Author’s Note: Native Son has nothing to do with Richard Wright’s amazing novel. This story is a sequel to Fortune’s Daughter. Just a brief explanation. The first couple of chapters deal with the characters, Jaycee and Ben, who appear in the end of Fortune’s Daughter. Jaycee is Jensen’s descendant or her reincarnation while Ben is Buck’s descendant or reincarnation, whichever you happen to believe in. As for the rest of the characters, if they have a similar name or the same initials, they are supposed to be the character as they are in the Young Riders.
“Jaycee coming over tonight?” Ian asked with a yawn, stretching his arms upward as he prepared to make his exit to his room. Jaycee got off of work after midnight and he knew she would be here soon. Even though Ben and Jaycee never made him feel like a third wheel, he still felt like one.
Ben grinned. “Yep.” He glanced at the clock on the VCR. “Any minute now.”
“Damn, Ben,” Ian muttered. “Why don’t you just ask the girl to marry you?” Jaycee was here almost every night and the few nights she wasn’t, Ben was over at her place.
“I did,” Ben said softly. He had asked Jaycee to marry him at least a hundred times. Even though they had only known each other three months, it felt like a lifetime, in the good sense. He understood her, or at least as well as any man can understand a woman. And she understood him. It was like they were connected in some weird way.
“And?” Ian asked expectantly.
“She said no. She doesn’t want to spoil things,” Ben said. “Whatever that means.”
It was then the door opened and Jaycee came in. “Hi,” she called out. She flung herself happily onto Ben, who was lounging on the couch.
“Well this is my cue to say goodnight,” Ian said, rising to his feet.
“‘Night,” Ben and Jaycee chorused.
When Ian shut the door of his room, Ben wrapped his arms around Jaycee.
Ian found Jaycee making coffee early the next morning in the kitchen.
“Want some?” Jaycee offered, holding the fresh brewed pot up.
“Nah,” Ian answered. “You done with the shower?”
Jaycee shook her head. “No, I haven’t even got in yet. I overslept.” She held a coffee mug between her hands, sipping from it. She needed the caffeine and sugar badly.
Ian studied her for a moment. She looked utterly exhausted. And why wouldn’t she? She wasn’t in school this summer. But she was working two jobs to earn enough for tuition. It was ridiculous. Ben was still clerking for Hunter and Associates, making decent money. The law firm had also offered Ben a job when he graduated next year, so he was set. He could help Jaycee out. Plus she could save a lot of money just living with him.
“Mind if I ask you something?” Ian said carefully.
“Why won’t you marry Ben?”
“I don’t want to mess up what we have,” Jaycee replied. “Right now it works. But...” she let her voice trail off. But what? Ben loved her, she knew that. But she couldn’t ruin his life. And she had a long history of destroying good things. There was no way she would ever let Ben ruin his life for her. She loved him too much for that. But she also knew if she told Ben, he wouldn’t understand. Therefore, she couldn’t tell Ian. He would go straight to Ben.
“I know this is your decision,” Ian said. “But if this is about me-”
“You?” Jaycee interrupted, looking at Ian in surprise.
“I can move out or you and Ben could find your own place,” Ian told her. “Jason would probably room with me.” Jason Hillock had just broken up with his live-in girlfriend, Rosie and was looking for a place to stay.
Jaycee smiled at him. “No, it’s not that. I doubt Ben and I could afford this place without you. You are the only one of us who doesn’t have tuition to pay.”
Ian returned her smile. “He loves you.”
“I know,” Jaycee replied.
Ian squeezed her arm. “Mind if I shower before you?” He rubbed his bald pate meaningfully. And Jaycee laughed in understanding. With her long hair, she would probably be in there twice as long as he was.
Ian grinned at her as he hurried to the bathroom and Jaycee put the mug down on the counter and went to the bedroom. She began laying out clothes and packing up some of her things while she waited for Ian to finish. She hated oversleeping, just made the morning so much more chaotic, but lately she had so much trouble dragging herself out of bed.
Twenty minutes later, Ben walked into his apartment after his five-mile run, a routine he had maintained since his college days when he was on the track team. He went to the sink and filled a glass of water, taking a long sip. He wiped the sweat from his brow.
He glanced around the apartment. Ian’s bag was gone, so he knew his friend had already left for the day, but he noted with a smile, that Jaycee’s was still there. He had been afraid he had missed her. Ella Cain was downstairs in the lobby. She and her husband, Seth, were trying to get a couch up the stairs, so Ben had helped them, thus delaying his return.
Ben drained the water from the glass and went to the bathroom, stripping off his t-shirt as he stepped in. He stopped upon seeing Jaycee there, wearing one of his shirts. He leered at her, causing her cheeks to flush. He loved the fact that he could make her blush like a schoolgirl.
“Stop that,” Jaycee chided him.
“Stop what?” Ben asked, moving closer to her.
“I’m gonna be late,” Jaycee said softly.
Ben frowned. “Did you oversleep again?”
“Yeah,” Jaycee admitted glumly.
Ben took her hands. “Just move in with me. You know it will be easier. You only work a couple of blocks away from here. Not to mention cheaper.”
“Don’t start this again,” Jaycee pleaded. “Not now.”
Ben’s frown deepened with her words. But he didn’t push the subject. They would discuss it tonight. He took a deep breath. “Alright, but if you keep looking so raggedy I am gonna have to do something about it.”
“Oh yeah?” Jaycee smiled. “Like what?”
“I won’t keep you up nights anymore,” Ben said his voice filled with suggestion. Yeah right. The minute he saw her, he practically attacked her. Another reason for her to live with him. Maybe having her around all the time would let him regain some of his sanity, but he doubted it. Every time he saw her, every time he touched her, it wasn’t enough, it would never be enough. He always wanted more of her.
“No?” Jaycee asked, feigning surprise. She crossed her arms and grasped the shirt she wore by the edges, pulling it over her head. “You won’t? Really?” She tossed the shirt, which hit Ben in the face and stepped into the tub, turning the water on.
“Really,” Ben replied. He willed his feet to stay where they were and not join Jaycee in the shower.
Jaycee pulled the knob which caused the water to sprinkle from the shower head, then picked up a bar of soap. “Can you just help me reach my back then?”
“Dammit Jaycee,” Ben muttered. He kicked off his shoes and socks and hurried into the tub. “You don’t play fair.”
Ian watched as Ben paced the floor, his face pinched with worry.
“She’ll be here soon,” Ian told him.
Ben glanced at the clock once more. It was one-thirty. One-thirty! Where was she?
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Ian said soothingly.
But Ben ignored his words. He went to the closet and grabbed his jacket. “I’m gonna check on her.” He would start with the Gap where she worked nights, stocking and maintaining inventory. Then he would go to her place. She might have stopped there to get a few things and just fallen asleep, she was so worn out. Part of him knew he was being obsessive, but for some reason he couldn’t help himself. If he wasn’t with her, he worried about her, a lot.
“Want me to come along?” Ian asked, rising to his feet.
Ben shook his head. “I’ll call you if I need you.” It was probably nothing. But he couldn’t shake the fear that had begun to grip him. He jumped in his car and sped to the Gap. It was dark. He banged on the door for a few minutes, but no one was there. He then got back in his car and raced to the run-down apartment building Jaycee called home. Another reason he wanted her to move in with him, he didn’t like the neighborhood she lived in. It wasn’t safe for a woman alone.
Once he reached her street, he stopped his car and ran up the stairs to her apartment. Ben began to pound on the door. “Jaycee,” he shouted. If she was asleep, he would have to be loud to wake her. “Jaycee! You in there?”
The door opened a crack, held in place by a chain on the door. “Ben,” Jaycee whispered. The door shut and he could hear the chain being removed. Then the door opened again.
“What happened?” Ben asked loudly, rushing into the apartment. “I thought you were coming by my place.”
“I... I...” Jaycee stammered, turning away from him. “I changed my mind.”
“What?!” Ben yelled. “Why? The least you could have done was told me.”
“I just did is all,” Jaycee snapped.
Ben put his hands on her shoulders and turned her so she faced him. “You mad at me?” he asked. He was being too pushy, as always. It was then he caught sight of her eye. It was swollen and beginning to turn purple. “What happened? I told you not to live here. I told you it wasn’t safe here.”
“You told me,” Jaycee replied wearily. “And you are always right. Now why don’t you just go home. I’m not in the mood for one of your lectures.”
Ben ran his fingers over her bruise. “I’m sorry.” He took her hand. “C’mon, let’s go home.” At least he had an ice-maker in his refrigerator. Jaycee had nothing in hers, except mayonnaise.
Jaycee jerked her hand away. “I am home.”
“Jaycee,” Ben began.
“Go home,” Jaycee said, tears coming into her eyes. “Please.”
“No, I’m staying here if you won’t come with me,” Ben retorted, becoming angry.
“Can’t you see that I want you to go?” Jaycee cried.
“I can see that,” Ben shouted. “The question is why. Why don’t you want to stay with me?”
“Because I don’t. Isn’t that enough?” Jaycee yelled back. “Go home. Go somewhere. Just not here.”
Ben reached for her, but she just stepped away. “Why?” he asked, unable to mask his hurt. He touched her eye once more. “Did something else happen? Are you okay?”
“I can’t do this,” Jaycee said softly, her anger draining away. “Please just go home.” She lifted her head and gazed at him, her large dark eyes so full of anguish, Ben could barely stand to look at her.
“Okay,” Ben said. He would not be the cause of her pain. “But I’m gonna call you tomorrow and we are gonna straighten this out, once and for all.” It was the wrong decision, but he couldn’t force her to come with him. And having him here just seemed to upset her more.
He walked to the door and Jaycee followed him. Ben stepped into the hallway and cupped Jaycee’s chin. “I love you.”
Jaycee’s eyes dropped to the floor.
As the door shut in his face, Ben noted that Jaycee didn’t tell him she loved him.
“She’s never at home, she quit work at the Gap and at the school and she doesn’t call me or return my calls,” Ben said rapidly. He couldn’t hide his fear. “Something’s wrong. I know it.” It was this bizarre behavior which made him call Jason, who was now sitting on his couch, his feet on the coffee table, drinking slowly from a bottle of beer he held in one hand.
Jason Hillock glanced at Ian who sat silently, absorbing his friend’s anguish, knowing he could do little else but sit by and be supportive. But he could do more. Jason nodded. “I did some checking on her.”
“Why?” Ben asked suspiciously. Jason was a cop, a beat cop aiming for detective. And if he said he did some checking, you knew he was looking at criminal behavior.
“She used to live with a guy who did time,” Jason explained.
“So?” Ben asked, the fear he felt gripped him even more tightly than before.
“He’s out now,” Jason added quietly.
“And you think she went back to him?” Ben exclaimed, incredulous.
“He went back to her,” Jason said. “Her apartment is actually his apartment. The lease is in his name.”
“But Jaycee’s the one who’s been paying the rent,” Ben frowned. He had seen her write out the checks and hand them to the super.
“I told you he was in jail,” Jason repeated.
“For what?” Ben asked softly.
“Possession of heroin with intent to distribute,” Jason said, reciting the legal statute.
