Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory - March 1866
Buck lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling, letting the empty bottle of whiskey slip from his fingers and fall to the floor. He had already counted the stains up there at least half a dozen times. But it was all he could manage to do. It hurt too much to do anything else. He couldn’t go to work, even though Teaspoon had told him work was good for what ailed him.
He rolled over onto his side, his hand still clutching the necklace. It was his brother’s bird bone necklace. And it was all he had to hold on to now to keep his brother’s memory alive. Never would he see his brother shake his head disapprovingly at him, nor would he feel his brother’s hand on his shoulder, nudging him to do what he was afraid to do, never would he hear his brother’s hearty laugh or hear his loud voice. Because he’s dead, his brain once more screamed the words, reminding him once more that his brother was gone. As if he could he possibly forget how alone he was now. His worst fear had come true, Red Bear had died a few weeks ago, killed by the army.
“Buck” a voice called out softly.
Buck sat up and looked at the person, silhouetted in his doorway. No, he told himself he wasn’t alone. He had family - Teaspoon, Rachel, Emma, Sam, Jimmy, Cody, Kid and Lou. And he had her, Kathleen Devlin, if he really wanted her.
Kathleen had re-appeared in his life last month. Her father had taken ill and she was running the family business, which had expanded greatly from the real estate enterprise it had started out as. The company now manufactured and sold hardware.
It was this fact which gave Kathleen the freedom to come back to him. He had rejected her at first, remembering the hurt she had caused him. But she was relentless. Everywhere he went, there she was, apologizing and begging for another chance. She insisted she did what she did for them. Because of what she did, letting her father believe she didn’t care for Buck, allowing him to believe she wanted nothing more than to be daddy’s girl now gave her control of her father’s business, her father’s money and now they could have the life they should have.
“Are you okay?” Kathleen whispered.
“Go away,” Buck muttered thickly.
Kathleen picked up the discarded bottle of whiskey and placed in on the table. She sat on the bed next to Buck. “This must be so hard for you.”
“Not now, Kathleen.”
“I remember how lost I felt when my mother died,” she continued, as if Buck hadn’t spoken.
“I said not now.”
“You know, I can barely remember her now. All I remember is the way she would sing to me when she put me to bed.”
“I’m sorry,” Buck said with a sigh. He moved to an upright position, her words breaking through his own grief, making him realize that others had lost loved ones. As he looked in her eyes, he saw the pain there and knew it was genuine. There was no reason to blame Kathleen. She had no part in Red Bear’s death. His stupid brother knew what he was doing, that his actions would someday lead to his death. Red Bear knew it and he refused to let his brother, his little brother, play a role in his fight. Red Bear had told him once again that his heart was still divided. But Buck was sure that Red Bear was acting as a big brother, not a Kiowa chief. Because as a chief he would have asked Buck to stay, to help his people, but he didn’t. Yet that knowledge didn’t lessen the hurt. It didn’t make him feel like less of a traitor. It didn’t make him miss his brother any less.
“I lashed out at everyone too,” Kathleen smiled, putting her hands flat against his chest.
“Kathleen,” Buck said wearily. He wasn’t strong enough to do this now.
“Let me help you,” Kathleen whispered huskily. “I know how alone you must be feeling.”
Buck took both of her wrists in his hand and moved them away from him. “Go home.”
But Kathleen just moved her body closer to him. “I love you Buck. I know you don’t feel the same way anymore, but I still love you.”
Buck released her hands, which now clutched at his shirt. Kathleen moved even closer to him, as if that were possible and put her lips on his. “Let me show you how much I love you,” she murmured. “Let me remind you what it feels like to be alive.”
Suddenly Buck wrapped his arms around Kathleen and buried his lips in hers. As they tumbled onto the bed, he didn’t care anymore what Kathleen had done to him in the past. That was then, this was now. Right now she made him forget, so much more than the whiskey had done and forgetting was something he wanted to do more than anything.
As they lay in each other’s arms, Buck stroked Kathleen’s hair while she slept, his mind a jumble of conflicting thoughts. Sometimes he didn’t know if he loved Kathleen, even now. He was attracted to her and he saw how hard she tried to change. But forgiveness wasn’t something that came easily to him.
But he had to hand it to her, Kathleen had the tenacity of a bulldog. In spite of his sometimes rude behavior, she continued to pursue him. They had gone out on occasion - a picnic, a ride, a walk. Sometimes she could stir up the old feelings and he kissed her, but other times all he felt was anger towards her.
But it was hard to be angry now, it was hard to be anything. At least holding Kathleen, feeling her warm body against his allowed him to feel something. Maybe they deserved another chance. Maybe she really had changed. Kathleen had been so supportive when she heard of Red Bear’s death, even offering to go with him. And holding her in his arms tonight, inhaling her sweet scent, it had been too much to turn away this time.
As he looked down into her face, he knew he had to make a life for himself. Why not with Kathleen? Maybe what he was feeling wasn’t blood pounding, knee weakening, do anything for the woman you loved love, like it once was. Maybe it was better now. A love borne of friendship, a love in which he was able to see both sides of the person, good and bad. Why not begin this relationship again, this time with his eyes wide open?
Teaspoon looked out the window of the marshal’s office, shaking his head at the sight. Kathleen was chattering and pointing to something in the dress shop. That was pretty much all Kathleen did anymore, plan for her wedding. Ever since Red Bear’s death two months ago, she and Buck had become quite close. So close that Buck had asked her to marry him. The wedding was scheduled to occur in less than four weeks.
Teaspoon quickly busied himself with the papers on his desk when he saw Buck leave Kathleen’s side and make his way to the office.
“‘Bout time,” Teaspoon called out easily. “Sometimes it feels like I got two deputies instead of three.” After the war, ‘his boys’ had returned to Rock Creek and Teaspoon was doing everything he could to keep them here. His first step was in hiring them as deputies. Now if he could only find all of them wives to keep them settled. Kid and Lou were firmly ensconced in a small ranch just north of town. Teaspoon was sure they were here for good, he just wished he could say the same about Buck and Jimmy. Cody, well Cody was a whole different matter. That boy had stars in his eyes and dreams so large Rock Creek couldn’t hold them.
“You might as well get used to it,” Buck replied, unable to keep his voice as light as Teaspoon’s. “You know that we are moving to Chicago after the wedding.”
Teaspoon grimaced when he heard the words, while Buck thought about the brand new life ahead of him. He and Kathleen would be married and then they would move to Chicago, where the Devlin business of headquartered. They had made a trip there a few weeks earlier and much to his surprise he felt accepted there. He did, on occasion, feel rather like a novelty, but there was no hostility in the eyes of the many people he met, mostly curiosity mixed with pity. Kathleen told him it was because Chicago was just too big a city for anyone to worry about who or what he was.
Buck still had difficulty imagining himself in Chicago, but the idea also intrigued him, living in a large city, helping run a large corporation, because that’s what he’d be doing. He and Kathleen would be partners. She had shown him the papers. They would be joint owners of Devlin Enterprises after they were married.
“Son,” Teaspoon said gently. “You sure you know what you are getting yourself into?”
No, Buck wanted to answer. Because that was the truth. With every day that passed, the lump in his throat grew larger and larger, crowding out the words he longed to say. He wanted, no he needed more time. But Kathleen was so happy, he just couldn’t. He knew what she would think, that he didn’t love her, that he was just using her. But it wasn’t that, was it?
“You remember,” Teaspoon continued as he made note of the worried look Buck wore, a look that was threatening to become a permanent part of the Kiowa’s features. “Your family is here. You can come back to us, anytime. And if you ever need us, we’ll be there.”
“I know, Teaspoon,” Buck replied, giving the marshal a grateful smile.
“Excuse me,” a voice said behind them.
“Miss Devlin,” Teaspoon nodded.
“Marshal Hunter,” Kathleen acknowledged his presence. “How have you been?”
“Fine, just fine,” Teaspoon replied.
“And your wife?” Kathleen inquired formally.
“She’s fine too,” Teaspoon answered, quickly growing tired of this stilted conversation. Kathleen had been in town for months, yet they rarely ever made it past this point. “Speaking of my wife, I think I’m late in meeting her.” He winked broadly at Buck, placing his hat on his head and moving to the door. “We’re gonna have lunch together.”
“Have fun,” Buck smiled at Teaspoon’s receding figure. He and Polly were two peas in a pod, as the marshal was so fond of saying. Ever since Polly’s re-entrance into Teaspoon’s life, the two had become close once more, even re-marrying. It was Buck’s fervent hope that he and Kathleen would follow in the Hunters footsteps, learn from the mistakes of the past to form an even stronger bond.
He glanced back to Kathleen who was fingering the stage schedules lying on a desk. “Going somewhere?” he asked.
Kathleen raised her head. “Chicago, actually.”
“What?” Buck frowned. “Again? We were just there.”
“I know,” Kathleen sighed heavily. “It’s just... Oh Buck, I just want everything to be so perfect and nothing here is what I want.”
“But I thought you already bought everything you needed when were in Chicago the last time.”
“Not a suit for you.”
“Kathleen,” Buck began wearily. “I already have a suit, a brand new one.”
“I know,” Kathleen replied. Then she began chattering about how she had an idea and Buck stopped listening. He couldn’t help it, whenever Kathleen got going, it was hard to pay attention. She never stopped talking, never took a breath, never asked him his opinion. Not that he had one about the wedding, but still it would be nice to be asked. Somewhere during her prattling he heard the words, “and I wanted to pick up some shoes while I’m there.” Buck frowned, so that was the real reason she was going.
“I’ll be back in less than two weeks,” she concluded. “And then we have to finalize everything for the wedding.”
“You don’t mind traveling by yourself?” Buck said, noting that he had not been asked to accompany her.
Kathleen lowered her eyes, “I mind.” She raised them then and added. “But you’d be bored to death, so it’s best I go by myself.”
Buck laughed. Maybe she did understand after all. It was little moments like this that gave him hope. He hugged Kathleen against him. “When do you leave?”
“It’s your turn,” Jimmy declared.
“What do you mean it’s my turn?” Kid exclaimed. “I went last night.”
“I went last night,” Buck interjected. It was same thing every night. He, Kid and Jimmy would argue about whose turn it was to go to the saloon and check up on the goings on. The new proprietor, Hal Logan, had gone all out to attract new customers. He had the liquor flowing and new girls coming to town on a weekly basis. Unfortunately Hal’s upturn in business led to an upturn in their business and Teaspoon had taken to leaving every day at four o’clock, leaving the matter of Hal Logan up to his deputies. “It’s Jimmy’s turn.”
Kid turned back to Jimmy and smirked. If it had been ten years ago, he probably would have stuck his tongue out at him. “Well then, I will be going.” He smirked once more. “My wife has probably got dinner all set out for me.” Kid then stepped out the door, ignoring the loud guffaws behind him.
“Can you believe him?” Jimmy laughed. Lou had her hands full with their year-old twins, Noah and Natalie. “Dinner? Lou’s probably washing those kids for the tenth time today.” Last time he had come to visit, he found the McCloud twins splashing happily in a large mud puddle outside their house. Those rambunctious children had flung mud at him when he greeted them and then Lou had made him help her bathe the two little monsters, Jimmy recalled with a faint smile.
“He just wants to be with his family,” Buck answered, unable to keep the flicker of sorrow from passing through his eyes. Family was something they all wanted, even though they didn’t admit it to themselves or each other.
Jimmy rose to his feet and clapped Buck on the shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “You can join me at Mr. Logan’s establishment.”
“Nah, I should-”
“Could, should, would,” Jimmy interrupted. “Your missus is gone. You ain’t got no place else to be.”
Shrugging his shoulders, Buck rose to his feet and followed his friend. It was the truth, he had no place else he had to be.
When they arrived at the saloon, he saw that it was filled, once again. Bar patrons laughing, drinking, playing cards and grabbing at saloon girls. So many saloon girls. Red-heads, blondes, brunettes, girls dancing on a stage, passing out drinks, flirting shamelessly with the men gathered at the bar. Girls of every size and shape everywhere.
“Deputies,” Hal greeted them loudly. He knew how important it was to stay on the good side of the law. “Got your drinks all ready for you.”
Jimmy picked up a shot and gulped it quickly while reaching for another. Buck did the same, feeling the rye burn his gullet while simultaneously washing away the cares of the day. When Hal handed him another drink, he took sip from the small glass. He glanced once more about the smoke-filled room as he felt someone jostle his elbow. “Excuse me,” he began. He felt another push, causing him to lose his balance slightly. As he planted his foot, in order to regain his equilibrium, he felt it land on something soft.
“Ouch,” a small dark-haired girl exclaimed.
“I’m sorry,” Buck began quickly. He raised his hand, in an attempt to help right the tray filled with drinks the girl was carrying. But somehow his hand caused the girl to become unsteady herself and she dropped the tray, scowling furiously at the catcalls she was now receiving.
“Thanks a lot, mister,” she said contemptuously. She bent down, using her hand to push the broken pieces of glass back onto the tray.
Buck crouched down next to her. “I’m sorry. Let me help you.”
The girl just pushed his hand away. “Thanks, but I think you’ve done enough.” She continued trying to clean the mess of glass and liquid up with her bare hands.
“Leave it Jensen,” Hal boomed. “Lizzie,” he called out to another girl, who was wiping glasses. She wasn’t dressed like a saloon girl, as she was wearing a high neck, dark blue dress, which covered her from her wrists to her ankles. She also looked much too frightened to be working in such a place. “Clean up Jensen’s mess.”
“It ain’t my mess,” Jensen proclaimed. “It’s his,” she said pointing directly at Buck.
“Jensen,” Hal said, in a warning tone.
Jensen just scowled at both him and Buck.
“I’ll pay for the drinks,” Buck added quickly, not wanting this Jensen person to have to pay for them, further incurring her wrath.
“No need for that,” Hal replied smoothly. He looked at Jimmy who was shoving a wad of bills in his direction, both men taking note of Buck’s eyes, they were still riveted to Jensen’s slim form. He placed his hand on the money and discreetly removed it from the bar. “Deputy,” he said. “You might be interested to know that our Jensen is part Indian too.”
Jensen jerked her head in Hal’s direction, a brief flash of panic crossed her face before it was quickly replaced by a bored expression.
“Jensen,” Hal continued. “Why don’t you take the deputy upstairs? Apologize for embarrassing him like that.”
Jensen looked down, staring at the floor.
Hal stepped rapidly from behind the bar, grasping Jensen’s arm just above the elbow. He held her arm tightly and hissed in her ear. “Go on. Don’t make a fuss.” This might be what he needed to keep the Kiowa deputy happy. Nothing else seemed to. The deputy known as Kid only came in for a few moments, never staying longer than he had to, while Mr. Hickok here seemed to enjoy both his drink and the ladies. It was Buck who troubled him. The man seemed to have a complete lack of interest in life, except for maybe now, Hal decided, watching Buck continue to devour Jensen with his eyes.
Hal pushed Jensen towards Buck, who began to look as uncomfortable as Jensen did. “Go on now. This is Mr. Hickok’s treat.”
Buck shot Jimmy a look of dismay, receiving a lopsided grin in return. In Jimmy’s opinion, Jensen was a whole lot better than Kathleen. Hell who wouldn’t be? Maybe a little time with her would make Buck return to his senses.
“I’m sorry,” Buck began.
“So us Indian girls ain’t good enough for you?” Jensen challenged. “You one of those Indians who hates their own kind?”
“I didn’t say that,” Buck exclaimed.
“Let’s go then,” Jensen said, moving towards the stairs, Buck slowly following her.
Hal smiled at Jimmy once Jensen and Buck were gone. “I think he’ll like her,” he told Jimmy.
“She’s brand new,” Hal explained. He leaned close to Jimmy and said conspiratorially. “See I got a plan. Most saloon owners’ break in their girls themselves. Not me though. I let them get a feel for the place, see what’s going on. Makes them less skittish and my customers like that. Take Lizzie here,” he continued, jabbing his finger at the frightened girl who had cleaned up the mess from the dropped tray and was now back to her job of washing glasses. “She’s been with me a few weeks. She knows what she’s getting into and when she’s ready, I’ll give her to a customer and charge him for the privilege of initiating my girl.” He grinned lewdly at Lizzie. “Customers like that.”
Jimmy frowned at the barkeep’s words. What had he got Buck into?
Buck sat awkwardly on the tiny bed, in the tiny room, silently cursing both Jimmy and Hal. He glanced about the room he was in, it wasn’t really a room, it was a closet, with one window and no curtains. There were no belongings to show what kind of person lived here. Just a bed, with plain white sheet and an empty dresser.
Jensen sat down beside him, untying the strings of her dress. When she was through, she yanked the dress over her and proceeded to slip off her petticoats.
Buck caught her by the wrist before she could remove any more. He did not need this temptation. He wanted to tell her thanks, but no thanks. He wanted to get up and leave her room, after staying a suitable length of time, so both of them would not be embarrassed. But he didn’t. He just continued to look at her, as he had all evening.
He had spotted Jensen the instant he walked into the saloon. At first it was simply his brain recording a new face, filing it away for further use. But when he bent down, touched her skin as he helped her clean up the broken glass, he had felt it. When his fingers touched her, it was as though a small sliver of warmth opened inside his chest.
It wasn’t because she was beautiful, which she was. With her tanned skin, the same shade as his and long dark hair, which hung loose down her back, framing her heart-shaped face and her large dark eyes, watching him, unblinking as he held her hand, Jensen was stunning. The way she sat unmoving, simply studying him, reminded him of the statues he had seen in the museums when he was in Chicago. It was as though Jensen was one of those marble figures come to life.
