Webmaster Note: This fic was formerly archived on another website and was moved to blackraptor in October 2008
- 1 -
Buck watched the smudge of dust until it disappeared over the horizon. He could recall only two times in his life when he had felt so bereft, the first when his mother died and the second when his best friend's wife and son followed her. That friend now sat motionless a few yards away, his black gelding as still as himself. There could be no comparison between his loss and this loss - Buck knew that and yet still his heart ached.
'You all right?'
It was strange how much concern could be conveyed by three quietly spoken words.
'Yeah.' He rubbed his nose self-consciously with the back of his hand. 'Sure.'
'You did the best you could.'
'I hope it's enough.'
'She's got a start. It's up to her what she does with it.'
Buck nodded. 'I appreciate... everything...'
Chris gave one of his warmest smiles. 'I know.'
'You reckon it's sad? An old reprobate like me trying to steal another man's daughter?'
'More like borrow.' Another smile. 'Let's head on back before you get maudlin on me.'
Buck heard the irony in the remark: Chris didn't need to be told that it would be a change for him to be the one doing the comforting while a friend wallowed in morose memories. He turned his gray townwards and urged him into a lope. Besides, it was up to him what he made of his memories. There was no need for them to be morose.
- 2 -
'Maybe it's just... well... you know - playing on your mind.'
Buck had known that JD was trying to make him feel better and failing dismally. They'd dropped behind the others, his horse's plodding pace suiting his mood and JD riding alongside to keep him company. He appreciated the boy's concern but it wasn't helping.
'I told you already,' he said firmly. 'I'm not pining.'
'I know. But still... I mean, you wanted to marry her after all.'
'Yeah, well, that was before I found out what it was like being Mr. Perkins.'
Hearing the bitterness in his words, he wished he'd kept his mouth shut. It was pointless to claim to be over something when he so obviously wasn't. The discovery, thanks to another of JD's efforts to comfort him, that all his friends had expected his impending marriage to fail hadn't helped his mood. They'd all thought his appetite for female company would be the rock on which it foundered. Instead, he supposed, it was his male pride that ended his betrothal long before its culmination in a wedding.
JD said nothing, although probably only because he'd already voiced his opinion on the matter. Buck had been given a job on the campaign trail of Louisa's new employer, and JD thought he should have given himself more than two weeks to settle into it.
'It was never gonna work,' he protested against the unspoken suggestion. 'I was just some hired hand. They didn't need me. Louisa didn't need me.'
JD looked across sharply. 'Is that what this is about? Her loving you wasn't enough?'
Buck stared down at the pommel of his saddle. After a long hesitation, he admitted it.
'A man likes to be needed.'
JD frowned. 'Casey doesn't need me.' He seemed to ponder before adding, 'I kinda like it that she doesn't, now I think on it.'
Buck considered that and realized it was true. Casey was just like her aunt, as independent as you please, and JD was totally comfortable with her being that way.
'Well,' he said. 'You're younger than I am - can't teach an old dog new tricks.'
'You're an Easterner too. Out here-'
'Out here nothing, Buck. If you need to be needed, fair enough, but don't make out it's because of your age or where you come from.'
Buck knew from JD's impatience that he was getting tired of having every effort he made to help thrown back in his face. But, preferring to be left alone anyway, he didn't try to make peace. JD shook his head and urged his horse into a faster walk to catch up with Josiah. They couldn't do any better on the loose shale that covered the spine of rock they were following.
Settling back to nurse his misery in solitude, Buck found a perverse sense of satisfaction in managing to chase away one of his most loyal friends. Some time passed before he reined back and listened intently, as he had a dozen times in the previous day or two. It was JD who looked around first, casually to start with, probably assuming Buck had stopped to answer the call of nature, and then with a shake of his head when he realized that their slow progress was about to be interrupted again. He called ahead to the others and then rode back to Buck's side.
'I swear I heard something,' Buck said firmly.
Seeing their uneasy glances, he knew they were starting to doubt him. He'd become increasingly edgy since he'd been hearing the mysterious sounds, positive they were being shadowed but then confounded by the total absence of any evidence. The trouble was that he was always by himself when he heard a noise - no one else had seen or heard anything out of place.
Not for the first time, Chris tried to soothe him.
'Come on, Buck. Couple of weeks on the trail, you're just getting jumpy. Vin already checked.'
That was true. Vin had checked every time, never openly questioning Buck's senses even though his checks grew swifter with each false alarm. Buck stared at the ground, unconvinced but aware that they had every right to question his state of mind. He wasn't himself and, as Chris had pointed out several times, they had completed their errand without trouble and there was no reason for anyone to follow them in the unsettled country that they were crossing. Only days from home, they were approaching town across a mountain range that was useless for ranching or homesteading. Only men as experienced as they were would even use it for a shortcut.
JD had been the slowest to dismiss his anxiety, coming up with suggestions every few hours, from a bounty hunter after Vin to bandits too afraid to move in on them while they rode together. After a while, though, even he had fallen into the same strained silence as the others.
Eventually, Buck shrugged and resumed the tortuous progress along the loose stones that passed for a trail. It was several hours before they stopped again, this time to strike camp. It was still early but a small spring tumbling out of a crack in the rock face made the spot too tempting to pass by. They were settled with cups of coffee when a sound made them look up as one. Six pairs of eyes followed his as he scanned the rock-strewn landscape above but there was no sign of life.
'Well,' Chris said in a low voice. 'We all heard it that time.'
'Coulda been an animal.'
Vin's tone revealed that he did not believe his own explanation. In a landscape as remote as this one, only a predator would come anywhere near them. Even that was unlikely and it would be an unusual predator if it stalked its prey for days in advance.
Buck pondered their situation. As Chris had said earlier, they had already tried to check his suspicions. If someone was watching them, that person was fast and agile. Another attempt to surround their pursuer seemed doomed to failure and something else had been puzzling him.
'If there is someone, I don't see how he can be on a horse. The terrain's too noisy and how could Vin not find a trace?'
Vin considered the question at length before inclining his head in agreement. 'You got a point but who the hell would be up here on foot? It must be two weeks walk from anywhere.'
'Horse might've took a fall,' JD offered.
The trails were treacherous and it would be easy to hit trouble of that sort.
Josiah nodded. 'Could be someone needs help but too scared to ask.'
Buck hadn't thought of that. Even slow starvation might seem better than asking seven armed men for help. The person could be following them, trying to decide whether they could be trusted. Maybe he'd seemed the most approachable for some reason, making the mysterious observer come closer when he was alone, trying to pluck up the courage to speak to him. Of course, his response to being watched had been to draw his gun - hardly reassuring.
Without offering an opinion, Chris went over and rummaged in his saddlebag.
Buck watched, recognizing the signs of an idea and wondering what his friend had in mind. Chris took out a paper bag and passed it round, smiling at the bemused expressions that greeted the offer. Inside the bag were pieces of hard candy that he must have bought for Billy. Still baffled, Buck took a small, red-and-white striped square. Chris sucked on a piece for a while, and then conspicuously tucked the bag into his coat pocket and set off back along the trail.
Only a slight gesture of his right hand told Buck to follow at a distance.
'What the heck's he up to?' JD muttered through a mouthful of spit.
'Candy's sugar. You were hungry, you'd jump at it,' Nathan said in a wet whisper.
Buck kept close to the rock face when he followed Chris, confident that he couldn't be seen from above. Guessing what Chris planned to do, he waited for the bag of candy to fall from the pocket. As soon as it did, he pressed himself against the rock and peered along it.
Chris walked on another twenty paces or so, stopping only when a curve in the trail hid him from view. Buck knew that he, too, would be waiting and listening. If the plan was going to work, it would be soon, since their pursuer would not expect him to be long over relieving himself.
When it came, the sound was surprisingly faint. Only a person with long experience of the mountains could approach so nearly silently on the rough terrain that had even set Vin cursing a time or two. Buck closed in cautiously, watching Chris match his movements. Then, getting his first glimpse of their quarry, he stopped abruptly. Again, Chris did the same.
All their speculations had been wide of the mark. Hearing their approach, a small figure clad in skins looked, panic-stricken, from him to Chris and back again. Then, recovering its wits, it scrambled hastily up the rocks, sacrificing safety for speed.
After only a second's hesitation, Buck gave chase. Nimble leaps took his quarry from one boulder to the next, leaving him scrabbling in its wake and sending stones rattling in every direction. A shot whistled past him, triggering a small slide of rocks designed to delay without wounding.
Trusting Chris's judgment, Buck raced to close the gap while their prey cowered. Just as he reached it, he heard his friends moving below, drawn by the shot. He could imagine their astonishment as, instead of a dignified arrest, he grabbed at the figure trying to scurry away between the boulders. He dragged it out by an ankle, ducking to avoid fierce kicks from the other foot. Only Chris's arrival, and judiciously positioned knee, enabled him to trade the leg for a firm grip on two sinewy biceps. Flinching from the pain of the pinched muscles, his prisoner became still.
Chris stood up and pushed back the matted brown hair. Eyes widening as he inspected the features he had revealed, he extended his examination to the body below.
Buck saw his surprise and raised his eyebrows. When Chris flicked his eyes back to the chest, he looked over his captive's shoulder, then slackened his grip in disbelief. In a fraction of a second, she had wrenched free but there was no escape in the confined space between the boulders.
Chris caught her hair, clearly reluctant to hurt her but determined not to let her go. She wriggled and kicked, trying to scratch and bite, but his reach exceeded hers and she eventually gave up. Trading the handful of hair for a firm grip on one of her wrists, he forced her down to the trail.
Even while she was still struggling against him, her lively blue eyes were darting to the paper bag lying on the ground. Nathan picked it up and held it out. She stared at him, eyes round, but made no move towards it. In fact, she was no longer moving at all. Chris released his grip slowly. With all seven of them surrounding her, it seemed unlikely she would get far if she tried to run again.
'Maybe she's never seen a Negro,' Josiah said.
He took the bag from Nathan and offered it again. This time, she looked inside. He kept still until, eventually, she reached in and took a piece of the candy. She examined it suspiciously but curiosity quickly overcame caution and it was only seconds before she put it into her mouth.
Her first reaction was pure amazement, which was hardly surprising given that a bees' nest was the only natural source of such sweetness and the barren landscape didn't look a likely home to one. Her shock slowly gave way to a more complex emotion, one that Buck couldn't interpret. He thought it might be nostalgia - perhaps she had tasted candy before... a long time ago.
Vin was shaking his head. 'Some bounty hunter, JD.'
'Least I never said Buck was hearing things,' JD retaliated, his pleasure evident at bring the one whose faith in his friend had remained firmest. 'Ain't like I was gonna guess it was a wild girl. You must still have your animal magnetism though, Buck. This time it landed you a real animal.'
Barely recovered from the shock of inadvertently handling a woman so roughly, Buck rewarded the loyalty with a sharp rebuke.
'Don't talk about her that way. She's a girl, not an animal.'
'You sure about that?' Chris asked quietly.
Buck stepped forward slowly, extending his hand in what he hoped was a reassuring gesture.
'Hello, sweetheart. What's your name?'
There was no glimmer of understanding in her face and yet her eyes were as sharp as any he had seen. He was sure she could not be simple. Poorly adapted to the wilderness, human beings were physically outmatched by most animals. To survive in good health, she had to be resourceful.
'What do you think, Vin? Wouldn't be easy to live alone out here, would it?'
