"Clearly Animals know more than we think, and think a great deal more than we know."

Irene Pepperberg, Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence—and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process

Horse Sense and Honor

By GunShy

Chapter 6: Home

Finally, horse and rider arrived back in Kansas. The familiar surroundings were comforting and made them both even more anxious to finish the long journey. Oddly, Buck could feel Matt's tension mounting the closer they got to home. He wasn't surprised when about two days from home, Matt chose to push on late into the night before stopping. Buck figured he wanted to make it home the next day, didn't want to spend another night on the trail. He also couldn't miss Matt's uncharacteristic edginess. Matt was not a man who engaged in wasted motion, but Buck could tell he was agonizing over something. Even after he settled in for the night, he continued to fidget, not quieting until near morning. Buck was not surprised that despite the short rest, Matt was up and ready to go before daybreak.

They rode steadily through the day, finally coming to the small grove of trees where they had camped the first night out. It was late afternoon. Matt pulled Buck to a halt. And, Buck thought, rather weirdly, decided he would wash and shave. Buck didn't really mind the delay although he did figure Matt could have waited to get back to Dodge to clean up. They were so close to home and Buck was looking forward to the comfort of his stall. But, Buck was a horse who tried to look on the positive side of things so he took pleasure in enjoying the unusually luxuriant grass for grazing while he waited. As he chomped on the delicious grass, he watched as Matt pulled off his filthy shirt and, despite the coldness of the day, tried to sluice the trail dust and sweat from his hair, face, and upper body. Buck tried not to be judgmental regarding Matt's choices, but choosing to wash up now seemed just a bit foolish considering the chilly temperature. Matt was now shivering, covered with goose bumps, and having very little luck ridding himself of the stubborn filth that covered him. He was actually starting to look a little muddy.

Finally, seeming to recognize his lack of success, Matt quickly pulled off his boots and pants. Completely naked, he took a deep breath, and jumped into the frigid water. Buck snorted and nodded his head in amusement as the normally stoic Marshal popped to the surface gasping in shock and uttered a series of very unMatt-like expletives. Why Buck had heard less complaining from the man when he'd been shot. Matt rubbed himself as clean as possible in the shortest amount of time possible and then clambered back up on the bank. He quickly pulled on his pants, boots, and a spare shirt, which was significantly cleaner than the one he had been wearing. Even more importantly, it had no bloodstains or bullet holes.

Buck was, as always, fascinated that under his clothes, Matt's body was nearly bare with only a light dusting of fur here and there. No wonder he had to cover himself with clothes. Without them the summer sun would burn his hide and the winter snows freeze it. Buck thought he sure was lucky to be a horse and have a good protective covering of fur over his entire body. And not only that, his coat naturally thickened to keep him warm during the cold Kansas winters. Why Matt even had to have special clothes for the cold. Yeah, being a horse was a lot simpler.

Buck did guess he might be a little jealous of that yellow slicker Matt had. His fur didn't do a very good job of keeping him dry. Of course he had noticed that Matt's slicker didn't always do that great of a job keeping Matt dry either. And, of course, if Matt forgot his slicker, it wasn't of any use at all. Really, the best place to be when it was raining was in a stall. Buck had found, however, that it was not all that unusual for Matt to decide he had to go somewhere in the middle of a downpour and, of course, he expected Buck to take him. Understanding humans was not easy.

Yes indeed, humans could be very eccentric and Buck found their eccentricities endlessly amusing and Buck couldn't think of amusing things his human had done without thinking of Pickaxe. In the beginning, the situation had looked quite dire, but in retrospect, Buck found the whole escapade quite comical. Why a horse couldn't begin to think up the trouble humans got themselves into.

He and Matt were coming back from Hays City and had stopped by the jail when Matt had seen Doc heading in there with his bag. Buck was standing at the hitching rail peacefully waiting to get taken down to the stable after the unexpected stop. He'd peeked in the window and it looked like Doc was bandaging up Festus' ankle. That's when he heard a clearly disturbed Marshal shouting, "Pickaxe, you mean to say, you let her go to Pickaxe alone?" Buck's ears perked right up. Maybe this stop at the jail wasn't going to be so boring after all. He was pretty sure he'd never heard Matt bellowing like that before. There was no question in Buck's mind who the her he was talking about was.

A slightly aggrieved Festus had responded, "Well Golly Bill, Matthew, we tried to stop her, but she wasn't in no mood to listen."

Then Doc had goaded the already aggravated, Marshal. "Probably had a little something to do with her being a little bit upset with you."