As he continued to hold her hand, rubbing her knuckles with his thumb, he realized this wasn’t just a knee-jerk physical reaction. It was something else, something he hadn’t felt in a very long time, like he used to feel every day so a few months ago, before his brother’s death. It was the feeling of life coursing through his veins. Unable to stop his other hand from touching her sculpted cheekbones, he felt it again, a kinship, a spark, a shiver in his soul. He couldn’t understand it though. Why her? She was nothing but a saloon girl, a very attractive saloon girl, yet still a saloon girl. Someone who had given up, who had no future and probably didn’t want to talk about her past.
Jensen looked at him quizzically. Why was he staring at her? Was there something wrong with her? Suddenly something her friend, Francie, had said once came to mind. Francie had been hired by a father for his son and the poor child had been so mortified that he had just sat on the bed, staring at the floor until Francie made her move. So Jensen did what Francie had done, she leaned close to Buck and flicked her tongue across his lips.
Buck’s eyes registered his surprise at her action. Then suddenly he moved his mouth towards hers, his body overruling the many warnings reverberating in his head. Why did she have to touch him? As soon as she touched him, he was lost. He wanted her and wasn’t she his for the taking? This was her job after all. Just once he promised himself, just once and then he would never see her again, except when he made his routine check on the saloon. Just once and she would not make his knees go weak with a single glance. Just once and then never again. Because after tonight she would be out of his blood. He could turn his full attention to his fiancee.
As his lips touched hers, Jensen kissed him back tentatively. Buck parted her lips with his own, deepening the kiss as he lifted his hands, running them over her body, unfastening the many hooks which kept her clothed. Never once removing his mouth from hers, he moved his hands to her shoulders, pushing down her undergarments. His breath became more ragged as he saw her half naked form. Gently pushing her onto the bed, he removed his trousers and climbed on top of her, pushing her underskirts aside.
Jensen hesitated for a moment before she put her arms around this nameless man’s shoulders. He was more gentle than what she had expected. She had heard tales about men who took what wanted they wanted and left. But this man moved slowly, almost carefully as he lowered himself onto her.
She gritted her teeth when she felt him enter her. It doesn’t matter if he hurts you, she told herself. This is your job, this is the life you’ve decided on. Suddenly he rolled off her.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked harshly.
“Tell you what?” Jensen exclaimed, pulling the sheet to her naked body, suddenly feeling ashamed and it wasn’t because of what she didn’t wear. It was because of the way that man was looking at her, like she was something he had pulled out of the trash.
“That you’ve never done this before,” he shouted, gathering his clothes and pulling them back on.
“So?” Jensen asked scornfully. “What does that matter?”
“Why are you doing this?” Buck yelled, feeling quite frantic. This is not what he expected, not even close. He moved off the bed and hopped to the door, pulling his boots higher with each jump.
“What do you want me to do?” she said, still clutching the sheet to her, remaining on the bed. “Announce to the world I’m a virgin whore?”
Buck stared at her. God, she was just a child, she had to be about eighteen years old. She should be married and starting a family of her own, not here, not this place. “Go home, it’s not too late for you.”
“Home,” Jensen spat out the word. “I don’t have a home.”
“What happened?” Buck asked, trying to figure her out and compose himself at the same time. “Why are you here?”
Jumping off the bed and pulling the bed sheet along with her, Jensen opened the door wide.
“Get out! I don’t need your high and mighty attitude.”
High and mighty attitude? Buck gave her a bewildered look, she was angry at him. Why?
“I said get out,” Jensen shouted.
“Jensen,” Buck whispered. “I can help you.”
“Go help yourself,” Jensen retorted, shoving Buck into the hallway. “Least I know what I am.” With that statement she slammed the door shut.
“Deputy,” Buck heard a hesitant voice call out to him. He turned towards the door of the marshal’s office and found a girl standing there, wearing a green saloon girl’s dress. She was of average height and had oodles of brown curls piled on top of her head. She stood there, nervously shifting her weight from one foot to the other, her brown eyes darting back and forth.
“Can I help you?” he inquired. He was about to make a trip to the saloon before he went home, just as soon as Jimmy came back from making his stroll through town. It had become a ritual with them since Kathleen had gone. For two nights in a row they had gone to the saloon, but after the disaster with Jensen, Buck only stayed for one drink and then left, carefully avoiding even looking in Jensen’s direction.
“It’s Jensen,” she whispered.
Buck frowned. Jensen was not his responsibility. “Tell Hal.” That’s whose job it was.
“Hal’s not here,” she said. “Please Deputy, you gotta help her.”
Buck sighed. “What’s wrong?” he asked, grabbing his hat and following the girl out the door.
She flashed him a grateful smile. “I’m Francie, by the way.”
“Buck, Buck Cross. So what’s the matter with Jensen?”
“Well, Hal went to Fairbury this morning, to check up on his supplies and he left Blue in charge.”
“Blue?” Buck hadn’t heard that name.
“He helps Hal out from time to time. And,” Francie’s voice dropped then. “He don’t know Jensen is for you. I tried to tell him, but he wouldn’t listen and Jensen wouldn’t say a word.”
“Jensen isn’t for me,” Buck explained.
“But Hal said,” Francie protested.
“Forget what Hal said,” Buck said irritably. “Jensen is free to do what she wants.”
“Yeah that’s the whole problem, she don’t know what she wants.”
“So what’s wrong with her?”
“She went with... him,” Francie said, unable to keep the dread from her voice.
Buck stopped in his tracks upon hearing the name. Douglas MacCallister had just taken over the hardware store. He was filthy rich and as Teaspoon called him, a mean son of a bitch. “Why would he want her?” Jensen was beautiful, but she wasn’t going to be some sweet thing in Mr. MacCallister’s bed. His face creased with concern as he began to realize what was happening, especially knowing the kind of man MacCallister was.
Francie looked at him, wide-eyed, realizing that Buck understood. “That’s why he wants her.”
Buck quickened his step, while Francie kept pace. “Why would she go with him, if she didn’t have to?”
“I told you, Blue wouldn’t listen to me.”
“But if Jensen said something, he would.”
“What’s she gonna say?” Francie asked scathingly. She flinched when she realized what she had done. She knew better, she had been in the business a whole lot longer than Jensen, yet here she was acting just like her. But she realized it didn’t matter how she spoke to the deputy. Here he was, ready to help a saloon girl, with just her word. He was treating her like she was just an ordinary person.
“But you said Hal said,” Buck began, feeling genuinely confused.
“You don’t look at her, you don’t talk to her and you never take her upstairs. She knows you don’t want her. She’s sure that Hal is gonna fire her if she don’t bring in some business.”
“Then why would Hal say that she was for me?” How worried about business could Hal be if he was saving a saloon girl just for him?
Francie shrugged. “He says he wants to save Jensen for you. He likes to keep the law happy and right now you’re the only lawman who spends any time in his place that ain’t happy.” But she knew, as did Jensen, that sometimes what Hal said and what he did were two very different things.
“And he’s decided Jensen is what I need to be happy?” Buck asked, incredulous. The man was obviously insane.
“Well,” Francie hesitated. She knew she was being far too free, but in for a penny, in for a pound, so she plunged in yet again. “You’re both Indian.”
As they reached the saloon, Buck turned to her and narrowed his eyes, “and that’s what most important, right?” he asked, unable to keep from sounding sarcastic.
“Hal said you couldn’t keep your eyes off her,” Francie said, giving Buck a strange look. “Don’t you like her? She’s so pretty and she’s real nice too, once you get to know her,” she added hastily at Buck’s fierce scowl. She smiled suddenly. Francie liked this deputy and right now she wanted him to take Jensen away from this life, give her a chance, a chance most girls never got. It was too late for her, but it wasn’t for Jensen. “And if you don’t like her, why are you here?”
“It’s my job,” Buck retorted smartly.
Francie patted his arm as they entered, “you keep telling yourself that and maybe you’ll even believe it, someday.”
Once they entered the saloon, Francie quietly melted away, giving no indication that she had been the one to bring him here or that she even knew him. She just went about her business, patting cowboys on the shoulder and giggling at the card players.
Buck glanced around. He saw a large, burly, black-haired man behind the bar, in Hal’s established role. The man, Buck knew to be Blue, frowned at him. Slowly Buck stepped towards the bar, leaning his elbows on it. “Evening,” he said casually.
“We don’t serve your kind,” Blue replied caustically.
Buck moved his vest to one side, displaying his silver star, enjoying the look of horror that crossed Blue’s face.
“You’re that Injun deputy I heard about,” Blue said, without thinking. Buck could almost see the thoughts going through his brain - That whore Francie was right, Jensen was promised to someone else.
Buck smiled slowly. If it wasn’t for the feeling of dread that gripped him when he thought about what might be happening to Jensen, he would enjoy this. Casually he picked up the drink Blue had just placed before him and asked, “so where is she?”
“Who?” Blue squeaked, feigning ignorance.
Blue licked his thick lips nervously. “She’s upstairs. She should be down real soon.”
“Upstairs?” Buck asked, allowing a sliver of anger to be shown.
“Um, with MacCallister.”
“Why?” Buck said slowly. “Didn’t Hal tell you ‘bout our arrangement?”
“No, Deputy, he didn’t,” Blue exclaimed, quickly taking the escape Buck offered him. “He didn’t say one word.”
Buck pushed himself away from the bar, “Well I’m gonna see what’s taking her so long.”
Blue just nodded at him, watching as Buck bounded up the stairs. He took a towel from the counter and wiped his brow. He sure hoped this deputy didn’t tell Hal about this incident, he didn’t want to lose yet another job. But he couldn’t care less what happened from this point on. MacCallister and that deputy could kill each other for all he cared. What they did to one another was not his concern.
Buck stood by the door of the room he knew to be Jensen’s. He paused for a moment, then kicked the door in when he heard a sickening thud. As the door flew open, he saw Jensen’s crumpled form in the corner. He couldn’t see her face, as her long hair was covering it, but he saw the red stains on her white shift, he saw the welts rising on her arms. He also saw MacCallister standing above her.
MacCallister grasped her by the arm, jerking her to her feet, while Jensen refused to utter a single syllable of either protest or pain. He raised his hand, as if to strike her, releasing her when he felt someone yank his arm back. MacCallister loosened his grip on Jensen, who once again fell to the floor.
“Get out,” Buck seethed.
“I paid for-” MacCallister began.
“You go downstairs and get your money back from Blue,” Buck commanded him while MacCallister scowled. He knew who this Indian was and knew he was considered a lawman in the rinky dink town. But he did as the deputy ordered him and moved towards the door, picking up his pants on the way out. There would be time to settle this later. He would speak to the marshal in the morning.
Once MacCallister was gone, Buck rushed to Jensen’s side. He scooped her up and laid her down on the bed, smoothing her hair back from her face. “I’m so sorry,” he murmured.
Jensen opened one eye at him. The other one was swollen shut and wouldn’t quite open right, while the other side of her face showed the beginning of a large bruise, just above her jaw. Buck ran his hands down her arms first, then moved towards her legs, desperately feeling for any broken bones, when Jensen slapped his hand away.
“Get out,” she mumbled.
“Jensen!” Francie scolded her, quickly rushing into the room. She turned to Buck and asked, ignoring the dirty look Jensen shot her, “you think she should see the doctor?”
“What does he care?” Jensen laughed bitterly, before she winced once more.
“Did he hurt you?” Francie whispered, lowering her voice so Buck would not hear. “Did he rape you?”
“He tried,” Jensen said with the beginnings of a faint smile. “He just might not walk so straight tomorrow.”
“No, I don’t think the doctor is needed,” Buck shook his head. “Nothing’s broken.”
“Good. Can you take care of her, for a little while?” Francie asked, straightening up. “Blue is in a mood.” Even though she had asked Buck a question, she didn’t bother to wait for an answer. She simply scurried from the room.
Buck frowned, wondering why everyone had decided he was responsible for Jensen. But right now, he was the only one in the room who was able to be responsible, so he took one of the pillows lying on the floor and placed on the bed, against the wall. He then helped Jensen to a sitting position, holding an undamaged section of her arm as she leaned back against it.
She swung her legs down from the bed and attempted to stand up. “Thanks, you can go now.”
Buck eyed her for a moment. Prickly little thing, he thought to himself. But he ignored her rude words and picked up a pitcher filled with water and poured into a basin. He looked around for a cloth.
“Get out, I don’t need your help,” Jensen declared.
“You got a wash cloth around here?” Buck asked, continuing to pay little heed to her admonishments.
Jensen sighed heavily, she was in no state to argue and certainly not with such a stubborn fool. “Over there,” she said, pointing to her dresser. She watched as Buck opened and closed drawers until he found what he was looking for. When he returned to her side, he was carrying a bunch of wash clothes and a clean nightgown.
He removed her soiled shift and replaced it with a clean nightgown. He then picked up the wash cloth and cleaned Jensen’s wounds, while she sat, unmoving and silent. Once he was done, he set the basin and wash cloth on the floor. He then poured some water over another cloth and wrung it out, placing it over her swollen eye. When Jensen shivered, Buck pulled her into his arms, warming her body with his own. He took yet another look around the small room. There was no fireplace or bedwarmers within sight. “Don’t you have anything in here to keep you warm?” he asked. Even though the days were warm, the spring nights could get quite chilly.
Jensen turned to look at him, maybe for the first time. “Francie usually comes in at night.”
Buck nodded, holding her close. “I’ll stay until she gets here.”
Jensen didn’t answer. Why should she? He didn’t ask her anything. For a long while, she allowed Buck to hold her, both of them quiet.
It was Buck who finally broke the silence. “If he hit you, you can press charges.”
“I hit him first.”
Buck frowned slightly. “Why?” When Jensen didn’t answer, he prodded her, recalling the scratches running along MacCallister’s cheeks. “Why, Jensen?”
“Just because it’s my job to be with men, don’t mean they have the right to hurt me,” Jensen cried, her sudden outburst causing her to jerk away from Buck’s protective embrace.
“He hurt you? And then you hit him?” Buck queried, still trying to piece what happened to together, in a lawman’s fashion.
Jensen looked down, suddenly feeling quite awkward as she remembered what had happened. MacCallister had walked in the room, pulled off his pants and unceremoniously flung her on the bed. When he climbed on top of her, forcing her knees apart and biting her neck, she had tried to push him away. She needed a chance to take this in, but her push had no effect on him, he just continued to painfully grab and pinch her body parts, so she slapped him. MacCallister flew into a rage then, no longer interested in taking her to bed, he simply wanted to hurt her, it was as though each blow that struck her gave him pleasure. “I thought he would be like you.”
“What do you mean?”
Jensen raised her eyes, “you were my very first, Mister. I didn’t know what to expect. So I just figured the others would be like you, start out slow. But he.” Suddenly she stopped speaking. Francie had told her men could be cruel sometimes, why would she ever think they weren’t.
Buck took her back in his arms, “I’m sorry.”
Jensen leaned back against him. “I guess you spoiled me.”
Buck pressed his cheek against the top of her head, unable to keep the smile from his lips. Jensen was teasing him. This was the first sentence she had spoken to him without any rancor. And damned if he didn’t like it. “I think you can call me Buck,” he said in the same bantering tone.
Jensen picked up the book Buck had brought her and flung it at him. He had to duck to avoid being hit in the head. “Get out!”
Buck sighed to himself. Did every conversation he have with Jensen have to start like this? He picked up the novel, the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, one of his favorites. He had come by yesterday and the day before to check up on Jensen and the visits had gone quite pleasantly, with Jensen even complaining about being bored. So he brought her something to read. “You’ll like this,” he began.
“Get out, I said.”
“Just listen,” he told her. Buck sat down on the bed, ignoring the fact that Jensen had scooched to the far side of the bed, wrapping herself into a tight little ball, leaning against the wall. “Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight.” He lifted his eyes from the pages of the book and studied Jensen’s face. She appeared to be paying attention. Encouraged by her reaction, he continued. “And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught The Sultán's Turret in a Noose of Light.” (1)
“That was pretty,” Jensen said softly.
Buck handed her the book. “Your turn, now you read me a passage.”
Jensen slammed the book shut, almost catching his fingers between the hard covers. “I never figured on you being so mean.”
“Mean!” Buck exclaimed. Then the realization hit him. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
“Why do you think I took this job?” Jensen said scornfully. “All I got is this,” she added, pointing to her face. “Or at least I used to have this.”
Buck ran his finger down her cheek, touching the bruise that only now beginning to fade. “You’ll have it again.”
Jensen just stared at him blankly.
“I can teach you to read,” he offered.
“I’m too stupid.”
“No, no one is.”
“How ‘bout we make a bet on it.”
Jensen looked at him in mock dismay. “A bet!” She smiled slightly. “So what do I get if I win?”
Buck tilted his head to one side, “either way you win.” When Jensen looked at him quizzically, he added, “if I win you learn to read.”
“And if I’m right, I am too stupid?”
“I’ll buy you a month’s worth of sugar.”
Jensen burst out laughing at his words. Every time Buck came to see her, he brought up a fresh cup of coffee and every time he had to return to the bar to add more sugar. She liked her coffee sweet, very sweet. “You don’t earn enough for that.”
Buck smiled. “Probably not.” Especially since he had taken to paying Hal for Jensen. He couldn’t bear the thought of her being with someone like MacCallister again. “So what do I get if I win?”