“She had a black eye,” Ben said, dropping his head into his hands as he realized what was happening. Jaycee hadn’t been mugged, it was far worse than a simple mugging. “He hits her, doesn’t he?”
Jason shrugged. “Don’t know. But it wouldn’t surprise me.”
Why, Jaycee? Why won’t you let me help you? Ben thought. He was so angry at her. Yet more than anything he wanted to take her in his arms and never let her go. “So what do we do?” Ben asked with a heavy sigh.
“You don’t do anything,” Jason said. He sat upright and put the beer down on the coffee table.
“I’ll look into it.” He got up and walked to the door.
“I mean it,” Jason said firmly when Ben opened his mouth to protest. “Don’t make it worse. If you go over there and start telling her what you know, you are just gonna humiliate her. Is that what you want?” When he saw Ben clamp his mouth shut, he understood. His message had been received. Jaycee was like a kid sister to him. It was this fact which made him understand her, maybe even more than Ben did. “We’ll get her back to you,” he told Ben, who simply continued to look miserable.
Jason nodded at Ian. “See ya,” he said as he left. He was anxious to get started on the idea he had percolating in his brain.
“You heard him,” Ian said, frowning as he saw Ben walk to the closet. “You’re not doing anything.”
“What?” Ben shouted. “I just sit at home and wait while Jaycee gets beat or worse?” He pressed his hand into his head. “I don’t get it.” What was going on with her? He knew she loved him. So what was it? Was this all something she decided she had to do to protect him, because nothing else made sense.
“You thinking about playing James Bond? Sitting outside her place and spy on her?” Ian asked. He knew Ben well enough to know exactly what he was going to do. “She’ll see you.”
Ben took his jacket out of the closet and put it on. “I’m Indian, remember? She’ll never know I’m there,” he said, his voice filling with anger. Anger at so many things, Jaycee, Jason, even Ian, but most of all at himself. He knew he should have never left her alone.
“So is she,” Ian shot back, but his voice was calm. He got up and went to the closet and got his jacket out as well. “I’m coming with you.”
Ben stared at him, then shook his head.
“Either that or I call Jason,” Ian added, the beginnings of a grin appearing on his face.
For the first time in a long time, Ben smiled. “Let’s go then.”
Ian nudged Ben in the ribs. “Jason’s going in.” He and Ben spent every night that week as Ian put it, playing spy. Usually it was nothing, just staring at a dark and empty apartment or looking at Jaycee sitting forlornly by the window. But tonight a large man in a black leather jacket appeared and entered the apartment. It was all Ian could do to keep Ben from rushing up the stairs and killing the man, the man he knew was hurting Jaycee. “Wait a minute,” Ian had told him. “Just see what happens.”
They were still arguing the matter when Jaycee and the man came out of the apartment and walked to the bar down the street. Ben and Ian followed them on foot. When they reached the bar, they stood by the window, trying to peer inside. But they couldn’t see much of anything. They were discussing the idea of going into the bar when they saw Jason. He was outside talking to some men. He appeared to be giving and receiving instructions. A few minutes later, Jason left the group and walked into the bar.
“Then so are we,” Ben announced. When he and Ian went inside the bar, Jason spotted them and shot them a look of dismay. Jaycee saw them as well.
Ben wanted to take the stool beside her, but even he knew that would be too much. Something was happening and he wasn’t about to interfere in whatever Jason had going on. He would just keep an eye on Jaycee. Lord knows someone had to. She looked like hell. The bruise around her eye had faded, but there was no life in her. Her hair was disheveled, lying about her shoulders, her eyes were sunken and dull, her skin ashen.
For a while nothing appeared to be happening. Jason was sitting by Jaycee’s ex, the two men seemed to be arguing. Then it was bedlam. Jaycee’s ex pulled out a gun and so did Jason. Ben began rushing toward Jaycee and she toward him. When they met, Ben tried to push her down, so she would be safe, but she appeared to be doing the same thing to him. If it wasn’t for everything that was going on, Ben would laugh. Little Jaycee, whose head barely reached his shoulder was trying to knock him to the ground.
Then Ben heard a loud noise and felt his shoulder go numb at first then burn with a pain he hadn’t ever felt. His knees grew weak and he sank to the ground.
“Ben, oh God, Ben,” Jaycee murmured, cradling him against her.
Ben lay on the ground. He could hear the voices, see the faces, all hovering around him. He felt himself rise off the ground and then he was on a stretcher, being carried somewhere. “Jaycee,” he said. But his voice could barely be heard.
But then Ian was there, shoving Jaycee into the ambulance with him, arguing with the paramedics when they protested. He saw Jaycee climb into the ambulance and sit beside him. When she took his hand, he closed his eyes and his world went dark.
Ben woke up and glanced around. Okay, it hadn’t been a dream. He moved his left shoulder, wincing from the pain. Yes, he had been shot. But he was alive. And Jaycee was here. She was sitting in a chair, her head on the bed. She appeared to be sleeping.
Ben reached his right hand out and stroked her hair.
“Ben,” Jaycee exclaimed, raising her head. “Are you okay? Should I get the nurse?”
Ben shook his head. “What happened?” That night in the bar seemed very far away and quite hazy. He still wasn’t sure if it had all really happened.
“You got shot,” Jaycee whispered, her face stricken. “I’m so sorry.”
Ben tried to sit up, but the pain in his shoulder hindered him. He reached for the controls lying on the mattress and pushed a button which raised the head of the bed. He tried to move over, wincing in pain when he placed his left hand on the bed to steady himself. Jaycee clasped his arm and helped him.
Ben caught her by the wrist with his good arm and pulled her onto the bed. Jaycee lay in the crook of his arm, his hand stroking her hair once more. “Why are you sorry? You didn’t do anything.”
“I saw this,” Jaycee whispered. Ben was the only person outside her family with which she could discuss her sight with. Her gift never frightened him, not once. “I didn’t understand it, not till Eric got back. And then I knew he would be the one to shoot you.” She buried her head against his side. “I’m so sorry.”
She raised her head. “I know you hate me.” She swung her legs off the bed. “I’m sorry,” she said once more, her voice breaking. This was the hardest thing she had ever done. She was walking away from the person she loved more than life itself. But she would not watch him go down in flames because of her.
Ben grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back to him. He lifted his good arm so Jaycee fell against his chest and he kissed her forehead. “Don’t leave me. I can’t lose you, not again.”
Jaycee allowed herself a moment of comfort, before she spoke. “You are gonna be something great and I’m not gonna let you mess it up because of me.”
“And you’ve seen my greatness?” Ben asked, his voice teasing.
“Don’t,” Jaycee whispered. She hadn’t seen anything specific, she never could about Ben. That’s why the vision of him being shot had been so horrifying. She couldn’t see anything about him, but that. Certain she had seen his death, she set out to prevent it in the only way she knew how. But she did get general impressions about him. And from those impressions she knew he would be great and this was not just her personal opinion.
“I’m not gonna be anything without you,” Ben said solemnly. “Don’t you get it? Everything I do, everything I want to do, is for you. I love you.”
Jaycee tried to choke back the tears, but they came gushing out, her sobs racking her body, causing her whole body to shake.
“Jaycee,” Ben murmured, holding her against him. “Don’t cry.”
“I slept with him,” she sobbed.
Ben brushed his lips against her hair.
Jaycee raised her head. “Did you hear me?”
Ben nodded. “I heard you.”
Jaycee dropped her eyes.
“What do you want me to do?” Ben asked quietly. “Say I’m happy about this? Well, I’m not. I wish you had told me about all this - your dreams, Eric coming back, everything. But you didn’t. You kept it all from me and that’s what hurts the most.”
Jaycee wiped her eyes as the tears started to spill out once more.
“Do you wanna go back to him?” Ben asked quietly.
“No!” Jaycee cried. “But...” She stopped speaking. He must be disgusted by her.
“I know he hit you,” Ben told her, pressing his hand to her cheek, so she lowered her head on his shoulder once more. Maybe this conversation would be easier for her if she didn’t have to look at him.
“He came back and when he saw me still living there, I guess he assumed I was there waiting for him or something,” Jaycee said softly. “I told him it was over. That it had been over for a long time and that’s when he lost it.” Jaycee couldn’t continue. What happened between Eric and her was ugly, but it was over. He didn’t force her, but he didn’t give her a choice either. Why she threw Ben’s name in his face, she’d never know. It was so incredibly stupid, but she did and by doing so, she gave Eric power. And because of that power, she would lose Ben, she was sure of it.
“Jaycee,” Ben murmured, “I’m sorry,” he murmured the words until Jaycee recovered herself enough to speak.
“He wasn’t always like that,” Jaycee said. “He was the reason I even came here. We met in high school. I was a freshman and he was a senior. We dated on and off for those four years. When the acceptance letter from the University came, I just threw it away. I didn’t have any intention of leaving, but Eric convinced me to go. He said he wanted to leave the reservation and come to Minneapolis with me.
“So we moved here, lived together in that apartment. But it was hard for him, seeing me at school, meeting new people, learning new things. Life wasn’t so good for him. He got fired from his job and couldn’t find work elsewhere, so he started dealing. And he liked that life, the money, the power he thought he had,” Jaycee paused, “ and the women.
“It was over even before he got sent to jail. We just didn’t admit to ourselves. We went our separate ways a long time before that,” Jaycee added softly.
“I’m sorry,” Ben said.
“Do you want me to go now?” Jaycee asked, her voice shaking. He got his explanation, but was that all he wanted? Whatever his decision was, she would abide by it.
“Go?” Ben asked, puzzled. “Nothing you said changes anything. I still love you.”
Jaycee looked at him, her face filled with wonder.
Ben entered the apartment and saw Jaycee there, smiling as she read a piece of paper. It had been almost four months since the incident with Eric. The only good thing about that whole affair was that Jaycee had finally agreed to move in with him. But she still wouldn’t marry him, not until she got the results of her last HIV test.
“Good news?” Ben called out cheerfully.
Jaycee ran to him and flung her arms around him. “Yes.”
“What is it?”
“Eric sent me the results of his HIV test.”
“He took one?” Ben asked, unable to conceal his surprise.
Jaycee nodded. Eric’s results would be a good indicator of her own. “I asked him to.” She had to know and he owed her at least that much.
“And?” Ben asked hopefully. All of Jaycee’s other results had been negative. If this one was too...
“It’s negative,” Jaycee said, smiling up at him. And when Ben hugged her, she practically sang the words, over and over again. “It’s negative.”
Ben picked her up and twirled her around.
Ben slammed the phone down in frustration.
“Boy, you had better take it easy on my phone,” Mr. Hunter said, entering Ben’s cubicle, making himself right at home and rightly so, as everything in the office was his. His law office wasn’t called Hunter and Associates for nothing.
“Sorry,” Ben mumbled.
“This about the Rosen case?” Mr. Hunter asked.
“No,” Ben replied, feeling a bit sheepish. He was supposed to be working on the Rosen case along with another clerk, who had just been hired. Ben thought his name was Dixon. But Dixon wasn’t here and Ben had more important things on his mind.
Mr. Hunter raised a brow at him.
“I’m trying to get a flight to Las Vegas,” Ben admitted.
