No More Regrets

No More Regrets

"Teaspoon Hunter is dead. Poor bastard was shot in the back."

Buck shivered against the cold, drawing his tattered collar closer around his neck as the icy memory of those words chilled him straight through to his bones. Never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined it. Teaspoon . . . dead? No, that could never be. Teaspoon possessed some sort of magical power-the rare gift of good luck--that repelled death, deflected bullets and sent bullies running. It always seemed to Buck as if Teaspoon could live on forever like an old folk tale told again and again throughout the generations. But no, Teaspoon was just a mortal like the rest of the human race. He had been bound to die at his appointed time and apparently his time had come.

He took a deep breath as he saw the first faint traces of the town appear. They emerged before him like misty charcoal markings through the frozen fog-ghosts from the past whispering to him, beckoning him to come closer. How long had it been since he'd last set foot in Rock Creek? How long had it been since the Pony Express went belly-up? Five years . . . maybe a little longer. Buck couldn't exactly remember. All he knew was that he'd vowed never to return to that unlucky place where pain and loss lived like weeds, choking out every hope he'd had for happiness. But now, here he was, getting ready to break his vow and enter Rock Creek, complete with all its bad memories, once again. Part of him wanted to turn back, but another more persistent voice from inside urged him forward.

He entered the town, noticing how little it seemed to have changed over the years. There was the blacksmith's and the livery and the old bank, all just the same. He found the mercantile--filled with the familiar staples he remembered picking up for Rachel time and again. The only difference he found there was the name on the window. Instead of "Tompkins," it read: "A.P. Jennings Mercantile". He wondered what had happened to the shop's former owner. To Buck, Tompkins was by far the most pompous and prejudiced man he'd ever known. He hated the way Tompkins had blamed him for every ill wind that blew through both Sweetwater and Rock Creek. He despised how Tompkins had taken items sacred to the Indians and peddled them away as trinkets. And the way he'd treated his own daughter Jenny was almost too much for Buck to consider. Buck had thought that Tompkins would be overjoyed to be reunited with her after years of believing that both she and her mother were dead. But any joy he might have felt at seeing her had quickly turned to disgust when he'd realized she had grown up with Indian ways. He would have rather seen her dead than living like an Indian. Even when her mother was killed, Tompkins could not completely accept Jenny back into his life. Instead of caring for her, he'd sent her away, his rock-hard prejudice unbreakable even by the love of his own flesh and blood.

Where was Tompkins now? Maybe Buck's fervent wish that a wayward box of beans would fall from one of the top shelves and knock the life out of the shopkeeper had finally come true. Perhaps the rest of the town had wised up and realized how terrible Tompkins was and had kicked him out of Rock Creek once and for all. Or maybe, just maybe, he had realized the wickedness of his ways, closed up shop, and gone back East after his daughter. Maybe he had come to understand how short life really was and what a gift it was to have the ability to make amends before it was too late. Even though he'd never liked Tompkins, Buck hoped that was the case. Everyone, even Tompkins, should have the chance to say they're sorry.

A cold breeze blew past him, and Buck drew his arms across his chest. His fingers curled in against icy pinpricks of pain. If only he had some gloves or a place to warm himself. But he had neither. He looked out and across the main street and the old jailhouse caught his eye. A warm glow emanated from inside. The sheriff was in and that meant that a fire was burning in the stove. It wouldn't take much for Buck to cause a disturbance that would earn him a night in jail. Being a half-breed and a vagrant, he'd only have to glance at a woman as he walked by and someone would swear to the sheriff that he'd accosted her. He felt a bitter smile curl the corners of his mouth. There had been a time when a night in jail would have been one of the most humiliating experiences he could have imagined. But now, jail seemed like a refuge. In one night, he could thaw out his frozen fingers and toes, sleep on something other than the hard ground, and maybe, if he was lucky, earn a crust of stale bread for good behavior.

Yet, as he continued to stare out at the jailhouse, his heart filled with grief. It was in the jail over in Patterson when he'd heard about Teaspoon just two weeks earlier. Locked up for vagrancy, he'd thought he'd struck gold. Not only did he have the cell to himself but Sheriff Thomas liked to keep the jail warm on his watch and constantly stoked the stove. On top of that, some ladies from a Christian women's group stopped by to offer Buck some bread and butter. They told him that if he repented and changed his evil ways, he'd be given the bread of life by God. Buck had nodded to them and thankfully, that was all the assurance they needed that he would be saved. Saved from starvation, at any rate, he'd thought to himself.