Jensen got on her knees and put her arms around Buck’s neck as she leaned close to him. “Me, free of charge,” she whispered. She placed her lips on his. When Buck didn’t respond, she asked softly, “don’t you like me?” All she had to offer him was her body. Why didn’t he want it?
It was strange the way Buck kept putting her off, especially when she thought about their first meeting. Ever since Jensen was fourteen years old, men looked at her, their eyes filled with longing. Their hunger used to frighten her when she was younger, but now she felt nothing except maybe tired. Yet what was even stranger is that she didn’t mind it when Buck looked at her that way. She really didn’t understand it, but his touch, his very presence warmed her, inside and out.
“I like you,” Buck answered, his voice unsteady. When Jensen leaned into him once more, he put his arms around her, moving one hand under her hair. He liked her too much. As Jensen pressed her lips to his cheek, he caught her mouth with his, kissing her back. He wasn’t aware of anything, but the warm body which was now lying underneath his. It was only when Jensen winced in pain, that he lifted his body off hers. “I’m sorry.”
Jensen sat up as well. “Something wrong with me?”
“Then why don’t you want me?”
“You’re still hurt.”
“And that’s it?”
“I have a fiancee,” Buck said softly, unable to keep the note of regret from creeping into his voice.
“Oh,” Jensen said. She paused for a moment. “You ain’t the only man in here with another woman.”
Buck smiled weakly. “I can’t do that to her.”
Jensen smiled as well, “a one-woman man, huh?”
Buck took her hands in his and kissed them. That was what he hoped. But if he really was a one-woman man, why was he here, yet again?
“Oh my,” Francie exclaimed, quickly backing out of the room.
“Don’t worry about it,” Jensen said, feigning disgust. “Ain’t nothing going on.” She raised a brow at Buck, “never is.”
Buck gaped at her, unsure if he should laugh. Jensen had such an odd sense of humor or at least he thought it was her sense of humor. She was so bold with him and she had no experience to back up her suggestive comments, yet she made these kinds of comments to him constantly.
Francie plopped down on the bed next to Jensen, brushing a lock of hair back from her face. “You look kinda pale.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Buck remarked. He looked at Jensen’s wan face, “you feel like going out tomorrow?”
“I got a friend you might want to meet.”
“You’ll see,” Buck said cryptically.
“She’ll go,” Francie added hastily, before Jensen could raise a fuss. She would get Jensen ready, oh yes she would indeed.
“So you gonna tell me where we’re going?” Jensen asked, smoothing her skirt as she sat next to Buck on the wagon seat. She glanced surreptitiously at him once more. He was still avoiding looking at her. Francie, as promised, had helped her get ready. She wore Francie’s green dress and another’s girl’s green hat, someone else had cleaned and shined her boots, while yet another girl had helped wash and style her hair. When she glanced in the mirror before she left, she couldn’t help but smile. The bruises were almost gone and who would notice them the way she looked now? As she ran her fingers through her hair, she sighed softly. She hadn’t felt this good in a long while. Going for a ride, on a beautiful spring day with a handsome man beside her. It was every saloon girl’s dream to be whisked away from the life she lived by a wonderful man, and who of all people was living this dream? She was.
Of course Buck was engaged. Francie had done some checking and found out that he was engaged to an heiress. But as her other friend Annabelle had said, wealthy women had no time for their men, so their men often had mistresses. Something which sounded a whole lot better than the life she was living now.
“We’re here now,” Buck answered, continuing his enigmatic behavior. He refused to tell Jensen anything, who they were going to visit, where they were going and why they were visiting this particular person.
Buck jumped off the wagon and went to Jensen’s side to help her off, enjoying watching the emotions flicker across her face. He was driving her crazy and he loved every second of this. Why on earth was annoying her so much fun?
“Thank you,” Jensen replied automatically taking Buck’s hand.
She held his hand tighter, feeling more nervous as they walked towards the small house. It was a perfectly ordinary house, except for the fact that there were no front stairs, just a wide ramp that sloped gently upward, to the house.
When Buck slowed opened the front door, he called out, “Rachel.” A few seconds later, a woman sitting in a wheelchair appeared.
“Buck,” Rachel smiled. “Come in.” She quickly wheeled out to Jensen and took the hand which was not clutching Buck’s. “And you must be Jensen. I’m so happy to meet you.” Rachel then released Jensen and spun around, moving towards the kitchen.
Jensen shot Buck a puzzled look.
“I’ll explain later,” he said, tugging on her hand, so she followed him into the kitchen.
When they entered the kitchen, Jensen found a table full of books. She stared at Rachel, a look of something akin to panic filling her eyes. “I think there has been some kind of mistake.”
“No mistake,” Buck said quickly. He lifted his hand, the one that did not hold on to Jensen’s, and brushed her hair back. “Rachel is gonna teach you.”
“But you said you’d teach me,” Jensen replied, her voice full of disappointment. He had given up without even trying.
“Rachel used to be a teacher,” Buck explained. “I think she could help you a whole lot better than I ever could.” He leaned close to her ear, “but our bet still stands.”
Jensen smiled at those words. “All of it?” she said, and there was no mistaking the meaning behind her words.
Buck flushed, while Rachel looked on with a bemused smile. “If you’re ready we can get started right now,” she told Jensen.
Jensen straightened her shoulders and looked Rachel right in the eye and announced, “I’m a saloon girl.”
“Yeah I know,” Rachel replied calmly. “Buck told me. But I’ll wager he never told you about me.”
Jensen shook her head. “Nothing. Not even your name.”
Rachel wheeled to a table and patted a chair. “Sit down, we can get acquainted and then we can start going over these books.”
Jensen hesitated for a moment, before she sat down beside Rachel, suddenly eager to see what this former teacher could show her.
“Buck,” Rachel said, using her no-argument teacher voice. “You can come back around three for Jensen.”
“Yes Ma’am,” Buck replied with a grin. He walked towards the door, listening to the murmur of voices before he left, congratulating himself on this particular idea. It would work, he thought. It had to work.
“So how did it go?” Buck asked Rachel softly upon his return. Rachel was picking books, trying to decide which ones she would like send home with Jensen.
“She sees some letters backwards,” Rachel said with a slight frown. “She knows most of ‘em, but she gets confused and then she gives up.”
“She told me she was stupid.”
“No, not stupid. She just learns differently.” Rachel smiled up at him. “But these sessions might be just the tonic,” she patted his arm, “for both of us.”
“I’m done,” Jensen sang out, pulling her sleeves back down. She finished washing the dishes they had used at lunch and had just put them away.
“Here,” Rachel said quickly, handing Jensen a slate and a book. “You remember to practice, ‘specially your b’s and d’s.”
“It ain’t no use,” Jensen began.
“Oh hush up,” Rachel scolded her. “There wasn’t a time not too long ago, I was just like you.”
Jensen furrowed her brow.
“I gave up too,” Rachel continued softly.
“Rachel got hurt last year,” Buck explained.
“Wagon accident,” Rachel said, almost offhandedly.
“My parents died in a wagon accident,” Jensen whispered, while Rachel and Buck exchanged glances. Buck shook his head at Rachel, something in Jensen’s tone implied that any questions they asked would remain unanswered.
“I couldn’t walk after that,” Rachel said, acknowledging Buck’s warning and continuing her own tale. “I didn’t do nothing but lie in my bed. Snapped at everyone who came by to visit. I was most hateful to our marshal, Teaspoon. He and his wife, were here building ramps, lowering shelves, doing everything they could to make my life in a wheelchair easier. And I hated them for it.”
“But look at you,” Jensen exclaimed in amazement. “You can do everything by yourself.”
“It took me a long time to get here,” Rachel sighed. “Sometimes you have to make the life you want, not just accept what it gives you.” She stared at Jensen, hoping the girl understood. It was easy to believe you were stupid, to give up and be what everyone else believed you to be. “It takes a lot of strength to walk away from the life you live. Are you willing to do it?”
Jensen glared at Buck. “I never said I wasn’t gonna work at the saloon. How could you? You think you can just decide everything and expect me to go along with it?”
“Then why are you here?” Buck asked quietly. “You want me to take you back to the saloon, I will. You want me never to bring you back here, I will.” He put his hands on Jensen’s cheeks, forcing her to look at him and acknowledge the questions he was asking her. “Tell me and I’ll do it.”
“Why can’t you just leave me alone?” Jensen whispered.
“Is that what you really want me to do?” Buck said. “Don’t you know how special you are? You’re smart, funny and so beautiful. You could do just about anything if you tried. So why aren’t you?”
Jensen remained silent, her face filled with confusion.
“Jensen,” Buck whispered, pulling her close. “Just try.”
Jensen burrowed her head against him, managing to nod her head, as her eyes filled with tears that threatened to spill out. “I will,” she said, her voice trembling.
“I have a basin in the back room,” Rachel offered when she saw Jensen’s blotchy face as Buck released her. Jensen nodded, dabbing her eyes as she left the room. Rachel then turned her attention to Buck.
“You have feelings for her,” she announced.
“I’m paralyzed not blind,” Rachel snapped. “The way you look at her Buck,” she shook her head. “And she’s starting to look back at you the same way.”
“I’m helping her and she’s grateful,” Buck answered patiently.
“Can’t you see?” Rachel asked. “She’s doing this for you?” she said, waving her hand at the pile of books behind her.
“It’s as good a reason as any,” Buck said. Jensen couldn’t work at the saloon. She just couldn’t.
“You better be careful,” Rachel warned. “She should be doing this for herself, not you.” What did he think was going to happen when he got married and moved away. Did he actually believe that Jensen would continue her studies? The poor thing had been beaten down by life and somewhere along the way she had given up. It was as plain as the nose on her face, Buck gave her hope; love and hope. Two things Jensen didn’t have.
“What are you talking about?” Buck said, his exasperation bubbling over.
“Think about why you’re helping her and why she is letting you,” Rachel replied. “Think about it hard and think about it quick. You’re wedding day is less than three weeks away.”
Buck glanced around the saloon porch, where he had taken shelter from the rain which had just begun to come down. It was only drizzling now, but as he glanced at the threatening grey sky, he knew a storm was brewing. He wondered once more, where was she? She should be here by now. Jensen was always on time for her lessons with Rachel. It had become a routine of sorts. For the past four days, he would come by and take Jensen to Rachel’s home, where they would study and have lunch. Then late in the afternoon, he would bring Jensen back to the saloon. Hal and Blue were flummoxed by this routine, especially when they heard that Buck wasn’t the one Jensen was spending her afternoons with, but they did not object, as Buck was still paying for Jensen. Money is money, Hal had commented, what did he care what Buck did with Jensen as long as he paid for her time.
“Deputy,” he heard a whisper behind him. “Deputy Cross.” Buck turned around and saw Lizzie standing in the saloon doorway, wearing a skimpy red dress and his heart fell, realizing that Lizzie was now a full-fledged saloon girl and his heart ached with the knowledge. He couldn’t, he just couldn’t let the same fate befall Jensen.
“Yes, Lizzie,” he answered.
“C’mon,” Lizzie said, motioning him to follow.
Buck trailed after Lizzie, who threaded her way through the crowd that had gathered in the saloon. Buck noted that there were almost always a decent number of people in the saloon, regardless of the time. He also noted that MacCallister was there, with a girl named Hattie in his lap. He continued to follow Lizzie up the stairs, ignoring the malicious look MacCallister shot him.
“What’s wrong with her?” he asked quietly.
Lizzie didn’t answer, she just pushed the door of Jensen’s room open while Buck fought the seeds of fear that sprouted in his abdomen. This scene was eerily reminiscent of the night MacCallister had attacked Jensen. He couldn’t have hurt her again, could he?
But when the door swung fully open, he saw Jensen lying face-down on the bed, wearing her shift and Francie tucking the covers around her.
“Her head hurts,” Francie explained. “She always gets like this before a storm.”
“Jensen,” Buck murmured, sitting beside her on the bed and smoothing her hair back from her face. Her face was pinched with pain and her eyes were closed. He began to knead the tense muscles that ran along her neck and shoulders, feeling them loosen under his fingers.
“Could you heat up some water?” he asked Francie.
“Sure,” Francie replied, moving towards the door, where Lizzie still stood. Lizzie was watching the scene before her silently, her fingers rubbing over the cross she wore around her neck. And Buck was glad to see that the two girls were as concerned about Jensen as he was.
“Should I get anything else?” Francie asked.
“Maybe bring up a cup of coffee,” Buck added.
“I’ll get it,” Lizzie interjected, scurrying away.
“Remember she likes it sweet,” Buck called after her. “Really sweet.”
“You might need that,” Francie informed him before she too left. She gestured to the bowl that sat on a chair. “Sometimes she gets sick.”
“Thanks,” Buck answered, watching her leave. He once again began to massage Jensen’s back and neck, and when Francie returned, he began to use the water to warm the washclothes, laying them on Jensen’s neck while he still rubbed her shoulders. Francie watched them quietly for a moment, then flashed Buck a look of gratitude before she hurried away.
Buck continued the process of changing the washclothes and massaging Jensen until Lizzie returned with the coffee. She handed it to him, giving him strange smile. “You’ll take care of her?” Lizzie asked softly.
Buck nodded and Lizzie quickly left and as she did, Buck got the distinct impression that she was uncomfortable. She probably didn’t understand their relationship and assumed that something else would soon be going on, he decided.
“Jensen,” Buck said softly. He removed the washcloth and rubbed her back a little harder, trying to rouse her. “Wake up.”
Jensen mumbled a protest.
“C’mon,” he cajoled her. “I got coffee here, just the way you like it.”
Jensen opened her eyes at those words. She pushed herself into a sitting position and leaned back against the wall, taking the cup and saucer from Buck’s outstretched hands. “Thanks.” She took a sip, feeling the warmth of the sweet liquid spread all through her body. “Can you tell Rachel I’m sorry I couldn’t make it?”
Buck smiled, looking out the window. The skies had opened up and the rain was pouring down in earnest now, making it difficult to even see out the window. “I don’t think she’ll be expecting either one of us today.”
Jensen followed his eyes. She sighed in disappointment, as she had truly begun to enjoy her lessons. For the first time in her life she had a teacher who didn’t belittle her.
“She told me you’re doing really well,” Buck added.
“She’s a good teacher,” Jensen replied. “It’s too bad,” she paused, “that she got hurt.”
Buck frowned slightly. He had been so intrigued by the little glimpse Jensen had given both Rachel and he about her parents. He had wanted to ask her about her life so many times, but he held back, knowing how closed mouthed she was about herself. So instead he said, “yeah, it was. She was good with the kids. She had the knack of making schooling almost fun.”
“She still does,” Jensen smiled. “I wish I had someone like her when I was a kid.”
“I had a couple like her when I was at the orphanage,” Buck said carefully. When Jensen looked at him with interest. He continued. He told her about his background, how he left the Kiowa after his mother’s death and about meeting Ike. He even told her about his life as a Pony Express rider.
“You had a good life,” Jensen said softly.
Buck looked at her in surprise. “Yeah, I suppose I did, compared to some folks,” he said in the same hushed tone. “I had a mother who loved me and a brother who...” he stopped then, his grief for Red Bear still too fresh to continue. “And good friends.”
“I used to wish I had a big brother.”
Buck smiled at her, “I wish you could have met him.” He stopped once more, suddenly realizing he hadn’t meant anything more in his life. He wished he could take Jensen away, introduce her to his brother and mother.
“Your turn,” he said, abruptly changing the subject. “What happened to your folks?”
“They died,” Jensen answered tonelessly.
Buck took the empty cup and saucer from her and set it on the floor. “Wagon accident, right?”
Jensen nodded. “I was six.”
“That must have been so hard for you,” Buck said sympathetically. “You went to an orphanage then?”
“No,” Jensen whispered. “I wish I did.” Based on Buck’s stories, she would have much preferred living in an orphanage. “I went to my grandparents.” She looked down then. “They thought I was nothing but a product of lust and sin,” she said, delivering the statement in her grandfather’s starched tone.
When Buck looked at her quizzically, she continued. She wanted to tell him her story. Somehow along the way, Buck with his easy smile and gentle ways had become very important to her. It bothered her that he didn’t want her the way other men did. She was only now coming to understand that he did, just in a whole different way. But he also wanted things for her, only for her. He wanted her to stand on her own two feet, make a life for herself outside this place. It was like he could see inside her heart and make all the things she wished for come true.
“My grandfather on my mother’s side was an Indian chief. I don’t know the tribe,” Jensen told him ruefully. “All I know is his name, Star Seeker. My mother used to say he had the gift of sight. I think she did too. Her name was Star Eyes. And it was a great disappointment to my grandfather that she ran off and married a white man.” She smiled slightly. “My father, Nathan Jensen Carter. His family disowned him when they heard he married an Indian.”
Buck took her hand and smiled encouragingly at her, unwilling to speak and break the almost loquacious mood Jensen was in. But when she remained quiet, he said, “you were named after him.”
“Yeah,” Jensen said, almost dreamily. She shook off the memories, the happiest of her life. “You should have seen ‘em. They were so in love. Didn’t matter to either one of ‘em that both sides of the family disapproved of their marriage. They had each other.”
“Was it hard?” Buck asked.
Jensen looked at him in surprise. How did he know? “Sometimes.” How did he know that she felt like an intruder? Her parents loved her, she knew that. But it was almost like she was an afterthought. Oh did someone make sure Jensen got a bath? Where is Jensen, we haven’t seen her for a while? Her parents’ lives were so complete with only each other, it made it hard to break into their tight little circle. “They were planning on going on a trip, just the two of ‘em when they died.”
“Wagon accident, right?”
