Sky Blue and Black
And the heavens were rolling
Like a wheel on a track,
And our sky was unfolding,
And it'll never fold back;
Sky... blue and black.
-from "Sky Blue and Black" by Jackson Browne
"Rider comin'! It's Cody!" Kid cried, grabbing Katy and mounting, ready to accept the hand-off from his friend.
"Kid, wait!" Brenna called, emerging from the bunkhouse and hurrying over to him. "Here!" she said, holding up something small and silver.
"What is it?" he asked with a frown, staring down at the little ring. It was too small to fit on any but a child's finger, and he wondered why in the world she would be giving it to him.
"It's from my necklace," she told him, indicating the silver chain she wore around her neck. On it hung five - four, now - rings, each symbolizing either strength, wisdom, friendship, spirit or love - this ring was the latter. "If you find Francis, give him this and tell him that Brenna sends her love. He'll know you're not with Jeremiah, and it's heaps safer than writin' a letter!"
He grinned down at her and pocketed the jewelry. "Good thinkin'!"
"I try!" she called, stepping back up onto the porch as Cody approached.
"You really think he'll find him?" Jimmy asked, watching Kid as he road away with the mail pouch.
She shrugged. "I don't know, but I've gotta hope. The letter I got from Frankie came from that direction. He's probably moved on, of course... but maybe Kid'll get lucky. Come on; it's time for lunch."
"Emma was gonna invite the Marshall over so you could tell him about Jeremiah. Don't worry, Ellie; Sam's real good at what he does," he reassured her, holding the door open.
"Sam?" Brenna asked with a frown, nodding in thanks as she entered ahead of him.
"Yep," a voice answered, "Sam Cain, Territorial Marshall."
"Sam!" she cried in surprised recognition, whipping off her hat so that her long braid tumbled down her back.
"Brenna? Brenna Mackenzie?" At her nod, he let out a whoop of joy and grabbed her up in a huge hug. "Look at you all grown up! What the hell're you doin' in Sweetwater?" he asked, setting her back down on the floor.
"I guess they've met before," Jimmy muttered to Buck and Ike, who nodded in mutual astonishment at this display of enthusiastic affection from Sam.
"Marshall!" she repeated, stunned. "I can't believe it! Who would've ever thought that you would switch sides!"
"Yeah, well, I got sick of the hired gun's life. It ain't easy, always lookin' over your shoulder, havin' to scrape by when no one needs anyone dead." He frowned down at her, realizing she hadn't yet answered his question. "Bren, you obviously didn't know I was here... so what else would bring you to Sweetwater? And what happened to your arm?"
She looked away quickly and busied herself with hanging up her coat and hat. "It's Jeremiah."
"Jeremiah? What about him? Did he hurt you!" he demanded angrily.
"You know him?" Jimmy asked, more confused than ever. First Sam knows Ellie -- obviously rather well from the looks of things -- and then he knows Jeremiah Lapke? What the hell was going on?
"Know him? I used to work for him."
"You worked for a man like Jeremiah Lapke?" Emma gasped. She knew about Sam's rather sketchy past, but she had never imagined he would work for someone like that.
"Yeah, I did. I ain't proud of it, but I needed the money. But you left before I did, Brenna. What's he want with you?"
"What doesn't he want?" she asked ruefully, and Sam nodded in understanding. "But this probably has something to do with the fact that I killed his son."
"Now what did you go and do a fool thing like that for! Aiden was scum, but his father thought he was God's gift to mankind. You know that!"
"Yeah, well, he killed two of my friends in cold blood. See, Frank beat Jeremiah at cards--"
"And it goes from bad to worse," he muttered, turning away with a shake of his head.
"And so he sent Aiden out to find me -- the better to get to Frank, I suppose -- and Aiden took it upon himself to kill two boys from the Lakota village where I was living. I killed Aiden and his men, and I took the money they were carrying. Last night I met Jonas on the road between here and town. I stabbed him in the hand, but he shot me as I was riding away. Don't look at me like that, Sam!"
He sighed. "So of all the places in the country you choose Sweetwater?"
"Well... I didn't know you were here... but you aren't the only old friend I have in this town. Jimmy and I knew one another after I left Jeremiah. I lived with the judge, too."
"I see. Well, it looks like that Mackenzie luck is workin' again, because you came to the right place," he said after a moment, deciding that yelling at her for killing Aiden Lapke and stealing Jeremiah's money was not the best choice. Stabbing Jonas, in his opinion, was completely necessary and long overdue.