Vin gave the question some thought before admitting, 'We don't know she's on her own but, yeah, I'd say she's gotta have her wits about her.'
The reply seemed to suggest the possibility that she was part of some unknown tribe. Buck didn't know a lot about Indians but even the most cursory examination told him that she was not from the reservation. He'd taken her for white, even though her skin was as brown as any Indian, partly because of her blue eyes and partly because of her bone structure.
'Do you think she might be an Indian then?'
'Don't reckon so. Not like any I ever saw, anyhow.'
The girl no longer seemed to be thinking about escape. The curiosity with which she examined them - their clothes, their guns and particularly their beard growth - seemed to confirm the assumption that she was alone. When Chris casually led them back to their camp, she followed a few paces behind Buck. They returned to their positions, letting her explore at her own pace.
The final indication that she was not part of any tribe came in her fascination with the fire. Buck suspected she'd seen one before, because she showed no surprise at it being hot, but he was sure that it wasn't part of her daily life, which it was for any Indian. She stared into the flames for several minutes, slowly moving her hand closer until the heat made her withdraw it.
Josiah brewed fresh coffee, replenished their cups and offered his to her. She watched them drink, followed suit, and then sprayed them with the hot, bitter liquid.
'I don't believe the young lady is a coffee-drinker,' Ezra remarked coolly, brushing his sleeve.
'What the heck are we gonna do with her?' JD wanted to know.
'Take her back to town, I guess,' Chris said.
Vin gave him a sharp look.
'You ask me, there ain't much in town for her. She seems to be doin' all right out here.'
'All right?' Ezra echoed weakly. 'You call this existence, clothed in animal skins and incapable of speech, doing all right?'
There was an edge to Vin's voice as he said, 'What if she can't fit into town?'
Buck understood the emotions stirring below Vin's normally calm exterior, reflecting the experience of a man who lived with a foot in two worlds, and he knew it was a fair question. Even so, he was more inclined to agree with Ezra. He couldn't believe that the girl would really prefer to wander the wilderness alone, if she had any other life to compare it with. A transition would be hard, but that did not mean it was impossible.
With his usual, natural, authority, Chris made the decision.
'Give it some time. Maybe we can figure out what she wants. Meanwhile, how about some supper, Vin?'
Vin nodded and stood up. The girl watched him check his gun over and then grabbed Buck by the arm. She seemed to want him to go with Vin.
'No, sweetheart. Vin don't need any help.'
She scrambled to her feet and tried to pull him up after her.
He shook his head. 'We'll stay here.'
Even knowing she could not understand, it was difficult to eschew the habit of speech. He pointed to himself, and her, and then the ground by the fire. She only pulled harder.
He looked up at Vin.
Vin shrugged. He showed no sign of curiosity but Buck thought that must be the reason for him accepting company when he would almost certainly do better alone.
The girl dragged Buck along the trail. He had no idea what she had in mind but there was no doubt that she wanted them to follow her. She briskly covered about a half a mile, and then proceeded more cautiously. When they joined her behind a large rock, he saw beyond it a small flock of wild turkeys. Beside him, Vin picked a target and took aim. His shot took the head clean off a young male that would be no great loss to the group. The others fled, struggling awkwardly from a clumsy run into low flight. Buck smiled at the girl, while Vin collected their prize.
'Strike it lucky?' Nathan asked when they returned so soon, the turkey swinging at Vin's side.
Buck shook his head. 'She took us right to them. Must've been one of their regular roosts.'
Vin set about plucking and gutting the bird, ready to roast it, while the girl watched, bemused. When he threw the giblets to one side and then turned away to skewer the carcass, she picked up the bloody liver and began to eat it. Buck's stomach turned but he made no move to intervene. Unfortunately, it didn't occur to him that JD might.
She scurried outside the circle they made around the fire and stared back, confused and fearful.
'Careful, JD. You scared her.'
'Darn it, Buck. She can't go round eating raw meat.'
Vin laughed. 'Reckon she's been eatin' it for a good many years now.'
'You may have been right earlier, Mr. Tanner,' Ezra said mildly. 'Her table manners certainly need work.'
Vin smiled to the girl. 'C'mon. Eat what y'like. We ain't gonna hurt you.'
She came as far as Buck's side, but did not touch the liver again.
The turkey promised a fine meal but its plump body was a long time in cooking. Buck stretched out, relaxing muscles tired both by the vigilance demanded by the mountain trails and by the tension of the preceding days. Solving the mystery of the strange noises had relieved him of one worry but another, for the girl herself, was slowly taking its place.
Ezra produced a deck of cards and began to shuffle. He often seemed to prefer his hands to be occupied, whether to alleviate the boredom when their duties required a vigil or to calm his nerves when a showdown loomed.
The girl's eyes followed the cards flying through his fingers.
'Draw poker?' he inquired facetiously. He dealt a few cards face up, teasing her good-naturedly.
Buck started. Having begun to assume that she couldn't speak, the word pronounced so clearly and confidently came as a shock.
'What did you say?' Ezra asked.
When she did not reply, he fanned out the cards. The last two were a pair of queens. He resumed his dealing.
He looked again. Two fives.
'That's an English children's game,' Josiah said. 'I've seen missionaries' kids play it.'
Of all the things she might have said, she picked that. No words to greet them, or tell them to leave her alone? None for food or fire? But a child's game? Buck wasn't sure what that meant.
'Could she have been up here since she was a little kid? And that's all she remembers.'
Josiah nodded thoughtfully. 'With a game like that, it's the same thing over and over. Might stick in the mind, when everything else has faded away.'
Ezra restacked the deck and held it out to the girl. She took it and dealt it clumsily into two piles. She took one pile, laid a card face up and waited for him to do the same. He did so, waited for her to cover it and then repeated his play. She beat him by half a second when he laid the first pair, eagerly adding the pile to the cards in her hand.
They played through a whole game, which she won easily, and then Ezra retrieved the deck. He laid out winning poker hands, and arranged them in hierarchical order. She studied them closely. He collected the cards, shuffled the deck and dealt four hands. Buck joined him, Nathan and Josiah in a game, playing with bets and showing their cards to her as they did so.
Passing her a handful of coins, Ezra dealt her in. Her frustration was visible when she realized they would no longer show her their cards but she aped their play. When Buck and Nathan had folded, she played on. Josiah took the pot but Ezra was more interested in examining her hand. She had three of a kind, useless against Josiah's full house, but still evidence that she'd understood that she needed to collect cards to match one of the hands he'd laid out.
Ezra raised his eyebrows at Chris. She had not followed the rules properly, and she threw coins in with no regard to denomination, but she had grasped the general idea.
'The young lady is far from simple.'
When the girl returned to his side, Buck reached over and gently straightened her skimpy attire. He'd told JD once that women were always easy in his company, and that was true, but that didn't seem enough to explain the trust this one showed. Given that she couldn't understand a word he said, why should she judge him any more worthy of it than the others?
Chris was watching, his expression halfway between a grin and a frown.
'Vin's right, you know. If we take her back, somebody's gonna have to take good care of her. Most men ain't as gentlemanly as that.'
Buck nodded. Even in her current state, all too many men would exploit her. Wash off the dirt and trim her hair, they'd be lining up. Some people would surely expect him to be at the front of the line but he would never take advantage of a girl who could not understand his advances.
When the bird was finally cooked, Vin cut off a generous slice for her. She reached for it but he caught a hold of her wrist first and touched her finger to the hot meat. Understanding, she held a corner and nibbled tentatively.
'Tastes better cooked, don't it?' JD asked.
The girl's frown suggested she wasn't convinced of that but she carried on eating. When Vin had done the rounds once, he passed her another slice.
'Ahe'ee.' She spoke the word timidly.
He looked up sharply, first at her and then at the others.
'English card games, Navajo thanks,' Josiah mused. 'It must have been a twisted path that brought her up here.' He considered further. 'She must have some kind of shelter, a cave maybe. There could be things there that'd tell us more.'
Buck nodded. Picking a patch of dust within the circle of firelight, he drew a clear depiction of a cave mouth. He pointed to it, and then to the girl, and arched his eyebrows enquiringly. She studied him, making him unsure whether she did not understand what he was asking or was not willing to reveal where she lived. Finally she nodded, crawled forward and drew a circle sitting on a line, with more lines at intervals around the circle. He stared at it for a few seconds before recognizing the childlike representation of the sun, with a halo of sunbeams around it.
He looked at Chris.
'In the morning.'
Chris nodded. 'Fair enough.'
When she settled down to sleep only a foot away from him, Buck grinned at his friends' amusement. He still had no idea why she had attached herself to him but would have looked out for her even if she hadn't. His thoughts drifted back to Chris's comment about gentlemanly behavior. Although he had no intention of acting on his desire, he was far from immune to the proximity of a nearly naked woman and he doubted that he was the only one to feel a most ungentlemanly stirring at the sight of her uncovered breast. Meanwhile, oblivious to all of that, she snuggled closer, as if being near him would make her safe. She threaded a finger through one of the buttonholes on his jacket, effectively preventing him from leaving without waking her.
- 3 -
Buck woke soon after dawn to find the girl clutching his arm tightly. He smiled at her peaceful expression, then chuckled when he saw Chris watching from ten feet or so beyond her.
'Looks like you're stuck with her,' Chris said. 'She may not let us leave her up here.'
From behind Buck, Vin asked, 'You still think we should take her back?'
'You still think we shouldn't?' Buck countered.
'I don't rightly know. It looks like she learns real fast. I reckon she'd get the hang of things.'
'Well, let's see if that cave tells us anything,' Chris suggested.
They were soon on their way, following the girl as she led them further into the mountains. She clearly knew the range like the back of her hand, never pausing to consider her route and never faltering on the steep climbs and loose stones in her path. When she reached a trickle of water spilling over a jutting rock, she ducked under it and rinsed herself unselfconsciously. Watching her hands running over her skin, and his friends' uneasy responses to the sight, reminded Buck again that any reintroduction to supposedly civilized society would need care.
Unaware of their reactions, she began to swarm up the rock face. Buck took the lead, tethering his horse by the cascade and following her on foot. She was close to the summit by the time that she disappeared from view. When he reached the spot, he found a ledge and, at the back, a cave mouth much like the one he had drawn. The pelts pegged out to dry made it clear that it was her base. She stood by the entrance and spread her hands, as if to ask: what now?
Buck went inside and waited for his eyes to adjust to the low light level. A hole in the rocks above admitted a shaft of morning sunshine into the center of the cave. Her only furniture consisted of boxes and crates that looked as if they might once have held supplies but there was an astonishing amount of clutter, not rubbish or waste products but deliberately accumulated possessions. One wall was almost entirely obscured by colorful feathers hanging from twisted plant fibers. Every ledge around the cave was adorned with pretty or oddly shaped pebbles.
He saw it for the home it was and wondered at the amount of effort she had been able to devote to unnecessary activities. That told him two things: firstly that she survived easily, with time to spare for leisure pursuits, and secondly that, while she might be uneducated, she had the capacity to appreciate the beauty of the world around her.
He found what he was looking for near the back of the cave, a small chest with a locking hasp. He moved it into the shaft of light and, sensitive that he was taking liberties with her things, looked to her for permission before opening it. She knelt beside him and opened the lid.
