Topic #13: Haunted
|The Past Comes Back
||The House on the Hill
|Tied to Her World
||When I think of You
|By a Thread
|In the Shadows
||The Names of the Dead
|Place of Historical Significance
In His Eyes
Time to Heal
A/N: Continuing in the series of Buck and Justine. Thanks to Raye and Vicki for your continued help. This is for Cindy and Cathy, who asked ever so nicely at Reunion.This wasn’t working. After five days in Barstow, Justine was no closer to making a decision about her future with Buck than she had when she left. Fat load of good Jimmy’s advice did her. Not that this was really Jimmy’s fault, but it felt good to at least vent in her mind against him. Five days of suppers by herself, uninterrupted by well meaning individuals who felt inclined to give her advice about Buck, five days of thinking, walking the streets, taking in the sights – such as they were, buying a few things and mostly just window shopping, had done nothing for her overall mood. All she had was sore feet, a sore back and a lighter purse.
She just didn’t know what to do. If it was just her, she probably would have run back to Rock Creek three days ago and flung herself into Buck’s arms. But it wasn’t just her and she didn’t know how to make the best decision for her baby. She certainly wasn’t going to let Buck get close to their child and then have him decide that the town’s prejudices were too much for their family and walk away.
“Arrgggh,” she growled as she stood up from the bench in the gazebo in the town square and prepared to head back to her room.
“Everything alright, miss?”
The soft-spoken, hollow voice startled her and she was surprised to see the frail, elderly woman sitting on the bench across from her. She hadn’t noticed anybody join her, but then again, that wasn’t saying much considering her perpetually preoccupied state.
“Yes, I’m sorry,” Justine hastily apologized, feeling guilty for breaking the quiet solitude the woman had probably come to find. “I didn’t realize anyone else was here.”
“What’s your rush?” the lady asked, as Justine tried to head down the steps.
“Oh, no rush, really,” she said. “Just tired of sitting here is all. Thought I’d head back to my hotel.”
“I’ve seen you around here the past few days,” the lady continued, and Justine paused once again. “You seem troubled, weighed down by something. Are you sure everything’s alright?”
Justine peered closely at the woman, wondering why she was so insistent on talking to her. Perhaps the woman was just lonely and craved company. Not really sure why she did, Justine turned and headed back to
her seat. The elderly woman smiled, then got up and shuffled closer to Justine.
“Now, why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you. A pretty woman like you shouldn’t be worried so like you are. You should be happy, enjoying this baby that’s coming.”
“I am happy about my baby,” she automatically said, wrapping her arms around her growing abdomen.
The elderly woman smiled once again. “That’s good. Children are a blessing, a joy that should be cherished.”
“How many do you have?” Justine asked, curious, but also hoping to deflect further questions about her own problems.
The elderly woman deflated, seeming to shrink inside the clothes that were already too big on her. “I don’t have any children of my own. I never married. Mostly ‘cause I was too foolish and stubborn.”
“Oh?” She wasn’t sure what else to say, and yet the piercing look of the woman compelled her to say something.
“When I was younger, I had a beau,” the woman answered, settling in for what Justine suspected was going to be a very long story, probably filled with Teaspoon-like advice. “He was a very handsome young man, and I was completely taken with him. He was a tough person to love though, felt like life had dealt him an unfair hand and that he couldn’t give much of a life. So we fought. Like most people do when they’re young and in love and are too stubborn to truly listen to the other person.
“I told him I didn’t care about money, that I just wanted him. But he headed off to make a name, make a fortune for himself and then he’d come back for me. I was so hurt and angry that I took off after him intending to hunt him down and make him listen to reason.”
Justine couldn’t help but smile at the thought of this tiny little woman, who couldn’t weigh more than 100 pounds soaking wet, chasing after her man intending to knock some sense into him. “Did you find him?”
“No,” she said sadly. “I never did and I came back here and decided that I’d wait for him. He showed up, about five years later, still penniless and sick. I nursed him, but he died a couple of weeks after he arrived and we lost our chance. He told me he’d come back to find me a couple of months after he’d left, only to find out I’d left as well. He would have stayed with me if I’d only been here, and we could have been married and raising our children, instead of me burying him, if I’d only tried to look at the situation from his point of view.”
The woman raised a fine lace handkerchief, yellowed with age, to her weathered face and wiped away a few tears. “It haunts me to this day that I just charged off intent on making him see my point of view, when he came around to it all on his own. After that, I never took another beau, never wanted to marry. Love had given me that one person, a true and faithful partner, and I failed the first test thrown at me.”
She sighed, then straightened herself, drawing up as much as she could. Reaching over, she took Justine’s hand between her own. “So, what’s your story, sweetheart? Did your husband pass on? Is that why you look so lost and troubled?”
“My husband? No…no, I’m not…” she stopped herself from saying she wasn’t married. This wonderful woman’s whole attitude could change towards her if she found out Justine was with child out of marriage. “No, he’s not dead. We had a fight, that’s all.”
Slowly and thoughtfully, the woman nodded. “So, have you figured out who’s wrong and who’s right yet?”
Justine closed her eyes with a lost sigh. “I don’t think either one of is wrong or right. We just are. I miss him, though.”
“I imagine you would. You loved him enough to make a child with him, that has to count for something.”
She looked down at her hands clasped over her stomach and nodded. “Yeah, it is. It really shouldn’t matter what he did before, right? What matters is he’s there now and he wants to make things work. He didn’t come back because of the baby, he was coming back for me.”
“Then there you go, child. There’s your answer. Believe in that, and as my mother used to say, the rest will work itself out in the wash.”
Justine smiled with a laugh. “Yeah, my mother used to say something like that too. Thank you. I don’t even know your name, but thank you very much.”
“Agnes Morton,” she said, extending her hand. “And you’re welcome.”
“I’m Justine…Justine Cross.” At least she hoped to be soon, after she apologized to Buck and told him she wanted to move forward, putting everything behind them.
Agnes stood and Justine stood as well, a gentle hand at her elbow to help steady her. “You head on back to that man of yours, you hear? Hold onto him and tell him how much you love him.”
“I will,” she promised. “I will. Can I walk you home, Agnes?”
With a small shake of her head, Agnes declined. “No, I’m going to head over to see my friend Opal, thank you though, dear. Good luck with your little one.”
“Thank you again, Agnes,” Justine replied, then headed down the steps. When she reached the bottom, she turned to wave good-bye to her new friend and paused when all she saw was an empty gazebo.
He paused, and turned back, almost not wanting to believe the sight before him. Since Justine had left nearly a week ago, he’d found himself plagued by visions of her when she wasn’t there. At least twice a day he would swear he’d seen her in town, only to be bitterly disappointed that she hadn’t returned yet. He believed she would, he just was having a hard time waiting for her to reach her decision.
“Buck?” she asked again, a worried look crossing her face. “Are you alright?”
“Are you here?” he whispered.
“Of course I’m here,” she said, the confused look deepening.
“I’ve…” he started to say that he’d seen her, imagined her, but stopped himself thinking that it sounded crazy. “I’m sorry-“
“Buck,” she said again, placing her hand on his arm. He felt the light pressure through his shirt and was certain he couldn’t be imagining that. “What’s wrong? I told you I would be back when I figured things out.”
“I know,” he said, shaking his head and feeling very foolish. “I know. Did you? Did you figure things out?”
“Actually, I did,” she smiled, and hope began to bloom in his chest. “I had a really interesting conversation one afternoon with a sweet old lady. She made me realize a few things, and I was on the next stage back here because I had to talk to you.”
He was afraid to ask, afraid to hope, afraid to want for fear that her calm and peaceful demeanor didn’t necessarily mean that he would like what she’d decided. “What…what did you decide?”
“How ‘bout you walk me back to my house,” she said and he noticed for the first time that her bags were on the ground at her feet. “I’ll fix us some dinner and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Jimmy glanced up from the hand of cards he was holding. “Cody, what the hell are you talking about?” He looked back at his cards and threw two onto the table. “I’ll take two.”
“I’m talking about a real, gen-u-ine, haunted house!” Cody explained. The others just didn’t seem to understand the beauty of this discovery!
Buck dealt out the two cards to Jimmy. “Where’d you hear this, Cody?” he asked, still studying the game table in front of him.
“Everyone’s talking about it in town,” Cody said. Well, at least two of the boys who helped out at the blacksmith shop were talking about it. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a magazine. “I just bought this magazine in town,” he explained further. “They even wrote about it out in New York!”
The others groaned as they recognized the magazine Cody was holding. “Cody, you can’t really believe what you’re reading in that magazine,” Kid said. They’d all been a captive audience at one point or another when Cody regaled them with the “true” tales. The only true part was that the publisher was making a lot of money off of the tales.
“All right, I admit they may have exaggerated something once or twice,” Cody said, greeted by more groans from the other riders.
“Once or twice?” The grimace on Buck’s face explained his skepticism about that estimate much better than any words could have.
Lou tossed her cards onto the table. “I fold,” she said. Then she turned to Cody. “You really believe in ghosts, Cody?”
“I believe in keeping an open mind,” Cody asserted.
You’re not afraid? Ike signed.
“Of course not!” Cody answered, his chest puffed out. “Ain’t no ghost gonna get the best of William F. Cody!” He paused, thinking for a moment, then looked back at them with a big grin on his face. “I’ll bet you two dollars I can spend a whole night there!”
“Two dollars each, Cody?” Lou asked. An idea was coming to mind . . .
EACH? He did some quick math - Jimmy, Kid, Ike, Buck, Lou. That meant five times two, which was ten whole dollars. That was a lot of money. Of course, it would only be a problem if he lost the bet, and he had no intention of losing. “Naturally!” he answered confidently. Because when he won, he’d GET ten whole dollars!
“Two dollars that you’ll stay in the house the whole night, no matter what,” Lou clarified.
“No matter what!” Cody confirmed.
“Well, All Hallows Eve is coming up in two days,” Lou pointed out. “Seems like that would be a good night.”
Cody closed his mouth and gulped. All Hallows Eve? The night of the dead? Maybe he shouldn’t have said anything . . .
“What’s the matter, Cody?” Jimmy asked, grinning at the other man’s hesitation. “You ain’t getting scared, are you?”
Thus challenged, Cody quickly shook his head. “I ain’t scared,” he declared. “I was just plannin’ how I was gonna spend my winnings.”
Before any of the others could challenge him on that, they all heard Teaspoon’s voice bellowing for Cody. The blond rider’s jaw dropped. “Guess I forgot to take care of my horse,” he muttered. He tossed the magazine on the table and hurried out of the bunkhouse.
As the door closed, Kid turned to Lou. “All right, Lou, I know you’re planning something. Would you like to tell me why I’m betting Cody two dollars over staying in some stupid old house?”
