I've hinked up the dates a little, historians will note: the Chicago World's Fair (or the World's Columbian Exposition, as it's more accurately called in the story) did take place in 1893, and Buffalo Bill (our dear William F. Cody) had his Wild West show just outside the gates. The hinky date would be James Butler Hickok's death. He actually died in 1876, and even in those days that's a LONG DAMN TIME for a letter to get to Brenna, so I'm pretending he died much, much closer to the 1890's. I'm sure Mr. Hickok would appreciate me trying to extend his lifespan. Brenna's explanation of his death is true, as far as historians are concerned, down to the cards he was holding at the time. It's known as the "dead man's hand" today for that reason.
And, just as a side note, I never realized how hard it would be to write a story without using "ok." That was a serious bitch!!
That's the way love is,
That's the way love is,
That's the way love is...
Sky blue and black.
-from "Sky Blue and Black" by Jackson Browne
Brenna Llewellyn Mackenzie had been to cities before: New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, even Chicago. But the Chicago she was in now was different than any place she'd ever been before. The White City, the country's nickname for the World's Columbian Exposition, rose gleaming and beautiful and glorious to the south. She could see the skeletal structure of Mr. Ferris' famous wheel, and decided that as soon as her business was through she'd see if it was worth all the fuss it had been getting.
With a deep sigh, Brenna read the sign above her one last time. "Buffalo Bill's Wild West," it proclaimed in big, sweeping letters, along with descriptions of the wonders that particular show would entail. Smiling and shaking her head, Brenna entered the theatre.
A young man stood at the entrance, though since the next show wasn't scheduled for another few hours, Brenna wasn't sure why. "Excuse me, sir?" she said politely, even though he was at least thirty years her junior.
"Yes, ma'am? How may I help you? The ticket window is outside and around the corner, and the next show is at six o'clock."
"Ah, yes, thank you, but I'm not here for the show. I'm here to see Colonel Cody."
He gave her a look that clearly said "you and everyone else," but merely replied, "Yes, ma'am, and what business do you have with the Colonel?"
She frowned slightly. "We're old friends. Please, either go fetch him or tell me where I might find him. It's very important."
After a moment's consideration he nodded and pointed her in the right direction. She thanked him and followed his directions to Cody's office. Hesitating a moment, she raised her fist and knocked politely.
The sight that met her eyes when the door opened nearly sent her into fits of hysterics. He hadn't changed a bit, except that his once blond hair was now white, and longer. He was dressed in white buckskin, fringe everywhere, and a huge white hat that matched perfectly. She could tell he didn't recognize her, but his smile was polite and inviting anyway.
"Hello there, ma'am, Colonel William F. Cody at your service. What can I do for you?"
She smiled brightly at his bow and once again could barely contain her laughter. "Well, Colonel Cody, I see that while you're no longer the best Russell, Majors and Waddell have to offer, you're a pretty fine example of an Army man."
His smile faltered for a moment as he studied her intently, searching for the key...he found it in her smoky green eyes, which were the same even after all these years, despite new lines framing them. "Brenna? Brenna Mackenzie?!"
She had aged quite well, he thought. Her hair was streaked with brilliant silver beneath her charming blue hat, and the body encased in a stylish blue gown was still that of a girl's. Her face had matured from girlish loveliness into a woman's timeless beauty. Buck Cross was a fool, Cody thought, for letting this woman walk out of his life.
"Good guess. It's been a long time."
"Forever! Come in! What the hell are you doin' here? Stupid question, I guess: you're here to see the White City, like everyone else in the country. I guess I should ask what brings you to my little piece of the action." He led her into the spacious office and offered her a chair, which she accepted gladly.
"Is it still Mackenzie?" he continued, pouring her a glass of water. "Or did some smart fella finally reel you in?"
"No, it's still Mackenzie." She sipped the water and smiled up at him. "I'm an old maid, I guess, but after the war..." She trailed off and he nodded as a pained look flashed through her eyes. "Luckily White Oak was spared from Sherman's fires, though I don't know quite how. We survived, barely, and the last thing I had time to think about was finding a husband. Besides," she said with a sad smile, "I left my heart at that Pony Express station a long time ago."
He nodded solemnly. "I always hoped you and Buck'd find each other again, but I guess it never worked out. You ever hear from him? Or Jimmy?"
