Buck's head snapped back. Blood poured from the cut above his right eye to join with the blood already oozing from his split lip. He staggered backward, but kept his footing, swinging as he began forward movement again. His fist connected with a satisfying crack and he knew he had just broken the man's nose. He shook his head, trying to remove some of the blood that was making it harder to see in the already dark alley.
He had entered the alleyway just moments before, after hearing a woman's muffled cries, to find a man almost twice his size slapping a young woman as she fought to get away from him. Buck had pulled the man off, but had received a fist in the stomach for his efforts.
As much as Teaspoon lectured the riders about fighting, he always allowed for self-defense. Buck knew he was the underdog in this fight, but he also knew a few tricks. He was just hoping the woman would calm down enough to run for some help.
The man charged him, knocking him up against the brick of a building. Buck brought his clenched hands down on top of the man's nose again, further enraging the big man. He wrapped his arms around Buck's chest, squeezing as he lifted him into the air. Buck put pressure against the man's throat, cutting off his air until the big man dropped him. Then he dropped low and swung his leg around, catching the man's legs and knocking him to the ground. Springing back to his feet, Buck danced back a step or two, out of the immediate reach of the man and away from the confining wall. The man staggered upward and Buck caught a glint of metal. He had pulled a knife. Buck jumped back as the man swung the blade, but it still made contact, leaving a large cut across Buck's stomach. Buck ducked again as the blade swung at his head, dropping down and placing a kick upward into the man's stomach, knocking the air out of him with a loud oomph.
When the man recovered he lunged at Buck once more. Buck grabbed his wrists and dropped downward, placing a foot against the man's chest and rolling backward, tossing the big man right over his head. Buck bounced back to his feet, turning in preparation of a charge from the stranger. But the man just lay there, unmoving. Buck approached cautiously, glancing to check on the woman, who was still cowering up against the building. Buck moved to within two feet of the man, and saw the reason he hadn't regained his feet. The man had landed on his own knife, the handle protruding from his neck.
Buck tried to wipe some of the blood from his eyes as he turned once more toward the woman. Suddenly he felt something smash into the back of his head. The last two things he heard as he sank to his knees and blackness overcame him, were the scream of a woman and the sound of a gun.
Buck slowly became conscious of sounds around him. He cautiously opened his eyes and instantly regretted it as the light sent lightning bolts of pain through his already aching head. He chose to listen instead. He could hear two men talking lowly, catching only an occasional word. He could tell there was a window nearby, as he could hear wagons rolling by. And something else…. his addled brain finally narrowed it down to the sounds of soldiers marching. So he was still at Fort Laramie. He finally began to remember, a girl being attacked, a fight. No wonder his muscles all ached. Then he remembered being hit over the head. He moved his arms and legs carefully as he tried to remember who knocked him out, but he could remember no one else in the alley with him except the girl and the man he had killed. The man he had killed!
Buck knew at that thought where he was. The sounds and smells were familiar to him now. He was in the fort's jail! He had been here just yesterday, delivering a dispatch to the Army captain in charge. He moved one hand up to his head, felt a bandage there. He tried to open his eyes again, with better luck this time. He looked around the cell. There was a barred window above the cot he lay on. He could see the sky outside and determined that it was probably late morning. Looking the other direction he saw the cell door, pulled closed and undoubtedly locked.
Buck carefully swung his legs over the side of the cot and sat up, fighting the waves of nausea that came with the movement. His muscles ached with every movement and he felt a sting pain come from his abdomen. Looking down, he saw bandages underneath his open, blood soaked shirt. He gently touched the area, then remembered the knife swinging his way. One of his eyes didn't want to stay open, the area around it was swollen and tender.
His movements hadn't gone unnoticed. He heard booted footsteps approach across the wooden floor. Leaning back against the wall he watched Captain Lawlor approach. The man stopped at the cell door, arms behind his back, watching his prisoner, for that is what Buck was sure he had become.