He had just finished savoring his slice of bread and was getting ready to bed down for the night when he'd heard the jailhouse door swing open.

"Jacobs, is that you?" Sheriff Thomas called. "Where's my supper? And close that dangblasted door. You want me to freeze to death?"

"By God it's warm in here, Sheriff. The rheumatism finally catching up with you old man?" Jacobs joked.

"I got the rheumatism about as much as you've got a chance with Miss Molly Smith."

"Yeah, yeah," Jacobs mumbled as he set a plate brimming with steaming fried chicken and biscuits in front of the Sheriff. The scent made Buck's mouth water. "Speaking of rheumatism, guess what I heard today?"

"Hmm?" Sheriff Thomas inquired, his mouth full of food.

"You remember the old Marshal at Rock Creek?"

"Teaspoon Hunter? Of course. Everybody knows him."

"You mean everybody knew him."


"Teaspoon Hunter is dead. The poor bastard was shot in the back. One of the McPherson gang done it. Said Teaspoon killed his brother a while back and it was time for him to pay up."

The Sheriff sighed and Buck clutched his bunk in an attempt to stop his head from spinning. Teaspoon couldn't be dead. Surely they were talking about someone else.

"I can't hardly believe that," Sheriff Thomas said. "Are you sure?"

"I heard it from Jack Grayson. And you know he don't go about spreading idle gossip."

"Yeah, Jack's a good man," the Sheriff mused. He leaned back in his chair and tossed his crumpled napkin onto the table. "Well, I'll be. Looks like death finally caught up with that old dog. It's a shame, too. Seems like half the territory owed him something. He got me out of a few messes in my day, I'll tell you that." He shook his head sadly. "And to be shot in the back. What a sorry way to go."

They'd sat in a respectful silence for a few moments after that, but soon the conversation had turned to other, more amusing, topics. And while the lawmen had laughed about the unconquerable Miss Molly Smith, Buck had spent the rest of that long winter's night staring up at the ceiling, tortured by the mistake he'd made so long ago.

"Hey, you there!"

Buck started, shaking himself back into the present. He turned around and found himself face to face with a tall, thin, balding man standing in the doorway of the mercantile. He wore an apron much like the one Tompkins used to wear. This must be the new shopkeeper, Buck thought.

"There's no loitering here."

"No what?" Buck mumbled.

Jennings rolled his eyes in frustration. "All right, then. Let me use words even the likes of you could understand. I don't want any dirty drifters standing in front of my store looking for a hand out and driving my customers away. So move along. You won't get anything here."

Buck glanced up into the man's eyes. They were hard and cold as ice. Just like Tompkins'. He wondered if it was a requirement that a man had to be a jackass in order to have his own shop.

"Did you hear what I said, boy? Get moving. And if I see you standing around here again, I'll send for the Sheriff."

Buck nodded and moved on. Suddenly, a night in jail didn't sound so appealing. The jailhouse might be warm, but its stove could only thaw out so much. He felt sure nothing could melt away the pain and regret that covered his heart like a sheet of ice.

As he walked along, he heard the tinkling melody of a piano drift toward him. Across the street, the saloon was in full swing, filled with men shaking off the cold with women and drink. He felt a chill steal through him. Instinctively, he wrapped his coat closer around his body, though he knew well enough that it wasn't the frosty winds that caused him to shiver.

It had been five years. Five years since the fateful day when Ike had fallen in front of that miserable saloon. Even after so long a time, Buck could hardly bring himself to look over at the worn wooden walkway that marked the saloon's entrance. Some part of him was still afraid to find it drenched in his best friend's blood, reminding him in bold red letters of his failure. If only he'd run faster, he could have saved Ike's life. And if Ike had lived, things wouldn't have been so bad.

He remembered how he'd tossed aside Red Bear's warning that someday the Express would end and he would lose all of his friends. When he'd last seen his brother, it had seemed impossible that the Pony Express would fold. Even if it did, Buck was sure that after months of risking their lives together, he and his friends had developed a bond that could withstand anything. And if, by some off chance, he was wrong about the strength of his friendship with the riders, he knew for certain that no matter what happened, he'd always have Ike. Nothing could take his spirit-brother from him. Nothing, that is, except a well-placed bullet from a shiftless gambler's gun.