“Yeah,” Jensen said once more. “After they died, my father’s parents came and got me. Bernice and Carl Carter, two of the coldest people I ever met. Seems like there wasn’t a day that went by that they didn’t remind me I was a product of lust and sin and that it would have been better if I’d never been born. They refused to acknowledge the fact my parents had been married, proper like.
“It didn’t help matters that I couldn’t learn a thing in school. Just made ‘em believe it even more. They started keeping me at home then, preaching at me day and night that I should learn my place, that I was nothing but a stupid breed.”
Jensen didn’t realize she was crying until then, reliving all the old pain she thought she had so carefully buried away. And Buck was holding her so tight. She could feel his anger, anger at her grandparents and it helped ease the ever present ache in her chest, knowing he was angry at them because they had hurt her.
“My mother’s father came once, when I was about eleven,” Jensen continued. “He wanted to take me with him. He told me he was gonna get me a jingle dress. I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded so pretty. He was such a nice old man. He even said that he had an Indian name picked out for me, Little Star, so I’d be just like him and my mother. I couldn’t wait to go, but they, my grandparents, wouldn’t let me leave with him. They called the sheriff and had him hauled away.” She shuddered then, tightening her arms around Buck, hoping once more that her Indian grandfather was okay. “It was after that that I ran away. I was hoping I could find my tribe, but I couldn’t. So I just wandered around, doing whatever I could. People were pretty anxious to help out, till I couldn’t be considered a cute little girl anymore. Then Hal found me, starving outside his saloon and he gave me a job.”
Buck didn’t say a word, he just hugged Jensen’s body against his, a plan formulating in his mind.
Buck crumpled the telegram in his hand. The Indian agent in Minnesota didn’t know about an elderly member of the Ojibwa tribe named Star Seeker, but he hadn’t been to the reservation in a while and when he did go again, he would be sure to look up the records to see if any such person or anyone with the name Star anything existed.
In spite of the agent’s news, Buck was certain he was on the right track, Jensen had mentioned a jingle dress. Well jingle dresses were most popular with the Ojibwa and the tribe was now mostly settled in Minnesota, so maybe there was a chance that Jensen’s grandfather still lived and maybe there might be other family members as well. Buck smiled to himself, she would be so pleased to see her grandfather again. At least he hoped she would be pleased. She could just as easily be angry at him again for interfering, but he was pretty sure they were beyond that point now. Jensen trusted him. And she depended on him, a fact that was starting to worry him.
He had started asking Jimmy to take Jensen to Rachel’s place and he complied on occasion. Now those two were a pair, always squabbling, it was like Jensen had decided Jimmy was the big brother she never had and he in turn had taken to ordering her about. Not that she ever listened, but still it gave him hope. Hope that Jimmy would take care of her once he was gone. She would be safe under the umbrella of his reputation, whether he was physically present or not.
He had to make sure Jensen was taken care of because his wedding was the day after tomorrow. Kathleen had returned yesterday, appearing on his doorstep and flinging herself into his arms. But as he kissed her, the strangest feeling enveloped him, guilt. Guilt over Jensen. He was now feeling like he was cheating on a saloon girl with his fiancee, so he had taken to keeping Kathleen at arm’s length. Not too difficult a task as she was absorbed with the wedding. She had about a thousand details to take care of and seemed almost relieved when he didn’t ask her to stay the night with him. In fact, he had seen very little of her since her return.
Buck put his head in his hands. What was he doing? Marrying Kathleen? Getting Jensen settled in Rock Creek? Getting her settled with her Indian family? Hell he had even started contemplating running off with Jensen and that was a thought that was beginning harder and harder to shake. How did he allow himself to develop feelings for her? When did this happen? What was wrong with him?
No, he decided as he raised his head. He didn’t love her. He cared for her as a human being in obvious pain. Pain he understood. The pain of not belonging. At least he had a mother and brother, Jensen had no one, until now. So it was natural she would care for him, she was appreciative of all the actions he had taken in her behalf. What he told Rachel still stood. He was helping Jensen and she was grateful, nothing else. Unbidden Francie’s voice rang in his ears, ‘keep telling yourself that and maybe someday even you’ll believe it.’
“Buck,” Teaspoon bellowed, sticking his head into the marshal’s office. “You deaf? I’ve been trying to get your attention for the past five minutes.”
“Sorry, what happened?” Buck asked, jumping to his feet, instantly alert.
“Something at the saloon,” Teaspoon answered slowly, almost carefully. He waited by the door, watching as Buck grabbed his hat and together they raced to the saloon. Teaspoon glanced at Buck as they entered the building. He had gone pale with fear.
“What happened, Hal?” Teaspoon called out upon seeing the proprietor standing by the stairs. The man was visibly shaken. “Why did you send for us?”
“I don’t know,” Hal stammered. “I just don’t understand it. It must have happened early this morning. I didn’t hear nothing.”
Buck gripped Hal by the arms, “what happened?” he asked tersely.
“She’s dead. I don’t know,” Hal began.
Buck released the man and ran up the stairs, his heart filled with fear at Hal’s words. She’s dead. No, please God no. He found Blue standing outside the door of Jensen’s room, his began heart racing with fear at the sight.
“I was on duty last night,” he said pitifully. “Hal’s gonna fire me for sure.”
“Shut up,” Buck rasped. He stood hesitantly by the door for an instant before he conquered his fear and put his hand on knob, ready to open it.
“Let me, son,” Teaspoon said softly, moving Buck’s hand away. Reluctantly Buck stepped back and allowed the marshal to open the door, his body paralyzed with fear. He knew it was cowardly, but by allowing Teaspoon to go in first, he could pretend just a little longer that she was okay. So he stood watching as Teaspoon walked to the bed and placed his hand over the dead girl’s face, closing the brown eyes which stared out at nothing.
He heard Teaspoon murmur a prayer before he joined him beside the bed. He forced himself to look down at the body, really look this time, not what he had been doing, letting his imagination run wild, seeing Jensen lying there. This time he looked with his eyes and saw Francie.
Francie lying there, blood pooling on the pillow under her head. Someone had shot in her in the temple.
“Where is she?” Buck asked Blue who had followed them inside the room, his voice cracking with fear. She still wasn’t safe, she wouldn’t be safe until he saw her with his own two eyes.
“I dunno,” Blue muttered.
“Blue, you go get the doctor,” Teaspoon began issuing commands. He looked at Buck and said, “you go find some witnesses.”
Buck nodded and began moving down the long corridor, pounding at doors, not asking a single question, simply looking at the women and men who stared at him with empty eyes. He continued the process until he saw a knot of people standing outside. Immediately he spun around and ran down the stair, tearing outside. He ran straight for Jensen who was standing amongst a group of other saloon girls. All of them huddled close together, some crying, while others stood dry-eyed and mute.
When Jensen saw him, she ran into his open arms. “Francie,” she cried.
“I know,” Buck said softly, smoothing her hair from her eyes. “Thank God you are alright.” He ran his fingers through her hair, along her jaw, down her neck, till he reached her waist. And then he pulled her even tighter against him. “You’re okay,” he whispered over and over again.
“I don’t know how it happened,” Jensen sobbed. “She came in last night, like she always did and everything was fine.”
“You were there when she got shot?”
“No,” Jensen whispered. “I got up earlier and went down to get a cup of coffee. I was practicing my writing in Hal’s office when I heard a shot. I do that sometimes,” she said furtively, “and then I ran upstairs. When I got there, she was...”
“Shh,” Buck murmured into her ear.
“Who would do something like that? To Francie? She never hurt nobody.”
“I don’t know,” Buck replied.
Jensen fixed her eyes on him, a look of fright and guilt crossed her features. “I should have done more. I could have told someone,” she cried. “I could have told you,” she added, her voice becoming so soft that Buck could barely hear her.
Told him, Buck wondered. What could she possibly tell him about Francie’s death? Jensen was obviously too distraught to comprehend what she was saying. How could she have prevented Francie’s death? He grasped her arms, steering her away from the saloon. He had to get her out of that place and now. “Jensen,” he began.
“Buck,” a voice behind him called. “Buck,” Kathleen said once more, her voice becoming more tight as she repeated his name. “What happened?”
Jensen moved away from him. She continued to step backwards, until she hit the wall of the saloon, her eyes never leaving his. Kathleen placed her arm possessively on his.
“Do you know that girl?” she asked, almost disdainfully. She eyed Jensen as though she were something stuck to the bottom of her shoe.
“She works here,” Buck managed to say. A flash of betrayal crossed Jensen’s face at those words, before she turned away from him, moving close to Annabelle who was also standing outside.
“Do you come here often?” Kathleen asked, in a hurt tone.
“As part of my job,” Buck answered irritably. “There was a murder here, last night.”
“One of the saloon girls,” Kathleen said softly. “That’s why you’re talking to them. Oh Buck, how awful.” She tucked her arm under his and spoke once more, her voice gathering strength. “Obviously that’s why you’re here. I didn’t mean to imply anything.”
Buck began to lead her away, back to the hotel where she was staying. “I know.”
Buck pushed the saloon door open, frantically searching for Jensen. He hadn’t seen her since, well since that morning with Kathleen. He had to explain it to her. He never meant to hurt her, he just wanted to explain their relationship to Kathleen first. He owed her that much. His fiancee deserved to know who he had been spending so much time with and why, before she heard it from someone else. He had to tell Kathleen why he was helping Jensen. He was helping her because she was a lost soul who had no one else to turn to and their kinship was borne from the similarities in their backgrounds.
But as it turned out, he had explained nothing to Kathleen. The rest of the day was spent at the doctor’s office where Francie’s body had been taken to be examined and writing a report detailing her death. Then at dinner with Kathleen, he had barely uttered two sentences, the pain he felt was suffocating him. Francie was dead. Sweet, kind Francie. Who would kill her and why? And Jensen. He knew she thought he betrayed her. That’s why he was here now, to explain.
He saw Jimmy in the corner of the bar, giving all appearances of being involved in a heated poker game, but Buck saw Jimmy nod at him, acknowledging his presence.
He glanced around once more, spotting Jensen carrying a tray full of drinks, much like the very first time he saw her. She was laughing at some man who had placed his hand on her backside. Jensen made a scathing remark, which he couldn’t catch, causing the man to flush and immediately remove his hand while she finished serving the drinks.
“Jensen,” he hissed, moving towards her when she began to walk back to the bar. “Can I talk to you?”
“I’m working,” she answered coldly.
“I need to talk to you.”
“Talk,” Jensen said suggestively. “So that’s what they call it.” She laughed then, but it wasn’t a pretty sound. It was ugly and mocking. “Well mister, we do our talking upstairs.” She moved towards the staircase when Buck grasped her arm and spun her so she faced him.
“Don’t,” he said hoarsely. This wasn’t the girl he knew. This was some angry, cold creature, bent on hurting herself and him.
“Don’t what?” Jensen asked in a bored tone. “I ain’t got time for your games, trying to make me respectable. I got a job to do. So why don’t you go home to your fiancee and just leave me be?”
She picked another shot from the bar and went to Jimmy. She placed the drink in front of him and plopped herself in his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck. She refused to even look at him.
“Jensen,” Buck repeated, louder this time. He looked at Jimmy in frustration, while his friend simply shrugged, as if to say he wasn’t going to interfere in this matter.
Buck stood, waiting, hoping she’d look at him, eventually. But she didn’t, she just buried her head against Jimmy’s neck. It was then Buck gave up. Maybe this was for the best. He was getting married. He would continue his search for Jensen’s Ojibwa family and relay word through Jimmy. He would ask his friend to help with Jensen until she was gone. And so was he, married and gone to Chicago. Yes, that’s what he would do, it was the only option left to him.
He nodded at Jimmy before he made his exit. And once he had left, Jimmy murmured in Jensen’s ear, “he’s gone,” while Jensen just tightened her arms around him.
Buck stood outside the church, waiting. Today was the wedding rehearsal. Who ever heard of such a thing? But Kathleen had insisted upon it and so it was done. Today he would practice waiting by the altar as his bride walked down the aisle, with all his friends watching.
“You don’t look so good,” Jimmy commented wryly as he came to stand beside his friend on the church steps.
“I don’t feel so good, either,” Buck replied.
Kid bounded up the step, clapping his hand on Buck’s shoulder. “Nerves.”
“Did you have them?” Buck asked.
No, Kid wanted to answer, he didn’t. He was more worried when he asked Lou to marry him. He had felt a butterfly or two on the morning of his wedding, but he had felt nothing except eagerness as he waited at the church for his wife-to-be.
“Don’t worry,” Kid continued, sounding much more confident than he felt. Deciding who you wanted to marry was the biggest decision a man had to make, it was also a decision he had to make by himself. “You’ll feel better once you see her coming down the aisle.”
“And if he don’t?” Jimmy muttered.
Kid shot his friend a dark look, “Buck is a grown man. He knows what he is doing.”
No, I don’t, Buck thought. Everything felt wrong. But it was too late. Too much was planned and too much was left unsaid.
“Fellas,” Polly called from inside the church. “It’s time.”
Silently Buck and Jimmy took their place by the altar. Kid took a seat beside Lou. Rachel wheeled her chair beside them, while Teaspoon and Polly sat behind them.
Teaspoon shook his head. Kathleen didn’t invite any of her society friends from Chicago to the wedding. Probably didn’t think the wedding would be grand enough for them. He just hoped that they thought Buck was.
Teaspoon glanced at Buck, he could almost see the demons digging their claws into his back. He wished he was still his station master and was able to give him advice without being asked for it. But his boys were grown now; it wasn’t his place. He had to wait now, until they came to him.
“And now,” the minister announced. He took Buck by the shoulders and moved him a fraction of an inch to the left. He was about to move Jimmy in the same fashion, until Jimmy fixed his eyes upon him.
The minister quickly turned away from the two men standing by the altar. “The bride makes her appearance.” He paused, “Kathleen.” A few moments later, Kathleen appeared wearing a soft yellow gown. Yes, Teaspoon decided, she was beautiful. But he never cared for the icy beauty Buck’s fiancee possessed. He reached over and squeezed his wife’s hand. He liked his women on the passionate side, both inside and out.
“And the bride makes her way down the aisle,” the minister intoned.
Buck gripped the railing behind him tightly. With every step Kathleen took, the weight around his neck grew heavier and heavier, threatening to crush him. He was sure if she took one more step, he would fall through the floor of the church because of that weight. Was this all? Was he supposed to spend his life with her? Someone he wasn’t even sure if he liked. What would they talk about? They spent many a silent evening, with Kathleen scribbling down wedding ideas or leafing through Godey’s Lady’s book, while he read. What would they talk about after the wedding?
And then living in Chicago, never to see the bright blue sky of summer or feel charge in the air when a spring storm was brewing. Or be surprised when he was warmed by the breeze on a winter’s day as the air was heated by the chinook winds. Never to take his horse and run as fast and as far as he wanted, seeing only the flat plains stretching out before him.
He briefly considered the idea of asking Kathleen to stay here. But he rejected it just as quickly. She would never agree to it. None of his wishes seemed to matter to her. Maybe on the outside they did. But somehow she always managed to get her way. What would he be like after ten years of marriage, living like that? After twenty years?
He began to sweat then. Twenty years with Kathleen! The man he was would cease to exist. He was sure of it. He didn’t want to be swallowed up whole. He wanted someone who loved him for what he was, who was his partner, who made him stronger, someone who cared about what he wanted and he wanted to care about what they wanted. He wanted the knee-weakening, heart-thumping, can’t live without her kind of love. He wanted Jensen.
God help him, he loved her. He loved her smile, her eyes, the way she walked and talked. He even loved the way she never let him have the last word. All he could hope for now was that she felt the same way about him.
He took a step backwards as he wiped the perspiration from his brow. Then he took another step, ignoring Jimmy’s astonished look. It couldn’t be too late, could it? He knew he had hurt Jensen, but he had to try again with her. Even if she didn’t forgive him, he couldn’t marry Kathleen. It wouldn’t be fair. She deserved someone who loved her, someone who cared about the same things as she did.
“I’m sorry,” Buck whispered. Kathleen stopped in her tracks as she reached the altar.
“Mister Cross,” the minister said. He put his hands on Buck’s shoulders, prepared to move him back into place.
“I’m sorry,” Buck said, loudly this time. He shook the minister’s hands off him.
Lou turned around and flashed Teaspoon and Polly a radiant smile.
Teaspoon shook his head. “Better late than never,” he muttered to Polly, who wiped a tear from her eye.
Jimmy began to grin then. He nudged Buck in the ribs, “‘Bout time,” he whispered.
“Buck?” Kathleen asked in a hurt voice.
“I’m sorry,” Buck repeated. “I can’t do this. We aren’t right for each other. You deserved so much more than I could ever give you.” He began moving rapidly to the back of the church. He pushed the door open with one hand. “It’s for the best,” he shouted back before he left. He could hear the buzzing in the church getting louder before the door closed, but he didn’t have time to worry about what was being said. He had to find Jensen.
Jensen wrapped the white embroidered table linen in the brown paper and tied it with twine. Then she picked up the package and left the saloon.
“Where you going?” Annabelle called out to her, stepping out of the saloon.
“Just gotta deliver this somewhere,” Jensen answered. “Cover for me, will ya?”
“Sure,” Annabelle replied. “But hurry, Hal left Blue in charge and it’s gone to his head.”
“I will,” Jensen said. She hurried down the street to a small house on the edge of town. Buck’s home. She put the package down on the railing, hoping he would see it. This was her apology for last night. She would show him that she wasn’t some petulant, jealous child. She would show him by giving him a wedding gift. Show him that she still wanted to be a part of his life as his friend, nothing else. He had never offered her anything but friendship. It was just wishful thinking on her part which led to the hard feelings she had been harboring. But she had let them go.