"Now wait... I'm a little unclear on all of this... you, Sam, worked for Jeremiah Lapke. What about you, Brenna?" Emma asked.
"I worked for him too. I... um... I was a dealer in his saloon. One of his saloons, that is. I didn't stay long - I hated every minute of it - but..." she trailed off with a shrug. "Basically, Sam kept me out of trouble. I was only fifteen, and my youth made people think I was easy prey, but he made sure no one messed with me, like my brothers back home used to do," she said with a fond grin.
"Yeah, but she didn't need me much. She's pretty damn lethal with those knives she's got."
"Only when I have to be," she said softly, thinking of both Aiden and Jonas. She shook her head as if to clear away of fog of old memories and said, "Good grief, with all this reunioning, Emma's delicious lunch is gonna get cold. I'm about half-starved!"
Sensing Brenna's need to change the subject, Emma graciously stepped in. "Go on and get washed up, all of you. Lunch'll be served when you get back."
With a collective groan, they all - including Sam - filed out the door to do as Emma asked.
Sometimes Kid really hated his job. It was dirty, exhausting, dangerous work, and as exciting as it seemed to an outsider, it could be Hell. He had been riding since yesterday morning, and at that moment he wanted nothing more than a bath, a meal and a good, long snooze in a comfortable bed. But first he had to ask around - discreetly, of course - about Francis Mackenzie.
The saloon was too public. Anyone might be in there, anyone might overhear and decide that he was a good target... or worse (according to his noble way of thinking), follow him back to Sweetwater and get a hold of Brenna. With a frown, he entered the general store and made a big production of browsing over the merchandise.
"Somethin' I can help you with, son?" the man behind the counter asked with a kind smile.
"No, I'm just lookin'," Kid replied.
"For anythin' in particular?"
"Well..." He glanced around carefully to make sure they were alone before approaching. "I'm actually lookin' for a friend of mine. His name's Francis Mackenzie... he might go by Frank. Know him?"
The man frowned deeply and scratched his chin. "I don't know. What's he look like?"
"He's about my height, curly red hair, blue eyes." Something about the man's attitude suggested that he knew perfectly well who Kid was talking about.
He shook his head distractedly and took a step back from the counter, smile and laid-back demeanor gone completely. "I don't know any Mackenzie, boy, but I do know that most people in this town don't like strangers stickin' their noses in where they don't belong. I suggest you ride on and forget about lookin' for anybody around here."
Kid grinned and tossed the man Brenna's ring. "Next time you see Frank, give him that and tell him that Brenna sends her love. My name's Kid; I'll be stayin' at the hotel till mornin'." He tipped his hat and left the store, headed for the hotel. He was half way across the dusty, desolate street when a voice called his name.
"Hey, Kid? Wait a minute!"
He turned to see a young man hurrying towards him. He seemed to match Brenna's description, and Kid's grin stretched from ear to ear. "Can I help you?" he asked politely.
"Brenna Mackenzie gave you this?" the boy asked, holding up the silver ring.
"Yep, just yesterday. Why? You know her?"
He frowned and glanced over his shoulder the way the hunted often do. "You know I do. You came looking for me, remember?"
Kid crossed his arms across his chest casually. "I came lookin' for Frank Mackenzie. You sayin' you're him?"
He moved a step closer and lowered his voice. "Yeah, I'm Frank. Brenna's my sister... but you know that. Why'd she give you one of her rings?"
"So that you'd know she sent me rather than Jeremiah Lapke."
The name surprised him into dropping the small piece of jewelry. He knelt to retrieve it from the dust, and Kid knelt with him. "She told you about Jeremiah? Look, what do you want with me?" he asked frantically.
"She wanted me to bring you to her if I found you. It would be safer if you stuck together until this thing blows over. She's stayin' with me and my friends at the Pony Express station in Sweetwater."
"Blows over?" he quoted incredulously. "She obviously didn't tell you much about Jeremiah." He stood and shook his head slowly, clearly struggling with something. At last he sighed and held out his hand. "All right," he said, "when do we leave?"
Kid straightened and peered longingly at the hotel a moment before turning back and shaking the hand Frank offered. "Now, I guess. The sooner the better, right?" Yep... he really hated his job.
"What the hell is he doin'?" Brenna asked Jimmy the next morning - two days after Kid's departure, the morning after his meeting up with Frank. Jimmy, Buck and Cody were all standing around the corral as the latter rode a huge, bucking stallion.
