Friends Not Forgotten
by Mary Ann

In the Year AU

Main Characters: Chris, Buck

Beta - Thanks to Melissa

Chapter 1

Buck Wilmington raced through the back streets of the town. He jumped over discarded, worn out furniture and knocked over several garbage containers. Daylight was fading fast and people were hurrying home as rapidly as they could. No one wanted to be out after dark. A couple of houses outside of town had been attacked by a pack of wolves two days earlier. Though there were hunters out trying to find and destroy the wolves, people were warned to get into their homes before dark.

Buck raced around the corner of the large house at the corner of the road and took the back steps three at a time. He burst into the house, slipping on the well polished floor. Sliding to a stop he shut the door behind him and dropped the safety bar into place before turning towards the kitchen where enticing smells wafted towards him. He pulled his coat off and brushed a hand through his unruly dark hair as he took a deep breath, then walked through the door.

"Hey Mom, I'm home and I have some news." Buck said to the tall dark-haired woman standing in front of the stove.

Alexia Wilmington turned to look at her son and shook her head. He was filthy, like he'd been rolling around in dirt all day.

"I washed the floor today, and look at you! You're a mess. Go brush off and get cleaned up, dinner will be ready in fifteen minutes. You have time for a quick shower. There's enough hot water. We can talk while we eat. Go!" She waved her large wooden spoon at him, pointing it at the mud room.


"Go. Whatever it is can wait a few minutes," she ordered and turned back to the stove, a small smile on her lips.

Buck knew he needed to do as she said or he'd be eating his meal on the entry porch. He stepped back into what his mom called the mud room, the small room he'd just came through from the back door. There he brushed off as well as he could, pulled off his boots then his shirt. Carrying them he hurried through the kitchen and up the stairs to his room where he dropped everything. Pulling his pants off, he grabbed a towel and rushed into the bathroom. Within moments, he was under the shower, happy there was enough hot water for him this time. Usually his showers consisted of semi-warm water or plain cold water. He rushed through soaping up, washing, rinsing and then drying off. Throwing clean clothes on he raced downstairs in time to pour milk as his mother dished out a big helping of stew for each of them and added slices of fresh bread.

Alexia smiled as her son dug into his meal. When they were finished, she looked at him. "Now what is the news you have?"

Buck cleared the table and sat down. "A new family moved into the old Griffon place. And they need help. Mr. Larabee hired me to work for them. There's a kid my age and two daughters. Mr. L said he would pay me the going rate per hour to help them get the place in order. We'll be doing house and barn repairs and fences and more. I think he's a farmer, well they have several teams of heavy horses, plus riding horses too. We have to get the buildings done right away, especially with wolves being around now."

Alexia rose and moved to the sink to wash the dishes while Buck dumped the leftover stew into a container and put it into the small refrigerator in the corner of the room.

"Have you met the Larabee children?"

"Just the older daughter, Kathie, she seems nice. She looks like she might be nineteen or twenty. The other girl and the boy weren't there at the time. I'll meet them tomorrow when I go to work. Mr. L seems like a nice man, and I think he is sincere in getting the place up and working again. I have to be there by eight in the morning. I'm not sure what time I'll get home. Mom, will you be all right?"

With a shake of her head, Alexia turned her smile to her son. "I am always all right, you know that Buck. I have two customers coming tomorrow one at nine the other at eleven. I will be fine. It sounds like you will be working for a good family. I am happy for you. It will keep you off the streets while I am busy."

"Mom, you need to get out of this business." Buck said and he began to dry the dishes she'd washed.

"What do you think puts a roof over our heads and food on the table? If I didn't work and make the money I do, we'd be in a hovel and barely have anything to eat. I will continue until we have enough to live the way we should. Summer is coming upon us real fast and we need the money to be prepared for winter. Now change the subject, I don't want to go over this again."

Buck shut up. He'd tried often to talk his mom out of what she called her work. It was really laying on her back for men, to make money. For years he thought the places they lived were pretty neat, a lot of pretty women all living together in big fancy houses. They did entertain men all the time but at the time he was too young to understand what really was going on. When he turned ten and started to get taller, a couple of the ladies would talk to him about doing things he's never heard of. Several times he fought other boys, many larger than him, when they insisted he was taking advantage of the women they lived with.

After his fourth fight his mother took him aside and explained what was going on in the house, and asked that he hide when men came there to see the women. For months, he did as his mother asked. But one night a man started beating on one of the young women and he intervened when he heard her screams. He found he was taller than the weasely little man and easily threw him out of the girls room then chased him out of the house. The next day, he and his mother were out on the street, she having been fired from the business she had done for the last fifteen years.

Buck remembered feeling scared to death as they walked to the train station. His mom clutching his hand and carrying her suitcase. He carried his own. They rode the train to the next town then took a bus to a couple other towns, moving far away from where they'd lived since before he was born.

In the new town, his mother found another place for them and they settled into a small apartment. For almost six months they stayed there before she dragged her son to another town, then another, then when he turned twelve they were moving once more. For most of the last two years they'd been in this town. She had enough money now for them to live in the back of this large fancy house. The apartment came with a small eat in kitchen and living area with two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. There were other women in the house but they weren't in this part of the building. The house had three nice sized apartments for women who might have children, but the main part housed several single women. Men constantly visited.

Now as tall as his mother, Buck kept an eye on all the women who came and went. Only two times he had been called for help by any of them. So far the men he got rid of were smaller than him, and it didn't take much to convince them to leave and never come back.

With a sigh, Buck headed up to his room. He was excited that he found a decent paying job. He figured he would save every penny he could so he could convince his mother to leave this business. For many years he'd longed for a father to be there for him and his mom, but his mother didn't seem to be to interested in having a lasting relationship with anyone. She never talked about his father, and he guessed she really wasn't sure who the man was.

Flopping onto his bed, Buck grabbed the old book he was reading though as thoughts of the Larabee's started to run through his head. He wondered if the boy would look like the sister he met, tall and thin with dark blond hair. Mr. L was a large, well built man with powerful shoulders and light blond hair. Would the boy look like his dad or his mother? Buck rose and stripped, turned out the light and crawled into bed. He guessed he'd find out in the morning.

Morning sun lit the small room Buck used. He jumped out of bed and dressed. Once finished in the bathroom he carried his dirty clothes downstairs to where him mom kept a basket for their dirty clothes. She would get to the laundry later that afternoon. The women were able to use a washer twice a week to keep their clothes clean. It was in a separate room on the other side of the house. Sometimes Buck did their washing. The clothes were hung either outside to dry or in the kitchen in bad weather.

He found his mother in the kitchen. Alexia filed a plate for Buck and handed it to him after he poured a cup of coffee for them both.

"Are you going to take a lunch with you?" Alexia asked as she sat down to eat.

"I won't today. If I get hungry I'll just ignore it and eat more when I get home," Buck smiled at his mother.

Alexia laughed. "I am sure you will, no matter if you have lunch or not."

Buck winked at her and carried his plate to the sink. Bending over Alexia he kissed her on her cheek. "I'll see you later. Have a good day, Mom."

"Work diligently son," Alexia called after him as he rushed out the door.

Alexia sat at the table for a few minutes drinking her coffee. With a sigh she rose, she wished she could give her son all the things a growing young man needed. Buck was fourteen and always was there for her, even when she worked she knew he wasn't far and would come if she needed him. She home schooled him as best she could and now he needed a man's guidance to help him into manhood, to understand men things. She was sure there would not be a man in their lives, she didn't know of any man she would like or love enough to take on a fallen woman and a teenage son.

Once she finished cleaning the kitchen, she hurried upstairs and prepared for the man who would be there before too long. She was happy that Buck found a decent job. He'd been helping at the stables, cleaning stalls and doing odd jobs for the owner in the mornings. In the afternoons, he helped load vehicles at the feed store when they needed help. It would be good for him to have just one job a day. A knock on her living area door brought her out of her thoughts, and she ran her hands down her sheer peignoir set, plastered a smile on her face and went to answer the door.

Buck jogged down the road. The farm the Larabee's bought was a good mile out of town. It lay in the green area that extended for three hundred miles around the town. The farm covered fifty acres and there were a couple of water sources on it. The previous owner, Hal Griffon, had been a loner and farmed the land by himself. He died of a heart attack in town one day when he came for supplies. For the last year the farm lay empty, the land un-worked. Buck thought it would take a lot of hard work to get a crop in and the place in order.

The run down farm came into view and Buck slowed to a long legged walk. As he got closer, he spotted Mr. Larabee and a blond haired figure leave the house and head to the barn. He broke into a jog again and hurried after them.

"I'm here Mr. Larabee," Buck called as he entered the weed covered area between house and barn.

Mr. Larabee turned around and smiled at the teen and stuck out his hand, "I wasn't sure when you would get here, you're early Buck. This is my son Christopher, we all call him Chris."

Buck shook the offered hand and looked at the boy beside the tall man. He found a pair of intense greenish eye staring at him from a good looking face. Chris offered his hand, and

Buck decided there was more power in the lean form than what he thought and he shook the tanned hand.

"Nice to meet you Chris. I'm Buck Wilmington."

"Chris Larabee, nice to meet you too. Dad wanted to show me what he wanted us to do today, but since you're here, he can show both of us at the same time." Chris replied with a small grin.

"I am ready to work." Buck said and fell in beside the Larabee's.

Within a short time, the two teens were passing lumber up to Mr. Larabee who worked on the barn roof, nailing boards down over the holes in the roof. They had sheets of wide wood for areas with large holes or rotten areas that needed to be replaced.

A clanging sound came from the house and Mr. Larabee straightened and wiped sweat off his forehead. "Lunch time boys. Think we need a break too." He made his way down the ladder and motioned to the teens to follow him. Buck hung back and Chris stopped and looked at him.

"What're you doing? It's time to eat."

"I didn't bring my lunch. I'll just wait out here."

Mr. Larabee paused and looked at Buck, "You work here, you get fed. You have no reason to bring your lunch. There's always plenty to eat. Come on." The last came out like an order and Buck obeyed.

The three stopped on the porch where a large basin filled with water stood on a small table. Soap and a towel lay beside it. It didn't take long for them to clean up then Buck followed them into the house, his stomach growling in response to the smell of fried chicken and fresh made bread that filled the room.

Buck was introduced to the women, Mrs. Callie Larabee, Kathie, oldest sister and Erin the youngest sibling. Buck thought Erin could be seventeen or eighteen, and Kathie at least twenty.

A chair was pointed out to him and Buck sat down. After a short prayer, food began to be passed. He tried not to take too much but Mrs. Larabee insisted he take what he wanted as they had plenty of food. Conversation went around about how many things needed to be fixed and the women told of the work they were doing to get the house in better order. They managed to get all the floors cleaned, and were working on the walls. The windows were next, and the men found out there were several that needed to be replaced.

The heavy metal covers for the windows were already repaired, Chris and his father took care of those as soon as they bought the place. Right now, the main thing they needed to do was get the barn in better working order, and then the house. While the work would be divided between the house and the acreage as soon as the barn's roof was repaired. They needed the barn and house to be protected from wolves who showed up now and then. Wolves were sighted a few miles north of town a couple days before, and though hunters were out hunting them, they could be anywhere. The barn needed to be finished to keep the livestock and horses safe at night.

"Thank you for the wonderful meal, Mrs. Larabee," Buck said as he, Chris and Mr. Larabee rose from the table.

"Please Buck, call me Callie, or Mrs. C or anything other than Mrs. Larabee." Callie said as she stood.

"Yes ma'am, Mrs... Umm Ms Callie," Buck stuttered out.

"That works fine. You are welcome to eat with us daily while you are working for Patrick. Pat, tell him he can call you Pat so he isn't intimidated all the time by forgetting to call you Mister Larabee," Callie looked at her husband with a green eyed glare.

Buck hid his smile as Mr. Larabee gazed at his wife for a moment. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the two girls turn their heads away with smiles on their faces. Chris stood next to him with a small smile on his lips.

With a sigh he nodded his head at his wife, and looked at Buck. "Buck you can call me Pat or Patrick." And with a crooked smile he added, "Or anything just as long as it isn't late for a meal." With another nod to his wife he headed for the door. The girls had their hands over their mouths to stifle their giggles.

"Thanks again for the meal. Nice meeting you all," Buck called over his shoulder as he followed Chris and Pat out the door.

The three worked on the barn the rest of the day. A couple of times, one of the girls came out to help, handing tools and getting nails. The three finished patching the roof and moved to the walls that needed repairs. By dusk, the worse damage was repaired and Patrick thought they would get the rest finished in the morning. Buck helped put up the horses and the cows then prepared to head back to town.

Patrick looked at the tired teen and turned to Chris. "Go get a horse and take Buck to his home. You should be there and back before dark, if you two get going now."

"It's all right I can get home fine," Buck protested.

"No you worked a full day and you don't need to walk home. Chris can take you. I will feel better knowing you got home without a problem. Chris can come get you in the morning. You don't have to walk out here and back every day."

"It's not that far. I can do it with no problems."

"Not on my watch. You will ride and Chris will take you. Now you two get before it gets any later." Patrick turned from the boys and walked into the house

"Come on Buck. Better not to argue with Dad. If he says anything to Mom about you walking home, she will be out here in a minute," Chris grinned and led the way back into the barn. Shortly they were mounted on the wide back of one of the farm horses and headed to town.

The horned horse made short work of getting to town and Buck guided Chris to the house where he and his mother lived. Chris pulled up near the few steps leading to the door to their apartment. "I'll be here in the morning, probably around seven thirty. Will that work for you?"

"It's fine, though I can walk out there. It's not that far."

"Far enough with wolves in the area. I'll see you in the morning." Chris wheeled the horse around.

"Thanks! I really do appreciate the ride home. See you in the morning." Buck called after Chris who waved as he cantered off.

Buck watched him disappear then entered the house to find his mom at the stove, a pleased smile on her face.

Chapter 2

Two weeks seemed to fly by for Buck. He worked side by side with Chris and Patrick morning until dusk and was thankful that Chris rode in to get him and took him home. They finally completed the barn, after finding most of one side wall mostly rotten. They rebuilt the wall and the three stalls butting up to it inside before Patrick deemed the barn totally safe for their animals.

Patrick had been happy when they finished and gave the two teens the rest of the day off. Chris led Buck to a deep pond he'd found on the farm and they spent a couple of hours enjoying the cool water. The afternoon had turned hot and the water felt wonderful.

When the sun started to disappear behind the hills they headed back to the house. After checking in with Patrick on what they were doing the next day they mounted the horse and headed into town.

When they reached Buck's home, his mother was outside taking dry clothes off the clothes line. She smiled seeing the teens coming. When Chris pulled the horse to a halt by the steps she called to them.

"Do you have time for a cool drink? I made fresh lemonade," she asked.

Buck, having dismounted looked up to Chris. "I think you have time, and Mom makes good lemonade."

Chris glanced at the sky and decided he could spare the time, and slid off the big chestnut.

"Can I carry those in for you, Mom?" Buck asked as Alexia walked towards them.

"I just got them off the line and they are clean. You've been working and riding. Just head inside. Have a seat. There are some fresh baked cookies in the pantry to go with the lemonade." Alexia stated and went up the stairs. Buck and Chris exchanged a smile, Chris ground tied the horse and they followed her.

Buck got the lemonade out and poured three glasses. Sitting them on the table he found the plate of cookies and offered it to Chris.

Picking up a couple of the sugar cookies, Chris took a bite, then rolled his eyes. "Oh my gosh! These are heavenly!"

"Mom makes the best cookies. I keep telling her she should open a bakery, she bakes the best cakes and cookies and I think she would be a success at it." Buck stated as he ate a cookie.

"And I would have more things to pay for. Including a building that I would have to make into a bakery. That is a lot of money and I don't think I want to spend it on something like that." Alexia said, as she walked into the room.

Chris and Buck rose from their chairs and she smiled at the boys. "Sit down, you don't have to stand for me. This is a home for comfort, and that is not comfortable, for you or me. Now sit and eat. Are you still working on the barn?"

"No ma'am. We finished it today. I think Dad will be wanting to start on the house. Unless, he wants to try to get a crop in the ground before it's too late." Chris answered immediately.

"What kind of crop is he thinking to plant?" Alexia asked.

Chris took a drink of the lemonade, "I think he's thinking of corn, and maybe some sort of squash. But I'm not too sure, he has several ideas. And he's not too sure what grows in this area yet."

Buck looked at his mother a moment before saying, "Mom do you think corn would do good here?"

Alexia shot her son an unreadable look, then looked at Chris. "I think in this area, beans, carrots, potatoes, and onions would do well. Several berries do pretty good here too; strawberry, blackberries, raspberries, though I think you need decent starts for them. I'm not sure if corn, right now, this time of the year is good, unless you have fast growing seeds." She looked at Chris who was listening attentively. "Water is needed too."

Chris grinned, "that we do have. The place has two good wells and a couple of spring fed ponds. We haven't had time to really check out the whole acreage, but the acres closest to the main buildings have water."

Nodding her head, Alexia smiled, "I am sure Buck would enjoy helping you look over the land."

Buck laughed, "Yeah Mom, I would for sure help them."

"And we would really appreciate the help." Chris put in, then glanced out the window. "I need to get going. I'm going to have to hurry to get back before dark hits. Thank you for the cookies and lemonade. All very good. And I agree with Buck, Ms. Wilmington, you could sell those cookies, they're the best I've ever eaten. I'll see you in the morning, Buck." With a wave Chris headed out the door and Buck followed him. He watched as Chris mounted the tall horse and set off at a canter.

Buck glanced at the sky that was changing colors as darkness began to fall. He thought Chris would be home before it got totally dark. Back inside, he helped his mom throw together a meal.

The next day they started on the house. Patrick sent the girls to get rocks. Kathie carried a blaster, just in case. They weren't going that far, and from the roof of the two story house the men could see the girls, and Chris had a rifle close by.