Lou started to smile. “Because it’s a haunted house,” she explained.
“Awww, Lou, you ain’t really sayin’ you believe that!” Jimmy said.
“No, I don’t believe it, Jimmy,” she answered, her smile widening. “But Cody does.”
“And you’re thinking maybe the ghosts could use a little help,” Buck supplied.
“Exactly!” Lou said. “I think we could haunt that house real well.”
“Hardly seems fair to take his money if we’re the ones doing the haunting,” Kid mused. Then he grinned and added, “But I’ll help.”
“Me too,” Jimmy said. “He did say no matter what.”
“Great!” Lou looked around the table. “Ike?”
Two dollars? I’ll help too. Ike nodded his head in agreement with the plan.
Lou turned to Buck. “I know you have beliefs in the spirits, Buck. If you don’t want to do this, it’s all right.”
“Spirits are different than ghosts,” Buck answered. He grinned and added, “Cody deserves this. I’m in!”
“Well, all right!” Lou declared. “Let’s start planning.”
They rode up toward the old house just as the sun was starting to set. The late-evening shadows cast an eerie presence over the building. In the wind, a few loose boards clapped, and the gate on the fence swung, squeaking on rusty hinges.
A low moan seemed to surround the whole place and Cody shivered as he dismounted. He could almost feel those ghosts. “It’s all right if you’re scared, Lou,” he said as he tethered his horse. Then he could give himself permission to be just a little scared himself.
“Oh, I ain’t scared,” Lou said as she dismounted next to him. “This will be a great adventure.” She’d volunteered to come along, since obviously they’d need a “witness” to prove that Cody actually made it through the whole night.
She could also help to mislead him just a little if he got too close to discovering the “ghosts.”
They walked up to the house and Cody tried the door. The knob turned in his hand, but the door didn’t open. Almost like someone was holding it on the other side . . . He shook his head, clearing that ridiculous thought. Ghosts didn’t do that! “It’s just a little stuck,” he said.
“What’re we gonna do?” Lou asked innocently. “We gotta get inside!” Fortunately, the growing darkness helped hide her smile. They’d all agreed that Buck could move silently better than any of the rest of them, and she knew he was inside, holding the door.
“Well . . . I guess I’ll just try again, and push harder,” Cody declared. He wondered how Lou had become more anxious to do this than he was. “Probably just stuck ‘cuz no one’s been here for a while.” He stepped up to the door, cleared his throat, then threw his shoulder against the door with all his strength.
Once he heard Cody hesitating outside, Buck had crept silently toward his next assignment. So now the door crashed open and Cody went sprawling inside.
Lou took a moment to stifle her giggles before running to the door. “Cody! What happened? Are you all right?”
Cody looked up from the floor, shaking his head to clear it. He opened his mouth to answer, then stopped and reached up with his hand, cleaning away the cobwebs he had fallen into. Spitting out the last of the web, he finally said, “Yeah, I’m fine. The door just got unstuck a little faster than I thought.” Well, a LOT faster, actually.
Lou walked back to the door, studying it. “What do you suppose happened?”
“It was just stuck, that’s all.” Though as he looked at the door himself, he certainly couldn’t see anything it might have been stuck on.
“Well, at least we’re inside,” Lou said brightly as she closed the door. “Looks like it might rain, so I’m glad we’re not stuck outside.”
“Yeah,” Cody agreed, though without much enthusiasm. He wondered what Lou would say if he suggested leaving the door open a little bit - just in case.
Lou reached into her pack and pulled out a candle and some matches. “Well, let’s see what else is here,” she said, striking a match.
Just then there was a loud WHOOOSH and a burst of air came through the room, extinguishing the match. Cody heard a yelp - and it took a moment before he realized it had come from him. “What was that?”
“I don’t know,” Lou answered. “Must be a broken window somewhere.” She purposely didn’t strike another match right away. That kept the room darker, which was good for two reasons. It helped cover Ike and Kid as they hid after creating the breeze with a large piece of wood. And it gave her time to stop shaking so much with laughter.
“Must be,” Cody muttered. “Got another candle, Lou?” He hadn’t thought to be so prepared.
Lou handed over another candle and lit both hers and Cody’s. The flickering flames lent an eerie glow to the room.
As their eyes adjusted, it became clear that they were in a large parlor. It was mostly empty now except for two small tables and the base of a chandelier hanging from the high ceiling. Several doors opened off of the room, and Lou quickly turned Cody away from the farthest door on the right - where Jimmy should be waiting.
“Must have been a real sight to see when it was all fancied up,” Lou remarked. She’d noticed that right away on their “scouting” trip to plan the haunting.
“Uh huh,” Cody agreed, not really paying attention. There was a lot of creaking going on . . .
All of a sudden, the door at the end of the room slammed shut, and then there was a loud scraping sound behind that door. At almost the same moment, a door slammed somewhere upstairs.
Cody jumped, nearly extinguishing his candle with the speed of the movement.” “What was that?”
Oh, Jimmy and Buck had timed that perfectly, Lou thought to herself. Out loud, she finally said. “I don’t know, Cody. But you know sometimes these old houses just settle.”
“Settle,” he repeated. “Settle, yeah, that must be it.”
Lou bit on her lower lip to hide her huge grin - even in the candlelight she could see Cody shaking. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s see what’s upstairs!”
Cody hesitated. He wished he hadn’t let the others talk him out of bringing his rifle. Not that it would do any good against ghosts - and not that there were any ghosts here anyway - but it would have made him feel better. “I don’t know, Lou. Maybe we should stay down here.” Close to the door. “Uh, might be those stairs ain’t real safe after all these years.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’re fine,” Lou answered. In fact when she and the others had gone upstairs the other day, the stairs had seemed a lot more solid than in some of the hastily constructed buildings she’d seen in many towns along the Pony Express route. She headed for the stairs.
Cody sighed and started to follow. He certainly wasn’t going to be shown up by Lou! Hopefully she wouldn’t want to stay up there too long.
They were almost at the first step when it happened. First there was a loud THUNK, followed by a hollow sounding THUD. Then another THUNK, THUD, THUNK, THUD . . . like something very large was limping across the upper floor. Cody yelped and jumped back. “What was that?” he squeaked.
Lou turned her head away to hide her smile. “Probably loose shutters upstairs,” she opined. “Sounds like the wind’s picking up.” That part was true - and it also sounded like the rain had started. She grinned again, picturing Kid and Ike with their heavy logs banging on the floor.
“Probably,” Cody whispered, gulping for air. Why, oh WHY had he thought this was such a good idea?
“I’m gonna go see,” Lou said as she started up the stairs.
Cody reached out a hand to stop her but she was too far away. His own feet felt as if he was tied to the floor, and his voice wouldn’t work. Still, part of him couldn’t let Lou go upstairs alone to face the creatures of the night he knew must be waiting, so he forced one foot and then the other forward. He had almost reached the bottom step again when . . .
CLANK! CLANK! CLANK!
He reached for the banister, wrapping his hand around it tightly. That sounded like a chain . . .
THUNK! THUD! CLANK!
Cody looked around frantically, looking for the source of the sound.
THUNK! THUD! CLANK!
Whatever had been making the noise before, now it was dragging a chain.
THUNK! THUD! CLANK!
He’d read about ghosts like this in that magazine. It meant that the spirits were uneasy, unable to rest in death. Probably murdered, right here in this house!
Or maybe the ghosts were the murderers themselves . . .
THUNK! THUD! CLANK!
He tried to call out to Lou, to stop her. But she was almost halfway up the stairs, seemingly unconcerned.
THUNK! THUD! CLANK!
Didn’t she hear that? “Lou!” he finally managed to croak.
“What’s the matter, Cody?” she asked. She went back down a couple of steps, looking concerned. “Cody, did you really get hurt when you fell coming in the door?”
Maybe he should just say yes, he was hurt - then they’d have to call off the bet! Wouldn’t be fair if he was injured after all. He opened his mouth to agree - then noticed that the house had suddenly gone quiet.
The silence made his fears seem foolish. “No, I ain’t hurt,” he answered, trying to put some confidence in his voice. “I just . . .“ He just what? “I just want you to be careful on them stairs!”
“Oh, they seem fine,” Lou said. “Come on, let’s find those loose shutters and get them closed.
Loose shutters. Right. Loose shutters. With chains.
But the silence brought back a little of his confidence - and his pride. He couldn’t let Lou best him at this!
He followed Lou up the stairs, still clinging to the banister. But everything remained quiet, so he took the last few steps a little faster. At the top of the stairs, a long hallway stretched ahead, with doors all along both sides.
“Why don’t you check that side,” Lou suggested, pointing to the left. “I’ll check the other side.”
“Lou, you sure we shouldn’t stick together?” Cody asked.
“Cody, the sooner we find the broken shutters, the sooner we’ll know we’re high and dry for the night,” Lou explained, trying not to laugh at the nervous tone to his voice.
“Shutters, right,” Cody mumbled. He watched as Lou strode confidently toward the first door on her side of the hall, then he slowly inched toward his first room. The door was standing slightly open and he stopped just outside, listening. But there wasn’t a single THUNK or THUD or CLANK to be heard. Finally, he took a deep breath and shoved the door open, rolling into the room. He sprang to his feet in the middle of the room, spinning all around - but there was nothing there. Breathing a little easier, he went to the window and checked it, happy to see that it was closed.
But something had made those noises . . .
He hurried back to the door and poked his head out, checking the hall carefully. Then he quickly stepped out and pulled the door shut behind him. No sense letting anything in to a room he’d already checked.
He slowly stepped toward the next room. There was a door open on the other side, and a shadow moving inside. Cody licked his dry lips, hoping it was Lou . . .
“Cody, you find anything yet?” Lou called, coming out of the room he was watching.
He breathed a sigh of relief. “Nope. First room was closed up tight,” he reported.
“Well, let’s keep looking,” Lou said, heading for the next room.
“Sure, keep looking,” Cody muttered. He didn’t understand how she could be so calm. On the other hand, nothing really bad had happened yet, just a lot of noise. Why, he might even be able to sell a story about this to that magazine!
Cody reached the next room and peeked through the crack left by the partially opened door. Nothing seemed to be moving inside, so he pushed the door open and walked in. He headed for the window, feeling much more confident now.
As with the previous room, this window was closed up tight, so he turned toward the door - only to see it suddenly slam shut!
He cried out and ran to the door, trying the handle. But it wouldn’t turn! It was as though someone - or something - was holding the knob.
He fell back from the door, breathing hard. Then he stepped back up to the door and began pounding on it. “Lou!!!! Lou, can you hear me? Lou! I’m trapped!” But there was no response.