While the others looked around, he began to examine the contents. The first item was a framed portrait of a kindly looking couple, probably taken on their wedding day. The moment he looked at it, he saw why the girl had formed such an attachment to him. The man bore a striking resemblance to him: tall, dark and lean, with narrow eyes that could easily have been blue and even a mustache trimmed in the same style. The woman by his side had lighter hair and pale eyes, which shone with a kindness that even the stiffness of the photograph could not hide.
The girl took the portrait, ran a hand over the glass and pointed to the man.
He felt a choking sensation in his throat at the love and longing in that single word. The girl's father must have been a good man, if the way she'd missed him was anything to go by. He pointed at the woman but the girl said nothing.
'Mama?' he asked.
She did not react. Perhaps she had never known her mother.
The second item was a child's notebook. That surprised him, given that most children wrote their lessons on slates that could be used over and over again. A notebook cost money. On the first page, a single word was written in large letters: AMY. He guessed she had only been four or five years old when she wrote it. Underneath, in flowing script, was written Amy Barton, Red Lake, Kansas. He flicked through the book, finding it contained naïve drawings of various animals with their names written underneath in the confident adult hand. He looked at her.
She started, clearly recognizing the name. He pointed at the photograph again.
'Papa,' she repeated.
He pointed at her. 'Amy.' He pointed at himself. 'Buck.'
'Bu-ck,' she said slowly.
He smiled. 'That's right, sweetheart. Buck.'
'Buck,' she said again, more confidently.
He introduced the other men, surprised how quickly she memorized them all. It seemed that her lack of speech had more to do with a lack of stimulation than a lack of ability.
The other items in the chest did not tell him much. He soon realized it was Amy's personal luggage, containing outgrown clothes, toys and treasures. It held nothing that would help them piece together her story. He was about to close it when something caught his eye. He pulled out a string of beads, similar to the one that Josiah wore around his neck. Amy must have spotted the similarity too, because she stood up and fingered Josiah's beads curiously.
Buck held up her beads with an inquiring look.
He looked at Vin, who said, 'Snow in Navajo. Man's name too.'
'Where's Yas?' Buck asked, not expecting her to understand.
She snatched the beads back, threw them into the chest and slammed the lid. Crumpled over it, she whispered, 'Yas gone. Papa gone. Buck '
Remembering how she had gripped his arm, even in sleep, he dropped down beside her.
'Buck's not going anywhere. Don't you fret, sweetheart.'
He smoothed her hair and considered what he'd got from her.
'Maybe she hasn't ever gone far. Could be they died hereabouts.'
Chris picked up his thread. 'Might be papers and suchlike, with their things.'
Buck drew Amy to her feet and asked again. 'Where's Yas?'
He touched the corner of his eye. 'Show me.'
She chewed a finger, seeming reluctant to obey him this time. Eventually, she turned and led them out of the cave. They followed her to the summit above, with Buck wondering if she had understood his request. Soon it was clear that she had.
In an alcove in the rock, overlooking the country below, a skeleton sat cross-legged. Tattered rags hung from its bones. They had no way of knowing how long it had sat there but clearly many years. Amy looked at it, a mixture of sadness and tenderness on her face. There was no doubt she had loved the Navajo. Buck wasn't particularly surprised by that, never having subscribed to popular notions about Indians and seeing nothing but honor and dignity in Chanu's people.
Nathan inspected the remains closely, without touching them or disturbing the man's rest. He pointed to the swollen joints and worn teeth.
'Reckon he was an old fella. Mebbe he lived up here, found her and took care of her.'
Buck turned back to Amy. 'Where's Papa? Show me.'
She sighed and led them again. This time their journey was longer. After an hour, they wished they had collected their horses first, conscious that every step they took had to be repeated on the way back. She took them all the way down the far side of the range, leaving the rocks and heading across the plain.
'She could be taking us anywhere. You never said how far, Bucklin.'
'You're not saying she can out-walk you, are you, Vin?'
They needn't have worried. Amy was suddenly swallowed by the landscape and, when they caught up, she was waiting in a hollow beside the rotted remains of an overturned wagon. On the far side of the depression, a crude wooden cross stuck out of the dirt.
She pointed to it. 'Papa.'
Buck rested a hand on her shoulder for a moment, then began to examine the scene with the others. In the wagon, they found a locked chest, larger than the one in Amy's cave, presumably belonging to her father. That apart, the wagon was full of the paraphernalia one would expect a man to carry when taking his small daughter to start a new life. There was no food but the boxes and crates in the cave accounted for that. There was no sign of any violence, and the chest did not appear to have been disturbed, but the fate of the horses was a mystery.
They unloaded the chest and Chris shot off the lock. Amy watched, her face impassive, her feelings about the destruction unreadable. On top of neatly folded clothes lay a diary and a folder of papers. Josiah and Nathan examined the diary, while Buck studied the papers with Chris. It was only minutes before they had a good idea of what had happened.
Chris summarized the documents.
'Name was William Barton, came over from England after his wife died in childbirth, wanted to start over. Spent a few years in Kansas then decided to move further west when the country opened up. There's nigh on two hundred bucks here.'
Nathan reported the closing entries of the diary.
'Seems like he got sick with a fever a couple of weeks after passing through the last settlement. Didn't know whether to turn back or keep going. Amy was only four. That was 1864, so she's nineteen now.'
Meanwhile, Vin had been inspecting the scene.
'Maybe he passed out, horses strayed into the hollow, broke the harness and wandered off. He coulda died of the fever or got crushed under the wagon. The Navajo musta buried him how he'd seen white folk do it.'
They contemplated the sad scene, then looked at the girl.
'Four years old,' Ezra said pityingly. 'So all she remembers is Papa and snap.'
'I reckon the Navajo's been dead a good while too,' Nathan speculated. 'She don't seem to remember many words at all, or how to make fire come to that. Seems amazin' she survived, but I guess she had plenty of supplies to start her off.'
In the ensuing silence, Buck recalled his thoughts of the previous night and began to examine Barton's clothes. The impression of height from the photograph was confirmed by the clothes. The jackets and trousers were far too big for Amy's slight figure. The shirts were more promising and he selected three of the closest fitting, knowing that he for one would rest easier when her body was better covered. He held one up, judged it would do and handed it to her.
Amy examined the shirt and then her own makeshift attire. She looked again at what they wore and her own bare arms and legs. Before he realized what she was doing, she'd untied the rawhide thong at her waist and lifted the whole lot over her head. All seven of them turned away as one, Buck raising a hand to his forehead in despair at achieving the precise opposite of what he had intended.
'Good work,' Ezra said. 'I see that you haven't lost your touch.'
Although Buck could see the funny side of the situation, it was another indicator of the sort of problems Amy could cause in town. Still, at least, when they turned back, she looked more like a normal woman. She couldn't manage the buttons, so Buck fastened the shirt neatly up to her neck while she raked her fingers through her hair. The white cotton fell to just above her knees, scandalous but a great improvement on what she had been wearing.
He took the other two shirts, figuring that she might need a change before they made other arrangements, and then closed the chest and lifted it back into the wagon with Chris's help, keeping the documents and money for her. When they headed back to the mountains, she followed a few paces behind. He looked back often to check she was staying with them, hastily averting his eyes when one glance revealed her squatting, in full view, to relieve herself.
JD frowned, 'She went out of the camp last night, didn't she?'
Vin said, 'Most animals don't foul their own place.' Perhaps realizing how harsh that sounded, he added, 'That's probably where she learned stuff.'
'That could be interesting.' Ezra gave Buck an eloquent look.
Buck had already been troubled by the girl's predicament and Ezra's words only fuelled his anxiety. He trudged along, deep in thought, wondering how they could salvage some kind of life for her, with their limited resources in a frontier town with so little to offer. It wasn't until they reached the cave that he noticed how downcast she had become. She pushed the chest back into its corner, took a battered toy dog out of it and then curled up at the back of the cave.
Seeing their customary purposefulness from her point of view, he guessed she thought they'd lost interest in her once she'd given up her story. He went over to reassure her, taking her hand and leading her to where the others were gathered on the ledge. The dog still dangled from her other hand, incongruous in the grip of a young woman. He squatted and began to draw in the dust, producing a fair representation of a town and examining her face for any sign of recognition. He wondered if she could remember the towns she must have passed through in her first four years. Seeing no understanding there, he took a figurative step back and drew a simple house.
She looked at that for perhaps half a minute, clearly trying to place the familiar outline. Then, suddenly, she spoke in the lilting cadence of a nursery rhyme.
'Amy Barton, Red Lake, Kansas.'
He was amazed that she could recall that from so long ago.
Josiah smiled. 'Must be the only house she remembers.'
When Buck looked up at Chris, he recognized in his old friend's rigid facial muscles a struggle to control a memory. When Chris spoke there was only a faint trace of the conflict in his voice.
'Remember how Sarah taught Adam to say his name and where he came from, in case he got lost? Just like that?'
Buck nodded, savoring the bittersweet memory for a moment before returning to his drawing.
'Town.' Waving his arms expressively, he tried to indicate that the buildings were like the house she recognized and then to convey that they all lived in the town. He pointed to her, pointed to the town and then arched his eyebrows in question. 'You want to come with us?'
Mouth open in disbelief, she pressed her palm to her breast and pointed at the town.
He nodded. 'Is that what you want?'
She knelt and drew stick figures all around the houses. It was her turn to question him.
He nodded again. 'Lots of people there.'
She pointed at him.
Another nod. 'Me too, yeah.'
Her eyes shone, her answer plain to anyone. She was hungry for company and the prospect of a town filled with people was a dream come true for her.
He looked up at Chris. 'Stay here tonight?'
Chris nodded. It had taken them most of the day to chase down her past.
'In the morning.'
When he drew the symbol she'd used the previous evening, she nodded her understanding.
- 4 -
In the morning, Buck indicated to Amy that they would take her chest with them. Putting the things they'd brought back from the wagon beside it, he waved a hand around the cave to show her that she should fill it with whatever she wanted to take and then watched her as she emptied it, discarded the child-sized clothes and put one of the shirts in the bottom with her father's diary and papers. The photograph and notebook came next, then Yas's beads, followed by the dog and a rag doll. She slowly filled the remaining space with carefully chosen feathers, pebbles and furs. Finally, she laid the second shirt on top and closed the lid firmly.
They all traveled light but it affected him deeply to see her whole life packed into such a small container. Chris took the chest, leaving him to take Amy. Initially nervous of the horses, she finally accepted his reassurances and swung gracefully up behind him.
They hit the trail only an hour or so after dawn and rode steadily all morning. When they broke for dinner, he saw her watch first JD and later Ezra disappear to answer the call of nature. She wandered off soon afterwards, this time moving out of sight before squatting. It reassured him that she would pick things up quickly, once she was around people. A smile played on his lips, as he reflected that they should try not to teach her too many of their bad habits, which might be tolerated in men of their ilk but not in respectable ladies of the type he hoped she'd become.
The afternoon must have seemed interminable for her, naked under the shirt and rubbed by his saddlebags as she was. Eventually, he reined back and helped her down.
She rubbed her behind, began to lift her shirt to inspect the damage and then stopped. Already she knew there were rules, even if she didn't understand what they were. He slid back as far as he could and reached down to help her up in front, worse for him but probably better for her. In fact, there was plenty of room for her slender figure but it would be a long afternoon riding so close to her shapely behind. She arranged the shirt carefully to give her skin some protection.
'You need a break, Buck, you just let me know,' JD said, with a grin.