"Would you like anything?" the man asked.
The man turned away, picking up a metal cup and dipping it into a nearby bucket. He handed it through the bars and Buck got up stiffly to take it. He returned to the cot.
"You should know that you are being charged with the murder of James Taggert, an employee of the local saloon."
"I killed that man in self-defense." Buck said calmly. "He was attacking a girl in that alley. Ask her. She can tell you the truth."
"That would be a bit difficult. You're being charged with her murder also."
"She's dead?" Buck felt his first stab of fear at his situation. "What do you mean? She was fine the last I saw her!"
"A witness says he heard a gunshot and ran to the alley. He saw you struggling with Taggert and you stabbed him in the neck. The girl was lying shot in the heart nearby. The witness then hit you over the head to keep you from doing the same to him."
Buck remembered hearing a gunshot as he passed out. He was certain that this must have been the gunshot that killed the woman, but why? He told the Captain about it.
"Well that is not consistent with the witness's testimony. It'll be up to the courts anyway. You go to trial as soon as the District Judge arrives."
"When will that be?"
"He should be here in about a week. In the mean time you might want to make yourself comfortable. You'll be here for awhile."
"I need to get a message back to Sweetwater." Buck said rising again and leaning against the cell bars. "There should be an Express rider due in today."
"I'll send him here as soon as he arrives. Your noon meal will be here soon. In the mean time you should get some rest. I'll send the doctor back in. Your wound is bleeding again." The man turned and walked away.
Buck took hold of the cell bars, leaning his head against them.
The army doctor arrived and changed the bandages across Buck's stomach. The wound wasn't bad, no stitches had been needed. The cut above Buck's eye had been deeper, and while Buck had been unconscious the doctor had closed it with three stitches. Buck had not touched the meal that had arrived shortly before the doctor did, having no appetite at the time.
"You'd best eat that boy." the doctor said as he left. "You'll need the strength for your trial."
"It was self-defense." Buck said quietly.
"Knowing Taggert, it probably was. But there's a witness that says otherwise."
"Who's this witness?"
"Taggert's employer, Martin Slayden. He owns the saloon just outside the fort." The doctor walked off.
Buck sat quietly in his cell, legs crossed, eyes closed. It had been three days since he'd been locked up. From the cell he could hear some of the conversations that took place outside on the boardwalk. Apparently, from everything he could make out, this Slayden wasn't well liked or trusted, but no one denied that the half-breed the army had locked up had been caught, well, red handed, as the saying went. That seemed to be the joke running around the Fort. Buck heard it over and over.
The Express rider had shown up the afternoon of Buck's first day in jail. Thankfully it was someone he knew, and he was able to convince the boy to ride to Sweetwater to tell Teaspoon Hunter and Sam Cain. He wasn't sure what either man could do to help him, but if anyone could find something to clear him, it would be these two men, and the rest of the riders.
Buck opened his eyes as he heard bootsteps approach. Captain Lawlor stood at the cell door, his face somber.
"Looks like your trial has been moved up. The judge arrived on the morning stage. He's due in Seneca next week so your trial will begin tomorrow. Do you have a lawyer in mind to argue your case?" Buck shook his head. "Then the judge will appoint one. He'll be in to talk to you this afternoon." The Captain turned smartly on his heel and walked off.
Buck's muscles tensed and a lump developed in his stomach. There would be no way Teaspoon and the others could get here in time to help. For the first time Buck began to feel despair. He stood and paced the cell, no longer able to sit calmly. In a fit of sudden anger he picked up the metal cup from the floor and threw it across the cell.
Teaspoon listened calmly to the rider's story. They stood in Sam Cain's office, the rider slightly out of breath from hard riding and excitement. As he finished his story, Teaspoon turned quietly and walked out, mounted his horse and rode out to the station to gather the boys. They were going to Fort Laramie. Sam was right behind him.
On to Chapter Two