Sky Blue and Black
You're the whispering and sighing of my tires in the rain.
You're the hidden cost and the thing that's lost in everything I do.
Yeah and I'll never stop looking for you,
In the sunlight and the shadows,
And the faces on the avenue.
-from "Sky Blue and Black" by Jackson Browne
Jeremiah Lapke was not a patient man. He wanted Brenna Mackenzie, and he wanted her now. Yes, he wanted Francis Mackenzie, but that desire wasn't as immediate. Brenna had killed his son, stolen his money and evaded him for weeks. And, besides, Brenna offered so many more interesting diversions than her brother.
Jeremiah had been wrong to trust Jonas, that much was obvious. His brother was now, unfortunately, dead. That was another thing for which he had to thank Brenna Mackenzie: the knife wound she had inflicted upon Jonas' hand had turned septic, and he'd died from the infection. Clearly Jeremiah was going to have to handle the Mackenzie problem himself, something he should have done from the beginning.
All ready he'd learned of Brenna's whereabouts: she was still in Sweetwater, living at the Pony Express station, of all the places! And, apparently, Francis was with her. That only sweetened the deal. Jeremiah would kill Francis and take Brenna, and no one would get hurt. Sam Cain was the Marshall in these parts, he'd heard, though he hardly believed it. Sam Cain, a Marshall? Surely it was so he could work the system. And work the system he would, for his old employer, Jeremiah Lapke.
With a smug smile at himself in the mirror, Jeremiah straightened his tie, donned his hat and decided that things were certainly looking up. Whistling a tune, he strode from the room. He had an appointment to keep.
Emma was hanging laundry out to dry when Sam came galloping up, dust flying everywhere. She'd never seen him move that fast; he seemed to be in a panic. "Sam!" she cried, hurrying into the stable yard. "Sam, what's wrong?"
Catching sight of her, the Marshall quickly reined in his horse. It stopped, panting and snorting, and Sam didn't look much better. "Where's Brenna?" he managed to gasp after a moment.
"Down by the creek with Buck and Ike. What's the matter? You came ridin' in here like the Devil himself was on your tail!"
"Close, Emma: Jeremiah Lapke came to see me today, and he knows Brenna and Frank are here."
Emma pressed a hand to her chest and closed her eyes. "God help us. Is he coming here?"
"Most likely. You get inside now; hide out. I'll go find Brenna and the boys."
"But, Sam, if he's alone-"
"He's probably not, but even if he is, that don't really matter with a man like Lapke. Also, apparently Jonas died from that knife wound."
She sighed. "You be careful, Sam. Take care of those kids."
"I'll do my best. Hide, Emma. Stay out of sight."
She nodded smartly and hurried into the house. As soon as the door closed Sam was off again, riding hard for the creek. He had to find Brenna.
It was a beautiful morning, and Buck had suggested a picnic, so Brenna, Ike and Francis had trooped off to the creek to spend the morning fishing, laughing and enjoying the bright sunshine. Jeremiah Lapke had been far from everyone's mind, and that had been their first major mistake. Their second was tossing their weapons aside in a happy, carefree manner, as though danger weren't stalking them. He caught them completely unprepared, and they had no one to blame but themselves.
Buck had disappeared on some mysterious errand (to collect some late blackberries, it turned out, to surprised Brenna, but he never found them), and the others were left at the creek. Brenna was stretched out on the picnic blanket, absorbing the morning sun like a cat, and Ike and Francis were tossing a ball back and forth. It was a quiet, peaceful moment, and Brenna didn't notice anything was amiss until a shadow fell between her and sun.
Thinking it was Buck, she didn't bother to open her eyes. "Find what you were looking for?" she asked, laughing.
"You could say that," a chillingly familiar voice replied.
Her gray-green eyes flew open in shock, and she let out a little shriek. Horrified, she took in the scene before her: Buck, with a gun to his head...and Jeremiah Lapke holding the gun. "Let him go!" she demanded desperately.
Frank and Ike, hearing her cry, turned to see what the trouble was. Her brother paled noticeably at the sight of Jeremiah, and Ike shook with anger at seeing his friend in danger. "You don't need him, Jeremiah," the younger Mackenzie said. "You came here for me, so let's just get out of here."