Matt had defensively responded, "Well she didn't have any reason to be upset with me." Now Buck didn't know exactly what was going on here yet, but he just doubted the Marshal was as innocent as he claimed. And sure enough it hadn't taken Buck long to learn that Matt was supposed to take her to Pickaxe and he just couldn't seem to get around to doing it. The most recent excuse had been this latest trip to Hays. Tired of Matt's excuses, Kitty had gone by herself.

This information did nothing improve the Marshal's mood. He was clearly irate that, while he had been out of town, Festus and Doc had let her go alone. Buck got a little worried himself when Matt, whilst waving his fist in the air, had described Pickaxe as, "a town loaded with every lowdown renegade west of the Mississippi." He had added, "I've told her a hundred times she shouldn't have gone there."

"Yeah," Festus had interjected. "She said that too."

Festus' statement seemed to just make Matt even more upset that no one had gone with her.

Festus, clearly feeling unfairly persecuted, pointed out to the Marshal, "Now that you're here, you can go yourself."

Pickaxe thought Buck. Looked like he was going to Pickaxe.

Increasingly exasperated, Matt had said, "Yeah, well that's fine except I can't do it. I got a three-day stay of execution for Billy Colt. Now the Sheriff of Jetmore's bringing down the man that confessed."

Oops, thought Buck, he had jumped the gun. Looked like he wasn't going to Pickaxe after all. But he sure figured somebody was.

Doc had reasonably asked, "Well now, did you explain to Kitty that Billy Colt's life depended on you getting up to Hays City?"

"Well now," Matt had demanded. "What's that got to do with her running off like that?"

Buck could see Doc nodding his head wisely, "Oh, you didn't explain it?"

Buck thought to himself that after all these years, Matt really should be a little smarter when it came to dealing with women in general, and this woman in particular.

"Well, no, I didn't tell her. She wasn't in any mood to listen." Buck realized that Matt must really be in a state when he added, "Festus, you should have locked her up in a jail cell if you had to."

Festus had looked at the Marshal like he was more than a little crazy before defensively responding, "Oh foot, Matthew, I'd like to see you throw her in a jail cell."

Buck had to agree with Festus on that one. He wasn't sure the fiery redhead would ever forgive that transgression.

Buck really didn't think he had ever seen the usually imperturbable Marshal quite so perturbed.

Fortunately, Thad had arrived just then and Matt had dispatched him to Pickaxe posthaste. Matt's specific instructions had been, "I want you to go down to the stable, have Hank give you the fastest horse he's got. I want you in Pickaxe by tomorrow afternoon. And as soon as you find her, I want you to get a letter on that stage saying everything's all right. "

Matt was trying to hustle him out the door when Doc stopped him. "Wait a minute, you've told him everything except why he's going and who he's gonna see."

Buck figured it was a sign of just how upset the Marshal was that he had left those important details out.

Matt had quickly clarified, "Oh yeah, look, Kitty's up there. Somebody's given her a goldmine. Now she's up there alone trying to prove claim on it. I want you to find her, stay with her until she's got the title transferred. Then get her out of there as fast as you can. And don't forget that letter."

Thad had barreled out of the jail and raced down to the stable as Buck had watched. Buck had then heard a very ill-tempered Marshal petulantly query, "Don't you have some patients to take care of, or maybe a sick cow or something?" Clearly Festus and Doc were not exactly in the Marshal's good graces just now.

Matt had taken Buck on down to the stable after that and Buck hadn't heard any more about Pickaxe for a while. Two stages had arrived and departed before Matt had come to the stable and saddled him up before leading him down to the jail. Worry was clear on the man's countenance, and Buck had a feeling that they were heading to Pickaxe after all. The letter from Thad must not have come.

He watched as Matt had quickly rushed into the jail and, while gathering his rifle and saddle bags, asked the Sheriff to take the prisoner to Hays. "Jack, you're gonna have to do me a favor if you will." Buck recognized the Sheriff from when he and his prisoner had dropped off the horses at the stable.

The Sheriff responded quickly and affirmatively. Of course the Marshal hadn't left him much room to refuse.

Matt's parting instructions were, "Get him up to Hays City. Tell the Sheriff up there to let Billy Colt loose. I'll be up to sign the papers as soon as I can."

Buck knew then that Matt was seriously worried. He wasn't one to ask another man to do his job. Matt was out of the jail in seconds, quickly attached the saddlebags and shoved the rifle in its boot, near vaulted into the saddle, and spurred Buck into a gallop as they raced out of town. Matt had pushed Buck hard, not stopping until they reached Pickaxe. Horse and man were exhausted.