Cody retreated to the center of the room, trying to think. The door had closed on its own - all right, that could have been the house settling, or even the wind - if there really was a broken window somewhere. The doorknob wouldn’t turn - that could be the fact that the house was old and unoccupied. Lou didn’t answer. She might have gone downstairs . . .
Lou wouldn’t have left him alone up here, would she?
He went back to the door and tried again - only to find that it opened easily.
Cody poked his head out, looking out into the hall. But once again, he saw nothing, so he edged out into the hall. He stopped to examine the doorknob, finding nothing to indicate why it wouldn’t turn before. Then he slammed the door and backed up against it. “Lou?”
Cody jumped at the new noise, pushing up tighter against the doorway. He was trying to listen, but all he could hear was the sound of his racing heart.
Cody looked around frantically. “Lou?” he called softly.
There were two more doors on her side of the hall and he ran to the first one, rapping on the door. “Lou?” He knocked again, and got no answer, so he went to the last door.
He pounded frantically on the door. “Lou!”
He edged back toward the stairs. The scraping noise was coming from downstairs - but downstairs was where the door was. In the dark and the wind and the rain, he really didn’t want to climb out a window. Besides, that would leave him farther away from his horse.
Maybe if he went down the stairs really fast . . . and the door wasn’t stuck . . .
A little voice in the back of his head told him he should really find out where Lou was . . .
On the other hand, he could send back help once he escaped.
Cody got to the top of the stairs and waited, holding his breath. It was quiet just then, so he started down . . .
He yelped and slipped on the stairs. Now he didn’t know whether to go back up, or continue down.
THUNK! THUD! CLANK!
He looked behind him - the limping giant was back with his chain!
Ghosts in front, ghosts in back . . .
The scraping sounded less dangerous than the thudding and clanking so he went down the steps.
Just as he got to the bottom, the door right across from the stairway flew open. The drawing room was illuminated by an eerie glow. And even as he stared, open-jawed, something moved.
“Lou?” he whispered hopefully.
But it wasn’t Lou. He watched in terror as a ghostly white apparition rose from the floor inside the room. It swayed and swung, waving phantom arms.
The sound came from the back of the house.
THUNK! THUD! CLANK!
That was coming from behind him, at the top of the stairs. And it seemed to be coming closer.
The apparition rose up, higher than before. It seemed to be moving forward . . .
THUNK! THUD! CLANK!
That did it . . .
“Lou, save yourself!” Cody yelled as he ran for the door. At first it wouldn’t open - his hands were too sweaty to turn the doorknob! Frantically he wiped his hands on his pants and tried again. This time the knob turned easily and he ran out into the rain. He fumbled with the reins, then jumped onto his horse and raced off as fast as he could go. “I’ll send back help,” he said, though only his own horse heard.
Lou stepped out from behind the door and watched Cody ride off. She closed the door and started to laugh. “He’s gone!”
Jimmy came out of the kitchen carrying a big board. He dragged it across the floor, creating a loud scraping sound. “I ain’t never seen anyone that scared!” he declared.
Ike and Kid came down the stairs, laughing. They were still carrying the logs they’d been using to thunk and thud across the top floor. For good measure, Ike jangled the chain he carried. “I didn’t know anyone could run that fast!” Kid said.
The apparition in the drawing room suddenly slumped down toward the floor, transforming itself back into an old drape that now hung partially over a chair. A moment later Buck came down the stairs. “Cody’s long gone,” he confirmed, grinning. “He’ll probably set a new record getting back to the station.”
Jimmy scraped the board again. “This worked great,” he said. “In this big empty house, it really echoed.”
“This worked real good too,” Kid said, thunking the log on the floor. Ike nodded in agreement and rattled the chain again.
“And the strings we rigged up worked great for our ‘ghost’ in there,” Buck confirmed. “I could work it just like a marionette.”
“Yeah, it’s lucky there was that hole in the floor right above there,” Lou said. They’d managed to rig up the strings to bring the old drape to “life.”
“I wonder if Cody’ll even stop when he gets to the station,” Jimmy mused. “He might just keep on riding.”
“Well, he wanted to spend the night in a haunted house,” Kid said. “We just helped him out.”
“And I’m gonna enjoy spending that two dollars,” Lou declared. “After all, he left me here with the ghosts!”
They were all laughing at that when suddenly there was a loud SCREEEEECH! The sound had the feel of death to it.
They all jumped, looking around. “What was that?” Kid asked softly.
Lou looked around, counting quickly. Buck, Ike, Jimmy, Kid, herself . . . “We’re all here,” she said softly. “So who . . .”
The question was left unanswered as they all raced for the door.
In the attic, the tomcat glared at the creature that had captured his tail. He screeched at it a third time. It was a horrific sound, meant to terrify any creature into retreat.
For some reason, the creature that held him wasn’t terrified.
With the agility that only a cat’s spine can afford, the tomcat twisted around until he could get two feet against his captor, then he pushed hard. He was rewarded by movement from the creature, and suddenly his tail was free. He sprang to his feet and arched his back, hissing at the miscreant. Then for good measure he pounced in and gave the creature several quick swats with his open-clawed paw.
Leaving the scratched and battered chair laying on the floor, the tomcat moved to the attic landing. Satisfied that he had re-established his dominance, he stopped there to groom his tail.
It had been a long night of hunting, followed by the indignity of having his tail captured. All in all, high time for a nap - time to head for his Favorite Spot.
He went down the attic stairs to the second floor hallway, striding down the hall with the confidence of one who knew that he commanded all that he saw.
The tomcat started down the main stairway, his bearing regal - befitting a distant relative of the lion, the king of the jungle. He swung his head from side to side, surveying everything. There was a new scent in his place - other creatures had been there. But they were gone now.
He strode into the drawing room and stopped. Something had interfered with his Favorite Spot! The soft material he used for his bed was no longer on the floor - it was hanging up.
This caused a moment of consternation for the tomcat - he didn’t always appreciate change. And he’d had his bed arranged just the way he liked it, where it would catch the warm afternoon sun.
Fortunately, very little can deter a cat for very long when he’s intent on a nap. His senses were telling him that he was alone, but just to make sure he arched his back and hissed, stalking around the room. Finally he headed for his bedding. He sat underneath it for a moment, tail switching in annoyance. Then he stood up on his hind legs and reached up, digging in his claws before he dropped down and pulled.
It didn’t take too much pressure before the thin strings broke and the drape fell all the way down - right over the tomcat. Further annoyed, he dug his way out, then climbed on top of the fabric. He worked his way around in circles a few times, his claws dragging the material with him. Very shortly he had his bedding bunched up again.
That was far more work than he’d anticipated before napping, so he just curled up in his Favorite Spot and closed his eyes.
Around him, the house on the hill creaked and groaned in the wind and rain.
But there were no human ears around to hear it.
It is hard to explain the terrible jealousy that grows with each day, but I find it tempered with an excess of gratitude towards those that have taken my daughter into their lives and have called her their own.
When I left her behind... when I left all my children behind, it ripped my soul to pieces, tearing apart my heart and mind.. leaving me to follow them through this world.
I should have been there, I should have been closer to them... more watchful.. just more. Truly, there is only one that I have failed. Louise, my darling girl... my oldest and the salvation of my soul. It was only with her reassurances that I could pass on into the next world with a whisper of peace in my soul. And now, I look to her and see the terrible scars on her heart, the pain she has suffered and the burdens she must bear, because of my folly... my weak body and weaker spirit.
I could not watch when Wicks... hurt her. I could do nothing to spare her from... from what was about to happen to her. I was impotent with fear, whimpering out my own discomfort while my child screamed out her terror. I was thrown into a hell of my own memories, my own past and I was frozen and lost in my own terrible thoughts. God help me for my own weakness.
There is little to say, little favor I can ask, flitting on the edge of her life. She was the one that built up her own strength and she was the one that learned to hold her head up high.. and it was she who took the burden of our little family on her thin shoulders and took on a job only men were allowed to do. She hid herself away behind the guise of a man to do what I could not. To keep my children together... to succeed where I have only failed... to relieve me of my overwhelming guilt, my abysmal failure... my haunting failure.
Whether you know it or not, I’m constantly haunted by you. Visions of you smiling that special smile just reserved for me, the smile you give when you think no one is looking. Especially when the Kid isn’t looking.
I’m haunted yet again when I watch you sleep. I wonder what it would be like to lay beside you and have your curled into me. That it’s me you’re hugging in your sleep and not your pillow. I’m haunted when you sigh in your sleep and wonder if it’s me you’re dreaming about.
I’m haunted in my own sleep by dreams of you. Dreams of you in my arms as I lay you down in the sweet prairie grass and kiss you senseless. Dreams of making you mine, in every way. Making love ‘til neither one of us can see straight. Dreams of you telling me you love me and no one else.
I’m haunted on my rides as I wonder what you’re doing while I’m gone. Do you miss me? Do you wonder if I’m alright? Do you stare at my empty bunk at night, thinking what it would be like to share that bunk with me?
I’m haunted again when I argue with myself over what to do about my feelings for you. Do I take a chance that you return those feelings as strongly as I feel them? Do I betray my best friend and steal his girl or do I sit by and watch you, think about you, and dream about you, but do nothing about it? I’m haunted by my indecision.
I’m haunted…because I love you.
Note: This is the third quick fic in this on-going story
"I'll never make it!" Lorilei leaned out over the neck of her horse and felt the rough caress of its mane brush across her cheek. She closed her eyes for a moment, bringing his image to mind like a wraith through the fog. His cocky smile, a wink... a final word.
A cry erupted from her lips as she squeezed her heels into the sides of her mount. "Go, girl... go!"
She'd ridden all night, flanked by Jimmy's friends... her friends... as they'd made their way toward the town, now a small landscape fast approaching. She could hear them, even from this distance, blood thirsty voices carried along with the chill winds of the approaching storm. The cries rose and fell with each battering gust, an answer to the rush of blood through her ears.
Lorilei didn't look to the riders beside her, she could only imagine their faces were near identical copies of her own stricken expression. There was little hope in her heart, little she could do but hold back the tears as another cry rose from the clapboard town ahead.
"Faster boys!" Teaspoon's voice held a waver that terrified her.
"Faster-" her own voice was little more than a harsh whisper of sound rushing from between her lips.
"Please, God... faster!"
Like the head of a snake, the crowd began to move, slowly from the right side of the square to the other barely visible from this distance, but desperation had sharpened her vision. The cheers rose again and over the pounding of hooves she could hear chilling words. "Hang him!" "Murderer!" "Killer!"
"No!" Teaspoon's mare surged past her own mount, eatting up the ground beneath her hooves.
Lorilei found some little measure of strength left and clenched her thighs around the heaving chest of her mare, urging her forward with a silent plea. 'He's waiting for us, girl.. he's waiting.'
