Authors Notes: I sincerely thank Emmint for providing the inspiration for this story through her imaginative series, Buck Remembers and for giving me permission to expound on her idea. I also thank LilyJack for her encouragement, editorial assistance, and, most importantly, her assurances regarding a story written entirely from the perspective of a horse.
Buck, like me, suffers a bit from ADD so he often has wandering thoughts. Unfortunately, at one point his thoughts meandered forward to an episode that occurs well after Hidalgo. That section of this story is clearly marked and you can skip the marked section without impacting the continuity of the story.
I learned why 'out riding alone' is an oxymoron: An equestrian is never alone, is always sensing the other being, the mysterious but also understandable living being that is the horse. Jane Smiley
Horse Sense and Honor
Chapter 1: Leaving
Buck was a horse and for almost as long as he could remember, Matt Dillon, the U.S. Marshal had been his human. Buck was sensitive to the moods and feelings of all humans, but his perceptiveness went especially deep with Matt. Of course, Buck was well aware that a horse owed obedience to whomever held his reins. Because of that, he knew it wasn't wise to become overly attached to any one rider; control of his reins could change in the blink of an eye. But for now, Matt was his human and had been since he had been a young horse. He hoped that never changed. They had been through a lot together over the years and foolish or not, Buck had developed a deep connection to his rider. Horses had a saying that, "You could best judge a horse by how he treated his rider in hard times." Buck figured he was a pretty good horse; he always did his best to keep Matt safe and get him home. Furthermore, Buck considered himself an exceptional thinker amongst horses and to his thinking, if that saying was true of a horse, the reverse must be true of a rider, "You could best judge a rider by how he treated his horse in hard times." Buck had shared a lot of hard times with Matt and Matt always took care of him as best he could. If Buck was tired, hungry, and thirsty, his human was usually in the same shape or worse.
Just now, Buck patiently followed Festus as they walked down Front Street from the stable to the jail. Buck figured he and Matt would be riding out of town soon. He didn't know yet where he would be heading, but he did have some strong clues that it would be a rough journey. Hank had given him a double ration of grain this morning and Festus had not been his usual cheerful self when he'd come down and saddled him up. As Festus tacked him up, he would usually scratch his ears and pat his side while he chattered away about the goings on in Dodge and complained good-naturedly about whatever errand he and Matt would be undertaking. But today Festus had been all business and Ruth had remained in his stall when Festus led Buck down to the jail. The grain was a treat that told Buck he'd be working hard, no Ruth told him that he and Matt would be traveling alone, and Festus' dour mood told him that Festus either wasn't happy about being left behind or wasn't happy about where Buck and Matt would be going—probably both.
Buck saw Matt standing out in front of the jail and nickered a soft greeting as Festus tossed his reins over the hitching rail. He listened as Festus tried to wheedle the Marshal into letting him tag along, but the Marshal was resolute.
"Festus, we've been through this. They're sending one man, me. That's all the extradition papers allow. Anyway, someone needs to keep an eye on the town."
Festus tried one more time, "Awe foot, Matthew, this just ain't no job for one man by his ownself. I'm a tellin ya, if'n ya go after them yahoos all by your lonesome, you ain't a goin to be comin back atall."
Buck couldn't miss that his human was getting a little short tempered as he responded, "Umhmm. Why don't you ride out to the Risling place and see if you can find out what happened to the two hogs that disappeared from their farm?"
Festus, apparently oblivious to Matt's deteriorating temper, waved his arms in the air, and started to disgustedly argue, "Hogs, Matthew, two hogs? Seems to me a United States Depiddy Marshal oughtn't not to be worried about two hogs when they's more impor….."
"Now," bellowed the Marshal.
Buck watched as Festus gave Matt his best squinty-eyed look before he headed down the boardwalk towards the stable, mumbling under his breath, spurs a jingle jangling.
Buck kind of wished that conversation had ended differently. Festus' non-stop talking was a little annoying, and he was surprised at how his own taciturn human seemed to so easily tolerate all that yakking. Still, Festus was good company for the Marshal and a good man to have around if trouble came calling and from what Festus had just said, trouble was definitely going to come calling. Of course, no one ever asked Buck for his opinion on things. He was pretty sure they didn't even know he had opinions.
Buck watched as Matt pivoted and entered the jail and quickly returned with his bedroll and saddlebags, which he efficiently affixed to his saddle. Buck then expected Matt to go in, pick up whatever else he needed, and come right back out, ready to go. But things didn't happen that way. Matt went back in the jail all right, but before he came back out, Buck watched Kitty march down Front Street, enter the jail, and slam the door in her wake. Buck could dimly make out their silhouettes through the jail window and could clearly hear Kitty's voice raised in anger and Matt's deeper voice trying to no avail to placate her.
Buck knew Matt wouldn't want to leave without making things right between Kitty and him. He eavesdropped as Kitty furiously demanded, "Why aren't you taking Festus…or somebody?"