The girls loaded the rock sled behind the horses. When they got back to the house, with the sled filled the boys went down and unloaded it for them. After four loads, they had enough rocks to patch up the missing rocks around the perimeter of the house. The rock walls were at least four feet high all around the house. This would keep the wolves from breaking through the wood siding of the house.

Several days later, the roof looked better than it had when the family moved there. Rocks were being cemented into the missing rock-holes all around the house. Patrick had placed the teen boys to finish the work while he worked the ground up a little ways from the house. He wanted to get at least a couple of acres plowed and disked so he could work the ground enough to start planting. The girls were once more helping. They hauled old manure from the corrals by the barn. The big, draft type horned horses, made short work of hauling the sled to where the girls spread it over the ground their father was plowing.

Chris and Buck worked on the house and teased the girls. Chris, since they were his sisters, told Buck about several of the pranks his sisters pulled on him as he grew up. He filled Buck in on what they were scared of and together they worked out a way to scare them, without hurting them. But they never got the chance, as a day later the rock walls were completed and they were given another job.

Patrick finished the plowing at the same time the boys finished with the rock placements. He wanted to get water to the plowed area and directed them to start digging a ditch to run water from the closest pond to the garden. They had a ways to dig, as the pond was over four hundred feet from the buildings and slightly up hill. He gave them new shovels and showed them where he wanted the line dug. He would get piping and lay it in the ditch from the pond to the garden area.

Using a can of paint, they laid out the ground they had to cross, from pond to garden. The two teens started digging. Patrick advised them how deep the ditch needed to be so they wouldn't have to worry about the water freezing in the pipeline during the winter. The first twenty feet went smoothly, and then they began to hit rocks.

Chris stood up and looked at the ground, "This is getting worse instead of better."

"I wonder if we move it a little bit we might miss the rocks?" Buck said as he looked at the ground they were standing on.

"Not sure. Let's see," Chris jabbed the shovel into the ground near Buck. He dug for a minute then smiled up at Buck. "Think this will work, and its only off about a foot, should be okay."

"Good!" Buck began to shovel dirt and they continued on their way.

By quitting time, the ditch stretched fifty feet. They still had over three hundred feet more to go. Both teens were tired. When they reached the house Callie met them. After sluicing off in the basin of clean hot water, they entered the house, she ushered them into the house.

"Buck, Kathie rode in to your house and asked your mom if you could stay the night. She explained what you and Chris were doing and we didn't think there would be enough day light for Chris to get you there and him back again. She agreed, so you can stay here tonight. We have made up a bed for you in Chris's room. She sent a change of clothes, and some cookies." Callie grinned at the tired boys when their faces lit up. "I've had a time keeping them safe, I understand they are very good."

"Mom, they are the best I've ever tasted." Chris stated with a smile.

"Well that is good then that I have them safe for now. You two have enough time to get a shower and cleaned up. We'll eat in about a half hour, and have some cookies for dessert. Better get moving." Callie waved towards the stairs and the two headed that way.

"Your clean clothes are in Chris's room, Buck."

"Thanks mi… Callie," Buck replied as he followed Chris up stairs.

In the morning, Buck woke to the smell of food that made his mouth water. He and Chris quickly dressed and headed downstairs.

Fresh cinnamon rolls, platters of scrambled eggs and bacon were being set on the table for the men to eat. Coffee mugs were handed to Patrick and the teens as they sat down. The women joined them after placing a bowl of fresh cut fruit on the table.

"Eat. You boys have a lot to do today," Callie stated and passed the plate of bacon around.

Before long, the three men were heading out the door. Chris and Buck to shoveling and Patrick to hitch up the work horses. He hooked them to the harrow to smooth out the ground they were to plant and the teens walked to where they'd stopped digging the day before..

By noon, another forty feet had been dug, and the teens were ready for a break. Leaving their shovels where they were, they headed to the house. The women had lunch ready for the three men and served them sandwiches, fruit and cold tea. The teens sprawled out on the ground for a little rest when they finished eating. Wishing the digging was finished, they were getting not only tired of digging, but blisters on their hands too.

Break over, the teens went back to their digging and Patrick hitched his team to their wagon and went into town to pick up the pipe they needed. He picked up some seed for the garden and a few items on the list Callie gave him.

Back at the house, Patrick handed off the seeds and Callie's order and drove the wagon close to the ditch. Calling the boys to him , the three of them started unloading the wagon. They placed the pipe along the dug ditch and then along the marked line all the way to the pond.

Patrick told the teens he was proud at the job they were doing with the ditch. He planned to start laying the pipeline the next day. The women would be planting the garden.

Once more, Buck stayed the night with the Larabee's. Chris and he talked in Chris' room that evening. Chris told him of the few places they'd lived before moving to this area. The last place they stayed, he'd gotten into a fight with an older man, who kept harassing Kathie. The man, larger and heavier than Chris had beat Chris senseless. Kathie, having seen the last of the fight came to his rescue, with a blaster. The man, with a bad blaster burn on one leg, tried to press charges but with Kathie, and Erin's side of the story, and seeing the condition Chris was in, the peacekeeper wouldn't let that happen. He'd dragged the man to jail, while the girls got Chris to the medical clinic.

Patrick, knowing the man had some vicious friends, packed the family up and they left late the same day. Chris barely able to function, rode on top of one of their wagons. Callie insisted he rest for a couple of days. After the second day, Chris was adamant that he was good enough to drive the wagon, and took over.

The two loaded wagons with several packed horses, and the family, made it to this town two weeks later. The town was larger than the previous one and had more stores and places to live. It took them three days before they found out about the Griffon place, and looked up the property's agent.

Buck shared his moving around with his mom. He didn't tell Chris what kind of business his mother did at the time, but figured Chris would figure it out. They moved from town to town often. Buck told him the longest they'd been in one place, was now. They'd been here for almost two years, and he hoped they would stay put. He liked the town, people were friendly and didn't look down their noses at him when he approached them for a job. His mother could go shopping without people side-stepping away from her.

He told Chris of staying in the last town only a month, before Alexia decided they had to leave. They'd left in the middle of the night, which had surprised him. But Alexia had it worked out well, they only had to walk a half mile and were picked up by the midnight bus. They'd traveled for several weeks, changing over to other buses going farther than the previous one. One day they landed in this town and she deemed it safe to stay awhile. He never found out why his mom decided to leave like they did, but he figured she would tell him when she felt it was time.

They had a nice, though small apartment, and his mom seemed happy with what she was doing. He tried to talk her into opening a bakery business, since she was so good at making baked things, like cake, cookies and other sweets. Most of her baking came from her head, without the use of a recipe.

Chris agreed. He'd tasted a couple different kinds of cookies, and he thought she would have a booming business within days.

The two teens made a pact, they'd work on her to open a business when they were done digging the ditch.

The ditch finally was finished a week later, and the pipe laid. When Patrick turned the water on, water flowed down to the garden without a problem. Patrick had set up a system that water would flow between rows of plants. He explained to his family and Buck how he'd read about it in a book some time ago. How earlier farmers watered their fields and gardens for years by something called flood watering. Long before the war devastated the country some seventy five plus years ago. The farmers, in that time, watered a lot of land to grow their crops, and the book described the procedure well enough anyone could learn how to do it.

Everyone watched as the water flowed into the garden and into the rows. The women hugged and danced around holding each other. Patrick grabbed the boys around their shoulders and gave them hugs. It seemed the plan worked and the plants could be watered easily.

The teen were given the next day off, to do whatever they wanted to do. Chris and Buck decided they'd go to the other pond and do some swimming, and target practice with their guns.

Chris picked Buck up at their regular time, and they rode out to the farthest pond on the farm. Buck only carried a blaster. He wanted to get a revolver and rifle with the money he was making working for the Larabee's. Chris brought two rifles and a spare revolver for him to use.

After making sure there were no wolves around, they tied the horse and set up targets at different distances. The blasters couldn't reach as far as their rifles and pistols but they didn't worry about it. They'd practice with the blasters at whatever reach they had.

Laughing, they targeted bushes, rocks and dirt mounds. When they started with the guns they aimed at their targets. Before long they were both shooting equally, hitting the targets dead center, with both the hand guns and the rifles.

Finally they called a stop to the shooting. "You are fast with that pistol," Buck commented as they reloaded the guns.

"I've had a lot of practice. Well, as often as I can get away. Dad makes me buy my own ammo, or we could keep shooting. You're not bad yourself, you have a good eye. Heck, you didn't miss any target, you are a good shot too." Chris said as he wiped the rifle and placed it in the scabbard on the horse. Buck handed him the second one.

"I might be a good shot, but you are a fast draw," Buck laughed at the look on Chris' face, "Well it’s the truth. If you keep that up you could be one of those old fashioned gunfighters I've read about."

Chris laughed and slapped Buck on the shoulder. "No way. I might be a little fast but I'm no gunfighter. Now let's go cool off before we head back to the house."

The two ran to the pond that was more like a tiny lake, deep with cool water. A few trees struggled along the bank, rising over thirty feet into the air, their branches shading a small part of the water.

Chapter 3

Buck and Chris stripped down to their underwear and dove into the water in shallow dives. Hitting the water, they both came up with a yell. Though it was mid May, the water was still icy. They swam across the pond and back several times and were about ready to call it quits when the horned horse sounded the alarm.

With a roar, the horse turned towards the noise only he could hear. The teens froze a moment in the water, then raced as fast as they could to the horse's side. They grabbed the loaded rifles, and prepared for whatever was coming their way. After a couple of minutes, the horse roared and they heard an answering roar. The horse relaxed, his head lowered though he kept watch.

The boys stayed on alert, not knowing what or who was coming. They watched and finally spotted a pinto horned horse coming their way and they relaxed. As one, they looked at each other.

"Do we have time to get to our clothes?" Buck asked as he glanced at their clothes scattered across the ground twenty feet away.

"Damn. We better or we'll never hear the end of it!" Chris answered and slammed the rifle into the scabbard and raced to gather up his cloths and get dressed. Buck followed his example.

By the time the pinto, with the Larabee girls on it, pulled to a halt beside the boys horse, they had shirt and pants on. They grinned at each other, at least they were clothed.

"What are you two doing here?" Chris asked of his sisters.

Kathie pushed her hair over her shoulder and looked down at Chris and Buck. "Dad let us go for the afternoon; we decided we wanted to go swimming and knew of this little lake so here we are."

"Well it's all yours, we are done and will be on our way in a couple minutes," Chris replied as he sat down and started pulling on his socks and boots. Buck followed suit. In a minute, they both stood up and walked to their horse.

Buck glanced at the two young women, "Do you want us to stay and be guards while you are here? No telling what is out here."

Erin looked around, then nudged Kathie, before she slid off the horses back. "I think we will be all right. Summer will be here to warn us," she said as she patted the palomino pinto's shoulder.

"We'll be fine," Kathie said as she dismounted and patted the blaster holstered on her hip. "You can leave now."

"Yes, ma'am," Buck brushed a wet lock of hair off his forehead and turned to Chris.

"We'll see you at home," Chris said as he mounted the big chestnut horned horse they'd ridden. Buck climbed up behind him and they rode off. After a couple of minutes, Chris pulled the horse to a stop under some tall bushes.

"We'll wait here for a while to make sure they aren't bothered. We can see just about everywhere from here," Chris stated as he threw his leg over the horses neck and slid out of the saddle, Buck landed on the ground beside him.

"Are you sure they are safe?"

"Kathie can shoot, and we are close enough we could hear if Summer gives a warning. Would only take us a minute to get there."

"Okay. How long should we wait?" Buck asked as he dropped to the ground.

Chris sat down beside him, "We'll give them an hour. As cold as that water was, I don't think they will stay to long."

"It was like ice!" Buck said laughing with Chris.

"Cold enough to freeze things off a person for sure," Chris chuckled.

An hour later, the horse they rode raised his head and looked towards the pond. Before he could roar Chris grabbed his nose and spoke to him to keep him silent. "Time to go Buck. Looks like the girls are heading home. Mount up and we'll get out of here."

In seconds, the teens were mounted and Chris kicked the horse into a canter to get farther ahead of his sisters. They didn't want the girls to know they'd been keeping guard.

Knowing the lay of the land, Chris headed a different direction that would keep them out of sight of the girls and give them an excuse to get back to the homestead about the same time.

Behind a hill, they ran across a herd of deer and Chris grabbed a rifle. Before the deer could all disappear, a shot rang out and one large buck hit the ground.

"You still have your knife on you?" Buck asked as they halted beside the dead deer.

"Yeah, I got it. Let's get this guy gutted. We'll need to get him home fast in this heat." He said pulling his knife and bending over the animal. Buck, not having a knife helped as much as he could. When the deer was cleaned they tied its feet together and laid it over the horse's hindquarters.

"Do you think you can keep a hold of him so he doesn't fall off?" Chris asked as they cleaned their hands on some grass.

"I think I can. How fast are we going to go?"

"I'd like to run."

"Maybe we better tie him somehow. If we hit a dip or something, I might not be able to hold onto him."

"Okay," Chris reached for the rope. Together they tied the legs to the saddle's fenders. Once that was done, they mounted and headed cross country to the house at a run. Their mount didn’t care for the smell but he obeyed and raced for home.

Twenty minutes later, they rounded the large barn and pulled to a stop in front of the house. Patrick with a frown came out of the house.

"You know you're not supposed to come barreling in here at a run, unless it's an emergency."

"Sort of is," Chris said as Buck jumped off the horse and he followed. "We got a deer and needed to get it home fast to finish preparing him." Buck started untying the ropes holding the deer to the saddle.

"Oh. Take it to the well house, it's the coolest right now. I'll get girls out there." Patrick turned and hurried into the house.

Chris led the horse over to the large well house that also served as an outside cooler. They had the deer hanging inside when Callie and the girls rushed in carrying some large bowls.

Patrick was behind them with his butcher knives.

It didn't take long to skin the carcass and start cutting it up. A long wide shelf on one side of the room served as a table and the women made short work of cutting the meat into pieces to be frozen and canned.

Darkness had fallen when they finished. The women headed for the house to make dinner and the men finished the cleanup of the cooler house.

Patrick set aside some meat for Buck to take to his mother in the morning. "I'm giving you two tomorrow off, since you brought in some meat." He smiled, "I might send you hunting again, we could use the meat and sell some fresh in town I'll bet."

"Yes! The town always appreciates fresh meat. This time of the year most animals are in the high country and with the wolf scare recently men are staying close to home." Buck stated. "I'm sure the house wives would love to have fresh meat for a few days."

"Well, I'll really think on it tonight. Let's get cleaned up and go in and eat. I am hungry and am sure you two are too." Patrick turned and headed for the house. The teens followed.

In the morning Patrick put Buck and Chris to working on fences. They needed to replace most of the fences around the barn area and enlarge it. Once the boys finished, they'd start on new fences, surrounding the area Patrick picked out for pasture for their horses and the few cows they had. Buck figured it would take them most of the next couple of months to get all the fencing finished.

Buck and Chris worked daily on the fencing project. Several times they had to take a wagon and several teams of horses to the hills beyond the town to cut fence poles. One always rode shotgun on the wagon and they kept a close eye out for wolves, while one or the other was cutting the trees. Once the wagon was filled to overflowing with the trees, they headed back to the homestead. Chris driving and Buck watching.

At the farm, they drove along the fence line and one would roll the trees off, a pre-determined amount in each area. Patrick usually helped to finish trimming them. When the wagon was empty, whoever was driving took it back to the barn and took care of the horses while the other stayed to help trim.

Buck and Chris had Sunday off and they would go hunting for a few hours. Most times they came back with a deer and the women helped cut it up. They took the meat to town and sold it to anyone who wanted fresh meat. Several people hired them to hunt for them once in awhile, and they always came through.

Buck was thrilled to make some extra money, he bought a rifle, and a month later was able to purchase a holster and revolver. Half of what he made at the Larabee's he gave to his Mother, in hopes they could stay put and never have to move again. She appreciated the extra income, and told him she kept a book with what he gave her. One day they would have enough to buy their own house.

By the end of the summer, Buck and Chris had the fences done. They'd fenced in not only ten acres for the animals, but another five-plus acres of fences were repaired, and the corrals by the barn. Patrick told them they had a few days off, then they would start a new project, but he wouldn't tell them what it was.

Buck and Chris tried hard to find out what the older man was planning but Patrick kept silent and told them to enjoy the next few days. They gave up and Chris took Buck home. They planned to do some hunting the next day, and Chris assured Buck he'd bring a horse for him to ride.

That evening Buck helped his mom cook dinner and then did the dishes for her. He thought she looked tired. He knew she'd had three customers that day, and he questioned her about them. He wanted to make sure none were abusing her.

Alexia patted her son on his shoulder, "I am fine, just a bit tired today. I only have one customer tomorrow so I will be relaxing most of the day. Don't worry about me. There's some cookies I baked today, you can take to share with Chris and his folks. I was thinking of making a cake tomorrow afternoon. So if you like, Chris can stay for dinner, then take some home with him."

Buck hugged her, and gave her a kiss on her cheek. "You're the best Mom. We'll be home in time and I can help you with dinner. I want you to have a restful day."

Alexia laughed. "It will be plenty restful. Now I am going to go to bed, today seemed to be along day. I'll see you in the morning." She gave Buck a kiss on his cheek and left the room.

Buck watched her leave, worry eyes took in her form and he thought she looked a bit thinner. He decided to keep an eye on her, to make sure she was eating and getting enough rest. He went into the small living room and plopped down on the couch. Running his hand through his dark hair he wished he could talk Alexia out of the 'work' she did. He hated that she was selling her body to any man for money. He felt she could make more if she could become a baker and sell her items to the towns people. The sweets she made were to die for, and visitors always told her they were excellent. But she rebelled over the idea, the expense. There was no way they could afford to buy or rent a place that had a large kitchen area and stoves to use. She told him they'd have to renovate whatever she found and that would take away any money she had put aside. She said it was on a back burner for now. Maybe in a couple of years she would have enough funds to open a bakery. She made no promises about it though.