Less than a two hundred feet away, the riders around her lifted their pistols and let loose a few bullets, trying to make themselves heard above the crowd. They popped in the air like so many birds taking wing, but the crowd was deaf to their efforts, blinded with bloodlust. The town cheered when the hangman lifted the hood over Jimmy's head.
Standing in her saddle, she switched her reins to a single hand and waved the other in high sweeping arcs as she flung her voice into the air. "Jimmy! Jimmy! I'm here! I'm-"
The hangman pulled the lever back and the hollow thump could be heard even through the crowd.
Lorilei watched helplessly as the sight of his body fell below the floor. Her searching gaze saw the bottoms of his feet bobbing below the shadowy underside of the scaffold as his boots twitched like the wildly flailing limbs of a jumping jack... bouncing on the air that had grown thick with dread.
She raced through the throng, and barely saw the crowd jumping clear of her horse's pounding hooves. "No!" she cried as she slid from the back of her horse, her feet sinking into the mushy ground.
The mud closed over her shoes, threatening to drag her down as she struggled to reach him. Her face streaked with jagged tears, she fell to her knees with anguished cries flying from her soul. "Jimmy... Jimmy... NO!"
Silence descended on the town; the once violent crowd held their tongues in check as the distraut young woman pushed through their ranks.
Teaspoon was already there, taking charge, bringing him down... laying him out... Helping hands removed the noose, lifted the hood like a bridal veil and Lorilei's mind snapped like a taut thread.
Lorilei clutched at the neck of her night clothes, the sweat soaked material wrinkling beneath her grasping fingers. The terror of her vision was all around her, climbing out of the shadows surrounding the room. Her feet were tangled in the blankets and sheets and she nearly fell to the floor with each stumbling step as she bolted for the door.
The heavy door bounced against the wall and shuddered on its hinges. Had Teaspoon not caught her in his arms she might have fallen head first down the stairs. He called her name again and again, trying to break through the wild look and reach the woman beneath.
Suddenly her eyes filled with understanding. His concern had reached her through her fear and words spilled from her lips. "I can't stand this any longer.. you have to break him out of there! You have to... now!"
The aging lawman took a moment to sooth her anguish with a calming embrace. "Well, now, what's ruffled all of your lovely little feathers?"
Her wide eyes were rimmed in red and watering at each corner. Her skin rivaled her gown with its downy complection. "They... the rope... his feet... the hood... I watched it all happen!"
Teaspoon tucked her to his side and walked her back into her room and waved off the worried looks that Buck sent from his opened doorway down the hall. "Honey, I don't know what you're talkin' about-"
Lorilei whirled around and clung to the front of Teaspoon's shirt. "I saw him die, Teaspoon! I saw him hung from the gallows and I couldn't do a thing to stop it!"
His eyes darkened with the lengthening shadows and it sent renewed chills through her body.
Taking a long measured breath, Teaspoon smoothed her gown over her arms with gentle, cautious strokes. "He's alright, 'lei. I just left the office a few minutes ago." He could tell by the wavering look in her eyes that she didn't quite believe his words. "There's nothing to worry about, really."
His gentle touch was shrugged off as she began to pace the length of the room. Her eyes had lost their wild look, but she had lost none of her anxious energy. "He's going to be hanged, Teaspoon. I saw it happen once in my dreams and there is NO WAY I'll see it happen again. You have to get him out of there!"
Teaspoon shook his head and gave her a worried look. "I've got Lou and the Kid out there lookin' for anything...and I mean ANYTHING to prove that it wasn't Jimmy. You've just got to -"
"Wait? Stuck here, like a knot in a tree, and let life pass right by? I don't think so... I'm going to see him!"
Standing, he turned his back as she dashed behind a screen to dress, and waited. "I'm going with you, you know?"
He heard her flat chuckle and turned to meet her eyes over the top of the screen. "I want to be there for both of you, honey."
"That's fine... really." She paused, her eyes lowering as she worked on the buttons securing the front of her gown. "Having you there will make this easier for me." Teaspoon was saved from congratulating himself when her gaze met his again with a blinding look. "I have a favor I need to ask of you."
"How could I have done what I did, Rachel? He doesn't deserve that. What's wrong with me?" Lou asked as she slumped into a chair at Rachel's kitchen table.
Rachel took a seat caddy corner from Lou, smiled at her and replied, "There's nothing wrong with you, Louise. You're just going through a very trying time right now. Of course, I would be able to offer better advice if I had the slightest idea who and what you were referring to." Rachel looked at Lou with her eyebrows raised, trying to indicate that Lou was talking in circles and not clearly saying why she was there. Rachel had been quietly peeling apples to make a pie for dessert when Lou had run into the house and started rambling on about messing everything up.
Lou looked at her sheepishly then glanced down at her hands as she explained, "I told him, Rachel. I explained about everything, left nothing out."
Rachel watched Lou as she wouldn't meet her eyes and instantly knew what she was talking about. "I take it the 'him' is Kid and the 'everything' has to do with Wicks and Charlotte," she said, softly, hating to bring up the name of the man who had caused Lou so much hurt.
Lou nodded then slowly turned her eyes toward the woman whose opinion she greatly valued. "You were right, what you told me the other night, about how telling you what had happened was a start. I knew then that I ... I couldn't keep it to myself, that I needed to tell a certain someone about it," she said then paused. "It's been eating away at me, Rachel. It was hard enough trying to forget after he'd actually done it. I mean, everytime I closed my eyes, he was there, every voice I heard was suddenly his. I never thought I'd get past it but slowly it got to the point where I didn't think about it as much and the nightmares finally stopped."
She didn't looked at Rachel as she got up and started pacing in front of the stove. "Then I started re-living it again when I saw him ride into town that day, no, it was before that. It was that day I came out of the barn and saw Charlotte standing there. Suddenly it was like it was happening all over again. I could hear his voice telling me how much I was going to enjoy it and that he knew I wanted it. He always made it seem like it was my fault, like I'd brought it on somehow." She stopped pacing and sat back down in the same chair. She turned tearful eyes toward Rachel for some guidance.
Rachel had been listening to Lou as she learned more than she had the last time they'd talked. It brought tears to her own eyes to think of what the young woman in front of her had endured as a young girl. She quickly covered Lou's hands with her own and assured her, "Louise, honey, it was not your fault. You cannot feel guilty for what happened. He only said those things so you would feel guilty and keep feeling that way. It's just like you can't be ashamed of what he did to you - it was all his fault."
"Then why does he keep doing this to me? Why is he always there? It's not like I want him to be. I can't close my eyes anymore without seeing him and hearing him say those words to me." She rubbed her temples as if the memories were giving her a headache. "You know I thought it would be better now that he's dead and once I decided to talk about it. But now I feel like his ghost is hovering over me, trying to keep me from getting past it or finding peace. I feel like he's haunting me, controlling what I do."
Rachel looked at her curiously, assuming there was more to what Lou was saying and that was probably why she was there to begin with. "Why do you say that, Louise?"
Lou met her eyes and not being able to take the guilt she was feeling anymore, rose from the table and started to walk away. She quickly turned around and half shouted, "I backed away from the Kid!" She threw her arms up in the air in a helpless gesture.
Rachel got up and went to her. She put her hands on Lou's arms to try to calm her down then softly asked, "What happened?" She started to realize this was what Lou was referring to when she was babbling about doing something awful.
Lou began fidgeting with her hands and explained, "It was after I told him - I don't know why I was worried because he was great. He reacted just the way I thought he would, you know, listening and not interrupting, offering words of assurance that it wasn't my fault, things like that. Then I finally got up the nerve to look at him, I mean, really look into his eyes to see what he thought of me, and he took me by surprise." She choked on the memory of the expression she saw on his face and had to look away.
Rachel started to get nervous, thinking Kid had done the unthinkable and reacted in a way she didn't think he would. When she'd told Lou it was a start to gettting past things by telling her what had happened, she was really trying to hint that the only way she would fully be able to put it behind her would be to tell Kid about it. "Why? What did he say to you, Louise?" she asked cautiously, not wanting to show any anger if she heard what she was thinking.
Lou heard the edge to Rachel's voice and quickly assured her, "Oh, no, it was nothing like that. He surprised me because all I saw in his eyes was warmth and compassion, not a hint of pity. I smiled at him in thanks and he came to me, trying to take me in his arms for a hug and the moment I felt him touch me ... it was like his hands were on fire, I jumped back and started shaking." She wrapped her own arms around herself as if she was afraid she would start trembling at the memory. She glanced at Rachel then returned to her seat at the table before continuing, "I couldn't help it, Rachel, he touched me and all I thought about was Wicks and the way he touched me. You should have seen the hurt look on Kid's face when he realized why I reacted that way. He's never done anything to indicate he would hurt me but I couldn't even let him touch me. He'll probably never want to touch me again after this."
"Why don't you ask him how he feels about it, instead of assuming?" a voice from the hallway interjected.
Lou and Rachel turned toward the doorway to find Kid standing there. After she had backed away from him when they were down by the swimming hole, she couldn't handle the guilt she felt so she had jumped on her horse and rode back to the way station. She didn't stop running until she found herself in Rachel's kitchen, wanting to pour her heart out.
Kid had been hurt by her backing away but he understood and before he could say so, she had startled him once more by running away. He had arrived at the station a few minutes ago and Noah had told him Lou was in the house so he had quietly let himself in.
Rachel saw Lou and Kid staring at each other so she quietly walked past Kid and headed out the front door, knowing they needed to talk.
Lou stood up and stammered, "Kid, I'm sorry to keep disappointing you. You didn't have to come here if you didn't want to."
Kid took a couple steps toward her and said, "Lou, haven't you realized by now that no matter how fast you run away from me, that I'll always be close behind following you. You couldn't get rid of me if you tried." He grinned at her to show he felt no hard feelings.
She looked into those incredible blue eyes of his and all she saw was love but knowing what memories were haunting her mind, she couldn't help but ask, "You mean that? Even after what I did to you back there? I'll never forgive myself for how I treated you." She turned away from him, not believing that he couldn't be hating her for pulling away like she did. She felt so bad for doing that to him; she hadn't done anything wrong, it wasn't about him, but maybe Kid thought it was.
"Hey, Lou," he said, trying to get her attention. "Louise." He knew that would make her look up and he smiled when she did. "Look, I figured something bad had happened to make you keep avoiding the subject with me when Charlotte came to town. I tried to come up with an explanation but nothing came close to what really happened." He paused as he saw her getting uncomfortable with the direction he was taking. "Remember the other day when I told you I wasn't going anywhere, that I'd always be here for you? Well, I meant it and I still do. I know it's far from over, Lou, I just want you to know I'll be there to help you through it ... if you'll let me."