"Kitty, we talked about this last night," countered Matt defensively. Buck couldn't help but think that one specific Deputy U.S. Marshal was probably lucky he wasn't within Matt's reach just now.
"Yeah Matt, we did, but I think you left out some details like you going alone. I didn't push you last night because I didn't want to ruin the few hours we had together, but I had no idea you were planning to do this alone." She paused and inhaled deeply before plunging on, "And why is it always you that has to go? Dodge is no where near Mexico."
Matt struggled to both commiserate and explain, "I know I've been gone a lot and I'm sorry, but I just have no choice. Mando and his gang have been raiding the border towns for months. They take what they want and slip back across the border to safety in Mexico.
"I get that, Matt," Kitty broke in, "You covered all that last night, but that still doesn't tell me why it has to be you. Why not the Texas Rangers, or one of the lawmen assigned to those border towns?" The frustration was clear in her voice.
"Kitty, Mando is escalating, He's already killed a sheriff, a banker, and a teller, and, on his last raid, he killed a whole family...including two little girls. He's got to be stopped and we finally have an agreement from Mexico letting us go in and get him."
"You're not listening, Matt," an increasingly agitated and distraught Kitty shouted. "I'm not asking why Mando needs to be stopped. I want to know why you're the one that has to do it?"
Buck sidled a little closer to the window, just in time to see Matt, apparently having no reasonable answer, step forward and try to pull his furious lover against his chest. Buck thought that a good strategy as he was well-aware the fiery red head's temper could often be cooled by Matt's physical nearness. But even from his poor vantage point, Buck could see how stiff she was still holding herself, one hand planted firmly on Matt's chest, forcing him to keep his distance.
Matt tried once more to explain, "It's the badge."
Buck groaned. He might just be a horse, but he'd witnessed enough arguments between these two so that even he knew that was the wrong thing to say.
"The badge?" shouted Kitty as she attempted to pull completely free from the Marshal, although his firm grip and large size rendered her efforts fruitless, "I don't give a damn about your badge. You're not the only one to have one of those shiny things you know. Are the rest of them too cowardly or just too smart to go?"
There was a long pause, Kitty remained frozen in Matt's grip until she finally looked up into eyes, let out a loud sigh and collapsed into his arms. "Oh Matt, I'm just…afraid…for you," she sniffled. "Why does it have to be you? And why do you have to go alone?"
Matt ducked his head so it was level with Kitty's ear. His reply was so soft that even Buck with his most excellent hearing was unable to hear them at all through the heavy jail door.
Buck was fully cognizant of the close ties between this woman and his human. He figured he might actually know more about that relationship than anyone except, maybe, Kitty's horse. People never worried much about what a horse heard or saw so they heard and saw plenty. Matt and Kitty liked long rides across the prairie, picnics, and fishing. And while Buck would never tell, not even his closest horse friends, he knew first hand that a lot more than riding, picnicking, and fishing went on during those excursions. Some horses were kind of gossipy, but not him. There was, however, no doubt, the Marshal loved the beautiful saloon woman and she loved him. As always, this special knowledge caused him to feel a twinge of sadness for Matt, who would again have to leave her behind.
Buck shifted his weight uncertainly from one foot to the other. It appeared Mexico was to be their destination. Despite the certain hardships he knew he would face on their impending journey, he was still glad, although not surprised, that Matt chose him for the journey. He wasn't Matt's only horse, but he was Matt's best and most preferred horse. He didn't consider this arrogance, but rather certainty. He had been with Matt a long time. Matt's other horses were replacements acquired when other horses hadn't come home from one of his trips. He hated seeing Matt take out one of those other horses. Oh, they were good horses all right and made for fine stable company, but they lacked the experience and training needed to deal with the dangerous situations this human encountered. Buck was pretty certain Matt agreed. Buck accompanied Matt on most of his trips unless Buck had been ridden hard, or wasn't well, or was injured. Even then, Buck didn't like staying behind. Resting in the cool stable, munching hay all day, and visiting with his stable mates was a nice way to spend his days, but when Matt was gone and he was left behind, he worried like an old mother hen. He knew the other horses mocked him as a worrywart.
He couldn't help but worry, though. There was that time Matt had come back with a badly broken leg and his horse hadn't come home at all. A tired and agitated Chester had galloped up to the stable shouting to anyone that would listen that Mr. Dillon was in powerful bad shape, that he had left him out there on the prairie alone with a prisoner, and that he needed to get Doc to him as quick as possible. Buck had been sad to lose that stable mate, but he hadn't been there long and hadn't seemed like the sharpest tack. Most likely that horse had been careless, and it had cost the horse his life and nearly cost Matt his life as well.
Buck also recollected a time when one of Matt's horses had been shot by a man Matt was chasing. Buck tried real hard to not think about that too often. He especially tried not to think about it when he and Matt were out on the prairie and people were shooting at them. Truth was situations like that got him feeling kind of panicky, but Matt's confident hands on his reins kept him focused. He might never have known what had happened to that horse if he hadn't overhead Chester telling Hank all about it. Before Festus, Chester had been one of Buck's best sources of information.