As she turned to leave, she ran into Buck. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Jensen exclaimed quickly. She picked up the package and thrust it into his hands. “I got this for you,” she paused, “for you and your wife.”
“She’s not my wife,” Buck said softly. He took the box Jensen proffered and took her hand in his.
Jensen ignored his statement and added, “congratulations, to both of you.” She yanked uselessly at her hand, Buck still held on and quite tightly at that.
Buck pulled her inside his house. “I got something for you.”
“Me?” Jensen frowned.
Still tugging her on her hand, Buck led Jensen to his room, where he finally released her, certain she would stay put. He opened his drawer and removed his brother’s bird bone necklace. He lifted the necklace up and placed it around Jensen’s neck.
Jensen put her fingers on it. “It’s beautiful.”
“It was my brother’s.”
Jensen started to take the necklace off then. “You should be giving this to your wife.”
“I want you to have it,” Buck whispered, pulling Jensen into his arms. “I love you.”
“I love you and I want to marry you, have children with you. Be an old man and an old woman, sitting on our porch, with a million grandchildren at our feet.”
“Let go of me!” Jensen shrieked, pushing at Buck’s chest. “You must be out of your head. I’m a saloon girl! Your wife is beautiful, rich and she-”
Buck cut her off, mid-sentence, with a kiss.
“Don’t do this,” Jensen begged him. “Marry her. I’ll still be at the saloon. You can visit me anytime. All I need is a few dollars and I’m yours.”
Buck kissed her again, feeling Jensen’s body melt into his. With every word of denial that came from her mouth, her body betrayed her, her hands moved against him, running along the smooth planes of his chest and stomach.
Buck picked her up and carried her to his bed, murmuring the whole time that he loved her. “I want you to be mine, now and forever.” He knelt at her feet. “I love you and I want to marry you. We can start out slow, courting.”
“This is crazy,” Jensen retorted. “You want us to court?”
“Or we can get married in the morning. We can go to Teaspoon, get married and then go to Minnesota, see if we can find your family. We can move up there or we can stay here.” He stopped, lifting Jensen’s head which had dropped to her chest. He felt his heart begin to soar as he considered the possibilities. They had so many options open to them. Their life was just beginning. “Whatever you want. I just want us to be together.”
“Buck,” Jensen began.
“I’m sorry for the other day,” Buck told her. “I never meant to imply that you were just a saloon girl. It’s just I figured that I owed Kathleen an explanation and-”
“No,” Jensen shook her head. “You were right. I am a saloon girl.”
“You are so much more,” Buck whispered.
“Don’t do this,” Jensen cried.
“You want me to marry her?” Buck asked softly. When Jensen nodded, he added. “I just ran out of a church ‘cause I was afraid to marry her.” He told her then, all the fears that had run through his mind, standing there at the altar. “It was like I gave up, when I asked her to marry me. My brother had just been killed and I was going through the motions of living. So what did it matter if I married someone I didn’t love? I had to do something with my life. But then I met you.”
He looked solemnly at her. “Even if you don’t want to marry me, I won’t marry Kathleen. You’ve shown me that I can’t give up.” Through the strangeness of life, he had discovered this truth from someone who had given up long ago. Now he just had to make her realize the same truth.
Jensen looked at Buck’s dark eyes, so bright as he looked at her intently. She put her fingers against the bird bone necklace, feeling the fragility of the gift. He loved her! How could he love her? No one had ever loved her, really loved her. She put her hand against his warm cheek. So how could he? But he did. She could feel his love, warming her as it filled every part of her. Softly she pressed her lips against his, luxuriating in the touch of his skin, his musky smell that invaded her whole body.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Yes, you’ll marry me?”
Jensen nodded. She moved her hands to the buttons of her blouse and began to unfasten them. But before she had unbuttoned a single button, Buck took her hands in his and whispered huskily, “let me.” He put his fingers to the buttons, opening them one by one.
Buck propped himself on one elbow, gazing down at Jensen who was sound asleep, lying childlike on her stomach, her hair loose about her back. He had been watching her sleep for the past half hour. He could have spent the whole day, lying in bed, watching her sleep. But he quickly got to his feet when he heard his front door open and close.
He quickly threw on his clothes and hurried to the living room. He felt his blood drain from his face when he saw Kathleen standing there.
“Aren’t you going to say anything to me?” she asked calmly.
“I’m sorry,” Buck began.
“No,” Kathleen shook her head. “I’ve already heard that. My question is why. Why did you wait so long? Did you want to humiliate me in front of your friends? Did you enjoy the look on my face when you left me at the altar?” She laughed bitterly. “I thought you had forgiven me for choosing my father over you, but I guess you haven’t.”
“It wasn’t that.”
“I suppose I should be grateful you didn’t leave me there on our wedding day.”
“No,” Buck answered quietly. “I wasn’t trying to hurt you. I asked you to marry me because I believed our marriage would be a good thing. I-”
“Until you met her,” Kathleen interrupted.
Buck frowned. “Jensen isn’t the problem.”
“Jensen! So that’s your whore’s name,” Kathleen cried. “You left me for a common saloon girl. So how long has this been going on?”
“You’re wrong. I haven’t been betraying you. I never meant to fall in love with her-”
“You love her?!”
“I love her,” Buck repeated, his voice steady. That was the one thing he was sure of, Jensen.
Kathleen glared at him. “See, you did leave me for her. How could you? Don’t you have any feelings for me at all? Not even compassion?”
“It would have never worked out between us,” Buck explained. “We’re so different. We don’t want the same things. You want to live in Chicago, be a business woman and a member of high society. I don’t. I want a simple life, here in Rock Creek with a wife and family.”
“Family?” Kathleen exploded. “What about the family we were going to have?”
Buck took a deep breath. “Family is only one part of it.”
“Family is a big part of it,” Kathleen retorted. She put her hand on her belly. “What about your child?”
“Your child,” Kathleen announced, her voice laced with triumph. “You’re just going to abandon your child? Make him a bastard? A breed bastard at that.”
“You’re with child?” Buck whispered.
“Yes, I’m with child,” Kathleen snapped. “Your fatherless child.” She spun on her heel, clutching at the doorknob as she began to open it.
Buck put his hand flat on the door, pushing it shut. “Wait.”
“For what?” Kathleen said snidely. “For more of your apologies? You think I’m going to play second fiddle to your whore?” she continued, her voice getting more louder and more shrill.
Buck turned Kathleen around so she faced him. “Are you really expecting?”
Buck blinked back the blackness that threatened to swallow him whole. A child. How could he abandon this child?
Kathleen moved close to him, her hands brushing his hair back, sensing his indecisiveness. “Tell me it was a mistake Buck. I know how men are. She was a saloon girl, nothing else. I know that.” It was almost seductive the way her voice rose and fell, drawing him into the tale she spun. “You don’t owe her anything. I’ve heard about their acts, how they try to trap men. But we have more than that. We’re going to be a family.”
Numbly Buck nodded, the life he had envisioned for himself vanishing like a puff of smoke.
“Tell me it was a mistake,” Kathleen whispered.
“It was a mistake,” Buck parroted the word. He had to do something. He had to stall for time. Knowing Kathleen, he wouldn’t put it past her to just disappear, torture him with the idea of a child and never allow him to see it. He would stall for time and then he and Jensen would figure this out together.
“I’ll talk to the minister,” Kathleen purred. “We can be married next week, as planned. No one will be any the wiser. I’ll explain everything to him, tell him what happened yesterday was just nerves.”
Buck didn’t answer and Kathleen seemed happy with his silence. She kissed his cheek. “I’ll go talk to him now.” She moved away from him and smiled. “We should have dinner tonight at the hotel, show the people in town that nothing has changed.”
“That’s fine,” Buck responded, suppressing his anger. Everything with Kathleen was always for show.
Kathleen bestowed a smile on him before she left and before the door had even clicked shut, Buck ran. He ran back to the bedroom, his only thoughts of Jensen. But when he reached his room, he found it empty.
He sank down onto the bed, his head in his hands. He realized Jensen must have heard his conversation with Kathleen. But how much had she heard?
Jimmy scowled hard at Buck. He could scarcely believe his ears. “You can’t be serious. You’re actually gonna marry her?”
“He don’t have much of a choice, now does he?” Teaspoon interjected.
“There’s gotta be something better than him marrying Kathleen,” Jimmy exclaimed.
“Well if you think of it, make sure you let me know,” Buck burst out angrily. “You think this is what I wanted? I love Jensen, not her. But,” his voice dropped. “I don’t know what else to do. Kathleen is carrying my child.”
“What about Jensen?” Jimmy asked, his face suffused with anger.
“I can’t find her.” Buck had searched everywhere, but he couldn’t find any trace of her. He and Kid had searched the whole town till nightfall.
“You try the saloon?”
“The saloon?!” Buck exclaimed. “That’s the first place we went and we didn’t see any sign of her.”
“Downstairs,” Jimmy said quietly. “Did you check upstairs?”
Buck eyed his friend balefully. “What the hell are you talking about?” Then he stopped. He leapt to his feet and ran for the saloon with Jimmy right behind him. But before he could enter, Jimmy restrained him.
“If what we think is happening is really happening, it ain’t her fault,” he said.
Buck turned and glared at him. “I’d never blame her for anything,” he seethed.
“And don’t go shooting the man she’s with,” Jimmy continued calmly.
Buck’s eyes blazed at him. “That’s more your style.” Then the words hit him - The man she’s with. “Damn you, Jensen,” he muttered. It was completely self-destructive to go back to the saloon and whore it up, but that’s exactly what Jensen would do if she was hurt. How could she believe last night was nothing to him? It was the world to him. But if she had only heard him say ‘it was a mistake’ then Jensen, with no faith in herself, would do exactly what she was doing and he was the one to blame.
Jimmy removed his hand from Buck’s shoulder. “Go ahead.” Buck walked into the saloon, looking around for Jensen, his heart sinking when Hal tilted his head towards the stairs.
Taking a deep breath, Buck walked slowly up the stairs, with Jimmy still behind him, his hand hovering over his colt. “I thought we weren’t gonna shoot anyone.”
“I said that about you, not me,” Jimmy countered.
Buck gave his friend a sad smile before he pushed the door of Jensen’s room open. He closed his eyes for a second. He couldn’t see her, all he could see was some man’s bare behind. Without thinking, he grasped the back of the man’s shirt and tore him away from Jensen. “Get out,” he said, his voice shaking with rage.
“But I-” the hapless customer began to protest.
Jimmy cocked his pistol. “You heard him. Get out.” He waved his gun in the direction of the door, following the befuddled man out as he made his exit. But before Jimmy left, he gave Buck a look which was a mixture of compassion, pity and anger. The very same emotions that filled Buck.
Once he heard the click of the door as it shut, Buck sat down on the bed next to Jensen who had pulled a blanket against her.
“Get out!” Jensen screamed. “You ain’t got no business in here.” She began to laugh and cry simultaneously then. “Or maybe you do. Go pay Hal first.”
“Jensen, please listen to me,” Buck pleaded, holding both her wrists in one hand, as Jensen reached out to strike him. He wrinkled his nose as he smelled the alcohol on her, Jensen positively reeked of it.
“Shut up!” she cried. “I heard enough already, I’m a mistake. Well then go pay for your mistake.”
“I love you,” Buck murmured, pulling her into his arms. “You have to believe that.”
“You told her I was a mistake,” Jensen whimpered, the betrayal she felt etched across her face. It was like she was a child again and her grandparents were bemoaning their fate of raising such a child, a child who should have never been born. Over and over again, Buck’s words rang in her ears. No matter how much she drank or how many men came to her room, she couldn’t stop the words from ringing in her head.
“I didn’t know what else to say.”
“Why, Buck?” Jensen asked, her eyes filled with pain. “Why did you do this to me? I told you for a few dollars I’d be yours. Hell, I’d give it to you for free. So why did you do this to me? Why did you let me believe that you loved me, that we were gonna have a life together? Why?” All her hopes and all her dreams were given to her by this man, this man who made her love him, a man who she now loved more than life itself. And then he snatched them all away, leaving her feeling even more bereft than she had been before.
“Everything I said last night was the truth. I do love you. I want to marry you more than anything.” Buck swallowed hard. “It was Kathleen who came over this morning.”
“I know,” Jensen snapped. “Your wife.”
Buck shook his head. “Listen to me, please. She came over to tell me she was expecting.”
“What?” Jensen exclaimed, her anger quickly changing into shock.
“Kathleen is gonna have a baby. My baby. I didn’t know what else to do. The second she left I went straight back to you, to tell you what was going on, but you were gone.” Buck hugged Jensen against his chest. “I’ve been looking for you all day.” He brushed her hair back from her face. “I love you, only you.” He wrapped his arms protectively around her, holding her tight, rocking back and forth, murmuring again and again that he loved her, until Jensen closed her eyes. She was so very tired.
Jensen awoke the next morning and looked around, mildly surprised to see where she was. She was back in Buck’s home, in his bed. When had they come here? Then she remembered. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, Buck had carried her out of the saloon. She had been too tired to protest leaving all her belongings there, so she simply snuggled against him, content to just be with him.
She propped herself on her elbows, gazing at Buck as he walked into the room. He handed her a steaming cup of coffee. Jensen took a sip, smiling at the saucer in approval of the sweetness of the drink.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” Buck whispered as he kissed her. This is what the rest of his life was supposed to be like, waking up with Jensen, showing her things she had never seen before. It was so easy to make her happy and it was something he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He deepened their kiss, only releasing her when he heard the cup begin to rattle in the saucer.
Jensen sat up quickly, setting the cup on the table beside the bed. “Don’t,” she said. It was too easy to let him love her. But she couldn’t let him. They had no future, Buck was to be with another.
Buck observed Jensen’s rapid, almost frantic movements. She was acting like a caged animal.
“I need to wash up,” Jensen announced, looking almost defiantly at him. She would clean up and then she would ask Jimmy to take her somewhere, anywhere but here. A saloon girl could find work in almost any town.
Buck held his hand out to her, “I’ll show you.” He led her to small room with a large, white porcelain tub in the corner. A tub which ironically enough and been bought and paid for by Kathleen. Jensen, stood pensively, plastered against the wall, Buck made a few trips back and forth from the kitchen, bringing heated water and filling the tub. He finally left the room after the tub was full, leaving a few towels and a dress hanging on a hook. Almost an hour later, Jensen emerged, her hair hanging in wet strands down her back.
“C’mere,” Buck said, motioning Jensen to the floor beside the couch in his living room. Jensen complied, her head still too sore to protest. But the hot coffee and the warm bath had helped immensely. She felt almost human once again.
She sat on the floor, in the spot he had indicated, smoothing the skirt of the blue Buck had given her. It was a perfectly ordinary dress for an ordinary girl. Something she had wanted to be for a long time now.
Buck took a seat on the couch, running a comb through Jensen’s wet locks. “I talked to Teaspoon and Polly,” he said. “They want you to live with them.”
“When you were in the bath.”
“Buck,” Jensen protested feebly.
“Polly is going to open a restaurant,” Buck continued, as if she hadn’t spoken. “She wants you to help her with it.”
“I don’t know nothing about restaurants,” Jensen sighed.
“She’ll teach you. And Rachel said she’ll still help you with your reading and writing, so between the two of ‘em you’ll be set.”
“Don’t you ask me nothing?” Jensen asked irritably.
Buck got off the couch and crouched down next to her. “Okay, I’ll ask you. Do you want to go back to the saloon?”
“No,” Jensen whispered.
“Then let them help you,” Buck said. “They are my family. Let them take care of you until I can. Or go to Minnesota,” he added. “I should be getting word from the Indian agent any day.”
“You really think my grandfather is still alive?”
“I don’t know,” Buck answered. “But you might have other family up there.”
Jensen nodded, hugging her knees to her chest, mulling over the scenarios Buck had proposed to her. “What are you gonna do?” she asked softly, dreading the answer she knew was coming.
“Marry Kathleen.” Buck lifted Jensen’s head up when it suddenly dropped in defeat. “I have to. She’s gonna have my baby.”
Jensen raised her eyes and looked at him, her eyes filled with tears. “I know.” She wished then that she was Kathleen, that she was going to marry Buck and have his child.
“But know this,” Buck whispered. “You’re the one I love and I always will. I don’t know what the future will bring us, but I hope that it will work out.”
“After the baby is born, me and Kathleen will get divorced. She won’t want to be married to me, knowing I love someone else. She’s too selfish.”
“And the baby?”
“I want us to raise it.”
Jensen began to laugh hysterically. “A whore raising a society lady’s child!” She shook her head furiously. “Just be a good father.” She wrapped her arms around his neck. “Okay? Be the daddy we both wanted.”
“I love you,” Buck reiterated. He moved his hands to her neck then down to her shoulders, his lips kissing the skin that his hands smoothed first. He ran his hands down her body, memorizing every line, every curve.
He pulled her into his arms, kissing slowly, almost languidly. This was all he had. He knew, as Jensen did, the rest was all dreams, but he had to hold on to them, for now at least.
Jensen made a half-hearted attempt to push him away. She really didn’t want to be any other place but in his arms, but she couldn’t do this. “Don’t. I can still smell them.” How could he still want her? She was disgusting. Even after scrubbing herself for almost an hour, she could still smell the other men on her. But she automatically laid back, her head on the floor as Buck moved above her, the need she felt for him outweighing every feeling of self-loathing.