It was a remark that Buck might himself have made, perhaps a sign of his bad influence on the youngster and certainly a sign of JD's growing confidence around women since his brush with Mattie made him appreciate what he had with Casey. Now, just as JD's need for him as a mentor faded, along came this childlike woman who would need far more help than JD ever had.
Content with progress and not wanting to tire Amy more than they had to, they stopped for the night well before sundown. JD had already bagged a brace of rabbits, so there was no need to seek out supper. While the food was cooking, Amy sat staring at her photograph. Buck joined her and saw that she was looking at the woman in whom she had shown so little interest before.
'Mama?' he asked again.
When Amy looked at him, there was still no recognition of the word. Something else was clearly on her mind. She touched the swell of the woman's breast under her tightly fitted bodice, then laid her hand on her own breast. She pointed to the man, then to him. Resting a finger on her father's image, she spoke thoughtfully.
'Papa, Yas, Buck ' She moved her finger back to the woman. 'Amy.'
He saw what she was getting at, her life almost a mirror image of his own youth. She had only ever known men, remembering no women at all - not even her mother. Now with seven more men, she saw that she was different. She took two feathers out of the chest, one mottled brown and the other iridescent green. She contemplated them, holding the brown one against herself and the green one against him. He didn't know the species but her point was clear: many male birds sported bright plumage to court drab females. She obviously knew about male and female, but had not thought how she fitted into the picture. He thought it was a good topic to consider, before she was thrown among more men and women.
'Ezra, you got a pencil and paper?'
Ezra, who always carried a small notebook, retrieved it from his jacket pocket. Buck took it and began to sketch. He produced a charming portrait of a coyote family, anatomically correct enough to distinguish the mother and father of the three cubs in the foreground.
Amy watched in fascination, seeming to admire the artistic skill he displayed. When he raised his eyebrows, she pointed at the female coyote and herself, and then at the male coyote and him. When he indicated the cubs, she pointed first at the male, and then at the female, and finally at the cubs. That seemed to demonstrate an understanding of the process involved, as he had expected in someone who had spent her life in close contact with nature.
He started on another sketch, this time showing an unclothed man, woman and baby. Amy examined it. He pointed at the man, woman and baby, exactly as she had done for the coyotes. She frowned, as if to ask if he was sure. He nodded, taking the photograph and pointing at her father, then at her mother and then at her. He could see that she understood what he was saying but was skeptical. Her eyes drifted to his crotch, probably making some connections from the afternoon's ride, and then, still pondering the issue, she packed her belongings away again.
He hoped he'd conveyed enough to make her think hard about letting any man do what she had doubtless seen animals do time without number. He'd always known what passed between men and women, surrounded by their liaisons since long before he was old enough for questions, but her innocence made him uneasy. She could not know how others would interpret her behavior, and she might find her new life irreparably damaged before she had time to learn. Seeing that the consequences of a misjudgment could be disastrous, Buck had no intention of letting any harm befall her and would devote all his time to preventing it, if that was what it took.
- 5 -
The next morning, Ezra's ablutions delayed their departure. Never early to rise, his insistence on being clean-shaven at all times made him later than ever. In contrast, Nathan, who usually shaved regularly too, was usually done before Ezra even emerged from his bedroll.
Buck noticed Amy watching Ezra's preparations, leaning close when he lathered up and scraped his skin. He was surprised that Ezra let her touch both his cheeks to compare rough and smooth, and then amused when she stroked the smooth skin of her own with a puzzled expression.
She inspected them all, finding facial hair ranging from JD's patchy growth to the short beard that Chris was sporting. Buck's customary mustache, like Josiah's, was losing ground to the same long stubble that covered Vin's jaw. Amy took out her photograph again, examining it closely. Apart from the mustache, her father's face was clean-shaven. Finding that Ezra's skin was not naturally smooth must have come as a surprise, making her wonder why her cheeks were smooth.
Buck smiled and squatted beside her, pointing at the figures in the photograph again.
'Man - woman.'
He pressed her fingers to his face and then her own.
'Man - woman.'
He pointed to Ezra and tapped Barton's image again, not sure how to indicate that her father would have shaved like Ezra.
She seemed to understand but frowned. 'Yas?'
He guessed what was confusing her. She remembered enough of Yas to know that he hadn't shaved or worn a beard: few tribes grew much by way of facial hair. He scratched his head.
Vin grinned at him, challenging him to find a way to explain. After only a few moments' thought, he took her over to Nathan. He held out a hand and nodded to Nathan to do the same. Amy examined their contrasting skin colors.
He pointed to his own hand and then Nathan's. 'White man - negro man.'
She held out her hand and compared it with theirs. 'White wo-man.'
He was taken aback by the complex connection she had made, understanding that she was like him by race but retaining the concept that she was different by sex. He nodded.
'Yas Navajo man.'
He did not expect her to understand what that meant but hoped it would convey that Yas was different. That would be enough for the time being. She nodded slowly, probably grasping only that people came in more varieties than she had imagined.
Chris looked at Vin thoughtfully. 'You were right. It's gonna be hard for her for a long time.'
'No,' Vin replied. 'I was wrong. It'll be hard but she don't wanna be up here on her own. She's lonely. Besides, someone else might find her.'
There was no need for him to speculate aloud on what some men would do on finding either Amy or her two-hundred-dollar inheritance.
When Ezra finally deemed himself fit to face the world, they rode on.
- 6 -
The next two days followed the same pattern, long hours in the saddle and cross-examinations from Amy at each stop. She gradually began to speak a little more.
On the third morning, Buck sketched a town in the dust again, pointed at the sun and then the western horizon.
'Town.' She repeated the word in a dreamy voice.
He smiled and cupped the back of her head with his hand as he might a child. He hoped she would not be disappointed in the town. He'd sometimes watched Vin patrol its borders, looking for all the world like a caged cougar, but even Vin might feel differently about the settled life if he had spent most of his life in enforced solitude. Buck knew from the easy conversations they shared that Vin was more sociable than he usually got credit for. The impression was confirmed by the casual greetings that he often exchanged with the townsfolk, something Chris rarely did.
Once used to the horse and the saddle, Amy rode more comfortably. No longer worried about becoming aroused by her lithe body leaning against him, he was more at ease himself. However, the resemblance between Barton and himself brought a responsibility that he had never carried before and that began to weigh more heavily on his mind.
She was looking to him as a father-figure, not a suitor, and it would be wrong of him to exploit her trust. His friends might have been surprised how clear that distinction was in his mind. The fact that he had heard, and sometimes even seen, his mother with countless men, would never have made it right for him to enter her bed. If Amy saw him as a father, the relationship surely meant the same to her, emotionally if not by any blood tie.
In the middle of the afternoon, Chris called a halt.
'I'll ride on ahead,' he offered. 'Better have a word with Mary, see if she'll give us a hand.'
Buck agreed readily. The sooner they got Amy in safe hands and out of sight, the better. He didn't want her wandering around Four Corners in nothing but a shirt, and checking her into the hotel alone was no solution.
- 7 -
Chris reached town around dusk that evening. After hitching his horse outside the newspaper office, he knocked on the door and watched through the glass as Mary came from the back room. Her surprise at his visit was obvious, but she unlocked the door and let him in without comment.
He took off his hat and ran a hand through his flattened hair.
'I need a favor, Mary.'
As unusual as that was, she still passed no comment on it.
'Come on through.'
That was what made Mary so special, he reflected as he followed her. Even after events at Ella's ranch, which he had not tried to explain and doubted his friends had either, their friendship endured. Despite the lingering tension that was the legacy of the fiasco, he could still rely on Mary in a way that he'd never been able to rely on Ella, even before she was gripped by her insane obsession. And yet, as much as he valued Mary's friendship, it was Ella who had excited him and he wasn't sure what kind of man that made him.
All he knew was that the renewed guilt from his discovery of what Ella had done, along with repeated failed attempts to track her down, had set him back just when he thought he'd begun to find some kind of peace. He'd been tempted to run out, to dive back into the drunken oblivion that had blurred his first round of despair, and it was only friendship that had kept him in town - mostly the friendship of the six men with whom he rode but also the friendship of this woman, whose integrity was so reassuring to a man whose life had been destroyed by jealousy.
He knew that Mary would help Amy, not as a favor to him but because Amy needed help. He wished that such kindness held more allure for him, and knew that there'd been a time when it had, but the man who could respond to it seemed to be gone forever. Pushing his own feelings aside, he returned to the matter in hand.
'At Joe's. They're on a long sea voyage, so he won't be home till tomorrow.' She smiled as she related the two boys' latest fantasy, fuelled by their reading of Treasure Island. 'Why?'
He scratched his head, noting absently that a bath was overdue.
'The others are an hour or so behind me. They've got a girl with them. We need help with her.'
'Is she hurt?' Mary asked, concern clear in her voice.
'No, it's not that. We were cutting back through the mountains beyond Cold Peak and found her up there.' He took a deep breath and summarized the amazing discovery, watching Mary's expression become ever more incredulous. 'I know it's a lot to ask,' he concluded, 'But we couldn't leave her up there and it wouldn't be fitting for her to spend too much time with us.'
'Of course you couldn't leave her,' Mary said without hesitation. 'I'll do whatever I can.'
'I'll bring her things in. She hasn't got much but there's a couple of hundred bucks so you can fix her up out of that.'
That was another difference between Mary and Ella. Amy's inheritance was as safe with Mary as in a bank. He wouldn't have vouched for Ella that way, even before he learned her secret. He carried Amy's chest in, set it on the kitchen table and opened it.
Handing the photograph to Mary, he said, 'She remembers her father but her mother died when she was born. An old Navajo looked after her till he died. She's real afraid of people leaving her, so we reckon she's been lonesome. She can't say much yet but she learns fast.'
Mary spent the next three-quarters of an hour making preparations for feeding, bathing and accommodating her unexpected guest. Chris waited with her, adding details to what he had told her as they came to mind. He smiled at the memory of Amy's instant attachment to Buck.
'She's latched onto Buck, of all people, hardly lets him out of her sight.'
Mary looked at him, making no secret of her reservations on that score.
'I know,' Chris admitted. 'But the fact is he's been the perfect gentleman, even though she doesn't know how to behave. Vin wasn't sure about bringing her back, till he saw how lonesome she was, because he thought she wouldn't be able to fit in. She's not used to cooked food, proper clothes... or privacy you'll have to make allowances, and watch what she does where.'
Mary considered that in silence for a while.
'It won't be easy, but that doesn't mean it won't be worthwhile for her in the end.'
'That's pretty much what we figured.'
Their discussion was interrupted by the sound of riders outside. Chris followed Mary through the newspaper office, and then smiled when she caught her first glimpse of the wild-girl with Buck. Amy's eyes were wide, with the same mix of fear and curiosity as when they'd caught her. Buck helped her down before dismounting and passing his reins to Nathan.
Amy clung to his arm and stared at Mary.
He touched his hat to Mary with a smile. 'She doesn't seem to remember any women.' He pulled Amy forward and pointed at Mary. 'Mary.'
The reply was a hoarse whisper but it confirmed that Amy understood.
'Hello, Amy.' Mary stood still. 'Come on in.' She turned and led them back to the kitchen.