Matt had gone directly into the claims office. Buck was pleased to be left directly in front of the window so he could see and hear everything. The conversation had started out peacefully with Matt introducing himself, "I'm a United States Marshal from Dodge City. I'm, looking for somebody, a woman, a Miss Kitty Russell."

The man had, in Buck's opinion, rather unhelpfully responded. "I ain't never heard of her."

Buck thought Matt had shown exceptional restraint when he clarified, "Well now, she has a claim around here in this territory. She would have had to come in and register it with you."

It was after the man's next response that things had really deteriorated. Buck figured the man must not have actually looked at the Marshal before he answered or maybe he was just a fool.

"Well look, Marshal, we're over the territory line here. I don't know how far your law reaches, but it seems to me that this aint official business. We don't have to talk about it, do we? We don't cotton much to lawmen around here."

Matt was worried beyond reason, tired, and short-tempered and Buck watched as that fellow just pushed him right over the edge. Matt charged around the counter and yanked that buffoon right out of his chair as he intimidatingly informed him, "Now look Mister, I've been riding for 36 hours and I don't feel like fooling around. Now where is she?"

Buck knew from previous observations that most men, when confronted by all 6'7" of this U.S. Marshal, told him everything he wanted to know, and this man was no exception. After a rather staccato conversation the Marshal had all the information the man could provide.

They were nearly to Kitty's claim when Matt had heard shots and urged Buck into a gallop. They rounded the bend to see a shack in flames, Thad lassoed and laying on the ground with a bullet wound in his arm, and Kitty wallowing in a mud hole. The three Gibbyjohns were cackling and celebrating their victory, but upon seeing the law had arrived, beat a hasty retreat. Matt had been just in time. Buck did have to say the man had a sense of timing.

Unfortunately for the Marshal, a very muddy and bedraggled Kitty had not been all that grateful when Matt pulled her out of the mud. As Buck remembered, her precise words had been, "Matt, if you say, 'I told you so,' I will never speak to you again!"

It had been an interesting trip back to Dodge. Thad had helpfully offered to drive Miss Kitty home in the wagon, suggesting that Matt might need to hurry back to manage things in Dodge. After all, Thad wouldn't have been in Pickaxe in the first place if Matt hadn't been so tied up with problems.

Kitty had thought that a fine solution. Buck had snorted in amusement when the Marshal had emphatically vetoed the suggestion, and, after a moment's consideration, pointed out that Thad really needed to get back to Dodge in a hurry to have Doc check out his gunshot wound. Kitty had been tight lipped, but couldn't argue with the need for Thad to get medical treatment.

Matt accompanied Kitty back to the Palace Hotel to clean up, change into dry clothes and pick up her luggage. A still irate Kitty had firmly stated that Matt should wait with the wagon. She would let him know when he could go up and bring down her luggage. The Marshal was definitely in hot water. Kitty was just plain mad at him. Buck knew her pride had been badly stung. Not only had she needed rescuing, but Matt had pulled her out of that filthy mud hole looking like a half-drowned cat. Still, Buck knew very well that Matt had spent hours in the saddle—Buck had after all been the one wearing the saddle—sacrificed sleep, and saved her and her gold so Buck still wasn't exactly sure why she was quite so angry with him. Humans were complicated, and Buck had decided he was just going to have to ruminate on Matt and Kitty's current state of relations.

Buck knew that Matt was accustomed to his lady's hot temper and was not surprised when the Marshal had good-naturedly seated himself in a chair by the door of that fine establishment and waited, just as instructed. Experience had taught the stoic Marshal that rewards came to those who were patient. He just needed to wait till Kitty's temper cooled down. Buck thought that could be a while.

Once Kitty had restored her appearance and Matt had retrieved and stowed her luggage, he graciously assisted her up into the wagon, and then climbed up and seated himself. He chose to sit a little closer to the center than necessary. She had huffed and moved over to the far side of the seat shooting him a look that unequivocally let him know that no advances on his part would be welcome. Matt had given her his most charming smile, clicked the reins and off towards Dodge they went.

Buck was enjoying the interaction immensely although trailing a wagon was not his favorite way to travel. It was dusty and, he always felt, a little demeaning, but on the positive side, he didn't have to carry anything. Not for the first time Buck couldn't help but think that Matt had himself one handful of a woman. That red hair should have given him warning, but he was attracted to her like a thirsty horse to water.