“All I can smell is you.” He kissed her lips. “All I taste, all I feel, all I see, is you.”
Jensen held him tightly. She felt his love, even now, filling her, healing all the hurt. “I love you.”
Buck dipped his pen in the ink and signed the last of the papers Kathleen had set before him. Almost all afternoon he had been signing papers, he had even ceased pretending to read them. They all seemed to say the same thing, Devlin Enterprises was to be jointly held by Kathleen and him.
“Are you done?” Kathleen asked with a smile, as she gathered the papers and stacked them neatly.
“Yeah,” Buck answered wearily.
When he stood up to leave, Kathleen encircled his waist with her arms. “I want to show you that I meant it when I said I wanted to share everything with you.” When Buck looked at her blankly, she added, “that’s why I asked you to sign these papers. Devlin Enterprises is ours now.”
Buck nodded, the weight he had felt in the church the day of the wedding rehearsal returning with a vengeance.
Kathleen gazed at him and asked, “you still think you are in love with her?”
Buck didn’t answer, he just moved out of Kathleen’s arms, towards the door.
Kathleen hurried to his side, “you’ll forget. When we are in Chicago, away from this place, away from her and our child is born, you’ll forget.”
‘No, I won’t,’ Buck thought to himself. Everyday for the rest of his life, he would remember. He would remember Jensen’s smile, the softness of her hair, her incredible beauty, her insecurities, her fragility. And the way she loved him. Everything.
“Buck,” Kathleen said in a hurt tone. “Don’t you want to marry me? Was I wrong in thinking we could make a life together, as a family?”
Buck shook his head, still not trusting his voice to speak.
Kathleen laid her head on his shoulder. “I know, it will be hard, leaving your friends and family. But I think it is for the best. I can still remember how willing you were to give them up the first time.” She smiled up at him dreamily, “when we were running away from my father. Remember?”
Buck almost choked then. Kathleen had the nerve to bring that up? Knowing what he knew, that she had been using him all along? “I have to go now. Teaspoon... Teaspoon...,” he stammered.
“I know,” Kathleen replied, almost nastily. “Teaspoon needs you. Well so do I. And so does your baby.” When Buck made no attempt to say anything, she snapped, “go on.”
Buck didn’t need anymore encouragement, he raced out the door and to the marshal’s office. He took a deep breath, feeling nothing but relief. He wasn’t going to be able to do this, marry Kathleen, live a lie. But what choice did he have?
“Buck,” Kid called out, opening the door of the marshal’s office.
“Yeah,” Buck answered quickly, hoping to get his mind off of his impending nuptials.
“Teaspoon asked me to get you,” Kid said. “Something is going on at the saloon.”
Buck frowned slightly. She wouldn’t, would she? Jensen wouldn’t go back, not after last night. Not after this morning. They were in agreement. She would make a life for herself outside that place. There was no way he could do what he had to do and worry about her at the same time. And she had agreed. Both agreeing to put his child first.
But automatically he followed Kid out of the office and down the street to the saloon. Saloon girls were huddled in a corner, hugging each other and crying. Teaspoon was talking to Hal. Jimmy was sitting down at a table, his head in his hands.
Not another one, Buck thought. Jensen wouldn’t be able to take this, knowing that another one of her friends had died. He wondered briefly which one had been killed as he continued to follow Kid up the stairs.
A feeling of fear filled him as Kid stopped in front of Jensen’s old room. Kid opened the door and shut it immediately. When Buck pushed his friend aside trying to get by him, he felt Kid grasp his arm and pull him backwards. “Don’t, Buck,” he said.
“What?” Buck asked, covering his growing panic with anger. He shoved Kid to the side and opened the door. He rushed into the room when he saw her, lying as Francie had been found, dead on the bed, a gunshot wound to her temple. Jensen.
He blinked his eyes a few times, it was an illusion, just his fear as it had been before. Jensen wasn’t here. She was at his home or at Teaspoon’s place, settling in. She wouldn’t come back here. But no matter how many times he opened and closed his eyes or wished it, the image would not change. It was Jensen. His Jensen. Her eyes were open and unseeing, her lips parted, as if she had been killed mid-sentence. If it wasn’t for the burned spot, clotted with blood on the side of her head, he would expect her to get up and start speaking.
“No, Jensen, no,” he cried, shaking her, willing her to wake up, show him she was still with him. God, why? Why her? “Wake up, Jensen, wake up!” Buck shouted, but her lifeless body just lay limp.
“Jensen,” Buck whimpered. “Why? Why did you come back here?” He wrapped his arms around her tightly. “Why?”
Kid pried him loose, pulling him off of Jensen and closed her eyes. He then heard the sound of something hitting the floor and he saw what had fallen, his brother’s bird bone necklace. Buck picked up the necklace, staring at it, unable to comprehend anything.
“She came back for this?” Kid asked. He had seen the necklace fall from Jensen’s clenched fist.
“It was Red Bear’s,” Buck answered flatly.
“And you gave it to her,” Kid finished for him, suddenly understanding everything. “It must of been awful important to her.”
“Shut up!” Buck shouted. “It was nothing but a hunk of bone.” He ran back to the bed. “Why?” he yelled in Jensen’s face, shaking the necklace at her. “For this? Was it worth dying for?” He buried his head against her chest, “how am I supposed to marry her now?” The pinpoint of light he had held on to was the hope that he would come back to her. And then the three of them would be together. But even that small hope was gone.
What was the point of living? It was like when Red Bear died, the grief was simply too much to bear. But this was even worse than his brother’s death. At least his brother had made a conscious choice to do what he had done, fight for a cause he believed in. But Jensen, she had died for nothing.
Kid tried to pull Buck away from Jensen once more, giving up only when he felt how tightly his friend was gripping her.
“It wasn’t a hunk of bone,” Kid whispered. He had loosened his hold on Buck and simply sat close to him, his hand on his shoulder. “Not to her.”
Buck slammed his fist once more into Douglas MacCallister’s face. “Why?” he shouted, blocking the hand that moved towards him and smashing his other hand into MacCallister’s belly. “Wasn’t once enough for you? You had to kill her?”
“That’s enough,” Buck heard Teaspoon’s voice through his rage. He felt a pair of hands on his shirt, pulling him backward.
Jimmy gripped his friend tightly, placing his own body between Buck and MacCallister. “Don’t,” was all he said, the word slicing through the air like a knife.
Buck allowed Jimmy to hold him in place, while Teaspoon helped MacCallister to his feet.
“I wanna press charges,” MacCallister bellowed. “He attacked me for no reason.”
“I think there has been some kind of misunderstanding,” Teaspoon said soothingly.
MacCallister turned to glare at the marshal. “Protecting one of your own?” he asked, his voice dripping with venom.
Buck threw his silver star to the ground. “I quit. I’m not one of his own. I don’t need his protection.” He was one of Teaspoon’s own, in more ways than one. But he couldn’t stop, he couldn’t do anything but feel angry and bitter at the whole world. And right now, that included Teaspoon.
“Deputy or not,” MacCallister sneered. “I want this man arrested.” His tone implied that Buck was anything but a man.
“This man will be dealt with,” Teaspoon shot back, giving Buck a pointed look before he turned his attention back to the hardware store owner. “Mister MacCallister, Buck suffered a great loss today-”
“Shut up!” Buck shouted. “He already knows, he killed her.” He had to turn away then. He couldn’t bear to think of her, imagine MacCallister going to her room, touching her, shooting her.
Buck faced the wall of the livery where he had accosted Douglas MacCallister. He had only wanted to ask the man a few questions, find where he was at the time of Jensen’s death. He was a suspect after all. But the sight of the man had filled him with such anger, a blind fury. At the very first word of denial out of MacCallister’s mouth, Buck had hit him, unable to listen to another lie.
“Killed who?” MacCallister yelled. “That’s all this Injun keeps saying, I killed her. I didn’t kill no one.”
“Jensen,” Teaspoon said softly.
“Jensen,” Teaspoon repeated. “She,” he swallowed his own grief and continued. “She used to work at the saloon. I think you-”
“Oh the Indian girl,” MacCallister said dismissively. “She’s dead?”
Teaspoon nodded. “It happened sometime this morning.”
“Well I have an alibi,” MacCallister announced. “I was at the Connor place, till just now. Me and the widow, well we have,” he began to stammer then. “An arrangement.”
“And she’ll back you up?” Jimmy asked suspiciously.
MacCallister nodded his head up and down vigorously, as if the import of the situation just hit him, that he could actually be considered a suspect in a murder. “Oh yes, Deputy. You go on over and ask her. If it’s important, I’ll bring her by your office myself.”
“Thank you,” Teaspoon said dryly. “But I don’t think that’s necessary. If we have to, we will go and question her ourselves.” Preferably now, before MacCallister got a chance to influence her, Teaspoon thought to himself.
Teaspoon cleared his throat. “Jimmy, why don’t you take Buck on over to the office. Me and mister MacCallister have a few things we need to clear up, don’t we?”
MacCallister continued to nod his head. “Whatever I can do to help, Marshal.”
Jimmy wrapped his fingers tightly around Buck’s upper arm, practically dragging him out of the livery, down the street and he didn’t loosen his grip till they reached the marshal’s office. He opened the door and shoved Buck through it.
Buck regained his balance and glared at Jimmy. “What?” he snapped. “You aren’t gonna throw me in a cell?”
Jimmy shook his head. “No. But I should.”
Buck walked to the cell, but he didn’t go inside it. He just stood in front of it, his fingers rubbing the cold metal of the bars as he stared at the empty cot inside. “He did it.”
“How do you know?”
“He beat her once.”
“I know,” Jimmy said. “She told me.”
Buck rested his head against the bar he had just been touching. “Why did she go back?” His voice broke with those words.
Jimmy walked towards him, but stopped just short, taking a seat on top of a desk in front of the cell. “You know why.”
“I would have gotten it for her.”
“So would I.”
“Then why did she go back?” Buck asked, forcing down the anguish that bubbled up in his throat once more.
Jimmy shrugged. “She was probably worried that something would happen to it.”
Buck pressed his forehead into the bar so it cut into his forehead. He decided that feeling the metal biting into his skin was preferable to the feeling the pain of knowing she was gone.
“Buck,” Jimmy said slowly. He didn’t want to say what he was about to say, but he had to.
“It might not have been MacCallister.”
“Then who?” Buck asked, almost tiredly.
“You sure Kathleen is expecting?”
“Huh?” Buck said, turning around to look at his friend, startled from his grief by the question Jimmy had just posed.
Jimmy took a deep breath and continued. “You remember Sarah Downs?” When Buck nodded, he added. “How she told me that her husband beat her?”
“Is it possible that Kathleen said she was expecting, because she knew how much it would mean to you? That you couldn’t leave her, knowing she was carrying your baby.” When Buck stared blankly at him, he continued. “She knew about Jensen, right? That you left that day, in the church because of her?”
“So is it possible that she could be lying to you?”
“You mean like how Sarah told you she was being beaten by her husband to trap you?” Buck asked quietly.
Jimmy nodded. He was sure that his theory had some merit. That both he and Buck had been duped by women who used their backgrounds against them.
“That’s a possibility,” Teaspoon said, closing the door of the marshal’s office.
“What happened with MacCallister?” Jimmy asked quickly, briefly wondering how long Teaspoon had been standing there.
“I smoothed things over,” Teaspoon announced with a hint of pride. “He agreed not to press charges.” He gave Buck a resigned look then, the pride quickly vanishing. He had made a deal with the devil, but he would have done anything to keep Buck out of jail. “So long as you ain’t a deputy.”
“What?!” Jimmy exploded.
“For now,” Teaspoon interjected, trying to smooth the feathers being ruffled before his eyes.
“It doesn’t matter,” Buck replied, his shoulders slumping in defeat. Nothing mattered, not anymore.
“So what’s this about Kathleen?” Teaspoon asked, hoping to change the subject. Putting Jensen’s killer behind bars, now that was a subject they could all warm to.
“Jimmy thinks Kathleen killed her,” Buck informed him. But he just couldn’t see it. It wasn’t Kathleen’s style.
Teaspoon propped himself up against a wall, stroking his stubbly chin. “Why?” he said thoughtfully. “What motive did she have?”
“Maybe she ain’t really expecting,” Jimmy said.
Teaspoon gave Buck a wry look. “Then why is she all fired up about marrying him? I mean he is handsome and all but-”
“Don’t,” Buck interrupted. He couldn’t bear the lightness. He knew that it was the marshal’s way, to make light of the grief, but he couldn’t. The pain was too fresh, too raw to trivialize it.
Jimmy rose to his feet. “That’s what we got to find out.” He tipped his head in Buck’s direction. “You signed the papers that Kathleen gave you, right? Did she give you copies?”
“Well what did they say?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can you bring ‘em over here?” Teaspoon asked, unable to keep the excitement from his voice. He was positive there must be something in those papers. Something that would free Buck from his entanglement with Kathleen once and for all.
“Yeah,” Buck answered with a frown.
“Good,” Teaspoon said, rubbing his hands together. He couldn’t wait to read them over.
“But what about Francie?” Buck asked. “You know that the same person who killed...”
“Maybe,” Teaspoon said. “And maybe not. But I’d still like to see those papers of yours.”
“I’ll get them for you.” He began to leave, go to his home where he had filed the copies Kathleen had given him. He turned back once, as if to say something, but he didn’t. He simply left, knowing what his duty was for right now.
Jimmy furrowed his brow. “You thinking that Kathleen had her killed?” When Teaspoon shrugged his shoulders noncomitally, he continued. “It would make sense,” he mused. “If she hired someone, that someone could have killed Francie by mistake. They shared a room.”
Teaspoon raised a brow at him. “I was thinking the very same thing. I just wasn’t ready to tell Buck that.”
“Teaspoon,” Kid called out, entering the marshal’s office.
“Shh,” Teaspoon said, waving a hand at his deputy. He finished the line that he was reading and placed the paper down on the desk, a frown creasing his careworn face. He removed his spectacles and glanced up at Kid, who was waiting patiently in a chair across from him. “You talk to the Connor widow?”
Kid nodded. “She said MacCallister was with her this morning. And he had been there all night.” He rubbed his eyes wearily. “So what’s that?” he asked, pointing at the stack of papers, Teaspoon had gone back to rifling through.
“These here papers say that Buck is a full fledged partner in Devlin enterprises,” Teaspoon explained, his voice filled with bewilderment.
“Maybe she really does love him,” Kid offered. But even he had trouble buying that particular scenario. Their relationship was odd. Jimmy had laughed at him once when he had voiced his suspicions about Kathleen, telling him he had no idea what a real relationship was. But he knew even Jimmy had noticed it, the way Kathleen never made any attempt to ask about Buck’s life during the war or even before the war, after she had left Sweetwater. She didn’t even pretend to accept the hand of friendship that had been offered to her by all of them. Yeah, he knew they weren’t in her class, but still, she could at least pretend. It was like she just showed up one day in Rock Creek and decided she was still in love with Buck.
“Maybe,” Teaspoon responded slowly. “Maybe it’s something else entirely.”
“Devlin Enterprises is headquartered in Chicago, right?”
“That’s what Buck said.”
Teaspoon began writing furiously on a piece of paper. When he was finished, he handed the note to Kid. “Can you wire this to Chicago? I got a friend at the Pinkerton office there.”
Kid held the paper between his fingers, skimming the words. He gave Teaspoon a quizzical look.
“Just a hunch,” Teaspoon admitted.
“Okay,” Kid said, moving to the door.
“One more thing,” Teaspoon said. “Could you go to the doctor, see... see how Jensen died?” The doctor was going to examine Jensen’s body this morning and he couldn’t bring himself to go, nor could he send Jimmy and certainly not Buck. Ever since Buck had asked him to allow Jensen to live with him, he had started thinking of her as one of his own. He rubbed his eyes wearily and decided that he must be getting old to let the death of someone he barely knew affect him so much.
Kid steeled himself at the marshal’s words. “Yeah, I’ll go.”
“I can’t,” Buck protested. “I can’t do this.”
“You have to,” Jimmy said sternly. “It ain’t real, so quit your griping.”
“If she killed her,” Buck hesitated. How could he do this? His so-called friends had all lost their collective minds. But they had insisted upon it, they had insisted that he be married today. No, not really married, but married by a man posing as a judge. The minister who was to preside at his wedding, Lloyd Felton was out of town today, so Teaspoon had insisted this foolishness had to occur, now.
Teaspoon had hired a man to pose as a judge and this judge would marry them this afternoon. His only job was to convince Kathleen to go along.
“If she killed her, this is the way we find out,” Jimmy said between clenched teeth. “She has to trust you or else we won’t be able to find out anything.” He gave Buck a small push to the entrance of the hotel. “Go on.”
“Do it for her,” Jimmy told him, staring at the ground. He kicked a rock lying at his feet.
Buck raised his eyes and looked at Jimmy. They still couldn’t do it, they still couldn’t say her name. His reasons were like those of his people, saying the name might call the spirit back to them, but Jimmy’s reasons were more simple. He still couldn’t bear to say her name. “I will.”
Jimmy nodded at him and left. He was to find the actor and have him waiting in the lobby, fussing about a room or some such nonsense.
Buck took a deep breath before he climbed up the stairs to Kathleen’s room. He knocked at the door and stood waiting.
“Buck,” she exclaimed. “Come in.”
Buck stepped inside the room, noting once again that even the finest that Rock Creek had to offer didn’t compare to the lodgings in Chicago. The coverlet on the bed was threadbare and the curtains had been torn and mended at least dozen times.
