Nothing Sacred

by Evermore (

This work of fiction is owned by the author, and may not be reproduced without the author's express written permission. The Young Riders was created by Ed Speilman and is owned by Ogiens/Kane Company and MGM/UA. No copyright infringement is intended by this work of fiction.

Copyright September 2000.

Rating: PG-13

Fandom: The Young Riders

Category: Post-episode, "Dead Ringer"

Warning: some violence (as is typical for the time period), bad language, liberties taken with Native American religion

Archive: TRIS. Okay to forward and archive elsewhere, so long as someone tells me where it's going.

Summary: While Buck may have forgiven Cody for the sacrilege against his religion, he explains that he dared not make Cody perform the actual ritual because he feared Cody would not survive it. However, the spirits are less than impressed with this excuse, and have neither forgiven nor forgotten. Raven and Coyote take their revenge on the two boys -- one a liar, and the other a thief -- in a most peculiar fashion.

Many thanks to Chris and Starr, who beta-read at warp speed. Aliens are responsible for any remaining mistakes.

Part One

All in all, Teaspoon Hunter thought, everything had worked pretty good since the ride back from Cottonwood. Hickok was out of trouble -- again -- that bounty hunter Colter was out of his hair -- again -- and the unlucky bastard playin' at being an outlaw was dead. Well, that hadn't exactly been in the plan, but if only damned Colter had kept his pistol in its holster where it was supposed to be.... There was nothin' to be done about it. At least the poor bastard'll get a decent burial, he thought, leaving the undertaker's office.

When he arrived back at his own office, Jimmy hadn't moved from where he sat in Teaspoon's chair. No doubt he was still brooding over the events of the past few days, so it was time -- past time, in fact -- to nip this poisonous bloom in the bud. "Son, ain't no good gonna come of wishin' something else had happened. All those could'ves, should'ves, and would'ves are gonna do is hound you right into your grave."

"But if --"

Interrupting with a clear gesture, Teaspoon shooed the younger man out of his chair before settling himself in it carefully. Someone -- and whoever was responsible had better own up to it soon -- had cracked one of the chair legs, leaving it ever-so-slightly tilted and liable to fall over at the slightest twitch of the unsuspecting seated sheriff. He looked up to where Jimmy was perched on the edge of the desk. "It's hard, I know, I been there. Sometimes there just ain't nothin' you can do. The sooner you realize no matter how hard you try, you can't save everybody, the better off you'll be."

Jimmy didn't look entirely convinced. Still, he'd have to let it be for a while yet. Let the boy chew on that for a spell, Teaspoon thought. According to what he'd overheard on the way and what Rachel had said, something had happened between Buck and Cody. Rachel hadn't been sure what it was, but snatches of conversation and half-heartedly muffled snickers in Cody's direction indicated that something frustrating had happened. Well, he had just the thing for those two; let them work out their differences constructively. "Jimmy, think about what I've said."

"Yeah." Hickok still didn't look convinced.

"Send in those two miscreants on your way out."


"Cody and Buck."

Apparently that explained everything as far as Jimmy was concerned. He hurried out the door, leaving Teaspoon with the sore knowledge that this next conversation probably wasn't going to be enjoyable by any stretch of the imagination. These two were hell-bound for trouble, the both of them, and God alone knew where they'd end up. Cody seemed to waver between a young idiot and a practical fella, only there were other times he'd swear that boy was the unexplained cross of a mule and a rabbit walking upright. Most of the time, Buck acted older than he was and so it was easy to forget that he warn't even eighteen. 'Course, most of the time that boy had a good head on his shoulders, not like now, when he was acting like a fool. Leastaways, so Rachel had intimated before they'd headed out for Cottonwood.

Looking like guilty children, the two boys stood in front of him, waiting for something or other. Too bad no one had told Teaspoon exactly what had happened, else this would have been the perfect opportunity to know all and see all. Still, that didn't mean he couldn't act like he knew what was going on, even if he didn't. "So," he began, stretching out stiff muscles and resting both ankles on the desk, "how did this start?"

They glanced at each other uneasily, neither willing to speak. Teaspoon wasn't surprised at that. "I'm waiting." He could tell they were wondering what he knew and how much. Buck had an oddly challenging look in his eyes, piercing through where Cody stood; he wasn't quite looking at the other boy, and Cody was looking down at the ground. That was downright strange, 'specially where these two're concerned.

"Well," Cody said, "I was only trying to help...."

"I didn't need your help --"

"Buck!" Teaspoon leaned forward in his chair; this was serious business. He couldn't have division between his boys, not with the troubles they dealt with every day. Lord knew they had enough to worry about, they didn't need to be fighting each other. Besides, Jimmy and Kid were more than enough on that score. "Let Cody talk. You'll get your chance."

Now Cody looked even more troubled than before, and his words seemed to rush out of him like water from behind a dam. It was almost like if he left them too long, they'd dry up and fly away on the wind. "While we were swimmin', I stole the stuff outta Buck's medicine pouch and put somethin' else in it, so he wouldn't realize what I'd done. Then everything started happening, all that bad stuff all at once in a row, and I couldn't believe what Ike said, that it was spirits gettin' revenge --"

"Whoa, son, take a breath."

Cody couldn't seem to stop himself. "-- Until the snap broke and the hay bale nearly fell on me so I told Buck and he made up some ritual that was supposed to stop all that bad stuff from happening." Only then did he wheeze for air.

Teaspoon couldn't quite believe what he'd heard. After all, from what he knew of Kiowa religion -- which wasn't much, admittedly -- those medicine pouches were some serious business. You don't fool with them. You don't ask questions. You just accept it and leave it lay. Maybe that was a way to make that boy understand that you don't go messin' around with someone else's beliefs, no matter how silly they seem to you.

He fixed Cody with a stern stare, and was rewarded with a sad look. Well, he supposed, that was a good sign; the boy knew he'd done wrong. Now he just had to make sure Cody understood why he'd done wrong. "You know what you've done, don't you?"


"It's like you've walked into the church and blown holes in the altar with that Hawkens of yours, and done it deliberately."

"I know."

"Then why'd you do it, then?"

"I thought I was helping ... Buck doesn't need no spirits to keep him safe. He can keep hisself safe, if he's careful and such." Cody looked deadly serious about this, but surely the boy understood that he was treading on dangerous ground. "Figur'd that I'd show him it was all hoo-hah and then he wouldn't need it any more."

Teaspoon shook his head. "So you told Buck about it." A nod answered his statement. "Then what, pray tell?"

Buck took up the tale. "Cody wanted a ritual to show the spirits that he was sorry for what he'd done, so I made something up for him." He didn't look terribly upset over what he'd done, either. As a matter of fact, he had the appearance of having won a contest of wills, or the proverbial cat after munching a tasty yellow canary.

"You made something up?"

