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Thursday, January 31, 2013
Summary: Ike finds a friend in a most unlikely place.
Author's Note: This story falls somewhere mid Season 2.
“Get outta here, you dummy!”
A giant shove pushed Ike out the front door of the saloon, where he’d only been trying to get a quick sarsaparilla and a bite to eat before heading back to the way station for his ride home. Things in Sweetwater were occasionally hard, but for the most part folks knew him by now and left him alone. They didn’t all like him, but, most of them at least, didn’t seem to have the need to torture him. It wasn’t so easy when he was on the trail.
Ike stumbled across the threshold of the saloon from the force of the shove, right over a pair of booted feet helpfully placed in his way. Losing his balance, his arms began to windmill about in a failed attempt to stay upright. Next thing he knew, he was tumbling head over heels down the boardwalk, to the accompaniment of raucous laughter emanating from the saloon entry. His rolling advance was abruptly halted when he crashed into a rain barrel at the edge of the boardwalk.
The power of his momentum transferred to the wooden container full of water, pushing it off the edge of the boardwalk. Ike went crashing into the dirt street after it, getting soaked by the suddenly gushing water, turning the dust around him into a muddy mess. He paused a moment to collect his breath, then slowly began to push himself upright.
Raising his head, he met the gaze of a startled pair of dark brown eyes in a face of bronze surrounded by limp lanks of soaking wet raven black hair tied into two braids. Ike’s eyes widened in surprised recognition. What was an Indian doing in a town like this? Didn’t he know how dangerous these folk could be?
“Hey! It’s an Injun!”
“I bet he was spyin’ on us fer his friends!”
“Get ‘im, for he leads ‘em all back here ta scalp us in our sleep!”
“Kill the injun!”
Ike stiffened as he heard the blood thirsty cries behind him already. Pushing himself up onto his knees, he signed, *You’ve got to get out of here! Now!*
The young man, barely more than a boy really, nodded and, leaping to his feet, sprinted down the alley and around the back of the saloon. The angry crowd quickly took up the chase, forgetting all about Ike, still kneeling in the half dusty, half muddy street, surrounded by the remnants of the crashed water barrel.
Who was that Indian in the barrel? he wondered as he jumped up himself and ran for his horse, tethered to the nearby hitching post. He didn’t know the answer, but didn’t see any need to leave the other youth to the not-so-tender mercies of this godforsaken town. Urging his horse into a quick trot, he headed the other direction, around the line of buildings that shimmied up to the street that called itself Main. Rounding the last building at the end of the road, he pulled up in front of the galloping young man, who skidded to a halt, eyes wide with fear and distrust.
Ike held out his hands. *Come one,* he urged silently. *Get up here before they catch up to you!*
Understanding flared in the other boy’s eyes and he grabbed Ike’s outstretched hand, using it to swing himself up behind the Express Rider, on his big bay mare. Ike didn’t wait to see how the townsfolk reacted to this development in their afternoon’s entertainment. He just kicked Big Red into her best gallop and headed out of town as fast as he could.
Feeling Big Red start to breathe a little too heavily from the gallop they’d been maintaining for several minutes now, Ike looked back to gauge how much distance he’d put between them and the town. The buildings had all sunk below the horizon and there was no sign of further pursuit. So, Ike pulled back on the reins, slowing the mare to a brisk walk.
“Táku eníčiyapi he?”
The unexpected sound of the voice right in his ear had Ike jerking a bit in surprise. Honestly, he’d almost forgotten about his unexpected passenger, the other young man had been so quiet.
But, what was that he’d said? Ike turned his head to look back into the young Indians eyes, his own crinkled in puzzlement.
“Táku eníčiyapi he?” the adolescent repeated.
*What?* Ike signed.
Freeing his arms from their tight grip around Ike’s waist, he signed back, *What’s your name?*
*Ike,* Ike responded. *What do I call you?*
*Chaske. First son,* Chaske gestured almost impatiently. *How is it you can sign, but do not speak my tongue?*
*My brother is Kiowa,* Ike answered, shrugging. *He taught me to sign because I can’t talk. But that doesn’t mean I understand Kiowa.*
*What is.. Kiowa?*
Ike pulled his mount to a stop, dumbfounded. *What?*
*I have not heard of this Kiowa,* Chaske signed. *Is it a color? A religion? A village?*
*No!* Ike gestured emphatically. *It’s a tribe. They live mostly south of here. I’d have figured you’d know about them. Or at least your tribe.*
Chaske nodded slowly.
“Ohhh,” he breathed. “Guess that makes sense.”
Ike nearly fell off the horse’s back.
*You speak English?!!!*
“Of course!” Chaske answered, almost offended. “Who doesn’t?”
*But….* Ike couldn’t figure out what to say next. He had a dozen questions. Finally he signed, *You don’t know about the Kiowa but you do speak English?*
Chaske shrugged. “What can I say, I’ve been stuck in a wasicu mission pretty much since I can remember. Damned black robes stole me away from my family so many winters ago I’ve lost count. Told me I was going to be their first ‘convert’ and they were going to send me back to my tribe to convert the rest of them. Except, I don’t want to.”