A little while later Buck went to bed. He dreamed that his mom opened a bakery, in a huge building. The work kept them both way too busy. They had stacks of cookies of all sorts and cakes and pies and suddenly no one came to buy them. They turned green with mold and the owner of the building came to chase them away. Though Alexia tried hard to talk the man into letting them stay, he kicked them out, throwing the rotten cakes and cookies at them as they ran from the building, cake hitting them forcing them to run faster or be knocked down. Alexia cried, saying over and over, 'It wasn't worth this.'

Buck woke himself with a strangled cry of anguish. He bolted upright in his bed and looked around. Sunlight was beginning to come in the window, chasing the dream away. He rose and got dressed. It was a little early, but he knew he wouldn't get back to sleep. The dream that started out so nice ended in a nightmare. He didn't want to go to sleep to have it come back again. Shaking his head, he pulled his bed together and headed down to the kitchen. He'd make himself a lunch and pack the cookies.

Buck finished his breakfast and put his plate in the sink when he heard someone knocking on the door. He rushed to it and looked through the peep hole seeing Chris standing there.

Unlocking the door, Buck opened it and Chris rushed inside. "Can you leave now?"

"Yeah, I'm ready just need to grab my lunch and the cookies Mom wants me to take. What's wrong?" Buck asked seeing the usual quiet Chris excited. Buck went into the kitchen and gathered his lunch and cookies.

"There's some wild horses to the south of the farm. I spotted them yesterday after I brought you home. They were moving south but not too fast. We have to go. I brought some ropes and left the gate on the large corral at home in case we can catch up with them. There's a few foals that we might be able to catch. Would be nice to have them and train them. Let's go! I brought you a horse to ride. We're not riding the farm horses."

Buck rushed through the door behind Chris, stopping only to lock it behind him. They stuffed his lunch and the cookies into the saddle bag on the tall chestnut horned horse before they each mounted their horse and took off. Chris lead the way out of the town and as soon as they reached the end of it he kicked his dark bay into a run. Buck rode a to the left of Chris as they raced across country heading south.

After twenty five minutes Chris slowed his horse and turned towards a line of hills that crossed the southern expanse of the green area.

"Are we close?" Buck asked as he reined his horse closer to Chris.

"Still have a ways to go, but I think we can start looking for tracks of the herd. They were to the west of here a little when I saw them. They were headed in this direction. Towards the hills."

"Okay, I'll move over more so we can cover more ground," Buck replied and turned his horse more to the left of Chris. When they were a hundred or more feet apart, he started looking for anything that showed the horses had passed this way.

Chapter 4

For over an hour the two riders rode, their eyes focused on the ground, looking for anything out of place. A disturbance in the grass had Buck pulling his horse to a halt. And he stared down at the ground for several moments before yelling for Chris.

"Chris! Here I think is something to check."

A moment later Chris pulled up beside Buck, who'd dismounted and was circling the area.

Dropping to the ground, Chris looked at what Buck pointed to. It looked like a hoof print. They both moved in the direction the print pointed, and shortly saw more prints in the grass.

Smiling at each other, the teens mounted and started to follow the prints. They followed and when they crossed a dry creek bed, they knew they were on the right track. The hoof prints led straight towards the hills.

"This has to be them. I saw maybe twenty five horses in the herd. They would head for the hills to get into the trees and out of the heat, I think."

"I think you're right, Chris. There seems to be enough to fight off wolves too, if they have to." Buck said as they followed the trail.

An hour later, the trail they were following reached the hills and moved into the timber on the first hill. They continued to follow. Suddenly their horses threw up their heads, going into alert mode. Before they could roar, their riders reined them in. They grumbled but kept looking up hill and stayed on full alert.

When their horses grumbling got louder, Chris signaled to stop. They dismounted and tied the horses in some trees, looking around to see if anyone could see them. Satisfied, they continued on foot through the trees going to the top of the hill.

At the crest they eased up to some trees along the skyline and looked over. The herd of wild horses were in a small meadow below them. The stallion stood on the far side eating, though his headed raised after every bite he took.

Chris, keeping his voice to a low whisper said, "See the foals? There's five. The two that look like dun's look to be the best. A dark one and a red one."

Buck nodded. He'd noticed the two foals, he figured they could be three or four months old, as their horns were still fairly small.

"They're nice. How are we going to get them away from the herd though?"

"I have a plan," Chris answered as he edged back from their vantage point.

They moved back to the horses and Chris started talking. "First we need to circle the herd, and see what the land looks like on each side. The hills come together on two sides of the meadow. But there are enough trees we could get around to check those out without being seen. If we find something there, we could drive them towards it or into it, and catch the foals as they go by us."

Buck thought about it for several minutes, then nodded. "I think that might work, but I don't think we should take the horses. It isn't too far around, and if that stallion scents us we'll either lose them or he'll attack."

Nodding his head Chris agreed. "We'll have to go on foot. Let's go back there and see if we can figure out a route to use."

Once more, they made the trek to where they'd watched the wild horses, this time they carried their ropes. Laying on their bellies, they studied the trees that surrounded the meadow. Keeping their voices at a low whisper, they pointed out several places they needed to check. Making up their minds, they backed away, upon standing they started to work their way through the trees to the first place they wanted to check out.

As they worked their way through the trees circling around the meadow, the wind picked up and the sky went from blue to a yellow orange color, they hoped it wasn't blowing in a storm. They kept going, and hoped the wind didn't change direction, for now it was blowing towards them and the wild horses wouldn't catch their scent.

They came to the first place where the two hills connected. Knowing they were well out of sight of the wild horses they hurried along the trail they'd found. After fifteen minutes, the trail went over the shoulder of a hump and disappeared. They stopped.

"Well, no help here," Buck stated as he looked into a larger meadow that opened out into the green area.

"Let's get back and try the other area. There has to be something." Chris turned and headed back the way they'd come at a jog.

Buck's long legs kept up with Chris. When they reached the trees they slowed and worked their way towards the second place they wanted to check. It was almost directly behind the herd and they took great care not to make any noise and stay out of sight of the horses.

It took the two longer to work their way behind the herd and when they reached a spot where they could look the land over they both were hungry.

"Wish I'd thought to bring my lunch along with us." Buck said wiping the sweat off his forehead.

"Me too. And some water." Chris said as he continued to search the area. A grin crossed his face and he pointed, "Look. The horses have been in here before."

Ahead of them, a wide trail snaked through the trees towards an opening between the hills in front of them. Trees grew tall along the hill sides. They started to follow the trail.

"Maybe there's water back here," Buck said as they noticed the trail continued through the opening.

"Could be. We might get lucky." Chris broke into a jog and the two hurried along the trail.

In minutes, they were through a wide gap between the two hills and into a large basin with a creek winding its way through it. They cut off to one side, staying in the trees, but making their way to the water.

They drank deeply before sitting back and looking around the basin. Chris pointed to a small opening in the hill nearest to them. A few minutes, later they were at the opening and then through it. Both teens smiled, the trail moved into a small narrow canyon that extended as far as they could see. It would be perfect to run the wild horses through and with luck they'd get the two foals.

They worked their way back to the meadow where the horses still grazed. Then around the un-investigated side and back to their waiting mounts. Now all they had to do was get the horses to go where they wanted them to. They knew it would be hard, since they were only two, but they thought they could do it.

Riding to where they could see the herd, they found they were already moving towards the wide trail through the trees. They smiled at each other. They were heading for water. Once the horses disappeared into the trees, they moved after them. Staying in the trees they watched the lead mare move to the water, the rest of the horses followed them. The two foals they wanted hung behind, nipping at each other and playing.

The stallion growled at the foals as he passed them. The foals move farther away from the herd in their play. A couple other foals watched them, then turned back to their mothers.

"Let's see if we can get them to head to the side, maybe we'll be lucky and the foals will be to slow and we can catch them." Chris said and swung his rope.

With yells the teens burst out of the trees aiming at the lead horses who paused then roared and took off running. Luck was with the two teens, the herd moved in a rush towards the protection of the canyon. The stallion ran behind nipping at the slower mares, he didn't spare a look at the two foals who'd stopped to look at the strange horses bearing down on them.

As the foals stood their ground, the teens headed towards them, their ropes swinging. Still the young horses stared, before a wild roar from one of their mothers sounded out. They jerked around and looked after the herd before they broke into a run.

Buck and Chris were upon the two foals before they got more than fifteen feet from where they'd stood. Their ropes landed around their necks and the riders peeled off turning their horses away and circling back towards the trees.

The foals were jerked almost off their feet as the strange horses pulled them around. With ropes tightening around their necks it cut off any noise they tried to make and in seconds they were being pulled into the trees.

The two riders kept moving, they half dragged the foals behind them as they rushed back through the trees. In the meadow they didn't slow down, they weren't sure if the stallion would come after the foals. They slowed when they topped the hill before riding over it. They put their horses into a canter and let the foals relax a little, but didn't let up on the pressure on their necks.

The two large geldings pulled the small foals along without any trouble. Their riders shortened their ropes so the foals were running beside their horses. They'd given up fighting the ropes and just moved along.

Once back out in the open country, Chris turned towards the farm. He didn't want to be caught out in the open with the foals if the stallion came after them. So far they hadn't seen the stallion behind them, but he wouldn't feel safe until they got home.

As they rode along Buck reached back and got his saddle bag and opened it. He was hungry and they still had several miles to go. He pulled out a sandwich and asked Chris if he wanted one.

"I forgot all about food. I am starving. But I have my own sandwiches, thanks though!" Chris said and reached back for his saddle bags.

Eating, the two kept an eye out for the stallion. They hoped they would get far enough away that he wouldn't follow. Slowing their mounts, they walked for a little while, letting the two foals rest a bit, before nudging their horses into a canter once more. The foals continued to run beside the larger horses, though now and then they would pull back and fight the rope on them for a few minutes before they settled down again.

The orange sky was darkening by the time they rode over the hump a mile from the farm. The two geldings wanted to go faster, knowing they were almost home but they were held to a trot by their riders. Buck and Chris knew the foals were tired. They were pulling back on the ropes more often and when they could walk their heads drooped.

With a last look over their back trail the teens, let the horses canter towards the farm. They were anxious to get off the horses and stretch, and eat. They both were hungry again.

Hearing the roar of arriving horses, Patrick went out the front door and looked around. He spotted the incoming horses and hurried across to the high corral next to the barn. The gate was still open but he stood by it as the riders entered it and halted their horses. Patrick shut the gate behind them and watched as the boys dismounted stiffly keeping their mount between them and the foals. Once they worked the kinks out of their legs and back, they edged around their mounts and approached the foals who were still tied to their horses saddle horns.

Talking to the two foals, Chris and Buck edged closer to the foals heads. When they were close enough, they ran their hands up and down the horses necks. At first, the foals balked and tried to pull back, but the teens kept calm and continued to talk to them. First Chris, then Buck slipped the ropes off the foal they were beside. Before the colts realized they were free, the teens backed away from them then moved to one side letting them have their freedom. Taking their horses reins, the teens moved to the gate while keeping an eye on the foals.

First one foal then the other turned to where they scented water and moved to the trough to get a drink. While they were drinking, the boys led their horses out the gate, Patrick closed it firmly behind them. They both turned towards the barn to take care of their mounts.

"Are you going to leave them outside tonight?" Patrick asked.

Chris looked at Buck who shrugged. "I think they'll be okay for the night. We didn't see any sign of wolves in the area, and the stallion didn't come after us."

Patrick nodded, "I agree, they should be fine tonight. Care for your horses then come in, dinner is about ready to be put on the table. I think you should stay the night Buck. Erin was in town this afternoon and saw your mom, told her what you two were dong. Your mom said it was fine if you didn't make it home tonight. Unless you want to go home that is."

Buck shook his head, "No sir I rather be here, if it's not too much of a problem. Then I can help Chris with the colts in the morning."

"Sounds good to me," Chris grinned at Buck.

"All right boys, get the horses tended to and come to dinner." Patrick walked to the house leaving the teens to take care of the horses.

Once the two geldings were stabled Chris and Buck tossed the foals some grass hay and a little grain. Making sure they had enough food for the night they headed for the house.

The morning brought Buck and Chris out early. The sun was rising but the orange-ish cast kept everything looking way off color. The teens didn't pay attention to what things looked like as they headed for the corral. The foals were standing in the center of the corral watching them approach. The feed they'd put out for them the evening before was all gone.

Chris motioned for Buck to follow him and they entered the barn, and before they started with the foals they led the farm's horses out to the large pasture and turned the cows lose in their field. Getting a couple of pans, they put grain into them and picked up a couple of small halters with lead ropes attached. Walking out and over to where the foals were, they entered the gate and waited as the two tried to get away from them.

Speaking to the foals the teens kept talking as the foals ran back and forth across the corral. Shaking the feed pans they waited. After fifteen minutes the foals halted and stood side by side blowing through threw their noses and watching the strange creatures in the corral.

Still talking, the teens moved slowly towards the foals, holding out the grain pans. The horses shook their heads and backed up until they bumped into the corral poles. One pawed the ground and shook its head again. Chris didn't back down, he moved towards the foal and calmly spoke to it. The other stood watching as the teens got closer, its ears going back and forth as it listened to the voices.

Finally the smell of the grain reached the horses and they both stared at the feed pan. The reddish one against the poles took a step forward. Buck stopped and held out the pan. Finally sniffing the foal reached out its head and sniffed the pan then the grain. It took a step closer and then moved so it could reach the grain in the pan. It began to eat.

Chris waited for the dark horse to come towards him. And after a few more moments it finally stepped forward, stretching out its neck to sniff the pan of grain. Seeing its buddy eating it took another step and then buried its nose in the grain.

With a grin at each other Buck and Chris slowly placed the pan on the ground and stepped to the horses sides and ran their hands over part of their necks and withers. Side stepping the colts raised their heads before hunger and the sweet grain got them eating again. They tolerated the petting they were getting until the pet turned into scratches. Both were leaning into the scratches and enjoying them as they ate.

Buck and Chris continued to scratch and talk to the foals while they ate, then when their heads came up they scratched around their short horns. The teens knew growing horses always enjoyed being scratched around their horns. Horses couldn't scratch there themselves. In minutes the foals were groaning in pleasure with their eyes closed.

Still talking Chris said, "Slip the halter on and keep talking and scratching. We'll see how this goes." Chris slipped the halter over his foals head. The foal ignored the unfamiliar feel on its head and groaned again.

Grinning Buck did the same to his foal, and smiled as the horse ignored the halter too.

Before long they stopped scratching the colts their fingers aching. "Let's see if you will walk along with us little one," Chris said and moved away, pulling a little on the lead rope.

For a moment the foal looked at the human but the draw for more scratches had him stepping after the young man. It didn't take long to teach the foals to lead and they were rewarded with more rubs and scratches as they followed the teens. After a half hour, the horses were turned lose to wander around the corral. Buck and Chris got them hay and more grain, and rubbed their necks when they fed them.

With the colts taken care of they headed out to see if there was something they could help Patrick with.

"They are a fine looking pair of foals. And it's pretty neat that one is a colt and the other is a filly," Buck remarked as they left the corral.

Chris smiled, " I noticed the red filly took right to you though."

"I guess she knows I like females of any kind," Buck replied with a laugh.

Chris laughed and smacked Buck on his back and took off running towards his father in the distance. Buck ran after him.

Chapter 5

For a month, the two teens worked with the young horses every chance they got. They helped with the farm work and dug a couple more ditches for Patrick. They'd finally settled on names for the two foals, the colt they named Dusty Sun and the filly Angel Song. The foals responded happily to just about everything the two did with them. Chris and Buck had the two picking up their feet when they tapped on their les, come to a whistle or a call, accept the halter and didn't fight it when they were led around. The two listened to the commands when they were being worked on a long line, halt, trot and walk. Chris decided not to have them go faster as they wanted to be sure they had total control over them.

The next day the teens had off and were planning to start sacking them out, so they wouldn't be afraid of blankets or anything flapping around them when they were being ridden. Though they knew it would be a couple of years before that would happen, but they were prepared to teach them as much as they could before they got older.

Chris dropped Buck off at his home and Buck waved as he rode away. Entering the house he paused seeing a packed suitcase. A feeling of dread washed over him as he looked around for his mother.

"Mom, mom, where are you?" Buck called as he walked into the living room.

"I'm here. You have to finish packing now. Our ride will be leaving in a half hour and we have to get to the station." Alexia answered and entered the room with another suitcase in her hand.

"I don't want to leave," Buck stated, crossing his arms across his chest.

Alexia placed the suitcase down and stepped closer to her son. "You have to go with me, I am your parent and until you are eighteen you are my responsibility. You do what I say."

"You can go. I'll stay with the Larabee's, they would let me. I don't want to leave."

"I will not let you impose yourself on a family who are new to this area and are struggling to make ends meet. You are still underage, until you are a little older. Now no more arguing, you are going with me and we are leaving now. Leave Chris a note on the door. Be ready to leave in fifteen minutes. GO!" Alexia ordered and pointed towards the stairs.

Buck hung his head. She was right, she was still his mother and he had to go with her. He didn't have time to let the Larabee's know what was going on, if he had the night he'd of ran to the farm. He hated that he had to leave without speaking to them, even thanking them for treating him as one of their family. Reluctantly, he turned to the stairs, he would leave a message for Chris. In his room, he pulled out his duffle bag and stuffed his clothes into it. On top he added the few mementos he had of his time with the Larabee's. He would miss them a lot.

In minutes, he finished packing and found a piece of paper and a pen. Downstairs he placed his bag by what his mom had packed and went to the kitchen table and wrote a long message to Chris. He blinked his eyes several times as he thanked Chris and his family for making him feel as if he was one of their family. He told them he'd never forget them and was sorry he had to leave without a good bye.