"I had to." A faint flush spread over Buck's face and throat; with his dark complexion, it was hard to tell when he's blushing, but Teaspoon had learned to read the boy's complicated body language. He watched Buck glance in Cody's direction, almost apologetically but completely without shame. "There *is* a ritual of appeasement but ... I didn't think Cody would want to go through with what it would require him to do."

"You mean I went through that for nothing?" His outrage was clear but Buck wasn't fazed by that in the slightest.

"Unless you don't mind losing a finger, that is. Or two, depending on what the spirits demand for payment for the sacrilege."

Teaspoon could almost see the outrage fizzle out in Cody's face, from where he leaned half-sprawled against the wall. The younger boy squeaked something, but he couldn't tell exactly what it was that was said. Still, he couldn't blame the boy. Cody might have meant well, but it was a sacrilege against gods, no matter whose gods they were. Nothing said that they were any more or less real than the white man's gods. It seemed a high price, even so, and Cody certainly weren't likely to risk his marksmanship on such a thing.

Buck obviously knew that.

"So? Will they take this ritual of yours instead?"

Buck shrugged. "No way to tell. The basic ideas are the same. Atonement, humiliation, remorse, shame, and some physical pain -- it might be enough. We'll just have to wait and see."

There was nothing to be done about it, Teaspoon decided. Best for everybody to let these two deal with it on their own, preferably somewhere that they couldn't kill each other. "Well, while you're both waiting to see, I've got a special delivery to go to Fort Laramie, and -- in the light of this new development -- I'm sending you two."

In protest, Cody nearly leaped from where he was against the wall, moaning in disappointment. "Aww, Teaspoon, why us?"

"Why not you two?" He settled himself back into his chair. So far, everything was going along according to plan. It was about damn time something did.

"Because ... well, because...."

Buck just sighed, and picked the parcel up off Teaspoon's desk, glancing at the addressee without any real interest. "Might as well forget it. He's got his mind made up."

"Yep, I do. Pick up some supplies from Rachel before you leave and get going. Those're important Army papers in that package." Their responses were less than enthused, but he didn't entirely mind. At least they were going, and maybe by the time they'd returned, both of them'd be back on a steady pace and Buck's spirits would have made up their own minds on how they felt on the whole matter. At least, he hoped so. "Ride safe, boys."

Teaspoon watched them nearly run each other over in their hurry to get out the door, and shook his head in frustration. Some days he felt like a proud father, and other days he felt like he was really in charge of a primary school with a bunch of overgrown kids. Today, he wasn't sure which one was true. Maybe both of them were, he decided, settling down into his balanced chair for a short nap.

The snap-crackle of imminent doom took him by surprise. "Dammit --"

The next few days flew by, it seemed to Buck. They rode hard, did their duty as far as Teaspoon and the company was concerned, and stayed as far away from each other as humanly possible. In fact, it was easier to ignore each other than he had thought it would be. No one noticed, but Buck was certain something had changed between them. Their friendship had always been on shaky ground, but now it limped along precariously, a valued pony limping dangerously along a steep gorge. Sooner or later the creature would fall, smashing itself to bits on the sharp rocks below, half-hidden by the lovely water.

Would it be better for both of them to simply end the problem by putting the poor creature out of its misery? Should they take the extra steps to lead the pony around the slippery spots on the trail, working together to rescue this horse called friendship?

Now, they had made their last camp before returning back to the Sweetwater station, and it was time to make some decisions. Watching the fire pop and crackle ominously, Buck shifted from where he was sitting, knowing he had to begin down this rocky trail and follow its shifting paths to its end.

"Where are we going from here?" That wasn't what he had intended to say, but somehow the words had leapt from his mouth so clearly it must have been the right thing that wanted saying. Of course, Buck knew other things lurked inside his head that wanted saying, but those things could wait. Most of those things had waited, locked away where no man could find them, but they waited patiently all the same. Sooner or later those hateful words and thoughts would find their way clear to the blue sky.

Cody obviously had the same problem, and his internal war showed on his expressive face. "I don't know. You and me, we've not often agreed on anything, but I never intended this to happen."

"But it has." He looked back down at the fire, unable to stand the expression on the blond man's face. Without looking, he knew it was a mournful mixture of sorrow and regret. Sometimes it seemed regrets were the only things any of them ever really owned, the only thing any of them were ever destined for owning. They were mourning a death after all, and the corpse lay between them, unbidden, unwanted, but there nonetheless.

Buck knew there was no denial he could make that would not sound unnatural, but if that word exited his mouth, their fate would be sealed somewhere. Still, Cody had begun their passage on this perilous trail, so his job was to finish their work.

After what seemed like an eternity, the words left his mouth, no more than a whisper. "Good-bye." He would never have known Cody had heard, but the words impacted on the lines of his young face. He tightened all over like an over-girthed pony, carrying far too much weight for its size and choking without the breath to carry its load. Buck knew the weight he carried; it was the dead weight of a corpse, and the pain it brought would only get heavier with time. The flesh might drop away, the bones go to dust, but the memories remained .... and those always got more painful every time the load was disturbed.

No more had to be said between them. There was nothing of importance left to say. Apart, they rolled themselves into sleep, and dreamed of a place where hapless ponies stayed safe, no matter what foolishness dogged their tracks.

Raven watched the two boys mean a very great deal while saying very little at all, and knew he had to intervene. Indeed, he was upset at such sacrilege caused to his own, but in truth -- and truth must be spoken, always -- the boy responsible acted in ignorance, not in spite. To blame him would be to punish a small child that knew no better, and there would be no justice in that. On the other hand, he knew enough not to play with the totems of another. He claimed to be acting in his friend's best interests, but was he? He believed so, so perhaps.

Night's wind whistled through his black wing-feathers, shading them in mysteries untold, and he shuffled them to better hear the unspoken words. He stood there, watching his charges sleep, and wondered what to do. Could he solve this tragedy, mend this broken friendship? Certainly.

Did he want to? Perhaps.

After all, there remained the matter of payment for the sacrilege. His own had made a ritual to fit his friend, and it had paid the debt in part. That alone was presumption and unwarranted pride; his own had no standing to judge someone's inner worth, for such a position demanded divine knowledge. How should he know what price needed paying? This friend -- there was much to be read in his future, Raven saw -- also needed teaching. One did not take things lightly unless one had rights of creation against them.

Indeed, such rights he had against them both; one by birth and by blood, the other by his own craft, and both showed themselves in need of intervention. One, a liar, and the other, a thief -- what punishment best fit their crimes? What would best solve this pain?

Lightning flashed the idea into his mind, and he gurgled in laughter. Truth, it was perfect but he would need another's assistance.... "Coyote!"

No answer. Raven tapped one talon against the cold ground in frustration. Just like Coyote to keep him waiting, no doubt he had found a sweet young female somewhere to torment. "Coyote!" He clacked his jaw anxiously.