Buck had soon learned that Ike's death was an omen. Not long after Ike had been shot, word reached Rock Creek that it would only be a matter of weeks before the first transcontinental telegraph was up and ready for business-relaying messages from New York to San Francisco at a speed no horse could outrun. And just when Buck had thought it couldn't get any worse, the war that had been simmering back East had finally boiled over into Rock Creek.

With both the end of the Express and the rumblings of a war to contend with, it hadn't taken long before everyone went his own way. Cody had been the first to leave, enticed by an army recruiter to a life that promised more excitement and adventure than the dying Express could provide. Noah had been next, his life--like Ike's--cut short by a deadly bullet. Then came Jimmy, whose obsession with abolitionism and a woman named Rosemary had caused him to sneak off in the middle of the night without even saying good-bye. Kid and Lou had finally married and had quickly decided to start a new life with Lou's brother and sister in Colorado Territory--far away from the war. Even Rachel, who Buck was sure would stay in Rock Creek to teach school, had decided to pick up stakes and open up a restaurant with an old friend of hers in St. Louis. Before Noah was cold in his grave, everyone had gone-everyone except Teaspoon.

Teaspoon had planned to stay in Rock Creek as the town Marshal. Knowing that he had nowhere else to go, he'd asked Buck to become one of his deputies. If Teaspoon had offered the job a month earlier, Buck would have gladly accepted. But, as his Express family swiftly broke up, his feelings changed. The family that he'd taken such pride in was all just a sham. It was a family of convenience. When times were easy and the Express had work for them, they were practically brothers. But the minute the Express ended and war loomed, they all denied their ties and packed off without regret. Buck had hated them for that.

He'd hated them all, but he'd hated Teaspoon the most. Hadn't it been Teaspoon who kept lecturing to his riders about how they were family and family always stuck together no matter what? How many times had Teaspoon referred to Buck and the others as his boys . . . as his sons? Buck had been sure that, of all people, Teaspoon would work the hardest to try and keep everyone together. But, aside from one or two worn out lectures, Teaspoon had stepped aside and just watched as the Express family broke apart and left Buck behind to pick up the pieces. And he was sick of being left behind.

It seemed to Buck as if he'd been abandoned his whole life. His father had deserted him before was born. He'd been only 8 years old when his mother had been taken from him by fever and he was just 14 when his tribe cast him out. Then came Ike and the other riders-all leaving him without a second thought--one right after the other.

Soon, Teaspoon was the only one left and Buck had resolved that he wasn't going to sit around and wait for the man whom he considered to be a father to betray him, too. This time, he was going to do the leaving. This time, he'd let someone else know how it felt to have your heart ripped out of you and tossed aside like so much garbage. Teaspoon was going to learn just how it felt to be abandoned; he'd make sure of that.

He cringed as the ghost of their parting words came back to haunt him once more. Like a dark howling wind, the words pierced his ears and flew mercilessly through his mind.

"Buck, you're making a big mistake leaving like this. Why don't you stay here where you got friends."

"I don't have any friends here. And I don't need you or your charity."

"I ain't offering you charity, Buck. What the hell's gotten into you?"

"What's gotten into me? Common sense, that's what. I should have left you and this rotten town a long time ago."

"Son . . ."

"I ain't your son! You're just a bastard like every other white man--making promises you never plan to keep, using folks weaker than you until they're all used up then throwing them away. I know that game. And I ain't playing it no more."

"Buck, you know that ain't true."

"Tell that to the man who raped my mother and to the Army with their worthless treaties and to every other white man who ever gave an Indian a raw deal. And while you're at it, go ahead and tell that to the rest of the riders that were supposed to be family-if you can find them. Now get out of my way, old man. I never want to see you again."

He knew he should have gone back to Rock Creek years before. He should have been a man and apologized to Teaspoon. But he'd been stubborn. The first few years on his own had been hard, but nothing he couldn't handle. With the war on, there were fewer men available for labor. Even a half-breed like Buck was able to find relatively steady work. He was never paid as much as his white counterparts, but that didn't matter. On his own, he didn't need much.

When the war ended and the men returned life quickly got harder. Jobs became scarce almost overnight. As the months wore on, the little savings Buck had stashed away slowly depleted. He'd long ago been forced to give up his gun and his knife in order to survive. Now, he found himself facing the frozen winter months with only twenty-five cents and the tattered clothes on his back to call his own. An outcast to everyone he met, his only company was the regret that harassed him like a demon wherever he went.

