The sensation of his gut contorting, as if he'd swallowed a couple of writhing snakes, brought him to consciousness. It was a murky and hazy state but he knew he was awake and more importantly, alive. Another spasm made him gasp and he gritted his teeth against the pain, which seemed to envelop his whole being. Clasping his arms about his stomach he took some deep breaths, trying to calm himself. He was thankful when his body seemed to respond and he was able to breathe a little easier.
Splashes of light danced before his eyes and it took a few moments for him to realise he was lying on his back under a stand of trees. By the position of the sun it looked like it was late afternoon. He lay still, trying to gather his thoughts, trying to recall how he'd come to be here.
He remembered riding hard, with little respite, for nearly three days, with another posse on their trail. At first he had put it down to exhaustion but as time went by the cramps within his belly had increased and the sweat had run from him, cooling instantly on his body as he rode, sending icy shivers through to the very bone, he concluded it was something more serious.
A sudden loud noise startled him and his hand instinctively went to his side, his fingers wrapping around the butt of his holstered gun. Lying as still and quietly as he could, he listened. The noise came again and he recognised it to be the snort of a horse. Slowly, twisting his neck, he looked in the direction from which it had come. Standing a little distance off were his and Heyes' horses, calmly grazing. He closed his eyes and let out a deep sigh of relief.
Gripped with concern for his partner, he turned his head to one side and scanned the area but could see nothing. He remembered riding fast alongside one another but his memory was a little blurred. Rolling onto his side he attempted to get to his knees but doubled over as his gut protested and he curled up against the stabbing pain deep within him. With one arm wrapped protectively about his belly, he managed to push himself up onto one arm. From his kneeling position he had a better view of the surrounding area.
The dark form of his partner lay a little ways off, curled with his back to him.
"Heyes?" the Kid rasped but got no response. With his left arm still clutching at his protesting stomach, and using his other arm to propel his body across the ground, he managed to crawl the short distance between them.
Kneeling besides Heyes, the Kid rolled him onto his back and let out a sigh of relief as he let out a soft groan. There were no visible signs of injury. The Kid came to the conclusion that whatever was wrong with him was obviously ailing his partner too. He thought back over the last few days as to what could have caused their condition. Something instinctively told him it had been the meat they had treated themselves to, back in Silver Springs. Not wanting to stay in a town for any length of time but keen to have something more substantial than beans, they had bought some meat and cooked it on the trail. That had been just before the posse took them by surprise.
The Kid could remember feeling unwell at the end of the first day of being pursued but at the time had put it down to the hard ride and anxiety. Come to think of it, Heyes hadn't looked too good either but neither man would have been willing to own up to such a thing in such circumstances.
The Kid tried to rouse his friend by tapping his partner's cheek. A slight movement of the eyelids showed that Heyes was not totally unaware but he didn't open his eyes. Reaching for a canteen, which lay nearby, the Kid managed, with some difficulty and a deal of effort on his part, to lift Heyes' head and drizzle some water onto his lips. Heyes responded by opening his mouth to allow in a small amount of water but then slumped back into unconsciousness. Lowering his partner's head gently back down to the ground, the Kid lifted the canteen to his own lips and drank.
With his head tilted back he became aware of the feeling of moisture on his face as he looked up at the sky. It was beginning to rain. As he sat there, the skies darkened and it became heavier. This day was getting better and better he contemplated, although the steadily falling rain could be seen as both a curse and a blessing. At least their tracks would be lost in the wet ground and there was less chance of being found by the posse.
Another spasm suddenly claimed him and he felt compelled to lie down, curled against the pain. Screwing his eyes shut and gritting his teeth, he waited for the gut wrenching to pass. He gasped as it seemed to tighten its grip and the world began to spin and darken, until he remembered no more.
He stood watching the retreating backs of the riders as they rode off down the trail. It galled him that, after all this time and all that had happened, they still came to ask for his help. Having hidden himself away in this lonely spot, half way up the mountain, he had thought they would leave him in peace.
There was nothing left for him in their world. They had taken any part of him, which had belonged there, the day they killed her. He had started to believe he was accepted but it had only been his friends, at the Pony Express, who had become more like family, who had treated him as an equal. Only they had seen his spirit and not his skin colour and the mixed blood, which set him apart from 'normal folk'.
