his horse, mounted behind her, and headed for home.
As he entered the village, his eyes caught sight of his mother and younger half-brother by the river’s edge. He headed that direction. He had hoped he had been wrong about why they were there, but it appeared that once again his brother had been in a fight. He did not understand why the boy couldn’t get along with the other children. He sighed as his thoughts turned to young half-breed, ‘Doesn’t he realize that his constant fighting causes our mother pain? Or worse yet, doesn’t he care?’ He shook his head and continued until he was near to them. As he approached, he heard their mother say, “I know it’s unfair that they do not get punished for hurting you, and that you do if you happen to hurt one of them, but I cannot change that; no one can.”
The boy nodded and allowed her to finish tending his bruised face. This done, he said, “I will try to do better at staying away from them, but it is hard when I am to help watch the horses.” Then he noticed the rider, and looked down. His mother noticed the movement and turned to see what had caused the change in her son’s demeanor.
She noticed not only the rider, but also his companion. “Where did you find her?” she asked as she went to take the young girl from him.
He dismounted as he answered, “That new cabin over the hills. I do not know how she was missed. I thought possibly she could help you here. Maybe she can keep my brother out of mischief.” He tossled the younger boys hair and handed him the reins of his mount.
“Making the other boys pay for hurting him could keep him out of mischief,” she replied as she took the girl and headed back to the river’s edge to once again begin the task of cleaning up cuts and scratches. Her younger son took his brother’s horse and led it away. He grew tired of hearing this discussion. His mother was right; there was no way to change the fact that the others did not get punished for hurting “the half-breed” if he couldn’t even get Red Bear to acknowledge the fact that it wasn’t his fault that the fights started. He sighed. Then he remembered the young girl his mother was now tending. He also remembered the dream he had experienced just last evening for the third night in a row. ‘Maybe things will change,’ he thought as he walked away. ‘Maybe she is the one who I keep seeing that will make things change. Maybe . . .’
Jimmy rattled the bars of his cell when the sheriff walked in. "Well? Did you send it?"
"I sent it..." The balding man plopped down in his chair and slapped his heels up on the desk. "...but that's no guarantee that it'll get through.. or even if you're tellin' the truth."
"I am tellin' the truth and you'll hear it from Marshal Hunter himself..and what do you mean, no guarantee it's going through?"
Pointing a bulbous finger at the flurry of snow outside he shrugged. "Those telegraph lines ain't worth much in the snow. Winds like this have been known to knock 'em down in the oddest places. Can't say's there's much chance that your folk in Rock Creek know what's happened to you at all."
Jimmy lost some of his bluster then. His fingers loosened their hold on the bars and his shoulders sagged. "They've got to know... they just have to."
They roused the prisoner with a cup of water in the face and he came off the cot growling like a wounded bear, charging the bars until he heard the click of the Sheriff's revolver on the other end of the bars. "Settle down, Hickok. I ain't in the mood for trouble."
Jimmy backed away from the bars as he swiped his hand down over his face, wiping the water from his skin. He lifted his hand to brush his hair away from his face, but stopped short. A tiny man in a suit stepped into his cell. The clean lines of the woolen coat seemed out of place in the dingy little room and Jimmy felt a bit of humor let loose inside of himself. "Something tells me you're not here to stay."
Shaking his head once in a no nonsense gesture, the man dropped his satchel on the worn cot and popped open the top. "No, sir, Mr. Hickok. I'm just here to take measurements."
His words did more to sober his attitude than raise his ire. "Measurements," Jimmy echoed.
Taking out a knotted length of string the man began to take general measurements of Jimmy's height and the width of his shoulders. The top of his bobbed up and down as he worked and Jimmy tried desperately to keep fear from eating him alive. He fixed his eyes on the far wall and avoid thinking of the need for the measurements.
"Will you be needing a suit, Mr. Hickok?"
"Suit?" Jimmy stared down at the little man with alarm stretched across his features.