More than once, he'd found himself wandering along the road toward Rock Creek. But he'd always caught himself before he actually entered town. Disheveled and dirty, he was ashamed of the beggar he'd become. He wanted to apologize, but humiliation over his sorry state and the overwhelming fear that Teaspoon would never forgive him were both too great to overcome.

Now, it was too late. Even if he'd had the courage, there was no way possible for him to apologize. Teaspoon had been right. Buck had made a big mistake leaving his only friend. It was a mistake he was sure would haunt him for the rest of his life.

There, that should do it, Grace thought to herself as she stepped back to admire her handiwork. The wreath's deep green color stood out cheerfully against the boarding house's dull front door. She felt a smile spring to her lips. A little garland really went a long way to improve the building. She wished that some of the others in town would follow her lead and help lift Rock Creek out of the seemingly endless gray cloud that enveloped it. This was Christmas after all-the first peaceful Christmas after five bloody years of war. It was time to celebrate.

She wrapped her shawl around her shoulders, breathing on her hands to warm them as a sudden icy breeze blew past her. The weather here sure was different than in Alabama. Not that she much minded the cold. On the contrary, there was something about a bracing wind that was invigorating and free. Not like in Alabama where the air had always seemed heavy and thick with hardship and hopelessness. It was a rare day when a cool wind blew on the plantation to bring a shred of comfort to the slaves bound there.

She supposed she'd been relatively lucky having been spared the backbreaking torture of the fields to work in the Big House. Though she couldn't say that life there had been paradise, either. Cooking and cleaning for the master and his family wasn't as physically strenuous as picking cotton but it came with its own particular hardships that were just as painful and humiliating.

Grace was sure the master's family had kept her in the Big House just so that they could mistreat her as often as possible. They had always hated her more than the other house slaves. One look at her pale skin and silky straight black hair and anyone would know the reason why. Her mamma had never told her who her father was, but it didn't take much to figure it out. She knew that the man the white girls had called "Papa" was her own father, too. That was why they'd harassed and abused her. That was why they'd done everything in their power to hurt her. And what they'd done to mamma . . .

She shook her head, briskly tossing the memories aside. That was all past now. It would do her heart no good to bleed over it again. She looked at the boarding house with an appreciative eye. It wasn't near as grand as the Big House, but the Big House's grandeur wasn't welcoming; it was cold and heartless. It had been a prison. The boarding house, on the other hand, was a real home. Yes, she still cooked and cleaned, but she was paid an honest wage for it. And on top of that, she'd become friends with some fine people there-especially Rachel. Rachel might have hired her on because of her skills as a cook, but she'd soon come to see Grace as more than a house hand. She saw her as a real person-an individual with thoughts and feelings and dreams of her own--and respected her as such. Grace had never felt that kind of respect from a white woman before and it had been enough to endear Rachel to her forever.

She turned her eyes to the wreath once more and frowned. The wind had blown the big red bow that adorned the bottom all crooked. She adjusted the bow. Then, pulling her shawl closer around her shoulders, she stepped back to admire it.

"Oh!" she gasped as she felt her back bump up against what could only have been another human being. She froze on instinct. The last thing she needed was to draw attention to herself by backing into white folk like a clumsy oaf.

She opened her mouth to apologize but was surprised when she heard a low voice mumble, "I . . . I'm sorry ma'am".

Grace's eyes grew wide. It wasn't often that a white man begged her pardon, let alone called her "ma'am". She turned to offer thanks but her words fell away the minute she laid eyes on him. He stood shivering with his arms wrapped across his chest. His ragged coat was so tired and old she could almost hear it sigh against his thin frame. She noticed the holes in his shoes, stuffed with strips of cloth in a vain attempt to keep out the cold. Atop his head sat a battered black hat that looked nearly as beaten and defeated as its owner. His lips were chapped, his cheeks wind-burnt, his eyes, heavy and burdened. One look at his dark features and long black hair was all it took for Grace to know he wasn't a white man-not completely white, anyway. No, he was definitely mixed blood. He was different. And she knew well enough the kind of hardships that came with being different.

"You got nothin' to be sorry for," she said.

He glanced up at her, startled. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but all that emerged was the silent gray mist of his frosted breath. He swallowed and turned his gaze awkwardly toward the ground.

You probably never had a kind word spoken to you in all your life, Grace thought with a twinge. "I was the one that wasn't looking where she was going." She smiled softly. "You look like you been traveling a long way. You must be tired."