“Why?” Mr. Hunter asked. He always had an interest in Ben Crow’s well-being. That boy had promise, at least that’s what he told himself. But the truth was, he felt a kinship with him, like he was his son or something.
“Jaycee finally agreed to marry me,” Ben told him. Mr. Hunter knew all about his relationship with Jaycee and was always interested in hearing about his life and everyone in it. “And I’m not about to give her a chance to change her mind.”
“I see,” Mr. Hunter said slowly. He thought for a moment, then added, “you mind some company?”
“Huh?” Ben asked, feeling quite confused.
“Company,” Mr. Hunter explained. “Meaning me. If you don’t mind letting an old man tag along, I bet I could get use of a friend’s jet and a couple of free rooms in his hotel.”
“I got a friend, who happens to be a client as well. He owns a hotel in Vegas,” Hunter said. “Cyrus Happy. His lawyer is here on business and I’d wager that he wouldn’t mind letting you use his jet for the weekend, provided I come along.” Happy was always asking him to come and visit, so why not? Why not go see an old friend and help a young man, whom he happened to be quite fond of, at the same time?
“Are you serious?” Ben asked, incredulous.
“It’s a deal,” Ben grinned.
Jaycee looked around in awe at the opulence of the jet which was now in flight. “Wow! That Cyrus Happy must be loaded.”
Ben draped an arm over her shoulders. “Yeah, from what I heard, he is.”
“I can’t believe he’s letting us use his jet.”
“Old man Hunter and him go way back. They’ve known each other since before they were both respectable.”
Jaycee smiled, resting her head against Ben.
“So you’re Jaycee,” Mr. Hunter said, walking into the lounge and sitting down on the other side of Jaycee. “I’m glad I can finally meet the woman who’s got this young man so tied up in knots.”
Jaycee laughed. “And I’m glad I finally got to meet you. Ben talks about you all the time.”
“All good, I hope,” Mr. Hunter said, his voice teasing.
“All good,” Jaycee reassured him. “And thank you so much for letting us use the jet.”
“Thank Happy,” Mr. Hunter grinned.
“I will,” Ben added with a smile of his own.
Mr. Hunter cleared his throat. “You mind if I ask you a question?” he said, looking at Jaycee.
“No,” she replied.
“Ben told me about how you two met,” Mr. Hunter said. “How you told him the story of Jensen and Buck. You really think that’s all true?”
Jaycee nodded. “I feel like I’m some descendant of Jensen’s and Ben is a descendant of Buck’s. And we get to live the life they never had.” After she moved in with Ben, she had told him the story. It was a tale that lived only in her mind or so she had thought. Her family was too fractured to keep track of their ancestors, so she never could be sure of the veracity of the story. That was until Ben told her his story.
Jaycee went on to briefly recount the tale of Jensen and Buck and when she was done, Mr. Hunter smiled.
“I might have to give my ex, Paula, a call,” he said thoughtfully. That Teaspoon fella reminded him a little of himself. Paula was wife number three. He wondered if what his flaky fourth wife, Andrea, said was true, that you lived your life over and over again, sometimes correcting your mistakes, sometimes not. And more often than not, you lived your life with the souls you were closest to. Of course Andrea was a nut, but sometimes he had to wonder, especially after hearing Jaycee’s story.
Ben laughed out loud.
“But I have a question,” Mr. Hunter added. “If Jensen died,” he paused, “the way she did, how could she have any descendants? And Buck? He found love again?”
Jaycee watched Mr. Hunter’s face closely. She had to know if he believed her story or was he just humoring her or worse, making fun. But he looked serious. “You want to hear it?”
Mr. Hunter nodded.
Jaycee nudged Ben in the ribs. This was his story.
Rock Creek, 1871
Buck clapped Ryan MacCallister on the shoulder. How could two brothers be so very different? Ryan was Douglas MacCallister’s younger brother, but the difference between the two men was like day and night. Douglas was quite a bit older than Ryan. He was also a sorry excuse for a human being. Buck still couldn’t bring himself to look at the man, not after the way he treated Jensen. But he didn’t have to, not anymore. Douglas MacCallister had left Rock Creek last year and Ryan had taken over the hardware store.
The first time he met Ryan MacCallister, Buck had treated him as he had his brother, ignoring him. But ten minutes after Teaspoon introduced the two of them, Buck had been laughing. Ryan was the exact opposite of his brother.
“Thanks, Buck,” Ryan said. “I appreciate this.” Ryan quickly hurried off.
Buck took the note Ryan had handed him and walked toward the newspaper office. Ryan was on his way to deliver his ad when he spotted Buck. Ryan had asked him to take the note there, as he was already late in picking up his daughter Carrie. Carrie was being tutored by Rachel, as Ryan lost his wife the year before and he and Carrie had been too distraught to worry about life, especially school. But Carrie was eight now and both she and her father were recovering. Recovering from the death of a woman they had both adored.
Buck frowned slightly. Another thing that he and Ryan had bonded over, the death of someone they loved. It had been almost five years since Jensen’s death and even now he missed her. Just thinking about her hurt.
He had returned to Rock Creek a few weeks ago as Abe Small the Ojibwa Indian agent he had been working for had died. But before Abe died, he had written to the Kiowa Indian agent in the Indian territory, recommending Buck for a job. The Kiowa agent, Barney Whelan had reluctantly agreed to give Buck a job. But Barney didn’t want Buck to start for a few months.
Finding himself at loose ends, Buck had returned to Rock Creek. After Jensen’s death, he never wanted to return. But it was home. Teaspoon, Polly, Kid and Lou and their three children were here. Jimmy and Cody had been known to appear from time to time, so he too had returned. And as he had hoped, Teaspoon had hired him on as a deputy.
As Buck continued to walk, he glanced at the saloon and winced. But he continued to walk, his head held high. She wouldn’t want this for him, she would want him to go on and have a life.
He did have a life, he told himself once more. He was doing what she asked. Even though it was difficult and in many cases impossible, he was doing it. He was trying to help his mother’s people interpret and follow the treaties they had signed. And he was trying to see that his father’s people stood by their own words as well.
He even had a child. Okay, it wasn’t *his* child. Yellow Star was Star Seeker, Jensen’s grandfather’s, child. Star Seeker’s youngest wife had given birth after the old man’s death and shortly after the birth, she too had died. Yellow Star had been passed around from relative to relative until Buck arrived and took him in, permanently.
Yellow Star, Buck thought once more. The boy was only twelve but so bitter. He refused to let anyone call him Yellow Star, the name his father had wished for him. He felt as though he could not accept the name as he did not have the gift of sight, like many in his family did. So he demanded that everyone call him Small Knife, the name his mother had given him before she died.
Star Seeker’s wife, First Snow, had been terrified of her husband and his power. But she was a beautiful woman and her family had given her to Star Seeker as a way to cement the alliance between their two clans. But First Snow’s fear seemed to have turned into bitterness, a bitterness her son had inherited.
Small Knife was furious at Buck right now. He couldn’t believe he was being dragged away from his home in Minnesota to go live in the Indian Territory. The Indian Territory! Small Knife fumed, every time he heard the phrase.
Buck had told Small Knife repeatedly that when he was a little older and a little more educated, he was free to return to his home. But Small Knife stubbornly refused to acknowledge Buck’s words. Buck had begun to suspect there was much more to Small Knife’s anger than simply being uprooted. He suspected that Small Knife missed a lovely girl named Red Berry.
Buck smiled slightly. The only thing that ever eased Small Knife’s bitterness was Red Berry. Buck had spoken to her family before they left and they had no objection to Small Knife becoming Red Berry’s husband. But they had agreed with Buck, that the two young people should both mature and try to become more educated. Buck even had hopes that Small Knife could become an Indian agent for the Ojibwa as he once was. But Buck’s hopes turned out to be just one more thing Small Knife was angry about.
“Buck” Cody called out. He had arrived in Rock Creek last week upon hearing Buck was here and knowing Jimmy was due back soon. “You going to work?” he asked his voice teasing. “Or you have time to grab some dinner?” Cody often found himself at loose ends lately. He couldn’t wait until his wife, Louisa, was here.
Buck smiled. “Just gotta deliver this to the newspaper office,” he replied, waving Ryan’s note in the air.
“Well,” Cody said, his eyes dancing. “You got yourself a kid now, so are you gonna advertise for a wife?” he chuckled. But he hastily silenced his words, mentally kicking himself at Buck’s pain-filled expression. “Sorry,” he added quickly. He ain’t over Jensen, Cody reminded himself. Jimmy had told him about Jensen and what happened between the two of them. And that was over five years ago. But obviously five years wasn’t enough time for Buck.
“I didn’t mean anything,” Cody said quickly.
“I know,” Buck said softly.
“So you up for dinner?” Cody asked once more, anxious to change the subject.
“Sure,” Buck replied, his voice still laced with sorrow. “I’ll catch up to you in a bit.”
“Great,” Cody grinned. He moved quickly away from the newspaper office, rapidly heading in the direction of Polly’s restaurant.
Buck stood for a moment at the screen door of the newspaper’s office. He saw a young woman behind the desk, Elsa Stigell. She was Joseph Grimes’ the newspaper owner’s assistant and as usual she was covered in ink. The blue-eyed, blond-haired woman didn’t even look up. She rarely did when she was working. Buck didn’t know too much about her, except that she had moved from Minnesota. He just never got around to asking her about the state they both had called home.
Elsa heard the door creak open and wiped her stained hands on the apron she wore. “Can I help you?”
“I have an ad for you. It’s-”
Elsa snatched the paper from Buck’s hands. “It will be in tomorrow’s paper,” she said abruptly. She began working on the project she was involved with when Buck entered the office.
Buck gaped at her, wondering if he should inform her what the ad pertained to. But he felt his anger growing at the woman’s rudeness. “Thank you,” he said, matching Elsa’s clipped tone. He turned around and left then. Let that woman figure it out for herself. If she made a mistake in the ad, her paper would have to run it again, free of charge. And she could explain to her boss what had happened.
Ryan pulled on the reins, slowing his team of horses to a stop. He leapt off the wagon and hurried to the small house Rachel Dunne called home.
He knocked at the door and then opened it. He smiled when he saw his dark-haired daughter writing furiously on a tablet. When school opened again in the fall, Carrie would be ready. Rachel Dunne had made sure of that fact.
Ryan had been so worried that his daughter would fall behind when he pulled her out of school. But she couldn’t concentrate and there didn’t seem to be any point in her going. After Cordelia’s death, Ryan couldn’t bear to be parted from his daughter, the spitting image of her mother. Both Cordelia and Ryan had dark hair and so did Carrie. But Carrie had inherited her mother’s brown eyes, not Ryan’s gray ones.
“Pa,” Carrie shouted happily, flinging herself into her father’s arms. When her father released her, Carrie began chattering happily about what she had learned today. “I played cards,” the girl chirped.
“Cards?” Ryan frowned.
“It’s a good way to learn sums,” Rachel interjected, wheeling her chair into the room.
Carrie’s eyes darted back and forth. She knew her father liked Mrs. Dunne and so did she. In fact, if she had her druthers, she would pick Mrs. Dunne as her new mother. Her friend Esther had told her that every child had a mother and father, so Carrie had set about looking for a new mother. She didn’t know too many of the single women in town, but of all the ones she had met, Mrs. Dunne seemed like the best of the lot.