It was all Buck could do to keep Amy moving, as her eyes skipped from one unfamiliar object to another, but he gently urged her on. Following behind, Chris watched the tender guidance with amusement. For all his gibes about Buck's women over the years, he knew better than any man alive how genuine his love of them was. Even if the tender memories he'd occasionally shared on the anniversary of his mother's death hadn't been persuasive enough, the brotherly devotion he lavished on Sarah would have. No doubt Amy had picked Buck because he looked like her father but, in Chris's view, she couldn't have chosen better.
Mary showed them the bedroom she'd improvised behind an old quilt hung across a corner of the back room. Amy's chest of possessions stood against the wall, the dog and doll at either end with the photograph of Amy's parents between them. It was surprisingly homely, and the distant look in Amy's eyes suggested that it had stirred a memory of another bedroom far away.
'You must be thirsty.'
Mary spoke rhetorically, just as a mother would to a child, moving events along without expecting answers. She brought a jug of lemonade from the pantry, filled a cup and set it on the table in the middle of the room.
While Amy examined it suspiciously, Chris took a surreptitious step backwards. Buck grinned and did the same. Mary raised her eyebrows.
'She didn't like coffee much,' Buck said.
The lemonade proved more successful. After a wary sip, Amy downed the lot in three gulps.
'Think you'll be okay then?'
'I'm sure we'll manage. For now, I'll just get her cleaned up and fed, then she can rest.'
'Just holler if you need me.' Taking Amy's hands, he said, 'You stay here with Mary.'
He released her and headed for the door. Guessing what would happen next, Chris didn't move. When Amy fell into step behind Buck, he turned back, pointed at her and then at her bedroom.
He pitched his tone somewhere between kind and firm, but Amy was as shattered as if he'd shouted at her. Tears spilled onto her cheeks and she shook her head from side to side, shaking with fear. Buck immediately returned and held her close, looking over her head.
Chris gave a slight shrug. He hadn't been sure what to expect, beyond the fact that they'd be lucky indeed if everything went smoothly. It wouldn't do for Amy to get too attached to Buck, partly for his sake but mainly for hers. Like it or not, reputation mattered for a woman and she'd got more than enough ground to make up already.
'She's probably scared you're going to leave her.'
'I know, but how can I make her understand?' He thought for a few seconds. 'You got a coat or something I can put on her, Mary?'
When Mary had fetched a cloak and tied it around Amy's neck, Buck put his arm round her shoulders and steered her outside. Chris watched from the porch as he walked her up Main Street, taking her to the saloon and holding the swing door open so she could see inside. On the way back, he paused by the boarding house and then knelt to draw something in the dust. Chris guessed that he was reminding her of her cave and trying to explain that the boarding house was where he lived. It must have helped because, by the time they returned, Amy was calmer.
Buck looked right into her eyes when he gave his promise. 'I'll see you in the morning.'
She gazed up at him for a moment and then knelt to draw the symbol they'd used before.
He nodded. 'In the morning.'
She accepted his word and went to Mary's side. None of what had passed was a revelation to Chris but he saw Mary's surprise in the warm smile she gave Buck. She, and the town, might be seeing a new side to Buck in the coming weeks. The change would probably go down well with the family women, although it wouldn't do his reputation as a lover much good. Chris touched the brim of his hat in appreciation for Mary's help and led the way out, headed for the drink that he badly needed after a journey that had been far longer and more tiring than expected.
- 8 -
Mary led Amy back inside and then, watched in fascination throughout, she set about topping up the bathtub with boiling water from the stove. She smiled and swirled the water around with her hand to show that it was not too hot but Amy remained motionless, showing no understanding of what was required of her. She stood rigid while Mary unbuttoned her shirt, but then pulled away and cowered against the wall when she tried to remove it.
Mary considered the reaction, initially puzzled because Chris had implied the girl was too free with her body but then guessing what lay behind the remark. The men had been trying to keep her covered up since they found her and now she was ashamed to undress. The thought made Mary smile, knowing how worldly six of those seven men were and yet how uncomfortable the prospect of a young woman innocently baring all would be for them. Vin's concerns about her ability to fit in were all too well founded. How to explain the codes they lived by?
'It's all right, Amy. You can undress here, in front of me. We're both women.'
As she echoed the familiar word, Amy pointed first at herself and then, hesitantly, at Mary.
Mary smiled and nodded. 'Yes, woman.'
She gently reached for the shirt again. Amy held the hem firmly in place but seemed less agitated. She reached out her other hand to stroke Mary's cheek.
Amy thought for a few more seconds and then slowly released her grip.
Mary lifted the shirt over Amy's head, took her hand and led her to the tub. Amy dipped her hand into the water and then swirled it around as Mary had done. She looked up and then smiled.
The smile brought her beauty to the surface, her even white teeth making up for her dirty skin and matted hair. Her teeth would have needed to be strong, if she'd lived on raw meat as Chris suggested, and the gnawing needed to eat without utensils must have polished them.
The smile told Mary that Amy liked water, even if the bathtub was new to her, so she let the girl get in and sit down in her own time. When she was settled, Mary began to rub soap into her arms, massaging gently until paler skin began to show through the years of dirt. After a minute or two, she helped Amy to lather the soap for herself. That she seemed to enjoy the process came as both a surprise and a relief to Mary, who'd been prepared for the room to be drenched. That hadn't worried her in itself, but it would have made a poor introduction to civilization for Amy.
It was better to start with something nice, because Mary was sure that not all aspects of the constrained life that Amy had to adopt would be so welcome. Acquaintances tended to assume that respectability came easily to Mary but it had not always been so. Born with an independent streak that made it difficult for her to be the conventional woman that her family expected, she was fortunate to find a husband as modern as Stephen, and a father-in-law as open-minded as the Judge. They'd made the role of wife and mother far more appealing than she'd expected. She hoped that experience might help her to smooth Amy's transition.
Washing the tangled mat of hair was the most difficult part of the bath. Mary spent fifteen minutes easing her fingers through the worst parts and soaping the shaggy length as well as she could. When she could do no more, she showed Amy how to use the towel and left her drying herself while she went to fetch one of the spare shirts. Soon, with Amy dressed and seated on a chair, she set to work with a comb. It was slow going, with Amy fidgeting at first and pulling away resentfully when the snags hurt, but eventually the comb began to move more freely.
Throughout the grooming, Mary talked soothingly as she would to a baby, naming each item she used even though it would be weeks before Amy learned more than a few words. When she was done, the hair looked human but the last few inches, after years without attention, formed a frizzy flounce of ragged ends. She took a large pair of dressmaking shears from the drawer, unsure at the wisdom of using sharp implements so early but equally unsure whether Amy would have any memory of them. Eyes like saucers suggested that she did, making Mary wonder whether it was worth a confrontation so early, but then she hit on a different plan.
'You want to look nice for Buck, don't you?'
Amy picked up only the one word from the sentence, yet she sat quietly when Mary began the trim. Mary couldn't tell whether she thought Buck had ordered it but the mere mention of his name seemed to calm her. She sat motionless while Mary cut her hair into a similar style to her own, slicing six inches off the ends to leave it long and then shaping it around the face.
'There,' she said when she'd finished. 'You look beautiful.'
She swept up and then warmed a simple meal of soup with bread and butter. Amy ate messily but enthusiastically, mopping up every drop of the hot liquid with the freshly baked bread.
'Good?' Mary asked.
'Good,' Amy echoed.
'Ready for bed?'
Amy said nothing. Mary took her hand and led her to the bed in the corner. Facing up to another challenge, she took a china pot from under the bed. She'd thought about Chris's warning as to where Amy should do things and thought that a chamber pot was a safer solution than having her visiting the outhouse in the middle of the night. Amy looked at it without recognition. Mary tapped her abdomen lightly through the shirt. When there was no response, she gently but firmly manipulated Amy until she squatted over the pot.
The horror was clear in Amy's face, as she pushed Mary away, rose to her feet and tried to reach the door. It seemed that she had no intention of relieving herself indoors.
Mary could guess at some of her thinking but considered the matter to be one thing that needed to be settled early on. She thought of how Buck showed Amy where he could be found, should she need him, and decided that a similar approach was in order. After pouring some water into the pot, she led Amy to the outhouse and emptied the pot into the pit. Amy watched that with a frown, then went into the outhouse and touched the smooth wooden seat above the pit. After a moment or two longer, she sat on it and gave Mary an enquiring look. It seemed incredible that she'd made so many connections, but perhaps she had some faint childhood memory. Deciding to let her have her way, Mary nodded and pushed the door closed.
As she did so, she said, 'Private.'
If Amy could grasp that idea, it might serve in other similar situations. She heard Amy repeat the word and then the sound of her passing water. Another success, Mary noted with satisfaction. Amy's eagerness to please was making her care far easier than it might otherwise have been. Within minutes, she was tucked up in the makeshift bed.
'Buck. In the morning.'
Mary nodded. 'He'll come. He promised.'
When she looked in again half an hour later, Amy was sleeping peacefully. Apart from the stuffed dog clutched close against her, there was no hint that the last few days might have been difficult for her. Mary could only admire the strength she showed.
- 9 -
When Buck did come, he was pleased to find a young lady eating at Mary's breakfast table, still dressed in a shirt but now spotlessly clean with her hair hanging in a neat braid. Amy lost interest in her food as soon as she saw him, jumping to her feet and throwing her arms around his neck. He hugged her, knowing how important each reinforcement of her trust was at this early stage and happy not to have let her down.
'Get on okay?' he asked Mary.
'She's very eager to please, once she understands.'
'Yeah. We've just got to make sure she's not trying to please the wrong people.'
His anxiety about Amy had not abated. Although her life up to then had been fraught with its own perils, the world of men brought a host of new dangers against which she had never needed to develop defenses.
'I don't think you need worry too much here. There aren't many people in town who would think of crossing any of you seven. It'll only be any trouble-makers passing through.'
Hoping she was right, he relaxed a little. Amy was stroking his sleeve, evidently taken with the blue shirt he was now wearing. She gazed up at him adoringly.
He smiled. 'Ahe'ee, Amy.' He looked at Mary. 'You going to get her fixed up for clothes?'
'Yes, I thought we'd go along after breakfast and see what we can find. I wonder if something like Casey wears would be best.' She gave an embarrassed little shrug and added, 'Corsets may be rather a rude awakening.'
He nodded. 'I can't speak from experience there but I'm not so sure I'd want to wear them. Course, you might not get much say. She's got a mind of her own.'
- 10 -
As it turned out, Buck's words were prophetic. Half an hour later, Mary was trying, with Mrs. Potter's help, to guide Amy towards comfortable clothes but she was fixated on an emerald green dress with narrow black stripes. Seeing Casey sitting across the street with JD, Mary took Amy to the window and pointed at her.
Amy looked but then stamped her foot in frustration and returned to the dress.
Mary smiled at Mrs. Potter. Amy knew what she was and wanted to look the part. Taking her hands, Mary held them to her own waist and let Amy feel the rigidity of her underwear. Mrs. Potter took some corsets from a drawer and held them out for inspection. Amy fingered Mary's body and the undergarment, but then simply held out her arms as if to be dressed.
'All right,' Mary agreed. 'If you would, Mrs. Potter.'
Mrs. Potter took measurements and then bustled to and fro, building up a basic trousseau. Mary took a set of undergarments from the growing pile and guided Amy into the storeroom. It felt strange for her, an advocate of women's rights, to pull tight the laces that would bind a woman who had known nothing but freedom into the conventions of their age. Still, she appreciated that nothing was more vital for this particular young lady than to feel that she belonged.