She glanced up at the sky. The clouds were darkening. "It's gettin' awfully late. You know, I work at this here boarding house. I was just about to set down to some supper. How about you come on in with me and I'll fix you a plate."

She saw how he bit his lip when she'd mentioned food, unsure about whether or not to accept her offer. From the looks of him, he hadn't had a proper meal in weeks. But Grace knew that sometimes a man's pride could be more stubborn than the worst hunger pangs. He shook his head slowly, "I don't know . . ."

"It wouldn't be no trouble. In fact, you'd be doin' me a favor by givin' me some company. The folks that own this place is out today and the boarding house is mostly empty. There ain't many travelers comin' through these parts this time of year. And I don't blame 'em, neither. It's cold enough to freeze the business end off a mule."

She saw one of the corners of his mouth rise slightly at her joke and she knew he'd accepted her invitation. She led him around the building to the kitchen entrance and opened the door.

"Yes sir, you'll be doing Brutus and me a kind favor, havin' supper with us," she said as she lit the oil lamp.

"Who's Brutus?" he asked cautiously.

"Oh, he's our attack dog."

She saw the man's dark eyes grow wide and couldn't help but laugh. "Now don't you worry none. We just call him that for fun. 'Bout the only thing he's set on attackin' is his supper. He's old and deaf and don't do nothin' but sit in front of the stove and get underfoot." She nodded over toward the brown lump snoring in the corner near the pantry. "But he's a good old boy. Now, you set yourself down right here." She pulled out a seat at the small table by the stove.

"Thank you, ma'am," he said softly.

"Think nothin' of it." She grabbed a plate of cornbread off the counter and laid it on the table before him. "And I ain't no 'ma'am'. Why don't you call me Grace."

He nodded, his eyes awkwardly scanning the room.

She turned to the stove and began filling his plate high with food. "I hope you like pot roast," she said. "I'll tell you, there ain't nothin' better in the world than a good hearty meal to lift a person up on a cold winter's night." She set the plate down in front of him and took a seat, herself. It was then that she noticed the half-empty plate of cornbread and the bulges in the man's coat where he'd hidden the food. She wondered with a twinge how long he'd been stealing food in order to survive. "You eat as much as you like," she assured him. "There's plenty more waitin' on the stove."

They sat in silence while the man ate. It seemed to Grace that his discomfort melted more and more with each bite. His cheeks grew rosy and his gaze became a little calmer as he thawed out. She smiled. It was amazing what a good hot meal could accomplish.

When he'd scraped his plate clean, he looked up at her appreciatively. "Thank you. I don't think I've ever had a meal as good as this."

"Well, that's about the best compliment I've ever had," she responded. "You'll have to come and keep me company more often. How long you plan on stayin' in Rock Creek anyway?"

"I'm leaving tomorrow." He turned his eyes to the darkened window by the door. "There's no use in me being here now."

"Now?" Grace inquired. "Did you have a special reason for comin' here?"

He turned to her and smiled sadly. "You wouldn't think so to look at me, huh?"

"No, not really," she conceded.

"It wasn't always like this. I used to live here, you know."

"Really? When? I don't ever remember seein' you around these parts."

"It was a long time ago--before the war. I had a job here and good friends . . ."

Grace saw the sorrow build in his eyes as his words drifted into silence. She knew something worse than poverty was weighing down his spirit. She wasn't sure if it was right for her to probe into the man's personal life, but she knew from experience how important it was to have someone to talk to. Somehow, it always made things easier to bear. "What happened?" she asked.

He took a deep breath. "I'd lost my job and most of my friends lit out 'bout the time the war started. And when they were all gone, I pushed away the only friend I had left. The only family I had left. He was like a father to me. He was one of the only white men I ever knew who saw me as a real person not just a lowlife half-breed. He loved me like his own son and I threw it all back in his face. I hurt him bad, I know. And I never told him I was sorry."

"So you come back here to apologize?" Grace asked.

She saw his eyes darken as his gaze drifted out into space. "No . . . I mean, I wanted to, but I can't now."

"He moved away?"

"He's dead."

"Oh, I'm sorry," she whispered. So this was the hurt he'd been harboring for so long. Regret. Grace knew well enough how it could eat away at a person's soul--if you let it, that is. "I'm sure, though, that if your friend was as good a man as you say, he'd forgive you. He probably done forgave you years ago in his heart."

"But I don't know that," he shot back. "And now, I'll never know."

"Do you have to know?" she responded carefully. " What I mean is, it seems to me that sometimes a man's got to let the past be past. He's got to forgive hisself for what he done so's he can move on."