But if Mrs. Dunne had her druthers, she would send her father far away. Ever time Carrie mentioned how handsome her father was, or how smart he was or even how hard he worked, Mrs. Dunne quickly changed the subject.
Ryan nodded, smiling at Rachel. Lord, she was a beautiful woman. When he looked at her, he didn’t feel the pain of Cordelia’s death so sharply.
Rachel looked at her hands, folded primly in her lap when she saw the expression on Ryan’s face. The young man obviously had a crush on her. Flattering, yet completely inappropriate.
But what bothered her was her reaction to his crush. What was wrong with her? A few years ago she would have sent a young pup like Ryan MacCallister running so quick he wouldn’t have known what had hit him. But nowadays, she smiled like a complete idiot or started babbling like a twelve-year-old with her first beau.
It was because she knew she was useless for anything but a tutor anymore. No man should ever be saddled with an old woman stuck in a wheelchair, especially not one as young and handsome as Ryan. “It’s a good way to learn sums,” she repeated, feeling foolish for sounding so apologetic. If he didn’t like her teaching methods, let him find another tutor.
“I’m sure it is,” Ryan replied easily. “I remember when I used to play cards with my father.” He chuckled. “The old man hated it when I took too long to ask for another card when we played twenty-one.”
Ryan glanced once more at Rachel. “Mrs. Dunne,” he said. “I’m sorry I’m so late. Let me make it up to you.” He nodded at his daughter. “Carrie and I would love to be able to take you to dinner at Mrs. Hunter’s restaurant.”
Rachel blushed furiously. Insolent pup, she thought once more. Ryan asked her to dinner or a ride every time he saw her. Didn’t he understand plain English? She was not interested. “I’m afraid I can’t,” she said, allowing herself to sound regretful. And she did feel a twinge of regret at Carrie’s crestfallen face. Damn Ryan MacCallister for putting her in such an awkward position. She would not be an object of pity. “Maybe another time.”
Ryan gave her a slow smile, a smile that caused her heart to beat faster. “Maybe,” he told her. He took his daughter by the hand. “Maybe tomorrow,” he added, knowing full well he would ask again. He asked every afternoon when he picked his daughter up.
“Maybe,” Rachel replied. She smiled back at him. Maybe she should let him take her out, show him how difficult life with her would really be. She owed him that much.
Lou gave Buck a strange smile. “If you were ready to move on, you just should have said so.”
“Huh?” Buck said, looking at Lou blankly. Ready to move on from what? he wondered.
Lou took a seat at the table where they had just finished eating their breakfast. She took a deep breath and handed Buck the newspaper. Even though she was glad Buck was staying with her family, she wished he would have said something to her first. “I know a lot of eligible women, if you’re interested.”
“Interested?” Buck asked, feeling utterly baffled at this conversation. “If you have something to say, just spit it out.”
Lou took the paper from his hands and unfurled it. She pointed to a small square in the newspaper. “Your ad.”
“My ad?” Buck squeaked. He read the words. Damnable woman, he fumed.
Lou began to giggle as she realized that Buck had nothing to do with the ad. The giggle turned into a laugh and soon she was holding her sides. The angrier Buck got, the harder she laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Kid asked, as he came into the room and sat down at the table.
Lou just continued to laugh and Buck threw the newspaper at him. “Nothing,” Buck roared before he stormed out of the McCloud home.
Kid gave his wife a quizzical look and all Lou could manage was to shove the paper in her husband’s direction. Kid quickly scanned the paper and soon found the object of Lou’s merriment. As he read the words, he too began to laugh.
“Are you even capable of reading English?” Buck shouted as he entered the newspaper office. Elsa blinked at him a few times and Buck seethed. Now she was going to act like she didn’t remember him?
“Excuse me?” Elsa inquired formally.
“The ad,” Buck continued to rage at her.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“You said I wanted a wife!” Buck yelled. A wife!
Elsa looked at him like he was insane. “But your friend said-”
“When you were outside,” Elsa answered patiently. “Before you brought the ad in, you were talking to Buffalo Bill about a wife.” She sighed inwardly. Now that was a man she would love to interview. She had hoped this Buck person might introduce her, so she had taken the time to fix up his notice. It was really quite a horrid bit of work. What woman in her right mind would respond to such an ad? The man had requested a kind woman, to care for a child and keep house. Was that all a wife was for?? So Elsa had modified it.
“And I don’t like your implication that I don’t know English. Just because my family wasn’t born here, doesn’t mean we aren’t fluent in the language,” she added haughtily.
“What are you talking about?” Buck shouted. This woman made no sense at all.
“My family is from Sweden,” Elsa told him, wrinkling her brow. Now who didn’t know English?
Buck groaned. Who cared where her family was from? “I don’t want a wife,” he began, trying to explain his situation to this thick-headed woman.
“Then why did you advertise for one?”
“There’s no need to shout so,” Elsa scolded him. “You and your friend were talking about a wife-”
“And you assumed I wanted one,” Buck interrupted. “Well you know what they say about assumptions?”
Elsa narrowed her eyes at him. “Right now I’d remember that saying if I were you.”
“The - ad - wasn’t - even - mine,” Buck said slowly, enunciating every word, every syllable.
“Well - you - should - have - said - so,” Elsa responded, mocking Buck’s tone. “Did you even read the ad?”
“No,” Buck began slowly.
“Well it didn’t have a name, so how was I supposed to know it wasn’t yours? You brought it in.”
Damn Ryan, Buck fumed inside once more. “But you still shouldn’t have changed it.” A notice asking for a housekeeper would be far less embarrassing than the ad running in the paper right now.
Elsa shrugged. “I thought you needed the help.”
“Finding a wife!” Buck sputtered, his anger growing once more as he got the feeling he was being insulted.
“You are obviously inept with women,” Elsa told him, looking deadly serious.
But Elsa ignored him. She was busily rummaging, looking for something on the paper filled desk in front of her. “Ah ha!” she said triumphantly. She handed Buck a slip of paper.
Buck scowled as he read the words. As Elsa said, there was no name. “You still shouldn’t have changed it.”
“Wife, maid, what’s the difference?” Elsa said with a sigh.
Buck stared at her, his anger dissipating slightly at the timbre of her words. She sounded so sad.
“Please modify the ad so it suits your needs,” Elsa continued, formally this time. “You can bring it back whenever you are done and the paper will run it free of charge.”
“It’s not mine,” Buck said, feeling rather ridiculous now. Maybe it was just an honest mistake. He felt rather bad about shouting at the woman. He would apologize *if* she would say she was sorry first. After all, this still was her fault.
“Then tell the ad’s owner to bring it back this time, so there will be no further confusion. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a great deal of work to finish,” Elsa said dismissively.
Well, Buck decided. There would be no apology after all. “I’ll tell him,” he replied, moving toward the door, still debating whether or not to apologize.
“Good day,” Elsa told him, moving to the back of the room.
“Good day,” Buck said, casting one last look back before he left the office.
“I don’t know why you’re so upset,” Cody said mildly, returning paper to Buck as he took a seat in a chair by the window of the marshal’s office.
Buck scowled at him. This was also his fault too.
“After all,” Cody continued. “She makes you out to be some kind of Greek god.”
Buck’s scowl deepened.
“See,” Cody added, pointing at the words.
Exotic, handsome, gentleman seeks kind and caring woman to join him and his son in creating a happy family.
“What’s so wrong with that?” Cody asked.
“I’m not looking for a WIFE!” Buck bellowed.
“Neither am I,” Ryan MacCallister said with a chuckle as he entered the office. “Least not that way.” He preferred the more typical route of meeting a woman and courting them first, before marrying them.
Buck quickly introduced Ryan to Cody. Then he turned his wrath upon him. “You didn’t even put your name on the ad.”
“Sorry,” Ray said quickly. “I was in a hurry, as usual.”
“She’s obviously incompetent,” Buck grumbled under his breath.
“Elsa’s not incompetent,” Ryan informed them. “She has a degree from the university in Minnesota. And from what I’ve heard, she works harder than most men, just so people won’t think she’s weak because she’s a woman or stupid because her family immigrated here.”
“A degree?” Cody asked, surprised to hear that a woman went to the university.
“She was sponsored by Michael Waters,” Ryan said and Cody nodded. Michael Waters was quite well known as he owned and operated several newspapers throughout the country.
“How did she know him?” Cody asked.
“Her parents used to work for him and he knew Elsa ever since she was a girl. From what I gather, he liked what he saw and sent her to college when he realized his own children had no interest in following in his footsteps,” Ryan said, recalling his father’s words about the Waters children. What had he called them? Wastrels? Lawrence MacCallister would never have tolerated such behavior in his own children and had not been shy in expressing his disgust with Michael Waters and his children. Lawrence MacCallister was a firm believer in keeping both money and power in the family.
“How do you know so much about her?” Cody asked.
“My father went to school with Michael Waters,” Ryan told them. “They really weren’t close, but they kept in touch over the years. You know how it is when you keep up business contacts, you end up making small talk about the family as well.”
Cody’s head bobbed up in down in agreement, while Buck watched. No, he didn’t know. His world didn’t involve making idle chitchat while closing deals involving large sums of money. The people he worked with barely eked out an existence.
“So why is she here?” Buck found himself asking, surprised to see that he was curious about this Elsa.
“When Waters died, his children sold the paper. I think Elsa was planning to work for him, but the new owner wouldn’t hire her. So she ended up here,” Ryan concluded.
“Lucky for us,” Buck muttered, his voice filled with sarcasm.
“I don’t think Elsa meant anything bad by the ad,” Ryan said.
“It’s not really that,” Cody explained. “He thinks he’s gonna be a laughingstock.” He had seen Buck leaving the newspaper office and before he reached his place of work, one woman and two men had commented on the notice.
“I know I am,” Buck said wearily.
“I wouldn’t worry too much about it,” Ryan said. “I fixed the ad and I asked Elsa to put some kind of notice in there about the error.” He grinned. “I didn’t want someone to think I was interested in a mail-order bride.”
“No wouldn’t want that, now would we,” Buck said, a smile creeping onto his face. “Wouldn’t want to give Rachel the wrong impression,” he added, anxious to change the subject. Let Ryan be the object of Cody’s so-called wit.
“Rachel,” Cody exclaimed.
“She is a fine woman,” Ryan told them both.
Cody stared at Ryan for a minute, then back at Buck. Then his eyes went back to Ryan. “You had better not hurt her,” he said, his voice completely serious.
“I won’t,” Ryan replied, his words equally somber. “But she won’t even give me a chance to prove it,” he sighed.
“You’re really serious about her?” a voice from behind the men asked.
All three men turned around and found Lou McCloud standing in the doorway.
Ryan simply nodded at her.
Lou smiled slightly. “Well then make her feel like you need her.”
“Need her?” Ryan asked, frowning. “I’m a widower with an eight-year-old child and she thinks I don’t need help?”
“Is that all you want?” Buck asked sharply. “Help? Then hire her as your nanny.”