Buck folded the message and wrote 'Chris' on it then attached it to the small window on the back door where Chris would see it as soon as he got there in the morning. Wiping tears from his eyes, Buck returned to the kitchen and grabbed the last of the food from the small fridge and stuffed it into his mouth as he walked into the living room and to the stacked belongings.

Shouldering his duffle bag, Buck picked up two of the suitcases as Alexia took the last one and shouldered a large bag that held the last of the food and drinks she'd made for their trip. She led the way to the door and walked out. Without a backwards glance she headed up the walk towards the station that housed the bus and train office. Buck walked a step behind his mother, not happy with what they were doing.

At the station, Alexia produced tickets as they entered the waiting room. As they walked in, a call went out that the bus was loading. Alexia strode to the door opening to the buses and went through. A man in a billed cap took her ticket and directed them where to put their luggage, before entering the bus. Once their belongings were stored, with the exception of the food bag, they went up the steps into the large bus.

The bus held forty passengers and a bathroom. The back quarter of the bus had curtains that could be slid around two seats on each side of the aisle. The seats laid back far enough that a person could sleep in them, and the curtain gave them some privacy. Riders were allowed to carry on food and blankets if they were traveling far.

Alexia chose two seats towards the front of the bus. Buck wondered where they were going. The bus was only half full and within minutes they were on their way. Buck, by the window turned away from his mother and stared out it. He watched the town disappear and the land around it come and go as the bus left the area.

In the next five days, Alexia and Buck changed buses seven times, going farther south and west. Buck was frustrated over having to go so far. It seemed to him his mother was running again from something. Every time he tried to find out what was going on and why they were on the road again after two years, Alexia either ignored him or told him it wasn't for him to know.

The last day on the bus, Buck was surprised to see a sign along the road that indicated they were almost to the HQ city of Denver. It was one of the largest cities in the Southwest Region and he knew there were over several million people living there. He looked at his mother who stared straight ahead, her eyes fixed on the city, he realized he wouldn't get any information out of her.

Buck scrunched down in his seat, he didn't want to be in a big city, he wanted to be on the little farm by the little town of MER 25 (Mid-Eastern Region call name). He stared in horror at the buildings and people. He didn't like to be around so many people and they seemed to be everywhere. Huge wagons pulled by four to six or eight horses shared the road with the slow- moving bus. Most of the wagons had families in them with their belongings piled high. Most were traveling into the city though some were heading out. Buck shook his head; there were too many people around. He realized they had traveled a long way but MER 25 was really only about a week's trip from Denver.

"You'll get use to it," Alexia said and looked at him.

Buck started, he didn't realize he'd spoken out loud. "Sorry Mom. Didn't know I said that out loud. Still, don't like all these people. What are we going to do here?"

"I have a job here. I have an address where we are to go. I told them I had a son and needed enough room for the both of us."

"What am I supposed to do here? I had a nice job and we were working with the foals, now I have nothing and have to find something to do so you can take care of your customers." Buck retorted bitterly.

Alexia glared at her son. She did feel guilty over hauling him away from the first real friends he ever had and something he enjoyed doing. She couldn't tell him that she'd been threatened, not once but several times by two different people. She wasn't sure what she'd done to have that happen, but she didn't want to take a chance of getting hurt or something worse. She really hadn't wanted to leave, but she wasn't given any options. It had been pure luck she'd gotten a letter from an old friend who wanted her to come work with her, and she'd written right back what she needed. It'd been a week before she heard back from Joy, enclosed with two bus tickets. She didn't have time to think just react, she needed to get out of there. She's traded the tickets in for several different ones; so they didn't go directly to the city, but around about way, in case someone was following them.

She was sorry she'd dragged Buck with her but she couldn't leave him. He still was her responsibility and he was too young yet to leave. And she didn't want to be anywhere without him, he still was her son and she loved him dearly.

Alexia sighed. She wasn't sure what Buck could do in the city, but she knew he was responsible enough to find a decent job. She just hoped he would get over his mad at her for taking him away. "I am sure we can find you something to do that you will like. Maybe Joy will have an idea," she finally answered Buck.

Buck turned to look out the window again. He was sorry to have spoken harshly to his mom but he was still mad over having gotten dragged away from the work he enjoyed and the feeling that he was accomplishing something in his life. Plus new friends. For a moment he thought of the money he'd hidden away. He had enough to buy a horse and already bought a gun and holster. He would find a place to target practice and as soon as he was able, he snorted, became of age he thought, he'd take off. He had a couple of years to make plans of where he'd go. Maybe he could go back to the Larabee's and see what was going on with them. He had time to plan.

Buck was in awe when they got off the bus and retrieved their belongings. A vehicle was in front of the building and the man standing in front of it held a sign with 'Wilmington' on it. Alexia walked over to the man and told him their name.

"At last! I've had to come here for the last few days for you. Ms. Joy Parrish sent me to pick you up. Here, I'll load your suitcases for you then we'll be off."

He took the suitcase from Alexia, then the one from Buck and stepped to the back of the vehicle. Buck watched him closely as he opened a strange door that lifted upwards, then placed the suitcases inside. He motioned for Buck to put the rest in and once Buck did, he closed the top down.

The driver opened a door and motioned for them to get inside. Alexia stepped in and sat down. Buck followed his mother and sat down beside her. His eyes went around the interior of the vehicle as the driver closed the door and walked around to the front, opened the door on the left, side and slid in behind a wheel.

Buck jumped a little as the vehicle moved. The car moved faster when it got on a dust free street. Buck couldn't believe he was inside a vehicle they called a car. He'd never seen one, not even a picture of one. He smiled at his mother when she glanced at him.

"There are a few cars still in use in large cities, though most people outside of cities use horses and wagons. This kind of vehicle is more expensive and uses a gas fuel to run, which is often hard to find now days." Alexia told her son.

"You are correct ma'am. Gas is hard to come by. They are trying to change some vehicles over to solar power." The driver laughed as he drove through the city, "The problem with that, is we never know when the radiation clouds will show up and how long they will stay, and the sun is needed to power those things. So we hang onto our gas supplies and hope they will last as long as we have the clouds."

"Why don't they get more gas?" Buck inquired.

"They are drilling for it all the time. When the war hit, many of the refineries and oil fields were destroyed. It takes time to get things back up and working, and drilling in the old fields too. They have found pockets of the fuel and have rebuilt quite a few refineries. Several pipelines are in and it's just a matter of time before oil will be flowing full time again. Once they have oil flowing and the refineries working full time, we will get more gas. We just have to hang on, and we are. Most gas we get goes to the buses that cross the country, we need them more than rigs in cities."

"Interesting. I never knew about these vehicles," Buck said as he looked around. The car was comfortable and sleek looking from the outside. The color of it, a light blue with dark trim on the outside with a medium blue inside. Besides being comfortable Buck realized the seats he and his mother sat in could be changed into a bed for two people. He wanted to ask if the front seats did the same thing, but didn't. There were some kind of lights partly hidden in something over his head. He studied them for a minute but gave up on trying to figure how they worked. The car moved powerfully, but inside it was silent, he couldn't hear anything outside of the car as it moved down the street. He watched as the driver maneuvered around slow wagons and other vehicles easily; and then wondered how fast it could go as it felt it was more powerful than a horse.

Fifteen minutes later, the driver turned onto a side street with shade trees space fifty feet apart. They continued down the street before coming to a stop beside a huge three story house with several trees and flower bushes around it. The light gray house sported dark blue shutters at all the windows he could see, and cut out animal wood figures across the front of a wide, deep porch. The porch held several rocking chairs and a wide swing. The front door was painted a light blue that contrasted with the other colors. A paved walk led from the wide parking area to the porch.

The driver parked the car and got out and opened the door for Alexia.

The front door was thrown open and a red-haired woman came rushing out. "Alexia, Alexia, you are finally here!" She yelled.

Alexia laughed as the short plump woman grabbed her into a big hug at the foot of the steps. "Hi Joy, yes we made it, finally." After a tight hug Joy stepped back and looked Buck up and down. "This is my son Buck, Buck this is Joy Parrish, I've known her for many years. It's so good to see you Joy."

"Nice to meet you Buck. I love having you two here. Come on in, your apartment is ready and I'll bet you are both worn out from all your traveling." She turned to the driver, "Jim please take their belongings into the house, just leave them by the door, we'll take care of them later.

And thank you for waiting for them for me. I owe you one." Joy smiled at the man.

"Now it's two, you owe me Joy," Jim laughed as he took two suitcases out of the trunk.

Buck grabbed his duffel, not wanting anyone to handle it. He followed the two women up the steps and across the porch and through the open door. Inside, he looked over his shoulder to see Jim put the cases down to one side of the doorway and go back out closing the door behind him.

Joy led them up a wide stairs, talking the whole way. Buck inspected the room they went through, taking note of the nice furniture, a wide bar along one wall, and all sorts of different seating's around the large room. The stairs and hall were carpeted with thick carpeting that made it impossible to hear any footsteps on them or in the hallway. Everything looked plush to Buck, and well kept. He wondered what kind of accommodations they were going to have.

Buck saw Joy reach for the ring of keys that were hooked on the belt around her waist, before she came to a stop at a door with the number four on it. Unlocking the door, she pushed it open and motioned for them to go in. Alexia walked inside and smiled. Buck stopped in surprise at what he saw. The room looked to be a formal living room with a dark carpet, two comfortable looking couches and a couple of plush looking chairs with floor lamps beside them and a coffee table in the center of the seating. A desk with a chair and a lamp stood on one side of the furniture near a wide window. Across from it, on the other side of the room, a wooden table with six chairs and a bouquet of flowers in the center stood near a wide doorway. What he could see with a glance in the door, he thought it was the kitchen. A hallway lay directly across the room from the front door with several doors along it.

"Joy this place is so nice," Alexia exclaimed.

Joy smiled and nodded towards the room, "I've wanted you here for years, and have been holding it just for you. I am so happy that you're here now. The kitchen is stocked, the bathroom has a shower and a tub in it. There's a linen closet near the closest door with bedding and bath items. All you have to do is settle in and when you are ready, we will talk. I think you will love it here."

"What about me?" Buck asked from where he stood near one of the couches.

"Oh Buck there are several things you can do, once school is out. We have several places where help is always needed if you want to work. If you wish to go to school year round you can. There are several schools that take students year round. There are also a couple schools where you can learn a trade, like in the medical field, there is always a need for doctors and nurses. Or you can find a job. There are many opportunities in the city for young people." Joy answered with a smile.

Buck shook his head, he'd gone to small schools and wasn't sure what one in this large city would be like. He'd have to check into it, working sounded better to him. "I am good with horses and I can shoot."

Joy laughed, "We can always use fresh meat, but it is a few miles to go to find things to shoot out in the country. We have a nice stable here for customers horses and our own. Our stable man is always looking for help with chores and caring for the horses. Take your time to check out the city before you make up your mind as to what you want to do. I am sure you will find many things you will like here." Joy turned to Alexia, "I need to go. Settle in and when you are ready, my office is downstairs to the right of the bar. I am in there usually from noon to eleven. We open at three in the afternoon and close down at eleven, or earlier. If you want a tour of the house and all, just let me know and either one of the other girls or I will show you both around. If you need anything let Brigit know and she will get it for you, she's in room two, we came past her apartment a minute ago."

"Thanks Joy. We'll get settled in and I’ll be down to talk to you in the morning." Alexia said as she pulled off her lightweight jacket.

Joy gave Alexia a hug and headed for the door, "If you don't want to cook, we have dinner at six, breakfast is at seven in the morning. I'll see you later." She disappeared out the door closing it behind her.

Alexia looked at her son, she hoped he could settle in here. Having to leave on such short notice, he still was barely talking to her. Sighing she looked at the room, it looked comfortable enough.

"Shall we check out the rest of our new home?" Alexia cringed at the look Buck shot towards her.

"I guess we have to," Buck muttered and carrying his duffel bag headed for the hallway.

Chapter 6

Winter weather slammed several months early into Denver without warning. Alexia had to keep the heat up in the apartment all the time and she wore several layers of clothes even in the warm house. Buck, bundled in a heavy coat and lined pants worked in the barn behind the large house when he wasn't in school. With the bad weather, the school shut down off and on due to the cold and having a hard time keeping it warm for all the students. Many children were boarded on the school grounds in dormitories, and those took preference in using fuel to keep students warm.

Buck didn't mind not having to go to school, as he usually ended up walking over a mile to get there, besides the classes were boring to him. He was happy to work in the warmer barn with the horses. When he finished, weather permitting, he would take his guns and go practice shooting.

As the weather worsened Buck became concerned about his mother. They'd never lived in a place as cold or snowy as this city. She seemed to never be able get warm. He would come home to find her wrapped in a wool blanket and wearing a lot of clothes. Then she got a cold that quickly turned into pneumonia. A doctor was summoned, not only once but two more times during the next five weeks of bad weather. On the third time, he advised them to move south for her health. The doctor was afraid she wouldn't last the winter, as it was two months early this year.

Reluctantly, they packed their belongings. Joy, sad to see her friend leave, gave Alexia the names of several people to see once she got south. In the city of El Paso she had two friends, and wrote letters of introduction for Alexia. Joy summoned a car to take them to the train station, where they'd start their journey south.

Buck, once more didn't want to leave, he had a job he liked and was making money. Alexia had made enough for them to travel south and even find a decent place to stay. The passenger train only went so far, and they had to change to buses. It took them three weeks to reach the city of El Paso due to storms and having to wait for the buses.

As soon as Alexia got off the last bus she breathed in deeply of the warm weather. Relishing the warmth, she looked around. Buck looked around too. It was a large city, laid out as far as he could see. Trees lined the wide road that ran north and south from where they stood. More paved roads could be seen with different kinds of vehicles on them. In the distance, to the east, a line of mountains could be seen, and he could see a broad river behind the station.

The station master gave them directions to the closest hotel, within walking distance from the station and they set off.

"This feels so good. I can breath and I'm not cold," Alexia stated as they walked down a wide sidewalk towards the hotel several blocks distance.

"I hope we can just stay here all the time now. No more moving. I'm tired of getting settled and them having to leave a short time later," Buck grumbled as he walked beside her.

"I plan to stay here, no matter what. Maybe we can find a little house to buy or rent with a green yard and a shade tree," Alexia said dreamily.

Buck glanced at his mother for a long minute before he shook his head and took another look around them. He noticed there were a lot of vehicles on the road bedside them, all seemed to be heading farther into the city. Wagons drawn by teams of horned horses, riders leading pack horses that carried large packs were interwoven into the large wagons.

"I wonder what is going on today?" He blurted out loud.

Alexia looked around and smiled. "I think it must be a sale day or something like that. Could be the last for the season or a monthly happening. I'll ask at the hotel." She pulled her sweater closer around her and strode confidently to the hotel just ahead of them.

True to her word, Alexia inquired about the traffic as she paid for a double room for them.

"Last monthly sale of goods from outlying farms and all. Today is set up day, tomorrow will start the sales, though more people will be coming in. This time of the year it draws people from up to a hundred miles away. Your key Ma'am, up the stairs to the second floor and turn right it’s the last room on the left, a corner room looking out the front. If I can be of any more help, please just ask."

"Thank you. I have two addresses I need to look up, but I believe I will rest a day before I do that." Alexia smiled at the kind man.

The two made their way up stairs and found their room. It was comfortable, though small. There were two small bedrooms with a sitting room between. A bathroom was next to the sitting room with a closet talking up a little room beside it. The sitting room had a wide window overlooking the street two stories below. A couch, a small table with two straight back chairs and a floor lamp graced the room. Buck took one room and tossed his duffel bag on the bed. Moving to the window, he opened it and sat in the chair it looking out at the street. More wagons passed below him and he wondered how far they were going.

Alexia opened his door and looked at him, "I'm going to rest for awhile. When I get up, we'll go find a restaurant and maybe see if we can find one of the addressed Joy gave me."

"Sounds good Mom," Buck replied and turned his gaze back to the traffic below them.

After several minutes Buck unpacked a few things, knowing they probably wouldn't be there more than a couple of days. He threw himself on his bed and fell asleep.

Morning found Buck sitting on the hotel's front porch in one of the provided rocking chairs. He'd rose early, and found a bakery a few doors down from the hotel and purchased some bakery goods for himself and his mother. She was still asleep when he returned, so he took a couple donuts and a large cup of coffee provided by the hotel and sat out on the porch. He watched with interest the line of wagons and people who passed. He found out they were heading to a large park where the weekend sales would be held. He wanted to check it out, but had to wait for his mother to awaken.

A wagon loaded down with what he thought was furniture and five kids sitting among the items rolled past on silent rubber tires. He watched a young child on a large black and white pinto riding behind the wagon. The horse was a farm horse by the look of his horns, and he wore a horse collar with several things tied to it. A thick blanket was buckled around the horse in place of a saddle and a pair of saddle bags rode in front of the youngster. Long hair hung down the riders back and Buck tried to figure if it was a boy or girl. When the child's gaze swept across the front of the hotel and lingered on him for a moment, he decided it was a boy. The boy's bright blue eyes met his for a moment, before they turned back to the wagon in front of him his back stiffened.

Buck smiled as the wagon and boy disappeared down the line. He wondered if there wasn't enough room on the wagon for the boy and his parents left him ride one of their horses. He shook his head, figured he'd never find out and rose. He hoped his mom would be awake. He wanted to explored the city and see if he could find a job, but they needed to find out where they'd be living first.

With directions to the addresses Joy had given to Alexia, they decided to find the property. The first place was at the far side of the city and they ended up having to hire a car and driver. Buck wasn't comfortable. The vehicle smelled odd and made more noise than he liked. His Mom climbed inside and settled on the back seat without a problem. He climbed in and sat beside her. It took them almost thirty minutes to reach the address. Both were shocked to see the huge three story building the driver stopped in front of.