"You called upon me, Brother?" His yellow eyes gleaming in the darkness, Coyote slunk into the small camp, sniffing as he picked his way toward where Raven waited. Slouching next to his relative in apparent sloth, he took a few moments to smooth tangled fur on his flank before relaxing on the ground. The color of burnt sand, he faded into the shadows well but Raven could always pick him out of the night.

"I did. These two humans are ours, and they require teaching. I have just the plan for them, but I will need your help to make it work." Raven quietly told his plan, and his brother's reaction was immediate.

"Perfect," he yipped in excitement. "They will not enjoy it, not at all, but they *will* learn ... perhaps some parts of it will be enjoyable, I suppose." His tongue lolled suddenly in glee, trapped between sharp teeth and a set of powerful jaws still caught up in joy. Coyote yelped in sudden pain; that had been unexpected, but such things were part of life.

"Quiet!" Both nervously watched as their own stirred faintly in sleep, but disaster was averted. As they watched -- well, mostly patiently, as Coyote could not stop himself from pacing the ground as if awaiting the birth of pups -- the boy drifted back to sleep and dreams and destiny unfulfilled. "To work, then."

Coyote yipped again, softly this time, and trotted over to where their humans lay sheltered against the winds. Placing one paw against their temples in turn, Raven saw him doing his best to leave no marks with his long toenails. With the roads he walked, you were better safe than sorry ... but perhaps that too was a lesson their humans had best learn, and quickly before they did themselves injuries that would not heal. Raven busied himself, concentrating their combined power and croaking out the words of binding. This would be limited, intended to teach, not to punish, but they would not know that. That is, not unless....

Waiting until Coyote had completed his work but had not yet removed his paw from the gold-haired human, Raven croaked once sharply, having timed his call for the effect he wanted to achieve. "Coyote!"

Startled, his brother jerked around at the sound of his name, realizing too late what he had done. His expression annoyed, Coyote looked down to judge the damage. "See what you have made me do." His hackles raised in frustration, the words were hissed through a clenched jaw.

Raven elegantly shrugged his wing-feathers. He had already seen that his brother's toenails had made scratches on this human's forehead, where hair kissed skin, and blood would no doubt meet Father Sun come dawn. He saw Coyote make an evil face in his direction, like the laughing child he could sometimes be, but there was nothing to be done about it now.

Father Sun was coming. It was time to go, and leave these quarreling children to their lesson.

Part Two

Like any good Kiowa, Buck had always endeavored to wake with the rising of the sun. In this way, he could prove his worth -- disputing claims of sloth -- and deserving of all the spirits' blessings. Life was hard enough without having Father Sun turned against you, but nevertheless rising had always been difficult. Waking seemed doubly difficult this morning as everything seemed hazy and indistinct, looming much too far ahead than it should have been. I thought I was taller yesterday, Buck noted sleepily, pillowing his head on one arm. A sudden realization jerked him out of a pleasant just-after-waking-sleepdrift.

His skin was the wrong color.

In stunned shock, Buck jerked awake and sat up straight in his bedroll, extending both arms and gazing at them as if they belonged to someone else. Apparently, they did ... and it was a possibility that seemed almost unreal. Almost fearing the outcome, he grabbed a stick and threw it at the dark head poking out of the bedroll across the fire. "Cody! Wake up!"

"Whaaaat?" The bundled figure stirred and woke, rubbing his eyes free of the sandman's dust. A few moments later, he dropped both hands only to stare at them before looking over at his friend.

At himself.

"How -- how did this happen?"

Buck wasn't sure he could answer that, wasn't sure he wanted to answer that. He knew Cody was upset, knew that because he wasn't too far behind himself -- so to speak -- but such a reaction would solve nothing. While panicking would make him feel better, it would not tell either of them why they had ended up wearing each other's skins. How this had happened .... well, that he was fairly certain he could guess. Only the spirits had the ability for such things, though never had he heard of such an occurrence. Still, all things are possible. He tenderly felt a painful area on his head, and his hand came away with blood on it.

"Looks like an animal scratched you." Cody sounded caught between panic and outrage, furious at being so treated but also too at being unable to fight it. That was simply the way he was -- give him someone or something to fight with hands or weapon, but something like this, something he couldn't prevent ... caused him worry and anguish. Unfortunately, Cody's fear meant that he had to come up with answers while controlling his own worry. Hiding his own unease would be the hard part.

"Probably not just any animal."

"What do you mean?"

"Remember when I said we'd have to wait and see what the spirits thought?" When Cody nodded, Buck continued, "I think we've got our answer."

Cody said nothing, staring at his friend open-mouthed. Buck took the opportunity to begin their plan of action. "I think they're punishing us; what else could it be? We can't stay here and hope it goes away, so we're going to have to deal with it."

"For how long?"

"I don't know."

His own words rang in Buck's mind over the next few hours, hounding his every act, tangling his thoughts like a kitten playing with string. Every step he took, every move he made, even an off glance of his current body served as a reminder of his punishment. From the very beginning, there had been problems. Since they'd changed bodies, they had to adjust themselves to other changes. Finding himself taller with longer hair and longer legs, Cody stumbled as does a newborn colt on unsteady limbs; worse, he walked into low-hanging tree branches, leaving bruise upon bruise. Buck found himself shorter in stature, forced to run when he had never needed to do so in the past; even his mannerisms had suffered, ducking obstacles that barely brushed his hat, habitually brushing away hair from his shoulder that wasn't there as it had been. Combined with body troubles, riding each other's horses had been more trying than they'd thought. Cody's horse in particular, Buck decided, had a viciously choppy gait, nothing like the comforting longer stride of his red mare. At least he could take pleasure in the annoyance he saw on Cody's face.

That is, the annoyance he saw his own face wearing on Cody's behalf. A frightening thing, to see your own face staring back at you, knowing it was worn by a stranger. Still more frightening was knowing a friend was wearin' your face.

All things considered, Buck tried not to think how they would look to the others, if it came to that. Both of them tired, stiff, and covered in bruises; Teaspoon would think they'd been fighting. He didn't even want to think about all the extra trouble that would cause, as if their situation wasn't bad enough. Part of the trouble was that they didn't know each other very well, not because they didn't want to, but mostly because they seemed like near-opposites of each other. If Cody wanted one thing, most of the time it was exactly what Buck couldn't allow. Was it any wonder why they rarely talked, especially about important things? He sighed, and pushed his friend's wretched brown hat off his face.

"Hey," Cody shouted from behind him. "I paid good money for that hat, bad enough that Kid made my horse trample it all outta shape."

Buck remembered that incident well. Teaspoon had gone on about the difference between pride and self-respect. Was that somehow what this was about? "I'm just pushing it up, relax. I'm not hurting it any."

The blond rider wasn't completely soothed by that response. "Yeah, well, remember who it belongs to."

That was too much for him to take without insult. "If you'd kept your hands off my property in the first place, we wouldn't be in this mess, would we?"

"I said I was sorry!"

"But that doesn't change anything!"