He pondered those words for a moment and Grace could tell it wasn't for the first time, either. Then he shook his head sadly. "That's impossible."

"Oh really?" Grace said, unconvinced.

He looked up at her, his eyes cold. "You wouldn't know anything about it."

"You think you the only mixed blood walkin' the face of the earth?" Grace shot back. "You think you the only person alive who's ever had regrets?" She saw the shame rise up red in his cheeks as he looked away. She took a deep breath. Mamma used to say that sometimes the best way for a person to put their own troubles in perspective was to hear about someone else's. "You know, I wasn't always a free woman," she began slowly. "I was born a slave on a plantation back in Alabama. I was relatively lucky, I'd say. I got to be with my mamma most of my life. I didn't see her everyday because she worked in the fields while I was in the Big House. But I got to see her more often than not and just knowin' she was livin' on the same land with me was a comfort. She was my only family-the only person who really loved me. And knowin' she was near . . . well let's just say that there was times when that thought was the only thing kept me goin'."

She glanced up at him and was met with a pair of attentive eyes. She was getting through to him already. "Workin' in the Big House weren't easy. Folks knew I was mixed blood and they made sure I paid for it everyday. They'd threaten me and laugh at me and sometimes they'd beat me-and for no good reason, neither. I done everything I was supposed to do for them people and I done it good, too. But that weren't enough to stop their hate for me. And the day came when I couldn't take it no more--and I told 'em so. They was gonna have me whipped because the eggs I made for breakfast was too runny. Can you imagine that? Well, I figured as I was gonna get beat anyway, I might as well just give them a piece of my mind. So, I done told the missus and her precious little daughters that if they wanted them eggs cooked right, they could get up off their own lazy fannies and cook 'em they's selves!

" 'Course they beat me long and hard for that remark. I was laid up for a week afterward. But that wasn't the worst of it. When I came back to work, one of the house slaves told me that they'd done taken my mamma and stripped her in front of everybody and beat her, too. They beat her for what I done. Then they up and sold her. And I never got to say goodbye or I love you or nothin'. She was gone-just like that. My sass was what got my sweet mamma sold."

She looked up at him and saw how his mouth had dropped open as she finished her story. His hard eyes had softened with sympathy.

"Now, I could have let that mistake be the end of me," she continued. "I could have wallowed in regret until I drowned in it. And believe you me there was days when that's all I wanted. But in my heart, I knew that's not what mamma would want. She'd want me to survive and the only way I was gonna do that was to make peace with myself. I don't think it was wrong for me to be angry with the master and his family-they deserved what I said and whole lot more, besides. But makin' that remark when I did was wrong. It weren't the right time or place."

"How did you do it?" he questioned softly. "How did you forgive yourself?"

"I just said out loud, 'Grace, I forgive you for what you done-for the mistake you made that sent mamma away.' And I asked my mamma's forgiveness, too. Maybe she couldn't hear me-but who knows? Maybe she could . . . somewhere in her heart."

"And that's it? That's all it took?" the man asked skeptically.

"I can't say as my feelings changed overnight, if that's what you mean. But, it was a good start in the right direction. And every time I felt myself slippin' into despair, I'd just repeat them words-over and over. And as time went on, it hurt me less and less. You give your heart time, and it'll heal all right. I can promise you that."

She reached across the table and touched his hand. Their eyes met. "But you gotta make that start. You gotta forgive yourself 'fore anything will change."

The man pulled his hand slowly away. For a moment, the only thing that could be heard was the hollow wail of the winter wind. Then, suddenly, he stood.

"I'd best be going now," he said.

Grace rose quickly. "You're not goin' back out into that weather. Why don't you stay here for the night? We got lots of room."

The man shook his head. "No, no-you've given me so much already. I can't trespass any more on your kindness, ma'am . . . I mean, Grace."

Grace wanted to stop him. The night was freezing and she knew he had nowhere else to go. But she also understood that sometimes a man just needed time to himself to work things out. "Well, sir, you come on back tomorrow before you head out of town and I'll fix up somethin' to take with you."

"I'd like that," he answered. Then he stuck out his hand. "And I ain't no sir," he said with a shy grin. "I'm Buck. Buck Cross."

Grace smiled and shook his hand warmly. "Well, it's good to know you, Buck. And you just remember any time you need anything, you got a friend in me, you hear?"