Alexia asked the driver to stay so they could get back to the hotel and he assured her he would be waiting, but only for an hour. Alexia led the way to the front of the large brick building. The deep-wide porch held a double front door, painted a bright red trimmed in white and opened into a large room with chairs and couches. Tables holding lamps stood beside several of the chairs and couches. They were set in groups on the left side of the door. An old, fancy carved wooden bar with bottles and glasses sitting on clear shelves lay across the length of one wall. To the right of the double doors a long counter stood with a finely dressed young woman behind it.

The woman looked up and smiled at Alexia. "Can I help you?"

"I am Alexia Wilmington, this is my son Buck Wilmington. I would like to speak to Teresa Carson. I have a letter from Joy Parrish, for introduction."

"Oh Joy! We haven't heard from her in several months. Teresa has been wondering how things were going in Denver. Oh, I'm sorry! I'm Teresa's sister, Tanya Holmes. Please come with me Ms. Wilmington, I'll take you to her. Your son can wait here, I'll keep him company while you and Teresa talk." She slid off the high chair and motioned to Alexia, "This way please."

As his mother and the other woman headed down the hallway, Buck looked around the large room. With a sigh he walked to a comfortable looking chair by a window and sat down. He hated what his mother was going to do, knowing she would probably be hired instantly if there was room for her in this house. He looked up hearing Tanya come back into the room.

Tanya went to the bar and poured them a drink then walked to where Buck sat, offering the glass to him.

"Ice tea, made fresh this morning," she said and sat in a chair several feet from him. "What kind of work do you do? Your Mother mentioned you enjoyed working, though you are still in school."

Taking a drink of the tea, Buck looked at the handsome blonde woman across from him. "I enjoy working with horses. And doing odd jobs. I protect my mother too from unwanted advances," he stated looking her in the eye.

Tanya smiled, "Good. She seems a very nice lady and I could see her needing protection now and then."

For several minutes they sat quietly. Buck stared out the window. He noticed the road in front of the building wasn't very busy. The street, lined with trees fifty or so feet apart, were placed quite a way from the houses, shading the walk that ran alongside the street. Other trees dotted the home's yards.

Tanya, watching the teenager, would have never guess the boy was going on fifteen. He was tall for his age and well formed. His dark wavy hair framed a nice looking face and blue eyes, she knew the ladies would all fall for him. If his mother came to work there. She played with an idea of him being a bouncer for the business, then thought it was too soon. He was still too young. But if he was with his mother, and she worked for them, he could slowly be worked into the system. She looked him over once more and thought, maybe even into the house one day.

Hearing footsteps coming down the hall, Tanya stood up and Buck rose and moved towards his mother who came into the room. Another woman walked beside Alexia and a smile was on her face.

The woman smiled at Buck and held out her hand, "I'm Teresa Holmes, you must be Buck? Alexia told me about you. That you like horses and worked in Joy's stables and other stables. Well we have a place for you both here. Though your Mom will be working for me. If you wish, we have a large stables and always are looking for people who can work with the horned horses and get along with them. The pay is good and two meals a day is included. Along with a place for you both to stay that is." She looked at Alexia who was staring at her son, then continued.

"We have a small house available, it is on the grounds and easy access to the stables, if you would like to work there Buck."

Buck stared at his mother seeing in her face that she was interested in staying, he figured the pay must be very good. He knew he couldn't leave her here alone and nodded his head at her to let her know he was with her.

Alexia smiled at Buck and turned to Teresa, "Could you show us the house we'll be in? If we move here, we need to get back to the hotel to get our belongings."

"Not a problem. Tanya can take you to get your things, and show you the house. I think you will enjoy it. And Buck," she turned to the teen, "If you wish to look over the stables you are welcome to do that. I think you will both be pleasantly surprised. I have some things I need to do so will leave you in Tanya's capable hands. I hope you both will enjoy being here." With a smile and a pat on Alexia's arm she headed back to her office.

Alexia stopped her for a moment, "We have a driver waiting, we can go back to the hotel when we're finished. I don't want to inconvenience anyone."

Teresa smiled at the younger woman, "Well, since the driver is still here. Hope you will like the house. I'll see you later." With a wave she entered her office.

"If you'll come with me, I'll show you the house and even the stables, then we can go to pick up your belongings. Let's go this way." Tanya pointed to the hallway Alexia had just came from. "This is the fastest way out to the house and the kitchen is back here too. Breakfast is served from six to nine AM and dinner from six to nine PM. There is always coffee and snacks available in the kitchen, though in mid-afternoon they are mostly moved out into the great room where everyone congregates. There is still some in the kitchen if someone wants to snack when they're not working. Here is the kitchen," Tanya pushed a wide door open. The room was large and two women were working at a long counter and another at a wide table.

The smell in the room was enough to make Buck's stomach growl. And his face turned red as the older of the two women turned and smiled at him. "Hi, I'm Alva, the head cook here. Sounds like you need a little something to eat," she picked up a large platter loaded with several different kinds of donuts and offered it to Buck and Alexia. "Tanya, I know you are always hungry, you can have some too," she said with a laugh and Tanya reached for a large donut.

"Have one Buck. They are the best in the country," Tanya said as she bit into the large fluffy donut.

Tentatively, Buck reached out and took a large dark confection. It was lumpy and covered in a glaze. He took a bite and his eyes widened in surprise.

Alva giggled as she sat the platter on the counter after Alexia chose a donut. "That is apple, cinnamon and a few other additions all put together, the recipe handed down in my family. They're called Apple Fritters. It looks like you like it, Buck."

"Yes ma'am, this is delicious. I've never tasted anything like it."

"Thank you. If my Mother was still alive, I would let her know. Only a few people know this recipe, its well over two hundred years old, if not more." Alva smiled and looked at Alexia, "If you are working here, you and Buck can have breakfast here daily. And the fritters are popular, I make them several times a week for everyone to enjoy."

"Got to get for now Alva, save some of these for Buck, I think he will be in here often for some. Come on Alexia, Buck, let's go look at the house." Tanya said grabbing another donut and turning towards the wide door opening to the outside. Alexia and Buck followed.

Chapter 7

Outside they crossed a tree shaded area with flowers and grass and gravel walks meandered through the area. Several benches were placed in different places under the trees.

"It's almost winter, and these flowers are still blooming!" Alexia exclaimed in surprise looking around at the colorful flowers.

"Our winters are usually pretty mild. Once in awhile, we do get some cold weather, though it usually only lasts a short time. When Teresa and I bought this place, we planted flowers that could stand cold weather. The trees withstand the cold for longer periods. We wanted this to be comfortable for everyone and easy to manage. And kind of park like to boot." Tanya smiled and waved her hand at the flowers and trees.

"Here we are," Tanya said, leading them to a house that had a tiny front yard with flowers along the walk to the yellow-painted front door. She unlocked the door and pushed it open, gesturing for Alexia and Buck to enter. She followed them into the room.

Buck looked around the comfortably appointed room. A large couch faced a fireplace that had bookshelves on each side of it. A coffee table sat in front of the couch. There were two armchairs flanking the couch with small tables with lamps on them between the couch and chairs. A huge woven rug covered most of the floor in front of the furniture and under it. To one side, a dining table sat and beyond it a well laid out kitchen.

Tanya pointed to a doorway to the right of the fireplace, "Down the hall are several closets, the bathroom and three bedrooms. All are furnished. The kitchen is lightly stocked with food items. We don't stock it if no one is living here. You can get any supplies you wish, either from the main house or purchase them yourself. The first little door in the hall is cleaning supplies and extra kitchen items. The bedrooms are good size as is the bathroom."

Alexia and Buck moved down the hall and looked into the rooms. Buck decided if they stayed there he would take the farthest room from the living area. It had three windows, all were shaded by the trees outside. The first bedroom was large and he knew it would be perfect for his mother. The third room was the smallest and though it had a bed it also had a nice sized desk. Each bedroom also had a large closet. Buck liked the layout of the rooms and the open front area. He grinned at his mother as she came out of the bathroom with a smile. She stopped at his side.

"What do you think? Should this be our new home?"

"I think it’s a great size, we have room to move around and it is set up nicely. I think you'd be happy here Mom."

"I do too. And the weather is wonderful this time of the year. It's going to be a good next three months," Alexia smiled at her son. "Christmas won't be white, but it won't matter. We'll still have a nice one."

Tanya grinned at the two, "I have a feeling you will enjoy it here. I'll let you get settled in."

"Thank you. We'll check in later." Alexia smiled her thanks at Tanya as the younger woman hurried out.

Buck rolled his eyes at his mother. She seemed optimistic over a lot of things. But he was happy she was thinking ahead and planning. With a smile, he hugged her before he moved to the kitchen to see what was in the cabinets. "I think we need to see what is in here so we can figure out what we will need to get when we go for our clothes."

"Oh! I forgot the time." Alexia glanced at the clock on the wall and rushed to the kitchen. "The driver is probably still waiting. We have six minutes before he leaves. Quick look through those while I look here and we'll make a list when we head back to the hotel."

It took them two minutes to go thru the cabinets and then they were trotting down the walk towards the big house. Finding the walk divided and circled the house they hurried around the house and found the driver sitting in the shade of one of the front yard trees. Within minutes, they were headed back to the hotel to collect their belongings. They figured they would be back to the Holmes house in an hour.

Alexia smiled as they were drove back to the hotel, she felt good about this place and she liked Teresa and Tanya. The business was well run. She was happy.

Chapter 7

Days turned into weeks and then into years. Three years after Alexia and Buck settled into the house in El Paso, Buck, now taller than his mother, had two jobs he totally enjoyed. He worked in the stables with a man who treated him like his son. Jim Walsh had taken him under his wing and taught him more about horses than he really needed to know. He'd tease Jim, as they went looking to buy horses for the house or for some customers, that he would take over the stable before too long, since he knew as much as Jim did. His other job was helping the local lawmen as an unofficial apprentice. He would help with the paperwork of an investigation, help look for a criminal, and fill in as a prison guard on occasion. El Paso had a prison that could hold up to a thousand prisoners. He enjoyed his time when he worked side by side with others to hunt down a criminal. The lawmen didn't put him down due to his age. At seventeen he towered over several of the officers.

Sometimes, on weekends he would help in the house. He helped watch, making sure no one bothered the women to the point the men were thrown off the premises. Teresa Holmes ran a tight house and most of the men who came to enjoy the company of the women were gentleman. Due to Buck being taller than the women, he could step in if they had someone who wouldn't take no from them. He usually worked with the bouncer, a large muscled man who went by the name Buddy, who stayed in the house and guarded the women living on the premises. If a problem occurred, Buddy took care of it immediately. And if it was a night when Buck helped him, they were quick to help the women. Buddy was glad for Buck's quick actions.

Alexia, worked in the big house five evenings a week. She was popular with several men and she liked them. She had a nice room on the upper floor where she and the man would retire to for awhile, unless the customer just wanted to talk. She earned enough that she started to plan ahead several years, when she would retire and buy her own home for the two of them. A few times, she spent the night at the big house with one of the men, not returning to her and Buck's home for the night. When she did that, Buck would meet her in the morning for breakfast with the other women. After the first few times, Buck didn't worry about her as she did know how to take care of herself and was careful of the men that stayed the night.

Spring came again and the city was in bloom with flowers and trees. Alexia's flowers, that she'd planted and tended around the house were sending their sweet smells around the area. Buck came home late this spring night, tired to the bone, having ridden the last three days with the lawmen, helping to track down several men who'd escaped the prison wagon, killing the driver and two guards and running for their lives. They'd found the wagon with broken wheels and the horses missing. It took them several hours, before the tracker with them picked up the four men's trail. After that, they moved swiftly and managed to catch the men when the two wagon horses gave out. Having to walk, it didn't take long to run them down with the swift, fresh horses the posse rode, having brought extra horses.

Buck was happy to get home, he was tired out, having little sleep the last three days. All he wanted was to get a shower, some food and sleep for twenty hours. The house was dark, and he entered quietly, not knowing if his mom was asleep or at the big house. He didn't want to disturb her either way. Lighting one lamp he headed to his room for clean clothes then to the shower. Yawning mightily, he washed off, dried, dressed and headed to the kitchen. He found a bunch of leftovers and quickly made a sandwich and ate. Minutes later, he turned the light out and went back to his room and collapsed on the bed, asleep before his head touched the pillow.

Hard knocking on the front door and someone yelling his name finally stirred Buck awake. He rolled over and rose in one lithe move. Padding through the house in his bare feet he reached the door and jerked it open just as a fist stopped in mid-air.

"Tanya, what's going on?" Buck asked seeing the wildness in the woman's eyes and her hair wild around her pale face.

Buck looked around realizing the sun was just coming up. He'd been asleep for four hours.

"You have to come to the house. Your Mom…" Tears filled the young woman's eyes and she motioned for him to follow him.

"Mom? Wait I need my shoes." Buck glanced around trying to remember where he'd kicked off his boots. Spotting them in the semi darkness, he shoved his feet into them and took off running after Tanya, dread filling him.

Running into the main house and up the back stairs Buck felt fear racing through him. His heart pounded and his mouth went dry. He had a bad feeling and sent a prayer that his mom was all right. As they reached the second floor and turned into the main hall he saw several of the ladies who lived and worked there at the door he knew his mother used. His forward rush slowed and he sensed it was bad.

The women stepped out of Tanya and Buck's way. Eyes filled with tears and sympathy looked at him as he reached the door. The women moved back, easing out of his way as he stepped into the room.

A man who Buck recognized as the doctor who tended the ladies had stood up and was pulling a sheet over the woman on the bed. Buck staggered to a stop, his hands curled into fists as he looked down at the figure that seemed to have shrunk.

One side of his mothers face was bloody, from near her hair line to her chin. Her pale lips were parted and red from the blood dried at the corner of her mouth and in a line to her neck. Buck could see where blood had spotted the sheet she lay on and the one the doctor was covering her face with.

Dr. Chandler looked at Buck and let the sheet drop just below Alexia's neck. His kind eyes gazed at the young man.

"I'm sorry Buck. She's been dead a couple of hours. There was nothing anyone could do. I wish…" His voice dwindled away, there was nothing he could do for the young woman and it hurt him to think of what had been done to such a lovely lady.

Buck swallowed and dropped to his knees beside the bed. Tears silently rolled down his cheeks. "Mom?" he whispered and felt for her hand. He drew it out from under the sheet and held her cold hand, bowing his head and letting the tears fall silently for several minutes. Then with a deep breath, he pulled himself together and brushed the tears away. He rose and looked at the doctor who stood several feet away. His red-eyed gaze went to Tanya and Teresa stood together, their arms around each other's waist, wet trails of tears on their cheeks.

"Tell me," he said to the doctor.

Dr. Chandler shot a glance at the two women, when Teresa nodded he spoke. "She was badly beaten. There's eight broken ribs, both front and back. One or maybe two pierced her lung, and possibly other organs. Her hand is broken. She has defense bruising on her, but whoever did this, was a lot stronger than she was. There's marks that look like she was strangled to keep her from calling out." Chandler shook his head. "They raped her. She didn't have a chance."

His pale face filled with anger, Buck looked at the two women. "Who did this?"

Teresa, shook her head. "The law has already been summoned, they will take care of this."

Buck took a step towards her, and Teresa held up her hand. "I promise you Buck, if they don't arrest this person I will tell you. But you can't take this into your own hands. None of us want to see you in jail for killing this monster. Wait to see what they do, then we will take steps. Please don't get yourself into trouble. If nothing happens then we will cross that bridge." Her eyes filled and more tears fell. "We love your mom almost as much as you. She was such a wonderful person, always helpful, willing to work and always happy to be around. We don’t want anything to happen to her son. You're family too."

Swallowing the pain and anger racing through him, Buck nodded. He knew he had to let the law work. He knew Teresa and the others would protect him as much as they would have his mother, if they'd known what was happening. He needed to be strong for now. He would let the law handle it, but if things didn't work out the way they should, he would go hunting. Shaking himself he swallowed again and looked at Teresa.

"Go home Buck, let us handle this. We will talk after the law has been here and we'll make plans for her… " Teresa had to stop a moment as fresh tears flowed down her face, gulping she continued, her voice shaking. "For Alexia's funeral. All expenses will be paid. She was family and we take care of our own."

Buck looked once more at the still pale form on the bed before turning towards the door. He found Buddy standing in the doorway, tears rolling down the big man's face. Buddy stepped back and as Buck walked out the door, he fell in step beside him. A large hand rose and rested on Buck's slumped shoulders.

"This man will pay for what he did, one way or the other." He promised.

Buck nodded. He couldn't talk. His throat felt swollen shut. He was afraid if he said anything, it would come out as a non-ending scream. His head throbbed in time with his heart. He knew no one lived forever, but no one, especially his mother, should have died like she did.

With his head bowed, Buck walked out the door and to the little house that they'd called home for several years. He swore whoever did this would pay for it, one way or the other. He managed to thank Buddy and closed the door behind him, flipping on the light. Dropping onto the couch, he put his head in his hands and fought to keep from crying. Mom never believed tears could cure anything, but he couldn't stop them and they silently rolled down his face.

For a long time he sat, and let the tears fall as he thought over the years they'd been together and things they'd done and seen. He smiled over the memory of Alexia baking up a storm during a storm. She's complained the noise was making her forget to do some things, but she still managed to make two cakes, three pies and a countless number of cookies for a bake sale. They were raising money to build a new church in the town they lived in at the time. It had been struck by lightning the week before and burned to the ground days before Thanksgiving. The town's people, filled with many people visiting there for the holidays, got together and threw a bazaar and bake sale to collect funds to rebuild the church before Christmas. Everyone attended and two days before Christmas, a new church had been completed.

Alexia usually didn't attend any kind of church, due to her occupation, but it didn't stop her for caring for the people of the town she lived in. She knew many and would help them any way she could.