Ryan let out a loud sigh again. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lovelier woman -”
“Pretty women are a dime a dozen,” Cody chimed in.
“Fine,” Ryan snapped. “Message received. I’ll stay away from Mrs. Dunne. Is it alright with you if she still tutors Carrie?” he asked caustically.
“If you give up so easy,” Lou told him. “You don’t deserve her.”
“What is wrong with you people?” Ryan half-shouted.
“We wanna make sure you won’t hurt her,” Buck said. “She’s been hurt enough.”
“Hurt her?” Ryan yelled. “The only time I don’t think about Cordelia is when I am with her. When she smiles, I feel like I’m a young man sparking a girl for the very first time. When I’m with Rachel, I -,” then he stopped abruptly. Lou, Buck and Cody were beaming at him.
“Well maybe he is serious after all,” Cody drawled.
“So show her you need her,” Lou said once more. When Ryan began to open his mouth in protest, she added, “Show her, don’t tell her. A woman likes to know that a man needs her and Rachel doesn’t think anyone needs her anymore.”
Ryan closed his mouth and nodded. Show her, Lou had said. That was one thing he knew he could do.
“For pity’s sake, Elsa,” Joseph Grimes, the newspaper owner/editor, bellowed. “How could you make such a mistake?” He knew something like this would happen. What was he thinking, hiring a woman? Let alone a woman who wasn’t even from this country.
“I don’t know,” Elsa mumbled for the thousandth time.
“Well it’s your job to know,” Joseph shouted.
Buck stopped outside the newspaper door on his way to the McCloud’s home, where he was staying for the duration of his visit. He felt rather foolish for eavesdropping, but it really wasn’t eavesdropping. Joseph’s words were carried out the screen door and down the street. No wonder Elsa overheard his conversation with Cody, Buck realized. The newspaper office got quite warm during the day and the door and windows were almost always open.
Elsa let out a loud sigh.
“Can I trust you to lock up the office?” Joseph asked, his voice scathing. “And re-run the notice, correctly this time?”
“Yes,” Elsa replied wearily. And when Joseph stormed out of the office, she sat down wearily in the chair, removing the letter from the pocket in her apron.
She re-read the words once again.
Dear Miss Stigell,
We regret to inform you that we have already filled the position for which you applied. We will keep your application on file, should further need arise.
Thank you for your interest.
Rejected, again. She should be used to it by now. She was rejected for every job she applied for. Except this one, she reminded herself. But at this rate, she would probably lose this position as well.
She raised her head then, someone was talking to her.
“I’m sorry,” that Buck person was saying. “Do you think it would help if I talked to Mister Grimes?”
“Huh?” Elsa said, quickly clamping her lips shut. Brilliant, just brilliant Elsa. Why was she always making a fool of herself in front of this man?
“I overhead what Mister Grimes was saying to you,” Buck said almost sheepishly.
“Yeah, well,” Elsa replied with a shrug. She rose to her feet, tossing the letter toward the waste paper basket in the corner of the room. It bounced off the rim of the basket and fell to the floor. But Elsa didn’t even notice. She was too busy searching for the ad so she could prepare it for tomorrow’s printing. “It was *my* mistake. Sorry if I embarrassed you.”
Buck gave her a small smile. He got his apology, finally. He picked up the paper Elsa had thrown, prepared to throw it away, but instead the word regret caught his eye and he quickly scanned the whole letter before he balled it up and tossed it in the basket for good.
“So do you think it would help if I talked to him?” Buck asked once more, feeling rather bad for this young woman right now. Being scolded by your employer and rejected by another one, both in one day, it had to be hard to swallow.
“No,” Elsa answered. “I don’t think Mister Grimes cares much about what happened to you. He’s probably more worried about Mister MacCallister.”
Buck frowned. He had thought the same thing, but he certainly never expected to hear the words, out loud, especially not from this woman. What did she know about the prejudice he and his people experienced on a daily basis?
“But if you are really interested in helping, you could introduce me to Buffalo Bill,” Elsa added.
“You wanna meet Cody?” Buck asked, only mildly surprised. An interview with Cody would be a feather in anyone’s cap. Maybe it would help her get another job, in some other town, something she obviously wanted. It briefly crossed his mind to wonder what she would think if she knew he was friends with Wild Bill Hickok as well.
“More than anything,” Elsa smiled. Her mind began to spin with the possibilities. Her interview with Buffalo Bill might be picked up by a bigger newspaper, the article might be her springboard to a job with a real newspaper with a much larger readership. Maybe then her parents would finally stop shaking their heads at her. Maybe they would finally understand why she couldn’t marry Gustaf Larsson. Maybe they would understand why she had to move to Rock Creek. She never asked them to come with her, but they had accompanied her, sure that she was doomed without them.
“I suppose -,” Buck began.
“Oh thank you,” Elsa half-squealed, her eyes filling with delight.
“Um, I guess you could come to Polly’s restaurant for lunch tomorrow. I could introduce you then,” Buck said.
“I’ll be there, twelve o’clock sharp,” Elsa smiled.
“I don’t know where he is,” Carrie told Rachel apologetically, her large brown eyes filling with tears. But inside she was smiling. Her father would be so proud of her right now. She had often been scolded by him in the past when she turned on the waterworks, as Ryan was so fond of saying. But Carrie knew her father wouldn’t mind today. In fact, it had been his idea.
Ryan had been sure that Rachel would find some way to avoid coming to dinner this evening as she had every other night, so father and daughter had put their heads together and devised a predicament so filled with disaster that even Rachel wouldn’t be able to turn away.
And it was working. Rachel’s face was filled with concern.
“I’m sure he just got held up at the store,” Rachel said, trying to sound reassuring.
“Probably,” Carrie replied, adding a tremble to her lower lip. “Maybe I’ll just walk home.” But when she moved toward the door, Rachel put a restraining hand on her.
“Wait a few more minutes,” Rachel said.
“He’s always late!” Carrie shouted suddenly.
“So what are you going to do? Teach him a lesson? Worry your father by walking home and have him search the countryside looking for you when you aren’t there?” Rachel asked sharply. When Carrie dropped her head, an expression of shame crossing her features, she said, softly this time. “He’s got a lot to manage. You know that.”
“I know,” Carrie sighed. “But I don’t want to put you out.”
“You never put me out, sweetheart.”
Carrie regarded her for a long moment, then asked, “would you come with me? My pa wouldn’t worry if you were with me and we left a note.”
“But he’s going to come here looking for you,” Rachel exclaimed.
“We could catch up to him at the store,” Carrie said, her voice beginning to fill with enthusiasm. “Oh please, Mrs. Dunne. You said you’d have supper with us today. We could just meet him at the store and then maybe go to the restaurant. Please.”
“I don’t know,” Rachel began.
Carrie let the tears flow then. She began muttering under her breath, allowing the words bother and my mama to be overheard. It wasn’t fair to throw her mother in, but Carrie was desperate. And she was sure her mother would understand. Before she had died, Cordelia MacCallister was known as quite the matchmaker.
“Okay,” Rachel said quickly. She could use the fresh air at least. She hadn’t been out all day. “Let’s go.”
And just as promptly as the tears began, they stopped. “Thank you, Mrs. Dunne,” Carrie smiled. She moved behind Rachel’s wheelchair and began pushing it out the door and down the ramp. She pushed it with all her might, as it wasn’t easy pushing a chair through the dirt roads of Rock Creek. But Carrie didn’t waver, not for an instant. She continued pushing Rachel’s chair until they reached the hardware store.
And as soon as they reached the MacCallister store, Ryan came out, fishing for a key to lock the front door. “Rachel, Carrie,” he said, his face registering his surprise at seeing the two of them there. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” Rachel began awkwardly.
“You were late,” Carrie announced. “So we decided to help you out by coming down here.”
“Rachel, I’m so sorry,” Ryan told her. “I’m always late and now...” he let his voice trail off.
“It’s nothing,” Rachel said brightly.
“It is,” Ryan said, his eyes firmly fixed on her.
Rachel stared down at her lap, feeling foolish for the sense of pleasure that pervaded her body at Ryan’s look. How long had it been since a man looked so genuinely happy to see her?
“Well, then,” Ryan said. “Let’s go to the restaurant. We do owe you a dinner.”
Rachel simply nodded. Ryan took his daughter’s place behind her chair and the three of them made the trek to Polly’s establishment. But when they got there, they found that the restaurant was closed.
Oh well, Rachel thought to herself. “We’ll have to do it another time,” she said, but it sounded false even to her own ears. She wanted to sound happy and she should be relieved, but all she could feel was letdown and she wasn’t even able to mask this disappointment.
“I guess it’s our place then,” Ryan told her with a shrug of his shoulders. He expertly turned the chair around and began heading for his home.
“Wait,” Rachel gasped. “No, really, I can’t.”
“Why not?” Carrie asked and Rachel sighed. The child looked so utterly miserable.
“It’s too much trouble,” Rachel tried to explain. But didn’t she want to show Ryan how much trouble being with her would be?
“It’s no trouble,” Ryan said. “It’s our pleasure.” He reached down and squeezed Rachel’s hand. “Truly, it is.”
And Rachel simply nodded. It was all she could manage. Ryan’s touch had sent a tingle throughout her body. And before she knew it, she was in the MacCallister living room, chiding herself mentally. There was no way such a relationship could ever work out. Ryan was too young for her, Carrie deserved a real mother and Ryan deserved a whole woman, someone who could care for him and give him more children.
With that thought ringing in her mind, Rachel sat in her chair, while pots clanged on the floor, Ryan shouted at Carrie and she shouted right back at him. It went on and on, until Rachel could take no more. She wheeled her chair into the kitchen and her mouth fell open. It looked like someone had lit a stick of dynamite in the room. Food was everywhere, so were pots, pans and silverware. There was even a broken pitcher in the middle of the floor for good measure.
“I’m so sorry,” Ryan began. But he silenced himself when Rachel began to laugh. She laughed so hard tears streamed down her face.
“And here I thought I would be too much trouble,” she said, suppressing a giggle. She moved her chair close to the stove after leaning over to pick up a pot. “You must really want to have dinner with me something fierce to go through all of this,” she continued, setting the pot on the stove and waving her hand at the fiasco Carrie and Ryan had created.
Ryan just smiled sheepishly.
“Can we all just make dinner together?” Rachel asked. “And not act as if we were in some sort of comedy of errors?”
“Yes,” Carried cried enthusiastically, flinging her arms around Rachel.
It was almost eleven o’clock at night when Ryan lifted Rachel into the seat of his wagon. He put the wheelchair in the back next to Carrie. He then pulled a blanket over his drowsy daughter’s shoulders.
“Thank you for this evening,” Rachel said formally after Ryan climbed into the seat next to her.
“I’m the one who should be thanking you,” Ryan told her. “I don’t know the last time we laughed so much.”
Rachel smiled into the darkness. She knew both Ryan and Carrie had staged that little drama for her, but she couldn’t help but be pleased. And even when they had stopped acting like they were helpless, she still felt it, that feeling of contentment.
When they reached her home, Ryan removed her chair and set it on her porch. And Rachel was more than a little flustered when Ryan wrapped his arms around her as he lifted her from the wagon and carried her to the chair.