Kitty maintained her stiff posture and distance thoughout the day reminding the Marshal at one point that she was not speaking to him. Buck knew the Marshal had been smart enough to not actually say, "I told you so," but that smirk on his face had been more than enough to land him in the doghouse. Buck figured Matt was reasonably comfortable in there as it was a place where Buck knew he spent quite a bit of time.

Eventually, with the sun low on the western horizon, it had been time to set up camp. Kitty had put together a simple meal while Matt had taken care of the horses. Dinner had been a silent affair. After all, Kitty was still not speaking to Matt. With dinner finished and everything stowed in place, Matt had pulled out his bedroll and searched the area for a place that looked soft and had no rocks or roots. He had kicked up the ground a little to break up the hard prairie. He had then carefully laid out his bedroll before calling out, "Kitty, I've got your bed all set up. How about you come get some sleep now? "

Kitty had pierced him with her snapping sapphire blue eyes and reminded him, "I'm still not speaking to you, Matt Dillon."

He had responded with his best boyish grin and said, "That's okay, Kitty. You don't have to talk to me until you're good and ready. I'm just glad you're safe from those greedy Gibbyjohns"

Buck had involuntarily snorted with amusement, but had quickly returned to his grass munching when Kitty had speared him with a suspicious look. He wasn't used to be on the receiving end of those blazing blue weapons. He was, however, also far too curious to cease his surreptitious surveillance of the two sparring humans. He would just try to be a little more circumspect. There was a piece to this puzzle he was missing.

He had watched as Kitty took Matt up on his offer and slipped into the cozy bed he had made for her. Buck could tell she was a little uncomfortable about where Matt was going to sleep, but she wasn't about to broach the subject since she still wasn't speaking to him.

Always a gentleman, Matt had hauled his saddle a respectable distance away and made it a comfortable pillow with the prairie as his bed. Buck knew he would be fine there. Many a night Matt had camped like this. But Buck would have taken bets that Matt wouldn't be sleeping there long.

Sure enough, not 15 minutes had passed before Buck heard an exasperated, "Oh Matt, I can't let you sleep like that. C'mon over here. I can share the bedroll. It is your bedroll after all."

Matt had sat up and innocently asked, "Are you sure? I don't mind sleeping over here at all."

"Get over here, Matt."

Not wishing to antagonize the already aggravated temperamental redhead, Matt had mumbled a simple, "Thank you." Then he quickly slipped under the blanket before she changed her mind.

She had then saucily reminded him, "I'm still not speaking to you. And keep your hands to yourself." Buck watched with some amusement as Kitty lay very straight being as careful as possible to not touch the grinning lawman. Then Buck had watched as the snarky grin on Matt's face was slowly replaced by a soft smile and the tough lawman watched over his beloved redhead as she fell asleep. Then he too slowly drifted off to sleep.

As the first rays of the morning sun began to peek into their campsite, Buck saw that the Marshal was awake, but Kitty still sound asleep, her head now resting on his chest, one arm wrapped possessively around his waist, and one leg draped over his leg. A small wet spot on his shirt was clear evidence she had drooled in her sleep. He could see that Matt was watching her sleep while being very still to avoid waking her.

As the sun rose a little higher in the sky, she began to stir. Buck watched Matt quickly close his eyes, feigning sleep. Kitty, realizing she had been snuggling with Matt, who she was most definitely still not speaking to, quickly shifted back to her side of the sleeping pallet. Matt stretched as if just waking and climbed to his feet, announcing that it was time to get on the trail.

Kitty also rose and Matt smiled over at her. "Morning Kitty, I hope you slept well.

Kitty rather acerbically responded, "I'm still not speaking to you, Matt."

"That's okay, Kitty. I'm just thankful you're safe." Buck didn't miss Matt smoothing his shirt and smiling at the small wet spot. Then, rather grimly, Matt had mumbled under his breath, "From the Gibbyjohns and all the other riffraff in Pickaxe"

It was at that precise moment that it clicked in Buck's mind. The missing piece he had been puzzling over was suddenly staring him in the face. Kitty being safe really was the only thing Matt cared about. Matt had spent some nerve-racking days worrying about his missing lady. He had been angry, distressed, and fearful and Buck clearly remembered what Doc had said about her going to Pickaxe: "Probably had a little something to do with her being a little bit upset with you."