"Ain't you never seen a man break a horse before?" James asked almost scornfully.
"That's no way to treat a horse!" she cried as Cody went flying through the air. "Serves him right," she said with an indignant little sniff.
"What, you think you can do better?" Buck challenged with a grin.
"I know I can do better. It's all about respect, gentlemen. A horse is not a dumb beast, and it shouldn't be treated like one." She climbed over the fence and approached the wary animal with one palm outstretched.
"Watch out, Brenna, he's crazy!" Cody cautioned, ready to pull her out of the way at any moment.
"It's all right, Billy. Go on and watch with the others." The horse watched her move closer with wide, frightened eyes, and he let out a long, angry snort. "Hey, handsome," she said soothingly; he responded with white, rolling eyes and a few skittish steps away. She let out a little whistle and Diana moved in on his other side, preventing him from moving farther away from her.
"What's she doin' in there with that horse?" Teaspoon demanded, joining the boys at the fence.
"Shh... she says she can break him," Buck said, keeping his voice low so as not to startle the large animal standing so close to Brenna.
"It's all right, big boy. What's your name, hmm?" she asked the horse, ignoring Teaspoon as he called her name.
"Brenna! Brenna, that horse is wild. Get outta there 'fore he takes your head off!"
Still whispering soothing nothings, she moved close enough to rest a hand on his smooth cheek. He started, but after a moment settled down and let her stroke him. "See?" she murmured. "The world didn't end, now did it?"
"Well wouldja look at that?" Cody said wonderingly. "That horse ain't let nobody near him without a fight."
"I'm Brenna," she was telling him, "and this is my friend Diana. We mean you no harm... perhaps you could help us?" She stared into his large brown eyes a moment before her lips curled upward in a smile. Moving around to his side, she mounted quickly, and he didn't protest. "Thank you," she told him, patting his neck affectionately.
Teaspoon let out a long, low whistle. "I ain't never seen the like!"
"That's amazing," Buck murmured.
"No, not amazing... I told you, it's all about respect. Anyone can do it if they would just take the time," she said, dismounting and giving the horse a good scratch along the flank. "The first few times you ride him, make sure to ask permission... after that you should be fine," she told them.
"You're tellin' me I gotta ask before I can ride my own damn horse?" Cody demanded.
She shrugged. "Yep... unless you wanna get thrown. I figure it would just be easier to ask."
"Hey, rider comin'!" Jimmy called suddenly. "It's Kid... and he's got somebody with him!"
Brenna's stomach did flip-flops as she climbed the fence and peered into the rising sun to see who the other rider was. "It looks like Frankie!"
"Kid ain't due back till tomorrow!" Teaspoon said irritably, wondering how any mail got delivered with these boys working for the Pony Express.
She vaulted over the fence and ran into the yard, still trying to make out the figure riding behind Kid. "It is him!" she called over her shoulder. "I can't believe it!"
Before the horses were even in the yard proper, Frank was dismounted and running over to his sister to sweep her up in a crushing hug. "Brenna!" he cried. "God damn it's good to see you!"
"Francis David Mackenzie!" she scolded laughingly. "What would Mother say if she heard such language?"
"Mother ain't here last time I checked, and I haven't seen you for almost four years! I have a right to use a little bad language."
She laughed and ran an affectionate hand through his riotous red curls. "Look at you, Frankie! You're taller than I am! Seeing you makes me wonder what Mickey looks like after all this time," she said in reference to their elder brother.
"Old I bet. You know Mick, always gotta be the good one. I heard that he married Allison McKinney."
"No!" she gasped. "I thought Mother said he would marry Allison McKinney over her dead body! She always hated the McKinneys!"
He shrugged. "I guess she changed her mind. You know how persuasive Fa can be... but I don't think he's real happy about it, either. Apparently Mick's runnin' Apple Grove instead of White Oak. That means I get White Oak. Horrors!"
Kid cleared his throat politely, drawing their attention. "Oh! Kid, thank you so much. I can't believe you actually found him!" she cried, embracing him with a laugh.
He blushed, thankful Lou wasn't there to see them, and said, "I almost didn't... he more found me, really. Here's your ring back. It worked just like you said."