When he set her in the chair, he sat on his haunches and took her hand in his. “Maybe next time it will be just you and me?” he asked and Rachel smiled.
Ryan saw the smile and leaned close, kissing her lips gently. “I swear you have cast some kind of spell on me, Rachel.” When Rachel looked away, he said, “will you have dinner with me? In a restaurant? I can ask the Farley girl to sit with Carrie.”
“I don’t know, Ryan,” Rachel began.
“Well I do,” Ryan retorted, his voice beginning to fill with exasperation. “Will you just give me a chance? That’s all I’m asking for, a chance,” he added softly.
Rachel nodded. A chance, he had said. What would a chance hurt?
“Six o’clock? Friday?” Ryan said quickly, not willing to give Rachel a chance to change her mind. He would have made it tomorrow, but he had learned a thing or two about women. He would not rush into this and scare Rachel off. She looked positively petrified when Carrie was in the room with them. What would she do if they were out alone together?
Rachel nodded again. Friday was three days from now, surely Ryan would regain his senses by then. But she hoped once more that he wouldn’t.
“Friday, it is then,” he said. With another quick kiss Ryan left her.
“And then” Cody continued, settling back into his chair, while Buck closed his eyes. How long had they been here? A couple of hours, a few days? It was interminable, Cody’s blathering. Buck knew at least half of it was pure bull, the other half had to be exaggeration. But Buck had to hand it to his friend, he certainly knew how to keep an audience. Elsa hadn’t stopped taking notes, nor had she stopped making inquiries and when she wasn’t peppering Cody with questions, she was vigorously nodding her head. Well at least Cody had another admirer, just another fan which would cause his already fat head to swell even further.
Buck suppressed another yawn and as he did, he saw Elsa look at him from the corner of her eye. She flashed him the tiniest of smiles and Buck sat upright. She wasn’t snowed? he thought. He fastened his eyes on her then. No, she saw through Cody.
Another hour later Cody was done, finally. “Thank you so much,” Elsa said, rising to her feet, stretching her cramped hand. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this.”
“You’re welcome,” Cody drawled. “And do I get to see a copy of this before it hits the stands?” He had learned his lesson. He wasn’t about to be bushwhacked, as Jimmy had been.
“If you’d like,” Elsa replied. “I’ll send it to you as soon as I write it.”
“Great,” Cody said. He stood up as well. “I’ll see you later.”
As Cody left the restaurant, Buck got up as well.
Elsa flashed him a smile. “So how much of that was true?” she asked.
“What?” Buck asked. He was right, she wasn’t snowed.
“You’ve known him for a long time now,” Elsa responded. “So how much of that really happened?”
“Cody,” Buck said slowly. “Well, Cody is complicated.”
“Tell me about it,” Elsa said, sitting back down.
Buck chuckled softly. He took a step toward the door, prepared to head back to the McCloud’s, check up on Small Knife.
“No, really,” Elsa said quickly, pushing the chair Buck had been sitting on back out. “If you’re not busy I’d really like to hear what you have to say.”
“About Cody?” Buck exclaimed.
“You rode together for the Pony Express, right?”
“You two are old friends?”
“So tell me what you know. What was he like during the Express days?” Elsa asked.
Buck sat down hesitantly, studying Elsa. Her blue eyes were practically glowing. But much to his surprise, he realized that they weren’t glowing because of Cody, the legend or even the prospect of publishing an interview with the great Buffalo Bill. She wanted to write a real article.
“I’ve read Buffalo Bill, King of the Bordermen,” Elsa said. “And what Mister Cody fed me here, came directly from that.”
Buck smiled. The first ten-cent novel about Cody was big news in these parts.
“So what was your first impression of him?” Elsa continued.
It was Buck’s turn to lean back in his chair and talk. And talk he did. He must have talked as long as Cody did, but Elsa paid close attention. Just a sign of being a good journalist, Buck decided.
When he was finally done, Elsa raised her eyes from her notes. “This was wonderful,” she said.
“Would you like to read it too?” Elsa asked, giving him a shy smile.
“Why? You afraid Cody won’t like what you wrote?” Buck asked, grinning back at her.
“Why? You didn’t say anything bad about him,” Elsa answered. “It’s just, I mean, I thought you’d like...” she let her words trail off. Obviously Buck Cross thought very little of her work and based on the one example he had seen, she really couldn’t blame him.
“I was kidding,” Buck said quickly. “I’d really like to see what you’ve written. Besides, I might need a little time to start thinking of ways to defend myself.”
Elsa stared at him and when she realized that Buck was joking she began to laugh. Tapping the stack of papers with her index finger she said, “And here I thought Mister Cody was a showman. What you told me, well it would make a terrific book, let alone an article.”
“I’m glad you found it helpful,” Buck said. But he was sure Elsa was just being polite. The way both he and Cody had talked made it seem like they were starved for attention. Buck leaned over and gently rubbed Elsa’s ear. “Between me and Cody they must be pretty sore.” Suddenly he withdrew his hand, as if he had been burned. What was wrong with him? Grabbing a woman he barely even knew in public. “Sorry,” he muttered.
Elsa blinked at him a few times, before she said, “I won’t get you in any trouble with Mister Cody. I promise.” She quickly rose to her feet and hurried to the door. “Thank you,” she called back, before she left.
Buck frowned. He’d obviously embarrassed her, but she was polite enough not to let it show. He really should remember where he was. He was no longer an Ojibwa agent, holding frazzled women by the hand. He was in Rock Creek. He really should remember what that meant. He wasn’t surrounded by people like him and Elsa was as different as they came.
“No, no,” Buck said wearily. “I don’t mind.”
“Thank you, Buck,” Kid said gratefully, rushing up the stairs. The Fowler girl, Amy, had sent her sister, Susan, who was helping her watch Carrie, to the McClouds. Amy had been hoping Lou was there, but Lou was out, meeting with her ladies’ group. This group allegedly drank tea, worked on quilts and discussed important issues that deal with the growth and development of Rock Creek. But Buck was sure all Lou did was gossip and he was sure what she drank wasn’t tea. Those ladies met the last Friday of every month and the following day, each and every one of those ladies was confined to bed. The flu, they all claimed.
Kid didn’t want to interrupt Lou’s fun and he wasn’t sure that she would be in any state to help, so he asked Buck to fetch the doctor. Apparently Ryan was out with Rachel and Amy was sitting with Carrie, Carrie had developed a fever. If it had been one of her own siblings, Amy wouldn’t have worried about it. But this was someone else’s child and she knew how protective Ryan was about Carrie, so she had sent her sister to get Lou, as the McCloud ranch wasn’t too far from the MacCallister’s place. She was hoping that Lou could do something. But when Susan found out Lou wasn’t here, she had panicked.
The only way Kid could calm the child was to promise that he’d send the doctor their way. But when the baby, Mary, filled her diaper, he asked Buck to get the doctor. He was sure that Buck would not volunteer to change Mary.
“You wanna come with me?” Buck asked Small Knife, who was still sitting on the couch wearing a completely blank expression. He found all these white people to be incredibly strange. Who would get themselves into such a state about the fever of a small child? Young children were always sick.
“Sure,” Small Knife answered.
The two of them rode to town and once the doctor was on his way to the MacCallister’s, Buck asked Small Knife if he’d like to eat at the restaurant.
“So I can work on my manners?” Small Knife asked archly.
That was one way to look at it, Buck thought. Small Knife had little experience dining out, so he figured this was a good way for him to learn. But he said, “Aren’t you hungry?” They had run out before dinner and besides, neither one of them really had an appetite for Kid’s cooking.
“Yeah,” Small Knife admitted reluctantly. The two of them began walking to the restaurant then.
When Buck saw Ryan and Rachel there, they stopped by their table. “I just wanted to let you know that I sent the doctor to your house.” He quickly raised his hand when Ryan began to get up, a look of panic crossing his face. “I don’t think it’s anything, but the Fowler girl was worried. Carrie has a fever.”
“Rachel,” Ryan said apologetically. “Do you mind if we call it an evening?”
“No,” Rachel said quickly. “Of course not.”
“Thank you. I’ll take you home then-” Ryan began.
“Nonsense,” Rachel interrupted. “I want to see how Carrie is too.” She had grown quite attached to that child. And the way Ryan looked, well, if truth be told, she really didn’t want to leave him in such a state.
Ryan looked at her, his eyes filling with softness. He threw down a few bills. As he approached the back of Rachel’s chair, he leaned down before he began to push it. “You are one hell of a woman, Miss Dunne.” And Rachel smiled up at him.
Buck briefly considered the idea of asking Ryan how things were going, but that exchange said it all. Things were going quite well.
As soon as Ryan and Rachel left, Small Knife and Buck sat down at a table in the corner.
“Buck, Small Knife,” Polly greeted them enthusiastically. “I’m so happy to see you.”
“I was just telling Small Knife about how great the food was here and he suggested we try it,” Buck told her.
“Um hmm,” Polly said, raising a brow in disbelief. She placed a menu in front of Buck and Small Knife. “I’ll be right back to see what you boys want.”
As Small Knife studied the menu, Buck glanced around the restaurant. He already knew what he wanted. Polly’s meat loaf was a work of art as far as he was concerned. As he continued to look around, he made note of the fact the restaurant was busy, as always.
Continuing his sweep of the crowd, he saw Elsa there, sitting at a table with a man he didn’t know. When he caught Elsa’s eye, he gave her a brief wave.
Quickly turning his attention back to Small Knife, he asked, “you know what you want?”
Small Knife frowned at him. “No,” he responded irritably. He had no idea what half the things on the menu were and what things he did recognize, did not sound even remotely appetizing.
Buck sighed. Small Knife had made little progress. He didn’t like the white world or anything in it, so he didn’t even bother to try, let alone learn. But it had to be done. He was just about to try to explain the items on the menu, when he heard a chair being pulled back. When he looked up, he saw Elsa sitting there.
“I have something for you,” she said cheerfully. She placed her bag in her lap and began rummaging through it. “Here it is,” she said. She pulled out a few sheets of crumpled paper and handed them to Buck.
When Buck looked blankly at her, she said, “my story. The one about Cody. Remember? You still want to read it, right?”
“You’re done so soon?” Buck exclaimed.
“Yeah, well,” Elsa shrugged. “I had fun writing it.”
“So who’s your friend?” Buck asked, surprised to hear the words. And even more surprised that they came from his mouth.
“My friend?” Elsa said, frowning slightly. “Oh you mean Ted.” She leaned close to Buck, who smelled the wine on her breath. “He’s my beau.” She giggled then.
She’s drunk, Buck realized. Okay, probably not drunk, but definitely tipsy.
Elsa saw the expression on his face. “Sorry, a few drinks makes the evening a little less dull.”
“So why are you here with him?” Small Knife interjected.
Buck glared at him. Now of all times he wants to make small talk? “This is Small Knife,” Buck muttered, shooting the boy a look, that he hoped would silence him. “Small Knife, this is Elsa.”
“Ah, your son,” Elsa chirped. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Likewise,” Small Knife responded, his eyes dancing. Buck was fuming. He obviously wanted this lady to go away, and the more Buck wanted this woman to leave, the more Small Knife wanted her to stay. This could be fun.