*So, what were you doing in that barrel back in town,* Ike asked curiously, turning his horse in the direction of the way station.
“It was supposed to be a wine barrel,” Chaske grinned insouciantly. “But I switched it out for a water barrel and hid in it. The fools never noticed the difference when they dropped the barrel off at that saloon. I was going to sneak out after dark tonight. But, well, you ruined that surprise.”
*Sorry,* Ike grimaced.
“Don’t worry about it.” Chaske paused and looked around at the countryside curiously. “It feels good to be out in the open again. Hey, you wouldn’t know where I could find my people, would you?”
*Not really,* Ike signed. *But I bet Buck could help you.*
“Great. Where’s Buck?”
Kurt Denslow and Max Judson stood looking at the pile of wood that was the remains of the barrel they’d dropped off at the saloon the day before. Kurt kicked at the broken pieces.
“Yup. He’s right. Ain’t no way this had no wine in it.”
Judson nodded in agreement. “Guess we’ve figgered out how the injun got away.”
Kurt shoved his hands into the pockets of his trousers and hunched his shoulders.
“What’re we gonna do, Jud?” he whined. “I don’ wanna go back an’ tell the Padre we lost ‘is ‘Special Project’. D’you?”
Judson shook his head violently from side to side, setting the many tangled braids of his hair to swinging wildly.
Turning to the bartender, who’d shown them to the refuse pile with the remains of the barrel, he asked, “Which way’d they head?”
“West,” the bartender grunted. “Bald kid’s an Express rider. You might wanna start with the nearby station. Over ta Harper’s Ridge.”
Without even a nod of thanks, Jud turned back down the alley, headed for their horses. Kurt nodded jerkily to the bartender, blushing slightly at Jud’s rudeness, then slapped his floppy hat back over the tight brown curls that covered his head and trotted off after the other man.
Ike sighed with relief as he trotted into the station’s yard and passed the mochila on to Noah.
Noah looked at the young man clinging to Ike’s back and just shook his head as he caught the mail pouch Ike tossed at him. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know why Ike had wandered into the station an hour late and with an extra passenger. Spurring his mount into a gallop, Noah headed west on his run.
Ike watched Noah fly into the sun for a moment, before turning his horse toward the bunkhouse. The yard was strangely empty and he wondered where everyone was.
Dismounting, he said to Chaske, *Wait here.*
He turned and bounded up the steps of the bunkhouse porch, slamming the door back against its hinges in his hurry to enter.
“Slow down, Ike,” Rachel said, without looking up from the bowl of peas she was shelling. Lou sat next to her, helping. “Shouldn’t you be taking care of your horse, anyway?”
Ike pounded imperiously on the table to get her attention.
“What?” Lou asked, looking up, then pausing as she saw the young man coming in the door behind Ike. “Who’s yer guest, Ike?”
Ike sighed as he turned around and saw Chaske behind him. Throwing his hands up in the air in exasperation he turned back to Lou and Rachel.
*I rescued him from the folks over in Tanner’s Glen,* he signed. *They’d have lynched him for sure.*
“I’m surprised you managed to get out of there in one piece,” Lou commented. “What’d you go and do a fool thing like stopping off at Tanner’s Glen fer?”
Ike shrugged. *Doesn’t matter,* he signed. *What matters is I’ve got to find Buck. We need his help.*
“What for?” Rachel asked, standing up with the bowl full of shelled peas in one hand as she moved over to the counter at the back of the room.
*So he can help us find Chaske’s people.*
“Buck left a couple hours ago,” Lou said, standing and walking over to her bunk to grab her gunbelt and buckle it around her hips. “Said he was headed into town. Had an errand to run or somethin’.”
Ike sighed heavily and turned to head out the door. Unfortunately, Chaske stood right behind him, mouth gaping open as he watched the two women moving around the bunkhouse. Rachel was setting the peas on the stove to cook while Lou was grabbing her hat and settling it on her head. Ike slammed straight into the unmoving Chaske and grunted his displeasure. When the Indian didn’t react, Ike grabbed his arm and yanked him out of the bunkhouse, letting the door slam shut behind him.
*What’s with you?* he demanded, shaking Chaske back and forth.
Chaske swayed back and forth, his head moving independently of his body. Finally he turned and looked straight into Ike’s eyes.
“I’ve heard of women like that, but never seen one. You live with her?”
*No,* Ike said. *Rachel lives up at the big house. Only us riders live in the bunkhouse. She is pretty though isn’t she? Got to admit, I’ve a preference for yellow curls and green eyes ever since she came to cook for us.*
“Not the curly headed one,” Chaske said. “She’s pretty enough for a white woman. I’m talking about the blessed one.”
Now it was Ike’s turn, yet again, to be confused. *What?*
“The one dressed in trousers, with her hair cut short,” Chaske explained, following Ike out to the barn as he led his horse to a stable. “She’s been blessed by the Spirits. Only blessed women can live and act like men. And vice versa. At least, that’s what my Ma used to tell me.” He paused a long moment, thinking. “At least I think so. It’s been so long that sometimes it’s hard to remember.”