"Thanks!" she said, adding it back to the necklace. Ike had gone out on a ride the day before, so she was still missing Wisdom. Well, it certainly wouldn't be the first time someone could accuse me of that, she thought wryly. She linked arms with her brother and started toward the barn, Kid following with Katy. "How much did Kid tell you?" she asked, gesturing for him to grab his horse.
"Not much... just that you were here in Sweetwater and that you thought it would be best for us to stick together."
"Mmmm..." she murmured thoughtfully. "You got my letter?"
"About Aiden? Yeah. That's some stuff, Brenna... we're in a heap of trouble now."
"I know." She let out a little sigh. "There's more." She told him about Jonas, and his face went pale beneath the smattering of freckles that decorated the bridge of his nose and the high, Spanish cheekbones all three Mackenzie children had inherited from their mother. "I had no intention of staying here once they found you, Frankie, but I didn't think they would find you so quickly. What do you think we should do?"
He chewed his lower lip the way he'd been doing since the age of five and said, "Kid told me you weren't too thrilled with stayin' here and puttin' them in danger like that, but, Bren... we need them, whether you like it or not. There's no way we can keep runnin' from Jeremiah forever, and the two of us alone can't take on his gang. I think we should stay and let them do what they can to help us."
She fiddled with the end of her braid nervously. "You're right, of course you're right; it's just hard to admit that I can't handle this on my own."
He grinned knowingly. "You've changed a lot, big sister, but not in the ways that make you who you are. Will you ever just shut your mouth and accept someone's help?"
"I doubt it," she replied. "Why should a long tradition of being dragged kicking and screaming end now?"
He chuckled, but it faded as he toed the dirt with his boot. "Fa was real upset after you left."
She snorted and unbuckled the horse's saddle girth. "I'm sure he was. He could've prevented it easily enough. All he had to do was free our slaves, Frank! If he'd just done that, I would've stayed. I would've been happy to stay."
Frank removed the saddle and hung it where she indicated before continuing. "He probably ain't happy about havin' to leave White Oak to me. He wanted you and Jimmy to run it."
She sighed, remembering James McGregor, the plantation's caretaker and the man her father had wanted her to marry. "I'm sure you'll do a fine job, Frankie," she said at last, trying to avoid the subject of James altogether. "White Oak isn't my home anymore. I'd go crazy there, in that lifestyle... I couldn't be a good, sweet Southern belle again."
"I know that, Bren... no one's askin' you to go back. I'm just sayin'. Besides, there's war comin'... you don't want to be anywhere near North Carolina when that happens!"
"What will happen if the South loses, Frank?" she asked, a frown marring her pretty features.
"I don't know... isn't that what you want to happen anyway?"
The frown turned into a scowl and she rubbed the horse with a soft cloth. "No! You know how I feel about slavery, but each state should be able to decide for itself whether or not to be free. Of course I'd like it if they all suddenly came to their senses and realized how horrible slavery is, but until that happens -- and I believe it will, one day -- then the federal government should leave well enough alone.
"Regardless of which side of the issue I'm on," she continued after a small, thoughtful pause, "I don't want war, a war that family and friends will be dragged into. I don't want the South to suffer through what those who lose wars have to endure." She shook her head with a long, sad sigh. "There's no easy solution, Francis, and with neither side giving ground, it looks as though war is inevitable."
"If it happens, I'm goin' back to fight," he announced proudly.
"What! Francis, no! Stay out of it! What if something happened to you? What would Mother do? What would I do? Who would run White Oak after Fa... passes on?"
He shrugged in that impetuous way of those who have no concept of what death means. "Jimmy could run it, or you could sell it."
Her eyes widened in horror, and she wondered suddenly if this boy was truly Michael Mackenzie's son. "Sell White Oak? Francis, did Mammy drop you on your head as a baby? That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life! If we even thought about selling that plantation, Fa's wraith would haunt us from one end of eternity to another. You know that as well as I do. Besides, White Oak isn't the issue here... you are. I don't want my little brother out there risking life and limb in some stupid, pointless war that could be avoided if the men in power in this country weren't such blustering fools."
"You really mean that?" he asked, astounded. "You really don't want me fighting?"
"No, of course not! Mickey either, for that matter. What would I do if something happened to one of you? I'd go 'round the bend for good and sure!"
His bright green eyes twinkled merrily as he grinned. "Fine, Bren, calm down. If war comes I'll stay as far away from it as possible, all right?"
"Good. Stay where I can protect you!" They laughed companionably, but something deep within Brenna wondered how much she really could protect her brother - especially from Jeremiah Lapke.