No one spoke for a few moments, and Buck wondered whether he'd gone too far in his anger. Still, he knew he was right in that saying sorry changed nothing; some things could not be made better with soft words and a peck on the cheek. Cody knew this all too well, he was certain, and that knowledge seemed to make him even more culpable with his actions.

"I know it doesn't." Cody -- even in his own voice, some of Cody's unique tone came through -- sounded more sorrowful than Buck had even heard. "I don't know how many times I can say it, or even if you'll ever believe what I say, but I am sorry. It was a damned stupid thing to do."

"I believe you." Truth resonated from his words, his tone, and shone from his inner spirit. How could Buck not accept that truth, even if they now had to deal with the consequences of his actions? Those very consequences could be far-reaching and painful. He supposed that pain was part of their punishment. "We can't tell anybody about this, not even Teaspoon."

"Why not? It'd make ... things easier." Bewilderment came through clearly. Odd noticing how expressive one's own voice is when it's not your own to control. Buck had considered what actions to take, and wasn't pleased with the solutions available to them. Their options were limited, their trail was obvious. It was a rocky trail, full of obstacles, but the prize at the end couldn't be denied.

"Cody, use your brain for something besides holdin' your skullbones apart." He hated to insult his friend, no matter how deserving, but they had to be absolutely clear on this. "If we tell him that we've been switched bodies by the spirits, he'll send us straight to the nearest asylum. At the very least, he'll think we've been drinking, and not sarsaparilla, neither. I don't care what wild stuff he says he's seen. We can't take that chance."

Obviously, the idea of the grizzled stationmaster not believing their story hadn't occurred to the blond rider. Buck had to admit the idea bothered him as well, but if it hadn't happened to him, he would likely be hard pressed to admit that it was even possible. After hearing a murmur of agreement from the rider behind him, Buck continued laying out their plan. "We're just gonna have to play at being each other for a bit, until this is over ... however long that'll be."

"How long do you think that is?"

"I don't know." At this point, he was beginning to feel like a dog with one trick. They might be the spirits he had been raised to believe in and trust, but Buck didn't have all the answers. Hell, he didn't even have the important answers. Even if he'd had the answers, he wouldn't have begun to determine what the questions were, beyond the obvious ones. "I can only guess that we're supposed to learn something from this, so I'd say, until we learn whatever it is we're supposed to learn."

Cody opened his mouth to speak, but didn't get a chance to say what was on his mind before Buck continued thinking out-loud. "Our biggest problem, though, is going to be Ike. He's going to know something's up. We've been best friends since we were kids, he's going to know something ain't right." Not being able to tell his oldest friend jangled at Buck's nerves, but something else inside him buzzed the importance of keeping this secret. Some things were meant to be hidden.

"So what do we do? Tell him?"

Furthermore, maybe this was meant to be their problem to handle alone. "I don't know. If we tell him, we might risk some rule that says we can't. If we don't tell him, he'll get suspicious." Both of them rode in silence for a few minutes.

"What are we supposed to learn by this, anyway?"

Buck said nothing, but simply pulled his horse to a halt and stared at his friend, one eyebrow raised. Embarrassed, Cody blushed faintly -- but it was clear as blue mornings to Buck -- and kicked his horse forward in a trot. "Yeah, yeah, okay. You don't know. Right."

The next few hours passed quickly for them both, as they traded information and mannerisms to help the other in their necessary pretense. Buck took great glee in informing Cody that he wasn't really a very convincing liar, but cheerfully neglected to tell him that he tended to nervous fidgeting whenever he had a good hand at poker. He knew better than to give away the riders' biggest secret where Billy Cody was concerned. Giving away other secrets wasn't really something he looked forward to, but he couldn't see any other way to give Cody information he might need. Still, if it weren't intensely personal, maybe it would help.

Before he could speak, Cody shushed him quietly. They could now hear hoofbeats, lots of them, coming over the rise toward them. "At least four riders," commented Buck. Both boys reined up their mounts, ready to run at the first sign of danger. Neither of them felt like risking everything with a gunfight at the moment; matters were painful enough without a bullet to add to their misery.

Anxious minutes dissolved when Teaspoon, followed by Lou, Ike, Noah, and Kid, galloped over the rise to meet them. "What's up," he heard Cody say.

"I don't suppose you hid any lunch in that saddlebag," Buck chimed in, adding a faintly mournful look to his face.

"You boys alright?"

They glanced at each other; no, they weren't alright, not at all, but they could hardly say that.

"What's wrong?"

Everything, Buck thought. "Nothing," he said. So the lies start here. "What's up?"

Teaspoon was still looking at him a little strangely, but didn't let it prevent him from giving the details. "We're headed out to pick up Zachariah Fawkes, a gambler on a losing streak. Worse yet, when he loses, he pays out in information. Word's out that he paid up his recent debts with information on the Gould gang, and they would like nothing better than to shut Fawkes' trap permanent-like." He pulled on his reins, trying to soothe his horse's eager sidestepping. "Got a territorial marshal coming to talk to Fawkes, see if he'll pay his debt to society the same way he pays his gambling debts."

"Huh." Buck really couldn't think of anything else to say. The bruises, he thought, I should have guessed.

Noah chuckled. "I can't imagine he's too popular."

"Son, you ain't just whistlin' ... at that." He had been going to say something else, he could tell, but had changed his course at the last minute. "They want him bad, real bad, and so does the marshal."

"A territorial marshal, you said?"

Teaspoon nodded.

"Anyone we know?" That would be all they needed, thought Buck. While he wanted to see Sam Cain again -- and certainly Emma, who had been like a mother to them when they had first started riding for the company -- this would not be a good time. Plus, he wouldn't put it past Emma to demand to go with her husband on finding out where he was going and who he was going to go see. Emma would just have to look at them both to know there was something wrong; he could lie to anybody, it hurt, but he could do it ... but he knew he'd never get away with lying to Emma Cain.

"Don't know, 'xactly." The sheriff nodded toward Cody and Buck. "Why don't you boys head on back toward the station? Both of you look all done in." That was his way of saying without saying it outright, 'I know you boys been fighting but I also know neither of you'll admit it, so this is how I'm going to get you to go home before you get hurt any further.' Teaspoon probably also meant it as a sorta punishment, he supposed.

They couldn't allow that, they had to continue the charade that everything was just peachy, no matter how much it cost them. Buck said the first thing that popped into his head. "Buck said he'd teach me tracking, at least, more than what I already know, that is." He wanted to cringe with the words. At best, it was a feeble lie but no one could deny he'd ever said such a thing.

Reading his mind, Cody picked up the story. "... And now's as good a time as any, I mean, we know where he is, don't we?"

Kid looked startled, but Buck remembered why. He hadn't wanted to teach the Virginian a damned thing, certain one day it would come back to haunt him. In the end, he'd done it only because Ike had talked him into it, pointing out that one day it might save his life. 'What would happen if one day you were missing, how would we track you', was really what Ike'd asked, and he hadn't had a satisfactory answer. "You did?" Yep, Kid even sounded confused.