One thing for certain, his human led a dangerous life and he needed a smart horse that was careful. Buck was that horse, and he was mighty glad it would be him taking Matt into Mexico again…even if he didn't really want to go.
Buck pawed at the ground a bit and watched as Kitty and Matt stepped away from the window. He wondered where Matt was going? They really needed to get started, now. The sooner they left, the sooner they would return. Horses didn't think a lot about the future, but Buck had to admit to a little trepidation about heading down into Mexico again. He'd carried Matt there on several prior occasions. Each trip had been long and perilous. Matt had suffered injuries and, on one occasion, he himself had even been stolen.
He also didn't like the idea of Matt taking on a whole gang alone, especially so far from home. Still, whatever the future brought, he figured that so far he'd been a pretty lucky horse. A horse couldn't have a finer human than he did. Granted Matt had taken him on some hackle-raising adventures, and sometimes he had been awful hungry, and thirsty, and tired to say nothing of scared, but when you got right down to it, adventures were really nothing but danger and deprivation far from home. On the positive side, adventuring really did make for good stories once you were fed, watered, and back in your home stall surrounded by good stable mates.
Sometimes those stable mates gave him a ribbing about having to carry the biggest man in Kansas, but Buck was happy to do it. He was proud he was big enough and strong enough to easily carry Matt anywhere he wanted to go whether it was on official business or a relaxing ride on the prairie with the winsome Kitty Russell. And secretly, he thought that he and the Marshal made quite a fine-looking pair. Buck just felt right with the big human ensconced in the saddle, holding his reins. It was like they fit together, were made for one another.
Patience was usually one of Buck's greatest virtues, but even his patience was starting to wear thin. It was mighty unusual to be left waiting outside the jail all tacked up for this long. At this rate, he was going to be hungry again before they even left town. Of course, Buck was fully aware that if anything could throw his human off schedule, it would be Kitty. He did hope the Marshal and his high-tempered lady were making up. His human usually kept his emotions under tight rein, but on those occasions where he and his human left town with things unsettled, Matt was just not himself at all.
Buck was definitely getting bored with no rider and no stable mates around and nothing but his own thoughts for company. He figured the waiting would have passed easier if Ruth had been there with him. He snorted a bit and figured he should probably try to enjoy resting here in the shade of the jail.
He was going to miss Ruth on this long trip as he had come to rely on the ugly ole mule. Horses didn't usually socialize much with mules and Buck was a little ashamed to admit, even to himself, that when Ruth started stabling with him a few years back, he had been a bit rude and arrogant, thinking himself some better. He was still prideful that he could easily outrun Ruth. But, he had to confess to himself, but never to Ruth, that there were days when he was bone tired while Ruth was still going strong. He would pretend he was just fine, but he'd been mighty glad when Matt or Festus called a break. Ruth was tough, but no way Buck would ever tell him that.
He'd also long ago learned that Ruth could be relied on in harsh situations and was a good thinker even if a bit stubborn about things. One thing that really rankled him though was Ruth thinking Festus a better human than Matt, but he figured a horse…or a mule, had to make the best of their own situation. Of course, Buck also knew plenty of horses who would be quite happy to be rid of their human. After all, a lot of riders were pretty worthless and would ride a horse into the ground leaving them spavined. While lounging in the stable, Buck had met a lot of broken down horses and heard too many sad tales of abuse. There were also a lot of horses that were ridden by a lot of different humans and had never had a chance to form a connection with a single rider. Buck would definitely be sad if he had not had the opportunity to form a special bond with Matt. Truth was, he could barely imagine life without the complex lawman.
Finally, the two humans came back out of the jail. Always observant, Buck saw that Kitty had tears in her eyes and Matt the smallest dab of lip rouge at the corner of his mouth. The latter a good sign, he thought, but the former a problem. Buck knew Matt would worry over those tears for a good long time. He was able to stoically resist anger, yelling, and throwing things, but tears brought the big lawman to his knees. And usually, he would do whatever it was she asked whether it was rescuing a small kitten, stepping in to help one of Kitty's saloon girls, or going the extra mile for one of his prisoners that the lovely Kitty Russell somehow decided was innocent. But Buck also knew that he almost never let those tears come between him and responsibility to his badge. This must be one of those times because, despite the tears, Matt quickly put his boot in the stirrup and hauled himself up into the saddle. Buck couldn't help but notice the extra pressure on the saddle horn as his human no longer mounted up with quite the same alacrity as he once had.
Once in the saddle, Matt caught Kitty's gaze and softly offered, "I'll be back as soon as I can."
She quickly wiped the tell-tale tears from her eyes before they fell and nodded to him before offering, "Be careful."
"Always," responded Matt as he gently tapped Buck's sides. Buck whinnied softly and moved away from the hitching post, turning down the road and heading out of town, leaving the forlorn woman still standing in front of the now empty jail.
To Be Continued