*Don’t know as I’d call Lou blessed,* Ike said, pulling the saddle of his horse and beginning to brush it down. *Go grab two scoops of grain out of that barrel over there,* he told Chaske. *She can be as much of a holy terror as anything.*
“Those who’ve been touched by the Spirits often act strangely,” Chaske said.
Then you must’ve been triple touched, Ike thought, but kept quiet.
“This is your village?” Chaske asked, looking around curiously as they rode into Sweetwater.
*Sort of,* Ike said. *We really don’t spend much time here. We live out at the station.*
“But you can come here whenever you want?”
“The blackrobe never let me leave the mission,” Chaske revealed, his voice vibrating with growing excitement. “Ever!”
*Well, Sweetwater isn’t much,* Ike signed. *But it’s ours. And we can come whenever we want.*
“You are soooo lucky,” Chaske enthused.
Ike didn’t respond. He was busy dismounting in front of Tompkins’ store and tying his fresh horse to the hitching post. *Come on,* he signalled to Chaske. *Let’s go find Buck.*
“Ike,” Tompkins greeted him as they walked through the door, the little bells tinkling over their heads. Ike didn’t even notice, but Chaske stopped to inspect the bells with an admiring look.
Ike moved determinedly toward the counter where Tompkins liked to hold court.
*Have you seen Buck?* he signed.
“Ike, you know I can’t read your signs,” Tompkins chided him. Pulling out a notepad, he passed it and a pencil over to the rider.
You seen Buck? Ike rapidly scrawled on the top sheet.
Tompkins looked down at the paper as Ike passed the notepad back to him. He nodded.
“Sure, Ike. He was in here not 15 minutes ago. Left to go find those two hotheaded friends of yours.”
Ike reached out and grabbed the paper back.
Hickok and Cody? he wrote. Where? He held up the paper so Tompkins could read it, without letting go of it.
“Last I saw them, they were headed to the livery. Hickok said somethin’ ‘bout needin’ ta get his horse re-shod. I sent Buck over thataway.”
Ike nodded. Thanks, he scratched out quickly on the paper, setting it and the pencil down on the counter before turning to head back toward the door. Signing to Chaske as he moved, he said, *Come on. Let’s head down to the livery.*
“You’re welcome,” Tompkins called after him, shaking his head in bemusement.
Pushing open the large barn doors of the livery, Ike looked behind him to warn Chaske about the hostler’s limited tolerance for Indians. Honestly, he was half-surprised Buck had come here at all. He wondered what Buck was after, to put up with the man even for a few minutes to find Hickok and Cody.
The fact that Chaske wasn’t on his heels, as expected, startled Ike. Then, he remembered the young man’s fascination, first with the town itself then with all the shiny gew gaws in Tompkins’ store and huffed in exasperation. Chaske was like a little child let loose on the world with no direction.
“Where should we start lookin’, Jud,” Kurt asked as he followed the taller man through the door being obligingly held open by a bald boy who never noticed them.
“Where’s the first place you’d go in town if you’d never been out and about?” Jud asked, his numerous long braids swaying against his back as he looked at the shorter man.
Kurt pulled his hat off and ran his fingers through the short springy curls that covered his oddly egg-shaped head. “I dunno,” he said after a moment. “But I always head fer the saloon and somethin’ ta drink.”
“Well, let’s start lookin’ there,” Jud sighed. “It’s as good a place as any. And I am kinda thirsty. It was a long ride here.”
“Yer tellin’ me,” Kurt muttered, smashing his hat back down on his head. “I can’t believe them Express riders do that all the time. You couldn’t pay me enough ta ride like that regular-like.”
Ike knocked on the wall of the barn to get the hostler’s attention.
“He ain’t here,” the irritated man snapped at him, spitting a wad of slimy chewing tobacco at Ike’s feet. “That durned Injun friend o’ yern. Took off out of here like a shot once he knew them other riders was down to the saloon. And you kin jest take yer own self on out of here after ‘em.”
Ike’s shoulders slumped as the annoyed hostler turned his back and disappeared into one of the stalls at the back of the barn.
He was tired and cranky himself. Normally he’d have had a bite to eat after a run and then dropped into his bunk for several hours sleep. Instead, here he was in town, chasing after Buck, with a runaway Indian he was responsible for finding a home for.
Shaking his head slowly, Ike turned and trudged back out of the barn, headed for the saloon.
Ike kept his eyes open for Chaske as he walked down the boardwalk toward the saloon, but didn’t seen him anywhere. He guessed Tompkins hadn’t thrown him out of the store yet. He shrugged.
Stepping into the saloon, Ike paused a short ways inside the door, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light of the room as he looked around for Buck. He didn’t see his blood brother, but he did eventually find Hickok and Cody. They were right where one would expect to find the two of them, cozied up to a table where a group of men was playing poker. Hickok had several cards in his hands. Cody was hanging over his shoulder.
Ike smiled slightly to himself. Judging by the disgruntled frown on Hickok’s face, Cody was giving him some unwanted advice on the game.
He slowly made his way over to his friends, careful not to push anyone too hard or step on any toes. Last thing he needed was to get into a fight here. Finally, he found himself next to Cody, behind Hickok’s chair. Reaching out, Ike grabbed Cody’s elbow and started tugging at it.
