Ike settled down on the hard ground and grasped the blanket closer to his chest. Though the night was hot, too hot and dry to build a campfire, he felt chilled to the bone. He clenched his jaw tight, trying to keep his teeth from chattering. He felt the moon's soft glow touch his face, but its peaceful white light could not console him. Not this time.
He rolled onto his stomach and glanced over at his hat resting silently beside him. He bit his lip and reached out for it, carefully feeling underneath the battered brim until his fingers felt the cool roundness of the object he sought. He brought it up to his ear and listened to the familiar, patient tick of the watch. It pulsed through his body like an eternal heartbeat. Once again, he opened the lid and let his fingers wander over the well-worn engraving. "To Clark. Love Forever, Rebecca". He felt the faded metal where the lettering had begun to rub off, remembering the countless, lonely nights when the feel of those words against his fingertips was the only comfort he had left in the world.
He felt a shiver steal through him and he knew he would find no solace in those words tonight. He closed the lid carefully and grasped the watch tightly in his fist. His sore knuckles burned; his chest felt as cold as ice. His throat cramped up in a twisted knot of anger and remorse. He took a chance and glanced across the campsite. But he was only able to make out the shape of Buck's back turned stubbornly toward him in the moonlight.
Ike looked up into the sky and sighed as the memory of that day tumbled through his mind. Hatred rose within him as he remembered how eager Buck had been to take the most precious possession Ike owned and hawk it away for a few measly dollars.
"We can buy it back later," he'd insisted coldly as they walked along the trail out of Marcusville—the last in a string of towns they'd been unceremoniously booted out of in the past month.
"We don't need to sell it," Ike had replied, "We aren't starving. . ."
In his mind's eye, Ike again saw the agitation that had been building inside Buck the entire day, glittering against his forehead as the sun beat down on the two of them. "If we don't find work soon, we will starve. And with this drought, we're running outta animals to hunt, Ike. Now I know you don't know as much as I do about it, but hunting ain't as easy as it seems. It's not like I can go out and grab a rabbit out of thin air anytime I want."
"Then why don't we sell your medicine. . .or your knife?"
"Oh, come on. You know my medicine doesn't have any value in the white world. And asking me to give up my knife—I might as well ask you to give up your gun. We need it to help us survive. The key word is 'survive', Ike. And we don't need a watch to do that. We need money. You didn't have any trouble selling the horse back at Harper's Station. This isn't any different. Now stop being so stupid."
Buck's words had flown at Ike like a fist, landing squarely in his gut. He'd been called 'stupid' by many people, but never—never by Buck. He remembered the determined, almost demanding, look in the Indian's dark eyes as he thrust out his palm, expecting Ike to meekly comply and hand over his most prized possession. But Ike wasn't a child and Buck wasn't his father.
"That watch is special. It belonged to my Pa." Ike had replied, gritting his teeth--his hands trembling with anger. "But how can I expect you understand? My Pa was a great man. Yours was just an Indian-raping bastard. None of your people ever worried about whether you lived or died, but my family cared about me. I know you don't know what love is, but I do! My Pa. . .my family. . .they loved me! Now. . .that watch is all I got left. And you'll touch it over my dead body."
He'd felt Buck's stunned silence envelop him as he finished. He knew he'd hit Buck below the belt. It stung to realize he'd caused his friend pain, but for some reason, it had also felt very satisfying. They'd squabbled about less important things a hundred times before. But no matter what they'd disagreed about, Buck invariably had the last say. Now, for the first time, Ike had pinned his friend down with his words and had won an argument. It was about time, too.
He'd thought that that would be the end of it and started back down the road. But, suddenly, he'd felt his feet fly out from beneath him and in less than a second, he'd found himself gasping for breath as Buck sat on his legs, wildly tearing through his clothes in search of the watch. But by that time, Ike had had enough. All at once he'd felt every ounce of his pent-up frustration against Buck's bossy, self-righteousness, against the host of strangers who only saw him as a stupid misfit, and, most of all, against the unfeeling men who had stolen his family away from him, gather into his tightening fist. Before he knew what was happening, it all exploded against Buck's jaw.