Amy gasped but did not resist. Her sole desire seemed to be to fit into the dress she so admired. Moments later, Mrs. Potter brought it through with some others in bright colors. Fortune must have been smiling on Amy because the dress was a good fit, needing only the sleeves and skirt to be shortened. Mrs. Potter had to mime her willingness to make the alterations immediately before Amy would allow Mary to remove it. Only after convincing her that she would definitely be taking the favored dress was Mary able to coax her to try on the others and choose three more.
Mrs. Potter turned up the cuffs and hem with tiny stitches while Mary worked round the whole shop, adding items to the pile on the counter: a brush and comb, a mirror, a flannel and towel all the minutiae of everyday life.
Under the counter, she saw a spool of ribbon in precisely the same shade as the dress.
'May I take half a yard of ribbon, Mrs. Potter?'
'Help yourself, my dear.'
Mary cut the ribbon, picked up the brush and comb, and returned to the back room. Smiling to Amy, she unfastened the braid and set about arranging the girl's hair in a style more fitting to a grown woman. She tied the ribbon subtly beneath the twisted knot to give a very chic effect.
Mrs. Potter diligently pressed the dress before helping Amy back into it. The result was fetching indeed and Amy stood admiring herself in the looking glass for the entire time that it took for Mary to settle the bill and Mrs. Potter to wrap their purchases.
'We may yet be back for something more comfortable, when the novelty wears off.'
'Well, you can't blame her for wanting to look pretty after all she's been through.'
'I'm not sure how much it has to do with what she's been through and how much it has to do with Buck.' Mary confessed.
'Buck.' Amy looked around, expecting to see the man nearby.
'That seems to be one word she has no trouble recognizing,' Mary laughed again as she patted Amy's shoulder.
'She's picked a right rascal there to set her cap at.'
Mrs. Potter said no more but her tone declared her doubts about Buck's suitability to watch over a woman of Amy's vulnerability.
Mary offered no opinion, her feelings lying somewhere between Chris's confidence and Mrs. Potter's anxiety. She thought Buck would do his best for Amy, but she doubted his judgment when it came to a woman's best interests. Casting the doubts aside, she took Amy back to the newspaper office. Seeing the care with which Amy helped to put away their purchases, Mary wondered if she would have as much difficulty in adapting to her new life as they all feared.
When the room was tidy once more, Amy sat on the bed and examined her photograph. This time she studied her mother, comparing the dress in the photograph with her new attire. She seemed pleased, perhaps connecting for the first time with the long-dead woman.
'Well, Amy, shall we go and find the others?' Mary did not know whether to speak normally to the girl or concentrate on particular words. Seeing that the sentence was too complicated, she took a more direct approach. Holding out a hand, she said simply, 'Come.'
Amy followed obediently, her faith in her new guardian clear. Mary decided to start with the church, where they found Josiah repairing a child's chair. It was presumably a favor to someone, rather than part of his usual self-imposed duties around the church.
He beamed at Amy.
'My, my, don't you look beautiful?'
Seeing her confusion, he repeated the word carefully.
'Beautiful,' she echoed blankly.
He took her hand and led her inside. He indicated a spray of flowers by the pulpit: 'Beautiful.' Then the stained glass window: 'Beautiful.' Then an illuminated page in the big Bible on the lectern: 'Beautiful.'
When he pointed to her dress and repeated the word, the joy on her face testified to her understanding. He left her looking around the church and joined Mary near the door.
'She seems to be managing,' he said softly.
'Yes, she chose the dress and seemed pleased that it made her look more like her mother in the photograph. It'll be a long while before she can talk to people and do things for herself though.'
'Time's one thing the Lord's given us plenty of. I'll be happy for her to spend some of it here. I can find things for her to do, talk to her, maybe teach her to read and write later.'
'It would be good for her to be with different people,' Mary agreed.
He caught her eye. 'Too dependent on Buck?'
Mary shrugged. 'She may be more attached to him than he realizes.'
'He's pretty sharp. Seems fond of her.'
'Even so, we can't have her falling apart if he's... away... for a while.'
'You're right, of course. I reckon Nathan'll help out. Why not go and see him next?'
'We'll do that.' She smiled and called Amy, who returned straight to her side. 'See Nathan?'
'Nathan.' Her tone made it clear she knew the man in question.
Nathan was in his office, bandaging a sprained wrist for young Willy Moore while the boy's mother watched on. Mary and Amy waited by the door until he had finished.
'Good morning, Mrs. Travis,' Mrs. Moore said. Word must already have spread around town that a young woman was staying in the newspaper office but her unusual circumstances could not yet be common knowledge. Manners prevented the woman coming out with her question so she said only, 'Good morning, Miss.'
Amy stared at her but did not reply.
Mary spoke in her place. 'Good morning, Mrs. Moore. This is Amy Barton. She's been living rather remotely and doesn't understand very much English yet.'
The woman studied Amy closely, her mouth fixed in a hard line of disapproval, and then ushered her son through the door.
Closing it behind her, Nathan laughed. 'Friendly sort, huh? Hello, Amy. You look real pretty.'
'Nathan.' She touched his hand. 'Negro man.'
'That's right. What can I do for you, Mrs. Travis?'
'Oh, we're just looking round town. I thought Amy would like to know where she can find you all.' She paused before adding, 'Josiah said she was welcome to spend time at the church with him. He thought you might be able to find things for her to do here too.'
'Happy to. She's got a lot to learn - sooner she starts...'
'Yes. Perhaps she can help me in the newspaper office as well.'
'How about letting her get used to things today? I'll take her for the morning tomorrow and pass her on to Josiah for the afternoon.'
'All right. We'll go and find Buck now. She misses him.'
'Buck,' Amy echoed on cue, making them both laugh.
- 11 -
Buck was sitting outside the saloon with Chris, with their beers in front of them, when Mary appeared with a beautiful girl walking hesitantly by her side. He knew, of course, that it was Amy, but it was purely circumstantial evidence that led him to that conclusion. Very little of her was recognizable, with even her stance and gait transformed. He cleared his throat, uncertain what one said in such a situation, and then settled on the first question that came to mind.
'Went for the corsets after all?'
'You were right - I had no say. She was determined to look like a woman.'
'She certainly does that.'
Vin, Ezra and JD came out of the saloon to share in the inspection.
'Well, well,' Ezra said. 'You have done a remarkable job, Mrs. Travis. Though I am reminded of the old maxim, handsome is as handsome does.'
Amy looked anxiously at him, apparently confused by the humorous lilt in his voice.
'Don't you pay him no mind, Amy,' Buck consoled her. 'You look beautiful.'
She beamed at that, obviously recognizing the new word.
After explaining Nathan and Josiah's suggestions for the next day, Mary gave Ezra a stern look and said, 'I'm sure she'll do very well in time.'
Perhaps regretting the unintentional unkindness, Ezra nodded.
'I would be happy to help. Perhaps some instruction in manners and etiquette would not go amiss, as we progress. We cannot have her taking a lead from these gentlemen in that regard.'
Buck gave him a good-natured scowl. 'I'll keep an eye on her this afternoon if you like, Mary.'
'I have got a few things I should have been doing,' Mary admitted. 'Could you bring her home around suppertime?'
Buck nodded, smiling at the reference to 'home'. Mary was a kind woman, who thought nothing of offering the girl a home until she was able to make plans for herself. He took Amy's hand and led her away, thinking to take a walk down to the creek east of town. It was somewhere he occasionally took his illicit liaisons, although his sole reason for suggesting it then was that he thought Amy might feel more at ease there. She followed him happily enough until they reached the end of Main Street, when she stopped dead and turned around.
He saw immediately that she didn't want to leave her newly discovered town full of people. He deliberated for a moment, weighing up his desire to spend some quiet time with her against her desire not to be alone again for a very long time. His first move was to check that she understood his plan. He squatted and drew in the dust, showing the town and the curving path of the creek, with two figures walking between the two.
Amy studied the picture, pointed to the creek.
When he nodded, she took his hand and allowed him to resume his course. He picked a pretty spot, with a grassy bank on which they could sit and listen to the shallow water babbling over the stony creek bed. She sat by his legs, facing him and examining his shirt again.
'You like town?' he asked, not knowing whether she would understand.
'Town good. Mary good. Buck good.'
Her life seemed brimful with pleasures. He wished he could believe it would stay that way. Not all the people she met would be good, and few of the men's plans were likely to be good for her. That set him thinking again, wondering when he got to be so protective and how he could criticize men who would, after all, only be doing what he'd done many times. Had those times been different? Some involved young girls, like Miss Millie, but never unworldly ones. They'd always known what they wanted from him, and he'd fulfilled their wishes as safely as it was possible for a man to do. The only threat he had ever posed was to their spiritual welfare, and it might be argued that a young woman had more time to repent of her sins than an older one.
Amy was different though. By bringing her into his world, he'd taken responsibility for her. Even if she had understood and accepted the connection between mating and young that he'd made, she could have no inkling of the complicated conventions that surrounded such a basic function in human society. Any man taking advantage of her ignorance would be as low as they came.
They whiled away the afternoon contentedly, returning to town not much before suppertime and taking a bench outside the saloon to watch the world go by. Ezra and JD joined them soon after.
'All okay?' JD asked.
Buck nodded. 'Been doing nothing in particular down by the creek. She seems to like water.'
That would hardly come as a surprise to JD, given how much time he and Casey spent fooling around in the creek.
'Not much of it up there in the mountains,' he said.
They had been surveying Main Street for some time when Amy shot out her hand at lightning speed. When she sat back, she held a large moth. Before any of them could react, she bit the unfortunate creature's head off.
JD turned a strange color.
'Heck, Buck, you gotta stop her doing that. I can live with her spitting coffee over me and taking a piss right behind me, but eating raw liver and live bugs is disgusting.'
Buck caught Amy's wrist before she could eat any more and shook his head.
Puzzled but hopeful, she asked, 'Private?'
Suppressing a grin, he shook his head again.
'Good.' She held out the still-twitching body for him to try.
He took it, threw it under the sidewalk and said, 'No, not good. Bad.'
'Bad,' she repeated forlornly, peering between the boards at the morsel.
Ezra slapped him on the back. 'She seems more like Mr. Tanner's kind of woman, Buck.' Becoming more serious, he murmured, 'Good bad private.'
'Private must have been Mary's,' Buck said. 'We're just trying to make her understand that there're things she can do, things she can't and things we don't wanna see.'
'An eminently reasonable strategy.' Ezra smiled wryly. 'But one that will quickly be undermined if the young lady sees you doing something that she shouldn't be doing.'
'I've got that covered with the man-woman thing.'
'Hardly, given that a woman would undoubtedly be involved.'
That was true. However, Buck realized to his surprise, he had not so much thought about any other woman in the previous twenty-four hours. He cupped his hand around the back of Amy's head in the gesture that she'd seemed to find reassuring before.
'C'mon, Amy. Time to go home. Back to Mary.'
He smiled, pleased to hear her formulating her own replies rather than repeating what he said.
'That's right, supper. Not as tasty as fresh moth but there you go.'
With another grin to Ezra and JD, he escorted her back to the newspaper office.
- 12 -
'You trust him to take care of her?'
Chris glanced up from his cards to look at Vin.
Vin shrugged. 'Didn't say that. Wouldn'ta been my first choice but...'
Chris drained his glass thoughtfully.
'The thing you've got to understand about Buck is that he really loves women. Most of the time, it means he can't resist them. But it also means he'd never hurt one.'