“Hey, stop tha--” Cody started to brush him off. But then he caught sight of Ike out of the corner of his eye. “Oh, sorry, Ike,” he rushed to apologize. “I didn’t hear ya come in.”
Ike rolled his eyes at the quip.
*Where’s Buck?* he asked, getting straight to the point. *I need to talk to him.*
Cody shrugged, never taking his eyes off the card game going on in front of him. “Dunno. Ye’ll have ta ask Hickok. He’s the one Buck talked to.” Then he added in an exaggerated whisper, “But I’d wait ‘til this hand’s over. Hickok’s a mite cranky right now.”
“I wouldn’t be so ‘cranky’,” Jimmy muttered, “If you’d just shut up already.”
Hearing the underlying tension in Jimmy’s voice, Ike decided it would be the better part of valor to bide his time. While he waited, he let his eyes wander around the small saloon that was the pride of Sweetwater’s male population. Seemed like just about everyone was here this Saturday afternoon, well on their way to a Saturday night drunk, judging by the mugs of beer, full, half-drunk and empty, littering the room. He shook his head and thought longingly of his empty bunk.
“Well, he obviously ain’t here,” a tall, skinny man with long black braids tangled into his hair said loudly enough to be heard over the noise of the crowd as he set his now empty glass back down on the bar. “Where else should we look?”
“Who are you lookin’ fer?” the bartender asked, pausing in his nearly non-stop wiping of the wooden bar. “I know jest ‘bout ever’body in these here parts. If yer lookin’ fer someone I kin probably tell ya where ta find ‘im.”
“Fer a price, right?” the braided man asked sarcastically. The bartender shrugged laconically and resumed his swiping with the dirty rag in his hand.
“If ya don’t wanna know, that ain’t no skin off my back.”
“Kurt,” the tall man said to his shorter, rounder companion. “Ya still got that there gold piece the Padre gave ya?”
“Yup, Jud, I shore do.”
“Show it to the man.”
Kurt reached into his pocket, rooting around a bit before he pulled his hand back out to show a shiny, round gold piece to the bartender, who straightened up and stared at it longingly.
“We’re lookin’ fer an Injun,” Jud said. “Speaks English like a native. Dressed in black trousers with a brown shirt. So’s he don’t look too much like an Injun. But he’s still got that long, black hair and red skin.”
Ike stiffened at the description that so aptly fit his companion.
“Answers ta the name Joshua,” Jud continued. “But prefers his Injun name. Chaske.”
Ike began to impatiently tug at Cody’s elbow again, even as he reached over Jimmy’s shoulder with his other hand to slam his cards down on the table.
“Hey!” Jimmy sputtered, standing up in anger before he saw it was Ike who’d manhandled his hand. “What’d ya do that fer?” he said a tad more civilly then he would have otherwise, but still ready to start pummeling the other rider.
Ike started signing as fast as he could, never taking his eyes off the two men at the bar, still talking to the bartender.
*I need your help,* he said. *I need you to keep those men here, any way you can.*
“Why?” Cody asked.
*They’re after someone I’m helping,* Ike explained. *Please, I don’t have time to explain further.*
Jimmy stood up gracefully, his hands falling to rest on the Colt that always rode his hip. “Don’t worry. You want them here, then here they stay.”
He edged around the table and began striding arrogantly toward the bar, Cody scuttling along at his side. Ike saw Jimmy push between the two men and pound his fist on the bar, demanding something.
He couldn’t hear what Jud said to Jimmy, but could tell it was precisely the opening Hickok had been looking for. Without another word, or any other sort of warning, Jimmy hauled off and hit the man. The fight was on and rapidly spreading to all the other men clustered in the saloon.
Ike grinned as he slowly inched his way back from the fight and out the door. He’d try to think of a way to thank Cody and Jimmy later. Although the fight itself may have been all the thanks Jimmy needed, he grunted to himself.
Once free of the saloon, Ike hurried down the boardwalk, looking every direction at once, trying to figure out where Chaske had gotten himself to. He headed straight for Tompkins’ place, but a quick peek inside showed Chaske wasn’t there. With a sigh, Ike stepped back out on the boardwalk and looked around.
Where could that boy have gotten himself?, he wondered.
Sniffing, Ike could smell the delicious odor of fresh baked breads and pies coming from the restaurant down the street. He decided to check it out. But turning around, he caught sight of the two men from the bar, Jud and Kurt, walking straight toward him. Jud had a hand to an already blackening eye and Kurt’s nose was obviously broken.
Ike glanced around, wildly seeking a quick hiding place. The only thing close enough was the barrel full of apples. Ike hunkered down behind it, betting the two men wouldn’t bother really searching for him. If they did, he figured he could always tip the barrel over on them and run for it. Though he might have to pay Tompkins back later for any damaged or missing fruit.
The men never even looked his direction, continuing to argue about something as they pushed their way into the store. Peeking cautiously out from behind the barrel, Ike watched the door swing closed behind them. He breathed a sigh of relief that they had stopped here and not moved on past his hiding spot. Straightening up, he turned and hurried off again.