"No, Frank," Jeremiah replied with a sneer, "you're just icing on the cake. I actually came here for your lovely sister. And since she seems to have some sort of feelings for this Indian mutt, I figured with him up my sleeve she might just cooperate."
Brenna rose slowly to her feet, holding her hands out to indicate that she was unarmed. "Look, Jeremiah, Frank's right. We'll go with you. You don't need to take hostages."
Jeremiah laughed, and more men emerged from the surrounding brush, holding guns on Ike and her brother. "The more the merrier, I say."
"You know what, Jeremiah? I was just gonna say the same thing!" someone said from behind Brenna. Just then Sam, followed by Teaspoon and the other Riders, appeared in the clearing. "I think you need to let these kids go and get on your merry little way. We don't hold with this kinda lawlessness in my territory, despite what you may think."
"Ah, Marshall, just the man I wanted to see. This young lady is the woman I told you about earlier. She killed my son and my brother. Arrest her, please." He said this smugly, and his eyes twinkled with some inner mirth that made Brenna sick.
"Well, now," Sam drawled, thinking it over, "do you have any proof of that, Mr. Lapke? Far as I can tell, it's just your word against hers, and I don't think she'd confess to somethin' like that. Just look at her, little thing she is.”"
Jeremiah blinked at Sam in disbelief. "What are you doing, Cain? I thought we discussed this!"
"I don’t work for you anymore, Jeremiah. And currently you're holding a friend of mine at gunpoint. I'm not gonna be inclined to listen to you in that situation, now am I? So let him go, and maybe we'll talk."
"Boss, what say I just shut this guy up?" one of the other men said, brandishing his rifle in Sam's direction.
"No!" Jeremiah screamed, furious. "Just shut up!"
During the course of this conversation, Brenna had been inching closer to her discarded gun, hoping to get a hand on it. At this new outburst, she saw her chance. Making a leap, she grabbed her weapon and pulled it from its holster. But just then, Jeremiah noticed her.
"Miss Mackenzie, whatever are you doing?" Though he sounded calm, there was a dangerous gleam in his eyes, a look Jimmy didn't like at all. He watched in horror as Jeremiah raised his weapon, this time pointing it at Brenna!
"No!" he cried. Without thinking, he ran for her, grabbing her and pushing her out of the way. He heard the blast of the pistol and the sharp, burning pain as the bullet entered his leg. He hit the ground with a jarring thud, and a moment later Brenna was turning him over, her voice panic-stricken.
"Jamey, oh my God! Jamey, what the hell were you thinking? I had a gun in my hand, you moron, I could've shot him!"
She sounded far away, and so did the sounds of all hell breaking loose around them. Ike and Francis were wrestling with Jeremiah's men, and Buck was trying to get the gun away from Jeremiah himself. The other Riders were somewhere among it all, but Jimmy couldn't pinpoint individual voices or faces, just Brenna's, above him, still yelling at him. "Shut up, Ellie. I'm fine. I've taken a bullet before," he managed at last.
"Don't tell me to shut up, James Butler Hickok!" she admonished. "Don't move, I'll be right back." As if he were in a state to go gallivanting around, he thought. A few moments later she was back, and he heard a ripping that sounded suspiciously like...
"My pants! Ellie, did you just tear my pants!"
"I have to get to the wound, James. How else can I tend it?" she asked practically. She poked around for awhile, then applied something powdery that stung like the blazes and left him cursing a blue streak, told him again to shut up and stay still, and disappeared. She reappeared a few moments later looking very dirty and proud of herself, and offered him a cup of water, which he drank thirstily.
"Look, Ellie, really, I'm fine. What's going on? Where'd everybody go? I can help. I should be helping."
"You're an idiot. Apparently everything moved...over there...somewhere, because Jeremiah ran away, everyone chased him and they found a whole big group of his gang. Now they're all shooting at each other. I really hope..." She looked off toward the sounds of the gun battle, worry etched on her pretty, dusty face. Shaking her head, she continued. "Anyway, you're not going anywhere. Your wound isn't that bad, really, but you need to stay off that leg for at least three days so the flesh doesn't tear any further. Luckily the bullet isn't still in there."