Vin nodded. 'But I reckon he ain't always the best judge of what can hurt a woman.'
Chris couldn't fault that assessment. He knew from shared encounters long past that Buck was far more careful in some ways than people gave him credit for but, even so, there was still a risk of trouble, whether in the form of a baby or a disease, a ruined reputation or an unforgiving husband. He would defend his friend's motives any day of the week, but he'd also seen with his own eyes how often the road to hell was paved with good intentions.
'Then again, he seems kinda different with her,' Vin went on. 'Fact is, I've never seen him turn a blind eye to a woman as pretty as she is. Never thought I would see it, neither.'
Chris understood the sentiment because, in the time they'd known Vin, Buck had rarely missed an opportunity. The one time he perhaps had, with the elder Miss Stokes, there were good reasons for it. Amy, in contrast to Kate, clearly doted on him and would probably have permitted him to do anything he wanted. Chris knew that he was the only person in town who had seen the strength of the platonic love Buck could show a woman when he chose.
'You looked at that picture of her folks?'
'Not close up.'
'Buck looks like her pa's twin brother. That must be why she latched onto him, and he knows it.'
Vin raised an eyebrow. 'So he's got himself a twenty-year-old kid?'
'Looks that way.'
Vin smiled. 'Might be the makin' of him.'
Chris returned the smile. 'Can but hope.' He sobered. 'Piece of advice?'
Chris wouldn't have presumed to offer Vin advice without the invitation of his raised eyebrow.
'If you've got any interest there, be careful.'
Vin's eyes crinkled in amusement. 'Reckon Buck'll know all about fillin' scoundrels full of lead.'
Chris smiled but it soon faded. Buck was apt to be over-emotional in all aspects of life. It had got him into spectacular scrapes in the past as a lover and Chris doubted he'd be any less passionate in playing the part of a father. He'd known when they brought Amy back that she'd clean up well, but he hadn't anticipated the remarkable transformation that Mary presented to them. There wasn't a man in town who hadn't looked twice at the result, but it was Vin he thought most likely to be swayed by the innocence of her unschooled charm.
'Don't go on the worry,' Vin said softly. 'I ain't plannin' t'make things worse than they are.'
His words came as a relief. Chris didn't want to be put between his friends, trying to figure out who was acting in Amy's best interests, and was more than happy to let Buck take on the orphan.
- 13 -
It was peculiar, Buck reflected, how there was more gossip about him now that he wasn't doing anything than there had been when he was. Everywhere he went, people - mostly women - seemed to be whispering to each other. All of a sudden, everyone thought they knew what was best for Amy and he didn't figure in their plans. Nobody commented on her mornings with Nathan or her afternoons with Josiah. Nobody said anything about the hours she spent with Ezra, learning the manners and countless other skills he deemed essential for a young lady. No, it was only when he bought her gifts or took her walking that their miserable tongues began to wag.
He tapped on the door of the newspaper office.
Even Mary seemed to look disapproving when she opened the door.
'Hello, Buck. What can I do for you?'
'Just come to check on Amy.'
'She's fine. Why not come by tomorrow?'
'You saying I can't see her?' he asked, bluntly.
'It's not that...'
'What is it then?'
Mary shifted her weight uneasily.
'You think they're right? With their miserable gossip? Do you honestly think I'd do anything to hurt her? She's not much more than a child.'
She met his gaze and stood straighter.
'No, I don't but you can't lay all the blame with them. You've given them plenty of cause to think you're unsuitable company for an innocent young woman.' Having cleared the air, she softened. 'I'm only concerned for Amy, for her and for her reputation. I wouldn't allow a man call on a daughter of mine at this hour and it would be wrong of me to do less for her. I'm sorry.'
He gave himself a moment to take that in.
'All right. Can I buy her dinner tomorrow? In the restaurant, where every woman in town can keep their beady eyes on me?'
'Of course you can take her to dinner. I know how much she loves to see you.'
Mary's even tone, refusing to rise to the spite he'd injected into his request, shamed him.
'I'm sorry, Mary. I know you're doing your best for her.'
A smile brightened her face.
'We'll see you tomorrow, then. Good Night, Buck.'
He touched the brim of his hat and turned away for the saloon. Having a girl need him was proving more complicated than he'd expected. A part of him liked being of value, that was for sure, but knowing what to do for the best was a good deal more worrying than he'd expected it to be. He tended to avoid words like 'innocent' because they implied that others were 'guilty' but, coming from where he had, few of the girls he'd known were naïve. Any that were lost their illusions, whether from their first few customers or from the firm but well-meant guidance of the more experienced women.
Amy's brand of innocence was different from most maidens, with her being more familiar with the workings of nature than the customs of people. She'd been independent enough to live in her world unaided for more than ten years, but bringing her into town had made her dependent on someone for almost every aspect of life. It was too soon to tell whether that had been a mistake.
- 14 -
'That's perfect, Miss Barton' Ezra said encouragingly.
Amy sipped delicately from her teacup, just as he'd shown her. She was a quick study, even by his demanding standards, so desperate to fit into the town's humble society that she rarely needed to repeat a lesson. His pride in her accomplishments was matched by his pleasure in her beauty, now that it was packaged in a way that allowed a man to appreciate it better.
His admiration ran deeper than beauty. In less than a month, albeit with unstinting help from many quarters, Amy had adapted from savagery to civilization. Knowing that many of her skills were learned by rote, he couldn't judge her potential or how much she might be disadvantaged by her late start: a dog could learn to carry a newspaper even though it would never learn to read it. Despite daily tuition from Mary, Josiah and Nathan, as well as himself, her vocabulary wasn't growing as quickly as he'd hoped. Her stilted conversation made her seem slow, an impression that seemed to be given the lie by the speed at which she picked up other things.
Of course, a woman with her looks would be able to find a husband in no time in a land with so many bachelors. Plenty of men would be more than satisfied to have a pretty bedmate with as many years of housework and child-bearing as she had in her. He, however, had no intention of countenancing such a lowly outcome. He'd begun with an ambition to school Amy until she could attract the suitor of her choice but, at some point, the suitor started to assume his own identity. Who better to care for her than him? Who better to become his wife than a woman whom he had helped shape to meet his own ideal?
When she began to practice the ladylike gait and gestures he'd shown her, he watched the flawless execution with the satisfaction of a good teacher. Her fine profile, inclined daintily to one side as she looked at him through her lashes with feigned shyness, was as regular as the cut of the diamond in the ring that nestled in his vest pocket, awaiting the perfect Mrs. Standish.
Perhaps, after so long, he had at last found the lady of his dreams, the one who would glean only admiring gazes in genteel society yet who was as much an imposter as himself, the one who was as sharp as a tack and yet over whom he had such a head start that he could never be outwitted as he so often was by his mother. He took out the ring and studied its flashing facets. Once his grandmother's, it had been given to him by an aunt - not by Maude, who would have long since sold it to finance one of her grand schemes. When Amy stopped to look at it, he tilted it backwards and forwards until fractured beams of sunlight bounced around the walls.
'Beautiful,' she said, wistfully.
Reflecting that he wasn't making much headway in persuading her to speak in full sentences, he tried to set an example.
'Would you like to wear it, my darlin'?'
Her eyes widened and she nodded eagerly.
He reached for her left hand and slipped the ring onto her third finger. He just wanted to see what it looked like there, and doubted that she would attach any significance to its position. He could not have known that Buck would choose that moment to make an entrance. The time that passed between the opening of the door and the opening of Buck's mouth stretched like molasses syrup in Ezra's mind, far beyond the second or two that passed in reality.
'What the hell do you think you're doing, you manipulating bastard?'
Ezra had no ready answer and, even if he had, he'd have needed to be fast to utter it before Buck's long stride covered the room and equally long reach planted a fist on his jaw. The punch sent him reeling against the wall, the back of his head hitting the wood with a nauseating thud.
It took all his strength of character to cling to consciousness and redirect his momentum to right himself and then land a blow while Buck was still off balance. He knew he had to make it count, given that Buck's height and reach would make him hard to beat once they got to grips with each other. Years of careful exercise reaped dividends when his powerful punch sent Buck sprawling through the door and into the street.
Ezra staggered after him, intending to drive home his temporary advantage. It was the worst kind of luck that put him face to face not with Buck but with a hard-eyed Chris.
Ezra would have argued but his mouth was still out of action after Buck's right hook.
Amy had followed them out and now stood on the sidewalk, her lips trembling as she twisted the ring on her finger dejectedly and looked anxiously from one to the other of them with no understanding of the reason for the argument. Mary, who had been staring in disbelief at the scuffle, rushed to her side and put a reassuring arm around her. She looked at the ring, then at Buck and, finally, at Ezra. Her shock and exasperation were clear.
'For pity's sake, Ezra. She's a child, no matter that she looks like a woman. It'll be years before she's grown up enough to be a wife and mother. If you rush her into a marriage, you'll bring misery on yourself as well as her.'
Ezra already knew that Mary was right, but he had no wish for half his friends - indeed a good part of the town - to hear her rebuke or his defense of his actions. He stepped closer and spoke in a low voice, muffled by the stiffness of his jaw.
'I only wanted to see how my grandmother's ring looked on such a beautiful young hand. Buck misunderstood. I meant no harm by it. I have grown very... attached... to Miss Barton.'
'I know,' Mary said, and then repeated more gently, 'I know you have. We all have.'
Chris looked slowly from him to Buck and then back again.
'For Christ's sake,' he muttered. 'If you two don't straighten yourselves out, I'll do it for you.'
As he was striding away, Vin appeared from a side street. Ezra watched their unspoken exchange, reading Chris's irritation, Vin's amusement and then their mutual told-you-so conclusion.
- 15 -
'I don't know, Chris. I've been thinking about it but how could we be sure she'd be safe? It would be so easy for someone to take advantage of her.'
'She can't stay here.'
'Things might settle down, once everyone gets used to her being around.'
Chris's eloquent snort declared his doubt that would be any time soon.
'Even if they do, what will she do for a living? Can you pay her for her work here?'
No, Mary thought, she couldn't. As was so often the case, it all boiled down to money. She would be willing to go on giving of her time, and she was confident that plenty of others would too, not least Buck, but those people struggled to feed themselves all year around and dare not take on another mouth. Besides, Amy needed a home, not the charity of kindly acquaintances.
'If you keep your men in line, we can manage until I can come up with something better.'
Her desperation made her speak more sharply than usual and she looked anxiously at Chris to gauge whether it had been counterproductive. The twinkle in his eyes reassured her.
'They're not my men,' he pointed out good-naturedly. 'I've got no hold over them.'
'But they listen to you.'
'Up to a point.'
'Do your best?'
He smiled and nodded. 'Kinda strange that they're more trouble with a sweet thing like her than a wagon full of working girls.'
'Not strange at all. I have every faith in their control over their baser instincts. It's their chivalry that's causing the trouble.'
Chris's smile broadened into a laugh. 'Never woulda thought that men could be too good.'
'What's that?' came a voice from behind him. 'Folk are too good around here? That sure makes a welcome change.'
'Orrin! You're early.'
'The stage made good time. Shall I go away and come back?'
'Don't be silly. It's lovely to see you. Billy's been looking forward to your visit so much.'
'I'll leave you to your visit,' Chris said, brushing the brim of his hat before heading for the door.
- 16 -
'Hold up, Buck.'