Stops at the gunsmith’s shop, tailor’s place and the blacksmith turned up neither Chaske nor Buck. Growling to himself in frustration, Ike peered up and down the boardwalk and across the street before turning toward the next stop, the Cafe.
“You sure you ain’t seen him? We been chasin’ sightin’s of him all over town!”
The sound of a frustrated voice up ahead grabbed Ike’s attention. Looking up he saw Jud and Kurt talking to Marshal Cain.
“Sorry, can’t say as I have,” Sam said, shaking his head and taking a deep drag on his cigar. “Have you tried the livery? I know the boys had some sort of errand there today.”
“Thanks,” Jud sighed in frustration, turning to head Ike’s direction.
Panicking, Ike ducked into the nearest door, not looking to see where he was. Slamming the door closed behind him, he moved toward the window to hunker down and peek through it. He watched the two men move past his position.
Sighing in relief, Ike stood up and finally looked around him. Three women stood frozen, staring at him, in various states of dress and undress. One was holding up a piece of cloth in front of another who had on what looked like part of a skirt over her pantaloons. A third, older woman was standing a ways away, apparently overseeing the proceedings. All four just stood there in shock for a moment.
Then, the young woman being fitted started screaming. The woman with the cloth in her hands rapidly moved over and wrapped it around her, concealing the girl from Ike’s view. The older woman began to screech at him.
“What do you think you’re doing? Get out of here this instant!” She moved toward him like a charging bull, raising her parasol like a sword, swinging it wildly at Ike’s head once she was close enough.
Ike blushed bright red when he realized he’d taken refuge in the dressmaker’s shop. Holding his hands up to protect his face, he didn’t even bother trying to apologize. He just ran for his life.
Shaking his head and taking a deep breath once safely back out on the road, Ike looked around for the other two men. Not seeing them, he turned and resumed his dogged search of the town, heading again for the Cafe, two doors down.
He pushed his way through the doors and sniffed appreciatively. His rumbling stomach reminded him he hadn’t had the chance to grab a meal after his run. Not only wasn’t he getting any sleep, but now he was starving, too. All of which was making Ike decidedly grumpy. He was almost ready to just leave Chaske on his own and head back to the station.
A quick glance around the room showed Chaske wasn’t here, either. Just a couple of old timers sitting in a corner playing checkers and sipping on some coffee, taking occasional bites from pie sitting on plates by their elbows.
Ike was about to head back out the door, when he heard the determined tromping of boots down the boardwalk. He paused and peeked out the Cafe’s big, plate glass window. Here came Kurt and Jud.
Damn it! Why couldn’t they search the other side of town, Ike grumbled to himself.
Looking around frantically, Ike found himself trapped. There was no other way out of the Cafe. Or so he thought, until he spotted a serving girl come out from the back room with a coffee pot in her hand. The kitchen! There had to be another exit through the kitchen.
Ike brushed past the serving girl, ignoring her cries.
“You can’t go back there!”
He didn’t really care anymore about can and can’t. He just wanted out of here. In his rush, he didn’t see the cook backing up from the oven with a tray of hot tarts in her hands. Not until she backed right into him, sending them both tumbling to the ground and the tarts rolling all over the kitchen floor.
Ike’s startled eyes met hers, just inches away. She was a round, plump woman with bright blue eyes. He knew her from church. She was normally a cheerful soul, smiling at everyone. But there was no smile in her eyes right now. In fact, if looks could kill, she’d have put Ike out of his misery!
Pushing back from their tangled position on the floor, unmindful of where sharp elbows and knees landed on his tender anatomy, she screeched, “Look what you’ve done! It took hours to bake those tarts and now they’re ruined!”
Knowing there was no way to appease her, Ike just skedaddled on out the door, secretly pocketing one of the tarts that had rolled to a stop near his hand. The sweet scent of warm raspberries in a buttery, flaky crust teased at his nose. Ike was so busy wondering how far he’d have to run before he could pull the pastry out and start nibbling, he didn’t notice the rain barrel until he ran smack, dab into it.
The collision startled and explosion of air out of him as he bent nearly in half, his nose coming to a stop just shy of dipping into the water, right next to a suspicious looking straw. Ike’s eyes narrowed. He reached up with one hand and dove it straight down into the water, nodding when it came into contact with a mass of wet hair and cloth almost immediately.
He grabbed and pulled. Chaske surfaced, gasping for breath as Ike yanked the straw he’d been using to breath out of his mouth.
“Oh thank the Creator!” Chaske yelped with glee. “It’s you! We’ve got to get out of here. The blackrobe’s two guards are in town looking for me!”
*I know,* Ike motioned. *And I’ve been trying to get you out of here for the last hour. But I couldn’t find you either!*
“Well, I couldn’t exactly sit around and let them see me,” Chaske whined, trying to wring the water out of his wet trousers and shirt.
*You could’ve stayed with me!* Ike started to remonstrate with him. Seeing Chaske open his mouth to start arguing, he sighed. *Never mind. Let’s just get out of here!*
“No arguments there!”
The traditional sendoff rang in Ike’s ears as he and Chaske trotted around the corner of the barn into the Express station’s yard.
Buck waved from where he was urging his horse into a gallop to match paces with an incoming Kid.