"Is there some reason why he wouldn't?" Buck let some of his anger and frustration come out wearing defiance's clothes, and that seemed to settle the matter where Teaspoon was concerned. Ike was looking askance in Buck's ... that is, in Cody's direction, but then again, he understood why Buck hadn't wanted to teach Kid in the first place. Still, Ike said nothing, apparently content to shoot lingering glances at the both of them, obviously wondering what he was missing.

So far, that had gone fairly well. Cody had always wanted to be an actor, Buck knew all too well, so perhaps he was in some ways better prepared to play a role. Well, this was probably the most important role he'd ever have. In this, they needed to be triumphant, and passing Teaspoon's little inspection -- even marginally -- felt like a celebration.

He wheeled his horse to follow where Teaspoon led, heading toward the town of Willow Springs. Out of the corner of his eye, as he shifted in the saddle, Buck thought he caught a flash of black feathers, of gleaming yellow eyes laughing at him. He turned quick to look, but saw nothing. It came as no surprise; if the spirits wanted to check up periodically on their progress, it wasn't like he could prevent them. He just hoped they noted how hard they were working to stay out of trouble.

Looking back over the past few days, watching the new morning burst into life, Teaspoon wondered what in all the seven hells was goin' on. First Ike, then Kid, both of them come see him, insisting that somethin' ain't right, that something's real wrong with Cody and Buck. True, with Cody, how were you supposed to tell when he was acting strange some of the time, and Buck, well, pretty much anything out of the ordinary was odd where he was concerned. He supposed that now, at leastaways, he had the time to figure out what -- if anything at all -- had happened.

Even so, he couldn't deny that something felt vaguely off about them. It was something he couldn't explain ... that snake-sense you developed after years of having a target painted on your back as a Texas Ranger, when you just knew there was a desperado lurking somewhere in the shadows, itching to carve another notch on his gun. That sense was tingling now, burning a path along his mind, demanding he look deeper into this matter.

Teaspoon mentally tallied up the little things he'd noticed over the course of the previous afternoon and evening. First, they had seemed practically joined at the hip, looking to each other to answer any but the most simple questions, like they had to ask permission to reply. Second, walking in fits of stop'n-starts, like a couple'a big dogs on short leashes. It was almost like they couldn't remember things: where they usually sat at the table, where they'd hung their hats and holsters, even where they slept. At least that was what Kid had confided late last night before he slipped back off to the bunkhouse. Third, he could see that their personalities were oddly confused, like some great hand had poured bits of Cody into Buck's head and visa versa. Buck had looked downright jubilant while Cody had been more somber than usual. Though, every once in a while, they would flash back to approaching normal at the same time, almost like they were aware of the changes themselves and were working to fix the problem.

Lastly, that business with Fawkes yesterday. Neither of them seemed exceptionally thrilled about the chase; to be honest, neither of them were the bloodthirsty type, which Teaspoon thanked God for, but usually they had more excitement in them than that. Yep, he had to admit, something was definitely wrong. He just didn't know what it was.

Hoofbeats rang in his ears, and this early in the morning, that meant trouble. Usually bad trouble, the worst kind. "Kid!" He banged on the bunkhouse door with one hand. "Rider comin'! You're up!" He braced himself for bad news, wondering what in tarnation it could be, coming so early as Jimmy galloped into the yard in front of where Teaspoon sat.

Kid flew out the door just in time to grab the pouch out of the air that Jimmy threw in his direction, then ran with it into the barn to saddle Katy. He didn't look happy, but Teaspoon couldn't blame him. Pouch comin' this early also meant no breakfast until later unless you eat while in the saddle. Not a fun way to enjoy your morning repast, he knew.

"Damn, son, you musta ridden all night."

Jimmy wheeled the horse and dismounted, walking his palomino over to the stationmaster. "Nah, just seemed like it." He tossed a letter to Teaspoon, who snatched it out of the air.

Glancing at the address, he was startled to see the sender was a Doctor Abraham McElroy. "Any idea why the Army doctor at Fort Laramie would be sending me a letter?"

"Can't say." Jimmy shrugged, but little smidgens of his curiosity seeped out around the careless edges. Teaspoon tore the flap open with a finger, and could nearly hear another wrong-thing tick into place. "A private -- I guess -- caught me up outsida Blue Creek and wanted it passed on to you. Didn't say what it was."

Reading the letter only brought more questions, and he tapped the paper with an index finger in frustration. "Dammit, I knew something had happened."

"What happened?" Now Hickok did look confused.

"This here letter's from the Army doctor, just like I figgured, but it tells me that he treated Buck for some minor injuries. Nothing serious, he says, but he just wanted me to know just in case it mattered later." Teaspoon couldn't believe what he was reading. "He also expresses some ... distaste ... sayin' that the night in the cell prob'ly didn't help any. Warned him about his temper, hoped it wouldn't happen again, but says he knows he can't change the way things are." He folded the letter up before Jimmy's startled eyes and stood up.

"Why would Buck have spent the night in a jail cell?"

"I'm damned if I know ... but this tears it. Time to get to the bottom of this barrel."

Part Three


Teaspoon's voice rang through the bunkhouse, and Cody suddenly realized that he would have to answer, since -- at the moment -- he was Buck. Making sure everything on his person was where it was supposed to be, he went out rather uncertainly to face the stationmaster. Personally, he felt rather like looking a nest of rattlesnakes in the face, but Buck looked to be taking all of this weirdness in stride. Maybe it was his upbringing, Cody didn't know, but some of that Indian stoicism would sure do the trick right now. He was doubly certain of that fact when he found himself facing a simmeringly angry Teaspoon.

"Well? What you got to say?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

Teaspoon waved a letter at him. "Doc McElroy says that you had lots of bruises, a bad temper, and a night in jail. Mind telling me what happened, son?"

Cody still hadn't the slightest idea what he was talking about. Think, he exhorted himself, come up with something Buck would say. "Nothing happened." He could practically feel Teaspoon's eyes boring holes in his skin, and it was all he could do not to squirm under the older man's gaze.

"That ain't what the doc says."

"Nothing happened."

"Then why did you spend the night in jail?" That seemed to be the point that bothered Teaspoon the most, the fact that he had spent a night in a jail cell. Where the hell had Buck been that night? He'd have sworn that his friend had been in the room next to him, but then ... they hadn't really been speaking that much, either. But, in a jail cell? That didn't sound like Buck at all. Maybe the Army was mistaken, and they meant someone else....

"Teaspoon, nothing happened." Cody couldn't figure out what else to tell the man. He hadn't the slightest idea what had happened, since as far as he knew, nothing had happened. Obviously, though, something had happened, but nothing had happened to him, personally. So ... it wasn't exactly a lie, right? Well, a fib maybe, but not an outright lie.