The only way that Vin would be enforcing that instruction without firing a shot, given Buck's height and weight advantage, was by fighting dirty. Grabbing Buck's arm, he leaned closer to impart a warning.
'Ease up, or you'll be huntin' for your balls in your belly. You hear me?'
'Stay out of this, Vin. It's none of your business.'
Vin kept his voice low. 'We've worked hard t'bring some kinda justice to this town. That don't go out the window just because it's one of us. You tell us what happened and we'll look into it.'
Buck was still resisting.
'I mean it, Bucklin. You're gonna play this by the rules, just like I did with Yates. You got that?'
Buck stopped struggling, although he kept a malevolent glare fixed on the stranger standing, hands half-raised, squarely in front of Ezra's Remington. Slowly - reluctantly - he nodded. Wary of a sudden change of heart, Vin released him cautiously, his hand hovering by his mare's leg.
'He was bothering Amy.'
'And nothing! What else do you need?'
'You'd be dead a few times over if we'da shot you every time you was botherin' a woman.'
Buck gave him an eloquent look that said Amy was not like other women and he should know it.
'What the hell?' The accused spoke for the first time, although it would have been far better for him to keep his own counsel. 'Ain't like she'd know one way or the other. She's an imbecile.'
The next thing Vin knew was that Ezra had shot the bastard.
'Oh, dear,' Ezra murmured, without going to the man's aid. 'Are you all right? There appears to be a fault with my sidearm. I shall arrange for it to be inspected at my earliest opportunity.'
The bullet had lodged in the man's thigh and he was in no danger. Even so, he was wailing loud enough to drown out anything that Vin might say.
'Tarnation, Ezra,' he muttered. 'I just talk some sense into this fool and then you go crazy. Ain't you two never heard of sticks and stones?'
'Foul words can lead to foul deeds, Mr. Tanner.'
'Yeah, well, the law says we wait until they do.'
'A convention that can all too often lead to tragedy. This piece of excrement will survive, and now has more pressing things on his mind than to take advantage of a young woman who is not yet accustomed to a society that permits him to masquerade as a man.'
The shot had brought their friends running. Nathan dropped down beside the wounded man, while one of Chris's hardest stares failed to elicit an explanation from Buck.
Backed into a corner, Vin had no option but to corroborate Ezra's story.
'We was just warnin' this fella t'leave women in this town alone when Ezra's gun went off at half-cock. He's gonna get it looked at.'
The lie was not for Chris's benefit, and Vin knew that he wouldn't believe it for an instant.
'Make sure he does,' he said coldly. 'Nathan, take care of this citizen.'
Nathan nodded, yanking the man to his feet with a disregard for pain that should have shamed even a bone-setter. Chris returned his attention to Buck.
'Any more of this and I'll run you out of town myself.' He spoke over his shoulder when he added, 'You too, Ezra.'
Buck glowered but said nothing. There was no way he could take Chris on in a fair fight and Vin hoped he wasn't stupid enough to try. He was relieved when Buck stalked off in the opposite direction from the one Nathan had taken, while Ezra faded back inside the saloon. Josiah shook his head sagely and headed back the way he'd come, towards the church.
'Half-cock,' Chris snorted contemptuously.
Vin didn't like what Ezra had done but the injured man, by his own philosophy, had deserved it. He'd shown the grossest stupidity to say what he had about a woman in front of a Southern gentleman who held a gun trained on him at the time and, for all Ezra's shortcomings, he still saw himself as a gentleman when it came to chivalry - or at least when it came to Amy.
He shrugged. 'I don't know which is worse: punchin' each other or shootin' some lowlife.'
'The sooner Buck finds someplace for that girl, the better I'll like it.'
Vin gave a slight nod of agreement. Buck in protective mode was proving harder to handle than Buck in philandering mode. He should have known that, of course, given the lengths that Buck had gone to on Inez's behalf. For his part, although he'd expected Amy's arrival in town to cause problems, reality was worse than his imaginings. He had underestimated on two counts: one on how harshly some of the townswomen would judge Buck's interest and two on how lewdly some of the townsmen would react to Amy's presence. He sighed.
'You ask me, there still ain't enough women in this town.'
Chris raised an eyebrow in amusement, as if to ask whether he was feeling the lack of one.
Vin grinned. 'Or mebbe the problem is that there are too many single fellas.'
'Did you see what that one was doing?'
'Looked like it'd gone a bit beyond that.' He stretched to ease the stiffness in his back and then shifted his weight onto his other leg. 'This ain't much of a place for a woman, Chris, an' it ain't the right place for her. She's smart enough but it ain't so easy t'catch up on fifteen years and, hell, she's too darned pretty.'
He had no illusions that only pretty women fell prey to the unwanted attentions of men but Amy's looks weren't helping. Had she been ugly, they'd have had to watch out for the few men in town for whom the power of taking what they wanted would be untarnished by the paucity of the prize. As it was, any man with eyes would want her and so they had to depend on little things like marriage and decency to help protect her. He couldn't speak for marriage but decency hadn't stopped him getting hard when she casually brushed a spider from his hair one day.
Surprised by the intensity of his reaction, he'd begun to wonder how much the rigidity of white society had affected him since his return to it. It was all part of the segregation and formality that characterized any interaction between men and women, rituals of which Amy was ignorant. She stood too close, looked directly into men's eyes when she should avert her gaze, and reached out too often to touch where the decent thing would be to refrain. Like the others, he was careful not to offer any rebuke that might dent her growing confidence but he didn't even want to think what might have happened if she'd touched him somewhere more personal. He knew that Mary and Ezra were gently encouraging more decorum but it was slow going.
Chris nodded. 'I've talked to Mary already. She doesn't know what comes next either.'
'Mebbe I'll try Josiah.'
There seemed no time like the present so Vin followed the direction that Josiah had taken a few minutes before. He found the former preacher in his church, back at his seemingly endless task of rubbing all the woodwork right down to the grain, and settled into a nearby pew.
Josiah grinned. 'Best kind of penance.'
'You don't need no penance. I ain't met too many better men than you.'
'Good of you to say so, but only God knows the secrets of a man's heart.'
That reminded Vin of the bodily response that had been troubling him. He wasn't well versed in the ways of guilt but suspected that was what he was feeling, an uneasy suspicion that it wasn't right to react like that to a woman who was still a child - no matter that she sure didn't look like one. It wasn't what he'd come to discuss, but he supposed it was related.
'Church makes a lot out of a man's urges, don't it?'
Josiah looked at him appraisingly, pale eyes twinkling, and hit right on the specter that was haunting Vin: whether he was any better than the man that Ezra had just shot.
'Let he who is without sin...?'
'If he's only lookin' in my heart, I'll be all right. The problem's lower down.'
Josiah laughed. The deep reverberations immediately made Vin feel better.
'She's young and beautiful. If you hadn't noticed, I'd be worried about you.'
He grinned. 'Oh, I noticed, but she's a world of trouble an' I got plenty of that already.' He declined to voice his honest opinion that each week in town took away more of what had made Amy special. 'Fact is, me and Chris was just talkin' about that. We reckoned you might have some idea what Buck oughta do with her now. We don't reckon this is no place for her.'
Josiah took a few moments before replying.
'I'll think on it. But I'm not sure I'll come up with much. She needs to be in the world, not in a convent or mission. If she's not, what was the point in bringing her back with us?'
Vin nodded. Amy needed to be with people and yet, at the same time, to be protected from them. He hoped someone could come up with a plan that achieved both of those objectives.
- 17 -
'What was that all about?'
Buck looked up at the Judge, saw the question was directed at Chris beside him but answered anyway.
'You're shooting men for nothing now?'
'Ezra shot him. I didn't.'
'It was my impression, observed from the barber's chair I admit, that you would have done the same if he had not.'
'Mary tell you about the girl?' Chris moved the debate on.
The Judge nodded. 'I understand that her presence has been causing some disruption.'
Buck waded in protectively. 'That's not her fault.'
'Blame is somewhat academic under circumstances such as these.'
With a minute gesture warning him to back off, Buck let Chris speak.
'You got any ideas, I'm listening.'
'As it happens, I do, and Mary believes that my proposal might meet your requirements.'
A raised eyebrow betrayed Chris's interest.
'However, I understand I am in the unusual position of having to persuade you, Mr. Wilmington, that it is an appropriate alternative. I hear that the girl is, in effect, your ward at present.'
Buck had always held Mary in high esteem but his opinion of her climbed several notches when he heard the Judge's words. He would have found it hard to express how much her faith in him, and her respect for his genuine concern for Amy, meant.
'I'm listening too,' he confirmed, letting his tone declare his receptiveness to any idea that might promise a better future for Amy.
The Judge lowered himself heavily into a chair.
'As you have witnessed during our acquaintance, age is catching up with me. Sadly, Evie, my wife, is not immune to its grip either. She has been finding life more difficult, with small chores becoming major undertakings, leading us to contemplate retaining a maid to provide her with assistance and companionship. From what I have seen of Miss Barton, she is a personable young woman who would soon learn what was needed and who might benefit from my wife's tuition in conversation, reading and etiquette. An arrangement that provided her with lodgings and a modest amount of spending money might be advantageous to all concerned.'
Buck looked at Chris. As much as he dreaded parting with Amy, an offer like that did not come along every day of the week. Not only was the Judge a man that he would trust with anybody's life but his household was one in which Amy could acquire the learning and manners that would open up real choices for her future. In exchange, she could ease the final years of the wife of one of the finest men Buck had ever met. Few things in life were perfect but this was close.
'That's a mighty kind offer,' he admitted.
'Not at all. It is a fair deal for everybody, just like the one I have with you.'
That was true. This wasn't charity, or at least it was only half charity. Amy would be earning her keep and that was how it should be.
'We'd need to put it to Amy.'
The Judge nodded. 'From what I hear, she may be reluctant to leave you.'
'She'll come around.'
- 18 -
As with the corsets, Buck's words were prophetic. It took Amy the length of the Judge's visit to progress from being crestfallen, then curious and, finally, cautiously co-operative. Orrin's promise to bring her to visit when his schedule permitted helped, but it was Buck's promise to call on them every few months that sealed the agreement.
At her insistence, he rode alongside the stagecoach until it left the territory. Without any spoken request or offer, Chris rode with him. And so it was that they sat side by side until the coach disappeared from view and then rode back to town in subdued silence.
A somber party greeted their return.
'Probably for the best,' Vin offered his consolation.
'The Judge'll take good care of her,' JD agreed.
'Would you care to join me in a libation?' Ezra offered.
He followed Ezra into the saloon. Missing Amy already, and with no wish to be alone, he was glad of the company. Finally, although it had taken time for him to see it, he understood that Ezra had been just as attached to Amy in his own way. Somehow, she'd been a blank canvas onto which they'd each painted their hopes and dreams. He was already sure that they'd been right to let her go. She needed the chance to grow into herself, without pressure from them, and he was glad to give her that opportunity.
He gazed across the room, over the door and out to where JD was still talking to Vin. Maybe the kid was right. Maybe it was stupid to want a grown woman to need her man: maybe loving him was enough. He reached into his jacket pocket to check that Louisa's last letter was safe.
More than a month had passed since she told him to take some time to think over his decision: maybe a month wasn't too long.
The title comes from Daisy, written by the English poet Francis Thompson and published in 1913:
The hills look over on the South, And southward dreams the sea; And with the sea-breeze hand in hand Came innocence and she.
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