"I wanna let you, Kid," she told him, this time not taking her eyes away from his. "That's why I had to tell you, you mean too much to me for me to keep it from you. I'm just afraid I'll do something like that again. Sometimes I feel like he's taking over control of me and I don't know how to stop it."
"Well, we'll stop it together," he told her then held his hand out to her. She looked at it, fidgeting with her fingers. "It's only me, you know, the one who drives you crazy." He looked at her, grinning.
Lou couldn't help but smile and replied, "I remember." She slowly raised her hand until it met his. He engulfed hers with his.
"Now that wasn't so bad, was it?" He waited until she shook her head then he took her other hand in his and started to make her walk toward him. When she was less than a foot away, he slowly put his hands on her arms. When she didn't flinch, he pulled her toward him and wrapped his arms around her.
Lou found herself leaning into his chest, finding strength from his embrace. She wasn't alone and he was right, together they could beat Wicks, make him a thing of the past.
Once you put on a gun, you can’t take it off. It’s…it’s like…it’s like you step into the shadows. And I’m here ta’ tell you that there’s things in the shadows that a boy your age don’t need ta’ see. D’ ya’ understand me?
NO! GET OUTTA’ MY HEAD! Not again. Please NOT again. STOOOOOOOP!
I jerk awake. Letting my eyes focus I realize I’m alone. Relieved, I release the breath I’m holding but I can still hear my hoarse cries. Struggling to untangle myself from the sheets, I shake my head wanting to get rid of that grating sound.
Dang, my heart’s pounding so hard it hurts. I clutch my chest to keep it from bursting open. It feels like a herd of cattle stampeding inside me. Breathe. I just have to remember to keep breathing.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, I give my head another shake trying desperately to stop the ringing in my ears. Who knows, maybe it’ll clear these cobwebs from my brain. Nope, it ain’t working. Guess I ought to be grateful since these cobwebs are probably the only things keeping my mind together. Else I’d end up losing it completely.
“Okay, so where the hell am I?” I ask the silence. It doesn’t answer. Actually, I’m thankful for that.
Looking around I don’t recognize anything and yet it all looks the same. Hell, it looks like the last twenty or so rooms I been in for the last twenty or so nights. Bowing my head, I close my eyes hoping to remember. If anyone saw me they just might think I was praying. Yeah, that would give them that know me a good laugh since they know better. ‘Sides, I doubt praying would do me much good anyhow.
Looking around again, I start to remember bits and pieces of what happened last night. At least I think I do.
I know I’m still at the…the…what’s the name? God, I can’t even recall the name of the stupid saloon! And was I with someone? That ain’t very gentlemanly of me. I try to laugh but it does no good since I don’t remember how. Maybe I’m just old. I certainly feel old. And weary. I drop my head in my hands trying to think.
On it’s own my mind goes wandering. Always to that one place in my life where it was good. She was there and I was happy. Or as happy as I’d let me be. It’s like my mind goes searching for some bit of comfort. Searching for her. And since leaving them - let’s be honest, leaving her - more than ten years ago, there ain’t been much comfort to be had.
The world’s been slowly closing in since then but it’s happening a lot faster now. I know, ‘cause lately I’ve been reliving those days every time I close my eyes.
‘Specially that day. The day I tried to tell Jesse about the shadows. I’d asked him if he understood and he just stared at me with that ‘I-know-everything’ look. I wanted to smack it right off his face. But thinking back on it, I don’t rightly know if even I really understood, so I guess I can’t have expected a boy like that to understand.
Lord, now Jesse was more than a boy and making a name for himself. Hope he’s happy. Guess he understood better than I thought. Seems he just didn’t care.
Sighing, I force myself off the bed. My body feels so heavy, like my insides were scooped out and replaced with buckshot. I don’t move as fast as I used to and that ain’t good considering the situations I find myself in more often than not. Yeah, I’m old.
Walking over to the washbasin, I glance up at the mirror. For a second I see a stranger. That can’t be me.
“Who the hell are you?” I ask the mirror. Like the silence, it doesn’t answer. And again, I’m thankful.
I splash some water on my face. Another attempt at clearing my head. Looking in the mirror again, I don’t like what I see. I’m a sight skinnier than I been in awhile. Course that could be ‘cause I’ve been drinking my meals lately. And I need a shave. But why stop there I need a bath too. Again I try to laugh but this time a strange noise comes out, sounding unnatural, almost hollow.
How long has it been since I really laughed? Or for that matter, had anything to laugh about. Once more her smiling face appears in my mind. Stop! I lean forward pressing my forehead to the glass. I don’t deserve to even think of her.
I turn away from my judgment before I reach my eyes. I can’t look in them, can’t face them. They seem sunken, almost empty. But what do I expect? I’m going crazy. That had to be it ‘cause any other answer was impossible. I won’t accept the alternative. I can’t.
See, the things in the shadows, well, they’ve got voices now.
And I’m scared of what they’re saying.
A/N: This is the prologue to a story I’ve been writing for months. I’m hoping this will get me to finish it!
A cold wind relentlessly swept across the prairie as the temperature plummeted. The full moon emerged from its hiding place behind dark ominous clouds, casting shadows on the plains. Cody nudged Lou as she huddled next to him by the roaring fire. He nodded towards Buck who was sitting across from them unconsciously clutching his medicine pouch. Lou jabbed him in the chest with her elbow, not liking the derisive smirk on his face.
“Hey, what was that for?” Cody complained.
When Buck looked at them, Lou shrugged. “Nothing. My arm slipped.”
“Be a little more careful.”
“Fine. And you be a little more nice.”
“What did I do besides entertaining the two of you all night with tales of Halloween?” Cody asked innocently. “There ain’t nothing like a good ghost story, especially on Halloween night. You’re not afraid, are you? I mean there really ain’t no such thing as ghosts and such.”
Lou shook her head. “I’m not afraid,” she said without much conviction.
“Then how come you’re shaking?” Cody asked with a grin.
“I’m just cold.” Lou pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders as she inched closer to the fire.
Cody looked over at Buck and asked, “How about you, Buck? I’m not scaring you, am I?” Cody didn’t know all that much about Buck’s beliefs but he did know that the Kiowa believed in spirits. Judging by the way Buck was holding onto his medicine pouch for dear life, Cody figured that he was getting to him and he was enjoying it.
Buck answered softly, “I ain’t scared.” Cody took satisfaction in the fact that he didn’t sound convincing.
After casting Cody another warning glance, Lou said, “Come on over here by me, Buck. We can double up our blankets to keep warm.”
“Hey, what about me?” Cody asked.
Lou glared at him. “You can freeze.”
Buck was grateful to Lou for the invitation. All this talk of ghosts wandering the earth was unsettling. He believed in spirits. He sat close to Lou and wrapped both their blankets around their shoulders. He placed a couple of sticks on the fire to keep it going strong.
With great enjoyment, Cody continued his story. “Some people believe that on this night, the veil between the worlds is thin making it possible for the ghosts of the dead to easily cross over into this world, seeking bodies to possess among the living. There are some powerful places on this earth where it’s easier for the spirits to slip into this world.” After a dramatic pause, he added, “I’ve heard tell that the prairie is a place of easy passage. There are lots of ghosts out here. Why, I just heard about a covered wagon with a family of ten that was caught up in a twister right around here a few years back. They all died when their wagon and all their possessions were scattered across the plains. They were thrown about like rag dolls. I heard that the woman can still be seen wandering the prairie in search of her baby who was torn from her arms. I talked to a man who actually saw her one night.”
“I never heard anything like that,” Lou interrupted. “It probably ain’t true. Just a silly, made up story.”
Cody shook his head. “It’s true, all right. I even heard her name. It was Elizabeth Blackwell. I’ve heard lots of stories about ghosts walking the prairie. There are a bunch of Indian legends, too. Right, Buck?”
When Buck and Lou shuddered, Cody laughed. Lou jabbed him again.
“Ow. I was only asking Buck about spirits,” Cody yelped.
Lou decided to put an end to Cody’s ghost stories. “We’ve heard enough. It’s time to get some sleep. We’ve got a long ride ahead of us if we want to get back to Sweetwater by tomorrow night.” She settled down close to the warmth of the fire, turning her back on Cody and putting an end to their conversation.
Buck was relieved that Lou had finally stopped Cody’s eerie tales. He would never admit it but he wished the night were over. This strange outer worldly holiday of Halloween and All Souls Day with its talk about spirits wandering the earth made him uneasy. He probably wouldn’t be so anxious if they were back in the bunkhouse but Cody was right. The prairie was a desolate place that didn’t give up its dead. At least they weren’t near any burial grounds.
Cody persisted, unable to stop himself. “You must know some great ghost stories, Buck.”
“I’ve heard stories but it’s best not to repeat them and disturb the spirits. The Kiowa don’t even speak the names of the dead,” Buck answered candidly.
Intrigued, Cody asked, “Really? Why not.”
Buck hesitated, not sure if Cody would mock him. “You might disturb their rest and bring them back.”
Cody laughed, “That’s just plain stupid. Why would they come back just because you mention their names?”
Buck tried to explain. “If you speak their names, they’ll think that you’re sad and that you miss them. They might want you to be with them.”
“So what? They can’t come back from the dead. What’s there to be scared of?”
Buck marveled at Cody’s lack of understanding. “Maybe they can’t come back to life but you can join them in the spirit world.”
Shocked, Cody asked, “You mean they’ll come back to kill you? You can’t really believe that?”
“Believe or don’t believe what you want. I’m just telling you what I was taught. And now I’m going to sleep.” Buck settled down with his back to the fire doing his best to ignore Cody’s disparagement.
Cody grumbled, “You two ain’t no fun at all. Might as well go to sleep myself.” He thought about settling down on the other side of the fire but quickly moved closer to his friends when he heard a strong gust of wind rustle the tall prairie grasses, making him shudder with an uneasy feeling. He thought, “I’m spooking my own self, now.”
Cody woke with a start, quickly sitting up by the dying fire. He wondered what had woke him so abruptly but it was impossible to see anything in the darkness. The moon emerged from behind dark clouds revealing a thick mist clinging closely to the ground. He heard a soft, mournful weeping in the stillness. He looked over at Lou but her back was to him. He gently tapped her shoulder until she finally turned over.
“What? What’s the matter?” she asked groggily.
“I thought I heard you crying,” Cody whispered.
Annoyed, Lou answered, “I ain’t crying. I was sleeping.”
Lou turned back over leaving Cody wondering what he had heard. He could have sworn that it was a woman crying. He looked at Buck but he was sleeping soundly. Convinced that it must have been his imagination, he settled back on the ground. As soon as he closed his eyes, he heard a strange rustling like someone was slowly moving through the prairie grass. He quickly sat up but the sound stopped. Everything was still again. The wind had stopped while they slept.