“Welcome back, Ike! See ya in a couple days,” he shouted, easily catching the mochila Kid tossed him and taking off.
Ike waved back forlornly, shoulders slumping. There went his best chance to find out about Chaske’s heritage, at least for a few days. And the idea of spending a few more days trying to keep track of the other young man was just plain.... exhausting.
Suddenly, it was more than he could handle. Dismounting with more vigor than was absolutely necessary, he walked his horse toward the barn, violently kicking at anything that got in his way. Silently he dared anyone to cross him. Cause he’d love to cross them. First a right, then a left!
Chaske didn’t notice. His eyes were too busy following the blessed boy/girl’s form as he/she came running out of the building his new friend Ike had called a bunkhouse. He wondered if he/she would consent to spend some time with Chaske. Maybe even go for a walk at sunset.
Chaske’s dreams about a future with the Spirits-touched woman broke apart as quickly as they’d formed when he saw him/her run up to the newly returned rider, glance around quickly, then lean up on tiptoe to press a kiss to the other man’s cheek.
He sighed and turned his horse to morosely follow Ike’s spastic progress toward the barn.
Kurt groaned as the horse he was riding pulled at the reins, extending his arm against the bruise that was forming from the bar fight. His knuckles were scraped and raw. And his nose throbbed incessantly. He was pretty sure it was broken.
He didn’t want to be out here on his horse, again.
“Why cain’t we stay at the boardin’ house in town?” he whined.
“Told ya, we don’t have ‘nough money,” Jud growled, just as displeased not to be able to get some rest in a nice soft bed. Reaching up, he pressed his hand to his throbbing eye. It was a solid black, blue and green mosaic by now. And his whole head ached.
“Cain’t we at least make camp? I’m hungry,” Kurt pleaded.
Jud shook his head, his mouth firming into an angry slash across his face. “I’m sick of chasing this brat all across the countryside. We’re goin’ ta at least see if he’s out at this Express station ever’one in town was tellin’ us ‘bout.” He looked over at his companion. “‘Sides, I ain’t ‘xactly lookin’ forward ta ‘nother meal of yer beans an’ hardtack.”
The two miserable men on horseback plodded on into the growing darkness of the prairie.
“Rachel, this stew is great,” Kid complemented.
“Yep, even better’n a cheese sandwich after a long day on the trail,” Jimmy added with a grin. For some reason the scrapes on his face and knuckles from the bar fight had made him pleased as punch with himself.
“I’ve never had anything like this,” Chaske smiled, shoveling another spoonful of the meat and potatoes into his mouth. “All the blackrobe every gave us to eat was bread and gruel.”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, young man,” Rachel reproached him with mock severity. Then, with a smile, “And you can have as much as you want.”
“Hey!” Cody protested.
Lou swatted his shoulder. “There’s plenty ‘nough fer everyone!”
Cody rubbed at his shoulder but quailed back from whatever response he’d planned when he saw Lou’s glare. Chaske stopped chewing as he watched how the young man/woman interacted with the others. It amazed him. It was just like she was one of the boys. Yet, she wasn’t. The dynamics were fascinating!
“So,” Kid said, turning to Ike, “How’d you meet this character?”
Ike grunted, ignoring everyone, still in a funk.
“He rescued me from an angry mob,” Chaske said proudly, pounding on Ike’s back in approbation. “I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for him.”
*Might not be alive by the time I’m done with him,* Ike signed covertly. Lou and Cody were the only ones who saw what he’d said. Lou almost snorted the entire moutful of coffee she’d just gulped right out through her nose. She shook her head and wagged a reproving finger at Ike, her eyes twinkling.
Bringing his hands above the table where everyone could see them, Ike added, *He’s trying to find his people. He remembers some of the language, but was taken from them by some Catholic priest so young he doesn’t even know the name of his tribe. Just that they’re called the People.*
“Heck, all tribes call themselves that,” Cody said. “That ain’t no help.”
“Well, we’ve all met up with members of several of the tribes in the area,” Lou said. “Maybe if he told us something in his language, we might recognize it.”
“We ain’t exactly no language experts,” Jimmy warned.
Lou shrugged. “Hey, you got a better idea.”
He shrugged, unable to come up with anything.
Noticing Chaske’s admiring looks thrown Lou’s direction, Kid scooted a little closer to her on the bench, fighting the urge to wrap a protective arm around her shoulders. She wouldn’t like that.
“So, why don’t ya say somethin’ in yer language,” Kid spurred. “It’s worth a try.”
Looking adoringly at Lou, Chaske said quietly, “Otȟáŋkaye kiŋ tuktél úŋ he?”
“That’s real pretty,” Rachel said. “What does it mean?”
“Um,” Chaske turned a deeper shade of red than his already bronze skin normally was. “I asked where the outhouse was.”
When the laughter died down, Kid said, “You know, that sounded a lot like something Curly said to me once. Except he wasn’t exactly happy with me at the time!”
“You mean, he might be Lakota?” Cody asked.
“Maybe,” Kid mused. “Say something else.”
“Théhaŋ waŋčhíŋyaŋke šni,” Chaske said helpfully.
Kid straightened up, smiling broadly. “Now that I’ve definitely heard before. Curly said it the last time we ran into each other!”