Buck was certain that if Matt had just taken Kitty to Pickaxe like she had asked him, none of that fiasco would have happened. Kitty would have been safe with Matt, but he had ignored her wishes and inadvertently risked her safety. Matt was a man who took responsibility for his actions. If something had happened to Kitty, the blame would have been entirely his. Buck was well-aware that Matt Dillon was more willing to accept accountability and shoulder the guilt when something went wrong than any human he knew. He may have berated Doc and Festus for letting her go, but most of his anger had really been for himself. Yup, Buck figured Matt was probably beating himself up over his failure to be there for her, and thinking about how badly this could have ended. If Kitty wanted to punish him a little, Matt surely figured he deserved it.

Buck had been extremely pleased with himself for figuring that out. Puzzle solved, Buck went back to his grass chomping and human watching.

The two humans had quickly eaten and Matt had hitched up the team while Kitty put away the bedroll, provisions, and cooking utensils. Seeing she was ready to climb in the wagon, Matt had hurried over and lifted her up. Buck clearly saw his lips brushing her cheek and briefly nuzzling her neck as he settled her in the wagon. She had narrowed her eyes and given him a look that said, "keep your distance."

"It was an accident, Kitty, honest."

"Well, it had better have been, Mister, cause I'm still not speaking to you. Now just get this team moving and get us back to Dodge."

Buck couldn't miss the slight smile and the softness in her eyes that belied those words. Yeah, Matt might be guilty of not always being there when she wanted him, but he had come through when she really needed him. Buck could just see forgiveness coming Matt's way and he figured Matt saw it too.

Matt had just smiled, and snapped the reins.

While Buck had immensely enjoyed reminiscing about his trip to Pickaxe, he was very happy when his human finally finished cleaning up and they again headed out. It was only a few hours later that the sun sank below the horizon, but Matt pushed on along the well-worn trail. It was obvious to Buck that Matt was determined to be home tonight and Buck, too, was anxious. The night was crystal clear and the stars shown brightly in the moonless sky. It was a beautiful night, but the air was far too chilly to be comfortable and Buck was really looking forward to his warm stall. He figured Matt was probably looking forward to getting in out of the cold even more than him considering the cold bath he had taken earlier and his lack of warm clothing. Yet, oddly, the closer to Dodge they came, the more Buck could feel Matt shifting around in the saddle—clearly the man was anxious about something. Then with only a few miles remaining, and despite the cold and his near exhaustion, Matt bafflingly pulled back on the reins slowing Buck down. Buck could feel his apprehension. It was almost as if Matt expected to be ambushed on the outskirts of town although everything seemed calm to Buck. Matt had been in such a big hurry to get home and now he was dawdling. Sometimes Matt's behavior was just inexplicable.

Finally, despite the slow pace, they came into town and headed down the near-deserted main street. It was late enough that even the saloons were closed up, the empty street softly lit by the flickering gaslights. Buck could feel Matt lean back in the saddle and look up. Then he heard a deep sigh of relief and Matt urged Buck to pick up the pace before pulling to a stop in front of the stable.

Hank had long since turned in for the night, so it fell to Matt to unsaddle Buck and make sure he had water, grain, and hay. Matt seemed determined to complete those chores in record time and was just finishing up when Buck's ears pricked up as he heard someone quietly enter the stable. A moment later, Matt realized that someone was behind him. He turned.

"Kitty," he breathed.

"Hey Cowboy, you been gone awhile. Did ja miss me?"

The expression on Matt's face and the response of certain other parts of his anatomy told her just how much he had missed her, "Kitty, you have no idea. And when I sent that telegram and didn't get an answer, I was so worried."

"Worried I ran off with a good looking traveling man?" Kitty asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Well, yeah," he responded with a grin.

"Oh Matt, we got the telegram, but you must have been gone by the time we sent a response. I've been keeping a light burning in the window for you every night."

"I know," mumbled the exhausted lawman as he reached for this woman who he had missed for every minute of his long journey.

"And don't you talk to me about worry, Matt Dillon. I shouldn't even be speaking to you. You were gone for months without a word."

"I know, " he responded as he crushed her against his chest and gave her a kiss that left no doubt at all about how much he had missed her, how worried he had been, and how much he loved her.

When he finally came up for air, all a very breathless Kitty could utter was, "Long Branch, now."

Buck nickered contentedly as the two humans made a rapid exit while he munched on his fresh hay. Adventuring was all right he figured and tomorrow he would enjoy regaling his stable mates with tales of his escapades with the daring Marshal Matt Dillon. But, there really was no place like home.

The End