She loved her son, her work and loved to bake. Sometime later Buck wiped his face and looked around the silent room. Already, it didn't feel like home. It would never be home to him again. Without his mother, home was gone.

Chapter 8

Buck rose. He had to do something he decided. He couldn't sit there all day. When he looked around, he realized it was already after noon. Sunlight poured through the windows across from him. He'd been so lost in thoughts of his mother, he'd totally lost track of time.

For several minutes, he stood in the middle of the room, trying to think what he should do. A knock on the door had him turning towards it.

"Tanya, what are you doing here?" Buck asked when he threw the door open and saw who stood there. The woman's hair had been tied into a pony tail but her eyes were red rimmed and her nose red from crying.

With quivering lips, Tanya shook her head and held out a hand. Buck took her hand in his and pulled her into a tight hug, trying to keep himself from crying with her.

After a couple of minutes ,Tanya pulled back and wiped her eyes with a shaking hand. "Officer Bennett has returned and would like to talk to you."

Buck nodded his head. "Can I take a minute to wash up?"

Tanya gave him a watery smile, "Go. I'll wait here for you."

Turning Buck hurried to the bathroom and quickly washed. He felt a little better, more awake anyway, he thought. Rushing to his bedroom, he changed his shirt then joined Tanya in the front room. Together they walked to the big house.

The house was eerily quiet, no one seemed to be around. But there was a large batch of donuts and sweet rolls on the kitchen table. They both grabbed a couple of the donuts, and a mug of coffee then Tanya led the way to where Teresa and the lawman were.

Buck recognized Officer Bennett. He'd met him the year before when he participated in a man hunt, though Bennett was off duty, at the time, due to a gunshot wound. He shook hands with the tall white haired man. "Officer Bennett," Buck said.

The man's gray eyes narrowed for a moment, before he smiled when he realized who the teen was. "Buck Wilmington, so nice to see you again. But not for this reason. I'm sorry about your Mother." Bennett said, his hand tightened on Buck's for a moment.

"I have all the information I need to pick up the guy who did this. But needed to ask you where you were, you know the procedure having worked with us for awhile." Regret filled his voice as he spoke.

Buck nodded, "Yes sir I know the procedure. I've been working with Officer Fitzgerald's men for the last three days, looking for some escaped prisoners. Just got back in town last night. It was late when I got home, I figured Mom was sleeping. Got cleaned up, had a bite to eat and fell into bed. Tanya woke me up about four hours later. I didn't know if Mom was home at that point." He paused and swallowed, took a deep breath to force the tears away and he added, "She never made it home last night and I didn't know until this morning."

"Okay, that is all I need. I'll check with Gerald. We are going to get this guy."

"Can I come along?"

Bennett looked Buck over for a moment, then shook his head, "Sorry son, you are too close to the victim and I don't want to have to keep an eye on you. I have men watching his place and as soon as I get there, he'll be arrested and go before the judge. Ms Teresa will appear and give evidence. You just stay here and we will keep you informed."

With a sigh, Buck shook his head, "I understand. I would want to tear him apart." He held out his hand and Bennett shook it.

"You will know everything. Thanks." Bennett nodded to the two silent women then left the room.

The two women glanced away from Buck giving him time to gather his thoughts. Buck appreciated them, and looked at Teresa.

"What now?" he asked

"The funeral will be the day after tomorrow. Everything is taken care of. Alexia will be laid to rest in a private cemetery." Teresa sniffed and wiped her eyes with her wadded up handkerchief. "Our parents, grandparents and many relatives are laid there and a few others. She won't be alone, and welcomed with open arms. You are welcome to visit the cemetery and check it out if you wish before the service."

Tanya started when Teresa stopped, tears running down her face. "We felt like your mother was one of our family and we decided she would be buried there. Unless you have some other plans."

Buck ran his hand through his hair and rubbed his eyes before looking at the sisters. "Thank you. I don't have any kind of plans. I wouldn't know where to start."

Tanya moved to Buck and hugged him. "We will take care of everything. Well, its already in the works. You just have to be there when you need to be."

Buck huffed, "Yeah when is that? I left Mom alone and look what happened."

Teresa jumped in front of Buck, her face twisting, " YOU did not leave her alone. She was here under my roof doing what she loved to do. She loved you and was so proud of all you have done for her and the girls here. She was over the moon happy when you worked with the lawmen, she talked about you becoming a full time lawman. She talked about you constantly. You are her pride and joy and always will be. She might be gone but she lives in all of our hearts and especially yours."

Buck's eyes filled and he blindly turned away. He stopped when two arms wrapped around him and held him in place. Looking down. Tanya had her arms wrapped around him and his automatically lifted to hug her. "I'll be fine. I am just tired out. Would you let me know when we hear from Bennett? What is going on?"

"Yes Buck, we will let you know as soon as we hear anything. Get some rest, come to the house for dinner. You need to eat and keep up your strength. The next days will be hard on you, on all of us." Teresa answered.

"Yes, ma'am. I'll be here. Thank you." Buck pulled away from Tanya and hurried out the door and down the hall. Minutes later, he closed the door behind him and looked around the house he and his mom called home. Now it felt like a cold shell. He had to leave, he couldn't stay here. Dropping onto the couch he stretched out and covered his eyes with his arm.

Hours later, Buck woke to find the sun almost all the way down, the shadows deepening. He rose and made his way to the bathroom and took a shower and dressed in clean clothes. As he made his way to the big house, he went over the dream he'd had. He needed to go look up Chris Larabee and see if the family was still where he'd last seen them, living outside MER25. He felt lighter as he walked, he would go visit them. For a minute, he wondered if he had enough money for tickets to get back to the Griffon place, no, the Larabee farm, he corrected himself. He was sure he had enough for the tickets he had to buy to return northeast.

Feeling better, Buck entered the house and found most of the ladies who worked there sitting around the large kitchen table. Some were eating dinner or dessert and a few talked among each other. They all looked up at Buck as he entered. Several turned their heads away to hide the tears that filled their eyes. A couple rose and gave him a hug and spoke a few words before going back to their places. Buddy pointed to the empty chair beside him and Buck slipped into it as Alva placed a filled plate in front of him, and poured him a tall glass of milk.

For a minute, Buck looked at the plate of food. Crispy fried chicken, stuffing, green beans and gravy poured over the chicken and stuffing. His stomach growled as the enticing smell reached his nose and he dug in. As he ate, he tried to remember the last time he had a decent meal, and decided it was before he went out with the lawmen four days ago.

Conversation picked up but in lower voices and Buck ignored the women as he ate. He didn't want to talk and knew they would want to talk about his mother.

As he finished the dessert Alva handed to him, a large slice of apple pie, Teresa entered the room and looked around. Spotting Buck she stepped to his side.

"When you finish Buck, will you come to my office for a couple of minutes?"

"Yes ma'am. I'll be done in a minute."

Teresa placed her hand on his shoulder. "No rush. Finish your meal." With that she turned, stopped long enough to get a large mug of coffee and left the room.

Several minutes later Buck knocked on the office door and entered when Teresa called out to him. She pointed to a chair in front of her desk and pulled a box from one of the desk's drawers and placed it in front of Buck.

With tears in her eyes she looked at Buck. "Your mom made me promise to give this to you if something happened to her. You know she didn't trust banks." At Buck's nod she continued. "Alexia would only take part of her earnings, the rest she had me put away for her. In this box. She left this for you, I believe there is a letter in there from her too." She patted the box, then rose and headed for the door. "I'll leave you in peace, take all the time you need. Just remember, this was her wish and I am following it." With that she swept out of the room before Buck could see the tears she couldn't stop.

Buck sat still his mind racing in a circle, wondering what was in the box. With shaking fingers he touched it, letting his finger slide around the top to where the ends were folded in among themselves. For a couple of minutes, he let his hand rest on the box top. Then he slowly opened it.

A stack of bills rested under a white envelope with his name on it. Buck picked up the envelope and held it in his shaking hand. What could his mother have said he wondered. With a deep sigh he opened it and pulled out the two page letter and began reading.

My Dearest Son, If you are reading this, I have passed on from this life. I love you very much and the thought of leaving you before you are full grown cuts me through my heart. I know you will be fine, there is many wonderful women here who love you too. They will help you in any way they can until you are old enough to go out in this world alone. They have felt like sisters to me, so consider them your Aunt's of heart at least.
I did love my life, though you are my heart and always the reason for me to continue. I have never loved anyone as much as I have loved you, my wonderful son. I am sad I won't know you as an adult, but you are well on your way and you will be a wonderful man, do great things, and eventually become a terrific father. I pray that you will have someone to love you as much as I have loved you. Love is precious and we all need it our life.
Don't cry for me, I've had a wonderful life and you, my son, have made it all the better. You will find some of my wages here, Teresa promised to give them to you and I hope it is enough that you can make a life for yourself. Buy the things you need, and not count every cent for awhile.
I love you dearly, you are the joy of my life. You are my life. Remember that. I love your smile and hope you have the best life will offer you. You are my heart and joy, I am so proud of you and to have had you in my life. All my love to you my darling son, Buck. Love Mom, Alexia Wilmington.

Buck leaned back in the chair, tears rolling down his face. He managed to stifle the sobs that overtook him, not wanting anyone to hear him cry. For several minutes, Buck let the tears fall. His mother was gone before her time and he hoped the man who killed her would be caught and brought to justice.

Finally, Buck managed to get his tears under control, and with several deep breaths he wiped his eyes, then looked into the box. He couldn't believe his eyes at the neat stacks of money in it. Swallowing, he counted the money and realized he had enough to buy a horse and maybe even some property or a house. He leaned back and studied the money, his thoughts once more churning as he tried to work out what he should do, or wanted to do. He realized he had enough to buy a horse and ride to MER25 to the Larabee farm. His thoughts then turned to what was going to happen the next day. The funeral for his mother. The time was set at eleven o'clock. He had to get through that before he could put any other plan in place. And he needed to talk to Officer Bennett. He needed to find out if they arrested the killer.

With another deep breath, Buck rose and straightened his back. He would get through the next few days. He put the money back into the box and picked it up. With it tucked under his arm he opened the door and walked down the hall into the large gathering area.

Teresa saw him coming and rose from where she sat on one of the couches.
"Are you all right Buck?"

"Yes ma'am, I am. Thank you for holding this for Mom and me. I appreciate it."

"It was no problem. Your Mom was like a sister to me. I, and Tanya, would have done anything for her."

"Thank you." For a moment Buck looked over to where Tanya and a couple of other ladies were sitting talking quietly. "Have you heard anything from Officer Bennett yet?"

"We just got a note that he is going to stop by in the morning, around nine o'clock. It sounded good. We'll let you know when he arrives."

"Thanks. I'll probably be here before he arrives. Thank you for everything you've done for Mom and me."

"Like I said, Alexia was family to me and Tanya. We're happy to do anything we can for her and to make you comfortable. If you need anything tonight, just let us know. I don't think any of us will get much sleep." Tears gathered and rolled down her cheeks.

Buck stepped closer and wrapped his free arm around her. His throat tightened, and he barely could say, "Its fine Teresa. You and Tanya are good, honest women. Mom couldn't have done better having you two as sisters. Thank you both."

Tightening his arm around her a moment, Buck held her and then released her and turned away. He quickly headed for the kitchen door, out the back and across to the house. In the privacy of the silent house, Buck sat down at the table and re-read the letter from his mother. Finally putting it aside, he reached for the money in the box and counted it.

Minutes later, Buck leaned back in the chair and wiped the tears off his face with one hand. The other he ran through his hair then pulled on it. He couldn't believe how much money the box held. Glancing at the stack for a minute he started to figure out how much he'd need to buy a horse and tack. A new blaster and gun and supplies for a long trip along with clothes for winter. He had enough, and still would have enough to last him several months, or a year, once he reached his destination.

Rising, Buck paced around the room, working to get his thoughts in order. With a grin awhile later, Buck swept the money and letter into the box and headed to his bed. He'd come up with a plan. It would take him several days to put it in motion, in a week he could be headed north. Happy, he hid the box and a few minutes later he was in bed. He would think more on it after tomorrow.

The next day dawned overcast. The wind blew cool, and clouds threatened. Buck hoped they wouldn't get any rain before his mom was laid to rest. He got ready then went to the big house, hoping Officer Bennett would have some good news.

Ladies were eating breakfast, most dressed for the day. Buck remembered that his mom hated black clothes and saw she must have told the women she worked with that too. No one wore black. Though their clothes were darker than usual, dark blues, greens and browns were prominent. Buck smiled at the women as they greeted him, and Alva dished a plate of food for him. He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down. One by one the women went their separate ways until it was only Alva and her helper were left in the huge kitchen.

Alva poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down across the table from Buck. She noted the dark circles around the teens eyes but he looked back at her with a twinkle in his blue eyes.

"I'm fine Alva. Well not that fine, but I will be all right once today is over with."

"I am happy you are 'fine' Buck. We do worry about you. Today will be hard on all of us. Have you had time to think of what you want to do later?" The older woman asked kindly.

"I have some thoughts. I think they will work out for me. You ladies won't have to worry about me."

"You are still not of legal age, but close enough. You will find your way to something great."

"Alva! Can you see the future or something?" Buck teased.

Laughing Alva patted Buck's hand. "No, I can't, but I've come to know you. You will be fine. And try to stay away from all the women, they are going to fall all over you, with your looks and ways. You are going to be a lady's man through and through."

Buck laughed. "Alva, I don't know if I should worry or be happy about that."

Laughing Alva finished her coffee and rose, "You are already a heart stopper. Too bad

You're so young." With a bright smile and a wink Alva went back to work.

Shaking his head Buck rose and went to see if Bennett had arrived yet.

Chapter 9

Tanya saw Buck coming from the kitchen and signaled for him to follow her. She led him to the office and opening the door ushered him inside. Teresa was shaking the hand of Officer Bennett, and glanced at Buck.

"Come in Buck, Officer Bennett just arrived. I'm hoping he has some good news for us."

Bennett turned to Buck and they shook hands. "I believe you will all be pleased," he said as they sat when Teresa motioned to them.

"Please, I hope so," Tanya said.

With a nod of his head, Bennett looked at the three people seated around him. "Yes it is. We found the man, and arrested him. Talking with a couple of his close friends, we found they were scared to death of the guy. He threatened them enough that, though they knew some of the things he did, they feared for their lives enough they wouldn't talk. Once we took him away, they started talking. Ms Wilmington isn't the first, or only lady he attacked and killed. We have connected him to four other murders, and per his two friends he's wanted in three other towns."

"Why didn't his friends turn him in?" Buck fisted his hands in his lap.

Bennett looked at Buck. "They are small men, and scared of what he would do to them. He's threatened to kill them, and if they took off, he would have hunted them down and killed them. They aren't the brightest men around, but he had them under his thumb. They were arrested for accessory to murder. But I believe the judge will go a little lenient on them. Anyone could see they were scared to death of him."

"What will happen now?" Teresa asked.

Bennett smiled. "He's been in front of the judge and is on his way to the prison. He will not leave there alive. His crimes have netted his death sentence in two days. His friends are in front of the judge right now."

Tanya and Teresa hugged each other as tears ran down their faces. Buck sat, his head bowed and eyes closed. Justice had been netted out and his mother's killer had been brought to trial. With a shake of his head, he rose and put out his hand to Bennett.

"Thank you. Mom and I will rest easily now. Thanks for letting us know."

"Something like this, the family needs to know justice does work for them. This man deserves what is coming. I am sorry for the loss of your mother. From all I've heard about her, she was someone I would have loved to have known."

"Thank you," Buck said and left the room fighting the tears that welled into his eyes.

Bennett looked at the two women who were wiping away their tears. "I will get out of here now. You probably have a lot to do before the funeral. My condolences to you and I hope you all will be all right." He put his hat on and left.

Tanya and Teresa looked at each other for a long moment. "We do have some things to get finished before the funeral," Teresa said.

"Yes. But the killer is caught and getting his just reward. I hope he rots in hell," Tanya snarled and swept out of the room.

Teresa wiped her eyes a last time and followed Tanya out the door, they did have a few things to do before it was time to leave for the funeral.

Late that afternoon, Buck returned to the house he called home. The funeral Teresa and Tanya organized had been nice. The preacher said nice things about Alexia, and later admitted to Buck he'd talked to her several times when she attended his church's services. The cemetery was nicely laid out with trees and flowers around graves and gravestones. Buck found it to be peaceful and decided his mom would have liked the setting.

He was surprised at the attendance. There were over a hundred women and half that many men. He knew many didn't know his mother, but came as support for her 'family.' Several strange women spoke to him, though he had no idea who they were. On the way back to the big house, Teresa told him who some of the ladies were. It seemed to Buck that the ladies of the night stuck together, no matter if they were from one house or the competitors house. They were connected through their work.

Teresa and Tanya provided a meal for those who wished to come to the Holmes house and again Buck was surprised at how many came. Numerous men came to the house. All spoke to Buck, since many were known to Buck, having come to visit the women over the years.

Yawning widely, Buck changed clothes and sat down in the living room. He was tired, the funeral and the hours of talking wore him out. He felt happy to be home where it was quiet and peaceful. He needed to work out his plans to head north. With a yawn, he laid back and within moments fell asleep.

The next morning, Buck made his way to the stable where he'd been working for the last three years. He knew none of the horses they took care of were for sale but, he was sure the manager, his boss, would know where he could buy a good horse. Feeling light hearted he entered the huge stable and looked around for Pat O'Brien, the man who knew about everything there was to know about horses. Not seeing him around the neatly cleaned lines of stalls he headed for the office.

Forty five minutes later Buck, with Pat by his side, pulled up in front of a well known stable. Dismounting, they tied their horses to the tree near the office door. O'Brien led Buck into the office and called out.

"Hey Jason, got a customer for you, you old bastard. Where are ya'?"

Buck blinked in surprise. He didn't think he'd ever heard his boss cuss.