"Yes, well, I'd need to order one for a man your size-"
"No need, Amos." The Sheriff stepped closer to the bars and nodded at the prisoner. "Hickok here don't have that kind of time. Once Joe and the boys are done with the gallows, we're ready to go."
Jimmy grabbed at the bars and leaned in nose to nose with the other man. "Well, I ain't ready, not until you get word to Marshal Hunter! I've told you, I was in Blue Creek the night that man was killed!"
"Son, we've got families in town that are grievin' over the loss of their loved ones, who don't give a damn where you 'say' you were. I've got me a man that says he saw you kill those boys out back behind the saloon. I ain't in no mood to argue."
"Then give me a trial... give me a day in court.. and give me a chance to get Teaspoon in here! He was there with me in Blue Creek.. he'll tell you where I was!"
"I'm done, Sheriff."
Jimmy stepped back away from the bars with a grimace. They weren't listening.
He barely heard the rattle of keys as the Sheriff let the undertaker out from the cell and said his goodbyes.
Turning his back to the bars, Jimmy faced the far wall of the cell and closed his eyes. "Two days," he whispered, "two days ago, I was supposed to be married."
For a moment he entertained the idea of an irate Lorilei storming the jail and volunteering to string him up herself for missing the wedding. A tight knot in his chest formed at the thought. He wouldn't blame her one bit, he never should have left so close to the wedding, no matter what he was looking to buy. He could have waited... could have waited for after the wedding. But unless Teaspoon managed to get word about this before the carpenters got the gallows built, there never would be a wedding.
He opened his eyes and watched the flurries of snow pass by the barred window. Right now, his only hope was that the winds continued to bring buckets of snow and stall the construction. 'Heck, if it'll help get me home, ' he thought, 'go ahead and let the snow bury the town. Better it than me.'
The next morning, Jimmy heard the familiar metal clatter of a plate being dropped on the floor inside the cell. He opened an eye and stared at the sloppy pile of wet eggs and burnt meat.
He looked up at the laughing deputy.
"What's the matter, big man... not so scary without them Colts, are ya?"
"Son," Jimmy started as he propped himself up on an elbow, "you don't know what scary is..."
The boy backed up and reached a hand over the grip of his gun. "Don't you threaten me, killer! I'll shoot you there in the cell if I have to! Just you try something-"
Jimmy tossed the blanket back and watched the color drain from the kid's face. The boy couldn't have been more than fifteen if he was a day over ten. "Why does the Sheriff have a boy like you mindin' the store?"
The boy bristled and flushed to the roots of his red hair. "You got some nerve, don't ya? I'm here on a count of you killed the Sheriff's deputy. Don't you remember, or were you too drunk to care?"
Jimmy rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands and set his booted feet on the worn wooden floor. "Like I've tried to tell the sheriff, it wasn't me. So, no.. I don't know what happened... did you know him?"
There was a little pause on the other end of the conversation and Jimmy looked up. There was confusion written on the boy's face, as if he was beginning to doubt the hate he'd come to feel.
"He was... he was..."
"Hot damn, Josiah!" Another young man barreled in through the front door of the jail, this one with a wealth of dirty blonde hair hanging over his ears.
The deputy hardened up again and turned toward the newcomer. "What is it Beau? I've got work to do, you know."
Beau turned to glare at Jimmy from across the room. "The winds are with us again, Josiah! We ain't got no snow.. the sky is clear like a robin's egg... we're gonna start building again this afternoon as soon as the sun dries out the ground. Then we'll have ourselves a real hangin'!"
Jimmy looked back over his shoulder. The window at the back of the cell. Sure enough the window showed him a clear view of the western half of the town. It was clear blue skies and hot sunlight. The ground was already drying up in certain places. When he turned back around he was alone with the Deputy again.
"You heard him, didn't ya, killer?" His proud pointed chin pointed at the cell Jimmy was locked in. "Better hurry up and eat that... if the boys work fast enough, we'll be able to string you up come morning."
He sat back down on the cot, his appetite gone along with his hope.