Matthew followed Buck into the bunkhouse, hanging his hat on a peg by the door. Everyone else was already seated at a long wooden table except Rachel, who was ladling stew into bowls. "Here, Jesse," she said, giving one to a young boy next to Lou. Matthew looked around at the neatly-made bunks and briefly wondered where each rider slept. He sat down between Buck and Jimmy. At the other end of the table, an older man was discussing a checker game with the blond, azure-eyed rider across from Matthew. The older man had graying hair and wore a marshal's badge on his leather vest. Matthew also noticed that his left eye opened a little more than his right. Marshal Hunter, Matthew remembered. What was he called? Teaspoon?
"I almost beat Jesse today, didn't I, Teaspoon?" asked the blond.
A rider on the other side of Buck snorted. "That's a first, Cody."
"Enough, Kid. I've never seen you play checkers." Cody reached for a fresh biscuit.
"Cody, save some for our guest," Rachel said, putting a bowl in front of Matthew.
"Wha--? Oh." Cody finally noticed him. "William F. Cody," he said with a grin. "Best long-shot in Rock Creek."
"Biggest mouth, too," muttered Jimmy.
"Hey!" Cody protested.
Matthew laughed, in spite of himself. "Matthew Brady," he replied, not wanting to take his eyes from Cody's. Just like Pa's. Turning to Teaspoon, he said, "Thinking about working for the Pony Express, Marshal Hunter."
"Yeah. Noah told me that." Teaspoon leaned back in his chair. "Why you want to work for the Express?"
"Money, I guess. Figured I might as well work awhile before going on to Saint Joseph."
"What, Saint Joseph? Find out if I have any family there."
Teaspoon shook his head. "Not in the last twenty years, I think. One young couple left just after the wedding, headed west like lots of folks. I happened to be there that day, saw 'em leave the church. The gal's name was Sarah Gregory."
"What else?" Matthew hesitatingly asked.
"They looked so happy an' all…His name's Justin, from what I heard." Matthew accidentally dropped his spoon. Buck picked it up and set it on the table for him.
Matthew looked at Buck, then Ike, then at his empty soup bowl. "Justin Patrick and Sarah Anne," he managed.
His parents, Ike signed.
Matthew nodded. "Scarlet fever, when I was eight. Baby brother Jonas Peter, too." He locked eyes with Cody, then turned away embarrassed. "Sorry, Cody."
"What for?" asked Cody.
"You just remind me of my father. Your eyes, the way you grinned at me awhile ago."
Cody turned to Teaspoon for help. "What did you do?" Teaspoon queried gently.
"I might as well get it out now." Matthew passed his spoon and bowl to Rachel. "We lived near the Lakhotan Sioux villages, up near the Cheyenne River."
Kid interrupted, "That's right by the Dakotas, ain't it?"
"Yeah. Anyway, my father's best friend was a chief's son, Red Eagle. They helped me, let me live with them. Taught me to hunt and fish, things like that."
"Did you make your jacket and the moccasins in your wagon?" Matthew saw that Jesse's blue eyes were full of curiosity.
"From a buck I caught last year. Should've seen me the first time I tried, when I was ten." Matthew smiled at the memory. "It would've gotten away if my friend Storm Cloud and a few other boys hadn't been there."
Buck spoke up, "So how did you get the name White Bear?"
"Ska mato….Because I'm white, partly. Bear, that's another story."
"C'mon, you can tell us," urged Cody. Ike raised one eyebrow, waiting.
Rachel gave everyone a piece of apple pie. Matthew took a bite, savoring the taste. He swallowed, then ate another bite. Surprisingly, Cody hadn't touched his yet. "You gonna eat it, or watch me eat it for you?"
"Good one, Matthew," cheered Kid. Cody glared at him, then started eating.
Matthew continued. "Four or five years ago, my friends and I went a little too far north into the Dakotas. They knew I'd always wanted to see a bear, maybe even kill one. But arrows aren't always enough for hunting bears. So I took along my father's rifle, the one in the wagon. There's gold mines and a couple caves there; we were exploring a bit. One cave was just uphill from a small river. We hid by the water and waited. Sure enough, a bear came down to the water for fish."
"Did you shoot him?" asked Jesse.
"Let him finish, Jess," said Lou.
"I aimed the rifle, lined up a shot and everything. But then something held me back. I couldn't pull the trigger. Looking at the cave entrance, I saw two young cubs waiting for their mama to bring their meal. So we left them and went home. Don't know how we'd get a dead bear all the way back to the village anyhow." Matthew finished his pie before changing the subject. "Thank you for the supper, Miss Rachel."
"Most welcome, Matthew."
"Now you wanna work for the Pony Express," said Teaspoon. "Of course, that depends on the behavior of this wolf of yours."
"Three-quarters. He knows who he can trust. Like at the creek, he didn't growl or bark when he saw Ike. He really likes Buck too. The rest is up to Jimmy." Jimmy didn't say anything.
"Why Jimmy?" asked Lou.
"Like I said this afternoon, Bandit knows a gunfighter when he sees one. But I can probably work on that tomorrow."
Teaspoon thought for a minute. "Who's got runs tomorrow?" Ike pointed to himself, then to Cody. "Yeah, I guess that'll work. After chores, naturally. So, Matt…"
"For starters, just call me Teaspoon. How fast can you ride?"
"Saddled or bareback?" Matthew wasn't bragging; it was a simple enough question.
"Saddled, and that includes your rifle, a saddlebag, and bedroll. If you want to learn how to use a pistol, Jimmy can teach you."
"Maybe. It'd be less weight. "
"Smart thinking, Matt. After lunch we'll try you out. For now, your Indian pony is in the corral. You can either sleep here on the bunk above Noah or out in the barn, if you so choose."
"Lou?" Kid asked.
"Don't even think about it, Kid," Rachel cautioned.
"But I'm warning you--," Teaspoon glanced at the others, "--some of the boys snore."
Matthew smiled as he saw Ike nudge Cody. "Her name's Midnight. The barn is probably better, so I can keep an eye on Bandit."
"It's settled then. We'll wait until you're ready to sleep in here."
"Thank you. I think I'll put my things on the bunk for now, if that's alright."
Matthew excused himself and went outside, enjoying the night air. He put on his hat and headed towards the wagon.
Ike came too. Can I help you? he signed.
Matthew shook his head. "Ike…this afternoon, behind the barn…."
Ike stopped him. You would know sooner or later.
"You forgive me, then?" Ike nodded. "Thanks."
After moving everything into the bunkhouse, Matthew took his bedroll and some dried venison, then softly whistled for Bandit. The wolf-dog ran to him, hungrily accepting the meat. "Sorry I didn't give it to you earlier. So much going on here, I kinda forgot. You need to behave here, if we're gonna stay. Jimmy's a friend, alright? You'll learn that tomorrow." Bandit licked Matthew's face. The two of them went into the barn. Matthew climbed into his bedroll. Once he was comfortable, Bandit lay with his head and front paws on Matthew's stomach. Within minutes, they were sound asleep.