"You old flaming arse, what the hell are you doing talking like that ta me?" A short burley, red headed, freckled faced man marched into the open doorway from the stable area.

Buck could see the red hair was streaked with grey and with the freckles on the man's face he couldn't really tell how old the short man was by his looks. But Jason's green eyes twinkled with humor and knowledge. The two men hugged a moment before backing away and looking each other over.

"Well Paddy I can see you are getting old. Your belly's coming over your belt." Jason smirked.

"I wouldn't talk Jason McMurray, you are getting shorter every time I see you."

Both men laughed. Jason looked at Buck, "Anyway youngster, why are ya hanging around with this old reprobate?"

Before Buck could speak, Pat replied, "Jason, this is one of my boys, Buck Wilmington, who works in the stable with me. He's needing a good horse. So we thought we'd come to see what kind of nags you have for sale these days."

Jason shook his head, then stuck out his hand and shook Buck's. "Don't believe a word this old good for nothing man says. Nice to meet you Buck. My horses aren’t nags, I have some of the best in the area. Come along and I'll show you." With that he turned and headed into the stable area. Buck and Pat followed.

Three hours later, Buck and Pat were heading back to the Holmes property. They each led a horse behind their mounts.

Buck couldn’t believe how many horses Jason had in his stable. He figured over a hundred horses of many different sizes and colors. Most were broke to ride though some were trained to pack and pull wagons. The wagon trained horses and some of the pack ones had short horns, indicating they were mostly family work horses.

Several of the large horned horses Buck thought might serve his purpose were older, he wanted a younger horse. He finally found a young dark- grey colored mare who stood almost seventeen hands high. She sniffed his hair then nuzzled the dark strands. Buck scratched her head around the sharp horns and asked if he could ride her.

Jason provided a saddle and bridle and Buck mounted up. He rode her around the large field behind the stables, putting her through all of her paces. He found the mare had easy gaits and was willing to do what he asked her. She also was aware of everything. When he finished the ride, he bought her. Another horse caught his eye, a palomino pinto with eyes that watched everything going on around him. Buck tried him out and found that his gaits weren't as smooth as the mares but he would do all he asked. The sturdy horse accepted a pack and carried it easily. The pinto was paid for.

At the Holmes stable, the horses were stalled and Buck groomed them, letting them get used to him and the different surroundings. As he brushed his horses, he decided the next day he would buy tack and collect things he would need on his trip north.

As he walked to the house, Buck wondered what he should do with his mothers belongings. He didn't need them, and figured his Mom would want them to go to someone who could use them. He paused at the walk leading to what had been his home and looked towards the big house. For several minutes he stood thinking, then headed to the main house. He would ask Tanya or Teresa what should be done.

A week later Buck checked the pack he'd bought for his pack horse to be sure it wouldn't slip and was comfortably placed on the horse's back. He'd named the horned horse Banner, for the way one of the white patches on his side flowed across him like a flag. He checked his saddles cinch and mounted the grey mare. As he rode past the main house, he waved at the ladies who stood on the porch waving. Teresa and Tanya threw kisses at him. They'd told him he could return any time, he would be welcomed, they hated seeing him leave but knew he needed to, at this time. Reaching the road, he turned north on the street and headed out.

Over the last week, he'd gotten the tack and armament he needed for his trip. Tanya and the lady named Lacy helped him sort though his mothers things and pack them. The clothes were going to a local parish to be given out to anyone who needed them. Buck kept the few pictures of Alexia and him he found in a book she used to read. He didn't know she had them, he thought they'd been lost in one of their moves.

During that time, Buck worked with his horses and let them get used to his ways as he got use to their quirks. He found that the mare almost sensed his thoughts before he could let her know what he wanted. She responded instantly to the faintest nudge he gave her, turning or speeding up, going on alert. He was thrilled with her response which was so good. On the fourth day, he named her Dara. He thought she was the most well broke horse he'd ever ridden. He found she went on alert when a stranger approached or something different appeared. He figured he could trust her to alert him to anything coming their way.

Buck joined the line of traffic, riders, wagons and several vehicles heading north through El Paso. It took an hour to reach the northern edge of the city. Buck was pleased he wouldn't have to travel alone for several days. He met up with eight men and four women riding horses in a well formed party. They traveled with a large wagon heavily packed with goods and several strings of pack horses led by the riders, all of them heading north to the Midwest Region. He knew two of the men, having worked with them when he rode with the lawmen. They welcomed him, another hand in case they ran into trouble.

The voyage north went well, Buck thought. With them traveling steadily, they didn’t have any problems. Three more riders joined them, making them sixteen men and women strong and fifty horned horses. The original twelve traveled this way several times a year and knew where the best overnight, sheltered camp places were, and where water was plentiful. Only once they ran across wolves. It was a small pack and they easily took them out before they could inflict any damage to anyone or any of the horses. They spent many nights out in the open, with not only the horses on alert, but night guards.

They arrived in Denver three and a half weeks later. Buck bid his companions good bye as they headed a little to the south and east. Their way would be a little easier, as they were moving out into the plains, to towns east of Denver, and picking up more wagons and riders. Buck was traveling farther north before turning east.

He hoped to mostly follow the roads to MER 25. Buck knew he would find several places where he could stay the night along the way. There were a few bus stops, but it'd been three years since he and his mom had traveled over that country. He hoped there would be more towns and stops along the way.

Buck spent one night in Denver, having his horses re-shod and enjoying a decent bed for the one night. He bought the supplies he needed for the next part of his journey, and a new rifle with bullets and a scabbard, that he hooked to his saddle. The next morning, a little after sunrise, he headed out. Following the directions of the stable manager, he found the road that left the city to the northeast and urged Dara and Banner into their mile eating pace.

Buck considered himself lucky for the last five days as he traveled towards MER 25. He'd been able to find a few scattered homesteads who allowed him to stable his horses and spend the night.

On the sixth morning, he set off and wondered how much farther he needed to go. Buck slapped his head and laughed. He guessed he had at least three more days before he would reach the town. He was impatient and figured he must have transferred it to his horses as they broke into a faster gait. He let them go for a couple of hours before he slowed them down not wanting to tire them out and he needed to find a place to stay the night.

When a small river crossed his path, Buck pulled the horses to a stop in the green area along it. Dismounting he walked around, working the kinks out of his legs and back while they drank their fill. He was use to long hours in the saddle from the weeks of riding north, he let them eat for a while as he rested. After a half hour, he drank his fill and remounted. He set off at an easy walk, letting the horses graze as they walked along. When the green area gave out they moved into their mile eating stride. Buck kept a look out as he rode along, mainly for wolves but also anything that seemed out of place.

It was almost dark when he spotted lights ahead. He'd been looking for a place to hold up for the night but the land was flat without even a tree to be seen. The beckoning lights drew him and the weary horses picked up their gait.

"Hello the house," Buck called out pulling up near the front of the house, noting there was a sturdy looking barn nearby.

The door opened and a man stepped out, a blaster in his hand. "What can I do for you mister?"

"Sorry to bother you sir. We're pretty tired and I wondered if I could use your barn for the night."

"You and who?" The rough voice asked as the man continued to hold the gun on him.

"Just me and my two horses. We won’t bother you or any of your animals. Just want shelter for the night."

The man lowered his gun. "I guess it will be all right. I want you gone in the morning though."

"Not a problem sir, we'll be gone at first light. Thank you." Buck turned Dara towards the barn, though he kept an eye on the man. He breathed a sigh of relief when the guy went back into the house, slamming the door behind him.

He dismounted at the barn door and pulled it open, he could smell hay mingled with the scent of horses and cows. In the dim light, he found a lantern on the wall beside the door and lit it. In the light, he found some space just inside the door. He quickly closed the heavy door as he glanced around the barn that he could see. There was enough room for his horses and himself to spend the night without being on top of each other.

After un-tacking his horses, he found where he could water them. While they were drinking, he found some hay stacked in a corner of the barn and grabbed an armload and carried it back to the closed door. His horses followed him, ignoring the three horses locked in stalls and the two cows in a large stall. Buck ran the brush over his horses backs before tying them to some hooks in the wall. They were settled by the door and could reach the hay. He stepped to his saddle and dug out something to eat then set it up so he had a place to lay his head. It wasn't that comfortable but, he figured if he got a few hours rest he would be fine.

Buck was surprised when he woke and found the sky was starting to change from the black of night to an orange colored dawn. He rose and gave his horses some grain from what he had left, then saddled Dara and got the pack on Banner. By the time his horses were finished eating and having a drink of water, he was ready to leave. Chewing on a piece of jerky, he opened the barn door and led them out. Closing the door, he mounted and with a glance at the house headed out. There were no lights showing in the house and they left unseen.

The day grew brighter. But the sky's color only brightened to a watered down- orange color. Everything in sight had an orange tinge to it. Buck pulled his coat closer around him and noticed his horses were on full alert, their heads constantly moving as they watched the landscape, their nostrils wide as they breathed the still air. Uneasy, Buck loosened his blaster and revolver in their holsters. He didn't think wolves were causing the horses to be on alert, but he wasn't sure what it could be. He couldn’t see as far as the horses could, but the land stretched out in front of him for miles with only a few boulders to be seen in the distance.

Chapter 10

The day wore on as Buck rode across the flat barren land. The sky brightened to a light orange sheen but no brighter. Clouds formed low on the eastern horizon. When Buck thought it was noon or a little after, he began to scan the countryside for a place to shelter. He thought with the clouds building more and more, they were in for a storm of some kind. He didn’t want to get caught out in one. He nudged Dara into a faster gait.

The horses galloped easily covering several miles before Buck spotted a building in the distance. Several buildings. He grinned to himself, shelter, they might get there before the sky opened up.

Rain drops peppered Buck as he rode into what turned out to be a small town. It took him all of twenty seconds to spot the livery stable and head to it. Dismounting he pulled the doors open and led his horses inside. A man appeared out of the shadows and greeted him.

"Welcome stranger. I have only one large stall left, if your horses won't mind being together."

"Thanks. They are fine with that. Just needed somewhere to get away from the storm that's blowing in."

The gray haired man laughed. "My old bones say we're in for a big storm, lots of rain and wind. Should last through the night."

As he finished speaking, there was a crash as one of the barn doors blew closed and the other one smashed into the side of the building.

"There it is! You made it just in time. I'm called Nelson." He moved to grab the open door and tried to pull it closed as rain hit the side of the stable like bullets pushed by the wind.

Seeing the older man was having trouble with the second door, Buck hurried over to help him capture it. Together they pulled it closed and Nelson dropped a heavy bar in place to keep them closed.

"Damn, my bones told the truth again."

Laughing, Buck patted the man on the shoulder, "You sure know your bones Nelson. I'm Buck Wilmington. I'm headed to MER 25 to catch up with some friends."

"Nice town. Was there several months ago for a couple of weeks, was happy to get back here where it’s a lot smaller and quieter. Let's get your horses settled." Nelson said as he moved away from the doors towards the stalls. A few horned horses stuck their heads out of their stalls and grumbled to the newcomers.

"Here's my last stall. Get them settled while I get hay and water for them," the man opened a wide stall door then walked down the aisle to a stack of hay.

Shaking his head Buck led his horses into the heavy walled stall. As he took the tack off them, he looked over the stall as much as he could. He was happy that Nelson had more light in the barn than some stables he'd been in. He'd noticed the roof seemed to be held up by glass windows, looking closer he could see wooden frames around the windows. The windows were rain lashed but holding the rain and wind out and still letting in light.

Buck stacked his tack and pack in one corner of the stall, knowing the horses wouldn't damage them and ran his brush over them. Nelson appeared at the open stall door with a huge armload of hay that he handed to Buck to distribute while he went for water.

Once the horses were fed and watered, Buck headed for the door with his bedroll over his shoulder.

"Hey kid, you can't go out in this storm. You'll either be blown away or soaked to the skin as soon as you step outside. I have a spare room in the back, you can have it if you want. I don't think you will find a bed anywhere in town. The little boarding house only has three rooms and they were filled last night. The people's horses are still here. And they charge more than I do," Nelson laughed and motioned for Buck to follow him.

"It's not pretty but it’s a bed and it's warm and dry too."

Nelson led Buck to the back of the building and opened a door. "Come on in."

Buck glanced around at the small space, a miniscule kitchen with a small table and two chairs were in one area, a small sofa and comfortable chair stood before a fireplace. Two doors bracketed the fireplace. Another door was by the table.

Nelson opened one door by the fireplace. "This is the spare room you can have. There is a small bathroom through the door by the table."

"Thanks. How much do I owe you for this and my horses," Buck asked as he looked into the room that consisted of a chair beside a bed with extra blankets stacked on the chair.

Nelson smiled and named a price, and trying not to look surprised Buck dug out the money and handed it to the man. It was a lot less than he figured he'd have to pay.

"Is there a place where I can get a meal when the storm lets up?" Asked Buck as Nelson stuffed the money into his pocket.

"Go clean up, you can eat with me. I've got plenty to share. This storm is going to last at least ten hours. Wouldn't be surprised if it lasts closer to twenty four hours the way it came in.

Go on. I'll get the stew heating."

"Thanks Nelson, I'll gladly pay you for the food I eat."

"Get along kid, you paid me enough for a couple of meals." Nelson turned towards the tiny kitchen and with a shake of his head, Buck headed for the spare room.

As he unrolled his bedroll, he thought it was pure luck he ran across Nelson. He hadn't met many men like him. He hung his clothes on the hooks by the door and then made his way to the bathroom. In the tiny room, he wondered how anyone could do anything easily in there. A small shower took up the end of the room, a toilet with a small single sink across from it. Someone could literally sit on the toilet and wash up. The shower was barely two feet from them. He wished he had time to take a shower, and stepped into the small enclosure. Though tight, he had enough room to turn around with a couple of inches between him and the walls. He figured he could get a hot shower after they ate.

The storm raged for two days before it passed and the rain and wind gave way to sun and a warm breeze.

Buck helped Nelson tend the stabled horses, feeding and cleaning stalls with the older man. They spent hours talking and playing cards. Nelson taught Buck a few poker tricks Buck had never heard of. They laughed and enjoyed each other's company.

On the third day, Buck was ready to resume his trip. The day before he'd bought more supplies and was packed and ready to leave when the sun came up. He exchanged good bys with Nelson and promised if he ever came this way again, he would stop in to visit with him. Nelson watched as Buck mounted, turned his horses and headed out of the little town with a last wave to Nelson.

Buck thoughts were on the idea of seeing Chris and his family. It'd been over three years since he and his mother left the town. He wondered how the town changed since Nelson said something about it being too big for him. With a curse, Buck hoped he wasn't too late and hoped the Larabee's were still living there. All the work Chris and he put in on the farm should have guaranteed they would still be living there. It was a nice farm, the location perfect, the improvements he'd helped them with made it a lot better than when they'd first moved in.

With the storm delay, he figured he had at least two more days before he reached MER 25. The storm had made the hard packed road muddy and he guided his horses off it and onto the ground beside the wide strip. They made better time and just before dark he spotted the bus station in the distance.

He knew he could spend the night there, and before long he'd arrived. A short time later, his horses were boarded in a comfortable stables with food for the night. He was provided a room and a hot meal. Talking to other people spending the night, he found he was happy he would be to his destination after one more night on the road.

Dawn was lighting the eastern sky when Buck entered the stables and giving his horses some feed he tacked them up. Once they were finished eating, he mounted and left the station. He was getting impatient to see the Larabee's, and ending the long trip.

At noon, Buck dug a piece of jerky out for his lunch. His thoughts drifted to the Larabee's as he chewed his lunch. He wondered if the Larabee girls were still around, or if they'd found husbands and moved out of the area. He figured Katie for sure might be gone, though Erin who would be twenty, might still be around. He hoped Chris was still on the farm.

Dara growled as her head came up high. Banner copied her movement. Both horses were staring at something Buck couldn't see ahead of them, on full alert.

Buck swallowed and took a quick drink of water, then loosened his blaster and checked his revolver making sure it was loaded and ready to fire. He pulled the rifle, checked it and held it across his chest. He was ready.

Almost a half hour later, he saw something moving towards him. The horses growled louder and shook their heads. They were ready to attack if he gave them a signal. He held off as they got closer to what was coming towards them. Buck relaxed when he saw it was a rider leading a packed horse.

Glancing around, he spotted a small green area with some taller trees to his right and turned his horses towards it. There should be water there he thought, and maybe the other rider would pass without stopping. He halted Dara beside a small stream of water at the edge of the green area. With a shrug, he dismounted to let the horses drink but they refused and stood watching the approaching horses and rider. Their horned heads moving back and forth.

Resting his rifle in his arms, Buck watched the rider approaching, and smiled in appreciation at the horned horses of the stranger. Both were duns. The one the man rode was a black dun color with a dark head and legs with bars on them. It had two rear socks. The pack horse was a pretty red dun, with a dark chestnut mane and tail, its legs were barred and it had a crooked white blaze down its face.

A shiver went down Buck's back and he straightened and stepped out from where he stood at the side of Dara. His gaze landed on the rider. He tried to see the face under the hat but the rider was still too far off. His heart started pounding as the rider came closer.

It can't be! Buck thought as he pulled the hat off his head and ran a hand through his dark hair. The horses looked familiar, older, larger, but the rider. Could it be? Ohh GOD!! It had to be. He moved farther from Dara's side, his gaze latched on the rider who raised his head a bit to see better. A warm smile crossed the young man's face.

"Chris? Chris Larabee?" Buck yelled out, and started towards the rider.

"Buck? Is that you Wilmington?" The other called and nudged his horse into a trot.

A moment later the blond was jumping off his horse and Buck grabbed him in a bear hug as they pounded each other on the back.

"Chris! Chris I can't believe you're here. I was coming to look for you and your family."

"Buck, I was coming to look for you!" Chris stated at the same time Buck spoke.