Cody listened intently. The rustling began again and then stopped again. It sounded as if someone was hesitantly trying to find their way through the fog with uncertain steps. As the rustling came closer, he heard the soft, sad crying again. He peered into the heavy mist searching for the source of the sound. He stood and walked towards the fog but it seemed to keep its distance, not allowing him to get closer. He saw shadows in the mist that appeared to be trying to come together and take human form but a sudden gust of wind scattered it.
Cody hurried back to the fire and shook Buck awake. Buck jumped up, “What’s wrong?”
“There’s a woman out there crying. Listen.”
Buck listened but he didn’t hear anything unusual. “I don’t hear nothing.”
“Listen. Don’t you hear that? Someone is crying,” Cody insisted. He could still hear her. It was getting closer and louder.
Buck listened closely. “I don’t hear crying,” he said with concern.
“I’m telling you that a woman is out there walking around in the fog crying, like she’s looking for something.” Cody paused before adding, “Or someone. We’ve got to go find her.”
When Cody began to pull Buck towards the fog, Buck refused to go. “I don’t hear nothing. There ain’t nobody out there.” He paused a moment before saying with disdain, “I get it. You’re just trying to make fun of me and scare me again. Well I ain’t buying it. There ain’t nothing out there in the fog. I’m going back to sleep.”
“Can’t you hear it?” Cody asked incredulously.
Buck turned and walked away shaking his head.
Cody was left alone questioning his own sanity. He could still hear the pathetic weeping. Something was wandering around out there. Why couldn’t Buck hear it? He hurried to the fire and sat with his back to it. He wasn’t about to go to sleep with something out there in the fog. It started again. He could see and hear the shadow moving about, stopping and moving again as if it were searching for something. Slowly, almost imperceptibly it was taking form as it approached the edge of the mist. Finally, Cody could clearly see that it was a woman with long hair loosely blowing around her although there wasn’t any wind. Her clothes were ripped and tattered. But he could see through her to the prairie beyond. She couldn’t be real. He must be imagining her.
As her face came into focus, Cody could see that she was battered and bruised. He could unmistakably see the tears on her cheeks and in her eyes as she looked around desperately staring past him as if he weren’t there. He didn’t think that he had ever seen such sorrow on someone’s face before. He could feel the overwhelming grief. When she looked back in his direction, her eyes locked on his startling him. He took a step back, away from the apparition. She took a step towards him.
“Have you seen her? Have you seen my baby?” she asked desperately. Her voice was barely a whisper.
Speechless, Cody shook his head.
“Come with me. Help me,” she pleaded as she reached towards Cody. He could hear her clearly but she never opened her mouth to speak.
Cody took another step back. “I can’t. I don’t belong there. I’m sorry.”
The woman held his gaze for a moment and then turned her back on him. She began to drift away. The weeping began again. She vanished into the mist but Cody could still hear her searching for her baby. He sat down again, keeping his eyes on the fog. He didn’t see her again but he could hear her in the distance.
When the first light of dawn appeared low on the horizon, Cody was still sitting by the fire intently staring into the fog. The rustling and weeping had become softer and further away as the new day approached. The sounds were dissipating along with the mist. As the sun began to rise in the east, the fog began to burn off. Finally, it was gone taking with it any vestige of the woman who had wandered the prairie during the night. It was quiet except for the sounds of nature coming to life.
Cody sighed in relief. She was gone. Buck and Lou woke at the same time. When Lou saw Cody sitting up she asked, “Are you up already?”
Not willing to admit that he had been up all night listening to a spirit search for her baby, Cody answered, “We want to get an early start, don’t we?”
Lou agreed, “Yeah. I’m anxious to get home.”
Buck stood and stretched, noticing the strange expression on Cody’s face. “Anything wrong?”
“No. Nothing’s wrong. Let’s get out of here.”
As they gathered their belongings, Cody looked out on the lonely prairie. There was no trace of the fog or what it held the night before. The prairie grasses stretched out endlessly to the horizon, undulating in soft waves. He could still see her standing there in desolation, looking out on the plains. He would never forget Elizabeth Blackwell’s haunting face. He would never make fun of Buck’s beliefs again. He would never speak the names of the dead.
The Pony Express station stood just at the edge of Rock Creek, abandoned and forlorn, not having seen better days in quite some time. The roof had caved in back during the blizzard of '03, the latest in a long line of tragedies to befall the little building; the porch was sagging with a great hole in its middle, the wooden walls were warped with weather and age, and it was obvious from the smell that various and sundry animals had long since claimed it for their own.
Five years ago a man had come all the way from Sacramento, California to have a sign made up and nailed to the building's door. Already the letters were fading, but the sign was still easy enough to read: FOR ITS ROLE IN THE REMARKABLE VENTURE OF THE PONY EXPRESS (1860-1861), THIS SITE IS HEREBY PROCLAIMED A PLACE OF HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE.
By then there were few left in the town who could tell any stories about the Express station, and those who could only knew the tales secondhand. The people of Rock Creek who had seen those horses racing toward the horizon, who had had a passing acquaintance with the courageous Express riders, were long gone. The town had expanded. Buildings had sprung up where once there had been only empty space. The general store, passing through a generation of Tompkinses over the years, had finally been sold to a new family after Jedediah Tompkins had died childless. There were telephones in town now and two families even had automobiles. You had only to drive twenty miles to catch the picture shows.
The townspeople considered themselves modern and progressive these days. The “Wild West” seemed as far removed as Paris, France and was certainly not something they could believe they had ever been a part of. The abandoned Express station at the edge of town was a relic, easily ignored but never quite forgotten, for its very emptiness lent to it an air of mystery and intrigue.
The people of Rock Creek declared the old station was haunted
Children whispered to each other of men seen in the vacant corral, roping and shoeing horses. A favorite game was to line up in a row against the fence in order to be appraised by the group ringleader. Often this was followed by vigorous galloping, hands slapping behind them as if at a horse’s flanks. The children loved to play on the station grounds, though they often complained to their parents of the lingering scent of onions permeating the place.
Some people claimed that at dusk, if the air was still enough, you could hear the distinct clang of a dinner bell. Still others insisted that at night you could see the place lit up, and shadows seated in the dilapidated kitchen, as if a family had settled themselves down to supper.
Some heard laughter, some heard angry words. There was a man who was willing to swear on a stack of Bibles that one morning at daybreak he had seen two women-one tall and blond, one small and brown-haired-wrapped in shawls, standing at the fence having a chat. Others could smell bacon and fresh biscuits around breakfast time. A few declared they had heard the distinct crack of a baseball bat. Some saw a man rocking comfortably on the ramshackle porch in a chair that didn’t exist, a man with iron gray hair and suspenders the color of the reddest rose; a few of them claimed to hear his snores.
A popular legend was that a previous town mayor had met the gray-haired man on the road one night, and that the two had exchanged a few pleasantries before the gray-haired man had gone on his way, leaving the mayor with peculiar advice about reaching for moons only to miss silver dollars at your feet and divided families being like twisting paths that never cross again, or some such nonsense. But the mayor was known for public displays of drunkenness, so the story was treated with a hefty dose of disbelief.
Newcomers laughed at tales of young couples seen dancing by the barn and a man with a wicked grin who wore fringed leather and could be seen sleeping in midday. They stared in disbelief at those who told them of a black man who could handle a bullwhip with the ease another man might handle his wallet, and another man who gestured with his hands, and a parade of beautiful, strong horses trotting in and out of the barn. Even those who claimed to have seen the inexplicable, otherworldly sites-men and women in clothes like something out of a Tom Mix film, living lives that had not been lived for decades-often doubted their own stories.
But none could deny that when the sun was at just the right place on the horizon-still huge and golden, nearing nightfall but only just-and the wind was soft and the town was quiet, there were hoofbeats heard. Thunderous hoofbeats, charging as if the devil himself was at the horse's back, and the sound grew nearer...nearer, until it reached the station and stopped. On a clear night you could see a rider dismounting, a flurry of movement, and another rider galloping off. And if the wind died down still further, there were voices heard in the distance, earnest, cautioning: “Ride safe!”
In the end, none could deny that the old Express station was indeed, unquestionably haunted. But the ghosts were of the pleasant sort that did no harm, and the haunting seemed almost a thing to be proud of.
I'm gettin' soft, dammit... and old. Old before my time, and I have only myself to blame. That's the reason... it's got to be the reason. It can't be anything else... 'cause I don't have a heart.
A little boy came into my store today, slipped in without a sound. 'Must've walked in just behind another person, then hid there in the shadows, keeping away from all the others. No one noticed him... not even me. People tell me I'm like a nervous parent with my merchandise, watchin' it like a mama hen with her chicks... 'cause I know there's a whole mess of chicken hawks, lazy good-for-nothin's waitin' out there to take it when I ain't lookin'...
So I just don't know how I missed him. Hunkerin' where he was, nearly in plain view, staring at the apples like he was mad with hunger. I guess he was.
I guess he was just there, waiting.
I only saw him when his hand reached out, little dirt brown fingers closing over the rosy flesh of that apple. A little leaf and stem pokin' out from between his fingers... wavin' like a flag.
My shout died in my throat. My anger falling away as I heard a gasp explode from his lips. Pure joy... pure bliss... how long had it been since I'd heard something like that... felt something like that. Too damn long. I stepped forward, startling the child, watching as his eyes grew wide in fear... The look in his eyes shock me to the bottoms of my feet, the sensation knotting in my stomach like the last piece of coal in the belly of an oven.
His hand trembled, bruising the tender flesh of the apple. He reached to put it back, real terror in his eyes. I put out my hand and he flinched, cowering away from me... Knifing through me with guilt... how genuine was his fear... how right he was... Lord, who had I become?
I waved off his fear, desperate to save myself from the tears burning behind my eyes. "Take it.. please, take it."
He looked to bolt, his thick raven colored hair mussed around his narrow face and .... green eyes. Good Lord... he had Sally's eyes.
The boy backed away, his worn buckskins loose around his thin frame. "Wait!" I called, my voice hoarse and thin with concern...
... but he was gone. Hearin' more of a bark, anything but the genuine call of kindness I felt flowing from a heart I'd thought long dry, he'd run away... left me alone... with my regrets... with my remorse... haunted with his eyes.
Buck sat quietly at the far end of the table. Only a few inches separated him physically from Lou, but there might just as well have been a wall in place. Their voices buzzed around him, but he didn’t hear them. He stared at his plate, using his fork to idly move the stew around, watching as patterns appeared and then disappeared in the gravy.
Kind of the way happiness and love had appeared in his life - and then gone away.
He lifted his fork to his mouth, forcing a small bit of stew down. He really wasn’t hungry, but he knew the others were worried about him. If he didn’t eat, they’d start asking him questions, and he’d had enough of those.