"Buck, no. I don't know where he is. But Jimmy is actually the reason I'm here." She took a deep breath and a long drink of water before continuing. "Jimmy's dead, Billy."
Shocked silence followed. "Dead?" he ventured at last. "How? When?"
She shook her head slowly. "I'm not sure when. A while ago, apparently. How...he was playing cards, and some drunk shot him. Sad, isn't it? He was holding two pair: aces and eights."
Cody just shook his head, disbelieving. "How'd you find out?"
She reached into a pocket of her elegant blue gown and pulled out a crumpled, stained envelope. "He sent me this. Good thing White Oak wasn't burned or this would've had no place to go. Along with it came a chest full of...all sorts of things. He asked me to...distribute them.
"I don't know why he wanted me to do it. I guess maybe he wouldn't know how to send it all to you; you've been gallivanting around Europe for so long with this show of yours. Maybe he thought it would upset Kid and Lou too much...who knows..."
"He trusted you, that's all. And maybe he thought it would give you an excuse to look everybody up."
Brenna smiled sadly. "I guess, maybe." She raised her head and brushed tears from her eyes. "I've come to bring you what Jimmy wanted you to have." She opened up the bag she carried and pulled from it a meticulously wrapped package, which she handed to him gently.
"What is it?" he asked, handling the package with reverence.
Carefully ripping the paper aside he revealed one of Jimmy's beloved Navy Colts, the guns he'd carried back in their days with the Pony Express. It had been lovingly cared for, and it shone in the light of the gas lamps. "Brenna, no, I can't take this! He musta meant it for you, not me."
"He gave me the other one. That one is for you. He said you'd know how to care for it. Do take it, Billy, he knew how you always admired it so."
"I did. He was the best shot I ever saw. I shoulda gone to see him, shoulda taken my wife and introduced her to one of the best friends I ever had."
She smiled sadly. "There are a great many things we all should've done, Billy. Just keep the gun, and remember our friend. Tell your wife about him."
He took her elegantly gloved hand and held it in silence for a while, and she was touched to see such depth of emotion from the boisterous, showy William Cody. At last he said, "He left things for all of us? For Kid and Lou and Buck? Have you seen them yet?"
"Yes. For Kid, his favorite hat, because he said Kid always knew the importance of a good hat." She smiled. "There are some Pony Express mysteries to which I'm not privy, apparently.
"For Lou was a photograph taken by Teaspoon years ago, not long after I was there. Ike's in it, and Noah and Rachel, neither of whom I had the pleasure to know. You all looked so young and happy. She cried when I gave it to her."
Brenna paused then, with a fond smile. "They're still so happy, Billy! They have six kids and ten grandchildren, with two on the way. They told me to give you their best."
He nodded thoughtfully, and after another deep silence said, "Now you go find Buck."
It wasn't a question. "Yes. Though he might be dead for all I know."
"Yeah, dead or married."
She stiffened. "His marital status is none of my concern, Billy."
He grinned. "We're gettin' old, Brenna. Don't you think it's about time we stopped lyin' to ourselves? You didn't get married in all these years, and I bet you this whole damn theatre that he didn't either. You rode off with his heart that day just as sure as he kept yours there."
She studied him for a time, taking in how he'd changed from the boy she had known, and how he was still the same. After a time she nodded. "Age has done you well, Colonel Cody. Yes, I'll go find Buck, if he lives. My heart tells me he does, but my heart's been wrong before."
"Naw, Brenna, that's where you've always gotten confused. Your heart isn't the problem; it's your head that gets in the way."
She laughed. "Ahh, well there you are then. Thanks to you it's all perfectly clear to me."
"Good! So tell me, what're your plans while you're in town?"
"Well I was planning on seeing the Exposition, of course. It looks marvelous. Have you been on the Ferris Wheel yet?"
"Twice. Skip the rest except the Plaisance; you should see my show."
"Buffalo and Indians and a lady sharpshooter? Sounds like my cup of tea. But I insist on seeing the Court of Honor."
"I thought you'd say that. Come on; I'll take you to meet that sharpshooter. Miss Annie Oakley's her name, and I ain't seen anyone better with a gun since James Butler Hickok!"
With a laugh she allowed him to lead her away, but as he rambled on about the marvels of his show and Chicago and even Europe, her mind was far away, and before her eyes danced the image of a familiar half-smile below a set of sparkling, soulful brown eyes.