“Then, I am Lakota?” Chaske asked.
Kid shrugged. “At least that’s the language you speak. Though I understand you could belong to other similar tribes. The Lakota ain’t the only Sioux around.”
Chaske frowned in puzzlement and opened his mouth to say something when Rachel held up a hand signalling for quiet. Everyone looked at her questioningly as she tilted her head as if listening to something. Soon, the others heard it, too. It was the sound of hooves pounding into the prairie dirt as they came galloping toward the station.
“Anyone expecting guests?” Rachel asked, looking around the table. Everyone shook their heads “No,” even as they scrambled up and grabbed their gunbelts from the hooks by the door and began fastening them on.
*Stay here,* Ike told Chaske, adding a glare to emphasize he meant what he’d said. *We’ll take care of whoever’s out there.*
“Hello the house!”
“Ready?” Rachel asked, reaching for the door. The others nodded. She opened the door and Jimmy stepped through first, followed by the others, Rachel coming last. All of them making sure to keep the entryway blocked so whoever was outside couldn’t see into the building.
“Can I help you gentlemen?” Rachel asked pleasantly.
The taller of the two pulled his hat off his head and nodded to her. “Uh, we’re lookin’ fer a Injun, ma’am. A runaway. You wouldn’t’ve seen ‘im would ya?”
“I’m sorry,” Rachel smiled, shaking her head. “I don’t know any ‘injuns’. We do have a young Kiowa man who works for us. But he’s no runaway. He’s been here since the start of the Express and he’s out on a run right now.”
The shorter, rounder man tugged on his companion’s sleeve, an unhappy look on his face as he whispered something to him. The taller man shook his head in the negative.
Looking back at Rachel, surrounded by five heavily armed and obviously lethal young men, Jud pulled up on his horse’s reins, causing the animal to back up a bit.
“Sorry to have disturbed ya, ma’am,” he said. “Thanks fer yer help. If yer boy’s been here that long, he ain’t who we’re lookin’ fer. We’ll just be on our way.”
Without another word, the two wheeled their horses around and galloped off. Rachel nodded commandingly to Kid and Lou. “Track them,” she said quietly. “Make sure they ain’t comin’ back.”
Then, with a sweeping gesture of her arm, she motioned everyone else back into the bunkhouse.
“It’s alright, Chaske,” Cody called as he walked into the bunkhouse. “They’re go--”
He stopped in mid-word. Chaske was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’d he go?” Jimmy asked, confused.
Ike sighed and headed to the back door of the bunkhouse. Sharing puzzled glances, the rest trooped after him. He walked straight to the water barrel and pulled off the lid. Reaching in with his other hand, he pulled and up came a soaking Chaske.
“What the hell?” Cody asked in wonderment.
*It’s his favorite hiding place,* Ike motioned, already heading back into the bunkhouse, without a backward glance.
“Well come on,” Rachel said comfortingly. “Back in the bunkhouse. Jimmy, get him a towel would you? Let’s get you dried off and settled in for the night.”
“You can have the visitin’ rider’s bunk,” Cody said helpfully.
“Don’t worry,” Rachel added, “I put fresh sheets on it this morning.”
Jud dumped the remnants of his coffee, mostly just the ground up beans by now, into the fire.
“I’ve had it,” he said forcefully.
“With what?” Kurt asked, looking up from the plate of beans he was shoveling into his mouth with a piece of hardtack.
“This!” Jud waved his arm around indicating their little encampment. They hadn’t bothered to really set up a camp, just pulled the saddles off the horses and started a small fire to boil up the coffee and beans. Jud stood up and started kicking dirt into the firepit.
When he picked up his saddle and started heading for his horse, Kurt asked, almost whining, “Whatcha doin’?”
“I’ve worked fer the damned Padre fer 10 years now and what do I got to show fer it? Nothin’. I’m goin’ after that Indian they say is an Express rider. Them folks back at the station was hidin’ somethin’. Maybe it’s Chaske.” Jud laid the saddle over his horse’s back and started cinching it on. “If it is, we’ll drag him back ta the Mission. Then, I quit. If it ain’t, I aim ta keep right on ridin’. Denver, maybe. Or Salt Lake City. Some place with real opportunities. No more grubbing about fer no money and a meal that leaves my stomach gnawin’ at my backbone.”
Finishing his tirade, Jud swung up into the saddle and looked down at Kurt, who still sat on the ground, plate of beans in one hand, staring at him gapejawed.
“Well? Ya comin’?”
Kurt sighed as he and Jud crested another of the interminable ridges that dotted the surrounding countryside. He was tired. The crimson and yellow streaks of dawn across the purplish prairie sky didn’t impress him. Honestly, he didn’t even see it. They’d been riding all night, following the Express trail, once they’d found it. But still hadn’t caught up with this Indian rider. Kurt knew he wasn’t smart, but even he could figure out that there’s no way two men on just two horses could catch up with a single man, riding hell bent for leather, with regular, fresh remounts.
He looked over at his companion when Jud started violently tugging at his jacket sleeve, pulling both Kurt and his horse to a stop at the top of the ridge.
