As the wagon neared the station, Ike saw Lou and Rachel on the house porch. He waved to them, and Rachel waved back. "Buck's sleeping, Ike," she called to him. Ike nodded his thanks.
Matthew stopped the wagon near the corral, and Ike helped unhitch Midnight before taking his horse to the barn. Matthew led Midnight to the water trough and looked around. Several horses were in the corral, including a dark-brown one with a white spot on it's forehead. Tied to the corral fence by a lead rope was a sand-colored horse that had a white mane and tail.
"This one's Jimmy's. He's in the bunkhouse," said a black man. He'd been sitting on the bunkhouse porch and walked over to Matthew. "And the dark one with the star--that's Lightning, Lou's horse." At this, he indicated the rider on the house porch. "I'm Noah Dixon. You?"
"Matthew Brady," he replied, offering his hand. Noah shook it. Matthew continued, "Thinking about asking for a job with the Express. That's Midnight and Bandit."
Noah glanced at Bandit in the wagon. "You've got yourself a wolf there?"
"Mostly," Matthew answered. Just then, Bandit barked. Matthew forced himself not to laugh as he watched a rider exit the bunkhouse wearing an apron, taking a large spoon out of his mouth. "Don't tell me you make the meals here."
"No, thankfully," said Noah, shaking his head.
The rider glared and pointed the spoon at Noah. "You don't know what good chili tastes like." Turning to Matthew, he added, "James Butler Hickock. Just call me Jimmy." Matthew repeated his own introductions, and Bandit growled at Jimmy. "Can't you make him shut up?" Jimmy was getting annoyed.
Matthew spoke gently to Bandit in Lakhotan, and Bandit quieted down. "He knows who he can trust, and that doesn't include gunfighters. He's great at protecting me or telling me when something's not right."
"What did you say to him?" Noah asked.
"Just told him it was alright and to be quiet."
"Yeah? In what language?"
"Lakhotan Sioux," said a new voice. On the bunkhouse steps was the Indian Matthew saw in Denver. He had a different shirt on, but there was no mistake about the ebony hair and piercing black eyes.
"Ike's best friend Buck?" Matthew guessed.
"Buck Cross," he answered. "How do you know Ike?"
"Met him down at the creek. Matthew Brady--or Ska Mato, if you want. Midnight's the pony, and that's Bandit."
Buck looked at Bandit, who wagged his tail eagerly. Bandit jumped out of the wagon and trotted over to Buck. He reached down and scratched Bandit behind his ears. "So…White Bear. How'd you get that?"
"I'll explain later." Matthew seated himself on the corral fence.
Lou and Rachel had walked over, and introductions were made once again. Ike left the barn and joined the group. Hey, Buck. Get everything done in Denver?
"Yeah," Buck answered. "Good day for drawing, wasn't it?"
Ike nodded, then shyly showed them his sketch pad. Bandit barked happily.
"One of your best yet, I think," Rachel commented affectionately. Ike blushed. Rachel quickly changed the subject. "Well, Matthew. That's almost everyone. You'll meet Teaspoon, Cody, and Jesse at supper. Kid, too, if he's back from his run by then."
Lou sighed, and Jimmy put his arm around her. "Don't worry, Lou. Kid can take care of himself. Sometimes you worry almost as much as he does."
Lou pushed him away. "What's wrong with that?" she retorted.
"Nothin' at all." Jimmy stepped back, holding his hands up in defense.
Rachel spoke up, "Matthew, you're welcome to come on inside the bunkhouse. I need to make some more bread. Jimmy, you have to clean up the kitchen first." Jimmy reluctantly followed her. Lou went into the bunkhouse too, and Noah headed to the barn.
Matthew stayed where he was on the fence and watched the horses inside the corral.
Matthew found Buck and Ike on either side of him. He nodded, then shook his head, not sure what to say. "Don't really know what I want to do with my life right now, that's all."
How old are you?Ike asked.
"Eighteen, nineteen next month." Matthew climbed down, then ambled to the wagon. He picked up a moccasin and ran his thumb across the beaded design absentmindedly.
"Hard to know what you can do when you aren't sure where you fit in. Like me."
And me, Ike added.
Matthew dropped the moccasin back into the wagon. He turned around and leaned against it, putting his hands in his pockets. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Ike and Buck looked at eachother, then again at Matthew. Buck licked his lips hesitantly. "I'm Indian, of course."
"But not Sioux. So?"
Buck nodded. "You're right. I'm Kiowan."
"That's what I thought, down in Denver. You know the Sioux language too?"
"Yeah." Buck stopped, not sure if he should say anything else.
"I don't get it."
Ike nudged Buck.
"Well…I'm only half, actually."
"Oh!" Matthew completely understood. "Half white, then, also. Either way, you're like an outsider. Not accepted by Kiowans because you have white blood; looked down on by whites because you're also Indian."
"Exactly. See, the thing is, all of us here at the station are…" Buck's voice trailed, not wanting to say it.
Like orphans, finished Ike.
"Orphans?" Matthew was getting confused.
We've all lost our families in one way or another.
Matthew waited, but Ike didn't continue.
"Either by rejection, or--" Buck looked at Ike, who nodded resignedly, "--death. Ike lost his voice because he had scarlet fever."
Buck started walking. Ike and Matthew followed him. Once they were at the back of the barn, Matthew stopped. "His hair too. Ike survived it, though. Ike, remember down at the creek when you told me about losing your hair and voice? I quit talking about it because I could tell it bothered you, but that's not all. I was only eight when I lost my parents and baby brother. Would've taken me too if I hadn't been sent away for awhile."
Buck didn't say anything. Instead, he looked at Ike, one eyebrow raised in question. Ike nodded, then went to the bunkhouse. "Matthew….Ike's parents and sister were killed--murdered--by a gang. Ike was hiding in the house, saw the whole thing from behind the door."
Matthew turned away, embarrassed. "I didn't mean to upset him."
"I know. So does Ike. Everyone here at the station is like a big family now. Sure, we have our share of arguments and fights, especially Kid and Jimmy. But we all take care of eachother too." Matthew heard a noise, two metal objects hitting eachother. "Rachel's calling everybody for supper. C'mon. We need to wash up."