Suddenly Kid appeared, running toward them and calling for Brenna. "It's your brother!" he cried. "He's been hurt. Come on, hurry!"
"Oh God," she whispered. With a glance at Jimmy, she grabbed her saddlebag and ran after Kid, straight toward the sounds of battle. "What happened?" she asked him as they ran.
"I'm not sure. I think he might've been shot, but there's not much blood. He just...he doesn't look good. He told me to come get you."
She nodded and they made the rest of the short trip in silence; she was relieved when they topped a small rise and she could see her brother surrounded by a small group. Brenna hurried to him and knelt at his side. "Frankie? Hey, what happened? Are you all right?"
He was clutching his side, and when he moved his hand a small amount of blood trickled out. "'A scratch,'" he murmured, "''Twill serve: ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.'"
She laughed softly. "All right, Mercutio, good to see you have your humor still intact. This will hurt." She pressed her fingers around the wound, lips clamped together in concentration. After a moment she closed her eyes, realizing why so little blood was issuing forth. The bullet was holding back the bleeding; to remove it would kill him within a few minutes. But over the course of the next few days, as he moved, the bullet would shift and cause more damage. It was a mortal wound; it would, indeed, serve.
"Gentleman," she said to the Riders, "would you mind giving us some space? I have some delicate work to perform." They all backed off quickly, and she and Francis were virtually alone. She met his eyes, so like her own, and tried to smile.
"It's all right, Bren. I know."
"I'm sorry, Frankie. I could take it out; it'd be over pretty quick. I could give you something for the pain, and-"
"No, I don't want to die like that. I want to die at home, with Mother and Fa and Mickey...and you."
He suddenly looked so young, so pale beneath his bright freckles, that she wanted to weep. "You won't survive the journey, Francis," she whispered.
"I...I don't care. Take me home, Brenna? Please? I know what I'm asking you to leave behind here, but I...I really wanna go home."
She bit her lower lip and glanced over her shoulder at Buck. He was standing quietly with Ike, watching the others as they gathered the bodies of Jeremiah’s fallen men. She felt her heart twist in her chest, but she knew the decision she had to make. Francis was her baby brother. As much as she loved - yes, loved - Buck, Frank had to come first. She had to take him back to White Oak. "All right, Frankie. We'll go home."
He smiled and nodded in relief. "But don't tell the others, all right? I don't want anyone to know about this. I don't want them looking at me...like that."
"I won’t tell. Here, let me bind the wound. The tighter I bind it, the less the bullet will shift. Try to keep your movements to a minimum, all right?" As she worked, Brenna wondered what she was going to tell Buck, and how she was going to face leaving him. He would accuse her of running again, and how could she deny it? A part of her was. Going home, despite everything, really was the easier solution. But she knew her heart would stay here, and she'd never forget the time she'd spent falling in love with Buck Cross.
Later that afternoon, after the dead were all buried (including, Brenna had been rather surprised to find out, Jeremiah Lapke himself), and Jimmy and Frank were settled down to rest, Brenna, Buck, Teaspoon and Lou found themselves gathered in Emma's front yard. The others had all departed, knowing that soon goodbyes would be said, and no one quite knew what to do or how to handle each other. It was awkward and strange.
Finally Teaspoon broke the silence. "You could stay and join up with us here, ya know. We could use a good rider like you," he drawled.
Brenna's glance flicked to Lou, and then back to Teaspoon, confusion written on her face. "Join the Pony Express? I thought they didn't allow women."
Teaspoon scratched his chin, considering. He spat off to the side, scratched some more, and said, "Well, I guess that's somethin' they just wouldn’t have to know, now ain't it?"
Her eyes widened a fraction in surprise. "You'd do that? Lie for me like that?"
"Sure, why not? The way I sees it, you're kinda like family now, ain'tcha?"
"Family. I suppose, in a way."
"And it ain't exactly like lyin'. It just ain't quite tellin' the whole truth. What they don't know can't hurt 'em."