He realized that he'd have to tell Teaspoon something, anything, to avoid the question for a bit, preferably until they were back inside their own skins and Buck could deal with this himself. "I ... I don't really want to talk about it right now ... it ain't nothing bad ... I just ... don't want to talk about it yet." Cody looked away, trying not to look at the man at all, instead diverting his attention toward the open plains.

That seemed to work; Teaspoon didn't back down, but didn't press forward either. "Alright, son, we'll talk about it later. I'll take your word that it warn't nothin' serious. Mark my words, though, we will have that talk."

"I know." Cody wanted to jump up and down and yell, but he had to be discreet about this, no matter how much he wanted to know what was happening. Personally, he had to admit how unlikely it was that the Army had made a mistake. How many Express riders were half-breeds? He'd be willing to bet that Buck was the only one in the whole company. Cody fled off the front step and tried not to run into the barn, where he knew Buck was busily cleaning stalls. Entering the barn, he noticed that Buck had perversely cleaned his mare's stall first, as opposed to Cody's own horse. Since each of them tended to clean their own horse's stall first, depending on whose turn it was, this wasn't a good sign. He also noticed that Buck had the barn to himself; well, Jimmy's palomino was in the barn with him, so he wasn't totally alone. "Hey," he said, gesturing to the red mare's clean stall, "what gives?"

"Habit." Buck shrugged, and rubbed the palomino's nose. "Lou noticed, though. I told her I lost to you at poker and that was all the amount you won was worth." He grinned widely, and Cody saw an avaricious gleam shining in his eye that looked nothing like the Indian but somehow looked at home on his own face. Well, fine. He'd ignore the minor problem of this 'losing at poker' slur later, when everything was behind them. "What's the matter?"

"What isn't?" Cody tried to keep his voice down, but couldn't help adding some volume to that comment. "Teaspoon corralled me ... I mean, you .... and wanted to know what happened at Fort Laramie."

"Nothing happened at Fort Laramie." Buck sounded awfully sure of that, but clearly something had happened while they were there. Why else would have the doc written otherwise?

"That's not what the letter from the Army doc says."

"What letter?" Now Buck sounded unsure and a little tense. Cody couldn't blame him; he'd been tense since this whole disaster started. One thing for certain, he knew he'd never look askance at Buck's religious rituals again. After all this, he might even start going to church himself. It never hurt to hedge your bets with the Almighty, after all.

Cody took a deep breath and prepared to start at the beginning. "The Army doctor at Fort Laramie sent a letter to Teaspoon telling him that he had to doctor you --"

"You make it sound like I'm a horse --" Buck sounded like he was caught between amusement and insult. Funny, he'd never noticed how odd his own voice sounded. Damn shame that it wasn't more ... musical, like Buck's own voice was. Still, Cody knew he'd never survive with hair this long; how the hell did he manage it? It'd taken him near forever to brush it out that morning.

"-- And that you spent the night in a jail cell." Buck had no comment to that one, Cody noticed, and pressed on with his verbal attack. Hell, it looked like even the damn horse was takin' an interest in their argument. "Teaspoon was really --"

"It's none of Teaspoon's business --"

"-- And, damn, he wants answers, Buck! What the hell'm I supposed t' tell him?"

"What did you tell him?"

"Nothing, what the hell else could I tell him? I didn't know anything!"

He could tell that Buck didn't particularly want to talk to him about this, but they didn't have much choice in the matter. In order to answer Teaspoon's questions -- and they were going to have to, because the man was like a big dog kept from a bone and you were the bone -- Buck was gonna have to talk. "Nothing happened at Fort Laramie."

"I think he thinks you got in a fight."

His eyes looking far off into the distance, Buck chuckled. "He thinks we fought each other and the Army broke it up. Then the doc treated us, and since I spent the night in a jail cell, obviously, I started the fight." He savagely jammed the pitchfork into the floorboards. "When that wasn't what happened at all." Jimmy's horse didn't appear bothered by the act in the slightest; he merely flicked his ears, swished off some flies with his tail, and went on munching his hay.

Cody was confused now. "So what did happen?" He moved to one side, allowing Buck to exit the stall and maneuver the wheelbarrow in front of the doorway. That way, the palomino couldn't just walk out of the open stall.

"Just like I said. Nothing." The boys sat down on an old trunk -- Rachel's, from the look of it -- to talk. "Doc McElroy sometimes checks up on me whenever I go on a run to Laramie, he's interested in Indian medicine. Says that it's good to know what else he can use if he has an emergency and his supply of white man's medicine is gone." He shrugged, and Cody could see that -- even though he wasn't sayin' so -- Buck was pleased to be asked, even if he was a bit suspicious. "I had some cuts and bruises, nothing real bad, just sore, from crashing through the brush and woods with you chasing after me. I don't know why he wrote Teaspoon, but I wish he hadn't."

"So why did you spend the night in a jail cell?"

Buck sighed, an almost grievous sound in the quiet barn. "Cody, I spend the night in a jail cell every time I have to spend the night at Fort Laramie." He sounded like a teacher explaining something to an especially difficult child, or someone trying to discuss some distressing thing rationally. His voice was almost bland, drained of nearly all emotion in his efforts not to think about any of it. "Think about it. Most of those soldiers came there to kill Indians ... they're not going to allow one to just wander around freely at night, whether he works for the express or not."

Cody couldn't believe what he was hearing. How dare they treat an Express rider like that? It ain't like Buck was the enemy an' all. "Why ain't you told Teaspoon?" He wanted to run out the door and tell the stationmaster right this very minute, and do something about this ... this ... this total disrespect for the whole of the Pony Express, that's what it was.

"What good would it do? Army'll say it's policy, they're just being careful around 'the savages'." Buck sounded almost like, Cody didn't know, almost like he wasn't going to fight it. "I lost my temper a bit, and ranted at the doc about it when the guard came to escort me to my cell for the night. That's probably what he meant by telling me to mind my temper."

"You ain't gonna do nothing about this?"

Buck shrugged again. "Why bother? It's always been that way, ever since I first carried the pouch into Laramie, and it ain't just there. Most of the Army bases on our routes have that policy when I ride inside the gates."

Confusion didn't begin to cover how Cody felt; he was feeling a fair amount of shame, too. Not just him, neither, but covering most of the human race. Buck hadn't never done nothing to nobody that didn't deserve it, and here he's been being treated like a criminal while he's doing them a service. "Buck," Cody began, uncertain exactly how he was going to end that sentence, putting one hand on his friend's shoulder with a gentle squeeze.

Just then, both boys heard Teaspoon shouting from outside the barn. The moment broken, both of them ran outside to find Barnett astride his horse, waiting patiently for the sheriff, and the other riders running about, saddling their horses. Jimmy ran past them in long loping strides, buckling his gun on as he went, heading straight for his palomino's stall.