“Hold up,” Jud hissed. He pointed down into the almost valley, really more of a deep dip in the rolling earth, below them. “That’s the next station.”
There was some early morning activity already going on. Men coming out of the bunkhouse, yawning and stretching, scratching and spitting, before moving out into the yard to head in different directions.
“There,” Jud whispered, excited, pointing to a tall young man with long black hair. He turned toward the barn and the early morning sunlight washed his face with a rosy glow that couldn’t hide it’s bronzed color and just highlighted his high, strong cheekbones and sharp nose. “That’s got ta be their Indian rider.”
“That ain’t Chaske,” Kurt muttered.
“Nope,” Jud grinned. “Which means we ain’t got ta ride all the way back ta the damned Mission.”
“Where we gonna go?”
“Fer now?” Jud shrugged. “We’re gonna go find us a place ta set up camp and get some sleep. Tomorrow, we’ll see what the world has in store fer us. Cain’t be no worse’n the damned Padre. Screw his plans fer civilizin’ the Indians.”
“You sure it’s alright I take a horse?”
*Just promise to bring it back,* Ike shrugged. *Sometime.*
“Give it to Curly,” Kid suggested. “It’ll give him a reason to visit again. Haven’t seen him around here in a long time. Tell him to take some time off from chasin’ his destiny to say ‘Howdy!’ to a friend.”
Chaske nodded with a grin, reaching up to pat the neck of the tall, sturdy sorrel they’d just saddled up for him.
“Ike, Kid, get out here and help me with this wood,” came Jimmy’s shouting voice. “Rachel needs it now if we’re going to get breakfast before noon!”
A slightly panicked look crossed Kid’s face and he grabbed Ike’s shoulder to pull him toward the barn doors.
“Be right back,” Kid tossed over his shoulder. “Don’t take off!”
Chaske nodded and turned to whisper into the horse’s ear, trying to make its acquaintance. He found the peaceful, early morning sounds of the barn soothing. Until he heard the rhythmic pounding of a horse being ridden into the yard. He stiffened and when it became obvious the horse was headed for the barn, he began to look for a place to hide.
Teaspoon bit back a silent groan as he swung down off his horse. Three days riding nearly non-stop up and down the Express trail checking on the other stationmasters had nearly done him in. He’d never admit it to the boys, he thought with a grimace, but he wasn’t as young as he used to be.
Taking the reins, he led his horse into the barn and began to unsaddle it. As soon as he got the animal settled, he planned to head in and enjoy one of Rachel’s delicious meals, then sleep. Maybe straight through ‘til tomorrow’s breakfast. He patted his stomach affectionately. He had enough reserves to last about that long, he thought.
He put the tack away and quickly brushed down the animal before leading it to an empty stall. A little hay in the trough, a bucket of water and he was almost done. He grabbed up the grain bucket and headed for the oats. After a long, hard ride like this, the equine deserved something special for breakfast, too. Needed it, really. Some sweet oats mixed with a liberal dosing of molasses would do the trick. Perk the horse right up.
“Ungh,” he grunted, when he slammed his toe into the base of the barrel. He frowned. That barrel should be nearly empty. There’s no way the boys could’ve used up the last of the grain in it in the three days he’d been gone. Not unless they’d been overfeeding the horses. So why was it so heavy?
Reaching over, he lifted up the lid and looked into it. Instead of the mounds of grain he was expecting, he found himself eye to eye with a young Indian. He was mostly dressed in white man’s clothes, but a child’s medicine necklace peeking out from beneath his shirt collar instantly told Teaspoon the boy was Sioux, Lakota to be precise.
He opened his mouth to ask the boy what the hell he was doing in the feed barrel, but never got a word out.
The teen jumped up, leaped out of the barrel and ran past Teaspoon to a saddled horse near the barn door. Another hop and he was in the saddle and galloping out the barn and away from the station.
Teaspoon meandered out of the barn after him, scratching his head in puzzlement.
“Here you go, Rachel,” Jimmy said, lowering his load of chopped wood carefully onto the pile next to the stove. “That should be enough to last through supper.”
“At least as long as Cody takes his run today!” Kid added.
They all laughed.
Suddenly, Rachel’s laugh petered out and she tilted her head, listening.
“Shhh!” she held up a hand for quiet. “What’s that?”
*Sounds like a horse,* Ike motioned. *Think Teaspoon’s back?*
“If he is, we’d better get out there before he scares Chaske,” Rachel said.
The four rushed out onto the bunkhouse porch, just as Chaske burst through the barn doors, his horse already galloping off toward the western horizon.
Teaspoon followed a moment later, scratching his head in puzzlement.
Kid leaned out off the edge of the porch, one hand braced on the roof post to keep from falling as he yelled after Chaske. “Tell Curly to come visit!”
Stopping in the middle of the yard, Teaspoon watched Chaske as he disappeared into the distance. The others joined him one by one. Finally, he shook his head and looked at the boys, and one young woman, surrounding him. “
Who was that Sioux boy?” he asked, befuddled.
Author's Note: This story would never have happened if it weren't for the Random Generator Challenge the girls on the Plus cooked up. Or without all the help Flame gave me in plotting, posting and graphicking this story. Thanks again!