Brenna raised a brow in Lou's direction, and the other girl blanched under the meaningful look. Turning her attention back to Teaspoon, she said, "While it means a lot that you'd be willing to cover for me like that, I'm afraid I must decline. I - I should get home, should make sure Frank gets home in one piece. Thank you, but no." She wouldn't meet Buck's eyes as she spoke, because she couldn't bear what she knew she'd see there.
Teaspoon, oblivious to the undercurrents running between them all, merely shrugged. "All right, suit yourself. But you always got a home to come back to here." With that and a satisfied nod, he strolled into the house.
"You could tell him, Lou," Brenna said quietly once the front door was shut. "You heard him: if he would lie for me, he certainly would for you."
"I don't know, Brenna," she replied, shaking her head, "he'd be so angry with me for lying to him this long! What would he say when I told him?"
"I think he'd understand. Just talk to him. I think you'd be happier if you could be yourself."
Lou sighed and stared at the house for a long time, a strange look in her eyes. After a while she nodded. "I guess you're right. I'll try to find a good time to talk to him about it. The sooner I tell him...the sooner Kid and I can..." She blushed and trailed off with a grin that Brenna matched with one of her own. "Thanks, Bren," she said. "I wish you were stickin' around, but I understand." With a glance at Buck, Lou decided to make herself scarce. "Well, I'll see ya before you go. Bye!" She ran off.
The silence was deep and dark and lasted a long time. "What?" Brenna said at last.
"You know what," he replied in a low, sad voice.
She shook her head defiantly, taking off for the barn. He wasn't letting her get off that easily, and he matched her step for step. "You're running again, Brenna. Why? Jimmy's been shot before. He's going to be fine. You could stay here, you could join us." He grabbed her arm and pulled her around to face him, his voice soft and imploring as he said, "We could be together. Why are you leaving? I just don't understand."
"You and Jimmy were nearly killed tryin' to save my life. Jimmy was shot. You were held at gunpoint. That doesn't even count all the danger the others were put in. It's not my place to put you in that kind of position."
"You didn't. We put ourselves there. We wanted to be able to protect you, Brenna, because we care about you. It's why Frank risked his life for you, why you risked your life for him. You two aren't leaving each other!"
"That's another reason. I have to get Francis back to White Oak." She wouldn't look at him as she said it, and a silence followed.
"You're an excellent healer, Brenna. And even if you weren't, there are doctors here. He might not even survive the journey."
When she raised her face, it was streaked with tears. Each one was like a knife to his heart. "I know that, Buck. That's why I have to take him back. He's dying. He has to be buried at home. Mother and Fa have to see him one last time. My family has to say goodbye to my baby brother."
"I - his wound - I didn’t realize - he’s dying?" Buck stuttered, shocked. He'd had no idea the younger Mackenzie was so bad off. He'd seemed fine, though pale, earlier that day, and Brenna hadn't seemed overly concerned, just in a hurry to be off. At her look of anguish, his heart melted and he took her in his arms. "Oh, Brenna, why didn't you tell me?" he murmured into her hair.
She let out a desperate little laugh through her tears. "I didn't want to worry you."
He sighed and stroked a hand down her long brown braid. "I'll come with you."
She pulled away and looked up into his face, searching. Was he serious? Could he really mean it? He was. He did. "No, Buck, you belong here."
"I belong with you," he said softly, touching his lips to the tears on each of her cheeks. "Wherever you are, that's where I should be."
"What about Ike?" she asked.
He closed his eyes. "Ike."
"You can't leave him. Would he come, too? His place is here. And so is yours. We both know that." Her smoky green eyes regarded him intently as he thought it over, and after several long moments he rested his forehead against hers with a sigh.
"I want to come."
"But I just can’t."
"I know that, too." A pause. "I can't stay."
"I realize that now. Come back to me?"
"Yes," she whispered, "I can do that. As soon as I see to Francis, I can come back. I will come back."
"Promise me," he said, pulling away and taking her face in his lean brown hands.
"I promise, Buck. I'll come back."
