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Hopewell, Montana November 1890
Kathleen Sanderson cracked open the door. Before her stood a rough-looking man twisting a battered Stetson in his hands. His bent head revealed overgrown, untidy brown hair. Her glance took in the trail-worn, dusty, shearling-lined coat.
"Rosie, I know you told me to stay away, but I need your help." He raised his head to reveal demanding brown eyes that widened before they bored into Kathleen. "You're not Rosie."
"True. She's busy with the baby. If you'll wait"
"Buck." Rosie's voice rang with shock as she joined Kathleen in the doorway. "I thought I'd made myself clear."
"I'll take the baby." Kathleen lifted nine-month-old Lilly from her mother's arms and retreated to the far end of the room, wishing the house was larger so she could escape and let these two work out their differences without her as audience. Yet this way her curiosity might be satisfied.
"Buck," Rosie continued, keeping her words low but not disguising her concern, "I told you I don't want to be associated with" Her voice dropped to a whisper. "You know Go away before you ruin every thing."
Buck lifted his head, glanced past Rosie, saw Kathleen and shuttered his feelings, but not before she'd seen stark misery. He didn't shift his gaze away, making it impossible for her to get a satisfying breath. Then he returned his attention to Rosie and her lungs expanded with a whoosh.
"I wouldn't be here if I knew what else to do." A beat, two, in which Kathleen wondered if Rosie found his statement as demanding as she did.
"Rosie, I have a son and he's ill. I can't chase after cows or live in a bunkhouse with a sick kid. You're my sister. My only relative. Surely you'll help me for the sake of my son."
Rosie gasped. "You're married? Without even letting me know?"
"Not married. I adopted the boy. Help us?"
"I don't know." Rosie glanced over her shoulder toward Kathleen as if seeking some signal one way or the other from her.
Kathleen sensed how troubled Rosie was. Understood something about this man made her tremble.
She shifted Lilly to her hip and moved to Rosie's side to indicate her support, but it wasn't clear in her mind if she meant to encourage Rosie or her brother. "Rosie, how would you feel if it was one of your boys?" She had twoMattie, two and a half, and Junior, four years oldwho both nosed around the corner of the bedroom where they'd been playing to eye this stranger at their door.
Buck sent Kathleen a grateful glance before he appealed to Rosie. "I'd help you. You know it." The emotion in his tone caught at Kathleen's heart. A man who cared deeply. Her heart buckled and bowed with feelings she didn't recognize. Had never before in her nineteen years experienced.
Buck stepped aside. "Look at him."
A child of no more than six or seven slumped on the back of a pinto horse, wrapped up against the elements until he could barely move. Kathleen wondered for a moment if he was alive. Then he swayed, righted himself to keep from falling and lifted his face. Black eyes. A pale, thin face framed by black hair and a gray knitted hat.
"He's an Indian." Rosie's tone carried a hefty dose of disbelief and shock.
"Half-breed." The way Buck said it made Kathleen think he must have said so enough times to grow weary of making the explanation.
"You adopted him?"
Buck nodded. "I'll tell you the whole story if you let us in. He needs to be warm and dry."
Rosie rocked her head back and forth and gave careful consideration to the faces of each of her children.
"Rosie," Kathleen urged, knowing this was none of her business, yet not able to turn her back on a man and child needing help. More than that, who needed a welcome.
Not everyone would understand her concern. She knew that well enough. If her parents saw this pair on the street they would turn their backs and pretend they didn't exist. They'd rush Kathleen by and try to shield her from seeing them. Her parents had objected strenuously when Kathleen mentioned she would like to befriend Rosie.
"She's not our sort," Father said.
"The children are always grubby," Mother added, shuddering and pressing her lace-trimmed, mono-grammed hankie to her nose as if the mere mention of them offended her senses.
"She's alone," Kathleen pointed out, not adding that Kathleen felt almost as alone much of the time. "Her husband is working in a logging camp and she has three little ones." At least Rosie had her babies. Kathleen had no one but Mother and Father. Not for the first time, she wondered why her friends never seemed to last. Was there something about her that made her forgettable? Or worse? Maybe she somehow, unknowingly, repelled people. "I think she appreciates me visiting." She helped as much as she could without offending Rosie.
Father studied her for a moment. "How did you meet her?"
She'd told them before but they hadn't listened. "She was leaving the store with an armload of groceries, trying to hold the baby and keep track of little Mattie, who was set on exploring the display of shovels. She dropped a letter in the confusion and I picked it up and offered to help her get home."
"She lives across town, doesn't she?"
"Yes." He knew that, too, of course. He only wanted to make sure Kathleen realized how inappropriate he considered her association with someone from the poor side of town. "She's new in Hopewell and doesn't know anyone. Everyone needs friends." Neither parent relented, but she knew exactly what to say to get their permission to visit again. "Aren't we, as Christians, commanded to welcome strangers?"
Her father's silence meant reluctant acquiescence.
She had been back several times and thought Rosie welcomed her. On her part, Kathleen enjoyed someone her age to visit with.