So Small Knife knew how to act in public after all. Instead of sitting close-mouthed and sullen like he usually was, he was smiling and engaging in polite small talk.
“So why are you with him?” Small Knife asked again. “Your beau is dull?”
“He’s not really my beau,” Elsa answered with a smile. “He just thinks he is. He is one of Polly’s suppliers and whenever he gets into town he asks me out to dinner.” She winked at Small Knife. “He also thinks he’s a lady’s man, but frankly I think he’d rather be out to dinner with your father.”
Buck made a strangled noise, while Small Knife laughed out loud.
This was simply too much. Elsa had obviously had more than a few glasses of wine. “I’ll read this over tonight,” Buck said quickly, trying desperately to end this conversation.
“If you do not like him, you should not go out to dinner with him,” Small Knife declared.
“I probably shouldn’t. He’s really not my type. But it’s easier just to let him treat me to dinner,” Elsa explained. “Otherwise he would just sit around the newspaper office all day, talking my ear off. If I say yes, he goes away and I only have to spend a few hours with him.”
“Small Knife,” Buck said, trying desperately to change the subject. “Do you know what you are ordering?”
“So what is your *type*?” Small Knife asked, ignoring Buck and wondering what this lady meant by type.
Elsa looked at Buck from the corner of her eye. “I like men who are a little more inept with women.”
Small Knife’s eye’s flickered back and forth, from Elsa to his father. Buck was staring at Elsa, the strangest expression on his face.
Elsa stood up then. “Get the meatloaf,” she told Small Knife. And then she strolled back to her table.
Polly quickly returned to the table. “You fellas ready to order?”
“Yes,” Small Knife said firmly. “I will have the meatloaf.”
“So will I,” Buck added.
“I like her,” Small Knife announced once Polly had left them. White people in general were nervous and awkward around him, but this one wasn’t. As far as white people went, she wasn’t as annoying as most. Not to mention the fact, her very presence disturbed his father. So Small Knife decided that anyone who made his father’s life less comfortable was worth knowing. After all, his father had ruined his life, so turnabout was fair play.
Buck didn’t answer. He was too busy pondering Elsa’s statement. What did she mean she liked men who were more inept with women?
Cody handed Buck the newspaper. “She did a good job,” he said, smiling. “I mean I liked the first version. But I guess she realized that it made me too ordinary.” Cody nudged Buck in the ribs. “Don’t you think?”
“Huh?” Buck said, raising his eyes from the newspaper. This wasn’t the article Elsa had given him on Friday. This story made no mention of Kid, Lou, Ike or Noah. Or even him. It did discuss Jimmy. And Cody. It went on and on about the greatness of Buffalo Bill.
“Ordinary?” Cody repeated patiently. “Don’t you think the first article makes me look too ordinary?”
“You are ordinary!” Buck burst out angrily. “You drink, eat, sleep, crap, just like the rest of us.”
Cody gaped at him. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Do you even know who you are anymore?” Buck shouted.
“I know exactly who I am,” Cody answered calmly. “And I know the difference between Buffalo Bill Cody and William F. Cody.”
Buck dropped his head. “I know.” He read a few more lines. Nothing he had told Elsa was in there. After all the stories he had told her, she hadn’t used any of them. He might as well not even have talked to her.
“You mad at me or her?” Cody asked. And Buck’s eyes flew from the article he had begun reading once more to Cody’s face.
“I know you were talking to her about me,” Cody continued.
“She wanted to know about the Express days,” Buck said simply.
Cody nodded. “I wasn’t the one who asked her to change it. I liked the first article.”
“So did I,” Buck said.
“Well, this explains what I heard in town this morning,” Cody said. When Buck didn’t question his statement, he continued, “I heard that Elsa gave Joseph Grimes her notice.”
“Elsa quit her job,” Cody said, nonplussed.
“Over this?” Buck exclaimed.
“Well from what I hear, it’s been a long time coming. Joseph Grimes and Elsa butt heads almost every day over every little thing.”
“Elsa’s leaving?” Buck asked softly.
“I don’t know if she’s leaving Rock Creek. I would imagine so. She has to work, she’s pretty much supporting her parents.” Cody furrowed his brow. “What do you care? You’ll be gone in a couple of months too.”
Yes, he would be gone. But, but... But what? Buck thought to himself.
It was then the front door opened, and Small Knife entered, pulling Elsa inside with him. “She was wandering around outside,” he announced.
“I wasn’t sure where the McClouds lived,” Elsa explained. “Then I saw Small Knife.”
“Sit down,” Cody said quickly, pulling out a chair for her at Kid and Lou’s kitchen table.
Elsa took a seat and glanced at the newspaper, still in Buck’s hands. “Did you read the article?” she asked. “Both of you?” she continued, but Cody noticed that the first question was directed solely at Buck.
“Yeah,” Cody answered, rising to his feet. He moved to where Small Knife was standing and grasped the boy’s upper arm. “Come on,” he told Small Knife. “I want you to show me your knife tricks.”
“Now?” Small Knife began to protest, he wanted to watch this exchange. From the way Elsa and his father were looking at each other, he knew it would be interesting. But he didn’t get to say much else as Cody had pulled him out the door.
Once the door had shut, Elsa asked, “did you read it?”
“Yes,” Buck replied. He carefully placed the newspaper on the table and stood up. Cody was wrong, there was no reason for Elsa to quit her job over this. She was just upset over the changes Joseph Grimes had asked her to make, nothing else, it had nothing to do with him. “If you’ll excuse me, I think I have some work to do.”
Elsa jumped to her feet, stepping directly in front of Buck. “I didn’t write it,” she said, the words flying out of her mouth. “Not a single word of it.”
“It has your name on it.”
“Mister Grimes read the first one,” Elsa said, still speaking rapidly. She was afraid Buck was going to walk out on their conversation at any minute. “You know, the one I showed you.”
When Buck looked impassively at her, Elsa continued. “He hated it. He said no one wanted to read about human beings, they wanted heroes. And they wanted their heroes to be handsome, kind, brave, in other words flawless. He asked me to change it and I refused, so he did.”
Buck watched her closely, waiting, for what he wasn’t sure, but he knew Elsa wasn’t finished speaking, not yet.
“I had to come here...,” Elsa voice trailed off. “I came here,” she began, her voice steady now. “Because I couldn’t let you think that I didn’t appreciate the time you spent with me,” She fixed her eyes on Buck. “I enjoyed every minute of our conversation.”
When Buck merely stared at her. Elsa added, “I didn’t even know he had changed it until today, when I read it in the paper.” She looked down at her feet. “I gave him my notice.”
“What?” Buck suddenly exclaimed. Cody was right, for once in his life, Cody knew what he was talking about.
“What I wrote was brilliant,” Elsa told him and Buck couldn’t help but smile. She sounded so vain and didn’t even appear to have a clue how very conceited her last statement was. She was too busy talking.
“Absolutely brilliant,” Elsa continued. “I painted a real, very human picture of a man most people don’t know, but they all think they do.”
“Joseph Grimes included,” Buck added.
Elsa nodded. She took a step toward the door. “I just wanted you to know.”
Buck simply stared at her as she opened the door and left.
A week after Elsa visited him at the McCloud ranch, Buck found Small Knife seated at the kitchen table, carefully writing in a leather bound journal. “What are you doing?” Buck called out.
“Writing,” Small Knife replied, his tone taking on the irritating quality so many twelve-year-olds had, the tone of superior being trying to explain the obvious to an idiot.
“I can see that,” Buck retorted. He glanced over Small Knife’s shoulder. He was writing about his father, his birth father, Star Seeker.
Small Knife quickly slammed the book shut. He wasn’t ready to show his adoptive father this, not yet anyway.
It was then Buck noted the journal. It had a handsome piece of leather covering the bound pages. “Where did you get that?” Buck asked.
“Elsa,” Small Knife repeated. “I went to see her this morning.” He went almost every morning to visit. She was a strange woman. But she never talked down to him or changed her behavior because he was twelve or because he was Indian. She treated him the same way she treated everyone else. Quite a refreshing change, Small Knife decided.
“Why did she give you that?” Buck asked.
“She said it was a farewell gift.” Small Knife looked carefully at Buck. “She’s leaving, you know.”
“I heard something like that,” Buck replied, trying to keep his voice casual.
Buck couldn’t help but frown as this particular piece of information sank in. What did it mean? Was Mr. Grimes making her life so unbearable? Was she really leaving over the article? Was it that important to her? Elsa was leaving! And much to his chagrin, Buck realized he didn’t want her to.
He had acknowledged quite some time ago that Elsa stirred something in him. He tried to tell himself it was because she made him feel, but that wasn’t it. He felt lots things, mostly anger or sorrow and after Small Knife came into his life, he began to feel love again. He loved that stubborn, sullen boy. He loved Small Knife like a son, the son he never thought he would have.
But what of Elsa? She had the power to make him feel so furious. Yet even when he felt like throttling her, he still wanted to be near her. And then there was Jensen. She would like Elsa, a fact which made all of this easier.
Small Knife stood up, lifting the journal from the table. He patted Buck on the shoulder. “Tell Elsa I’m already using her gift.”
“Huh?” Buck asked upon being interrupted from his reverie.
“Tell Elsa, oh never mind,” Small Knife said wearily. He moved toward the stairs. “If it helps any, I like her too.” With that statement, Small Knife scampered up the stairs.
Too? Buck wondered. Then he began to ponder Elsa’s proclamation to him in the restaurant, that she liked men who were more inept with women. Elsa cared about him? He should just accept this and be flattered. Yet even as he thought this, Buck had the overwhelming urge to race into town and sweep Elsa onto his horse and ride away. Of course this was ridiculous. But he could ask her to stay and see what happened. After all it was in her best interest to stay. She had to work as Buck knew she was supporting her parents. And Buck knew she didn’t have any other job prospects. She needed her job at the paper. Maybe Cody could help her out. If Buffalo Bill mentioned how much he liked the original article, Buck was sure Mr. Grimes wouldn’t let Elsa leave or at the very least he would re-hire her if she came back.
Buck shook himself mentally. Stop it, even Cody and Small Knife could see it. He wanted Elsa to stay, but not because it was better for her. He wanted her to stay so he could see her.
Maybe it wasn’t his lot in life to be alone. Buck had the strangest idea that he would go to the Indian territory and Elsa would go with him. Of course he would have to get to know her a whole lot better and she would have to want to go. But she was crazy enough to do such a thing, or at least Buck hoped she was.
Suddenly making up his mind, Buck ran from the house. He raced into the barn, saddled his horse and rode rapidly into town. And when he got there, he headed straight for the newspaper office. He found Elsa in the backroom, packing.
“Don’t leave,” Buck burst out upon seeing her. Elsa just stared at him. She looked at him as if he had gone insane and maybe he had. But he couldn’t just let her leave.
“Don’t quit your job over that article,” Buck continued.
“Why not?” Elsa stammered, her heart in her throat. Her mind was no longer on Joseph Grimes or even this particular conversation. All she was thinking about was Buck. She hadn’t even seen him since the day she stopped by the McCloud home to explain. After their conversation, she was sure that he hated her. But now here he was, acting like a hero from a romantic novel, asking her to stay. This handsome man whom she had only begun to scratch the layers on was asking her to stay. Her of all people!