The Indian had tumbled backward off the trail under the impact and Ike had immediately jumped to his feet, ready to slug him again. But he didn't have to. Instead of retaliating, Buck had lain there amongst the tall, dry weeds like an injured dog, and Ike had suddenly realized in horror what he'd done. He'd actually struck his best friend—the only friend he had in the world. Ike remembered how, when he'd approached Buck to see if he was all right, Buck had rolled over, avoiding Ike's outstretched hand. Instead, Buck had risen to his feet by his own power and started silently down the road again. Whether it was from shame or fury, Ike couldn't tell, but afterward, Buck had refused to even glance at his friend--let alone speak to him.
And now here they were, lying like strangers out on the lonely prairie. Ike set the watch down beside him. For years, that object had represented, not only memories of his father, but the spirit of his entire family. As long as he could bring the watch to his ear and listen to it tick, something of them still lived. If he ever parted with it, he'd not only lose the watch, but he'd lose his family. . .forever. But now, after years of giving him comfort, the watch had suddenly become a fresh source of grief. It may have represented his family, but it was a dead family. They were as dead as the mechanical heartbeat that droned on within the watch, itself. But Buck was alive. Finally, Ike realized that he'd not only become Ike's best friend, but his new and living family. Buck wasn't just a memory locked up in his imagination, remembered through the cold touch of an inanimate object. Buck was warm and real and present to him now. He had been the one person who'd stood by him at the orphanage. Buck had responded to him and loved him—perhaps not in the same way as his is father and mother and sister had. . .but in a way equally as important.
He heard Buck shift and anxiously looked over toward his friend. He'd hoped to finally see the Indian's face, but he was met with Buck's back once again. Ike sighed and turned over. Somehow, some way, he would have to find the courage to face Buck and apologize.
Buck's jaw throbbed as the memory of that day beat a path through his mind. Never before had Buck seen Ike be so unreasonable! Ike knew as well as he did that sometimes getting by in the world meant having to give things up. If anyone understood that lesson, Buck did. He'd learned at an early age just what it meant to survive—to keep your head above water in the face of a crashing storm of hatred and loneliness. He'd given up his pride to go and eat with the dogs when he lived with the Kiowa, fighting with them over the scraps just to have something in his stomach. He'd given up the hope that the Kiowa would finally accept him into the tribe when his brother suggested he leave the camp for good. He'd given up his self-respect when, after months of trudging through the wilderness abandoned and alone, he'd allowed himself to be discovered in the barn of a broken-down orphanage stuffing his face with the horses' moldy oats.
Buck had given up a lot in his lifetime, and he expected that Ike would be willing to do at least half as much giving in order to help keep the two of them alive. But instead of handing over the watch like he should have, Ike had slapped him silly. Buck threw an arm over his head, struggling to block out the memories, but the sight of Ike's flailing, angry hands refused to leave him alone.
Your father was an Indian-raping bastard. . .No one cared whether you lived or died. . .You don't know what love is. . .You don't know what love is. . .
Painful tears suddenly sprang to his eyes. They flowed unmercifully down his cheeks as he finally allowed himself to accept the truth of those words. Ike was right. His father was a bastard; his tribe had disowned him. He'd never had a real family before. He would never know how it felt to have a father who took pride in his son. He'd never know what it meant to have a father, at all. The only two people who he could consider family had been his mother and his brother. But even they had not accepted him completely. Ike had experienced life with a caring family. It was true, Ike knew what love was. And the knowledge made Buck choke with envy.
Buck thought he knew what it meant to love someone when he'd first met Ike. He had never had a friend before—certainly not one as willing to accept him as Ike had been. Ike didn't ignore him or look upon him with disgust. He listened to him. He laughed with him. He stuck by his side when the world crumbled apart all around him. Or, at least, he had. Now, suddenly, Buck wasn't so sure he'd found love in Ike. He might not know as much about it, but he knew enough to realize that if someone loved you, they wouldn't show it by trying to break your face.