It had been a week since he’d killed Rance in town - a week since he’d learned that Kathleen had been using him. He winced; it was painful just to think about her name.
He took another bite, hoping everyone noticed. He’d answered enough questions at the hearing today to last for a very long time. If it had been Jimmy, or Cody, or Kid who had killed Rance, the people of Sweetwater probably would have hailed them as heroes. But because it was the town half-breed who had killed a white man, and with a knife no less, there had been uproar. To try and calm everyone down, Sam had set up a public hearing.
Sam had made it a point to talk to Buck privately, to assure him that the hearing was just a formality. But Buck understood full well that the town had already declared him guilty, regardless of what the hearing showed.
The hearing had been one of the most painful experiences of his life. He’d been forced to lay his soul bare, or so it seemed, answering questions about the Devlins and his relationship with Kathleen. He didn’t understand what most of the questions had to do with Rance’s death. After all, the man had already shot Devlin once, and was threatening to shoot the injured man again, when Buck had intervened. That should have been all that mattered. But Tompkins and some of the other townspeople had sent for a special prosecutor, and the man was ruthless.
Caught unaware, Buck had no attorney helping him. Sam had hastily drafted one of his deputies, a man who had once read law for two months, to stand up with Buck. But the man was no match for the skilled prosecutor. The judge himself stopped some of the most aggressive questioning, but Buck had still taken a beating on the stand.
Only one thing had gotten him through, and that had been Emma’s strength. She sat in the front row, directly across from the witness chair, and when things had been the roughest she had locked eyes with him, simply refusing to let him fall.
He’d have to thank her . . . later.
Even the testimony from Jack and Kathleen Devlin hadn’t come close to taking the sting away. Oh, they left no doubt that Jack’s life had been in imminent danger when Buck had intervened. But the prosecutor suddenly became very solicitous in his questioning - leaving the definite impression that Buck’s mere presence had been driven purely by a jealous rage, and not because his own life had been threatened by Rance just shortly before.
In the end, the judge had ruled that the killing was justified, and there was no cause for a murder trial. Exonerated, Buck had walked out of the hearing - straight into a maelstrom of anger and fear. As he headed for his horse, mothers hid their young children behind their skirts, people shouted curses, two men spit at him, and some unknown assailant threw a rock that hit him hard on the back of his shoulder. All of them stared with hostility at his knife.
The other riders had hustled him away. He’d been numb from shock, and he barely even remembered the ride home.
He lifted one more bite of stew toward his mouth, but stopped his hand halfway there. He just couldn’t eat it. “Excuse me,” he mumbled as he stood up. He dropped his plate by the dish basin and hurried toward the door. He needed fresh air - and he needed it NOW. He heard his name being called, but he didn’t stop.
At the table, everyone was unusually quiet. “That boy is hurting bad,” Teaspoon remarked.
“His eyes look positively haunted,” Emma added, looking over at the door. She really wasn’t sure if Buck needed time alone - or if he needed a big hug.
“He ain’t been sleeping,” Lou said. She had a perfect view of his single bunk from her top bunk.
“The judge cleared him,” Cody said. “He shouldn’t be feeling guilty for killing that guy!”
“That ain’t what’s bothering him,” Kid said.
It’s HER, Ike signed angrily.
“Just a good thing they’re leaving town tomorrow,” Jimmy muttered. Kathleen was taking her father back east while he recovered from the bullet wound Rance had inflicted.
“That’s not going to help Buck get over what she did,” Emma observed.
Unfortunately, none of them knew what would help him with that. And none of them knew how much the whole experience of the hearing had affected their friend.
Buck wandered to the barn and spent some time slowly brushing his horse. He would have kept on brushing, but eventually the attention got to be too much and the horse started pulling away. So he put the brush down and then started filling the stall with fresh hay - anything to stay busy.
Eventually, though, his burst of energy subsided, and the week of very little sleep or food caught up. He sank down into the fresh hay, totally exhausted. Maybe he would actually be able to sleep tonight.
The problem with sleep was that when he closed his eyes, his dreams were filled with images of Kathleen. He saw them laughing while out riding, enjoying their picnic. He saw their first kiss out on top of a wind-swept hill . . .
None of that was real.
And the fear that those dreams would return would probably keep him awake again tonight.
Life gradually regained a little normalcy. Buck took his next scheduled run, hoping that riding free across the open prairie would help him heal. Unfortunately, it had just given him more time alone to think.
He thought about how foolish he’d been to even think that someone like Kathleen could have cared about him. And about how the hearing, and its aftermath, had reinforced that he didn’t belong.
At the station, he had started eating again, and Lou reported that he was sleeping better. But his eyes still held that haunted look - and no one knew how to help him.
Teaspoon put down the bridle he was fixing and stepped out of the barn. “Over here, Emma.”
“I’m going to be going to Fort Laramie for a few days,” Emma said as they met.
“Oh? What’s in Laramie?”
“Important business,” Emma replied. “Actually, it’s the trip that’s more important.” She paused and looked over to where the riders were setting some new fence posts. “I’m going to ask Buck to escort me. I think he needs to get away from here.”
Teaspoon considered that for a moment, then nodded in agreement. “I think you’re right, Emma. He won’t even go in to town.”
“Can you blame him, after the way he was treated following that hearing?”
“Nope, don’t blame him at all. But it ain’t healthy for him to just stay here all the time, ‘cept when he’s on a run. I think it’s a real good idea - if he’ll go.”
“Oh, he’ll go,” Emma said. “I’ll find a way.”
She turned and headed for where the boys were working, wondering how she really would get him to go if he objected. Still, she was making a simple request, and there was no reason to think he’d really object. “Buck! I need to talk to you.”
Buck looked up from his work. He held the fence rail steady as Jimmy finished fastening it, then he jumped over the rail. Grabbing his shirt, he pulled it on as he walked toward her. “Am I in trouble?” he asked.
“Of course not. Why would you say that?”
He shrugged. “Guess it just doesn’t seem to take much for me to wind up in trouble with someone.”
“Well, not with me,” Emma replied. “Actually, I need to go to Laramie for a few days. Sam can’t get away, and that’s farther than I’m comfortable going by myself. I’d like you to come with me.”
He hesitated. “Emma, I’m not sure I’m the best one to go with you. One of the others . . .”
“Buck, are you refusing to go with me?”
“Emma, I’ll do whatever you want.” He owed her that, and more. “I just don’t think I’ll be very good company.”
Her smile was tempered by the sadness in his voice and eyes. “Oh, I think you’ll be fine company,” she said. “I’d like to leave after lunch.”
They made camp that night near the entrance to a narrow canyon. The base widened out enough to have enough room to be comfortable. From there the walls rose at an angle, the two sides nearly touching by the time they reached the top. A creek ran through the middle, the remnant of the mighty river that had carved the canyon ages before.
Buck liked the location for several reasons. The creek gurgled clean and pure over the rocks, providing water for them and the horses. The narrow walls would provide some shelter from the rain that seemed to be gaining on them from the west. And the canyon had come into sight as Emma’s discomfort was becoming too much for him to stand.
Emma dismounted slowly, reaching for her back - she wondered, again, why it was she had insisted on riding instead of taking the wagon. She really wasn’t used to this much time on horseback. But as she looked at her companion, she knew the answer. She was hoping that being on horseback would give her just a little more in common with Buck, and make it easier for him to open up to her.
She took a few steps, grimacing as more muscles protested. She vowed then and there that he would talk to her, one way or another. She was not going to suffer through a sore backside like this and come away with no results!
Buck slid off his horse and took the reins for both animals. “Emma, are you all right?” Of course, that was a silly question. She was obviously in pain. He’d known that for a while now, but she had refused to stop.
“I’ll be fine” she answered, her voice somewhat less than full of confidence. She reached for the back of her leg as a cramp hit. “I just need some time to walk it off.”
Buck just nodded, a look of skepticism on his face. He wondered if she’d be walking at all by morning. Then again, Emma could be stubborn, so she probably would, one way or another. “We should have taken the wagon.”
“It’s no easier to sit on that hard seat, bouncing all over the place,” Emma replied. And that was true - to a point. The wagon was hard on a body, but she didn’t think it hurt quite as much. She took a few more steps, trying her best to stand up straight and not limp so that he wouldn’t worry as much.
Buck turned to the horses and quickly pulled the supply packs and bedrolls off. Then he unsaddled the horses and turned them loose by the creek. He took his time, trying to give Emma a little privacy to work through the worst of the pain. And she would, of that he had no doubt. He’d met very few people who could match her force of will.
He turned back toward the camp area, not surprised to see that Emma was pulling out supplies for dinner. “Emma, I can do that.”
“Nonsense,” she replied. “I’m fine.” As long as she didn’t move too fast, or bend too far, or turn in that one direction . . . “Besides, whose cooking would you rather eat?”
He had to smile at that question. The choice between Emma’s cooking and his own . . . well, there really wasn’t a choice. “Yours,” he answered. “But not if it’s hurting you.”
“Buck, really, I’ll be fine.” If she survived the rest of the trip on horseback, and the night sleeping on the ground. They might have to spend a couple of extra days in Laramie before she’d be ready to start back. “You find some wood for a fire while I get things ready here.” And at least staying busy helped keep her mind off some of the pain.
With dinner finished, the camp cleaned up, and the fire burning brightly, they sat together watching the flames flicker as the clouds moved in overhead. Except for the crackling fire, it was silent.
Somehow, he knew the silence wouldn’t last.
“I think it would help if you talked about it, Buck,” Emma started.
He sighed. “There’s really nothing to talk about, Emma.”
“None of us are blind, Buck. We see how you’re hurting.”
He was silent for a bit, contemplating that. He wasn’t used to having anyone but Ike to confide in. It still felt unusual to have more people around him who really seemed to care. But what could he really say? He finally sighed, deciding it came down to one thing. “Why do they hate me so much, Emma? They don’t even know me,” he said softly.
“Oh, Buck.” The pain in his voice seemed far more intense than even her physical pain from the ride. And what could she really say - she didn’t understand it herself. She did understand that ‘they’ were the people of Sweetwater. “Sometimes people fear what they don’t understand,” she said slowly, feeling her way through a reply. “And for many people it’s easier to hate what they fear than to try and understand their fear.”
“I never hurt any of them, Emma - not until Devlin’s men came after me.”
“I know that. And the people of Sweetwater will come to know that too, you’ll see. It just takes a little time.”
“How much time?”
“I don’t know the answer to that, Buck.”
He sighed again and shook his head. “Growing up with the Kiowa, I understood very early that I was different, and that some of them hated me for that. I left the tribe, needing to know the part of me that was white. I learned everything I could at the mission school, because I thought that would help me in the white world, but it hasn’t. People just look at me and see a savage, Nothing else matters.”