It had been one of the happiest days in his life when she had agreed to be his wife. For a while he had thought it was a step closer to truly belonging in the white world. The joy had been short lived, as those who could not accept a white woman being with a half-breed had come and ripped his world apart, taking her from him. It had taken him a considerable time to accept he would not see her again, until he too went to the land behind the sun.
Even though their kind had done this, it hadn't stop them coming and asking him to track a couple of known outlaws who had been spotted in the area. He felt he owed them nothing and had quietly and simply said, "No." From what he'd heard these particular outlaws had never killed anyone and he felt no obligation to help bring them to justice.
Taking a deep breath, trying to clear his mind of troubled thoughts, he made his way to the woodpile and snagged the axe from one of the logs. Even now, in his older years, with his long, dark hair streaked with grey and weathered skin, he still moved with a grace befitting his heritage. With long, easy strides he made his way towards the wooded area behind his cabin.
He'd been meaning to fix that panel in the barn door for some time but needed just the right piece of wood. Today seemed as good a day as any to go find it.
Walking between the trees he revelled in the sights and smells of the woodland as a soft rain began to fall. The sweet smell of the damp earth filled his nostrils and he inhaled the scent appreciatively. There had to be some reason he had decided to continue with this life and moments such as this supported his decision.
As he rounded a large pine something caught his eye. To his left there were some recently snapped twigs on one of the trees, the pale inner wood shouting out to him amongst the denser branches. Running his fingers over the broken twigs, he lifted his fingers to his nose and smelt the fresh sap, telling him this had happened no more than a couple of hours earlier.
Looking down at the ground he could just make out the indentations of horses' hoof prints in the rotten vegetation of the fallen leaves. He followed the tracks down between the trees until he came to a small clearing. It was the horses he saw first, as they grazed peacefully, closely followed by the two figures lying on the ground.
He stood, silently observing the scene, before reaching down and slipping the large hunting knife, strapped to his left boot, from its sheath. With the stealth and quiet befitting the legacy of his people, he crept forward. Neither figure moved. He stilled himself as he drew nearer and watched the nearest man closely. There was definite movement of the chest. His fingers wrapped a little tighter around the knife's handle in anticipation. He had learnt many years ago to be weary and untrusting, especially when it came to most white men.
At the sound of a low moan, he hesitated and paused in mid step. As he drew closer it was obvious, from the scrunched expression on the fair-haired man's face, he was in some degree of pain. A sheen of fevered perspiration glistened on his brow and his jaw was clenched. Stepping passed the first man, he skirted round to the other darker haired man. This man lay more quietly but he too glowed with the signs of fever. Crouching down, he took a closer look at the man's pale, yet flushed face. A gasp from behind brought his attention back to the fair-haired man, who clutched at his stomach, curling his body around his defensive arm.
It was becoming obvious, to one with his knowledge and experience, what was ailing these men. He had suffered a similar sickness once himself, having eaten some bad meat. It had affected many in the town, causing panic amongst the people that it was an outbreak of cholera but he had been able to prove other wise. He had been lucky enough to be found by some Lakota, who had brought him back to health with a herbal remedy, commenting that his stomach had been weakened by this time in the white man's world.
With a look of contemplation, he straightened up, re-sheathing his knife as he rose. Glancing once more at the two prone bodies of the men, he started back up the trail.
The Kid's first sensation of awareness was the bitter taste in his mouth. Blinking his eyes open, dragging himself back to consciousness, he found himself shrouded in darkness. The damp feel of rain still hung in the air but he was surprised to find he wasn't feeling as cold and shivery as last time he awoke. As he became more alert he realized that the reason for this warmth was the covering of blankets and the glow of a fire. His first thoughts were that Heyes must have recovered sufficiently enough to take care of these things. Then he saw the profile of the man, squatting before the fire, stirring something in a bowl, and it wasn't that of his partner. Although fairly tall and slim, like Heyes, this man had long hair and a more angular nose.
The Kid tensed as the man turned to him. In the dimness of the night he could not see clearly and did not know whether the man intended him harm. The Kid watched cautiously as the man approached.