He pulled her to him and kissed her hard, and their tears mingled as each prayed that it was a promise she'd be able to keep.
Jimmy was dozing when a knock brought him back to reality. He jolted, then cursed at the pain, and called for the visitor to enter. He almost cursed again when Brenna came striding in, looking sad and beautiful and incredibly fragile. "If you've come to apologize again, don't. I've told you five hundred times that I knew what I was doin', and I'd do it again if I was given the chance."
She smiled a little at this speech and sat in the room's only chair, pulling it up to the bed. "No, Jamey, I'm not here to apologize. At least, not for getting you shot." She sighed and pulled her long braid around so that she could fiddle with the end, a sure sign that she was nervous. "Frank and I are leaving," she said after a long, tense moment.
"What?" he asked stupidly.
"Frank wants to go home, and I'm going with him. Maybe it's time I tried to make up with Fa, you know? And I miss Mother. I miss White Oak. I just...I need to go home." She said this last so softly that he found himself studying her more deeply than he had in a long time, searching for the meaning behind her words.
"It ain't just about your brother, though. It's about me and Buck, too, right?" Her silence spoke volumes, and he let out a long sigh. "Look, Ellie, me and Buck can handle ourselves. I don't want you leavin' because of that. I was pretty upset about it, yeah, but...well...I seen the way you two look at each other, and I ain't stupid. If Buck's who you want, I ain't gonna stand in your way. Hell, Ellie, I'm even kinda happy for ya." It pained him to say it, but in a way it was true: when he put himself between Ellie and Jeremiah's bullet, he'd known he'd do anything for her, even give her to another man. He was just glad that man was a friend, someone he admired and respected. It made it easier somehow.
Brenna, meanwhile, was still fiddling with her braid. "I don't want to hurt you any further, Jamey," she said at last.
"You keep sayin' that, Ellie, but have you ever thought that maybe you leavin' is what would hurt me? That watchin' Buck mope around here every damn day and knowin' it was partly my doin' would hurt me? What you're doin' is what would hurt you the least, what's easiest for you, so don't gimme this 'don't wanna hurt you, Jamey' bullshit, because I ain't buyin' it, Ellie. You ain't a coward, so quit the hell actin' like one."
She stared at him, speechless. "I just - I guess I hadn't thought of it that way. But it's more complicated than that."
"The hell it is!" he shot back.
"Actually, it is. Francis was wounded during the...confrontation, as you know. He's dying, James. I need to take him home. I don't know if he'll even survive the trip, but he wants to be buried at White Oak, and he wants to say goodbye to Mother and Fa and Mickey if at all possible."
All the passionate anger drained out of him, and he suddenly looked white. "Oh," he said shortly. "Oh, Ellie, I'm sorry. Jesus, I didn't know. What an idiot."
She shook her head. "It's fine, Jamey. You were right, really, and if it weren't for Francis...you might actually have convinced me to stay." But her smile was tight as she said it, and he wasn't sure he believed her. "As it is, I promised Buck I'd come back once I got everything...settled...at home."
"And you'll keep it?"
"Of course I will. I don't break promises, Jamey."
He took her hand and stared deeply into her smoky green eyes. "Do it, Llewellyn. You two ain't known each other that long, but I know you, and I know Buck. You love each other; I can tell. I know he'll wait for you."
Tears sprang to her eyes and she looked away, unable to meet such a penetrating gaze. "How do you know?" she asked, her voice choked with emotion.
"Because I would. You're worth it, Ellie, even though you're stubborn as an old mule and you got a temper on ya that'd try anyone's patience. But you're worth it. And, besides, that's the way love is."
The next morning dawned bright as a promise, the sky washed in too many delicate colors to count. The small group currently assembled under that glory of a sky wasn't really appreciating it in the way it deserved, too wrapped up as they were in their own issues. It was time to say goodbye, and none of them wanted to do it.
Emma was tucking yet another bundle into Frank's saddlebag, and he found himself laughing at her. "If you put anything else in there, the poor mare won't be able to walk!" he said, and she couldn't help but notice how thin his voice sounded, how dark the shadows under his eyes were. He looked so pale! She didn't think this journey back east was a good idea, but she knew the Mackenzies had their reasons, and she wasn't going to interfere. She'd just provide for them the best she could and send them on their way. And pray. A lot.