As she thought how they were slowly becoming friends, Rosie stood at the door, patting her fingertips together in a rapid dance. "I don't want any trouble." She flung about to stare into the center of the room. "Once people learn who Buck is and see his kid " She didn't say what she expected would happen.
"Who is he?" Who was this man who took in a half-breed child and begged an unwelcome invitation to care for him? It made her long to enter his thoughts and explore them.
She hadn't even finished the question when he said, "I don't intend anyone should find out I'm here. I won't stay any longer than I need to. Only long enough for Joey to get his strength."
"Joey? That his name?"
Buck nodded and smiled, changing his worry into affection, and if Kathleen wasn't mistaken, a whole lot more.
She jerked her thoughts back to the present. Why did she think he seemed a loyal, committed sort of man? She didn't know anything at all about him except he faced Rosie on behalf of his sick son. But he'd informed Rosie he didn't intend to stay. Why not? She wanted to demand an answer. But it was none of her business. Just because she wanted someone anyone to stay in her life long-term was no reason to pin her longings on Rosie's transient brother. Poor unsuspecting man. She touched Rosie's elbow in appeal. "He needs a friend. What better friend than a sister?"
Rosie took Lilly and stepped back in silent permission.
Buck trotted to the pinto, spoke softly to the boy and lifted his arms. The child slid into them so smoothly that Kathleen caught her breath, as if feeling the weight of the youngster land against her own heart.
Kathleen opened the door wide and ushered Buck into the house. She shoved a chair closer to the stove for him to sit on.
"Thank you." Buck sounded weary and wary. No doubt he wondered who she was and what role she played. Then he gave his complete attention to Joey, slipping the heavy winter wear from him.
The boy shivered, though Kathleen knew by the bright red spots on each cheek he was fevered. His breathing whistled in and out.
"I don't want my children sick," Rosie murmured, and backed away from the door until she reached her sons.
Buck sighed. "I'm sorry." He looked into Kathleen's eyes. "But what could I do? What would you do in the same circumstance?"
"I'd go home."
His eyes crinkled in a mixture of humor and regret. "This is the closest place to home I have."
Kathleen felt herself being drawn into something in his look. Couldn't say for certain what it wasonly that it filled her with sadness that a man should not know a welcome any better than what Rosie offered. "If there's anything I can do to help "
His smile widened and dipped into her heart. Startled at her reaction, she dropped to her knees to look more closely at his son. "Joey, I'm pleased to meet you."
Joey's unblinking gaze revealed nothing.
"My name is Kathleen Sanderson. I'm a friend of your aunt's. That's her over there, Aunt Rosie. Those are your cousins." She named them.
"Hello." Junior stepped forward, but his mother caught his shoulder and pulled him back.
Kathleen spared Rosie a moment's consideration. Shouldn't she be more charitable toward her brother and this child? If Kathleen had a brother or sister, she would do anything she could to help them. But it seemed Rosie was unaware of the blessing of a sibling.
"Never mind. They'll soon be your friends."
Joey turned his face up to ask Buck a silent question. In the moment of wordless interchange between the pair she sensed a connection, an affection needing no words, yet so evident it brought a sting to her eyes.
Buck cupped the boy's head and pressed it to his chest. "We'll be okay, little buddy."
Joey let out a sigh ending on a gasp as he fought for air.
"How long has he been ill?" Kathleen asked.
"Longer than I care to admit." Buck sat the boy up and brushed the long black hair off his face. "I haven't been fair to him, dragging him along with me. I guess I figured it was the sort of life he was born to." He shook his head. "He deserves more."
"Children get sick. It happens." She longed to reassure him. She ached to give him the welcome Rosie refused. "Now that he's here, he'll start to mend." She touched his cheeks. Hot. Dry. Parchment-paper fragile. Her knuckles brushed Buck's and she jerked back. Pushed to her feet. Turned to Rosie. "He's burning up."
"Sponge him. A good washing wouldn't likely go amiss."
"Rosie, you surprise me." Buck spoke in a flat tone.
Kathleen silently echoed his words as she prepared a basin of water.
"Take his shirt off," Rosie instructed.
Kathleen waited as Buck did so, then knelt at his side and lifted a wet cloth. Joey shrank back, his eyes widening.
"I'll do it." Buck reached for the cloth. Again their fingers brushed. She stilled herself not to react. He paused. Slowly she lifted her head to meet his steady consideration, sat back on her heels as his look went on and on, peeling away protective layers she didn't even realize existedlayers established by her upbringing, of being sheltered to the point she often felt she was a lonely spectator of the world. Her parents had long taught her that their station in life demanded certain requirements of her. Namely, to associate only with appropriate people and marry within their circle, meaning to marry well. Yet nowhere in the approved acquaintances had she seen a man so devoted to a child not his own, from an often despised race. Nor had she ever felt a reaction that made her heart beat so erratically.
She drew back to one of the mismatched chairs around the table and watched Buck sponge Joey, murmuring softly as he worked, sometimes in foreign sounding words. All the while, Joey watched him with utmost faith.
Kathleen knew for a fact a man who could earn such trust from a child was a man worthy of the same kind of trust from others. Yet there was something about him that put Rosie on edge. What could it possibly be?