"Drink this." The command was clear and the Kid felt he had to comply with the softly spoken but direct words. He drank, and winced at, the same bitter taste to which he had awoken.
The man urged him to drink more and only when the bowl was empty did he move away, back to the fire. The Kid watched as the stranger now moved to his partner's side and carefully lifted his head and made him sip some of the concoction from the replenished bowl.
"How is he?" the Kid asked, his voice husky with tiredness and worry.
With some measure of effort, the Kid managed to roll onto his side and stagger to his feet. He stood swaying momentarily before taking a couple of unsteady steps over to where his partner lay.
The stranger stood also and watched as the fair-haired man sank to his knees besides his friend, the look of concern and kinship evident in his face. The stranger's own expression softened as he remembered a time when he had felt such amity.
The Kid stayed close to Heyes through the rest of the night, while the stranger periodically gave them more of the herbal brew to drink. By the time the sun was lifting itself from the behind the blanket of mountains both were feeling a whole lot better.
As the shadows of the night lifted, the Kid was able to get a good look at the man who had helped them. He appeared to be a good few years older than them, with long, straight dark hair, with equally dark eyes. He was dressed in buckskin pants and a loose work shirt. Around his neck he wore a small leather pouch and a bone of some type dangled from the ring in his left ear. The Kid had very little experience of Indians but he surely could recognize one when he saw one. He drew a breath, not sure of what to say or do next. The man looked over, catching the look of uncertainty in the Kid's face. It was a look he'd seen many times before in his life and had become quite adept at ignoring it.
"You should try and eat something, " he told him. "You'll need your strength."
Continuing to stare at him, the Kid merely nodded his agreement and took the bowl the man proffered to him.
He dipped his head in thanks, still not quite sure what he would say. Heyes' moan was a welcome distraction, one that filled him with relief and gratitude. The Kid instantly turned his attention to his partner.
"Hey, 'bout time you woke up!'
Heyes looked into the dark, hooded blue eyes peering down at him. "What happened?" he asked weakly, noting that his friend had looked better.
"We got sick from the meat we ate."
Heyes' brow furrowed as he took in the information.
"Here, drink this." Heyes' eyes widened at the sound of the stranger's voice and grew even wider when an Indian came into view.
On seeing the startled look on his partner's face, the Kid gave him a reassuring smile. "If it wasn't for this man I don't reckon either of us would be here."
The stranger modestly lowered his eyes and moved back to the fire.
"Who is he?" Heyes whispered. "He looks like an Indian."
"Dunno but whoever he is I reckon he saved our lives."
"How long we been here?" asked Heyes, trying to push himself into a more upright position.
"A couple of days. You were pretty out of it. I was real worried there for a while." It was Heyes' turn to give a smile of reassurance, as his partner slipped an arm under him and helped him sit up.
"What about the posse? Any sign?" he whispered. The Kid shook his head.
"D'you think he knows who we are?" the ever-wary Heyes asked.
The Kid shook his head. "Nah. Otherwise he wouldn't of helped us."
Heyes nodded his agreement.
Just then the stranger came over to them.
"I've made some broth. Get your strength back and then be on your way as soon as possible," he told them flatly, with no threat in his tone. He turned and started to make his way towards the trail.
"Hey," Heyes called out. "We didn't even introduce ourselves. I'm Joshua Smith and this is my partner Thaddeus Jones."
The stranger looked back over his shoulder and smiled. "If you say so, though I'm pretty sure the men who came riding by my place the other day would say different."
Heyes and Kid lapsed into stunned silence. This man obviously knew who they were but seemed indifferent to the fact. A cursory glance passed between the two ex-outlaws, gauging whether they thought the man could be trusted and if they could just let him leave. He had very probably saved their lives so there was an unspoken word of agreement
"We really are most grateful to you. I wish there was some way we could repay you but we're a little short of funds at the moment and …"
"Haven't got much use for money," the Indian replied and started to move off again.
"We don't even know your name," the Kid called after him.
The tall, dark stranger hesitated for a moment. It had been a while since anyone was interested in who he was. People usually took one look and judged him on the colour of his skin. He was proud of his Kiowa blood and refused to feel shame. "Buck. Running Buck Cross."