Sam was deep in conversation with Brenna, helping her plan out the best route through the territory and eastward. She wanted to avoid the remaining vestiges of Jeremiah's gang as much as she could, and Sam was in the best position to know where they might be holed up. As they talked, Buck looked on, a sad smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Ike was his silent, concerned shadow, and after a moment Jimmy limped over to join them, looking pale but otherwise much recovered.
"Hey," Buck said, "how’s the leg?"
"Better. Gonna have to use this damn crutch for a while, though."
Buck nodded slowly. "She'll be mad you're up. She said you were supposed to stay in bed for three days, no less."
Jimmy laughed. "Like she could follow orders like that. She'll hafta get over it. I couldn't let her leave without sayin' goodbye, and she knows it."
After a moment, Buck turned to face his friend, his eyes serious. "Look, Jimmy, you know I never meant-"
The other man shook his head quickly. "Forget it. Me and Ellie talked about it last night, and I'm all right. I mean, I ain't great, but I'll be fine. She chose you, and y'all are better than she and me would be anyway. We'd just kill each other."
"So you and me, we're gonna be all right, too?"
"Yeah, Buck, we're gonna be just fine."
Buck grinned and held out his hand. "That's some of the best news I've heard all day."
Jimmy accepted the offered hand and they shook, but then he grabbed his friend in a hug that left them both laughing. "Good to see you boys gettin' along so well," Brenna said as she joined them, "but you should still be in bed, Jamey!"
The two boys shared a look and burst out laughing all over again, while she looked on, puzzled. Diana, never one to resist a little fun, inserted herself between Buck and Jimmy, tail wagging. Buck reached down to scratch her ears with a grin. Brenna laughed. "That wolf is going to be so spoiled from all this attention! She'll never be the same."
Buck's dark eyes were serious as they met hers. "I don't think any of us will."
"Bren?" Frank said. "Maybe we should get goin'."
"Yeah, Frankie, I'm comin'."
The other Riders had been keeping their distance, but now they wandered closer. Lou was the first to offer Brenna a hug, the other girl's attitude now so different from the suspicious, distrustful way she'd been at first. "Good luck, Brenna. Thanks for everything."
She smiled. "Good look with Kid," she whispered, causing Lou to blush bright pink. Laughing, she pulled away and went to Jimmy. "Take care of yourself, James. Try not to get shot up too much, right?"
"I'll do my best. Hopefully next time I won't actually throw myself at the bullet."
"That would be a start," she said, smiling through tears. With one last hug, she moved on.
She thanked Emma and Teaspoon for all their help and hospitality, gave Sam a big hug and told him sternly to keep in touch, hugged each of the Riders (much to Cody's delight and Kid's embarrassment), and then was left with just Buck. The others fell back to give them some privacy, and they were virtually alone.
"Well," he said.
"Well," was her ingenious reply.
They both laughed. "Oh, I'm going to miss you," she murmured, moving closer and running her fingers across his cheek, pushing a lock of dark hair off his forehead.
He smiled sadly. "Yeah, I know what you mean. But we'll see each other soon. You're coming back, right?"
"Yeah, I'm coming back. I always keep my promises."
"Then this isn't really goodbye. It's just 'see you soon.'"
"Exactly. See you soon." But it was little comfort, and they both knew it.
"So I'll see you soon?" he whispered, pulling her to him.
"You'll see me soon," she confirmed, raising her mouth for his long, lingering kiss. For once her hair was loose, and he ran his fingers through it, loving the silky feel of it. Reluctantly she pulled away. "I have to go," she said quietly.
"I know." Taking her hand in his, he led her back to Frank and the horses and helped her mount.
Smiling down at him, she said, "See ya soon, Buck Cross." She pulled her hat up onto her head and dug her heels into Luna's side, and they were off.
"See ya soon, Brenna Mackenzie," he whispered into the wind, watching wistfully as the small group disappeared into the blazing morning sun.