Buck Cross wasn't dead, as it turned out, or married. He was merely existing, most days. He had acted as a liaison between the army and the Kiowa for a while, guiding the negotiations in what he hoped was a fair, careful way, but soon the spirit of it had dried up in him. A part of him simply stopped caring if the Kiowa got one more or one less acre of land to live on, or if the army could or couldn't march through Kiowa land on this day or that. It was meaningless.
So much of Buck's life seemed meaningless these days. He scraped a decent living from a small patch of land and remembered a promise made in a barn long ago. It had been over thirty years, but the scene was as vivid in his mind as though it had happened yesterday. He could smell the hay, the horses, her hair. He could feel her tears, the softness of her skin, the slim fit of her body against his. Most of all, though, he remembered her words. She had promised she would come back to him, and every day he had watched for her, and every day he had been disappointed. Finally he'd given up, stopped looking for her, realizing it was hopeless.
So why, he wondered, was he standing at the door of his cabin staring across his land as though this day would be different? This day, of all days? Something about it reminded him of the morning she'd ridden out of his life. The sky was washed with delicate color, like that morning, and the air smelled sweet and clean, new. With a snort of disgust at his own romantic notions, Buck dumped his coffee into the yard and turned back to the house. Just as he did, though, a movement up on the hill caught his eye, and he turned back to focus on the lone rider in the near distance.
Brenna had been searching for him for a long time. Longer, she realized, than just the few months since she'd left Billy in Chicago. It had taken her thirty years and the death of one of her dearest friends to give her the courage to keep the promise she'd made in that barn so long ago, and now she wondered if she'd waited too long. As she crested the final hill between herself and Buck's cabin, she thought perhaps she had. She thought perhaps she should just turn around and catch the next train back east.
She reined in her horse and took a deep, cleansing breath of the fresh morning air. This trip had been a foolish idea. Really, honestly, a very foolish idea. Going home was the smart thing to do. She was just about to turn around when she noticed a figure on the front porch. Despite having not seen him in over thirty years, she instantly recognized the trim form of Buck Cross, and she felt her heart stop.
Just as Buck had the rider in focus, the sun crested the hills, and the blazing light blinded him. He shook his head, blinking hard. He was crazy, imagining things. He had to be. The rider was just someone from town, or someone who'd gotten lost. Despite these rationalizing thoughts, Buck realized he was running across the yard, her named pounding in his head with every beat of his heart.
When she saw him leave the porch, Brenna dismounted quickly and began running down the hill toward him. She had no idea what she was going to say when they met, no idea how she was going to explain breaking her promise, but surely something would come to mind. Suddenly he was there, in front of her, and she stopped short, hand pressed hard against her chest, breath coming in gasps.
"Brenna," he said at last, his voice full of wonder.
"Buck," she replied with a slight laugh. He looked wonderful. His dark brown hair was sprinkled with gray, and lines bracketed those well-remembered, beautiful brown eyes, but he was still the same Buck she had known thirty years before.
"You kept your promise."
Her mouth fell open in surprise, and she shook her head. "Buck, it's been thirty years." She laughed again, this time ruefully. "I should've come sooner," she said softly, reaching up to trace her fingers across his cheek. "But there was the war, which took Mickey, then the rebuilding, and so many families in the county lost everything, and we still at least had our plantation. I couldn't leave, and then I thought you would've found someone, but then I thought, no, he wouldn't, he couldn't, but then-"
"Better late than never, Wapka Wi," he interrupted quietly but forcefully, pulling her to him and giving her a long, loving kiss that he'd been waiting thirty years to deliver.
Later, when she told him about Jimmy, he lowered his head in mourning. When he asked her what gift his old friend had left for him, she laughed. "He told me to keep my promise," she replied, smoky eyes sparkling.
"How did he know we'd been waiting for each other this whole time?"
She shrugged. "I guess he just knew. Like he said, that's the way love is."
"Yes," Buck murmured, pulling her closer and kissing her hair, "that's the way love is. Thank you, my friend." A moment later he pulled away and looked at her with his familiar, mischievous half-smile. "So, how does Brenna Mackenzie Cross sound?"
"It sounds perfect," she told him with a laugh, "and long overdue!"
Yay! Thanks, everyone, for all the support!