>From what Cody could make out, the Gould gang had been spotted in Blue Creek, and they were headed right for Sweetwater. Cody didn't like the sound of that; any other time, he admitted to himself, he'd be jumping with joy at the chance to go up against them, but now he felt like he had a target painted on his back. He didn't like the feeling, not at all. Did Buck feel like this all the time, he wondered. Worse, the Gould gang -- led by 'Goose' Gould -- were some that the territorial marshal wanted to question Fawkes about. Apparently, they'd heard he was in custody and that the marshal was on his way. What kind of nickname was 'Goose', anyway? How were you supposed to take anyone named Goose seriously?

Buck wasn't pleased about this turn of events at all. The Gould gang was comin' after Fawkes, a territorial marshal was comin' after Fawkes, and here they were like sitting ducks, smack in the middle. As they galloped along, he allowed himself to sulk and fret for a few minutes before he noticed Ike and Cody in the middle of what looked like a serious conversation. Even from here, he could catch snatches of Cody's words and Ike's signs; it seemed like Ike wanted to know what was going on. They couldn't allow that, he was sure, so he nudged his horse into a faster pace, coming even with the pair, watching Ike edge his mount away.

"Things are getting complicated, ain't they?"

"They're about to get worse." Buck really hated to break this news, but he was honestly surprised that Cody hadn't noticed it by now.


Keeping half an eye on where Ike was and what the other riders were doing, Buck nudged Cody in the side with the forward roll of his horse's gait. "Look what side your holster and gun are on ... now show me what hand you shoot with." Cody looked down to his left side, then at his right hand, and the horrified expression on his face said everything. Buck felt much the same way. He was left-handed and his friend was right-handed; stuck in each other's bodies meant that both of them had their guns on the wrong side for what they were used to. "It's a bit easier for me, with the Hawkens," he continued, "but not much." And my shooting with a rifle isn't up to what's normal for you, Buck thought, but there was no way he would say that. No reason to add to Cody's already inflated ego.

"What the hell are we supposed to do?" He sounded like he wanted to run or cry or both at once. Buck didn't blame him; this whole mess had him getting more upset by the minute, and it seemed things got worse every time he turned around.

Teaspoon pulled up his horse, and shouted over the pounding hoofbeats of the small posse. "Buck, Cody, you boys go into town, grab Fawkes, and get the hell outta there. Take him to Fort Laramie, and sit on him. The rest of you boys come with me."

They glanced at each other, knowing that this should be a good thing, but also certain that nothing could be this easy. From where they were, the ride into town didn't take too long, but they took the precaution of hitching their horses to a post behind Thompkins' store. Better safe than sorry, Buck figured. From there, it had been a quick walk to the sheriff's office; it was deserted, except for Fawkes. Teaspoon had sent Barnett out to meet the territorial marshal. At least, that's what he'd heard him tell the hapless deputy. More likely, Teaspoon had wanted him out of the way.

However, their premonitions had been correct. No sooner had they set foot inside the small office and shut the door than someone with a heavy fist had begun knocking. Buck peeked out a corner of the window, over which luckily Barnett had thought to draw the blinds. "Three men, all armed." He looked over to where Cody was unlocking the cell door and cuffing their prisoner. "We can't risk a shootout in the middle of town, but we can't just give him up, either."

"How did they get here so damn fast?"

Buck knew that wasn't the real question on his mind, since it wasn't what he wanted to know. He knew what they were both thinking. How did they get past Teaspoon? It wasn't really a question -- or an answer -- either of them really wanted to dwell on.

In a reedy voice, Fawkes spoke for the first time. "Goose probably sent them ahead days ago." He looked badly shaken by the whole situation. "They were probably registered at the Sweetwater Hotel before your sheriff had me locked up in here." As the knock sounded a second time, all of them looked toward the door as one entity.

"So why did they wait so long before coming for you, if they've been here all the time?" Cody looked perplexed. He had busied himself loading the guns that Teaspoon kept for emergencies while Buck kept an eye on their unwanted visitors.

That was a good question, but Buck thought he could guess why. "A chance to kill the territorial marshal?"

"I'd take that bet," Fawkes admitted.

"I wouldn't, not with your record." That was a low blow, Buck had to admit, but the words had just slipped out of his mouth before he could stop them. Being in Cody's body must be rubbing off on him. Buck had to restrain a shudder. At least Fawkes didn't take offense, that was good. A plan would be better.

They needed a plan, and they needed it right now. What did they have to work with? Buck looked around the small office, and took a mental inventory. Guns, ammo, a reasonably friendly prisoner. Assorted furniture. A jail cell. Unwanted visitors outside.

What did their visitors want? Their prisoner, and a chance to kill the territorial marshal. That being the case, they wouldn't bat an eye at killing a couple of deputies. Worse, they'd become hostages to use against Teaspoon. All these things meant that they had to deal with them on their own. They did have surprise on their side, since they'd hardly be expecting resistance. A glimmer of an idea sparkled into Buck's mind. It was a long shot, but hell, everything about the past couple days had been a mother of a long shot. He nodded at Cody. "Keep them talking, but don't open the door. I got an idea."

Not bothering to wait for acknowledgement, Buck began ransacking Teaspoon's desk, looking for a small blanket he was fairly certain was kept in one of those drawers. Locating it, a pillow, and an old sand-colored poncho, he carried them into the small jail cell and arranged the items -- along with the pillow already inside -- underneath the blanket to look like the prisoner was sleeping. Or hiding, he supposed.

"That's never going to work," Fawkes hissed between clenched teeth.

"It's not supposed to." Buck grabbed the man and shoved him toward the desk. "Hide under there, in the kneehole."

"They'll see me."

"No, they won't." At the edge of his awareness, Buck could hear Cody talking endlessly with their unwanted visitors, trying to convince them to go away, but he wasn't having much success. Still, they hadn't broken down the door, hadn't shot up the place. Yet, that is, and his friend hadn't repeated himself once. Buck firmly controlled a chuckle. He'd always thought that Cody suffered from some kind of verbal dysentery, but now he was thankful for the affliction.

Fawkes wedged himself under the desk, and Buck pushed the chair in front of him, turning it around to face the door before seating himself. He couldn't help but notice that it creaked suspiciously; it must have broken on Teaspoon, and he must have fixed it, or gotten someone else to do the job. Maybe he could use that ... since it still seemed rather shaky. "Don't make a sound."

Okay. Their odds were even, now it was time to cut the cards. Buck nodded to Cody, who opened the door.

When their so-called guests entered, Buck spoke to them first, trying to draw their attention away from Cody. "Welcome to Sweetwater." They herded Cody along toward the desk, which -- while it wasn't exactly good -- it helped to hide Fawkes, and made it easier for his plan. Stupidly, they only took their holstered weapons but didn't keep them. Nor did they collect the other loaded guns in the office. And these guys were supposed to be professionals?

All three men aimed their guns at him, but didn't seem to care about either of them. That was good. "Where is he?"