He nodded and opened the door. A blast of frigid air burst into the room and Grace pulled her shawl close against her shoulders. "If it gets too cold out there, you come on back," she ordered.

He nodded again as he stepped out the door. "I will. And thanks again . . .for everything." Then, he closed the door and stepped out into the night. Grace turned to the window and watched as his form slowly dissolved into darkness.

"Grace! Grace, are you here?"

The voice startled her at first. But she soon recognized who it was. "Rachel?" she called, heading toward the main entrance of the house. "Rachel, what are you doin' back so early? Thought you said you weren't comin' home 'till tomorrow," Grace said, embracing her friend.

Rachel smiled. "Melissa delivered this afternoon. She had twins!"

"Oh Rachel, that's wonderful. What a fine Christmas gift for her and Joe."

The door swung open with a start. "It is colder than a porcupine's prickles out there!"

"Teaspoon, close that door!" Rachel ordered. "I'm absolutely frozen as it is."

"Well, my dear, might I remind you that you were the one who wanted to ride home tonight," he answered.

Rachel shooed him aside.

"Why don't you both come on back to the kitchen and I'll get you some coffee," Grace offered. "The stove's still hot, if you want something to eat."

"All I want is to thaw out!" Rachel admitted as she sat down at the kitchen table.

Grace set the coffee down and noticed Teaspoon squeeze his shoulder tenderly. "That old wound actin' up on you again, Teaspoon?"

"It's the cold weather makin' it a little stiff, is all," he answered. "It's a good thing we made it back when we did. Looks like a storm's brewin'."

Grace turned to the window and gazed out at the frozen ground. She wondered if Buck had found a decent place to bed down for the night. She wondered if he would come back and get in out of the cold. But most of all, she wondered if he'd find the courage he needed to forgive himself.

"Grace?" Rachel asked. "You seem distracted, honey. Is something wrong?"

Grace shook her head and smiled sadly. She turned to her friends. "I bumped into a traveler tonight while I was hangin' the wreath up outside. That poor man . . . he really needed a friend. I hope you don't mind that I gave him some supper."

Rachel shook her head. "Of course not."

"Said his name was Buck Cross, and I'll tell you, he was carrying a burden as heavy as his name."

"What you say his name was?" Teaspoon whispered. Grace saw how the color had drained from his face and Rachel's, too.

"Buck Cross," Grace repeated. "Said he'd come to Rock Creek to apologize to a friend of his. Turns out his friend is dead."

"Dead?" Rachel repeated, looking wide-eyed at Teaspoon.

"Well, I been called a lot of things in my day," Teaspoon responded, "but 'dead' ain't one of 'em."

"You?" Grace asked, puzzled. Then realization hit her like a lightening bolt. "You . . . you're his friend?"

"Where is he now, Grace?" Rachel asked quickly.

"I don't know exactly. But he only just left a few minutes ago. I'm sure he's still in town somewhere."

"So the boy's finally come home," Teaspoon said softly.

"We need to go find him," Rachel responded, already up and reaching for her coat.

"No," Teaspoon said, rising slowly from the table. "You stay here with Grace. I'll go get him." He reached past Grace for his coat hanging on the wall. "We got some talkin' to do that was a long time in coming," he whispered. Grace saw how the tears welled up in the old man's eyes as he opened the door and walked out into the night.

Buck stretched out on the pile of hay and draped his coat over him like a blanket, pulling it up to his chin to keep out the cold. The livery was nearly empty and he was lucky enough escape the notice of the keeper and find a clean stall to sleep in. It wasn't as warm as the boarding house had been, but it would do. He turned onto his side and stared at the splintering wall planks. His eyes grew a little heavy-the result of Grace's good cooking. He couldn't remember the last time his belly had been so full.

He heard the mournful wind moan against the livery walls and his heart sank as its voice reminded him of his situation. There was no use in thinking about Grace's cooking or a full stomach. He was leaving town tomorrow. But leaving for where? And for what? To become a vagrant in some other town? To be turned away from job after job because he was destitute and an Indian? To spend his days in search of a piece of stale bread for supper and a lonely jailhouse to bed down in for the night? He shook his head sadly. Would it always be this way? Was this what life held in store for him?

You gotta forgive yourself 'fore anything will change . . .