He reached up and carefully touched his tender jaw. Buck had been beaten countless times. And he'd taken much harder physical punishment than a knock on the jaw. But the pain of all of those beatings combined couldn't match the unbearable agony that Ike's one punch had inflicted on his spirit.
But maybe the punch wasn't the only reason his pain was so intense. All at once, a wave of remorse washed over him as finally he acknowledged to himself how incredibly overbearing he'd been with Ike that day. His heart beat anxiously as he realized how stupid he'd been to let his selfish anger ruin the only true friendship he'd ever known. He needed to apologize. . .before it was too late. . .before Ike decided he really didn't want to be chained to a bossy, self-centered half-breed and took off to make his life without him.
Buck swallowed hard, preparing himself to face his friend. . .hoping he wouldn't be met with another blow. He wondered if Ike was still awake. He wondered if Ike would even look at him, let alone forgive him. But all of his concerns were swiftly tossed aside when he felt a gentle, familiar hand touch his shoulder.
Ike sat back on his heels, waiting to see if Buck would accept his apology. He was slightly surprised when Buck sat up and slowly turned toward him. For a moment, the two sat; their eyes locked. Ike read the guilt in Buck's eyes and he knew they each felt the same way about the situation. Hesitantly, he pointed to Buck's bruised jaw.
"It's OK. It doesn't hurt anymore," Buck replied in sign. Ike felt a smile cross his lips. Finally, they were speaking the same language.
Ike reached out for his friend's hand. Buck felt the smooth, round weight of the watch as Ike pressed it into his palm. Buck could hardly believe what was happening. He closed his eyes and shook his head, unable to face his friend. Shame flushed hot on his cheeks. He couldn't take the watch. He should never have considered selling it in the first place.
Suddenly, he felt a new sensation stir inside him. It was a feeling he wasn't sure he'd ever experienced before, and he wasn't quite certain what to call it. It planted itself within him, spreading its roots deeper and deeper into his heart as he realized what Ike had decided to do. Ike was ready to give up his most treasured possession—not because he had to and not because Buck had tried to force him into it. He was willing to give it up because he wanted to be a good friend. . .because he truly cared about Buck. He raised his eyes and a faint smile crossed his face as he pressed the watch back into Ike's hand. So, maybe they would starve if they didn't hawk the watch. At least they'd die as friends.
Ike looked down at the palm that covered his. He felt the watch as it lay between their hands. He considered how close he had come to destroying his connection with his best friend. The watch had served his need to remember the dead. But now it was time to remember the living.
He set the watch aside and took Buck's hands in his own. Gently, he stroked Buck's palms, rubbing his friend's long fingers with his thumbs. Ike loved those hands. He'd never seen a more perfect pair. They were smooth and slim and almost girlish in their beauty. Other people might have called them ugly simply because they were attached to the body of a half-breed. But, to Ike, those hands were a doorway to freedom. They had taught him to speak his mind without fear. They had reached for him and had drawn him out of a dark, lonely place into a new world of understanding. They had saved his spirit and renewed his life. And the man who owned those hands wasn't some dirty half-breed. He was his best friend. . .his family.
Buck watched silently as Ike took his hands and slowly massaged them. He felt slightly uncomfortable at first, never having been touched so tenderly, or so willingly, by anyone before. But, as Ike continued to stroke his palms, Buck felt a great sense of peace settle over him. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so calm, so at ease, with anyone. The sensation entered through his fingertips and spread across his entire being.
He looked up at Ike and was shocked to discover tears rolling down his friend's face. But, as he stared with concern into Ike's deep blue eyes, he soon realized that these weren't tears of sorrow. Buck's heart leaped in his chest at the sight. He reached out and brushed Ike's damp cheek with his thumb, then grinned and pulled his friend close.
He rested his cheek against Ike's shoulder, smiling with delight as Ike returned his embrace. He glanced over at the watch resting by his friend's side. Once again, he considered what he had felt when Ike had placed it into his hand. He hadn't been sure at first, but now he knew. What he felt was gratitude. What he felt. . .was love.