The two young men laughed and stepped back, their happy gazes going over the friend neither had seen in over three years. Chris noted Buck was taller and filled out, he wasn't all arms and legs anymore, his dark hair seemed thicker and longer, blue eyes darker. Buck saw Chris was tall and whipcord thin, with a shock of dirty blond hair that dripped into his sea green eyes now and then. He had a gun and blaster in holsters on his narrow hips.

"How's your family?"

"How's your Mom?"

They said at the same time. Then laughed together. They moved into the shade of the tallest tree by the little stream and sat down in the grass. The horses, after eyeing each other settled down, drank then started grazing on the grass, keeping beside their companions and close to their riders.

"You first," Buck said before Chris could.

With a crooked grin Chris replied, "Kathie married two years ago and they have a cabin on the farm, her husband helps Dad. Erin married about six months ago and they live in town. Her husband is a doctor, but they go out to the farm often. Mom and Dad are doing great, Dad has two hired men to help keep the gardens up and going. The farm is flourishing. It provides a lot of vegetables for the general store and a few towns folks come out to buy directly from Dad. I decided there were enough people there. They didn’t need me anymore and I wanted to find you and maybe see some country." Chris looked at Buck.

Buck took a deep breath, glanced around the open countryside then looked at Chris.

"Mom was killed by a guy six weeks ago. We were living in El Paso. She was really happy, loved the women she worked with. I worked with the stable men and whenever the marshals needed an extra man. So I have some police training," Buck grinned at Chris as he blinked the tears away.

"Oh God Buck, I am so sorry! She was the nicest lady I have ever known. And boy could she bake. I am so sorry."

"She was liked by all the people she worked with. She left me with enough money to buy some horses and supplies, even enough to live on for awhile. I …" Buck paused, swallowing and fighting the burn behind his eyes. "Well, I decided I was going to come find you."

Chris put his arm around Buck's shoulders, he knew how close Buck and his mother had been. "So sorry bud. But I am glad you came here. I've missed you a lot and thought of you daily."

Buck nodded and took a deep breath and looked around. "Is that Angel Song?" he asked looking at the pretty filly grazing a little ways from them.

Chris smiled, "And Dusty Sun though I call them Dusty and Angel now. Kathie helped me off and on to train them. We started riding them last year, and they've settled into good riding horses. I wished you were there helping me work with them but…"

"Yeah me too," Buck looked at the sky. The afternoon was changing, it would be evening in another hour or two and they needed shelter. "We need to find a place for the night and then we can make plans on where to head."

"I know of a place we can stay. We need to get moving now if we want to get there before dark." Chris said as he rose from where he was sitting on the ground.

Buck rose and they moved to their horses. Within moments, they were mounted and with Chris pointing out the way to go, they set off.

Chapter 11 Several years later

"Hey Chris, this place looks like the perfect place for that ranch you want to build." Buck relaxed in his saddle and looked at the mountains enclosing a huge bowl of grassland. A huge barn stood a hundred feet from a long log and stone house nestled close to the edge of the bowl.

Chris pulled his horse to a halt and looked over the layout of the ranch. The mountains formed a natural fence around the two thousand plus acres laid out in front of him. The barn was large enough, he thought, to hold a dozen horses. Trees dotted the acres and a stream bisected the land, splitting several times, enough to water the whole area easily.

Turning his horse he gazed at the house. A couple steps rose to the long wide covered porch fronting the house. The shade from the roof made the porch inviting. The wide front door was centered and wood covered windows stretched down both sides of the doorway to each end of the porch. The uprights holding the porch roof up looked as if they'd been replaced recently. The whole house, at least what he could see looked good. A few boards in the steps would need to be replaced he noted and then wondered what the inside looked like.

"Let's check the barn out first then we'll tackle the house," Chris said turning his horse towards the huge barn.

The two men dismounted by the large doors of the barn. Dropping their reins they pulled the doors open and walked inside. Several birds flew out of the open window in the loft, but other than the birds nothing else stirred in the barn. They checked each of the large box stalls and the loft. They found enough left over hay to last several weeks.

Walking out the double back doors they looked over the acres that stretched to the foot of the surrounding mountains.

"Well, we can build fences and cross fences out here. Some turn outs off the barn since half the stalls have outer doors. It looks like there is plenty of water to keep the grass growing. We'll need to find some equipment to cut and bale the hay. With the surrounding mountains, this bowl should be pretty protected in the winter. Let's look at the house." Chris stated.

They pulled the doors closed and walked through the barn and out the front doors. Leading their horses, they walked to the house.

"Watch the step, that is one thing that needs replaced," chuckled Buck.

"So far the only thing." Chris agreed, as he unlocked the door and pushed it open. "We need a light in here." He turned around and he and Buck walked along the porch and unlatched the covered windows, hooking the wood covers to the wall.

They went back into the house and stopped and looked over the large room with several covered chairs and couches. Dust covered the end tables by the couches and the rug on the floor. A large stone fireplace took up half a wall, and a dining room table was in an alcove to the left of it. A wide doorway led to the kitchen off the dining area. Cabinets lined the back of the room. A sink and stove were built into a counter in front of them with more cabinets under the counter. A long narrow table was attached to the counter with several wood chairs sitting under it.

Buck opened a couple cabinets and found dishes, pots and pans stacked in them. "Hey Chris all we need is to clean the house and get food and we could stay here for the night."

Chris opened a door at the end of the wall cabinets and found a large room and a back door with a covered window in it. Two narrow windows framed the door. One wall held shelves another a bench with hooks over it. In one corner brooms, mops and a shelf holding old cleaning supplies stood ready for use.

Back in the main room they moved the other way and found a bathroom and four large bedrooms, three had beds and a few other items in them. In a hall closet they found lanterns and some bedding wrapped in a sheet. At the end of the hall was another bathroom and a washing machine that had both men scratching their heads in puzzlement. There was no electricity in the area, and that was needed to use the machine.

With a grin Chris led the way back to the large front room. "There's a little building out back, let's see what it is."

"Hope not more things that we can’t use," laughed Buck as they went out the door.

Walking around the house, they saw the outbuilding stood close to a narrow stream that flowed around the back of the house and past the outbuilding. A wide six foot long bridge let them cross it.. As they crossed to the building, they looked down at the water. They could tell someone had dug out the water way and lined it with flat rocks and stones. Chris opened the door and found it was a laundry area. Complete with water pump, washing machine, two tubs, stove and hanging racks. A number of shelves were above a counter, one held some old laundry soap.

"Well we found where the laundry is cleaned." Chris stepped out of the building and pulled the door closed behind them. For a few minutes, he studied the back of the house and where the back door stood in comparison to the laundry room.

"If we had the manpower and lumber, we could enclose a walkway from the back door to here. We're only about twenty five feet from the door. Wouldn’t be hard to do and it would make it easier to go back and forth in bad weather. I wonder why that other machine is in the house though."

Buck grinned at Chris, "Maybe the old owner thought they'd have electricity in here and got that machine for it. I guess we can sell it or store it somewhere else." Then Buck clapped his hand on Chris's shoulder. "You're thinking of that pretty little filly you are smitten with. A covered walkway for doing laundry would be great. This is the perfect place for a horse ranch, and to bring a wife to settle down with."

Chris' little grin and nod of his head let Buck know that was exactly what he was thinking. He and Buck met Sarah Connolly nine months ago, when they were working for her father, Hank, on his small ranch near 11C well over a hundred miles from where they now stood. They'd helped the cranky man roof his house and barn and then repair all the fences around the place. Though they stayed in a small room in the barn, Sarah made sure they had meals and clean clothes and bedding while they were there. Numerous times Chris and her would go for a walk in the evening, before it got too dark and dangerous. They worked for Connolly for four months before moving on. Chris promised her he'd be back for her as soon as he found a place they could settle down. Buck and Chris had been looking for two months and this ranch was the best place they'd found so far.

Buck grinned. He knew that look on Chris' face. Now all they needed to do was talk to the owner and make a deal. He figured Chris would head straight to the Connolly's to get Sarah, and they'd be married before they got back here. He would stay and get the house in order and start on getting materials for the work they wanted to do and the men to help.

"Let's go look up Angus and get this place in our hands," Buck walked to the back door and held it open for Chris.

After a last glance around Chris, walked into the house, Buck closed and locked the back door. Minutes later they had the house locked up and all the shutters latched over the windows. Mounting their horses, they turned towards the trail that went up and across the edge of one of the surrounding mountains. They noted the trail was wide enough to safely bring a wagon or other equipment into the bowl. It was steep in a couple of places but a good driver wouldn’t have a problem unless the horses got away from him.

The trail dropped down into a flat green area after going over the top of the ridge. The end of the trail was hidden by brush and rocks from view until someone was almost on top of it. Whoever created the trail into the bowl seemed to not want anyone to know where the trail began. The trail itself had grass and brush growing in certain areas that camouflaged it from the view of a person passing through the green area.

The two men used a dead tree as a marker to remember the way. Though both figured they wouldn’t forget where the trail started.

They headed west at a fast clip. An hour later, they trotted into the small town called 4C. Dismounting at the large hotel, saloon and restaurant building, they entered and having spent the previous night there, paid for another nights lodging. They asked the receptionist if Angus Lawssen was still staying there. The man replied and gave them Lawssen's room number, along with the key to their room.

Angus greeted the two young men with handshakes and a smile. The three of them sat around the small table in the room and discussed the sale of the ranch. After going back and forth on the cost of the ranch, they settled on a reasonable price.

Chris picked up his saddlebags from where he'd sat them upon entering the room and counted out the money and handed it to Angus, who signed the sale papers he already had prepared. He handed them over to Chris. Once everything was complete, they all headed to the bank to make it legal, and for the sale to be recorded in front of the bank president.

An hour from entering Angus' room, the three were having a celebration drink in the saloon. Angus gave them the name of the person who cut and baled his hay and answered all the questions the younger men asked him about the ranch. He planned to head out on the bus that would arrive the next day. He was excited to head to the Northeast Coastal Region with plans to meet with several of his siblings living there.

The next morning, Buck and Chris went through the Potter General Store, gathering things they needed for the ranch house. As the pile rose, Buck headed to the stable to see if he could rent a wagon to haul everything. He also ask the livery man if he knew of any builders needing work. Knowing their horses could pull the wagon, he didn’t have to rent a team. He made short work of getting the rubber wheeled wagon ready and harnessed his two horses to the wagon. With Chris' horses tied to the back, he drove the wagon to the store.

Chris opened an account with Mr. Potter, paying half now and signed the books to pay the rest within thirty days. With Mr. Potter's and Bucks' help, it didn’t take long to load the supplies into the wagon. Another stop by the small mill just outside of the town, they purchase enough lumber to start on a few of the projects they planned to do to improve the ranch. Loaded down they left town and headed for the new ranch.

The two young men worked hard on getting the house in order and building the enclosed walkway to the laundry room. Two men were hired to help and the four of them worked long hours each day. They added a window to the laundry building, and made the walkway light by adding narrow windows on both sides of the walkway. The windows were high enough and narrow enough nothing could get in. It would be impossible for wolves to fit through.

Three weeks later, Chris headed to town with the wagon, his two horses pulling it. He would drop the wagon off in 4C and then head to 11C to collect Sarah. Buck smiled as Chris drove out of the yard, he hoped Hank Connolly wouldn’t object, the man was a grump on the best of days. Buck turned to the new fence posts and rails stacked beside the barn for the main corral. Another stack of posts were piled where they planned to build paddocks off the side of the barn. He was working alone, but he had enough boards and rails, it would keep him busy until Chris and Sarah got home.

As Buck worked, he mulled over the past years, since they rode together after meeting on the road. At first they worked for different ranchers in several areas, gaining a lot of knowledge about cattle. From there they spent a year and a half with peacekeepers in Durango; then two years with peacekeepers in Reno in the Western Coastal region. Every penny they earned, they saved. Luck held when Buck joined a high stakes game of Black Jack and won. He was shocked. He'd managed to increase their savings by five times. Buck swore off gambling when he left the game, figuring his lucky streak could only last that one time. Chris stayed by his side as his guard, as he carried his winnings to the closest bank and deposited it into a new account. The bank set up the account to wire money wherever the new customer wanted it. If that wasn't possible, it would be wired to the largest city bank in the area where they would have to pick it up with proper ID. Bucks' luck held, the last large city they'd passed through, he was able to wire the bank and they received the money the next day.

The two of them were lucky with the different jobs they'd taken. From being peacekeepers - their proficiency with their weapons helped when they worked with the lawmen, who didn’t want them to leave. They worked with large horse and cattle ranchers, and helped small farmers and ranchers. They'd put aside enough money to not only buy a place, but to start up a business. Their plans for this 'hidden ranch', was to capture some of the wild horned horses who called the Southwestern region home. The demand for work and riding horses was high in several of the regions. The wild ones would fit the bill perfectly, and they were free, they just needed to be caught and trained.

Wiping sweat from his head, Buck stepped to the stream. Kneeling down he dunked his head in the cool water as the afternoon had turned hot. The sky was a bright blue with only a few high clouds floating by. Usually the bowl stayed cooler because of the way it was wrapped around with mountains. He hoped the wind would pick up again. Standing, he pulled his hat on and turned back to the fence he was working on. He'd gotten the main corral finished and started on one of the paddocks. His two horses were enjoying the shade of the trees along the corral fence.

As the sun disappeared behind the western edge of the mountains, Buck nailed the last rail into place. He dropped the hammer into the bucket he carried with nails and fasteners. He picked it up and headed to the house. After a shower, he'd have his dinner and relax. As he crossed from the barn to the house, he paused. His horses were at the corral fence looking towards the trail. Roars rang across the vicinity as the horses tossed their heads and pranced along the fence. Their attention locked on the trail.

Buck hurried to the house and grabbed his gun belt with his blaster and revolver and hooked it around his hips. His rifle was already with him, not knowing what was coming he'd be prepared. He didn’t think it was wolves the way his horses were acting and he was thankful for that.

Minutes later, he saw movement at the top of the trail leading his way. After a short time he relaxed. He recognized the two lead horses coming down the trail. Dusty and Angel, it was Chris and it looked like Sarah on Angel. They were leading two other horses both with hugs packs on their back.

"Hey Chris, Sarah, you made it. I was beginning to think I was the full owner of this place," Buck called out when the riders reached the yard. A grin crossed his face as he stepped to Angel's side to help Sarah dismount.

Sarah gave Buck a tight hug. Her green eyes were sparkling, her long wavy aburn hair was tied back into a pony tail and her smile was full of happiness.

"Hey, quit making out with my wife," Chris teased as he dismounted and took the reins form Sarah's hand.

"Yes, sir." Buck laughed and stepped away from Sarah who turned to look at the house.

"It's beautiful. It looks so inviting." Sarah said .

"Well, I found some flowers growing by the barn and decided they'd look better here by the steps than out there. Just have to remember to water them now and then. I was just heading in to clean up and eat. If you're hungry I have plenty of left over stew, just needs warmed up."

"Sarah, go ahead in and we'll get the packs off the horses and get them tended to and be right in," Chris smiled at his wife.

"I can help, get the packs off and I'll get them inside while you take care of the horses. I'll check out the kitchen too while you are doing that. Now get to work, it'll be dark before you know it." Sarah turned around and looked towards the barn and the darkening mountains beyond it. Drawing a deep breath she spread out her arms as she turned towards the men. "I love it here.

This place is beautiful!"

With a laugh, Chris kissed her and stepped to one of the pack horses. Buck went to its other side and they made short work unloading the panniers and packs on the horse and stacking things on the porch. Sarah carried things into the house.

Once the second horse was unloaded, the two men led the horses towards the barn. Chris complimented Buck on the work he could see was done. The main corral stood over seven feet tall, the tall horned horses would have to be very good jumpers to get over it. Buck pointed out where he stopped that day, and Chris was impressed how much he got done alone.

Once the horses were all stabled for the night they headed to the house. Light coming through the windows gave them a warm feeling. Inside they could smell something good cooking and headed off to clean up. Many of the things they'd unloaded from the horses were stacked next to the front door, they would tend to them after they ate. Both heard their stomachs growling and laughed.

Epilogue Chapter 12

The two men and one woman worked together to make the house welcoming and warm. Outside, across the large open area, new fences and cross-fences covered several acres of the land closest to the barn. Two large fields, one on each side of the stream, had been cut, the hay baled and stacked under a large lean-to on one side of the barn the men had built. Buck had heard about a man who cut and baled hay and he and Chris hired him to do their two fields. They provided the horse power to run the man's machinery and gave him a trained work horse when he lost one of his to old age.

Fences were around both fields; in the winter the horses were allowed to graze on one.

They hunted and captured wild horses and trained them. The sale of the horses footed bills they'd incurred and with the extra money they added to the house the first year. More horses were captured and were in the process of being trained, a couple would be farm horses. These horses were large and slow but strong, and would be perfect for a farmers work animal. Their horns were cut down so they weren't as long as the riding horses were.

Over the last year, they'd made friends in the town of 4C, and some acquaintances in the closer town to 4C. Since 4C was only about an hour away, they purchased most of their supplies there and were getting to be well known. Buck would head to town now and then for some entertainment, charming a saloon girl, playing cards or just having a few beers.

Chris and Sarah were happy together, their love for each other shined in their eyes when they were together. They found out several months earlier that she was pregnant. Chris tried to get her to slow down but she refused, insisting she needed to work to keep herself healthy. After a couple arguments, he'd given up and let her do what she wanted. He did keep an eye on her all the time and made sure she did only easy, lightweight work as the months passed. Buck was over the moon with the thought he'd be a uncle soon. He had fun with them trying to pick out names.

The friendship between the two men ran deep and Sarah's love brought them together more. She treated Buck like a brother and he sometimes called her 'Little Sister'. The three of
them were happy and looking forward to a little bundle of joy to seal their friendship even more.

Life was the constant joy of friends who never forgot each other.


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