Grace's words echoed through Buck's mind. Forgive yourself. It was easy enough to say, but he wasn't sure if he could do it. He didn't often forgive. If someone did him wrong, he usually hurt him in kind to even up the score. He never really forgave. He got even. Looking back over his life, he wondered if that was how he'd been treating himself, too. Had he ever forgiven himself for any of his own mistakes? Or had he just tried to balance the scales by punishing himself for them again and again? As he pondered it, it seemed to Buck that, instead of making everything right, his punishment had been slowly eating him alive.

But maybe Grace was right. Maybe if he forgave himself, he could somehow find the strength he needed to let go of his mistakes and get back on his feet again. He could get a job-maybe here in Rock Creek. He already had a new friend in Grace.

All he had to do was say the words.

"I forgive you, Buck," he said out loud. It sounded a little ridiculous to hear himself speaking his own name as if he were talking to someone else. But the instant the words were uttered, he had to admit he felt a little bit better. "I forgive you for all your mistakes, for all you done wrong. . .especially for what you did to Teaspoon."

Buck felt the tears sting in his eyes. Teaspoon. Would Teaspoon forgive him, too? Teaspoon had been a good man. Perhaps he'd already forgiven him long ago, like Grace said. Maybe so, but, even if it couldn't be face-to-face, Buck still felt a need to tell Teaspoon that he was sorry. He knew that was the only way he could truly forgive himself for what he'd said and for how he'd walked out on his old friend all those years ago.

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. In his mind, he could see the old man standing before him, a graying stubble of beard shadowing his mouth, a lively, welcoming glint shining in his deep blue eyes. "Teaspoon, I . . .I don't know where you are right now and I ain't sure you'll even hear me, but I wanted to say . . .I just wanted to say that . . .that I'm sorry. It was wrong of me to walk out on you like I did. And the things I said . . . if I could take every word back right now, I would. How could I have turned you away after all you done for me? You were like a father to me. You cared about me when no one else did. And I called you a bastard! I'm sorry for that, Teaspoon. I'm so sorry . . ."

"All's forgiven, son."

Buck froze. That voice . . .

"It was forgotten long ago."

Buck spun around towards the source of the voice. His mouth dropped open. There, leaning in the doorway of the stall, with his arms crossed over his chest stood the figure of a man he thought he'd lost forever.

"Teaspoon?" Buck whispered.

"It's mighty good to see you again, Buck." Teaspoon replied, stepping into the stall.

"Teaspoon!" Buck cried, rising to his knees. He needed to touch him-to see if he was real. He stumbled over to the lawman and threw himself down before him. He felt a warm hand softly stroke the back of his head and his eyes filled with tears. This was no ghost standing before him.

Teaspoon reached for Buck's hand and helped him up. "Come here," he said, pulling Buck into a warm embrace.

"I'm sorry for what I done, Teaspoon," Buck cried on the old man's shoulder.

"I know . . .I know," Teaspoon replied. "We all said and done some things back then that we shouldn't have. That's what happens in stressful times. We say things we really don't mean. But it's long gone now, Buck. Ain't no use dwellin' on it no more."

"But you're supposed to be dead," Buck said as they pulled away from one another.

Teaspoon chuckled, wiping a stray tear from his eye. "I suppose a lot of folks hold that sentiment, but I ain't dead yet, and I don't plan on bein' dead for a long time."

"But the deputy in Patterson," Buck persisted, "he said you were dead. He said one of the McPherson boys shot you in the back."

"Buck," Teaspoon said, wrapping his arm across Buck's shoulder, "one thing you always gotta remember in this life is don't go believin' everything you hear. Now I thought I taught you that one years ago. Fact of the matter is, Matt McPherson tried to shoot me in the back a couple months ago. But he's so cross-eyed that he only nicked me in the shoulder. My guess is he was so ashamed that he couldn't down an old dog like me that he started spreadin' rumors."

Teaspoon slowly rotated his shoulder. "This cold ain't doin' much to help that old gunshot wound. How's about we head back to the boarding house? Rachel's chompin' at the bit to see you again."

"Rachel?" Buck asked, surprised. "Rachel's here, too?"

"Yep. She's been here for 4 years now. Didn't fair too well with the restaurant. But her boarding house gets a lot of good business."

As they reached the livery entrance, Buck saw Teaspoon stop short. "Would you look at that," Teaspoon whispered, smiling.

Buck peered out of the building. The biting wind had died away and in its place, a gentle snow fell from the sky. Softly, silently, it covered the rutted ground in blanket of white, offering the tired earth shining new clothes and a fresh, clean start.

He felt Teaspoon wrap his arm around his shoulder and give it a squeeze.

"Let's go home, son."

The End