“Are you alright?” Kathleen asked.
Buck nodded. “I wanted to ask you something.”
“What is it?”
“I want us to be married today,” Buck said quickly. He had to get the words out as fast as possible while he still had the stomach to look at her.
“I can’t stay here,” he rasped.
“Why not?” Kathleen asked suspiciously.
“You know the saloon girl I was friends with,” Buck began.
“Yes,” Kathleen said, sounding even more suspicious than before.
“She’s dead.” Buck spoke the words without emotion. He should be congratulating himself on this feat, but he couldn’t. It took every ounce of strength he had not to drown in his despair.
“I’m sorry,” Kathleen told him. “I know you two were close.”
“We were friends, Kathleen,” Buck said, moving close to her. “She’s not what I wanted in a wife, she wouldn’t be a partner in life.” He took a deep breath. “She was a mistake.”
“I asked you to marry me,” Buck said solemnly. “And I meant it. I fell in love with you a long time ago and it hurt so much when you left me-”
“I told you I was sorry,” Kathleen interrupted. “I couldn’t leave my father then. Everything I did, I did for us, you have to know that.”
Buck gripped Kathleen by the shoulders. “I know. Maybe it took a death to make me realize this, how fragile life is, how easily bonds can be broken. But ours wasn’t, in spite of how we left things.”
Kathleen looked at him, wide-eyed. “Oh, Buck.” She touched his cheek. “Are you sure? Is that why you got involved with her? To teach me a lesson?” She buried her face against his chest. “I never meant to take you for granted,” she wailed.
“No,” Buck whispered, “it wasn’t that.”
Kathleen raised her head. “I’ve been neglecting you, haven’t I?” When Buck remained quiet, she hugged him against her. “All I have been doing is planning a wedding, not even thinking about the marriage. I’m so sorry.” She pressed her lips against his. When he was unable to respond, she said, “Buck?”
He grinned crookedly at her and hoped he managed a leer. “Later, when we are husband and wife.”
Kathleen smiled then. “I like the sound of that.”
Buck lay on the soft earth, his tears flowing freely now. “I’m sorry, Jensen. I love you. I always will,” he whispered over and over again. He had betrayed her again. He had betrayed her in life and now he was betraying her in death.
After speaking with Kathleen in her room, the two of them had gone downstairs and run into the ‘judge’. After Buck managed to straighten out the man’s problem with his room, the man had thanked them and mentioned he was a judge. And much to his astonishment, it was Kathleen who had asked the man to marry them.
So standing in a small office in the hotel, they had been married, or at least Buck hoped Kathleen thought they were married. She was now packing for their move to Chicago. The stage left at the end of the week and Teaspoon had been sending and receiving wires at a furious pace ever since the ‘wedding’, which had taken place the day before. The marshal still refused to explain what was going on to Buck. Soon, Teaspoon kept on saying and for now he was content with that. But he hoped the marshal would hurry up, he was running out of excuses not to stay at the hotel. He didn’t think that Kathleen would believe he had anything left to pack. All his belongs were in boxes, strewn all over his house. But Kathleen appeared to be quite busy herself and didn’t press the subject.
“Buck,” Jimmy said softly. He crouched down next to his friend and placed his hand on his shoulder. He realized immediately the anguish the Kiowa was experiencing. “She loved you, Buck and she knew how much you loved her.”
Buck wanted to get up and walk away from the grave. He wanted to go somewhere with Jimmy, share a bottle of whiskey and drown his sorrows, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t leave her. He couldn’t let her believe that what he said was the truth, that she was a mistake, that he loved someone else enough to marry them. But right now he couldn’t speak. Every word, every breath hurt. “Jensen,” he whispered. It was all he could manage, her name. Once he had spoken it, it was like he couldn’t stop. He didn’t care if her spirit heard him and tried to take his back with her own or even if her spirit haunted him. He almost wanted that to occur, it was preferable to what he was doing.
“She knows,” Jimmy murmured. “She knows why you did it. You did it for her.” Jimmy stood up and brushed the dirt from his pants. “C’mon,” he said. “We got some business to take care.” He took a few steps away from the grave. “Buck?”
Buck moved to a sitting position. He picked up a small rock and scratched something on the marker. It now read Jensen Cross, 1848-1866.
Kathleen’s laughter filled the room. No one else felt much like joining in her joy. Lou and Polly were smiling strained smiles as they helped Kathleen cut the cake and placed slices on the small, white china plates lying on the table. Teaspoon and Kid dutifully took each plate and passed it to the guests, Jimmy and Rachel.
“I’m sorry this is so small,” Buck said, waving a hand at his friends. Teaspoon had insisted this wedding reception occur. He insisted that Buck’s family acknowledge the momentous occasion, that one of their sons was married. Thus it had occurred, a small supper at the Hunter home which was followed by a dessert, consisting of a wedding cake.
“No,” Kathleen interjected. “It’s just perfect.” She slipped her arm under his, sighing contentedly.
Teaspoon nodded imperceptibly at Kid who moved close to Buck and Kathleen and asked softly, “mind if I have a word?”
Buck shook his head, “later.”
“It’s important,” Kid insisted.
With a heavy sigh, Buck began to follow Kid. “Kathleen, you mind joining us?”
“No,” Kathleen replied with a start. She quickly caught up to the two men, who were now huddled in a corner of the Hunter’s living room. “What is it? Is something wrong?”
“I hate to ask you this,” Kid began.
“What’s happened?” Buck asked, feigning alarm. It was all part of Teaspoon’s ruse. He glanced at Kathleen, studying her face closely.
“Nothing serious,” Kid said quickly. “It’s just...” He let his voice trail off, his face suffused with shame. “I don’t want Lou to know.”
“Know what?” Buck asked impatiently, raising his voice.
“Not so loud,” Kid scowled at him. “It’s just the ranch ain’t doing so well.”
“Listen, Kid,” Buck said, allowing his voice to grow loud once more. “It’s not right asking us for money. We have a life to live to, you know. Just ‘cause Kathleen married me, don’t mean she married all of us.”
“No,” Kathleen added softly. “It’s alright.” She picked up her bag which was lying in the corner, while Buck exchanged looks with Kid, as if to say nice planning. He hadn’t even thought of standing near Kathleen’s bag.
She fished around the bag, finally pulling out a wallet and from it she handed Kid a thick stack of dollars. “Is this enough?”
Buck suppressed the laughter that rose in his throat. Kid’s face, yes he was over-acting, but he didn’t think Kid had ever looked so disappointed. He hadn’t even looked this disappointed when Lou rejected his first offer of marriage.
“My ranch,” Kid gasped the word. “It’s failing. My family, my life.” He stopped and turned away.
“Kathleen,” Buck hissed. “If you are gonna give him money, then don’t insult him.”
Kathleen blinked a few times at him. “I can’t give him more.”
“They are my family,” Buck almost growled. “Either refuse the loan or make it a proper one.”
Kathleen looked distinctly uncomfortable. “They are your family,” she said haughtily. “Not mine. I will not go broke for them.”
“Then I’ll give him the money,” Buck countered. He moved away from Kathleen, as if to catch Kid.
“Wait,” Kathleen said suddenly. She pulled Buck back and whispered, “don’t.”
“Why not? I thought we shared everything.” Buck laughed bitterly. “And I got the papers to prove it.”
“I... I didn’t want to tell you this now,” Kathleen stammered.
“What is it?” Buck asked.
“The company.” Kathleen looked at him sorrowfully. “It’s not doing very well.”
“I’ll say,” Teaspoon interjected. Kathleen whirled about, astonished to find the group that had gathered to celebrate her wedding was now circling her, almost imprisoning her.
Kathleen regarded everyone through narrowed eyes. “I really don’t appreciate this. You seem to think I owe you people something. Well, I don’t. I married Buck and we have to make a life for ourselves, not sacrifice everything for you.”
“Seems to me,” Teaspoon drawled. “You’re the one doing the sacrificing.”
“What do you mean?” Kathleen asked, looking down her nose at Teaspoon.
“Buck,” Teaspoon said. “You’re sacrificing him.”
“I love my husband,” Kathleen shot back.
“I read those papers of yours,” Teaspoon told her, enjoying the brief flicker of panic that filled her eyes. See, he thought to himself, we yokels ain’t as dumb as you believed. “You back-dated everything.”
“What do you mean?” Jimmy asked with scowl.
Buck looked at Teaspoon, a dim memory suddenly growing brighter. “I signed the papers,” he said. “But I didn’t date them. Kathleen said she would after she signed them.”
Teaspoon hooked his thumbs through his suspenders, smiling slightly. “There was a reason for that. Kathleen wanted to put last years date on everything. The papers said that Buck has been running the company for over six months.”
“That’s just a formality,” Kathleen said smoothly. “For tax purposes. I wanted his name on the company so that the company could file as a family business. And backdating it will allow us to save quite a bit of money. I know it is not exactly honest, but I don’t think it is as terrible as you all seem to be making it out. A lot of companies do worse things.”
“It’s not for tax purposes. It’s so Buck will go to prison and not you,” Teaspoon announced, his voice no longer soft and companionable. He drew himself up to his full height. “What you have done, Miss Devlin is criminal. You’ve been embezzling from your stockholders and you were gonna let Buck take the fall.”
“That’s not true,” Kathleen cried. “I never stole anything.”
“Then what?” Kid asked, moving back into the fray. He put his hand on hers, as if he was in league with her, feeling her pain and trying to give her comfort. “It was too much, wasn’t it?”
Kathleen nodded. “I borrowed money to start a ladies line of clothing. And when the line failed I couldn’t pay it back. If those stockholders had just been willing to help me.” She looked at Buck, pleading. “When they refused to authorize the line, I used the company’s money anyway. I was positive the line would do well, then I could throw it back in their faces. But it didn’t.” She dropped her eyes. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”
“There is no baby, is there?” Buck asked, unable to disguise the anguish. He had lost everything for a lie.
“No,” Kathleen whispered. “I was just so frightened.”
“Why?” Buck shouted. “Why me? Why couldn’t you find some other sucker, somewhere else?”
“She had to come here,” Teaspoon surmised. “It was far enough away that no one would know where she was and what she was doing. And Rock Creek was small enough so they wouldn’t care.”
“But why me?” Buck asked, his voice gaining strength as his anger grew. “You really thought I’d be willing to give up everything for you, again?” He recalled the dreamy expression Kathleen wore when she recalled their past. “Did you actually believe that I would just go to jail? Fall on the sword for you?”
“I thought you still loved me,” Kathleen whispered. “I never realized what we had until my father and I left. I still can’t believe how much you loved me, how much you were willing to give up for me and I just threw it all away.”
Kid frowned. “But you were willing to let him go to jail, for a crime you committed.”
“I was scared,” Kathleen murmured. “I didn’t know what to do. All I could think of was how stupid I was, leaving a man who loved me. And maybe we could get it all back again.”
“What did you think?” Buck shouted. “That the judge would take pity on you. Let you go and throw me in jail. Poor thing,” he said nasally. “She married a dumb Indian. They don’t know anything about anything.”
“No,” Kathleen cried. “I never wanted you to go to jail. I was hoping that the lawyers would see what I had done and believe my father had done it.”
“And send him to jail?” Buck asked incredulous.
“No,” Kathleen said again. “Not jail. Maybe just fine him. He’s too ill. They would take pity on him.”
“Then why didn’t you just do that? Why couldn’t you have left me out of this whole mess?” Buck countered, the agony he felt growing with each word.
“I told you,” Kathleen replied. “It would make sense that my father would alter the papers to make it look like you had been the one embezzling from the company. He is a narrow-minded man who would do just about anything to get his way. And the thought of me marrying you would be just enough to make him drive him ‘round the bend.” She paused for a moment, gazing at Buck before she began to speak again. “And because I loved you and I hoped you still loved me. It was because of you, I learned what love was. I just wanted to have it back again,” Kathleen told him.
“And this is how you repay him?” Lou yelled, pushing her way past Kid, who clasped her wrist tightly, not wanting his wife to strike Kathleen.
“I’m sorry,” Kathleen cried.
Suddenly Jimmy grabbed Kathleen by the shoulders, almost knocking her backward. “Did you kill her?”
“Who?” Kathleen gasped in shock, pushing in vain at Jimmy’s hands.
“Jensen,” Lou told her.
“The saloon girl,” Kathleen exclaimed. She shook her head. “No. Why would I?”
Buck sagged against the wall, feeling Polly’s hands hold him up. Of course she didn’t kill Jensen. Jensen was too insignificant to be bothered with.
Teaspoon looked at Buck who had now sunk into a chair, Polly and Lou both hovering protectively over him. “Kid, take Miss Devlin to the jail. I have a friend coming from Chicago to collect her. Seems as if your stockholders are looking for you and they have a lot of questions.”
“Buck,” Kathleen beseeched him. “Don’t let them do this to me, I’m your wife.”
It was Rachel who spoke then. She looked right at Kathleen and informed her that she wasn’t.
Buck lay on top of the covers. He felt the night chill against his skin, but he just didn’t feel like crawling underneath them. All he could feel was a sense of relief. It was over, or at least a big part of it was over. Kathleen was gone, she had been taken away by the authorities from Chicago. She would stand trial for embezzlement in a few weeks, the papers Buck had signed would be presented as evidence, as he couldn’t stomach the thought of going to Chicago and testifying against her. It was seeing her being hauled away, in irons, that had changed his mind. She seemed so frightened, so lost and alone. She really was daddy’s girl, he had created the creature she had become and now he would be witness to her downfall. Like her father, money and power was all she truly cared about. Buck briefly wondered if Kathleen’s father would be able to save her from prison. Probably.
Buck rolled onto his side, wishing he could just fall asleep, but he couldn’t. He still didn’t know who had killed Jensen and why. Maybe once he had, he could feel some sense of peace and they could both rest more easily.
He closed his eyes and remembered her face. Her beautiful face. They had only just begun and now she was gone. So many if only’s ran through his mind. If only he had met her sooner; if only he had bothered to collect her belongings for her; if only he had considered the possibility Kathleen was lying to him, simply using him as a means to an end. If, if, if.
Buck squeezed his eyes tighter, willing her image to leave. It hurt too much to see her again. But no matter how hard he shut his eyes, the vision would not go.
The vision moved closer to him, touching his shoulder. Buck sat up immediately, his heart pounding. “Jensen,” he whispered, knowing how he was tempting the fates. He should not be saying her name out loud, but he didn’t care. He felt no fear. If she came back for him, he’d go, willingly.
The vision sat on the bed, close him. “I’m here,” she said softly.
Buck wrapped his arms around her. She really was here, warm and solid in his arms. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, his lips moving against her forehead. “I wish I could have done more.”
“There was nothing you could have done. It wasn’t our time,” Jensen murmured.
“Are you here,” Buck swallowed, “for me?”
Jensen smiled then. “No. You have many years still left on this earth.”
“Then why are you here?”
“We can’t watch you do this again.”
“Mourn for all you have lost.”
“But-” Buck protested.
Jensen silenced him with a kiss. “Mourn us. Then go on. Do not let us make you weak. Use us to make you stronger.”
Buck hugged her tightly. “How?” he whispered. At times it seemed as if he had more to die for than to live. So many people were waiting for him on the other side, his mother, Ike, Noah, Red Bear, now Jensen.
“There is a reason you were put on his earth, a child of two people,” Jensen explained. “You must use all the strengths you were given to help them, both of them.”
“I don’t understand.”
Jensen ran her fingers through his hair, smoothing back from his face, like he was a small child seeking comfort in his mother’s arms after a nasty fall. “Your mother’s people, they are so willing to die for their land. Help them get some of their land, preserve their ways. Use the treaties they have already signed to help them. They do not understand your father’s people’s laws and customs. But you do, you are able to see both sides. Use these laws to help your mother’s people. Your father’s people will not be able to argue with their own laws. And by honoring their own words, they too can be saved.”
Buck stared at her, she made no sense. He was a deputy. He understood the criminal aspects of law, but what Jensen was talking about was something completely different.
Jensen rose to her feet. “Remember how much we love you.” She kissed him once more. “Be strong, for all of us.”
“No,” Buck cried out, before he could stop himself. “Don’t leave me.”
Jensen smiled at him. “We are always with you.”
Buck jumped to his feet, catching her by the wrist and pulled her against him once more. He couldn’t let her go. “I don’t know what you want me to do,” he said desperately. His people were asking for something and he didn’t know how to give it.
“You’ll know,” Jensen replied. She began to feel less solid in Buck’s arms as her image began to take on a more hazy appearance, blurring around the edges. “When the time comes, you’ll know.”
“Jensen!” Buck shouted.
“I love you,” she told him.
“Please,” Buck begged her. “Don’t go.”
Buck reached for her, but he couldn’t get a grip, she was leaving him, again. “Then tell me,” he said. “Who did this to you?”
“It’s not what you think,” the vision answered, but the voice was no longer Jensen’s.
“I don’t know what to think, just tell me how she died.”
“It will help ease your mind?”
“You will not seek vengeance? As you have done before.”
Buck shook his head. “I will do as Jensen asked. I will use the law.”
“If the law cannot help you, you will let it pass?”
Buck closed his eyes and whispered, “yes.”
The vision, now simply a white, billowy mass, touched his head. “Now you know.”
“Go on,” Teaspoon said wearily to the man seated in front of him.
“Marshal,” Hal began.