Buck pointed wordlessly toward the cell. One of the men kept his gun pointed at Buck, while the other two men turned toward the cell, walked in, and began firing on the hapless cot. Neither boy could help flinching slightly with the sound of the slugs; just the sound brought back bad memories. Being shot was something you never got completely out of your head. The two emptied their guns, and walked up to check the 'body.' Buck tensed, knowing the next few minutes would either break the bank or bring down the house.


The first man swung around to see what had alarmed his cohorts, and Buck took his chance. He grabbed the wooden chair and threw it at the man holding a loaded gun, who crashed unceremoniously to the floor. Pieces of wooden chair rained down around them while Cody scooped up a nearby pistol to cover the men in the cell. Buck stripped the man of his weapons before dragging the unconscious man to the cell and dumping him inside it. He then stripped the other two men of their weapons under Cody's watchful eye before locking them up.

"You can come out now."

Fawkes poked his head out from inside the kneehole, and looked around astonished at the destruction before noticing the three men inside the jail cell. "I don't believe it."

"Maybe I should have taken that bet," Buck quipped.

Cody grinned in response. "I don't believe it either. Teaspoon's gonna kill you."

"The chair died a valiant death."

"I'll have them write that on your tombstone." He looked around, shaking his head sadly.

Buck had to admit it was an unholy mess. Still, it had worked, and that was the important thing, wasn't it? Wasn't it? They were safe, Fawkes was safe, the bad guys were in jail.... Teaspoon wouldn't be too angry. At least, Buck didn't think so.

Taking their prisoner firmly in hand, the two boys stepped out into the street, but Buck was wondering what to do with him. Obviously, going to Fort Laramie was out of the question; they couldn't leave their other three prisoners unattended, nor could they transport four prisoners by themselves. Well, Buck corrected, they could, they just didn't want to take the risk.

"Look." Cody pointed toward a small group of oncoming riders. "Teaspoon and the others." They were coming into town fast, it looked like. While he didn't know what had sent them back into town so quickly, he was just glad to know that they were here.

Buck breathed in relief, and thanked the spirits for that. It looked like they were safe, too. Good. Finally, something was going according to plan. Hugely relieved, he raised a hand to gesture to them when a bright flash whipped across his eye. A mirror flash? He heard Cody shout next to him, a hand already going to his face. "What --"

"Gun!" Shoving Fawkes toward the sheriff's office, Buck only had time to register a hissing sound and another sound like something falling before everything was swept away by a boom. Then another noise, vaguely, like a dream distantly recalled. A beating of great wings, soft against his face. He was falling .... he landed against something soft, then against something hard ... then there was darkness.

Buck didn't know how long he drifted in the blackness before hearing someone call his name. He tried to answer, but it was hot and he wanted to sleep. The voice was persistent, demanding loudly that he awaken and right this minute. Blearily, he opened his eyes for a few moments before closing them again but was immediately aware of several things all at once. First, he was sore. Second, it was dark out when he had been fairly certain that it hadn't been before. Third, how did he get back to the station? Fourth, where was Cody?

Some memories came back. Fawkes. The unwanted visitors. What the hell happened? Another memory hit him, and he had to know. Opening his eyes again, Buck examined his arms and breathed another sigh of relief. He was the right color ... he was back in his own body. Hopefully Cody was back in his own body as well. Some pieces of the puzzle were missing, though.

"You alright, son?" He hadn't noticed Teaspoon sitting there, but it was just as well. Since he didn't look like a grieving man, Buck could only figure that Cody was fine or at least in the same shape he was.

"I think so." Buck slowly picked himself up off the bed in the guest room -- actually, it was the one they used as a sick room, whenever someone was hurt badly enough so the bunkhouse wasn't proper but stayin' over at Doc Barnes' place wasn't necessary -- and got to his feet. He was pleased to find that he didn't sway ... much, and it was real nice to have everything the correct length and height. "What the hell happened?" Teaspoon took his elbow, supporting him a bit from underneath, but Buck wasn't about to fight him on it. "Last thing I remember was a mirror flash in my eye. Then there was a noise...."

Teaspoon made a noise halfway between a harrumph and a grunt. It was a noise Buck generally associated with agreement. "Gould had a last-resort man waitin' outside the office. When you came out, he lit up a lil' amount of TNT wired with some chemical or another." Buck felt his eyes widen. TNT! "The flash was him lightin' it up, he tossed it, like a distraction. He was gonna shoot Fawkes, but couldn't get a bead 'cause he'd been pushed behind you an' Cody. Jimmy got a shot off first, and dropped the bastard."

"Good," Buck heard himself murmur. Now he had bruises on his body to match the ones on his face. "Cody?"

"The bomb was too small to do any real damage; he'd meant it only as a distraction, to keep ya both busy while he took out Fawkes. Still," Teaspoon rubbed his chin thoughtfully, "it knocked both you boys offa your feet and out for nearly an hour. The doc checked you both out, and he gave real clear instructions. Cody woke up not long ago, so we been waitin' on you."

"Oh. Fawkes?" They were making their way slowly down the stairs to what Teaspoon enthusiastically called the 'family room'. From the conversation he could pick out, Buck could only guess that the others were gathered there, waiting for him to wake up. Damn these stairs. What did he land on, anyway, rocks?

"Fine. In custody. Singing your praises, the both of you." Teaspoon eyed him shrewdly, looking him up and down. "Tellin' some interestin' stories, too."

Buck wasn't sure what to say to that, and luckily didn't get the chance to respond. Before another word could be said, they had reached where the other riders were waiting. He saw, too, that his first instincts had been right. Sam and Emma Cain sat on the love seat, smiling at him. Looking pleased as punch, Cody sat next to them, gesturing expansively with one hand, but Buck saw him wink on the sly in his direction. Yeah, Buck thought, Cody's back to normal. As normal as Cody gets.

"Sam, Emma." Nodding to them both, Buck found a chair and lowered himself into it gratefully. Now things can finally get back to normal, for all of us. "I'm glad to see you."

"Well, we're glad to see you, Buck." Emma's soft voice was like a balm on his battered nerves. Something about her tone told him that maybe there had been some question about whether he would see them, but that -- in all truthfulness -- was something he felt was better left alone. "I'm just glad you both are all right, thanks to Cody's quick thinking."

That caught Buck's attention, and he turned to see Cody smirking at him. That figured. He had a brainstorm of a brilliant idea and a plan that worked, and look who got the credit for it. Still ... there was something he was forgetting.... "Yeah," Buck said, without much inflection, aware they were waiting for him to say something. "I guess that's what happened."

Teaspoon cleared his throat. "Now that the matter of whose brilliant idea it was has been settled, there's another very important matter we got to discuss."

"What's that?" Jimmy sounded as much in the dark as the rest of them were.

"Since Cody's brilliant plan was responsible for the blatant destruction of my favorite chair," Teaspoon walked over to where Cody was sitting, "I've decided that it's only fair that he fix it." Buck could hear his friend's jaw drop from where he was, even over the laughter.

"But Teaspoon --"

"No buts, Cody!"

A grin blooming on his face, Buck knew that things were back to normal. Some

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