“After all, I really don’t have much of a job,” she continued, her voice beginning to quaver slightly. “My own editor thinks I’m a fool and he has no respect for my work.” Not to mention everyone else, her parents, along with half of the town thought she was an old maid who worked because she had nothing else in her life. Didn’t her parents understand? Didn’t anyone? She could have been married long ago, but she chose a different path. A path she thought would fill her life. But lately her job had been little comfort to her.
Then much to her horror, she began to cry. She broke down just like a little girl. And Buck wrapped his arms around her. Elsa was sure that he thought this must be some kind of act, that she was crying to gain his sympathy. But it always happened, whenever she was angry, she began to cry. And there were so many reasons to be angry; at her life, the way it had turned out, at Joseph Grimes.
“I’m sorry,” she sniffled.
Buck didn’t answer, he just smoothed her long blond hair back.
“I should probably go now,” Elsa added, realizing how odd her words must sound. This was her place of work, but she felt as though someone should say something and that was the only thing she could think of at the moment.
But neither she nor Buck made a move to go anywhere. They both stood in the backroom, wrapped in each other’s arms.
Buck tipped Elsa’s head upward and kissed her gently. “Don’t quit your job.” If she quit, she would leave and for the first time in a very long time, he didn’t want a woman to leave. He just wanted to hold her close.
“I’ll ask Cody to fix it with Mister Grimes,” Buck said.
“There’s nothing here for me,” Elsa murmured.
“I’m here,” Buck replied and knew he sounded as conceited as Elsa did a few days ago.
“So?” Elsa asked, watching Buck carefully.
“I want you to stay, I want us to get to know each other.”
Elsa felt Buck’s fingers move slowly up and down her back. Maybe he wasn’t inept with women, she decided. But she had never really thought that. It was just so much fun to irritate him. When he was upset, Elsa could practically see the steam coming out of his ears.
“You want me to go crawling back to Mister Grimes?” Elsa asked.
“Grovel at his feet? And have the other half of town, the folks who aren’t already laughing at me, start chuckling?”
“All for you?”
Elsa smiled. “Okay,” she whispered before she fastened her mouth on Buck’s.
“This is nice,” Elsa said, leaning back on her elbows and watching as Small Knife ran down to the creek to join Carrie, who already had her shoes and stockings off and was splashing in the water. “I’ve never been here before.” Ryan and Rachel were behind them, as Ryan was carrying Rachel down the hill, taking his sweet time, apparently enjoying their time alone.
“You haven’t?” Buck asked in surprise. It always amazed him how little Elsa had seen of Rock Creek.
Elsa laughed in embarrassment. “You know what I’m like. My mother says I only care about things if I can write about them.”
Buck took her hand. “There’s nothing wrong in being ambitious.”
Elsa looked down at Buck’s hand. His skin was so smooth and such a beautiful shade of golden brown, a stark contrast to her own pale hand and seemingly permanently ink-stained fingers. She never expected to feel like this, so lighthearted, almost giddy. She knew herself and she knew her flaws. She freely admitted to herself that at first Buck Cross had been a means to an end. A very handsome means, but still a means. He was good friends with Buffalo Bill, a man who Elsa was sure would someday go down in the history books. But then she had spoken with Cody and although his stories entertained her, she had found herself more interested in what Buck had to say.
“I’m not *just* ambitious,” she said, a note of anxiety creeping into her voice. She didn’t want Buck to see her as the rest of the town did, a woman trying desperately to fit into a man’s world. She was that, but she was a woman too. A woman who wanted what other women had, a husband, a child, a home of her own. But she wanted to write as well. Write and be well known for what she had written. Gustaf, her former fiancee, never thought the two could blend, Elsa hoped that Buck did. Gustaf had wanted her to pick and so she had. Much to Gustaf’s astonishment she had not chosen him. Marrying Gustaf would mean giving up everything she had worked for as he had made it perfectly clear that his wife would cook, clean and care for him and his children. End of story.
Once Mr. Grimes’ letter had arrived, the choice had been easy. Elsa had told Gustaf their engagement was off and she prepared to move to Rock Creek. When Elsa told her parents, they could not conceal their disappointment, but Elsa was their child and they packed up their bags and moved to Rock Creek with her.
“I know,” Buck replied softly. She looked so vulnerable and scared right at this moment. He shook himself mentally. Don’t this again, he told himself. Don’t try to make her Jensen. He had done this once before. While living with the Ojibwa he had met a young woman who looked vaguely like Jensen. She had caught his eye and he had starting spending time with her. But Buck soon realized she was nothing like Jensen. She was loud and abrasive and cared for nothing but what marrying an Indian agent would mean to her.
Jensen wore her heart on her sleeve and whether she was happy or hurting, the whole world could see it. But that other woman wasn’t Jensen and neither was Elsa. Elsa was strong, intelligent and sure of herself, at least when it came to her work. But she was also funny and had a zest for life. She might not be Jensen, but Buck found himself caring for her.
“So how long have you lived here?” Buck asked.
“Eight months,” Elsa answered. “I applied for almost a dozen positions, but this was the only job I was accepted at.”
“Is that really so bad?” Buck said softly.
Elsa shook her head. “No.” She looked away then, feeling rather flustered and not quite sure why. She may not have been married like most women her age, but she wasn’t completely naive about men. Yet every time she got near Buck Cross, she became a babbling idiot.
“So why did you come here?” Elsa asked quickly, longing to deflect the attention from herself and back onto Buck.
“Me and a friend of mine heard about the Pony Express and joined up.”
“No, why did you leave the Kiowa? So few Indians do.”
“My mother died,” Buck said simply. He took a deep breath then. “So I decided I wanted to learn more about my father’s people.”
When Elsa frowned, he added, “my father was white.”
“White?” Elsa asked in surprise.
“My father raped my mother,” Buck said bitterly.
“And you still wanted to learn about the white man,” Elsa said, her voice filled with wonder.
“You didn’t think all white men were as bad as your father?” If she had been Buck, she would have stayed as far away from white people as humanly possible.
Buck picked up a blade of grass and began studying it. “My mother taught me that hating the man would only eat me up inside. She said she had let it go because what that man had done had given her me,” he said, unable to keep the pride he felt for his mother down. “I also decided it would be easier on my brother if I left. He was gonna be chief someday, he didn’t need someone like me around.”
“I’m sorry,” Elsa said, covering Buck’s hand with her own. “You must love your brother a lot.”
“I do,” Buck said. Then he corrected himself. “I did.”
“He died too?”
“I can’t even imagine how difficult life would be without a mother or a father. I mean...” She shut her mouth then. Yes, once again she was a babbling idiot. This was obviously a subject which pained Buck, yet here she was, furthering the discussion.
“So tell me about your folks,” Buck said gently.
“Well,” Elsa began. “You know I’m Swedish.”
“You should hate me,” Elsa burst out.
“Hate you? Why?” Buck asked, feeling rather bewildered at Elsa’s sudden outburst.
Elsa looked up. “Because of people like me, your people are being pushed out of their homes and shipped off to reservations.”
Buck didn’t answer.
“Buck,” Elsa said slowly.
“I don’t hate you,” Buck told her. “I hate what’s happening to my people. I hate the way we sign treaty after treaty, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. And we usually get it.”
“And that’s because of us,” Elsa cried. “We are coming in and taking your land because we didn’t have any of our own.”
“Yes, you are,” Buck answered.
“How can you stand to see it?” Elsa cried. And by extension, how could he stand to even look at her?
“I can’t stand to see it,” Buck said, his voice rising in anger. “I hate the way my people live. They are forced to stay in one place, they can’t hunt, they can’t support themselves. Children go to bed at night hungry and the warriors wage a futile war against the whites. That’s why my brother died. He couldn’t stand the idea of being stuck on some reservation.”
Elsa watched him, her face filled with pain. “I’m sorry.”
“But you didn’t have anything to do with any of that. What’s happening to my people isn’t right and I don’t know how to stop it, but it’s going to happen, whether I see you or not. All I can do now is try to make it easier for them,” Buck said, taking a deep breath.
He took Elsa’s hand. “I made a choice when I left my people. I left initially to learn about my father and stayed to make a living. But I continued to stay for two reasons. One was I finally found family. And the other was, leaving my people changed me.
“I had my doubts when I thought about going back to fight for my people. I never fit in before and I knew I wouldn’t the second time either, but this time it wouldn’t be because I was half-white, it would be because living with the whites had made me even more different. I guess my brother saw that, because when I returned, he sent me away. So I stayed, tried to make a life for myself and eventually I decided to try to work within the system the white man has set up to help the Indian.”
“That’s a little like my folks,” Elsa said softly. “They say it’s different here too. Here you aren’t what you are born, here you get a chance to make yourself into what you want to be.”
Buck kissed the back of Elsa’s hand.
Elsa closed her eyes, letting the thrill of both the kiss and the words pass through her as Buck continued to speak. “And what I want is to be with you,” he said. “So tell me about your folks.”
Elsa smiled, thinking about Anna and Sven Stigell. “My mother is the most annoying woman on the planet. She is always telling what to do and complaining when I do it that it’s not done right.”
Buck grinned. The way Elsa spoke, someone might mistake her words as hatred, but he heard the affection in her voice.
“While my father is a worrier. He worries about me and he works too hard trying to keep a roof over our heads,” she continued.
“Don’t you make enough at the paper?” Buck asked, a quizzical look crossing his face.
“He won’t take my money.”
“Really?” Buck’s voice rose in surprise. He thought that Elsa was supporting her parents.
Elsa nodded. “I give it to my mother and she uses it for food, and whatever else we need to buy. But my father won’t touch it.”
“Is it because you’re a woman?” Buck asked. Maybe that’s why Elsa was so determined to make it as a journalist. She wasn’t just out to show the world, maybe she was trying to show her father her worth.
Elsa shrugged. “That’s probably part of it. But most of it is because he is my father. He’s supposed to provide for me, not the other way around.” She paused. “It’s hard to explain.”
Buck watched her closely. She seemed to be struggling with something. But he did not push her. She would have to decide if and when she told him about what was bothering her.
Elsa looked up, she owed Buck this. “For my father it’s important that I be taken care of. He worries about me. But I think he worries about my mother and himself too.”
“What do you mean?”
“Part of the problem is I’m not a boy,” Elsa began slowly. “If I was the only son, it would be easy. My parents would have a place to live once they got older and as a son it would be my duty to care for them. But as a girl, my father doesn’t want me to care for him. I think he feels it would be my husband’s place.” Elsa stopped then. This conversation was getting downright embarrassing. They weren’t even close to being husband and wife, yet here they were talking about taking care of her parents. Gustaf would have gladly taken in her parents. But would Buck? Elsa knew Buck had no interest in farming or the like. He was going to the Indian Territory. Elsa grimaced, imaging her parents on an Indian reservation.
Buck reached a hand up to pull a leaf from Elsa’s hair. “Family is important to the Kiowa too,” he said.
Elsa smiled then. “People are all the same, I guess.”