“I said go on,” Teaspoon repeated harshly this time. Every turn seemed to end up here, at a dead end. He had spent the morning questioning Hal and before him Blue. Both of them had alibis. Hal had been getting ready for a town meeting with some of the other town shopkeepers, rifling through papers in front of Tompkins’ store at the time Francie had been killed and in the office with Annabelle when Jensen had died. Both Tompkins and Annabelle had corroborated his stories.
And Blue had been tending bar when Jensen had been killed. He claimed to have been asleep when Francie had died. Teaspoon shook his head as he recalled their conversation. Talking to Blue had been one of the more frustrating experiences of his life. The man simply didn’t comprehend that he was being investigated as a suspect in a murder. After questioning him for almost two hours, Teaspoon had released him. The man was too simple to hide anything. Or else he was a master criminal. But Teaspoon was fairly certain that it was the former rather than the latter.
Hal paused at the door. “I wouldn’t kill one of my girls.”
“I know,” Teaspoon replied.
Hal sighed softly. “It ain’t good for business.” He opened the door and stepped outside, but before he left, he added, “you let me know if there is anything I can do to help.”
“I will,” Teaspoon answered. Hal’s primary interest was his saloon. There was no reason to kill one of his girls, he would just fire them or sell them off. No reason at all to kill them. Hal was a lot of things, but murderer wasn’t one of them.
“Teaspoon,” Buck shouted, bursting into the office.
Teaspoon stared at him, open-mouthed. Buck had a wild-eyed look to him, his hair disheveled and flying about his shoulders, his clothes rumpled, as if he had been sleeping in them. But it was his expression that startled Teaspoon the most. Buck looked like he had seen a ghost.
“Son,” the marshal began. “What’s wrong?”
“Come with me,” Buck said quickly, still poised by the door.
“Buck, what happened?”
“Just come with me,” Buck repeated. “I know who killed Jensen.”
“Who?” Teaspoon asked, hurrying for the door. The two men fell in step as they made their way down the street.
“I’ll explain when we get there,” Buck told him cryptically.
“So how do you know who killed her?”
“She told me.”
Teaspoon regarded Buck with an air of concern. “Son, I know you miss her, but-”
Buck gave Teaspoon a thin smile. “I know it sounds crazy. And I know it will never hold up in court, but I don’t think we need to go to court.” Buck stopped in front of the saloon. He glanced inside, busy as usual. “We’re here.”
Teaspoon waved his arm, “after you.”
Buck pushed the swinging door open and entered the room. He took a deep breath, inhaling the stale odor of smoke and liquor.
“Gentleman,” Hal called out, mildly surprised to see the marshal again so soon. But he quickly covered his surprise and asked, “what can I do for you today?”
“We’re here to see Lizzie,” Buck explained, ignoring the shocked look that crossed the marshal’s features.
“She’s upstairs,” Hal frowned. “She ain’t busy. Should I fetch her for you?”
Buck shook his head. “No, we’ll talk to her upstairs.” He and Teaspoon quickly went up the stairs and when they reached Lizzie’s room, he knocked on the door, while he continued to ignore the strange looks Teaspoon threw his way. He realized that the marshal thought he had lost his mind and maybe he had, but he owed at least this much to Jensen.
“Yes,” Lizzie said, opening the door a crack. “Oh Buck, Marshal, come in.” She opened the door wide, allowing the two men to enter. She took a seat on the edge of the bed, nervously pulling on a loose thread of the blanket folded neatly beside her.
Teaspoon let his eyes wander quickly between both Buck and Lizzie, both of them were so silent, he almost couldn’t take it. “How have you been?” he asked, simply to break the silence.
Lizzie looked at him and began to open her mouth, then she clamped it shut once more. She glanced down at the blanket and started to fiddle with the loose thread.
“Do you miss them?” Buck asked.
Lizzie’s head snapped upward at his words. “Yes.” Suddenly she began to speak once more, her eyes firmly fixed on Buck. “Francie was a good friend.”
Lizzie’s expression took a faraway appearance as she spoke again. “She used to tell us our fortunes, sometimes.”
Buck nodded at her. “She had the power of sight. It ran in her family.” She just never knew or understood her power, Buck thought to himself. No one had ever explained it to her or taught her how to use it.
“Did she ever tell you yours?” Lizzie asked cautiously.
“No.” Jensen had never spoken to him about her gift. They did not have enough time, so much had been going on in the short time they were together. He also wasn’t sure if Jensen could have seen anything about him, her sight may have been clouded by her feelings for him. If she could have seen his future, she surely would have told him about it.
“She was a witch,” Lizzie screamed. Teaspoon and Buck jumped at the sound. She began to babble hysterically then, going on and on about how Jensen’s predictions were never wrong. “Francie told me she was just fooling around, but I knew different. I knew ‘cause Francie never let Jensen tell her fortune. She was scared of her too.”
Buck caught her by the hand. “I know she scared you, but she never meant to. You were her friend.” But even as Buck said the words, he realized that they weren’t friends. Jensen never mentioned Lizzie’s name in any conversation. She must have sensed the girl’s hatred of her, but because of their circumstances, they were forced to maintain some semblance of cordiality. All of Hal’s girls looked out for each other, to some degree at least.
Lizzie started to sob then. “She was evil. I had to,” she stopped, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “I never meant to hurt Francie, I thought it was her. And then when you took Jensen away, I thought it would be okay. But she came back,” she wailed.
Lizzie fell silent for a moment. She stared at the ground and began muttering, more to herself than the two men in the room with her. Teaspoon overheard her say something about redemption, redemption for the life she was leading by striking down one of God’s enemies.
“The Lord will forgive me now,” Lizzie murmured.
Teaspoon stared at her. “Lizzie?” he mouthed the name. Lizzie killed Jensen, because she thought she was a witch? It was crazy talk, yet it all made sense. Why Francie had died, why both girls didn’t struggle. They never saw it coming.
“She would hold our hands,” Lizzie continued. “And she would tell us everything. About our childhood, about the things that scared us and even what would happen to us.” She sniffled. “It was the devil’s work.”
Buck shook his head. “No, it was a power, a very special power.” He closed his eyes, a power which didn’t allow Jensen to save herself though. She just couldn’t see her own future. A blessing, perhaps.
Teaspoon loosened Buck’s grip on Lizzie. “I’ll take it from here now.” They had a confession, the case was solved.
“You’ll contact the hospital?” Buck asked, rising to his feet, swallowing the bile that was rising in his throat. He understood Lizzie’s actions on one level, but on another, more personal level, the rage he felt burned at the tips of his fingers. All ten of them longing to reach out and throttle Lizzie. But he had made a promise, he would not seek vengeance. Lizzie would receive her punishment, not the one he would like to give her, but a punishment nonetheless.
Teaspoon nodded. “I’ll take care of it.” He could contact the institution in Lincoln, see if they thought Lizzie belonged there. She certainly sounded a mite touched, talking about Jensen being able to see the future. Didn’t she understand a sideshow trick when she saw it?
Buck stepped out the room, suddenly feeling very tired. “Thanks, Teaspoon.”
“Do you think you’ll come back?” Lou asked, her hand still resting on the worn leather material of Buck’s saddle. He had his belongings loaded on the back of his horse. And the animal didn’t seem bothered at all by the additional weight, as Buck was taking very little with him. This fact gave Lou hope. Hope that her friend would return, someday.
“I don’t know,” Buck answered. “Maybe.” He was going to see the Indian agent in Minnesota. The man, Abe Small, had found an Ojibwa by the name of Yellow Star. Maybe he was a relative of Jensen’s, maybe not. Either way he had to find out. It was during the wires he had exchanged with Abe that the man had offered him a job. Not as a full-fledged agent, but as Abe’s assistant and Buck had accepted.
Abe would teach him about the ins and outs of being an Indian agent and he would teach Abe how to communicate better with the Ojibwa. And maybe, just maybe, he would become an Indian agent for the Kiowa. Buck wasn’t certain this was even a remote possibility, but he had to try. The vision told him to help his people, both of his people and this was the only way he could think of.
Kid quickly came to join his wife. “Any time you need a place to stay, for a week a month, whatever, you know you are always welcome.”
“He’s got lots of places he’s welcome,” Teaspoon chimed in, giving Buck a fond, yet sad smile.
“Thanks,” Buck replied softly.
“Buck,” a voice called out. “Hold up.” Jimmy quickly pulled on the reins of his horse. “I thought for sure I was gonna miss you.”
Buck shot Jimmy a quizzical look. “Going somewhere?” He glanced at Jimmy’s horse. It was loaded down, as his was.
“Thought you could use some company,” Jimmy answered. “I figured we could stop by and see Cody before we hit Minnesota.” He gave Teaspoon a quick look. He and Teaspoon had discussed his leaving last night. The marshal had argued with him, telling him that he should stay, but right now he just couldn’t. Maybe later. Yet, he still had trouble meeting Teaspoon’s eyes.
Buck smiled. “Yeah, I wouldn’t mind seeing Cody, being he’s married and all now.” They had received a wire a few days ago, informing them all of Cody’s marriage to a woman named Louisa.
“Cody married,” Lou smiled. That was a sight she’d like to see herself. She looked up at Jimmy, her heart sinking. She knew he would leave Rock Creek someday, she just hoped it would be later, rather than sooner. “I’m gonna miss you boys.”
“We’ll be back,” Jimmy said with a smile, his voice steady.
“Promise?” Lou whispered.
“Promise,” Jimmy replied. “I gotta come back and see how those little monsters of yours are doing.”
Kid grinned then. Jimmy would be back. His attachment to the McCloud children was well-known to everyone. Those children worshiped him and Jimmy doted on them, completely. “You’d better.” He glanced at Buck, who was fidgeting in his saddle, as if he was anxious to go. “You too, Buck.”
Buck nodded. “I’ll try.” He ignored the looks exchanged between Kid, Lou and Teaspoon. He knew what they were thinking, but he couldn’t make any promises to them now. He owed someone else something more right now.
“We’ll be here,” Teaspoon said brightly. “Whenever you boys need us.”
As Jimmy dug his heels into his horse, Buck gave his own animal a kick, both of them setting off at slow pace, continuing to wave and shout back farewells.
Lou squinted against the morning sun, her hand raised as she shielded her eyes against the bright rays. “Ride safe,” she shouted impulsively. She was heartened to see both men turn back and smile.
“They’ll be back,” she announced confidently. Maybe not to stay, but they would be back.
Minneapolis, Minnesota -- May 2003
Benjamin Crow turned to his taciturn friend, Ian McHenry. Ian was tugging at his ear. Ben groaned softly and removed the snake spine earring from his ear. Not the thing to wear at the law firm he was clerking at. Hunter and Associates probably wouldn’t approve. Although Ben suspected old man Hunter might, he was a strange bird. He tucked the earring in his pocket. He always had it with him, it was his lucky charm. Something that had been in his family for generations or at least that was what he was told.
Ben and Ian began to walk once more, when Ben suddenly stopped. “Lemme grab a cup of coffee, alright?” Ben said. He couldn’t ever seem to pass a Starbucks without getting some coffee. It was his addiction, but at least caffeine was legal.
Ian gave Ben an acknowledging nod of his head as he simultaneously shot his friend a pointed look.
“Yeah, I know,” Ben replied wearily. It was like that sometimes. He always knew what Ian meant, without him saying a single word, which was a very good thing as Ian rarely spoke unless he had to. He rubbed his friend’s bald head playfully. “I’ll hurry.”
Quickly Ben threaded his way through the crowd of people clamoring for coffee at Starbucks and placed his order. A pert blond girl handed him his hot drink, smiling suggestively at him as she let her hand brush against his.
Ben gave her a perfunctory smile and turned away after he handed her a few bills. It was always like that, some cute girl, giving him undisguised looks of desire. He did often ask some of them out, even taking a few of them home. But it never lasted. There was always something missing. And the strangest thing about all his relationships was that he felt guilty. Why he felt guilty, he never knew. He didn’t have a wife or children. He didn’t have a steady girlfriend or even an irregular girlfriend, just a series of short-lived, monogamous relationships.
As he hurried through the crowd, he bumped into a small, dark-haired woman. His arm jostled hers and she ended up spilling some of her coffee on her white blouse. “I’m sorry,” Ben began. He then quickly grabbed a handful of napkins from a nearby table and began to blot up some of the liquid.
“Um,” the woman said, gently prying the napkins from Ben’s hand. “I think I should be doing that.”
“Oh God,” Ben mumbled. He could feel his cheeks grow warm. What was he thinking, putting his hands all over some strange woman’s chest? “I’m sorry.” He pulled a few more napkins from the dispenser and handed them to her. “I’ll pay for the cleaning,” he offered.
The woman gave him a weary smile as if to say ‘whatever’ while she tossed the coffee soaked napkins into a trash can.
“No, really,” Ben sputtered, continuing to make a fool of himself. It suddenly became very important to him that she not walk away.
“I really am sorry,” Ben apologized once again. He held his hand out to the girl, in an attempt to lead her back to the counter. “The least I can do is buy you another cup of coffee.”
“It’s a deal,” the woman said as she smiled at him, a genuine smile this time, as she tightened her fingers around his hand
Ben clutched her hand tighter, smiling sheepishly. He felt a volt of electricity run through his fingers, up his arm, down to the pit of his stomach or as his mother called it, a shiver in his soul. “What’s your name?” he managed to whisper.
“Jaycee,” the woman said. When Ben continued to stare at her, she added, “I know it’s kinda strange. But my mother’s maiden name was Jenkins and her married name was Campbell. J - C, get it?” Just shut up Jaycee, she thought. Why she rambling on and on to this perfect stranger? And perfect he was, with his dark hair and eyes. He also has the smoothest skin, which was almost the same shade of golden brown as her.
“Jaycee,” he whispered. “I’m Ben.”
“Nice to meet you,” she said, trying to sound like a rational human being, instead of a nutjob.
Ben entwined his fingers with hers. It was as if the world stopped, neither one of them caring that the other customers gave them stares that said ‘get a room’. Still holding her hand tightly, Ben led her to an empty table in the corner.
Jaycee set the books she had been carrying down on the table. Ben glanced at the books and said, “are you a student?”
Jaycee nodded. “At the university. I’m studying to be a special ed teacher.” She looked down in embarrassment. “I have dyslexia.”
Ben brushed back a lock of hair that fallen into her eyes. “I bet you’ll be a great teacher,” he said softly.
Jaycee raised her eyes and smiled.
Ben then saw she also carried the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. He touched the book lightly, almost reverently. “One of my favorites.”
“Mine too,” Jaycee said, looking at him in wonder once more. Who was this guy?
“Lemme go get your coffee,” Ben said quickly. If he didn’t get it now, he never would. It was becoming very difficult not to reach out and grab her. “Lots of sugar?” he asked. “Lots and lots of it.”
“Huh?” Jaycee asked.
“You like your coffee with sugar, don’t you?”
“Yeah. But how did you know?”
“I don’t know, I just did,” Ben replied, shrugging his shoulders.
When Ben returned to the table, Ian was knocking at the window while Jaycee gave him the strangest of looks. Ian raised his arm and pointed at his watch.
“Go on,” Ben mouthed the words. “I’ll call in sick.”
Ian gave Ben a look of disgust and left.
Jaycee raised a brow at Ben. “Don’t worry,” he laughed. “That’s just a buddy of mine, Ian.”
“Good. For a minute I thought he was a stalker or something,” Jaycee said dryly. She reached into her bag and pulled out a cell phone. “I gotta call in too.”
“Oh yeah?” Ben asked, his lips tugged upwards at her words.
“Yeah,” Jaycee smiled back. “I have a feeling this may take a while.” She dialed a number and murmured a few words, punctuated by a cough here and there, while Ben did the same.
Once she had finished her conversation, Jaycee put the phone away and took a sip of coffee, smiling at the sweetness of the drink. How did he know she wondered once more?
She set the cup down and took Ben’s hand. She ran her fingers over his palm. “Did you know I can tell you your future?”
“Go ahead,” Ben challenged her.
“You’re a lawyer,” Jaycee began.
“Law school,” Ben corrected.
Jaycee gave him a look of mock dismay. “Close enough.” She stared at his palm for a moment. “You like to draw.”
Buck chuckled. “Nope. That’s my friend, Ian. He’s an illustrator for a company that publishes children’s books.”
Jaycee frowned. How could she be so far off? She was almost always right, about everyone. She used to frighten some people with her unerring accuracy. But her grandfather had long since taught what she could and should say.
“I like horses,” Ben offered. She looked so crestfallen that he figured he gave her some clues she might be able to get on track once more. “I spent a lot of time with them on the rez.” When Jaycee looked at him in surprise, he added, “in Oklahoma. I’m Kiowa.” Why was she so surprised? Wasn’t she Indian too?
Jaycee nodded. “I’m Ojibwa. After my parents died, I moved in with my grandfather on the reservation in North Dakota.” She smoothed his palm once more. But what little she saw was now clouded over, obscuring her vision. Feeling more than a little disconcerted, she released his hand.
“Did you know I can tell you your future?” Ben asked, his voice teasing.
“Can you now?” Jaycee asked archly.
Ben nodded. He took her hand and rubbed her knuckles. Yeah, it was a lame excuse to touch her again, but right now he’d use any old line. He continued to caress her hand, not even bothering to examine the lines of her palm. “We’re gonna have some coffee, take walk,” he began. Ben flashed Jaycee a smile that caused her blush. “Then go to my place,” he finished softly.
“Pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you?” Jaycee asked, trying to sound irritated so as to cover her embarrassment.
“Only of you,” Ben told her.
**This story was inspired by the play Miss Saigon and an empty Starbucks cup