Emma thought for a moment before responding. She’d never heard Buck put his frustration into words before, though she had certainly guessed. “It does matter, Buck, even if some people are slow to see that. I know you’re a good man. And others know it too - Sam, Mr. Spoon, the other riders. You’ve got a family that knows and loves you.”
“The Pony Express won’t last forever,” Buck said softly. “What then? I tried going back to the Kiowa after Ike was captured, but Red Bear sent me away. I’ve tried to fit in in Sweetwater, but at the slightest hint of trouble, I’m to blame.” He looked away to hide his tears, and he swallowed hard against a lump in his throat. “I just want to belong somewhere, Emma,” he whispered. “Where do I belong?”
She had no answer for him.
Emma wrapped her arms around his shoulders and held him tight as the rain came.
Emma busied herself with packing up their belongings. She was moving slowly this morning, very much feeling the stiffness and pain from the previous day’s ride. She had no idea how she was going to make it through another day. It was still raining, and that didn’t help.
Fortunately, Buck had opened up a bit the night before, and he seemed to be in a better mood this morning, so at least that was positive. Something good would come of the trip, even if she never walked straight again.
Buck had ridden ahead to check a part of the trail that sometimes washed out. If they had to take a different route, his scouting would save her a few miles of riding, and she was very grateful for that thought.
She turned to put the last items in the pack and started to tie it closed.
With the rain muffling their approach, she never heard the men coming up behind her.
He knew there was something wrong as he neared the camp. An uneasy feeling settled in, though he couldn’t have explained why. Still, he urged his horse to give a little more speed.
As the clearing came into view he jumped off of his horse, crouching near the trees. Emma’s horse was gone, and items were scattered around the smoldering fire. He scanned the area with his eyes, his ears, his nose. It didn’t take long for him to be confident that the area was deserted.
He moved into the clearing, scanning again. He took in the extra footprints, the signs of extra horses.
The signs of a struggle.
He ran for his horse and headed out, following the trail.
Emma stumbled in the muck and fell as she was pulled from her horse. With her hands tied in front of her, she couldn’t catch herself and wound up face-first in the mud. Behind her, she heard the three men laughing.
They’d taunted her the whole ride with their plans for her, and despite her attempts to ignore them, she was frightened.
Buck had undoubtedly returned by now, and knew she was gone. She knew he’d come after her, but there was no way to know how far behind he was - or how much time she had.
She lifted her head and wiped the mud from her eyes. Then as carefully as she could, she looked around, searching for anything she could use to her own advantage.
Buck slid silently toward the clearing, getting as close as he could while still remaining hidden. He lowered himself to the ground, belly in the mud, and inched forward. There were three men, all right around Emma. He jerked as one of them reached out to touch her, his hand itching for his gun. But he was too far away for a clean pistol shot, let alone three of them. He might hit Emma, or one of the men might kill her if he opened fire.
No, he needed a way to split them up, hopefully get one of the men off by himself. Slowly he reached out to the side, grabbing a large stone with his left hand. Bracing himself, he heaved the stone as far as he could off to one side, waiting for it to hit. It fell, creating a clattering sound.
Buck watched as the three men reacted to the noise. He was too far away to hear the words clearly, but it was obvious they were trying to place the sound. They were pointing, and then one of them headed toward where the noise had come from, drawing his gun as he went.
Satisfied, Buck slid back into the trees, circling around to reach the same area. One on one, he liked his odds better.
Knowing what he was facing, Buck moved faster than the man who was searching for any danger. He got ahead of the other man and picked his spot. He couldn’t risk the noise of using his gun, he knew. His fingers inched toward his knife - then stopped. The men who had taken Emma were all white. He couldn’t face another hearing like the one he’d just been through . . .
The man was almost upon him, and Buck shook his head to clear his thoughts. He pulled his hand away from the knife, waiting for the precise moment . . .
The man never knew what hit him as Buck’s weight struck him from behind. With the element of surprise on his side, Buck was able to win the battle quickly. He took the unconscious man’s gun and stuffed it into the pocket inside his jacket. It went against everything he’d learned from Red Bear to leave an enemy alive to possibly attack again, but those seemed to be the rules in the white world.
He had nothing to even tie the man’s hands with, not without going back to his horse. And that would take too much time away from Emma. In the end, he took just a moment to drag the man to the side and drop him into a thorn bush. Then he headed back toward the clearing.
The sight that greeted him made his blood boil. One of the men was running his hands over Emma, while the other held her roped hands. They were both laughing at her struggles.
His hand inched toward his knife again, and again he pulled it back. Instead, he crept closer, trying to block out the sounds of Emma’s struggles. He needed to concentrate on the two men. He worked his way around the edge of the clearing, watching for any advantage.
He finally got that advantage when he heard the men order Emma to make coffee. They let go of her, pushing her roughly toward the supply pack, still taunting her with what was yet to come. One of them took the pot and headed for the nearby stream for water while the other man drew his gun and ordered Emma to collect wood.
Buck moved toward the stream, again gauging the best spot to make his move. The tree cover wasn’t as close here - he’d be exposed a longer time, losing some of the element of surprise. Of course, he could throw his knife . . .
He shook his head, realizing that his hand was shaking at the thought of throwing the knife. That had never happened before, and it frightened him.
It frightened him even more to think that the people of Sweetwater, and the hearing over Rance’s death, had caused him to doubt himself. He couldn’t afford that . . . Emma couldn’t afford that.
Thinking of Emma’s plight brought him back to the task at hand. The man was approaching, almost there. Buck waited until the last moment before leaving his hiding spot. He sprang quickly, but he had to cover a few extra steps of open ground. The man managed to cry out briefly before Buck could subdue him.
The cry alerted the third man. He turned his attention in that direction, reaching for his gun. Emma turned too, getting a glimpse of two men struggling.
As the man nearest to her raised his gun, Emma grabbed for one of the logs she had just gathered. With all her strength she swung it, bringing it down on the man’s arm. He cried out in pain, dropping the gun. But then he turned on her, rage in his eyes . . .
Buck left the man unconscious by the stream and turned to the clearing - just in time to see Emma take matters into her own hands. But then the last man turned toward her, advancing on her.
Buck raced across the clearing and launched himself at the man, knocking him to the ground just as he reached Emma. The battle was brief but brutal, until Buck finally gained the upper hand and sent the man reeling with a vicious left hook.
The man staggered backward, almost regained his footing - then collapsed in a heap as Emma swung the log again, connecting with the back of his head.
Buck got slowly to his feet and went to Emma, taking the log from her shaking hands. “Emma, are you all right?”
She stared at the man on the ground for a moment, shaking. Then she turned to Buck and nodded. “I think so,” she said. But then the shaking took over, and she buried her face against his chest.
Buck wrapped his arms around her and held her tight for a few minutes until the worst of the shaking stopped. “It’s all right, Emma. It’s over.” And he hadn’t killed any white men . . . “We’ll tie them up and take them on to Laramie.”
Emma looked up and nodded, wiping at her eyes. She started to reply - but then her eyes went wide. Looking past Buck’s shoulder, she could see the first man staggering back into the clearing. He was nearly at the horses, reaching for a rifle . . . “Buck!”
Somehow, he knew what she was seeing behind him. Instinct took over and he spun, pushing Emma out of the way as he moved. In one fluid motion he dropped to one side, reached for his knife, and threw the blade.
The man at the horse jerked upright. He turned, a look of surprise on his face. He took one step, then collapsed, face down - the knife buried nearly to the hilt in his back.
He felt Emma come up next to him again, and he wrapped his right arm around her shoulders.
His left hand he balled into a tight fist, trying to stop the shaking.
Now he had killed another white man with his knife. He had a bad feeling about this . . .
They met the army patrol about two hours after they started for Laramie again. The three men who had captured Emma had robbed the general store at the fort, killing two people and wounding three others in the process. The army Captain was only too happy to take charge of the two surviving robbers, as well as the body of the third.
As they once again started for Laramie, now with an army escort, Buck drifted to the back of the group. His eyes held that haunted look again, though no one turned back to notice.
The army was happy enough to have had the robbers turned over to them. But would they be as happy when they found out how the third man died? Once again, he’d done nothing wrong . . .
His left hand started shaking again. He couldn’t face another hearing . . .
The Captain sent riders ahead to the fort to announce that the robbers had been captured. By the time the rest of the patrol reached Laramie, a crowd had turned out to greet them. They cheered as the soldiers escorted the prisoners toward the stockade.
Following the Captain’s directions, Emma and Buck headed for the commandant’s office. The army wanted statements from them on what had happened out on the plains. How a man and woman had come to capture the robbers wanted in Laramie.
How a half-breed had come to kill one of them with a knife, Buck added to himself. He couldn’t believe this was happening again.
“It’ll be fine, Buck,” Emma said. She hadn’t missed the signs that he was nervous, especially after their talk the night before.
Before he could answer, a voice came from behind them. “Excuse me?”
Buck and Emma both turned, not sure who the words were directed at. Standing behind them, a man held his arm protectively around the shoulders of a girl who looked to be about six years old. With them were a boy of about ten, and a girl maybe sixteen or seventeen.
“Excuse me,” the man said again, stepping forward. “I’m told you’re the folks who caught those robbers.”
“Well, that is true,” Emma said. “I’m afraid they managed to capture me, but Buck managed to follow the trail and capture them.”
“You helped, Emma,” Buck pointed out. Of course, only one of them had killed someone.
The man nodded. “My wife was one of the people killed when they robbed the store,” he said softly. “My kids got no ma now.”
Emma gasped. “Oh, I am so sorry!”
The man was still nodding. “The man who came back dead, he’s the one who shot her,” he said, his voice shaking. “I was right there in the store, just a few feet from her. But there was nothing I could do to stop it.”
“I’m glad that man is dead!” the boy declared. His eyes looked both frightened and old beyond his years.
The man stepped forward, extending his hand to Buck. “It don’t bring my wife back, but I do believe it’ll let Clara rest easier, knowing he got what was coming to him.”
Buck shook the man’s hand, not knowing what to say. Just then the older girl stepped forward and took his other hand. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“You’re welcome,” Buck responded. It seemed strange to be thanked for killing someone . . .
As the father hustled his family off, Buck and Emma started for the commandant’s office again. They had just reached the steps when it suddenly hit him.
This was nothing like Sweetwater at all.
It wasn’t just that Kathleen had used him. In Sweetwater, neither Devlin had ever thanked him for saving Jack’s life.
Here, he’d had thanks from Emma and the family of the murdered woman. And that made all the difference in the world - he didn’t feel alone.
He reached to open the door for Emma, noting with satisfaction that his left hand had quit shaking. “I think you’re right, Emma,” he said with a smile. “Everything will be fine.”